Six Karda met them when they were still miles from Toldar Prime. They settled into a V formation around the four weary travelers to ease their flight. When they landed, the mews was a madhouse of Mi'hiru, Karda, as well as Guardian Stefan, Elena, and others from the Guild House and the Keep. Marta was relieved to get away when things settled enough to leave the babies under the care of a tired Eanna who assured her they would be fine for the night. The shutters on her empathic shield were flapping open, and she was getting bombarded.
She pulled off her soft riding boots and found a pair of slippers on one of the shelves in the entryway to the long central hall of the red stone building. She followed Mother Solaira across the flagstones through an archway to the right into the dining room filled with heavy, worn, polished benches, chairs, and wooden tables with bright pottery vases of fresh flowers. They walked through into the big kitchen. A cheerful fire of magma stones, the strange fuel Marta hadn't figured out, glowed in the big metal cooking stove. The smell of fresh baked bread poured out of the hot adobe wall oven to fill the kitchen. Several large loaves cooled at one end of the big worn central table. Piles of papers littered the other.
Solaira dropped her healer's cape on the back of a chair. "I have triple duty this afternoon. It's too late to have much traffic at the door. I'm not expecting anyone to pop out a baby tonight, so I'm helping with the baking and working on my ever-growing pile of paperwork." The guild mother did duty as a midwife as well as healer. "Are you hungry?"
She didn't wait for an answer—she almost never did—and cut a couple of slices of warm bread, passing Marta a spreading knife and a bowl of buttery cheese. Marta gave her a grateful look and mumbled a word of thanks, spreading the cheese on the bread and taking a big bite. She almost melted at the taste.
Solaira poured two mugs of hot tea from the steaming kettle on the back of the stove and sat to join her. "It wasn't hard to convince me to help with the baking. I love fresh hot bread." She cut herself a piece. "How was your flight? Did the babies take it well? How old do you think they are? How was the handsome Altan? I wouldn't have minded a long trip with that one myself. He's way too young for me but sooo charming."
Mouth full, Marta held up her hand. She swallowed, took a long drink of hot tea and said, "Yes, the nest they built in the mews was just as Altan asked. You're very good at asking questions when my mouth is full. Which do you want me to answer first? The fledglings took the flight well."
"Take your pick."
Marta gave her report on the Karda to the Guild Mother while they ate.
Solaira got up and refilled their mugs. "Something happened, didn't it? What went wrong? Did Altan misbehave? I know he can be arrogant."
Marta flashed back to the dinner in the keep with six women to three men. He probably has to be to protect himself. But how can I answer her? Altan expected me to know about the Tela Oroku. Do I dare expose my ignorance to Solaira? She bit her lip. She might as well get it over with. "There was a Tela Oroku. Altan said it came for me."
Solaira’s cup stopped halfway to her mouth, and she gaped at Marta. "A Tela Oroku? What happened? How did you escape it? Oh, Sorrows of Adalta, a child has to die for a Tela Oroku. And a Karda." She put her hand over Marta's, her sharp little face full of compassion.
Marta told her what Altan had done. "I was almost unconscious. He dragged me out of the way of the other Karda's mourning dance." Marta told her of the dying sorrel, the little girl, the mourning flight of the Karda—what she could remember of it.
Solaira sat for a long time, staring at Marta. She tilted her head back, eyes on the ceiling. Then she asked the question Altan had, "Why you? Why did it come for you?" adding, "Who would want to kill you? Murder usually boils down to one of three things: love, vengeance, or greed. Altan is charming and of high position, but you are a trained Mi'hiru, this wasn't a pleasure trip, and he'll make a political match. You don't threaten someone else's relationship with him. That would be overkill, to say the least."
Marta forced a swallow at the words "political match" and .someone else's relationship with him." Her body heated all over.
The guild mother poured more tea. "The Karda are valuable, but it doesn't make sense to kill you for them. Karda don't belong to anyone, not even these fledglings. Did something else happen on this trip?"
Marta held the cup to her face, giving herself time to control her voice. The heat settled deep in her belly. Save me from the black hole of relationship. I can't think of Altan this way. "No, it was pretty straightforward. We flew up to get them and flew back. The only unusual thing was the Tela Oroku. And except for Midsummer Festival, I've either been here or on patrol. I haven't encountered anything odd, nothing that would get me killed, for sure."
"Maybe it was something you overheard or saw in Restal. Someone there is fostering a movement against what they call the aristocracy of talent." She finished her tea, "We're not going to figure it out tonight, but if something occurs to you, let me know."
"There's nothing I can think of, Solaira." But, of course, there was. Assassins had come after her three times in Restal Prime. After she saw Galen with Readen. Marta was too tired to think. She had to rest; then she had to get somewhere she could use her Cue.
"You were very fortunate. Your short sword would have allowed it to get too close to you. It's good Altan was with you. Not many would have recognized the threat and acted so fast. He saved your life. It's a clever weapon—you would never suspect a dying Karda and a beautiful child."
"Altan was surprised I didn't recognize it for what it was."
"That's ridiculous. You're from the eastern hill country in Anuma Quadrant. The wars were a long time ago and a long way from there. Stories of them have become just that--stories. They were used by the Larrak in Restal Quadrant, anyway, not by humans. If someone discovered how to create one and had the strength it requires, who would have such dedication to pure evil? You were lucky Altan was trained to recognize it."
Marta finished her bread and drank her tea, then rose to go. "I’m falling asleep in this chair, and I need to get these flying clothes off." Her skirt stilled smelled of baby Karda shit. "I'm ready for a bath and dinner. Do you have what you need for my report?"
"Yes, of course, Marta." Solaira shook herself out of her thoughts. "I need to finish this paperwork before the cooks need the kitchen for dinner. It's only soup and bread with fruit and custard tonight, but they'll need this table before much longer. I'll see you at dinner."
Marta was stumbling with fatigue by the time she got to her small room, stripped off her riding clothes, wrapped herself in her thick robe and made her way to the baths. Several healers, a couple of weavers, and one other Mi'hiru filled the steamy room. All with questions about her trip and the young Karda until Jordana, her fellow Mi'hiru, recognized her tiredness and chased them out.
Left alone, Marta soaked for as long as she could in the steaming water, feeling her muscles and her mind relax for the first time in four days. She had been on her guard even before the Tela Oroku incident. Since that first attack in Restal.
I've seen or heard something that threatens someone. The data I've gathered hasn't been unusual. Well, except the Karda’s intelligence and telepathy, and they’re not the first intelligent species we’ve encountered. The only thing I can think of is Galen. He may have a legitimate reason for being in Restal, but why be so secretive? Our decision to separate was mutual. It makes no sense.
She got out of the tub and shivered in spite of the heated room and the warm robe she wrapped around herself. Her intuition was screaming at her. It wasn't just the several attempts on her life. A more substantial reason hid behind them. She could almost feel it through the stones under her feet. Something was wrong in this land she was growing to love, something sinister. She'd felt this way in Restal. But not here in Toldar, not until now. She shook herself and wrapped her hair in a towel. There was nothing she could do about her fears, so she dried them away along with the bath water and went to get dressed for dinner.
The next morning, she clambered over the sides of the nest with her bag of food and began to feed the babies. She laughed as Irnini snatched the morsels out of her hand. Altan climbed over the side of the nest. He settled on his haunches beside her, reached for a large tuber, brought out a small silver knife and cut off several slices, tossing them to the male. "I wonder what this one's name will be?"
"What are you doing here?"
"Checking on my babies."
"I found them, so they’re my responsibility." He pushed Irnini’s curious head away from the knife. "At least till they’re grown."
"Don't you trust me to know what I'm doing?" Marta demanded. She knew she was irrational. He had every right to be here. Maybe more than she did. She just didn't want to be around him and the confused scramble of empathic messages leaking through her shields.
"As I said, I'm the one who found them. I want to know them as well as anyone who is not Mi'hiru can. So here I am." He smiled at her. His voice dripped condescension. "And you're unreasonable."
She looked away."This isn't going to work."
She didn't have an answer.
They worked together feeding the hungry fledglings, sitting inside the nest across from each other. The little, relatively speaking, Karda climbed all over them.
Sidhari wandered over, her head appearing over Marta's shoulder. ~You could let me feed them. I've never been a mother, but I know how to do it.~
The words appeared in Marta's mind. She looked up at the beautiful mahogany head with its fierce raptor beak. Hearing Sidhari's voice in her head was becoming less strange. "I want them to get used to me—to us."
"Of course you do. That's what we're doing here. I know that." Altan's tone was exasperated. "I'm not an idiot."
Marta blushed, realizing she spoke out loud to Sidhari, forgetting herself. He couldn't hear Sidhari.
~You don't have to speak aloud,~ Sidhari said in her mind. ~Just consciously think the thoughts. And when I choose, he can hear me.~
I'm going crazy.
~No, you're not. I assure you.~
Marta heard Sidhari's amusement. ~I didn't mean you to hear that.~ She concentrated on sending the words.
~Then you need to work on shielding the thoughts you don't want anyone else to hear.~
The male fledgling's loud screech let her know he was still hungry and she was not doing her job fast enough. Talking out loud to one person and in her head to another—and Sidhari was a person to her—made conversation confusing. "I'm not going to be here this afternoon. I'm escorting Judiciar Raynol. He has three villages to visit before nightfall. I'll have to miss their next feeding, but Jordana will tend to them."
"I'll do it."
Marta looked at him for a long moment, then said, "All right," and walked away down the long aisle of the mews. She was too aware that Altan stood for a long minute, watching her leave, then let himself out the big doors at the other end of the mews.
Late-afternoon the last case before the judiciar wound to a close. A farmer’s bull went to visit the neighboring farmer's bull, and things did not go well. A simple enough matter to resolve with the exchange of a well-bred yearling to replace the hurt bull, which was to be slaughtered and the meat shared between the two farmers.
It was one of her duties as a Mi’hiru to accompany the traveling judiciars to care for the Karda who volunteered to carry them. The judiciars handled small disputes like this on regular monthly routes. Someone from Toldar Keep, like Altan or one of his parents, adjudicated major issues, or the disputants traveled to Toldar Prime themselves. Marta gathered invaluable information on the culture, potential trade opportunities, and politics on these trips.
Her patrol duties in Restal had been more difficult. When she accompanied their judiciars on rare visits to the countryside, the disputes were nasty, and the justiciar's judgments met with sullen resignation. Guardian Roland heard major claims that couldn’t be handled by Holders in Restal Keep. Travel to the prime was expensive and inconvenient for villagers, which meant too many unsettled disputes smoldered in the countryside. Toldar was far more peaceful, perhaps because village elders as well as holders sat on the council. She heard no remarks about a rebellion against the aristocracy of talent.
It wasn't late when they landed back at Toldar Prime, and Marta took the opportunity to use the time to try to communicate with Kayne on the ship. She groomed the judiciar's Karda, checked it over, then she and Sidhari took off again. They flew for a good long while, enjoying their free time in the air before Marta found an open space away from prying eyes to land and use her Cue. She hadn’t gathered anything that needed to be picked up by a drone, so she just sent her data and asked to be connected to Director Danvyl.
"I didn't expect there to be anything in the database about the Tela Oroku. But there should be, so I think you should make an entry and warn the other scouts. I had a difficult interview with Guardian Stefan. He couldn't imagine why anyone would send it after me. And neither can I." Marta chewed her lip to keep the exasperation out of her voice. Kayne was being obtuse.
"What you are describing doesn't seem possible, or even plausible. It must have been a mechanized doll or a hologram. No one is going to cut the head off a real child. You were upset by the death of the Karda." His voice was heavy with concern. "You are a powerful empath. To have one of those animals die almost at your feet must have sent you into overload. That's what it was. You mind picked up on a tale you heard somewhere and built a hallucination brought on by the sudden death. And the death of what appeared to be a child, too." The concern in his tone sharpened. "Besides, their beliefs, magical or otherwise, aren't what you were sent down there for. Let someone else study their mythology. You stick to commerce and politics."
Marta wanted to throw her Cue across the meadow. Why am I even out here if you're going to discount whatever I say? And gathering ethnographic information is part of my job. How can you understand their politics without studying their belief systems?
"Do you need to be recalled or can you get over this ridiculous nonsense?" Kayne's voice from the box went on. "We wanted you there for at least another half year. We plan to make ourselves known just before the Greater Council meets next year."
Being recalled was the last thing Marta wanted. "No, sir."
"You're not trying hard enough to involve yourself in their politics. You failed in Restal, and it seems you’re failing where you are now. Your position assures entry into circles of the quadrant’s leaders, and training the Karda with young Me'Gerron will allow lots of contact with him. Take advantage of that. Make use of your looks as well as your wits. You're not there just to play with those flying beasts. You are there for a job. Do it. We'll need their influence when we make ourselves known." He was silent for a minute. Then, "Those infant Karda might be something we can trade. I know at least three collectors who would pay a fortune to have something like them."
Marta’s body went cold. His next words went unheard. "Do you not understand, sir? The Karda are sentient beings. They are as intelligent as humans, perhaps even more so, with abilities I haven’t begun to plumb. They are not things to be traded." She couldn't even imagine what regulators from the Trade Alliance would have to say about that.
It was as if she hadn’t spoken. "That will be all, Marta. Report again as soon as you have something—and there needs to be progress soon. Those repressive anti-tech laws must change however we have to do it." Kayne clicked off, and the box went silent.
Marta kicked a rock across the runway, stinging her toes in the process. Well, now he thought her a complete fool. He hadn't believed anything she had told him. "Get thee to a black hole, Kayne." She couldn’t even imagine the uproar that suggestion would create if Kayne mentioned such a thing to someone on Adalta. How clueless could he be? It’s as though he's lost touch with reality. He doesn’t hear anything I say unless it fits what he wants to hear.
She crosslegged under a tree and tried to calm her thoughts. Several things didn't make sense. Waiting a year or more to make themselves known, for one. The longest it had ever taken before in her experience was the Earth equivalent of six months. Of course, the other planets she'd infiltrated had been eager for the technology the consortium offered. On the colonized planets, life was difficult. Survival had been the focus for most of the centuries since the Ark ships left Earth, and their inhabitants were eager and ripe for goods that made life easier.
Adalta was different. She agreed with Kayne on that. The colonists had been Luddites determined not to follow the disastrous example of Earth's degeneration into catastrophic wars over religion and increasingly scarce resources. Technology had developed beyond the human ability to control its unforeseen or ignored consequences, and by the time of the collapse, the biosphere could no longer support a population growing exponentially and uncontrolled.
The colonist’s decision to limit technology and outlaw weapons beyond that of bow and sword had been the result. It didn't end war, but it made it more personal and far less devastating. The guiding philosophy was that socio-cultural developments must keep pace with technological ones. Social mores must be the ground from which a society develops, not technology. This was how they hoped to avoid the failures that devastated Old-Earth, now all but uninhabitable.
Weapons? Importing advanced arms would not further trade interests, it would disrupt them. Kayne's earlier slip about the weapons deeply disturbed Marta. The Trade Alliance overseeing all the trade ships forbade trade in weapons. They might not be Luddites, but the wars that devastated Old-Earth were a lasting lesson. No one wanted that to happen ever again. Every planet of the Diaspora remembered that lesson.
She rubbed her arms and looked at the big bay Karda at the end of the runway, digging with her fierce talons for the small tubers she loved. Sunlight gleamed on the bronze of her wingtips. "You're going to make holes in this runway it’ll take hours to fill if you don't stop, Sidhari, you greedy thing."
~They are very nourishing,~ Sidhari retorted.
Marta laughed and walked across the meadow to the tall Karda, kicking dirt back in the holes she found. She mounted, stepping to Sidhari’s extended knee, jumped to grab the saddle, pulled herself up and tightened her leg straps. Sidhari took off at a canter down the runway until her enormous wings caught enough air to lift them into the deepening blue sky. Marta matched her movements in the saddle to the powerful wing beats. ~Let's go home, Sidhari.~ She leaned forward to catch less wind and relaxed into the incredible ride through the cooling air of the late afternoon. Sidhari circled up the thermal that rose over the valley surrounded by forest burning red and gold in the slanting light of the late afternoon autumn sun.