Chapter 1: Lord Someone
"Penelo, c'mon, let me use the magicite…"
Ignoring her needling friend, Penelo sighed in pure rapture as she ran the ice magicite over the back of her neck, where it was the stickiest from sweat. Rabanastre had really reached sweltering heights for the day, but then, it was the peak of summer. To expect anything else was foolish. That didn't mean they didn't hear complaints, though, from visiting nobles coming out of the aerodome, still clothed in the full-length dresses that Archadia offered. Nabudis had much better denizens who at least knew what to expect.
"Forget it, Vaan." Penelo plopped her forehead on her desk and kept rubbing. Cold trickled through her skin and down into her weary bones. If she had to stay up late one more night to ensure that her father managed his stock well enough, she was going to lodge a protest. Perhaps a strike. Maybe even demand a raise. It all depended on what her father's mood was at the time. "I used the rest of my pay just to buy this one."
He huffed a complaint that she didn't hear. "Penelo…" She felt his hands come down on either side of her head. "Listen to me… I can get you magicite any time you want…"
"Fire magicite, maybe." There was an abundance of it in the Giza Plains, which made for warm nights when the cold off the deserts settled in. In a heat wave? Not much use. "Go away, Vaan, I'm busy. If Dad comes back and sees you here, he's going to make you leave, and you know it. Your break was over twenty minutes ago."
His armor creaked as he shifted weight from one foot to the other. She recognized the sound of it by now. "Your dad's talking to that nobleman guy. He didn't even notice me come in here." Vaan's fingertips touched along hers, scooting down ever so slowly to the magicite she held there. "Pleeeaaaseeee…"
Nobleman guy? Penelo mused. Dad has another customer today? That was unusual. Her father tended to pander about in all sorts of merchandise, from the simple household items, to exotic trades he'd gotten in the last decade. The latter was why he went on journeys sometimes and didn't come back for a handful of months, leaving Penelo to man the store. He'd always come back with something or other, a trinket from the Phon Coast or a particularly vicious spell book from Balfonheim. But it was lunch, and at the end of the week, at that. Normally, he'd call it a day and relax to spend time with his family.
"Where's Reks?" Penelo snatched the magicite away and sat up in her chair to get a better view of the store. Her heart fluttered a little in her chest at the thought of his older brother. "Wasn't he on break, too?"
Vaan's brown eyes narrowed, and his lips pursed to one side. "He already went back, Pen. Why?"
"Oh, nothing…" Affecting a look of innocence, she placed her elbows on the table and avoided his gaze. Maybe it was best Reks wasn't here. This heat hadn't done exactly wonders for her hair, which was frizzing from its braids, and she badly needed a bath. It was a good thing she was stuck inside. She didn't want to imagine the odor of all the gathered people in the streets. On days like this? Awwwful.
A frown twisted Vaan's lips downward. It was nearly a pout, really. "Oh. Nothing, huh?"
Before Penelo needed to head off the inevitable sulk, the door to her father's private office opened, scraping over the cool tile floor loudly, catching both of their attentions. Dust had gathered in the grout again, she noticed. It got everywhere in Rabanastre, no matter how much she swept and scrubbed. Her father stepped out, walking backwards, his hands fluttering through the air as he talked to his "nobleman guy" customer.
"It's an honor to be of assistance to you, my lord. I assure you again, nothing but the best and finest of merchandise passes our doors." There was another wave of his hands, as if her father were so enthused he couldn't contain himself. Penelo's father had never been so eager to please someone. Of course, they treated their customers well, and had a lot of return business, but he seemed absolutely delighted, more than even having a nobleman customer could explain. "You won't be displeased by your commission."
"Please, sir, it's an honor to do business with such a renowned establishment," the noble insisted, inclining himself a few inches in a tiny bow. Black hair fell into his eyes as he did so, hiding his features. His voice flowed over the language, consonants clipped and vowels drawled out languidly. Archadian, and definitely a noble. No one else spoke like that. "I'll be by tomorrow to finish discussing the details of the purchase and to give you the deposit. Is noon convenient?"
"Perfectly convenient, Lord Lamont," her father nodded, head bobbing up and down like a bird on a branch. "I may be out, but my daughter, Penelo, will be here. She has my complete confidence."
Penelo sat up straight on her stool as the most incredibly vivid set of green eyes she'd ever seen turned on her. Lord Lamont stared at her in a way that made her skin prickle, as if something slimy were oozing down her spine. He inclined his head in a polite nod.
It took everything she had to return the gesture with a professional smile rather than gritted teeth. Something about him set her on edge. The ice magicite dangled from her fingers, long since forgotten. "I'll be happy to be of service in any way I can, my lord."
Full lips curved as Lamont returned her smile, with a great deal more warmth, and probably fake at that. "I am certain you shall. My thanks."
At her side, Vaan scowled and put a hand over the short sword buckled at his hip. Before he could do something stupid and permanent, like draw steel on a noble, she kicked him in the ankle. Her father hadn't noticed. Somehow, he seemed to like the horrid man, and she wasn't going to cost them what could be a handsome profit just because his customer was disgusting. "You're welcome, sir."
"Wonderful!" her father beamed. He touched Lord Lamont's elbow gingerly and gestured to the door. "Let's be off, my lord. I'll show you the Rabanstran Rose Café on your way out, since you were so interested in their pastries. It's only a street away, you know."
Lamont let himself be guided with every evidence of amusement, but his eyes kept returning to Penelo. What on earth did he want with her? Did he have a staring problem? If she wasn't so sure she looked positively unclean at the moment, gritty and sweaty as she was—and if she had more confidence in herself—she might have thought he found her pretty. "That would be lovely indeed, sir. I've developed a taste for local delicacies in my travels."
The door closed on her father's cheerful patter. As soon as it was, she slumped back on her stool. Now she really felt like she needed a bath and an extra scrub. If that man had been any more blatant, it would have been obscene. No, it was definitely obscene already, not to mention quite rude. Honestly! It wasn't as though she were a street peddler. Maybe it was an Archadian thing. At least he hadn't leered. It had been a more neutral expression, if a trifle interested.
Interested in what, though? And… the circle went on. No use thinking about it, she decided.
Quick as a moogle with a kupo nut, Vaan's fingers snatched out and captured her magicite while she was distracted. She started, gasping, and whirled for him, but he'd already darted out of reach, a wide grin spread on his face. He'd taken off his helmet again, not that she blamed him. It was horrifyingly hot. Still! That didn't give him the excuse to steal her magicite from her.
"Vaan!" she shrieked in protest. Hastily, she scrambled off her stool, nearly tripping over her own two feet, and lunged for him. His feet were quicker, and she missed. Laughing at her, he rubbed the stone over his face and neck, moaning in contentment. Each subsequent grab for him only resulted in her almost falling flat on her face. This was completely unfair!
"Hey, it's mine now! I'll give it back tonight!"
"No, it's mine, and it'll be useless by tonight! Arrgh! Vaan!" Honestly, he acted as though he were her big brother, and she definitely had enough of those already. The gods knew where they were these days, all spread out over the continent and not writing to home very often.
He turned for the door, presumably to get back to work. Irate beyond belief, she threw herself at him with a yowl, managing to climb up his back and put her arms around his neck. He toppled, yelping with surprise. His arm flung away from himself to protect the magicite. She scrabbled for it, whapping him in the face with her free hand as the other swiped mercilessly. This stone was too precious to let him keep it. How else was she going to ward off the heat for the rest of the day?
"Rrrgh—Penelo, get off me!"
"Just give me back the stone!"
A throat cleared.
They both whirled, Vaan pushing Penelo's hand off his eyes so he could see. She let him, clutched onto his back like a monkey, her hand tight over the one holding the magicite. They panted with the effort of the struggle, and Vaan swallowed loudly. There in the doorway stood Lamont and Penelo's father, the former with eyebrows arched in pure amusement, the latter with a deep frown.
"I forgot my wallet." Arramis patted his vest to demonstrate, then pointed to Vaan. At least, Penelo thought he was pointing to Vaan. They were rather entangled at the moment, but it all became clear with his next words. "Vaan, aren't you supposed to be on duty?"
The young man flushed beneath the tan on his cheeks. "…Well… er…"
"And Penelo!" Now her father's frown deepened, the blue eyes she'd inherited from him crinkling around the edges. His bushy brows came together. Her back straightened, and she muffled a meep. The last thing she liked was her father angry with her. "…This is hardly ladylike of you… you're supposed to be watching the shop, setting an example… what if a customer like Lord Lamont were to come in and—"
"No, I assure you, it's certainly all right." Lamont stepped forward, his eyes once again on Penelo's. He held her gaze unblinkingly, the softest of smiles at the corner of his mouth. "It is not very often, you see, that I am able to witness a young lady such as this one in a pure element, free from the rules society demands of her." His smile lifting slightly, he finally tore his eyes away and looked instead to Arramis. "Archadia's culture is very strict…"
Arramis cleared his throat, unsure of what to say. He rocked forward on the toes of his feet, then clapped his hands together. "That may well be… but…" He jerked his head toward Penelo. "Penelo. Down."
Penelo thought about making one more grab for the magicite, but the glint in her father's eyes made it clear that she was already in enough trouble. She slid off Vaan with a puff of air, smoothing down her clothes before locking her hands behind her back. Her hair was an even worse mess than it had been from tussling with Vaan, but there was no help for it. Putting on her best repentant expression, Penelo bowed her head, peeking through her lashes to judge their reactions. "I'm sorry, Father, Lord Lamont. It won't happen again."
Lord Lamont had lost none of his smile. If anything, it had grown wider. Did he think she was funny? Well, that was better than repulsive. They would still get his money if he thought her entertaining. Her father, however, wasn't pleased at all. He was still glaring. There was probably going to be extra duties to make up for embarrassing him in front of a customer.
It was all Vaan's fault! If he hadn't taken her magicite, or if he'd gone back on duty… If Reks had stayed behind instead of Vaan, none of this would have happened. She was sure of it.
"'It won't happen again'? If that wasn't the biggest lie I've ever heard," Vaan snickered in her ear. She glared up at him, knowing that she had the same look on her face as her father had, because Vaan liked pointing it out. He'd done it a lot in the years they'd been friends. They'd practically grown up together, after all. But she kept her silence. She didn't want her father even angrier. It'd be scary.
Arramis bustled off to get his money pouch, and so that left the three of them alone together. Penelo fidgeted, tugging at the ends of her braids and then straightening her clothes in places where they were still rumpled. A simple wrap covered her chest, and the softest pair of fabric she'd ever laid her hands upon had been sewn into a pair of pants for her from her mother. They hung low on her hips, a custom commonly seen in Rabanastre. She'd overheard natives from Archadia one time saying that the women in Dalmasca dressed like harlots, but Penelo would like to see one of them battling with the heat.
Three bangles on her left wrist, a temporary tattoo drawn on her right bicep, small definition there that it was, and two delicate hair pins stuck in her hair before the plaits of her braids made up the rest of her ensemble. She didn't think she looked too bad a presentation. If her father had disagreed, he would have told her to change when she'd first walked in that morning. So why then did this Lamont character keep up with his awful staring?
She could keenly feel his eyes on her as if he were touching her. It rankled that she couldn't read why, and it had on her edge. Vaan seemed to notice her tension, shifting uneasily beside her as silence fell among them. He didn't know what to say to Lord Lamont, and neither did Penelo, though she knew she had better start up a conversation soon to soothe her father's ruffled feathers, lest he think she wasn't working hard enough to make a better impression.
"So…" Penelo crossed her arms. "You're from Archadia, Lord Lamont?"
His head fell into a similar incline from earlier. "Is my heritage so noticeable?"
"It's the accent," Vaan asserted.
A thin black eyebrow rose. "Oh?"
Penelo nodded. "Yeah. And all the clothes you've got on."
At that, Lamont chuckled. Appearing genuinely amused, he took a step closer to them and away from the open door. Beyond him in the streets, people bustled to and from work or to wherever else they had plans for. At least the moogles made it easier for traveling around Rabanastre, though one of them had been sick lately, Sorbet. Penelo had plans to take him some pudding soon. Sorbet loved sweets.
It was a bright day, and the sun beat down upon the city relentlessly. Penelo and Vaan weren't the only ones suffering from the heat. Most people looked bothered, drenched in sweat and their pace more hurried than usual. It was fortunate that Penelo had found her ice magicite before the vendor had run out of them, though now it was all of a matter of getting it back from Vaan if he didn't make an escape before her father left. She definitely couldn't make a try for it in front of him or Lamont.
Lamont tapped his jaw thoughtfully with a long, well-shaped finger. His mouth opened briefly, then shut with a quiet laugh and a glance at her father. "Best to be known for the clothes I wear than those which I do not."
Penelo's back shoulders went stiff. Did he just say…? "Excuse me?"
His smile was as sweet as Rozarrian honey. "Custom dictates clothing. Isn't that what you only recently said, in that you identified my nationality by my attire?"
That wasn't what she had said at all! Her eyebrows drew together in a scowl. "No. That's not what I'm talking about. You said—"
"Penelo! Mind your manners!" Her father stepped between them, his back turned to her. "I'm so sorry, Lord Lamont. You know how girls are. She's young and excitable, I'm sure she'll regret speaking to you in such a tone as soon as she regains her senses."
What?! she thought, staring at the spot between her father's shoulder blades, where a miniscule tear her mother had mended was there on his vest. Her fists clenched, and she stepped toward them, uncaring for the moment of Lamont's background or what her father might think. Before she could get very far, Vaan placed a hand over hers and pulled her back. He shook his head in warning, placing a finger over his lips.
"Don't," he mouthed.
She opened her mouth in disbelief, then shut it, her jaw trembling. This was just wrong! Were it anyone else, her father would have told the man off for daring to insult Penelo in such a manner, but no. Not precious Lord Lamont. The man must be dropping quite a bit of gil for Arramis to behave this way. That didn't make it any better, though, and Penelo turned her back on them, stomping out of the room. Who cared if she was in a tizzy? If her father wanted her to stay quiet, then she'd have to leave.
Vaan was at her back in seconds, and as she burst into her father's private office, already pacing and ignoring the sand in the grout because just looking at it made her infuriated, he gripped her shoulders and whirled her to him. The bell to her father's shop jingled, signaling that Arramis and his damned noble customer had left. Penelo didn't like to curse very often, but there it was. Ooou, she was mad!
"Hey, hey, hey—" Vaan pulled her into the warmth of his chest where his straps of armor didn't touch. She almost didn't allow him, but at the last moment changed her mind. The end result was a bit of a stumble. Vaan tucked her head under his chin and slipped his arms about her. She'd always liked Vaan's hugs. And though he was a bumbling fool most of the time, he always knew what to say to her when she was upset, a feat he hadn't quite managed yet with anyone else.
"He's a jerk, Penelo, all of them are." Vaan pressed a kiss into the general frizziness of her hair. "But this time, I think that guy was just trying to get a rouse out of you. He thought—he thought you were cute."
Sniffling, Penelo tilted her head back to see him. "He did not. Look at me."
"It's not just looks, you know, that make someone cute…" Vaan flushed, and when Penelo's gaze darkened, he hastily retreated a step, arms still loosely about her. Penelo didn't know whether to be insulted or not. On the one hand, he'd agreed that it took more than looks to make up a woman, which implied he had depth. On the other hand, he had just insinuated that she wasn't cute. "Hey, c'mon, you know what I mean." Vaan shook his head. "He wouldn't stop staring at you. I didn't like it."
She twisted her lips to one corner of her mouth. "I noticed. I didn't like it, either."
Nodding, Vaan lowered his head. She wondered why he wasn't looking at her anymore. "Anyway… when—a guy finds a girl… attractive… sometimes they pick on them." Smiling fondly in memory, Vaan tweaked the end of one of Penelo's braids between his fingers and pulled, albeit very gently. "Like little boys act."
Lamont liked her?
Appalled, she pulled from Vaan. "That's disgusting."
Relief flickered briefly in Vaan's eyes, and then darted away. "Yeah." He reached forth, taking her hand and depositing the ice magicite in it before closing her fingers about it. "Here. I've gotta get back to work or Captain's going to yell at me. I'll see you after dinner, okay?"
She looked down at the magicite in her palm. He'd actually given it back to her?
"Thanks—" She blinked, trailing off. The store's front door jingled. He was already gone. What was he in such a hurry for? Then again, he'd been really late.
Unable to help the tiny smile that graced her lips, Penelo put the magicite over the back of her neck and set about to look for something to clean the sand out of the grout until her father came back or another customer came in.
Reks leaned over Sorbet's little bed, tucking the moogle in under his sunflower yellow sheets. Penelo watched from the door, glancing out into the twilit streets of Rabanastre anxiously, then back into the cheery moogle nest. Dishes were scattered along tables, and books were piled high by the bed. That was the only sign that the nest was being used as a sick room. Everything else was tucked away nice and tidy, even down to the row of moogle-sized shoes by the doorway. Sorbet liked his nest kept clean. She wondered if he'd been tidying it up, even now.
The bowl of nice and cold pudding she'd brought was tucked up against her stomach, where it would be safe from being stolen or jostled. She'd used the last power in her ice magicite to cool it, so she really shouldn't waste time, but Reks hadn't noticed her yet and she didn't want to break the moment. Her eyes wandered down Reks' back, lingering on the muscles left bare by the leather armor he wore, but only for a moment before she yanked them back up, a blush heating her cheeks.
He was so kind and handsome, helping poor Sorbet when the moogle needed it most. Whatever he was saying was too soft to hear, but the warm murmur of it filled the nest. If she could have, she would have wrapped Reks' voice around her and burrowed in. Hearing him speak was like having a fluffy blanket wrapped around her on one of Dalmasca's rare chilly nights. She could picture the expression on his face. It would be that same gentle fondness he had when he spoke to her. Light hair falling into his eyes, lips curled in a smile. Even though he didn't mean them the way she wanted, she treasured those smiles. They lit his face up. Reks didn't have a devious thought in him, and his smiles proved it.
Unlike a certain snooty Lord Someone.
Penelo frowned, ripped from her nicely developing daydream. Why had she thought of him? Lamont hadn't bothered her that much, had he? He didn't deserve the time it would take to wipe him off her sandals.
"Oh!" Over the pillow, Sorbet's bright yellow bon bon perked up from its droop. He must have been feeling horrible, for it to hang so low. "There's a shadow in the door—I have a visitor? Penelo, is that you, kupo?"
She brightened at this and came closer to the two. "Yeah, and I brought pudding."
"Pudding, kupo?" Sorbet began to wrestle himself into a sitting position. Feeling bad for him, Penelo hastily darted forward and set the pudding onto a side table. He didn't need to move around so much when he wasn't feeling well! "I love pudding!"
"Take it easy, Sorbet," Reks murmured. The melody of his voice made her hum in delight and all but dance her way over to them. She plopped down on the edge of Sorbet's bed, only lightly jostling it, and Vaan's older brother glanced over to her. "So you did make it here, after all."
"Mmm, yeah…" Penelo lowered her eyes to her hands. How could anyone not like Reks or want to be around him? His soul was so gentle. It was hard to imagine him in the army. He should have been stationed with the medics, not that she'd ever tell him that. He was too proud to want to hear it, and besides that, Vaan was already following in his footsteps. He had to project an image of someone Vaan could continue looking up to, though Penelo didn't understand why that didn't include healing people.
Sorbet cleared his throat. "Excuse me, kupo, but…" He turned his head to try and see around Penelo to where she had put the pudding. "What flavor?"
"Vanilla, your favorite," she said with a grin. "Do you want some now? I chilled it with magicite, though it's not going to last much longer. Probably not past the night."
"Ooooh." Sorbet nodded his head, bon bon waving. She wanted to ruffle the fluffy thing with her fingers, but some moogles took that offensively. It was unfortunate. They didn't know how many hume girls would coo over them if they would just let themselves be petted. Then again, maybe they thought that degraded them to animals. "I love vanilla, kupo. Let me see…" He squinted up at Reks. "Would you two like to share a bowl with me?"
A small smile turned up the corner of Reks' mouth. "Yeah. I'll get the bowls and spoons. Where are they?"
"In the cabinet by the leaning bookshelf, kupo."
Penelo watched Reks get up and go, the beginnings of concern creasing her face. Something was off. Reks wasn't normally so… reserved. Did he not want her here? But no, that hadn't ever happened before. He seemed… upset about something. What could it be? He'd been fine earlier that morning when Vaan and he had stopped by before their shift duty. Had something happened on his shift? She couldn't ask until they were safely away from Sorbet's small house, pocketed away in a corner of the bazaar. Reks could be a very private person sometimes.
"I think I'll be back at work soon, kupo," Sorbet said from her side. "The others need me. They must have plenty of work to handle. All those extra people…" He trailed off into a minor coughing fit. It was strange to hear a moogle coughing—they so rarely got sick. The tiny creature quivered, his bon bon limp again. Once it was over, he took a deep breath to collect himself. "Well, it's best I'm there soon, kupo."
Penelo put a hand to his forehead, even though she wasn't really sure if moogles got fevers or not, or if she'd even be able to tell under the fur. "I think they'd want you to get better first, Sorbet."
Reks returned with three miniature bowls and matching spoons. He held out one set to Penelo with a raised eyebrow and a more secretive smile dancing on his lips that she had to stifle a giggle at. At least his good mood wasn't gone entirely.
Penelo grabbed the pudding so they could dig in.
"Penelo's right, Sorbet," Reks said as she deposited some pudding in first Sorbet's bowl and then Reks'. "You need to rest. You're not any good to them if you're sick like this and maybe getting other people sick." He put a spoonful of pudding into his mouth and hummed in delight. "Your mom makes the best pudding, Pen," he said once he'd swallowed.
"Yeah…" Penelo touched her hair, drawing the tip of her spoon through the jiggly white mass. She couldn't cook, though she'd tried to again and again. Her mother just lost patience with her now, often chasing her out of the kitchen. That wasn't to say that Vaan didn't pretend her food was divine, often making exaggerated noises of contentment so that Penelo would smile through her tears over her latest failure.
"It is very good, kupo!" Sorbet's wings fluttered in approval.
She smiled at him and took a bite, letting the smooth vanilla wash over her tongue. It was good, just the thing for a hot day. She swallowed it down and beamed at them. Maybe she couldn't cook, but she had her mother's food to be proud of. At least, she told herself so. "I'll tell Mother you said so."
Metal clinked against the edge of the bowl as Reks stirred his pudding, watching her through his eyelashes. The sad expression was back, but when he looked up at her he smiled again, and her heart fluttered. "Hey, Penelo, can I walk you home? I need to speak to you."
"Really?" The spoon clattered as it dropped from her limp fingers. Penelo grabbed it and made a show of stirring her pudding, staring into it as if it could tell her fortune. Reks? Needs to speak to me? About what? "I mean, of course! Sure! That would be great!" She listened in horror as her own voice babbled on and on, unable to stop for more than a breath. "Maybe we can stop by the fountain, I think the pecan praline vendor is there still and I've wanted to pick some up. Would you like some, too? They're my favorite—no wait, you knew that already, ha, silly me."
At least Reks didn't laugh at her, but she could tell by the little crinkles around his eyes that he was trying not to. "We can stop on our way."
Sorbet looked up at her with a knowing grin. The pudding had done wonders for him; his bon bon was much perkier. "The fountain is really romantic, kupo!"
"Sorbet!" Penelo blushed. Was the moogle joking or…? Oh, gods, what if he knew? She'd never live it down, and then Vaan would tease her forever about her crush on his brother. She might as well run off with Lamont for as much of a chance as she'd have with Reks. Bright eyes looked up at her, and Penelo silently swore that if Sorbet made some comment about euphemisms, she'd dump pudding on his adorable head. "I just want some pecans, that's all!"
Luckily, Sorbet just winked knowingly, nodded and returned to his dessert. Penelo winced and looked over at Reks, terrified that he might have picked up on the moogle's unsubtle hints, but he seemed absorbed in his own thoughts. Saved.
Pudding didn't seem very appetizing anymore. "I can't stay for very long. Father wants me to check the books tonight." Penelo finished the last bites of pudding for form, then took her bowl to the sink, picking up plates and glasses as she went. For such a tidy person, Sorbet had certainly let the dishes go undone. When she got to the sink, she saw why. It was at height for a hume, which meant Sorbet would either have to hover or use a stool. Both of those would probably be too much for someone who was ill. Poor Sorbet. Pushing her braids out of the way, she started filling it with soapy water. She'd just get the dishes done, and then go before Sorbet could let anything else slip.
Sneaky moogles. A lot more keen than they let on, eh?
Once Reks was finished with his pudding, he came to stand by her side to help out. Very aware of him beside her, she focused on what her hands were doing. Scrub, scrub… Put a dish in opposite sink for Reks to wash, dunk a new dish in the soapy water, repeat. It helped that Sorbet's dish set was so small. Moogles couldn't hold as much food in their stomachs as humes could. They'd be porkers!
Unable to help a laugh, Penelo avoided Reks' raised eyebrow when he turned his head to her. She shook her head. Oh, nothing, nothing.
Half an hour later, Sorbet's dishes done and more of his nest tidied up, Reks and Penelo left arm in arm. The heat from the day had mostly gone, thank the gods. Penelo wasn't sure what she would have done if it had lingered. Fortunately it got chilly during nights in the desert. She wondered where it was like anywhere else—she hadn't exactly ever traveled outside of Dalmasca. It wasn't that she hadn't wanted to… she'd just never even had the chance.
Eyeing the starry sky above them, Penelo mused on that. She'd wanted to go with her father more than once on one of his trading trips. She'd wanted to see her brothers, too, all at various points in time before she'd finally given up. She was going to be stuck forever watching her father's shop. If she wasn't there, he was a mess, everything unorganized and getting lost. It was probably why he'd taught her to read at a young age. Her brothers were hopeless in the sense of taking over things, so that left Penelo. She wasn't useful in the kitchen, so he might as well put her in the shop.
Penelo sighed. Such was the life of a responsible daughter.
"What's wrong?" Reks bumped shoulders with her.
Embarrassed at the melancholy route her thoughts had taken, Penelo ducked her head. "Nothing. You wanted to talk?"
They were nearing the stairs that would take them up into Rabanastre's proper. Most of the stalls had shut down for the evening, and the streets were scarce. The odd mix of cooking food was in the air, hours old but lingering. It made Penelo think of her pecan pralines and the little pudding she'd eaten, and her stomach grumbled. She hoped that merchant was still there. Penelo was willing to pay extra for them, they were so good. Her favorite sweet!
"Yeah. It's… um… well." Chuckling, Reks rubbed his free hand over the back of his hair, much in the same way Vaan usually did. "Penelo, what do you… well…"
He was nervous! Why?
"It's about Vaan." Reks looked down at her, and she liked the play of the moonbeams on his fair hair. He was so beautiful. It wasn't fair. She'd grown up with Reks for her inspiration of what a perfect man should be. How was she supposed to look at anyone else when she had such a masterpiece in front of her?
"Vaan?" she hummed, not really paying attention. His hair had always looked so soft. She rarely got to touch it, which was a darned shame.
"Yeah. You guys are getting old enough now to be thinking about, you know—getting married, having kids…"
Penelo felt her eyes grow as large as dinner plates. Mostly out of shock, she dropped her hand from Reks' elbow and whirled to stand in front of him. "Hold on!" He had to look up to see her, since she was a few steps ahead on the staircase. "Vaan? Me? Getting married?!" Was he joking? Vaan was like—like her brother! He tormented her like one, too! Getting married? Oh, gods, her face was blistering red, this was so embarrassing. She liked Reks! Was he so dense?!
Reks took a step back, beautiful eyes wide with hurt. Penelo almost never raised her voice to him. Screechy, he'd called her once, when she'd been a little girl. That had been enough that she'd changed her ways immediately. Even back then, she'd been in love with him. And now he was staring at her like she'd turned back into that three year-old monster, all pigtails and glass-shattering shrieks.
"Why not?" Hands spread, Reks shrugged, as if showing that he was weaponless would help. "I mean—you grew up together, you're best friends and—and…" He glanced around, obviously searching for something else to add onto that. "And he's not bad looking!"
Anger turned the soft shadows of the bazaar red. "Not bad looking? Not bad looking? He's—" He was Vaan, for gods' sakes! Like the raggedy, awkward puppy she'd let follow her home once and now couldn't shoo away. It wasn't that she wanted to get rid of him, really, but why would she want Vaan when Reks was so close? It was insane. She took a sharp step forward, pressing up on her toes so she could get in his face and he couldn't ignore her serious expression. "I am not going to marry Vaan."
Going by his expression, he didn't get it at all. "Not now," Reks agreed, with the sort of condescending attitude that she didn't miss at all from her older brothers. "But, you know, eventually you'll want to get married, right? And Vaan would be a good husband. He has a job, he's a nice guy—he's great with children!" Leather scuffed over stone as Reks fidgeted under her glare. "There's worse things than marrying your best friend. Come on, don't tell me you haven't even thought about it."
Penelo thought about it. She thought about spending the rest of her life cleaning up Vaan's messes and arguing with Vaan whenever he was in a mood. Chasing after him when he was being contrary. Day in, day out, for however long they both lived. She thought about all of that, and then she thought about throwing herself under a runaway chocobo.
It wasn't that she didn't love Vaan—she loved him with all her heart. But only as a brother. And the man she did love wanted her to marry him. "No, Reks."
"No." He didn't reply, just kept staring. Taking a calming breath, Penelo turned on her heel. Even the lure of pecan pralines wasn't enough to keep her there. "I'll take myself home. Goodnight."
Reks didn't even try to stop her as she stalked off, chin held high. That hurt, even though she might have hit him if he had. But what should she have expected? He didn't have any idea that she loved him. It was probably some harebrained scheme to make sure Vaan was taken care of. After she calmed down, she'd talk to him and explain why it was the most ridiculous idea he'd ever had.
A waning moon had already risen over the walls, bright enough to flood the streets with light. Rabanastre had gone quiet in the short time they'd been arguing. All the merchants had gone home to supper, and the children who usually played outside had gone with them. The only people left at all were the guards, and they were spaced so far apart that she never saw two at a time. There weren't very many of them; Rabanastre was a peaceful city that kept only a small guard, and had been since the Solidors had been thrown out of power in Archadia nine years earlier. She let the quiet wash over her, soothing away the rage Reks had thrown her into.
As she passed an alley, something moved at the corner of her eye. It flashed bright silver in the darkness. Penelo paused, taking a cautious step backward to hide behind the corner of a building. She craned her neck for a better view. There it is! Squinting, she pressed herself up against the wall. Her heart picked up speed as she scanned the area for the source of the light. What if it was two lovers trying to have a moment before they parted ways? Or a sky pirate, scheming to make some sort of deal? It could be anything at all—
The nobleman was talking with someone, one of the men that hung around Lowtown trying to pass himself off as a wandering trader—Beaulf, or something like that. She'd never liked him. He tried to sell half-rotten fruit and constantly picked fights with the guards. While she watched, the light flashed again from some sort of device hidden in his palm. It didn't look like anything she'd ever seen before, a strange combination of mechanical pieces and magicite. Whatever it was, Beaulf didn't pay any attention to it, chattering as happily as if Lamont were an old friend. Their talk concluded with large smiles on both parties and an exchange of coins. The merchant waved and ducked back inside what was probably a home, going by the decorations hung outside the door. Lamont put his toy inside a pocket and slipped back a side-street, vanishing.
Penelo's lips pursed. Slowly, she started to walk again, hands linked behind her back. That had been odd. What could a nobleman want with someone like that? Did he think he'd get a better price on his order other than what her father was offering?
Well, it wasn't her problem if Lamont was tricked out of his gil. It would teach him not to work with substandard merchants. She brushed the incident from her mind and picked up the pace. Dinner would be ready soon, and pudding wasn't a meal. Her mother was supposed have made her famous roast, with the special sauce that everyone loved so much. If there was enough left, she'd save it for Reks as a peace offering. Food worked where words didn't, and no one could resist her mother's cooking.
Chapter 2: Lord Slimy
Chapter by tsukinofaerii
"Penelo!" Her bed rocked under her as someone gave it a shake. "Penelo, wake up!"
She groaned, cracking her eyes. Daylight was just starting to peek through her window, turning everything in her bedroom pinkish-grey. It's barely dawn! With another groan of protest, she rolled over and hid her head under her pillow. The cool air of the desert night had made her curl up into a ball, but when she reached for the sheets, she found they'd fallen off the bed.
Her father shook the bed again. "Get up, young lady!" Arramis tried to snatch the pillow, but she'd locked her fingers in it. "You have a job to do!"
A struggle ensued as the pillow went back and forth between them. It was too well-made to rip, but the feathers squished under her fingers, giving her a good grip. Refusing to open her eyes again to the light of day, Penelo wrapped her arm around the pillow and tried to clutch it to her chest. "Why?" The word came out whinier than she'd intended, but she didn't really care. It was too early to wake up yet! "We don't open for hours!"
Back and forth went the pillow. "You need to go to Nalbina!"
"The trip doesn't take all day! I can leave later!"
"I want you to go early!"
"I want to sleep!"
"Lord Lamont is expecting you this morning!"
"What?" Oh no, she wasn't going anywhere with that sleazy lordling. "No, he's not!" Penelo released her hold on the pillow just as her father yanked again.
Arramis staggered backwards, tripping over the rug and clutching the pillow like a plush doll. "He's due to come for you just after dawn!" Her father pushed his graying hair out of his eyes. It had been tousled by their struggle, and looked like something a chocobo would nest in. "Lord Lamont agreed to escort you to Nalbina. You should be grateful you have such a strong, handsome young man to help you traverse the dangerous, monster-ridden paths between here and there."
Had he lost his mind? Trips to Nalbina were something she did on her own all the time. Her father hadn't made her take an escort since she'd turned thirteen. A look at her father's hopeful expression sunk rocks through her stomach. Oh, no. Penelo sat up against the wall and crossed her arms. "I know what you're doing, and it's not going to work."
Her father's eyes darted around the room, looking everywhere but at her. "Lord Lamont is a very nice, handsome young man, and he's expressed an interest in you. I don't know why you're objecting to his company for the day."
Because I love Reks! Was everyone on a mission to pair her off with someone else? First Reks trying to suggest she marry Vaan, of all people, and now her father with Lamont? If she wasn't careful, her mother would try to set her up with Fretz, the fish monger's son. "He's slimy, rude, and probably has some sort of communicable disease. I'll go by myself."
"You'll do no such thing, young lady!" Her father was still steadfastly refusing to even so much as glance in her direction, and now he had a bit of a tick near his left eye. "What kind of father would I be to let his own daughter wander off through the Sands by herself? Irresponsible, they'd say! Careless! Unknowing of the dangers that could lie in wait for her as she innocently traveled for me, and then look at the guilt I were to live with if she died on an errand!"
Penelo snorted. "Could lie in wait. The worst out there is a prickly cactus tribe." She pushed her covers aside, deciding that she wasn't going to be able to get anymore sleep like this. Her father was on a mission—a dog who had smelled a tasty bone. It was going to be troublesome enough just to get him to direct his attention elsewhere. Honestly. The man was a handful. How did her mother put up with him? Then again, maybe that was how they married…
"You're going with him, and that's final!"
She shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I'm not. Besides, I promised I'd meet Vaan today. It's his day off, and he needs me to help him darn a few of his shirts. You know he can't sew." Penelo hated the fact that she was good at every homely task except for cooking. It rankled. "And I wanted to see if the vendors had any more ice magicite, since I used the last of mine yesterday for Sorbet's pudding."
Arramis was busy wringing his hands together. If he'd been bald, he'd probably be swiping a handkerchief over his head. Penelo knew it was because until Lord Lamont had casually strolled into the picture like it was time for noon tea in Archades, Arramis had been dead set on seeing her through to marrying Vaan. He wasn't blatant about it, no, but he had this annoying habit of dropping hints like they were pieces of candy. He was so obvious in his attempts to be subtle that it was painful.
"Feeling conflicted?" Penelo grabbed her clothes for the day and gestured that he get a move on so she could change. "You should be ashamed of yourself."
"Don't talk to me like that!" Arramis drew himself straight. "Not after I've kept a roof over your head and fed you and—"
She rolled her eyes and kept gesturing. "Yeah, yeah."
Once he left her alone, she sighed and tossed away her night clothes to shrug into her new things. Snap a buckle here, tug a boot on there, tighten a strap across her shoulder up higher… A bit more of fussing, and she was finished. She twirled once for the mirror, a practiced pirouette that had the men at the taverns leering. Not that anyone knew she went to the taverns to dance at night on the occasion. If they did, she'd never be allowed out of the house. But, well, sometimes they could be tight for money, and she liked to help where she could. It never got out of hand. They remained as perfect gentlemen as they could under the influence.
Penelo's eyes dropped to her bare stomach, and her lip curled as she remembered Lamont's cheerfully derisive words from the day before. "Best to be known for the clothes I wear than those which I do not."
She hoped he suffered from heat stroke.
The second she left her room, nose in the air, she smacked right into her father. She settled her hands on her hips and glared up at him, waiting. She was not going to go to Nalbina with that silver-tongued lord. If it had to come to blows, then it had to come to blows, but her father's dreams weren't happening without a fight. She'd go down struggling to the very end. As if he was even interested in her! Lamont was obviously playing sweet to her father to butter him up for all the best deals, and Arramis, so eager to see her married, was completely oblivious.
"Oh, good, you're dressed," Arramis said, planting his hands on her shoulders and steering her forward before she could even get a word out. "We were just about to have breakfast. Keep your hair down, will you? They don't have hair like yours in Archades, and I want Lord Lamont to see how… golden tresses are much better than—"
Penelo wrenched from his grip and gaped at him in horror. "You mean he's here? Now?"
Arramis beamed. "Thought it'd be a good surprise."
Panicking, she shoved him aside and dove into her bedroom, quickly locking the door behind her and then placing her hands against the sides of her head. Arramis began to beat on the door immediately. She ignored him, her heart pounding. Her own father had been about to just… blindly send her off into the breakfast room, where Lamont would be waiting for her…! Good gods, she hadn't even brushed her hair yet, she—
She was halfway through untangling her curls when she realized what she was doing.
Oh no¸ she wasn't. With a determined glance in the mirror, Penelo flipped her head upside down, grabbing a handful of hair and brushing backwards. Her curls snarled immediately, knotting together like cheap fishing twine. A handful of water from the pitcher set the snarls, making it look as though she hadn't washed it in ages. Pulling it back into a messy, loose set of braids revealed her face, which was still creased and pink from sleep.
Clothes now. She couldn't go out there in something so revealing. Someone with Lamont's ego would be sure to think it was an invitation. If she had to knock him out half-way to Nalbina to ward off wandering hands, she'd be left with the body to haul.
Unfortunately, her outfit wasn't as easy as her hair to ruin. Dalmascan clothing was sensible, designed to let the skin breathe. She found a gauzy cloak, designed to keep the sun off her head. It was an unattractive brown, not actively ugly, but it would keep her cool while masking most of her revealed skin. It was a good choice for the trip to Nalbina anyway.
Not that she was going to Nalbina with that letch. If she were going, it would have been a good choice. That was all. For good measure, she kicked off her boots. There, not going anywhere.
Another look in the mirror showed her results. It would have to do. She didn't look hideous, but a small bit of pride reminded her of how difficult it would be to arrange that on short notice. No, she looked like a tired, waste of a girl who'd thrown on the first thing that came to hand, and was about to sit down to a leisurely breakfast without a care for her appearance. As long as Lamont's taste didn't run to Urtan-Yensa, he'd no doubt be repulsed.
Straightening her shoulders, Penelo opened her door and stepped out—
—to run face-first into another chest, this one a rather nice one. Penelo bounced back, trying to catch herself. But the stop had been too sudden, and she ended up plopping down on her rear like a toddler taking her first steps. The landing jarred her all the way up to her head, leaving her with a faint buzz of a headache.
Lamont blinked down at her in puzzlement, fist still poised to knock. He was dressed much the same as yesterday, in solid leather and thick cloth that would do nothing but trap the heat and leave him soaked in his own sweat. It was a beautiful outfit, fit for a lord, but all wrong for a desert. Moron.
Penelo glared up at him and resisted the urge to fix her hair. "What are you doing here?"
Slowly, his fist lowered, as if he'd just realized he was holding it in the air. "Good morning, Penelo." He reached down a hand to grab her arm. "Arramis asked me to speak with you."
Did he think he was going to help her? Penelo swatted the unwelcome hand away and scooted back. Just the slight touch made her skin crawl. "Wonderful. You've talked. Good-bye now."
"I do believe he meant something more substantial than mere greetings." To his credit, Lamont wasn't dumb enough to try and touch her again. Instead, he stayed where he was, staring down at her like she was some sort of courtly amusement. The brief, honest flash of confusion was long gone. "He thought you might need convincing to go on our trip."
Of course he did. Her father likely thought she'd planned to hide away back in her room. As if she'd be so cowardly. And who better to send in than the lord himself. No doubt Arramis expected Lamont to charm her into it.
"You can save your breath." Penelo smiled sweetly. "I'm not going."
"He is your father, you know. You really should not disobey him." He leaned into her ear, placing a hand against the side of the door and very carefully not touching her, no—just entirely invading her personal bubble. "What would everyone think? Penelo Mercheson, a wildly misbehaving, poorly clothed—"
She slammed the door in his face, and he barely moved his fingers in time from having them crushed. She locked the knob, then folded her arms, still huffing with her anger. Her father had to be absolutely—crazy to think she was going to go to Nalbina with that—that—that—!
"Very well, I apologize," Lamont said after several moments of silence. Penelo looked over her shoulder, her eyes narrowing with suspicion. "I just find it… terribly hard to resist teasing you. I take it back—you are not poorly clothed. Most of Dalmasca dresses this way, and I realize that it is to ward off the heat. You see? I am not a complete and utter ninny."
She came to stand by the door and placed a hand against it. "What about the part where I'm wildly misbehaving?"
"Well, we are speaking truthfully here, and you did slam a door in my face…"
"I slammed a door in your face because you insulted me!" she shouted, having a moment of sheer disbelief that he would try and twist that around on her, as if he didn't realize his actions! Honestly, the man was slime! Slime! Slime of the foulest flan! Not even the slime in the Zertinan Caverns could compare to him! Not that she'd ever been in there, bless her she wasn't out of her mind, but she had heard stories, seen the goo for trading, and that was more than enough!
"I did not insult you," he protested. "And I apologized for the part I did. You remember, about the clothing? But why do you deny that you are wildly misbehaving?" Here, his voice dropped from concern into something much more… smug, like his next witty comment had occurred to him and he could hardly wait to attack her with it. "It was not I, after all, who was jumping all over the back of some poor boy the day before—"
"How dare you!" Penelo gasped. "He's like my brother!"
"And how was I, a mere stranger, to know such a thing? Deny that it was inappropriate!"
"No! It wasn't! Get away from my door, I'm not going anywhere with you! I'll die first!"
"Your father really wishes you to go, Pen, and as I said, he did send me in here to sway you… although I am not really in your room now." He trailed off with a thoughtful sound, a long, "Hmmm." Then, after a moment, "I suppose I will just have to do what I must. I would very much like to keep my word to him, after all."
"It's Penelo!" she shot back. "And what do you mean, do what you must? Go away! Go eat breakfast, and while you're there, I dare you to try and compare that food to Archadian cooking, my mother will lynch you!"
There was a series of clicks. Penelo frowned in confusion, wondering where it was coming from. It was only until she knelt on her knees and placed her ear against the door that her eyes focused forward and she understood that it was coming from the… knob? What was he doing? Was he planning on…? Good gods, he was picking the lock on her door! He was going to break in!
She looked about frantically for a hiding place, then promptly dove under her bed. As she lay there, holding her breath and trying to get her pounding heart to calm so she wouldn't be tempted to blow her cover by exhaling noisily, she wondered what had just possessed her to do such a thing. Honestly. Hiding under a bed? She should have stood her ground, decked him! She'd have every right to. He was intruding into her room without knocking, and breaking in at that.
But, strangely, it was almost like a game now…
What wasn't a game was the dust under her bed. Pinching her nose, she pushed all the way to the back wall and tried not to breathe. Her mother was right—she needed to clean her room more. The scratches at the knob continued for a long, dull minute. He must not be very good at it. In books, it only took seconds for an accomplished thief to be on the other side of a locked door.
How did a lord learn to pick locks, anyway?
When the door swung open, it was almost anticlimactic. Lamont's feet came into view in the doorway. Rising sunlight from the window reflected off the faintly scuffed shine as he hesitated, clearly looking for her. There were only so many places to hide in her bedroom—her wardrobe was far too small to contain a hume person, and there were no convenient nooks or crannies. With a sinking feeling, she realized that the only place he could possibly look was under the bed.
Blast it, she should have climbed the wardrobe. Then she could have at least jumped past him and out the door. Or kick the door closed in his face again. Or something.
Instead of going straight for the bed, Lamont's feet shuffled toward her chest of drawers. Metal and glass clinked; likely he was examining the strings of beads and jewelry she kept there. Then came a heavier sound—her late-night reading, maybe? The book had been rather large.
And then a drawer opened.
Oh, no, he did not just—
He had. The slimy, wasted, bastard son of a viper and a hyena was going through her clothes. Mortified, Penelo pressed back against the wall, shoving a fist into her mouth. She was blushing so hard that she was certain her head should combust. Little hums and chuckles carried in the silence.
"Lacy. Terribly lacy. I'm shocked, really." A low whistle. "Are you sure you are not given to misbehavior? Good girls do not typically own items like this."
Oh gods, my underwear! Penelo clawed her way out from under the bed, lifting her head to glare at him as soon as it was free. "Get out of my things, you sick, twisted—"
Lamont had crossed his arms and was leaning forward against her chest of drawers. No clothing was in sight, not even a handkerchief. A single drawer was barely open, pressing against his ribs as he leaned against it. It wasn't even the underwear drawer, but the one she kept her scarves in.
The manipulative bastard grinned cheekily, black hair flopping into his eyes. "I was wondering what it would take to get you from beneath there."
In a panic, Penelo scrambled to get to the back of her hidey-hole again, but Lamont was faster. He grabbed her elbows before she could finish slipping away, pulling her out into the light. They tussled, but he had weight and traction behind him. No matter how hard she fought, her shoulders slid out from under the bed, followed by her lower back. Even hooking her legs around the bedstand didn't work. The wood pressed into the back of her knees, cutting off circulation. Legs going numb, ribs and shoulders aching, Penelo did the only thing she could think of.
Reaching forward, she opened her mouth and sank her teeth into the meat of his thumb. He shouted, hand loosening from her wrist. Before he could recover, Penelo grabbed his other thumb and bent it back against itself. Rather than risk the broken bone, he let go.
Freedom was short lived. She didn't have time to scoot away before his arms were locked around her chest, hauling her bodily out. This time, there was no way to hold on, nothing useful to do but be dragged.
"Let me go!" Penelo screamed, trying to grab for his thumb again. Her heels pounded against the floor as she was pulled. "I'm going to—Help! Father! Father! He's kidnapping me!" How could her parents have missed the sound of the struggle? "Kidnapper! Bully! Fiend!"
The last of the bed receded, leaving her trapped against Lamont's firm chest. Penelo kept struggling as he picked her up, swinging her around in his arms, almost like a bride. She mentally tagged giant to her list of epithets for him. The man was impossibly tall. Did his family feed him fertilizer as a boy?
"Go ahead and call me what you like," Lamont chuckled, lips against her ear. A little shiver rolled down her skin. "But I'll tell you a secret."
Even though she knew it was just a ploy to rile her, Penelo paused her fight for freedom. "What's that?" she questioned warily, ignoring how breathless she sounded. It was just the tussle, that was all.
Another chuckle, low and smooth. "I rather like wildly misbehaving women."
She hit him.
"Bloody—!" Lamont trailed off into several more curses, cradling his jaw. She took this to her advantage and scrambled down from him—or, at least, she attempted to. He caught her legs before she got too far, hauling her up and over his shoulder. She was left to smack her fists into his back instead.
He hardly flinched at the attacks, still grumbling about how she had socked his face. "Do you know how I hate to waste a potion, Penelo? They do not exactly come cheap."
"Then maybe you shouldn't manhandle innocent women," she said snidely.
"Women? You're barely more than a chit. What, you must be… Fifteen?" They entered the dining room, and her mother came in from the kitchen at Penelo's squawk of outrage to this comment. "What? Am I wrong? Sixteen, then? I am only seventeen myself, though I must say, our maturity levels seem to have advanced much differently…"
"I'm twenty-one!" she yelled. She could hardly believe this!
"Oh," he said. "Well—I would not go around admitting that, were I you."
"And why is that?" she said testily. She couldn't wait for his answer to this one. He seemed to carry around a pocket full of insults. She hoped he sure felt like a man when he talked to her like this. Made himself feel special.
"Simply put, I have just said that your maturity level ranks quite below mine, and I was then under the impression that you were a mere fifteen or sixteen years of age. Conclusively, this does not bode well for you if you are indeed twenty-one and still behaving in such a manner."
Penelo couldn't—couldn't even—
And there was no damned way he was seventeen! He appeared much older. She'd initially thought they were closer to the same age—even that he might be a year or so older than her. But he was younger than her? That didn't make any sense at all. Giants, she thought again. They must roam pretty freely in Archadia. She made a mental note never to go there.
"You've made her speechless," her mother said, and Penelo glared at her, because the woman said this like it was impressive. "That's quite the feat, Lord Lamont. Here, I've laid out your breakfasts to take with you. Be careful, Penelo, all that struggling will give you sunstroke."
"Mother!" she squeaked. Lamont grabbed up the baskets, swinging them over an elbow, and carted Penelo toward the front of their household. Since when had her mother decided to turn traitor on her? After all they'd been through together—attacking dust motes with brooms, scrubbing the floors clean when the sand collected too much in the grooves, beating off her father and at one time brothers when they tried to eat meals before they were ready…
"Thank you, Emilie." They were on first name terms? "We shall see you this evening."
"I'm looking forward to it," her mother said, trailing after them. She straightened Penelo's hair as she did so, and Penelo just glared at her, utterly incapable of expressing how betrayed she felt in that moment with mere words. "Oh, don't frown, Penny, you're never cute when you do." To Penelo's astonishment, her mother winked.
Traitors! she thought violently. Traitors on all sides!
The front door swung open, and Lamont took them out into the streets. Penelo squinted against the bright sunlight. Her mother waved her good-bye, and Penelo looked away from her, pursing her lips. She refused to speak to her now—maybe not ever again. At least not for the rest of the day. Her mother had blown that chance out of the water when she'd taken Lord Slimy's side.
People stopped to point and stare and chuckle as Lamont swept down the streets with Penelo still roosted on his shoulder. She ignored them, staring straight ahead, her jaw set so hard it was hurting her, and still she didn't relent. She'd struggle more, except she was conserving her energy for a moment of weakness in Lamont's demeanor. Then she'd—well… it was too late to really slip free now, but at least she could walk. She could ask him to let her down, but that would sting her pride too much, and he probably wouldn't, anyway.
"Penelo!" Kytes was running dead at her, waving his arms around to catch her attention. She wondered how long he'd been calling her name. Finally, he caught up with them, and she noticed that Lamont had seemed to slow his pace just a bit. "Penelo, I've been—looking—everywhere for you!" The boy clutched at a stitch in his side.
"I can't talk right now, Kytes." She slid her gaze away, only to be met with a couple of girls giggling in her direction, hiding their mirth behind their hands. She gave them a cursory sneer. Normally she was in a much more pleasant, albeit no-nonsense mood, but today she didn't care. She'd just been hauled bodily from her house. Who cared about manners?
"You do seem busy, but—weren't we supposed to go to Vaan's today?" Kytes raised a bag, and she could just make out thread over its rim. Ever her faithful helper. She suspected it was because, at the fine age of fifteen, he still hadn't outgrown his crush on her. Not that she encouraged it, but she found it equally hard to dissuade him when he was so earnest in insisting that he be around at any time he could be her assistant.
It helped that he was so good at darning things.
And household chores when she was busy keeping up with her father's books.
"The plans have changed."
"Who is your friend?" Lamont asked from ahead. She ignored him, and Kytes looked awkwardly between them, wetting his lips and unsure of what to do. Finally, he stepped just a few more inches ahead, putting himself even with Lamont's side. They were only two years apart in age, yet Lamont towered over Kytes, who was taller than Vaan at the moment and still growing.
"I'm Kytes… sir." Kytes extended his hand. Penelo stifled a groan and looked away. Great. Everyone was turning their backs on helping her.
"Lamont," Lord Slimy replied cheerfully. "What errand did you have with Penelo? You mentioned Vaan?"
"Oh, yeah, well, uh…" Kytes dropped his gaze to the bag he was holding. "Just doing a few things…" He mumbled the rest, his cheeks turning a faint red. If he was so embarrassed about it, why did he insist on helping her? She knew the answer to that, but still.
"A few errands," Lamont repeated musingly. "I confess that I hadn't a clue her time was spoken for today, or I would not have stolen it from you. But we've been charged by her father on a trip to Nalbina. It simply cannot be put off."
Up on his shoulder, Penelo twisted around, trying to stay in the conversation when she was facing away from it. It made his bony shoulder bite into her hip, but there was no help for it. "It can be put off! You just want to kidnap me!" 'Wouldn't have stolen it from Kytes?' Ha! If anything, it probably gave Lord Slimy pleasure knowing that he'd kept her from her friends.
"Don't be ridiculous, darling. These are your father's orders." Lamont's hand slid up her thigh, and she tensed for the inevitable grope. If he dared to touch her, she'd knee him in the nose and scarper while he was still bleeding.
When the hand only adjusted her so she wasn't perched on bone, then returned to the safe regions of her knee, she was almost disappointed. "You talked him into it!"
"Ah-ah, he asked me to accompany your poor, defenseless, flower-like self." The smugness oozed out of his pores. "I am only doing my gentlemanly duty."
"Your gentlemanly duty can—"
Kytes broke in before she could finish. "Maybe I should go," he offered, backing up a step. He held the bag in front of him like a shield. "You two look kinda busy, and I don't want to keep you."
"Do you see what you've done, Penelo? You've frightened him off," Lord Slimy chided her. She tried to kick him with her bare heel, but he caught her foot well away from his face. "Here, Kytes, we've some shopping to do before we leave. Why not accompany us to market?"
To his credit, Kytes at least glanced at her before nodding eagerly. "I'd be honored, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Don't you dare!" Penelo snarled, smacking Lamont's back with flailing fists. "Don't you dare drag me around Rabanstre like this!" Her feet joined the protest, taking turns trying to smack him in the face. "I won't put up with this, do you hear me? I won't!"
Casually blocking the blows aimed at his face, Lamont started walking again, with Kytes at his shoulder. Enraged at the betrayal, Penelo took a swipe at him too.
Face still soft with baby fat, Kytes didn't look at all intimidating as he scowled at her. "He's a nice guy. You're just over-reacting."
"Over-reacting?" she shrieked. Kytes hadn't liked any of her male friends outside Vaan and Reks since he was twelve. And now a freakishly tall Archadian thug scooped her up, and Kytes couldn't shuffle her off fast enough. "I'll show you over-reacting—" Green light passed before Penelo's eyes in a blur. Her next words were dead silent, fierce mouthings of empty air.
Magick! He'd silenced her! Penelo took another try at bruising him, fighting with all her might to find just one tender spot. If he thought that she was just going to lay there like some helpless twit and let him do whatever he liked, he had another thing coming!
Lamont may as well have been made of damascus steel for all the reaction he showed. "A shoemaker first, I think. Don't you, Kytes?" Lamont tweaked one of her bare toes. "The sands are hot. It would not do for me to bring her back with burns on her soles."
And now he thought he was going to shoe her, like she was a pet of some sort! Penelo screamed silently, letting herself fall limp over Lamont's shoulder. Blood rushed to her face, heating it up and making her head pound. She didn't care.
It was no use. He was too big to escape from, and even if she did manage to escape she'd just get in trouble with her parents. Even Kytes was against her, like it was some gods awful conspiracy to make her spend time in the bastard's company. Reks wouldn't have let her be hauled around like a sack of grain; she was certain of that.
The two boys chatted amiably as Lamont carted her to the bazaar at the center of the city. Smug charm dripped from every word Lamont spoke, and Kytes lapped it up. The hero worship in his voice couldn't have been more obvious if he'd asked to build a shrine.
Boys, she snarled, punching the lord's back to remind him that she wasn't going easily. Show them something shiny and they forget their oldest friends ever existed.
What the heck kind of 'gentleman' was this, anyway? First tossing her over his shoulder, which her mother had laughed at… but then silencing her? How would her mother feel about that? Would she find it so funny then?! Penelo couldn't even scream for help should something happen to her. What, she didn't know, and she didn't want to ponder it, as it seemed a rather dramatic way of thinking at the moment—but still! It was the damned principle of the thing!
And, of course, Kytes didn't even notice. How on earth did he ever think he was going to win her attentions if he couldn't realize when she was in trouble or not? Not that he ever could. She had her attentions focused firmly on Reks. That wasn't the point. He should have at least made an attempt for her safety, asked Lamont to put her down. No, instead he just…
"She's being so quiet," Lamont said. "It's rather—peaceful now, isn't it? Do you suppose she's accepted her fate?"
"That she's coming with us, sir?"
Stop calling him sir! You're barely apart in age!
"Indeed." He gave her thigh a good pat, then ran a finger gingerly over the sole of her foot. She twitched, growling silently. Why did he keep messing with it?! Hands off, slime! It tickled! "She has the most adorable pair of feet, Kytes, have you ever noticed?"
"I…" Kytes flushed. "I don't think I've ever paid attention to them when they were bare, sir."
Stop! Calling! Him! Sir! Penelo gave Lamont's back four solid thwacks with the heel of her palm. In response, he skittered his fingertips over the arc of her foot. She squirmed, her arms flailing, struggling so violently that he started to chuckle and clamped his hands back around her legs to hold her still.
Kytes was giggling, too. "She must be giving you the silent treatment. She's rather good at doing it with Vaan. Sometimes she can go whole days without saying a word to him."
Are you an idiot?! Never before had she thought such a thing of Kytes, and she knew it was her bad temper. Honestly, the boy was blinded by Lamont's charisma, and it was sickening to watch and have to sit there and do nothing. She couldn't warn him, couldn't say, "Run, Kytes! Run far away, as fast as your legs can carry you! Before you get swept in and then it's too late!" The problem, she feared, was that it already was too late.
"Is that so? Why, I wonder how long she'll last this time, then. Do you want to take a wager?"
…the nerve of him…!
"Sure!" Kytes grabbed a hold of Lamont's elbow and directed him around a corner. It was so close to her face, Penelo considered biting it. If she could get his attention, she could gesture to her throat, show him that it was a silent spell and get him to demand Lamont to take it off her.
"Let us see…" Lamont let out a noisy sigh of contemplation. "10 gil if she breaks within the hour."
"I'd give it three hours at the least!" Radiating confidence, Kytes shook hands with the older boy. It's a trap! He's going to steal your money! "You sure you don't want to up the stakes, sir?"
"Well, I am afraid that I am not very well acquainted with Penelo at the moment, and so I do not desire to overstep myself." The lord rubbed a thumb in a circular motion on the heel of her foot. "…But perhaps you're right. How does 20 gil sound?"
"You're on!" Kytes laughed.
Lamont's rub extended back to the arch of her foot, this time dexterously massaging at the most tender spots. "A deal, then. It should take us at least an hour to finish our shopping. If she has not broken by then, you shall be considered the winner." His fingers probed down to the ball.
She closed her eyes and shivered, pressing her forehead against Lamont's back to hide it. Not from the massage. Definitely not from that. It was just an effect of hanging upside down, that was all. She didn't want him to mistake it for anything else.
"And if she breaks before then, you shall." Kytes' attempt at mimicking Lamont's upper-class Archadian filled her with fresh rage. How could he admire someone so obviously full of chocobo leavings? She slammed both knees down into her captor's chest sharply. You slimy bastard, you're using him!
He actually grunted in pain. Good! She hoped she at least bruised something.
Kytes frowned at her, bending over to peer at her face. "I don't know why she's being so rude to you. You're being kind enough to carry her over the hot cobbles."
Penelo stuck her tongue out at Kytes. Kind? He's practically molesting me! And you're watching it happen!
"Yes, well..." Lamont sighed dramatically, sliding his hand up to her ankle to continue kneading. "Penelo is not a very grateful person, I am certain you've noticed."
They were getting to the busier side of the main market area. Even this early in the morning, it was filled with people doing their daily shopping. A little girl pointed and giggled. Penelo was never going to be able to show her face in public again.
"You're telling me!" Kytes laughed. "This one time, Vaan bought her a dress, right? But it was too big..."
Penelo crossed her arms and sulked as Kytes started on the same old story. She couldn't believe he was still on that, three years later. How had she been supposed to know it was a dress and not a bedsheet? And Vaan had forgiven her, so it didn't count.
The chatter continued until they finally turned into a shop.
"Welcome to Sonlier's Sandals, how may I..." The perky female voice trailed off, presumably after noticing Penelo. "Help you?"
Naturally, when faced with anyone remotely trickable, Lamont turned on the charm. "My friend here needs a set of shoes suitable for a trip to Nalbina." He patted her foot, then caught it when she tried to kick him again. "As you can no doubt see, she is a bit deficient in footwear. I am not certain of her size, sadly, and she is not speaking at the moment."
"I don't know it, either," Kytes offered. "She's never mentioned."
A new pair of hands took her foot from Lamont. Out of curiosity, Penelo picked herself up and twisted to look. The shopkeeper was a middle-aged woman with heavy smile lines on her darkly-tanned face, though only a few streaks of grey were in her hair. No wonder Lamont was being nice; she was very pretty, and he was a letch.
The shopkeeper examined Penelo's foot carefully, turning it back and forth. "Very small," she murmured. "A half and six, or perhaps a seven. We've some lovely boots she might find useful. Durable, low-cost, guaranteed to keep the sand out of her toes."
"Do you have anything that might match her clothing?" Penelo tried to see Lamont's expression, yet she couldn't twist enough for that. Why did he care? It wasn't his feet! "I would never wish to gift a lady with something unfashionable."
"Yes," the woman replied slowly. "I believe we do, but the necessary spells to make them desert-worthy aren't cheap. You'd really be better off with the boots." She didn't sound happy about admitting it, but Penelo had to admire her honesty. "Would you like to see them?"
"If you please."
What did he expect to gain by purchasing her expensive shoes? She didn't buy that he was just doing it out of the kindness of his heart. There was some ulterior motive here, she knew it. How to broach the subject, though? Kytes had already named her ungrateful, and that would be proving his point right there… another reason for Lord Slimy to laugh at her…
She fumed, unable to do much more than that. Struggling off his shoulder would just cause a greater scene, and he'd recruited yet another friendly face to his side. They both knew he was winning, and she hated it. If only she could wipe that smarmy smirk right off his handsome face…
Why were the cute ones always the most arrogant? Silly question. Because they grow up like peacocks, everyone always telling them how great they look.
The shop owner returned a moment later with some cream-colored slippers, pointed at the tips, and from what Penelo could tell without actually laying her fingers on them, soft to the touch. They were beautiful, and the lady had said they'd be magicked. She longed to have them on her feet already. She didn't think she had a pair of shoes that nice in her collection anywhere.
Growing up as her father's daughter didn't often leave time for her to moon over accessories. She lived a practical life—a good life, but a practical one. He had her on errands all the time, and she hadn't ever had the expenses for shoes that didn't already ward off the sand, preferring to spend them elsewhere and help out around the house and shop.
Her mouth eased open for a longing sigh. When nothing came out, she remembered her plight, and she made herself turn her nose up and look away, as though she found them hideous. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of thinking she was going to sit here and fawn over shoes in front of him, shoes he intended to buy. That would be ludicrous!
"We'll take those." Lamont tapped the back of her thigh, and she stiffened. He needed to stop touching her there, it was improper! "Unless you would rather look at the other choices, Penelo…?" Of course, she couldn't respond. "Excellent. How much are they?"
The lady shifted nervously, her smile lines disappearing into frowning ones, and she brushed her bangs off her forehead. A cap held the rest of her hair back to shield her scalp from the sun. They weren't really fashionable, but many Rabanastran women who weren't born into noble blood wore them. They had to fend for themselves somehow. Not everyone could afford to sit in the shade all day with buckets of ice magicite at their disposal.
She gave him a figure. By the looks of it, she expected Lamont to get up and walk off. Instead he rose, pulling a pouch from his side and asking Kytes to count out the proper amount. Kytes' eyes went wide as saucers, and after a moment, the younger boy handed over the gil.
Lamont set her down so she could put on her new shoes. Penelo carefully didn't look at him, her lips pressed into a thin line as she slipped them onto her bare feet. Her soles didn't burn, as the stone here was cool from the shade provided by the tarps overhead. One step into the sands barefoot, however, and she'd come home that evening with blisters.
Once they were on, she put her hands on her hips and tapped them against the ground, then did a pirouette and walked around a bit. They were extremely comfortable and didn't pinch at all. If she were truthful, they were the finest pair of shoes she'd ever worn before. It seemed that just because they were expensive, they weren't necessarily made to fall apart. She'd have to keep that in mind. Frugality could only stand up in the face of quality for so long before it took a break.
"Well, I guess I'd better get going, then." Kytes returned Lamont's money pouch, then gave Penelo a swift hug. She was momentarily pulled into a chest that was firming with muscle, and a nicely musky scent tickled her nose. Kytes was really growing up. It had seemed like only yesterday that he barely reached her shoulder.
She opened her mouth to talk, and words fumbled out. "Why don't you ask Filo to go with you to Vaan's instead?" Lamont had lifted the spell? Of course. It was within the hour, and Kytes was departing from him. Time to claim his 20 gil.
Rubbing at her throat, she shot him a look. He smiled innocently.
Kytes shrugged. "Nah, she doesn't like to sew much. But, awh, crap…" He dug into his pockets and produced the money he'd lost. "Guess you didn't get under her skin as much as Vaan does. Must have warmed her up with those pretty shoes!" Grinning wide, Kytes waved at them, already departing. "See you later, Penelo! Don't get into too much trouble!"
The only trouble I'll be getting in, she thought, is if Lord Lamont here gets eaten by a pack of wolves. It'll be a heroic tale. He'll have sacrificed himself as a decoy so that I could get away…
"Why do I have this particular feeling that you are up to no good now that I've gone and freed you from my terrible grasp?" Lamont crossed his arms.
She gave him the smile he had bestowed upon her. "No idea." She tucked her hands behind her at the small of her back. "Ready for that trip to Nalbina?"
He reached forth, grabbing a loose curl and tugging, albeit not enough to smart. "Are you perchance ready to behave?"
"It depends on what you mean by behaving." Pulling out of his grasp, Penelo danced forward. Her new shoes slid beautifully over the cobbles as she pirouetted to face him, spots of sunlight from holes in the canopy shining down on her. They were amazing. Not that she would ever let Lord Slimy know that. "Are you coming?"
Lamont hung back in the shadows of the store, eyeing her as though she might pull a knife. If only she had one. "You are thinking of doing harm to my person."
Wolves. Definitely wolves. And maybe a rabid cactoid. "Why would I do that?" Penelo batted her lashes. "Why would I be angry? You bought me a wonderful gift. And kidnapped me. And spelled me silent. And manhan—"
"I have done only what your father requested I do." Stepping carefully, Lamont followed her out into the sun. They were leaving the bazaar and its hustle and bustle of people behind. "Do you think I chose to spend my day on a trip I in no way benefit from? What sort of fool am I in your eyes?" Sweat already lined his brow where his Archadian clothing was stifling him. The sun hadn't been up an hour, but the heat was already rising. In her more practical clothes, Penelo would be well enough off, but Lamont was likely going to suffer that heatstroke she had wished upon him earlier.
The better to feed him to the wolves. "You must be getting something out of it." Market-goers jostled her as they rushed past, everyone eager to get their errands done before the heat peaked and it became unbearable. She deliberately stayed out in full sunlight, drawing Lamont out where it would scorch him best. If he melted, maybe he'd give up.
Sweat started sticking his hair to his brow. "Perhaps I am but doing a favor for a good man who is concerned about his daughter."
"Out of the goodness of your heart, right?"
"Yes, actually, though you are free to think me selfish if it gives you comfort."
Penelo scowled and looked away, focusing on the sandstone that made up the nearby buildings. There was just no way around it. Lamont didn't look like he was going to change his mind, and if she just walked away there would be no end of trouble when she got home.
And he did buy her shoes...
"Okay. Fine." Turning on her heel, she stomped off down the street.
Lamont was so startled that he didn't immediately set off after her, and had to take a few running steps to catch up. His shoes clattered against the street, the metal reinforcements on the soles clicking with every step. "Where are you going?"
"Eastgate." She glanced over at him without turning her head. "We are going to Nalbina, aren't we?"
He stared at her. With the sun overhead, it was even more obvious how ridiculously long his lashes were than she'd first thought. Girls would kill for those things. "Yes," he answered after a long pause. "I do believe we are."
Chapter 3: Lord Sneaky
Chapter by tsukinofaerii
The fountain in the center of the Southern Plaza gurgled cheerily while children played in it, shrieking and splashing with joy. Penelo watched them warily as she wound her way through the gathered Rabanastrans. Most of the other adults in the area were doing the same, with varying levels of concern. The fountain tiles were known to grow slick, and more than one person had done themselves injury trying to escape the heat.
Lamont didn't even seem to notice the children as he walked beside her. Already his face was pink with the heat, and it would only get worse. Spray from the fountain cooled the plaza, but not enough to make anything that could count as a difference. His clothes were entirely unsuited to crossing the desert.
Archadians, Penelo thought, wrinkling her nose as she bounced down the steps to Eastgate, taking them two at a time. They'd rather die of heat than put on something sensible.
It was going to be a problem, though. If he passed out en route, there was no way she could carry him. It might save her the trouble of knocking him out for the wolves, though. Even the guards would accept her story. There wasn't one of them who hadn't heard of idiots just like him who went into the desert and caught sunstroke, and no doubt everyone had noticed his clothing. All she would have to do would be to ignore his plight, and leave him when his pride caused his downfall.
No, she couldn't do it. Annoying as he was, Lamont didn't deserve to die. Maybe to be beaten bloody and blue for his arrogance, but not that. He was a jerk, not a monster or a pirate. Now, if he manhandled her again, that would be a different story.
"What are you thinking, darling?" The devil in question draped an arm over her shoulder while they waited for the gates to be open. His linen tunic scratched at her skin through her gossamer-thin throw. "You have such a serious expression. It does not suit such a lovely face."
Penelo threw his arm off and reconsidered the wolves.
After a moment, she gave up. No matter how she tried to stamp down her morals, it still wasn't worth it. "We should take chocobo instead of walking," she offered, expecting him to seize the idea enthusiastically. There was no way a Lord would be accustomed to walking long distances, and Lamont didn't seem like the sort who could see value in labor. She kept looking forward; if she met his eyes and he leered, the guards would have to pull her off him. "It'll be easier on you, and faster."
"Easier on me?" In her peripheral vision, Penelo saw Lamont's eyes narrow. "Do tell."
The second the gate finished creaking open, Penelo stepped out, headed straight for the chocobo rental. Gurdy looked like she was doing good business, gouging gil out of people with a smile on her face. That was good. If business wasn't too slow, Penelo might be able to haggle her into a discount, in exchange for running an errand or something. Moogles could be hard bargainers, but at least they were willing to deal. Unlike some hume or bangaa traders, who were more interested in fleecing their custom than keeping it.
Dust already clogged the air, blowing in on a south wind. It was heavily tainted with the reek of chocobo dung, musty feathers and too many travel-worn bodies in one place. Penelo thought of what Lamont would smell like after a day in the desert and wrinkled her nose. "You're wearing multiple layers of cloth with long sleeves and pants, and you look like you've never walked a whole mile in your life. You've already started sweating, and we haven't even started."
Before she could step up to the front of the stall, a gloved hand wrapped around her elbow and steered her away. "I think not."
"Hey!" she shouted, twisting to smack at his shoulder. What was with him and flinging her around? Did he think that just because he was a giant, he could do whatever he liked with smaller people? "Let me go, you cretin!"
"We are not riding a chocobo." And then, under his breath, "Bloody parades."
He used her momentary confusion to place his hand at the small of her back, his other hand still gripping her elbow, and nudged her forward. "This way, this way."
"It's fine if we don't ride a chocobo, but let go of me!" Furious that he kept manhandling her, she whirled, readying a kick and a swipe of her fist. He backed up several steps, his hands raised in front of him. She growled low in her throat, what was meant to be a threatening sound—and, to her intense disbelief, he only chuckled.
"One might think you do not get laughed at very often, for how surprised you look just now." Lamont sidestepped around her. The wind snapped at his jacket, tossed his dark hair about his face.
"This is the third time I've wished sunstroke on you," she said to his back and stalked after him. "I just want you to know that. And this time, since you refuse to change or take a chocobo, I really think it's going to happen. So don't come crying to me when you pass out in the middle of the desert."
"You wouldn't give an ailing man water?"
"You'd have to beg really prettily."
"But I would be incapacitated, correct?"
"Then that's a shame for you, isn't it?"
The banter—although Penelo really saw it as more of an argument—went back and forth as they headed out of the city and into the Estersand. In fact, it continued all the way until they reached Nalbina Fortress. Penelo was admittedly impressed. Lamont even sounded parched, but he refused to give the last word to Penelo, always finding a new retort to aim her way. He was a very good verbal fencer. It was making Penelo have to think.
"All right, so where did my father say this package was? He did tell you, didn't he?" The road was dust-covered beneath her feet, and deep ruts from carriages left tracks in the dirt on the harder ground. The passage didn't grow paved until further up near the fortress.
"Of course he told me." Red-faced and sweating buckets, Lamont swiped a wrist over his brow. "I would be remiss if we came all the way out here without any instruction whatsoever, and I am certain you would be, as well."
"Remiss? Really? You look like you're about to keel over. Come on, let's get you a drink." Both pleased and worried for him, Penelo grasped onto his elbow as he had to her hours ago. "I saw you empty your canteen over half an hour ago, and you already look thirsty again."
He shrugged her off. "I am fine." He didn't look fine…
"Your clothes are soaking wet, Lamont. At least take off your jacket…"
"Oi, Archadian!" A seeq was nearing them. They both paused as it drew closer. Its skin was a faded blue, and its tusks were larger than usual. Male, then. "Wot's with the clothing, eh? Don't yeh know yer like to get sunstroke like that in these 'ere parts?" He snorted and scuffled past them. "Bloomin' idiots, the lot of 'em… I swears, if I had a gil for every time I seen them like that…"
Penelo was unable to muffle a giggle.
"I am glad you find this so amusing." Lamont huffed and forced his boots to carry him forward. "But I am fine, I can assure you." His boot caught the edge of the pavement, and he stumbled, going down.
Her mirth fading in an eyeblink, Penelo rushed to him and grabbed him around the waist, her other arm at his chest. "Whoa, watch it!" She fumbled for her canteen at her waist and offered it to him. "Please, come on, drink something at least!"
"I will wait until we find water—I'd rather you not be without it…"
"Don't be silly!" Honestly! What was wrong with this boy? "You don't have to be chivalrous now, you know!" He'd been anything but since she met him, and he wanted to start now? He needed to get his priorities in line.
"I am merely…"
"Yeah, yeah." She peered up at his face, grinning. "I promise I won't tell anyone if you accepted help from a merchant's daughter like me."
A frown clouded his eyes. "Do not be ridiculous, Penelo. Merchant's daughter or not, you are a fine young woman." He looked away, then skyward, and so missed the flush that settled over her cheeks. She swallowed and averted her gaze as well. "At any matter, we are nearly there." He straightened, stepping away from her arms.
Penelo scowled at him, lips pursing together as she followed him. How much longer would he be able to go without water? Or salt, as much as he'd been sweating. She was used to the desert enough that she didn't need so much, but she bet he was more than due a spoonful. At this rate, pride really was going to kill him. He just couldn't let go of it long enough to be reasonable.
That meant she would have to.
Cursing her soft heart, Penelo stretched her legs until she was at his side. "Hey, after we pick up the package, why don't we stop at a pub and cool off? Maybe eat lunch?" She smiled as sweetly as she could, doing her best to look like someone who wasn't thinking of hitting him over the head and dumping him in a cellar somewhere. It would serve him right if she did, but there was no way she could carry him.
Lamont didn't seem to be buying it. He glanced at her suspiciously as they passed under an arch. "I suppose you intend to slip a poison into my drink?"
"Hey!" Her fake smile instantly turned into a scowl. "I only thought about letting you die in the desert a few times. I didn't actually do it!" She snorted and crossed her arms,
The crowd around them thickened as they entered the market district, and the noise levels rose. It seemed like every vendor in sight was yelling for them to come see their wares. The heat was even worse here, with the buildings blocking the breeze and so many over-heated bodies crowded into a narrow street. Lamont seemed to wilt even more.
"A short meal," he conceded, pulling out a white handkerchief and blotting his forehead. "I have no wish to keep you out too late."
Thinking back on the hope in her father's face when he'd told her Lamont was escorting her, Penelo nodded fervently. No doubt if she didn't return until late or, Ultima forbid, tomorrow, he'd start planning the engagement celebration. "We definitely don't want that."
She thought she heard him chuckle, but before she could call him on it, Lamont grabbed her elbow and steered her toward a shop door. The sign overhead was a needle and a spool of thread—a tailor. "This one."
It wasn't a sort of shop Penelo saw the inside of very often, Generally, her clothes came from the resellers rather than the source. The only time she'd owned anything made just for her was when she'd been little, and her mother had sewn a dress for her. That had been before the Archadian Revolution, which had slowed business for years. By the time they were able to afford good cloth for her mother's sewing, Penelo had already been old enough that she bought her own clothes.
A bell tinkled as they stepped into the cool, dark interior of the shop. Instantly, her eyes were drawn to the display of fabrics along the wall. There was a whole corner for silks, colored in brilliant jewel tones and lovely pastels. Accessories took up another part of the shop, flaunting themselves in beautiful bows and drapes of lace. Fully clad dress dummies stood proud along the other wall, displaying the tailor's art to its fullest.
Without thinking, Penelo pulled away from Lamont and wandered over to the dummies, feeling as though her head was stuffed with cotton. One dress in particular caught her eye, and she held her breath as she stared at it. It was an Archadian noblewoman's gown, complete with corset and matched slippers. Turquoise blue satin draped in artful folds from a tightly laced bodice, slashed to show flashes of snowy white insets and hints of gold lace. The shoulder-baring sleeves were cut to show off the arms, while still draping nearly to the ground. It was impractical, ridiculously expensive, and the corset probably required broken ribs to wear.
She wanted it so badly her stomach hurt a little. Slowly, Penelo reached out to touch the satin, to see if it felt as smooth as it looked, but hesitated when she saw her hand. Blunt nails that were slightly crusted with dirt, skin still caked with dust from the desert, calluses from hard work. People like her weren't meant to have dresses like that.
Breath touched her ear. "Do you like it?" Lamont asked softly from just behind her shoulder.
Penelo strangled a scream as her heart leaped to her throat. She grabbed her chest and twisted around, putting a good three feet between them in the process. "Don't do that!" she scolded as she tried to catch her breath. "You nearly gave me a heart attack!"
The bastard didn't apologize. He just cocked an eyebrow and turned his gaze back to the dress. "Do you like it?" Fabric whispered as he picked up one of the trailing sleeves. He shifted it to look at the seams. "It is fine work. There are a few ladies of my acquaintance who would love to own a dress so handsomely fashioned."
Something horrible twisted in her stomach. Lamont could buy it, she thought suddenly. He was a noble, and rich. It probably wouldn't even be a dent in his pocket change. If she were just a little nicer to him, maybe let him get close...
"Of course not." Resolutely, she turned away from the gown, before she could change her mind. "It looks like something out of a cheap street play. I can't believe anyone would ever wear anything that hideous."
"Of course not." Now he was definitely laughing at her, but Penelo didn't care.
She kept her back to both him and the dress and focused on looking around the rest of the shop. As long as she didn't look at it, or him, she could pretend that she hadn't thought about lowering herself that way. "We should pick up the package and go. Where's the shopkeep?"
"Behind the counter, I expect."
Penelo huffed. "Enjoy your teasing while it lasts, Lamont. We won't be together much longer."
"Oh, and what is that supposed to mean?" Unfortunately, Lamont didn't sound one bit offended. Indeed, his amusement seemed to be growing by the minute. It was liable that at any moment, he would turn purple in the face from stifling his chortles. Bastard. Didn't he know that it was rude to laugh at a woman? Then again, he probably did, and he probably went out of his way to do it. Churl!
"It means that once you have whatever it is you want from my father, you'll be gone for good, and I'll never have to see you ever again." Just as she reached the counter, the shopkeep disappeared into a back door. She frowned, sighing, setting both hands against the edge of the counter. Couldn't they just get this over and done with so she could get back home already? It wasn't even busy in the store.
Lamont's finger curled around a strand of her hair. Realizing he'd gotten close to her again without her realizing it, she gasped and pulled away from him. His resulting smile was lazy, and an eyebrow arched. What was that all about…? Somehow, she got the feeling he was testing her… Seeing how far he could push before she snapped at him again? Did he like seeing her angry?
Well, she wasn't going to do it! She'd be perfectly fine. Not respond at all. Wouldn't give him the time of day where that was concerned.
But then… if she didn't respond at all… and she let him get close to her… wasn't he winning either way?
She was still stewing over that when the shopkeep returned with a package in his hands. It was wrapped in a beautiful sky blue silk, tied in place with a creamy white ribbon. Again, her heart longed to own such fabric. Why did she have to be born into a merchant's family? It was a question she'd pondered since she was a little girl. Oh, she loved her family, she did, but sometimes, even she could long to have money, couldn't she?
"Here you are, lass," he said. He was an elderly man with plenty of wrinkles around his eyes and shoots of white in his wavy dark hair.
"Uh…" she said.
"I'd know that nose anywhere." He reached out across the counter and tapped it. She blinked twice. "Looks just like your father's, it does. He come by a few weeks ago, see, said his daughter's birthday was coming up and he needed to find her a present. I looked at him, I said, 'Arramis, I know just the thing. Can't sell 'em fast enough.' You'll love it, dearie."
That made her examine the perfectly wrapped box more closely. It was… for her…?
Larsa put his hands on her shoulders and steered her to the door. "Thank you, sir."
"Oh, it's not a problem, not a problem… tell Arramis I said hello…"
Once they were out in the bright sunlight again, Penelo turned to him. "I wasn't supposed to know about this til I got home."
"No, I would say not." He laughed. "The shopkeep ruined the surprise. That's all right. If you act surprised for your father, he might never know you knew otherwise. That is, if you've any talent at acting…"
She couldn't tell if he was insulting her or not. "I'm fine at acting, thank you," she said stiffly. "Now." She lifted her nose arrogantly into the air in what she felt was a fair imitation of him. "You promised me you would eat and hydrate yourself. Where would you like to go?"
"You do love to care for me, do you not? I..." Lamont frowned, and patted his pocket. An expression of quiet contemplation crossed his face, stilling it into something almost inoffensive. It quickly vanished back to his usual genteel air. "Do you know, I entirely forgot a bit of business I have with the shopkeep. Bide a moment, will you, darling?"
Before she could reply, he patted her head—like a pet!—and vanished back into the shop.
Penelo stared at the door, mouth still open, her precious package clutched safely in her arms. Who did he think he was, telling her to bide? As if she would obey him implicitly, without argument or hesitation. Or as if she weren't smart enough to recognize shady dealings when they happened under her nose. Why else would he tell her to wait outside, when there was a nice cool shop available?
"Son of a beast," she growled, stomping the dirt in frustration. Dust rose up, hot and dry and threatening the delicate blue silk wrapping. She darted closer to the building, pressing up near a window to keep from getting her present dirty. It might have been only wrapping, but it was good quality, and there was a lot. If she took care, she might be able to make something with it.
Something heavy clattered inside the shop. Penelo's neck turned, and she pressed her cheek and ear against the cool glass. She could hear them speaking, just under the hubbub and noise of the street vendors. Whatever they were talking about, Lamont's voice, deeper than the shopkeep's and with sharp vowels, sounded overeager. He spoke directly over the shopkeep more than once, even raising his voice enough that she could hear him.
"Five thousand and the stone? That is daylight robbery, good sir!"
Most of the window space was taken up by display pieces and swaths of cloth. Penelo found one of the cracks and peeked through. A beautiful piece of cloth was laid out on the desk, black and iridescent, shifting color every time it moved. It was being used as a showcase for what looked like a puzzle made entirely of magicite. She picked out the most common ones by their color: pale blue ice, red fire, black dark.
Lamont and the old man were arguing—bargaining, from the sound of it—over one of the pieces. It was sapphire and gold, as if someone had taken water and air magicite and melted them together. She'd never seen anything like it before.
Finally, Lamont shook his head and dropped the magicite piece to the cloth, then dug out his purse. With the air of one doing a deeply unpleasant chore, he counted out more gil than Penelo had seen in her whole life and stacked it on the desk. For his part, the old man reached under the counter and put three potion bottles next to the gil.
Thousands of gil and a rare piece of magicite? For potions? That didn't make any sense at all. They had to be something more than normal potions. Poisons, or something new and miraculous. Maybe it was illegal, and that was why the cost was so high. He was buying silence, too.
When Lamont started gathering his purchases to leave, Penelo ducked down and stepped back into the sunlight. Conspiracy theories whirled around her head, but she managed to put on an affronted scowl before the door opened and Lamont stepped out.
His eyebrows rose when he saw her standing exactly where he'd left her. Wonders and mercies, he didn't comment, just nodded and pushed his sweat-spiked hair back from his forehead. "Thank you for waiting. Now, where shall we sup?"
Penelo glared at him sullenly. It was hard to keep from staring at him too hard. What had he been up to in there? "We passed a pub on the way into town," she finally answered, turning to go. "If Your Grace cares to eat at such a lowly place?"
Lamont grabbed her arm, yanking her to a stop. Something dark passed over his eyes. "Do not call me that," he said, voice low and intimidating. "You may insult me however else you wish, but never that. Are we clear?"
Sudden fear chilled Penelo's heart. He'd never looked at her like that. There was no sign of his usual amiable attitude. He almost sounded dangerous...
She yanked out of his grip. "Then don't act like a snob," Penelo shot back, her voice unsteady. "If you're going to order me around like some inbred noble bastard, then I'll call you whatever I want to."
Lamont stared at her, then slowly nodded. "Fair enough."
"That's it?" It couldn't be that easy. Could it?
"That is it," he agreed. When he took her arm to guide her down the street, his touch was much more gentle. Apologetic, nearly. "Now, about that pub…"
The more she tried not to think about the exchange in the shop—it wasn't any of her business—the more, of course, she did. In the end, she supposed it was because she couldn't trust him. She hadn't trusted him from the get go, from the first moment he'd walked into the shop. There was something underlying his nice demeanor he showed to everyone else. And it wasn't even the slimy behavior he displayed toward her.
Something lurked beneath.
As she downed some noodles, she thought again of her arm and the brief exchange they'd had on the street. The way he'd grabbed her… just snatched her up. The secrets that lurked in his eyes, as if he was carefully in the balance of… something, and she'd been in danger of knocking him over. Why had he cared so much that she'd addressed him as Your Grace? What did it matter? Part of her wanted to say he was just touchy, like some people were… but that didn't feel right…
"So what were you up to in the shop?" she asked.
Lamont lifted his head. They were seated in a decent pub that Penelo had managed to point them toward, off to the side, away from everyone's direct attention. She'd picked it out for some peace and quiet. Now she wondered if her subconscious had been trying to plan for when she brought this topic up.
He considered her for a moment, then lowered his eyes back to his meal, poking at it with his fork. He pushed things around on his plate without ever really taking a bite of anything. His mug of ale was untouched. He'd tried to order wine, and the bartender had given him a look. This ain't the place for tha', he'd said. Maybe because he was trying not to be a snob, Lamont had let it go without comment and accepted the ale instead.
"So you were watching me, were you? I thought so." Lamont finally scooped some vegetables into his mouth.
She twitched her lips to one side, studying him shrewdly. Was she that obvious?
"But you see, if I tell you, that rather defeats the purpose of the exchange."
So it was shady…
She opened her mouth to say as much, and he interrupted her smoothly, lifting his eyes again and settling them on hers firmly. "You are a curious sort, aren't you? I could tell from the moment I saw you in your father's shop. This one, I thought, won't let matters lie as they are. I must be careful around her."
Penelo wasn't sure if she should feel flattered or not. Was that his intention? Best to be on the insulted side, then. "Why do you have to be careful if there's nothing to hide?"
He smiled at her then, an amused tilt of his lips. "Pray tell me, Penelo—when did I say there was nothing to hide?"
"Well…" Damn. She couldn't think of a response to that. Her mind whirled and whirled and came up with nothing. He didn't even want to act like he had things to hide? Most people with secrets did.
She was just about to say so, because at least it'd be something to fire back at him, when an uproar broke out three tables away from them.
"Is it him or not?!" a red-scaled bangaa was shouting, his fist coming down on the table. The moogle accompanying him squeaked and clutched his tankard of ale closer to him. The thing was nearly as big as he was.
The moogle's bon bon was quivering as he squinted up at his companion. "W-Well… Calm down, k-kupo, you must understand, I only saw the warrant yesterday—"
"And?!" The bangaa seemed to grow larger with his anger, and a growl rumbled in his throat.
The poor moogle shrunk in on himself, clearly trying to disappear into his chair. "I-I didn't get a good e-enough look at it, kupo—"
"If there's a Solidor in Dalmasca, something's gotta be done about it! We don't want their like here!"
All at once, whispers broke out across the pub. Penelo herself felt her skin prickle and her eyes grow wide. There was a Solidor in Dalmasca? In a country as small as it was, that could be anywhere close to where Penelo lived. It was mostly desert. All they really had was Rabanastre… Gods above, a Solidor. She couldn't even wrap her mind around it.
They'd been banished to the corners of Ivalice, never to come in contact with anyone else ever again. To do so would mean their deaths. It had been nine years ago, when Penelo was still a little girl, so she didn't remember too much of it, and her parents hadn't liked to talk about it either. No one did. The Solidors, who had held the Archadian throne for two centuries, had been brought up on charges and dismissed. Their crimes were so bad that this decision had extended to every country.
For the first time in decades, the four nations had come together on the matter.
Penelo bit her lip. A Solidor in Dalmasca… but it could have been only a rumor… they cropped up sometimes, from people who were feeling daring…
No one even liked to say their name, let alone make such poor jests…
"L-Laurence," the moogle was pleading, "c-come on, kupo, sit d-down, you've had too much to drink…"
"I haven't had too much to drink!"
Lamont's fork hit his plate, and Penelo jerked her head up, startled by the noise. Her eyes went from his mostly full plate to his still untouched ale.
"What? We're going? You're not even done…"
"We should be going before dusk arrives. I dare say you'd enjoy spending the eve with me in Nalbina."
Forgetting her fear for the moment, Penelo let a displeased frown cross her face. No, she certainly would not want to spend the night at an inn room with someone like him. Knowing her luck, they'd be stuck in the same room together, or sharing the same bed. Her face flamed red at even the thought of it.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? Take advantage of an innocent young girl that way?" She collected their canteens, which the bartender had been kind enough to fill for them, and slid out of her seat. The bottles dripped where water had splashed over their outside, but the sun would dry that in no time at all. "It would be just like you."
Gil dropped to their table from Lamont's hand, plenty for the meal and a generous tip. "You are older than I, if you recall," he shot back. One hand pressed against the small of her back to guide her away from the surly bangaa and his moogle friend. Contrary to what she would expect from him, the pressure from his hand wasn't at all scandalous. It stayed exactly where it started, using pressure to direct her through the pub's patrons. "I can hardly be said to take advantage of one four years my elder."
Penelo twitched away from his hand. It was insistent, prodding her out a different exit than the one they'd come in. "Everyone knows that the man has the advantage in that sort of thing," she insisted, even as she considered the best way to kick him in the shins and run. "I would rather throw you to the wolves."
"Yes, I believe you have said something similar in prior discussions." The corners of his lips turned up, but the resulting smile was strained. "Fear not, my dear lady. I shall never lay an unwanted finger on your person. As little as you and others think of me, I do have some pretence of decency."
There wasn't much she could say to that, so Penelo huffed to herself and let it drop. Cool shadows gave way to the pound of the afternoon sun overhead. The scent of spicy Dalmascan noodles and kebabs faded with the pub, replaced by dust and chocobo musk. Penelo's stomach complained, and she hushed it silently. She would just have to eat when they got home.
At this time of day, the streets were deserted. Anyone with sense was out of the heat, enjoying a rest before returning to work in the evening. Most Dalmascan shops stayed open late at night, to draw in customers who preferred to wait for cooler times. The few traders that still lined the streets were all bangaa, who barely even noticed the temperature. Even they were closing up shop, having no reason to stay open when everyone else was elsewhere.
Lamont hurried them through the town. Rudely, he didn't even look at the gate guards who tipped their heads as they passed. Penelo twisted to wave—really, would it kill Lamont to be a little polite?—but her Archadian escort hustled her along.
When they passed the chocobo stand, she dug in her heels. "We're taking a chocobo. You nearly died last time."
Garnet earrings caught the sun as he cast a green eye over the little pink-topped moogle who was watching the stables, then turned his back. "I think not. A chocobo would be too expensive."
"Expensive?" Penelo's voice rose in disbelief. "Really? And here I thought I just saw you spend—"
His glare stopped her cold.
"It is not wise," he said, very quietly, "to go announcing the amount of gil carried on one's person. Let it go, Penelo."
Penelo. As far as she could remember, he'd never called her by her name. It was always darling and dearest, endearments left and right, without a proper name among them. And he looked so serious, staring right at her as if his life depended on avoiding one stupid bird.
"Are you afraid of them?" she asked gently. Silk embroidery from his jacket caught the calluses on her hand when she rested them on his wrist. "It's okay if you are, but if you're not, we're going to get on that chocobo. I'm not going to let you die just because riding double looks silly."
Lamont flinched, eyebrows coming together in a scowl. "Of course I am...." His voice trailed off, and he seemed to deflate. His eyes lowered, then glanced back at her anxiously, and Penelo's heart twisted a little. They really were a beautiful color. "I did not wish to admit it to you," he muttered. "It is rather an embarrassment, you see."
"I understand." Somehow, she managed to keep her voice utterly sincere. Inwardly, she gloated, Big, strong Archadian, afraid of a little bird. Once she got him out of the heat, she'd have to tease him about it. "But, if you're going to survive, you have to change your clothes."
Confusion pulled his mouth down. "At the moment, I happen to be fair limited in my wardrobe." This time, she didn't fight when he guided her past the moogle's stable. "And I am disinclined to stay in Nalbina long enough to acquire anymore."
Hard-packed dirt turned to soft sands under her slippers as they passed the final gates. Walking backwards so she could face him, Penelo evaluated his clothing. It really was all sorts of ridiculous. No wonder Archadians died so often in the deserts. "You've got to do what I say. Or we're turning around and getting a chocobo. Agreed?"
A curt nod was the only answer she got. It was probably all she would get. Archadians didn't like showing skin.
The prospect of shutting Lamont up for a while cheered her immensely. "First, lose the jacket and gloves. This isn't a dinner party. The fewer layers you have on, the better."
Cocking an eyebrow, he obediently stripped off his gloves and coat. Under the jacket, his white linen shirt was stained brown at the collar and wrists from the dirt that never stopped blowing on the wind. Sweat had stained it around his chest and back, ruining the good cloth.
It was good cloth, too, Penelo noticed. With Nalbina fading in the distance, she reached out and grabbed his collar, rubbing it between her fingers. The fabric was thick, heavy—good quality, but far too heavy to let his skin breathe. It might keep the sun off his head, though. Assuming he wasn't going to become a fresh-cooked Nebra crab without it.
Ignoring every Archadian sense of propriety Lamont might have had, Penelo grabbed the hem of his shirt and yanked it out of his pants. Lamont's yelp of outrage bounced off the canyons in the distance. She ignored it, and the firm lines of his abdominals, focusing on the skin she'd revealed. Pale, but not too pale, with a golden hue underneath. He'd probably have some sunburn, but it wouldn't kill him. "Take your shirt off and wrap it around your head."
"Are you mad?"
No help there. Since she already had a grip on his clothing, Penelo just shoved down on his shoulders and tugged the shirt off before he could argue more. It didn't stop him from struggling, but she still had it off in a trice.
As soon as he was free, Lamont stumbled backwards, landing on his rear in the sand. "You are mad!" he proclaimed, scooting away from her. "And you were worried about your virtue, when clearly it is not at all in danger. Mine, on the other hand..."
"Stop whining and hold still." Working quickly, Penelo folded the shirt into a decent headpiece and wrapped it around his head and neck, tucking the corners in firmly. "This will keep you from getting sunstroke. You'll thank me later."
"I highly doubt—"
"Yeah, yeah." She held out a hand to him, offering to help him up. "Now are we going or not? Remember, it was either this or riding the chocobo. And given your fear of an innocent, yellow-feathered bird—"
He harrumphed at that, just as she had expected he would, and, ignoring her hand entirely, climbed to his feet. He dusted sand off his trousers, and she wasn't surprised to see another tinge of brown left behind. Sand was awfully annoying, and she was used to it. Lamont was no doubt going to fuss over the state of his clothing later. But, again, it was better than getting sunstroke, and he was the one who had fallen straight on his rump…
There was a grin on her mouth that she couldn't make go away. The memory of this moment would last with her for quite some time. Giant, bird-nose, arrogant Lamont… whining about his state of undress. She'd remind him of that the next time he sought to tease her over some trivial thing, as he was wont to do.
"All right, let's be going, shall we?"
He strolled off ahead of her without bothering to answer, but, she supposed, that might have been answer enough. Unable to contain her glee any more now than she had a few moments ago, she hummed a tune under her breath and hurried to catch up.
At least the sun wasn't beating on their heads as much this time as it had been earlier that morning. It helped that the sun was going to go down soon, and as they traveled, Penelo could already see streaks of red and orange over the cliffs. Lamont hadn't said much to her, just the occasional, "Watch out for that cactoid," which were burrowed under the ground to escape the heat. The creatures were generally friendly and wouldn't attack unless provoked, so as long as she didn't step on one and get needles in her feet, she'd be all right.
Since she was in such a good mood, she decided not to reprimand him every time he warned her off them. She'd grown up in the desert, after all, and could very well spot a cactoid when she wanted to.
"You know," she said after a while, when his stiff shoulders and purposeful silence had gotten to her, "Vaan is totally going to be jealous. He doesn't get outside of the city much anymore. He's always stuck on patrol."
Lamont grunted to show he had heard her, but didn't offer any remark in return.
Geeze, his feathers were really ruffled, weren't they?
She skipped ahead of him, not yet even out of breath. She was very much in shape, and the day hadn't worn her down in the least. Oh, she'd likely fall asleep as soon as her head hit her pillow, but until then, she'd be just fine. The pasta she'd had at the tavern had helped revitalize her, too. Shame Lamont hadn't eaten much…
"You were acting kind of odd back in Nalbina," she said. "I know that the Solidors aren't something anyone wants to talk about… Is it worse in Archadia?" Was it even more of a boogeyman there than it was in Dalmasca?
"It is your imagination," he replied, in much of the same terse tone he had graced her with the past couple of hours. "I told you, it was growing late, and so here we are, traveling back to your homestead."
She twitched her lips to one side, not quite completely buying that. Could anyone really blame her? "It was really abrupt, though… Are you scared of the Solidors, too, and not just a poor little chocobo?" She grinned again at the thought. He was never going to live that down. "Afraid they're going to eat you in your sleep?"
He said nothing.
Gleeful, she nudged his arm with her elbow as she slowed down enough for him to catch back up. "They won't, you know. As far as anyone knows, they're outcast from Ivalice, aren't they? People claim to see one or two of them from time to time… but it's just rumors. Nothing to fret about."
His lips were a thin line.
Curiosity growing by the moment, she let her grin drop and nudged him once more. "Hey, come on, are you really that bothered by it?" He was Archadian… maybe it was taboo for them to even speak of the Solidors? It was plausible… Well, she didn't want to joke about something cultural. She'd let it drop for now, since he clearly wanted her to.
She clucked her tongue and shrugged her canteen strap more securely on her shoulder. "So… you never mentioned how long you'd be staying in Rabanastre? Just until my father finishes helping you?"
Lamont glanced sideways at her, as if measuring her words for some sort of horrible secret agenda. The make-shift head cloth shadowed his face enough that she nearly missed it. Were Solidors really that tender a subject for Archadians? Sheesh. It had been nearly a decade. He probably barely remembered it.
"Well?" Penelo prodded when he didn't seem likely to answer. "Come on. It's small talk. You're not above that, right?"
"I will not be staying in Rabanastre once my business with your father is concluded," Lamont finally admitted reluctantly. "I have many claims on my time, and there are few reasons to stay."
"Oh." It couldn't be that much longer before he left, then. Her father didn't do much that would take a long time. Lamont had already been there for a few days. How much longer would it take?
Sand shuffled under her slippers, soft and golden. None of the grit had gotten into her shoes the way it usually did. The spells kept it all out. She had Lamont to thank for that. Maybe he was slime, but wasn't completely horrible. "Must be fun. Traveling all over, seeing things. You probably want to get back to it."
"It has its advantages." Rocks and pebbles clattered down the cliff face as they passed, probably upset by a passing cactoid. "What of you? When will you leave Rabanastre to seek your fortune?"
"Me?" Penelo laughed nervously and skipped ahead. Sunset colors spread from the horizon to the sky overhead, and shadows were stretched over the hollows in the cliff walls. This part of the desert was a labyrinth. If they didn't get to the outpost before dark, they could end up wandering in circles for hours. "What do I need to seek my fortune for? It's right here, in Rabanastre."
Prickles ran up the back of Penelo's neck. She could feel him staring at her. "Is that so?"
"Yes, that's so." She rolled her shoulders to get rid of the creepy feeling. "I don't want to travel. I want to stay home, where it's..."
A soft growl sounded in front of her. Penelo stumbled to a sharp stop, heart leaping up into her throat. Three of what she thought were shadows stepped onto the path.
"... safe," she finished weakly.
Chapter 4: Lord Sincerity
Chapter by tsukinofaerii
"Zalera's ghost," Lamont cursed.
Penelo had to agree. Cliff walls cut off their escape on all sides as the wolves snarled and stalked forward. All three were scrawny and sickly, looking more like skeletons than living animals. One of them had an eye missing. The wound that had taken it was still festering and raw, but its teeth were just as sharp as the others'.
Dead, dry plants crunched underfoot as she backed away slowly. Her shoulders bumped into something. A high-pitched yelp escaped her before she recognized the silky smooth heat of sunburned skin against her shoulders—Lamont. "Well," she murmured, voice shaky but quiet to keep from startling the wolves into attack, "at least there's only three of them?"
"Look behind you," Lamont answered just as quietly.
Heart sinking, Penelo turned to look. Three more wolves and an alpha that was twice as big as the others blocked the way they'd come. Seven total; a whole pack. She'd dealt with individual wolves before. They were cowards who usually didn't attack people. At worst, they would only take on one or two people at a time, when they were starving and desperate. That only happened in the worst of the dry season.
Like they were in now.
"Do you know how to fight?" Lamont asked sotto voce. "Or any magicks?" The wolves weren't attacking yet, but they would. Right now they were just being cautious. It wouldn't last long. And with seven wolves, they wouldn't last long, either.
Penelo pushed closer to Lamont, staying back to back. "No—I never needed to. Usually I just yell at them and they run!"
"That explains much."
"Hey!" Penelo yelled. The wolves lowered their heads, growls growing louder and more threatening. She lowered her voice to a hiss. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means what it means." She felt Lamont slide down her back, and heard a metallic click. The wolves' eyes followed him suspiciously. "Just stay very, very still."
"What are you—" Lamont shoved the back of her knees, forcing them to buckle. The box with her gift fell out of her hands. Dirt and rocks scraped her palms bloody as Lamont forced her to the ground. He threw himself over her as a dark mote sailed straight up in the air, glowing black with energy.
The one-eyed wolf snarled and leapt at it. Black light exploded, throwing all of the wolves into the cliff face. Penelo shrieked and covered her head as chunks of rubble flew everywhere. The wolves started trying to stagger to their feet almost immediately. Only the alpha wolf managed it on the first try.
"Stay down!" The overheated weight of Lamont's body vanished.
A blade glittered in his hand as he threw himself at the alpha wolf. It was still unsteady, but not enough that it couldn't snap at him. Bright red cut across his forearm where its teeth slashed him. Lamont's knife sunk into the alpha's throat, ripping it open. Blood sprayed from the wound, coating its fur and Lamont. The wolf's yelp trailed off into a gurgle and it slumped to the ground, dead.
Claws scraped rock as the other six wolves started pushing themselves upright. Two of them were already standing, shaking their head to clear it. The way to the outpost was wide open.
Lamont held out his hand to her, cradling the other one against his ribs. Penelo took it and was pulled to her feet and up against his side. Blood stained his arm up to the elbow. "We need to go, before they come to their senses."
Step by slow step, they eased past the wolves. Dirty blue silk caught the fading light of sunset. The blast had thrown it against a rock. Penelo bent and scooped up the box as they edged past. Her palm stung where Lamont gripped it, pebbles grinding into the wounds, but she held on tight.
They didn't speak again to one another until they had reached the outpost. By then, Lamont's arm was bleeding more profusely than ever. While the sight of all the red made Penelo feel vaguely green, she took him gently by the elbow and steered him toward the fire in the center of the encampment. Perhaps because he was tired, he let her lead him; she didn't know, nor did she care. All she could think of was how he had saved them and ended up greatly injured because of it.
"Let me look at it," she said. She tried to get him to sit, but this time, he wouldn't budge.
"You are a surgeon now?" he asked dryly, looking at her through his lashes.
Her cheeks puffed. Slowly, trembling with the effort of keeping calm, she exhaled. "No," she said.
"Then how will you know what, precisely, you are examining?"
"I can tell if it's deep enough to need—" She trailed off as Lamont reached into a pouch at his waist and produced a small blue vial, one that looked awfully familiar. He uncorked the thing with his thumb, knocked it back in one gulp, and then tossed the empty glass into the fire hard enough that the thing shattered and made the flames turn green for all of three seconds.
"You were saying?" he said with a grimace. She'd heard the things tasted awful, but she'd never had one, so she couldn't really say for sure.
Her mouth opened—closed. She realized she wasn't quite sure what she wanted to say. He was a noble, yet he carried potions around with him? The man was proving more and more this day to be a seasoned adventurer. Or, at least, that was what it seemed like. Not to mention the shady business at the dress shop…
Who was Lamont, really?
"Lamont, are you really—" He looked at her, and she found she lost her nerve. Plastering a smile on her face, she shook her head and gestured that they be on. His eyes stayed heavy on her until she took the hint to leave first, and she did so, waving at the travelers who yelled greetings.
Lamont, are you really a noble? How had that been about to slip off her tongue? It was unbelievably rude. Not that his manners had been the most gentlemanly since they'd met… however, that question was beyond unacceptable to ask. Never mind that she burned to… but he probably had a perfectly good reason for everything suspicious about him.
Maybe he had just come prepared. There was no harm in that, was there?
She thought of that weird smoky magick thing he'd done. Then she thought again of his mangled arm, by now of which looked infinitely less ghastly, and how he had saved her. She could hardly fault him for erring on the side of caution if it had come to the aid of both their lives.
The last leg of the trip to Rabanastre was done speedily and once again in mostly silence. Lamont's arm had almost healed entirely by the time they made it through the east gate, and his stride was purposeful, his eyes focused straight ahead, carrying no signs that they'd been in a scuffle except for the state of his clothes.
He was really eager to drop her off, wasn't he? Probably tired of her by then. What a source of trouble she'd been, and all because her father had foisted him off on her.
She wondered at that, that at first she'd resented him for coming with her, yet now she was reversing their roles, she was taking the blame. Did she honestly feel that sorry for him? He had rescued them… Still, did that just entirely null and void everything he had done to earn her ire beforehand?
But… she thought. Maybe beneath the surface, he's a good person…
"Here we are, my dear darling," Lamont announced, and Penelo blinked and looked up to find that they were indeed on her front doorstep. Had she zoned out through most of the walk there? It seemed so.
She shook free the haze coating her mind, put one hand on the doorknob, and twisted to face him. "How long are you staying?"
"Oh, I imagine just long enough to report to your father on the events, and then retire to my, however temporary, humble adobe for the evening." He tipped his head at her, a teasing smile on his lips, but she wasn't as irritated with it now as she'd been before.
It was all just a mask, wasn't it? Through the course of the day, she'd seen him serious, angry, mysterious, fiercely secretive, very brave, cranky from dehydration—in fact, most of these had overridden his usual façade of flippancy. Funny, how she'd known him for all of a day in whole, and she already knew so much about him.
"You should get cleaned," she said. "Take a bath."
"Something I can easily do in my own quarters," he replied politely, inclining his head.
Penelo frowned and leaned in until barely an inch separated their noses, staring hard at him. She had to rise up on her tip-toes to do it. Lamont didn't pull away. He just blinked and raised an eyebrow, letting her inspect him without comment.
Aloof. That’s what he looked like. Like it didn’t matter one way or the other to him what they did. Familiar, comfortable annoyance sparked in her. Back to civilization and he flipped around to the jerk again. Of course.
After a long, silent moment, she huffed and settled back on her feet. "Stop that."
"Stop…?" He gestured with his left hand. "Pray, elaborate."
"That." She poked him in the chest. It was firm. Very firm. Penelo yanked her thoughts back on track. "This. This whole thing where you—you act like the world is something you can brush off your shoulder. You weren't like this earlier. I liked you better when you were grumpy about the heat."
Lamont's mouth opened, then locked there, as if he couldn't think of anything to say. Slowly, it closed, and he nodded. His expression softened, losing some of the forced carelessness she was used to seeing there. "You are right. I wasn't. And I apologize. You deserve better."
It was her turn to stare. That was it? He gave in? It couldn't be that easy. Could it? Not even an attempt to side-step? "Well..." She shuffled her feet, new sandals scuffing the dirt. "Apology accepted, then."
"But—" There it was. The weasel word but. "—I really should not linger over long. Your dear father is like to make quite the spectacle of us, and I was under the impression that you do not wish such… blandishments touted so freely." Lamont smiled, a real one that touched his eyes and made her throat tighten a little. He really was handsome...
Dirty silk pressed against her stomach as she held the package close to her. The shadows were deep enough that the little entryway felt cozy and private. "Don't be ridiculous. You saved me. You should at least stay for dinner."
"Even with your father's suggestions?"
"Even with," Penelo insisted. She grabbed his arm and turned to open the door, not missing the slight wince when he thought she couldn't see. So that potion didn't heal everything? she wondered. Why isn't he playing up the wound, then? Machismo? But Lamont didn't seem the type…
"Penelo!" Her father rushed at her as soon as the door was open. She was off her feet and swung in an exuberant circle before she'd even crossed the threshold. "You were so late returning, I thought you might have decided to stay in Nalbina!" Strong arms compressed her ribs, squeezing them so tightly she couldn't breathe to reply. "Why, when I saw you two so close on the porch, I thought for sure —"
Her mother's gasp managed to get Arramis' attention before he crushed Penelo's ribs. "Lord Lamont! What happened to your arm?"
Penelo staggered as she was dropped roughly back on her feet. Arramis bustled over to Lamont, who hovered in the doorway. He held his wounded left arm against his side, looking awkward and worried for a split second. Then the mask slid back into place with a smile and a flourish.
"Merely a scratch, long since healed," Lamont insisted, gesturing at his bicep. While it appeared healed, it was still streaked with dried blood and dirt, much more than a 'scratch' could have ever accounted for. "Nothing to concern yourself with, I assure you."
She watched as her parents tutted over the wound and Lamont played the humble hero. It was like the puppet shows in the market. Emilie stretched the arm out and talked about salves and creams, while her father failed to win details from the inexplicably reticent Lamont. Everyone put on a show of some sort.
You deserve better.
"He saved me," Penelo blurted out. Lamont looked over at her with wide eyes, a flash of real surprise in his face before it shuttered again. That warmed her with a vindictive little glow where the desert sun couldn't reach. Teach him to play with her this way. "A pack of wolves attacked us on the way back, in Yardang, and he saved me. He's a hero."
Arramis looked at her, then swung around to look at Lamont with an expression best described as gleeful. "I knew it was a good choice to have you escort her!" he crowed, throwing his arms around the young lord. Lamont choked as his ribs were crushed, just the way Penelo's had been earlier. "Thank you, my Lord, thank you! This is a time to celebrate!" Two loud kisses smacked on either cheek.
Her mother took the package Penelo was still holding and set it aside. Then she smiled and wrapped her arm around Penelo's shoulders, guiding her down the hall. "We'll let them talk," she murmured. "Your father will need time to settle, and you look as though you would like a bath."
Behind them, Arramis' babbling continued unabated. "—must stay the night, I insist. I couldn't let you stay in a heartless inn—"
"Do you think Lamont will be okay?" Penelo asked, twisting to try and catch one last glimpse before she was propelled into the bathing room. If she'd known what kind of monster she was unleashing…
"He's a big, strong boy. I'm sure a little mauling won't hurt him." Emilie pushed her daughter the rest of the way inside and shut the door. The sounds from the living room vanished almost entirely. If Penelo strained, she could hear her father, but not clearly.
"I wasn't talking about the wolf bite."
"Neither was I. Now, sit down. You're half dead with exhaustion, don't think I can't tell." Silver and gold curls escaped Emilie's headscarf as she bent to fill the bathtub with water from the pump. It was made of polished white stone, with a little sachet of fire magicite waiting by the pump to heat the water. "Tell me about Lord Lamont. You certainly seem friendlier now."
Penelo blushed and sank down onto a bench, fiddling with one of her bracelets. "It's not like that—we just talked some. That's all."
"Is that what you did on the doorstep? Talked?"
"Yes!" Penelo flashed back to the doorstep, with her leaning in close. She thought of how that might have looked from the view behind a cracked shutter and blushed to the roots of her hair. "Mother! It's not like that—I like Reks! And anyway, I still think Lamont is a Slephnir's rear."
"I said the same of your father, once." The aroma of fresh flowers and mint filled the room as Emilie added a cup of scented salts and herbs to the mix. "He teased me terribly, you know, from diapers to womanhood. I wanted to murder him, and yet here we are, with a beautiful daughter, three wonderful sons, a prosperous business, and a lovely home. Funny how that happens."
Penelo slumped back against the wall, crossing her arms. "It's completely different," she insisted.
"Isn't it always?" Emilie dropped the fire magicite in the tub and straightened. "There you are. Soak that in. Take as long as you need." She patted Penelo's head before slipping out the door.
"It is!" Penelo grumbled to herself as she stripped. The places her skin had been bared were uniformly colored gray with dust, a stark contrast to the golden tan that had been protected. Her clothes were filthy, too, stained with blood from her scrapes and all over dirt. Only her new shoes were still clean, kept so by the spells in their weave.
Sighing in a resigned way, she plopped herself into the tub. Water sloshed at the edges, and she grabbed a bar of soap. It was going to take forever to get the grit out of her hair. It was a problem most days, anyway, but tonight was particularly worse. All the traveling, all the gusts of wind carrying grains of sand in them. Egh.
Her mother popped in once to deposit a change of clothes for her, and Penelo eyed them over the tub. A royal blue top to crisscross over her breasts, pantaloon pants that dipped low on her waist and cinched at the ankles, a belt with gold medallions on it, and a simple set of matching blue shoes. It was one of her dancing outfits, and she was surprised her mother had chosen it. Then her thoughts ghosted to Lamont, and she wasn't so surprised.
When she was finished bathing and smelt of the herbal mix, a heady dose of mint that cleared up her sinuses, she slipped out of the tub and toweled free. It was in the midst of this that she heard sudden raised voices from somewhere inside the house, and her father's hearty guffawing. She went to the door, pressed a hand to the wood and listened.
"Vaan!" Arramis was bellowing. "Come in, boy, come in!"
Vaan was here? Oh, gods, probably pissed, too, that she had had to cancel their day plans for that silly trip to Nalbina. He wasn't going to be pleased, and he wore his foul moods well. This wasn't going to be pleasant, and she winced at the thought.
Laughter escaped from the doorway, followed by a shout of surprise.
"Reks! You're here, too? Come in, come in! Emilie's just getting the food ready! Don't be a stranger!"
"We only stopped by to drop something off for Penelo—"
Penelo's heart fluttered at the sound of Reks' soft voice, and she pressed herself closer to the door. Reks was here, too! And they'd… brought something for her? It was nearing her birthday soon, it was true, but this was still quite early…
"Honestly, Reks, the two of you boys are like sons to me! Come in."
Suddenly Penelo was grateful for the outfit her mother had set out for her. While likely she had done it to show off to Lamont, so he could see the 'goods,' as though Penelo was on the marriage market (and to her parents at that moment, she likely was), this was also going to help her be pretty for Reks. That thought alone thrilled her to the core.
She hurriedly finished drying off and changed into the fresh set of clothes. After opening the door to peek around it, she looked both ways, then made a mad dash for her bedroom. Heart thundering, she shut the door behind her and rustled around in her room a little. Some perfume behind her ears there, more bangles on her wrists there, a pretty golden chain anklet. No rouge, that was only for her evening performances, and her mother would raise her eyebrows. She didn't want to appear too eager.
She surveyed herself in the mirror, huffing a breath and smoothing her hands over her bare stomach. Nodding in satisfaction, she opened her door much more slowly now and headed with careful steps into the center of the house. She couldn't remember the last time Reks had seen her all dressed up, and she wanted to leave a good impression. Who cared about Lamont? Though he had saved her and could prove to be sweet on the occasion, he was just a visiting lord who would be gone soon once he'd finished his business here. Reks, on the other hand… she'd harbored feelings for him for so long… ever since she was a little girl…
Boisterous voices were being raised in the den. She hesitated outside the kitchen, thinking to offer help with the food, but then she caught Reks' voice again, and she veered that way. When she rounded the corner, it was to find Arramis and Vaan laughing over some shared joke, clapping each other on the shoulders. Reks stood off the side, a half-smile on his mouth as he watched them. His eyes rose at Penelo's entrance, and his smile deepened.
She smiled back. Opened her mouth—
"Penelo." Lamont slid into her vision, grasping a hold of her arm. "A word with you?"
She tried to wrench away. No, what was he doing! She wanted to go talk to Reks! "Can't it wait—?"
"I am afraid not," he insisted, and with a little bit of force, she was stumbling back into the hallway with him. "It's of the utmost importance."
Penelo reluctantly let Lamont drag her back into one of the recessed nooks in the hallway, where her mother would store jars of water to help cool the house in the day. Gold bangles jingled as Penelo crossed her arms under her breasts. "What's so important that it couldn't wait?" she demanded.
Lamont gripped her shoulders, expression pleading. He still hadn't replaced his gloves, and the palms of his hands were warm and rough. "I beg of you, release me from dinner."
Suspicion prickled her. Penelo yanked away from his grip, frowning. "Why? You seemed to be getting along with my father just fine." She snorted. "He adores you."
He winced. "Your father has been... most generous in his... propositions. Perhaps too generous, if you understand my meaning."
At first, she didn't. It sunk in slowly, like slime through thin fabric. When the pieces finally connected, her stomach lurched. "He didn't—did he? What did you say? You don't—" Gigas' balls! Would her father go to any length to see her married off? How could he? "What did he say? Did you accept?"
"Of course I didn't!" Lamont snapped, affronted. "He did not say it in so many words, but there are precious few interpretations of the phrase 'young passions run high after times of great stress' coupled with an offer to spend the night. I have already tangled with wolves today, and have reached the end of my tolerance for peril."
At least Arramis hadn't outright sold her off, or offered Lamont her bed for the night. Penelo rubbed her forehead, feeling a headache approach. "If I let you go home, father will be offended. That's if he lets you go, which he probably won't. You don't know my father the way I do."
"Then what shall we do?" Utter, frustrated bewilderment twisted his face. It was an expression Penelo was intimately familiar with. Most people who met her father wore it. Seeing it on Lamont was a satisfying experience.
"We?" Penelo smiled sweetly and patted his cheek. Someone, likely her mother, had provided him the necessities to clean up, but not a razor. The faint scruff of a day's growth looked good on him. "There is no 'we'. You are going to go make your own excuses, and I will be locking my door tonight."
And having a long talk with her father. Good intentions or not, this sort of thing was going to stop.
Pirouetting, she turned away from him and returned to the main room. Lamont followed her at a somewhat less graceful trudge, going by the sound of his boots. Let him sulk. He'd dug his own grave by letting her father manipulate him. Staying for dinner was the least he should have to put up with.
Back in the main room, Reks had fallen into conversation with Vaan. He smiled at her over his brother's shoulder. Before she could respond, yet another person dragged her aside, this time her father. Her ribs creaked as he gave her another crushing hug.
"Penelo, my darling daughter, the joy of my life, you look wonderful!" Arramis crowed. "But you're not wearing rouge."
"That's for dancing, not dinner." Penelo squirmed from his grip, but wasn't able to win free completely. "Let me go, I want to go talk to Reks."
"Reks?" Arramis' smile flickered and faded. He was obviously still torn over which boy to shove her at. "Don't you think you should talk to the hero of the evening? I'm sure he would appreciate seeing you dressed so nicely."
From nowhere, Lamont appeared at her father's elbow, cutting off Penelo's rising anger. "I already have, just a moment ago." His eyes raked down Penelo. "Dalmascan fashion is so... immodest. An Archadian lady would never be caught in so little."
The comment seemed to catch Arramis off-guard. His grip on Penelo loosened, allowing her to whirl around. "Did you just call me a—"
"Of course not." Honeyed innocence dripped off of Lamont's tongue like venom from a viper's fangs. "The cultures are very different, after all. And, as you have shown me today, it is very functional for the clime." He smirked, a smug little grin that made her want to claw his eyes out. "You cannot be held to account for your... salacious attire."
If Lamont had wanted to be shown the door for rudeness, he'd underestimated Arramis and his determination to marry Penelo off. "We are all of us different," Arramis stammered, "but perhaps Penelo could put on a wrap—cover herself a little more..."
Rage curled through her, hot and sharp. "No. I'm comfortable like this," she snapped. "This isn't Archadia. I'm sure Lord Lamont understands."
Turning on her heel, she stalked away, ending the conversation. Lamont would probably only needle her more. He just wanted to make her angry.
It had worked. Obviously he had revenge on his mind.
She didn't stop until she'd reached the back balcony. It leaned over an alley that wasn't much to look at, but the stars were bright and clear. A chill breeze blew through the streets to bring up goosebumps on her skin. There'd be a crust of frost on the windows in the morning.
A warm afghan dropped over her head. Penelo turned, ready to snarl, only to come face to face with Reks.
"Don't you think it's a bit cold, to be out here without anything?" he asked, and leaned against the railing. The starlight touched his skin, stealing her breath. The moon wasn't up yet, so the little light there was left only a shadow of him visible. It highlighted his cheekbones and golden eyelashes.
Gods above, Reks was beautiful.
"I—I needed some air." She pulled the blanket around her shoulders, hugging it close. "Things were getting poisonous in there."
"Is it that Lord Lamont?" In the dark it was impossible to tell, but she thought she saw him frown. "Is he bothering you? Do you want me to talk to him?"
"No—I mean, not really." Penelo took a spot on the balcony at Reks' shoulder. His heat seeped through the blanket, warming her. "It's my father being… you know. I don't think Lamont likes it either."
"I saw you yell at him."
Was Reks being jealous? Penelo could almost forgive Lamont for everything if it got Reks to notice her. "He said I dress salaciously," she offered, waiting hopefully for Reks to charge off to defend her honor.
Instead, he laughed and nudged her with his elbow. "Is that all? Archadians are all stuffed shirts. I thought it'd been something serious."
Grumbling, Penelo twisted her fingers in the afghan. Love him though she did, she reminded herself, it didn't mean that she had to like everything he said. "It upset me. Isn't that serious enough?"
"Yeah… Yeah, it is." Reks cleared his throat and shifted away from her, leaving a cold patch on her arm. "Speaking of upsetting you… I shouldn't have assumed you would want to marry Vaan. I'm sorry."
Penelo shook her head and quickly put her hand on his arm instead. He wouldn't look at her, so she pressed onward, bravery suddenly swelling inside of her heart. "No, Reks, don't you know that you're the one who…" But her courage faltered there as her throat closed up, and she found she couldn't speak any longer. She swallowed. The lump wouldn't budge.
After a few careful moments, Reks turned his head back to her. "…Penelo?" he ventured.
She loved him. She loved him so incredibly much, and she knew he didn't know, even though he should have, even though it was obvious to everyone else except maybe Vaan. She wanted him to know. She thought her entire body was singing it to him right then. Why couldn't he see it?
Shouldn't her love have been enough that it could reach out to him, envelop him whole, enough for him to bask in it? There'd be no doubt at all, then. Or had the thought ever even occurred to him? Was she forever doomed to be like the sister he never had? If he cared an ounce about her that way, would he have tried to get her to marry his brother?
"Penelo?" he said again, this time in the barest of whispers.
She searched his eyes desperately, hoping—hoping… there was confusion there, and… was there anything else…? Could there possibly for once just be anything else…?
His fingers came to cover hers, and he squeezed, and as he did so, her heart mimicked the action to the point of pain. It settled in her throat with that lump, and she had to close her eyes against a sudden flash of warmth. No, no. She was being a ninny. It wouldn't do for him to see her cry.
"Hey, guys, it's time for dinner!" Vaan announced, ambling out onto the balcony with them. He looked rather grumpy, probably because he'd been left alone with her father and Lamont. Or he could still be angry with her. She knew he had to be. He wasn't even meeting her eyes.
Reks let her go. "We should get inside where it's warmer. Come on, Penelo." He headed inside without a glance back, and her heart sank. He really had no idea.
That left her alone with Vaan. She thought maybe she could make it past without a word from him, but he stopped her short with his hand on her shoulder. She froze in place, not wanting to deal with him at that moment but also not wanting to cause another scene. Slowly, after a moment, his hand gave a gentle push, and she backed up near the railing. He followed suit, his head bent low to hers.
"Do you like him?"
Penelo's heart began to beat wildly at the murmur. Did he know? Did he know she was in love with his brother? Oh, gods, how embarrassing! And now he was going to tell her—what? That she was way out of her league? She knew that already… Actually, no, she couldn't think of Vaan's reaction. Funnily enough, she'd never pondered it before.
"That Lamont guy," he said more firmly. "Do you like him?"
"What?" she sputtered in surprise. At the same time, stark relief took her. Good. Vaan was still oblivious. "No!"
"Then why's your dad so insistent on getting the two of you together?" Like this, she couldn't see him. He had his nose near her temple, his lips at her ear, his eyes hidden from view. His hand had moved to her bicep, a spot of warmth against the chill. She wanted to push him away, because he was seriously invading her personal space, but he was her friend, and she didn't want to hurt him.
"I don't know," she replied, "why is he so insistent on trying to get me and you together or me and Reks?"
Vaan was quiet for a long, long time, and she didn't know what to make of it. Finally, he started to pull free, and she was relaxing—but then—
"Would it be so bad?" he whispered.
Her brows came together to knit above her nose. What was he talking about…? "Would what be so bad?" she said, and the words were loud in comparison to how low he'd been talking. She had a sudden fear of being overheard, although she didn't know what for. It wasn't like it was a conversation best kept private. They were just talking about her weirdo father and whether or not she liked Lamont.
In any case, Vaan wasn't acting like himself. She nudged at him, impatient to get back inside with Reks. Not to mention how hungry she was. She could have eaten a whole hyena at that point, and he was blocking the way. "Vaan, let's go inside. It's cold out here!"
"Tell me, Penelo." Vaan stared at her, like he was trying to tell her something with his eyes. "Please?"
Penelo's mouth went dry. She thought she saw… But no. That was stupid. This was just Vaan, the boy she used to hurl mudpies at when they were little. It couldn't be that. She shoved again, and he stepped out of the way, grip loosening. Before her chance was gone, she pushed past him, only turning when she had a clear line for the door.
On the balcony, surrounded by starlight and shadows, the resemblance between Vaan and his brother was uncanny. They had the same messy blond hair, cut only a little differently, and the same broad shoulders. Even their clothing, guard's leathers, was alike. He didn't say anything, or even move to break the illusion. Penelo's heart rose to her throat as she stared at him. Vaan was beautiful, too.
Why didn't I notice before?
Flustered, Penelo turned and bolted through the door, leaving Vaan alone under the stars.
Vaan followed Penelo inside a few minutes later. Whatever good temper he might have had had evaporated. He plopped down in his chair at the table and crossed his arms, storm clouds on his brow. Reks leaned over to whisper something, then recoiled at whatever Vaan's reply was. Clearly, even his brother wasn't exempt from Vaan's foul mood.
Unsubtly, Penelo's place was opposite Reks, next to Lamont. The table wasn't large enough to give them all room to stretch out, so even a small shift meant that his knee brushed hers. The first time it happened, shivers thrilled up her skin and her breath caught.
Penelo tried not to move.
"This is excellent, ma'am," Reks complimented her mother, using his fork to indicate the baked fish on his plate. It was a Nebra Succulent, though how Emilie had found six of them on short notice would remain a mystery. "Did you use mint?"
While Penelo beamed at Reks, her mother only smiled mysteriously. "A good cook always keeps some secrets," Emilie replied. "How else am I to make sure you'll come back for more?"
"I do not think you should worry," Lamont cut in gracefully. "Even if your recipe is discovered, the company is equally superb, and irreplaceable."
This time, it was Arramis' turn to preen. Vaan glared sullenly across the table, but his mouth was too full to reply through the food. Normally he would have just spoken through the food, but Emilie would rap his knuckles for it.
Reks didn't seem upset by Lamont stealing his compliment, but Penelo glared at the lordling for him. It didn't surprise her at all that he would try and butter up her mother with flattery. People like him did that sort of thing.
"Reks is an excellent cook," she announced, doing her best to derail the conversation before Lamont could get in any more compliments. "He made soup for Sorbet that was absolutely delicious, and he made this sort of chocolate dessert that's amazing."
Red flooded Reks' cheeks. "It's not anything special," he muttered, ducking his head, but Penelo was sure she saw a pleased smile. "Just something I put together."
"Can you cook, Lamont?" Vaan asked suddenly. "Or do you just pay people to do things like that for you?"
"Vaan!" Reks scolded, but Lamont just laughed.
"Yes, I usually have servants, save when I travel." He grinned at Vaan. It was sharp, and not at all friendly. "But I can cook enough that I do not starve when on my own. I've no great skill, however. Certainly I am not as talented as Emilie, here."
And… back to her mother. Emilie paused, a forkful of food halfway to her mouth, and took a moment to send Lamont another smile with raised eyebrows. It was her only acknowledgment of the compliment, however, and Penelo found herself doing a mental celebratory dance. Go, Mom, go, Mom, put him in his place!
Why was he focusing on her mother, though? Was it just easy? Was he trying to show up the others? "Don't let Lord Lamont fool you," Penelo said. "He says he doesn't starve himself, but that's a flat out lie."
Arramis raised his glass of ale. "What do you mean, Penelo, dear?"
Lamont was shooting her daggers over his own glass, however discreetly. He didn't want the others to see what an ass he could be when he really put his mind to it. Penelo smiled sweetly at him and laid her hand upon his forearm. This was going to be fun. Let Lamont be under the roaster for once.
"It happened while we were in Nalbina. Lord Lamont's clothes were somehow much too stifling for the desert sun, and he found himself dehydrated with a hearty appetite. When I asked if he'd like to eat or get some water, he denied me on both accounts."
Contrary to the irritation she expected him to show those present at the table, he only slowly set his cup down and fastened a beatific smile in place. "Darling, did I not tell you to address me sans title?" It instantly took the focus out of her announcement and created another one entirely.
Her father shifted in his seat at the head of the table, and all eyes swiveled toward them expectantly. Penelo found herself the center of attention for reasons she'd rather not have, and she stared at Lamont as she tried to figure out what game he was playing. Didn't he know that this would just make her parents badger him to take her away to his lordly estate even more?
I don't get it, she thought. What was he about?
"You did," she said, clearing her throat once she realized it was required of her to say something. "But I felt it would be… inappropriate, all things considered. You're a lord, and I'm just a common girl." Hastily, she turned to the closest person she could talk to, which was Vaan, and the darkness lurking in his eyes surprised her enough that she jerked back in her seat.
"I do not think of matters in such black and white terms," Lamont was saying, though he seemed very far away. He continued on, though Penelo had no idea what he was speaking of at that point. She was too focused on Vaan and how… pissed off he was.
What was his problem now?
"It's obvious you're making Penelo uncomfortable," Reks said suddenly at Penelo's left, and she snapped back to attention, looking at him, same as the rest of the table. Reks had said it softly, but it carried through Lamont's carefully crafted speech nonetheless. "Regardless of whether or not you don't feel the social boundaries, Penelo does, and as a gentleman…" Here, Reks let his gaze travel up from his plate and over to the lord in question. "…You should let the matter drop. You're not going to change her mind in a single night. Some social cultures have been practiced since the time of our births, and not all gentry feel the same as you do. So you'll forgive us if we're not so quick to relish in the same viewpoint."
"Yeah, what if the next lord who comes along isn't as open about it as you are?" Vaan said, clearing his throat. He and his brother exchanged a look, and then Vaan stood, gathering his plate. "Emilie, do you mind if I get seconds?"
Penelo's mother waved him on. Vaan disappeared around the corner, into the kitchen, and for some reason, Penelo's heart felt heavy. Things were happening here, things she wasn't entirely clear on, and she didn't have a single idea on what to do about them.
Lamont's eyes fell on Reks, his smile turning stiff. If Penelo hadn't learned so much about him on their trip, she wouldn't have even noticed. He had almost total control of his expression. "Even amongst the very high born, titles are not used between friends."
"Are you friends, then?" Reks challenged, glancing over at Penelo and then back at Lamont. "She doesn't seem to think so."
Muscles tightened in Lamont's jaw. "I certainly do not risk my life for just anyone."
Her father and Reks both looked at her, one hopefully and the other curiously. In her chair, Penelo squirmed, not sure what to do. It seemed like they were arguing, but she was starting to feel like a piece of meat between two dogs. Flattery warred with irritation, and she sunk back in her chair, trying to decide which emotion would win.
"Maybe we're friends. Kind of," she muttered, not meeting any of their eyes. Silverware clanged against her plate as she fiddled with it. "But I don't want to get above my station."
"Nonsense." Lamont put his hand on top of hers. It was warm and callused against her skin, surprisingly rough for a lord. She looked up, and found him smiling at her, his green eyes crinkled at the corners. For once, it was a real smile, like he hadn't worn since they'd walked through the front door. "I am honored to consider you a friend."
Even though she knew he was a slimeball, and that he was just using her to score points against Reks, Penelo's heart fluttered. The bastard was handsome, she had to give him that. And when he looked at her that way, she could almost believe he was sincere.
"I… Thank you, my lord," Penelo stammered, ducking her head to stare down at her plate. "You're too kind." Her face was bright red with a blush that only got worse the longer Lamont held her hand. No matter how hard she tried to make herself take it back, it wouldn't budge.
"Honesty is far from kindness," Lamont replied, but it was almost lost in the rush of blood to her head. "I am at your service."
As the seconds ticked by, she started to become aware of someone staring holes into the back of her head. She twisted in her seat and glanced behind her. It was Vaan, glaring at her from just around the corner to the kitchen. His teeth were clenched, and his plate gripped so tightly that the muscles in his forearms bulged.
What was his problem, anyway? Was he still angry about how she missed their day together? It wasn't like she'd had a choice!
Anger twisted inside her chest, replacing the flutter with cool calculation. She'd show Vaan.
Twisting her hand around so she and Lamont were palm to palm, Penelo pasted on her sweetest smile. "Actually, Lamont, I do have one thing to ask. Would you like to have dinner some time?"
Chapter 5: Lord Scoundrel
Chapter by tsukinofaerii
"Would you like to have dinner some time?"
Lamont's green eyes lit up, without filters or any of the shadows she was used to seeing there. For a minute she could imagine the boy he used to be. Eager to discover the world, completely innocent of the ways of the user and the used. Penelo's triumph crumpled into a rock and sank to the bottom of her stomach.
Something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. Smugness, yes, perhaps even lust. She could handle both of those easily, and had many times before. But the sheer, boyish joy...
Palm to palm, Lamont squeezed her hand. "I would be delighted."
Behind them, a door slammed shut with an echo of finality. Vaan.
Penelo's heart followed her triumph. Vaan was gone, and Reks was sitting across the table looking like someone had gutted him, and her father, her stupid, idiot father with his stupid, idiot schemes was already reaching for the wine.
True to her expectations, Arramis held up the carafe. "This calls for a toast—"
"Not now!" Penelo shook her hand free from Lamont's and bolted from the table after Vaan. Her parents called after her as she darted out into the cold night air. She ignored the lot of them. This was their fault. If Arramis hadn't been so bloody pushy, if her mother hadn't already been treating Lamont like a son-in-law, if Lamont hadn't been so handsome and kind all day—
If, if, if. Stupid ifs.
Her dancing clothes weren't meant to face anything like the cold desert night, and her slippers were only capable of protecting her feet from scrapes. Pebbles dug into her soles and wormed their way down inside the slippers. Goose pimples crawled over her skin, and the air bit her lungs, but Penelo didn't dare let herself slow down. Vaan wasn't as fast as she was, but he was fast enough to escape if she let him. There were only so many places Vaan would run off to if he needed to hide. He couldn't go home, because Reks would be back there soon enough. The Hunters Hall was well and good for drinking companions, but a poor place to remain unnoticed.
Really, in all of Rabanastre, there was only one place where a person could reasonably plan on hiding and not being found: the sewers. If he got down there, Penelo would never find him.
She ducked down an alley and over a fence, gaining a scrape on her elbow for the trouble. But at the end of the alley was one of the supposedly hidden entrances to the lower tunnels. They'd all played there as children, pretending that the city was under siege by the Solidors and they were rebels fighting the menace. Even after so many years, Penelo still knew the place.
Just as she expected, the door was slightly cracked where someone hadn't shut it. Moonlight picked it out as a line of darker shadow in the walls. Stone scraped her fingertips as she grabbed the hidden handle and threw her weight back. The door was heavy, and poorly maintained, groaning as it slowly inched open to reveal a set of stairs.
"Vaan?" The word echoed, bounced wetly off the walls. "Vaan, are you down there?"
Nothing. If the open air was bracing, the hollow space under the city was choking, stale with disuse and dust. Dying magicite lamps lit the paths, but only enough to keep someone from breaking their neck. Penelo's chest heaved as she stared down into the darkness where almost anything could be lurking.
"Vaan, don't make me come down there!"
She waited, counting until ten and receiving not a hint of reply. No help for it, then. Grabbing one of the flickering bundles of magicite from the wall, Penelo headed down the stairs. They were stone, and slick first with frost, and then dew, and then nothing at all but dry dirt. It was a completely different world from the bright limestone of the city, without a hint of breeze or hope.
Looking around, Penelo oriented herself by scratches on the pillars. Here, one Reks had scarred by attacking with a wooden sword. There, the one she'd thrown a rock at and chipped.
"Vaan, I'm down here and I'm not giving up!" No response, but by now she didn't expect one. The best she could hope for was that Vaan wouldn't intentionally lead her somewhere dangerous. "We're going to talk about this, do you understand?"
Penelo wet her lips and started out, headed north. Shadows loomed and reached for her, then faded away as she walked past. She kept calling as she walked, threats and pleas, but Vaan never answered. The floor was smooth and relatively clean, a rest for her sore feet after the dash through the city, but she still ached. Unlike the boys, Penelo had never been one to push herself past her limits just to do it, and a dancer's muscles were good, but not designed for everything she'd done.
If it had been anyone other than Vaan…
At the far end of the path, a light grew. Like everything else in the tunnels it was dim, but it was there, coming from inside a doorway. Penelo picked up her pace, forcing sore limbs to stretch until she was running again and had to stagger to a stop once she burst through the door.
Vaan was curled up with his arms around his knees, back to the door that led into the sewers. When she ran in, he didn't look up, didn't move, just said, "Hey."
Penelo swallowed back a sharp reply. There'd been enough of that for the day. Instead she just leaned against the doorway and tried to catch her breath. "Hey. You didn't go down to the sewers?"
He shrugged one bare shoulder and didn't look up. "You would have followed me, anyway."
A reluctant smile tugged at her lips. Folding her knees, Penelo took a seat on the floor against the entrance. "Yeah, I would have."
Silence settled around them, an itchy, uncomfortable silence that reminded her of sand when it got into her clothing. It worried and scratched, burrowing into awkward places. Nothing short of shedding everything and jumping into water would get rid of it. Vaan would never offer anything. He kept it all bottled up, and he had since they were kids. That left it all up to her, as usual
Penelo took a deep breath, braced herself, and leaped.
"Ultima's tits, Vaan, why?"
As her voice bounced off the stone ceiling, Penelo winced. That hadn't at all been what she'd intended, but she was just so tired and frustrated.
Too sharp a tone or not, it worked. Vaan jerked and curled in tighter around his knees, hunching more. "Shouldn't I be asking you that?" Bitterness crawled through his voice like a sandworm. "You said you don't like Lamont. Or was that a lie?"
"I don't like him." She put all the firmness she could into her voice. Maybe Lamont was pleasant to look at, but he was trouble. He was a pushy, annoying, noble prick who'd been handed everything he wanted and couldn't understand that some things needed more than gil. Even when he wasn't making her angry, he left her flustered and dazed, and she just couldn't accept that.
"Then why'd you ask him out? I thought…" Vaan looked up, his eyes even bluer for the red rims. There weren't any tear tracks on his cheeks, thank the gods. Penelo wasn't sure she could have dealt with him if he'd been crying. "I thought maybe you were just playing hard to get, and Lamont—he's good looking and rich and everyone loves him. You'd hate that. And you said you didn't want him."
Vaan's head dropped back down again, lower, muffling his voice. "I thought… maybe I had a chance."
Guilt and something else, something like denial wrapped slimy tendrils around her heart. It couldn't be denial, though. Denial would have meant Vaan loved her, meant that she'd known and ignored it, and that couldn't have happened. He was like her brother, wasn't he? "Vaan?" she asked weakly, shoving the suspicions away. "What are you saying?"
He shook his head and reached into his vest. Gold glinted in his hands for a moment before it arced through the air. Instinctively, Penelo caught it before it cracked into the wall over her head.
The little locket was simple, just an oval of beaten gold. No gems or fancy decorations. It wasn't in a silk wrapping. It didn't even have a chain. When she cracked the clasp open it was empty. But of course it would be. Portraits were expensive.
"I saved up for three months. Happy birthday."
"Vaan…" Penelo closed her eyes to push back the tears. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked Lamont out. I just—" Her voice cracked. "I wanted to get at you. It annoyed you, and I was being childish."
When Vaan spoke, it felt like it was coming from years away. "Just go home, Pen."
There were a thousand things she wanted to say, a thousand more questions to ask, and at the same time she didn't want any of it. And neither did Vaan. Without another word, she tucked the locket into her clothing and walked away.
The trip back seemed shorter than it had going into the tunnels, though the stairs were torturously long by comparison. Every step she could feel herself getting father away from the Vaan she knew. But maybe she'd never really known him at all.
Inevitably Lamont was waiting, tucked into a shadow. She almost missed him, and would definitely have if she hadn't just come from someplace darker than a moonlit alley. He didn't move, barely seemed to breathe, and there was nothing shiny on his clothes to catch the light. If she hadn't known he was a noble, she would almost think he'd planned for the need to hide in the dark.
Penelo hung the lamp back up in its place and leaned against the wall by the door. It was chill with frost, but the cold felt good on her skin after the airless tunnels. Her soul felt heavy, if such a thing was possible. "I didn't ask you to follow me." She hadn't heard it either, and she should have. The street was silent. Another set of footsteps should have been obvious.
"I am not allowed to be concerned about a dear friend?" Lamont stepped into the light and leaned on the door to close it.
She opened to mouth to say that Vaan was still down there, then closed it again. There were other exits, and it wasn't as if the thing locked. Still, it felt like a stab in the chest when it finally ground shut and he looked over at her worriedly.
"What happened, if it is not too bold to ask?" One hand touched her elbow, bare fingers warm, faintly scratchy with those mysterious calluses of his. Breath fogged between them. "Is there a way I can help?"
His lashes really were ridiculously long, Penelo noticed, almost giddily. They actually cast shadows on his cheeks, under dark eyes that could have been mistaken for sincerity. The moonlight transformed him, making him look like a prince from a tale, instead of the rogue he was.
Penelo's chest heaved, caught between a laugh and a sob. "You of all people, worried about being too bold. That's rich."
"Everything has a time and a place, even boldness." Lamont eased closer, creating a little pocket of warmth. "You should go home before you get a chill."
Clenching her eyes shut, Penelo shook her head. "I don't want to go home." Reks was at home. And her father—gods her father was going to break down. He'd gotten everything he wanted, delivered to him with dinner and a blessing. She didn't have the slightest idea how to handle him while she was so wrung out.
Lamont's touch vanished, and a second later something warm and soft settled under her chin. "Then wear that. It should save you the worst of it."
He gave me his coat, Penelo realized, opening her eyes to look down at the thing. It smelled like desert sunshine and a sweet, musky cologne of the sort sold in high-end shops. Without thinking, she lifted it to her cheek and took a deep breath. The scent was oddly calming, settling into her muscles like a sleep spell. "Thank you."
Breath puffed against her cheek. "You're welcome."
Penelo froze, slowly lifting her eyes. He was close. Very close, enough that she could take a deep breath and they'd touch. "Lamont, I—"
Their lips touched in the chastest kiss imaginable. A soft tingle of electricity shot over Penelo's skin, stealing her breath and weakening her hands. She would have dropped the coat if it hadn't been trapped between them.
Warm fingertips touched her cheek. "Would you like me to walk you back home, darling?"
"I…" Almost she nodded. It would have been a disaster. Her father would have been over the moon, and Reks would tell Vaan that she'd returned with Lamont, and…
And it was Lamont. Stubborn, slimy, good-for-nothing Lamont, who was gorgeous and charming and witty and utterly, utterly taken with himself. Lamont, who insulted her, did dirty deals under the table and had too many secrets. Lamont, who she'd promised Vaan she didn't like.
Shadows fluttered on his cheek as he pulled away from her, blinking in confusion. "No?"
"No. No. No. You might never have heard the word before, but you should learn it." There, that was what she needed. That edge of anger. It gave her the energy to push off the wall and stand on her own feet. Anything was better than the way her heart was pattering in her chest. "I'll take myself home."
"I see." His head tilted, shadows suddenly obscuring his expression. In spite of that, she had the feeling that he was staring right through her. "Then I suppose I can collect my coat when we go to dinner."
"No. No dinner." Frigid air stung her shoulders as she bundled the coat up and thrust it at him. He stared down at it as if it were some strange creature from the depths of the Zertinan Caverns. "I'm sorry, I'm just not interested. I shouldn't have asked you at all."
"Not interested. I see." He didn't move to take the coat. It almost looked like he wasn't breathing. Then it all came together in an eyeblink as Lamont snatched the coat away. Her back hit the wall as he blocked her into it with his bigger frame, bodies wedged together from hips to chest. This time there was nothing between them but thin cloth.
His nose brushed hers, lips just shy of touching. "Then I shall have to make you interested, shan't I, my heart?"
The patpat of her heart leap into her throat, but not from fear. He was so warm, all lean muscle and heat against her. Her knees trembled, barely holding her up. "I—I said no!" Penelo tried to insist, but her voice came out weak instead. "No dates, no—no anything."
"For now." Cloth pressed into her palm. Instinctively, her fingers wrapped around it, one of the coat's buttons digging into her palm.
Lamont's lips touched her forehead before he pulled away. "Have a good evening, Penelo."
She stared at the shadow of his form as he walked away, coat dangling from her hand. "Lamont, I said no! Lamont!"
He was gone.
Penelo gathered the receipts together after the newest client for her father left the shop. She wound them with twine and placed them in the folder she kept for organizational purposes. Her father had been absolutely hopeless at paperwork until she had stepped in and proved her usefulness. It was just fortunate that he had taught her how to read.
The day had been a long one, and in an hour they would be ready to close up. She was really looking forward to going home, taking a long bath, and eating a hot supper from her momma. All the customers today had been shrewd ones, or ones that wanted her father to bring them something magnificent that would take much time and money to procure, but they didn't want to waste the gil. Hagglers. Penelo hated them. Every once in a while, if Arramis was feeling generous, he'd do it. But Arramis wasn't there today, and Penelo had to field what she could.
The front door jingled, and Penelo looked up to see Kytes entering it, a brightly wrapped parcel under his arm. He set it on the counter and beamed up at her. She looked at him a heartbeat, wondering what he had to say. It was a futile wait. Kytes only kept smiling at her, as if ready to explode from happiness, until finally Penelo couldn't contain her curiosity anymore.
"What's this, Kytes?"
"It's for you, Penelo!" He rubbed his finger under his nose. "I was paid to deliver it and everything! My first real job! I told ya that word would spread that I'm good at deliverin' things, I told ya!"
Instantly, Penelo was suspicious. She fingered the fancy wrapping and the bow it had come with. After several long moments of debate, she pushed it back to him. "If it's from La—Lord Lamont," she said, catching herself, "I don't want it."
Kytes' face fell at that. "Awh, but he paid a pretty gil, Penelo… And he was so excited… Spent all day lookin' for it…"
She couldn't help but feel irritated that Lamont had wormed his way under Kytes' skin so thoroughly. At least Vaan shared her mutual distrust, except Vaan was mad at her, too. She had no one on her side, and it sucked bangaa balls. That was a curse she'd overheard at the tavern one night whilst dancing, and if her mother ever heard her utter it, she'd make Penelo regret it. Still, she felt no other expression could suffice for this one.
"I don't care if he spent all day looking for it," Penelo huffed, "I told him no last night, and that's what no means! No!"
Confusion colored Kytes' features. He tugged nervously at the orange bandana around his neck. "I'm real sorry, Penelo, but I don't think I know what you're going on about. Did Lord Lamont do something to upset you last night?"
It would be nice to have a friendly ear for once. Everyone else was either on Lamont's side or against them both, and she was tired of it. But Kytes was young, and Lamont had obviously already charmed him.
Lamont charmed a lot of people.
"Would you like to have dinner some time?"
Penelo shook her head to be rid of the memory and looked away from Kytes' curious expression. She definitely didn't want to try and explain. "It's complicated."
She never should have given in to the urge to poke Vaan that way. So he'd been a jerk. It wasn't worth the trouble it was causing. Now everything was a mess, and she didn't have any idea how to fix it. No doubt Lamont thought he could win her over with a show of wealth, like she was a pretty souvenir to be bought.
Kytes' mouth twisted at that. He was still young enough that he hated secrets. Finally, with a loud sigh that rounded his shoulders sadly, he picked up the box again.
"All right, I guess. I'll just go tell the Lord that he don't got to pay me."
What? Penelo grabbed Kytes' shoulder before he could go too far. "What do you mean, not pay? You delivered it. It's not your fault I said no!" Lamont wouldn't do that, would he? Use a kid to manipulate her into accepting a gift?
Actually, once she thought about it, that was exactly the sort of thing he'd do.
Sulking and dramatic as only a boy his age could be, Kytes pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and handed it over. In neat print, it said, I, the undersigned, verify the delivery and acceptance of the package delivered by this messenger, Kytes. There was space for a signature, and finer print specifying that payment would be only on return of the form.
Penelo scowled and pushed her hair off her sweaty forehead. It looked legitimate. In fact, maybe a little too legitimate. It had clearly been printed up by a professional—no one else had handwriting that neat and sterilized.
Lamont had planned for her refusal.
"It's okay, you don't have to worry about it," Kytes promised earnestly, misreading her anger. "It's just my first job. I'll get more, you know I will."
"I know," she agreed, but inwardly Penelo was cringing. Lamont was a noble. Word would get around that Kytes hadn't even managed to deliver a single box to a girl he was friends with. And Lamont would be sure to see that word got around. He didn't know or care how hard it could be to turn a gil. Probably he never had to work a day in his life if he didn't want to.
She hated having her hand forced. "Let me get a pen. I'll sign it."
Her teeth were grinding by the time she reached Lamont's temporary dwelling. It was in a small apartment on the better side of town, and she'd had to sweet-talk her way past the desk guard on duty to be able to even get upstairs. He lived on the third floor, second door to the right, and she thought that if she never had to see his smarmy face again after this, it would be too soon. Not only did he cause her endless amounts of trouble, but now she'd had to stoop low enough to use her feminine wiles on someone just to see him. It wasn't right! The irony was too strong.
He answered on the first knock. His eyes were narrowed, guarded, yet when they saw her, they cleared in surprise. "Penelo!" He looked down, to the parcel she held in her hands. His hand stayed on the doorframe, his body blocking the door enough that she couldn't brush past him. "Ah. I see you received my gift." He smiled at her, then, showing perfect white teeth.
"You're a real jerk, you know that?!" she hissed at him. "Why use Kytes like that?"
"Not for the first time, Penelo, though it does so pain me to tell you this, I have no idea of what you speak." Lamont tapped his fingers against the frame, his eyebrows raised.
Disgusted, she tossed the gift at his chest. She didn't have time for this! She'd already burned through most of her break just getting here. If she didn't get back to the shop soon, her father would have her hide. "What did I tell you about giving me gifts? Dinner was one thing, gifts another! And besides, I asked you to dinner—so you shouldn't be the one gifting me, it should be the other way around!"
He leaned against the frame and folded his arms around the parcel. A sweet smile came to his mouth. She instantly distrusted it. "I will be looking forward to it. A galbana lily, if you will? I feel nothing could signify our flowering friendship more."
She told him where he could shove it, his nobility be damned, and stomped off down the hallway, her hands clenched at her sides. It was only when she was downstairs that she realized she hadn't had to call on him. No one had taken her to a side room while they asked Lamont if he was accepting guests for the day. Odd. Maybe he just hadn't brought any servants with him?
Her foot paused on the last step, and she looked back over her shoulder up the stairs. She'd found out the address from Kytes, though she had to bribe it out of him, he'd been so terrified of giving a customer's receipt location away. His last words still rung in her ears. "But Penelo, Lord Lamont's apartment is a secret, he told me so! It's really important nobody knows!"
And that night he'd been in the alley…
Or better yet, Penelo, her mind whispered, what about when he saved you from that pack of wolves? Or even before then, with the shady exchange of magicite with the shop keeper.
Something's not right…
She blinked and looked over to the front desk of the building. The person who had told her she could go up earlier was giving her an odd look. She plastered on a smile and waved at him as she headed outside, into the sunlight that was so bright it made her eyes stream. An idea was formulating in her head, one that would be possibly dangerous and put her in all sorts of trouble if she got caught. But she couldn't shake it. She felt it was something she had to do.
Tomorrow, on her next day off, she was going to follow Lamont.
Lamont didn't show up that day. Penelo was glad for that. After the trick he'd pulled with Kytes, she wasn't sure she could maintain a professional attitude while he smarmed at her. Even if he said they were beyond the formalities of shopkeep and customer, she didn't trust him not to make a show of it in front of another customer. And of course, anyone else would take his side. Why wouldn't they? She was Penelo the Ice Maiden, and everyone loved Lord Lamont.
It was enough to make her spit.
The next day was the one day they closed the shop, and everyone was sleeping in. Her father would spend the afternoon going over the books and receipts, while her mother did inventory and calculated wages. Usually, Penelo would be in charge of cleaning all the nooks and crannies that they just didn't have time for during a normal day, but she'd begged off by saying she wanted to visit Lord Lamont. It felt dirty to invoke his name that way, but it worked. As soon as the words passed her lips, Arramis beamed and shooed her off to rest for her 'grand day.'
Penelo woke bright and early, beating the sun to her bedroom window. In the pre-dawn darkness, she dressed in a set of comfortable clothes—low cut trousers of plain beige, a similarly colored tight top that would keep her from bouncing too much, and her bespelled slippers. Breakfast was a quick bean paste and some dried fish, wrapped in flat bread for portability. Then she slipped off, running down the street just as dawn touched the horizon.
No one was in the street to see as she took up a place in a recessed doorway across from Lamont's apartment, a book propped on her knees to give her an excuse for being there. Breakfast was a little dry, but she sipped her water only sparingly. There was no telling if she'd get a chance to refill her canteen, so she planned to make it last. And then she was out of food and there was only waiting. Occasionally she'd read a line from her book, but her eyes would always drift away from the page.
People filled the road and walkways quickly enough, taking advantage of the cool air. Most of them lived in the area. It was obvious by the fine cut of their clothes, the gems that winked on their fingers and throats. No merchants hawked wares on this street, no beggars cried for alms. She wondered if it was because the guard wouldn't let them, or if they just didn't get any money.
Women in jewel tones bent their heads together in laughter, their fashionably cut vests laced closed to show off their bosoms. Silver bells sewn into hems tinkled musically as their skirts swished around ankles. Men with their hair pulled back in gem-crusted clasps laughed on balconies overhead, their faces pale from never having had to work in the sun to earn their daily bread.
Penelo shrunk down in her nook, feeling grubbier and more out of place with every person that passed. Her braids were pretty, but no match for the loops and curls some of the women wore, and she'd picked her clothing for comfort rather than style. It was worse than Lamont on a bad day. His clothes were fine, but he wore them with purpose, not like pieces of art that his body was just a convenient display for.
So out of sorts was she that she almost missed when Lamont came out from the building, a bag slung over his shoulder. He didn't even glance in her direction before striding off down the street. Hurriedly, Penelo closed her book and scrambled to follow.
Lamont definitely looked like he didn't want to be followed. He kept up an unhurried stride, but his eyes were darting about. He blended into the first group of people he saw and walked with them for a time until he snuck down a side alley. Penelo, her heart racing—what if she got caught, what would she say?—kept a low profile as best she could. Her sandals barely scraped the pavement, and she managed not to bump into anyone or draw attention to herself. Maybe this wouldn't go too poorly, after all.
The first problem arose when she slipped into the alleyway. Lamont was already a good distance ahead. That wasn't the problem. What was, however, was the fact that nobody else was here. She'd have to step carefully, keep to the shadows. She slowed her breathing and paced herself. She didn't want him to get too far ahead, but she didn't want to step too heavily or quickly, either. Sounds here would echo. It was deadly quiet.
They emerged on a more populated street. Here, people peddled their wares, some selling fruit, others licenses for dangerous spells. One such merchant almost blew her cover. He was suddenly right in front of her, presenting a parchment with a dramatic flourish, grinning wide to show his yellowed teeth. Penelo shook her head mutely and stepped around him. Persistent, he followed, rattling on about a spell that could make her find the love of her life. Inwardly, she snorted. Spells like that certainly didn't exist.
She managed to shake him just as Lamont disappeared down yet another alley. Fearing she was going to lose him, she hurried, nearly tripped on the stone path and scraped up her toes for the trouble, and then… she breathed easier. There he was, turning right—she hastened into a bit of a jog, desperate to keep him in view, growing a little careless. But he was out of earshot, surely it would be safe.
Her slimy lord hadn't noticed. His brocaded coat swished about his feet (hadn't she warned him about the heat a thousand times already?), he had a pocket watch out and was peering at it… But no glance back in her direction. Thank the gods.
"I don't know where he went!" she heard a man shout to her right. "Disappeared—said he was going to Paramina—wanted to head down to the Feywood—dangerous place, I told him, an' he wasn't listenin' to me—"
"Sir, there's not a whole lot we can do," a familiar voice replied, sounding as though it were trying to be placating and wasn't managing very well due to irritation. "We can send a couple of people out there to look, but that'll take weeks, and besides that, that's not even under Dalmascan territory—"
"Well, it ain't under no territory, is it? Place's got a mind of its own!"
Penelo turned to see Vaan rubbing a hand over his face. The sight of him made her heart thunder. She wasn't sure why. All the blood in her body rushed to her face, and she did an about face and dashed off. Just as she did so, from the corner of her eye she caught Vaan twist in her direction. He'd probably spotted her blonde hair. He'd know it anywhere, after all.
"Penelo!" he called.
She ignored him. As much as it killed her to do so after that fiasco of an evening the other night, she couldn't stop now, she'd already lost Lamont. If Vaan kept calling her name like that, he'd alert the younger man to her presence, and she couldn't have that. So, bracing her heart against the guilt, she took her pace from a jog to an all out run. Which way had Lamont turned…? Left or right…? She thought she saw his coat at the right corner—
Now she was outright pushing people out of the way. They were in a busy part of the city, and it was waking up to begin its day. Citizens were rushing to work, moogling to other districts, purchasing food for breakfast, and more than one homeless child was loping between people's feet, trying to snatch wallets. Penelo dodged one such child, her coin purse still attached to her hip, albeit barely.
"Can you spare a gil…? Please, miss…?"
Curse Gigas and his great meaty—
She'd lost him!
Penelo collapsed against a wall, a hand over her heart, gasping for breath. The stitch in her side was something fierce. Looking around made her aware that she wasn't sure where she was. She'd never ventured very far on this side of the city. Hadn't ever had a need to. To her left was the exit to the alleyway she'd stumbled into, to the right was…
She ducked quickly into the shadows, hiding behind a bin for trash. Lamont! He was talking to someone! It was so similar to that first night she'd seen him lurking like this, her heart galloped in excitement. She was afraid he'd hear her and come after her.
So… what was he doing…? A shady deal…?
Lamont suddenly shoved the person he was talking to into the wall, a portly man with indiscernible features from this distance. A blade gleamed, and Penelo's eyes widened. Lamont had it to the man's throat. They were speaking too low for her to hear, and she tried to creep closer, mesmerized by the weapon.
"…why'd you put out a warrant, then…?"
The man raised beefy hands to show he was harmless. More whispers drifted over to her ears. "…can't…" she made out. "…he'll kill me… wants you dead… the money… couldn't say no…"
Just as she was processing that, a hand clasped over her shoulder. Penelo jerked, startled into smacking back against the wall, her foot catching a bit of trash that rattled across the way and her book dropping out of her grasp. Vaan covered her mouth, grabbed her up, and hauled her out of the alleyway as Lamont's head spun toward them. Penelo didn't look back, and Vaan wouldn't have let her stop for it, anyway, not with how fast he was ushering her away. His armor clinked, but it didn't matter, because she had already given them away.
They made it into the bright sunlight. Vaan didn't stop tugging her after him until they were well enough away—most of the way back from where she had come from. People parted in front of Vaan, knowing his armor meant to keep back. Penelo wished it had been so easy for her earlier. Some citizens stared curiously in their wake, but no one called out.
Penelo's stitch was worse as he dragged her into the Sandsea, a lively pub Penelo had danced at a few times, not that Vaan knew that. He waved to the owner, calling out, "Hey, Tomaj, I'm gonna borrow Penelo for a minute upstairs!"
Tomaj, his usual scarf in place around his neck, merely shook his head with a wry smile and ran his cloth over the bar. Penelo knew that if he'd been busier, this wouldn't have been tolerated at all. Then again, she was surprised he was even open this early. But there they were, some haggard looking old men at the tables, drooping over a mug of ale.
"What was that all about?" Vaan sat her down in the section of the pub that overlooked the rest. They were in the far corner, where it would be hardest to see them. The magicite lamps were dim, as well.
"What was what about?" Penelo was still trying to get air back in her lungs.
"Um, the part where you skulking around in an alleyway, spying on Lamont! Didn't really know you were into that kind of skullduggery…"
"First, I'm surprised you know what 'skulking' even means—and skullduggery? Vaan, really!" Penelo was considering going downstairs and getting something strong to drink to settle her nerves. Her mother would have tutted, but she couldn't care less in that moment. Gods, she was thirsty.
Vaan sat across from her. She noticed his hand hadn't left her forearm. "That was weird, though, wasn't it? Lamont, I mean…" He searched her face. "Who was that guy?"
"I don't know! I was trying to find out when you snuck up on me," she said wryly.
Instead of having the grace to look sheepish like she had expected him to, concern took hold of his features. "Penelo, I've seen that guy he had pinned against the wall before. His name is Barthlem. He puts up wanted posters for this dealer named Gerome." Letting go of her, he rubbed under his nose. "Not here, we take the posters down, unless it's issued officially by the crown, but…"
"I—" Penelo hesitated. She wasn't sure if she should share with Vaan what other information she had garnered about Lamont through observation. What if it turned out her suspicions were wrong? She'd look stupid.
He caught her hand in his. "Hey—why were you spying on him in the first place? What's going on, Penelo? You really looked like you didn't want to get caught."
"I've got to go," she announced, getting to her feet. "I'm—uh—I'm…" She gestured, feeling out of sorts, and not just from running through the immense heat already building up outside. "I've got a lot of things to think about."
She was out the door before he could say otherwise.
What the heck? she kept thinking.
Head whirling in circles, Penelo dipped her brush in the bucket and bent back to scrubbing the floor. It had to be done, and her mother's knees just weren't up to it anymore. Arramis had tried, once, and the disaster that came from it had caused a family-wide agreement that he never would again. It was hard work, but she didn't mind. Keeping her hands busy was a way of keeping her head clear, and she had plenty to think about.
Was Lamont… a criminal…? She didn't want to believe it, but as she had suspected the day before, none of the pieces fit right. All the shady dealings, his living situation, the strange calluses on his hands, how he handled himself so well in battle… These were all the things a noble didn't have. And now, to add to the list, he was cornering someone who put up wanted posters for another criminal? Why? Why would he care?
Was he on one maybe?
Penelo's thoughts shied away from this. It hurt her head to think about it. As much as she distrusted Lamont's greasy ways… it was hard to picture him as some sort of… well… he was just so handsome, so well-spoken. Yes, it was true, he was a bit of a rogue, but… Gods, could she even consider what she was thinking?
Possibly… masquerading… as a noble…?
But how did he get so much practice at it? Every mannerism, every gesture and lazy vowel were perfect. Penelo was self-aware enough to admit that if she hadn't been put off by the way everyone else fell into his arms, she never would have suspected him. Lamont could have easily fit right in at the palace with no one the wiser. How could a criminal learn what took born nobles a lifetime?
Penelo yanked on one of her braids in frustration, getting soap bubbles all over it. She hated not knowing what was going on, hated all the secrets and lies and mysteries. All she wanted from life was something simple. To work in the shop, maybe take over when her parents retired. Marry Reks, have children, all the usual things.
Even though he was only a small bump in her plans, she resented Lamont for interfering in them. He was a muddy whirlpool in the clear waters of her life, and it seemed like she couldn't help but get sucked in.
The bell over the shop door tinkled, announcing a customer. Knees and back aching from her work, Penelo levered herself up off the floor, tossing the scrub brush into its bucket with a splash. She had to grab a counter to pull herself up, and that was slow work. Joints popped and crackled painfully with every motion.
"I'm sorry, we're closed today," she started to say automatically, still bowed over. Another flex cracked her shoulders, letting her lift up to see the customer. "Please come back tomorrow—you."
Lamont grinned and leaned over the counter. The sunset through the open door behind him turned his skin gold and made his hair shine. He'd abandoned the silly long coat from earlier and was wearing a slightly more sensible loose linen shirt and tight breeches. The present he'd sent with Kytes was tucked under one arm, still brightly wrapped. "Oh, I'll not be a moment. I just came to chat and, perhaps, to retrieve the coat I'd left with you."
Penelo licked her lips, then pointedly turned her nose into the air and looked away. She wasn't about to let his good looks affect her judgment again like it had the night before. Pride was nearly all she had left when it came to dealing with him. "I don't have anything to say to you."
The swath of sunlight vanished as the door swung closed with another chime.
"Perhaps I have something to speak of with you, then." Lamont's voice had changed, losing the playful lightness and adopting a more serious tone, a dark edge that thrilled through her. "You followed me this morning."
"What are you going to do about it?" she snapped. Penelo twisted around to glare, teeth bared. "Threaten me in a back alley?"
"That answers the question of what you saw." Without the door open, the front of the shop was dim. She hadn't lit all the lanterns, just enough to see what she was doing. Lamont was just a hume-shaped shadow, broad shouldered and tall among the shelves of merchandise. He stepped forward, usually noisy boots silent as cat paws. "More important, however, is the question of what you heard."
A chill ran down her spine, like someone had dragged ice magicite over it.
Dangerous. He sounded dangerous.
In her mind, the blade of a knife flashed in the shadows of an alley. What had he done with Barthlem? Common sense said that you didn't hold a knife to someone you weren't willing to kill. And Lamont had handled that knife as easily as a professional butcher, hadn't seemed scared or uncertain. Even if Lamont let Barthlem go, violence was obviously not a stranger to him.
Penelo rallied. "I heard everything," she bluffed, straightening her shoulders and trying to look as if she weren't terrified. "I knew there was something fishy about you from the minute I saw you. You might have tricked everyone else, but you didn't fool me. I know everything now."
He stepped forward and leaned over the counter, setting down her present with a hiss of silk wrapping over polished wood. Green eyes glittered under his ridiculously long lashes. "Is that so?" Lamont asked quietly. "I would hate for our friendship to be sundered because of what you thought you heard."
Knots tied around her heart and guts, but it was too late to back out now. If she didn't frighten him off, only the gods knew what someone like him would do to her. "Do you want me to spell it out for you?" Penelo leaned over the counter, close enough that she could smell his cologne. "I know what you really are, you monster."
Real regret flashed through his expression, and then was gone, replaced by the cool hardness of stone. "I'm sorry to hear that."
Penelo's heart gave a lurch of pain. He didn't even try to deny it. "You should go," she said softly. "It's only a matter of time before you're caught. The guards are on to you now."
"Would you turn me in?" Lamont ducked his head, one gloved hand coming up to cover his mouth in thought. "After everything we've shared?"
"After everything—we trusted you! My father trusted you, and it was all lies!" Anger warred with betrayal in her voice. She'd almost… "You used us for your own selfish reasons! Why shouldn't I turn you in?"
For a minute, he was silent, apparently lost in thought. Then, quietly, "I suppose you leave me with little choice."
Quick as a viper bite, his hand snapped out and wrapped around the back of her neck. She barely had time to realize what was happening before she was dragged over the counter into a deep kiss.
Good sense fell by the wayside as Penelo groaned and leaned into him. A goodbye kiss, she thought, letting him have her mouth. Lamont's tongue massaged her lips apart deftly. Heat curled through her veins, sparking lightning across her skin.
Something small and round passed between their lips. His teeth crunched down suddenly and it burst open, the sticky sweet flavor of a sleeping potion flooding her mouth. She yanked away, gagging as it slid down her throat. Immediately her head swam, thoughts slowing down as her eyelids drooped.
"You…" Penelo fought to stay upright, to no avail. Elbows and knees gave out first, sending her sprawling over the counter, only to slowly slide down to the floor when she couldn't even stay there. "You drugged me…"
Lamont came around the counter and knelt down, running his fingers over her hair. "I'm terribly sorry, darling, but I can't leave evidence lying about, can I?"
The last thing she remembered was being cradled against his chest before the potion claimed her.
Chapter 6: Lord Solidor
Chapter by tsukinofaerii
Penelo's eyes flew open.
"Hello, darling. I take it your rest was a good one? You've been sleeping so soundly I thought you might be dead, if not for the simple fact that you were still snoring."
Death, she thought. Maim. Massacre. Destroy. Ruin. Bloodshed.
It took a few seconds for her mind to catch up with why it felt so bloodthirsty. Then she remembered the kiss Lamont had bestowed upon her, subsequently followed by that sleeping potion, the slimy, lying, filthy, double-crossing, back-stabbing, sneaky—
Penelo took a deep breath, winded from just thinking about how absolutely furious she was. She pushed herself into a sitting position, ready to act on her darkest desires, only to give a tiny groan and put her hand to her forehead as the world swam in a dizzying tilt. Lamont grasped onto her shoulders to steady her, but she shoved him off.
"I hope your dick shrivels up to the size of a moogle's!" she spat.
His eyebrows flew up. "Are you really so surprised that I kidnapped you, given that you said you know my secret identity?"
"I trusted you!" she said, completely ignoring him. "I thought—I thought you actually—" But she couldn't face the embarrassment of saying it aloud, of giving into the knowledge of what she had almost allowed to happen. Thank the gods she was one smart cookie, else he'd have turned her head right on her shoulders, and she would have never known the truth…
"Cared for you?" Lamont tilted his head, his eyes narrowing. "I will be honest, I had begun to. But then you found out—"
"My father will know I'm missing!" She couldn't, couldn't listen to him talk about what might have been. As if he had the right to stand there and do so, after all the lies he'd told her, told her family, told everyone.
Now Lamont gave a curt chuckle and shook his head. "That is hardly likely." While she was sputtering protests, he held up a hand and spoke over her. "You see, your father currently thinks you are in the Tchita countryside at my estate, enjoying a summer getaway, and that you will be returned safely after you have been properly wooed and have accepted your position as my fiancé."
She wanted to tell him he was dead wrong, that her father would never believe such a thing, but… sadly, that was not the case.
"Get away from me," she said, in as cold a voice as she could muster, "you foul, horrible—"
"Now, really, Penelo—I know I am a Solidor, but I had thought you, of all people, would not be so quick to judge me. You are fair, logical, you think everything through… yet here you are, unknowing of my side of the story."
"You kidnapped me—" she began automatically, only to cut herself short. She lifted her eyes to his.
Solidor, Solidor, Solidor.
It rang through her head, chiming alarmingly, and she sat there, frozen with numb disbelief. Her mother had kept her on good behavior as a child by threatening her with the Solidors if she put a toe out of line. No one dared speak of them. Anytime someone did, it was like a chill had entered the room. They had almost destroyed Ivalice—when they'd been banished to the far edges of the world, they were to never be seen from again, or it was death on sight.
Penelo sat back, reeling. That day at the tavern for lunch… when the moogle and the bangaa had been going on about the wanted posters… Lamont had wanted to leave…
Her mind flashed now on the morning before, in the alleyway, with Lamont holding up that blade. He'd wanted the posters taken down, was even threatening to kill the man in order to see it done.
She did the first thing she could think of. She leapt to her feet, and before Lamont could possibly know what she was going to do, she swung her foot out and connected it firmly with his groin. As he doubled over, crying out in pain, she made a run for it, diving out of the tiny room she was in. She still didn't even know where the hell she was, but judging by the lights in the corridor and the metal everywhere, and the two seats… in a cockpit…
They were on an airship?
Of course they were on an airship. Lamont—or whatever his name was—wouldn't have risked staying in Rabanastre. It would have been too risky, too easy for her to get away, and then she'd be one scream from having the guards down on him. She'd never flown an airship, never even been inside of one, but how hard could it be?
Steady, Penelo, steady. She made herself take a slow, deep breath. The guidance map on the screen suggested they were headed… Northeast? Penelo blinked down at the course. What could Lamont want in the north? He was a Solidor—she'd assumed he'd be headed for Rozarria, or maybe the Plains. Somewhere he wouldn't be recognized on sight, not Archadia's next door neighbor.
It didn't matter. The ship was over the Estersand. All she had to do was land the ship and hotfoot it back to Rabanastre. Easy.
Heart in her throat, Penelo wrapped her hands around the controls and pushed them forward.
Immediately the airship sank into a nosedive. Penelo tumbled back, spine jabbing into the armrest of the copilot's chair before she flipped to the floor. Her heart and stomach collided in her chest as the ship bounced and twisted. Panicking, she scrambled back to the control and yanked them back upward but that just set the ship to rolling, clouds flashing past the window in a blur of white. Metal ground as the flaps on the wings fought to pull them out of the spin. The ship broke through the cloud cover over the golden expanse of the Estersands, headed straight down.
I'm going to die, Penelo realized, almost in a daze. She kept pulling on the controls, but she may as well have let go for all the good it did. The Estersand was a gorgeous, glittering cloth of gold that stretched from horizon to horizon and drew closer with every breath she took. We're going to crash, and I'm going to die.
A thousand recriminations passed through her head. She should have told Reks how she felt, should have apologized to Vaan for always making him play second, should have traveled outside Dalmasca, should have been more adventurous, should have—
Strong arms wrapped around her waist and nearly threw her away from the controls. Lamont tapped away at the consol, eyes locked on the gauges as his fingers danced over keys and levers. The engines sputtered and whined in Penelo's ears, dying away for a second. Then they returned with fresh force, roaring fit to shake the airship apart.
The ship rolled off to the side, turning into the spin and changing it to a spiral. Penelo toppled over the seat again, rolling across the floor until she slammed into one of the walls. Pain exploded across her body as the airship flipped, turning all the way upside down. She swore she saw a cactite running for safety as they skimmed the sands and leveled back out into a steady climb.
Lamont unhooked his legs from the pilot's chair and collapsed backwards, panting. "Fair did us in with your meddling," he snapped.
Penelo groaned. It was the best she could do. In the tumbling about she'd tangled around herself, getting bruises and aches in places that she would have blushed to think about if she weren't sick from the sensation of falling through the sky.
"Yes, I thoroughly agree," Lamont replied, as if she'd answered. He levered himself out of the pilot's chair with, she couldn't help but notice, a slight wobble. "Prevention is indeed the best medicine."
"Shut up, you monster," she wheezed. "I have—nothing—to say to you—"
"You nearly killed us!" he seethed. It was the first time she had ever seen him angry, and she didn't much like it. As always, he was tall, but like this it was somehow worse, energy crackling around him and lending to the illusion that he was much bigger than he was. "All because of things you do not understand!"
"I'M NOT THE ONE WHO KIDNAPPED YOU BECAUSE I THOUGHT YOU KNEW SOMETHING YOU DIDN'T!" Penelo exploded. She was back on her feet—barely. She was shaking all over, and she didn't think it'd stop anytime soon. "I didn't lie to everyone! I didn't play my father for a fool! I—"
"Are you going to be this difficult the entire time you are held captive?" Lamont drew nearer to her, and she backed way until she hit a metal sheet.
"You're insane!" she shouted. "You're freakin' insane! It's a good thing you were banished! Your family—"
"You know nothing about me!"
The yell was so loud, so venomous, so full of resentment, that it shook her to her core. She stared at him, breathing hard.
He looked away, drew a hand over his face. "I am only holding you captive because I cannot risk you telling anyone about me. Not until you… understand."
Her laugh was bitter, and he snapped his eyes back to hers. "I'm never going to understand, Lamont! But that's not your real name, is it?" She put her arms around herself, trying so very hard not to think about that kiss they shared. She just wanted to go home and cry like a little girl. Instead, she was stuck on an airship with this Solidor-turned-pirate.
"Will you cooperate with me or not?"
She spat at his feet.
"Very well…" He drew in a long, slow breath. "You leave me no choice. Until I can trust that you will not be difficult, I must restrain you."
She eyed him, sizing him up. "I'd like to see you try," she snarled. Reks and Vaan had shown her a thing or two about self-defense, and she wasn't afraid to employ it now. Already, she drew her feet into the proper battle stance, lifting her hands because she had no weapon and would have to hope for the best with just herself.
"Do not challenge me, Penelo." His eyes flashed.
Penelo jerked her chin up. "You're gonna lose."
She wasn't sure why she had bothered.
Penelo yelled loudly against the gag in her mouth, but it only came out muffled. She tugged and wrenched at her wrists and ankles, but those, too, were restrained. She couldn't believe the struggle had literally been over in less than two seconds. He was so fast. He moved like lightning. Maybe it was his long limbs. Bastard.
"Yes," Lamont said idly from the pilot's seat, "I agree, Penelo. It is much more peaceful like this."
She bounced in the copilot's seat, screaming as loudly as she could, until her throat ached and her face felt like it was on fire.
"Quite, I've always enjoyed a long flight as well," Lamont murmured, eyes half lidded, as if he were truly relaxed and not just feigning to annoy her. Every line of his body, from the set of his shoulders to the easy splay of his legs spoke of nothing more than calm, quiet contemplation. Even his fingers drummed over the controls lightly, tapping away a rhythm.
Snarling behind her gag didn't do any good, but Penelo gave it her best go anyway. All the best curses she knew, and a few she invented on the spot, wasted for a bit of cotton in her mouth. Lamont just kept tapping away at the tune. It was just on the far edge of familiar, teasing her memory.
Da-da dada a rainbow shell, that paddles in da dada dah...
When she saw Lamont's mouth quirk, Penelo realized she'd been leaning forward in concentration. Huffing through her gag, she leaned back again and looked away. Just another one of his games, of course. He couldn't do anything that wasn't designed to annoy her.
Silence hung heavy in the cockpit, other than the melody he was playing with his fingers. Even the airship was whisper quiet. The hum of the engines was miniscule, so soft she imagined that it could have taken off in the dead of night without a soul the wiser. There was none of the roar and chatter she associated with the aerodome.
Outside the cockpit windows, clouds passed them by, some above, some below. They were like the sand sculptures she'd made on the riverbank when her father took her to the outpost as a little girl. Sunshine turned the domes and spirals to shimmering gems, pearls here and the glitter of rainbows there. Far, far below a forest made a green backdrop, emeralds broken by sapphire lines of rivers and lakes.
It was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. For a second, Penelo nearly forgot her anger, captured by the scenery. But no matter how lovely, she was still a prisoner, tied up and at the mercy of a monster. Only the gods knew when, or even if, she'd see her family again.
Heat pricked the back of her eyes. Penelo sagged backwards into her bindings, blinking back the tears.
The steady beat slowed to a stop. "Have you considered behaving now?" Lamont asked in a tone she might have called friendly if he hadn't tied her up a half hour past. "I fear we are rather stuck together for the moment, so you may as well be polite. It costs you nothing, after all."
Penelo pressed her lips together behind the gag and made an assenting noise, leaning hopefully toward him. She needed the blasted gag off at least. With it on, she couldn't even ask any of the questions that were running circles through her head.
He eyed her warily, but nodded and reached over to hook his fingers in her gag. More patiently than she'd ever dreamed of being before, Penelo let him pull it down to dangle around her neck…
And then she bit him.
Lamont yelled and yanked away, cradling his hand to his breast with an injured look. Red blood dotted his white gloves where her teeth had broken the skin. "Is this the gratitude you show me?"
"Gratitude? Gratitude?" Penelo bounced again, wishing she could get her arms free. Even if she couldn't land the airship, she could at least see to it that he died in the crash, too. "You kidnapped me and you expect gratitude!"
His shoulders pressed back and his chin lifted as he bristled. "I could have killed you if you prefer!"
Scoffing, she looked away to watch the clouds soar past. "Sure. The great Solidor turned pirate. I wouldn't put it past you to kill a helpless girl."
"I would!" Indignant anger dripped off his voice, just like the teenager he really was. "I've killed dozens of people before, and you'd not be the last!"
Penelo's mouth twitched. If she'd been looking at him, she probably wouldn't have been able to hold in her laughter. Sometimes it was easy to forget that he was still just a kid under the slimy exterior and kidnapping, and then he did something like that.
When the threat of a giggle fit faded, she dared a glance at him. "So. If you're not going to kill me, then just what are you going to do?" There were worse things than death, she knew that well enough, but somehow she didn't think Lamont had it in him. "Killing me probably would have been easier."
Silence. A telling silence. Penelo glanced over again. Lamont was staring at the controls of the airship with nearly a religious dedication, just the tiniest hint of a blush visible under the sunburn he'd gotten the day before.
It was too much. She doubled over with laughter, pressing her face to her knees. "You don't know, do you?" Penelo snickered. "The big bad Solidor doesn't even know what he's going to do now that he has me! Some pirate."
"Hush! I am thinking," Lamont snarled, obviously trying to be intimidating and instead just sounding helpless. Laughter bubbled up in her chest again.
Ridiculous. It was all just damned ridiculous. After everything else that had been a mess, this just took it. Maybe if he'd kidnapped her with any idea of why he was doing it, she would have been more afraid, but instead it seemed like he'd just grabbed her up out of panic. It was just her sort of luck that she'd get tangled up with an amateur.
Panicked or not, it didn't give him a right to go around kidnapping helpless girls. He could have kept his secret instead of being a pirate, turned his life around and started fresh. Choices abounded, and he'd picked the life of a criminal. It was his own damned fault if he got his head chopped off for it.
Lamont stared at her, face twisted up in a scowl. "Are you quite done?"
"No." Chuckling still, Penelo rested her cheek on her knee and looked at him. "Which one are you?"
"Pardon?" With gloves on it was hard to tell, but she thought his grip on the controls tightened. Was she annoying him?
More important, did she care if she was?
No. No, she didn't. "I said, which one are you? Lamont can't be your real name, and I know there were three Solidors. Emperor Gramis and his two sons." Unless more had been born after they'd gone into exile. Time enough had passed for a dozen of them to be born. Had any of them been married?
Lamont definitely was starting to lose his patience with her. Tiny frown lines crossed his forehead, and the corners of his lips turned down unhappily. "Larsa. My name is Larsa."
Larsa Solidor. A much better name for him than Lamont had been.
He lifted the cloth that had been the gag and tucked it back around her mouth. She twisted this way and that, confused as to why he suddenly wanted it back on her, when she hadn't done anything wrong. Her teeth snapped, but he was expecting it this time, and his hands remained deft. Before she knew it, she was screaming against a bit of cloth again. Why!
She stared up at him with hurt. She wasn't sure why it bothered her so much, but it did.
"I have decided, Penelo," he said in a rough whisper, "that for the time being, I prefer companionable silence and nothing more." With a few toggles on the controls, he was out of his seat and then, in two long strides, out of the cockpit, as well. For a moment, Penelo panicked, thinking they were going to die with the controls unmanned. Then she remembered auto-pilot. It was how he had talked to her in the first place.
Frustrated tears stinging again, she thunked her head back against her seat. She would have thought the person she wanted to see most right then would have been Reks, or even her mother or father. Instead, an image of Vaan swam before her mind's eye. His warm hand on her forearm, callused, his thumb stroking along the fine bones of her wrist. His hand could have swallowed it whole. His brown eyes, staring intently into hers.
Gods, she'd been so blind.
Why had she had to go after the Solidor-turned-pirate? If she had just stayed in Rabanastre… let Vaan worm his way into her heart as more than a friend… She'd be safe right now, likely in his arms, the two of them teasing one another and basking in the desert sun. Unlike Lamont—no, Larsa—Vaan preferred the heat. He'd been raised there, after all. He tanned, he didn't burn. And he didn't wear idiotically heavy clothing so that he couldn't dehydrate himself.
She could still feel the slide of Larsa's lips on her own. That was something she couldn't compare with Vaan, and she cursed herself, feeling stupid, feeling that maybe, just maybe, she deserved what she'd gotten. Vaan had tried to tell her, again and again, and she just hadn't listened to him. She'd followed her singing hormones. Flirting with Larsa… because as rough as she'd been about it, as hard to get, that's exactly what she had done… and now here she was, on a ship to who-knew-where, her father thinking her about to be happily wooed, and…
Her tears soaked into the soft cloth of her gag, and she was just glad Larsa had left her alone. She, too, preferred silence in that moment. She only hoped he couldn't hear her sniffles. That would have been too humiliating.
Vaan, I'm so sorry…
It was close to evening when Larsa returned to the cockpit. Darkness was crawling over the sky, eager to blot out any trace of sunlight. Pink and red hues had long ago disappeared, leaving only the first twinkling of stars. The world below looked cloaked in shadows, the pretty colors from earlier transformed into various shades of gray and black. Penelo watched the scenery numbly, only to look up, startled, when Larsa suddenly stood in front of her.
They looked at one another in the dim light overhead.
His hand stretched out, his gloved fingertip, still stained with blood, ghosting over her cheekbone. She twisted her head away, closing her eyes and lifting her nose. She saw little use in yelling against the gag—her throat was too sore for that—but she could ignore him like he had ignored her. He was the one who had kidnapped her, yet he got mad if she had questions. What lurked in his memories that just the mere mention of his real name made him want to be alone for so long? Hmph. Whatever, did it matter? He was a Solidor, and it seemed more and more that everything she had ever heard about them was right.
A soft pattering drew her attention back to the windows. They'd hit a patch of rain, but there weren't really any clouds. The land spiraled away below, cliff edges and beautiful wildflowers, leeched of color in the twilight. The rain wasn't helping matters. Here and there, windmills popped up out of the landscape. Where were they now? They'd flown a long time…
Deep in the heart of the Feywood, she heard her mother whisper in her ear as a child, as she soothed Penelo's ringlets off her forehead, guarded by fierce monsters and mist, there's a city… very ancient…
What's there, mama? Penelo curiously replied.
No one really knows… it is very difficult to get to—but there's something there that helped drive the Solidors into madness… Emilie poked her shoulder. So don't misbehave, do you hear me? Or I'll pack up your things and send you there myself… Emilie's fingers suddenly seized her in a tickle.
Memories of laughter still ringing in her ears, she cleared her throat and looked up to find Larsa still watching her. He hooked his finger once more into the gag, and he pulled, so slowly she thought he might be having second thoughts. But she didn't make to bite him this time. She had some semblance of control now. Besides, it was too soon. She'd wait for a better opportunity to wound him. If he thought she struggled too much, he'd never relax enough around her for her to make her escape.
He knelt in front of her, elbow resting on the arm of her chair. Her gag was still in place, and that annoyed her. So he had had second thoughts.
"I have some business to attend to in Balfonheim…" He tapped her wrist. "Pirate business." His teeth were white in his grin. Whatever storm clouds had come over his expression earlier when she had brought up his past, they were gone now. "Do you think I can trust you not to run away?"
His chuckle made her glare, bristling. "That was too cute, Penelo. Do you think me dimwitted?"
Though he couldn't see the smile, she still made a sickly sweet one that would no doubt reach her eyes as she nodded again.
Contrary to being irritated, he only laughed harder and straightened his long frame. She thought she heard something crack, and he winced. Was he still growing? Good gods, the boy was a giant enough! He didn't need any more inches on him!
Furthermore, where was Balfonheim? If he would just give her a little bit more info, she could deduce where they were, and maybe from there route a way home…
"No, I will be storing you away someplace safe."
She gave him a look of horror.
Annoyance did cross his face. "I am not a villain so much as that, Penelo. Worry not. Not a single hair on your head will be harmed, nor will you suffer anything more than a locked door." He left again, leaving Penelo to sag in her seat, her mind whirling from the range of emotions he kept displaying today.
The oddest things offended him, and he remained unruffled about others. It was almost like he was upset with her for her being upset about his lies, about his betrayal. Maybe he was just a crazy person. The Solidors, after all, had gone mad…
She fell into a light doze, and she dreamed of mist, of snow, of monsters she hid from, trembling, dressed only in her thin Rabanastran clothing. She was crying to herself, as quietly as she could, her tears frozen on her cheeks. Snowflakes lightly dusted her hair and shoulders. She was curled up in the dark, where she couldn't be found, wishing Vaan would come, come and save her.
A figure materialized out of the dark. She brightened, calling out Vaan's name. But the figure grew taller, had broader shoulders, and when it leaned over and extended its hand, she saw it was Larsa.
She jerked awake, blinking rapidly. It was still dark outside. What had roused her? There, by the controls, was Larsa, making adjustments. They were losing air, dropping several hundred feet at a time, easing their way back to ground. She could see the ocean. It was something she wasn't familiar with, and she went to get out of her chair, only to remember she was still bound.
Larsa glanced over his shoulder. "Ah, I see you are awake. Did you enjoy your short nap?"
Penelo ignored him in favor of watching the ocean.
He followed her gaze, then smiled to himself. "Yes. It is quite different from the desert and its rivers, isn't it?"
Lightning flashed, illuminating the inky blackness. They were approaching a town. She could make out lights shining in windows through the thin rain. Larsa set the airship down with barely a bump, dropping anchor in the middle of a field. Just off the edge of the horizon, the ocean was still visible, the last of the sunlight glinting off it. Lightning made the waves seem to dance and sparkle like they were winking at her.
Freedom, they promised. All sorts of towns littered the edge of the oceans, ports for trade and fishing, little villages that survived by hunting the strange monsters that littered Ivalice. If she could get free, she could follow the shoreline in any direction and find civilization. From there, it would be child's play to get back to Rabanastre.
All she had to do was escape.
Toggles and buttons flipped and clattered as Larsa set the airship to rest. "Here we are," he announced, entirely unnecessary. "You'll be safe here while I go about my business."
"Mmph," Penelo growled, curling in on herself. As if she was going to take his word for it.
"Don't be that way. Think of it as… as a respite from my company." Larsa patted her head as if she were a child. "Don't squirm now."
The warning was barely past his lying lips before he'd scooped her up, ropes and all, and hefted her against his chest. Surprised by the sudden elevation, Penelo kicked out. Her foot cracked against the back of the pilot's seat. Pain popped at her ankle, searing up her calf in a sharp stab. Against all her determination not to show weakness, she whimpered, face scrunching up.
Larsa either didn't notice or didn't care. He maneuvered her to the back of the ship, using his elbow to toggle open the cargo bay doors. Other than when they dropped against the ground with a muffled thump, the doors didn't so much as squeak. Of course, a pirate would keep his doors oiled. Hard to creep away in the night if the hinges creaked.
The doors opened onto a closed plain, littered with scattered trees and a trace of sheer cliffs. Only one building was in view, something that looked more like a hut than a house, but she'd never seen a hut so big. The thatching was in good repair, but it had obviously been expanded over the years. Of what Penelo could see, half of it was built into a cliff wall, and the rest was a strange amalgam of stone and wood.
Fat raindrops started to fall as Larsa trotted down the ramp with Penelo in his arms. The door to the strange building opened up, golden lamplight shining welcomingly as the silhouette of a woman beckoned them.
"Hurry, hurry!" she called. Bangles rattled on her wrists as she waved them in. "Th' storm's fair to be a nasty one!"
Larsa ducked his head and sprinted, jarring Penelo even more as he dodged and leapt over rough terrain. Rain splattered against her skin, cold needles pricking right down to bone. They cleared the porch steps in a single jump that rattled her teeth in her head, running straight past the woman into a warm sitting room. Something spicy filled the air with the scent of cooking meat, and Penelo's stomach pinched in response.
Priorities rearranged themselves in her head. Food, then freedom, and murder somewhere between the two.
"Welladay, m'boy, it looks like yer in a spot of trouble." The woman closed the door behind them and turned, smiling widely. "Set 'er down and come have a kiss."
Dressed in a rag-tag mix of at least three different brightly colored skirts and a bodice without a blouse underneath, she looked nothing like anyone Penelo had seen before. Fine wrinkles marked her as just a little younger than Penelo's mother, with dark eyes and a headful of messy brown curls that had been pulled back into a half-hearted braid and covered with a scarf. Every bit of her that could had a piece of jewelry, from the bangles at her wrist to more on her ankles, rings at her ears, fingers and toes and even a piercing at her belly.
Penelo found herself dropped onto an over-stuffed chair while Larsa accepted a hug and a loud kiss on the cheek from their host. "I must apologize for imposing so—" he started to say, and was cut off by a slap on the shoulder.
"Nonsense, boy. Yer the reason we gots this place. If t'werent for ye, we'd never ha' got the gil up." The woman smacked him again, getting a wince from Larsa. "Now c'mon, we'll get some grub into ye, and ye can tell us why yer friend here's all trussed up."
He smiled, a relaxed, happy expression that made something indescribable slice through Penelo's chest. The only person she'd seen him give that smile to was her. What had this strange woman done to earn it?
"I would appreciate that dearly, but first I must have a room with a good lock for my—my guest." Larsa held up his finger to show the bloodstains. "As you can see, she is rather resourceful, and I cannot abide the chance of losing her."
"O'course, o'course." Gold and silver clattered as she turned toward a hall. "Jus' pick 'er up and follow me, there's a lad."
Once again, Penelo found herself scooped up and carted off. They were led down a long hallway, past the point where the wood and stone turned to carved rock. If it weren't for the dark brown stone and the lack of windows, she wouldn't have known the difference between it and the rest of the place. Mosaic tiles peeked out behind rugs that muffled their footsteps, and someone had taken time to decorate with cheap tapestries and murals.
Keys joined the ring of jewelry as the woman opened up a room at the very far end of the hall. "And 'ere we go, she'll not be getting outta this."
It was a bedroom, with a real bed and a wash stand, and even a bookcase filled with precious books. No windows, and only small vents carved in the ceiling provided airflow. Magicite lamps kept it cheerfully lit.
Larsa settled her down onto the bed gently, making sure she was balanced before letting her go. "You will be safe with Therese," he promised. "Do not make trouble for her. She's a good woman who does not deserve your abuse. And do not think to escape. These lands are filled with wyrms the size of a palace that would eat you long before you made it even a mile. When I return, we will talk. Agreed?"
She kicked him in the shins. Pain bloomed in her hurt ankle again, but it was worth it to see him wince. The woman—Therese—snickered from the doorway.
"Why don' ye let me handle her?" she asked mildly. "I'll bring 'er some grub and we'll have a talk, gal t' gal."
Anyone would be better than talking to Larsa just then, and food clenched the deal. Penelo nodded hopefully and gestured with her bound hands. Therese stepped forward and bumped Larsa out of the way with her hip, long fingers plucking at the ropes. They unraveled in an elegant coil that piled at her feet.
Immediately, Penelo yanked down the gag and rubbed her aching wrists. "Thank you, ma'am," she said as politely as she could. Other than being friends with Larsa, Therese hadn't done anything wrong to her yet. And it was probably a bad idea to antagonize her jailer and her kidnapper both.
True to form, Larsa's jaw tightened, obviously annoyed that she wasn't going to prove him right. "Be careful with her. She's a handful."
Therese stroked one of Penelo's pigtails, her nails scratching lightly at the base of her neck. "Oh, I think she an' I 're gonna be jus' fine. Now, let's get ye fed and hear yer story, eh?"
He gave Penelo one more look before turning for the door. Therese winked and followed, layered skirts swishing jauntily. The door locked behind them with an audible click.
Alone, Penelo finally unbound her ankles. The one was definitely swelling, probably sprained. When she tried to stand, it took her weight, but she decided not to push it. Maybe she could get a healing potion from Therese, if she asked nicely. If not, she didn't want to do any more damage before she made her escape.
And she would escape, no matter what it took.
Penelo settled in with one of the books from the shelf to pass the time and distract her from her empty stomach. It was a romance, of all things, but beggars couldn't be choosers. Her ankle throbbed enough to make reading difficult, but she piled pillows and a blanket to prop it up, which seemed to help.
She'd just met the useless prince of a male lead when keys rattled in the door and Therese let herself in. Her arms were loaded, one holding a covered tray and the other cradling a familiar package.
"I don't want it," Penelo said automatically. Her eyes narrowed at the silk-wrapped gift. After everything Larsa had put her through, he was still trying to give that blasted thing to her? At this point, she wouldn't have taken it if they were trapped in the Estersand and he said it had water.
Therese clicked her tongue in disapproval. "I don' think tha's quite the tone t' take, moppet," she chided, setting the tray down on the bedside table. The bed dipped as she took a seat, dropping the box square on Penelo's lap. "When a man's give ye a gift, ye don' refuse 'til ye know what's what about it. Specially not from a man the like o' Lord Larsa there."
Penelo snorted. While Therese clearly had a high opinion of Larsa, Penelo hadn't exactly had any stunning examples of his good behavior. Besides, her swollen ankle had put her in a bad mood, and she was beginning to worry about it. If she didn't get it wrapped properly, and soon… She chewed on her lip, avoiding gazing at the gift.
"From what I'm understandin', 'tis a birthday present." The older woman placed it directly in her lap.
She didn't want anything to do with it, but she wasn't going to say so. Instead, she placed it beside her on the bed and gave her jailer pleading eyes. "Therese—he kidnapped me!"
"An' why would he go an' do a thing like tha'?" A dark eyebrow quirked at her.
Penelo puffed her cheeks out, debating on what was safe to say. But Therese had just used Larsa's real name. So… Clearly she knew that the boy was a Solidor. Penelo blew her breath out, then pushed her curls impatiently out of her eyes. "I figured out he was a pirate instead of the noble he was masquerading about as for my father. It made me mad, and I might have said some things. But… I guess—Larsa thought I had discovered his other secret, and he kidnapped me…"
"Would you've told on 'im? Told someone 'e's a Solidor?"
Biting her cheek, Penelo averted her gaze.
Therese leaned over, grasping the smaller girl's wrist, and gave it a good, comforting squeeze. "Then ye can 'ardly blame 'im, lass! 'Twere me, I'd kidnap ye, too!"
Great. She was being held captive by a woman who was blindly following Larsa's lead, all because he'd given her a roof over her head. For whatever reason, Penelo didn't know, and she didn't care to find out. She just wanted to get the heck out of this place. Larsa didn't even have a plan. He'd just taken her up, like a panicked little boy, and… what did he expect to happen?
Why had he even taken up a life of crime in the first place?
Perhaps Therese had caught a brain wave from Penelo, or she was just that keen on getting Larsa in Penelo's good graces. Either way, she lowered her voice, put her hand on Penelo's knee, and said, "'E's a good lad. 'Is brother, ye know, 'e was very rough on the youngin'… some 'tings, they're awfully 'ard to abide by, and Lord Larsa…" She let out a small breath and rose to her feet, leaving the covered tray in her place. "But I've gone an' said too much. You'll be wantin' to eat now. Git ye strength up."
Penelo would have made a run for the door if she thought her ankle could handle it. She was obviously more fit than the other woman, and she wouldn't have been afraid to gun it. But… there her ankle was, throbbing painfully. She wished someone would let her go and find a white mage. Or bring one here. For someone so 'misunderstood,' Larsa hadn't cared that her ankle was hurting something fierce.
Left alone with the amazing odor that was wafting from beneath the tray, Penelo lifted the lid, her mouth instantly watering. She shoveled down the soup and bread, barely tasting it until afterward, realizing it had a unique taste akin to fish, but something she had never had before. Likely some kind of sea life. It was good.
She sighed and picked up her book. She really didn't want to deal with the prince anymore…
Stretching, she climbed off the bed, remembering her injured ankle a second too late. She staggered, knocking into the bedside table and barely catching the magicite lamp before it took a tumble to the floor. She replaced it, then sighed. From there, she very carefully made her way to the bookshelf so she could peruse its contents yet again. Maybe she'd seen something that hadn't caught her eye the first time.
…To Seduce a Mad Baron… No, definitely not. …The Pirate Who Plundered Her Jewels… Penelo's face flamed. What kind of books did Therese read?
…Simple Magicks… A Way to Get a License… If You've the Gambit… 101 Ways to Use Cure…
Useless. Penelo didn't know magick, had never had any interest in learning it because it proved pretty useless in her life. She'd been stuck working in her father's shop, and aside from the occasional errand run to Nalbina, nothing overtly exciting happened to her. Heck, this was the first time she was seeing outside the desert.
Her eyes lingered on the last title, 101 Ways to Use Cure. Her ankle hurt so badly… It was illegal to use magick without a license, to be sure, but—if she was just going to try and heal her ankle, and she'd get a license for it when she was free, what was the big deal? Surely she'd be fine? Who would find out, anyway?
Heart picking up in excitement, Penelo pulled the title from the shelf, along with Simple Magicks, and hobbled back to her bed. At first, the instructions on the pages seemed foreign to her, like an ancient language. Worse yet, she didn't have any spellstones. Didn't magick casting require them? Some sort of magicite to draw power from?
But why would Therese have a whole bunch of books on magick without any magicite? It didn't make any sense.
Penelo spent the next hour searching the room, albeit as quietly as she could. Any floorboard that looked remotely suspicious, she tried to pry it up. She searched behind every shelf, in each nook and cranny, until finally she was panting with the effort of putting weight on her foot and had to sit down again, her brow soaked in sweat.
Her eyes fell on the magicite lamp. It was for fire…
She bit her lip.
Learning the magick was not easy work. It required a great deal of concentration, a total clearing of the mind that was made difficult by the fact that Penelo's ankle would throb whenever she had achieved it. But since she had nothing else to do, what with the storm railing on outside and Larsa left somewhere within the depths of it, she made herself do it. The fire magick first, then the others. She didn't have the required magicite for them, but maybe she would, in time.
There are many types of magicite, she read. Skystone and spellstone were the most popular. The latter she needed for spell-casting, obviously, and the former was used in helping airships fly. The book even gave descriptions of wild magicite, and how to recognize which did what, though it warned that the size of the stone might not dictate how much power it contained.
Whatever. She needed only a little bit to give Larsa a taste of his own medicine…
Chapter 7: Fire Magick
Chapter by tsukinofaerii
Penelo hadn't gotten a dozen pages into Simple Magicks when the doorknob rattled again. In a panic, she shoved the books under the pillow and grabbed another off the shelf without looking. Her elbow jabbed into one of the book's edges as she settled, teeth locking together to keep from cursing. But then the door swung open and it was too late to move.
Therese stood in the doorway, eyebrows raised. A pot of steaming water was balanced on her hip, along with some cloths and a thick pottery jar. Something smelled strongly of mint, but not quite the same, as if a hot spice had been added in. She bumped the door closed with her hip and set everything down on the wardrobe.
"Lord Larsa said ye knocked up yer ankle good," she said as she started sorting out her things, laying out what looked to be bandages. "This oughta treat it up an' get ye back on yer feet afore he's home."
Home? Was this Larsa's home? It didn't seem like the sort of place he'd settle. "You don't have any potions?" Penelo asked dubiously, clutching the book she'd grabbed to her chest. She'd had plenty of experience with home remedies, since her mother preferred them, but they always dragged out the pain and were almost never pleasant. "I don't see what that's going to do for a sprain."
When Therese opened the jar, the smell of mint and spices exploded in Penelo's nose so thick she sneezed. Instantly her eyes and nose started to run. Therese smeared some of it on one of the cloths in a sticky white paste with steady workman-like hands. "Ye'll see what it does. Out this way, potions're for worser hurts than ye've got there. Lord Larsa wasn't tellin' tales 'bout the beasties and wyrms."
If she had to lie around with that paste on her, she thought she might suffocate from the smell. It was so strong even across the room that her head was stuffed with it. Penelo had no idea how Therese could stand to work with the stuff so close. "But a potion would be faster."
"Ye've got plenty o' time, moppet." Bangles tinkled musically as Therese pulled a tiny glass bottle out of her pocket and sprinkled its contents over the paste. Where it touched, the stuff turned bright blue. "Don' ye go rushin' t' be up, Lord Larsa ain't coming back fer a few days. 'Ere we go, leg up."
Uncertain but not having much choice, Penelo stretched her hurt leg out. First Therese dipped another rag in the hot water and wrapped it around her ankle in a double layer of cloth. The heat was wonderful, easing the sore throb down to a more bearable twinge. Over that she put the prepared bandage. Whatever was in the mix, it was scalding hot, tingling all the way down into her bones. Penelo hissed, knee jerking, but Therese caught her leg before she could yank it away.
As she worked, Therese kept up a steady chatter, her coarse, rolling accent at odds with the motherly tone. "Now, don' go touchin' this with yer hands, pretty, ye'll come away with welts the likes o' which ye never seen. I'll be changin' it fer ye, mornin' an' night, or my Farra will. Don' be tryin' t' walk about, ye jus' stay in bed when ye can."
Great. A dangerous home remedy, not just one that smelled bad. Her mother would have loved it.
Penelo's throat tightened when she thought of her mother. Was she worried for her daughter? Arramis would be thrilled to think that Penelo had landed herself a rich lord of a suitor, but Emilie had always been more practical. Surely she hadn't bought Larsa's story, would have wanted to say goodbye and pass on some embarrassing advice of some sort.
She wouldn't have just thrown Penelo away like that, just because Lamont said he wanted her. Would she?
Not that there was any point in thinking about it. Nothing could be done until she got back to Rabanastre. Crying would just slow her down, make her weak, and she couldn't afford that. Still, her eyes burned from more than the fumes. Penelo hastily wiped them before it could turn to tears. "That stuff smells horrible," she muttered to cover the moment. "What's in it?"
"Bit 'o this, bit o' that. Good cures 'lways smell bad 'r taste bad, and ye ain't drinkin' it." Therese topped the smelly bandage with a thick wrap of cotton that covered her from mid-calf to the ball of her foot. "Tha' should keep. Ye just stay offa it."
"Not like I've got much choice," Penelo meant to snap, but it came out too sullen. The old, familiar anger didn't come as easily as she was used to. She was just too tired and homesick to work up a proper, righteous rage at being held prisoner. "What am I going to do, run circles around the bed?"
Thesere snorted and patted her knee. "I'll pretend tha was a thank ye, seein' as ye've had a long day an' ain't got much reason t' be happy, but bein' polite never cost no one a gil. Ye jus' rest, an' feel free t' keep tryin' t' learn yerself some magicks."
"Magick?" Penelo's face went pale. "I don't know anything about magick," she sputtered. "I can't even light a candle."
"I c'n tell." Gently, Therese reached over and pried the book from her fingers. In worn gilt, the cover read, On Arcane Magick, Necromancy and Resurrection Spells: A Guide to the World Beyond. "This's a mite much fer startin' out. Why don' ye try an easier one, hm?"
Penelo watched as Therese turned to the bookshelf and started picking through the volumes. She selected three of them, two slender pamphlets and a thick volume that read Encyclopedia of Magickal Elements on the binding. "Here ye be, with tha' book ye've got tucked under yer pillow there, this'll get ye started."
She accepted the books with a doubtful expression. It couldn't be that easy. "You're not worried that I'll use them to get free?"
"No spellstone." One of Therese's bare shoulders moved in a graceful shrug. "'Thout a proper spellstone it'll tucker ye right out an' no mistake. Lord Larsa could use a mage on 'is side, an' it'll keep ye outta trouble."
"I'm not on his side!" Penelo snapped. "I don't want any of this—I just want to go home!"
She wished she could write it in giant letters on her forehead. Bad enough when everyone was telling her she liked Lamont, because at least then she was fooling herself, too. Now that it was Larsa she just wanted to wash her hands of him. Whatever madness had kept her flirting before was long dissipated.
The ever-present sound of jewelry clinking accompanied Therese's movements as she gathered her things. "How old be ye, moppet? Twenty, thereabouts?"
It was better than the fifteen Larsa had first pegged her as, at least, but she still bristled. "I'll be twenty-two in a week."
The corner of Therese's mouth lifted in a smile that was quickly hidden by the fall of her hair. "Twenty-two, as ye like it. Belike tha's more'n old 'nough to stretch yer wings." Penelo didn't get a chance to answer before she vanished out the door.
Stretch my wings? Ha! That was easy for Therese to say, when she wasn't the one who'd been snatched from her home and taken off to gods-knew-where.
Her fingers feathered over the three new books. The two smaller ones were safety tips for beginners and a manual of gestures for spellwork. Between them and the other, she should have everything she needed to show Larsa a thing or two, and then make a run for it. Except spellstones, but fire magicite couldn't be that different, could it? Spellstones were made out of magicite, after all, and the book had said they could be used to draw power.
Tucking the smaller books under the encyclopedia, Penelo pulled Simple Magicks out from under her pillow and opened it again.
...long known truth that fire magick is the most elemental, but also the most volatile...
It took three days for Larsa to return to the strange home he'd abandoned her in. By then, Penelo had had enough practice that she could probably singe his eyebrows, though not much more. She'd been so bored out of her mind, and stuck in her bed from her lame ankle, that she'd had nothing better to do than to read the books Therese had given her. She'd read through each of them twice, and she thought she had a good idea of casting better spells… it just required more magicite than what she had.
Admittedly, Penelo was a bit thrilled. She would have never considered herself a magick-caster… yet she just knew that the second she got her hands on some proper spellstone and a license, she could obliterate somebody or something. It was a heady, powerful sensation—and a scary one at the same time. Not scary enough, though. Not when revenge against Larsa burned so steadily in her mind.
She'd been helpless against him. He'd kissed her, put that stupid sleeping draught in her mouth, and she'd been naïve enough to fall for it. Not anymore, she thought as she hobbled around her bedroom. It was the first day that she could walk without flinching in pain if she put any weight at all on her ankle. Teresa's stinky salves had seen to that.
Penelo flexed her fingers. She'd been a simple merchant's daughter. Sure, she could read, which was more than the average person could say—she could do math, too. But self-defense? She hadn't known a thing of it. Larsa had had to rescue her in the Estersand from that pack of wolves. Her pride alone had barely been able to handle it, though it had softened her toward him. And for what? That moment of weakness had cost her dearly! Her father thought she had been spirited away to Tchita for a season of romance!
A sudden bang at the door drew her attention, and she whipped about just in time to see Larsa strolling into her room. She yelped as her ankle twisted painfully, flailing her arms. She was going down, and she squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the impact of the hardwood floor.
It never came.
Breathing unsteadily, she opened her eyes to mere slits. When she realized she was being held in a pair of strong arms, she looked up to see Larsa staring down at her. He looked just as surprised as she felt. Though her ankle was throbbing now, all she could do was keeping gazing into his eyes, her heart hammering from both the near-fall and his close proximity. Funny. On the airship, he'd been close then, too, and all she'd wanted to do was give him a black eye.
Days of being apart from him had made her less angry toward him. His features looked so good, so handsome, and her eyes dropped to the soft curve of his mouth. When he'd kissed her… like he was close enough for now… whatever had come after it, it had been heavenly, for just a moment…
His fingertips touched over her jaw. Her eyes flitted closed despite herself, and she felt his breath caress her mouth. Were his thoughts following hers?
She gripped onto his biceps to steady herself. By then, he was already kissing her. She let go of her control for just a moment—let herself lose her thoughts at the touch of his lips. His tongue brushed against the seam of her mouth, and she parted it, a thrill darting through the pit of her belly. His stubble was rough on her chin. She could feel each thread of his jacket beneath her fingers, her senses suddenly hyper-sensitive.
He made her head so floaty, so weak, like she could drift away at any moment, not tethered by gravity. It was both freeing and enslaving at once. Freeing because she wanted to clutch to that solitary moment of bliss. Enslaving because she knew what it meant for her that he could make her feel this way. It made him hold power over her.
His teeth grazed her lower lip, and she heard herself sigh. It made her fingers tighten against his biceps, hard enough to leave bruises. His hands circled more closely around her waist, pulling her up against him. The hard press of his body was nice, dizzied her senses even further. Slowly, with shaking fingers, she released his biceps to put her arms around his neck instead.
He opened his mouth wider, his tongue fervently tangling with hers. Arousal sparked hotter than ever, and she lifted up on her tiptoes, sinking into him. She threaded her fingers in his hair. His hands slipped down, covering her rear as he gave a small moan. More than anything, she wanted this to continue, to never end. Her skin was tight, feverish. Her lungs were expanding against her chest.
She thought she heard him murmur her name. She wasn't really sure over the roar of her rushing blood in her ears. He backed her up a step, then another, toward her bed—
Pain exploded through her ankle, and she cried out, wrenching away from him and collapsing onto the edge of her bed. She reached down, clutching onto the swollen thing, squeezing her eyes shut against sudden tears.
"Penelo?" Another set of hands joined hers on her ankle, warm and gentle. She watched through tear-blurred vision as Larsa kneeled by the bed and gently rolled her ankle in a circle. "Are you still hurt? Therese was certain you should be almost healed by—"
Agony shot through her leg all the way to the knee when he forced her to point her toes. Instinctively, Penelo lashed out, yanking the one foot away and kicking with the other. The blow landed solidly, her bare heel slamming into his jaw.
Larsa toppled over, landing flat on his back with a curse suited to a pirate. "What was that for?" he demanded, cupping his face where she'd hit it. Blood dotted the corner of his mouth—likely her blow had caused him to bite his cheek or something. "This is the gratitude you show simple concern?"
"It hurt!" she shot back, clutching her aching ankle. The pain was sharp and grinding now, worse than it had been even when she'd first injured it. Outrage that he'd kissed her again curled through her chest, but it was muffled by the immediate issue of her ankle. "What were you doing, manhandling it like that?"
"I was checking for a break, if you absolutely must know." Larsa worked his jaw to make sure it wasn't broken, then levered himself upright. The place she'd kicked was already bright red, tending to maroon. Experience from all the fights Vaan had been in told Penelo that it was going to turn into a livid bruise, but it wasn't serious. "How serious is it?"
Tears still stung her eyes and pain made her head swim, but Penelo forced herself to let go of her ankle and let it rest on the floor. Even that little jolt hurt, but damned if she was going to let him catch her in a moment of weakness again. Every time she did, something terrible happened. "It's fine," she lied. "I just stepped on it wrong, and your yanking it around made it hurt worse."
His eyes narrowed in obvious disbelief. "We can't afford to have you injured. If you are, you must tell me."
She couldn't believe him. "There is no 'we'," Penelo corrected him, taking the pain in her ankle and using it to make her voice cut. "There is you, the kidnapper, and me, the kidnapped. That's all."
Larsa stared at her, then nodded slowly. "As you will, then." Pushing to his feet, he brushed off his trousers and turned for the door. "Seeing as your ankle is 'fine', I will meet you in the main room. We depart in an hour, be ready."
An hour? "Where are we going?"
He paused with his hand on the doorknob. "That is hardly something a kidnapper would discuss with the kidnapped, don't you think?"
The door didn't quite slam behind him, but it came close. Penelo bit her lip, looking down at her ankle. Therese's concoction, ghastly as it was, had been doing a good job of speeding up the healing before Larsa's return. Now it was swelling again, and even trying to move it a little hurt worse than ever.
Gingerly, Penelo stood up, shifting her weight slowly to the injured ankle bit by bit. It barely took anything before the pain flared and it gave out. Her whole knee buckled, sending her crashing back down to the bed. Panting, Penelo closed her eyes and waited for the pain to ease again.
It was no use. There was no way she'd be able to bluff her way past Larsa if she couldn't even put weight on the thing.
Magick? A cure spell was minor enough, and she still had the fire magicite to draw from. The books had warned against trying to use the wrong spellstone to cast, but surely a little spell wouldn't be too bad. She didn't even need her leg fully healed, just enough to walk past and wipe the smirk off Larsa's face. Even just dulling the pain...
Penelo rolled over, taking care not to bump her ankle, and reached for the books on the bedside table. There, at the bottom of the pile, was the one she needed: 101 Ways to Use Cure.
The first time she'd flipped through the book, she'd found out that the title was misleading. It wasn't ways to use the spell so much as ways to misuse it. How to tailor it to do the most damage to certain types of monsters, how to cheat a night of sleep, how to use it against people and, what she needed, how to use it without a proper spellstone.
Cure, being one of the simplest of spells, is also the safest to experiment with for low-powered casting. Be warned that using an improper power source may have unanticipated side-effects, which may not be equivalent in level to the spell being cast. Unlike a properly cast spell, the power from the source will linger for a period ranging from several hours to several days. To minimize this, draw as little power as possible from the source stone.
Underneath the opening was a list of sources and how to draw from them. Fire magicite was right at the top, and listed as the easiest source since fire in its raw form was pure energy. She read and reread the instructions three times. It seemed easy enough, but it if it was then why the fuss in all the other books about only using spellstones?
Grabbing the bedside lamp, Penelo wiggled the covering back and forth until the raw magicite fell out into her lap. It glowed a faint red without the lamp to enhance it and was warm, sending odd tingles through her skin where it touched.
She took a slow breath and concentrated on the book's directions, on the push and pull of power. The magicite grew brighter and then dimmed as she focused on her ankle. Energy burned under her skin, raw and angry and ready for use. "Cure," Penelo whispered, twisting her fingers into the most basic cure spell.
White light spread out from her fingertips in red-tinted tendrils. They curled around her leg and ankle, heating everything they touched. Penelo hissed between her teeth at the burn. Slowly, the glow sank into her skin and faded, leaving only tender skin and the taste of mint and ash on her tongue. In her hand, the magicite's glow was gone, leaving only a dull, faintly glowing reddish lump of rock, its power still setting her blood on fire.
Testing, Penelo twisted her ankle around in the air, then hopped to her feet. It only hurt a little, as if she'd been sitting on it for too long and it had gone stiff. A hard bounce hurt more, but she could do it. As one final test, she rose to her toes and twirled.
Not even a little stumble.
Ha! That would show Larsa, and all the makers of those spellbooks. The magicite had worked just fine. Better than fine, she was almost completely healed, without any of the side-effects that the book had gone on about.
After doing a few more twirls, Penelo decided she was ready to go downstairs. She didn't have anything to take with her, so the hour of preparation was more for Larsa's sake. Then again, she thought maybe she could talk Therese into letting her have a hot bath. The lady might scold her about improperly using a source, but Penelo was fine, and she'd be quick to reassure her of that.
All of her plans vanished the second she hit the bottom stair, her hand on the wall and her eyes on the living room.
The front door burst open, bringing sloshing rain with it and men in armor and uniforms. They clanked in, swords at the ready, three dark-haired men at the back in red and black leathers with their hands clasped at their back, ready to stand at parade rest. Larsa was by the fire, and he whirled, but not in enough time to prevent Therese from being snatched up.
In seconds, she was dead.
Penelo screamed as the knife went across her throat and blood spurted, and the elderly woman who had been taking care of her since Larsa's departure slumped to the floor, bleeding her life away. That alerted the men at the door to her presence, and one of the Leathers jerked his head in her direction. An armored soldier came forward, weapon at the ready.
Larsa was a blur of action, his own sword out and swinging. He parried a blow at his head, twisting his sword and quickly disarming his opponent. A swift kick to the head, and the soldier's helmet went flying as he groaned and crashed to the ground. Larsa was prepared for the swarm of the five soldiers, a sight Penelo couldn't believe. He was going to die if she didn't do something!
What was going on? she thought frantically. Why were they attacking like this?
"Larsa Ferrinas Solidor," a deep voice rose from the door over the crash of swords. "You are hereby under arrest for violating the grounds of your banishment."
So they had to kill Therese? That made no sense!
Anger burned inside of Penelo, hot and consuming. They were going to kill her, too. That was something she couldn't allow. She had to do something to avenge Therese's death.
She rushed to where the fire was, ignoring the twinges in her ankle, and picked up a poker. Larsa had somehow fended off three of the five soldiers with brilliant swordsmanship, but two were left, and he was having trouble deflecting all of their blows entirely. The men in the leather exchanged looks, then strode forward, drawing their own weapons.
Larsa lunged forward, snatching her by the wrist and hot footing it for the stairs. They flew up them, the wooden floorboards creaking noisily with every thud of their feet. Penelo heard the rush of soldiers behind them, her heart hammering, but Larsa never slowed, as though he was so focused on his task, he didn't have time to be afraid. She wished she could be that strong.
Upstairs was as much a labyrinth as downstairs. Larsa's hand stayed strong around her wrist as he yanked her down halls, left and right and right again, through so many rooms and corridors that she lost track of the ways they circled back and around. Behind them the men in leather followed closely. From the sound of their crashing about, they were just as lost as she was, but they had Larsa to follow. Every now and then a cry would rise as one of them spotted them, and again pursuit would be nipping at their heels.
Just like below, wooden walls and floors turned to rough hewn stone, lit by magicite lamps. There the circling stopped and Larsa just started pulling her along faster and faster. His long legs gave him the advantage over her on the straight stretch. Penelo soon found herself helpless to do anything but be dragged along like so much dead weight, struggling to breathe against the growing stitch in her side. Her skin felt fever hot from the exertion, her mouth parched and lips dry.
So quickly were they moving that when Larsa stopped, she nearly shot straight past him.
Directly in front of them, only a few steps, a chasm yawned. The floor simply ended. There was nowhere else to go, no corridors or rooms to double back through. They'd passed the last one ages ago. Penelo had been so caught up in running that she hadn't noticed. Behind them, the sounds of the Leathers shouting back and forth to each other echoed off the walls. No time to back track—they'd just run right into their arms.
Larsa grabbed both her arms and pushed her toward the edge. "I'll hold them off. You must jump. If they catch you, they'll kill you."
"What? No!" Penelo dug in her heels, refusing to be moved. His weight all but fell against her, doubling her over, but she didn't budge. "I'm not leaving you!" Her voice bounced off the ceiling, and a second later one of the Leathers shouted in response.
"They're going to kill you," he repeated sharply, giving her an extra shove. "At least me they'll take in for questioning if they can. Go!"
She shook her head and kept resisting. He managed to shove her a few inches, but she won them back by weaving her weight against his. "Come with me!"
"If I do, you'll never escape! Go now!"
Footsteps approached, heavy and final, rushing toward them. Penelo shook her head wildly. If she left, he was going to die. There was no doubt of that. Larsa was good, but anyone with sense wouldn't take chances on letting him escape. She couldn't do that to him. "No, no, I'm not—" Twisting around in his grip, she broke free and scuttled away from the hole. Her skin was getting hotter and hotter, anger and terror and a bleak sort of loyalty spurring her on. "I'm not going without you!"
Something strange lit Larsa's eyes. He lifted his sword, the edge catching the magicite light wickedly. "A stand it is."
The Leathers came into sight, in full stride and barely winded. Penelo's throat tightened as she stepped up to Larsa's side. Unthinking, her hand reached out to clasp his free one, fingers locking tight together.
They were going to die. She knew it with a sort of absolute faith that rang in her ears like sandstorm bells and drained everything from her but a terrible calm. The worst had happened, and she was going to end her days in some strange cave with a man who kissed and kidnapped her and then kissed her again. Therese was dead. Her parents would be, if it was found they'd been dealing with a Solidor. And they would be dead, too, in a moment.
Damned if she was going down easy.
Metal jangled as their attackers slowed their approach, stopping a good ten feet away from the point of Larsa's sword. Five of them blocked their exit, at least one showing signs of Larsa's skill with a sword. The leader, the man who'd slit Therese's throat, kept his sword unwavering on Larsa, but his eyes cut to her.
"You're with him, huh, girl? You know what this is?" His voice was light, conversational. "You going to help this monster? Just you come with us. We won't hurt you."
"Just like you didn't hurt Therese?" Penelo's voice was harsh from lack of breath, but she managed to meet his eyes. "I'll stay with the monster I know, thanks."
The leader stared at her, then nodded. At his signal, the other four rushed them.
Calm turned to wrath in a single heartbeat. Penelo screamed, her voice high and piercing, and threw herself between Larsa and the men. She was barely aware of what she was doing, heat rushing under her skin, burning her from the inside out. Red light burst to life around her fingertips, over her skin and around her arms. It swirled into a mass that slowly turned blue-white with heat. In a flash it expanded into a blinding nova, fueled by pure and utter rage.
Behind the white haze created by the flood of light and a bang worthy of lightning crashing, the Leathermen screamed in agony. A sharp, sweet smell of cooked meat filled the corridor, accompanied by the acrid stench of burned hair and the dull thud of cracking bones where they were thrown against the walls.
Drained, Penelo's knees buckled under her. Strong, familiar arms caught her. Penelo could just barely make out Larsa's face through the spots that blinded her. His lips moved, but she couldn't hear anything other than ringing. Something caught his attention, making him look up sharply. Without warning, he scooped her entirely off her feet and tossed her in the air.
She didn't land.
The light dropped away, leaving Penelo in total darkness as she tumbled down and down and down. Wind snapped her braids behind her, tugging at her clothes and skin. No rocks caught her a blow, no handy limbs tugged her hands to slow her down. There was only the wind and the darkness and the never ending fall. Belated terror tore a scream from her throat, accompanied by a brief, irrational nightmare of tumbling through the earth forever.
Icy cold water gushed around her, pouring down her shoulders as they kept falling together. It glowed, tendrils of golden light twisting around her limbs. As the light grew stronger, her tumble slowed and steadied until she was almost floating.
With the water for light, she caught sight of what was below just in time to take a deep breath before the river engulfed her.
Penelo couldn't see. Couldn't figure out what was what.
The waterfall—there'd been a spell—something that had slowed her descent, made her almost float—and then this—cold, icy cold, darkness everywhere, like she really was falling through the earth. She screamed, and bubbles burst from her lips, joining the thousands of others that had been created by her flailing limbs.
Then arms grabbed her around the waist, and she was hauled in an upward direction, a direction she couldn't find seconds earlier. She sputtered as she broke the surface of the river, as hard ground and silky grass met her palms. Already, she was shivering all over, from the attack, from the fall, from the numbing cold of the water she'd just been submerged in.
She was being dragged to her feet. The world tilted ominously, and her stomach threatened to heave.
Rustling noises, shouts from above, so far, far above. Penelo cracked her eyes open to see that Larsa was half-dragging, half-carrying her across an open field. They were headed for a copse of trees, where he probably intended to lose the soldiers there. Not that any of them could follow so quickly. Had he really thrown her over a waterfall…?
They walked a ways, and by then, Penelo's ankle was throbbing miserably again. She stumbled, nearly taking Larsa with her, but his arms tightened at the last second, and he steadied her. She could tell he was growing irate with her because she kept snapping every twig and finding every branch in their path to smack around. They were making more than enough noise to alert anyone of their presence.
He stopped, and she bumped into him.
"It should be around here…"
Penelo stifled a groan. Her ankle was hurting her something fierce. "Larsa, what—"
He shushed her, so harshly that she quieted instinctively. She was too tired to argue. Too scared. She hated that she felt that way, but she'd just watched the woman who had been taking care of her for days die. And instead of throwing Larsa to the imperials, she'd helped him out. Why? It didn't make any sense.
Larsa crept forward through the trees, staying low to the ground and moving so lightly he might have cast Float. She didn't have a choice but to follow, much less gracefully in her exhaustion. Dirt and grime stuck to her shoes and legs. Old dead leaves crackled with every step. They were both soaking wet, Penelo's clothing sticking to her like a second skin. Longingly, she thought back to the bath she'd been thinking of caging out of Therese, of hot water and maybe scented salts, if there were any.
The ridiculousness of the thought struck Penelo into stumbling. There were unknown men after them, she'd been thrown over a waterfall, and she was thinking of a relaxing bath. A hysterical giggle rose up in her throat, forcing her to slam a hand over her mouth to stifle it. Her lungs and eyes burned, laughter threatening to turn into sobs. She braced herself against a tree, taking deep, unsteady breaths.
Therese was dead. There wouldn't be any scented salts from her. No scolding for using the wrong power source, or praise for her first spell. She might not even get a marked grave.
Penelo had never seen someone die, much less seen violent death. It felt unreal, a nightmare that should have been banished, but stayed lodged behind her eyelids even in the bright light of day. She couldn't unsee the split second of realization, the splash of blood, didn't think she'd ever forget the sound of the body falling. Therese might have been her prison guard, in a way, but she'd been alive, and now she wasn't. All because she'd helped a Solidor.
A gloved hand, cool and damp, touched her bare shoulder. "We must keep moving," Larsa whispered. "There may be more of them."
Blinking back tears, Penelo looked up into Larsa's face. Seeing compassion there just made it worse. "I—" Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to straighten. "You're right. Sorry." There wasn't time to grieve. Later, when she could get her head on straight, she could come to grips with everything that had happened. Until then, survival had to come first.
Larsa squeezed her shoulder before taking the lead again. This time Penelo stayed close on his heels, determinedly focused on the task ahead.
It seemed like they walked for miles, taking strange turns and, inexplicably, curving entirely around before Larsa came to a stop and darted behind a shrub. Penelo followed sharply, ending up crouched shoulder to shoulder with him.
They were at the edge of a clearing that rang with the trickle of a stream, nothing as large as the river Larsa had fished her out of, but enough that it might be trouble to cross. More worryingly, voices carried over the sound of the river, talking amongst themselves. Larsa's lips framed a silent curse as he peered around the edge of their cover, then ducked back.
Parting the shrub a few inches, Penelo caught sight of two pairs of legs, both with sword scabbards, and an airship anchor. As she watched, a third person joined the other two. Gently, she let the branches relax back together, barely making a whisper of sound.
"They have discovered the Diamond Dust," Larsa murmured in her ear. "We shall have to fight. Have you any magick left?"
Penelo did, in fact, have magick left, so long as it hadn't gotten lost in her journey down the waterfall, but she'd been saving it for her ankle. For a moment, she argued fiercely with herself. What good was the magick, anyway, if her ankle wasn't up to snuff? She'd hardly be able to maneuver. But, on the other hand, they couldn't just crouch here, and Penelo certainly couldn't go in empty-handed.
"Yes," she admitted reluctantly, digging into her pocket.
Larsa, sensing a problem, glanced appropriately down to her ankle. "You know, a potion would ease the strain on your ankle…" He slipped his hand into his pocket, and Penelo thought of how decent he was being for once today, aside from the whole on-the-run situation they were now in. "With a sprain, it would be wholesomely knitted within the next thirty seconds, I'd wager."
Caught up in the moment, Penelo nodded, reaching for the vial he had offered. "Sure, than—" Just as she was reaching for it, however, he jerked it just out of reach, shaking it as he looked at her. Penelo stared at him, not understanding.
"Not everything comes so freely. Give me another kiss, darling, and I'll be more than happy to part ways with it."
Penelo gaped at him. Every time she thought he couldn't possibly get any more galling…! "Are you really playing games at me right now?" she hissed, hoping to shame him. "One wrong move in there, and we could die, and you're telling me I have to kiss you for a potion?" The urge to hit him was so strong in that moment, she didn't know how to overcome it, only barely managing. Equally difficult was keeping her voice down, not letting it raise with her ire.
"It is perhaps because I know that we could surely die that I ask you of this in return now…" He leaned closer to her in the small spare they shared, his eyes hard on hers from beneath his lashes. Admittedly, it made her swallow, even as she tried to lean away from him, which she couldn't without rustling the branches.
He caught her retreating hand in his, the vile pressed between their palms. His lips were at her ear then, giving the barest brushes against her skin. He was barely speaking, his voice was so low. "Just think on it, Penelo… here, just now, in this moment, when you might die… can you not admit to me that you love the feel of my mouth just as much as I crave the touch of yours?"
The gods damn him—
His lips lowered to her jaw, and, breathing shallowly, she turned her head to see him. He wasn't more than an inch away now, his nose brushing against hers. His eyes were intent on the shape of her mouth, and reflexively she licked her lips, moistening them. He was drawing nearer, she could taste his breath, at any moment now their lips would—
"Well, now, Lamont, I hadn't taken you for the type to get so romantic in a moment such as this." The words, followed by a cocking of a trigger, made both Larsa and Penelo's heads jerk up. But whereas Penelo gasped, quickly assessing the dead bodies—or were they only unconscious?—littered around the clearing, Larsa only grinned in a lazy way, cold hatred shimmering in his eyes.
"Balthier," he said, "I must admit, when I arrived on the scene and saw your hiding spot, I was quite surprised to see you, given the way we last parted."
It took a moment to process that, and when she did, she ripped her eyes away from the bodies to see the profile of Larsa's face. He'd known? He'd known that this man was about to pop up and take care of their problem and he'd still insisted on that drivel about her kisses…?
She was suddenly so absolutely infuriated, it took all of her strength to sit there and not move a muscle. When she thought she had her immediate instincts under control—taking that twig there and ramming it up into his eye socket—she looked at the person who Larsa was currently focusing all of his hatred on.
Her heart stopped beating.
Gods, he was handsome. Cinnamon brown hair, waving gently in the breeze as the birds chirped and the sun shined on behind him. Smooth, tanned skin, a crooked tilt of his lips, the deep brown of his eyes. Her gaze lowered down the trim cut of his body in form-fitting clothes before it landed on the gun focused on them, the fingers bedecked with rainbow rings around its handle.
Chapter 8: Scathe Magick
Chapter by tsukinofaerii
Balthier held the gun casually, as if he just happened to have his finger on the trigger and it just happened to be pointed directly at Penelo. There wasn't any malice when he looked at her, only an amused sort of arrogance. "I wasn't aware you had a lady friend, Lamont. What have you been keeping from your dear old friend?"
Larsa, damn him, didn't even look worried. "I do not recall that we were ever friends."
Warm chocolate eyes assessed Penelo. With a flip of Balthier's wrist, the gun was slotted into a holster on his back. Before Penelo knew what he was doing, he'd picked up her hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it. "A pleasure to meet you, of course, though I must say, the company you keep is rather shameful."
Penelo blushed bright red, her mouth going as dry as the Estersands. He was gorgeous. "I didn't really have a choice," she explained. "He kidnapped me."
"Really, now?" Instead of letting go of her hand, Balthier pulled her over to him, folding their arms together. "Leaving you injured and kidnapping you. What a brute." He tsked. "I believe I have a potion around here that would tidy up the problem of your ankle within momen—"
Before she could be moved even a single step, Larsa wrapped an arm around Penelo's waist and yanked her away from Balthier. "And she'll be fortunate if she doesn't wake in a gaol somewhere," Larsa bristled, putting three steps between them and their rescuer. "Do not trust him, Penelo. He's a worse scoundrel than ever you thought me."
"Let me go!" Penelo protested, doing her best to kick Larsa in the shin, or to at least step on his toes. She was getting sick of being hauled around like a sack of grain, without any say where she was taken. A lucky stomp made Larsa yelp and loosen his grip. Penelo wrenched free, staggering a step toward Balthier. "He seems nice enough to me."
"Balthier taught me everything I know." Larsa's tone was dark, scathing with venom, but at least he didn't try and haul her off again. "And I know he's more he hadn't deigned to pass on."
The pirate in question spread his arms and smiled angelically, inviting assessment. "What leading man doesn't have his tricks?"
He didn't look like a pirate, but neither did Larsa when all was said and done. Going by accent alone, Balthier probably could have passed for a noble like Larsa had. Put him in proper clothing and she would have been fooled in a heartbeat.
That made Penelo straighten up and give Balthier a second look. "Is he..." Twisting to look over her shoulder, she eyeballed Larsa, comparing the two men. "Are you related?"
Balthier's lip curled. "To this riffraff?"
"I would rather be related to a Seeq," was Larsa's answer.
"A Seeq would be far preferable to the family you have now, I should think." The bushes rustled, and a tall, statuesque Viera stepped out of hiding. Her long ears twitched as she took in the scene. "We should leave this place, before the guards wake."
Viera weren't unknown in Dalmasca; Penelo had gotten used to seeing them in the streets of Rabanastre nearly every day, so that wasn't what held her attention. Instead, it was what she was wearing. Brightly polished armor barely covered her, leaving most of her body bare to attack, but Penelo couldn't blame her. If she'd looked like that, she wouldn't have wanted to wear heavy plates either.
"Our debt is now even, Lamont." Balthier went to the Viera's side. "The next time we cross paths, you should not be so lucky."
"I would have dealt with this little problem fine on my own," Larsa seethed. "And our debt is settled when I say it is! You still owe me, Balthier!"
Penelo was so used to seeing Larsa in control of himself that it was becoming obvious just how deep this Balthier man was getting under the Solidor's skin. Balthier, for his part, seemed vastly unruffled, giving only a smirk as he disappeared into the brush with the Viera. He didn't look Penelo's way again, which made her sigh a little.
The second they were alone, Larsa had her by the elbow and was hauling her to the ship. Though she was tempted to break free, she waited until they were onboard to do so, nearly to the cockpit. By then Larsa was unhanding her, anyway, and she rubbed her elbow and glared at him. The boy outright ignored her, flipping on switches.
"Take your seat, Penelo," he said raggedly. "It's like to be a bumpy flight."
"Can we hold on for just a minute?" Penelo snapped back. "I haven't had a chance to get my bearings or anything, and this whole thing—"
Larsa whirled on her, thunder clouds in his eyes. Instantly, she was terrified, and shrank back a little as he loomed over her. She hated it, downright abhorred when he got like this, hated how he made her feel so small.
"Would you like to argue with me a second longer and give the gentlemen outside time enough to recover, or would you take your damned seat and let me maneuver us out of here? It's your choice, Penelo. You're the one with the bad ankle, making you not the most preferable sidekick in terms of having to fight these soldiers."
Penelo could have hit him, but he was right. In her condition, they were only endangering themselves the longer they stayed here. "Fine." She threw herself down in the co-pilot's seat, regretting it almost instantly when her ankle throbbed. "Just get us to safety."
"Thank you," was his snotty retort. He shook his hair back, fingers flying over the controls a second time. Now they were lifting, gaining air. Penelo could hear the ka-thwacking of the anchor being withdrawn into the ship's interior. A moment later, and Diamond Dust was flying, scattering grass and dirt from the clearing below.
They had only made it a thousand feet into the air when the first imperial fighter zoomed past them.
"What's that!" Penelo shrieked.
"An unfortunate encounter with the imperial army." Larsa gritted his teeth. "Please make sure you stay seated at all times, with your seatbelt fastened. As I said before, this is like to be a bumpy ride."
Oh, good gods, we're going to die, she thought instantly.
I'm so young… too young! She squeezed her eyes shut and braced her hands against the armrests. Father! I know I always thought you were too meddling for your own good, but I love you. And Mother, I wish I could cook half as well as you. Please give my brothers all my love, tell Vaan he can have my magic chocobo knight chess piece, and…
If you see Reks…
A scream was ripped from Penelo's throat as the Diamond Dust rotated in the air, spinning. It was only her seatbelt that kept her in her seat as her hair flew down around her face. By the time they'd righted to where Penelo's feet were under her, her stomach felt like it had dropped out into an abyss.
"That's new," Larsa muttered to himself.
The ship veered sharply to the right, and Penelo watched in disbelief as fire roared past, along with a steady stream of bullets. By then, Larsa was guiding them up, up and up into the clouds, trying to lose what Penelo was sure was an army she didn't want to see behind them.
"Larsa, please tell me we're going to get out of this alive," Penelo said desperately.
"We are going to get out of this alive." Larsa nudged a few buttons. "Now sit tight. I wager you're about to scream again."
He was right.
He suddenly thrust the ship downward into a nosedive, and as the clouds parted, all Penelo could see was a vast amount of land spread out beneath them, and all she could think was that they were going to crash.
Teeth gritted, Larsa made a few adjustments to the panel, grabbed the stick shifts, and pulled back. They came out of the dive, but only barely, skimming a cliff and nearly taking out a wing. From there, they were over the water. Several explosions boomed a moment later, and Penelo twisted in her seat to see smoke rising from the surface of the cliff. Then it was out of view.
"What was that?" she gasped shakily.
"My pursuers." Larsa guided them back into the clouds. "We're safe for now."
Penelo sank back into the copilot's seat, hands wrapped tight around the armrests. Clear blue water and scattered clouds stretched before them, but all she could see when she closed her eyes was the ground rushing up at her. Again. It seemed like every time she got in the Diamond Dust, they ended up nearly crashing.
"Is it always like this?" she demanded shakily, forcing her fingers to loosen. They were clenched so tight the joints had locked, and they ached when she tried to relax. "With imperials and fighting and… and everything?"
"No." Larsa didn't glance away from the forward screen, though the controls were far from needing his constant attention. "Not very often at all."
"Oh." That was reassuring, a little. She probably wasn't going to spend the rest of her life being rushed from one near-death experience to the other. "Where are we going now?"
The corners of Larsa's mouth curled up into something not quite a smile. "Somewhere the Imperials will not find us."
Wherever they were going, it was open air and water the whole way. At first the scenery was exciting; she hadn't been paying attention on their first flight, and the ocean was initially enchanting to someone who'd spent her life surrounded by desert. The idea of so much water all collected in one place, enough to lose an army, was overwhelming.
But blue on blue paled quickly without land to break it up. Penelo watched the water for about a half hour, then Larsa for another fifteen minutes, and eventually ended up tying elaborate knots with her hair ribbon. Her ankle ached abominably, sand had gotten into her clothes in unmentionable places, and Larsa had fallen into a sulk. Questions were answered in short, hard phrases, without any of the usual embellishments or endearments, and after the fourth brush off she finally gave it up as a bad job.
After a while, she fell into a light doze, only waking up every now and then to see how the clouds had changed.
Sometime later, Penelo was roused suddenly when something touched her shoulder. She jerked upright, heart leaping and arms coming up to knock whoever it was away from her.
Larsa had leaned over in the pilot's seat to shake her. He glanced her way to make sure she was awake, then jerked his chin at the main viewing screen. "We're nearly there. You'll wish to see this."
"See what?" Penelo twisted, looking around, but they'd risen above some clouds while she'd been asleep. There was nothing to see but fluff for miles and miles. The sun had started to set, dyeing the interior of the cabin in shades of gold, little interior magicite lights battling it here and there without much success.
As she watched, Larsa brought the airship down through the clouds, whiting out the screen entirely. When they emerged from the cover, Penelo's breath caught.
An island floated in the middle of a clear sky, the sun glinting off crystals embedded in its sides. Delicate buildings looked like they'd been carved from the rock itself, and verdant greenery filled the untouched center. Smaller islands floated near the larger one, linked by a series of bridges that hung in midair just like everything else.
"Incoming airship, this is Bhujerba Aerodome Ground Support. Please identify yourself and your cargo," the communications system crackled with an accented female voice. "I repeat, identify yourself and your cargo. We can't read your serials."
"Mohana, darling, as always your voice is a delight to my soul. This is Captain Lamont aboard the Diamond Dust, registration baker able love dash seven nine nine six three five, requesting permission to land," Larsa answered smoothly. "No cargo to declare. My friend and I are on vacation."
There was another burst of static and the woman's voice returned, pitched lower, without the same crisp, professional edge. "Svagatam, it is good to hear you back in Bhujerba, Captain," Mohana practically purred. "You're cleared for landing in field number four."
Penelo's back went stiff, but she kept her face toward the porthole to hide her expression. Of course he'd flirted with the aerodome staff. That was probably how he kept people from suspecting him. It was how someone like him wormed his way in, making himself seem likeable and innocent right up until he'd wrung everything he wanted from you.
"You have your ship registered?" she asked, for something to say more than out of curiosity. "Isn't that dangerous?"
"Only if you keep to a single registration. It's worth the expense to never have a home port to be found at." More switches flipped and a second control stick unearthed from behind a hidden panel. On the ground, a moogle with glowing sticks of magicite waved them down, guiding the Dust into her dock.
Once they were inside the aerodome and walking through the gathered people, Penelo couldn't help but notice how different it smelled up here. It wasn't like the sandy streets of Rabanastre, that was for sure. Instead, it was crisp, and there was a nice wind going. That had to be courtesy of the fact that they were on a floating island.
Larsa chuckled at her expression. "You look like you're sniffing the air for blood."
She whacked his arm at this, and he playfully dodged out of the way.
"Now, now, none of that, my feisty partner."
Penelo was instantly on edge. "I'm not your partner—" she began hotly.
"Come now, love, we mustn't cause a scene." Larsa took her hand in his and, surely clear out of common sense, twined their fingers together. Penelo was too shocked to immediately yank away, and Larsa used this to his advantage, guiding them out of the dome.
"Welcome, bradhas!" a younger man exclaimed, eagerly coming up to them. He held a book in his hand.
"We've no need for a tour, but thank you kindly." Larsa didn't even stop to say this.
Penelo looked at the grate beneath their feet, and her stomach gave a little twist when she saw the clouds floating below it. Again, Larsa had a laugh at her expense.
"Rumors say, my dear, that should you fall from Bhujerba, you will find yourself on the land of Ivalice far below, with nary a scratch."
Penelo snorted. "I'll believe that when I see it." Why was he in such a good mood, anyway? She couldn't help but eye him suspiciously. After all, they'd barely escaped some imperial cruisers. Shouldn't he have appeared more… ruffled or something?
"Why are you looking at me that way?" Larsa arched a brow.
"No reason," Penelo hummed innocently. She had the satisfaction of watching Larsa's lips twist in thought. He wasn't quite so happy with her any longer. That did her good.
A moogle bounced by, his yellow bon bon bobbing. He was carrying great sheets of parchment, which identified him as a cartographer to Penelo's curious eyes. She started to go to him, but Larsa jerked on her hand, keeping her firmly on track. With a sigh, she watched the moogle fade into the distance. She had a great love for maps.
Larsa led her along the street with the ease of a local, pointing out interesting buildings and shops. As they walked, her ankle throbbed, still hurting from before. He never did give her that potion, she recalled bitterly. But it was holding her weight, and when she glanced down surreptitiously it didn't look very swollen, so she made herself keep moving. Larsa already thought she was weak; it was going to take more than a little pain for her to let him think he was right.
"The buildings here are all close together," she observed after a few minutes of walking. "It's very clustered."
"Well, it's not that big of a city," Larsa retorted. "The island only has so much room, as you saw."
"Okay, sheesh, no need to get your knickers in a bundle."
"Let us find our way to the armory, shall we?" he said crisply, and Penelo began to wonder if maybe provoking Larsa was good for the long term.
"What are we getting there?"
"I can hardly have a partner who isn't outfitted by the very best armor, now can I?"
"Larsa!" she seethed between clenched teeth. "I am not your partner!"
His back went stiff and his hand around hers tightened painfully. Penelo had just enough time to wonder if maybe she'd pushed him too far when suddenly she was yanked nearly off her feet and into the nook between two buildings. Larsa wedged himself against her, one knee slipping between her thighs while he pinned her wrists to the brick. A startled sound caught in her throat as he pressed tight against her, lips nearly brushing hers. To someone passing by, it probably looked like they were kissing.
"Do not ever call me by that name in public," he growled. Green eyes flashed forebodingly as he glared down at her. They were so close that she could count his freckles. "Never, do you hear me?"
"One overheard conversation could be the end of us both." He pressed closer, forcing her painfully back into the wall. "Everywhere there are people who would gladly take the prize on my head and not care if a pretty little Dalmascan girl was lost in the process. Do. You. Understand?"
She'd never seen him so angry, so intense. It chilled her down to the bone. Of course she'd known that they were in danger, that he was a fugitive, but the reality of what it meant to be part of that was only starting to sink in.
People died because of him.
Slowly, Penelo nodded and forced herself to relax against him. It was hard. All she wanted to do was squirm away and bolt for the safety of the aerodome. But she didn't have any gil to buy passage back to Rabanastre, even if she did manage to escape. "I'm sorry. I forgot. It won't happen again."
Larsa stared hard into her eyes, as if he expected to find her lying. She held her breath and waited. Finally, he nodded back and leaned forward just enough to kiss the corner of her mouth.
"Just be careful."
When he pulled away from her, Penelo's knees nearly gave way under her, and her bad ankle wobbled dangerously. Kindly, he let her have a moment to regain her composure. A chill prickled down her skin from the cool breeze. She hadn't realized how chilly the breeze on the walkway was.
"Okay," Penelo muttered, pushing herself upright and straightening her shoulders. She was going to get out of this and get back home. It would take hard work and luck, but she could do it. "Let's get to that armor shop."
Bhujerba was made of brown stone that looked cut from the rocks of the floating islands themselves. Faint variations in color lent patterns to the architecture, but in the end it was all just brown. Like Penelo had said, the buildings all huddled close together, leaving just enough room for walkways. Arches and overhangs crowded the city, turning the maze of streets and alleys into something more claustrophobic.
What it lacked in architecture, Bhujerba made up for in the view.
Glorious hills rose in the distance, topped by shining spires of magicite. And there was greenery everywhere, tucked into corners, growing in waterfalls down trellises. It wasn’t like the carefully tended gardens some people kept in Rabanastre, but more like the plants wouldn't be tamed and the locals had given up trying.
Rithil's Protectives was right off the main walkway, marked by the usual sign of a shield that most armor shops used. Larsa didn't take time to dally, ushering Penelo inside and immediately finding the shopkeep. In a few minutes she'd been loaded down with a new shirt and a leather bustier that the clerk swore was laced with enough defensive spells to stop a rampaging slaven, even if it did look like something she'd wear to dance in. Boots followed the tops, a sturdy set that went up to her knees and—thank the gods—supported her ankle where her slippers hadn't. A pair of leather trousers somehow got added to the pile, though Penelo hadn't seen them advertised anywhere.
Once she was outfitted, Larsa paid and hauled her out of the store and down the street. Penelo huffed, but didn't protest. It was his money, after all, and it wasn't like she'd asked for this partners business.
They passed a few stands with people selling some sort of roasted meat on a skewer, one of them right on the platform next to an arm's shop. The scent of spices made her mouth water. Penelo dug her heels in, slowing them enough to stare longingly at the vendor. She hadn't eaten since breakfast at Therese's house.
Larsa glanced back and, mistaking her expression, snorted. "I'm not getting you a weapon. I like my head attached, thank you."
It took everything Penelo had not to come back with a scathing retort. Mostly because she was hungry. "I want that." She pointed to where the vendor was handing two pikes of meat to a pair of twin boys. Then, remembering her manners because Emilie would have clucked her tongue if she had heard, "Please?"
"I suppose we should eat… It's been long enough since our last meal, has it not?" Larsa dug in his pouch for a few gil, giving it to the vendor and handing Penelo her pike a moment later. Since they were in the middle of the street and she didn't want to seem like an urchin, she took her time with the meat. Her teeth sunk into it slowly, the mouth-watering aroma tickling her nose as the sauces melted over her tongue.
They walked a few blocks in silence, and it was only when they were alone again that Penelo licked her fingers clean and thanked him. Truthfully, she could eat more, but she wasn't about to beg for more food, not from Larsa, anyway.
"So you do have manners when it suits you," Larsa observed wryly. He quickly ducked out of the way as Penelo went to whack him again. By the way his eyes were glittering, it was clearly meant to be a joke, but she wasn't in a good enough mood to take it as such. She was too hungry, too tired, and way too stressed.
"Where are we going now?"
"You handled the magick nicely back there, considering how little you know about it." Her companion pointed to a bookstore across the way. A trellis of green vines crawled up the scuffed stone walls on either side of its solid oak door, and with the way the building was slumping, it looked like it was half a day away from going out of business. Penelo eyed it distrustfully, but Larsa strode forward with confidence, ignoring her hesitance.
When she entered the shop with him, she was pleasantly surprised to find that it looked better inside than it did out. It was a little dusty, not to mention dim, but the place had a bit of charm to it, with its leaning bookshelves, worn rugs with stories threaded into them, and the trinkets placed here and there, either between books, on small tables between the shelves, or hanging from the low ceiling.
A moogle was nestled on a chaise at the far corner of the room, snoozing blissfully, its bon bon bobbing with each snore. There were three stacks of books beside him on the floor, each one higher than the last like a staircase. He had one open on his lap, and it was nearly as big as he was. He was also the sole occupant of the store.
"Mait's Magicks is renown for its spells," Larsa informed her.
"Didn't we pass that one three blocks ago?" She tilted her head in question.
"Yes. This is Augustine's shop, and you will find it to be far less pretentious. Augustine is actually well-versed in magick, and has licenses for spells you can only dream of. He hires no one to help run this place, and he is a bit temperamental… but, as luck would have it, he has no other appointments this day, it seems."
Penelo stayed close to Larsa's back as he ventured up a small set of steps, onto the higher level of the store where the moogle was. Her new clothes still felt stiff, though she knew that once the leather was worn in, it would likely be the most comfortable attire she owned. Until then, she was forced to fidget restlessly as she looked about the shop, spotting some scrolls stuffed into a tall urn, its lid missing and the scrolls themselves covered in ancient lettering.
"Augustine," Larsa said loudly enough that both the moogle and Penelo jumped.
"W-Who's there, kupo?!" The book clattering to the ground, the moogle launched himself to his feet, his tiny fists up like he was actually going to cause someone harm. It took Penelo a half-second to realize that he had a tiny ball of magicite tucked in that fist of his.
"Calm yourself, friend," Larsa replied.
The furry creature blinked several times, peering up at the much taller hume for a long moment. It looked as though he was still clearing sleep from his eyes. After a moment, he relaxed a smidgen, lowering his hands. "Lamont? Is that you, kupo?"
To Penelo's bemusement, the boy bent at the waist in a perfect demonstration of what a bow should be, lifting his head to see the moogle and sweeping an arm out to the side with a grand flourish. She suppressed the urge to snort and crossed her arms instead. This was going to be interesting.
"Indeed it is."
Augustine looked over his shoulder, since Larsa was low enough that the moogle could actually see past him if he stood up on his tiptoes. "Who's the pretty girl?"
At that, Larsa straightened and grasped her hand, tugging her forward. Penelo had to fight from not tripping, an action she wasn't used to, as she wasn't prone to being clumsy. It made her want to smack him again, though this time she refrained. She was restraining herself a lot where Larsa was concerned, a fact that did not escape her notice.
"This is… Elle."
Penelo blinked, keeping the surprise off her face, although barely. Now she was getting an alias? She supposed it made sense, though she didn't have to like it… especially since Larsa had been the one to pick it out.
"I've brought her to you because she showed me an impressive display of magick, and I thought, perhaps, that you might be able to ascertain what field she would be the most proficient in."
She jerked, startled yet again. He… was going to let her learn more magick?
Augustine jumped down from the chaise at that, his tiny wings fluttering, and waddled over to her. She noticed he was of a darker color than the moogles in Rabanastre, something she had never encountered until today. Bhujerban moogles appeared different than their brethren. His bon bon was neon yellow, and his fur was a gray that bordered on purple. She thought it was rather pretty and kept the thought to herself. Moogles didn't like racial differences to be pointed out, which was more than fair. They had enough slurs to deal with without Penelo adding to the pile, unintentionally though it might have been.
Augustine was circling her now, eyeing her up and down. It made her nervous, and her fidgeting grew worse. Larsa kept a tight hold on her hand, like she might bolt if he gave her the chance. As if she had anywhere to run to.
"You worked freeform earlier today, didn't you?" Augustine hopped up a bookshelf to get in her face, making her startle back a step. Pain throbbed through her ankle at the shift in weight. The moogle's mouth pursed in thought, and maybe a little bit of disapproval. His bon bon bobbled judgmentally. "You're crackling, kupo!"
"There was an incident with some fire magicite," Larsa explained smoothly. "It was… somewhat impressive."
"Ku-po, is that so?" If anything, the expression got tighter. Clearly, Augustine didn't like the idea of an amateur working freeform, whatever that meant. "What did she do? Light a candle? A pipe?"
Augustine toppled backwards, flipping top over tail and crashing to the ground. He flipped to his feet a second later, but kept bouncing around like he was on hot sand. "Scathe?" he asked, voice hitting nearly painful pitches. "Kupo! Are you sure?" Larsa nodded, and the moogle did a little jig, circling in place before darting off into the stacks of books, his wings working furiously to keep him afloat.
Things knocked and clattered as he went, path marked by the wobble of the shelves. Every now and then a cry of, "Kupo!" or, "Scathe!" rose up from the depths of the shop.
"What's going on?" Penelo whispered, leaning into Larsa. More crashing made her wince. "Is he going to kick us out?"
"This is just his way," Larsa murmured back, wrapping his arm through hers. "Do not fret."
After a few minutes of banging, Augustine came back loaded down with books, scrolls, and a tiny bag that was stuffed to bursting. The stack was so high it hid even his ears, and he had to walk an odd course to keep everything balanced. He teetered over to a table and up a tiny step ladder, carefully setting the pile down.
"If you've done Scathe freeform and didn't die, you really don't need me to evaluate you, kupo kupo," Augustine said briskly, little hands sorting through the literature and trinkets with expert speed. Books ended up in three piles, and the trinkets in their own. Only one thing was truly set aside, a little leather bag that sounded like it was full of marbles. "You're a black mage, or I'm kupoed."
"What does that mean? Freeform?" Pulling away from Larsa, Penelo risked sliding up to the table. Some of the scrolls looked old, the parchment crackling from disuse. "I've never heard the term before."
Big golden eyes stared up at her, unblinking. Augustine's ears twitched. "It means without a spellstone," he said slowly. "Why don't you tell me what happened, kupo?"
Larsa cleared his throat. "We were—"
"Pardon me, Lamont," Augustine interrupted, keeping his eyes on Penelo, "but I was asking Elle."
Penelo licked her lips. "There's not much to tell," she stuttered, mind racing ahead. She couldn't tell him everything, obviously, but maybe just enough of the truth… "My ankle was hurt, and I didn't have any potions. I'd never tried magick before, but I read a book once about how to use raw magicite to heal, and there was a lamp handy." Shrugging helplessly, she tried smiling at the moogle, whose eyes kept getting bigger and bigger the longer she talked. "So I used the fire magicite to cast Cure, but I guess it got away from me later."
Augustine wobbled on his stool, twirling around unsteadily before plopping his rear on the edge of the table. He bent over, putting his head between his knees and breathing heavily.
She exchanged a worried glance with Larsa, who looked as confused as she was. Reaching down, Penelo patted between Augustine's wings. "Was that wrong?" she asked. "I followed the book's instructions, I'm sure."
"Kupoooooo," Augustine moaned weakly, shaking his head so his yellow bon bon bobbed near his ankles. "You never cast magick, but you soaked up enough power to cast Cure and Scathe. And you're still full of it! That shouldn't be possible, kupo!"
"No, no, kupo—no!" Augustine lifted his head, shaking it hard. He flipped around, reaching for the leather bag and pulling out a polished red marble. "Give me your hand!" Penelo held it out as ordered, only to have the marble shoved into her palm. It was a deep red, flickering softly inside like someone had trapped a candle flame in it. "This is a spellstone, kupo," Augustine said sternly, squeezing her hand closed. "Focus on putting the fire magick in there. You need to get rid of the excess before you burn something up!"
"I don't know how—"
"It's the same thing you did with the magicite, but backwards."
Penelo made a face. That's not helpful, she thought, but the moogle was giving her such a stern look that she had to try. Closing her eyes, she focused on the stone. It was warm, but not too much so, maybe a little warmer than skin but nothing like the heat of the fire magicite. She looked for that burn inside of her—Augustine said she was crackling with it, but she felt completely normal. Tired and sore, and her ankle still ached, but there was no burn, no sizzle of power.
She sighed. "This isn't—"
"Try." It was Larsa's voice this time, coming from just over her shoulder. His hand rested on her elbow, hotter than the spellstone even through his gloves.
Annoyance flared. It was his fault she was even in this mess. He was the reason she was trying to find something that wasn't there, the reason she'd had to use the fire magicite, the reason Therese and those men were dead. If he'd just accepted his guilt and stayed in exile where he belonged, she'd have been at home minding the shop, just like always, and who knew how many people wouldn't be rotting on the plains.
In her palm, the stone grew hotter, until it nearly burned to touch. When she opened her eyes, deep red light shined through her clenched fingers. As she watched, the glow dimmed. Augustine held out the bag, and she dropped the stone inside. The little flicker at its heart had brightened tremendously, looking more like a trapped star than anything else.
"Kupo," Augustine sighed, visibly relaxing. He hung the bag at her hip, on a little notch in her belt that she hadn't even noticed. "That should be most of it. Just don't go near any lamp oil for a few days."
"Could I use the rest to heal my ankle?" Penelo blurted out. The boot, which had seemed like such a good idea at the time, was starting to grow uncomfortably tight. She had a feeling it was starting to swell for real.
Larsa winced, guilt flashing over his face. It had to be an act for Augustine—she refused to believe he could feel anything so honest as guilt. "She hurt it again in the explosion," he said, turning to Augustine. "And I must confess that it slipped my mind in my haste to see you."
Augustine's ears flipped back and forth, as if he could smell the slaven droppings but wasn't sure which part of Larsa's explanation it was coming from. "I don't think that would be wise, kupo," he finally said. "Here, let me." Raising his hands, Augustine twisted them in the familiar gestures of Cure. White light glittered behind Penelo's eyes, and a taste of heavy mint washed over her tongue. Her ankle tingled, and the pressure of the boot loosened.
"There!" Augustine lowered his hands as the light faded. "Better?"
Tentatively, Penelo gave her ankle a twist, then settled her weight on it. It didn't even twinge. "Much better!" She smiled. "Thank you!"
"You're welcome, kupo." He waved her gratitude off and turned back to the books, patting the shortest stack. It was mostly books, but a couple of scrolls sat on top. They were much newer than the others he'd brought, parchment still crisp and pale. "Now, since you're a..." A shiver ran down his body, making his wings flutter. "Kupo, a beginner, you should take these. I'll sell you some basic spells, too. But no more freeform, kupo! It's dangerous!"
"What about the rest of it?" Larsa asked. He picked up something that looked like a chain belt, but it was far too short. Charms hung off of it, jingling with every little motion. "Why did you bring it out?"
Augustine clambered up onto the table to swipe the chain out of Larsa's hands. "Because I didn't know she was a beginner!" he snapped, shaking the thing in Larsa's face. "This is powerful stuff, kupo!"
She giggled at Larsa's expresson, covering her mouth when he shot her a glare. "Come on, Lamont. You know he's right."
"We'll not be in Bhujerba forever, Elle," he shot back. "You'll want to continue your studies while we travel, won't you?"
That made the smile fall off Penelo's face. For a second, she'd forgotten that she was essentially a prisoner. If Larsa was letting her learn magick, it was only because he thought it would be useful to him. Nothing else. "Of course, you're right. I hadn't thought of that." Pasting on a bright expression, she turned back to Augustine. "Could we have the other books, too? If I promise I won't read them before I'm ready?"
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. For a second, Penelo was sure he was going to refuse to sell them anything, but then his little shoulders heaved in a sigh. "Kupo. Fine. But you're going to promise!" One tiny finger shook in her face. "Promise!"
She grabbed the finger and bent down a little to look him in the eye. "I promise that I won't read ahead."
Augustine puffed his cheeks, but settled back down. "Good. Now, do you want a basket? There's a lot of books here, kupo."
Unexpectedly, Larsa pulled a pen from his coat pocket. Grabbing a piece of paper, he scribbled down an address. "Could you have them delivered to our lodgings?" he asked. "We've a few shops yet to attend, and I'd rather not be weighed down."
The moogle's eyebrows rose as he looked at the paper. "Kupo," he whistled. "I can have it delivered there. No problem!"
"Our lodgings?" Penelo asked, peering over Augustine's shoulder, even though the address didn't mean anything to her. "Where is it?"
Larsa smirked. "Somewhere we'll not be troubled during our… vacation."
Chapter 9: Faith Magick
A special thanks to hesteen for beta-ing this chapter for us! Her help is really invaluable. We will always appreciate it!
"Aren't you the least bit worried that maybe something so flashy isn't the best game plan?"
Larsa slid a glance in her direction, then shook his head and set his bags down in the middle of the sitting room Penelo found herself in. They thunked lightly to the ground, a belt full of potions, a burlap bag stuffed with food, fruit mostly by the looks of it, and another satchel, this one with even more potions. Penelo eyed the green vials, her brows knotting. He was miserly to a fault with the things, yet he had a plethora of them…?
"Lord Lamont does not draw much attention to himself. This is a wealthy part of town, yes, but there are far 'flashier'—Penelo, what are you doing?"
She looked up, her hand stuffed inside of the satchel. His potions were on the floor in a safe pile beside her. "What?"
He put his hands on his hips. His brows drew down over his rather prominent nose, making him look very much like a bird. A bird that was doing his best to show her disapproval. "That."
"This?" She raised the bag, her hand still buried in it. "I was seeing if I took out the potions, if more would pop out."
"Why on earth would it do that?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. Just a weird hunch I had." She lifted the bag, spreading the inside with her arms. Looked empty to her. Hm.
Her companion—no, captor she reminded herself—looked like he was having difficulty restraining himself from snatching the bag out of her hands. She turned her back to him, walking with it across the sitting room. Her fingers felt over the seams on the inside, searching for hidden pockets. When her hunch proved fruitless, she puffed out a sigh and tossed the thing back at him.
His glare was glacial as he caught it. "Pray tell me what you were thinking."
"I already told you." Ignoring him for a moment, she mimicked his previous stance and put her hands on her hips as she mused.
Honestly, flashiness aside, it was the nicest dwelling she had ever found herself in. The sitting room alone could have fit both her old bedroom and her parents' in it, along with their dining room. A low table was situated between a chaise, two loveseats, and a large ottoman, all the color of cream with unique turquoise stitching. A throw rug was over a marble floor, plush and comfortable, hints of gold showing here and there amongst the matching cream.
Deep turquoise curtains were draped over the floor-to-ceiling windows, pulled open at the moment and tied with golden ropes, their tassels nearly four inches long. The city sprawled below them from five floors up, wealthier denizens of the floating island promenading in groups of twos and threes, mostly women with beautiful robes. Their darker skin worked well with the fuchsias, ceruleans, and scarlets they had donned. Though the robes were completely different, they made Penelo think of the dress she'd seen back in Nalbina on display in that tailor's shop. The Archadian-styled one that she could have spent all her life saving for and never come close to affording.
Penelo turned, her gaze listing to the bedroom on her left, and the other at her right. Both doors were open, with similar-colored furniture on the inside and plush blankets and pillows, although one was considerably bigger than the other. She supposed that one was to be Larsa's, and she walked inside of it, finding another, smaller room off to the side. It was a bath, by the looks of it, set into the ground with baskets of soaps, magicite, and a pile of fluffy towels encircling it on its edges.
"Wow," she breathed, and her voice echoed off the walls.
She came back into the central sitting room to find two men carrying in more of Larsa's things. He directed them to the room she had just vacated, and she frowned in thought. The rumpled present she'd been deliberately not opening for the past few days was balanced on top of two suitcases. Why wouldn't Larsa just give it up already?
"Elle," he said, and she blinked, realizing he'd been calling that name for several moments now. She turned to him, eyebrows up. Larsa had his arms folded in more disapproval. Surprise, surprise. Why was he so grumpy all of a sudden? She was finding it hard to keep up with his intense mood swings. "I must attend to some errands."
It was his turn to look surprised, although in his case, it was genuine instead of sarcastic. "Pardon?"
"What eeerraaaaands?" she repeated, dragging the vowels out. When he continued to look at her like he was daft, she arched her brows again. "Errands? E-r-r-a-n-d-s?"
His glare returned, even icier than before. She was slightly impressed. "You are not in the habit of questioning my whereabouts. I simply wished to politely inquire as to why."
She noticed that the more pissed off he was, the more stiffly formal his words were, the richer his accent. "Times are changing?" She folded her arms behind her head as she cracked it. Ah, that felt good. "I mean, Lamont, seeing as how we're partners and all…" The men who'd delivered the items were finishing up in Larsa's bedroom, and any moment now, he'd escape with them. "Partners in love, that is." She batted her lashes, now folding her hands at the small of her back and giving him her best sugary sweet smile.
The last thing she wanted was to look suspicious in front of strangers.
Hard green eyes stared at her from under a slightly furrowed brow. Lamont, it seemed, was unamused by her act.
Somewhere in the bedroom, something clunked—maybe a box, maybe one of the workers knocking against a piece of furniture. Whatever it was, the reminder that they weren't alone cleared Lamont's expression. It was like a curtain being drawn and reopened on a changed set—one moment his face was set in harsh annoyance, the next it was taken by his usual jovial smile.
"Perhaps, light of my heart, I wished to find a gift to surprise and delight you." Taking a quick step, he grabbed her left hand and tugged, twirling her under his arm so she ended up nestled against him just as the hired hands reappeared. "Can a man not do that for his lady love?"
Penelo put one hand against Larsa's chest, using it to keep some distance between them. It wasn't enough. Even though he was probably in three or four stiff layers of cloth, she could feel his body against hers, strong and lean and so warm. "Perhaps he can," she said, voice breathier than she'd intended. "And yet, I find myself suspicious."
Larsa chuckled, leaning in until the tips of their noses brushed. "By now, I should think, you should know better than to doubt my sincerity."
The men eyed them tolerantly as they walked past, apparently used to working around besotted lovebirds. The door closed behind with a soft sound.
As soon as it had, Larsa released her hand and unwound his arm from her waist "Excellent instincts," he said brusquely. He abandoned the sitting room for his chosen bedroom, picking a package seemingly at random and digging through it. The items in it were odd, mismatched things: a few small boxes of what seemed to be scraps of cloth, a slender book, and—of all bizarre things—some sheet music. He set it all aside with the exception of one of the boxes, which he pocketed without fanfare. "Not something to startle a man with, but quick thinking, nonetheless."
"I'll remember to warn you next time we have strangers in the room." Crossing her arms, Penelo leaned in the doorway. It really was a beautiful room. Archadian in style, she was pretty sure—Bhujerba seemed a little bit like Dalmasca in some ways, and she'd never seen a bed on a pedestal. "I wasn't kidding about wanting to know where you're going."
"Nor was I about not telling you." He packed away the box again with careful hands, fingers sliding lovingly over the music before tucking it away. "This is a private matter, not of concern to my prisoner."
"Larsa…" A headache started to grow between her temples. It had been a long, impossibly hard day. Fighting with him was the last thing she wanted to do. "I killed those men for you."
His hands faltered. "I am aware of that."
"And you just spent a fortune outfitting me."
"I was there, if you recall." Larsa didn't look her in the eye, but he didn't finish putting the book back in the box. It was the last item, and it just sat in his hands as if he'd forgotten it.
"After all that, don't you think I'm a little more than a prisoner?"
For a moment, he didn't respond. Then, slowly, he tucked the book away, taking more care than the task asked for. "What would you be, then?"
When he looked up, his expression was a mask of carefully controlled blankness. He folded his hands on the table, gloved fingers lacing together. Splatters of dark brown touched the edges of his otherwise snowy cuffs. They were hard to spot until he went still, and then suddenly the stains stood out like a mark of damnation.
Blood, Penelo realized, feeling a little ill. "What?"
"I said, what would you be?" Larsa watched her intently. "You cannot return to your home, and you surely are not here of your own free will. By any measure, you are my captive. What else would you have me call you?"
"I…" Pushing off from the doorframe, she made herself stand upright, still staring at those tell-tale marks. Some of it was from men he'd killed for her, and maybe some was from the men she'd taken down. "I don't…"
Had they bled? She couldn't recall. There hadn't been faces, once the spell was over. Just charred flesh, sweet and sickly in her nose, and the pounding of her heart as she burned them to a crisp. There was still a heat under her skin, soft and simmering, leftover from the magicite. It flared when she thought of it, tingling. Not enough to do it again, but there could be one day. One day there would be more men, more people who wanted Larsa dead, and she'd have the training. She'd—
A gloved hand touched her cheek. Penelo jumped, but Larsa grabbed her arm to keep her from getting too far. "Penelo?" he asked, voice soft with something that she refused to believe could be worry. "I called your name thrice. Are you unwell?"
"Yes, I—" Shaking her head, she pulled away again, and this time he let her. Instantly, she missed the support. Her head still felt light, like it might fly off. "You know what? Never mind. Maybe it's better I stay here after all."
Larsa looked at her like he wanted to call her bluff, but he nodded, anyway. "There are apothecaries nearby. I can have something delivered that will help you sleep."
"I'm fine." Pasting on a smile, Penelo made herself whirl away, back toward her own rooms. There weren't any boxes or such there; Augustine's delivery hadn't arrived yet, and she didn't have anything of her own. It was all back in Rabanastre, along with the rest of her life. "I'll just take a bath or something. Go. Get your errands done. Bring back food."
Still, he hesitated, following her to the door of her bedroom and hovering awkwardly. "You are certain?"
"I am certain," she promised, imitating his accent. Twisting, she collapsed onto the bed. The mattress folded up around her like a dream, thick and soft and heavenly. The blanket felt like it might be made of silk and down, and the mattress was so soft it should have been impossible. "Oh gods, or I might just stay here. Is this how nobles always sleep? On clouds?"
"Title and wealth are not without advantages." A smile tugged at his lips as he watched her rolling about in luxury. "I will return quickly, then. Be well, Penelo." Nodding to her, he turned and left her to her wallowing. A moment later, she heard the door shut.
It only occurred to her after he'd been gone a full ten minutes that neither of them had considered that she might attempt an escape while he was away.
"…and you surely are not here of your own free will…"
Had he simply forgotten to lock the door? Was it a test? Did he want her to escape? These thoughts and more flooded her brain, and she got up from the bed, though most reluctantly, and headed to the door, touching it. For a long moment, she stood there, debating.
This was her moment. She could get out of here! Find help, say she'd been kidnapped by a crazed Solidor lunatic. They'd have to listen to her, they'd take her home to her parents. But then she remembered the magick she'd freed from herself, how she'd let it loose on those men, how they'd spent an afternoon with Augustine discussing how she was a black mage, as if this was something to be proud of, not terrified of…
Word would be spreading from those who had survived that Larsa had a female accomplice. And when they found her, they would kill her. As instantly as they had would Larsa.
She shook her head, dreading that thought. No. They'd barely had time to look at her, and she was a petite, blonde Dalmascan, same as thousands of others. To think that if she got out from under Larsa's thumb and made it home, that those people would recognize her, hunt her down? Not only was that flirting with disaster, it was madness.
Her fingers stayed curled around the huge, golden curved handle on the door.
Why was she hesitating?
He'd kidnapped her! Yet no matter how many times she told herself that, and no matter how much she knew it was true, for some reason, that argument was growing weak. And outside of the aerodome, when he'd called her his partner… Yes, she'd reacted defensively, but deep down inside, where she refused to acknowledge existed until this very moment, she had been a bit… thrilled.
She took a step back from the door, then another. It was a trap, she told herself. The second she left the room, he'd be waiting for her to snatch her back up and tie her back to a chair this time. Trying to escape now would just be a waste of time, and make him insufferably smug. No, she wouldn't be so easily fooled. She'd find a better way of getting free, one that didn't involve a constant stream of humiliation.
That decided, she clasped her hands together and edged toward Larsa's bedroom. She'd take a bath, wipe this… filth… off her, and wait for Augustine's packages to arrive so she could get a good read in before Larsa returned. As much as she'd hated what her magick had done to those people, the possibility of being powerful had its lure. Maybe that would be her ticket out of here, as she'd originally intended before Therese had been murdered so brutally.
She frowned in thought. He sure was playing with fire, wasn't he? Teaching her magick to help him, but at the risk that she might use it against him once she mastered it? Or did he, perhaps, think that by the time she'd understood the nature of the magick that she would want to be his partner?
In your dreams, Larsa.
The hot water soaked into her bones like nothing else, creating the most blissful experience she'd ever been blessed with. Of course she'd had baths before, but nothing could compare to this. Not when she'd so desperately needed it, needed to be clean and shiny and good as new again. She even soaked her hair, grateful for the small bottles of sweet-scented liquid to wash the golden strands.
It was only when she was resurfacing from this that she saw the water had turned a little pink. She didn't understand it at first, not until she had a flicker of memory of when she was nine. Reks had carried her to her mother while she bawled, her knee scraped badly. Emilie had used a soft cloth to dab the grit out of the wound first, and when she dipped it into the basin of water at her side, that water had started turning pink.
So it had gotten on her, after all…
There wasn't very much. Likely, it had only been flecks, which would explain why no one had been ready to call the guards at the sight of her. She mulled on that, pulling her long hair over her shoulder and massaging the strands, making sure the soap got in deep. It was almost like the perfume her father got her mother on special occasions, done up in a pretty glass bottle with a glass cork, a little thicker, but just as aromatic. Penelo was used to taking a thick bar of harsh soap to her hair.
How easily her thoughts drifted from what had happened to her.
But she couldn't help it. Lingering on what had happened to those imperials was just depressing her, and Penelo was not a person who tolerated depression. She turned her nose up at this line of thought, closing her eyes and massaging her scalp to spread the liquid soap easily.
The word whispered insidiously at the back of her mind. She actually hesitated, licking her lips. It… wouldn't be such a bad idea, would it? Maybe if she got Larsa to believe that she really wanted to be partners, she could ditch him once she'd won over his trust. On the downside to that, however, was the distinct possibility that they ran into trouble again, and repeated sightings with Larsa really would result in her death warrant.
There was no easy way out of this. As much as she didn't want to believe it, her hands were as stained as his. Could she really go back home, even if she was safe from imperial decree, knowing that deaths lurked over her head like a constant black cloud? Could she look into her mother's smiling face and pretend that she was still that innocent, no-nonsense girl? The answer was no, and the bitter disappointment of that was a sinking stone in her belly.
In some moments, she really hated Larsa. She hated herself more because she'd been the one to stay when he'd told her to run.
Growling at the dangerous turn her thoughts had taken, Penelo ducked her head down under the water and held her breath. Her hair rose up around her, tickling her cheeks as it floated to the surface. Little noises became all-encompassing—a tap of sound when she touched the edge of the tub, someone's footsteps outside, the splash of water when she moved. Even her heartbeat seemed louder.
She stayed down until her lungs ached and her head felt like it might explode and the confusion had been pushed down by a slow boiling need for air. In a rush, she burst out of the water, taking a deep, gasping breath. Her head swam, and as much as it was her own fault, it felt good. Blank. The confusion and worry was still there, but they'd been forced back a ways.
Once she felt steady enough, she climbed out of the bath, wringing her hair until it wouldn't leave a puddle and wrapping it in a towel before wrapping herself in another. They were so large that she was covered from breast to knees, and soft as a kitten's fur. Hanging on the wall next to the towels was a set of robes, both of them the same cream and turquoise as the rest of the suite.
Penelo eyed them thoughtfully as she finished drying herself. It couldn't hurt, could it? Larsa wasn't going to be taking her anywhere. There was nothing wrong with her clothes; she could go back to wearing them easily. They were good, solid leather, and still relatively clean. But they were fighting clothes, not something to relax in.
If I'm going to be stuck here, I might as well enjoy myself, she told herself resolutely. She slipped into the smaller one, thumb running across the collar. It felt like silk, but thicker. Whatever it was, it was soft and warm.
Being kidnapped was quickly turning into the most luxurious thing that had ever happened to her.
Her abandoned clothing, she left in her own room, draped over the foot of the bed to await her need. The wet towels were more difficult; she'd never been in a rented room. After a bit of consideration, she left them by the bath tub to deal with later.
Then, she went on the prowl.
Larsa's rooms were unlocked, and still stacked with odds and ends. There were at least ten different boxes of all sorts of things, in addition to what seemed to be his personal luggage. Carefully, Penelo pried open the one that Larsa had been interested in before leaving.
Her hopes of finding a clue about his supposed errands proved fruitless. The contents of the box were interesting purely for their seemingly random nature: the sheet music she'd noted was old but not ancient. The song written on it was nothing special—just a lullaby of some sort, written out in a fair, curving hand. A well-loved book of poems, place marked with a fading red and black ribbon. Then there was a box of sea shells, the sort that could be picked up along the Nebra for anyone with an eye and time. Another box held a brass apple that shed flakes of dry red paint when she moved it even the slightest. Yet another had a simple golden chain, with no marking or pendant.
The next box was more of the same, and the one after, and the one after. At one point she found herself staring at a pouch of dirt. Bits of something glittered in it, but it was just plain old dirt. She put it back and closed the lid, making a face.
So much for that brilliant idea.
In the course of her poking about, she'd wandered closer to the bed. Larsa's bed was identical to hers, even the same size for all that his room was larger. The gift from before had been set carefully on it near the pillow. It felt like a taunt.
Thoughtfully, she sat down on the bed, folding her legs together as she stared at the box. It wasn't a small package; it took up the length of her entire arm, and was deep enough to hold almost anything. Over the course of their travels, it had acquired some dirt stains, and the bright red silk wrapping had torn in a few places to reveal the white pasteboard underneath. What had once been a stiff, proud gold ribbon sagged. It had been a little under a week since she'd first seen it, but it was certainly the worse for wear.
That thought tugged at her, made her pause. Had it really only been that long? She'd only spent three days with Therese. It felt like a lifetime, like she should have been an old maid twice over.
Her fingers ran over the silk, feeling the grit that had caked onto once-delicate fabric.
The gift was hers, given and rejected before she'd known him as anything other than a pompous, annoying customer. She'd thought it was only meant to buy her affections, but he'd cared enough to take it with him all the way to Bhujerba. He could have turned around and given it to any pretty girl that caught his eye, someone who wouldn't mind taking a roll with him and then waving him off. But no, he'd kept it for her. She couldn't deny that the thought made her heart speed.
When a man's give ye a gift, ye don' refuse 'til ye know what's what about it.
"Maybe it's time I find out what's what, then," Penelo murmured to herself. Moving fast, before her better judgment could catch up to her, she grabbed the ribbon and yanked. It unfurled in a shining golden length, the inside still clean and new. Underneath, the scarlet wrapping had been carefully folded so no stitchery was needed to hold it together. She plucked at it until she found the right fold to tug, and the whole thing came unraveled before her.
Nerves gripped her stomach, threatening to crawl up into her throat and nest there. Her fingers hovered over the lid. "Come on, Penelo, it's just a box," she told herself sternly. The empty room was the only thing there to listen.
Bracing herself, she grabbed the lid and lifted.
Yards and yards of shining turquoise met her eyes, touched with white and gold. It was the gown, the one she'd seen in the tailor's shop. Or, on second glance, not the exact one—touches of gold and pearls had been added to the bodice, and the sleeves were a slightly different drape, but the resemblance was clear. Her hands shook as she lifted the gown, only to find a corset and snowy underskirt beneath. There were even shoes, delicate dancing slippers in the same shade of blue.
She didn't realize she was crying until a tear dripped onto her wrist. Hastily she scrubbed at her eyes with the sleeve of her robe, but the tears wouldn't stop.
It said something about her state that she didn't even jump at Larsa's voice. "Why?" she asked, voice wobbly and thick with emotion. "Was this— why?"
The gown was silk, and pearls, and cloth of gold, and she didn't deserve anything so fine. Every inch of her was a merchant's daughter, from the top of her head down to the soles of her feet. Even touching it fresh from a bath felt like she was dirtying something precious.
Larsa watched her from the doorway, the line of his mouth soft. "It was to be a birthday gift," he answered quietly. "I had hoped to win your attentions enough to escort you to a palace fete before I left Rabanastre."
A rock lodged in her throat. It had to be a rock. Her heart couldn't hurt so much. "Is that all?" Penelo asked. "No scheme? No pirate business?"
She could tell what the answer was by the way his shoulders stiffened. "Not such you would be involved, or even know."
The rock in her throat sank to her stomach. "Right," she said bitterly. "Of course." For just a second, she'd hoped...
But she should have known better than to think like that. He was a pirate, a Solidor, and anything nice he'd ever done for her had been for an ulterior motive. It was easy to forget, but she couldn't let herself. Not again.
Suddenly, his fingers had an iron grasp around her wrist, snatching it up while his other hand jerked her chin up so she had to look at him. She frowned, immediately beginning to struggle, but something in his eyes gave her pause. His grip loosened only a little on her, enough that he wasn't pinching off the circulation anymore, yet where she wouldn't be able to break free easily.
"Let me go," she said.
His fingertips gentled on her chin. "Do you remember when you asked me to eat dinner with you?" When she didn't immediately answer, his grip tightened again, and he pressed on, "At your parents' house, when you were trying to spite your friend."
She could still remember the subsequent trip she'd had to make to the sewers, the way Vaan hadn't wanted to look at her just like she didn't want to look at Larsa right now. Her heart was pounding so quickly, like a trapped bird. She didn't know why. She just despised that he could make her feel like this, even after everything that had happened.
"What about it?" she finally said, because Larsa clearly expected an answer.
"The fete I intended to escort you to is not for weeks. Queen Ashelia is out of the city, the country even."
"So…" He leaned in closer until he was more on her eye level, and when she tried to back away, he wouldn't let her, his fingers turning almost bruising. She winced, but he didn't seem to care, bringing his lips to the corner of her mouth, letting them hover there. Like this, she could catch his scent. It was intoxicating, a spicy blend of lingering desert and the Bhujerban streets. "Until that time, I would have had weeks to court you, to win your favor."
Despite her ire, Penelo's cheeks burned crimson. "What does that have to do with me asking you out?"
He tsked very softly, somehow making shivers dart up her spine. As if reading her thoughts, he released her face to settle a hand at the small of her back, his large hand resting against the line of her vertebrae. "If you wanted to have time with me alone, without any ulterior motives, then why did you take it back?"
Checkmate, she thought weakly.
"I guess you think you're pretty clever," she whispered. "Backing me into a corner like this. So I'll have no choice but to say something like—" She lifted her voice into a falsetto. "Oh, Larsa, you're so right, I never should have taken it back."
At last, he released her, but the amused smirk on his face was not to her liking. "Nothing of the sort. You deem yourself to be a very logical person. Therefore, I was applying logic to the game of cat and mouse your mind constantly seems to run around in. If you don't like the logic much, well… do not look so sad at our turn of events."
Pressing her lips together, Penelo looked back at the gown. It was still too much, too expensive for someone like her, but the gesture had to mean something. Didn't it? Maybe only that he thought she was pretty enough to court for a few weeks before moving on, but she supposed that when a few weeks was all he had, it wasn't so bad.
"What are you going to do with me?" The question slipped out before she could catch it.
Larsa drew back, obviously startled. "What do you mean?"
What do I mean? There was something that had been bouncing around in her head all day, ever since her fingertips had lit up with flames in his defense. She kept her head down, not ready to look up at him just yet. "Before you left, you asked me what I would be, if I didn't want to be a prisoner."
In the corner of her eye, she saw his head incline in a wary nod. "I did. And you did not answer."
"Because it's not for me to answer." Gently, Penelo started to bundle the gown and its trappings back into the box, careful not to crease anything. Whatever the gift meant, she'd figure it out later, when her head wasn't buzzing with too many thoughts and not enough words. "I'm your captive. You said it—you keep saying it. I can't be anything if you'll only let me be that."
When she looked up, Penelo could tell she'd scored a point. His cheeks had gone pale, and he'd clenched his hands together to keep them still. Larsa stared down at the dress as she boxed it back up, as if he weren't quite sure what it meant either. "You killed those men for me."
The corner of Penelo's mouth twitched. "I'm aware of that."
"And I have just spent a fortune outfitting you."
Her smile got a little wider. "I was there."
Humor flashed through his green eyes for a brief moment before his expression turned serious again. "I would like for you to be my partner. If you would."
"Your partner," Penelo repeated slowly, eying him thoughtfully. It wasn't like she hadn't expected it. He could have just bought her a simple dress to replace her old, worn clothes. Instead he'd outfitted her in ridiculously strong protective gear, and armed her to boot. That wasn't the sort of thing a pirate did for his hostage. "Really?"
"Yes." Larsa's face could have been used as a writing board, it was so blank.
Nudging the box out of the way, Penelo turned and sat on the edge of the bed, leaning back on her heels to stare up at him. Her bare knees peeked out from under her robe, making it a little too obvious what she wasn't wearing under it, but there was no help for that. "You don't know what else to do with me, do you?"
"I may have acted hastily, yes."
Still no expression, no clue to what he was thinking. Penelo imagined he was squirming inside, hopefully humiliated by his lack of foresight. It would have been nice to see it though. What kind of pirate kidnapped someone without any idea what to do with them?
A really bad one. One she wasn't sure she wanted to ally herself with. "I'll think about it."
There it was, a spark of annoyance peeking through the façade. He glared at her, brow ever so slightly scrunched in a way that made him look all of twelve years. "You are the one who asked!"
"Yes, and now that I know I need to think about it." Using her index finger, Penelo poked the center of his surprisingly firm stomach until he backed off a step, enough to give her room to rise without flashing anything. "You're a pirate and a Solidor, and you did kidnap me. I've got a right to be suspicious."
Larsa stepped aside so she could head for the door. Somewhere out there, she smelled something faintly meaty, and heavily spiced—food.
Just as she hit the door, she heard a soft, "I would think you would have more faith in me."
Penelo paused, throat suddenly tight. Too many thoughts crowded her head. Before any of them could escape and cause any more damage, she took that final step, and let his bedroom door close behind her.
Larsa didn't join her for dinner.
Penelo thought that suited her fine as she dipped meats in spices she'd never tried before, leaving empty skewers on a small plate. She ate with her robe on, comfortable in its fluffiness. Her mind wandered. Though she'd kept a smug attitude about the partnering business, deep in her stomach, nerves clenched. After all, saying she was considering becoming his partner and actually doing it were two different things entirely.
But the fact of the matter was, she'd saved him. She'd killed for him.
She hadn't had to.
She'd been given an out.
Irritated with the circle her thoughts kept going in, she shook her head and went to her room to dress. Night was falling, so she chose a thin slip of pretty white cotton. The practical part of her thought it was asking to get filth all over it. But she wasn't used to riches, and she might as well enjoy it while she could. There was no point in doing otherwise.
By that time, she was curious as to Larsa's whereabouts. She'd left him sulking long enough.
A quick peek through a crack in his door revealed that the room was empty. However, after a moment of straining her ears, she caught the faint sounds of splashing coming from the bathing room. Biting her lip, she took three careful steps into the room, glad that the carpet muffled her trespassing. There was no way Larsa's hearing wasn't keen after years on the run.
Once she'd made it halfway through the room, she chanced a glance into the bath chamber. His back was turned to her, and she watched as he rose from the depths of the water. It ran in rivulets down his back, tracing muscle and lightly tanned skin from their trek through the desert. Seeing it made her remember, for some insane reason, the kiss they'd last shared at Therese's.
Her cheeks heating, she backed slowly from the door, then scooted over to his bed. Before she could think better of it, she pulled the silky sheets back and climbed down beneath the brocaded blanket. She yanked them over her head, her heart pounding hard against her ribs as she waited for him to finish his bath.
It took forever. She wondered how his skin hadn't pruned. Whenever that happened to her, she washed up quickly. Wrinkled skin felt weird.
At last, the smell of soap wafted toward her, even through the thick blanket. Larsa's footsteps started forward, paused. Likely, he saw the new lump on his bed that hadn't been there before his bath. The pause stretched into infinity; Penelo thought her nerves were about to explode. No sound permeated her senses, so when his hand landed on the pillow above her head, she jumped about a foot off the bed.
How did he do that?!
"This is not your bed." Impatience colored the words. Still sulking, then.
"You're right. It's not." Penelo made a point of snuggling in more, using the blankets to hide her face. She didn't know what had gotten into her. There was poking the wild saurian, and then there was climbing into its mouth pre-seasoned. Have I gone insane?
Larsa shoved the pillow again, harder, making her head bounce. "Remove yourself."
The weight on the pillow didn't move at all. She could feel Larsa's eyes boring into her. Squinching her eyes closed, Penelo endeavored to stay as still as possible, barely even breathing lest he try and manhandle her out of the bed.
Yes. Yes, she had gone insane.
But she remembered the drip of water down his back, the smooth slide of skin over toned muscle, and her mouth went dry. It wasn't that she wanted something to happen. That would be ridiculous and self-defeating. He was a Solidor, and a pirate, and Penelo was pretty sure he'd tumbled more girls than she'd lived in years. Only an idiot would want anything to do with him romantically, no matter how handsome he was. Tempting him would be a disaster.
Which didn't at all explain why she was curled up in his bed, wearing only a thin shift. With Larsa looming above her. And no escape.
When he came to the realization that she wasn't moving, Larsa let out a heavy sigh. The light shining through the cracks in her cover vanished, and she felt the bed dip. "Shift over. I'm not sleeping on the edge of my own bed."
Slowly, Penelo edged down the blanket to peer at him. The room was nearly pitch black, what little light there was coming from the window. She could make out the shape of a Larsa-shadow sitting on the edge of the bed, limned in the weak silvery-blue glow of the magicite mines in the distance.
He hadn't put on a shirt.
Penelo swallowed hard and moved over.
Larsa slipped into the available room, pulling the blankets up over his bare chest. He didn't make a move to touch her, or even to crowd her off the mattress. Not a single cold toe made its way across the invisible line dividing the bed. No wandering hands, no liberties. Just two people sharing space.
Disappointed for no reason she could name, Penelo turned her back to Larsa. Sleep. She was going to sleep, and it would be the best sleep she'd had since she'd been knocked out and dragged away from everything she'd ever known. There would be no thoughts about the man in bed next to her and the sharp cut of his collarbone, or the smooth curve of his freshly-shaven jaw.
None at all.