It was the kind of seaside weather that made for a perfect Balfonheim afternoon: balmy temperatures, wide blue skies highlighted by a few streaks of cloud, a light breeze wafting off the bay. Al-Cid Margrace stood on the balcony of his villa and stretched, arching his back to let the warm sunshine fall on his bare chest, enjoying the tranquil moment and his private view of the ocean. He had purchased this house, well-hidden at the end of a disused alley, some years ago. Officially, it was a rental property, lent to bored aristocrats who wanted to play at being pirates for a few days. His investment here, along with similar real estate holdings in Archades, Bhujerba, Rabanastre, and other small port cities throughout both Empires, made a good cover for his many trips to these foreign lands. Not to mention providing a tidy income, which he used to fund the travel itself as well as the sundry expenses incurred in maintaining a network of informants. It was not a cheap hobby, he thought, with a rueful chuckle to himself. This trip would likely cost him a pretty penny.
A soft noise came from the bedroom behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder at the girl sleeping in the bed: Esme, his bird at the Whitecap. She had been among the first of his flock to live outside Rozarria, and the very first Archadian to earn his trust. Like most of his informants, she was a barmaid, well placed to glean tidbits from the men and women passing through their establishments. He suspected, after all their years together, that Esme might continue to share information, not to mention his bed, even if he stopped keeping her in style; he chose not to risk it, but the thought was comforting.
No such comfort in the prospect of his final tryst of the day. Rianne, his newest girl, and perhaps the most dangerously placed, would meet with him tonight, assuming the transport he had arranged from Archades sufficient to her needs. He would have preferred to visit her, both to keep her safe and to connect with the other birds nesting in that city, but tensions between the two powers had ratcheted up to the point that he feared for his life in the heart of the Archadian Empire, even disguised. So he had purchased a cabin on the finest touring airship, sparing no expense, using funds that appeared to come from a wealthy privateer. Her story and documents should stand up to scrutiny; Al-Cid had no serious concerns on that account. He did wonder, though, whether she would find travel under threat of exposure wearying -- or exciting. The high spirits she had shown on their first meeting, six months ago, led him to suspect the latter, but a new bird was always a flight risk.
"Al-Cid?" The soft sound of Esme's footsteps came up behind him, and a pair of thin, tanned arms twined around his waist. He leaned against her, felt her nipples press into his back, and he sighed with contentment as her left hand stroked his chest. "Why are you up?"
He turned around and kissed her. "Apologies, my dear. I failed in the last task I set for myself, and am therefore distracted by disappointment, along with your news of Reddas's worrisome disappearance."
"Is it that, or is it a new girl?" She twined a hand in his hair and began to trail kisses along his throat. "You always worry yourself into a state when you're making plans to meet one."
Al-Cid chuckled, then gasped as Esme softly sucked on the hollow of his shoulder. "You know me too well."
"Well enough to know how to relax you." She looked up at him, brown eyes sparkling. "Now let me take you back to bed."
He brooked no argument as she took his hand and led him back inside the villa.
Dusk was falling when Al-Cid was awakened by a rap on the door. Disentangling himself from Esme's embrace, he slid out of bed and into his pants, then opened the door to the expected sight of Martina, his sunglasses in one hand and a goblet of port in the other. He took the wine and sipped it before silently shutting the door behind him and following Martina into the sitting room. "It's time?"
"Yes." Martina indicated a freshly pressed shirt lying on the couch. "Your clothes are ready, my lord. Anything else you require?"
She spoke Rozarrian, and Al-Cid responded in kind as he swept her into an embrace. "You have, as always, served me perfectly." He kissed her, the sweetness of the port mingling with a peppery scent on her breath; the combination was heady, and he breathed deep. He sometimes wondered whether he might love Martina. She had been the first bird to come under his wing and was, perhaps, the only person he truly trusted. But whenever he whispered such things in her ear, she would only laugh at him, call him a romantic. Well, he thought, and what was so bad about that?
He finished the kiss, then the port, and set down his glass so that Martina could help him into his shirt. As he buttoned the black brocade, she slid his glasses onto his nose, then turned his collar into place. "There," she said. "Now go charm Rianne into giving up her secrets."
Al-Cid looked in the mirror and ran his hand through his hair, combing the bangs into place with his fingers. "You think she will comply?"
Martina shook her head and sighed with affection. "They always do, in the end." She opened the door and stood aside. "I'll make sure that Esme is gone before you return."
He bowed over her hand and kissed it. "You do think of everything. Expect me back in two hours, at most."
The Balfonheim Aerodrome was bustling, and Al-Cid lost himself in the crowd and the shadows. He thought it unlikely that anyone had followed Rianne from Archades, but he chose caution regardless, hanging back while his agent met her at the gate. He peered over the shoulders of the man in front of him, searching for her amongst the crowds. The ship had to be nearly empty by now, shouldn't she--
She wore a heavy brown cloak, but it could not disguise her curvy figure, and a tendril of dark red hair escaped the hood to trail over her shoulders. She took the hand of his man, Javier, and curtsied over it; he felt a stab of jealousy as every man in the room turned and took note and thought she was with Javier. Soon, he promised himself, they would know better. He tracked their progress through the crowd, first with his eyes and then by following at a discreet distance. They exited the Aerodrome to walk down the street, Rianne holding her hand in the crook of Javier's elbow, looking into his face, and laughing. Even at this distance, he could see that she was flirting, and he allowed himself some cautious optimism that she was looking at this trip as an adventure.
Through the back streets of Balfonheim they walked, heading for The Green Monkey, an out-of-the-way tavern that served well as a venue for discreet meetings. The pair reached the entrance, and Al-Cid stopped, sliding into the niche of a deserted doorway to wait. After five minutes, he saw Javier walk past, alone; he counted off ten minutes more, then took the last few steps into the tavern. Nodding to the hostess, he strode across the room to the darkened corner where his regular table sat.
"My lady," he said, approaching Rianne's side. She had shed her cloak and, as she stood, he noted the green dress that perfectly set off her auburn hair. He took her hand and kissed it as she curtsied, first the backs of her fingers and then her palm, letting his lips linger on her silken skin. She smelled of a sweet, spicy perfume, and he drank in the scent. Looking up, he met her light green eyes with a winning smile. She was wearing the pearls that he had sent as a gift; a good sign. "I trust your journey was pleasant?"
"Thanks to you," she replied. She took back her hand and returned to her chair, which Al-Cid pushed back against the table before taking his own seat. "Should I always expect to travel in such style?"
Al-Cid whisked the cloth napkin off his place setting and snapped it in the air with a flourish before laying it on his lap. "In most circumstances, you should not need to travel at all. But I found that I was unable to come to Archades myself at this time. My apologies for any inconvenience."
"It's all right," she assured him. "I've almost never been out of the city before; it was fun."
"In that case, we shall have to arrange it again." Al-Cid paused, then looked over his shoulder at the waiter, who was promptly at his side, a bottle of fine Tchidian white nestled in his right elbow. "The usual, if you will."
"Very good, sir," the man said with a bow. "And for the lady?"
Rianne glanced at the menu, then at Al-Cid. "I'll have the broiled fish and vegetables."
"An excellent choice, madam." The waiter looked at Al-Cid again, and presented the bottle. "Wine?"
"Yes, of course. And, if you please--?" Al-Cid flicked his glance toward the heavy cream-colored curtain at the side of the booth; the waiter took his meaning with a nod -- he opened the wine, poured two glasses, then pulled the curtain shut as he left. Their privacy thus assured, Al-Cid turned back to Rianne and lowered his voice. "As I was about to say, anything for the lady who looks out for my interests at the Regal Royale, the most exclusive club in Archades, frequented by the Judges Magister. I had long despaired of placing an agent in such a place, but you have made my dreams come true." He lifted the glass of wine in salute to her, and she touched his glass to his with a tiny clink.
They both drank; Rianne set the glass down after a sip, then put her hands flat on the table. "So it's true. The wine, the fancy restaurant, the curtains... You really do sleep with all your informants." She let out an exaggerated sigh. "And to believe I thought I might be the only one."
Al-Cid shrugged as he placed his glass on the table. "It is dangerous, what we ask of each other. We must come to an understanding, yes? A trust? I have found no better way of building one."
She raised an eyebrow. "And it's not just an excuse for a girl in every port?"
He spread his hands and smiled, a touch apologetically. "I acknowledge the benefits."
"I hope you also acknowledge any possible side effects."
"Of course, my sweet." He leaned forward in his chair, suggesting a bow with a sweep of his left arm. "No gentleman would do otherwise. I learned that from my father quite well."
Her eyebrows reached an alarming height. "You aren't telling me--"
With a laugh, he shook his head. "No, no. I was born on the proper side of the blanket. But only by the grace of the untimely death of my Lord Father's third wife." He returned her sudden look of horror with a conspiratorial wink. "Oh, it was all quite above board: a sudden illness, no whispers of poison or other malfeasance. No suspicion fell on my father, or my mother, or any of the other courtiers. No one has ever considered me anything less than a proper heir of House Margrace. But I can assure you, my dear, that I am but one younger son of many, little more than a name very far down on a very long list. What little influence I have, I acquired on my own, bought with sacks of information. Information gathered from you, and others like you." Sitting back in his chair, he favored Rianne with a smile. "So. Shall we continue our arrangement? Or do you prefer to seek out the favors of another bidder?"
"There have been no other bidders." He felt the soft clunk of a dropping shoe beneath the table, followed by the warmth of her foot sliding up the inside of his calf. "But even if there had been, yours would be the offer I'd take. A lesser man might be gathering information to overthrow my country, but that's not what you're after, is it? Influence in your homeland, a balance of power between nations, and a little pleasure for yourself in the meantime. Those are goals I can support." Her foot traveled higher, and Al-Cid had to work to control his breathing. "So let me tell you what I know, and then we can abandon this pretense of dinner and go back to wherever you're going to take me. Although we can bring the wine." Her grin grew, and Al-Cid gasped as her toes reached their goal.
Dropping his hand into his lap to cover her foot, he massaged her instep as she stroked him. Finally, he regained the power of speech. "You have the advantage of me, my lady. I could not resist your suggestion even if I wished it."
"Good thing you don't, then." She sat up straight, and Al-Cid thanked the gods. He preferred exchanging information with a clear head. "All right. There's a lot I could share with you, and I'll tell you more later, but I should start with the big news. There've been rumors for awhile about Lord Vayne and Dr. Cid developing a super-weapon. This morning, right before I left, two judges came in and got to talking about it. It's a ship, more like a flying fortress really. It's called Bahamut and has as much firepower as half the fleet put together. But that's not all." She leaned forward. "There was a surge of Mist last night. Really gigantic, bigger than anyone has ever seen."
"Yes." Al-Cid nodded. "There have been reports of that here as well, although no one knows why."
"The judges didn't know, either. But apparently, Bahamut soaked it all up, and something about that makes it even more powerful and dangerous. And Vayne is going to take it out for a spin." She looked around, dropping her voice, even though no one was nearby to hear. "Against the Dalmascan rebels."
Al-Cid sat up and let out a quick curse, his mind whirling with the implications of this piece of information. If everything he had learned in the past few days was true, this Bahamut meant trouble. Big trouble. He had to get word to Ashe and the others, soon, if the entire continent was not to be plunged into a bloody war. He turned his eyes on Rianne.
"Thank you. I had not heard of this, and it may turn out to be dreadfully important." He stood. "You have held up your end of the bargain, and I shall take a great deal of pleasure in holding up mine. Waiter, if you please!" This last he called through the curtain. The server was there within seconds. "Have our meals sent to my villa, along with the bill. And bring the lady's cloak." He took the wine bottle in one hand and Rianne's fingers in the other as he stood; the waiter just had time to drape the cloak over her shoulders before they exited the restaurant.
Javier was waiting outside, a sentry at the tavern door, and he fell into step beside them. "My lord? What is wrong?"
"Bad news," Al-Cid snapped. He stepped closer to Javier and switched to Rozarrian. "I need you to stand watch at the Aerodrome tonight, perhaps into the morning. The second the Strahl returns, I must know it. Send to the villa as soon as she makes Balfonheim airspace. Meanwhile, have them prepare my ship. I may need to leave on short notice."
"Yes, my lord. The lady?"
"I will arrange for her safe passage home in the morning. Now go!"
"My lord." Javier bowed to Al-Cid and Rianne, then departed on his errand. Al-Cid felt his shoulders loosen as he watched Javier go; relaxing his grip on Rianne's hand, he faced her.
"Well, the worst is taken care of. No more to be done about it tonight, so we might as well enjoy the rest of our stay. Shall we?" Linking their fingers together and taking a swig of wine from the bottle, he led her down the streets and toward the villa, ready to set the cares of Ivalice aside for a few hours more.