The buzz of Bral's usual activity has been lower than usual for a few days now, without outside ship traffic to stir the hivelike community into more vigorous life. The muted sunlight that filters through Haven, the air world around which Bral orbits and which it faces (thus forming an oddly distant sort of sky), is made more so this morning by a vast gathering storm, promising theatrics at a safe distance later on.
The place is far from quiet, of course. Bral is a densely packed place, and the sounds of people talking, laughing, arguing, and working echo through the tunnels dug out of the rock, make their way through the mazes of now-covered streets left behind by earlier occupants, and bounce through the windows of those lucky enough to live in the upper stories.
* * *
Emmett Half-Man is sitting in the Blue Wyvern, an adequate (and cheap) tavern frequented by spelljammer crews, looking from his drink to his small amount of remaining coin and thinking dark thoughts about tinker gnomes when a boyish head pokes through the door and announces, "Ship!"
"Where from?" a half dozen others want to know.
"Don't know yet. Big un, they say." He's gone.
Emmett folds his small leather wallet one handed and slides it back under his loose-fitting cotton shirt. _Whoever it is, they may need a marine. And it's time to move on. Just, please Gond, not a gnome ship. Please._ He gestures with his off hand, the light glinting from the hook catching the waiter's attention. There was enough on the table to cover his tab. It's not like the Blue Wyvern staff don't know him.
A casual shrug as he stands reaffirms the location of all of his tools and weapons. _Tenet 17: know where your tools are._ With a casual gait he lumbers to the door, his peg-leg striking the floor off beat from his scabbard striking his leather hip. He pushes the door open with his hook and pauses, scanning the room with his good eye to see if he needs to hold the door for anyone.
A few tables away, Val Ehrendrin pricks up his ears. One way or the other, this is an opportunity. Pickings have been slim on the Rock.
He takes note of any other patrons heading out at the news of a ship, stands and tosses a few coppers on the table to cover his last drink. "Hope this is something I can work with," he thinks to himself as he heads towards the door. He smooths the vest he wore and runs his fingers through his wavy brown hair. It wouldn't do to look sloppy, especially if there is an opportunity to impress someone.
The man at the door holds it open and pauses. Val pauses too, noticing the arm that ended in a hook and the peg leg. It takes Val a moment to even notice the eyepatch, as he tries valiantly not to stare. Other instincts take over, however, and Val is a bit disappointed to note the man carries no money pouch at his belt. Not that many people who eat at places like the Wyvern have much money. Besides, this guy looks like he needs every last copper he can get his hook on.
"Thanks, stranger," Val says cheerfully to the fellow as he slips out the door. "Looking for work too?" The last was more commentary than question, and Val doesn't pause for an answer.
Emmett falls into stride next to the brown-haired man, covering the distance between the two with an impressively quick hopping gait. "Looking for a ship. I've been on the Rock too long. It's time to get moving. I've seen you around the docks - you hoping to get a job unloading?"
The emphasis on the last word implies something. Emmett has been around long enough to know that many working on Bral's docks are actually sell-swords, adventurers, or sailors down on their luck and looking for a few quick coppers. In another week he'll be forced to do the same if something else didn't come up. His new companion has that look, and Emmett would bet that he had done more with his life than move crates.
"Unloading?" Val is a bit surprised that the man at the door fell into step beside him. He adjusts his stride to match the odd gait. Now that it is mentioned, Val thinks he recognizes the man as well. "Maybe... I've done worse. I wouldn't mind getting off this rock myself," Val answers with a smile. "I'm Valarin," he says, offering a half bow.
Emmett smiles broadly in return, then offers his hand, "Emmett. Nice to meet you. Maybe you'll get lucky and they'll need two people." As they turn the corner and see the huge-but-still-swelling crowd, he adds "And maybe all of these people will be really lucky and the ship will still need people after hiring us, eh Valarin?"
"Maybe *I'll* get lucky?" Val quirks an eyebrow at this as he shakes the offered hand. He likes Emmett's sense of humor. There is also something about the way the other carries himself; a certain sense of authority and experience.
* * *
Several blocks away horizontally and in the second subterranean layer of the Rock, the endless dice game in the back corner of the notorious Brass Bottle, where the variety in the clientele is balanced by the uniform awfulness of the wine, is interrupted by the news. Most of the players shrug and go back to their game, but there are several in the oligarchs' employ who hastily depart.
Ibn Fadil looks at the seven silver coins he just won, none of them from the same sphere, and then at the door, where the boy bringing the news has already gone to spread it to the rest of the town, and then back at the coins again. Fat Jack, the man who's running the game, rattles the dice in a wooden cup and calls for bets. "You in or not, ibn Fadil?" he adds.
"I'd better keep these for a while," ibn Fadil says, shaking his head, and tucks the coins away in his purse. He can leave with all of them, since the Bottle's staff knows better than to let him run a tab.
Out in the tunnels, his step lightens the farther he gets from the game with his new money still in hand. He wends his way unerringly toward the surface, stopping once to buy a drink from an elderly water-seller, and getting a lengthy update on her battle against arthritis along with it. In no hurry, he buys a second cup of water and the latest news about her neighbors as well, delivered with the zeal of a dedicated gossip.
* * *
Alais Zeremin has spent the day down by the docks, looking for work. His athanor, old and second-hand as it was, has broken, and even another such one will be costly. So he has spent the morning going to the various dock houses, asking if a ship needed to be moved or a tug or
pleasure-boat taken out. Often he can grab quite a few gold doing this. He finds no work today, but he does get an excellent view of the arriving visitor.
A few levels up from the Brass Bottle, the news reaches a small soup stall.
"Where is it from?" someone asks.
"Dunno." The boy continues down the street, passing the news. The soup stall promptly closes up to prepare for the expected influx of visitors.
Brother Pham tries to stifle a pang of annoyance. _Ah well_, he thinks, _at least a ship coming in is bound to have interesting tales of other spheres to share. And perhaps another food vendor
will be selling something more interesting than soup at the docks._
* * *
The docks are at one end of the asteroid's flattish oval, a complicated structure jutting out over nothingness, strongly constructed of timber and stone. At the moment, the only ships in are one of the mostly-giff mercenary transports whose squadron is currently on duty on the Rock, and the private vessels of some of the oligarchs. Immediately after disembarking, one finds oneself in one of Bral's few open areas, a half circle hedged in by the offices and warehouses of the intersphere trading houses who maintain presence on Bral.
Now that the news has spread, into this open area vendors rush and stake out a few square feet of ground with baskets of fruit and bread, bottles of drink, displays of sundries, weapons, and flamboyant cloth, anything that might tempt a newly landed visitor. A laundry tub advertises a halfling-run washing service, a pole with strips of brightly colored paper fluttering from its end a letter-writer, a sweet jingling sound J'x'st's glass goods shop.
As they near the docks, Val stretches his taller than average frame to try and see past the vendors and hawkers. He can't make anything out yet, so he contents himself with scanning the gathering crowd for *other* opportunities.... Subconsciously, one hand slides to his sword belt, and he takes mental stock of his own person and surroundings. No sense in becoming someone else's opportunity. He reminds himself to be mindful of the man with the hook, as that one seemed to see quite a lot with his one eye....
Eventually the ship comes into sight, a galleon -- ungainly and slow but big, and sure to carry some interesting cargo. A few streets away there is the noise of what sounds like a brawl erupting; the giff confer for a few moments and send some of their number to deal with it.
Their captain has a spyglass, and stands on the end of the dock bellowing out identifying details as soon as they can be made out. She's the _Fair Enough Lass_, and her flags identify her as a human-crewed free trader out of Phanail; she's a long way from her home sphere.
Emmett pushes his way towards the docks, trusting that Valarin to follow and trying in vain to get a better look at the vessel. In this he is hampered by his height, as always, but can make out the ships colors. He smiles a half smile at what the flags convey, and waits for his lanky companion or the children atop the boxes with the loose tongues to give him more information.
As he finally approaches the surface, ibn Fadil hears the brawl starting and changes his route to avoid it, and still arrives at the docks in plenty of time to see the ship approaching and hear the scant information available. Phanail is an unremarkable sphere, he recalls, rumored to be a pleasant enough place but of no great importance; the ship must have picked up cargo elsewhere to have bothered coming all this way. Looking first at the "sky," he immediately resolves to stay out to watch the storm's display.
"Looks awfully quiet on board," someone remarks as the galleon orients itself properly with regard to the dock and begins its approach, and others around her nod agreement; there seem to be only a few people moving around on deck, although in the dimness it's hard to see much detail.
"Maybe she ran into trouble?" someone else ventures, though the ship looks undamaged. She's shadowed at some distance by another of Bral's mercenary ships (http://webhome.idirect.com/~jonlast/Ships/hammership.jpg), standard procedure even for a lightly armed vessel such as this one.
"Maybe she's hiring," Emmett said, tossing out a line in a loud voice and hoping someone in the crowd would confirm it.
For ibn Fadil, the next order of business is to buy something to eat, since his stomach is fully aware that it's morning. He finds an enterprising baker who's carried a tub full of still-warm pies out to the docks, and knows him well enough to charge residents' rates. "What kind of a name is 'Fair Enough Lass'?" ibn Fadil wonders, taking a pie in each hand.
"Who knows?" the baker shrugs. "I just wonder where all the sailors are."
Ibn Fadil agrees around a mouthful of pie and wanders off, aiming toward the spot his favorite candy-maker has staked out.
Pham makes his way through the increasingly crowded streets, arriving shortly before the galleon pulls into port. The sight of a terrestrial sailing ship floating lightly through the air (or vacuum, to be pedantic) always fills him with a sense of awe. And to remember that he himself had been at the helm of such incongruous vessels still seems to be almost the act of a dreamer, not a down to earth man. Still, it is Hextor's will to experience such wonders - how could he deny the gifts that the god had seen fit to bestow on his humble servant?
The ship glides into her berth with commendable smoothness, and several people run around on deck making everything fast; then a man pushes out the plank and follows three others off the ship. They're all a bit shabby-looking; their leader is a tall man whose much-mended chain mail is covered by a patched blue cloak; he has a black, spiral-shaped tattoo on his left cheek and a smile for all in the crowd as he steps onto the dock.
Alais squints at the man, hardly able to believe his eyes. _That tattoo -- is it -- is it -- I think it is! The symbol of the Hurgan Brotherhood of the hypothesized Urcan civilization! But how? Damn, he moved. I need to be sure, and to talk to him -- but there they go._
"Greetings to the people of Bral! Your hospitality is legendary, and I see that legend does not exaggerate. Only allow us to deliver one small part of our cargo, and I promise you that the crew still aboard as well as ourselves will be at your disposal," he promises with a bow. "We have come far, and look forward to our leisure here." To the guard captain he presents a leather document case, which is handed back after a swift check for contrabrand. The four men make their way through the narrow path that forms for them, toward the receiving office of the venerable Three Trees trading company.
"Sounds like he's selling something," Mirabette the halfling candy-maker remarks cheerfully. "Ibn Fadil, how are you? Going to ship out this time?"
"Not while you still have lemon drops," he says, fishing in his purse for another coin. Two urchins materialize at his elbow to observe the transaction.
"I have orange today too," Mirabette says, and he buys a double-handful bag containing both.
Like its fellows near the docks, the Three Trees building is tall and narrow, with small balconies on each of the three upper stories and an alleyway to the left, leading back into the maze of inner Bral. Vines cover much of the old brick facade. On the lowest of the balconies stands the wizard Melkin, glowering down at the crowd with his usual lack of cheer. He's a middle-aged, slightly balding human, on the tall side and a bit portly, with splendidly embroidered robes. _Melkin. That old dingbat,_ Alais snorts to himself, still trying to get another glimpse of the man leading the visitors.
As the four men approach, he holds up a commanding hand; they halt obediently, enduring his scrutiny until with a disinterested grunt he waves them on and returns to his studies within. The doors open silently, admitting them to the offices of one of the wealthiest trading consortiums in known space.
Outside, the crowd settles down to wait, casting an occasional curious glance at the still-quiet ship. One man can be seen on deck, coiling a rope. More giff drift off to deal with the brawl, which has shown no signs of abating and, long-time residents can tell, has more likely spread to a second tavern.
Emmett rubs his jaw, feeling the untidy stubble, and chews his lip. _Four men ashore, one man on deck. Where's the rest of the crew? If they're from as far away as they say, they should be chomping at the bit to get ashore. They're either incredibly well disciplined and guarding something below or just not there...._
Trailed by a half-dozen children, ibn Fadil weaves through the crowd to a building a few doors in from the edge of the Rock, and sits down on the corner of a low wall defining a small patio in front of it. He can see the ship and the crowd and Three Trees from here, and begins throwing the children pieces of candy, making a game of it and wondering about the ship's apparent absence of crew. Nothing in the tattooed man's words alarms; the opposite, in fact. Maybe he just runs a very tight ship. Still, it's peculiar ...
Suddenly the wizard reemerges, his expression perplexed, hand at his throat. His mouth opens and closes, but he does not speak. Instead he puts one hand on the balcony rail and vaults down to the ground, quite lightly for a man of his stature. The crowd, alarmed, rapidly shifts away from him as he turns a circle three times widdershins --
-- and then gets down on all fours and begins barking. Those closest can see that he is wearing a jeweled collar. Before anyone on the dock can properly react to this development, there is the sound of clashing steel from within the Three Trees building. Someone within shouts, "In the name of Fang the Fearless, if you drop your weapons you will come to no harm! I'll take that if you don't mind...."
As one, those in the crowd outside think, No one tries to raid _Bral_! Then they look at each other with puzzled expressions and say, "Who?"
As he nears the docks, a slight grumble reminds Luc Pham of the more mundane task ahead of him - finding something for lunch. He turns around and looks for a vendor selling food. Unfortunately, everyone else is looking at the new arrivals. Then the shouting - and the stunned silence - and ... growling?!?!
As it dawns on them that they are actually under attack, the square begins to empty slowly. The half dozen giff remaining on the docks are as startled as anyone else at this turn of events. The streets are too narrow for the crowd to move quickly, and there are a lot of people; it is going to be some time before the area is clear.
"Not to worry," one giff remarks to a comrade. "It's not like they can get off." One of their number lumbers off toward the brawl to let those participating know that there's a *real* fight in the offing. Three head for the ship, slowed by the crowd as they try not to step on any of the puny beings around them, while the captain and another begin making their way toward Three Trees.
Amazed by the turn of events, Alais hunts in the pocket of his robe for a copper piece, makes a series of passes over it with his other hand as he murmurs the words to the spell, and attempts to read the thoughts of Fang. The mind he touches is awash in adrenaline and lunatic glee as he carefully places a bonsai crystal worth several fortunes in the leather case he carries, then spins to exchange further swordplay with one of the guards inside, who clearly did not lay down his weapon as requested. The uppermost thought in his mind is that if the ship doesn't work, they are all quite dead. He is also worried about a companion.
"Shit!" Val mutters. He'd bet gold that the brawl *is* a distraction. Not that many giff left in the immediate area; how convenient....
Val fades into the crowd, mindful of the weapons he carries. He has no intention of being a hero. Heroes tend to attract too much attention, and sometimes wind up dead. Just in case, Val palms a dagger as he tries to conceal himself amongst the stunned onlookers.
Emmett sees Val backing into the crowd, heading in the same direction he is, and lays his hand lightly on Val's arm. He notices the palmed dagger with some satisfaction - the man *is* more than just a dock worker. "Four men is not enough to mount a long raid - they'll either break for their ship or they have more men about to come off it. Either way we can block them at the gangplank before they can reinforce or get away. There's sure to be a reward."
With that the Half-Man moves to the back of the crowd, heading for the gangplank to put his plan into action, again trusting Val to follow.
"Reward?" Val hadn't thought of that. Greed overcomes common sense momentarily as Val thinks about this new opportunity. "Are you crazy?!" he asks of Emmett, but follows the shorter man anyway. Valarin might not be a hero, but Emmett just might need some help.
Val also keeps an eye on the building, looking for some sign of the four men that had yet to reemerge. If worst comes to pass, they could always knock the gangplank over to make things more difficult. He whispers his idea to Emmett as the two make their way around.
Emmett nods. That's a good thought - this Val guy is on the ball. As they near the ship, it's clear that like the men who came off it, it has seen better days; it will probably never land in water again -- not if it wants to get back out. There is no sign of the man who was on deck earlier.
Astonished, ibn Fadil tries to guess what the pirates' next move might be and finds he has no idea. But he does think of one thing: Leaning forward, he speaks to the children, his voice low but still cutting across their excited chatter. "I think you should all run home now."
Then he sits back (unable to really compel them, but he had to try) to watch and wait for developments, mentally taking note of several avenues of escape, possible vantage points, and the exact angle at which his sword is currently tucked through his sash.
Pham finds himself in a rather uncomfortable position. The crowd, retreating from the ensorcelled wizard, has retreated from around Pham as well, leaving him on the inner edge of the circle around Melkin. Spying the jewelled collar, Pham's first thoughts are, _Melkin may not be the kindest man in the world, but no-one deserves to be enslaved that way. But how'd they get it on him? Well, the first order of business is to stop him before he hurts himself or others._
Pham bows his head, staff held high, and begins to chant, at first to himself and then louder. As Hextor's power flows into him, the rest of the crowd ... the rest of the world ... seems to retreat. Pham speaks the final phrases, names "Melkin!" as the final word, and points at the barking man on the ground in front of him
The growls are cut short as Melkin suddenly stops moving, paralyzed in a rather awkward four-legged stance. Once the chant is done, Pham runs up to Melkin and attempts to remove the collar, but his searching fingers find no means of doing so. It appears to be made of leather, snug though not stranglingly tight on the wizard, but there is no visible catch or buckle. Pham settles for shouting to the nearest giff, "Melkin here is unharmed. Go rout the raiders inside!" Pham then steps to the side, dragging the still motionless Melkin with him, and waits for a reaction from the ship.
If there is one, he doesn't see it, because the door beside him is suddenly wrenched open, revealing the tattooed man in the act of ducking low beneath a two-handed stroke by one of the men who had been on guard within. There is a cry of pain and a thud as his attacker is incapacitated, and then the raider stands in the doorway for a moment, surveying the scene before him -- no longer concerned about guarding his back, so the men within have apparently been subdued.
Pham he grins at. "Sit, stay -- good doggie, isn't he?" His gaze sweeps the docks as he remarks, "Opposition, I see." As he descends the steps to ground level, the other three emerge behind him; their leader is the only one who does not appear at least slightly wounded, and all four have small bags of loot.
They stop as the two giff approach confidently. People are still trying to flee the square with their merchandise, but curious eyes peer from the relative safety of streets on the periphery and peek over roof parapets.
"Fang the Foolish, more like," the captain remarks, mouth gaping slightly in a giffish grin.
"Fang is many things, but foolish is the least of them," the tattooed man tosses back with impressive insouciance, particularly since the ship that escorted them into Bral appears to have noticed something amiss, and is on its way back to the dock. "I'd tell you more, but we really must be going."
It looks like, despite the odds, they're going to try to make a break for it.
| Top |
© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson