A true master of swords and sorcery adventure in outer space, author Jo Clayton rockets science fantasy into new heights of ingenious invention in the third installment of her sensational Diadem Saga.
The torments that courageous young Aleytys has endured throughout her lifetime have only intensified since she first donned the alien Diadem, which permanently connected with her central nervous system to grant her astonishing psi abilities. But never before has she faced a greater—or graver—trial.
Drugged and sold into slavery by the evil Maissa—the twisted villain who stole her infant son, Sharl—Aleytys must now serve the hive queen of an alien insect/humanoid race on the planet Irsud. She has been purchased to act as host body for the queen’s consciousness, which she is to carry in a surgically implanted egg. Facing a truly horrifying fate, Aleytys must submit to the nightmare now growing inside of her as, little by little, it attempts to take control of her body before devouring it completely. But Aleytys is determined to survive the ordeal by any means necessary, for a force even greater than the Diadem compels her: a mother’s undying love and need for vengeance.
Irsud is a masterful feat of uniquely imaginative storytelling and world-building à la Andre Norton and C. J. Cherryh that seamlessly weaves fantasy and science fiction together, creating a breathtaking tapestry of alien worlds, beings, and cultures that is guaranteed to enthrall fans of both genres.
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By Jo Clayton
Openroad Integrated MediaCopyright © 1978 Jo Clayton
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Sweeping in a widening gyre through the dark confusion that swirled in stained snow flurries, her awareness fluttered toward a pinpoint light, cold striking into two arms, two legs stretched out from a torso shivering naked against naked metal. Aleytys opened her eyes.
A narrow face with round insectoid eyes the size of teacups hung dizzily over her, reflecting her body back like a double dozen octagonal black mirrors. "Kipu." Aleytys pulled at the grip on her arms, a growing irritation heating her blood. "What...." She tugged again, more sharply. "Let me go."
The kipu smiled, shook her head, short stubby antennas twitching slightly. With an angry snort Aleytys jerked against the wiry strength of the guards' six-fingered hands. Struggling futilely to free herself, acid tears of frustration oozing from her swollen eyes, she fought a panting grunting battle against a strength that made nonsense of her own muscles. She humped her body in one last convulsive thrust to freedom, then fell back on the metal table snarling at the faintly smiling face that coolly waited for her to exhaust herself. The nayid came back and stood looming over her.
"An exercise in futility." The rich deep voice was insufferably complacent.
Panting helplessly, raging like a netted tars, Aleytys scowled at the delicate mask-like face of the kipu, wanting to shatter that mask. On the cool metal her hands curled into claws, fingernails clattering harshly against the steel. "Bug!" she shrilled, then spat full in the nayid's face.
The kipu stepped back without a word and stretched out a hand. Hastily a white-clad female nayid hovering behind her thrust a square of cloth into the imperious fingers. The kipu wiped her face and dropped the cloth without watching where it fell in an unconscious arrogance that struck a chill through the heat in Aleytys' blood.
Aleytys shook her head, tossing her red hair, cooled to wariness. Her breathing slowed and she was abruptly conscious of a fuzziness clogging her mind. She shook her head again trying to shake the fog out.
The nayid's antennas twitched as a faint flush briefly tinged her parchment cheeks. She stared briefly at Aleytys, then shifted her gaze, refusing to look at her captive. Speaking to another nayid, one out of Aleytys' arc of vision, she said brusquely, "The psi-damper?"
"Functioning, rab' Kipu." The cool monotone seemed to sooth the kipu's ragged emotions. Her face smoothed out, the faint supercilious smile curled her thin lips, her hands came together and brushed lightly palm against palm in a soft papery whisper.
"Good." The word oozed satisfaction, sending a tiny shock of remembered response shivering down Aleytys' body. Antennas swaying in a gentle rhythm that underscored the renewed arrogance in her stance, the kipu spoke softly to Aleytys. "According to the ardu-epesh I!kuk, your intelligence measures superior." The deep voice turned coldly precise. "I suggest you apply that intelligence to your present situation. I suggest you stop these futile gestures, ardana."
Aleytys stiffened. "I'm not a slave. Don't call me a slave."
"Ardana," the kipu repeated calmly. "Ardana."
Aleytys stared at her. After a moment her body relaxed. The kipu nodded slightly and the guards let the captive move by herself for the first time.
"Show her to me." The hoarse bass voice thrummed from behind gauzy curtains behind the kipu. Aleytys pushed herself up and swung her legs over the edge of the metal table. For a fleeting moment her brain tilted dizzily. She sucked in a deep breath and watched curiously.
The curtains fell from a centerpoint on the ceiling, pinned there by a gilt beelike insect with wings and legs spread against the center of a floral mosaic coiling overhead in a mass of elaborate convolutions. As the kipu swept the lacy blue-green gauze back from the elaborate bed, Aleytys gaped at the wizened and bedizened old nayid who radiated a vivid force that somehow dominated the whole room. Even the arrogant kipu was diminished by the lumpy decrepit figure lying among a ridiculous froth of lace and frills. The old queen poked a bony elbow into the heap of pillows and grunted herself a trifle higher, her eyes fixed avidly on Aleytys. Her free hand like a claw, she beckoned the kipu closer, the two-score bangled bracelets crowding up her skinny arm clattering like an Oshanti whore's come-on beads.
"That?" The voice boomed in Aleytys' ears. "Why?" She moved restlessly, the sagging flesh on her neck trembling with the palsy of extreme age. "It's female?"
"Mammalian." The kipu pulled her six-fingered hand — long flexible digits with the fragile beauty of a lizard's fore-paws — in a fluid gesture across her flat spare thorax, the corners of her mouth tightening a fraction in disgust; her antennas twitched in a few sharp jerks. Before she spoke her long delicate face smoothed into immobility. "The ardu-epesh I!kuk guaranteed her genetic potency — so much that to control her I!kuk implanted a psi-damper to nullify her talents. Forget what she looks like. The egg will take the gifts and leave the rest."
"Umph!" The round black eyes the size of teacups moved over Aleytys' naked body in cold insulting appraisal.
Aleytys tightened the grip of her hands on the curved edge of the table, remembering eyes coldly measuring and assessing her as she stood in a forcecube on cold stone block in the slave market of I!Kwasset. She shifted uneasily on the cold surface, wondering what the kipu was talking about with a sick foreboding that she wouldn't like what was coming. Irritably, she jerked her shoulders. The psi-damper planted below her left shoulder blade itched furiously as she fought against the mind trap. She closed her eyes, shutting out the shifting groups of nayids, and concentrated on the inside of her head.
"Where are you?" She hurled the words into the darkness thick and musty at the back of her mind. "I know you're there." The psi-damper was a torment of small irritations, a fuzziness that sent her mind on veering orbits so that it was hard to hold onto the logical progression of thought. Concentration was a physical effort that left her shaking. "Dammit, you weren't so shy before."
A pain-filled yowl jerked her head up. The bed was lost in a sea of white tunics circling in panic around a lanky nayid with a cold dignified face and gray bars running through the short black hair coiling tight to her narrow skull. A few quiet words brought order, sending the superfluous females to their posts.
As the crowd thinned, Aleytys saw the old queen collapsed on the pillows, bubbles forming at the corners of her mouth and slipping in a trickle of drool across her slack jaw. Thin wrinkled double eyelids folded up. As Aleytys watched, she shrivelled visibly. The blazing personality that had dominated the busy room moments before was eroding into a kind of terminal decrepitude. The doctor bent over her, then glanced up impatiently at the nayid next to her.
With her soft spotless tunic flowing into agitated folds, the attendant bustled around the bed, jerked the curtains free, and swirled them shut, leaving the dying ancient in privacy.
The kipu snapped her fingers. Three spindle-shanked horse-faced amazons in loose-fitting red tunics popped from behind the bed and advanced on Aleytys. She slid off the table and backed cautiously away.
Stepping quickly to her side the kipu closed long slender fingers on her shoulder. "Return to the table, Ardana," she said coldly.
The fingers were dry and slightly rough. Aleytys could feel the hard articulation of her finger bones through the skin. She jerked away, tossing her hair out of her face. The wariness abruptly burnt out of her in a wild flare of rebellion. Like a tars on the prowl she shot rapid glances around the room, animal-intent on an impossible escape.
The white nayids clustering around the bed ignored her as if she didn't exist, but she kept a cautious distance from the red ones, retreating from the circling red tunics as the nayid guards stared at her out of their round black eyes, right hands wrapped around black rods thrust through the wide black belts hugging their crimson tunics to their thin elongated bodies. Past the irregular circle she saw an archway partially masked by a blue-green tapestry. Run, her muddled brain drove at her. Run.
"Don't call me that," Aleytys burst out, momentarily diverted from her purpose. Impossible to hold two thoughts in her head. She jerked away from the kipu and darted toward the archway, diving toward the space between two guards. Long fingers caught hold of her hair and swung her effortlessly back with a terrifying display of strength. Aleytys slumped to her knees, breathing hard as the grip on her hair loosened, tears of pain oozing from her eyes.
"Calm yourself, slave."
Aleytys crouched on the floor looking up at the kipu past tangled strands of hair. "No. I won't be a slave."
"Slave," the kipu repeated, her antennas twitching slightly. "Bought and paid for. You waste your energy and my time fooling yourself. Your condition is a fact, to be neither denied nor affirmed. I own you. You're meat. If I choose to feed you, you eat. If not, you starve. If I choose to have you carved into meat for my sabutim you will be meat. Don't tell me about your life before. That's over. Forget it. You're meat. Bought and paid for. Accept that."
Aleytys stared at her for a minute. Quietly she stood up, pushing straying tendrils of hair behind her ears. The psi-damper itched in her back and her brain felt like hot mush and her nakedness was a vulnerability hard to ignore. She pushed the confusing betraying anger way, way down and fought to clear her head. "Never. Bought? You wasted your money."
"No. For your present comfort, slave...." The kipu flicked a long forefinger at the two guards behind Aleytys. "Come back to the table."
Aleytys glanced over her shoulder at the narrow stolid faces. The damper cut off her empathic reach and left her feeling worse than blinded. She faced the kipu again. "I could give you some trouble."
"Bring her." The kipu turned her back and faced the bed, dismissing anything Aleytys could possibly do as a minor pinprick not worth bothering about.
Aleytys watched her walk away and swore to herself that somehow ... somehow ... she'd puncture that arrogance.
Long cold fingers closed around her arms. Helpless as a naughty child, she let them push her back to the polished metal table. Smoothly, with scarcely a break in their movements, they bent and lifted her, stretching her out on the surface and holding her quiet.
A white nayid took hold of Aleytys' head, turning it away from her, her strength making nonsense of the long neck muscles. Aleytys felt a cold spot on her spine, round like the end of one of the rods, then all sensation in her body vanished. She cried out in sudden panic.
"It's only to stop pain." The nayid's voice was calm and precise as a machine. And oddly reassuring. She seemed so certain and matter-of-fact about what was happening.
"What are you doing?" Aleytys whispered. "Why...."
The kipu's face swam into her limited range of vision. "Calm yourself, slave," she said coolly. She rubbed a strand of Aleytys' hair between her thumb and forefinger. "Red...." Dropping the hair she stepped back and spoke with a curious remote quality in her resonant voice. "You were purchased for a high and noble purpose. You shall live in luxury, your wishes demands on us until our purpose is fulfilled. Accept it, for your own comfort." She broke off and moved farther away as a series of hoarse shrieks rose in a crescendo of pain, then cut off abruptly.
A motion at the edge of her field of vision distracted Aleytys. At the cost of aching neck muscles she forced her head up and looked along her body. The middle nayid, a lanky female, bone-thin with a severe sharp-angled face, drew a sponge over her thigh, leaving a pale blue stain behind. Repeatedly the nayid dipped the sponge in a basin held by a second white nayid and smoothed the viscous liquid over the pale amber skin of Aleytys' left thigh.
Aleytys dropped her head back a moment to rest her trembling muscles then lifted it again as she heard a soft meaty slap. The tall thin nayid was peeling back the skin on the thigh while the basin holder had ditched her basin and was controlling blood flow with a quivering green jelly. When the skin was clamped back, the surgeon sliced deeper, cutting neatly between the big front muscles until she'd opened a cavity the size of a fist. Quickly, efficiently the cutter propped the cavity open with a pair of evil-looking spreaders, then stood back, patiently waiting.
The doctor with the gray-barred hair came from the bed, her hands cupped reverently around a rubbery ovoid, a grayish-green object with concentric ochre stripes.
Sick with horror, Aleytys watched the cold-faced surgeon lower the ovoid into the hole in her thigh. When she had it settled to her satisfaction, the nayid removed the clamps and eased the flesh back into place. Gently, with the same care she had shown with the egg, she pulled the flap of skin into place and ran a buzzing rod along the wound to seal the cut. With a quick sure twist of her long supple fingers she altered the setting on the rod and placed it against Aleytys' temple.
Aleytys gasped and spun off into darkness.CHAPTER 2
Groaning as pain pulsed around the back of her skull, Aleytys opened bleary eyes and cautiously moved her head. Her body ached so that she could barely gather enough energy to think through the fog in her brain, while the damper in her back triggered waves of itching. She moved restlessly, rustling the crisp sheets, a small pleasant sound that soothed her aching spirit.
Lacy, elaborately frilled pillows billowed up around her head. Impatiently she shoved against the mattress, pushing her aching body erect. She threw the covers off her legs and stared unhappily at her thigh, her fingers tracing the fine red line around the shrinking lump. "Damn."
Floundering to the edge of the bed she hauled the cobwebby lace curtains back and slid onto her feet, wincing as her skin touched the cold tiles. She stumbled to the center of the room and stared around.
Blue-green shrouds falling from a gilt bee-like insect splayed out against the ceiling. She spun around. In the narrowest wall of the wedge-shaped room, an arch closed by a heavy blue-green tapestry. That room. The old queen's bed. She could see once again the bulky decrepit figure of the ancient nayid ... aaaagh!
Moving stiffly to the arch she pulled the tapestry aside.
The guard outside stepped in front of her, her blue-green tunic rippling softly about her stringy form. When Aleytys tried to move past her, the guard shook her head and pushed her gently but inexorably back into the room. The tapestry dropped between them with a heavy finality.
The damper still jumbled her thoughts but her mind was adjusting rapidly to a hippity-hop style of thinking. "Well." She rubbed her queasy stomach. "So I sleep in that hag's bed." She shivered and looked around.
The room was a blunted wedge with the long side walls covered by ornate tapestries suspended on rings from long polished poles. Imposed on an intricate and lovely design of leaves and flowers woven of earth tones with accents of rose and violet, a line of rampant male figures cavorted through a wild erotic dance, their lurid, explicitly sexual forms contrasting grotesquely with the delicacy of the background.
Aleytys examined the figures with interest, her body heating a little as she noted the genital similarity to the men of her own species. Glancing over her shoulders at the tapestries, she moved to the wide end of the room behind the head of the bed.
When she pulled the tapestry out away from the wall she discovered that it was apparently a single sheet of glass with a greenish blue tinge that was cool and restful on the eyes. Outside she could see a walled garden. Neatly clipped grass. Gently rolling ground. Patches of flowers. Short, flat, slender umbrella-like trees ... mimosoids ... with delicate lacy foliage ... leaning gracefully over a small lively stream. ... She gazed hungrily at the crystalline water leaping down the miniature waterfalls, dancing around scattered boulders, passing under the heavy, nearly horizontal limb of a rugged live oak. Her need for flowing water was almost as demanding as for hunger or sex. She felt along the glass, searching for a way into the garden.
Excerpted from Irsud by Jo Clayton. Copyright © 1978 Jo Clayton. Excerpted by permission of Openroad Integrated Media.
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