The restaurant hummed with quiet conversation when the two Mi'hiru walked in. Marta strengthened her mental dampers. She didn’t need the assault on her emotions that intruded even in small crowds. She was hungry, and Philipa said this place had exceptional food. Three men at a table in the far corner of the room were the focus of the energy in the room. One, whose long brown hair and face resembled Daryl’s, looked up as if expecting someone when they came in. Irritation flicked across his face, then disappeared in a laugh at one of his companions. Marta had seen him, Readen, the oldest of the guardian’s two sons, in other taverns several times in the tendays she'd been in Restal, often with the same two Mounted Patrol guards and the center of activity, laughing, joking.
"Watch out for those two guards. The Karda refused to carry them when they applied to the Karda Patrol. They don't like Mi'hiru," Philipa murmured. "Readen’s friendly enough and fun. He tolerates Mi’hiru, but that’s about all. Karda won’t accept him either. If the revolt against the so-called aristocracy of talent every amounts to anything, he’s probably the one who will lead it. He was born without any. Not even a hint. The only person in all our history to not have talent."
There’s that word again. Talent. I know it means something more here than the ability to play an instrument or write a poem. I’m missing something critical about the people here.
She and Philipa found a table across the room. Over the handwritten card with the menu, Marta watched the three men, curious about the oldest son who was not the heir. His features were close to his brother Daryl's, but where Daryl's was solemn, watchful, Readen was outgoing and genial. He was expecting someone. His eyes flicked to the door everytime it opened.
Philipa continued her tale of a Karda Patrol trainee. "He told me in a loud voice to order the Karda to fly close to the ground, so if he fell off, he wouldn't be hurt. He’s the son of Me’Kammin, one of the wealthiest holders, and he’s so round he’d roll if he fell. I don’t think he’s going to make the patrol. And I don’t think he’ll be disappointed. His father will be, but he won’t. It’s too much effort. Effort is not his thing."
Marta laughed, handed the card to the young server and ordered the lemon-rosemary chicken and orange potatoes Philippa suggested. They decided to split a bottle of house wine.
A cloaked man pushed through the door, hood pulled up to hide his face, looked around, spotted Readen and moved to his table. Readen sent the two guardsmen to the bar with a laugh. Something about the man's carriage struck her as familiar. He glanced around the room, pausing a fraction too long when he his gaze crossed hers and sat facing away from her. She knew him. Galen Danvyl's eyes darted away from her.
He's hiding from me, hoping I won't recognize him. What is Galen doing here anyway? He's assigned to Anuma Prime, way up in the East. Too far for this to be a casual meeting, It must have taken him days if not tendays to get here. He didn’t fly in. I’d have known.
Galen said something, and Readen’s head turned toward Marta. She looked away to listen to another of Philipa's stories of good-looking men and conquest, a favorite topic of conversation with all Mi'hiru. She suddenly wished she weren't there, that Galen hadn't seen her.
The two men talked, voices low, for several minutes. Readen's hand slashed sideways several times as if insisting on something. Galen just kept shaking his cloaked head. Then Readen slammed his fist down on the table, pushing back in his chair, and Galen got up to leave. Marta wanted to forget her training and follow him out to ask what he was doing in Restal. He was a friend in the wrong place—maybe even in trouble—but she felt Readen's attention sharpen on her and changed her mind. The I’m-a-friend-to-all look on his face flickered with something not so friendly.
Readen Me'Vere sat in the large leather chair in front of his fireplace, the cold hearth yawning before his unseeing eyes. He was furious. The new Mi'hiru recognized Danvyl, and her surprise was obvious. She'd almost gotten up to follow him out of the restaurant.
He fingered the medallion on the gold chain at his neck, pulling it from beneath the tunic where it hid. The heavy gold shaped in an ancient symbol no one else alive on Adalta would recognize. As always it relaxed him, reminding him of the power he could create.
He had learned them, those arcane symbols from the hidden cavern beneath the keep. The lessons hard, painful, and terrifying, but over the years they brought him the power he craved. He may not have been born with the talent connection to Adalta that made Daryl the heir instead of him, but he could wrest his power from the Circles of Disorder, and he could steal the power of talent from those who had it. The Itza Larrak had taught him much. He was almost ready.
A light knock sounded at the door, and Galen Danvyl walked in without waiting for an invitation. His too-handsome face twisted with irritation. "Why did you call me back? I was safely on my way. It's a long journey without having to make part of it twice."
"She saw you, Galen; that Mi'hiru saw you in the restaurant last night where you so foolishly insisted we meet. How does she know you? Was she one of your dalliances in Rashiba Prime?" asked Readen, his tone low and menacing, nothing amiable left in it.
Galen sat slowly in the chair opposite Readen, unconcerned "She's another agent. I know this is her area but I thought I could avoid her. She might report seeing me, and there might be a note in the files no one will see. That's all. Father will take care of it. Nothing to be concerned about."
"She started to follow you out," Readen snapped.
Galen held up a hand, palm out with a calm down motion. "This deal is important to Father. Especially the heavy and rare minerals our ship sensors detected. Your ores in trade for the weapons and the equipment to mine the ores. If we can engineer any that will work here. And I'm sure we can. Father is concerned if we don't do something the Greater Council in Rashiba is sure to refuse us trade privileges because of your Luddite laws restricting technology, so he is not going to let a report from a neophyte advance agent deter your goals. Our goals. We need you in charge in Restal. And beyond if you manage it." He shoved a hand through his hair, pulling it away from his face and shaking it out. "We'll have to wait. Father can take care of her."
"Tell your father to recall her."
"He can't do that. There are no grounds. It's unnecessary, and further, she has support from outside his department." He twisted pursed lips to one side, looking over Readen's shoulder. "Perhaps I shouldn't have avoided her. I could have made up an excuse and bought her a glass of wine." He shook his head, and his hair fell back to perfection. "Oh well, done is done. Father can head her off. But to be safe, you'll have to put off the trials of the sample weapons I brought. I'll delay the delivery of the rest until she leaves Restal. As long as she doesn't see them, or any wounds they make, we'll be all right." He slapped his hands on the arms of the chair and stood.
"I'm not going to do that," Readen stated flatly. "The raids are all on the Toldar side of the border. She won't be going there. And my troops control the border, not Daryl with his Karda wings. Until I control Adalta, you won't get what you need here. If you won't take care of her, I will. I want those weapons."
And there's something about her that intrigues me. I sense something unusual about her talent I might be able to use. Or perhaps it's the Itza Larrak that can use her.
Fury washed through him, and he fought for control until the door closed behind Galen, his hands in fists behind his back, his nails cutting into his palms. He’d seen, not for the first time, the talent potential in Galen, too. Fury that someone not from this planet should have talent potential and not even know it, while he remained the only person on the entire planet without a trace.
More than a tenday went by before Marta had time off to fly out for a whole afternoon to give herself and Sidhari a much-needed taste of freedom. A palpable tension infused Restal Prime, even in the mews where it should be peaceful, and she welcomed the chance to get away. Unpartnered Karda seemed to avoid being here unless they were needed—it was still a mystery to her how they knew when they were—and it was lonely without their presence. She’d gotten used to it in Rashiba.
She washed up and changed her dirty work clothes for another warm divided skirt, a heavy jacket, and her long sheepskin vest, split front and back for riding. She ate the noon meal as fast as was polite, and left for the mews, eager to spend alone time with Sidhari. And not so eager to make her report to the ship.
She and Sidhari soared up into flight, the sun warm on her shoulders.
She needed to report to Planetary Findings and leave her latest plant samples for pickup by the ship's biologist's tiny drones. She dug her Cue out of the bottom of her pack and tucked it in a pocket of her tunic. No bigger than the palm of her hand, an unexpected reluctance to use it made it hang heavy on her hip. Heavier than the sword she wore on the other hip. Intricately worked to look like a small jewelry case with a mirror inside the fitted top, the Cue seemed innocuous—it even held the few bits of personal jewelry. She kept it muted and hidden, always. Taking it out only when she was sure she was alone and could transmit the data she was collecting on culture, politics, and potential trade goods. When the consortium finally announced their presence, cultural missteps made in ignorance created problems.
They flew south and east for several hours, detouring around a large Circle of Disorder, miles across, surrounded by stark skeletons of dead trees. Marta felt Sidhari's distress beat at her, a physical assault that made her curl over the Karda's neck, hands stroking the smooth, shining hair, trying to comfort her, to sooth the quivering tension in her muscles. The dead trees along the innermost edges looked to be at least twenty years gone. Others looked stunted. No young trees appeared. It made Marta’s skin feel greasy. Even as far from the circle as they stayed, Sidhari's flight labored, her wings struggled for lift. Ordinarily, she could glide for miles on her enormous wings.
It frustrated Marta not to be able to ask questions about this strange anomaly without exposing ignorance and raise questions about her she couldn’t answer. She'd already gotten a couple of odd looks from the other Mi'hiru. The sketchy information she had went no further than the fact that they were growing in Restal but not in the rest of the Quadrants. Yes, they were dangerous, but that didn't help her understand what they were. They were a critical part of the culture of Adalta she was supposed to be collecting, and information about them was vital to fulfilling her mission. The sense that this was a major failure left a queasy feeling in her. Her first mission alone, and she was failing.
A sharp feeling of hunger hit her stomach. Not her own. Sidhari needed to hunt. More and more often, Marta picked up feelings, almost thoughts, from her Karda. They'd been on patrol with a wing of the Karda Patrol for the past tenday. They were seldom apart, and a rapport was developing, unlike anything Marta had ever known. Long conversations helped pass the time, and it surprised her every time she realized she was the only one doing the talking. They felt like real two-sided conversations.
The long flights were hard on Sidhari without fresh meat. Dried meat and grain wasn't enough. They circled high on a thermal, watching the ground below. Finally, she felt Sidhari spot something and saw a small herd of the antelope-like kurga below them. Their pale tan hides with vivid red stripes blended into the rough, red-dirt landscape of mesas, gullies, and wide washes that dominated Restal outside the forests and the reclaimed fields surrounding the holds and villages.
Marta strung her bow and pulled an arrow from her quiver. She wasn't proficient at hunting from her Karda's back, but she'd try again. Sidhari dove for the ground, leveling out downwind of the herd, skimming the ground. Marta kept balance with the beats of Sidhari's wings and aimed. Timing her shot to both avoid the wings and hit her target—not an easy thing to do—she managed to wound one enough to slow it down. Sidhari's sharp talons grabbed the struggling kurga, breaking its neck, and pulled up. Marta smiled broadly. This was the best she'd done ever. "Well done, Sidhari. We're getting good at this. Finally. You aren't going to starve after all." The Karda gave a little swoop with her wings, and Marta felt something like a chuckle rumble in her chest. Even through the saddle rig.
She nudged Sidhari back toward the forest searching for a meadow long enough for the Karda to land and take off again. One with plenty of grass, tubers, and the small cherry apples native to Adalta to round out Sidhari's meal. The ship would cross the sky just above the horizon today. She wouldn't have another chance to communicate for several tendays, and it had been at least that long since she'd reported last time.
Sidhari dropped the kurga and hit the ground at a canter, slowed to a trot and stopped at the meadow's edge. Marta pulled loose the leg straps that held her to her saddle and Sidhari's back no matter what acrobatics they did in the air and slid down. She pulled off the rig and curried the Karda with a brush from her pack. The thick grass of one of the few lush meadows in Restal nearly reached her thighs as she carried saddle and pack to the edge of the meadow. Sidhari tore into the kurga.
Marta found a small spring, put off taking out her Cue, and leaned against the smooth white trunk of a sycamore. Buds swelled along its silver branches, a few tiny leaves beginning to break through. Marta’s dreamy thoughts were on nothing but the beautiful place and the warm sun.
"Hello, Tree," she said. And got an answer. Not words, but a clear, unmistakable answering surge of consciousness and sentience that knocked her off her feet. She dropped to the damp ground at the edge of the tiny stream, dizzy, her mind half capable of thought. Sidhari walked over and nudged her with her beak, settled down beside her and spread a wing over her.
Eventually, Marta shook herself out of her near trance, slipped out from under Sidhari’s wing and walked to the center of the clearing away from the sycamores. What was that? What's happening to me? It's getting harder and harder to block these strange intruding sensations. First animals and birds, now a tree. And there's no one I can tell. Over and over they pounded it into me not to fall into a planet's superstitions or religious beliefs. To keep my distance and objectivity. This is too much. This is too much like believing in magical super-sentience. Kayne will never accept anything like this. This is beyond empathy. This is….
If she reported it, they'd assume she'd hallucinated. There would be days and days of testing. Who knew what they'd find, or do. Objectivity ruled; subjectivity was frowned on. She could be recalled, kept ship-side for this mission, maybe never allowed planet-side again. She'd never survive that. She kicked at a clump of grass and reinforced the wall in her head, picturing piles of bricks and buckets of mortar. Angry and terrified, she fell to her knees, her head down, hands bracing her. She cried until she fell into exhausted sleep on the damp ground curled around her belly. When she finally woke, stiff and aching, she was sheltered against Sidhari's warmth, under one of her great wings, mentally centered in her body again, and safe. "Thank you, Sidhari," she whispered.
~You are all right. Your connection strengthens. Your mind is growing and growing hurts,~ whispered back, faint in her mind, just on the edges so she couldn't be sure it wasn't her thought. That scared her again. Her senses were raw. It felt like an attack by some mystical…something.
And she was letting herself get too attached to Sidhari—to the extent of imagining she was talking back. Marta knew better. Don't get attached. Don't get attached. And she never had, however difficult it had been. Until now.
She shook herself out of those thoughts. The afternoon was passing, and she had her report to make, her job to do. She unpacked her samples of soils and plants, set the beacon for pickup, searched the sky with the Cue to make her connection with the ship. Sidhari went back to digging for the tubers she loved. Marta sent her collected data and connected to dispatch. Kayne was not immediately available, and the officious communications officer refused to take her report or let her talk to anyone else.
"You are only to report to Director Danvyl," he repeated, twice, when she insisted. Finally, she heard Kayne's voice. His picture didn't come through.
"Rowan, it's about time you reported. Where have you been?" She couldn’t decide whether it was irritation or concern in his voice. "If it weren't that the signal from your Cue has been steady I'd have thought something happened to you."
"I'm in Restal, working. I told you it would take some time to get here. I called in as soon as I could after I arrived. I've had trouble connecting. This is the third time I've tried."
"Not surprising, Marta. It's hectic up here. The engineers are frantic. Things inexplicably stop working. Sometimes they fry circuits when they do. The satellites are gone, and the spy bugs are disappearing. Electro-magnetic disruptions move around over the planet, and none of our probes get through them.
"As the other agents report in it's becoming apparent things don't look too well for us with the damn council and guardians of this planet. God save me from idealists. Their ruling philosophy has apparently not changed since they left Old-Earth. They're determined not to fall into the mistakes they blame for Earth’s collapse. Nineteenth-century old-Earth Luddites through and through. Even the clothing is reminiscent of late nineteenth century. It seems it will go against every principle they have just to look at what we have to offer. Most agents report they'll be so appalled at the thought of even the simplest weapons they're likely to throw us out bodily if we try."
"Weapons?" said Marta. "Since when do we trade in weapons?" The Trade Alliance would be down on us with a vengeance.
He ignored her. "And, lords of the galaxies forbid they might look at anything that could make their miserable lives easier. They seem to revel in doing things in the most primitive ways possible and are smugly content with it. Technology’s never progressed beyond the simplest steam mechanics, and even that works in some way none of you can discover."
"I take it you are not enamored of this beautiful planet." And their technology is not simple; their machines are beautifully designed and elegantly crafted. Just not electric or fossil fuel driven. Marta stifled her impatience. She could think of collectors, even some on their ship, who would be fascinated by some of what she’d seen. And reported.
"Beauty does not make profits, Rowan. Trade and technology do. We can't make profits if we aren't even able to persuade them to look at what we have. To make things worse, some of the more sensitive items the scouts tested don't seem to work. Even the Cues work erratically. But enough of that, what have you learned of their culture and politics that can help in changing their minds? I wish we had the resources to force them to accept us."
"What?" she said. Surely he couldn't mean that. "What did you say?" It was a basic tenet of the trade federation that oversaw the consortium ships that no world could be forced to accept anything that their culture forbid.
"Don't be ridiculous, Rowan. You know I don't mean that. I'm frustrated. We need this trade badly. Particularly the neodymium, the samarium, the lanthium the geo-probes found. The small amount of rare minerals we gathered from the scattered asteroid belts we mined on our way here isn't enough for trade when we move on, let alone our own needs. We can't produce without those resources. And what can you find out about that mineral they use for fuel? The samples are unlike anything our geologists have ever seen. And we can't seem to make them burn. We know they burn. They heat every fireplace and stove down there.
"Have you been able to detect the ship from the planet? Our systems have been a little erratic. The engineers say our mirror shields are holding, but I'd rather trust someone on the ground."
Kayne talked so fast she knew he wasn’t interested in her answers to his questions, but she said, "No, and I've made it a point to watch. Most of the time there's heavy cloud cover. No rumors about strange new moons in the sky either. I've sent data about the markets I visit when I accompany Judiciars to the Holdings and villages. The most interesting goods I've found are a fabric that's extremely strong, armor-like, and water repellant, from a hybrid or mutated sheep. There's some unbelievably fine porcelain from a small village not far from the Prime, made by one family for generations. Translucent and incredibly strong, not just useful but also beautiful enough for collectors.
"As to the political hierarchy, Guardian Roland is an older man," she went on. "Still healthy, but I've heard rumors he's beginning to fail in little ways. From what I've learned he's incredibly narcissistic, interested only in his pleasures, and is flagrantly misusing the resources of the Quadrant. He holds court like one of the worst self-indulgent kings of pre-revolutionary France from Old-Earth history. There is a council, but he treats it as advisory, nothing else.
"It's the younger son, Daryl, who's his heir. I haven't discovered why it isn't the oldest. Something about abilities they simply refer to as talent that Readen, the older son, doesn't have. Which is apparently unheard of. I do hear occasional talk of a revolt against what they call the aristocracy of talent, but it seems to be just tavern talk. If it weren't that the holders and population like and trust Daryl, I wouldn't be surprised at an attempt by one of them to take control. But so far they're satisfied to wait. He does what he can to mitigate his father's excesses."
Marta paced in small circles as she talked. "I haven't been presented to the Guardian and his family yet. I'm finally invited to Restal Keep two days from now. It's a long overdue welcome according to the Mi'hiru here, but that doesn't seem unusual for Restal. They don't hold Mi'hiru, or any women for that matter, with the same high regard as the rest of Adalta. Except for Daryl, the heir. He's Commander of the Karda Patrol so I see him often in the Mews, sometimes accompany his wing of flyers on patrol, and I've begun to make friends with him." But no matter what you say I'm not going to whore myself to him. She pulled at her earring, hating the thought of what Kayne asked from her. A stray thought of her father jabbed her. She missed him. He would have been furious at even a hint of what Kayne wanted.
"I've crossed ways with the older son, Readen, a number of times as I've frequented taverns, the market, restaurants, listening to gossip and trying to better understand the cultural attitudes here. I've overheard him talking about better ways to accomplish the mining that brings in the most revenue. He owns a number of mines in the hills to the North where our sensors detected the heaviest mineral deposits, but from what I can deduce their methods are primitive. He's frustrated in his efforts to find better ways of extracting the minerals. I doubt he'd be resistant to anything that could help. Their methods are extremely labor intensive, and they actually use slave labor." She heard the distaste in her voice, but Kayne didn't react. She started to pull at the ring in her ear again but dropped her hand. Her ear was sore. It was a bad habit.
"Have you made progress in developing closer rapport with either of the sons? The reason we wanted you as me-hero, or whatever they're called, is because they're rumored to be more promiscuous. That should make getting close to them easier. Use your looks."
If you knew they were promiscuous why did you choose them as my cover? I'm not. "Are you telling me to whore myself, Kayne?" She might as well make her distaste clear. She wasn't going to follow that order whatever he said. Her father would have ripped up the entire division of Planetary Findings if he'd even thought she'd be asked to do this. Kayne knew that with her degree of empathy it would be impossible for her. No consortium agent had ever been asked to do that. He must be desperate. Why?
"Don't be ridiculous. You won't be taking money. The ridiculous concept that technology shouldn't be allowed to outstrip socio-cultural development is a significant obstacle to opening the planet to trade. We need to use whatever tools we can to influence them. You're being needlessly resistant. What progress are you making?"
"Though I think we’re becoming friends, Daryl is careful not to fraternize too much with either his Karda patrollers or the Mi'hiru. He's serious about his duties as Commander."
"I have every confidence in you, Marta. I'm sure you'll find a way to influence him." His tone changed then, as he asked how she was coping with working alone. She could hear the note of caring in her voice. Kayne had been a good friend of her father’s.
She finished her report and finally mentioned seeing his son, Galen. "I saw Galen here, Sir. Why is he in Restal? My territory. I saw him one evening in a restaurant, and he avoided me. It wasn't necessary. All the agents have stories in place to explain how we know each other. Did you send him to check on me? Have I done something to make you distrust me?" Why do I suspect that? Do I feel guilty about something? A brief flash of her beautiful flight with Sidhari crossed her mind. That has nothing to do with how I'm doing my mission. I am experienced enough at keeping my distance not to let my empathy get me too attached. She swallowed the taste of guilt seeping into her thoughts.
After a short silence, he answered, his voice too casual. "Oh, no, Marta. He's in Anuma. Has been from the beginning. You were mistaken."
"He was here, Kayne. I saw him."
"I know it’s difficult being down there on your own for the first time. You saw someone who reminded you of him. I know you were fond of Galen. You must miss him."
"He was hooded. But I know him. I'm certain it was him."
"It couldn't have been, Marta. He’s in Anuma," he repeated, his voice soft with concern for her. But insistent.
She closed her eyes, heat building behind her eyelids. She rubbed the back of her neck. She knew it had been Galen. And he hadn't been in Anuma since the beginning. She'd talked to him in Rashiba. I won't think about that strange vision of him in flames.
"Quit worrying about Galen and start concentrating on drawing the attention of one of the Me'Vere sons, preferably the heir, but if the other one shows interest, take advantage. That's your job, not Galen. I know it’s hard for you, working alone, missing your father. But you can do it, Marta. I have faith in you."
Kayne terminated their conversation. Marta switched the Cue off, not certain how she felt about their conversation. She stretched out in the soft grass under the warm sun, rare even in late spring.
Strengthening her mental walls against the intruding consciousness that was so much stronger when she was in contact with the ground, she fell asleep. Sidhari settled beside her in a companionable doze. When Marta woke, the weak afternoon sun was shining in her eyes from low beneath the ubiquitous clouds moving in from the West, and she was chilled.
"We better get back," she told Sidhari. She closed the Cue and pushed it deep into the bottom of her pack. She took out the loaf of nut bread and the piece of hard cheese she had pilfered from the Guild House kitchen. "But first I'll eat. From the looks of the ground around here, you've had your snack already." Indeed the ground around them looked like a large animal had been rooting in it. Sidhari leaned her head over Marta's should and looked longingly at the bread. Marta laughed and broke off a piece of the moist nut bread for her. Sidhari took it delicately in her huge beak.
Marta finished her snack. "That's not going to hold me for long, especially since I had to share. It's getting late; we need to hurry. I don't like flying when it's dark, and we've a long way to go." Sidhari stood, lifting her wings slightly so Marta could tighten the girths that held the saddle to the broad back of the Karda. The saddle's pommel and cantle were both high. The pommel had an arching handle that extended into broad horns on each side to lock her thighs under. The high cantle was designed to support her back during the often rough flights. Both were needed as the Karda's body surged and fell with the strong beat of her wings tossing the unwary rider back and forth with neck-snapping force.
She mounted, pulled tight the leathers that wrapped her legs, and leaned forward as Sidhari cantered across the meadow, finally lifting into flight, huge wings thundering with every stroke. They circled, brushing the treetops, searching for the updraft that would take them ever higher in the miracle that was their flight. She wouldn't be sad to leave the unsettling intrusions into her mind, but she would definitely miss Sidhari when she finally left Adalta. I need to guard my emotions more carefully. I'm in danger of growing too attached to her.