Authors: Kristine Smith
The sand around KnevÃ§et ShÃ¨rÃ a is darker.
The sands of light's weeping, that holiest of idomeni shrines.
Until I desecrated it
. Jani quickened her pace as grains struck her face and neck, a stinging cloud, as though she walked through an insect swarm.
The sand stains.
She remembered the smears on boots and fatigues.
Rust red, like clay.
Not like the color of blood. Not like that at all.
“You all right, gel?” Niall trotted up to meet her. “You took off like a rocket back there.”
“Fine. I'm fine.” Jani walked on up the hill, holding her head up despite the stinging, so she wouldn't have to look at the sand.
A hasty lunch was assembled from the remains of Thalassa's communal mid-morning sacrament and set up in one of the Main House's private dining rooms that overlooked the bay. Niall demurred, claiming prep for the next day's meeting as an excuse, then headed for the basement comroom, Jani's
access codes in hand. Lucien arrived a few minutes after his new commander departed, and was about to be sent to the kitchen by John to scrounge what he could until Val intervened. The meal proceeded in awkward fits and starts until Val delved into the contents of the liquor cabinet and settled into his oft-assumed role as the unofficial entertainment.
“â¦and so Eamon stands up before the entire banquet hall and holds up the biggest brassiere I have ever seen.” Val paused to take a sip of port, then eased back, glass in hand. “âA contest,' he announces, in that overwrought burr of his. âTo the woman who can fill this goes the honor of spending the night with me.' So I dig into the centerpiece, pull out two huge cantaloupes, and toss them across the table to him. âEamon,' I said, âjust fill it with these. You'll never know the difference, and you can name the first little blossom after me!'”
Jani laughed while eyeing John, who grinned sheepishly.
“Our annual conferences were once the stuff of legend.” His grin twitched. “They grew more sedate as we aged.”
“Yeah, like the time you trâ” Val stopped, his mouth hanging open in mid-word. He closed it slowly, then silently dropped the subject by taking another sip of wine before turning his attention to the cheese platter.
“Someone's been holding out on me.” Jani smiled at John, who winked in reply. That elicited a restive grumble from Lucien, who had spent the entire meal listening to such reminiscences and had grown more irritated with each passing tale.
All this shared history, and you're not part of any of it.
Jani glanced at Lucien to find him sitting slumped, fingers interlaced around the base of his brandy snifter, eyes fixed on Val.
Val looked at him once, then again. Then, with a sigh, he set his glass on the table and slid back his chair. “This luncheon was extraordinary.” He patted his board-flat stomach. “And filling. If I don't move around, I'll fall right asleep.” He wadded his napkin and tossed it atop his plate.
“I've been dying to see this place. Mind giving me the grand tour?”
John looked at Jani, then at Lucien. Then he shrugged, placed his own napkin atop the table, and stood. “Why not?” He turned to Jani. “Just give a shout.” He shot a glare in Lucien's direction, his jaw working, then nodded to Val. “Let's go.”
Jani watched them walk to the French doors, then bobble the “Who leaves first?” with the overwrought courtesy of new acquaintances. They sorted it out after a few moments, John standing on ceremony as host by stepping aside until Val exited ahead of him with a tight smile. She waited until the doors closed and the two had disappeared from view. “What did you do to Val?”
“Nothing he didn't ask me to.” Lucien swirled the scant remains of his brandy. “God, talk about beyond the call of duty. Eamon and the melonsâhow many times did I hear
story? Five. Six.” His lip curled. “They all sounded the same after the first week. And everyone calls Val Parini a raconteur. It was enough to make me look forward to Pierce's babbling about opera.” He raised his snifter toward the door in a solitary toast. “Thanks for the lift, Doc.” He lowered the glass and drained it, tilting his head back in order to extract every drop.
“You poor, tortured creature.” Jani plucked a lemon wedge from her leftover garnish and bit into it, taking what pleasure she could in Lucien's wince. “You didn't answer my question.”
“Mako wanted someone familiar with all the players to look over Pierce's shoulder.” Lucien regarded his empty snifter for a time, then hefted the brandy decanter from the trolley alongside the table. “I mean, Pierce is his dog and all, but sometimes he wonders whether he's as forthcoming as he should be, seeing as you're involved.”
Jani watched as he filled the snifter halfway, then added another splash for good measure. “I didn't realize he trusted you that far.”
“Some people appreciate my capabilities.”
“No accounting for taste, I guess.” Jani stood and circled the table. The temperature of the room had been lowered in deference to humanish comfort levels, and the jacket she had donned failed to keep out the chill. “I need some air.” She pushed through the doors that led out to the balcony, felt the heat welcome her like an old friend, the bay breeze ruffle her hair. She leaned against the stone railing and spent a few quiet minutes watching bayskimmers from the Karistos Yacht Club fast-float across the water.
When she heard the doors open again, she clenched her fists.
“The scenery reminds me of the Greek Islands.” Lucien drew alongside, snifter still in hand, the fill level depleted by half. “Anais took me on a cruise to celebrate my appointment to East Point.” He leaned against the railing, and smiled for the first time since lunch began and the stories started. “And a good time was had by all, including a few she never knew about.” He paused to take yet another swallow of brandy, glanced at Jani over the rim of the snifter and stopped. “What?”
“I'm not used to seeing you toss down the liquor.” Jani slowly opened her hands and pressed them to the warm stone. “Alcohol dulls the senses, you always said, and you needed to keep yours sharp.”
Lucien lowered his drink, then set it atop the railing. “Chicago's not the same since you left.”
“Lucien, this is me you're talking to, remember?”
“I haven't forgotten.” He stared at the snifter. Then he grabbed it, drained it in a single swallow, turned and flung it at the stone arch bordering the doorway. The glass shattered with a sound like a shooter crack, the shards flashing back sunlight as they flew apart and scattered across the tiled floor.
One piece skittered in front of Lucien's foot. He stepped on it, twisting his shoe into it, then pulled back and looked at the powder he'd left behind. His breathing came rough, as though he'd been running. “I haven't forgotten a thing.”
Jani remained silent. Every so often a fissure developed in Lucien's carefully maintained veneer, a hint of what he could do if he ever threw off the restraints he'd imposed upon himself, ever said “Hell with it” and let fly.
And he feels that way now.
Which meant she had something else to worry about in addition to the reason for Val's visit and tomorrow's meeting with the governors.
“You were always willing to believe anything about me.” Lucien paced along the railing, back and forth, like a caged animal. “Anything but the truth.” He stopped, eyes fixed on the water. “I had to see you. I was going crazy in ChicagoâI would have said or done anything to pull an assignment here. So, I went to see Mako. I had done a few favors for him in the past. He owed me.”
“You're trying to drive a wedge between Roshi Mako and his colonel.” Jani stepped away from the railing and pretended to examine blooms on a potted shrub. “Don't think Niall will forget that.”
Lucien turned slowly. “I know what Pierce thinks of me. I know what he'll put me through. I'm willing to deal with it.” His eyes met hers, bottomless wells of brown. “I love you.”
Oh Lordâanything but this
. Jani pressed her hands to her temples and squeezed. “
“I mean it.”
“Lucien, it's a one hundred twenty-five meter drop into the bay from this balcony. Don't bloody tempt me.”
Lucien stared at her, his expression blank. Then, as though some internal valve finally released, he smiled and sagged back against the railing. “We both just need to relax.” He patted his trouser pocket, then reached into it. Pulled out something, and held it out for Jani to see. “Remember this?”
She caught a glimpse of dull coral shine, the color silvered by the sunlight. A small sphere, a centimeter or so in diameter.
Her face burned.
“I showed it to Val on the way here. He offered to buy it. How's that for tacky?” Lucien rolled the pearl between his
fingers. “He kept commenting on the color. Pink or peachâhe couldn't make up his mind. What would you call it?” When Jani failed to reply, he shrugged, his smile altering from simple and open to something with an edge. “I didn't tell him how I came to acquire it, of course. Did you even realize that the string had broken? I know I was focused on other matters.” He held the pearl up to the light. Then he raised his other hand, pressed the tip of the index finger to the bottom of the pearl and massaged it. “Do you know what this reminds me of?” He watched her face as he slid his finger against the pearl from tip to base once, then again, and again. “It's just likeâ”
“Please keep it to yourself.” Jani looked down and found she held the crumpled remains of a half-opened bloom, its stem snapped at the neck. “You're never this coarse. You are drunk, aren't you?”
Lucien pouted. “I keep souvenirs. You know that. I've got one of Val'sâ”
“What is the real reason you came here?”
Lucien took a deep breath. Pocketed the pearl and stood, brow furrowed, as though trying to recall something. An Angel of Death, at a loss as to what to destroy next. “The usual. Spread wrack and ruin. Doom, death, disease, and despair.”
“Mission accomplished.” Jani tossed the remains of the flower over the railing. “Does that mean you can go home?”
“Mako sent me to observe the general situation and report back. A second pair of eyes. Sometimes I do tell the truth the first time.” Lucien passed a hand over his face. “I have missed you, you know, disinclined as you are to believe it. I won't ask if you missed me. Judging by the expression on your face, I know your answer.” He glanced over the railing. “Hundred twenty-five meters. I'll have to remember that.” He turned and headed for the doors. “If you'll excuse me, I really need to find a bathroom.”
“Lucien?” Jani waited until he stopped. “Whatever shit you're thinking of pulling, reconsider.”
Lucien tried to turn, but caught the side of one shoe on the edge of a tile and stumbled. “God, I am drunk, aren't I?” He righted himself slowly, shaking his head at the wonder of it all. “You have enough to worry about without looking for trouble from me. Val's visit is not social, in case you haven't guessed. The
ordered him to buy out Shroud's share of Neoclona. A single digit percentage of what that share is worth, and that number's a hell of a lot closer to zero than it is to ten. No more research. No more consulting. He's to find other things to do.”
What lunch Jani had managed to eat congealed in her gut. “Why?”
“As a warning to other bad little captains of Commonwealth industry who might consider hybridizing. Or working so closely with the HaÃ¡rin.” Lucien paused to breathe. The alcohol had him by the throat now. “Things are tense, in case you haven't noticed. Human separatists are bombing HaÃ¡rin docks, CÃ¨el wants to sever diplomatic relations with the Commonwealth, andâthe first shotsâin any war would likely be firedâin a place like Elyas.” Sweat soaked his shirt and slicked his face, making him look as though he'd been caught in the rain. “Now, two percent of Neoclona is still more money than any normal person might expect to see in a lifetime, but it isn't just the money. It's the power, and the influence, and let's not forget the medical research capabilities.” He pulled a linen square from his pocket and wiped his face, his neck. “With your principal means of support gutted, where does that leave Thalassa? Where does thatâleave you?” He grimaced. “I needâExcuse me.” He turned and double-timed through the dining room and out the door.
Jani leaned against the railing as soon as Lucien disappeared from sight. Her gut ached. Her legs felt weak.
She imagined John's expression as Val broke the news. The sun still warmed, but she couldn't feel it. The bayskimmers still floated, but she didn't see them.
Rilas steered the skimmer as close to the cliff edge as the directionals allowed. The vehicle's wake sent dried brush tumbling over the rocks, while its high-pitched hum and the shadow it cast as it coursed over the ground drove small animals to the shelter of shrubs and burrows.
In the rearview, she watched the domes and painted rooftops of Karistos recede, replaced by rocky summits that jutted into the cloudless sky. After driving for a time, she stopped the skimmer beside a tumbled mass of stone, hoisted her slingbag from behind her seat, and disembarked. She walked to the edge of the cliff, then along it, looking out to the bay every few strides.
In the short time she spent walking, three skimmers passed her. All carried humanish, who drove too slowly and watched her as though they had never before seen an HaÃ¡rin. The cliffs of Karistos and the Bay of Siros had become popular places for tourists, and Rilas knew the traffic would grow as the day proceeded. “Most unfortunate. This would have been a good place.” She drew a small scope from one of the slingbag's many pockets, held it to her eye, looked toward the bay and the line of cliffs beyond. In the scope's viewer,
she at last caught sight of Thalassa, a scatter of glistening rooftops, blue and yellow in the sun.
Rilas touched a pad on the side of the scope, activating the device so it could read and measure. Distances. Heights. Angles. Depths of rooms and thicknesses of walls. After completing the task, she returned the device to her bag and strode back to her skimmer. Already half the day had been spent searching, as had the entire day before. She did not like to take so long to make preparations, but Karistos had proved a strange place, much worse than nÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el had described.
She stood beside the skimmer, one hand on the door control, until a humanish male driving alone slowed and asked if she required assistance. She gestured that she could not understand him, then entered her vehicle and drove away. Too quicklyâshe knew she moved too quickly. She could see the male in her rearview, watching her. Would he remember her? Or did all female idomeni look alike to him, as nÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el said?
Damned godless place.
Never again would she act as a tile broker. As nÃ¡ Nahin Sela, she had wasted hours at the Trade Board displaying samples and discussing colors and glazes, meeting with prospective customers.
NÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el told me that I must act as that which I am supposed to be.
Such was the nature of cover.
If I did not act as a merchant among the Elyan HaÃ¡rin, I would be noticed.
But the training she had received in Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a had not prepared her for these HaÃ¡rin, who ate and drank in the streets as animals, who looked her in the eye even though they were unknown to her.
Then there wereâ¦those other.
The anathema. The hybrids. She had seen two of them at the Trade Board, a male and female, so much as demons in their misshapen strangeness. Thick limbs. Pale eyes and skin. They had once been as humanish. As humanish, they should have remained.
Rilas drove and studied each passage, each summit. Prayed to her goddess for guidance, and for strength.
This place is of your doing, Tsecha.
Soon, he would pay the cost of his sacrilege.
The sun passed prime. As it began its downward arc, Rilas passed a rocky slope crowded at its base with rubble and dying scrub. She drove past it as she had so many others, and had traveled quite far along the cliff road before she realized what she had seen.
She turned around and drove back to the place, alert to humanish tourists, or shuttles making their final approach to the distant Karistos port or the Service field. Alert to any sign that someone, somewhere, might see her. She fought the desire to reach into the slingbag and remove and activate the devices that could scan the skies as she could not. Monitor the roads. Watch her back, as a humanish would say.
But she dare not. All around Karistos, craft from the humanish Service traveled, scanned, searched. Her devices, while most useful, were also most illegal, and she could not risk their detection now, while she still prepared. In a day or two, when she completed her task and had gone, let the Service find what they would.
Some of it will look most as familiar, as we stole it from them.
Rilas bared her teeth at the thought. Humanish did not believe HaÃ¡rin capable of stealing, just as they did not believe them capable of subterfuge or sabotage. Most foolish of them, and truly.
She approached the pile of rubble, her joy fading. She slowed the skimmer, hunting for the signs that had attracted her attention and compelled her return. At first she could not detect them, and wondered if she had erred.
Then, finally, one by one, she saw them. A glimpse of masonry colored the same browns and whites as the surrounding stone, barely visible through tangled branches. Straight lines where none should exist, the broken edges of a wall smashed to ruins by the rockslide.
She steered her skimmer behind the rockslide so it was hidden from the road. This time, she activated her shooter. Then she powered down the vehicle, hoisted her slingbag, and disembarked.
Rilas savored the heat, the one welcome surprise that
Elyas offered. Wondered at the stone, the sparse vegetation, so much as Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a that she felt as though she tracked quarry on her homeworld. The thought upset her, and she struggled to push it from her mind. When nÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el counseled her, he had been adamant. Assassination or sabotage, what acts she performed could not be committed on ShÃ¨rÃ¡. Too much risk of discovery, he had told her. Too much danger, for both of them.
She held her shooter at the ready as she approached the house, circling the place once before pushing a rock aside with her foot and passing through the partly collapsed doorway. She stepped around a pile of rubble and into what had once been a room. Remains of furniture, sticks of polywood and scraps of weave, littered the space. Some lay scattered across the floor, the rest wadded in corners, where it served as bedding for the animals whose claws Rilas heard skittering against the cracked and stained tile. She sniffed the air, grimacing at the tang of waste and rotted flesh, the stench of the things which lived in this place mingled with that of the things which had died. An unseemly place, and truly. None would look for even the lowest HaÃ¡rin in such as this.
Only when her eyes had better adjusted to the half-dark did Rilas explore further. Grit and dried leaves crunched beneath her feet. Sunlight streamed in through a lone window, highlighting dust motes that leapt and fell like sparks from a fire, disturbed by her passage.
She set her slingbag on the floor. A short time spent pushing aside rock and clutter left her with a space through which she could maneuver as well as a path to the window. She hoped that it would look out over the bay, and was pleased to find that it did. “I can just see the water.” And beyond that, the curve of land that held her target.
Rilas recovered her bag from its resting place and carried it to the window, set it on the dusty floor and opened it. She removed wrapped tubes, a small box, a roll of heavy cloth. First she removed the wrapping from the tubes, then laid out
the smooth plastic on the floor to serve as a barrier. Lay the tubes atop it, followed by the box and the cloth roll.
She knelt. Picked up the tubes, one short and one long, fitted them together, then set them aside. Unrolled the cloth and removed three items. First, two curves of metal, one large and one much smaller, the stock and the discharge mech. Last, her prize, her most valued thing. A clear glassy cylinder shot through with lines and discs of color. Her sight mech.
She worked with a speed born of practice. Attached barrel to stock. Fastened discharge mech to the underside of barrel, sight mech to the top. Removed the sighting device from her pocket, attached it to the sight mech, and activated data transfer.
Rilas watched the colors in the sight mech brighten and dull, flash and fade. As the last burst of color faded, she detached the sighting device and tucked it back in her pocket. Only then did she rise, turn to the window and raise the rifle. Bracing the stock against her shoulder, she poked the barrel through a gap in the shattered pane and lowered her eye to the sight mech.
Fully assembled, the rifle felt weighty, but balanced, like a finely crafted shooter. She paused to run her hand over the barrel, savoring the smooth chill of the dull black metalloceramic. She then resumed her check, studying the bay and the cliffs beyond through the sight mech.
It is as though I stand there.
After all this time, after completing so many such tasks for nÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el, she still marveled at how the mech magnified the distant view, how the micro-lenses moved in concert to sharpen, brighten, provide contrast, expose detail no idomeni eye could detect unaided.
Rilas scanned a road that diagonaled along the cliff face and wound past structures before vanishing at the summit. She moved on to a larger structure, one of the largest she had seen on Elyas, which jutted from the cliff face as though part of the stone. Through windows, she could see figures. The accursed hybrids whose existence pained nÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el so.
Her finger twitched on the discharge mechâwith each faint
of the mechs, she imagined bodies falling, souls destroyed, lives extinguished. She scanned other areas of the enclaveâ
Walkways. Verandas. Open spaces.
Killing, killing. Taking life that had no right to exist.
Click. Click. Click.
A small balcony.
Rilas stilled. Eased the pressure on the discharge mech. Watched.
Jani Kilian. The KiÃ¨rshia. The cursed thing. Standing, alone on the balcony. She wore a wrapshirt and trousers in grey, plain and free of adornment save for a thick cording of silver woven into the shirt cuffs.
Rilas released the charge-through and looked away from the scope. Her heart beat stronglyâshe could feel it pound. Her hands were as dry, her mind, as clear. Such was as they were during the best of times, when Caith blessed her and bade her act as her talents demanded.
She set aside the rifle, then knelt upon the rubble-strewn floor and rummaged through her bag. Small stones dug into her knees; she used the pain as a spur, a sign of favor from Caith that it was right for her to act. She removed the frosty flat container. Opened it. Took out one of the chilled projectiles, inserted it into the rifle magazine, clicked the chamber closed. Heard the cylinder slide into place, the rifle hum in activation.
The payload is typed to Tsecha.
Even as the technician's words echoed in her head, Rilas lifted the rifle to her shoulder and sighted down, capturing the dark head. Edged the weapon one way, then the other, until the scope signaled
with a single yellow flash, and she fixed on the face. Skin dark as Pathen, eyes green as SÃ¬ah, combined with weak human bones. The face of an overgrown youngish, a mutant, a made thing.
The payload is typed to Tsecha.
“But it might work with her. The idomeni part of her is of VynshÃ rau. There could be enoughâ”
The payload is typed to Tsecha.
Rilas forced herself to breathe. The KiÃ¨rshia stood, unmoving as stone, eyes fixed. A target as she had never had, still and quiet and alone. If this one fell, no one would know for hours.
Then KiÃ¨rshia shifted her stare until it seemed to Rilas as though she saw her and studied her in turn.
You should die.
Rilas's finger tightened on the charge-through.
Rilas stilled. Cursed the name that filled her head even as she knew it had been sent by her goddess. Relaxed, drawing in one slow inhalation of stagnant air, followed by another. Another.
“Fool.” Rilas stood still until she calmed, until she could no longer see the strange green eyes in her mind. Then she broke down the rifle and repacked the components.
I will return to Karistos. I will make sacrifice, and pray, and prepare.
Then tomorrow she would return to the ruin and kill the one for whom the weapon had been designed. AvrÃ¨l nÃ¬Rau Nema. A name that had once been and was now no more. NÃ Tsecha Egri. A life that was now, and would soon not be.
Rilas shouldered her bag and, with careful steps, departed the ruin. No humanish males lurked in wait outside. No tourists. No movement but branches and leaves in the wind, no sound but animals.