As the _Lazy Cat_ picks up speed moving away from Haven, the new crew gets about their business and begins the settling-in process.
After being dismissed, Val seeks out Emmett. In all the hurry, he'd never gotten the chance to thank his friend.
"So, we made it off the Rock," Val says cheerfully. "I'm not sure what you told them about me that got me hired so quickly, but I owe you one." He claps Emmett on the shoulder and is instantly reminded that the half-man is more than he seems.
"That we did, Valarin, that we did. And all I did was tell them the truth - you follow suggestions given by people you just met in a bar and you climb masts faster than a monkey with his tail on fire." Emmett laughs, then continues, "Seriously though, I think was got us hired was my letting slip about our suspicions. They perked up at that, then dragged you two in right quick."
"So what do you think is going on with the giff?" Val lowers his tone for Emmett's ear only. "You think ibn Fadil's safe?" He looks around to see if anyone else is watching or listening.
"At a guess, I'd say that giff is one directly in the employ of Three Trees, and that they pulled us onto this ship to keep us and our suspicions out of harm's way while they figure things out on Bral. Odds are we're stuck on this one for the round trip, so we'll be there to chat with the oligarchs when we get back." Emmett shrugged. "That's how it looked to me, anyway.
"I think ibn Fadil probably left his troubles behind on Bral. He would've warned us if that beating had come from the Giff, so it's probably something unrelated. Maybe he owes someone money." He turns and faces Val head on, dropping his voice even lower. "Think it through, Val. Ibn Fadil has something of a rep as a gambler and debtor. If the Giff had got a hold of him and wanted him silent, he'd be found as a bloody stain in an alley. Why would they beat him? It would just reinforce my theory, which has no real proof, if they did that. Dead though, he'd be another idiot who owed too much to a loan shark."
Emmett raises his voice to normal tones again. "Damn fine ship. And some of the scenery... The lady's maid is off limits from the looks of it, so which do you want a shot at, the cook's sister or the blond in the ropes?"
"Trying to get me thrown overboard already?" Val asks dubiously. "I thought I saw that maid on Bral, outside the Clockwork Dragon, by the way. Any idea who she is or why she's here?"
"Haven't a clue. And if you're looking to get thrown overboard, making moves on her looks like a good start. Stick to the fish in our own pond, Val. Speaking of which, I guess that means I've got first shot on the cook's sister. Have fun with the ropes."
"Where are you stationed?" Val asks, changing the subject. "Or are you just here to keep us swabs in line?"
"Doing my walk around. I'm security so I have to get used to the ship. Normally, I'll be keeping an eye on the starboard ballista." Unlike most tradesmen, the _Cat_ has two, and a heavier catapult than most of her type. "Speaking of which...I'll catch you later."
Continuing his walk around to get used to the ship's defensive points, Emmett approaches the spelljamming helm. _Plenty of time for that when things are a little less crowded,_ he thinks. As he's beginning to skirt the area, he notes the presence of the other pilot, Luc Pham.
"Hello!" he says, with a smile and a hand extended. _Never hurts to make a good impression,_ he thinks before adding, "Lovely day to start a trip. I'm Emmett, ship's marine."
Pham looks over towards Emmett and smiles in recognition. "Emmett - yes, I remember you from the docks. I'm glad to know you got out of that ship unharmed. A pleasure to meet you face to face at last."
Emmett laughed. "You saw that too, eh? Yeah, I got off the ship fine - it was the hangover the next morning that was the killer. Still, it's a price I'm willing to pay, since it got me on this trip, which proved to be interesting." The half man's mind wanders for a minute back to the cook's sister, but he's snapped back to reality when Pham speaks.
"Yes, this should be a good trip. It's been a while since I sat at a helm - it'll be good to get back among the spheres."
"I'm with you there. It's not *real* flying, but it's close enough till something better comes along. Bral's attractions tend to pale quickly, and it's best to keep moving, learn what you can, spread the word."
Pham gestures over towards Alais and the captain. "I was staying here in case I was needed, but Alais will most likely be at the help for several hours yet - let's go find a more comfortable place to talk. You must have many interesting tales to tell."
"I can't rest just yet - I'm doing my traditional security walk-over, getting to the know the terrain I have to defend. But if you'll walk with me?" Emmett gestures with his hook, motioning the cleric to follow him towards the catapult.
"Also, do you know if any other of the people who went with you onto the Fair Enough Lass are also on board? That one event seems to have been a recruiting bonanza for Three Trees." Pham smiles, genuinely happy to meet this unusual person.
"'Recruiting bonanza?'" Emmett chuckles. "I'm not sure they'd put it that way, but yeah, it did work out for them. Both of the others who followed me onto the _Lass_ are now proud crewmembers of the _Lazy Cat_ in the service of Three Trees. Which is a good thing for two of us at least, though ibn Fadil - the half elf over there - doesn't seem too thrilled with the idea."
Pham chuckles. "Well, at least Three Trees knows they're getting some brave marines out of the deal. As for ibn Fadil - well, to each his own mood, I guess. Maybe the food doesn't agree with him?"
Emmett shrugged, unwilling to speculate on all of ibn Fadil's motivations or to elucidate the circumstances that have forced the half-elf on board.
"So, where are you from before the Rock?" he asks conversationally as he inspects the small ship weapon's gears and workings, making sure everything is ready to go. It's in damn good shape, but he knows on a ship there's a constant need for repair, tightening and modification.
"They tell me my home planet was called Oerth. I never knew that myself of course - growing up in a small fishing village tends to limit one's viewpoint a bit. I received Hextor's call when I was a young man, and when my mentor found me, I wandered the land with him, carrying the tales with me. One misunderstanding landed me on a spelljammer, and here I am."
"Hextor, eh?" Emmett's face gets a very quick, almost invisible furrow of concern - the Liturgy of Gond does not speak highly of Hextor. Two passing crew members may have heard the same, for they pause, then abruptly alter their path to avoid the two. "No offense, but you don't look the Hextor sort. What don't I know?"
Pham sighs. At least Emmett didn't attack on sight. _You would think I would have learned by now to keep a little quieter,_ he thinks to himself.
"Many of Hextor's worshippers are truly reprehensible, it is true. But consider a simple cookfire. From a distance, it is a provider of light, warmth, and hope. And yet up close it is a devouring menace, destroying everything it touches. If such a mundane thing can be so different, depending on point of view, can you not thing something as profound as a god would not be at least as complex?"
Emmett nods thoughtfully before reciting "'Any tool is a weapon if held properly.' I think I understand."
"The aspect of Hextor I follow is that of the Herald. We are not a proselytizing order - instead, we each receive a call. We travel, carrying news and tales, trying to bring peoples together. Trust me, I have no plans to raise an evil horde and take over the ship. I have been the target of such hordes on occasion, though.
"So, what of yourself? You've obviously got some tales to tell."
"True, but they're tales best told while getting drunk. of course, I tell them a lot when I get drunk, so I'm sure you'll hear them. In short, I used to be a griffin rider, signed up on a spelljammer after..." he stops, waves his hook, and continues, "and have been doing marine duty on ships ever since. After my headlong charge onto the _Fair Enough Lass_ Three Trees was pretty much honor bound to take us on, which was what I was hoping for.
"Never been the target of evil hordes. I have fought greys and hegemonists, which counts for something." Seeing the confused look on Pham's face, Emmett smiles. "I'll tell you later. Should be another good story for you to pass around."
He looks back up towards the spelljamming helm for a second, then returns his attention to Pham. "So you gather news and tales, huh? Ever hear of the 'Hurgan Brotherhood of the Urcan civilization?'"
"Hurgan Brotherhood? No, I have to say that's a new one on me. What do you know?"
"Nothing. That's why I'm asking. Alais brought them up the night of the raid - he thinks the tattooed pirate is connected to them somehow, but he could just be yanking my chain. Or full of it." Emmett grinned. "From what I hear, with Zeremin it's awfully hard to tell the difference."
* * *
Val heads back to his station at the starboard ventral fin after talking to Emmett a bit. He'd served briefly on a Tradesman once and knows the workings of the vessel's stabilizers. The gears and pulleys are easy enough to work, but differ greatly from the lines and rigging of a common seagoing ship. Val notes the fine craftsmanship and fine detail of even the ship's workings; it seems his new employers have spared no expense....
Val nods to the man he is stationed with, though he didn't catch the name in the brief introductions. Running his fingers through his hair, he decides to take this opportunity to reintroduce himself and get to know his fellow crewman.
"Valarin," he says to the other, offering his hand and presenting his best smile.
"Ulf," the other responds with a quick, firm handshake. He's a short, dense-looking man with liberally grey-salted brown hair and craggy features. "Crewed on one of these before, eh?"
"You could say that," Val replies amiably. "Had a chance to serve aboard the _Carabella_ for a while, a tradesman like this." Val looks around at the well-appointed interior, "Of course, I don't think 'Bella was quite this nice."
After some story swapping has served for mutual confirmation of status, "So tell me," Val begins in an unassuming fashion, "What do you know about our good captain?" He looks for any reactions from Ulf before continuing, "I hadn't been on Bral long, and I haven't heard much about him." He hastens to add, "He seems like a good sort."
Ulf shrugs. "Not from these parts myself, but they say the company's solid. He's logged plenty of time in the Flow, I know that much. Word has it he retired ten years back, they called him out for this trip."
Val is satisfied with Ulf's answer about the captain, but is intrigued that Theo came out of retirement for this journey. There was certainly more to things than met the eye...
Given the opportunity, Val makes it a point to get acquainted with any of the crew he comes across that he hasn't met yet. He may come off a bit forward at first, but his intention of getting to know his crewmates is genuine. It's also a little more than an interest in self-preservation; better to know now who to steer clear of before trouble starts. Val takes comfort in knowing Emmett is acting as security for the trip, and he's met Alais. He also makes sure he knows where ibn Fadil is, regardless of what Emmett thought of the young giff on board.
Satisfied that he knows which of the crew know their business, which don't, and which might be troublemakers, eventually Val seeks out the man named "Hero" when the watch changes. It is amusing to him that someone would actually name their child that. He has to meet this person, just to see what he's like.
* * *
Ibn Fadil goes about his assigned tasks willingly, but without energy; he looks uncharacteristically withdrawn - almost forbidding - and as the work winds down he avoids anyone who looks like they might ask him questions. After the Captain's speech, he seeks out an out-of-the-way spot and sits down with his back against the wall, resting his head on his folded arms, shutting out the world. Very quietly, he sings to himself in Elvish, something his father called "a song to calm the troubled spirit." Nyala passes within hearing distance and gives him a sidelong look from luminous eyes -- even for an elf, her looks are striking -- but says nothing.
Within an hour or so, however, his spirits seem to have revived a little; he gets up again and starts wandering around the ship to see what's doing. To casual questions about his presence, he simply says, "It was time to leave."
The third time this happens, though, he turns to Hiro (who happens to be nearby) and says mournfully, "You see how it is - no one believes I'm a warrior."
Pulling the hood on his robe back to get a better view of ibn Fadil, he in turn also reveals much of his own features. His smooth cranium and unique crimson tear-shaped scar under his right eye are the first thing the Zakharan hal-elf notices. Hiro's facial features are wide and delicate at the same time.
Ibn Fadil looks up at him with open curiosity; he himself is a small man who carries a sword (positioned to be drawn with the left hand), but there is no aggression in his stance, he wears no armor, and his clothing is only one short remove from being shabby.
The Kensai of Kara-Tur gazes ibn Fadil up and down studiously before replying, "Many are misled by appearances. That is their own folly. Do you believe you are a warrior?"
Taken aback by this serious response, ibn Fadil stops to think before he speaks. "Once I thought I was," he says at last, soberly.
"Water takes the shape of its container. People change to adapt to their friends and surroundings. Perhaps in your new life aboard this ship you will be a warrior once more."
The half-elf looks baffled for a moment; he hasn't heard talk like this for years. Then he shrugs, wordlessly rejecting the possibility. "As long as I don't become a sailor. No offense," he adds cheerfully to any nearby sailors.
"None taken," says the lanky young man approaching the two. Val nods at ibn Fadil, relieved his friend appears cheerful. The young looking man stands a little taller than the average human, but would not stand out terribly in a crowd. His straight, shoulder length brown hair is currently pulled back into a rough tail at his neck, making him look more like the other sailors on deck. His sharp eyes take in the stranger with ibn Fadil, but the smile on his face is warm and genuine.
"So, you're the hero, huh?" Val asks the robed man, totally unabashed. He runs his fingers through the loose bangs that frame his thin face when he does not elicit a response from Hiro.
"I'm Valarin," he begins again, offering his hand to the swordsman. "I see you've met ibn Fadil. Or do you two know each other from Bral?"
"No," ibn Fadil says, "we have just met." With more than a trace of mischief, he adds, "He seems to be something of a philosopher - I'm sure you will find him interesting to talk with." And with a very polite nod to Hiro he makes his escape, resolved to avoid talking with this unsettling man again.
"Wonder what's eating him," Val comments to the Kensai. He has the sinking suspicion that ibn Fadil doesn't care for his company much. Perhaps Val was too forward about leaving Bral? He'd have to think on it.
"Philosopher, eh?" he addresses Hiro. "I'm not much for that. Too busy learning other things..." Val studies the quiet man before him.
* * *
In his later exploration of the ship, ibn Fadil turns a corner and stops to avoid walking into Yestin. Giff and half-elf stare at each other for a moment; then ibn Fadil, glad to see no one else is nearby, says with perfect friendliness, "It is quite a surprise to see you here, Mister Yestin."
The other merely nods in response and makes great haste to be on his way.
Ibn Fadil does not obstruct him, having no desire to argue with a giff (even a relatively small one). His next stop is the galley - last night's small meal, another gift of Mistress Herry, is long in the past now. And, he thinks, he's worked in kitchens before; perhaps if he offers to help he can get that job. It may depend, he knows, on how this elf Nahele feels about part-bloods ... Putting on his best hungry-but-not-quite-begging face, he looks in through the galley door.
Nahele is moving about with great energy in the confined space, cataloguing what he will have to work with during their journey. "Not a drop to be seen ah there it is now if only I can figure out where the keep the oh I see good thing I brought some things with me yes what do you want?"
Apologetically, but without embarrassment, ibn Fadil says, "A late dinner - and breakfast and lunch, really."
Nahele finally stops his rummaging and actually looks at his visitor.
"I've worked in kitchens before," he adds.
A sharply cocked brow seems to indicate skepticism. "Really. And which kitchens would those be?"
A little encouraged, ibn Fadil comes the rest of the way into the galley. "The Blue Wyvern, Llorio's - that was before the fire - the Clockwork Dragon, the Red Dog, the Rose & Thorn. I am not claiming to be a cook," he explains with a shrug, "but I know my way around a bit."
"Hm." The elf looks him up and down for a moment. "Come with me and take a look at the stores in the hold." On their way, he peppers ibn Fadil with questions regarding his previous duties, and others designed to measure his knowledge of food. Satisfied that his would-be assistant can at least identify most basic ingredients (although not some of the more exotic items the cook brought with him) if called upon to fetch them, and that he is neither clumsy nor unintelligent, Nahele gives a slight shrug as they return to the small galley.
"I'll give you a try for a few days." As earnest, ibn Fadil receives a small - but better than nothing - share of fresh fruit. "See you for the morning watch."
Well-satisfied with this arrangement, though still hungry, ibn Fadil finally takes himself off to his bunk. In the morning, he reflects, he should be feeling mostly well; he has a credible reason for staying out of the way; and (with Hiro's remark in mind) working in the galley will put him in no danger of becoming a warrior again. The dilemma of whether he can or should return to Bral he puts firmly out of his mind, so he can regard the immediate future almost with pleasure.
* * *
Meanwhile, back on Bral....
"Gone?" she says. "Do you mean he has absconded?"
"I mean he is missing," he answers carefully. "He was last seen going into the Clockwork Dragon, but he could be dead for all I know."
He lifts a much-folded sheet of paper. "His report. Have you read it?"
"Not yet." She takes it, and reads with concentration. "The giff? But if the giff cannot be trusted ..."
He shrugs. "I was thinking, if the giff suspect he suspects them, they might have caused his disappearance."
