Sleep did not come easily for Valarin, and his current soreness is a reminder. Morning was here much too early for the young man, and he reluctantly rises to face the new day. Normally, he'd be thinking of what opportunities awaited him in such a city as this. This morning, however, he is concerned with other things.
He'd been thinking about the markings on the roof slates, and he decides to have another look at them before the sky grows too bright. He takes the pooled wax from last night's candle and kneads it to a soft consistency so that he might mold the shapes (he reminds himself to purchase some paper and ink in the future). A quick climb and search are rewarded with what he'd seen the night before. Pressing the wax out, he makes a quick mold of the clearest marks and returns to his room to study them.
After some thought, it occurs to him that in a city with such a heavy police presence, any signs left by members of his... profession will be where they are unlikely to be noticed by casual pedestrians. These signs don't look anything like those with which he is familiar, however.
After committing some of the marks to memory, Val gathers his possessions and prepares to head out. He has several hours before he is to meet Hiro, and he wants to do a few things yet, not the least of which is to get a better idea of the city's layout. First on his agenda is to clean up and make himself a little more presentable; it won't do to have a ruffian making inquiries of an oligarch.
After making certain he is not being followed, Val heads to a local bathhouse to clean up and change. He decides to forgo shaving and leaves the thin stubble of beard growing, trimming it to look presentable instead; a slight change of appearance might help out over the next few days. He also pulls back his considerable length of hair and braids the end at his neck, as was customary of nobles in Driahn, where he was from. He changes into his more formal looking outfit but keeps the reversible longvest; a wide sash at his waist.
Still cautious of being followed, Val drops his belongings off and heads towards the business center of Janik, stopping only once to purchase a wide brimmed hat to help hide his features from a distance, as well as a gold earring, and a slender gold ring to complete his new look. He can now (he hopes) pass for anything from a servant to a minor noble, depending upon where he is and how he presents himself. With the darker colors he is wearing, he could blend in with a crowd or into the shadows. Once he's among the business district, he assumes a more suitable role and demeanor.
Places to go, people to see, lies to tell....
Familiar with ports, merchants, and trading costers, Val feels comfortable in these surroundings. His late mentor Circio had groomed him to operate in this type of environment. A sense of nostalgia washes though him as he sets about making his rounds; he had not realized how much he missed this sort of thing. But Val is still alert for signs of pursuit. His former occupation taught him how to operate in such a way.
He passes himself off as a buyer for a Tarosian merchant, relying on the fact that Taros is far enough off the main trading routes to be overlooked, but still somewhat known. He makes small talk with some merchants, inquiring about pricing and trade, this company and that. He passes along gossip and rumor (mostly Tarosian) to appear knowledgeable and genuine. Some of the information would even be quite valuable, were anyone to ever make it to Taros to apply what was advised.
He learns that Victor's ship, the _Norwell's Pride_, is docked some distance across the landing field from the _Cat_. As for why he's here, none of the merchants and shippers say they have been approached for any business, so it's hard to telleither he's not doing anything aside from his pursuit of his wife, or he's doing something very quietly. He's got an unknown number of guards and servants on the ship with him. He does appear to be staying on his ship, which is odd for a wealthy visitor, and might mean that he doesn't plan to stay long.
Satisfied with the information gained, Val sets out from the merchant district, blending in with the morning crowds. He is still cautious of being followed, and takes care to change course a few times. His trail eventually leads him back to the docks to have a visit with Ginevra.
Noting the perimeter wall that also encloses infirmary, Val chooses the direct approach and heads for the gate. He carries himself importantly, but he still scans the area for trouble. _Just a quick visit,_ he tells himself as he nears the gate. With all the traffic in and out, there's a bit of a wait, but showing the gate guards the wooden token gets him in with no trouble. A casual reconnoiter of the area suggests that one man is probably watching Ginevra's refuge.
Val does not hesitate nor does he stare at the man he thinks is watching the place. He goes in confidently, veiled in his guise as a buyer for an off-world merchant...
Brother Gregory greets him at the door. "Good morning, sir, and welcome. May we be of some assistance?"
"I am here to see Lady Ginevra," Val replies, pitching his voice for Brother Gregory's ear alone. "I hope all is well," he continues in a normal tone, just in case someone *is* listening. He offers the young man a smile and a wink, asking, "How goes the recovery?"
"If you'll wait here a moment, I'll see if she is receiving visitors." He's finally recognized Val. "I'm afraid I don't know your name?"
"I know," Val responds with a smile. "And neither do the men wishing to do the lady, and myself, possible harm." There is an edge of seriousness to his voice, despite the grin.
"Please tell her that her Friend Who Is Not Always A Sailor wishes to see her," Val tells the good Brother.
That earns him a dubious look, but Brother Gregory says, "I will inquire. Please wait here." In a few moments he returns. "Follow me, please." He shows Val to the same room as before.
Once they're inside, away from the watcher, Val stops the brother to give him his name, and to apologize for the necessary caution. Gregory is clearly concerned, but shows him to the room where Ginevra is staying. She is clearly surprised to see him. Once the young priest is satisfied by her reaction that Val is no threat, he leaves the two of them alone.
"Good morning, my friend. I had not thought to see you again, certainly not so soon." She cocks her head questioningly.
Val offers his best reassuring smile as he makes certain the door is closed. "Are you well? I'd been worried since the moment I left..." That he speaks the truth is plain on his face.
"I'm fine. They're taking very good care of me," she smiles.
"I had hoped to return with good news, but I'm afraid I have little," Val says with a somewhat defeated look upon his face. "Apparently the _Swan_ has come and gone, and may not be back for several weeks..."
She looks puzzled. "Yes, I know. Nyala was here earlier and told me what had been discovered. This is not bad news," she adds with that gentle smile, hoping to lift his spirits. "I never dared to hope to find the ship here after so long, only news of her, and they will return soon."
_Perhaps not soon enough,_ Val thinks to himself. _How can she not know this?_ "I haven't had a chance to meet up again with Nyala," he tells her. "I'm glad she got word to you. I remembered you mentioning you might return to your family," Val begins, somewhat hesitantly. "How can I help in that regard? They may be able to help sooner than..." Val trails off meaningfully.
Ginevra looks away. "I would prefer that be saved to the last extremity," is the slow reply. "In any case it would be months before any messenger could reach them and return."
"Then so it shall," He reassures her with a smile. He did not intend to broach an obviously sore subject. "Out of curiosity, Val changes the subject, "What can you tell me of the _Norwell's Pride_? I understand that's the vessel Victor came in." There is a gleam in his eye as some of the half-formed plans start to fit together...
She gives a somewhat puzzled shrug. "It's Samuel's personal ship. Luxurious, of course, it's something of a showpiece for the business. In general fashion it resembles the _Cat_, but the rooms are larger and better appointed." She frowns, trying to remember. "It's been quite some time since I was aboard. He wouldn't go on such a long journey without a large number of guards and servants, or in anything but the strictest comfort... what are you thinking of?" She looks somewhat alarmed by that gleam.
* * *
Ibn Fadil is still gathering rumors in the square when he notes Yestin's appearance, moving carefully through the crowd toward the steps of the main building. Not too long after that, Emmett arrives as well, but there is no sign of the captain yet. The giff's expression is somewhat pained, though he greets them cheerfully enough, and the other two understand him to be suffering the aftereffects of over-ambitious celebration.
"Heavens above, Yestin," Emmett says, remembering only after the first couple words to soften his voice, "how much alcohol does a Giff have to drink to get that look on his face?"
"Er...." He now looks somewhat embarrassed, as well. "Less than I thought, it appears. How are you this morn, my friend?"
Ibn Fadil approaches the two once Emmett has arrived, looking fairly respectable in a new outfit of dark blue shirt, dark red sash, and brown trousers; he is carrying both his knife and his sword, tucked through the sash as usual. "Good morning!" he says, as if he has not a care in the world.
"Looks like solid land and a new tailor has done you a world of good." Emmett says, noticing a familiar happy glow about the half elf. _Interesting,_ he thinks. _I didn't take Ibn Fadil as being the brothel type. He must move fast once he gets ashore...._
Emmett takes a moment to look at his threadbare and rough clothing. "Where did you go? I've got everything I need and I'm still flush, so this might be a better investment than alcohol. Oh. Sorry Yestin."
"A second-hand shop," ibn Fadil says without embarrassment.
"Looks good on you," Emmett says. "I'll have to find one myself, if they have people in our size."
"If you keep going northward, there's a quarter where a lot of elves live," he advises. "If you like, this afternoon I will show you the shop I went towe are staying up there, so it will not be out of my way."
As the eleventh stroke of the clock is dying, one of the doors above opens and Captain Barthelme appears; he looks pleased to see them all waiting as he descends the many steps.
"Morning, men," he greets them crisply. "Welcome to the Helm; follow me." They are checked at the doors, of course, even though the guards could clearly see Theo come out and fetch them. It seems to be a reflex. "I'm sure you don't need me to tell you to be respectful here," he says on the way. "It's not a court, but you will probably feel well-interrogated by the end of the day." Judging from his expression, he's already had some of that himself.
"Captain, sir," the half-elf says anxiously, "do we call these people 'my lord' or 'sir' or, or what?" He seems a little nervous now that they are approaching the meeting.
"'Sir' and 'madam' will suffice."
Emmett lays his good hand on the half elf's shoulder. "First time giving a report, eh? Don't worrythey know we didn't do anything wrong. They just want to get all their gears meshed up."
Ibn Fadil looks dubious. "I hope so," he says, "but right now I wish I had taken my chances on Bral."
For all its bleak exterior, the interior of the Helm is as impressive as any palace. It still has a sort of workaday somberness about it, howeverrich without being gaudy, with the patina of a well-worn antique. The company emblem or its echoes finds its way into most of the decoration. The entry hall is three stories high, the heavy carpet brightened here and there with spots of sunlight from above. A wide staircase curves up from both sides at the far end of the room, with mezzanines providing access to rooms in the upper stories.
Theo leads them to the second floor and around to the left (more guards) and through a set of gorgeously inlaid doors. The room beyond is large, brightly lit by south-facing windows. Near them stands a long, heavy table with eleven chairs ranged along one side, in which are seated those members of the board who could be found on such short notice; three chairs are empty.
The man in the central seat is, of course, Chairman Jorstoian, a medium-height, stoutly built man, probably in his late forties. Blonde hair is receding from his forehead, but he's cultivated an impressive moustache to replace it. His clothing is mostly dark green, and he wears a large medallion with the company emblem on a heavy chain. He is the only one in the room smoking a pipe.
Ibn Fadil guesses that the woman to his left, who strongly resembles him, is his sister Viktoria. The right-hand chair would be brother Tobias', but he's out of town. Next to the empty chair is probably Alexandra Jorstoian, Ivan's daughter and one of the youngest members. Of the others, the only one whose name he feels certain of is Erling Staffen, the Board member who is not part of the extended family; with his coppery skin and straight black hair he looks nothing like the rest of them.
"Very timely, Captain," the chairman approves, puffing at his pipe as he glances over a sheet of notes before him. "You would be Emmett, ibn Fadil, and Yestin, then. Excellent. Ship's Marine, eh? Splendid. Captain Barthelme has told us the tale, but we want to make sure the details are straight. If Mr. Emmett would begin with his account of the attack?"
Emmett does just that, keeping it as tight and as close to the truth as possible. He's been through this enough times that he's obviously comfortable while still standing at respectful attention, and he's gone over this particular event enough times that there are no gaps or backtracking in the account. Once he finishes, he adds, "Once the ship had taken offand it's my considered opinion that they planned on using the storms to cover their escapeI began speculating on what might have been worth enough for them to mount the raid and small enough for them to carry off. It must have been some pretty important information, m'lords."
Someone at the far left end of the table makes a muffled snorting sound, quickly stifled.
While it doesn't show up on his face, Emmett's brain smiles a little smile. It's always nice to have a shot in the dark confirmed.
"If you are planning on mounting a search for them or have an idea where they might be, I'd like to play against them again when they haven't rigged the machine. If you'll have me, that is."
Some members of the board, never having encountered Emmett before, look slightly taken aback. Ivan puffs on his pipe a few times and says, "We'll keep that in mind. Mr. ibn Fadil? Have you anything to add to what your shipmate has told us?"
The half-elf bows slightly and admits, "Not regarding the facts, sir. Only that I live on Bral, where one can hear all kinds of rumors, and although this raid must have been long in the planning, no one seemed to have heard of this 'Fang the Fearless' before that day."
He pauses briefly, obviously wondering if these august personages are even interested in his opinions. "They seemed rather like the kind who want to be infamous at least as much as they want to be rich, so I doubt we have heard the last of them. And I also wonder if Fang went to such lengths to hide her appearance out of a taste for mystery, or because she does not want her description noised about the spheres."
A couple of the Board members exchange inscrutable glances.
"What leads you to believe this Fang to be a woman?" Viktoria inquires.
Encouraged, ibn Fadil warms to the subject. "It is just a guess, ma'am. I have had a lot of time to think about what happened, and it seems to me that while a man might try to hide his identity, it probably would not occur to him to hide his gender as wellI suppose that might have been an incidental effect, but an enveloping cloak was hardly the most sensible garb, in the circumstances, unless that was one of its goals. Also, the business of hiding a ship inside another ship seems like the kind of subtle idea a woman would come up with."
He shrugs, spreading his hands, with something more like his usual cheerful spirit. "It may not be a *good* guess, ma'am, but that is my thought. In any event, it is clear that she is still able to slip into any sphere at all to look for a new target, since no one knows what she looks like. Or even that she *is* a she, if my guess is right."
Ivan does the pipe thing again and gives a noncommittal grunt, glancing around the table to see if anyone else has a question for ibn Fadil before looking at Yestin. "Very well, then. Captain Barthelme has apprised us of the overall situation, but if there is any light you can shed on these events....?"
The giff looks slightly relievedhe won't have to discuss his personal shame in detail before these important people. "I have given this matter much thought, sirs and madams," he begins earnestly. "When our ship was patrolling the outer reaches of Bralspace in the months before the attacks, we often hailed small ships making an approach, and sometimes stopped them to obtain news or ascertain their intentions. I now believe that we encountered one ship several times during that period, with minor changes in its appearance, and that Captain Gustan and some of the others took this opportunity to speak with Fang and prepare the plan. The thieves' ship may never have gone on to Bral at all in that time, but waited in the outer reaches of the system for the right time to attack."
"Have you any idea what they might have discussed in those meetings?" Ivan pressed, frowning.
Yestin shakes his ponderous head. "I was a very junior member of the platoon, sir, and the captain was little given to small talk. I seem to recall that at the time all this took place, on occasion he would make reference to keys that seemed peculiar, but I might have been mistaken."
"Keys?" a man farther down the table asks in a puzzled voice.
"Keys to the treasury," Erling suggests sourly. "The ship is well-named. Audacity, indeed."
Puff, puff. "Fascinating," the Chairman pronounces. "They knew exactly what they were after months in advance, then. I suppose we'll have to wait until they are captured to find out how they knew what they were looking for."
"Inquiries will commence," another of the unknowns rumbles darkly. "News at this remove is damnably slow, but we'll do what we can."
"Excellent. Excellent." Puff. "No doubt they'll concentrate their attentions on the most lucrative routes." There is a moment of silence while the Board considers their new information, and their options. "Well. Captain Barthelme, you and your men have been very helpful," Ivan tells them, glancing up abruptly from his distraction. "Yes. Quite helpful. Thank you."
"About the other matter we discussed...?" Theo inquires.
"Hrmph? Oh, that. Yes. Excellent. At your discretion, Captain. Someone from the company will be in touch."
And with that mysterious communication, the interview seems to be over.
Guiding them back the way they came, Theo gives a satisfied grunt. "Wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. Guess they wanted to follow form more than anything, make sure they have all the information. Damned nuisance. Are you planning to return to Bral?" he inquires of the three.
"My plans are not yet certain," Yestin tells him with an uncomfortable look.
"Let me know when they are. Since the _Cat_ is going that way anyway, the company wants to kill a second bird," Theo explains. They're giving me another ship to take out that way, so I'm trying to determine how many more men we'll have to take on to cover both."
* * *
In the library, Alais has no plans to go anywhere. A picture is beginning to form in his minda picture of a sudden change in the fundamental metaphysical structure of wildspace. But he's not sure where to go next. Even the wild-eyed scholars whose ramblings have formed so much of his education have never hinted at such a thing.
He returns to the Chamber of Beasts and shows Pham the information he has copied down, then searches for more information on Great Dreamers, especially as omens and/or in relation to the Spelljammer. Pham having already looked at much of this material saves quite a bit of time. Due to their great power and peaceful nature, many groundlings and a few spacers view the giant beings' appearances as benevolent omens. There don't seem to be any connections to the Spelljammer itself, though.
* * *
"I will be your shield."
Words he had said to Noriko during their last tender embrace ring loudly in Hiro's ears today as his thumb absently rubs his beloved's wedding band that is woven into the hilt of his sword. In the dark of their final night together she had warned him of "the approach of misery and madness," and that utterance was his youthful, overconfident, and enraptured reply. Years later, what was meant as a declaration of love to its fullest, now only registers as a statement of loss at its most grieved.
Though he is looking down on Janik from the rails of _The Lazy Cat_ taking in the hustle and bustle of the small sphere it's clear his attentions fail to make it past the haze of crimson that mars his face and past. This is not the first time this torrent of painful memories has battered the tide walls of his detached facade, but given recent developments on the ship it's taken even greater amounts of willpower to keep his sanity above water. His wooden man wears even deeper cuts than his usual from his daily meditations with the blade.
It is far too easy for him to draw poetic connections between the tale writing itself out between Val and Ginevra and his own woeful love story. Would that he had such ready courage to stand undeterred when Noriko's lies were uncovered, without a moment's hesitation, as Val did when the veil was lifted from Ginevra's deception. Had Hiro not faltered and revealed her heritage to Tsuneyo then his own writ would surely be different these years hence.
Honor demands that Hiro allow Val his due in this matter, but he couldn't bear it if the younger man were cut so cruelly by fate, to be maimed as he himself had been... to see Ginevra and her child struck down in what should be a most joyous moment....
Fortunately for Hiro and his new course of action, the last time he felt any true sense of Honor was when a much brighter and kinder man told his one true love that he would be her shield.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson