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Anacrusis

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My darling, what does it matter? We've lost everything to be our own masters, why waste our sacrificial blessing on despair? Why do you weep over the threat of time when it is meaningless? The future is a lie, it does not exist. All that matters, all that is real is right now – is you and I.

Listen—I want to run all my life, screaming at the top of my lungs. Let all of our lives be an unfettered howl. Like the coliseum greeting the gladiator. Don't stop to think, don't interrupt the scream, exhale, release life's rapture. Everything is blooming. Everything is flying. Everything is screaming, choking on its screams. Laughter. Taking. Running. Let-down hair. That is all there is to life.

So run with me.


Balthier sat beneath the large black cypress tree in front of the city's zoo, as he had every Monday afternoon these last few months, observing the foot traffic passing the Haezor Museum. Ageworn and discolored a gothic black from the great maze of roads intertwined through the city, it was an ancient building that sat in the oldest part of town amongst charming stone buildings. Great grey tiled spires capped circular towers edged each long block that was built deep into the side of a mountain. Stacked like seating at an auditorium, staggered rows of stone and wood buildings covered its eastern slope towering above green and golden rows of farms at its base. Large, rustling, russet leaves waddled as they raced along rosy tinted ancient stones in tight circular patterns of the wide sidewalk that used to, according to the museum itself, be a part of a larger plaza that spread out into a vast great garden. What was left of that garden was now a state owned zoo surrounded by narrow wooden storied homes and much of that plaza was now a road stained with black ribbons from the exhaust of small hover-bikes that zipped along it and the vast coastline of the country.

If temples speak to us of the divine, zoos remind us of the solemn, and tender, beginning of creation. The only sad part is that this artificial Eden is all behind bars, although it is also true that if there were no enclosures the very first hyena would savage you immediately. It is Eden nonetheless, insofar as man is able to reproduce it, and the city of Avane boasted one of the finest zoos in the civilized world.

In the winter prior, when the tropical beasts are hidden away, he gave the street children a little extra and encouraged them to visit the warmth of the amphibian, insect, and fish houses. Rows of illuminated displays behind glass in the dimly lit hall resemble the portholes through which the most daring submarine sailors would peer through during their explorations into the murky unknown. In bright recesses, silver fishes glide with flashing fins, seaweeds dance in time with the artificial surge, little crabs and snails clinging to their hairy algae covered surfaces. Linger in the crowded rows that have distracted patrons in bulky numb coats engrossed in the hypnotic undulations behind the glowing glass, idly mumbling gossip that may be of interest to the well paying foreigner that sits every Monday on the blackwood bench with the brass lion finials beneath the black cypress trees.

"And," he would remind them before they scurried off, "do not omit to watch the rare giant tortoise being fed in its damp underground lair. That plodding, ancient domed beast was brought all the way from the subcontinent." With a decrepit kind of cautiousness and a useless deformed head, the turtle sticks its long, grotesque, fleshy tongue against the bushy tree limbs hung at his level or mossy rocks to feed, making one wonder on the logistics of felling such a beast and how much its enormous lustrous shell would sell for to an enterprising smuggler. He reflected while he waited that she would probably not come to the rendezvous. And that, if she did, they would quarrel again anyway.

Hurried bundles of coats and shawled heads passed by the museum as he waited and the promise of its warm interior beckoned to his numb face. Window shopping, as it were, had an attractive ring to it as well and not wanting to return to his ship just yet and the sky beginning to fill with darkening clouds and the chill was encouraging a depressive ache so he decided to finally go inside. No sooner had he stepped onto the black and white tiles of the foyer than the clatter of a moved stool came from a distant corner, and a custodian — a balding vet missing three fingers — rose to meet Balthier, adjusting his black belt over his round belly, making the entrance echo with his authority; the sound of a million shaking keys. He hung his coat and paid the dollar visitors fee and as he entered the main hall he craned his neck up to look at the large piece of an ancient statue in the entrance hall, a piece of a monolithic brass foot of a great king that had been amputated from a long gone body by time and thieves.

Everything was as it should be. A tad stuffy. The smell of damp mortar and stone permeated the air. He never quite understood the fascination people had with old things. A fascination based on belief. A ceramic bowl once used to store flour or oil but now, it's an object of universal admiration for its laconic pattern and unique form. Everyone is suddenly in awe of the mundane object. But then it turns out that it's not antique at all, that some conman has palmed it off on the archaeologists or collector just for fun or profit. Strange as it may seem, the admiration dies off. These so-called connoisseurs. It's a bizarre religion, this worship of the ancient man. His holy relics line plush velvet shelves, protected by glass encasements, filling countless museums and collections the world over. Every civilized people are fanatic followers in this reverence of the ancient. The researcher their priests, museums their temples. Even the dead themselves are displayed before their macabre worshipers, their graves looted and defiled, any requirements of reaching the afterlife made null and void. Anything that autocratic little academics can snatch up to be prostituted before the gawking masses for a trivial fee. As he knew first hand, an intact mummy fetched a decent price and no one ever seemed to have any ethical qualms over plundering the dead. He often wondered if the moment an ancient king's tomb was deconstructed and packed up and shipped to some professor of antiquities, the clueless souls were yanked from their afterlives, exiled from heaven, torn from existing alongside their gods and flung into an endless limbo of nothingness or cast back onto the earth as a twisted fiend, preying on the living. No matter, it was a fascination that made him a lot of money.

