The Pearl - Chapter 13

Leith looked out through the thick clearsteel viewing window as the mercenary landers touched down on the blast-marked permacrete of the spaceport. He knew which one was piloted by Izzy from the way it executed a graceful swooping approach dive to conserve fuel then settled evenly on its landing gear close to the terminal building. A small army of maintenance droids swarmed over the landers as they cut their engines. As soon as the main hatch on the lander swung open, Arail Cusher bounded out, causing several of the droids to collide as they tried to get out of her path. Leith smiled as he watched two of the small robots tumble to the ground in a tangle of multi-jointed limbs, like a pair of metallic clowns. Ignoring the distraction, the Commander strode off towards the doorway of the main building.

"Looks like she’s got something important on her mind," Leith remarked to Kweela-San standing beside him.

"Perhaps we should find out what it is," she replied.

"First things first. I’ve got to tell Izzy that Belle’s back. Cusher can wait."

Kweela said nothing, but followed Leith as he made his way to the waiting area outside the crew debriefing room. They didn’t have to wait long.

"Obviously, he’s got the same thing on his mind as Cusher," said Leith as the grizzled old pilot burst out of the debrief room. Izzy spotted Leith and Kweela immediately and walked quickly over to them.

"Did you talk to Cusher yet?" he asked.

"No, she was in too much of a hurry and I wanted to talk to you first," said Leith.

"Whatever it is, it’ll have to wait; something’s come up..."

"Izzy, Belle’s back," Leith interrupted, coming straight to the point."

The mercenary pilot blinked rapidly. "Belle! Where is she? Why isn’t she here? What’s happened?" he demanded, all thoughts of Cusher gone.

"She’s ok, Izzy," Leith reassured him. "She’s had a pretty rough time, but she’s ok now. She's with Lilith-Soo and her warriors at the moment - being prepared for the parna-ka ceremony tonight."

"Holl was on Basra," said Kweela, simply.

Izzy swore quietly. "Is he after her?"

"Perhaps," said the Shutaka. "Perhaps not. Belle thinks not, but I do not think we should take the chance. Belle believes he was behind the attack on Willa."

Izzy swore again. "Willa? That’s pretty impressive, even for a Guildmaster."

"I don’t understand," said Leith. "Who exactly is Holl? I’ve never known Belle to be afraid of anyone before, even a Guildmaster of the Guild of Black."

Kweela looked sharply at him. "Afraid? Leith-mnan-gar, for an intelligent man, you can be very stupid. Do you accuse Belle of being a coward?"

"No, of course not," Leith said. "That’s not what I meant - you know that. If you tell me what this is all about, maybe I can understand."

"That is for Belle to tell you, not us," replied the Shutaka warrior, evasively. "What you should know, however, is that more than ever, Belle’s enemies are our enemies. If it was his doing, Holl will be brought to account for Willa."

"And it’s yet another complication," said Izzy. "Look, we’d better find Cusher. She’s got some more bad news."

As they hurried off in the direction Cusher has disappeared, Jaycee spoke in Leith’s mind.

"This Holl, can any one human be such a cause for concern?"

"Jaycee," Leith responded. "There as some surprising gaps in your otherwise extensive knowledge. You have still a lot to learn about some humans. If Holl can spook Belle, then it is cause for concern. Don't let the way I treat Belle fool you. She is a sixth. She got in and out of Basra unaided. She could kill a pair of Shutaka without raising a sweat. If she is worried..."

"Very interesting," Jaycee responded. "It sounds like I should get to know this Belle Morninglight-on-Brook better. Your words do not match how you feel about this person; in your mind I suspect you choose to believe that Belle is not truly capable of such things as you ascribe to the Guild of Black. Watch out, Leith," she added casually, "You are going to walk into that storage crate. "

‘What..." Leith began, snapping his attention back to the physical world as Kweela unobtrusively steered him around a pile of timber crates stacked up near a loading dock. The Shutaka woman was becoming used to Leith’s distracted silences when he was conversing with Jaycee.

"Can’t you think and walk at the same time?" she muttered. "Tell Jaycee to keep quite until you’re stationary, or you’ll break your neck."

They caught up with Cusher outside the spaceport building. She was trying to flag down the Unaran version of a taxi, but with little success. In her creased flight-suit, devoid of any obvious insignia of rank, she looked like any other jump-lagged spacer. Every one of the zumacs, wooden carriages drawn by a pair of shaggy four-legged beasts, rattled past her without pausing. Cusher was getting increasingly frustrated and she looked as if she was about to leap onto the carriageway and physically wrestle one of the animals to a standstill.

"Arail," Leith called. "I wouldn’t do that, if I were you. They’re stronger than they look and they’ll probably bite your arm off."

Cusher turned to face them.

"Leith, I didn’t see you inside. How do you get a lift on this damn planet?"

"You need a different technique," he replied as they walked up to her. "I’ll show you." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a couple of bright yellow coins. He tossed them into the air and they landed on the edge of the roadway. As soon as they hit, a zumac seemed to materialise out of thin air and clattered to a halt in front of them. The driver scrambled down from his seat, scooped up the coins, and showed them a toothless grin.

"My lord, this humble carriage is at your service. May I ask your destination?"

"The Tavern of the Righteous," said Leith as the others scrambled into the vehicle. "Do you know it?"

"Of course, sir. May I be so bold as to assume that you too are a follower of the child-goddess?"

Leith looked at the Unaran."We were among the original pilgrims, friend. Are you of her faith?"

"I am indeed, sir." The man pulled Leith’s coins back out of his pocket. "Please, I cannot accept money from an Original Follower. It is my honour that you choose my zumac this day."

Leith shook his head. "Keep it, fellow. You have a living to make. The child-goddess would not have you starve in her name."

"You are doubly blessed, sir. My family thanks you."

He climbed back up to his seat and cracked his whip. The two beasts harnessed to the carriage gave a squeal and they started off down the street."

"What have you lot been up too?" whispered Cusher to Leith. "Every time I come back it seems the Church of Carth has tripled in strength."

Leith shrugged. "Dammed if I can figure it out. We must have a quarter of Unaran claiming to be of the faith. And it seems that The Church is springing up on half the planets in this system."

"Not only this system," said Izzy. "I hear it has spread a far as the Gorean Cluster."

Leith was about to reply, but the carriage gave a sharp lurch as the driver swerved to avoid another zumac heading straight for them and he was thrown headlong into Kweela’s lap. The four passengers gave up on conversation for the rest of the journey and concentrated on keeping a firm grip on the carriage’s handholds. After what seemed like an eternity, the zumac rumbled to a halt outside a large tavern. A sign above the door was adorned with a badly painted image of the Child-goddess of Carth, with words below announcing that it was the Tavern of the Righteous.

Leith and his companions dismounted quickly and the driver whipped his beasts into motion again. The carriage clattered off, its metal-shod wheels striking sparks from the cobblestones, and disappeared around a corner.

"Whew," said Cusher. "I’d rather jump blind than go through that again in a hurry."

"He was one of the more careful drivers," Leith assured her, following Kweela into the Tavern.

Although it was only mid-afternoon, the Tavern was almost full. The Shutaka often used it as a meeting place and there were quite a few inside partaking of a late lunch. The publican, a large, ugly chap by the name of Mordran, was actually one of Il-yar-Bisen’s early mercenary imports. He and his small company of freebooters hailed from Dorsal, a rough Outer Rim mining planet where drinking was a national pastime. While Leith and the Shutaka had been slowly gathering their forces, it seemed the best way to keep Mordran and his kinsman out of trouble was to let them do what they did best. Through the use of liberal bribes to the Unaran authorities, they had been set up in Taverns all over Merrilean. Mordran’s tavern proved to be quite popular, situated as it was within easy walking distance of the main church.

The man himself was tending bar as they entered and he gave them a hearty greeting.

"Welcome, friends, welcome. May the blessing of the Child-goddess be upon you." He placed both of his huge hands, each the size of a dinner plate, on the top of the bar and leaned forward, beaming. "I have, just this morning," he announced, "received a shipment of the finest ale this wretched planet manages to produce. I have been waiting all day for customers with suitably refined tastes before broaching the casks, and I see I have been rewarded for my patience. Unless I am mistaken, it is none other than Izzy Azayah himself who has walked in the door of my humble establishment. A man who will appreciate such a fine brew."

Izzy smiled a greeting and walked over to the barkeep.

"Retirement seems to suit you well, Mordran. You should have taken this up ten seasons ago. I bet you’ve already got an old-man’s beer gut."

The huge mercenary smashed a fist down on the polished stone counter with a crash and laughed loudly.

"If I’m ready for retirement, what does that make you? As for the shape I’m in, there’s more than a few battles left in me yet." He reached under the bar for a tankard and poured a frothing mug of ale for the pilot. "Taste that, Izzy. It’s not bad at all - almost worthy of Dorsal. Now, what will the rest of you have?"

Leith and Cusher ordered ale while Kweela settled for her usual glass of iced-water. Mordran deftly poured out another two mugs of beer and placed them on the bar, then filled a tall glass with water from a chiller tank. With a flourish, he dropped two cubes of ice and handed the drink to Kweela.

Izzy picked up his mug and took a long draught. He wiped the creamy froth from his lips with the back of his hand.

"I think your right, Mordran. It’s pretty good." He took another mouthful.

"So what brings you out this way, old man; have you signed up for this job, too? Not that I know what it is exactly; we’ve been cooling our heels, playing out a pantomime, on this rock for nearly a quarter season now and no-one has told us much about anything." The tavern-keeper spat on the floor in disgust.

Izzy shrugged. "It never matters to me," he said. "I do what I’m told, as long as they keep paying me. If they want me to fly nursery trips on full battle-rates, who am I to complain? All they ask is that I keep my mouth shut." He drained his beer.

"Don't worry," said Mordran, picking up on Izzy's last comment, "This is a secure place. No one gets in here that we don't want. And there's probably as much shielding in these walls as in a jump-room." He poured another beer for the pilot and placed it in front of him. "You know, I heard you were working with the Siven group. I thought you might have been fried around Willa - you always seemed to be working with those crazy Shutaka."

The barkeep looked around the tavern, and lowered his voice.

"Now, I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but those warrior-women gave me the creeps. I heard their favourite trick was to rip out your heart with their bare hands and choke you with it. They say they used to even eat their own battle-dead; that’s why there was never any Shutaka bodies after a fight."

Leith saw Kweela’s hand tense on her glass of water, but she held her tongue.

"I’m with Siven, all right," replied Izzy quietly - or at least quietly for him. "And I’m still breathing. I’m flying shuttle on IMF Lady Macbeth under Arail Cusher. By the way, you ever actually see a Shutaka?"

"Nah, but I heard plenty. They say they were giants - tall as two men." He indicated Kweela. "That lass there is pretty big, but I reckon a Shutaka could’ve taken her with one hand." The mercenary furrowed his brow. "Lady Macbeth? Haven't heard of it. But, Cusher, heh?" I shipped on Blenheim once and her crew said Cusher is a real old bitch. Hard as nails and ugly as sin."

Now it was Cusher’s turn to clench her drink, but before she could say anything, Leith addressed Mordran.

"Brother, we have little time for polite discussion tonight, I’m afraid. We are on Church business. Has the Old Blind-Man been in today?"

"Aye," replied Mordran. "He came in with a group of priestesses and faithful. They’re in one of the private rooms upstairs." He jerked a thumb in the direction of a narrow wooden staircase behind him. "You’re welcome to join them."

He lifted up a hinged section of the heavy countertop. Carrying their drinks, Leith’s group filed through and started up the stairs. As soon as they had reached the hallway at the top, out of Mordran’s earshot, Cusher let loose with a string of obscenities.

"That heap of barak dung better not ever boost with me!" she stormed. "I’ll show him what a bitch I can be."

Leith reached out and lifted the breast-pocket flap on the Commander’s flight-suit to expose the small starburst badge that denoted her rank.

"That will teach you for hiding your light under a bushel, Arail. If you’re going to sneak around among the troops in disguise, what else can you expect?" He grimaced. "I guess we haven’t exactly got the cream of the mercenary crop on this little project."

Izzy grunted. "We’re lucky we got any at all. What happened on Willa has really stirred up the Outer Rim. Half the mercenary groups have gone to ground, and the other half are very wary about taking jobs on spec. Il-yar-Bisen has had his work cut out trying to sign up even lunks like Mordran - although he’s not too bad a fighter as long as he doesn’t have to think."

"Speaking of our other mnan-gar, when is he due back?" asked Leith.

"Periwinkle is scheduled to be in orbit within five cycles," Cusher informed him. "Izzy’s right, I’m afraid. Il-yar-Bisen has tried damn hard, but I don’t know if what we’ve got will be enough. I've only been able to secure half-a-dozen ships for support - admittedly two of them are pretty decent drone-carriers, but it's not going to be a walkover."

Kweela, meanwhile, had started off down the hall and was checking each room as she passed. She met with success at the third room, turned to motion them forward, and disappeared inside. Leith, Cusher and Izzy hurried up and followed Kweela through the door. Inside, Misha-Dan, the Keepers and about a dozen Shutaka warriors were seated at tables, apparently finishing off their lunch. Jor-Dak, Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian were dressed in the simple robes of the Faithful, effectively concealing their identities. One of the tavern boys was clearing away platters bearing the remains of fruit and cheese, while another was busy filling tankards from a large metal pitcher of ale. Misha-Dan had his back to the doorway and he spoke without turning.

"Ah, It is Arail Cusher. I would know your distinctive footsteps anywhere. Welcome back. I trust your journey was successful?"

Cusher waited until the boy finished clearing up and left the room. She nodded to one of the Shutaka to close the door after them.

"Hello, Misha-Dan," she said. "That depends on how you judge success. I’ve brought in our final lot of troops, such as they are, and I hope it will be enough. However, something has come up which may affect our plans." She turned to Leith. "We’ll need to discuss this fully when Il-yar-Bisen arrives of course, but I don’t see any way around the problem."

"Which is?" asked Leith.

"As Izzy observed, Willa has really stirred things up. And I don’t mean just here in the Outer Rim. The Federation Council has sent ships out from the Core. They have arrived in this system and are doing a sweep, planet by planet."

"That’s inconvenient," admitted Leith. "But a squadron or two of FedFleet ships nosing around among the two hundred planets in the system shouldn’t cause us too much problem. By the time they figure out what’s going on, we should have taken Basra. They are hardly likely to ignite an Outer Rim powder-keg by getting involved in a relatively minor skirmish, especially once they find out that the Shutaka have returned from the grave."

"Don’t be so sure, Leith," Cusher told him. "It’s more than a couple of squadrons. It’s a full battle-phalanx."

"A phalanx!" Leith whistled. "A thousand squadrons? That's about half of OREF's current spaceworthy capacity. Why in the name of the Great Architect would the Council send a phalanx to this one small system? What are they doing?"

"Any damn thing they want, I imagine" answered Cusher, without humour. "A full battle-phalanx is pretty persuasive."

"Where are they now?" asked Misha-Dan.

"Around Gyra."

"You said they are doing a sweep planet by planet," said Leith. "What does that mean, exactly?"

"They station a dozen squadrons in planetary orbit for a while, while the rest of the phalanx backs off a reasonable distance. They the whole show packs up and moves on to the next planet."

"They don’t make planetfall at all?"

"A small detachment goes down. Apparently there's an Inner Rim Council Ambassador with them."

"How long before they reach Unaran?"

"They could be here tomorrow, for all I know. They are not following any particular pattern. You haven't heard the best bit yet, the whole fleet is coming out of null-space within a planetary system. And they're making jumps between planets." She paused, waiting for her words to sink in.

"It would seem that the Federation has perfected the long-awaited improvements to the jump drive," Leith said. "The capability for Intra-system jumping would make a phalanx just about invincible."

"Tell me about it," said Cusher. "My Chief Engineer is already trying to figure out how she can get her hands on one of the new drives."

"What is you assessment of these latest events, Leith Birro?," asked Misha-Dan.

"Well, there's not much information to go on, but I don't see we have much option but to proceed with our plans anyway and be prepared to make adjustments if necessary. With luck, the Federation won't see anything we do on Basra as connected with Willa - they'll just consider it a local squabble. What do you think Arail?"

"It's a gamble, but I agree it's probably one we have to take. As long as we don't arouse their suspicions too much, we might just get away with it. It depends how much the poke around here if they arrive before we attack Basra."

Jaycee conferred silently with Leith "I would have to agree, Leith. If this phalanx was looking for trouble, they wouldn't have an Ambassador tagging along. They are after bigger game."

"I wonder if the Federation has got wind of the Alien ships," mused Leith. That would be a good reason why they would boost a phalanx our way."

"Well, I'm more than happy for FedFleet to tackle any Alien ships that show up," remarked Arail. I think we've just about used up all our luck on that score.

"By the way, Arail, how's your JCN unit going now?" queried Leith.

"It's been behaving itself, if that's what you mean, but I think the accuracy stats are down. I'd rate it about average now, although it might improve once the learning circuits had had time to burn in. It's had a complete rebuild, so I'll have to accept that's the price I pay."

In Leith's mind, Jaycee gave the equivalent of an indignant snort. "Average? No JCN unit is ever average!" Leith coughed to cover the smile that crept across his face.

"My Lord," said Jor-Dak, glancing carefully at Izzy. "Could the disturbances we have felt of late have anything to do with the presence of these people from Inner Rim?"

"Perhaps," the Lord-priest said. "But the ebb and flow of things is not always clear. We will talk more of this later." He stood up. "But now, we must bid farewell to our friends for a while. I still have some preparations to make before this evening's parna-ka ceremony for Belle. And there is this afternoon's lesson I must supervise with you, Kisa and Krys" He looked at Cusher and Izzy. "Normally, it would be out of the question for either of you to attend the parna-ka ceremony, but Arail you already know so many of our secrets, one more will do little harm. And you, Izzy Azayah... I don't think Belle would let me keep you away. You are both welcome."

Jor-Dak stopped before Leith as he followed Misha and the others from the room. "Mnan-gar, I hope we may find the opportunity to talk after the ceremony tonight. I have missed our discussions of late, but have not wished to intrude upon your time when there a far more important things requiring your attention."

"I would like that, Jor," Leith told the Keeper. "I have also missed out talks together. I apologise that I have neglected you; Kweela-San will tell you I can get too absorbed in things at time." He glanced at the Shutaka woman." I fear she has been derelict in her duty to allow me to ignore you so."

"Leith-mnan-gar...," she began to protest.

Jor-Dak laughed. It was something Leith had seen him do so rarely before and for a moment it made him look like the youth he was, instead of a man-child bearing a load beyond comprehension. "Warrior, your ka washes over me like a wave, even from this distance. It must be wondrous to have that certainty within you."

Kweela smiled at Jor. "I will make sure Leith-mnan-gar finds time to talk with you; if not tonight, then soon."

The city of Merrilean was ringed with mountains, rising like fortress buttresses from the surrounding plains. The four tallest mountains in the circular ranges were almost exactly aligned with the compass points and were named Aristos, Hellanis, Maralan and Cristonis. It was on the lower slopes of Mount Aristos that the Shutaka assembled at sunset to perform the ceremony of parna-ka. They had all donned their battledress, complete with weapons, and waited quietly in a natural amphitheater formed by an ancient landslip in the side of the mountain. Subdued lighting was povided by small fire-globes spaced at intervals around the rim, but the Shutaka, with their excellent night vision, had no trouble moving about the terraces.

Leith and Kweela, along with Cusher and Izzy, arrived as the last light of the setting sun faded. Kweela had pointed out the location of the Shutaka perimeter guards as they made their way up the mountain trail and, while Leith could not see them, he knew that they would not allow any unwelcome outsiders to witness the events of that evening.

Leith inspected the assembled warriors as he made his way to the far side of the amphitheater where Misha-Dan waited with Lilith-Soo and Belle. He was pleased to see that the Shutaka were fighting fit; the clandestine training that Lilith and Kweela had arranged was maintaining their battle readiness as well as allowing them to vent some of their frustration at being cooped up on Unaran.

He spent a while talking with his warriors, reminiscing about old battles and admiring the many scars that they wore with pride. The morale of the Shutaka rose visibly by having have their mnan-gar amongst them once again as he should be, discussing tactics and the art of fighting. These things they could understand.

Tanah-Luc came up to Leith with a warrior that Leith recognised as one of the older children from the crèche on Willa. The child had become a young woman in the short time since then.

"Leith-mnan-gar," Tanah said, "This is Natal-Mirra of Treve clan. She is the last of her clan and seeks to now join with the Banara. Even though she has only just come of age to be a doza warrior, I will take her as ka if you accept to be her mnan-gar. She will be known as Natal-Tah, to honour the spirit of Bewah-Tah."

Leith looked at Natal, who returned his gaze with the burning reverence that only a doza warrior can give when they meet their mnan-gar for the first time. Her jet-black hair was still cut in the neat style of a child; it had not yet been allowed to grow out in the untamed manner of the other warriors. She had not yet fought a battle, been deafened by the noise, choked by the stench of a laser gouge, or had to wipe enemy entrails from the blade of her sword. While an awareness of the Pearl coursed through her blood, she had yet to be told the proper destiny of the Shutaka during hirra-tel-barka. For a moment, Leith wished that this young woman could have a destiny other than what the Pearl decreed for her.

"Bewah-Tah was a mighty warrior," he said. "What makes you think, Natal-Mirra, that you will earn the right to his name?"

"I will be serving under Leith Birro and Kweela-San," she responded without hesitation. "With such ka to provide an example, it is inconceivable that the spirit of Bewah will not rise to guide me when I fight beside Tanah-Luc."

From the pride that shone in Tanah's eyes at these words, Leith knew that the older warrior would teach Natal well.

"Very well, Natal-Tah, I will be your mnan-gar. In you, I think that Tanah-Luc has found a fitting way to remember Bewah."

"Leith-mnan-gar, we've been looking for you!" Leith turned to see Jor-Dak, Kisa-Mara and Krys-Tian making their way towards them. The parna-ka ceremony was usually restricted to Priests, mnan-gar and warriors but, as for Cusher and Izzy, an exception had been made for the three young Shutaka. Visa-Mil had begged the Lord-priest to also be allowed to attend, but on this Misha-Dan had stood firm.

For the ceremony, the warriors had provided the Keepers with full battledress. Jor-Dak and Kisa-Mara looked the part; both had filled out in the past season and Kisa-Mara was well on her way to become a striking young woman. She wore one of Kweela's swords at her belt and her right hand rested easily on the hilt. Jor-Dak stood beside her; he was left handed and he unconsciously took a mirror image stance to Kisa. The effect was not lost on Kweela.

"You two would make fine battle-kin," she said. "You complement each other well."

"It is unlikely we will ever get to test that," Jor-Dak said wryly. "Unless you count the battle we had getting Krys ready."

In contrast, Krys-Tian still looked like a child playing dressup. Her body armour hung off her lean frame and the sword at her belt sat awkwardly. She stood with her hands on her hip, challenging them to make a comment.

"It's not my fault," she said. "I'm not supposed to be a warrior."

"We all fight in different ways, Krys," Cusher said, putting her arm around the girl's shoulders and guiding her towards the end of the amphitheater where Misha-Dan stood waiting.

The Lord-priest used their arrival as a signal to start the ceremony. He held up his hands and addressed the Shutaka, his voice carrying easily around the amphitheater.

"My children, we are far from the Temple of Thought on Willa, where I last presided over a ceremony such as this. Nevertheless, it does not diminish the sacredness of this occasion. I call upon Kweela-San of the Banara to speak the parna-ka telling."

Kweela-San faced the assembled warriors.

"The Shutaka have pledged parna-ka to Belle Morninglight-on-Brook," she began. "It is unlikely that there are warriors here old enough to remember when this recognition was last granted to an outsider. I, Kweela-San of the Banara, have fought beside this Sorarainian on many occasions before and give my pledge freely with no further evidence needed; I call this woman my sister. I know she would never speak of these things herself, so in accordance with our customs, I speak on her behalf to remind all others why this pledge has been made. This is the parna-ka telling for Belle Morninglight-on-Brook."

Kweela paused and looked out upon the motionless Shutaka. She gazed into the eyes of the last of her kind. They seemed so few. For every face she recognised, Kweela was reminded of those she would never see again, their spirits doomed to roam Willa until the end of time.

"Soon we go into battle once again. This time, we fight for ourselves, to avenge Willa and win a new home for ourselves. The Shutaka are mighty, but we are not invincible. We cannot always triumph by spirit alone. This time we will win - and do not doubt that we will win - by using the knowledge obtained by Belle Morninglight-on-Brook."

"We are simple warriors; we do not understand the subtleties and skill required during the half-season it took Belle Morninglight-on-Brook to gain the confidences of our enemy. I, along with all of you, can only accept the word of our mnan-gar that this alone deserves our recognition."

"Instead, I will tell of the final escape of Belle Morninglight-on-Brook from the heart of our enemy, for the knowledge she won was worthless unless she could bring it back to us. Alone on Basra, and with no hope of rescue should events turn against her, she fought her way out through a garrison of elite royal guards. With no weapons, she killed fifty by her own estimate. With my knowledge of her abilities, I would be inclined to double that."

There was a murmur of appreciation from the Shutaka.

"She then liberated a Basran heavy fighter and destroyed a squadron in aerial combat before evading the planetary defences and making her escape. She traveled secretly back to Unaran, ensuring she left no trail to be followed. All this, Belle Morninglight-on-Brook did alone. For us and with no offer of reward. Our pledge of parna-ka is to show her that she need never fight alone again. Wherever Belle is, she has only to call for us and we shall come."

There was complete silence when Kweela finished speaking, then, as one, the Shutaka unsheathed their daggers and slowly raised them high above their heads in silent salute. Kweela motioned to Belle to come forward and speak, but the Sorarainian shook her head. Kweela looked at Leith, who nodded, then bundled Belle up in his arms and walked forward to where Kweela stood.

"Shutaka," he said, "I give you your parna-ka sister, Belle Morninglight-on-Brook!" Leith expected Belle to put up a struggle, instead she clung to him tightly and leaned her head against his chest while she looked out at the Shutaka warriors and accepted their pledge.

Much later that night, after each and every warrior had stood before Belle and spoken their own oath before returning to the city, Leith and Kweela climbed with Belle further up the mountain where a panoramic view of Merrilean stretched out below. Leith had hoped to be able to find time to speak to Jor-Dak, as he had promised, but Kweela had pulled him away, as if she was balancing the needs of her Sorarainian friend against those of the young Keeper.

'You two remain here," said Kweela. "I wish to see the view from that ridge up there." Leaving them she walked another thirty paces up the slope and turned her back on them to look out to the mountain range ringing the other side of Merrilean.

"Shutaka are such lousy liars," said Leith to Belle, grinning. "I wonder what she's up to?" They found a grassy spot and sat down. Unaran had no moons and the stars were spread out in the cloudless night sky.

"Can you tell where Basra is?" asked Leith, looking up.

"It's that one there," said Belle. She took Leith's hand in hers and pointed it at a slightly larger dot of light in the sky. "There, next to that line of five stars."

"Ok, I see it now." He expected her to let go of his hand but she held on to it as he lowered it to the ground. They sat for a while looking up at Basra.

"Do you miss it," Belle said suddenly.

"Miss what?"

"Commanding a ship. Kweela told me you were a Lieutenant-Commander in OREF once."

"That was a while ago," he said. "Things have changed so much, I don't think I could handle it now. My first ship was about the size of Hammerhead, but it had an open bridge - it was a clearsteel bulge at the nose. You could stand there and look out at the stars - pretty much like this. If you had the guts, you could even look out when you made a jump."

"Did you?"

"Usually - I found it quite beautiful, but others got physically ill if they tried. I used to get sick if I didn't watch - still do, if you recall."

"I try to be in the docking bay when Hammerhead jumps," said Belle. The bay doors are usually open and you can watch the stars change. I don't find it unpleasant, either. You didn't answer my question, 'though. Do you miss it?"

"Sometimes. But it's easy to miss something that was much simpler when you were much younger."

"Why did you leave?" To join the Shutaka?" Belle glanced over to where Kweela stood, barely visible against the night sky.

"No, that was later. I left... well, we all make mistakes, I guess."

"Were the Shutaka a mistake, too?" Belle asked.

"The Shutaka? No, they weren't a mistake. They were the first thing I did right in my life."

Leith looked down at Belle's small hand where it still lay over his.

"What made you take up piloting after..."

"After I ran away from the Guild?," she finished. "I don't know. I guess I was good at it and... and it didn't involve killing anyone." She lifted her hand from Leith's and ran it over the grass beside them, where night dew was already beginning to form on the blades. She raised her moist hand and showed it to Leith.

"Do you know, that is more water than the grass on Sorarain would give up in a whole season." She licked her hand delicately.

"What is Sorarain really like?" asked Leith. "I have heard a little about it, but I have never been there."

Belle gazed into the distance, towards the lights of the Merrilean spaceport, where the tiny specks that were landers and small cargo ships could just be seen.

"It is very green," she said. "It often rains, but the water barely touches the ground; the plants seem to steal it out of the very air. If you stand still for too long, a vine will start to wind around your leg. If you fall to the ground unconscious, it is unlikely you will get up; the grass will suck you dry. There are few animals on Sorarain; those that survive do so by finding a cave or a patch of rocky ground to make their home. There is a sense of transience about things - your surroundings are changing so much. Our dwellings are constantly being invaded and reabsorbed by the forests."

"It sounds very harsh," said Leith.

"But there are compensations," Belle replied. "We have quadruple suns, each a different size and colour; the sunsets are the most magnificent in the Outer Rim. And the variety of flowers is incredible. And there have been no wars in the history of my planet. My youth on Sorarain was not unhappy."

"You got on well with your family, then?"

Belle did not answer his question. Instead, she suddenly asked, "Leith, how do you think of me? As a person, I mean."

Leith took a strand of Belle's long hair and playfully tickled her nose. "Belle, you are a magnificent, wonderful, magical creature; an intelligent, talented and beautiful woman whom I absolutely adore."

"Now who's a lousy liar?," she said, but smiled anyway. Her smile faded. "Don't you fear me, too? You know I am - I always will be - an Assassin. Sorarain breeds these well for the Guild."

"Do you want me to fear you, Belle?" Leith asked gently.

The tiny Sorarainian looked up at Leith with a grief-stricken expression. "I could bear just about anything but that, Leith."

"Belle," he said, "I do not fear those I love. I do not fear Kweela; I do not fear my Shutaka; I did not fear Doran Mar. And I do not fear you. I know what an a Guild of Black assassin can do - I have seen the results of their work before - but this is not what you are to me. To me, you are as I described you before."

"I have never heard you talk of me as a woman until now, Leith."

"It's rather obvious, Belle. You may not be as big as a Shutaka, but I would not mistake you for anything else."

"Leith, you know nothing of Sorarainians, do you?"

"There are millions of human races in the Outer Rim, Belle, and I don't pretend to be an expert on any of them - including my own. However, although you are the only Sorarainian I have met in my life, I can tell you are a human woman."

"Leith," she said, the words beginning to tumble from her mouth. "Sorarainians are neither male nor female in the normal human sense. While we have male and female bodies, our human genitalia do not react to any form of usual human sexual stimulation. We can only be sexually satisfied by another Sorarainian, but we have evolved so as to not rely on this as a means of procreation. Sorarainian babies are not born as such; they are grown on a certain type of tree after a fertilised egg is injected into its fruit..." She stopped and took a deep breath. "Now, do you still think of me as human, let alone a woman?"

Instead of answering, Leith reached over, placed his hands on Belle's shoulders and gently pushed her back onto the soft grass. He stretched out beside her and stared up at the stars.

"Close your eyes and answer me this," he said. "Do you feel good when you hold one of those babies? Do you have a favourite piece of music? Do you hate people sometimes, and love them other times; despair of them on occasion then stand amazed at what they can achieve. Do you want to live more than you want to die?"

"I... Yes, I do."

"Then, you're a human as far as I'm concerned," Leith told her. He turned his head so he was looking at Belle.

"Can you think of a man, other than a Sorarainian, that makes your heart beat faster? Who frustrates you; who excites you? A man that you could see yourself living for, or dying for. A man you believe could love you for what you are? A man that you could imagine being with for the rest of your life?"

"I... I am an outcast among Sorarainians, but... I believe I can think of others."

"Then, you share much in common with other women," Leith said.

Belle opened her eyes. Her gold pupils seemed huge in the dim light.

"If it is possible for an Assassin to find peace, then tonight I have found mine," she whispered. "Leith, the Shutaka have pledged me parna-ka so I would never have to fight alone again, but the only battle I fear is the nights I spend alone. Would you lie beside me here tonight, just this one night?"

Leith said nothing but reached over and pulled Belle close to him. He held her tightly until she drifted off to sleep. On the slope above, Kweela-San stood watch over them, like a statue carved from stone, until the first rays of the sun crept over the horizon.

Chapter 14 -->