Disclaimer: We do not own Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII, nor are we making any money off this fanfiction.

Summary: A Vash's Girl and mariagoner co-write. / LarsaxPenelo When in trouble with one empire, it's only common sense to flee to another. But as Penelo soon finds out, plans don't always go quite as simply as you hope for…

-o-o-

The Caliber of Consequences

Chapter One

Penelo

-o-o-

Smiling almost secretively, Penelo ran her tongue along the seam of her bottom lip and slapped the whip she held in one hand against the palm of her other. In turn, the boy sprawled on the bed right across from her scantily clad body swallowed hard, his eyes turning from their usual pale shade to something much darker than they had been seconds ago. Oh, this little boy had absolutely no idea what was coming for him, no idea about the ways she was about to introduce to him to a world full of deviant, dangerous pleasures. But judging from the way his breath sped up when she bent down to tease the flank of her toy with her tongue, he was more than ready to be inducted to whatever it was that she had in store for him.

Which was, Penelo thought dryly, just as well. The Dread Pirate Sugar Thighs had a task to carry out now and, considering how most of his court had already described him, it was probably well that her "student" (or should that be "victim?") seemed more than willing and eager to learn.

She hadn't exactly been thrilled to her little aero-nautical bits and pieces when she had first gotten this assignment, but at least the boy before her had looks going for him. A baby emperor—he has just celebrated his eighteenth birthday, to be precise—he still had some hints of his youth in his rounded face and his still lanky form. And unlike some of his kin, he kept his face clean-shaven, which Penelo had to admit intrigued her. Smooth skin was much better than the sandpaper of a beard or stubble when it slid between her thighs. And it was easier to slap around as well. Because any man that had come of age within an empire as cut-throat as this one needed to be—as his guardian had assured her—broken in properly.

And if said breaking in resembled more of a wild night of debauchery than some sweet romantic daydream that he might have treasured earlier… ah, well. Such was the way of the world within imperial borders.

Emperors, after all, couldn't afford much gentleness in their lives—not if they wanted to keep their heads securely attached to their throats. Penelo supposed if he really wanted to, he could take some sweet, simpering mistress after she was done with him. But what they were about to do now wasn't going to approach tenderness at all.

Right now, said emperor was lounging in a chair in front of her with plenty of throw pillows stacked beneath him to provide the utmost of comfort. Candles were their only source of light, throwing soft, dark shadows all over his pretty face and the curls flanking his white throat. And if he'd gotten his way, the sappy sod, there'd probably be some sort of mini orchestra right there with them to serenade their night away. The gods help her, Penelo hadn't done romance since… well, she honestly couldn't remember the last time. Being a sky pirate didn't much lend itself to much romance, silly penny-novels aside, and as of late, her dating life had been abysmal. She hadn't much gone in for sweetness even as a youth, after all.

Of course, it didn't help matters that this particular soul was a virgin. She usually had a strict policy on not deflowering anyone and frankly, she still wasn't sure how the hell the boy before her had managed to keep his innocence and purity of heart intact in one of the most decadent and manipulative lands in all the continent, with harems and willing ladies of pleasure all but spilling their charms about everywhere you turned. But she wasn't here to question the man—she was here to debauch him. And though she personally found virgins damn unappealing… right now, where the matter of her life was concerned, she found her mind better opened than closed.

She stepped forward with a shimmy and let her long waves of golden hair fall back over her shoulders. The boy's eyes were apparently caught by the way her ringlets shimmered in the little light, and she let him look on with an indulgent smile. It distracted him enough that he didn't see her shoving her fingers into those thick, dark curls and using her grip on them to jerk his head back until it was too late. His breathing quickened considerably and his pretty eyes widened further, his dark lashes splayed against his full cheeks. If they were under any other circumstances, she would have thought she was frightening him.

But she knew that if there was fright in him, it was accompanied by excitement as well.

One of his hands lifted to touch her soft, almond-colored skin but she slapped it away easily.

"Nah-uh-uh, sweet-heart," she tsked, letting her pink tongue dart out. "You know better than to get cheeky with me."

He began to issue soft protests in that lilting voice of his. "But you are a woman." It had grown thicker with his arousal, and the mere sound of it like that sent a flash of heat through her. "Shouldn't you follow the submissive role?"

Penelo almost had to grin at that. Maybe this honestly wouldn't be so god awful.

She stepped back and spread her feet apart to show the creamy skin of her thighs, the hint of arousal glistening at the tip of her smooth, velvety delta. When his gaze went straight to the sight and lingered, she let a throaty chuckle escape her and dragged the length of the whip down her palm. It cracked against the floor with a twist of her wrist, and he jumped. Those wide, pretty eyes met hers again as he swallowed and shifted, aristocratically curling into the pillows at his sides.

"Submissive?" she whispered softly. "Me? Oh, darling, you've got a lot to learn."

And then, cooing reassurances, she slid the feathered end of the whip up and to his groin. She had to give him credit when his body only gave a slight jerk this time, all of him striving to keep even the slightest illusion of control. But from the way his handsome face flushed and his dark lashes fluttered and he threw his slim throat back…

Pretty, Penelo thought. Very pretty. She really might enjoy this, after all.

"My dear emperor," she purred. "Am I to understand that none of your brothers ever taught you how to be…" She licked her lips and tasted the gloss she had painted them with earlier. "…Submissive yourself?"

"Milady sky-pirate," he hoarsely whispered, again pressing himself into his pillows. "I am not normally—I've never really—I do not know so much about—"

"Shhh." And letting her smile curve into a smirk, she leaned forward again and placed her fingers against his full, almost pillowing lips. He went silent, swallowing a few more times before his breath gusted out a tad unevenly. "Just sit back and let me do all the work. You just enjoy yourself now."

Two hours later, as she left the Rozarrian emperor's chambers, she swiped the back of her hand over her mouth and sighed a little. As much as she had enjoyed their tête-à-tête, business was business. It was best off not mixed by pleasure, and the young Emperor Al-Javeed Shihab Margrace was just a little too soppy and inexperienced for her tastes. From what she knew of the new emperor, he really didn't have much experience with women, what with him being in a religious convent for most of his life before enough of his relatives had died to pass the crown onto his head and the spear of duty to his throat.

He hadn't even been so wonderful at kissing, though he had certainly given that—as well as a few other activities—his best go. Well, at least he could be put out of her mind now. She had debauched him enough to make him just a little less susceptible to the pretty vipers of his court, and now his guardians would surely drop the charges against her for the unfortunate crime she'd committed against his empire, his family and his extremely dead relatives the week prior. After this, all should be well.

On her way out of the palace, she slipped into a spare bedroom she had found earlier to examine herself in a mirror. She wasn't particularly vain—you couldn't be, not if you were in a profession that made wooden peg-legs a necessary fashion statement—but part of the reason that she did so well was because she didn't tend to look nearly as dangerous as she could truly be. So Penelo took a minute to smile angelically at the fluffy, frolicsome and fresh-faced image she presented now, as well as to turn around and inspect the way her rear looked in the outfit she was currently wearing.

Damn, she actually looked like she had curves when she wore the tight little mini-skirt she had on now. No wonder Ashe had run around wearing that hot-pink tea cozy of hers in the desert. Would the wonders of Rozarrian fashion never cease to amaze her?

But then, with another sigh, she tugged herself out of the scantily clad outfit she had seduced the new emperor with and pulled on the simple washer woman's she had secreted in a drawer in the room beforehand. As pleasant as being pretty could be, sometimes you were better off not drawing the eye to yourself. And after Penelo had finished wiping off her make-up, covering her hair with a handkerchief and dressing herself, there was absolutely nothing to distinguish her from any other servant girl that could be mopping up the floors of the palace at a late hour.

Was she good to go?

By the looks off it, yup. Definitely all fastened up. Well-fed, maybe not as well-fucked, and very well reimbursed for her time and her effort. And Emperor Margrace? Back in his chambers, asleep like a babe, sure never to run into her again. (Though he'd probably carry vivid memories of her for the rest of his natural life... at least if that little trick she'd done with that length of wire and her thigh muscles meant anything at all.)

Mission accomplished. And now, with any luck, she could put this whole debacle behind her and never again darken the doors of the Imperial Palace of Ambervale again.

Or so she thought until an imperial message delivered a month later requested her immediate presence at the court of an apparently madly infatuated Emperor of Rozarria—who wasn't taking no for an answer and who was fully prepared to take what he wanted by force here.

All she could do—as she fled the entire empire, inexplicably wounded and cursing herself for not having had the foresight to get out sooner than this—was how the hell it was that she always managed to blunder into this kind of ridiculous danger.

-o-o-

Once upon a time, when she had actually been young and gullible and almost ridiculously naïve, Penelo had prided herself on being the sort of girl that knew enough to (mostly) keep herself out of trouble.

Which was not to say that that was an easy goal to achieve even before the war with Archadia, of course. As early as when she had been a child, guided by her parents and protected by her brothers, there had always been enough mischief brewing in Rabanastre to land her into hot water quickly. Running around in the desert, accidentally encountering entites during the rainy season, attempting to tackle monsters bare-handed in the sewers… if you were fast enough to evade the city guards and had a mad best friend who thought that getting himself half-killed on a regular basis sounded like right fun, there were always ways for an enterprising child to slide right up against mortal danger and get her buttocks handed to her by her parents when she was saved afterward.

Still, as a child, she'd always had the excuse of telling herself that if trouble found her, it was all due to Vaan and that she had never run into that sort of peril on her own. And after the war with Archadia had happened… after her parents and her brother and her guardians had all been taken away, one by one—well, it had really opened her eyes to how powerless she really was in the world. For nearly the entire time of the Archadian occupation, her greatest ambition had been to keep her head down and let her stupider best friend blunder into dangerous shenanigans all on his own lonesome self. She'd be damned if she ended up rotting in some imperial prison just because an admittedly loveable quarter-wit with the attention span of a moogle huffing on Old Dalan's specials felt like thieving straight from Archadia's coffers.

But sometime after she'd turned sixteen, and after she had managed to get herself embroiled in (by various turns) the mechanizations of sexy sky pirates, the vengeful plans of extremely odiferous bangaa bounty hunters, and the quest of a vengeful princess-turned-warrior with absolutely no aptitude for anger management and a plot to save an entire kingdom from the hands of a ruthless empire… well, by then, Penelo had more or less flushed her previous motto of safety first down the collective privy of life.

Trouble, she had long since realized, was the sort of thing that'd find her anyway. The only real defense was a good offense, and if a good offense meant throwing away all her former scruples and flying straight ahead to court it as a sky pirate… well, so be it.

After all, whatever other nicknames people had fashioned for her over the years—Sugar Thighs being one of the kinder ones, and the worst having something to do with her completely non-existent preference for orgies with moogles—nobody could ever point to her as being a coward.

But even she had to admit that trouble was written all over Archades the minute she had landed down at the aerodome of the grand capital to beg for a bit of aid from a couple of old friends that were madly elusive to even get a hold of.

A more normal person might have thought that she had outrun all danger as soon as she managed to out-fly the Rozarrian vessels dogging at her heels… as she had run pell-mell from a rather obsessive emperor who she had seduced only to get herself out of another bit of hassle featuring an unfortunately well guarded grave site she had tried to raid for treasure before realizing it's all too holy status in the eyes of the Rozarrian people.

(God, just running through all that in her head made her feel damn well tired.)

But then, a normal person wouldn't have become a sky pirate—and if they did, they'd likely last all of a week in the profession before they met a sticky demise that would probably have more to do with angry and morbidly obese Seeqs than anyone would really prefer. And something—perhaps it was a warrior's instinct or a finely honed sense of danger or maybe just intuition of the feminine sort—told Penelo that the flighty mistress whom she called danger still hadn't quite left her side.

There was nothing to do but wait her situation out. After all, at the moment, she was currently nursing a broken arm, wincing around a shoulder that felt as though it had been dislocated, trying to keep together a top that was in strategically embarrassing tatters, and ignoring more bruises on her body than the average bangaa sported scales. Not being a total fool, she still knew she had to muster up the most charming smile she had in her at the very wide eyes of the palace guards who were set to inspect any late night visitors.

Not that she was exactly the picture of seduction in her battered state, of course. But every little bit helped—and she'd rather not smash through any more guards than she had to. It probably wouldn't make a great impression on the higher ups she was hoping to contact.

"Well, hello there," she cooed as sweetly as possible under the situation. "Could any of you fine, strapping young men possibly let Judge Magister Gabranth know an old friend's come to visit?"

"Are you kidding?" one of them snorted. She couldn't see much beneath that visor of his except for the wide stretch of his mouth that resembled something close to a smirk that, under better circumstances, she could have wiped off his face with a pair of pliers and a bottle of lye alone. "It's the middle of the night, lass. Who could you be that you're so important that I should risk my hide to wake Judge Gabranth up? You need to go see a surgeon and not be lingering round here—"

"Jonen, shut your trap!" his companion suddenly hissed. Since he already had his visor up, Penelo could see that his eyes were even wider than moments ago. "Look at her!"

She had to blink at that one. She knew she wasn't exactly hard on the eyes, and as such, she was used to being ogled by men—hell, by nearly any gender or species that had the least bit of appreciation for the female hume form. But she currently looked like a couple hundred miles of torn-up and bloodied road, and in any case, she had a feeling that this wasn't a sort of lewd appreciation. If anything, a manic gleam came to the watchman's face as the other guard's eyes opened with recognition… right before the one called Jonen gripped at her unharmed arm a little too tightly for comfort.

"If you'll come with us, miss," he insisted, tugging her through the front doors of the palace. "Pardon for the introduction before…"

After a few seconds of confused jerking to and fro, Penelo finally recovered from her stunned moment and spun away, waiting until the guards had whirled back to face her. "What's going on?" she hedged, her tone laced with suspicion despite herself. She planted her good hand on her hip and raised an eyebrow as one of her feet began to tap at the polished floor. "Don't you want to know who I am? Or even what business I'm up to?"

"Aye, you're Penelo, 'm I right?" Jonen brushed his finger under his nose in a way that curiously reminded her of Vaan. "You've the braids and the blond and the bos—well, nev'r mind what else you've got. You're a dead ringer for her."

Again, Penelo had to take a step back, edging way from the guards carefully, the natural suspicion she'd cultivated for years as a sky pirate coming to the forefront. "Who wants to know, exactly? Did Uncle B—er, I mean… did Judge Magister Gabranth tell you he was expecting me? Did he give you a description, as well?"

She knew she was something of a legend in the pirating world—not every pirating lass could count the Fran (as well as the man-whore she ran around with) as a mentor when starting out as a fresh-faced teenager. But still, it was strange to know that people outside the rather insular and dangerous world of sky pirates would know her—especially when she wasn't outfitted in her trademark gold-gray blouse and rose trousers. If this meant that word of her exploits had reached Archades so quickly after she had gotten into trouble with Rozarria…

Well, that simply didn't seem bode well for her health in the long run. She didn't particularly think Larsa or Basch would turn her in but… the way the guards had her on edge was enough to make her already sore throat hurt.

"Were any of you expecting me?" She could barely keep the edge out of her tone, though the last thing she wanted to do was put them on their guard. "I didn't know I was so damn popular up north."

Jonen just smiled in a way that made her want to take another step back. "You could say we've been waiting for you for years, my lady. We can't believe you're really here, y'know?"

From there, she'd been (somewhat more gently) escorted by the guards to Basch's chambers, which was quite a trip through the palace corridors. Considering it had been oh, say, six years since she'd last visited the Imperial Palace, she'd forgotten how ungodly huge it was. She'd never much liked the Archadians' more-is-more-is-really-more school of decorating but in her current condition, she had to grit her teeth to not spew out her sheer annoyance at the number of courtyards she had to pass and fountains she had to navigate her aching body around to reach "Judge Gabranth's" private quarters, conveniently placed next to that of the Emperor himself. Her two guards were less than helpful, as well—they treated her less like an honored guest and more like a prisoner that might bolt at a second's notice. For a woman used to taking to the skies whenever she wanted for over half a decade, feeling so caged in more than tried her patience.

But what really had her nerves fraying, however, was the way that quite a few people they encountered would stop to stare at her before grins that looked close to relief swept over their features. She'd always been a charmer but this was getting ridiculous. And unless the Archadian people had some sort of instinctive reaction of pleasure to the sight of Dalmascans in pain—though gods knew, that'd explain some of the antics of Larsa's brother—she had no idea what could be going on.

But, oh, she could smell trouble all over this venture—as easily as she could sense bad cologne dripping from a would-be suitor's neck… right before she had to slit it to preserve her own hide for another adventure.

But any chance she might have had for flight dropped abruptly when the doors swung open again and she was ushered into the first of all too many chambers for the night.

-o-o-

In her life, Penelo tended to believe there were at least three things in the world that she could never take for granted.

The first was a finely honed weapon forged by magic dear enough to be granted by the gods. Having spent enough time fighting off monsters and madmen alike in the world, she full well knew the value of a blade that neither blood nor time could tarnish.

The second was an appropriately aged bottle of madhu distilled to perfection. She had spent enough of her early life among merchants to appreciate its value and enough of her later life among cut-throats to appreciate its numbing effects. And even if she improbably found herself unexpectedly living in the lap of luxury, Penelo had a hunch that she'd never stop appreciating the experience of getting drunk off damn good vintage.

Judging from the looks of the man bowing deeply before her to welcome her into his chambers, the last of the three was the sheer appeal of a fon Ronsenburg man who didn't let something as trivial as being almost fifty come between him and still being virile enough to crush whole boulders between his burly legs.

In fact, Penelo appreciated the sight of the last so much that it was all she could not to throw herself too pathetically at him as soon as she found him in his sight. Basch, being as much himself as ever, caught her mid-embrace as though she weighed nothing, as though even all the sinewy muscle she had managed to put on her slim frame over the years added not an ounce to her once sylph-like size. And though every single inch of her seemed to ache abominably as she held herself close to him, it was more than worth the pain to see both concern and caution chasing themselves about his handsome face.

"Oh god," Penelo whispered softly, "Uncl—Judge Gabranth! It's been so long, and I've missed you so much! I'm so glad I finally managed to fight my way here!"

For a minute, her old friend almost seemed to stiffen in her arms, as though rendered still by shock. But it was only a second, a bare and strange second, and one that passed by quickly. In another, he was already settling her down on the sprawling sofa before him, dismissing the guards with a mere flick of his wrist (he really had changed over the years), smothering her with pillows until she could lie down comfortably, and then turning to her with a smile that could outshine the glittering banks of the Nebra for its radiant and honest tenderness.

(She wasn't the naïve little girl she'd been when she'd first met him but she still had eyes, damn it. And though she knew she had a better chance at seducing Ashe than she did the morally upstanding former Captain fon Ronsenberg, she could still appreciate the sight he provided.)

"Dare I ask," he finally said after looking at her with critical eyes, "what precisely brought all of this on and finally brought you here?"

She forced a smile back onto her face, half-grimacing due to the still steady throbs of pain. "You really trust a pirate enough not to lie?"

Looking distracted, Basch simply sighed as he began to bustle about the corners of his spacious but surprisingly Spartan quarters, clearly looking for a spare stock of potions and ethers and bandages to get her back up to the condition of optimal health that she rather liked to inhabit. "I've always trusted enough in you to believe your version of the truth. Why would that change tonight?"

For no reason in particular, Penelo's mind took a moment to review the list of crimes she had committed over the last six weeks. Among other things, she had defrocked a fraudulent Kiltia, freed a few undeserving folk from very unaccommodating circumstances, swung down to Balfonheim to help her former partner and the new king of sky pirates "keep the peace," busted more skulls than even she thought was necessary, and sent a rather a sizeable and possibly illegal sum of money down to a very wonderful and very old friend at Rabanastre's Sundries.

And that wasn't even going into the whole get-caught-robbing-a-royal-grave-and-then-doing-too-good-a-job-at-deflowering-a-virgin-emperor-with-boundry-issues thing that had brought her here.

"No reason," she said, already eyeing the reservoir of potions and terrifyingly pointed sieves Basch was lugging towards her fatalistically. "Really, it was a stupid question to ask."

"I thought as much," Basch replied, though she could almost see a sardonic smile tilting the corners of his mouth. (Archadia really had left its mark on him—he had been much more gullible toward her wiles beforehand.) "But in any case, please lie down and try not to groan too loudly. This might slightly sting a little…"

-o-o-

Basch's administrations more than stung; she had always appreciated his courage in battle and his kindness outside it, but he really wouldn't ever be anyone's first choice as nurse-maid. (Unless, of course, the person being nursed had a very high tolerance for pain and a very strong appreciation for manly virility.)

Seven years ago, when she had been a little girl on her first grand adventure in the world, she had noticed that even the usually stoic Fran had flinched and found tasks to busy herself with when it had been Basch's turn to heal. But there was no one else here that could cure Penelo—save Larsa with his endless stack of high potions, but he was probably off debauching half of the women in Archades or whatever the hell it was that adolescent emperors got away with—and so she had simply gritted her teeth and dug her nails into the fine cloth of the sofa beside her and tried not to tell Basch to bugger himself with his dead brother's sword when the pain got to be almost too much to handle.

Damn, those Rozarrians had really done a number on her just to get her to their beloved Emperor. And that wasn't even going into what they could do to her once she was actually installed in his fledgling harem…

After all, Penelo had only debauched Al-Jaaved because she'd really had no other choice in the matter and she'd assumed that his advisors would dissuade him from looking her up again after their initial encounter in favor of some pliant young Rozarrian girl. Barring even that, she had gone out of her way to be even rougher and wilder with him than she usually was—after all, she didn't usually bring out the whips and chains on the first date. (That was a bit much even for her.)

But she'd heard her share of horror stories about what happened to royal mistresses throughout Ivalice in the past: how more than a few had been used for their beauty and youth before they were thrown away without a penny to their name, without even the right to interact with any of the bastards they might have borne their royal lovers, lest they somehow "stain" those children's minds with notions of freedom.

She wasn't going to let that happen to her. She wouldn't end up a pretty bird in a cage anyone had wrought for her. Even if she left her life of piracy, she'd only do so on her own terms.

But if she was going to pull that off… she was going to need a few allies in high places to help her find her way forward.

When Penelo finally blinked and uncurled herself from the tight little ring of flesh she'd formed during the worst of the pain… and she smiled slowly but intently at her old friend, she knew just what she was after.

"So," she began, "now that we've gotten my entire body being one big enormous bruise out of the way…"

And then she was leaning over, touching her old friend's forearm gently, flicking him a look with her long, long eyelashes, trying to measure whether she ought to use flirtatiousness or coaxed innocence against him, trying to understand what would sway him now…

"How are you, Uncle Basch?" she finally asked sweetly, gambling on his affection for the pretty kid he'd once traveled with. "Have you been doing well?"

Disappointingly, however, Basch merely smiled, her much-practiced charms having no affect whatsoever on his composure. "How have I been doing? Perhaps we should reserve that question for you. Are you feeling any better now that you've recovered here?" And then—as if to dig the knife into her further—he smiled at her from his seat perched across her sofa and gently lifted his hand to pat her hair. He could have been an actual uncle indulging a niece who had come by for a visit after accidentally running into an especially treacherous gazebo.

Penelo suppressed the urge to sigh very, very deeply. It would serve as an all too easy tale. "I am a sky pirate," she reminded him instead, taking another tack. "I've faced far worse things on my trips abroad—even if you don't count Vaan's culinary efforts. And…" Here she smiled, secretive but sweet. "Are you really sure you want to know everything I've had a hand in?"

(Especially since, she added silently, you're the head of all law within Archadia and might already know it all. She'd occasionally visited the northern Empire in an "official" capacity, after all.)

"Indeed," Basch said calmly. "You are distinctive, even for pirates within the sky. News of you finds ways of trickling back even to the earthbound."

"Really?" Penelo brightly replied. "How very interesting. Though of course, you shouldn't believe everything you might hear. I swear… that rumor about me, Filo, and the Moogle Six? That's almost all false."

Seemingly despite himself, Basch stared at her for a handful of seconds before finally sparing her a chuckle. It sounded rather as though he had lost the knack for it over the last few years. "I shall endeavor to do just that, Penelo. I can swear as much." But in another moment, his expression turned grave and quiet before his narrowed eyes met hers calmly. "It has been rather a long time since you have graced us in Archades with your presence, Penelo. Some might say too long."

She almost started at his last sentence; whatever else she had expected from him, it hadn't been that much. "No kidding? Were you really all that crazy about seeing me?" Before he could trace the uncertainty in her face, she smiled flirtatiously, deceptive in her apparent sweetness. "I suppose that makes sense, uncle. I am a pretty hot commodity now."

This brought her the reprieve of a smile—short but intent and sweet. "That may indeed be the case—" (and Penelo was tickled pink to actually see a hint of pink in his cheeks—apparently, she still had it) "—but my opinion will not be the one that needs to concern you the most. Indeed, another opinion entirely might be…"

He stopped quickly, almost as though he had revealed too much; but as stubborn as ever she had been, Penelo was not about to let him quickly escape her lead. "Words about just what, Uncle Basch?" She allowed herself to press just a smidgen more of vulnerability—honest vulnerability—into her words and softly went on, "Uncle, you were my friend and my companion during the occupation. You saved my life and I saved yours. You know I'm depending on you here, don't you? Please don't start lying to me now."

Her troubles merely earned her a look of brief, troubled guilt, and his hand waved almost dismissively. "I would never lie to you, Penelo. Merely caution you as to what is occurring already."

"Well then," she replied crisply. "I'd love to listen. I wouldn't have lived as long as I have if I didn't listen to caution occasionally."

In turn, Basch simply eyed her again, as though to find the true meaning behind her polished words. Finally, after what looked to be a short, brief struggle, he sighed, looked down at his callused hands, and then spread them tightly over his knees. "Word has come from Rozarria. I cannot say more than that. Just know that Larsa—" He broke off then, as abrupt as a bangaa merchant who had received an incorrect amount of change, as though he was aware that he had said more than he ought.

Gritting her teeth, Penelo knew she had to make a stand to figure out just what in all the seven hells was going on here.

"Yes," she said, as patiently as she could. "Believe me, I know you're talking about sensitive matters. I just wish you'd realize you can trust me on this, since I'm the person we're talking about me. And Larsa—yeah, I'm sure he's been very worried about everything that's been going on. But what about—"

(She sounded more worried than she cared to admit, more worried than she wanted to say, and it was a struggle to order her thoughts here. It was a struggle to not let the desperation show before she could use it for herself, not to strangle on her own thoughts—)

"What about the Rozarrians?" she finally whispered. "Do they know where I am now?"

Please gods let Basch say no.

She didn't want to think of the alternatives that might be wrung from her already.

His voice was very soothing when he next spoke, when he gently dropped his hands to her shoulders and began to soothingly run his thumbs over her tense muscles. "No, not as of yet, though they will surely come as soon as they have word of you. You have time enough, since directly approaching the Archadian palace with any hostile intent would mean political suicide for their emperor. But Penelo…" Even his warm fingers couldn't begin to soothe the chill already near her heart. "Please understand when I say that there are many difficult political ties to be broached here. The Emperor Margrace is friends with Lord Larsa and… attempting to seek help immediately from my master might garner you disappointment now."

"Right," Penelo said slowly. "I know I must sound about as quick as an adamantoise with arthritis… but why exactly would that be the case here?"

For some reason, even as she spoke, she had a sudden flash of something that had happened over half a decade before, in this very palace in Archades. Politics can harden the heart of any a noble man, Larsa had once whispered to her in the dark of night, already sounding ancient at merely thirteen years. My brother succumbed far in advance to his death. And one day, I too may be…

She could hear the steely shock in her own voice as she spoke, "Would Larsa just hand me over—" She was already rising out of her seat, one hand on the arm of the sofa, the other clenching a few throw pillows so hard that the skin on her knuckles was growing tight.

"No," Basch said, and his voice was reassuringly firm. "He would not do so unless there was no other option. You misunderstand me currently." He paused, and his very breath lingered heavy and dark in the air. "But even this does not ensure the caliber of his clemency."

"Right," Penelo said again, voice clipped. "It's amazing how I can recognize every single word you're speaking and still completely fail to understand what you're saying." And then, after another deep breath, she went on. She didn't need to be angry with Basch, not if she wanted to get out of him what was going on. "Are you trying to say that Larsa's upset with me?"

Basch's nod in reply was almost brutal in its brevity.

All she could do was take in another deep breath, pass the moment of a few stuttering heartbeats, shake her head and form twin fists and wonder just what the hell her old friend was trying to tell her. "But why would he get that way in the first place? I've done nothing but be his friend for the past few years!"

Basch's face was the face of a man who rather wished that an army of Rozarrians could invade at the moment, just to remove him from the emotions of the present scene.

"Was it because of those earrings I got him for his last birthday?" Penelo went on. Her voice was rising into honest anger despite herself. "Don't tell me he's gotten all prim and proper since the last time I saw him. So what if they were actually meant for Bangaa drag queens? What with all the dresses he had to wear after he became emperor, I thought he'd enjoy the irony!"

"Well," Basch said with a rather pained look on his face, "he might have if he had heard word from you since then. But Penelo, I realize that as a sky pirate, as a growing legend, you have likely been kept very…" He rather looked as though he were searching desperately for a euphemism of the most delicate sort "…Busy. But there are those in Archades—" (Did those narrowed eyes of his mean anything?) "—who have come into recent discoveries about themselves that make them believe that people who are meant to be dear friends ought to maintain a correspondence less… spotty."

"Like Larsa's face the last time I saw him?" Penelo asked rather viciously.

His guardian simply coughed. "I assure you, Lord Larsa's complexion, while still too pale, has cleared up considerably since thirteen."

"Well, I still don't know what he's getting so bitchy about," she seethed. "I know I haven't come to visit in the last… the last…" Oh—gods—to hell with this, she was so upset she couldn't even think past the shock warring with her brain enough to come up with a proper timeline.

"Last six years," Basch murmured under his breath.

"Fine, last six years. But I've been busy, and I can follow the rumor mill as well as everyone else. I know Larsa's been having him quite the merry time plowing through half the women of his empire. What does he need me around for, exactly?" Half the empire was an exaggeration, of course, but she was upset, and she was letting it be known. The less information fed to her, the more irate she became. Really, she was ready to shred these throw pillows to bits if it would mean that Basch would spit it out sooner.

They were friends! Surely, he wasn't afraid of speaking freely with her? Surely, Larsa wouldn't prevent him that much?

Her old friend merely coughed delicately. "I am not at liberty to say here. But Penelo…" Basch's voice sounded genuinely pained. "From your past visit in Archades, you know that this court has vipers ready to strike the second he falters, who will prey upon his smallest sign of weakness. In his life, Lord Larsa has had few enough people he can trust and fewer friends entirely. He has always held on dearly to those he loves… and has always been severe with those who have seemingly absented themselves from him entirely."

Penelo's heart rather felt as though it might have caught on fire.

"And I'm," she asked, half-frozen, battling with her throat the entire way for it to get that constricting lump out of it, "supposed to be in that last category?"

Basch's nod was slow and sad; Penelo's entire chest went on feeling as though it were endlessly burning.

"But I haven't even seen him face to face since I was seventeen!"

"Do you really feel," Basch asked in turn, "as though that matters to Lord Larsa? Do you honestly believe as though feeling discarded and useless in your life would make him feel the least—"

Penelo made a small noise at the back of her throat; Basch looked away at that, as though he had found himself faced with something too intimate, too explicit, too damn naked for him to look at properly.

"You were more than his dearest friend when last you were here, Penelo. You were a glimpse into the childhood he had lost—and from what I can understand of him, he could not forget that so easily. He clung to your friendship with him because he had little else and when you left… would you not be bitter as well, if you felt abandoned?" And then, before she could even protest, he hurried on. "Before you answer, I would suggest viewing this from his blinkered eyes, Penelo, not your own. Perhaps then you will see."

And… see what, exactly?

The fact that she had somehow bonded more strongly than she'd realized with another boy emperor six years back, when she had come to his palace to help him over the death of his family?

The fact that she had never known how much Larsa had needed her and never assumed he'd care to continue a correspondence that had begun so earnestly?

The fact that she had fallen in and out of love with other men and never thought to pay much attention to the little boy she'd left behind in Archades?

The fact that Larsa had already had his own share of lovers, which had made her think even more that he wouldn't have much time for some gutter girl he'd shared something with ages ago?

The fact that the life of lady sky pirate and that of a lord emperor would naturally diverge from their younger years?

It wasn't her fault, none of it. She hadn't particularly planned to ever be a sky pirate—she'd just let her inner laziness over finding her own way get the best of her over the years. She hadn't dreamed of apparently seducing one of the reigning monarchs of Ivalice—she'd just been at the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the most wrong of all possible beings. And she certainly hadn't set out to hurt Larsa by slowly but surely moving away from being his friend.

It had just turned out that way. She hadn't even realized he'd ever cared that much for her either.

And perhaps some of this was her fault and perhaps some of this was Larsa's. Or maybe the blame for their losing touch over the years belonged to no one at all in particularly.

Perhaps it was all just another sterling example of the way life screwed around with everybody.

But she had to resolve this… this issue of their broken friendship somehow anyway. That was her only way out of here.

And even as plans churned endlessly in Penelo's mind, she found herself wryly smiling. If nothing else, she know knew that she really needed to stop hanging around emperors of any stripe, shade or sort in the future.

They honestly cost her nothing but astonishing amounts of trouble, no matter how sweet or welcoming they initially seemed.

"Perhaps," Basch finally said, with a stroke of pity, "you should head to a safe bed for the rest of the eve. The maids have already prepared quarters for you for as long as you need to remain in Archades."

"Sure," she replied, smiling slightly as she calculated her odds against both master and judge. "That sounds perfect here. Uncle, do you keep your nightshirts in that drawer over there?"

Looking immensely confused, Basch nodded slowly.

"Also," she added thoughtfully, "Larsa's in his bedroom now, right? Which is just where it used to be? Nothing changed in the layout of anything?"

Now Basch simply looked wary. "Yes, but he is asleep. Which isn't very surprising, what with it being in the dead of the night currently."

"Ah," she murmured, a laugh already bubbling in her throat. "I thought so, as well. And since I might not be able to tell you this again… thank you, Uncle Basch. For everything you've already done for me."

Her old traveling companion looked very nearly adorably confused as he cocked his head at her present. "You are always very welcome, Penelo. But is there anything else you would require before you retire?"

Of course there was; give her half a chance and she could rattle off a whole list of needs. But common sense told her that she'd exhausted all the help she could find in this room, though the one right beyond these doors…

Oh, Penelo could think of more than a few favors she could extract from there—if only she could keep any possible guards from interfering. She really hated it when armored men, whether she knew them or not, burst into anything she was involved in as soon as there was the least bit of (pleasurable or otherwise) screaming.

And thankfully, she'd gotten good enough at green magic to all but keep the glimmer of energy building up inside of her invisible until her spells were ready.

"Not right now," she said just before she released a spell of sleep to keep Larsa's guardian from interfering with what she had in mind for the young lord next. And even before Basch's body hit the ground, she was already reaching for him, doing her best to maneuver his powerful frame back on his couch, to weave a few more spells to make his enchanted dreaming all the more potent and keep him comfortable over (if she had timed it right), the next few hours, if not days.

"Though thanks for the help already, Uncle," she added, dropping a light kiss on his slack, sleeping face. "If I get out of this alive, I'll send you a very nice bouquet."

Then, Penelo grinned—the sort of wolfish, dark grin she was loath to show off too often in public lest it tarnish her girlish image. The sort of grin that would send a man with any sense scurrying out of her way.

"And as for your young charge himself—well, let's just say I've got a few other things that I could gift him with."