Balthier very nearly didn't recognize her as herself—his eyes drawn to her complex webwork of chain jewelry, her swagger, and of course the brands on her arms, complex patterns in slightly-raised white, long healed but still vivid against her tan. He didn't recognize her, in fact, until she stopped with her hands on her waist and said in a voice that could be no other's, "Don't remember me?"—half-protesting, half-laughing.
"Penelo?" he said.
She laughed again, the same light laugh she'd had before, but now with weight behind it—it had been, what, ten years? Twelve? How old was she now? "I was afraid you'd forgotten me," she said.
"Never could I forget a face such as yours," he said, which would have made her blush once-upon-a-time. "You're doing well for yourself." She had adopted the tendency of many pirates to wear some significant quantity of money bolted into her person: gems in her ears and nose and navel, gems in the coiled knot of her hair, decadence offset by the brutal elegance of her scars.
"I'm doing well enough," she said, which was an understatement. He'd heard of her, over the years—Penelo of the Branded Arms, and her partner Vaan Lightfingers (who called himself Ratsbane for reasons that only a privileged few—Balthier among them—knew). If you believed rumors, she was wild as the wind off the Sandsea, daring as a mountain-goat on Bur-Omisace , decadent as Balfonheim Port could make her—and she and her partner both were hunters of some renown on top of being pirates, so they said, and could be trusted with even dangerous runs, young as they were.
Not so young now. Penelo ordered her drink and said, "You're still with Fran," almost not a question.
"Yes," he said, "of course. She's out provisioning—she always could get a better price at market than me. Vaan?"
"Preening over his baby. We just got a new crystal for the engine. He'll be petting her for days." She laughed again, stretched, hands behind her head; the motion pulled at her scars, and Balthier indicated one with a fingertip, not quite touching.
"May I ask how? The stories don't give details."
She smiled. "It was deliberate, if that's what you mean. I wanted something to make myself stand out."
"I must say it worked. Not many humes who pattern themselves like bangaa."
She grinned and saluted with her glass. "You're more right than you know," she said. "Bangaa do the best brands; they know how to keep the wounds from cracking or infecting."
"Charming." Balthier topped up his glass. "On a more palatable note . . . have you heard from the others?"
"We get word from Ashe occasionally, and Larsa . . . " Penelo began, and launched into a full update.
Two drinks and an hour's conversation later, Penelo said, "You know, I had quite the crush on you when I was seventeen."
"I knew," Balthier said, and studied her.
To his relief, she smiled. Well, it was long ago. "Some pirate you are," she said.
"I suppose you would have done differently, confronted with an innocent young thing?"
"Maybe," she said, over the lip of her glass, and then giggled—a sound that took him back twelve years. "All right, probably not. Surely you've heard of my reputation, though. Or don't you believe it?"
"I suspect that the stories that only a bangaa can satisfy you originated in men who wanted some excuse for having been rejected, and from what Fran tells me the stories about the viera orgies are exaggerated at best, and she would know, I suppose." He leaned back and took her in, her impish grin, her face, still fair and innocent, offset by jewelry and brands. "But I would believe those who say you've a boy in every port. Or a girl. Or a viera. And if you chose those brands, I'd believe some of the other stories, too."
"Some of them," Penelo said, bright and flippant. She gazed at him, her fingers so close to his hand (but not touching) that he could feel her body heat.
" . . . You're trying to seduce me," he said, realization dawning.
She lowered her eyelids, toyed with her earring. "Is it working? I learned from the best, you know."
"I was actually talking about Ba'gamnan," she said, "but if it works, I'll go with it."
"It works," Balthier said, "and I fear for the virtue of young men and women—of all species—everywhere."
"And well you should," Penelo said.