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"PREPARE us something warm, Kupla. Some sombay with that spice of Meragg's," I ordered briskly, making my own sound and movement cover the statuelike immobility of my most unexpected guest. My personal servant scurried away without a backward glance. For myself, I couldn't take my eyes from Barac's lowered head, his thick black hair immaculate as always despite the weather outside this night.
Outwardly, nothing of my cousin had changed. If he thought a cheaply-cut coat and a slouch could hide the natural arrogance of the Clan, he was sadly mistaken. His elegant charm, I thought to myself, stands out more in contrast. I was surprised a thief hadn't tried his pockets yet. Or maybe one had, and soon learned not to trust appearances. By Clan standards, Barac sud Sarc might be weak, but he had other defenses.
But why was he here? Why now? What did it mean? Questions I hesitated to ask in such a public place tumbled through my thoughts.
Any joy in seeing him was held hard in check by the suspicions racing through my mindsuspicions of Council interference in my plans, suspicions of the old struggles beginning anew.
The drinks arrived, carried with skill through the crowd and deposited on a small black pedestal within reach of my hand. "A seat for my guest, Kupla," I was able to say. "Then you may leave us." Barac's eyes flashed up to mine at thisablaze with some emotionyet he moved stiffly to climb the dais and sit on the offered stool. The corner of my mind I permitted to have such concerns registeredamusement at his obvious distress, admiring the way he accepted the steaming cup and deliberately turned his attention to the milling crowd. I sipped my own; I couldn't taste it.
"Welcome, Cousin," I said quietly. "At least, I'd like to think so. Why are you here?"
Barac refused to meet my eyes. "Why are you, Sira?" he asked in an oddly anguished whisper. "What are you doing here? Do you know what they call you? What they say about you?"
I laughed; I couldn't help it nor did I try. The bulbous-eyed croupier at the nearest table lost his concentration to stare at me and so also lost half the credits stacked before him to a quick-fingered neighbor. "Excuse me, Cousin," I apologized, just as glad for a chance to absorb the shock of Barac's arrival. "Business."
Ignoring Barac for the moment, I sought through the thickness of bodies for the one I wanted. There. A conveniently vulnerable mind. Quickly, I pinned the stealthily moving culprit in place, sending a quick mental summons to my nearest guardsman. Ripples of awareness spread from the spot where the wild-eyed Human stood immobilized by my will. Beings moved away on either side, leaving her exposed and encircled.
I stood with deliberate slowness. My guardsman pounded up, stun whip loose and ready in his hand. The regular patrons of the Haven looked expectant, while the croupier's thick-featured face oozed satisfactionone of the less pleasant aspects of hiring Foweans being their tendency to secrete a glistening green mucus when cheerful. I wasn't the only one to swallow uncomfortably as the croupier hastily wiped his facial glands on a sleeve. From the glazed look of his garment, the House had been winning steadily tonight. No wonder his table was almost empty.
"Win from me if you can, Human," I said into the attentive quiet. "But no one steals from me." I released the control of her body back to her mind and watched her stagger only briefly. Coolly, the thief reached into one voluminous sleeve and removed more metal disks than I'd seen her steal.
"Only in the Haven have I met my match," the woman said in a low pleasant voice, inclining her head to me just so, holding on to her pride. Doubtless a professional criminal; this world had many such. "One cannot steal from those protected by magic," she continued ruefully.
I hid a smile. "But anyone can steal from a fool," I countered. At this, the crowd rumbled approval, and the croupier's triangular mouth gaped open anxiously. With a dramatic, and quite unnecessary, gesture, I performed my most popular feat of "magic." The figure of the croupier vanished with a sigh of displaced air.
"Keep your winnings," I continued, sitting, quite as if nothing untoward had happened. The Drapsk at the other end of the hall hummed in delighted unison. The would-be thief clutched her booty and melted into the crowd.. Things returned to normal.
"Where did you send the Fowean?" Barac's voice was his own again, level, expressing polite interest and little else. Much better, I thought, but to myself.
"Just out in the rain," I pitched my voice for his ears alone. "Such tricks are good for businessand keep my dealers honest."
"And they amuse you. Is that what you've found here, Sira? Amusement?"
Maybe I'd been wrong about Barac regaining his composure, His eyes held some of the same uncomprehending wildness as had the pinned thief's.
"Barac sud Sarc," I said softly, adding the configuration of heart-kin to the bare words. "If you've come to see me, you don't seem very pleased about it."
Barac shudderedhis hand made a short violent gesture at the seething mass of noisy, gambling beings around us, many almost oblivious to their surroundings and certainly oblivious to us. "How can I be pleased to see you like this, to see you waste yourself with such filth, to be part of the port scum of this trivial waystation of a world? How can you even let yourself be seen in this place?" A pause as his eyes bored into mine. "What have you become, Sira?"
I tried not to smile. "Well, I doubt I've become what you've so unflatteringly decided, Cousin. Nor what you see. You forget, not all have your perception." Delicately, I reached into the M'hir between us, not touching his shields but offering a different vision to his eyesa face whose features were smudged and hard to discern, the hint of an exotic gem on the forehead; a body coated in a mist that confused. An illusion easy enough to offer drink- and drug-hazed minds. A confusion of descriptions to confound any who saw more. No two who left the Spacer's Haven ever agreed on the appearance of her witch.
A flicker of astonishment crossed his face, leaving behind a raised eyebrow. "I won it, you see," I continued. "The previous owner, Sas'qaat, really wasn't as good at Stars and Comets as it thought. And you're right. I stay here because it amuses me. Until now, I've missed the shadowy edges of life, its variety and color."
"You've picked a hell of a way to start experiencing variety and color," Barac countered. A loud scuffle, ended by heavy thuds as guardsmen moved in, served to underscore his comment. Then with more characteristic dry humor: "Did you have to become a witch in order to hang out in a bar?"
"It was easier than telling the truth."
Barac's lips twitched as though I'd unwittingly scored some point. "The truth, Cousin? Which one?"
I considered him as I took another sip from my cup, politely refraining from exerting my presence in the M'hir against his, then said, "Why, our truth, Cousin. That as Clan, you and I can lay claim to a rare heritage of power, power used by our kind to live very well as parasites among the unsuspecting species of the Trade Pact. Let me see. Is it two hundred or three hundred Human worlds we grace with our presence? Or more?"
He couldn't help but glance around, checking if any being had overheard. I knew better. Once bets were placed, an earthquake wouldn't rouse the Haven's clientele to self-preservation, let alone curiosity. "I see. You sit here," he accused, eyes back to me, "and presume to judge the rest of us."
"I presume nothing," I replied firmly, raising one hand to stop his outburst. "And nothing is exactly what I want from the Clan. I've started a new life, Barac, one that allows me to use my Talent without claim to a heritage I renounced a year ago." Purposeful movement from the floor caught my eye, changing what I might have said next. "Actually, the Poculan version of a user of power, a Ram'ad Witch, has an interesting and useful status off this planet as wellas our friend Maka would testify." I nodded a regal acknowledgment to the approaching Drapsk. I'd been wrong about the earthquake. The parade of over thirty Drapsk was enough to dislodge even the Haven's gamblers, if only temporarily.
"Oh, Most Mystic One," the Drapsk halted a cautious distance away, antennae aquiver. "You have given us a tale to carry back to the Tribe tonight."
"Good business," I said offhandedly.
The creature began shifting from one foot to another and the other Drapsk followed suit in unison. Beyond them, I saw smiles carefully hidden. "Business is what my ship-kin and I would like to discuss with you, Mystic One."
"Captain Maka," I began. Indulging the alien night after night was becoming tiresome. "How many times must I give you my answer? I am not interested in accompanying you to your home system. As you've seen tonight, I'm needed here or my bumbling staff will bankrupt me."
If body posture were to reflect a stubborn set of mind, Maka the Drapsk should have been rigid by now. "We have searched two full cycles for a truly mystical personage such as yourself," the being protested. "Do not doom us to failure before our Tribe. Just a short voyageamply rewarded and enjoyable."
The Drapsk sounded almost desperatehardly a wise trading tactic. Why? "Not now," I compromised. "I have matters that require my personal attention." True enough, given who was sitting, rather puzzled, beside me. "Perhaps another time," I offered.
Foot-shifting ceased, replaced by mad feathery waves as the antennae of all the Drapsk fluttered. I sensed no mind-to-mind contact, but I was convinced the beings were communicating with one another. If it was some form of chemical signaling, I frankly doubted its effectiveness in the maelstrom of odors from the various bodies and innumerable smoke sticks surrounding us.
Maka came right up to the edge of the dais, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "Mystic One, you are kindness itself not to remove all hope. But time is short if the happiest of conjunctions is to occur this season for my ship-kin and me. Allow me to send my cargomaster to you with giftsthe merest indication of the treasures you would receive from the grateful Tribes of Drapskii."
I shook my head impatiently. I needed to talk to Barac, not these creatures. I had to find out which part of my past was intruding into the present. "Send your gifts," I agreed loftily. "I'll provide you my final answer in return. Good evening, Captain."
Then, regretfully, for I truly enjoyed watching this cross-section of the cosmos each night, I put down my cup and brushed my fingers over Barac's sleeve. I pushed ...
... and gained us the privacy of my rooftop garden.
The storm had ended. The first pair of Pocular's smallish moons showed through openings in the clouds, casting doubled shadows and distorting silhouettes. It was the part of the lunar cycle when younger children were kept indoors after dark, old superstitions giving parents a practical defense against nightmares. I took a deep breath of fresh, clean night air and prepared to confront my own.
"Now, Barac," I said. "Why are you here?"
"Glad it's stopped raining," he commented instead of answering, as he paced around the rooftop.
"Don't go close to the edge," I warned, following him to the near side with its view of the shipcity's lights.
It was too dark to see his expression, but I detected a shade of patronage in his tone. "Really, Sira. I thought you had a good head for heights. And this is hardly the Cloisters, set on a mountaintop."
"No?" I said softly, taking my own advice and halting a good two paces away from the rail. "You could be wrong about that, Cousin."
Barac's fingertips touched the finely wrought metal. Almost instantly he cursed and yanked back his hand. "You've set protections on this building." He sounded surprised.
"Of course. Do you think for an instant I believed the Council would allow me to leave in peace? I'd rather sleep at night, thank you." I felt Barac explore the unseen boundary with a tendril of power, knowing what he would find. The Haven was a fortress against our kind. No Clan could send thought or form into this place using the M'hir. And, I smiled to myself, if any tried a more physical approach, they would be in for a similar disappointment.
I switched on the lighting, adequate to let me see his face yet night-soft. Random beams played among the rain-soaked leaves and still-closed evening blossoms, sparkling like gems, I wasn't the gardener, but I loved the exuberant life herein its way as novel to me as the hordes of beings beneath our feet. "You can test my protections, Cousin," I said dryly. "I assure you they are adequate against" I hesitated, and he pounced cheerfully.
"The rest of us? Don't worry, Sira. I've no intentions of testing them again. I, a humble sud, remain glad you and I are on such good terms." His fine-boned face was open, freed of the guarded tension it had borne in the tavern, revealing lines of stress andwas I wrong?what seemed to be the beginnings of hope. "But you asked me why I'm here. I've been chasing rumors of the Silver Fox," Barac confessed willingly. "I was looking for you."
I sat and waved him to another of the lounge chairs. There were sufficient puddles to make me glad Meragg had insisted on rain-resistant furnishings for this retreat of mine. I raised one brow at the Clansman, refusing to be charmed. "I was never hiddennot to eyes like yours. You waited a long time to visit, Barac. Why now?"
Barac's smiling face settled into a mask, his voice dropping to the sharp edge of a whisper. "I did as you demanded, back then. You know that, Sira. I gave up my brother Kurr and the search for his true murdererthe name you knew but wouldn't give me." He paused, his voice gathering strength, yet oddly without bitterness. "But it wasn't enough for the Council, Sirathat I stopped my awkward questions. This past month I was to be offered Choice by the daughter of Xer sud Teerac," an impatient wave silenced my question. "A minor House. They live on Asdershal 3. But it was a good match; assured of success. Then, just before we were to meet, I was refused."
I winced. I'd known Barac remained unChosen from the moment I'd felt his presence in the Haventhose of the Clan who were incomplete carried their overwhelming need in the M'hir like a flag of warning. There would be pain as well as hurt pride in being refused. "It's not the end of things, Barac," I said awkwardly, remembering what had been said to me time and time again. Unhelpful, meaningless words, but all I could offer. "There will be other Choices"
"Not for me!" Barac snapped, his power flaring so that I narrowed my perception as well as my eyes. "You don't understand, Sira. It was my third refusal. The last. The Council has no intention of allowing me fulfillmentever. I" He bit back what he might have said, then continued heavily, quietly. "When I realized the game they played, I took the only honorable course left to me. I am now exile." When I didn't speak, Barac smileda thin, hurt expression with none of his usual confidence. "Got room for a warlock, Cousin Witch?"
"You are always welcome," I said quickly, gesturing respect and commitment. "Curse them all for fools!" This last burst from my lips before I could close them.
Slowly Barac nodded. "Especially one, Sira. No," he added immediately, reading my sudden stillness correctly. "I can wait until you are ready. I didn't come to open old wounds, just to be with you for a while, to think things through." A mischievous grin took years from his face. "Do you know, I've even missed your Humanthe redoubtable Morgan. How is he? Where is he?" He glanced around the garden as if expecting the Human to appear at any moment.
I knew where Jason Morgan wasI always knew. Just the sound of his name in my mind sent echoes along that subtle link that bound me to the deepest part of his cool, crisp thoughts. I stopped the reverberations before they troubled his peace. "Morgan sleeps," I said, bringing a soft smile with me from that tenuous contact. "You will see him before long, Barac," I promised, and said no more.
My kinsman would learn soon enough about the man who had changed so much about our lives and been forever changed himself.
"There." The compactly built, brown-haired Human input the last reading, then stretched from his huddle over the locator with satisfaction in his clear blue eyes, one hand brushing shreds of moss from his faded spacer coveralls. "We'll be able to find them next season without a problem. Should be as good a crop or better, don't you think, Premick?"
Premick, as befitted a hunter of his rank and dignity, did not quite laugh, but there was a suspicious twitching at the corners of his narrow mouth. "I am no expert on lumps in the ground," the Poculan answered in passable Comspeak as he rose to his full height, head and shoulders above the smaller Human. "Ask me about the nasar." Typical of the jungle-dwelling race of his species, Premick was spider-thin, the warty surface of his skin a light yellow, a color shared by the outer rim of his eyes. He was humanoid only from a distance, having triple-jointed arms and legs, each joint with its fleshy protrusionsa curious adult trait Poculans were unwilling to clarify for aliens. His legs didn't drop from his hips, as would a Human's. Instead, they began about a third of the way up the straight torso, originating sideways before bending toward the ground. It was a feature Poculans commonly used as a convenient horizontal ledge to support the weight of not-inconsiderable waist packs.
Jason Morgan, trader and Captain of the Silver Fox, patted his own well-stuffed carrysack. "As I've told you before, my friend, each of these tasty lumps will bring in the price of ten of your peltsand at much less risk to our own hides."
This time Premick did laugh. "Maybe offworlders value them. I will settle for those ten pelts." The delicate fur of this planet's largest carnivore was both status and currency for his people, and the hunter was understandably bemused by the Human's search for the rare merle truffle. To each his own, Morgan said to himself. Having the Fox sitting planetside with empty holds ate far too many credits each day for comfortthe truffles rounding out his sack should ease that problem nicely, if the information on their market value provided by a certain restauranteur of his acquaintance was as reliable as ever.
Premick waited impatiently as Morgan collected his equipment, including the sketch pad and stylus the Poculan was convinced the Human slept with, and finally announced he was ready to leave the glade. With a snort of relief, Premick gathered up his own carryroll with one easy sweep of a long, bare arm, the other already cradling a snub-nosed rifle. Primitive though his people might seem in appearance and lifestyle, they did not scorn technology that gave them an edge against Pocular's many predators.
Morgan hurried to follow the rapidly-moving form of his guide along the narrow forest trail, his mind already calculating the number of truffles needed this season to cover docking fees.
"Ghsst!" Premick's irritated hiss moments later brought Morgan back to himself. The hunter must have found some sign of a worthwhile quarry ahead, and Morgan's steps were careless and noisy. Morgan accepted the rebuke, slipping into the lithe stalk that he had learned on another world, when his quarry had had reasoning brains and weapons more similar to his own.
Following Premick, often no more than a glimpse of yellow- brown deliberately allowed so that his companion would not be lost completely, Morgan once more let his mind wander. Not back to the Fox, and his own marginal credit; rather, he returned to his practice, to playing a game that had begun almost a year ago.
Premick, whose people had a trace of mental talenthis own sufficient to have led him to choose Morgan over other would- be trappersacknowledged Morgan's preoccupation with a resigned shrug and a roll of his eyes. The Human knew when to free himself of the extra burden of concentration. And his now- silent, graceful movements were not bad at all for an offworlder.
The game. Morgan first dove deep within his mind, seeking the warm and golden place, the presence that was part of him yet had once been another's. Ah. It was akin to being shocked, that initial sensation of contact reestablished. Then came the recognition of power, of mental abilities stretched far beyond what he had ever known before. But it was power without complete controlwhich was, after all, the purpose of the game. The game imposed by the powerful daughter of di Sarc without consultation or appeal. She called it survival.
Morgan gave less of his conscious mind to his external surroundings, depending on Premick to warn him if he was needed to do more than follow quietly. At times, these stalks could lead them for hours down dark, mossy trails. More often than not, their quarry would elude them, though never because Premick lost the scent. So there was time to resume the game. A flash of power sent along a well-used pathway in that other place, the M'hir, would be enough. Morgan paused, ready defenses in place, signal sent.
But the almost instantaneous reply was not the mind- wrenching test Morgan had expected. Instead, words formed softly around his thoughts: Hello, Jason. I've been waiting for you.
He hadn't heard her mind voice for weeks, yet the exquisite balance of Sira's mental strength was as familiar as his own. Past the faintest of barriers, all she ever truly held against him, emotions trickled through. Concern and, alarmingly, uncertainty.
His own answer was swift. The game, and indeed the living forest around him were forgotten. What's wrong, Sira? Are you all right?
Warmth, sudden and rare, as quickly gone. Morgan fought the temptation to respond in kind, keeping his mind voice light and comfortable; he had learned to respect, if not enjoy, the distance Sira kept between them. We have company, Jason. An old friend has arrived. Come, please.
Morgan stood still, then nodded, though she could not see the gesture. Sira would not call him out of the jungle for anything less than trouble, regardless of what she chose to reveal. He opened his eyes, surprised that he had closed them, to find Premick seated in a patient crouch, the flesh-crowned knobs of second knees at ear level, yellow-rimmed eyes steady and patient on his own.
"I've been called. I must leave," Morgan said simply.
The being nodded, then went on, his tone curious but tentative, as if unsure with a topic they always had avoided: "You serve a strange mistress, Morgan-friend, who summons you home in the midst of a good hunt."
Morgan's unusual blue eyes retained some of his power's glow. Premick might have imagined a flash of something in those eyes that made him shiver. Yet Morgan's voice was good- humored. "You complain about my witch, Hunter?" the Human said, shifting his load of truffles to his other shoulder. "And what about your sisters? Are they not why you enjoy my company and hunt the poor nasar?" Amid mutual laughter that hid both regret and apology, the pair turned back toward their camp of two seasons, disappearing into the trees as easily as their reprieved prey.