The Picture Perfect Theft
Disclaimer: All known and recognisable names, locations and characters are property of Square-Enix...I'm only playing with them a little bit.
If innocence is but a bauble adorning ignorance then theft is a virtue, and all the world is mad.
Penelo did not like Balfonheim.
She did not like the fish smell and the steely gazes of the dockhands and seamen that watched her walk the promenade stalls in search of wares with the look of hungry Lobos in their eyes.
Penelo did not like the Whitecap Tavern either; it offered no safety from lecherous eyes and cold minds.
She did not like the harsh brine gale that blew in from the Naldoa Ocean or the grey smeared clouds that scudded across the hard blue sky; the sun here lacking the baking heat and familiarity of the sun over Dalmasca.
Penelo did not like the eyes of this town that followed her and watched her. Every time the canvas awnings over the shop fronts flapped in the ever-present breeze it sounded to her like wet, fat lips smacking together as she passed underneath.
Lips that wanted to taste her and suck on her and siphon from her all she had before leaving her one of the dried out, ancient before their time, slattern's that glared at her through painted eyes with thrust out hips from the mouths of alleyways.
Penelo would sooner face down a pride of Bandercouerl out on the Steppes than meet the eyes of any man, and even some of the women, here in Balfonheim.
The Couerls would only eat her, after all, but the people here would suck her up and spit her out another empty-souled and cold eyed wretch trapped in a town that hated itself and everyone in it.
So Penelo withdrew into herself, walking with shoulders hunched and head down, eyes to her feet. Her view on the world became that of the blood stains and broken glass littering the boardwalks of the Gallerina and nothing more.
Every day they tarried here for any number of reasons (the new Mist stone was not yet fitted for the Strahl; they lacked the Gil to buy needed provisions, the Princess lacked the courage of her convictions to move on) and everyday Penelo hunched in on herself.
She was not ignorant, two years survival on the edge of destitution in Lowtown had taught her the value of things that held no material worth, therefore she was constantly afraid of the threat, implicit, within this town.
She was not ignorant and innocence was a notion that confused her, but there was something untouched in Penelo that remained even though she had lost so much; she did not want to lose it too…….and she knew that towns like this longed to rob her of all that she had left to lose.
On the one day when things changed Penelo, despite her fear, was not paying attention.
Under the fish-stinking sky and surrounded by the sweat and profanity of vendors crying their wares and the furtive travellers eager to pay and fearful of revealing their Gil purses to the living shadows all around, Penelo did not see danger until it upon her.
''Ello girlie,' a large, sweaty palmed hand curled vicelike around her upper forearm, squeezing down tight.
A mouthful of gold and black broken teeth spread before her as she looked up in panic. A solid beer gut rolled across the thin divide between their two bodies and pressed against her chest; the ripe smell of spoiled onions and something sweet and sickly rose from the man's oozing pores.
Penelo had faced Judge Magisters and fiends whose names she still did not know; she had travelled the known map of Ivalice and stood side to side with the highest born in all Ivalice, but for a moment naked fear robbed her of all sense and all movement.
All she could see was the gristle and bristle, black studded grey, poking from the jowly face, the stench of beer and the wet gleam of those teeth filling her horizon as the man easefully, almost stealthily, began pulling her towards an alley.
'C'mere girlie; Digby seen the ways you been pretendin' not t'notice 'im, and Digby tired o'yer coyness. Yer an' me is goin' t'get acquainted we is.'
Penelo almost recoiled at the foulness of the man; his hot breath dampening her cheeks as she tried to find refuge from the repulsive sight of him by studying the muck beneath her feet; she could not bare to gaze upon the man's shiny broken teeth and his slippery wet lips.
As her mind floundered instinct and hard experience saved Penelo; she forced herself to press up against the impossible mound of the man's body so that she could press her leg between his, biting her tongue on a roil of pure revulsion as she did so.
She could feel the man's fat jaws fall open slightly in a fleshy grin; he opened his legs slightly and thrust his hips, even here in plain sight of a hundred thousand eyes.
As she moved, almost in a trance, Penelo remembered other occasions, Lowtown with men of her own country grown dissolute and twisted with despair, and in the Muthru Bazaar with Imperials who did not recognise her right to refuse, when she had been forced to do this.
In the years of the occupation Vaan had learned to steal but Penelo had learned the harder lesson of how to survive.
Letting her hand pitter-patter down the man's sweat soaked and food stained shirt, stretched to breaking over his lolling gut, Penelo kept her eyes averted and downcast as she almost playfully hooked her left foot around the man's right ankle.
The man chuckled and his belly vibrated with the action as her ticklish fingers found their target; gyrating hips and bulging belly forced themselves on her but Penelo gritted her teeth and held her ground.
She reached for the rising bulge inside the man's revolting trousers and squeezed as hard as she could, giving the handful of pliable flesh against her palm a quick wrench of the wrist for good measure.
The man howled like a stricken Lobo and jerked away. Penelo hooked her foot around his ankle as he tried to break from her and kicked his foot out from under him.
The man fell into the Gambit vendors store with a resounding crash, curses and profanity spilling wetly from his slobbering jaw, but Penelo saw none of it. She was already running back to the relative safety of the Manse where Vaan and the others would be.
So intent on her flight was she that Penelo did not notice the man loitering by the railings of the open panorama facing the ocean outside the Whitecap; the man who had had a perfect view of the entire altercation and had watched the ensuing drama with keen interest.
As Penelo fled in a blur of flying pig-tails and pounding feet, the man flipped open the loose bound notebook he had been holding absently in his hand in case of unexpected inspiration, and pulled a quill pen from the full pouch strung from his belt.
The man chuckled to himself and began to sketch.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then where lurks lust?
Reddas' Manse was not the most impressive residence she had ever seen (Ondore's residence in Bhujerba still held the top spot in that regard) but in Penelo's opinion it was sumptuous all the same.
Braziers of fresh smelling herbs dispelled the pervasive scent of brine and fish within the rooms of the Manse and the walls were painted in coral and cream hues, the windows embrasures draped in muslin and pastel shaded cotton, and the furnishings were fine and grand.
Still, Penelo was particularly grateful for the small sashay of peppermint and Galbana Lily that Reddas had given her (a 'nose-gay' he had called it and told she and Ashe that ladies of status should not have to breathe such foul air during their stay) as the scent of spilled fish guts and blood seemed to have seeped into her every mind; inescapable and foul, just like this town seemed to be.
The room Penelo had been allocated (and for the first time she had a room to herself – Penelo had been almost intimidated by the prospect after so long sharing cramped living space with too many other people beneath the streets of Rabanastre) faced the sea and so she did not have to look out at the port or the town she loathed.
Reddas' attendants had provided her with a high-neck white cotton and lace nightgown, which was wearing at that present moment, and it was perhaps the nicest thing she had ever owned (not that she owned it exactly – but Reddas had said she could keep it if she wished – and it would make a change from sleeping in her clothes).
Thus she was simply sitting on the bed (far too big for her alone) brushing out her hair before sleep when a slight creak of floorboards beyond her door drew her attention that way.
As Penelo watched, hairbrush still held aloft and ready, a piece of velum paper was pushed under the minuscule crack between the door and the hard wood floor. A flash of faltering light and shadow and the person on the other side of the door departed without knocking.
Curious Penelo dropped the brush down on the bed and padded over to the door, crouching down in her big, white nightgown to retrieve the piece of paper (perhaps it was a note from one of Reddas' people who thought she had gone to sleep already and did not want to bother her?).
Thinking it no more than that Penelo flipped the paper over and instantly gasped in shock; the paper falling from her fingers to dance across the polished herringbone flooring, face up.
Heart hammering in her chest and mouth dry Penelo could only stare at the marks of ink scratched all in black against the glowing luminance of the white page.
Rough cross-hatch and sharp scoring lines resolved themselves into the impression of a lithe form; an acrobatically svelte female figure caught in a moment of frozen moment of graceful violence. The artist had managed to capture the strength of movement depicted with the violence of the pen-strokes.
The woman (and it was a woman in this picture, not a half-formed girl) was as graceful and fierce as a bandercouerl and her limbs as smooth and guilelessly sensual as a water sylph.
The braids of her hair twisted down from each side of her head in an extension of her body's movement, and her face, turned away from her aggressor, was caught in an expression of odd serenity, eyes closed in concentration as her body worked.
An incident of pathetic ugliness had become, under the deft interpretation of the secret artist, a strangely dangerous, graceful, and erotically charged encounter that made Penelo's hands shake as she snatched up the paper in search of the identity of the artist.
In the bottom right corner of the page, the entire picture in ink taking up no more room than half the middle of the page, two words had been etched sharply, almost illegibly, and then boldly underlined.
If the meek should inherit all come the fall, what point is there in standing tall?
Three days later and Penelo still had no idea who had drawn the picture of her and she had no intention of asking.
After staring at the picture in mute shock for some twenty minutes that night Penelo had eventually, with shaking hands, folded the page in quarters and pushed it into the depths of the pocket of her leather pants suit left waiting on the chair.
She had thought about ripping it up and throwing the pieces out to sea, but something stopped her, a strange fission of excitement and vanity that made her head spin and her blood heat every time she snuck a peak at the picture, it would not let her destroy it.
Having the picture hidden in a little folded square in her pocket gave her courage as she travelled about the port; sometimes she even looked up from the ground to look around her in search of the mysterious roaming artist.
'Come on, Pen, I'm bored out of my mind. Let's go kill something.'
Penelo stared at her best friend for a long moment; she could not count the number of things wrong with that statement, and was just about to tell Vaan that killing things to relieve boredom was not a good idea for any number of reasons, when the pair were joined by a sardonic shadow.
'And thus the first step on the road to tyranny is taken,' Balthier drawled rifle propped against his shoulder, 'we shall have to keep close watch on you from now on, Vaan.'
Vaan frowned, 'Huh?'
Balthier simply shook his head, smirk playing over his closed lips, as he placed his hands firmly on Vaan's shoulders and turned him about face, 'Lead on them, boy, you'll not sate your bloodlust bellyaching around here.'
Vaan perked up as he wriggled free of Balthier, 'If you think it's such a bad idea how come you're coming with us?' he challenged, because Vaan was always trying to prove something to Balthier, though Penelo dreaded to think precisely what that was.
'Who said I'm the one following you?' Balthier retorted archly, 'I have my gun already loaded; a casual observer might surmise from that, that you are merely following my chain of thought.'
Both Vaan and Penelo took time to wade through the meaning of this statement as the two young people were herded through the port from the manse by the slightly older in years and vastly older in experience, sky pirate.
Strangely travelling in Balthier's slipstream Penelo felt herself uncoil from her habitual hunch and look straight ahead unabashed; though she mostly stared at the complex buckles, clasps and strings fastening the pirate's vest at the back.
Penelo did not have any huge desire to 'sate her bloodlust' (she was not sure she had any to begin with) but she would not pass up the opportunity to escape the confines of the port.
Even the windswept, rain savaged rugged clefts of the Cerobi Steppes were preferable to another minute trapped in the Port of Balfonheim.
Still roughly an hour later, finding herself surrounded by a pack of silver lobo with nothing to defend her but an old, battered and inept Gokuu pole she rather thought that she had been too hasty about Balfonheim.
It turned out, in retrospect, that she had less want to be eaten by baying fiends than she did to be molested by seaman and common crooks, after all.
A quick look over her shoulder as she swung up her pole and thrust it into the chest of one snapping Lobo whose jaws came too close to her ankle, told Penelo that no help would be forthcoming from the men.
Vaan had accidentally thrown a stone at a sleeping Ring Wyrm (don't ask) and now he and Balthier were struggling with gun and Deathbringer sword to convince the beast that they were not easy meat for the taking.
Thus Penelo was on her own with the supposedly lesser threat of seven Lobos who wished to put, young Dalmascan orphan on their personal menu.
Although she had strength to lift the Gokuu pole for arcing swings and plunging pummel movements when she absolutely had too, for the most part Penelo used the pole as a jumping post; twisting and writhing like a bolt of lightening made flesh.
Slamming the pole into the rocky, craggy ground of the Steppe, Penelo braced with her arms and arched her body perpendicular in the air, legs scissoring out in a lethal kick that caught one Lobo by the neck between her knees.
She flipped the beast in the air and heard the distinctive crack as the creature's neck snapped between her thighs. Releasing the dead fiend with her legs she had no time to see the broken creature fall before turning to repeat the process on yet another razor-jawed Lobo.
Penelo fought with the single-minded determination of someone who knows what death looks like and has felt its breath on the back of her neck for the last two years. Blood, hot and scolding, splashed over her cheek; she did not know if it was hers or Lobo and in the heat of the moment she did not care.
Reality had narrowed down to the singing of her rapid pulse in her ears, the gasping wrench of not enough air drawing in and whistling out of her lungs and the screaming of tired muscles and sinew as she kicked, pivoted, pirouetted, punched and almost danced her way through the baying pack of Lobo.
When the final Lobo fell she fell with it, collapsing to her knees in a hot, panting, exhausted heap; the long grasses, coarse and sharp-edged, scratched and tickled at her bare legs as she scrubbed at the drying blood painting one side of her face.
The thunder of running feet, undisciplined and anxious, caused her to lift her eyes from the study of her own scratched and bloody thighs.
Vaan stood before her, bloody, battered, sword undrawn and dripping Wyrm blood, and eyes wide and bright as he looked about him at the scattered Lobo bodies arrayed hither and thither in the grasses.
'Wow, Pen, nice work.'
Penelo had no time to so much as come up with a scathing retort as Vaan leaned forward and hauled her to her feet. As he did so hanks of her hair, come free from her right side braid, fell across her face.
'Well, well,' Balthier approached gun propped on shoulder and looking smoothly unruffled despite the ripped sleeve of his white shirt from the Wyrm fight. He stopped before the Lobo with the broken neck and toed the beast incuriously, 'Next time I'll send you on your way, Vaan, and let your girl handle the majority of the fighting.'
Vaan immediately opened his mouth to announce loudly that he was the one who finally despatched the Wyrm and he didn't hide in the background with a gun, and Penelo opened her mouth to point out strenuously that she was not 'Vaan's girl'.
Balthier silenced them both when his closed lips curled into a darkly amused smirk and he fixed heavy-lidded eyes on Penelo, 'Quite the little savage, aren't you my dear?'
Both Penelo and Vaan were struck dumb with surprise when Balthier shook free his handkerchief (though Penelo wondered where he had pulled it from – it seemed to simply materialise from thin air) and stepped forward to lift Penelo's chin with one long-fingered hand before wiping the blood from her cheek with the square of pristine white cotton.
'There now; let the illusion be unspoiled,' he murmured softly, dark eyes watching his hand, and not her face, as he pushed the soiled handkerchief into Penelo's unresisting hand and briskly turned on his heel back towards Balfonheim.
'Let's be off, shall we, children? I think we've had our fill of needless death and destruction for one day, hmm?'
Vaan and Penelo were left staring blankly at each other, Penelo still numbly holding onto the handkerchief, as Balthier departed.
'What was that about?'
Vaan demanded almost accusingly. Penelo could only shake her head in mute confusion; in nearly eight months acquaintance she could count on one hand the number of times Balthier had even deigned notice to her existence as an individual and not an appendage of Vaan's, let alone paid her a compliment -and as for calling her 'my dear' – well she had no idea what to make of that.
With nothing further to do or say both Penelo and Vaan ran to catch up with Balthier. Yet, before entering the Port once more, Penelo dug in her pocket for her nose-gay and instead felt the crisp edges of the picture. She jerked her fingers away from the graze of the paper, noticing that the velum had sliced her finger.
As the scent of rotting fish and vomit threatened to overwhelm her, Penelo covered her mouth and nose with Balthier's handkerchief instead. The cloth smelled of her blood and gun smoke and the combination made her shiver for some reason.
The greedy man wants what he cannot have; the civilised man takes what he does not need, and the enlightened man simply takes his fill where he wills.
Hours later Penelo was lightly dozing in her bed at the Manse when yet again she heard the creak of floorboards outside her room and something thin and white and square slipped under the crack between floor and door.
Her heart jumped to her throat as she strained her hearing for the tell-tale sound of the footsteps, swift and confident, retreating down the corridor. She leapt from her bed and ran, bare foot, across the room wrenching open the door of her room and jumping out into the quiet hallway.
There was no one there.
The hallway, painted pale cream with turquoise wainscoting and tourmaline and Peridot tiled flooring, was still and peaceful. The sighing ocean rustled the curtains of the balcony at the end of the hall and Penelo caught the faint whisper of movement from the room adjacent to her own, currently occupied by Ashe.
There was no evidence of the mysterious artist's presence.
Coming back into her own room Penelo closed, locked the door and leaned against it as she regarded the piece of white velum, glowing in the shadows of her unlit room, with open suspicion.
Her heart jumped and jerked like a bird in the cage of her chest and she felt sick with excitement; caught between two opposing and equally irrational impulses, Penelo was almost sweating with anticipation.
She clenched her thighs together as she quivered against the doorway, unable to decide whether she feared what might be upon the page or was in fact in a fever to see herself captured in ink once more.
Eventually curiosity won out and she crouched by the paper and flipped the crisp white square over.
She thought she had prepared herself for what she might see but she was wrong.
This picture was as self-contained as the last, taking up only the heart of the page and not so much as straying towards the margins, but within that heavy, fast, almost violent, mesh and swirl of obsidian inked lines a whirlwind of poetic violence had been distilled into one, haunting image.
A lithesome savage with flush cheeks and strangely sweet eyes, her hair half free of its restraints and tangling in cords and vines across her face, was frozen in ink in a pose of near impossible agility.
Body twisted and sinuous as corded steel with a savage beast caught, trapped and broken, tongue lolling and eyes bulging, within the lock of sinuous thighs, the woman in the picture was the very image of raw, sensual violence.
Something inside Penelo felt weak and slipped free like liquid heat to see this wild creature wearing such a close likeness to her own face.
Realisation, belated and sudden, descended as Penelo picked out the tight scrawl in the bottom right hand corner of the page.
Anyone could have drawn her in the crowd Gallerina promenade three days ago, but only two people could have witnessed her fight with the Lobo, and of those two people Penelo knew, with absolute conviction, that Vaan did not even possess the knowledge of, let alone was able to spell, the word 'incarnate.'
Heart tripping on her tongue and cheeks scolded with heat Penelo dropped gracelessly onto her backside on the cold floorboards of her borrowed room. She stared down at the picture on the floor.
'Balthier…..' she breathed, '…it was you?'
But, a little dumbfounded voice in Penelo's mind whispered, why was he drawing pictures of her?