When he stepped out of the bath that morning and began dressing, he wasn't certain what it was that made him decide to wear the plain, heavy necklace that he usually keeps tucked away at the bottom of one of his item pouches. When a duo of bounty hunters corners him in the bazaar after lunch, however, he's glad he did.
He breaks away from them and takes off down the street, hoping not to flee – their legs are longer, their strides quicker – but to buy himself a few moments' time. He ducks around a corner and opens one of the pouches hanging at his hips, quickly scooping out a handful of smelling salts and shoving them ungracefully into the side of his mouth, cringing as the bitterness eclipses the lingering taste of the crepes he had for lunch but knowing all the same that it will be worth it.
Standing behind the cover of a sun-bleached brick wall, he holds his breath, feels the weight of the pendant that rests in the dip of his collarbones, and waits to be caught.
There are three items Balthier would not trade for the world.
These are not items he keeps under lock and key, stowed away in some secret compartment of the Strahl. Instead, they are on his person at all times. Whether they're worn openly or hidden at the bottom of a pouch or tucked away in the folds of a cloak, there has rarely been an adventure on which the usefulness of at least one of these items has not saved his life:
1. His ruby ring, which shields him from even the harshest magick;
2. Arcturus, packed with silent shot and ready to fire;
3. The Nihopalaoa, treasured and cherished, calling to him from the secret compartment of his pouch, waiting for a predicament dire enough that he might need it.
Balthier has no talent for magick – even the simplest cure spells dwindle and fade in his hands – but he'll be damned if he's not one of the best chemists he knows, and with the Nihopalaoa hanging around his neck, the strength of his phials and philtres rivals any wizard's spells.
He still remembers clearly the day he found it. He'd been down in Muthruu, fresh from bounty collection and searching out Clan Centurio's booth, curious to see what possibilities awaited him. The supplier recognized him immediately and bent low to pull out a large, ornately decorated box full of rare treasures and powerful items, the newest they had in stock. Inside the box, placed delicately over a bed of dark velvet cloth, were potions and pouches of all sorts, sharply cut stones, ribbon-wrapped scrolls, and countless pieces of glittering jewelry. But what caught Balthier's eye was a chunky, unflattering necklace, with dusty beads and a pendant whose garnet face was dull and chipped.
Balthier had a not-insignificant collection of jewelry, but he usually favored flashier, more colorful pieces. Something about this necklace, though, was irresistible; the longer he looked, the more it drew him in, whispering to him of treachery and stealth and close escapes, of mystical danger and dark, cunning cruelty.
He bought it without a second thought.
Of all the uses he's found for it since then, of all the ways in which it has gotten him out of trouble or saved him from otherwise hopeless situations, he remembers every one.
His first thought was of slipping a potion into an enemy's drink. That would have been a handy trick back when he was a budding thief moonlighting as a socialite, but with the reputation – and the bounty – he's built for himself over the years, trading drinks with clueless marks has become increasingly rare. He still hasn't gotten a chance to try that one out.
Ethers are a different story. They're most effective when consumed, certainly, but they can work as an inhalant in a pinch. There are few things Balthier finds more pleasing than tossing a delicate glass bottle of hi-ether to crash at the feet of an enemy charging up a third-tier attack spell; the glass shatters in a gorgeous mess of silvery liquid and swirling Mist, and when Balthier's aim is true, not even a Blizzaja can stand up to the resulting magick drain. For enemies who favor healing and buffs, on the other hand, all he needs is a flask of holy water, and renew spells with no longer be a problem.
Of course, some of his favorite uses are best performed with Fran by his side. Together, they are a force to be reckoned with. Interrogation in particular is made much easier once Fran has used her magick to still their target, at which point Balthier is free to waltz right up and prick their thumb with the business end of a gold needle. There's nothing quite like the threat of impending petrification to get someone talking. And in the heat of battle, getting close enough to swipe a handkerchief over an enemy's exposed skin and watch the slick, inky oil slowly spread across their body is always worth it once Fran finishes casting Firaga.
He's even managed to find opportunities to use it as a curative item. Carrying an extra amphora of Bacchus wine, reserved for those times when Fran is caught in the clutches of a berserk spell or over-heating Mist, is an absolute necessity.
It has other, more mundane – if a bit more mischievous – uses as well. Should the need arise, he finds that eye drops work just as well as a silken blindfold, and he's been able to avoid many an awkward late-night farewell thanks to clever use of an alarm clock.
And then, of course, there was that masquerade ball in Bhujerba.
Dressed head-to-toe in the finely tailored cloths of a noble, including an intricately beaded mask that hid his all-too-recognizable face, Balthier spent hours dancing with the host's beautiful daughter, until she finally drew up the courage to sneak him off to her bedchamber. After that, all it took was a glass of madhu and a few discreet drops of alarm clock to send her into a deep sleep and send him out into the upstairs hall, free to snatch any and all of the lavish decorations that would fit in his bag.
He snuck out a third-story window, greeted on the ground by Fran's waiting smirk, and together they rode off with their haul, leaving behind his mask and not much else.
There has, of course, always existed the temptation of using it for more devious purposes.
He's lost track by now of how many times he's daydreamed about sprinkling ground echo herbs over Vaan's lunch after a morning of listening to the child ramble on and on, or slipping a few Chronos tears into Ashe's evening drink whenever she sees fit to lecture him on decency and propriety. If he were a less gracious person, he might pursue these opportunities, but he's always believed himself to be good at heart... even if he does spend much of his time attempting to convince the world otherwise.
Accordingly, there are some lines he simply wishes not to cross. More than silencing a motor-mouthed brat, more than stopping a haughty queen, when the Nihopalaoa came into Balthier's possession, he promised himself that there was one item with which he would never use it.
Balthier is fully licensed in the lore and has years of experience beyond that; in his hands, a remedy is a powerful curative, but with the Nihopalaoa it becomes something else entirely. Overwhelming a foe, no matter how foul, with such an onslaught of illnesses is too sinister for his tastes. The mere thought of it makes something inside of him recoil – makes him swear that he would never stoop to such an insidious tactic.
But Balthier is a realist, and, moral code or no, sometimes there are circumstances even he cannot overlook.
Balthier was caught – really caught, locked up and beaten and terrified that his then-short career in sky piracy was over – once and only once.
Shortly after he commandeered the Strahl and made it his own, sneaking out through the highway of airships and never looking back, before the news got out that the only Bunansa son had flown the coop, Dr. Cid sent a fleet of head hunters to drag him back home. One after the other, they came, and one after the other, Balthier sent them away with egos bruised and bodies in even worse shape than that.
Desperate to make things right, Cid sought the services of one last hunter, a man who was known far and wide – even, ostensibly, to Cid – for his ruthless tactics and an unconventional, to put it kindly, form of torture.
This was before the Nihopalaoa, before even Fran. Balthier did escape, but it took every trick in his arsenal and earned him a bit more than his fair share of scars.
Years later, after the good doctor's death, after Bahamut, Balthier stood in the kitchen bay of that very head hunter's airship. He'd managed to track the man down and had reached out through a pseudonym, managing his way on board by way of offering a job.
The hunter must have known all along who he really was; from the first sip of the too-sweet tea, Balthier knew he'd been poisoned. He wasn't worried, because he had a host of just-in-case curatives stashed in the hidden pockets of his vest, and because what the hunter hadn't known, hadn't prepared for, was that Balthier's sleight of hand had improved over the years.
He willed himself to stop trembling as he stood there in the kitchen bay, feeling sick and feverish and half-intoxicated, his ears ringing with the sound of their tea cups crashing to the floor. His was spiked with a mild disease spell, he could taste that much, but he knew he still had a few minutes to spare before he had to take care of it, and in the meantime, it was no match for the remedy he had slipped into the hunter's own tea.
The hunter slipped out of his seat and fell to the ground, where he lay, unable to move, bleeding where the shards of fine Dalmascan china cut into his skin, and the Nihopalaoa felt heavier and more cursed against Balthier's tight throat than it ever had before. The hunter began to retch as the disease hit his stomach, grasped for the dagger at his hip until the disable set in and all he could do was shake and gape silently and feel the poison slowly drain his body of strength. His limbs slowly hardened into stone, the color fading from his face as he inched closer by the second to death itself.
Balthier unclasped the Nihopalaoa and dropped it into his pocket, reaching with his other hand for a phial of smelling salts. He wanted the hunter to be clear-headed, free of confusion – wanted the hunter to know what was happening when Balthier knelt beside him and unsheathed Arcturus – wanted him to feel her red-hot muzzle pressed hard against his sweat- and oil-slick temple, to smell the wyrmfire shot packed into the chamber – wanted him to know he was about to die.
To hear when Balthier pulled the trigger.
The room was calm for some time afterwards, still and silent but for the sound of Balthier's short breaths, and the necklace that whispered to him of treachery and stealth and close escapes and how a leading man's revenge is never unjust.
Carrying the smelling salts in his mouth has made him a bit lightheaded, but the first thug to make it round the corner does exactly what Balthier was counting on him to do: his fist connects solidly with Balthier's jaw, the impact sending him to the ground and giving him the jolt he needs to snap out of the oncoming confusion.
The bounty hunters are laughing as they drag him to his feet, but he keeps his head down, feeling the grainy salts against the inside of his cheek. One of the thugs holds his arms back as the other leans in, close enough that Balthier can feel the hot, sticky breath on his face, close enough that the gravelly voice drowns out the murmuring and the music of the bazaar when he says, "Looks like catching the prodigal son was easier than we thought."
Balthier breathes deep through his nose – he feels the Nihopalaoa, warm and heavy, against his throat – and spits the mouthful of smelling salts into the thug's face.
The moist salts stick to the thug's skin just long enough that once he wipes them away, his eyes have already started to go wide and blank. His hands curl into fists, his right arm winds back, and the jab sends his partner spinning like a top into a rack of spears and poles.
Balthier goes down with him, barely managing to catch himself on his hands and knees. As he stands, dusting off his breeches and adjusting the cuffs of his shirt, he uses his tongue to gather what's rest of the salts in his mouth and spit them into the face of the hunter at his feet. It's not quite an attempt to confuse him – the hunter is already out cold. More of a gesture, really.
He pulls a bowline sash out of his shoulder bag and knots it around his hips, just to be safe until he can get this damned taste out of his mouth, and heads for the safety of the Strahl. He leaves the still-confused bounty hunter and his knocked-out partner far behind.
These days, Balthier finds himself with an apprentice, a city girl turned sky pirate of nine-and-ten who is fascinated by chemistry and keeps phoenix down feathers in her braided pigtails. He's happy to give her a formal lesson, and has even gone so far as to purchase for her a thick, leather-bound tome entitled Chemistry and Its Applications on the Battle Field, which has no mention of the dark, ill-regarded Nihopalaoa.
Nevertheless, he hopes to one day find a chipped, whispering necklace to give Penelo as her very own.
After all, he's journeyed Ivalice far and wide, and he knows by now that items as valuable as this are few and far between. They, like common sense and a keen-eyed navigator, should be cherished, protected, and kept close at all times.