Merchant Captain, Reeser Peland, buried his face in his wife’s neck and tasted her sweet flesh. “I never grow weary of you,” he whispered. When she moaned, he lifted himself onto his elbows and watched her lips edge upward in a gentle curl. Savoring her satisfied smile, his gaze drifted up to her eyes, a luscious slash of color peeking through the narrow ellipse of her lazy lids.
Mrayan lifted her arms to clutch his neck. He welcomed their languorous heaviness pulling him nearer. She exhaled into the valley behind his ear, “Yours forever, Love.”
Heat surged from his belly into his head where it exploded into red flares of cardamom and fragrant ginger music. He kissed her mouth, losing himself more deeply in her wonderful Mrayan-ness.
The ship’s bell rang. He groaned and nuzzled Mrayan’s ear, his hand luxuriating in the mass of her silky hair. After a moment, he released his grip and fell onto his back, his body throbbing.
“We’ve arrived,” she murmured, turning onto her side to mold herself to his frame. Her fingers found his smooth chest and rested there, spreading into a fan, their coolness easing his pounding heart.
“Yes. And too soon.” With a trembling fingertip, he traced the angle of her brow.
Her face turned serious. “You’re certain you won’t go with me?”
He shook his head. “I won’t.”
Mrayan settled onto her back. “Well then, I’ll have to go by myself.” One hand lifted to form a word in sign language.
He chose to ignore it and rolled toward her, propping his head on his fist. With his free hand, he touched her lips, the delicate vermilion border. “It will be good for you to see your Uncle Candan and the rest without your outlander husband hanging about distracting everyone.”
“That’s nonsense. And you know it.” Mrayan frowned. Using sign language she said, “(But if your mind is made up?)”
“Mostly nonsense,” he paused, then amended with a faint smile, “perhaps mostly nonsense.” Then he signed, “(I’m not entertaining other options.)”
Mrayan sighed. “Well, yes, there is the matter of my parents’ difficulties, but that was years ago.” She came to a half-sitting position, resting on her elbows. A small wrinkle marred her smooth forehead. With resignation she said, “We’d better get dressed.” She swung her long, cinnamon-orange legs out of the bed. Her feet on the floor, she stood and ambled toward the bathroom.
He watched her go, inhaling the remnants of her perfume and enjoying the spray of her glossy, burnt-sienna hair.
The bathroom door shut.
Reeser collapsed onto the bed and closed his eyes. He longed for another hour, but the ship’s bells sounded again.
Time might slow down, but it didn’t stop.
He stood and picked up his tunic from the recliner near the bed. At the mirror, he assessed the man staring back at him. This man was not of Mrayan’s race, not “of the blood,” as her people called it. He wasn’t bad looking, but not particularly worthy of note either; the usual maroon tinted skin, sea-blue eyes and purple-black hair--stereotypical Celian; not Kabelian.
According to Mrayan, her parents had narrowly avoided being stoned to death the day they’d arrived on Kabel, fresh from their honeymoon, ready to make their kinship visit. The offense: her father, Arhan Rubeek, full-blooded Kabelian, had wed “outside the blood.” He’d married an Areban, a member of the despised, fawning, sycophantic race who had once co-operated with the even more loathsome, murderous Liebans.
Mrayan had argued that since Celians had been victims of Lieban racial hatred as much as the Kabelians he might be more readily accepted. But Reeser doubted it. Shared suffering didn’t make him of “the blood.”
He dragged a comb through his hair and muttered to his reflection, “It may be that arriving at all is arriving too soon.” He flung the comb against the dresser top. “Going by herself pleases me not!”
He stalked out of bedroom, his boots making soft, paw-like sounds as he approached the darkened cockpit beeping and buzzing with unmonitored activity. A gold shield muted the light and the view, but with a quick touch to the control panel it slid open.
Ahead, hanging in space like an ornament, was Kabel, Mrayan’s home world, a red and brown sphere with hints of wispy, blue cloud cover. There, he would deliver his first cargo as a Merchant Captain and there Mrayan expected to fulfill kinship obligations to her large, extended family.
Perhaps we will, if we live long enough.
Surrounded by familiar high tech accoutrements, Reeser muttered to himself. “Neither option: going or staying, gives me peace! (Rather I would have changed her mind.)”
Somehow her parents had broken the taboo and lived to prosper.
But there was something about that story that needed explaining; something Mrayan had forgotten or never knew. It can’t have been as easy for them as Mrayan seemed to think.
Suppressing a snarl, Reeser grasped his command chair and rotated it. Seated, he swung it around to face the control panel and began work, his hands flying over the controls. After one last look at his instruments, he opened a com link and entered data on the hieroglyph pad formally introducing himself and his ship to Kabelian Port Authority.
Aloud he said, “Port Authority, Kensin requesting berth, Kensin requesting berth.” Reeser uttered the words in the Interplanetary Celian Dialect (ICD), the language of commerce and political life.
He smiled. At least when dealing with Port Authority, his being Celian helped.
Celians were the arbiters of commerce and politics and now the Liebans, who’d lorded their dominance over the other races for most of Somainain history, were residents in the backwaters of the Federated Planets--washed-up has-beens.
Celian dominance elsewhere or even in space here didn’t help much on the Kabelian surface where the people, now settled far from Lieba, thought only of life on their globe. Neither Celian nor Lieban impressed these folk.
With his left hand Reeser entered the hieroglyphic symbols that were the written form of the signed language and hit “enter” forwarding his electronic reservation confirmation for a slot near the main space port terminal along with his vector request.
His face softened. His wedding on his family’s estate deep in the Celian jungle flashed in his memory. A spectacular event, brimming with joy, candlelight, music and floral scents that had segued into a relaxing space cruise with beloved Mrayan from Celi to Ephon, a trip which consumed only days of their lives traveling at near light speeds but took almost two years from the planet-bound point of view.
Unfair, in a way, how time and speed work. We’re gone two years, but only enjoy a fraction of that time ourselves.
At Ephon, they’d dawdled a week visiting the best tourist spots where they’d met a businessman who revealed he needed a cargo delivered from Lieba to Kabel. Divine Blessing, that encounter. Paid for this trip. After they had taken delivery of the Kensin at the Ephonian dealership, they paused long enough at Lieba to pick up his load--their first as Merchant Captain and Co-pilot--partners in life and business.
He smiled at the words “Merchant Captain and Co-pilot.”
The smile faded.
An anomaly had intruded into their newly wedded bliss. And anomalies had to be carefully logged and analyzed. In space anomalies often proved deadly.
Lieban Merchant Captain Anwic Dzula, a.k.a.: the Mule, had radioed moments before their departure from Lieba asking to join them for the speed jump to Kabel.
With no cargo, why should Dzula bother with Kabel? He’s a Lieban! It hasn’t been that long since a Kabelian mob stoned a Lieban to death in their capitol city. And why would the Mule, who babied his ship abandon it to ham-handed mechanics in dry dock? Why would he risk so much for a potentially fatal and profitless trip to Kabel?
Mrayan’s soft humming preceded her perfume. His scalp tingled with anticipation; her scent engulfed him, conjuring in his mind images of her and firing heat in his soul.
Mrayan wrapped her arms around his shoulders.
He clutched her slim hands, admiring her perfectly shaped and polished nails. “You’re ready,” he said, his voice gruff. He twisted to look up at her.
“Yes.” She signed, “(Will you not go with me?)”
He shook his head and replied, “(I will not.)”
She looked to the floor, then lifted her chin and smiled that melt-Reeser smile. “(Your loss.)” She touched the end of his nose.
Agony splashing through his cells, Reeser opened his aching arms. O Eternal, he prayed inwardly, Keep her safe!
Mrayan settled in his lap, her weight soothing. His ears filled with the sound of her tinkling jewelry, a sound that evoked the waterfalls of his homeland. In contrast, her garments rustled with whispers of the desert and visions of her supine on the sand.
Reeser closed his eyes.
Mrayan kissed him, gently, teasingly, then stood and walked out of the cockpit leaving him bereft. “See you day after tomorrow,” she called over her shoulder.
Reeser gulped, choking on the rush of anxiety and desire crashing against his bones. Again he cried inwardly, Oh, Eternal, keep her safe! He pressed his fist to his mouth then flung it down, declaring, “I cast this fear on You, O God.”
He checked for a reply from Port Authority not even seeing the message. Instead, his attention drifted to the interior surveillance monitors hanging from the ceiling where Mrayan flowed down the companionway, her desert robes billowing as if in a breeze. She would be wearing her flight suit underneath, but no bulletproof vest. No bulletproof vest and no shield except The Eternal’s hand.
Reeser swallowed. “The Eternal’s hand is more than enough,” he reminded himself.
Mrayan entered the launching bay and begin her pre-flight checks. A robot appeared with their luggage and loaded the pieces into their proper compartment, hoisted itself inside and closed the hatch.
Mrayan reached to adjust a setting, her lovely hand a melody of motion for his eyes.
He tore his gaze away to respond to Port Authority’s now insistent pinging.
A voice filled the cockpit, “Kensin, acknowledge. Kensin, you’re go for berth position. Acknowledge!” Co-ordinates for berth A-16 now flashed on the left half of Reeser’s primary screen in glaring red, hieroglyphic form.
He seems irritated for some reason, Reeser thought.
Aloud he said, “Thank you, Port Authority, co-ordinates received.” With the touch of a key the information was entered into the flight computer. Left-handed, he typed in a proper hieroglyphic sign for “gratitude” and hit send.
He shifted his focus to the planet.
Kabel never changed.
He keyed zoom until bright green irrigation circles; the gray, seemingly random urban sprawl of Dresda, Kabel’s capitol city, and the scrappy, sage-blue native vegetation that followed the amber-hued gullies and washes of the semi-arid zone filled the screen. Beyond the semi-desert spread true desert, its dunes like fixed waves, the variations in brown and orange broken occasionally by brilliant green oases.
He glanced past the monitor to the outside where the Kabelian Orbital Space Port loomed large. It winked with lights and garish, digital advertising that, from this distance, were merely slashes of pulsing, colored light. It looked like a mutant spider made of gray and black carbon steel.
The spider legs were actually long concourses where ships docked, cargoes were warehoused and shipping companies set up shop. Workers lived in various unhandy cubbies, while the wealthy retained vacation homes in prime locations, some linked to the port by elevator cables; the cable zones were protected by blinking hover buoys that sent weak gravitational waves to repulse inattentive flyers.
The port’s spider-leg concourses, reaching in virtually all directions, stretched for tens of miles from the gigantic, bulbous main terminal. A smaller, globular structure, the spider’s head, was a second locus devoted to cruise liners that plied the lanes between moons, space resorts and four of the five planets comprising Federated Space: Celi, Ephon, Lieba and Kabel. Nobody cruised to Minan. Tourist travel to Minan was forbidden and merchants were required to conduct their dealings on a trade station parked in geosynchronous orbit of one of the Minan system’s gas giants.
Here at Kabel, Port Authority maintained a separate facility a hundred miles from the larger one, a smaller spider where luxury vacation homes were hosted alongside one of the finest resorts in Federated space and traffic controllers and Port Authority executives worked and lived.
Reeser watched a cruise vessel inch into position and a telescoping boarding ramp snake out to meet it. He recognized the model, a sleek, retro beauty with botanical themes that would carry through even to the switches, levers and dials in the cockpit.
A twinge of nostalgia assaulted him. He’d been in that spot not long ago, back in his “previous life,” sitting in the cockpit, chatting up the co-pilot and making announcements to the Stewards and Stewardesses, thanking the passengers for their patronage.
Reeser missed the job and the camaraderie, but the twinge didn’t last long. Instantly it was replaced with the joy that now, at last, he pursued his destiny, working toward his childhood objective to journey to exotic, distant Earth. The call for Captains to fly the expedition would soon go out and he would answer it.
What would Earth be like now?
The last time an expedition team had visited, the planet had been on the verge of an industrial revolution. Where had that revolution taken them?
The Kensin’s beeping brought Reeser back to his immediate task. He made a slight adjustment with the control stick. The flashing blue light, his visual indicator above their assigned berth, now appeared in view. He finessed the approach until a few moments later, the berth differentiated from the surrounding gray. It gaped like the maw of a Sardin Moon’s galactic leech with about as much appeal.
Reeser fired retro rockets to slow his advance, holding the ship steadily on target. In the next instant, the overhang obscured his view and the cockpit went from the seat of possibility and unlimited vista to the seat of fixed immobility and blindness.
The Kensin had arrived at the Kabelian Orbital Space Port, its home for the next several cycles.
“Need vision,” Reeser mumbled and logged into the Port surveillance units keeping watch over this section of the hollow spider leg that linked short-term berths for small and medium sized ships to the main terminal. External view security screens hanging from the cockpit ceiling came to life with images of the concourse’s interior just the other side of the Kensin’s airlock. He watched two personal-sized cargo robos rolling along behind their owner, a well-dressed, orange-hued Areban in a gray suit. Meanwhile, a robed and veiled individual strode in the opposite direction, a Minan if his garb were any indication.
Maybe Mrayan is right. If an Areban can safely walk the port without a bodyguard and a Lieban, like the Mule, is desperate to come for a visit, perhaps things have changed.
Reeser opened the Port Services Menu and selected “custom service.” The listing expanded to include a vast selection of surveillance; maintenance; housekeeping; personal care and restocking options and a host of other add-ons. He fiddled with the dials, toggling through the choices, selected some, deselected others, chose times for the services to begin and saved his changes.
Through his in-ship com link he heard Mrayan carry on her own conversation with Port Authority. When she received clearance to launch, he paused to watch feed from cameras perched on the Kensin’s stern and observed their jet leap into space.
“Lord God keep her safe,” he muttered, then returned to his immediate tasks, powering down the Kensin, allocating certain security duties to the computer, alerting robots to their port-side responsibilities and hooking in for life support services.
Those tasks completed, he reclined, hands behind his head, mentally double-checking for something he might have overlooked.
He disliked seeing the cockpit window obscured by the overhang. He flipped a switch and chose a holographic program. The holo unit he’d installed at a strategic spot outside the cockpit window just before they’d left Ephon instantly loaded a replay of the starscape between Celi and Lieba.
“Ah, that’s much better,” he muttered, relaxing a moment, enjoying the view. Some time later, he sighed, stood, stretched, then strolled down the passageway to his office where dealing with the first round of record-keeping as a Merchant Captain would occupy a few hours before dock workers would arrive to transship his cargo to its recipient.
Mrayan left the cockpit, disappointment churning in her stomach. Selfish man. Why won’t he come now? Why does he have to stick around the ship and dawdle for two days by himself? The niggling notion that Reeser had allowed fear, and such a foolish fear at that, to have even the smallest place in himself and thus in their mutual, collective heart brought a bitter taste to her mouth.
The Lavel, the space jet Reeser had given her as a wedding present, stood in the bay, waiting. She paused a moment to admire it. Light from the ceiling emphasized its clean lines. Built for speed. Gorgeous. Freedom.
Looking at it, studying its beauty focused her mind and the petty annoyances of the moment faded. This jet is a sign he loves me, she told herself.
Mrayan set to her tasks, beginning the ritual of pre-flight checks. The external pre-flight checks complete, she climbed into the cockpit to study her gauges and digital readings, choose options on menus, flip switches and set dials to power the jet for launch. Satisfied, she announced, “All systems are go.”
She knew Reeser listened, as he should. And watched her, as he should. Let him feel sorry and empty and alone. Rocket power built under her. Exhilarating.
“Port Authority, Space Jet Lavel requesting clearance,” Mrayan said, one hand clicking in the final bit of information.
Kabelian Port Authority announced through her headset. “Space jet, Lavel, you are go for launch as per flight plan upon completion of Kensin docking maneuver.” Required vectors appeared on the hieroglyphic side of the monitor.
Reeser’s skilled flying, even as distracted as she knew he was, was apparent when Mrayan had to check with her onboard computer to be sure the slight thud she’d heard was the ship locking into position.
“Lavel commencing launch,” she announced. She pecked in a command to the Kensin, the gate opened and her jet leapt into space.
The brighter stars strove to compete with the reflected light from the planet and failed. Visual glory spread before her in Kabel’s beautiful albumen and the glimpse of lands below. The Lavel sliced through atmosphere, piercing the sky. Mrayan relished the dangerous act of entry. The heat; the turbulence; the Lavel hurtling toward the ground. Below her spread her world, the dunes arcing across the landscape like humped beasts resting in the sun.
In moments Mrayan was near enough to distinguish the Rubeek airstrip built on a rock mesa overlooking the dunes. Large, colorful tents dotted the grounds near the oasis, a green spot in the lee of the mesa. The Rubeeks and affiliated families comprising the Rubeek Clan were headquartered here, ready for the tenth-year assembly. The mansion her father had built during his short tenure as family head and Clan Chief crowned another rocky outcropping joined to the first by a narrow isthmus.
Now closer, she discerned a dust cloud and then the tracked truck that created it speeding toward the airstrip. Closer still, she noticed a crowd bunched near the spot where her jet would come to a stop. Their hands were raised, arms waving like grass stems. Her heart warmed with affection. Elated, she thought, Look how many have come to welcome me home. Her landing was textbook smooth, but as soon as the jet came to a full stop, a rock struck the fuselage.
Mrayan blinked, surprised. Training took over; she activated the magneto/gravitational shield while her mind went into shock. A moment later, when the adrenaline rush cleared, she checked an early damage report. Nothing serious, just a slight dent a repair robo could easily fix.
But all her joy had fluttered away. Her heart sank and flopped like a grounded fish. She blinked and sniffed, absently wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
Mrayan hesitated, then popped the hatch. Rather than placing her helmet under the seat as was normal, she left it on her head. She paused at the top of the ladder. Muted shouts reached her and another stone bounced away, this time deflected by the shield.
Now I don’t know what to do, she thought, suddenly grateful Reeser had not come after all. Maybe I should leave.
The tracked truck surged toward the crowd and swung to a stop throwing a spray of sand over those standing at the rear. Her Uncle Candan, present Chief of the Rubeek Clan, stepped out. Some who turned to espy him dropped their hands. With ten or twelve other men he merged into the mob.
Gabbling flowed like water filtering through gravel. Then the people parted and Candan emerged. He strode toward the jet, a sudden gust wrapping his robe around his powerful legs, his men fanned out behind him.
Mrayan gazed down at him from her perch. Candan looked extraordinarily fit. He’d spent enough time in space to slow his aging; his carefully trimmed beard was black as ever, his eyes bright with vigorous intelligence. “Mrayan, don’t mind these folk, come down and greet me.”
Mrayan tucked her helmet under the seat, activated the jet’s security system and climbed down. Her boots crunched on the hard packed sand, but the sensation didn’t bring the hoped for glee. “Uncle, I am so glad to see you. (No greeting, but a death sentence!)”
Candan’s smile seemed tinged with sorrow. He bowed, “Ah, my dear, it is I whose heart fills with thanks; I am grateful to take you into my eyes. (You have married a Celian.)”
Mrayan embraced him, then signed into his hand. “(I expected they would cling to the old ways, but only those that merited retaining. How silly of me!)”
He stroked her hair, then taking her hand, he spoke softly simultaneously signing into her palm, “Praise The Eternal, you’ve arrived safely. (You always think the best of others. It is your greatest strength.)”
Mrayan blinked. She whispered, “You’ve left the Star Gods? (I’m afraid in this instance, it’s not a strength but foolishness.)”
Affectionately he smoothed her hair again, one more, single stroke. “I didn’t leave them, they never existed.” His hand stopped to rest on her shoulder, the weight comforting, but that comfort didn’t stop Mrayan’s inward parts fluttering with new anxiety. She pressed her face against his chest, then looked up at him again searching.
Her uncle’s expression reflected only calm.
Candan’s crime is far worse than mine! She wanted to place her hands on either side of that placid smile and demand to know, What has possessed you to abandon the star gods? You’re their Chief! If the clan ever discovers you’re apostate, they’ll stone you, no stalling or questions asked.
Lifting her head to look over his shoulder, she spotted Uncle Usef, Candan’s half-brother. Gray streaked his hair and his face bore new lines; Usef seldom ventured into space. He stood apart from the crowd, his arms hanging loose, but his hands clutched in fists that relaxed and clenched again. Despite the uncertainty they expressed, his posture indicated he considered himself officially neutral, which is to say, he would wait to see which course would benefit him and his heirs most.
Rather than expressing her anguish and confusion, Mrayan gulped and murmured, “What now?”
Candan answered softly, “Cast yourself upon The Eternal and His mercy and He will give you rest.” He placed an arm along her shoulders, like a hedge of protection, the cloth encapsulating her like a shield. He smelled of fresh, desert air, cooking fires and lemony cacti blossoms. His scent evoked memories of happier times and gave her hope.
Mrayan bowed her head. Cast myself on The Eternal? What a startling idea!
Ignorant of his newly claimed faith and thinking Candan simply wanted to follow proper etiquette, the crowd waited quietly. Now re-rooted in the reality of clan life instead of a Celian dream, Mrayan could intuit their thoughts.
Candan must discover what she purposed and make a decision. They would be thinking: it’s possible Chief Candan will order his niece stoned to death right now, then we can get on with their lives. Mrayan’s nostrils flared. The searing heat that sucked moisture from her nasal cavities brought a flash of pain to the center of her face.
Candan’s violet eyes sparkled at her. He said, “We will face them, together.” They turned as one toward the mob. He lifted his free arm, his hand open. “(Clansmen, stones have been thrown.) Do we have a consensus that this child is rejected?”
Mrayan swallowed and shivered. What was he doing? Was she now betrayed?
Usef raised a hand. “(Indeed stones have been thrown, but methinks prematurely. The outlander is not here, is he?)” He bowed. “Forgive their zeal, Mia’gae Mrayan and Whof’ed Candan. We wait an answer: will the child renounce her outlander husband and submit to the will of the clan?”
Candan glanced down at her, his eyes twinkling. “Will you renounce your outlander husband and submit to the will of the clan?”
Mrayan’s eyes widened. Tears blurred her vision and terror bubbled in the pit of her hips. She opened her mouth, having no clue what she might say. Why are his eyes twinkling while he asks me such a horrible question? Of course I will not renounce Reeser! What does he want me to say?
Before she could speak Candan returned his attention to the assemblage and said, “The child will give her answer during the Vergadering. (Welcome our Daughter who has come home.)”
The crowd erupted, fists punching the air. Candan walked forward, his steps even and measured, Mrayan protected under his arm at his side. His bodyguards surrounded them like a spearhead opening the way. Mrayan heard her loader robot working the hatch, lowering itself to the ground and placing their luggage upon its bed. The hatch clicked shut. Mrayan did not give her jet another thought.
Usef stepped aside to allow his half-brother to pass, but didn’t resist the opportunity to hiss, “What of this outlander she has married? Where is he?” His hands jerked, “(Could it be that since he has not come with his wife, as is proper, that the marriage is annulled? If this is true, then we eagerly welcome our Sister.)” He offered Mrayan a shallow, barely polite bow. (“Sister” referred, not just to a female sibling, but more generally to one of like beliefs.)
Mrayan stared at him, then tore her eyes away.
Candan glanced down at her, then raised his face, its planes and hills hard like flint, and eyed Usef. “It is true, the outlander is not here. I know not why, but (Mia’gae Mrayan will enlighten us all during the Vergadering.)”
Overhearing the exchange, the crowd launched a fresh uproar, their shouts evidence of their conflicting views.
“Obey your Chief and wait for the Vergadering,” Usef shouted, throwing his voice over his shoulder, while his fierce gaze remained fixed on Candan.
Others passed along his words, nevertheless a small stone struck Mrayan’s cheek. One of Candan’s men disappeared into the throng. To Mrayan, Candan muttered, “It appears your husband was wise to avoid this meeting.”
Mrayan gulped and nodded. “Yes.” Taking his hand, she signed into his palm, “(He contacted you already? I thought this delay of two days was nothing more than a whim.)”
Candan replied, “(When he asked me for your hand I advised him to do precisely as he has done.)”
Mrayan asked, “(Why have neither of you explained this to me?) Why have you allowed me to walk into this trap?”
“(What were we to say? You would have us mar your happiness with our worries over things that might never happen?)” Candan looked down at her, hardness underlay his affectionate gaze. “You walk where you choose to walk. This is a trap of your own making.”
Mrayan swallowed and whispered, “My own making?” What have I done wrong now? Ducking her head, she slipped her arm around Candan’s waist and together they pressed forward, toward his waiting vehicle.
Reeser had argued that they should seek a different path, that they should come but not land and confer with the clan from what the had called a “better negotiating position” from space.
Someone tore at her robe, the sound of the ripping fabric shredding the afternoon. Another of Candan’s men disappeared into the press. Her loader robo whirred as it rolled behind her. She didn’t worry about its fate. If an unauthorized person attempted to harm it, that person would quickly regret his actions.
Mrayan heard random whispers: “What a coward that he is not here with her!” and “Perhaps she intends to disavow him before the council,” and “The Chief will bring her to her senses,” and “I think there will be a ceremony banning the outlander.”
Most of the crowd neither spoke nor moved, but simply observed. She noted a couple of men who restrained Zealots whose faces spoke louder than words. Meanwhile, Candan’s men only nabbed those who actually threw rocks.
A narrow path through the mob opened and they passed through. Candan’s bodyguards managed to create an open area about 20 paces around the truck. The driver stood ready. Mrayan’s robot lifted itself into the truck bed and hunkered down, the top layer of luggage visible above the sides.
Her uncle turned to face his kinsmen, acting as if they weren’t hostile, as if they had welcomed Mrayan with loving arms. “My Brothers, my Sisters, in four hours we feast. (My wife hosts a welcoming party for our niece. Tonight, forget all these troubles and celebrate.)” He nodded to the driver who bowed and leapt into the driver’s seat.
Candan gestured for Mrayan to enter the passenger compartment, then followed her in and closed the door. His men jumped onto the running board, grabbing hold of the luggage rack and the truck pulled away, slowly gaining speed. The shouting mob surged after them, swiftly falling behind, some veering off to find their own vehicles.
“They think I’ll reject Reeser,” Mrayan said, first watching the landscape, then looking to her uncle.
Candan nodded. “There are those who want to believe it.”
Mrayan’s brow corrugated in a small frown. “And?”
Candan shrugged. “There are those who will do all in their power to make it so. (Most will go back to their tents unless some new mischief foments.)”
“Mobs are strange creatures,” Mrayan whispered.
Inside the Rubeek mansion, Mrayan watched her uncle move soundlessly down the marbled hall and realized he went into a part of the house she’d seldom visited, the place where the Rubeek holdings were managed, the place where the adults worked.
A maid approached. “Ma’am,” she bowed, her eyes lowered demurely. “If you will follow me.” She led Mrayan through a newly installed arch equipped with security equipment into the residential wing. She stopped by a door, opened it, waited until Mrayan and her loader robo had entered, then pulled the door shut.
Candan’s wife, Miriti, sat on the bed looking out the window. Mrayan’s robes whispered as she entered and Miriti turned with a gasp. She got to her feet, recognition spreading across her face. She beamed. “It is so good to see you,” she said, her voice warm.
Mrayan grinned, her palms open in a sign of trusting love. “I am very glad to see you.”
Miriti clasped her hands. “We will enjoy ourselves tonight and put away everything else for tomorrow, or the next day or the day after, if we are able.”
Mrayan smiled and briefly clutched her aunt’s fingers, then went to the window. Palm trees ringing the side-yard stood rooted in beds of flowers. “It wasn’t exactly a warm welcome,” she mumbled, turning to gaze over her shoulder at her aunt.
“I feared as much.”
“Some threw stones at me.”
Miriti frowned. “The Clan has been in a uproar ever since your visit was announced.” Her hands fluttered in her lap until she allowed them to speak. “(I think many love you, many others are indifferent, but,)” her fingers hesitated, then continued, “(someone has stirred them up.)”
Miriti shrugged. “I know not who.”
Mrayan left the window and sat at the foot of the bed. Miriti settled on one side. Mrayan signed, “(I was annoyed with Reeser because he would not come, now I am ashamed.)”
Miriti nodded. “(It is difficult to trust our husbands when they do not explain themselves, but we must, at least, act like we do.)”
Mrayan sighed. “(My mother used to say one must choose rightly regardless of emotion. She used to say, “Choose rightly and emotion will follow.”) What will happen now?”
Miriti smiled. “Your parents already opened the way long, long ago. Deep in their muddled hearts the Clan is proud of you and think of you as Sister and Daughter. Candan will remind them of this.”
Mrayan’s eyes widened. “You know he’s abandoned the star gods for the God of the Celians and the Ephonians.”
Miriti nodded. “Yes, I know. He is a Rubeek. He will choose his own path as his heart leads.”
“What about you? (Have you made The Eternal your God?)”
Miriti opened her mouth, then closed it. When she spoke, she began slowly. “I have not decided.” Her hands hesitated, then lifted to sign, “(No, not exactly. But when I see Candan, how he’s shed his foul temper and his tendency to fret, I cannot help but think The Eternal has transformed him.)”
Mrayan nodded. Reeser’s calm and patience were strongest when he’d emerged from time spent under his prayer shawl.
Miriti asked, “Reeser names The Eternal as his God, does he not?”
“He does. (He believes The Eternal guides him. I think he believes The Eternal told him not to come today.)” Mrayan’s eyes dropped to her lap. The star gods have never guided me.
Miriti patted Mrayan’s hand and stood. “You have a little time to be calm and gather your thoughts. Perhaps to wander the house and to relax before the evening feasting begins. (Unfortunately, I must go and see to the preparations.)”
Mrayan rose and hugged her aunt. “I’m so glad to be with you.”
“Sit beside me tonight.” Miriti kissed her on the cheek.
“I will be delighted to sit beside you.”
Miriti left the room and Mrayan pulled the drapes. The room plunged into near darkness until its sconces glowed.
“More light,” Mrayan commanded and the sconces made the room bright as day.
The loader robo had come to a stop in an out of the way place near the wall and powered down to sleep, its load intact. Mrayan unstacked the luggage. She touched her lips with one hand. Look at that! From the pile, she pulled a hard-sided case and flung it onto the bed. She pressed her thumb on the fingerprint lock and it snapped open revealing a layer of soft, foam padding cut to hold fifteen robo eyes. She removed a tray exposing the record and command unit beneath.
Mrayan exhaled. “If he’d told me he was sending this with me, I would have been angry with him and forbade it. (I would have said that he was inviting trouble and insulting the Clan.)” She blinked to rid her eyes of hot tears.
She placed the record and command unit on the desk and turned it on. Next, she set the robo eyes in rows on the bed. Through the R & C unit she powered them on and they lifted from the coverlet, hovering a few inches from the fabric. Using a satellite map of the Rubeek grounds she assigned each robo eye a section of territory to monitor and turned them loose.
The spherical bots could navigate virtually any environment autonomously. They buzzed in place until their tiny motors had warmed, then they went invisible and silent.
Each used tiny cameras and screens to capture the scene behind and project it to the opposite side. Unless she looked very carefully for the tale-tell blurred edges, she could not see the bots at all. Not even a person trained in spotting such robo eyes would be likely to notice them.
She allowed herself a small, satisfied smile, then went to the door where the bots had clustered waiting for an exit. With sound buffers and cooling agents to quell their heat and the x-ray shielding on their skins they were invisible to all but the most sophisticated surveillance cameras. Advanced infrared detectors would spot them, but Mrayan doubted anyone on the grounds possessed that more expensive form of surveillance.
“Go forth my little spies,” Mrayan whispered.
It was only because she had trained herself to see them that she knew they clustered at the door, but as soon as they began filing out, she lost sight of them. Clutching the doorframe, she leaned into the hall glancing up and down. Nobody was about, which was unusual given the occasion. Hhmn, wonder if Candan put me over here by myself for my own safety. She closed the door. Other family could be installed upstairs, but, come to think of it, most are probably ensconced in tents on the meeting grounds.
She sat at the desk. The R & C unit showed the robo eyes’ progress. They’d whizzed past Candan’s surveillance arch and were now bunched in the foyer waiting for someone to pass through the door. A steward exited followed by a loader robo and her bots were gone, fleeing into the open air outside.
Mrayan checked the R & C unit’s battery. Excellent. Ten hours charge. She instructed it to send Reeser continuous feed, unplugged it and placed it on the top shelf in the closet. After the party she could sort through the collected data and perhaps get a better picture of what they were facing.
“Oh Reeser, you thought of everything,” Mrayan breathed, peeling away a third layer in the hard sided case and revealing personal surveillance equipment. From the offerings, among them a pen and a bolo tie, she chose a brooch fitted with a camera’s lens that looked remarkably like another gem in the ornament. The gold wire mesh that formed the brooch’s framework acted as its microphone. She lifted the personal surveillance device’s R & C unit, turned it on, checked its battery and placed it in the closet next to the robo eyes’ control unit.
For the evening’s festivities she chose traditional palazzo pants, long tunic and silken wrap and spread them on the bed. She went to the bathroom, washed her face, applied fresh make-up and checked her hair. On impulse she touched the transducer contact in the mirror frame.
“Ma’am?” The bathroom’s computer spoke with a friendly, metallic voice.
“Where is Candan Rubeek?”
“One moment while I access security clearances.” The room computer had already identified her by fingerprint and voice, probably the moment she touched the doorframe. She’d been added to the house’s roster of accepted inmates long, long ago.
Mrayan stared at her reflection. She was obviously a half-breed. Her father’s violet eyes, her mother’s crimson lips. Her skin and hair a blend--cinnamon orange and burnt sienna--not like full-blooded Kabelians who were brown skinned with umber or black hair. There was a tribe who lived in the southern lands who possessed green eyes and were built of somewhat thinner frames. She didn’t look like them either.
The metallic voice spoke. “Ma’am, Chief Rubeek is in the belvedere.” It clicked, “(Do you require directions?)”
Mrayan tapped, “(No,)” and said, “That will be all.”
Mrayan dressed, pinned the brooch to her outfit, slipped on a pair of “gladiator” style sandals and exited the room.
Immediately before the assembly gathered, Uncle Candan released the detained Stoners. Wearing robes striped to show they’d been detained and their fates not fully resolved, the Stoners sat on stools at the back of the tent, their arms folded over their chests, haughty and defiant. In front of them, seated in meeting chairs, were those who hadn’t actually thrown any stones, but advocated Mrayan should be judged and officially stoned to death. Grim faced, hard mouthed: the Zealots.
Uncle Usef headed up another group gathered in the middle of the divisions. A more moderate group: the Purists, those who wanted Mrayan to renounce Reeser and marry in the blood. And possibly be stoned.
A third group, collected on the other side were the Progressives who advocated a review and updating of clan law. Mingling with them were many of the undecided.
The whole fractious lot were those the clan had chosen to represent their interests in the case.
Mrayan sat perched in a tall chair at the foot of the dias where Candan presided in the chief’s bench. His was not a throne, but a backless armchair, less striking than many of the rest of the seats available in the tent. He wore the chief’s official square-cornered skullcap with an eagle feather stuck at an angle in his hair. His robe was striped with all the clan families’ colors. His own family’s stripes edged the hem near the floor and on his sleeves. He held the staff of office in one hand, the Rubeek Clan leader’s ring glittered on the other.
But, rather than the plain, homespun robe rejected persons were supposed to wear, Mrayan wore the midnight blue wedding sari Miriti had insisted she don with a ribbon pinned to her shoulder marking her as “rejected.” Underneath the blouse and veil, she wore the bulletproof vest Reeser had provided. The laser pistol he’d sent waited in a holster strapped to her thigh. In the pocket was the ceremonial knife employed during the marital blood oath and a pearl, the bride’s gift to her husband, her promise that love would endure through all trials.
Wedding garb and the Ribbon of the Rejected. What a sick joke!
Mrayan had already been sitting for two hours while the rest of the Clan’s business had been conducted. After that, another thirty minutes had transpired as Clan families announced their representatives for Mrayan’s trial and finally another fifteen minutes slipped away as those not elected to participate or not staying to observe filed out. Mrayan felt headachy, hot, nauseous, tired and frustrated.
Now, at last, the appointed time for Candan, as chief, to seek a remedy for her situation had arrived.
If the entire clan had participated in the stoning the moment her space jet had landed, exhibiting their full agreement, there would have been nothing Candan could do to protect her. She now fully realized he’d pushed the edges of what a Chief might do on her behalf while remaining scrupulously within the law.
For the past thirty minutes her stomach had become increasingly unhappy. Mrayan tucked her arms through the wooden ring formed by the chair arms linked at the front by a hinged holding bar and wrapped her them around her stomach, willing it to settle. It refused. Sweat gathered on her brow under the wedding headband decorated with leaded crystal beads. To take her mind off her stomach, she focused on the headband. How unpleasantly soggy and confining it felt. Uncomfortable, irritating, but more pleasant than her aching belly.
Candan announced, “We are gathered to seek a remedy for the case of the rejected Mia’gae Mrayan Rubeek. (You have been chosen),” he moved his opened palm to indicate the entire group, “(to represent the clan in this matter. Think before you sign; show mercy; practice wisdom.)” He bowed. “Present your case,” he gestured to the Zealot-Stoner group and their spokesman began.
His voice was low and droned like swarming flies. Salty moisture dripped down Mrayan’s forehead and her stomach lurched uncomfortably. The disdain and dislike emanating from that group seemed to increase her nausea. How can a person simultaneously be so boring and say such awful things?
Reeser had told her he had a plan.
Candan intimated he had helped form it.
But she didn’t know what it was except it involved the Codex of Bodanthe.
What a comedy. She would have snorted in laughter, but she was afraid it might make her vomit.
Mayan wanted to rest her arm on the cross bar that held her in the seat and then rest her head there, but remembered her mother’s words, “Keep serene and you will live.”
The Zealot-Stoners were implacable. She should be stoned to death. “Clan law is clear,” they said.
Uncle Usef took the podium next, “There is another remedy, the only remedy Chief Hymel allowed: Mia’gae Mrayan must renounce her outlander husband and marry in the blood. (The rejected should renounce her affiliation with the outlander and select a blood husband. There is no other remedy save stoning.)”
While he spoke, Monig, his son, loitered in the background wearing a hungry expression. Mrayan cringed inwardly. I’ll never cower at your feet! What a wretched husband you’d be, looking down on me with that sneer all the days of my life; I’d rather be dead.
Candan spoke her name, “Mia’gae Mrayan?"
Mrayan strained her neck and back to look up at him, but stopped when the movement activated her gag reflex. She coughed, winced, swallowed and leveled her chin. She stared straight ahead. Unfortunately, right at Monig.
Mrayan’s eyes narrowed.
Candan’s voice continued, gently, but firmly, “Mia’gae Mrayan, do you reject the outlander, Reeser Peland, as your husband? (Do you renounce his name and his troth?)”
Mrayan pulled energy from every pore of her being, steeled her will and stood. Despite this, she wobbled for a second until she found her balance. Then she bared her arm, pulled the knife from her pocket and sliced the tender skin on the inside of her forearm, a long, furious gash running almost the entire length from wrist to elbow.
With her last vestiges of strength, she shouted, “I will never renounce my husband and my lord, Reeser Santul Peland of Celi. (My fortune is my own, you cannot take it; I give it freely to whomever I choose or keep it as I deem best. I reject your path and choose my own.)”
Mrayan fell into her seat, shaking, her skin glistening. Though nearly spent, she managed to whisper, “I will cling to my Chosen all the days of my life.”
Someone muttered, “Look at her, she’s fallen ill!”
I am ill, she thought longing desperately for a glass of ice water and a fan, but none would be forthcoming. No one was allowed to approach her or touch her as long as she sat in the seat of judgment.
At last, the warm dribbling from her arm gradually coagulated and formed a seal, but not before blood had dripped on her thigh and pooled in her lap. Her stomach agitated violently.
Something was wrong with my food! I wonder if someone has poisoned me.
Mrayan wiped her forehead with her veil, a very unladylike thing to do, but no handkerchiefs would be forthcoming.
Slowly, deliberately, Reeser stood. He’d been sitting near the Progressives, but apart from them behind a railing where outlanders were assigned to sit, to Candan’s right. Observing Kabelians from other clans sat near the Zealots in a separate area, on Candan’s left.
Flashes of the holstered laser pistol appeared when Reeser moved, but his hairless, maroon-tinted chest was otherwise unadorned. His chief’s vest and headdress, with its synthetic wig and feathers standing on end, looked absurd, especially when combined with his uniform pants in teal blue and his black leather captain’s boots.
My ridiculous looking husband.
And strikingly, obviously he was not Kabelian. Not of the blood. Contrasted with his costume of the afternoon, the traditional Kabelian desert robes and head covering, he seemed to be intent on making his differences glaringly plain.
Drawing himself up and using his Captain’s voice, the one that didn’t seem particularly loud but yet managed to carry to the far corners of the room, he said, “I invoke the Rule of Rejection in the Codex Bodanthe. I claim Right of the Redeemer. I demand hearing according the Code of Conduct to redeem the rejected Mia’gae Mrayan Rubeek. (I am prepared to lay down my fortune and my life according to the Right of Redeemer by the Order of Bodanthe for this cast-off Mia’gae, Mrayan Rubeek.)”
Suddenly, somehow Reeser’s costume lent his words the nobility and power traditionally vested in chiefs the universe over. Reeser the man, the Merchant Captain and scion of a well-respected Celian Senator and chief in a long line of chiefs.
Mrayan’s head buzzed and her stomach squeezed painfully. So that’s what he’s been plotting, he and Candan. The Codex of Bodanthe? That ancient relic? Hasn’t it been amended to the point of irrelevance?
The tent was so hot. The bulletproof vest uncomfortable and constricting, like a mini sauna confining and amplifying her body heat. Sweat poured from under it, running down her sides and pooling beneath her hips. What I wouldn’t give for fresh, cool air and a glass of ice water. The longer she sat, the more crowded she felt. Her entire body seemed wedged between an awful place outside and a terrible spot from the inside out. Nauseous and dizzy, Mrayan leaned to one side and vomited. She wiped her mouth with her veil.
What a fine wedding sari I’m wearing now. The sleeve is torn where I peeled it back for the slicing, it’s bloodied, and now reeking of vomit.
Oddly, though her stomach had betrayed her, or perhaps, had reacted in the only way possible given the poison in her food, her heart now gave up its agonized worry and settled to a peaceful beat.
I am content. If we die, we die together; Reeser is mine forever.
Unfortunately, her head refused to settle. It still spun. Attempting to focus her eyes, they felt as if someone shoved needles through her lids.
Movement in the sidelines caught her attention. Slowly she turned her head to espy Miriti with a glass of ice water and a towel, waiting. The agony was proving too much. At last, she lay her head on her arms folded over the crossbar.
Uncle Usef barked. Mrayan lifted her face. He was on his feet pointing and stabbing the air. Rude man. He’s mad because things aren’t going the way he planned.
While Candan’s even and reasonable tones played the background, Mrayan thought, I forgot Chief Hymel’s ruling, but he forgot the entire Codex of Bodanthe. She would have giggled if she could have been confident she wouldn’t throw up or her head suffer fresh agony.
Look how Reeser simply stands there unaffected. I adore him, Mrayan thought in a sudden gush of exuberant affection. Odd how I am so deathly sick and joyous all at once. Look how Uncle Candan appears like a rock in the stream. Immovable. The pair of them against the mob; calm and stalwart. Not afraid.
The Progressives were on their feet now insisting that the Codex of Bodanthe be reviewed in its entirety and amended for the modern age, but also that since it still stood as law that it be obeyed. One of their members pointed out that a hated Lieban had bought a rejected Mia’gae and thereby entered Kabelian history as one of the most admired and respected Clan Chiefs to ever live.
There must be something to this worship of The Eternal besides tradition, Mrayan thought. Reeser and Candan seem to have just the right words to answer these fools.
Dimly she was aware Uncle Usef argued points of the law and various chief’s rulings. Then the Stoners were on their feet shouting and waving their fists.
Odd how the lamps look like gigantic globs of light and everyone is a blur of color. A gun fired. Mrayan felt herself crumpling. At last, Miriti’s cool hand on her brow. A damp, soothing towel.
“My Mrayan,” Reeser called from some distant place.
“Hmn,” she replied.
“My Mrayan, leave the shadows and join me in this life.” His voice was actually only a whisper, but it seemed so loud.
“Ah, you are here.” His kisses began at the point where her jaw met her ear and followed the curve of the bone to her chin. “Will you kiss me, my Mrayan?”
She kissed him, then pressed her index finger against his lips to stop the next onslaught. “Why didn’t you and Candan tell let me in on your plan?”
“My Mrayan, if I had told you and you were taken captive, as we feared when you visited Usef’s tent, or someone administered a truth serum in your food--you had to appear as you did, standing alone, speaking the truth as you knew it, resolved to stay firm by yourself if needed, otherwise we would have become suspect and they would have extracted the plot from you. And then we would have all been lost, you, me and your entire family.”
Her heart clenched and a pain shot up her throat. “Oh.”
Reeser’s lips were soft on her neck.
She murmured, “What happened? I hardly remember anything except that I was so very ill.”
Outside, dovens’ lowing carried in the breeze, adding bass notes to the soprano tinkling of the chimes someone had placed outside their tent. The tent’s fabric walls waffled, rustling and sighing. Mrayan relished the weight of his body against her side, his arm over her belly and the feel of his hand stroking her hair.
She opened her eyes and studied her husband, then said, “I heard a gun shot.”
Reeser’s irises caught faint light from the glow globe hovering in the corner. They seemed to glow aqua blue then flash white. “A Zealot shot Usef in the shoulder. He will recover.”
“Oh.” She paused, “Uncle Candan is fine?”
“Oh.” She swallowed. “And what happened to me?”
Reeser’s dark lips opened, framing his teeth, blue in the faint light. “You were poisoned. Completely unrelated to the stoning. A jealous girl I don’t think you have ever even met. She wanted Monig and she saw you as a threat.”
Mrayan wrapped her arms around his neck. “She can have him."
Reeser’s mouth met hers, sweet like the exotic wines from the hills of Celi. He breathed on her cheek, on her jaw and murmured along her collarbone. “You are mine, I purchased you from the clan. Irrevocably. Irretrievably. Utterly. You are my possession.”
“I am your pearl,” she said, losing herself in his kiss, forgetting everything else.
A little while later he said, “Wear the dress Miriti gave you, the wedding dress. (One more ceremony before we quit this planet: the Kabelian wedding you longed for.)”
“That dress? But it’s torn and bloody and stinking.”
“It’s been laundered, it isn’t bloodied nor does it stink, but the sleeve is still torn. That dress is your wedding dress. (My pearl.)”