She has need of a pirate, for this sort of errand; it is her particular curse that the one best-suited for it is so gods-cursedly difficult.
There were ways to contact sky pirates, though they did not maintain a regular mailing address.
She did not expect the pirate to invade her Council meeting, though in retrospect she ought to have foreseen it. He flung open the doors as Varan Tengille, Lord Extern, was reading aloud a proposal of alliance from Rozarria, and for a moment Ashe could only gape in shock.
Balthier struck a pose, his gun slung over his shoulder and a wicked grin on his face. He knew exactly how discomfited she was, the bastard, and he was enjoying every moment. "Your Majesty summoned a hunter?"
"You will wait your turn to address the Queen!" Her prime minister had turned a fascinating shade of puce in reaction to this disruption of the meeting.
Well, if he wished to discomfit her, she had weapons and more in her arsenal to return the favour. "Lord Bunansa," she said sweetly, "surely you have not forgotten that Archades no longer holds dominion over Dalmasca?"
His eyes narrowed, and Ashe tilted her chin up, meeting his gaze evenly. After a moment, he smirked at her. "My profound apologies, Your Majesty." He made her a sweeping obeisance, his jewelry glittering in the autumn sun that slanted through the windows. Ashe's hands clenched into fists above the granite table. He was mocking her somehow, of that she was certain; what irritated her was that she could not discern the means of it.
"If you would be so kind as to wait outside, Lord Bunansa, we will address your concerns once our present business has been completed." She did not tarry to hear his assent, turning instead to Lord Tengille and indicating that he should continue.
Her attention was less than ideal for the remainder of the meeting. She allowed her councilors to debate unchecked while she pondered the sky pirate's appearance. True, she had intended the bill to lead indirectly back to her, but the instructions had been quite specific about seeking out Elysa rather than herself. Then again, it was entirely like Balthier to do as he pleased rather than as she had intended; he had made quite a production of it while they traveled together.
Ashe recalled herself to the meeting when Lord Tengille's voice interrupted her reverie. "Prime Minister, perhaps you might permit the Queen to pass judgment on this matter as is, indeed, her duty and her right?"
"Permit the Rozarrian embassy to enter Rabanastre, and see them housed as befits a diplomatic corps, but not within the Palace," Ashe said. "They may argue their case directly, if they wish an alliance; and if they do not wish it, then they may stay in Rozarria and it will disturb us not at all. Have you anything else this morning, my lords?"
They each shook their heads in turn. Ashe nodded. "Very well. The Council is dismissed with our thanks."
They gathered up their parchments and pens in varying degrees of efficiency, many of them lingering on their way out of the chamber. Ashe sat quite still until they had all departed, then went to the door. "Conduct Lord Bunansa to my formal office in twenty minutes' time," she instructed the knights who stood guard. They saluted her, and she quickly navigated the corridors of the palace to her office.
Her formal office, where she conducted official business, was a large room of Dalmasca's famed golden marble, hung with densely embroidered tapestries. Ashe seated herself behind the immense, ornate desk and straightened the sheaf of notes from the Council meeting.
She had not terribly long to wait before her guards knocked at the door. "Your Majesty, Lord Bunansa, as you requested."
"Please send him in." Ashe folded her hands on the desk in front of her and sat up straighter.
He sauntered in quite casually, this time without his weapons. "Your guards seem to feel your safety is at risk," he said when he caught her looking at his empty holster.
"Is it?" Ashe replied.
"I find assassination a tiresome prospect, and the result hardly worth the effort." Without waiting for an invitation, he settled into one of the chairs across the desk from her. "I presume you want something from me, as you phrased your bill so carefully to attract my attention."
Ashe gritted her teeth. Here he was, in her lands and her palace, and yet he behaved as though she had come to him as supplicant. "I had need of a clever and skilled sky pirate. Failing that, I suppose you will have to do."
Balthier's eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward in his seat. "Do you often insult those with whom you would treat?" he inquired.
"Do you often insult reigning monarchs in their own palaces?" she retorted.
He grinned. "Well, yes, actually."
Ashe clenched her fists until her nails cut into her palms. "Cease your games, Balthier. I have an offer for you, but I will not be your amusement."
"Might I persuade you instead to be my indulgence?"
She tried very hard not to think of how much of a relief it would be to take the heavy gold statue on the corner of her desk and crush his skull with it. "I have need of a courier to Archades, someone who can slip into the city and deliver a parcel without going through official channels."
"Pining for your Captain, are you?" he drawled.
Ashe jumped to her feet. He held up a hand. "Peace, Ashe. I jest with you. I will deliver your package—for a price."
"Ten thousand Gil," she snapped, "and half a pound of scarletite. I do not expect you to work for free, pirate."
It seemed she had genuinely surprised him, for he was some time in answering. "A generous offer," he said at last. "For you to be so generous, I imagine you must be sending something that would compel Larsa to strike my head off if he were to learn of it."
"Nothing of the sort. I merely wish to ensure that the package arrives unopened."
"Surely you do not imply I would be so discourteous as to inspect a royal package?" He affected shock.
"I imply nothing of the sort—but neither do I think you would let such an opportunity for information pass you by."
He shrugged, and rose to his feet. "I will deliver your package," he said again. "And your terms are most generous. But I have come a long way to see you." He was moving easily round her desk. Ashe stood her ground and glared at him. "Surely you've a warmer welcome than that for me, Princess?"
Ashe took the two steps forward to close the distance between him, reached up, and pulled him down for a harsh kiss. When his arms lifted to come round her, she caught his wrists and shoved him back against her desk, pinning his hands to its edge. She could feel his fingers gripping the edge of the wood beneath her hand, even as he kissed her back with equal enthusiasm.
"You know I cannot—" she began.
"Luckily, I've just the thing." He smirked. "I did tell you, when last we were in Archades, that certain potions could be had if one knew where to look."
Ashe smiled back. "Then, pirate, let us negotiate terms."