After Joe's funeral service, Val keeps to himself for a while. He avoids the usual company found in the mess or on deck. Dark thoughts linger in his mind....
If only he could have been faster, if only he had acted sooner, Joe might still be alive. The thoughts weigh heavily upon the young man, and Val finds himself wondering if it was his fault that Joe died. Could he have done anything different to help?
"Joe probably owes you his life," Brother Pham had said, complimenting him on his quick actions. But Val apparently wasn't quick enough. Now he feels as if he owes something to Joe...
Val finds himself leaning upon the starboard rail, staring off into Wildspace. He is there a long time, alone with his thoughts.
Other concerns begin to filter in, given Val's current mood. What if he couldn't protect Ginevra as he had promised? Val knows he isn't a warrior like Hiro, Emmett or Nyala. But he might have to be to protect Ginevra from a possibly spiteful husband.
And he would do this so she could be happy with another man.
Val believes himself the fool. Did he actually believe she would be his? She's broken faith with her husband, and is carrying the child of another man. And Val has the fortune of reminding her this man? Where does that place him in all of this? Did he think he could charm Ginevra off her feet so she would be his own lady? The less charitable thought enters his mind that someone else had apparently already done so.... Val pushes that one aside with a touch of bitterness.
Besides, what did he even think to offer her? His is a life of traveling the spheres, not knowing where the next opportunity would lead, and Val feels that is not nearly enough to offer. And that is certainly no way to raise a child.
Someone else's child.
Damn. Damn it all to the nine hells. Fate is being especially cruel lately....
Val finds himself standing before Ginevra's cabin door. He hadn't realized he was headed there; he certainly hadnít intended to. So many things race through his mind as he stands there and he appears hesitant, unsure of what to do next.
Tell her you idiot. Tell her how you really feel.
Then what? Have her laugh in my face because she doesn't feel the same way? Have her remind me that her heart belongs to another she races to meet? That she carries that man's child?
The sting of tears builds in Val's eyes, yet he wills himself to remain composed. Taking a deep breath, he runs his fingers through his hair and pushes everything aside.
Later. There's time to think on this more later.
Like an actor changing a stage mask, Val lets a smile spread across his face. His facade in place, the young man knocks on Ginevraís door. Perhaps the lady would like to share another meal. A meal with a friend....
It is an offer she is pleased to accept, and over the remainder of the voyage the rest of the baffled crew grows accustomed to seeing the two together. It's clear that they think Val's steadfast refusal to admit to anything beyond "friendship" is very funny, and the occasional jibe about whether the kid'll look like him is all the more painfully ironic for their false assumption. When they can't get a rise out of him they eventually get bored with the teasing.
For her part, Ginevra - or Lenore, as she continues to be called by the crew despite Delmar's initial slip - is... friendly. After all this time, she must know how he feels, but there is no cruelty in her; she offers no false encouragement, only kindness and company, despite the discomforts of her advancing pregnancy. When he finally does ask, she tells him of her lover. From what she says, he's a man Val would probably like.
Fate is indeed cruel....
* * *
When the scavvers appear, Alais approaches Theo, who is standing with the first mate at the aft deck watching the creaters.
"Captain, I like not the look of that pack of scavvers. It would be a good idea to fire a bolt to
warn them off."
Theo nods brusquely. "It is certainly a possibility. The last thing we need now is to lose any more men."
"I think now is the right time, before they get too close. They are stupid creatues, and it should be
enough to spook them."
Another nod, but there is no immediate action; the captain appears momentarily fascinated by the scavvers' movements. After a few more minutes of observation, he summons the necessary crew. Emmett and Yestin man the starboard ballista, with Ulf and Laszlo to port.
With plenty of time to line up their targets, each bolt strikes a scavver. The two wounded creatures flee immediately, dropping out of the ship's air envelope. A couple of their more opportunistic fellows follow them, perhaps hoping to dine on them, but the rest of the pack only scatter briefly, then return to their positions. They are, as observed, stupid.
Over the next few days, as heightened watch is kept, ballista shots account for three more of the creatures, as does Nyala's bow. Their numbers depleted by more than two thirds, the remaining scavvers give up and look for food elsewhere.
* * *
These have been the shortest and the longest weeks of ibn Fadil's life: he and Nyala have found only a handful of times to be together, which could never be enough, yet each time it becomes more difficult to steer the conversation away from things he would rather not discuss. Even his most diligent efforts to please her body cannot seem to quench her desire to listen to him talk. Maybe this is a good sign (he thinks), but he still spends too much time awake and wondering what her next questions will be, and what he should say to them.
Nyala has in turn told him about her own homeland, mostly the mountains and forests she knows and clearly loves so well. She does not dwell on the events of recent years, or on her family, but paints a quiet, largely peaceful picture of a provincial community, comfortable without great riches, content to tend to their duties far from the realm's important affairs.
Tonight, he has run out of safe things to say about Zakhara, which has interested her so much. Instead he talks about Bral - its labyrinthine tunnels, the way the busy plaza reminds him of the bazaar at home, the peculiar backwards pride of its people (who will say uncomplimentary things about their own home, yet intend the opposite). It is clear that he does like the place, as if it were a disreputable friend that he knows he should avoid but chooses not to.
"It still seems strange to me - a place little larger than our stronghold, and so much more crowded," she marvels with a shake of her head. "To spend years there... why, then, did you choose to leave now, so suddenly?"
He sighs. "A small mistake, compounded by an accident." Then he looks at her curiously. "Why do you think I left suddenly?"
"The ship sailed with only a day's notice. From what I have gathered, the others of our crew were only waiting their first opportunity for a berth, but that does not seem to fit into your puzzle, Yusuf," she smiles.
"Hmm, no," he admits. "I made the mistake of opposing those pirates - not that it did much good. The accident was that it turned out that the giff were colluding with the pirates. I felt I would live longer if I left Bral as soon as possible."
"I see...." Nyala frowns, contemplating this new information. "Yes, that explains much, about the giff. But how, a mistake to stand against brigands? I think not. And if it was accident that landed you on this ship, then I at least must call it a happy one," she concludes, kissing him.
He chuckles a little, kissing her back, but the sound somehow lacks conviction; and then he looks at her searchingly for a long moment. "I would be happy, also," he says at last, "if I had the faintest idea of what to do next."
"Ah." She returns his gaze thoughtfully and after a brief silence asks, "What would you want to do, should nothing stand in the way?"
He glances away, and stares into the dark as if the piled cargo might provide an answer. Finally settling on another truthful evasion, he murmurs, "If you were with me, it would not matter where I was or what I was doing."
Another long pause; her gaze is shuttered for a moment, then meets his again in something like a challenge. "And if I were? I am of no mind to return to what remains of my home, and have no plans other than to follow my fortune."
He takes a sharp breath. "I *should* return to Bral, difficult though that may be," he says carefully.
"Should?" She looks momentarily puzzled by the implied obligation, then nods. "In order to discharge this debt that so weighs up on you?"
"It shows, does it?"
"If it will draw you back to a place where you may be in great danger... yes." She sits up to more easily look at him. "Can you tell me of what it consists?"
Ibn Fadil shrugs, a little embarrassed by this subject. "It was about twelve silver pieces -- plus a year's worth of interest at least, by the time I get back."
"That does not sound so terrible." The notion of "interest" clearly doesn't mean much to her.
"Let me explain the concept of 'interest,'" he says, and does so. "This means that after a round trip on the _Lazy Cat_, if I did not spend a cent of my pay on Janik, I would still be short when I got back to Bral." He had cheered up while outlining the world of urban finance, but now he becomes gloomy again. "And I cannot guess what he might add on just for the aggravation, never mind what --" He breaks off suddenly, unwilling to bring up certain of Vlad's other business practices.
"I think I begin to see," Nyala replies a touch dryly, responding more to his tone than his words. "I should like to know how this came about, but... well." She spends a few moments in thought, absently tracing her fingertips down his side. "Whatever else, if you are to return, it would be well to have friends at hand. As for gold," she waves a dismissive hand. "Gold can be found; it is of no moment."
"Huh," he says. "You must have never had to work all day, on your feet, just to pay the rent." Something else she just said occurs to him, and he props himself up to look at her. "Did you just suggest that you might come with me?"
Her eyes narrow a bit as she pulls back slightly. "I have not, although I have spent many days 'on my feet' as you say trying to keep my household from starving. If you do not wish for assistance, you have only to say so."
"I am sorry," he says, dismayed and confused by this response. "I did not mean to imply that you do not know how to work. I do not understand how you can be so, so casual about money, that is all. I --" he breaks off and shakes his head. "-- Had better shut my mouth before I say something else stupid."
She appears willing to be mollified, and shrugs slightly. "My needs are few, and I am told that ships such as this often need guards; I see no sense in worrying overmuch on the future. And in case my meaning was not plain," she leans toward him once more, "if you choose to return and find yourself in need regardless of our employers' generosity, I will happily aid you. I do not like to see you so chained."
"Thank you," he says, relieved. "You have already helped; as we have talked, I have remembered there was a time when I worried much less over these things. Uncle Karim was right," he adds obscurely, and sighs. "Perhaps I should not go back. But I cannot decide what to do, especially ..."
"Especially?" she prods when he falls silent. "You are puzzling me yet again - you wish to return, or do not, or can, or cannot? You need not know your own heart now, but...."
He laughs a little. "I do know my heart's desire, I assure you. What I do not know is whether I will achieve it, whether it is really wise to try, or what course I should set to take me there. And in the meantime there are other things I have to do that may interfere." His mood has changed remarkably, to one of wry amusement with himself or his situation; he laughs again. "And I am still puzzling you. I am sorry."
"I do not mind so much...." She smiles slightly.
"Really? Should I keep my secrets, then, and never tell you?" He is, of course, only half-serious.
"If you wish - though I may find them out regardless," she replies in the same manner.
He seems to find this very amusing indeed, but only says, "I will save you the trouble. You see," he declaims, "I have decided to -- decide what to do." He is almost giddy as he laughs once more, then settles down beside her and cups her face in his hand. "When we reach Janik I will tell you all about it. There are some things I will have to do first -- not least of which is probably to repeat to folk here what I already told the captain about those pirates -- but then I will have no more secrets from you. All right?"
"I will be waiting, then." She sounds intrigued.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson