"Bring her in," Delmar tells Alais. With the crew assembled on the main deck, he tells them, "Anyone who wishes to come is welcome to. Unless I misremember, we've done some business here before; they're all right sorts, for citadellers." Meaning, for members of a community by nature inward-looking and stratified.
Val frowns to himself, wondering if it's Flow-deprived imagination making him think there is something a bit odd here.
To no one's surprise, ibn Fadil and Nyala consult one another before deciding. "I have never seen a dwarf-king," he remarks, with a certain light of curiosity in his eyes.
"Nor I... Do you think some of us should stay with the ship?" she asks Emmett.
Emmett, still rubbing sleep out of his eyes, nods distractedly, "Yes definitely. Protocol for an unfamiliar port. Why aren't they moving, again?"
Val nods in agreement to Nyala's suggestion. "I've got a really bad feeling about this," he says to nobody in particular.
"I will stay," offers Yestin. "I suspect the ceilings within were not carved with my people in mind." He manfully refrains from showing his regret; as Emmett knows, he's quite fond of dwarven poetry, and had hoped to hear some.
"Captain, I'm with Val. Something about this is making my eye socket itch." Emmett looks the ship over for other windows or ports. "Maybe we should send down a small contingent to take a look around before we commit. An away team or something?"
Ibn Fadil observes this exchange of worries with interest (what could possibly trouble a cityful of dwarves?), and waits to see what Delmar will say.
Pham looks at the approaching pile of rock with his usual calm expression, but there's a gleam of anticipation in his eyes. "Captain, I'd like to be part of the party that goes aboard. I've visited other citadel ships briefly, and I'd love the chance to spend some time with these fine folk again. Dwarves may be abrupt, but they're usually honest and hospitable. I find it hard to believe that an honest invitation is anything other than that.
"And, if there *is* something wrong over there, I think I'd have a fairly good chance of ferreting out what. Tales don't stay hidden from me for long."
"Yestin and Alais can stay here," their captain decides. "Anyone else?"
"I'll stay," Val volunteers, much as it pains him to do so. He had actually been looking forward to getting off-ship for a bit. "We'll want someone on board who can help the pilot launch us in a hurry if needs be..." he rationalizes.
He holds Emmett's eye with a meaningful look. "Be careful. And raise some hell if there's trouble," he adds with a grin.
Emmett leans against the crystal port, looking down at the citadel. There are some openings that look like windows along the sides, with geometric carving around them. Flipping his eye patch up, he mutters a word and a shaft of blazing light shines from his eye across the distance of space. The resultant circle of light plays up and down the stone, settling on one window. Emmett peers across, trying to see any motion inside the citadel through the window, but it's a poor angle and there's nothing to be seen. "Alais, are those markings a language? So they say anything?
"They're not any script I've ever seen. Just decoration, I suspect. Dwarves are known for such."
"Captain." Emmett turns back to Delmar, shutting his eye off before he blinds people with it. "I think we should leave enough people on board to be able to handle the ship in a fight. That means Alais as Pilot, Yestin and myself to handle one firing of the main gun and holding off boarders, minimum. Nyala's archery skill might be more useful here than inside the citadel."
"If there's something strange going on in there, Hiro can defend Pham, Val and Ibn Fadil are both competent bladesmen. They'll be able to get out. If there's nothing strange down there, I'll look like an idiot, but as the old saying goes 'better to look like an idiot a hundred times than look like a corpse once.'"
"You're the expert," Delmar says, willing to accept Emmett's decision in this regard.
Val is rather surprised to be assigned to the "away team," as Emmett called it. Oh well, at least he has an excuse to poke around and be curious now.
"With all due respect, "Val says to Delmar, looking for the best way to say it tactfully, "but you're sending *all* of the command of this ship down there?" He pauses a moment to let that sink in. "Maybe you should stay behind if we're going to all this trouble?" He looks to Emmett for some sign that he's thinking along the same lines.
Emmett looks away and whistles, knowing better than to give orders to his captain...
"We're already leaving half the crew here," Delmar points out. "They'll be fine."
Val accepts Delmar's decision with a crisp, "Aye, captain." Unfortunately, he can't help but think of his past dealings with merchant companies and the precautions they had demonstrated. Maybe he's overreacting. Hopefully, there *isn't* anything to worry about with these dwarves.
Ibn Fadil offers no objection to the plan, though of course he is disappointed that Nyala will be staying on the ship; he promises to tell her all about the citadel.
Emmett makes sure each member of the away team is armed before they exit. Martial sorts that dwarves tend to be, they'll likely take no offense at swords. He touches the brother lightly on the shoulder before they disembark. "Pham, I trust you have some combative prayers at the ready?"
Pham looks at Emmett and tsk's him. "Emmett, I've been in a lot of rough situations before. Be assured that I have enough prayers at the ready to handle a rough spot if I need to."
Aside from the long knife, Val conceals a couple of his own daggers under his vest, as well as his tools in their usual place. As an afterthought, Val also dons his swordbelt. This is business, he tells himself. No time to get sloppy.
Delmar disappears into his cabin for a moment; once Alais has landed the ship, he leads Val, Hiro, Pham, and ibn Fadil down the ladder to the asteroid's landing area. Gorn and his companions come forward halfway to meet them.
"Welcome aboard," the hooded dwarf says again. "Hope your journey has been trouble-free, one hears about strange things in the Flow lately, something got the animals stirred up, haven't seen anything like that ourselves, on our way to Trellspace," which is one of the two spheres between Janik's sphere and the Rock of Bral. "Visiting the home world, were you, how fares the company?"
"Quite well," Delmar tells him. "Business is good, and things being generally peaceful always helps. There is word of a new pirate out there, someone calling him or herself Fang. If you sight a dragonfly named _Audacity_, there is a considerable bounty out on it. Of course," he gestures at the massive ship beneath them with a chuckle, "you have nothing to worry about from pirates yourselves, I'm sure."
Gorn laughs loudly. "Ha! Ha! Ha! No, no pirates trouble us. No pirates. Ha, ha." They've reached the lift--a thing of mechanical beauty for Emmett, were he not back on the ship. Gorn sets his foot on a lever and it moves down slowly, into the rock. "There won't be many people about at the moment, I fear, all getting ready for tonight, but I'll take you to our king and you can talk some business if you like, the rest of your crew is welcome to join us of course, you traveling with that tradesman? ŚNother nice ship that, never been on one like that myself, though, citadels all my life. Good solid rock here." Above them, a hatch shuts over the lift shaft. It is now absolutely dark. Gorn slaps his forehead in dismay. "Argh! I forgot a light! Sorry, sorry, don't get many human guests here. Bide here, I'll go fetch one and please do forgive my --"
"Not to fret, my good dwarf," Delmar assures him. "I brought one from our ship." He takes the lightstone he brought from his own cabin out of its pouch (having experienced this problem aboard citadels before). Its illumination is steady although not overly bright, about three candles worth.
"Now that is preparation that is, wonderful to see, thank you very much and I do apologize again, he'll have my beard for such discourtesy, I promise you that, forget my own head next. Ha! Ha! Ha!"
The lift stops after a brief descent, perhaps twenty feet. Before and behind them are metal grates; the one behind lets onto an unadorned corridor, the one before admits to an open area, beyond which is a slightly concave wall. In it are set a pair of heavy iron doors with more elaborate decoration of knots and figures, with some heavily stylized representations of spacegoing creatures. On the wall angular runes record the opening of this asteroid some years ago, the abandonment of the old in a distant sphere, and the clan connections of the inhabitants, which takes up a good ten feet of wall in fairly small runes.
Something is still bothering Val. Maybe it's the silence of the other dwarves (although perhaps they're simply used to not being able to get a word in edgewise around Gorn), or of the ship, holiday or not. Perhaps its the hoods and cloaks they have still not removed, hands tucked into sleeves. Perhaps it's something in the air... he sniffs slightly -- it's easy to tell if there's sickness on a vessel, which would explain the quiet -- but that doesn't seem to be it, either.
Or maybe, he thinks as five of the dwarves step out from the lift and slam the grate shut behind them, it's just professional instinct warning him of a trap.
"What--" someone starts to say, cut off when Gorn, trapped with them, screams and lunges at the door. It shakes but does not give. One of those outside pauses while the others go on, and touches something on the wall.
"Believe me that we're sorry about this," he says in a thick voice, "but we have very little choice. You talk too much," he adds sourly to Gorn. In the moment before they fall, those within glimpse beneath the hood a nightmarish face no dwarf was born with.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson