The Pearl - Chapter 15

"Well, that's it then," said Leith.

"Yes," Il-yar-Bisen replied. "Not very inspiring, are they?"

"No. They're not. But they'll have to do."

Through the clearsteel viewing window of the spaceport, the two mnan-gar watched the the last group of mercenaries disembark from the landers. Off to one side, Kweela was informing Il-yar-Bisen's battle-kin, Shira-Ti, of recent events.

"You did a good job getting as many as you have," Leith told Il-yar-Bisen. "It's not as many as I'd like, but more than I expected."

"This is crazy," said the Harkarian, shaking his head. "We can't invade a planet like Basra with just this rag-tag lot supporting what's left of our Shutaka."

"This isn't just any mission," Leith reminded him.

"I don't doubt that the Shutaka will fight to the last warrior. But they're not invincible, Birro, even if they think they are."

"I know that. But we will find a way. We thought the Janasen mission was impossible too."

Il-yar-Bisen grunted. "Maybe. Has the Sorarainian returned from Basra yet?"

'Yes, Belle's back." Leith paused. "She had a tough time, but she got enough information for me to believe that we can pull it off. I've got a few ideas, but it's going to be complicated."

"That's not good. The more complex it is, the more likely something will go wrong. As it is, it will be almost impossible to manage our Shutaka as well as these mercenary imports."

Leith turned away from the window and looked at his fellow strategist-tactician. "It's worse than that. We have to start a civil war as well."

Il-yar-Bisen smiled grimly. "The Specs?"

"He's quick," came Jaycee's thought in Leith's mind. "I see why you respect him, even if you don't like him."

Leith ignored her, although he was getting used to carrying out two converstaions at once. "That's the general idea," he answered Il-yar-Bisen. Unless you've got a better one."

"Have you discussed this with the others yet?" the Harkarian asked.

"No. I wanted to hear your opinion first. Belle says that there is a sort of Spec underground resistance whose goal is supposedly overthrowing the Mirradonian Basrans. What I want to know is wheter you think that is all talk and no action. After twelve hundred seasons, do you think that the Spec decendants of the original Harkarian colonists are up for a real fight if we assist them?"

"I know only a little of the underground. It is called Sim-bun-arka, which translates as 'path to freedom'. They desire to shake off the chains of Mirradonian slavery and return to Harkar, their ancestral homeland."

"Are they recognised by the Harkarian government?"

"Yes, but don't expect any help from Harkar. It would not risk open conflict with Basra."

"But the Specs would be welcome on Harkar if we can get them off Basra?"

"Most certainly. If they choose to leave Basra."

"What's your feeling about this Sim-bun-arka? Will they be up to it?"

"Don't worry, Birro," Il-yar-Bisen assured him. "If one drop of Harkarian blood remains in their veins, they will be up to it. If we give them the means, they'll fight."

"Good." Leith replied. "They'll need to. Now, if you're up to it, there's a planning meeting scheduled in about twelve s.u.'s. We can postphone it until you've had a chance to rest, if you want..."

"We're not tired - it's morning shiptime on Periwinkle." He looked over towards the two Shutaka warriors. "Shira, how long to have that lot sorted?"

"About five s.u.'s, Il-yar-ka," she replied.

"Good." He turned back to Leith. "Shira and I will finish up here and then catch up with the rest of Graine clan before heading off to the meeting. I hope you have been taking good care of Graine in my absence, Birro."

"It has been an honour, Il-yar," Leith assured him. "They have been gracious and generous in their teaching and I have learnt much from them."

Il-yar-Bisen smiled. "Well spoken, Birro. Well spoken. Although I'm sure Junda-Ki would have kept you on your toes."

"Aye," Leith told him. "She's strong-willed and stubborn, that one. But I'd welcome her in one of my squads any day."

"Good answer again, Birro," Il-yar-Bisen said, laughing. "She's Shira's blood-sister, you know."

"I should have guessed," Leith replied. b


Two other craft had touched down at the spaceport not long after Il-yar-Bisen's ship. One was Ambassador Gisele Mar's shuttle, which was met with much pomp and circumstance by Baron Hermain and his court advisors. The other ship was a nondecript Basran tramp freighter. The dozen crew that disembarked from the freighter wore jumpsuits as faded and tattered as their ship, but they walked with the unmistakable gait of trained and disciplined military personell. The exception was the smallest of the group, who glided along with stealthy grace characteristic of a Sorarainian.


Leith meets Gisele. Convinces her to keep out of things.



"Shimar, see that fellow over there?"


"I think we should talk to him. Could you arrange it please? Quietly."

Elfin smiled grimly. He knew Gisele too well not to pick up on her warnings. "It's like that, is it? Should I be careful of him or her?"

"I don't know, Shimar. Her I think, but maybe both. Neither are what they seem."

"Who is he?"

"An old friend. I hope."

"An old friend? Out here? Hard to believe."

Gisele laid a hand on her companion's arm. "Shimar," she murmured, "Be nice or I'll send you back to Admiral Crando."

Elfin took her hand in his and raised it to his lips. "As you wish, Ambassador." He walked quickly but silently after the pair.



Elfin was reminded of the

"Good day, fellow," he said cheerily.

"Greetings," Leith replied.

"I am Shimar Elfin, assistant to that

"And who is your Mistress?"

"One of the most respected Ambassadors in the Inner Rim. Apparently, she believes you to be an old acquaintence of hers."

"An Ambassador?" Leith told Elfin. "I think you must be mistaken. I do not know any Ambassadors. I'm a simple pilgrim and have never been to the Inner Rim."

"Old chap, I certainly believe you, but the Ambassador seems to think otherwise. I tell you what, why not come and meet her? I'm sure she will realise her error once she has taled with you."

"I'm sorry, but we're in a bit of a hurry. I have to be at important meeting with some acquaintences in a few s.u.'s. Please apologise to your Ambassador."

"I'm afraid I must insist."

Out of the corner of his eye, Leith was aware of Kweela



Elfin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Well, now," he said. "That's a bit of a problem. You see, the Ambassador has asked me fetch you, so that's what I must do." He glanced at Kweela. "However, I somehow think that your beautiful friend here would try to prevent me from doing that and things would probably get a bit messy. I'd guess there's a good chance I'd get killed, but there's also a good chance you or her might get hurt in the process. That would seem a rather unnecessary outcome for such a simple request as a chat with an old friend."

Leith looked at Elfin more closely. Something about the man reminded him of Belle - he realised it was the way in which Elfin carried his power hidden beneath the surface; it showed in his eyes, which reflected an intimate knowledge of death. Professionals such as Belle and Elfin killed when necessary, skillfully and cleanly, but with no enjoyment for the task. Elfin's eyes begged Leith not to make him use his skills.

"Leith," came Jaycee's thoughts suddenly in his mind. 'I think we should go with him."


"I don't know. I just think we should. Call it a hunch."

"You have hunches now?"

"Seems like it. If I had shoulders, I'd shrug."

"Great," Leith muttered. "This is all I need." He looked at Kweela-San. "Kweela, Jaycee thinks we should accept Mr Elfin's invitation."


"Uh huh. She reckons he's got an honest face."


Shimar stood looking at them with a bemused expression on his face.



"Your friend; she's Shutaka?"

"Kweela? What makes you say that?"

Elfin lifted his left arm and flexed his hand. "This is prosthetic. I lost the real one to a Shutaka warrior a long, long time ago. The first, and last, time I met one of them."

"It must have only been a doza warrior," Kweela said softly, but Leith knew she was reassessing Elfin.

"Well, you might not be Shutaka, but perhaps you'd like this as a souvenier of our meeting?" He handed the ring to Kweela.







At that moment a dozen Shutaka burst into the room, carring the limp body of Kisa-Mara. The young woman's clothes were bloodstained and torn.

"A group of warriors found her in the street, my Lord," said one of the warriors. "She has broken both her legs, and seems to have been drugged. We have sent for Marion."

Misha-Dan place his hands on Kisa's forehead and her eyelid's fluttered open. Her eyes were dilated and unfocussed, but her will was still strong. "Lord, she whispered, "The Pearl... you must..."

Kweela exploded into motion, and was already halfway out the door, Leith and Belle close on her heels. The warrior made her way quickly through the backstreets of the city until she came to the building the Shutaka used for their main residential quarters. Kweela paused briefly at a spot by one of the side walls, inspecting a patch of disturbed ground. Belle touched Leith's arm and pointed to a window five stories above.

"She came out of that window and landed here," the Sorarainian said.

Kweela nodded in agreement. Leith expected her to rush into the building, but instead, she flattened herself against the wall and worked her way cautiously to the building entrance. The heavy wooden door was open and they crept softly into the hallway. Everything was quiet, but the unmistakable odour of laser-blast hung in the air. The rest of the warriors, including Visa-Mil, had caught up with them and Kweela motioned for them to remain in the hallway. Kweela, Belle and Leith made their way slowly up the stairs, expecting at any moment to be attacked. Visa-Mil slipped past the other Shutaka warriors and crept up the stairs behind Leith.

Lilith was still alive when they found her. She was surrounded by the bodies of a dozen of her assailants. Her sword was embedded in the soldier lying on top of her. Leith and Kweela pulled the dead man from the Shutaka woman. Her body was horribly gouged with the trails of laser bolts and the hilt of a small, silver dagger protruded from her chest.

Kweela knelt beside the dying warrior and supported her head in her lap. Lilith opened her eyes slowly.

"Ah... Kweela, I'm glad it is you that will be with me at this time." Lilith coughed and dark-red blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. "They have the Keepers, and the Pearl. I have failed in my duty."

"No, Lilith, no," soothed Kweela, brushing the other woman's matted hair from her eyes. "Kisa-Mara is safe, at least. Be at peace; a goddess could not have done more than you. There were many - too many - but you got most of them."

"It... it is so hard to fight well without your ka, Kweela. I could have done so much better with Doran here."

"He would have been watching, Lilith," Kweela whispered. "And he would have been so proud of you. And he will tell you himself, soon."

"I hope so, Kweela. I miss him so..."

Lilith's words trailed off and she was gone. Kweela closed the warriors's eyes and kissed her gently on the forehead.

Belle place a tiny hand on the shoulder of her Shutaka friend. "I'm so sorry, Kweela."

Kweela turned her head to look up at the fairy woman. "It is better this way, Belle," she said. "Living without your ka is no life for a warrior."

Belle opened her mouth to reply, when something caught her eye behind Kweela. "Down, all of you. Now," she said under her breath.

Kweela reacted instantly. Her leg lashed out, catching Leith and Visa-Mil behind their knees and toppling them to the floor. She crouched down over her mnan-gar, shielding him as best she could from the unknown threat.

"What is it?" she whispered.

Belle still stood, her eyes closed, barely breathing.

"Kweela," she murmered, "There's an Assassin in the room; stay down."

Leith looked desperately around the room, but couldn't see anything. Kweela nodded towards the heavy drapes surrounding the window, but didn't even bother trying to draw her knife. She knew she would be dead before the blade was out of its sheath. Leith thought he saw a flickering in the shadows, then nothing. Belle, her eyes still closed, was turning her head as if tracking the movements of someone throughout the room.

"Reveal yourself, second. There is no skill in using a screen," Belle said quietly.

In the centre of the room, there was a shimmer, like a heat haze, then another Sorarainian was standing there.

"I am a third," he said, smiling coldly. "I am Stel. You are far from home, cousin. And you are interfering with Guild of Black business. I would know your name before I kill you so I can inform your family."

"I am Belle," she replied "I was also once of the Guild."

The smile froze on Stel's face as Belle's words registered on his brain. "Belle?" he whispered. "Why did not Holl tell me..." Then his body crumpled lifelessly to the floor. Leith blinked. He had not seen Belle move, but suddenly she had covered the six paces to Stel and had delivered the fatal blow. She had not even opened her eyes. Leith did not even know what weapon she had used. Belle now stood with her back to the body of what, two heartbeats ago, had been a third-level Assassin.

Kweela rose slowly to her feet and walked across to Belle. The Sorarainian turned to face her.

"You gave him too much time, Belle," said the Shutaka. "You could have killed him when he was standing by the drapes. Another Assassin might say you were enjoying yourself toying with him. Old habits die hard, don't they?"

Belle looked across at Visa-Mil who was still trying to comprehend what she had just witnessed. Then Belle's tiny fists clenched and she started beating on Kweela's breastplate."

"Damm you Kweela, damm you!" she cried, her face twisted in anger. "She's just a child..." Belle stopped hitting Kweela and bowed her head against the warrior's chest.

"I know, Belle," said Kweela, raising the Sorarainian hands to her lips and kissing the skinned knuckles. "But she has to understand the path she has chosen. She has to know what she will become."

Visa-Mil had crossed the room to stand beside the two women. She reached out to touch Belle.




"You will have six cycles to get to Basra, make contact with the resistance and convince them to

Chapter 16 -->