Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
I hadn’t spent a full day on the surface of a planet since I had left Earth. In addition to Kaaran’s having a longer than Standard day, the time zone of the Residence was almost one hundred eighty degrees out of sync with our ship. Just going from New York to Los Angeles used to give me jet lag. This had me ready to commit suicide—if I could stay awake long enough, that is.
Angel, however, was not willing to let me rest in peace. Jaenna apparently had arranged to meet Valaria in our suite and wanted some privacy. So he informed me, and then indicated that I would need to get up and out. When I showed no signs of moving, he simply rolled me off the bed. So much for the respect due a commanding officer. Once I was sitting up Angel informed me further that his dice game was resuming and that, if I cared to come, I was welcome.
I rubbed my eyes as Angel left, trying to clear the cobwebs. I really wasn’t interested in shooting dice. I have had only moderate luck at craps throughout my life and didn’t see any reason to believe that different dice and different rules would change it. Then, for some reason, Couloura’s parting shot from the previous night struck home. Haranyi could have dispelled the whole thing when we spoke, but he had chosen to hedge. Enough so that my mind would not let go. There was that insinuation, and here was Jaenna kicking us out so she could meet Valaria alone. Having thought of it, I could not think of anything else.
I would really like to leave this part out. It doesn’t reflect well on me. Unfortunately, if I did most of the rest of the story would be unclear. Anyway, here is the miserable truth. You can think what you like.
I checked quickly through our suite. Angel had left and neither Jaenna nor Valaria had yet arrived. For the moment, I was alone. The interior walls of the suite’s main common room were covered by a heavy tapestry. It hung in large pleats from ceiling to floor. Its intricate weave depicted a landscape in minute detail, right down to tiny lizard-like creatures among tree roots and veins in the wings of insects. A quick inspection showed that there was about six inches between the wall and the back of the hanging, much more of course in the pleats. Before I had really thought it through, I had ducked behind the tapestry. It took only a minute of standing there for me to get second thoughts. I was being a sneak, something I hadn’t done since second grade when I spied on who was smoking pot in the john and wound up with two black eyes and no friends. If Jaenna ever found out what I was doing, I would lose her for good.
I pondered that for a moment. The only arguments that I couldn’t trust Jaenna were the words of a jealous sister and Haranyi’s failure to rule it out decisively. That wasn’t much, or shouldn’t have been, to set against what we had gone through together. That convinced me that I was taking too big a risk on too little suspicion. Unfortunately, that was when I heard the door slide open. I recognized Jaenna’s light tread. She crossed the room and sat down. I was trapped. There was no way I could step out from behind that curtain. What would I tell her? I was inspecting for lint?
A few minutes later, the door opened again. The tread was heavier this time and Jaenna’s greeting confirmed that it was indeed Valaria.
“Jaenna, your message said it was urgent,” he said. “What’s wrong?”
“Can we talk?” she asked in return.
“Yes,” he said, “I had the suite area scanned.”
That gave me a jolt because, even after Calldlamm, I wasn’t used to thinking of rooms being under surveillance as a matter of routine. I was trying to think of what to say when he pulled the tapestry away, and then I realized that he had been looking for electronic bugs, not human spies. It was actually funny. He had carefully checked the suite and completely missed an eavesdropper by assuming that any surveillance would be electronic.
“I was worried when you weren’t at the celebration,” Jaenna was saying when I pulled my mind back to business. “There’s tension now anyway, but with the tie coming up it is worse, and then with Norboh disappearing like that …” She stopped abruptly. “We both know that some groups would like to sabotage what father is doing. I was concerned.”
“Don’t be,” he reassured her. “I know what your hullmetal-plated teacher, Haranyi, tells you, but I really can take care of myself. No, I had to see some of the units in the capitol area. In fact, it did have to do with the search for Norboh. Haranyi has been incredibly lax about it. Maybe he is preoccupied with security for the ceremony, maybe he is finally getting old. I don’t know.”
I almost gasped when he said that. Just last night Haranyi had been telling me how thorough he was being. Someone was lying. It occurred to me that if Haranyi were responsible for Norboh’s disappearance—or his death—he would have no incentive to search hard, but plenty of incentive to make it look as though he was. It was an effort to stay still and I was able to do so only for fear of getting what Polonius got. Which I probably deserved. (Yes, I read Shakespeare in high school like everybody else.) I missed whatever Jaenna said in reply. When I was paying attention again, Valaria was talking.
“I heard that you were quite the proper household lady last night,” he said. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Yes, and I hated every minute of it,” Jaenna said. There was heat in her voice. “I can do it, but I hate it.”
“I know that, little one. But there’s no choice, not unless you want to go back to your ship.”
“No!” The force in that one syllable of denial almost made me give myself away. True, Jaenna had always said she would come back to Kaaran. I guess I’d assumed that underneath she preferred my company. “Valaria,” she said, “you know why I didn’t come right back when I had the chance. I had to prove myself.”
“Which you have done,” he agreed. “Of course,” and here he laughed, “your captain is a rather dashing sort.”
“I like him. Quite a bit really.” Well, thanks a lot, I thought. “I could stay there, but I want to do what we planned.”
“Then, I’m afraid it’s role-playing. At least until the ceremony,” he said. “After that, I’ll have authority in my own right.” He laughed again. “Speaking of your captain, have you heard the story going around about last night?”
“No, what?” I thought I detected anxiety in her voice, although I could have been imagining it.
“Couloura tried to bed him and didn’t get him. She’s claiming that he said he had a blaster burn in a vital spot and the graft didn’t take.” They both had a good laugh while I strangled quietly there behind the tapestry.
Jaenna made a comment about not knowing the true state of affairs, to the accompaniment of more mirth. Valaria then assured Jaenna that he would be at the celebration with her that night and took his leave. Jaenna apparently remained behind.
I had learned nothing about my original concern. I had heard Jaenna say that she preferred Kaaran to Lussern, so it was a valid question whether her decisions were really any of my business. I could have left for the port and headed back to Lussern and that would have been the end of it. Or I could have gone back to Earth, or I could have done a lot of other things, but I didn’t do any of them because of the discrepancy between Haranyi’s statement and Valaria’s. It might prove to be an important lead to whatever was really going on at the Residence. But, I couldn’t tell anyone. If I did, they would demand to know my source and my spying would be exposed. It was a frustrating situation.
What was equally frustrating was that Jaenna showed no disposition to move from her chair. Therefore, I could not move from my spot behind the curtain. Try standing absolutely still for any length of time. The blood pools in your legs and they begin to ache. Your nose starts to itch. Then everything itches. I was beginning to think I could not hold out any longer when the communicator chimed. Jaenna answered it, held a brief conversation, and left the suite.
I spent most of the afternoon trying to think up ways to pass the time until that evening’s bacchanal. Part of me wanted to go to see Valaria, talk to him and see if he might say something that could answer my questions one way or the other. The problem was, I could not think of any subtle way to ask the heir to Kaaran’s governorship, “Hey fella, are you putting your sister up to screwing me?”
I was also feeling rejected. Never mind that I had spent much of my relationship with Jaenna urging her to return to Kaaran. I had become very comfortable around her and was missing her already. So, I moped.
Angel showed up in the early evening. Jaenna was off having something done to her dress, so we were alone. From appearances, Angel was doing well in his dice game, but that wasn’t what he wanted to talk about.
“Danny-boy,” he asked, “can I level with you, and not have you mention anything to Jaenna?”
“Shit, what’s the matter Angel? Don’t you think I can keep my mouth shut around her?” I wish I could have rephrased that.
Angel flopped down on one of the beanbag beds. From the furrows on his brow, something was really bothering him.
“Out with it,” I urged him.
“Well, Danny-boy,” he began slowly, “I get the feeling there is something going on around here.”
“Oh, Christ!” I had to laugh in spite of my mood. “Angel, this place has more plots than a soap opera. As long as they don’t involve us, the hell with them.”
“Yeah.” He cracked his knuckles one at a time. They sounded like rifle shots. “You hear anything about a dude named Norboh?”
My brief spell of humor vanished immediately. I had been hearing that name far too often. Angel saw the change in my expression.
“Mean something to you?” he asked.
“Not much so far,” I said. “Former advisor to Tyaromon, now out of favor. Possibly fatally out of favor. I’ve heard several stories about it. Not all of them match. Where did you hear the name?”
“A guy named Gyro that I was dicing with,” Angel told me. “We were getting ready to take a break, ’cause the group was down to just a few of the guards then. Anyway, I’d been winning a lot, real big time, but it turned around on me in just two passes. I had my back to the wall and it was Gyro’s throw. He doubled up on me and made a crack that I was gonna go down real fast, just like Norboh. The guy was a little lit.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound like anything,” I said. Actually, it made me feel a little more comfortable. It sounded like a cheap one-liner at the expense of one of the mighty who had fallen.
“Sure, that was no big deal. But,” and Angel let me dangle on the word, “the guard sitting next to Gyro almost had a stroke. Hissed at him that if Haranyi heard he’d been talking like that, Gyro’s balls would wind up floating in the soup. Then he tried to give me some lame explanation. I tell you, Gyro looked like somebody was going to go for his balls with a hedge clipper right then.”
Haranyi! Again his name was involved with Norboh. Valaria’s comment to Jaenna stood out in my mind. A guard would hardly be so intimidated if Haranyi was being lax about the affair. Quickly, I told Angel about my conversations with Haranyi. I also mentioned that I had heard, elsewhere, that he was not pursuing the matter with the vigor he claimed. I avoided mentioning how I had come by that information.
“Danny, I get the feeling that Haranyi is up to his neck in this.”
“Yeah.” I had no doubt in my own mind, but hearing Angel say it made it seem more real. Telling Jaenna would break her heart, I was sure, so I figured we had better have some concrete evidence before we mentioned it. “Angel, do you think that you could get more out of Gyro?”
“Probably,” he said. “If money won’t work, blackmail will. But, I have to get him alone. I’m sure there’s no way he’ll talk in front of anyone else.”
“How about tonight, during the celebration?”
“I’ll give it a try.”
I spent the party trying to look interested, but I wasn’t. The format was identical to the previous night, and probably to the nights before that. The one difference was that Valaria was there. Jaenna stuck by her brother, which meant she didn’t have an opportunity to see how distracted I was, but it also inspired thoughts I would have been better off without. I found myself watching the two of them to the exclusion of everything else. It would have been easy to give in to temptation and block out the affair with alcohol, but then I would have been useless if Angel found anything important. Even without the booze, I was so oblivious to my surroundings that I turned around and walked straight into Tyaromon.
He had eaten sparingly, as on the night before, and, although he watched the partiers closely, he neither joined them nor did he take any drugs or alcohol. Tyaromon stayed the hunter in a political forest.
“Captain, good evening. I looked for you this morning to see how you had enjoyed our hospitality, but you could not be found.”
I was thinking that it was a very good thing I hadn’t been found that morning, but I did not dare make a double entendre with Tyaromon. He had the knack of making me feel defensive about even the most trivial things. I told him that I had found it difficult to adjust to the time shift, which at least was true, if not the whole story.
He acknowledged my alibi, and again asked how I liked the celebration. I gave him a bland reply.
“Tell me, Captain,” he said, “you had five drinks by this time last night; tonight nothing. I would be surprised if it were my daughter’s charms you were pining for, so I wondered if something was wrong.”
Judas Priest! How observant was he? I looked into his eyes, but the twin black stones gave me no clue to his mind.
His daughter was very much on my mind, but I had no intention of mentioning that. “I’ve been hearing that one of your advisors has disappeared suddenly. Name of Norboh, I believe.” I figured that would satisfy his curiosity.
Tyaromon frowned. “That is correct. Now tell me why that concerns you.”
“The impression I have is that he occupied an important post.”
“That is hardly a secret, Captain. Norboh was my advisor on military affairs. Most people would consider that important in this day and age.”
Military affairs. The words lingered in my mind. “When Jaenna’s ship was taken, you lost your senior policy advisor. Correct?” I asked. He nodded. “Now you have lost your military advisor. I find that concerning.”