The suns had long since set when the Errant returned to Nike where, according to Gideon Quinn, Jinna would now be safe to return.
During the brief radio contact, Quinn also said something about General Rand, but the Errant was only at the edge of Nike signal range and the call cut out before Quinn could finish the statement, leaving John to hope all had gone well for the ex-soldier. Given Jinna’s desire to thank him for facilitating the business with Del, he assumed they’d learn what had occurred in Nike soon enough.
For now, however, the Errant’s crew, plus one, were enjoying a well-earned hour of leisure at the Frayed Rigging, which was doing a brisk business.
Brisk enough the drinkers at the bar angled sideways to make room for their fellows and those seated at tables were guaranteed to bump elbows every time they lifted a glass. To John’s memory, it had always been like this, though, unlike the Rigging of six years past, there were fewer uniforms on the bodies scattered around the pub. The blue and black of the Corps had been, by and large, replaced by the battered flight leathers and coveralls of working aeronauts.
The change went deeper than wardrobe, however, as also absent from the night’s festivities was the underlying drive to live as fully as possible in the moment, because those moments might run out on the next tour.
Some veterans mourned the change, but John found it made for a more relaxing evening.
Or perhaps, after the past two days, he was simply tired.
He lifted his glass, bumping into Jagati’s shoulder as he did, not that she noticed.
She and Jinna and Rory were all preoccupied by the dancing happening in front of the Rigging’s handkerchief-sized stage, which tonight featured two drums, a fiddle, and an oud.
Eitan was on the floor with a handful of others, his arms and hips moving as one with the music, the fingers of his hand snapping, his body interweaving with the four men and two women into a twining, sinuous strand.
Then, in tune with each other and the musicians, the strand broke apart, again becoming six disparate individuals, following the drums into a sudden stamping, whirling crescendo which just as suddenly stopped.
Applause broke out, dancers and musicians shared hand grips, embraces, and the occasional formal kiss on the cheek.
“I could never move like that,” Jinna observed as the dancers returned to their various parties while the musicians set down their instruments to take a break. “Not even before I got pregnant.”
In the meantime, Eitan was edging his way to their table and John could mark his passage by the stares, dropped jaws, and any number of drinks that missed their marks, spilling instead on any number of shirts.
Eitan, seemingly oblivious to the devastation left in his wake, slung himself into the chair Jagati had been guarding against all comers.
“Is there nothing you don’t do well?” Rory asked, sounding only slightly bitter.
Eitan didn’t answer at once, but first took a deep draft of the cold ale they’d all been guarding. “Knit,” he said at last, setting the mug on the table.
“Ha,” said Rory.
“Truly.” As he spoke, Eitan’s smile held the barest of shadows. After the past few days, John figured this was the best one could hope for. “In primary school I was the despair of my Textiles instructors.”
“Same here,” Jinna said, sipping at her tea. “I can’t get through a row on a blanket for the baby without dropping at least three stitches.” With which statement she threw a curious glance Rory’s way.
“Alas, I had no such fancy schooling,” he told her. “’Twas all locks, dips, and grifts for me, before the Corps.”
“I ditched Textiles,” Jagati admitted with a shrug.
Everyone looked at John. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “I was quite the knitter, back in the day. And I find spinning an excellent way to clear a busy mind.”
“Of course you do,” Jagati said into her glass.
“I’ll know who to beg for help, then,” Jinna said with a smile which was promptly superseded by a yawn. “Sorry.”
“No need for that,” Rory said. “I’m knackered, myself, and with half as much reason.” As he spoke, the arm he’d rested over Jinna’s shoulder curled in, and his other, unbandaged, hand joined hers where it rested atop the table, causing her to look up at him.
The gesture and the look both were so new and so perfect, John felt compelled to turn away, which left him facing Jagati, who’d also averted her gaze from the shared tenderness in their midst.
She rolled her eyes, a move so predictable it made John smile.
“We’d best be off home,” Rory’s voice broke into the moment, pulling everyone’s attention back to where he was rising from the table. “Unless you’d prefer your flat?” he asked Jinna. “Because I can take you to your flat. Or to wherever Mia’s staying. Or—”
“The Errant is fine.” To everyone’s relief, Jinna cut him off. “Tomorrow’s soon enough to figure out the rest,” she added before yawning hugely. “And yup, the tired tree has fallen.”
“The Errant it is, then,” Rory said, beaming like a new crystal lamp as he helped her from the chair.
“Sleep well,” Eitan said as the remaining three rose in respect.
Jinna thanked him with a smile, said goodnight to the others, and then she and Rory, with his arm circling her, made their way out of the pub.
Jagati took advantage of the extra space by stretching her legs out under the table as soon as she sat again, and hefted her beer towards the departing couple. “I have to admit, I did not see that coming. Did you?” she addressed both men. “Know he had a thing for her?”
“I suspected Rory might have feelings for Jinna that went beyond friendship,” John said, settling back in his chair. “But I’d no idea they were so serious, or that she returned them.”
From Eitan’s chair, the silence was deafening.
“Oh, come on.” Jagati kicked at his chair’s leg. “You’re not telling me you knew.”
“Sensed,” he took another drink, set the glass down, met her accusatory gaze. “It was not deliberate, but,” he added with a shrug, “some feelings are less subtle than others.”
John’s eyes shifted from the door through which Rory and Jinna had just departed to Eitan, taking care to avoid looking at Jagati. “So, you were aware they were in love with one another? The whole time?”
“Again, some feelings are—”
“Keepers, man,” Jagati cut in, “why didn’t you save us all the—” her hands waved in what John assumed an indication of Rory’s emotional state over the past days, “and tell him? Her? Them?”
Eitan’s brow arched. “For the same reason sensitives cannot give testimony in a criminal case.”
Jagati’s brow furrowed. “Which is?”
“Because the psyche is not a book,” he explained, with the patience of an instructor.
“No shit,” she replied, with the irritation of the impatient.
Now came Eitan’s smile (and several more spilled drinks from that smile’s line of fire). “What I mean is, thoughts and emotions do not remain still, waiting quiet on a shelf until they may be opened and read—or Sensed.”
“Okay.” She sat up and leaned forward, elbows on the table. “What are they like?”
“Like…” he paused, thought. “Like a murmuration,” he said, at last.
John sat back, amused, while the scholar in warrior’s clothing leaned in to explain. “Consider all you experience in a single day—or even a single hour—and what you think of those experiences. And then there are the older, deeper, buried thoughts those experiences waken. A woman accused of murder may be innocent but experience guilt for not liking the victim, or having not prevented the death. In the same way, one moment of contact with Jinna might show a tenderness for Rory that, had I touched her five minutes later, would have been subsumed by anger or sorrow or irritation.”
“Well, it is Rory,” Jagati said, then added a quick, “Sorry. Habit.”
“Mm, well.” Eitan tapped the table in time with the drums which had begun to beat anew. “The point is, every one of those emotions would have been true in that moment. To conclude from the one contact, in the one moment, that it was a lasting truth, and to share it as such, would be irresponsible at best. At worst?” His shoulder lifted, and he met her gaze. “Would you risk it?”
Jagati’s glance flicked towards John and away again.
“I guess not,” she said, glaring down at her glass.
Deep inside, in that hollow space beneath his heart—the one he’d lived with for years, and fully believed would consume him when Galileo filled his mind with death—John felt a murmuration.
He blinked and realized Eitan was watching him. But if there was a message in the nearly black eyes, John couldn’t read it, so he turned his attention to the dance floor.
There, an aeronaut was already moving to the beat, her hips swaying, hands twining in an intricate pattern and the cloud of deep black curls floating in syncopation. She managed, despite the utilitarian uniform she wore, to convey a sense of exotic promise.
Up on the stage the oud player, eyes on the dancer, began to pick out a tune, then the fiddle slid in, and John couldn’t tell if the dancer followed the music or the music followed the dancer.
At his side Eitan took a last drink from his glass and thumped it to the table. Rising, he wove his way back to the dance floor to join her, just as the tempo increased.
Watching, John saw the woman turn, noted the flashing of burns marring the right side of her face, the tell of an encounter with plasma fire.
His eyes moved over the pub, taking in more burns, more scars, and some, like Eitan, missing an appendage.
Over a year of peace, but the spoils of war were still much in evidence.
The Errant crew was no exception, though their scars hadn’t come from the Coalition.
The members of John’s crew had been marked first by Rand, a ristocrat with a wasp’s nest to burn, and most lately by Galileo, a soul twisted by loss.
In retrospect, he thought the war less complicated.
He took a drink, set down his glass, and focused on the dancers, now increased by three.
“Think she’ll take him home?” Jagati asked.
John looked over to see her still leaning forward on the table, her expression caught somewhere between confusion and irritation. His eyes returned to Eitan and his current dance partner. “If she doesn’t, half the pub will be following him back to the Errant.”
At that she grunted, and John settled back to observe as she turned her glass around on itself a few times.
“So—” he began.
“I think we should—”
They both stopped. “You first,” he said.
“Ugh.” She stopped turning the glass and rapped her knuckles on the table. “It’s just, all that talk about Sensing and emotions and that minute in the cargo bay and…” She hissed and shook her head. “Listen, sure, for starry-eyed kids like Rory and Jinna it’s simple.”
John felt his lips twitch. “Young they may be, but Rory and Jinna are both seasoned veterans, and have lived a life. And Jinna is carrying a child of her own, under what could best be termed trying circumstances. I can’t think of anything less simple.”
“Yes. Fine. Whatever,” Jagati said. “But they’re still both younger than we are.”
“Yes, they are.” Keepers, but he enjoyed seeing the cool Jagati O’Bannion flustered. “Which I suppose means we have less time to waste.”
“Exactly! Wait.” She frowned. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh?” He raised his glass, much as Eitan had earlier, and took a drink before asking, “And what did you mean?”
“Sometimes I hate you.”
“I know.” He smiled and leaned in, so they were face to face, close enough he could see the gold flecks in her eyes.
She didn’t lean back.
“So…about the queen being in my net,” she began.
There was a soft huff of breath. “I think I might keep it.”
His right brow rose. “I don’t know what that means.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You aren’t going to make this easy for me, are you?”
“It’s not easy for me,” he said, his own huff of breath displacing a curl that had fallen to her cheek. Without thinking, he reached up to brush it back, noticing she not only did not slap his hand, she still didn’t back away, so again he looked into her eyes. “I want to know what you want.”
“I thought I was being clear.” Her nose wrinkled in frustration. “I want…” Another huff of air. “I want—”
At the diffident greeting, John and Jagati both straightened like marionettes on a puppeteer’s strings and looked up to see an older man with weathered copper skin dressed in clothes as well made as they were ill-used.
“I apologize if I’m interrupting,” the man said.
“Oh, you’re not interrupting.” Jagati waved off the idea.
“Of course not,” John agreed.
“Nothing happening here,” she added.
“I see.” The man’s expression shifted from diffident to amused. “In that case, might I ask if I have the pleasure of addressing Captain Pitte of the CAS Errant?”
“Only if you’re not planning on thrashing him,” Jagati said.
John’s glance slid her way. “I am Captain Pitte,” he said to the man. “How can I help you, Uncle?“
“Doctor, in fact,” the man corrected with a slight bow. “Doctor Alain Natsiq, and I’m in need of an airship. I was told you might have one to hire?”
John looked at Jagati, caught the amused glimmer in her eye, sighed, and gestured to the chair.
“That we do,” he said as Natsiq sat down. “How may the Errant serve?”
The crew of the Errant will return.