It was still early in the morning but the marketplace was bustling. Elnor trailed a few steps behind Picard and Rios. The air was cool and the light breeze tousled the ends of his long hair around as they strolled past colourful stalls selling fruit, bolts of fabric, and other items. He adjusted the strap across his chest and shifted his shoulders slightly, moving the scabbard on his back to a more comfortable position. He stopped to admire the artistry of a local potter's work until he heard his name.
"Elnor, please try to keep up," Picard told him, adjusting his wide-brimmed hat.
They weren't there on a leisure trip. Rios was supposed to meet his new passenger and Picard decided to tag along to get some real fresh air, as he put it. Elnor, of course, went wherever Picard did so there they were, casually making their way through the market toward whatever local dive Rios' passenger insisted they meet at.
The village and the market reminded him of Vashti. Simple people living a simple existence, just trying to get by as best they could. He imagined many of the residents were peaceful but the poverty and lack of stable infrastructure created an atmosphere ripe for criminal activity, much like Vashti. Visitors like them were at a higher risk for being targeted and he worried about Picard. The elderly man was kind, if reserved, and more vulnerable than the streetwise Rios. He was trying to keep his eyes open and alert but the jubilant market was distracting. As eager as he'd been to leave his mundane life on Vashti, he found traveling on a cargo ship wasn't any more stimulating. He was bored most of the time and welcomed outings like this.
He lagged again as his dark eyes took in the spread of books on the table near him. Picard came up next to him but instead of chastising him for falling behind again, he asked,
"Do you see anything that interests you?"
"I haven't looked closely," Elnor replied. Picard began perusing the vendor's selection and discovered most of the books were Terran. He turned and called Rios who came over to join them. They spent the next half an hour sifting through the titles and Picard picked up the tab for all of them.
The market was large and as they wove their way through the aisles, the crowd became denser. Someone bumped into Elnor, not too hard but enough for him to have to compensate for the loss of balance. They each instinctively touched the other's arm as they stepped aside.
"Sorry," the stranger apologized as they continued past him. They glanced over their shoulder and he met their gaze, his attention caught by their unusual eyes. The interaction lasted only a few seconds but it gave him a weird feeling. He kept walking but watched the stranger disappear into the sea of faces.
"Pretty girl?" Rios asked with an amused smirk when he noticed Elnor looking back.
Rios' question didn't quite register at first. "What?" Then he realized both men were looking at him with identical expressions and his cheeks flushed. "I don't think so, no."
"Are you sure, Nino?" Rios teased.
"Oh leave him be," Picard said recognizing Elnor was becoming flustered as he often did whenever the topic of attractive women came up.
"Hey, I'm just sayin' I wouldn't mind if he pointed one or two out. I like to look too," Rios chuckled.
"Someone bumped into me," Elnor said, hoping Rios would drop the subject.
It wasn't much of a secret that while he'd been raised entirely by women, he struggled to interact with ones his age outside of a combat forum. Even his strict adherence to the tenets of Absolute Candor didn't seem to help him overcome the embarrassing reticence that afflicted him when he tried to interact with a girl he was attracted to. He was painfully inexperienced and it was painfully obvious.
Thankfully, Rios did drop the subject and they progressed toward their destination as the older men discussed philosophy instead. Elnor wasn't disinterested in their conversation but he didn't have anything to contribute so before long his eyes started to wander around him again. He thought he saw something familiar in his peripheral vision and turned toward it. He only caught a glimpse but he was sure it was the same person who bumped into him earlier.
The meeting spot was a small tavern tucked away on a side street at the far end of the market. It presented as respectable but it was also early in the day. It might have become a completely different place after dark. The trio entered and sat at a table near the door.
Elnor scanned the room. There were a few other patrons, mostly single men sitting alone. One looked like he was the village drunk. He was seated at the bar and had a rumpled appearance. He slouched over the counter with a paper spread out in front of him but seemed as if he were nodding off rather than reading it. Another man, a heavier set but neatly dressed Bolian sat in the far corner with his back to the wall. He watched Elnor's group come in and sit down but then returned his attention to the padd in front of him. A third man, tall with wide shoulders and skin like hardened sand sat at a table in the middle of the room. He didn't even acknowledge the new arrivals. There were only two others in the tavern, seated at a table together playing a card game and chattering away to each other in a language unfamiliar to the young Romulan.
After quickly assessing the room, Elnor sat facing the open door. He saw someone walk past the entrance and he could swear it was the same stranger who bumped into him earlier. He stood up and craned himself forward as he tried to catch sight of them again.
Picard looked at him quizzically. "Is everything alright, Elnor?"
"I think we're being followed," he replied. "I keep seeing the same person who bumped into me at the market."
"This town isn't that big, I don't think it's unusual to see the same people more than once," Rios said.
"What makes you believe this person is following us?" Picard asked.
Elnor sat back down with a frustrated frown on his face. "I don't know, it's just a feeling I have."
"You have feelings about everything," Rios teased. Picard ignored the gentle jab but Elnor gave Rios a look commonly exchanged between a boy and his older brother.
Not that he had any idea what having an older brother was like but he guessed their dynamic was similar.
At that point, a well-dressed man of average height approached the table. "Mr. Rios?" he ventured tentatively.
The handsome Chilean looked up. "The one and only," he replied.
A broad smile spread across the man's face and he extended his hand. "Excellent! I'm Alvin Sutcliffe, the one who inquired about passage aboard your vessel."
"Have a seat, Mr. Sutcliffe," Rios said, shaking the man's hand and gesturing to the empty chair. "This is retired admiral, Jean-Luc Picard, and this is-"
"Admiral Picard!" Sutcliffe interrupted with a charmed inflection. He had a slight accent although its origin was indeterminate. "Your reputation is well known and very impressive. It is a pleasure." He thrust his hand toward Picard who accepted it with a modest smile.
"Is this your servant?" Sutcliffe asked, glancing at Elnor.
Picard smiled again. "No, Elnor is my qalankhkai."
"His bodyguard," Rios elaborated before Sutcliffe could ask what that meant.
The man took a step back and scanned Elnor up, and down a little too slowly. "Well, he certainly looks fit to the task. A strong, healthy boy rarely makes a poor companion. It's a pleasure," he said, nodding at the young Romulan.
Elnor nodded politely in return.
He didn't like the way the man looked at him and the way he said "strong, healthy boy" made his skin crawl but he didn't want to cause problems for Rios so he ignored it.
The server then brought out the drinks Picard and Rios ordered, and they all sat quietly while Mr. Alvin Sutcliffe prattled on about his business interests, and how much he appreciated Rios' reasonable rates. Elnor kept his eyes on the doorway waiting to see if he would spot the stranger again.
By the time they left the tavern, it was nearly midday and the sun was high in the sky. Picard tugged his hat down over his face to shield it from the bright light and Elnor found he had to squint for the first few minutes until his eyes adjusted to the drastic change in illumination. Sutcliffe was eager to stroll through the market now that the crowd of shoppers had thinned and Rios was in no particular hurry so he agreed.
The man continued to chatter away while Picard politely nodded every so often making a hmmm sound and Rios did an excellent job of pretending to be interested in Sutcliffe's various entrepreneurial ideas. Elnor trailed behind the three and paid closer attention to their surroundings as they traced their original path back through the market, letting his mind wander a little.
He wondered what Soji, Agnes, and Raffi were up to back on the ship. He liked Raffi. She was warm and kind, and even though he could tell she struggled with her demons, she was always the first one to be there whenever anyone else was hurting. She had certainly been a shoulder for him to quite literally cry on and she seemed to be able to read his moods better than the others. She was also sympathetic to his difficulties with Soji. Raffi was the first to notice his crush and was still trying to help him conquer his shyness with limited success. Actually, no success but she kept trying. Soji always treated him courteously but otherwise seemed to avoid one-on-one interaction with him. He knew it wasn't entirely personal. He reminded her of Narek. He couldn't help how he felt though and continued to hold out hope she would give him a chance one day. Agnes was also kind but deeply haunted by the crime she'd committed and kept everyone except Rios at arm's length. Still, he enjoyed her company and she always stuck up for him when Raffi and Rios teased him.
His train of thought was interrupted as a strange feeling came over him. His eyes searched the area around him until he spotted the stranger again. It wasn't obvious they were following his party but he was convinced the repeat appearances weren't just coincidence. He picked up his pace a little and came up on Picard's left.
"I saw that same person again," he said quietly. "The one who walked into me earlier."
Picard turned toward him. "You are beginning to sound a little paranoid, Elnor. I haven't noticed anyone suspicious and neither has Mr. Rios."
"We'll be back aboard the ship soon," Picard told him. "If you see them again, by all means, let me know but I think you need to relax."
Frustrated by the dismissal, Elnor fell back behind the group again and kept his attention completely focused on the people surrounding them. A few minutes later, he caught another glimpse.
They were definitely being followed.
When he saw them yet again, he finally moved to confront them. He reached for his weapon but Rios caught his arm.
"Hey, what are you doing?" he asked, keeping his voice low. "You can't be pulling that out in a crowded market."
"I keep seeing that same person," Elnor insisted. "They're following us."
Rios tightened his grip on Elnor's arm and his tone turned harsh. "Even if they are, what do you think you're going to do? Decapitate them in front of a crowd of witnesses? This isn't Vashti, companero."
"I-" Elnor tried to respond but Rios wouldn't hear it. Cursing in Spanish, he pushed him toward Picard. "You need to keep an eye on your muscle, jefe."
"What is the problem, Rios?" Picard asked, somewhat confused by the sudden disagreement between the two.
"He's still convinced we're being followed and he just tried to pull his sword," Rios said.
Picard looked at Elnor and frowned. "We've had this discussion before, Elnor. You're not to draw your weapon without explicit instructions to do so," he firmly told him.
Sutcliffe observed the exchange with mild interest. "Don't be too hard on the boy," he said kindly. "He's only doing his duty. These open-air markets can be dangerous for visitors." Then he looked at Elnor and winked. An action the young Romulan found disconcerting. It was not a friendly, I've got your back type of wink but closer to a slimy, meet me in that alley over there, kind of wink. Alvin Sutcliffe made him uneasy.
Once the man decided he had enough of the market, they headed for their beam out coordinates. Elnor continued to hold up the rear, quietly sulking by this point. He noticed Sutcliffe glancing at him and started to wonder about him.
Rios mentioned that Sutcliffe was only traveling to the next star system and it struck him as a little odd that this man would book passage on a freighter rather than just take a commuter shuttle especially since he wasn't going very far. It seemed like more hassle than it was worth. Unless, of course, he wanted to avoid being listed on a passenger manifest. By choosing a random cargo ship he could avoid the more rigid regulations that governed the commercial shuttles, even on a less developed world like this. Why would he want to do that though? What was he hiding? Maybe nothing. Maybe he just wanted to be comfortable. Commuter shuttles were more efficient but they lacked the amenities a ship like La Sirena offered. Maybe Picard was right and he was being paranoid. He still had nightmares about the things that happened on the Artifact. The violent genocide...being alone for days, unable to sleep...Hugh's blood all over his hands...almost being captured by the Tal Shiar. Perhaps trying to suppress his fears wasn't working and they were starting to manifest in other ways. Maybe he should try talking to Picard about them later.
Feeling thwarted and ignored, he let out a sigh. He looked over at a dressmaker's stall and in the large mirror, he saw the stranger behind him. Not wanting to betray his advantage, he kept his eyes ahead, and subtly reached his hand out to touch Picard's arm. He took a discreet peek behind him to make sure the stranger was still there and then he quietly said the old man's name.
"We are definitely being followed," he added.
Picard tilted his head toward him. "Is our shadow back?"
Elnor nodded. "They're right behind me."
Picard slowed his gait until they were both trailing behind Rios and Sutcliffe. Elnor took one more glance to confirm their tail and gave a brief description. "Dark jacket, wide hood, big eyes."
Picard turned over his shoulder. "Elnor, there is nobody there."
Shocked by the reply, he turned himself right around. The stranger was gone. "They were just there! How can anyone disappear so quickly out in the open?" Frustrated, he stopped moving and searched around him but there was no trace of the person he'd seen only a few seconds ago.
Picard looked at him with concern. "Are you feeling alright?"
"I feel fine," he replied with defeat.
Picard took his arm and started leading him back toward Rios, and Sutcliffe. The latter's expression was neutral but Rios' was not. He was clearly annoyed with Elnor's behaviour and the young Romulan knew he was going to hear about it when they got back to the ship. The group reached the beam out spot and Rios signaled for Raffi to transport them off the surface. Just as he was surrounded by the swirling light, Elnor was positive he saw the stranger watching them.