"It was his first day. One day, and this is what we have to show for it? House Solidor's damn well stirred up the Malboro's nest this time."
The raised voice carries over lower murmurs of conversation as they reach the door of the Tyche's meeting hall. The trading ship is larger than the Balius, richly appointed if not crafted with quite so much care, built for show rather than speed. Penelo's new shoes tap lightly against the well-polished floor, not quite loud enough to announce their presence.
"You know they had this planned out, just waiting on his arrival. If you weren't ready for it, you've only got yourself to blame."
"I'd thought the Judges would have handled it all by now. Or is that asking too much?"
"The hell did he say in that speech of his anyway?"
"The speech didn't matter."
"I heard it mattered."
"Maybe they thought he was going to make pants mandatory?"
The first voice again, in annoyed disgust. "You think this is funny, but I'm not the only one in here losing money by the hour."
Penelo's all too familiar with this sort of grumbling, the muttered annoyance and indigence of merchants not getting what they want when they want it. Watching poor weather make merry with their imports, or a turn of fashion wreaking havoc on their exports, or any number of other ways the world can suddenly snatch gil from the coffers. Funny that she feels more comfortable among so many ill-tempered men than alone with Larsa. At least this is a world she understands, even if it's all a bit more well-upholstered and she assumes it's Archadian whisky they're drowning their sorrows in instead of Balfonheim rum.
Whatever reservations or misgivings Larsa may have felt on his own ship, there is no sign of them now. He smiles with a self-assured confidence as he steps inside, no hesitation at all in addressing the room.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen. I hope I am not interrupting."
"Certainly not, Lord Larsa."
The men are all quickly to their feet, or standing straight from where they'd been slouching, giving courteous little bows. A wall of silk waistcoats and golden watch chains and gleaming adornments, all vaguely indistinguishable from one another. Old and rich, well-spoken and likely to mean none of it.
One of them takes a step forward, perhaps appointing himself spokesman for the rest of the group. He seems a good choice for the task, tall and thin with short, dark hair gone only a little salt-and-pepper near his temples. It does not age him, only adding a sense of cool confidence born of long experience. He has a scar framing the right side of his face, from near his eyebrow all the way down to the corner of his mouth. Penelo wonders where he received it, that he hadn't had it quickly healed away. Or that he hadn't wanted to.
"Baron Tibsen, of the eastern highlands. It's an honor that you have accepted our humble invitation. We are glad to hear this disturbance had no echoes in Bhujerba."
A snort from the man Penelo had heard at the start, the loudest of them, though momentarily muffled by a mouthful of whisky. It is likely he does not console himself with his first glass, or his second, and his face is an odd shade of purple that clashes with his red jacket. He swallows, glancing down into the empty glass as if it has somehow failed him. "Ondore knows how to keep his ships in a row. Whatever port they might hail from."
Gossip of the oldest sort, well entrenched that the Marquis has business prospects in every corner of Ivalice - and Rozarrian coin spends as well as the rest.
Penelo sees more than a few of the men gazing behind her, does not have to turn to know the Judge Magister is taking up a position near the door. A bit comforting to know that even these great businessmen of Archades are unnerved by his presence.
"We have been exchanging stories of Rabanastre, of course," the Baron says, "Information has been… rather sparse, yet. The rumors we have heard, the Lord Consul…"
"The aerodrome's been closed ever since he entered the city!" The red-faced man steps in, and Penelo thinks he's appointed himself the angry one, and that the others are likely quite happy to let him embarrass himself on their behalf, "I've got cargo that needs shipping out. I was up half the night - it's not going to keep forever, and I was promised-"
"Fortunately," Larsa says, "as my brother is unharmed, I am certain he will make the swift return to normalcy his first concern."
He smiles, the words smooth and even-tempered. Nothing at all to suggest any kind of annoyance, that these men so obviously care more for money than the Lord Consul's safety.
"Of course we are all most grateful that His Lordship has come through such a terrible trial unscathed," Baron Tibsen swiftly steps in. Penelo has to hide a smile at how he tries to recover, at how there's no subtle way to pretend he's doing otherwise.
Maybe she doesn't manage to keep her amusement fully hidden, or maybe the drunken man is addled just enough to think she's worth noticing.
"So is that her, then? This princess of theirs back from the dead?"
All eyes on her, as Penelo tries to make sense of what she realizes is an awkward and unfunny joke, suddenly feeling much less comfortable. Ashelia of Dalmasca, that's who the man's asking about, and of course she'd heard the possibility, just who was leading that charge on the fete. Of course there'd been whispers on the streets before the bangaa had grabbed her. Rumors even before then, two years of speculation. Had the princess been there, when Penelo had rushed down looking for Vaan? It's all a blur now, the sky pirate and all the Archadian soldiers, it had all happened so fast…
"The lady Penelo is my guest," Larsa says, and it's only when he puts his hand on hers that she realizes how hard she's holding his arm, "and she has been so kind as to agree to accompany me to Rabanastre."
Lady. The lady Penelo. Oh, it's getting worse by the minute. If she doesn't figure out a way to get off this ship, she'll be a Duchess before they land.
"Indeed." A murmur passes among the small assembly, a ripple just beneath the surface, and Penelo doesn't understand it but she knows it's about her and it isn't kind. The man with the scar studies her, his polite half-smile such a fiction it seems hardly worth the bother. "Of course, House Solidor has always been one to find opportunity in adversity."
So they think she's not just nobility, but with a high enough title to have taken shelter in Bhujerba during the war. It's clear they're wondering just whose daughter she is, what business House Solidor might have with expatriate Dalmascans on the sky island. Penelo wonders if any of them were put out, when Migelo had been chosen to host the fete rather than one of their own, and how many more Archadians might be preparing to follow the Lord Consul into town, should Rabanastre's prospects improve.
"If only we all had such good fortune." A new voice in the fray, somewhere from the back of the group, "The Ifrit nearly took out two of my ships on its way into town, without so much as a look in our direction. If the Lord Consul should need a steady defense, those ships will be passing right through our airspace. We've got no chance of trading around that. Gods help us if they set up a blockade."
"The trade routes cannot simply be shifted?" Larsa says.
The drunken man snorts, pouring himself another drink. "Simply shift them further and you'll be tossing ships into what's left of Nabradia. The Jagd that direction… border to border, it's a nightmare. New sinkholes open up every time we manage to chart around the last set."
The conversation opens up, everyone with an opinion on how their ships' routes have been the most ill served in the past half-year, so Penelo is the only one to catch a hint of movement, a blur of color from the corner of her eye.
An inner door stands open, leading further into the ship. As she watches, a hand pops into view, small fingers curled around the edge of the frame, followed by a cloud of dark ringlets and a pair of bright, curious eyes. The girl is young, perhaps even younger than Filo, but dressed like an Archadian noble, with lace and ruffles and sobriety to befit any grown woman. It all comes a bit undone, though, when she shifts and Penelo sees bare toes peeking out beneath the edge of her skirts. A mischievous grin, and she's gone again.
"Of course," the Baron says, taking control of the conversation once more, "we are aware the Lord Consul has invested considerable sums in the hopes of developing technologies to counteract the Jagd."
Penelo feels Larsa tense up, just a little, though his expression never changes. Penelo thinks that if the drunken man speaks for their anger, this man is the one to be conciliatory, to politely find the compromise. Except it is a politeness no deeper than the surface of things, empty of warmth or truth and only considerate to his own ends. Clearly, Larsa is familiar with such men, and he meets him in kind, a smile that is equally conciliatory and gives nothing away.
"The Draklor Laboratories have made many exceptional advances in airship technology as of late, and my lord brother has every confidence they will continue to do so."
"I have heard that in the realm of Manufacted Nethicite, he has every reason to be confident."
Penelo is certain then, this is the reason Larsa did not want to be in this room. It's true what he's said of Nethicite, that it is rare and highly valuable and these men want far more than reassurance - they want information, and this meeting will be nothing but thinly veiled attempts to learn what he knows, to determine Vayne Solidor's ultimate course of action. Larsa's eyes flick to hers, for the briefest instant, and there is that hint of a smile again, a real smile. The secret joke between the two of them, that he has in his pocket the very treasure they so wish for. Easily within their reach, and none of them will ever know it.
"Ah, where are my manners? Forgive me," the Baron surprises Penelo then, by remembering she exists, "no lady should have to endure such conversation among men."
He gestures to the open door. "Isbelyn! Come here, child."
The girl reappears, hands quickly smoothing down the front of her dress, walking towards them with as much delicacy as it is the desire to hide her bare feet. Not that the men take more than a passing notice of her, and she curtsies deeply to Larsa, eyes sparkling with a mixture of awe and delight.
"Milord Solidor. Milady. It is an honor."
"This girl is my niece, and charge," Baron Tibsen says, with the same air as someone describing a mildly interesting piece of furniture, "Isbelyn, do show the lady Penelo to your sister's rooms, that she may be entertained in a more befitting manner."
Penelo is usually entertained by listening to Vaan and Kytes attempt to belch the chorus of the Dalmascan national anthem - pride of the country and all - but she's a lady now, which apparently means she's deserving of better. It also means there's no way to protest or argue or do much of anything as the girl quickly takes her by the arm, pulling her away.
Larsa seems disappointed to see her go, though it's probably more about having to stay behind, and Penelo feels more than a little guilty for leaving him to such a fate. Still, she's certain he had stepped on board knowing exactly where this would all lead, and just as certain that, should things prove unpleasant, he can simply have the Judge Magister punch them all until the meeting is adjourned.
At the door she takes a last glance back, but the men have all shifted position and Larsa has completely vanished into the crowd. The girl tugs on Penelo's hand with a surprising ferocity for her size, and in what seems to be a distressingly common theme for the day, she can only follow along and wonder what in the world will happen next.