The Scarlet Thread
by Wesley Williamson

Chapter Three : The Trader

Chapter 1: The Palace Chapter 2: The Outfleet Chapter 3: The Trader
Chapter 4: Shift Space Chapter 5: The Imperial Fleet

The Armsbearer guards the Folk; it is an ill thing that any sword be drawn but the Lord's at the Altar when the Beast swarms not.  If Law be broken, let it be tested in the House, if wrong be suffered, let it be righted by the House, if blood must be shed, let the requital be to the House.

THE CHALLENGER:  As the Power permits, I claim the right to judgment by the sword.

THE CHALLENGED:  As the Power permits, I accept that judgment.

THE LORD OF THE HOUSE:  So be it. You have demanded judgment. I call the Folk to witness.

Both come forward and lay sheathed swords on the Altar.

You have renounced your House,
   You have abandoned the Folk,
   Naked at the water's edge
   You will find judgment.
   Take then the sword.

They draw the swords, leaving the sheaths on the Altar.

There is yet time.

THE CHALLENGER:  If my cause be unjust, I renounce Their protection.

If my cause be unjust, I renounce Their protection.

So be it.
   Naked at the water's edge
   Seek judgment by the sword,
   But should you then prevail,
   Well that your cause indeed be just
   Before you face the judgment of the Beast.

From the Book of Ritual.

The tavern to which K'Ateros had directed them was some distance from the old keep which hid the exit from the tunnel.  T'Avenda tried to hurry the Lady Lin as much as he dared. The dockside was notorious for those (and their numbers seemed to be growing) who were at least to some extent immune to the conditioning that kept the rest of the Folk content in their Houses.  Most of these had not the intelligence or the will to use the chance to carve a career, as K'Ateros himself had done. Provided their activities did not become too public, they were left alone. Some of the nobility found it useful to have access to men who had few scruples and no loyalties. The best of them were the Traders.

Officially the alien worlds within the boundaries of the Empire were left strictly to themselves; unofficially a brisk commerce had developed in the last century. The imports ranged from the fur of which the Lady Lin's costume had been made, to the aliens themselves. These last were still not permitted within the city, but despite the opposition of the Church, it had gradually become accepted that, provided they were confined within the Lower Delta, they might be tolerated.

T'Avenda would have been very happy to burn the lot out; he did not approve of the modern laxity of morals. He particularly disapproved just now. He was very conscious of his responsibility and had taken to starting at shadows, to the annoyance of A'Lin.

"Beast take you, 'Venda, stop pulling at me." she protested.

"Be quiet," whispered T'Avenda fiercely and, gripping her arm, held her still while he listened for a repetition of the noise he had just heard. He loosened his sword in its scabbard, and feeling the mini-pistol in its shoulder holster hampering his sword arm, hurriedly unstrapped it and handed it to A'Lin. She took it without a word; she too had heard the quick footsteps behind them on the rough concrete paving of the street.

The night was clouded, hiding the stars and the Roamer, and the only light was that squeezing around the edges of windows. Since these were all high on the old buildings of the district, the street below remained dark. A'Lin saw nothing until the rush came, with three shapes leaping out of the shadows, and then the scrape and clatter of steel as T'Avenda swept two blades away with his sword and deftly turned another with his dagger, twisting his body to escape the thrust. He lunged in a continuation of his movement and there was a gurgling moan as one of the attackers slumped, but the other two were on him again, one on either side, and he was being driven back.

The noise must have aroused the house opposite, for the shade over one of the windows was lifted and a beam of light fell on the struggling group. The Lady Lin moved quickly to one side, eased off the safety catch, set the pistol to single fire, and very deliberately shot three times, the last into the man already on the ground.

T'Avenda whirled around in horror. "The Power protect us, Lady, what are you thinking of? Give me the gun quick."

She did so without protest, merely commenting, "You may not object to getting your throat cut, I do."

T'Avenda was hustling her on, struggling to get the holster back inside his blouse.

"Did you see who that was when your sword went in?"

"I was too busy," muttered T'Avenda.

"Well, I wasn't. It was Ka Lars. Well?" She was impatient. "Do you see now?"

T'Avenda did not want to see anything except the Tavern of the Lost Ships, and that very quickly before the Guard was warned that a gun had been used in the city.

"How did he know where to find you? If he knew that, he must have known that I was with you yet he still came on. He must have intended to kill me too, me!"

She had realized this when she shot them, but now that she had put it into words she was shocked. An Emperor and three male Heirs-Designate had died by assassination or in ritual combat; a female Heir-Designate was inviolate - by law, by custom, and by religion.

T'Avenda was shocked too, but more by the use of a gun than by the implications of what she had said. The gun was illegal and unworthy, but he understood it; the rest was beyond understanding. He imagined vaguely that she must be mistaken and dismissed it from his mind. They were coming into a more frequented district now and the streets were better lit, but the passersby paid little attention to them. A'Lin had taken the precaution of dressing in the sleeveless belted tunic that was used by girls of all classes for work or strenuous play, and although her dark beauty (even in the dim light) drew glances from some of the men, none showed more than the normal interest in a pretty girl. Nevertheless, T'Avenda was relieved when they turned a corner and saw the tavern facing them.

It was a very old building but the lower storeys, originally open, were now closed in by glass walls between the massive stone-faced pillars, and it was a blaze of light. T'Avenda hesitated before crossing the exposed square in front of it, and as he did, a figure emerged from a shadowed archway beside them. T'Avenda turned quickly with his hand on the hilt of his sword and the man stepped hastily back.

"Easy, easy, my lord. Aren't three bodies enough for one night? Greedy, that's what you are."  He looked at the Lady Lin in frank admiration. "And aren't you the one? Bang, bang, dead, dead, and another smash into the little feller just to be sure. Hii-Yi!"

He was a huge bear of a man, the back muscles humping up the loose tunic which hung open to the waist. He seemed to have no neck, and the rusty coils of his beard merged with the mat covering his chest and belly, and curling over his belt, which had a heavy Trader's knife stuck carelessly through it. The Lady Lin returned his look just as frankly but with a good deal of suspicion.

"Who are you? Why were you following us?" She moved casually to the side to avoid obstructing T'Avenda's sword arm and the man moved just as casually with her, breaking into enormous chuckles.

"I'm a Trader, Lady, and so should you be. But I don't trust that young lord not to lose his head, so with the Lady's permission we'll just stay as we were. I followed the pair of you from the old keep, having been sent by a certain feller to meet you. But I'm a mite slow and careful like, and very glad of it when I saw you out with your little popgun and go bang bang bang just as if there wasn't a Guard in the city. Hii Yi! I'll tell you I gave you plenty of room to maneuver from then on. At that, Lady, I'm not sure you would do for the Traders, you're not near careful enough."

The Lady Lin began to laugh, as much at T'Avenda's scandalized expression as at the giant's effrontery.

"Well, you'd better take us to your feller now, we've wasted enough time. I hope we don't have to cross that square."

The Trader was shocked. "Through those lights, with you and your popgun? Not for all the furs in Siberia. I know a better way than that, certain, if I can trust you to keep that young feller from sticking me with only my ass watching.'  He did not seem too worried by the possibility as he turned into the archway, with A'Lin close behind him. T'Avenda had previously encountered Traders and drew out his dagger before following with all his senses stretched.

They went through a door in the archway and along a corridor that twisted, and then ramped down in pitch darkness until they were stopped by the Trader's forced murmur, "Close up. careful, spiral stair."  A'Lin guessed that they had reached the one of the pillars of the tavern whose hollow core was an escape route from the upper floor; a relic of the days when Sea Beast raids were heavy enough and frequent enough that every building on the coast was designed as a keep. They emerged into a brightly lit room that set them blinking. K'Ateros was alone sitting at a table in the corner with papers in his hand. He stood as they entered, and looked at the Trader with a question in his eyes.

"The Pimp's standing watch," he said and, nodding at the other two, "Trouble," he added and chuckled. "Bang bang bang just like that and walking off easy as you please."

The Lady Lin went over to a low padded chair and threw herself down, her hands resting lightly on the arms. "Yes, trouble, K'Ateros." She was watching him intently. "We were followed from the old keep by three men, Ka Lars was one of them." K'Ateros was startled into an exclamation. "How did they know where to find us, K'Ateros?" She glanced back at the door.

T'Avenda had moved so that he had a clear view of both K'Ateros and the Trader, who was watching him with interest. She had lagged enough in the tunnel to whisper instructions to T'Avenda. She was still confused and in shock from the attack, and uncertain whom she could trust.

"Well, K'Ateros?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. A micro pick-up, a spy cell, something of the sort, though I would not have thought they would have risked it to get a conversation with a junior Lieutenant of the Guard which was why I selected him."  He smiled slightly at T'Avenda. "One reason why I selected him," he amended, and was amused when the boy flushed.

He looked back at the Lady Lin. "If I remember correctly, you said that you trusted me. But of course that was this afternoon."

It was her turn to flush. Her suspicions seemed petty now though she resented his ability to play upon her feelings. But he was right of course. If the risks were taken no conversation could be private with the devices available. It just had never occurred to her that anyone would dare to use them in the Palace.

"But why should Ka Lars wish to kill me? He is - was - Traditionalist as I am." She stopped. She did not relish what she was going to say. "Ka Sant has asked me if I would accept him as father of the next Heirs. I did not say I would but I did not say I would not." She looked at K'Ateros with something like appeal in her eyes. "The Tetrarch wishes it and it would strengthen the Party. Ka Sant could not wish my death now."

K'Ateros had sat down again at the table. "I know he does not."  He pushed the papers with his fingers. "And if he had, he would not have left the execution to Ka Lars and he would not have bungled it. No, I think this was all Ka Lars and I think it was T'Avenda only in whom he was interested."  He looked up and spoke with certainty. "I am sure of it. Ka Lars doing his lover a favor by cutting T'Avenda's throat. Yes, that is it, that is all of it."

The Lady Lin was wondering why it had not occurred to her as a possibility. She had not been completely honest when she implied that she would have taken Ka Sant only for the good of the Party. It was true that she distrusted him, but she also knew with a sick certainty that she had been jealous of Ka Lars. She sat back in her chair, and rubbed both hands up over her eyes, and down behind her head, catching her sleek hair and pulling her head back in a gesture that she did not know reminded K'Ateros of a beloved child, who had been naughty and was sorry, and although she deserved it would prefer not to be punished. His mouth twitched in an involuntary smile as she looked up and said, "Well, what now?"

K'Ateros looked at the Trader and repeated the question. "What now, Miro?"

Miro wagged his shaggy head back and forth. "There hasn't been a gun killing in the city for ten years. Last time the Guard gassed out every hidey-hole from the Keep to the sea, and left twenty odd bodies hanging on the Sea-Wall before they got bored. If one of those three was a noble - Hii-Yi! - I'd take my boys down to the ship and go a-trading again if there was any way now I might get a pass through the Delta Zone Guard, and maybe a priority clearance for lift and shift. Not that I've got a guilty conscience, you understand, not like this young feller who's been squirming about like his little popgun has been chawing at him. Still and all some of my boys might just have got into bad company, you know how it is."  His bright little eyes were intent on K'Ateros as he rambled on. He had his own urgent reasons for wanting his ship off-planet now.

They waited for K'Ateros to speak, and at last he looked up. "I can give you your pass and your clearance, Miro, but I expect Trader's value in return."

Miro sighed gustily. "Aye, I thought you just might," he said with resignation.

K'Ateros took from an inner pocket a slim silver case that opened out in his hands. Very carefully, he moved the fingers of his left hand over the inner surface in a complicated pattern, spoke a few words, and again manipulated the surface. A metal disc slipped into his palm and he tossed it to Miro. "That will get you into the Delta. How long before you're ready to lift?"

Miro caught the disc, spun it in the air, and slid it into a pocket. "Half of an hour, no more." He grinned through his beard. "I told the Pimp to call the ship to start warm up soon as I got here."

K'Ateros nodded. "How long do you dare risk waiting?"

"If the Guard do it like last time, it'll be morning before they close their net around here, but they'll have spinners covering every bolt-hole long before that. One hour and I'm off, and those that aren't with me will just have to take their chances. Trader's luck!"

He said the last with emphasis and K'Ateros nodded again. "Very well," he agreed, "I'll get you clearance past the satellite stations as soon as I can reach Lower Delta guard post."  He continued over Miro's vociferous objections, "There will be no difficulty, I promise you. You had better go down now and wait in the Tavern, and take the Lieutenant with you."

"Not with him still wearing that gun I don't," said Miro positively.

T'Avenda looked at the Lady Lin for orders and she nodded. "Yes, go with him, Avenda." She managed to smile at him. "And thank you. You should not have been involved in this. K'Ateros will see that you are not blamed."

T'Avenda bowed deeply to her. "I have been honored, Lady," he said, and she knew he meant it, and was heartened. He pulled off the gun and holster and followed the Trader out.

"And what of me K'Ateros? Have you any orders for me?" She had recovered enough to remember that this was after all his fault, and her tone was irritable. "I take it I will not be able easily to get back to the Palace tonight if the Guard is out."

"No," agreed K'Ateros, "and your name already being coupled with Ka Lars makes matters somewhat difficult. When I spoke to you earlier, I intended only to explain the matters to be brought before the council, and to show you - something - that you should now know. But I discovered at my interview with the Emperor that he and the Tetrarch know of matters which I had hoped they did not, matters concerning your brother."

He had all her attention now. 'Also that the Emperor had already heard of your - fancy dress - and was very much displeased. However, the Tetrarch was convinced that it was merely youthful thoughtlessness. He had been assured by Ka Sant that your intentions were honorable; otherwise that dutiful son of the Church would not have allowed himself to be overpersuaded; and to sum up a long sermon, he felt that you were not yet so sunk in iniquity that by some unexplained means, having children by Ka Sant would not be your salvation."

A'Lin's naturally pale complexion had changed to a dead white and two angry blotches of red burned on her cheeks. "How dare he, how dare he!" Her voice trembled with rage. "If my mother were alive she would have had him whipped from the Palace, Tetrarch or not."

"Undoubtedly," agreed K'Ateros, "I once had to restrain her from it on less provocation. However, it is your uncle who is Emperor and he was inclined to agree with the Tetrarch. It is a pity that neither you nor your brother have tried very hard to conceal your contempt for His Graciousness the Ruler of the Nine Worlds."

A'Lin shot him a stormy glance. "As you conceal it K'Ateros?"

"As I conceal it," K'Ateros agreed equably. "You are of the Tetrarch's party, but would you trust him with the policies of the Empire? If I lost the Emperor's favor, who would fill my place?"

"My brother -" K'Ateros cut her short.

"As things are, your brother seems likely to be banished, if he is lucky. Should you get your old ways back quickly enough, he might even find himself at the water's edge, naked and swordless."

A'Lin looked at him in disbelief. "That is foolish. I know the Emperor likes him no better than Tal'A likes the Emperor but the High Houses would never consent to the Ritual Execution of an Heir."

"These are not the days of Haris bin Mata, Lady," said K'Ateros impatiently. "It is not the High Houses on the one side and the Church on the other with the Emperor holding the scales. All but a few are already aligned with the Traditionalist Party and the Church, and but for me the Emperor would have gone over to them in public as he already has in private. What if they were to learn that your brother has become the leader of the Humanist Party, and with his usual commendable energy is busily plotting treason?"

"Tal'A?" A'Lin was incredulous. "With that rag-bag of little nobles and government clerks? He would not be such a fool."

"Oh, he is not a fool, far from it." K'Ateros was very definite. "It is those little nobles and government clerks who run the Empire, while the High Houses maneuver and intrigue for the shadow of power. It is true that they would not, indeed they could not, plot against the Emperor and Church whatever the provocation, but they would be very pleased indeed to follow another Emperor who agreed with their policies."

His calm assurance was convincing. A'Lin had been shaken by the day's events. She and her brother had been very close, though kept apart in the last few years by her schooling and their duties, and her opinions were always colored by the attitudes of people she admired. This last revelation left her stunned, but for the moment fear for Tal'A's safety was uppermost in her mind, and she could only look at K'Ateros with a question in her eyes.

He was looking at her searchingly, but what he saw seemed to satisfy him. "I knew you and your brother were very close. I was not sure how close you still were or whether you were now tied to the Church more closely."  He was well aware of the confusion of her feelings. "There is no time now to explain all, but -," he paused to ensure that he had her complete attention, "On my honor as an Armsbearer my aims and your brother's are not in conflict with your own."

This was the first time he had linked himself with Ka Tal, and A'Lin was not too confused to notice it. He went on, "It is only on the means by which those aims are to be achieved that we might differ. Meanwhile, you would now be safer and of more value to your brother out of the Emperor's reach for a few weeks. I am sending Miro to carry a message to the Fleet, will you go with him?"

He saw her hands tighten on the arms of the chair as she sat with bent head. Then she looked up and held his eyes with her own. "Do you promise, on your honor, that you intend no harm to Tal'A, that my going will not harm him?"

"My first duty is to the Empire, as is yours. I believe the Empire would be best served at this time by another Emperor." Still looking at her full in the eyes, he came closer and put his hands over hers. "On my honor I wish no harm to either you or Ka Tal. I would risk much, very much, to prevent it."

She sat unmoving for a long moment, and then suddenly turned her hands under his, and holding them pulled herself to her feet and laughed. "Very well, K'Ateros. Can you trust that pirate?"

He held her hands tightly, and then bowed very deeply over them. "Not completely, but I will trust you to handle him." He looked at her brief dress with some doubt. "Do you think that you can conceal the pistol anywhere in that? I don't think you will need it, but to be honest, I am like Miro in that I would be happier to be rid of it."

She laughed again. Now that a decision had been taken, she was able to throw off all the doubts and uncertainties that had been plaguing her for the past year and was entering the adventure lightheartedly. "I can find a place for it. But can I go past the Zone Guard like this? What if the officer has been on duty at the Palace and recognizes me?"

"The Traders carry their women with them. You will not be conspicuous and you may rely on Miro to arrange matters so that there will be no hitch." He laughed. "I wonder what he has on board that makes him so anxious to get clear of the Guard." He went back to the table and took up another disc like the one he had given to Miro. "That is for your brother. It is more dangerous even than the gun. I must go now if I am to get the ship clearance in time. When you are ready, you will find Miro at the bottom of the stairs. Good luck, Lady, The Grace be with you."

He had reached the door when she called after him. "One thing, K'Ateros." When he looked back, she had one foot on the chair, and was using the fabric belt of her tunic to strap the gun high on the inside of her thigh. "You must see that T'Avenda does not get into trouble because of this."

K'Ateros shook his head. "His tongue has already got him into trouble, and I have no influence over Ka Sant. Oh, very well, very well, I will do what I can - if I am not hanging on the sea wall beside him before morning."

    Folk in Houses dream content
    Fat sheep, fast asleep,
    One of these days we'll collect our rent
    Then you'll weep, fat sheep
    Traders' knives to prick your butts
    Traders' prods to rape your sluts
    Sad sheep

    The noble walks with his head in the air
    Jewels and gilt, head to hilt
    One of these days we'll take your dare
    Your guts'll be spilt, head to hilt
    Hung by the heels on a hook from the Wall
    The Traders will laugh as they share out all
    Your jewels and gilt

    The Armsbearer kicks us out of the way
    Wolf's head, soon be dead
    One of these days we'll watch him pay
    Beast'll be fed on wolf's head
    While the Traders sit in space and watch
    The Beast'll come out of the sea and catch
    Wolf's head.

    Trader's Song----Traditional

"Lady, be reasonable!" Miro was almost tearful in his earnestness. "Trader's value is one thing, but bringing the cargo I've got into the middle of the Fleet. Hii-Yi! The Lord K'Ateros, now he's a reasonable man, he wouldn't have expected me to do that." He looked at the Lady Lin suspiciously.

"Nevertheless he does expect you to do it, and more to the point I expect you to do it, and I am beginning to be bored with your arguments." She was imperious but the Trader was not impressed.

"Well now, if we were back on Tios, I'd be a bit worried by that maybe, but we're not, we're in deep space and I've got clearance for Shift, and maybe I'd be better off holing up on Siberia for a while and taking my chances with K'Ateros when I come back."

There was an unanimous murmur of agreement from the other three in the control room, who were, A'Lin had gathered, the equivalent of officers in the loose Trader organization. One was the youth called Pimp, which apparently referred to the mosaic of purple red blotches erupting over his face and neck. An older, slackly handsome man, who had been eyeing her in a way she did not much like, was second-in-command to Miro, and the third was a very blonde young woman with a freakishly over-developed bust, at which A'Lin had stared with outrage and some envy.

They had reached the ship without difficulty; Miro's own influence seemed to be considerable. The pass had not been needed except at the last guard post into the Delta, and although the officer on duty there had made a ribald comment on the Trader's eagerness to get out of the city, he had made no attempt to check or search the party. Quite illogically, this had aroused A'Lin's hot indignation.

Once on board, Miro had shown her to a small but well appointed cabin, and indicated politely but firmly that he expected her to stay there. He and his crew had much to do and distractions were not desirable. She had not demurred; she herself had much to think about. Meals, surprisingly good - the Traders appeared to live luxuriously - were brought by a skinny squinting boy who returned only a gap-toothed grin to her attempts at conversation.

Miro visited her twice; once to inform her that they were in orbit and waiting for Shift clearance and then a few hours later to discuss their destination, beginning an argument that had moved to the control room, but still reached no conclusions. Miro had made up his mind. "Pimp, rig the Shift for Siberia." The youth, whose limbs gave the appearance of being in a state of continually interrupted motion, slid with a sign of relief into the chair at the control console, and his long fingers began to stutter over the keys.

"Now look, Lady," the Trader was apologetic, "You think this through reasonably, now you couldn't really expect us to go looking for a quick execution, and that's what we'd all get sure if one of those nosy young Fleet officers had a glimmer of what we are carrying."

He became huskily confidential. "Now I wouldn't want you to think bad of the Traders, and I'll give value for value, that I promise you, but not this trip, not with a cargo-hold full of Dreamers." There was a cry of protest from the woman, but it was cut short, and A'Lin caught the meaning glance with which the mate silenced her, and her slow smile of comprehension as she relaxed.

"I don't understand." She tried, it was not difficult, to show confusion and dawning fear. What Dreamers were, she had no idea, but it was easy enough to guess what the mate had in mind for her. Of Miro himself she was not sure, but she had no intention of depending only upon the Traders' reputation for keeping a bargain. "You know who I am, and what will happen to you if I am not returned safely." She took a step backwards, and spoke in a rush. "I shall go to my cabin now until you come to your senses." She felt the door at her back, and reached behind her for the latch.

Miro turned from directing a quelling glance at the others. "Yes, that's it, Lady, that's what you do." He was looking at her in relief but a little puzzlement. "We're all going to be busy while we Shift, we'll talk it over afterwards, you'll see, it'll be allright, I promise." The mate had moved forward but stopped again when he received no orders from Miro, who was studying her doubtfully.

"Very well." She was opening the door. "I - I shall forget this providing you show me proper respect in future." She turned regally and went out, hearing as the door closed a buzz of talk that was cut off by a growl from Miro.

Luckily the corridor was empty. She stepped to one side of the door and with fingers that she noted with disgust trembled a little, unwrapped the few turns of fabric that held the gun against her thigh. Leaving the ends hanging, she threw open the door and stepped back into the control room. The mate was only a few steps away, moving towards the door with his head turned arguing hotly with Miro, and when he looked around at the interruption, his jaw dropped in astonishment. In a purely reflex movement he reached for her.

With a good deal of satisfaction she picked a spot between his eyes and saw the tiny hole appear magically before he fell forward at her feet, his face crunching on the metal floor a fraction of a second before his loose arms hit and bounced. The woman screeched, but stiffened into shocked immobility as she stared with wide eyes at the body on the floor, and then at the gun in A'Lin's hand.

"Yes, stay just like that." She was speaking to the woman but watching Miro. "Do you know, my dear, from this position I could put one slug through both of those ridiculous breasts? If you move a muscle, I will." The woman moaned and shuddered convulsively.

Miro was looking at the Lady Lin with a peculiar expression in his eyes. "If you take my advice, you'll do as she says. You too, Pimp. I thought I'd seen the last of that little popgun." He noticed the loose end of fabric trailing down her leg. "So that's where you had it. Hii - Yi! I said you should be a Trader, didn't I?"

"You did." A'Lin could afford to be cordial, she was very pleased with herself. "But if I were a Trader I'd keep my bargains. You're an entertaining rascal, Miro, and I might have been inclined to let you live if you hadn't sent that after me." She kicked one of the sprawling arms out of the way, and moved carefully to one side, so that the door was in her view.

Miro looked with indifference at the body. "If you hadn't killed him I would. I keep my bargains as best I'm able nor I'm not tom-fool enough to think I could show my face on Tios again without you. I know who are, Lady." He stopped as the movement of her thumb on the catch caught his eye and for the first time she saw him taken aback. "Beast get me, easy, Lady, easy."

She had moved the gun so that it was pointed at the control panel. "What do you think would happen, Miro, now that this is on automatic, if I pressed the trigger?"

The Pimp, who had been stealing quick glances over his shoulder, though his fingers still responded instinctively to the information he received from the board, let out a whinny of sheer terror. The Trader licked his suddenly dry lips. "Well now if the Bubble was started?" He shot a glance at the Pimp, but that youth's twitching body was eloquent enough, without the confirmation forced out through his chattering teeth.

Miro swallowed with difficulty. Shift-space travel within the Empire's limits was a matter almost of routine now. Although the 'beacons' of Shift-space, sources of such energy that they could be sensed within the Bubble and used for navigation, were not fixed in relative position, change was very gradual, and empirical corrections could be made. Still, ships occasionally went into Shift-space and did not come out. Bursting the bubble was the traveler's nightmare, and the unknown terrified Miro as no physical danger could have done.

"Lady, you don't know what you're doing. If your finger slipped -. Point it somewhere else at least," he begged, beads of perspiration on his forehead.

The Lady Lin who had not been exposed to the mythology of Shift-space that had developed among the Traders was amused and rather scornful at the effect of her threat. Her question had not been rhetorical. She did not know what would have happened if she had executed it. The control board looked vulnerable, and she had not wanted Miro to realize that she had no idea of what to do next.

At this point in her train of thought, the door began to open, until it was blocked by the body on the floor behind it. She steadied her aim on the control board, and said in a low, warning voice, "Miro!" He was pale under his ruddy tan. He had realized that she did not know what was involved in her threat, and he knew her well enough by now to be sure that she would act without hesitation and, he decided with despair, without wasting any time on thinking either.

The only one in the room in a position to see through the partly open door was the Pimp, and after one look "It's the Fisherman," cried that overwrought youth and dropped his head among the computer keys and wept.

"Lady." It was Miro speaking in a strained voice, "Lady, don't shoot." He had one eye on the door being eased slowly open past the body. "I'll take you to the Fleet, anything, but don't shoot. It's only the Fisherman."

For a moment A'Lin was caught up in her own mythology. The Fisherman had been the prophet of the Grace, and had written the Books, and had died seven hundred years before in the watch-tower of the Old Palace. Then she shook her head briskly, and said, "I won't shoot, not yet. Come in, Fisherman."

The fishermen of Tios were somewhat different to what was meant by that on other worlds. The seas on Tios were the domain of the Beast and those who went on the seas were just as likely to be caught as to catch. But there were always some who had an inner compulsion which led them to risk their lives - and their souls - in the enterprise. Even in modern times there were still a few men who carried on the trade in the old way; they were surreptitiously worshipped by the Commonfolk, and pointedly ignored by the Church.

A'Lin had realized that he must be one of them. She watched the opening door with curiosity, she had never seen a Fisherman. In the pseudo-historical teledramas they had become typified as tall, saintly men with long white beards - but then so had the Emperors and if one portrait was as far from truth as the other - she suppressed a smile as she waited, keeping one eye on Miro.

Her first impression was one of astonishment; he was tall and white bearded and saintly. Then she saw that the white was a dirty gray; though once he had been taller and almost as broad as Miro, his skin now hung loosely on a frame bent and twisted by the rough healing of dreadful wounds; and his eyes were a milky white with no discernible pupils, very cold and very mad.

He stopped just inside the door and took in the tableau with a slow glance. It rested on A'Lin for a moment before dropping to the body of the mate, then he lifted his terrible eyes and looked at Miro. "Trader's value, Miro?" His voice was mild, and shaky with extreme old age, but Miro visibly wilted. Then he looked back at A'Lin and stretched out his hand. "Give me that, Lin Te Haris, Kepala Sond, Putang bin Mata, it is not fitting for the Daughter of the House."

She was so surprised to hear him address her by the archaic titles of her centuries dead ancestress, and his calm certainty was so impressive, that she almost put the gun in his hand; then her heavy brows drew together, and she stepped back and raised the wavering barrel.

The Fisherman did not move, but stood waiting with his hand outstretched. "You need not fear, Miro will take you where you order him. Is that not so, Miro?" His tone was unchanged, but Miro, who had been looking obstinate, stifled the words he had been about to speak and threw up his hands.

"As you say, as you say." He looked imploringly at A'Lin. "Lady, I would have kept my bargain, you would have been safe, but you can't blame me for not wanting to shove my neck under the sword. Now, the Pimp will have to clear the board before he changes the Shift coordinates for Earth and the Fleet, but just as soon as we can we'll go, and maybe when we get there you could put in a word for me and keep the Fleet out of my way? And forget what I've got down in the hold?"

She hesitated. He was convincing in his earnestness, and she really had no alternative except to trust him. It was just that instinctively she resisted anyone who tried to influence her by force of personality, even K'Ateros. She had felt the power of the Fisherman and resented it, but she was mollified to realize that Miro felt it even more strongly.

The Fishermen still had not moved and now he spoke again. "Muprimah," he was speaking to the woman who was standing with her back to him in her strained post, frozen by A'Lin's threat. "Escort the Lady to the women's quarters and see that she is given clothing more suitable to the Daughter of the House." Muprimah was torn between her awe of the old man and her terror of A'Lin and rolled her eyes frantically.

A'Lin, who had forgotten her, looked over and began to laugh. "Very well, Miro, perhaps I have done you and your crew enough damage." She slid on the safety catch and dropped the gun carelessly into the Fisherman's outstretched hand. "There, does that make you feel better?"

Miro took a deep breath and exhaled noisily. "Yes, Lady, it does," he admitted without resentment. "I've been in tight spots from Glen Athol to Gathol Aku, but I have never sweated like you made me sweat. I'll take you to the Fleet. I'd take you to the Great Hive itself if it would get you off my ship quicker." He stopped on his way to the control board to prod Muprimah with his toe. She had slumped against the bulkhead and slid down it to the floor. "Get up and do as the Fisherman bids, you're not hurt. Maybe that'll teach you to be so proud of them tits of yours. Pity the Lady didn't put a slug through them, I might have less quarrels to mend down in quarters."

He saw that the Pimp was sitting upright, the nervous energy that jerked him spasmodically again concentrated in his busy fingers, though he was weeping silently. "Pity you didn't shoot the lot of them," he said in disgust. "How's a man going to make a profit if he has to use dock scraps like that?" He turned and spoke with bravado ostensibly to A'Lin. "Now, if you'll all get out of here, maybe I can get this place tidied up and shipshape and get us shifted when the Pimp calms down a bit. As it is I wouldn't trust him to set a course between the Tavern and the Delta."  A'Lin listened with amusement as he talked himself back into confidence. She did not know why he stood in such awe of the Fisherman, but she approved of his reaction into belligerence. It was close enough to her own instincts that she understood it.

He was a new breed to her. The Commonfolk she treated with courtesy always. It was her duty as a noble to put their safety, and even their comfort before her own. If he had been an Armsbearer she would have expected instant submission to her wishes even at the risk of death; that would have been no more than his duty. As it was, she did not know how to take him. She was surprised to find herself liking him and decided she would see to it that he did not receive his probably just deserts when they reached the Fleet, though she might make him sweat a little more first. She turned to the Fisherman, and despite a small shiver in her stomach, held the desolate wastes of his eyes with her own, until, it seemed an eternity later, he stepped away from the door and bent forward with an effort. She waited until he straightened, and then bowed her own head in acknowledgment of the courtesy and went out of the room, Muprimah following at a safe distance.

Chapter 1: The Palace Chapter 2: The Outfleet Chapter 3: The Trader
Chapter 4: Shift Space Chapter 5: The Imperial Fleet