A Sense of Commitment
The weather cleared by the following morning. I had prime view of the stunning sky, installed beside Judge Magister Zecht on the incredible disappearing airship, accompanying him towards his final rendezvous on behalf of the Archadian Empire.
Needless to say, I was not at ease.
At labour in the YPA -G84's hold, Balthier left the Maenad in Fran's hands, Rikken and Nono with her, assurance against the likelihood of Rinok and Gijuk turning on them. Along with himself, he had brought Raz and Bwagi aboard. The Archadian crew had been likewise split, half lodged in the Maenad's hold, weaponless, bound by Zecht's word.
The split contributed to my unease, but was not the source. The origin was sitting across from me, teacup cradled in a large hand.
'A top-up?' Zecht offered his silver flask, of which he had made ample use himself.
Here I was, on the vessel of my twice-over enemy, a Magister and an Archadian, drinking his brandy-laced tea.
'Thank you,' I declined as gracefully as I could.
The very presentation of his fallibility inclined me to trust him. Margrace's schemes were blank, devious, his motivations suspect. That Zecht admitted his own failures and then made recompense meant something. Could I not see myself in him?
I thought back to Margrace's long-ago words: in the company of prestigious runaways, I was one of them.
Zecht inclined his head over his cup. I took the opportunity to steal a study of him. He was not a typical Archadian, for certain. Rumours surrounded those raised from the ranks of Judges to the Emperor's personal elite: Judge Magisters had no family, no connections or allegiances to distract them from their vows to the Archadian Emperor. They were the only military unit that answered to the Emperor alone, without involvement in the Imperial Senate.
Zecht saw me watching and smiled. 'You have doubts?'
'But you are worried, are you not?'
'If anyone should be worried, Magister, I would think it would be you.'
He agreed. 'Yet even my failure will disrupt this consignment of nethicite. Any impediment to the Empire is a victory.' Such sadness in Zecht's eyes. 'I am a military man, milady. There is honour in war, I feel you believe that too, honour to fight for a claim or for a matter of freedom. Even honour in the brave and mad involvement of your skypirate captain and his crew, for all the subversion of his intentions. Yet what occurred in Nabudis was—'
'Otherwise,' he said, relieved to be spared the search for a word. 'The past shackles me to this path.'
'I shall take you at your word, Magister.' I leaned forward, over the small well-set table between us. 'I wonder, though, how did you convince your crew to cede so quietly? Were they at Nabudis also, or are they simply lacking in traditional Archadian patriotism?'
He looked pained. 'Patriotism rings hollow when there is little enough to believe in. Archadia has long been champion of freedom—freedom and order, hand in hand, and opportunity for all to exceed themselves. In the course of this flight, myself and my crew have discussed the merit of blind obedience, and often.' Zecht shook his head. 'Archadia has changed, and I fear that little remains to bring about the country's moral regeneration.'
'Surely some of your men were reluctant?'
Zecht shrugged. 'Who will gainsay a Magister?'
'Anyone might, when they realise you're not exactly a Magister any more.' I smiled. 'With authority comes obedience.'
After studying me with as much intentness as I had used upon him, he grinned. 'Why is the blind affirmation of my crew so important to you?'
I could hardly tell him that the thought of two Balthiers cruising the skies, winning away all allegiances from home and hearth in favour of their odd, compelling charisma, was too terrible to contemplate.
'There was one dissenter,' Zecht said, abruptly. 'Such was his faith in the Archadian cause that we felt it necessary to test the wings of his faith. So you see, there remain only eleven unpatriotic criminals in my association,' he smiled, 'not including yourself.'
The rest of the tea passed in easy conversation, well away from the topic of Empire. The hour of the nethicite exchange approached soon enough, marked by the sharp angle of sun through the porthole of Zecht's tiny cabin.
Then Balthier was at the door, wiping grease from his hands with a soapy rag, ready to for his turn on this informal watch on our Magisterial prize. 'A particularly nice set-up on the engine deck, y'honour. My commendation.'
'The shipwrights would be pleased to know.' Zecht smiled and rose, bowing me out.
Then Zecht called after me, sharply, 'You've forgotten something.'
I turned, even as Balthier made a disgruntled sound.
Zecht held my gun at the ready, aimed at us.
Without further suspense, he eased the cocking handle into a safe position, then tossed it to me. 'Criminal negligence, milady, leaving an armed weapon within my reach.'
I caught it, then pulled the clip clear to display the empty rings. 'Call it a test, Magister.'
Humour flickered at the corners of his mouth. 'I see I am not alone in my deceits.'
'You passed, by the way,' Balthier said, dryly, as he stepped by me to take his seat. 'Do I smell brandy?'
'Alas,' Zecht said, 'it appears I have run dry.'
I hid my grin at the obvious lie. So Zecht would share with me, if not with his old Imperial comrade Balthier.
The pickup point proved to be a bleak little purvama, constantly shadowed by the floating isle of Dorstonis. Somewhere above us, the sky-city Bhujerba's overarching presence starved for the nethicite we would collect here.
Without room to land, Balthier brought in the YPA -G84 to holding, firmly fixing a gangway to the sandy edge of the rock. Even the sky seemed stripped of interest, with nothing around except the roar of air ripped to shreds on the underside of corrugated rock.
At least there were no blind-eyed serpents.
I communicated with the Maenad, ensuring she stayed in easy proximity, hidden. Balthier and I kitted ourselves in full Archadian armour. Balthier's actions as he prepared himself seemed dogged by anticipation, anxiety almost, caught up as we were in this desolation, this constant roaring sound. We were to flank Zecht during this meeting, the Judges to his Magister.
Balthier looked horrendously apt in his Judge's garb, even without the helm. With the final mask in place, he was mindless enough to have truly been a piece of Archadia's military machinery.
We marched across rock blasted to a grey, shrieking sand until we reached the sole manufacted portion of the island, a thickly made platform marked with a single Bhujerban flag, whipped to shreds.
As the wait grew interminable, Zecht said, loudly, 'I have wondered, Balthier, what it was that made you leave Archadia's bosom.'
After some time, Balthier replied. 'Personal reasons. Certainly nothing as melodramatic as redemption. Path to ruin, that, without any measure to judge your successes.'
'How desperately mercantile,' Zecht said, mocking. His helm tilted in my direction. 'Yourself, milady?'
'I was born in Balfonheim,' I said. 'After long service with Rozarria, perhaps I was simply overdue a return home.'
'How came you to be flying under Rozarria's flag again?'
I hesitated. 'I made a mistake, on my last venture for Rozarria, and fled with the task unfinished. This repays that, I suppose.'
'It always comes down to a matter of payment,' Zecht acknowledged. 'Balfonheim seems a good place for that. A matter of worth. Would that we could have put a value on our commitment to a cause.'
'It's not worth it,' Balthier said, eventually. 'I learned that lesson early on.'
No one spoke for some time after that, not even Balthier. Ten minutes, half an hour.
'This is the right place?' I had to ask.
Zecht inclined his affirmation.
'You think maybe, they've fallen foul of something—'
Then, suddenly, they were there. They had been there all along, ranks of Bhujerbans, dour, rising direct from the rock itself.
Looking at the dark expressions and hollow cheeks on those men and women, of a culture known for its hospitality, I realized that Archadia had truly succeeded in this blockade: the last of the mine's providence came without Bhujerba's willing involvement.
The Bhujerbans busied themselves removing what was an impeccable example of terrestrial camouflage, revealing crates of nethicite, piece by piece.
'There.' It wasn't relief in Zecht's voice; I struggled to name what it was. Eagerness, perhaps, a desire to get this over with, now that he had committed himself to this path.
'About time,' Balthier breathed.
There were Archadians moving amongst the Bhujerbans, Judges too, standing shining and useless amongst the activity. A small cohort formed, beckoning Zecht closer. As I took a step to keep at his side, a curt disruption made it clear that Zecht was to approach alone.
The first thing he was asked to do was to remove his helm.
Standing there in our Archadian garb, surrounded by disgruntled Bhujerban miners, our position felt tenuous enough to creak. Zecht could inform the Judges now as to who we were, and those guns and swords would turn against us.
The situation became even more fraught with the sudden appearance of more Archadian troops from the other side of the purvama, armed for long range battle. Two Remoras followed the column, with a final Fighter Class so horribly lethal looking I almost failed to identify it as a something as simple as a modified Remora.
Balthier went rigid at my side.
'What is it?'
'The range of the guns on that last hyped-up Remora! Not to mention the tracking. Overkill. It's a fast one.'
I said, 'The YPA -G84 is faster.'
I could almost feel Balthier's grin radiating through the helm. 'We'll have some fun proving that.'
'Expecting something to go wrong?'
'Of course. Just don't ask me what.'
Zecht and the Judges saluted at each other, stepped back, and let the Bhujerbans commence their carrying, crate after crate of this last existing natural nethicite, to where the YPA -G84 waited, hatches wide.
The hyped-up Remora trundled past and assumed a position where it could have fired into the ship's hold as easily as into the sky. Her guns turned, giving me with a moment of terror as I stared down the double barrels of the monstrosity.
The loading went at a fair pace.
Paperwork passed between Zecht and the Judges, along with the genial conversation that laced every liaison between Archadians. Zecht made it clear that the ground crew of Bhujerbans was not to fraternise with any aboard the ship, so the unloading took place in relative quiet. After some time, even the roaring purvama air faded to white noise.
The number of crates were such even the fast pace seemed a crawl.
Cool as ice, Zecht sent Balthier back into the ship to fetch unfolding chairs and a table, the better to host conversation with the supervising Judge. Zecht shared his second round of tea and sandwiches for the day with a rotation of Judges, his forehead dry, his wrist steady.
Balthier poured round after round of tea, with a gracious curve to his gauntleted wrist, and a quirk to his lips that I could feel without seeing.
At sunset, the two ordinary Remoras took themselves away; not, unfortunately, to leave the purvama altogether, but to station themselves to guard our takeoff. It still eased some of the concern, the weight, having less of a lethal presence within shouting distance.
Thirty minutes after sunset, the YPA -G84's hold was resoundingly full.
Balthier poured the guest Judge a last, gracious cup of tea.
In the next ten minutes, the Judge had been shot a great many times, by the floor mounted guns in the Maenad's hold.
Balthier finished pouring the Judge his tea, and returned to our respectfully maintained distance.
He was muttering, 'If that bastard doesn't stop talking down at me like that —'
'You'll what, present him with your credentials?'
Balthier turned to retort. Over his shoulder, I saw it coming.
The Maenad had tailed us close, ready for feigning the battle in which the YPA -G84 would broadcast her final cries. To see her here, screens up so the ship itself appeared a grinning, gap-toothed caricature of itself, felt like a nightmare come to life.
In the hold, at the largest of the floor-mounted assault guns, was Ba'gamnan, jaw wide and muscular legs set as he turned the gun to our table.
I threw myself at Balthier even as he stood there swearing, dragging him behind the nearest rocky prominence in our quest for cover.
I could well imagine what had happened.
Afraid, in a manner of speaking, of Balthier and Fran's vengeance but likewise terrified of her dominant sib, Rinok would not have attempted to open Ba'gamnan's door. She would have had no concerns about sliding a file under his door, though. With due diligence, Ba'gamnan would have applied himself and the file to the door's locking mechanism.
When the door eventually wheezed open, Fran could have been walking past with her usual stealthy tread. The Bangaa and the Viera would have stared at each other long, silent moments, before Ba'gamnan discarded the last of his common sense and jumped her.
In the hasty struggle, they tumbled along the corridor, toppling to the engine deck even amidst Nono's shouted curses. Staggering up against the mezzanine's rail, gasping for breath, Ba'gamnan turned, glanced down into the hold and discovered something else:
The Maenad now held a full compliment crew of armoured Archadians.
'The bastard's betrayed us,' Ba'gamnan cried. 'That damned skypirate was an Archadee' all along!'
It would not have taken much convincing to draw Rinok and Gijuk into the fight. Perhaps the three of them took Fran out together, or they threatened some portion of the Maenad's irreplaceable enginework. Whatever the case, the Archadians would have been small help, weaponless. The Bangaa crew of three had taken over the Maenad.
—which swooped in again, Ba'gamnan visible in the hold, Rinok clear as day in on the upper gun deck, lurking behind the missile launcher, her toothy grin wide with glee.
'Balthier,' I hissed, spitting sand and flinching from our increasingly pockmarked rock, 'did you not think to tell Ba'gamnan about this small diversion of yours?'
'I'm supposed to think of everything now, am I?' Balthier flinched away from the next arc of bullets, his armour scraping mine. He wrenched off his helm, turning to tug at mine before I took over the task. 'Fran's going to kill me.'
'If she's not dead already!'
Balthier actually grinned, and touched fist to his chest. 'She can't be, Feathers. I'm still breathing, aren't I?'
The Maenad swung about again, unsteady in the updraft, even as Balthier grabbed my arm and yanked me into a run. Bullet arcs chopped fountains of dust in our wake, chips of rock as lethal as the bullets flecking our armour, both a protective and a weighty bane. The Archadian Remoras hastened closer, the Archadian soldiers scrambling, shouting as they regrouped at a distance. Of the Bhujerbans, I could see no sign. The miners melted away as readily as they had appeared.
Rinok released a volley from the missile launcher.
The hyped-up Remora, guns pivoting about, blossomed into a rising ball of orange. There came a scream of agony, the blinding silhouette of a man spread-eagled against the flame.
Through it all, I ran alongside Balthier, realizing belatedly that he was acting true to form, and running towards the source of death instead of away.
The purvama edge chopped up further as Gijuk appeared to take a gun beside Ba'gamnan, apparently giving up his attempts at piloting for a lost cause. Caught in mad glimpses as we ran, a special chaos took place in the hold.
Nono held an oversized wrench, standing to defend the engine's exposed parts if the Bangaa three approached. The core boiled out with steam, several bullet punctures through the water reservoirs covering the scene with an unhealthy, sweaty sheen. Zecht's Archadians were unwilling to die without a fight. They made weapons from what they could scavenge around the hold, and were approaching Ba'gamnan and Gijuk.
The Bangaa sibs were inconsiderate of the Maenad's hull integrity, willingly turning the guns from the shore to the hold, bullets ripping through the deck, sending the Archadians scattering for cover.
Unfortunately, the only cover found was behind the stacked crates, which held large quantities of ammunition.
Very shortly, I thought, dazed and distantly, a bullet would surely hit the crate containing the missiles for the launcher above.
Towards all of this, Balthier ran, dragging me with him.
'That's my bloody ship, bloody lizards! Oh come on, Feathers, don't give me that look, it's likely the safest place—'
Despite—or perhaps because of—our Archadian armour, we were not welcomed by Zecht's traitors. Balthier ducked the first blow even as I kicked the Archadian to the deck.
The whole affair was further confused when a contingent of the purvama guard also made the Maenad's dubious safety, startled to find their own kind there. Caught between the Bangaa and the startled Archadians soldiers, Zecht's traitors threw themselves into the attack on their ex-compatriots.
Hand to hand was always brutal.
Balthier shoved me towards Zecht's men, wild-eyed. 'Take back the ship!'
'How do you expect me to—'
Between one breath and the next, Zecht was at my side, panting, great sword aloft. 'Your ship's crew is less than sanitary, skypirate! Mutineers galore!'
'If you won't, Feathers, he can! Zecht, take back the Maenad!'
The ex-Magister grinned, eyes absorbing the tangled chaos before him. 'At last, an honest battle!'
As the last thing I heard Balthier say, it was fitting.
She was there, too, out of nowhere, suddenly in the depths of the fight. Wrenching Ba'gamnan away from the assault gun, rolling free of the claws he swung at her exposed abdomen. Roaring, Ba'gamnan called Gijuk even as Fran thrust her dagger deep into his gut.
Gijuk turned, himself and his assault gun, to his brother's call.
Fran arched and staggered, shot in the back.
Balthier had wings. He must have had, to cross the distance between him and his partner untouched, rising above the morass. Sword drawn, Balthier struck, no pretence made of a fight when he aimed to disable with his first and only blow. The vicarious, vengeful splash of Bangaa blood arched across the deck.
The assault gun fell unmanned.
Bullets tore into the purvama, the recoil spinning the gun about, back into the hold. Even as I followed the trail of bullets to the unsuspecting stockpile of missiles that awaited their ignition, I saw Balthier in my periphery.
With lean efficiency, arms out, he was there to catch Fran before she had time to fall beyond one knee.
Their silhouettes were enveloped in the explosion taking apart the Maenad. That was the last I saw of them, falling from the open hold.
Steam, dust, pain, and blackness. I was unforgivably angry.
Continue to the Epilogue→
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