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Bestselling author Katharine Kerr joins with Mark Kreighbaum to present a vivid, alluring and terrifying world of the future. They call it Palace, the capital of a planet located in a region of space known as the Pinch. Here a bitter Lep outcast has been hired to murder two humans: Arno, the son of the Master of the Cyberguild, and Vida, a young woman destined for sensual slavery in the Pleasure Sect. Arno is on the track of strange anomalies in the Map, the cyberspace repository ...
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Bestselling author Katharine Kerr joins with Mark Kreighbaum to present a vivid, alluring and terrifying world of the future. They call it Palace, the capital of a planet located in a region of space known as the Pinch. Here a bitter Lep outcast has been hired to murder two humans: Arno, the son of the Master of the Cyberguild, and Vida, a young woman destined for sensual slavery in the Pleasure Sect. Arno is on the track of strange anomalies in the Map, the cyberspace repository of knowledge. And Vida has powers that could change Palace forever. As Arno goes into hiding to escape the assassin, Vida seeks refuge at Government House, the corrupt center of authority, where betrayal is a way of life and death.
Vida should have been studying. She was coming to the end of her schooling with that big last round of exams to face, but history was something she hated, especially bloody and violent history like the Schism Wars. It was too completely loath, thinking of people killing each other over the names and images of God. The wars had been over so long now, a thousand years, and who cared? From the window of her tiny room in the private part of The Close, she could hear distant music and vast susurrus of far-off talk and laughter. Outside in the streets of Pleasure Sect the Festival of Calios had gotten under way. She left her Mapterminal running on the school linkage, grabbed a cloak, and slipped out of her room. No one in the hall? Good. She left The Close by a back way. Outside, the sky swirled gray and the wind blew cool. She put on the cloak and hurried through the alley to the Boulain, the boulevard that snaked through the most expensive part of the sector.
Down the center and to either side of the Boulain, trees nodded in the rising wind. Spiky native frond-trees, pale green and tightly furled, alternated with tall flowering rhodons from Kephalon. In among the trees food vendors had set up red-and-white-striped booths, mobbed by sapients of all sorts of different races, humans and Leps amiably among them. Here and there, as well, Vid saw gridjockeys, mostly pix, marked by their unmistakably outsize right hands, where they carried their camera implants. Out on the actual street, festival goers strolled back and forth in an impromptu parade, humans from nearby Sects, like Power and Agriculture, but she saw men and women of the patron class from as far away as Imports,and even a handful of vacationers from Center. These festivals were about the only time that residents of the various Sects gathered together and got a chance to meet one another.
You could always spot the patrons—that is, the heads of important families—because they wore shiny silver headbands, made of simtil and marked with the glyphs of their genotypeline. Each patron led a noisy retinue—bodyguards, disarmed for the festival, servants in their best clothes, and musicians playing electronic song-boxes. They'd even dressed their saccules up for the festival; the servants wore shoulder-to-hip sashes, embroidered with their masters' gene-glyphs, over their usual gray shifts. Booming and wheezing in sheer excitement, the Stinkers trotted after each entourage on short, fat legs, carrying immense triangular umbrellas to shield their masters and mistresses from the mist. At rare occasions guild retinues strolled by, each led by its masters, dressed in flowing robes sashed, shoulder to hip, with the colors of their guilds.
Dancing down the street in their slashed kilts came Leps, a powerful line, Vida knew, because walking gravely at the head of the group were two grandmothers, wound round with coils of knotted silk, pale gray and green, and a grandfather, jingling with gold chains. Behind them came a crowd of children, rushing back and forth, flapping their crests like fans, shoving each other and hissing. The adults brought up the rear, spiky crests raised high at the fun of it all. Their saccules were wearing fancy paper hats, pleated more or less like Lep crests, and as they passed, the crowd broke out clapping. Or most of it did—somewhere at the back a few voices, human males they sounded, yelled out something so nasty sounding that Vida was glad she couldn't quite understand it.
If they'd heard it, the Lep clan ignored it. When Vida joined the applause, one of the Lep males bowed to her. He raised his hand and made a pantomime gesture of stroking hair—of course, it was her coppery-red hair that had caught his eye, a hair color rare on Palace, and everyone knew what russet-red meant to a Lep male. When she blew him a kiss, he raised his throat, a gesture that earned him a clout from a grandmother who had turned back to watch this exchange. She grabbed his arm and hauled him onward.
Vida found herself wishing she could follow the parade, join the Leps, maybe, or attach herself to one of the crowds round a patron, go see how they would spend the festival or even follow them home, find some way out of the locked gates of Pleasure Sect and be free for a while, even a little while—even an afternoon. Since she'd lived in Pleasure all her life, eighteen years, she knew every corner of it all too well. When she let herself dream, she even yearned to take a shuntjammer to other planets like icy Tableau or the towering stalk-cities of Souk.
Unfortunately for her dreams, she was only a girl without family, the ultimate outcast in Palace society, an Unlicensed and Unauthorized birth, a genetic cull. Soon she'd be through with school and gain her official Not-child status, though she'd be far from an adult on a world where most people lived well past 150 years. Not-child meant freedom for most young people, but for her it meant the shutting of a trap, when she would become just another Marked courtesan of the Pleasure Sect and live out her life here. Only lurid holonovels, her secret addiction, would ever take her to the stars.
"Vida!" A high, furious voice cut through the festival noise. "You get over here!"
Vida spun round and headed for the voice. It was Aleen, all right, splendid in an emerald shimmercloak, knifing her way through the crowd. Since she'd dyed her hair the same emerald for the festival, she was hard to miss. Vida waited, knowing from long experience that there was no use in running. The tracer bracelet on her left wrist flashed red, faster and faster as Aleen, and the finder that Aleen was carrying, reached her.
Although Vida was tall, all long legs these days, the madam still towered over her. Aleen snatched Vida's wrist, tapped in a code on her tracer bracelet, and studied the readout.
"You've been out of The Close for half an hour!" Aleen sounded frightened more than angry.
"Where's Eta? She was supposed to be helping you study."
"She had a client and had to go."
"Oh?" Aleen's left eye suddenly glowed. The iris turned crimson, and the pupil contracted to a point while Aleen read off data from her cybereye's terminal. "Well, all right—that client's on the reservation list, yes. But, still. You were told to remain in The Close. True?"
"These festivals aren't safe. Visitors sometimes get drunk and attack unMarked girls. Haven't I told you this before?"
"The extra price for your virginity is going to give you the money for your first investment. True?"
"If you lose your virginity, you lose the investment. True?"
"Of course, Madam." If Aleen was going to talk about investments, then Vida had heard the lecture a hundred times.
A trio of saccules, their chest sacs puffed up blue with pride, were driving a fivewheel through the throng and blowing great bass blasts from their throat sacs to clear away pedestrians. A pair of patrons riding the fivewheel flung bubbleflares into the air. Although most of the flares exploded into colored light and perfume, every now and then a shower of coins sent the crowds scrambling. Behind the fivewheel stalked a Hirrel, caped in black sunsilk. The fabric fluttered as the Hirrel breathed through the leathery slits along her skinny torso. The alien's four huge eyes, slightly faceted, rippled in their sockets as she attempted to ignore a pair of enthusiastic Lifegivers, wearing the golden gloves of Witnesses, who followed along preaching.
"Are you paying attention to me?"
Vida snapped her gaze back to Aleen. The Madam's lips were white with anger.
"Huh." She paused for a moment, then spoke more calmly. "You will return to The Close and stay there for the rest of the festival."
"Oh, no! Not the whole festival!"
"Are you arguing with me?"
Aleen seemed to be about to add some sarcasm, but mercifully her modified left eye glowed. She swore under her breath.
"I've got a reception to attend, and your little stunt has made me late."
Vida said nothing. Stuck inside The Close for the entire festival! It wasn't fair.
"Now, go back to The Close and finish your lessons. We'll discuss this tonight."
Aleen started to speak, but her left eye stuttered a series of red flashes. When Madam paused to read, Vida bowed to her, started toward the alley leading back to The Close, then ducked behind a pair of intakes who were jacked into a portable Mapterminal and downloading their reports directly onto the newsgrid. Vida waited, briefly, to see if Aleen had noticed, then melted into the crowd beyond. With luck Aleen wouldn't realize that she hadn't told Vida to go back to The Close immediately.
Weaving through the trees, glancing at her tracer bracelet to make sure it stayed dull, Vida jogged down the Boulain until she could be sure Aleen wasn't following. At a public square crammed with red-and-white booths, she paused to fish in the pocket of her cloak. She had some coins, tips from clients at The Close when she'd opened the door for them or fetched them drinks. She was supposed to be saving them, of course, but coin spending couldn't be traced. She bought an iced klosh, a pastry filled with berries. At the first bite fruit juice dribbled down her chin. She wiped it off on the back of her hand, licked the hand clean, then nearly lost the klosh when someone joggled her elbow.
At a narrow flight of steps she took her chance to get above the street. She hurried up to a terrace that ran in front of a fancy-looking clothing shop, where other festival goers were standing to watch the fun below. Vida squeezed between them to a trefoil flying buttress, where she could climb out and sit, looking down. Hogging the terrace railing stood gridjockeys, Lep, Hirrel, and human. All the pix kept their camera hands busy, pointing and shooting, while the recording units in their headbands picked up background sound. The intakes walked back and forth subvocalizing, their lips moving as if they spoke, channeling data into the record implants prominent and shiny at the base of their skulls.