AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, soldiering on despite Real Life hitting a few rocks!
WARNINGS: Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU...
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: 'Gundam Wing' and the 'Oath of Swords' series are owned and created by people who are not us. We're still jealous.
FEEDBACK: Makes our lives complete!

Demon of Justice + Chapter 38
Marfang and no quarter!

"All right, you should be clear to move back into the centre of the channel," the dwarven pilot said, nodding to Holderman. The halfling nodded back, turning the Wind Dancer's wheel a few degrees.

The halfling ship was moving under less than half sail, creeping upriver at a fraction of its usual speed. This branch of the Lower Saram river was the deepest and most easily navigable, but it still had a number of shifting shoals to be avoided; one of the dwarven trade families, based in Saramfal and Derm, made a good income by hiring out pilots with local knowledge of the latest hazards.

"We're coming into a good stretch now," the pilot added, relaxing slightly. "Good deep bottom, no snags, and the current's fast enough here that shoals can't form."

"Safe to speed up a bit, then?" Evark asked.

"Oh, aye." The dwarf watched with interest as Evark barked orders through his speaking trumpet, accompanying some with hand gestures or sharp whistles.

"I've not had a chance to see Marfangers at work before," he said in a quiet aside to Holderman. "Got to say I'm impressed."

"We try," Holderman said dryly.

"Shift back to port a mite," Evark told him, lowering his trumpet. "There's a ship coming downriver, give 'em room."

"Ship fine on the starboard bow!" the lookout called down. "Blue sail, white flag with a blue bird!"

"Derm's colours," the pilot put in, squinting ahead.

"...Are they, then?" Evark said slowly, frowning. "Tell me, Kelov, does Baroness Ernos buy many ships from the Purple Lords?"

"No, she has 'em built herself or buys from Saramfal," the pilot said, surprised. "Why?"

"Because that's a Purple Lord-built hull, or I'm a troll," the halfling captain said grimly, lifting his spyglass for a better view. He held it for only a few breaths before his hands tightened and he swore.

"Trouble?" Holderman asked quietly.

"They've repainted, but there's scars on the bow. She's been used to ram, more than once," Evark muttered, and whistled sharply, two short and one long trill. Across the deck, crewmen looked up.

"What's going on?" Kelov asked warily.

"Hopefully nowt," Evark told him, planting one hand in the small of the dwarf's back and pushing him towards the waist of the ship. "But I think you should spend the next few minutes over here, with Chihar, out of the way."

"Out of the way of what?"

"Just you be sitting down here next to me, eh?" the ship's surgeon told him, popping up apparently out of nowhere. "Now's not the time to be asking questions. Captain'll be happy to explain in a bit, I'm sure..." Kelov noted that he was twirling a belaying pin in one hand, an excellent cudgel if he chose to use it that way, and sat down slowly. The halfling might have slender wrists, but now he came to think of it, they were notably sinewy, and there were definite muscles under his sleeves.

Chihar dropped his free hand on the dwarf's shoulder and tugged him backwards a bit, until he was tucked in beside the stairs leading to the low stern castle. "We'll be snug enough here," he said, half to himself.

Up next to the wheel, Evark whistled again, then grunted. "Best we can do without being obvious," he muttered.

"Aye," Holderman nodded. "D'you want the wheel?"

"No. You'll do fine enough, and they might wonder why we swapped. One of 'em had a spyglass up."

"Ah." The first mate grinned sharply. "Same as that little tiff last year, then?"

"Aye."

The blue-sailed ship wallowed closer, moving fast with the current and wind behind it and riding high, not carrying any heavy cargo. It was a little longer and narrower than Purple Lord ships tended to be, but still recognisable as something built in Bortalik Bay; the half-elves relied on their strategic position to maintain their stranglehold on trade, far more than the quality of their ships.

Holderman's hands were light on the wheel, making minute adjustments, and several crewmen had moved to stand near particular ropes; one or two had partially unwound their ropes from the cleats holding them in place and were pretending to trim the sails, fussing over the tension.

"Think they'll time it right?" Evark asked suddenly, turning to raise one eyebrow at his friend and officer. "We're talking about Purple Lords, after all, or at least people who're willing to work with 'em."

"Who knows?" Holderman laughed, grinning back. "Even if they miss their cue, though, we won't!"

----------

Tyllar Du'hai Ardun's top lip curled in a sneer as he watched two of the halflings aboard the approaching ship laugh at some joke. "I think my father is being overly cautious," he told the lean human standing next to him. "Surely if they were carrying the message we're looking for they'd be more wary? And we're speaking of halflings, of all things!"

"True," the dog brother snorted. "The hardest part of killing them is likely to be chasing them down as they run. Still, orders are orders."

"Also true," Tyllar sighed. "Let's get this done quickly and return to port, hmm? Father's bird interrupted my lunch, and I left a delightful bottle of wine half-finished."

The ship's crew -- dog brothers and cultists, every one -- were as casual as their leaders as they moved into their assigned places. Part of their relaxed attitude was an act, of course, and part was due to the fact that they'd pulled off this trick three times already; and then, of course, they knew as well as Tyllar what they were facing. Halflings. Small, cowardly, and weak.

"Here we go," the dog brother murmured, and both he and the half-elf took a firm grip on the railing around the stern castle. Most of the crew were clustered a little way back from the ship's bow, prepared to rush forwards onto a deck half-wrecked by impact and populated by a stunned, demoralised rabble.

"Now!" the ship's captain barked, and the steersman spun the wheel, turning hard to starboard. The reinforced bow lurched sideways towards its target, aiming at the more fragile planks and ribs at the side of the oncoming Marfanger ship--

--that was also turning towards them, seeming to pirouette on its keel. Tiny figures hauled on ropes and the foresail snapped taut as the wind filled it, yanking the bow around even further until it was completely out of the cult ship's way. Other halflings stepped out from behind the forecastle and mast, arms raised as they swung something above their heads--

Grappling hooks? Tyllar thought incredulously. "They're boarding us?!"

Iron hooks thunked solidly into the siderail and tangled in the rigging of the cult ship, and half the Marfanger ship's crew ran to haul on the ropes, letting their sails flap free as the two vessels crashed together. The other half were already climbing their own rigging, leaping with no apparent care for life or limb across the gap; one dog brother, braced for an impact from the front but not ready for one from the side, tumbled over the rail to be crushed between the two hulls. Before the half-elf could blink, a mob of short figures were spilling across the centre of his deck, and he paled as he realised that that put them between him and most of his crew.

There was a breathless pause as the cultists stood stunned, and the halflings settled their feet, swords and belaying pins at the ready; then the human next to Tyllar swore and drew his sword, teeth bared.

"Sharna!" he roared, and a few of the dog brothers joined in, shaken voices steadying as they recovered from their shock.

At the lead of the crowd of halflings, one with brown hair and a magnificent moustache took a deep breath. "Korthrala!" he roared back, just as deep and just as loud -- then the slightly taller halfling next to him grinned and took a breath of his own.

"Marfang and no quarter!" he bellowed, and the other halflings took up the cry as they swarmed forwards.

Tyllar whipped out his own narrow rapier, cursing himself. So what if they were more alert than we thought? Here or on their ship, the outcome will be the same! This won't take long--

The first halfling to reach him took the stairs to the stern castle two at a time and lunged, short sword thrusting for Tyllar's stomach. He parried easily and flicked his blade, stabbing at his opponent's eyes. The halfling ducked and twisted, and Tyllar blinked as the short man parried and jerked his head sideways, hooking one horn over the rapier and trapping it with his own blade. As he tried to pull back, another halfling slid past the first and swung a belaying pin into the side of the half-elf's knee.

He staggered backwards until he came up against the wheel with a thump, sword coming loose with a grating rasp. The knee wouldn't hold his weight, glass-sharp pain stabbing up his leg as he tried it, so he clung to the wheel with one hand for support as he brought his sword up again to face his two opponents-- no, three-- no, four now, plus several more surrounding the dog brother, almost dancing as they darted in to stab and jumped back from his counters. The ones in front of Tyllar sidled forwards, eyes wary behind lifted weapons, and he gulped as he realised that the overlapping scales on the armour shirt under his tunic might be excellent protection against overhand swings or straight-on thrusts, but provided almost no defence against an upwards thrust... like almost any attack made by an opponent half his size.

He'd been right. It didn't take long at all.

----------

"What's the count?" Evark asked grimly, looking around the deck of the captured ship.

"Kaedir and Peross are dead," Chihar told him. "Vannar might join them, and we've got three more seriously wounded, plus the usual complement of breaks and cuts. On their side--" He also looked around, and shrugged. "We haven't searched belowdecks, but if there's anyone left alive they aren't showing themselves."

"I think at least some of 'em had fought halflings, but they'd never fought Marfangers before," Holderman put in, carefully wiping his sword clean. "You could tell; none of 'em took us seriously until they started dying."

Evark bared his teeth in a vicious grin. "By which time it was too late," he agreed. "Well, I'm never happy to pay a butcher's bill, but at least this one's low."

"What d'you want done with the bodies?"

"Leave theirs on board," the captain directed, "and we'll fire the ship. I don't want anyone going below in case there's someone hiding down there, so we can't scuttle it, but burning it ought to work just as well. Carry ours back on board and sew them into canvas, same as if we were going to bury them at sea, but I'll be damned if I'll drop them in the same water as Demon Breath's men; keep them in the hold for now. Depending on how long this trip goes on, we'll either bury them at Derm or carry them back to sea with us when we're done."

"Aye," Holderman nodded.

"Before we do that, there's something I need to show you both," Chihar said, jerking his head towards the bow of the ship. They followed him, picking their way between bodies and bloodied patches of deck, until they reached a single body lying alone; a young halfling, lying on his back with his arms flung out to the sides, blind eyes staring up at the sky.

"Ah, damn," Evark sighed, crouching and reaching out to close the boy's eyes. "I'm not looking forward to telling his parents, that I'm not..."

Holderman frowned, studying the body. "What killed him?" he asked. "That blood's not his, I don't think." Crouching beside his captain, he reached for the boy's chest, moving to feel for wounds.

"Careful," Chihar said sharply, slapping his hands away. "You too, Captain." Drawing a narrow dagger, he used the point to carefully shift the folds of cloth at the shirt's neck. "Kaedar and Vannar and the others have sword-wounds and the like. Peross here... well, some bright boy had a moment to get him from range. Here."

Evark blinked at the tiny dart, hardly more than a whittled splinter with scraps of grey feathers tied to the end. "That little thing? Poison?"

"Aye. A couple of the men saw what happened; they say one of the dog brothers put his fist up to his mouth and Peross went down like a poleaxed horse, six feet away. I found this nearby." The surgeon showed them a narrow tube, small enough to be hidden in a human's hand. "I'm not getting close enough to that thing to sniff it, but I'd say there's only one thing it could be, and that's mindanwe sap. It only takes a scratch for it to stop your heart."

"Korthrala's teeth, but that's an ugly weapon," Evark swore. "Is there any way to defend against it?"

"Not really. There's no antidote -- or if there is, nobody's ever taken it fast enough for it to save them." Chihar shrugged. "The darts aren't accurate further than about ten feet, and any sort of a wind will knock them off course, so they're not much use outside. This was a damn lucky shot. If it's any consolation, my teacher told me it's nearly as dangerous for the dog brothers to use as it is to be on the target side; at least one assassin's spiked his own thumb trying to load his blowpipe, and been found out when he fell down dead at his target's feet."

"Somehow, I'm not crying for 'em," Holderman snorted. "So, are--"

"What in all the gods' names is going on?!"

Twisting to see back over his shoulder, Evark spotted the pale-faced dwarven pilot standing by the rail. With Chihar tending to the dead and wounded, it looked like nobody had thought to keep him under wraps. "What's going on, Master Kelov, is us staying alive," he growled, eyes narrowing.

"Well, yes," the dwarf sputtered, gesturing helplessly at the carnage on deck, "but-- why? Why would a ship from Derm attack you?"

"Because they aren't from Derm," Evark told him, straightening up. Huh. Now I come to think of it, an independent witness wouldn't hurt... "They're a bunch of dog brothers and Purple Lords, and they were trying to keep us from taking a message east."

"What?! But-- I-- all right, Purple Lords might have their fingers in anyone's pie, but why would Sharna-worshippers care about some lordling's marriage plans?"

"Well, at least somebody bought that story," the halfling captain muttered, looking around. "Pity Serthan didn't."

"That ain't the message we're carrying," Holderman said kindly, reaching up to pat the dwarf's shoulder. "The real message is something that's likely to put a crimp in Sharna's plans, and that's probably all you want to know."

Only half listening to the conversation, Evark bent to one of the bodies and tugged the neck of its shirt open, then another. One of 'em's got to be carrying... aha! "Here," he called, tugging a belaying pin out of his belt and using the narrow end to pick up a fine chain, drawing the attached pendant out into the sunlight. The gold scorpion was fine work, almost delicate, and the emerald forming its body was a flawless grass-green. "Trust a Purple Lord to have the best, even for something like this," he added, looking down at the half-elf's body.

"...Oh," Kelov said, sounding a little sick as he looked at the proof of Tyllar's allegiance. "That's... oh dear. Um. I... I guess that means your message is really important, then?"

"Oh, aye, it is that."

"Right. Um." The dwarf swallowed hard and straightened up, visibly stiffening his spine. "Well, in that case, you'd best finish up here and get under sail again before the current takes us back onto that shoal we avoided on the way up."

Holderman reached up and patted his shoulder again. "You know, I think you'll do just fine."

* * * * *

Waves threw sparkles of sunlight back into Commander Morash's eyes as he squinted at the approaching longboat, and he frowned. "Well, whatever they're up to, it's not a raid," he said dryly, nodding at the makeshift white flag flying from a reversed oar.

"Unless they're a diversion and the real attack is showing up somewhere else," Adric suggested mildly.

Morash snorted. "Nah, they wouldn't do that. Diversions, yes, but if they're going to attack then they damn well attack; you won't get a peaceful-looking diversion from the Wild Wash. They think it's dishonourable. If they come out under a flag of truce, they mean it."

The civilian mage quirked an eyebrow at him. "So... they'll steal, smuggle, pillage, and occasionally murder, but they won't be sneaky about it?"

"That's about right."

Whitetip slowed as the longboat rowed into shouting range, balancing between the wind and currents. "Ahoy there!" Morash yelled through his leather speaking trumpet. "What business?"

"Well if it ain't Headbanger Morash!" the hradani in the longboat's bow roared back, grinning. "Nice talking to you without yer horns comin' at me face!"

"Gods save us, it's Sargrin Brokentooth," the commander called back, unable to hide his own grin. "Hide the beer!"

"It's uncommon cruel you are, Headbanger. An' here I was bringing a barrel to wet our whistles as we talked, an' all," the hradani said reproachfully, gesturing at the keg next to him as the longboat's oarsmen backed water, turning to match Whitetip's course.

"Ah, that's different then," Morash admitted, leaning on the rail. "Boys! Belay that last order; hide most of the beer, and drop a ladder for the honourable chieftain." Shooting a glance sideways at the mage, he dropped his voice to a low murmur. "Ale means he wants to talk seriously, but he's not going as far as a lasting truce. We're on the same side until the alcohol runs out, essentially."

"What if he wanted a lasting truce?" Adric asked, fascinated.

"Meat and salt, and it'd last until one of us delivered a formal declaration of war," Morash told him, stepping back from the rail as his crewmen brought a rope ladder and a sling for the keg. "It'd be binding on the rest of his clan, too."

"And here I thought they just screamed and charged," the mage said dryly, rubbing at the base of one of his horns.

"Oh, they do plenty of that too," the commander grinned. "Sargrin! What's this all about, then?"

Swinging his leg across the rail, the hradani looked sharply at his tiny opponent. "I was about to ask you the very same question, that I was," he said, tone suddenly serious.

"Oh? And what've I done to make you wonder?"

Before he answered, Sargrin thumped the keg down on deck and casually stove in the top with his fist, tossing a horn cup to Morash and dipping his own in the dark ale. Sitting cross-legged, he took a long drink and watched, narrow-eyed, until the halfling dipped his own cup and took a gulp; a little of the tension went out of his shoulders then, and he smiled thinly.

"How long's it been since we first ran up against each other, Morash?" he asked. "Twelve years? Fifteen?"

"...Fourteen years this winter, if I remember rightly," the commander mused, easing down to sit opposite. "I cracked my right horn on that hard head of yours."

"Aye, y' hadn't got yer technique quite right yet," Sargrin snorted, one finger caressing a scar that ran up into his hairline, sprouting a white streak that wove through his waist-length black braid. "We've banged heads a few more times since then, and I'll give y' this, I've never known you to do anything less than honourable."

Morash paused with his cup halfway to his mouth, eyeing the hradani curiously. "Well, I thank you for the kind word."

"Mmh." Sargrin took another mouthful. "So it's wondering I was, when I saw with my own eyes three Marfanger warships turn around an' sail away, leaving a live demon behind 'em." His eyes were suddenly very cold, ears flattening. "Y' wouldn't be doin' anything stupid, now would you, Commander Morash?"

"...Ah," Morash said, leaning back. "That. And here I was, thinking you Wild Wash hadn't seen a thing! Your men are getting better at scouting, I gather." Glancing aside, he gestured to one of his officers with his cup. "Bring up that beer we didn't hide, and invite Sargrin's men up to join us. This is going to take a while, I think."

* * * * *

Relena shoved one last carnation into the vase with a little more force than was strictly necessary and stepped back to look critically at her handiwork, frowning. "I've never been any good at this," she sighed. "What do you think?"

"They look fine," Zechs told her. "There's really not much you can do wrong with a bunch of flowers."

"Maybe not, but there are a lot of things you can do right with them, and I never quite seem to manage it."

"Is that what the problem is?"

She turned to look at her brother. "What do you mean?"

Zechs didn't turn away from the book he was leafing through, but glanced sideways at her through his lashes, smiling. "You seemed to have some sort of personal grudge against the poor things."

Relena sighed again, sitting down. "I do have something on my mind, but I didn't realise it was showing."

He glanced sideways at her again, then closed his book and turned to look directly at her. "I got the distinct impression the other day-- impression be damned, actually, I was directly told that if I mess up our second chance at a family relationship I will be answering to Duo Maxwell, and the thought does not appeal to me. Therefore I'm not going to try to guess the correct response here. Do I politely ask what's wrong, or maintain a diplomatic silence?"

"Oh dear." She covered her mouth, visibly struggling not to laugh. "I am sorry, Milliardo, I didn't realise that I was -- ah -- 'siccing' Duo onto you when I phoned him."

"I think I'll survive the experience, so long as he doesn't blame me for upsetting you while I'm still tethered here," he said dryly, gesturing to the rig holding his leg in traction. "So. Are you going to tell me what's on your mind, and if you do, am I required to actually come up with an intelligent response or just make soothing noises?"

"If you make soothing noises at me, I really will sic Duo onto you," she threatened. "Actually, if we can be serious about this for a moment, I would like to ask your advice."

"Ask away. I promise a serious answer even if I can't manage a useful one."

Relena looked down at her hands, marshalling her thoughts, then tilted her head to look at him. "Did... when Duo was talking to you, did he mention anything about he and the others... leaving?"

Zechs raised one pale eyebrow. "He did, actually. He didn't go into details, but he mentioned the possibility."

"It's more than just a possibility now," she said, a little bitterly. "They're planning to go-- elsewhere. Vanish. And never come back. They wouldn't be able to keep in contact at all."

He grimaced slightly. "Given that I was planning the same thing myself, I can understand the appeal of the idea... no matter how painful it seems, looked at from the point of view of someone staying behind."

"Yes, but," she burst out, "it's not just that they want to. They say they have to, and yet-- you thought you had to disappear, and Duo disagreed. Now Duo says he has to disappear, but when I disagree, he just says I don't understand!"

"Ah." Zechs frowned. "I have to admit, he had some excellent arguments against my plan. Did he explain why he-- they-- think they have to leave?"

"Their main reason -- the only one I can't refute using the same arguments Duo used on you, in fact -- is that they wouldn't be allowed to stay and have a normal life. They said," Relena went on slowly, groping for words, "that they would be seen as weapons, not people, and that I could protect you, but not all of them at the same time."

"Ah." He sighed, rubbing his forehead with one hand. "They may be right, Relena."

"That's what I don't understand! How is it right when they say it, but not right when you said it? Why are they weapons, but you can be a normal person?!"

"Because I just piloted Tallgeese," Zechs tried to explain. "I was a member of a recognised military organisation; I followed my orders for the most part, and when I disobeyed, nobody apart from my commanders knew about it. I'm not seen as being very different from a normal mobile suit pilot."

"Neither are they, then!" she insisted stubbornly.

"Oh, really?" He looked at her a little sternly. "The Gundams were the colonies' only weapons. They didn't have armies around them. They didn't have the luxury of being able to be 'just' mobile suit pilots. All by themselves, they had to do sufficient damage and be sufficiently feared to combat all of OZ's forces. That's where the problem lies, Relena. They had to be weapons of terror, and they did it very very well."

"But the Resistance--"

"--were essentially negligible," Zechs interrupted. "I mean no disrespect towards them, they were an effective force within their limitations, but those limitations were severe. They didn't have the numbers to be a serious threat. If it wasn't for the Gundams taking up so much of OZ's attention and firepower, they would have been crushed. The same applies to the Manguanacs. No," he went on in a gentler voice, "it was the Gundams that people worried about."

"Then why can't they just live quietly without the Gundams?"

"They did more than just pilot," he said wryly. "Take me out of Tallgeese and I can't do much more than anyone else. I flatter myself that I'm an excellent shot, but so are quite a few other people. Duo and the rest... well. The general public didn't get to hear much about it, but within OZ, a Gundam pilot out of his suit was feared nearly as much as he would be in it."

Relena looked at him with a doubtful expression, and he laughed, a little sadly. "You don't believe me, do you?"

"Milliardo, they're just teenage boys! No matter what sort of exaggerated stories got passed around about them, I can't--"

"I first heard about Wufei when he blew up a barracks full of trainee mobile suit pilots and killed nearly sixty men," he cut in bluntly. "Trowa's favourite trick seemed to be impersonating an OZ cadet, living on base for weeks at a time until he got access to whatever classified information he was after, then blowing up their entire munitions stores to cover his escape. Heero wasn't as good at infiltration, but that never stopped him simply walking into secure installations and killing anyone who got in his way. Did you know he can bend steel bars with his bare hands? Quatre apparently didn't go in for direct confrontation as much as the others did, but we believed he was responsible for at least half of our data losses from hacking, and he never had a problem with using his personal wealth and influence as a metaphorical club. I'm sure you of all people understand how that can be as deadly as a gun, used properly. As for Duo, yes, he's your friend now; he would give you the shirt off his back or his last credit, and quite frankly I'm sure he would die for you if the occasion ever came up. He's that sort of person. And his estimated kill count, both in and out of his Gundam, is higher than any of the other pilots'. He never stuck to one method long enough to show a pattern -- except for liking explosives -- but his motto was 'anyone who sees Shinigami will die', and he lived up to it. Need I go on?"

Relena's eyes were wide with shock. "...Oh."

He reached out to gently take her hand, smiling again. "Don't misunderstand me! I respect them, all of them. Treize respected them. It was a nasty, cruel war, but they did what they had to do and no more. They protected civilians as much as possible; I can't say the same for OZ, sadly. But... yes. They were weapons of war, because they had to be, and they can't change that just by walking away from their Gundams."

* * * * *

"Well," Duo muttered, staring at his laptop screen, "I guess I can't put this off any longer." Grimacing, he reached out and typed a quick string of commands and passwords, so well-remembered that he didn't even have to think about them any more.

A com window opened, blinking "CALLING" for a few seconds, then clearing to show a familiar face.

About time you called! > > Howard growled, leaning in close and scowling behind his sunglasses. < < Much longer and I woulda tracked you down and kicked your ass, kiddo

"I was busy!" Duo protested, grinning in spite of himself.

Busy? Busy? With what?! War's over, in case you didn't notice! > > Leaning back, Howard spread his hands and looked around with an exaggerated expression of surprise, as if he was only now noticing that himself. < < World seems to have broken out in a sudden case of peace! Amazing. Which makes me wonder just what the hell Heero is smoking, sending me this damn e-mail about not getting rid of any parts yet because you lot might be needing them. Not planning on starting things up again out of boredom or anything, are you

"What would you do if we were?"

I'd come over there and spank the lot of you until you developed sense, > > came the prompt answer. < < And I know you have some sense -- at least, you did when you were working for me! Don't tell me you've gone and lost it all

"I'm pretty sure we haven't, Howie. Call it planning for contingencies."

Damn. Maybe you have still got some sense after all, kiddo; I've only been telling you to plan for the unexpected for, oh, years now. > > Howard grinned suddenly, leaning on his elbows. < < You're looking good

Duo snorted. "Ah, you only say that 'cause you can't see the crutches. You're not looking bad yourself, old man."

Don't you call me old, you-- what crutches?! >

"Ehh, the ones I need to walk on my bunged-up knee that's kind of in a locked brace. I get to unlock it and start therapy tomorrow if my doctor agrees, though."

Therapy?! What the hell did you do to yourself? >

"Popped my ACL and had to have surgery to fix it. Like I said, I was busy," Duo shrugged.

Howard peered suspiciously at him from the screen. < < ...What else?

"Whaddaya mean, 'what else'?" he protested, looking away. "Major surgery with general anaesthetic, did I mention I hate that shit, isn't enough for you?"

Nope. Something else is going on. I know you, kid, > > Howard said seriously, sliding his sunglasses down to stare at Duo over them. < < Whatever it is, spit it out

"...This kinda has to do with us maybe needing the parts," Duo said, wriggling a little in his seat. "We're going to be going somewhere, and the supply chain is gonna be kinda... long. Actually, nonexistent."

There ain't nowhere on this planet you can go that I can't get parts to you somehow, > > Howard objected. < < Hell, there ain't many places off this planet where I can't get parts to you

"How are you at interdimensional deliveries?"

Howard blinked at him. < < ...What the fuck are you talking about?

"Somehow I knew you were going to say that," Duo sighed, resting his forehead on one hand. "Oh boy."

----------

Fifteen minutes later:

"Quatre!" Duo yelled, leaning around his laptop's screen to direct it at the door.

"I'm a little busy, Duo," came Quatre's voice, sounding slightly stressed.

"Can you get un-busy? I need you to come tell Howard I haven't gone nuts, I'm not smoking dope, and I'm not on any painkillers!"

"...Fine," Quatre answered after a brief pause. "While I'm doing that, you can come here and tell Rashid the same thing about me."

Duo reached for his crutches, then paused halfway through levering himself up out of his seat. "Q, are you seriously telling me that Rashid asked any of that?"

"No," Quatre grumbled, appearing in the doorway, "but I know his expressions, and he was thinking really loudly."

"That'll be a nice change from Howie just yelling loudly."

Like I'm gonna keep my mouth shut when you try to tell me some sort of bullshit-- >

Swinging out of the room, Duo let the door slam behind him, cutting off Howard's aggrieved rant. Quatre's laptop was set up on the dining table, and he dropped into the chair in front of it with a loud sigh. "Hi, Rashid. Quatre told you what we're doing?"

Rashid's naturally grim face was nearly expressionless, but a certain tightness about the eyes could have indicated either anger or worry. < < Master Duo, > > he said politely, half-bowing. < < Master Quatre says that you are... planning a t

"Yep," Duo confirmed, leaning his crutches against the table and getting comfortable. "To another world, via a huge explosion. Did he explain the bit about the Trousers of Time, or hadn't he gotten that far?"

Master Duo, > > the huge man said in a strained voice, < < you... this... you cannot be serious

"I prefer being casual, but yeah, we're serious." He shrugged. "Wufei got blasted into another world, and we're going to try to follow him. We aren't joking, insane, drugged, or otherwise not in our right minds. The Doctors think they can pull it off-- actually, you should probably talk to Instructor H! If anyone can explain it properly, he can, though it's anyone's guess as to whether he can do it without lapsing into higher mathematics. At least you can be sure he isn't joking."

I shall, > > Rashid agreed reluctantly. < < I must admit that Master Quatre is not the type to make such a joke... and although you might joke, Master Duo, you do not insist that you are not joking after being asked

"Ha. Tell Howard that, will ya?"

On his way back into the lounge room, Duo bumped into Quatre, also apparently finished talking to Howard.

"How did it go?"

"He doesn't want to believe it, so I passed the buck and told him to talk to H," Duo shrugged. "How about you?

Quatre laughed. "I did the same! He's calling Doctor G right now, I think."

"Why didn't we think of that before?" Duo complained, rolling his eyes. "I coulda gotten out of fifteen minutes of Howard ranting at me!"

"You probably didn't think of it because Howard was ranting at you," Quatre told him dryly.

"Why didn't you think of it, then? Don't tell me Rashid was ranting at you, 'cause I won't believe it. Damn, Q-man, you've got to think faster than that; I'm disappointed in you!"

"Don't you start! If we're blaming each other, why didn't you get Howard and Rashid into a conference call with Orfressa?" Quatre teased. "You've got a goddess willing to vouch for your word, so why not use her? They'd have to believe us then."

"Aw, man, that would make it easy, wouldn't it?" Duo sighed, looking wistful. "I wish I could-- hang on. Maybe I can get her to talk to other people!" His eyes lit up with an unholy joy. "That would be awesome!"

"I'm going to regret suggesting that, aren't I?"

"Only if it works."

* * * * *

The Osprey was under way again, moving with a rhythmic lift-and-swoop motion over the waves. The weather was staying fine, so that the members of the Order of Torframos only had to deal with the natural results of a Marfang Island captain's desire for speed, and Vaijon had finally adjusted to the ship's motion.

Thank all the gods that we got passage on a ship that normally transports cloth and grain, he told himself, stooping almost double as he passed through a low doorway into one of the large cabins Captain Grantik had made available for his passengers. I'd still be turning green every time I came below decks if I had to deal with the smell of fish!

He sat down on his pallet, not much more than several blankets on the floor, and leaned back carefully after making sure he wasn't directly under one of the heavy beams holding up the deck above; he'd nearly concussed himself twice and didn't want to do it again. Built to maximise cargo space without sacrificing speed, the Osprey's below-decks spaces were cramped even for her normal halfling crew and positively claustrophobic for a human as tall as he was.

Even Sir Wufei wouldn't fit, Vaijon mused, one hand moving to press against the slight bulge under his tabard. Though I can't imagine him being careless enough to hit his head. I wonder how he's dealing with the trip? I think that little room inside Nataku is large enough for him to stand up straight, but it's not much wider than it is tall...

He was alone in the cabin, everyone else having gone up on deck for fresh air. A little guiltily, he reached under his tabard and pulled out a handful of silky black fabric, spreading it out over his knee. The light was dim, with no windows and only one lamp lit in the cabin, but he didn't need to see; his fingers knew every curve and snagged thread in the embroidery, tracing the outlines of the dragon that snarled up at him from the remains of Wufei's sleeveless shirt.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed when a footstep and a muffled curse from the corridor alerted him to another passenger approaching, and he hastily stuffed the ragged square of cloth back under his tabard. When Terrin shuffled in, almost tripping over the door sill, Vaijon was rummaging through his scanty roll of possessions, pulling out a sharpening stone and oil.

"I'll be glad to get off this ship in Belhadan," Terrin muttered, nodding politely to the knight-probationer. "They're good people, but m'back's never going to be the same."

Vaijon had to laugh. "I feel your pain, Goodman Terrin, but I think I have to fear permanent bruises on my forehead more than a bad back."

Terrin grinned back at him. "Just you wait a few years, Sir Vaijon. After a while, things start complainin' at a man if he bends funny." Digging through his own pack, he pulled out several new arrow shafts and a cloth bundle, turning to head out again.

Impulsively, Vaijon called out to stop him. "Goodman Terrin? Might I have a moment of your time?"

"...Aye," Terrin said, looking back at him curiously. "What is it, Sir Vaijon?"

"Might I ask--" Vaijon hesitated, blushing slightly, then went on. "I understand why Cord and his daughter chose to accompany us, but -- excuse me -- I don't believe I've heard your motive. May I ask why you came along?"

Terrin grunted, easing down to sit on the floor and rubbing the back of his neck. "Huh. Well, you wouldn't have heard my motive, no, for I've not told it to anyone here."

"I beg your pardon. I don't wish to pry if you would prefer not--"

"Nah, 'tis all right." Terrin waved off his protests. "I'm not sure why," he added, looking searchingly at Vaijon's face, "but I think you'll understand."

There was a long pause as the hunter looked down at the deck below them, frowning as if he could stare through it if only he looked hard enough; then he sighed, looking up with an almost shy expression. "It's Sir Wufei. I'm following him."

Vaijon blinked. "Why?"

Terrin laughed. "Damned if I know! It's just-- it feels right, you know? It didn't occur to me to question it. Your Champions said Sir Wufei would be travelling with you, and I just thought, 'Well, I guess I'd better pack'. It wasn't until my brother asked me why that I thought about it, and all I could tell him is what I'm telling you; it feels right. I think about Sir Wufei going to other lands, doing whatever it is he has to do, and it's like part of me says 'I'll be there with him'. I can't... I can't not follow him, somehow. I'd always thought that I'd live out my days in the village where I was born, but now something tells me that my place is here. With him. D'you see?"

The knight-probationer swallowed hard, nodding. "Yes. I do understand, I think. It's very like..." He swallowed again. "Ever since I can remember, I've believed -- I've known -- that I was meant to serve one of the Gods. That I was needed. It's why I joined the Order."

"Yes!" Terrin burst out eagerly. "That's it exactly. Like he may not know it yet, but he'll need me sometime." He was relaxed now, smiling, as if telling Vaijon had taken a weight off his mind. "I knew you'd understand, Sir. It just took me longer than you to find who I had to follow."

After Terrin had gone, Vaijon stayed sitting on his pallet, one hand pressed to the cloth hidden under his brown-and-gold tabard.

I'm not so sure, Goodman, he thought glumly. I think you found him first...

* * * * *

The secret temple of Krashnark beneath Navahk was still empty most of the time, which made it the perfect place to discuss things best kept secret... or to argue about them.

"I'm saying we need Arsham," Yurgazh said stubbornly.

"And I'm saying I'm not about to trust one of Churnazh's sons any further than I can spit," Mathel said, just as stubborn and considerably more angry. "He might be the only one of 'em as hasn't been sniffing after every skirt in the Palace, but he's still Black Churnazh's blood!"

"And I don't think he's any happier about it than you are," the Guard captain persisted. "He's no knight in shining armour from a bard's song, no, but he's at least decent -- decent enough that Churnazh's toadies call him 'weak' and 'over-civilised'." He snorted. "A'course, they say that because he doesn't rape, isn't a bully, and won't let them suck up to him for favours. The important thing is, if it's a choice between him and Churnazh, most of the army will follow him."

=*You're going to need the army,*= Krashnark said out of thin air, and Yurgazh flinched violently, ears flattening. Mathel ignored his reaction, standing straight and glaring upwards.

"We can get the army without bringing in Arsham Churnazhson!"

=*Not easily, and not nearly quickly enough,*= the god told her calmly. =*You would need to recruit individuals one by one; sooner or later one would betray you, and when the time came to move our forces would be disorganised. If you recruit Arsham, not only will you gain the army as a unit, you will avoid arguments over the succession.*=

"You want to put him on the throne?!"

=*Yes.*=

The flat acknowledgement took some of the wind out of Mathel's sails, and Akar tentatively patted her shoulder. "There's sense in it," he told her. "The courtiers won't follow him because he's illegitimate, so Churnazh and his other sons don't see him as competition, but we don't want their support anyway."

"If this works, we'll be getting rid of the lot of 'em," Yurgazh put in, sounding almost gleeful at the prospect.

"Aye." Akar nodded. "The old noble families, those that are left, will likely accept him; they'd squabble if we tried to suggest someone from their own ranks."

"...I still don't like the idea," she told him, glaring until he took his hand off her shoulder. Nobody was foolish enough to tell her she didn't have to like it, but it was plain from her frustrated expression that she understood.

"Well," she said eventually, putting her hands on her hips and glaring upwards again, "do you have any useful suggestions as to how we're to convince him? Bastard or not, he's got to be wary of people inviting him to join them in a conspiracy; he'll likely decide that either we want him as a figurehead, or one of his brothers is trying to trick him into being caught betraying his father."

=*Bring him here.*=

Akar looked doubtful. "Are you sure, Lord? If he takes the idea badly, we'd have to abandon the temple if he knew where it was. He could bring all Churnazh's forces down on top of us with a word."

=*And you the man who called it 'this bloody huge useless temple',*= Krashnark said mildly. =*I would have thought you'd be delighted at the opportunity to get rid of it. It's a risk; he is a hradani, after all, so he could very well tell me to mind my own business and leave him to his. Still, it's a risk that needs to be taken.*=

"I have to admit, Lord, you're convincing when you want to be," Akar said ruefully. "It could work."

"If his heart doesn't stop when you talk to him out of thin air," Yurgazh muttered quietly, ears still half-flat. "I know I'm never going to get used to that..."

Mathel's ears were slowly shifting backwards as well. "First you say we can't get the army 'quickly enough' without Arsham, and then that we need to take risks. Just how fast do we need to be moving here, Lord?"

=*Probably faster than is prudent,*= came the answer, in serious tones. =*There are forces moving that you must be ready to meet.*=

"Hurgrum?" Yurgazh asked. "But we're heading into winter! The Horse Stealers aren't fool enough to start a campaign now!"

=*The Horse Stealers are not the only problem. Bring Arsham here if you can,*= Krashnark said shortly, and then fell silent in a somehow final way.

"...He's not going to explain that, is he?" Yurgazh asked eventually.

"I don't think so, no," Akar agreed.

"Lovely. I hate heading into battle without clear intelligence. Ah well." Yurgazh cocked one ear at Mathel. "If I get us in to see Arsham, d'you think your unspeakable eloquence can get him to come here without a full explanation?"

"My what?!"

"Well, you got me here, didn't you?"

----------

Krashnark leaned back from his scrying window, letting it blur as its focus moved away from the Navahkian temple. They'll do well enough, he decided, turning his attention southward. Now, if I--

=*KRASHNARK.*=

He looked up, startled, and then followed the brusque summons, flicking directly into his father's chambers without taking the time to walk the corridors between.

"Yes, my lord father?" he said respectfully, sinking to one knee and bowing his head.

=*YOU SEEM... MORE INDUSTRIOUS LATELY,*= came the heavy thought, almost a physical weight against his mind. =*I AM PLEASED TO SEE YOU TAKING AN INTEREST IN YOUR CHURCH ONCE AGAIN.*=

"Thank you, my lord."

The thought darkened. =*IT WAS UNSEEMLY OF YOU -- MY GENERAL -- TO NEGLECT YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES SO. IF YOU HAD ALLOWED THIS STATE OF AFFAIRS TO CONTINUE MUCH LONGER, I WOULD HAVE HAD TO MAKE MY DISPLEASURE APPARENT.*=

Krashnark bowed his head further, eyes on the stone floor beneath him. "Forgive me, my lord father. It shall not happen again."

=*SEE THAT IT DOES NOT.*= Phrobus's attention sharpened on him, an almost palpable sensation. For a fleeting moment, Krashnark wondered if it was anything like Wufei's sense that told the little human-demon when he was being watched, then dismissed the distracting speculation.

=*I NOTE THAT YOU HAVE NOT SUCCEEDED IN RECRUITING THAT DEMON TO YOUR SERVICE.*=

He hid a wince. "No, my lord father."

=*FAR FROM IT, IN FACT. HE APPEARS TO BE CONSIDERING ENTERING TORFRAMOS'S ORDER.*=

"Ah... I think not, my lord; he has merely made friends with some of Torframos's servants, and travels with them because he has no reason to do otherwise," Krashnark said carefully. "He resists overt persuasion. I have adopted a more... indirect strategy for the time being."

=*I SEE.*= There was a tense pause before Phrobus seemed to shrug, directing his attention elsewhere. =*DO NOT ALLOW YOUR CONCENTRATION ON THIS ONE DEMON TO DISTRACT YOU FROM YOUR OTHER DUTIES.*=

"No, my lord father."

=*YOU MAY GO.*=

"Thank you, my lord." Rising, Krashnark took a couple of steps backwards before turning to go, lifting his gaze at the last moment for one quick glance at his father. The indistinct dark blur that was Phrobus's presence hovered over and around his immense throne, cloaking it in shadow, and Krashnark hid a shiver as he flicked back to his own quarters. Phrobus's amorphous non-physical body was simultaneously a reminder of what he could do, what he had once dared to do... and what he should never have done.

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