"They're closing in around us," Val mutters quietly to his companions. "Looks like they don't want us going anywhere but forward." His left hand reflexively tightens around the pommel of his sword.
Outwardly, Val maintains a calm appearance, casually taking note of the closing circle about them. Inside, his mind is racing, trying to think of a way to get everyone out of this safely. Looking over at Nyala and Hiro, he takes some comfort in their quiet resolve.
"Are you okay with this?" he asks Inez quietly, unsure of how she is handling the situation. He acts as if he is fussing over her (not a hard act at all, since he is fussing), offering his hand to steady her ungainly walk.
"Yeah, let's just get it over with," she replies tensely. They can see the charter boat slips ahead now. Somewhere behind them, beyond their watchers, Emmett is still catching up with them. Val keeps a cautious eye out for Victor. If things go bad, he wants to be able to face the man directly.
* * *
Alais flutters through the stacks, sampling here and there...and then stops.
Yes, of course! Why didn't he think of this before!?! This changes everything!
We have to leave immediately. And where are those fools now? Oh, yes. Spelljammer's gills!
Alais leaves the library to go find everybody.
* * *
At wagon speed through the crowded streets, it seems a very long journey to the new refuge.
Preferring caution to overconfidence, ibn Fadil continues to idle along behind the wagon, trying to avoid being seen by Pham (who might stare at him). As a result he seems to appear out of nowhere when the wagon pulls up at the Heraites' place. "No trouble at all," he says breezily, as if he is not worrying at all about those left behind at the port, and helps Ginevra climb down from the wagon.
"I hope so," she replies, looking anxiously back the way they came. Two of the red-robed women have come out to meet them.
"I am sure of it," he assures her. "Hiro is a match for those thugs all by himself." In truth, he is not sure of any of that, but all of this will become pointless if the lady worries herself sick.
Pham steps out of the carriage, and helps Ginevra down as well. "That went as well as could be expected." He turns to the red-robed priestesses as they approach. "Thank you for helping in this lady's time of need. Hera is truly the most gracious of hostesses." Worried that something may yet go wrong, he looks for any signs that these women are not as they appear to be, but sees nothing to alarm him.
"We do what we can," one of the two replies modestly. "Come along inside, my dear," she says to Ginevra. "And you two as well, I suppose."
The half-elf follows them, looking around with interest.
Once the wagon driver has been paid, they go on inside. It's a pleasant old building and hums with life, but from the looks of it running slightly ahead of the inhabitants in the upkeep department. A handful of young children career around the front room, pause for instant to assess the newcomers, and continue. Soup is cooking somewhere.
"Are you hungry?" one of the women asks, sidestepping a child adroitly. "I'm Maura, by the way, and this is Rae. If you're tired we can get you settled into a room, they were supposed to clean one out this morning so you won't be going up the stairs all the time."
"The soup smells wonderful," Ginevra opines.
"Yes, thank you," ibn Fadil says absently. There is a peculiar expression on his face, which might be read as a mixture of approval and wistfulness.
They troop through the kitchen, which is large, crowded, noisy, and very warm, and into another room that has been tacked onto the original building as the need for space grew. The visitors attract plenty of attention, particularly ibn Fadil; they are the only adult males in the place, and this appears to be a human-oriented order. About half of the women wear Hera's robe or some symbol of the group. Some of the rest are clearly recuperating from or preparing for childbirth, but others seem to be merely visiting with friends or helping with the meal. A toddler making his determined way across the room bumps into Pham and topples over.
Not unused to curious looks, the half-elf accepts these cheerfully, smiling at one and all. This will, he concludes, be the perfect place for the lady to stay -- as long as the Victor does not know where she is.
Pham and ibn Fadil don't feel it wise to linger long, however, before they return to the rendezvous at the Cask and find out how the rest of the plan worked.
* * *
Val has to poke Inez - who is more nervous than she wants to let on - to remind her of the plan. She does a fairly good job of slowing, falters and sways slightly. Nyala catches her arm, and the two women turn around.
The three men behind them stare impassively from about twenty feet away. Off to one side, a quick motion is one of the men there sprinting away. Val pretends to be solely and *very* concerned about "Ginevra" until they're close enough that it's clear the men blocking their way are not going to move, no matter how good a job Inez is doing of looking like a woman on the brink of collapse. Hiro glances at Val, willing to give guile a last chance before this becomes a matter for steel. Nyala is impassive as usual.
Inez, with the practicality Emmett so enjoys in her and a high C most bards would envy, screams. The sound carries over the general clamor of the docks, bringing the attention of a dozen or more onlookers. Some men move in their direction and pause, looking at the two facing groups uncertainly.
"We need to get her to the infirmary," Val announces for the benefit of the audience. "Stand aside."
"We have a healer on our ship," one of the men blocking the way counters. "It's much closer." He takes a step nearer Ginevra.
"No, thank you." He takes a step himself; to his surprise, the man backs off a little bit -- but not much, and Val realizes that they are trying to slow the four down.
"Leave her with us and *you* might get out of this alive," the leader of the opposing men suggests softly.
There are several figures approaching from the direction of the _Pride_; one of them they recognize as Victor, another the man who ran to fetch him when it became clear that their quarry was not after all taking ship. Inez's scream has also attracted the attention of a Three Trees overseer, however, and Victor's men are forced to move aside as he pulls his horse up near the group.
"What's all this, then? Has someone been hurt?" He eyes the lot of them with equal suspicion.
Val explains for his benefit that the lady is near her time and has been somewhat ill, and despite the kind offer of these men, truly requires the attention of the skilled infirmary staff, where they are familiar with her condition.*
"Well then, be about it," the overseer tells them sharply. "You there, shift yourselves out of the way. What ship are you with?"
"These are my men, Overseer," Victor announces, sweeping up to the scene. "I apologize if they have been giving any trouble." He's not quite fool enough to start a fight under these circumstances, though his eyes glitter disquietingly when he looks at Val.
The overseer grunts and gestures for Val's group to move on and the rest to get on with their business. As they pass Victor, Val notes the intensity of his gaze toward Inez. Has he realized that she is an imposter, despite her heavy cloaking? In any case, Victor now knows very well where *he* is, and losing him again might be difficult....
For now, however, it only remains to get back to the infirmary to complete that part of the illusion, divest Inez of her disguise, and figure out the next move. Alais meets them there; he seems to have something on his mind but is busy trying to catch his breath after the dash from the library. Emmett, having watched much of what transpired from a distance and mindful of the fact that Victor has yet to connect him with the others, returns to the Cask for the rendezvous.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson