Arkmar didn’t waste any time waiting to see if the gnome judge was serious. He knew she was serious. He knew she was a she, also, under that lovely beard.
Were gnomes just junior grade dwarves? Arkmar knew plenty of dwarves who felt strongly that way. His dad used to say, what are you, a gnome? Grow up for gosh sake. But whatever they were, Arkmar was in no doubt that the gnomes were some relation to the dwarves. He sensed a kinship. Of course, it was a kinship between rivals. If they were big brother and little brother, then little brother thought big brother would never admit little brother qualified as an adult, and big brother thought that little brother was a bit of a pipsqueak. Gnomes liked crenelated walls, towers, lovely bits of pavement, statuary. Dwarves loved the architecture of vast subterranean cities. Gnomes loved the music of waters and of harps: they were gaga for harpsichord. Dwarves loved bass viols, trumpets, drums. Dwarves loved works of steel and stone. Gnomes adored gadgets, gizmos, clever contrivances. This island—dwarves would never have set up willingly on an island in the sea—it was full of their little machines.
Still. Gnome women. Maybe some of his brothers would think it perverse, but it wasn’t perverse.
Arkmar found he was standing on the stone platform at the top of the steps, just outside the courthouse, looking out on a small courtyard. Gnome children played, elderly gnomes gardened, gnomes sat and read, fixed machinery, chatted over gnomish chess. Arkmar descended the steps and crossed the courtyard, pausing to admire a sculptor at work, a chalk drawing on the stones executed by gnome kids. Then he wandered over to the gate, nodded and smiled at the guards there, and went out into a lovely day.
He walked down to the sea and let his brain relax in the sound of the waves and the wind. Arkmar was not accustomed to this sort of thing—the Great Abyss really was more his speed. But he could get used to it. He ambled along, whistling, then stopped and leaned against a palm tree, studying the surf.
Ryel would love this. Ryel would eat this up.
Of course Ryel would also bring out the worst in the judge and all the other gnomes around Quadruun. Ryel would be safely put away somewhere in the cellars. No, this time, it would be up to Arkmar, to find the thing and also to get Ryel sprung.
He wandered the promenade above the sea shore, then ambled along the outside of the castle, and down into the gardens, and then out toward the harbor. He could see a few ships at anchor, that looked like they had been there for a while. He also saw two more sailing ships out at sea, one closer and one on the horizon. He watched them until he was sure they were both coming here.
Then Arkmar turned and, stroking his beard nervously, he headed back up many steps to the castle. He found a place where he could get a decent wrap and some rice and beans, and he had a mug of ale along with. He took it all out onto a balcony with some tables. He was already out when he noticed that the only other people on the balcony was a party of humans, who stole curious glances at him but tried not to be seen doing it. He sat down by himself and tried to enjoy his feast.
Where would the thing be? And how many of these people were trying to steal it too?
He finished and brought the mug back to the café or pub or whatever it was exactly, and then he took another stroll past the harbor. The nearer ship was just pulling in, and Arkmar, a dwarf hidden amongst gnomes on the promenade overlooking the docks, watched a familiar-looking gnome at the rail of the ship, waiting to get off. And what was especially interesting is that Arkmar didn’t know any familiar-looking gnomes.
“So you really are spies and thieves,” said Ryel.
“I’m a thief, myself,” said the crab man.
“Spy,” said the high elf. “Thief,” said the elderly male human. “Thief too,” said the middle-aged female. “Spy, actually,” said a young male half elf.
“And you all came here thinking to steal items from the gnomes?”
“Not all of us,” said the high elf. “I came here thinking to steal technology from the gnomes. They make a heck of a silver steel.”
“And they caught you all? I mean, did anyone else succeed and get away?”
“No, no,” said the half elf. “They just pick you up when you arrive on the island. Then they kick you off, or they dump you down here. It depends on how suspicious you look.”
“How long have you been here?”
“A month, no, two,” said the half elf. “Old Shingrin there,” he said, and the old thief waved, “he’s been in here for years.”
“And all you mighty thieves and spies can’t find a way to break out?”
“The cell,” said the high elf as if it were the most obvious thing. “It’s magically shielded.”
“Meaning you can’t get through even if you do manage to retain your bow and arrows, Wood Girl. It’s impervious to assault.”
“But the guards bring you food? I mean, it doesn’t just materialize, does it? Someone opens a door and brings it in.”
“Oh, sure,” said the half elf. “But you can’t attack them. They have a force field.”
“Which does what?”
“Knocks you for a loop,” said Shingrin. “I told ‘em. Don’t even try it. One time I got thrown clear across the cell.”
“And if you could get out,” said the high elf, “where would you go? We’re on an island.”
“Well,” said Ryel slowly, as if she were thinking a lot at the same time, “I would have to work that one out after I figured out the first problem.”