The missing piece of the conversation from last week:
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."
"Inevitable?" Emmett raises an eyebrow. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. But I keep hoping. Speaking of hoping, I hope the others know how to use these. I can't manage all of them on my own. Though the gnomes did try to build something letting me fire one ballistae while reloading another..."
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."
Emmett nodded, adding "'Hurrying the steps will slow the project.' But eventually I was slowing the project, and just didn't care. They wanted me to sign back on when e hit Bral, but I just couldn't to it."
"That's quite the sword you have there. Mind if I take a look at it?"
"In due time."
Val and "Lenore":
Val watches Lenore walk past without even a glance. It's been days since he's seen her emerge from her cabin. Val's been keeping himself busy with other things, trying hard not to think of her. He's endured the occasional threats of being thrown overboard for instigating the schedule changes with good humor. It *is* good to change things up a little. Adjusting to the new schedule gives him time to take his mind off things, and time to think.
Ibn Fadil's warning about meddling and drawing attention to her seemed to sink in a little. Unfortunately, it hasn't exactly helped him *not* think about her. Quite the contrary, actually.
Well, the least he could do was apologize to her for what he'd done the other day. No doubt, he was the reason she'd holed herself up for a few days. He runs his fingers through his hair and heads over to the aft rail, making sure to keep a Śrespectable' distance between the two of them.
"What do you see?" Val asks, not realizing that he is repeating Lenore's own question of Nyala. He glances at Lenore and offers a hesitant smile, hoping he didn't just frighten her away.
"Listen," Val begins tentatively when she makes no immediate reply, making sure he isn't being overheard by anyone else, "I wanted to apologize for the other day. I shouldn't have approached you like that." He seems to pause, looking for the right words to say. After a moment, he simply says, "I'm sorry."
Val tries to keep his eyes to stern, not wanting to stare at the woman beside him. He feels foolish, but tries to maintain a calm demeanor.
"You have nothing for which to apologize," is her quiet response.
"No, really... I'm--" Val begins, but stops abruptly. "What did you say?" he asks instead, more than a little surprised. He manages to still keep his voice low and his eyes to stern, though just barely.
"I said," she replies with a hint of something like sadness and amusement mixed, "that you've nothing to apologize for. It was kind of you to attempt to help."
"Attempt," Val repeats, seemingly to emphasize the fact that it was not a success. It comes out only a little bitter, a little regretful. "The offer still stands, you know," he informs her after a moment. "I want to help."
"There is nothing you or anyone can do," she replies gently. "Unless you can somehow make this vessel increase its speed."
He looks at her, trying once again to penetrate the layer of veils, both real and implied.
"Why do you sound so sad?" Val asks after a moment, with genuine concern in his voice. His statement is somber, sincere; truly a serious look for a face more used to smiles and laughing. It almost makes him look older than he is.
For a moment she gazes silently into the void. "Because... sometimes one is sad, and remedy a long way off. Are you never sad, then, sailor?"
"Sailor?" Val recoils a bit at the distance implied. Of course, he's never had the chance to really introduce himself properly.... He smiles at his own faux pas.
"I'm only a sailor for the time being," Val continues with a bit of his normal good humor. "That is, until the right opportunity presents itself for me to move on. Being a sailor is just what got me off the Rock." Val looks back astern as if to make sure Bral was indeed far away. "And I am not sad often." The last is said with a touch of assertiveness, as if trying to convince himself of the lie. He's almost convincing.
"My name is Valarin Ehrendrin," he begins again, "but most everyone calls me Val." He simply bows his head to her, still not wanting to move more lest he frighten her away. "And you are?"
She finally turns to look at him, head slightly tilted as if examining what she sees, and there is a hint of genuine amusement in her voice when she says, "If you do not know, it is best that I remain Lenore." _He really *is* like him,_ she thinks to herself, a thought that saddens and warms her at the same time.
He is momentarily caught off guard by her amusement. "Then Lenore it shall be," Val says, resigning himself to accepting he is still no closer to knowing her better. He offers her a warm smile nonetheless.
"Tell me, Valarin who is not always a sailor, do you believe in fortune?"
"Fortune?" Val repeats. He pauses a moment to think about it, looking back astern again. _Fortune brought *us* both--_ he starts to think, but dismisses the notion almost immediately.
"I'm not so sure," he ventures at last, somewhat serious. "They say ŚFortune favors the foolish'’ but I'd like to *think* I have more say in what I do with my life," Val says with a wry smile. It was a jab at himself, since he'd heard the saying applied to his seemingly foolish actions a few of times.
"What about you? Do *you* believe in fortune?" Val asks Lenore, still gazing at the stars behind them. "Or are you having your say by leaving Bral?" He regrets the last as soon as it's said, but he maintains a casual facade.
"If my fate is indeed to die, then leaving will avail me nothing," she says, almost to herself. "But if such indeed is fortune's habit, I would not mind if she chose to favor such a fool as I have been." For a moment her glance is ahead of the ship, not behind. Then, as if realizing how long she has been standing there in talk, she collects herself. "Good fortune to you, Valarin, and good day." She nods graciously and moves toward the stair.
Val is too stunned by Lenore's reply to respond immediately. He watches her go without trying to stop her, glancing towards the fore of the _Cat_ to see if something had spooked her, but sees no likely culprit.
Val remains at the aft rail, watching the stars for a while longer. He feels better for having talked with Lenore, even though she still wouldn't give her real name. Not that it matters to him; Lenore is a nice enough name. Val feels a certain weight lifted from his shoulders, curiously mixed with an odd tightness in his chest, as he spends a few moments thinking about their talk. One thing he's fairly certain of, Lenore is no servant. Her demeanor betrayed that almost from the beginning. And what did she mean by, if her fate is to die?
Almost instantly, ibn Fadil's warning comes to mind. Val feels a brief flicker of shame for not keeping his distance like he said he would. But at the same time, he is glad that he did get the chance to talk to her. After all, it's not like he forced her to talk with him. He'd worked hard at making it look innocent from afar; just two people out on deck watching the stars.
Perhaps Fortune does favor the foolish. It had certainly given him his chance to talk with Lenore again. Val chuckles at this thought. No longer does he feel the almost giddy sensation he'd felt days before when he saw her face. That feeling seems to have been replaced by something else, something much stronger. It is something he still can't quite define, either.
Eventually, Val meanders his way towards the galley, and possible company. It isn't his fortune to spend the rest of the night on deck alone...
Meanwhile, Lenore continues her slow walk around the deck, only to be approached by the second mate, Nolan, who since the change around is supervising this watch.
"Pardon me, miss," he says in a low voice. "But is everything all right?"
She's too relaxed, and nearly speaks normally, chides herself for getting careless. "It's all fine, sir, thank you," she murmurs, keeping her gaze down even behind the veil.
"Just wanted to make sure no one was bothering you." He glances aft meaningfully.
"Not at all." She hopes she is not about to get Valarin in trouble.
"Good," the man says with a firm nod. "You let me know if there's anything wanting." He doesn't move, so she does. She wonders if he is watching her as she continues on her way, but keeps her back straight and stiff.
Delmar had wisely set up the guard schedule to occasionally mix up who was paired with whom, ensuring that should a fight come, each of the four marines would know and presumably trust the others. This night, during the dead hours where only the marines, a skeleton crew of sailors and the pilot were awake, Emmett was watching his partner walk the deck. Admiring her intensity. Admiring her professionalism. And, he had to admit to himself, admiring her looks.
Normally, Emmett didn't much bother with waiting. Griff-Jocks seldom did. Either the woman was interested, or she wasn't. He'd flirted with Inez off and on, and she was obviously one of the ones who had been intrigued by his prosthesis rather than repulsed by them at least, judging from the smoldering look she kept giving him when she was dancing the other night. Emmett tapped his peg on the floor. He'd used to be a pretty good dancer, damn it. He still had the rhythm, but now there was too much chance of his foot slipping. Maybe something slow....
He glanced up and saw that Nyala had moved and he did the same, keeping her across from him on the boat, as per custom. Besides, It made it easier to think things through. Inez was cute, obviously available, and after the distracted look Val gave her at the dance, he had obviously decided to not make a play for her. So why was Emmett surreptitiously glancing across the ship at the Elf? And not acting on it?
*Think she's out of your pool, half man? Is that it?* He snarled to himself. He didn't have a pool, damn it! With a sudden decisive nod he turned to reverse his patrol (nothing wrong with that, right?)....
....Only to find Nyala standing about five feet behind him.
Emmett starts, then put on his best smile "Nice night. Enjoying the trip so far?"
She glances at the unending night surrounding them and replies in her usual cool, measured tones, "There has been no trouble."
Emmett nods, seeing the direction this is going to take. "If that's your definition of 'enjoying', great. I usually look for something more than the absence of a bad thing, but... Anyway, I'm going to give the holds another quick lookover. Our priest has been having disturbing nightmares about fire, and he does follow the god of heralds. I'll be back up in a few short."
Nyala nods and continues on her rounds.
With that Emmett moves to the ladders, resolving to talk to Inez tomorrow. Elves can get cold, apparently.
Emmett and Pham go exploring:
Emmett, with Brother Pham in tow, closes quickly on the first mate, his leg producing a rhythm now familiar to the crew. "Sir, do you have a minute?"
"Pham and me were just talking," Emmett gestures to the brother with his hook, "and he said he'd been getting dreams about a fire. Now, his god isn't normally a prophet god, but he is a herald god, and this might be a warning or message or something."
"Anyway, he was thinking in light of this it might be a good idea to give the ship a mast to keel inspection, just to make sure there aren't any hot spots before we hit the flow." Emmett is a firm believer in both gods and reasonable precautions, and has obviously had enough close encounters with fire in his life for him to take it quite seriously. "I just wanted to get your permission before we got started."
"Carry on," Delmar tells them, his expression distracted as if pondering a particularly knotty navigational problem.
"OK. I'll let you know what we find." With that Emmett leads Pham down into the bowels of the ship, under the logic that the least used tools are the ones most likely to decay.
"So your god called you since you were a kid? It must be nice, knowing that your doing exactly what you want and need to do," Emmett's eyes seem to get slightly wistful as he continues, but it's hard for Pham to tell in the dark, "and that nothing can take that away from you.
"On the other hand, it sucks that doing it gets you run out of towns. I guess everything balances out. I'd give a lot though, to actually be able to feel the presence of Gond." The half man smiles. "In a metaphysical sense, that is. In one way, my god is with me constantly.
"Here. Help me shift this box." Emmett sticks his hook into the wood and wraps his fingers around the corner of a crate that is nearly as big as he is. With a grunt he lifts it several inches off the ground, waiting for Pham to help him move it to clear a path through the hold.
At this early point in their journey, the hold is tightly packed with supplies to see them to their destination. Crates, barrels, and chests are carefully placed to minimize shifting, and in some cases lashed to the deck, while net bags sway slightly overhead with the motion of the ship. After about a hour the two men have given the room a cursory search.
"This all looks OK, unless you're getting a bad feeling about it. Let's just put things back in place and check out the upper decks."
Later, with music:
During one of the now-regular gatherings of the crew to pass an hour or two in good cheer, Val, in an unusually good mood this particular day, decides to seize the opportunity. Stepping up next to an unsuspecting Emmett, Val plants his hand firmly against the half-man's back and pushes him towards Inez as she dances, smiling the whole while.
Emmett feels the push start and realizing that going with it gave a much better chance of his keeping his feet than trying to resist. He can always break Val's wrist later, if need be.
After the initial stumble the half-man finds his footing and picks up the rhythm with Inez. While he isn't exactly a graceful dancer, he is exuberant, relying on his good foot to keep him balanced and his partner to perform most of the flash. Fortunately, with her infectious grin and long blonde hair, Inez has a lot of flash.
Once he's sure Inez has a firm grip on his hook for balance, he can't resist scooping her up for a twirl or two, effortlessly spinning the woman about him. She catches on quickly, letting him use a few of the dance moves from home that he can use without risking a spill. Emmett is certain that someone (Delmar probably, unless Nyala has a sadistic streak behind those inscrutable elvish eyes) is picking up the pace has the pair dance. *I used to be able to do this, but now I don't want to risk things,* he thinks, before giving Inez a quick look and nod of warning before starting a spin that will lead her right into Ibn Fadil.
The half-elf has been taking full advantage of this opportunity to study Nyala without being observed. Not that he's falling in love or anything like that; no, no, he's far too practical for that. This is merely aesthetic appreciation.
So he has not really been watching Emmett's dancing, and did not really notice when the man's last pass around the 'dance floor' caused the sailors in front of him to scramble out of the way. His first inkling of the half-man's 'generosity' comes when Nyala looks at him, he promptly looks away, and that blur on his right side resolves into Inez spinning toward him ...
He gives an audible yelp of surprise, and manages to grab her arms as she nearly collides with him. They spin around staggeringly once, twice -- and then he crashes to the deck with the girl on top of him.
"Sorry!" he gasps, as Inez starts to laugh at the expression on his face. "I don't dance!" He flushes with embarrassment as she huffs and turns away, rolling her eyes. As Inez corrals some other sailor, ibn Fadil steals another glance at Nyala, hoping she didn't notice that was staring at her, but she appears to be concentrating entirely on her drum. Her eyes are closed.
With as much grace as he can mange, Emmett gets out of the way, sliding back over beside Valarin. The taller man gets a good-natured pat on the back that dislodges a couple ribs as Emmett mutters, "Thanks. Remind me to kill you later."
Val sputters and coughs, but remains smiling. "It's well worth it my friend," he manages after a moment. "I've never seen dancing like that. Impressive! I wonder if *Nyala* could keep up," he adds with a sly grin.
Once the others have lost interest in his embarrassment, ibn Fadil tries to enjoy the music and dancing -- but inevitably, when his gaze crosses Nyala's face it stays there too long. After a few minutes of this he abruptly shakes himself and goes below, seeking the galley and some task to
occupy his hands.
Meanwhile, at the helm Brother Pham wonders what that thumping noise is on the deck above his head.
At the back of crowd Alais frowns, perturbed by the interactions he has seen this "evening." He has grown somewhat frustrated these past weeks, but continues to bide his time and take careful note of all that happens, particularly where Inez, Nyala, and his acquaintances from Bral are concerned. Perhaps the latter are being recruited.
Bral is a relatively small sphere. When the _Lazy Cat_ is forty-six days out from port, they reach the crystal shell. For a week the positions of the stars in their lazy motion have been changing more rapidly relative to the ship, and some of them have grown visibly larger. Without anything to compare them to, it is impossible to guess the size and distance of the seemingly heatless flames.
Captain Theo checks the portal locator, and for another two days the ship cruises along with the smooth, dark substance of the sphere as a ceiling. At last, with something of a ritual air, the entire crew is assembled on deck and the ship inspected to ensure all flames have been extinguished before they proceed into the Flow.
Some of the crew, for whom this is their first trip off the Rock, stifle gasps as the ship noses through the portal and into the pearlescent river of phlogiston, its strange radiance -- as if a sun lay hidden by thick, many-colored fog -- illuminating their awed expressions. At the helm, Pham feels the ship respond to its new environment; wildspace was a placid pool in which the _Cat_ was little more interesting than a log raft. Now that her fins and sails feel the tug of the Flow, she is like her namesake waking from a long sleep. They will travel far more quickly now, but it will be months before they reach their destination.
Lenore remains in her cabin as the transition from endless darkness to light takes place, and for several days thereafter. Some of the green crew are clearly wishing they had such an option, judging by their nervous stares at the glowing rainbow surrounding them.
"I heard all manner of tales on the Rock, things living out here that'd scare a man white," Seton says to Derica and Evan, the three of them huddled in the safety of the galley -- cheerless place that it is without a fire, and Nahele scowling and muttering to himself in Elvish about a thousand and one things to do with dried fruit. It's been three days, and none of them are used to their new surroundings yet. "And that's not even thinking about slavers and pirates and such."
"Neogi," Derica shakes her head in mournful certainty of their collective doom. "Do you know what those *do* to you?"
"And stuff can sneak up on you, out here," Evan glances at the closed door as if he expects a dozen neogi to burst in any second. "Could be ghosts and you'd never see Śem in this misty-like stuff. They'd drink our blood. Or we could run smack into --"
"If you lot haven't anything better to do than sit around repeating foolishness that some drunken sailor spouted to you, I'm sure someone can find you somewhat to occupy your hands," Nahele remarks; they jump, having sort of forgotten that he was there. "There's no neogi anywhere near Bral, for one thing, since Navy sees to that , and we'll not be running into anything. Doesn't work that way. And I've been in and out of the Flow since I was a lad of forty. I'm somewhere around three hundred now, and I've yet to see a ghost."
With a resentful glance, Evan both lowers his voice and changes the topic. "You seen that lady's maid around lately?" he asks Seton. The other man shakes his head. "I saw Val talking to her a while back."
Seton sighs. "Figures she'd talk to *him*. Wonder what his secret is."
Derica gives him an astonished look and starts laughing, but refuses to explain why when they want to know what's so funny.
They are twelve "days" into their journey and moving quickly through the deep river that joins Bral to the next sphere in their path. Alais has just gone to sleep when there is an authoritative knock on his door.
"Master Zeremin? The captain requests your presence on deck."
Somewhat groggy, he realizes that the ship isn't moving. When he gets to the deck he finds most of the rest of the crew lining the bow rails silently. Even the experienced hands are simply staring, and for a moment Alais doesn't know why; it's just a school of delphinids*, and at their relative speeds the ship should have been past them before anyone ever noticed.... He blinks.
It is indeed a school of delphinids, but what a school! There are dozens -- no, hundreds of them, and they are moving against the current. Pham has brought the ship to a halt rather than plow through the center of their massed numbers, though they seem to be ignoring the ship entirely, indulging in none of the usual play or begging treats from the sailors.
For many minutes the school continues to pass, and he must again revise his estimate of their numbers, though it is impossible to keep any accurate count. Their changing rainbow hides blend into the phlogiston somewhat.
"So, Master Zeremin," Theo says, stepping to the rail beside him. "I've neither seen nor heard tell of anything such as this. Have your studies told you anything of such large gatherings of the creatures?"
* Dolphin-like creatures that dwell in the phlogiston; harmless. According to the official description, they're trilaterally symmetrical, which makes me wonder what those guys at TSR smoked.
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© 2001 Rebecca J. Stevenson