Fire Sanctuary: Sample

Fire Sanctuary by Cat Kimbrielby Cat Kimbriel

A Prophecy of Naitun

And in a year of flame
and thunder,
From the womb
of a healer
life shall be born,
bearing sight
no one
has seen before.

And ye shall bow down
to the one
before them—
Rejoice!
In the healing
these Atare bring.

Nuala is one.

—Naitun

A Mythmaker Defines Nuala

This is but a glimpse, a glimmer of end and beginning, exordium and terminus. For to understand Nuala, the word and all the nuance surrounding it, is a lifetime in itself. Nuala is many things—a solar system, a planet, a religion, a language, a people, a way of life familiar, and yet unfamiliar, to the senses of the human species. If you understand nothing else after you have heard this tale, understand this: Nuala means “survival.” Survival against all odds, all enemies, all fortune. Survival.

—From the words of the Mythmaker, in the reign of the 167th Atare.

Chapter One

THE GERRYMANDER

“Assassin takes king of spades. King of hearts to edifice, queen of hearts to crown, king of clubs to ascendant,” the computer droned as it made its move. The duty officer winced visibly as his king was toppled from the peak of the pyramid.

Lyte did not allow his smile to reach his face. The computer’s programming for edifice was elementary, and it played scarcely at an intermediate level. Knocking off the edifice card in the second round merely to introduce a pretender in the last tier was poor strategy—but then computers had trouble with edifice strategy. It was too erratic a game for a machine, a fact that kept living, breathing dealers all over the republic in constant demand. Although this move put the computer’s high card into the heir’s position, it placed Lyte at edifice and ascendant—strong positions so early in the game. The duty officer, whose name Lyte did not remember, was in trouble.

Of course, the idiot had probably figured out his error two days ago, after the first three-hour session of cards. His anticipated “easy” opponent had turned out to be a professional gambler. Fortunately for Lyte, the man was too proud to admit he was overmatched, and the equivalent of a fourteenday’s pay glittered on the divider between them. Lyte’s sympathy had dimmed long ago—the officer was arrogant, almost contemptuous of his two passengers. I would cheat to beat you, fool. If the Nualans hired you to prove they don’t discriminate against non-Nualans, they went too far….

The 3AV hologram to his right winked at him, drawing his attention. It was frozen in its hold mode, waiting for instructions. Allowing himself a languid stretch, Lyte punched the promotion tape back to its beginning. Noticing his distraction, the duty officer visibly searched for a good move, his nostrils twitching in agitation. Lyte wasn’t worried; he probably didn’t have a good move. Time to finish this hand and start another; he was getting bored, and that shouldn’t happen in edifice.

“Pass,” the man finally said, his nostrils now fluttering frantically. The contrast of his nervous tic with his excessively thin face was laughable, but Lyte controlled himself as he requested another card. Jack of pretenders—not worth much. He slid it under his other card.

All hail the biggest pretender of all, he thought wryly as the computer bumped his pawn pretender and slid the king of diamonds into the bottom tier. Four cards now computer controlled—time for an assassin card to turn up. I am the pretender, the biggest pretender. Gods, Moran, hasn’t it occurred to you once that I’ve previously avoided Nuala like a plague? That I’d stay on base and hustle dice before I’d take my leave there, even with you? Gods, you’d be lousy in the tratores—they’d read you like a signpost and take everything you had.

The tape began once again. Lyte watched it with one eye, his professional card sense taking over the game. He’d memorized this tape, of course, as he had all the others, but they had not told him enough. Even Moran couldn’t really tell him enough. After all, the man was smitten by that Nualan princess, incapable of remembering the terror the word Nuala conjured. “If you ever were afraid …” Lyte muttered aloud.

“What?” The duty officer jerked, as if startled.

“Nothing,” Lyte said, wondering if the little man was trying to figure out a way to cheat. Damn, why did the Axis tapes have so little information about Nuala? As if the Axis tried to forget the colony existed. And this was basically an assignment; he couldn’t afford gaps in his knowledge. Moran had been forthcoming but simply hadn’t understood his friend’s concern. Lyte glanced away from the 3AV toward his dozing partner. Moran always looked very peaceful when he slept, his smooth, classic features more appropriate for an artist or an entertainer than for a warrior of the Axis Forces. But his temper never showed through when he slept. Years ago, before Moran had taken classes in control, Lyte had seen his friend almost kill a man with nothing but his hands. Moran had learned the reason for his outbursts, and his temper rarely showed through; but unlike others, Lyte never made the mistake of thinking this tranquil, soft-spoken individual was an easy mark. Not since you pounded me into the ground for that prank I arranged on your twelfth birthday.

“‘My other half, dark to my light, but I am the darker brother,’” Lyte quoted, running his fingers through his own silver hair to straighten it.

“Are you playing or not?” the duty officer snapped.

“Are you passing?” Lyte responded mildly, fixing the man with a frost-tipped gaze.

“I passed.” It was muttered—they were playing strict edifice, which meant no discard, only three cards maximum. He was probably holding pawns and jacks.

Lyte drew a card. Another jack; gods, was the deck rigged? Maybe after two days of losses the guy was getting desperate.

The computer chose to draw and apparently didn’t like its card. “Pretender queen removes jack of diamonds, pawn of hearts enters,” it droned. The duty officer could not control a strangled gasp. The jack had been his last card in the pyramid.

“Can you do anything?” Lyte asked, ready to toss in his cards.

The man tossed his onto the small pile in disgust, punching the machine for another game. Lyte raked the cubiz to his side of the seat separator. Nearly five hundred cubiz—yes, this was close to a duty officer’s salary.

“Double or nothing?” the man suggested quickly.

“Where’s your stake?” Lyte countered. The man reached for the computer keys, and Lyte added, “Cubiz only. No credits.”

“A regular game, then.” The other sighed, sneaking a glance at Moran as he pulled out a handful of cubes. Lyte could not help but smile—the fool had actually nudged Moran awake once to cut off a game he was losing. Not this time. He was too far away….

Lyte watched without comment as the computer once more dealt the cards, sliding them across the smooth seat separator with precision. The duty officer’s face lit with pleasure, and he placed his first card, the queen of diamonds, at the edifice spot. Grimly amused, Lyte placed his king of clubs directly below and to the right, in the heir apparent position. The computer took ascendant with the king of hearts, and then Lyte lost interest.

Nuala. He was going to Nuala, the enigma of the stellar system, the only populated radioactive wasteland, the—Stop it, fool. His unease surprised him; he had visited many dangerous planets in his time. Perhaps it was knowing that Moran intended to marry one of the natives. Or maybe it’s because an assassin stalks us … and I fear to find out who did the hiring….

“Where do I get the radiation pills I have to take?” Lyte casually asked the duty officer. Startled, the man looked up from the board. Lyte gave the cards a glance; he’d probably assassinate the computer’s king of hearts, moving his king to the ascendant position.

“Pills? You’re staying?” The tone was incredulous.

“Of course not. I always take my vacations on transport ships.”

It took the duty officer several moments to realize Lyte was being sarcastic. The man slowly flushed. “We rarely carry non-Nualans…. They change you—the pills, I mean. So the food won’t make you sick. I’ve never taken them, I eat ship food. But whoever meets your party will probably bring them. Your hotel guide or embassy rep.” The man dropped the ace of diamonds on the computer’s king and slid still another king into the tier.

“Assassin takes king of hearts. King of spades ascendant, king of diamonds enters,” the computer announced.

So someone from the palace would bring the pills to him. He decided not to mention their connections—apparently this ship had never carried Moran to Nuala. He studied the board. The duty officer had four of the seven slots. Time to shake him a bit. Lyte pulled out his ace.

“Assassin takes king of spades, queen of clubs to ascendant, jack of pretenders enters.” This time Lye allowed himself a slight smile. The guy would go crazy trying to figure out why he didn’t take the edifice. The hand was young….

“They say if you take the pills five days, you’re safe. Unless you get injured while on the planet or something. But I guess they have good doctors there—they should. People don’t die from rav anymore,” the duty officer murmured, still studying the board.

“Rav is radiation poisoning by ingestion?” Lyte asked, his fingers toying with his final card. He had heard all this, of course, but he was interested in the officer’s perspective. He worked with Nualans; his prejudices might be enlightening.

“It’s when you eat their food without building up to it first. Don’t eat the meat,” he added. The nostrils started twitching again. That jack of pretenders had him worried—an assassin in disguise?

“Ingestion. Are the pills metered doses of radiation?” Lyte went on, probing.

“No, I think it changes your immune system somehow, so it likes the radiation instead of fighting it. Only Dielaan radiation, though—not ultraviolet or plutonium or anything. I guess it changes you permanently. People only take the series once.” Sighing, he drew a card. “Pass.”

Lyte also drew. Another ace—good. “Pass. Are they good for the radiation in the air … and the people?”

The man’s sudden laugh was slightly derisive. “You’ll be two days by boat from any bad area and from the irradiated colonists. Don’t lose sweat over it.”

“Boat?” Lyte had not found any references to boats. In fact, the hot city, Tolis, had scarcely been mentioned at all.

“The hot city is so hot normal metals don’t survive there, and even Nualan stone gets gritty and pebbly on the surface. Why hook them into the rail system? Who’d go to visit? And water travel is cheap—they don’t want to bother with a transport system. The land is fragile, I’ve heard.” He drew. “Pass.”

Lyte pounced, both hands moving with precision.

“Jack of pretenders turns assassin, king of diamonds falls,” the computer droned. “Queen of pretenders enters.”

The man’s jaw dropped. Lyte heard Moran chuckle—how long had he been awake?

Afraid the man would stop talking, Lyte smoothly asked, “Why haven’t you taken the series?”

Composing himself, the duty officer leaned back in his seat. “If I took the series, I might get assigned to the terminal there. Since I don’t want to take the pills, they won’t force me, so I don’t get ground assignment.” He seemed smug about the situation. “They aren’t pushy, the Nualans, I’ll say that for them.” He studied the remaining vacant spot in the pyramid, planning a strategy.

“People always say metals don’t survive on Nuala. Any kind of metal? Am I going to lose my timespot?” Lyte said suddenly, annoyance creeping into his voice. He hadn’t thought of that before—the ship was Nualan, of course, it was made of vandrun, which was impervious to Dielaan radiation. But what about his shaving tackle, his timespot?

“I’ll put anything you have on you into a vandrun case. You can carry that to your room. Just don’t ever wear it near the launch pads,” the man muttered, glancing at the computer to see why it hadn’t made its move.

“But it could eat my timespot if I wore it?” Lyte persisted. It was the last thing his mother had given him before his father kicked him out, which was why he hung on to it.

The duty officer shrugged. “I suppose. I’ve never been in the city. I don’t know how it works.”

“Moran, stop shamming and talk to me,” Lyte said without turning his head. He was momentarily distracted as the computer moved, filling the open space with the queen of hearts. The duty officer looked disappointed.

“About what?” Moran asked companionably.

“My timespot, joker. How potent is the radiation? Will it eat my timespot?”

“Only if you strap it to the nose of the ship before reentry.” The man straightened in his seat, stretching broadly before continuing. “The microbe’s harmless unless Dielaan radiation speeds up its metabolism.” Moran glanced over at the edifice board. “Didn’t you read about the sinisus microorganism?”

Lyte felt his irritation rising. “I read every damn thing in the library, and it didn’t say a damn thing about any damn microbe.”

Moran smiled; the expression was, as always, disarming. “There are microbes native to the Nualan solar system that leach minerals out of rocks. Normally they work about as fast as, say, a glacier melting. However, when one variety, Arachnobacillus sinisus, is exposed to Dielaan radiation, its metabolism goes crazy. A Dielaan radiation belt encircles this planet, so a ship’s hull is exposed as it enters the atmosphere. The sinisus microbes hop on board, mutate, and start eating at an incredible rate. They can devour a non-Nualan ship in about a thirtysixday. This ship is Nualan—its vandrun hull has been ‘doped’ so the microbes won’t like it. They’ll jump off the ship to find something to eat, but since all Nualan metals are doped, the microbes starve to death.”

“What if they find my timespot?” Lyte was still annoyed. This was the kind of information he had wanted and had been unable to find.

“The duty officer will seal it in a small case made of vandrun. You’ll carry it off in that. The microbes from the ships die quickly, Lyte—if we stay out of this area, it’s unlikely anything will happen to it. You can have the stuff plated if you’re worried.”

“Why isn’t it mentioned in the tapes?”

“It is—they say that all metal valuables will be sealed for visitor protection. Most people don’t care what causes things—only that they and their possessions are safe. Few tapes refer to the microbe, Lyte. And what you just heard is all that is recorded off-planet. The Nualans are very jealous of their secrets.” Moran’s gaze was steady, in control. “Are you finished with your game?”

Game. He had completely forgotten the stupid game. The duty officer was still staring at the board. He had only one move; if he had an ace, he could assassinate the pawn before his jack and move one space. But it gained him no money, nor an extra card. Surely he’d wait to see….

The man dropped an ace on the ten of hearts. “Assassin takes pawn of hearts,” came the computer’s voice. As the cards slid to the right to fill the void, the duty officer moved another card into the tier. “Jack of spades enters.”

Lyte was tired of the game. He whipped out his ace.

“Assassin takes queen of diamonds. King of clubs to edifice, queen of clubs to crown, jack of clubs to ascendant.” The pronouncement was sweet; so was the look on the duty officer’s face. Obviously he was hoping Lyte was too addled to think clearly. The warrior placed his last card. “King of pretenders enters.”

Lyte heard Moran chuckle, and felt his body’s tension continue to unwind. He had won. There was only one assassin card out; even if the fool had it, he couldn’t remove both edifice and crown. And Lyte had a pretender threatening both the man’s board cards.

The computer drew a card. “Pass.”

His nostrils almost vibrating in his agitation, the duty officer drew. “Pass.” There was no emotion in that tone. Lyte almost felt sorry for him again.

The warrior drew and set the card face down without looking at it. Only two cards left mattered—pawn of pretenders and the last assassin. Did he want to bother? A bright core of irritation said yes. He looked at the card. Assassin. But one can not draw and assassinate in the same turn. “Pass.”

“Pass.” Startled, Lyte glanced at the computer. It had missed its move! Or had the duty officer changed its game programming? Some variations did not allow pretender displacement. But they had played that version for three days….

“Stupid machine,” the nameless idiot muttered, drawing the last card. No, no change in the game, just a flaw in the program. Perhaps it realized it could not win and did not wish to inadvertently aid either side. But missing a play did often aid a side. “Pass.”

Hell freeze it. Lyte dropped the ace on the duty officer’s jack of clubs.

“Assassin takes jack of clubs, queen of pretenders to ascendant,” the computer announced. It then filled the last tier spot with its own queen of spades. “Pass.”

The duty officer sat very still for a long moment. “I concede.” He carefully folded his three cards and set them face down on the divider, hiding either three pawns or two pawns and a jack, Lyte knew. With only twenty-five cards in the deck, edifice strategy depended on the first three rounds. “Actually, it’s not that many hours until we land. I think I’ll get that valuables box right now.” Nodding tightly, the man stood and moved off down the aisle.

The cubiz Lyte swept into a pouch. He’d bank most of it on-world, keep a bit for dice games. Picking up the deck of cards, he touched the keypanel. The computer’s edifice board pulled away from the seat divider and slid into the wall. Finally, Lyte looked over at Moran.

“All right?” the man asked. Lyte nodded. “We’re arriving in about twelve Nualan hours. Tomorrow night is one of the biggest parties of the Nualan year, The Feast of Adel. You’ll have a great time. Trust me, the Nualans really know how to throw a party.”

Still reassuring; did he really look that bad? “I know,” Lyte said casually, gesturing at the promotional 3AV hologram. “I can’t believe this tape. Parties to celebrate a kid being fertile, for gods’ sake! I’m sorry we’re going to miss the Festival of Masks, though. It’s about forty days from now. Sounds like fun—everyone dressing up in ornate masks, acting crazy all night, keeping their identity a secret …they visit the extended family during the day, I guess….” He toyed with the tape controls, stopping the tape. “And two wedding ceremonies—”

“Only one wedding ceremony. It’s public, held in the temple, and usually not until a child is on the way. If the couple is sterile then it’s … an excuse to throw a party.” Moran chuckled at how neatly he had fallen into Lyte’s trap. “But the first ‘ceremony,’ if there is one, is private, called Bonding. It has deep religious meaning, which probably wouldn’t interest you. But any birth, any healthy child is reason to celebrate, so when an adolescent reaches puberty and tests positive, the family goes on a blitz of partying.” Moran glanced at his tiny timespot. “We’re almost there. Are you having fun with the propaganda tape? Is there more to Nuala than trine gold?”

Lyte allowed a dramatic sigh to pass his lips as his fingers started to riffle the cards. “All right. I’ve seen the landscape information and it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it’d be. You have to admit I need some information about this radioactive wasteland.”

“Wasteland!” Moran shook his head, not bothering to hide his smile. “I’ve heard tales of the desert people creating paradise out of sterile sand. And the sinis, the irradiated humans, farm the hot lands. Things do flourish on Nuala, Lyte.”

There was silence for a time, the only sound the ruffling of the edifice cards. “Did you learn all this at one time?” Lyte asked abruptly. “When you came here three terrayear ago, with the ambassador’s party?”

“A great deal of it. Roe has taught me quite a bit.” He smiled faintly. “I’ve known her three Nualan years tomorrow night—we met at the palace party the night of the Feast of Adel.” Moran’s smile grew broader. “Relax! You’re going to the most lavish party of the year. The Feast of Adel, ushering in High Festival and the new year—party before penitence, and then party again! And the women, Lyte! The women —”

“Can steal a man’s soul. No, thanks.” Lyte smiled as he said it. “I just wish we could stay longer so I could find out why you like the place so much. You talk as if you’ve come home…. You have a home, Moran—I’m the one who was thrown out.”

He had spoken easily, but Moran politely skirted the subject of his family. “A fifteenday furlough isn’t bad —”

“Elevenday, Moran,” Lyte reminded him casually, starting to set out the cards face up in an intricate pattern. He carefully controlled his sudden tension. Moran was as skilled at “reading” emotional currents as any commando—perhaps more skilled than most. If he realized Lyte was blocking …

He knew—and that knowledge pained Lyte. Lyte could see the puzzlement in his eyes. Commandos usually did not “read” their friends, nor did they block each other. Moran had to wonder why Lyte was blocking. But he chose not to ask. And that’s why they sent me. You’re too trusting.

“I forgot. Why didn’t Officer Matias tell me about the meeting? I would have scheduled my furlough earlier.” Moran actually sounded annoyed. Interesting; he did not criticize his superiors very often….

Lyte shrugged. “It came up quickly, I guess. They must have a special assignment for us, or something.” He grinned. “If we’d known in advance, I could have found a discount trip to Mercury 7—and you’d be traveling alone.” Moran smiled at that. He had issued many invitations to Nuala over the past few years, but this was the first time Lyte had accepted. Usually the sumptuary worlds were too much of a lure.

Are you so in love with this woman that you can’t see? Lyte wanted to shout. It is friendship that brings me here, but not coincidence. His fingers hesitated on a card. They told me someone wants to kill you for even contemplating marrying a Nualan. And they told me to get you off the planet four days early. Did you think your furloughs to visit her on Nuala or at the university went unnoticed? Lyte shivered at the implications of such an assassination. Moran might be the perfect warrior; he was a decorated war hero, even a scholar. He was also an aristocrat of the bluest blood, the eldest son of a wealth-poor, title-rich Secundus CSSI family. I, too, am from the planet Secundus…. Lyte knew the bigotry of the CSSI system, knew its conscious and unconscious prejudices. It had a social system which married off strangers—his parents, among them—and forced them to remain together, to produce heirs to great wealth. Lyte shook his head to clear it. He thought he had escaped Secundus. And now the values of CSSI had the power to reach across a stellar alliance and touch them once again….

He could believe such a tale; could believe it of the fanatical aristocrats of CSSI, the first system colonized by humans. The Axis Tribunal ordered me to protect you, to entrap the assassin, if possible. So I’ll stop him … if he exists. Lyte sighed inaudibly and set down the card in his hand.

There was more to it … what, Lyte did not yet know. But the tribunal had withheld information—Lyte had “read” that fact as clearly as printed words. They told him to tell Moran there was a meeting. Was there a meeting? Had the war effort really calmed down enough for them to take a furlough? Nuala was only one system away from the front. Lyte had a feeling they were being used, but how? Why? The only way to solve the mystery was to follow his orders and shadow Moran. A commando followed orders, he did not question them. On a planet where no one carried blasters, a commando should be safe … unless, like Moran, he was so smitten by the place he had lost all caution. Lyte would provide the buffer.

“Just be careful, for my sake, all right?” Moran asked. “Don’t offend anyone. You can bargain, and flirt, but … remember the old proverb: ‘The Nuala do not lie, and therefore are not easily deceived.’ They are a highly civilized and moral race within their own laws, and they don’t trust off-worlders.”

“Do they really never lie?” Lyte said, suddenly interested.

Moran made a wry face. “Nualans are instinctively, or culturally, like commandos—they are highly skilled at ‘reading’ emotional currents. So they are difficult to deceive face-to-face. But, they have the same problems commandos have—the more people present, the harder to sift out the emotions of an individual. So Nualans don’t try to lie to individuals; they may keep secrets, or leave out information, or avoid a topic … but they usually don’t lie to each other—why risk it? Yet they’re human. Their politics are as convoluted and scheming as any I’ve seen, and they have their share of criminals—not many, but some. Violent crimes are very rare there. More often it’s theft, illegal trading….” He returned to the question. “In other words, I wouldn’t risk trying to cheat a trader in the bazaar, but if you can attract a crowd with your bargaining, you’ll probably get away with it.”

“Because I bargain better than anyone else you know?” Lyte inquired innocently.

Moran fixed him with a stern look. “Just use whatever sense you have, all right? Remember the Nualans are an interesting dichotomy where off-worlders are concerned—both hospitable and paranoid.”

“If I had been abandoned after a colony mission backfired, I’d be paranoid, too. It took the Axis hundreds of years to find the courage to start colonizing again after the Nualan disaster. How many people are born sterile today?”

“About seventy percent now, although they are still called 80s. Apparently fertility has nothing to do with ‘hotness’; many sinis, irradiated humans, are fertile. However, an exceptionally large number of cool young people have been testing out fertile lately. For the Nualans, it’s a reason to rejoice. Everything here is centered around gene recombination; the child-rearing, the multiple spouses, the royal succession through the woman’s line—all to keep the genes moving.”

“Can you survive the intrigues of Baskh Atare’s court, Moran?” Lyte suddenly asked bluntly. “Can you grasp the possibility of fathering a king and having no power yourself?”

“A king?” Moran shook his head in denial. “Ronüviel has two healthy older sisters, one of them pregnant. We will have our place. With Ronüviel as a hot healer and as the Mythmaker, we will have just enough connection to the capital to keep everyone happy. I’ve been a scientist, a historian, a musician and a cartographer, and I was pretty good at all of them. I have only one more year of this tour to serve; then I’m going back to Nuala for the rest of my life.” Moran looked thoughtful. “To live on a planet where they abhor killing—to never have to kill again….”

Lyte was silent. He had suspected Moran would not renew his service. But had he really thought out the current political situation? Lyte knew that the heir was a scientist, not interested in ruling Nuala—and that the second son was of fragile mind, possibly already insane. The third would probably make a fine ruler, if the various enemies of the ruling Atare House did not kill him first. One man had been trying to supplant the Atares for fifty years.

“A deceptive paradise,” Lyte murmured, hoping Moran would think he meant the contrast of the harsh beauty of Nuala and the dangers of its radiation. “If more people are being born fertile, will they keep the polyandry and the polygyny? I’m not sure I’d like to be one of three husbands—that I could deal with it, I mean. How about you?”

“Anyone who marries an off-worlder can have only one spouse—they don’t think we handle their ways very well, either. Roe and I will be considered a family unit, with whatever children we may have. They like to know who the parents are to keep track of genetic disease, but other than that they don’t care. There is no such word as illegitimate in Nualan, by the way.”

“Isn’t polygamy the norm?” Lyte persisted. “The tape mentioned—”

“No. It is totally free choice. Those who are fertile—the 20s—are raised believing they are responsible for gene recombination and should try and find more than one spouse, but it is up to the individual. Most prefer monogamy. Only the off-worlders and Atares are bound to one spouse at a time. Sometimes 20s will marry 80s, but they keep looking for a 20.”

“I’m getting confused again.”

“I don’t think you ever pay attention. Here’s a real example—Arrez, the high priest, has four wives. The first, Elana, is a love match. The second was required because he is high priest and she high priestess—it’s part of the religion. But he and the priestess decided to make a real marriage out of it, not merely a symbolic one. Now, the high priestess already had a husband when she married Arrez. But there is nothing between her husband and Elana. They are friends—maybe only casually, I don’t know—and courteous to a member of their extended family. But for the two of them to get involved with one another … well, it would be a little too much togetherness, and usually doesn’t happen. It could, but the Nualans are very conscious of possible tensions in families. That’s why godparents help raise children for periods of time. It also makes the kids more secure, knowing that more than one person loves them. Am I making sense?”

“I think so. You’re saying the morality is very strict within Nualan religion and custom. I take it that it works?”

“So far,” Moran answered, “Five thousand years’ worth. They are a rather unique people. There’s always enough love for the Nualans … it never has a limit.”

Lyte’s gaze settled on the card in his hand—a king. He kept his thoughts to himself. People go there by choice? What draws you, Moran? What makes you choose Nuala?

MT. AMURA, NUALA, SONOMA MOUNTAIN RANGE

NUALAN YEAR 4952, FOURHUNDRED TWENTYFOURDAY, VESPERS

Dusk fell slowly, subtly on Amura, shadows giving way to night. The street illuminaries blazed on in the distant city, and Roe searched for major buildings and forums. It was no use; the temple and the palace were simple enough to find, as well as the medical complex and fine arts center. All else vanished in the increasing glow of the capital. The synod’s current yearly session would end tonight, if they could ever pass those last two bills, she thought wryly. Most likely the elders had personal worries. In less than one Nualan year elections for the 708th Synod would be held, and with the current heated debate on tariffs, immigration and the ever-present 20s-versus-80s problem, quite a few men and women were finding their benches in jeopardy. One nice thing about the session ending—only the garden and honor lights would be on, and the inner-city residents could sleep with their blinds up and windows open.

The night deepened, and still she and her brother did not speak. Roe let her hearing sharpen, waiting for the symphony to begin. She could hear the furtive rustlings of ground-stalkers, the wild akemmi and the lante; the shifting of tiny baby silva birds in their nests deep in the caves behind them. It was late for silvas to be nesting. Soon the adults would begin to migrate. She wondered if the little ones would be able to keep up.

Roe glanced out of the corner of her eye. Braan had not moved in hours. A few cheeps and trills came from the treetops below. The night symphony was beginning. The soft insect harmony grew louder. More and more Faxmur birds began to sing as the last streaks of light vanished from the horizon. Roe sat up, looking for the Brethren. The Seven Systems were so called because of the extremely close proximity of seven stars, Nuala’s young pale yellow sun the furthest out. The others soon appeared as the brightest constellation in the sky, shaped like the keystone of the Atare’s office.

Roe moved again to pull her long dark hair free and abruptly noticed the waterfall, its flow momentarily interrupted. She waited, smiling—a splash followed. Some small animal was going for a swim. They loved the high pool as much as her family did. Braan rolled over and sat up, looking out over the wide valley below. Only the multitude of lights was visible, and even further off, beyond the center of the city, the huge river Amura, the glowing orbs of the Brethren reflected in it. The sea was darkness—there were no moons yet this night. Zair moved, smelling the akemmi, his ears flicked forward. Roe put a gentle hand on his back to restrain him. The monstrous dog dropped his head.

“Shall we build a fire?” she asked. They were staying the night. It was for most a full day’s climb simply to the bottom of the mountain and the way station; they planned to cut through the caverns. They would have to leave well before dawn to meet Moran’s transport.

“If you are cold,” Braan replied. Roe did not move. The dry season was ending and the rains beginning, but there was no frost yet. She had only wanted a bit of cheer, anything to snap him out of his mood. She studied the black shape of his square jaw in the backdrop of the capital lights. Enid had had a relapse, and the truth was on the lips of every citizen; she was dying. Finally, after more years than Roe cared to count. And no one could blame Braan for taking a few days away from her side. Indeed, many wondered that he had the strength to bear it, that he had not taken a lover long ago, Atares barred by law from more than one mate. Six long years since the birth of their daughter; six years since Enid contracted the virus which slowly destroyed her health, her mind, and now, soon, her life. Long ago she had ceased to recognize any of them. As a healer, Roe had never entertained such thoughts, but perhaps the burden which hung over their entire family would lift if only the poor woman would die in peace, take the Last Path, her soul free.

Braan, she was sure, did not desire fire or even conversation. He wanted only to sit in this glade, oblivious to the world, his life, his responsibilities, his future. When had things been simpler—six, seven terrayear ago? He had been twenty-three terra then…. Ten years ago, serving a short tenure as a trader, in reality searching the galaxy for an intelligent, healthy woman brave enough to leave behind everything for her man and an unknown future. It was the same when their older brothers and sisters went searching, in many ways harder for the women. A man strong enough in himself to forsake all for the big planet was a rare man indeed. No one came half-way to Nuala….

“Moran will arrive for the feast?”

It was more statement than question, calling Roe back to the moment. Strange that they had discussed Moran so little, Roe thought. Usually they told each other everything, these two, best-loved of their generation. Praise Mendülay that their oldest brother, Tal, took no offense at Braan’s popularity, believing it could only help the royal family. Deveah, however, who was second in line—that was a different matter. His resentment of Braan was well-known by all. Braan was careful, very careful around Deveah. But Tal was the heir. He loved Braan, and respected Ronüviel’s opinion of him. Stay healthy, Tal, very healthy….

“Of course,” Roe answered, “providing the transport is on time. Sometimes I wonder if we are wrong, placing such restrictions on freight and passenger ships, even those crewed by our own people.”

“We are right.”

Ronüviel’s lips tightened at the hardness in his voice. Like Baskh Atare, Braan did not trust the Axis Republic, the confederation governing their interstellar alliance. Someday, they might turn their backs once again on Nuala … he did not want his descendants to blame him for failing the vigil.

“Will you announce the marriage then?” Braan continued.

“He has not formally asked for marriage,” she answered, a chuckle in her voice. Braan snorted, stifling his laughter. Roe wondered if he suspected that the first, private ceremony had already taken place.

“Does Moran know that you are pregnant?”

“Braan! I have run no tests, had no signs—I have not even spoken to Elana!” She could feel Braan’s smile in the soft darkness, his pleasure at cracking her beautifully mannered facade. If the foremost healer on the planet had not questioned her health, why did he? He always knew everything….

“Elana knows everything,” Braan said gently, insistently, interrupting her thoughts.

“Not this time,” Roe replied. “With so much illness in her family, and of course—“

“I know. She is often with Enid, and when she is not, Shinar stays with her. The child will make a good doctor someday.” The image of Elana’s lovely daughter brightened their thoughts momentarily.

“That ‘child’ is a year older than Liel, and there is already talk of sending our sister out traveling early,” Roe murmured.

“No.” Braan’s voice was hard again. Of course, the decision was up to their mother, Ila the Ragäree, and their mother’s twin brother Baskh Atare. Decisions of the Atare and of the Mother of the Heirs were final. Only their father could have challenged the verdict, and he had been dead ten years. But no Atare, no Nualan had left the planet before their sixteenth birthday, unless to emigrate. And Roe knew Braan saw no reason to change now. Only those values instilled before adulthood seemed capable of withstanding the wreckage the Axis had become. And Liel was very innocent; too innocent for Axis games.

“Do you like Moran? You have never really told me,” Roe suddenly asked.

“You never told me if you liked Enid,” Braan responded. “Strange, how no one questions the choice of an Atare, and yet few of us have chosen badly.”

And yet I have always wanted your approval, and you have always wanted mine…. Ronüviel did not play at “who asked first.”

“I grew to care for her. Enid’s warmth was reserved for you and the children.” Roe’s voice was non-committal, careful, and Braan relaxed. It was true. Roe knew he was thankful for the friendship she had offered Enid. The woman had been—she was—a secretive woman, not cold but cool, a bit overwhelmed by the joyous warmth of the Atares, of Nuala. It was not what the average off-worlder expected.

“I shall be proud to call him brother,” Braan answered.

Roe waited, her thoughts chaotic. His reply was as ambiguous as his turn-about question. A brilliant war hero, high in the Axis eyes for one so young; yes, of course he is good for the family. But Roe did not want it to be as Enid and she had been, always a barrier—

Braan turned toward her. “And, if he will let me, friend.”

Now it was Roe’s turn to relax. “You think too much,” she began abruptly.

“So do you.”

“But I do not brood.” The tone was slightly accusing, and Roe cursed it even as it passed her lips.

“You do not have anything to brood about,” Braan replied, apparently not offended.

“You …”

Braan glanced up. “Touché” came the archaic answer. He rolled over on his side, facing her. “Do not worry, I will take a quick hike around the capital when we get back. Use up all my excess energy.” Roe flashed him an irritated look. “Take a hike around the capital” was one of Baskh’s favorite brush-off sayings to his children, sister’s children and advisors alike, used whenever they stepped out of line. Braan heard it often, before he left the planet, and after, before Enid’s illness. For over five years he had kept silent, openly volunteering no suggestions, no criticism of the regime. His friends worried about him and his detractors fretted, expecting an eruption of the fiery Braan of old.

“What do you wait for, belaiss?”she asked gently, dropping down on one elbow. He stirred at the old endearment, not looking up. A night breeze touched them, sending a shiver through Roe and blowing Braan’s dark hair away from his face.

“For Enid to die … so I can try to live again,” came the steady answer.

“You know—”

“That is not what you mean? What can I do, Ronüviel?” Now he met her gaze, eyes very dark in the starlight. “I am well beyond the schooling of the young ones, and I have no specific interests other than sculpture. The art pays and I gain a name—but I need more. I do not have the heart to seek another woman. I am not sure I could bear the pain, should something happen again….” His voice was very soft, perfectly controlled, as he spoke of things she had no doubt he had told no one else. “Yet I do not think the synod would consider two children my full contribution to the gene pool and would bar me from the military. I know, such is the burden of a 20—what I would not give to be a nameless 80!”

“And the synod is also barred.”

“I could give up my land holdings, even my claim on the throne. It would not be enough. If Tal sat the throne, ‘they’ would talk collusion. If Deveah, between us we would destroy the people. Shall I forsake home and family, never to return? Is freedom its own reward?”

“If Arrez—” Roe began very carefully. The high priest, so unlike what the off-worldersseemed to think a man of God should be, was Roe’s dearest of friends. Even he walked as softly as akemmi on this subject.

“No!” Braan sat up abruptly, staring out over the distant, twinkling lights of Amura, the swift disintegration of a shooting star.

“I am sorry … but, Braan, never have I felt the spirit so strongly in any man—as much as Arrez in deep prayer—and you wear it like another skin.”

“Ah, yes, St. Braan.” His attempt at self-mockery always failed; the spirit was too much with him.

“There is a reason that the best to rule is third son, not first.” Barely a whisper, though the guaard hidden on the ledge below would repeat nothing, ever. Braan turned to silence her, but she sat up, freezing his lips with a touch of her finger. “Tal is a scientist at heart, Deveah a fanatic. You know that. I do—Baskh does. As much as I wish you were as devoted to art as I am to medicine, I know that there is purpose in this. I fear it, but I know you will not be given a burden greater than you can bear. I love you, crazy brother, and I am not alone in that. Your time is coming. I only wish I could lighten your heart, to ignite the cunning, witty, brash young cad you used to be.”

“I grew up.”

“No … you aged. I do not think you will ever grow up.” She smiled then, her perfect teeth reflecting starlight, her strange eyes, the only set like his in this generation, a kaleidoscope before him. He managed a faint smile, the burden of silence slipping from his shoulders. He held her a moment, sharing the invisible strength from her molten fire within.

“I wish to stop at the shrine on the way down. How about your fire?” He released her and dug around in the pack he had used as a pillow. Zair leapt up to help, the huge descendant of Terra’s kingly dogs forgetting he was no longer a puppy.

“Down, fool, you will crush the heat disks!” Braan tried helplessly to fend him off, the beast retaliating by pushing him over with a large paw and cleaning his face for him. Roe’s low, golden laughter rang back from the waterfall.

Chapter Two

AMURA, NUALA

FOURHUNDRED TWENTYFIVEDAY, SEXT

Braan leapt out of the solar car, still tying the waist sash of his long-sleeved mandraia shirt. Idiot, slow down, you have beaten the transport, it has not even touched down yet! His feet slowed to a walk as his mind continued to race. Moran and Lyte, Lyte and Moran—it had to be Lyte, who else would be coming to Nuala at High Festival? He touched the packet of radiation pills in his pocket. Tourists remained in their hotels through the religious services, a sevenday of confinement—We know what is in his file; we are prepared for him. Calm down. Braan’s kaleidoscope eyes recorded the presence of his younger twin brothers, Kalith and Kavan. They lounged before the gates. One was sunning himself in the blazing rays of Kee, now at her zenith, while the other meditated in the shade of a towering neudeya evergreen.

“Tracking says the ship is here. Can we pull this spectacle together?” Both youths leapt at the sound of his voice.

“Braan! How did you get back so fast?” It burst from one of them, the energy and worshipful tone revealing him as Kavan long before Braan was close enough to see that his left iris was topaz brown, his right emerald green. Kal’s eyes were reversed; left green, right brown.

“Sprouted wings and flew. The duty officer sent word he has two for us. Perhaps Moran finally talked Lyte into coming.” Without a backward glance Braan sauntered toward the launching bay.

“We finally get to meet the mysterious Lyte?” Kal asked, his voice soft in the afternoon heat.

“He undoubtedly thinks just the opposite—that he is arriving on the mysterious Nuala,” Braan replied. “Come, let us go.” They started inside the huge landing bay. “Are you two ready to return to the Axis?”

Kavan’s expression immediately turned to one of disgust. Kalith remained impassive, as Braan had expected. Only seventeen, the twins were already working at cover trades. Kal posed as a merchant’s son, polishing his already considerable diplomatic skill, while Kavan worked as a navigator’s apprentice, submerging his fierce Atare temper in endless detail. The High Festival marked the coming of autumn, the new year, and heralded their return to the Axis guilds. Neither of them wanted to leave, but for different reasons. Kavan was having “feelings” about the Atare and did not want to leave the old man. And Kal did not want to leave Shinar. Ah, the problems that could bring, Kal and Shinar….

But Lyte, now—why did he choose a serious religious festival as the time to visit, why this particular furlough? Moran had asked him many times, but the gambling worlds had always held a brighter lure. Now, Lyte came to them … who was he, really? He had his own law and own sense of honor—this was well known—and Braan doubted they coincided with anyone else’s. Moran alone had any control over him at all, and then only a strange, entwined mutual respect and friendship. The disowned son of aristocrats, the silvery, ice-eyed Lyte went his own way, always.

They stepped to the loading platform, and Braan’s musings faded. The three stood elbow-to-elbow in the landing bay gateway, watching the drifting Gerrymander silently drop into the launch hole. Amazing how gently the self-propelled junk heap could set down when she—Braan’s thoughts broke off at the tremendous squeal of the hatch hinges, grating as they opened. Two Nualan security guards appeared, as if from nowhere, and were behind them, just in front of the white pillars.

The legendary white pillars. Not the originals; they were in the museum. These were stone copies and filled with intricate devices capable of detecting anything from a gamma cannon down to the tiniest powdered poison. When the Nualans stated that Nuala was a sanctuary planet, they did not jest, and the white pillars marked the beginning of Nualan domain. Following interstellar law, anyone passing through them was given a place of safety until they could, or wished to, continue their journey. Many never left. As it was difficult to lie to a Nualan, criminals did not bother trying to come to Nuala. Only those desperate—the misjudged, the oppressed, those without power or friends—came to Nuala.

Moran and Lyte hurried off the craft, their personal tackle in hand. Moran deflated visibly at the sight of the three men—Lyte noticed and smiled grandly, giving his friend a sly nudge. “My, we have the love sickness badly, don’t we? You’d better check into clinic when we get back, take a pill or something.”

Moran gave him an unsettling glance as Braan gestured to them.

“You finally talked him into it?” Kavan asked as they walked over. Kal poked him; the young man retreated for the moment.

“Atares, this is Lyte. Braan, Kalith and Ka-van,” Moran said clearly, raising an amused eyebrow at Kavan.

“Bra-an?” Lyte asked, trying not to stare at the trio’s eyes. The man smiled faintly.

“Close—softer on the second a. Most humans miss that—the Setteos are better with our vowels for some reason.”

“There is a lot of inflection in Nualan. In human terms it’s a very old language,” Moran said. “What did you do with my woman?”

“She is at the palace cleaning up. We were in the mountains last night. Shall we go? The solar car is right outside.” As he spoke, Braan started walking toward the gate. Moran and Lyte followed, passing the pillars and stepping on the platform before the actual exit. Lyte looked around curiously as they stepped out into daylight, apparently glad to leave the strange launch bay with its huge automatic ceiling hatch. Braan received the impression the man felt he had been coerced into coming here. How to reassure him? Moran had mentioned he liked mountains….

o0o

Running, running, stop—listen … run again. How long had she been running? Running. Who would have believed a military wheel had so many corridors? Running. Had security been alerted? A general alarm? Running. Running. Damn! Why did you leave Mercury 7? Never, never on the spur of the moment, you know better—She rounded the corner to find herself in the midst of bodyguards, facing the bottomless eyes of her patron —

She awoke with a soft cry, quickly stifled by her own fist. Fighting back tears, the woman tried to make herself comfortable, re-arranging her shapeless, coweled dress to make the most of its heavy fabric. Why couldn’t this dilapidated heap of a transport ship—what was its name, Gerrymander?—be tempra-controlled? Too much of a luxury for the cargo, she supposed. But she had traveled this way once before, fleeing the bombed-out wreckage of Capricorn V.

Suddenly she noticed the change; the numb vibration of the floor and walls had ceased. They had landed. She was on Nuala. Nuala. Her heart froze at the very thought. Nuala. Close to the war zone. A sanctuary planet. They aren’t even human here, not even —

Stop it! She had seen only two Nualans in her entire life. One was a handsome older man, an officer spending his furlough on Mercury 7. The other was an example of the genetic disasters caused by the Nualan System’s natural radiation, a horrifying memory from a holographic history tape. Ancient, ancient history, they’re not like that anymore…. Every myth and legend she had heard in the past tenyear rose up to choke her. Forcing them down, she reminded herself it was merely sanctuary. She did not have to stay.

How would she live? It had been three long years since she had worked as a planter—the restricted agriguilds had seen to that. And what had Tyr said? “There are no hustlers on Nuala. They don’t need them”. Then her dissipated brother had laughed, abandoning her in the docking bay. What had he meant? How would she earn money to leave? How —

Calming herself, she reached into memory, dredging up her name, the name she had not spoken aloud in three years. And still could not—not yet. Teloa. I was Teloa. I have survived the destruction of Capricorn V, the half-way camps, the tratore worlds. Nothing can be worse than Mercury 7.

Quietly she clicked open the hatch to the passenger corridor. She was unable to control a smile. Fortunate that stowaways were so rare; it would have been harder to slip out the cargo doors. She allowed herself to simply listen for a while; what she could see and hear through the opening disturbed her.

Only two passengers for this sanctuary world. The pillars—she had to pass the pillars. They marked the beginning of Nualan domain. Gods, the outer hatch was going to close. It was now or never. She slipped out from behind the packing cube, through the inner hatch, and into the corridor. Teloa touched the outer railing, barely two steps down the ramp.

“Hey! You! Hold it right there!” It was the duty officer; it had to be. He knew every cube and passenger by sight, and she was certainly not on his list. Horror at returning to the military wheel lent wings to her feet. She charged down the porta-ramp and sprinted for the gateway. The duty officer hesitated a moment too long, not believing anyone could move that fast in such high-heeled shoes. Then he ran after her, still yelling.

It was impossible not to hear the commotion. As the group on the platform turned, Teloa pushed by one of the burly guards and through the wide pillars. The pale blonde man moved first, grabbing her around the waist as she passed and pinning her in a commando grip. She struggled, but could not break the hold. The two guards stepped forward and seized the young duty officer; much to his dismay, for the men were unbelievably tall and magnificently proportioned, as big as ober players. The duty officer’s face was changing colors, his fury at the breaking point.

“She’s a stowaway! I claim Axis—” he screeched.

“I seek sanctuary!” Teloa blurted out.

The officer stopped in mid-gasp. Teloa was startled at the immediate and almost imperceptible shift in the reactions of the Nualans. Before, they were observers. Now, it was as if they were lined up behind her, supporting her. The two dressed as commandos also noticed; only the one restraining her seemed surprised. So it was true. On Nuala the ancient law still applied—the accused was innocent until proven guilty. It was one of the few places in the Axis Republic that this still held true.

“Why do you seek sanctuary?”

Teloa turned, recognizing the voice as the man who called himself Braan. He gestured at her silvery captor, who released her. Composing herself, she took in the Nualan’s appearance at a glance. About her height—then she remembered the heels—graceful, compact, dark-haired, with intense green eyes that—she was startled. Eyes that were marbled with a soft topaz brown! She felt the assurance and knew this man was someone of importance. Amazement crept through her. Rarely did she encounter a man who was not covetous of her statuesque beauty or embarrassed, even angered, by her height. This man gave her a steady, all-encompassing gaze. He knew exactly what—even who—she was and did not care in the least.

“Why do you seek sanctuary?” he repeated gently. Teloa started to speak, and hesitated. “The Nuala do not lie and therefore are not easily deceived. If you wish to stay, you must state your reason, even if you have lied all your life. When you pass through the gate, your past disintegrates. We do not care what you were, or claim to be … only what you become.”

“I was working on Mercury 7, and was invited by a wealthy man to tour the tratores of the Seven Systems at his expense. He arranged for my transport to the military wheel Annular 14 and then refused to pay my passage through. I—retaliated….” Teloa began.

“In the traditional manner?” Braan asked.

“Yes.” She gave him a direct glance with her clear grey eyes. “He turned out to be a powerful Axis councilmember, and he was not amused. He sought my arrest, or death, so—”

“But that’s against the code!” the blonde commando burst in. “I know it’s not law, but if you cheat a hustler, you deserve what you—”

“My word against his?” Teloa interrupted, knowing him as Lyte by his voice. He paused, and looked as if he might speak again. Then he shook his head, turning to inspect the visible city. “I asked for transportation to the nearest sanctuary. I don’t even—I didn’t know where I was headed,” she finished, aware she had a professional habit to leave behind, and quickly. There was a long pause.

“Kal, send for a temple minister.” One of the youths quickly ducked into a narrow alley and disappeared. Braan turned back to Teloa. “You must stay at the temple until the ship leaves port, in case some of the off-world crew ‘objects’ to your sanctuary.”

“Who let you on board?” the duty officer demanded. Teloa was silent.

“That would not be fair to expose such an … honorable, selfless, deed.” Teloa forced herself not to react to Braan’s voice; to the dry, almost hollow sound. It was as if he knew her brother Tyr had abandoned her. The duty officer became offensive again. “Punch up a one-way ticket, man,” Braan said abruptly. “You know you will be paid.” The off-worlder departed toward the ticket point. Kalith returned and nodded to Braan, who indicated that the other men should wait for him outside. Then he walked over to the high rock wall, a soft mustard moss covering its rugged black side. There was a bench carved out of the same stone, and he indicated that Teloa could sit if she wished. The guards remained by the pillars, watching the duty officer prepare the ticket.

“The temple ministers will have some other clothes for you, and a hot tub. Have you ever had any … other skills? It is not necessary, but you could become bored here quickly,” Braan continued, adjusting a small votive candle in a wall sconce.

“I was a planter on Capricorn V, before the bombs fell,” she answered steadily.

“We always have need of planters. Stay as long as you wish.” Stay as long as you wish? That was not what her brother had implied. Suddenly the duty officer reappeared and thrust a small support slab in front of Braan. Braan eyed the man a moment—the off-worlder looked away. The Nualan picked up the sconce candle and dripped some wax on the slab. As he read the recording he removed the ring on his finger and rolled it in the wax. “I believe you know where to be reimbursed?” The officer, a bit sour, nodded and returned to his ramp, carefully avoiding the guards. Braan glanced down the alley against the wall and turned to Teloa.

“Your name is … ?”

“Tele—Teloa. I was Teloa—Tay, to family,” she managed to get out.

“I am Braan of Atare. Welcome.” He flashed her a gentle smile so charming she returned it despite her fear. He turned and seemed momentarily surprised to see the woman who stepped forward. She wore an ankle-length white dress of some obscure natural fiber, corseted in a rich, dark sienna brown of the same material, only heavier. The brown lined her dress, peeping out of the long, slit sleeves, hood and side slit. Looking closer, Tay saw that the rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed, crimson blonde was almost as tall as she, bearing a beauty mature yet fresh. Perhaps thirty, thirty-two terrayears?

“I am Dr. Elana. You are … Teloa? Can you walk?” the woman asked, offering support.

Teloa tentatively reached for her hand, calming her inner shaking. “I can walk.” Remembering her manners, she turned to Braan and, wrapping herself in the shreds of her dignity, said, “Thank you.” Braan nodded, and the Nualan woman led her away.

o0o

Braan walked briskly to the solar car and hopped in. The guaard in the driver’s seat punched up the numbers of the palace, and the car began to move.

“How do you know she wasn’t lying?” Lyte asked.

“We know,” Kavan offered. They drove on in silence.

AMURA

SEXT

In a daze Teloa was led down into the center of the city. Pedestrians thronged around her, and she found herself still tall, but not excessively so—most Nualan men were at least her height. Genetically altered to be so? she wondered, and all her fears crept back. She kept her gaze on the buildings—strange buildings—or on the flagstone road, avoiding the interested and admiring looks of the men. She felt dirty, ugly and exhausted, and, at the least, a man was responsible for her current problems. A man had also remedied them, at least temporarily. Perhaps she could call that a fair trade. It was too much to think about. She understood this was an older section of the city—what city was this?—and that no building seemed to be over four stories. Everything was stone, and she was aware of towers. She felt so tired, so confused.

They left the narrow walkway and stepped out into a wide open space, grass-covered and thick with late-blooming flowers, bushes and trees whose leaves were just beginning to darken to a greenish indigo. Off to the right, among dark trees, a small lake sparkled. Above the tall, strange foliage was an incredible brilliance, as if the afternoon star had settled onto the hill in the center of the city’s park. Tay gasped as she realized the source.

There were other buildings within the Axis alliance with more gold-and-silver inlay, more jewels; taller, more extensive, even more ancient. None had the starkly simple and majestic tones of the Mendülarion, the temple of Mendülay. It was unlike any existing building—totally unlike secular Nualan architecture.

“It is impressive, is it not?” the woman agreed. “I forget how it affects visitors to our world. The Mendülarion is white marble, the roof gold. It is empty except for a few tiny candles, lit to signify a birth, marriage or death, or occasionally a milestone in someone’s life. The priests and priestesses are often seen there, busy with personal prayers or special requests. And there are no locks on the doors; citizens can spend the night if they feel the invisible pull of Mendülay.”

Elana led Teloa to an area directly below and to one side of the temple where they found a moving, snake-like metal runner. It seemed to have no track or containment, yet moved smoothly along at a moderate pace.

“Stand in the center,” the woman told her. “Do not catch your heels underneath!” Teloa leapt and landed in the center. It felt good to stop walking; tiring to stand. Elana noticed. “The catwalk will take us beneath the temple to the living quarters. There are some guest rooms there, and you can sleep as long as you wish.”

The catwalk was totally silent, hence its name. Teloa looked down to see she was now standing on a step, and the walkway was moving swiftly uphill, approaching a small tunnel. Had she stepped from flat to stairs, or had the runner created its own stairway? She was almost positive she had not moved, so the runner must have done it for her. Good gods, she hadn’t even noticed….

“You keep your poise well. Most people are a bit unnerved by the catwalk the first time they ride it,” the Nualan said suddenly as they entered the tunnel.

“I—noticed a change,” Teloa answered, not sure her statement made sense. Elana either did not notice, or pretended not to—she indicated that Teloa should step off on an upcoming platform. Tay jumped again, to avoid catching her decorative heels, and watched the sheen of the walk as it passed, like a river of silver amphibians.

“Do not look too closely! You could become dizzy,” Elana counseled, leading Teloa into the depths of the hill. They entered a wide natural-stone corridor lit by shafts leading to the surface. The area was cool but not cold. Teloa’s guide stopped at a panel and pressed its corner. It was immediately lit, revealing a color-coded set of block catacombs, most of the cubes having a yellow dot in their center. “One of the suites for visiting dignitaries is vacant, you are in luck! Sheer luxury. Come.” She led off down the corridor.

Had Tay been alone, she would have become lost in the bewildering maze of rough white stairs and walkways, although she noticed several blank panels and assumed they were also maps of some kind. Finally the woman reached tall double doors and opened them.

“Welcome.” Elana walked straight ahead to the opposite wall, and the distance was not short. She opened another set of tall double doors and stepped into brilliant starlight, which was just beginning to angle past the doorsill. As Tay walked into the room she discovered that the living quarters were built right into the side of the hill. Looking out the doorway she saw the mountains, their foothills covered with homes. For a moment she said nothing; she had never seen mountains. She could think of no words grand enough. Teloa tore her gaze away at the sound of running water. A small, enclosed garden was off to one side, lit, as was the room, by more shafts. A fountain set in the wall bubbled merrily. She breathed deeply of the scent—lush, exotic plants whose names she did not know.

“Do you like it?” the woman asked with a smile. Tay smiled in return, her look taking in the high, deep ceiling arches, her fingers lingering on the rough-hewn walls of stone. “The fireroses are in bloom, and they bring a heady scent to the arboretum. Come and look.” The woman led Teloa into the garden, stopping under the sky shaft. Tay stood in the warm starlight, closing her eyes and enjoying the sensation. So long since she had felt natural heat … Between the star and the murmur of the water … even the odor of the plants conspired to put her to sleep. Many of the indoor trees were taller than she, and the variety of colors ranged from soft yellow-greens through blues and purples. One plant had brilliant yellow and orange blossoms. Elana reached out to touch a vine, and Teloa followed her example. So long since she had worked with living things …

“You do that as if you know plants,” Elana said gently, walking back into the main room and heading for a sunken tub.

“I was a planter once—in the Caprican system,” Tay answered vaguely, following the Nualan to the sanitation. She touched the wooden hot tub, studying the marble facilities.

“Look, Teloa, this is hot and this cold, and you may blend them by—where are the sands?” Tay was startled until she realized the woman’s question was of general puzzlement and not directed toward her guest. “As I was saying, the water will circulate on its own and automatically shuts off when your weight is removed from the bottom. Do not worry about all the water; it goes straight to irrigation. I shall get you some towels and some bath sands. I must apologize for the lack of sands and oil—all four grades of sand are to be kept here at all times. I shall have to report it to Draü. What with the festival and feast, she is much too busy to monitor the younger priests and priestesses who keep these rooms stocked. But is important to her, all the same.” At the question in Teloa’s eyes Elana continued: “Draü is the high priestess, and her days are very full, but she has greeted the newcomers to our world since she was an initiate, and she is still very concerned about the comfort of our guests. I shall tell my godson, her eldest, and he will carry the message.”

“Is … her husband a priest? I had forgotten the clergy of Nuala marry,” Tay asked, sitting on the edge of the double bed.

“Her firsthusband is a scientist, her second High Priest Arrez, as is our law. She is the second wife of Arrez.”

“Second?”

“Yes. He has four.”

Tay digested this information. “A … healthy man indeed,” she managed. She was startled by Elana’s silver laughter.

“Not exactly, although he is a 20. He married me because he loved me, Draü because he was appointed High Priest, and, as I said, it is our law. Mariah because her prophesies are disturbing and often violent, and only he and I can deal with her. And Chaka, out of sheer … cussedness, as our ancestors once said. I shall get the towels and sand and be right back. Play with the tub as you wish!” She quickly and silently slipped out of the room. Tay turned slightly and looked out the thermapane windows at the dazzling soft yellow light. She ached all over, and wondered if lying in the star’s rays would help. It was a young world, she decided. Capricorn V had been young. Her thoughts swirled back to the hot agra planet, its fertile fields stretching to the horizon, the glittering irrigation canals opening their wash gates. Her parents’ pride when she was appointed Assistant Planter, her younger brother Telen’s enthusiasm. Older sister Meer had desired only to leave the planet, and brother Tyr was always confused. Then the luna bombs came, the whistling luna bombs—and it was ambitious Meer who stayed, forever, and naive Teloa who became the wanderer. She had not seen Telen since the halfway camp, when she had given him her last hundred cubiz to aid his attempts to enter a trade. Being guildless, he had a small chance to build a new life. She wondered if he still lived. He’d be almost twenty terrayear now, and if he thought her dead …

The exhaustion, the release of tension hit her like a tremendous weight, and she was crying, a torrent of tears, almost hysterically, something she had not allowed herself since the luna bombs devastated Capricorn V. Teloa did not hear the door open and did not protest the firm and gentle embrace she was drawn into; she was merely aware of years of pain and frustration, and memories that could never be anything else. Finally her shaking began to subside.

“It will get better, child. By Mendülay’s grace you are alive, and the dawn will come. Let your heart be lightened.” Through her tears Teloa saw long slender hands pushing her hair out of her face. Elana was smiling. “I think you will be better able to see the brightness of the day after a hot tub and some rest. Are you hungry?”

“Maybe—a little. I am so tired. And I ache terribly.”

Elana lifted several bottles. “Found! And we shall get you into a tub right away.” She studied the Caprican’s face intently, and then asked, “You have not tasted the water, have you? You look pale.”

“No,” Teloa said quickly. She knew enough about Nuala to refrain from that, no matter how thirsty she was. “But I need some water.” Her voice faded as she looked closely at the sand bottles. “Oh, I couldn’t. I mean—” She looked up at Elana in amazement. “These are worth a week’s salary each! I—“

“Not here. We make it here, and it is as cheap as gill soap. You are free of import taxes for the duration of your stay! Now, get in and soak, and I shall bring you some saffra and your first pill. You must not drink or eat anything without first taking a pill, and your first fiveday here, eat only what I bring you! The radiation content of some of our foods could make you very sick. I am a doctor, and I shall bring my bag—I have a simple monitor that can determine your general health almost immediately. The water is safe for you to bathe in, please enjoy it. I shall be awhile this time.” Elana dumped several capfuls of oil into the tub, and then vanished again. Tay sat a moment, watching volumes of bubbles appear, letting her mind go blank. Then she slipped off what was left of her shoes. Carefully lining up the sand bottles, she removed the dark, cowled dress and lowered herself into the tub.

She discovered a wide ledge around the perimeter of the wooden bath. Sitting down, she reveled in the hot water, letting it soak to the chill of her bones. She had to shake herself awake, and reached for the sand. How good to scrub away the dirt, the feel of everything before …

A sharp stomach cramp sliced through her, and she seized the edge of the tub to steady herself. Gods, what was wrong? She had not touched the water, nor any food—no food in days. Hunger? It hurt too much to be hunger. Hustlers did not get sick. They died from alcohol or drugs or knives, but they did not become sick. An awful thought began to form in Teloa’s mind. Narcotic dependency … palus, opiates, coca, ltima—any or all of them had probably been slipped into her drinks at one time or another. How much? Enough so that she’d show her dependency in two or three days? Suddenly she was frightened.

Forcing herself to continue, Teloa slowly washed her hair as well, living an old fantasy to wash all over in extra fine Silva Sand. Then she crawled out of the tub, wrapping herself in the thick towels. The shaking would not stop.

There was a light rap of knuckles on the door. “Tay? I am coming in.”

“Please—“ Elana stepped over the threshold, a tray in her arms and a shapeless bag tossed over her shoulder. She took one look at the off-worlder and set the tray down on the dresser.

“What is wrong? Where is the pain?” Elana asked as she came to her side.

“My stomach—all over. I—am cold—“ Tay gasped, shaking violently. Elana touched her forehead a moment.

“No, not cold. A fever. And you have not drunk any water, it is not rav—”

“I haven’t! I swear it —” Tay said frantically, her voice cut off by another spasm.

“Rav is radiation poison by ingestion,” Elana told her. “I can see you have not. Teloa, have you ever used … euphorics? I know they sometimes get into things….” The doctor was polite but firm in her need for information.

“Not by choice—but you never—“ She doubled over. “You never know what a patron might have put into a drink.”

“Try to reach the bed. You need to lie down until the fever burns itself out. I can ease the pain, and it will pass. Our people are passionate and often foolish but never that stupid—you cannot find drugs here, they will not tempt you.” Elana helped her to her feet and to the bed. “I can stop the shaking, but you will be in bed several days. That is all right!” Tay sensed she was trying to ease any worry her new patient had. “There is little to do during festival. As a new immigrant, you would have to stay inside most of the time. Now you can relax and read tapes and listen to music. I can find a few visitors for you and explain things when our people confuse you—” Tay gasped again, this time from the air hypo Elana shot into her arm. Then the woman quickly scanned her with a small metal object. “I have seen worse, but that is no comfort. Drink this, the rav pill is already in it. We can take no chances.” Tay downed the fluid, conscious of its acid edge, herbs and pulp floating in its opaque, red body. Elana pushed her down onto soft pillows and pulled a light blanket up around her. “Rest. I shall stay with you awhile, and then one of my healers shall come. Do not think you will die—I never lose patients! If we must, I shall seek Ronüviel, and she will draw the fever out. Just rest—soon the pain will pass, and you can seek a home and work.” Her cool fingertips rested on the young woman’s forehead a moment. “Rest … Nualans have great skill with green things; even our deserts grow lush under Cied hands. But our ecology is very fragile. We always have need of planters.”

Tay clung to that thought as delirium crept upon her.

AMURA, THE PALACE

SEXT

It was not far to the palace. Kal quietly played tour guide, pointing out the capital, temple, park, medical complex and fine-arts center. Lyte feigned disinterest, his eyes absorbing and cataloguing everything. The buildings were strange, occasionally even macabre—dreamlike configurations that reminded him of something he could not name. Colors were numerous, and Lyte thought of the stone called marble, which he had seen on the planet Terra. The buildings all had the same swirling, translucent effect, although not all were highly polished. There were many, many towers, their outsides textured as if they were dribble castles made of sand. And the city was clean, as if scoured.

“You certainly know how to avoid pollution. Nova Terra would give a lot to know your secret,” Lyte began conversationally.

“Nova Terra? Have you been there?” Kavan could not repress his excitement. Kal eyed him warningly—it was not polite to pressure visitors into conversation after a long trip. Lyte did not notice the discourtesy. He was more interested in the people. He had never seen so many Nualans together at one time. And he had made a discovery. They were not all beautiful. Healthy, certainly, at least to the eye, but some were far from beautiful. In fact, he saw no greater number of attractive people than he would see on any CSSI system street. Most were average—a few could be defined as dregs, dogs, or entiss, depending on your native tongue. One woman in particular fascinated him. He found her lanky, flat-chested, almost buck-toothed appearance quite unappealing. But the handsome young man on whose arm she hung was plainly oblivious to it.

“Ah, yeah. I’ve been to Earth.”

“Would we be so blasé if we could boast?” Moran added, amused.

Braan was following Lyte’s gaze, and smiled slyly. “She is brilliant, and witty, and a 20,” Braan said softly. “And, from what her friends say, a compassionate woman. No higher tribute can be made.” He looked distant then, as if not noticing Lyte’s blank reply. What was Braan, a mind reader? Very observant, Lyte decided. A man to be watched. He absorbed the little speech, aware of the sincerity behind it.

“I thought you people dealt in genetics,” Lyte answered. He was rewarded for his error in interpretation by Kal’s startled look and Kavan’s obvious anger. Braan quickly spoke, smoothing the path.

“To correct the disabling, the mutilating, the dangerous genes. There is no beauty requirement. We have learned all too well, the hard way, the true meaning of beauty. And appreciate it all the more when it appears of its own accord.” Lyte did not pursue it. There was no lack of looks among the Atares, that was certain. Braan, with his dark hair, tanned skin, and mysterious brooding magnetism, must be extremely attractive to most females. Lyte still heard his name mentioned with affection in the tratores. The twins were young yet, but with their narrower faces, high cheekbones, and oddly paired green-brown eyes, they were just as alluring. He had seen a hologram of Ronüviel’s father, however—a very average-looking man. Despite Braan’s words Lyte suspected genetic tampering, but he said nothing.

Moran was merely breathing deeply; of the flowers, the air, the babble of voices from the market they passed through. Something occurred to him—he turned to Braan. “Should we have taken that woman somewhere? It seemed as if she had been through a lot.”

Braan shook his head negatively. “She needed … privacy … more than transportation. Elana will take care of her. She was very uncomfortable with us.” Satisfied with Braan’s analysis, Moran turned back to watch the turquoise grass shimmer in the star’s light.

“I hope she is happy here,” Moran said finally. “As happy as I have been.” They did not speak again until they reached the palace.

Lyte had not been paying attention and was mildly surprised when the solar car stopped. He was not sure what he had expected, but not such … massiveness. There were huge spiraling steps wide enough for ten men to walk abreast, the trees overshadowing them older than memory. The center door of the tri-portal was three times Lyte’s height, the hourglass pillars before it even larger. Green, yellow and turquoise patterns in the stone danced before his eyes, shadows playing tricks on him. Lyte extended a hand—the pillars were heavily textured with smooth, teardrop lumps.

“Don’t worry, they’ve held for thousands of years, and strong ground tremors are common here,” Moran whispered.

“Our years or their years?” Lyte retorted, still lost as to what the city reminded him of.

“Practically the same thing,” was the rejoinder. The two turned in time to see the door wardens open the center portal to admit them. They were both copper-skinned, a blond man and a dark woman, and they were dressed, Lyte realized, in ancient space colonization suits—reflective silver and internally controlled. They did not react to the royal family or the warriors as the group walked in.

“The Atares’ personal guaard, as is the gentleman in black skins following us. They will defend all the royal family if the need should ever arise and are silent companions in times of danger. Those suits are replicas of the original colonists’ suits. The men and women trained for that duty are prepared much as your unit is.” Commandos, sensitive trained? A whole troop? Lyte filed the information away for future reference.

As they entered the palace Lyte immediately noticed the echo and stopped, looking up into darkness. He now understood what the Nualan structures reminded him of—caverns. Massive, entwining caverns. It was like the underground city of Becoten, only on the planet’s surface. He studied the white walls, their irregularly-shaped depressions glowing fitfully from an unknown power source. The overall impression was of age, warmth and closeness. He took in its great width; several men were setting up long tables at one end of the hall.

“Welcome to the Great Hall,” Kal said. Kavan hurried ahead and threw his weight on two huge bronze doors at the opposite side of the barren hall. Lyte tapped his fingers on them as he passed and was shocked—they swayed slightly under his touch. They were of solid bronze and perfectly balanced to open at the thrust of a hand.

They had entered an octagonal corridor intersection, the hallways receding into infinity in three directions. Lyte was about to ask if this was fact or illusion when he noticed the mirrors. More than mirrors—they were the walls. In all three corridors, the only supports visible were windows and mirrors. They looked hand polished, their irregular shapes biomorphic, the huge fired clay frames almost oozing around their reflecting substance. He could see the glint of cast bronze at all three exits, and figures in black standing next to them.

“This is the Hall of Mirrors. To the left is the Footpath to the Stars. The view out that door is the Mendülarion and starset. To the right are the living quarters, and straight ahead is the throne hall. We are expected for saffra and kriska in the family room.”

Having finished his speech, Kal led on. Lyte glanced around as they walked down the passage and noted that Braan was using the mirrors to observe him. For nervousness? Disdain? Perhaps for something the man himself could not have named.

They reached the doors sooner than Lyte expected—so the distance was illusion. Moran appeared relaxed, as if everything was routine—his initial excitement had mellowed into a delighted realization that Ronüviel was near.

Kal activated a palm-impression lock and opened the door. Moran grabbed Lyte’s arm, stopping him. “We have to alert the computer to your presence.”

“Computer?” His voice was expressionless.

Braan answered, “The interiors of the palace and sensitive medical and military areas have palm-impression locks on their portals. If you have clearance, you can walk right in. There was an assassination attempt made on my older brother’s life when we were children … during a party. It was considered a prudent move to inhibit easy access to the living quarters.”

“Them?” Lyte gestured at the warriors.

“They cannot memorize every stranger on the planet. The times are not dangerous; we do not use individual guaard.”

“Place your hand on the panel and say your name. Just Lyte; no one uses titles here except the Atare,” Moran instructed, setting his own hand on the panel. “After that, the computer will know your prints.”

“What happens if you go in without clearance?”

“A silent alarm activates, and the guaard would find you so fast it would make your life spin—what was left of it,” Kavan answered, touching the panel. Flashing Lyte a smile, he disappeared inside. There was a silence.

“If you would prefer not, I can ask Liel to bring the saffra to the garden,” Braan offered.

“No.” Lyte set his hand on the panel and said, “Lyte.” It was strange to hear his own voice say the word. The panel blinked and was again dark. Braan set his hand on it. The screen flared and was still. Moran opened the door and followed the twins’ path.

The room was darker than Lyte had imagined, and cool, blocking out the mid-afternoon heat. Its construction was similar to the Great Hall, and it was filled with low, inviting chairs and fibers decorating the walls and floor. A beautiful table of a dark, polished wood was piled high with trays of unknown edibles and glasses made of trine gold. Lyte’s mouth dropped open. He could buy a whole army with one of those cups. Trinium, rarest of metals; Nuala’s wealth and its curse….

o0o

A stronger light source from beyond caused Lyte to move to one side—he could see a window in an adjoining room. He wondered if the windows were rigged.

“The windows are also monitored,” Braan said as he strolled into the room. Abruptly, a young woman burst through the doorway.

She might have been called a girl but not without adolescent offense. Although Lyte had the impression of shiny dark hair that fell to her elbows, the eyes were the arresting quality. One was blue and one green, and they sparkled with a liveliness, an awareness that hinted, inexplicably, of Braan. And with her heart-shaped face and turned-up nose, a beauty.

With a delighted laugh the girl threw her arms around Braan. Moran took advantage of the momentary diversion. “Careful, friend, Liel’s brigbait,” Moran whispered mischievously.

Lyte frowned at him. “Not exotic enough for me.”

“Those eyes should be exotic enough for anyone,” Moran returned, lighting up as Liel walked over to him.

“Moran! When will you come and stay for awhile?” She shyly slipped her arms around him and hugged him like a favorite toy.

“I’ve got elevenday off, what more could you ask?”

“Huh!” The woman tossed her head impatiently, for a moment still the child. “I could say a few things about what I think of your superiors, but I shall refrain.”

“Youngest of the Ragäree, this is Lyte, my closest friend. The Serae Liel. Liel is fine.” Lyte straightened and inclined his head slightly in the manner of a professional star-rover, used to meeting all forms of life. Liel gracefully swept her right hand arching away from her heart in the ancient Nualan greeting.

“Welcome, star warrior. You bring honor on our heads.” She avoided looking straight at him. Braan broke her oration by tickling her.

“Be bold, little one! Your spirit cannot remain hidden forever!” She could not help but crack a smile, the hint of a dimple showing; she met Lyte’s gaze, the gold in her green eye flashing. Liel gestured for the warrior to follow her to the table.

“One of the interesting properties of saffra is that it is often more refreshing heated and poured over ice than constantly chilled! We also have Tours day wine, or if there is anything special you would like … ?” Liel began.

“Got your pill?” Moran asked Lyte. Braan had handed him the packet while they were in the solar car.

“Right here. Did someone watch you as closely as you’re watching me?” Lyte held up his hand as if to swallow the pill.

“Wait! They are very bitter. It is better dissolved in saffra and does not change the drink’s taste.” Liel grabbed his hand and pushed a glass of saffra toward him. Kal had poured it over ice, and the steam was thick. Lyte did not visibly hesitate, but he steeled himself for the unaccustomed taste. He was pleasantly surprised and had to force himself not to swallow the drink in one gulp. In the meantime Braan poured a glass for Liel while she greeted her other brothers.

“I wish Deenn was here, he would have enjoyed meeting you; but he is over on Niamh and will not be back until almost the end of the festival. He is the closest thing we have among the 20s to a professional warrior,” Braan said conversationally. He handed a glass to Moran, smiling slyly as he did so. “She will be down soon; she should be almost ready.”

“Did I hear ‘almost’?” Lyte started involuntarily at the voice, low and slightly musical. He turned toward the sound. Moran managed a soft half smile.

Ronüviel was no challenger to the universal beauty; not in the popular sense of the statuesque tratore queens. Average height, numerically proportioned, flawless skin and teeth—all superficial traits of health. Her straight, turned-up nose and strange, haunting eyes, so much like Braan’s, were disturbing, not attractive, as far as Lyte was concerned … although the mahogany-brown hair which tumbled halfway to her knees was a definite asset. Lyte now understood her initial lure, however. How it worked, no. How it affected men, yes. She was at once sensual and earth mother, magnificent as a star and as humble as a madonna—totally at ease with, and unaware of, her “air” and her completeness as a woman.

Roe came straight to him, her face blazing in her pleasure, touching his arm in an intimate yet nonthreatening way. “Lyte! We are greatly honored! I was beginning to think there would be no one to give away the groom, should the need arise!”

“I’ll be up to it, don’t worry,” Lyte answered. With a look for Braan, Ronüviel walked over to Moran and gently touched his face, her thoughts for him alone.

Lyte glanced away. He could deal with the physical couples, the clinging, adoring here-for-the-moment situations he saw in the tratores, though he did not like clinging men or women, himself. What was between Roe and Moran was something different. One thing he knew: Moran was crazy about this woman and her people and could no longer be objective about them. Lyte would have to stand a double vigil during their stay. If only they weren’t so friendly …

“Lyte, would you allow me to take charge of your personal case?” Kal asked, gesturing toward the tiny box they had carried from the transport. “We can have the items sealed against destruction, or plated with trine gold, whichever you prefer.”

Lyte stared at him a moment. No average citizen could afford trinium plating, so he assumed it was a free offer of service, because of his connection to Moran. But did he really want to be wearing something he might get hit over the head for every time he wore it?

“Sealing doesn’t change the color or—”

“You will scarcely be able to tell. It adds a slight sheen to matte finishes, that is all,” Kal went on.

The warrior offered him the box. “Sealing sounds fine. Put it on my tab.”

“There is no charge to you, our guest. I will also replace whatever currency you have with Nualan issue—it is in the box, is it not?”

So that’s why Moran made me put it in there. “Thank you, I’d appreciate that.”

“I do not wish to throw a damper on your party, Liel, but I must find Jaac. She has requested my presence,” Braan suddenly said, setting down his glass of saffra. The twins glanced at each other, but said nothing.

“I also intend to go,” Roe told him, seizing Moran’s hand and pulling him along. She paused a moment, remembering Lyte, and looked to Braan. They studied each other a second, and then Moran, perceiving this was not a casual visit, spoke.

“Don’t worry, I’ll vouch for him.”

Lyte remained impassive. In their simple glances he was reminded that the Axis Republic was still fighting a thousand-year war against the Fewha and the Malvevenian Empires—and that the Nualans were only one system away from the front.

The foursome walked back into the palace complex and outside, the trees of the garden shielding them from the blazing afternoon light. Roe, Moran and Braan talked lightly of the trip over, the goings-on in the city—names and places totally unfamiliar to Lyte. He busied himself with trying to keep the direction of the temple in mind as a point of reference and started studying the greenery.

Nothing was familiar. In the thousand years the Nualans had been isolated and the following three thousand during which they had had few visitors, any desire for their previous flora and fauna had vanished. Some names had come down to them, and the many years had not changed the essential natures of trees and grass, but the similarity ended there. Even the predominant groundcover was not really grass, but instead was more clover-shaped and lichen-like, springy underfoot. The dry, oppressive heat was offset by towering succulents, some writhing like snakes, some with long, slender trunks and stiff, flat fronds. There were several barrel-shaped bushes with thick, juicy leaves—Lyte bumped into one and nearly fell by slipping on the undergrowth.

“Everything is so green here! I thought—since the area around Amura is primarily desert …” Lyte began.

“It is the time of the cold rains, though they are intermittent and light, compared to spring. Thirtyday ago, it would have been dust here. We are closer to the equator—if you want green wait until you go north, into the mountains!” Ronüviel replied.

Suddenly a yawning entranceway appeared before them and plunged downward. They went down a flight of stairs to a corridor carved from solid rock. Walking to the end of the hall, Braan activated the door lock and walked in. Moran and Roe followed and, more slowly, Lyte. He did not like those locks. Lyte almost bumped into Moran as he entered the room.

“We’re supposed to wait here. The connecting room is the pillar set computer. This is the watchroom for the Nualan civil defense. Jaacav is the first officer in charge,” Moran whispered. “Interplanetary Communications is over there—and Interstellar Communications, Scope and Navigation. They’re one of the most efficient in the Axis.”

“One of? The best, First Officer.” The tiny, dark-haired woman had broken off with the Atares and turned to them. Lyte was stunned, and dropped his usual mask.

“You! Mercury 7!”

“Yes,” Jaac answered, a faint smile curling at the corner of her full lips. “We are familiar with the edifice tables, are we not?” She turned back to Braan and Roe and continued speaking softly in Nualan. “There has been no replacement for the Io, and no explanation for the move. The Atare, Tal and the Prime Minister have the facts and the nuances, and the twins and Liel have an inkling of what has happened. I am not concerned enough to attempt to reach the Ragäree, Deenn or your sisters. The synod has not yet been informed. That is all.”

“I cannot believe they would allow anything to happen before the feast. If there were any ‘accidents’ involving guests of their rank, the Axis Forces, not Nuala, would be blamed,” Braan replied. “But afterward? Who knows?”

“We are safe until the festival. I have a—a premonition?” Roe shook her head, disturbed. Then she smiled at Jaac. “You never told me you knew Lyte.”

A secret smile behind those almond-shaped eyes … “You never asked. If you will excuse me, I need to get back to work.” Nodding to the Atares, Jaac turned back toward the communications board. Lyte unintentionally caught her line of sight—her gaze settled on the object of his scrutiny, the scope. For a moment their glance met, and Lyte sensed worry. Was it shared concern of what they both suspected, or was she anxious that he had seen the scope at all? She was too perceptive a warrior not to realize the wrongness. And Lyte feared he now knew what the whispered Nualan words had been about.

Gesturing to Moran and Lyte, Roe swept out the door, Braan following. As they slowly made their way to the surface and back toward the palace, Lyte found a moment to speak to Moran alone.

“That’s an extremely sophisticated set-up. Why do they need it? The surrounding protection ships take care of almost all of that. They don’t need to watchdog the Axis Republic.”

“Quite simply, the Nualans trust everyone else about as far as they can throw them. And it will take more than good standing in the Axis Council to change their minds.” Moran had a look on his face that was at once knowing and distant. Lyte did not voice his other thought—that from the scope he could see, it appeared the two major guard ships were too far out. One ship always moved in at the same speed as the departing ship. Something did not fit, and Jaacav and the Atares were aware of the missing pieces, but it was not yet time to ask questions of their hosts. They had hours before the feast was to start, and everyone had individual plans. Later…. He followed Moran back into the palace, unaware that Moran was thinking the same thing.

o0o

The right wing of the palace had been the Atares’ home for generations uncounted. Not only the family of the current Atare but of his sister as well, for her children would be the next to reign. The progeny of both families were raised with a strong sense of duty, although other outside relatives kept that force from becoming the overriding influence of their lives. When the children reached an age of majority, they left the palace, even if they did not leave the planet, and remained away for five Nualan years. After that time, if not yet married, they could return and live under the family roof.

The older Atare siblings all had homes of their own nearby. Ronüviel and one brother, Deenn, had both returned from their various cover trades single and had elected to remain under the sprawling dynasty roof. Although the atmosphere was occasionally stifling, Ronüviel had never seriously regretted the move. Otherwise she would never have known her younger sister and brothers so well, or known her mother as woman and not merely Mother. After all, the thought lazily occurred to her, where else could she get such a spacious room, so close to the capital, so cheaply? Roe managed to chuckle, and cast a quick glance at Moran, fearful she had awakened him. Unlikely—she could feel his sleep pattern synchronizing with her healing waves, a deep and total relaxation. He almost always slept on his back, the light native blanket and sheet drawn up to his ribs and held with one arm, radiating a tousled contentment. Roe lay on her side, drawing the sheet up to her shoulders to shield from the over-active air cooling system. Her gaze traveled from the glow pits buried in the walls to the numerous thermapane windows and finally rested on the slow, deep rise and fall of Moran’s chest, light reflecting off the soft brown hairs and drawing gold from them. They became a golden blur and then merely light, fading as drowsiness stole over her.

He needed sleep. She knew he had been on short night shifts for almost a twentyday, and she did not like it. They would be lucky if he awoke for the feast. He did have some energy left, she reminded herself, smiling gently at the memory of the last hour. And it was partly the hour that had lulled her fears. Lyte’s presence, and his obvious unease … it was too simple to dismiss it as what it appeared to be. But there was no change, no restraint in Moran. His loving was in complete accord with his entire being; intricate, passionate, unusually gentle and unusually honest. Though she rarely let him know, let alone others, she could read this vulnerable man like a monitor. True, he could do the same with her, but he did not rely on his sensitive training. Nor did she. And they used no blocks with each other. No—if there was something wrong, Moran did not know about it. A momentary chill ran through Roe as she imagined his reaction to being used. Dear God, this man could love—and hate—with passion. An undying friend or lover, he would be a dangerous enemy.

Without thought she ran her hand down her stomach, testing its contours. There did not seem to be much change, no more than lack of exercise or a few sweets might cause. Roe frowned slightly. Her menses had cycled four times in the past year, the average for a fertile Nualan woman. But it had been onehundred twentyday since her last pass. Her mother had been pregnant with her first onehundred sixtyday before a routine physical revealed her condition. Nothing obvious, no discomfort, yet Roe felt … different. That could mean conception anywhere from an hour ago through—she counted—one hundred days ago. The thought of being a third of the way through pregnancy momentarily stunned her.

Moran stirred slightly but did not awaken. He shifted his body angle and reached out instinctively to the side Roe always slept on, his left. She managed to pull herself back to full consciousness long enough to creep into his embrace, and to wonder, half-guiltily if she should mention her suspicions about a child or confirm it with Elana first. No matter—there was plenty of time.

 

Chapter Three

PALACE

FOURHUNDRED TWENTYFIVEDAY, VESPERS

Lyte awoke to the sound of furtive rustlings in the room. As his eyes focused, a figure cut off the light in his vision. But the light was pale, as if—as if the star was setting. Damn, I fell asleep…. Lyte gained full consciousness and realized Moran was looking at him. The man looked more rested than Lyte had seen him for a long time. Managing his famous winning smile, Lyte sat up.

“You’re looking good. Have an enjoyable afternoon?” Lyte said.

“Very. How went your exploring?” He replied, turning back to his dressing. His voice was light, amused, and Lyte was certain Moran knew he had never left the room.

“How long until the feast?” Lyte asked instead, getting up and walking over to the shower basin. He recognized the tub and bypassed it, suspecting he’d fall asleep again. The water falling out of the wall was much cooler but effervescent and exhilarating to the touch. His skin tingled as he quickly worked up a lather.

“We can go to the Great Hall at any time. You won’t recognize it.” Moran moved to the mirror and carefully adjusted the starbursts that symbolized the rank of first officer. “Ronüviel will meet us there. I think Braan brought some clothes to the palace, so he’ll also show up quickly.”

“I thought Braan lived in his own house,” Lyte murmured, smearing a depilatory over his cheeks and chin.

“He does but—I thought I told you about his wife.” The face that Lyte turned toward him was puzzled. “Enid is dying,” Moran went on quietly, “and she’s been here at the palace for several years. It was thought too depressing for the children to have it all going on under the same roof. Braan divides his time among the children, his art and his wife’s bedside, although she hasn’t recognized any of them in over five years.”

“There’s a sadness about him. That explains a lot,” Lyte answered. Rinsing off, he stepped out of the shower and dried himself as he walked over to his tackle. The black and silver dress uniform unfolded wrinkle-free, as always. There wasn’t much Lyte hated more than a dress uniform, but protocol demanded it. The sheer number, much less the status of the dignitaries attending, made a simple dodge impossible. He carefully adjusted on his collar the even-armed crosses that were the insignia of his rank, and reached for a hair rake. His hand brushed against his timespot. Intrigued, he picked it up and examined it. A sheen to the finish … They’re quick here.

“Where do you know Jaacav from?” Moran suddenly asked.

Lyte, masking his surprise, did not look at him. “I don’t, really. A couple of furloughs ago I played against her in a high stakes edifice game on Mercury 7. There were maybe a half-dozen of us. Never did catch her name,” Lyte replied, attaching the timespot to his cuff.

“Don’t sound so casual about it. You obviously recognized her.”

Lyte glanced at him. Was Moran fishing or teasing? He decided he was getting paranoid. “And she recognized me. There aren’t many people capable of holding their own in a game like that—especially in the military. A good-looking woman, a great gambler, of course I remember!” Lyte hoped he didn’t sound defensive.

“Yet you didn’t follow up on her while you were there.”

“I couldn’t—she left mid-game and had left the tratore by the time I had finished.” That was the truth. He hoped Moran would leave it at that. The warrior seemed unperturbed.

“Well, now you have a chance to follow up on it. She’ll be here tonight.”

“I have a lot of things I plan to follow up on,” Lyte finished, flashing Moran what he hoped looked like a confident smile. “It’s time to explore a bit. See you there.” He started for the chamber door.

“Don’t get lost!” Moran called by way of parting.

Lyte ducked out the door of their chamber and into the spacious hallway. He had no desire to pursue the subject of Jaac—now, or at any other time. He found her disturbing, just as he had on Mercury 7, and that was a rare response on his part to any woman. He had no time to think of this, however, for he realized he had forgotten a turn. He saw a figure up ahead enter the corridor, and hurried to catch up.

“Hey, can you tell me—oh, hi.” For a moment he had not recognized Braan. The man had changed into more formal clothes; deep brown, loose-fitting mandraia pants and a pale yellow gauze shirt which was embroidered in a rich brown on the cuffs and pointed collar. “I’m lost. How do I get out?”

“Follow me.” Braan glanced at Lyte’s dress uniform. “Do they never let you out of that thing?”

“Depends on what you mean. My swimming string is blue and I sleep in the raw. Does that count?” It was all he could think of to say. The truth was, he owned three regulation uniforms and a dress suit—nothing else.

“I suppose it is some sort of freedom. I have to make a stop. Come.” Braan turned and started back down the corridor. Lyte did not mind retracing his steps; he was thankful Braan did not ask why he had left without Moran, or at least remark on his being lost. Lyte decided to increase his observations. Moran had a lot of respect for this man. Again, as earlier, he felt something different about Braan. Something elusive. His feet made no sound on the stone floor, though he wore boots.

Interesting …

They suddenly stopped before a door.

“You may wait here.” He opened the door and walked in. Braan had said may—a choice. Lyte looked in. He was not prepared for what he found. It was apparently a study which had been converted into a bedroom. A dark man he did not recognize was present, passing a small, flat instrument about a meter above the bed. Lying on the bed was a woman. At least he thought it was a woman; she appeared no bigger than a ten-year-old. She was tiny, so incredibly tiny, and very pale, with a mass of dark curls. Lyte noticed a young woman sitting in a nearby chair. She had been reading a tape console, but now raised her head, startled by Braan’s presence. She glanced quickly at the window, and Lyte saw a sundial.

“Go get dressed. You will not be late. Thank you for staying, but you should be out more—your vacation is almost over.” She managed a lovely smile, and then slipped out past Lyte into the corridor. She was small and slender but properly endowed, with long, thick hair the color of raw bee’s honey. Lyte never missed the essential elements of a pretty woman, no matter how young. Looking back, he saw Braan had moved next to the bed.

“No change,” the healer offered. “I am staying the next shift.” His voice did not indicate he had ever expected any change. Lyte studied the tableau; Braan was expressionless. He slowly reached out toward her face, just barely touching a curl. Then he turned abruptly and moved to the door. Lyte quickly backed up.

They swiftly left the room and continued on down the corridor. Braan was still impassive, and Lyte refrained from comment. The woman had to be Enid, and it was clear her condition was deteriorating. Such a contrast; what Braan appeared to be and what old stories, now almost legends, had to say about him. Years of watching his woman die; yes, Lyte supposed it could wither a man.

“Her name is Shinar,” Braan said quietly. Startled, Lyte glanced at the man. The Atare smiled slightly. “The little blonde you were admiring. Her name is Shinar reb^Elana—the daughter of Elana.”

Lyte watched as the tension in the man slowly dissipated. Fascinating, the control this Nualan had over his body. Almost like a commando. Amazing that he’d noticed anything beyond his wife. Shinar … smooth on the tongue. Where had he heard the name Elana?

“I … prefer blondes,” Lyte offered vaguely.

“So did I, but I married a brunette.”

The conversation faded as they reached a set of bronze doors. They were now in the Hall of Mirrors. Darkness was falling fast, and the mysterious light source flared brighter, as if in response to the coming night. Instead of being in isolated wall pockets, each firegem was over a window, reflecting eerily in the mirrors on either side.

The two men quickly reached the dome and, as of yet, had met no one. The sound of music and voices could be heard coming from the Great Hall. Braan took hold of the chamber door and swung it inward.

It had been transformed. Lyte found it hard to believe this room had been the dark, empty chamber of a few scant hours ago. The normal light sources were supplemented by blazing torches. They revealed a ceiling almost as tall as the dome, its face resembling interlocking tetrahedrons. The huge tables he had seen earlier were now covered with soft beige cloths and heaped with food both native and imported. All of the visible food containers or supports were blown out of glass or trine gold. Music was provided by one of Amura’s excellent chamber ensembles. Lyte took it all in and quickly dug in his pocket and pulled out his next pill. As he popped it in his mouth, Braan noticed the movement.

“You will regret that,” he warned. Lyte could not cover his grimace. Even polished, the pill had quite an aftertaste. “You would think a technology like ours could do something about that. I suggest you get—” Braan broke off as a waiter passed and grabbed one of the tall glasses of saffra. “Here.” Lyte did not protest, gratefully gulping the drink.

Someone chuckled behind him, and Lyte turned his head. A dark, handsome young man about his own age silently waited, amusement sparkling in his eyes.

“Be honest, Braan. Did you purposely wait to warn him about the pills?” the man asked. Braan’s face took on an air of total innocence. The off-worlder’s interest sharpened; this Nualan addressed an Atare by name.

“Lyte, I would like you to meet my Moran—Gid reb^Tinyan. This is Second Officer Lyte, Moran’s alter ego,” Braan said, dismissing the Nualan’s questions with a gesture. Still unable to speak, Lyte nodded a greeting. “I thought you decided not to attend this night?”

“I wished to meet Lyte before I left for Tolis,” Gid answered. “And I have accomplished my task. I also need to speak with Arrez. Have you seen him yet? I saw Shinar in the hall a few moments ago, but she had yet to dress for the feast.”

“Does this feast have any special significance?” Lyte asked when he had regained his voice.

“The harvest is in full swing. During the festival we reap by day and give thanks by night. This is a fruitful planet, but not without great effort on the part of the planters. The year will be good—already the deep grain vaults are full, the vegetables and fruits sealed.” Pride seemed to radiate from Gid as he spoke. “We have great hopes for the grape and berry crops of both the coast and the desert.”

“Perhaps you would like to sample a few things,” Braan said casually. “Go light on the food, but if you normally hold your liquor the wines will be no problem. Do not eat any of that.” He pointed to a tray heaped with a type of meat or meat substitute rolled in red leaves. “Even the pill cannot counteract a few of those yet.”

Lyte nodded his understanding and then gestured for a cantinamaster to pour golden fire into a green-stemmed glass. Braan’s head suddenly shot up, and he strained to see past the crowd. “Arrez and Elana just came in. Come, we shall introduce you, and then, feel free to mingle.”

The high priest was easy to find in the crowd; he was the only man wearing white. The robe was festive, made not of the mandraia plant but of syluan, one of Nuala’s two priceless exports. Trine gold—trinium—was merely the rarest of the precious metals, but syluan flowers were found nowhere else in the known stellar systems. The faint glimmer always associated with syluan gave him a slightly immaterial appearance, as if he were a dream. Arrez was tall, slender and patrician, his high cheekbones, sculptured features and dark coloring marking him of Latin ancestry. His flashing, dark eyes gave an observer the impression that Arrez missed nothing. Lyte immediately sensed a kinship between the priest and Braan, though they looked nothing alike.

Arrez’s dark tan and long, dark, swept-back hair contrasted vividly with the woman beside him. Elana had chosen a swirling syluan dress the exact color of her deep blue eyes. Lyte had only a moment to wonder if she chose the diaphanous outfit accidentally or by design, and then Braan’s grip on his elbow propelled him before the pair.

“Arrez, I would like you to met Moran’s friend, Second Officer Lyte. This is the High Priest Arrez.”

“My pleasure, warrior. Gid,” Arrez added, nodding to the man. “Lyte, may I present Dr. Elana, my firstwife?” Arrez turned an open, interested, and amused face to Lyte, who was unabashedly staring at Elana. So familiar, so beautiful, and yet … not just at the transport ship … “Ah, and our daughter Shinar and Elana’s son, Kire.”

Lyte turned, and beside him was the lovely young woman of Enid’s room, dressed in a riot of aqua syluan and silver netting. Her escort was a tall, handsome young man with dark auburn hair. Lyte stared a moment, and then said, “Your daughter?” He fought to control his embarrassment as he realized how it sounded, but both women were amused by his expression.

“You flatter me, warrior,” Elana began in her warm, rich voice. “Come—tonight you may continue for an indefinite length of time.” She took his arm and gently drew him off. With a quick greeting to Braan and Gid, Kire and Shinar vanished into the crowd, Kal suddenly appearing at Shinar’s side.

o0o

Relieved of his obligation, Braan turned his full attention on Arrez and Gid.

“How are Mariah and Chaka?” he asked, inclining his head graciously to High Priestess Draü and her firsthusband as they entered the hall. Arrez’s third and fourth wives were both in poor health.

“Chaka is ill again, and Mariah had a prophecy this afternoon, and is sleeping things off.”

“It was that bad?” Gid said, concerned. His family had been close to Arrez’s for many years.

Arrez frowned and, gently taking hold of Braan’s and Gid’s elbows, steered them out of the mainstream.

“I really do not know. It is the second time she has had this dream.” The priest’s voice was quiet, as if his words were not for the casual listener. “It begins more as an emotional thing—an overwhelming feeling of terror. I think much of her own fright comes from this weak, helpless feeling. Then she sees the temple, and Draü is at the altar, trying to protect the chalice. Stone is falling. I am a blur, and then gone. Baskh is there and tries to drag Draü away from the altar.” Arrez paused a moment. “And then there is fire—a veil of fire which rises and screens the scene, like syluan, she said—and it grows, consuming everyone, everything. Her last image is of the planet in flames. But they looked … artificial? I do not think it is a literal dream.”

Braan glanced at Gid, and was disturbed by the expression on his face; he was pale, his skin dusky. This was no jest on the priest’s part—they had all ceased to play games with each other’s minds a long time ago. They knew each other too well.

“Mariah dreams truly —” Gid whispered.

“Not always,” Arrez broke in sharply. “She has a high accuracy rate, true, but no one can see all futures at all times. We have many paths before us.”

“I wonder,” Braan murmured, letting his mind wander down an unpleasant path.

o0o

The crowd burst into excited whispering, and a turn of the head told Braan that Roe and Moran had arrived. He heard the comments—the perfect couple … Perhaps. Moran the dashing warrior, Roe heart-stopping in a flowing emerald dress. Braan amused himself wondering if anyone else had noticed that Roe had put on weight. He did not doubt the existence of a child.

“What do you think of him?” Arrez asked suddenly.

“I like him. We have not had time to talk at length, but what I have seen, I like.”

The priest nodded, his gaze following the couple with obvious pleasure. Roe was his favorite of all the Atare children. “She will be happy with him. That is most important. He will be a good husband—I think a good father. One of us should talk to him, you know—more than idle chatter. Before he leaves the planet again.”

“I shall work on it. Right now Lyte concerns me more.” Braan had been studying the silvery warrior for several minutes. He was as usual surrounded by women, both Nualan and off-worlder, and was enjoying the attention.

“Lyte? You have been hoping he would come. Granted, he is infatuated with my wife and will undoubtedly seduce—or be seduced by—my eldest daughter before he leaves, but what has he done to concern you?”

Braan laughed. “You are not disturbed at the prospect?”

Arrez smiled in return. “Elana no longer strikes me as eager to continue having children, and a foreign source always increases the chances. But if it was her wish, I would want the best for her. Kire was off-world-sired, though I have never known who his father was. Accordingly, if Shinar finds a joy in Lyte, why not? To add to our family such a healthy child, as I know it would be—it would be marvelous. And a plus for her marriage status.”

“Then you consider him the best?” Gid asked, his face sharp once more.

Arrez inclined his head slightly. “Mariah has dreamt of him and described him quite well, incidentally. She called him a wildman, a heathen king of tremendous loves and hates. She saw him two-faced, and the other was Moran’s. I prefer to interpret it as meaning that there is much of Moran in Lyte and vice-versa. Yes—I have a good feeling about him.”

“So do I,” Braan replied. “That is what worries me. He is sensitive-trained. He knows the empathy of our people, yet he is being very careful. Why? What is he hiding? I sense a fear in him, more than a warrior’s nervousness at being among so many strangers. Lyte does not strike me as a man who frightens easily. If I could just get them away from Amura for awhile …”

“That can be arranged,” Gid said. “I have spoken to Baskh Atare. There are some rumblings up in Tolis, a disquieting air dealing with the current synod session. It is all explained in this capsule.” Gid held up the tiny, glittering tome, the seal of Baskh visible on its side. “You cannot deny that my parents and the other sinis prefer to deal with you. They trust you as they have not trusted in centuries. It is an official trip, and he would send Tal, but this needs your delicate touch. Why not take Roe, Moran and Lyte and head north with me?”

Braan hesitated. “Enid is worse….”

“I know, my friend. He hesitates to ask but for the seriousness of this business.” Gid’s voice dropped again. “It concerns the current star-shuffle and some land grabbing, among other things. My parents have not spoken openly of it, even to me. There is nothing you can do for Enid; there is much you can do for continued good relations between Amura and Tolis.”

“Look cheerful, we have company,” Arrez said in warning. He put on his warm, embracing smile as Roe and Moran came up to them.

“Gid! I thought you had left!” She embraced the dark man, who suddenly looked almost shy. “I have come to deposit my man safely in your arms, dear brother, and to borrow your man. We must go pick just the right wine for Moran. Arrez, I need your keen nose.” Ronüviel gracefully took the High Priest’s arm and drew him toward the cantinamaster. Arrez’s handsome maturity fell from him, his face lighting up boyishly as he escorted her into the crowd.

“Perhaps an herbidian chablis?” they heard him say as the two disappeared in the press.

“He’d do anything for her, wouldn’t he?” Moran asked rhetorically, nodding a friendly greeting to Gid.

“As long as it was moral and honest, I would say yes,” Braan replied.

“And legal?” the warrior added for him. Braan’s sly smile crept out, and he shrugged.

Gid began laughing. “Come. Food and wine await. You have had the pill series?” Moran nodded in answer to Gid’s question. “Then by all means try the cide.”

Moran reached for a delicate pastry as Braan signaled the cantinamaster. “Dramiera, please.” The warrior glanced back to see this favorite Atare drink, noting Gid’s polite refusal. Then he looked in one of the hall’s upper mirrors—and his expression froze. Seeing Moran’s face, Braan looked up as well. Someone was using the mirrors for observation. An older man, tall, broad-shouldered, with snow white hair and dark eyes—like pits, those eyes … The look was malevolent. Moran shuddered. The eyes seemed to recognize them, and grew more intent. Braan evenly met the gaze.

“Meant for you?”

“I do not think so … not this time. We often use the mirrors like his, he and I. To my face he is quite cordial. That is Corymb Dielaan, the head of the Dielaan clan. He hates Atares. Especially Braan of Atare.” Braan turned away and reached for a drink; Moran followed suit. “I do not envy whomever he is seeking.” A tiny gasp of protest reached his ears. Braan’s head snapped back, but only the cantinamaster was present, his face a mask.

“You spoke?”

“No, Seri. I made his drink weaker, and he has yours.”

Moran sipped his liquor. “This is fine, not too strong.”

“In the future, please inquire first before you make such a judgment,” Braan said tranquilly, watching the cantinamaster. The man returned no expression. Turning, the Nualan prince moved away from the table, Moran and Gid following.

“I wanted to ask you to come with me into the coastal mountains,” Braan started. “I have been planning a vacation. However, something has come up, and Gid and I must go north to Tolis. I want to take Roe, though I have not yet asked her. You could bring Lyte, if you think he could handle the trip. You have never been, have you?”

“No, I haven’t. The mountains would have fascinated him. Too bad …”

“Think about it. I know it is sudden. Here comes Roe.”

The woman appeared before them, balancing three glasses of wine. “We decided on Sonoma River Chardonnay. Arrez was raving about it, but I think you should judge for yourself.” Thanking her, the men took the glasses and tasted the wine. Always appreciative of fine wine, especially white, Moran quickly agreed with Arrez’s taste. Gid and Roe laughed at them as they stood holding a glass in each hand, and then Roe leaned over to whisper to her man. “Moran, I have to talk to you about something before Arrez announces we are getting married.”

“Announces? Tonight?”

Roe looked puzzled. “We decided on the Feast of Adel. That is tonight.”

“That feast is this feast?”

She laughed at his bewilderment and took his arm. “Too late, Arrez is signaling.” She took one of his glasses and started dragging him toward the speakers’ platform. “Here comes Baskh Atare.” Looking around wildly, Moran saw the aging ruler and his consort make their entrance to a grand ovation. Braan and Gid slipped away.

o0o

“Guests of the domain!” Arrez’s authoritative voice boomed out over an unseen amplifier. “Now that our Atare is present, we wish to bring to your knowledge glad tidings for the people of Nuala.” The conversation on the huge floor ceased; Arrez had everyone’s attention as Roe struggled to reach the platform. “Tonight, we wish to announce that another of the house of Atare, of the direct throne line of this generation, has decided to marry in the full sight of Most Holy Mendülay and of proper witnesses. I wish to announce the banns of Ronüviel reb^Ila Atare and First Officer Moran of the Axis Forces.” The uproar that followed drowned out anything else that Arrez intended to say, and finally, with a smile and a helpless shrug, he stepped from the platform and embraced Roe.

The next half hour was joyous, unnerving confusion. They were mobbed by family, diplomats and citizens alike, and emotions ranged from radiant pleasure to tight-lipped formality. Roe was reminded that potential problems were not confined to house enemies and then pushed the thought out of her mind. Her sisters and brothers were full of congratulations and suggestions; even paranoid Deveah relaxed enough to join the small, encouraging group. As the conversation flowed, Roe was suddenly aware of a dark presence and turned to her husband-to-be. Moran was facing Corymb. The elder noticed her movement and smiled graciously, nodding his head respectfully, but Roe could not rid herself of discomfort. Corymb’s smiles always meant something else. She had never doubted that the attempt on the heir’s life, many years ago, had indirectly come from Corymb. Remove Tal, and Deveah would be next in line … and Corymb controlled Deveah. Moran’s features were carefully neutral, refusing to recoil from the death in Corymb’s face and the lies in Deveah’s eyes. Deveah’s eyes were the most disturbing—one green eye glittered, and the other, the rare Sheel Split of half green, half brown, was dull and lifeless.

Corymb would not allow a silence to settle. “The future Ragäree’s husband is an agroengineer of some renown. I hope your skills shall be as useful to the people.” The elder’s tone was polite, interested—the consummate speaker.

“Ronüviel must think so,” Moran replied. Roe knew that voice—he was controlling anger. Moran was dangerous when he was angry.

“Thank you for coming, Dielaan,” Roe murmured swiftly, using the title of respect for the man. “My man and I have much to speak of. You will excuse us? It seems a good time to leave.”

“Of course.” The colorful, pulsing crowd swirled, and both Corymb and Deveah were gone. She felt Moran relax.

He turned to her. “Thank you. You wanted to tell me something?”

“Yes.” She drew him out of the mob and toward the wall. “I have been trying to tell you that I think I am pregnant, but there has not been time to take the tests. Braan suspects, but no one else.”

Moran looked a bit dazed by the news and stared at her. Then he gently reached out to touch her cheek in a simple caress. Her expression bloomed, and she hugged him.

“Come, get your drink. I want to see Jaac before she takes Braan’s children to bed. She is their godmother, you know.” Reaching to the cantina table, Moran grabbed his Dramiera, swallowed the remainder, and then followed her.

o0o

Lyte floated among the guests, his face the blasé mask of the tratores, his ears absorbing every word and nuance. A familiar name caught his attention, and he paused near two consuls.

“Are you suggesting there are people who could profit from her removal?”

“When one is at the top of one’s profession, life itself becomes a cat-and-mouse game. It’s common knowledge what Elana has been working on for ten years. And I have seen the optics—the rumors of her findings are true!”

“You believe the Nualans are human, as we are human, and no longer need genetic tampering? Even if it is true, do you think her colleagues will stand by and watch their pet projects lose funding?”

So intelligence had been correct: Elana was currently in disfavor over her research. Something about cutting the Nualans loose from their medical intravenous tube and encouraging reproduction with no medical interference …

“You look much too preoccupied for a party. Can I point you to some diversion?”

Lyte turned and met Shinar’s clear blue eyes. Thick blonde hair tumbling at several levels, held by clasps—what was she, sixteen terra? Gods … “I think I just found it,” he answered.

“Oh? For the moment, perhaps. You can save the charm because, yes, I am susceptible, and yes, I am on guard. You will have to make other plans for the rest of the evening.”

“Don’t worry, I’m probably twice your age, and that tends to put a kink in my style. Also I don’t trust Nualan women. They steal men’s souls.”

She laughed, the sound of it ringing in the crystal goblets. “Do not let it bother you, I have had lovers much older than you.” And she was gone. Gods …

“I’m just as interesting as she is.”

Lyte glanced to his side. The speaker was one he had talked with earlier, a person of importance; she was the under secretary of the Military Council and a second officer. She was also a lovely blonde. Lyte had a weakness for blondes.

“Who am I to disagree?” he returned, handing her a drink from the nearby cantinatable. She smiled demurely, turning on the charm. He smiled in answer, with no need to attempt to be charming.

“Just be sure she’s willing—there’s no penalty for mutual seduction, but the penalty for rape is castration.”

Lyte somehow hung on to his composure. “What about a—false accusation? Somehow an apology wouldn’t, well—”

“Make up for things? The punishment for a false accusation is death.” She laughed, then, a perverse humor taking over in her. “Needless to say, they’ve had something like two rapes and one false witness in about four thousand years. I guess it works. The law, and their social system.”

Lyte nodded absently, intending to be very sure of Shinar’s true feelings if he chose to pursue that course. “I don’t know much about Nuala. Suppose we try a few local delicacies, and you can instruct me in some of the upcoming customs. I’ve heard about the grape harvest celebration….”

“This way,” she answered, taking his arm and leading him to a banquet table.

o0o

Something was very wrong. Moran tried to remember if he had taken an anti-rav pill and could not. Of course not, he took the series long ago. For a moment he couldn’t remember where he was, and that frightened him. Suddenly someone was standing next to him, gripping his arm. He turned and tried to focus. Vertigo overwhelmed him. It was Ronüviel.

“Moran? What is it? You did not eat any chéraka, did you?”

He was having trouble focusing on her. “No, I know better than—Lords, I’m dizzy.”

She flinched at the polytheistic off-world oath. “We must get you to a chair. You have a delicate stomach; maybe you need more pills. If that cantinamaster is watering the liquor, I shall have his license.” She began to haul him toward a table.

“No! No, I just want to lie down awhile. Maybe I haven’t eaten enough. Some of these liquors are strong … and I had wine. Shouldn’t—shouldn’t have mixed … “ He stumbled, Roe barely able to steady him.

“Come on, then, let us go back to your room. I want to run some tests on you.”

“I thought you … don’t treat … family.”

“I shall get Elana, then!” She pulled his arm across her shoulders. “Come on, this way. We do not want the guests to think you have been celebrating all day, do we?” Roe added, attempting to force humor.

o0o

Fortunately they were close to the bronze doors and quickly rounded the corner into the Hall of Mirrors. Moran looked up, and the lights reflecting in the mirrors threw him into such a spin, he collapsed to his knees. At that moment Jaac entered the hallway.

“Roe? What is wrong?” She hurried over to the couple.

“I do not know. I think it may be the water. Help us!”

“Is—not!”

Jaac went to Moran’s other side, and the two hauled him to his feet.

“You must try, Moran,” Roe said, wishing the guaard was not stationed inside the bronze doors tonight instead of outside them. “You must carry some of your own weight!” They were scarcely halfway down the hallway when it became apparent that he was not able to carry any weight. Finally the women let him sit down on the floor, Roe supporting his back and head.

“I shall go bring a stretcher,” Jaac began, “and see if I can find Elana.” She ran back down the hallway to the bronze doors, only to meet Lyte and the under-secretary.

The man stopped her. “What’s wrong? You—“

“It is Moran. He is ill, extremely ill. We need Elana.”

“What!” Lyte dashed down the corridor to the huddled pair. “Never should have left him, never!” he muttered savagely under his breath. “Can you stand?”

“Yes. Room. Please.” Lyte grabbed Moran in a body lock and slowly hauled him to his feet.

“Roe, balance him. Jaacav, get a doctor or somebody! He may have been poisoned!” The woman was already gone. He suddenly realized what he had said. “Oh—you’re a doctor. I’m—“

“Forget it, I do not have my instruments. Let us hurry. If it is rav poisoning he should be lying on his back.” The two dragged him down the hall. The off-worlder woman, momentarily forgotten, followed them.

They left the blonde at the bronze doors, Lyte promising to return to her. It was not far to the guest room, and the guaard helped; only the turns and curves made it seem long. The group had barely set Moran on the bed when Elana, Jaac and Braan entered the room. The doctor went straight to the man and whipped out a meter, passing it above his body while Roe made him comfortable. Using a tiny probe, she withdrew a single drop of blood from his arm and absorbed the fluid into her meter. Ronüviel felt her eyes widen as she read the flashing sequence of lights. Elana took an air injection hypo out of her small bag and gave Moran a shot. The tossing man immediately relaxed, unconscious.

“What—“ Lyte began.

“A common poison,” Elana answered abruptly. She turned to Braan. “How could this have happened?” she asked in Nualan. “Who could have followed him and done this—and why?” Braan did not speak. A guaard signaled for Jaac’s attention, and she left the room.

“We must leave the city,” Roe whispered tightly. “Until Jaac can discover what is happening.”

“That is not a problem. Baskh has requested we go to Tolis. I thought Lyte and Moran could travel with us.”

“The radioactive city?” Lyte asked carefully, visibly grateful they were speaking Axis once again.

“It will be one of the more memorable times of your life, Lyte—the trinium mines are there. And it is the most secure city on the planet—the best place for Moran right now.” Lyte nodded absently, the wheels visibly turning in his mind. Before he could frame a reply, Jaac returned.

“Curiouser—we have a body.” The others stiffened in reaction to her words. “A cantinamaster—his neck is broken, and it could not have happened from a fall, the healer says.”

“Cantinamaster?” Braan repeated sharply. “From what station?” Jaac told him, briefly describing the man. Braan nodded slowly, and then spoke softly. “Lyte, there is nothing we can do for Moran now, except let the antidote run its course. We shall depart on The Nova with the tide, if you have no objections. Try to relax the rest of this evening—Roe is better qualified than any of us to care for Moran. She has the vested interest in his future.” Elana nodded, her gaze upon Braan. Then, with a nod to Roe, she swept out of the room, Jaacav following.

Lyte looked at Braan. The Nualan was pale; this had clearly frightened him. The warrior looked almost reassured at Braan’s reaction as he slowly walked out of the room. Only after Lyte exited did the two guaard leave, the woman setting the door slightly ajar and stationing herself in front of it.

“There is one great problem, Roe….” Braan whispered.

“What?” she asked, not looking up as she loosened Moran’s collar and cuffs.

“The drink of Dramiera—the cantinamaster meant it for me.” Roe’s head shot up, and they stared at one another a long moment. Braan turned to leave. “At tide.”

 


Fire Sanctuary by Cat KimbrielThe Chronicles of Nuala
by Cat Kimbriel

$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-056-9

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