CHAPTER 1: DAY 1
Cryo, the long night without end, the cold from between the stars. Heartbeat and breathing decelerate as the chill gradually seeps deep into flesh and bones, robbing them of warmth, of movement. Thoughts slow, messages no longer being sent to limbs and organs as the mind pulls itself back, retreating from the bitter cold till all that remains is a tiny spark of consciousness poised between life and death. Cryo sleep, the temporary death, where nothing stirs, no breath, no thought — no dreams.
With Nayash, his pilot, recovering from a wounded flank, Captain Tirak had asked Kaid to help out on the bridge during take-off. Now they were under way, Kaid needed to check up on his people. The mess area where they were waiting was adjacent to the sickbay, but inexorably his feet led him back to there. Saying he was checking up on Zashou would fool no one, least of all himself, but he had to see them once more — had to know that Carrie and Kusac were alright. He’d grown so used to their presences within his mind that their absence left him feeling unsettled. These feelings were so foreign to him that it was with relief he saw that Zashou was still asleep. It was hard enough for him to cope without having to explain it to someone else.
It was Carrie’s unit he went to first. He looked through the cover, feeling instantly protective of her. She looked as if Kuushoi, Goddess of Winter, had embraced her, turning her flesh as pale as the snow on the Dzahai mountains. Memories of taking Carrie there to visit his home sprang into his mind. It was there, once he’d fully accepted his place in their lives as their third, that they’d finally become lovers.
Through the pale cream fabric of her shift, the blood-stained dressing across her belly and side showed up starkly. Instinctively his mind reached out for hers, pushing aside the barriers behind which he’d been hiding. He could sense nothing. His hand shook slightly as his fingertips brushed the surface of the unit, caressing it as if it were her he touched. Mrowbay had spread her long blonde hair carefully on the pillow. He remembered how soft it felt, so unlike his own Sholan hair. Then he sensed the U’Churian Captain watching him from the doorway.
“Mrowbay says she’s stable,” said Captain Tirak, “and safe. But you know that since you treated her. Excuse my curiosity, but you obviously care very deeply for her. Are you and her mate related? Brothers, perhaps? I know they’re a mind-linked pair.”
“Brothers. Yes,” Kaid replied distractedly as a prescient fear he’d never known before swept through him. Turning to look at Tirak, he did a double-take, thinking for a brief moment he saw Kusac standing there. The outward physical similarities between their species were uncanny. Pushing his fear aside with an effort, he retreated again behind his mental shields. “Her Mother died in cryo when her family journeyed to their colony world.”
Tirak made a sympathetic noise, his mouth creasing in a Human-like grimace. “A tragedy, but it couldn’t happen on the Profit, believe me. Any disruption of the cryo system is instantly reported by the computer. The units even have an integral back-up system, capable of life-support in space in the event of a disaster. They can be launched automatically from the bridge, or manually from in here.” He pointed to the wall behind the units.
A very Human scream, long and drawn out, sounded from outside the open door.
Gun instantly in his hand, Kaid leaped past Tirak and was in the corridor before it stopped.
“False alarm, Captain.” Sheeowl’s voice on the ship’s comm echoed throughout the deck. “Was only Kate. She just met her first Cabbaran.”
In the center of the corridor, standing almost upright on its haunches, was indeed a Cabbaran. Kaid recognized it instantly from the description Captain Kishasayzar had given them. Kate stood facing the alien, her body frozen in horror.
“We have more passengers, Annuur.” Tirak spoke calmly to the Cabbaran. “Badly injured ones. That’s why the change in destination.”
As Annuur turned slowly to face them, Kaid understood Kate’s reaction. Standing just short of four feet tall, the being before him was unlike any he’d seen before. Obviously a quadruped, and certainly vegetarian, his long, yellow incisors were just visible behind an almost prehensile upper lip. Forward facing eyes regarded him steadily from beneath a narrow stiff crest of dark hair that ran the length of his skull and down his neck. The same hair was spread out in a ruff across his shoulders and again over his flanks. From the sides of his face, the sandy body fur had been shaved so that the intricately colored tattoos could be clearly seen.
The lip quivered and Kaid heard him begin to chitter. A flat, mechanical voice started to speak in U’Churian.
“Nourishment dispensers empty,” Annuur’s translator intoned. “Is breach of contract, Captain.”
“See to it, Sheeowl,” Tirak ordered the crew female hovering beside the stricken girl. “Take Kate to the mess first. My apologies, Annuur. As I said, we had injured to see to and needed to depart from Jalna rapidly. There was no need for you to leave avionics, you could have used the comm — or were you just curious about our guests?”
The ruff of fur across the Cabbaran’s shoulders bushed out for a moment before settling again. Annuur’s teeth made a clicking noise and his top lip curled expressively. A sharp burst of sound followed. The translator remained silent.
“Captain.” Nayash, the white dressing over his wounded thigh vivid against his long, black pelt, now stood where Kate and Sheeowl had been. He raised an arm and flung something through the air to Tirak who caught it deftly.
“You won’t need your weapon,” Tirak said quietly in an aside to Kaid as he stepped past him. “This is Annuur, leader of our Cabbaran navigation sept. All right, you opportunist,” he said, his tone becoming lighter. “One pack — and only one — to make up for your discomfort.” He held his hand, palm open, out toward the Cabbaran. In it lay a brightly decorated tubular container.
The mobile lip curled upward in disdain. “Your insult remains,” intoned the translator.
Tirak gestured to Kaid to join him. Holstering his gun, he did so.
“This is Kaid, the leader of our guests.”
The whiskers on either side of Annuur’s nose twitched as he leaned forward and sniffed audibly at Kaid. “One of those you kept in cryo.” He turned his attention back to Tirak, giving Kaid a clear view of the exotic tattoos.
The hand that reached out to take the Captain’s bribe was spatulate in shape, with four fingers tipped by broad, horny claws. Almost delicately, the fingers closed round the tube and removed it.
“Candy. A children’s treat back Home,” Tirak said softly to Kaid. “They can’t get enough of the stuff. Comes in useful now and then.”
Kaid noticed now that Annuur wore a multi-pocketed utility belt not unlike the one the Sholan Forces used, save that the Cabbaran’s was held in place by shoulder straps. It was into one of these pockets that Annuur placed his tube.
“Maybe talk later,” he said, lowering his upper body to the ground before sedately trotting past them and down the corridor to the main access elevator.
“Time we talked,” said Kaid, his voice grim. He wanted to know what Tirak had been doing with a mixed Leska pair not only on board his ship, but held in cryo until a couple of hours ago.
“The rest of your people are next door in the mess waiting for you,” said Tirak, gesturing in the same direction the Cabbaran had taken. “When you’re satisfied they’re safe, one of my crew will escort you to my office so we can talk.”
Remaining near the closed doorway, Kaid looked over at T’Chebbi. “Report,” he said, in the highland patois that they’d both grown up using.
“All rescued personnel save Zashou seem healthy but undernourished — want them checked up in sick-bay because of laalquoi levels in food they ate on Jalna. Younglings were waiting on Keiss for transport to Shola when were kidnapped by a Valtegan officer. Killed him, but cost them their captain and damaged the scouter. Were found by Ambassador Taira’s ship. Tirak rescued them from Taira at Tuushu Station — where we’re going. He put them in cryo while on Jalna to stop us contacting them telepathically.”
Kaid moved into the center of the room. Kate was about Carrie’s height, her pleasant round face framed by a mass of short mid-brown curls. The male, Taynar, was barely older than her. He’d obviously inherited the warm grey-brown pelt coloring of his family. “What did the Chemerians want?” he asked, though he could make bets on what the answer would be.
“Why should we tell you?” demanded Kate. “You’re one of them, a U’Churian.”
Kaid glanced at T’Chebbi who raised a sardonic eye ridge in reply.
“I haven’t told them,” she said, reverting to lowland Sholan like Kaid.
We’re Sholan, he sent to the girl and her Leska. Posing as U’Churians. We were sent to rescue you.
Taynar hissed his disbelief as Kaid joined them at the dining table. “Telepaths can’t fight.”
“He’s your bond-brother,” snapped T’Chebbi. “Show a Clan elder proper respect!”
“My bond-brother?” Taynar was startled into sitting up. “How? My sister died years ago!”
“So your father would have you believe,” said Kaid. “Khemu died only a few months ago, bonded to me. Our son lives on the Valsgarth estate. Like us, he’s a member of the En’Shalla Aldatan Clan now.”
“Your son? But how . . .”
“The Chemerians wanted a mixed Leska pair for themselves,” interrupted Kate. “Taira said he’d met Carrie and Kusac on the Khalossa.”
Kaid nodded. As he’d thought. Ambassador Taira had shown an unhealthy interest in his triad partners while on board the Khalossa. Opportunity had presented itself, and Taira was not one to let it slip by. “How did Tirak get involved?” He watched the female’s jaw tighten as she lifted her chin defiantly.
“I made him,” she said shortly, grey eyes flashing. “We thought they were Sholans at first.”
He raised his eye ridges in respect. “No wonder they were so wary of telepaths. I presume you gave them their mental blocks.”
“I was as much to blame as Kate,” interrupted Taynar sullenly. “He promised to return us to Shola. I thought it a fair price.”
Kaid ignored the challenge in the youth’s voice. Faced with few alternatives, they’d had little option but to agree to Tirak’s demand. “No one is faulting you,” he said. “You handled a difficult situation very well.” He turned his attention to the other side of the room where Rezac sat. This was his first real opportunity to meet the male who, despite being half his age, was his father.
They weren’t that alike, he thought, surveying the younger male. How could Jaisa have seen a resemblance? There were superficial similarities, true, but they were just that. They both had the distinctive broader and lower set ears of the highland Clans, and the brown pelt, but . . .
“Are you related?” asked Jo suddenly, looking from one to the other. “You look very alike.”
“Hardly,” snapped Rezac. “I’m from his far past! Fifteen hundred years ago to be exact.”
Kaid could feel T’Chebbi’s gaze burning into him as she waited for his answer. “Highland Clans always tended to breed among their own. It’s a possibility,” he said, trying to avoid her scathing look. He touched the edges of Rezac’s mind with his, instantly aware of the link between him and Jo. “You’ve formed a Triad,” he said, surprised, glancing back at the dark haired Human female.
Jo flushed and looked away.
“You know about these links?” Rezac’s antagonism was quiet for now in his desire to learn more.
“We have two mixed Leska triads back on the estate.”
“That’s why you can fight,” said Taynar. “I knew telepaths with a Human Leska were able to fight, but I hadn’t realized it affected the Triads as well.”
He was getting drawn in deeper than he wanted here, but there was no point in dodging the issue. A simple answer would do for now. “That’s so,” he admitted.
“With Carrie and Kusac?” asked Jo, concern in her voice. “How awful for you. You must be feeling pretty bad right now with both of them in cryo.”
“What are these triads?” demanded Rezac impatiently. “What causes them?”
“The bonds began forming after the Cataclysm for a mixture of reasons. For the better protection of small breeding groups of Talented, and because of Vartra’s work with genetics. You and Zashou were one of the original enhanced Leska pairs, so it’s not surprising you should form a Triad once you’d been exposed to Vartra’s modern virus.”
“Our Link is the result of Vartra’s work?” asked Jo.
“Not the original work Rezac was involved with,” said Kaid. “It’s due to his genetic manipulations after you were taken by the Valtegans.”
“You know, your talk is full of wrong-spoors,” said Rezac, an edge of ice in his voice. “You might fool your own people with all this speculation of what Vartra did, but I lived then. I knew him! How could he possibly have done anything that would link Human and Sholan DNA?”
A small, purring chuckle from Taynar broke the tension.
“I’ve just realized what it was about you that seemed familiar,” said the youth to Kaid. “You’re the Triad that went back to the times of Vartra, aren’t you? You met with the God. That’s why you’re En’Shalla.”
Rezac laughed out loud at this, but there was no humor in his laughter. “You expect me to believe that? Just because this isn’t my time doesn’t make me an idiot!”
Abruptly, Kaid got to his feet. He’d heard enough. There might be a blood tie between him and Rezac, but that was all. This male was as unlike him as anyone could be. What could he possibly have in common with this arrogant and undisciplined young male who had fathered him so very long ago?
“I was able to tell Vartra that you and Zashou were safe and alive in our time,” he said. “Zylisha was worried for her sister. The news put her mind at rest. You might tell Zashou that when you see her next. And that Vartra and her sister life-bonded.” He turned aside from the Sholan to look at the Human beside him. “Jo, I have to join Captain Tirak now. I’ll debrief you on your mission after I’ve spoken to him. You’re in charge till I return.” He gestured to T’Chebbi to join him as he began to walk toward the door.
A chair scraped on the floor. “I want to know what’s going on, too,” said Rezac, the belligerence back in full measure.
“You’ll remain here till I return,” Kaid said unequivocally, coming to a stop and turning to look at him. “The situation with Tirak is delicate and requires a knowledge of current Alliance politics.”
“I know a hell of a lot more about the Valtegans than you do!”
“That’s of no consequence at the moment. Your information is fifteen hundred years out of date, Rezac, and has nothing to do with this. Stay here with the other civilians.”
“Don’t order me about! I’ve as much right to be involved as you,” the young male snarled, tail lashing from side to side as he unconsciously lowered his body into a crouch.
T’Chebbi’s hand closed briefly on Kaid’s wrist. “I’ll stay,” she said quietly.
Kaid flicked an ear in reluctant agreement. “Sit down, Rezac,” he ordered. “You want my credentials? I’m in charge of this mission, and cleared by Sholan High Command for First Contact negotiations. You’re just another civilian as far as I’m concerned. T’Chebbi will stay with you.” He stalked over to the door, slapping his hand on the airlock mechanism. When it opened, he strode out into the corridor where Manesh, Tirak’s security officer, stood waiting for him.
T’Chebbi moved smoothly to block the door as it closed. “Suggest you relax, make some drinks, experiment with food, and get to know each other,” she said to the small group. “Ship not big, the quarters even smaller. Will take us two weeks to reach rendezvous. Better if we get on with each other.”
“And just who the hell are you to be taking over?” demanded Rezac, striding over to confront her.
“Sister T’Chebbi of the Brotherhood of Vartra, member of the En’Shalla Aldatan Clan,” she replied, keeping her tone even.
“A priestess,” he sneered. “You think you can stop me? Go ahead and use the gun, then!”
“Rezac,” said Jo warningly as he moved to push T’Chebbi aside. “That’s not a good idea. I told you things are different now. The Brotherhood is a Warrior elite, not just a religious Order. They’re specialist fighters. Kaid and T’Chebbi are Carrie and Kusac’s bodyguards. Friends. We can trust them. They came to rescue us, didn’t they?”
T’Chebbi watched him hesitate. “Art of warrior is to know when to fight,” she said quietly. “And whom. Not now, on alien vessel, with injured comrades. Are you a warrior, or just a fighter?”
As Kaid settled himself in the chair indicated, he watched Tirak pull the tab on the container he was holding.
“A hot drink,” Tirak said, offering it to him. “The one your colleague Carrie enjoyed in the inn. Didn’t think you’d want a fermented one yet.”
Kaid accepted it, tasting the beverage cautiously. Not too bad — a bit sweet for his taste, but drinkable, and certainly preferable to alcohol. Right now he needed the energy the sweetener in it would give him. He waited, sipping the drink, knowing Tirak’s first questions would tell him how much he knew, or had guessed, about them.
“So, what species do the two hairless females belong to? Human or Solnian?” the U’Churian asked after a moment or two. “And are your species dependant on each other? Do you come from the same world?”
“They’re Humans. Tell me, Captain, why is a military ship and its crew posing as traders in this sector?”
Tirak feigned surprise. “Posing? You have us wrong, Kaid. I’ll admit our craft is a decommissioned military one, but we are just what we seem, traders.”
Kaid shrugged, a very U’Churian gesture, and putting his drink down, got to his feet. “Thank you for your hospitality, Captain Tirak, but I think I should check in again on the Sholan female in your sick bay,” he said. “She was asleep when I was last there.”
“You can’t push me aside like that!” exclaimed Tirak, ears flicking forward. “I put myself and my crew on the line for you — Nayash was injured in the fight at the space port! I let your people come on board, fetch medical supplies for the injured females, let another of them join us — I deserve answers, dammit! I want to know what’s going on!”
Schooling his face into a look he knew the other would interpret as one of surprise and confusion, Kaid hesitated. “Going on? I know as much about what happened planet-side as you do, Captain Tirak. My people were caught up with yours when Bradogan attacked us.”
Tirak’s face froze. “Don’t take me for a fool, Kaid. You came here with members of two unknown alien species on a rescue mission. Kusac may look like us, but he’s no U’Churian — his link to the Human female proves he’s as Sholan as Taynar! Then there are the others in your little group! And I have severe doubts about which species you belong to, especially since you admitted to being his brother! Do I have to go on?”
“All you need to know is that we must rendezvous with an alien vessel at the Chemerian home world.”
“Alien to whom? Us? Or you Sholans? Don’t try my patience or you might find my hospitality is suddenly withdrawn,” Tirak snarled, baring his teeth. “Your position is far from strong. You have perhaps one able-bodied companion, the rest are civilians suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion.”
“Don’t threaten me,” said Kaid quietly. “I could take the information I want straight from your mind, despite the primitive blocks the younglings gave you. Instead I do you the courtesy of asking.”
Tirak’s low rumble of anger began to build. With an obvious effort, he remained seated as the mane of black hair rose around his face.
“Brawling like troopers is hardly appropriate for people of our rank,” Kaid said, his voice now deathly quiet. “First Contact is better left to the diplomats of the Rhijissoh when they reach Jalna, it’s too delicate a matter to be argued over with mere traders.” He turned and walked toward the door.
“Wait!” The growl was gone from Tirak’s voice and his hair had begun to settle around his shoulders again. “You say a ship goes to Jalna to make First Contact?”
“It’s not your concern, Captain,” said Kaid, keeping his back to the U’Churian as he rested his hand against the bulkhead. “By your own admission, you are, after all, only a trader.” He afforded him a glance over his shoulder.
“How do I know this isn’t another lie?”
Again Kaid shrugged. “Confirmation will be waiting at our rendezvous.”
Tirak’s snarl almost drowned his words. “May Kathan himself damn you! Drugs! That’s why we’re here! Because of an illegal drugs trade!”
Kaid had to widen his ears to catch the words within the snarled reply. He took a couple of paces back toward the desk and waited.
“Drugs that turn the users psychotic and violent for days after they’ve used them — drugs that only started appearing a few years ago.”
Kaid returned to his chair. “And you think the Chemerians are involved.”
“Some,” admitted Tirak. The knuckles on the hand that held his drink showed white through his pelt and the can had begun to buckle slightly. This was his only outward sign of anger now. “Your turn. Why were your people on Jalna?”
Kaid regarded him thoughtfully. What to tell him? His Triad was empowered to commence Contact negotiations if it proved necessary, so perhaps the truth was best. “Two Valtegan shuttles landed here several months ago. One crashed outside the port after dropping off an object, the other landed to sell four Sholans in exchange for supplies and spares. We sent a team, consisting of three Humans to locate the crashed vehicle and discover what it had left behind. They went missing. Our mission was to rescue not only them, but the original four Sholans.”
“The Valtegans.” Tirak sat back in his chair. “What’s your quarrel with them?”
“All life on two colony worlds wiped out,” said Kaid grimly, returning to his seat. “Millions of Sholans dead. We don’t know why, we don’t know how, and worst of all, we don’t know where they come from. We didn’t even know they existed until then.”
“Kate and Taynar said as much,” murmured Tirak. “We didn’t place much credence on it, though. Seems we were wrong.”
“With a weapon like that, they’re a threat to all species. That’s why we were following up the crashed vessel — in the hope we’d find something to give us a clue about where their home world is. They subjugated Keiss, the world the Humans had colonized, without destroying them, and used them as slaves, but the Valtegans we captured there died rather than communicate with us. They were ferocious warriors. It was literally kill or be killed with them. We destroyed them all, save for one ship.”
“The one that came to Jalna.”
Kaid inclined his head in an affirmative gesture. “We knew nothing about Jalna — or about the species who trade here — until the Chemerians told us the Valtegan ship had been sighted.”
Tirak began scratching his ear thoughtfully. “A Valtegan ship calls here every fifty years or so, but they come only to take samples of crops and food animals. One left just before this craft you mention arrived. What the Jalnians get in return, my people were unable to find out. The Chemerians have trading agreements with you?”
“More,” said Kaid, his tone reflecting his feelings toward their two-faced allies. “Treaties for our mutual defense that are several hundred years old. We represent an Alliance of five species.”
The U’Churian’s jaw fell open in shock. “By Kathan’s beard! The double-dealing . . .”
“Conniving, tree-climbing little bastards,” Kaid finished for him.
A slow grin split Tirak’s face. He leaned forward to edge Kaid’s abandoned drink closer to him. “As you say. Against you, their duplicity goes further than with us. We’ve only been dealing with them for about twenty years. The young couple, we found them on Tuushu Station. They had just discovered they were the prisoners, not the guests of Ambassador Taira Khebo and they — persuaded — us to rescue them.”
“So they told me. There are strict laws governing the use of telepathy among our kind and they broke them. You have my governments’ apology on their behalf.”
“Yet your people broke the same laws.” There was a hardness in Tirak’s voice.
“Sometimes it’s necessary for certain individuals to be empowered to operate outside the law.” Kaid’s voice was a gentle purr. “But you know that, don’t you — Captain?”
Tirak chose not to respond and Kaid knew he’d made his point.
“The Chemerians implied that beyond their own colonies, we were their only market,” the U’Churian continued instead.
“I suspect,” said Kaid, picking up his unfinished drink, “that we will discover some of our latest imports are goods obtained from Jalna and your — Free Traders Alliance?”
“Free Traders’ Council,” corrected the Captain, relaxing back into his chair. “Then we will have to draft trade agreements and more with this Sholan vessel.”
Kaid finished his drink and set the empty container down on the table between them. “I would say that negotiations have already started, wouldn’t you, Captain Tirak?”
“What family are you from?” ventured Taynar, looking over at Rezac. “I know you’re from the highlands like me.”
Rezac glowered at the youngling. He was still high on adrenalin from the fight at the spaceport, and worse: with his Leska mind-mate Zashou sedated in sick-bay, his link to Jo had reasserted itself, demanding their unfinished business be concluded. He was frustrated almost beyond endurance on both counts.
Jo’s hand closed on his arm. He’s only making conversation, trying to be friendly. He’s terrified, just like his Leska.
He clenched his hand into a fist, forcing his claws into the flesh of his palms in an effort not to respond to her touch. I know. I’m trying, dammit, but you know what’s wrong with me — with us! Unable to completely suppress it, a shudder of pleasure at her touch ran through him. “Dzaedoh,” he said through clenched teeth. “Likely you’ll not have heard of us.”
“Noni’s kin?” the youth said in surprise.
T’Chebbi moved over to sit opposite Rezac and Jo. “Link day?” she asked sympathetically. “Are rooms made ready for us through the door.” She jerked an ear to her right. “Go, take one now. See to your own needs. You put it off long enough.” When he hesitated, she added, “That’s an order, Warrior. I don’t need what you and your third are broadcasting, neither does anyone else.”
Relief flooded through him. He could see to their Link needs without feeling he was neglecting what he saw as his duty. It was good not to be the one with the final responsibility for once. He got to his feet, urging Jo to accompany him.
Giyesh was waiting in the corridor outside. She directed them to a cabin opposite the medic’s office. As the door closed behind them, Rezac relaxed the control he’d been fighting so hard to maintain. Reaching for Jo, he circled her waist with one arm, stroking the dark hair that crowned her head with his other hand. Breathing in her scent, he began to purr as their minds started to merge.
“Ah, you feel it too,” he whispered in her ear as his tongue gently rasped against her jawline. “After the battle, the need to pair with one you love, to know you are both still alive. Zashou despised that in me.”
“She’s not a Warrior,” Jo murmured, turning her face so their lips met, her fingers already beginning to unfasten the belt that held his tunic at the waist.
His tail flicked around her legs, holding them close against his. “You Humans are not so unlike us,” he purred.
With a start and a cry, Kaid woke, Carrie’s name on his lips as he sat bolt upright in bed. He shivered, chilled to the bone despite his sweat-soaked pelt.
T’Chebbi loomed over him with an extra blanket. “Bad dreams again?” she asked.
He took it gratefully, wrapping it round his shoulders for the time being. “More,” he said, clenching his teeth to stop them from chattering. He looked around the dimly lit cabin. “Where’s Giyesh?”
T’Chebbi shrugged. “Maybe still on duty.”
“I dreamed I was in cryo, and I could sense her there.”
“Carrie?” T’Chebbi sat down beside him, her nose creasing in worry as she flicked her long grey-brown plait over her shoulder. “That’s not possible. Cryo is a nothingness. Drugs make you sleep first, you don’t even feel the cold. Then you wake, and it’s over.”
He looked up, catching her gaze with his. “I was somewhere else, T’Chebbi, somewhere deadly cold — and she was there. I usually feel warmth from our crystal, but it’s been cold since we put her in cryo. Until now.” His hand emerged from the blanket, holding out the crystal he always wore. “Feel it.”
Leaning forward, she touched it gingerly with her forefinger. With an exclamation of shock, she pulled her hand sharply away.
He let the crystal fall back within the blanket, smiling wryly. “You felt it — too warm for just my body heat, isn’t it?”
“You told me Carrie sensed her mother dying in cryo. Is it possible that the Talented stay aware? That they don’t sleep?”
“Never heard of it happening. It could be a Human trait,” he replied.
She grunted. “What was the dream?”
“Only what I told you. Just being in this bitterly cold place and sensing Carrie and her fear. The sooner we get to Tuushu Station, the better. She’s terrified of cryo, T’Chebbi.”
“She’s safe asleep,” she said, her tone soothing as she touched his face briefly. “Can I get you anything? A hot drink? You should try to sleep again.”
“Nothing, thank you,” he said automatically, then hesitated. He wasn’t fooling either of them. “Join me. I’d like your company. Who’s on sentry duty in the mess?”
“Taynar and Kate. Slept long enough in cryo, they said. Tallis is on graveyard shift.”
“Should have left him on the Hkariyash,” he grumbled, glad to be dealing with more familiar issues as she slipped into the bed beside him. “He’s more trouble than all the others put together. He’s done nothing but complain since he came on board.” Pulling the blanket from his shoulders, he leaned over to drop it on the floor. T’Chebbi snagged it from him.
“We use this,” she said, spreading it over him. “You feel like you been in cryo. We can manage Tallis. His mind is sickened after what the Valtegans did to him. He needs help more than anything.”
He lay down, grateful for her warmth and company; it was helping dissipate the frozen images of his nightmare. As his shivering stopped, he could feel her soundless purr.
“You only had to ask if you wanted to join me,” he said awkwardly. “You have the right — you are my Companion.” He was finding it difficult to cope with his need for her company and the desire for Carrie’s he was walling away.
“Sleep,” she said, wrapping her arm across his chest and tucking her nose under his chin.
It had come as a shock to Jeran to find himself on Giyesh’s ship, almost as big a shock as it had to her, judging from her expression when they came face to face in the landing bay. Later, she’d managed to see him alone for long enough to arrange this meeting in the unused mess on the second deck. Sitting there at the main table, nursing a hot drink, he wondered why he’d come.
A shadow fell across the table and he looked up to see Giyesh standing in the doorway.
“I hoped you’d be here,” she said, closing the airlock door behind her.
“I hadn’t expected to see you again,” he said awkwardly.
“Neither had I.” She joined him at the table, sitting down opposite him. “This is rather embarrassing for both of us.”
He frowned. “Why? Only you and I know what happened that night.”
Giyesh looked away. “Not exactly,” she murmured. “The Captain overheard me talking to our medic.”
“We rescued the young ones, Taynar and Kate,” she said, her voice low. “Mrowbay thought he was an immature male. I told him likely he wasn’t.”
“You only came to spy on me?” He’d thought there had been more between them than that. A common attraction, a need for company that night at least.
“No! I came to talk to you, yes, to find out what I could about your people, but the rest . . . That was real.”
“So all your crew know about us? What did you do? Go into details? Tell them how desperate I was for female company?” he asked angrily.
“I said nothing to them, I swear I didn’t! Look, I didn’t have to tell you this,” she said defensively. “It was rather obvious that we’d slept with each other when I stayed away all night.”
“So now it’s my fault for keeping you with me?” He put his cup down with a thump.
“I didn’t say that,” she said, reaching out to touch his clenched hand. “I stayed with you because I wanted to, because you were so lonely.”
“I didn’t want your pity then, or now,” he growled, snatching his hand away. “And I didn’t need to be made a figure of fun among your crew. They must be laughing themselves sick every time they see me!”
“I didn’t mean it that way, Jeran, and they’re not laughing at you,” she said. “You don’t understand. Our ships, we’re all family, all related. It’s me the crew are laughing at, for getting caught by an alien. The Captain, my uncle, he’s mad at me!”
“Caught? How caught?” That surprised him, diverting his anger.
She shook her head, sending the mane of black hair swaying round her shoulders. “It’s not important,” she said. “But no one’s laughing at you, honestly.”
“I want to know. You’ve discussed personal matters about me with your medic, and your crew’s laughing at my expense too, whether you want to admit it or not. You owe me something in return.”
There was a hunted look in her eyes as she obviously searched for some answer to give him. “I’m of an age where I should have chosen a mate, but I haven’t,” she said finally.
He narrowed his eyes as he looked at her. She was being less than honest with him, he knew that. Not lying, but near to it. “I’m the first? Is that it?”
She pushed the chair back and got abruptly to her feet and headed for the exit. “Forget it, Jeran. It was a mistake meeting with you. I just didn’t want you thinking it was you the crew were laughing at.”
“Wait!” he said, leaping up to stop her. He caught up with her at the airlock, grasping her by the arm. “You’re not leaving without telling me why this is so amusing to your people.”
“You’re not U’Churian, and not a soldier,” she said.
“I told you. I was expected to choose my first partner and didn’t. Instead I asked to see the worlds outside our own, then I’d choose. This is my first mission.”
She was making no attempt to leave, even though she could probably get free quite easily. Releasing her arm, he reached for her mane of hair, taking hold of a lock that lay on her shoulder. “So why are we here? You didn’t get me to come here just to tell me this.”
“How would you know?” she countered, then stopped, blue eyes widening. “Unless you’re a telepath?”
“No, I’m not.” It was a mane, he realized, quite unlike Sholan hair. The night she’d come to him in the warehouse where he was imprisoned on Jalna, they’d talked, then one thing had rapidly led to another. They’d had no expectation of seeing each other again, so hadn’t wasted time on irrelevancies. Matters were slightly different now. She obviously wanted to see him again or she wouldn’t have suggested this meeting. He stood aside, gesturing to the table. “Stay for a little while. Tell me more about yourself and your people.”
Warily, she returned to the table, waiting till he sat down. “What do you want to know?”
“You say you’re all family on this ship. Are you all related, all soldiers?”
She nodded. “Our unit of the family lives on Home, but the largest one is on the Rryuk itself. We learned long ago during our civil wars that having Family in space meant your name would never die, no matter what happened on Home.”
He thought about this for a moment. “Who lives on the Rryuk? Just the soldiers?”
“No, everyone. Children too. How else could we be self-sustaining?”
“Space cities,” he murmured, watching her. He’d not realized just how blue her eyes seemed against her dark pelt. They matched her tunic. But then, the only light in the warehouse had come in from the space port outside through the small, reinforced window above the door. “How do you stop the inbreeding? We have a clan system similar to yours, but we’re free to bond with those outside our guild.”
“Guild?” She wrinkled her nose as she spoke.
“Professions, like your soldiers.”
“We can choose from the males on any of the Family’s ships, or even Home itself. There’s not just the Rryuks, but other lesser families who are allied to us and officially bear our name.”
“Are you training as a soldier now?”
She smiled, her sideways grin showing off her white teeth. He remembered her smile because the first time he’d seen it, he’d thought it a warning as it would have been with his people. “No, I was brought up as one. I began training as soon as I could walk. We females only stay home till we’ve had our first infant, then we go into service on one of the smaller craft till it’s time to breed again, if we wish.”
Breeding cycles, again very different. “But you chose not to do this.”
She nodded. “It angered my parents that I didn’t want to enrich the Family before taking service on the Profit, but the elders said I had leave to go if I wished.”
“And your uncle is one of the old-fashioned type, that’s why he’s angry with you for getting ‘caught’ by me. The others are amused because they’ve been around long enough to see the funny side.”
She nodded again, setting the silver colored ring in her right ear swaying.
“What’s Home like? With all those Families it must be pretty crowded.”
“Fairly. Lots of cities. When a male marries into the family, we add a room onto the settlement until there’s no more space, then a group start up a new settlement. We have a colony world now, and many younger people are setting up there rather than on Home or in space.”
“You marry for life then.” Her scent was bringing back more memories of their night together. Pairing with her had been like he imagined pairing with a feral would be — from her there’d been no inhibitions, no holding back. Surely she couldn’t mean he was her first lover?
“No, only for two or three seasons then we choose again. It makes sure there is always new blood in the family. What about your people? Do you have only one wife?”
“No. We take out bonding contracts for either three or five years if we wish to share our cubs,” he said. “Otherwise we have as many lovers as we wish. Our females can choose when they want to have cubs, they don’t have seasons, apart from their first.”
“Your way is quite different,” she said, her voice tailing off slightly. “Relationships outside our marriages aren’t tolerated.”
“What about between them, or before?” he asked, sliding across the intervening seat till he was sitting beside her. She wanted him, he could feel it, that’s why she’d suggested they meet here. The attraction between them was pure lust, nothing more — yet.
“Between is alright,” she said softly, turning to face him as he slid his arm across her shoulders, urging her closer. “But not before. That’s forbidden.”
“So you and I have broken quite a few rules between us.” His tongue flicked across her cheek while he traced a gentle finger down her throat, continuing over her tunic to her chest. He let his hand linger briefly on her small breasts before moving lower, coming to rest on her hip. Beneath her ship’s uniform, he could feel the braided cord that held up the loin cloth she wore. Everything about her excited him, from her exotic alien scent to the long, dark pelt that covered her body.
“Yes,” she said, but her voice was barely a whisper as she leaned against him. “I’d like to break them again, but not here.”
“Where then?” he asked, voice rough as he began to lick her ear.
“Two cabins up from here, there’s an empty guest one. If I go first,” she said, holding his face as her lips touched his, “and you follow in a minute . . . It has a privacy lock.”
He returned the kiss purposefully, his teeth catching gently at her lip as reluctantly, he released her. “Go now, before I get too carried away. I won’t be far behind you.”
Father Lijou sat with Guardian Dhaika in the other’s lounge at Vartra’s Retreat. They were drinking c’shar. The years had been kind to the elderly Sholan, he thought, watching the spring afternoon sun catch the reddish glints that still showed in the other’s dark hair and pelt.
“You seriously believe that it’s Brynne Stevens’ Triad we want, not Kaid’s?”
Lijou tried to ignore the tone of stark incredulity in Dhaika’s voice. “I do. I’ve thought it since Kaid returned to Stronghold after seeing Vartra here.” He had the satisfaction of seeing the faint gathering of Dhaika’s eye ridges that betrayed his discomfort at being reminded of the incident.
“That was unexpected. Did Kaid ever say what it was the God wanted?”
“No, but the change in him was marked. It would appear that in the end, Vartra’s will corresponds to Ghyakulla’s. As I said, I believe Noni is wrong. Brynne Stevens will be the Human bound to our world with his Triad, not Carrie Aldatan.”
“Brynne’s lack of cooperation over that Derwent character isn’t exactly conducive to trust in such a delicate matter as unity between our species,” murmured Dhaika. “He’s not what I’d call the epitome of a well-adjusted Human within a mixed Leska relationship.”
“The Gods choose whom They want, Dhaika, you know that. They see into a person’s soul. With all our Talents, that’s beyond us.”
“I know that.” The slightly acerbic tone was moderated immediately. “So what is it you’re suggesting?”
Lijou extended the claws on his right hand and gently tapped the arm of his chair. “Noni has a blind spot where Kaid is concerned. She’s letting what she wants to happen blind her to other possibilities. I think it’s time we — pursued — more viable options.”
“I’m as unhappy with the way she tracks downwind of the Council of Guardians as you are, but to actually work against her . . .”
“Not against her,” corrected Lijou. “For Shola, Dhaika. Look at it this way. The Aldatan En’Shalla Triad is the motivating force behind the changes on our world. They’ve had to fight for their freedom, and it’s been hard won. They can’t change what they are, become people of peace, tied into the land, raising cubs. For one, the military won’t let them. We need — Ghyakulla needs — a Triad that will do that. In Vanna Kyjishi and Garras Janagu, we have that. Look at the way they’ve both settled into managing the Clan and estate while Kusac and Carrie are away. Physician Kyjishi’s expecting a second cub, Garras’ this time. And Brynne has calmed down too. None of those tempestuous relationships with other females any more — in fact, apart from their Link days, he’s been celibate. Not only is he studying how to use his Talent at the Shrine, but since he had that vision from Ghyakulla, he’s become more interested in the religious side. He’s really Brotherhood priestly material, Dhaika. We should encourage this. We’d be fools not to. Think of it as listening to the Goddess rather than as working against Noni.”
“I hear you, but you haven’t convinced me.”
Lijou leaned forward and helped himself to one of the tiny savory pastries on the low table in front of him. He knew better: Dhaika would take very little more convincing. He was all but his now. “Shall we agree that if he comes to either of us and asks for further instruction, then it’s a clear sign that Ghyakulla has called him?” He popped the tidbit in his mouth.
Dhaika regarded him thoughtfully before replying. “If he comes of his own free will, then I will tutor him in the ways of the Goddess, and Her consort, Vartra. You’ve just been newly appointed as a Guardian, Lijou, so understand me well when I say I have no wish to Challenge Noni or the other females on our Council . . .”
“Nor have I,” interrupted Lijou. “I’m as aware as you that as two of the only three males, we’re outnumbered before we begin. But I am weary of the fact that in every level of our society there are political factions that serve only to advance their own view of how things should be. Free debate has been stifled for too long. We’ve become trapped in a quagmire of our own making, Dhaika, and we must break free if we’re to keep the superiority we now hold within the Alliance. I can’t help but feel there are desperate times ahead of us.”
The Guardian stirred in his seat. “I thought matters had improved since Esken’s power had been broken.”
“They have, and even more so since he retired three weeks ago, but we need to evolve, Dhaika! As a society, we’ve been stagnant for too long. Growth and change are what we need, even if that change cuts us like a polar wind! But it’s not just that that concerns me. We’ve still got the threat of the Valtegans hanging over our heads.”
Dhaika sighed, reaching for his drink. “Fear has always been an unpleasant bedfellow. No news of the escaped Valtegan?”
“Kezule? None. A sustained search of the Taykui Forest margins has turned up nothing, now they’re spreading the net further. General Raiban would like to hold us at Stronghold responsible, but her people were on duty that night.” He didn’t want to get drawn further into this discussion. The media weren’t aware of the escape of Kezule and Keeza Lassah, the Sholan female incarcerated with him as a spy. That there were two psychopaths loose in their continent’s major game forest was a circumstance that deeply humiliated both the Brotherhood and the Forces. He made an effort to return to the original discussion.
“About Brynne Stevens,” he began.
“I have said that if he comes to either of us of his own free will, with no prompting, then I will train him as our Order dictates,” interrupted Dhaika.
“Even in dream walking?” He pushed his point home.
“Yes, even that — if I believe Ghyakulla has called him!”
Lijou let his breath out in a gentle huff. “Thank you, Dhaika. All I’m asking is that we don’t close our eyes to what could be in front of us.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Dhaika. “My position here as Guardian is to ensure that those called to the Brotherhood by Vartra or His Companion, Ghyakulla, receive the proper religious instruction in our mysteries. It’s time Ghyakulla was allowed to call those She chooses, regardless of our esteemed matriarchs’ personal wishes and their perceived political implications.”
Lijou could hear a touch of acerbic enthusiasm creeping into Dhaika’s voice. At last! It had been an uphill struggle convincing the older male. Though he could see to the normal instruction of their Order, the advanced religious studies were Dhaika’s provenance, and that included dream-walking. He was only just beginning to realize how much more he had to learn about that psychic art.
He inclined his head in agreement, as much to hide the small smile as to show respect for the other. “You’re absolutely right, Guardian Dhaika. It’s time for us to listen to the deities once more.”
Like a silent shadow, Ashay padded alongside Quin as they made their way through the spaceport gates toward the hotel. Though the heavy fighting was over, it was still not safe for either of the two Humans on Jalna to walk alone through the spaceport area. Ashay was the perfect escort. No one in their right mind would argue with a Sumaan. Six feet tall to the shoulder, plus another foot for the mobile neck and its attached head, the reptilian Sumaan were formidable mercenaries. Heavily muscled hind legs and a tail almost as thick as his torso gave Ashay a bulkiness that belied his agility, speed and immense strength. As they passed through the check-point, the young Sumaan’s neck curved downward, bringing his head on a level with the guard’s. Lips pulled back from the tombstone teeth as he smiled his greeting.
Catching the guard’s shudder as the youngster passed through, Quin smiled to himself. He could understand the Jalnian’s reaction. He’d felt the same until he’d gotten to know Captain Kishasayzar and his crew.
There had been a lot of rapid changes, he noted as he approached the inner fenced area where the hotel and the tower that had been Lord Bradogan’s stood. The guards waved them through without challenging them: the crew of the Hkariyash were well known to Tarolyn’s men by now.
Port workers were still piling rubbish from the deceased Lord’s dwelling onto the smouldering bonfire in front of the tower. Its acrid smoke coiled lazily up into the heat-blanched sky. Everyone had known what kind of man Bradogan was, but the new Port Lord hadn’t been prepared for the sight that met his eyes in the basement cells. Treating several of Bradogan’s prisoners had been beyond Jalna’s primitive medical skills and Tarolyn had needed to ask for help from those species still berthed in the port. He’d then refused to enter the keep again until it had been gutted and all trace of its former owner erased.
It was the two Humans who’d been able to offer the most aid as they were physiologically closest to the Jalnians. Quin had just come from checking on their patients at the makeshift infirmary that had been set up in one of the warehouses. As well as those who had been subjected to Bradogan’s idea of hospitality, several Jalnians were being treated for energy weapon burns and a variety of sword and knife wounds sustained during the pitched battle in the port the day before.
Tarolyn, flanked by his faithful bodyguards, was holding court in the main foyer of the ehotel. Seeing Quin enter, he dismissed the assorted crowd of alien traders and their Jalnian agents that had been clamoring for his attention, and gestured him to approach. As the traders and agents moved aside, Quin could see Conrad sitting at the end of Tarolyn’s table. Like himself, he’d reverted to using the black fatigues that were the Humans’ Warrior Guild uniform.
“Get him a seat,” the Lord ordered one of his guards as the Human approached. “And a drink for them both,” he added to Conrad. “The heat outside is enough to scorch even the Sumaan’s hide. How are your patients today, Quin?”
“Improving,” Quin said, taking off the black baseball-like cap that protected his balding head from the sun. Gratefully he accepted the glasses of water that his colleague slid across the table to him. He handed the first to Ashay, who then ambled off to sit with the guards, and drained the second himself. “Another couple of days and all but five of them will be able to go home. I’d like the physician on the Rhijissoh to examine three of those, though. Their medics have more sophisticated equipment than us and will be able to analyze your species so we know exactly what drugs we can use. All I can do at the moment is make them as comfortable as possible.” He’d already decided not to mention that at least one was unlikely to survive the day.
Railin Tarolyn narrowed his eyes as he listened to Quin. “So why didn’t your Sholan friends wait for this ship?”
“Carrie was too badly injured, Lord Tarolyn,” began Conrad.
“I asked him,” Railin interrupted, continuing to look at Quin as he took the proffered chair and sat down opposite the lord.
“It’s exactly as he said. Her injuries were so severe that the Rhijissoh couldn’t have dealt with her properly. They scanned her on the Profit and we now know the bullet is lodged against her spine. On its way in, the bullet hit one of her ribs and splinters of bone have caused tissue and organ damage. The Rhijissoh simply doesn’t have the specialized surgical facilities necessary for operating on a Human so badly injured. If she’d been Sholan,” he shrugged. “Far better to stabilize her in the Profit cryo facilities, then get her to the rendezvous ship as quickly as possible.”
Railin grunted. “Let me know how she fares. What of the Sholan woman that lost her child?”
“Zashou’s comfortable. They’re building her strength up with Sholan protein drinks until they’re sure the poison from the Jalnian food is out of her system,” said Quin, refilling his glass from a jug on the table.
“A tragedy,” said Railin. “But the child was better dead than living so malformed. I had not thought it possible that the poison in our soil could do that. But she’s young, there’s plenty time for more children. I’ve decided to leave security matters at the port as they are for now. People know where they are, know what to expect. Better to make my changes gradually, there’ll be chaos otherwise. How long before this ship of yours arrives?”
“Another three days,” said Conrad. “When they do, they’ll be sending down a Contact team in a shuttle. I’ve been asked to request quarters for them close by your own.”
“They can stay in a suite of rooms here,” said Railin, pulling his pipe and smoking herb from his belt pouch. He glanced up at Conrad. “Who are they coming to talk to? Us, or our alien customers?”
“All those species who want to talk to them,” said Quin. “Including yourselves.”
Railin tamped the tobacco down in the pipe bowl with the end of his small belt knife. As he reached for his flint box, Conrad pulled a lighter from his pocket and flicked it, letting it burn for a moment before handing it to Railin.
“Please keep it,” he said as the Lord turned the object thoughtfully over in his hand before igniting his tobacco with it.
So begins their throw-away society, sent Quin.
No need to be so cynical, replied Conrad.
“Thank you,” Railin said, placing it on the table beside his tobacco pouch. “An interesting little toy.”
“We’ve many more like this in the Alliance,” said Conrad quietly. And before you jump down my throat, I’ve been authorized to give him a few . . . inducements.
“Yesterday, you and Quin offered to bring me some supplies from Galrayn in your scouter. I think we’d all eat more easily if we know the food is uncontaminated. I’ve had a list prepared for you.” Railin slid the piece of parchment across the table toward Quin. “It may mean two trips, but I think you’d agree fresh meat and vegetables are worth the time it’ll take. And if you could also bring my cook,” his genial face lit up at the thought, “then I can promise you a meal second to none.”
Conrad looked across at Quin. “Sounds fine to me.” Turning back to Railin, he said, “I’ve been authorized to let you have a communications device for your estate, to enable you to speak instantly with your steward from anywhere on Jalna. The Alliance negotiators know it’s vital that you remain in touch with your people for the duration of their visit, and are prepared to do what they can to facilitate this.”
Railin puffed gently on his pipe, releasing a small cloud of aromatic smoke. “Very good of them, considering they need me more than I need them. What makes this Alliance of yours so sure that the other species will want them here?”
“I’m afraid I can’t comment on that, Lord Tarolyn,” said Conrad. “We’re not actually part of the negotiating team. We’ve merely been asked to remain here to act as envoys for them. But I will say that two of the Alliance species already trade here — the Chemerians and the Sumaan.”
“You have everyone at a disadvantage for the time being, Lord Tarolyn,” said Quin, picking his words carefully. “But may I respectfully suggest that you tread carefully and don’t overplay your hand? If you make demands that could be considered unreasonable, then there is nothing to stop the traders combining to build a space station.”
The new Port Lord raised a bushy eyebrow. “I think not. I may be just a dirt-sider to you, but I’ve some idea of the cost of such an undertaking, in people and time if not money.”
He’s sharp, no doubt about that, sent Quin. Nobody’s fool. “With four more species to divide the cost among them, I don’t think that’s going to be a major consideration. What you really want is help with the environment, isn’t it? You want your people free of this madness that comes from the land. Bradogan played on it, used it to his advantage to control the goods coming onto Jalna.”
Railin narrowed his eyes. “I want it understood that Jalnians are not violent by nature. The cause of it is our poisoned soil and not all of us are tainted by it. With help, those who are can be freed. We could then take our rightful place in space with the rest of you.”
“You have one major point in your favor,” said Conrad. “The Sholans, who are the senior partner in the Alliance, have no love for the Chemerians, and it was the Chemerians who branded you as an unstable species. The Sholan government may well be prepared to back your request for aid with both the Free Traders and the Alliance to pay back the Chemerians for witholding information concerning the existence of the Free Traders.”
“And the Chemerians?” asked Railin.
“Will say nothing, having been exposed as untrustworthy to both the Free Traders and the Alliance by having kept silent about the existence of both groups.”
“I only want what is right and fair for my people. The technology you all possess would help us rise above what we are and become more. It isn’t as if we have nothing to offer in return.”
“You have your location for one,” murmured Quin.
“Jump points are rare,” explained Conrad. “That’s why Jalna is so important to the Free Traders. It’s a point where they can most easily converge for trade. It’s a little further for the Alliance, but still economically viable, I would think.”
“For people not concerned with negotiating, your words are very much to the point, and in our favor,” murmured Railin. “Why?”
“You’re not so dissimilar from us,” said Conrad, shifting in his chair. “Our friends’ time as Killian’s guests reminded us of the basics of life — a safe place to live, good food, and our health.” If the Jalnians are accepted, he sent to Quin, it advances Earth’s arguments to become full Alliance members rather than associates.
“Talking of which,” said Railin, looking toward the foyer desk. “I see that damned manager is standing around doing nothing. It’s past midday, time we had something substantial to eat and drink. You can tell me about this communications device of yours before you leave for Galrayn.”
Naira and Zsyzoi were on the inland detail, working their way outward toward the margins of the Taykui Forest where they’d meet up with their opposite numbers. The cold wind ruffled Naira’s hair, making him shiver.
“We’re not going to find him,” he muttered to his sword-sister. “He’s long gone by now — and he knows our world.”
“Only the desert area near Chezy and the Kysubi plains, and they’ve changed a hell of a lot since his day,” said Zsyzoi quietly, edging forward slowly as she scanned her surroundings through the IR visor. “We have to keep looking. Now shut up, I can hear you complain anytime.”
“How’d he get out anyway? You manage to pick up any gossip yet?”
“Naira, be quiet! At this rate, they’ll hear us long before we hear them,” she hissed angrily before coming to an abrupt stop and rounding on him. “Or is that the point of all your chatter?”
“Of course not!” he replied, stung by her accusation. “How could you . . .”
A dark shape launched itself toward them from the branch of a nearby tree. They separated, one to either side, diving for cover as the creature leaped beyond them, landing deep in the undergrowth.
Zsyzoi was already on her feet, tracking its passage as it headed deeper into the forest. She let out a string of expletives as she relaxed and began to brush the debris from the forest floor off her clothing and pelt. “Another four-legger,” she said with disgust.
“Are you sure?” Naira asked, scrambling to his feet and peering in the direction of the still swaying vegetation.
“Sure,” she confirmed. “Only the ferals move like that, we can’t. Come on, we still got another four hours before we’re through for the night.”
She suppressed her elation as she crashed through the ground cover, heading deeper into the night. She might have escaped the hunters this time, but they’d surprised her, cut her off from her den and forced her to move on before she was ready. Speed was what she needed now, to put distance between them and her. Running till she could go no further, she collapsed to the ground, sides heaving, gasping for air.
Gradually her breathing slowed and the ache in her lungs eased. In its wake came the dull, dragging ache of her injuries. Whimpering, she curled up in herself, hugging her belly and straining to lick at the still-weeping slashes on her flank.
They were deep, and the fluid they wept was bitter, making her feel sick and light-headed again. Only hunger had driven her from the safety of her den in the first place. It was a miracle she’d managed to escape the hunters at all in her weakened condition.
She had to keep moving, find shelter and food before morning left her exposed to the light. Still whimpering softly, she uncurled and staggered to her feet.
On board the Rryuk’s Profit, a level on one of the cryo units fluctuated. The computer registered it, initiating a first-level diagnostic check on the system.
On Shola, Brynne stirred in his sleep, muttering incoherently before settling again to dream of moonlit forests.
In Vartra’s temple at Stronghold, Lijou crumbled the incense into the brazier on the God’s right. His mind was wandering, and not, for once, fully on his task. He was thinking of Kaid, what it must have been like for him to go back in time and meet the God, Vartra in the flesh.
“Disbelief,” said a voice in his ear as a strong grip closed on his forearm. “The first time is always the worst,” it continued conversationally.
Around him, the temple seemed to darken and swirl. Lijou made a mewling noise and tried to pull back.
“So you’re the new Guardian. And Tallinu’s mentor.”
Lijou was suddenly very afraid. The hand grasping his arm was real; the claws were sharp and beginning to prick into his flesh. It was none of the Brothers, he knew the smell of each one and all he could smell now was the scent of the Nung tree. He peered through the dim flickering light at the figure beside him but the face was hidden in deep shadow.
“Who are you?” he asked, hearing the tremor in his voice.
A gentle laugh. “You shouldn’t need to ask,” the voice chided. “How could I neglect you, the head of the En’Shalla Order? I have work for you, Father Lijou. I see your esteemed matriarchs neglected to tell you that participating in the ritual of dream-walking made it possible for me to reach you easily.”
Half an hour later, Lijou stumbled from the temple, blinking rapidly in the brighter lights of the entrance hall. The night watch were at his side instantly only to be dispatched by him for his co-Guild Master. Instead they sent for L’Seuli, who fetched Master Rhyaz.
“He gave you this?” asked Rhyaz. Stunned, he stood looking at the metal disc L’Seuli had put into his palm.
“Yes, Master,” said L’Seuli. “I recognized it immediately.”
“Take me to him.”
When they stopped outside the watch ready room, Rhyaz looked again at the coin in his hand. “Tell me once more how he said he got it.”
“He said the God gave it to him. How did he get the Brotherhood Sigil, Master Rhyaz?”
“I hope I’m about to find out, L’Seuli,” Rhyaz answered as he placed his hand on the door, ready to push it open. “I keep this in the safe. No one has access to it but me. It’s the original sigil, minted when our Order was founded.”