There was a tap on the door.
Fred’s pacing ceased mid-stride, and he wobbled a little before setting his foot quietly on the floor. Strin looked up from his thoughts.
“You heard that, right?” Fred asked. He peered at the door as if it would suddenly open hidden jaws and swallow him.
There was another rapid succession of taps.
Fred looked to Strin. “Hand me my cross-staff.”
“Fred, it’s the door, not an assault. Open it.”
“Fine,” Fred said angrily. He stomped to the door and flung it open. A short, plump woman stood in the opening. “What?” he demanded.
“Fred, she’s one of the Empress’s Advisors.”
Strin stood and motioned to the Advisor. “Please come in.” He pushed gently past Fred, who flung himself dramatically onto his bed, and Strin ushered the hesitant woman over the threshold and closed the door. Her eyes darted nervously about the room. “I apologize for the rude welcome,” Strin said, hoping to calm her. “Advisor …?”
“What?” The Advisor shook her head. “Sorry. Just call me Celina.” She stood in the narrow space between bed and wall, concentrating as if forming sentences carefully in her mind. An awkward silence developed and lengthened. Behind her back, Fred made frantic motions indicating that Celina needed to leave now or he would make her leave.
Strin gave him a hard look that managed to subdue the motions, then he led Celina to a well-made, if slightly unsteady, chair. She sat, and Strin found a place on his bed. Fred shook his head, jumped to his feet, and began pacing again. There would be a groove in the floor if Fred stayed many days more. “What brings you here, Advisor?” Strin prompted.
Celina’s dark brown eyes met Strin’s; hers were filled with urgency. In a rush, Celina exhaled, “I can get you into the Generator Room.” The rhythm of Fred’s footsteps faltered. Tension seeped from the muscles of Celina’s face; her rigid posture relaxed; her fingers released their death grip on the chair arms.
“What?” Somehow, without crossing the intervening space, Fred appeared at Strin’s side. “Really?”
Celina nodded, a quiver of the head, and an unconscious smirk sneaked onto her face at Fred’s eagerness. “Let’s go!” Fred told Strin. “Sneaking behind the Empress’s back sounds like more fun than I’ve had in a while.”
“Patience, Fred.” Strin studied Celina. “Just getting us into the Generator Room won’t help, unless you know how to operate it as well.”
“I … I don’t,” she said. Fred groaned. “But I know the Generator’s magician …”
“And he’ll help us, even against the Empress’s orders?” Strin asked.
“Yes, he’ll help.” She sounded more confident of this than of anything else she had said.
“Let’s go!” Fred said impatiently. “Like I said before, we’ll worry about details later.” Fred fished his cross-staff from under his bed. “We’ll beat the Trio to it.”
“No … no,” Celina managed, frustrated. “There’s only enough power left for one more link.” She said it apologetically, as if it were her fault. “Qwom Jelp wouldn’t dare anger the Empress by not sending the Trio.”
“Qwom Jelp?’ Fred asked.
“Then how … ?” Strin asked at the same time.
“Qwom Jelp is the Generator magician,” Celina answered Fred.
“You’ll have to go on the same link as the Trio. Qwom will hold it for you,” Celina explained quietly. She did not meet Strin’s eyes, but only glanced at him guiltily.
Strin considered for a moment. It would be complicated. “When does the Trio leave?”
Celina rubbed the back of her neck nervously. “I, I’m not sure exactly. Soon, I think.”
“Then … let’s … go!” Fred said. “We’re ready to go, look!” He dumped and stuffed the contents of a drawer into their cloth traveling bag. “Ready.”
“What’s the plan then, Celina?” Strin asked.
“Plan? Me?” Celina’s eyes opened wide and she shook her head in disbelief. Then she calmed and said, “I … I better go down first. Ask Qwom. He doesn’t like to be surprised.”
“You haven’t asked him yet? You haven’t asked—?” Fred couldn’t finish the question. He swallowed and tried again. “Our whole plan depends on him holding the link and you haven’t asked him yet?”
Celina blushed and lowered her head. She shook it miserably.
“Fred,” Strin said with quiet authority, “take our stuff and tell the innkeeper that we’re leaving. Go ahead and pay him. I’ll be down in a moment.”
Fred grinned. “Let’s go!” He swung the bag over his shoulder and ran out of the room without closing the door. Strin walked over and closed it before turning to Celina.
“Celina.” She looked up. “Fred and I need to be on the Horizon for this. I don’t know your reasons for doing this, and I don’t need to, but I believe they’re similar to my own. But you are risking more than we are. I fear perhaps we’re making an awful mistake, and I will pay for it willingly if we are, +/-» but I can’t ignore this opportunity. Thank you.”
Celina smiled faintly. “I’m not even sure I know why I’m doing this, but if you trust me …” She rose to her feet. “Qwom will help us. Don’t worry about that.” She took a deep breath and brushed her dress with her hands. “Let’s do this now, before I turn back altogether.”