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Authors: Jo; Clayton

Irsud

BOOK: Irsud
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Irsud

Jo Clayton

Prologue

Aleytys lifted her head. Standing in the doorway of her cell-like room on board the ship, the kipu stared at her a minute then stepped back to let another nayid slide past her, white velvet tunic scraping
schupschup
against the naked metal.

Black rod advancing. A sting in her arm. Black lenticular eyes slid back from over her. The white tunic flicked out of her sight as the drug-induced fog beat her toward insensibility. She fought but the psi-damper crashed on, sending her brain shattering into fragments.…

Black multi-faceted eyes glittered above her. Two nayids vague, blurred, twisting like something seen through moving water.

“She's coming out of the drug.” Dull red antennas twitched irritably. “I thought you said it'd keep her under till we touched down on Irsud.”

“Rab' Kipu.” The white-clad nayid fidgeted with a short black rod. “It should have. It's what I!kuk told me to use.”

“He said she's a healer. The psi-damper is supposed to suppress those talents. Was he wrong about that, too?”

“No. The readings say she can't be using her psi talents.” Her short stubby antennas wobbled uncertainly. “Unless she's incredibly powerful or.…” The doctor shrugged. “I'll trust the readings.”

“Hunh. Put her under again.”

“It's dangerous.”

“Will it kill her?”

“No. But it might burn out her mind.”

The kipu turned away. “I don't give a damn about her mind. That's not what we bought her for.”

CHAPTER I

Sweeping in a widening gyre through the dark confusion that swirled in stained snow flurries, her awareness fluttered toward a pinpoint light, cold striking into two arms, two legs stretched out from a torso shivering naked against naked metal. Aleytys opened her eyes.

A narrow face with round insectoid eyes the size of teacups hung dizzily over her, reflecting her body back like a double dozen octagonal black mirrors. “Kipu.” Aleytys pulled at the grip on her arms, a growing irritation heating her blood. “What.…” She tugged again, more sharply. “Let me go.”

The kipu smiled, shook her head, short stubby antennas twitching slightly. With an angry snort Aleytys jerked against the wiry strength of the guards' six-fingered hands. Struggling futilely to free herself, acid tears of frustration oozing from her swollen eyes, she fought a panting grunting battle against a strength that made nonsense of her own muscles. She humped her body in one last convulsive thrust to freedom, then fell back on the metal table snarling at the faintly smiling face that coolly waited for her to exhaust herself. The nayid came back and stood looming over her.

“An exercise in futility.” The rich deep voice was insufferably complacent.

Panting helplessly, raging like a netted tars, Aleytys scowled at the delicate mask-like face of the kipu, wanting to shatter that mask. On the cool metal her hands curled into claws, fingernails clattering harshly against the steel. “Bug!” she shrilled, then spat full in the nayid's face.

The kipu stepped back without a word and stretched out a hand. Hastily a white-clad female nayid hovering behind her thrust a square of cloth into the imperious fingers. The kipu wiped her face and dropped the cloth without watching where it fell in an unconscious arrogance that struck a chill through the heat in Aleytys' blood.

Aleytys shook her head, tossing her red hair, cooled to wariness. Her breathing slowed and she was abruptly conscious of a fuzziness clogging her mind. She shook her head again trying to shake the fog out.

The nayid's antennas twitched as a faint flush briefly tinged her parchment cheeks. She stared briefly at Aleytys, then shifted her gaze, refusing to look at her captive. Speaking to another nayid, one out of Aleytys' arc of vision, she said brusquely, “The psi-damper?”

“Functioning, rab' Kipu.” The cool monotone seemed to sooth the kipu's ragged emotions. Her face smoothed out, the faint supercilious smile curled her thin lips, her hands came together and brushed lightly palm against palm in a soft papery whisper.

“Good.” The word oozed satisfaction, sending a tiny shock of remembered response shivering down Aleytys' body. Antennas swaying in a gentle rhythm that underscored the renewed arrogance in her stance, the kipu spoke softly to Aleytys. “According to the ardu-epesh I!kuk, your intelligence measures superior.” The deep voice turned coldly precise. “I suggest you apply that intelligence to your present situation. I suggest you stop these futile gestures, ardana.”

Aleytys stiffened. “I'm not a slave. Don't call me a slave.”

“Ardana,” the kipu repeated calmly. “Ardana.”

Aleytys stared at her. After a moment her body relaxed. The kipu nodded slightly and the guards let the captive move by herself for the first time.

“Show her to me.” The hoarse bass voice thrummed from behind gauzy curtains behind the kipu. Aleytys pushed herself up and swung her legs over the edge of the metal table. For a fleeting moment her brain tilted dizzily. She sucked in a deep breath and watched curiously.

The curtains fell from a centerpoint on the ceiling, pinned there by a gilt bee-like insect with wings and legs spread against the center of a floral mosaic coiling overhead in a mass of elaborate convolutions. As the kipu swept the lacy blue-green gauze back from the elaborate bed, Aleytys gaped at the wizened and bedizened old nayid who radiated a vivid force that somehow dominated the whole room. Even the arrogant kipu was diminished by the lumpy decrepit figure lying among a ridiculous froth of lace and frills. The old queen poked a bony elbow into the heap of pillows and grunted herself a trifle higher, her eyes fixed avidly on Aleytys. Her free hand like a claw, she beckoned the kipu closer, the two-score bangled bracelets crowding up her skinny arm clattering like an Oshanti whore's come-on beads.

“That?” The voice boomed in Aleytys' ears. “Why?” She moved restlessly, the sagging flesh on her neck trembling with the palsy of extreme age. “It's female?”

“Mammalian.” The kipu pulled her six-fingered hand—long flexible digits with the fragile beauty of a lizard's fore-paws—in a fluid gesture across her flat spare thorax, the corners of her mouth tightening a fraction in disgust; her antennas twitched in a few sharp jerks. Before she spoke her long delicate face smoothed into immobility. “The ardu-epesh I!kuk guaranteed her genetic potency—so much that to control her I!kuk implanted a psi-damper to nullify her talents. Forget what she looks like. The egg will take the gifts and leave the rest.”

“Umph!” The round black eyes the size of teacups moved over Aleytys' naked body in cold insulting appraisal.

Aleytys tightened the grip of her hands on the curved edge of the table, remembering eyes coldly measuring and assessing her as she stood in a forcecube on cold stone block in the slave market of I!Kwasset. She shifted uneasily on the cold surface, wondering what the kipu was talking about with a sick foreboding that she wouldn't like what was coming. Irritably, she jerked her shoulders. The psi-damper planted below her left shoulder blade itched furiously as she fought against the mind trap. She closed her eyes, shutting out the shifting groups of nayids, and concentrated on the inside of her head.

“Where are you?” She hurled the words into the darkness thick and musty at the back of her mind. “I know you're there.” The psi-damper was a torment of small irritations, a fuzziness that sent her mind on veering orbits so that it was hard to hold onto the logical progression of thought. Concentration was a physical effort that left her shaking. “Dammit, you weren't so shy before.”

A pain-filled yowl jerked her head up. The bed was lost in a sea of white tunics circling in panic around a lanky nayid with a cold dignified face and gray bars running through the short black hair coiling tight to her narrow skull. A few quiet words brought order, sending the superfluous females to their posts.

As the crowd thinned, Aleytys saw the old queen collapsed on the pillows, bubbles forming at the corners of her mouth and slipping in a trickle of drool across her slack jaw. Thin wrinkled double eyelids folded up. As Aleytys watched, she shrivelled visibly. The blazing personality that had dominated the busy room moments before was eroding into a kind of terminal decrepitude. The doctor bent over her, then glanced up impatiently at the nayid next to her.

With her soft spotless tunic flowing into agitated folds, the attendant bustled around the bed, jerked the curtains free, and swirled them shut, leaving the dying ancient in privacy.

The kipu snapped her fingers. Three spindle-shanked horse-faced amazons in loose-fitting red tunics popped from behind the bed and advanced on Aleytys. She slid off the table and backed cautiously away.

Stepping quickly to her side the kipu closed long slender fingers on her shoulder. “Return to the table, Ardana,” she said coldly.

The fingers were dry and slightly rough. Aleytys could feel the hard articulation of her finger bones through the skin. She jerked away, tossing her hair out of her face. The wariness abruptly burnt out of her in a wild flare of rebellion. Like a tars on the prowl she shot rapid glances around the room, animal-intent on an impossible escape.

The white nayids clustering around the bed ignored her as if she didn't exist, but she kept a cautious distance from the red ones, retreating from the circling red tunics as the nayid guards stared at her out of their round black eyes, right hands wrapped around black rods thrust through the wide black belts hugging their crimson tunics to their thin elongated bodies. Past the irregular circle she saw an archway partially masked by a blue-green tapestry. Run, her muddled brain drove at her. Run.

“Ardana.”

“Don't call me that,” Aleytys burst out, momentarily diverted from her purpose. Impossible to hold two thoughts in her head. She jerked away from the kipu and darted toward the archway, diving toward the space between two guards. Long fingers caught hold of her hair and swung her effortlessly back with a terrifying display of strength. Aleytys slumped to her knees, breathing hard as the grip on her hair loosened, tears of pain oozing from her eyes.

BOOK: Irsud
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