A shaky Marta followed Mother Cailyn down the spacious aisle of the mews to a roomy open stall. Her shoulders were so tense they ached. So much was riding on this. Her whole assignment. Success or failure. She was breathing so fast the cold air burned through her sinuses. Cailyn stopped in front of a stall.
It was unlike any stall she'd ever seen on any world—half walls of smooth stone, flagstone floor, rare, gleaming, dark wood framing the opening. An enormous pile of clean golden straw laid in one corner partitioned off by another half wall of polished wood. Light from a row of clerestory windows at the back brightened the space. A long, bronze-colored flight feather lay against a side wall, reflecting fire in the light.
"This is Sidhari."
Marta couldn't move. Cailyn pushed her inside.
The enormous Karda was beautiful. No, she was beyond beautiful. Her hawk head sat atop the long graceful neck of her horse body. A dark mane started just below the feathers of her crest, long and glossy. Her tail swept the ground. Sidhari's wings were lighter than the hair on her body, gold mahogany, with long bronze-gold flight feathers. Her sleek body shone; her bay coat shaded to black from hocks and knees down. Four long, sharp, black talons tipped huge avian feet.
Marta managed one step forward, and the Karda’s mantled wings spread wall to wall. She raised her head. The large dark eyes in her predator's head looked her over, imperious, appraising her. Marta took another step. She took a deep breath, Then another, and her shoulders loosened. This colossal creature with its fierce hooked beak should terrify her. But she didn’t.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" The Guild Mother's words were a faint echo from far away.
Marta couldn’t make her voice get beyond a whisper. "She is beyond beautiful. She's magnificent. And huge. How can you ever control them?"
"You don't. She will be the one to tell you what to do." Cailyn paused, and her voice softened, "If she accepts you."
Cailyn continued. "This is Sidhari. She is by far the largest Karda any of us have ever seen aside from Altan Me'Gerron's Kibrath and Daryl Me'Vere's Abala." By the prefix Me, Marta knew these were men from the ruling class of Adalta. Their names were filed somewhere in her memory.
Cailyn held her hand out to the Karda. Sidhari bent down, and the guild mother scratched the top of her head, oblivious to the nearness of the huge curved beak. "If she accepts you she will be yours to partner so long as you both agree. Often that means for life. She showed up from the wild a month ago. No one understands why, but that's how they come to us. She hasn't selected anyone yet. She refused to fly any of the Karda Patrol." Cailyn laughed, scratching harder. "Maybe this is the one you've been waiting for, my lady."
Marta wondered how tough those fine feathers must be to withstand that.
"Come in and meet her. If she does select you, you'll need to spend some time getting acquainted. I'll be back later. I have work to do."
Marta’s breath stopped again. It was hard to get her words out. "You're leaving me here with her? What do you mean if she selects me? What do I do?" All of a sudden she wasn't sure she wanted to be left alone with this huge creature, its fierce hooked beak, its piercing eyes.
Cailyn smiled and walked away, saying over her shoulder, "You'll be all right. More than all right if she chooses you." Then she turned back, her body still, her tone somber. "It’s the way to become a Mi’hiru, Marta, the only way." She left.
Marta stepped, one slow foot at a time, toward Sidhari, looking up at the proud head, getting as close as she dared. The Karda's dark eyes caught hers. Sidhari held her entranced, examined her, exposed her to the core of her being. Marta sensed a rock-like solidity, an intelligence sharp and discerning, a quest for connection. Marta felt herself leaning toward it. Fear jolted her. Such deep connection was frightening, dangerous.
Her heart beating a timpani concerto in her chest, her hand reached to touch the soft, sleek hair of the long graceful neck, and she lost herself in the Karda’s vast mind. Her consciousness spread wider and wider until she was the entire planet, her mind, her heart swirled beyond time and matter, until the scattered atoms of her being gathered with a soft susurrus of feathers sliding together, surrounding her, holding her. She was held, cherished, safe for the first time since her father died.
Her fingers curled, feeling the loose straw and the rough stones of the floor, feeling warmth against her cheek. She was sitting, resting against the warm shoulder of the Karda. Sidhari lay with her feet curled under her. Marta never wanted to move again. Light through the clerestory windows was dark with the rose of twilight. Marta started as she heard footsteps echo down the stone hallway of the mews.
"It looks like you've found a match, Sidhari," Cailyn leaned against the wide archway to Sidhari's stall. "You've been here all afternoon, Marta."
Marta stood, her legs shook. "Has it been that long? It felt like a few minutes." She managed to pull the words out of the fog in her head.
"The first time is always like that. You were lost, weren't you?"
"No." She rested her hand on Sidhari's shoulder, nearly the height of her own though Sidhari laid on the flagstones, her legs tucked under her body. Marta was still shaky. "I think I was found."
Sun glinted through the gold highlights of the mahogany hair flying around Marta's head and across her eyes. She'd been learning to fly on Sidhari for six tendays and still couldn't remember to braid her hair. It was loose from its bun again. She didn't care. Her legs tight against Sidhari's sides, the Karda’s manes stinging her face, they stooped toward the ground. She watched it rush toward them, certain they would crash into the trees, then Sidhari swooped up in time, as she always did. Marta’s stomach did a lurch, and they leveled out and rose toward the clouds again, spiraling up a thermal, letting the warm air carry them.
Reluctantly, she concentrated, as hard as she could, on the picture of the mews to Sidhari. That required a lot of innate empathy, which, she'd learned, was the primary prerequisite to being selected. What the others were, no one knew, but often empathy wasn't enough. With few exceptions, Karda only chose women as permanent partners. With no exceptions, only women could be Mi'hiru.
Tomorrow they would fly with a wing of the Rashiba Karda Patrol on their rounds. Mi'hiru were indispensable to other flyers who weren’t able to communicate with the Karda they rode. When they projected a picture of where they were going into their Karda’s minds, the other Karda in the wing got the message. Marta was terrified she wouldn’t be able to do that. The other Mi'hiru acted as if they had actual conversations with their Karda. She didn’t. Marta hoped it would feel like that to her, too, as their empathic connection matured.
Grabbing to catch her hair sticks before they tumbled to the ground, she swiped the hair back from her face and twisted it back up, working the sticks in place to hold it. The glide was long and glorious. They floated, Sidhari's wings spread wide, adjusting with small movements of wings and tail, suspended in endless space. The slightest lean of Marta's body sent Sidhari wheeling on one wing in a stomach-churning turn or into a steep climb toward the clouds. Sometimes the Karda responded even before Marta signaled, as though she knew Marta's intention.
Green fields pale with early growth outlined by rough stone walls passed below them. They surrounded the small villages that dotted a forest that stretched as far as she could see. Here and there she saw trees crowned with green mist as tiny buds and leaves started their spring push. All too soon she spotted the huge greenhouses and the square red stone towers of the Citadel at Rashiba Prime that rambled over the hill at the center of the city. Tall arched windows with tiny panes glinted in the late morning light. She watched another Karda and rider glide in to land on the long runway meadow outside the mews. Sidhari began a slow spiral down, waited their turn, then touched down and loped down the field to the entrance to the Mews.
Once inside, Marta unbuckled the myriad straps of the rigging, lifted the saddle to its rack in Sidhari's stall and found the brushes in the tack cabinet on the wall. Currying Sidhari's coat, untangling her mane and long tail, checking her flight feathers, touching them with a little light oil—this was her second favorite thing. She lifted each foot, checking the talons and the hard, pads that covered the first section of each digit. When Sidhari landed, she fisted her feet, and only those horny pads hit the ground. They had to be checked carefully each time she groomed the Karda.
"How, by the lords of the great galaxies, do you Karda manage in the wild, or wherever you come from? Your tail is full of rats. That's what we get for such a wild flight today. I thought you were going to throw me out of that saddle more than once."
Sidhari looked back at her, amusement in her eyes. That's what made it so easy to talk to her. It was as though Sidhari understood every word Marta spoke. Even sometimes every thought she had.
"I wasn't ready to come in, but swords and lessons await. More on the quadrants of Restal and Toldar today, I think. That's where we're going Octday after next. Restal first for a month or so, then on to Toldar. I think they're planning on leaving me in Toldar for a lot longer. Mi'hiru are seldom assigned for longer than a few months in Restal for some reason I don't understand, but I guess we'll find out. I'm studying the maps hard so we don't get lost getting from here to there. That wouldn't make a very good impression."
A Mi'hiru's loyalty to the particular Quadrant they were assigned to was only expected so long as they were attached there. They were moved from quadrant to quadrant in rotation—that removed the temptation to interfere in politics and allowed them to keep the independence essential to their relationship with the Karda. It also meant she could gather a broader base of information for the consortium.
Marta leaned into Sidhari's shoulder, breathing in her dry, spicy scent, brushing with long, firm strokes. Sidhari liked that and leaned back, eyes half closed, making contented clicking sounds with her vicious beak. When Marta finished, she decided she didn’t smell bad enough of sweat and Karda to change for her workout in the arms salon. She fished in her pack for the special small plastic packets of plant samples she'd gathered for Cedar today. Tomorrow she'd take them, with the others she'd accumulated and land somewhere she could stash them for one of Cedar’s tiny bio-system drones to collect and carry back to the ship. Hiding them with the others in the straw close to the wall, she ignored her tiny flash of guilt when she told the Karda, "Don't let anyone find those, please." Sidhari looked at her as though she understood. "It wouldn't do for someone to find these bags on this world where plastic doesn't exist. Not this kind, anyway," she whispered to Sidhari, or herself.
Without thought Marta blocked the blow with her weighted wood practice sword before she saw the slight move of Tayla's body, sensing it well before she should have. She slid to the side to avoid another strike and landed a blow on her instructor's ribs who let out a loud "Oof" in spite of her thick, padded canvas vest. Marta stepped back and wiped sweat from her forehead, pushing back her damp hair. It had come loose from its knot again, and its heavy auburn length was in her way. She leaned down, head low, hands on her thighs, her opponent in the same position, both breathing hard.
She'd been in Rashiba Prime for six tendays now. Her training period was nearly over, and the advantages she'd gotten from the lighter gravity were wearing off. She wouldn't be able to do more than hold her own against Tayla, the Guild House Armsmaster if she weren't sensing her moves in a way that was beyond her training.
"That was a good workout." Tayla panted and stretched her back, groaning. She was several inches taller than Marta, black-haired, arms ropy with muscle under smooth olive skin, her face marked by a faint white scar below her left eye. "I'm only telling you this because you're almost done with training, but you always surprise me. I’ve never had a trainee with such ability. Not only can you hold your own with me in sword work, but you put me on my back as often as not in hand-to-hand defense."
"Ha! Don't tell me that. Look at you. You look like you just strolled in, and I'm sopping. You're just trying to soften me up for next time." And I don't know how I anticipate your every stroke. She grabbed a towel and mopped the back of her neck.
Tayla laughed. "I think you have stronger Air than I do. You're just that much faster."
Marta's hand stilled. What does that mean? Air? What kind of answer am I expected to make to that comment? They speak of Air and Water and Earth as if they are something—something I don't know what, but that I'm supposed to know all about. Or something I'm supposed to have.
The two carried their quilted workout vests and weighted wooden practice swords over to the pegs and chests lining the back wall of the salon. Marta grabbed another small towel from a hook and swiped at her face and arms. She fastened her long hair back into a tight knot with her hair sticks, which she'd found on the floor. Again. She knew she should cut it so her hair couldn't be grabbed in a fight, but it would have to be so short she didn't think she could bear it. Without it her face was too severe, her cheekbones too stark. She thought of it as the one thing about her that was beautiful. That and her long eyelashes. They made up for her strong—some called it stubborn—chin and the hump on her nose. She knew she'd never be thought of as a beauty—she refused to lose her hair.
"How did you learn so well?" Tayla asked. "I'd like to know who your teacher was. Maybe I could hire her."
Marta laughed. "Not a her. It was my father. I was his only son. He had no one else to teach, and I wasn't much for playing mommy with dollies. It was just the two of us. For most of my life, we traveled. He worked as a trader out of Akhara Prime. He wanted me to be able to protect myself." She nearly said, "This is one of the few planets where women are trained in weapons," and had to bite her lip. It was so hard being alone. She even missed Galen-of-the-frozen-face-and-I-work-hard-at-it.
Much of this story was true. She had learned from her father. He started when she was tiny and could barely hold up her little practice blade. The planets where they had lived and worked until he died were far from safe—primitive, feudal worlds as the post-diaspora planets often were. She was proficient with so many different weapons, from high to low tech, she'd lost track.
"He figured that as a woman I would be fighting someone larger too often, so if I learned to defend myself against someone a lot bigger when I was little, I could only get better as I grew."
"The hand-to-hand fighting you do is very different. I'm learning a lot from you. Probably more than you've learned from me, to tell the truth." Tayla laughed and swiped at her face with a towel. "Leanna wants to go to a new place tonight. She says it's rowdy, and that's just what I want. Care to join us? It'll take me half an hour to get cleaned up. Why don't you meet us at the gate?"
Marta hesitated. She'd planned to study maps of the route from Rashiba to Restal tonight. And she was starting to get too close to Tayla. "Leanna always chooses the rowdy places. I think she just likes troublemakers." She heard her father's voice in her head. "Don’t get attached, Marta. We won’t be here long. Don’t make leaving harder." I hadn’t realized how tempting it would be now that I’m by myself.
Tayla added, her voice muffled through the towel. "And I'll ask Andra. She just lost a patient, and she needs to get out. She'll brood if we don't encourage her to get out and about. She's ready."
Marta gave in. "Sounds fun." The three of them were excellent sources of information about everything from fashion to the regulations of both Mounted and Karda Patrol to politics. And she'd been working hard. She'd earned a little fun with acquaintances she would probably not see often, if ever.
Sometimes she wished she'd agreed to have a partner, but she was determined to prove herself. If she started accepting partners, she'd end up always being second. That wasn't acceptable. It would be failure.
The four women walked two abreast down the narrow street. Short heavy burgundy cloaks trimmed in dark gold covered the three Mi'hiru's fitted jacket and split skirt uniforms. The fourth, Andra, wore a long cloak of light blue, the Healers distinctive dark red geometric design embroidered around hood and hem. Street lanterns created spheres of light in the mist that fell, glistening off the stones of the street.
The tavern catered to members of Rashiba Guard, Mounted and Karda Patrols, and Mi'hiru. Leanne promised a fun crowd and good food. Noisy voices, clinking dishes and cutlery, the warm smells of roasting meat, and beeswax candles in gleaming brass and glass holders met them as they pushed inside out of the cold. They wound through the crowded tavern, headed for a small table at the back near the smokeless stove with its glowing red stones, laughing at the good-humored catcalls that came from the mostly male crowd.
"Watch it," Tayla said to one particularly persistent and slightly drunk youth. "I didn't get much of a workout today, and I feel the need to beat someone down tonight."
He laughed. "Please. Beat me down. Beat me down," and saluted them with a brimming mug.
Tayla ordered ale. Marta and Leanna decided on wine. Andra would be on duty later and passed. The serving girl set slices of bread dripping with toasted cheese, garlic, and tomato bits in the middle of the table, and they helped themselves.
Leanna took a sip of her wine and a bite of the bread. "Lots of garlic tonight. I'm afraid the garlic breath will fend off any suitors we might attract." She leaned forward as the chopped tomatoes tried to slide off the bread and spread themselves down the front of her blouse.
"I'm not so sure I want it to fend that last one off." Tayla laughed. "He's a cute one. Look at those arms—and those eyes." She rolled her own with a mock lascivious leer.
"Tayla! He's just a boy," Andra said, her eyes wide in teasing horror.
"Youth equals stamina, Andra. Youth equals stamina. Remember that advice always from your wise Armsmaster. Plus they always go for older women. It's a challenge for them. And I like to meet that challenge." She put on a serious expression. "Anyway, you need to enjoy yourselves as much as you can tonight. Surana says there's a big storm coming. It's rain for several days, I'm afraid. You'll be practicing in it, bless your hearts. And the Karda hate it."
Surana was Tayla's Karda. Marta almost said, "You sound like Surana talks to you," but kept the words stuffed inside. Again she heard her father's voice. "Never make assumptions without hard data. Especially about behaviors you haven't seen before."
She felt a nudge of someone familiar at the shutters in the mental stone wall she had closed tight against the emotions and noisy thoughts in the tavern. Over her right shoulder, she saw Galen Danvyl behind a rather large man at the end of the bar on the back wall. He looked away, lifted his mug to his mouth and turned his head.
Relief that their affair had ended on the last planet whooshed out of her. He was not, and never had been, what she wanted. Would she ever feel that special spark for anyone? She dropped her focus to her cup to cover a sudden rush of sadness and loss. She'd hoped for something permanent, something deep and lasting with him. That wish had kept her eyes closed to who he was for a long time—so handsome he was beautiful, but closed, arrogant, remote.
Her first instinct was to turn away, not acknowledge him. He wasn't supposed to be in Rashiba, and he wasn't happy to see her. That feeling was strong enough to poke her shields hard. Maybe she should just ignore him. But why would he try to hide from her?
Finally, she just watched him, feeling sad, until she caught his attention. He'd never shown much expression, but she’d known him so long she could interpret the tiny changes he couldn't hide. She hoped he wasn't up to something he shouldn't be. It wouldn't be the first time—a good part of the reason they weren't together. He tipped his head toward the back hall, and she stood, excusing herself.
Her vision went black at the edges. She grabbed the back of her chair. She was suddenly not there in the crowded tavern; the loud noises faded. The intricate flagstone floor, the waxed bar with its brass rail, shelves of bottles glinting behind it, the plain polished tables and chairs disappeared. For an endless moment, she watched in horror as Galen wrapped in flame, screamed with pain and desperation. Then the noise of the tavern and its boisterous crowd flooded back, and her mental wall snapped into place. She drew a stuttering breath into her tight chest.
Shaken and disoriented, she watched him slip through the crowd toward the back of the tavern. He looked his usual self—nothing wrong. She was nauseous; cold sweat trickled from her temples and between her breasts. She looked around. No one had noticed anything. Her companions were still laughing with the young man making cow eyes at Tayla. Marta stood and stared down at the worn stone floor, steadied herself on the back of a chair and followed Galen down the hall to a small back storeroom where they wouldn't be disturbed.
"What are you doing here, Galen?" she asked, her voice shaking. "Aren't you supposed to be in Anuma Quadrant?" She reached to touch him. He flinched away, and she remembered. He never tolerated even a casual touch he didn't initiate.
"What's the matter, Marta? You look upset—or sick."
"I…I'm fine. Just a hard workout this afternoon. You're supposed to be way up in the Northeast. Is something wrong? Did your father send you to check on me?"
He looked down at her, and his brown eyes slid away from her gaze. He ran his hand through his dark blond hair. "Uh, I'm on my way to meet someone. Though it isn't any of your business, is it?"
"What are you so defensive about? I'm just concerned. I don't want to be unprepared if something's changed. I'm to leave in less than a tenday."
"Where are you going?"
"Your father wanted me to go to Restal and Toldar, and I've managed to arrange it. First year Mi'hiru spend a few months in each Quadrant. I start with those two." A brief flash of something she didn’t recognize crossed his face. "I'm assigned to a brief time in Restal, and then I go on to Toldar. Apparently those two countries, I mean quadrants, are the richest in resources on Adalta. And your father says they both have young and handsome heirs."
"Using your sexy wiles now, are you? That's new for you."
"Not my idea. And I'm not happy about it. I've never seduced anyone before. I don't even know how." Her mouth pursed in a moue of distaste. "And to interfere in a planet's internal politics—? Why are we reduced to that? Gathering information about government, culture, potential markets, resources for trade, that's all we've ever done. All we're supposed to do. I don't know if I can do it—or if I can make it work. It feels dirty."
"Let me think. Tall, elegant figure, auburn hair glinting with gold, and long eyelashes around those blue, blue eyes." A flash of humor flicked his usual detached expression. "Oh, I think you can make it work. They'd be fools to resist. Take advantage, Marta. You might even have fun." He leaned back against the wall. The tension in his shoulders made his movement awkward. Galen was never awkward. "Restal's in the foothills of the coastal range, isn't it? A barren place. Aside from the mines, it's all rocks, gullies, scrub trees, and goats. I don't envy you." Galen's eyes moved away, and he hesitated, expression softening.
He touched her arm. "I miss you, Marta." His eyes flicked away and back and his face twisted into his usual ironic mask. "Especially when I found out about the consortium stock you father left you. I'm leaving early tomorrow. I'll be communicating with Father as soon as I'm outside the Prime. The ship's orbit should put it overhead then. I'll have to hurry to catch it. The disappearance of the satellites makes things difficult. I hope they've figured out what happened and can fix it. My Cue doesn't work half the time. I think I lose more data than I input." He shifted his feet and half turned to look back toward the crowded room. "Is there anything you want me to tell him?"
"No, Kayne briefed me before I left the ship and I spoke to him just before I got to the Prime. I'll find a way to use my Cue if I need anything. Mine's working fine. Good luck, Galen. I doubt I'll see you before this tour ends." She reached out and touched his forearm. She thought of his burning figure and felt a need for contact. She tightened her hand. "Be careful."
He nodded and held her gaze. "You also, Marta."
He walked back down the short hall, and Marta watched him wind his way through the crowd toward the door, her hand rubbing her chest.