Two days ago:
Nyala is relieved to see him the next morning, and anxious to hear about how the other parts of the plan went. The night at the infirmary was quiet.
"Not only was there no trouble yesterday," ibn Fadil tells her, "but this morning I went to look and their ship is gone! Back to Bral, I suppose." He pretends he is not troubled by the idea of the Victor reaching the Rock well before the rest of them. The sailors he had questioned did not know where the _Pride_ was bound.
"Hm." She looks thoughtful. "I am glad there were no difficulties."
That night, in twilight's deepening shadows, ibn Fadil once more trots up the steps of the Zakharan trade offices and knocks on the door. He is recognized, immediately welcomed in as if he were a long-lost relative, and given refreshments while he waits.
"My apologies for keeping you," bin Rashad greets ibn Fadil. "I hope you've been enjoying your stay?"
He smiles. "There is sunshine, fresh air, and a chance to speak my native language," he says. "How could I not enjoy it?"
After a few more minutes of polite nothings bin Rashad indicates that they can discuss business.
v"I have an idea, or a theory at any rate, about what Three Trees is so disturbed about." ibn Fadil pauses for any reaction. "I think the pirates stole some information about their trade routes. Probably the most common ones, or the most profitable ones, such as they might have on hand in their office. They are also sending two ships back to Bral from here, but I think they have no clear idea of what to do."
"Ah, she is bound for the Rock... most interesting." He spends a few moments in unhurried contemplation. "As for the trade routes--yes. This will no doubt have impact on their schedules for some time to come. A pity."
"Pirates are a nuisance for everyone," ibn Fadil observes. "You have an interest in the other ship? I am going back on one of them."
"We have interest in all things," he smiles.
"I also have a more tenuous theory about those pirates; I suspect the leader, Fang, is a woman." He shrugs. "Perhaps not an important detail, but collecting details is my work."
"One never knows when a detail will prove useful."
"At any rate, if I may impose upon your hospitality for a bit longer this evening, I am ready to write my letter."
"But of course."
Left to himself with a new pen, fresh ink, and a level surface to write on (luxury, compared with the last few years), he writes quickly at first. Then toward the end he pauses, debating his decision once more, before slowly penning the last few lines. He studies the letter while the ink dries, makes no corrections or changes, and folds and seals it with a few swift, decisive motions. Addressing the front takes only a moment, and it is done.
* * *
One night ago:
Back at the Vine, Nyala stands by the window, looking down at the street as darkness solidifies its hold on the city.
"A strange place," she judges it. "I am almost sorry to leave so soon, and without seeing the planet and its forests, but perhaps we can return some day."
"Every place is strange, compared with home," ibn Fadil observes from where he is lounging at the room's small table.
"Can there be only one home?" she muses. "Or must all places always be strange, then?"
"Well," he says carefully, "I like to think not. I think it has to do with whether one is looking for a home, or only staying somewhere for a time."
"True enough," she acknowledges, still pensive. "Tell me more of yours? Or perhaps you would rather wait until we have taken off, when it can serve to distract us from the darkness."
He gives her a searching look. "Some things I would like to keep between us. Such as ..." He hesitates, failing to think of a way to not sound like he is bragging. "At home, I am not a poor man. I am my mother's heir, and she is a well-situated member of one of the leading families of the chief city of Zakhara. A lot of good it does me now, on my own out here among the spheres," he adds wryly.
"Indeed," she turns to raise an eyebrow at him. "Thus making your debt-ridden identity all the cleverer, hm? I wish I could say the same, but unless the gods are kinder than their custom...."
"I thought it would be more effective," he says, not sure how take this response. "I was invisible, I talked to everyone, and it worked very well indeed. But it was harder than I could have imagined." His thought trails off for a moment as he remembers those difficult first months. "I have changed a great deal. Losing the arrogance was good, but ..." He shakes his head at himself. "I am still stubborn. I stuck at it longer than I should have."
She laughs almost silently. "I am not one to condemn another for that trait. But we were speaking of home."
"Yes," he says, brightening, and leaning back in his chair to put his feet on the table. "What else do you want to know about mine?"
"Hm... you could tell me more of your family. It seems rather extensive."
"If you count all the branches and cousins it is," he agrees. "But my parents have only two children, myself and my younger sister, Widad. My mother is active in the family business, which is trading in various commodities on and off Zakhara. She had two brothers and a sister. The sister married out of the family. One brother is the uncle who sponsored me to this career, and he has four sons, whom I have only a met a few times. The other brother died in an accident a long time ago. My mother's grandfather had ten children, and I think I shall leave them for another time, which is why I have more second cousins than I can readily count.
"Now my father, he calls himself Hassan among humans. His elven name is Leaf. Yes, just 'Leaf,'" he adds. "All he says about it is, 'Why should I limit myself to just one kind of leaf?' He is a bit strange." Leaf's son pauses, searching for words to explain his father. "I believe he is the most intelligent person I have ever met. He sees things ... Well, you will understand when you meet him." A sidelong glance to catch her reaction to that, before he hurries on. "I said he gardens, which is true. He also owns a great deal of land, on which he breeds plants the way other people breed horses and whatnot. I find it rather dull stuff, myself, but the results are worth a lot of money."
"I would like to meet him," she tells him. "And the others, though I may forget the names of so many people. Would I not be something of a scandal to your family, however?"
"Well, yes, maybe," he says uncomfortably. "... It has always been expected that at some point I would marry some woman carefully chosen for her family or trade connections. I am not ... content with that plan any more. But I think, perhaps, it is too soon to discuss such things?" His uncertainty and nervousness are palpable.
"Indeed," she agrees thoughtfully. "That is most like the case."
* * *
"Maybe in case Fang shows up?" Laszlo shrugs. "Beats me. I'm not out of money yet, I'm going nowhere. Plenty of ships heading out of here all the time."
"I'm in," Val says, surprising a few of his fellows. There has undoubtedly been talk of his staying to be with his Lady. Quite the contrary, he is ready to put this whole mess behind him.
That's not to mention it had been Val's intention to go on this next part of the journey all along....
"Count me in, too. That's too sweet looking a ship for me not to take a spin on her." Emmett says, moving over to Val as if to indicate that their part of the crowd are the ones going on the unnamed ship.
"Captain," ibn Fadil asks, "who will be captaining the new ship?"
The half man speaks up again, "Is that nine crew plus pilots? and do we have pilots yet?"
"Nine including pilots." Theo looks pleased by all the interest.
Pham looks to the captain. "You have a pilot now, powers be willing. She looks like a fine vessel, and I'm ready to be off this moon. Count me in on the voyage."
"I'm going, of course," Alais announces. I've done all I can here, and we need to leave before the conversion reaches this sphere. It might be a week, it might be a few years, but better safe than sorry."
"Conversion?" Val can't help but ask. "What conversion?"
Emmett shares an equally curious glance at the young magus, but refrains from giving him the opening to expound. Unfortunately, Val has already opened the door...
Meanwhile, a few of the other crew members edge away, while others toward, curious to hear what he'll have to say.
Emmett takes the quiet moment to look around for the big purple bulk that is Yestin. "Strange that he hasn't volunteered," the half man thought. "Unless he's afraid of going back to Bral..."
He's there, looking troubled, but not speaking up for the time being.
"Yes, well, since arriving here I have been correlating various bits of information, such as the herd of astroceteacens we saw, the lunatic with whom Brother Pham and I spoke, and several of my own readings, to formulate a theory wherein the multiverse is on the cusp of a cosmic cycle, consisting of a resorting of the elemental balance of the spheres. For instance, the air content of this sphere might change to fire and vice versa. This is entirely natural and not to be feared, although a certain amount of animal panic is, I suppose, natural at the thought of the level of destruction. I would take it philosophically myself, but wish to pursue my work until the latest possible point. This sphere, due to its current elemental makeup, will be, I think, more
susceptible than most--hence the urgency.
"Granted, this theory is still in the early stages, but I give it a, say, 80% chance of being correct. Once we get to another sphere, I can perform further investigations, and be more exact."
Hiro, who had been drinking water from his flask, spit takes it on the nearest crewman.
Someone laughs nervously. Alais has become the center of attention, as the rest of the crew wonder what to make of his claim, and a couple of passers-by wonder what all the excitement is about.
Pham raises his eyebrows. "Hmm... you must have found much more interesting books in that library then I did."
Ibn Fadil, who has been standing quietly by listening, says, "How is this possible, Master Zheremin?"
Val wipes water from his face and spares Hiro a scathing glance. "How soon might this 'conversion' happen?" he asks Alais. The young sailor has more than a passing interest in the well being of this particular sphere, and those within.
"As I said, it's difficult to tell. Might be five years, might be five minutes. There's scarcely enough time to explain it now, and anyway we should be making preparations to leave. Someday when we have sufficient leisure I'll give you an overview."
Val simply stares at the young mage, somewhat startled by his indifference. Emmett simply rolls his eyes, and is beginning to expect things like this from Alais
Ibn Fadil wishes he had some way of telling when the mage is right, and when he is just crazy. "Someday, then," he says politely. Moving some distance away from the others, he asks Nyala, "What do you think? About the ship?" He can tell by the look in her eyes that she likes it; after a few moments of discussion they are agreed.
As the group breaks up again, ibn Fadil and Nyala join Emmett, Val, and the others, but not to discuss the new ship. "Victor has gone," he reports. "Or at least, his ship is gone. I dare say he will be waiting for us at Bral."
"Joy. At least he had the sense to get off Janik." Emmett shrugs. "Well, it's a problem for another day. At best, Val, when he does something on Bral you'll get your shot at him, eh?"
Val offers a simple tight-lipped smile in answer. After all, he'd already thought that Victor might be waiting for their return to Bral. Time enough for Victor to plan something if the return trip will take as long as the voyage here. Time enough for Val to plan as well.
"If you aren't sure he's gone," Val says to ibn Fadil, "then there's no sense in assuming he is. We'd still better be careful." The last is said to everyone with seriousness.
"No matter," he continues, ignoring Emmett's shocked look that Val would actually advise caution, "he'll look the fool waiting around for us to walk down the _Cat's_ gangplank." A mischievous smile curls Val's lip as he turns to admire the damselfly.
The group that reports to the new ship the next day for official volunteering consists of Alais, Pham, Val, Hiro, ibn Fadil, Nyala, Emmett, and a still-pensive Yestin. Inez decides to stay with the _Cat_, though she does promise a visit whenever she can, since the two ships will travel close together.
Delmar spends several minutes talking to each of them individually before leading them on a quick tour of the new ship. There's not quite as much room as they had grown used to on the _Cat_, but while it's true she's a small ship when compared to a hammership, say, her keel is not much shorter than a tradesman's. Everything smells of new wood and fresh paint. The hull is painted bright blues and greens, except for the stark white circle that surrounds the Three Trees emblem on the bow, and the fittings sparkle.
The ship is rather vertically oriented, unlike a tradesman, a series of relatively small decks stacked partially atop on another, angling back from the nose. The only exposed area on the ship is the catapult emplacement, which sits between the wings, and even that is protected by a sliding hatch when not in use. The protected upper deck extends the length of the damselfly's "tail." The bridge with the ship's controls and the spelljamming helm sits beneath a slightly domed crystal port in the bow. The aft section, where the ceiling gets a bit low, consists of planted beds with a narrow walkway between them. Ports to each side let in sunlight. They'll be no good as food to anyone (except possibly Yestin), since food plants tend to be more fragile, but they will serve to keep the air fresh much longer than it would otherwise last. Forward of these and on the next deck down are the living quarters, storage space, and the miniscule galley. The lower decks are given over to cargo
There's enough of them in the crew for three watches, except for pilots of course. As the most experienced of the crew, Val is deputized as First Mate, leaving ibn Fadil with the remaining watch. Emmett is in charge of the military side; they can sort out among themselves who takes which watch, as well as who is going to room with whom. Delmar asks Emmett to teach others in the crew the workings of the single heavy ballista; if the ship gets in a fight, some of them will have to pitch in to work the massive weapon. Everyone will take turns cooking, unless someone wants to volunteer.
There remains only to get ready to leave. There are always last-minute things to buy, the pleasures of port to be sampled and savored one last time, things to wrap up.
For Val, this means verifying with his own eyes that Victor's ship is gone--not that he disbelieves ibn Fadil, of course, he simply can't resist going to look for himself--and finding a messenger to take a package to the Temple of Hera, both of which are easily done. That accomplished, he does his best to put the whole thing behind him, to look forward to whatever the future will bring.
For Yestin, it is time to stock up on paper, ink, and candles. He looks forward to the peace of space as a chance to do some polishing on the verses he wrote on the way to Janik. Though no more certain than before where duty might lie, he has decided he must return to Bral to find it.
For Pham, it means a last chance to share stories for many months to come, and he makes the most of the opportunity.
For those with congenial company of the preferred sex, the opportunity for a last night on the town is not to be passed up. There is a message from Aram waiting for Emmett when they return to the inn. _I'll let you know how things turn out with the wandering one,_ he writes. _Gond's blessing on you, and if you're ever in this neighborhood again, look me up so I can see what trouble you're in._
For Alais, it is mostly time to be endured before returning to space, and the mysteries of the Flow, and whatever strange event he is certain looms before the spheres.
For Hiro, it is a time for ghosts. Walking through the boisterous hubbub of the market that last evening, the noise around him seems to fade for a few moments. In its place are soft footsteps, and the murmur of silk, and what might have been a wind in the high grass or a whispering voice just beyond the edge of hearing. A moment later someone jostles into him, and the crowd again assaults his ears.
The following morning, the crew of the new ship having transferred their gear aboard, both vessels lift off into a lightly overcast sky. The only one seeing them off is Nahele, who doesn't say much and waves twice before his shrinking figure disappears from perception.
The first night they spend in space, Pham has another dream of flames.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson