~His name is Baltu,~ said Sidhari. Her head hung over Marta's as she and Altan groomed the little male. Marta handed Altan a soft cloth and the green bottle of the oil she used on wing feathers. She scratched Baltu's head to keep him calm. Altan worked, crooning softly to the little Karda. They ran loose in the mews when they weren't being fed or groomed. Baltu followed Altan everywhere he went, his cries piteous and his immature wings beating futilely whenever Altan flew off on Kibrath. Despite herself, she had to admit Altan was good at soothing the skittish baby.
Marta scratched the downy feathers under the fledgling's neck, irritated that Altan was so close to them. He was there with her every moment he could spare. She couldn't complain that he was interfering. He knew what he was doing. It was just so--irritating. Her fingers tangled with Altan's as they both reached to scratch the same soft spot under Baltu's beak.
Coruscating blue light surrounded them. Marta jerked away. Needles of fire pierced her hand. She grasped it with her other hand, and sucked breath in between her teeth, clenched tight against the pain. She bent over, her hands pressed tight to her stomach, her eyes clamped shut against intense blue spears of light piercing her head.
Altan slumped and fell to his knees. The fledgling jerked back, hissing, and mantled his wings. He was distraught and butted Marta with his head until she knelt beside Altan. Marta’s hand stung, her head pounded.
~Well, well. How interesting,~ said Sidhari.
"What is it? What happened?" Marta blinked her eyes, and her vision began to clear. One hand, afraid to touch him, wandered above Altan's body. The other, still stinging, she clutched to her chest.
"My head," he said. "You're in my head." He pressed the heels of his hands to his temples, obviously in pain. "I can hear your thoughts, I swear. Inside my head." His face was tight, lips clamped, sweat beaded on his forehead.
He can hear what I'm thinking? Oh. No. No. Marta helped him up and over the side of the nest. His body shook, his muscles slack with shock.
"Yes, I can hear you." He leaned on her—Grace, but he is big. She lowered him to the ground, propping him against the wall.
"Will you be all right while I get Solaira? I don't know what to do for you. She's a healer, she'll know." Marta tried to keep her voice steady, though she shook with fear and pain. There was a fierce ache in her head, but at least she wasn't helpless on the ground. I better hurry.
"Yes, please hurry," he answered her thought, his voice tight and low through clamped teeth. "Kibrath's voice doesn't hurt like this. I'll just sit here for a bit." He leaned back and closed his eyes, hands pressed hard against his temples.
She stared at him, then left at a run, head pounding with every step
Solaira came running back with Marta, knelt beside Altan, and pressed her hands to his temples. "What happened?" She dropped her head and concentrated. "I can't feel anything wrong except the pain in your head, and I can't feel a cause for that, so I can't fix it. Can you make it inside?"
He opened his eyes. "Yes."
When he tried to stand, his knees buckled. Marta caught him and stumbled with the weight.
~I'm not that helpless.~ Marta heard a voice that was neither hers nor Sidhari's. It sounded just like him.
~Oy, my head hurts.~
Oh, not more voices in my head. He isn't talking out loud. I know he isn't talking out loud. Hot shards of pain bounced around inside her head.
~You're in my head again. How can you be in my head? What's happening?~
That couldn't be anything but Altan's voice. Inside her head.
~Shield yourself, Marta,~ said Sidhari.
~What's happening? Is this real?~ she asked the Karda. Marta forced back her panic and struggled to hold up Altan’s weight. And to block the strange voice in her head.
~Yes. And isn't this unusual.~ Sidhari's voice was so calm and matter of fact, Marta relaxed a fraction. If she could hear Sidhari, maybe it was Altan in her head. Perhaps it was something that happened all the time on this strange world.
She shut off her confusion and helped Solaira get him across the wide courtyard that separated the mews from the back of the guild house. Progress was awkward and lopsided. Solaira was much shorter than Marta. They made it down the long flagstone hall to Solaira's study and eased him into a chair. Solaira busied herself at the small stove, fished about on the shelf beside it for herbs, and rubbed the small of her back.
"He's heavy." She divided a handful between two cups and poured hot water over them. "Here, let this steep for a minute until it cools a bit, then drink it slowly. Aspertea will make you feel better. It'll take a few minutes, so just sit there for a while." Then she moved behind her carved desk and sat, looking at Marta, concern shadowing her eyes. "What happened out there? I need to know so I can treat him."
Marta tugged at her earring and looked down into her cup. "I don't know. We were grooming Baltu, the little male. I was scratching him. And Altan's fingers sort of tangled with mine." She looked up and shook her hand. It still tingled. "There was a flash of light so bright it was painful, and it seemed to last forever. I felt like our hands seared together, and then he dropped to the ground."
She turned to Altan who was taking a sip of the hot infusion, staring at both of them. "I heard you," he said. "You have to be the strongest Air talent in centuries."
Marta just looked at him. Air talent? "Of course you heard me. I was standing right there. What do you mean you heard me?" She was afraid of what he was going to say next. "What's going on? I didn't do anything to hurt you. You just collapsed." I can't take another voice in my head. And somehow I have to figure out what talent means.
Solaira sat silently for a moment while Altan drank his tea, eyes closed. She looked back and forth between them several times, then busied herself at her desk writing a long note. She sealed it and left the room, leaving Marta with Altan. "Drink your aspertea. It should start working in a little bit. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Marta stared after her. It was all she could do not to jump up and follow her.
Altan sat with his head in his hands, his empty cup crooked on his little finger. "You don't have to stay if you don't want to."
But his voice was so shaky Marta hadn't the heart to leave. She steeled herself. "Would it help if I rubbed your head?"
He looked up then winced at the sudden movement. "Yes, maybe. If you don't mind."
She stood and walked around behind his chair, put her hands on his broad shoulders, and rubbed her thumbs hard up the back of his neck to the base of his skull. What if he actually can hear me in his mind?
"Yes, I actually can. You sound different from Kibrath. It must be you. You might try shielding yourself. It hurts."
Marta threw up her stout wall of red bricks and closed all its windows. He'll know who I am and what I'm doing on Adalta. How can I hide it if he can hear my thoughts? She couldn't hold them back.
He leaned back into her hands, groaning. "That helps."
She heard him. ~Her hands feel so good.~ In spite of herself, a smile twitched her mouth. His thought tilted toward erotic. He was going to have to work on his shields, too.
Readen Me'Vere paced the round tower room at the southeast corner of the keep in Restal Prime, his steps controlled and angry. His hand gripped the silver medallion hanging from his neck. Shelves filled with books, containers of all sizes and shapes, and a multitude of arcane artifacts lined the walls. Stacked papers littered the table in the center of the room. He shoved his long brown hair away from his face, loosing and retying it at the nape of his neck. His eyes burned, and his face was slack with fatigue. He threw himself into the large upholstered chair beside the small fireplace opposite the door to the chamber.
Why did the Tela Oroku fail? The Itza Larrak forced Readen to take the backlash, and it almost killed him. In spite of the amplification from his medallion, the gold Karda fought Readen's control until the animal died. For two days Readen could do nothing, unable even to think. He needed to replenish his strength, but he couldn't find enough energy to build the illusion on himself he'd need to go hunting for someone to use to rebuild his power, much less ride out to the nearest Circle of Disorder.
A fist rapped on the door. Readen composed himself. "Enter."
"I came to say goodbye," said Galen Morel, dressed in clothes for the trail. Tall, sturdy boots, heavy canvas trousers, thick wool vest. He carried his all-weather cloak hooked with a finger over his shoulder. "I can't be gone from my territory any longer, and I finished the assessment of your mines." He tossed the cloak across a small table near the door. "There's no question that we can provide equipment to improve production and to survey for other minerals besides copper and iron. Gods of the galaxies. Your methods are unbelievably primitive—picks and shovels. Once we solve the problem of what works here and what doesn't, we can begin production. You can get rid of most of your miners. You won't need them."
Readen didn't ask Galen to sit, but he did anyway. He moved to the opposite chair, leaned back and stretched his legs toward the fire. His gaze wandered the room without interest.
Readen cocked his head, a half-smile on his face. Galen's too beautiful for a male, or would be if that face ever showed anything but boredom and disinterest. He didn't do much of a survey if he didn't discover miners with minimal Earth talent doing the mining—some of whom don't need picks and shovels to extract the ore. If I could hold onto miners with stronger talent, I wouldn't need him or his machines. But educating Galen about talent wasn't in Readen's interest. And the too-pretty man was too self-absorbed to discover it on his own.
Galen laced his hands behind his head, watching the fire. "You can't use the weapons until we figure out what to do about Marta. She'll only be in Toldar for a couple of months before she moves on to Akhara Quadrant, but you're running raids well into territory where she could fly with their patrol. The chance that she'll run across a raided village and recognize the damage they do is too great." He yawned and stretched his arms, fingers laced, in front of him, rolling his broad shoulders. "Father won't send more until she's safely away. He says if even a hint of this reaches the guardians or the consortium, the directors will put an end to it. The Trade Alliance regulations on dealing in weapons are strict. The fines, if we get caught, would finish the consortium and end my father's career. Probably won't do a lot for mine, either."
Readen nodded, his expression a cordial mask. "When will you be back?" Morel's casual indifference infuriated him. "How many weapons will you bring? The two we have are running out of power, and they don't recharge like you said they would." The Itza Larrak was working on a spell for Readen to recharge them from the Circles of Disorder. Readen was frustrated. The Itza Larrak couldn't exist outside the cavern. Even inside it was only able to work when Readen was present and could manifest it. Otherwise, the symbols inscribed on the pillars in the cavern beneath the keep held it trapped in limbo.
But it had given him the spell to create the Tela Oroku. It would have been nice to give the problem of Marta to the Itza Larrak and forget her. But like Adalta herself, it could only work through an agent as long as it was held by the cavern. Learning that had given him a gleeful sense of control until he learned that something the Itza Larrak could do was cause pain for its disciple. A great deal of pain.
Galen scooted forward in his chair, hands on his knees, and pushed to his feet. "I told you, no more weapons until she's away from Toldar and your borders. Don't use the ones you have. We're taking a risk in this deal as it is. Consortium management is content to work within your current laws, but that's not enough for Father—he wants more. Don't mess it up for him." He headed for the door.
Readen ground his teeth. He would like to strike the man dead—or better, invite him to a circle—but Readen needed those weapons. He didn't want to move against Daryl without them. Expanding into Toldar would be even riskier. Readen relaxed his shoulders and forced a smile.
"She'll be gone soon enough, I guess. I hope the weather holds till you're back in Anuma." He clasped Galen's forearm and opened the door. Galen flipped his cloak around his shoulders and sauntered out.
Readen kicked a footstool across the room.
The long central chamber of Restal Keep was chilly in the late fall afternoon. The stone floors and walls echoed as the latest supplicants argued querulously in front of Guardian Roland, indolence and irritation warring for prominence in his expression. His white hair was pulled back into a braided tail, its end wrapped in silver wire. Heavy silver embroidery embellished the high collar and wide cuffs.
Readen sat beside his brother, Daryl, bored but holding himself erect, his expression one of careful attention. His tunic, of the same high-necked style, was unrelieved black. Even the buttons were black. Daryl wore the simple blue uniform of the Karda Patrol and not a new one. At least this time he hadn't brought books with him. Books, plural. Daryl was never happy with just one book.
The afternoon was interminable. The tendayly round of audiences was an onerous duty at the best of times, but today was worse than usual. The one before them now was a petty squabble between two red-faced smallholders doing their best not to shout at each other. They weren't succeeding. Readen amused himself by drawing on the anger and frustration of the two men, storing the charged energies. He rubbed his fingers across the medallion beneath his tunic and gave a push to amp their anger into fury. Then he sucked it in with a shiver. This was better than getting drunk.
As always, their self-indulgent, capricious father's arbitrary judgments frustrated Daryl. Roland treated these tendayly sessions as personal entertainment. Daryl took them seriously. Or would if his father let him.
So long as Roland and Daryl were alive, Readen would never be required to pay serious attention to these problems. When, not if, this becomes my duty, I'll make short order of such irritating complaints. He quit listening, shifting in his seat and sucking on the anger and frustration—a sweetness tangible to him—in the room. Roland finally made his judgment and sent the two holders on their way, neither satisfied.
Holder Connor Me'Cowyn strode into the hall, still in flying gear, carrying himself with the self-assurance of the most influential holder in Restal. Black hair striped with gray topped a hawk-nosed face reddened by the legendary choleric temperament of a powerful Air talent without enough Earth for balance.
"The Circles of Disorder are increasing again, Guardian." He didn't wait to be acknowledged. "Restal must start planting trees again. You have let the neglect go on too long."
Daryl started to speak, but Roland cut him off.
"Good afternoon to you, Connor," Roland said, breathing out a long, loud sigh. "I'm pleased to see you in Restal Prime. It has been too long since you've visited. How is your family? Your lovely daughter?" His words were precise, but petulance whined in his tone.
Me'Cowyn was not intimidated. "Yes, it has been too long. And the circles have continued to grow unchecked since I was last here."
Readen considered the holder a resource in waiting. A slaveholder and a firm believer in feudal government, the holder was wary of Daryl, whose opposition to slavery was well known. Less known, but perhaps more important, were Daryl's views on giving a voice on the council to the larger villages of the quadrant. If Readen were skillful enough, the stories he was spreading about an imminent revolt against the aristocracy of talent would eventually take root and put an end to the feudal system that let only strong talents rule. And Daryl would be hard-pressed to defend himself against rumors that he was fostering the unrest. Perhaps Readen should convince his father to invite Me'Cowyn's extraordinarily beautiful daughter, his only child and his heir, for an extended visit and whisper these rumors into one of her delicate ears. Me'Cowyn so wanted to catch Daryl for her.
"The circles are not a danger. They are still well contained. But, of course, you are quite free to plant trees around the ones in your holding." Roland looked down at the papers in front of him, flipping the top one to the next pile. "I've told you this before."
"I am as I can. But what of the other holdings? The circles are the responsibility of the guardian—mostly unmet since your father. And if you had bothered to visit one, as you promised to do last time, you would know what I'm talking about."
"You overstep yourself, Me'Cowyn. Have care how you speak."
"This is not an autocracy, Roland. You still have to answer to your holders. Though lately, it has seemed as though an autocracy is what you want." Connor's voice rose. "Your Mounted Patrol oversteps itself, arresting villagers for speaking out about the increasing bandits on the borders and the dangers of the growing circles. Accusing them of supporting some ridiculous revolt against the aristocracy of talent."
Roland looked past Daryl and said, "Readen, I'll let you answer to that as Mounted Patrol Commander."
Readen smiled, leaning back in his chair. "We've been fighting raiders on the borders for some time now. They cross from Toldar, attack, and then disappear back across the border where we can't follow."
Me'Cowyn shook his head. "They're raiding too far into this quadrant for them all to be from Toldar. People along the borders are terrified. Terrified of the marauders and terrified to speak out." His words were choppy with frustrated fury. "What of the arrests, Readen? What purpose do they serve? I have a list of people arrested from villages on the edges of my holding. Some of these I know personally. They're simply worried people, angry about the circles. Livestock gets sucked in, crops stunted. There's more illness. They are concerned about their children. Several have been born horribly disfigured. This is not something you can expect people to keep silent about. And they're certainly not involved with some imaginary revolt."
"Livestock is always getting lost, crops fail from time to time, sometimes the result of lack of diligence by the farmers themselves. And we can do nothing about inbreeding. These things will always be. If the people of Me'Cowyn Holding are dissatisfied, it is not the guardian's responsibility." Readen's words were measured, his tone reasonable, calm as though trying to sooth a fractious horse.
Me'Cowyn pinched his forehead between his thumb and two fingers. He looked up, his voice calmer. "We need help, Roland. I continue to plant where circles abut my holding, but I have the resources. Others do not."
Daryl leaned forward, his hands on the table. "Father, I've mentioned this problem to you several times. I've seen they're growing. Karda Patrol has to fly farther and farther out of their way to avoid them. And the power between them fluctuates, so it can be difficult to draw power. Karda tire more easily on long flights, and they're not happy here. We have fewer and fewer who stay for more than a couple of months at a time. It's getting to be a serious problem."
"You're always so concerned about your Karda, Daryl. Karda come and go as they will." Roland smiled at him.
Readen idly moved a pen back and forth on the table with one hand and clenched the other into a tight fist under the table. Father can't look at Daryl and not smile.
Roland turned back to the holder. "We'll take your concerns under advisement, Me'Cowyn. These hearings are at an end."
The angry holder glanced at Daryl with a slight nod and left the chamber, boots ringing harsh on the stone floor.
Guardian Roland led his two sons to the study in his private apartments. He walked to the massive, carved cabinet against one wall and poured wine into three cut crystal glasses. Feet apart, the guardian stood in front of the tall narrow windows, sipping from his glass, looking out over elaborate gardens where a bevy of gardeners mulched beds and trimmed formal borders. The wood fire in the stone fireplace—an indulgence he allowed himself despite the scarcity of timber on Adalta—the thick rugs on the floor, and the heavy drapes and tapestries on the walls made the room comfortably warm after the long afternoon in the cold hall. The two brothers waited, but Roland just watched the gardeners outside.
Daryl cleared his throat. "In little more than a tenday it will be Fall Harvest Festival, and we expect the trade delegation from Toldar shortly after, Father. I'm sure you won't want them to stay any longer than they'll want to be here. Whatever reassurances we can give them, we should try, don't you think? We need their grain badly this year. They're beefing up their border patrols—that's probably most of what they want to talk about. Raids along our border with them are increasing, as Me'Cowyn said."
Roland turned and said in a bored voice, "I suppose we can use the slaves that escape Restal over their border as a bargaining point. It's a growing problem. We lose more than we can afford that way, and they never send them back. We want to be sure the talks are over in good time. It would be uncomfortable to have them stuck here longer than is necessary by an early winter storm. It's too cold too early in the hills this year—the lovely fall color is almost gone." He turned back to the window. "Is that all?"
"There's the bandit problem, Father. It's real."
Readen hid his amusement at the controlled frustration in Daryl's voice. There was nothing that entertained him more than to see his so-talented brother frustrated. "I'll see to the borders personally, Daryl. We don't want to anger Toldar now. It will do me good to get out of my tower for a tenday or so. I've been cooped up here too much lately." He grabbed and squeezed Daryl's shoulder as he walked past and raised an eyebrow in his father's direction as if in commiseration. Readen fed off Daryl's frustration at their indolent father. As he left, he heard Roland's voice, his tone petulant, "What is all this on my desk, Daryl? Surely we don't need to go over all these today."
A rough and uncomfortable tenday on the border was convenient right now, Readen mused as he opened the door to his rooms in the east tower. Riding with his pseudo-bandits was an indulgence he enjoyed, and he'd be able to test for himself the effectiveness of Galen's weapon. Besides that, he had some "bandits" to pay.
However, tonight there was time for something else he needed. He grabbed his cloak, wrapping it around him, and left for a stroll through the less salubrious taverns of Restal Prime. He moved the fingers of one hand to cast the spell that changed his appearance and gripped the medallion through his tunic to give it power. It wouldn't do to be recognized when he found another girl, or perhaps he'd find a boy this time. His power needed strengthening. Perhaps he'd take the child to a circle in honor of Connor Me'Cowyn's delicious anger.