Spacer Turn 16
  | Asymmetry | Role-Playing | Spelljammer | Turn 16 |



Turn 16

After so many months of travel, the _Lazy Cat_ has finally reached her destination; the moon Janik rolls beneath her keel, an orderly patchwork of cultivated fields and towns separated by woodland. The keenest-eyed of them can make out people and animals going about their lives.
    In the last few hours before the ship reaches Janik, ibn Fadil is helping Nahele tidy up the galley.
    "So, my young assistant, what are your plans when we make planetfall?" the elf inquires.
    "Oh," he says casually, "find a place to stay, and a bath-house and a laundry. And some new clothes!" He brushes at one sleeve of his shirt, which had already seen better days before being subjected to six months of kitchen work and no washing.
    Nahele looks amused. "Well, I expect you'll have no trouble with the first, at least. I always let her pick our hostelries."
    There is a loud clatter as ibn Fadil drops the box of spoons he was putting away. "Oh," he says weakly. Calm down, he adds to himself - he is *not* going to threaten your life over this. Unfortunately, knowing that is not quite the same as believing it.
    "Do be careful with those. And don't look so nervous. Even if I was minded to take offense, she'd go her own path. And likely skewer me for presumption later," he adds with a bit of a smile.
    He tries to pull together a few shreds of dignity as he picks up the spoons. "I do know that," he finally says with a bit more aplomb, sitting back on his heels to look at the elf. "But at home a conversation on, ah, this topic would usually include threats of violence, lawsuits, and the like. Nowadays it would not go beyond threats, as a rule, except in the country," he adds, lest Nahele think Zakhara is full of bloodthirsty barbarians. "But still ..."
    Nahele holds up both hands, empty. "No threats here. Haven't held a blade in at least twenty years; I stick to my cooking. And we don't go in much for lawsuits at home. You seem a decent enough sort." He gives ibn Fadil a penetrating look, as if trying to confirm that supposition.
    The half-elf smiles at the disclaimer, and stands up again in time to catch the other's more serious look, which he meets steadily. "I try."
    Nahele nods. "Good. You don't want to get on her bad side." He quirks an eyebrow; it's difficult to tell how serious he is.
    Ibn Fadil manages to laugh. "That I will try *not* to do," he says lightly, but he cannot quite prevent a flicker of worry and pain from crossing his face. After all, thus far it seems that *he* is the one most likely to get hurt in this affair.
    When the city moves slowly into view, all but the most well-traveled of the crew are taken aback by its sheer size. Vast wings stretch out from the sprawling stone massif that Three Trees headquarters has become over the two centuries since its modest beginnings -- from one small company of shipwrights to undisputed masters of this moon and virtual owners of the planet it companions. Orderly avenues radiate out from the hub of power. To the east, they eventually become lost in a maze of neighborhoods, markets, and narrow streets. To the west, they abut a dockyard for the ships of the stars, half level field, half artificial lake, where ships return with the choicest treasures of a dozen spheres, or stop for final fittings after the bulk of their construction has been completed on the planet below.
    Heavily armed ships cruise the skies above the city, along with the occasional flitter, incongruous in their delicacy. There is a considerable elven population on the worlds of this sphere, and the Imperial Fleet maintains a matching presence in the system.
    Shortly before landing, Pham takes leave of the bridge and walks to the bow of the ship, carrying a small parcel. He kneels down, facing aft, and opens the bundle, which contains a small bowl of what looks like rice and a small container of wine. Pham closes his eyes, and begins a singsong chant in a language that sounds very different from the normal common tongue. He then pours the wine on the deck, and leaves the rice behind at the bow of the ship. A moment's prayer more, and all on the ship who are sensitive to such things feel a wave of support, and health, and general good feelings.
    The captain orders message flags hung that declare the ship's port of origin and the condition of the crew, as well as Sidney Volant's personal crest, which the dockmaster is sure to understand as a sign of the urgency of their mission. The dock appears very busy, with cargos being loaded and unloaded and a number of ships under repair; as they circle a wasp ship takes off. After a few passes, a flag sequence is hoisted at an unoccupied docking position, indicating permission to land. The ship settles to the ground with scarcely a bump under Alais' somewhat nervous hand.
    To those of the crew making their first voyage off the Rock of Bral, the very size of the *sky* is daunting; the field and lake together are larger than the entire world they knew before, and they cluster uncertainly at the rail. Those of groundling birth, on the other hand, feel an opposite measure of relief at the prospect of release from the confines of shipboard life, however beloved its wonders. The sky is a clear, pale blue, with a few high clouds, and the air holds a hint of crispness along with the smells of smoke from the city and warm grass from the fields, delighting senses dulled by the long voyage.
    Ibn Fadil spends the entire descent hanging over the rail, and 'delight' hardly seems an adequate word for his rapt absorption of the free air, sunlight, and open vistas. Oddly enough, Nyala appears to be accompanying him, or at least spends her time leaning on the rail nearby, chatting with him. "Now *there* is a city," he says admiringly as the port comes into view.
    "Indeed," she agrees, resolutely unimpressed, though her eyes gleam more than usual.
    Val looks out over the moon of Janik as he mans his station, grateful to see land and trees and *sky* again. It's certainly been a while since seeing anything resembling his home this much. As the headquarters itself comes into view, Val is awed by the sheer size of it, reminded again of home. He wonders briefly what new opportunities await down there... 
    Waiting on the ground is a short, heavyset man in rich clothing of burgundy, with the Three Threes emblem on the pin of his cloak and four tall, heavily armed guardsmen following him. They proceed up the plank as soon as it has lowered.
    "Captain Barthelm!" The short man shakes Theo's hand with every evidence of pleasure. "It has been too long!"
    "Overseer Torsten, I see it is now," the captain smiles in return. "Indeed it has, if we've both come so far in the world since our last meeting."
    "Tolerably far, I'll grant," Torsten chuckles with a glance around the ship. "What brings Master Volant to the homeworld?"
    "He is not aboard," Theo tells him, and realizing from the other's expression what conclusion he has jumped to, adds, "He was well last I saw him, but there was no other ship to send with any speed. It is a matter of some urgency, as you can see. I must speak to the Board, or as many of them as can be assembled quickly."
    Torsten's bushy grey eyebrows rise throughout this explanation, as if trying to escape his head. "I see you mean what you say. Very well; while you see to your crew, I shall locate those who can be found. Most of them are in town, I believe - there have been troubling losses of late," he adds in an undertone. "But that news can wait until yours has been delivered." He bows slightly to Theo and bustles back off the ship after giving a few instructions to the guards.
    In fact, Theo delegates the usual tasks of landfall to Delmar and retreats to his cabin to ponder what he has pondered for months now: how to present the events on Bral to the Three Trees leadership, and how events might have fallen after the _Cat's_ departure.
    Among those tasks is to pay the crew for their service. Along with the coins, Delmar gives each of them a wooden chit, with a symbol indicating their ship on one side and their name hastily scratched on the other. As in many ports, sailors' money is welcome but they themselves are not particularly trusted, and it is required that all carry such identification - partly so the constables know where to unload the drunks each morning.
    "We will be in port a week at the least," Delmar tells the assembled men and women. "If you are not yet decided whether you will return to Bral, you may leave your kit on the ship until we depart - the docks are quite well guarded, as you can see, so you need fear for nothing. Bows, crossbows, arquebuses and the like are not allowed in the city, but must be left aboard or placed in the custody of the guards." The leader of the four men bows slightly. Nyala frowns.
    Emmett holds up his hook-hand, calling out "They're not going to fully disarm us, are they?"
    "No, but no projectile weapons are allowed. Cuts down on accidents."
    During a pause in the proceedings during which the still-unpaid crew members cluster into chattering groups, eagerly describing the pleasures they hope await with their freedom, Delmar signals to Alais, Brother Pham, and Emmett that he would like to speak with them.
    "Three Trees owes you all a great debt," he says quietly. "And is about to incur a greater one. I realize this is your first day on land, but the captain has indicated that he would like you," he nods to the mage and Pham, "to visit the Hall of Records in the city and try to determine if there is any significance to the migration we witnessed early in the voyage. He asks that you," he turns to Emmett, "accompany them and make sure no mischance befalls." In other words, the marine understands, keep them out of trouble. Theo has clearly come to trust in his reliability over the course of the voyage. "We will send a guide as well. There is a chance that your presence will be requested when the captain gives his account of events on Bral; by the time you return, it should be known whether or not you will be needed, so you can then make your own plans."
    "Of course I'd be happy to help out," Pham says. "Actually, that school or swarm or whatever it was has had me curious since we left it behind. Would the hall of records be the appropriate place, though? Are there any other libraries here we could look in?"
    "In the records hall every captain's log from every ship that ever sailed for us - those that have been recovered, at least - have been pored over by the Masters. If there's anything to find, it will most likely be there," he replies. "It may be after all that this is something new we have come across, and in that case they will wish to know of it."
    Emmett nods. "Delmar, giving me something to do right when we get into port makes it much less likely that you'll find me broke in a bar in 12 hours. I could use the adjustment time just to get used to the horizon."
    Emmett turns to the mage and priest, sliding most of his pay into the slots of his curious folding wallet with surprising one hand dexterity. "I'm ready to go whenever you two are." He slides the wallet into a pocket in his vest - the two men get a glimpse of the strange line where the half man's skin has been replaced with leather - before shaking his cutlass with his good hand. "I've got everything I need right here.
    "Wait. That's not entirely true. Excuse me a moment." The Emmett takes a couple quick steps over to where Inez was coiling some ropes - very much like her position from the first time he saw her. With little warning he picks her up and spins her around, ending the twirl with a lasting kiss.
    When they finally break, he smiles up at her. There is genuine affection in their glance, but it's smoldering nature makes it obvious to everyone that the relationship has a not inconsiderable physical aspect. "I'm going to have to scoot for a bit, hon. Delmar wants me to play guard for the pilots." He slips a handful of coins into her pocket. "Get us a room for a couple nights at a nice place. I'll meet you back here when we get back and we'll start...exploring."
    She gives him a smile and a wink. "I think I can do that. See you soon."
    "Great." he takes a step away, their hands lingering together. Before he gets too far away he seems to change his mind and spins her into a dip and a kiss, her long hair flashing in the sun. After a few more seconds they straighten up and he finally lets her go.
    "Ok. Now I'm ready. The library awaits!" Emmett says with a theatrical flourish before lowering his voice "And can you make it a quick trip?"
    Pham watches Emmett's capers with Inez with a bemused grin, and leans over to Alais. I suspect our escort may need more watching than we do. It's good to see passion in such a man, though."
    Pham looks at the half-man and shouts "Emmett - if you're done dancing, I'd like to stretch my legs somewhere that I don't have to worry about falling overboard!" After Emmett comes over, he says privately "You're a good dancer, and it looks like you've found a good partner. Sorry to force you away from her to be a baby-sitter. I'm sure this won't take too long."
    Meanwhile, Ginevra has gathered her things and is awaiting an opportunity to speak to Delmar before she debarks. She is wearing the veil again, more against the unaccustomed sunlight than for concealment now.
    Val watches her from a short distance off. The moment had finally arrived and he had hardly spoken to Ginevra of what would happen when they reached Janik. He'd been afraid to even consider the possibilities. For now, he remains calm and collected, the facade of cheer and encouragement firmly in place.
    He had of course offered to escort Ginevra off-ship, but she had neither accepted nor refused. He would again offer after she finished speaking to Delmar. Perhaps they could share one last meal before parting ways. He knows she's about to step out of his life, and he doesn't want to let it show just how much that thought truly saddens him....
    Delmar has just given ibn Fadil his pay -- a number of bystanders promptly engage in speculation as to whether his abandonment of gambling will weather this temptation -- with Hiro patiently awaiting his turn, when a voice from the ground calls out, "Hello, the ship!"
    From his expression, as he fingers the bright coins, the half-elf may be wondering the same thing as his shipmates.
    "See who it is, Nolan," he sighs. The other man nods and strides off to take a look. There is a murmur of conversation, and then he returns, far more quickly, and whispers in Delmar's ear. The first mate's expression grows hard. "Fetch the captain." As he finishes doling out the wages, his glance continually strays toward Ginevra.
    Ibn Fadil tucks away his money and wanders curiously over to the rail. He peers over at the visitors, and remains fixed there during the ensuing pause and conversation.
    Theo arrives promptly, frowning deeply, and goes directly to the head of the ramp, looking down at the unknown visitors. "Yes? I understand you wish to speak to me?"
    "Indeed I do, captain," a new voice speaks. "May I come aboard?"
    "I can hear you from there."
    A light laugh accompanies the sound of footsteps on the plank - several men, it seems, although they stop halfway. "Indeed, however the matter of which I wish to speak might better not be shouted across the field. I am given to understand that on your ship you have something that belongs to me."
    Ginevra takes one faltering step away from the rail, as if thinking to flee, and faints.
    Glancing over his shoulder to see how Ginevra is taking this, ibn Fadil sees her waver. Sheer reflex carries him across the deck barely in time to break her fall; with a trace of sympathy, he gently lowers her limp form to the deck and then steps out of Val's way as the other man rushes forward as she falls over. His mind races as he tries to figure out what happened. Too lost in his own thoughts, he hadn't been paying attention to what was going on at the ramp....
    "Pham!" he calls out for the cleric as he kneels down and cradles Ginevra's head in his lap. He looks her over for any signs of injury from the fall. What happened to her? What if she's hurt herself or the baby? Val pushes that thought aside. "Get Brother Pham!"
    Ibn Fadil keeps an eye on the captain and the ramp as he speaks to Val. "The brother is not here," the half-elf advises him quietly. "There is no need to panic yet, Valarin; I am sure it was only the shock that caused her to faint." 
    Val looks at ibn Fadil, the other's calm giving him pause. "Shock? What's going on?" His voice remains level, despite the panic threatening to take over. Only then does Val realize the captain is at the ramp with a scowl on his face. There is a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach....
    "Are you asleep? Somehow her husband got here before us."
    Val's mind races. Victor? Here? How did he manage to get here ahead of them? His hand automatically strays to the sword at his hip and a cold, detached numbness begins to slowly spread through him. But somewhere, deep inside of him, a small flame begins to burn.
    "We've got to get her out of here," he says calmly to ibn Fadil, his face a mask of determination. "The lower hatch in the hold. We can get her out through there." Without waiting for the Zakharan to reply, he scoops Ginevra up in his arms and heads below deck.
    The half-elf attempts to stop Val from doing any such thing by putting both hands on his shoulders and trying to hold him in his kneeling position, and whispering urgently into his ear. "No! Where will you bring her, by yourself, on a strange planet? Wait to see what the captain does!"
    "I'll get her as far away from him as possible," is Val's calm reply. He seems determined to follow through with that, but remains in place a moment longer to see what Captain Barthelm will do.
    "That would be about ten feet along the dock," ibn Fadil says with inexorable logic. "Did you think he came alone?" 
    Val remains silent, but his expression momentarily shows that he had not, in fact, thought things through....
    Meanwhile, the captain's frown has not diminished. "I'm aware of no *belongings* of yours that may be aboard, sir."
    A steely smile appears on Victor's face. "You know my meaning, Captain."
    The harbor guards still aboard appear thoroughly confused by all of this, and clearly aren't sure if their intervention is required.
    Victor solves the problem for them. "You," he commands imperiously. "Fetch Overseer Jumok. I have awaited your arrival most anxiously this past day, and had time to explain the situation to the good overseer, who I am certain will see it sorted out. You see, captain, your own rules do not permit you to deny me entrance under the circumstances."
    The guard hurries off; it seems a brief reprieve has been granted those aboard, but Victor's determination is clear....
    Val gives ibn Fadil a steady look. "Now what?"
    He hesitates. "Is the child Victor's, or not?"
    Val hesitates a moment, unsure of where he was going with this line of thought. "Not," he says flatly.
    "Lie," the half-elf advises, even more softly than before. "Say she has confided to you, her friend, that she has lately feared the child will come early. She ought to be in the care of midwives, not subjected to her husband's anger or another journey. Unless, of course, Overseer Jumok wishes to be responsible for her death. Look very worried for her; you can manage that. Understand?"
    Val's eyes narrow at hearing this strategy, but he nods anyway. 
    Satisfied, ibn Fadil promptly drifts out of the scene, back to Nyala's side, interested to see if this plan will work -- which he thinks it should, if the captain backs it up. 
    After about ten minutes, which pass with unbelievable slowness, the guard returns. In the meantime, Delmar calmly finishes the ship's business, though several of the released crew hang around curiously, wondering what will happen.
    Jumok is a man of average height and build, with a neat ginger moustache and beard, and he wears the same the burgundy uniform and cloak pin that Torsten had.
    "Master Victor," he greets the Bralian oligarch briskly. "What's the trouble?"
    "This is the ship of which I told you upon my arrival. Good Captain Barthelm appears reluctant to give me access to claim that which is mine," the other man replies.
    "Ah. Well, perhaps we can get on with things, then. Captain," he addresses Theo, "I assure you that everything will be carried out in an appropriate fashion."
    Theo draws a breath as if he might object, but stands aside with a harumphing sound to mark his disapproval as the overseer, followed by Victor and his four men, climb to the deck.
    Samuel Victor is a thin man, on the tall side. His hair is black, curly, and worn somewhat long, and like most Bralians his skin is pale. His clothing is extravagant - blue silk, red velvet, and a high lace collar that emphasizes his narrow features.
    In his first cursory glance over the ship he does not even seem to see Ginevra, but at a second look his gaze fastens on her immovably. His expression shows surprise, puzzlement, and murder in rapid succession.
    "I see," Victor says before turning to Jumok. He shakes his head with a sorrowful expression. "I suppose this is what becomes of allowing a groundling not far from barbarism to get ideas above her station. Not only a thief, but a strumpet as well. My father will be terribly disappointed." He snaps his fingers to his guards and gives Val a pointed look that says he will be remembered. "Take her to the ship."
    Jumok clears his throat. "About the theft?"
    "Is it not enough--check her bags," Victor snaps, annoyed by the omission of an honorific, and at being questioned. "I believe you will find the items of which I spoke."
    "Overseer," Val calls over to Jumok, "Pardon, but I fear the lady needs to be taken to a healer. My friend confided in me that she has been worried her child would come early." He had been careful to word the statement just so. "She collapsed a moment ago and...." He trails off meaningfully. His trained expression reflects concern and worry.
    "Excuse me..." Jumok moves past him in a businesslike fashion. "If I may." Under Val's watchful eye, he checks her pulse and her eyes. "She does appear to have fainted. It's clear enough we'll have to get her off this ship, at the very least, before anything else can be done, and let these men go about their business. We'll let one of the healers have a look at her." He glances at one of the dock guards and indicates her small clutch of baggage. "Bring that along and we'll see about that as well, see if we can't get this all cleared up." It's clear that this is rapidly becoming more of a hassle than he wants to deal with.
    "There were stretchers built to move the victims of the bloodsacs," Nyala speaks up. "I will fetch one, and we will bring her to your healers the more quickly."
    Theo nods his approval slowly, and she and a somewhat unhappy ibn Fadil go below to get the stretcher; there is no time to discuss what's going on or what to do next.
    "Thanks," Val says to Nyala, trying to read her intentions. He was somewhat surprised that she spoke up. Then again, when he considered it, Nyala had spent a good deal more time with Ginevra than he had...
    Though he doesn't state it, Val intends to go as well. He doesn't think it really needs saying, truth to tell. Though he's not so sure he'll get very far; he'd have to be sure and watch his back around Victor.
    He's somewhat surprised that ibn Fadil didn't say anything; it was *his* plan, after all. Of course, ibn Fadil may just be playing it safe, considering what he mentioned about Victor earlier. Val almost wishes he took his chances trying to sneak Ginevra out through the hold...
    There is another delay while Jumok and one of his men search Ginevra's cabin, but it appears they've found nothing there. Val and Nyala end up carrying the stretcher -- the latter is stronger than she looks. She's left her bow on the ship as ordered, but is wearing her rapier and dagger. Ibn Fadil, unwilling to be separated from her, carries the two surprisingly heavy bags, with his own sword at his side. This arrangement satisfies Jumok (although clearly not Victor), as it allows him to leave the dock guards to watch the _Cat_ as they were supposed to do. The Three Trees bureaucracy prides itself on orderliness and efficiency, as well as on the safety of its chief port, and disruptions such as this are not welcome. Theo glances at Delmar and nods; the latter attaches himself to the party as well, to report back later on.
    Not long after that, Ginevra stirs. "Where are you taking me?" she whispers.
    "To the healer," Val advises her with somewhat of a worried look. "You fainted a little while ago and we're to have you checked out. I know you were worried the child might come early," he adds for the benefit of anyone that might overhear. He fixes her with a look both pleading and insistent. _Take the hint and play along,_ he wills her, as if his thoughts might bridge the distance where words could be dangerous.
    His words penetrate her frightened desperation; her brow flexes and she nods slightly, understanding. Truth be told, she doesn't look at all well in any case. The members of the strange little party can see their destination, a two-story stone building facing the lake.
    "The worse off you are, the better," ibn Fadil adds quietly. "He is claiming you stole something from him."
    A flicker of outrage breaks through her fear for a moment; she closes her eyes again and lies still, bracing herself for whatever is to come.
    "Where were you planning on going before all this?" Val asks her quietly. "Perhaps we can still reach your destination? Or at least send word." The last is said more or less to ibn Fadil.
    The half-elf shrugs slightly; he is watching Jumok and Victor, trying to read their body language and get a better grip on the kind of people they are and how they are getting along -- and also suppressing a trace of irritation with being caught up in this lost cause. How much, he worries, is Nyala willing to do to help this woman? Victor is gesturing a lot, expressing his anger and frustration with the situation. It is difficult to tell what Jumok thinks of all of this.
    "I... I had no immediate destination," Ginevra murmurs. "If there is no word, if I cannot find him, then I must return to my family.... I did not expect this. Thought he might send searchers, but not that he would come here."
    Val's mind races as he tries to come up with a plan.
    Their little parade attracts some attention as they make their way to the door of the infirmary - Jumok and the elegantly attired oligarch followed the latter's personal guards, followed by the stretcher-bearers and their burden, followed by the two with her bags, followed by the long-suffering Delmar.
    A young man in plain brown robes greets them at the door with a low bow. "Overseer, honored visitors; enter and be at peace in our house. How may we be of service?"
    "Brother Gregory, is Sister Mahal in today? There is a woman here, just arrived, who must be seen to."
    "I will fetch her at once." He bows again, inviting them to follow him within. The interior of the building is plain and neat; they are shown to a waiting area with several windows looking out onto the waterfront, the walls lined with benches. Ginevra's eyes are open.
    "So you rejoin us," Victor smiles. She looks back at him silently. "Overseer, might we get on with this? It is going to be a long journey home, and the sooner begun the better."
    "Yes, yes. You there, I'll take a look at those." He collects the two bags.
    "You will find nothing there that does not belong to me, whatever he may have told you," Ginevra says quietly. She moves as if to rise; the others help her .
    "According to our contract, you own nothing," her husband reminds her in an almost jovial tone. "And where were you thinking of running off to? Back to daddy? I'm sure he'll look kindly on you for losing our business. Without the Victors, that godsforsaken ball of rock won't see another offworld penny. So much for his ambitions. Or were you thinking of some other... refuge?" His glance flickers toward Val with deadly intent.
    "He's nothing to do with this," she replies unsteadily.
    "Ah, the readily-believed word of a thief and --"
    Jumok clears his throat. He's found the false bottom in the bags, under which was hidden a modest fortune in jewelry.
    Peering curiously into the bags, ibn Fadil wonders what kind of idiot would subject his daughter to a marriage contract like Victor describes.
    Val's blood turns to ice and he fights to maintain a straight face. Once again, he is surprised by the turn of events. Best not to let the others see that though - especially Victor. His mind races to try and figure a way out of this new mess....
    Before he can do so, the door opens. Sister Mahal is a gnome in late middle age; her robe is similar to that of the man who met them, but in addition she wears a narrow stole of purple and white.
    "Good day, gentlebeings," she greets them, looking somewhat askance at the large and well-armed company of intruders. "You must be the one he spoke of," she says to Ginevra, assessing the woman with a glance. "Come, my dear, and we'll have a look at you. The room is just down the hall."
    "Perhaps I can be of assistance," Victor says smoothly. "I am, after all, the lady's husband."
    "Ah?" She looks him up and down for a moment, looks at the men he brought, and replies ambiguously, "I will inform you directly if there is anything useful you can do."
    Ginevra takes a single step and sways slightly; Nyala moves quickly to support her, and the two women move slowly out of the room, followed by the healer; the elf's eyes meet ibn Fadil's for a moment. The rest of the group is left with the simmering tension and Brother Gregory. Victor stands near the windows, his guards arrayed around him. Near the room's center, Jumok continues to frown at the bag he is holding. The rest are clustered near the door, uncertain of what to do now.
    "Sister is among the best in the sphere," the young priest assures Victor blithely. "I'm certain your wife will be fine. Is there any way I may be of service during your wait?"
    "You may *leave*," the oligarch snaps.
    "As you wish." He bows and departs without any sign of offense.
    "As may the rest of you," he adds to the contingent from the _Cat_. "There has been enough foolish delay, I'll brook no more."
    Stolid Delmar looks surprised. "Master Victor, these men are not under your command, and I have been ordered by my captain to report on the resolution to this matter. He takes ill the accusation that he has harbored a thief these many months of our voyage."
    "The evidence lies there." He kicks the bag on the floor. "As I told the good overseer here."
    "That certainly seems to be the case," Jumok admits. "Everything you mentioned is in there. Hardly seems worth a six-month journey, but...."
    "There are things more important than gold." He glowers at Val again.
    "Ah. Yes. Hm."
    What feels like a very long wait follows, the silence broken at times by shouts and thumps from the nearby docks as ships are outfitted, loaded and unloaded. Victor fidgets and occasionally upbraids his men for their slovenly posture. It's hard to tell what's going on behind his dark eyes; rumor on Bral has it that his well-known unpredictably is an attempt to cover for the fact that he's not terribly intelligent, and now what should have been straightforward has become far more complicated. Eventually there is a tap on the door, and Brother Gregory's head appears once more.
    "Begging your pardon, but there is a message for you from your ship," he says to ibn Fadil. "The captain has asked that the two of you return at once."
    "How much longer is this going to take?" Victor snaps.
    "I do not know, sir," is the polite reply as ibn Fadil and Val follow the young man out into the hall. "This way, please." He is not leading them toward the door they entered through, but deeper into the building. Around a corner, Nyala is waiting for them, fingers tapping on the hilt of her rapier in a most uncharacteristic betrayal of impatience.
    "We have explained the situation," she tells them without preamble. "I am not sure if she believes us in all particulars, but in any case to send the lady back now would be to doom the child she carries to death or to grievous hardship, so time has been purchased -- she will remain here at least until the birth, and they will be wary of Victor. As should we; it would be best for us to be well away before he receives this information; the good Brother consented to a small ruse." She looks from Val to the nearby door. "The lady is within if you would like to speak to her, but do not be long."

* * *

Back at the _Lazy Cat_, Yestin has missed most of the excitement by virtue of being belowdecks at the time, making his habitual final check to make sure that nothing has been forgotten. Of course, this time there isn't much to forget; he'd left Bral with little other than his weapons. Mindful of the local rules, he leaves his crossbow in the corner of the little room he's shared with Emmett these past six months. He wonders whether the man will be making the return trip to Bral or moving on, and sighs, for he has yet to make his own decision, and is not sure where to turn for advice.
    That can wait. Yestin suspects that he has been too long away from his own kind; what he needs is a real drink and a friendly fight to get some perspective. No doubt someone will be posted to a ship going in the right direction to carry the letter he has written, as well, with all the consequences that will bring...
    Well. He slings the nearly empty pack over his shoulder and leaves the room, comforting himself with the fact that many of the heroes of great sagas start their careers being disowned by their families.

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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson