"You are a puzzle, ibn Fadil."
"So are you," he says, amazed that she has neither laughed nor recoiled. He leans slightly toward her. "Perhaps we can try to solve each other?"
"I wonder." Her tone is suddenly pensive, her expression speculative. "Such solutions are not often easily come by."
He leans closer still. "Then it is a challenge." When she doesn't move away, he kisses her. For a moment he can sense her hesitation, then she relaxes, puts her arms around him. In a distant corner of his mind it occurs to him that she's younger than she would like people to think she is. Her hair is just as soft as he imagined.
A few moments later she pulls away, gently. "A challenge, indeed," she says with a smile, and turns to go.
"Wait!" he says, now speaking in the Elvish dialect of Zakhara. "When can I -- speak with you again?"
She faces him again, still smiling, and replies in the same language. "Whenever you wish, of course."
After a moment of consideration, she nods. "Perhaps. Yes. Good night, ibn Fadil." After a last glance Nyala schools her expression back to its usual cool inscrutability as she departs.
Watching her go, it occurs to him that perhaps he should not appear quite so eager; but then, it is nearly all he can do to not haul her back inside and lock the door.
Then, with her gone, his besotted smile fades as the brain in his skull starts working properly again. "And I thought I was in trouble before," he mutters to himself (in Zakharan). It is many long minutes before he can collect himself enough to go to bed, silently calling himself every name for fool that he can think of all the while.
* * *
Emmett can't help but notice - unfortunately enough in the wee hours of the morning - that not only is his giff comrade indulging in his usual pen-scratchings, but he's taken up talking to himself. Softly, at least for the most part, but it's steady and at times sounds almost agitated. What language is that, anyway?
Emmett wakes up, hearing the scratching of the pen and now the muttering from the other side of the wall. _This is getting ridiculous,_ he thinks.
With care and as much grace as he can manage he slides his arm out from its precarious position, then lowers himself quietly to the floor. Fortunately, Hiro has stowed his bedroll as usual before taking tonight's watch, giving Emmett more freedom of movement as he pulls on his breeches and a tunic. As an afterthought, he belts a dagger onto his hip. His eye adjusted to the dark of the cabin, he attaches his hook and slips out, taking a look back at his bunk with a slight smile before shutting the door.
Two quick knocks on Yestin and Nyala's door, and Emmett opens it . "Evening, Yestin. Having problems sleeping? Yeah, me too..." The half man slides into the room before the seated giff can react, closing the door behind him and perching on the single fold-down seat, normally latched up to the wall to keep it out of the way. "...after a fight I get really wound up, and it's hard to burn off all that energy. Is that what's eating you, or is it something else?"
Yestin is sitting on the floor where the lower bunk would normally be; it's been removed as unlikely to bear his weight well. He spends a moment gaping at Emmett - and a gaping giff is rather impressive - before scrambling to his feet, knocking over the inkwell on the floor next to him. With a dismayed yelp he dives back down to rescue a handful of papers that were scattered by his abrupt motion.
"Oh, here, let me give you a hand with that..." Emmett drops to one knee, picking up the inkwell with his good hand and trying to mop up the spilled ink with the other sleeve of his tunic (which has, admittedly, seen better days). He is pointedly not trying to get a look at what is written on the papers. "There we go. All better. I didn't mean to startle you."
The half man pivots smoothly, sitting back in the chair in a casual lounge. "That's quite a pile of papers. Keeping a journal of the first cruise? That's what's got you up all hours?"
"Um... er. Kind of," he mumbles, dropping his eyes. "Thank you." He takes back the inkwell, looking sadly at the few drops that remain within, then sets it down and begins going through the pages to make sure none of them have been damaged. From what Emmett can see, his handwriting is incongruously tiny; making the most of scarce resources, no doubt.
"Not a bad idea. Me, I just trust the old memory for that sort of stuff, but I suppose if you have a lot of detail that you want to remember - for when you're telling people about what happened on the cruise - then taking a lot of notes might be a good idea. Keeping such a record would certainly help me keep everybody's names in order."
Emmett makes a little face, half farcical. "'Course, in my case, it'd make it harder for me to exaggerate the stories later." He leans in conspiratorially, "You may have noticed I have a slight tendency to embellish the truth for dramatic effect.
"I doubt you suffer from that problem, though. You probably have to keep everything perfectly accurate for your clan mates..." Emmett pauses, as if this idea had just occurred to him. "Hey, you probably have to make reports about all of this, don't you?"
Yestin draws himself up to his full height, ears flat to his skull. "You mock me. Perhaps for you it is a laughing matter, but I must beg you not to treat it as such."
"Whoa, there, Yestin." Emmett looks genuinely concerned. "I'm not mocking you. I've been a professional solider, doing dangerous duty, in an organized unit. I know all about the need for reports, and I know how serious it can get.
"What I don't get is how much detail you have to put in that I hear you in here writing every night all hours, and why it's getting to you so much that you're now muttering as you write. So what's eating at you?"
"That's why I came in here to find out. It can't be your performance against the Bloodsacs - everyone has a bad day, and as a professional I figure you know that. So what is it?"
He gives Emmett a look that makes it clear he thinks the man is putting him on. "Surely you know... from what you said before, I -- " He pauses to compose himself. "Perhaps I have assumed too much. I thought you knew I was a deserter."
Emmett leans back in the chair, looking as if he'd been struck. "No, son, I surely didn't know that. might not be half so clever as I let on, and don't usually pry. I had no idea, and certainly didn't mean to give any insult or pain. I've been there."
He gestures to the floor of Yestin's room, trying to get the giff to sit down. "Why don't you tell me yours and I'll tell you mine. It might make you feel better."
Yestin does so, perhaps out of sheer habit at following the suggestions of those perceived as superiors. "There is little to tell. When I found that our commanders on Bral were taking pay from two masters, I thought it the lesser shame, but perhaps I erred in that. I have been told that my ways of thinking are... odd."
"It doesn't seem odd to me, Yestin. If anything, you just earned more respect from me than you could have in a dozen battles." Emmett reaches down and starts unrolling the rope from his wooden leg, still keeping his eye on Yestin as he speaks.
The giff looks up at him with a faint spark of hope at this sign of approval, though he looks puzzled by the rope.
"Val was pretty worried about you when we came on, but I told him not to sweat it. I figured you had to be part of a trustworthy group of giff for the Captain to have taken you on after I spilled my suspicions to him back at the Dragon. I didn't figure that you were the *only* trustworthy giff on Bral." When the rope is halfway unrolled, it reveals a set of small secret compartments on the half man's leg. He deftly undoes the latch of one and pulls out a small cylindrical flask.
"The Captain knows my tale." Yestin snorts softly. "Most of them on Bral, I think, do not know, or did not when we departed; no doubt the faithless officers who lead them thought what was already accomplished would prove more readily accepted than what remained undone. Those who were set on me to prevent me from leaving gave no sign that they knew the truth, nor did they give much time for me to explain myself."
When the rope is halfway unrolled, it reveals a set of small secret compartments on the half man's leg. He deftly undoes the latch of one and pulls out a small cylindrical flask.
"Traveling with the pack rather than standing out and doing the difficult thing is the coward's way though life, Yestin." Emmett pauses to pull the cork out of the flask with his teeth. He hands the flask to the huge youth. "I always look for an opportunity to drink with brave men. Or giff, in this case."
"Then I thank you, friend Emmett, for your drink and your kindness." He accepts the flask carefully. "And I apologize for waking you," he adds belatedly. "I did not realize my frustrations were so loudly expressed. The internal rhyme scheme is very difficult."
Emmett's eyebrows go up as he takes the flask back. "Rhyme scheme? This I gotta hear." He pauses to take a drink, "cheers." Then recorks the flask, his eyes watering from the 140 proof whiskey.
Yestin looks down at the papers he's still holding. "I thought the battle would be best suited to the dwarven epic style -- much shorter than any of the real epics, of course -- and have been trying to do both the subject and the form justice, but so far I have met with failure equal to that in the fight itself. It is merely for practice, you understand," he adds, sounding almost cheerful now.
"Practice? How much of this do you do? Is all of this" Emmett stops recoiling his leg to motion to the papers "Poetry?"
"Oh, no," Yestin disclaims hastily. "Mere scribblings, unworthy of the name, though I hope that someday.... I did say they thought me odd in the troops I have served with."
"Hey one guy in my old unit would spontaneously break into song and dance routines in bars after flights. Compared to that, writing poetry is positively commonplace.
"But, all false modesty on your part aside," Emmett cranes his head to look at the papers, "are all of these attempts at poetry? Are you detailing the whole voyage as a poem?"
"Merely as an exercise," he shrugs, still looking somewhat abashed. "Our duties on this journey have been light."
"You can say that again - before the bloodsacs the most exciting part of the trip for me was angling for the job. 'Course, quiet trips are good trips for us: earn your pay, no hard work." Emmett smiled, "It's harder on Val and the rest of the sailors - they have a full work schedule whether we get attacked or not."
Emmett paused and looked serious. "Can I ask you a serious question? You don't have to answer, but...Well I have a bone to pick with those pirates. What *really* went down on Bral? Did your old superiors know who the pirates were? Where they might be going? What they were after?"
Yestin looks somber. "I have thought much about these very questions. And I *think* - though of course I cannot be certain - that this was many months in the planning, that contact was first made while our ship was patrolling the sphere's farther reaches. There were meetings I now wonder about, though nothing seemed amiss at the time. Gustan and the others must have known the plan rather well to have played the part they did, but whether that would include the target I cannot say - for it seems to me that they must have wanted more than baubles, to have run such a risk."
