"Driver! Faster, if you please. I would be loathe to expend any of the violence in my present mood on my companions."
The cabbie obliged without a word, bringing them up to maximum speed. The force of their forward motion pressed Balthier's head into the back of his seat; he closed his eyes and let momentum take its course. He could feel the fires of Vaan's curiosity burning on the other side of the cab, but for once he felt not at all like answering the boy's questions.
A fool, that's what he'd been. A fool to trust Jules, to think that a sack of coin and a handful of chops would be enough to buy the streetear's silence, or at least the pretense of loyalty for a few hours. He should have known that Jules would have his fingers in the Rozarrian honeypot. Balthier wondered what Jules's total haul for the day might be. Playing both sides was a clever strategy, indeed, bound to maximize profits, assuming one didn't wind up dead for their trouble. He thought he might cheerfully escort Jules into that death with his bare hands, were the opportunity to present itself. If only the fellow weren't so damned useful.
But done was done; no use wasting these next few moments in recriminations when he should be using the time to prepare for Draklor and all that faced him there. Fortunate that Vaan had learned to wade through the muck that was Archadian information-peddling well enough to buy passage -- although somewhat unlikely, as well. There were people in Old Archades who would be lucky to see five chops in their entire lifetimes, and here Vaan had collected near twice that many in a single afternoon. Balthier permitted his eyes to open a crack, then turned his head sideways to consider the boy. Vaan slouched against the wall of the cab, his feet lazily kicked out into the aisle, the anticipation in his eyes belying the casual posture, looking nothing like the sort of young, bored aristocrat who might normally grace that seat. Balthier's hand drifted down to cover his vest pocket, the pair of sandalwood chops that rested there evident through the heavy brocade. They had been his ticket to safety and status, once; now they weighted him down like a handful of lead shot, but he didn't dare give them up. One never knew when some extra influence might come in handy, much as he might loathe taking advantage of it.
The cab slowed down, and Balthier snatched his hand away. As he did so, he opened his eyes fully and noted Fran, seated on his left, watching him. She raised an eyebrow, but he paid her no heed. Draklor awaited him, a far more oppressive symbol of his father's legacy than two small pieces of wood. Best to concentrate on more important things.
The skies were clear from Archades to Balfonheim -- "Too clear," Balthier muttered, just loud enough for Fran and only Fran to hear. "Almost as though they wanted us to escape, the old man clearing us a path to follow him back into Jagd. It would be like him to lead us around Ivalice by the nose."
"You really think that's his plan?" Vaan's voice piped in from behind, and Balthier started. It appeared he hadn't spoken as quietly as he'd intended, or perhaps it was only that Vaan's ears had gotten sharper in Archades. Balthier risked a glance over his shoulder, looking for any sign of it on Vaan's face, but no -- he could see no evidence that any of the petty intrigues that Vaan had furthered touched him in any way. The boy faced forward, as he always faced forward. Balthier felt a stab of envy, and the chops lay heavier in his pocket than ever before.
"Perhaps." He tossed the word back to Vaan, tone more offhand than he felt. "Vaan, check on the stores in the back, will you? I didn't have time to secure them for the landing, before."
"Right." Vaan disengaged himself from the seat and hopped into the aisle, and Balthier returned his attention to the flight path. Keeping one hand on the controls, he used the other to pull a chop free of his pocket. He worried the long, narrow block between his fingers, the edges worn smooth from years of carrying it around like a talisman, whether of good or ill omen he was never sure.
Fran cast him a sidelong glance. "You step off the path your father laid for you, and always it finds you again. Perhaps this will teach you not to run from fate."
Balthier snorted. "And when did you start believing in fate?"
With an enigmatic smile, Fran looked forward again. "The aerodrome lies ahead. Best to put away the trinket and use both hands to pull us into dock."
Balthier dropped down into a chair at the Whitecap Wench, with somewhat less grace than he was accustomed to displaying; it had been a long day, with many more yet to come. The rest of their party had stayed in Reddas's manse, eating a meal prepared for them by his household chef, but Balthier was in no mood to make small talk with another failed-Judge-turned-pirate, preferring an escape to the best tavern in town. Being in a room free of aristocracy should have cheered him, but so far, rubbing elbows with the glorious unwashed had only increased his bitterness. He motioned over the waitress, Lizzi; she caught his eye with a smile and stopped by the bar before waltzing to the table, a pint of his preferred already on her serving tray. A thoughtful gesture, although had he been given a chance to order, he might have selected something stronger.
"Welcome back to Balfonheim. You want the usual?" She set the mug down with a wink and a leer.
He shook his head without meeting her eyes. Lizzi was a pretty girl, always enthusiastic, but the mere thought of her brand of enthusiasm exhausted him tonight. "Just a light dinner, if you please, for two."
Her smile dimmed. "Fran joining you?"
"Yes, in a moment." Balthier set a coin on the table, its denomination rather larger than his request would require. The tip worked its magic; Lizzi's eyes lightened as she palmed the coin, then returned to the kitchen. Balthier might have imagined the extra swing to her hips as she walked away, but probably not. Lizzi was one to make sure that every man in the room knew what he was missing.
Fran passed the waitress in the aisle and settled into the other chair at the table. Balthier acknowledged her with a nod, then looked away, out over the harbor, its waters glowing golden in the setting sun. Once again, he pulled the chop from its hiding place and toyed with it, tapping it against the table as he stared into the distance and drank his ale. They did not speak, and Balthier barely moved until Lizzi's return. She delivered Fran a glass of water and presented Balthier with his second beverage before setting a light plate -- grilled fish, greens, a slice of bread -- in front of each of them. He looked up to acknowledge her, and then his attention was caught by a newcomer to the tavern: Vaan, stepping through the door and looking around, a picture of wide-eyed innocence as always.
Fran took a nibble of fish, then looked at Balthier.
"You're brooding," she said. "And it is more than just your father." She nodded to the chop in his hands. "Many memories weigh on you tonight." She turned to follow his gaze, noted Vaan working the room, chatting up people as he went. "Or perhaps it is jealousy that works against your spirit?"
Balthier considered a denial, but Fran knew him far too well for him to have a prayer of getting away with that. "The boy has a talent for getting people to like him. Watch him now -- everyone talks to him, whether they want to or not. Not to mention the way he got involved in this journey in the first place." Fran chuckled, and Balthier sat back in his chair. "I do envy, perhaps, the ease with which he slips into a new role as circumstances require him. Fighter, leader, politician, spy. It's a gift."
"Envy, or recognition?" Fran's eyes widened, just a touch.
"Both, naturally." Balthier set the chop on the table and speared a leaf of lettuce with his fork. Vaan was standing by the window, conversing with a Viera; once he had finished, he turned and caught Balthier's eye. Balthier raised a hand in greeting, and Vaan crossed the room toward them. He stood at the edge of the table, looking awkward, until Fran reached for an empty chair and pulled it to her side, its legs clattering against the stone floor.
Vaan sat, propping his elbows against the tabletop. "Missed you guys at dinner. Is the food better here?" He looked at their plates, and then his eyes landed on the chop by Balthier's empty mug. "Hey, is that a chop?"
"Mm." Balthier picked it up, holding it out on his palm for Vaan to inspect. "Once my most prized possession, if you can believe that."
"Crazy." Vaan leaned forward and ran a finger along one edge. "It's a lot nicer than the ones I got." He sat up. "How many do you have?"
"Of the sandalwood? Two. And perhaps two dozen of the pine, not counting the ones I need to steal back from Jules the next time I see him."
Vaan laughed, then shook his head. "I don't understand Archades at all. How can those things be so valuable?"
Balthier snorted. "Those things, as you call them, represent knowledge, and among the gentry, knowledge is power. Dalmasca and Rozarria are the same, and anyone who claims otherwise is deluded or lying. Archades simply has a more tangible way of trading that power." He held the chop up, its burnished wood capturing the rays of the setting sun. "And the chops have a sort of beauty, if you know the stories they tell. Some of the nobles have them carved, you see, with their seal or sigil. And sometimes a new owner will write over the markings of the previous one. They tell a story, these markings."
"A story?" Vaan's brow furrowed. "Like, what kind of story?"
For a moment, Balthier said nothing, rubbing his thumb along the smoothed edge of the carving. "Take this chop. It tells the story of a boy whose mother wanted him to have a leg up in the world, of a boy with two older brothers and a father wrapped up in politics and research, of a sickly woman who knew that she might not have much time with her son. My mother, Artemesia Alanthas Bunansa, who inherited this chop from her father who inherited it from his, presented it to me when I was still rather young. Anyone able to read the markings can see that this chop is nearly as old as Archades itself, and it gave me entry to reaches of society that my brothers could not touch, then."
He bowed his head and set the chop back on the table. He never spoke of his mother; even Fran had not known this story, until now. He glanced up and saw she was watching him with clear eyes. She favored him with a sad smile. "And the other?" she asked.
"Ah, the other." Balthier reached back into his pocket and pulled the second chop free. This chop was not as polished as the first, although the underlying wood was of higher quality. "This I earned not by birthright, but in much the same way you acquired your chops, Vaan: by trading information, person to person. It took nearly a month, but I carried enough rumors and curried enough favor, and the chop was mine. My father was proud enough to get it carved with a sigil created especially for me; see this mark at the bottom?" He turned the short end toward Vaan, who closely examined the offering, then nodded. "My initials, stylized by an artisan hand-chosen by my father to commemorate the occasion. Quite a thing to be celebrated, eh? I'd learned how to lick the right boots."
Vaan flinched, and Balthier cursed his indelicacy -- the boy had been so pleased with his accomplishment, and he'd just insulted it in no uncertain terms. He gathered up the chops, closed his hand around them. "And perhaps now you've a better insight into why I left that place without a backwards glance."
"Yeah. I guess so." Vaan shifted in his chair.
Looking into Vaan's face, seeing the twin burdens of insecurity and defiance, was like looking into a mirror of the past, and Balthier's voice softened. "You navigated treacherous waters in enemy territory, as every pirate must. No matter what or where those waters be. It was well-done."
Vaan shrugged, half-smiled. "It was kind of fun, really. Talking to all those people, hearing their stories, helping them out. Even if they were Archadians."
Easy enough for the boy to say, Balthier thought; he hadn't spent his entire life surrounded by those petty people and their petty intrigues. Vaan had been able to float above at all, carrying messages without getting hands or feet dirty. Balthier would bet every chop he'd ever possessed that no one had asked Vaan to share his opinion on a situation, to choose sides, to spread innuendo about a friend or an enemy. Perhaps Vaan could treat the chop trade like a game, an adventure; to the Archadian nobility, it was serious. Sometimes deadly serious -- Balthier had seen enough duels, poisonings, and mysterious disappearances to last several lifetimes. He took another pull of ale, then set the mug down hard. Vaan would never understand, he--
Fran made a soft noise that broke through Balthier's thoughts, and he turned, twisting his head to look up at her. "What is it?"
"You say you left without a backwards glance." Fran raised an eyebrow.
Balthier crossed his arms and lowered his brows, glaring at the partner who clearly knew him too well for comfort. "I take it you're questioning my assertion?"
Vaan leaned over the table, his expression thoughtful. "You do seem pretty bitter for someone who never looked back."
Balthier looked at Vaan, then back at Fran, then sat back in his chair, tightening his hand around the chops, their carvings biting into his palm. Just past the point of pain, he opened his fingers and looked down; the imprint of his mother's family sigil had formed on the surface of his skin and, next to it, the image of his former initials. FMB. An identity he'd thought long-since discarded, but no: a single visit to Archades and he had branded himself anew.
He closed his hand again, more loosely this time; he twitched his wrist, and the pieces of wood rattled lightly in their enclosure. "You may be right," he murmured with a glance to Fran. He slipped his hand into his pocket and let the chops fall to the bottom, their weight somehow lesser than before. He glanced up, caught Vaan's eye. "And I know you are. I left Archades in search of adventure; 'twould be fitting if I could look at returning as another." He extracted another coin from his vest and called out to the waitress. "Lizzi! Another round, if you please." She acknowledged him with a nod, and he turned back to the table. "So, shall we plot our next move? Vaan, perhaps you might have learned something of use in the city. Tell me of the tales you carried."