Pham has no difficulty in securing a wagon and driver for the day, and after some shopping around Inez finds a wig that matches Ginevra's hair closely enough (and a few other things, of course).
Ibn Fadil wakes rather later than dawn today; Nyala is not the only one used to walking much shorter distances than he did yesterday. Contemplating the trouble he might get into later today, and the question of when he is going to find the time to report his new insight about Three Trees's loss to bin Rashad, he decides to put everything off for a while and enterprisingly begins to massage Nyala's feet and legs. As his enterprise turns out to be quite rewarding, there is some delay (increased by stopping for breakfast) before
Later, with a good breakfast [also] behind them, the two take the now-familiar streets back to the infirmary, to inform Ginevra and the healers of the plan and wait for everyone and everything else to be assembled. While the two show their ship tokens the guard, ibn Fadil spots one of Victor's men loitering about. There's another one watching the infirmary, as expected.
They are the first to arrive. Nyala explains the plan to Ginevra; ibn Fadil, restless and expecting his patience with the woman to be tried, excuses himself to wait for the others. After listening to the explanation twice, Ginevra agrees. The stress of the past few days has already taken a visible toll; she has noticed the watchers as well, and thinks her husband may have been stalking the infirmary staff as well as her allies from the _Cat_.
Next to convince is Sister Mahal, whose gnomish nature shines through in the clear delight she takes in the plan. She is not one to be led by her own enthusiasm, however, and spends several minutes in deep thought before giving her assent.
Meanwhile, Hiro and Val (sans disguise) stroll through the dockyard gate and past the infirmary on their way to where a few small mosquito ships are docked near a sign saying "For Hire - Reasonable Rates - Janik and Maekalan Only", picking up the expected tail along the way. Although the reasonableness of the rate is questionable, Val is certain that they've been seen, and that Victor will draw the expected conclusion.
"I hope this is working," Val mutters under his breath to Hiro as the two leave the charter behind. "I did notice someone following us as expected though."
Val casts a casual look around to take in the shadow, and to see if there are any more joining in, but only the man from the infirmary has followed them. He doesn't expect there to be any just yet. Not until they question the charter captain, anyway. Then there's going to be trouble...
Surprisingly, Val finds comfort in the task of drawing out the watcher. He's pretty certain things will get ugly, and soon. But for now he has a purpose, a goal, and he is focused and sharp. A cold fire is burning within, and he feels more alive right now than he has in a very long time... He mentally runs through his inventory of knives, tools, and sword, making sure each is at hand when needed.
"We'll get our things and head over to the infirmary?" Val confirms with Hiro after they've arranged things with the short, chubby captain of the _Melhacen_. The man reminds Val of someone he used to know who traded in horses of dubious provenance.
The plan was to make it look like they were getting ready to head offworld. That means gathering their gear (or at least their packs filled with non-essentials, in case they're lost in a scuffle) to make it look that way, and checking out of the boarding house. This will also give some time to Victor and his men to organize, perhaps getting all of them to come after the decoy. As they head back to the gate, Val notes that the watcher who first followed them has disappeared, and it takes a while for them to spot the new man.
Make that men. His suspicions that there are two this time is confirmed by the time they reach the room and gather their things to head back.
Meanwhile, Emmett and Inez have reached the dockyard and are on their way to the _Lazy Cat_, props at hand, maintaining the fiction that they have nothing to do with the group that Victor is interested in. Inez does a quite convincing shriek of pain as she "slips" and appears to wrench her ankle; the presence of one of the dock guards lends credibility as they, too, make their way to the plan's central point.
"They do have someone watching the gate," ibn Fadil says to Emmett once he and Inez are conducted to the untenanted room the group has been loaned. "I will go through after the wagon and if he is still there, lead him off and rejoin the wagon afterward." He seems to have managed to set aside his misgivings about the whole affair and is giving it his full attention.
"We've had two shadows since picking up our packs," Val mentions to the group once he and Hiro arrive, giving the best descriptions he can. To the Zakharan he adds, "Be careful..."
"Good." Emmett is pleased; they've got all the attention they could have wanted. Now it's up to Victor to do as he's expected to. "Time to change, hon." He gives Inez a quick embrace and kiss.
As the group runs through the plan once more, Val is distracted by other thoughts. He is ready to enact the plan, and knows the details quite well now. Having spent so much time with Ginevra during the last leg of the voyage, the last few days on Janik without her have been odd. It's just that it is slowly starting to sink in that he may not get to see Ginevra again after this. Soon she'll be ushered off to the Temple of Hera, and Heraites are known for their...distrust of men.
Taking a deep breath to steady his resolve, Val slips unseen from the room and heads down the hall to say his good-byes. Again...
* * *
Meanwhile, at the library, Alais is trying to find a source of information on sphere-scale elemental equilibrium. What little there is, he finds slow going, though the librarian on duty appears intrigued by the subject. Hip-deep in abstruse magical mathematics, he wonders once or twice how the others are getting on with the day's activities.
* * *
Val hears voices behind the door and realizes that Ginevra is not alone.
Val hesitates just outside the door and listens for a moment. Once sure he can identify the voices as fellow conspirators, he knocks lightly upon the door.
The diminutive medicus opens it; behind her Nyala relaxes slightly from her wary pose.
"Is it time?" Ginevra asks nervously.
"Not yet," Val replies with a hesitant smile as he slips in the room and closes the door. "I just stopped by to..." he pauses a moment, looking briefly to the elf and gnome in the room, unsure of how to continue.
"I wanted to check on you," he lies as he runs his fingers through his hair. Val offers another smile, this one a little strained.
Val does notice Ginevra's nervousness, but resists the urge to hold her and comfort her. Barely. She's wearing the same look in her eyes that made him want to help her in the first place; the same look that once made him light-headed and helpless. How he longed to lose himself in those eyes...
_She's counting on us,_ he tells himself, snapping out of his momentary lapse. With a bit of effort, Val slides behind his facade of casual cheer, intent on seeing Ginevra smile.
"Inez is getting ready, so it shouldn't be long."
She nods, looks around at the three of them with a slightly tremulous smile. "I hope this works. You're all taking a terrible risk... I can't thank you enough."
"Thank us later, after everything is over," Val tells her with a (mock) smile, as if there is nothing at all to worry about. Part of him, however, is actually looking forward to the risk...
Bolstered by his mask of confidence, he asks Ginevra, "May I have a moment alone?" He offers a rueful smile to the healer and archer in apology.
Nyala's look is slightly arch, but she leaves the room with Mahal.
Once the door is once more closed, the room is quiet. Val had been in such a hurry to see Ginevra again, possibly for the last time, that he had not thought about what he wanted to say. All he can do is look upon the woman that has made such an impression upon his life.
It is obvious by Val's uncharacteristic silence and solemn expression that something weighs heavily upon him. So many feelings for this woman kept inside for much too long, and he dares not give voice to any of them. But now, all of those feelings churn within him, threatening to burst forth in a torrent of uncontrolled incoherent babbling. For the briefest moment, a smile flickers across his face at the thought.
"Alone at last," he says finally.
She nods in response, her expression compassionate though somewhat distracted; his part in this story will be ending soon, but for her the most important chapters will come in the next few weeks--the child, the possibility of reunion....
Val sees that Ginevra is preoccupied with her own thoughts, and he realizes they aren't about him. How selfish he had been... His illusions are quickly swept away, and he swallows his own pride down like a bitter pill.
"You remind me very much of someone dear to me," she had told him aboard the _Cat,_ after the bloodsacs attacked. He remembers how he felt when he heard those words; disappointment once more washes through him as he looks at her. Color floods his face as he is consumed with shame.
_She doesn't love you,_ Val tells himself. _And she's got more important things to worry about than you, fool._
_Shut up, you._
He would still do this for her, to ensure her safety of course. He could do no less. And that thought rekindles the flame within, readying him for the task before them all.
This passes through Val's mind with lightning quickness; hardly a moment has passed.
"I... I just wanted to make sure you are okay, and to wish you luck," he tells her gently. Against his better judgement, he takes a step towards Ginevra and lays a hand upon her arm.
"May fortune favor fools today," Val says with a smile.
"I think she will," she smiles back, taking his hand tightly in her own.
There's a brisk tap on the door. "Time to raise curtain on this little show," Emmett announces. Pham has arrived with the wagon.
They join the rest of the group. Mahal offers all of them her blessing, and stands on a chair to hug Ginevra, of whom she's clearly become rather fond during the past few days. Inez practices moving in her awkward padding and cloak, nervous now that it's all become real.
No reason to delay, and every reason not to. At the front door, Val makes a brief show of scanning the area, giving no sign that he has spotted the watchers, and the four of them move toward the charter ship--slowly.
It is a hackle-raising experience, like walking through a serene forest and beginning to realize that you've been noticed by wolves. Val suspects that Victor has more than six men; several are trailing them openly now, perhaps to cut off retreat, and he spots a few others keeping pace beyond the ships to each side. Looks like they swallowed the bait.
Back at the infirmary, the coast appears clear. Ginevra is quickly bundled into the wagon with Pham, and with ibn Fadil shadowing them, they creak off toward the gate. Emmett maintains watch from the windows for a few minutes, but they seem to be away clear, and with a satisfied look he sets off at his own best pace to join the decoys. Who are slowly being surrounded....
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson