Hidden Fires: Sample

Hidden Fires by Cat Kimbrielby Cat Kimbriel

Enemy:
One who desires to harm or destroy a person or thing to which he is opposed. SYN Enemy and Foe both indicate a person, group, thing, etc. that is hostile to one.

Chapter One

CAESAREA STATION 2389 A.R.

He had spent a hundred years seeking the woman called Silver; he still didn’t know if he was going to kill her.

It was an idle thought, floating through a haze of weariness to the front of his mind. Garth slowed, his eyes focusing on the gaudy calendar filling the display window to his left. Tiny white lights framed the safety glass, clustered like wild grapes at the tops and sides where the curve was pronounced, trickling off like fireflies through the blazing dates. Had he lost track?… No — there was the Axis year, in the corner. It was the last month of 2389, and his parents had died in 2288. A hundred years of searching, and the prize was as elusive as ever.

Damn Hobbs and his penchant for gambling! Damn the Caesarean port authorities for discovering his smuggling operation and demanding reciprocity when they did. A few hours, I only needed a few hours…. But the port authorities at Norwood had sealed off the ship, seizing the cargo. No money for the crew, no money for fuel — no way off Norwood Station, or even onto Norwood, as in Garth’s case. Bundled back into Sleep and returned to Caesarea Station for questioning. Damn, damn, damn! How many years lost?

No one had seen any of Silver’s recent partners since a trip made to Norwood, so the people to question would be on Norwood. No sense in asking other free-traders. No one in “the business” talked about anyone else… it was a marvel they got any work done at all.

Without really noticing Garth had started moving again. If he had thought about it, he would have simply said the area in front of that display window was stuffy. In truth the vacuum beneath the alloy grills below his feet had been defective; the lack of air movement around his legs had made him nervous. It was only a sectional breakdown — the familiar sucking motion now pulling at his soles soothed the uneasiness within. A spacer reaction, an instinctive reaction… the type of knowledge that could save a life. Only those who learned it in their bones lasted more than a few years at this trade.

“Garth! Garth Kristinsson!” The voice was low and almost furry; Garth turned his head in response. A dark, slender man appeared to his right, his personal gear still stored in his bakit. “They sprung you?”

“No reason not to,” Garth replied, fixing the speaker with a steely eye. Jamar could be very good company, but his tongue tended to wander too freely when he was among friends. A dangerous habit on a wheel….

“Of course.” Jamar flinched back into his shoulder pack as he took the hint. “Now what?”

Garth knew that he meant work. Idiot. “I’m hungry,” he answered. “What’s good right now?”

Since Jamar had been on Caesarea Station before transferring to Hobb’s ship at Norwood, the deportation had given him a quick round trip. “Blue Diamond and Lowe’s are still good, and Rest has been good lately, I heard.”

Studying reflections in the polished aluminum walls, Garth said: “Let’s try Lowe’s.” Was that the same man he had seen outside the Protectorate offices? Undistinguished, the type Caesarea preferred as police….

“Turn here,” Jamar prompted, nudging Garth slightly to the left. Using his long years of experience, the wiry little man led the way into the maze of the wheel.

How did they keep it so clean? Most geosynchronous wheels quickly acquired the grimy, beaten look of the stations circling Gavriel and Emerson, but Caesarea was different. It must have something to do with their image, Garth decided, keeping one eye focused on the deep green pack strapped to Jamar’s back and the other on the man following them. “Commerce” was every Caesarean’s middle name, and “gold” was their lifeblood. The face presented to potential clients and customers must be immaculate.

A sharp left turn took them off the rim and onto a spoke of the wheel. Sweet Jesu, he hated spokes — the soundproofing wasn’t as good as the rim, and the echoes of voices made his head ache. Why a wheel entirely of steel, aluminum, and chrome? Norwood System’s discovery of petroleum meant plastic was cheap again. They could replace a few interior panels for variety…. Although what glass there was faced away from the star, it was still darkened, and lent little relief to the scenery. In this row glass was almost non-existent. Most of the free-trader bars were along this strip, as well as a few eating places popular with Axis Forces. Free-traders were much pickier than military or pirates; food and liquor had to be good, and the establishment had to have a few quiet, private areas. Entertainment, be it hologram, interaction, or even live, was of no account with free-traders. Word of mouth kept these places going, much to Caesarea’s chagrin. Military served a purpose, and pirates could be boarded, their cargo confiscated — but free-traders usually managed to slip through cracks in the floor. Their favorite haunts were much as they were — destructive in their own way, like rats, for instance, but not dangerous unless approached.

Lowe’s was a perfect example of why authorities disliked free-trader hangouts. It looked like a dive from the outside; walls and dark glass smudged and dirty, the metallic paint over the door flaking, making the place “I owe” to the uninitiated. If Lowe still owned it, Garth imagined it was purposely left in poor condition; it would be Lowe’s idea of a joke. To Caesareans either outbound or meeting for business on the wheel, the facade was a clear warning: This place is not for you. Stay out.

Inside was another story. Lowe’s was licensed for food, liquor, and gambling — the sex outlet was upstairs, and regulars considered it to be separate from the main operation. A cousin of Lowe’s handled that end… Garth suspected Lowe didn’t like the cousin. Lowe himself was in the “passive entertainment business,” as he called it. Good food, strong drinks, and a pleasant place to hide out; it was clean, but not fancy. If you wanted music, or something else, you went elsewhere. At Lowe’s, you were getting the extended family treatment. It was a good enough combination that he actually made profits Caesarea knew about. If the police knew Lowe also sold information, they couldn’t do anything about it.

Slipping in the front door, Garth followed Jamar’s lead, hoping Lowe was out on business. Lowe was one of the few who remembered his father, Kristin Arnason, and therefore was certain to remember Garth. After six hours of questioning, Garth was in no mood for the old man’s subtle prying.

Someone was cooking fresh pea pods and tofu, and the smell was heavenly. Jamar found a small table to his liking and placed his bakit on a chair. While he went to the bar — liquor service was from the bar only, or had been the last time Garth was on wheel — Garth settled in the chair facing the door. As he had hoped, the undistinguished man had disappeared. Or had he? Garth glanced up at the screens lining the top of the aisle wall. Only one was an omni, broadcasting news; a few showed the gambling activities in back, or the formal dining room behind the bar, but most showed current scenes from the wheel. The central arboretum, the landing bays, the administrative sector… the spoke outside the door. Framing screens on opposite sides of the wall showed both sides of the aisle. And there was his pursuer, loitering at a push vendor hooked a meter or so down the way. Dumb. All push vendors were assumed to be administrative spies. Definitely not a free-trader, then. Probably police.

“Wheel activity fascinating tonight?” came a soft voice. Growing still, Garth mentally cursed Jamar. True, the authorities would not dare follow him in here — legally they might enter, but whether someone followed them back out and cut their throat was anyone’s guess — but Garth really did not want to talk to Lowe. He had the lecture memorized. Besides, he was angry with the old man. One of Kristin Arnason’s best friends, and he kept saying he knew nothing about a woman called Silver. Horseshit on that — there was nothing worth knowing about free-trading that Lowe didn’t know. If it was nothing else, Silver’s elusive career was the stuff of which legends were made.

“Just one spoke,” he decided to answer, keeping his voice casual. A drink appeared in front of him. Lowe must have brought it himself; the waits did not truck liquor around. Knowing it was safe, Garth nodded his thanks and sipped the sweet drink. It would have been rude to refuse, even though it implied a slight debt to accept it. If Jamar would just —

Damn. He’d spotted a woman he’d obviously known his previous jump here, and was trying to turn their recent problems into a humorous story. Not funny to the police, who had received an entire shipload of workers ignorant of the smuggling… and obviously didn’t believe in their innocence.

“Will you dine with me in back?”

This required facing the old man. Lord, what had he done to deserve this? All he wanted to do was relax, fill his stomach, and get a line on cargo ships going to Norwood. Now he’d be tied up an entire evening. Slowly Garth angled his body toward Lowe.

This time Lowe actually looked older; the FOY treatments must have reached their limit. That bothered Garth. Lowe might have been a pain the last few times they’d spoken, but the man was one of the pillars of the station. Too bad there wasn’t really a Fountain Of Youth, despite the company’s claims. Only Sleep gave extended life, and even it had its price. Lowe’s hair was still dark, but lines were beginning to show in his face. He’s lost weight, Garth thought. He looks tired, not like Lowe. Thoughts of using Jamar as an excuse withered. This might be the last time; Garth could stand the lecture if only Lowe would spare him any questions.

“I’ll have to make my excuses to Jamar,” Garth started, his fingers entwining around the delicate, fluted glass.

“I’ve already spoken to Jamar. It’s better that Hobbs’ crew see very little of each other in the next few days… and take separate ships out, if possible.” Slowly turning, the man moved with stately grace toward the stairs and the casino. What with a noticeable weight drop — Garth estimated he’d lost at least fifty kilos — Lowe more than ever looked like his establishment. The silvery suit and dark, high-collared shirt made him resemble his own front door. But then Lowe was taller than most men, and could draw attention accordingly. Pushing two meters, Lowe was hard to miss in a crowd. Yet he had been a famous free-trader… it took many different links to form the chain.

Finally the words sunk in, and Garth stood to follow. Better they not see each other? Damn! Worse than he’d thought. All this shit and only standard wage? He was tempted to tell Lowe he wanted storm pay, and let him negotiate it with Hobbs for his usual fee. First the dinner; it was an honor to be asked to dine in the club area, one Garth had never had without his father present. There had to be a reason. If he was patient, Lowe would tell it to him.

Dinner was impressive; fresh chopped salad made of vegetables native to three worlds, followed by real meat, delicately roasted and seasoned, a crumbly white cheese melted on top. Fine brandy and whipped chocolate finished the meal, filling the few remaining empty spaces in Garth’s stomach. Not wishing to borrow trouble, Garth neither calculated the value of such a spread nor tried to guess what Lowe wanted in return for such generosity. Instead he politely inquired about current wheel gossip, and listened as the secrets of half a dozen worlds strolled across his ears.

At last Lowe gestured for the wait to leave the brandy. In the stillness that followed, the old man slowly turned his glass stem between a strong finger and thumb, watching the reflections thrown by the fluid within. “And what of you, Garth?” he said finally. “It has been a while since you graced my establishment.”

“Here and there,” Garth replied, hazarding a grin. “Norwood most recently.”

“A very quick trip. You intend to find another ship heading that way?” Keen grey eyes angled to meet a gaze of icy blue innocence. “I can save you some looking. A transport left a few days back — there won’t be another until next month, at least.”

Probably true… it was too easy to check the story. Was Lowe actually going to hire him for something? But the old man preferred experienced free-traders — Garth knew his own training was still too meager to satisfy Lowe.

“Let us dispense with fencing. I take it you are still searching for Hank Edmonton and Silver Meath?” Lowe’s voice was very quiet; Garth did not remember it as so quiet.

“Silver Meath. Hank Edmonton is dead.” He tried to keep the reply simple as he concentrated on the heady vapor of the brandy.

“People die,” Lowe said conversationally, almost as if agreeing with something.

Garth acknowledged the unasked question. “Natural causes, apparently. He pushed FOY as far as it would go, and his heart finally gave out. I think he left free-trading not long after dad died.” Tell only the truth; Lowe had a nose for ragged tales, and it was said he could smell a lie at ten paces.

“I noticed during your absence that a century had passed since the unfortunate demise of your parents. A hundred years is a long time to follow someone merely to ascertain your father’s last emotions before death claimed him.” Lowe’s gaze had not swerved from his face.

That was essentially what Garth had told Lowe. No one knew the entire story — good luck and a glib tongue had kept all secrets safe. But an uneasy feeling traced his spine; Garth had a feeling his luck with secrets was about to run out.

“Rumors still surface about that job… about the aftermath. Almost five hundred bars of gold vanished from that vault. Must have been, oh, 150, 160 a piece for them. You certainly don’t need to work. Is your only goal in life to find this woman?”

“Yes.”

Lowe’s eyebrows lifted slightly at his emphatic tone of voice. “A hundred years, and only a few months for you…. Any chance you might tell me the entire story this time?”

“Are you calling me a liar?” Very soft; Garth felt muscles starting to bunch and fought it.

Lowe’s expression softened. “No, you’re not lying. You’re simply not telling me all you know or suspect — it’s quite a different thing.” His gaze dropped to his brandy snifter. “I can’t help you unless you tell me what is going on. And this is probably my last chance to help you. Information is my lifeblood, Garth — why have you never used the best source at your disposal?”

“Because you always tell me to give it up!” The return to normal volume sounded like shouting, but Garth couldn’t help it. Old resentment mingled with new pain, as the old man obliquely confirmed earlier guesses. Time was running out for Lowe…there would be a new pillar of information on Caesarea Station the next time Garth passed through. “I’m going to find this woman if it takes a thousand years! All your meddling to keep me on false trails has only made it harder — it hasn’t changed my mind.”

“You think I’ve tried to stop you?” Lowe looked up once again. His face was intent — then Garth thought he saw a trace of humor. “I haven’t done anything more than keep a vague eye on your travels.” Lowe reached absently for a piece of the cheese the wait had slipped onto the table. “Do you really think someone has muddied the waters? Beyond what Hank, Silver, and your father did after the job,” he added.

Garth remained silent. He had been so sure Lowe was trying to stop him…. So. Was there someone else planting false clues, or was he merely paranoid about the whole thing?

“Are you going to kill her, Garth?” Lowe asked pleasantly.

Like a conversation about the latest live band, or interactive show… Garth thought deeply. “What makes you think that?” he said finally.

“I can’t think of any other reason why you wouldn’t question me about that job,” Lowe answered.

“Why would you know anything?”

“It’s my business to know things. I know what the Prime Minister of Caesarea has for breakfast before it’s digested. I have heard every rumor ever attached to any free-trader, any job. Yet you have never questioned me. It seems I will have to question you.”

Garth felt his thin face tighten. Before he could speak, however, Lowe added: “I know where Silver is.”

As his fingers curled, Garth released the snifter in his hand for fear of fracturing it. “Now?”

Lowe smiled. It was odd, seeing that smile… Lowe hardly ever smiled. “If she still lives, right this moment. And if you tell me what I wish to know, I will tell you where she is. You are… twenty-five years behind her, what with this added delay? I can put you one trip behind her.”

“Why?” What he really wanted to ask was: What do you want in return? But Garth knew Lowe would get around to that eventually.

“I was very fond of your parents. They did me many… services. I feel I owe them what little I can do for their only son.” Lowe refilled the brandy snifters. “Now. Your father was involved in his latest scam. It was with two other people, neither of them your mother….”

Sweet saints, guide me. Garth picked up the tale at that point. “I still don’t know exactly what the scam was, but I think you’re right — the goal was that big gold shipment going to Kiel. Did you ever hear what was taken?”

“480 bars of gold,” Lowe told him.

“Well, 160 bars of gold were deposited in my parents’ account at Traders the day after my father died.” Lowe nodded at this statement. Traders’ Trust was the bank used by almost all free-traders, and was considered one of the few institutions off-limits to scams. Traders handled only precious metals — the currencies of six planets were mere promissory notes to Traders, and were redeemed with high penalties. It was also the only existing reserve which never surrendered accounts to heirs without instructions left by the depositor. A trip of a hundred years was nothing to Traders — when a free-trader returned, his or her metal wealth would be waiting. It had survived recession, war, and political upheaval; Traders was more solvent than many countries.

“Possibly one-third of the take, then. No one demanded a planning fee?” Lowe asked.

Garth shrugged. “He didn’t tell mother much, when they talked. From the little she said, I think the group planned it together. At any rate, we knew how things would finish. His partners would leave in a hurry, drawing off any pursuit, while dad deposited the money in Traders.”

“What went wrong?”

After a long pause filled by the taste of brandy on his tongue, Garth said: “I don’t know. So much was going on then… Lise had just married, and was shipping out to Gavriel the day after Dad was due back. She already had new citizenship papers. We were watching, and waiting… and then the police arrived, to say that Dad’s body had been found in an abandoned transpo tunnel.”

“No one saw anything?”

“No one admitted to seeing anything. No one spoke.” This was harsh; the memories rising to the surface were recent in Garth’s timeframe. “Lise was frantic, and Mom was in shock. After pacing the floor all night, Mom insisted that Lise take ship as scheduled. Insisted on it — said it was what Dad would have wanted. I went with Lise up to Caesarea Station to see her on board her ship. By the… by the time I returned, Mom had slashed her wrists.”

“You have no idea why?” Lowe’s voice seemed to come from far away.

“No. Unless it was grief… but I can’t accept that. Mom adored him, but she didn’t live for him, if you know what I mean.” Garth realized he was drawing patterns in the air with his fingers, and gripped his hands tightly together. “There was no message, except — except she had given one of her favorite holos of the family to Lise, before Lise left. I found the copy sitting on my pillow when I got back, along with 250 cubiz Caesarean. Everything after that is fuzzy… was fuzzy for a long time. I didn’t find out about the gold deposit and withdrawal until several days later.”

“Withdrawal?” Lowe said suddenly.

“Yes.” Garth finally looked up, catching the glint of Lowe’s eyes with his own gaze. “The deposit was made that afternoon, probably while Mom was killing herself — certainly while I was returning from station. I don’t know if she saw it or not, it didn’t occur to me then to check whether anyone had accessed the file from our home. The account was emptied that evening — everything, the new gold and everything else my family had as assets.”

“But… how? Traders is inviolate if anything is….” Lowe had tilted his head to one side and was staring hard at Garth.

From Lowe’s expression, Garth knew he was going to have to supply the final puzzle piece. “Oh, whoever cleaned us out had the proper codes. They even left a message: ‘Aesir considers the debt to be paid.’” He kept his gaze on Lowe’s face as he spoke.

There was no flicker of change. Lowe repeated the last words, his tone almost a whisper: “Aesir considers the debt to be paid.” Then a sip of brandy, and silence.

Instinct told Garth to remain silent; minutes passed. Abruptly, Lowe demanded: “Tell me everything your mother said, from when your father died until she took her life.”

Puzzled, Garth did his best to reconstruct the last clear day within memory. Lowe asked questions; he wanted nuance, tone of voice, any messages or mail received. “Is this leading anywhere except into your private mental vault?” Garth asked abruptly.

“Will you never learn patience?” Almost testy. Garth was surprised; it was as close to losing his temper as he had ever seen Lowe approach. “Do you want certainties or supposition? Very well — did the police investigate the possibility of murder? In your mother’s case,” he added, as Garth’s eyes narrowed in irritation.

It struck him dumb. Never, even for a moment, had he considered that possibility. “But — the coroner said —”

“They knew your mother was in the business?”

A pause. “I think so. They didn’t seem to think it odd that she’d done it right after dad was killed… or that I knew nothing about it.” He did not add that they’d wired him, just to be sure. He held no anger over it — it was all part of the business.

“They are trained to see anomalies — I know, you children have only contempt for them, but trust me, the Caesarean Forces are among the best. They find out what is needful without trampling everyone’s rights underfoot. A great skill. On another world, they would have locked up Hobbs’ crew just to be certain they’d covered all exits. Here, they merely watch and wait — a blessing you obviously do not appreciate.” Lowe shrugged in dismissal. “If they saw nothing to make them suspicious, it was either suicide, or done on such a level that they could have proved nothing even if they’d suspected.” Lowe fixed Garth with a hard stare. “Your mother would not have killed herself unless there was something to be gained by it.”

“What could possibly be gained by it?”

“There are things,” he said vaguely. “But that doesn’t matter, now. I have heard of Aesir, but I can no more tell you what it means than I can change the rotation of this station. Secret and deadly, that is what it means. I don’t know if Silver can tell you any more, but it would not hurt to ask. If you ask politely, you might be amazed what she’d tell you. A generous woman.” He sipped at his brandy.

“You’ll tell me where she is?” Garth finally said.

“I can tell you where she went, last time she was here, ten years ago Terran. She was finishing up a job, and about to start something with her old mentor, Halsey.”

That name caused Garth to straighten. He had heard of Halsey. Probably the richest free-trader still living, he was older than memory. Most people in the business could trace their line of learning back to him. So Silver was one of his own students… no wonder she left such a sketchy trail.

“They were heading to Nuala.” Lowe’s voice was ridiculously calm, considering what he’d just said.

For a moment Garth was blank — Nuala? A country on Emerson? Then the name gathered meaning. Nuala? Holy Virgin, was he cursed? She’d gone to that radioactive slag heap? “Why?” he heard himself whisper.

Lowe allowed amusement to slide across his face. “Because she’s a free-trader, Garth. Nuala is the wealthiest planet in the Axis Republic. Between the myths surrounding it and the dangers threading it, it’s the biggest challenge imaginable short of charting a new star yourself.” Lowe reached for the plate again, and nibbled at another piece of cheese. “She’s a gypsy, the best of our breed. The scam is half the fun.”

You call this fun? Garth kept the words to himself, wondering if his face gave him away. He began to despair of learning this game. What could be worth going to Nuala?

An unreadable expression crossed Lowe’s face. “I do remember one thing about Aesir… but it may not apply in this case. Weren’t the Aesir the warrior gods of ancient Norse mythology?”

This thought gave Garth pause. “Maybe,” he said at last. “My people remember them only in story and song — their worship was dust long before we left Mother Earth.”

“I don’t see a connection — not a direct one. But Silver was born on Gavriel… perhaps she can find a link. Surely it cannot be coincidence.” Lowe pushed his empty glass to one side. “The ship you seek is one of the Tiger fleet, called Crowned Tiger. It leaves for Nuala in about three days. They need crew, and pay profit-sharing as an incentive. I’ll send word to the captain that you’re interested. It’s a safe ship; no need to have someone timelock your Freeze tube.”

The last words were brisk, but well-meant — they would save him inadvertently offending the captain of the long-hauler. In them Garth also sensed dismissal, and realized it was time for good-byes.

“Thank you,” he said aloud, unable to comprehend that he finally had what he wanted — Silver’s direction. Lowe had turned out to be a better friend than he had hoped.

“You may pass in transit, you know.”

“But I’ll only be a trip behind, and that’s worth anything.” A strange combination of excitement and dread began to knot beneath his sternum.

“Almost anything,” Lowe said gently.

Garth found his response puzzling, and knew his own expression had changed.

Lowe was watching his face. Something he saw there did not comfort him. Shaking his head slightly, Lowe said: “Be careful out there. And always think through your actions to their ultimate conclusion. You’ll live longer.” Pausing, he finally added: “I hope I have done the right thing.”

There was nothing to say to such fatherly concern, so Garth gravely extended his hand. Lowe touched his wrist lightly in farewell and remained at the table as Garth moved off into shadows, heading into the bowels of the restaurant.

Hesitating at the elbow of the corridor, Garth turned back toward Lowe, prompted by a moment of unease. He saw the man pull a small device out of his pocket and point it at the blank wall beyond the table. A huge screen flared into life, flickering in communique mode.

“2618ABD,” Lowe said quietly. In moments the line was connected, and Lowe said: “Yes, this is Lowe for Captain Morse of Crowned Tiger. Tell him I’ve found him crew.”

Even an introduction… Garth considered waiting, but decided to move on; it was not courteous to eavesdrop on a friend, and Lowe was merely doing as he had promised, insuring Garth a smooth transition onto Crowned Tiger. Long strides carrying him through the bar, Garth headed out toward the bag drop to retrieve his bakit. This time he could feel it, the closeness, the rightness. Lowe had finally told him the truth, and he was going to find Silver. Any thoughts about the mysterious planet Nuala were kept firmly in the back of his mind.

His people called it wergild, the price owed to blood kin upon the death of a valued relative. Garth suspected Silver owed him wergild, a large one — now there would be a reckoning.

o0o

In the meantime, Captain Morse had finally answered Lowe’s call. “Morse, I’m not the only one who needs to get to Nuala — I found you that last hold man I promised you.” Lowe was not smiling… but then, he rarely did.

Blood Feud:
A war of revenge or rivalry between families, clans, factions, et cetera. It is almost always born out of an act of violence perpetrated by one member of a group against a member of an opposing group, and results in a continuing and often escalating series of alternating retaliations of “equal value” i.e., An eye for an eye. SYN: Vendetta. Compare: Bloodwite and Wergild.

Chapter Two

AMURA-BY-THE-SEA, NUALA, 2401 A.R. —
ATARE WINTER PALACE
ONEHUNDRED EIGHTYTWODAY, TIERCE

Syluan had strength and durability rivaling silk; it took color as readily, and its sheen practically glowed in the dark. But it had one great advantage — syluan came from the flower of the same name. No expensive import, this wondrous fiber… and on Nuala, at least, syluan was priced within reach of everyone. As the foremost supporters of both inter-clan and interstellar trade, the rulers of Atare always wore syluan before silk. At least that was the public reasoning.

Sounds reasonable to me, Darame thought to herself as she tossed the cloud of flaming red syluan over her head and felt for the armholes. Toki stilled this fumbling with a hiss of dismay, and Darame felt her swift, competent hands take over. Darame inhaled deeply, her full breasts rising to strain slightly at the material. “Are you sure I have not eaten my way out of this?” she asked aloud, using the Ciedärlien dialect of Nualan that Toki had taught her.

“Stop that breathing,” was the even reply — in coastal Nualan; Toki was determined to learn the language as well as Darame had learned Cied.

“I suspect I will be the talk of the town… unfortunately,” Darame went on dryly in coastal Nualan.

“You will be magnificent,” Toki replied calmly. “And many foolish women who do not have your body will be demanding similar garments. I am the one who must dissuade them.”

“Dissuade?” Darame could not resist teasing her. “To advise or persuade them to make another choice?”

Cornered by the word’s precise meaning, Toki’s hands slowed only momentarily. “I will not put fat women in this dress,” she said succinctly.

“You would be rich if you did,” Darame pointed out, turning slightly as Toki poked her shoulder.

“I do not want to be rich.” As Darame prepared her next sally, her friend continued: “Beside,” and now Toki’s smile was sly, “They come back. First they find fools who will make them what they want. After they see themselves like pregnant hazelles, they come back. Then I make them beautiful — in another way.” Tossing back her mane of black hair, Toki stepped away from the pedestal before the half-circle of mirrors. “Now look.”

“Besides,” Darame said absently, pirouetting slowly from windows to mirrors. The tiny whirlwind that was Toki rarely revealed temper, but language provoked her ire like nothing else. Those who spent time with her learned to correct her immediately when she made a mistake… or they heard about it later, when she repeated her mistake in company that caused “loss of face.” At Toki’s puzzled expression, Darame added: “Beside the stream. Besides means… in addition to what was previously said — sometimes over and above what was said.” Then her gaze finally lit on the dress.

“Magnificent,” Toki stated.

“The dress certainly is,” Darame started, but the jest faded in her throat. So much material… Backless, and essentially frontless, except for the sleeves and the material which both covered and held her breasts and ribs… the magic was in Toki’s use of draping and weight.

“Is this quite the… thing… for The Atarae of Atare, mother of three?” she said doubtfully, even as something started to smolder deep within her breast. Sweet saints, I’m still beautiful. The silent quip was in Caesarean, which Toki spoke little of, but still Darame kept the thought within, amused at her own vanity.

A rustle at the door alerted her. Glancing up, Darame smiled and asked her ten-years-Terran son: “What do you think?”

Gravely Ardal entered the room and stood behind and slightly to one side of Toki. His thin, fine features made him seem taller next to the tiny, dark Cied woman. Experimentally the right eye closed, hiding the intense black iris and leaving the left eye with its pale green iris to make the decision. Finally, he announced: “I think Da will like it.”

“I hope so. Court tongues will wag over this one,” she murmured, turning around again and examining the back of the skirt.

“So?” Ardal said in his blunt way.

“If people criticize me it reflects badly on your father.”

Ardal grinned cheerfully. “The ambassador from Wallace loves your clothes.”

“And what do you know about it, big ears?” she countered, referring not to his physique but to his habit of always hearing things not meant to be overheard.

“His voice changes when he talks about you.” The humor vanished, and Ardal was very serious.

“Perhaps,” she answered vaguely. Ardal was not quite old enough to have the game of flattery explained to him — not the game of flattering a male ego, at any rate. Her black gaze shifted in the mirror, settling on her favorite of the multitude of merchants who sought her favor.

Toki smiled faintly, in that mysterious way of hers, which meant she knew Darame loved the dress. “Red and black and trinium… it will be perfect.”

“Silver, not trinium,” Darame said, the fingers of her right hand reaching up to touch a long curl of shimmering hair which had slipped loose from its clasp. Hesitating only a moment, she freed the rest of it, letting the silver curtain fall over her shoulders and down her back and breasts.

“Trinium is more valuable,” Toki stated.

“Yes, but silver was discovered first, which is why the color is called silver… polished silver,” she added, studying the pale woman with the black eyes who stared out of the mirror. Ah, to Sleep again! But that was vanity talking, a vanity she had not known she had until recently… but then she had spent nearly a hundred and fifty Terran years slipping in and out of Cold Sleep. Aging was a new experience. There was only one prerequisite to a lifetime of loving Sheel… knowing that sometime it had to end.

Reverie ended abruptly when she realized still another had joined their group. So silently… but then he was a master of elkita, that art which was prayer and dance and weapon all in one, and so Sheel moved without sound when he chose. Catching his eye, Darame waited for some comment; although Sheel’s idea of fashion was comfort first, he valued understated elegance.

Darame waited… and waited some more. Toki’s smile widened, and she began to pack up her markers and hot needles. If The Atare was reduced to speechlessness over one of her creations, there would be no alterations.

“That good, eh?” Darame finally said, the Caesarean colloquialism sounding odd in Nualan. “I thought school started at tierce?” she directed toward Ardal, glancing out of the floor-to-ceiling windows as she spoke. The yellow star of Nuala System, called Kee by the natives, was well up in the sky.

Wrinkling his nose, Ardal turned and started back down the hall.

“Finish your history assignment, Red, and you can come to the party for a time,” Sheel said easily, striding into the room. These words caused the fading footsteps to hasten.

“Trinium does not grow dull,” Toki pointed out. “You remember how to hang that?” At Darame’s easy nod, Toki re-arranged her long, leaf-green skirt and moved toward the entryway. “Do not crease it,” she said cryptically as she passed Sheel.

Again motionless, Sheel merely smiled.

Lifting her gaze beyond him to the black-suited shadow that followed in his wake, Darame studied the guaard’s expressionless features.

“Mailan, you might as well let it show in your face. That woman is simply too familiar for your tastes,” Darame suggested, stepping down from the pedestal.

Mischievous thoughts sparkled through her, but Darame subdued them. She knew better than to tease a guaard, especially one to whom she owed so much. The guaard existed for one purpose only: to protect the royal line of Atare. A mere smile, a word of conversation; those were dangers, things that might distract a guaard at a crucial moment. Hence the silent, statuesque appearance of these guardians of her new family. Like janissaries of old, their entire allegiance was to the rulers of Atare. In this generation that was Sheel and his youngest sister, Avis, called The Ragäree, the mother of the heir. Funny how that had never bothered her, that her children would never rule Atare….

With both Ardal and Toki several rooms away, Sheel relaxed his own guarded stance, reaching for his delicate wife as she walked past him toward the sanitation. Pausing in his arms, Darame knew why her own drive for control halted short of the throne. Sheel Atare had never regained the weight lost that terrible winter ten years and more ago, when a conspiracy among the most trusted folk of the land had meant the deaths of the previous Atare and almost all his heirs.

Which was where I came in, Darame thought idly, leaning into his tall form, all bone and muscle in contrast to her soft curves. Well, not exactly where she came in — her part at that time had been frantically covering up her own tracks in a trinium scam gone hopelessly awry. As for learning to love Nuala and its people… as for severing almost every tie she had ever acknowledged in order to help those people… that came later, in a jumbling whirlwind that caught up all before it. But that episode had left scars, both physical and mental, on her enigmatic lover. And had kept her constantly alert, juggling movements and motives among friends and enemies alike as she had woven her own line of defense around the clan of Atare.

“The Atare retinue would probably think her ‘familiar,’” Sheel said quietly, breaking into her thoughts.

“She is Ciedärlien, for all her repudiation, and that means she recognizes no law but that of the holy Dragoche. Good thing the old fellow does not mettle in secular Cied matters, or she would cast him off, too.”

“Do you think she is loyal to Atare?” Sheel asked, amusement lighting up his face.

“Toki is loyal to herself. Those she trusted destroyed everything else,” Darame growled into his shoulder. Toki was not what she wanted to talk about, not with Sheel so near. What kept attraction so strong, so long? Who would have thought she would have stayed, had children even —

“Someday you must tell me her story,” was all Sheel said. “Are you coming to court today?” His fingers had moved to trace the side slits in the skirt of her gown.

Darame tickled him, effectively halting his movements. “Behave, you must go work. Do you need me there?” Although she had no official power, Sheel relied on his wife’s “tricky brain,” as he put it, to notice things that he and Avis sometimes missed.

“I think not. It is slow today, the petitions are not unusual.” Tilting his head down, he added softly: “Perhaps you should wait for me in the sauna?”

An intense gaze met hers, the right iris cool sea green, the other capable of stopping people in mid-step — the iris half-green, half topaz brown, the horizontal Sheel Split which was his and his alone. Some had been relieved none of his children were “marred” by it, but Darame’s relief had had a different origin…it was Sheel’s alone, and he was hers alone, despite the dozens of women lying in wait for him. “You are worse than I am,” she muttered.

“You were the one who placed the holograms in the corridor of the palace.”

Darame merely smiled and pulled away. “You have court, and I need to see how the twins are feeling.” Their younger children had managed to contract a virus of some type, and had been confined to bed for several days.

“They are stronger — I just came from there. But they are not ready to get up, no matter what they try to tell you!”

A sweet chiming broke in on their conversation. “Duty calls,” Darame said lightly, moving in the direction of the vid. Touching the control membrane, she lit up the screen. Today a man in a fuchsia uniform was controlling vid access to restricted areas. Darame did not recognize him. “Yes?”

“A satellite call, serae,” he said politely, using the term of respect for a woman of high rank. “From Dielaan Palace. It is The Ragäree’s assistant who calls; she asked for you.”

Raising her eyebrows, Darame nodded once, to show she would take the call. Usually the assistant contacted Donn, the person who kept track of Darame’s schedule… unless she called for her employer, Livia.

The screen switched abruptly to a courtyard in the ciedär, that relentless desert of the northern continent which was home to the great Dielaan clan. Seated upon a stone bench was the current regent of Dielaan, Livia Ragäree, the mother of the future ruler of Dielaan. Law was different among Dielaan; The Dielaan ruled alone, his sister merely caretaker of the future ruler and his sister…unless The Dielaan died. Tensar Dielaan had fallen in the same plot that had killed Cort Atare a decade previously. With but the sweep of an assassin’s hand, Livia had abruptly gained unlimited power over twenty percent of the planet’s population.

“Bright morning to you, Livia,” Darame said easily, nodding farewell to Sheel as he took his leave, Mailan following at a calculated distance. “You are up early.” Like most desert cultures, the city of Dielaan was liveliest in darkness, its vigor rarely fading before starrise.

“The rule begins long before Kee rises,” Livia replied, a tiny flick of her right index and second fingers dismissing the subject of starrise. As Livia leaned forward, her hair fell in a polished copper blanket down her right shoulder, blending pleasantly with her tea and cream complexion and the dark sandstone walls behind her. “I have called —” Then the famous emerald eyes of the distaff line widened slightly, the arched black brows lifting. “My, my — you are going to give those foolish men heart failure.”

The woman sounded genuinely amused. Livia Ragäree had found a soulmate in the wife of The Atare — who, whatever her secret past, had learned both patience and cunning before reaching Nuala.

“It will be a wonderful party, Livia. Are you sure you cannot come west?”

A fleeting expression crossed the Dielaaner’s face — rueful? Bored? It passed so quickly — and Livia shook her head. “I am trapped here,” she said candidly. “Some of the young bloods have been kicking up their heels, and the injured parties want blood. I must contrive penalties that will satisfy the merchants, yet not enrage the nobles. But I need you to do something for me.” This was so breezy Darame had no time for surprise; Dielaaners did not ask for assistance, not until they were desperate.

Like and respect Livia she might — but Dielaan was Atare’s traditional enemy, and the last war was still fresh in the memories of both armies and most citizens. “If I can,” Darame said, her expression placid.

“Today I am sending a special ambassador to the coast. It would be politic if an individual invitation was waiting for him upon his arrival at our embassy. An uncle of Tsuga, he is high in our government — and on special assignment.” Livia’s eyes actually seemed to darken a bit as her gaze wandered past her own vid screen.

Ah — what she could not say, she still found a way to communicate. A high-ranking member of the house — one who held by ancient Dielaan codes; one who would allow his name to be known in his own time, or perhaps not at all. One sent to deal with the “little” problem of Rex reb^Livia Dielaan, the future Dielaan of Nuala….

“I will personally attend to it, Livia,” Darame said deliberately, and saw relief slip across the woman’s face. She knew Livia would even forgive her friend’s own curiosity, as long as she was careful in her questions. “You are not recalling Quen, are you? I must confess I enjoy having him in Synod meetings. When tempers run hot, he has a talent for calming ambassadors… even when they do not wish to calm themselves.”

Livia tried not to let her pride show, but it glittered in her expression. Her second son was turning out very, very well — a credit to her own efforts, Darame knew. Too bad the heir was so caught up in his pleasures that his responsibilities had totally slipped his mind.

“No, Quen will not return to Dielaan until he himself wishes it. I have heard that a young off-worlder has caught his eye.”

There was question in this statement; Darame considered how much she could say without betraying Quen’s privacy. “I have met her,” she started. “Not a beauty, certainly, but a warm, lush personality — a comfortable person to have around. She understands respect without dangling on sleeves. I think she would bear intelligent children.” An odd testimony to a fun-loving and friendly girl, Darame reflected, but very Nualan — Livia visibly relaxed her spine. No doubt her spies had reported on Rebekah. Darame could imagine what they had said: Neither looks nor wealth to recommend her. Not true, actually — Rebekah was quite pretty, but she was tall and bosomy, as unlike the classic Dielaan women as could be imagined. In only one thing did she fit in… Rebekah was a flaming redhead. Masses of freckles, however, indicated a very different homeland for her ancestors.

“She is… connected to an embassy?” Livia pursued.

Dear woman, are you worried? Those who trailed Quen through his daily activities must have dismissed Rebekah out of hand. “No,” Darame said aloud. “She is a cousin of a merchant family from the confederacy on Gavriel, controlling her father’s offices in Amura. They sell various types of fuels — methane, liquid hydrogen, and of course antimatter.”

Livia relaxed still further. What with the cost of creating, transporting, and storing antimatter, it currently cost 500,000 cubiz per milligram — per Axis cubiz, which was equal to one pennyweight of gold. It was the only substance remotely approaching the value of trinium. Rebekah’s family was not running a third-rate pawn shop.

“I like her,” Darame added, knowing her words would endear the girl to Livia… who knew Darame did not suffer fools gladly.

“Well, I must not keep you with idle chatter,” Livia said briskly. “It is good to see you; you must come east before the star begins to melt the day! Try to make room in your schedule.”

“As soon as I can get away,” Darame promised. “By the Festival of Masks, if not before then.”

“That is next year, Darame,” Livia pointed out. “I had hopes you would visit before Midsummer’s.” Livia stretched the word to four syllables.

“It depends on how much attention Tsuga’s uncle needs,” was the wry answer, her face showing her amusement.

“Hummph.” It was Livia’s most matronly sound, but she was not offended. In the game of wits played by every clan of Nuala, the premier rule was to attend to one’s own house first. Livia knew Darame would trace this new turn of affairs down to the last iota.

“Take care, Livia. I will call you soon.” With that farewell, Darame disconnected her vid.

Reaching carefully around her left hip, Darame released the pressure seams holding the new dress in place. A special ambassador… of course Dielaan could not ignore Rex’s behavior much longer. All of twenty-two years Terran, Rex was preparing to take ship in the fall, bound for The Brethren, which was what the Nualans called the six stars closest to their own. There he would learn firsthand of their neighbors’ cultures, and seek a fertile bride to bring back to his homeland. A long trip, to The Brethren… the closest star was Caesarea, and that was ten years Terran one way.

Even though he had shown no interest in the duties attached to his position as heir apparent, and had in Livia a fine regent protecting his interests, Darame wondered if Rex would leave. Because Quen had (apparently) genuinely fallen in love with smiling Rebekah, and, for him, the trip would be unnecessary? Could Rex fear a coup in his absence? For all his talents, Quen had shown no desire for his brother’s throne, not even in his least guarded moments.

Rex wanted the rule, but not the responsibility… at least not the responsibility of day-in, day-out ruling. Wine and women were more to Rex’s taste; even supervising the group representing Dielaan at the trade Synod was more work than he was prepared to perform. Somehow that had ended up on Quen’s shoulders. A mistake on Rex’s part; Quen was proving himself an able administrator and counselor, despite his tender nineteen years. Was that giving fringe factions ideas? Something was brewing, or Livia would not be worried.

Sliding the dress off and carefully slipping it over its padded hanger, Darame paused in mid-step, considering… considering the obvious problem, if common sense was set aside. Rex was twenty-two; technically, he was now The Dielaan — all that remained was a formal announcement and the anointing ceremony. Why hadn’t Livia made the announcement?

Damn Livia’s cousins! Unlike Atare, Dielaan currently had no close kin — plague had wiped out almost an entire generation of the throneline. Livia’s second cousins were the most numerous and vocal of her extended family, as Darame remembered it. Tsuga was the worst — an eldest son, himself, and an advisor Livia depended on… used to depend on, until he had declared The Synod no longer useful. Thanks to the trade negotiated by the ten great clans together, Sheel Atare at their head, Dielaan was now not only populous but wealthy. Convinced of a need for The Synod, as the clans called their joint venture, Livia had turned from Tsuga’s counsel to that of others.

What had Livia said, the last time they were together…” If only Tsuga will leave him alone,” “him” being her eldest son. Hanging up the dress, Darame started off into the depths of her private quarters. Behind her the main door slid closed; glancing up, she saw her morning guaard, Jude, moving deliberately in the same direction. Doorway duty was never good enough for Jude, not when she watched The Atarae. You have a habit of disappearing on us, Serae, Jude had casually mentioned once as she was going off duty.

Have you been stressing his rights, and not his duties, Tsuga? Darame wondered as she dipped a tentative toe into the swirling water of the huge sunken whirlpool. What did Livia want to confide… and could not?

Seating herself on the bench lining the inside of the tub, Darame reached over to a nearby membrane and selected the RAM bank. A request for the royal Dielaan genealogy brought up a many-branched tree.

“With most of the twigs missing,” she murmured aloud, skimming the information to refresh her memory. It was as she remembered it; Livia was the only surviving throneline Dielaaner… and of the previous generation, only her mother and ruling uncle had survived “The Wasting Sleep.” Plague had killed all descendants of the two sisters of Ragäree Alys, Livia’s grandmother — the non-ruling brothers had had few children survive, as well….

Her head whirling, Darame turned from the screen, sinking up to her neck in the churning hot water. To find surviving female descent beyond Livia’s line required going back three generations, to her mother’s mother’s mother, a ragäree named Lydia. Lydia’s sister, Gladi, had founded a healthy line. Especially healthy, since it is so far from the throne, Darame thought dryly.

From the eldest daughter alone of that line, the descent included two women and three men who were Livia’s age, and nine children among the two sisters. A mass of out-kin; no wonder Dielaan had nearly exploded into battle at Tensar Dielaan’s death. Livia’s two sons are the only clear choice to rule. Tsuga had said that, a long time ago. Three sons, now — Livia was taking no chances with the peace of her land.

What of her peace of mind? No confidants. Few… any? she calls friend. Tired of genealogies, Darame touched the communique square on her membrane, connecting the vid.

“Yes, serae?” asked Donn’s soft voice.

“Do you have any extra invitations for the fete tonight?” Darame said without preamble. “A special ambassador from Dielaan is coming in, and I want to take him an invitation.”

Donn knew better than to point out anything she felt might be beneath The Atarae’s touch. Skilled at holding her tongue when necessary, Donn merely replied: “I can have one for you in moments. Should it be addressed?”

“No. I will need it in… when is The Synod meeting?”

“None, serae. It is early, because of your party.”

Mid-afternoon. What with delivery, and being here when Sheel was finished with court…. “Two hours?”

“Shall I use the office printer, and bring it to you?” Donn went on.

“That would be fine. Make a few extras, in case he brings subordinates.”

“As you wish, serae. Do not concern yourself with anything; it will be the event of the season.” With this assurance, Donn’s heart-shaped face vanished from the screen.

“We are always the event of the season, Donn,” she murmured to the blank vid. “I created the season.” It was only within the last ten years that any type of cultural or social life existed in Amura-By-The-Sea. Before, it had been merely a port, neutral ground where all clans could meet. Now, what with the founding of The Synod, embassies had been built in Amura, complimenting the solitary Atare winter palace. Darame had taken things a step further; for the first time in memory, the various tribes actually had begun to socialize with one another. Remembering the first inter-tribal event she had held, a smile crept across Darame’s lips. At least no one had been stabbed.

No one to tell except me, Livia? Then what am I to do? In the past you have used me as a sounding board, but can The Ragäree of Dielaan speak to The Atarae about family matters? At the core of all things, wasn’t that what Nuala was all about — family? And loyalties….

Darame reached for a towel.

AMURA-BY-THE-SEA, NUALA, 2401 A.R.
ONEHUNDRED EIGHTYTWODAY, SEXT

It was a hot planet, all right. Radioactive? Well, it didn’t glow — at least not outside the medical center where they revived Cold Sleep travelers. But it definitely had a hot climate. And now it was Restricted, as well. Peter’s Keys! He had no luck! After some assassination ten Terran ago, the Nualans had confined all off-worlders to the port city of Amura-By-The-Sea. Ten years… Silver might be considered a native by now — she could be anywhere. Acquiring a visa for travel was almost impossible; he would need to appeal to each regional embassy, and wait while the request was processed through the home city —

Enough. He’d worry about it later. Adjusting to the midday heat was his immediate priority. The packet they had given him included a seasonal calendar. It claimed that the spring equinox was only yesterday, but the star was blazing brightly. Removing his jacket, Garth stuffed it in his bakit. Where was… ah. A tube of UV block. Smearing some of the stuff on his face and hands, Garth tossed the soft container back into his packet and dug for a map.

Most of this stuff would be useless — advertising probably paid for this courtesy info, which meant that they would try to sell him things. Or give him things… the omni information he had been shown mentioned land incentives for relocating to Nuala. A bonus for marrying a native… Sweet Saints. They had to bribe people to keep the population up?

Where were the landing bays? How did the med techs transport Sleep tubes from the space station proper to the planet? Not that it was much of a station — perhaps a dozen off-world ships at one time could tie up to the orbiting wheel. Small vessels had to land somewhere around here…. Another day for solving that mystery; Garth had located the map.

It was a simple affair, a thin plastic sheet color-coded in symbols. Even people who didn’t speak Caesarean could get along on Nuala — signs were both written and oral, and in four languages. He needed a hostel of some kind, so he could get his bearings and examine all the things in the packet. Then off to find Halsey, who with luck would lead him to Silver….

There was a moderately-priced hostel in the next block of buildings, if the visitor’s guide was accurate. He had only to follow the signs through the business and embassy districts. Shouldering his bakit, Garth left customs and the medical center behind and started walking. Slowly; coming out of Sleep had been harder this time — they had kept him an extra three hours, just to monitor his body’s return to normal.

Been pushing it a bit, haven’t you? the technician had asked in crisp, unaccented Caesarean. In fact, everyone had been much too concerned about his health and history. Fortunately Sleep tags only went back three trips; if they knew how much he had really jumped, they might have kept him overnight.

As he walked, Garth examined his personal copy of the medical tests the Nualan authorities had run on him. They had wanted to see every medical disk he possessed, and since he had to declare everything on his person (to avoid having it taxed when he left) they knew all he knew. His history, a bit of blood, a bit of saliva, X-rays, PET and CAT scans — I doubt anything gets by them. Maybe they didn’t want immigrants as much as they said they did….

Tired, his mind wandering, surrounded by sound after hours of solitude, Garth was unprepared for surprises. Certainly the last thing he expected was to see the object of his quest walking casually toward him down the street. As he focused on her, his brain registering what he saw, Garth frantically tried to think of what he was going to do.

Smaller than he’d expected… a tiny, delicate woman, her figure worth looking at, even covered by dark slacks and a flowing blouse. The holo he had seen was taken at twilight, the scene washed of color… she really had silver-colored hair. I didn’t remember she’d be beautiful….

Two people dressed in black uniforms walked behind and slightly to either side of her; hiring bodyguards, are we? Who else is looking for you? Or are you just cautious?

He had to hide. Or did he? How foolish, she didn’t know him from Adam himself —

The gaze of huge black eyes flicked past his face; paused — flicked back again. In the middle of a busy thoroughfare with at least a hundred witnesses, his lawful prey addressed him in the Reykjavik dialect of Gavriel.

“Be you kin to Lisbet Bjornsdottir of Reykjavik, on Gavriel?”

Garth’s mind froze. Sweet Sebastian’s Arrows, I have no luck! Finally her actual words sunk into his head. Controlling his face was difficult; exultation swelled in his breast. His fair, wild resemblance to his mother had saved him. Did this woman even know Lisbet had married? They were both free-traders from the same planet — I should have guessed they had met!

“She be my mother before.” Garth knew only this version of Gavrielian, and was not strong in it — he trusted his careful speech would mask the emotion trembling within him.

A thousand years of Viking strength gazed at him through black irises. “She be my friend before,” the woman said gently, acknowledging the implication of death. Continuing in Caesarean, she told him: “I was Darame Daviddottir in that life. Are you here in trade or immigrating?”

“Trade,” he said hastily. What name had his father used, in that scam? Not his own — Ah, by Nicholas’s Golden Balls, all life was a chance. “I’m Garth Kristinsson.” Hooking his left thumb firmly through the straps of his bakit, he used the maps and guidebook he was holding as an excuse not to offer his hand to her.

“Welcome to Nuala. You must come and tell me how Lisbet’s life went on,” she said graciously. “I lost track of her, oh, over a hundred years ago, when she left Gavriel for good — or such was her intent.”

“She never went back,” he offered, nodding.

“Do you have someplace to stay?”

“Yes,” he lied pleasantly. “The Black Hazelle.” Amazing! But one did not violate guest laws by possibly plotting the host’s demise — and he had not yet made up his mind about this Silver, called Darame Daviddottir in still another time and place.

“A comfortable hostel,” she responded easily. “You may not feel like socializing this evening, but if you do, there will be a big party up on the hill.” She gestured vaguely off in the direction from which she had come. Reaching into a pressure pocket, she withdrew a small square of what looked like real paper. It was printed in both Caesarean and another language, and said simply: “Present this invitation to the door warden of 7 Dragonhold after compline on the second day of spring.” Beneath it was written: Formal attire.

Garth was startled by the stiff, stationer’s card; he never knew if her response was from simple courtesy, or from misreading him.

“Interpretations of ‘formal attire’ vary enormously,” Silver said dryly. “However, there are places to rent clothing, if you feel like dressing up and don’t own ceremonials.” Smiling, she started walking again. “I hope to see you there.”

Managing a slight smile, Garth remained where he was until the trio had entered a wide stone portal at the street’s end. It took several moments for him to realize that he was the subject of general envy.

“Guard it with your life,” a passing merchant said with a smile. “The Atares throw quite a party, and invitations are highly prized.”

The Atares? Garth looked down at the invitation once again. What did “after compline” mean? He had to get to a unit quickly, he needed to figure out how to load these “rings,” as the Nualans called their flimsy storage units. A Read-Only Module would do — he did not need to access data. Not yet. Unless, of course, the rings the spaceport had supplied did not explain the mystery. Glancing back down the street, Garth saw an individual in a black uniform reappear at the stone gate, and quickly continued on down the boulevard.

Who said he wasn’t lucky?

AMURA-BY-THE-SEA, NUALA —
ATARE WINTER PALACE
ONEHUNDRED EIGHTYTWODAY, SEXT

“My Atare, it is nearly time for The Synod meeting.”

Startled, Sheel flicked his gaze away from the RAM. Glancing over at the elderly man, Sheel said: “Elek?”

“The Synod meeting?” Elek prompted gently.

“So soon?” Sheel murmured, his gaze wandering past the remains of his lunch to an outside window.

“It approaches none, my Atare,” Elek told him. Reaching to remove the plate and utensils stacked neatly before the membrane, Elek added: “It will be a short meeting, will it not?”

“As short as court today?” Sheel suggested.

Elek shook his head slowly. “A bad business, Atare, a very bad business. Let us hope that more bloodshed has been averted.” Moving the dishes over to a dumbwaiter, Elek touched a small panel, sliding the doors shut to hide the view. “Will you change for this meeting?”

Mentally still in court, Sheel did not answer. Dear Mendülay, they had worked so hard to avoid that problem, and it had followed them to Amura. Months ago he and Avis, his sister and fellow high judge, had made a ruling concerning a piece of land claimed by two families of Tarn clan, a sept group of Atare. Title to the acreage was nebulous, and there was a history of joint use. However, an heir had been promoted through his uncle’s death — and he no longer wished to share the pasture with his assorted relatives. It would make a good vineyard, true, but…. Sheel shook his head. After evaluating all the available information, Sheel and Avis had ruled in favor of the clan council. That meant a majority of the twelve people who advised The Tarn had to agree to the change — and, as he would personally benefit from that change, The Tarn could not break a tie vote.

It should have been a solution; most land cases never even reached the high court. Perhaps it would have been, except that the elders of the council were completely split on the subject. Then a few youngsters had taken matters into their own hands, and tried frightening one ancient woman into changing her vote.

“Atare?”

“Just my boots, Elek, thank you,” Sheel murmured, smiling faintly. The one humorous portion of the entire episode… languidly Sheel reached to save the notes he had been entering. Not only had that old woman refused to buckle under, she had set a trap — a physical trap — for those who had tried to terrify her into voting for the change. Two prime young men of the blood had landed in her pit — and she had pressed charges.

Sorting it out had been a nightmare. Since the youths were closely related to the council, the council could not try them — so they were immediately packed off to Amura. Friends and foes alike had poured into the court. The seneschal had tacked them onto the end of the court session, which had meant privately interviewing everyone involved, which had meant —

Idly glancing down, Sheel noticed blood on his wrist and cuff. Staring, he tried to remember… “Elek,” he said easily. “It seems I must change my mind.”

“Atare! How did we miss that?” Appalled, Elek immediately rushed off to start the shower.

Sheel started chuckling. A simple touch-up with a wet rag would not do, not for Elek. Laughing out loud, Sheel stood up and peeled off his shirt. “For now it is settled.” Amazing how much that boy’s nose bled…. of course the fight had spread about the courtroom. “Elek, be sure and tell the seneschal to check the throne for blood. The Ragäree would be distressed at the idea of citizens petitioning before a bloody throne.”

Unamused, the creases in his cheeks more pronounced than ever, Elek offered Sheel a robe. Accepting (because Zara was now on duty, and Elek was always nervous when one of the guaard was a woman) Sheel secured the soft robe around his waist and started into the sanitation. I should appreciate you more, Elek, Sheel thought ruefully, wondering what they were going to do with that huge pasture the crown had confiscated. Maybe wait a moon or so, and then divide it in half, giving The Tarn the hilly part for his vineyard and leaving the rest as common grazing… maybe a public access between them, so there would be no encroachments either way….

Hot water was shooting vigorously from the vertical row of nozzles. Eyelids drooping, Sheel leaned into the spray, his sandy hair darkening from the steam. How long he stood there he did not know, but when he finally opened his eyes, he saw a red light glowing. What — I did ask for them to be installed, he reminded himself. Red meant a visitor waiting — one who could not be scheduled later in the day. Allowing himself one good rinse all over, Sheel turned off the water and reached for a wipe. It had been warmed and was thick and fluffy. A few of the most exclusive hostels had installed shower vacuums, but Sheel was not interested; in their hot climate, vacuums caused the skin to flake. Wipes, on the other hand, constructed of heavy, looped cotton, were both absorbent and stimulating.

But enough of pleasures… few and infrequent as they were. Late court had meant no chance to even speak with Darame today, much less anything else. “Who is it, Elek?” Sheel asked, pushing his thoughts aside and stepping into the dressing room. How tired was he, that his mind was wandering so? Too many late hours spent going over petitions. They would have to delegate more work to the Seneschal… perhaps even create a prime minister —

“It is Halsey, my Atare,” was the response. “I have placed your clothing on the rack, and have ordered saffra and scones for the two gentlemen.” Knowing Sheel really preferred to dress himself, Elek started backing out of the dressing room.

“Two gentlemen?”

Sheel’s stare caused the old man to pause in mid-step. “The name of the second was not volunteered, Atare.”

Blotting at a bead of moisture, Sheel did not respond. Interesting… and just who had Halsey brought along today? “Thank you, Elek,” he said aloud. “Could you turn off the RAM for me, please?”

“It is already done, Atare.” With that, the elderly retainer slipped out between the sliding doors.

Quickly pulling on a dark, long sleeved wool shirt and tight pants, Sheel tossed a loosely-woven tunic over his clothing and belted it close to his body. Without thought he slid his signet ring of heavy trine gold onto his right index finger. As usual, he almost forgot the chain of office; ten years he had worn it, and still it did not rest comfortably upon his chest.

Slender fingers closed on the heavy chain, lifting it from a velvet-lined box. One of his ancestors, acting on half-formed instinct rather than any proven facts, had decided that a crown created a tyrant. And was not the throne of Atare a double throne, when all was said and done? So The Atare wore a heavy chain of trinium links around his neck, studded at regular intervals with faceted rubies. If she chose, The Ragäree wore a matching delicate chain. Perhaps it was because Avis rarely wore The Ragäree’s chain that he felt so uncomfortable wearing Cort’s —

No, Cort was dead ten years. And there was no one else to wear it.

Placing the lengthy chain around his neck, Sheel moved silently into the adjoining room. The two men waiting for him rose as he entered; their very lack of expression set off warning bells in Sheel’s head.

One of them was familiar; Halsey, too, had never regained the weight lost during his ordeal in the ciedär, but his round face, wide eyes, and fringed topknot of remaining hair always echoed the huge man he had once been. Rav had been his downfall, the ingested radiation which often had lingering effects. Still possessed of an accelerated metabolism, Halsey inadvertently had had his most private dream come true — he could eat as much as he wanted, and never gain weight. Was keeping up with such a calorie burn dimming his pleasure in food? Sheel had never asked; Nualans rarely asked personal questions of those who came to their world.

“Introductions?” Sheel asked pleasantly, as Halsey nodded his fealty. The other bore wrist marks indicating he had just arrived on a transport. Tall, extremely tall, the man had a sad face, reminding Sheel of an elderly hound. How old Sheel could not guess — although lines gave his face character, the man’s hair was still mostly dark. Intent grey eyes took him in at a glance; the man lowered his head briefly, graciously, in a variant manner not seen in generations.

“You are the… grandson… of Salome?” His voice was soft, pleasant, a vibrant tenor laced with dark tones.

“Great-grandson,” Sheel replied, recognizing the accent. “You have been gone a long time,” he ventured.

“Almost two hundred years,” the man agreed.

Humor glinting in his eyes, Halsey said smoothly: “I did not burst in on your afternoon simply to bring you a relic of the past.”

“Relic?” This was both bemused and calculating; this man kept score, whether he chose to use the knowledge or not.

Halsey’s merry laugh rang out. Smiling, Sheel sat down in his stiff-backed chair and gestured for the others to regain their seats. “I trust you will explain why you have burst in upon my afternoon — after you introduce your guest,” Sheel added, reaching for the pot of saffra housekeeping had sent up. Still warm, good….

“The Atare pursues an anomaly like a cat pursues a mouse,” Halsey replied. “You are almost impossible to sidetrack.” Gesturing to his right, Halsey said: “May I present Eduard reb^Katerina Alexeiovich, most recently known as Lowe of Caesarea Station. A man of many talents, the foremost being he is an absolute sponge where information is concerned. I have few secrets from him, and consider him my friend.”

Ten years in Halsey’s wake had taught Sheel that those words were never uttered lightly. “I am pleased to make the acquaintance of such a legendary free-trader,” Sheel offered in return.

“The pleasure is mine, Atare. It is good to be home again, and to know that despite many changes, the hospitality of Atare never varies.”

As “Lowe” paused for a sip of saffra, Halsey jumped into the conversation. “Lowe has finally retired from his base of operations. Shortly before he took Cold Sleep here, he stumbled upon some information of which I think someone here should be apprised.”

“Which is why I am here, Atare,” came a low murmur behind him.

Even as he recognized the voice, it took willpower not to flinch. Ten years back the guaard’s highest ranking warrior had betrayed Cort Atare. Even though the woman standing behind him had been instrumental in rooting out the traitors with a minimum of trouble, the damage had been done, and sometimes, late at night…. His sister Leah’s son, Tobias, was still leery about his guaard.

“Welcome, Mailan,” Sheel said aloud, knowing Zara and Leo were still on duty, leaving Mailan free to study the men before them. “What information?”

“In the course of my work, I often kept tabs on certain free-traders. One was the son of two friends who died mysteriously over a hundred terran years ago. I kept an eye on him, partly out of a sense of duty and partly out of curiosity.” The words were rusty, the pronunciation on one or two of them oddly stressed, but Lowe spoke quite adequate Nualan. “Garth was not yet trained as a free-trader when his parents died. He has supported himself mostly with dock work — a bit of low-level trading on the side — but that was not what was so interesting about him. What I found fascinating was that everywhere he traveled, he asked for news of a free-trader he called Silver.”

Sheel did not miss the implication. “Darame used that name?”

“On occasion,” Halsey confirmed.

“Do you know why he was looking for her?”

Lowe spread out his hands and studied the backs of them. “I know why he claims he is looking for her. Garth wants to know about his father’s death — and his mother’s. After a hundred years, Darame is the only person left alive who was actually involved with the scam. The logical person to ask… but his search has gone on too long.”

“That seems… a bit single-minded,” Sheel said softly, unease touching him.

“Obsessed,” Mailan said dryly. “He has no other family, no spouse?”

“None, except the descendants of his sister. All of them still live on Gavriel, as of ten years ago Terran.” Lowe glanced up; his grey eyes were so keen Sheel momentarily wondered if Mailan was his descendent. “I cannot betray a trust, Atare, yet I have a great deal of respect for your wife. At the least, she should know that this lad has spent his entire life looking for her… and that he arrived on Nuala today.”

One eyebrow arched in response; Lowe blinked, but he did not comment on such body control. Hot healers were famous for tremendous physical and mental acrobatics, and clearly Halsey had already told his friend that Sheel was not only Atare, but both doctor and healer.

“Better to catch him in the act, if he is up to something,” Mailan said in her low alto voice. “Can you tell us more, free-trader?”

“I imagine what I can tell is in his file, but for the record —”

Sheel kept his gaze on Halsey while Lowe gave to Mailan what information he felt he could. Only last night I dreamt of her in darkness, bruised and bleeding…. What good were fitful visions of a bleak future if they gave no hints that could lead to prevention?

It had been too much to hope for, that Darame’s past would never come back to haunt her. Had she not warned him? I expected blackmail… some off-world fool who thought I would care if my people knew of her previous life. An inward smile traced his mind’s eye. We are stronger than that, we Nualans, and when we say your past disappears once you pass the pillars, we speak truth. In fact, a few people knew she had been a free-trader; their response had been to ask for archival stories or business advice.

A strange, detached mood had taken hold of Sheel, making it hard to concentrate on Lowe’s words. No matter; Mailan would insist on going over this before he left for The Synod meeting. So, he had spent his entire life seeking the free-trader called Silver. She is not Silver, she is Darame Daviddottir… who is also the wife of Sheel Atare. You probably do not know what that means. But if you try to harm her, you may be surprised how long my arm truly is… and how heavy my hand can fall.

 


Hidden Fires by Cat KimbrielThe Chronicles of Nuala Book 2
by Cat Kimbriel
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-031-6

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