She returns from her thoughts with a shrug of her own. "Perhaps they'll send someone more suitable at last," she notes. "Find a ship that can take a message; I will write it out now."
As the door closes behind her, he leans back in his seat and studies the ceiling. "Have you ever read the information your predecessor left for you? No?" He sighs. "Well, I know that you like to reach your own conclusions. And, perhaps they will send someone less arrogant, at last."
* * *
When he has finished his shift at the helm, Alais hands the ship over to Brother Pham and sets about exploring the ship and meeting the rest of the crew. The _Cat_ has more living space than most of her type, having sacrificed a fair bit of her cargo capacity for comfort. They do indeed have cargo, he discovers; there are crates and casks and parcels wrapped in protective padding lashed down in the holds, whatever could be gathered in the short time before their departure.
It looks as though he and Pham will be sharing a decent-sized room -- for a ship, at any rate.Truth, it's not all that much smaller than many quarters on crowded Bral, and reasonably private, since one or other will have to be at the helm unless the captain calls a stop.
He talks to those of the crew who are willing to listen, cheerfully declaiming about the cosmos and everything within it; many of them are impressed, and many others aren't quite sure what to make of him.
* * *
Thus the journey out from Bral begins. Space in this sphere was long ago pacified between the efforts of the Navy and the oligarchy's mercenaries, and the watches pass quietly as the drifting stars draw slowly nearer.
The crew does and says nothing overt, but it is quite clear that some of them avoid Brother Pham; others seem indifferent. Thrice in the weeks that follow their departure he finds himself dreaming of fire, as if haunted by his own metaphor from the talk with Emmett. This is a devouring fire sweeping across dry lands, such as he has heard tell of but never seen with his own eyes. Birds, beasts, even insects flee in its path or are consumed.
More than once ibn Fadil is cajoled by others of the crew to stake his as-yet-unearned wages for the journey in some game of chance, but he refuses them politely. Instead he quickly settles into his new role as Nahele's assistant, pot-scrubber and general errand-runner, but while the elf talks almost constantly it's usually about food -- questions about his own history elicit nothing of substance, and he seems uninterested in people. He does reveal that he is hoping for a permanent position with the company at their headquarters. Janik is a livable moon orbiting a world that is largely forest, from which Tree Trees builds its ships, and there is a large elven population there. The cook's skills are impressive enough for ibn Fadil to think he has a chance at his goal, and the crew is well fed for the time being; once they are in the Flow and without the use of fire, the challenge will be far greater. Nyala comes by once in a while, but proves as enigmatic as her brother is garrulous; she seldom speaks, but spends her time slowly walking every inch of the ship as if patrolling for some unseen threat.
Emmett and Alais both gain an appreciative audience, mostly in the younger, less-experienced members of the crew; others are more skeptical of the things both have to say. Yestin in particular always seems to be present when the half-man has a story to tell, but avoids any attempt to catch him in private conversation, nor does anyone hear gossip from others to explain his presence on the ship.
No one seems entirely sure what to make of Hiro -- his silence, his scar, the way he spends several hours each day in practice with his sword, which in his hand is a living, dancing being -- and for the most part they leave him to himself. He is not entirely without audience of his own, however. When they are a week out from Bral, the girl Lenore finally emerges from the cabin in which she has spent virtually all of her time, at least to the extent of a daily walk around the decks, although she remains veiled and does not speak. She often passes by while he is practicing, and often when she does so she pauses for a few moments, and seems to be looking at the stars.
Valarin's affable nature and clear competence make him popular among the crew. He is on deck late in one daywatch, attending to his station and keeping half an eye on Lenore's progress in her daily walk. She dresses very modestly, appropriate for her station, but the occasional glimpse of an ankle suggests they're quite nice.
As she is nearing, his counterpart to port -- Seton, one of the green crew -- overadjusts his fin, and the ship lurches. It's a slight movement, but the jolt from the usual smooth travel is enough to rob their passenger of some of her balance; Val unthinkingly offers his arm as she stumbles.
"Thank you," she says softly, adjusting her hat and veil, which have also been knocked a bit askew. Val nods politely and watches her walk away, but he has something else on his mind now. In the moment of her stumble he had glimpsed her face, and it was not that of the girl he had seen on Bral.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson