Stronghold Rising Excerpt by on

Stronghold, Zhal-S’Asha (Month of Approaching Darkness), 18th day, 1551

The door behind him opened and closed. Ignoring the soft footfall, he continued to stare out across the Dzahai Mountains.

“I thought I’d find you here.”

“If you’ve come to persuade me not to go, you’ll fail,” he said shortly, trying to contain the anger that had been building now for several days.

“There’s no need for it to be you, surely. Since you came back from Haven, your — health — has not been good. Lijou and Rhyaz don’t even know that the message is genuine. Are you positive someone else couldn’t . . .”

“I’m going”, he interrupted, the other’s slight hesitation not lost on him. “As head of AlRel, you know why I was asked for specifically.”

There was a short silence. “At least delay it by a day or two, Kusac. It shouldn’t make any . . ”

“I’m leaving at dawn, when I know Carrie’s had their cub,” he said coldly. “To delay any longer would be disastrous.”

“Preparations aren’t complete. They haven’t found a way to access the ship to re-provision it yet. Rhyaz says we risk everything if you leave so precipitously.”

The tenuous control snapped and he spun round, ears lying flat and to the side, tail visibly lashing beneath the purple-bordered black tunic he wore. “You risk nothing! Have you any idea of what these last few months have been like for me, cut off mentally from my Leska link with Carrie, and from Kaid?”

“I can imagine . . .”

“You cannot! Now get out of here and leave me alone! You’ve had my answer! I’m leaving as soon as their cub is born! You know I have to!” He spun back to face the window, his gesture an obvious dismissal to the older black-pelted male.

He waited for the sound of the door again before allowing his shoulders to slump in exhaustion. The life he’d lost during his captivity with the Primes was almost within his grasp again, and they were asking him to turn his back on it. More, this venture, which had no guarantee of even being worthwhile, would cost him his reputation: he’d be outcast, branded a traitor by his own kind, unable to return until the outcome cleared his name — if it ever did.

He leaned his head against the glass, welcoming its coolness against his face and hands. Winter was barely three weeks away. Nearly five months had passed since he’d returned from Haven after his release by the Primes, and still he’d not come to terms with what had happened to him. Certain events must be resolved, like the scents only he could smell that had lingered on the message.
He had to leave Shola now, before it was too late for him to get the answers he had to have.

Frustration and anger rose in him again and as his hair and the pelt beneath his tunic started to rise, he began to growl. The torc that circled his neck started to vibrate warningly. Ignoring it and the subsequent brief flare of pain the strong emotion still occasionally caused, he lifted his head, letting the growl become a full-throated roar that echoed round the room. Those who still remained in the almost-empty halls of Stronghold understood its cause — and shivering, turned to each other for reassurance.

As the echoes died away, he shuddered, trying to shake off the remaining discomfort and returned to looking across the moonlit landscape, far beyond Dzahai village, to where Kaid’s home lay. Like images on an entertainment comm, memories of his time on Haven began to form before his eyes.

 Five months earlier

Haven, Zhal-Zhalwae (month of the Sun God) 22nd day, 1551 (May)

With a jolt, sweating and shaking, he was suddenly awake. Strong hands gripped his arms, holding him firmly down on the bed. Terror surged through him as he imagined himself back in his cell on the Kz’adul, held once more by the armored Prime guard. The scent of his jailer, J’koshuk, the Valtegan torturer-priest, was strong in his nostrils. Fear kept his eyes tightly shut as he braced himself for the next blow from the electronic animal prod.

“Kusac, you’re safe on Haven with us”, said a quiet voice in Sholan. “You had a bad dream.”

He opened his eyes: by the dim light in the IC unit, he could see a vaguely familiar tan-pelted face looking down at him. The bed to one side of him moved. Confused, he slowly turned his head, aware of a stabbing pain in his neck as he did. All he could see was an indistinct figure leaning over the night table until the room began to brighten: he recognized her long blond hair instantly. Memory returned in a rush then: he was no longer the Primes’ prisoner, he was on the Brotherhood outpost of Haven, located far from Shola, on the borders of Chemerian space.

Carrie leaned over him, gently caressing his cheek. “You can let him go now, Kaid.”

The pressure on his arms was lifted as Kaid, still watching him carefully, sat back. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a faint croak came out.

“I’ll fetch you some water,” said Carrie, getting up.

Reaching for Kaid’s arm, he grasped it, using his friend’s strength to help him sit up. The sudden movement made him aware of a dull, throbbing headache. When Carrie passed him the glass, he drained it while she piled pillows behind him.

“How long have you been here?” he asked Kaid as Carrie urged him to lean back.

“I came up after the talks broke for the night.” Kaid nodded toward the chair not far from the bed. “I slept there. We’re a Triad, Kusac. Where else would I be but here with you and Carrie?”

Even as feelings blocked off too long by the Primes’ implant began to well up inside him, he felt the warning tingling at the base of his skull. Instinctively, he retreated behind the mental barriers that had given him some little protection from the tortures J’koshuk had inflicted on him. Then Carrie was hugging him, her warmth and scent driving the last remnants of the nightmare away. With one arm, he clumsily returned the embrace, his other hand reaching for Kaid, needing to touch them both.

“I’ve never been alone,” he whispered. “I’ve always sensed others around me. Now there’s nothing. I’m mind-dead.” It was a statement
of fact, like he might say his pelt was black. He felt numb, as empty of emotions as he had on the Prime ship.

“Your psi Talent will come back,” Kaid reassured him. “Until it does, we’ll never be far from you. Getting you back to full health is our

“You’re not mind-dead,” said Carrie forcefully. “You just need time for your mind to heal now that the implant’s been deactivated and

He remembered the implant and felt just under his jaw for the dressing that circled his neck. Like his head, it had begun to throb. He ignored it: compared to the unremitting pain J’koshuk had inflicted on him, it was nothing. “How much damage did it do?” he asked, trying to remember what Kaid had said the night before.

“Damage isn’t the right word,” said Kaid. “It was — invasive. With Valtegans who volunteer to become soldiers, its normal purpose is to take over the brain’s hormone production and release. It does this by growing tendrils that create their own neural connections in the brain. They’re not functioning now the control unit’s been removed.”

“He’s just wakened, Tallinu, it’s too soon to go into all these details.” Carrie said.

“I need to know,” he said, glancing at her. “What are these tendrils? Could they become active again?”

“Without the external unit, they shouldn’t be able to become active. The TeLaxaudin bio-engineered the implants for the Primes — they’re part device and part a living tissue that bonds with the host. You’re being kept in IC for the time being until the physician is sure your own system has stabilized and is functioning properly again. And in case you have another seizure,” Kaid added, hand tightening round his.

He’d forgotten about that. “Have they found out what caused it yet?”

“Them,” corrected Kaid gently. “You had more than one. No, we don’t know, but you haven’t had once since the unit was removed twelve hours ago, which is encouraging. Kzizysus, the TeLaxaudin physician, helped remove the implant. He’s taken copies of your scans and medical data back to the Prime ship to study, to see if he can discover what caused the seizures.”

“Chi’qui implanted me, he should have some idea,” he said sharply, his ears folding in the beginnings of anger.

Kaid glanced briefly at Carrie. “Kzizysus didn’t actually see you having the first seizure, Kusac. Doctor Chy’qui only called him in to adjust the implant. The subsequent seizures could have been caused either by a failure of the implant to take completely, or by it trying to adapt to your alien physiology. It wasn’t designed for Sholan use after all, only for the Valtegans.”

“Are you saying that there’s some doubt about whether I needed an implant at all? That this Chy’qui could have been lying?” He felt anger surging through him, bringing with it the familiar wave of pain. J’koshuk had inadvertently taught him how to cope with pain. After being cut off from his emotions for so long, it was almost a relief to feel anger, no matter the cost.

“It’s a possibility,” agreed Carrie, reaching out to touch him reassuringly. “We were only able to find out as much as we have because of Annuur, leader of Captain Tirak’s Cabbaran navigators. He was able to translate what Kzizysus said for us. The Cabbarans are old allies of the TeLaxaud — they have a natural talent that allows them to communicate with the TeLaxaudin more accurately than any other species.”

“Why did he do it?” he demanded, pulling his hand away from Kaid’s and sitting upright. “Why implant me if I didn’t need it?”

“To experiment on you and Carrie,” said Kaid. “Chy’qui knew you were a Leska pair, but he didn’t know about me until after Doctor Zayshul had operated on Carrie. He was the one responsible for keeping the three of us apart, and for letting J’koshuk torture you.”

His anger grew, exacerbating the dull aches in his head and neck. As his pelt and hair rose, so too did the pain level until he felt as if every nerve in his body was on fire. “I want to see Chi-qui now,” he snarled, shaking his head in an effort to relieve the pain as he tried to force himself back to calmness.

Kaid put a restraining hand on his arm. “No. It’s over, Kusac. Chy’qui’s been arrested by the Primes, not only for ordering J’koshuk to torture you, but for using you to try and kill Prince Zsurtul. He’ll be dealt with, believe me. I’m going to demand I be allowed to scan his mind later today. I want to know why you were implanted as much as you do.”

Thrusting Kaid aside, he flung the covers back, attempting to get up. “I want to see him myself. Dammit, Kaid!” he snarled angrily, fending off his sword-brother’s efforts to prevent him from rising, “Let me go! If not him, then Doctor Zayshul! I need answers!” In the distance, he could hear the faint sound of an alarm.

“I can’t allow you see any of the Primes while you’re in this state, Kusac.”

The door slid open, a blue-coated physician rushing over to them as Kaid used his full strength to force him back against the pillows.

“I told you he was to be kept calm!” snapped the physician.

His rage spiraled out of control, leaving his body wracked with pain. As the physician leaned over him, he caught sight of the hypoderm. Though every movement, every touch was agony, he twisted to one side, trying to avoid the medic’s hand while redoubling his efforts to escape from Kaid’s grasp.

“No sedatives! La’quo, they gave me la’quo, Kaid!” Then he felt the chill of the hypo nozzle touching his skin. “No! ” He was frantic
now, but as he felt the sting of the pressurized drug being injected, he knew it was too late. Even as he flinched, it began to take effect. He collapsed back on the bed, his limbs robbed of their strength as the drug swept quickly through him. As it did, the pain began to recede.

“Don’t want to sleep,” he said with difficulty, fighting to keep his eyes open as Kaid released him. “Dreams — always bad dreams.”

“There won’t be any, Kusac,” said Kaid, reaching out to run gentle fingers across his jawline. “The Physician knows about the la’quo. This sedative won’t activate any still in your system. I understand your anger at what Chy’qui’s cost you, but you have to let it go. Nothing can undo what you’ve been through, but he will be punished for it, you have my word. Rest easy now, we’ll stay with you.”

As he lost his battle to stay conscious, Kaid’s voice began to fade.

the Kz’adul, month of Zhal-Zhalwae 4th day (May)

The smell of unfamiliar antiseptics was strong in the air. Had they reached their rendezvous so soon? It seemed like only the night before he’d gone to sleep. Automatically, he reached for Carrie with his mind.

Pain exploded at the base of his skull, coursing down his spine then out to his limbs and tail. As spasms wracked his body, he yowled in fear and shock. He was falling, but back arched and limbs rigid, he was unable to move to save himself. He slammed into the floor, the impact knocking any remaining air from his lungs. Wave upon wave of fiery agony surged through his body as he lay there barely able to gasp for breath. It seemed to last forever, then as suddenly as it had begun, it stopped and his body went limp. But the pain remained.

Whimpering softly, he attempted to move his trembling limbs, tried to curl himself into a ball. Every movement, no matter how small, hurt; where his body touched the floor, where his limbs touched each other, it felt as if he was still being consumed by the fire that had surged through him.

He heard footsteps approaching and slowly tilted his head toward them. He knew fear as a scent he’d never thought to smell again filled his nostrils. Blurred images were all he could see because of the tears in his eyes; he blinked in an effort to clear them. The shapes resolved themselves into the hem of a red robe above a pair of booted feet.

“Your name is Kusac, and you’re my prisoner,” the Valtegan said, his Sholan overlaid by a faint lisping hiss as his tongue tried to form the alien sounds. “You have just had your first lesson in the futility of using your mind powers. Unless you enjoyed the experience, I suggest you don’t attempt it again. If you do, the collar you wear round your neck will respond by delivering the pain you just experienced. It also sends a signal to my wrist unit. I will then administer more pain. I control the amount, the severity, and its duration. In short, I control you.”

He tried to speak but his throat was so dry and sore that he began to cough, sending fresh agony lancing through his body. When the coughing ceased, he pushed himself up on his hands until his head and chest were clear of the floor. Reptilian yellow eyes regarded him dispassionately from a pale green face. On his wrist, the Valtegan wore what Kusac recognized as a control bracelet.

“What do you want from me?” he whispered. “Who are you?”

“I am Inquisitor Priest J’koshuk, lately in the service of General M’ezozakk, Planetary Governor to His Imperial Highness, Emperor M’iok’kul, may His name be revered for all time. Now I serve the Primes.” He indicated the guard standing several feet behind him.

He looked, and the sight made the knot of fear in the pit of his stomach swell. The guard stood like a statue, a pistol trained directly at him. Over the suit of black, non-reflective battle armor was a white tabard-like garment. He looked higher, seeing the almost-rippling surface of the face plate. Nausea welled up inside him and he looked away quickly. Where had the Valtegans gotten these allies from?

“Why am I a prisoner? Where are my companions?”

“I have told you all you need to know. Stand up,” J’koshuk ordered.

The pain was beginning to subside at last, and as he slowly pushed himself upright on his still-shaking limbs, he realized just who the priest was. M’ezozakk had been the Governor of Keiss, the Human colony world where Carrie had lived before the Sholans had liberated it from the Valtegans. J’koshuk had been the one responsible for torturing Carrie’s twin sister to death in an effort to gain information about the Human resistance movement there. How the hell had they gotten hold of the Profit and all aboard her? And what of Carrie, and Kaid — and T’Chebbi? Were they even still alive? Carrie must be, despite her injuries, because otherwise — he’d be dead too. Yet he couldn’t sense her at all.

Pain gripped him again, felling him to the floor. His nerves already inflamed by the previous punishment, this time it felt a thousand times worse. He lay there, keening his agony, unable to stop because somehow, it helped lessen the pain. Finally, it ceased.

“You took too long,” said J’koshuk. “Now get up.”

Every muscle in his body shrieked its objections as, still hypersensitized, he tried to move. Hands slick with sweat slipped on the tiled floor, unable to gain a purchase. He clawed at the gaps between the tiles, finally managing to get a grip and lift his head and shoulders. J’koshuk was reaching for his wrist unit again.

“No! For pity’s sake, no more,” he gasped, pushing himself up onto his haunches. “I’ll never stand if you do it again!”

“Pity?” said J’koshuk, thoughtfully. “An interesting concept. I have none,” he said, his voice suddenly cold. He pressed the button, releasing it again almost instantly.

This time, when the brief jolt of energy from the collar surged through his nervous system, his body arched upward and he found himself staggering to his feet.

“See how quickly you learn?” the priest said, turning his back on him. “You’ll follow me to your new quarters.”

“Wait! Where am I? Tell me what it is you want!”

J’koshuk stopped, looking over his shoulder. “I won’t tolerate curiosity in my captives,” he said, brow creasing. “I will not be so lenient next time. You have been told all you need to know for now. As for what I want, you’ll find out later, when you fully realize how dependant on me you are.” With that, the priest gestured to the guard. “Take charge of him.”

The guard stirred, then moments later another, wearing only the black armor, entered. Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, he strode toward him.

His mind seemed to freeze as, swaying slightly, he waited for the guard. It was only when the gloved hand closed round his arm, pressing tightly into his flesh that his mind began to function again. Powered armor. The Valtegans had had nothing like this on Keiss. What the hell was going on here?

He was afraid, mortally afraid, but as he was dragged staggering out of the medical area, Kaid’s training came back to him, giving him something to focus on other than his fear. With difficulty, he pushed it to the back of his mind and concentrated on his surroundings. The corridors told him nothing — they could be anywhere — a space station, a ship, or even a building complex on some world. The air was odorless, scrubbed clean by recycling plants.

Then J’koshuk and the white-robed Prime stopped at the open door of a small room, waiting for them. As he was led inside, he saw it contained only a bed and basic sanitary facilities.

The sound of an electronic translator speaking Sholan startled him, and he twisted around in the guard’s grasp to stare at J’koshuk and the Prime. As he did, the grip on his arm tightened viciously and he was jerked back.

“I will examine him before leaving you to your work,” it said. “I want to check that the drug levels are adequate.”

Drugs? What kind of drugs? He didn’t feel drugged.

“As you wish,” replied the priest.

Abruptly, the guard released him, turning him round before stepping back and unslinging his rifle. He took up a position in front of the still open door.

“Sit,” said the Prime, unclipping a small unit from the belt that circled his tabard.

The fear came rushing back despite his efforts to remain calm. The smallness of the room was amplifying it, making him feel even more trapped and powerless.

“I’d prefer to stand,” he said.

The next moment, he was staggering backward, his face burning from the force of J’koshuk’s slap. Colliding with the side of the bed, he found himself abruptly sitting down.

“When you are given an order, you will obey it instantly,” said the priest, his skin darkening with anger as he displayed a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth. “You will not speak unless given leave to do so. Do you understand?”

Too shocked by pain and the speed with which the Valtegan had moved to answer, he merely nodded.

J’koshuk’s hand lashed out again, to be caught in mid-air by the Prime. “Later,” he said. “I wish to examine him now.”

“He didn’t answer me,” said J’koshuk angrily, pulling his arm free.

“You did not give him leave to do so,” the translator said. The Prime reached out to take hold of him by the jaw. “I wish to examine the implant on your neck. You will sit still while I do this.”

Involuntarily, his hand went up to pull away the Prime’s. As his fingers curled round the gloved wrist, the Prime moved his grip until the thumb and index finger pressed deep into the soft tissue under his jaw, forcing his head up.

“Do not presume to touch me. You are not indispensable. We can get what we want from one of the other members of your crew. You will release me and you will sit still while I examine you, otherwise the priest will use the pain collar again.”

He let go, sitting there while the Prime put a small scanning device up to the left side of his neck. At least he’d gotten some information out of the alien. He now knew that they had everyone from the Profit. A wave of dizziness swept through him, blurring his vision and making him lightheaded. By the time it had passed, the Prime had left and the door was closing, leaving him alone with the priest and guard.

The side of his neck began to itch and he put his hand up to investigate. He was shocked to find a hard, regular — something — attached to the flesh just under his left ear. As he probed it carefully with his fingertips, he began to feel sick. Immediately he stopped touching it, the nausea disappeared.

“That’s the implant,” said J’koshuk, his tone conversational. “The Primes control it, and their drugs control your mind. Already your ability to communicate mentally with other members of your crew is being destroyed. It won’t prevent you trying, but when you do, it will alert the collar. Every time you feel any emotion but fear, it will trigger the collar and my wrist unit. You know what happens then. Pain.”

He tried to take in the enormity of what the Valtegan was saying, but his mind seemed to have shut down again and he could only stare blankly at him.

“You asked what I wanted from you. It’s not what I want, but what the Primes want,” J’koshuk said, moving closer. “Information about your people’s involvement on the Human world of Keiss. And the female they found in a cryo unit like yours.”

That roused him. They’d found Carrie. He prayed she was still in cryo because if she was, then it would be easier for him to face their inevitable deaths. “I’ll tell you nothing,” he said.

Another blow to his face sent him sprawling sideways across the bed.

“I didn’t give you leave to speak. Make no mistake, you’ll tell me everything I want to know. Eventually.” J’koshuk hissed quietly. “Especially if you want news of your Human female.”

As he pushed himself upright again, he realized what was wrong about this whole situation. J’koshuk had known his name. More, he knew about telepaths, and that Carrie was mentally linked to him. How had he found out? Surely none of the others would have told him?

“So she’s a telepath too?” The Valtegan’s voice was silky quiet.

He looked up sharply, realizing even as he cursed himself that he must have spoken aloud. What kind of drugs were they using on him? “She’s nothing to me,” he said, bracing himself for the pain he knew would come.

When it finally stopped, he lay there panting, waiting for the agony to subside.

“You lied to me,” he heard the priest say coldly. “I know that she’s your mate, that you’re linked mentally. You hurt only yourself by lying.”

“Then why ask me?” he gasped.

“Why did your people come to Keiss?”

If you’re taken, don’t try to play the hero, Kaid had said. There’s no one alive that can’t be broken, Kusac. All it takes is time and the right levers. Tell them what you can, what will do us the least damage. That way you might survive long enough to escape. It’s a game that you can only win by escaping or dying. Put a few lies in with the truth. Misinformation will help us, but be careful what you say because if you get it too wrong, they’ll kill you. They’ll know they can’t trust your answers, and you’ll no longer be of any use to them.

They mustn’t find out that Shola hadn’t been destroyed, that was what mattered here, not him, not Carrie. Their species’ survival was at stake.

“We were off-world when you destroyed our planets. We were looking for more of our kind when we found Keiss,” he said. He’d barely stopped speaking before the pain started again.

He felt disembodied, unable to concentrate on what the priest was saying as his hearing and consciousness kept fading in and out. Gradually he became aware of a throbbing in his face as he felt it being repeatedly slapped in an effort to bring him round. Eventually he found the strength to lift an arm to try and fend off the blows.

“We came to find missing crew,” he repeated slowly. “I told you, we didn’t know about the Humans.”

“How is it that you’re able to connect mentally and even breed with them?”

That was easy. “Vartra did it. He made us compatible.”

“Vartra? Who is this Vartra?”

“Our God. He did it. A blessing for some, a curse for others, to be Linked to a Human,” he mumbled.

“Was he your ruler? Did he die when we destroyed your worlds?”

He began to laugh as he squinted up at the priest. It hurt, but he couldn’t help it. Here he was, telling the literal truth, and no one in their right mind could possibly believe him.

“He’s dead all right, died over a thousand years ago!”

Pain exploded through his body again, but this time, mercifully, he passed out.

Stronghold, month of Zhal-S’Asha 18th day (October)

He came to with a start, looking wildly around the room, needing to touch the table then the chair on which he sat before he could believe he was really in the Senior lounge at Stronghold rather than on the Kz’adul. A shiver ran through him as he tried to dispel the memories of the pain and humiliation he’d suffered at the hands of J’koshuk.

In a way, he was grateful to the priest for stripping away the last of his illusions. Up till then, he’d led the privileged and protected life of a telepath, been sheltered from the harsher realities. He now knew the only constant in life was pain, everything else was transitory, a break or brief diversion, like his Link with Carrie. While they’d been Leskas, he’d been freed from the debilitating pain ordinary telepaths experienced if they tried to fight — their own and that of those they hurt. That respite had gone, replaced by something worse — the inability to even try to use what remained of his psi abilities without experiencing the agony brought on by the filaments left embedded in his brain by the Primes’ implant.

Sitting up, he scrubbed at his face then ran his hands over his ears and through his hair, pulling it back from his face. Episodes like this one had been lessening recently to the point where he’d thought they were finally over: he should have known better. He looked at his wrist comm; barely an hour had passed. It had seemed longer. Dawn was still four more hours away.

Resting his arms on the table, he lowered his head down to rest on them and closed his eyes. He needed some sleep before he left for the spaceport, but he couldn’t sleep, not while Carrie was in labor bearing the cub she and Kaid shared — the cub whose very conception had saved the lives of all three of them.

The mixture of drugs and the neural disruptor in the collar he’d worn on the Kz’adul had isolated him completely from his Leska Link with her. She’d not been so lucky. Wakened long before him, the time bomb that was their compulsion to mate every fifth day had been ticking away slowly from the moment they’d brought her out of cryo to operate on the near-fatal wound she’d received on Jalna. Only the fact they’d kept putting her back in a reduced stasis field had enabled her to survive.

As soon as they’d wakened him from cryo, because of their separation, their deaths would have been inevitable had it not been for the fact they were a Triad. Unable to reach him mentally, Carrie’s mind had subconsciously found Kaid’s and begun to bond with him. He’d been there when time had finally run out. Pairing with him wouldn’t have been enough, what had swung the balance was her fertility because of the Primes’ removal of her contraceptive implant. He owed his life to this cub, he had to wait till she was born, not least because as her Triad-father, he felt responsible for her.

He remembered when Carrie had given birth to their daughter, Kashini. She’d been so afraid, and in such pain. He remembered it well because he’d shared it through their Leska Link. He should be there now, sharing her pain with Kaid — he needed to be there! Anger and resentment flared as he thought of the message that had arrived at Haven a week ago. Damn them! All he’d wanted from life was to raise cubs with her and run his estate, instead of which, there she was with Kaid doing just that while he was the one heading off alone on a mission that was probably nothing more than an elaborate trap!

The torc round his neck began to vibrate gently, warning him. He clasped his hand to it, forcing himself to take slower breaths and turn his thoughts inward to the litanies, trying not to think of Kaid, the sword-brother who had taught them to him a lifetime ago. Slowly, very slowly, he became calmer and the vibration ceased.

Dawn was lighting the sky when he heard the door open again.

“Word’s just come from Noni. The cub’s been safely delivered and Carrie’s fine. It’s a daughter,” said Rhyaz.

Tiredly, Kusac lifted his head to look at the Brotherhood Warrior Master. His night’s vigil, haunted as it had been by memories, had exhausted him. “I know. Are the others ready?”

“They’re at the spaceport, yes, but we still haven’t got access to the Couana yet.”

“Then get Captain Kisha onto it,” he said, pushing his seat back from the table and getting to his feet. “If you can’t do it, I’m sure he can find an excuse to get Shaayiyisis out of the Couana long enough for your people to get my crew and supplies on board. Someone’s going to have to so we can take it. Just make sure it’s fully fueled. Three day jumps drain the reservoirs.”

“We’ve a day’s margin yet, Kusac. There is no need to accelerate the mission like this.”

“I’m leaving now,” he said, ignoring the censure in Rhyaz’s tone as he brushed past him into the corridor. He stopped, turning round to look at the Brotherhood Warrior Master. “Do you really want to run the risk of Carrie’s mind automatically Linking to mine again now her cub’s born? You’re the one who insisted I go on this mission in the first place!” He put all the anger and sarcasm he could into his tone.

“That’s a million to one chance, Kusac,” Rhyaz said uncomfortably, refusing to meet his gaze. “If you’re going, you’d better leave now. I’ll speak to Captain Kishasayzar. The disruptor will only give you a two hour window in which to launch the Couana without being tracked and followed by the Forces.”

“I thought as much,” he said, reaching out to place his hand on the Guild Master’s chest. Slowly he extended his claws and grasped hold of Rhyaz’ tunic. “You owe me for this, Rhyaz, and I’ll be back to collect, no matter what happens. Remember that.”

Shola, month of Zhal-Zhalwae 22nd day (May)

“You didn’t have me brought all the way out to Stronghold for a social chat, Lijou. I think it’s time you told me what this is about,” said Konis as he settled himself in the easy chair. “It can’t be bad news or you’d have given it to me at home.”

Lijou handed him a mug of c’shar before sitting down opposite him and placing his own mug on the small table beside them.

“We’ve had news from the Profit about your son.”

Konis sat up, hands clutching the chair arms, ears flaring wide to catch every nuance. “Get on with it, then!”

“I couldn’t tell you sooner because, until last night, we only knew that Carrie and Kaid were safe,” he began, but his friend interrupted him.

“Not Kusac? What happened to him? Is he all right? Where was he?” His questions came tumbling out in a rush.

“Konis, please hear me out,” said Lijou reaching out to touch him briefly. “When I’ve finished, you can ask all the questions you want, even speak to Carrie yourself.”

“Dammit, Lijou! Get to the point! How is my son?”

“He’s safe. We got him back last night during an exchange of hostages.”

“Hostages? They were captured then?” His friend’s voice was hushed now, and laced with fear.

“The Profit flew into a Valtegan trap just before it was due to go into jump. Then, barely a day later, both ships were taken by another craft that had been watching the Valtegans.” He stopped, wondering what to say next. “To cut it short, Konis, it turned out this larger ship belonged to another faction of Valtegans, the Primes, from the world that spawned them originally. They were on their way here seeking a treaty with us against the Valtegans that destroyed our two colonies and took Keiss from the Humans.”

“There are two worlds of Valtegans?” Konis asked faintly.

“More, four in all, but we can discount the fourth. Since their Cataclysm, its stayed at a cultural level similar to that of the Jalnians. The Valtegans we encountered at Keiss are known as the M’zullians, and they’re at war with those from J’kirtikk, their third world. The ones that took the Profit and the Valtegan ship are very different from them. For a start, they don’t have a psychotic hatred of us.”

Konis blinked in confusion, obviously making a visible effort to absorb what Lijou was saying. “It was the Primes who took them and held them prisoner?”

Even as Lijou flicked his ears in an affirmative, he realized he was not making a good job of this explanation. “Yes and no. As far as the Commander of the Kz’adul was concerned, the crew and passengers of the Profit were guests kept confined to their quarters. It was the M’zullian Valtegans who were the prisoners.”

“Then how did my son come to be a hostage?”

“It seems one member of the Prime crew, a Dr. Chy’qui, the medical officer in charge of some of our people, had other plans. An advisor to their Emperor, he was against this hoped-for treaty with us. He used his privileged position on the crew to imprison and antagonize our people to the point where he hoped the treaty would be impossible.”

“Antagonize? How? And how did this result in Kusac being a hostage?”

“It’s complicated, Konis. Carrie was brought out of cryo and healed of her injuries but Kusac was awakened much later and kept separate from everyone.”

Konis closed his eyes. “Their Leska Link! How did they survive?”

“The only way they could, just like Mara and Josh did when Zhyaf died. Because of their Triad, Kaid was able to form a Leska Link with Carrie.”

“And my son? What about him? You said he was alive. Zhyaf had to die for Mara and Josh to form their Link.” His ears were folding back against his skull and his fear was an almost palpable presence in the room.

“Kusac is alive, Konis, I assure you of that. He was kept separately from them because, according to this Physician Chy’qui, he had a series of life-threatening seizures as they revived him. He took the drastic step of implanting Kusac with a TeLaxaudin device in the hope that it would stabilize him. Apparently it did.”

Konis sat there as if carved in ice while everything around him seemed to slow down. Little things suddenly became vital to him, like the sound of birds cooing, the chirping of their chicks, and the ray of sunlight that suddenly fell on Lijou’s face, highlighting the streaks of white in the hair and pelt framing his face.

“Implanted where?” he asked finally in a hushed voice.

Lijou realized Konis had already guessed the answer. “In his brain. They saved his life, Konis,” he said quickly, leaning forward. “But it seems as if he’s lost his Talent.”

“You mean he can’t . . .” Konis stopped, unable to say the words.

“It’s as if he’s mind-dead,” said Lijou quietly. “I’m sorry, Konis. I wish the news hadn’t been so dark, but at least we have him back alive.”

“Without his Leska and his Talent, he might as well be dead,” said Konis numbly, looking away from his friend. “What kind of life is that for him, Lijou?”
“It may not be permanent. During the exchange there was an incident, an attempt on the life of our hostage, Prince Zsurtul. One of the M’zullians was controlling Kusac through the implant to make him aggressive. Kusac – neutralized – him by drawing on the energy of our other telepaths and triggering that gestalt he and Carrie have.”

Konis looked up at Lijou. “Neutralized? You mean killed, don’t you? Perhaps he suffered a back-lash, or maybe fear of what he did is blocking his Talent.”

Lijou could hear the hope in his friend’s voice. “This is my thought, and Carrie and Kaid’s. With the help of the TeLaxaudin physician, the implant has been removed and Kusac is no longer being controlled by it, but it has left components in his brain. Components that even the TeLaxaudin physician can’t remove, though he’s working on it for us. We’re doing everything we can for him, Konis, but we don’t have any Telepath medics at Haven.”

“Then there’s still hope,” said Konis, his ears beginning to rise again. “We have the best Guild Physicians on Shola available at Valsgarth, Lijou. If anything can be done, they’re the ones to do it.”

“They are. We’ve had some good news, though – the TeLaxaudin home world has contacted us. They’ll meet us at Jalna in a few days time to sit at the negotiating table. That means a treaty with them, and an exchange of ambassadors. Which also means an official channel through which to ask them to continue their research into helping Kusac regain his Talent.”

Konis leaned forward to take hold of his mug, taking a sip from his drink “They had a three way Link, Lijou. One far stronger than Mara and Josh had with Zhyaf.”

“I know, Konis. That Link’s what saved them.”

“There’s always a chance that when his Talent returns, his Link with Carrie will re-establish itself.”

“There is,” said Lijou, hoping his friend was right. To have had a love so closely bound to oneself that you knew her thoughts from moment to moment, then to lose that Link . . . He hoped they’d be able to keep Kusac sane for long enough to help him; he hoped that the same thought didn’t occur to Konis or Rhyasha.

“I want to speak to him, Lijou,” said Konis decisively, putting his mug back on the table.

“That isn’t advisable, Konis,” he said. “Talk to Carrie or Kaid. They can tell you more than Kusac at this time.”

Konis frowned. “Why not Kusac? What haven’t you told me, Lijou? Surely there can’t be worse to come?”

“He was only operated on last night, Konis. He’s still under sedation in the IC unit to make sure he has no more seizures, that’s all.”

“That’s not the whole truth, Lijou. I can tell you’re keeping something back. And you said these Primes were after a treaty with us. As head of Alien Relations, why wasn’t I informed?”

“Because we had no word on Kusac,” said Lijou quietly. “I couldn’t tell you that Kaid had led a successful escape, unaware that Kusac was still alive and on the Kz’adul. By the time they contacted us, they’d found out about him from their hostage. The blame is mine for keeping that information from you, but I couldn’t see you live in hope your son was still alive only to have it dashed if he wasn’t.”

“Just how long have you known that Kusac was alive?”
“Five days, but we didn’t know what state he was in.”

“State? I want the rest of the truth now, Lijou,” said Konis, his voice deepening in anger. “Kusac’s not mentally impaired in any other way is he? You said he’d been kept separately. What else was done to him? I had your word you’d tell us the moment there was news of him – I trusted you to do that, now I find you’ve waited five days!”

“His mind is sound, Konis. I told you as soon as we knew the state of his health,” said Lijou. “Till then, we only had a vision of Brynne’s, or the word of the Valtegan Prince Zsurtul to depend on. Frankly, as I’ve already said, I didn’t want to tell you he was alive on the strength of either of those. You’d have done the same to me had our positions been reversed, Konis, you know you would. I was only trying to spare you pain if the worst had happened, which, thank Vartra, it didn’t.”

He’d known his well-intentioned deception would come out into the light of day, and at the time had prayed that his friend would understand. He wasn’t yet a father, but he would be in a very few weeks. He knew what his delay had cost Konis, but he also knew what he had spared him.

“As to what else happened to him, he hasn’t been debriefed yet, we don’t know any details. Look into my mind and see if you wish, Konis. I only meant it for the best,” he said quietly. He didn’t want to lose this friendship. People like himself, a Guild Master of both the Brotherhood and the Priesthood of Vartra, had few friends. Every one he had was precious.

Konis sighed, his anger evaporating. “I don’t need to, Lijou. I know you intended the best. Vartra forbid it, but if there ever is a next time, tell me immediately! What about Carrie and the others? Haven’t you debriefed them?”

“Yes, and I have their report with me, along with the proposed treaty between us and the Primes. I need you to take over the negotiations, Konis. I’m sorry to have to ask you at a time like this, but you don’t need me to tell you what’s at stake right now. You’re our best negotiator.”

“Who’s been handling it up till now?”

“We have, through Kaid. An interim non-aggression pact has been agreed. We need you to go over the treaty proposals before we can send them to Kaid for signing. The Primes want our help against the other two Valtegan worlds. They lost their Warrior caste during their equivalent of our Cataclysm – their Fall. The Valtegans have three genetic strains, or castes, the Intellectuals, the Warriors and the Workers. The Primes have no Warriors at all, only volunteers who are implanted with a device similar to that used on Kusac to boost their aggression levels. Now that Jalna has been discovered by the M’zullians, they fear that it won’t be long till their world is found. Then they will need all the help they can get to protect themselves.”

With an obvious effort of will, Konis asked, “What of their own allies? Presumably they must have some.”

“The TeLaxaudin are slender, fragile beings, totally unsuited to any kind of conflict. What use they are to the Primes, we don’t yet know. As far as we’re aware, the Primes have no other allies. Let’s face it, in the days of their empire, they were busy enslaving other races: they must have made a lot of enemies. Now they use large craft like the Kz’adul to intimidate anyone they meet. So far, it’s worked, mainly because they keep themselves to themselves.”

“What’s their involvement with Jalna? And what do they want from us? Military aid?”

He flicked his ears in agreement. “Yes, in return they’ll give us technology which would enable us to break the Chemerians’ strangle-hold over all the Alliance. I wouldn’t like to guess how much more advanced the Primes are than even the Chemerians. They didn’t lose their technology during their Fall the way we did because it was mainly based in their walled Imperial city and survived their own global civil war virtually untouched. As for Jalna, it’s beginning to look like the Primes were heavily involved in setting it up as a trading port for the Free Traders, probably to ensure those species have no need to venture further into their space.”

“Give me the debriefing report now,” said Konis gruffly. “Once I’ve read it, I’ll talk to Carrie, then call Rhyasha and tell her about Kusac.”

Lijou picked up the comp reader from the table and handed it to him, aware of how close to breaking down his friend was. Only the importance of the task he’d been given was holding him together right now. “Would you like me to leave you on your own for a while?” he asked quietly.

“Yes, thank you, I would,” said Konis, blinking rapidly as he looked up at him. “I’m sure you appreciate that this has all been rather a lot to take in. When do you intend to go public with this? You realize you’re going to need a very strong campaign to sell the idea of friendship with these Valtegan Primes to our people in view of the destruction of our colony worlds by the other Valtegans.”

“We’ll start the campaign as soon as we’ve gotten the treaty sewn up as tight as the proverbial demon fish’s arse,” said Lijou with a slight attempt at levity. “If we call them Primes and paint them as also being victims of the M’zullian Valtegans, it will help considerably.” He got to his feet. “Send to me when you’re ready to contact Haven and I’ll arrange it. Can I get you anything? Some food, perhaps? I know you came straight from the Palace and missed second meal.”

“No. I couldn’t eat right now, Lijou.”

Lijou left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. Outside, Tamghi, an En’Shalla Telepath from Kusac’s clan was waiting for him.

“I sensed you were finished,” the young male said, falling into step beside him. “Master Rhyaz wanted to know how it went.”

“I’m on my way to join him so I’ll tell him myself,” said Lijou tiredly. “I appreciate your personal concern in this matter since your Clanspeople are involved. I succeeded in getting him to handle the Prime treaty for us. He’ll send to me when he’s ready to call them on Haven.”

“The last few months have been a dark time for him and his family,” said Tamghi. “At least events ended happily for his daughter, Liegena Kitra. I pray it works out as well for our Clan Leaders.”

“So do I,” said Lijou with feeling.

Haven, the same day

Carrie watched as the Physician placed his hand against Kusac’s throat, checking his pulse while watching the bio-monitor readings on the screen above his bed.

“I told you I wanted him kept calm,” said Vryalma angrily, glancing at her and Kaid. “Over-stimulation now could cause another seizure.”

“If he’s going to have one, better he has it now,” said Kaid. “He needed to be told what we know about his condition. Leaving it until later wouldn’t have changed anything.”

“He was a telepath. They’re protected, aren’t used to handling the harsher realities of life.”

“He’s a Brother and a Warrior now,” said Carrie before Kaid could. “He wanted to know.”

“That’s debatable,” said Vryalma, moving away from the bed, obviously satisfied with the readings. “I have my doubts as to how much of his early training you’ve actually affected. Deep down we remain what we were when we left childhood, and he was a telepath.” He waved them toward the door. “You might as well leave. He’ll sleep for the next five or six hours.”

“I’m not leaving him alone,” said Carrie.

“I’ll stay,” said T’Chebbi from the doorway. “Am here to relieve you for first meal anyway.”

“This is the intensive care unit, not a gathering place,” growled the physician. “There’s no need for anyone to remain with him, and certainly no justification for more than one of you even when he’s awake.”

“We’re a Triad,” said Kaid. “When he’s awake and I’m free, we’ll both be here.”

“That’s enough, Physician Vryalma,” said a new voice. “You’ve been briefed about their Triad, you know it’s imperative they be together whenever possible.”

Carrie went to greet L’Seuli as, muttering under his breath, the physician left.

“I’m still not used to your new rank,” she said, touching the gold insignia on the Brother’s uniform jacket.

“I’d hoped to find Kusac awake,” said Commander L’Seuli. “What happened? Not a seizure, I hope.”

“No. Kaid told him the full implications of the implant,” sighed Carrie. “He got angry, wanted to leave the sick bay and see Chy’qui. Then he – ” she nodded in the direction of the door Vryalma had gone out, “came in and sedated him.”

“To be fair, it was needed,” said Kaid. “Kusac’s not himself, Carrie. He told me the implant had robbed him of every emotion but fear. Now all the others are rushing in on him as he realizes what’s actually been done to him. It’s not surprising he should be angry and want to see Chy’qui for himself.”

“No one will be seeing Chy’qui, I’m afraid,” said L’Seuli. “When I contacted Commander Q’ozoi about your request to have Chy’qui scanned, he told me that when they reached the Kz’adul last night, the counselor had been found dead in his cabin on the shuttle. He committed suicide, apparently.”

“Very convenient,” said Kaid drily. “Now we’ll never know exactly what he was up to. Why the delay in telling us?”

“Autopsy. They found poison in his stomach and bloodstream, and a capsule on the floor by his body. Commander Q’ozoi is bringing a copy of their findings for us.”

Kaid grunted, nodding at T’Chebbi as they reached the door. “You’ve eaten?” he asked her.

She flicked her ears in an affirmative. “Take your time. I be fine here. Both of you look like you got little sleep last night. You need a break. Take it now while he’s drugged. Maybe not get much chance later. Besides, you got treaty talks soon.”

As they walked down the brightly lit corridor to the mess hall, L’Seuli handed Kaid a sealed document. “Father Lijou contacted Konis Aldatan to give him the news of your rescue and update him on the state of Kusac’s health. He’s agreed to work on the treaty with us. His amended copy of your proposals should be with us shortly. To give you an idea of his recommendations, here’s a draft copy of what he’s compiled.”

“That’s good news.” said Kaid. “The non-aggression pact and basic trading agreements I put together are pretty standard, but the military issues need to be formalized by Master Konis and Sholan High Command. I can only advise. Has Q’ozoi questioned Chy’qui’s staff to see if they know anything about his experiments on Kusac?”

“Underway. Again, he’s bringing a report of what they find out with him.” L’Seuli stopped, taking Kaid briefly by the arm. “Tragic as what’s happened to Kusac is, Kaid, it has put them at a severe disadvantage. They owe us because of it. Use it for all it’s worth. For all you and Carrie suffered too.”

“I already have,” said Kaid, his voice emotionless. “It’s what will secure us the Outposts we currently hold. We’ll have our own private treaty with them before the day’s done, L’Seuli.”

“Well done.”

“The Outposts were Valtegan,” L’Seuli said to Commander Rhyaz, adjusting the comm angle so he was looking directly at his Guild Master. “Part of a defense network that surrounded their empire.”

“Did Kaid discover the location of any more from them?” asked Master Rhyaz.

“No. They brushed his enquiries aside, saying they weren’t concerned with issues dealing with their old empire. They did admit to recognizing the Vah’koi, though. They aren’t interested in reclaiming either the four outposts or the ship and agreed to signing a private agreement with us acknowledging them as ours. Kaid also managed to get them to accept that the outposts, Haven, Anchorage, Safehold and Refuge, mark a buffer zone between Alliance and Freetrader space and themselves – a neutral area that the Brotherhood can guard and police against the raiders that occasionally attack Trader craft. More importantly, now we know the location of the two warring Valtegan worlds that attacked our colonies, and the Prime home world, we can monitor their every activity.”

“At last we know where to find our enemy,” said Rhyaz with satisfaction. “How did Kaid manage to get so many concessions for us?”

“By repeatedly reminding them his Triad had all suffered at the hands of Chy’qui, and that Kusac might still face the rest of his life mentally crippled.”

Rhyaz nodded. “At least some good has come from his suffering. Have you spoken to him yet?”

“I went up to sick bay this morning but he’d been sedated. He won’t wake till nearer third meal.” L’Seuli’s wrist comm buzzed briefly. “I have to go now, Master Rhyaz,” he said. “We’ll have finished discussing all the points in the treaty by second meal and be ready to sign it when we reconvene for our final session afterwards.”

Jeran and Manesh looked up as Sheeowl and Mrowbay approached their table in the mess. “Captain wants to see you on the Profit, Giyesh,” said Sheeowl, putting her mug of c’shar down before grabbing a seat from the adjacent table.

“I thought they were still using the landing bay for the Treaty talks,” said Giyesh, eyeing Mrowbay’s plate of assorted cakes and pastries. “You’ll get too fat to sit in your seat on the bridge if you eat that lot.”

“I’m just making up for the weight I lost on the Prime ship,” said Mrowbay, a pained expression on his face as he picked up a pastry. “It’s months since I had any nice nibbles.”

“Talks have moved into a room at the back of the bay,” said Sheeowl, taking a swig of her drink. “Captain’s overseeing a team of Sholan mechanics checking the Prime repair to our hull.”

Giyesh got to her feet. “I’d better be off. See you later,” she said to Jeran.

Jeran waited for her to move out of earshot before speaking. “What is it you want to say to me that Giyesh can’t hear?” he asked the two black-pelted U’Churians.

“You Sholans,” said Manesh, shaking her head. “It’s impossible to keep anything from you.”

“It’s about Giyesh,” said Sheeowl. “She says you’re coming with us when we leave. That true?”

“Yes. I’ve got nothing, not even a home to go back to. The Valtegans destroyed everything.”

“Is that what Giyesh wants, or just you?”

“Of course it’s what she wants.” He frowned, surprised at her question. “You think I’d want to stay if she didn’t . . .”

“How serious are you about her?” interrupted the engineer. “I don’t have the time to be polite. In a few minutes, she’ll find out the captain didn’t send for her.”

Jeran fought to keep his ears from folding sideways in anger. “I’m serious enough, but what business is it of . . .”

“Because if you aren’t serious, then don’t come with us. If she goes back alone, no one need to know about you,” said Sheeowl.

“Why’s it so important that no one knows about me?” he demanded angrily. “I know she should have stayed on Home and taken her first mate rather than come on this mission, but . . .”

“She took you as a lover,” said Mrowbay, licking his fingers. “That’s the problem. Because of you, none of the males on Home will have her as a mate.”

“That’s ridiculous!” he exclaimed. “She told me you take lovers between mates!”

“Between,” agreed Sheeowl, “but not before the first mating.”

“I know that, but what difference does it make? I’m not even one of your people!” He stopped, eyes narrowing. “Or is that the problem?”

“That makes it worse,” agreed Mrowbay, picking up another pastry.

“She’ll be an outcast, Jeran,” said Sheeowl. “Believe me, none of the males will take her as a mate. Ever.”

Jeran looked from one to the other of them. Were they lying, saying this in an effort to persuade him to stay with his own people? “She said nothing to me about this, and she was the one who suggested I stay on the Profit with her.”

“Is it worth the rest of her life?” asked Sheeowl.

“That’s unfair, Sheeowl,” said Mrowbay, glancing over at her. “You can’t expect him to be responsible for her for that long. His people don’t choose a partner for life any more than ours do.”

“Look, I don’t know what all this is about,” said Jeran, beginning to get angry. “But if you think you’re going to persuade me to leave her . . .”

“Not leave her,” said Mrowbay. “She can’t take you as a mate, but you can. Humans and Sholans do it, why not a U’Churian and a Sholan?”

“You want me to take her as a mate?” he asked incredulously. This was the exact opposite of what he’d expected.

“If she goes back with a mate, it would be seen differently,” said Sheeowl. “Then she hasn’t taken a lover, only chosen her first mate.”

Puzzled, he again looked from one to the other. “But I’m still an alien.”

Mrowbay sighed. “We’re trying to tell you that alien isn’t as big a problem as her not having a mate. It’s a matter of her honor. If you come back to Home with us and you aren’t her mate, then obviously you care nothing for her honor. As for being alien,” he shrugged. “You’re so like us, most people won’t see you as alien. Except for the color of your pelt, you could pass as one of us.”

“Giyesh should have told me,” he muttered.

“She wouldn’t,” said Sheeowl. “She’s young, but she’s a good taiban. She wouldn’t want to put pressure on you to do anything you didn’t want to do. It’s up to us as her family to look out for her.”

“Your people have a contract for mixed matings,” said Mrowbay. “Must have. Look how many have Human mates.”

“Bondings, and not all get bonded,” murmured Jeran, not sure this was what either he or Giyesh wanted.

“Kaid is. Brynne too.”

“Rezac and Jo aren’t,” he countered. “Bondings are a legal and social contract for those wishing to share their cubs, nothing more.”

Sheeowl snorted derisively. “Rezac and Jo would bond instantly if given the chance!”

“If they did, it would only be because they’re expecting a cub. There isn’t anyone here who can conduct bondings anyway.”

“Any of the Brothers currently attached to the religious side of your Brotherhood can. I asked.”

Jeran began to growl as he got to his feet. He’d had enough of them sticking their noses into his business.

Abruptly Sheeowl rose too. “I’ll see you later,” she said as Mrowbay reached out to catch Jeran’s arm and prevent him leaving.

“Jeran, wait,” the U’Churian medic said. “We’ll talk now she’s gone.”

“I think you’ve already said more than enough,” he snarled, really irritated now. He objected to being put on the spot like this by them.

“Not yet. You spent months imprisoned on Jalna, isolated from your own kind, yet you’re ready to come with us because of Giyesh. What’s so difficult about a entering into a recognized mating with her? That’s a smaller step than the one you plan.”

“Everyone I cared about has been destroyed, snuffed out like a candle, Mrowbay! I’m not ready to risk that kind of commitment to another person in case it happens again! She’s a soldier, dammit! She takes risks for a living!”

“We all are. And so will you if you’re with us,” the medic said calmly. “This is only another small risk, of not much matter to you. Take one of your contracts for a year. That would be enough. A year of your life in return for her being able to look our family in the eyes when she returns Home with you beside her. She’s prepared to stand by you without it. Can you do less for her now you know what it will cost her?”

Angrily, he jerked his arm free. “I’ll think about it,” he snarled as he left.

“Don’t take too long! We leave the day after tomorrow,” Mrowbay called out after him.

“He has to be debriefed, Sister T’Chebbi,” said Vriuzu, refusing to be intimidated by the tabby gray-pelted female blocking the door into the IC unit. As Stronghold’s chief telepath, on Brotherhood business, he knew his orders outweighed anything she could say. “What happened to Kusac is unlikely to be of much use to us, but for his sake, he needs to talk about it, get it out of his system and realize his mission is over. You should know that.”

“Kaid did that last night. Commander has his report,” she replied, staring fixedly at him.

“That wasn’t a formal debriefing. This is being done on Master Rhyaz’ orders. Now stand aside and let us enter.”

T’Chebbi gave a small hiss of displeasure as she caught sight of Dr Zayshul behind Dzaou. “Why are Primes involved if only a debriefing? You got no jurisdiction over us, we’re En’Shalla, in the hands of the Gods,” she growled, holding her ground.

“The Brotherhood as a whole is En’Shalla.” He was trying hard to remain patient, but Vartra knew, she wasn’t making it easy for him.

“Only we are En’Shalla Clan. Kusac is our Clan Leader, you know that.”

“The mission was for the Warrior side of the Brotherhood. It’s in your contract, Rhyaz has jurisdiction. Stand aside, T’Chebbi, or I will have to authorize the use of force.” Behind him, he heard Dzaou powering up his gun.

T’Chebbi’s lips pulled back, exposing her teeth in a snarl. “I move when Clan Leader Carrie arrives and tells me to,” she said, raising her arm to use her wrist comm.

“Hold it right there,” said Dzaou, stepping past the telepath priest, his pistol trained on her. “I’ll take your comm.” Imperiously, he held out his free hand. “There’s no need for anyone else to be present.”

As Vriuzu watched, the hair not captured by T’Chebbi’s long plait began to bush out in anger. He was glad he’d brought the Brother with him.

Snarling her fury, T’Chebbi held out her arm for Dzaou to remove the comm.

“I’ll take your gun while I’m at it,” he said, pocketing the wrist unit and reaching for the firearm that hung in the holster at her waist. “Your Liegena is sleeping right now. Circumstances are hard enough for her without disturbing her rest.” He gestured to everyone to precede him into the IC room.

“Not fooling anyone with this fake concern over my Liegena, Dzaou! You’re too xenophobic to care for anyone but Sholans!”

“Bring him round,” Vriuzu instructed Physician Vryalma, as he accompanied Dr Zayshul over to Kusac’s bed.

“Is this necessary?” asked Zayshul. “Surely this could wait until he awakens naturally.”

“My orders are to wake him, Doctor,” Vriuzu replied firmly.

Carrie woke abruptly, knowing instinctively something was wrong. Her conversation with her bond-father Konis some half an hour before had not been easy. That on top of her lost night’s sleep, had thoroughly exhausted her. With Kusac still sleeping, she’d let T’Chebbi persuade her to take a much needed nap.

She lay there, wondering what had wakened her when suddenly, a wave of excruciating pain exploded from her neck down her spine and out to her limbs. It was gone almost instantly, leaving her with the sure knowledge that Kusac was in trouble. Reaching out mentally, she sensed immediately what Vriuzu was trying to do.

Even as she threw back the covers and scrambled from the bed, Kaid sent a questing thought in her direction.

“Vriuzu’s attempting to scan Kusac against his will,” she replied, grabbing her shoes and stuffing her feet into them. “I’ve dealt with him and am on my way there now. He’s got Dzaou holding T’Chebbi at gun point.”

“Rezac’s on his way as backup. He’s met Jeran and is taking him too. Get Kusac out of there — take him to our room. Guard him from everyone but us. I can’t leave this meeting yet.” His mental tone was one of suppressed fury.

She left the room at a run.

The ante-room was guarded by Ngio, one of Dzaou’s people. She slowed down, approaching him as if to talk, lightly scanning his surface thoughts all the while. When the door behind her burst open to admit Rezac and Jeran, it gave her the opportunity she needed: he never saw the blow that laid him out.

Rezac gave a grunt of approval as he and Jeran drew their guns before flinging open the door into the IC room. Unexpectedly, it was Vriuzu, ears flat against his skull, who was being helped to his feet by the Physician. The stench of fear — Sholan and Valtegan — filled the small room. Carrie remained near the door, guarding it as the two males moved in to secure the room and disarm Dzaou.

“You bastard!” Kusac snarled at Vriuzu, as, holding onto the chair beside his bed for support, he tried to stand. “You had to force me, despite what I told you about my mental blocks. Now you know what a Valtegan punishment collar does when you try to use your Talent!”

“I had my orders, Kusac,” Vriuzu said, his voice unsteady. “We needed to know what you’re hiding behind those blocks. Now we do. There’s not a damned thing wrong with your Talent! How else could you have attacked me . . .”

“Shut up, Vriuzu,” Carrie snapped, going over to help her mate. “I made sure you experienced the pain you caused Kusac. You had no right to do that! You violated his privacy — put his health, possibly his life, at risk! Even we don’t dare touch his mind!”

“He’s a security risk! We don’t know what else Chy’qui programmed into him!” exclaimed Dzaou as he, along with Vriuzu and the physician, was herded to the far side of the room under the watchful eyes of Jeran and T’Chebbi.

“That’s not true,” interrupted Zayshul. “I’ve examined the tape. Chy’qui was only interested in killing Prince Zsurtul, nothing more. Kusac is no threat to you. Had my request on behalf of my TeLaxaudin colleague to give him a post-operative examination been granted, I could have told you that. There was no need to subject him to this treatment. I shall be telling Commander Q’ozoi about this!”

“Your objection is noted, Doctor,” said Vriuzu, still holding onto the Sholan physician for support.

T’Chebbi meanwhile, treated Dzaou to an open-mouthed Human grin as she held out her hand. “I’ll have my comm back, too,” she purred.

Angrily, he reached into his pocket and gave it to her.

Carrie turned to look at the Valtegan female, noticing that her usually light green skin had darkened considerably. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you were involved in the Treaty talks down on the flight deck.”

“Our respective Commanders decided I should be at the debriefing so I could make a full report on what Kusac said.” She hesitated. “And explain what I could of the events to him.”

“And did you?”

Kusac’s hand closed on Carrie’s wrist. “There wasn’t time. Vriuzu did the scan almost as soon as I woke.”

“The bastard!”

“I want this debriefing, Carrie. I need to know what happened to all of us, not just me. But not with him . . .” he indicated Vriuzu with a flick of his ear. “Not with him or the others here.”

“Let Vriuzu stay,” said Rezac unexpectedly, keeping his eyes as well as his gun trained on the Brotherhood Telepath. “He has to or the debriefing won’t be official. I’ll see he doesn’t step over the line again. I know a trick or two that will make sure he doesn’t.” He gave a gentle laugh that held no humor.

Kusac looked at her and she could tell by his expression that he was asking her mutely if they could trust him.

Her heart went out to him as she leaned down to whisper in his ear. “That’s Rezac, remember, Kaid’s father? Yes, we can trust him. He’s like us now, En’Shalla, and part of a Triad with Jo from Keiss. Remember, Vartra said he was one of the first telepaths that he enhanced.” She hesitated, then standing up said more loudly, “Kaid wants us to leave the debriefing and take you to our room so we can keep the likes of Vriuzu away.”

“There can be no debriefing without me present and able to vouch for the truth,” said Vriuzu.

“You’re experienced enough to know the feel of the truth without scanning,” said Carrie, glancing over at him. “And you can drop your link with Jiosha: she’s no business being involved. Tell her not to bother sending reinforcements. It would hardly do for Kaid to disrupt the peace talks over this internal matter, would it?” She had the satisfaction of feeling his shock at her knowledge of the link.

“I want to know what just happened to me, why I felt the pain from the collar again,” said Kusac, leaning heavily on Carrie as he started to sway. “It comes at other times. When I’m angry.”

Zayshul began to move toward them but brought herself up short as Rezac swung round, gun aimed at her. Carrie snapped out a reminder that they were now allies and he dipped his ears in apology and lowered his gun.

“Sorry, Doctor,” he mumbled. “Old habits.” He turned back to Vriuzu.

“He needs my help,” said Zayshul, still keeping a wary eye on Rezac as she came closer. “I think I know what happened, Kusac. The collar Chy’qui put on you wasn’t a regular punishment collar. It was one modified to inhibit telepathy as well. He must have brought it with him from the City of Light. We haven’t used them since the days before the Fall. I can only assume he must have gotten it from a museum.”

“I remember them,” said Rezac with a rumble of anger. “The pain they caused whenever you used psi abilities was excruciating. Like fire coursing through your veins.”

“Just so,” Zayshul agreed. “When Vriuzu tried to push past those blocks, you probably responded automatically, using those areas of your brain where your abilities were. You expected pain, therefore you felt it.”

Kusac groped for the bed behind him and sat down.

Carrie could see his nose creasing in pain as he put his hand carefully to the side of his neck. “You can conduct the debriefing if Doctor Zayshul says he’s fit enough,” she said to Vriuzu. “You,” she said, turning to Vryalma. “Some physician you are! What happened to your oath of healing, to putting the patient first? You were the one who wanted him kept calm to prevent any more seizures! Get out of my sight! And see the ventilation is turned up in here. The place stinks! T’Chebbi, go with him. Bring what drugs you think we might need.”

“Aye, Liegena,” she said.

“Take them outside,” said Zayshul, indicating the group T’Chebbi was guarding. “I can’t conduct a medical examination with them in here.”

“You heard the Doctor,” Carrie said.

“You, too,” added Zayshul.

Carrie’s eyes narrowed as she looked up at the Valtegan female. “No,” was all she said.

Kusac’s hand tightened round hers. “Please.”

She hesitated, torn between what he wanted and what her instincts told her was wise. “I’ll wait by the door, but I won’t leave,” she said. “If I hadn’t been persuaded to rest, this never would have happened.”

“The debriefing was inevitable,” said Kusac, his voice full of pain as he gently massaged his neck. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“Debriefing be damned! This is an official enquiry!” she said angrily. “They had no right to hold one with neither Kaid nor myself present!”

He squeezed her hand again as T’Chebbi returned carrying a tray for Zayshul. “Go, I’ll be fine. It’ll only take a few minutes. Zayshul was the one who helped me on the Kz’adul, remember?”

“I’m not leaving the room,” she repeated mutinously, returning the squeeze before reluctantly letting him go and following T’Chebbi to the door.

“I’ve been hoping to see you,” Kusac said in an undervoice as Zayshul placed herself between him and Carrie’s line of sight.

“You mustn’t touch the wound,” she said, her voice equally quiet as she moved his hand aside and began unwrapping the bandage round his neck. “It will take longer to heal if you keep disturbing the dressings.”

“No one must know that you came to me the night before the exchange of hostages.”

She continued unwrapping the bandage before replying. “I told you, it wasn’t me, Kusac,” she said, laying it aside. Bending over him, she lifted the dressing off. “They did a neat job. Not much swelling. It should heal quickly.”

As she reached for the fresh dressing, he caught hold of her wrist. “Why are you lying? I know it was you, I recognize your scent!” Her behavior confused him.

“Be quiet!” she hissed. “Let me go now, before your mate sees you!”

“Why are you lying to me?” he demanded. “I know why I’m hiding it from my people, but why won’t you at least admit it to me?”

She froze, green eyes blinking slowly at him, the ridges surrounding them meeting in the middle of her forehead. “That’s why the mental blocks, why you don’t want to be scanned,” she whispered. “That’s what you’re hiding from them!”

“What’s wrong?” Carrie called out from the doorway.

Kusac dropped Zayshul’s hand as if scalded, noticing as he did that her non-retractile claws were much shorter than J’koshuk’s had been. “Nothing,” he said loudly as Zayshul straightened up and reached for the dressing pack and new bandage. “She says it will heal quickly, that’s all.”

Once more, Zayshul bent over him, placing the dressing over his wound. She began to wrap the fresh bandage over it. “You recognize my scent?”

Her voice was barely more than a whisper and he had to strain his ears forward to hear her. He made a small, exasperated noise, noticing her skin had paled. “How could I not? You came into my bed, Zayshul. I may have been drugged and tortured, but I’m not stupid, despite appearances at the time!”

“I know you’re not,” she said, sealing the end of the bandage to itself. She took a small flashlight from her pocket, reaching out to take hold of his chin with her other hand. Briefly, she shone it into each eye. “I’ve said nothing, nor will I,” she whispered, letting him go. “I’ve no wish for anyone to know about the . . .” She faltered briefly. “Our night together.” She placed her hand against his neck, feeling for his pulse. “You’re in pain.” She took hold of him by the chin again, turning his face into the light. “Quite a lot of pain.”

He sighed with relief. “You admit it, then.”

She reached for the hypoderm, checking the phials of drugs on the tray before choosing and loading one. “It isn’t easy for me,” she said, administering the shot. “That should take care of the pain. No matter what you’ve seen the M’zullians do, we Primes do not have a recent history of cross-species — liaisons. When did you last eat?” she asked in a more normal tone.

Kusac blinked in surprise, taken aback by the sudden change in topic. “I haven’t been awake long enough for them to give me anything.” As he said it, his stomach growled in hunger.

Zayshul looked across at Carrie. “He’s weak because he needs food. The last meal he had was on the Kz’adul, a day ago. Have something light brought for him. Once he’s eaten, the debriefing can go ahead.”

Carrie pushed the door behind her open and spoke to T’Chebbi.

As Zayshul replaced the hypoderm on the treatment tray, she noticed her hand was shaking slightly with a mixture of anger and fear. How could that damned female N’koshoh have been stupid enough to scent-mark him? It wasn’t as if she could be under any illusions that he’d be kept on the Kz’adul. Everyone had known they were exchanging the hostages the next day. What insanity had prompted her to do that?

A surge of satisfaction that N’koshoh was dead, likely at the hands of Chy’qui, flooded through her, shocking her with its intensity. She wasn’t normally a vindictive person, but for N’koshoh to go to Kusac in the night, callously drug him into compliance then virtually rape him, just to further Chy’qui’s mad scheme to breed hybrid Sholans, was morally unforgivable. Even worse was the fact that she’d been unable to find a trace of the samples she knew had been taken. Now she knew for sure what had happened, she’d have to tell the Commander.

N’koshoh’s marker could be turned off, but not here and now with all his family around them. Besides, she wasn’t sure she could be that intimate with him, even if the opportunity had presented itself. At least the changes scent-marking instigated in males did lessen with time. He wasn’t remaining among her people, he was returning to his own world, likely to live out the rest of his life there now he’d lost the telepathic skill that had made him so invaluable to his own kind — unless the TeLaxaudin came up with some cure. The thought wasn’t as comforting as it should have been as she remembered that he’d already been subtly altered by the implant. There was no way she could check what effect the pheromone transfer would have on him in the long term, unless they confessed the whole matter to the Sholans. And there was no way they could do that without risking the treaty.