Inside the Clockwork Dragon:
"So tell me, what were you thinking the other day when you decided to storm that ship?"
"No task can be completed without the proper tools, sir." Emmett says.
"Sounds like a maxim. Meaning?"
"There were too few raiders coming off the ship for any sort of serious assault. It seemed obvious that they didn't have much of a crew, because why would the crew all be belowdecks when they're about to get shore leave? Bral is generally too well defended for any standard assault to work. That meant that these people had limited numbers - so we were safe going on board - and some tool that they thought would let them get away. Deny them they tool and they couldn't finish the job."
Emmett shrugged, "Turns out the tool was a little bigger than I thought is all."
Theo smiles a bit. "Well spoken. Why not let those defenses do their job, though? They are handsomely paid for it, after all."
"They were handsomely paid by someone, alright." The words are out of Emmettıs mouth before he realizes it.
The other two men in the room are suddenly paying much closer attention. "Explain," Theo says, with more than a touch of command to his tone.
Hearing his words floating in the air, he decides to bite the bolt and make the best of it. "I was front and center in that raid, sir, and I can't see any way that the raiders got back to the ship without having paid off the Giff in advance."
"That masked woman never got off the ship - she just got on." Emmett glances around the room to see how this is going over. "She'd been on Bral long enough to scope out the most likely target, set up the brawl that drew most of the Giff out of the way, and to pass around other money to smooth their way off."
"I could be wrong. There might be another explanation for a half-dozen well trained Giff falling over themselves and not stopping four wounded men." Emmett smiles a very small, hard smile, making it quite clear he doesn't believe that at all, before continuing.
"Why get involved at all?" Emmett shrugs. "I'm a follower of Gond, sir. Gond states that intention is useless unless tied with action. I intend to get on a legitimate ship off Bral. That meant taking action to do so. I had hoped that by stopping the raiders I would ingratiate myself with Three Trees and land a position as a Marine.
"Plus, I'm not much for raiders sir. Had enough problems with them on my homeworld."
"Really. Tell me a bit about your other ships."
In short order Emmett explains his previous tours, focusing on the events that relate to his role as a marine. His natural self confidence shines through, making it look as though Emmett perceives the interview as a mere bureaucratic formality - he already has this job, but is willing to go through the interview just to satisfy all the paperwork. Theo notes this but doesnıt comment, busy with other thoughts at the moment.
"If I can ask, what's the mission for, sir?"
"I can't say much about it at this time, but I can tell you that we're not looking for trouble, but intend to be prepared for it, given what happened the other day."
"I'm perfectly prepared to deal with the trouble we dealt with the other day, sir. I think my actions speak clearly on that front."
Theo grunts and gives a nod that could mean anything. "In light of your accusations, I'm going to ask you to go over what happened during the raid in some detail. Have you mentioned this to anyone else?" he adds.
"Just the two men who helped me try and stop the raid - Valaran and ibn Fadil. Since you knew who *I* was by sight, I assume you researched them as well." Emmett jerks his head to indicate the door, "They're with me, right outside. And I know they've kept their mouths shut as well."
The mate nods, lays down his pen and leaves the room.
"I..." Emmett looks uncharacteristically troubled as he continues, "I'm sorry I didn't come forward with my suspicions sooner, but seeing as it was the Police who had been bribed, I didn't know who to trust. I can handle myself in a fight just fine, but against three or four Giff in an alley? I wouldn't hold much for anyone's chances. I'm just glad I got into a position to safely tell *someone*."
"That you have. Of course, there will have to be some looking into this. Tell me how things unfolded down there. I've heard several accounts, but your perspective was a bit different."
The captain takes notes as Emmett goes over the events of the morning, frequently asking questions about the exact positioning of the various people involved, or probing for more detail on a particular aspect.
Emmett answers as clearly as possible, not complaining with the captain goes back over some details again and again. It's obvious from his professional nature that he's been through this kind of debriefing many times before. It's also obvious that he's already regarding the Captain as his superior officer - since, after all, he already has the job.
* * *
Outside the Clockwork Dragon:
Ibn Fadil, too busy with his own problems to notice the giff, recalls that he promised himself he was not going to do anything to draw more unfavorable attention, and contemplating departure so obviously is definitely breaking that promise. Maybe the Dragon has a job for him; he got on well there last year, and perhaps the cook will overlook his failure to give notice, though the headwaiter probably won't.
"Val," he says, "I'm sure I will see you again, should you return to Bral." Nodding, he starts to move away, toward the near corner of the Dragon.
"Wait," Val says to the half-elf before he disappears into the crowd. "What's wrong? It looks to me that you might want to get off this rock too..." Val trails off meaningfully. He studies ibn Fadil's face for any sign of what happened.
Ibn Fadil pauses to look up at the tall man again; he only shakes his head slightly at Val's effort to draw him out, and his expression becomes guarded.
"Are you in some kind of trouble?" Val pitches his voice low as not to attract too much attention, "If you don't want to talk *right now*, that's fine. But you backed us up the other day. At least give a chance for someone to make it up to you..."
"I'm always in 'some kind of trouble,'" the half-elf says with a self-mocking smile. "But unless you're a rich man in disguise, you can't get me out of it." He glances around, finally noticing the trio of giff, and eyes them for a moment. "And I assure you," he adds, "I see my troubles as entirely my fault."
He looks at the giff again - that's Albon, who's usually glued to Gustan's right elbow ... If the giff can't be trusted, he thinks uneasily, why am I trusting that I'm safe from them? He tries to look past the slowly-forming line of sailors to see if there are any more giff on the other side.
"Listen," Val says to ibn Fadil in a low voice, "I've been in bad situations before myself and I know that help is hard to find... I may not be rich, but I might know a way to get you out." He puts a slight emphasis on the last three words, looking for the half-elfıs reaction. Val was recalling his own harrowing flight from the ports of Driahn.
"Besides, what are you doing *here* if you didnıt want to leave?" Val adds amiably, trying to ease the tension he felt building.
Not seeing any other giff, ibn Fadil tries to think the situation through, and does not really listen to Val. Their reputation has blinded me, he muses, as it has everyone else. They wouldn't hesitate to protect themselves any more than I would, just delay a bit, to throw off suspicion. With one foolish gesture I've made myself visible and dangerous to them. If I leave, just in case, once things cool down I can return - owing Vlad more money in interest than I could possibly earn. I will *never* live this down. But at least I'll be alive to worry about it. Lady Fate, give Your favor to a poor soul who treads Your ways ...
Something of these thoughts shows in his face, finally resolving into a trapped expression. "Thinking that I had a choice," he answers Val's remark quietly. "Maybe in six months the other day will be far enough in the past ..." He glances at the giff yet again, then turns toward the Dragon's expensive front door.
"There's always a choice," Val says with a grin, content in thinking he has convinced ibn Fadil to try to leave this place. "The trick is making the wrong ones *look* right," he continues, attempting to cheer his dispirited companion. Six months? Val tried to remember how long ago he had fled his own home.
Still uneasy about the giff hanging around, Val remains alert. If more approach, or if the ones present head towards ibn Fadil, he resolved to see the half-elf away safely. He is still convinced the giff might have had something to do with ibn Fadil's ladder incident....
The door above the steps opens again; this time a different man steps out. He scans the crowd for a moment, eyes the giff across the street before glancing at Val and ibn Fadil. "You two -- Captain wants to see you."
Ibn Fadil hesitates for a fraction of a moment, feeling exactly as if he is about throw himself off a cliff and trust the goddess to catch him. Then he starts for the stairs, exhibiting only a slightly wary curiosity.
The two are ushered into the back of the inn, where they wait for a few minutes in silence before the door is opened by Theo himself. Beyond lies a small room; Emmett is there.
"Ah, good. Go on upstairs and keep an eye on things outside, why don't you." When the mate has left, Theo clears his throat. "All right, you two. We'll get to your qualifications in a minute, assuming you're looking for a berth and not just passing by -- I've heard what Emmett has to say about the other day, now I'd like your stories. You first, ibn Fadil." He leans against a wall where he can watch all three of them, eyes mainly on the half-elf, of whom he seems a bit skeptical.
"I got involved because I was angry, Captain," ibn Fadil says simply. "I suppose I've been living here too long. When I saw this raid going on, I responded as if Bral were my home." He seems a little embarrassed, whether by the idea of considering Bral his home or by his unanticipated attachment to the place, it's hard to say.
"As to what I hoped to accomplish ..." He shrugs. "I cannot claim I was thinking clearly. If I was thinking at all," he adds wryly. "It seemed that it might be possible for the three of us to distract or disable the one pirate, and thus help the giff capture him. The ship coming apart, another ship being inside - I never dreamed of such a thing. It all happened very quickly."
"And the giff?" Theo inquires.
The half-elf glances at Emmett, his expression growing troubled. "Were no help. I confess the thought of treachery did not cross my mind until Emmett suggested it. Then, of course, it was clear at once how it fit what I had seen happen. I do not know if I would have thought of this on my own. All I have heard suggests the giff have always been reliable. But then, who better to suborn than one who is greatly trusted?
"And sir, I would prefer to think we are wrong. In my time here I have seen that Bral is not so different from my home, with powerful houses balanced against one another - the whole supported by an understanding here, an agreement there, and by other elements like the giff. It is a house of cards, if I may say so. And if the giff cannot be trusted - the balance of it all shifts. There is conflict, trouble, perhaps even bloodshed." He pauses to gauge Theo's reaction and see if he has been understood.
"And also, sir, if we are correct then the three of us may be in danger, should the giff think we have detected their perfidy. The more I have thought about it - well, I'm here. I would only toy with the idea of leaving, otherwise."
Theo listens to this in silence, his slightly raised eyebrows indicative of his surprise; this is not the ibn Fadil he is used to seeing. Before he can say anything, there is a tap at the door.
The mate has returned. With a nod to the captain he says, "Lit out, sir, soon as the door closed behind us. Doesn't look good. T'other two are still there.²
"Damnation.² Theo sighs heavily. "And I suppose you're going to tell me the same story?² he asks Val.
"Afraid so, sir."
Silence falls while the captain spends a few moments in thought. "All right. Can't say I like any of this, but here's what we'll do. We've got your reports; it'll be up to the Council to do anything about it. We can't delay this trip, and you lot are better off out of sight for a time. I've been known to gamble once or twice in my day, and I'll stake a throw that you're not playing games and take you on for the trip, solve two problems that way.
"Now, I still have a crew to fill out. You probably need to fetch your kits, so do that on the double, and stick together. Delmar, you can go with them." The short, burly man nods. "Go to the ship when you're ready. We'll set sail just as soon as we can."
Leaving the Dragon, it feels as if all the eyes on Bral are watching the four, but no observers are posted at the back door - yet. Delmar proves himself to be a Rock native; he takes them by ways even ibn Fadil hadn't known about, complicating their path beyond all possibility of being followed. It doesn't take long to gather the new crew members' few belongings.
Back at the inn, interviews move at something of a breakneck pace, winnowing the crowd of applicants down into something resembling a crew. The drunks, the lazy, and those who seem over-inclined to dicker about the pay scale are quickly sent on their way. Messages arrive and are sent. A subtle tension seems to spread over the whole of Bral -- but nothing happens to break it.
At last, it's done. Theo scratches his mustache, rubs a hand cramped from all that unaccustomed note-taking, and prepares to report to his employer; no doubt he'll be most interested in much of what has happened this day.
At a soft knock on the door he glances that way, surprised. "Enter." A tall shadow precedes its caster into the room, and he finds himself tensing. "What do you want?"
* * *
"Good morning, Master Zeremin." A man of fifty-odd years bows politely. "My name is Cairbre Weston, and I am in the employ of the Three Trees company. I apologize if I am interrupting, but might I have a moment of your time?"
"Good morning, sir. How may I help you?" Alais politely invites him into the somewhat dingy room; since there is only one chair, he offers that to his visitor and sits on the bed, waiting to hear what the visit is about.
"Thank you. I will not take you long from your studies -- you have perhaps heard that we are hiring crew for a ship. We are also looking for a pilot. Naturally, your name was mentioned." He tilts his head slightly in an inquiring fashion, waiting to see how the idea is received.
"And what would the purpose of this voyage be?"
"A relatively brief trip, transporting a small amount of cargo to our central office."
Hmmmm, Alais thinks. Are they trying to quiet me about something? "What kind of ship, and what cargo?"
"A tradesman, of a type I believe you have prior experience with. Not terribly large. We are looking for crew at this very moment." He pauses, weighing his words. "It is important that we get word to them of what has happened here."
"So is there a cargo or are we just carrying the information?"
The man seems a bit surprised by his persistence. "Since the ship is going, we are taking the opportunity to send some records to the office, as well as selected items that we have been accumulating here since the last ship. Nothing out of the ordinary, I assure you -- some rare wines, fabrics, that sort of thing."
"I am intrigued. I shall sign on," Alais declares. Weston smiles, relieved.
* * *
Much to their surprise, when they have finished their errand Delmar does not turn their path toward the docks, but rather back in the direction of the Clockwork Dragon. He brings them in a looping course that eventually deposits them back on the main avenue -- are they going to walk right in the front door again?
No. Instead they stop at the gate to the Oligarchal Enclave, where Delmar gives a password to the guard. He threads his way with perfect confidence through the gardens and around several buildings. Their path tends upward; they are nearing the end of the Rock.
There, somewhat to their surprise, are several ships, all of them on the small side and more ornate than the vessels they are used to. Their destination is a tradesman, modified to land on a solid surface and carrying heavier weaponry than is standard for its type. There are smaller variations as well; the ship is an aesthetic joy, every detail pleasing to the eye. Taking in the sight, they realize that they are looking at Sidney Volant's personal ship, and remember Emmett's speculation -- was it only that morning? -- that Three Trees has lost something of value. If he's putting his own ship at risk -- not to mention himself, with no way of leaving Bral should further trouble appear -- it must be valuable indeed.
"Welcome aboard the _Lazy Cat_, men."
* * *
"Sorry to interrupt you at dinner sir, madam," he gives a shallow bow of apology, "but some surprising information came out of this afternoon and I thought you should know about it at once."
"You could have sent a messenger," Volant points out, a bit irritated. Just as he was finally getting his appetite back after other day.
"I judged it too sensitive for that, sir."
"Very well, hand it over," he sighs.
"Don't mind Sidney, my dear captain," Constance tells him as he hands over a rather thick sheaf of papers. "Do please join us, I insist."
Wisely, he does not argue, merely bows again, this time in acceptance, as a pair of servants prepare another place at the table with almost blinding speed.
"This is--this is infamous!" Sidney sputters, turning pages rapidly. "Can there be any substance to these wild accusations?"
"I'm of a mind to believe them. You would know best how to handle it, of course. Nothing's happened so far; I'd say they've decided to hold their cards and bluff."
"That won't last long once Melkin gets hold of them," Volant predicts grimly. "He has not taken this incident lightly. It's not easy to use magic on them, but I'm sure he'll find a way. What actions have you taken so far?"
Theo explains the stepped-up timetable. "With your permission, we'll leave tonight."
"Granted. You know what we're risking with every delay. Anything else?" He is thinking of how he can turn this to his advantage. That insufferable elf might finally be of some use.
"Couple of small wrinkles. One wants to go as a passenger."
"A passenger?" He sounds astonished. "Who?"
"Girl called Lenore, one of Madame Victor's servants. Going home to her family, she says." He shrugs. "Mistress is willing to pay her way, she's aware that it's not the safest way to travel."
"Use your discretion. Anything else?"
"Just one thing... kind of startled me, it did...."
* * *
As Bral's day gives way to the almost instant nightfall of the asteroid, the remainder of the crew gathers, ready to depart and curious about the short notice, all of them startled by the ship they are to work on. The interior is just as beautifully appointed; whatever this journey entails, they will travel in more comfort than is common for their trade. The ship is clearly provisioned for a journey of several months.
Few of them have worked together prior to this voyage, so introductions are quickly made. The captain and first mate they know already. To share spelljamming duties are Alais and Pham; there is scattered cheering from those who witnessed or heard about the response to the pirate incursion; Alais' stock has gone up quite a bit among Bralians, and at least at the moment they seem well-disposed toward the quiet young cleric.
Seasoned spacefarers include the second mate, Nolan, Emmett -- who earns some curious and some dubious glances from the others -- Valarin, an elf named Nahele who is also the ship's new cook, and three more humans, Hamal, Ulf, and Laszlo. There are an additional double-handful with less experience, their number including ibn Fadil and a man who introduces himself as Hiro and says nothing more. Many are clearly curious about the half-elf's presence on the ship, though there is no time for questions just now. Some of them, particularly Hiro and Nahele's sister Nyala, have an air about them that is not that of a sailor, but rather one that suggests they are part of what Theo had called being ready for trouble.
There is also their passenger, a slender young woman in servant's dress who wears a veiled hat keeps her eyes downcast behind it. Her luggage consists of two small bags, which Delmar carries to a cabin himself -- a silent signal to the rest of the crew that he expects them to behave themselves. This is a Three Trees ship they're crewing, not some wild-haired independent trader that doesn't know how to treat a lady (or a lady's maid, at any rate).
Speaking of trouble, as they prepare for departure Delmar can be seen in a brief huddle with Theo, both of them looking concerned. They are interrupted by the sound of heavy approaching footsteps as a giff bounds up the ramp. Ibn Fadil, despite his shock, recognizes Yestin -- he's young, and short for one of his kind, and he looks very much as if he has just been in a fight.
"Permission to board sir!" He snaps off a parade-ground salute, ignoring the fact that his snout is bleeding.
"Granted," Theo says calmly. "That's the last, then -- stations, all! Prepare for takeoff."
As the more experienced helmsman, Alais handles the takeoff, more than a little excited, and the _Cat_ lifts off from the Rock of Bral. For a while there is seeming pandemonium as orders are given and carried out. Satisfied that things are running as they ought to, Theo joins Alais on the bridge to determine their heading -- the constant, apparently random movement of the sphere's stars means that reckonings must depend on knowing Bral's position relative to more stable bodies, and there are calculations to be made.
When that has been done, Delmar calls the rest of the crew to assemble on deck so the captain can say a few words.
"Now that we're off, there are some things I can talk about that we were keeping a bit quiet before," he begins. "First of all, where we're going, which is the Three Trees headquarters on Janik. You all know that the raid the other day was very specifically targeted at our company, and as you may have guessed the pirates made off with some objects of considerable value, some of which can be dangerous in the wrong hands. No one knows where the pirates are, if they made it through that storm, or whether they might try to stop us getting the word out if they did. Even if they don't, you never know what you'll run into in the Flow, so we're going to do our best to be ready for anything. That's all."
| Top |
© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson