Which Way Home
Fran had not fully known what to expect, emerging from the Wood. Humes intrigued her, compelled her. At least, those few she had seen at a distance on her rounds, as she passed silently through the green like an eldritch sentry. Their whispers, their laughter, their cries of pain, all had a different music than the lulling song of the Wood. They acted in accordance with their harsh, brief lives, and Fran had studied them through the leaves with the same curiosity she would give to some small forest creature. She could observe a squirrel all day and watch the end of its short life-- in the jaws of a coeurl looking for a snack, or crushed and secreted in the rippling tentacles of a malboro-- and not feel any particular sorrow. It was the way of things. The way of the Wood.
She had thought witnessing the deaths of Humes would be much the same.
Adventurers and travelers she saw often enough, lingering to learn their harsh language as they hacked their way through the trails in search of treasure or far off lands. Most of them were capable, and knew their weapons and left the strewn bodies of forest creatures in their wake. It did not perturb Fran as much as it did her sisters, that destruction. To Fran, the Humes were simply larger, more migratory predators of a sort that killed competition and in turn were sometimes killed themselves. She had come upon them dead from time to time, sometimes with crude cairns built over their slumping flesh, but had never seen one fall. The Wood extracted a tax for passage and harvest of its bounty, and Fran thought that good and fair.
But then, one day in the long, lush morning of her life, there were different Humes in the Wood. These were not pelt-harvesters or wanderers, but thin, wary creatures. Old men with hands that shook from some Hume disease Fran did not know, tired and careworn females in ragged clothes, small children with hungry ribs. Their backs were burdened with a pitiful collection of objects: cook pots and quilts, wicker cages with bedraggled chickens, old bows with fraying strings. Their eyes were haunted, and they brought with them a scent of smoke and fear.
The Wood had been whispering, for some time, of War outside, of Famine and Death. Fran had paid little heed to such things, snug inside the trees. It made no difference to her, but it clearly had made a difference to the Humes passing her watch, moving in an uneven line in the branches.
When the wolves came, and the cats, and the malevolent plants, Fran did not watch as she had watched the end of many smaller lives. Her arrow was on the string and singing, and though the Wood hissed dismay into her ears, for the first time Fran did not heed her.
The Humes stared at her, at her ears and her hair and hands, and drew closer together when she approached. It had never occurred to Fran that her aspect would be intimidating to Humes, but she supposed that the felled creatures of the wood, killed by one lethally aimed arrow each, had much to do with the Humes' fear.
Her grasp of their language was as yet too nebulous for conversation, but when she gestured at them to follow her, they put aside their rusty spears and obeyed. Through green path and mossy ruin she led them, down the swiftest paths of the Viera that not been found by the canniest Hume traveler. She kept silent and so did they, and when once a child dared to speak, his mother quickly shushed him.
One word of their language was said then, and one that Fran knew, for it was often murmured in fear or awe by those Humes in the Wood. Spirit.
They thought her a phantom, an incorporeal guide, and followed her willingly to deliverance or doom. When the Wood thinned and the green grew yellow with sunlight, Fran pulled back into the shadows where she belonged, melting into the trees. Only a few yards away, the plains stretched unending and golden beyond. The Humes turned back to thank her, and found her gone. From their small bundles they left offerings, gifts they likely could ill afford, piled in a heap around the thick, twisted roots of one of the last great trees. Once they were gone Fran drew closer and touched them, prodding them carefully with her shining, hard fingernails.
Rounds of silver and copper, stamped in curious patterns. Fran had seen this; it was money, and Humes traded with it. Left behind also was a small pile of grain, a leather flask that smelled of soured grapes, a pendant of glass shaped like a curvaceous Hume female. One child had left a ball, made of scraps of brightly-colored rags. It rolled back and forth under Fran's finger. She studied the things, smelled them and learned them, and left them where they lay. For many days after she came to examine them, long after most of the grain had been carried off by birds, and the remainder had sprouted in thin, green shoots.
When next she came upon a dead Hume, curled under a tree and only a few hours cold, she surprised herself with her tears. The Wood worried and nibbled at her ears as she gathered stones to cover him, and afterwards she went back to the place where she had led the Humes to safety, and stared a long time at the gilt edge of her world, weighing the tattered ball in the palm of her hand.
She did not leave soon after, but in her memory it seemed there was no time at all between that day and the day that she turned her back on the Wood forever.
The world beyond the wood assailed her, battered her, bewildered and seduced her. Never did the Viera in the Wood feel so much, so intently and so fast. It must be like this at all times for Humes, she considered, burning bright like a flare of swamp gas, bursting into the dark and then smothered by it.
She met other Viera from time to time, and they helped her with language and the daily confusion of unusual foodstuffs. But soon she learned to shun even their company. They were no more like her than the Viera she had left behind, or the Humes and Seeqs she passed in the street. They did not wish to observe and explore so much as to be Humes themselves, dyeing their hair and dressing after the fashion of the outer world. Worse still, they spoke of the voice of the Wood dying in their ears. Fran avoided them, she admitted to herself, out of fear of becoming like them.
Fran came to feel, in a way that was not entirely unpleasant, that she was alone in the world. She joined a clan of hunters and learned to make her own way, though she often found it hard and lonely work. Still, in most respects she became accustomed to her environment, with one exception.
The attention of the Hume males continued to confound her. Even after passing time with Viera who made their living by submitting to such interests, she was puzzled by the constancy of them. For centuries there had been no males among the Viera. When the time came for their numbers to increase, those chosen for the task were quickened by the Wood herself. There were no carnal joinings or elaborate social rituals, and once thrust into the bizarre and unpredictable arena of Hume desire, Fran was puzzled by her reception.
Some of the men she encountered were not uninteresting in the arrangement of their facial features, though she could not comprehend their fondness of growing out the fur on their chins. In studying Hume females, she noted enough similarities to see that she could be attractive to a Hume, but attractive in the way she found them so, like a well-bred chocobo or a clear summer's day. Beautiful, but in such a way entirely separate from her. Apparently, the Hume males found the differences in their species minimal at worst, and at best, intriguing.
Such relentless pursuit! In a world so full of the exotic and unusual, surely her furred ears and arched feet were of precious little note? If they found differences so appealing, why then were there Bangaa females wandering the streets, unmolested? Fran found their temperaments less than pleasant, but the variegated pattern on their scales seemed, to her, to be no less intriguing than the black tips of her own ears. And it was apparent from the Hume males she met that temperament was the last thing they cared about.
In the end she learned to endure the stares and retaliate against unscrupulous or intoxicated hands. It was her own price, she supposed, for living outside the Wood.
But sometimes she wished she could have a drink in peace.
"May I join you?"
Fran put down her nearly-empty glass of white wine without looking up, dismissal on her lips. Three times since she had sat down at her usual table in the Sandsea, she had been accosted. The last one had been little more than a boy, and clearly intimidated. At least she had smiled at him before declining his offer.
"I'm sorry," Fran began, "I have no need for company at the moment."
"Please don't mistake my intentions," the man continued. He had an educated voice, this one, and his accent was not Dalmascan. Archades, perhaps? Not likely, with the tone of the world these days, but Rabanastre got all kinds. "I'm interested in a business proposition, not a social one."
"I am interested in neither," Fran said, turning the page of her book of Valendian history. "And I--"
He sat down anyway.
Fran looked up at the sound of a scraping chair and the creak of leather trousers, annoyance on her face. Whatever she was going to say died at the sight of him. She thought all Hume males looked much alike but this one, with his close-cropped hair and unrepentant smile, seemed somewhat different. On the table he placed a dusty, dark-green bottle of wine. Virtus. Her favorite.
"I thought I should at least bring you a drink, for interrupting your solitude," he said, and pushed the bottle towards her.
Fran hesitated. "This is rare," she said, tapping her fingernail on the wax-sealed cork. "It does not travel well, from the Graylands to here."
"It does if it comes by air," the man countered. "I've just done a bit of a favor for the House of Bardorba, it was part of the fee. But please, be my guest. I don't care much for sparkling wines, and the case of Prudens he gave me is more than enough to serve my needs."
Fran smoothed her thumb along the deckled edge of the page she was reading, and then closed her book and lifted her glass, draining the last sip. The man smiled, as though he had won some sort of quiet victory.
"One glass," Fran said. "You may talk. And when I am done with it, you leave."
"I can't imagine a more fair proposal," he said, as Fran incised the wax around the cork with the tip of her nail, and prised out the cork. It gave with a pop of fragrant air. He watched her pouring it, and she arched a brow at his silence.
"The time you have purchased is dear," she said. "Do you intend to waste it without speaking?"
"On the contrary, I was just thinking how best to say it." He rubbed his bare chin and studied her, not like other men did, but like a shrewd moogle choosing the best chocobo to offer for hire. "I have a position available," he said at last, "as co-pilot on the most advanced airship ever to make a shadow on the ground, and I was hoping you would be available to fill it."
Fran swallowed the first sip of her wine, sweet bubbles of flavor bursting on her tongue. "I am afraid you have wasted your offer," she said. "I know nothing of airships."
"Ah," he said, unsurprised, "but you are a Viera, and a capable, skilled one, who has not been tempted into the baser entertainments of the world outside your trees. I need someone deft and clever, with a steady hand and even steadier nerves, and the last thing I want is a flibbertigibbet. Flying I can teach. But I've learned the hard way that I can't train someone out of being an imbecile, so I'm looking to start from the other end of things." He looked again at her hands, and Fran could tell he was not thinking the things other men thought when they did so. "Viera are naturally adept, but I need more than that."
Fran tilted her head, scenting the faint odor of mist that came off of him. His secrets were laid on thick, and she found that she liked the look of them, as much as Hume men must like the look of her. She let nothing of her thoughts seep into her words. "I expect then that you have terms prepared?"
"They're fairly simple," he said. "An even split of all the take, and you're free to go if you find the work doesn't please you. But something tells me you'll like it better than hunting down stray monsters for a pittance."
"How can I be assured that your intentions are honorable?" Fran asked. Men had gone through complicated ruses to get to her before, but this one was exceptional. If he had been lying, the mist would have told her so. And while he was not what she would call honest, at least he wasn't deceitful, either.
"My lady," he said, leaning in and lowering his voice, "My intentions are the furthest thing from honorable that is possible. But where are you are personally concerned, you have my word as a gentleman," he winked at her dubious expression, adding, "and private quarters with an interior lock."
"A sky pirate, is it?" There was the tiniest hint of a smile on Fran's lips. "Of what sort, exactly?"
"Whatever sort suits my needs." He made a dismissive gesture, absently brushing sand from the lace cuff of his silk shirt. "That's the most marvelous thing about piracy," he said, "is that it is the most flexible career you can imagine. It leaves little opportunity for you to get bored." He paused, and the look he gave her was keener than an arrow's tip. "And you, I understand, are bored to death of Dalmasca, and hunts, and you did not leave the Wood for that."
"You speak freely of what I left behind, sir," she said, feeling almost persecuted by his accuracy. "By what right do you do so?"
"By right of my own experience." His gaze was unflinching, and every trace of the idle rake was gone from his demeanor. He was a thing primed and dangerous, as different from other Humes as Fran was different from other Viera. "I know the heartache of an exile, and his exhilaration as well. And as one like you I ask you. Did you leave the Wood to crawl around on the dust? Or did you leave it to fly?"
Fran looked, almost against her will, at the notice board on the bar wall that had been her life for time out of mind. The tattered bills and their faded colors, the uncertain sketches of monsters from the hand of the hunt-scrivener. She was sick of the sight of them.
"What is your name?" she said, at last.
"Balthier," he answered, lying. She smiled at him smiling back at her, knowing she saw through him, and not caring in the least.
"Show me this airship of yours, Balthier," she said. "And then we will see."
"Bring the wine," Balthier said, standing up. In the slanting light of the high windows she saw the butts of the guns strapped to his thighs, gilt-handled and insolent, like their owner. "You're not likely to come back here."
"Perhaps," Fran said, but she knew he was right. If there was anything she excelled at, it was leaving things behind.