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In this new Night-Threads tale, the Rhadaz kingdom lies in ruin in the grip of a highly addictive drug. Young Chris searches for its source and is shocked to find a lethal dose of it running through his own veins. His only hope is a reluctant heroine who has mastered The Art of the Sword. Original. .
It was hot and still in Sikkre, hotter than normal in the Thukara's offices, even so late in the afternoon, but Jennifer had ordered the windows tightly closed, the thick cloth shades drawn, and the door shut, and had sent most of her clerks home. It was close and airless in the enormous room now, and though lamps and candles were lit, still gloomy. Better, she thought crossly, than the alternative—the Sikkreni farmers were burning fields west of the city now that the grain was harvested, and the wind had shifted to blow acrid smoke toward the city and the Thukar's palace only after it was too late to smother the fires.
"So what else is new?" she muttered and glared at the fat leather case centered on her desk, the surrounding stacks of papers and files. The deserted desks nearby were piled nearly as high; the ones across the chamber, where three of her clerks were readying the latest foreign trade contract for the printers, weren't much better—reasonably cleared only to make room for the immediate project, nothing more.
If she bothered to peer around the shade, she knew there wouldn't be anything to see outside except smoke and dust—lots of both.
Maddening. "I thought that was one of the good things I'd managed, leaving the smog behind in L.A.," she muttered under her breath. She sighed heavily, picked up the face cloth Siohan had brought her at midafternoon, dipped it in a deep bowl of cool herbed water, wrung it out, and patted her face and the back of her neck. It wasn't air-conditioning by a long shot, but it did help alleviate that sticky, stuporous hot feeling.
"If I weren't so fat—" She sighed again, ran a hand across the thin, loose red dress that was becoming less loose by the day. The morning sickness had finally gone, but now her waist was going. "Ugh. Robyn was right. Pregnant in hot weather is not a good idea. Well, it can't be helped; think of something else."
She looked at the reasonably clear corner of her desk, at the chunk of machinery sitting in its midst, and smiled. "Typewriter. Genuine typing machine. I told that kid someone had to have come up with them."
She would probably go nuts trying to use the thing—the keys were in an odd order; it was a little like the first time she tried reading or writing in Rhadazi, brought it home that this wasn't her native language. Something nearer Spanish, perhaps, some polyglot Romance language, anyway—she'd long since given up trying to figure out the crossovers and even Chris didn't bother worrying about it much any more.
Too busy, he said, trying to find outside tech he could bring into a country only just beginning to emerge from a five-hundred-year isolation. And then trying to work the deals that would persuade the Mer Khani, English, French, and other outsiders to sell, and—most difficult of all—the ill and aging Rhadazi Emperor Shesseran XIV to let it in. Keeps him off the streets and out of trouble. Edrith—Eddie, too.
Typewriter. She ran a fond hand over dark-blue engraved metal. It was a very clunky manual, reminding her a little of the ancient machine her aunt and uncle had in their home back in southern California: Nearly a foot high, it must have weighed a ton; the space bar was actually polished ash instead of plastic and the tabs had to be set manually across the back of the machine; ribbons were damn near impossible to find. She'd typed school papers on the old monster, leaving her arms numb to the elbows sometimes, but her aunt had never seen the need for anything newer. "She can't really have said 'for anything newfangled.' I must have remembered it wrong later. They were country folks to start with, but they couldn't have been that hick." She dismissed that with ease of practice—school in Studio City all those years ago, fresh from the hills of Wyoming and most of her peers children of actors or somehow related to them, and much wealthier than she. Fifteen or more years back, plus the four-and-change she'd spent here in Rhadaz.
"You taught yourself how to type back in grade school," she said firmly. "You can do it again." One of the few clerks in the room glanced up; she shook her head and he went back to comparing several long sheets of thick paper.
Trade contracts—Chris's deal for that Mer Khani refrigerator, if she recalled; there had been half a dozen odd little things like that in this packet. And two large renewals of agreements, plus one she'd kept to go over herself: the English wanted to arrange a tour by a group of Rhadazi dancers, perhaps in exchange for a theater company of their own. Afronsan would be all for it, of course, and Shesseran had loved the string quartet that had come from London. So did I, for that matter; bless Afronsan for getting them to come here when I was too morning-sick to go there.
The Emperor still had a firm hand on imports, though, and if English theater in this place was anything like Victorian theater in her own world ... Tact, she thought. Make sure he sees or reads the right things—nothing even remotely resembling Wilde. And wasn't Victoria "not amused" by Gilbert and Sullivan? Whichever of them had written the lyrics she could never remember; the Queen had liked the music but found the words lacking in respect. Shesseran would've been able to give that old gal a lesson or two in arrogance, Jennifer thought, and bit the corner of her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. Then, if something like The Mikado were performed in English, he'd never catch a hundredth of it—probably wouldn't catch any more in Rhadazi, either. "My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time," she warbled softly. The clerk comparing documents was deep in his work and didn't look up this time. "To let the punishment fit the crime—heh, heh."
She went back to the stack of papers with a much lighter heart. And a stack there was: The Emperor's brother and Heir Afronsan had indeed given her the first couple months of her pregnancy completely off, just as he'd promised, but there was too much work for the vacation to last long and he was beginning to make up for lost time. "And next month when that darned telegraph line between the two of us is on-line—God." She blotted her throat once more, drew the typewriter across the desk, patted its squatty, heavy body fondly, and pulled the thick fold of paper from behind the platen.
A letter from Chris to brag up the gift and how he'd found it didn't surprise her; she'd heard from Robyn he was in Bez on his way to visit Duke's Fort and had half expected a fly-by-night visit after he rode up to Zelharri to see his mother, but he'd gone directly to Podhru and sent the box by Afronsan's courier. Her eyebrows went up; he'd actually typed the letter. "Forgot he knew how to use one of these things. Of course, he's—he was—the computer-game kid, but that doesn't necessarily mean familiarity with a keyboard." She considered this, shook her head firmly. "Don't even think computer, either, Cray. Be grateful for low-tech goodies, it's definitely nine or ten up on ink pen and paper," she ordered herself.
The two pages were filled, front and back, liberally splattered with cross-outs, typos, and misspellings, and the spacing was creative, to say the least.
"Hey, lady, goody for you. It's a Mer Khani machine, why they don't want to spread the tech around to us poor Third Worlders is beyond me, but I only found out about them by weird accident (tell you some time, remind me) and actually had to go to the ENGLISH to find one I could buy.
"Good news is, the English will sell me as many as I want to buy—the guy I was dealing with has set up shop somewhere in their midlands, (I know, you don't care where, right?) and after I explained about the keyboard and how ours weren't set up in this order, he said if you wanted a bunch of 'em, we didn't actually get down to specific numbers, they could even change the arrangement of keys for you, make you a QWERTY special or something. I don't know, this was so goofy, using a typewriter AND doing it in Rhadazi at the same time, I wasn't as thrown by the order of keys thing, but you do more of this stuff than I do. Send word back to the Head Dude in Podhru; he and I are keeping in pretty close touch right now.
"The French are seriously tinkering with steam ships, did I tell you last time? Between that and the new canal through the New Gaelic Lake (Lake Nicaragua—I know, you don't care about the geography), we should be able to trim some serious time from these trips, and let me tell you, I am like heartily BORED with spending ten days to two weeks on a boat. Some of em are pretty with all the sails and brass and stuff, and the French speed ones are downright class, food and all, but they're still slow, and some of em—well, you don't want to know how the crews live, either, but it gets my hackles up, and it's hard keeping your mouth shut on a long trip. Ok, MY mouth. But I swear, I ever find someone hot to work on an airplane.... Okay, maybe a zeppelin, something with hot air and a propeller to guide it.
"Had to wait two days this last time through, spent some time on the right coast of New Gaul (Mexico to you) waiting for a ship to get me to French Jamaica, so I finally got to test the waters. As in, skin dive. Never thought I'd be diving that water—of course, I never thought I'd have to fake up my own fins and snorkle, I'm still trying to figure out a mask and burning my eyeballs out in salt water, but still, wow, I stayed under until I was one giant pink prune. The locals think I'm nuts, they sit on top of the water in hot, dry boats and sweat a lot, burn themselves black and fish with nets, go figure.
"I cut the Mom-visit short; sibs are both cute and ok but the whole Fort is just totally nuts right now. Isn't the old girl-pirate thing to plead your belly? Whatever, you better plan on being too preggers and sick to go visit if any of them ask you, it's cold and damp and has been all summer, and it's totally grim, Aletto's aching a lot and Mom's pissed about something and worried about Lizelle, who has to be sick cause she looks like death and hardly leaves her room and—well, plead your belly, stay home. The telegraph between you and them should be done by the time you get this, or not long after anyway, hey, it's almost as good as phone, right? So I'm almost out of paper and time and this thing is mangling my fingers, gotta go. Head Dude's putting a note in with this. If you don't get the typewriter, it's cause Afronsan has the hots for it so bad, he's almost drooling. I smell another super deal in the works for CEE-Tech, hope the English aren't pulling my leg about how many of these wristbreakers they can put out for us. Take care of yourself and don't let down your guard just because the rotten twins ate it and your old man offed their number-one pet brute, there's plenty more of 'em out there, believe me. Be as cautious as I am, you'll do fine, XXX, Chris."
Jennifer cast her eyes up, set the sheet aside and read the note Afronsan had put with it—typeset, fortunately. It was too gloomy in here with the shades drawn to read the Heir's writing, and he had a tendency to cover all bare paper, both sides, as though fearful of wasting the least inch. Worse than Chris—as bad, anyway.
"Thukara. I hope this finds you well. I thought you should know, the merchant Casimaffi has returned to Bezjeriad, and sent me a lengthy letter distancing himself from any illegal uses made, as he puts it, 'of my ships by my captains or others serving them—which uses I would never condone or permit if I knew of them.' In short, he claims innocence and has volunteered to come in person to assure me of his purity; unfortunately, we have no actual proof to link him with the illegal actions of the Thukar's twin brothers, or with any delivery of the substance Zero to anyone inside Rhadaz. I shall keep you apprised, Afronsan."
That rat. Jennifer glared at the letter with narrowed eyes, then pushed it aside. Casimaffi—Chuffles, as Chris's Bez partner Enardi called his father's old friend—had done his best to get them all killed. Offer us a ship for transport, strand us on that high spit of land and then instead of a ship, send Dahven's brothers' men and Aletto's uncles' men ... He only thinks I don't owe him for that one.
She laid a hand on her stomach—not really that bowling-ball-shaped yet, she decided critically, but she'd have to let Afronsan get Casimaffi (if possible) and let that do her. Humiliate the chubby little rat, that'll hurt him more than anything. Probably the loss of the two or three ships the Emperor had confiscated when Zero was found on them—the ships and any future revenue they might have brought in—was hurting Casimaffi, whether or not he actually felt a financial pinch because of their loss.
She doubted he did; he had at least fifteen ships, or so Enardi said. Ernie, she reminded herself. Chris got shirty with her when she forgot the nickname he'd given his partner, just as he did when she called Edrith by his given name, instead of Eddie.
One more letter lay unopened on her desk, only one corner visible under the stack of official documents and papers from Afronsan. This one had come via caravan much earlier in the day. Jennifer unearthed it reluctantly, broke the seal, and unfolded it.
Damn Lialla anyway; if the Holmaddi don't kill her or Aletto doesn't strangle her, I'm going to. Back from the lovely, macho north one whole day and safe for the first time in weeks—and instead of heading home or coming to Sikkre to hide out until Aletto cooled off (until I could cool him off), she turned right around and went backl That much Jennifer already knew; the grandmother of the Gray Fishers had sent that message. Not why, just the flat, bare fact, along with Lialla's letter.
"Maybe she can explain herself. Damnit, she'd better." Jennifer groped for the damp cloth, dipped a corner in the water and sponged it across her face, blotted drips with her wrist, then began to read.
"Sin-Duchess Lialla to Thukara Jennifer:
"By the time you receive this message, I will doubtless be back in Holmaddan, somewhere deep within the city. Somehow, I am certain that even at such a great distance, I will feel the heat of your—let us call it displeasure—that I have done something so foolish." You got that right in one, girlfriend, Jennifer thought grimly.
"I do apologize, Jen, for setting you between me and Aletto. I know you understand how difficult my brother can often be— stubborn, intractable and determined to swaddle all his women in protective layers, wife, mother and sister alike. I admit he has a little more cause to worry this time. I told everything to the Gray Fishers' grandmother and my friend Sil who is one of her people; Sil promised to pass on to you what I told her if you send for her. The grandmother tells me the caravan will stay in Sikkre at least two days before moving on to Dro Pent. I fear that once you hear Sil, you will agree with Aletto. Even during all my years with my uncle and those days we spent together hiding from him, I was never so near death so many times as I have been in the north.
"In all honesty, a part of my mind tells me I must be mad. I was cold and frightened most of these past days, in that village and then in Holmaddan City. I was never certain—and still am not at all sure—that I accomplished anything, or that those women are any better off than they were.
"But this time will be different." Sure, lady, they all say that. "I have seen part of a shipment of the drug Zero. I know nothing that can be proved but I cannot simply walk away and leave the matter to others. And I think the city women can use me. Where I stood out in a village, I might not in Holmaddan City. Also, I left that stupid boy in danger—he is too proud, stubborn, and young all at once to keep himself from trouble. Either he will give away that he has learned to Wield or that he aided my escape, and they will kill him. He saved my life; I cannot let him die because he is an arrogant young Holmaddi male and so not worth the effort—or because I was too afraid to go back."
Jennifer read this paragraph twice, finally shook her head, swore under her breath and went on. Hardly any of it made sense. Boy? What problems in that village? This Sil had better be ready to talk. She drew a pad over, scribbled herself a note—Get someone to locate that caravan this afternoon, get the woman Sil here right away. She glared at the note, transferred the glare to Lialla's letter.
Excerpted from The Art of the Sword by Ru Emerson. Copyright © 1994 Ru Emerson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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