Grazhir :: Crossover :: Persequor :: 01 :: Exorsus

01 • Exorsus

He had only been an apprentice for three days and they had sent him off for a ‘meeting’ at the Department of Mysteries. Something about his reputation and credibility, they said. Harry thought that was hogwash, but went anyway. He was to meet with one of the DoM’s experimental healers, to be updated on new techniques and spells that had been developed, and bring back a detailed report so that St Mungo’s could be that much more effective. About the only good thing from killing a dark lord was being able to essentially write his own ticket to whatever job he wanted to attempt.

Harry got through security easily enough, though not without the usual stares and whispers, and headed off to his meeting, not entirely happy due to the memories that surfaced along the way. He was met by a nameless fellow in a hooded white robe, who escorted him beyond the room that had stymied them for quite a while two years back, through any number of rooms and hallways, finally to halt in a rather large room with another man dressed in the same concealing fashion.

“Call me Fugo,” the figure said as Harry’s escort left, voice deep enough for him to assume it was male.

He nodded, unsure of whether or not he should introduce himself, and if so, by which name. So he simply assumed the man had no idea who he was and said, “Harry Potter.”

“Let’s get started,” Fugo said flatly. “This’ll take a while.”

A half hour later Harry was desperately wanting to slap himself a few times, as he felt as though he might doze off. The material that Fugo was imparting was boring enough, but the man’s droning tone was a wide-open invitation to somnolence. Things picked up very quickly, though. A nagging sense of growing unease made Harry feel just a touch jumpy, which was probably a good thing.

At least twenty men slipped into the room, wands raised, aimed at him. Harry quickly came to the conclusion that the rather glassy-eyed state of a good half those men was likely due to the imperius curse. That was when he fled, not stupid enough to believe he could take on all of them and win. He could only assume that there were far too many unmarked supporters of Voldemort still oozing around in the woodwork of government, and it was his delight to have flushed them out.

Sadly, his flight through the department was just as confusing as the first time, and he hadn’t exactly the time to stop and ask directions, not with attempting to keep ahead of his pursuers and dodge the spells that kept being shot his way. He actually thought he might have lost them when he slid into a hallway bare of anything but full-length mirrors attached to the walls every foot or so. Some of them were partially draped with white gauze, while others had ornamented frames. Others yet were broken.

A shout made him realize he was dawdling. Harry took off down the hall and randomly chose a direction when it split, quickly becoming lost, but feeling a great deal happier when he spotted a door. Through it he went, only to be presented with a bewildering array of door frames, some side by side in walls, others seemingly just standing there with no visible support.

More shouting erupted behind him, so he attempted to find a perimeter wall and follow it, though his course took him through many of the frames. And each time he did so, something about the room changed slightly, but it was nothing he could put his finger on, nor did he have time to stop and investigate to determine if he was hallucinating. He did, however, spare a split second to decide that the air smelled a bit strange.

A blasting curse hit the top of the frame he was just then running through, but . . . he wasn’t there to assess the damage. No, he was standing in a black void. There were no more frames, no more shouts, and no more spells being aimed at his vital spots. Just unending, stifling, velvety black.

“Who dares traverse the gateways?” demanded a voice. “Ah. Poor wandering soul, I shall be the arbiter of your fate.”

‘Fate?’

*

He rather thought he woke up not because he was ready to do so, but because someone was very insistently slapping his cheek. Harry cracked open an eye to see a face swim into view.

“That’s right, wake up! Who are you, then?”

He opened his other eye. Hovering over him was a deeply-tanned man with choppy dark hair and dark eyes. “Where am I?”

“I’ll be the one asking questions, hey?” the man replied. “And that accent! Spy are you? We’ll just see about that, we will.”

Harry protested being hauled up like a sack of grain, to no avail; he wasn’t exactly feeling well, either. A reflexive move toward his wand brought about an unhappy surprise. He had either lost it, or it had been taken from him. He was further surprised when he was tossed into a saddle, worn by a giant . . . chicken? It was the closest parallel he could think of, even if the creature didn’t really resemble one all that closely. Perhaps. An unfortunate breeding experiment between one and an ostrich?

Other men were there, also mounted, and the one who had awakened him vaulted into a saddle as well, then took the reins of his creature. “You’ll not be wandering off. It’s our lord who’ll see to you.”

And they were off, bounding across the verdant landscape, the yellow bird having a peculiar gait that took some getting used to, as he constantly felt he was about to be flung off to one side or the other. While his body was attempting to deal with that issue, his eyes were everywhere; there was not a thing familiar to be seen (unless one counted that grass was grass, and trees were trees).

Eventually a dark smudge appeared on the horizon, and it resolved to be, after several hours, a massive city. And it was like no city Harry had ever before seen. A peculiar mixture of old and futuristic, he thought. The architecture had a certain sense of age about it, yet there were flying vehicles everywhere. Banners with all the same symbol were common enough as his mount was guided along stone-paved streets, the people on foot making way for the party. Approximately fifteen minutes later they had arrived at a grand residence with its own stable.

Harry was hustled off inside and shoved into a chair. None of those who remained (which was all but the one who had slap-happy hands) said anything. They would not even look at him directly, which was both irritating and unnerving. The room itself was the colour of adobe and sported wide archways in place of doors. Plants hung here and there, and the furniture was all woven from some type of reed, or perhaps wicker, and softened by plush cushions in pale greens and golds. He thought it was quite soothing, and might be more so if he had a clue what was going on.

“Ah, a visitor to this humble abode.”

He looked over his shoulder to see a tall, tanned man with longish, shaggy brown hair, and a shaped, closely-trimmed beard. “My people tell me you may be a spy, my friend,” the man said as he circled around to stand before the chair.

“I don’t know anything. Not where I am or even really how I got here. Nothing is familiar, and I don’t feel very well. I’d say from riding those weird birds, but I felt ill before that,” he replied, hating himself for sounding rather pathetic.

“I see what they mean,” the man said, reaching up to remove his mirrored sunglasses and tuck them into a pocket; his eyes were a strange, pale green. “Your accent, my friend, is telling. However, you are in luck, for I have a way with seeing the truth of matters, and I deem you no threat to me and mine.”

Harry’s ‘escort’ all filed out at that, prompting him to say, “Do I look that wretched?”

The man erupted into rich laughter and shook his head. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Al-Cid, of the noble House Margrace, rulers of the Rozarrian empire.”

‘Oh dear.’ Harry nodded and replied, “Harry.”

“Such a peculiar name, my friend! That will never do! Come, come, we will go sit in the garden and talk. The afternoon rains will begin soon, and there is no better place to be but there.” Al-Cid waited for him to stand, then led him off, arriving a short few minutes later outside. A gazebo was their destination, painted pale green, and within were more of those woven chairs. “Sit, sit! Now, it is not that you look wretched. I simply have a way of recognizing the truth, my friend. Despite your accent so like those rapacious Archadians, I can see you are not one of them. However, such a thing may be an advantage.”

“Archadians?” For that matter, Rozarrians? Giant chickens? And why did the man sound Spanish? Was he some sort of Legilimencer?

“Ah, we shall speak of them soon enough. I should like to know more about you, such as where you hail from, and how you came to be with us.”

“Something tells me,” he said slowly, “that you’d not recognize the name. I come from a place called England.”

Al-Cid shook his head, which was exactly what Harry expected.

“As for how I got here, I’m not entirely sure. To be brief, a war had just ended, one in which I played a fairly important role. I—”

“Ah, ah, ah,” said Al-Cid, waggling a finger back and forth. “I think more than just fairly.”

Harry scowled faintly. “Anyway, there were a number of supporters left from the other side, those who had never been flushed out. I was at a meeting at . . . at the seat of our government when I was attacked by those same people. There were far too many, so I fled. The place I was at, though, was a place of discovery and invention and mystery, and I ended up completely lost. The last thing I remember there was an area with so many doorways. One of them I went through just as it was damaged. I ended up in a dark place, I couldn’t see anything. Some voice . . . told me it would judge my fate. And the next thing I knew I was being slapped awake.”

“It sounds like the gods were involved, my—” Al-Cid abruptly swept a hand out and smiled. “Ah, see? The rains, they come.”

He had to admit, the sight was beautiful. Sitting there in the safety of the gazebo afforded an excellent view of nature unleashing itself. After a minute of silent enjoyment he realized that none of the water was getting anywhere near them, despite the angle it fell at. Harry cast a look of confusion at his companion.

“The gazebo, it has an elemental paling to block the water,” Al-Cid explained.

The question had reminded him of another, however, so he asked, “The gods?”

“But of course! Who else would have the power? You who come from elsewhere, who does not recognize the oh so common chocobo, nor even a simple paling. What else is a man to think, hey?”

Harry gazed out at the rain again, considering. Chocobo might refer to anything—quite possibly those birds—but the paling Al-Cid spoke of was clearly a fine-tuned barrier or shield of some kind. He had thought maybe, on seeing those flying vehicles, that it was science responsible, but now he wasn’t so sure. “What exactly is a paling?”

“Why, a magical barrier, of course. I have set my mind to it, my friend,” Al-Cid said firmly. “I shall see you wise in the ways of this world, and see what you are capable of. It was very good fortune for you my men found you.”

Two Years Later

He slipped off his chocobo gratefully and detached the saddle bags, tossing them over one shoulder. A stablehand appeared to deal with the feathered menace, so Harry adjusted the staff on his back and walked slowly toward the house. Another day, another take of leavings of lesser monsters that roamed beyond the borders of the city. The only saving grace were the things he could fashion from those odds and ends, things he could then sell elsewhere.

Al-Cid, who he had come to learn was but one of many sons of House Margrace, had given him quarters within the family compound at Ambervale, a small cottage of a type often used for guests, that was just perfect for him. Two years of learning and work saw him one of a number of things, mage and merchant being foremost. He had learned early on that whatever caused his transition from Earth to Ivalice had changed him. His magic had been twisted, and he found it almost amusing (well after the fact, that is) that there were a mere three offensive spells in his arsenal, four if you counted one for its incidental properties.

He had wept at first, dry-eyed and silent but nevertheless weeping, over the corruption of so fundamental a part of his being. He could no longer even pretend he could handle everything on his own, a harsh awakening to reality, but one he adjusted to with only a fairly short period of being an utter bastard to everyone. Al-Cid had found him all so amusing and was never offended; perhaps it was that his truth-sensing ability allowed him to gloss over things others were not so keen to.

Harry had barely slung himself into a chair to begin unloading his spoils when he heard a familiar shout. Turning, he saw his friend and nominal lord approaching. In truth, if anyone could be called that it was Al-Cid’s father, emperor of his adopted homeland.

“You return, and looking worse for wear, my friend.”

“Thanks so much,” Harry said dryly. “You’re everything my ego could ever ask for.”

Al-Cid dropped lazily into a seat and flashed him an unrepentant smile. “Ah, but someone must be always a check on hubris, hey? Hallam, I have a task for you.”

“More rumors?” he inquired, sitting up a bit straighter.

“Of a certainty. Archadia seems to be on the move again, and I would have you do the usual. I have even arranged for a quantity of those baubles the foreigners so like to spend their gold on.”

Harry eyed his friend carefully, looking to see what sort of mood he really was in. “Speculation, then. Anything specific?”

“There seems to be a bit of unrest in Nabradia,” Al-Cid tossed out.

He looked down with a slight frown. Nabradia and Dalmasca were allies, the prince and princess of those kingdoms only having recently united in marriage. However, Nabradia and Rozarria had a treaty, with Rozarrian troops stationed near her borders as one line of defense and support. Harry could almost see what was going wrong, and wondered if the decision had been made with that in mind, or in ignorance of the potential outcome.

“The agents, they send back word from Nabudis. I would have you take the pulse of the usual areas.”

He breathed a slight sigh of relief. Entering Nabradia was easy enough, but his accent marked him as Archadian, despite the time he had spent in Rozarria. Al-Cid had been insistent that he maintain it, even arranging through obscure channels for Harry to have the mark of a noble in Archades so he could spend time there without much, if any, suspicion. After all, most everyone on seeing a Rozarrian merchant had but one thought: spy.

“All right. Do you want reports ongoing, or when I return?” He would have to forget about his current activities and rely on supplies he already had, plus whatever Al-Cid had arranged for his stock.

“Ongoing only if the word is urgent, Hallam. This may be but a settling in period, hey? Come when you’ve rested. I’ll have the goods and a new supply of stones for you.”

“I’ll just have to let the clan leader know I’ll be gone again,” he murmured.

“Nay, you rest. I will take care of that.” Al-Cid rose from his chair and smiled lazily, then raised two fingers in a goodbye gesture before slinking back out.

“Okay,” he muttered. “So I know it’s serious if he’s all but thrown me at a bed.” He checked the time and saw that he had several hours before he would be tired enough to sleep, so he hauled the saddlebags over to empty them out and see what he could accomplish that evening before having to give over his time toward preparing for his unscheduled trip.

The next morning he drifted through his usual routine, though skipping breakfast, and set off for his friend’s, pack slung over a shoulder carefully so as not to interfere with his staff. True, he had his gun, but that left him open to being more easily hurt, so he tended not to use it unless the clan team he was supporting had him covered, or he was certain of his game.

Al-Cid was waiting with a huge meal and another pack, and sent him off with the usual friendly words. Harry was shortly staggering to a gate crystal, under the weight both of supplies and the food in his stomach, to arrive at the Tchita Uplands, where he took the time to lure a wild chocobo into his temporary service. The trip went easily enough, the chocobo enough to ward off any creatures eyeing him as their next meal; not many monsters would dare provoke one of the feathery beasts. On arrival at Balfonheim he released the chocobo and carried on on foot, seeking a warm meal and a room at the inn. And a bath. Definitely a bath.

The next morning found him claiming an open spot among the other merchants that lined the Gallerina Marketplace, his wares an exotic lure for the people who thronged the port town. The babble of those passing through and even stopping to browse was fairly innocent, but there was an underlying current of speculation and rumor, which Harry listened carefully to, even as he shifted his merchandise and held items up so that potential customers could more easily examine them.

Archadia, so it went, was unhappy with the treaty, and was considering taking action. Harry was well aware that Archadia was as much governed by the imperial senate as the emperor, and if they had their minds set on something, could overrule the less sanguinary ruler. He found it somewhat ironic that the legacy of Dynast-King Raithwall gave rise to such aggression. Then again, that legacy was born of aggression, of Humes, so. . . .

He gathered up his things when sunset threatened and returned to the inn to relax for the night before taking an airship to Archades, where he presumed he would hear a great deal more in the way of rumors flooding the streets. He stopped briefly at his own home there, it barely a hovel in comparison to the residences of the much more powerful nobles, to refresh himself and rearrange his wares to suit the location.

Rienna was his choice, it being near both the item shop and the aerodrome, not to mention several grocers. And if he found no luck there, he could try Nilbasse instead, with the Grand Arcade a final resort. He secured his sandalwood chop to his tunic where it could be seen easily enough, and then headed out to set up.

Several customers had come and gone, each of them exclaiming over the uniqueness of his wares, when a familiar voice could be heard. Harry glanced up briefly from restocking a few items on his portable display, then smiled slightly.

“Hallam, is that you?”

“Who else would I be?” he replied. “It’s been a while. How fare you?”

Ffamran shook his head and moved in much closer to speak at barely above a whisper. “I don’t like what I’ve been hearing. And, my father. . . .”

Harry arched a brow, gaze sliding sideways to see a frustrated and concerned expression. “Still experimenting?”

“I think something is wrong,” Ffamran murmured as he picked up a curio to examine. “He’s obsessed. And, I think, with more and more voice among the more self-interested senators.”

“I see,” he spoke quietly. “I admit, I heard some disturbing rumors in Balfonheim on my way through, but those were mostly related to the senate’s reaction to the situation in Nabradia.”

“Yes, exactly. I fear something is to happen soon, and my father a part of it. More and more judge magisters have been arriving in the city. That cannot possibly be good news.” Ffamran set down the item and took another to examine. “These are really something else, by the way.”

Harry chuckled and nodded. “You know I bring out my best for Archades. Besides, you’d be upset if I had nothing out of the ordinary to tempt you with, and I should so hate to disappoint.”

“Does that mean I get a favored customer discount, Hallam?” Ffamran said with a brief, teasing smile.

He shook his head and sighed. “Why you persist. . . ?”

“All right, fine. Have dinner with me? Surely you’ll be ready to succumb to my charm after a day of plying your wares.”

“Have you any idea just how . . . indecent that sounded?” he asked, shooting a vaguely disturbed look at Ffamran. “But, since you ask so nicely, I’d be glad to. You are going to feed me properly, right?”

Ffamran smirked. “I shall return . . . around sunset?”

Harry nodded. “If you don’t see me still here, knock me up at my flat. It depends on how spendthrift people are as to whether I move around, but I’ll be sure to return home before sunset.”

Ffamran grinned and started to walk away, then paused and turned back, tossing the curio to him, which Harry snatched out of the air deftly.

Quite a few hours later and with feet tired from standing for so long, Harry was glad to be packing up. The citizenry had been rife with rumor and speculation, all of which centered around a possible invasion, something the idle rich thought was an excellent bit of excitement. And that was something he must report back.

Back at his place he dropped off his things and fetched a memstone from the supply Al-Cid had given him, and recorded his report, then made the hike to Old Archades. His hooded cloak and mark of nobility gave him protection from curious eyes and questioning lips, and he was unimpeded as he forged deeper into the run-down warrens, to eventually slip through an almost forgotten door, one that led to an unguarded gate crystal in the long abandoned Sochen Cave Palace. A useless curiosity for most denizens of Old Archades, it was very useful for him.

From there he gated to the Yensa Sandsea and pulled a mechanical bird from his pack. To that was entrusted the memstone, and it was launched into the air to deliver his report. Harry was quick enough that he was able to gate back out before the Urutan-Yensa could come to murder him for his transgressions. And he was ready and waiting by the time Ffamran knocked on his door.

And Ffamran was smiling once revealed, his earlier frustration nowhere in evidence. “A princely dinner awaits in the Grand Arcade, and after, like any leading man, I shall escort you home safely.”

He snorted in amusement. He might be better suited to supporting others with his magic than destroying enemies, but that did not mean Harry was helpless. Still, it was just how his friend was, and he rather expected that a talk of a different sort would ensue once returned. So he allowed himself to be led away after locking up, and enjoyed an overpriced and exquisitely prepared meal as Ffamran regaled him with silly tales of foolish nobles, all of whom seemed to suffer the horrible flaw of not realizing they were ever petty in the grander scheme of things.

It had been several months since he had last seen Ffamran, so there was plenty of useless gossip to absorb, and plenty of time to be spent gazing at him, taking in the changes on the man’s face. They were of an age, after all, and Harry wondered if any changes in himself were so evident as those of Ffamran were to him.

After the meal Ffamran very gallantly offered his arm and guided their relatively short journey, one which Harry was reasonably sure held no particular dangers. Except, perhaps, some of the fashions worn about town. He, of course, offered the obligatory drink, and Ffamran accepted, and they were shortly seated with glasses of a very mild brew, Harry refusing to keep anything strong in his own home, or even much of anything that could potentially befuddle his senses.

“I have missed you,” Harry finally said. “You always are so entertaining. But surely, my meager company cannot be much to hold your interest for long.”

Ffamran chuckled and shook his head. “I expected you would see through me. May I be honest?”

Harry arched a brow in mild confusion.

“I wanted your company for two reasons,” Ffamran said. “Your friendship foremost, so unlike the usual lot in this city, heads filled with useless rubbish and one-upmanship. I have always felt, damnably starry-eyed as it may sound, that you were different. I really am very concerned, Hallam, about what may come to pass and my father’s role in it. I do not know if I can bear things as they are, not for much longer.”

“Far be it from me to spout baseless speculation,” Harry said slowly, “but are your worries rooted in his work, or what that work may be doing to him?”

“Both. He is not the man he was. The distance between us grows daily, like some encroaching desert on what once was fertile land. He is obsessed, I think, driven down a road that is unclear to me and one I would not gladly follow. He seems almost mad, frequently speaking as though someone were there, but is not, like some spirit unseen. And, I fear his influence with the senate.”

Harry gnawed on his lower lip before saying, “And what of your . . . responsibilities?”

Ffamran frowned and knocked back the remainder of his drink. “That’s more hired muscle than adjudication at times. I don’t know. I guess I won’t know until I do.”

He raised his brows briefly and had another sip, wondering as he often had if Ffamran had any idea that Harry was a Rozarrian agent. There was always a sense of delicacy that surrounded their time together, but he could not determine if it was his own mind playing tricks on him. It was a staggering fact alone that Ffamran was as open as he was about those that comprised the Archadian government. If he was being used, that was perfectly all right, but he did hold some reservations in being an agent. Ffamran was one of those reservations, having become rather dear to him.

“What is the other reason?” he eventually responded.

Ffamran gazed at him and licked his lips, rather suggestively Harry thought. “If you won’t give me a discount, perhaps I should take advantage of you in another way.”

“W-what?” Surely that did not mean how it sounded.

“I have been exceptionally charming this evening, you must admit. Have I been so charming that you would not resist a kiss, Hallam?”

It did mean that. Harry stared at his friend wide-eyed, not blinking as Ffamran slowly rose and came to stand before him, then pulled Harry to his feet. He blinked finally at the serious look in his friend’s eyes. “How long?” he whispered.

“Long enough.”

Ffamran began to lean toward him, an action Harry stopped with a hasty, “Wait.”

His friend pulled back, a look of inquiry on his face.

“What is this to you?” Harry asked. He had spent himself with more than one man after his life began anew in Ivalice, but those had always been casual affairs. His friend was hardly in that category, and yet. . . ?

“I’m not sure yet,” Ffamran whispered. “But I would have it, if you would have it with me. This one night, at least.”

Just . . . one night? Ffamran was leaning in again, and this time was not denied as lips came to press against his own and hands reached up to cradle his head. Harry surrendered to his own desire, it having cunningly been stoked during dinner, with him having noticed all sorts of interesting things about his friend that heretofore had not particularly stood out. He brought his own hands up to glide over Ffamran’s back, the half full bottle he held slipping without care from his grasp.

He slid them down to tug the man’s shirt free so he could touch bare flesh, and mentally smiled at the sound of a faint groan issuing from Ffamran’s throat. His friend reacted by attacking his mouth hungrily, one hand moving to grasp the back of his neck while the other moved to return the favor. It seemed like a lifetime played out in mere minutes before they were reclining on Harry’s bed, clothing stripped away in haste.

The next morning Harry opened his eyes to sigh and stare at the ceiling. He was ruined, he thought, and how utterly laden with naïve romanticism was that? Depressingly, his day did not afford even one glimpse of Ffamran, so he carried on as usual, selling the odd curiosity and keeping his ears well open for anything of interest. It was two days after that when the gossip turned toward the theft of a prototype airship from one of the shipwright guilds.

The day following was cause for Harry to pack up his wares barely he even sold any, for word had come down that Archadia was advancing once again. Thankfully it was around noon, so his departure was nothing uncommon to other itinerant merchants, and the people were not inclined to buy when they could raise their speculations to a furious height.

And though it seemed unlikely, Harry would not risk the possibility that any of the imperials would check the traces on the gate crystals, so he did not take a direct route. Rather, he gated to the Tchita Uplands from the Sochen Cave Palace, and from there through several other of the crystals he had worked so hard to gain access to, before finally arriving in Schpariel, the imperial capital of Rozarria, so he could see Al-Cid.

“Ah, my friend, you return! Such an interesting report you sent.”

“Yes, well, I didn’t think this could wait for even the time it took for carrier. Everyone on the streets of Archades speaks of the Archadian army advancing, and there is only one place they likely go to.”

Al-Cid nodded sagely. “They are most displeased. Threatened, I say. I will inform the emperor at once. Hallam, I would have you check Bhujerba, hey? It would be useful to know of Ondore’s reaction.”

And Bhujerba sported a gate crystal so oft utilized that tracing its use would be folly. After all, not everyone could stomach the airship ride to its lofty heights. “I’ll go there directly,” he promised.

Two Years Later

His eyes scanned his teammates constantly, flicking around in a steady pattern of watchfulness, not only for their health, but to keep watch to shout warning should anything not on their agenda attempt to ambush the hunters. The Lhusu Mines were creepy enough without having to guard against any number of strange things that roamed the darkened areas carved out of solid rock. The wan light of magicite deposits could only afford so much visibility.

He prepped a spell, one of the men having taken a nasty hit, then unleashed the curative magic. Milardros straightened up immediately and tossed a smile over his shoulder before advancing on the mark again. It was another twenty minutes before the thing breathed its last.

Alfaro came over and clapped him on the back, a smile on his sweaty face. “Excellent care of us, as usual. We never fear for our lives with you to guard our health. ‘Twas a good thing you were headed to Bhujerba, hey?”

He would take that as flattery but he knew damn well it was not; he was highly sought after by teams formed within the clan for hunts. However, while his thought to visit Bhujerba was no coincidence, being accompanied by a clan team was. And who was he to say no to those who had need of him for such a dangerous task. They had taught him everything he knew about using his staff and gun, all at the behest of Al-Cid.

“I could not have said no,” he replied. “I’d be worried, in any case.”

Alfaro laughed and shook his head. “Let us go. We have no need now to linger in this darkness. Both our marks are fairly slain, and we go to claim the prestige.”

“Try to spell my name right this time?” he mock whined.

Back outside he breathed in the fresh, clean air gratefully. The miasma below was stifling, and the horrifying skeletal remnants of humanity were a nightmare best soon forgotten. How the miners could possibly stand to work in the mines. . . . “I’ll see you whenever,” he told Alfaro, then waved and jogged on ahead, intent to secure time in the bath. And, he thought with a happy sigh, an excellent meal in the household of the marquis, a man well aware of just exactly what trade Harry plied. He made good time, and was shortly in his rooms.

Sadly, every trip to Bhujerba brought forth a memory he was unfond of reliving, when Ffamran disappeared without word, and without a trace. But, the reality of now was a bath of steaming water, calling his name. He slipped in and groaned with pleasure, intent to soak for several minutes before even thinking about moving to gather up soap and cloth. At least of late he dared step foot within Rabanastre, his accent nothing so uncommon by then; the Muthru Bazaar hosted many a foreign merchant, as did Nalbina.

However, when word came of an attack on the royal palace of Rabanastre, it was time for Harry to once again do some sampling, some pulse taking. Thus, Bhujerba, the so-called autonomous city-state, which was in fact a minor puppet of Archadia’s might. Ondore was ever a man to watch, and did not scruple to make allies in secret where he must.

He emerged some time later, refreshed, and had dinner delivered, then turned in for the night, his thoughts only of sleep. The next morning he devoted to rearranging his stock, then took over one of the rooms which boasted a large surface he could work on to begin assembling stock. He was mildly surprised to see that visitors had arrived, one of whom looked astonishingly like the youngest son of Emperor Gramis. With the boy was a blond girl, who looked the elder by several years. Harry’s work must have seemed interesting, for the boy guided his companion into the room and produced a smile.

“If I may ask, what is this?” the boy asked.

“Some of my wares have to be disassembled for transport, so as to take up less room,” he answered, “and some I did not have the chance to make at all.”

“Those are beautiful,” said the girl, pointing at a collection of feathers found only within Rozarria.

“And widely sought,” he replied. “I harvest them myself to save on costs.”

The boy’s brow arched at that. Harry rather figured that he was considering the implications, but perhaps that was too much to assign to a child barely into his teens. Then again, if he was a son of House Solidor, anything was possible.

“Forgive me,” he added. “I am Hallam Laurifer.”

The boy replied, “I am Larsa, and my companion is called Penelo. Please excuse us. We will not interrupt you further.” He then guided Penelo off after a nod.

Harry heaved a silent sigh and let his fingers move automatically as he considered if this visit from Archadia was simply routine, or if there was a connection to the attack on Rabanastre. Ondore arrived not much later and paused to have a word with him.

“An imperial detachment is here.”

“I had thought so when your . . . guests arrived. Why else would a son of House Solidor walk these halls?”

Ondore nodded, then glanced at the table. “You should pack up, my friend. It is near lunch, and I would not see you waste away in toil, no matter how idly done it be.”

Lunch, as it turned out, included Larsa and Penelo at the table, and it came out that the girl had been kidnapped and brought to Bhujerba to force a sky pirate to confrontation. Ill done, of course, as according to Penelo, she had barely spent ten seconds with the man in question, named Balthier, so he had very little reason to rescue her.

“And how did you find the mines, Lord Larsa,” Ondore inquired after the conclusion of the story.

Larsa gave hint of the slightest frown before saying, “They were dark.”

“That they are,” Harry decided to say. “I was there just yesterday, and a creepier place I’ve not recently seen.”

Ondore chuckled. “Ah, but you had a rather compelling reason, did you not?”

“Only because of the clan,” he said dismissively. “The coincidence was too much for them to ignore, and had me dragged along barely I managed to even unpack.”

“Clan?” Penelo inquired. “Is that like the clan my friend Vaan belongs to?”

“I’m sure it’s similar. I’m one of their primary support mages when I’m not off being a merchant. A team happened to pick up marks here in Bhujerba, and since this was my next stop, they decided I could spare the time to keep them safe.”

Larsa arched a brow again, though the gesture was subtle. “You must see and hear much in your travels.”

Harry considered that before saying carefully, “I’ve found it quite peculiar that people tend to be inordinately chatty with people who have exotic goods. I must wonder at times if it’s due to them wishing to seem more learned about the world around them.”

“I’m more skilled with offensive magic,” Penelo stated, somewhat breaking the sudden tension in the room. “I can’t seem to get the hang of the support stuff.”

“We all have our strengths,” Harry said sagely.

“Ah, pray excuse me.” Ondore pushed away from the table and rose, walking over to the door where a servant awaited, who murmured something as soon as the marquis was close enough. Ondore turned back and said, “Lord Larsa, your cortege stands ready in the reception room to escort you to the imperial detachment.”

Larsa nodded and set aside his napkin. “Please, marquis, have someone inform them we will be there shortly.” He stood up and gestured to Penelo, then said to Harry, “It is a shame we could not talk more. I have a feeling you would be an interesting conversationalist.”

He merely inclined his head in a gesture of respect and stayed silent as Larsa guided Penelo away, though he did wonder why an emperor’s son was keeping her so close, she a daughter of Dalmasca. He also wondered if this chance meeting could somehow be extended into an advantage.

That line of contemplation was broken when Ondore approached and said, “My friend, word has arrived that someone in the city claims to be the great traitor.”

“Oh?” he said as he set his own napkin aside. “Who would dare claim such?”

“Come, we go to my office,” Ondore replied, and once there and settled in said, “You have heard, I expect, that an attack was made on Consul Vayne by the resistance in Rabanastre.”

“Yes, of course. The streets buzz with it.”

“I suspect we may be playing host to some part of that resistance,” Ondore explained. “It may be that I will see fit to give them audience. But you, my friend, for you I have a question.”

Harry furrowed his brow, then nodded.

“I must needs play a perilous role in the world of today, as you know. Autonomous and neutral Bhujerba must appear to be, but you know that is not entirely so. Should the resistance of Dalmasca be here, I would be given little choice with the watchful eyes of the imperials at hand.”

“You mean you’d turn them over to keep people from looking more closely at your own resistance. Word was that several were tossed into the Nalbina dungeons.”

“Correct.”

“What does this have to do with me?”

“I could mistakenly turn you over with them.”

Harry blinked a few times and reached up to massage his temple. “I suppose I don’t need to point out that I could end up dead? I think I understand where you’re going with this, but. . . .”

“Yes, you could be another bridge, my friend, between myself and the Dalmascan resistance, as you already are between myself and Rozarria. It is up to you if you wish to take the risk for a chance to become something of an influence among those people, or at least an ear.”

“I . . . need to think on this,” he said as he stood. “I think I’ll take a walk.”

Ondore nodded. “Do not dally overlong, for should you decide so, you must be here. And, it may be that this claimant is naught but a contentious fool.”

Harry left, quickly making his way to his room to record a report, then headed for the aerodrome so he could gate out long enough to send it to Al-Cid. After that he walked rather slowly about the city, wondering if the risk was too great, and there was little chance he would receive counsel from Al-Cid in time, not that he really expected any. A murmured conversation with one of the Sainikah revealed that Ondore’s people were having a little ‘chat’ with the claimant and his friends, which decided Harry on returning to the estate.

He was headed toward Travica Way when a familiar voice caused him to freeze in disbelief; a cautious look back over his shoulder was enough to make his mouth drop open. There, alive and well, was the missing Ffamran, accompanied by a Viera and two male Humes.

Ffamran must have sensed the intent gaze, for he looked up. A smile blossomed as he quickly strode forward. “Hallam!” Ffamran grasped his forearm in greeting and pulled him close, then whispered in his ear, “I am called Balthier now.”

Harry nodded somewhat dazedly as his friend released him. “Balthier.”

“I have missed you. You always seemed to be elsewhere whenever I stopped in at one of your usual haunts,” Balthier stated. “Rather frustrating, I must say.” On Harry’s glance at the others Balthier promptly said, “Ah, yes. Hallam, with me is Fran, my partner. She helps maintain and co-pilot my airship. The younger is Vaan—”

“Vaan?” he interrupted unthinkingly. “Penelo’s Vaan?”

“Hey! You know her!?” Vaan looked excited and concerned.

And having made the mistake of showing more knowledge than he ought—probably due to his wits being scattered, though that was no excuse—Harry equivocated. “She was walking with an Archadian boy. I happened to learn her name, and yours. And, something about a kidnapping?”

“Listen,” Balthier said smoothly. “We’ve someplace to be, I’m afraid. Would you . . . care to accompany us?”

Harry eyed his friend speculatively, then nodded. “For a bit, at least. I admit, I am most curious about that airship you mentioned,” he said rather edgily.

Balthier winced faintly. “Then let us go.” He slung an arm around Harry’s shoulders and guided him along, taking him exactly where he had been headed in the first place. “I apologize,” he whispered as they approached the Sainikah guarding the entrance to Ondore’s estate, then requested admittance, which was granted.

Harry was by then almost convinced that his friend was mixed up with the Dalmascan resistance. He knew the name Balthier, a sky pirate of some distinction, and sky pirates had rare reason to consort with rulers. “Even a note under the door would have been nice, not a two year long silence,” he said for Balthier’s ears only.

“It was a last minute decision,” Balthier whispered back. “I had to take the chance or lose it forever. I regret that I’ve hurt you.”

“So it was you—the thief. You left because of. . . .”

He received no answer, for that was when they reached Ondore’s office and were ushered inside. Surprise flitted across Ondore’s face as he saw Harry among the group, but was masked with alacrity. He was seated behind his overlarge desk, one of his aides standing beside him. “Sir Basch Fon Ronsenburg,” Ondore said. “It was not so very long ago that I announced you had been executed.”

Harry looked sidelong at the previously unnamed man, then at Balthier. How nice to know his suspicions were correct. At least he would be in good company.

“And that is the only reason I draw breath,” Basch said in reply.

There was a brief pause, Ondore leaning forward to place his arms on the desk and clasp his hands together. Harry managed to catch the man’s eye and give a tiny nod, which was returned, so he assumed he had adequately expressed his acceptance. Ondore then said, “So you are the sword he’s strung above my head. Vayne has left not a thing to chance. And?”

“A leader of the resistance has fallen into imperial hands. A woman by the name of Amalia. I would rescue her, but I need your help,” Basch said.

Ondore sat back again before saying, “This resistance leader—this Amalia. She must be very important.”

Basch bowed slightly, his right arm coming up to cross his chest, a gesture that left Harry somewhat puzzled.

The marquis stood and began to move around his desk, using his cane for support. “You understand I’ve my position to consider,” he began, but was interrupted when Vaan stepped forward quickly.

“Would you let us see Larsa? He’s got my friend with him.”

Ondore turned slowly toward Vaan, bringing his cane before him and folding his hands atop it. “I’m afraid you’re too late. Lord Larsa’s cortege has already rejoined the imperial detachment. I am told they will depart for Rabanastre upon the arrival of the fleet this eventide.”

Vaan released a frustrated sigh and looked away in defeat, then jerked and moved closer to the massive windows that spanned the back wall of the office. All attention was taken up by the sight of an imperial fleet approaching the city. Of more worry were the small craft detaching themselves from the flagship and speeding toward Bhujerba.

Vaan reacted by backing up quickly, stopped by the steady hand of Balthier, and said, “What are we waiting for!?”

‘To flee?’ Harry wondered. ‘Or to assume their captured leader is on board one of those ships, and to infiltrate? Or, of course, the location of his missing friend.’

“For you to calm down,” Balthier responded, hand still on Vaan’s arm.

“Captain Ronsenburg.” Ondore turned from the windows to face Basch again, hands back on his cane. “Surely the exigencies of position are not lost to you. Why indeed, you should find the enemy’s chains . . . an easy burden to bear.”

A glance at Basch’s face show that he understood very well what Ondore was implying, and offering. Balthier released Vaan and stepped toward Basch, one hand outreached. “Wait!”

Basch looked over his shoulder and said, “Sorry. Can’t be helped.” He then drew his sword and faced Ondore, who reacted by tapping his cane sharply on the floor.

“Summon the guard!” Ondore ordered, his aide moving quickly to open the doors to admit a number of men. And as they were overwhelmed by numbers and taken into custody Ondore ordered, “They’re to be taken to Judge Ghis.”

Harry did not put up more than a token resistance, and stayed as near to Balthier as he could as they were cuffed and hustled off to the aerodrome for transport to the fleet. He was, however, rather shocked that no one bothered to seize their weapons. It seemed they placed much trust in their equipment, and not enough in the ingenuity of others.

Eventually they arrived at a control room of some sort, and Harry had not had any chance to speak with Balthier, much to his frustration; their guards had silenced every attempt by any of them at speech.

“The prisoners, my lord,” said their escort, his voice hollow due to his armor.

Up ahead could be seen a number of imperials, one of which must be Judge Ghis, and also . . . a woman. She half turned to look, then fully, and gasped, her expression turning to one of anger. As their group approached she moved to meet them.

“Majesty—” Basch got out before she came close enough to slap him across the face.

“After what you’ve done! How dare you!” she cried angrily, arm across her body like a ward. Her voice dropped, almost to a growl. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

The judge, presumably Ghis, began to walk toward them slowly, saying, “Come now, come now. Have you forgotten your manners?” The woman backed down as he continued, “This is hardly the courtesy due . . . the late Princess Ashelia B’nargin Dalmasca.”

Vaan stepped forward to blurt out, “Princess?”

Harry realized that the only person who had recognized her was Basch, for Balthier exchanged a surprised look with Fran. Even he had not, never having had the opportunity with his avoidance of Rabanastre prior to her alleged death.

Ghis came closer still, drifting to a stop next to the princess. “To be sure, she bears no proof of her former station. No different than any mean member of the insurgence.”

Ashelia’s head jerked slightly to the side. “The resistance,” she said edgily, and returned to holding something like a staring contest with Basch.

Now, to Harry’s mind, either the alleged king-slayer Basch had a very seriously skewed set of priorities, or he had been framed for the crime and remained ever true to the throne of Dalmasca. Either way, it was clear that the princess believed him traitor.

“His excellency the consul asks the ministry of the disenthroned royal family in restoring peace to Dalmasca,” Ghis continued. “Those who foster instability and unrest, who claim royal blood without proof . . . they shall meet their fate at the gallows. There are no exceptions.”

Ashelia quickly turned her head toward the judge, determination writ on her face. “I will not play puppet to Vayne.”

“King Raminas entrusted me with a task,” Basch said evenly, causing the princess to slowly face him again. “Should the time come, he bade me give you something of great importance.” He lifted his chin and continued, “It is your birthright: the Dusk Shard.” Basch then turned his head toward Ghis. “It will warrant the quality of her blood. Only I know where to find it.”

“Wait. You took my father’s life! Why spare mine now?” Ashelia protested, hand coming up to her chest, though she dropped it just as quickly, her expression changing to that of anger. “You would have me live in shame!”

“If that is your duty: yes.”

The princess gasped as though she had been slapped in return.

Harry edged closer to Balthier as Vaan stepped forward and said impatiently, “Stop being so stubborn! Keep on like this and you’re gonna get us all killed!”

“Don’t interrupt,” Ashelia snapped at him, then gasped.

Harry’s attention was caught by a glow emanating from Vaan’s pocket, and watched in fascination as the blond awkwardly reached down to retrieve something that resembled magicite. Harry circled around cautiously, in the process getting even closer to Balthier, and so he could see things more clearly.

“Vaan, that stone!” Basch said.

Vaan seemed a bit sheepish and would not meet the eyes of anyone. “It was in the palace treasure,” he muttered.

“Well, well,” Balthier said, his tone one of mild chagrin, and shifted to stand shoulder to shoulder with Harry, Fran moving up to Balthier’s other side.

Ghis laughed heartily. “Splendid! You’ve brought the stone with you! This spares us a great deal of trouble.”

The princess darted forward but was immediately restrained by an armored hand on her shoulder. “Don’t give it to him!” she nevertheless ordered Vaan.

Vaan shifted, obviously indecisive, then looked sideways toward Balthier, who shrugged lightly and nodded. Vaan turned back to Ghis and extended the stone toward him, saying, “You have to promise: no executions.”

Ghis took the stone and stepped back. “A judge’s duty is to the law.”

Ghis slowly walked back toward the other end of the room, Ashelia struggling to no avail against the soldier’s restraining hand, and said, “Take them away. Lady Ashe is to be quartered separately.”

Ashe sighed, her face and posture expressing resignation and defeat, and allowed herself to be guided away. Harry did not resist when they were herded toward the door, the soldiers with Ashelia taking a different exit, though Vaan practically had to be picked up and turned around to get him moving.

They eventually ended up in a corridor leading back to where they’d been brought on board, leading Harry to assume they would be transported to a smaller ship, where it would be that much safer, them being so far separate from the princess.

Basch glanced sideways at Vaan and said, “So you were carrying it all along. The fates jest.”

Vaan simply sighed.

Balthier snorted softly. “Tell those fates of yours to leave me out.”

“Keep quiet,” barked a soldier escorting them.

“There was nothing else that I could do,” Basch tossed over his shoulder. “You know that.”

“Oh, I understand that. Honor, duty, and all that,” Balthier replied almost mockingly. “Hmph. I still can’t believe that was the princess.”

“I said keep quiet,” shouted the same soldier, bringing his spear up to strike.

Balthier evaded nicely and was fast enough to grab the weapon, stopping the soldier and allowing Basch the opportunity to bludgeon the man from behind with his shackles and knock him to the floor. A second later Fran knocked out another with a swift kick. A strangled sound made them all turn to see one bearing black armor holding another up off the floor, then casting him aside unconscious. The so far helpful fellow then removed his helm and set it at his side.

Basch immediately strode forward. “The marquis has been busy.”

“Not lightly did I beg his aid,” said the man, stepping closer to Basch. “Listen, it has been a full two years. I alone have kept her majesty safely hidden.” He reached out and released Basch from his shackles as he said, “I doubted friend and foe alike. I could trust nobody.”

And while he had been speaking, Balthier had been busy using a thin piece of oddly-shaped metal to free himself from his shackles as Fran did the same for herself. Balthier then helped Harry as Fran assisted Vaan, and Harry could not help but smile when his friend’s fingers lingered over his skin for a few moments more than necessary.

Basch massaged his wrists and said, “You did your duty. And mine for me.”

“I’m getting her out,” was the response. “I need your help.”

“Of course.”

Basch headed off with the stranger, the group following, giving Harry an opportunity to fix a little matter of ignorance. “Who is that?” he whispered to Balthier.

“Captain Vossler Azelas, a member of the Dalmascan resistance, formerly of their army. Though how he managed to get aboard. . . . And my company does not seem to have boded well for you.”

Harry shook his head. “I don’t care about that. And I can help, you know that.”

“Offering your services as a mage, are we? Or, something else?”

“I see you’ve not changed. Still the scandalous phraseology,” he said with fond irritation. “To hear you speak, you’ve unfinished business.”

Balthier chanced a look at him, brief because they were all moving quickly. “I do at that. I would . . . gladly have your company.”

Harry chose to interpret that for dual meaning, then went on alert as he spied soldiers up ahead. He quickly began casting spells to aid the party, to make them more resistant to attack, physical or magical. Balthier flashed him a grin and took aim with his gun, then shot, hitting one of the soldiers right through the faceplate of his helmet.

Fran used a bow and also stayed well back, while the remaining three moved in to fight at close range, they wielding swords. The clash of metal rang in his ears, a not unfamiliar sound, and he kept scanning, ready to cast again to heal if necessary, and taking the occasional shot himself. It was over in minutes, thankfully, and Vossler took off again, leading them onward.

Harry opted to resume the conversation with, “To have? And do you know what this is yet?”

“I believe so.” Balthier’s tone was confident. “But do you?”

He refused to answer that directly. “I missed you.”

“Then I think we’re agreed,” Balthier said with a smirk.

Vossler paused by a door, waiting for everyone to catch up. “It should be the central brig in here, and within that the cells.”

Harry started casting almost before the man had finished speaking, preparing for a not unlikely fight with guards. Even so, he had to wonder, did Ondore have ship designs smuggled from somewhere to share? Or had Vossler done some investigating before he had come to their aid. Harry nodded absently as the others thanked him for the additional protection, then followed as Vossler triggered the doors to open and led them inside.

Halfway across the gargantuan room the three soldiers at the other end noticed them and began to advance. The leader, dressed not so dissimilar to Ghis, said, “Fear not their numbers! Take down the leaders, and the others will follow!”

Clanking behind revealed that another judge and two soldiers had moved in to bracket them. Harry swore under his breath and swung his staff around, fearful to use his gun and risk not being able to block any of those swords coming toward him.

Balthier held no such reservations and was already shooting, Fran standing at his side with bowstring twanging, while the swordsmen made for the first trio of soldiers. Harry debated what to do, then swore again as he realized one of the soldiers was a mage. He quickly prepped Flare and cast it at the mage, sighing in relief when it went down like lead. After that he backed up and switched to his gun, taking careful shots to help the others, and healing as necessary.

When it was over Basch searched the fallen roughly and came up with a key to the cells, which was promptly used. Inside were six cells, one of which contained two moogles. Harry stopped to talk to them while Basch checked the other cells, finding out that one of the creatures was a merchant before the two of them scurried off.

The princess was there in another. Harry waited at the door with Balthier and Fran to keep an eye on the entrance while Vossler approached Ashe, who had jumped up from her seat on a cot.

“You are unharmed,” Vossler said.

“Vossler! I—” She lurched to the side, causing Vossler to grab her shoulders and steady her. After scanning her quickly Harry determined she was in fact all right, and probably just dizzy.

“Majesty!”

“It’s nothing,” she said dismissively. “I’ll be fine.”

Basch moved closer, and stopped when Ashe huffed in anger. “You,” she snarled.

Vaan, who Harry was beginning to think was a very impatient sort, said, “Come on, come on! Let’s go! What are you waiting for? Penelo’s still out there!”

Balthier checked the entrance again, then said, “We should hurry. They won’t be long.”

“We will talk later,” Vossler declared, to which the princess nodded. He handed her a sword before waving her out, as she had been disarmed. Harry had to assume they had not wanted to leave her so easy a path to suicide.

An alarm began sounding just as they exited the cell area, prompting Basch to declare, “Majesty. We will cut you a path.”

Ashe rounded on him and gestured angrily. “I will not place my trust in the sword of a traitor!”

“Yet trust his sword we must,” Vossler said calmly, gaining her attention, “traitor or no.” She looked down as he continued, “We must track back, commandeer a ship, and make our escape.”

Ashe huffed again and headed off, not waiting for anyone to ‘cut a path’ for her.

They were almost back to the launch area when two unarmored people ran across their path in one of the larger junction rooms. Everyone stopped to assess the situation, then stepped back in surprise. The two in question were Lord Larsa and Penelo.

Penelo had, Harry thought, the most peculiar expression on her face. Sad, and yet. . . . “Vaan!” She rushed toward her friend to hug him.

Larsa moved toward Ashe, sparing Harry an arched brow, and said, “Ghis knows you’ve escaped. You must hurry.” To Vossler, standing at her side, he said, “You are Captain Azelas. You will follow me. We must reach the airships before they do.”

‘How does he know the name?’

“You would let us leave knowing who we are?” Vossler asked incredulously.

Larsa turned back to Ashe and said, “Lady Ashe. By all rights you ought not even to exist. That you and Captain Ronsenburg were made to appear dead . . . is like a hidden thread laid bare. Your actions hereafter will pull at that thread, and we will see what it unravels. This is our chance. We must see this through, and get to the bottom of it. I believe ‘tis for the good of Dalmasca, and the good of the empire.”

Ashe stared at the boy intently for some few seconds before saying, “Very well, then.”

“Thanks,” came the sarcastic voice of Vaan, “Lamont.”

Larsa quickly turned to face the blond, seeming rather sheepish. “Uh, I must apologize,” he said, then approached Penelo, holding out a faceted, egg-shaped, glowing blue stone. “Penelo, for you. May it bring you good fortune.”

“Thanks,” she said as she accepted it.

“Let us go,” Larsa said to Vossler, then departed with him.

And while they continued on their way to the launch area, Harry had to wonder why, if Larsa was so keen to reach the airships, he had headed in the opposite direction.

There again, it was quickly noticed that Ghis was awaiting them, standing halfway along the walkway. He began moving toward them slowly. “Such a great shame. I must confess: I thought you were the one who would help us restore peace to Dalmasca,” he said, clearly speaking to the princess, then moved his head in such a way as to make them look back.

A contingent of soldiers was headed their way at a full run.

“No matter,” Ghis continued as he came to a stop almost on the platform. “We hold proof of your royal lineage. A maid of passing resemblance will serve our purposes now.” He lifted his right hand, a swirling mass of red light forming above it. “As for you, my dear. . . .”

Ghis released the light, casting it above their heads where it expanded into a whirling vortex of flame. “The empire requires you no more!” He gestured again, the vortex exploding and raining down upon them. However, a blue light arose, somehow absorbing the attack, causing Ghis to growl in frustration.

Penelo fetched out the stone Larsa had gifted her. “What was that?”

“The nethicite,” Balthier said shortly.

Ashe looked away sharply from the glowing stone and darted toward Ghis, coming to a stop at the edge of the walkway.

“Your majesty does not disappoint!” Ghis said. “Ever quick to spurn an honorable surrender, as was your father.” He readied his weapons and began to advance.

“You know nothing of my father,” Ashe shouted, slashing a hand down in negation, then brandished the sword Vossler had given her.

Harry sighed and backed out of the direct line of danger, then began scanning to see who needed his support. He stuck to the door end of the room, expecting those soldiers to be less dangerous than Ghis, and therefore likely to be taken down earlier.

And he was correct, though his services were required, especially once Ghis got within range. The judge was not only capable of casting air-based magic, but could also inflict blindness, so Harry was kept busy healing and dispelling negative effects as the others fought to take Ghis down.

After a time Ghis staggered back, his body hunched over either in great pain or exhaustion. His helmet was ripped off and tossed to the ground, revealing an older man with iron-grey hair, and Ghis raised a hand to rest against his face. Before anyone could decide to act, Ghis looked up sharply toward the doors.

Vossler was approaching at a run, not breaking stride until he had made it just inside the doors. “We’ve secured an atomos. Come!” he shouted, motioning with one hand.

“An atomos?” Balthier said disdainfully as he ran toward the doors. “All skiff, no ship. Hardly fit for a leading man.”

Another hard run through hallways and rooms Harry had seen too much of brought them to the ship. Fran slung herself into one of the front seats and began the start-up sequence, Penelo hovering nearby and asking anxiously, “Can’t we go any faster?”

“Not yet,” Fran replied, then shifted as the ship launched straight into innumerable enemy craft, large and small, many of which were headed right for them.

Everyone hastily followed suit, ducking behind whatever was handy, until Ashe peered over the edge of the console and said, “They passed.”

“Any faster,” Fran said, “and they’d have noticed.”

“Well,” Balthier offered, “we can be grateful that the fleet is far enough away from Bhujerba to not likely notice when we head there.”

“Oh!” Penelo said, suddenly searching her pocket. She looked up again with a folded square of fabric in hand and held it out to Balthier. “Your handkerchief. I thought you might want it back.”

Balthier accepted it, bringing his hand up to his chest as he bowed a gallant thanks, causing Penelo’s expression to turn rather insipid. “I shall wear it close to my heart.”

Harry looked away in vague irritation. Toward the back stood Ashe, Vossler, and Basch in a triangle, and he was close enough to hear their speech.

“Perhaps you forget all that Ondore has wrought,” Ashe was saying to Basch.

“I do not forget,” Basch denied. “Majesty, it was by his counsel, dangerous thought it may have been, that we were able to free you. You must meet with him, your highness, and give ear to his words. He may act in league with the empire, but his heart is not.”

“It is as he says,” Vossler affirmed, briefly resting a hand on one hip. “I ought not have kept Ondore at so great a distance for so long a time. I have played the fool!”

“You were only being cautious,” Ashe said evenly.

“Majesty, I would ask you for some time,” Vossler said. “On our own, we struggle in vain to restore Dalmasca. I must search out some other way. Until I should find it, I would have Basch remain at your side. Doubt him you may, but I measure his loyalty to Dalmasca no less than my own.”

He seemed to have great influence on the princess, for Ashe clasped her hands together and replied, “I know you would not speak so lightly.”

To Basch Vossler said, “Keep her well. Go to Ondore, and there await my return.”