The group was fairly quiet as they walked along the wooden planks of Balfonheim Port. Balthier would be a happy man when this was all over with, but the day ahead was sure to be a challenge. Doctor Cid's final creation was on its merry way to Rabanastre, and the Strahl would be there in hours. The sky pirate was never one to exaggerate, but it truly felt like the end of the world.
Balthier strolled into the aerodrome at the southeastern edge of the city, Fran by his side. They approached the private airship counter, and the sky pirate set down his identification papers. "Bunansa. My ship is the Strahl in hangar eight."
The young woman behind the counter smiled and began paging through the ledger. Her smile faded as she reached a certain part of the book. She shook her head and looked at his papers again. "I'm sorry, sir…" she began, and Balthier began to feel uneasy. Of all the days for a paperwork error in this blasted aerodrome!
"Is there a problem?" Basch inquired from behind him, and the woman looked up with a very puzzled expression.
The woman bit her lip and handed his papers back across the counter. "It appears that a Mister Bunansa has already taken the Strahl…"
"What?" Ashe cried, shoving her way forward to lean over the counter. She went up on her tiptoes to squint at the ledger upside down, and then she jerked her thumb in his direction. "This man is Mister Bunansa, the owner of the ship!"
Balthier turned to his partner and gave her a quick nod. "Check the hangar," he muttered, and the Viera hurried off in the direction of hangar eight with Vaan and Penelo behind her. He leaned on the counter wearily, Ashe standing beside him ready to explode.
The woman turned the ledger around to show them. "See? Right here, hangar eight…it says a Mister Bunansa was authorized to take the Strahl."
He pulled the ledger up closer, and Ashe tugged it so it was in between the two of them. "Is this your signature, Balthier?" she asked tersely, her finger tapping on the ledger entry.
The sky pirate rolled his eyes. "Of course it's not my signature!" He waved his papers in the Princess' face. "That is my signature," he said, directing her to his scrawl on the official owner's certificate. Then he pointed to the ledger. "That there is a base imitation. He didn't even spell Bunansa right!" He scowled at the woman. "There is no Z in Bunansa!"
The attendant paled and gently pulled the ledger away from them. "There must have been some mistake. My shift just started. Let me get my superior…" she muttered, hurrying away to start talking nervously with an older man at another counter.
"Do you think someone stole the ship?" Basch asked, and they turned around to look at him. "Perhaps agents of Vayne Solidor?"
Ashe slammed her palm down on the counter angrily. "I don't believe this! We must hurry to Rabanastre! I will not stand idly by and wait!"
Balthier shook his head and sighed. "Not much choice, Princess. I'm not overly fond of the thought that my ship has vanished either."
The young attendant and her supervisor returned, the man wearing a very grim expression that made Balthier's stomach drop. He looked to the sky pirate with an apologetic look. "You are Mister Bunansa?" He nodded and flashed the papers again, fat lot of good that seemed to be around this aerodrome.
The supervisor paged through the ledger, and Ashe stepped away from the counter to pace furiously behind him. Balthier could hear Basch mumbling words of comfort to calm down Her Royal Highness. "Well," the supervisor said, "I'm sorry to say that someone has absconded with your vessel, posing as yourself."
"Yes, yes," Balthier said behind gritted teeth, "I think we've established that. Now who was at this counter when my ship was taken?"
The man looked down in embarrassment, and Balthier wanted to strangle him. He could almost hear Ashe growling behind him. Of all the days in Ivalice! "What did he look like?"
The man looked at his co-worker, and she gave him a small smile of encouragement. "A rather short fellow. Ginger hair…."
"And you just let him take my ship?" Balthier interjected, "He doesn't even look like me!" But the attendant's description of the thief set off alarm bells in Balthier's head. It couldn't be…
The man offered him a thin-lipped smile. "He had the correct credentials…" The Princess shoved her way to the counter once more and went back up on her toes. She leaned as far forward as she could without leaving the ground, and Balthier wanted to pick her up and heave her over the counter to knock the stupid attendant to the floor.
"This town is run by all manner of criminals! Including those that specialize in forgery!" she screamed, and Balthier withheld a grin as dozens of people in the aerodrome turned to watch the scene. If someone hadn't just stolen his ship, he would have applauded her.
The female attendant looked between the Princess and the pirate, and Balthier could tell she was worried about being physically assaulted by Ashe. "I'm so very sorry, sir. The East Ivalice Company would be happy to…"
"Balthier! It's gone!" Vaan cried as he and Penelo raced back from the hangar, Fran walking behind them. He looked to his partner and saw her waving a small scroll at him.
He rushed over to the Viera and snatched the scroll away. He untied the string and unraveled the parchment and was unable to stifle the groan that burst forth from him as he read.
Balthier and Fran!
Long time no see! You know I am fond of anniversaries, and what luck I seem to have had on today of all days! You in Balfonheim with that beautiful ship! Why, it brings a tear to my eye! You're a smart pair, I'm sure you can find her easily enough…if you find her in time! Must be going! Cheers!
The sky pirate was about to crumple the paper in his fist when Ashe yanked it out of his hand and began to read it. "Anniversary? What anniversary?" she cried, passing the parchment to Basch.
Balthier shook his head and sighed. "Fran…Durio has a very good memory."
The Viera crossed her arms and glared at him. "Of all the days…" she muttered. Fran had not been in favor of the event that had initially incurred Durio's wrath, but Balthier had kindly ignored her input that day. Ashe looked between the sky pirates and repeated her previous inquiry.
He rubbed his temple. "Langden Durio, pirate and thief. Not a very good one, but it appears he has improved. It was three years ago today that we…" Fran glowered at him. "That I stole his ship from the Balfonheim aerodrome, and it appears he has decided to return the favor."
If Ashe had been angry before, Balthier did not have a word to describe the current expression now plastered on her face. Livid was not exactly strong enough. He almost expected smoke to pour from her ears. She was about to unleash what would undoubtedly be a string of very unPrincesslike curses in his direction when Basch placed a hand on her shoulder to intervene.
"So this Durio has some sort of vendetta against you and has stolen the Strahl. In other words, we cannot fly to the Bahamut until we retrieve the ship from this pirate?" he noted calmly. A bit too calmly, Balthier mused. He was probably even angrier than Ashe was, and the sky pirate wanted to hide behind the counter like the attendant.
In fact, it appeared that the entire party was now furious with him for something that was clearly out of his control. Balthier backed away from the five disgusted individuals he was saddled with and returned to the counter. The man actually flinched at his approach. "A question for you. The destination…did the impostor leave a forwarding address? Drop a hint as to where he was heading?"
The attendant uttered a sigh of relief as he seemed to recall something. "Yes! Yes, he mentioned something about a big event in Bhujerba. Is that at all helpful?" Balthier nodded curtly and began to stroll towards the exit of the aerodrome.
"Wait!" Ashe cried, and she raced to catch up with him. "Where do you think you're going, you…you…you pirate!" A dozen members of that very profession turned to the Princess and stared at her coldly, and Balthier rolled his eyes and halted his rush.
He turned around to regard the Princess and the other four who had chased after her through the busy aerodrome. They looked to him anxiously, and he could not blame them. They should have been in the air by now on their way to almost certain danger, and now they were stranded.
"What are we going to do?" Penelo asked quietly, "Can we use another airship?"
Fran shook her head. "Not for this mission. We would not be able to rent one of the Strahl's caliber at such short notice, nor would anyone lend one knowing how we intend to use it."
"Um…couldn't we just lie?" Vaan asked, and Balthier struggled with the urge to actually praise the boy for the very first time.
Basch strode forward. "So what is in Bhujerba? Is there something you know that we do not, Balthier?"
The sky pirate scratched his head. Bhujerba at this time of year…Bhujerba…Bhujerba. It struck him. "Sir Merritt's ball!" he announced, and Fran rolled her eyes.
"What is Sir Merritt's ball?" Ashe asked tentatively, her shoulders still tense with anger. Balthier wished her fury was still directed at the dumbfounded employees of the East Ivalice Company rather than himself.
The Viera looked straight at him, and it was obvious that she knew what he was planning. "Sir Merritt Yanoule, generally lazy Bhujerban nobleman who throws a lavish ball this time of year. Known for leading his guests to view glowing magicite in the Lhusu Mines."
"And that is exactly where Durio is headed," Balthier finished and headed out the exit of the aerodrome.
Ashe was at his heels again. She tugged on his sleeve. "How do you know that's where he's going? He could be anywhere in Ivalice by now!"
Fran was on Ashe's other side then. "Because there will be a lot of wealthy people at the ball. If you wanted to sell an expensive piece of land…or an airship, perhaps, Sir Merritt's guest list will probably include someone willing to take that property off of your hands."
"He's going to sell your ship? Why not keep it for himself?" Vaan asked, hurrying to keep up with the rest of them as Balthier continued walking back in the direction of Reddas' manse.
"Because that's what I did with his ship," Balthier recollected. He had been so proud of himself that day. He snatched that piece of trash airship from under Durio's nose (although Fran had repeatedly told him not to) and had sold it within five hours to a very eager Bangaa. He thought that it would get the irritating young man out of his hair, but now he was regretting the indiscretions of youth. The lesson here, he wondered? Always listen to a Viera.
The Princess now had a death grip on his arm, and under other circumstances, he enjoyed women getting rough with him. But he knew exactly what was coming. "You unbelievable imbecile! Because of your big ego we are delayed!" she screeched, pulling him to a stop in the middle of the street. "If Vayne Solidor does anything…and I mean anything to Rabanastre, I swear that my first order as Queen of Dalmasca will be putting your stupid pirate behind in prison to rot for the rest of your days!"
For the life of him, he could not understand why it enticed him to see her so furious with him. He placed his hands on her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "Princess, just save it, will you? As you surely know by now, I am the leading man. And I know exactly how I will get my ship back and get your royal…behind to Rabanastre before tomorrow is over."
She continued to glare at him, and the others looked to him for some explanation. But he only had eyes for Her Majesty.
"I don't suppose you have a spare ball gown, do you, Ashe?"
"You're mad, you know that?"
Balthier sighed. "Look, can you just get it done? We have to leave within the hour or we won't make it to Bhujerba before nightfall."
Rikken grumbled and walked off to fulfill his request. He called back to the sky pirate over his shoulder. "I can't guarantee you that they'll be as authentic as you want. As previously established…you're mad."
He shooed the young man away as Ashe stood in the same position she had been for the past fifteen minutes while he had spoken with Reddas' right hand man. Arms crossed, increasingly furious facial expression. "Explain to me again why you can't take Fran," she demanded.
"For the last time, Princess, he will know her immediately. Not many other Viera at Sir Merritt's little get-togethers. Besides, we need her to stay here in case he's duped us with this Bhujerba idea," he explained for what felt like the hundredth time since he had explained his plot in the first place.
It had made perfect sense in his mind, and the others had seemingly agreed that it was a sensible enough plan. Well, Basch hadn't been overly fond of it. And neither was his royal charge. Fran and Basch would be holding down the fort in Balfonheim with the assistance of Vaan and Penelo while he and Ashe flew to Bhujerba to infiltrate the ball in search of Durio and the Strahl.
Rikken was on his way to have fake papers created for them, and Elza was procuring clothes for the ball. Little Raz was charged with forging invitations for them. All was going well thus far…with the exception of his new partner in crime. She wasn't exactly behaving in a cooperative fashion.
They simply waited for all the pieces to come together in Reddas' manse, the looming threat of Bahamut still on everyone's minds. Elza poked her head out from a door at the top of the stairs. "Ashe? I think we're the same size. Why don't you try these on?"
Balthier could visibly see the color drain from the Princess Ashe's face. Although Ashe herself was not always dressed conservatively, she looked like an acolyte of Kiltia compared to Elza's usual attire. She glared at him and trudged up the stairs to select the clothes she would be wearing that evening.
Luckily enough for Balthier, his usual garb was suitable for traveling as an aristocratic party guest, and he had snagged a more elaborate outfit for the ball from one of the rooms in Reddas' home. Although Balthier had argued that the man was not returning for his clothes, Vaan was still not speaking with him. The entire group was a bit punchy with the delays, and Balthier could not wait to quit Balfonheim. However, Ashe's attitude was proving to be a pain in the you know what, and he'd be spending the remainder of the day with her. He just wanted his airship back, and once that happened, Balthier would be a happier man.
"We're going to go shopping. We'll make sure that we have the best arms for…tomorrow," Penelo said encouragingly, and she dragged Vaan away from the manse. He was now stuck in the room with Basch, who was probably plotting his death, and his partner, who seemed to regard him with nothing but contempt for getting them all into this mess.
Raz bounded in happily, waving a large envelope. "I ran into Rikken on the way back, so he has the names. I guess I always work better under pressure," he remarked and handed the envelope to Balthier.
The sky pirate frowned. "I thought I asked you for two invitations…"
Raz shook his head. "Well I figured that you just needed the one. Both your new names are on there, don't worry about it! Sir Merritt's people will have enough rooms; they won't even know you weren't on the guest list!"
Balthier pulled the elaborate paper invite out of the envelope, and he grinned widely. Ashe was going to wring his pirate neck. He put the invitation back and bowed to little Raz. "I am sorry to have doubted you. This will be perfect."
Fran glanced up at him, and he gave her a wink. "She is going to seriously harm you, Balthier," the Viera muttered, and Basch looked between them, but he could not decipher their meaning.
The door at the top of the stairs opened, and Ashe emerged. Instead of her usual attire, she was now dressed in a long blue gown. To her clear discomfort, it had the obvious Elza touch with a plunging neckline and a slit up the side. But the Princess had found a thin shawl to wear over it to more closely embody her new status as a guest of Sir Merritt. "Doesn't she look positively royal?" Elza exclaimed happily, carrying a bag behind Ashe.
"She is royal, Elza," Balthier answered with a shake of his head. Ashe marched down the stairs in an obvious huff. "Besides, she only needs to look like gentry, and you have succeeded. I'm surprised you even owned something like that." Elza snorted and handed Ashe a garment bag with her evening attire.
Ashe collapsed in an arm chair next to Basch and crossed her arms defiantly. Elza laughed and wandered off to check on Rikken's progress. The room was uncomfortably silent, and Balthier knew that the day was far from what they had expected. But they would never sneak aboard the Bahamut without the Strahl, so they did not have much choice.
Minutes later, Rikken rushed back in, a triumphant smile on his face. "You owe me big time for this," he boasted, handing traveling papers to Balthier and the Princess. The sky pirate nodded in thanks and opened the papers to grin at the new name that appeared there. He looked over to see Ashe glance at the papers, and he could see her eyes narrow the second she noticed it.
"Wait a minute here…" she said quickly, and he walked over to drop the ball invitation into her lap. She took it out of the envelope, and the look on her face was one he would never forget for the rest of his life. "Lord and Lady?"
He put his hands on his hips and looked down at her. "I know it's a step down on the aristocrat ladder for you…"
She stood up to scowl up at him, and despite her smaller stature, she was rather intimidating. "That's not what I'm saying!" She shoved the invitation in his face. "I am to pose as your WIFE?" she cried. Basch stood up angrily, and Balthier waved him off.
"That's the idea," he replied, taking the invitation from her and sliding it into her bag of clothes. She sputtered for a few moments, unable to reply, and it appeared that Basch was equally irritated and speechless. "Come on, we have to make for the aerodrome." He picked up her bag and slung it over his shoulder and headed for the door.
Finally, she found words. "I can't do that! I am not that good of a LIAR!" she complained, and he turned around to grin at her.
Fran and Basch stood behind her, made up of equal parts disgust and slight amusement at their bickering. He approached the Princess and patted her on the head like a child. "Ashe, one day very soon you will be a politician of the highest order. Wouldn't you like to practice lying to people's faces?"
She swatted his hand away and moved ahead of him to storm out the door. At the very least, she had the haughty noble blood lending itself well to her disguise. Fran walked past shaking her head, and Basch stayed behind to march along at his side.
"If you do not return by this time tomorrow, Fran and I are coming for you," he remarked. Balthier nodded in acknowledgment, although he knew they were worrying for no reason. This plan would work if he had to cast a love spell on his new wife.
The knight continued his warnings. "And do not take advantage of her Highness because you are playing a part. I know many ways to kill a man without anyone knowing it was murder," Basch threatened menacingly, and the sky pirate laughed. The rest of the walk to the aerodrome was calm enough with the exception of the loud sighs that seemed to emanate from the Princess every other minute.
Ashe stared out the window, and he knew she was irritated to be flying in the opposite direction they had planned for that day. He sat across from her as the ship flew south towards Bhujerba. They were in a private cabin thanks to their impeccable travel papers, but she had said very little since they had boarded. The only acknowledgment Balthier had received from her was a look of disgust as he wore her husband's ring on his finger.
But if they were to ask around about the Strahl that night, it was essential that they played their parts well. Balthier knew he was up to the task since lying was like second nature to him. But would Her Majesty hold up her end of the deal? He smiled to himself. If she didn't, there would be no Strahl to escort her in comfort to certain doom aboard the Bahamut.
He waved his hand in her face to snap her out of her staring. "Shall we practice our story?" he asked calmly, but she still would not turn to face him.
"Fine," she muttered, her brow furrowing as she continued to gaze out the small porthole. This was not going to be easy, Balthier thought.
He leaned forward. "Where did we meet?"
She finally turned to look at him, raising an eyebrow. "In a sewer. You had just stolen treasure from my palace."
He sighed. If this was what being married to Ashelia B'Nargin Dalmasca would be like, he would embrace bachelorhood for the rest of his days. "Well, that was Vaan who took that trinket, but that is irrelevant at this juncture."
She stared at him blankly. It appeared he was to come up with the story. He sat back in the seat and looked at her, scrutinizing her appearance. She looked at her lap.
"We met one summer while I was home from the Akademy. Your father, a dear friend of my parents for many years, sent you to our estate to be tutored. By that winter we were pledged to one another and the following year was the wedding. You looked beautiful that day…"
She looked up at him. "Balthier, hold on…"
He held up a hand to stop her. "No no no, that is not my name. I'm…" he reached into his pocket to pull out the travel papers. "Cullen Heras Hetterick, Lord Radovan. Wow. Rikken really outdid himself, I'll give him that." He returned the papers and gave her a grin. "And Lord Radovan's strikingly gorgeous wife? What is her name?"
For what was quite possibly the millionth time that day, Ashe glared at him. She undid the clasp on her bag and pulled out her papers. "Alene Davonia Shellore, Lady Radovan," she replied with a frown.
"You don't like it?" he asked.
She shook her head and set the papers down in the seat next to her. "It's not my name."
"Neither was Amalia."
She was quiet then. He decided to continue to instruct her in their history together. "So we were wed, as already stated. For our leisure, we invest in the theatre district in Archades. Our last venture, Our Rozarrian Maid, ran for sixty-two weeks at the Aristophanes in Trant."
"Our Rozarrian Maid?" she parroted back.
He buried his head in his hands. She was the most stubborn woman he'd ever met. He didn't know if he wanted to throttle her or make passionate love to her. "Alene…" he complained, at least attempting to stay in character.
She leaned forward and tilted her head sideways to look at him. "Wasn't it Our Rozarrian Cousin?"
He loved her. Balthier raised his eyes to meet hers, which were a lot more welcoming than they had been earlier. "Right you are. And you love the scent of the orange blossoms on our estate in Tsenoble, but you're getting a bit irritated with all the nouveau riche moving in there, and you want to set up house in Bhujerba one of these days."
She actually smiled at him, a teeth-baring, wide open smile. "And you spend every night gambling away my dowry…"
He put his hand over his heart. "Are you insinuating that there is trouble in paradise?"
She giggled, a delightful sound that he had not heard their entire journey. He wanted to hear it much much more. "If you and I were truly wed…"
The Princess bit her lip and appeared to be holding back from something. Finally, she reached her hand forward to cup his cheek, her eyes full of adoration. "Oh my sweet Cullen, your Aleenie wouldn't change you for the world."
He was awestruck. Her Majesty was a consummate actress. She dropped her hand, but he caught it excitedly, giving her a squeeze. "That was amazing! Well done, Aleenie!" he praised her, and she blushed at the attention. But he remembered Basch's threat and released her. He sat back and turned sideways, propping his legs up on the chair beside him.
She looked back at the papers in her lap, probably continuing to scrutinize her new name and title. Balthier decided to consider every possible question that some meddling busybody at the ball would ask. "So how soon can we expect an heir to the Radovan name?"
Where he expected her to be embarrassed, she did not even look away from the papers. Her reply sounded completely natural. "Oh, we've been trying for a while now."
"We have?" he managed to squeak out, a sound very unbecoming of a gentry man like himself…or a sky pirate for that matter.
She looked up from the papers and nodded. "Constantly."
The wicked creature! Where had this version of Ashe been all this time? He supposed that trouble at every turn and constant battling had robbed her of her sense of humor, but he was rather enjoying what he was now bearing witness to. And now he couldn't ignore the thought of "constantly" trying for a Radovan heir with the lovely woman across from him.
"Admit it," he said to her, "you're having fun."
She set the papers aside and stretched her legs across the aisle to lay her feet on his chest. "Maybe." Had someone slipped her some concoction when he wasn't looking? Who was this strange woman and what had she done with that grump of a Princess? Even Fran was never this much fun on some of their more elaborate capers.
He dared to rest his hands atop her shins, and he did not detect any flinching on her part, aside from the glowing red color that was spreading to the tips of her ears. Balthier smiled and closed his eyes to relax. If she was to use him as a glorified foot rest, then he was going to take his leave to get more acquainted with his new wife's ankles.
"We make a good team, Princess," he mumbled as he listened to the soothing hum of the airship. He only heard a gentle "Mmm" in response, and he let himself drift off for the remainder of the flight, the Princess' delicate feet perched atop him like they were meant to be there.
A few hours later, they disembarked in the bustling Bhujerban aerodrome. Ashe had seemingly reverted to her previous behavior, regarding him with her usual air of self-righteousness that he secretly adored. But it seemed like she wasn't so much angry with him as she was on a mission to get the Strahl back come hell or high water.
She walked about in that defiant manner only those born with blue blood seemed to be capable of. Her hands on her hips, the Princess gazed around the aerodrome and finally settled her eyes upon him. "Why don't we see if Durio's moored the ship here? We might save ourselves a great deal of trouble."
He shook his head and moved his hand to the small of her back to guide her to the exit. "He's not that stupid. He probably has it stashed in a private hangar near the estate. I suggest that we find an excuse to sneak about before we are expected at the ball."
She did not seem to outwardly object to his current hand placement, but her last aerodrome performance that morning had drawn quite a bit of attention. Perhaps she was allowing it for the sake of their mission. Ashe gripped her garment bag tightly and let him lead her out into the bright sunshine.
"Do you even know where we are going?" she inquired with some measure of disdain, and Balthier found the word "Divorce!" floating through his myriad thoughts.
He let his fingers drift up and down her back as they walked through the crowd. Spotting a very nattily dressed man, his equally nattily dressed female companion and an entourage of utterly bored domestics standing together just outside the entrance, Balthier gave his companion a gentle push in their direction.
"I believe we'll be traveling with this lot," he muttered as they approached the group. The man gave him a broad smile, and his lady friend gave Ashe the once over, to the Princess' thinly veiled displeasure.
"Hullo there! That time of year, eh?" the man said genially, reaching over to clap Balthier on the shoulder. It appeared that they had succeeded in giving off a definite air of wealth, and the sky pirate was amazed at how quickly it had worked. Obviously this man was an idiot.
"Afraid the wife and I couldn't make it last year, dreadful shame," he replied, squeezing Ashe around the middle, and she very slowly let her body relax at his touch.
For her part, his new wife smiled at the wealthy pair. "I don't think we've been introduced. Alene Shellore and this is my…" Balthier squeezed her tighter. "This is my husband, Cullen Hetterick."
The couple nodded in acknowledgment. The other man draped an arm over his companion's shoulder. "Erfe Malanga, of the Passchendale Square Malangas…and my beautiful wife, Renata," the man offered in introduction. Balthier had to withhold a chuckle. The Passchendale Square Malangas were notorious in pirating circles as one of the easiest families to steal from in Archades. He'd have to hold back the urge to snatch the rings off of the man's fingers. There was other pressing business to attend to first.
Balthier released Ashe and gave Erfe a hearty shake, nearly wincing at how easily he could snatch the jewelry from the man's hand. "We received our invites a bit late, so we were unable to procure accommodation. Not to mention that we didn't have time to reserve a transport to the mansion…"
Renata seemed to be distressed at their lack of preparation, but her husband continued to be a pompous twit. "Then you will accompany us to the estate! Plenty of room!" This was almost too easy, the sky pirate thought to himself.
The sucker shooed one of his many servants off to hire a small transport ship for them. Balthier made small talk with Erfe while Ashe did her part to chat with Renata, although Mrs. Malanga appeared to be as interesting as drying paint.
The man was apparently fond of milk from a specific Garif nanna ranch and had it specially imported three times a week, while his wife spent the entirety of her conversation complaining about the way her shoes hurt the arches of her feet. The couple did not inquire the slightest bit about Lord and Lady Radovan, to Balthier's amusement. Typical snotty, self-absorbed aristocrats, he thought.
The overworked and most likely underpaid servant returned moments later. "My lord, there is a sky cab waiting at the end of the lane…"
Erfe scoffed at this. "We are to walk all that way? Are you mad?"
Ashe worked some surprisingly diplomatic magic on Lord Malanga. "It's such a beautiful day. Surely we could endure it? Unless your feet are in pain, Renata?"
Erfe ignored his wife's clear distress, and Balthier and Ashe followed the entourage up the hilly street away from the aerodrome. The sky pirate could not wait to praise his faux spouse for her superior schmoozing abilities, but he supposed they would have a moment to rest once they were shown to their accommodations at the estate.
They were ushered into the sky cab and flew over the floating land towards Sir Merritt's estate. Lord Malanga had seated himself next to Ashe, and Balthier had to endure the heady perfume worn by Renata at his side. It made him dizzy, but not so dizzy as to not notice their new friend's eyes drifting continually down Ashe's dress to gape at her chest.
The Princess seemed well aware of this unwanted attention, and she kept looking to him in a near panic. Balthier nodded at her, willing her to endure the ogling. For her part, Renata made no attempt to stare at him, as she was far more interested in picking small bits of fluff from a tiny hole in the cab seat.
Finally, the ride was over, and he could tell Ashe was holding in a sigh of relief. Of course, as they disembarked, Erfe "accidentally" brushed a hand against the Princess' rear end as she rose from her seat. Luckily enough, Lord Malanga did not receive a punch in the face from one of Ashe's shaking fists.
The pair followed their new friends to the grand foyer of the mansion, and Balthier caught the Princess rolling her eyes at a giant portrait of Sir Merritt that adorned the airy room. He was pictured astride a glorious golden chocobo with adoring women looking up at him in wonder. Balthier wondered how much such a portrait cost and seriously considered commissioning one the next time he obtained a decent amount of gil. Perhaps he would include a likeness of Her Majesty in the crowd of women. The Malangas were escorted off to rooms in the north wing of the mansion as a harried butler approached them.
Balthier did not envy the man's job. "Lord and Lady Radovan. Terribly sorry, but we did not have time to write ahead to reserve accommodation. Surely there is a space for us tonight?" he inquired as kindly as he could without betraying his arrogant aristocratic exterior. Ashe presented their invitation, and he could see her crossing her fingers behind her back.
The butler barely glanced at the invite, and he called over an equally stressed young porter. "Please escort Lord and Lady Radovan to the Tonberry Room, and make sure they have everything they require." The porter nodded, and he gestured for them to follow him.
Ashe began to hoist her garment bag, but the porter quickly snatched it himself as it would be unbecoming of a lady of her stature to carry her own things. Balthier tossed the porter his own small bag as well as long as the service was being provided. They were led down an ornate hallway filled with numerous medals and achievements dedicated to Sir Merritt, none of which were obtained without some measure of bribery.
They climbed a marble staircase, and the porter took them to the end of another hall. "Sorry it's so far from the ball room, my lord. But this is one of the only rooms left…" the busy young man muttered as he unlocked the door.
Balthier was impressed with the accommodations offered to those who were in no way, shape or form actually invited. There was a large bed that one would probably need a ladder to climb into with fluffy chocobo down linens. There was a writing desk, a small bar, a vanity with a floor length looking glass, a private bath, and a marvelous view of the Bhujerba skyline. He wondered if Marquis Ondore himself enjoyed such a view at his estate.
"Yes, I suppose this will be satisfactory," Balthier replied haughtily and handed the man a decent tip for his trouble. The door was closed behind him, and Ashe leaned against the vanity in exhaustion.
"I cannot believe how easy that was," she said incredulously, bending down to take off her shoes. She tossed them in a corner haphazardly and picked up the garment bag and began unpacking it in no particular order. While she managed to hang her dress on a hook on the wall, Balthier was disgusted by the way she was casually tossing makeup and accessories onto the vanity. It appeared the Princess was a slob. How had he never noticed this?
Balthier grunted at his companion's behavior and slid off his own shoes. He made a very distinct point of setting them by the door neatly, and he began arranging his own items on the writing desk for later that evening. She did not appear to be noticing the example he was setting as she continued rifling through the garment bag.
Finally satisfied with his unpacking, he walked over to the bed and flopped down on his back. It was nice to have some quiet after enduring that dreadful couple's behavior. Ashe opened the door to the bath and tossed some toiletries onto the sink and counters for her use later.
When she emerged again, she saw him lying on the bed and smirked at him. "Don't get too comfortable. We'll need to get dressed soon."
Balthier grinned wickedly and patted the comforter beside him. "What? We still have time yet. You don't want to consummate our blessed union? Try for an heir again?"
She scowled at him and opened a bottle of some liquor at the bar. "Not a chance, pirate," she replied and poured two drinks. "I definitely need this. I'm not used to lying about everything like some common criminal."
"You've done very well so far, Princess. I must say you missed your calling in the professional con artist community."
Ashe set a glass down for him on the nightstand and moved to look out the window, sipping on her drink. "This is not where I expected to be right now," she said quietly.
He sat up and leaned back against the headboard. "I know. But just think of it this way. Tonight you will attend a lavish ball full of mindless dopes. The hors d'oeuvres will be stellar, the music enchanting, and your date? Well, he'll be the handsomest fellow at the ball. Dozens of men like that blowhard Malanga will wish to bed you but will quake in fear of upsetting your husband." She groaned at him, and he swung his legs off the bed, taking a moment to down the liquor.
The alcohol buzzing happily through his system, he grabbed his shoes and put them on once more. "Very well. We'll find my ship, and then we can leave."
She finished her drink and set the glass down on the bar. "Where are you going?"
"We have a good hour or so before we need to even bother getting dressed. I was hoping to pilfer the guest list to see if Durio's here under an alias," he explained as he headed to the door.
"Well, then I'm coming with you," she replied.
He shook his head. "No, Princess. I don't think you're as stealthy as me. Though your performance thus far has been incredible, this is a job for a leading man alone."
Ashe crossed her arms. "What am I supposed to do?"
He opened the door and turned back to look at her. "Go mingle I suppose? But stay away from that Malanga…"
Balthier saw a twinkle in her eye at his comment. "What? Are you worried I might be unfaithful?" She approached him and wrapped her arms around his neck, her voice returning to that sweet affectation she used in her acting. "Darling, one fake romance is enough for me."
The sky pirate really wanted to consummate the marriage at this point. However, the image of Basch chasing him with a broadsword won out, and he fled the room, Ashe's laughter echoing down the hallway after him.
An hour later, Balthier strolled back down the hallway to the Tonberry Room. He didn't understand why the room had such a name, but it was probably one of Sir Merritt's eccentricities that would forever remain a mystery. He unlocked the door and shut it behind him, noticing that Ashe had not yet returned from whatever mingling she may have embarked upon.
He would not admit that he was severely disappointed at the lack of Her Majesty's presence. Not for sentimental reasons, he thought quickly, but because he wanted to share his triumphant and sneaky acquisition of the guest list with her. Balthier tugged the parchment from where it presently rested up his sleeve and hopped back onto the bed.
The sky pirate had daringly managed to infiltrate the butler's quarters. The list had been placed casually atop a pile of other papers, and he would never notice it missing. He had been in and out of the room in under a minute, but sneaking back through the servants' passageways had been the real test of his skills. But he hadn't been caught, and he could now examine the list in the comfort of the fluffy bed.
His eyes drifted over the numerous names, and he actually recognized a few of them. Some school chums from his former life, a few marks he'd robbed, but none of them were standing out as a potential Durio alias. Until he reached the bottom of the page. "You have to be joking!" he cried aloud to the silent room.
The room was silent no more as the door opened, and an anxious Princess rushed in. "Oh, you're here…" she muttered, shutting the door behind her. Ashe kicked her shoes off in the same manner she had earlier, and she hurried over to the bed. She flounced onto it and moved to sit beside him.
Before he could say a word, Ashe was pulling up her dress and stretching out a nice, long leg right beside him. "Hold on a moment! I usually like to start a bit slower, Princess…" Balthier heard himself remark, but he could not bring his eyes to part with the young woman's shapely leg.
However, her ulterior motive was quickly revealed. She pulled a piece of parchment from her thigh where it had been secured with a garter. She of course gave him a look of disgust as she tugged her dress back down and showed him the parchment. "So much for the leading man. The leading lady was just as productive!"
Ashe had an identical copy of the guest list he held in his own hand. But where his merely contained names, her list also had corresponding room and airship berth assignments for all the guests. "Now where in Ivalice did you get this?" he asked in surprise as he snatched the list away from her. She grinned at him and seemed very proud to have outdone him in his own profession.
"If you must know all my secrets, Balthier, I suppose I could tell you. Married couples are supposed to share everything, are they not?" she remarked. He had never seen the Princess more pleased with herself.
He gave her his most sincere submissive look, although Fran often remarked that it looked more like he had bad indigestion when he made that face. "Please Ashe. Please tell me where you found this."
She smirked at him. "I asked for it."
Balthier was dumbfounded. "What do you mean 'asked' for it?"
Ashe tugged the parchment back away from him. "Just what I said! I went back to that nice porter who showed us to the room and asked for it. I said I was looking for a friend."
He was unimaginably impressed. That was…very practical of her. With all the commotion she had caused by storming back into the room, he'd forgotten the news he'd had for her. "Anyhow, well done. You have my utmost praise for your ingenuity." She smiled again, not the least bit modest about her stunning achievement. "Did you happen to notice a certain name on the guest list?"
She knew exactly what he meant. The Princess pointed to a name on the list. "Balthier Bunansa is apparently housing a small vessel in the south hangar."
The sky pirate tossed his lesser guest list aside and slid off the bed. "He steals my ship, and then comes here in MY name? Durio is going to swiftly learn the meaning of boot in the ass." She laughed at him, and he wandered over to his own garment bag. "I suggest we get ready and head for the hangar before the ball. If the ship is there, then we're taking it."
The Princess looked confused. "Let me understand you a moment here, Balthier. We get dressed up…and then we go to the hangar and steal the Strahl back? Don't you think the timeline is a bit backwards?"
He began to unsnap the clasps holding his vest on. "I still have a suspicion that Durio is an absolute moron, but I don't think the Strahl is actually where it says. We still may have to inquire at the ball."
Balthier saw Ashe's eyes follow his hands as he continued to undress. "What are you doing?" she asked quietly.
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
She hopped down from the bed and walked over to him. "You can do that in the bathroom." She picked up his garment bag and threw it into the adjoining room and started picking up his cologne and other toiletries to toss them in there as well.
Before she could mess up his organization, he shooed her away from his personal items. He grabbed his things and went into the bathroom, slamming the door with a satisfying bang. "This marriage is suffocating me!" he cried loudly, hearing a muffled snort in reply through the heavy wooden door.
He got dressed quickly and tried to ignore the image of Her Royal Highness hitching up her dress at his side. While it had only happened minutes earlier, his mind was already enlivening the memory. By the time he was dealing with his cuff links, he was the one lifting up the silky garment to reveal the garter beneath. He had to focus.
His comb was missing. He checked the entire sink area…then beneath the sink area…then beside the sink area. Frowning, he opened the door brusquely. The words "Where is my blasted comb?" formed in his mind, but they could not emerge from his mouth for the Princess was engaged in a very provocative dance in front of the full-length looking glass.
Well, he supposed, if one was entirely alien to the concept of dressing up, it did look like Ashe was dancing. But it appeared that her dress was causing her a great deal of trouble. Balthier was very amused to see the long, red strapless gown clutched in one hand around her chest while the other hand swatted to reach for the ties at the back.
"How did Elza tie this?" she mumbled grumpily, not yet noticing he had emerged from the bathroom. He sighed and walked over to her. Elza had two hands free when you tried it on, you silly Princess, he thought to himself.
He approached, and she stopped her movements. She clutched the bodice against herself, and it appeared that it would fall to the floor if she wasn't laced up in back. The sky pirate grabbed the two strings and began passing them through the small holes in the fabric. "Allow me…"
She wrenched away from him and pressed her chest against the wall to keep the dress up, and she returned her hands to her back and began tugging the strings herself. "I can do it!" she protested. Balthier winced at the uncomfortable look on her face as her hands maneuvered behind her back.
"You're going to tear it," he replied, locating his comb on the vanity near Ashe's things. He pulled the comb through his hair while she continued her efforts.
"I said I can do it," she muttered, and he laughed at her attempt to thread the string through the tiny holes.
He threw his comb back down on the vanity and went back to her. He slapped at her hands and yanked the strings back. "Will you just let me tie the damn dress?" She was silent and moved her hands to her front to hold the dress up. She wandered back in front of the looking glass to watch him. He smiled and pulled the strings back and forth in a zigzag.
She adjusted the top of the gown while his fingers worked. "Tie it tighter."
He had been pulling as hard as he thought appropriate. "Are you sure?" he asked incredulously.
Ashe rolled her eyes in the mirror at him. "It feels loose." He gave the strings a hard tug, and she inhaled sharply. Thinking he had seriously harmed her, he went into full panic mode. But she met his eyes in the glass and nodded for him to keep going.
"How do you women breathe in these contraptions?" he responded and continued his tying. It was finally laced all the way to the top, and she let her hands fall away from the top of the gown. To his dismay, it did not fall to her ankles.
She smiled at her appearance, but then he saw her eyes drift to catch him watching her. He finally realized that he was standing close enough to be surgically attached to her back. They continued their unabashed staring for a few seconds more when her eyes widened.
"Earrings!" she exclaimed.
"What?" She turned around suddenly and reached her hands out to his face. "Whoa! What are you doing?" She grabbed his chin and moved his head sideways and began tugging on his earlobes.
"You can't wear these to the ball. You're an aristocrat, not a pirate now," she explained, and he had to admit that she was correct. But she wasn't being very gentle.
He allowed her to pull all of his earrings out, wincing painfully at every removal. "Tug it a bit harder, Ashe. I don't think my ears are bleeding yet," he grimaced.
Removing the final earring, she turned back to the mirror. "Calm down, would you? Don't be such a baby." To his surprise, the Princess began inserting some of his jewelry into her own ears.
"Oh, it's all wrong for me, but you get to accessorize?" he complained, rubbing his reddened earlobes.
She grinned and finished her preparations. "When you're done whining, can we go check out this hangar?"
The sky pirate rolled his eyes and checked his appearance one last time in the mirror. "Whenever Her Ladyship wishes to depart, her husband is ready." She shook her head, his earrings jangling about. It wasn't so much strange to see his jewelry adorning her as it was alluring. This little side quest of theirs was slowly evolving into something he did not yet have a word for.
He opened the door and escorted his wife…er, Ashe in the direction of the airship hangar. As they walked, a question popped into Balthier's mind. He halted her by grabbing the crook of her arm. She looked up at him, and he smiled. "If the porter just handed you the guest list…why did you tuck it under your dress like that?"
She looked down and a flush spread over her face and to Balthier's delight, to the exposed skin not covered by her dress. "Oh, no reason really," she mumbled quietly.
The Princess turned and continued down the hallway, but as another couple emerged from a room down the hall, he hurried to get behind her and wrapped his arms around her middle. The sky pirate decided that their little act required them to be affectionate, and what was a little practice before the ball?
He inhaled the rich floral scent of her perfume as he gently nuzzled her neck, and the other couple smiled at them. He lifted his lips to her ear. "You did that to impress me, didn't you?" he whispered.
She said nothing, and he released her. The Princess' increasingly pink skin was the only answer he needed. He rushed to catch up with her as she nearly sprinted down the hallway.
"Darling, this isn't a chocobo race!" he called after her. Since his little touchy feely moment in the hallway upstairs, his spouse had been rushing to the ball room like she was on fire. He finally caught up to her and gently pulled her aside in a passageway beside the kitchens.
She allowed him to hold onto her arm momentarily as she caught her breath. It appeared that running about in her current get-up took more effort than one would think. "Can we just get this over with? How far is the hangar?" Ashe inquired, holding her side and wheezing in the most adorable way.
Several servants walked past bearing trays of delightful smelling hors d'oeuvres, and it was then that he realized that they had not eaten that day other than a small snack on their flight that afternoon. Glancing towards a window, he could already see that night had fallen. He was famished. The sky pirate whistled for one of the fellows to bring the tray over, and he helped himself to several little morsels. He shoved a few in Ashe's direction, and she took them gratefully.
The Princess began wolfing the food down, apparently hungrier than he was. "We hope she'll be eating for two soon," he remarked to the man, and Balthier waved the servant off. Ashe had a mouthful of some delicacy and could not curse him out in front of Sir Merritt's staff.
Ashe's eyes, however, conveyed the fury that had been characteristic of all her mood swings that day. He nibbled on the treat and went on with their conversation as if he had not just implied that he was intent on making babies with the future Queen of Dalmasca. "Well, when I was down here earlier, I saw a passageway that surely leads to the hangar. You could smell the engine oil from several paces away."
She finally finished stuffing her face and crossed her arms. "So how is this going to work? Do we go to the ball and then sneak off during a particularly awful dance?"
He shook his head. "No, I'd like to go to the hangar now. Security may be tighter once the ball starts, and there may still be people arriving." He held out his arm, and seeing a few other guests wandering the halls, she accepted it and let him lead her towards the hangar area.
The passage was marked by a large archway. "Yanoule Aerodrome" was carved into the heavy stone. Balthier withheld a chuckle at Sir Merritt's extravagance, and he looked down the darkened passageway to see that no one was there.
He began to walk down the passage when Ashe grabbed his arm. "Wait." She gestured to a small sign that adorned the wall: No unauthorized entry. "We're not allowed to go in there!" she argued.
Balthier was not one for clichés, but if there was such a thing as a double take, then he was currently double taking. "Are you serious?" he asked her. After all the sneaking and lying they had done that day, Ashe was going to let a sign keep them from reclaiming his airship?
She crossed her arms. "You said so yourself. You don't even think the Strahl is in there. Why risk getting caught?"
"Because…" He struggled with a suitable answer. Why was he so hell-bent on sneaking around in the hangar? Was it because he wanted to see if there were other airships worth stealing in the future? Was it the simple thrill of being somewhere one wasn't supposed to be? Was it because he secretly wanted to fumble about in the dark with her?
He marched off grumpily down the passageway. "You can stay here if you want. But the whole point is that we're partners here. Fran and me, we stick together on excursions like this. Good or bad, she always follows my lead."
That was a lie. A complete, utter, hysterically awful lie. Why, if Fran had been there, he would have been slapped upside his pirate head. But it miraculously worked. He heard her groan, and she followed after him.
The hangar was nearly the size of a real aerodrome, and a chilly breeze swept through the enormous room to vent out the exhaust from the airships. He probably should have told Ashe to bring a shawl, but when they had been in the Paramina Rift he had noticed how cute she looked when she had goosebumps and…
Balthier stopped suddenly, and she collided with him. "Why did you stop?" she whispered. The hangar was full of beautiful airships and not one employee of Sir Merritt Yanoule. He was like a child in a sweets shop, and he struggled to focus. They stretched on as far as the eye could see. It was like it was his birthday, and someone had deigned to give him a fleet of ships.
The sky pirate nearly found himself skipping along in the dark, the small emergency lights that adorned the walls his only guide. He stared up at a beautiful silver vessel, the lights shining on it like it was some glorious treasure. "An MX-497! They don't make these anymore!" he uttered ecstatically, and he checked out the condition of one of the wings.
Ashe walked up behind him and tolerated his inspection. He turned his head to see the next airship in the line, and he felt like he would die happy for seeing it. His legs carried him swiftly over, and he wanted to get down on his knees and supplicate himself before the engineer who had envisioned it.
"What's so great about it? It's an airship. And it's not the Strahl, by the way," she grumbled.
He whirled around to face her, withholding the urge to shake her for being so nonchalant in front of the vessel. "It's an airship! It's not just an airship, you…you…you Ashe person!" He found himself sputtering and unable to form coherent sentences as he walked around the ship.
"This is a Rozarrian Desert Racer! A relic! Fran was an infant when these were in the air! They only made five of these, three of which are no longer in commission! She can glide through the air like a bird, but she holds enough fire bombs to hold her own in a fight against an Archadian dreadnought." He let his hand caress the tail pipe lovingly, and Ashe looked at him like he was getting intoxicated from the fumes. "The original paint job has been restored! Ashe, go fetch a ladder. I want to see if the cockpit still has the…"
She tugged on his arm. "Some other time, Balthier. We're here for a reason." He let her pull him along, but he could barely tear his eyes away from the Racer. If he gave Vaan the Strahl, he could take the Racer. It could work, but the bounty on his head would be ratcheted into the stratosphere. It would be the greatest achievement of his career. Just to fly her one time would be enough to earn him accolades in the pirate community.
They continued walking. "So the Strahl was in berth D-7 according to the list I obtained," she remarked as they continued walking. They were only in the A berths and would have a long way to go.
She had to tug him away several times, but they finally reached the D berths. Numbers one through six contained ships, but seven…
"As I thought," he muttered. He and the Princess sighed in unison at the completely empty holding stall, only oil stains on the metal grate floor indicating that a ship had been housed there at some point in the past.
Ashe walked ahead to stand in the middle of the empty area. "Maybe he hasn't arrived yet? He's going to be fashionably late?" she wondered, but he shook his head.
"No. Just another deception," he replied with a dissatisfied look. They had wandered so far into this blasted hangar, and they had to walk all the way back. And then the real performance would begin. "Come on, let's get back now," the sky pirate said and turned to head in the direction of the mansion.
However, their retreat was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a person whistling. It was coming from further down in the hangar, and it was heading towards them. Fast. "We have to get out of here!" Ashe hissed, and Balthier struggled to squint in the low light to find a place to hide.
He spied a few metal cargo drums to one side of the empty berth, and he yanked Ashe's hand and began pulling her to hide behind them. Footsteps began materializing in their earshot, and the whistling got louder. Would they be able to duck behind the drums in time?
The whistling was only an airship away when Balthier decided to abandon his plan at the last second in favor of one that he thought might have a better outcome. Ashe still held his hand as they stopped, and she whispered furiously at him. "Balthier! What are you…?"
But the Princess was cut off as he pulled her against him quickly, wrapping his arms around her. He saw her eyes widen in protest as he pushed his lips against hers roughly. Her fingers reached up to latch onto his biceps, squeezing them in a manner that would definitely leave bruises on him. If this was her means of complaint, then he would welcome further objections in the future.
He tried to pay attention to the whistling figure as he or she continued walking in their direction, but it was proving difficult. Her lips were invitingly soft, and he could not believe he was actually kissing her. He was also rather surprised that she hadn't punched him in the jaw yet. Instead, she seemed to respond, her fingers loosening around his arms and drifting up to wrap around his neck like the way she had teased him before.
Balthier found himself getting a bit too into the act as he found his hands drifting down her back over the firmly tied ribbons he had assisted with earlier. The Princess released a very pleasing moan, and he wanted nothing more than to ravish her on the metal floor. But as he predicted, there was a bright light shone on them, and he released her as quickly as he had grabbed her moments earlier.
There was a very noisy smacking sound as their lips pulled apart, and a throat was cleared. The sky pirate turned around to squint at the figure behind the bright light. He held a hand up to block out the light. "What is the meaning of this?" Balthier inquired furiously, hopping back into his character like nothing.
Ashe's heavy breathing behind him told him that she was having a bit more trouble returning to Lady Radovan. The light was finally lowered slightly, and the face of the head butler was visible to them. The man looked very embarrassed for interrupting him, as Balthier had expected. Getting caught hiding in the hangar would have probably meant expulsion, but if Lord and Lady Radovan were caught in near flagrante delicto, it would only mean a slap on the wrist from the uncomfortable staff.
"I'm sorry, my lord…your ladyship," the butler said quietly, refusing to meet their eyes. His plan was working perfectly, he thought. "No one is allowed in the hangar during events, even guests. I apologize for my intrusion."
Balthier feigned ignorance and raised a hand to his mouth in shame. "I'm terribly sorry, my good man. We were just…well…"
The butler continued to look embarrassed at his blunder that was in fact no blunder, and the sky pirate turned to look at Ashe jovially. It took all of his self-control to not laugh at the current disheveled state of Her Majesty.
She was redder than a Rogue Tomato, her hands wringing themselves in front of her. Her eyes were slightly glazed over, and Balthier wondered if he should have given her some sort of heads-up about the whole "make them think we were about to fornicate in their hangar" trick. On second thought, he thinks her surprise is working in their favor.
He grabbed her hand, and it almost slid out of his grasp. It appeared that Lady Radovan was sweating! Did she enjoy the little act as much as he had? He had no time to ponder that as the butler was patiently waiting for them to vacate the hangar.
"It was the wife's idea to come look at the ships," he explained casually and pulled Ashe along. The butler was kind enough to escort them back to the passageway.
"They are serving appetizers now, my lord," the butler muttered uneasily, "Whenever you and Lady Radovan are ready to make your appearance, Meson will be happy to announce you. Just through the double doors to the left." The older man beat a hasty retreat, and Balthier and Ashe were left alone in the passageway.
Ashe now stood directly beneath the No unauthorized entry sign, and Balthier's mind abandoned him in favor of the gutter. He shook his head of his filthy thoughts and walked up to her. She held up her hands in front of her. "Don't. Not another step," she said coldly, her flesh finally starting to return to its usual pale state.
He stopped and waited for her to berate him, to curse him, to take her bloody shoe off and beat him to within an inch of his life. But instead she smirked. "Basch is going to kill you."
Balthier laughed heartily. "I can think of no better crime to be executed for!"
She tilted her head to regard him critically. "You should have said something. I could have…I don't know, thrown my leg around you."
He stared at her, utterly stunned into silence by the…by his daring Princess.
"For the act, I mean," she clarified quickly. "To trick the butler. What I mean to say is, er…that if you had just said you were going to kiss me to trick the poor man, I could have made it more convincing. Like I said…the leg idea. Or I could have been saying 'Cullen, oh Cullen' or something like that. I mean, really, you should have said something. I thought we were partners in this. Really, Balthier, that was quite selfish of you."
He felt his mouth drop open, and though Balthier loathed hyperbole as much as he loathed clichés, he thought his jaw had hit the proverbial floor.
She approached him and linked her arm through his. "Are we going or not?"
The sky pirate nodded quickly and led her to the ball room.
"Alene Shellore and Cullen Hetterick…Lady and Lord Radovan!"
Balthier escorted Ashe into the opulent ballroom, the gentleman announcing their aliases in a booming voice behind them. Of course, none of the mingling guests even turned their heads at their entrance as the man moved on to introduce the next couple.
A crystal chandelier was the centerpiece of the room, reflecting light all over the vast ball room as it hung over the smooth parquet of the dance floor. Dozens of staff swarmed the floor with trays of delicacies and Bhujerban madhu of the best vintage. The large glass doors that lined the far wall were all flung open, offering a beautiful vantage point of the entire city-state from the stone balcony.
An orchestra played some elegant waltz while several couples whirled about on the dance floor. The room was full of pompous laughter, bragging, and derogatory language about people of lesser social standing. As he and Ashe drifted around the room in their first examination, he saw no sign of Langden Durio's carrot orange hair.
He guided the Princess to a spot near an enormous tapestry that depicted Sir Merritt engaged in a daring battle against a wyrm of some sort in the Tchita Uplands, an event that had never happened. From this vantage point, they could observe the entire room well enough. Only the balcony guests were concealed from them.
"The stench of gil in the air, that eau de arrogance so richly cultivated by these people," he muttered to her as they stood with smiles on their faces. "Enough to make me sick."
She grinned widely and waved for a man with a tray to come over. "No, Cullen, dear. Tell me how you really feel." The Princess took glasses of the sweet wine for both of them and thanked the servant.
"Being a little too nice to the staff here, darling," he chastised her as he scanned the crowd in search of that ignorant ginger cad. The music finally ceased, and Balthier watched Ashe get her first in-person glimpse of Sir Merritt Yanoule.
Though pictured majestic and handsome on the numerous portraits and tapestries that adorned the massive estate, Sir Merritt was not entirely striking. In fact, Balthier thought he resembled a toad. He had large bulging eyes, an enormous paunch and numerous imperfections of the skin, namely warts. But the man knew how to entertain, and he stood in front of the orchestra to address the crowd.
The sky pirate glanced sideways to see the Princess quickly masking a look of disgust as the man cleared his throat noisily, and a squeaky, unexpected voice emerged from it. "Honored guests! It brings me great pleasure to welcome you back to Bhujerba. Though there's some nasty business about a war afoot, let us not let it ruin this glorious fete."
The crowd applauded as though programmed to do so at all Sir Merritt's pauses. Ashe leaned over to whisper angrily. "Nasty business? Vayne's got that…colossal monstrosity hovering near my capital, and this oaf can just dismiss…"
Balthier grabbed her hand and squeezed it tightly enough for her to hold her tongue. The crowd applauded something else Sir Merritt had said, and he basked in their approval. The rotund man finally held up his hand for silence, and he continued. "My friends, the best hour for magicite viewing is near at hand! At your leisure, please see one of my staff to arrange an escort down to the mines. Groups of six at least, if you will. If you have no need to spend your time in Lhusu, there will be plenty of entertainment here. Be well!"
There was more thunderous applause, and the man roused the orchestra into a frenzy and began dancing with some woman who looked like she had Behemoth dung for brains. "The walls have ears, my love," Balthier said to Ashe and finally released her hand.
"What if Alene has relatives in Rabanastre?" she muttered, her voice dripping with irritation. Balthier knew she was upset, for she hadn't even complained about him calling her "love." The Princess shook her head, and he waited patiently for her to regain her focus. "I haven't seen anyone with hair the color you described."
He downed the wine and placed the glass on a servant's tray as the young man passed by. "We have not gone to the balcony yet." He held an arm out to her. "Shall we?"
She accepted his arm again, and they wandered through the crowd. They both shrewdly scanned the dancing, mingling guests, but no one with a shock of that hideous colored hair was in sight. Balthier thought someone with that much of an emergency atop their head would stand out, but perhaps Durio had improved his ability to hide in the past few years.
But the balcony yielded no results either. The view of the city was stunning, but the sky pirate was beginning to get severely distressed about the well-being of his beloved airship. An inferior pilot like Durio was probably mistreating the Strahl as he stood there in the dark on the balcony, the insipid conversation grating against his eardrums.
Even Ashe noticed his heightened stress levels, and she placed a comforting hand on his forearm. And it appeared that it was Ashe herself showing concern, not Lady Radovan. "Maybe we would be more effective if we split up? I will ask around if anyone is trying to sell an airship. Do you think that would work?"
He liked her thinking. "That sounds like a plan. Why don't you take the east half of the ball room, I'll take the west. We reconvene in this spot after…five more dances."
She smiled and was about to walk away, but her face took on a very strange look. He wondered if he had something in his teeth, but she suddenly reached up and grabbed his face. Ashe planted a big, sloppy kiss on him and leaned back approvingly. "For luck, darling," she said sweetly and trotted off merrily to the ball room.
The sky pirate must have been standing there in shock for a good long while when some fool elbowed him in the side. "Renata and I…we've lost that spark," the fool remarked.
He turned to find that damned Erfe Malanga grinning at him. "I'm sorry?" Balthier inquired quickly, trying to regain his composure. He supposed that Ashe had decided to fight back after he had stolen a kiss earlier, and he hoped that there would be more fighting as the night went on.
"You can just tell how much in love you two are. What I would give to have a lovely young wife like your little number," he oozed in a sleazy manner. His own wife was nowhere in sight, and the true hideousness of Erfe's character was on full display.
Balthier could still taste the Princess on his lips, and he had trouble responding angrily to Erfe's tone regarding Lady Radovan. By now, a pompous fop would have challenged the man to a duel. If not for his current commentary, then for the hand brushing against Ashe's backside earlier that day. But the sky pirate could not tear himself away from watching the Princess glide through the crowds in the ball room, and he marveled at how effortlessly she was insinuating herself in people's conversations. He could not help beaming in pride at his beautiful protégé.
Malanga then proceeded to make an unsavory and entirely unprintable comment about his phony spouse's upper body assets, and it prodded Balthier to snap back into character. He turned to grip the beastly fool by the shoulders, using every bit of force he had to squeeze the man through his disturbingly pink waistcoat. The sky pirate looked the man straight in the eye, and Malanga visibly shrank back. "Now, my good man, I would thank you not to speak of my wife in such a foolish manner," he warned through gritted teeth.
Erfe's eyes began to water at Balthier's grip. "I must have lost my mind a moment," the foolish man winced in pain.
"It seems as such," the sky pirate uttered, "Your verbal defecation is an insult not only to my lovely wife, but to my pride and honor as well." Balthier was beginning to wonder if it was really Lord Radovan speaking through him…or some possessiveness he was starting to feel towards the woman he had now had the pleasure of kissing twice that evening.
The man sighed as Balthier finally released him, and he rubbed his shoulders tenderly. "I apologize for my coarseness. I am not used to being in the company of men who actually love their spouses."
He didn't have time to ponder the man's words as the Princess was walking towards him, an elderly couple in tow. She seemed full to bursting with what could only be a lead to the Strahl, and Erfe Malanga hurried away before he said anything else about Lady Radovan's chest in Balthier's earshot…or Ashe's for that matter.
Ashe bounded up and linked her arm with his, leaning up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek in greeting. "Darling, I want to introduce Sir Wayon and Lady Elita Deschanel. This is my 'leading man', Balthi…"
"Cullen Heras Hetterick, Lord Radovan," Balthier rushed out quickly before Ashe made a very embarrassing blunder in her excitement. He shook the old man's hand and kissed the hand of the old woman. They didn't seem to notice Ashe's near slip, and the Princess held him tighter to thank him for saving her.
Sir Wayon smiled gently at them. "Your wife was inquiring about airships, but she said you were the one to really chat with when it comes to mechanics." Maybe this man knew the owner of the Racer in addition to information about the Strahl? Balthier almost crossed his fingers for luck.
But instead he nodded. "Well, Alene and I lead such busy lives. We just have to find a second ship. Isn't that right?"
Ashe smiled, and he wrapped an arm about her shoulders. Balthier was beginning to wonder how much of this was really an act any more. "Absolutely. Cullen is always flying back and forth for his business ventures. I can't spend my whole life waiting for an air cab."
Lady Elita grabbed Ashe's hand. "Oh, heavens no! They let anyone pilot those ships. Why, just the other day there was some…lizard flying the cab I was in. Can you believe that? They let those filthy creatures fly Humes about!"
Balthier withheld the urge to chastise the woman's bigotry, but just as he was about to inquire about the Strahl and Durio, there was a loud crashing noise out in the gardens. Dozens of wealthy busybodies rushed over to the balcony, blocking a path for Balthier or Ashe to sneak through and see what was happening.
"They think to crash the ball?" one onlooker scoffed in amusement, and the gathered crowd laughed boisterously. Ashe looked to him then, her eyes asking him if it was Durio. He shook his head. If Durio was on the guest list, even as Balthier Bunansa, he would not be considered a party crasher. No, it was probably just a few Bhujerban rascal children trying to beg for scraps from the kitchens.
Sir Wayon chuckled. "How charming. I am surprised they made it all the way to the gardens, jolly good show. I hope Sir Merritt gives them some gil for their efforts." Ashe and Balthier laughed to play along, and eventually the crowd abandoned the balcony as the party crashers, whoever they were, seemed to have been captured.
The sky pirate brought the conversation back to airships. "If I understood my beautiful wife's face upon her return to me, that means that you are either selling an airship…or you know someone who is, Sir Wayon."
The man grinned broadly. "Afraid that my days of airship speculating are long gone. But there was a young man here earlier this evening that was positively itching to unload some vessel."
Lady Elita interrupted, latching onto Ashe once again. "Oh, he was so uncouth! He must have been to a very lax boarding akademy. And that hair!"
Balthier gave Ashe a quick nod as Sir Wayon waved for his wife to calm down. "Now now, Elita! He was just a very eager young man. I could probably teach him a thing or two about selling property, but that is neither here nor there. I asked the boy if he was any relation of the Bunansas in Tsenoble…" Balthier held in a wince at the mention of his family homestead, and Ashe squeezed his hand without taking her face away from the Deschanels. "But he looked at me like I was speaking another language. He seemed to hurry off soon after."
His wife agreed. "He did scurry away, the little sprite! Probably going off to the mines to beat the crowds. It does get a bit hectic down there closer to midnight."
That was their cue to retreat. Balthier bowed graciously to the older man and kissed the talkative old woman's hand once more. "I am probably as eager to acquire a ship as that young man is to sell it! Thank you kindly for your assistance."
The woman looked at them in shock. "You're going alone? But there are such dreadful fiends. I would never go without an escort!"
Ashe looked into his eyes and smiled. "I think we'll manage. My Cullen is a gifted fighter."
Balthier found himself gazing back at her, and he had to force himself to look away. "Her Cullen also wants that airship badly enough to withstand any fiend that comes his way! If you'll excuse us…"
The Deschanels said their goodbyes, Lady Elita going so far as to ask Ashe to come to their moon viewing party the following month. For her part, the Princess agreed very kindly to check her schedule. Balthier gave her hand a tug, and he pulled her in the direction of the exit.
The two of them were giddy with the news about Durio, the Bhujerban madhu probably catching up to them as well. They reached the side entrance of the mansion, as a trail directly downhill from the estate would lead right to the Lhusu Mines entrance. The guard looked at them curiously when they declined an escort, but he allowed them to pass. Little did the guard know that Lord and Lady Radovan had spent the past several months battling ever stronger fiends. The bats would be a cake walk.
As soon as they were in the clear, Ashe threw her arms around him excitedly. "I cannot believe how much fun that was!" It appeared that the madhu had really affected the Princess more than he had originally thought as she was very affectionate, not releasing him as they wandered the path down to the mines.
"Ease up, Ashe. We're clear of the estate now. No need to continue this trifling act," he said flippantly, trying to gauge her reaction. She instantly released him and settled into step beside him, a fairly hurt look on her face. He had to hold in his laughter. "I'm just kidding. You may continue showering me with affection."
She was annoyed with him, and she reverted to her cold, unfeeling, "we must do this because I will be Queen, and I said so" mode. "So how will this work? We corner him in the mine and demand he take us to the Strahl?"
"That's not entirely what I had in mind…"
The Princess turned to look at him, and he could tell that once again she was not going to be ecstatic about his plan.
Balthier was thoroughly convinced that clubs were the most inelegant weapon one could use. He preferred the distance a gun afforded him. It also kept him a great deal cleaner since he was not showered with monster guts on the battlefield from said distance. Although there was some degree of satisfaction in whipping some heavy blunt object through the air to smack some irritating bat swooping over one's head. The aftermath was the problem.
Sticky, goopy bat innards now coated both his and Ashe's clothes as they trudged through the Lhusu Mines. The Princess could still not maneuver at full strength, so he was the only one engaged in this swatting exercise. But he made sure to send enough of the bat remnants in her direction, to which she was getting increasingly irritated with him.
"We couldn't have just gone in with that other group. The other group that had torches and a fully trained escort to deal with all these horrible bats," she complained as she pulled a gooey bat wing off of the bottom of her dress.
He smiled. "Too conspicuous! We can approach in the dark now…just a moment." Another one of those blasted creatures attempted to dive at her head, and he swung the club. It was a close call, the club swishing just over her head. A loud squeal signaled the bat's retreat, and Ashe winced.
"Balthier!" she moaned, "If you'd killed that thing, I would be wiping its guts from my hair. Next time you splatter one of them, I'll wipe it all over your face. Don't do that again."
The sky pirate perched the club on his shoulder in a manner he usually saved for his gun. He put his other arm around her shoulder and continued to lead them through the dusty, drafty mine. They weren't far from the magicite viewing area, and they had already encountered several dumbfounded ball guests, but there was still no sign of Langden Durio.
"This will all be over soon, and you will have the privilege of using the Strahl's facilities to clean yourself up," he replied. She grunted in response and continued picking little bits of bat from her formerly beautiful gown. Balthier would not admit it out loud, but there was something incredibly attractive about a messy Princess.
The guts themselves were not exactly enticing, but since they had entered the mine a short while ago, her hair had become tousled and the bottom of her dress had torn. There was now a very exciting rip from her ankle to her thigh, exposing skin that he was actually quite used to seeing the entire day. But having it visible in this manner was all the more forbidden and interesting. He had also tried not to mention the smudge of dirt perched at the tip of her nose.
Balthier himself was rather obsessive about hygiene, but seeing his girl dirtied in this way got him rather hot and bothered. As soon as they got the ship back, they'd have a nice long flight back to Balfonheim. Perhaps he could persuade Her Majesty to…
"Is that him?"
He was startled out of his thoughts. "Wha-what?"
Ashe pulled them aside into a shadowy corner, and were they there for some other purpose, he would let himself enjoy it more. She whispered into his ear. "Ahead, standing by himself there." The Princess pointed to a rather short fellow dressed in fancy attire. The man was nervously biting his fingernails as if he was waiting for something to happen…or waiting for the rightful owner of the airship he had stolen. Even in the relative darkness of the mine, Balthier recognized him right away.
He felt himself grip the club tightly, nearly giving himself a splinter from the wood it was made from. "That's him," he answered, willing himself not to sprint down the mine shaft to beat the man senseless. That wouldn't get the Strahl back. He set the club down and decided to get Ashe prepared.
Fortunately, Durio was standing entirely alone, and the plan could go without a hitch. He pulled his best handkerchief out and grabbed Ashe's chin abruptly. "Hey!" she hissed at him, but he silenced her with a finger to her lips. Her eyes narrowed at him as he began cleaning her face with the handkerchief.
"You're a pretty girl, Ashe, you know that. But you've got a bit of bat on you, and we can't have you screwing this up for us," he muttered as he dared to spit on the handkerchief. She scowled at him as he rubbed the cloth across her dirtied nose.
"No pressure," she grumbled as he continued his ministrations. Finally satisfied, he put his handkerchief away and took a peek back to see the nervous waste of space still biting his nails. Keep biting, Durio, he thought angrily.
The sky pirate turned to his partner. He placed his hands on her shoulders and gave her a wink. "I believe in you. You've been nothing but glorious all day." He turned her around, and she held her shoulders high. He shoved her off with an encouraging pat to the backside. "Go get my ship back."
Ashe turned to glare at him, but she reverted back to Lady Radovan and headed over to Durio. Balthier crept along behind her, staying in the shadows to avoid being detected. The ginger fellow was tapping his foot impatiently, looking around every other second like a startled animal in a trap.
The Princess hurried up to him, and Balthier smiled at Durio's reaction. It was like he was seeing some angel in the darkness. "Oh thank goodness you're here! I was beginning to think I'd lost everyone!" Ashe cried, latching onto the man's shoulders. He jumped at the contact and backed away from her.
"Uh…um, I'm sorry. I was…I mean I'm…uh, hi. I'm Balthier Bunansa," Durio muttered, holding out his hand.
Balthier was astonished at Ashe's ability to maintain a straight face with the bumbling fool, especially when he introduced himself. "Balthier Bunansa? You don't say! What a lovely name. Now Balthier, my name is Alene, and it would appear that we have lost our group. How about we try walking back together?" She shook Durio's hand and then tugged on it, pulling the confused man back in the direction of where Balthier was hiding.
Durio continued to babble incoherently, his eyes moving rapidly from Ashe's face to her bust line and clearly torn up dress. He was finally able to calm himself a bit. "It's uh…it's wonderful to meet you. Yes…yes, very nice to make your acquaintance, uh. But hold on a moment." Durio pulled his hand away, and his eyes left Ashe's chest to look around anxiously.
"What's wrong? This is the way back, isn't it?" Ashe asked nervously. Something was off, and he tried to catch her eyes to encourage her to move ahead with the plan. She glanced quickly over to him and nodded. The Princess turned her attentions back to the red headed man. "Do you have a ship, Balthier? It's awfully cold down here, and maybe we could take a tour of the purvama? Just you and me?"
At the mention of the word "ship," Durio nearly leapt out of his skin. "Ship? No…I…I mean, yes. Yes, I have a ship, of course I do. It's just uh, it's this way..."
Durio held his hand out, and she took it. Come on, Ashe…get him to lead you to it, Balthier thought, trying to send a telepathic message to her with every bit of will power he had. But the next thing that happened was truly a surprise.
With an amazing amount of strength (well…for Durio any show of strength was amazing) he grabbed the Princess around the waist and pulled her against him. "I got her!" he cried. "I got her!"
Who was Durio talking to? Ashe squirmed in his grasp and managed to punch him in the stomach, and he stayed back unless she needed help. The ginger fellow clutched his stomach, and Balthier figured that the Princess was doing a fine job with her own defense.
Durio lunged at her again, screaming "I got her! He has to be here, too!" Ashe's eyes widened as she glanced over in his direction.
"Balthier!" she cried out, her face utterly surprised. "Behind you!"
Durio had an accomplice? The sky pirate turned around, but he saw nothing as some moron decided to throw a canvas sack over his head. But he was very astonished at the familiar smell of his attackers…how did they survive?
His fighting instincts kicked in, and he began throwing punches left and right, but none were connecting thanks to his lack of vision. He could hear Ashe's muffled screams, and he wondered when this had all gone to hell.
He thought he heard Ashe scream "Balthier, I'm going to kill you!" but it could have been the breeze floating through the mines.
"Stop tugging on the rope. It's rubbing against my wrist."
"Well I beg your pardon, Princess. I am not exactly comfortable at present myself," he muttered back angrily. They were in some distant mine shaft, far far away from the comforts of any of Sir Merritt's partygoers.
The Strahl had been within their grasp, he had thought. All he had to do was follow Ashe and Durio, and he could have his ship back. But it appeared that the fates truly loathed him, and that damned fool bounty hunter had popped out of the sandsea to nab him.
He swore that Ba'Gamnan had gone into the sands. He SWORE. But alas, the vile Bangaa had managed to get out of that, and he and his abhorrent gang now held him and the Princess in the mines. Durio had been a red herring all along, but it appeared he had been double crossed by the bounty hunter crew as he was tied up in the mines along with them. Durio had always been an easy mark, so it was probably simple for Ba'Gamnan to have him lure the sky pirate away with the promise of the Strahl as reward.
Currently, he and the Princess were back to back and seated on the cold, dirty mine floor, tied together with thick, heavy rope. They were bound around their chests and then their wrists were bound on their sides so that Balthier could not move his arm without pulling Ashe's along with it. Since they had been in their new imprisonment, Ashe had said little. He probably deserved it. He had not considered that it was a trap all along, and now their journey to the Bahamut was going to be delayed a bit longer.
Balthier glanced over to where Durio was tied up. The sky pirate wished that they'd chained Ashe to Durio instead because she kept trying to pull on the rope, and he just knew he was going to be bleeding soon. "I knew you weren't clever enough for all this, Durio!" he called.
"Look who's talking, Balthier!" the Princess complained, tugging her left arm forward and dragging his right with it.
He turned his head to be greeted with Ashe's swishing hair in his face. He blew the hair away and scowled at her. "Hey! I don't need you turning on me! We'll figure a way out of this!"
"Figure a way OUT?" she screeched, turning her head to glance at him as best she could. "We're tied up…to each OTHER, mind you. This idiot does not have your ship and furthermore does not know where it is….right?"
Durio nodded sadly. "Right."
She went on. "That stupid crew has been after you and only you all this time! I'm supposed to be fighting for my country. In fact, I should be marching triumphantly into my capital city at this very moment, but no! I'm here in a torn dress, I'm tied up, I'm dirty, and I'm hungry. I'm absolutely livid, and you think we're going to figure a way out of this?"
He let her continue to yell at him, and he tuned her out. At least she was attractive when she was furious. Heaven forbid someone ever declared war against Dalmasca in the future. They'd have to face this type of verbal onslaught.
"….and I went along with this charade. I played your little pirate games. I even let you stick your tongue down my throat but for what? To be captured and held like some captured bounty? I don't care if I have to climb up the Bahamut myself. I am not staying here any longer. What is that Bangaa's name again?"
"Ba'Gamnan," the sky pirate supplied helpfully.
"Ba'Gamnan! Ba'Gamnan, come out here this instant! You are imprisoning royalty and…"
"Ashe! Don't tell him that!"
"Don't tell me what to do, Balthier! Ba'Gamnan! Perhaps we can negotiate my release? I have pressing business in Dalmasca that requires my presence. I don't care what you do with this arrogant pirate, let me go this minute!" she cried angrily, and if Balthier could move his hands at all, he would be holding his head in them. She could be so stupid for someone so intelligent.
The hideous bounty hunter wandered in then with the rest of his gang, a wicked smile plastered across his pointed snout. "Why should I let you go?" he asked, "We expected that bunny to be with him, but no matter. If you really are royalty, then imagine what kind of gil we'll get from Judge Gabranth!" His thugs laughed uproariously, and Balthier sighed.
"Wait…I was just kidding!" Ashe lied hopelessly, "I just want to go. Please? This is between you and him!" She brought her elbow backwards to jostle him in the side.
"Would you stop that?" Balthier complained. He turned to the Bangaa and smirked. "Look Ba'Gamnan, we've had our share of problems in the past. But we really must get to Rabanastre and in the Strahl if you don't mind. I will happily turn myself over to you once our business is taken care of in Dalmasca…"
The Bangaa got in his face and laughed, the stench of his breath making Balthier rather queasy. "Listen to you, Balthier. You speak as if you are the one in charge and not the idiot on the ground tied to a princess who can't keep her mouth shut. Watching this will be more satisfying than turning you over to the authorities. Gwazi, get them up."
"Wait! Wait, please!" Ashe cried as Ba'Gamnan's crew pulled them up and started dragging them in the direction of a draft. "You wouldn't dare!" the Princess squealed, and Balthier realized that the draft was coming from a rather large hole in the mine shaft.
Ba'Gamnan laughed as the Princess and the pirate were held beside the giant hole, only clouds visible beneath their feet. The bounty hunter cackled heartily. "Are you afraid, Balthier? I thought people that fall from purvama don't die?"
Balthier felt Ashe grip his hand, holding onto him for dear life. He held his head up high and looked him in the eye. "I was never interested in finding out if the rumors were true," he uttered.
The Princess turned to him and whispered shakily. "If…if we die like this, I will haunt you in the afterlife. I swear to the gods, I will be a plague upon your soul the likes of which you can't possibly imagine."
He smiled. "I love you, too."
The bounty hunters picked them up and held them over the hole in the floor, and Balthier could feel the drafty air on his face. This was not how the leading man was going to die, was it?
All the rumors were true. Your life did seem to pass before your eyes when faced with mortal peril. He thought of his first hover bike when he was seven, all the children of the neighborhood jealous because their fathers didn't have the engineering know-how to attach a rocket engine to a child's toy. He recalled his first kiss at thirteen, his pretty female tutor in Archadian history getting paid for more than teaching.
The chafing metal of a judge's uniform. The number of ladies that showed interest to a young man in a chafing judge's uniform. Enjoying how that number skyrocketed when he made a career change. The first large treasure he had stolen, the day an enticingly attractive but incredibly self-righteous Princess demanded that he steal her…
Seeing that Rozarrian Desert Racer in Sir Merritt's hangar…
He was startled out of his flashes of life by said Princess, her grip on his hand bordering on bone breakingly tight. Apparently Ba'Gamnan had been generous enough to offer him a chance to say his final words. The breeze from the nothing below him was preventing him from speaking, something that was very rare.
"We don't have all day, Balthier. If you wish to go to your death without one last quip, that is fine by me," the hideous Bangaa uttered. He raised his hand, and his crew let them slide through their grasp a bit, their feet now clearly extended out of the mine shaft and dangling in the atmosphere.
Ashe squealed in a very un-Ashelike manner, and he swore that she was truly going to break his hand before they plummeted to their undignified and disappointing deaths. "Balthier, say something!" she demanded, her feet reaching back to lock around his ankles in the air. Perhaps she was going to position herself so that when they finally smacked into the ground, she would use him as a cushion.
He opened his mouth and willed something clever to emerge from it. "Uh…when all is said and done, the women of Ivalice will rue this day. They will tear at their clothing and uh…they will rip their hair out in mourning. 'Why gods, why?' they will cry, 'why was this beautiful man wiped from the slate of history…"
"Balthier!" the Princess screamed, "say something to SAVE us, you idiot!" The Bangaa crew laughed boisterously at their bickering, but Ba'Gamnan's laughter was cut short when an arrow pierced his shoulder, and he fell to the ground.
The Princess and the pirate were dumped aside onto the hard mine floor casually, and the rest of Ba'Gamnan's crew began to fight their rescuers. He and Ashe were stuck on the floor and could not move, but she struggled against him. "Help! Help, get me away from this stupid pirate!" she cried, and Balthier never thought he would be so happy to see Vaan's face in his entire life.
The young man began cutting the ropes that bound them with a dagger. "Gee Balthier," he said with a grin, "You sure managed to screw this up."
There was the clanging of swords and the firing of arrows, and the sky pirate wrenched himself away from Ashe to sit up. They were all here! Fran, beautiful sweet wondrous gorgeous amazing Fran was there! She had shot that stupid Bangaa! And Penelo, oh little Penelo with her pigtails…and Basch. He would kiss Basch if he could. Balthier pulled the Princess up, and they added their fists to the battle.
Their friends managed to subdue the bounty hunter clan, and soon thereafter the four Bangaas were roped together and placed dangerously close to that same hole in the mine floor. Even Durio, still tied up by himself in the corner, appeared impressed.
Balthier scratched his head and looked to his partner curiously. "How did you…I mean, you could not have known we were…how did you get here?" he babbled incoherently.
The Viera exchanged an irritated glance with the knight. She met the pirate's eyes and glared furiously. "We came in the Strahl."
"In the Strahl?" he cried at the same time as the Princess beside him.
Basch walked up to Balthier, his eyes narrowed. "The ship was returned within an hour of your departure from Balfonheim along with a…sort of ransom note for you. All they wanted this whole time was to lure you out, Balthier."
The knight looked about ready to tie him to the Bangaas and send him plummeting to the ground below, and the Princess appeared to be in complete agreement. Something came to Balthier then. "Wait a minute…so you flew here and…you were the party crashers!" he exclaimed.
Fran nodded. "Basch needs to improve his stealth technique," she complained. Basch looked away in embarrassment.
"But Sir Merritt gave us plenty of food while he questioned us," Vaan said cheerfully, and Penelo nodded in agreement.
The Princess got very much into his personal space, and she poked him in the chest again and again with her finger. "They got the Strahl back within."
"HOUR!" She looked like she was about to strangle him, and Basch pulled her off of him. Basch did seem to enjoy the Princess' murder attempt, though, and Balthier thanked his lucky stars that things seemed to be resolving themselves.
"So what do we do with this crew?" Penelo asked, withholding a giggle at the scene in front of her.
Balthier turned to Ba'Gamnan, who was wincing in pain at the arrow wound Fran had inflicted. "So the tables have turned yet again, Ba'Gamnan. Do YOU have any final words now?" he asked triumphantly.
The Bangaa sneered at him. "One of these days, Balthier. I swear that my blade will find a place in your arrogant pirate back!" The sky pirate laughed and kicked the Bangaa in the gut, and he tumbled backwards into the rest of his crew.
They lost their footing, and the four bounty hunters plummeted through the hole in the mine shaft, their cries echoing upward until they faded away. Balthier turned around to face the angry faces of his party once again. "What? The threat is over, and we have the ship back. Can't we just move on?"
Five pairs of fists were clenched, and he knew that the Princess would mar his face first. He held his hands up defensively. "Okay, fine. Mistakes were made!" he admitted.
Everyone turned around and headed to the mine exit, most of them shaking their heads in frustration. Balthier snorted. No harm done and he would be happy to get back to his ship. And from there, they could face even greater peril in the form of Vayne Solidor and his Bahamut. Great.
The sky pirate sighed and turned around. "What do you want, Durio?"
The ginger fool looked to him pleadingly. "Come on, you can't blame me for taking their offer, can you? Let me come with you! You can't leave me here!"
Balthier scowled at him. "I don't think so. No, I think you'll just have to practice shouting. I'm sure a miner crew will be down here one of these days." He turned back to follow his party.
"Aw, come on, Balthier! Don't do this! I was a pawn in this!" The sky pirate chuckled to himself as Durio's whiny voice gradually diminished in the darkness.
There was a knock on his cabin door, and he knew exactly who it was. "Come in, Princess," he called. He had finally managed to clean all the bat filth from his clothes, and he enjoyed the feeling of a fresh pair of trousers and a nice crisp shirt.
Ashe entered and shut the door behind her, and she was also clean. He had enjoyed listening to her grumbling in the shower adjacent to his room, her language peppered with curses that were mostly directed at him. She held a piece of paper in her hand, and she waved it in his face.
"I don't suppose you'd like to see the ransom note that Ba'Gamnan left for Fran and Basch," she said with a smirk.
He snatched the paper from her hand.
Sincerest apologies for the run around on all this. But it's Balthier we want, not the Strahl. That ship will fall apart one of these days, mark my words. There's no scrap yard from here to Jahara that would take that piece of crap. So that yammering pirate idiot will learn what happens when you cross me. Please send an address in reply so we can send his remains somewhere.
Balthier crumbled the paper in his fist. "It would appear that Ba'Gamnan has taken calligraphy lessons, bless his lizard heart." He flung the note into a corner. "Have you come here to cuss me out, Princess? Or do you prefer doing so in front of everyone else? I'd be happy to go up to the cockpit so you can do that."
She crossed her arms. "No, I think I've been unfair. There really was no way you could have known what his crew was doing. Your plan to infiltrate the ball was…"
He leered at her. "Was what? Was what, Princess?"
Ashe sighed. "Your plan was a good idea," she admitted quietly.
"Ha!" he shouted in reply, sticking his finger in her face. "I knew it! All the complaining was your way of denying your true attraction to me!"
She rolled her eyes and looked up at him, daring him to continue waving his finger in her royal face. "Well, it's over, and we have something more important to focus on right now. So I've come to ask you to please revert to our professional relationship. We are no longer playing your silly pirate game, and you will not behave as if you are my lover..."
The Princess opened her mouth to continue, but before she could protest, he was on her like a chocobo on gysahl greens. He pushed her back against his door, a satisfying smack as her bottom collided with the wooden door. "Mmmfmmmbalthier…" she sighed against him as he stole dozens of kisses from her. Her hands were pressed against his chest, alternating between gripping his shoulders in pleasure and trying to shove him away in irritation.
His lips blazed a trail down her neck, and he thanked the wardrobe gods above that she hadn't worn that foofy collar. He nipped at her skin with his teeth, and she yelped in surprise. "Balthier, stop!" she moaned and tried desperately to push him off of her. He then appeared to hit a good spot on her collarbone with his tongue, and she pulled him back with a cry of delight. "Balthier, don't stop!"
He had already tugged her skirt to her knees and was feeling his way up her peculiar blouse when there was a noisy knock on the door. "Cut it out! That's so gross!" Vaan's voice called through the door.
"I am consummating this marriage, gods damn it!" he called out loudly. He returned his mouth to varying points of the Princess' upper body as he began to unzip his trousers. Ashe finally pushed him away from her and began readjusting her clothes, panting heavily.
Her face was bright pink, and her eyes were dazed as she tugged her skirt back up to her hips. "This is…I am…I…" He caught his breath and winked at her wickedly. She scowled and zipped his pants for him. "Divorce, Balthier. Effective immediately."
She pulled the door open, and Balthier saw a disgusted Vaan, an amused Penelo, an annoyed Fran, and a Basch with undeniably murderous intent all gathered in the narrow hallway. Ashe stormed out, and Balthier grinned widely at the gathered crowd in his hall.
"We got the Strahl back. Mission accomplished! Now go away…"
He slammed the door in their collective faces and sat down on his bed. Balthier laughed heartily as the Strahl glided through the clouds. He thought about the look of lust in the Princess' eyes, and he smiled. Mission definitely accomplished.