CHRISTY: I’m still waiting for Ken-chan and Grimmy to show up, the way you insisted they were sure to.
MEL: They will. You’ll see.
CHRISTY: *whine* But I’m tired of waaaaiting!
MEL: There, there. Your horrifically violent and destructive crush-targets will get here soon, I’m sure.
CHRISTY: You’re just happy because your horrifically violent and destructive crush-target is here already!
MEL: I object! Hitsugaya-kun is only moderately violent and not particularly destructive. Also, what about Renji? He’s hardly chopped liver.
CHRISTY: He won’t talk to me.
MEL: I didn’t think you wanted to kidnap him for his snappy repartee.
CHRISTY: He also won’t let me look at his tattoos. *pout*
MEL: So watch Ichigo trying to break the wards, or go drool at the G-boys having their holiday! Kibitz on Spike and Legolas while they watch anime! Harass Fluffy-sama and Schuldig! Sheesh, anyone would think we were actually out of eye-candy!
CHRISTY: But… but… but I want Ken-chan and Grimmy!
MEL: And you’ll get Ken-chan and Grimmy, just not yet!
CHRISTY: How come you aren’t out drooling at your frosty shrimp drool-target?
MEL: Because I’m writing. And if I was out drooling at him, you’d be nagging me to write instead. So I’m going to drool at him later, when you’re not looking– er, when I’m done writing.
CHRISTY: I heard what you did there.
[A loud crashing noise comes from somewhere nearby.]
CHRISTY: What was that?
MEL: A distraction? And possibly Ken-chan and Grimmy?
Demon of Justice
“So how soon do we need to send all this stuff off?” Montoya asked, gesturing to her pad screen. “And which list are we working from? We’ve got four!”
“I’ll bet the kids only sent one,” Howard snorted.
“Well, yeah, but it’s split into three sections, so if you really want to get technical about it we’ve got six lists,” his second in command snorted back, sounding remarkably like him despite her voice being an octave higher. “They’ve broken their list down by priority, depending on how large a mass allowance they end up with, and while we’re on the subject why the hell don't they already know their transport capabilities? For that matter, why aren’t they getting us to transport them wherever it is they’re going? We could carry double their maximum potential allowance, and it’d be simpler all round!”
“There’s reasons why we can’t do it,” Howard told her, trying to sound stern but aware that he wasn’t managing it. He felt a pang every time he thought about the kids – his kid, specifically – risking their lives to not only go where only one person had gone before, but to do it in the knowledge that they could never come back even if they did survive the trip, and he hid the pain with a scowl.
“Good reasons or stupid reasons?” she asked, peering at his face.
“Eh. Wouldn’t call them good reasons,” he admitted, scratching the back of his neck, “but they’re… call ‘em real reasons.” Like the fact that the Shearwater can’t sail between realities. If it could, I might just up and go with them myself.
“…Fair enough.” Montoya nodded grudgingly before returning to her pad. “Which list, then?”
“Well, whatever the kids asked for, we’re getting it for them. Package the highest-priority stuff first, then make separate packages for the second- and third-priority lists. That way if it turns out they can’t take it all, we don’t have to break down and reassemble the consignment. What are the other three?”
“We’ve got one from the Manguanacs,” she told him, tapping icons on her pad to send the lists to him, “which doesn’t overlap with the kids’ list at all, oddly enough. The other two are from J and G, and there’s a lot of overlap with the kids’ list and between them. You’d think they’d coordinate.”
“Probably never occurred to them that just because they think of something brilliant, doesn’t mean that nobody else did,” he muttered, bringing the lists up on his own datapad and scrolling rapidly through them. “Huh. Okay, go through J and G’s lists, strip out everything that’s already accounted for in the kids’ list, and send ‘em to Heero or Trowa as suggestions. Leave it up to them to decide whether they want any of this stuff at all, and what priority it should be. As for the Manguanacs’ list…” His eyebrows shot up as he scanned it, and he flicked back to the top of the list to go through it again, more slowly this time. “Huh.”
“’Huh’?” Montoya asked, eyeing him warily.
“…I need to talk to Rashid about this,” he said eventually. “For now, just work on the kids’ list. Thanks.”
“Got it. How fast?”
“Dunno yet,” Howard shrugged, then waved one hand apologetically as she rolled her eyes. “I know, I know, but the timetable depends on the Doctors and they aren’t talking clear numbers yet. Pretend we’ve got two weeks before we need the first consignment ready, okay?”
“Think that’s anything close to the final timetable?” she asked sceptically, and he outright laughed.
“Hell, no! They could faff around for months for all I know.” And I kind of hope they do. “I’m just throwing in a wild-ass guess to get us started.”
“I’d better do just that, then,” she sighed, starting to stand up, then froze in an awkward half-crouch, breath hissing through her teeth. “Fuckin’ hell!”
“Cramps,” she snarled, hands clenching on the arms of the chair.
“Took ‘em,” she said shortly. “Not working yet. Getting pissed off at ‘em.”
“Damn. …You want to put that to good use?” he suggested after a pause.
“What, the getting pissed off?” she asked incredulously, straightening up slowly as the cramp passed.
“Yeah. You mind calling J and G and reading them the riot act about sending us lists without checking them against each other?”
“It’d be cathartic, I guess,” she grumbled, and walked out without another word, slamming the door behind her.
“That’ll cheer her up at least,” Howard muttered to himself, eyeing Rashid’s list again; then he turned to the vidphone and tapped out a number on the keyboard, drumming his fingers on the desk as he waited for the call to go through.
< < Yes? > > Rashid said, then nodded politely as he registered who was calling. < < Ah, Howard. Good afternoon. > >
Howard didn’t speak; he just picked up his datapad, made a show of looking at it, then slid his sunglasses down his nose and eyed Rashid over the top of them.
The giant Manguanac leader scowled back at him, folding his arms.
“Interesting list of parts you want us to send with the kids, here,” Howard said eventually, and Rashid’s scowl deepened.
< < Is that so? > >
“Yeah. Especially seeing as how I’m not stupid.” Figuring he’d made his point, Howard pushed his sunglasses back up and noticed – with a certain amount of pride – that Rashid was actually blushing. “Did you really think you could send us a parts list like this without me figuring out what you’re planning? These aren’t Gundam parts; these are mobile suit parts. Your mobile suit parts.”
< < I wasn’t aware that we needed your approval, > > Rashid growled.
“My approval? Hell no, you don’t need it, though you’ve got it for what it’s worth,” Howard snorted.
< < –and in any case, I – what? > >
“I think it’s a great idea,” he went on, tone abruptly cheerful. “Really. More power to ya. Only one problem.”
< < Ah, I, we, ah, thank you, > > Rashid floundered. < < We, we thought– uh, problem? What problem? > >
“You talked to the docs about this?”
Rashid’s face darkened again. < < I don’t believe we require their approval either. > >
“You sure as hell require their input!” Howard roared, dropping the cheerful tone and leaning into the screen. “Or did you think you could stow away in the kids’ luggage without changing its mass?! Were you maybe planning to take out some of the stuff they’ve asked for – stuff they need – so you could go along without throwing off the calculations?! This is delicate stuff! It’s experimental! We’re gonna be sending the kids to another world by literally blowing a hole in reality, you fucking idiot, we don’t know how much wiggle room there is in the numbers, and if we get it wrong we’re gonna blow those kids out of our reality the old-fashioned way, as in dead! The good result of you not telling the docs what you’re up to would be to have half the kids’ luggage stay behind, including half of your happy asses! Now get your head out of said happy ass and tell them what you’re doing!”
He slapped the cutoff and sat back, breathing hard as he resettled his sunglasses. Good thing I soundproofed the office…
The vidphone chimed and he punched the ‘accept call’ button hard enough to rock it on its base, scowling again. “Damnit Rashid– oh, hey kid.”
< < Hey Howard! > > Duo said, grinning maniacally. < < No time to chat, though I gotta say having you answer the call that way makes me wanna. Lost opportunity for getting blackmail material, oh well. Anyway. Got some news for you! > >
- - - - -
Two minutes later, Howard slammed the door to his office back against the wall and yelled down the corridor. “Kit! Kit! MONTOYA!”
“What?” echoed back to him in irritated tones.
“You know that two week estimate I gave you?”
“Try for two days!”
“And pack up the Manguanacs’ list too, between the second- and third-priority stuff!”
“What the– HOWARD!”
* * * * *
So that’s Belhadan?
Wufei’s voice in his head was quiet and thoughtful, and Karthan nodded, leaning on the railing and looking ahead. “Aye, it is. Largest sea-port in the Empire of the Axe.”
“It’s the northernmost ice-free port on the continent as well,” Sir Vaijon said from behind him, “so it handles all the winter sea-trade for the northern third of the Empire. If Belhadan Bay wasn’t already the largest harbour, they’d have to bring in dwarven stoneworkers and make it the largest.”
The dwarf turned to look at the human knight-probationer with one raised eyebrow. “That’s right, you were posted here for your novitiate, weren’t you?”
“And hated every minute of it,” Vaijon said ruefully, blowing on reddened fingers before digging in his pouch and pulling out a pair of fur-lined gloves. “I’m from Fradonia originally, so you’d think I’d be used to the weather, but Almerhas is inland; cold air in a seaport feels so much more personal, somehow. Not to mention that Sir Charrow sent me on what seemed like more than my fair share of errands to the docks, and the reek of fish in summer is utterly overwhelming.” He hesitated for a moment before nodding at Karthan, somehow managing to indicate that he was directing the gesture past – or through – the dwarf. “Sir Wufei, if I might ask, have you and the Champions decided how to handle your arrival in the city?”
We haven’t discussed it yet, Wufei’s mental voice said, answering the question without borrowing Karthan’s mouth to reply with, and Karthan repeated his words. I was planning to agree with whatever they suggest, since they know the local population and how they’re likely to react far better than I possibly can.
“M’h. Well.” Vaijon scratched his freshly-shaven chin, frowning thoughtfully. “I can’t imagine the city will be prepared to meet you any time soon. Unless the Champions have asked Torframos to send word ahead so that the Belhadan Chapter of the Order could take steps in advance, that is,” he added, brightening. “I hope they have; you must be more than ready to spend some time out in the open air!”
What I’m really ready for is a bath, Wufei muttered. Karthan didn’t pass that on, hiding a grin in his beard.
“We didn’t,” Sir Arwen said cheerfully, popping up out of the companionway behind Vaijon in his turn.
“But only because Torframos had already done it himself by the time we thought of asking him,” Sir Uthmar grunted, climbing into view more slowly. The halfling-sized ladder had its rungs spaced slightly too close together for his comfort, and unlike Arwen he couldn’t easily stretch his legs to take two at a time. “So yes, apparently the City Council, the various Orders, the city guard, and the mage academy have all been warned, and as of this morning so have the population in general. I gather there were proclamations.”
“Did it go well?” Karthan asked, glancing back over his shoulder at the city, stretching up the hillsides surrounding the bay in ranks of white stone and green trees. I don’t see any obvious plumes of smoke, so if anybody tried to riot they at least didn’t get as far as setting fires…
Oh, thank you so very much for that thought!
We met you under circumstances that made it very clear, very quickly, that you were neither evil nor an enemy, Karthan thought back, a shade apologetically. Our God approves of you, and told us so. A city full of people without that reassurance, whose only experience of demons is horror stories? I can guarantee that people panicked if the information wasn’t presented to them very carefully.
…Fair, Wufei said grudgingly.
“Reasonably well,” Uthmar shrugged. “I gather the story that’s being told is heavy on the ‘powerful Good creature summoned in error’ aspects, and entirely omits the ‘anything from outside this world is technically a demon even though he’s not evil’ bit. Ah, which is something to keep in mind, by the way. As long as we’re in the city, the word ‘demon’ is not to be used to refer to either Wufei or Nataku. Somebody’s sure to bring it up eventually, but we’re not going to do anything to speed that up. That means you, Gunnar,” he added, raising his voice. “No jokes about ‘demons with style’, thank you.”
“Bother,” Gunnar said mildly, leaning over the railing from the afterdeck. “I’ll just have to save them all for later. By the way, am I back on active duty?”
“That depends. Are you healed enough to be back on active duty?”
The dwarven second-in-command looked thoughtful. “Do you want an optimistic assessment, or an honest one?”
“Honest, thank you,” Uthmar said dryly, rolling his eyes.
“Damn. Active duty with restrictions, then. I should stay on the cart while we’re travelling, but I’m fine for back-line support if we get into combat.”
“Accepted. Yes, you’re back on active duty. Go give orders.”
- - - - -
Sir Charrow Malakhai stood on the dock, watching the Marfanger ship skim across the bay, green and gold seagull flag snapping over white sails and black hull. It looked more like a warship than the cargo hauler it was reported to be, moving lightly over the waves instead of wallowing as he’d expected.
“Are you sure that’s the correct ship?” he asked, turning his head slightly towards the knight standing beside him, and the dwarf nodded.
“Aye, sir. The Osprey, out of Refuge.”
“It doesn’t look like a grain hauler,” Charrow said dubiously, and the dwarf laughed.
“You mean it doesn’t look like a human-built grain hauler,” he corrected the Knight-Captain. “Or a Purple Lord-built one, not that one of those would make it up here this close to winter. It looks like a Marfanger grain hauler, all right.”
“Well, I’ll take your word for it, Sir Conor,” Charrow smiled. “Not having experience in the area myself.”
“I don’t see the… other visitor,” Sir Conor said, lowering his voice. “Or visitors. Did Sir Uthmar ever establish whether they’re both, ah, people? Or just the one, with armour? Extremely large armour?”
“Just the one, apparently,” Charrow nodded, matching his volume. “Perhaps he’s staying outside the bay…?”
“He’s there,” said a voice from his other side, and he turned to look at the third member of their small welcoming party. They were the only people standing on the dock; the sailors and porters that would normally be working there had been cleared away, and the crowds that had gathered to watch this strange arrival were being held away from the waterfront by the assembled Order of Torframos and the city guard.
The brown-haired human nodded, sunlight glinting off the silver streaks in his trimmed beard, and gestured with his white staff. “The bay is deeper than I think you realise, Sir Charrow,” he explained, sounding almost absent-minded as he narrowed his eyes, seeming to watch something underneath the oncoming ship. “He’s there, and… hm. I won’t be certain until I can meet him face to face, but I think I can confirm the report I received some days ago, now.”
“I don’t recall hearing about a report,” Sir Charrow pointed out, one eyebrow rising.
“I didn’t tell you about it,” Kresko said cheerfully. “I was going to, but then you contacted me about the message passed on by Torframos, and it seemed rather superfluous.”
The dwarven knight snorted, and Sir Charrow barely restrained a sigh. “Well?”
“’Well’–? Oh! Yes, the report. It was from a halfling mage who lives in Refuge. A de– uh, our ‘visitor’ was sighted from Marfang Island, and the mage in question was rather unceremoniously pressed aboard a Marfanger warship to act as a tracker. They caught up–”
“They went after it– him?!” Sir Charrow interrupted incredulously. “Halflings?! Pursuing a–”
“Well, yes,” Master Kresko shrugged. “Marfangers, you know.”
“They’re different, sir,” Sir Conor put in. “You’ll understand soon enough when you meet them.”
“…I can see I haven’t spent enough time on the waterfront,” Sir Charrow said slowly, glancing back at the ship, slowing down now. Tiny figures were visible on its deck, hauling on ropes, and a group of larger figures standing out of the way on its raised rear deck. “I apologise for the interruption; please go on.”
Kresko flapped one hand to wave off the apology, grinning. “It does sound a bit far-fetched if you’ve only ever met mainland halflings. In any case, they caught up – three warships – and were arguing with your Sir Uthmar and company about whether or not the, er, ‘visitor’ was something they should be hunting, when a harpooner went overboard. Wearing half-armour, so of course he went straight down, but this, mmm, ‘Sir Wufei’ rescued him.”
Sir Charrow blinked. “Really?”
“Really. Caught him in his, er, armour’s hand and brought him back up to the surface. Well, then there was a lot of explaining going on, and this mage of mine – I say ‘mine’, though I’ve never met him myself, but I did some checking and to all accounts he’s an excellent person, a credit to the Refuge mage academy even though it’s awfully small – sorry, I’m getting off the point. Yes, this mage, Adric is his name, had an opportunity to study Sir Wufei. And one of his minor talents is heart-reading.”
“Which does…?” Sir Charrow prompted.
“He can tell if somebody’s speaking the truth,” Kresko said simply. “Oh, there are ways to get around it, if you know it’s being used – half-truths, and evasions, and of course it can’t tell the difference between something that’s true and something that the speaker wrongly believes to be true – but the de– Sir Wufei presumably didn’t know, and apparently he was stating his case pretty clearly and bluntly. Not much room for evasion there. Besides, you get a sense for, hmm, motive after a while. Someone who’s speaking the truth with intent to mislead feels different from someone who’s being open and honest with you, and Adric said Sir Wufei feels honest.”
“And he feels honest to you, too?”
“Oh, heart-reading isn’t one of my talents,” Kresko shrugged. “My minor talent is one that gets called aura-reading here, but I’ve always thought the Spearman name for it was better. They call it power-sense.”
“Mmh. Yes. So I can tell that he’s right there,” the mage said, pointing with his staff, “because although he’s not doing anything in particular right now, there’s a sort of… hum, I suppose is the best way to explain it. He has a lot of power at his disposal, and the, mmm, flavour of the power is…” He cocked his head, visibly considering. “Clean? Warm? It’s hard to express in words, but… he feels very strong, but not threatening.”
“Well, that’s something, I suppose,” Sir Charrow muttered, exchanging glances with Sir Conor.
They didn’t have to wait much longer before the Osprey slid into place beside the dock, moving with neat precision that was slightly spoiled when the mooring ropes her crew expected to catch failed to materialise. The helmsman compensated with some quick rudder-work, and several crewmen jumped from the deck to grab coiled ropes and throw them, but the ship still bumped harder against the pilings than planned. The heavy canvas fenders draped across her railings bounced and shifted out of place, and there was a burst of swearing from the afterdeck as a long strip of black paint was scraped off her side.
“Where’ve the bloody dockworkers gotten to, then?!” an angry tenor voice bellowed, and a small figure stamped to the rail to glare at the waiting humans and dwarf, quickly focussing on the Knight-Captain as the probable leader. “Well?!”
Sir Charrow’s eyebrows lifted, but he replied politely enough. “We thought it would be better to have as few people as possible on the docks for your arrival, in case–”
“And it never occurred to you that maybe dockworkers are on the docks when ships arrive because they’ve got jobs to do?! Or that if the people who normally handle the mooring ropes have been chased off, p’raps somebody else should do something about it?! Eh?!” the angry halfling interrupted, lowering his head belligerently as if ready to charge, horns first.
“…No. It didn’t,” the Knight-Captain admitted. “I apologise.”
“Huh.” The halfling stared a moment longer, then nodded. “Well then. If you want your Champions off my ship any time soon, I’ll thank you to be helping my crewmen find a gangplank. Seeing as how I don’t see one out and ready on this end of the dock, the way the dockworkers would usually have it set up!” he added, sarcasm practically dripping from his voice.
A couple of the tiny crewmen snickered as they trotted down the dock, glancing from side to side as they searched, and Sir Charrow nodded thoughtfully at his companions. “I do believe we’ve been told,” he said wryly, turning to follow the halflings. “And I see what you meant about Marfangers…”
- - - - -
Wufei grimaced. All the debris of a sea-going civilisation that hadn’t yet developed anti-pollution laws was strewn across the ocean floor, thrown away into Belhadan Bay; bones, half-rotted beams, the skeleton of a burned ship, tangles of cording and rusted chains, all sunk into the ooze and covered with a slimy coating of decayed food and untreated sewage. The water was murkier than could be explained by the depth, and he activated Nataku’s head-mounted searchlight.
What’s wrong? Karthan sent back immediately, and Wufei snorted.
Sorry, I didn’t mean for that to reach you. There’s nothing wrong, exactly, but… well, it’s filthy down here, and I just discovered a few million crabs eating all the trash. All colours from ghost-white through brown and green to black, the living carpet scuttled out of his path as he picked his way carefully forwards, waving their claws and eyeing Nataku’s oncoming feet with obvious suspicion.
Ah. Yes. There’s a reason seaside towns don’t often have a midden, Karthan mused, mental tone turning a little squeamish.
Mmm. There’s sharks, too. I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the bay even if it wasn’t cold, Wufei warned, and got back a wordless feeling of assent. Are they ready? I’ve found a couple of places that would be suitable for me to climb up.
In a minute. Captain Grantik is, ah, schooling Knight-Captain Sir Charrow Malakhai in proper dockside behaviour, the dwarf informed him, amusement creeping back into his mental voice.
…Do I want to know?
The docks were cleared for our arrival, and nobody thought to station members of the Order to replace the dockworkers who normally handle mooring lines and so forth, Karthan explained succinctly. Paint got scuffed.
Exactly. Any deference Sir Charrow might have received due to his rank just went right down the long-drop outhouse.
Wufei laughed out loud, hair falling into his eyes for the umpteenth time, and smoothed it back without feeling annoyed for once. I’m sorry I missed it!
Don’t be. Gunnar will be delighted to tell you all the details later, I’m sure. –Ah, I think we’re nearly ready to move. Which of your possible ways up out of the bay is nearest to where I am now?
Wufei eyed the close-range sonar, currently mapping out the bay’s underwater contours, and mentally translated the green lines on screen into a direction and distance. Over there.
Hm. There was a brief pause before Karthan ‘spoke’ again. Ah. That’s… a gravel beach with a couple of ships lying on their sides? Does that sound like what you’re seeing from below?
Oh, it’s a careenage? That makes sense.
A spot where you can pull ships onto dry land to clean or repair their hulls, Wufei explained. Is there room for Nataku to walk between the ships without damaging them?
I’ll head that way, then. Let me know when everyone’s ready.
- - - - -
Master Kresko didn’t seem to be paying attention to the introductions, watching the bay with a slight smile on his face until Sir Charrow nudged him unobtrusively.
“–and this is Master Kresko, senior master of the mage academy here in Belhadan. Master Kresko, may I present the Champions Sir Uthmardanharknar dihna’ Shirkanath and Sir Arwen Ewansson of the Order of Torframos?”
“Delighted to meet you,” Kresko said, bowing to them both and staying bent long enough to shake Uthmar’s hand. “I don’t often get to meet Champions,” he went on cheerfully, straightening up to repeat the gesture with Arwen, “but you always have the best stories to tell over dinner!”
“Unfortunately I don’t think we’ll have leisure to pay any dinner visits this time, Master Kresko,” Uthmar said politely, eyebrows quirking upwards. “We’re going to be moving out as soon as we’re resupplied, I’m afraid.”
“Ah well,” the mage sighed theatrically. “Perhaps on your way back?”
“Perhaps. And these are our sergeants, Gunnar and Karthan–”
“Oh! I’ve heard of you!” Kresko beamed, clasping Gunnar’s proffered hand in both of his own and shaking it vigorously.
“…Really?” Gunnar blinked, startled. “Good things, I hope.”
“Well, that would depend on your point of view. I gather you know all the worst stories to tell over dinner.”
“Ah! Well, yes, I have to admit I do,” Gunnar assured him, grin widening.
“That settles it. You might not have time for paying dinner visits, Sir Uthmar, Sir Arwen, but I do,” Kresko declared. “You’re going to have to stay at the chapterhouse for at least one night before you can head out again, I’m sure, so I’m going to shamelessly abuse my position and invite myself for a meal.”
Arwen opened his mouth, shut it again, blinked, and looked helplessly at Sir Charrow. Rescue was not forthcoming.
“You are of course always welcome at my table,” the Knight-General told the mage calmly, one corner of his mouth twitching upwards before smoothing out into an expression of polite respect. “I’m sure we can accommodate you tonight, and I for one would also like to hear all the ‘worst’ stories Sergeant Gunnar can come up with…”
His voice trailed off as he stared narrow-eyed at the last of the passengers coming off the Osprey; two human and three dwarven armsmen, leading horses and mules respectively. The animals had been confined in the ship’s largest hold for the trip and were having a little difficulty finding their footing as they came down the wide cargo gangplank that the sailors had eventually found, stepping nervously as their handlers coaxed them onto the dock, but that didn’t seem to be what had caught Sir Charrow’s attention. He was staring intently at one of the humans, a tall man wearing a beautifully embroidered tabard that didn’t at all match his rather ragged, mended cloak. The hood fell back as his horse snorted and balked, revealing brilliant golden hair.
“Is that Sir Vaijon?” Sir Charrow asked.
“Hm?” Arwen turned to look, and nodded. “Yes, that’s him.”
“Hm!” Charrow paused for a moment, stroking his white beard thoughtfully, then couldn’t resist a quiet comment. “I see he’s lost that pretty cloak of his.”
“He didn’t lose it, exactly,” Arwen corrected him politely. “He sacrificed it to make bandages. Goodman Terrin – ah, that’s one of the civilians travelling with us – loaned him a spare.”
“Really?” Sir Charrow coughed, looking slightly embarrassed at his own surprised outburst, and Arwen couldn’t help grinning.
“Really, sir. The situation was… er… unusual.”
Charrow didn’t say ”It’d have to be” out loud, but it was clear to be read on his face until he coughed again and smoothed the expression away. “Ahem. Amusing as this is, we should probably move on to the Chapterhouse. If you’re ready, that is, Champions?”
“Yes, I’m looking forward to meeting the d– your travelling companion,” Master Kresko said cheerfully, looking up from where he’d been having a low-voiced conversation with Gunnar. “He’s… over there, isn’t he?” he added, gesturing towards a broad gravel beach bordering one of Belhadan’s many shipyards. “Is that where he’s going to come up?”
“Yes, sir,” Karthan nodded, taking a half-step forwards and drawing himself up into a position that wasn’t quite formal attention. “Sir Wufei says he’s ready whenever we are.”
He was instantly the focus of three sets of interested eyes. “The God did say that somebody was able to communicate with Sir Wufei through a… link of some sort?” Sir Charrow asked delicately. “That would be…?”
“Yes, sir. That’s me.” Karthan’s mouth snapped shut on the last word and he stared back aggressively, almost daring the Knight-Commander to go on. Perhaps wisely, he didn’t, merely nodding to Karthan before bowing deeply to the Champions.
“At your convenience, then, sirs.”
Arwen and Uthmar turned to cast a quick glance over their small company. Four squads of lay armsmen; the few knights and knight-probationers, barely distinguishable from the rank and file after weeks in the field, even Sir Vaijon looking definitely road-worn despite being scrupulously clean; sergeants chivvying everyone into place, regardless of rank; and in the centre, three civilians, Terrin almost invisible next to the two hradani. Even Naiya was taller than virtually all of the armsmen, only Vaijon and one other human beating her height, and Cord stood among them like a tree surrounded by shrubs.
“Not exactly parade-ground order, but it’ll do,” Uthmar muttered, looking up at Arwen. The taller Champion snickered and nodded in agreement, and they both turned to Karthan. “Tell him we’re ready.”
- - - - -
Sir Charrow had been expecting something large, but the sheer size of the humanoid metal monster wading up onto the beach exceeded his wildest speculations. Beside him, Sir Conor swore under his breath and clutched at his axehilt; Master Kresko just made an interested humming noise, cocking his head to one side as he scanned the huge multicoloured figure from the gold-crowned head to its strangely articulated white knees. Boats rocked at their moorings as it pushed through the water, raising waves, and it paused as it reached the shore to scrape its feet back and forth through the gravel. Streaks of muck and weed showed as it lifted one foot into view to examine it, and it tried again, as intent on the task as any knight of the chapterhouse determined not to track mud onto Mistress Quarelle’s clean floors might be.
“Phrobus’s teeth,” Conor swore again, eyes wide. “How tall is that thing?!”
“About sixty feet,” Sir Arwen said in a matter-of-fact voice. “You get used to it.”
“Sixty…” Charrow breathed, swallowing hard. “And how big is Sir Wufei when he gets out of… that?”
“Not much over five foot,” Sir Uthmar shrugged, strolling forwards until he was level with the Knight-Captain. “He doesn’t wear Nataku so much as he rides inside it. I thought Torframos passed on the details?”
“Well, yes, he said that, uh, Nataku was ‘large’, but he didn’t give us numbers!” Charrow sputtered. “I was thinking, well, perhaps as tall as a two-storey building, maybe even three, but sixty feet– that’s at least twice my most generous estimate!”
Kresko hummed again, eyes bright with interest, and Charrow scrubbed one gloved hand across his forehead, feeling sweat prickle on his skin despite the cold. “Did that report of yours that you didn’t get around to passing on mention numbers?” he asked sourly, and Kresko shrugged, not looking away from the immense demon-armour.
“No, no numbers. Oh, there was a bit in there comparing it to masts and so forth, but, well. I’m not a sailor, so I don’t know how tall a schooner’s mast is, and then again Adric is a halfling, so I suppose I assumed that he was giving an exaggerated description because everything is tall compared to halflings. Silly of me, really,” he mused.
Apparently satisfied with the cleanliness of its feet, the huge figure stepped onto dry land and turned towards the docks, walking with exaggerated care as it reached the wide stone-flagged road that ran around the full circumference of the harbour. There was an odd hitch in its stride as it paused at the end of each step, bringing its foot perfectly level and setting it down gently before shifting its weight onto it, but even so Charrow could hear stone cracking beneath its weight.
“…There aren’t any cobbled roads between here and the chapterhouse, are there?” he asked, dragging his mind back to the duty at hand with an effort. “It’s all flagstones and large slabs, yes?”
“Ah… I believe so, sir,” Conor replied after a moment’s thought.
“Good. He’s cracking the flags, but they’re set solidly enough that he’s not sinking through the road’s surface,” Charrow muttered. “He’d drive cobblestones right down through the roadbase, and we’d be fixing giant potholes for months.”
“You mean the City Council would be fixing them,” Conor pointed out.
“Yes, but we’d be paying for it, and we wouldn’t hear the end of it for years,” Charrow snorted. Drawing himself up to his full height – painfully aware that at only an inch over six feet, it made precisely zero difference when compared to the mountain walking towards him – he shrugged his shoulders to settle his armour and nodded to the Champions. “After you, sirs.”
Conor glanced to the side as they reached the end of the dock and turned onto the harbourside road, and snorted into his beard.
“What is it?” Charrow muttered, and the dwarf jerked his chin towards the roads leading into the city.
“We’re losing spectators fast,” he murmured back. The crowds of onlookers were indeed thinner than before, numerous heads bobbing away up the street as many of the people who’d come to gawk at a strange creature decided that they weren’t really interested enough to stay that close after all, and even the Order’s men and city guards lined up to keep the crowd back were staring and edging backwards.
Charrow frowned. “Yes, and we’re going to do more than lose them if some idiot breaks and starts screaming. Send– no, damnit, he’s not here– Conor, you go and–”
“If I may, sirs?” a new voice cut in crisply.
Charrow had barely a moment to blink in surprise at Sir Vaijon (Almerhas of Almerhas) actually volunteering for crowd control duty before Arwen nodded decisively and gestured towards one of the dwarven sergeants. “Yes, Vaijon, you go. Halvdan, go with him, you’ve got the lungs for this. Stiffen a few spines and provide an example, keep people calm and if they must leave, keep them controlled.”
“Sir!” Vaijon snapped to a posture of attention for a second, nodded respectfully, then yanked his borrowed cloak free and held it out to a crossbow-wielding armsman as he began to march purposefully towards the crowd. “Jens, if you would–”
“Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen! Don’t be alarmed–”
The rest of his words were overridden by Halvdan’s deep rumble as the dwarf trotted after him, focussing on the soldiers. “Atten-SHUN! Where do you think you’re going, you lily-livered–”
Vaijon’s glorious tabard, more expensively embroidered than even Charrow’s own, glittered in the thin winter sunlight as he reached the crowd and kept talking, gesturing towards Nataku. The crowd shifted back and forth, looking between him and the oncoming giant, then seemed to sway towards Vaijon, and Arwen relaxed with a sigh. “He’s got them. Vaijon’s depressingly charismatic when he’s not being offensive, you know.”
“I do know, but–” Charrow eyed Arwen speculatively. “He has changed, hasn’t he?”
“Stick’s out for good,” someone muttered from the ranks behind them, and Arwen grinned.
“That’s one of the stories that I’m sure Gunnar will be delighted to tell, Sir Charrow.”
“I’ll need Jens and Karthan’s help for it, though. I missed a lot of the good bits through not having the good fortune to be captured by a bunch of dog brothers,” Gunnar shrugged, and Master Kresko grinned like a child with a new puppy.
“Oh, I am looking forward to dinner!”
- - - - -
The march to the Belhadan chapter house was… interesting, Karthan decided. ‘Interesting’ really was the only word that covered it, since a full description of the short journey had to include a lot of other adjectives.
‘Loud’, for one, as the city dwellers lining the streets gasped and shrieked, clutching at each other and pushing back as they passed; and also ‘tense’. The squads had formed up in a hollow square around Nataku almost automatically, marching in a formation that might have looked like they were escorting the huge figure in order to protect the onlookers from it, but they knew – and any soldier familiar with the manoeuvre would know – it was intended to do the opposite.
Well, we’re not so much protecting Wufei from the crowd attacking him as we are protecting the crowd from the consequences of being stupid enough to attack him, the dwarf decided, watching narrow-eyed for any signs that one of the men trying to look brave and determined was going to panic and then not flee. There were hradani in the almost-mob, raising the odds, and he saw Cord locking eyes with one or two. Karthan had no idea how or why the Horse Stealer was picking them out, but so long as it lessened the chances of them berserking (or at least didn’t increase the chances) he wasn’t going to interfere.
The two Champions were marching with Sir Charrow and Master Kresko at the head of their formation, Sir Vaijon and the other knights and knight-probationers immediately behind them, and for a moment Karthan could have sworn he saw a faint gold aura flicker around them.
What are Arwen and Uthmar doing? Wufei asked in the back of his head, sounding startled.
I just felt… something.
Apparently he hadn’t been seeing things, Karthan decided, and mentally shrugged. Not being a Champion myself, I don’t know for sure, he admitted, but I’d bet at least a few kormaks that they’re trying to use Torframos’s power to keep the crowd a little calmer. Calling up and projecting the ‘feel’ of the God, without making it obvious. Think it’s working?
I hope so, Wufei said grimly. Gundams are not designed for any form of crowd control other than ‘squash them all and let the Gods sort them out’. There are a couple of things I can try, but if something goes badly wrong– He hesitated, and Karthan grinned behind his beard.
You’ll be fine in there, but we’re liable to be swamped and trampled?
You sound depressingly cheerful about the prospect.
It’s better than panicking myself… and we’re almost there, anyway. That’s the chapter house at the end of the street. Clean clothes, hot food, warm beds–
Baths. Please say there are baths.
–and baths. Hot baths. Definitely.
* * * * *
“How much time do we have?” Heero snapped, walking in the door and looking around. “Are we going to manage a clean evac?”
Duo shrugged, dropping two stuffed-full duffel bags onto a pile next to the sofa. “No idea on the time; Sideburns Man hasn’t changed his pattern, not that that means a lot. We’re doing better than expected on sanitising the place, it looked a mess but Quatre got ninety percent of the notes and shit bagged in ten minutes. I’ve drained the hot tub; we’re planning to stuff it all in there and drop in a thermite charge as we leave. It’s as close to a perfect wipe as we’re going to get. We’re not bothering with fingerprints or trace evidence because we’d have to torch the house to get it all, it’s not like they don’t already know who we are, and none of it is going to lead to our next step.”
“Agreed.” Heero’s voice was tight and clipped, sounding cold and arrogant, but the skin around his eyes was tight and the muscles along his jaw were twitching. He looked at Duo and then away, back to Duo and away, again and again. “How… where are we up to and what do you need me to do?”
“First, come here for a sec,” Duo told him, straightening up and resettling his grip on his crutches. Heero turned obediently, stepped towards him, and squeaked absurdly as Duo reached out to grab his collar and pull him close for a kiss.
He wants to wrap me in cotton wool again but he knows he can’t, so it’s straight back into deep Mission Mode with added panic, all squashed down under the Perfect Soldier. Fuck that. He’ll beat himself up so hard if he slips up and starts giving me orders again, so I’m not gonna let him.
“That’s better,” Duo sighed, leaning back and grinning at Heero’s confused expression. Behind him, Trowa closed the front door and walked off in search of Quatre, smiling. “We’re nearly done. The best use of your time is probably to spend ten minutes setting off all the logic bombs and worm programs I know you have already set up to wipe us and this location out of as many computers as possible, then come help me pack the last couple of rooms. I’ve managed to mostly stay off my feet but it’ll go a lot faster if you clear each room and bring stuff to me to bag.”
Heero just stared blankly at him, and Duo wondered if he’d even registered what he’d said; then he smiled, a tiny crack in his blank non-expression, and leaned in with a sigh to rest his forehead against Duo’s for just a moment. “Five.”
“The logic bombs will only take five minutes.”
Duo snorted. “Showoff.”
- - - - -
“Are we done?”
“I think so.” Duo surveyed the lounge room through narrowed eyes, drumming his fingers against his crutches. Trowa was vanishing into the hallway that led to the garage carrying the last three bags, Quatre was upstairs collecting the laptop Heero had been using, all the bags of notes and receipts that might have given clues about what they were doing were packed into the outdoor hot tub awaiting their destruction… “Yeah, I think we’re good. One more check sweep and go?”
Feet thundered down the stairs and Quatre swung into view, eyes bright. “Sideburns Man just showed up and there’s three more guys in the car with him!”
“Ditch the sweep, drop the thermite, we’re leaving,” Duo announced, tossing a small prepared charge in Heero’s general direction as he headed after Trowa.
“Ryoukai,” Heero snapped, snatching the charge out of the air and sprinting for the back yard.
“I hate to admit it, but I’ve missed hearing you say that!” Duo yelled after him.
“So give me orders more often!” Heero yelled back, and Duo started laughing.
End chapter 43
[Scene: the Onnas’ Writing Couch, with a small ginger dog with a foofy tail sitting on it, frowning intently at an open laptop.]
TROWA: Loki, I don’t think you’re supposed to mess with Mel’s computer.
LOKI: Yap! Yap yap whine yap yap! (trowa! trowa you’re my favourite human! well favourite except mommy. favourite non-mommy human! help me type!)
LOKI: Yap grrr yap! (mommy keeps promising that i can write the babble! but mommy and mel went shopping for tea or something like that–)
TROWA: Because if Mel runs out of her preferred form of caffeine there will be death and destruction, yes.
LOKI: (–and the chapter’s finished and i want to do the babble but i need somebody to type for me and mommy’s not here so please?)
TROWA: *shrug* Well, Christy does expect me to cater to your every whim. Okay.
[Trowa sits down and picks up the laptop. There is a slight delay as Loki first tries to sit on his lap under the keyboard, then between him and the sofa cushions, but eventually they get settled.]
TROWA: What would you like me to type?
LOKI: (um. i dunno. what's a babble anyway?)
TROWA: As far as we can tell, stream of consciousness idiocy.
TROWA: You’ll be good at it.
LOKI: (yay! okay okay so i'll talk about stuff! um. first, big brother zac went to the big doghouse in the sky, well really he’s in a pot on the bookshelf but mommy said sky doghouse. she was sad and i was too kinda because he was nice and never stole my food. and then mommy got me two more brothers but they’re just food thieves! and treat stealers! jerry pees on things! and pompom chews my toys! and–)
DUO: Oh, hey Tro! Whatcha do– HA! You’ve got the fic laptop! Are you fixing their stories?! Ooh, ooh, write us getting out of here!
[The keyboard sparks warningly, and Trowa shakes one singed hand.]
TROWA: I’m pretty sure it’s warded against that sort of tampering. I’m just helping Loki write the babble.
[Trowa points helpfully at the little waggy-tailed dog.]
DUO: You’re shittin’ me.
LOKI: (and and pompom says he can totally take fluffy-sama in a fight but i think fluffy would win. what do you think?)
TROWA: Fluffy. No contest.
[Trowa points at the little waggy-tailed dog again. Duo eyes him nervously.]
DUO: I’m just gonna… go over here… and… do something. Yeah.
[As Duo sidles out of the room, there is a knock at the door.]
DUO: Awesome, something to think about that isn’t Trowa having conversations with the little orange Pokedog!
[He opens the door.]
GRIMMJOW: We’re here for Kurosaki.
KENPACHI: Yeah, he owes us a fight. Where is he?
[Duo closes the door.]
DUO: Yeah, that was a mistake.
This Web Page Created with PageBreeze Free HTML Editor