Marta hurried through the growing darkness, cloak wrapped tightly around her against the chill and drizzle, hood up, glad for its heavy wool. And glad for the long wool divided skirt and high necked jacket of her blue uniform. It would be good to be inside a warm tavern.
Was it summer? Did this planet even have a summer? The red sun gave far less heat than most of the planet's she'd been on, and it rained three out of five days of the long four hundred thirty-two day year. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration. But surely not by much. I may never dry out. At its best summer was only a little less cool than the winter season. And a little less wet, which wasn't saying much.
The lamplighter hadn’t gotten to this part of the Prime yet. The narrow street she turned into was dark between the tall buildings and smelled. She walked faster, careful on the wet, slick stones, still mindful of the lighter gravity on Adalta. A prickle of warning sent her hand to the hilt of her sword. Quick footsteps sounded from behind her. She pushed the right side of her short cloak over her shoulder, flipped the hood back, and loosened the weapon in its scabbard. Whoever followed closed fast, too fast, and threatening intentions battered against her shields. The street was too dark and too empty to be careless. She turned.
Two men approached and separated as they got close. Their hats pulled down, faces half obscured. She nearly stumbled at the feelings of cold malevolence swamping her. Swallowing hard against the upsurge from her stomach, she forced the malignant emotions away and slammed her brick wall up, sealed her mind and scrambled for clarity.
The taller one grinned a happy face with too many teeth. "I'll handle this, Juke. She's only a girl. How hard could this be?"
"She's a Mi'hiru. They train as much as any guardswoman," the other warned, but the first was already stepping toward her, sword up.
Marta stepped to the side and drew her sword. "Patrol! Patrol!" Marta yelled as loud as she could. "You better go on your way, both of you. They'll have heard me and be here any minute."
"Now do you need help, Cale?" the man called Juke jeered.
They must mean to kill me if they're so free with their names. She relaxed her body into a loose stance and watched both of them with practiced awareness, blocking everthing from her mind but the two men and her physical surroundings."Oh, I don't think so," said Cale, the larger one. "Leave her to me, Juke. I don't need your help." He lunged, overbalancing, his powerful arm thrusting his blade toward her stomach.
She parried, slipped his blade to the side, and stepped off the line, raking his forearm with the tip of her sword before he recovered.
"Shit!" he said and stepped back, his face reddened with fury and surprise.
"I told you, Marta's a Mi'hiru. She won't be easy," said Juke, laughing at him. He leaned, one leg cocked, against the wall of one of the buildings crowding the dark street and tapped his sword on the side of his shin.
How did they know her name? They'd caught her in a deserted area of warehouses. If the patrol wasn't nearby—and if someone had sent these two, they might not be—no one would hear her yell. She brought herself back to a ready stance. She was trained to fight off more than one assailant, but it wouldn't be easy. They were both bigger than she was. Not as agile, but bigger and stronger. The narrowness of the street gave her a slight advantage. They had to come at her one at a time or get in each other’s way.
Cale attacked again. He was strong, and she parried his fast, hard strikes with difficulty, taking care not to block his sword directly. His reach was longer, and he was stronger. A hard block to his sword would numb her arm, maybe break her blade.
She'd have to work to get close to do any damage. And she couldn't forget there were two.
He struck again, and she leaned back. The tip of his sword almost caught an edge of her short cloak. But he overreached. She stepped into him, and her sword slid into his unprotected side. He stumbled back and stared down at the gush of blood and the gaping flesh under his sliced tunic. He switched his sword to the other hand and rushed her again, slow now and clumsy with that arm. She stepped out of his line, whirled, and kicked out hard as he rushed past. His head snapped back. Marta heard it crack. His head bounced off the street, and she shoved away the sudden absence of feeling from him. She didn't stop her turn until she faced the other man. He already moved toward her, his sword up.
She stepped to the side and backed away so he couldn't trap her between him and the unmoving body on the ground. Her heart was trying to pound out of her chest. She forced slow, even breaths, made herself ignore the emptiness that had been the man called Cale. By that and the sharp metallic smell of blood and the stink of voided bowels she knew he was dead.
Juke was smaller, wiry and agile. She worked hard and fast to keep turning away his flurry of sword strikes. She let him push her back down the street, not attacking, defending with as little effort as possible, watching, waiting for opportunity, knowing she was tiring despite the flood of adrenaline. She waited, parried and back stepped, parried and back stepped.
"Give up, little girl," he taunted, breathing a little fast, trying to muscle her sword down. He disengaged and stepped back. "I can kill you quick and fast, or hard and slow in Cale's memory. You choose."
"Why are you attacking me? Who sent you?" Her voice was too high, too shrill. She hadn't wanted to kill either of them. She wanted to know who'd sent them. Faint light gleamed on the polished leather of the man's scabbard and belt, and his close-fitting jacket was well made, his boots well-polished. These weren't ordinary street ruffians out for fun. Twisted fun. They knew who she was. Their target.
Marta parried his next stroke. She felt his anger grow,felt his thrusts and parries become erratic and watched for his first mistake. She let her sword tip drop. He would make one—his training was adequate Hers was better, and he was angry. Then he made it. Lunging to take advantage of her dropped sword he left himself open, and Marta had a clean shot at his shoulder. She took it, felt the ragged scrape of sword against bone. He fell back, dropped his sword and stared, unbelieving, at her, hand clapped over his bleeding shoulder.
She stepped on his sword. "I'm going for the Prime Guard. You better take your chance and get yourself away from here. Your friend is dead. If you insist, I can make you dead, too. Who sent you?" she said between fast breaths.
"You'll be a long time finding any Guard. Next time you won't be so lucky." He disappeared into the darkness of the narrow street.
"Who sent you?" she called after him. But then the windows to her empathy broke wide open. She gagged at the absence that once had been a swirl of emotions, of life. Marta braced an arm against the wall and bent over, hands braced on her knees, her breath hard, quick, and painful in her throat and chest. Who wanted her dead? Why?
She had a feeling the man called Juke was right; there wouldn't be a patrol anywhere close. Marta forced herself to move and walked the rest of the way to the tavern without one in sight. She stopped just outside the light from the lanterns on either side of the door to pull herself together, letting her breathing ease, feeling her heart slow. Adrenaline drained from her body, and she leaned against the wall for several minutes, head down, her cloak pulled tight against the sudden chill to her skin. When she was steady again, her empathic dampers firmly in place, she pushed her hood back, opened the door, and stepped inside the warm room. She'd had to fight before. She'd had to kill before. The thought didn't make her feel any better.
Readen sat at a small table near the large fireplace, a bottle of wine and two clear green glasses in front of him. A richly dressed man, probably a holder, with two of his guards flanking him, stood talking to Readen. He laughed at something Readen said and turned back to his table. "I am glad you were able to come, Marta," Readen rose to pull out a chair for her. "I had hoped you would when I sent you my note."
"I appreciate the invitation, Readen. I am sorry to be late, but I had a little difficulty on the way here."
He raised a brow in question, and she told him about the attack. "Excuse me for a moment, Marta." He walked to the bar to speak to a tall man, one of four guardsmen in their green uniforms. The man nodded and left.
He sat again, poured her a glass of wine, then leaned back, idly fingering the silver medallion on a chain around his neck. "I've sent someone to find the guards who should have been on duty in that area. I'm sorry about what happened. Perhaps the wine will help you forget about it for a while."
"I haven't been to this place, but I've heard about it. Their roast lamb with marjoram and sage and orange potato casserole have quite a reputation. And also their wine."
"Shall we see if it lives up to all the talk?"
Her eyebrows rose as she took a sip of the wine. "This is very good. And I'm glad. It's been a long and tiring day." Wine and cuttings of new species of grape vines were excellent trade goods.
He spoke for several minutes about the vintage, which she made note of, then asked, "Karda being difficult?"
"Not the Karda. They are always easy. Young cadets are too often not. I worked all afternoon with a young woman, a cadet. She thought she already knew everything about Karda, and refused to listen until the Karda snapped its beak at her in irritation when she pulled on a covert feather too hard. She listened after that, but not happily. A Karda’s beak is very sharp."
A hint of discomfort tinged his laugh, and Marta remembered a little late that the Karda refused to carry him. She changed the subject and asked about his hold in the North. They talked about nothing much for a while, the weather, mutual acquaintances, the food. "I understand in addition to being commander of both the Mounted and the Prime Guard, you have charge of the mines to the North." She knew how to draw people out—that was a good part of her job, gathering information about influential people. And Readen was influential.
He sat back. "It's difficult work. Our tools are primitive—the few machines we have break down far too often because it's difficult to get good engineers to live so far from anything civilized. So the work is done by minor Earth talents. And shovel and pick. The slaves are difficult. Feeding and housing them is expensive. And no matter how well we treat them, a large part of my personal guard's time is spent preventing escape or chasing escapees. Some of them have more Earth talent than expected in slaves."
There's that word again. Talent. All right. Earth talents obviously work with earth. How? Doing what? Chewing minerals out with their teeth?
"They're punished when we catch them, of course," he smiled with one corner of his mouth, "but they don't take those lessons well. Work goes slowly at the best of times. Not just in the mines, either. Many of the large holders have the same problems. Production all across Restal would greatly increase with better control of the slaves and more efficient tools and machinery. But it is difficult with the laws and restrictions on technology. And, of course, Toldar."
"They refuse to return escaping slaves. The economic drain on us is considerable."
"Mmm," was all Marta could reply.
She listened as he talked more of the mines that were the source of much of the Quadrant's wealth, taking mental notes for Kayne. The consortium could manufacture machinery that would make the mining more productive and profitable. Readen would be open to that trade. Marta had heard stories from others about the primitive conditions and hard lives of the mine slaves. What wealth derived from the mines, judging by what she had seen of the Quadrant, and she'd flown on patrol over much of it, was not used to make the lives of Restalans easier.
"I would be happy to take you on a tour of the mines when your duties bring you that way," he offered.
Kayne would appreciate that. He wanted more information about the strange magma stones they hadn't been able to burn, but which glowed hot in every fireplace and stove she'd seen. "I'm not sure when I'll be sent to that area, but I'll let you know. It would be interesting." And she’d like to see for herself what the conditions for the miners there were. She remembered Philipa talking about a potential revolt against what she termed the aristocracy of talent and that Readen might be involved. The consortium would want to know about that. Spending time with Readen should be educational.
Readen could be amusing, and the conversation turned to his sharp-witted comments about the people of the Keep. He made her laugh. She could understand his popularity with his men. His charm was considerable. Why, I wonder, will the Karda not carry him? It's odd.
Readen left before she did, citing a long day ahead and a need for an early night, promising that her way back to the Guild House would be well patrolled. He apologized again for their absence when she was attacked. She enjoyed her wine and decided to stay to enjoy a little more of it.
A plump and prosperous-looking man and his plump, friendly wife at the next table asked if she would join them in a post-prandial brandy. She recognized him as a guild weaver she had bought a fine wool for a dress from and moved to their table.
After introductions—the man, Sheldyn, his wife, Iolani—talked a little about Marta's work. "I have never really talked to a Mi'rihu before," Iolani said. "The Karda look so fierce and dangerous. How ever do you dare to be near them?"
"They are fierce and dangerous," said Marta, "but always, I guess you would say, polite. Never dangerous to their riders. They are intelligent and discerning, and they show their pleasure and displeasure very well. People who insist on treating the Karda as less than the sentient beings find they are not welcome to be served by them."
They talked for a few more minutes about their respective jobs. Sheldyn was a cloth factor as well as a weaver. "Some of the Mi'hiru from your House are among my best customers. Philipa, for one. She has a fine eye."
"And she does love her clothes," laughed Marta. "And her hats," she added, thinking about the immense wheel the diminutive Philipa had sported on her day off.
He waxed so eloquently about his various textiles that Marta determined to revisit his shop soon for fabric for a new skirt and jacket for work. Hers were well worn, at best. Playful Karda with sharp raptor beaks could be hard on uniforms.
Iolani finally interrupted him with a laugh. "If you continue listening to him he will never stop talking about his precious cloth."
"He obviously enjoys his work," agreed Marta. "I think I know where your shop is on the plaza." She turned her brandy glass in her hand. "Not too far from the fountain, isn’t it?. I’ve noticed there don't seem to be many children playing in the plaza. I'd think they'd enjoy splashing in that beautiful fountain. I’ve even thought of it a few times myself."
A small silence followed, and Iolani's expression turned serious as she glanced hesitantly at her husband. Looking down into her glass of brandy she asked quietly, "How did you meet Readen, Marta?" Sheldyn frowned at his wife.
"I met him formally when I was presented to the guardian at the keep. He offered to introduce me to a few of the nicer places to eat. He said the places I'd been frequenting were less than adequate representatives of Restal's cuisine. And I have to say he was right. This place is exceptionally nice. I don't know when I have had a better dinner."
"I know this is impolite of me, but just how well do you know him?" asked Iolani after yet another moment of silence. Her hesitant voice leaked fear.
Marta looked at her. They had asked her to join them for a purpose. "I don't know him well at all."
They relaxed. The three talked of Restal for about a quarter of an hour. Marta asked about their children.
"Three," said Iolani. "All married and with children of their own. I spend a lot of time being a grandmother." She laughed.
"So, why is it I see so few children in the streets?" Marta asked again, watching the light swirl as she turned her brandy glass around and around. What was Iolani hinting about when she asked how well I know Readen? Is there something I missed about him?
Iolani looked at Sheldyn, who gave her a slight nod. "You've probably not seen any street women either." Her face was slightly pink.
"Is there a reason for that?" Marta was startled at the change of subject from children to street women.
"They seem to disappear with increasing frequency." Iolani spoke so softly Marta strained to hear. "They are arrested and not seen again. And several of the young daughters and a few young boys of poorer families have disappeared. Serving girls, too. And slave girls, though that doesn't happen too often. Some consider them more valuable." Her mouth twisted with those last words.
"More than a few over the years," Sheldyn added in a low voice, "and from the outlying villages, too."
"Surely not," Marta exclaimed.
Sheldyn looked around him with concern, relieved that no one had heard her. "Surely so," he said, staring her straight in the eye.
"But doesn't anyone from Prime Guard investigate?"
"Yes, but they never come up with anyone to charge. They blame it on the Circles of Disorder. They can't say what in the world those girls would be doing out near a Circle or how they traveled so far," said Iolani, her mouth tight. "Idiots."
And the subject was closed. Neither would say more, and Marta thought better of insisting.
She excused herself and left, thanking them for the brandy. The longer she stayed in Restal Prime, the more sinister the dark streets felt. She resolved not to go out at night alone anymore. She didn't need any more assassins sent after her.
Marta was glad to be leaving Restal. Her three-month stay had seemed forever, and she welcomed the coming harvest season. The whole atmosphere in all of Restal was edgy and uncomfortable. Sidhari's flight labored wherever they went. And Marta had fought off two more attacks in the months she had been there. One she barely escaped with a shallow cut on her side that only recently healed. She would not have fared well either time had she been alone, which she took care never to be. Whoever wanted her dead had sent more than two assassins after that first time.
She'd been lucky. Someone underestimated her. She hoped Toldar Prime was different. The Mi'hiru were supposed to be universally respected, even loved for their singular relationship to the Karda, and they were politically independent of the quadrants. When the Guild Mother complained to Guardian Roland, she received only a cursory reply that it was being looked into.
As they moved across the border into Toldar, Sidhari's flight grew less labored. She moved from updraft to updraft, spiraling high, gliding long miles down to catch the next, rarely having to move her wings. Although what looked like barely noticeable movements of wings and hind legs from the ground required the rider's constant adjustments in the air that made legs and body collect aches and pains over long flights.
It was one of Adalta's rare sunny days, though a dark gray bank of clouds to the West threatened. Sidhari wouldn't fly directly toward Toldar Prime. She detoured several times around circles surrounded by plantings of trees. From high in the sky they looked like shallow bowls with the trees graduating in height from the inside out. They stood out on the barren plains of Toldar. The circles were smaller and less frequent, new plantings around them evident, where they hadn't been in Restal. Yellow, red, and bronze flecked the forests of late summer, early fall. Summers were all too short on Adalta with its cooler red sun.
Toward evening Marta began to look for a place to land for the night. They flew over unreclaimed land interspersed with irregular areas of prairie surrounding small watering holes. The slanting light from behind gleamed on the long bronze flight feathers of Sidhari's wings. Their shadow was no longer beneath them but moved across the ground way to the East. They each spotted a small herd of red striped dun kurga at the same time, and Sidhari headed toward them. Marta unstrapped her short recurve bow, strung it, and pulled the top off her quiver, carefully locking her empathic senses behind walls. Their shadow flashed over the herd, startling them into a graceful leaping dash, moving as one. Marta singled out a doe lagging behind. The Karda held her wings steady in a glide close behind the fleeing kurga. Just as Marta shot Sidhari hit a pocket of turbulence, and the shot went wide. The kurga disappeared into a thicket of the short evergreens that dotted the barren land. Sidhari's wings moved in powerful thrusts as they surged back up. She would have to hunt for herself in the morning.
Far from any villages or handy traveler's hostels, she and Sidhari would need to rough it again. Probably in the rain, she thought ruefully, looking to the West. She spotted a small grove of cottonwoods with a brief flash of blue that meant a water source--one of the oases that dotted the sterile lands that covered most of Adalta. She leaned forward and concentrated on projecting a picture of landing there to Sidhari, and they flipped into a steep dive. Wind tore through Marta's hair, and the ground rushed to meet them. Sidhari tilted and twisted her wings and tail to level out, and her feet fisted into landing mode. Marta grabbed the pommel handle and leaned forward, hairs from the long mane whipping her face. She lifted in the stirrups, taking her weight on her ankles and calves and doing her best to absorb the shock of landing without banging her seat in the saddle or bloodying her nose on the crest of Sidhari's neck and throwing the Karda's balance off. Sidhari’s wings flared, and she met the ground on her hind feet, then her forefeet hit, momentum carrying them into a lope that slowed to a trot. Marta posted on weary legs in the saddle, and they came to a stop near the cottonwoods.
Landings are a bitch however much Sidhari tries to make them smooth. Marta unbuckled the flying straps from her legs, tossed her heavy packs to the ground and slid off, rubbing her bottom when she landed. She stripped the saddle off, pulled out hunks of dried meat from the canvas sack tied atop her saddlebags, tossed them to Sidhari. "I apologize for missing the kurga. Dried meat is a poor substitute for a fresh young kurga." She found a place under a spreading cottonwood, the largest of several softly chattering in the light breeze, stashed her packs and went back for the saddle rigging.
A small stream hidden in tall reeds at the appeared and disappeared through the grove of cottonwoods, sometimes running above ground and sometimes below, disappearing before it reached the end of the little valley. At least it was rock-bottomed, not mud. She would lose her taste for water if she had to strain the mud through her teeth very often as she had last night.
Dry downed wood was easy to collect. She cut away a circle of sod to dig a small pit for her fire to keep sparks from flying. Toldar was not as barren as Restal. There were wide swaths planted with a variety of grasses, and hectares of grain fields surrounded villages. The prairie was golden; grass heads hung heavy with seed and ripe for burning. The small fire she kindled was comforting as the wind picked up and the sky darkened. She balanced a small pot of water for tea on the creek rocks she'd placed in the pit and filled another with more water, chopped up dried meat and a mixture of dried vegetables and herbs and set it to simmer into a thick stew. She let the tea steep for a few minutes, poured herself a cup and sat back, leaning against the tree waiting for her supper to cook, listening to the musical clatter of the cottonwood leaves in the quickening breeze.
She was finally adjusting to the feelings she always sensed around her, the small consciousnesses of the animals, the distant, deep, steady thrum from the trees and the prairie, and the quietly insistent awareness of expectation that surrounded her when she loosened her shields. Sidhari wandered up and lay down beside her, blocking the cool wind. Marta reached out and scratched the feathers on the top of her head.
"I wonder what it will be like, Sidhari," she said. "I hope Toldar is a nicer place than Restal. The land is richer, at least. The people should be more prosperous if it's governed well at all." A flash of lightning fired the darkening sky followed by a sharp slap of thunder. "Uh, oh. I think we'd better get ready for rain. You can't fly when there's lightning. We’ll not be going back up for a while."
She pulled her blanket and a small waterproof tarp out of her pack and moved away from the big tree. Cottonwoods were brittle, and the chance of the storm sending a limb crashing to the ground on top of her was too likely to ignore. She anchored the tarp at one end with a few large rocks she carried up from the tiny stream, propped the other end on a couple of stout sticks she braced with rope and stakes. It made a decent shelter if a tight fit.
The air stilled. The sensation of other consciousnesses that were constant background noises in her mind calmed as if the creatures around her pushed aside hunger and fear in the wait for rain. The prairie lit with gold-green light. Lightning cracked, and thunder boomed frequent and close. Hurriedly walking out into the prairie, she tore bunches of tall grasses to soften her bed. She covered the pile with her blankets and decided her stew was ready.
Marta picked the pot up, pulling her jacket sleeve down to shield her hand from the heat. She ate quickly, watching the sky. It was almost full dark by the time she finished. The wind started again, blowing hard, carrying the sweet smell of rain on the prairie. She made her way to the creek, washed her utensils in the growing dark and stumbled back to the fire just as the clouds opened and the deluge began. She didn't worry about putting out the remains of her tiny fire. It wasn't going to last in this.
She wormed her way under the shelter, wedged herself between her packs with Sidhari's saddle at her feet and pulled the blanket around her. Rain pounded the tarp. She heard Sidhari stir and tuck herself close to the opening. The pelting of the rain on the tarp was a lullaby. She sighed and burrowed deeper into her bed of grasses. It wasn't that comfortable, but she didn't care. She was so glad to be out of Restal. She hadn't realized how tense she'd been until she'd put enough distance behind her to relax. Tomorrow she'd be in Toldar Prime with a whole new set of challenges.
She lay awake for a long time, listening to the rain and the wind, reveling in the sounds and the fresh, clean smell of late summer rain. She was getting practiced enough at keeping up the walls in her mind that the surrounding consciousnesses were nothing more than soft brushes across her thoughts. They were almost comfortable. She wondered if she'd miss them if they went away.
She opened her mind bit by bit. The grass trembled with every lightning strike. The leaves and roots of trees and grass drank in the sweet clean rain. The prairie knew. It feared the terror of fire brought by lightning and at the same time welcomed its cleansing force and the promise of life-giving moisture. What a potent place this is. I can almost hear it speaking to me, to muscle and bone, a force seeping into me from rain and rocks and dirt and trees around me. I felt nothing like this in Restal.
At the edge of sleep, she worked her hand out of the blanket and wiggled it down through the grasses piled under her, pushing her fingers into the cool, damp soil, the energy tingling up through her hand and arm. I am imagining this. She fell asleep, connected and had a long conversation with Adalta, the beautiful creature who had welcomed her when she arrived. But in the morning she didn't remember.