THE LORD OF THE HOUSE:
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.
THE LORD OF THE HOUSE:
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.
THE LORD OF THE HOUSE: There is yet time.
THE CHALLENGER: If my cause be
unjust, I renounce Their protection.
THE CHALLENGED: If my cause be unjust, I renounce Their
THE LORD OF THE HOUSE:
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.
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."
"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.
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."
hustling her on, struggling to get the holster back inside his blouse.
"Did you see who that was when your sword went
"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
"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
"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
"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
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.
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
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
"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
"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."
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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."
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.
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,
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 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.
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,
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
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
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.