Spacer Turn 17
  | Asymmetry | Role-Playing | Spelljammer | Turn 17 |



Turn 17

    To the Hall of Records:

    The group passes onto one of the broad streets they'd seen from above, thronged with people hurrying about their own business and lined with solid-looking buildings. After a while Emmett realizes that all this stone is not merely a show of wealth, but that these were once intended as shelters in case of aerial bombardment.
    The half man snags Denis' sleeve and nods his head at the buildings. "How long ago did the raids stop? They must have been pretty nasty to get people to build all this."
    "That?" He chuckles. "Oh, there hasn't been trouble on any scale here for my lifetime. This is a settled and peaceful sphere these days."
    "How was the journey?" their guide wants to know as they make their way through the crowds, making a few turns as they bear toward the heart of the city/company. "Must've run into something interesting, eh? Been some wild rumors coming down these past few months, more than usual -- pirates getting ideas, and Great Dreamers running around like mad, all the usual stuff about neogi, someone swears they saw the Mad Cavalier's ship. And get this, one guy claimed they passed a school, or shoal, or something of night scavvers in the Flow. Hundreds of them, he said, just drifting along." Denis shakes his head and chuckles. "Don't know what he was drinking, but he'd had plenty of it."
    _Is that so_, Alais thinks. Something's up, something big, and a man might make quite a name for himself if he figured it out before anyone else.
    The Great Square is indeed great, and filled with people. Vendors have set up booths along the edge, in between statues of presumably important people, and others wander through the crowds. Entertainers sing, caper, play, or declaim, and they pass several people haranguing the crowd from improvised platforms. The visitors catch snatches of speech as they pass by.
    "...In the body corporate cannot be allowed to spread! Demand Ivan Jorstoian's immediate resignation!" "....Call for sacrifice! Avert the..." "...Wealth, love, and eternal youth can be yours for only..." "...Penny to view the wonders of the northern woods! All are welcome!" "...Must expand the board! Exclusion of nonhumans is...." "...Fire fire fire fire fire fire fire fire fire...."
    Alais notes the cries, especially the politically-oriented ones, for further reference, and resolves to go see the wonders of the Northern Woods if he gets a chance.
    Emmett is thinking similar thoughts about how he and Inez could take in the show tomorrow - it had been a long time since he had some quality entertainment - when he spies the muttering madman.
    Their attention is caught as much by the man's eerie monotone and blank stare as by his speech. He's clearly been sleeping on the streets for some time, and sits on the ground heedless of anyone who might tread on him, looking up at the sun through the screen of his matted hair.
    Denis frowns. "That's a new one. People can say anything they like in the square, so mad folk tend to end up here. More work for us, since now we'll have to track down his relations or whatever ship brought him here and left him in this state. Don't know what people think we have temples for sometimes, they just kick Œem into the street and expect the city to take care of it and complain about the fines later on. Ah, here we are...."
    Emmett barely hears their guide's complaints, involved as he is in a silent conversation with brother Pham one involving raised eyebrows, a questioning look and a nod of his head at the unfortunate man. His meaning is clear: hadn't Pham had been having prophetic dreams about a great fire? Does this bear looking into? Had Pham considered getting a drink later? (OK, that last wasn't clear, but it's a safe thing to add when talking with Emmett in any fashion.)
    Unfortunately, Pham is too distracted by the nearness of their goal to notice or, if he notices, to respond. The Hall of Records is a big, grim-looking granite structure with narrow, barred windows, and not welcoming in the least.
    "I expect you can find you way back to your ship when you're finished. Good luck with the Masters," Denis wishes them, and departs with a friendly wave to resume his usual duties. Left on their own, the three visitors climb the steps to the iron-bound doors and rap with the knocker; the sound reverberates even over the noise of the square.
    After what feels like several minutes, one door swings open. The man revealed is clearly a wizard, since he's wearing a green robe with mystical-looking signs embroidered on the cuffs in silver, and his grey-streaked beard comes halfway down his chest. He is also six feet tall and built like a stack of wine casks.
    "Identification, business," he demands in a gruff bark.
    "I am Alais Zeremin, Ship's Wizard of the _Lazy Cat_, and this is Brother Pham, Ship's Cleric. Accompanying us is Mr. Emmett, of the crew. We are on a mission for Captain Theo, master of our craft. Pray thee, let us in!"
    Emmett stands unobtrusively to one side, willing to play accompaniment and take in the impressive solidity of the library while he gnaws on the puzzle presented by the muttering madman.
    "Huh," the man grunts, looking them over thoroughly, then stands aside. "What mission is this, then?"
    "Are you the librarian? The details of our task are for his ears only."
    Pham blinks a couple of times at that pronouncement, thinking to himself, _Librarian's ears only? The captain never said that!_ However, he remains silent, thinking that it would be worse to disturb the united front that the group was presenting than to correct Alais's exuberance.
    Still, the thought of standing here ... all the tales held in this building... surely many of them are thoroughly mundane, but the gems that must be here! Pham's eyes narrow, and he glares at the man blocking entrance, trying to more portray importance and impatience than the, let's be honest, greed currently coursing through his soul.
    The big wizard grunts again, unimpressed by Alais. "All within these walls are equal in scholarship, youth. Tell me your errand or be off with you; there is work to be done here that ill brooks delay."
    "I doubt not that all here are 'equal in scholarship,' but to no matter. Our mission is to seek out reports of strange doings, especially recent, of delphinids or other cosmoceateceans. How can we begin our research?"
    _Apparently the best thing I can do to protect Alais is gag him. I know he's damn impressive for his age, but a diplomat he's not._ Emmett thinks. He also catches Pham's initial shock at Alais' attitude, but decides to back the priest's decision to present a unified front. _As long as magically animated guards don't show up to kick us out,_ he mentally adds.
    "Delphinids, you say?" The librarian's features twist into a thoughtful scowl, and he gestures with his staff. "This way." He leads the three deeper into the building. "Strange doings, eh? We are concerned here with preservation of knowledge, not idle rumor," he warns.
    They follow the Master down a dark hall, around a couple of corners, and stop at a heavy door, which the tall man unlocks using three keys. The narrow room beyond has several windows at the far end and is thus startlingly bright, and they realize that the grim-looking outer building surrounds a pleasant courtyard and fountain. Outside, several people in robes similar to the first's are taking advantage of the light as they pore over books or work diligently at copies. Books line two walls, and there is a small desk near the windows.
    "Here lie many treatises on creatures," the Master proclaims. "Real and fantastical, theory, observation, and commentary on all from many worlds. The red-bound books," he touches a spine with a sudden smile that seems to transform his whole being, "are collected excerpts from company captains over the past several centuries who had observations to make of the beasts encountered in their journeys. The collection grows and changes constantly, and some of us have spent fifty years and more attempting to index a single room." He touches a tall book lying on its side atop the shelf. "You must depart at sundown, and may return on the morrow if you have not found what you seek."
    _Whoa. Now that's a lot of books._ Emmett blinked several times, taking in the scene. "Sunrise to sundown? Can we stay later if we have our own light?"
    "No," is the succinct reply. "There will be someone outside if you need anything."
    Emmett follows the wizards exit with his eyes, waiting for him to leave before saying "Charming fellow. Well, I suppose you two had better..." only to find that Alias was already buried in the books.
    "Um, Pham. This place looks pretty safe for you two. Do you mind if I go outside and get used to the square while you do the research?" A vague wave he interprets as assent.
    Alais and Pham survey the room's contents and begin their search. It is famously difficult to establish a negative, but as the hours pass it certainly appears that if such a gathering of delphinids has ever before taken place, it has not been recorded by company ships.
    There is one reference noted down by a conscientious ship captain over a century before and annotated as "probably spurious" by an unknown copyist. The ship had visited a world called Everfall to take on fresh air and other supplies, where the natives proved friendly if unsophisticated.
    _Conversation turned to Great Dreamers, as we were blessed enough to sight one of these beings on our way toward the planet, and I idly inquired if any of these seashore dwellers had seen one. Did not know what I meant, but after describing one was told that by these charmingly simple folk there were many hundreds of them seen during what he referred to as the Star Change. One of their children recited what I guess to be an archaic poem, which I have set down here as best I could, finding the ancient form of their language pleasant to the ear._
    The poem has not been reproduced; many of the copied records contain elisions where material extraneous to the topic of wildlife has been left out, or where the copyist could not make out the writing clearly enough to reproduce the text faithfully.
    Excited by this hint that might bear upon their search, the two researchers split their efforts. Alais looks for other mentions of this "Star Change" or anything similar, but finds nothing. If it refers to some astronomical event, the information might be in another of the great library's rooms.
    Meanwhile, Pham thinks to him, _Hmm... Great Dreamers? Didn't somebody in the square mention something about them?_ He starts widening his search from just delphinids to Great Dreamers, specifically looking for recent reports.
    There is an entire shelf of entries relating to the habits of the giant spacefaring creatures, but nothing recent; it takes time for information to find its way to the Hall of Records.
    The sun is going down.
    As the day fades towards dusk, Pham puts down the book he'd been reading, sneezes from the small cloud of dust, and goes over to Alais. "Alais. Alais!" After getting a bit louder than he'd like to be in a library, Pham finally gets the mage's attention.
    "They're going to be locking this place up soon? Have you made provisions for lodging yet? I don't know about you, but I'd very much like to sleep somewhere OTHER than the Lazy Cat this evening."
    "If you've not found a place, would you care to seek out rooms together? We could get a bite to eat and discuss what we've found. And what to look for tomorrow."
    Alais grimaces, profoundly ticked off at having to leave the library. "Yes, I suppose that would be necessary. Let us go."

* * *

In the Square:

Leaving the two more scholarly crew members in the library, Emmett heads back out into the square. Spending a few coppers on a couple 'spicy meat on a stick' concoctions, he makes his way back to the muttering madman, carefully holding both sticks with his good hand.
    When he finds the fellow, Emmett crouches down and hands one of the sticks to the poor deranged man. "Tell me about the fire."
    No response at all; there's no sign that the man has even registered Emmett's presence. His voice has gone hoarse and hence quieter, but he continues repeating the one word, staring blankly skyward.
    Emmett reaches out and touches the man, trying to get his hand the grasp the offered food. (Emmett's own meat on a stick has been transferred, ever prudently, to his mouth).
    The man's hand closes around the stick when prompted, but as soon as guidance is removed his arm relaxes and the food ends up in his lap. Now that he's getting a better look at the man, Emmett sees that he is wearing a simple hooded robe of surprisingly good material that was probably grey to begin with. His hands are filthy and covered with small cuts, but uncalloused.
    He'd hoped for better, but things being as they are, Emmett asks around the square after the nearest temple of Gond. Once pointed out, the temple is easy to find: it's the one with the attached windmill, a few twisty streets away from the square. The temple itself is a large, low building displaying mastery of many crafts. Several people are working outside.
    "Good afternoon, my son," says the thin, dark-skinned man who is trimming the grass back from the path when Emmett enters, noting the half-man's prominently displayed symbol of the god.
    "Good afternoon, artificer. I'm Emmett, recently arrived on the Lazy Cat. I could use some solace and advice. Is there someone I should talk to?"
    "I should certainly hope so! Come with me." He hops to his feet, wiping the clippers carefully with a rag before stowing them in a sort of holster. "I hope you've had a good journey?"
    "Definitely! Good company, got on the move again, only one fight with some Bloodsacs, only one man lost. Not as much time as I liked for leatherworking, but I did get to optimize the ships ballistae using some toned down Gnomish techniques." Emmett follows the priest into the windmill temple, waiting until they're seated to give more detail on his problem.
    "Splendid! Unfortunate about your crewman, but those creatures often wreak far greater losses. Wonderful people, the gnomes; we always get plenty of visitors when one of their ships is in. Some have been quite helpful around the temple, as well." The artificer seems to be one of those people who's just really enthused about life.
    "Here's the deal - the ship's priest worships the god of heralds, and starting having dreams about fire. Call me a superstitious old sailor, but I checked the whole ship over. No problems. Today, I'm escorting that priest and the ships wizard to the library, and we come across this madman in the square. He hasn't been lost long - his hands are soft, his clothes are still good - but all he does is chant 'fire fire fire' endlessly."
    The half man shrugs. "I don't know. I've got that same creepy feeling I got when someone was trailing me from behind and above, and in the sun at that. Something weird is going on, but I have no way to get more information. So I thought I'd ask you. Do you have any way to take car of that poor bugger in the square, see what's gotten to him?"
    "Hm." He looks quite serious now. "I'm aware of no ill omens such as you describe - when did these dreams take place?"
    "About five months ago." Emmett tries to place the date exactly but ships time makes it difficult. "It was just before we left Bralspace. Brother Pham was concerned about it as well, and since we were about to enter the phlogiston... Anyway, it wasn't our ship, but maybe it was something bigger."
    "One cannot leap too quickly to conclusions - first lay the path, then walk it," he adds with a smile, "and yet this certainly bears looking into, if only for the sake of that poor man. Bide here a moment, and if you will bring me to him we will see what can be done. We are not well equipped here to care for such unfortunates, but we can bring him to those who are, and begin inquiries." He vanishes for a few minutes and then returns, apparently ready to go.
    "Thanks Aram. He's back this way." Emmett leads the way back to the square, hoping that the authorities haven't dragged the man off quite yet. "Oh, I don't know if this is connected, by our wizard and priest are investigating a massive, umm, 'cosmoceatecean' school we passed on the way. Thousands of them. Never seen the like."
    "Truly?" Aram shakes his head with a wistful look. "That must have been an amazing sight. The wonders of the universe are vast beyond mortal comprehension."
    Emmett nods. "Kinda like women."
    Aram chuckles. "Sometimes I suspect they are beyond *im*mortal comprehension as well."
    Spotting the man and the untouched food, "There he is. Blast. Looks like he isn't eating, either," Emmett adds.
    The muttering man is right where he was, ignored by busy urbanites who move around him as if he were one of the square's statues. Aram kneels down to look closely, touches his arm, then his face. The blank pliability remains.
    "I see he is in a bad way," the artificer agrees gravely. "Something...." He shakes his head, frowning. "Well. Lend me your hand, friend, and we shall see if he can be steered."
    "He didn't seem hostile." Emmett reaches down and grabs one of the mans arms, trying to maneuver him upright. He knows he's strong enough to just carry the poor soul if it comes down to it, but better to give him a little dignity.
    The two men lead their charge back to the temple, and Emmett is never able to fully ignore the persistent muttering. Once they get there, Emmett makes his good-byes. "I'll be back tomorrow to check up on him, but I have some sailors I have to escort back to their boat."
    The half-man stops, fishes out some coins and drops them into the donation box. He hears the distinctive sound of wheels turning, and knows that the coins are being sorted by weight right now, even as their passage winds the mainspring for something else in the temple. "Let no act go wasted" is a cornerstone of Gond's faith, and Emmett hoped that his patron would apply that to his efforts today.
    Back at the library, Alais and Pham are finishing up for the day; as they have nothing to report yet, they plan to find a place to stay and pick up their research again in the morning. Upon reporting back to the ship - he has to show his ID at the main gate and then again to a dock guard at the plank - Emmett finds the captain and first mate deep in discussion, though their voices cease at his knock.
    "Enter. Ah, Emmett," Theo greets him. "Any luck with the Hall of Records?
    "Fine, sir. Got them there, they did some research. Nothing so far, but they'll do some more looking tomorrow. What happened here to increase all the security?"
    "Standard procedure," is the reply. "The company takes great pride in the safety and security of the city." After a moment's pause he adds, "Just the same, if you see any men with a badge of a golden 'V,' keep an eye about you, and let the others know if you see them - 'specially your friend Val. There's a Victor cub in the city who may try to make trouble for the crew." He shakes his head at his own folly in not handing the woman over immediately.
    "I''ll do that, sir." Emmett says, vowing to have a chat with Val to find out what had been happening in his absence.
    "I've been informed that the Board would like to hear your account of what happened during the raid on Bral. Be at the headquarters steps at the eleventh bell, and be ready for a long afternoon," he warns candidly.
    Emmett nods. "Aye aye, sir. I'm just glad there giving me the evening to unwind. How long do we expect to be in port? There's a show playing I'd like to see."
    "Probably a week. Try to enjoy it."
    Emmett thought back to his departure from Inza earlier in the day before responding, "Shouldn't be that hard to do sir. I'll be there at 11 bells tomorrow."
    "Good. That will be all."
    Inez is waiting abovedecks to greet him with a sly, "What took you so long? I got us a place, not too far from here...."

* * *

At the Infirmary:

"There are things more important than gold." He glowers at Val again.
    "Ah. Yes. Hm."
    Val returns Victor's gaze without wavering. The cold fire burning within is giving him a certain measure of courage that he normally might not have.
    During all this, ibn Fadil starts trying to fade into the background -- looking bored and propping up an out-of-the-way wall.
    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."
    Val is reluctant to leave, but the look from Delmar seems to arrest any protests he may have come up with. Delmar has already done more than the young man had had expected, and he does not wish to get on the first mate's bad side. At least any more than he probably already is.
    Reluctantly, Val turns to follow the messenger. He intentionally ignores the foppish oligarch as he leaves. He doesn't want to give Victor the satisfaction of acknowledgement, as if the man mattered not at all to him.
    "How much longer is this going to take?" Victor snaps.
    "I do not know, sir," is the polite reply as a puzzled 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.
    Val had at first thought to protest, but keeps his mouth shut. Seeing Nyala, even as irritated as she seems, is quite a relief.
    "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."
    "I could kiss you," Val tells the elf, half seriously. There is obvious relief on his face, mixed with his uncertainty. He hurriedly slips into the room to see Ginevra.
    "Excellent," ibn Fadil says cheerfully as Val ducks through the door. "Now all we have to do is track down her, ah, friend." He had not really expected this to work out quite so well, but now it seems like his extrication from this matter is not far off.
    Nyala nods. "In a port this size, there should be news." She's still frowning.
    "Do we know his name, what he looks like, the ship he was on, things like that?"
    "I do. The only worry is that others may be looking as well."
    Ibn Fadil starts to ask, "Such as?" and then decides to put that off until they are on their way, and out of earshot of the helpful young cleric. Apparently optimism is not yet called for, and that dampens his mood once more.
    Beyond the door is a small, whitewashed room, furnished only with a low bed and a small cabinet with a washbasin on its top. Ginevra is sitting on the bed, wearing one of the loose brown robes; the clothes she arrived in are neatly folded beside her. When he enters she stands with an expression of relief, both hands extended in a welcoming gesture.
    Val steps forward and impulsively takes her into his arms. The awkwardness of the brief embrace reminds him of why she's here in the first place, and he steps back to look at her, still holding her hands.
    "I'm sorry," he manages to say. "I'm afraid I'm not doing a very good job of protecting you." There is a look of sadness and regret upon his face, but his eyes are still bright with determination.
    "It is I who am sorry - I should never have spoken, never have gotten you involved in this," she replies quietly. "I did not think of the danger I was putting you in."
    "Nonsense," Val says with an odd, lopsided smile. "You needn't say that. I would have helped regardless.
    "Nyala tells me you'll be staying here," Val continues. "They'll to see you through the birth at least..." he trails off, unsure of what to say next. There is so much to say, so little time to say it, a so few words to truly express himself.
    She nods briefly. "It seems they are not entirely certain what to do with me, so I abandon myself to the mercy of the gods." A glance at the door. "I am told there is not much time -- I beg of you, be watchful while you remain on this world. And if we do not meet again, know that I will think of you often, my friend. I would give you something to remember me by, yet it seems I've nothing to give but this." She rises on her toes to kiss his cheek. "Keep yourself safely and well."
    Val smiles down at her, resisting the urge to draw her to him. He fights to keep the facade in place.
    "His name, and ship?" he asks her after a brief awkward silence. "We've got to get word to him." Val knows there isn't much time.
    "Teague Linnhal, of the _Silver Swan_," she replies softly. "Thank you." She hugs him briefly, then steps back. "You should go...."
    Val lingers a moment more before turning to go. There are still so many things he wants to say to her, to tell her, but he dares not. There will be time for that later, he tells himself.
    "Until we meet again," he says before slipping through the door.
    Val rejoins his companions in the hallway, his expression unreadable. "Let's go," he says, not wanting to draw this out any longer. He appears somewhat withdrawn, but not so much that he isn't thinking clearly. They need to go.
    "So," the half-elf asks as they start down the street, "do you mean the Victor also knows who he is, or is it someone else who might be looking for him?"
    "I meant that Victor may be looking for *us*," she clarifies with a glance at Val. "Though I doubt he has many resources to hand." She shakes her head and looks at ibn Fadil, setting aside such concerns for the moment. "Let us return to the ship, collect our belongings -- and my brother, who is no doubt wondering what happened - and then we shall see what this city has to offer?"
    "You mean he'll be looking for *me*," Val says rather grimly. "There's no reason you two should face his wrath as well."
    "He is a man of no reason," she agrees blithely. "Who knows what he may do?"
    "Point taken," Val replies. "I intend to inform the child's father. Maybe there's something he can do for her..." He doesn't want to dwell on that thought just now, for it reminded him just how little help he had been so far.
    Looking at the unhappy young man, ibn Fadil suspects he himself is going to get further mired in this situation before he gets out of it. The Victor is just the sort of man to have his bullies snatch a hapless sailor off the street and take him to some quiet, convenient place, and the half-elf's conscience pinches him sharply over his attempted at indifference to that possibility. 
    Nonetheless, there is nothing to be done about it right now, except try to be even more alert than usual. "I am sure the city has a great deal to offer," he tells Nyala with a smile. "We can look for this mysterious fellow after settling other matters."
    For the rest of the journey back to the _Cat_, Val is quiet, occupying himself by being aware of their surroundings. It would not surprise him if they were being followed. It had been a long time since he had needed to act in this manner; at least not since just before leaving Taros, after his mentor Circio had been murdered. He felt the same sense of being hunted right now... but at least for the moment, there is no sign that they are followed.
    Nahele is waiting, clearly curious but also willing to wait until they're in a more private place before finding out what has happened. Hiro is still aboard ship, but most of the regular crew have long since disappeared to spend their new gold.
    "Is the captain still aboard?" ibn Fadil asks Nolan. "I will join you in just a moment," he tells Nyala and Nahele, and trots quickly down to the captain's cabin knocks. "Ibn Fadil," he says to natural query from within.
    "Captain," ibn Fadil says, not quite bowing, but with his usual deep respect, "I was wondering if you will need me to come along when you talk to the -- the board, did you call it? -- and when that would be. I do not plan to stay on the ship," he adds.
    "Ah, yes. I do not think that will be required, but check here tomorrow morning and we can be certain. Could you tell Delmar to see me immediately?" he adds, assuming that they came back together.
    "Nyala and Valarin and I came along ahead, Captain. The healers want to keep the lady till the child is born, and we thought it prudent to leave before his lordship received this news." His tone is one of bland understatement.
    "I see...." He nods thoughtfully, but does not share his opinion of the matter with ibn Fadil. "Very well, then. Enjoy the city."
    The half-elf hesitates. "I would be glad to help in any way I can, sir -- about the pirates, that is."
    "Yes... Come by the ship in the morning," he decides. "If they want to speak to you, I'll leave word here, though I don't think it likely."
    He takes himself out the door, to his cabin to fetch his meager belongings, and back up on deck to join his elvish friends. "All ready?"
    "More than," Nahele replies heartily. "I've spoken to our native guards, who tell me suitable lodgings can be found if we take one of the northerly avenues."
    "Good," he says, squinting toward the setting sun. "I still have some things to do today."
    The three set out in the indicated direction. The first areas they pass through are cheap lodging houses, taverns, and brothels where no doubt some of their shipmates have already ensconced themselves. It is much like Bral in the wide variety of people in the streets, but compared to the crowding there even the meanest inn has a wealth of room.
    A half hour's walk brings them to a quieter part of town. The nature of the crowds and the architecture shift; it is a largely elven neighborhood they have entered. Here both the entertainments of the city and quietude are within easy reach, and Nyala's brother can begin making enquiries in his attempt to establish himself permanently.
    The fourth place they try, the Gilded Vine, has two rooms to let. They are asked for their identification by the apparent proprietor, who looks to be somewhat older than Nahele, but welcomed politely enough once that has been established.
    The building is old and slightly shabby, a bit too far from the docks and the city center to get the best business, but it is clean and comfortable-looking, and the smells from the common room are encouraging, as is the whiff of steam and soap from a bathing-room. Their rooms are on the upper of the two stories, one on each side of the hall. Ibn Fadil and Nyala's faces north, with glassed dormer windows looking out from the steeply-pitched roof. The bedding is clean, there is a fur for added warmth should the night grow chill, and the furnishings while simple are beautifully crafted: a bed, chest of drawers, a trunk at the foot of the bed, a small table and a chair near the window. There is a well-worn rug on the floor.
    Ibn Fadil looks around the room and in his mind compares it with the coffinlike rooms in which he has slept (but never lived) for so many years on Bral, and suddenly feels very tired. Going to the window, he looks down at the street, other buildings similar in size and style to the Gilded Vine, what is probably a small market a couple blocks away, some trees that might be a park. For the first time, he toys with the idea of not reporting in -- of taking off and exploring the wide universe with his lover. But it is only for a moment. He turns to face Nyala and says, "I should go out on my errands."
    She studies him for a moment and asks, "Do you wish accompaniment?" There is a hint of uncertainty to her bearing; the environment has changed, and the rules may have as well.
    He dredges up a smile and shakes his head. "It should only take an hour or two," he says. Thoughtfully, he adds, "If you will tell me about Lady Ginevra's friend, I can start looking for him, as well."
    She's clearly curious about this, but tells him what she knows of Ginevra's lover.
    The half-elf absorbs this information, then takes her hands and kisses her. "I will return as soon as I may, my love."
    Leaving behind the small bundle of his belongings, he goes out and starts back toward the docks; it lacks two hours to sundown, and there is much to take care of.
    His questioning of workers near the harbormaster's office reveals that the _Swan_ stopped into Janik briefly, then headed in-system on her regular trading run nineteen days ago. She'll be back in about six weeks, with luck. He can't find out for certain whether the man he seeks is aboard, since they weren't on Janik long. It might be possible to find out more through bureaucratic channels, but that would no doubt be time-consuming, and will in any case have to wait until morning at the soonest, when the offices are open.
    At least what Nyala told him has given ibn Fadil the context to realize that he's seen the man during his stay on Bral; one of the nigh-infinite number of young men of good family but no prospects, taken to ship life as a means to make a way for himself in the universe. Ginevra of course won't describe him in anything but the most glowing of terms, but his reputation on Bral supports her contention that he's charming, generous, and socially adept, which is no doubt how he managed to meet her in the first place. Roguish good looks and a poetic turn of speech surely assisted him in bringing about the current situation.
    As always, he takes careful note of his surroundings, getting a feel for the city. It's impossible not to notice that there are quite a few guards, as well as other people wearing uniforms, badges, hats, and so on with the company sign. The guards appear to take their work seriously, at least this close to the docks; it seems fairly common for people to be stopped and asked to show their identification chits. At the same time, there don't seem to be any beggars, and most people look decently fed. There appears to be free trade in intoxicants and sex, catering to just about every species in space.
    It is also readily apparent that there are three kinds of people here: 3 Trees employees, off-worlders, and people who provide support services for both. Company people move with the blithe confidence that comes of knowing perfectly their place in the elaborate mechanisms of the world-business, and knowing that it's in the upper reaches. Support folk are wary and deferential by contrast; however welcome they might be, they are inessential and unprotected outsiders. Most offworlders appear either ignorant of or disinterested in this groundling dance.
    Having accomplished the first of his self-appointed tasks, a few more questions serve to establish where he might find the business offices of the companies, and rarely entire worlds, that have established relationships with 3 Trees. The _Swan_ is a Silverstream ship, so his questions about how to find their office do not seem strange, although that is not in fact where he is going. A brief search rewards him with the familiar though long-unseen Zakharan banner on a brick building remarkable only in that it has no windows facing the street.
    The door is opened at his knock, revealing a youth in Zakharan dress who bows politely. "Good evening, sir. How may we be of assistance?"
    He answers in Zakharan, with his usual easy friendliness. "I am looking for passage back home, and I did hope to find some assistance here."
    "It will be our pleasure to provide whatever aid we may. Enter and make yourself comfortable," he invites. Beyond the front door is a tiled foyer; off to the left a sitting room. A trio of candles burn against encroaching dusk. With another bow the boy departs to find someone who can speak to him.
    Ibn Fadil settles down to wait, enjoying the effort that has been made here to make the rooms look like home.
    After a short wait a middle-aged man enters the room with a smile and bow even for this unassuming guest. "Good evening," he echoes the servant. "I am told you are seeking assistance in finding passage?"
    "Yes, thank you," ibn Fadil says, getting up and bowing much more deeply. "I have been away for a long time, and I would like to see my Uncle Karim again."
    "I see," the man smiles. "It is difficult to be away from one's family." He rings a small silver bell on a nearby table; the servant reappears. "Tea, please, Ahmad. Have you been long on this planet?" he asks ibn Fadil.
    "A few hours," he says, sliding easily back into the elaborate courtesies of his homeworld; no real business can be done until the formalities are observed. For the moment, he positions himself as slightly inferior to the man, who introduces himself as bin Rashad but does not ask who is visitor is.
    Once the tea has been tasted and appreciated and the servant dismissed, "You may speak freely," bin Rashad tells him.
    "I find myself somewhat embarrassed," ibn Fadil admits. "I am assigned to Bral on behalf of Olnfar, but -- if I may put it thus -- I tripped over someone else's conspiracy and was forced to leave quite rapidly. I intend to take a ship back in a week or so, but I imagine my superiors on Bral believe I have mysteriously disappeared."
    "Indeed?" His expression invites elaboration. "That is quite a journey to undertake on the spur of the moment," bin Rashad notes. "We are certainly happy to assist Olnfar." Another tick in the elaborate balance of favors. "Do you then truly require passage?"
    "No, thank you," he smiles. "I expect to return on the same ship that brought me here. I would have preferred not to leave at all, but I am only of use if I am alive." He pauses briefly to let that make an impression, and then outlines the pirate-giff conspiracy. "I let my curiosity bring me too close to the affair," he concludes. "Everyone but myself and two others were too far away to clearly see what passed, and before long I understood that it would be wise to depart.
    "Three Trees is much concerned about the raid," he adds. "The ship on which I came is Sidney Volant's personal vessel, the _Lazy Cat_, which departed Bral the second day after it."
    "I see..." This is interesting news to him indeed. "We shall have to look into this. As for the situation on Bral, it is unfortunate, but such are the vagaries of chance. You intend to return, then?"
    "Yes. I still have some hope of finding out more about these events myself," he adds, "however, not only is my post on Bral, but I have invested several years in being a pleasant but somewhat disreputable fellow there." A slight gesture indicates his shabby state, then shifts into a more general movement that indicates a change of subject. "All I ask of you, friend bin Rashad, is to pass on word that Arif ibn Hassan of Olnfar is alive and well and trying to return to his post, and perhaps send on a letter, as well, if you are willing."
    "Of course, we are delighted to do so," the man smiles. "Your dedication is commendable."
    "If only it were matched by my ability to stay out of trouble," he says ruefully. "I may pick up some more information in the next few days, which I would be glad to share with you, and then I will be ready to write my letter."
    After an exchange of pleasantries, he leaves the office, keeping one eye out behind him as he makes his way back through the now-dark streets. He is not in the least surprised to spot the youth following him. Ibn Fadil gives him a cheerful wave as he passes through the door of the Gilded Vine, then hurries upstairs to their room.
    "Done," he tells Nyala, giving her a quick kiss. "I want to fit in a bath before dinner," he adds, going to his bundle of things and taking out his other set of clothes. He looks at them without enthusiasm; they were in better condition before the journey than the ones he is wearing, but are still a bit shabby and none too clean. "New clothes, tomorrow morning, before I go back to the ship," he says firmly.
    "And speaking of ships, Nyala, the _Swan_ reached Janik nineteen days ago and has already left again on its regular run. Whether Teague was aboard, we can try to find out tomorrow, perhaps."
    He does not take as long a bath as he would like, but he is scrubbed, combed, and slightly more presentable at dinner. The food is good, though probably not up to Nahele's standard - he's gone out to further explore the neighborhood, kindly giving the two some privacy for their first evening on land. The other diners appearing of little interest, they talk about inconsequentials during the meal.
    Then it is time to decide how to spend the evening; and Nyala falls in with his own unspoken preference. It is strange to him, and oddly sobering, to realize that anyone seeing them go upstairs together may guess what is between them; and strange to hope that he might not be alone again. But he sets aside these thoughts in favor of exploring the delights of making love in an actual bed.
    Afterward he holds her tightly, wondering how to begin to explain himself. "That was much easier on the knees," he says instead, stalling.
    "And other things, as well," she agrees with a smile.
    He sighs, kisses her, and very quietly says, "I love you, Nyala. And I beg your forgiveness, for I have lied to you." He can feel her tense, ready for immediate movement. "I have lived under a false name for what must be over six years now. My real name, or most of it, is Arif ibn Hassan Dawud Fadil." He pauses to let her mull that over, and to think how to phrase the next bit of news.
    "I am returning to Bral because my work is there. I collect information for one of the great houses of Zakhara; or, to put it more bluntly, I am what most people call a spy."
    After a long, still moment she asks directly, "Why? And why are you telling me, now?"
    Perplexed -- he feels this should be obvious -- he says, "I am telling you because I am not stupid enough to go on trying to win your love under false pretences. I did not tell you before because -"
    He stops, collects himself, and goes on in steadier tones. "I do not frighten easily, but I am afraid now, and I have been for all our time together. You have my heart in your keeping, and I -- I do not know what you will do with it."
    She is frowning, and after a moment she moves abruptly, sitting up and breaking the contact with him (though she doesn't leave the bed). "Nor do I, at this moment," she admits. "Some things are clearer now... I must think on this."
    He also sits up, not quite reaching out to touch her. With a visible effort he masters the alarm caused by her moving away. "I would answer your other question," he says, "but 'why' is a bit vague."
    "I would like to know how you came to follow this path," she clarifies, resting her chin on her knees as she studies him. "Ah - splinters, now I do not know how to call you," she realizes with a hint of self-directed humor. "Well, a name is a small thing, but... I have thought that I love you," she touches his hand, meeting his gaze, "and hope that I have not been deceived in all." Her voice is very gentle, her expression intent and somewhat sorrowful.
    "Well," he says, feeling as if he might fly apart at the seams at any moment, "I am -- that is, this is going to sound strange, but Yusuf is not very different from Arif. I was advised that it is easier, and therefore safer, to pretend to be someone much like oneself. Really there are only two important differences: I do not, in fact, have a gambling problem, and ... before I became Yusuf, I had never known a day's hardship.
    "But as to how I got onto this path in the first place," he goes on, hoping he has not confused things further, "that is quite simple. When I was about twenty years old I was a bit wild. I had caused no real trouble, mind, but my mother was worried -- she was quite free with her opinions on the matter." He smiles wryly. "In return I admitted that I was bored, and that I had no intention of spending my life building up the family fortune, but I could not say what I *did* want to do.
    "Then my mother's brother came to visit, the one who had been out among the spheres since before I was born. Restless as I was, I was fascinated by that, of course. I suppose I made myself a nuisance, asking him about spelljamming and the worlds beyond our sphere. So it was partly my own fault, no doubt, that when he left I found myself packed up and sent with him. It is his trade that I practice now, you see."
    "Ah." She nods slowly, mulling over what he has said. The pieces of the puzzle fit together now. "Back on the ship, you said you had a decision to make."
    "Yes." He rubs his arms, finally noticing the night's chill, and drapes a corner of one of the blankets around himself. "I preferred to think I had not already decided. I had about a dozen good reasons for never letting you know what I felt for you, but when you spoke to me that night my resolve simply vanished. Yet the reasons still hold." As he pauses and stares blindly at the window for a moment, a subtle change that has been coming over him suddenly becomes clear: he usually pretends to be far less intelligent and thoughtful than he really is, and he is not doing that now.
    "And what reasons are those?" She has relaxed somewhat since the start of the conversation, willing to be disarmed from her initial suspicions.
    "Where to begin?" he says with an attempt at lightness. "I may already be in trouble for leaving Bral," he says. "My immediate superior there is an idiot who dislikes me on principle, I think. I have asked my colleagues here to send my explanation on, but her messages may reach Zakhara first, and the gods only know how long it will take to sort out the matter. If I were to return with you along -- well, that would complicate things further." His lips quirk in a crooked smile. "Falling in love in the midst of an assignment demonstrates terribly bad judgment, you know."
    "I see the difficulty. So you will return, then?"
    "Certainly," he says, nettled. "I believe things should have settled down by the time I get there, and any other action would be a, a dereliction of duty. I *will* return, alone if I have to." He flinches a little at his own words, but continues to meet her gaze. "Another reason to keep silent," he adds bleakly. "I am not proud enough to believe you will follow me."
    Nyala is momentarily taken aback by his tone, but after a moment her frown softens into a thoughtful expression. She shifts position to sit close by him once more with a quiet sigh. "I see. Well. I said on ship that I have no plans, and that is true. I can as easily go to Bral as any other place. I do not think I could remain there long," she tells him with gentle directness. "However I might wish to be with you, I am not well suited to the place, and as you say my presence would be a problem for your identity there. But much can happen in half a year's time."
    "That is so." Carefully, he puts an arm around her. "In truth, I feel unwilling to stay on Bral much longer. I suppose I had become root-bound." At her puzzled glance, he explains, "When you grow a plant in a pot, every so often you have to move it to a larger pot, because the roots grow to fill up the first one. My father gardens," he adds. "At any rate, I have to return to Bral, but there is no reason why I cannot request transferal to another post. Any new assignment would almost have to be more to your liking than Bral.
    "In the meantime, I can work around your presence. I shall be a *reformed* gambler," he smiles. "I think that will be readily believed."
    She smiles - quite beautifully. He can tell she's still troubled about this, but there has been enough somber talk for one night.

* * *

Elsewhere in the city:

As ibn Fadil goes to see the captain, Val heads below deck. The young sailor's dark mood is apparent as he brushes past anyone else on deck. It is somewhat of a surprise to see him like this, considering his usually affable nature. Things obviously did not go well at the healers'....
    Hiro had been considering approaching Delmar to say that, if the Captain thought it important, he would stay aboard the ship while the others debarked for Janik...but seeing both ibn Fadil's resolution and Val's troubled countenances he thinks better of it as the former inquires after the captain's whereabouts. He can always make the offer after the Zakharan is finished. Right now, it is the absence of Val's devil-may-care facade that garners the Kensai of Kara-Tur's attention.
    Val enters the small cabin he shares and gathers his belongings. He had thought to stow them here until his return from seeing Ginevra off. Ironically, he is still doing just that, though things did not go as he had hoped. His mind is preoccupied with half formed plans and schemes, not the least of which is finding Teague. Maybe there is something that can be done to get Ginevra out of this mess.
    Daggers in place.
    Val pauses at that thought. He feels so helpless right now, and he fights to hold back tears. Not so much tears of sorrow, but tears of rage. He is angry with himself for not being able to get her to safety. He failed. Damn. And now all Victor has to do is wait for the child to be born. Then Ginevra will be released, and Victor will win. All because of some damned contract. And because he didn't get her away when he had the chance....
    Tools in place.
    Of course, it doesn't help that she has been caught with those jewels in her baggage. Even if they do belong to her, Val is certain Victor has convinced the Overseer to the contrary. And now Ginevra has nothing. Unless there was something he could do about that.... Another half-formed plan begins to take shape in Val's mind.
    Reversible longvest on, colored side out.
    First things first, though - Val needs a room. Then he needs a place to stay, because he has no intention of staying in that room. When he was dodging the assassins that killed his mentor, he had used this trick to throw off possible attacks. Of course, back then he had the benefit of being in places he'd visited before, and he had the help of some *friends*. He has no doubt Janik has its share of thieves and possibly even a guild, but getting them to help him will be another matter altogether. He'll think more on that later.
    He is ready.
    Standing motionless in the doorway, Hiro inquires, "Is this to be your moment as a hero?" recalling not only the pair's first conversation (and the westerner's clumsy mispronunciation of his name) but also the moment Val first gazed upon "Lenore."
    Val, having not heard the Kensai's approach, turns now to face the man, a dagger concealed in his left hand. His face reflects a grim countenance, his posture tense energy restrained. Upon recognizing the weapon master, he relaxes a bit. He'd been expecting trouble and *still* wasn't prepared. He wouldn't last long of he left himself open like that.
    "I missed the chance," he replies somberly, with a shrug. "All I can do now is try and make up for it." He sheaths the dagger in a fluid motion, not caring if Hiro saw it. Against the Kensai, Val knew he'd probably never stand a chance anyway.
    "What can I do for you?" Val asks. He runs his fingers through his hair in an apparent nervous gesture, but manages to put a smile on his face. It's less than convincing, unfortunately.
    Knowing full well the weight of failures past, Hiro's eyes shine with understanding. He reaches out to Val, placing a hand on the other man's shoulder. "Perhaps there is something my sword and I can do for you, Valarin."
    Val sees the look in Hiro's gaze and accepts it. He too remembers their conversation from a few months back. Val feels as if his own shining moment had already come - and gone.
    "Don't tempt me," he tells the swordsman with a rueful grin. He pushes the errant thought aside. Much as it would please him to see Victor skewered on the end of a sword, it's not necessary. Yet.
    "I'm off to find a place to room," Val says as he shoulders his pack. "I'd like it if you could make sure my head is still attached to my neck by the time I find someplace safe." He felt only a little guilty for asking this of Hiro, but the man had offered, and he was damned good with that sword.
    Hiro nods silently. And with that he bends at the doorway revealing his pack already prepared for travel. He hefts the bag onto his back and gestures to Val that he is ready to follow.
    "Thanks," Val says, meaning it more than he can express. He offers Hiro a genuine smile and heads out to find a decent room.
    While they are searching, Val keeps an eye out for any signs of an organized guild in the city. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't see any signs he recognizes for certain, but he does note the large number of guards in the streets. They are mostly human and elvish, with other species including of course giff present to a lesser extent, all of them armed with swords and truncheons.
    Val has mixed feelings about not finding obvious signs of a guild. He still has reservations about dealing with a den of thieves, never considering himself to be part of that scene, but he has need of their help. He'll have to look a little more carefully. Worst-case scenario: he'll have to be direct and ask someone.
    Oddly enough, he does find comfort in the presence of so many guards, contrary to his needs. That might be to his advantage if Victor, or someone he sends, tries to do something.
    Val looks for a place to room that is average, not wanting to waste too much time or money on a decoy. He does take care to look for a place that has alternate accessibility, in case he needs to make a hasty retreat from, or to, the rooms. This makes it somewhat harder to find a place, but when they do it is on the second floor of a somewhat run-down place. It's narrow and doesn't have much more in it than a bed, but there's a window that can be gotten in or out of to to reach the street or roof if necessary, and it faces onto the narrow way along one side of the building, not the main road out front.
    The innkeeper sees they are fresh from a landed ship and tries to charge four times what the room is worth, but seems to find Hiro's stare unnerving. A handful of copper secures the room for three days. For the moment, they have a place to talk.
    Hiro enters the room, scans it for future reference, noting placement of and durability of furniture, quality of lighting and amount of oil in the lamp, etc. gauging it all for use value should a battle break out in the small quarters. He walks toward the window, equally detailing the alleyway below before speaking. Without turning he says, "What can you tell me of Ginevra's plight?"
    Val is caught off-guard both because of what seems to be uncharacteristic directness (he knew he'd have to answer the question but expected the question to be phrased ... he doesn't know ... soothingly?) and to be honest, he thought Hiro was too busy quietly practicing to notice any of the ship's personnel's goings on.
    Judging by his intense review of the room and the terseness of the question, he notes to himself that the Emissary of The East misses little.
    Well, it is only fair. He'd asked the Kensai to come with him; the least he could do is tell him. Taking a deep breath, Val relates what he knows; she's broken faith with her husband, oligarch Victor, and that she carries the child of another man. She'd been trying to escape her husband to meet with her lover, but somehow Victor caught up with her. Val also mentions the "contract" and the discovery of the jewels Ginevra had been trying to hide. He tells Hiro of how the healer is trying to help, and how Victor (like half the crew) thinks Val is the father of the child she carries. He glosses over his own personal feelings for her, but he's certain the swordsman already knows.
    "And now I need to find Teague Linnhal to inform him of Ginevra's... situation," Val informs the Kensai. "He is aboard the _Silver Swan_. Maybe there is something he can do to help her out of this mess."
    The young man finds himself next to Hiro now, looking out the window but not really focusing on anything in particular. There is a distant look in his eye as he stares off, and a calm seems to have settled over him. He appears less bitter perhaps, but no less determined than before.
    "Well," Val breaks the silence after a moment, "this room seems nice enough. Now to find one less obvious." Val shoulders his pack and heads for the door. He saw there was a back way out that was not too terribly obvious, so he heads for it now. 
    Val intends to find another, cheaper room; someplace safe to hole up in where people don't ask too many questions and answer fewer to those not rooming. Past experience tells Val that such places should be easy enough to find, and silence can be bought for the right price.
    "I had hoped to send my pay onward to the families of Joe and Seton but if you have need of it instead Valarin...."
    Val shakes his head, refusing the offer. "Thanks, but no." He hadn't thought to set aside money for Joe's family.... When they make their way back to the docks, speaking with a few workers there reveals that the _Swan_ stopped into Janik briefly, then headed in-system on her regular trading run nineteen days ago.
    "Pretty popular ship today," the man adds with a slightly quizzical look.
    "When are they due to return?" Hiro inquires.
    The man shrugs. "They usually stop back here before going out, guess it'll be about six weeks. What's so all-fired important?"
    Val is reluctant to answer. Instead he asks, "Who else was asking about the _Swan_?"
    "Short guy. Half-elf, didn't get his name." His curiosity is definitely piqued.
    Hiro raises an eyebrow sharply to Val, silently questioning his ship mate...
    "Thanks," Val responds and fishes out two silver pieces from his pouch. He rubs the coins together as he asks, "Have there been any *other* inquiries?"
    "Nope," is the cheerful reply; not only is his day getting interesting, it's getting good. "Wouldn't've thought nothin' of it 'cept he was askin' me not an hour ago." He watches the coins' movement with great interest.
    "Thank you for your help." Val turns over one of the coins to the man. He holds the second coin a moment until the worker meets his eye. He holds the gaze long and hard. "And you never saw us," he says as he hands over the second coin slowly. "Isn't that right?" Val says to the man with a smile that is both charming and dangerous.
    "If you say so," he shrugs with a puzzled expression. "Sure would like to know what all the fuss is...." Clearly, no answer on that is forthcoming, so he shrugs again and accepts the coin.
    As Val and Hiro head off from the docks, the young man seems lost in thought. Six weeks until the _Swan_ returns. Ginevra will likely have her child before then. He had to find a way to get a message to Teague some other way. And he had to think on what else he might be able to do to help Ginevra. *If* there was anything else he could do.
    "How does one go about sending a message to a 'Jammer in transit?" Val asks rhetorically. He does pause to see if the swordmaster answers, nonetheless...
    "Perhaps, Brother Pham or Alais, know of a way to send a message to Teague?" the taller man suggests. 
    "Good idea," Val replies as he changes course to head back to the _Cat_. Pham or Alais might be back by now...
    Somewhat defeated, he thinks about what must be done next. The thought of leaving Ginevra to the care of the healers was somewhat comforting, but he knew the protection would not last. And it may be a while before Teague could arrive, possibly even too late.
    The thought enters his mind to go back and see Ginevra once more to find out how to reach her father. Maybe her family could help where he had seemingly failed. Again.
    "Thanks, by the way," Val says to the quiet figure walking with him. "I appreciate you coming along, Hiro." There seems to be more he would say, but he does not. Val is under the impression the Kensai understands.
    More 3 Trees security is in evidence - the plank is watched by a lone guard, who checks their ID chits before allowing them on board. The ship is quiet; there is a soft mutter of voices behind the door to the captain's quarters, and Inez is chatting with the second mate, but there doesn't seem to be anyone else on board.

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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson