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  | Asymmetry | Role-Playing | Spelljammer | Turn 4 |

 

 

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After the initial shock of what just happened wears off, Valarin sees to it that Emmett and the other person with him are safe and intact. Satisfied with their general well being, he suggests keeping a low profile for a little bit. He still couldn't believe what he was doing up there....
    And he was right; it was a shell for another Spelljammer! Too bad he couldn't share his epiphany with anyone before it happened. Val rubs his hands together to warm them. Somebody else was helping them with magic. *Cold* magic. Val wondered if it was the half-elf with Emmett on deck.
    Emmett sheathes his cutlass and wipes the dirt from his already well mended clothes, taking the opportunity to get a good look at his unexpected ally in the recent events. _Comfortable with a sword, smart enough to wait for the advantage, graceful. Probably in the same line of work as Val then - itinerant adventurer._
    "Thanks for the help up there. We needed all we could get. Name's Emmett." He holds out a well-callused hand to the half elf.
    At Emmett's first words, ibn Fadil tears his fascinated gaze away from the storm into which the pirates' ship has vanished. As politely as possible he avoids the man's outstretched hand, instead touching his own closed hand to the center of his chest and making a slight bow. "Yusuf ibn Fadil Manwar," he answers. "Ibn Fadil for, ah, short," he adds, smiling at his own joke.
    Emmett withdraws his hand as gracefully as possible, smiling as he takes the uncommon pleasure of looking eye to eye with another grown man. Val appeared even taller in comparison to the two.
    Valarin is reassured by Emmett's voucher that ibn Fadil was helping them. He smiles at ibn Fadil, but does not offer his hand. "I'm Valarin," he introduces himself, "my friends call me Val." He runs his fingers through his hair in a semi-nervous gesture as he looks about the area at the wreckage and the gathering onlookers.
    "Where in the hell were the Giff? Val demands of nobody in particular as they make their way from the scene. He was sure they would've been more than a match for the pirates...
    Emmett pitches his voice low, so that only his companions can hear him, and his face might as well have been made of stone. "The Giff were doing exactly what they've been paid to do - stay out of raiders way."
    Catching the hard look on Emmett's face, Val pauses. It takes him a moment to piece everything together in his head.
    "You mean I was... and they were... and then I..." Val sputters as it finally sinks in. "And you let me climb up the mast?" he accuses Emmett, only half in jest. His knees were feeling a bit weak.
    Glancing back and forth between them, ibn Fadil opens his mouth as if to protest Emmett's implication, then shuts it abruptly as the obvious truth comes to him. A shocked and disappointed look crosses his face.
    "Let you?" Emmett takes a quick look around, not wanting to risk the Giff overhearing and deciding to eliminate them as 'job protection' before continuing. "When I figured out what was going on I was perfectly ready to call it a loss and get off of there. Next thing I know you're five feet over my head! What was I to do, throw you over my shoulder and jump off?"
    "Damn, I'm sorry," Val says, feeling foolish. "Lemme buy you a drink to make up for it? At least we can toast to our health, if not our fortune...."
    Emmett looks at the taller man appraisingly, then breaks into grin, "Don't feel bad about it - you backed my move climbing into that shell in the first place, so I had to back you climbing the mast. That's how it works." He claps Val on the back with his good hand, displaying some of his surprising strength. "Not that I'll turn down a drink. I think a couple-three of rounds would suit just fine. Coming along, ibn Fadil? Our watering hole of choice is right down the street."
    "Gladly," ibn Fadil says. "But let's ask Master Zeremin to join us; that was an impressive spell, and I'm almost sure it was his." He nods toward a young man in a worn wizard's robe
    "Oh really?" Val mutters. So much for ibn Fadil being the spellcaster. He shudders a bit as he remembers how the rope he was dangling from simply broke apart from the frost. "Glad this Zeremin has good aim then," he adds dryly.
    "Zeremin!" Emmett calls, hoping to get the young Magus' attention before he leaves the docks. "Ibn Fadil here says you're the one who nearly stopped the masked raider. We're off to go toast our continued health in face of danger. Care to join us?"
    Alais waves back and heads over to join them.
    A short distance away, near the landward end of the dock, the giff captain (whose name in Gustan), is delivering a lecture. "...Complete disgrace! Twenty-five years in service and I've never seen such incompetence! By all rights I ought to pitch you off the docks to drift out into space! You're on deep duty, all three of you, until we sail. Every day, starting _now_." The three look about as unhappy as a giff can look -- "deep duty" is their term for patrolling the lower reaches of Bral, which the big sentients tend to find claustrophobic -- but snap off a salute and head out of the square. More of their fellows are returning from the brawl, wanting to know what they missed, and civilians are also beginning to filter back into the square.
    His reprimand delivered, Gustan heads over to the gathering defenders. "Ibn Fadil! You of all people! I thought you had more sense than that," he shakes his head in mock-sadness, grinning the while. "Going to sign up for a tour with us, are you?" he jokes, clapping the half-elf on the back -- carefully, so as not to actually break anything. "Clever bastards -- not to worry, they'll be brought in, if they make it through that storm, tiny little ship like that." All friendliness, he nods to the other two men, though there is no doubt he is taking careful note of them.
    Emmett smiles back briefly, then looks at Val, trying to force him to keep his mouth shut by will alone. If that fails, he's perfectly willing to give the taller man a good whack with his pegleg.
    Val, upon seeing the suddenly stern look on Emmett's face, remains quiet. He nods gravely, if not politely to the giff captain. _Back on tour?_ Val thinks to himself. He experiences a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach after what Emmett had just mentioned about the giff in front of the half-elf. He rubs the sore spot on his arm where the bolt grazed him earlier...
    Struggling to get his breath back, ibn Fadil shakes his head and manages a smile. "I think not, Captain Gustan," he wheezes. "I really don't know what came over me. And I hope it doesn't last!"
    "Don't worry, Captain - after the drinking we do tonight, it's doubtful any of us will remember *anything* that went on today." Emmett says, forcing a smile to the huge Giff. "Shall we gentlemen? Bral awaits!"
    With that the group decamps to the Blue Wyvern, where they find themselves as quiet a corner as possible. Emmett waves for the waiter and gets things going with the first round.
    "We'll probably hear from the 3 Trees people soon enough about compensation for our efforts," the one-eyed man said. "We can afford a couple of drinks tonight. Griffin-Riders always down some rounds after a live-landing, and it's a good tradition."
    Emmett holds out his hand to the young wizard thinking that the boy must be some magical prodigy, "Thanks for the help. That was a pretty impressive piece of magic! Haven't seen anything that big in a long time."
    Ibn Fadil doubts Three Trees will be suffering fits of generosity any time soon, but says nothing about that. "Griffin-Riders?" he asks instead.
    "Live-landing?" Val asks at almost the same time. He shudders to think about any other kind. "And the next round is on me," Val says to his companions. He didn't have much in the way of coin, but what he had should be more than enough to cover a round of beers.
    "No, no, I'll get it," ibn Fadil protests, and produces a silver coin from the purse tucked into his sash.
    Emmett gives his best knowing grin to his curious companions before expanding. From the change in his voice, it's obvious this is a subject close to the half-man's heart. "When you're a mile in the air and there's nothing holding you up there but 12 hands of temperamental Griffin, you celebrate every time you come down breathing." He gestures with his beer mug, looking mostly at Alais. "Nothing against spelljamming - hell, I've never been at the helm of one - but to me the only real flying is pitting yourself against a mount with the landscape a quarter hours walk beneath you."
    "Griffin riding?" ibn Fadil repeats. "Where was this?" His tone suggests that he would never doubt Emmett's word, of course, but still...
    "Long ago and far away, my elf-blooded friend." Emmett waves his hook expressively. "But what's you're story? I've hear people say you're from Zakhira, which is generally regarded as a myth. You seem real enough."
    "Zakhara," the half-elf corrects. "It is quite real, but also quite, I suppose one could say, private." He looks wistful as he speaks of his home, but the conversation is interrupted by the waiter bringing the next round and taking his money.
    Despite his bravado about inevitable payment, Emmett is nurturing his beer, enjoying every swallow rather than quaffing it down. Money is still tight, even with high hopes. He places his mug on the table. "Whoever this Fang character is, he or she is pretty organized. And sneaky. And I have to admire his tool use - that shell was brilliant. I knew there was something inside the ship, but I never imaged that it would be another ship!"
    Alais says, "Yes, I have an idea about him. Although I wasn't able to get a good look at it, the tattoo on his face appeared to be the identifying glyph of the Hurgan Brotherhood of the Urcan civilization, of Master Del Farpri's theories. They were a secret society responsible for obscure religious monoliths found on several worlds in different spheres."
    While the other two give Alais blank stares at this non sequitur, ibn Fadil asks quite seriously, "Could it not be a coincidence, Master Zeremin? A spiral, black or otherwise, is quite a simple mark."
    Alais replies "Your skepticism does you credit, sir, and in truth I am not sure. But the spiral in question was not just a plain shape, but of a definite radius and with a certain number of turns, and it seemed this was of a likeness. Alas, I was not able to count the number of turns on the bandit's tattoo."
    Emmett glances from Alias to Val to ibn fadil and back during this exchange. "So when did this Hungarian Brotherhood turn to piracy?"
    When Alais turns his attention to Emmett, ibn Fadil gives the half-man a look and a very small hand signal, discreetly trying to say, "No, don't encourage him any more!"
    Alais doesn't notice, of course. "Since the last verifiable evidence of their existence is well over fifteen hundred years old, who knows what they may have gotten up to in the meantime? But regardless, I very much doubt this was a simple act of piracy. There are wheels within wheels here, gentlemen, as there are in almost anything worth a man's time."
    Val recovers from his blank stare at Alais and mentions, "I was wondering about the shell thing. I'd noticed the mast swaying a lot when I climbed it." With a sheepish grin towards Emmett, Val adds, "Sorry I didn't get the chance to mention it before everything went to hell."
    Val sips at his beer too, regretting he didn't get at least a cheap bottle of wine. He sighs into his mug as he thinks about what he's going to do now. Val wasn't as certain of a reward as Emmett seemed to be, considering the half-man's revelation about the giff....
    "Communication is the first thing to vanish in a fight - I love listening to a colonel's plan assuming that they'll be able to directly talk to each unit once the fight starts. Water under the bridge, Val." Emmett gets up. And speaking of water, if you'll excuse me for a minute..." With that the half-man steps off to the Wyvern's glorious and scrupulously maintained lavatory - politely called the back alley.
    Ibn Fadil promptly turns to Val. "And how did you wind up on the Rock, Mister Valarin?"á
    "Mister?" Val is amused by the honorific. "Just call me Val. And how I got here is a rather long story." He sips at his beer hoping ibn Fadil would let the matter drop. Judging by the expectant look on the half-elf's face, Val was under the impression he wasn't going to...
    "The short of it is that I ended up on the wrong boat at the wrong time. Turned out to be a 'Jammer," Val shares, omitting the details of that fateful trip. "Once I got to where that one was going, it was a bit difficult to go back to Taros. So I just went along with it. I'd learned a few things, and signed on to a couple different ships. Ended up here not too long ago." He ended with a smile. "What about you? If you don't mind me saying so, you don't exactly look like you came from around here..."á
    "Not many _do_ come from around here," ibn Fadil observes.
    Alais chuckles. "Well, there are a few of us natives around. Although many leave as soon as they are able. Bral is a good place to be from."
    "As for me, I have been around a bit since I ... left home." He shrugs a little uncomfortably. "I do not care for traveling, and so I've been here on the Rock for some time. "
    Emmett returns several minutes later, just in time for the next round and for the serious drinking to begin. For all of his diminutive size, the small human has an impressive alcohol tolerance. After a the third round, he seems less animated, and his tales of griffin flying bubble to the surface, filled with a sense of loss. Spurred on by ibn Fadil's boundless curiosity, he has, by the end of the evening, given many stories of his adventures in the Imperial Air Corps. Telling the tales seems to improve his mood, but it's hard to tell how much of others' conversation he actually absorbs.

* * *

"Do you think they noticed anything?"
    "I don't know. Not sure I like the looks of those guys. Even if they did, what could they do?"
    "Cause trouble."
    "Nothing we couldn't deal with, surely?"
    "You never know. The runts are sneaky. Never seen ibn Fadil stick his neck out like that for anything but good odds."
    "You don't think he's one of theirs, maybe?"
    "Nah. A moment of thoughtful silence. Best not to take any chances."
    "But they said -- "
    "This isn't them, it's us. Take care of it."

* * *

Late in the evening on the day of the raid, ibn Fadil leaves the narrow room nobody would stoop to calling home, and heads into the warren of subterranean tunnels of which it is a part. Looking into a couple of his haunts and buying a quick meal, he's a bit bothered by how many people are still talking about him and the pirates. No doubt they'll forget about it as soon as another ship comes in and brings some new distraction, but for now he still has to laugh and shrug and pass it off as another ill-considered whim.
    Now that he's rested and fed, he feels more or less ready for his next task -- paying back some of the money he owes Vlad. But as he makes his way down another of Bral's innumerable narrow streets, he is not terribly surprised to find his path barred by Parrak's blocky form. The presence of the rather large man standing beside the dwarf means that there is probably another behind ibn Fadil as well, and that his day is about to take a very unpleasant turn.
    With a hint of desperation, and keeping his hands noticeably away from his weapons, he smiles and says, "Mister Parrak! I am just going to see Vlad. Is he in his office, do you know?"
    "He is not," Parrak replies gravely. "He has, however, asked that I deliver a message to you." His slight shift of stance is a signal; ibn Fadil hears a soft footstep behind him as the man there draws a bit nearer.
    "Oh?" ibn Fadil says. He feels so tense he ought to be vibrating, but tries not to show it, or that he'll make a break for it, as he has to, just as soon as one of the others moves. "What is it?"
    "Your payment?" the dwarf inquires, instead of answering. "It was, I believe, due a couple of days ago."
    "I was going to see Mister Vlad about that," ibn Fadil hastens to reply. "I do have the money!" He starts to gesture toward his purse, then immediately thinks better of it.
    "If you would, then." He nods to the man beside him, who steps forward, open handed.
    Warily (could he possibly be overreacting?), ibn Fadil extracts his purse from under his sash and starts fumbling for some of the coins in it.
    The man behind him makes his move as soon as his quarry's hands are occupied. The half-elf tries to spin away from him, but is caught by the upper arms and held firmly while the other man takes his purse and tosses it over to Parrak, who counts its contents in a leisurely fashion. Ibn Fadil has no real choice but to stand and watch the dwarf enjoy his uncertainty. Were he to escape, that would only delay the inevitable; if he draws steel, they might actually kill him.
    Parrak tucks the money away into his own purse. "Not bad. Oh, and I almost forgot -- the message. Don't get any big ideas. Your friends won't be any inconvenience."
    As the dwarf settles back to watch, ibn Fadil has time to think: I knew better to than to get involved this morning, I did. Then the man in front punches him in the stomach, prudently takes his knife and sword away and tosses them aside, and starts in on his work in earnest.
    When they let him go he crumples to the rocky ground, dazed and gasping. Something soft lands on his face -- his empty purse, he guesses. Three sets of footsteps go away down the street. He wonders bleakly, How did I get on the path to this place? Ah, yes; it seemed like a good idea at the time.
    Getting up will not be an option for a while. He lies there listening to the Rock of Bral, to distant and nearby people laughing, shouting, talking, and working. Someone comes along this street, moderate footsteps that falter when they come near, then hastily move on. He tries to imagine what his Uncle Karim would say if he were to try to explain this circumstance and fails; he cannot imagine being off this miserable rock. The sun-warmed streets of his home city are a dream constantly slipping further away.
    A heavy set of footsteps approaches, hesitates, and stops. "Ibn Fadil!" a man says. "They found ya, eh?" The voice comes closer: "Fat Jack was takin' odds on when."
    He opens his eyes, or at least the one that isn't swelling shut. A large ill-shaven man is leaning over him, someone he knows, but his wits are too scattered to place him.
    "Kin ya get up? No? Never mind," the man goes on. "Where -- oh, I see 'em." A slight clattering, as the man collects his lost weapons for him. "Now, let's see," he says, and scoops the battered half-elf up in his oversized arms. Ibn Fadil chokes back a cry at this jostling. "Sorry," the man says, and starts off. "Where is it ye live? Herry's, right?"
    As the man's running commentary continues, ibn Fadil remembers him: one of the bouncers at the Brass Bottle, inaptly named Robin. Not very bright, and not someone he's spent a lot of time talking to. But someone who is helping him now. Even though the man's every jolting step sends a spasm of new pain through him, he grits his teeth and keeps silent.
    Finally Robin stops and kicks at a door. "It's ibn Fadil," he explains.
    There is a pause; then Herry says, "Better bring him in."
    He is astonished to find himself deposited in the sitting room of his hatchet-faced landlady, who advances on him with a candle. "Stop that," she snaps when he shies away from her hand, and seizes his chin so she can inspect his face. "Not too bad," is her verdict. "Can you see all right? Not fuzzy or doubled?"
    "It's fine," he manages to say. "Nothing cracked or broken, I think, ma'am." It has never occurred to him to wonder about Herry's life before she ran a rooming-house, but he does now as he watches the old woman go to a cabinet and return to him with an old metal flask.
    "Drink," she commands, and he takes a mouthful of some cheap, raw brandy and somehow swallows it, coughing. Under her stern eye he swallows twice more, and the pain blurs a little. "You'll feel worse in the morning," she warns.
    "I know," he answers dully, unwilling to contemplate that.
    Herry commandeers Robin to help her tenant up to his room, and unlocks the door with her own key. "I'll look in on you in the morning," she promises as they leave him on his narrow cot, tucked under his one blanket.
    The room is tiny, dark, and not very warm. He would think he had dreamed, except that he's never before dreamed of finding friends so unlooked-for.

* * *

The next day:
    Hiro waits patiently while the rest of the crew disembark -- the quartet of whooping grommams first, followed by the hurwaeti pair, the human crew, and finally the xixchil called Brilliant. Captain Roe and the halfling owners stay aboard for the time being; they will have business to conduct later on. Perhaps being smaller they do not feel so confined by the ship, or perhaps it's because most of them were born there.
    It has been a most interesting year, but he was firm in his insistence earlier that it is time to move on, before the _Faithful_ can begin the return leg of its journey. He has no interest in returning. Thus he carries with him his final pay, and the letter Master Thistlewort wrote praising his service.
    Bral certainly appears to be a busy place; the square is thronged with people of a dozen species, all trying to sell something to the new arrivals. He is surprised by this later, when a casual inquiry after the local news brings him a tale of a daring raid carried out in that very place only the day before. Apparently Bral's citizens aren't easily shaken.
    There are rumors as well that a ship's crew is being put together the following noon. It would be a stroke of luck if they need a sword; no harm in passing by....

* * *

The next day:
    Pham looks up at the stranger from the bench he is sitting on and smiles. "Well met, sir. Blessings be upon you. Please, join me." Pham gestures towards a spot on the rough bench. "My name is Brother Luc Pham, although I suspect you already know that."
    "I am Jarett Quillan; I am in the employ of Mr. Volant. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance." He seats himself beside Pham, who is able to note the rich simplicity of the man's garb.
    Pham smiles, slightly amused at himself. "I have a suspicion that a man of your bearing and refinement wouldn't be talking to a rough priest such as myself without reason. Perhaps ... the incident at the docks earlier? So, how can I help you?"
    "Tangentially related only," Quillan replies, "in that it brought you more fully to our attention. You have perhaps heard that we are presently looking for a ship's crew."
    "A crew? No, I had not heard. But I am interested. Bral has many interesting features, but they begin to wear on one such as myself after a time. I assume you mean to offer me a berth aboard such a ship? Mr. Quillan, I am quite interested. What is the mission, and who is the captain? And the rest of the crew?"
    "The ship will be traveling to our headquarters, a journey of perhaps three months -- nothing terribly taxing. Forgive me if I cannot be any specific, but given our business we must be careful." His smile appear genuine. "Theodosius Barthelm is captain; feel free to make inquiries, but I think you will find that his reputation is impeccable. We are in the process of hiring additional crew, but as I'm sure you know we are careful about those to whom we entrust our ships."
    "I don't mean to be alarmist, but... are you aware of the nature of my faith?" Pham nervously fingers the holy symbol beneath his shirt. "I'm afraid that many find it - easy to misunderstand. I do not wish to be thrown among those who would wish me harm based on such confusion. Given time, I can of course convince them to at least give me the benefit of the doubt, but there have been times when I have not been given such an option."
    "Of course," Jarett nods gravely. "These matters can be particularly difficult amid a small crew. Still - we have heard no word against you in your time on Bral, and your actions during the incident were entirely commendable. Captain Theo did not object, and he will keep order among the crew." There is the faintest note in his voice hinting that he very much wants Pham to agree to this; it's entirely possible that he has already approached others of Bral's small religious population and been refused.
    "Oh, and one more question. How is Melkin? Did they ever figure out how the pirates got that collar on him?"
    "I'm afraid that Master Melkin has not confided in me as to the precise nature of the device that was used or how entry may have been gained, but he certainly appears to have made a full recovery," is the smooth reply. "We can all be grateful that these rogues seem to have a mind to pranksterism, rather than murder."
    Pham looks off into space for a moment. Not quite meditating, but more than just thinking. Then he looks at Quillan and smiles. "Mr. Quillan, I think that this voyage could do me some good. Assuming the pay works out equitably, I am willing to sign onto this voyage. Allow me an hour or so to fetch my things, and then I will join you. Where should we meet?"
    Quillan chuckles, pleased and with a hint of relief. There's a bit more time than that, I think, but if you'll do us the honor of stopping by the Clockwork Dragon at about the eighth bell, that would serve very well.

* * *

Emmett stumps quickly into the Blue Wyvern, scanning the crowd for Valarin. Spotting him in his traditional shady corner, Emmett waves, then hustles over. "Val. I told you there'd be a reward, didn't I?"
    "Reward?" Val looks up at his seemingly excited friend, distracted from casually glancing about the taproom foreign easy mark. He was still cursing himself for having to replace that good dagger he lost two days ago. Val offers Emmett a seat so the two can talk more privately. "What do you mean?"
    "What do you mean, 'what do I mean?'" Emmett looks exasperated. "Haven't you heard the word on the street? The Three Trees are looking for a small ship's crew, but they don't have anything in dock. They've got to be putting a crew together to either hunt through Haven for the _Audacity_'s wreckage, or to find them if they survived the storm. They either lost something really valuable or need to reclaim some honor by making sure that people don't think they can raid 3 Trees with impunity."
    "I've heard," Val replies. "But like you said, there's no ship at dock." The one that came in yesterday is an independent operator, with a full crew more's the pity. The young man stretches and runs his fingers through his hair, realizing he'd been sitting here much too long. "Besides, what has this got to do with us or a reward?"
    "Given how well the raiders planned everything else, I know they must have made it out of that storm. Heck, they may have planned on it. We were willing to get involved when no one else did. We got up close and personal with the pirates, so we can identify them. They have to hire us. This is our ticket out of here!" There's obvious excitement in the Half-Man's face.
    Val grimaces at the mention of their involvement. But, kindled by the gleam in Emmett's good eye, Val's urge to get off this rock seems to ignite. "You have a point there," he says calmly, trying to cover the excitement he is also beginning to feel. Val stands and offers a last glance about the Blue Wyvern. "So, do you think they'll have a position for you after they hire me on?" Val grins at the Half-Man.
    Emmett smiles in return, "Sure. They can't need more than one guy to shimmy up masts." With surprising strength he takes Val's arm and 'helps' him to his feet. "'Course, if we don't hurry we might have to fight other people who don't realize that we're the natural candidates for the deck-stumper and mast-monkey positions. Pay your tab and haul your cab."
    With that the oddly mismatched pair make their way over to the Clockwork Dragon.
    The Dragon is a large (for Bral) and quite impressive building. It stands on its own plot of ground, without butting up against any other structures. The lower two of its four stories are walled with stone, the upper two wooden, carved and brightly painted. It faces on a broad avenue, on the other side of which is the low wall that marks the oligarchic enclave, so its upper stories look over into the gardens. Over the door is the inn's namesake, a sinuous, beautifully articulated metal dragon, courtesy of the Rock's gnomish community (which also runs/lives in/works in/occasionally blows up the Incredibly Astounding Amazing Emporium!!!, on the edge midway between the two "poles" of the Rock). Every nineteen days the sign works; the dragon undulates, opens and closes its mouth, flaps its wings. Today is not the nineteenth day.
    There is a decent cluster of people waiting in front of the place, a couple dozen faces you know fairly well from your idle weeks on the Rock. There are a couple of giff loitering about, keeping an eye on the riff-raff.
    Emmett quickly scans the Giff, looking to see if any of the 'guards' from the raid are also present. Not spying any, he calms down a little giving Val a thumbs up. _At least this way we won't get dragged into an alley and beaten,_ he thinks. Emmett is still angry with himself for not coming forward with his revelations. He had tried to meet with members of the Elvish navy, knowing them to be beyond reproach, but he has no connections, no way to see someone in authority. In the end he had dropped it, but it rankled. He suspects that atoning for that failure was one of the reasons he was so set on getting this job, but doesn't let that dim his actual enthusiasm for the thought of flying again.
    Shaking the thoughts out of his head, he looks over the crowd, trying to see if it's a disorderly queue he can cut to the front of or a mass awaiting the sign to enter. The crowd bustles and writhes in a very un-queued way, a dozen sets of eyes staring at the door, answering his question. "Looks like we wait, Val. Guess you could have had that last drink after all..."
    "S'okay, Emmett," Val replies. He is still staring at the fašade of the Clockwork Dragon, taking in the details. At least, that's what he appeared to be doing. Val is also listening in on the conversations of the people waiting to get in. Information is always valuable, no matter how it is obtained.
    He doesn't have to try very hard to overhear neighboring conversations. Given the lack of official word, those waiting are happily passing around their own theories -- that it has some relation to the raid, that it's being sent with the raid as some sort of cover, that it was going to happen anyway and this is just a coincidence.
    Someone suggests that more pirates are sure to descend on Bral. Someone else suggests that it wasn't even a raid, but a convoluted means of getting a secret message to Three Trees or the entire oligarchy, or an assassination attempt on Melkin.
    There are theories that Volant is planning to flee in disgrace, or he's sending his family elsewhere, or he's planning to track the raiders down personally. Melkin is going to be piloting, or he's still having relapses into doggish behavior and is frantically searching for a cure, or he's vanished entirely. Since the mage isn't around, one hopeful sailor feels safe in demonstrating to his fellows the collar's effects.
    Discussion of what ship will go turns to speculation about the unknown deep reaches of Bral; popular wisdom has long held that the oligarchs maintain all sorts of armaments down there in case of prolonged siege, so why not a ship?
    About a half-hour before noon, ibn Fadil wanders down the street toward the crowd. At some point over the past two days, the half-elf has acquired a black eye and a split lip. His pace slows as he angles to pass behind the crowd, and he stares indecisively at it or the tall building behind it.
    "Hey...Isn't that...Ibn Fadil!" Emmett waves for the half elf's attention. When he sees the man's face he gets a concerned look on his own.
    "Whoa. Looks like someone worked you over pretty fierce." Emmett looks surreptitiously over at the Giff, trusting ibn Fadil's sharp eye to catch the message. "Anyone we know?"
    "No, nothing to do with that," ibn Fadil says amiably. "I fell down a ladder." He lets his gaze slip back toward the Dragon. "What do you think of this, Emmett?"
    "I think this is Val and my's ticket off the Rock. And yours if you want to come along." Emmett gives him a concerned look, thinking the half elf might need a way off the rock quickly, regardless of what he said at the Blue Wyvern two nights ago. "They've got to be mounting an expedition against the raiders, and we're shoe ins, having come face to face with them at perilously close quarters."
    Val offers ibn Fadil a smile to back up Emmett's offer. "You sure you're okay?" Val asks the half-elf, showing sincere concern. He'd seen injuries like that from when he was a kid on the streets of Driahn. It looked to him like a ladder may have been involved, but not as something that was fallen off of.... Val reflexively looks about the immediate area to see if ibn Fadil was being followed.
    "Much better than yesterday, thank you," ibn Fadil says. Watching him, they realize that he's moving a bit carefully - he is probably rather stiff and sore around the midriff.
    The coast appears to be clear any of anyone keeping an eye on the half-elf in particular, but one person who is clearly not a sailor stands out on the edge of the crowd; a young human woman. She is neatly-dressed but clearly a servant, and just as clearly a bit nervous of those around her.
    Perhaps justifiably. One of the men in a cluster near her leers broadly and has opened his mouth to deliver some witticism when his comrade steps fiercely on his foot. In the muttered discussion that follows, Val and the others hear the name Victor.
    Finally, as the stroke of noon approaches, a man steps out from the building. Steps lead down from the door, so he's slightly above the rest of the crowd.
    The man is medium height, with grey-salted brown hair, and he carries himself like one accustomed to authority. He is clearly known to most of those in the crowd, since they quiet immediately upon his appearance. He pauses to survey the gathering for a moment, then nods in apparent satisfaction.
    "I'm sure there's a lot of questions. I'm Captain Theo Barthelm, which should answer those of you wondering who's running this junket." Scattered cheers; he's apparently well thought of by at least some of the locals. "We're looking for crew and weapons, a dozen or so, for a six-month there-and-back. Anyone interested in that, sort yourselves into a queue, and the mate and I'll be talking to you."
    With surprising strength and perseverance, Emmett pushes his way to the front of the now-forming queue, dragging along his companions in his wake.
    "I guess that'll be you with the patch first, then -- Emmett, isn't it? C'mon inside." Since Emmett has never spoken to the captain before, it's clear that some asking around was done after events on the docks.
    The interior is subdued and restful in ambience. There aren't any windows on this floor, but expensive oil lamps in wall niches give off a faintly sweet scent. Paintings adorn both sides of the wide, high-ceilinged hallway; pastoral landscapes and mountain vistas for the most part. The place is clearly designed to evoke a sense of being planetside, to divert thought from the truncated landscape outside. Theo leads the way to a small chamber at the back of the inn. There is another man there, whom the captain introduces as First Mate Delmar. He appears ready to act as secretary, sitting at a small desk; Theo remains standing.
    "So tell me, what were you thinking the other day when you decided to storm that ship?"
    Outside, Val notices another giff passing through, the one that was with the captain during the raid and hence escaped reprimand. He pauses to pass some conversation with the two already present, but they're not within hearing distance. The new one glances in their direction.

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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson