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A Sense of Commitment

Chapter 9. Retracing Old Steps

Breakfast was a miserable affair of gruel and water, with lunch likewise unpromising. It had been too long since a stop-off at one of the skypirates' hidden stashes.

The mutters at the food came as a symptom of greater discontent.

Ba'gamnan witnessed Balthier faltering. For all that Ba'gamnan himself refused to fire on children, for Balthier to back down showed only weakness, a lack of resolve. It was fate, Ba'gamnan whispered to his sibs, catching up to the prideful pirate: as though the moment Balthier let the gun go, he had lost his ability to survive no matter the circumstance.

Further disenchanting the Bangaa had been the realisation our course was now set to return to Balfonheim. Limping back to port, tail between our legs

I was waiting for it. When the fight started below, I ran, cursing the lack of aught to hand but a dagger.

With the skill behind his luck, Balthier held his own, his knife low as he circled. Ba'gamnan menaced with his claws, his savage jagged blade, and taunts. Balthier's motions were lithe and darting, as he desperately avoided the clinch Ba'gamnan strove to close: scarce a fraction of the Bangaa's weight, proximity would hardly be in Balthier's favour.

Balthier shouted at me before I could move to even the odds. 'I can bloody well do this, Feathers! Stand clear!'

Fran arrived.

Expecting her to leap to the defence, Ba'gamnan's lurking sibs stopped leaning on their crates and circled her, menacing. She spread her fingers wide to show her lack of armament, and settled against the ladder, watching the fight, expressionless.

'Stand clear, I can do this,' Balthier repeated, and only then realised Fran had not moved towards him.

Ba'gamnan must have seen when Balthier's heart broke, because the Bangaa moved like a snake, scoring Balthier across the belly and with a backlash across the throat. The latter looked horrible, the red patter so bright against white linen, but Balthier's shock was minimal. Only the fact that Balthier had thrown himself away from the belly-blow instead of doubling into the pain saved his life.

Eyes narrowed, the skypirate turned to ice.

Ba'gamnan was damnably quick, but Balthier was quicker. He bent below the next blow, and tried to punch his knife through the scales plating the Bangaa's ribs. Harder than they looked, Balthier recoiled and kicked Ba'gamnan in the groin, as violently as he could.

Lizard groins were as hard-plated as the rest of them.

Both jarred, the combatants staggered clear and glared at each other.

Ba'gamnan flexed the claws of his free hand. 'Reckon ye're a hard man, do ye? How's about I mark that bonnie cheek of yours, so all the lookers know just how hard and bloody ye like it t'come?'

Ba'gamnan sidled in. Balthier lunged, shoulder first, a mad full-body throw. A mistake, considering the weight difference, but it was a tried and true Balthier tactic—to do the least likely thing.

Surprised by the move, Ba'gamnan lapsed long enough for Balthier to sling his arms around the Bangaa's neck, a farcical embrace, and climbed aboard.

Straddling Ba'gamnan's neck, Balthier's fingers threatened the deep-set eyes. 'Stand down, lizard trash!'

'I'll not take yer orders, ponce!'

Then Balthier, grim-faced, did something. Ba'gamnan howled, deafening, his sibs lurching forward as if to his defence. Fran moved to hold out the barring arm this time, stopping them.

Ba'gamnan howled again, staggering in my direction. For a moment, I stared down his tooth-lined muzzle of doom, a gape that could have taken my forearm to shoulder with ease.

Balthier had his fingers hooked through Ba'gamnan's nostrils. He pulled back, hard, eliciting another howl.

Deprived Hume sight, Bangaa had a sense of smell that made of their noses a sensitive, delicate organ.

Staggering, Ba'gamnan went to his knees, a slow keel over.

Balthier's knife came down hard, pressing across the sensitive muzzle. 'Call it over, scum! With everyone here, listening to you whine! Call it over!'

'I'm done,' Ba'gamnan whimpered. 'Done, done, done.'

Balthier spat blood to one side, cursed the loosening of a molar, and then took one last booted heel to Ba'gamnan's nose and consigned him to the brig.

