"So I hear," Val replies with a smile, inviting ibn Fadil to have a seat. He waves a server over to get a drink for the half-elf, while at the same time, he nonchalantly checks the common room to see if they are attracting undue attention, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
"Sorry," Val says with a heavy sigh, "but I should've gotten together with you and Nyala before running off like that. Probably would have saved some time and trouble." He runs his fingers through his bangs in a gesture of nervousness.
"Hiro helped me get a room, and somewhere safe to stay." He puts a slight emphasis on the conjunction, believing the reformed gambler would catch it and understand. "Emmett said you and Nyala have a room *together*...?"
"We do," he says, and with unwavering amiability continues, "What *have* you been doing, Valarin, rather than staying in your safe place?"
Val flushes as he realizes that he was expected to stay out of sight. "I couldn't just sit back and let you do all the work," he replies rather timidly.
"Besides," he continues, a little more assertively, "I've gathered a bit of information on *him*." Val relates the little he has gleaned from his trip to the market this morning. He knows it's not exactly impressive, but it is something that does not appear to have been done in vain...
The half-elf does not seem impressed. "You are the one he is most angry with," he points out, "as well as one of the few crew-members he and his men have actually seen. Do you realize that he probably thinks *you* are responsible for the lady's condition?"
"You mean there is someone who doesn't hold this opinion?" Val remarks sarcastically. He'd heard the talk on board the _Cat_. Of course, had anyone bothered to simply *ask*...
"Emmett seems to think I have some sort of plan to handle this," he says after a bit. Val looks off into the common room, though his gaze is fixed on nothing within sight. "Truth to tell, I don't. But I am getting tired of feeling like I did something wrong..."
He turns his gaze back to ibn Fadil. "I think it's about time I did *something* though..." The vacant look in his eye is now replaced with something else. Resolution, perhaps? "I think it's about time Victor knows that he's done something wrong."
Ibn Fadil chokes on his beer, attracting some attention from the nearer tables as he coughs violently and works to get his breath back.
"You," he begins, and stops, searching for words and quite unable to hide how appalled he is. "Listen," he says at last, leaning as far across the table as he can reach. "He has also seen seen *me* associated with this mess, and I *live* on that planetoid. May I request that you consider the effect such an action might have on others? Such as me?"
"Oh?" Val looks surprised by this revelation. "I was under the impression you didn't want to go back there..." He gauges ibn Fadil's reaction to this.
The half-elf blinks. "Why? ... Oh," he says, recalling his battered condition on boarding the _Cat_. His anger vanishes as quickly as it appeared. "I suppose 'want' is probably the wrong word." With an uncomfortable shrug, he goes on, "I am going back on the _Cat_. I hope the business with the giff will have blown over by then, and I should have enough money from this trip to pay my debts, or most of them. After that -- I will probably move on. Somewhere. Nyala does not like Bral.
"But if the Victor thinks he has a reason to be angry with me in particular, he could make even a short stay there very dangerous, even without the, ah, other issues. So I very much want to avoid conflict with him, Valarin. I have been trying to help Nyala help the lady, in a quiet way, but you just suggested attacking him directly, and that is something I do not want to be involved in at all.
"And what good would it do, Valarin, really? Unless you kill him outright -- and I cannot countenance murder -- you would only get in trouble, and that would not help the lady at all. Please," he says earnestly, "let me see what else I can do, quietly, or think of to do. I will tell you what I have come up with, if anything, this evening. Just do nothing until then."
"I'm *not* going to rush in and challenge him to a duel," Val snaps back (even though the thought had occurred to him). His brow furrows in annoyance. "And I am *not* a murderer," he growls in a low voice, not daring to raise it and attract attention.
"Of course not," ibn Fadil interposes.
"And whether you want it or not, you *are* involved," he continues, "I didn't ask you to help. You're the one who made us stay on deck and get noticed." Val had not realized until now how much that still bothered him.
"Besides, you're concerned about what might happen to *you*? You're a grown man. What about her *child*? How dangerous is it going to be for the kid? I'm not being selfish here, my friend. I *am* thinking of others..." Val trails off as his temper robs him of anything else to say.
"If an attachment to my own life is selfish, then I freely admit that I am," ibn Fadil grumbles, but does not trust himself to say anything further. Why, he wonders, do people insist on thinking that indifference to self-preservation is the only way to demonstrate ... whatever it is that the man wants of him?
After an awkward silence passes, Val stands to leave. "I'll wait," he says quietly to ibn Fadil. "I do appreciate the help you're giving the lady. And right now, she needs all the help she can get."
The look the half-elf gives him is not very forgiving. "She needs all the help that is *possible,*" he corrects. "I will do what I can within the limits of good sense."
Val stands there for several seconds, trying to read the Zakharan. It's like dealing with Zunali back home, Val thinks to himself. The same unflappable calm and smug indifference. And he's right, dammit.
After tossing a silver on the table to cover his drink, Val moves to depart. Ibn Fadil glances at Hiro, obviously (if unfairly) expecting some criticism from that quarter as well.
The native of Kara-Tur grips Val by the arm before the young man can leave The Golden Gauntlet. He raises his dark brown eyes to meet Valarin's shocked countenance. He says nothing but raises the index finger on his free hand to suggest that he wait for a moment. He then leans in close to ibn Fadil, drawing the provocateur near, before speaking in a hushed tone, that is difficult even for Val to hear.
"Water takes the shape of its container..." he says cryptically, trailing the statement with a pause long enough for ibn Fadil to recall the conversation the pair had when they first met on the ship.
Once he sees the moment recalled in the eyes counter to his gaze, Hiro leans back in his chair. He then stares at the Zakharan for a tense moment, recalling the time in his own life when he thought he could retreat from the Way of The Sword to no avail. He bows his head before using both hands to grip the bottom of his seat to move it back and stand. He then joins Val's side prepared to exit.
Ibn Fadil merely glares them on their way. He knows his anger is pointless -- Valarin and Hiro know nothing about his real motives, after all -- but silence is the only restraint he can manage just now.
When they have gone, it takes him some time to calm himself. Of course Hiro did not mean to imply that he would turn traitor; he has changed a great deal in these last years, but not that much. Apparently he even has retained a bit more pride than he had thought.
Trying to work out what Hiro *did* mean is nicely distracting, but ultimately fruitless. At last, with something resembling his usual attitude, he is ready to consider the question of what can possibly be done about the lady's problems.
* * *
Meanwhile, Pham and Alais, whose interest was also caught by the muttering man, meet Emmett at the temple of Gond and are introduced to Aram.
"Pleased to meet you," the perennially cheerful artificer says with a smile, though he's clearly giving Pham a good looking-over at the same time. "Emmett here tells me you have reason to be concerned about what happened to this poor fellow?"
"Yes, it's a combination of concern for my fellow man and a healthy dose of self-interest. Emmett told me you discovered the man was a Hextorian. I follow a different sect of the same deity. While there is little love lost between the two faiths, it appears that right now there's something in
common - something rather disturbing.
"I'd like to question the man about his delusion if I could - I'd like to find out if I should reserve my own street corner to babble on now and beat the rush. Or, if the dreams truly were a sending from Hextor, I need to do everything I can to discern their meaning."
Aram nods. "I understand - though this is the first I've heard any alternate sects. The universe is constantly surprising me."
After a moment's pause in the conversation Emmett changes the topic. "Aram, are there any temples on Janik that would offer political sanctuary or asylum for a foreigner in trouble with a foreign power? Gond's, or the Contemplator's perhaps?"
Aram gives him an amazed look. "Friend Emmett, the most peculiar circumstances seem to attend you. I think I need to know more before I can give you a true answer."
"Yeah, I'm the axle about which all the trouble in the universe turns." Emmett says with a rueful grin, before continuing quietly. "A passenger on our ship is trying to get away from her husband, who's an oppressive jerk by all accounts, but a big wheel in one of the major trading firms. He managed to beat us here, and wants to drag her back or kill her out of pride and spite. Some of the crew really like her, and don't want this to happen. Right now we've got some glide time, since she's at the infirmary, but she needs somewhere to vanish to until he gives up.
"There are more details of course, but that's the blueprint I can give you without dragging the temple into this."
"Is that what's going on? My, what a ridiculous situation. But don't we have more important things to worry about right now?" Alais wants to know.
"Ridiculous, maybe, but lots of people are always ridiculous. And I doubt there's anything more important to the woman in question right now." Emmett gives Alais a look with his good eye. "If it isn't important enough for you, you don't have to get involved."
"I see." Aram looks very thoughtful. "I will think on this matter. It may be that we can be of some assistance, though I will need to know more. We can discuss the matter further after our errand."
"Thanks, Aram. That's all I ask." Emmett looks back up the road, seeing the building before them. "If that isn't the Contemplator temple, I'll eat my hat."
Alais knows the place from his previous night's wanderings. The large complex stands atop a slight rise on a sizeable piece of land. Overall it forms a circle consisting mainly of two low-slung, colonnaded stone buildings facing one another across a central garden. The scents of the herbs growing there are strong in the afternoon sun, and there are several small pools and fountains adding music to the air. At the point where the two arcs nearly meet stands a third building, slightly taller, which seems to be the temple itself. Raked gravel paths lead between the buildings, and the visitors can see a few people in hooded robes of undyed cloth moving here and there. Where the path meets the street sits a similarly robed figure, very upright but so enveloped it's difficult to tell anything about him or her.
Aram bows slightly. "Forgive me for interrupting your contemplations. We have an errand to visit an afflicted soul who came to rest here yesterday."
The robed person rises, returns the bow, and via a series of gestures indicates that they are to proceed to the building that forms the left half of the circle, then wait.
Emmett looks over the robed person carefully, taking in the advantages of the accepted vow of silence and enfolding robes if it became possible, or necessary to hide someone within the temple. In his mind, gears are starting to fall into place.
"Vow of silence," Aram explains as they follow the tree-shaded path up the little hill and on a somewhat winding course through the meticulously cared for garden. "Many Contemplators take them."
The one who meets them at the entrance to the building is not so hampered. His hood is pushed back, revealing him to be the oldest elf any of them have ever seen; it's disconcerting to be examined by eyes that have seen a full thousand years pass by. He bows slightly to Aram, who appears to know him, and more deeply to the others.
"Serenity," he says in a soft voice, quite at odds with the aura of power and dignity he carries. "Through many intercessions, the one you seek is lucid at times. Because of his ordeal, his spirit remains but loosely anchored to the flesh. Do you wish to speak with him?"
"Yes, please." Emmett says, his voice uncontrollably dropping to a reverent hush in these walls as he finishes his return bow to the Elvish priest.
vPham returns the bow from the elder, being as gracious as his fishing-village upbringing allows. One thing his people got a lot of practice at was bowing to authority figures.
"Very well. I must emphasize that he is very fragile." His bare feet are silent on the sun-dappled stone as he guides them past a series of doors to one near the end of the building; it looks as if each room here has its own access to the outdoors. The old elf taps lightly at the door before opening it.
The room beyond is narrow and very spare, almost cell-like in appearance. However, the pallet is thick and comfortable, a window looks out from the wall opposite the door, and a vase of fresh herbs lend a clean and pleasant scent. The man from the square is lying on the pallet, his eyes closed. The grey robe he had been wearing before has been cleaned and lies neatly folded on a shelf.
"These people have come to speak with you. Are you willing to do so?"
The man's eyes open a fraction; a confused expression passes over his face. "I... think so. I don't know." His voice is soft but rough, perhaps still suffering from his days of wandering.
"Sir, my name is Alais Zeremin, a wizard and scholar. It's a pleasure." Alais extends a hand in greeting. The man stares at it in obvious perplexity.
Pham gives Alais a look of concern, then turns to the man. "Hello. You don't know us, but I think we may have something in common." Pham reaches inside his robes and pulls out the symbol of Hextor that lies on his chest and shows it to the man. His expression remains confused for a moment, then there is an appearance of dawning recognition before he flinches back sharply.
"My name is Brother Luc Pham. I am not one of the group that left you in the square to rot. But I've been having dreams that made your story quite interesting to me. I was hoping you could help me fill in the pieces.
"Please, tell me about the fire."
"F-f-f-fire? Covered the sea. Air. *We* were...." He trails off again vacantly.
_Oh, great_, Emmett thinks. _This is him lucid. I was hoping he'd be more together._
Emmett stays towards the back, trusting Pham to draw out the man as much as possible. He does turn to the Elf healer and whisper, "Has he been eating on his own? He wasn't when I found him."
"With assistance, he has taken some nourishment. As you can see, he remains greatly bewildered by his circumstances."
"Has he told you anything about his dreams? About what happened to him? Or the people who he came here with? You've seen him lucid longer than we have, and anything would help."
Ancient eyes stare into his for so long that Emmett wonders if he's going to get an answer at all, but it's merely that the old healer has a very different sense of time. "Of his companions, I know only that they were, for in his delirium he begged that they not abandon him. He seems to view his recent state as punishment for a crime against his god."
"Fire. Fire. Fire... Fire... forgive me!" the man cries suddenly. "I beg you, lord...."
Under Pham's patient and gentle questioning, the man slowly reveals more--enough to know that their dreams, though similar, were not identical. In the nameless man's vision, his point of view had been *behind* a wall of fire, looking down from a hill as it swept away from him. He had looked down at the blackened ground and seen something lying there--what it was precisely he was unable to say, but it had seemed precious, and he picked it up as the dream ended.
The others of his group had interpreted this as an omen to their advantage, but wanted more information. Hextor had been displeased by their impertinence--at least, this is what the rescued madman believes to have been the cause of his distraught state. The dream had consumed him.
* * *
Leaving the tavern, ibn Fadil again finds himself wandering along the street, keeping half an eye out behind and trying to think. Clearly, his usual slow and steady approach is not appropriate for this situation; he will have to come up with something useful by evening to prevent Val, and probably Emmett, from doing something rash. If possible.
What he needs, he muses, is a reliable local source of information. Other than bin Rashad; he would very much prefer not to have to explain how his troubles have become compounded. Someone who will not ask a lot of questions -- no, not likely to be found with ease. Someone whose questions he can answer without worrying much ... someone already familiar with the problem. Sister Mahal, who has already agreed to shelter the lady for a time? He turns the idea over a few times, wondering if a gnome healer would be different from other gnomes, and wishing he knew more about gnomes generally.
Jumok's inquiry yesterday (was it only yesterday? Gods!) suggested that she was not always at the infirmary -- not surprisingly, since she is probably a priestess of some sort. Possibly too exalted a priestess to have time for *him*, but he cannot immediately think of anyone else to try.
With a little more purpose, he starts toward the temple district, looking for religious folk in brown robes, with or without purple and white stoles, but has no luck in his search. He returns to the dockyard, scanning the area before approaching the infirmary door. It's easy enough to pick out Victor's man with a few minutes of observation.
There is a different youngster on door duty today; he looks at ibn Fadil quizzically. "Can I help you, sir?"
With some hesitation he says, "Is there a Sister Mahal here?"
The youth nods. "She is here. Is there an emergency?"
"Er, not exactly -- I could wait for a while." He lets a mixture of relief and worry show in his face -- lying without words, one of his teachers had called this.
"Come with me, please." He leads the way to the same room the group waited in last time. "Wait here a moment and I will see if she is busy."
There is a bit of a wait, but eventually the old gnome enters the room. She looks a bit surprised to see him. "Good afternoon."
Ibn Fadil stands and bows most respectfully. "Sister," he says, with genuine hesitation. "I am trying to work out how best to help the lady we brought here yesterday, but I know so little about Janik that I am quite at a loss. I had hoped -- if you can spare the time -- that you could perhaps help me there."
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson