Grazhir :: Crossover :: Persequor :: 02 :: Viaticus

02 • Viaticus

They arrived in Bhujerba as the sun was setting, at which point Vossler left them. And to Ondore’s they went, gaining entrance easily enough after speaking with one of the Sainikah guards. It seemed that Ondore had left word to admit them should they show up again.

Ondore awaited them in his office, once again seated. He said nothing as Ashe walked the length of the desk, Basch, Vaan, and Penelo trailing her. When she got within easy speaking distance she briefly recounted the events on the Leviathan, then said, “When Vossler learned my father had been killed . . . the night of the treaty signing, he returned to Rabanastre to aid my escape. There was still time before Vayne’s reach extended too far. We thought that you could protect me.”

Harry followed Balthier and Fran along the opposite side, stopping halfway down when Ondore decided to speak. “However, when I then made the announcement that you had taken your own life . . . I must have seemed a model citizen of the empire.”

Ashe slowly inclined her head in acknowledgment.

“The announcement, you see, was Vayne’s suggestion. Of course, at the time I was reluctant, but I could not perceive his reasons. Now it is clear: he meant to drive a wedge between us.”

Ashe looked up quickly. “Halim, we are past all this. Bhujerba must stand with us. We can stop Vayne.”

Ondore heaved a sigh and rose slowly, then stared at Ashe for a time. “I once knew a girl whose only wish . . . was to be carried in her uncle’s arms,” he said as he began to walk toward the windows at the side of the room. “Your majesty is a grown woman now.”

“Then Bhujerba will aid me?” Ashe asked hopefully.

Ondore reached the windows and stopped, clasping his hands behind him. “Suppose for a moment you were to defeat Vayne. What then? You cannot simply rebuild your kingdom with the only proof of your birthright stolen. Without that, the Gran Kiltias on Bur-Omisace cannot and will not recognize you as the rightful heir.”

He turned to her, then continued, “You may yet be a princess, but without proof of your identity, you are powerless. You will remain with me. We do nothing until the time is right.”

“I cannot just wait!” she objected fiercely.

“Then what does your majesty propose we do?” Ondore asked reasonably.

She huffed in disbelief. “Uncle Halim—!”

Balthier, ever the jester, inquired, “Incidentally, what is the going rate for rescuing princesses these days?”

Ashe shook her head slowly and turned from her uncle, starting a measured walk toward the doors.

“Food would be a start,” Balthier continued as he sat on the edge of the desk. “The good stuff, mind you.”

Ondore responded, the corner of his mouth quirked, “This can be arranged, though it will take some time.”

“Time enough for a bath, I hope. Dirty business, you know. Ah, best bring a change of clothes, too.” Balthier slipped off the desk as Ondore murmured to his aide.

Shortly, they had all been shown to guest quarters (though Harry used his own), and availed themselves of the amenities before assembling for a meal. Ashe, it seemed, was taking dinner in her room.

The conversation was pleasantly light until Ondore gazed at Harry and said, “Ah, Hallam, I must apologize. The guard are ever enthusiastic. I trust you took no harm.”

“I’m fine,” he replied automatically.

Balthier gave him a funny look, and Penelo said, “That’s right. You were here before.”

That made Vaan look at him oddly, as well. “Walking, huh?”

Harry shrugged. “I am more accustomed to listening than speaking,” he said vaguely.

Balthier reached up to rest a hand on his shoulder and said, “Enough of that. I want to know if you’ve anything special with you this time.”

“You two know each other?” Vaan asked, his eyes flicking briefly toward Ondore.

Harry ignored that and turned to face Balthier, brow arched. “You’ll not ask for a discount again. And you’ll simply have to wait and see.”

“Oh,” Penelo said sadly. “You must not have had a chance to finish your work. Those feathers were so beautiful.”

Vaan frowned and quickly engaged her in hushed conversation, keeping her attention on him. Because he felt threatened, or distrusted Harry, Harry was unsure.

Balthier, on the other hand, had gained a certain gleam in his eyes. “You’ll show me?”

Harry flirted his brows up briefly, then nodded. After dinner he and Balthier retired to his room for a long overdue talk. “So you stole an airship and fled Archades.”

“And became a sky pirate, yes. So tell me, Hallam, what brought you to Bhujerba?”

“I don’t understand.”

Balthier arched a mocking brow. “Don’t be so coy.”

Harry shook his head. “You’re well aware this is a regular stop on my route.”

Balthier’s expression went chilly. “That is less than acceptable. You know many of my secrets, and I would have something more concrete between us than suspicion.”

He heaved a sigh and dropped down onto the window seat. “Suspicion?”

Balthier crossed his arms. “You are no mere merchant.”

“I would not have you think I betrayed your trust,” he replied rather lamely.

His friend laughed at that, regaining his usual warmth. “Hallam, I have long suspected you were an agent for someone, though Dalmasca or Rozarria I could not decide. We were and are friends, yes? But do you think I’d have been quite so open had I not thought it would alert others to the depredations of my people? Those actions I could not abide, so much so that I ended up fleeing?”

His mouth opened to speak, then closed, and he heaved another sigh. The worst that could happen was that Balthier would shut him out of his life, and he did not seem inclined to do so. “Rozarria. I’m an agent for a son of House Margrace.”

“Ah. You seem to have more than one friend in high places,” Balthier said, gesturing at the room.

Harry shook his head again. “I assure you, making the acquaintance of the marquis was pure coincidence. One of his people apparently bought something from my wares and showed it to Ondore, who was curious enough for some reason to extend an invitation. He proved to be quite a wily man, and quickly enough realized I was not quite what I presented myself as.”

Balthier arched a brow and began pacing the room rather aimlessly. “Then would I be right in assuming that it was no accident you were captured with us?”

“Yes. Ondore had word that members of the resistance might truly be in the city, and knew he might be placed into a position where he must hand them over to the imperials. He asked me if I wished to be included. I had to think about that, so I took a walk in the city. It’s not like I’m helpless, but the potential for great danger or even death was much, and for what? I was headed back to the estate when I ran into you.”

Balthier paused to say, “And that decided you?”

“Yes. Are you . . . going to expose me to the others?”

Balthier snorted. “I think not. After all, they are unaware but for Fran that I used to be a judge. Besides, I’m sure Rozarria has as much interest in Dalmasca as the princess does, however self-serving that may be. So long as Dalmasca is in contention, Archadia must focus there, and may stave off looking beyond. And from what I understand, House Margrace has been working to limit their military’s power and restrict the scope of their authority.”

Harry nodded slightly, feeling a great deal of relief, though mainly because they had not so many secrets between them. Somehow, he did not think Al-Cid would be upset, any more than he had been when informed that Ondore had figured things out.

Balthier approached him with that gleam in his eyes again, prompting Harry to slowly stand in anticipation. His friend had just reached out toward him when a knock sounded at the door, causing Balthier to swear and quickly stride to it and pull it open. “Yes?”

Basch was there, looking concerned. “Have you seen Lady Ashe? She is not in her room, and I have not been able to locate her. Nor Vaan.”

“I wonder. . . . The princess was most unhappy about the idea of being made to remain here,” Balthier said, then reached into one of the pouches strapped to his thighs, taking from it a device, as Harry approached to appease his curiosity.

Balthier thumbed a switch and pressed a few buttons, then studied the tiny screen. A few moments later he chuckled and hit several more buttons, then said, “It seems your princess is on the Strahl, quite possibly with the intent to steal her. She’s locked down, so she’s not going anywhere. Vaan may have noticed her leaving and followed. Basch, gather the others and come to the aerodrome. We’ll go on ahead.”

Basch nodded and disappeared down the hallway, so Harry quickly gathered up his things and followed Balthier. The hurried walk along the approach to the aerodrome was rather creepy at night with so little light to guide their way. Balthier put a finger to his lips as they boarded and pointed to a spot Harry could leave his things for the moment, then crept off down the narrow corridor.

As they approached what he assumed would be the cockpit, voices could be heard, male and female, and Balthier paused to fetch out a different device and conceal himself close to the open entrance.

“Are you crazy?” Vaan could be heard asking.

“This is something that I have to do! For myself and all those who have fallen. I will not be made to hide!” Ashe huffed, then continued, “I’ll fight alone, if I must.”

“You still have Basch, right? Besides, you can’t just go around stealing people’s ships. What are you trying to do?”

“I’m trying to concentrate!” she snapped.

Balthier raised the device and thumbed a switch, then said, “That’s quite enough, your majesty.”

Harry was surprised, for Balthier’s voice was that of Ondore.

Balthier stepped out of concealment, into the doorway. “What do you think? A bit over the top?” he asked still using Ondore’s voice, then thumbed the device off. “In my line of work, you never know when something like this might come in handy.” He switched it on again long enough to mimic Ashe’s last words, with her voice. “I’m trying to concentrate!”

Harry could hear an inarticulate sound of frustration as Balthier walked into the cockpit. He moved in for a better view as Balthier said, “I’m leaving you with the marquis.”

“You can’t,” Ashe replied, shocked.

“Trust me,” Balthier said, turning back toward the door, “you’re better off staying here.”

She sighed. “Suppose you kidnapped me instead?”

Balthier paused, angling his head back slightly.

“You’re a sky pirate, aren’t you?” she said almost mockingly. “Then steal me. Is that so much to ask?”

“What do you have that I would want?”

“The Dynast-King’s treasure,” she said promptly. “The Dawn Shard is but one of the riches that lie waiting in King Raithwall’s Tomb.”

Balthier turned around and whistled. “King Raithwall, you say?”

Harry stepped back to give an arriving Basch room to advance into the cockpit, then looked back down the corridor to see that Fran and Penelo were not far behind.

“Kidnapping royalty is a serious offense,” Basch said to Balthier. “It won’t do much to lower the bounty on your head.”

Balthier’s tone was amused when he replied, “How much is the price on your head these days, I wonder?”

“Allow me to escort you in Vossler’s place,” Basch said to the princess.

Ashe gave a slight nod as the two females finally caught up, and Fran inquired, “Will you be joining us?”

Vaan took a seat on the arm of one of the seats and slung his arm over the back. “What, are you kidding? I don’t wanna stick around this place.”

Penelo darted through the door and dropped into a seat, grasping the arms tightly. “Then I’m coming, too!”

“Penelo?” Vaan seemed confused by her pronouncement.

“Don’t leave me here,” she said worriedly.

“Of course not,” Vaan replied with a sigh.

“Then it’s settled,” Fran said, moving into the doorway and placing a hand on the frame. “We should leave before the marquis realizes she’s missing. Like proper kidnappers.”

Fran seemed able to pilot the Strahl solo, so Harry nudged Balthier and motioned him back through the door. “Is there someplace I can stow my things?”

Balthier nodded and took the lead down the corridor, Harry retrieving his packs along the way, and guided him to a section of the airship hosting the cabins. “A choice, my dear Hallam. You can share with me, or take a berth.”

“Then should I assume that Fran’s your partner in a platonic sense?” he asked, unable to keep the edge from his voice, and hating himself for it.

Balthier smirked and pulled him into the nearby cabin, shutting the door behind. “Platonic, I assure you. She is a good friend and ally.”

Harry sighed and dropped his things in a corner. “I’m sorry.”

Balthier grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. “Jealousy does not become you. Yet, I am the one who vanished after that—dare I say it—magical night, and the one who should apologize. I mean it, Hallam. I’m sorry I hurt you. I would not do so again, as these two years have shown me how dear you are.”

Harry nodded and tried to let go of his irritation. There had been no promises, after all. “Tell me, just exactly how did you get involved in all this?”

Balthier grinned rather naughtily. “Ah, well, Fran and I decided to invade the royal palace at Rabanastre seeking treasure. As it so happened, Vaan had also that idea, and we encountered him in the treasury, him having already obtained that stone.”

“So you tried to take it?” he asked.

“Yes, but Vaan fled. We gave chase, of course, and that was when all hell broke loose, Vayne clashing with the resistance. The night of the consul’s fete was very exciting.” Balthier smirked. “To make a long story short, we ended up in the waterway beneath the city, where we encountered ‘Amalia’, and she joined us for a time, having been separated from her group. On exiting into Lowtown we were captured by the imperials, Amalia taken away, and Vaan, Fran, and I dumped in the dungeons of Nalbina.”

“Oh,” he breathed, remembering that tidbit from earlier. “You obviously escaped. Where does Basch come in, then? Was he down there also?”

“In Nalbina, yes. I can’t say that I necessarily believed his story, but he seemed very determined. How often do you hear tales of one brother betraying his twin, hm?” Balthier went on to recount events and caught Harry up, then said, “And that’s when you stumbled over us.”

“Then I must believe you’ve continued because every step along this path leads to opposition of Archadia. More specifically, the senate, Vayne, and your father.”

“Exactly so. And now that’s out of the way. . . .” Balthier pulled him in close and kissed him. “It has been too long,” he murmured, then pushed Harry back until he was pressed against a wall.

He groaned when Balthier began grinding against him insistently and captured his lips a second time, his own hands finding a place on his lover’s hips as Balthier braced his forearms against the wall to either side of Harry’s head. ‘Oh god,’ he thought as they indulged in the base act of frottage, his rising desire quickly taking over reason.

Balthier released his mouth to attack his neck instead, occasionally murmuring, “I missed you so.”

Harry struggled for breath, not the least denying his body’s primal instincts, and indeed surrendering to them, until he began to shudder in blissful climax, bringing up a fist to stifle his cries of pleasure. And when he began to calm Balthier reclaimed his mouth briefly, then pulled back enough for them to meet gazes.

“You are delightfully debauched, my dear Hallam,” Balthier said teasingly.

He tried to work up irritation over the rapidly cooling stickiness in his trousers and failed, feeling far too sated. Balthier kissed him again, then stepped away, yanking on a handle nearby to reveal a storage space filled with clothing.

Harry crouched down to rummage in one of his packs for spares and then to change, also making use of the small sink tucked into a wall niche. Once refreshed he gazed at Balthier and smiled faintly. “I’ll share with you, thanks.”

Balthier slung an arm around his shoulders and said, “What say we go make sure the others haven’t gotten into trouble. Vaan is ever curious, and aspires to be a sky pirate himself. I can only hope he has not induced Fran to maim him due to endless questions.”

Harry grinned and nodded, and let himself be led back to the cockpit. Time enough later to get a better feel for the layout of the airship. As it turned out, Vaan was still among the living, though he was hovering over the control systems.

“How do you wish to do this?” Fran inquired, not looking back.

“Well, it is the middle of the night, and we won’t be there until morning at best. We can split the duty,” Balthier replied. “Which would you prefer?”

“I’m fine,” she said.

“All right. I’ll show everyone to quarters, then, and relieve you halfway.” Balthier reversed back toward the rooms, the others following, then pointed out which doors hid what and let them figure it out.

Harry slipped into Balthier’s cabin and sat on a fold-out ledge so he could remove his boots, and was half stripped down for sleeping when his lover came back in.

“You can have the inside,” Balthier said as he removed his waistcoat. “I’ll try not to wake you, either.”

He nodded and switched to the bed; it was inset into one wall and surprisingly comfortable, and he settled in under the covers happily enough, his lover joining him shortly, though Balthier had only removed the essentials. And, while Harry had nearly never spent the entire night with someone, he fell asleep easily, waking only briefly when Balthier left.

By the time he awoke he knew they had arrived, as he could no longer feel any motion. Perhaps the lack was what woke him? Harry got up and made use of the admittedly tiny facilities, dressed and gathered things necessary, and attempted to find his way to the cockpit. On arrival he found Balthier conversing with a moogle.

“Ah, Hallam. Excellent timing,” his lover said, then addressed the moogle. “You’ll keep an eye on her, Nono?”

“Of course! Shall I go wake the others, then?”

“Please, and I will put the ship under shield once outside.”

Nono nodded and slipped past Harry, at which point Balthier rose from the pilot’s seat. “Let’s go await the others.” At the hatch he trailed his fingers down the side of Harry’s face, only to pull back at the sound of Fran’s voice.

“Save your mating displays for places more private,” she said, what sounded like affection in her voice.

“Yes, yes, silly Humes,” Balthier replied and punched the hatch release, then flipped a switch, which caused a section of the lower hatch frame to open and release a ladder.

Harry carefully got on to it and began the climb down, starting to perspire almost immediately from the desert heat. At some point he would have to find a moment to record and send off another message. Al-Cid was likely wondering what had become of him, and he felt like smacking himself for not having made one prior to leaving the cabin.

At the surface he looked around, but it was like any other pocket canyon. The only thing that made it special at the moment was the Strahl looming overhead and providing some shade. The others joined him one by one, Balthier last, who then fiddled with one of his curious devices.

The ladder retracted, the hatch closed, and then Vaan and Penelo both stepped back in inarticulate surprise as the Strahl vanished entirely from view.

Ashe glanced over and said, “This ‘come in handy’ often?”

“It’s tough being popular,” Balthier replied breezily. “Wouldn’t want admirers dropping in while we’re away. Well now, that’s as far as she goes. We’ll be in Jagd from here onward.”

Ashe turned to face west and said quietly, “Across the Sandsea, to the Valley of the Dead. And to King Raithwall’s Tomb below.”

“At least we thought to bring along entertainment,” Balthier said, indicating a playfully quarreling Vaan and Penelo.

Ashe sighed and glanced at the two with clear uncertainty, then headed off after them, Basch her silent defender. Fran shook her head and followed, too, which left Balthier and Harry to bring up the rear.

“You’ve been here before?” Balthier murmured.

“Yes, though only once straight through it. Can’t say I much care for the place.”

“Vaan!”

He looked over to see that the blond was crouched at the ‘shore’, though he quickly got up and raced back to the group. “It’s all just nasty, sand gets everywhere. . . .”

Balthier chuckled as they headed up a ramp, bringing better to view the huge cisterns and seemingly endless walkways that dominated that part of the Sandsea.

Harry remembered something and shouted, “Everyone! Gather up a moment.” When they clustered nearby, somewhat puzzled, he said, “I’m sure there are traps in this region. I can maintain Float on us to relieve that danger.” Thankfully nobody asked how he knew that, and merely nodded agreement, so he cast the spell, feeling childish delight in the sensation of hovering millimeters above the metal grids that comprised the walkways.

He was relieved when Basch said as they started off, “These are constructs to draw oil from the ground. Abandoned many years now, it seems.”

“Did Dalmascans build this?” Vaan asked.

“No. The Rozarrians,” Basch replied. “Their empire lies far to the west, ever at war with Archadia. Heedless of the kingdoms caught in their midst. Dalmasca. Nabradia. Landis.”

Harry bit his lip at that; no sense in protesting when he was well aware the man had been imprisoned for two years, and would likely have no true sense of Rozarria anyway, even had he not. But there had been a treaty, damn it, though even he knew the military of his adopted homeland was at times not so much better than Archadia’s.

“So, where exactly is Raithwall’s Tomb, then?” asked Penelo.

“Far to the west. We must first cross this, the Ogir-Yensa, and beyond that the Nam-Yensa, before we reach the tomb. An expanse of desert larger still than all of Dalmasca. We must pace ourselves. If you grow tired, we stop and take rest.”

“You don’t have to worry about me,” she said firmly. “I’m tougher than I look.”

“I’m sure you are,” Basch replied diplomatically.

They had barely made it to the second cistern when came the sound of footsteps, of metal on metal, causing all to turn swiftly.

“Vossler! Why are you here?” Basch inquired.

Harry renewed Float while Vossler replied, “Imagine my surprise . . . when upon my return to Bhujerba, I find both you and the Lady Ashe have vanished. I thought you above consorting with sky pirates.”

“Balthier is a man worthy of our trust,” Basch said. “And it was the Lady Ashe’s decision. I am content to lend my arm. As I could not when Rasler died, when her throne was taken. Never again. I will defend her this time.”

Harry cast a glance at Fran, wondering if he was missing something. True, he had not known her name in conjunction with the ‘infamous’ Balthier, but was that her decision, or was it sexism or racism at work?

“You walk the knight’s path,” Vossler finally said. “Lady Ashe?”

Ashe beckoned him away a short distance and they spoke quietly for a while.

“We should leave this place,” Fran said suddenly.

“Let me guess: sandstorm?” Balthier asked.

“Something far worse,” she said, and pointed, drawing their attention to innumerable Urutan-Yensa riding forth to battle across the shifting sand-sea on their fish-like mounts, the yensa.

“Right, time to go.” Balthier turned toward Ashe and Vossler and shouted, “We leave at once! This is Urutan-Yensa territory, and they are unfond of visitors.”

They all hastened to get moving, though Harry knew from experience that once the creatures had been aroused, it would be a long, hard haul across the structures. And yet, even with the danger so clearly in sight, Ashe remained still and said, “Vossler!”

Vossler backtracked, but Harry could not overhear what was said at that distance, and shook his head at the woman’s sense of timing. Eventually they left behind the endless-seeming walkways and cisterns, and the endless battles against Urutan-Yensa intent on their deaths for trespassing—at least, for a while—ending up back on the ground, at a small shore area where they could rest. It had to be safe, else a moogle would not have chosen to loiter there.

He flopped down without hesitation and detached a waterskin from his belt to ease his parched throat. He perked up slightly when he overheard Ashe proclaiming that they would abide there a while to properly rest, which pushed his estimation of her common sense back up a notch. On the other hand, he wasn’t so sure about Basch. Harry clipped the waterskin back to his belt and dug into his packs to locate the tent he kept for emergencies, then tossed that on the ground.

Balthier came over to confirm that the area was something of a safe zone and eyed the folded canvas a bit disdainfully. “Mine is bigger.”

Harry arched a brow. “Your tent, I assume,” he said playfully.

His lover smirked and planted a hand on one hip. “You’re welcome to share what I have.”

Harry chortled and picked his back up to stow it. “By all means. Learn anything of interest in the past few minutes?”

Balthier held up a finger and walked away, then returned with a much larger collapsed tent and set of flexible poles, and began to set it up. When Harry moved to assist him Balthier murmured, “Only that Vossler agrees that Lady Ashe must retrieve the Dawn Shard. But nothing of what he was doing prior to his return to Bhujerba to find us gone.”

Harry finished guiding one of the supports through a channel and replied, “Is it just me, or is there something. . . ?”

“Strange about Vossler?” Balthier finished. “It’s hard to say. I wonder how he got aboard the Leviathan. He could have ambushed an imperial and stolen the armor. Ondore would have been able to tell him where Lady Ashe would likely be, and where Basch had gone.”

“He couldn’t have had much time for that sort of plan,” Harry pointed out, threading another pole. “I don’t know. I just feel a bit uneasy. Maybe I’m simply too used to wondering what’s below the surface. I hate to sound like an alarmist.”

Balthier shrugged and shifted the tent around so they could continue. “Basch trusts him, and Vossler did keep the princess safe for two years. I suppose we’ll see.”

Harry did not press the point further, though he could not help but think of a certain man named Peter. They eventually got the tent set up and realized that someone else, thankfully, had decided to build a fire and set about breaking out their stores of food, sparing Harry the agonizing decision of whether or not to do so himself.

Later, after they had settled in for the night, he realized he was being remiss in his duties. He waited until Balthier’s breathing had evened out into that of sleep and carefully retrieved a memstone and carrier before slipping outside. Harry found a spot well away from the tents to record his report and send it off, then returned and edged back in.

“You could have done that here,” Balthier murmured sleepily.

Harry slipped back under the sheet and inquired smartly, “And if I was taking a piss?”

“Right, sure.” Balthier yawned and draped an arm over Harry to rest at his stomach. “Sleep.”

The next morning they packed up and set across the Nam-Yensa, which was far less occupied by the remnants of Rozarrian industry, but certainly not devoid of locals, who took every opportunity to scuttle up on their peculiar legs and attack almost mindlessly. There were other creatures as well, which gave them all an excellent workout, and Harry was kept on his toes making sure that everyone stayed in fighting condition, even if they were becoming exhausted.

A tunnel up ahead gave rise to a second wind, and they reached it a short time later, it opening up into a defile, and then, ahead, stood a massive building. They were at least a few hundred feet below the surface. Harry knew from his geography that they had passed from the desert into an almost mountainous region. The space before them, a smaller square fronting one larger, was cut from that rock, allowing for Raithwall’s Tomb, a gargantuan structure bristling with carvings and ornamentation, surmounted by what resembled a grandiose guardian.

A series of columns, five to a side, led up to a grand staircase at the entrance, and as they walked between them a light shined overhead, and a huge flying beast swooped in threateningly to prevent them from continuing. Harry groaned softly and began casting as the others moved into position, though three of their number were almost useless—well, unless they planned to throw their swords at the beast.

Balthier, Fran, Ashe, and Penelo immediately started attacking with weapons and magic. When Harry was able to pay closer attention, he pulled out his gun and took aim, peripherally noticing that Basch had enough sense to ready a few potions in case they were necessary. Some time later the beast was defeated and they all dragged themselves up the stairs after Ashe toward the entrance. Something up there glowed momentarily, piquing his interest for a second, but truthfully, all Harry wished to do was take a nap.

“Long ago,” Ashe said, pausing halfway up, “the gods granted their favor to King Raithwall, who would oversee the subjugation of a territory spanning from Ordalia to Valendia. Here he forged the Galtean Alliance. Though he is called the Dynast-King, upon establishing the alliance, he showed compassion for his people, and disdain for war. A philosophy passed on to his successors. One that would bring peace and prosperity for hundreds of years to follow.

“It was during this time of peace that the city-states of Archadia and Rozarria—each members of Raithwall’s alliance—took root and flourished. Raithwall left three relics signifying descent from the Dynast-King. Of these, the Midlight Shard was given to what would become House Nabradia, and the Dusk Shard to my ancestors, the founders of Dalmasca. The last of these relics was the Dawn Shard. It remained hidden here, known only to those of royal blood.”

“As though the Dynast-King foresaw the very plight before us now,” Vossler observed.

“None save descendants of the king are suffered within. If we attempt to enter without proof of such lineage—”

“There’s no guarantee we’ll make it out alive,” Balthier finished for her. “Vicious beasts. Fiendish traps. Something like that?”

Ashe turned and said, “Mm-hm. But you must consider the prize. The Dawn Shard lies within, and Raithwall’s treasure.”

“And here I was thinking this was going to be hard,” Balthier responded. “Well, I suggest we rest first. It’s been a long, difficult day.”

“But we’re so close,” Ashe objected.

“Majesty, he speaks wisely. We know not what to expect within, and zeal can only take us so far,” Basch said.

She huffed and headed back down the stairs, much to Harry’s delight. He only wished she had not insisted on climbing halfway up in the first place to give a history lesson. At the bottom he looked around for a bit, then eyed Penelo speculatively.

“What?” she asked a bit warily.

“Have you any control over water yet?”

She looked surprised, but nodded.

“Wonderful. Care to try an experiment? I was wondering—if we were to dig a hole and line it with canvas, do you think you could fill it?”

“I don’t know,” she replied slowly. “But I don’t see why we can’t try.”

“I’ll also try,” Ashe said, obviously having overheard. “It would be nice to wash up, and we can’t risk the water we have rationed for drinking.”

Harry blinked in surprise, then smiled. “Excellent. And if it works, we should be able to refill the waterskins, too.”

They tried it after they had set up for the night and eaten, and while it did work, it wasn’t entirely successful, as both ladies found it difficult to control the spell against its usual purpose. Water splashed everywhere, but there was enough to fill several makeshift basins and give them a chance to wash away a decent amount of sweat and dirt.

Ashe approached him afterward. “That was an inspired idea. . . .”

Harry furrowed his brow, then realized she was angling to know his name. “Hallam Laurifer.”

She nodded, thanked him, then wandered off, which made him wonder if she left it at that because she assumed he was a part of Balthier’s group, even if he had not been in Rabanastre. Harry gave a mental shrug and made for his tent. The next day was sure to be fun-filled with excitement, and he wanted his rest. He would also like to molest his lover, but figured that was best saved for when they had more privacy. He forgot about the part where Balthier was an adventurous sky pirate, right up until his lover, flush against his back, slid a hand down Harry’s stomach and undid his trousers.

He was reluctant to get up once he awoke, especially as he was very comfortable draped over Balthier’s chest, but gave in with only a small amount of mumbled bitching to necessity. Packed and ready to go, the party climbed up to the entrance and stood there for a moment, staring at a strange device. Balthier and Fran walked right up to it, so the others followed and circled the device, and Balthier touched one of the dimly-glowing crystals at waist level.

Yellow light sprung up around them and exploded outward, the design on the floor illuminating, as well, and there was a few seconds of nothing but white before Harry could see they had been transported. Presumably, he thought, to inside the tomb.

“What was that thing?” Vaan asked.

“A contraption you’d find in all but the most rudimentary ancient ruin. One touch, and off you’re whisked to you know not where.” Balthier shrugged and began to walk forward. “The finer points of their operation elude me, but they’re handy all the same. What more need a sky pirate know?”

Ahead of the device was another, that one radiating a muted bluish light, and beyond it some sort of structure with steps to either side leading down. Off toward the back of the space, at either side on a lower level, were doors, with no obvious way to them, while down the center stretched a walkway with a set of large arched doors at the end. There seemed to be another level, that one higher, but if there was a way to reach it, it was not possible from where they were presently.

However, they were in a tomb allegedly filled with the potential for horrific retribution, so before anyone could get too far away, Harry began casting protections like mad. He was exceptionally glad he had when they descended a set of steps and started down the walkway, only to jerk to a stop at a rumbling noise behind them.

A look back showed a massive guardian statue coming to life, its arms uncrossing, blades brandished, and it’s talon-like ‘toes’ stretching. A second before those claws started moving it forward, the thing’s eyes glowed red. ‘Holy fuck,’ Harry thought and immediately scanned it, then prepped and started flinging Holy at it as the others unleashed a barrage of attacks.

They were forced to keep edging backward as the thing advanced, and Harry realized they did not have a lot of time to spare. Taking a chance he cast Reflect on everyone and began bouncing Scathe at it. Penelo caught on first and started casting Aero, then Ashe followed with Dark. Between them all it went down before they were crushed.

As Harry was healing their wounds with potions, Penelo turned around and said, “We could have ducked through the door and avoided it?”

Ashe looked exasperated, but Basch said, “Perhaps so. But is it not better to take care of what might come back to haunt us?”

Penelo shrugged. “There’s a second device up there. Surely it’s not for show.”

“It was unresponsive,” Balthier said. “I checked. But something may be ahead to cause its awakening. Let’s go.”

A collective groan arose once through the doors. At the end of the walkway, this one much longer, was another of the guardians. They raced forward to get within range and began to take it down, finishing it off several minutes later. That one, like the first, disintegrated into sand and collapsed, the fine particles disappearing. Reflect was dispelled and healing was performed, and they continued, taking a set of steps at the other end, and then the doors.

Everyone paused to take in the sight; a massive square room, cavernous in nature, looking almost as though it had been carved from solid rock. Stairs led down, walkways making circuits around on multiple levels with yet more stairs that seemed to have no support whatsoever except for their terminating landings. Torches pierced the gloom at regular intervals, and far, far below was a square platform, and what looked like another set of magnificent doors.

“Incredible,” breathed Vossler, slowly walking forward. “It wounds me to look on as they pillage so solemn a place.” He was staring at Balthier and Fran, which angered Harry and made him even less inclined to like the man. Neither seemed to realize he was listening, or would even care.

“Yet without help,” Ashe pointed out, “you and I are as nothing. Is this not so?”

Vossler appeared unable or unwilling to comment.

“He thinks ever and always on his own profit. Assure him of it, and he shall remain true to his cause.”

“I do not share your majesty’s trust.”

‘And I don’t trust you,’ Harry thought. ‘It’s not like anyone has pillaged anything, either. I know your type, and you are steeped in arrogant, righteous indignation. Better a man whose price is known than the quality of mere loyalty to a cause, which is so much more easily shattered.’

“We will continue this later. Now we should concern ourselves with finding the Dawn Shard. It sleeps, in waiting. Somewhere deep within.”

“How can you be certain?” Vossler inquired.

“I can hear its call,” she said, almost awed, then turned back to the stair.

Down it stood three of the ancient devices, one bathed in blue light like the one nearer the entrance, one in green, and one in red. Harry made the quick assumption that they would be forced to discover the mystery of this place before they could ever approach the prize. To either side of that landing were stairs leading down.

And it was so. There were two altars in the warren of connected rooms to the north and south of the landing that were hidden, stretched beyond the walls of the central chamber. As each was activated a decorative statue shifted position, the first to drop to half its height, the second all the way, opening a new path, deeper into the tomb’s embrace.

They had almost made it to that platform far below when Penelo saw fit to comment on the strangely reflective qualities of the unclear air. “Fog? Underground?”

“Not fog—Mist,” Fran corrected.

Penelo looked from the phenomenon to the Viera, puzzled. “You can see the Mist? With your eyes?”

‘Well obviously,’ he thought, then recalled that Penelo had spent her life thus far in Rabanastre, not out in the wider world. ‘It is, I admit, creepy to see yourself reflected in midair without benefit of mirrors.’

“Where it is thick enough, you may,” Fran explained. “The nether runs deep in this place.”

“So . . . is the Mist dangerous?”

“Yes, but it is also an aid. A dense Mist allows the working of powerful magicks.”

Penelo nodded, a look of interest on her face. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

They continued around the perimeter walkway and descended the final set of stairs. Again, Harry began casting, spying an imposing beast up ahead, planted solidly in front of a set of doors, an appropriately large weapon propped up beside it against the wall.

Once he nodded they advanced, and sure enough, the thing came to life, red light springing up around it as though to match its colouration, and it took up its weapon and stomped forward to meet them with a roar. The torches at each corner of the platform exploded in fire at the same time. Harry was kept very busy while the others launched an all-out attack, and did not dare to assist the female mages with Reflect to magnify the damage from their spells, not with the amount of fire that thing was flinging about.

After its defeat it sank to one knee, its weapon falling to the stone floor and vanishing, and it erupted in a cloud of fire. From it emerged a faceted crystalline shaft capped by rock, which shattered to free the glyph within. That . . . of an Esper.

“In vainglory they arose, shouting challenges at the gods,” Fran said. “But prevail they did not. Their doom it was to walk the Mist until time’s end. A legend of the Nu Mou.”

There was silence for a moment, then Ashe said, “My family tells a story of the Dynast-King and an Esper. The story goes that in his youth, the Dynast-King defeated a mighty gigas, for which the gods took heed of him. Thereafter, it was bound to him in thralldom.”

As she approached the now unguarded door Balthier said, “So all this time it’s been guarding the Dynast-King’s treasure.”

Ashe stopped and looked back. “Not so. The Esper is the Dynast-King’s treasure.”

“That’s your treasure?” Balthier asked incredulously.

“In this Esper we now command rests a power whose worth is beyond any measure.” She held up the glyph, then pressed it to her breast, whereupon it disappeared.

“Is that so?” Balthier countered, seeming entirely unimpressed. “Call me old fashioned, but I was hoping for a treasure whose worth we could measure.”

‘And given what she just did, it’s as well, since that’s one treasure Balthier won’t be owning.’

Ashe shook her head and turned back to the door, then opened it. Within were several short flights of steps, leading up to a small platform upon which rested a pedestal, and on that, a sculpture bearing a glowing rounded stone.

Basch stepped forward to Vossler’s side and asked, “What’s wrong?”

Vossler declined to answer him, instead angling his head toward Ashe. “Your majesty, we must go.”

Harry felt confusion at that, but decided the man must be urging haste as the princess nodded and proceeded with measured steps toward the final flight. As she drew nearer the stone, it began to glow, as though reacting to her. ‘Much like the Dusk Shard earlier?’

Ashe stopped suddenly, breathing out, “What?” Then, “Rasler.”

He could see no reason for her reaction, her awed tone, not even when he moved closer. He was further puzzled when Vaan exhaled in wonder and began walking toward her, as though he was privy to some sight denied them. Ashe turned and reached out quickly, as though to grasp something, a look of longing on her face.

“You will be avenged,” she vowed, then seemed to notice that Vaan had shared her experience, and made a surprised noise before facing the pedestal and taking the Dawn Shard for her own, which glowed more brightly at her touch. She said nothing more, merely headed for the doors, quietly leading them back toward the exit of the tomb.

They emerged into the Valley of Death, to light that threatened to blind them after the gloom within. Adjustment came quickly enough, and down the stairs they went to cross back to the Nam-Yensa. However, halfway across the packed earth they were confronted with shadows flitting over them, and looked up to see a fleet of airships looming overhead. Smaller craft descended quickly to land, surrounding them, and they were captured, taken to one of the larger ships and escorted by guards to a control room.

Ghis was there, unhelmeted, like a bad penny turned up. “Such a tremendous honor to again be graced with your presence, majesty. You left us with such great dispatch upon our last encounter that I must confess, I had begun to worry that we may have given some cause for offense.”

“Such a heartfelt display of remorse,” Ashe said mockingly. “Now what is it you want?”

Ghis took several steps forward. “I want you to give me the nethicite.”

“The nethicite?” Penelo asked, clasping her hands behind her back.

Ghis’s head snapped around to her. “That which you have is a base imitation! We seek Raithwall’s legacy, the ancient relics of the Dynast-King: deifacted nethicite.” He then addressed Vossler. “Did you not tell them, Captain Azelas?”

Ashe gasped, and she was not alone in doing so. Vossler stepped up behind the princess and said, “Majesty, he speaks of the Dawn Shard. That is nethicite.”

She whipped around to face him, shock writ clearly on her face. And betrayal.

“Are you mad, Vossler!” Basch growled.

“If we are to save Dalmasca, we must accept the truth. I will fight this profitless battle no more!”

‘So much for your loyalty to queen and country,’ Harry thought snidely. ‘Seems you would rather play puppet to a cruel master than retain your pride. And you have the audacity to sneer at pirates?’

“Captain Azelas has struck a wise bargain,” Ghis said. “In return for the Dawn Shard the empire will permit Lady Ashe to reclaim her throne, and the Kingdom of Dalmasca will be restored. Think on it. An entire kingdom for a stone. You must admit, ’tis more than a fair exchange.”

“And when all is said and done, your master will have another pet,” Balthier drawled.

Ghis stared, then addressed the princess. “Lady Ashe, let us take him for the people of Dalmasca. Your majesty wallows in indecision on peril of their heads!” He drew his sword and sliced it forward to stop with the edge near Balthier’s neck. “And his shall be the first to fall.”

“Well at least your sword is to the point,” Balthier snarked.

Ashe stepped forth and offered up the stone in a resigned manner, then snarled when Ghis took possession.

Ghis studied the stone in his hand as he said, “To think the relics of the Dynast-King were deifacted nethicite. Dr Cid will be beside himself.”

Balthier’s attention was snapped from a conflicted Ashe to Ghis, his body suddenly tense. “What did you say?” he demanded.

Ghis ignored him, still staring at the stone. “Captain Azelas, take them to Shiva. They should have leave to return to Rabanastre soon.”

They left with their escort, not speaking, and were taken away to be cuffed again like common criminals. A transport was secured, which then flew them to the light cruiser Shiva. Disembarking, they began a slow progression along the walkway, toward, Harry had to assume, prison cells.

“When we return to Dalmasca,” Vossler said to the princess, “we can announce that you are alive and well. I will then continue our negotiations with the empire.”

Harry descended into another snide moment; Vossler acted like a regent, negating what little power Lady Ashe could even lay claim to, she the rightful ruler of Dalmasca.

“I believe Larsa is the key,” Vossler continued. “He’ll listen to us. We should trust him.”

Ashe stopped, her head jerking sideways toward the man. “Who are you, Vossler, to talk of trust?” she demanded before facing front again and resuming the walk.

“A son of Dalmasca. . . .”

‘Like bloody Cain, maybe.’ Halfway to the doors Fran snapped up her head and gasped for no reason he could discern, then sank to one knee, struggling for breath. “Fran?” he asked.

“Such heat. The Mist—it’s burning!” she wailed and crouched over, whimpering and moaning in pain.

A soldier swung his spear toward her and barked, “You! Stand!”

So fast that Harry could not track it, Fran knocked the soldier away with unholy strength.

“Hold her down!” Vossler shouted to the guards.

Fran seemed to go berserk, letting loose an inarticulate cry of rage as her shackles shattered. She launched into the air at their approach and slammed a kick into one’s head, then used his body to push off at another, smashing him down as well with another fierce cry.

“What’s wrong with her?” Penelo cried.

“I always knew Fran didn’t take well to being tied up,” Balthier quipped as he picked the lock on his shackles and slipped them off, then took care of Harry’s. “I just never knew how much.” He faced to the princess and said, “How about you?”

She turned and lifted her arms so he could free her. “I like Fran’s idea. Let’s get out of here!”

By then Vaan had duplicated Balthier’s trick and had freed himself, Penelo, and Basch.

“No farther!” shouted Vossler, drawing his sword. “Sky pirates! The future of Dalmasca will not be stolen!” As he brought his sword up in readiness he asked, “Why do this, Basch? This struggle is futile. You must know where it leads!”

“I do know. All too well,” was the calm response.

Harry did not wait for anyone to make the first move. He did, by casting his little heart out, the battle inevitable, then threw a Dispel at Vossler to negate his buffs. That same scan showed him that no particular weakness could be found, so Harry hung back with his gun and concentrated on keeping everyone healthy.

Vossler eventually sank to his knees, pain writ on his features. They took that opportunity to flee back along the walkway, though Basch lingered for precious moments, but also joined them. Balthier appropriated the first craft he saw that could carry them and launched. Behind them could be seen the Leviathan exploding in a blinding light which quickly turned to fiery red, projectiles flying outward and shredding the other ships of the fleet.

“This might get a little dicey!” Balthier said, hands tight on the controls as they attempted to outrace the blast range.

“The Mist. It manifests now,” said a still pained Fran.

“Is that what you call this?” Vaan said rather sarcastically.

Balthier’s sure piloting brought them away safely, and he steered their stolen craft in an arc so they could see more clearly. A strange, gaseous sphere seemed to be all that remained at the fleet’s location, like wisps of fiery Mist.

“What’s that?” Penelo asked, gazing at one of the monitors.

Balthier reached over to increase the magnification, and Ashe gasped and said, “I think it’s the Dawn Shard!”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Balthier said, and accelerated toward to retake the stone. And, even with the power of the craft at their command, it took almost as long to reach the Strahl again as it would have taken on foot, it not being intended for long-term transport, and certainly not for that many people. By that time they were all glad to be able to spent the night in relative luxury, and Harry took the opportunity to send off another report.

In the morning, while down on the surface to investigate the wares of a passing merchant, he was surprised to receive a carrier from Al-Cid, which informed him that that Marquis Ondore had quit Bhujerba, citing illness, and that they had assembled forces under the guise of military exercises. He cleared the stone of its message with a faint groan and tucked it away, unable to tell if the emperor had been unable to stay the hand of the military, or if this had some connection to Ondore’s own resistance. After completing his interrupted business with the merchant he boarded the Strahl again, dithering over whether or not to say anything, as revealing his knowledge to anyone but Balthier would expose him, and finally decided to remain quiet.

From there they proceeded to Rabanastre on foot, where word on the street echoed Al-Cid’s message regarding Ondore, and made it known that Vayne had departed the city. They took up temporary residence in one of the buildings at the terminus of the Muthru Bazaar, a private enough place.

“So it was the Dawn Shard that brought down the imperial fleet,” Basch stated, glancing at the dark grey stone, it lying on the table next to a seated Ashe.

“You know your stuff,” Balthier said, and Harry was hard pressed to determine if his lover was being sarcastic or not.

“Destructive power of such force—I’ve seen it once before.” Basch glanced at the princess and said, “Lady Ashe, you know of what I speak.”

“Nabudis.”

“The capital of Old Nabradia—Lord Rasler’s fatherland. At the time of the invasion, a division of imperials entered the city—there was a mighty explosion. Friend and foe died alike. Something was there—one of the Dynast-King’s relics. The Midlight Shard was in Nabradia.”

“More nethicite. Well, no wonder they invaded,” Balthier commented.

Ashe took the Dawn Shard in her hand. “That ridiculous war, the trap at the treaty signing—all because Vayne wanted power. He must not be allowed to claim the nethicite. The empire must never hold it.”

Balthier pushed away from his pose propped against a wall and faced her. “Oh? They already do,” he reminded her. “The Dusk Shard—most likely the Midlight Shard, too. Besides, can’t they manufacture nethicite now?”

The princess shot up from her seat. “Very well, then the path set before us is clear. We’ll use the Dawn Shard to fight them!” She bowed her head slightly and brought the stone to her chest. “Dalmasca does not forget kindness nor ill deed done. With sword in hand she aids her allies. Sword in hand, she lays to rest her foes. This nethicite I hold must be my sword. I will avenge those who have died. And the empire will know remorse.”

Harry suffered a moment of dizziness. Greater good, those who are not us are nothing. The entire imperial city could be destroyed in the catastrophe wrought by one of those relics, most of the citizens entirely innocent of their government’s actions. Just like the people of Nabradia. Somehow, he did not think that pointing that out would be fruitful. He could only hope she truly did mean their military might, and not the people.

Vaan broke the ensuing silence with a rather pertinent question. “You even know how to use it?”

Ashe half turned, looking lost. “I—”

“The Garif may know,” Fran spoke. “The Garif people live by the old ways. Magicite lore is a part of their culture. They may hear it. The cry of the nethicite’s power. Whispers of the stone’s menace.”

Ashe rounded the table to stand before the Viera. “Dangerous though it be, what we need now is power. Should we declare Dalmasca free without the means to defend our claim . . . the empire would crush us. You must take me to meet with the Garif.”

Fran slipped off the table and said, “They live beyond Ozmone Plain, the closest in Jahara.”

“But still not exactly close,” Balthier commented.

“Compensation—is that what you want?” Ashe asked him, her voice tinged with disgust or exasperation.

“Straight to the point, aren’t we. I like that. Compensation? How about that ring,” he said, indicating her hand.

Harry mentally applauded the move. While he believed in her cause, he thought her too entrenched in the past, and that was no way to live while attempting to move forward. You could love a man long since dead, but you could not live with one.

Ashe looked up from her hand and said rather desperately, “This? Isn’t there something else?”

“No one’s forcing you,” Balthier pointed out, his manner straightforward, but a subtle reminder that allies were not necessarily subjects, and thus could not be treated the same.

The princess dithered, then set the stone aside and slowly removed one of the silvery rings. She dropped it onto his palm and hesitated, fingers curling, before pulling away.

“I’ll give it back to you,” Balthier said blithely. “As soon as I find something more valuable.”

Ashe turned with a huff and walked away as Vaan asked, “What do you mean ‘something valuable’?”

Balthier motioned and headed for the door. “Hard to say. I’ll know when I find it. What is it you want, Vaan? What are you looking for?”

“Me? What am I looking for? I—I guess—well, I, ah—you know. . . .”

Harry heard a sigh, but then he was through the door, out into the sunlight and heat and the sound of hawking cries from the merchants of Rabanastre.

“The Garif are said to dwell in Kerwon,” Basch said.

“So they do,” Balthier agreed. “We’ll need to head south, past the Giza Plains.”

“It is the rains now in Giza—the wadis will be swollen with the deluge,” Basch replied. “Passage may be difficult.”

“But those same waters may also lay open new routes to us,” Balthier countered.

Ashe impatiently butted in. “Regardless, we must go south, yes?”

Balthier arched a brow at her. “First things first. You’re eager to be on your way, I realize, but we should see that we’re prepared before setting out.”

“I made my resolve two years ago. I swore to overcome any hardship I may face,” she said fiercely.

“Man cannot live by resolve alone, princess.”

Harry bit his lip, then touched his lover’s arm. “I’m going to look for practical supplies. You know, like collapsible containers for water or even cooking in?”

Balthier raised a finger in a motion to wait, then turned to the others. “Let’s supply and meet back here. We can head out in the morning.”

The princess made a face, but turned away when Basch cleared his throat, so Harry and Balthier slipped off through the crowd to begin checking each stall. “I shouldn’t complain, I know, but I’m bloody tired of jerky, handfuls of nuts, and traveler’s bread. I’d just about kill for one of those overpriced frippery meals right now.”

“Shall I buy you dinner, my dear Hallam?” Balthier asked as they moved on to the next stall.

“That would be a beautiful thing,” he replied absently as he reached out to snatch a contraption up that was more or less what he was after. It was easy enough to flatten it down, and it would stand on its own when expanded. They could not cook in it, but it could be used for catching fresh water for transfer to drinking containers, or for washing up. He bought and tucked away a half dozen before Balthier guided him off to the next set of offerings.

They ended up at the Sandsea, which was not known for extravagant meals, but they were able to score a table on the upper level. Vaan was lurking by the notice board across from the bar, but quickly disappeared, even before their food arrived. Their conversation was, of necessity, low voiced and secretive.

“So why are you sticking with this?” Harry murmured. “Your father?”

Balthier nodded. “It seems I can’t escape that. All this revolves around nethicite, something he lost his heart to. His humanity, I think.”

“What do you think of Lord Larsa?”

“Him? He seems a peaceable enough sort, which is surprising considering his elder brothers. He’s young, though, so I question the amount of influence he can bring to bear on matters at hand. I wonder, if perhaps it’s simply that the senate has not yet managed to corrupt him.”

“You mean to be their puppet, as Vayne has been? As the elders were before they got out of hand?”

Balthier nodded. “And I wonder if Vayne will also be struck down as being too unruly, too unwilling to let them guide his actions.”

“Perhaps that is why he’s left the city? He’s in charge of the fleet, and one has just been destroyed. Not by his hand direct, but. . . .”

“Ah, but, the senate could use that as an excuse nonetheless. Still, Vayne is more viper than his elder sibs. He may not make the same mistakes as they, those that brought their downfall.”

Harry was silent for a time, concentrating on his food, then said, “I mentioned the younger. Perhaps some accord can be made. And I think he holds suspicion of me. It certainly seemed so in Bhujerba, and then again on the Leviathan.”

“He probably suspects you ‘belong’ to Ondore.”

They moved on to less weighty topics, bantering instead, and Harry began to get worked up over some of the more salacious comments tossed back and forth, until Balthier suddenly seemed to realize something. “Those ships, at the tomb. They came through Jagd, damn it. What have they discovered?”

“Are you sure? Couldn’t they have come from the north, over the sea?”

“Wrong approach vector,” Balthier countered. “And besides, we were over the Jagd Yensa when the fleet was destroyed.”

Harry felt like slapping himself for being an idiot. “Let’s return? Answers will just have to wait until later, hey? Well, unless you want to quit all this and go investigate that craft.”

“Ah, fine.” Balthier tossed his napkin on the table and signaled a server, then dropped also a handful of gold.

They took their own sweet time getting back, Harry pausing to purchase some fresh fruit for the morning, then joined the others. Balthier stayed in the common area to spend some time with his partner, while Harry found an untenanted bedroom, seriously considering turning in early. He wasn’t feeling very sociable. But, he could hardly rely on his lover to be his ears, so he dropped off his things and pulled some minor work from a pack, then went out to sit at the table with Penelo and Vaan.

“Oh, you must be happy,” Penelo said. “You haven’t really had any time for that.”

He glanced up and smiled. “I’ve done it so often that I don’t have to think about it anymore, but the repetition is relaxing.”

“You said you harvest stuff yourself? Isn’t that difficult?”

Harry shrugged. “I don’t go after anything very dangerous, not unless some of my clan members are willing to help me out.”

“You’re in a clan?” Vaan asked, suddenly interested.

“Mm-hm. I’m not very active, though, since I do wander rather a lot to various cities to market my wares. But if a clan team is nearby and knows I’m around, they drag me along to cover their backsides.”

Penelo giggled behind her hand.

“So how did you get mixed up in all this, then?”

Harry jerked his head toward Balthier. “We go way back. But really, I just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. Or something like that. I can’t very well let Balthier get into trouble without me to make sure he doesn’t get his fool self killed, right?”

He picked up the pendant he’d been working on and set it in front of the once again giggling Penelo. “Here. It will help with your magic. You’ll just have to find a cord.”

“Hey,” Vaan said, frowning slightly.

“What about you, Vaan? You wish to be a sky pirate?” he asked, then began work on another small item, this one purely decorative.

“Yeah, for years. I keep hoping Balthier will teach me how to fly his airship.”

Harry chuckled. “I dare say he might, but don’t quote me on that. Flying is like . . . being utterly free.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Vaan said enthusiastically.

A hand came down on his shoulder. “What exactly are you promising on my behalf?” came Balthier’s amused voice.

Harry smirked and looked up at an angle, “I would never presume.”

“So, Vaan wants to learn how to fly. But what of Penelo?”

She kind of shrugged, quite possibly never having thought much beyond the moment.

“You can be my partner,” Vaan declared, though it came across as slightly condescending.

“Oh,” she said blithely, “I thought I’d become a tavern dancer.”

“Penelo!”

She started giggling again, causing Vaan to look sheepish.

“There might not be much time for me to teach you, Vaan,” Balthier said, “but we’ll see.”

“Preferably over a wide open space with nothing to crash into,” Fran added, then said to Balthier, “I rest. Morning comes early enough.”

“Sweet dreams, Fran.” To an open-mouthed Vaan he said, “She was teasing, you know.”

“How can you tell?”

“She’s that good a friend.” The hand on Harry’s shoulder squeezed, then Balthier said, “Are you done yet? Unless you plan on peddling wares to the Garif?”

Harry snorted and swept his things up. “You never know. I take it you’re ready to turn in?”

The hand disappeared as Balthier said, “Mm. Evening, folks.”