Author's Note: Wow, okay, seriously? I adore Final Fantasy XII to an unhealthy extent. I haven't written this much for a single fandom since... since ever! Anyway, I'd like to take this opportunity to accomplish two things: the first is to thank my readers and the second is to congratulate myself. Let me begin by saying: good God, thank you. Your reviews and favorites mean so much to me that you cannot even fathom. Thank you so very, very much for your encouragement and criticism, and I hope you enjoy this story as well as the countless others I'm bound to produce. Secondly, I'd like to just say that I cannot credit fanfiction enough. It has helped me develop as an author by leaps and bounds, and I'd especially like to note how much better I've become at characterization over the years, as well as my recent development with plotlines and original characters. Fanfiction has been and remains to be a vital step in my writing career, and cannot possibly be praised more.

Huzzah! For this is my twentieth story submitted to this site! (Actually, it's my twenty-sixth, but I'm not counting all the trash from my old account.) Pop rocks and pink champagne for everyone!

All right, enough with the gushing already! Just so you know, this story is slightly AU (I've not finished the game and for the sake of the plot, I need it to be AU), but only to a very minor extent. This story will be updated Saturdays and Thursdays!

Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy XII nor any of its respective characters, settings, etc. I do, however, own any original characters featured in this story. This applies to all current and upcoming chapters.

"Royal Ruse"

Balthier strode through the palace halls, occasionally ducking into alcoves and sidling through the long shadows. Dimly lit sconces lined the walls, providing generous cover for the sky pirate. Few guards dotted the various entrances and exits of the labyrinthine building, the majority of their numbers concentrated at the party currently underway. Stealing left and gaiting idly down an unguarded hallway, Balthier at last reached the door he had been seeking.

"When will they learn?" He smirked, extracting a lock pick from his pocket and making quick work of the door. It slid open without resistance, gliding silently on the well oiled hinges. Taking a last glance around the hall, Balthier sidled into the chamber and shut the door behind him.

The room was just to his liking. Antiquity upon antiquity stood proudly on innumerable shelves, with larger rarities stacked neatly against the walls. Gilded statues and busts were clustered next to bookshelves containing near ancient tomes, on top of which perched delicate bejeweled urns which he supposed contained the ashes of ancestors long since deceased. At the foot of the bookcases and simulacrums lay neat piles of gold odds and ends that would not fit on the overflowing shelves: small marble statuettes and rare golden coins were among them.

However, Balthier was especially pleased to find that everything was coated in a thick blanket of dust. "They won't miss a thing."

Deciding it was in his best interest not to rush, he began taking an inventory of the room. He counted thirty-six busts, each one of a different noble, though all were men. Of statues there were eighteen, some made of gold, others of marble, jade, or even simply limestone. There were five bookshelves, each stocked tightly with leather-bound tomes and fraying scrolls. He did not count those, for books were of little value to him. Hanging from the walls, he numerated thirteen swords and glaives, each in jewel-encrusted sheathes. In one corner was a fine mahogany table, on top of which rested chalices of various sizes and value, as well as hand-painted china sets and golden cutlery.

"What's the point if they never use any of it?" he wondered aloud, shaking his head in dismay. "What I do can be considered a civil duty in comparison." He continued on, finding three gold lions, each with emeralds for eyes and rubies for noses. Beside them were bowls of precious stones; glittering sapphires, diamonds, and pearls smiled up at him. Mentally, Balthier measured the size of his pockets and frowned. "Should have brought Fran along for this one."

Pacing the room again, he found himself at the third wall. Tapestries hung from the ceiling, falling to the floor and crumpling in a heap from their sheer length. They were finely woven and of deep, rich colors offset by gold and silver thread. Of them, he counted four. Less ornate hangings were draped and folded in a corner, along with rugs and carpets of similar value and decoration. Standing in a rack were nine staves, each majestically carved with a fine gem cresting their heads. Beside them were various other weapons: an impractical golden crossbow, a divinely decorated axe, two silver arabesque spears, and a filigreed bow.

"Fran would like this," Balthier muttered to himself, stroking his chin and sizing up the bow. He added it to his list of things to take with him when he left, and trekked on.

Beside the bow, propped up on a golden stand and displayed on a limestone pedestal was a dagger. It rested in a crimson scabbard speckled with rubies and stones darker than sapphire. The hilt, too, was encrusted with like gems, with only a single large ruby gracing the tip of the handle. Balthier found it curious, as the pedestal on which it stood was placed perfectly in the center of the wall, as if to specifically display this relic.

"Must be worth quite the pretty penny," he remarked, running his eyes along its length. Deciding to take it with him, he left it for the time being and began gathering the other items he had chosen to plunder for the night.

When Balthier had finished gathering a little pile of loot near the chamber's entrance, he was rather pleased with his selections. Stacked neatly by the door were the most expensive items of the room: one of the three gold lions, this one with a gaping open mouth that displayed thirty-two diamond teeth and a large ruby tongue; a short wooden staff with precious gems resting nicely in the wood's knots, and with an impressive pearl of near impossible girth gracing the top; two bags of emeralds, sapphires, and the like; a particularly sizable pink topaz; a set of century old coins, whose likeness on one side had been since replaced due to the long since late emperor's treachery; and the finely carved bow for Fran, along with a lightly gilded quiver. He had decided to leave the golden arrows behind, as he knew his viera partner would find them both impractical and far too flashy.

As the heat bounded off the stone walls, Balthier wiped a bead of sweat from his brow and grinned triumphantly. Preparing to leave, he recalled that he had one item left to ransack. In his traditionally vainglorious gait, he walked over to the pedestal on which the dagger proudly rested. He reached for it, prepared to pluck it from its all too pretty nest, when something stopped him. A chill crept up the length of his spine and his eyes narrowed. Something about the room had changed.

"So," a smug voice called from behind him, "this is the infamous Balthier they've all been hunting."