The atmosphere aboard the ferry was that of a carnival or festival. People were jammed together in a burbling mass, and snippets and snatches of music from at least a dozen different worlds filled the air. Chevalier weaved through the crowd with careful steps, wary as he always was of someone bumping into him and stealing Selene’s bag. He was far more cautious here than he was on Junkheap; there were bound to be plenty of people aboard who could recognize a space dragon.
Kellen, on the other hand, was like a stone in the middle of a river. Everyone gave him a wide berth and often incredulous stares to go along with it. The mercenary was taller than all but the tallest of aliens and so intimidating that there was a palpable sensation of fear that followed his every step.When he moved he did so carefully, surely knowing that he could accidentally cause serious injury or worse if he stepped on someone.
Despite the crowd and the very real dangers that it presented – Chevalier had heard enough stories about hapless travelers aboard ferries being impressed into service aboard military vessels to be wary for the rest of his life – Chevalier felt himself relaxing. Traveling through space was dangerous, and no matter how safe the sector there was always some threat of attack that forced you to stay on your guard. It was a low level anxiety, more like a buzzing in the back of the skull than a full-throated panic that filled your every limb, but it was there nonetheless. However, the might of the Aguelot armadas and their devout protection of the ferry lanes meant that traveling aboard one of the massive whale ships was as safe as space could be.
He didn’t know exactly how long the shipping lane lasted, but guessed that it ran for at least thirty thousand waves or so. The Empire kept fleets of warships every five hundred waves, and had an outpost station every two thousand. Along with their satellites and other defensive measures, any prospective attackers would have to travel through so many layers of protection in order to reach a ferry that none of the big gangs were willing to try it and none of the small ones could manage it.
Monsters too were deterred, since each outpost station had a full cadre of Imperial Maesters armed with artifacts capable of deterring even a celeretsnom for up to three days.
It was this sense of security that made the Imperial ferries so popular, despite their high price and comparatively slow travel time.
Chevalier paused in front of a small group of people that were watching a woman dance. She stood atop a sphere of crystal and danced with languid, sensuous energy. Her outfit was as simple as it was eye-catching: pieces of glittering fabric that somehow managed to accentuate her motions and draw attention to the curves of her body no matter how she moved. Bangles of copper, silver and gold adorned her arms, and necklaces heavy with gemstones hung from her neck. She had long, rippled hair that was streaked with red and black, marking her as one of the grynaith, a wandering people who all possessed the ability to shift between human and monstrous forms at will.
If he’d had any doubt as to her origin they dissipated immediately when the dancer met his gaze. Her irises were pools of milky shadow that evoked shades of gray, white, and lilac. Chevalier felt his entire body warming as she seemed to stare right through him. Her smile made him feel as if he needed to sit down. He wasn’t sure how long she held him in thrall – it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds for all that it felt like an hour, or a day, or the entirety of his existence. When she finally looked away, doubtlessly to bewitch some other poor bastard, Chevalier’s shoulders sagged and he let out a sigh that was equal parts depression and relief.
“You okay?” Kellen asked. “I was worried that you were going to start drooling. What’s the matter with you? Haven’t you ever seen a grynaith dancer before?”
“Of course I have,” Chevalier snapped. “But I’ve never seen one like that.”
“Then you must not have been looking too closely,” Kellen said with a chuckle. “More of them are like that one than not. I’ve heard that staring into the eyes of a grynaith can be quite the disconcerting experience.”
“Have you never done it?”
Kellen shifted in his armor ever so slightly, which Chevalier took to mean no. “With my helmet on, I do not see the same way you do. There are plenty of dangerous gazes and glances out amidst the stars, and so the company takes precautions to ensure that members of my order are immune to such things. Until recently, I hadn’t removed my helmet in…probably more than a decade.”
Chevalier blinked, unsure what to say. Thankfully Kellen continued, “This dancer is talented, and one of the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen. I do not think that most people would blame you for falling into her spell. Just take care that you do not fall too deeply into it. Most of my experiences with the grynaith are not pleasant. They are fierce fighters and can be devious.”
Next to the dancer was a grynaith man playing an instrument almost as tall as he was that looked like a cross between a flute and a horn. He was dressed simply, but his muscles bulged as his hands moved up and down his instrument’s sleek shape, pressing keys and buttons to change the intonation from deep to high and back again. With his tune, the crystal orb his companion danced atop changed colors, shifting from orange to blue to green to yellow and back again. The crowd all stood watching as if bewitched. Maybe most of them were. Chevalier certainly felt that he was.
However, eventually, like all good things must, the song slowly came to an end. As the last few notes trilled and faded into silence, the woman stopped dancing and stepped down from the orb. She looked shorter on the ground, and while her movements were still graceful, they seemed little different from anyone else’s.
She bowed and held out her arms. “Thank you for watching. Should you feel compelled to show us any tokens of your appreciation, my partner and I would both happily accept them.”
An empty basket flickered into existence in front of her. It was small, but Chevalier saw a small blink of blue light near her waist. Pocket galaxy. Within seconds, coins and markers from all around filled the basket and the crowd slowly dispersed.
He wasn’t sure why he waited, but Chevalier decided to stay where he was until the rest of the watchers had made their way elsewhere and then approached the grynaith dancer. She smiled at him as he walked towards her and Chevalier felt as if the air had grown thick. The sensation was similar to what he imagined people felt when he used his boon’s power. He trudged forward and found himself embarrassed as she waited for him to speak.
“That was…quite the performance,” he said, forcing each word through his lips as if they were pieces of a puzzle that hadn’t been quite cut to the proper sizes. “You’re a beautiful dancer.”
“Thank you, traveller,” the grynaith said as she fixed her color mess eyes on his. Her voice made him feel like he was basking in the sun on a summer’s day. She smelled of flowers and spices.
Be careful, she’s dangerous, Chevalier thought to himself. His heart was thumping in his chest and the awkwardness of moments before had vanished into thin air. Now, he felt as if he wanted to start babbling and only barely managed to keep himself from doing so.
“Where are you heading?” The grynaith asked. “I’m always curious to hear about the places people are going aboard these things.”
“I’m hunting for treasure,” Chevalier said. “My companion and I are searching for the Calypso Templar. It’s a ship that was rumored to be full of gold and silver, and it disappeared a long time ago.”
“Oh? And no one has found it? Have you perhaps found some secret map or hidden hint that would allow you to succeed where everyone else has failed?”
She batted her eyelashes at him. She battered her eyelashes at him. Chevalier clenched his jaw, told himself to focus, and answered her. He didn’t give her the details, though lucky stars he wanted to.
What is wrong with me? I need to get out of here.
“Well, I enjoyed your dance,” Chevalier said. He reached into his pocket and drew out a few Imperial marks and tossed them into the basket. “I would love to watch you again sometime.”
She laughed. “Well, I am sure that I will dance at least a few more times before it is time to depart. This is my trade, dancing aboard these ferries for the generosity of the patrons. It would make me happy to see you again. Perhaps even away from the stage, if you were interested.”
Selene popped her head out of the bag and gave the grynaith a glare. “If you knew how interested he was,” she growled, “you wouldn’t be saying that.”
The dancer threw back her head with a laugh. “Oh, you’re a precious one! What’s your name, little one?”
She bent down and reached for the space dragon, but Selene pulled away, turned to Chevalier and snorted a few sparks into his stomach. “We should leave. If you keep talking to this woman, steam is going to start coming out of your ears.”
“Don’t be like that,” the grynaith dancer said. “I don’t mean you any harm, and your scales are so beautiful!”
Selene purred at the compliment and the dancer held out her hand to Chevalier. “My name is Charlottia, traveler. What’s yours?”
Chevalier introduced himself and Charlottia gestured to Selene. “I know we’ve just met so please forgive me for being so forward. But, would you be willing to part with your tiny companion? My sister is an animal tamer, and while she’s very talented she’s hit a bit of a rough streak. The patrons aren’t interested in her shows of late, and feeding her creatures is expensive. Having such a beautiful specimen join her troupe would make all the difference, I think.”
She gestured to the basket in front of her. “As you can see, I have plenty of money. Or, if money isn’t enough maybe there are other things I can interest you in. Name your price.”
“I’m sorry,” Chevalier said with a shake of his head. “I’m afraid that she isn’t for sale.”
“Everything has a price,” Charlottia purred. She picked up the basket and turned toward her companion. Looking over her well-sculpted shoulder, she winked at Chevalier. “Won’t you think about it?”
“You’re not actually thinking about it, are you?” Selene asked as Chevalier and Kellen worked their way through the crowd. There were other performers here and there, but none of them attracted a crowd – or Chevalier’s attention – the way Charlottia had. A group of arlai stood in a circle playing a game of dice and shouting at each other in their native squawking tongue as they traded money back and forth. Chevalier had been known to enjoy a throw of the dice or two in his time, but there weren’t any non-arlai in the crowd and he didn’t much fancy trying to be the first.
“Of course I’m not actually thinking about it,” Chevalier said as he reached down and scratched Selene behind her ears. “Do you really think I’d do such a thing?”
“It kind of looked like you were thinking about it to me,” Kellen rumbled behind him. Chevalier turned and scowled at the mercenary.
“You said yourself that your eyes don’t work right with that helmet on. What could you see?”
“I said that I do not see the same way that you do. I never said that my eyes don’t work right. You were damn near totally immersed in her gaze back there. A few more minutes and she would have had you agreeing to whatever she wanted. Grynaith are not inherently evil, but you need to understand that their ideas of morality are not the same as yours, human. Or mine, for that matter. You shouldn’t talk to her again.”
“I agree with Kellen,” said Selene.
“Of course you do,” said Chevalier. “There’s no harm in a few casual conversations. Both of you are overreacting.”
They stopped in front of a large screen hanging from the ceiling that was broadcasting Imperial news. The sound wasn’t audible in all the din from the rest of the passengers, but there were subtitles beneath the anchor’s portrait and Chevalier read a few of them. For the most part, they were meaningless to him, but then one caught his eye.
Imperial fleet missing without a trace. Contact lost between sectors eight and nine. Investigation underway, but analysts are unsure that authorities will find answers. Other fleets have been placed on high alert.
“Looks like the Imperials are facing the same problems as Plagtos,” Kellen said.
Chevalier turned towards the mercenary and saw that he too was staring up at the screen.
“Well, maybe not the exact same problems, but a similar one. Whatever is attacking Plagtos likes to leave scraps of whale ships and company property.”
“What do you think it is?”
Kellen shrugged, his massive shoulder pauldrons heaving up and down. “I can’t say. I don’t know much about these types of things. Few in my order were ever expected to handle tactics or answer questions like that. We were simply a weapon to be pointed in whatever direction the company wanted.”
Chevalier sat down on a nearby bench. His legs felt more than a little weak and he relished the rest. Kellen remained standing, his head tilted back ever so slightly so that he could keep watching the screen.
The crowd swelled and moved around them, oblivious to anything but the spectacle of itself.
Three days later, Chevalier and Kellen were in the same places again, but Chevalier was shifting around on the bench anxiously, casting his eyes back and forth through the crowd in a vain attempt to spot Charlottia somewhere. He fixated on every shock of red or black hair that he saw, almost snapped his neck as he jerked his head toward every flashing gold or silver bracelet, and glared at every other performer that wasn’t the grynaith dancer.
“Still mooning?” Kellen asked. He looked away from the news screen and studied his companion. Chevalier flashed him an obscene hand gesture in response and folded his arms over his chest.
“I didn’t know you were like this,” Kellen said, “You seemed so serious back on Junkheap. Who could have guessed that you’d be as bad as a teenage boy who’d just gotten his first kiss? It’s more than a little embarrassing, to be honest.”
Chevalier leaned back on the bench. “Screw you. What would you know about it? You’ve been in that armor for almost your entire life, right? I can’t imagine that you have much experience with romance, huh?”
Kellen didn’t answer and Chevalier looked down. It had been a bit of a low blow and he knew it but he didn’t care. Part of him – a small part that was getting smaller with every passing minute – agreed with the chillsword’s assessment that he was acting foolish. It was a bit ridiculous, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the grynaith’s eyes or her smile, or –if he was being honest with himself – her curves. Not his most chivalrous moment, to be sure.
He stood up and gestured into the throng. “I’m going to see if there’s anything interesting going on,” he said. “You just stay there and watch the news.”
“Good luck finding the girl,” Kellen said as Chevalier disappeared into the crowd.
Chevalier bobbed and weaved as he made his way across the length of the ferry’s recreation deck. His head swiveled back and forth as he did so, but to his frustration and chagrin Charlottia was nowhere to be found.
A hand grabbed his and Chevalier turned toward it. Charlottia grinned at him, and excited heat spread throughout his entire body before he could even say hi.
“I’ve been looking for you,” she said with an seductive smile. She pressed her body into him and breathed into his right ear. “Follow me, there’s something I’ve wanted to show you since we met.”
Chevalier was not the type to normally allow himself to be pulled through a crowd by a veritable stranger, but the grynaith’s beauty had so affected him that he wasn’t thinking straight. All of his normal care and caution melted away and he gleefully followed her towards a corridor on the far end of the recreation deck.
The doors slid open and Chevalier followed Charlottia down a nearby hallway. The floors were white and the walls bare, this was a place that most passengers didn’t go. The knight chased the dancer down the hallway, and no matter how he tried to pull her into his arms, she always slipped away. Laughing and daring him to keep up, she led him deeper and deeper into the bowels of the ferry. Chevalier had almost forgotten his own name, so fixated was he on the beauty in front of him, but when he turned a sharp right corner, his senses returned with stunning speed.
Four burly grynaith stood in a line, each heavily armed.
Charlottia ran over to the tallest one, stood up on her tiptoes and gave him a kiss on the cheek. The grynaith wrapped a beefy arm around the dancer’s waist and glowered at Chevalier. Recognition dawned on the knight. This grynaith was the one who played the flute during Charlottia’s performance.
Though he knew perfectly well what was about to happen, Chevalier still felt compelled to ask what was going on.
Charlottia looked at him and once again he felt that flash of heat, but this time Chevalier kept his head. The dancer grinned – had her smile always been so feral? – and winked at Chevalier.
“It’s nothing personal. Hand over the space dragon and there won’t be any problems, okay?”
“And if I choose not to?”
“Then we’ll take it.”
At the same time, the grynaiths all began to shapeshift. Their bodies lengthened and thickened, their nearly perfect human proportions replaced by a grotesque mockery. Their skin turned to scales, and their eyes narrowed and shrank until they were barely visible on each face. Fingers transformed into claws, Chevalier got the distinct impression that their weapons were more for show and convenience than necessity.
When they finished transforming, Chevalier found himself facing five massive reptilian creatures. They smiled at him menacingly, and the one that had once been Charlottia extended her right hand towards the knight.
“What’ll it be, traveler?”