"So what would Three Trees have had that would be worth all that? And where is it now?" This is more talking to himself than anything else, and even that is interrupted by a yawn. Since the half-man does nothing by half measures it is a yawn that near rips his face in have, accompanied by a major groan and stretch.
"Sorry to have started you earlier. I do think that Brother Pham has some ink. It might do you good to talk to him, too. A confessor is better than a journal if you're having self doubt." Emmett opens the door and prepares to slip back into the hall and his still-warm bed. "Have a nice night, friend. Get some rest."
"I will, and allow you to do the same," the giff smiles. "Thank you."
* * *
The _Cat_ is not a terribly large ship, and the next morning Lenore's search does not take her long once she has determined that the one she seeks is not on the upper deck. Val of course hears her footsteps and recognizes the light-slippered tread at once, quite different from either the boots or bare feet most of the crew wear.
"Val?" she calls softly, turns a corner and sees him amid the shadows, looks around at the storeroom quizzically, but is far too polite to ask, what on earth are you doing here? Instead she seems somewhat nonplussed to have succeeded in her search, as if she is now not sure what to say.
For a moment, Val is caught off guard. He usually has the stores to himself at this time of the "day." Sensing Lenore's hesitation, however, he realizes she's as surprised as he is. His mind races as he wonders what she is doing down here.
"Watch your step there," Val cautions from the shadows, "there's not a lot of room to move about."
He moves quickly across the storeroom with cat's grace, trying to keep her from stepping in and tripping over a shadow-hidden obstacle. All the while he keeps alert for anyone else that might be behind Lenore in the companionway, but there is no one else there.
"Are you okay?" Val asks with obvious concern, "Is everything all right?" He automatically takes her hand to help steady her, not realizing he does so until it's too late. An unfamiliar sensation, an instinct to help and protect this woman from harm momentarily, overrides his intent to keep up appearances.
Val simply stands there staring like a fool; too self conscious to even remove his hand from hers...
She gives his a slight squeeze before removing her hand from his light grip. "Thank you. And I'm fine, really, I - I wanted to speak with you. After what happened yesterday - I'm glad you're all right."
Val is too stunned to reply. It feels as if his knees would give out. Lenore could push him over with a fingertip, if she had a mind to....
"I - I'm fine," Val manages at last, trying to regain his composure. Contrary to his normal mien, he is at a loss for words. This woman certainly has a way of putting him off his guard.... "Thank you," he murmurs.
After a moment half-turns away and says, rather abruptly, "It's just that... you remind me very much of someone dear to me."
"I do?" He asks, almost a whisper. Should he ask her who? Does it matter? A surge of emotion clashes against a wall of doubt.
She nods silently, arms crossed almost instinctively over the gentle swell the marks the child within her. "Aye. You are... very kind."
Val smiles in response. He is mindful of the way Lenore stands, and his eyes drift down to the swell of her belly. A stray thought crosses his mind as he wonders if she means the father of her child....
"I'm not sure what to say," he tells her truthfully. His other experiences with women never left him feeling so awkward. It was both frustrating and exquisite at the same time.
"You know, the others are going to talk if they knew you came looking for me," Val says with a hint of mischief. He smiles at her to let her know he's only teasing. "I'm glad you did, though," he adds soberly, quietly.
"They talk, regardless," she replies a touch dryly. "I suppose it is something to which I must become accustomed."
Without knowing why, Val reaches out and gently lays a hand upon her arm. After a brief pause, his other hand reaches out to lift the veils that cover her face. He moves ever so slowly, almost tenderly; the expression on his face is serene, the look in his eyes intense. Val knows he walks the razors' edge, but the need to look upon her face is nearly overwhelming.
She does not try to stop him, but looks back curiously, as if trying to guess what motivated his action.
"I suppose it is rather foolish of me to go about so blindered, isn't it?" she says with an odd little laugh. "Half of those aboard seem to know, and the others may as well; it makes little difference."
Val pauses; her comment arrests him more than a gesture could have. For a moment, he feels as if he's the dupe of some sort of joke. He furrows his brow and, for a moment, is hesitant to continue.
"I'm sorry," he says as he takes a small step back, the veil slipping from his fingers. He is confused, which is plainly visible in the expression on his face. He had been so careful not to let on. Did ibn Fadil say something....?
"Would you have me know?" Val asks, somewhat subdued.
She looks somewhat confused herself, then her expression clears. "Ah. So he said nothing? Interesting...." She gives a little shrug. "I am tired of secrets. I hoped that by traveling in the guise of my maid, and speaking little to others, I could remain unremarked, but it seems my weakness has shown itself more than once. If we are pursued, all will know, and if we are not, it makes no difference that they do.
"My true name is Ginevra Tain-Durell. I am wife to the Oligarch Victor of Bral, and I have broken faith with him." Having made her decision, she awaits his reaction to this matter-of-fact declaration serenely.
Val feels as if an anchor just hit him. All he can do for a moment is stare as his blood turns to ice. Wife to the Oligarch Victor? Broken faith with him? This is *not* what he had expected. Emmett was right; this could get him thrown overboard.... Yet, it doesn't change what he is feeling for her. Strange how things like that don't seem to matter.
Val gazes at the face that has been in his thoughts for the past several weeks. He notes that she is as beautiful as he remembers and he studies her face, as if to memorize every detail. Again, he sees a hint of something in her eyes. Sadness? Bitterness, perhaps?
"I've been told nothing," he says finally. It was the truth at least, though he wondered whom she meant. Does ibn Fadil know? Val runs his fingers through his hair, feeling suddenly self conscious and even more awkward. Then something she said dawns on him.
"Pursued?" Val asks. His blood races again as the instinct to protect her washes over him.
She nods somberly. "It is a possibility. My husband is... unpredictable, at times."
Val takes her by the shoulders gently. "I'll protect you," he says firmly, before he can stop himself. How foolish that must sound to her! Especially considering the skill of others on board more suited to the task.
She does laugh, but it is a gentle sound, not mocking, and for a moment she looks very far away before focusing on him once more. "Then my shame is of no consequence?"
"Of course not," is his firm reply. But Val thinks for a moment and asks hesitantly, "What of your baby's father?"
She looks away for a moment and sighs softly. "He doesn't know. He left Bral before - we could not have kept the secret much longer," she explains. "It seemed best.... His ship departed some weeks before this. Where he may be now, I do not know, though I hope there will be news at our landing."
"Ah," is all Val manages to say. Despite his disappointment, he smiles at her. Part of him is still warmed by the thought of her caring enough to make sure he was safe after the encounter with the bloodsacs. But another part of him was certain she did so only because he *reminded* her of someone else...
"I've spoken too much, haven't it?" she says ruefully. "Forgive me, please. I do value your friendship."
"Not at all," he says with a warm smile. "There's nothing to forgive." He shakes his head and laughs a little at himself. He must be as open as a book....
"Have you eaten yet?" Val asks her suddenly, changing the subject. "I know of this wonderful little kitchen with a most excellent elven chef..." He bows deeply and offers his arm to Ginevra.
After a brief pause for consideration, she smiles a little. "That sounds delightful." She does not replace the veil.
* * *
As he's leaving his shared cabin early enough to be ready when the watch changes, ibn Fadil hears a footstep behind him just a moment too late. There's a feathery caress on the back of his neck, and he turns to see her smiling at him, only a few inches away.
Just then, of course, a door farther down the hall opens with a bang and a couple of yawning crewmen emerge. She steps back - is that a wink, or do his eyes deceive him in the dimness - and murmurs, "Later." A moment later, she's gone.
What have I done? he wonders, trying to restart his breathing. Neither his stern self-lectures nor the especially pleasant dreams he had last night have made the slightest difference in his response to her.
He nods distractedly to the other crewmen and edges past them, making for his post in the galley.
Something of the sort happens twice more that morning, until at last there is a lull in the trickle of men and women in and out of the mess, looking for whatever meal happens to suit the schedule they're on.
"Locusts. We'll limp into Janik with nothing left but a half-barrel of flour at this rate," Nahele sighs. "Go below and see how much fish we have left, would you?"
He's not terribly surprised to find her waiting serenely in the dark - which bothers neither of them, of course.
"You wished to speak further?"
"Among other things." He catches her up in another embrace and perhaps he is already getting used to this dizzying welter of feelings, for this time their separation is more of a mutual pause. Absently stroking her hair, he says, "To solve a puzzle, one must have clues. So - where are you from?"
Her gaze goes very distant for a few moments. "Nowhere you've heard of, I'm sure." When he continues to look at her expectantly, she relents a bit. "The world is called Windhold."
"Interesting name," he says, but seeing her reluctance he decides to drop it. "Now it's your turn."
That speculative look is back as light fingers touch his cheek. "I have never met someone from Zakhara before. Tell me what it is like."
"Right now?" he protests, but does not move away. He catches her fingers and kisses them. "If you were to walk down a street in Zakhara as you are now, you would cause a riot," he says, exaggerating a little. "Zakharan women go veiled in public, and wear very modest clothing, as a rule."
"Really? Why is that?"
Never having tried to explain this before, he has to stop and think about it. "It has to do with our standards of modesty and purity. Even men do not go around in tight clothing, and those who take these matters most seriously also cover their heads and faces in public. And things like shaking hands that are common practice out here simply aren't done, except between relatives and good friends, on Zakhara."
"I am glad, then, that you do not take these matters most seriously...."
Now he does pull away from her, reluctantly. "I am supposed to be looking at fish, and going back to work," he says with mock sternness.
She chuckles; it's a lovely sound. "I think you would not be missed for a few more moments, but if you must... and I must go on duty soon, as well. Perhaps you can tell me more later."
"If you like," he agrees. And of course he cannot resist kissing her again, half-drowning in the delight of it, and when she has gone he has to count the barrels of fish three times to get the number right.
On his way back he passes Lenore and Valarin - the former not wearing her veil, which earns her a very curious look despite his current distraction, and Val being his usual gallant self, helping her up the narrow way.
Upstairs, Nahele nods in his usual absent fashion when ibn Fadil returns with the requested information. "Excellent. That was quick."
The half-elf shrugs and busies himself with the next task, for the moment painfully aware that by Zakharan standards (and perhaps by those of this Windhold) he has been behaving most improperly with Nahele's sister.
His discomfort is only highlighted by the fact that he can't be sure if that's a look of amusement or not.
* * *
"My lady." Delmar sounds startled, and stands politely aside to allow Lenore -- Ginevra -- and Val to enter. Stares have followed them, and more stares meet them, frankly curious on Val, measuring in many cases on Ginevra, who ignores them, although there is a faint flush in her cheeks. Eventually conversation resumes, but in much quieter tones. The two receive more than a few glances, and the mess soon grows crowded. At last the mate returns, opens the door and looks around meaningfully at those who are supposed to be at their posts; there is a slow, reluctant exodus.
Val ignores the glances and talk in the mess. He acts as if there is nothing at all wrong with sharing a meal with Ginevra and he makes the best of it. A number of thoughts lurk in his subconscious, but he doesn't wish to address them now. Later, when he was alone, he would think things through. Right now, he was not going to let anything bother him... Later, as he makes his way toward his own position, a sailor named Evan approaches him.
"Gods above and below, Val, what was that all about?" he wants to know.
Val glances up, down, then around and mutters, "Gods?" A wry grin is plastered on his face when he looks back at the crewman. However, seeing that his humor goes unappreciated by Evan, he quirks an eyebrow and asks, "What was *what* all about?"
"You, her, that whole thing! 'My lady?' Why'd you keep her stashed away like that for so long?"
"Me, her, that whole thing?" Val repeats, somewhat amused by Evan's approach to the matter. "It was called Having A Meal With A Friend," he says, matter of factly. "And I've kept no one *stashed* away." He pointedly avoids the 'My lady' comment. "Now, if you don't mind," Val adds as he slips past, "I have to get to my station..."
"Friend. Uhuh. Suuuuure," Evan rejoins with a leer. "I've got eyes, Val. That's all right - I'd keep her to myself too." He heads off to his own duties, chuckling.
Val groans to himself as he leaves Evan. Well, it's out now and there's no turning back.
Much as Val might wish it otherwise, that's what it was. There are too many things complicating the situation for him to even dream it could be more. Not the least of which was the child she carries. The child of a man Ginevra still worries for and hopes for news about.
That's not even considering the marriage to an Oligarch of Bral. One that she has broken faith with for another man. A man that is not him. Val let that one sink in for a few minutes before pushing the thought aside.
Work. Must focus on work.
Val sets all of his personal thoughts aside for the duration of his shift. He'd have time enough to think things through later...
* * *
Later that morning, ibn Fadil seizes an opportunity to speak privately to Val, saying, "Remind me not to waste any more advice on you, eh, Valarin?" Despite his rather flippant tone, he looks quite concerned.
"I'll try to remember," Val replies dryly. He seems unfazed by ibn Fadil's comment, almost as if he had been expecting it.
"Besides," he continues, "I didn't go to her. She came looking for me." Val says it matter-of-factly, trying not to make a big deal of anything. He looks as if he's about to say something more, but stops and hangs his head.
When Val raises his head again, he takes a long and hard look at the Zakharan, as if searching for something.
Ibn Fadil, whose attention has wandered during the pause, looks startled when he notices this attention. "What?"
"You knew," is Val's quiet reply. It is statement, not a question.
If anyone were keeping score, Val would be getting points for throwing the half-elf completely off balance. "Er ... which part?" he says, trying to remember those conversations from months ago.
"You knew who she was the whole time," Val continues, still piecing it all together. He shakes his head again as if to clear it.
"I guessed when you told me she was not Lenore," ibn Fadil corrects him.
"And you couldn't tell me then?" Val asks, though he's not really expecting an answer. "Never mind," he says, "it's not important now..." Noticing the half-elf's distracted responses, Val asks, "Are you okay? What's on your mind?"
"Not important?" he says (ignoring the other's questions). "When the assassins are tracking you down, Val, please remember I did try to warn you."
"Assassins?" Val looks up at this. He remembers Ginevra's concern over pursuit, and his promise to her. But she never said anything about *assassins*... "What *else* do you know about all this?" His eyes narrow as he locks gazes with the half elf. There is a distinct edge to his voice that ibn Fadil has never heard before, and it is not typical of Val's normal demeanor...
"I see I have your attention," ibn Fadil says with satisfaction. "What I *know* is that her husband is the sort of creature normally found when looking under rocks, and that he is very, very wealthy. I am guessing that he is very, very angry about this. And everything I have heard about him -- Bralians are terrible gossips, you know -- suggests that he can be extremely vindictive." He shrugs. "Perhaps I am overstating the danger, but one can never be too wary, Valarin."
"Bloody wonderful," is Val's only response. It seems as if a cloud has once again settled over him. Is ibn Fadil serious? Is she really in danger? Would he be able to... Val shakes himself out his dark thoughts; there's no sense following that line of thought. He would do what he promised. He could do nothing less. Val once again studies bin Fadil, a new thought coming to mind.
"Bralians are terrible gossips, eh?" he repeats. "I wonder if news of this is spreading around back on the Rock. Might be interesting to see what it's doing to his business endeavors..." Val trails off meaningfully. One might stand to gain a lot if they played The Game right. Maybe even a life or three..."
"Victor and Sons is rather above the effects of local gossip, I think," ibn Fadil says drily. "In any event, the Victor's servants are usually the subjects of gossip, not its source."
"Oh well," Val says as he stretches, "no use worrying over the unknown future. Too much to be missed in the present." He smiles at the half elf, the change of mood quite sudden. "Like how you change the subject when asked what's wrong..."
"Er, if I leave off on your poor judgment, will you leave off on mine?"
"Depends," Val says with a grin. "What did *you* judge poorly on?" He seems his normal self again, seemingly care-free.
"Never mind," the half-elf says with rather forced cheer. "It is a small ship." With a nod and a smile, he makes his escape -- probably back to work, as the luncheon hour is now approaching.
* * *
Emmett waits for a convenient moment when both he and Val are off shift, cornering the taller man when he was heading to the galley.
"Hey, Val. I need to talk to you. In private." He shrugs his shoulder to an unoccupied corner of deck and heads over, trusting his friend to follow him.
Val follows Emmett over, wary of any attention they might be getting. This is becoming quite a busy day...
Once he's sure that no one is listening to them, Emmett starts explaining with a quiet voice. "Ok, two things. First, I had a late night chat with Yestin last night."
Val is a bit surprised Emmett didn't immediately mention his appearance in the mess with Lenore / Ginevra. Maybe he hadn't heard about it yet? He furrows his brow.
"Okay," he says, quite interested in finding where this would lead. "What'd he have to say?"
"I was right in that the big lug wasn't here to watch us - I can't give you all the details, but he's clean. I did get some info from him on the raid. The giff were in on it, and they apparently made contact with the pirates deep in Bralspace. He doesn't know what they were after, but it would have to be something a lot pricier than the gewgaws we saw them carry off."
"I'll trust your judgement of him," Val replies. If Yestin *had* intended harm on ibn Fadil, or any of them, he'd had plenty of time to do it already. "So we were right about them back on Bral, huh? That's pretty sad. Makes sense that they'd be after something big. But what...?" Val lets the question hang unanswered. He really had no idea what would be worth such a risky raid...
"And the other thing. I see you got yourself a new job playing paladin for ladies in distress. Not exactly the wisest move, pal. But I just wanted to tell you..." Emmett breaks his stern expression with a wry grin, "I got your back. You need anything, you holler. I'm there."
Val braced himself for the verbal lashing he was sure to come. Playing paladin? But Emmett certainly surprised him! Val is left momentarily speechless.
"Thanks," he manages to say quietly, not bothering to hide the surprise on his face. "You have no idea how much that means to me." The young man claps his hand to Emmett's shoulder, not knowing what else to say at the moment.
"C'mon my friend," he says to the half-man, "let's get some wine and something to eat. It's been a *long* day..."
* * *
Pham asks Alais to take part of his shift at the helm, and spends most of the next several days nursing the wounded crewmen. Unfortunately, his efforts are in vain, as Joe slips away.
Pham reports to Theo. "Captain, I am sorry to report that Joe was unable to survive the bloodsac's attacks. I did what I could. Seton appears to be recovering, but it'll be slow going." The young man will, if nothing else, bear the scars of his experience for the rest of his life.
The older man nods somberly. "You've done all anyone could expect, Brother. With as long as those things were on them, I'll call it a miracle not to lose 'em both, and your god's all right in my book. We'll take care of the poor lad, and let me or one of the mates know if you need anything for Seton."
That evening the brief shipboard funeral service is held, and Joseph Abek is buried at space, like many an unfortunate sailor before him.
* * *
Some days later, it is with a certain sense of deja vu that ibn Fadil looks up from his work in the galley late that night to see Nyala in the doorway. She's not been avoiding him, but the atmosphere aboard has not been a cheery one since their comrade's death, and they have not spoken much nor indulged in any further playful encounters.
"Good evening," she says quietly, closing the door.
"Now it is," he says in an attempt at lightening the mood. He takes the few short steps to reach her and take her in his arms, just holding her for a long moment.
She hugs him back gently. "I am glad to hear that."
"Do not doubt me, Nyala," he whispers, as if to keep his words secret even from himself. "I have loved you for months without daring to speak to you. It brings me joy to see you, to hope that you will smile at me again.
"Then I shall," she murmurs in reply, suiting action to words. "And set sorrow aside." She tilts her head to kiss him (she's even shorter than he is).
Softly, he kisses her again. "I have found a place that is a little more private," he says. "Down in the hold. Will you -- ?"
She lifts a cool eyebrow in mock affront at this presumption. "Indeed?" Then a smile. "Privacy would be... pleasant. Where is this?" At his directions, she nods. "I see. Do not follow to close, then; our shipmates gossip so." The playful light is back in her expression.
"That they do," he agrees, relieved that he has not pushed his luck too far. As he makes his way down the hold, hoping she will actually be there, he sternly reminds himself to be more careful. If she just wants to talk more, he can do that. He knows, all too well, how to be patient.
She is waiting, legs curled demurely beneath her, in the little alcove formed by carefully shifting some of the cargo to screen the spot from the door. After another kiss of greeting she murmurs in his ear, "So tell me - if those of your world value modesty so, does that not make courting a difficulty?"
He laughs. "My cousin used to say that if everyone actually *followed* the rules - and there are a lot of them! - there would be no next generation. We have many tragic stories about young people who fell afoul of the rules, but I think that most people simply marry and everyone pretends nothing improper ever happened."
"I see," she laughs softly as well, her breath tickling his neck. "We do not have so many rules in my homeland, so it is difficult to be improper in the first place. This, for instance, is entirely proper...."
Soon, he is delighted to learn that patience is not going to be required of him after all.
A bit later: "So, Yusuf," she smiles at the taste of the unfamiliar name, "I've asked several clues of you now, and you've only asked one of me."
"Hmmm?" He is still a bit dazed, and the hour is rather late. "You just answered my most pressing question," he murmurs. "-- Ah, that is, let me think a moment."
"If you must." She stretches, snuggles close in a way that makes thinking quite difficult. He's had ample time to find out that she has a couple of scars, one on her back and another on her right leg, and that she wears a small stone pendant in the shape of a crescent moon.
Finally he says, "All right. How long have you been traveling the Flow?"
"Only a couple of years - I think it is about that time, it is difficult to keep track here. Nahele is the one with the wandering feet. And you?"
"Too long." He sighs, trying to remember. "It must be about twenty years, I think. But for the last five or so, I have stayed on Bral."
"Really." She lifts her head from his chest with a curious expression. "What is of interest there? We were not there long."
He is silent for a long moment, meeting her gaze only briefly. "I was in debt when I arrived there, and ... between one thing and another, I never quite got out of debt." Trying to find something cheerful about his sojourn on the Rock, he adds, "And I have friends there, now, which is hard to do when traveling around a lot. I really have become quite attached to the place."
Nyala purses her lips thoughtfully, but does not pursue the question of debt. "And before that? I have not had much chance to see the worlds we have visited, we move on too quickly, so I would like to hear more...."
"In truth, before Bral I did the same. But you are asking all the questions again," he smiles. "Tell me about, oh, your weapons training."
"Well, since I know all about your prowess with a knife..." she teases, and shrugs a little bit. "From my parents, I learned what is customary - though in truth, I'm no skilled fencer," she admits with a small laugh. "There has been little call, and less time for practice, in recent years... enough and more of both for a bow."
"Oh? How is that?"
Nyala tenses slightly, then seems to make an effort of will to relax. "We were at war."
He struggles with his curiosity and loses. Very cautiously, he asks, "With who?"
She sighs softly. "Our neighbors in Theranvald; the mountain passes were ours to defend, and our household would not desert its duty. When we were driven out at last we remained in the wilderness, offering up what resistance we could. It lasted many years."
"I see." And he does see, now, that most of her life so far must have been taken up in this war. "We have a history of such things in Zakhara, but I was fortunate enough to be born to a time of peace." Anxious to find a less disturbing subject, he adds, "Let me tell you more about it, as you have been so interested."
Nyala listens raptly, though he can tell that she's getting a bit drowsy.
At length he winds down, having made himself thoroughly homesick. "I, for one, do not want to wake up in the 'morning' when someone starts moving cargo around," he observes. "Perhaps, for now ..." He kisses her gently.
"Aye, for now," she agrees with a fond smile. "And it would be best were I not asleep should I be needed on the morrow." In the midst of dressing she pauses to say softly, "Thank you. For all that you have shared. This," her vague gesture indicates the little space, and by implication him, and the night, "has been most... unexpected, and yet...." She kisses him again in lieu of explanation.
"As long as you were not bored," he murmurs.
"Never." She pauses for a moment by the door, listening, and when the hall beyond proves clear slips away.
Alone again, ibn Fadil tucks away the extra blanket he has acquired, and slips back up to his cabin without disturbing any of his bunkmates. Far from going to sleep, however, he turns over in his mind the troubling questions of what he can tell Nyala, what he should tell her, and whether he will ever be able to speak with her without having to lie.
She, meanwhile, returns to her own empty cabin, to spend a few moments listening to the noise of the on-duty crew going about their business above and thinking about the past before slipping, almost without noticing, into a bittersweet dream of home.
* * *
Captain Theo makes it a practice to stop by the helm once in a while and make sure his pilots are faring well. He looks troubled today - well, more troubled than usual.
"Good day, Master Alais. How goes she?"
"Wobbly as a bald horse. In truth, when I took this commission I did not know how strenuous intersphere spelljamming was. My previous experience was only within Bral's sphere, and not far at that. Such travel taxes the soul as carrying a pack taxes an ass's haunches."
The response draws a faint chuckle from the captain. "I've noticed no wobbles in our course, at any rate. Fine job you're doing, fine. And taxing though it be, there are compensations enough, and wonders." His frown deepens once again. "I find myself troubled by the... convoy, perhaps is the word, of delphinids we encountered."
"It has been weighing upon me as well. When we reach our destination, I shall make an attempt to seek out some source of accurate information on the species. Note that I do not say 'authority,' for such figures are almost always wrong, kept in their position more by the cobwebbed sycophants that infest the so-called academic world than by any great truth in their words. I do not doubt that should I go to the reputed 'learned men' there and ask about the delphinids, I will be quickly informed that such creatures have no such habits, preferring instead to sun themselves on
tree-covered planetoids, sipping rum, and I am in poor taste to even bring up the subject."
Theo's frown gets a little deeper, and his voice holds a hint of sharpness. "On Janik we have kept records for more than two hundred years, of the things our ships have met in their journeys between the worlds. Once we have landed, I ask that you and Brother Pham investigate the library there and, if there is anything to be found, inform me. That will be all."
* * *
"And just *what* do you think you're doing?" Nahele inquires lightly, falling into step beside his sister as she paces the foredeck.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You know quite well what I mean, this is no time for nonsense." He's fairly sure that he's the only one to notice, and that's only because he knows those involved best of any on board.
Her look is cool and sidelong; they are in public, after all, although she has observed that few of the common crew speak the elven tongue. "You suggested, I believe, that I should be more social with our shipmates."
"Do you disapprove?"
"Would it matter if I did?" he snorts.
"Were we at home, you would not have mentioned it otherwise."
"As you may have noticed, we are not at home. There are many worlds, and even I do not know all their ways. There are places where to follow our customs would certainly create trouble."
"So I have been told." She smiles almost invisibly. "But I do not think you have any reason to fear on that score."
He sighs a bit. "I'll be truthful, it is good to see you more yourself - I'm just not certain this is wise."
She lifts a shoulder a fraction of an inch. "It may not be. We seldom know the wisdom of our actions until the future has become the past."
"Feel you anything for him?"
Her glance flicks in his direction, annoyed. "I am not so cold as that, brother. He is pleasant enough, certainly, and I find I am... intrigued. There is something that cannot quite be seen."
Nahele sighs. First the woman, now this. His sister likes a mystery as much as she likes being one. "And when the riddle has been resolved?"
Another shrug, but she turns slightly so no one else can see her smile. "We shall see. We have a number of weeks yet to journey, who can say what will happen?" After a moment she adds with a trace of uncertainty, "You don't really disapprove, do you?"
He laughs at her dissembling. "Merely 'pleasant,' hm? I suppose I do not. Do be careful, however," he feels compelled to add. "I would not see any ill come of this for either of you."
* * *
A few days later, the _Cat_'s crew can tell they are reaching more traveled reaches of space; the ship has picked up a pack of scavvers - a dozen or so, judging from the glowing eyes following after the ship. Fortunately, they're the brown subspecies, which is cowardly and not intelligent but persistent. They prefer to trail after ships and pick through the refuse left behind to endangering themselves.
Still, the crew must keep alert in case one of the animals decides to take a chance on a larger meal, for a brown is large enough to swallow a man whole, and they are poisonous as well. Such a large pack will also put an uncomfortable strain on the ship's air supply, so they should be driven off if possible, or their numbers thinned at least.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson