Authors: Jo; Clayton
EARLY BIRD BOOKS
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“Still raining?” Stavver ducked into the lock and knelt beside her, eyes on the rain which fell in a depressing, grey curtain.
Aleytys brushed her hands over her black-dyed hair, breaking up the clinging drops of mist that had drifted in from the rain, then glanced briefly at the moisture beaded on her forearms. “Not a break yet.”
“Maissa will be spitting like a cat. She hates getting wet.”
“I can't get the feel of her.” She waited for a response. “Sometimes she actually frightens me.” More silence. “So much anger â¦” Still no answer. Flicking a hand upwards, she said, “What about up there?”
“A Karkesh skimmer went by a minute ago. Still no sign they know we're here.” He relaxed against the far side of the lock and smiled at her. “You don't look like yourself.”
Aleytys glanced down at her altered body. Her breasts were bare, except for pale blue tattoos of butterflies fluttering in a line to her shoulders. A wide coarsely woven batik, printed in pale blue, wound twice around her hips and pinned with a silver wire brooch. Her skin was darkened to a warm russet. “Each time I look in a mirror I get a shock.” She ran her eyes over him, assessing his changes as well: white hair dyed black, pale blue eyes now deep brown, skin dyed darker than her own, finally, the bold blue lines of tattooing on face, arms, and shoulders. “Each time I look at you â¦” She chuckled. “I woke up last night and nearly had a fit when I saw the stranger in my bed.” She yawned and stretched. “What about you, Miks?”
“Standard tactic in my profession, Leyta.”
“Well I haven't your vast experience with all this changing about. This is only the third world I've seen and Maissa wouldn't let me off ship to see more than a snatch of the place where we picked up Kale.”
He wrapped his fingers around her ankle and waggled her foot back and forth, ignoring her protests. “Poor, innocent, little mountain girl.” He chuckled. “I've seen you in action.”
“That wasn't me, idiot. Let go.” She pulled her foot free and feinted a kick at him. “You of all peopleâyou should remember the diadem. You stole it.” She touched her head and made a face at him when the faint chime sang through the hiss of the downpour outside. “It's let me alone since we left Jaydugar, thank the Madar.”
The grin on his face dissolved. He got onto his knees and leaned across her to stare at the ceaseless, dreary rain. “Damn this weather. We've got things to do.”
Aleytys watched him settle back, arms circling his knees, face pulled into a brooding frown. The pervading, dull hiss of the falling water pounded on the sensitivity which made him a brilliant thief and was also his major flaw. A quiet tension quivered in the beaded air while she waited silently for the return of the sardonic mask he used to hide this weakness from the world's malevolent eyes. She studied him, sensing a peculiar unease; curious because she could discover nothing in their present circumstances to justify his anxiety. Feeling about to find what was troubling him, she voiced a thought that lay like a wrinkle under the surface.
“Are we really supposed to fool anyone into thinking we're natives of this soggy â¦?” She shrugged and jerked a thumb out the lock where the rain had begun to thin. Ghost images of several trees were developing in the greyness.
Stavver blinked slowly and lifted his head, the somber frown flowing into blandness. “Maissa explained all that.”
“I still don't believe we'd convince a blind baby we belong.”
Stroking the darkened skin beside the jutting beak of his nose, Stavver said patiently, “People see what they expect. Would the nomads on Jaydugar know Maissa wasn't a caravanner?”
Aleytys rubbed her shoulders against the ridged metal of the ship, frowning thoughtfully. “Isn't this different? You said there aren't as many physical types on this world as we had at home.”
“You're the key, Leyta. If they accept you as genuineâand why shouldn't they, aren't you a genuine healer?âyou cover any slips we make. You're to be gikena, healer and worker of small miracles. We're merely humble nonentities attached to your service.” He dipped his head in a servile bow. “Who would look twice at us?”
“It only takes one. The right one.”
“So we're all from across the sea. Strangers. That should explain any oddities. If the natives accept us, the Karkiskya certainly will. From what Kale told us, his people have very little contact with them.” He grinned at her. “Kale says you've got the language down better than any of us.”
Aleytys heard the dry note in his voice and turned her face away. “One of my talents.”
Outside, the rain was only a trickle of wetness, the shimmering, orange circle of the sun visible through the thinning clouds as it hesitated just above the western horizon. Swinging around so her legs hung out the lock, she gazed thoughtfully at the dark, steaming earth with its thin patches of short, prickly grass, debating whether to say what she had to say or leave it till Maissa returned. She walked her fingertips over the heavy, batik material, drawing a measure of reassurance from the familiar feel of herself. “Maissa puzzles me,” she said slowly.
Stavver's long back was curved into a section of lock-side, while his thin, wiry legs stretched out over the black, rubberoid flooring. He ran lazy eyes over her body, the smiling mask back on his face again. “No doubt.”
“My skin crawls when she's around you or Kale.” She waited for an answer. When he stared past her out the lock, saying nothing, she gave an impatient exclamation. “Dammit, Miks, this isn't idle chatting.”
“She doesn't like men,” he said reluctantly. “I don't want to talk about her, Leyta.”
“I guessed that,” she said dryly. “All men?”
“And you said she hates getting wet?”
“Mmmhh.” Aleytys slicked the mist off her knees and stared thoughtfully at the rain pools below. Silence spread through the lock, vibrating tensely against the irregular pattering of the breaking rain. The warm, humid air made their lungs labor and their nerves tighten but neither made a gesture toward the more temperate atmosphere of the ship. The shadows of the grey half-light deepened their facial lines and occluded their eyes, obscuring expression and giving a somber harshness to both faces.
“She's due back about sundown. How long is that from now?”
“The 'phemer lists the day length as nineteen hours. That leaves her about two to play with.”
“She went to get caravans with horses. She didn't say how she planned to acquire them. Do you know, Miks?”
“What difference does it make?” His mouth tightened repressively. “Let's not discuss it, Leyta.”
She glanced around at him, eyes moving over his curved shoulders and forbidding face. “Why not?”
“You won't like the answer.”
Aleytys reached back and set her hand on his leg, feeling the hardness of the long, wiry muscles in his calf. “She's a killer?”
He nodded. “It's how she gets her kicks.”
“You called her to us.”
“You remember how close we came to getting snatched by the Rmoahl Hounds? She was the only one I could reach that day.”
“I'm not blaming you, Miks. But I also have to remember the price we pay for her help. Stealing the treasures of the Karkiskya for her. I don't like being a part of slaughtering the innocent.”
“The Karkiskya are far from innocent.” The next words came out slowly, painfully. “Keep clear of Maissa. Don't question what she does; do what she says, don't get underfoot, and you'll stay alive.”
“If she's so dangerousâ”
“Leyta, believe me, Maissa in a fury is capable of anything.”
“Am I so helpless? Even without the diadem I crossed a world alone and pregnant.”
“Aleytys, my Lee, my innocent, healthy-souled mountain girlâyou'll never understand Maissa. Never. To know her you'd have to walk in her shoes, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone.” He sighed and moved to sit beside her, his long legs dangling out the lock. “She was born on Iblis. Her mother was a two-obol whore on Star Street in Shaol. Her fatherâwho knows?” He stared gloomily at his bare feet. “She was raised to the infant trade. Knifed her mother when she was seven and took to the streets.”
“Knifed her mother?” Aleytys felt a sick horror clutch at her stomach.
“Her mother. The woman who rented her child to anybody who'd give her the price of a drink. Maissa was two years old the first time.”
“Madar.” Aleytys shut her eyes, a sour taste in her mouth. “Two years old.”
Stavver shifted slightly, his skin squeaking across the metal. “Right. Since thenâwell, she's survived.”
“You're right, Miks. I'll never empathize with the result of that life. Madar! I won't try.” She shuddered.
“So walk lightly around Maissa until this game is over.”
“Isn't there some way to help her?”
Stavver made a brief, impatient sound. “She doesn't want help. Let it lie, Aleytys. Don't interfere in what's none of your business.”
Aleytys wrenched her thoughts from the sickening images in her mind. “Well,” she said briskly. “All that being true, then you'd better know this right away. If this world doesn't welcome me, you can forget about my being gikena.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Aleytys smiled tightly and watched her toes wiggle. “Exactly what I said, Miks. If the natives don't accept me, they can make it impossible for me to do any of my âtricks.' Better put the ladder down so I can ask them to let me play the game.” She glanced up at the dark grey blanket of clouds. “At least the rain has stopped for a while.”