Philosophical disagreements over the essence of millennia old property that belonged to no one by the laws of nature often clashed with the self-serving nature of man, but the one thing in the end all could agree on was the high value in ancient beauty, and the universal knowledge that all beauty is profitable. The museum collects its fees, as does the pirate smuggler, as does the academic who further cements his position.

Above the main hall an alabaster window let in a delicate muted sun light, warming the cold stone interior with a yellow glow. Along the walls hung vast impressive tapestries of valiant knights armored in gold, intricate sigils, robed sorcerers and monstrous wyrms. In the first salon past the large foyer was a burnished black wall covered in paintings of frolicking porcelain fleshed feys and nymphs, allegories of death, grinning delighted skeletons over foolish mortals with their trivial distractions and portraits of powerful anonymous strangers, the upper half made invisible through the blind white gloss of the painting where the drizzly light pouring through the window fell upon them. He moved down a hallway, hands in his pockets, gazing at the various glass cases containing tiny odds and ends. There was the usual case of old, worn coins laid upon black velvet. There was, on top of the case, a pair of stuffed rabbits, a Giza rabbit and a wyrdhare, with their Archadian names reading "Stardust" and "Brownish" if translated. Mounted and expertly lighted minerals sparkled citrine and fuchsia in their open graves of dusty paper-mâché; a sketch of a man and woman standing stiffly next to a large pile of indescript rocks hung above. Skimming over the description he learned the series of beautiful and valuable gemstones were from a recently discovered cave under a dead volcano in the Ragorian Mountains, a large imposing range that tore across the heart of the Rozarrian Empire made of razor sharp blades of rock that were said to be the jagged teeth from the jaw of an ancient dragon god, slain by a prophet at the end of the last divine era. The sword that is said to have accomplished this was rumored to be housed amongst the empire's treasure out of sight, in the former palace of the now exiled monarchs (living quite comfortably in a southern kingdom full of harems and sun), a heavily guarded fortress and capital of the current heavily armed government, unfortunately for Balthier. The tumbled polished stones the size of an apple were aptly named "dragon's bile" for its bright yellow bands woven through the umber rock.

He proceeded on and the hallway opened up into a circular room containing a large marble youth, draped in long flowing robes holding a young woman, her perfect breast exposed, her limp body filling his arms, her face smooth and serene in peaceful death, his wrought with agony; a scene perfectly captured in stone from ancient Seclian mythology, one of the major ancient civilizations both Rozarrian and Archadian culture was derived from. It also happened to be an ancient culture that modern day art and relic collectors paid sinfully high prices for anything from that period of time and simply by recovering an incredibly rare perpetual astronomical calendar made of gold, gemsteel and magicite from a poorly guarded museum storeroom and selling it to a private collector, a fine craftsman from a thousand years ago had made Balthier a much wealthier man almost overnight. It was an incredibly lucrative trade, yet a very small one, limited to a wealthy aristocratic clientele, one which he could perfectly blend within and understand and thus exploit with smashing success. After a bit of a rocky start in the world of sky pirating, he had found his stride and began following a few antiquity societies and museum foundations which had amazingly abysmal security. Along with lonely wives burdened with both cash and fidelity, he was able to earn himself a very comfortable life in Rozarria within a few months. Lifting him out of the unfamiliarity of poverty in his self-imposed exile, no one was a bigger fan of the long gone Seclians than Balthier and quietly, he estimated the weight and dimensions of the piece.

Beyond the hall was a cul-de-sac, and at once his eye was caught by the unmistakable shape of a viera sitting in the center of a large white room on a white upholstered bench, caged as it were in tawny sunlight, a dusty cone of which had just penetrated through the museum's glass vault. She was facing away from him, looking at the large painting hung on the wall directly in front of her, an expert weaving of deep browns, reds and yellow that stood out dramatically against its minimal setting, a great battle from long ago showing the moment of impact between a dashingly done up in gold and blue dragoon mounted cavalry and a determined but overcome phalanx. He slowly made his way towards her, pretending to be interested by smaller painting hung on either side of the long hall along the way, the glass showcases filled with small primitive stone carved fetishes, holy medals made of ivory, lacquered offering vessels, filigreed and bejeweled daggers.

Closer and closer, more and more of her came into focus. Glossy ivory hair pulled up high into a thick ponytail that sat between two long white brushstrokes of her ears and when she angled her head, just slightly, she exposed the deep v-cut in the back of her dusky rose gauze dress; her elegantly long nape, her shoulder blades silkily working beneath her bare autumn skin.

"May I join you?"

Not looking at him, she politely smiled and shook her head, gathering up her purse and slid down the bench giving him more room. He sat down and stared straight ahead at a sleipnir impaled upon a pike, the whites of its eyes bright in terror, its steel armor and pale sticky fur stained a dark red, its rider being thrown back, sword still in hand. The viera sat with her black silk covered legs crossed and an elbow resting on her knee, her chin resting on her fist. The dark folded top of her stockings strained against the silver clasp of a hidden garter strap just below the high side cut of her dress and even sitting a foot away, he could feel her luxurious warmth.

"It's a beautiful piece, isn't it?"

She nodded. "Yes."

"A glorious death," he said, reading the title off a small information card mounted just below the painting printed in both Rozarrian and high Archadian:

A Glorious Death, 183
Brrn. Norandis fan Blassindi (112-198)
Oil on aevis silk
132 x 280

The master's greatest work and considered one of the finest pieces of Reclamation Era artworks, this painting depicts the Battle of Caharis (May 1 st 15 roV) in which fifty thousand souls were lost in eliminating the Jannis invaders, ending their nearly three hundred year long occupation of northern Rozarria and bringing forth the prosperous Gilded Age.

"We should all be so fortunate," she said mantically, with that ancient foreign tongue of hers, dangling a strappy sea-green shoe on her toes, flexing her strange slender foot back and forth. After a long silence she asked, "You are from Archades, no?"

"Indeed, I am."

Looking at him through her thick lashes in a sidelong gaze. "You're a long way from home."

"As are you," said Balthier with a broad boyish grin. "Life is more exciting that way, wouldn't you agree?"

With a small bashful smile she brought her eyes back up to the painting. "Indeed."

Time passed as they both studied the gory scene in front of them in silence. Balthier carefully examined each horse and rider, each pikeman, each corpse, the mud made of blood pooling at the foreground, the endless umbral depths the charge conjured from as if the artist was evoking them straight out of the dark voids of hell. His eyes danced over each detail and tried to find any possible flaw, an obvious brush stroke, an unfinished or strangely expressioned face, but to his disappointment he found none. His peripheral vision concentrated all of his thought though, he could care less about any painting, watching the colorful aura of her, the misty shape of a long black leg stretching forward and bending back. Covertly stretching his neck, he stole another glance and wondered what she was doing there. It was so incredibly rare to see a viera outside Archadia, or really anywhere outside the peripherals of Golmore where they were rumored to dwell, the mythical source, a warren of dryadic beauties hidden deep within that ancient cursed wood. So rare was it for them to be seen in this country they were generally considered nothing but foreign folk lore.

A crackling boom echoed from the storm outside making her gasp softly and the both of them to look up. The dancing trails of rain drops were running down the glass above. Hearing a shoe squeak, he looked behind them and saw the custodian standing creepily at the end of the hallway watching them. Balthier sighed. "This chap has an unusual dedication to his office."

"He's been watching me on and off since I arrived."

"Maybe he thinks you'll nick it."

She smiled and said, "Wouldn't be easy." Bringing her warmth and rich fragrance with her, she leaned towards him and a pointed a long white tipped fingernail to the bottom corner of the painting, so close that he could see the fine white bloom along her forearm. She whispered, "Strong magicks are binding it to the stone. The light, when it hits, you'll see. Watch."

He intently watched the edge of the frame for what seemed like a long time and just when he was about to give up the clouds parted just enough for a small beam of light through the glass ceiling. A nearly imperceptible – but definitely there – iridescent tell-tale pattern of colors running up the side of the frame appeared where the sun light touched it, the sunny dust speckles repelling from its boundaries. When he looked back to her she raised her pale brows. "See?"

Her name was Fran. She was a dancer. As she spoke she leaned back slightly, supporting her weight on one long arm straightened out alongside her, and the silver pendant she wore reflected the light with the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest. She was absolutely breath taking and everything within him brightened as she explained how she had just arrived this morning and was leaving that evening for the alpine mountain city of Tzigane in the north. The best skiers in the world hail from Tzigane and every year she traveled there for the tournaments.

"Do you ski?" she asked, so sweetly that he told her he did when he never had in his life, his instinct was this answer would please her and it did. "It's great fun," she said. "As close to flying as one can be."

Her eyes narrowed with a breeze of embarrassment and went back to the painting as an adorable smile crossed her lips. With a deep boom and crackling rip of thunder, the lights in the hallway behind them hummed and hissed loudly as they flickered and dimmed, then popped as they went out completely. The next moment an avalanche of dull sound, the sound of distant thunder, came into motion, and started tumbling through the grey overcast sky. The voyeuristic old custodian sprung into action, grabbing his flashlight from his belt and ushering them to the exit.

Collecting her black seal fur coat and red domed umbrella from the check, as he helped push the soft fur up onto her shoulders he thought to perhaps ask her if she would like to go with him to the hotel a few blocks away, but even caught in a storm that seemed a little too forward. Opening the heavy door against the chilly wind as they stepped out and both shivered as it raced through their coats, watching her slip through his slippery fingers and likely disappear forever, he asked if she would allow him to accompany her to her transport.

"I don't wish to trouble you," she said, turning against the wind as a large gust blasted down the wide sidewalk. "I'll find my way."

"My ship is docked there, it's no trouble. Come, let's hurry."

Fran nodded and immediately slipped her long warm arm around his elbow, placing the umbrella over them both and let him lead the mile long trek through the wet streets of Avane. It grew dark. The rain was gusting. The wind greeted them turbulently at every corner. Then a streetcar clanged past, its windows burned with amber, its interior filled with black silhouettes. They quickly hopped aboard as it passed and he began drying his rain-soaked hands while she closed her umbrella and smoothed her coat.

The people inside looked sullen and swayed sleepily, seemingly unconcerned over the increasingly violent weather outside. They both found seats and listened to the booming thunder as the car drove on it's metal track, making Fran jump once or twice, squeezing the metal railing with a gloved hand. The car had to stop twice to remove felled tree branches from the roadway before they reached the aerodome and debarked out into the icy wind, the two of them running straight into the nearest entrance.

That's when they learned the aerodome had grounded all flights for the night. It was filled with stranded people muttering and talking, many had made their ways to the local hostels, hotels and the homes and businesses of entrepreneurial spirits leasing out extra bedrooms and couches already, as the sun was quickly fading and few wanted to wander in a storm in the dark. Some others had made the aerodome itself their own personal shelter and were laying in rows against the walls, using their baggage and coats as bedding on the repulsive red, black and gold casino mosaic carpeting of the floor making the whole place feel and smell like a disgusting crowded refugee camp.

"No one is departing anytime soon," he said, patting the rain off his cold numb face with a handkerchief. "Perhaps something to take the chill off is in order? Would you allow me to buy you a drink in the pilot's lounge?"

Letting him hang for a few heart stopping seconds, she stood up and he with her, then leaning her low hips to one side she rested her weight on one leg, put her hand to her chin as if in deep contemplation. A small grin spread across her lips and gave a slight nod. "I suppose."

"Mademoiselle," said Balthier with a broad, boyish grin. He bowed slightly and offered his hand out. "The honor humbles me."

To his heart's delight, she rested her hand in his and said, "You truly are from Archades."

For the first time he touched his lips to her hot downy skin, leaving a religious kiss on the delicate top of her hand between the fine gold chain of her bracelet and a large ring on her middle finger, a golden serpent coiling a carmine jewel, a small diamond braced in its jaws. She followed him from the small circular viewing area and down the main hallway, passing the unsightly squatters to a turn just behind an unmanned docent's station and through a door labeled "Authorized Persons Only" by the private hangar entrances. A small flight of stairs led up to the lounge, a rather cozy room with several small tables and a few seating areas near the large viewing platform, that was at the back of the aerodome with floor to ceiling windows, where he left her to watch the hail pummeling the building and the occasional tree limb or piece of roofing flying by as the howling wind picking up anything in its path while he bought them a bottle of spring wine at the bar.

He looked around, only four others were in there, no one he recognized, except the bartender of course, a friendly elderly man from Nabudis he had chatted with often in his year long stay in Rozarria. A small piece of a larger tattoo hidden beneath his shirt poked out on the side of his neck and the dry scaly tops of his wrists and never giving a straight answer, Balthier had surmised he was in exile, although the reasons why was impossible to tell, although on one occasion when the two of them were well into a bottle of expensive navar, a potent northern Rozarrian spirit made from a mildly hallucinatory flower that was quite illegal in the city, he told Balthier he would give anything to see his parent's graves again and how he would violently murder 'that bastard'. He may have mentioned a thieves guild he ran with but Balthier was so drunk by that point he could no longer tell what was real or not and his concentration was focused on the bizarre visuals of the table passing into another dimension and Moder, the aerodome's resident tabby cat, becoming transparent and quoting the Archadian creed to him in high Portonic, a long dead liturgical language. The old man couldn't mix a drink worth a damn, but he was a friendly ear and passed along things he'd heard on occasion for small bribes. He didn't charge for the spring wine, nodding towards Fran and saying anyone that beautiful gracing his dingy bar deserved to drink free.

"You sure? Your dementia acting up again?"

The old man dismissively waved at Balthier and began rubbing his short white beard while he stared at Fran. "I haven't seen a viera in all the years I've lived out west. Where did you find her?"

"She is quite the mystery," said Balthier, looking over his shoulder at Fran. "The museum."

"The museum, huh. Why the gods give such a cocky little shit like you all the quim?"

"The gods have nothing to do with it, my friend."

"You know, you're right. I should have given credit where credit is due – your ship."

"It doesn't hurt," Balthier said with a smile.

"You're so full of it," the old man laughed and groaned as he bent over and grabbed a bottle of spring wine from beneath the counter and handed the dark green bottle with gold print to Balthier. "Taking this to the Strahl, then?"

"It's being cleaned," Balthier said a bit sadly, placing five Rozarrian dollar coins on the bar and putting his coin purse back in his powder bag.

"Well, good luck, kiddo," the old man said, pocketing the money. He took two glasses from the shelf behind him and placed them down on the counter. He looked over at Fran again. "Damn," he said, shaking his head. "Makes you believe in divinity, doesn't it? How else can something so lovely exist in this terrible world."

She was and always would be a quiet woman, whose silence one must become accustom to, and their conversation began a bit bumpily, a little jagged. But all of it, her defensive detached tone, her stiff posture and her long silences vanished with delighted astonishment as soon as he mentioned his hobby of collecting and restoring antique rotary engines, of all things. How her face lit up as she reached out and touched his forearm (the innocent gesture causing sudden, glorious violence to his heart) when he told her he had built one when he was young and installed it on a bike, the power of it subsequently crashing him into a very angry elderly couple's brownstone stairs.

"You did not," she exclaimed, as if he was shining her on. With complete sincerity, her hand still on his arm, she said, "I love rotary engines."

Flattered by her fake interest he laughed and dismissively waved a hand. "Of course you do."

Defensively she squeezed his arm and snapped, "I do so! It was the first I learned."

"A gateway engine," he quipped and she laughed which made him laugh in turn. This strange coincidence made him wonder if any of this was actually real, if someone had actually made her up as some dream woman, complete with passionate interest in a rather rare hobby usually populated with sweaty men stained in oil and grease. Any moment now reality would reset to normal or he would wake up in his bed, frustrated and alone.

But her interest was real or at the very least her creator had done extensive research. Every barrier dropped away and suddenly they were speaking as friends might, and he let the guard drop a little letting his passions over all things flying that made most women's eyes glaze over in boredom flow freely. When he mentioned his short stint at the Imperial Engineering Academy were the best seven months of his life before his father forced him to leave, her face softened in sympathy and he had to gloss over her inquiring as to why.

"He had other plans for me," he replied, feeling strangely exposed. "Are viera parents tyrants or delinquents? That is something I have always wondered. I know nothing about your people."

"Most don't. Viera have no parents," she answered flatly. Adding to the ambiguity of her statement she said, "Not to raise them."

"I take that back, the one thing I do know about your people is you are the absolute masters of subterfuge."

"You know many viera?"

"Just you."

His answer seemed to amuse her. "I'll tell you a devastating truth, if you like?"

"Please."

"One should be careful what they wish to know. Lift the veil, and one only finds the viera incredibly dull and boring."

"That's a tad harsh," he softly laughed. "You don't seem very boring."

"Hence me here with you and not them."

He realized he liked her immediately. Deeper and deeper they delved into their unexpected shared world and terminology of machinery, fabricating, and of course, flying, and more and more he was suspecting she was no simple dancer but this only made him increasingly intrigued with this strange woman. He went on to tell her even something he hadn't told anyone, all about his first signs of mechanical talent when he was four and disassembled his mother's (or rather the housegirl's) vacuum cleaner down to the last bolt to see how it worked, earning a sound beating in reward. After a few more incidences of inappropriate disassembly (toaster, coffee table) and the resulting rage and exasperation of his mother, his father finally gave him a constructive outlet for his curiosity and tinkering hands, by giving him a child's mini-hover kit which he put together in less than a day, and by the time he was a lad he had his own garage of racers, hovers and classic petroleum powered monsters. Naturally the subject drifted to airships and he gave careful hints at the more impressive aspects of his complete overhaul of his pride and joy.

"Is this the one called Strahl? I heard your friend, earlier," she explained, nodding her head towards the bar. "Tell me, why such a name?"

"Well," said Balthier, taking a sharp inhale and leaning back. He smiled, a little embarrassed. "You heard all that did you?"

"I hear everything," remarked Fran, the spilled ink tip of her ear canting to the side. From her bag she produced a silver case and inserted a cigarette into a holder. He immediately fetched a lighter out of his powder bag. "You don't have to tell me," she said, touching the tip of her cigarette to his blue flame and exhaling a floral stream of violet smoke and leaning back against the padded bench. "I'm only curious that you know the old tongue."

"All highborn Archadian children are painfully over-educated, but I shall tell you," he said and watched her pale eyebrows raise in delight as she smiled and leaned on her elbows toward him, in eager suspense. "I was once in a very dark place. Near death, and eagerly welcoming it. And then, like the end of the second act of a bad novel, in the depths of my despair, there she was. Like a ray of light through the darkness. Of hope." Lightly shrugging and smiling he polished off what was left in his glass and then added, "Forgive the schmaltz, I reckon I'm a tad drunk."

"No, why? I think it is beautiful," she said, a tad drunk herself. "I do believe he's in love."

"My wife for life."

"And what does an over-educated highborn Archadian half way across the world do with such a ship?" asked Fran, fixing him with her warm eyes. "Haul wheat husks?"

Grinning, he cryptically answered, "One can haul many things – for the right price."

They talked for a long time as the storm continued to pelt the aerodome with fat cherry sized hailstones, giving away much more than he intended about himself as, it turned out he had more in common than he would have ever thought possible with a woman, let alone a viera. They both ran away from home. They both loved the Kali class ships and they even hated the same countries. She was fascinated by ancient Nabrean philosophies on magick, flying old school ships and racers; she abhorred modern poetry and men who went out in public with uncovered necks. "I'm hopelessly sentimental," she told him, her cheeks slightly blushed with the warmth of her third glass of wine. "I can make furs out of a panther, but will hand raise its cubs."

Two more drinks later, feeling positively enchanted, he greedily memorized her every detail as she spoke; the golden specks in her cinnabar eyes set in shadows of black kohl, her tender unpainted lips, her tiny white teeth, the sharp inward slope that met the adorable round tip of her small stubby nose, the way a woven gold chain around her wrist laid upon her long avian bones when she demurely rested her chin on her folded hand as she listened to him.

When he asked her about how she came about to be a dancer, what that entailed, she was a little hazy on the details. She shrugged and smiled. "Viera make a lot of money from such things."

"Tell me," he said, glancing at her dainty feet. "Do all dancers wear bladed kick plates welded into their shoe?"

Studying him with smiling eyes she took a long pull off her cigarette and put it out in the glass ashtray on the table. "Obviously you do not know Rozarrian men."

He truly did not know what to think of her. Old tales of viera almost always described them as temptresses, the forbidden daughters of gods that delighted in luring hapless men, enchanted by their exotic lustful spells into awful, typically gruesome consequences. He'd always thought they were simple morality stories, trying to teach boys to think past their desire, which never worked, but it was a good try despite the fact most boys would willingly risk death or dismemberment to see, let alone touch such a woman. Every viera he'd seen or heard about in real life was completely uninterested in men, except for a few and only for criminal amounts of money. They kept to themselves, looked down on humes in general; they seemed to be an entire race of nothing but xenophobic gold digging ice queens. But this one, this one was so different from anything he expected. She was graceful and cocksure. Flirtatious and unapologetic. She said clever and funny things. Everything was so unbearably lovely and charming about this eccentric woodland nymph that he wanted her to keep talking forever so he could take his time and ingrain upon his memory her every idiosyncrasy, her every unconscious movement. She had a terribly wonderful habit of touching his forearm, and the radiant warmth through that delicate hand stirred something very poetic and primal.

With the tops of his fingers he gently touched them to the smooth slope of her arm below her elbow and an intense silence fell between them. It seemed as if some subtle current of recognition had passed between them – not as if they had met before – but as if they had come close several times until finally an impatient Fate had forced their paths to intersect. They sat semi-mirroring each other, resting one elbow on the top of the bench, legs crossed (his in a more masculine figure four), he reached under the table and touched her, just below the knee, gingerly running his fingers over warm silk. She smiled, bringing her hand under the table and with her fingertips drew delicate lazy swirls on the top of his wandering hand before entwining her fingers with his.

"Hey," he said after awhile, dying and wondering how many days of his life he would give to possess this beautiful creature, he asked, "Fancy getting out of here?"

A dreamy smile crossed her lips as she studied him for a moment. Almost whispering, she answered, "Okay."

His heart pounded to an intoxicating anxiety, made of intense excitement and perhaps even a little disbelief as he lead her by the hand out of the lounge and toward the hangars. Balthier looked at his watch, and disappointingly recalled he had scheduled a crew to give the ship a much needed cleaning, inside and out. He inwardly cursed Fate and its cruel twist, but his eagerness created a desperate, unrealistic dash of hope inside him that perhaps the crew were done already.

The sound of thunder boomed outside and echoed loudly against the dome's metal hangar doors as they walked down the cold stone hallway. Nothing but an orange door every forty feet or so with number tiles above each one spotted down one side of the stark white walls, none of which had windows, only the occasional fire extinguisher, and electronic conduit interrupting the utilitarian pattern leading to a fantastic promise ahead.

They were ten yards away from the hangar door the Strahl was behind, when a heart rattling boom and crash came from the heavens above. The lights flickered and he felt her grab his sleeve and let out a little gasp when they flickered again and then went completely out. They both froze still in the pitch blackness, she nervously laughed and grabbed onto his arm with both her hands. As they stumbled a bit and felt out for the security of the wall to guide them out, she was so close to him, he could smell the herbal sweetness of her breath, feel the radiant warmth of her body, and in the darkened privacy of the hallway he thrust his hands inside her hot furs and embraced her, pressing her gently against the cold wall. Her breathing changed, he felt her quivering beneath him as he stroked her hair, then drew his hand down her neck, across her collarbone, and down her arm, and back up to her neck until his fingers were submerged in her thick hair. Long, slender arms came around him and she pressed her belly to his as he slowly kissed along the small hollow of her neck and up to her soft lips.

"You're crazy," she softly gasped and laughed when his fingertips stroked her beneath her silky panties. She wrapped a leg around him and ground her hips greedily against his hand, seeking more, moaning into his mouth as he teased and caressed her, her excitement making his own arousal more ardent, his kiss hotter, his hold on her rougher.

All too soon the lights hummed and flickered back to life and giggling and feeling like drunken horny teenagers, they made for the hangar door at once. He threw open the door only to be greeted by three surprised looking women, one sitting on top of the ship in the process of filling his water tank, the other two folding his sheets from a large wicker basket in front of the stairs of the hatch where a young boy stood, holding a large black garbage bag almost the size of himself slung over his shoulder, who waved at Balthier and smiled. In a wood pen with mesh sides a small baby was sobbing inside, drooling all over its small fist he was sucking on for comfort.

"Sir?"

Fran grabbed his hand and quickly led him back into the hallway, stopping once they were inside the stairwell and wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, and once again both of them were panting and pawing in need. "The gods are against us," she sighed in frustration.

"To hell with them. I have an idea," he said, kissing the flat of her sternum. "Do you trust me?"

She laughed. "I do not even know you."

"I suppose you'll just have to trust me anyway," he said and winked caddishly at her, taking her hand, leading her to a indescript blue door just around the corner.

Making sure no one had noticed them, he turned on the light and quickly closed the door behind them. It was a small dark room that smelled like damp moldy cement and bleach, with a white sink attached to the wall and dilapidated snuff-shelf hanging precariously above, a white toilet right next it, surrounded by metal racks filled with cleansers and chemicals, towels and a couple years worth of toilet paper stacked high up against the wall. A slight a flash of doubt passed through his mind, perhaps she would be offended and by all rights she should have been, but she was just as determined as he was and even though she would never admit, he suspected she secretly enjoyed the deviancy of being taken by a handsome stranger in a dingy closet (that is entirely your own fantasy – in Fran's hand). He grabbed a broom and angled it against the door so no one could open it without some serious force. She observed his handiwork and gave her nod of approval followed by a curled finger in the international sign language for 'come here'.

"Not exactly romantic, but it will serve our purpose," he smiled and stepped towards her, matching each step back she took until she was up against the sink. Bending down slightly and grabbing her by her silky thighs, he easily lifted her light frame up onto the porcelain lip of the sink, making her gasp and laugh in surprise and the mountings of the sink creak in protest. Once again, he was running his hands over her supple slenderness as her long legs wrapped tightly around his waist.

"Hurry," she deliciously begged in his ear, sliding her hand over his aching desire. He frantically worked his stiff leather belt through its buckle while she was devouring his mouth and neck. As soon as the leather gave way, she slid off the uncomfortable sink and yanked his pants down to his knees and with her long graceful hands on his shoulders, guided him to sit down on the lid of the toilet. In a trance of complete enthrallment, he watched as she lifted her dress and pushed her panties down over her garter belt and to the floor, swung a leg over him and held on to his shoulder with one hand and with his very life gripped in the other, began her slow descent. The exquisite heat of her enveloped him and with both arms he grabbed her around the waist he held her tightly to him, keeping her still for a moment to recapture the reigns he had nearly lost before it even started.

"Done so soon?" she teased, running her long fingers through his hair, igniting the nerves down his spine.

"Not a chance," he groaned in tortured ecstasy as she sadistically rotated her hips in his lap. "I am all yours."

"Oh?" With his hands firmly grasping her lovely lyre, she kissed him deeply and said, "What a good boy he is."

The angle was killing his back and her sharp claws dug uncomfortably into his skin as she gripped his shoulders for support, but he would have let her remove his liver with a dull spoon if it excited her. The pain took the over-stimulating edge off, allowing his energetic lover to have her way with him for much longer than he imagined was possible, much to his delight and his burgeoning pride.

"Soon," he gasped against her damp neck, as he realized the limits of his mind over his body were passing into critical failure. He was not even sure if it was possible to pollinate these woodland nymphs and thought how he really needed to get some books on the subject. However, in the tradition of all male Archadian gentry, surely going back beyond the formation of the Empire itself, it had been beaten into him since adolescence to never ever risk the chance of an 'opportunistic succubus' (his father's favorite term for being dramatic when referring to Balthier's mother) with weaponized fertility looking to parasitically attach themselves to his entire birthright with some biological lottery win. It was also just plain good manners to at least give a girl a warning.

"With me," she panted against his lips, taking his face into her hands and a strange tenderness seized his heart as he looked into her dark reddish eyes and he obediently nodded. She kissed him so languidly, so deep—she was so wonderful, so intense, a lifetime's of conditioning was cast away in a moment, forgotten in the bliss of white hot passion.

Panting, smiling like a fool, running his hands up and down the back of her arms, she smiled warmly down at him and they lazily kissed while he caressed her, still connected, lost in the warm glow of each other. To stay like that forever he would have paid a kingdom's worth of stolen riches, but the cruelty of time and shame soon found them separated. He watched as she silently stood in front of the sink running the tap for warm water, looking at her slightly distorted reflection in a shiny tin towel dispenser mounted on the wall, using a finger tip to clean up the disturbed black powder around her eyes. After a last kiss, she disappeared into the crowds and was gone and as far as he knew, he would never see her again. The realization brought a creeping ache to his chest and made him feel suddenly a bit sleepy and sad, all of which he attributed to the weather.

Feeling thoroughly drained and filthy, he decided to take full advantage of the aerodome's facilities and took a long and very hot shower in a private and impressively clean cubicle, staying under the blasting spray until his skin was bright red and throbbing.

He later on would in fact try to find some books on viera only to find disappointingly few that were not either pornography or sheer conjecture, which was usually itself based mainly on pornography or the author's own obvious fetish. The truth of the matter was, trustworthy scientific information on viera was abysmally scant. A few were just plain scams, goading gullible desperate men into believing they had a chance of landing a viera if they only follow the author's 'proven tactics', 'secret knowledge' or 'psychological tricks'. Out of pure curiosity and amusement he flipped through one and found it's disturbingly strange and sometimes rapey advice so funny and unbelievable that it was a thing that actually existed that he bought one to show Fran and the rest to burn in case some literate madman were to find them and get the wrong ideas. A somewhat more credible sounding one: An Essay on Viera Peoples Differences and Similarities seemed like it might have been helpful at first it covered some very basic facts and figures, explained a bit about their basic anatomy side by side with a hume, but then it became very detailed and focused on their feet, and not just in an anatomical and clinical way, but in a way that made Balthier feel uncomfortable reading it in public and that's when he closed it and put it back.

In a bookstand in some backwater hole they stopped in once, while looking through countless bad handwritten titles and topical books on weird local oddities he found a small book titled Hopeless Pair, claiming to be by a man who spent his life with a viera and Balthier bought it instantly. He was fairly certain it would be an erotic story or some disgusting creepy sex thing of some kind, but to his surprise it was a kind of autobiography/essay on the author's life and his fifty year tumultuous affair with a viera and even seemed to hint in the description that this union created a child. Sitting closed away in his workspace with a small light he read the whole thing that night while she slept, desperate for some insight, some psychic camaraderie in a part of his life he was so completely alone and blind in. The writing was not great, but the story pulled him in immediately, even though the viera in this story was unlike Fran in many ways. She was a more 'typical' viera, quite dispassionate and a very shy and reserved personality and outside a few incidents, this viera, as most in general, did not particularly enjoy or even desire a physical relationship with the poor man, even calling it 'revoltingly biological'. Unsurprisingly, this led to many strains on their bond throughout the decades. The author spent a lot of time describing his frustration and self-hatred over his inability to remain faithful, but also did not hold back in expressing his anger and resentment towards her, and the deep regret at not being able to stop the sad cruel cycle it perpetuated between them for many years. It was quite moving and then when he thought it was getting to the bittersweet ending, there was some armchair philosophizing over the weakness of man and his primal needs and then it ended. Balthier nearly whipped his head back against the bulkhead from the shock to his brain and flipped back through to make sure he hadn't accidentally skipped something, but nope, it only confirmed the book just ended and he threw it against the floor and went to bed, hoping the author died of some kind of paralytic syphilis.

"Can humes and viera have children?" he had asked her one day early in their days together, only for her to shrug and cryptically answer, "In theory."

She then went on to tell a depressing tale from her people of a god who kidnaps a viera and proceeds to have a dozen or so children with her, so perhaps it was possible. When he pointed out that gods, or beings who proclaimed themselves as such, were well known and efficient rapists of all races, creating hybrid children in nearly every people's ancient legends, she had to concede and had no real answer for him. She admitted she had never seen a person of such mixed parentage before, but that didn't mean none existed.

"Do you want children, Fran?"

Not looking up she stabbed, "With you?"

Realizing he was treading in sensitive territory he ended the conversational topic with a, "Sorry I asked."

Once onboard his ship, he immediately checked every area to ensure everything was where it should be and that none of the cleaning crew had sticky hands. His safes were all intact and everything seemed to be where he left it, much to his relief as the last time a crafty laundress had made off with an expensive mid-century Dalmascan wheel-lock rifle he'd carelessly left in a vice in a state of mid-restoration and she'd simply wandered right into his work area and collected its disassembled parts off his bench into presumably a laundry bag (along with some nice tools) and likely sold it for a fraction of its real worth.

Satisfied he had not been robbed he changed into his nightshirt and climbed into his crisp clean bed, inhaling the floral bleach smell of his pillow while he thought with eager recollection of that mysterious woman he had just possessed, with the touchingly hollow chest and the dark ambered red eyes. He could not stop smiling as he recalled with a devilish thrill the taste of her hot skin and her sweet earthy smell, and could not help but pity she had left him so quickly.

Lovely Fran.