"Have you ever seen anything of the like?" Val asks Pham later on. He hadn't really gotten around to spending much time with the good Brother during their journey, and Val was regretting that more than a little now. "Emmett mentioned your dreams of fire, but have you had any about something like what we saw today?"
"Val, hello... no, I've never seen such a large ... herd, swarm, school... what is the term, anyway? In any event, I've never seen so many delphinids in one place before."
The ship shudders for a moment, and then starts to sway slightly. Pham gets a look of concern and says "Excuse me, Val, but it looks like we're hitting an eddy in the flow. I need to concentrate to keep us steady."
Val nods and excuses himself, leaving their pilot to concentrate on his task. Pham continues to pay extra-close attention, but as the ship continues in the rainbow sea, there is no sign of what the delphinids might have been fleeing, if they were indeed doing so.
* * *
Val has grown restless in the two months on board the _Cat_. It is not as if he has naught to do, but routines can become tedious. It is for this reason that he has decided to practice some long unused skills.
When time and the lack of company permits, Val works at picking the lock to an empty storage room, locking and unlocking it with his tools until he becomes comfortable with the skill again. His walks on deck are on cat's paws, below decks in shadows nipping in and out, often without being heard or seen. Practicing the art of picking pockets is definitely out, as it is bad form to do that to shipmates. Val instead contents himself with lifting his own pouch off his coat hung behind the cabin's door, or off the edge of the cot as silently and casually as possible. Palming was easy enough, however; he would often lift flatware from the table in the galley, pocket it, and return it just as unnoticed. It has become a game to him, though one played by himself. It is a distraction. But a distraction from what?
Since Val's last talk with Lenore, he hasn't gone out of his way to be with her again. If it happens, it happens, he tells himself. He feels it is best to not force anything, lest he harm her indirectly by bringing attention to her. Though he notes, with some concern, that he has not seen her at all since they entered the Flow.
Val moves about the deck, watching the sluk pass by -- he notices Lenore and Nyala at the rail, silhouetted by the rainbow brilliance of the phlogiston. He hangs back a bit, not wanting to interrupt. It isn't his intent to eavesdrop; he has too much respect for each to do that.
It does seem odd to him that Lenore and Nyala would be talking. Val noticed that the crew found Nyala standoffish, but it didn't bother him much. He'd met a few Idell-- *elves* in his travels (he must remember to note the distinction), and some shared traits with this one. She seems aloof and detached, yet sharp and highly observant. Val almost envies Nyala's rock-steady façade, a trait he seems to find lacking in himself. More often than not, he finds himself relying on charm and fast-talking rather than stoicism.
Nyala also gives the impression of being very capable and in control. An interesting contrast to the young woman standing beside her.... Not that Val thought Lenore wasn't capable - just not as much in control. They certainly make for an interesting pair.
Val contents himself to watch until he sees Lenore eventually head off as Nyala continues to walk about the deck. Oddly enough, he finds himself wanting to speak with the elf.
"Is everything okay?" Val asks Nyala, falling into step next to her. He's fairly certain she had seen him there, so he doesn't feel a need for preamble. Val remains casual and relaxed, continuing to look ahead as he has seen Nyala do when speaking to others.
"A question with many possible meanings," she notes.
"Then you have the choice of topics," Val replies, mischief dancing in his eyes.
That earns him a long, and completely unreadable, look. "I believe the answer to your question is 'yes.'"
"Ah," is his simple reply. He offers her a charming smile, which she sheds like water off a duck's back. Val is undeterred by her serenely unreadable gaze.
"How are things going with Emmett?" Val asks after a few more paces. There is a hint of earnestness in this question. He'd been wondering since the one night when the half-man didn't take his hint to ask Nyala to dance. Perhaps they never hit it off?...
Is that a touch of amusement? "He could answer that question better, I'm sure; we have not shared a watch in some weeks. You are friends, are you not?"
"Yeah, you could say that," he replies with a smile. It was pretty safe to say that Emmett was the closest thing he had to a friend since leaving Driahn. "He's got a heart of gold. Literally," he adds with mock seriousness. Val isn't quite sure what to make of the flicker across Nyala's facade.
"And, since he *isn't* here to answer the question better..." Val trails off, one corner of his lips turned up in a mischievous smile. He isn't going to let her get off that easily.
"Then you will have to ask him later," she ripostes neatly. With that she nods slightly; it appears that she intends to head belowdecks.
"Wait," Val says, this time in thickly accented elvish. He had come to understand that the Idell he had learned on his own world was remarkably similar to the languages spoken by elves of other spheres. "Why are you so..." he begins, but pauses to look for the right words; his fluency has its limits. "Why do you avoid answers? Not just about half-man. All things," he manages to say.
He gives Nyala an unwavering look. If he weren't so flustered by her, he'd probably be proud of himself for remembering the complex language. _Why are women so hard to talk to?!_ Val thinks to himself.
Her gaze is somewhat curious now. "One could as well as why you question so. They are my answers, are they not?" she replies, also in elvish -- speaking a bit slowly for his benefit. "And my reasons are my own as well."
_Well, you got her to stop,_ Val thinks to himself. _Now what?!_
"Fair enough," Val replies in the common tongue, running his fingers through his hair. He smiles ruefully to indicate he is not trying to cause trouble. Well, not too much trouble anyway. "I meant no offense. It's just that I happen to...care. And you aren't the easiest person to get to know." He softens the last with another smile.
"Yes." Nyala gives him a bit of a quizzical look -- she's well aware of the fact, after all.
Val studies her for a moment. "Aaaaand I take it that you prefer it that way. Well, can't blame me for trying," he says with a shrug. "I'd personally hate being lonely all the time... Life is often too short to be that way, I've learned."
One corner of her mouth curls slightly, and there is a spark of amusement in her eyes. "Perhaps in a couple hundred years you'll feel differently. Have a good day, Val."
He offers her a rather tight-lipped smile, his eyes betraying annoyance, before heading off on his own. _Perhaps in a couple hundred years, indeed!_ Val thinks to himself. _Damn elves..._
* * *
"I do not," Nyala announces with a heartfelt sigh, "understand men."
"Fair enough, they don't understand you." Her brother scowls at the sack of spices in his hand, weighing it thoughtfully.
"I don't wish them to."
"Well then, there you go." He sets it back in the chest, pulls out another. They are alone in the galley, ibn Fadil having been dismissed for the "night." Pleased though he is to have an assistant, Nahele has not been able to figure out just what the half-elf is doing on the ship; he performs his duties well and willingly, but does not seem to have interest in sailing as such. Running from something, most likely. Well, he's not the only one... ah, there's that dried sage....
"Are you listening to me?"
"What?" He starts guiltily.
"I was trying to be pleasant. He seems concerned about the woman who is not what she claims I passed on your message, too and I tried to tell him that she was well, and then he began questioning me and would *not* be put off." She frowns in some annoyance between the two of them, she does not mask her expressions.
"Oh. I rather like him," Nahele confesses. "He's a good sort. Bit rough around the edges, but most humans are. And he appreciates my cooking."
"This one seemed to think there is something between us." She glares when this revelation results in a peal of laughter. "What you're thinking is *not* funny."
"I think so," he grins.
"You're frivolous. I tried to be kind." She has the feeling she failed rather dramatically at it.
"I'm also considerably older than you are," he points out, still smiling. He considers ruffling her hair to prove both points, but she might dislocate his shoulder.
"What has that to do with anything?"
"Justno," he decides, growing a bit thoughtful. "I think it may well be something that cannot be told, but must simply be learned. You needn't waste such fierce looks on me, either, they only got you anything when Father was about. Will you take some advice from one so frivolous as I?"
"Perhaps," she replies dubiously.
"Talk to them. Maybe even smile once in a while. You're going to be spending a good long while among their company, I suspect these or ones much like them and you'd best get used to dealing with them." _And if you insist on making yourself such a puzzle,_ he adds to himself, _you'd best expect them to try and solve you._ He himself has found loquaciousness a far more useful defense than silence. But she'll have to figure that part out for herself.
"Much time?" She arches her brows in surprise. "I thought we were staying on Maekalan, even if they won't have you on Janik."
"I intend to. I've had enough roaming for a while." He sighs faintly. Just when he would have thought about going home for a bit, too. Well, Nyala's done enough brooding for the both of them, not much sense in that.
"I see, I think." She frowns slightly.
"And in any case, we've months yet to go in this journey," he points out. "May as well try to enjoy it."
A sigh. "Perhaps I will speak again with the woman."
"There you go," he nods encouragingly. "Given her situation, she could probably use a friend." _As well could you._ "Now where did I put the pepper...."
* * *
_Watches with Yestin sure are interesting_ Emmett thinks, keeping his good eye on the phlogiston panorama and letting the other half of his mind run through the various mysteries on board ship. _I can feel his occasional big-eyed glances from across the ship. What is he doing? Checking me for loyalty? Sizing me up for the kill?_
The half man knows there are secrets on board the ship -- two months on board and there was no way he couldn't notice. Val is doing something stupid concerning Lenore, and it looks like contrary to all logic ibn Fadil is helping him. Nyala is hiding something, but probably just to look all mysterious and inscrutable, so she can act superior. Pham is disturbingly open, which to some of the crew is worse than if he cackled madly and ranted about their doom. Rooming with Hiro is like rooming with a brooding statue, but those secrets are probably old. The only secret that really concerns Emmett was how the Giff keeps watching him when he thinks Emmett isn't looking.
_And two months is time enough to deal with that. I think I have a handle on his facial reactions._ Emmett waits for the turn on watch duty to end, then quickly corners the young Giff. "You know. I think I'm going to tell Delmar that we shouldn't be partnered together anymore." The half man says with a serious look, subtly eyeing the Giff to see how he reacts.
Yestin looks thoroughly taken aback, ears twitching disconcertedly. "Wh -- well, as you think best... why?" he asks with every evidence of sincere concern.
"Well, heck boy - the mast!" Emmett shakes his hook and breaks into a grin. "I can't climb and you'd snap the sucker in half. If something happens up there we'd be outta luck!" Emmett slaps the young Giff on the back, free for once to use something close to his full strength. "Come on, we'll get a drink and arm wrestle or something. Maybe we can get over my obvious stature and strength are making you nervous."
Emmett steers the Giff (as much as is possible) towards the Galley, looking for an excuse to sit down and chat with 'the boy', keeping an eye on his face to look for more shocked reactions. _Ear Twitching. He's worried about something, that's for sure..._
Yestin seems a little hesitant -- of course, he's not one of the ship's more sociable sorts -- but after an uncertain moment follows along with every appearance of willingness.
It's late at night, and Emmett sees Hiro and the ice queen start their patrols as he leads his current 'watch buddy' below decks. Emmett takes a quick glance around to make sure ibn Fadil isn't present -- _The last thing Yestin needs is another one of us making him nervous,_ before snagging two flagons of ale and the leftover food set aside for them.
"Sorry about the jest upstairs, boy, but the look on your face was priceless," Emmett says, slipping the full mug into the table in front of the huge Giff. Grasping his flagon with three fingers and thumb he points with the fourth one, "But it proves a point - two months on patrol together and all you know about me is that I'm devilishly handsome and a great dancer, and all I know about you is that you're bloody big and stay up writing all night."
He leans in and fixes his eye on the Giff. "So why don't you tell me about yourself? Saves me staring at the back of your head on watch and just guessing."
Again, the ears twitch; he seems a bit startled by the question. "Me? There's very little to say, sir. I've been on ships most of my life, but have seen little of the worlds outside of them until we came to Bral a few years ago. I was only recently judged old enough to take part in our -- in the patrols there." He grips the mug carefully in a large hand and drinks half of the ale in a swallow.
Emmett smiles. "Well, that's a start. More than I knew before. Honestly, all I know about your people is, well, what everyone knows - that you're damn good fighters and utterly incorruptable." Emmett pauses to take a drink, keeping an eye on the Giff. "So tell me about them - something you're gonna have to get used to on cruises - we've all got time, and we might was well find out about our neighbors in wildspace: who's good at what, how people organize themselves, who can be trusted and who can't."
The half man pauses again to take a bite of the...interesting...unfired food. "And eat up - I won't get any advantage from you losing your fighting strength, now would I?"
Yestin snorts softly, a sound reminiscent of a horse and which seems to suggest amusement. He seems a bit more relaxed now. "Unlikely. As for who can be trusted -- that is hard to tell, isn't it?" He pauses and then says a bit abruptly, "I've heard some of the stories you tell the crew. I would like to hear more of them. I hope I do not presume overmuch. Manners among my people are somewhat different than with humans, it seems -- I have tried not to offend."
Emmett reassures him that he's done nothing of the sort, and keeps watching closely as he launches into one of his favorite tales. Over the course of the conversation, he learns that Yestin is approximately seventeen years old in Cadin terms and last saw his parents when he was ten, at which point he entered his peoples' extensive system of fosterage, which eventually landed him with one of the Bral mercenary troops. He eventually admits that he's only been in one real battle, with a crew of small-time smugglers unwise enough to try practicing their craft near the Rock.
The giff is certainly twitchy guilty conscience? when it comes to some subjects, and whenever Emmett mentions Bral he clams right up. He does rule out the "sizing me up for the kill" option, however; unless Yestin is a fantastically good actor, his hesitations are the real thing. Whoever heard of a shy giff?
* * *
One sphere, and then a second, appears and falls behind the ship as she races through the phlogiston at incalculable speeds. It is not until they are nearing the sphere of their destination that they encounter another ship. The _Palla_ is an elven-crewed hammership, outward bound after a profitable run among the many worlds of Tabaret sphere (among which are Maekalan and its moon Janik).
"Can you take a letter on?" Theo asks their captain, the two ships as near as their pilots can manage. Most of the _Cat_'s crew is on deck, hungry for new faces after months in such confined company.
"Certainly," his opposite number nods graciously.
"Half a minute, then"
"Captain," Lenore interrupts breathlessly, having rushed up from her room. "Ask them ask them oh please, is there any news of a ship called the _Silver Swan?_"
"Excuse me," he snaps, taken aback by her sudden presumption after so many months of silent deference, then pauses and stares hard for a moment, a searching up-and-down glance. "Hah." He turns back to the rail and shouts her question across the gap, but the other captain shakes his head. "There you are. I've a note to write. We will speak later," he informs her gruffly. Lenore bows her head in silent acceptance of the rebuke, shrinking back slightly as he stamps past her.
While he's gone, Nahele engages in a rapid-fire conversation with his opposite number on the _Palla_, and seems pleased by the result. "Ibn Fadil down in storeroom two, the small wooden chest to the left of the door. Quickly."
A transfer is worked out; the other cook inspects the chest's contents, waves at Nahele with a wide smile, and sends over two crates, which he shepherds to their new home in the kitchen with great care and without allowing anyone to look inside.
Theo soon reappears with the letter to send Bral-wards, and with many a wave on both sides the two ships part.
Whatever passes between the captain and their passenger, does not pass the walls of his stateroom. It seems fairly clear to most of the crew by now that the lady's maid has been sent away out of kindness or as punishment, theories differ after discovery of some scandalous love affair, the consequences of which are by now physically apparent. Speculation is rife as to whether the oligarch himself was dallying with his wife's servant, or whether perhaps it was one of the other lords, or whether she fell victim to some wandering rogue. Their tongues are stilled whenever the captain or the woman are in the area, of course. Or, by that time, Nyala as well, since she often accompanies Lenore on her strolls these days. Or, by extension, her brother. Despite all that, they still manage to talk quite a bit.
* * *
At last, the long-awaited day the _Lazy Cat_ passes into the crystal sphere that houses her destination. The captain calls a halt so he can determine their location and thence their heading, and Nahele whoops with unrestrained enthusiasm as he lights the fire.
"Out! Everyone out!" he pushes the off-duty crew from the galley. "I must have peace to prepare a decent meal for the first time in months! If I can remember how! Assistant, stand ready!" the elf commands with a grand flourish of his favorite cleaver.
Whatever he's doing, it involves the crates from the _Palla_, and it smells fantastic. Even those who would normally be sleeping are drawn up on deck, anticipating the results of Nahele's labors. Emmett's stomach is growling as he paces his usual course up and down the deck. After so many weeks of phlogiston glow, the starlit darkness of wildspace looks almost strange. At least the ones here seem to stay put, unlike
In the fraction of a second it takes for him to realize that the commanding bellow he just heard has issued from the Ice Queen, others on deck start screaming. There is a smell of blood in the ship's air.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson