The Landis Phoenix
Disclaimer: All known and recognisable characters, places and names are property of Square Enix. All unknown and unrecognisable characters, places and names are mine.
A/N: This is a story in two parts. Anyone who has read my other story 'War Privateer' will be familiar with the style. The chapters in italics are written in the past (the year 702 when Balthier is eighteen years old) and the chapters without italics are in the present (year 707 – after the events of Revenant Wings).
Certain characters from the War Privateer appear in this story but it is not essential to have read that story to read this one.
Prologue: Sky continent of Dorstonis 707 o.v (Old Valendian)
The copper tang of cold blood and the faint ghost of river silt hung in the warm comfortable, scent redolent air of the sleeping cabin. Fran wrinkled her nose seeking more favourable scents then the hint of fish guts and water weed that seeped through the air from the cargo hold.
She turned her head to the heated scent of hume sweat and warm, young resilient flesh. The sugary, bittersweet scent of a hume body metabolising alcohol sweetened the air and the heady mix of odours foul and fair made Fran's head reel.
She had not yet and did not now open her eyes. She was fully awake but had no inclination to move from the rumpled nest of sheets on the narrow bunk that really was not sufficiently large enough for two.
Balthier breathed evenly and peaceably underneath her. His face buried in pillows and his arms up and hands gripping the down filled cotton sacks as if he feared they would escape him in his slumber. Fran's cheek, pressed into the slight dip formed between his shoulder blades, had melded itself comfortably to his flesh; her nose was filled with his scent and her hair covered them both like a white and flimsy veil.
With her long legs drawn up at the knees so her feet did not dangle over the edge of the bed Fran contemplated the previous days venture with eyes closed and her ears, laid flat across the back of Balthier's skull as they rose straight up from her head, twitched detecting the faintest of sounds from beyond the Strahl's familiar confines. She paid the sound no heed however as she was comfortable in her half-slumbering recollection.
Fran had been dubious regards the merits of Balthier's latest diversion when he had bruited the suggestion to her. The Bervenia fiasco (as Balthier persisted in referring to their exploits in Lemures) had been resolved some seven weeks before and after much hinting and then more strenuous suggestions Vaan and Penelo had taken themselves off on their own ventures leaving Fran and Balthier to their pleasant and self-sufficient solitude once more.
Except of course, Fran conceded with slight frown over closed eyelids, her ears picking up the steady beat of Balthier's heart, that that solitude had been strained of late; Balthier was hiding something and had been for many weeks. That something, which gave him silent nightmares and encroaching insomnia, threatened the symbiotic harmony between them creating a distance even as, paradoxically and maybe unconsciously on his part, Balthier cleaved to her more closely than he had in some time.
Therefore when Balthier had announced that they should go fishing Fran instantly knew that he was not planning to fish for small fry; Balthier had never shown the slightest affinity for fishing in the past. When he had packed a supply pack full of incendiaries and Volcano hand grenades her vague suspicions had been confirmed.
He was either intending, Fran decided at the time, to wage a one man war on some as yet unidentified foe (which was not as improbably as it might seem; Balthier was perfectly capable of starting a war with his actions) or he was planning to capture the infamous Daedalus Snapper. The reward bill in the tavern they had frequented the day before his announcement had offered fifty thousand Gil for the head and skin but the harvest and sale of the highly sought after scales could fetch considerably more.
'This is no ordinary fish we seek and you are not accustomed to catching even ordinary fish.'
She had pointed out early on the previous morn as Balthier pondered provisions for their 'fishing trip' while Nono waited beside the over-burdened pack that stood head height with the Moogle waiting patiently for his commands.
'Then it is just as well we are not after ordinary fish, or that useless knowledge I conveniently do not possess would impede our expedition, wouldn't it?' he had replied flippantly dancing with words.
Balthier had been flighty and easily distracted (or more so than was his usual inclination) since before they reached the lost floating isles of the Eternal but he had grown considerably more so since their return.
It was no secret that he had not enjoyed their travails throughout Lemures and had done his utmost to melt into the background, even to the extent of forcing Vaan into the vacated limelight of centre stage. The whole affair, coming so swiftly on the heels of their recovery from the Bahamut fall had left Balthier all in a fervour to engage in some activity that did not lead to their inadvertent involvement in Ivalice saving endeavours.
Hunting a twenty foot long, carnivorous fish had probably seemed like a task innocuous enough to fit that bill Fran had surmised as she waited with amused indulgence for Balthier to finish fussing over details – he had always tended towards a strange myopia; his plans ambitious and organised to fine detail that somehow still missed consideration of the more pressing matters – these usually involved planning adequate escape routes once said ambitious and detailed plans had been put into practice.
'I've heard that the Daedalus Snapper is very susceptible to Thundaga, which considering it is a creature of the water has a certain logic to it.'
Balthier had told her cheerfully shouldering the heavy pack onto his back and leading the way from the docked Strahl through the thick woodland of Dorstonis to the lake where their quarry was said to lurk.
'Indeed and what is your plan to apprehend the creature?' she had asked him, though she had suspected she could guess well enough – she had observed the grenades after all.
'Simplicity itself,' Balthier had told her brightly as he knocked low hanging branches out of his way and trampled over thick undergrowth and bright red fungi with a callous disregard for the life of the forest that still made Fran wince.
'We electrify the water of the lake and the creature will either surface wherein we hit it again with spells, or seek refuge under the waves, in which case the grenades should finish the job.'
For a moment Fran had been almost rendered immobile by this 'plan', in so far as she would gift such a premise the virtue of being a plan. Truly Balthier was not himself for even by his standards this was a poorly considered course of action.
Balthier was a child of metal and hume endeavour, a man of science and cause and affect, and Fran knew that like all humes it was not truly cruelty but a profound ignorance that stood at the root of his (and humekinds) destructiveness; too often Humes could not see beyond their own existence to recognise the life all around them. Still as Fran had shaken her head silently she had decided that she would point out his folly to him.
'What of the other life under the lakes surface; would you slaughter all to catch but one creature?' she had called to him, deciding to address the largest flaw with his less than well thought out plan.
Balthier had stopped on the path and turned back to her, 'I hadn't thought of that.'
Fran had quirked an eyebrow, 'I had suspected as much; the lake will teem with life abundant and you would eradicate that life and destroy the lake with this plan.'
'Well,' Balthier had shifted awkwardly and rolled his shoulders to settle the heavy pack on his back a little more comfortably. He had frowned as he reconsidered his plan, 'Well I'm sure we will think of something that does not involve aquatic genocide once we reach the lake.'
Fran had given him at the time a long level look, cocking one hip and folding her arms across her body, 'Indeed?' She had then sighed, 'Your strategies of late have shared but one trait in common, their many inconsistencies.'
For a moment Balthier had looked as if he was considering taking offence (or at least feigning to do so) but then he had decided against such a course of action and instead smiled crookedly.
'The gods love nothing more than a man with a plan, and the thwarting thereof, Fran.' He had told her cheerfully.
He was that day conservatively dressed (by his standards) in travelling trousers of treated brown leather, which fastened at the seam with a cross-hatching cord of tawny string from ankle to above the calf. His leather vest was brown leather also and subtly accented with burnt umber thread that flashed sunset orange as the sun hit it. His white shirt stood out like the glitter of snow, unnatural and incongruous in the thick fall of green around them.
Somehow Balthier always managed to look less like a man out of his element and out of place but instead as if the backdrop was at fault; that constant aura of self-assurance even when he was anything but had always amused Fran.
They had trekked through the dense foliage of the Dorstonis forest in companionable silence after that. Fran's ears had twitched and quivered constantly, alive with the sounds of a forest alive. The call of birds to their nest mates, the scurrying of rodents and small creatures through the thick undergrowth skirting the foot-beaten path they travelled, all shivered and whispered over the deep, subterranean throb of the heart of the forest.
'My ears hear no distant approach of fiend, odd as that be.'
Fran had spoken eventually after many minutes of trying, with futile hope, to discern the particular voice of this wood. To Fran the secret paths of the Green Way had almost been visible, glowing like liquid green firelight before her eyes for scant seconds before dissolving into a confusion of verdant shadow like a mirage of the imagination.
'Ondore,' Balthier had answered her question casually.
He had not sounded out of breath even though they had been walking through awkward terrain for at least an hour and half by that point, but then he was accustomed to much harder travel than this. His shoulders had begun to bow, however, and Fran had heard the hint of discomfort as he struggled with the heavy pack under the dappled sun that blazed through the green leaves of the canopy above.
'He has standing orders to keep these ten square miles of forest clear of fiends.' Balthier had elaborated upon his previous answer.
Fran stopped for just a second. She had thought this land was too well maintained to be free, 'Then we are trespassing upon the private lands of the Marquis of Bhujerba?'
Balthier had merely thrown a quick grin over his shoulder in answer, 'Quite; that is why, fish or no, it would be for the best that we be gone within six hours or so. I believe the Marquis is planning on riding out after luncheon with a party of distinguished guests and, surprisingly despite our own distinction, we are not invited.'
Fran had already begun to suspect that Balthier's fervour to catch the Daedalus Snapper had an ulterior motive; she had been pondering why the Marquis Ondore would tolerate such a large and dangerous fiend loose in his lake if he kept the forest clear of other predatory fiends and with Balthier's answer she had realised what game he was planning to avoid confronting whatever it was that left him sleepless through the long nights.
'This party of guests is a hunting party is it not?'
She had asked slowly and Balthier's wicked chuckle floating back to her over the glowing green deceptive stillness of the forest had been all the confirmation she needed.
'No, in fact, it is more of a fishing party.'
Fran had closed her eyes then, understanding Balthier's devious ulterior motive. She had wondered that he, who disdained Mark Hunting as a fool's occupation, would suddenly decide that a mark was worth his time.
'You plan to steal the Marquis' fish?' she had asked him, simply for confirmation.
Ahead of them the path through the dense canopy they had been travelling under opened up onto a vista of gold sunlight alight and glittering over the mirror glass smooth surface of a silver lake. Soft, deep green grass had rustled in the ever-present breeze that caressed the floating isles of Dorstonis and wild flowers in vivid shades of blue and yellow had clustered close to the trunks of weeping willows whose branches trailed the faultless surface of the picturesque lake.
Balthier had stopped before that magnificent view and turned fully to face her. At the time he had graced her with his most rakish smile, 'Well of course Fran; there is no point taking a fish no one wants, is there?'
Some three hours later, when both were bruised and soaked to the bone from their battle with the fearsome Daedalus Snapper, Balthier had surveyed their kill with a troubled expression.
'Hmm,' he had folded his arms across his chest, 'It's possible I had not quite considered all the logistics of this venture before we set out.' He had murmured under his breath but Fran had heard him perfectly.
Hair wet and plastered to her head and ears twitching with the water of the lake that saturated her body Fran had studied him very steadily.
'Know you not how we are to transport our quarry to the Strahl?' she had asked already suspecting the answer. It was the escape plan all over again. He never considered consequences, but Fran had to concede that she would not enjoy his company so much if he knew what he was doing.
Balthier knowing as well as she did that he had not thought this through was caught between laughter and piqued pride and he too had been liberally slimed with water weed and drenched to the bone.
'Really Fran, this is supposed to be a business partnership; it is unfair that I must do everything myself.'
He had replied haughtily and Fran had almost laughed. That it was a silent laugh had not mattered; Balthier knew how to listen for it anyway.
The rapping of a fist against the outer hull of the Strahl snapped Fran's eyes open and her mind from reminiscences and her ears quivered, flicking against the crown of Balthier's head. The sound was muffled and swallowed into subliminal vibrations through the metal hull that only Fran's ears could detect. She lifted her head from its pillow of hume flesh and waited for a recitation of the sound.
She did not have to wait long.
The next set of knocks of a fist against the metal was accompanied by the even more distorted and muffled sound of a familiar voice.
Vaan's voice grew louder as Fran's awareness focused on it, her senses primed to interpret, indentify and locate the nature and origins of the sound. She could see in her mind's eye Vaan's heavy, guileless footfalls trampling the grasses around the Strahl as he circled the ship periodically banging on the outer hull in an attempt to attract attention.
Fran could not hear Penelo but she doubted not that the young hume woman would be with Vaan. Eventually the gangly sky pirate neophyte struck a spot on the Strahl's outer hull which was level with the cabin wall and the sound boomed through the metal.
Balthier's eyes popped open, blood shot and unfocused. He lifted his head and raised himself up on his elbows quizzically, 'Ugn, my aching head.' He groaned and dropped his face back down into the pile of pillows.
Fran gracefully rose from the bed (and Balthier's body, which she had been laying on more so than the bunk since he had stumbled into her cabin some time in the middle of the night more asleep than awake and she had taken him into her arms to soothe his dreamlike distress).
Balthier still more asleep than awake turned to watch her, frowning fuzzily. 'Fran?' he narrowed his eyes and his gaze ticked over the features of the small cabin, 'hm, this is not my cabin.'
'No, it is mine.' Fran agreed. On the floor Balthier's fine white shirt lay discarded and Fran pulled it over her own body, poised on her tip toes as she loathed to walk with foot flat to the ground.
Balthier made a mess of trying to sit up in the bunk, his usual grace absent from his movements and rubbed fiercely at his face.
'Why am I in your bunk and in your cabin?' he queried, more to himself than Fran although she would have answered him save that at that moment their unwanted visitor smacked against the outer shell of the Strahl once more.
' Hel-loooooooo? Hellllllllooooooo? BAL-their…..FRAN? Are you in therrrreeeee….?'
'What in blue blazes?' Balthier's head whipped about like a serpent strike to glare daggers at the wall. Had he been able to burn through the steel with his gaze alone Vaan would have been naught but ashes in the face of Balthier's wrath.
Fran's ears picked up the chastisement Vaan received outside for his summoning technique. To her surprise she picked out not just Penelo's light and lilting voice but the gruffer, deeper tones of Basch Fon Ronsenberg, currently living under the guise of his deceased brother Judge Magister Gabranth. She frowned; what business could the false magister have with them?
'What is it? Who is out there with the boy?' Balthier had caught the slight quiver of consternation upon her countenance and correctly identified the reason behind it.
'It is Basch that is now Gabranth.' She murmured softly and Balthier immediately tensed.
'This cannot be good,' he spoke aloud her own thoughts.
Scratching at his hairline Balthier managed to dishevel his sleep mussed hair even more severely as he scowled and once again someone pounded on the hull of the Strahl. This time, to Fran's sensitive hearing, it sounded as though the caller knocked upon the Strahl with metal gauntleted fist.
'Bloody hell,' Balthier growled, fighting with the thin sheets to drop both feet over the side of the bed, 'Where's my gun?' he asked, voice snapping with tension, 'I think it's time that Vaan learned the proper etiquette for calling on associates; primarily that he should not call on me without express invitation.'
Fran frowned at him and the look was enough to still his irritable and uncoordinated motions. 'Stay; I will go and see what they want while you make yourself ready for company.'
Fran resolved then that once they had ascertained the nature of their visitors purpose in coming she would impel Balthier to tell her the reason for his strange behaviour of late; it was past time to address the issue.
Fran did not like that the origins of his pre-occupation and inner distress remained unclear to her (she had believed that she knew the workings of his mind as well as she did her own). However the outward manifestation of his distress, of which the symptoms included a greater dependency upon the bottle to help him sleep and a tendency to sleepwalk thereafter and seek comfort in her proximity in a way he never had before, had been growing increasingly prevalent.
'If they want the fish, tell them I'll accept nothing less than one hundred thousand gil for it.'
Balthier called after her as Fran moved towards the entrance hatch of the Strahl. Nono, habitual spanner in hand, was just clambering up from the engine room looking as annoyed as a Moogle could look, as Fran moved to open the hatch.
'Kupo, kupo, what time do they call this, kupo?'
Fran opened the hatch to early morning daylight just as Vaan had moved forward to rap upon the closed hatch door. In the process of opening said door Fran managed to knock the young hume flying backwards with a startled cry onto his rump; she found that she felt little in the way of guilt for this.
'Oooompff.' Vaan looked up, rubbing at his forehead as Penelo tugged on his arm to help him up. Fran ignored the young humes and turned her attention to Basch, who was dressed in full Judge livery, save for the helmet which was tucked under one arm.
'What business do you have with us?' she asked coolly and ignored the fact that both Basch and Vaan seemed momentarily tongue-tied at the sight of Fran wearing nothing more than Balthier's fine white shirt and were apparently rendered mute for more than a handful of seconds. Therefore it was left to Penelo to speak for them.
'Um, we're sorry to bother you Fran,' she said politely even though she too was eyeing the shirt with some curiosity, 'Is, um, is Balthier there because we really need to talk to him pretty urgently.'
'He is making ready.'
She told the young woman in non-committal manner but not unkindly. She could not help but notice the strangely conspiratorial look that passed between Vaan and Penelo for a moment and the sly grin that was trying to break free across Vaan's broad and open features. She wondered what strange and false conclusions they had jumped to based on her simple statement alone.
'What matter of urgency would bring young sky pirates and Judges to our door, I wonder?'
She asked pointedly suspecting that Balthier's mood would blacken considerably when he learned that once again crisis and disaster had found them, the fates seeing fit to embroil them in matters beyond their station.
Basch stepped forward, 'I am come on the charge of Lord Larsa. There is a matter of some delicacy he would discuss with Balthier confidentially. Matters in the capital at present are such that he cannot come in person, so has sent me in his stead.'
Fran quirked an eyebrow, well able to imagine Balthier's indignant and sardonically cutting response to such a speech had he been present, 'Indeed? What business could the Emperor of Archadia have with a sky pirate; do you seek our extradition for trial?'
'Of course not,' Vaan said before Basch could speak. The gangly youth bounded forward to look up at Fran as she stood, poised on her toes, hands braced to hold the edges of the hatch for balance. Fran had the momentarily suspicion from the craning of the youth's neck that he was trying to look up under the hem of the shirt she wore.
'It's about something Balthier might have been involved in years ago. I told Basch Balthier wouldn't have anything to do with it but he said it was really urgent so Penelo and I tracked you down.' Vaan explained cheerfully.
Fran looked over Vaan's head to Basch questioningly and the former knight, recognising that confidentiality was a concept alien to the two Rabanastrans, shook his head ruefully.
'I understand that Balthier was once in the employ of a pirate called Remus Cutter?'
Fran did not allow her internal surprise to show in her outward visage but her attention quickened as she studied the armoured man before her thoughtfully.
'That man is long dead.' Was all she said but it stood as tacit acknowledgement to the fact in any respect.
'Aye, it is not the man himself we require but information on the whereabouts of something he once stole.'
Basch murmured smoothly in his gruff and steady voice but not before Fran saw the gleam of some deep emotion, a flash in his pale blue eyes, at her acknowledgement that the name Remus Cutter was known to she and Balthier both. Under the thick oily metallic scent of his dead brother's armour Fran could intuit nothing of Basch's feelings from his scent.
'What stolen object do you seek and why for come to us now in regards a long past theft?' she inquired coolly.
Her suspicions were mounting however. Remus had been, by all accounts, a vicious and violent man who few mourned. She doubted that Balthier would feel particularly willing to divulge information on the man who had been his mentor in all things pirate – the man whose murder Balthier himself had engineered and enacted.
Basch looked calmly back at her and answered her question, 'The Landis Phoenix; the ancient and most holy relic of my homeland. It was stolen some years past and all sources suggest Balthier is the only man still alive who knows of its whereabouts.'
It was at that moment, with the impeccably bad timing he had perfected into an art form, that Balthier stepped up behind her in the entrance way and all eyes turned to him in question and recrimination, including Fran's.
Balthier, who had managed to make an admirable attempt to look like his usual sober and well-groomed self, looked quizzically from one face to another as he fastened the stiff starched cuffs of his fresh shirt without looking.
'Trouble?' he queried lightly.
Fran shook her head reproachfully, 'For you I think it likely. Hope I do you know nothing of this matter.'
Balthier looked momentarily blank and then slightly annoyed, 'I take it this is not about the fish?'
'What fish?' Vaan intruded, clearly not appreciating the fact that Balthier had ignored all three of their guests with consummate skill.
'This is not about the fish,' Fran agreed.
Balthier frowned and then, because Fran would give him no indication of the trouble he was now in via gesture, word or look he glanced over to Basch impatiently.
'Well; what is this about then?'
Basch spoke up expression grim and unforgiving as stone, 'The Landis Phoenix; five years ago you helped steal the last relic of the ancient crown jewels of Landis from an Imperially occupied property. You stole the greatest treasure of a land that flourished before the founding of Raithwall's Dalmasca; now I have come to take it back.'
For a handful of silent seconds Balthier did not react at all to this most grim and resolute pronouncement. Fran, who knew the patterns of his every frown and could hear the quicksilver thoughts that percolated behind his secretive eyes watched the many silent expressions that danced, hidden, across his face. Blank incomprehension gave way to affront at Basch's tone of address and then pique gave way to sick realisation.
Fran closed her eyes despairingly as Balthier spat out a string of vociferous curses and profanity into the early sunlit morning to the shock, amusement and consternation of their guests.
Trouble, their old travelling companion, had indeed found them once again.