"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."
"I intend to return to Bral," ibn Fadil says. "And, I expect Nyala will, as well." He is not above a certain glimmer of masculine pride at making such a statement.
"Eh? Oh, good. Emmett?" He glances at the Half-Man inquiringly.
Emmett stops staring at the half-elf to respond. "I'll go wherever you hire me to go, sir. Bral's really just a lump in space that I spent too much time on already, but if you, that is to say Three Trees, doesn't intend to strand me there again I'm perfectly willing to take a cruise back there if
the coin is good."
Theo's lips twitch in a slight smile. "I think we can be fairly certain you won't be stranded there."
Emmett glances around, trying to find some indicator of the time. Judging by the length of the meeting and the hollow feeling in his stomach, it's about noon. If he left now he'd be able to catch Pham for a midday meal break and bring him into gear. "I'm sorry, sir, Yestin, Ibn Fadil, but if
you don't need me any more I need to get going. Inez and I are at the Sterling Badger if you want to join us laterIbn Fadil, I'd love to go check out the Elvish quarter later this afternoon, but right now I have to run."
Ibn Fadil can't resist pretending not to notice Emmett's surprise, either. "Oh? Very well, suppose I look for you here on the steps of the Helm at --?"
Emmett nods distractedly and says, "Second bell, I think."
As the group separates, ibn Fadil hurries along after the giff and says, "A word, Yestin?"
"How may I be of service?" is the polite response.
"I have been wondering," he begins a bit awkwardly, "--That is, I left Bral out of concern for my continued well-being. It troubles me that I still do not know whether this concern was well-founded or not." He cranes his neck to peer up at the giff, wondering how quickly the creature will catch his drift.
Yestin considers the question for a moment and replies somberly, "I suspect your decision was a wise one."
"Ah," the half-elf says unhappily. "I have wished that none of it were true." He fails at an attempt to smile. "I had a friend who used to say, 'Expect the worst, and you will never be disappointed,' but in my heart I prefer to be disappointed on occasion."
"They may not be disappointed, but neither will their times be pleasant ones." He looks somewhat curious. "Do you then still intend to return?"
"Oh, yes," he says with a self-deprecating shrug. "I am perhaps not the most reliable debtor on the Rock, but neither am I the sort to simply abandon my debts."
"Ah... so it is a matter of honor?" He nods understandingly.
"It can be dangerous stuff," he says ruefully. "Yestin, I was going to look for something to eat; would you like to come along?"
"I have no other appointments for the afternoon. This is truly a splendid city; such variety everywhere," he adds with an appreciative glance around the square.
"And so much *larger* than Bral, eh?" Ibn Fadil smiles and also glances around, though with (presumably) more attention to whether anyone is taking undue interest in them.
"Indeed, there is a great deal to see." He is, in fact, paying attention only to one of the local performers, who is telling a story while juggling several small items. As the story progresses, new items relevant to the scene are passed in by a young assistant, and old ones removed.
Beginning to suspect that this giff is particularly humorlessor, to be fair, preoccupiedibn Fadil also watches the story for a moment.
"What have you seen so far? Other than the inside of a bar," he adds slyly.
"It is traditional," he replies cheerfully enough. "Very little, I must admit. The library is apparently closed to those who are not on official business," he waves across the square toward the blocky building. "I thought perhaps to visit the local houses of religion today if there was time, but I am at your disposal." He considers the half-elf curiously; they had not had much conversation during the voyage, and he's surprised by ibn Fadil's sudden friendliness.
"Library?" Ibn Fadil is himself surprised. Answering the curious look, he continues, "You did not want to speak to me aboard ship, you may remember. Here, you have plenty of room to run if I alarm you too much." He grins impudently up at the oversized being.
"If I have been rude, I must apologize," Yestin replies earnestly.
The half-elf shakes his head, with a disbelieving, half-exasperated laugh. "Yestin, do you even *have* a sense of humor?"
"Err...." After a flummoxed moment he replies, "I sometimes find it difficult to tell when people are joking."
No, really? "Sorry," ibn Fadil says aloud. "I consider myself an amusing fellow, and it is --" Annoying? Distressing? "-- startling when my remarks fall flat. What I meant to say is that I wanted to ask you about the distressing events back on Bral, but I did not want to pursue the matter aboard ship if you preferred not to talk to me. The matter has also disrupted *my* life considerably, you know, and I would like to know more about it."
"Err... well, to be honest, I assumed that you would regard me with some suspicion if not hostility, given the circumstances of your departure, my guess regarding which you have now confirmed. And there were personal matters I did not wish to discuss as well," he adds candidly. "I would gladly be of help if I may, although I told all that I know of the event to the Board."
"Well, if you do not mind chewing the matter over again, I would appreciate it. But at the moment, I started my day early, and really would like some lunch. Will you lead the search, Yestin? You have the better view."
"If you wish."
After some wandering, they come across a place a bit to the south of the dockyards. The clientele is enormously varied, and there is an outdoor terrace for enjoyment of the sunshine. The menu is mostly fish.
A terrace and sunshine are just the thing, in ibn Fadil's opinion. He orders one of the least expensive items, and sits back contemplating the giff for a moment. This is going to be a difficult exercise ... "Tell me, how did you first learn the truth about the raid?"
Massive shoulders shrug slightly. "I had worked with that crew for some time. Such a complete failure passed the bounds of credibility. The reactions of those I spoke to about the event heightened my suspicion, and when they then attempted to prevent me from leaving...."
"Hmm. What exactly did they say and do?" Ibn Fadil continues along this line, with an expression of sympathetic interest, until he has gently prodded Yestin into describing exactly what happened, complete with quotations, instead of just the giff's own impression of what happened.
There's very little to be learned six months after the event, other than that Gustan had been in far too good a mood following such a humiliating failure. It's an open question whether or not they would actually have killed Yestin for his defection.
"And these remarks Captain Gustan made about keys, do you remember exactly what he said?"
He shakes his head. "It was said in passing, to someone else, and I barely heard any of it."
"Think about it," the half-elf urges. "If it made an impression on you, you must remember it. You were somewhere in Bralspace, correct? You were, what, on watch? In the mess?" He tries to lead Yestin through the memory, hoping that whatever Gustan said will be a useful clue, to no avail. Too much time had passed for anything surrounding the odd remark to have been retained.
Ibn Fadil has to concede that he really should have pursued this sooner, despite the risk of causing conflict aboard ship. Hiding most of his frustration, he abandons the topic.
"Hmm," ibn Fadil says again, absently picking over the remains of his lunch. "I have always had the impression that the giffs' contract with the oligarchs was quite, ah, lucrative. Why would Captain Gustan risk breaking it?"
"Aside from a share in the spoils?" he grimaces. "Boredom, perhapsBral paid well, to be sure, but it was not exciting duty. It is difficult to say."
"Perhaps the scheme's potential profit was more than we know," ibn Fadil muses. "Well, there might be more news when I return to Bral."
Shrugging as if he were not passionately interested in these details, he smiles and says, "Why did you want to visit the library? The words 'library' and 'giff' do not go together in my mindwhich of course is unfair. Your people must do more than soldiering, even though that is all I have seen of them."
Another shrug. "That is what we live for. I am told I am somewhat unusual."
A giffish smile. "My interest in libraries, for one."
"Many people find that unusual in anyone," ibn Fadil observes, intrigued by Yestin's reticence.
"Do they? I am afraid my knowledge of other peoples is slight," he admits. "We giff tend to be... immediate," he decides is the right word. "There is little interest in history."
"Not even military history?"
"Not to any great extent. Today's battles are viewed as more important."
That seems remarkably short-sighted to ibn Fadil, but he is not going to say anything so critical right now. "True scholars are rare among most peoples I have met or heard of," he says thoughtfully. "If you aspire to be one, Yestin, I have to say that crewing spelljammers does not seem to be the way to go about it."
"Oh, I have no such lofty aspirations," he protests lightly. "It is merely something in which I have some interest."
"Huh," the half-elf says. "If you are going to be unusual anyway, why not take it as far as you can? You could the first giff graduate of Jaira University."
Yestin's ears twitch slightly. "That would be *most* unusual," he chuckles. "Indeed unique. It is an amusing thought."
The bill having been paid (after some argument), the meal appears to be at a close....
"Thank you again for your time, Yestin," ibn Fadil says with an abbreviated bow. "I wish you luck wherever your course takes you."
"My thanks. And luck be with you as well." He imitates the bow reasonably well.
With mixed feelings, ibn Fadil takes off into the city again. He wonders, briefly, whether the giff will follow up on his half-serious suggestion, and supposes he will never know. Then he turns his thought to the far more important matter of the Three Trees board meeting.
The board members said so little that it is easy to remember all of it and try to pick out the important bits. There was the unknown member's reaction to Emmett's sally -- what had he said? "It must have been some pretty important information." Amusement at a wrong guess, or at understatement? He recalls the other board members' well-controlled expressions at that remark, and for that matter throughout the meeting. Not knowing their normal demeanors, he should not guess whether they were any different today -- but then there is the fact of the meeting itself. Does Three Trees react this way to any pirate raid, or to the murder of some of their important employees? Perhaps bin Rashad will know.
He still likes his own reasoning about Fang, slender though the chain of logic is. Then there was Yestin's report of Gustan's remarks about keys -- the giff will need a better-trained memory if he really wants to be a scholar -- and Erling Staffen's remark: "Keys to the treasury." Valuable information, indeed.
He pauses to study a shop's display of jewelry, which also provides an opportunity to see if anyone is following him. One of the pieces would set off Nyala's eyes beautifully ... perhaps before long he will be able to spend money on fripperies again.
Moving on, he returns to his thoughts. What information is valuable to a trading company like three trees? Profits, routes, sources, customers -- their own and other companies'. To pirates, the timing of shipments, if they have the communication problem solved. Commodities and investments ...
The Chairman, he remembers, was convinced that the pirates knew what they were looking for and got it; could that be true? He might assume that just because it was so important, when it might just have been coincidence. But if Fang had somehow infiltrated Three Trees, then it could be ...
"How they knew what they were looking for" he had said -- something secret, then. No surprise there. And finally, something that strikes his ear oddly: "No doubt they will concentrate their attention on the most lucrative routes." Why state something so obvious? Lucrative for whom? The pirates? Three Trees? Lucrative routes ... finding out that kind of information is exactly the kind of thing ibn Fadil (and perhaps Fang) does ... Did they steal information about Three Trees' trade routes?
He stops again, as if listening to a nearby pair of musicians. Valuable information -- lucrative routes. Of course. Three Trees must have kept some kind of record book in their office, detailing routes and profits and such. Not all that large a book, if it fit in those bags of loot, but large enough, it seems, to alarm the company. He has to remind himself to move along, and school his expression carefully. Perhaps he was wrong about the probability of these pirates being a continuing threat themselves; the potential value of that kind of information is staggering.
Without much assistance from his brain, ibn Fadil's feet carry him back to the main square. On second and third thought, his conclusion still appears sound. It will be interesting to see what bin Rashad thinks; perhaps he has resources to confirm it, if he knows to ask.
It is still too early to meet Emmett, and he does not feel comfortable visiting the Zakharan offices in the middle of the day. With an effort he sets the matter of Three Trees' troubles aside and decides to spend some more time exploring the square and its vicinity, more or less at random, until the second bell.
* * *
"What are you thinking of?" She looks somewhat alarmed by that gleam.
"Nothing really," Val lies, feeling badly for it. "You've answered the part that concerned me most, the large number of guards and servants that might be about." He tells her of the man he suspects is watching the infirmary. "I am worried for you," he tells her in all seriousness, "but you will be safe here." Much as he doesn't want to worry her, Val feels she should know.
"I'm meeting with Hiro in a short while," he changes the subject, "and I need to find Brother Pham and/or Alais about sending a message to the _Swan_." He squeezes her hand reassuringly. "I'll be back when I can, hopefully with better news."
"Be careful," she tells him, still worried; she doesn't entirely believe that he has nothing dangerous in mind.
Val gives her a smile and reluctantly turns to go. Pausing in the doorway, he takes a long look at Ginevra before slipping out. Once again he again dons the mantle of anonymity before heading out. He is still mindful of his own warning and takes a moment to spot the watcher, as well as anyone else that might be coming and going; the man is lurking nearby, gossiping with a carpenter working on a nearby ship. He is surprised to spot Hiro checking out the area as well, a bit farther away.
The man in the wide brimmed hat moves across the infirmary yard and stops near the Kensai, drawing them both a bit deeper into a handy shadow.
"Pardon me," he says to Hiro in an oddly familiar drawl, "but can you show me where I might find the Copper Lark? I'm to meet a friend for lunch." Val's voice is pitched somewhat low, as not to carry far.
Raising an eyebrow, Hiro shakes his head a bit and squints past the hat's brim. Releasing his body from the taut coil it was seconds before, he stands to his full height. "As am I. Perhaps I could show you the way?"
"That would do nicely, thank you," Val says as he falls into step with the swordsman. He is still wary of pursuit and takes the occasional glance around for signs of any.
"I hope I didn't spoil anything you were working on," he says to Hiro a few blocks later, after he is certain they aren't being followed.
"Simply acquainting myself with the lay of the land should action be needed." Hiro's body language is still tense despite his attempt to alter it. "Have you more information?"
"Not really," Val replies with a sigh. "That was ibn Fadil that inquired before us last night. Nyala stopped in and saw her this morning. I did do some research on our friend though." He tells Hiro of what he learned of _Norwell's Pride_ this morning in the market place, and adds Ginevra's thoughts on servants and possible protection. Val is not certain if Victor would use those servants and guards to make a grab for Ginevra, or to cause trouble for the crew of the _Cat_ (or Val in particular). The watcher at the infirmary did nothing to clarify intent.
"How 'bout you?" Val asks when he is done. He is aware of Hiro's tension, but does not comment upon it. It would not do to become more paranoid than he already is because of it...
"I grew increasingly concerned for her safety. I thought it best to canvas the area myself should Victor's men take aggressive action herein."
"Ah," Val responds, not exactly comforted by Hiro's thoughts on the matter. "The place looks pretty secure." It probably sounds as if he is trying to convince himself of that.
"Have you seen Brother Pham or Alais by chance?" he asks the swordsman, changing the subject. "I would still like to send a message off, if possible. Perhaps we can find them after lunch?"
"No. Are they not at the library?"
After a quick and unremarkable lunch (the inn is not exactly up to Nahele's exacting standards), the two turn their steps toward the city's great square, in search of their companions.
* * *
Pham listens to Alais's theory with skepticism. Trying his best to be polite, he says "That's... an interesting idea. But something my mentor told me once comes to mind. An extreme theory requires extreme proof. You are drawing this conclusion from a single eventa larger than normal school of delphinids. Perhaps you should consider wether the evidence truly supports
It's about noon, and Pham and Alais have been searching the records for several hours. Pham picks up yet another book, opens it, and rather than reading it it's obvious he's staring off into space.
Pham walks over to the nearest table, drops the book onto it, and sits down rubbing his eyes.
"Alais. Alais? ALAIS!" Having shaken the mage's manic concentration, Pham says "It's fairly obvious that if there's something here, we're not going to find it short of a divination spell, something that I haven't the talent for. Unless you do? No? In that case, I suggest we return to the Captain. He's probably waiting for our results. And I just can't stare at these BOOKS any more!"
Though he thought Alais would be reluctant to leave, the young mage has come to the same conclusion; this avenue of investigation will yield them nothing more. He wants to visit the spacefarers' taverns and see if fresher information on astrocetaceans can be found amid the patrons.
Pham sighs and says "Very well. You keep searching. I, however, will return to the Lazy Cat and report to the Captain. I think we've done as well as can be expected."
Pham turns, leave the "Creatures" room, and walks out into the sunlight. The warmth and light bring a sigh of relief and a smile to the young priest's face. It's GOOD to be outside again. Pham looks at the bustle of the crowd and walks through the square. He decides to wander a bit before he heads back to the ship. He buys a small dish of vegetables from a street vendor.
As he passes the now empty spot, Pham wonders what happened to the poor deranged fool who was muttering about fire. "A shame. I wish I could have helped him. Still, dreams of fire..." Pham shivers involuntarily as he walks past, and quickens his steps.
He pauses then, seeing Emmett on his way across the square, apparently headed for the library, where Alais is just now emerging from the great doors. By the time Pham doubles back to reach them the mage is speaking to Emmett.
"Sir, I wish to investigate this present matter among other spacefarers, and I think a tavern the best place to do this. But I am unaccustomed to the social conventions of these places. If you accompany me, I would be glad to purchase you a drink and some sustenance besides."
As the crowds ebb and flow around the building's steps, two of them are headed for the small gatheringHiro and a man in a wide-brimmed hat....
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson