It is no mere trinket he brings her, but something of great rarity. BalthierxAshe.
She left her half-full tankard on the table and slid away through the crowd, one hand on her purse and the other on her sword. By some blessing of the gods, she made it to the doorway unscathed, and slipped out into the night.
Balfonheim was a city that was never truly quiet, but at least the wharf was less raucous than the tavern. She picked her way carefully across the cobblestones and found a gravel path leading down to the edge of the waves that lapped against the stone pier. Brilliant light poured from the full moon overhead, leaving strange rippled shapes upon the sea. She chose a stone that seemed relatively clean, and sat with her back against one of the dock pilings, her face tilted up to the sky. Ashe drew a deep breath of the salt-scented air and sighed. If they succeeded in their assault on Bahamut on the morrow, such solitude would soon be impossible for her.
The scrape of boots across gravel alerted her to another's presence, and she spun toward it, sword in hand. Balthier raised his hands skyward. "Have a care, Princess. You'll want my hide intact for your little battle tomorrow," he said.
"Have a care yourself, pirate. If you would sneak around in the dark, you must be prepared for the consequences." Ashe sheathed her sword and reclaimed her seat. The stone yet held some of the day's warmth, though it was beginning to fade.
Gravel crunched as Balthier made his way over to her and chose a nearby rock. Ashe steadfastly ignored him, fixing her gaze on the ocean's rippling surface. As much as she loved the wild, austere beauty of her deserts, she was fascinated by the constant motion of water.
Balthier was either oblivious to, or ignoring, her bid for silence and solitude. "Do you know of the jewel-fruit trees?"
"What, some new marvel of Archadian engineering?"
If she had thought to silence him with the sharpness of her tone, she had failed. He lounged back against the rocks, for all the world as though he were ensconced in a noble salon, and smirked. "No, these are actual plants. They grow in a very remote corner of Tchita. There are some six or seven varieties - emerald, amethyst, sapphire, what have you."
"Balthier, I will not believe that gemstones grow on trees."
He laughed. "Gemstones themselves, no. These trees bear fruit only rarely - the most common does it on a ten-year cycle."
Ashe made a noncommittal noise. She was interested despite herself, but she'd be damned if she would admit it to him.
"These plants also attract a particularly nasty breed of Wyvern. Something about the scent drives their mating rituals." Balthier stretched out his legs. "At any rate, the rarest ones give ruby-coloured fruit, but only every fifty-three years. Naturally, such a thing is deeply prized, and so expensive as to be utterly unattainable for anyone save royalty."
"I suppose now you will tell me that you've managed to steal some, and aren't you clever, and I should shower you with effusive praise?"
"It's not that I would object to such a happenstance, but I believe I know you rather better than to expect it, Princess."
Ashe dug the toe of her boot into a crevice in the stone. She refused to encourage him, and she certainly was not interested in how he might have acquired such a rare treasure. She was grateful for his assistance in her quest, but within a day she would be either dead or sovereign, and in either case a sky pirate was of little use.
Balthier seemed to take her silence for assent. "Archades, willing to spend any amount of money in the pursuit of fantastic frivolity, has purchased the full crop of jewel fruit for quite some time. Some say that the ruby fruits are a key ingredient in the sorcery that ensures the consistent production of Solidor sons. Certainly the Solidors purchase all ruby fruits available each time they come ripe, or so the stories say."
"Aye, because what Ivalice needs is more gods-cursed Solidors," Ashe muttered.
"They aren't all hopeless. There is Larsa." Balthier's voice was for once lacking its customary tone of mockery.
Ashe shrugged, and Balthier shifted a trifle closer to her. She marked the movement, and chose to remain in her current position, as to do otherwise would be to indicate that he discomfited her, and her pride balked at the notion. "At any rate, this year is a year for the rubies," he continued. "And like a good little scion of the Dragon House, our charming friend Vayne sent a detachment of Judges together with a band of skilled hunters to acquire such treasures. Naturally, such an opportunity to tweak the new Emperor's nose could not be permitted to pass unremarked."
Ashe could bite her tongue no longer. "You stole from him."
"Princess, you wound me. It was no mere theft."
"I suspect you will not be contented until you've regaled me with the thrilling tale," Ashe muttered.
"If my lady commands." He smirked. "The ranks of the Judges have become rather thinner of late, thanks in part to our various efforts, so the Emperor's choices were somewhat limited. He ended up with a batch fresh out of the Akademy, cocksure of themselves and entirely convinced that their skills were overwhelmingly beyond what was required for such a minor little diversion. Yet to be hand-picked by the Emperor is no small opportunity, so off they marched in their bright and shiny armour to guard the caravan, twelve of them in all."
Ashe found herself unwillingly curious, for to best twelve judges with but one assistant was no mean feat, even if they were newly sworn to their service. She half-turned to watch the sweeping gestures that Balthier used to illustrate his tale.
"They paid and dismissed the hunters as soon as the fruits had been loaded into the wagon, and set off back for their airship." Balthier turned so that he was facing her fully, his eyes intent on her face as he spoke. "The plants grow in the far southeast slopes, off Oliphzak Rise, and because of the lay of the land the only place you can anchor an airship is in the Chosen Path." He sketched out the shapes with his hands, and Ashe nodded, recalling hours poring over their map of the Tchita Uplands as they tried to find a way into Archades by foot.
"The best way to get to the Chosen Path is through the Garden of Life's Circle, because otherwise you have to come out here to Balfonheim, and no Judge with even a modicum of sense is going anywhere near a pirate port when he's guarding a cargo like that. Conveniently, though, you have to pass through a very narrow defile to get from Garden of Life's Circle into the Highlands. So, once the Judges had gotten to the plants, I doubled back and set explosives to create a landslide at the far north end of that defile, while Fran stalked them in Vanish just to be sure they weren't changing the plan on us. They wouldn't be able to see the landslide from the entrance of the defile, meaning they'd all have to get in there before they realized what had happened."
Ashe found herself leaning forward as he spoke, envisioning the careful planning that would go into such a heist. She wondered where they'd found the time, and realized they must have been planning this since well before the Pharos.
Balthier was grinning broadly, delighted with both his escapades and the opportunity to perform a reenactment for an audience that was at least silent. "I met up with Fran and Vanished myself, and then we stalked the Judges all the way back through Oliphzak Rise and the Garden. As soon as they went into that defile, Fran and I slid in behind them in Float and Vanish, and set down layers of traps--all kinds. Plenty of sleepgas traps, sten needles, silence traps, mana draining...everything we could get our hands on, and layered so that if one didn't get you, the others would. Then we lay in wait for them."
"Wouldn't they have Libra?" As soon as she asked it, Ashe was annoyed with herself for showing so much interest.
Fortunately, Balthier elected not to gloat over having captured her attention. "They did, in fact, and by then they were pretty damned jumpy. Unfortunately for them, only one of them was licensed for Float, and we took care of that with some Silencega, Immobilizega, Sleepga, and Disablega."
Ashe snorted. "That seems excessive, Balthier. Weren't you confident in your ability to subdue such fresh recruits?"
"It doesn't do to leave any of these endeavours to chance, as I discovered in the Dalmascan Royal Palace," he replied dryly. Ashe bristled at the reminder that he had attempted to thieve from her, but he was already continuing his story. "They had five crates, heavily padded and carefully packed to cushion the fruit. As I said, these are very rare - they only had five fruits altogether. We took four of them, and replaced them in the crates with Malboro Fruit."
Ashe couldn't help it; she laughed aloud at the thought of what some Imperial chef would do when he opened a box meant to contain a rare and valuable fruit to find the noxious remnants of the vine monsters. "Only four?" she asked when she could speak again. "Why not all of them?"
"More insulting," he said. "A taunt, if you will." He reached into his vest and withdrew two round fruits, about the size of a plum. In the moonlight, they were the colour of old blood. He shook out one of the light crystals they had used to navigate the Henne Mines, and the colour turned to a brilliant crimson in the pure white glow. "And so, Princess, I would offer you a treat fit for royalty."
Ashe accepted the fruit he offered her, turning it slowly in her hands. It was surprisingly heavy for its size, with a skin smooth as glass. It was firm to the touch.
Balthier lifted his fruit in her direction, as though to make a toast. "To success in our endeavours, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," he suggested, and bit into the fruit.
Ashe raised hers to her lips and breathed in the scent of it, sweet and fresh, with a strange hint of sandalwood that she realized must have come from being tucked against Balthier's shirt. She bit into it carefully. Juice gushed into her mouth, piercingly sweet, and ran down her chin. The fruit itself was firm and crisp, rather like a peach. She chewed it slowly and swallowed, savouring the taste. When she opened her eyes, she found Balthier staring at her with a faint smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"Ashe," he said, in the tone of utter reason that heralded an outlandish statement, "if you are going to make a face like that, you cannot expect me not to watch you."
"I suppose, then, that the person whimpering just now as he devoured the fruit was some other sky pirate?" she retorted.
He put on a pained expression. "Ashe, please, I certainly was not doing anything so foolish as whimpering." He paused, appeared to consider. "It is, however, possible that I was purring."
She laughed, and bit into her own treat once more. Sweetness expanded over her tongue and left her feeling just a trifle light-headed. She licked the juice from her fingers, and ignored Balthier watching her do so. Ladylike manners be damned, it was too good to waste.
"Thank you," she said after a moment, and he grinned.