Fran brushed the tendril of moss aside with the tip of her knife as she moved further into the dimness, Balthier but a few steps behind, his boots crunching against the loose gravel. This branch of the Zertinan Caverns was well-explored, but the Garif merchant seemed convinced: the rumors of an undiscovered cache of ancient Moogle artifacts came from a reliable source. So here they were, battling mallicant and speartongue and running low on potions, though she thought careful management would get them out safe enough, especially if the treasure were as close as Balthier claimed.
"Hold," Balthier called out, and Fran paused, turning, to watch him ruffle the map open yet again. He turned it sideways and frowned. "If I read this right, the branch should be just ahead on the left." Looking forward and back, his frown deepened to a scowl. "I can't see a damned thing."
Fran moved behind Balthier and peered at the map over his shoulder. "Hidden within that alcove, perhaps?" She tapped the spot on the map, then pointed into the blackness. "Yes. There."
"All right, let's give it a look." Balthier folded the map back into neat square and slipped it into his back pocket, then walked into the corner Fran had indicated, gun ready. She fell into step behind him. The alcove was dark, and an apparent dead end; Balthier rested his hand against the wall. He glanced over his shoulder at Fran and shook his head. "If there is a door here, it's well-disguised."
She stepped forward to touch the wall, first tapping it, then running her finger down the smooth stone. Down, and then still further down, until she found what she sought. "Here," she said.
Balthier followed her gaze to the seam she had discovered in the rock, a crack barely the width of her fingernail and about waist high. "Ah, of course. Moogle-sized treasure means Moogle-sized doors. All right, there must be a catch somewhere." Pulling his picks from his pack, he got down on his knees and began to work around the edges of the hidden entrance. Eventually Fran heard a click followed by a rumble, and the small door slid upwards into the wall. Balthier sat back on his feet and looked up at Fran. "Front or rear?"
She crossed her arms in response. "I am not convinced we should follow this trail any further."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "You know how rare true Moogle treasure is. Not only will it fetch a pretty penny, Montblanc would be in our debt. Such an opportunity is worth a bit of dirt on our knees."
"Fine." Fran harbored her suspicions regarding Balthier's true reason for undertaking a wild goose chase to the center of the earth on this particular day -- the scrap of vellum crumpled into his other pocket had been the greatest clue -- but she let it go. "Front." She sheathed the knife, then unbuckled its holster from her leg and reattached it to her bicep, cinching the strap to keep it from flapping. Checking that her bow was securely fastened across her back, she knelt, dropped to her hands, and crawled through the opening.
The corridor, lit by a few sputtering magick torches, was just wide enough for one traveler. A Moogle could likely have walked upright, but though the passage gained a foot of height after the entrance, it was still too low for Hume or Viera to stand. So Fran stayed down, despite the scrape of loose shale against bare skin. Water gurgled in the distance, and the walls were damp. She wrinkled her nose against the musty air.
"I checked the map before following you in," Balthier said from behind. "Shouldn't be but a few feet more."
"Yes." Fran peered ahead. "I see stronger light up ahead." She continued forward, testing each spot with her hand before committing her full weight to it. Ten minutes of slow crawling later, she reached another door, bracketed by torches. It had a handle but no apparent lock. She rapped on the door first; nothing happened, and she looked back over her shoulder at Balthier, who shrugged, then reached up and back to loosen his gun in its holster. Fran did the same with her knife, and then she turned the knob.
The door swung inward, and Fran blinked against the orange light that washed over her face. She tested the air; it was a bit stale but carried no hint of danger, and so she went through. The doorway led into a round room with a high ceiling, and Fran stood, brushing the dirt from her hands and legs. "It's safe."
Balthier entered the room and stood, slapping his hands together to clean them. Then he took a step back with a started intake of breath. "Well then. What do we have here?"
They looked around the chamber. It was littered with small chests that did, in fact, appear to be of Moogle make, but Fran knew that Balthier spoke of something else: a Gate Crystal, standing guard in the center of the floor, casting its warm orange glow over the room.
"An oddity," Fran agreed. "Why here, buried in this rock?"
"For easy access to the storage, I'd wager. A fine security system, since no one can teleport to a crystal they haven't seen, or been brought through by another. I wonder why they bothered keeping the doors?" Balthier knelt down and flipped open one of the chests. "Now, what have we here?"
But before Fran could look for herself, she started, then jumped back: the crystal had started to pulse. "Ware!" At her shout, Balthier slammed the chest shut and leapt to his feet, gun in his hands. He aimed it at the glowing figure that had started to form on the other side of the room. Fran thought of her bow but decided that quarters were too close to risk it; instead, she pulled her knife, dropping into a defensive crouch, teeth bared.
The white light grew brighter, then dimmer as it coalesced into a Hume female with a face that Fran knew well. She stood and put her knife back in its place, relaxing with relief despite her confusion.
Balthier lowered the gun slowly, his face gone white with shock as the newcomer stepped forward. "Hello, Balthier," she said.
"Princess." The blood rushed back to Balthier's cheeks, and he favored her with a sardonic smile. "Or shall it be 'Queen', Your Majesty?"
"Not quite yet." Ashe turned to Fran and nodded. "Fran. It is well to see you."
"And you." Fran nodded in return. "But why have you come?"
Balthier holstered his gun. "Yes, Princess, haven't you more important things to worry about than two thieves disturbing a cache of Moogle artifacts? I hear you've a coronation to attend."
Ashe spread her hands. "All is in readiness, but for one detail: two invited guests who sent no reply. I was hoping to convince them to attend."
"Ah." Fran's understanding dawned. "So it was you who fed the rumors of this place to the Garif."
"Correct." Ashe nodded to her. "I learned of it from the head Moogle at the palace, and thought the bait might prove sufficient. And I had him arm the door so that I would be alerted as soon as it was opened." She looked over to Balthier. "I apologize for the subterfuge. But when you did not respond to my letter, my options were... limited." She stepped closer to him and took his hand. "Was it foolish to think I might change your mind?"
Balthier's shoulders tensed, but he did not let her go. "No. Overly optimistic, perhaps. But not foolish."
Ashe stepped closer to him, and Fran melted back into the shadows. She knelt down, opened another of the chests and busied herself with examining its contents: a selection of gears and levers, a sheaf of papers that might have been building plans. A few moments later, she heard Balthier clear his throat, which she took as a signal to look up again. Balthier and Ashe had turned to face her, standing shoulder to shoulder. Ashe's face was solemn, but her eyes smiled; Balthier's expression was more muddled, his instincts at war with his desires, and Fran took pity on him.
"Shall I bring the Strahl to Rabanastre?" she asked.
Balthier looked down at Ashe, as though searching her face for answers. Then he turned back to Fran, and the crease on his brow had smoothed. "Come in time for the feasting," he said.
Fran nodded. Rather than trek through the caverns alone, she would gate to Jahara and rent a chocobo; that would get her back to the Strahl in more than enough time. "Tonight, then." She stepped forward to the crystal, pulling a teleport stone from her pouch, then dipped her head to Ashe. "Congratulations, my lady," she said, and before either of them could reply, she clutched the stone in one hand and touched the crystal with the other, leaving them in a burst of light.