Demon of Justice
Chapter 42
"I don't want to know!"
-


"For us? Really? Oh my, that is lovely. Thank you!"

The sound of the front door closing again carried into the well-lit kitchen where Miss Immy was standing, waiting for the kettle to boil as cats circled her ankles like furry sharks. "No, you silly things, I'm making tea, not kitty treats- here, smell. See? I told you!" The rotund black-and-white cat she'd offered the teapot to stalked off looking offended, and she chuckled as she straightened up. "Neppy? Who was it?"

Miss Neppy walked in, brandishing a bunch of red orchids like a weapon. "Flowers!"

"Ooh! Pretty ones, too! Who are they from?" Abandoning the tea for the moment, Immy started looking for a suitable vase.

"I don't recognise the handwriting," Neppy said, a little dubiously. Carefully tearing the envelope open, she reached in and pulled out… another envelope. "'Please hand this to the boys across the road'," she read out loud.

Immy turned back towards her, small vase in hand, and raised her eyebrows. "It's a message for the boys? Sent to us?"

"Sealed, and disguised as something innocent," Neppy said slowly, putting the orchids down on the bench and turning the second envelope over in her hands. "…We're being used as a dead drop."

There was a pause, silent except for the purring of one persistent cat who wouldn't believe that tea was the only substance on offer.

Both elderly ladies turned to look at the kettle, just coming on to boil.

* * * * *

"Well?" Churnazh snapped, glaring at his third son- second living son, now, came the unwelcome thought- as Arsham strode into the throne room.

"All's quiet enough now," Arsham shrugged, coming to a halt in front of his father's throne and beginning his report without ceremony. "It's an unsettled sort of quiet, though; I'd not want to call it calm. The storm ended even faster than it started and with no more sign of what caused it than we got yesterday, and the whole city's just waiting to see what happens next. Countryside too, I'd bet, though we've not had time to get reports from further out than a few leagues," he added, shrugging.

"The city'd be a lot more settled if you'd cracked down harder yesterday, right at the start," Chalghaz snapped, looking down his nose at his shorter sibling. Behind him, Chalak nodded emphatically, slack face trying to hold an expression of self-important solemnity and failing. "You're too soft, little brother."

Arsham raised one unimpressed eyebrow. "Crack down harder? On a bunch of city guards, off-duty soldiers, and shopkeepers that were already trembling on the edge of the Rage- aye, and falling over it, too! D'you think it would've been an improvement to have a berserk mob in the streets? Besides, I was on the spot, did what I thought best at the time, and it worked. If you wanted someone to crack down harder, you could have done it yourself… if you'd been there." His lips hardened into a tight line. "Which you weren't. Where were you, brother?"

He didn't go on, but his eyes flicked across to their father for a moment, and Churnazh could read the question in them: And where were you, father?

"Enough!" he barked as Chalghaz swayed forwards, mouth opening for a heated reply, and his heir settled back on his heels. "Both of you, enough. Chalghaz, leave be; Arsham keeps a tight enough grip, and if there's a quibble with his methods, I'll be the one to point it out, not you. Arsham-" He nodded grudging approval, getting a bare lift of Arsham's chin in acknowledgment. "-well done. You'll be wanting to keep an eye on the situation, so I'll not keep you. Let me know if anything changes."

Arsham's lip curled slightly at the obvious dismissal, but he nodded briskly before turning on his heel and marching out. Beside Churnazh, Chalghaz huffed a growl under his breath as his half-brother didn't bother to even glance at him as he left.

"He's awfully stuck-up for a bastard," Chalak sneered, and Churnazh rounded on him in fury.

"Bastard or no, he's useful!" the Prince roared, glaring at his youngest son. "I give him a job and it gets done! He has a right to be arrogant. What makes you think you've got any worth, eh? I've not seen any point to you in years, boy, don't you start getting airs!"

Chalak cringed away from him, stuttering excuses. "I wasn't- I didn't mean-"

"Get out of my sight!"

Breath hissing through his teeth, Churnazh settled back into his throne as Chalak scurried out, his half-dozen personal guardsmen following on his heels. Chalghaz eyed his father warily for a few breaths before apparently deciding that his anger had been directed only at the youngest prince, not some general fit or spurt of the Rage that might aim itself at him next.

The few courtiers who hadn't barricaded themselves in their own homes during the uncanny storm were keeping to the other end of the long room, whispering uneasily to each other… all except for one. Lord Yarthag, head of the house of Harkand, was drifting casually closer. Churnazh beckoned him over and lowered his voice, but didn't speak to the lord immediately; his attention was on Chalghaz.

"Let Arsham be," he said, threat clear in his tone. "As I said, he's useful, and I'll not have you trying to undermine him!"

Chalghaz's jaw clenched, but he didn't bother to deny his father's accusation. "He's too popular," he argued, keeping his voice down as well. "Half the army follows him personally, not us- not you- and if he ever snaps his fingers-"

"He won't," Churnazh assured him, snorting with mingled irritation and scorn. "Aye, the soldiers love him, but he's got no following outside the army and no legal claim to the throne. He may be my acknowledged bastard, but the important part of that is 'bastard'. He's no threat to your position, so leave him be!"

"You didn't have a legal claim to the throne," Chalghaz persisted, greatly daring, and Churnazh's response hung in the balance for a moment before amusement won and he laughed.

"I did not," he agreed, lips stretching in a carnivore's grin. "What I did have was the will to mount a coup anyway, and enough support in the court to make it stick. He's got neither. Let him be."

Reluctantly, Chalghaz nodded, and Churnazh bored in to make his point, stabbing his son in the chest with one thick finger. "As for Chalak, I hope you're not fooling yourself that he's a threat?"

Chalghaz rolled his eyes. "In his own head, maybe."

"Then I'll thank you to stop worrying about undermining the two of them to shore up your own position, and start worrying about doing your part as my heir to shore up both of us!" Churnazh hissed.

"Am I your heir?" Ears flattening slightly, Chalghaz jerked his chin towards Yarthag. "If he's wrong about Harnak being dead, and he does come back, am I still going to be your heir?"

"I assure you, my lords-"

Churnazh cut him off with a raised hand, eyes still on his son. "You are that," he said flatly. "Harnak was fool enough to be caught at rape by Bahnak's son and weak enough to lose to him in a fight. If he'd killed him then or had the wits to intercept him before he got those two women to Hurgrum, things would have blown over. As it is now, even if he comes back alive… well, I'll probably have him killed quiet-like myself, before he can embarrass me any further." His expression was perfectly flat and his voice perfectly matter-of-fact, and his son swallowed hard before nodding.

"He was also," Churnazh noted, a tinge of threat creeping into his voice as he turned to study Yarthag, "fool enough to be plotting against me. Or did you think I hadn't worked out why my heir would be messing with the Scorpion? And why you'd be making bargains with him behind my back?"

Chalghaz's head sank lower between his shoulders as he furtively glanced around, making sure none of the guards were within earshot as that dangerous name passed his father's lips, but Yarthag merely spread his hands and shrugged. "While I'm sure you're correct about the late prince's motivations," he said smoothly, "I can assure you that he had not gone so far as to mention them openly- nor had any offers along those lines been made to him by my Master's order. There had been discussion of a plan to make sure that Prince Chalghaz was no longer a threat, but events conspired to make that obsolete before any concrete steps- er- eventuated."

Chalghaz sputtered angrily. "That's the first I'm hearing about this!"

"Well, of course," Yarthag said reasonably. "When you weren't the heir and knew nothing of our presence in and around Navahk, it made sense for us to support Harnak against you. Now that you are the heir, and allied to the Scorpion, it makes just as much sense to support you. And as your lord father is also allied to the Scorpion," he went on, bowing slightly towards Churnazh, "giving us a royal… friend… in place on the throne, there's no need for us to… ah… promote a change. It is in the Scorpion's best interests to support you, Prince Churnazh, in a long and profitable reign, while also supporting you, Prince Chalghaz, as his eventual successor. In the fullness of time and without… mmm… hurrying matters along in any way."

Unless Sharna or his priests decide differently. As we both know very well, Churnazh thought, looking Yarthag in the eye. The hradani lord looked back, smiling faintly, and Churnazh quirked an ear at him in reluctant respect. Well, if it ever comes down to it and Chalghaz poses a risk to me, there's no reason I can't have him killed quiet-like, too.

"I'm thinking it was a mistake for us to be 'out of town' during the storm," the prince said aloud, changing the subject. "It's raised questions."

Yarthag grimaced and nodded. "I understand your concern, my lord Prince, but as you are our Lord's pincers within Navahk, Tharnatus thought it best to have you both safe within His walls. The storm was definitely of divine origin, and since we had no way of determining its purpose it could very well have been aimed at-"

Churnazh cut him off again, frowning. "Aye, I heard all that from Tharnatus himself! But he's not a hradani, and he doesn't think like one. Even if a human lord could vanish at a time like that without weakening his hold on the throne, which I doubt, all hradani see is that we weren't here to take command when we should have been. We can't do the Scorpion any good as 'pincers' ruling Navahk if people get the idea we shouldn't be ruling!"

Yarthag sighed. "True. Still, Prince Arsham did take command in your place and is loyal to you, so there should be little if any damage done. We can put about a story that you and Prince Chalghaz were… mmm… discussing his new responsibilities in private, at a hunting lodge, perhaps? It can go along with a formal acknowledgement of him as your recognised heir, which should prove useful for redirecting people's attention. Also, if you left Navahk before the storm began and were prevented from returning by, say, a flooded ford - perfectly reasonable under the circumstances - most if not all of the questions should be silenced."

"But we didn't," Chalghaz pointed out.

"Did anyone see you leave?" Yarthag asked, one ear slanting downwards. "Did anyone see you within the walls after the storm started? And by 'anyone', I mean 'anyone who might be missed'," he went on, smile widening until it showed teeth. "After all, the Scorpion always has room for more at his Feasts."

Churnazh's smile matched his own.

- - - - -

"That was quick," Ferak said quietly, falling in behind Arsham as he stalked out of the palace. Arsham grunted wordlessly in response but didn't stop, moving straight to where a slave was holding his horse and swinging onto its back without a pause. The slave, an old man with vague eyes and a toothless mouth forever chewing at nothing, looked up at him with a smile, and the prince checked for a moment, taking something out of his belt pouch and holding it out.

"Here, Grumuk," he said, voice surprisingly gentle. "Go on back to the kitchens. It's about time for your dinner, isn't it?"

"Aye, M'lord, that it is," the old man said, grinning as he accepted the sweet and stuffed it into his cheek, sucking noisily. He blocked Ferak's path for a moment as he turned, and his eyes widened as he realised what he'd done, cringing back from a blow that didn't come. Ferak sidestepped around him, pretending not to notice his presence, and untied his own horse's reins from a post.

They rode together in silence for a while, before Arsham abruptly broke it.

"If I gave him coins, somebody would just take them. He gets more worth out of the sweets," he said, sounding defensive.

Ferak made a noncommittal noise, eyeing him sidelong. Nobody else bothers to give slaves anything at all, much less carry something they know a half-wit likes just in case he does them a service, he thought, but didn't say out loud.

They arrived at a cross-street, and Arsham reined his mount to a stop, staring down it with one hand tapping nervously on his thigh. He opened his mouth, paused, bit his lip, and finally shook his head with a faint sigh. "Too much to do," he muttered under his breath, and kneed his horse onwards. "Later."

"Sir?" Ferak asked, letting his tone carry the question, and Arsham shook his head again.

"Nothing. Just a… an errand. It'll have to wait." He looked back over his shoulder at the street, glared suspiciously up at the clear autumn sky, then squared his shoulders and nudged his horse again, kicking it into a trot. Following along behind, Ferak's ears pricked as the prince muttered something else, barely loud enough for him to make it out. "They know where to find me if they need to."

- - - - -

In the hours that followed, Ferak stayed at Arsham's back, watching as the illegitimate prince fielded questions, calmed fears, and gave orders, hearing reports from across Navahk's territory as they came in and sending messengers back to reassure detached divisions of the army that someone was still in command. The panicked tones of the messages told part of the tale, and the messengers themselves told the rest. Frightened men, faced with something visibly unnatural that they could neither fight nor flee, threatened by rising floodwaters, had sometimes held firm; had sometimes not, slipping into the Rage, deserting to seek out their families in a futile effort to protect them, or just plain deserting. The occasional messenger brought casualty reports, usually from soldiers' efforts to restrain their berserk squadmates.

"Make sure all the divisions get the message- the quiet message, I don't want this one written down- that any deserters who return to their squads are to be allowed back without consequences. Well, without serious consequences," Arsham amended, mouth quirking into a brief wry smile. "If they harmed their squadmates they're to be disciplined as normal, but otherwise a few weeks of latrine-digging duty should be enough. I'm not setting a precedent here, which is why I don't want this on the record, but the circumstances were… let's just say unusual enough to warrant leniency and leave it at that."

"What if they don't come back?" one of his officers asked, leaning on the map-strewn table, and Arsham grimaced.

"We've got more important things to do than chase them. Let them be."

The prince sent the occasional report up to the palace, punctiliously keeping his father informed, but somehow the quiet amnesty for deserters never got written down on those, either. Ferak doubted the messengers - soldiers all, men who'd been close to Arsham even before his father took the throne - were planning to tell Black Churnazh verbally, either.

Not if Arsham doesn't order them to, he thought, ears quirking to different angles at the thought. And he isn't going to.

It was dark before the flood of reports and messages ended. The few still arriving were calmer now, no longer demanding immediate responses, and Arsham rubbed tiredly at his face as he sat back in his chair.

"Pack up," he said wearily, waving generally at the litter of maps and notes. Suiting action to the words, he pulled the nearest couple of maps towards himself and started slowly rolling them up, looking around to find where their case had gotten to. "If you're past your normal shift, get to bed; make sure the duty officer knows to check any more incoming messages and wake me if it's something serious. Who's duty officer tonight, anyway? Garnek? Can he read?"

"His lieutenant can," another officer reassured him, yawning hugely as he shuffled messages and notes into a loose stack.

"Good enough," Arsham sighed, still trying to find the map case. "Has anyone seen-"

His voice broke off abruptly, and Ferak stiffened, one hand going to his sword as he turned to see what the prince was looking at, searching for a threat. …Just a messenger?

The hradani standing in the doorway shifted uncomfortably, looking around, and Ferak revised his first impression. Not a messenger. Not a military messenger, at least- he's not a soldier. The man was unarmed except for a long belt knife and dressed in nondescript leather and cloth, working clothes rather than armour. Armed, so he's not a slave; some city worker? Civilian messengers should be going up to the palace-

"Akar!" Arsham said abruptly, snapping out of his stasis. "What are you- uh- is there a message?"

"Uh, yes, m'lord. Um…" The man looked around, ears flattening nervously, and Arsham beckoned him closer.

"Go to bed, the lot of you," he said firmly, waving the watching officers and messengers away. "The night shift can tidy the rest of this up. Good work," he added sincerely, and tired grins flashed as they left.

"Akar, what- oh. Ferak. Excuse us for a moment."

Ferak blinked, then nodded, following the last messenger out into the next room and pointedly closing the door behind him. He took up station beside the door, arms folded, leaning on the wall like any tired bodyguard might, and waited until the last man yawned his way out towards home or barracks… then shifted sideways a few inches, and swivelled his ears to point at the crack between door and wall.

The average hradani had excellent hearing. Ferak's was better than average.

"…not send Yurgazh?" he heard Arsham ask, voice carefully low.

"He's got double duty, looking after the south gate," the messenger - Akar - replied, voice even lower but mostly clear. A few words were lost as something shifted, probably a chair. "…sent word…" Another noise of shifting furniture. "…guessed you wouldn't be free to come to the temple."

Ferak stiffened, ears flattening to his head and nearly blocking out Arsham's rueful reply. Temple?! There's no temple in Navahk…

No known temple, that was. No publicly acknowledged temple. Certainly no temple of the Light gods.

Mind racing, Ferak forced his ears up again, listening hard.

"…was that storm?" Arsham was asking, voice serious. "Did Himself have a hand in it? Because if he did, you can tell him I'd have appreciated a warning!"

"No. He says it was Chemalka Herself."

"That makes sense- but why?!"

"He doesn't know. It's not like he can go ask her," Akar added dryly.

"Ha. I suppose not. No ideas?"

"None he's passed on to me… except that he thinks it was something to do with a ship, because there wasn't anything else he could see in the area that might be important. Of course, he can't see everything, so…" Akar's voice trailed off, and Ferak could imagine him shrugging.

"A ship?" Arsham asked sharply. "If that's it, I saw it. A halfling ship, heading upriver."

"Halflings?" Akar sounded surprised.

"Marfang Island halflings. I wonder…" Arsham trailed off into a thoughtful mutter, and Ferak could no longer make out the words.

There was another scrape of wood against stone, and Akar spoke again, voice still low but clearer as he turned towards the door. "I need to get back," he said, sounding… embarrassed? "Several of the, uh, the men came to shelter in the temple while the storm was strongest, and, um… well, I'm needed, I suppose."

"You could have sent Mathel," Arsham said, and Akar snorted.

"They brought their families," he said dryly. "She's had her hands full convincing the women that we weren't about to sacrifice them all."

"Ouch!" A quiet laugh.

"I don't know how we're supposed to keep it a secret now," Akar added.

"You could get Himself to ask them to keep quiet. He's convincing enough," Arsham suggested, voice turning wry. "Why didn't you ask him to calm them down instead of sticking Mathel with the job?"

"Because unlike you, me, and Mathel, they aren't the sort of people who can handle a god popping in for a chat without falling down," Akar sighed, sounding oddly matter-of-fact about it. "Ah well. We'll deal with it somehow, I suppose." He paused for a moment, then went on, voice suddenly serious. "Krashnark's hand is above you, m'lord. Be well."

There was another pause before Arsham responded, and he sounded even more wry as he said, "I can't speak as a priest, but I'm fairly sure His hand is above you too, Akar. Go well."

Ferak slid quietly back to his place against the wall behind the door, still thinking hard.

Krashnark… that's different. I think. Is it? He's still a Dark god, but…

That was as far as he could get. But. Krashnark was Dark, but. The Dark gods were feared and hated, but. Anyone who worshipped the Dark gods after what they'd done to hradani during the Fall of Kontovar was the worst sort of traitor, traitor to his whole race rather than just his lord or his clan… but.

But Ferak kept coming back to the fact that even if Arsham was, apparently, a follower of Krashnark… he was also the same person who would think to give a sweet to a senile old man.

He stayed where he was as the door opened, blocking him from view as Akar left. Arsham followed, grunting tiredly and rubbing the back of his neck with one hand as he closed the door with the other-

-and froze, ears flattening as he saw Ferak, still leaning against the wall with his arms folded. Ferak looked back at him, feeling his own ears twitch, half-flattening and then lifting again.

"…Well?" Arsham said finally, letting go of the latch and dropping both hands to his sides. He didn't reach for his sword, but his ears were still slanted backwards and his voice was defiant. Ferak blinked and looked away, breaking the challenging stare and rubbing thoughtfully at his nose.

"I don't know what in all the hells you think you're doing," he said eventually, pushing away from the wall and hooking both hands into the front of his belt, away from his own sword in a pointedly non-threatening stance. "And I don't want to know."

"That comes as a bit of a surprise from a man who's just been eavesdropping," the prince told him acidly, and Ferak snorted rueful agreement.

"Aye, well, I might be wishing I hadn't right now," he admitted, still not meeting Arsham's glare. "That being said… I've followed you for years because I trusted you, and… well, I still trust you. I think."

"And I thank you for that… I think," Arsham said, a faint wry grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I'll admit I'm not exactly comfortable myself with some of the things I've been doing lately, but-"

"I said I don't want to know, and I mean it!" Ferak said hastily, waving his hands in negation. "Don't tell me! I just…" He struggled to find words, then finally threw up his hands in defeat, scowling. "I don't want to think about it. Just don't tell me."

One of Arsham's ears slowly lifted to a more relaxed position, while the other twisted to the side, and the prince cocked his head at his frustrated officer. "So… you trust me?"

"Aye."

"But you don't want to know what you're trusting me about." The prince's stance was definitely amused now, tension draining out of his muscles as he folded his arms and cocked one eyebrow.

"Phrobus damn your eyes, you know what I mean!"

"Oh, I've nothing to do with him," Arsham said cheerily, and Ferak groaned.

"I don't want to know!" He glared at his prince, then sighed. "All I do know is, you're better than anything or anyone else this city has. I have to trust that you'll do the right thing, even if I might not understand why it's the right thing."

"I think it is," Arsham told him, sobering again. "At least, I can't see a better path ahead of me - ahead of us, ahead of Navahk - and I looked hard. Still, Ferak… a time's going to come when I'll have to tell you what I'm doing. You'll need to think about it eventually."

"Aye, and I wager I'll decide to keep trusting you then too," Ferak muttered, rubbing his nose again. "Seeing as how you're still going to be the best option, since I don't expect Chalak to grow a spine and a brain all at once."

When Arsham's ears flattened again and he grimaced, looking away, Ferak realised that not mentioning Churnazh and Chalghaz had been even more damning than his jab at Chalak's lack of redeeming qualities. The Black Prince and his second legitimate son had the ability Chalak lacked, but no trace of the self-control and self-denial necessary to make a good ruler… and no desire to be good rulers.

"It's a damn shame the Black Prince never married your mother," Ferak growled, and Arsham snorted a humourless laugh.

"Bite your tongue, Ferak! She didn't deserve that sort of punishment."

"Fair," Ferak agreed. And we wouldn't be having this conversation if he'd had more of a hand in your raising, he added privately, following his prince out of the room. I'd be running for the hills if I found out you were following a Dark god, not trusting you despite it.

* * * * *

"You're Jahnkah, aren't you? The chamberlain?"

The elderly hradani turned, leaning on the short but wickedly sharp halberd he was using as a walking stick, and quirked his ears at the small group of halflings staring up at him. The one in the lead was scowling, fists planted on his hips, but didn't seem annoyed with Jahnkah in particular; the two standing behind him looked like they'd recently been in a fight, one with a bandage ruffling his pale hair and half-covering his left eye, the other with a chip out of his right horn that he kept reaching up to fiddle with.

"Aye, that's me," Jahnkah replied in accented Axeman, nodding politely. "And how can I be helping you?"

The bandaged halfling grinned, and the one in front rolled his eyes and sighed in theatrical relief. "Korthrala be thanked! Half the people we've asked so far don't speak a language I know, and the half who do don't know the answer to my question. I don't suppose you know where our blasted- ah, where our captain has gotten to, do you? No offence meant, but there's a definite tension in the air today, and he didn't take anyone with him or think to tell us where he was going when he walked off. It'd be just Evark's usual luck to get himself into whatever trouble might be on offer."

"None taken," Jahnkah assured him, and indeed the tiny man's attitude wasn't offensive at all; he seemed more likely to blame his captain for any problems caused by his wandering around alone than to assume hradani were at fault. "As to where your captain has taken himself off to, I'm thinking he's talking to our Chief Justiciar."

All three halflings winced, and Jahnkah realised they'd taken that the wrong way. "She was after asking him to give her his version of events, y'see," he explained, hiding a grin by reaching up to scratch his cheek. "Being as how Lord Brandark is in no shape to answer questions just yet."

The winces were less exasperated and more pained, this time, and the apparent leader of the group sighed. "Chihar's blaming himself for not insisting we got a proper healer to him, spies be damned," he said ruefully. "-Ah. I beg your pardon," he added, drawing himself up to his full height (which was still at least six inches short of reaching Jahnkah's belt buckle) and giving a short half-bow, half-nod. "Master Verath Holderman, second in command of the Wind Dancer. This pair of no-hopers-" He jerked one thumb over his shoulder at the two other halflings, who grinned cheerfully at the insult. "- are Gurak and Lind."

"Jahnkah, son of Madekh, of Hurgrum and Clan Iron Axe." The chamberlain nodded back, then jerked his chin to indicate a side passage. "Would you be wanting me to show you to where your captain and the Justiciar are having their talk?"

"Aye, I'd appreciate that," Holderman grunted, and followed as Jahnkah turned that way.

The chamberlain had a limp courtesy of an old knee injury, which slowed him to a pace the halflings could keep up with without effort, but a sideways glance at their leader's determined stride hinted that even a more normal Horse Stealer walking speed wouldn't leave them lagging behind. Another sideways glance caught the ship's second-in-command sneaking his own look up at Jahnkah, and the short man grinned, a sharp, challenging expression.

"Not used to halflings?" he asked, and Jahnkah snorted.

"Not used to non-hradani," he said truthfully, "except for humans, and the most of them I've seen have been Sothoii and met over crossed blades. I will admit we don't hear much about halflings, and what we do hear tends to be a bit contradictory."

"Aye, well, there's halflings and then there's Marfang Island halflings," Holderman shrugged. "We're the sailors."

As opposed to the cowards and thieves. "And are you not used to hradani, then?"

It was Holderman's turn to snort. "We're used to Wild Wash hradani," he said dryly. "They're decent enough neighbours, if you overlook the occasional bit of raiding and pillaging - better than Purple Lords any day! - but they're not a patch on you lot for size."

"…There's not many as would be willing to overlook raiding and pillaging at all, at all," Jahnkah said cautiously, eyeing the halfling with new interest. "However occasional it might be."

Holderman grimaced, scratching at his chin where stubble showed either the beginnings of a short beard or a lack of shaving tools that morning. "There's some Marfangers who won't," he admitted finally, shrugging again. "Usually the land-bound types, the sort who farm - not that there's much room for farms on the Island - or trade, and have crops and warehouses that can't run away from a raid or be easily defended. They've got more to lose, and I see their point. Fishermen, though, or traders like us, we can run or fight; raids are a risk, d'you see, but it's not really that big of a one. Bad weather's more of a threat to us than the Wild Wash. As for the navy-"

Gurak laughed outright. "M'brother's in the navy," he put in, grinning up at Jahnkah. "He says half of the officers, and half the Wild Wash chieftains too, treat it more like a game than anything else. There's sort-of rules, and so long as nobody breaks 'em-"

Holderman glared him into silence, then continued. "'Tisn't often anyone dies," he shrugged. "That's one of the 'sort-of rules'. There's months go by sometimes without any trouble, and we generally know when there's trouble coming, because they tell us when the latest truce is over. In between times…" He shrugged again. "They trade with us, and sometimes we'll even hire a few of 'em. I'll tell you what though, I've travelled around a lot more of Norfressa than even most Marfang Islanders ever do, and I'll take the Wild Wash over how most other non-halflings treat us, raids and all!"

"Oh, aye?" Jahnkah's ears swivelled into new positions and he checked, stopping in the middle of the corridor to stare down at the tiny halfling. "And how is it that other races treat you that's so much worse than raiding, then?"

"Like children, half the time," Gurak muttered. "Or like they think 'halfling' means 'halfwit'."

This time Holderman didn't glare him down, nodding in agreement instead. "Aye. The Wild Wash at least treat us with as much respect as they show each other."

"And would it be you're showing them respect in your turn?" Jahnkah asked thoughtfully, rubbing his chin.

"Of course. They're decent fighters, they keep their word, and the worst among 'em has more seamanship in his left ear than the best Purple Lord shipmasters have in their whole crews."

Gurak and Lind snickered, but Jahnkah just kept staring down at Holderman with a solemn expression. "Well, Master Verath Holderman of the Wind Dancer, I'll tell you now that that's the most complimentary thing I've ever heard said about hradani by an outlander."

Holderman frowned slightly. "It's plain truth," he said shortly, planting his fists back on his hips, apparently ready to defend his assessment of the Wild Wash hradani by force of arms if necessary.

"…And I thank you for seeing it," Jahnkah said eventually, before turning around and continuing to walk without another word.

* * * * *

"Huh. Miss Immy's taking the Beast out," Duo reported from his observation station on the couch, sprawled sideways with his arms folded on the back and his chin propped on his wrists.

"Maybe she's picking up the coffee?" Quatre suggested, not looking up from his laptop as he typed alterations into the spreadsheet tracking their assorted purchases and preparations. "Duo, I can't work out your handwriting on this one- what's the dark green lizard carving made out of?"

"Chrysocolla," Duo told him. "C, h, r, y, s- oh hey, there goes Sideburns Man -o, c, o, double l, a."

"Did he look at our house?" Quatre asked, freezing with one finger poised half-way through entering the gemstone name.

"Nope."

"Did he look last time?"

"Nope," Duo said cheerfully, grin widening.

"But he looks at all the other houses."

"Yep."

Quatre sighed. "Heero's right," he said mournfully, typing in the rest of the word and hitting 'Save'. "They know we're here, and he's the obvious decoy to try to distract us from the real surveillance."

"Or they know we're here, and he is the real surveillance, just not very good at it," Duo suggested, drumming his fingers on the back of the couch as he watched Sideburns Man drive slowly back up the street. "Did your sister get back to you about the licence plate search yet?"

"Not yet. It's harder to get that sort of not-quite-legal favour done now that the war's over," Quatre grumbled, getting up and looking out the window over Duo's shoulder. "Duo, I know I picked this place, but I'm starting to think it was a bad idea."

Duo shrugged one shoulder, not looking away from his surveillance of the street outside. "Hey, we had our reasons for needing a real, legally verifiable address, mostly related to my stupid knee-"

"It's hardly your fault that-"

"-and you did a damn good job of picking one thank-you-Quatre-now-hush," the long-haired pilot finished in a rush, smirking at the other teen's reflection in the window. "So we're gonna need to blow this joint soon, hopefully not literally. So what? You didn't feel bad about having to leave safe houses before, why now?"

"…I suppose because I was starting to feel settled here," Quatre said eventually, mouth twisting into a wry smile. "Hm. Not the best frame of mind for me to be in, under the circumstances."

"You know what, Q?" Duo twisted his head backwards to look at his friend for a moment, eyebrows raised. "I think I was too, only it wasn't comfortable type settled, it was stuck type settled. I've been getting itchy."

"Well put." Hands on his hips, Quatre looked around the room, frowning at the scattered piles of scribbled-upon notepaper and bags full of assorted supplies. "You know, if we had to evacuate in a hurry, we'd be stuck doing one hell of a dirty bug-out. There's no way we could sanitise this place in less than two hours unless we set it on fire."

"Q! You swore!" Duo gasped, clutching his chest theatrically.

"Oh, hush yourself. You keep watching the street; I'm going to start destroying the evidence."

"You just want to stifle my arsonist impulses- huh. Here comes Miss Neppy."

There was a brisk knock on the front door, and Quatre opened it, smiling politely. "Good afternoon, Miss Neppy! How are you and Miss Immy today?"

"Fine, thank you dear," she said in a distracted voice, walking straight past him. "Close the door before that idiot comes back, would you please?"

"…Okay," he said slowly, doing as she asked. On the sofa, Duo swivelled to look at them, eyes intent.

"Hi, Miss Neppy. What's wrong?"

The elderly woman looked around, frowning. "Are Trowa and Heero home?"

"Not right now, no…"

"Bother. That could be a problem."

"They should be back soon, or we can call them if it's an emergency," Quatre told her.

"Oh, good. Apparently your cover is blown," she said bluntly, pulling a folded sheet of paper out of her purse and handing it to him. "Imogen will be leaving the big car on the other side of the park and walking back home in about ten minutes. I'm afraid we haven't got all the coffee yet, but there's about half of it packed in the back, and all the other things you wanted. The tank is full."

"Neppy, hon…" Duo said warily. "Are you telling us to steal the Beast?"

"Of course not!" She sniffed, apparently offended. "We're loaning it to you. I'm sure we'll get it back eventually."

Quatre was staring at the paper in his hand, reading quickly. "This is from Re- uh-" He glanced up at Neppy and visibly changed what he'd been about to say. "Your, uh, padawan, Duo. 'My office, communications, and computers are bugged, so don't call me. The Lady told me to warn you that you're about to be located through my purchases if you haven't already. The conservatives want to recruit you, by force if necessary. They probably supported my platform last week so we'd be busy with setting that up and not looking too closely at them. The Lady is protecting your friends, so don't worry about us. Run! All my love, R. P.S. I'm so sorry, I never thought that buying your furniture would cause problems for you.'"

"…And you got this message, how?" Duo asked, fascinated.

"It was delivered to us with some flowers, with instructions to pass it on to you," she said promptly.

"Like that? Just a piece of paper?"

"We steamed the envelope open. Well, what did you expect, dear?" she asked Quatre as he choked audibly. "We needed to know right away if we should be making any preparations."

"Of course," he said, a little wide-eyed.

"Perfectly reasonable," Duo agreed, keeping his face straight with an effort.

"And would you have done anything different in our place?" she asked in a pointed tone.

"Probably woulda put it back in the envelope and pretended I hadn't read it, but otherwise, nope!"

She sniffed again, waving one hand to dismiss any objections. "Well, that would have been a complete waste of time, especially since we'd have a hard time pretending we didn't know what was going on and still lending you the car. Here are the spare keys-" She handed them to Quatre, who took them automatically. "-and we wish you luck. Look after each other."

"Uh. Yes. We will," Quatre said blankly, looking down at the keys in his hand (attached to a keyring with a large sparkly diamante cat charm on it) and blinked as she leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. She smelled of coffee and cardamom, not the lavender scent he'd half expected, and he blinked again as she stepped quickly to the couch, leaning down to give Duo the same grandmotherly parting gesture.

As she started to straighten up again, Duo planted an enthusiastic kiss of his own on the side of her chin, grabbing her hand to hold her in place for a moment. "I gotta know," he told her, grinning conspiratorially. "Do you actually know who we are?"

She chuckled quietly. "We have a solid theory, dear, but we'd rather not know if we're correct."

"Plausible deniability?"

"Exactly." She patted his hand. "Now, is the coast clear for me to leave?"

"One sec-" He turned back to the window, checking the street for activity. "Looks good. Immy's coming up the street. Give her our love?"

"Of course, dear." And she was gone, door thumping closed behind her, leaving Quatre still standing in the middle of the room, looking confused.

"I'll message the guys," Duo told him, grabbing his own laptop off the coffee table. "You'd better get to that evidence-destroying you were going to do."

* * * * *

Wufei?

The Chinese pilot glanced up towards the water surface where Karthan and the Osprey were and hit a key, saving the comments and annotations he was adding to Nataku's slowly growing map of everywhere he'd been so far. Karthan? What is it?

Torframos. He just spoke to Sir Uthmar and Sir Arwen; apparently we need to speed up.

Oh? What's happened?

I'm… not entirely sure, Karthan told him, emotion leaking through to colour his thoughts. (-excitement/anticipation/wariness-) There's limits to what the Gods know, and more limits on what they can tell us sometimes. I gather that Korthrala found out more about what he and Torframos want us to handle, and they've decided that it would be best if we got there faster.

To Axe Hallow?

And beyond. Apparently we're being sent much further east, into hradani lands, to a pair of city-states named Navahk and Hurgrum. Hurgrum, coincidentally enough, is-

-where Cord and Naiya are from, yes, I remember. That was one of the first things I found out after Krashnark dropped all the local languages into my head in one solid lump.

So it was. The details are a little vague, but we seem to be on Hurgrum's side in whatever is going on, and Sharna is involved somehow.

Isn't he always? Wufei's mental tone was dry, and he felt a sputter of amusement echoing back to him.

I'll admit that the Scorpion does seem to have his claws in a few too many pies lately, but I can assure you that normally our lives are far more boring than this.

"Mine isn't," Wufei muttered out loud, and blew a strand of hair out of his eyes with an irritated puff of breath.

Pardon?

Nothing. I thought the Osprey was already sailing as fast as it could?

No Marfanger captain will ever admit he can't go faster, Karthan sent back. Captain Grantik says he can get a few more knots out of his ship, and we're also going to be sailing at night. Back when we started this, you said that Nataku can manage forty leagues a day and still remain hidden underwater, right?

Yes… Wufei told him, thinking fast.

Then you can catch up with us even if you stop to sleep at night?

Yes… but I might have a better idea.

Oh?

First, we need to get out of sight from land…

- - - - -

"Are you sure this idea of his is going to work?" Arwen muttered, leaning down towards Uthmar so that the shorter Champion could hear his near-whisper over the sound of the water lapping at the Osprey's hull.

The Marfanger ship was hove to approximately three leagues from shore, surrounded by the open ocean. Captain Grantik was standing next to the helmsman, tapping one foot nervously and rubbing his horns, and a cluster of halfling crewmen were working with ropes near the bow. One persistent seabird that had followed the ship all the way was now perched on a spar, peering down at the deck.

"It's a bit late to decide you don't trust him," Uthmar muttered back, grinning.

"I trust him," Arwen insisted. "I just don't know how much he knows about ships. I don't know anything about ships except that the pointy end is the front, and even that doesn't work with some of them."

"Captain Grantik knows about ships, and he thinks this will work."

"He also looks like he's about to chew through his own bottom lip."

"But he's still going along with it," Uthmar pointed out. "This is the man who was willing to kick us off his deck if he didn't like our reasons for travelling with a demon, Champions or no. I doubt he'd let us try this if he wasn't very, very sure it was going to work."

Any further discussion was cut off when one of the crewmen straightened up and waved, catching the captain's attention.

"Well," Captain Grantik said, blowing out his breath in a sigh, "we're ready, I suppose. Tell that demon of yours- Wufei- to come up."

"He's ready," Karthan told him, leaning on the rail and squinting down into the water.

With one last rub at his horns, Grantik sighed again and nodded to the watching crewman. "All right! Toss the rig over!"

With a splash, the two thick hawsers hit the water. Each had one end tied to a strong metal cleat near the bow, usually used to fasten anchor ropes, and the other end looped around one of the Osprey's spare spars, a section of tree as thick as a human's thigh and about fifteen feet long. The final result was rather like a crude rope swing.

A huge metal hand lifted up out of the water and grasped the floating spar, pulling it under the surface. The ropes followed it down, unreeling from the neat coils on the deck, and the Osprey bobbed a little as they went taut; then the angle of the ropes changed, pulling away from the ship as the underwater 'Gundam-demon' moved slowly to the north. Gradually, ropes creaking, the ship moved to follow.

"Strike all sail and make fast!" Grantik bellowed, now drumming his fingers on his belt buckle. Beside him, the helmsman let go and allowed the water flowing past to pull the rudder into line, spinning the ship's wheel through a couple of slow turns.

"Wufei wants to know, is everything all right so far?" Karthan reported, sounding entirely too cheerful to Arwen's ears.

"I'd like to think you'd tell him soon enough if anything wasn't!" Grantik snapped. "Aye, all's fine. He can-" He swallowed hard, then shook his head, taking a firm grip on the rail. "Tell him he can speed up."

Ten minutes later, the halfling captain was still swearing in amazement as the Osprey fairly flew along, towed inside the immense wake thrown up by Nataku's passage just under the surface of the water.

"Told you it would work," Uthmar said cheerfully.