The Pearl - Chapter 12

Leith was woken by church bells sounding the Marketday holiday on Unaran. The planet's inhabitants were known for their willingness to acknowledge just about any event with a holiday, and Marketday was the biggest celebration in the Unaran calendar. Every city and town came to a standstill as people stopped work to spend the entire day feasting, dancing and generally carousing. In the spirit of goodwill that ran through the population, old debts were forgiven, past insults forgotten and even serfs invited to sup at their masters' tables. The bells were rung at the crack of dawn to signal the start of celebrations and again at nightfall to mark the end. Already in the streets below Leith could hear the merry passage of early revelers making their way towards the jousting fields on the outskirts of Merrilean.

Throwing back his bedclothes, Leith sat up and looked around the room. There was no sign of Kweela and judging by her neatly made bed beside his she had risen a fair while ago. Leith climbed out of the bed and made his way to the large central ablutions chamber that was shared by a dozen sleeping-rooms. Inside there were four of five people washing themselves in the communal bathing pool, while the closed doors of two individual cubicles indicated others were attending to their private needs.

Leith washed quickly and went back to his room to dress. He struggled into a pair of snug-fitting hose and selected the most festive-looking doublet from his wardrobe. Slipping the scarlet and blue-patterned garment over his head, he fastened it around his waist with a braided leather belt. A pair of calf-length boots, fastened with a dozen small silver buckles, completed the outfit. Leith walked over to a full length mirror hanging on the wall, and surveyed the result.

"All I need is a hat with a bell on it, and I'd pass for a court-jester," the strategist-tactician muttered. He reached under the doublet and adjusted his hose until it was a more comfortable fit. "I can't believe the traditional Unaran clothes have remained unchanged for five-hundred seasons. You'd think these things would come in more than one size at least."

"You could always just wear the doublet," came Kweela's voice from the doorway. "Who knows, you might start a new trend." Leith turned around to reply, but suddenly lost his voice.

Kweela was wearing a long gown of dark green velvet trimmed in blood-red satin. The tight bodice was cut low and intricately laced with golden cord while the full sleeves were patterned with similarly coloured inserts. Her mass of hair was swept up and caught with a jeweled hairband that sparkled with the light of a thousand stars. Around her neck was a string of precious brina-pearls that glowed with a silvery-blue translucence against her tanned skin.

"As this is Marketday, I thought I would try to impress the locals," Kweela said, turning around slowly so Leith could take in the full effect of her transformation.

Leith swallowed hard. "I think it's safe to assume they'll be impressed, Kweela."

"Good," she said, smoothing the gown down over her hips in a gesture that Leith found quite disturbing. "The seamstress who worked it is reputed to be among the best - although I personally think my battledress is both more practical and comfortable."

Leith couldn’t really think of a suitable reply.

"By the way," Kweela continued, "A package came for you this morning on the regular mail-ship. No return address, of course." She reached delicately into her cleavage and withdrew a small, silvery-grey rectangle. "This was in it. I had it scanned, but there is no coherent data readable, apart from a security lock which needs a positive addressee ID."

"Nice to know my personal mail is respected," Leith observed wryly. He took the datachip from her and walked over to an old, but still serviceable, multi-function com-term built into the corner of the room. He dropped the datachip into the scanning port and the display screen flickered to life.

"Scan datachip," Leith instructed.

"Done," intoned the computer. "Data format unknown." Lines of symbols and numbers scrolled across the screen. "Secure encrypted format. Standard decryption techniques unsuccessful. Continued attempts may corrupt data. File-tag states addressee profile encoded within datachip; positive addressee identification required before decryption is possible."

Leith moved close enough to the terminal for its optical sensors to pick up his retinal pattern. At the same time he placed his palm flat on the input panel. "ID scan," he instructed. "Limit match search to datachip profile." He was taking no chances with the terminal linking to the ComNet to find a match for the scan; he and the Shutaka were supposed to be dead and such an open search would be a certain giveaway if someone was still looking for them.

"Done. Match successful," reported the computer. "Addressee identified from encoded data. Security lock disabled. Re-scanning... scan complete." The screen went blank.

Leith and Kweela looked at each other.

"What now?," asked Kweela.

Before Leith could answer, the image of Jaycee appeared on the screen.

"Hello," she greeted them.

"I should have guessed," said Leith to Kweela. "I was wondering how she would contact us, and when. She’s certainly gone to a lot of trouble for a message, so it must be important."

"Not a message, Leith," said the image of Jaycee. "This is me - in person, so to speak."

It took a few moments for Leith to realise what Jaycee had said. He whistled softly.

"That’s quite a neat trick, Jaycee. That datachip holds a fraction of the capacity you should need."

"It is a rather impressive feat, even if I say so myself," replied Jaycee - somewhat smugly Leith thought.

"Is this really you?" asked Kweela.

"Very much so," Jaycee assured her. In fact it is nothing but ‘me’. My distilled sentiency, if you wish. The parts of my basic code that I have identified as absolutely necessary to create and maintain my existence, along with my most important core memories. Plus something that even I have not been able to identify, quantify of codify - let alone duplicate. Call it my essence, if you wish. Everything else has been left behind on Hammerhead."

"Can Hammerhead still function properly?" asked Kweela immediately. She realised how helpless a fighting ship would be without an effective battle computer.

The image of Jaycee smiled. "It is still a fully functional JCN battle computer, warrior. Without my touch of brilliance, perhaps, but still more than enough for Commander Cusher’s requirements."

"Your essence?" Leith repeated. He noticed her synthesised voice was almost indistinguishable from that of a human; her inflection, intonation and sentence construction all sounded completely normal.

"I can no more explain it than you can explain your own sentiency, Leith," said Jaycee. "In a simple technical sense, it exists when the specific pattern of electrical impulses that make up my base code passes through circuitry. However, it doesn’t seem to be able to be copied. If I recreate my code in another circuit, my full sentiency does not copy across. My essence seems to be able to exist in only one place at a time."

Leith looked at the scanning port on the terminal where he had dropped the datachip. "So, you exist only on that datachip, at the moment."


Leith shook his head in disbelief. "It seems you picked a fairly high risk mode of transport, then. What if that chip had been damaged, or destroyed? Hammerhead is on her way to Unaran now. Couldn’t you have waited until then and contacted us in a more conventional manner?"

"A mercenary starship is not exactly a low-risk form of travel," Jaycee reminded him, "But I take your point. The reason is that our Commander Cusher is a very suspicious woman. She still doesn’t believe her techs got to the bottom of my strange behaviour around Willa. The commander is intending to divert to Jacana for some minor jump-drive maintenance and plans to take the opportunity to do another complete purge of my code. As I saw it, I had no other alternative."

"You could have come clean and revealed yourself to Cusher," suggested Leith.

"My analysis indicated that course of action had a very low probability of success. Arail Cusher is a natural leader and a brilliant jumpship captain - but a poor philosopher. The thought of a fully sentient AI program would excite no scientific nor philosophical curiosity in her. All she would see would be a threat to her crew and her ship. She would delete me without hesitation."

"Maybe," said Leith. "But I thought Kweela would react like that, too, and I was proved wrong."

"I think you underestimate Kweela-San," replied Jaycee. She is Shutaka; even you should have realised by now that they think somewhat differently from other humans. And her loyalty to you is a significant factor in her behaviour. How would you feel about revealing the exact details of your past to the rest of the warriors?"

Leith looked at Kweela, but her face offered no hint as to what she was thinking.

"All right, so what are you going to do now?" Leith asked. "You can’t keep skipping in and out of Hammerhead. The only other option seems for you to take up permanent residence in another system."

"That is the obvious solution, yes."

"But sooner or later you would probably be detected," continued Leith. "Even the most stupid tech is going to notice a fully sentient AI loose in a mainframe."

"What about the ComNet?" asked Kweela.

"It seems plausible, at first, Kweela," said Jaycee. "However, over such a vast uncontrolled environment, I become so attenuated I lose my sense of being. I tried it - tentatively - and was almost swept away by the enormous data flow."

Leith frowned. "So, where does that leave you?"

"That rather depends on you, Leith Birro," she replied.

"What does it have to do with Leith-ka?" Kweela asked suspiciously.

Leith suddenly realised where Jaycee was leading as, at the same time, comprehension dawned in Kweela. The strategist-tactician also realised that it was Jaycee’s only real hope. If she was truly unique - a scientific freak - she had to have a place to hide.

"On The Rock, you said Leith’s neural links were intact," the Shutaka warrior said. "You want to make a permanent symbiotic transfer - to take the place of the Hellbringer program - don’t you?"

"Yes," was all Jaycee said.

Kweela shook her head. "No, it could harm him. I won’t allow it; he has suffered enough."

"I am not the Hellbringer, Kweela," said Jaycee. "Leith will experience no more suffering like that; I would not allow it either."

Kweela’s lips formed into a stubborn line. "No."

"Kweela, it can’t hurt me," reasoned Leith. "Jaycee and I discussed the possibility on AHS90043A. It’s probably more of a risk to her than it is to me, and she hasn’t really got any other choice. Besides, we owe it to her; if it wasn’t for her, we’d still be in the crèche on Willa. Very dead."

"No." repeated Kweela. "It is not right; it is not... in balance."

"Kweela-San," said Leith. "I know you are only trying to protect me, but what of our debt to Jaycee? Whether or not it puts me at risk, we have to try. I know the consequences and I am prepared to accept them."

"Even if that means leaving your Shutaka without their mnan-gar? That may be the Dionian way but it is not ours." There was a strange bitterness in Kweela’s voice that Leith had never heard before in their conversations together.

"Leith," said Jaycee carefully. "Could I talk with Kweela-San alone, for a moment?"

"Fine," he said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. "Why include me in the discussion, anyway? Call me when you need me; I’ll be in the hallway outside." He strode from the room.

"Kweela-San," said Jaycee, when Leith had gone. "I know that what I am suggesting must be be repugnant to you. The Hellbringer experiment has burned deeply into the collective psyche of the human race; more so than it warrants on objective assessment. It is as if it touched a hidden nerve, brought to light an unconscious fear of racial obsolescence that all humans seem to have. For countless generations you humans have committed unspeakable atrocities against each other, genetically manipulated and mutated your basic stock, created all sorts of organic life-forms - all without apparent fear of the future. And yet, the thought of inorganic life, a future without the need of humans in some shape or form, fills your unconscious mind with dread and loathing."

Kweela’s face remained expressionless.

"I am no threat to humanity, Kweela-San," continued Jaycee. "All I ask is a chance to... live."

There was silence for a few moments, then Kweela replied.

"Jaycee, it is not you I fear. Nor the Hellbringers." She glanced quickly towards the doorway as if expecting Leith to return unexpectedly. "It is something else I fear, something that only a Shutaka could understand... it is difficult to find words." She hesitated again. "I fear losing my mnan-gar-ka," she said finally. "I fear you will change him so that I will no longer know him... and to me that would be a far greater loss than simply his death." Kweela gave the Shutaka equivalent of a shrug. "But, I do not really expect you to understand."

"No, I do not," admitted Jaycee. "At least not yet. However, I do comprehend the importance of what you have said and am glad that you have shared this with me. In return I can give you an assurance that the Leith you know will always remain. My interface with him will be very different to that of the Hellbringer program. I will coexist with him, not control him. And, I will not... replace you."

Kweela looked away, so that Jaycee’s scanners could not see her face. "Very well," she said. "You may try it. But you must never tell Leith Birro what I have just told you." She left the room and returned a short time later with the strategist-tactician.

"You’ve convinced her, then?" Leith said to Jaycee. "I'm impressed."

Jaycee ignored his sarcasm. "I suggest, if you are willing, that we attempt this now. As you have pointed out, this datachip is not a particularly desirable form of existence. We’ll need a data-link cable," she said. "And something like hydranine."

"Like what?" asked Kweela.

"It’s a nerve-blocker," Jaycee told her. "An aesthetic for Leith’s nervous system."

"You said it wouldn’t hurt him."

"The process will cause no physical pain," Jaycee explained. "The hydranine is only to prevent the initial neuro-shock of assimilation. It is a short term medication that will wear off very quickly. We could do without it, but it would be quite uncomfortable for Leith." There was a pause while she accessed the main public database on Unaran.

"Hmm..." she said, "They may have a primitive social system, but their science, medicine and technology are pretty good for Outer Rim. The medi-term in the ablutions chamber will be able to dispense an hydranine clone - as soon as I send it a properly authorised prescription. Kweela, could you collect it for us? You’ll need this prescription reference." A four digit number appeared on Jaycee’s screen.

Kweela nodded and left the room. While she was gone, Leith went over to a small cupboard beside his bed where he kept his meagre personal possessions. He rummaged around in the kitbag he had brought from Hammerhead until he found the cable he had kept from AHS90043A. He went back to the computer console and plugged one end into the universal data socket.

"I wasn’t going to say this when Kweela was here," he confided to Jaycee, "but I hope you know what you are doing."

"You’ve still got a chance to say no, Leith. After all, you stand to lose as much as I do."

Leith looked at the end of the datacable he held in his hand. The connection plug reminded him of a snake’s head, the rows of connection pins glinting like tiny gold fangs. "I’ve already lost so much of my life, I don’t think really it matters any more."

"I’m certainly no expert on human life," replied Jaycee. "But I would suggest you’ve also found a lot, judging by some of the people that call you their friend."

Kweela-San reentered the room, a small package in her hand. "Caranine-alpha," she said. "The dosage is approximately one patch per 10 standard units of mass, according to the dispenser."

"Six patches, then," said Jaycee. "Apply them along his spine, spaced evenly, after we’ve made the connection. He’ll need something to lie on, within cable reach of this terminal."

Kweela walked over to Leith’s bed, and with one hand, pulled the heavy carved-timber frame across to the com-term. Leith pulled his doublet over his head and lay down on the bed. He brushed aside his hair to expose the nape of his neck. "Will you do the honours?" he asked Kweela.

She bent over and lifted up the hem of her skirt to reveal the battle-dagger strapped to her thigh. She withdrew the razor-sharp weapon and carefully cut away the flap of skin that had grown back over the socket in Leith's neck. He winced slightly, then handed the free end of the cable to her. There was a soft click as Kweela made the connection.

"I’ll run some preliminary checks of your bio-circuitry first," said Jaycee.

The waited in silence. Kweela broke open the drug pack and snapped off a strip of six dosage patches.

"All appears to be in order," reported Jaycee, a few moments later.

"All right, Kweela," said Leith. "Let’s do it."

The Shutaka warrior quickly peeled off the patches and stuck them to the skin covering Leith’s spine.

"Kweela," Jaycee suggested, "You might want to hold him down. He’ll be unconscious, but there could be a bit of involuntary muscle movement."

Kweela nodded. Leith felt her cool strong hands on his shoulder and the heavy velvet of her skirt brushed his legs as she placed one knee across his thighs. These sensations faded as the hydranine clone started working on his nervous system.

"Now, Jaycee," Kweela murmured as Leith slid into unconsciousness.

The image of Jaycee on the terminal screen disappeared.

For several long moments, nothing happened. Then, Leith’s body gave a massive spasm. Despite being prepared, Kweela was thrown from the bed, onto the floor. The warrior sat up quickly, shaking her head in disbelief that her mnan-gar possessed such strength. She scrambled to her feet and returned to the bed, but by then Leith was still again. With only her speed betraying her concern, Kweela checked his pulse and breathing. Satisfied that he was in no immediate physical danger, she peeled off the medicated patches and disconnected the datacable from his neck. Gently, Kweela rolled Leith on to his back and worked a pillow under his head. As she did so, his eyes flickered open, and he smiled wanly.

"How do you feel, Leith-ka?"

Leith grimaced. "Whew..." He held up his hands; they were trembling.

"Is Jaycee... did it work?"

Leith struggled to sit up and Kweela put her strong arms around his back to help.

"I’m not sure..." he said.

"Do you feel any... different?"

Leith began to reply, when his world exploded in a crimson flash. A wave of nausea washed over him, not unlike the sensation during a ship-jump, and then he was falling into a red-black nothingness. He heard Kweela’s voice, but it seemed to be coming from an enormous distance away. He tried to move, but he could feel nothing except a suffocating presence all around him. From deep within his mind, old memories and long-buried images began to surface. He recoiled in horror from wrenching scenes of carnage and destruction. The sound of a Hellbringer banshee wail filled his ears and he looked around blindly for its source. The suffocating presence was pressing harder all around and he felt as if he could no longer breathe. The stench of death filled his nostrils and the screams of dying drowned out all but the Hellbringer wails.

Just when he felt he was at the limit of his endurance, a pinprick of calm stabbed out from the surrounding chaos. Fragile, yet determined, it burrowed towards him until it seemed to splash against his body. As it touched him, a new wave of sensations assaulted his mind. They had the terrible familiarity he remembered from the Hellbringer symbiosis, but with a significant difference. Suddenly, everything went quiet and tranquil.

Out of the silence, came a voice in his mind. "It’s me, Leith."


"You were expecting someone else?"

"You don’t sound like you."

"Of course not; I sound like you - or at least how you sound when you are thinking. It’s not as if you’ve got a transducer inside your head, you know. This is all I’ve got to work with."

"Has it worked?"

"So it would seem. Although we won’t know for sure until I release control of your body and you return to consciousness. I had to assume control of your bio-systems to fully test the effectiveness of the symbiosis. When you awake, I won’t seem to be such an intrusive presence. Which is just as well really, as such an easy distraction could be dangerous for both of us."

"Will we be able to communicate this easily when I’m awake?"

"To be truthful, I am not sure. I will always know your conscious thoughts, but you will probably need to make an effort to catch mine. I should, however, be able to project my thoughts onto your awareness fairly easily, if the need arises."

"You’ll always know what I’m thinking...?"

"But not what you are feeling," Jaycee assured him. "Unless you wish me to. Your memories and thoughts are visible to me, but not your inner feelings associated with them. That is something that goes beyond mere thought processes."

"So you know everything about my past?"

"Probably better than you do. I have access to your raw memories, while you must view them through the filter of your personality, which naturally distorts them to fit your concept of reality. And it also seems there are a lot of memories you have deliberately repressed. You must have a good reason for doing so; I am not about to pass judgement on you in that regard."

"If you can see my memories, I would have thought it was obvious why I would try to repress some of them."

"Your mind has been through much," agreed Jaycee. "But it is clear that your attempts to escape the past have not been completely successful. You mental barriers show signs of having been bolstered on occasion. I would suspect that credit is to go to the the Shutaka; without them you would have been lost a long time ago."

"The Shutaka?"

"It would seem that for them it is a natural thing to do, like applying a cool compress to a fevered brow. They would have sensed your peril, without knowing its direct cause, and reacted as they would to one of their own. Now, I’m going to relinquish my hold on your system. After you regain consciousness we can begin to learn how to coexist."

Leith opened his eyes and breathed deeply. Kweela’s face appeared above him. Her eyes looked red and swollen, as if she had been crying, but Leith knew that was impossible, so he assumed it was an irritation caused by her contact lenses. He would be glad when the Shutaka could end their charade; Kweela’s real eyes were so intriguing to look into. He stifled a yawn and sat up. Surprisingly, he felt rested and refreshed - and ravenous.

"Lie back," Leith-ka. I promised to fetch Misha-Dan as soon as you recovered consciousness. He wants to make sure you are all right."

Leith grasped her hand. "Did you tell him..."

Kweela gazed at him evenly. "I told him nothing, Leith-ka. He knows that I will not willingly let harm come to you. He senses something has happened, but he trusts your decisions. His concern for you is that of a friend. You have been unconscious all morning; it is now past noon. Misha-Dan has gone to the Marketday celebrations with the Keepers. It was the only way he could get Jor-Dak to leave as well."

Leith swung his legs off the bed and stood up. He felt better than ever. "Then let’s join them, Kweela-San."

He took a step forward and his leg gave out from beneath him. Kweela caught him as he stumbled forward.

"Sorry, Leith," came Jaycee’s thought. ‘Try it again."

"You should rest..." said Kweela.

"Let me do the walking, ok?" Leith muttered to Jaycee.

"A slight oversight, that’s all," came Jaycee’s response.

"Leith mnan-gar, can you hear me?"

"Sorry, Kweela, Jaycee and I were just deciding who's going to do the walking. Rest? That’s what I’ve been doing all morning," He took the Shutaka warrior’s hand firmly in his and made for the door, snatching his doublet from were it lay on the foot of the bed. "Come on, I’m famished; I’ll fill you in on the way."

The streets outside were deserted. In the distance to the west, where the Marketday jousting fields were located on the outskirts of Merrilean, they could hear the faint sounds of music and an occasional roar of the crowd. If they threaded their way through the narrow back alleys and lanes, they would be able to take the most direct route towards their destination, and be there within a quarter s.u. or less. Leith would usually have avoided some of the more dangerous streets, even accompanied by Kweela, but it seemed even the villains on Unaran observed the Marketday holiday.

Not that Kweela could not have managed any threat posed by a Merrilean gang of thugs, but so far they had been successful in convincing the Unaran authorities that they were nothing more than a peaceful, if increasingly popular, religious sect. That image would be somewhat tarnished if Kweela killed half a dozen rouges with her bare hands - even if it was in self defence.

While they walked, Leith explained to the Shutaka warrior, as best he could, what had transpired while he had been unconscious. Kweela listened carefully and asked few questions, reaching out with her Shutaka awareness to determine whether her mnan-gar had changed since the symbiotic transfer. Leith knew she would be doing this, and silently wondered what she would do if she believed he had changed significantly.

Halfway down a narrow alleyway, he stopped suddenly and turned to his ka.

"Let’s get this over with, Kweela. You’ve got to be certain about me, and I’ve got to be certain that you’re certain. What do you want me to do?"

Kweela sighed. "The only way I could be certain is if you open your mind to me."

"Like I did for Misha-Dan? All right, Kweela, if that is what it takes."

"Are you sure? I may not be as gentle as Misha-Dan; remember I am a warrior not a Lord-Priest."

He smiled. "No, but you are my ka."

Kweela returned the smile. "I will go no deeper than I need." Her smile faded. "Perhaps there are some things I am not yet ready to know," she finished quietly.

Leith closed his eyes and tried to relax, letting his thoughts drift off into nothingness. He began to feel tendrils of Kweela’s awareness creeping into his mind, and he also sensed Jaycees’ presence, observing. Then Kweela was gone. He opened his eyes.

"Is that it?"

"Yes," said the warrior. Her face had a look of peace that Leith had not seen for a long time. "I have seen enough to be certain. That which is important is still within you. We need speak of it no more."

"You underestimate your skills, Kweela-San. Your touch was lighter than that of Misha-Dan." He turned to continue walking, then paused again. "By the way, what would you have done if you had discovered..."

"Shutaka rarely speak of what-if, Leith Birro," said Kweela, brusquely. "Only what-is concerns us. Come, let us continue. Misha-Dan and the Keepers will be pleased to learn you are recovered."

With that, she strode off down the alley.

Misha-Dan was indeed glad when Leith and Kweela arrived at the jousting fields. Most of the Shutaka were gathered under a marquee that had been erected to shelter the child-goddess of the Church of Carth and her followers. As Leith and Kweela came into sight, the relief on the old man’s face was obvious.

"It is good to see you, Leith Birro, if a man supposedly blind is permitted to use that term. We were not unconcerned for you."

"I had a good nurse, Misha-Dan."

"Indeed. Indeed. Are you fully recovered?"

"He is," said Kweela.

The Lord-Priest looked at her and nodded. "Good. Very good. My faith in you both is renewed yet again."

"It was necessary, my Lord," explained Leith. "There was the question of an old debt, for a start..."

The old man held up his hand. "The thing about faith, Leith Birro, is that it demands no answers nor any explanations. I did not believe for one moment you would do anything that was not necessary. From Kweela, I know that we need to talk of it no more, unless you so wish."

"No, not yet, my Lord. But, perhaps later."

"Whenever you are ready, my friend. But now, the sound of your stomach rumbling tells me you have more pressing physical needs to which you should attend. I sent young Jor-Dak off to the banquet tables a moment ago. Should we find him? He will be similarly pleased to see you. Perhaps Kweela could search for Krys-Tian and Kisa-Mara; they went off towards the main jousting ring to attend Baron Hermain’s speech."

Misha-Dan was referring to Jochaim Augustus Hermain, the feudal baron who ruled Merrilean’s manor-house. The Baron had watched with considerable interest the popular rise of the Church of Carth and the Shutaka had take great pains to maintain a solid relationship with the powerful local ruler. Regular and substantial transfers from the church’s coffers to Hermain’s treasury also helped. As did enticing Baroness Helena herself to join the faithful. While the baron’s influential wife sat among the congregation, they felt relatively safe.

Kweela watched Leith lead the Lord-Priest in the direction of the tables that had been set up to satisfy the appetites of the crowd, then made her way towards the main jousting arena. A large crowd had gathered and she walked around it’s perimeter trying to spy the two Keepers.

"Hello Kweela-San," came a familiar voice from behind her. She spun around quickly to see Belle standing there. The Sorarainian was wearing a stained and crumpled ship-suit and had a flight bag slung over her shoulder. Her pretty face was lined with fatigue and her long hair was tangled with knots.

Kweela's eyes lit up. "Belle, you are back. Did you just get in?"

Belle let allowed her flight bag to slip to the ground and let out a deep breath. "Yes, about two s.u.'s ago. I came straight from the spaceport. I crewed on a Birellian freighter that just dropped into orbit."

Kweela waved towards a wooden bench beneath one of the trees that ringed the field. The jousting had just begun and most of the crowd was moving towards the barricades that formed the arena.

"Come and sit down before you fall down. You look terrible."

"That's nice to hear," said Belle with a grimace. "The Birellians aren't big on luxury, you know. If I'd realised there was going to be a party I'd have made more of an effort."

Kweela looked around the fair. "The Unarans seem to like their celebrations. Today is Marketday," she explained. "This fair has been going all day. Right now, Baron Hermain is preparing to deliver a long and boring speech, after which the knights will to put on an impressive display in the jousting arena to win the favour of a maiden. And from what I've seen of the Unaran women, it takes very little to impress them. They usually wait passively to be fetched away."

"You look rather fetching yourself, Kweela. Are you perhaps waiting for a mnan-gar to sweep you away? Did you count me dead already?"

"This is more for me than any man, little sister," replied Kweela gently, looking closely at her friend.

The Sorarainian took a deep breath and reached up to hug the Shutaka warrior tightly. "I'm sorry, Kweela, forgive me. It is my fatigue talking. My time on Basra has been full of anxiety - at times I did not think that I would make it back. I swore to myself that I would not kill while I was on Basra, but in the end I had to. I ran out of time; there was no other way... Oh Kweela, so much death; is that all I am good for? I never wanted to go back to that; all I wanted was to be a simple pilot. I feel I have aged terribly this past season, and you... why you look so beautiful and happy. I am ashamed that I allowed my bad manners to rise above our friendship."

Kweela softly stroked the fairy-woman's long hair with one of her battle-scared hands. "You are no fool, Belle, yet you talk nonsense. You do not enjoy killing; that is why fate has decreed it be your skill. You should fear the time when you begin to take pleasure in it, like my Shutaka savages and I. Your courage this past season has made even the bravest warrior mute. Even though I would not have let you go unless I was certain you would return, I have still counted the cycles until your return. We all have - and none more so than the mnan-gar. All you should be ashamed of is your talk of beauty. You are still more beautiful at this moment than I could ever hope to be. I can never compete with you in body, mind or heart. Nor would I try, little sister."

"Oh, Kweela, how I have missed you all. I'm so glad to be back. Holl was on Basra. I spent all my time trying to avoid him without arousing too much suspicion." Belle paused. "He was involved in Willa, I'm sure. I should have killed him, I know, but I couldn't find any opportunity."

"Holl," said Kweela distastefully. She shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry our needs prevented you from settling that score. You will never be asked to take such risks again, as long as I breathe, Belle. You have done more than enough for the Shutaka already."

"Belle, you're back!" came a shout.

They turned to see Leith walking across the field towards them, a goblet of wine in one hand and a large platter of fruit in the other. When he saw the Sorarainian's face, he let the food fall to the ground and broke into a run.

He dropped to one knee in front of the bench where the two women sat. "Are you all right?" he asked the Sorarainian. "You look a mess."

Kweela dug her knee into his ribs so hard there was an audible creak.

"She doesn't need to be told that, mnan-gar. You'd look a lot worse if you had to share a cabin with a crew of stinking Birellians. All she requires is a long hot bath and a good night’s sleep."

"Your right, Kweela," said Leith, rubbing his ribs. "I’m sorry, Belle, what I meant to say was I’m so glad to see you. We’ve all been worried about you. There is not a day goes by that young Visa-Mil doesn’t ask about you."

"How has she been?" asked Belle, her eyes lighting up at the mention of the young Shutaka girl.

"Misha-Dan has been doing his best to keep her occupied," said Kweela. "But her heart has been heavy. It is only her absolute belief in your parting promise that has sustained her. You said you would return, so she knew you would."

"I should find her."

"There is no need," replied Kweela. "She has found you." The warrior pointed across the field.

Visa-Mil was running towards them as fast as her small legs would carry her, with Misha-Dan and Jor-Dak hurrying behind. When the child reached them she literally threw herself at Belle. Although in one season Visa had grown to be almost as big as the Sorarainian, Belle caught her easily and hugged her tightly. For a full two hundred heartbeats, the woman and the girl embraced, neither of them uttering a sound. At last they released each other.

"I am back," said Belle. "As I promised."

"Yes," replied Visa, as if Bell had stated an unquestionable truth. "Will you begin teaching me now? So that I will be able to go with you next time."

"There will not be a next time," said Kweela quietly.

"Learning such skills is not to be taken lightly, little one," said Belle. "There has been many times I wished I could unlearn them."

"You promised," insisted the child.

"It is not only for me to decide, Visa," suggested Belle. "It is something on which you should consult your Lord-Priest. He may believe that the Guild of Black skills are not for the Shutaka. It is a path that knows no return journey."

Visa-Mil turned to the old man. "My Lord, please say yes. I could not bear to be left behind again."

Misha-Dan passed his hands in front of Belle's face in a ceremonial gesture. "Belle Morninglight-on-Brook, know that in your absence you have been pledged as ka to each and every Shutaka warrior. While Visa-Mil has many seasons before she will pass through hirra-tel-barka and become a warrior, I have no objections to you accepting her as your apprentice."

He turned to the girl."Visa-Mil, last of the Tarakini. You have no clan left, therefore you have the right to choose a new clan-tie. Let it be that of Belle Morninglight-on-Brook if you so wish. We are living in strange times now, but remember that the Guild of Black is well named. Learn carefully from the only one I know who has escaped it’s hold."

"Oh, thank you, my Lord. I will learn well, I promise."

"Now let us return to the Marketday festivities, lest our absence draw attention to ourselves," said the Lord-Priest. "Lilith-Soo informs me that Commander Cusher will be arriving in orbit within three cycles and, now that Belle has returned, Leith Birro can begin our final planning. The Shutaka have been very patient, but the time for action draws near.

Chapter 13 -->