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Authors: Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

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Laldasa

BOOK: Laldasa
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Table of Contents
— DEDICATION —

for Cynthia McQuillin

— CHAPTER 1 —

She experienced her emergence through the layers of darkness and pain as an uphill struggle through an oppressive storm. Every breath came at a price; every movement was agony.

Had she lost her breather? She didn't remember. She gasped for air, expecting the sting of wind-driven sand on her skin, the taste of it in her mouth. But the air was too thick, too warm, too humid.

How could that be? It was autumn. Snow and ice were the only forms of moisture natives of the Kedar knew at this time of year.

Up through the muddle of sensations she climbed, groping toward light. She smelled vegetation, lush and sweet, heard the soft trill of water over rocks.

Wrong—that was wrong. Surely she was hallucinating.

Adrenaline seeped into her veins. She knew, too well, one familiar scenario that would account for hallucinations—that she had fallen through an old sink shaft into a pocket of manda gas. She willed the adrenaline to rouse her; manda fumes were slow poison. They fogged the mind, befuddled the senses, and eventually destroyed both.

She saw light and leapt after it. Made out indistinct shapes—a play of sunlight and shadow. But the sunlight was too bright, the shadows too dark.

She came to on a surge of near panic, disoriented by surroundings that made no sense. She was lying on a bed of grassy turf, overshadowed by softly waving greenery. Ferns—alien, and dripping with dew.

Wrong. Oh, wrong. There were no plants like these ...

She tried to lift her head and all but swooned again at the pain. Memory rode the storm of agony. Fragmentary, but complete enough that she knew she was not on a mountain slope in the Kedar. She was not even on Avasa. She had come to the inner planet of Mehtar to ...

There the memory failed. She rolled onto her back, slowly, carefully. Her right hand and forearm plunged into cold water.

Gasping in surprise, she rolled again onto her right side, bringing all her senses to bear on the stream. It was no more than a rill, wending its way through the foliage, sparkling where the sun kissed it. But it was clear, cold, and liquid.

She brought her face close to the surface of the water, used a cupped hand to fling it into her face, carry it to her mouth. Her senses steadied and cleared. The pain in her head steadied too, seeming to subside with every breath she took of the warm, moisture-laden air.

The nape of her heck stung when she trickled water over it. She touched it gently with trembling fingertips. They came back spotted with blood. How had that happened?

She breathed, drank water, bathed her face, and waited for the answer to come. It did not. Finally, she dared to sit up. She was at the bottom of a little slope in a tree-shaded glen choked with ferns. The air was heavy with the sweet perfume of alien flowers. Sitting, she was challenged to see over the nodding fronds.

Above her, clouds roved the sky, fat with the threat of rain, now masking the sun, now revealing it. Below her a jumble of colorful carts, tents, and stalls were scattered across an open meadow. People scurried around and between the little nomadic shops, rolling out awnings, setting out wares. On any world that was recognizable as a bazaar.

Memory fluttered. She had come to Mehtar, to the capitol city of Kasi, to buy mining supplies.

The flutter became a flood. She had had money, but no more. It was gone along with her pack, her cloak and—she put a hand to her throat—the necklace that had held her leaf, her personal identification.

Despite the warm air, a hard chill settled in the pit of her stomach. She knew who she was—she was Anala Nadim of Onan, Kedar province, but on this alien world she was no one. She had no identity, no money, no family, no friends. And she had no idea what to do or where to go.

But go, she must.

Shakily, Anala got to her feet and stumbled down slope toward the bazaar. Before she had taken two uncertain steps, it began to rain.

oOo

Aridas, in the midst of clearing the breakfast dishes, was still rattling on when Jaya Sarojin left the morning room. The door slid shut behind him, cutting off the flood of words in mid-sentence. Aridas was a man of a strong and numerous opinions. Jaya was certain he must have heard every one of them.

This morning the subject had been the growing friction between the Kasi-Nawahr Consortium and Avasa's Guild of Independent Miners. Aridas had been following the story closely in the heralds and had developed copious opinions about it, as with all things.

Jaya Sarojin grimaced, pulling a thick cloak around his shoulders and checking the pale grey sky through the skylights overhead. He'd taken more than one critical sermon on the social evils of allowing das to have opinions about anything. Society seemed compelled to keep things as they were. It was rita, said the pundits, the natural order of things. Stagnation, he called it.

He reached the end of the broad, light-washed hallway and left the house. A damp wind hit his face, making him catch his breath. He waved away his Horseman, who had appeared to hover at his side.

“I'll walk, Kenadas. Thank you.”

He took deep sips of the wet breeze, savoring its crispness. Even a residence the size of the House Sarojin could become stifling. No, size was irrelevant; it was the Sarojin name that made it oppressive—the centuries of tradition that laced its atmosphere, the political responsibility that encrusted every molding, the social grandeur that gleamed from every inch of polished floor and column. He had grown up with it. For his own survival, he had various escape routes. He was taking one now.

Tomorrow morning he would be in the Council chamber poring over petitions from the Avasan Guild and the Consortium, and would probably be there every morning after that, indefinitely. So today, he escaped, wishing he could relinquish his seat on the Vrinda Varma to Aridas the Opinionated. Ari obviously had more interest in the subtleties of government than his master.

He walked. Paths of pink-veined kumuda gave way to coarser stone, then to sun-baked brick, then to dirt and grass. He stopped at the top of a gentle rise and gazed down the lea and smiled at last. Here was life at its most chaotic. Colorful flags and rags fluttered damply over the ridgepoles of a thousand billowing tents and garish stalls.

Here, there was only foot traffic. No aircars scorched the grass with their dragon's-breath or flattened it with their air cushions. No cycles rutted the fresh earth. Only the merchant's wagons came here. The Bazaar was technologically sacrosanct—one of the few traditions of Kasi society Jaya Sarojin applauded.

Each breath sucked in a thousand-thousand teasing, tempting smells. His steps were quick now, and brought him to a well-known stall of pungent and pleasant fragrance.

A round, shiny face peered out at him from under the striped awning. “Nathu Rai! Lord!” The face lit up like a hundred candles. “It's been a week! Have you been ill?”

Jaya laughed. “I'm healthy enough. Only my humor is ill.”

“Well, then let me cheer you.” The woman waved a chubby hand at her baked goods. “What'll it be this morning? Choose quickly, before it rains.”

Jaya threw a glance at the silvery sky, but his eyes were drawn quickly back to the table full of temptation. He chose two pastries and bought a cup of hot channa. Then he wandered.

People who recognized him, or at least recognized the signature of rank on the breast of his cloak, greeted him amiably or respectfully, depending on their own station. He bought gifts for the family das and for his grandmother, the Jivinta Mina, who loved such things as the hand blown glass falcon he found.

It was too early for the tent shows and he was contemplating a second mug of channa when the clouds broke.

The rain was relentless. When it became apparent it would continue, Bazaar dismantled itself tent by tent and disappeared into the colorful wagons that had brought it here. The stalls pulled in their wares and closed their awnings.

Jaya Sarojin watched it all with lazy fascination and a little disappointment, standing under the broad leaves of an ancient tree—watched the merchants and hucksters scurrying to fold and pin and lock down tight.

Something caught his eye—something that seemed out of rhythm with the orderly chaos of the disintegrating Bazaar. Just below where he stood at the edge of the wood, a tall, slender figure in mud-stained blue staggered, fell and rose to stagger forward again. It was a woman, he realized. She was clutching her head and obviously injured.

Jaya left the protection of the trees. Drawing nearer, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, that the woman was under surveillance by two Sarngin—guardians of law and order—who were even now moving toward her. Curious. He wondered what she might have done to merit their interest.

Jaya stepped into her path as she stumbled on a tuft of grass. Grasping her shoulders, he steadied her when she would have fallen. She stared at him, mutely, through eyes the color of the clouds where Mitras burned. A wave of hot static swept down through his body, granting him a moment of intense, if pleasant, surprise.

She was truly exotic—skin the pale gold of a freshminted coin, hair the hue of black cherries, eyes in which one could imagine he saw a winter storm. He took her to be somewhere in her twenties. Her clothing—a blue, one-piece coverall made of rugged material—suggested she came from a rural region, or even from Mehtar's sister-planet, Avasa. She wore no id at either her neck or wrists. That she had once possessed it, Jaya surmised by the thin, red line of welts on her neck. He took her left hand and turned it palm up. It was innocent of markings.

The Sarngin were hurrying toward them now. Impulsively, Jaya pulled off his cloak and threw it around the woman's shoulders. The Sarojin crest gleamed even under the clouds. Grimacing, he hugged her to his side as the Sarngin drew level with them.

Their eyes had not missed his scanning of her palm, and would understand the gesture of the cloak in that context. They knew what he knew—the woman was yevetha—unmarked, unregistered. Their eyes told him that as they each gave a crisp rendition of the respectful greeting.

“Good day, mahesa,” said one of them, a sergeant in rank.

“Our blessings, Nathu Rai,” murmured the other.

Jaya smiled and nodded. “A good day to you, friends,” was all he said and mentally urged them to simply move on.

“The day is rather cool and wet for Chaitra,” returned the first officer, “but you don't mind the rain, I see.”

Jaya let his gaze flick to the woman's stricken features. “No, Sarngin. Rain brings blessings.”

The sergeant nodded and bowed, a slight gleam of irritation entering his eyes before he averted them. “Then enjoy your blessings, Nathu Rai Sarojin. Peace.”

Jaya inclined his head. With the Sarngin gone, he released the woman, turning her so he could see her face. The static curled below his stomach as he checked her eyes for dilation.

“Are you all right?” he asked and got no answer but a blank stare. It was followed momentarily by a slight nod. When he continued to search her face, she nodded again, more emphatically, and managed something that might have been intended for a smile.

The Sarngin still watched, and Jaya suspected they would follow him for no other reason than to see the law was obeyed by the Taj caste as well as shaped by it. He considered his options for a moment. He could attempt to elude the Sarngin and get the woman to the House Sarojin. He might then be able to help her recover her id or have some fabricated. Or he could obey the law and take her to a dalali for processing.

BOOK: Laldasa
11.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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