Eustace Mentone relaxed in the rear seat of his limousine and smoothed his glossy, black-dyed hair with a strong hand. He was thin by Marsupian standards, his barrel of a chest not as broad or round as the majority. He wore a black, pinstripe suit with a red tie and a perfectly folded red handkerchief in his pocket. His burnt-orange hands were decorated with gold and diamond jewelry and his watch glittered with the same.
Head of the Mentone Family, Eustace was taking a tour of his holdings—an unpredictable ritual that let the men know he was watching. He never made the tour at the same time of day twice and never in the same car or with the same driver twice. They all know when I pass, Eustace smiled, or is the car a decoy—no one can be sure. He chuckled remembering the time a mutinous band had attacked the decoy car. Operated under robot control, the car had exploded into a consuming fireball, vaporizing everything within a hundred foot diameter.
Sometimes Eustace made the trip alone, other times he honored a man or two with a private interview while in the car. Today he was rewarding two men who had acted quickly to protect one of his interests. His Assistant, Melanie, served the sparkling wine and showed just enough leg to keep the men distracted, exactly as he had ordered.
I’ll discover if they’ve got the focus to be promoted, Mentone thought watching the two surreptitiously taking pleasure in the beautiful Kabelian slave.
Mentone knew the men gossiped that Melanie was also his concubine, but in fact, she wasn’t. He had a wife, Ildee, a former model, now somewhat overweight, who managed his house and private affairs perfectly. With her he held a tacit agreement to turn a blind eye to his darker side and in exchange she enjoyed a generous allowance and liberty to pursue her own pleasures. However, they were good friends, being creatures of many like interests.
His mistress, kept primarily for show (and faithful alibi), lived in a high-rise apartment in the center of the most luxurious, high-density district of Capital, not far from the edge of Tren territory, a scornful slight to Tren pride.
But, Mentone’s appetites ran elsewhere, to darkened rooms with strange slaves who never again saw the light of day or tasted rain once they became his possessions. Melanie, reliable, loyal and devoted, truly was nothing more than Assistant though Mentone had purchased her from Meetal, a slave and gun runner, who worked on the fringes of both civilized and criminal life, occupying a specialized niche that allowed the syndicate families to project a more genteel, legal image. Melanie, sold to pay her father’s debts, well knew her fate could have been far worse. Kabelians only nominally accepted the dominion of the Celians, putting on a convincing façade of what the Celians considered “civilized” behavior. The worst aspects of Kabelian culture continued out-of-sight, “underground,” for these, the slave trade had never stopped.
“Would you care for some more wine?” she asked one of the Rewardees, her voice not unlike the substance she offered. She leaned suggestively, her nutmeg skin glowing with health and screaming to be touched. Her green eyes were large and luminous, fringed with thick, black lashes, over perfect heart-shaped lips.
Atalo, a thick faced Celian from a southern province, glanced at his boss, checking for disapproval. He’d already had two and it was well known Mentone did not approve of drunkenness. He coughed to cover his hesitation, but Mentone appeared amendable, so Atalo nodded. However, when Finega, a high-strung outcast of the defunct Celian tribal nobility, held out his glass for another helping, Mentone frowned. Finega withdrew the flute to his lap and turned to stare out the window.
“Would you take a look at that!” Finega exclaimed, signing, “(I’ve never seen anything like that in my life!)”
Everyone peered in the direction Finega indicated. They were closing in on a bridge that crossed a nearly dry drainage ditch. Glowing, white-golden light flowed from some point directly under the bridge filling the ditch with supernatural glory that spilled into the atmosphere above.
“Stop the car,” Mentone ordered and opened the door nearest him, not waiting for Chauffeur. He hurried toward the light, the group from the car following. On the edge of a concrete abutment, perched on her knees was Simona Avaz, ex-wife of Gand Tren. Her wrists were deeply cut, apparently by her own hand, a hand red with blood and still clutching a very sharp, old-fashioned razor. The trickle of run-off in the ditch bed was brilliant red and the embankment was stained with her lost life.
I’ll bet she’s dead! Mentone thought as his eyes moved to the brilliant light. He crossed the bridged, passing through the light that seemed to make his skin tingle and his hair quiver as if alive. He stepped off the road onto its plant-choked shoulder and moved a few steps closer to Simona. Then he paused on the embankment poised precariously on the temperamental gravel above her still form. In the space under the bridge thunder boomed and the oval shaped light, shining like a mirror in the sun, about six feet tall and four feet wide, shimmered and undulated rainbow colors as if it lived and breathed.
She’s not dead. She’s speaking to the light, Mentone thought. Instinctively, with surprising swiftness, he reached out with both hands grabbing Atalo and Finega who only just arriving were now pivoting to make good an escape. His firm, piercing grip stopped them, the pain reminding them who was in command. Finega lost his footing and slid a few feet toward the now clearing water, his arms flailing, attempting to regain his balance.
Mentone gestured at the kneeling woman, who seemed to glow in the light’s favor and muttered, “Atalo, can you make out what she’s saying?”
Atalo, his ashen face glistening with fear-sweat, leaned closer, straining to hear, hesitated, then said, “No sir, I can’t.”
Mentone turned to Finega who was scrambling back up the bank to stand next to his boss. “Well, can you?”
Finega’s eyes bulged and he swallowed. The veins in his neck popped into relief as if he were applying pressure from within, perhaps to calm himself. He shook his head. “No sir, her voice seems to be swallowed in whatever sound bubble they’re in—it’s keeping that booming from going further than this local area. I didn’t hear a thing until we started down this embankment.”
Mentone nodded and pointed at Finega in approval. He didn’t ask Melanie, who hovered directly behind him; ready to protect him with her life. No cut and run in her, Mentone thought with satisfaction. If she understood any of the exotic half-breed’s speech or that of the booming thunder, Melanie would have told him. However, the longer he stood a few yards behind and to the right of Simona, the more he felt compelled to kneel. Awkwardly, he got down on one knee; the others sent gravel rolling downward as they followed his lead. The small group stared in silence at the bloodless, orange-tinted woman who spoke with the light.
Suddenly the light was gone and Simona collapsed. Mentone hesitated, then rushed to her side gently lifting her in his arms, completely careless of the blood. “Help me get back up the embankment,” he hissed as his foot shot out from under him and he fell to his knees marring his elegant slacks. The two men grasped his elbows, hoisted him up and they made their way toward the road. Atalo skidded and also barked his knee, but did not fail to keep his boss steady as they climbed the final steps to level ground. Melanie rushed ahead, returning with a towel and some water.
Mentone smiled at the slave girl and used the towel to wrap Simona’s arms. “She’s still alive! (Let’s hurry.)” The group dashed for the car.
Anything that would annoy Tren was a plus as far as Mentone was concerned, but he couldn’t help feeling smug that he now had something of unsurpassed value that had once belonged to him. Simona lay in his arms, her breathing peaceful. The bleeding had stopped and though she should have died, she was only unconscious.
“This is a Holy Woman,” he said quietly, his voice full of reverence. “(You will guard her from this day forward until she has no further need of you.) She must never know you protect her.” His eyes flicked up at the other two men.
The two men’s eyes widened, they swallowed in unison. “Yes sir,” they both said, adding the signed assent simultaneously.
When Mentone turned his face away, they made the sign to ward of unknown hexes. He nodded, his unusually peaceful face lit by the street lamps. “Chauffeur, take us to the emergency room.”