'We don't have a brig,' I pointed out.

'Improvise,' Balthier said, wild-eyed from the adrenaline.

The only lockable doors on the ship, I realised with dismay, were to my cabin, or to Balthier's.

No argument as to whose bed Ba'gamnan would end up warming.

Two hours after the fight, the Maenad settled into yet another scattered field of purvama rubble. This one was scant cover—we relied more upon the murky cloud and the approach of night to conceal us.

As we waited, an airship approached.

Sleek, fast, and of a silhouette that I could not match to make or model, the airship had a flare to the design that made it look like a toy designed by a boy with something to prove, almost as frivolous as the design of the Maenad itself.

The incoming airship was as Archadian as the day, and it clearly had no business being in a warzone.

'There's no attempt at evasion,' Fran noted. 'Either the crew have not sighted us, or have no concerns for us.'

'Odd, though. What make or model do you think it is? Not a Fighter, surely.'

'Scarce larger than one. I estimate her crew at five, perhaps ten. A sufficiently large cargo hold to transport, but not large enough to consider her a supply ship.'


'Too customized,' Fran shook her head. 'She looks like a private craft, if equipped sufficiently for battle.'

'But not equipped for a frontal assault,' I noted, critical.

Fran nodded agreement, and glanced at Balthier for his comment.

He shrugged. He eyed the display with the same disinterest he had worn since the prison transport. Most everything I knew about Balthier irritated me, but this disinterest, now, grated on nerves worn to breaking. Any fool could take a ship to war: we needed that ego and indomitable survivor's edge to bring us home.

'I reckon,' I said, with deliberate cant to antagonise, 'we could take her out as we have the others. Her weapons and her speed, maneuverability aside: her shields register as barely there. '

Balthier shrugged again. 'Doesn't matter how fast she's going if we can get off one good round.'

'Right,' I said, brisk. 'Order to fire when you will, captain.'

As we watched, the airship turned towards us, those twin-forward shafts pointing, so it seemed, directly at our cockpit. I felt a sickening worry, but then she continued beyond us. I let my breath out slowly.

'She's still not aware,' Fran said. 'Balthier?'

In Ba'gamnan's absence, and with Gijuk reprimanded for his premature shot at the prison transport, it was Rinok who manned the missile launcher above. She was untried.

Yet if the airship continued on her current trajectory, this was a shot even a child could make.

I reached for the comm. 'Rinok: Archadian ship, make unknown, bows on. Do you think you're ready for action?'

No hesitation. 'Pass the bearing; range preset to three point five.'

'Right.' I nudged Balthier's chair. 'Our best chance is now.'

He turned, with an expression on his face that pulled at the ripening bruise from his brawl. The stubborn tilt to his chin bared the scabbed line across his throat. 'Why are you asking me? Do you really think I'm in control here?' He shook then, as though flicking off water or responsibility. He stood as if to leave. 'Have a go if you fancy your chances.'

The Archadian airship ghosted along, trailing cloud through the grey sky. Her crew would be examining our dusk-list shadow by now, screens and visuals, wondering if we were simply a denser cluster of cloud and rubble or a threat to eliminate.

Oddly enough, my thoughts went to Ba'gamnan, locked into my berth. If we were shot, he would die in the best way possible: ignorant.

The airship turned through a tight, showy arc, canting about her keel, even the haze of rain appearing to caress her well-scrolled hull. From a break in the cloud, a brief flare of the setting sunlight set fire to her curves.

I lifted the comm. again. 'Rinok, stand ready—'

I paused. The atmosphere in the cockpit had changed.

A slight, bare sigh escaping wet lips, Fran's eyes were on the airship. There was something that felt indecent about her expression, though I could not place why I should feel embarrassed at the sight of her, until I felt the sudden heat at my shoulder, radiating off Balthier's stiff form.

I glanced up. Balthier, too, was staring at the airship with his lips both licked wet and open, as though witnessing the approach of a lover.

To think I had mocked the thought of love at first sight. Even skypirates fell, so it seemed.

Because I knew, I had already lowered the comm. by the time Balthier said, 'Hold it a moment, Feathers.'

'Right, what is it? What do you know about the ship? And make up your mind fast, Balthier, because as nippy as she is we've only a small interval to recalibrate.'

Balthier touched Fran's shoulder. As she looked back at him, he grinned, charmingly offensive, and she—lowered her lids, thick lashes veiling her eyes. Coquettishly.

They were wrapped in their cocoon again, almost as instantly and wordlessly as they had fallen out before, united in shared lust thick enough to make me swoon, had that intensity been directed anywhere near me.

'I've had enough of death and destruction,' Balthier said, a renewed bounce to his tone. 'Playing Rozarria's death squad no longer suits the circumstances. See, I've an idea a trifle more fitting to our role as dashing pirates and daring mercenaries.'

'Please, no,' I said.

'A way to increase our slush fund.'

'Oh no,' I said.

'Be positive about the outcome for once in your life,' Balthier said, gleeful, as if he had not been sunk in a gloom fit to drown us all these last days. Curving over Fran's chair, he brushed his fingertips across her shoulder. 'We're going to take that little beauty. She's ours.'

It was the first time I could remember him using the plural pronoun.

Profit had never truly informed Balthier's tactical and strategic actions, I realised. He chose his engagements based on how much the success would bulwark his ego.

In the airship's wake, we moved out of our concealment and assumed a cargo ship's more typical action. It was some time before they noticed our presence, and then, as Balthier had no doubt hoped, they approached us along a friendly trajectory.

The paint on the airship's hull named it the YPA-G84, a test combat Fighter Class. In the cockpit, only one shadowed figure showed at the pilot's console, until the hatch to the main deck slid open, and a second figure marched through, in the full helmed compliment of a Judge Magister.

My heart sank. No mere Judge: a Judge Magister. Only five of the Imperial deathbringers existed, and one of them had to be boarding the Maenad.

After a brief exchange with the pilot, the Magister left. The pilot picked up the comm. and spoke.

'YPA-G84 requesting contact from the Maenad.'

We exchanged glances. Energy hummed through Balthier, his smile devious. His sulks had gone the way of his sense of shame.

'Don't look at me,' I said, disgruntled. 'This is your idea.'

He tutted at me, took the comm. in hand. Daring fate more than customary, Balthier dispelled his usual bluff of a northerner's lilt, and responded with his crisp Archadian accent.

'What can I do you for, YPA-G84?'

'What is your destination, captain?'

'We're returning from a pickup in Calderna,' Balthier replied.

The pilot failed to pick up that Balthier avoided his question. 'Open your hatch, Captain, and set your ship to hold. We are preparing a boarding party.' A hesitation. 'Have your crew stand ready for inspection; the Judge Magister wishes to personally supervise the transfer of supplies.'

Balthier clenched his hand into a fist, yet when he spoke it was rich with triumph. Fate and her vagaries. 'Acknowledged.'

Fran rose as soon as Balthier signed off, with intent to equip herself. She looked focused, arrow-like, thoughts already on the coming battle.

Balthier touched her shoulder as she passed. Her acknowledgment was surprising: she stopped entirely, took him by the forearm and held him, until his own hand clasped her forearm in return.

'Right,' Balthier said, warm and steady. 'Ready.'

'For what,' I asked, resigned. 'You two might communicate through osmosis, but I have no idea what you're planning.'

'Much as we did before, Feathers. Judges aboard our ship proved enough that the other destroyer held their fire. If a Judge Magister is mad enough to step aboard, that's an even greater insurance against their retaliation.'

Fran paused at the ladder for long enough to feign astonishment. 'You are growing repetitive.'

'Ah, but this time there's a twist. With a Judge Magister, we have a perfect hostage scenario. Demand they evacuate the YPA-G84, and we move in.'

'You're assuming you can bring a Magister down,' I said. 'Assuming Ba'gamnan's discontented sibs will do what you want, instead of selling us to the Archadians. Not to mention it's hardly likely the Magister's going to step aboard alone.'

'Details,' Balthier chided. He slung into the pilot's chair for long enough to lower the Maenad to hold. 'Overplanning does tend to reduce one's ability to exploit spontaneity.'

I informed him he was mad, mercenary, and likely suicidal.

'Do I look the kind of man to deny that?' was all he said, grinning.

'In the next few minutes,' I said, acerbic, 'I anticipate I will either be the part owner of a sleek Archadian double-winged test combat airship, or dead.'

'You forget one thing, Feathers. You're under Margrace's umbrella for this operation, aren't you? I don't think he'd be too happy with your accepting perks.'

If I had something on me, I would have thrown it at him. As it was, Balthier hastened down the ladder ahead of me.

For long moments, nothing happened. The two airships hovered, caught within each other's glossair fields. The gangway extended between the YPA-G84's hold and the Maenad, the grapnels hooked and locked. I lingered near the comm. by the hatch, ready to contact to Rinok on the gun deck if there came any sign of threat.

In a flickering moment of vulnerability, the Judge Magister teetered across the gangway. He came flanked by two well-equipped Judges. One reached the Magister's elbow, and insured his footing held.

They marched across the void, boots echoing.

We made no attempt to bluff this time. The second the Magister stepped aboard, he and his Judges saw the guns, the hold screens, the Bangaa, the Viera, and realised. A half-second of uncertainty, and the three drew weapons simultaneously.

I had my gun cocked and a blade in my free hand, the former aimed and finger pulling the trigger. Uncertain footing aside, the Judge Magister was good: an unknown spell ripped through me before I could fire, backlash recoiling from the hull to my side, destroying the comm. in the process even as I fell.

Rolling, I threw myself into the melee. My blade struck, it fell from spell-numbed fingers, but my fist was potent enough, my gun primed.

Yet my addition to the affray came belated.

As if the Magister and his associates had been ready for treachery, they danced through what we could muster against them, the firefight begun and finalised in moments. One Judge was down, with Raz and Gijuk dazed and reeling before he fell; the second Judge had bolted for the gangway on the instant, calling for troops.

I found myself up against the Judge Magister's imposing form. Hunched as he was, he looked wounded. I slammed the muzzle of my gun against the side of his neck, where the armour betrayed a dusky flesh, vulnerable.

Only then did I see why the Magister hunched.

Everything stopped again, and Balthier betrayed himself: 'No!'

Balthier made it too easy to forget his youth.

Fran was on her knees. The Magister curled behind her, swaying, his gauntlet in her hair and wrenching her head back. Against the column of her throat, he pressed his massive blade. Well aware of the strength of a Viera's thigh, he straddled Fran's prone form in a way immobilising her legs.

Another 'No—'

Her, or Balthier, crying out in that strangled stranger's voice?

Not a muscle twitched. My finger eased from my trigger.

'I can shout,' Balthier said, calm as though he had never screamed that first denial. 'To our darling holding her gun at your throat; to the gunner above, where we have a missile primed. Your holds are open, you're here alone, your ship's shields are weak. You're making a mistake.'

'You could shout,' said the Archadian, deep and as calm. 'You know what I will do, if you do.'

He was massive. He held Fran so well in one hand, the sword unwavering.

'I'm going to step back,' I told him, licking salt from my lips. 'My aim is very good, at this range. Greatswords are too heavy to hold in one hand like that, I can see your shoulder shaking, and I wouldn't want an accident. I suggest you sheathe your blade.'

The Magister laughed. 'How thoughtful.'

He moved his hand from Fran's hair to her throat, where black-gloved fingers spanned that graceful column. Only then did he sheathe his blade.

Balthier took a half-step forward, then stopped, and resumed his appearance of uncaring.

The Magister did not affect to notice. With his free hand, he reached to his helm, unbuckled two side clips, and lifted it off. Sinking to one knee, he set it beside Fran's thigh, her skin sheened gold with the sweat of stress and battle. When the Magister looked up, he revealed the dark skin and bald pate of a virile man, thick, curled white sideburns doing nothing to clear the mystery of his age.

By that dark skin, as gild as Fran's, he was no native Archadian. Yet, despite Archadia's attitude to foreigners, I had no doubt he was a true Magister.

He closed his eyes and swayed again. I saw the shadows beneath his eyes, the sallow nature underneath his colour, and wondered if he truly had been injured unseen.

Too many oddities struck me. A Magister should never have been a member of a boarding party to a humble cargo ship, especially not if he were injured. Add the unlikely test-model nature of the airship, the Magister's appearance, his seeming willingness to talk in lieu of battle—I suspected Balthier had like met his match, in one way or another.

The skypirate broke the silence. 'A stalemate, then.'

'No.' Fran for certain this time, crisp and clear.

The Magister shook his head, rueful. 'I suggest we declare it so! Shall we shake hands and break off the engagement, parting ways with a renewed appreciation of our mutual skills?'

Steady, I did not allow my gun to drop, even as I circled slowly. I found a position where I could see the gangway into the YPA-G84's hold, and still see Balthier's expression.

Balthier rolled his eyes at the Magister's words. 'I don't believe this.'

'With clarity, boy: you don't believe this,' the Magister nodded down at Fran, 'or you don't believe my offer?'

'This is a pirate ship, Magister, and you know what that means.'

'Do I?'

'No honour amongst thieves,' Balthier said. 'Kill her, and all you do is increase the share betwixt the rest of us. So I say, go on and do it. I'll be ever so grateful, I won't even shoot you in the back when I kick you off this ship.'

Balthier was bluffing a Magister. He had to be out of his mind to try.

Then, staring at Balthier's profile, I thought I saw a shadow of something else. A fanaticism, almost. How far would Balthier go to prove his point? Certainly not to the killing of children, but of innocents, or friends?

—yet Balthier must have seen something in the Magister that I had not. Instead of striking Fran down and retreating to his airship, the Magister deflated.

'Think about what you do,' the Magister urged. 'I have had enough of death. I want us to walk away from this intact.'

Balthier sauntered to the ladder, propped himself on a rung, and leaned back, nonchalant.

'Seeing as we'll be here for a while, I'm Balthier.'

'Call me Zecht,' said the Magister, after the briefest hesitation.

The YPA-G84 was not crewed to excess. On successfully regaining the YPA-G84's hold, the fleeing Judge summoned what manpower they had. A full complement of twelve stood armed at the other end of the gangway, prepared to move on the Magister's word.

Yet, despite our unconscious Bangaa beginning to stir, despite Nono's occasional exhaled curse, the Magister made no move to call for his troops.

The stalemate held.

'I have a question, Balthier. Do you intend to fly from this encounter by daylight, or simply creeping from puravma shadow to shadow?'

Balthier smiled, pleased at the recognition. 'You've worked it out, have you? Not quickly enough, I'm afraid.'

'Had I been quicker,' said Judge Magister Zecht, 'your ship might be on a one-way descent by now.'

'As I said, not quick enough.'

The Magister seemed inclined to muse. 'After Nabudis, I declined to join my comrades at the field of war in Nalbina. When I heard the stories of your actions, I had my suspicions. Incongruous tales, to hear of a supposedly Rozarrian airship whose crew had such passion for collecting mementos from her downed ships.'

'Notches in the bedhead,' Balthier said, with the same affected disinterest.

'Ha! Not a conventional taste in bedpartners, airships.'

'Do I look even remotely conventional to you?'

Balthier was unhappy the moment the words slipped out of his mouth, as Zecht took the opportunity to study him, carefully, piercingly.

Of a sudden, I recognised the Magister's sallow complexion, the shadowed eyes, even the unsteadiness on his feet and the force behind his words, as though articulating everything with care.

Judge Magister Zecht was drunk.

'You might have been somewhat conventional,' the Magister acknowledged. 'Three or four years ago, I ken, you wandered Archades' treed boulevards. Perhaps you wore a uniform, with your haircut incrementally shorter—but with your accent, pirate? Tsenoble High, at least, certainly not the lows of Trant or the Old Town. Did your family call you to task for some minor indiscretion and wound your pride enough you fled?' The Magister nodded, seemingly decided. 'Pride does wound so easily.'

At some point during the litany, Balthier flinched so barely I almost missed it; it was Fran who stirred, only to be pinned flat by the Magister, ungently.

Balthier did not look at his partner through the handling, not once. 'You should be delighting in my non-conventionality, Magister. It's the only reason you're still alive, and your airship still skyborne.'

Zecht inclined his head, as if in mimicry of Balthier's earlier gesture of acknowledgment; it seemed gratitude in these circumstances was a social convention. 'You intend to come out of this war with more than a reputation.'

'Certainly. We are not, as you deduced, particularly loyal to either Empire.'

'You are a profiteer then. You do not fly by the old skypirates' code, for freedom and integrity.'

A scant hesitation. 'I don't invest capital in unprofitable affairs, if that's what you mean.'

Zecht looked suddenly, overwhelmingly tired.

I wondered, again, at the discordant chain of events that had led us to this scenario.

As an Archadian, Zecht should never have bargained, as a Magister should never have boarded this ship. But if I assessed him as a man, sick of death as he proclaimed himself to be, it seemed likely that he questioned Balthier purely to find a way out of this scenario.

But that was not all. Zecht could have just walked away, had it come to that. He was as much hunting for a bargain as Balthier did—as much as Margrace had been, those weeks ago.

But what could skypirates on an antiqued airship do for a tired and drunken Judge Magister?

'Presumably,' Zecht said, 'you hope to end this encounter with something more than your survival.'

'More than something, indeed.'

Despite his weariness, Zecht smiled, in good humour. Calculating. Buccaneering. Mercenary. And Zecht was a Magister, one of the Archadian Emperor's incorruptible bloodsworn generals.

The Archadian Empire was not so monolithic as it seemed.

'I have a proposal,' Zecht said. 'Would you care to end this conversation with several millions worth of nethicite?'

How Balthier avoided dropping his guard, I'll not know.

'You'll have to make me a better offer than that!'

I swore. Even Zecht's eyes widened. Better than—

—but then the Magister followed where Balthier's gaze turned, with such wistful longing, to the YPA-G84's unusual curves.

The Magister contemplated his own airship for some time.

I was the only one that saw Balthier's gaze drop back to Fran's bowed head, where his calm crumpled to an expression horribly forlorn.

'Alright, I'll bite. Where did you even get that much nethicite to begin with?'

'It is,' the Magister said, dryly, 'the first and last of Bhujerba's resource to the Archadian war effort.'

'So the blockade's been lifted, ' Balthier stated. 'I thought as much after I heard Nabudis had fallen.'

As if sickness swept over him, Zecht's breath came heavy. 'There is truth in that. Archadia has what they want, from Bhujerba and Nabudis. Demobilisation takes time.'

'The problem with nethicite,' Balthier said, 'is that it's tainted as a commodity. I can imagine well enough what happened to Nabudis. Archadia will not be pleased if that much nethicite, manufacted or naturally mined, falls out of Imperial hands.'

'No,' Zecht said, 'you cannot imagine. I was at Nabudis when the city fell. Nethicite's worth—will only increase, in the wake of that. Your profit will be what you make of it. I ask only that you do not treat with Archadia.'

Balthier looked at him for a long, slow moment.

'You misunderstand. I well know where lies the taint on that stone, on the user. If you give me the nethicite, I'll not be selling it. Not to Rozarria, not to Archadia, not even to towns along the way to fuel their combine harvesters or irrigation fields. You give me that much nethicite, and I'll gift the lot of it to the ocean's depths.' A pause, during which Balthier rubbed his chin, ostentatiously considering the state of affairs. 'Without a profit pending, I'm sure you can see the nethicite is worthless to me.'

'You want the ship.'

'Oh, yes,' Balthier said.

'The ship,' Zecht said, steadily, 'will be yours, if you take the nethicite with it.'

'You were at Nabudis,' Balthier repeated, slow, yet with no trace of languor or affectation. 'An interesting bargain you strike. Why should I accept responsibility for the nethicite when all I want is the airship?'

'Because I'm asking you to,' Zecht said. 'Why else did you think I boarded this airship, knowing who you were?'

To his credit, Balthier scarcely blinked. 'Not a guess, then.'

'A guess,' Zecht contradicted. 'A dare, of both fates and gods! After Nabudis I refused to follow my command to Nalbina. For all my service, for the suffering I dream, I was consigned to ferry service instead, a duty as distasteful as my last, in which I am directed to collect the Bhujerban nethicite stockpile and deliver it to the front at Nalbina. Then I heard the rumour of your actions, and—I dared to contemplate another course than that which the Empire would put me. I dared both fates and gods and dreams, to change.'

'No deal,' Balthier said, with a swallow dry enough to be audible. 'Your game profits me nothing. I am no hero, Magister, to take on that much responsibility. You want your magicite gone, go dump it yourself.'

From beneath heavy lashes, Fran glanced up, unreadable.

'I had so hoped.' Zecht sighed. 'There was a time when skypirates were honourable to match their pride.'

Balthier sneered. 'Enough history, old man. Rikken, get the Bangaa and go disarm his men and tie them, then bring them aboard. We'll take that airship,' he bowed at Zecht, 'in the time-honoured, old-fashioned piratical way.'

Zecht turned his gaze to me, dark eyes bright, haunted. 'If it is a simple matter of profit not meeting the risk, skypirates, there is a sweetener.'

Balthier threw me a wink as Zecht turned to his men aboard the YPA-G84, calling instructions:

'Do not board. Activate the mechanism.'

Then Zecht showed us what it was that truly made the single, under-armed, under-shielded, under-staffed Fighter Class YPA-G84 the perfect airship for the pick-up and delivery of a lethal, invaluable cargo of nethicite.

In blatant disbelief, we watched as the YPA -G84 disappeared from sight.

The perfect airship for a skypirate.

'Interesting,' Balthier said, without a waver. 'A large-scale version of a vanish spell? Nono could tell you many of our speculations along those lines. Warped light, a second skystone bent to alternate purpose than ascent, all very logical; except it does nothing to hide the a ship on a screen. The mass is still there.'

'It is not,' Zecht said. 'Check your navigator's console.'

'Rikken, get above, look at the display, tell me if the ship's vanished from that, too.'

Rikken raced, bare heels ringing his ascent on the ladder, the echoes there even as he called down the affirmation from the cockpit.

Nono leaned from the engine deck, paws working on the rail. 'The world's first truly invisible ship.'

I was surprised Balthier withheld from salivating.

Instead, he shook his head in a fair display of sorrow. 'You fly on Imperial business. You had a change of heart mid-flight. Then you sought us out. You could have flown under your invisibility wholly, we never would have seen you. What the hell do you really want?'

Zecht took a shaky breath. 'Since I have made my decision to depart from Archadia's service, I have been forced to improvise. I am appealing to your better nature—'

'My better nature currently has your hand around her throat.'

Zecht gave a sigh, one that sounded truly regretful. Fran's ears brushed the deck as she leaned against his grasp.

'I was ordered to collect the nethicite, then deliver it to the front. If I do not do so according to schedule, the matter will arrive by alternative methods. If you do not take my offer, then do not take my ship. I would take the nethicite to the ocean myself.'

'A fine tale.' Balthier arched an eyebrow. 'I'm moved. I still don't trust you, I still want your airship, and I still want you to let my partner go.'

Fran lifted her head. Zecht's fingers, at her throat yet, were lax. When she spoke, it was husky with strain. 'What harm can it do to believe, even without trust? We have risked more for less for—others.'

I heard the unsaid. For Margrace, she meant; but the YPA-G84 offered more for a skypirate's freedom than any of Margrace's promises had.

Spite or sorrow made me speak. 'Not mentioning the Archadians have like taken advantage of their invisibility to come around and put us firm in their sights.'

Balthier waved a distracted hand. 'The gangway's there, it would have dropped if they'd moved.'

Zecht laughed, without humour. 'Well observed. Do not trust me, then; but some deals do not require trust. Only participation, for profit. Do we have a deal, Balthier?'

He shook his head. 'Convince me that your change of heart is real.'

For some reason, Zecht turned to me, his eyes grave.

'Nabudis,' Zecht said, sonorous. 'I walked through the ruins, after, but could not find a single living soul. I could have pulled my heart from this living sleeve of flesh, had I not been surrounded by my men, those still living, drawing away from me as though I should not have the right to stand amongst them. It should never have been done, the nethicite should never have been so used. I was the one that ordered it done. When all others refused, I was the one who fired the blast. And so I run, in shame and disgrace, but even in my shame and disgrace I cannot run without exploiting every opportunity the fates throw in my path, for sabotaging what Archadia would do with the cursed stone.'

Helpless before that stare, I lowered my gun.

'Let Fran go.'

'You haven't agreed,' Zecht said.

Balthier narrowed his eyes. 'Tell me your plan, before I commit to it.'

'Tis a matter of improvisation, again. I did not think of this until I sighted you on my screens.'

'I'm familiar with improv. Continue.'

'At precisely sixteen hundred hours tomorrow, an Archadian base on a large purvama in Bhujerba's shadow will be expecting the YPA -G84 to arrive and assume possession of the nethicite. After accepting the cargo, we will withdraw. In a location inconvenient to the base or any patrolling airships, I will fall foul of an engagement with the mysterious disappearing Rozarrian destroyer. Battle will ensue, and my final call will transmit the knowledge that the Rozarrian destroyer had bettered us. Our airships will both disappear, including their crews; Archadian intelligence will assume the nethicite has gone straight to fuel the Rozarrian war efforts.'

Balthier nodded at key places within the tale. 'Good enough, for as long as we have accurate intelligence on the location of the patrols. You could, of course, be laying us in for an ambush.'

'I could also have destroyed you outright, with my airship's greater speed. I have not.'

A shrug, noncommittal. 'Let Fran go.'

I should have distrusted this Magister, but having looked into his eyes, I could not. There was a grief in there that could have devoured me as well as him. This man had destroyed a capital city. He swayed with drunkenness, with the need to escape, yet the form of his escape was not the typical oblivion. Even destroying himself, he fought to find ways to do so which would make some recompense for his actions.

I wondered, then, how Margrace would feel, having played his small part in bringing Archadia to the use of the nethicite. Whether Margrace would ever acknowledge he had played a part.

With some shock, I realised that I could not be fully absolved of my involvement, either.

'Balthier, agree with him. I think we should do this.'

Balthier looked at me, expressionless, then at Zecht. 'You'll be wanting a cut, I suppose?'

Zecht flinched violently. 'No. Apart from a wish to—'

'Disappear,' I said. 'Balfonheim is a good place to start again, Magister.'

'A city of men without countries, pirates of the sea and of the sky.
There would be few who would fain lay down their lives for a friend, let alone an Empire.'

'And you think that's a bad point?' I asked.

The ex-Judge Magister grinned at me then, with the same unexpectedly boyish delight that wreathed Balthier's face at the most unexpected of times.

'I have a question,' I asked. 'Seeing as you have as much fondness for bluffing as Balthier does. Do you truly think the Archadian fleet is going to believe that a single aimless Rozarrian destroyer succeeded in taking down an airship fast enough to spin rings around the world, and that can turn itself invisible?'

'As I understand it,' Zecht said, 'the Archadian fleet is currently of the belief that this single Rozarrian destroyer can also turn invisible.'

Zecht released Fran's throat. Moving slowly, he offered her a hand up, and an apologetic bow. 'Your good will gesture, Balthier.'

'My partner,' Balthier said. 'If Fran doesn't want to do this, ex-Magister, then you're dead now, good will or no.'

Slowly, Fran paced to her place at Balthier's shoulder, eyes keen on the newest contractor of the Maenad's services.

'Fran's a good judge of men,' Balthier added, with an inflection more like his usual self.

Fran turned a look on her partner more rueful than dismayed, fingers touching her throat. 'How shall we deny the opportunity holding us fast, for good or ill? The hare shall follow the hound.'

'And so, the future is ours,' Balthier said.

Continue to Chapter 10

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