Mid-morning the next day Bren left Marta in a small market town, and she walked on toward Rashiba Prime. Traffic crowded the road—wagons, riders, walkers like her with packs and bulging sacks. This world was a mix of ancient and crude with elements salvaged from pre-collapse Earth as were the other diaspora planets she'd worked on. But here there was no high technology. A man pedaled by on a three-wheeled cycle, an enormous pack in the basket on the back. A family rode in an open carriage with an ornate brass bound metal box behind the driver’s seat, a thin wisp of steam rising from a small pipe and no horses harnessed to it.
She didn't trust herself to talk to anyone. As the road grew busier, it was as if her vision were layered, and messages from everything and everyone around her echoed and bounced in her head. She had to step to the side of the narrow road and prop herself against a tree when a man and a woman in a buggy drove past. They sat silent and upright next to each other. His anger and her fear threatened to send Marta to her knees. And the bit in the mule's mouth pinched. It was too much.
Why are my empathic dampers not working? That's the first thing Father taught me about dealing with people so I didn’t cry every time someone stubbed a toe. I've been using them for sixteen years. Since I was three. Why are they breaking down now? She managed to bolster the stone wall in her mind he'd taught her, with windows and shutters she could open and close. Bit by bit the confusion—and her vicious headache subsided.
She stopped at the top of a rise in the road. Rashiba Prime filled the small valley below her and over the hill beyond. Sun glinted off hectares of greenhouses. A long row of warehouse pods from the colonist's ship, ceramic hulls shining as if new after hundreds of years, lined the long road across from the docks. What an immense undertaking these colonists started so many centuries before, and yet so much remained to do to recover those spaces still all but devoid of life, ravaged in a half-legendary ancient conflict.
To the East, the bay sparkled brilliant blue-green under the rare cloudless sky. Distant shorelines dissolved into mist. A rambling red stone building with multiple towers and surrounded by high walls dominated the hill at the center of the town. The Prime Guardian's Keep with Adalta’s university and the meeting rooms for the bi-annual Assembly of Guardians and Holders.
Rashiba Quint was the first settlement established by the colonists. The other four were called quadrants. There were an estimated forty-three thousand inhabitants in the quint, according to the data on her Cue. The whole of Adalta had little more than two and a half million even five hundred years after the Ark ship arrived. It was the primary city of Rashiba and was where the Adalta Assembly met in informal session yearly and formal every two years. The guardian of Rashiba was Prime Guardian of all Adalta and served as head of the Assembly.
Marta pushed through the underbrush on the verge and made her way to a small clearing out of sight of the road. She fished in her pack for her Cue. It took several tries to connect and sent the data she'd collected in the past few days. Her fingers trembled on its controls when she heard the brusque voice of the dispatcher. The minuscule device with its tiny vid feed was such a fragile thread of connection to the community so far above.
"I'll connect you to Director Danvyl."
Why connect me to him? Why is the Director of Planetary Findings interested in a routine check-in and data dump?
"Rowan," Kayne Danvyl's voice was hearty. It surprised her. "Glad to hear from you at last. Have you had difficulty getting through?" Despite the avuncular tone of his voice and the genial expression on the face that flickered on her Cue. Danvyl did not do genial well. He was a cold, cold man.
She stared at the Cue, startled out of speech. Then: "Some. Your face is flickering. But this is my first try. I'm checking in before I get into Rashiba Prime and can't contact the ship for a while." His false friend-tone was so wrong. Or was it her inexperience and imagination?
"Good. Good. Let me know as soon as possible when you settle. We chose an excellent cover for you. As I understand it, those Mi'hiru women fly all over Adalta on their creatures. You'll fit right in with your skill at handling alien creatures. Even your father was amazed at the connections you made with the ipsnoral on your last mission with him. In fact, I should dock your pay for the privilege of riding these creatures for your cover." His laugh was too loud and too long. She couldn't remember ever hearing him laugh like that, or laugh at all.
She and her father had worked for Kayne for years. His son, Galen, had been her partner on the last planet, and Kayne had never been this—pleasant. He was too effusive.
"We need to keep this short. We’re experiencing difficulty with communication. All of the com sats are silent, and we have no visuals. We've lost them; I sent the ship's orbital schedule to your Cue. You'll have to coordinate reporting with that. We aren't able to stay in geosynchronous orbit and still be available to all of you agents down there."
His face flickered on the Cue, and a few moments of static clouded the screen. When it cleared, she said, "It may be a while. I have no idea what joining the Mi'hiru involves—if they screen my background too closely, it might get troublesome. Do you have more information for me?"
"Very little. For some reason, the spy bugs aren't working well. Several failed and disappeared. We can't figure out why. They send a sharp surge, then nothing. It takes the engineers hours to repair what they burn out here. I do have some preliminary reports from your fellow agents."
It didn't take long for Kayne to fill her in with what data he had. More names and a little additional information about the governing structure, most of which he'd already sent to her Cue. All he was interested in was a listing of Adalta's mineral resources.
"Please tell Cedar I'll start collecting plant samples for pickup as soon as possible. I’ll…"
He interrupted her with a brusk "Of course, of course. We need to work hard on changing their laws. Legislation is repressive and constricting about technology and weapons more advanced than swords and bows. These colonists are still adamant Luddites, even after half a millennium here." Kayne's words were sharp and quick. It seemed the biological/anthropological/ethnological studies she'd briefed for were secondary to legislative change for Kayne.
Changing laws? That’s illegal. And why is he talking about changing laws when our cultural survey’s barely begun? She swallowed the unease that clutched her gut. She couldn't antagonize him. He hadn't wanted her to take this assignment alone, and it would've been easier to accept his decision. But if she didn't try, next time would be more difficult. She'd gone to one of the other directors for help, and if she failed she’d be consigned to the ship the rest of her life--life in a casket, a living death.
After a few more words they ended the communication. Despite years of training and experience, she was nervous and uncertain. And uneasy about Kayne's words. Interfering in internal politics to the point of changing legislation skirted too close to Trade Alliance prohibitions for the giant trade ships that moved between the planets of the Diaspora. He mentioned weapons. All trade ship consortiums are forbidden to trade in weapons so why are the laws against them here of interest?
Marta walked the main street of the city toward the outskirts on the other side where the satellite map showed what she hoped was the Rashiba Guild House of the all-woman Mi'hiru—caretakers and trainers of the Karda. The cobbles under her feet were laid in tight, intricate patterns. The original colonists must have included some talented stone masons. Since there’d been no trees for lumber for many years, all building was of stone and metal. Even now wood was a luxury.
She shivered in the chill air and pulled out the rolled cloak lashed to her pack. It was late and getting cold, though it was closing in on spring, and the sun had been out much of the day. She'd thought she'd be happy stationed on a cool planet after the last scorching one. Beware the changes you seek, Marta.
Two and three-story houses of reddish-brown cut sandstone and brick with steep many-gabled roofs of baked clay tiles lined the street. Yellow light shone from arched windows and doors of the curb-level shops. Wide awnings protected walkers from the returned drizzle. Cooking odors filled the air, and people headed home in the early dusk. Shops closed and market stalls folded; shopkeepers hurried their last customers out the door. She concentrated hard to keep the shutters in her mental wall closed and the flood of emotions out.
The crowd of women in wool skirts to their boot tops, colorful shawls drawn up over their heads, and men in heavy jackets or cloaks long and short, some with wide rough trousers, some in Earth style jeans, some in fitted pants tucked into high boots, swords at their waists, competed with horses, small steam carts, and bicycles for space on the narrow streets.
The scene was an odd mixture of modern and ancient—swords instead of guns, bicycles, horse-drawn wagons and those odd steam buggies instead of electric, hydrogen, or internal combustion vehicles. All the wagons, the carts, the bicycles were elegantly engineered and beautifully wrought. There was nothing crude or make-shift about them.
The restaurant window she passed, stomach growling, showed scattered tables covered with white cloths, laid with fine china and crystal that would be the envy of any hostess on the ship. It will be interesting to see how much of Earth customs and concepts made it through the five hundred years since humans arrived here.
She passed a tricycle cart with a small grill on the back that smelled of roast chicken and sausages though the fire was cold and the last sausage sold right in front of her. Her stomach rumbled again. She asked the cart man for directions to the Mi'hiru Guild House.
His round face smiled. "Come to try for Mi'hiru training?" He waved a hand holding a long-handled fork. "Up this way past three streets, then to the right. Number fourteen on Sigall Street. Red rock wall. Iron and brass gate. Can't miss it. Good luck to you, Miss. Don't want to discourage you, but not many get favored. You haf'ta try, though, don't you?"
She passed a busy tavern. The tantalizing odor of roast meat and fresh bread escaped when a couple of men pushed through the door. Marta thought about stopping, but she didn't want to arrive at the Guild House late. Civilized streets like these could turn feral with darkness.
Brass-banded double iron gates interrupted a long wall of the ubiquitous rough-cut red sandstone, the number 14 carved into the lintel above. She stood staring at them. There were other choices, other jobs, where she wouldn't fall under the scrutiny she was certain to find here. Women could be caravan guards or serve in the Quint’s guard. She could find work training horses, even if she had to start by cleaning stalls.There had to be many applicants to fly those incredible creatures.
Her fingers traced the small bronze bas-relief of a Karda and its rider in full flight. She put one hand on her chest below her throat, took a breath, swiped her other hand on her skirt and reached to pull on the knotted hemp rope hanging from a pulley. A bell clanged inside. When she finally heard hurried footsteps, the breath she didn’t now she was holding whooshed out. One side of the gate opened, and a flushed young face surrounded by wild red curls appeared around its edge.
"Hello?" it asked.
"Hello, I'm Marta, I came to try for training as a Mi'hiru. May I come in?"
"Oh!" Acknowledgment flashed across the fresh face. "I'm the only one here right now. I'm not even supposed to be on gate duty yet, but there wasn't anyone else." She opened the gate and gave Marta a wild wits-end look. "We've had all kinds of emergencies today."
She chattered away as she led Marta across the slate-floored entry to the large dining hall. "I’m on gate duty because my mentor had errands to run today, and I was free. I'm studying to be a weaver." She looked back, and her tone turned tentative. "I'll show you the graduation piece I'm working on if you'd like to see it sometime."
"I'd like that." Marta hid her surprise. It appeared others besides Mi'hiru lived in the all-woman Guild Houses. "I'd hoped to be here yesterday, but it took longer than I thought. I'm a little road weary. I'd appreciate a place to sit and get this pack off my shoulders."
"I guess that'll be all right. You can wait in the great room for Mother Cailyn. Here, let me take that." She grabbed Marta's pack.
The high-ceilinged, flagstone floored room held dining tables and small groupings of comfortable chairs. Marta tried not to stare a chimney-less smoke-less stone stove at the center. A pile of glowing red coals radiated welcome warmth. The two talked a while—or one chattered and the other drooped. At last the young girl took pity on her and led her to the kitchen to introduce her to the cook for the day. Felice supplied a pastry-wrapped sausage, cheese, and a piece of warm cherry apple tart with a hot mug of tea from the pot at the back of the black metal range. The talkative girl disappeared, citing duty to Marta's relief. It was difficult to hold shields against all that eyes-wide innocence.
The guild mother walked in from the great room, shrugging off her long blue cloak, its neck and hem covered in geometric red embroidery and caught Marta licking her fingers from the last of the tart. Cailyn was a tall, dark complexioned woman of middle age, greying black hair pulled up and wrapped tight in a bun. The planes of her hawk-nosed face were severe, uncompromising. She introduced herself, begged tart and tea from the cook, and ushered Marta into a small study, waved her to a chair. She moved to sit behind a table cluttered with papers and books bracketed by two thick candles inside tall glass chimneys.
"I understand you wish to apply for the Mi'hiru." She concentrated on her tea and tart, and asked, her tone casual, borderline disinterested, "Tell me about yourself. What made you decide to come here?"
Marta wanted this so bad she was forgetting to breathe. "I am from Dalpin in Akhara, a village high up in the Shimati hill country. My father was an independent trader working out of Akhara Prime. When he…when he got sick, we moved few miles outside Dalpin. We settled up there because he loved the high hills, and it was seldom bothered by the constant fighting in the rest of the quadrant. The healers said he needed the dry air. After he died, the house felt too empty, but I didn't want to move to the village."
She paused and watched for Mother Cailyn's reaction to her next words. "They were suspicious of strangers. We were still newcomers even after five years. They didn't want me, and there wasn't any place for me there unless I married one of them."
Mother Cailyn's wry look was the first emotion Marta had noticed. The guild mother was hard to read, and Marta’s senses were too raw to open the windows in her walls too wide.
"It's not a very prosperous village. Besides I grew up on the road. With Father gone the idea of settling in one place…well, it felt confining. And marrying one of the villagers…I…I couldn't."
The Mother nodded; her face softened with her first hint of warmth.
"I loved to watch Karda flying over our valley. Sometimes they'd circle for hours—riding the thermals, Father said. I've always been a little in love with them, but I've never seen one up close except a glimpse of one at a tavern where I stayed two nights ago. Karda Patrollers didn't come to Dalpin often, and we were never there when they did."
Marta looked down. I've told cover stories like this for years. Why does this feel like an uncomfortable lie?
"What makes you think you’re suited for this work? Few are."
She swallowed and leaned forward in her hard wooden chair, her hands so tight in her lap her fingers ached. "I'm good with animals of all kinds. No, better than good. I can get them to do things that no one else can. People often told me I should try for the training. That I'd be good enough. Karda are beautiful." She looked down, her voice dropped, and she said, "I feel…I feel like they call to me." It wasn't a lie, and it was more than truth. Remembering the two Karda she and Bren had seen circling, a knot of desperate need grew in her belly. She pressed tight fists into it. She wanted this more than she had ever wanted anything. She wondered if she would ever find another breath.
The Guild Mother looked at her for a long time. Marta steeled herself into stillness.
"You realize that the choice of whether or not to favor you is not mine, nor any Mi'hiru's. It belongs to the Karda."
Marta looked at her, distressed. She hadn't expected this. "I don't understand. How do they choose who rides them? What do they do?" What if the Karda somehow knew she wasn't what she claimed and refused her?
The older woman grinned, her severe face brightened. "It never happens like it did in my namesake Cailyn's story, where a Karda lands in your village and selects you right out of your garden."
Marta was mystified. The problem with relying on Kayne's favorite tool, the spy bugs, was that they could watch and record, but they couldn't interact, and the information they gathered was sketchy. She had no idea what Cailyn was talking about. But Marta was an experienced fake.
"Let me show you to a room. You look like you need a bath and a good sleep. Breakfast will be in the dining hall beyond the great room at sun-up in the morning; then we'll introduce you to the newest Karda to arrive. It may be you she came for. She's been waiting for someone for three tendays. We'll have to see. At least we can give you a comfortable place to stay the night."
Marta looked around and blinked, disoriented. The air rippled with light. She stood in a clearing surrounded by tall, dark trees. A rush of air pushed against her.
Landing with a flare of immense wings that blocked the sky was a strange, beautiful being, glowing translucent with the shimmery green of new leaves and the red gold of summer grass on the plains. The noisy wind of its back-winging whipped strands of hair across her face. It folded its wings tight to its horse body. Pale gold mane and tail gleamed. Marta stared, unmoving, in the cool green radiance that filled the clearing. The shining creature cantered to a stop in front of her, hawk head raised, the proud, curved beak formidable. Four slender legs ended in huge bird feet with long wicked bronze talons. For an eternity, dark eyes the size of Marta's two fists held her until they bared her soul.
"It is well that you come, Marta Rowan."
The powerful voice rolled into her from the trees, the grasses, the very soil of the glen. The words reverberated visions of desolation, destruction, and of hope. A fringe of wing feathers brushed her. Sizzling fire pulsed through bone and muscle. A terrible mélange of monstrous creatures and bloody swords, of an immense, uncanny cavern whirled in her mind until everything disappeared in a swirl of luminous, pearly fog. She turned, restless on the unfamiliar bed and fell away into sleep.