Val and Hiro finish their conversation:
Feeling the pregnant pause in the air about Val, Hiro responds politely to the query while shaking his head. "Your friend speaks too highly of me. I am no true philosopher.†All that I know, I have learned at one end or another of a sword." He gestures Val to sit.
"And you, Valarin, what are these Ćother things' to which you have dedicated yourself?" Hiro asks as Valarin's eyes can be seen to follow one of the female crew-mates.
"Oh, a little of this, a little of that," Val replies vaguely, only half listening at this point. Sitting down, he heaves a sigh as the crewmember of his attention turns the corner around the foc's'le.†
"Sorry," he says, offering a wide grin. "Other things," he repeats significantly, nodding in the direction of his distraction. "So they tell me you're a hero," Val begins again. "Is that really your name, or an advertisement?" he asks in jest.
He responds simply, "Hi-ro, not hir-o. At one time, perhaps in one shining moment I may have been a hero but that chance eluded me many years hence."††
"Ah," Val notes the distinction with amusement. "Probably for the best, really," he continues. "Heroes tend to attract trouble. I'm personally all for staying *out* of trouble." Val smiles.†
Val spends some time talking with Hiro, asking about where he was from, what it was like. He'll be glad to share a bit about Driahn and a few of the places he's seen. Val likes this man of few words. There's a certain serenity about him that is almost comforting, and oddly familiar.†
During the next few weeks, Val will take notice of Hiro's sword practice. Truly impressive compared to his own meager skill. Something to keep in mind in case there is need of a hero....
* * *
Emmett and Hiro
"One of the oddities of shipboard life is that I can honestly consider this spacious." Emmett says, dropping his backpack and saddlebags to the floor in one of the two compartments made by the one foot partition dividing the narrow wall. The two cots -- just canvas tied to frames and hinged it to the wall - are both folded up, making it possible for both men to be standing with a modicum of comfort in the small room.
"Nyala and Yestin got the bigger room, for both chivalry and logic." Emmett takes a minute to picture trying to maneuver around the young Giff in this space, or of the Giff making use of the hanging cots, before shaking his head with a snicker. "I guess that means we're stuck with each other."
"Name's Emmett." he said, holding out a hand. "Which bunk do you want?"
"Hai. I am Hiro." He says slightly bowing his head and then shaking Emmett's hand. Unstrapping a roll from the top of his pack, Hiro says simply, "Neither. I have grown accustomed on my travels to preparing my own bedding." He snaps his roll quickly and deftly places it on the floor.
Emmett shrugs. "I guess that means I'll take the top. Just make sure it's under my bunk. I'd hate to jump down during the night and pin you to the floor with this." Emmett taps his peg to the floor once or twice to get the point across.
"I take it you've done ship's marine duty before? You know your way around the catapult or ballistae?"
"I know my blade. Often that has proven enough. My task on these ships tends to be one of repelling inevitable boarding parties."
It only takes a few minutes for Emmett to figure out that his roommate is a man of few words, which gives him ample opportunity to talk. So he does, starting with stories of pervious ships, other fights and the perils of traveling with Gnomes. Hiro quickly gets the feeling that Emmett could talk for days without serious fatigue.
"...they were nice enough, but after the fourth time I found my quarters modified because they needed something in there, or moved the wall to make more room for something next door, or to make the bed more 'useful' by shortening it a foot and a half and putting a spring loaded lever to fold it in half against the wall, I started to lose my patience."
"Patience is like water in a drought."
"That's quite the sword you have there. Mind if I take a look at it?"
"In due time."
* * *
Alais is starting to wonder about their passenger. Could it be that Lenore is veiled because she is
indeed covered with tattoos of the Hurgan Brotherhood? This must be investigated.
On the monoliths the brotherhood left behind were several cryptic words and phrases written in She, an ancient tongue. Alais engages some of the other crewmembers in a conversation that will be within earshot of Lenore's daily passage, and mentions these words loudly to see what reaction they might engender, but there is none that he can see from the woman. His audience, at that moment consisting of Maddox and the cheerful blonde Inez, are fascinated by his tales of the mysterious Brotherhood, and want to know more.
* * *
Pham and ibn Fadil
Pham makes his way to the mess hall after his late shift ends. For some reason, his evening meal wasn't delivered. Pham tries hard not to blame the misunderstanding crewmen. "Is it too much to ask that the pilot get a bowl of rice once in a while?" Pham opens the door -- it's late, so the mess is mostly empty. Correction -- the two crewmen in here quickly give Pham an uneasy glance and leave.
Pham looks around, and goes up to the kitchen. "Hello?" Pham spies a slim figure in the kitchen cleaning up. "Is there anything left over?"
"Left over?" ibn Fadil says, pleased to be seeing this mysterious priest at last. "Oh, no, Brother Luc Pham - the _Lazy Cat_ would never serve a pilot leftovers!" With a show of imperiousness, he waves Pham away from the door. "Please, sit down, I will bring you something."
In fact, though, the meal he rapidly assembles is pretty much what everyone else got. The flourish with which he delivers the plate, bowl, and whatnot is certainly an improvement over the usual service, however; ibn Fadil has forgotten nothing that he has learned from working in expensive restaurants.
"Ah, ibn Fadil. A pleasure to meet you face to face. I remember seeing you at the docks. Emmett had mentioned you were aboard."
"I am indeed," the half-elf replies with slightly forced cheer, taking this as an invitation to join Pham at the table. "I have been curious about you," he says. "The things the crew says about this Hextor do not accord with what I have seen of you, or with what they say you say about him. Hextor is not known to my home sphere," he adds. "And I do not recall having heard of him even since I left there."
Ibn Fadil listens to Pham's explanation attentively. "Most interesting! But what is the purpose of this traveling and storytelling?"
* * *
Emmett and Pham
Emmett and Pham both fall into the category of having hours on/hours off shift, since the ship needs constant spelljamming and security. It takes a couple days for their schedules to link enough for a casual conversation while neither is on duty.
"Howdy, Brother. How's she handle?"
Pham smiles at the friendly voice. "Emmett -- good to see you again at last. You would think on such a small ship that people would run into each other more often. She truly is a wonderful vessel."
"I see that you ended up bunking with Alias. I'm sure your room's better than ours -- Hiro and I are in a space the size of a small closet. I guess we're lucky that our schedules give us a degree of privacy. Of course, given how the crew's been treating you, you get that everywhere."
"Alais and I haven't actually talked much yet. That's the difficult thing about running the helm -- somebody's got to be sitting in it all the time. He's an odd sort, but a decent enough man from what I can tell."
Pham sighs. "And yes, the crew has been keeping their distance. It's nothing new. Those of my order often face such receptions. Still, I continue to perform my duties, they perform theirs, and we all get through it in the end. I am left alone to pray and meditate, and I will of course assist where I can." Pham smiles. "Hopefully my natural charm will convince them sooner or later."
"Yeah. I saw those two flinch when we were talking, and I guess they spread it around. Sorry about that. Tell you what -- I got an hour before we have to bunk down. Why don't you explain it to me, and I can help explain it to the crew. You aren't gonna convert me," the half man says, fingering his amulet of a toothed wooden wheel, "but you can try and convince me. In return, I'll waste your time with idle talk and pointless boasts. Sound like a deal?"
Pham gestures to a nearby barrel and takes a seat. "All right. I will try to explain. And don't worry -- I won't try to convert you. If you were destined to join my order, you would already *know*.
"Hextor called me when I was a boy. At first, I didn't even know what it was - I just felt a sense that there was something more to the world then the small fishing village that was all I knew. When Deacon Marcus arrived in our village, I finally KNEW what my calling was. Marcus explained the nature of my calling - Hextor the Herald needed me to travel, learn the tales of each place I visited, and to carry them along. And, to help as I could along the way, so that people would want to share their tales.
"Unfortunately, Hextor is stricken with a strange sense of humor or multiple personalities. The other, alas more numerous followers of Hextor are an awful bunch of creatures determined only to spread pain and misery. Most folk, " Pham gestures at a passing crewmember, who notices and quickly moves away, "don't give me the benefit of the doubt. I first found myself on a spelljammer almost by accident while fleeing from a mob of villagers with the wrong impression. Still, the captain has promised me to keep order on board, and he's kept that promise so far. And I certainly haven't done anything to incite a riot on board.
"I'm sure I haven't answered your big question: why is "my" Hextor so different from the one the rest of the world knows. I can't answer that -- that knowledge hasn't been revealed to me. When Hextor wants me to know, I'm sure he'll tell me, somehow. Until then, I am content to follow my calling. I have a feeling that Hextor is very happy with me right now - I've collected tales of places nobody back home could have ever dreamed of. Hopefully one day I'll get to share them."
"Oh, and Emmett - I'd like to ask you a favor, if I could. I've been having some... disturbing dreams lately. Dreams of fire. Considering we're about to head out into The Flow, I'd appreciate it if you could help me with a thorough inspection of the ship before we go? I'm not prone to prophecy, but these have gotten me nervous."
* * *
Valarin and the mystery woman
Too stunned to act, Val simply stares after her. A second minor lurch brings him to his senses. He hurries to coordinate with Seton to correct the ship's roll, bringing the _Lazy Cat_ back even. He'll have to remember to keep an eye on Seton lest that happen again.
Val doesn't think about what he saw until after his watch ends. Upon turning his station over to the next crewman, he retires to his bunk rather than the galley or main deck for socializing, as is his usual habit. Lying down on his bunk with arms folded behind his head, he gazes upward, oblivious to anyone else in the cabin.
_Who *was* that,_ Val thinks to himself. Something is very wrong here, and he isn't sure what to make of it. Should he tell someone? Is she an imposter? A stowaway? No matter what, he is determined to find out. It never occurs to him that maybe he's not supposed to know.
And yet.... Val's thoughts stray back to the girl's face. Was that a look of sorrow he saw there, or was it his imagination? She is hiding; of that much he is pretty certain. But hiding from what? Perhaps if he were to ask her....
In a flash, Val jumps up from his bunk and strides up to the deck. Before he even realizes it, he asks another crewman to switch watches with him. He is intent on being off duty the next time that he sees "Lenore" walking the deck.
After asking around a bit, Val manages to trade watches with someone on the graveyard shift. When asked why he wants to swap, Val mentions that he just wants a change of pace. With his best poker face, he mentions that after a few weeks on the same shift, it might be nice to mix things up a little. This elicits groans from everyone in earshot, because Delmar is bound to hear about it and think it's a grand idea.
He turns in early so that he'll be fresh for that watch. Unfortunately, sleep does not come easy for Val that night (night being a relative thing in wildspace). He spends much of the time thinking about the girl and what he is going to do. He decides he needs to talk to her first. He wants to find out who she is, and why she is pretending to be someone else. He isn't really sure why he wants to know this, but that doesn't seem to bother him at the moment.
The memory of Emmett's warning momentarily flashes through Val's subconscious. "If you're looking to get thrown overboard, making moves on her looks like a good start," he'd said. "Stick to the fish in our own pond." Of course, Val rationalizes, since it isn't the maid, he could at the very least just talk with her....
The turn at late watch is very uneventful. Val passes the time climbing the rigging to work off the nervous energy he feels coursing through him. When asked what he is up to by his portside counterpart, Val passes off something about checking how secure the leads were on the stabilizer. He is amused to discover the sailor asking him to check the port stabilizer as well when he is done. Nothing like a climb through rigging to take your mind off things. As Val makes his way down the ropes, he wonders how Emmett has fared with Nyala. It has been a few weeks....
As soon as that watch is over, Val once again returns to his bunk. Normally, he'd just be getting up for his turn at this time. He'd have plenty of time to rest up before he tried to intercept Lenore. Or whoever she is. But he is still too keyed up to rest. He hasn't felt like this in a long time, and he isn't even aware of what it is he is feeling. Just as he comes around to trying to figure it out, he is fast asleep.
Footsteps on deck wake Val out of a deep slumber, and he nearly leaps out of the bunk. What time is it? Is he too late? He looks out into the companionway in time to see a few familiar faces passing by. They were off shift, so he was still on. Well, *supposed* to be on anyway. He isn't too late. Val washes up and changes quickly. He doesn't want to miss his opportunity.
Once on deck, Val mentally traces Lenore's daily walk. He knows she'll pass the stairs to the fo'c's'le, so he decides to wait there. Out of habit, he blends into the shadows while waiting for her. He doesn't have long to wait until he hears soft footsteps coming his way. Taking a deep breath, Val steps around the stair.
"May I have the honor of walking with you, Lady?" he asks, putting on his most charming smile.
She jumps in surprise at his sudden appearance. From the violence of her movement and her rapid breathing, she is not merely startled but frightened. Then she draws a more controlled breath and straightens her shoulders in a conscious assumption of dignity.
"Thank you," she says, again speaking softly, "but I prefer to walk alone."
"Sorry," Val says out of habit. He does not move from her path."Perhaps youíre right," he continues, pitching his voice low for her ears alone. "If I were you, I certainly wouldn't want anyone to know I'm not who Iím supposed to be either," he trails off meaningfully. He looks intently through the veil, seeking her eyes.
In the lantern-light he can see only the vaguest outline of her features through the veil. Turning to go back the way she came, Lenore hesitates as his remark strikes home. "What do you want?" Her voice betrays tension.
"Oh, I thought I'd make sure you didn't lose your balance again," Val says with a smile. "Seton is at the portside stabilizer again this afternoon..." He is trying hard to maintain a charming demeanor, despite the feeling that his heart was wedged in his throat. Val scans the immediate area; the hair on the back of his neck was beginning to rise.
"I don't mean you any harm," he says quietly to her, truly meaning it. "I just want to know what's going on. I...."
_I just want to get to know you better,_ Val thinks, but holds these words. _What, am I crazy?!_
"You're just going to have to trust me," he says soberly instead.
Her only reply is a soft, bitter laugh. He can sense her studying him closely, trying to divine his true intentions, find the veiled threat that must lurk in his words.
"Well, you could always look at it like this," Val says into the pause, "It's not like either of us are going anywhere any time soon." He shrugs to show his indifference. "And I'm not especially anxious to get myself thrown overboard. "I just thought you might want to talk," he continues. "I know what it's like to be on the run from something..."
After a moment of tense silence she says, "You mean that, don't you?"
There's a brief pause. "Yes, I do," Val tells her quite honestly. He's momentarily reminded of ibn Fadil, and what he perceives to be his failure to get past the half-elf's apparent distrust. He doesn't want to frighten this girl any more than he already has, let alone push her away.
"Listen," Val tells her, "I understand if you don't want to talk right now. I'll be here when you do..." With a reassuring half-smile, he turns to go.
"Thank you," she says, and watches him leave.
He doesn't dare turn around. Disappointment consumes Val as he heads off for the galley. Did he really expect her to stop him? Of course he did! But he can't admit it to himself just yet. He feels sick. Stopping halfway down the stair to the lower decks, he leans forward and raps his forehead against the overhang. He feels foolish.
Of course, it was his own fault. He was so sure of himself. Wasn't he?
* * *
Lenore returns to her stateroom with a calm bearing and steady step, actress' skills she had learned well before her arrival on Bral, and which have served her most well these past months. _If I were you--_ her heart had nearly stopped in her chest at those words, until she'd realized that the sailor didn't actually know her true name, only that he had somehow divined that she was not who she claimed to be.
What will he do now? He did not threaten blackmail, at any rate, but I would be foolish to trust him, no matter how much he reminded me of Teague for that moment.... She latches the door behind her and sighs deeply. What nonsense. I _am_ a fool, and that is the end of it. Fool to get myself into this, fool to think I could get out. Perhaps I should have told Theo at once, but... no. Once we are in the Flow -- she shudders slightly -- then perhaps. For now, let me remain another servant dismissed -- a reason for that will be clear soon enough, I fear. Theo will be angry, but we will have come too far then to return; whatever his mission is, Three Trees will be ill-served by months of delay. By that same token....
Her thoughts return restlessly to the fear of pursuit. She once thought little of ships and travel among the worlds, knowing them merely as the hated agency of her years of exile, as she has long thought of her time on that miserable Rock. She has learned a great deal recently. Each day she forces herself to walk the deck, to accustom herself to the darkness and the ways of the ship. Amazing, what one can do for love.
If we are caught up, I will be sent back, if only to avoid trouble between the houses. And then....
She curls herself into a corner of her bunk and contents herself with memories in place of hope.
* * *
_Food. Food and a good wine will help,_ Val thinks to himself as he follows the aroma coming from the kitchen. Shuffling in somewhat listless, Val asks Nahele for his preferred wine, skipping food altogether. He returns to the deck to gaze out at the stars, mug of wine in hand.
Val thinks of home.
Seeing Valarin shuffle unhappily in and out of the galley, ibn Fadil at first tries to keep his attention on potato-peeling, but the memory of the tall man's unappreciated efforts to cheer him up back on Bral prods him into action instead. Drying his hands on a towel, he asks Nahele for a short break and nips out into the corridor after Val.
Finding him lost in thought near the forward rail, ibn Fadil joins him and asks, "What happened?"
It would be an understatement to simply say that Val was surprised by ibn Fadil's presence. He'd thought for sure the half-elf was avoiding him on purpose.
"I'm not quite sure," he answers ibn Fadil, still gazing out over the rail. It isn't a lie. Val has no idea what had happened back there, what went wrong.
"Are you sure you want to be seen with me?" Val asks the Zakharan, half in jest. "It seems like you usually try to avoid me..." He offers a brief flicker of a smile to soften his words. Still, he does not seem quite himself. There is still something hanging over Val, like a dark cloud over a usually sunny field.
Ibn Fadil gives Val a puzzled look. "You think I avoid you? But I have been avoiding *everyone,* my young friend. I have had more than enough of drawing attention to myself."
Val snorts at this, regaining some of his normal good humor. "You have a point," he concedes.
"I have not forgotten your kindness on Bral, though I was much distracted at the time," the half-elf goes on with an apologetic smile. "I would like to return the effort, perhaps with more success than you had."†
Val turns to face the half-elf, meeting the other's eye. Val sees sincerity in the half-elf's face, in his effort to discover what is troubling the human. He isn't sure if he should tell ibn Fadil anything. Not for lack of trust in the man, but for fear of losing Lenore's trust. Or whatever her real name is.... As that thought lingers, he runs his fingers through his hair, an apparent nervous habit.
Then again, they're all kindred spirits, aren't they? They're all hiding something, and hiding *from* something. Val seems to make up his mind and takes a deep breath.
"What do you know about Lenore, that maid that's traveling with us?" Val asks the Zakharan before he even realizes it.
"Very little," ibn Fadil says, working a bit at not appearing amused. "The Victors' household servants keep to themselves."
"The Victor household?" Val asks. "As in the 'Victor and Sons' household?" He vaguely remembers hearing the name Victor mentioned back on Bral. But this woman isn't the servant he saw then... "I wonder why they didn't just put her on one of their own ships." The last wasn't directed at ibn Fadil.
Val finds himself staring back out over the rail at the stars once again. To the half-elf he says quietly, "She's not who she says she is." This seems to answer why they didn't put her on their own ship. "And I want to find out who she is."
"What --" The half-elf breaks off speaking, then starts again, much less sharply. "What have you stumbled into now, Valarin?" Somehow, he sounds neither judgmental nor exasperated.
"I'm not quite sure," Val murmurs. "It's not something I want spread around though, okay? And to truth to tell, she stumbled into me..." He's more than a little relieved ibn Fadil does not overreact to his revelation.
"I am planning something," he continues, making sure there is still nobody nearby to overhear, "but I need your help. Can you make me up a dinner to take to her?" A familiar gleam shines in Val's eyes and he smiles at the half-elf.
*Now* ibn Fadil looks annoyed. "Not unless I know why," he says firmly.
"Well, she's got to eat sometime, right?" Val says innocently. "I just figured I'd get a chance to... talk to her if I took her the meal."
Ibn Fadil doesn't believe that for a minute. "How do you know she is not Lenore? Have you seen her face?" Val's expression instantly tells him that he has. "What does she look like, then?"
Val pauses a moment to reflect. He'd only caught a glimpse of her, but it was enough to make a lasting impression. "Well, I'd say she's probably about my age," he starts, "And she's got chestnut colored hair. I couldn't tell how long it was because of the hat and veils. I couldn't see her eye color, but I do know she's quite pretty."
Seeing ibn Fadil hesitate for a moment, Val tells him, "I'm not going to do anything to hurt her. I think she's in trouble and might need help."
"A woman goes to considerable lengths to leave Bral secretly, hiding her identity, and you think she might be in trouble?" the half-elf asks. "I would say that she *is* trouble, Val." He pauses while another crewmember saunters by.
"Anything to do with Samuel Victor is trouble, Val," he goes on seriously. "You do not -- I mean it -- want to get involved in his affairs."
"I don't care about Samuel Victor," Val says with a touch of exasperation. He wasn't well versed on the politics of the Oligarchs during his stay on Bral, and frankly, he couldn't care less. "I do care about --" he starts to say something, but stops abruptly.
_What *do* I care about?_ Val thinks to himself. He's startled to find he doesn't have an answer.
"Fine. I guess it doesn't matter that I'm just trying to help," he says instead. Clouds once again darken the brief glimmer in Val's features as he turns his attention to the stars once again. "I don't want to screw up everything she's worked at already. Forget I mentioned it."
Taking one last draught of the wine, Val then hurls the mug over the rail and turns to go.
"It *does* matter," ibn Fadil says with a little more sympathy. "It shows a good heart. But that won't protect you from Victor if you cross him. And I promise you, her chances of getting away -- with whatever she is up to -- will be much better if you and I do nothing at all to draw attention to her."
Watching the disconsolate young man stomp away, ibn Fadil hopes he will take this good advice. It would be terrible to see him dive head-first and unsuspecting into such an explosive situation.
* * *
For several days after her encounter with Valarin, "Lenore" keeps to her stateroom, but then resumes her daily walk as if nothing has happened, paying him no particular attention. She reaches the aft deck and pauses, seeing a slender elven figure already there, gazing astern, bow as always near to hand. After a hesitation, Lenore joins her.
"What do you see?" she asks unwillingly, as if the question would not be asked but must.
Unearthly, almost electric blue eyes glance her way for a moment. "What do you look for?" Without waiting for an answer, Nyala resumes her usual circuit. Lenore does the same after a few minutes, taking her usual place to observe Hiro's practice, but afterwards, instead of returning to her room, she finds herself back at the stern, searching the empty darkness.
The ship is nearly a month out from Bral, with weeks yet to go before reaching the sphere's edge. The mate does indeed take to the notion of switching shifts about as long as the _Cat_ is still in quiet space, which the crew accepts with groans but relatively good grace as their rhythms are upset for a few days before they can resettle.
There is a fair amount of music aboard, as the sailors sing or play to help pass the time -- Delmar's short, square fingers are surprisingly agile on a pipe, Seton's clumsiness (by now the despair of most of the crew) vanishes when his guitar is in his hands, and all are surprised one "day" when Nyala unspeaking as usual, joins the group with a small drum in hand.
"Well doesn't that beat all. I haven't--" her brother starts to say, but at a glance from her says only, "Well, well," instead. Most of the others don't even notice, as Inez (the blonde who so caught Emmett and Val's attention) beckons for someone to join her in a dance.
The watches rotate; the stars continue their slow approach.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson