"Do you think we'll see any treecats?"
Adrienne Michelle Aoriana Elizabeth Winton, Crown Princess of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, sounded considerably younger than her twenty-one T-years as she looked out the window and asked the question over her shoulder.
Lieutenant Colonel Alvin Tudev smiled at her wistfulness and wondered if she even knew she'd revealed it. He suspected she did, and a part of him felt sadly flattered by the probability. It was not something she would have let anyone else hear, but the King's Own Regiment, supported by the Palace Guard Service, provided the royal family's bodyguards, and the lieutenant colonel had commanded the Heir's security force since she turned eleven. He knew she regarded him as a sort of favored uncle. It was a relationship he treasured, and not simplyor even primarilybecause he was ambitious to rise to the very top of his chosen profession. Princess Adrienne was an easy person to love, he thought, and then felt his smile fade, for there was more than one reason she had allowed herself to feel so close to him. Her estrangement from her father had been carefully concealed by both the Palace staff and the Star Kingdom's news services, but nothing about any member of the House of Winton was a secret from Alvin Tudev.
Including the Heir's bitter loneliness.
"I don't know, Your Highness," he said after a moment. "They say 'cats are pretty elusive. And the Forestry Service is enormously protective where they're concerned."
"I know." Adrienne sighed. "Daddy . . . discussed that with me last night. He doesn't much like the Forestry Service."
"I know." Tudev agreed. "But should you be confiding that to me, Your Highness?" he added in a gentler tone.
"What? The fact that fighting with each other is all Daddy and I still have in common? Or the fact that we'd fight all the time instead of just each time we happen to meet if he gave a big enough damn about me to bother?" Adrienne turned, and the wistfulness had vanished. The young woman who faced Tudev now looked much older than her years, not younger, and her brown eyes were filled with mingled sadness and bitter maturity. "It's not as if you don't know all about all of us already, Alvin. So if I can't discuss it with you, who can I discuss it with?"
"I don't know that you ought to be discussing it at all, Your Highness. I'm honored that you trust my discretion, but you shouldn't say things like that to anyone. Like it or not, you're the second most important political figure in the Star Kingdom . . . and you can't afford to be wrong about who you trust to respect your confidence."
"Because, of course, the public's perception of the tender relationship between the King and his beloved daughter must be maintained at all costs, mustn't it?" Adrienne said with such cold, quiet savagery that Tudev winced.
"Adrienne," he said after a moment, dropping the "Highnesses" he was usually careful to maintain, "I can't answer that." He smiled sadly. "I don't know the right answer . . . and even if I thought I did, it wouldn't be properor wisefor me to give it to you. I'm an Army officer, not a political advisor. My loyalty is to the Constitution, the Crown, and the Heir, in that order, and it's not my place to agree or disagree with all the decisions my duties make me privy to. And, unfortunately, my loyalty as the commander of your protection detail is to Crown Princess Adrienne, not just Adrienne the person. Which means it's definitely not my place to have an opinion on how the PR types should portray the relationship between you and His Majesty."
"I know." Adrienne turned back to the window, looking out across the palace grounds at the bulk of King Michael's Tower, and sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Alvin. I shouldn't put you on the spot by asking you things like that. It's just" She cut herself off, still gazing out the window, then drew a deep breath. "At any rate, I take it you're satisfied with the arrangements for the trip?"
"Yes, Your Highness." Tudev was relieved to return to a less excruciatingly private subject, though he was careful to keep his gratitude out of his voice. He watched the ramrod-straight back of his future Queen for a moment, then nodded to himself. Perhaps there was one thing he could do for this lonely young woman without intruding (officially, at least) into affairs which were no business of a serving officer.
"Ah, there is one point," he said, and Adrienne turned from the window once more at the odd note in his voice. "We still haven't resolved that small scheduling conflict," he told her.
"Don't you remember, Your Highness? The Yawata Crossing Chamber of Commerce wants you for a ribbon cutting for a new residential tower, but Twin Forks has put in a request for you to visit there and dedicate the new SFS admin wing on the same afternoon." Adrienne cocked a questioning eyebrow, and he frowned. "I'm sorry, Your Highness. Didn't Lady Haroun bring this up with you?"
"Refresh my memory, please, Colonel Tudev," she suggested, and he shrugged.
"I got copies of the original memos of request kicked down to me as your detail commander through Army channels, Your Highness. According to the header, Lady Haroun and Palace PR received copies at the same time. I assumed they would have informed you," he added blandly, "and as the CO of your protection detail, I thought I might save a little time by seeking clarification on the final decision directly from you. It's important that we know your schedule as far in advance as possible so that we can be certain all the necessary security measures are in place, you know."
"I see." Adrienne regarded him gravely, but her eyes began to twinkle. Nassouah Haroun, her appointments secretary, had most emphatically not mentioned the Twin Forks request when planning began for the state visit to Sphinx . . . and neither had anyone else. Which wasn't at all surprising, she thought, given her father's attitude towards the Sphinx Forestry Service and treecats in general. Like Nassouah, most of the Palace staff knew only too well how His Majesty would have reacted to the idea of his daughter going anywhere near the Forestry Service's planetary HQ, that hotbed of pro-'cat sympathy. In fact, Tudev was taking a considerable risk even mentioning the request. In fairness to her father (which was something Adrienne was aware that it had become increasingly hard for her to be), he hated the use of political power to reward sycophants or punish people who demonstrated independence. That made it unlikely he would demand Tudev's resignation . . . but it wasn't at all unlikely that he would have the lieutenant colonel removed from his present post if he discovered who'd mentioned Twin Forks to Adrienne. No doubt the request for Tudev's replacement would be carefully worded so as not to sound like an order to summarily squelch any further promotions, but it would certainly be seen as such by Tudev's superiors, however it was phrased. It was possible the Army would ignore the implications anyway; it was far more likely that he would be "encouraged" to take early retirement and end his career as a lieutenant colonel.
Then again, there's no particular reason anyone ever has to discover where the information came fromor how, at least, she told herself. One of her few prerogatives as Heir was the right to choose between conflicting events when scheduling official visits. It wasn't used very often simply because it was virtually unheard of for an Heir to know when conflicts arose. No one person could have kept up with all the requests that came inthat was why Adrienne had an appointments secretary and why Nassouah had the fifth largest staff in Mount Royal Palaceand the Princess seldom cared enough about her schedule to get actively involved in working it out. It was far easier to let Lady Haroun worry about the details and simply tell her where they were going when the time came.
But Elizabeth I had specifically granted her son Michael control over his own itineraries as her heir, and it had become an established tradition of the royal family. Not even her father could have denied that . . . not that she intended to mention this particular decision to him until it was too late for him to try to deny it. And Tudev had phrased his revelation carefully. She could testify under oath that he'd "let it slip" as a routine request. She knew him too well to think he would lie about it to his superiors if anyone asked him specifically how it had come out, but she also knew no one would ask him a thing if she'd already given her version of events. The word of the Crown Princess of Manticore was not questioned. If she said it had been a slip, then it had been a slip, and that was all there was to it unless her father himself demanded answers.
And he won't do that, she thought with a familiar ache of hurt and loss. He would never, ever do anything that could raise questions about my actions. After all, I'm going to be Queen someday. It would never do to give anyone any cause to question the sacred honor of the House of Winton!
She suppressed the pain and smiled at Tudev.
"Oh, yes. That conflict," she told him. "I was thinking we'd go to Twin Forks, Colonel. It's smaller and more intimate than Yawata Crossing. Besides, I was in Yawata just five months ago . . . and I believe Father will be there in about three months, as well."
"Very good, Your Highness. I'll add it to the Alpha List."
The Alpha List, as Adrienne knew, was the real itinerary for her visit to Sphinx. As a routine precaution, only Tudev and his immediate superior, Brigadier Hallowell, CO of the King's Own Regiment of the Royal Army, would have access to the Alpha List until just before she departed for Sphinx. Not even Lady Haroun would know exactly what was on it, and there were several lists of other potential sites for her visit. Full dress security arrangements would be made at every one of them, but most would be decoys. The practice had been adopted ten T-years ago, immediately after Adrienne's mother's death, as an additional security measure.
That thought brought its own fierce, eye-burning stab of anguish, but she let no sign of it show. She'd become quite skilled at hiding the hurt.
"Thank you, Colonel Tudev," she said, and smiled at him.
A silken blur of cream-and-gray fur scurried up the trunk of the tree humans called picket wood. It slowed as it reached the upper branches and became identifiable as a treecat . . . rather on the small side for a male. He was little more than a human meter in length from nose to prehensile tail-tip, and that same tail showed only six age bands. Since male cats threw out their first band at the end of their fourth Sphinxian year of life, then added another for each additional year, that made him nine planetary yearsor just under forty-seven T-yearsold. That was barely over the edge into young adulthood for a species which routinely lived five times that long, but he moved with an assurance at odds with his youth. Which was peculiar, for the tree he was climbing belonged to the most senior memory singer in all the world. Worse, he was not even of her clan . . . and while he hoped he was expected, he had not been invited.
He reached another branching intersection and found himself face-to-face with another male, this one considerably bigger than he, with the confident bearing of a veteran hunter. The older 'cat gave him a long, measuring look, but the youngster never hesitated. He flicked his ears in a respectful enough salutation, yet he kept right on climbing at his slower, more deliberate pace, and the hunter let him pass.
So, the newcomer thought. Word of his coming had been passed as Song Weaver had promised it would. That was something. Indeed, it was more than he'd truly allowed himself to anticipate, for he had half-expected his clan's elders to pressure the young memory singer into "forgetting" her promise. He twitched his whiskers in the equivalent of a human snort at the thought and continued on his way, borne onward by the sense of righteous indignation which had brought him across half a continent for this meeting.
But then he reached the tree fork he sought, and he felt himself slow abruptly. It was one thing to set out on even the longest journey, confident in his own rectitude and calling. It was quite another, he suddenly discovered, to reach its end and actually thrust himself into the presence of the most respected living member of his own species.
He paused outside the large, comfortable nest tucked into the uppermost reaches of the tallest tree at the very heart of the Bright Water Clan's central nesting place, and somewhere deep inside him a very young kitten discovered that it unaccountably wanted to forget its own effrontery, turn around, and go home. But it was only a brief pause. He had come too far to hesitate now, and he shook himself, then advanced to the nest's entrance. He stopped there once more and reached out with one true-hand to strike respectfully at the hollow wooden tube hanging beside the nest entrance. Generations of other claws had gouged the tube, and countless impacts between it and the tree bole had worn a deep depression through the picket wood's tough bark, but the resonating musical note as it flew back against the tree was sufficient for sharp ears to hear.
For an instant, the youngster thought the ears of the one he sought must have lost their sharpness, for there was no response at all. But then a mind voice spoke, and his own ears went up in astonishment as it rolled through him.
<So, young Seeker of Dreams. You have arrived. I expected you sooner.>
Seeker of Dreamswho had been called Tree Dancer until his clan's senior memory singer derisively renamed him at his last acrimonious appearance before the elderssat very still, tasting the serenity and amused, tolerant laughter of the mind glow behind that incredibly rich and vibrant mind voice. All his young life, he had known that the memory singer called Sings Truly was the most powerful and skilled memory singer in the world. Indeed, she was one of the three or four most powerful in all the thousands of turnings of the People's memory. But that had been knowledge, not experience. Now the power and the beauty of her mind voice flowed through him, jewel-toned and clear as still water, yet edged with the immense power of every mind voice she had ever touched and reproduced as she sang the memory of the People into the web of time. They were all there, sounding like the chimes and cymbals of the two-legs in the timbre of her mind voice, and it took all the courage in him to find a reply at last.
<Yes, Memory Singer,> he said. <I have come. I am sorry the journey took longer than you had expected. It was long, but I came with all speed.>
<Indeed you did.> Sings Truly sent forth another surge of wry amusement. <It was only that when Song Weaver warned me of your quest, I expected you to arrive in a flash of light and thunder, like one of the human's sky craft. At the very least I expected your fur to be somewhat singed by the speed of your passage!>
Seeker of Dreams' ears twitched in acute embarrassment, and the fact that he knew Sings Truly could taste itand that he could taste her increased amusement in replymade things no better. But he also tasted her encouragement and genuine welcome.
<If I had had a two-legs sky egg, I would have used it, Memory Singer,> he admitted after another moment. <But I had only my own feet and tail. Although I do believe I may have scorched my tail a bit swinging through that last stretch of straight wood beyond the mountains.>
<No doubt. Well, come in, kitten. You have come too far to be kept sitting outside my nest until it rains upon you.>
<My thanks, Memory Singer,> he replied with all the sincerity her courtesy deserved, and uncoiled his sinuous body to enter the tightly woven nest.
Most of the People preferred snug nests, little more than twice their own bodies' length, for several reasons. For one thing, smaller nests were considerably warmer during the cold days. For another, adults were responsible for maintaining their own nests, and it was easier to see to the proper weaving of smaller roofs. Mated pairs regularly extended their nests, especially if they had kittens to rear, but they also returned to a smaller, more comfortable size as soon as possible.
But Sings Truly's nest was enormous, with room for at least a triple-hand of adults, and Seeker of Dreams blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dimness within and he realized someone had actually carried stones up the tree to build a sturdy hearth at its center. Such a luxury was unheard of, given the danger escaped fire represented to tree-dwelling creatures, but his surprise vanished as quickly as it had come. This was Sings Truly's nest, and if any of the People had ever earned such consideration, she had.
Then something rattled, and he turned his head and blinked in fresh surprise as Sings Truly pulled aside a curtain and stepped from behind it. The curtain was of some material he had never seen before, and he felt a flash of excitement as he realized it must be of two-leg weave. Or of two-leg making, at least, for it did not seem to be precisely woven at all. Rather it was all of one piece, with a soft and furry inner surface, which he felt intuitively certain was an even better insulator than the blankets and wall hangings the People wove from their own shed winter coats.
He had a brief glimpse of the much smaller, plain little chamber behind the curtain and realized it must be her own sleeping place, but that hardly registered at the moment. Not only did he have the curtain's odd material to ponder, but no other nest he had ever heard of had actually been partitioned inside, and the novelty took him aback. Yet it made a great deal of sense for a large nest when he thought about it. There was no real point building walls between People for that peculiar concept the two-legs called "privacy," for it was literally impossible for one of the People not to taste the mind glow of another at such close range, but the chamber walls and hanging curtain cut the nest up into smaller sections, each of which would be its own cell of warmth during the cold days.
<So you approve of my curtain?> Sings Truly cocked her head at him. <Not all do. Indeed, some think it only one more sign my position has led me into pride.> She bleeked a laugh. <Most are careful not to say so, but their mind glows give them away.>
<Surely not!> Seeker of Dreams protested.
<I am not just a memory singer to Bright Water Clan, kitten,> she told him in richly amused mind tones. <I am also old Sings Truly, and I am aunt or cousin or honorary granny to every member of the clan. They have no intention of allowing me to forget that, and I think it is just as well. Besides> another bleeking laugh <I doubt I should know what to do with myself if someone did not disapprove of me!>
<Who would dare?> Seeker of Dreams demanded, and then his whiskers twitched in fresh embarrassment as she laughed gently at his outraged ardor. Well, she was entitled to laugh at him, but that made his question no less valid. She was Sings Truly, the memory singer of memory singers and the one whose stunning vision had truly brought the People and the two-legs together!
<You are a kitten,> she told him at last, her mind voice gentle. Then she stepped fully into the central nest, and Seeker of Dreams felt a flash of shock as he saw her clearly at last. Her strong, beautiful mind voice and the mind glow that matched it were those of a young female in the prime of her life, but the memory singer he actually saw was shrunken with age. Her dappled brown pelt was so age-silvered it looked almost as gray as his own, and her left true-foot and hand-foot both dragged when she moved. Her whiskers were age-bent, she had lost her upper right canine, and now that he looked more closely, he could taste the constant, low-level pain of stiffened joints and aching sinews which had become an inescapable part of her life. It was so clear when he sought it that he was astonished he could have missed tasting it in the first place, but only until he realized he hadn't tasted it because she didn't. It was a fact of her life she could not deny, but she saw no reason she should dwell upon it, and her grass-green eyes glowed with a will to which the infirmities of an obviously failing body were merely an inconvenience.
<So, young dream chaser,> she said. <As you say, you have come far to consult with me. What may this ancient singer of memories do for you?>
<I> he began, then paused, overcome once more by a sense of his own temerity. He was only a youth who had been granted his voice before the elders of Red Leaves Dancing Clan less than half a turning before, and as Song Mistress had pointed out, that scarcely qualified him to challenge the united decision of those same elders.
For just an instant, all he wanted to do was turn and go home, before he exposed his youthful lack of maturity and humiliated the rest of his clan by disputing the will of its elders. But then he remembered the songs of Climbs Quickly and the deeds of Sings Truly when first she became Bright Water Clan's senior singer, and his resolve stiffened. If anyone in the world would understand how one could be called to argue against restrictions, surely that person was Sings Truly!
<I have come to seek your assistance, Memory Singer,> he said with a dignity he found vaguely surprising.
<My assistance,> Sings Truly repeated, and her age-blunted whiskers quivered with bittersweet memory. <There was another scout of the People who asked my assistance,> she told Seeker of Dreams. <I gave it . . . and he almost died of the giving. Indeed, he did die of it in the end. Would you have me repeat that gift?>
<I would,> Seeker of Dreams replied, and this time there was no question or self-doubt in him. He looked into her eyes, letting her taste his sincerity, and she sighed.
<Your elders are right, Seeker of Dreams,> she told him at last. <You are too young. Go home. Wait. Live longer before you race to meet the dark.>
<I cannot,> he replied simply. <I have heeded the songs, Memory Singer, and I taste the two-leg mind glow in them, like fire in a night of snow and bitter wind. It haunts my dreams, and I yearn to taste it more clearlyto take it for my own and give myself to it. And I wish to know more of the two-legs' worlds, and their tools, and all their marvels. It is a hunger and a need within me, and I cannot reject it or turn from it.>
<And if you feed that hunger, you will die,> she said softly, and flicked her tail in interruption when he would have responded. <Oh, not immediately, little brother. But the humansand that is what they call themselves; not "two-legs"are shorter-lived than we, and those who bond to them . . .> Her mind voice trailed off, and he tasted a complex alloy of grief, guilt, and loss in her mind glow.
<I did not realize how short-lived they are when Climbs Quickly bonded to Death Fang's Bane,> she admitted after a moment, and her mind voice was so soft he wondered if she had ever admitted it to anyone before. <She was so young, no more than a kitten of her kind. I never dreamed she would live so short a time! Yet even though she lived a long life for the humans, Seeker of Dreams, it was for less than eighteen turnings, and when she died, Climbs Quickly chose to go into the dark with her.> The memory singer looked straight at her young visitor, and her eyes were very bright but soft. <A part of my heart died with him, little brother. He was my youngest brother, of our parents' final litter, and I loved himperhaps too much, for I have never truly known if I supported him because reason told me it was correct, or because love left me no choice. But this I do know, youngling; he should not have gone so soon, not for another full eighteen turnings of his own. Yet if you achieve that which you wish, you will perish even younger than he, for he was three full turnings older than you when they bonded, and few among the humans have mind glows so strong and stableand at so young an ageas Death Fang's Bane's. You will not find another so young, and if you bond to an adult, one whose life is half spent when first you meet, then what awaits you when your human dies?>
<I do not know, Memory Singer,> Seeker of Dreams said, and dipped his ears with grave formality. <Perhaps, I, too, will go into the dark with my two-lwith my "human." But perhaps I will not, too. It is customary for one of the People to follow his or her mate into the dark, yet it does not always happen. Sometimes there are things undonethings one knows one's mate would wish one to complete, or kittens to raise, or another whose mind glow fills the hole in your soul. Sometimes there are not, and no one can know which will happen in his life until it is upon him. Yet that does not keep us from seeking the ones among the People with whose mind glows we must bond. Why then should we allow it to stop us from seeking out the ones among the humans whose mind glows call out to us in our dreams?>
<You are so like Climbs Quickly.> Sings Truly sighed. <He had no reason even to worry about the possibility, for none of us guessed such a thing might be accomplished, yet he had that same certainty . . . and stubbornness. You do realize why your elders seek to prevent this, do you not?>
<Of course I do, Memory Singer. Am I a mere kitten, unable to taste what truly fans their anger with me? They love me. They do not wish to see me bond to a human and "throw my turnings away." As you, they fear I will bond to an adult, one with only three or four turnings left to it, and so they would have me wait until my own turnings and those of the one I might bond to would be better matched and I would "sacrifice" less of my life. But I have tasted the mind glows of others who have taken that advice and never gone among the humans at all. Rather they find mates in the passing of time, and that is good, for it is not right for one of the People to be unbonded and alone. Yet there is also that sadness in them, that knowledge of the path not followed and the dream not sought. Life is choice, Memory Singer, and any choiceeven the taking of a mate, and the life bonding, and the kittens who grow strong in the warmth of their parents' mind glowmay breed sorrow. Indeed, the same choice may bring great happiness yet also great pain. I am young, but I have seen and tasted it in the lives of others. Yet the life in question is mine, and it is only fitting that I bear responsibility for the decisions which weave it. I respect my elders, and their love warms me, yet have they the right to forbid me to protect me from myself? Is that not alien to the ways of the People?>
<It is,> she affirmed sadly.
<Then the right to choose is mine, and however much I respect my elders, and however much I understand that they act out of love, it is I who must decide. Yet I would not simply defy them, and that was why I sought you. You are Sings Truly, she who first recognized the value of our bondings with the humans. And you are also the most senior memory singer of all the People of all the world. I do not ask you to attempt to overrule or command my elders. That would be wrong, even if they chose, because of who you are and all you have done, to obey you. But I ask that you support me in this. That you tell them what you have told methat it is my right and my decision to make.>
The aged memory singer gazed at the young scout before her, tasting his sincerity. More than that, she tasted the call of which he spoke, the yearning. She saw it seldom among the People, yet each time it appeared, she felt the pain anew, for each time it reminded her of Climbs Quickly. She had come to realize, over the long Sphinxian years, that there had always been something differentspecialabout her brother. His mind voice had been stronger than that of almost any other male she had ever met, and he had always been independent-minded and strong-willed . . . and most skilled at tasting mind glows. He would have made some female a wonderful mate, and yet there would always have been that something different deep within him. He would not have known what it was, or what to do with it, but he would always have known it was there, like a thorn buried in the pad of a hand-foot. The unused capacity and ability would have been like that, somewhere deep down inside, and he would never have been fully happy or content, for his full talents would never have been tested or used.
Except with Death Fang's Bane. There, with that alien, two-legged creature not even of his world, those talents had been used, and her brother had soared on wings of glory. She had told Seeker of Dreams that Climbs Quickly's life had been cut short by his bond, and so it had, but oh, how brightly he had burned before the dark!
And she had seen that same talent again and again since he bonded to the human youngling Bright Water Clan had named Death Fang's Bane. It was rare, yet now that the People knew what to look for, Sings Truly believed it had always been there in some of them. It was simply that no one had ever recognized it because there had been no two-legs to summon the possibilities forth. But as the songs of Climbs Quickly's epic battle against the Death Fang and his bonding to the human who had fought it with him winged around the world, more and more of the People had come to the Bright Water range with that same something. They had recognized its taste within themselves from the memory songs of Climbs Quickly, and they had hungered to fill the void within them as he had, with the glorious power of the mind-blind humans' mind glow. Not so very many of them, out of all the numbers of all the People, perhaps . . . but more than even Sings Truly had expected when she first spoke out to defend the value to the People of such bondings.
And too many of them went into the dark too soon, she thought sadly. So glorious and bright the human mind glow. . . . Is it because they live such short lives? Does their soul consume itself, pouring out in that brilliant furnace? All of the People who have ever tasted it know its power, yet those who embrace it Are they the most fortunate among us, or the most cursed? And I, who first defended Climbs Quickly, what responsibility do I bear for all of those People who have bound their lives to the humans and seen so many turnings pass unspent from their true-hands?
She gazed at Seeker of Dreams, tasting his respect for her, his admiration. There was no question in his mind glow. But he was young, and certainty was the possession of youth, while Sings Truly was old. She had lived long, even for one of the People, yet soon it would be her time to journey into the dark. She thought about it more often of late, wondering if she would meet Climbs Quickly again beyond the darkness, and if Death Fang's Bane would be with him. She hoped so, for both of their sakes.
And because she hoped that, she could not reject Seeker of Dreams' plea.
<Your elders have renamed you truly,> she said after a long, still moment. <But recall that even the most skilled hunter may find himself the hunted.>
<I will not forget it, Memory Singer,> he promised, and for the first time, there was no sting to the name he had been given. Not when Sings Truly used it in such a mind voice. His head rose, and he met her eyes steadily until she flicked her ears in approval.
<You understand that even now the humans do not know how clever we truly are?> she asked him.
<I do,> he assured her.
<Actually, I have always suspected that Death Fang's Bane guessed very early that we sought to conceal our full cleverness,> Sings Truly mused. <Certainly Darkness Foe, the human called Scott MacDallan, in their speech, did. And so did Death Fang's Bane, although she had far less proof of it than Darkness Foe did. She was frighteningly clever herself, you know, with a mind glow like a crown fire, and she loved Climbs Quickly deeply. I have believed for turnings that she realized what we sought to hide and actually helped us to do so.>
<I have not heard that in any of the memory songs,> Seeker of Dreams said.
<Because I never put it into one of them,> she told him tartly. <I was never certainyou know we can taste only their mind glows; we cannot hear their thoughts, although we have learned to know the meaning of a great many of the mouth noises they make. Such as the fact that they call themselves "humans" and not two-legs. But if Death Fang's Bane understood what we sought to do and why, she was clever enoughand loved Climbs Quickly enoughnever to ask him.>
<With all respect, Memory Singer, I am not certain I understand why we continue to conceal our full cleverness from the humans. After all, we have not hidden it from all of them. What of Darkness Foe? He, at least, knew how clever we are. Did he not hear the memory song of Clear Singer? All of us have heard the memory songs of Swift Striker and True Stalker and Darkness Foe and their battle against the human evil doer who destroyed Bright Heart Clan's range and slew True Stalker's two-lhuman.>
<You speak truth, youngling,> Sings Truly conceded. <Yet for all his courage and love for Swift Strikerand grief for True Stalker's deathDarkness Foe was not like other humans. Some of them are . . . less mind-blind than others, and Darkness Foe was more sensitive than any others we have met, even Death Fang's Bane or the clan which sprang from her. But recall even so that making him hearif, in fact, he did heartook the full voice of Clear Singer, a memory singer of great skill and strength, and the support of three hands of hands of hands of hunters and scouts of Walks in Moonlight Clan. Yet with all that strength supporting her, not even Clear Singer or Strikes Quickly was ever certain how much of the song he truly heard. When Clear Singer sang the song of his bonding with Strikes Quickly, his mind glow changed as the song was woven, yet she herself told me tht she did not know how much came from her song and how much from memories of his own which she but evoked. There was no way she could know, for even in the song, she could not hear his thoughts.>
<That is true,> Seeker of Dreams admitted, flicking his ears as he acknowledged her correction. <Yet it is also true that since the days of Death Fang's Bane and Darkness Foe we have bonded with them for six hands of turnings, and they have done much for us. Their own elders have ordered that we and our ranges be protected from the evil doers among them, like she who slew True Stalker and his human, and they have taught us many things we would never have known without them. Surely we need fear them no longer!>
<You might be right,> Sings Truly replied. <But once the shell of that nut is cracked, the People will never be able to put the kernel back inside it. And never forget, Seeker of Dreams, that like the People, humans are hunters. And like the People, there are good and bad among them. We have observed that the good outnumber the bad, and that the rules made by their elderstheir "kings" and "queens," as they call themhave been mostly good ones. But many of those rules are strange and confusing to us, for they deal with concepts and possibilities we do not understand. And never forget, youngling, that the reason those rules are required is to prevent the bad among them from doing wicked things, or that the power of their tools and all the many devices they possess and the things they know make them more dangerous to the People than any death fang. Even those who would never hurt one of the People on purpose could easily do so by accident.
<All of that is true, and reason enough for caution, but consider also this. Even among the People, a clan is wary of those who may pose a threat to it. There have been fights between clans over ranges and nesting places. We are not proud of it, but we know it happens, even as we know there are occasions when one of the People deliberately kills another out of hatred or anger or greedeven love . . . and especially out of fear. The same is true among humans, but so long as they do not think we are as clever as they, they will not see us as a threat. Indeed, their elders see us all as younglings, to be protected and nurtured, and we encourage them in that. Perhaps we cannot taste their thoughts, nor they ours, not even the ones like Darkness Foe or Death Fang's Bane, yet the bond is there, and though they may not taste as we taste, still something within them seems to sense us, whether they know or not, when we turn all our will and skill to reaching them.
<And this one thing all of the People who have bonded with humans do, Seeker of Dreams: they ask their humans to keep our secret. We do not seek to compel or to deceive into doing as we wish, for it would be an evil thing to whisper orders into the ear of one who trusts us in a voice he does not know even exists. We but ask, as Climbs Quickly asked Death Fang's Bane and as Swift Striker asked Darkness Foe, and we do not know if they hear us even in their dreams, yet so far all have kept our secret. And so their elders continue to debate our cleverness, and to protect us, and do not see us as a threat. But those things could change, and I would not have us risk that change until we have built sufficient bonds as bridges between us that the humans know we are no threat and will never be one.>
<But has not that day already come?>
<As I say, I do not know the answer to that question, but my heart says no, Seeker of Dreams. There are so few among the People who can and will bond to the humans, and humans live such short lives. I know of no more than five triple-hands of hands of People who are presently bonded to humans. That is not many against all the numbers of humans on this world . . . and so far, all of the People to bond have done so here, on this world. Less than a single hand of us have been to any of the other worlds the humans own, and there are so many humans. Those of the People who have bonded tell tales of world upon world, hands of hands of hands of them. And of all those worlds, our humans claim only three. We do not understand how their clans and those of all those other worlds meet and communicate, or how they resolve differences, but we know there is much contact between their worlds . . . and that not all humans regard us as our humans do.
<No, Seeker of Dreams. There is too much we do not yet know or understand. Bright Water's elders were wrong to oppose Climbs Quickly's bond with Death Fang's Bane, yet there was also wisdom in their caution. We have begun the task of building our bridge to the humans, and the work goes well, if slowly. Yet the bridge remains fragile still, and will for many more turnings. Let us not race out onto the branch only to discover it will not yet bear our weight, kitten. Do you agree, or> a devilish gleam of humor flickered in her mind glow <must I . . . convince you to see this as I see it?>
<Ah, no, Memory Singer,> Seeker of Dreams said very carefully.
<Good. In that case, let us consider instead how best to convince your elders to agree gracefully to that which you desire.>
Princess Adrienne sat with her feet tucked up under her in the armchair in her suite aboard HMS King Roger I while she gazed sightlessly out the armorplast view port. The suite's dimmed lights made the star-spangled view still more glorious, yet she scarcely even noticed it as her mind drifted through channels which had become far too well worn.
She'd always disliked the names tradition insisted upon hanging on each new royal yacht. This one, for example. It sounded . . . arrogant to name a ship after her own great-great-great-grandfather. Of course, the choice hadn't been made by the royal familythe Navy had picked the name when the Admiralty built the Roger as its predecessor's replacementand no one else seemed to object. But she couldn't help it.
Maybe it's just because he was King, and Daddy is King, and I don't want to be Queen, but they're going to make me. I ought to just let them crown me, then abdicate. That'd fix them all!
She toyed with the notion, visualizing the consternation. The fact that she was an only child and that her widower father had steadfastly refused to remarry had always made the political establishment nervous about the succession. It wasn't as if she didn't have a dozen cousins in varying degrees who could step into the breach, but the Star Kingdom's population had developed an almost frightening veneration for the House of Winton . . . and she was the last member of the family's senior branch.
Of course, I've read great-great-grandmother's personal journals, she thought. That has to make a difference in how much veneration I feel for the monarchy. I wonder how many people realize the Crown was supposed to be mostly a figurehead? A puppet for the House of Lords? Well, they got more than they figured on with Grandma Beth!
She grinned, but then the grin faded as she remembered what her ancestress' successful Constitution building had dumped on her own plate. Damn it! She was sure there were thousands of people simply dying to be King or Queen! Why couldn't she just pick one of them and pass the job to someone who actually wanted it?
She sighed and picked a bit of fluff off her bathrobe. She held it up on her opened palm, then puffed a breath of air at it and watched it sail off into the unknown. She lost sight of it almost instantly in the dimly lit cabin, and a sudden spasm of hurt lashed her as it brought back another day when a ten-year-old Adrienne had watched her mother's ship depart HMS Hephaestus for Gryphon. She'd been supposed to accompany the Queen Consort, but something had come up. Some minor detail which had derailed her own schedule. And so she'd simply accompanied her mother up to the space station to wave goodbye and then watched the yachtthat one had been named Queen Elizabeth Iuntil it vanished into the immensity of space, just as the bit of fluff had vanished.
And like the bit of fluff, she had never seen itor her motheragain.
She bit her lip hard, as much in anger for letting memory ambush her as in anguish at reliving it, and forced it down, down into the deep places in her mind. It subsided sullenly, like a hungry neoshark, sinking back into the shadows but never truly gone. She felt it there, circling at the core of her, waiting for another opportunity to erupt from the depths and rend her afresh. And it would attack again. She knew it would.
She drew a deep breath and shoved her hands into the pockets of her robe, and then, slowly, she forced herself to relax and draw happier memories to the surface. Memories of her mother before her death . . . of her father before her mother's death.
A great many people had been astonished when Crown Prince Roger wedded Solange Chabala. Not by the fact that she wasn't a noblewoman, for the Constitution specifically required the Heir to marry a commoner, but rather because she was so . . . well, plain. With all the Crown's subjects to choose from, surely Prince Roger (who possessed the Winton handsomeness in full measure) could have picked someone who stood more than a hundred and fifty-one centimeters and had a face that was more than merely . . . comfortable looking. Oh, in the proper lighting little Princess Solange could pass for pretty, but she'd been undeniably plump, and she'd never managed to cultivate the air of boredom which was any proper aristocrat's birthright. Instead, she'd bustled, and she'd smiled incessantly, and she'd always been doing something, and somehow, without anyone's realizing it was happening, she had gathered the entire Star Kingdom to her heart and it had discovered that, without quite knowing how, it had learned to love her.
As Adrienne had. And her father. Indeed, King Roger had adored his Queen, and she had exercised a profound impact upon him. In his youth, Prince Roger had been the darling of the Liberals and the despair of his parents, for he'd been strongly attracted to the assertion that monarchies were obsolete. That argument had been around almost since the beginning of the Star Kingdom, of course, but in the last thirty or forty T-years the Liberal 'faxes had begun pointing to the growing Republic of Haven and its daughter colonies as the way of the future. Not even the discovery of the Manticore Wormhole Junction forty-five T-years before Adrienne's birth seemed likely to allow the Star Kingdom to close the vast gap in wealth and power between it and the Republic, and "the dead hand of monarchy" had been a favorite Liberal explanation for why that was so. For herself, Adrienne had been impressed by the fact that none of the Liberal Party's aristocratic members had ever been heard to comment on "the dead hand of the nobility" or to offer up their own privilege and wealth upon the altar of economic equality, universal suffrage, and democracy. But Roger had found much of the Liberal platform very appealing, although he hadn't quite known what to do about the Liberal notion that the monarchy, as the first, most fundamental barrier to the implementation of their sweeping changes, must be removed.
Until Princess Solange arrived, that was. Even now, with all the hurt and all the pain since, Adrienne had to smile whenever she thought of how her mother's impact had shaken Manticoran political circles. She was energetic, kind, caring, cheerful . . . and implacable as a Sphinx glacier. Her Gryphon yeoman background had gifted her with a sturdy sense of independence, a fundamental distrust of aristocrats who kept talking about how much they wanted to "help the common man," and a deep sense of trust in the monarchy. It never occurred to her that the Crown might be anything but the commoners' natural ally against the wealth and power of the aristocracywhether that aristocracy described itself as Liberal, Conservative, or Reactionaryand she went through Mount Royal Palace like a hurricane of fresh air.
Those had been the good years, Adrienne thought now. The years when her mother and father had been a team. When first Princess and then Queen Consort Solange had convinced her husband to stop dabbling with theories of social engineering and get down to the pragmatic task of making the monarchy work to produce the things he'd longed to give his subjects. Adrienne could still remember childhood nights, sitting at the dinner table with her parents while she listened to them stripping the bones out of one problem after another, analyzing them, coming up with strategies. She'd been too young to understand what they were trying to accomplish, but she'd felt their energy and vibrancy, the gusto with which they tackled the job, and she'd known even then that it had been both her parents. That her father was the strategist and the planner, but that her mother was the power plant that drove the machine and the warm, caring heart which had become her husband's moral compass.
And then, just before Adrienne's eleventh birthday, Queen Elizabeth's inertial compensator had failed under power.
She had been pulling close to four hundred gravities when it happened. There had been no survivors, and the derelict ship, manned only by the dead, had attained a velocity of over .9 c before anyone could intercept it. Queen Elizabeth had been traveling at that speed when she struck a tiny lump of matterlater estimates were that it was probably no more than a couple of cubic meters in volume. Her over-stressed particle shielding had already failed, not that it would have done much good at her final velocity even if it had functioned perfectly. The explosion had been visible to the naked eye throughout most of the Manticore Binary System, if one knew where to look.
Roger II had known where to look. He'd stood on a balcony of Mount Royal Palace and watched the searing flash of his wife's funeral pyre without so much as a single tear . . . and he had never wept for her since.
But the man who had come back inside from that balcony never smiled, never raised his voice in anger or laughter, either. He might as well have been a machine, and all that mattered to the machine was the power of the greater machine he ran. All of the tactics he and Queen Solange had worked out were at his fingertips, and he used them ruthlessly, yet the heart had been cut out of him with his wife. He remained scrupulously fair and puritanically honest, but there was no laughter, no joy. No room for humanity, because humanity hurt. It was better to be the machine running the machine, to lose himself utterly in providing his subjects with efficient government, however cold and unfeeling, than to risk feeling anything ever again.
And the one creature the machine had feared most in all the universe was a small, slender child who had just lost her mother. For that child could have made him feel again, could have dragged him back to face his agony, and so he'd used the press of his duties, and the formality of palace etiquette, and the need for tutors to teach her all the things she had to know, as excuses to hide from her. He'd pushed her away, fought to crush her into some sort of mold that would squash out the perfect automated successor for a machine which had once been a man. She was his heir, his replacement part, and that was all he dared let her ever be, lest she, too, die and wound him all over again.
She hadn't understood, of course. All she'd known was that when she'd needed her father most, he had deserted her. And because she was her mother's child, and because she'd loved him so much, she had reasoned that the fault must be hers and not his. That she must have done something to drive him away.
That logic had almost destroyed herwould have destroyed her but for the fact that she was Queen Solange's daughter. Her mother had been loving, but she had been equally and unflinchingly honest, and she had imbued her daughter with both those qualities. It took almost two T-years for Adrienne to realize what had actually happenedto recognize that her father had shut her out because of the damage he'd taken from her mother's death, not because of anything she had done. And in at least one sense, she'd realized it too late. Not too late to save herself, but too late to forgive her father.
She understoodnowwhat he'd done. She even understood why, and that his present cold, uncaring persona sprang out of how deeply he'd once allowed himself to love. But she also understood that countless other people had lost beloved wives or husbands or children and managed, somehow, to remain more than reasonably functional pieces of machinery. And she understood her father's selfishness, his inability to look beyond his hurt and his loss and his pain to the daughter he still had or to realize that his actions had deprived her of her father, as well as her mother.
He'd been a coward. He hadn't loved her enough to be there for her. That was what she could not forgive him for. A part of her kept insisting she was wrong to be so harsh. Some people were stronger than others, and he'd pushed her aside out of pain, not cruelty. But it didn't matter, and she wondered sometimes how much of the anger and the fury she felt for him was her way of sublimating her own anguish at her mother's death, as if she could somehow subtly blame him for all her pain if she only tried hard enough.
Now she sighed and closed her eyes wearily.
Someday Daddy and I are simply going to have to reconcile, for the Kingdom's sake, if nothing else! I just wish I knew how we can possibly do it. And I suppose that if I'm going to be honest, this little excursion to Twin Forks isn't going to help matters.
She grimaced again. For the last ten T-years, her father's one ambition had been to make the Crown truly supreme, and he'd devoted all his formidable ability and obsessive energy to that task. Adrienne had no doubt that Roger II would go down in history as second only to Elizabeth I among the builders of the Manticoran monarchy, and she knew many traditional power groups were dismayed by how his reforms had pruned and chopped away at their ability to influence policy. Several had attempted to resist their systematic emasculation, but none had been able to defy the avalanche named Roger II.
Except one. The Sphinx Forestry Service had one tremendous advantage over every other independently-minded bureau upon which Roger had directed the force of his will: a direct Constitutional commission. The Ninth Amendment specifically recognized the treecats as the native sentient species of Sphinx, guaranteed their corporate title to over a third of the planet's land area in perpetuity, and expressly required the Forestry Service to act as the 'cats' legal guardians, advocates, and representatives. The Crown had the right to name the head of the Service, but only with the advice and consent of the House of Lords, and the Lords had long since realized how the wind set in Mount Royal Palace. They'd begun to fight back against the reduction of their own prerogatives with every weapon at their disposal, including a stubborn refusal to consent in the appointment of a suitably obedient SFS chief who would run the Service the way Roger wanted it run.
That alone would have been enough to focus his cold, unforgiving ire on the Service, but he also found it an intolerable insult that a full third of Sphinxall of which had originally been Crown landhad been placed forever beyond his reach. To make things worse, much of that land held vast, untouched mineral deposits. The ability to confer those lands on allies in the Lordsor in the House of Commonswould have been an enormously potent weapon, and the man who had become totally committed to the supremacy of the Crown hated the 'cats for depriving him of it.
Which is foolish, Adrienne thought. No, be honestit's downright stupid! He's still got most of the Unicorn Belt and all the Gorgon Belt over in Manticore-B, and that doesn't even mention the better part of thirty-seven moons, or the Crown lands he still does have on Sphinx. Plus Gryphon and even Manticore! For that matter, most people would prefer an asteroid grant, because it's so much cheaper to work asteroids than an old-fashioned, dirtside mine. But I don't suppose anyone ever said obsessions have to make sense, and Daddy has more than enough of those to go around.
She sighed sadly and pushed up out of her chair. King Roger was due to depart for Sphinx in six hours, and she needed to get some sleep before their arrival. Besides, sitting here and rehashing all the things which had gone wrong in her life in the last ten T-years was pointlessand so was indulging herself in an orgy of "poor little princess" misery. Her mother had always told her the universe was the way the universe was, and that all anyone could do was deal with it as she found it.
Of course, Mom was always figuring out ways to suck the universe into doing what she wanted . . . and she usually found one when she needed it, too. She smiled wearily and stepped into her sleeping cabin and unbelted her robe. I wonder what she'd think of my subterfuge with my itinerary? She'd probably be pissed at me for using it as a way to tick Daddy off, but maybe not. One thing I know for certain: she'd be pissed as hell at him for the way he's acted since her death, so maybe she wouldn't be so mad at me after all.
I hope not, anyway.
Crown Princess Adrienne slipped into bed, waved the lights out, and settled down into her pillows, and deep inside her, where she could scarcely hear them any more, the tears of a lonely little girl fell into the silence.
"I don't like it."
"You never like it, Henry. That's why I work with you."
"Huh?" Henry Thoreau's face wrinkled in puzzlement, an expression which made him look even more like one of the genetically enhanced buffalo being experimentally introduced to Gryphon. He stood a full two meters in height, with a broad, meaty face remarkable for its extreme plainness, whereas Jean-Marc Krogman was a small, sleek whippet of a man. Krogman was also the more intelligent of the two, but that very intelligence prevented him from underestimating Thoreau. The bigger man was no genius, but neither was he stupid . . . and he was pragmatic, with good instincts, and very, very good at what he did.
"You never like it," Krogman repeated now, "whatever the job. But that's good. It's what keeps you on your toes and makes you so good at spotting potential problems before they bite us on the ass."
"Oh." Thoreau rubbed his nose while he considered that, then shrugged. "So fine. That means you should listen to me. And I'm telling you that this one is too high profile. We try to pull it off, and we'd better plan on migrating to some neobarb colony no one ever heard of and staying there for good, 'cause there sure as hell ain't gonna be a hole deep enough to hide in here! And I don't know about you, Jean-Marc, but I kinda like it here. 'Specially compared to someplace like Old Earth or Beowulf," he added pointedly.
"As do I," Krogman agreed. "Nor do I have any intention of leaving. But in this instance, I think the prominence of the mark makes you unduly nervous. And it would be . . . unwise to change our minds this late in the game. Our client would take a dim view of that, you know." He cocked a quizzical eyebrow at Thoreau, and after a moment the big man nodded glumly. "Besides, the pieces are all in position, and our weapon has been thoroughly prepped, if I say so myself. No, Henry. It doesn't matter how high profile the job is when the work is properly planned and executed. We can get to her and get away clean. After all," he smiled thinly, "it's been done before."
"Ha! I've heard the rumors, too, and that's all they are. No way in hell that was a hit!"
"Oh?" Krogman cocked his head, and his eyes glinted. "You think not? Then tell me thishow many other inertial compensators have failed in the last ten T-years?"
"Huh?" Thoreau rubbed his nose again, then shrugged irritably. "How the hell should I know?"
"A fair question," Krogman conceded. "The numbers are scarcely a matter of general interest, and some research would be required to discover them. But unlike you, I've looked into ita matter of professional curiosity, you understandand the answer is none. Not a single compensator has failed aboard a single Manticoran vessel since the Queen Elizabeth's. Don't you find it just a little odd that the only ship to suffer complete and catastrophic compensator failure in all that time also happened to be the single most carefully maintained vessel in the entire Star Kingdom?"
"I guess it does sound funny, put that way," Thoreau admitted after a moment.
"Indeed it does," Krogman said with another smile, "and I wonder how it was managed? Of course, whoever pulled it off was also far luckier than anyone has any right to plan for. He couldn't possibly have counted on having the ship blow itselfand any evidencethe hell up. But I'll guarantee you that anyone who could get to the royal yacht's compensator would have set up a defense in depth that would have held even if someone had managed to intercept the ship and bring it back intact."
"That's a pretty big supposition," Thoreau pointed out.
"Maybe. On the other hand, I've got a strong suspicion that the people who hired us were behind that hit as well. And that they're connected pretty damned high up at Court, too." Thoreau raised an eyebrow, and the smaller man shrugged. "It's exactly the same MO, Henry. Rather than attack the King directlyand maybe start someone looking for high-placed conspirators who might profit equally directly from his demisethey go after targets that attack him only obliquely. Hmm. . . ."
He leaned back in his chair, thinking hard while summer Sphinx sunlight spilled over the street-side cafe.
"I wonder," he murmured at last. "Do they only want to cripple him? To derail this passion of his for making the Crown supreme? Or will they go for him directly later?"
"If they want him diverted, then they weren't as smart as they thought the first time aroundassuming what happened to the Queen Elizabeth really was a hitnow were they?" Thoreau snorted. "Sure, they got the Queen, but he's only been an even bigger pain in the ass for anybody else who wants a slice of the pie since she died."
"To the contrary, Henry. They were smart enough; they just hadn't counted on how much it would hurt him, and they got a bad case of overkill." Thoreau frowned, and Krogman shrugged. "Think about it. If someone did sabotage the ship to cripple the King, they succeeded. They simply didn't cripple him in the way they'd anticipated. Instead of abandoning government while he tried to put his private life back together, he totally buried himself in his work to avoid the wreckage of his private life. Given how much he and his wife both loved their daughter, I would've made the same call and expected him to bury himself in the kid, instead."
"And you would've been wrong," Thoreau said with a certain satisfaction, and Krogman grinned. His towering partner seldom got a chance to point out errors on his part, especially in matters psychological, and Thoreau enjoyed the rare opportunities to gloat. Not that Thoreau was foolish enough to want Krogman to make mistakes, which was one reason Krogman was amused rather than irritated by the big man's gloating.
"I would've been wrong," he conceded. "But I don't think he'll be able to just keep going if he loses the kid now. Oh, no. If anything happens to the Heir, everything he's been avoiding since his wife's death will jump up and go straight for his throat, Henry. I'm as sure of that as I am that we're sitting here right now. But is that what they want, or will they go after him directly while he and his security people are still reeling?"
"If they do, then they can damned well find someone else for the job!" Thoreau said bluntly. "And that goes for you, too, Jean-Marc! I've done some risky things with you, but I am not going after the frigging King of frigging Manticore!"
"No one's asking you to," Krogman soothed. "But it would make sense, wouldn't it? I mean, if they wanted to manipulate the succession." His eyes took on a faraway expression, and he pursed his lips. "Everyone thinks what happened to Queen Elizabeth was an accident," he mused. "Well, everyone but the PGS and the King's Own, at least, and even they probably lean that way. And if things work right, everyone'll think what happens to the Heir is the work of a lone madman. Security for the King will tighten up, sure, but I wonder if anyone else has considered how removing his wife prevented him from producing any other heirs while removing his daughter will eliminate the only heir he has. Which means that if they eliminate him, why, the direct line of Winton will gopouf!"
He snapped his fingers, and Thoreau twitched uncomfortably. He looked around the cafe quickly, suddenly nervous about listening ears. But it was early, they sat alone in a sea of empty tables still awaiting the normal lunch rush, and neither of them had been foolish enough to raise his voice. Besides, he'd swept for bugs himself, and neither he nor Krogman had any sort of criminal record to attract official attention. Or not, at least, here in the Star Kingdom and under the names of Thoreau and Krogman.
<Body teNone of which made him any happier about Krogman's speculations. The possibility that someone might have managed to sneak a bug in on them despite his best efforts was bad enough, but his partner's musings were frightening. People in their line of work became dangerous when they knew too much . . . and their employers became dangerous to them when those employers only thought they knew too much. Besides, he'd heard that same note from Krogman before, and it usually indicated that the other man was mentally prospecting for fresh opportunities. Which was a good thing, most of the time, but would be a decidedly bad thing if it got them any deeper into some kind of plot aimed at toppling the monarchy outright.
"Yeah, well, maybe you're right about all that, Jean-Marc," he said, "and maybe you aren't. But what we've got to worry about is the operation we signed on for, and I'd feel a hell of a lot better if we already had her real itinerary."
"All we can do is all we can do," Krogman replied with a philosophical shrug. "We told them they'd have to provide us with the intel to get our boy into position, and they agreed. So if they don't get us the word this time, then we wait for the next time she comes out where we can get at her. Either that, or they find themselves another team."
"I don't much like that thought, either," Thoreau muttered, and Krogman quirked an eyebrow. "The thought of their finding another team," the big man amplified. "I mean, what if they've already lined up somebody to pop us right after we pop her? Kinda tie up the loose ends real quick, just in case?"
"A thought," Krogman murmured, and there was a gleam of respect in his eyes as he regarded his partner. In point of fact, Krogman had already considered that possibility, but the fact that Thoreau had also pondered it gave it additional point.
Of course, that's always a part of the game, isn't it? And our "clients" know that we know that they know that we know it. So if I were the people we're working for, and if I were as smart as I've been giving them credit for being, would I also be smart enough to know that people like me always cover our asses? Or would I be smart enough to figure out a way to pop me and get away with it no matter how thoroughly I've covered my ass?
He smiled dreamily at the thought.
"Here! Take it and get the hell out of my life!" the uniformed woman hissed, and threw the data chip viciously at the elegantly groomed man. They stood between towering banks of Terran rhododendron in Mount Royal Palace's Grand Garden, atop the hill overlooking the city of Landing, and Manticore-A hung on the western horizon. The cool breezes of evening sighed in the glossy green leaves, and the shadows were dense enough to blur their features, but the insignia of a commander in the Royal Manticoran Navy glittered on the woman's collar.
"Now, now, Anna!" The elegant man caught the chip with negligent grace. "That's no way to talk to someone who's paid you so well for your services."
"Paid? You call it paid?" The commander sounded strangled, and her fisted hand quivered at her side. "I never took a goddamned cent from you!"
"Ah? Well, I suppose not," the elegant man agreed. "But there are other commodities than money, aren't there, Anna? Like silence. Yes," he mused, "silence can be quite valuable, can't it? Especially when it keeps someone like you in the service of the Crown rather than buried on a prison asteroid somewhere. Or possibly just buried, if the court-martial happened to feel particularly vindictive. Normal bribes and contractor kickbacks are one thing, after all, but when substitution of substandard materials leads to the deaths ofwhat was it? Sixty of your fellow Navy personnel? Well"
He clicked his tongue and shrugged, and the woman physically twitched with the rage boiling through her. But he was right, damn him! All he had to do was drop a hint in the right ear, and her career, her freedom, and quite possibly her life would be over.
But the smartass bastard's overlooked the flip side of the coin, she thought savagely. Sure, he can wreck my life. But I can do the same for him, too, and if I turn King's Evidence to nail a damned duke for treason, they just might let me walk, too!
The thought helped steady her, and she drew a deep, hissing breath.
"You've got your information," she said flatly, "and I hope it doesn't do you a damned bit of good. I sure couldn't break the encrypt."
"Just as long as it's the right file." The elegant man's voice was no longer lazy, and the woman felt a sudden flicker of fear at its sudden coldness.
"It's the one you asked forthat's all I can tell you," she said. "That's all anybody could tell you about a Blue File without the encrypt key."
The elegant man seemed to consider that, then nodded slowly, and she relaxed a bit at the evidence that he meant to be at least a little reasonable. Blue Files were the most closely held of all military data. Their encryption programs were the best in the Star Kingdom, and their file designations were randomly generated strings of letters and numbers to avoid names which might offer any possible clue as to their contents. All the commander knew was that this particular file had been designated as "A1108G7Q23," and that she had pulled it out of the files of the King's Own Regiment. And, frankly, that was all she wanted to know about it.
"Then I suppose I'll just have to find myself a key," the elegant man said, and smiled. "You wouldn't happen to know where I could find one, would you, Anna?"
"No, I wouldn't," she said shortly.
"A pity. Ah, well. Thank you ever so much for your assistance. If I should need any other small favors, I'll be in touch."
He raised one hand and twiddled its fingers in a dismissive, shooing gesture, and she clenched her jaw. But she also made herself turn obediently and leave.
Let the prick enjoy himself for now, she told herself venomously. I'm just about ready to put the blocks to his ass.
She smiled thinly into the gathering evening gloom at the thought. It was risky, and she'd implicated herself hopelessly if anyone else ever found it, but the file she'd put together on all her "patron's" demands over the years was just about thick enough.
Another few months, she thought, nodding a brusque salute to the sentry outside Mount Royal's Lion Gate, and turned to her left, stalking down the pedestrian mall with a long, angry stride.
Just a few more demands like tonight, and it'll be enough to take to Justice and barter for a pass on the bribery charges. Hell, I'll even settle for five-to-ten in a cell if it lets me take the son-of-a-bitch down with me!
Commander Anna Marquette, senior military aide to the Second Lord of the Manticoran Admiralty, never noticed the dark-haired woman behind her. There was no reason she should have, for the stranger had mastered the art of unobtrusiveness. It was, in fact, her stock in trade, and she moved through the sparse, evening foot traffic as if she wore a cloak of invisibility, making no more impression than the breeze itself on anyone who saw heror, rather, didn't quite see heras she drifted along behind Marquette.
As a matter of fact, the commander mused as she made the familiar turn to cut through Eminger Park, maybe I shouldn't wait even another month. I don't know what the damned file he wanted was all about, but it was a Blue File. That means someone sure as hell thought whatever's in it was important enough to bury deep, and if that's true, then
The unobtrusive woman touched a button in her pocket, activating the contact lens in her left eye. An illuminated display which only she could see appeared to float before her, and she felt a glow of satisfaction as she carefully checked its icons. The closest thermal signature was fifteen meters in front of the target, and there was no one behind them for at least eighty meters. That was more than enough for her purposes, and she smiled slightly. The target's habit of taking the same route from the Palace back to Admiralty House every single time had made planning ever so much simpler.
Her left hand made a peculiar little twisting gesture, and a small gray tube, cross section thinner than a drinking straw, slid into her hand as she took three larger strides and closed the distance to the commander. One more stride to her left, and her right shoulder jostled Marquette ever so lightly as she stepped past her. The officer's head snapped around, eyebrows rising in surprise at the sudden contact, for she'd never suspected that anyone was behind her.
Perfect, the unobtrusive woman thought.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" she apologized, and her left hand came up. Marquette didn't see it until the last instant, and even then, no warning bells rang until the gray tube hissed and sent an invisible burst of precisely designed nanotech biochines straight up her nostrils. She heard the sound, then, and her eyes began to widen in shock, but she never felt a thing . . . until the terrible, utterly incapacitating agony as the tiny machines created what all but the very closest of autopsies would insist was a natural cerebral hemorrhage.
The unobtrusive woman didn't even pause as the commander went down in a boneless heap. There was no need. Her nannies had already done their jobs; now they were busy dissolving into odds and ends of "blood protein" that would pass any scientific examination. They would even have the right genetic markers, because the biolab which had built them had been provided with tissue samples from the target's BuMed records to use for building blocks.
Confident in the quality of her own work, the assassin neither shortened nor lengthened her stride. She simply walked away, like any other stroller in the park, without even a smile to betray her satisfaction with a job well done.
"You're certain you got all of it?" the elegant man asked.
"Positive, My Lord," the man in the Palace Guard Service uniform assured him. "The hard copy was exactly where we thought it would be, and I vacuumed every bit of it out of her electronic system, as well. It's gone. Or, at least, if it still exists anywhere, no one else will ever be able to find it if I can't."
The elegant man frowned ever so slightly at that, for he hated qualifiers. On the other hand, his minion had a habit of succeeding at even the most difficult tasks. He also had the reach and the avenues of information, both official and private, to make good on his boast. And truth to tell, it was better to work with people forthright enough to make qualifying admissions rather than promise more than they could truly deliver.
The PGS man only stood there, gazing calmly at his employer, as if he knew precisely what thoughts were flowing through this mind, and the elegant man smiled.
"Excellent. I won't forget this," he promised, and walked away with a nod.
<See over there? To the right?>
Seeker of Dreams looked in the indicated direction as he and Leaf Stalker paused in the fork of a tree. The Bright Water hunter had volunteered to escort Seeker of Dreams to the gathering place of the humans who watched over the People, and Seeker of Dreams appreciated his kindness. The other's mind glow told him they were kindred souls, but though Leaf Stalker felt a sort of wistful envy of his quest, the hunter did not share it. He knew more of humans than many of the People, and he spoke often with the People who had bonded with them, yet he lacked that need, that urgent hunger to seek out the human mind glow, which drove Seeker of Dreams.
And he is wise not to seek the bond without it, Seeker of Dreams thought, and it was his turn to feel a wistful envy, for Sings Truly was correct. Only one driven by a need he could neither master nor resist would choose the path he had, for he was young. It was almost certain that the dream he sought would send him to his death before half his allotted turnings were sped, and he felt a sharp flicker of sorrow for all the other things he would never see and experience. As Leaf Stalker did not share his own quest, so Seeker of Dreams would not share the slow, sweet turningsthe mate and kittens, the snow times, and mud times, and green, drowsy timesthat the hunter would know.
<Do you see it?> Leaf Stalker asked again, and Seeker of Dreams looked more carefully, then flicked his ears in assent. They were too distant to make out many details, but a straight, sharp edge of green, darker than the leaves about them, stood out against a bright patch of sky, and something about it prodded at his memory. Not of anything he had ever seen with his eyes, but of something from the memory songs. . . .
<It is the roof of the central nest of Death Fang's Bane's Clan's range,> Leaf Stalker told him almost reverently.
<Truly. I come here oftensometimes I have spent full days watching over them.> The hunter sighed, and flicked his tail in perplexity. <Yet there remain so many things I do not understand at all, or understand only a little, as a kitten might. Even those who have bonded find much about the two-legsthe humansimpossible to comprehend. They embrace many concepts so strange to us that not even those who have learned the meanings of their mouth sounds can explain them to us. They try, and with each turning we creep a little closer to the quarry of knowledge, yet I often think we will never truly understand the two-legs. Perhaps> the hunter turned his head to gaze directly at Seeker of Dreams <you will prove my fear unfounded. I hope you may, Seeker of Dreams.>
<I will certainly try, Leaf Stalker,> Seeker of Dreams promised almost humbly, and Leaf Stalker bleeked a quiet laugh.
<Only taste our mind glows, little brother! Here we cling, like two decrepit old elders peering into the future! Come! I will race you to the river, and we will let the future see to itself. After all> the hunter was already streaking down the picket wood branch, but his laughing mind voice carried clearly <the future always does!>
"I still don't like it," Henry Thoreau muttered, but this time he was careful to keep his voice so low not even Krogman could have heard ithad he been there. Which he wasn't. The big man snorted at the thought, for it was far too late to be worrying over what he liked or disliked. An ancient proverb about burning bridges flickered through his brain, but he paid it scant heed. He had no attention to spare from his present occupation.
No one looking at him would have guessed his nerves were twisted cable tight as he sat on the public bench and scanned a hardcopy newsfax. The remains of a simple but tasty lunch from a vendor at the corner lay on the table before him, along with a tall glass of lemonade, and he casually checked his watch as he turned a 'fax page.
The shady park adjacent to the Sphinx Forestry Service's HQ was a pleasant place for a leisurely lunch, but it was unusually well occupied today, for news of Crown Princess Adrienne's visit had been released to the public four hours ago. Many of Twin Forks' citizens had opted to take a long lunch break, and people from outlying freeholds had begun arriving over an hour ago. City work crews were supervising a small fleet of remotes as the bustling mechanisms rapidly assembled bleachers from which the Star Kingdom's subjects could gain an even better view of their future monarch and hear the address her speech writers had undoubtedly prepared for her, but for now the park just outside the SFS's perimeter fence was attracting most of the waiting bodies.
Thoreau allowed himself a mental grimace, though no sign of it touched his face, and wondered whether he was more reassured or worried that their client had, indeed, managed to get them the Princess' accurate itinerary. On the one hand, the information had been invaluable. On the other, the fact that their employer had the reach to get his hands on data that closely held spoke ominous volumes about his capabilities in general. After all, if someone who could put this all together decided to get rid of any liabilities
Stop that! he told himself sharply. Jean-Marc's made the arrangements, just like he always does. If anything happens to us, the shit will hit the fan big time when his insurance policy dumps into the public data net.
Sure it would. Of course, Thoreau suspected he and Krogman would take little personal satisfaction from the repercussions of their joint demise, but that wasn't exactly the point. And in the meantime, he had a job to do.
On the surface of it, it was a simple and rather pointless task, particularly for one with his skills in the efficient application of violence. But well-honed as those skills were, he would not need them today, for he had a single, unique qualification for his present task: anonymity. Despite a checkered past in certain other jurisdictions and under other names, his record was squeaky clean in the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Thatand the bright red handkerchief in his breast pocketwas all he had . . . and, thanks to the skills Krogman brought to their partnership, it was all he needed to assassinate the Heir.
"Welcome to SFS, Your Highness." The tall, red-haired man in the green and brown uniform of the Sphinx Forestry Service bowed as Adrienne stepped from the air car. His beret bore the Star Kingdom's rampant Manticore, but the patch on the right shoulder of his tunic showed the silhouette of a treecat, and the single golden star of a lieutenant general on his collar marked him as General William MacClintock, the SFS's commanding officer and current head of the Forestry Service Board.
Adrienne held out her hand and smiled the smile she'd been trained to produce since childhood, but it was harder than usual as the six-limbed, prick-eared, cream-and-gray creature on MacClintock's shoulder gazed at her with bright, curious green eyes. She gripped the general's hand firmly, but even though she knew it was rude, her eyes were on the fascinating, graceful treecat, and she heard a soft chuckle from the SFS's CO.
She'd seen video of treecats, of course, but it wasn't the same at all, for the imagery simply couldn't have prepared her for the reality's alert gaze or the crackling sense of intelligence it seemed to project straight into her brain.
The 'cat measured perhaps a meter and a half from the tip of its sharp muzzle to the end of the silky tail that hung down MacClintock's back. Although the long, lean body looked bulkier than it actually was thanks to its luxurious coat of fur, she could see why some people described its species as a six-limbed first-cousin of an Old Terran weasel or ferret. But that description had never really seemed accurate to her before, and now that she'd actually seen a 'cat with her own eyes, it seemed even less so. Oh, there was more than a touch of the weasel in that sinuous body, but it actually reminded her more strongly of images she'd seen of an Old Earth creature called a lemur . . . aside, of course, from the undeniably "feline" head and ears.
The impressions cascaded through her, and then the 'cat flipped its ears and bleeked politely at her, and General MacClintock chuckled even more loudly.
"I think Dunatis just welcomed you as well, Your Highness," he said, and Adrienne pulled her attention from the 'cat to raise an eyebrow at him.
" `Dunatis'?" she repeated.
"The Celtic god of mountains, Your Highness." MacClintock shrugged with a smile. "Given that his clan makes its home up in the Copperwalls, it seemed appropriate. Although if I'd known him better when we met, I think I might have settled on a god with a lower sense of humor. Or maybe a taste for arranging minor catastrophes!"
"I see." Adrienne smiled back. "I've read quite a bit about treecats, and I rather got the impression most of them have senses of humor. I think that's one of the things that makes them most fascinating to methe way we seem to agree on what's funny, I mean."
MacClintock gave her a rather sharp look, then glanced at Lieutenant Colonel Tudev, but Tudev only smiled blandly. He'd warned the general that the Heir didn't share the King's resentment for all things treecat, but he hadn't indicated that the Princess had gone so far as to do genuine research about them.
"Actually, Your Highness, we're cautious about generalizing from our friends," the general said after the briefest of pauses, "because we can never be certain how typical they are of their species. It's tempting to assume they're a representative cross section of all treecats, but the low absolute number who adopt human friends argues against that."
"Because if they were truly representative we'd see a higher number of adoptions," Adrienne agreed with a nod. "I know. I was struck by the logic of that when I read Jason Harrington's work on them."
"You've read Jason's monograph?" Surprise betrayed MacClintock into the untactful question, and he colored brightly. "I'm sorry, Your Highness. I only meant I was surprised it had come to your attention. It hasn't had a very broad circulation."
"I know, and I've wondered why that was."
"Well," MacClintock grinned, "I shouldn't say it, Your Highness, but I suspect it's because he isn't a very good writer. Not as good as his great-grandmother was, anyway."
"From what I've heard, very few people were as good as Dame Stephanie at just about anything," Adrienne said dryly, and MacClintock nodded.
"I believe you could call that an accurate statement, Your Highness. A most determined lady, Stephanie Harrington. Are you a student of her accomplishments?"
"Not as much as I might like to be," Adrienne admitted. "But for someone as influential as she was, she seems to've spent a great deal of effort avoiding publicity."
"That's true, Your Highness. I rather wish someone would do a good scholarly biography of her. That Trailblazer of Dreams thing by Simmons was a piece of popularized garba Ah, I mean it was poorly researched and largely fictionalized," he corrected himself hastily, "and it's downright bad history. Despite the SFS's best efforts, people are already beginning to forget what a monumental role she played in Sphinx's historyor that of the entire Star Kingdom, for that matter. Unfortunately, that was apparently the way she wanted it, and the Harrington family has steadfastly refused to release her private papers. Until they do, it's unlikely anyone will be able to do a job much better than Simmons'. Which is a pity."
"It is, indeed," Adrienne agreed, and looked up as Tudev checked his chrono and cleared his throat. She grinned at her chief bodyguard's studiously maintained non-expression, then smiled at MacClintock.
"I'm afraid that's Colonel Tudev's polite way of reminding me I have a schedule to keep, General," she said with a charming air of apology. "I'm not especially looking forward to the speechwhich will be my third of the daybut I am looking forward to my tour of your new wing. Would you be kind enough to lead the way?"
"I would be honored," MacClintock assured her, and swept another, deeper bow before he turned to do just that.
<So this is the great meeting place,> Seeker of Dreams mused, and Leaf Stalker flipped his ears in agreement. They perched on the high, chalet-style roof of the brand new main administration block of the Forestry Service's HQ. A dozen more People perched with them, and Seeker of Dreams felt the welcome of their mind glows as they recognized the need which had brought him here. More than that, he felt their deep satisfaction with the bonds that same need had drawn them to establish.
<It is,> Leaf Stalker agreed, and turned to one of the others on the roof. <Greetings, Parsifal,> he said. <What are the humans so excited about?>
Seeker of Dreams looked more closely at the one Leaf Stalker had called "Parsifal." The peculiar name had an odd taste in the Bright Water hunter's mind voice, and Seeker of Dreams felt a little thrill of excitement he knew was foolish as he realized that was because it had been intended as one of the two-le As one of the human's mouth sounds. "Words," they called them, he reminded himself, trying to fit his mind voice around the sound and wondering how any creature could possibly make such strange noises as the humans did. But the name was more than a mere oddity, for it was the human custom to give new names to their friends after bonding. That was no doubt inevitable, for if the People could never make the sounds humans made, humans were equally incapable of tasting the names by which People called one another. Yet the acceptance of such human names was also of deep significance, for each was the formal acknowledgment of a person's acceptance of a bond which only death could dissolve.
<They are much excited, are they not?> the one called Parsifal agreed in a soft mind voice rich with tolerant amusement and affection. <My human has been carrying on almost since first light. She is one of the Guardians' hunters,> he added for Seeker of Dream's benefit. <Her special duty is to watch for evil doers and prevent them from acting against the law of the humans, or to hunt them down and punish them afterward if they do so anyway, and she is very good at it,> he said with a certain pride. <I believe that was the reason they summoned her so early.>
<There is an evil doer here?> Seeker of Dreams asked in surprise, and Parsifal bleeked a laugh.
<There may be,> the older hunter said, <but that is not the reason for their excitement. Look there. Do you see the big black air car with the armed humans standing watch about it?> Seeker of Dreams recognized the human termor one of the many (and often bewildering) human termsfor a flying egg and flirted his tail in agreement as he looked at the vehicle. <The one they call a "princess" came in that, and my human was summoned to be one of those who help to protect her.>
<"Princess"?> Seeker of Dreams repeated carefully.
<It is a title of respect, like Chief Clan Elder, or Memory Singer,> Parsifal explained. <We> his mental wave took in the others on the roof with him <have been trying to understand it more completely, for there are odd things about it. For one, our humans regard this "princess" with great respect and treat her in all ways like the most senior of elders, yet she is little more than a well grown youngling. We have not been able to decide how one so young could be so important, yet there is no question that it is so. Also, Sylvester> he nodded to one of the others, an older hunter sitting near the end of the roof line <was close enough to taste her mind glow, and the taste of authority was strong in it. It was a very powerful mind glow,> Parsifal added in a mind voice of profound respect, <yet there is much pain in it for one so young.>
"And this is the new boardroom," Lieutenant General MacClintock said as he opened the double doors and stepped aside to usher Adrienne through them before him.
She nodded and stepped into the large, richly carpeted room, and her entourage followed. It wasn't a very numerous entourage, as such things went. Since they were indoors and under cover, the bulk of Alvin Tudev's protection detail was actually outside the building, watching the perimeter. Only Tudev himself and four handpicked sergeants in plain clothes accompanied her. Well, them and Nassouah Haroun, two PR flacks, Lieutenant General MacClintock, three other senior Forestry Service officers, the new admin wing's chief engineer, and a two-person HD news team. And, of course, two treecats: MacClintock's Dunatis, and Colonel Marcy Alcerro's Musashi.
"We're quite proud of it," MacClintock went on, following her into the room's cool, quiet spaciousness. "We needed the space, but to be perfectly honest, we took the opportunity to provide ourselves with, um, comfortable quarters while we were at it."
"So I see," Adrienne agreed with a smile, surveying the chamber appreciatively. Then her eyes narrowed as she saw the life-size portrait hanging above the room's massive conference table. She walked across the carpet, trailed by her escort, and gazed raptly at the painting.
It was a spectacular work, executed in the neo-oils style. Its custom-engineered photo-reactive compounds had been blended with a master's hand, trained and stimulated to grow into exactly the image the artist had sought and then frozen forever under a coat of stabilizer at just the right instant. With the proper computer support, the same technology could have created a visual image with the precise accuracy of a hologram coupled with the solidity and "texture" no light sculpture could ever match. But this portrait had not been produced by a computer. It wasn't that perfect. What it was, she thought with a sense of awe, was a masterpiecean interpretive masterpiece whose very imperfections were part of its magnificence, the proof it had been created by a human hand and mind and eye, and not by the uncaring perfection of electronics.
"That's an Akimoto, isn't it?" she asked quietly, and the SFS CO gave her another sharp look. She'd impressed him several times already with the breadth of her interests, and he supposed he should be getting used to it by now, but he wasn't.
"Yes. Yes, it is," he agreed. "But we didn't commission it, Your Highness," he added hastily. "Ms. Akimoto presented it to us as a gift."
It was Adrienne's turn to look at the lieutenant general in surprise. She knew why he'd offered the explanation. An original neo-oil by Tsukie Akimoto would have cost almost as much as the Forestry Service's entire new administration center.
"She presented it as a gift?" she repeated.
"Yes, Your Highness. She chose the subject, executed the work, and presented it to us with the single stipulation that it be displayed in our board's meeting chambers."
"But . . . why?" Adrienne asked, eyes back on the stunning portrait.
The woman in it was well past middle age. She had bright eyes and a mouth which looked like it smiled easily, yet she also radiated an aura of almost frightening energy and focused purpose. She was of slightly less than average height, with thick white hair, and she wore the green and brown of the SFS with a brigadier's two golden planets on her collar. She also wore the gold-bordered blue-and-white ribbon of the Order of Merit, and a cream-and-gray treecat sat proudly on her shoulder. The 'cat was larger than many, and badly scarred. The tip of its right ear was missing; the plushy fur on the right side of its face bore a pattern of white streaks, tracing the scars beneath; and its right foreleg had been amputated just below the shoulder. It sat on its person's right shoulder, its tail hanging down her back while its remaining true-hand rested on her head, and the artist had captured the love in both of her subjects' eyes with haunting fidelity.
"Because she wished to, Your Highness," MacClintock said quietly. "Perhaps you weren't aware that Ms. Akimoto was adopted by a 'cat herself some years ago?"
"What?" Adrienne looked at him, then shook her head. "No, I wasn't. I knew she was a Sphinxian, of course, but I don't believe her adoption could have been widely publicized without my hearing something about it."
"It wasn'twidely publicized, I mean," MacClintock told her. "Ms. Akimoto has always been something of a recluse. She seldom leaves her family freeholdthey were First Shareholders, you knowand she hasn't been off-planet at all since her adoption." He smiled faintly. "Very few of us would consider taking our friends off-world without a very pressing reason, I'm afraid. Not that I don't suspect the little devils would love to go! But perhaps you've noticed we tend to be a little on the protective side?"
Adrienne nodded feelingly, and his smile became a grin.
"Well, they probably don't need quite as much protection as we insist they do, Your Highness. Physically, they're extremely tough, with the weaponry to look after themselves in most threat situations. Dunatis?"
The 'cat on his shoulder obligingly raised a long-fingered true-hand and spread it, unsheathing the four centimeter-long scimitars which armed it. He held them up for her to see, then bleeked cheerfully, and the ivory claws vanished as he retracted them.
"The problem," MacClintock went on more seriously, "is that they aren't well equipped to look after themselves in situations where the threat is neither immediate nor physical. The specific legal rights granted to them by the Constitution are fully enforced here on Sphinx. Off Sphinx, however, matters are much less clear."
"You're talking about the Treecat Rights Bill," Adrienne said flatly, and he nodded. His expression had become rather more wary as he heard her utterly uninflected tone, but he didn't back off.
"That's precisely what I was leading up to, Your Highness," he admitted. "We at SFS believe the Ninth Amendment was clearly intended to recognize the 'cats as sentient beingswith minor child legal statuson all three of the Star Kingdom's worlds. As I'm sure you're aware, however, certain political and economic interests have taken the position that our inability to measure their actual sentience with `demonstrable, replicable precision' means their sapience is no more than a legal fiction. Moreover, they argue that since the Ninth Amendment refers specifically to their status on Sphinx, it doesn't apply to their status on Manticore or Gryphon. It's nonsense, of course. Unfortunately, no one thought to test that aspect of the amendmentor its original supporting legislationfor over thirty T-years after ratification. The question simply didn't arise prior to then, even on the rare occasions when one of the 'cats went off-world. But then in 107 A.L., the Richtman Corporation tried to move in, and"
<Body text>"I remember, General," Adrienne said, cutting him off even more flatly than before, and Dunatis shifted on his shoulder as he sensed the Heir's emotions.
The Richtman Corporation had been a Manticoran front for Manpower Unlimited of Mesa. No one had known it at the time, for Richtman had hidden its connections to the Mesa System with care. And for good reason, given the vast bulk of humanity's attitude towards Manpower and its huge cloning and bio-engineering operations. Just over six hundred and fifty T-years had passed since Old Earth's "Final War" unleashed all the horrors of unrestricted genetic and biological modifications. The war had officially "ended" in 943 P.D. . . . but humanity had been well into the fifteenth century of the Diaspora before Old Earth truly recovered from its carnage, and most of humankind had learned a hideous lesson from the near-total destruction of its mother world.
The Mesa System had not. For all intents and purposes, Manpower Unlimited owned the star system outright, and if Beowulf's eugenicists were better trained and more skilled, Mesa's had far more . . . scope for their talents, for Mesa rejected the Beowulf Code's ban on casual manipulation of the human genotype. Manpower Unlimited cheerfully produced cloned slave labor, genetically-engineered "indentured servants," and even more deadly versions of the Final War's "super soldiers." Humanity being what it was, there were always buyers (clandestine ones, at least), and since Manpower was already a moral pariah, its directors saw no reason to retain any scruples whatsoever.
None of which would have mattered to the Star Kingdom if not for the fact that the treecats were empaths.
A few of the wilder, more speculative xenobiologists maintained that they were also telepaths, but that was a much more problematical claim, and no one had ever been able to produce any scientific evidence to support it. Their empathy, however, had been demonstrated too conclusively for any reputable scientist to dispute, and that was what made them of interest to Manpower Unlimited. Despite millennia of testing, no one had ever demonstrated anything like reliable, quantifiable, reproducible ESP in humans, or in any of the other handful of sentient species humanity had encountered. Until the treecats.
The mere possibility that the 'cats might be telepaths had sufficed to send Mesan agents creeping into the Star Kingdom to acquire samples. Empathy might have been enough by itself, but the economic implications of discovering how telepathy worked and how to genegineer it into humans were incalculable for something like Manpower Unlimited. Its operators had wanted test subjects and tissue donors, and no one could have had any illusions as to what would have happened to those subjects.
As far as anyone knew, none of the clandestine Mesan efforts had succeeded. Empaths were elusive quarry, and the Forestry Service had made protecting the 'cats against trappers its number one priority from the outset. But the potential prize had been great enough for Manpower to invest what was later determined to have been upwards of eight hundred million Manticoran dollars to create the Richtman Corporation for the purpose of lobbying to legalize the "humane, nonlethal capture" of treecats "for purposes of beneficial scientific examination and export to interstellar zoological institutes."
In addition to whatever had been spent creating the Richtman facade, an unknown (but undoubtedly enormous) investment had also flowed into various political hands through both registered lobbyists and also some very sub rosa channels indeed. It had been a massive effort, and while Manpower had never seen the hoped for return on its money, the Ninth Amendment and its enabling legislation had not emerged unscathed. Efforts to "amend" the legislation so as to emasculate it had failed, but the Richtman legal experts had launched a flank attack by pointing out that the Ninth Amendment was predicated on the definition of treecats as "sapient." Where, they demanded, was the proof of that sapience? After all, how intelligent did a creature which could sense the emotions of any possible testers have to be to counterfeit sapience?
The best testing techniques available had been brought to bear, by treecat partisans and their opponents alike, and the most anyone could honestly say was that results were inconclusive. Rather wildly so, in fact. Some tests insisted the 'cats were as intelligent as humans themselves; others insisted they were actually somewhat less intelligent than Old Earth's pre-genegineered dolphins had been. Oddly enough, they appeared to test better at problem-solving when no human testers were present, which seemed to stand the "empaths counterfeiting sentience" argument on its head. It was almost as if the 'cats had decided not to cooperate in certain instances, or even to deliberately prejudice the results, which was ridiculous, of course. But ridiculous or not, the salient point was that everyone was forced to agree the tests were inconsistent, and the anti-amendment forces insisted that inconsistent was simply another way of saying "valueless."
The 'cats' relatively small size was also pounced upon by Richtman's lawyers, who pointed out that no other known sentient species had such a low body mass, and no one could deny that 'cat brains were much smaller than human ones. Their supporters might argue that the enlarged nodes of nervous tissue found at each pelvis functioned as secondary brains of some sort, but that, too, had never been scientifically demonstrated.
Xenobiologists from all over explored space had been attracted to the Star Kingdom as the dispute heated up. The 'cats were only the twelfth nonhuman sentient species ever discovered (assuming they were sentient), and that was enough to bring scores of scientists flocking in to examine them. Unfortunately, the 'cats didn't appear to want to be examined, and "wild" 'cats tended to disappear whenever a new team of scientists set up shop in their neck of the picket woods. 'Cats who had adopted humans were more readily available . . . but they were also more readily protected. Besides, those who doubted their intelligence argued that 'cats who had adopted weren't suitable test subjects. After all, if they were telepaths as well as empaths, how could anyone know he was actually testing the 'cat and not simply the efficiency of its link to its human partner?
A certain percentage of out-system scientists had grown steadily more angry at the dearth of test subjects. They seemed to feel the Forestry Service ought to have netted "wild" 'cats and dragged them in for study purposes, if that was the only way to get them. The SFS certainly shouldn't have been protecting the elusive little creatures! It was probable that most of the scientists of that opinion had been completely legitimate, but at least some had been imported by Mesan interests to help muddy the water . . . and all of them had been doomed to disappointment when it came to changing the SFS's mind.
The result had been a blistering debate about what the treecats truly were, and the Gryphon planetary government (after some extraordinary infusions of secret "campaign contributions") had actually passed a planetary referendum calling upon the Crown to revoke their sapient status. The Constitution provided for referenda from the planetary parliaments as a grass-roots avenue for offering amendments, and the Gryphon act had been intended as the opening shot in such an effort. It had failed, but not without lending the debate a life of its own, exclusive of Richtman's efforts. For one thing, unscrupulous speculators had scented additional, potentially enormous profits. If the Ninth Amendment could be repealed and the 'cats stripped of their status as sentients, their claim to any of Sphinx's surface would also be overturned. Precisely what would happen to all that landwhether it would revert to the status of Crown land or be up for grabs by anyone with ready cashwas unclear, but if those same anyones with the ready cash could just take a hand in drafting the language that repealed the amendment. . . .
The battle had dragged out for years. Every vote indicated that a clear majority of Sphinxians were staunchly opposed to repeal, supported by a much thinner majority of those living on Manticore. Gryphon had consistently voted for repeal, but Gryphon was a special case where vote "managing" was a thriving industry run by the relatively small handful of powerful nobles who had secured a stranglehold upon its local economy. (Which, in no small part, helped explain why Queen Consort Solange, like most of Gryphon's yeomen freeholders, had seen the Crown and its central authority as their only real ally against the local aristocracy's depredations.)
In the end, an enterprising newsie, with the help of allies within the SFS, had managed to burrow through the maze of interlocking corporate identities behind the Richtman Corporation and discover the Mesan involvement, and the entire effort had come crashing down. But by that time the exact status of the 'cats had been thrown into considerable confusion, and the argument that the Ninth Amendment had been intended to protect them solely on Sphinxwhich Adrienne, like MacClintock, considered not only bizarre but totally specioushad gained a toehold among certain mainstream legal scholars. The fact that the Star Kingdom had been in existence for barely a hundred and thirty T-years when the debate began hadn't helped. The original Constitution had already been extensively modified and reinterpreted (very creatively indeed, in some cases) as the Crown, the Lords, and the Commons worked out the real balance of power. Indeed, one reason the Ninth Amendment had taken so long to ratify in the first place had been that the document it was intended to modify had been in such a state of flux.
By now, almost fifty T-years later, the anti-'cat forces were in full retreat. Only the financial interests which wanted to get their claws into the lands reserved for the 'cats were still pushing the argument, and the Treecat Rights Bill had been introduced in the House of Commons by an unusual alliance of Liberals and Conservatives in an effort to put the entire matter to rest. Personally, Adrienne considered the bill unnecessary. Whatever its critics might claim, the Ninth Amendment's language was clear, specific, and certainly not ambiguous. It had taken the tortuously creative efforts of entire battalions of skilled legal sophists to find a way to misinterpret it, and even then ninety percent of the Star Kingdom's constitutional experts had rejected the argument as bogus. So what was needed, she thought grimly, was simply for the Crown to enforce the Ninth Amendment the way its framers had always intended.
Which was the reason for her flat tone and MacClintock's mix of deference, defensiveness, and obstinacy, because the Crownin the person of King Roger II, who had come to hate the 'cats for reasons of his ownflatly refused to enforce it. In fact, his Solicitor General had actually been heard to say that perhaps the Gryphon interpretation might have a bit more merit than most constitutional scholars believed. Needless to say, that same Crown had also marshaled its effortsand quite successfullyto stop the Treecat Rights Bill dead in the House of Lords. And even if it somehow eventually passed both Houses, it was extremely unlikely King Roger would even consider signing it into law . . . and even less likely that its supporters could ever muster the three-quarters majority required to override a royal veto.
"It is a pity Dame Stephanie wasn't alive to lead the defense of the amendment," Adrienne said after a long, tense moment, her tone an obvious bid to defuse the tension and shift the subject. "I doubt its attackers would have fared very well against her."
"I don't imagine they would have either, Your Highness," MacClintock agreed, accepting the change. The two of them turned to gaze at the portrait once more, and the lieutenant general smiled. "She and Lionheart would have turned them into hamburger; they'd certainly done it to tougher opposition than that!"
"Then the story about the hexapuma is true?"
"Yes, Your Highness. A lot of the details are uncertainit's one of those things about which I wish the Harrington family would turn loose whatever documentation they havebut it happened."
"Unbelievable," Adrienne murmured, and MacClintock snorted.
"My advice is to not apply that word to anything you ever hear about Stephanie Harrington, Your Highness. Or not without checking it out very thoroughly ahead of time. She was the youngest person ever to discover an alien sentient species. She is also the only human ever to face a hexapuma armed only with a vibroblade belt knife and survive. She joined the Forestry Servicewhich, I regret to say, was no great shakes at the time; we were still a privately-funded, only semiofficial bodywhen she was just seventeen T-years old and almost single handedly reorganized it into a Crown agency which, by the end of her life, had become what I fondly believe to be one of the finest eco-management organizations in this sector of the galaxy. Not to mention, of course, being the first person ever adopted by a 'cat, for which I, at least, can only be grateful."
"She deserved more than an Order of Merit," Adrienne said, but he shook his head.
"What she may have deserved and what she wanted weren't the same thing, Your Highness. Several accounts insist she was offered a peerage when the Ninth Amendment passed. I don't know about thatthe Harringtons maybut it's a matter of public record that she declined the Order of the Star Kingdom because, unlike the Order of Merit, the knighthood it conferred would have been hereditary, not simply a life title."
"She declined a peerage?" Adrienne blinked, and the lieutenant general shrugged.
"That's the tradition, and it would match what we know of her. Her family are yeomen, and proud of it. In fact, she was an only child who retained her maiden name when she married expressly because she was determined there would be a `Harrington of Harrington' but not a nobleman living on the Harrington freehold after her. And she found time to produce six children to be sure of that, despite everything else she was involved with! And two of them were adopted by 'cats, too. As a matter of fact, I believe the Harringtons have a higher percentage of adoptions than any other family on Sphinx."
"I still say she deserved more than the Order of Merit," Adrienne declared, then smiled. "On the other hand, I rather doubt that I would have pressed the point or argued with such a, ah, formidable person about it!"
"Which indicates great wisdom on your part, Your Highness," MacClintock told her. The two of them gazed at the portrait of Stephanie Harrington and her 'cat for several more moments in a silence which had once more become companionable. Then MacClintock cleared his throat and waved gracefully at the boardroom's door.
"And now, Your Highness, I believe that speech you didn't want to give is waiting for you."
Henry Thoreau sat on the bench with an unworried expression and reread his newsfax for the third time. No one looking at him would have thought he had a care in the universe, but looking tranquil at need was one of his several talents, and at this particular moment, it was one he needed badly.
He let his eye drift across his chrono as he turned a 'fax pageagainand his carefully concealed disgust ratcheted up another notch. The target and her entourage were over twenty minutes behind schedule.
He allowed himself a mental grumble that never touched his face and commanded himself not to pay any attention whatsoever to the blank-faced young man sitting to his left. The younger man appeared to be reading a book. Actually, he was only hitting the advance button at regular intervals while he stared unseeingly at the display, and Thoreau hoped he wouldn't run out of pages before the target reemerged into the open. Having some sharp-eyed security type notice that there was someone sitting there staring at a blank book viewer would not do wonderful things for his and Krogman's plan.
His nostrils flared slightly at the thought of his partner. He knew why Krogman couldn't execute the hit himself, but that didn't keep him from feeling increasingly grumpy about his own exposure as the delay dragged on. Krogman was the one who'd crafted their weapon, and Thoreau found himself wishing Krogman could have pulled the damned trigger himself, as well. Except, of course, that Krogman couldn't possibly risk being physically present when the attack went down. His record might be clean in the Star Kingdom, but he was a registered psych adjuster.
Unlike many star nations, the Star Kingdom had ruled involuntary psych adjustment of anyone for any reason strictly illegal. The Star Kingdom wasn't alone in refusing to use it as a punitive sentence, but many other worlds allowed for the involuntary adjustment of individuals deemed dangerous to themselves or society. The people who allowed it viewed itofficially, at leastas equivalent to the old "not guilty by reason of insanity" plea. The Manticoran view, however, was that psych adjustment didn't cure anything; it simply crammed in an additional set of compulsions which forced the adjusted individual to act as if he had been cured. That was all very soothing to society, no doubt, and might well prevent an "adjusted" serial killer from killing again, but Manticorans considered that it was both simpler and more ethicaland moralto shoot someone than it was to lock him up for life in a prison inside his own skull. Besides, even in jurisdictions which routinely employed it, there were those who argued that psych adjustment tended to make mental health professionals lazy. Why bother to fix a problem when one could simply use a hardwired patch to make sure it didn't bother anyone . . . except, of course, for the person who still had it?
And then there were the regimes that just loved adjustment. It was too expensive for use on a mass scalemostly because of the time involved; the materials cost was ludicrously lowbut it could be extremely effective when employed against strategic targets like key leaders of opposition groups. Nor had the military implications passed unnoticed. Though the Deneb Accords forbade adjustment of captured enemy personnel, everyone knew it would happen anyway if someone thought he could get away with it. The development of drugs and techniques to resist it had been on the list of every major military for centuries, and, for the most part, they'd succeeded in producing workable defenses. They weren't perfect, and they could usually be broken by old-fashioned sensory deprivation or systematic abuse. They also required periodic updating as adjustment techniques were improved to defeat them, but at least they managed to prevent adjusters from turning the pre-space nightmare of the mass brainwashing of troops into a reality.
But like any other form of technology, it was extremely difficult to simply shove adjustment back into its bottle. Personally, Thoreau couldn't imagine availing himself of the service. Have an irresistible compulsioneven one he'd selected himselfimplanted in his brain? No, thank you very much. He believed he'd pass. Yet there were those who did just that, for reasons ranging from a desire to be addiction-proofed to people who wanted to lose weight to those who feared compulsions in the dark crannies of their souls would drive them into criminal acts. The Star Kingdom might reject imposing adjustment on anyone, but it would not stand in the way of someone who voluntarily sought it, and a small, highly regulated and closely supervised psych adjustment industry existed for the sole purpose of providing the service to those who wanted it.
Which was why Krogman couldn't have even the remotest connection, including that of simple proximity, with the young man with the book viewer. Deafening klaxons would sound in the brain of the most imbecilic security officer in the known universe if a known adjuster was anywhere near a "lone madman assassin" who just happened to murder the Crown Princess of Manticore.
Just having Krogman register with Manticoran immigration as a psych adjuster upon their arrival in the Star Kingdom had carried an uncomfortable degree of risk. But it had been necessary. While Krogman would never be so stupid as to select a patient of his ownor one he'd ever officially seen in any capacityhe had to have access to the patient files and facilities he needed. The best way to acquire that was to hide in plain sight by setting himself up as a licensed adjuster with a small but comfortable practice, and the original Jean-Marc Krogman had been a well trained and competent adjuster back in the Solarian League. So had the current Jean-Marc Krogman (although he had maintained a much lower profile, given the clientele he served), and since the original Krogman no longer required his identity, the man who now wore it had appropriated it without fuss or bother. After all, he and "Henry Thoreau" were the only two people who knew the real Krogman was dead.
With such a comfortable, outwardly legitimate identity, the current Krogman had found it child's play to set up an effective cover, and The Organizationwhich Thoreau thought was one of the less imaginative names the local organized underworld could have assigned itselfwas delighted to have an adjuster of its very own. Crime lords always needed one odd job of adjustment or another, and they paid lucratively for Krogman's services. On the other hand, not even The Organization knew about the freelance jobs Krogman and Thoreau occasionally undertook. Which was just as well. After all, one or two Organization kingpins had fallen afoul of imaginative underlings able to visualize the advantages of having one of the underling's rivals suddenly, and for no apparent reason, gun down their mutual boss (thus creating a vacancy at the top) before dying in a hail of gunfire from the bodyguards of the late, lamented boss in question.
Of course, both The Organization and law enforcement were well aware of how adjustment could be misused, which was another reason the law took such a dim view of the profession. Officers of the King's justice routinely considered the possibility of adjustment any time a killer "just snapped," and it was relatively simple for a trained psychiatrist to recognize the signs of adjustment in a subject. But that was why people like Krogman commanded such astronomical fees, for the true mastery of their art lay in subtlety, careful recruitment, anonymity, and misdirection.
Every policeman knew adjustment was a possible explanation for almost any murder, but good adjusters of a criminal bent were rare, and all adjusters were carefully regulated. Because of that, actual cases of adjusted murderers were far less common than bad mystery writers liked to suggest. As a result, investigators tended to look for more everyday motives first, so whenever possible, Krogman picked as his weapon someone who had another motive. When someone murdered someone else whom they had always hated, the police looked at the history of killer and victim and found their motivation there rather than seeking more esoteric and unlikely causations.
In addition, Krogman preferred to program his weapons for kamikaze attacks. Of course, he didn't want them to look deliberately suicidalthat was another thing that started nasty, suspicious police thinking in terms of adjustmentbut it was relatively simple to program someone to make a mistake with lethal consequences if bodyguards were involved. Lovers' murder-suicides were another technique of which he was rather fond, because police saw so many they were effectively routine. Only when he had no other option did he rely on a weapon with no personal motive for the attack, and then he invariably saw to it that the killer did not survive his victim.
But the true key to his success was that he always remembered the best way to avoid detection was to set things up in the first place so no one had any reason to suspect the killer had been commanded to kill, and his current weapon was a masterpiece. This hit had first been commissioned over a T-year before, and for the last ten T-months, the young, friendless drifter he'd selected as his tool had systematically created all the proper back trail of a fatally obsessive personality. His inexpensive rooms had been converted into a veritable shrine to Crown Princess Adrienne. Guided by Krogman's "adjustments," he'd begun with occasional, rambling journal entries and progressed steadily to the point of mad obsession with the Princess. The sheer length of time over which he had collected and created his hoard of pictures, hardcopy and electronic clippings, and diaries would surely convince any but the most paranoid and indefatigable of investigators that it was genuine, the product of a deranged mind working in isolation.
That was Krogman's primary line of defense, and he expected it to hold. If it failed, however, his second line of defense was anonymity. No one had ever seen him and the drifter together, and he had taken excruciating pains to insure that there was nothing at all to connect him in any way, however indirectly, to his tool.
And, of course, he had made absolutely certain that the young man in question would not survive his victim.
But all of that explained why the only choice to launch the attack was Thoreau. Someone had to do it, if only because of the ancient K.I.S.S. principle. Human minds were complex mechanisms. Given the proper circumstances, they could defeat even the most deep reaching and thorough adjustment, and the more complex the adjustment, the more opportunity for the adjusted individual's mind to find a chink in the programming and wiggle through it. That meant complicated trigger commands increased the risk of failure exponentially, and they could afford no slip ups on this operation. So the trigger had been kept as simple as possible: an innocent visual cue no investigator studying security camera imagery later could possibly associate with the attack.
In this case, a red handkerchief in a breast pocket, combined with a man reading a newsfax and drinking lemonade, and a sneeze.
Now if only the target would get her ass out here so that Thoreau could launch the weapon and be done with it.
<May we get a closer view of this "princess"?> Seeker of Dreams asked Parsifal. The older cat looked at him and cocked one ear.
<You are ambitious, youngling,> he observed. <And hasty, perhaps. You have not yet tasted the pain in her mind glow.>
<Perhaps I am ambitious, yet I do not think so. I have no reason to think she is the one I seek. But you yourself spoke of the power of her mind glow, and even if she is not one to whom I might bond, I hunger to taste it for myself. And as for her pain,> Seeker of Dreams flicked the end of his tail with a trace of sadness, <it is not uncommon among the People for the strongest mind glows to be forged in sorrow and loss,> he pointed out.
<Truth,> Parsifal agreed after a moment. He straightened and stretched, yawning mightily, and Seeker of Dreams felt his mind voice reach out to another. Seeker of Dreams could not taste the conversationnot unusual when one did not know the far end of a focused linkbut he sensed the flow of information. Then Parsifal nodded, his mind glow radiating satisfaction, and peered down over the building's wide roof.
<There,> he said. <The humans strengthened the "gutters"those troughs at the roof edge which catch waterso People might perch upon them, and Musashi tells me the princess will be coming through that door to reach the place prepared for speaking. We have just enough time to move there before they arrive. Come!>
"Thank you for showing me your new building, General," Adrienne said as they walked toward the exit side-by-side.
"You're more welcome than I can say, Your Highness," MacClintock replied. "And the thanks cut both ways, you know. An expression of royal interest, well"
He shrugged, and Adrienne nodded with another, familiar stab of hurt. She was grateful he'd been too tactful to complete the sentence, but she knew what he'd meant. And much as she'd enjoyed her visit, she felt ominously certain her father would recognize the same impact. There would be no fights, no screaming fits. He wouldn't even lecture her. He knew she disagreed with his attitude towards the treecats, and so he would recognize her trip to Twin Forks for what it had been. But he wouldn't even acknowledge her small act of rebellion. He would simply allow for it in his next set of calculations, and he would give her one of those chill, impersonal looksthe sort that said "Wait and see how you like it when you're Queen"and then he would ignore the episode completely.
Was that the real reason I came? she wondered unhappily. Because I wanted to anger him enough to get some reaction out of him? Am I still that desperate for some sign he even cares? And is it really possible I could be so stupid as to think I could get one?
She swallowed the thought and smiled brightly as MacClintock opened the door.
Seeker of Dreams crouched on the gutter, and the massed background blaze of human mind glows washed out from the crowd outside the building. It had been there from the beginning, of course, but Seeker of Dreams had buttressed himself against it without even realizing he was doing so. It had been the empathic equivalent of squinting against a blinding glare, but now he opened his "eyes" wide, sending his empathy out to quest for the mind glow Parsifal had told him of, and the sheer energy rising up behind him was almost terrifying.
Somehow I had not expected there to be so much difference between the memory songs and the reality, he thought, half-dazed by the excitement and anticipation flowing from so many mind glows. I should have. All the songs agree that human mind glows are more powerful than any of the People's, yet how could even the greatest memory singer recreate such raw power?
He shook his head, hunching forward as if into a high wind, and slowly forced the seething tumult out of the front of his own mind. He pulled his own personality free of it and reached out once more, searching for the "princess," and suddenly his ears twitched and his tail kinked straight up behind him.
Not possible, he thought. This is not possible! No one, human or of the People, can radiate such a mind glow! Surely its power would consume any in whom it burned!
Yet even as he thought that, he knew better, for he felt the reality walking down the hall towards him. Such power, he thought in awe. Such clarity and strength! He tasted the mind glow's compassion, its sense of order and responsibility, of dedication. And he tasted the love its owner carried like a welcoming fire, waiting to warm and comfort any who called upon it.
And he tasted pain. Terrible, aching painan emptiness that cried out to be filled. He did not understand the source of that pain, for how could one possessed of so much power to love be crushed by rejection and abandonment? Where were the human elders, their memory singers and mind healers? How could any species allow one of its own to suffer so hideously when all she longed to do was to love and be loved in return?
For just one instant, as he hovered on the brink of Adrienne Winton's loneliness and broken love, Seeker of Dreams shuddered before the horrid suspicion that the memory singers had been wrongthat humans were all mad. Surely it was the only answer for the sharp-edged agony he tasted amid the jewel-like splendor of that mind glow's other facets! But then he remembered. Humans were mind-blind. They could not taste as he tasted, and so, perhaps, they did not even suspect how dreadfully wounded their "princess" was. It even made sense, in a way, for the other things he tasted within that mind glow included pride, a sense of duty, a refusal to whimper or plead or beg, and an iron-boned determination to never, ever show weakness.
His heart went out to herthis princess he had never so much as seenand he made a small, soft sound, almost a whimper, as he recognized his fate. He felt himself reaching for that bright splendor, even knowing he must embrace the darkness, as well, and a corner of his own mind wailed for him to run. To flee and hide, as he would have fled a death fang itself. But there was no escape. The mind glow had captured him. He tasted Parsifal's half-shocked, half-unsurprised mind glowand pitybeside him as he reached out to the human furnace, yet the other 'cat was distant and far away, almost trivial beside the human walking obliviously towards him.
Is that the true secret of their mind glow's power? The loneliness? The fact that they cannot hear one another or taste one another's inner hearts, however much they long to? Such a terrible, terrible price, if it is . . . and yet such glory it produces! And how very much love they have to give. He shook himself once more, awed by the raw courage it must take to feel so much love when no human could taste his beloved's love in return. They know so much, are so clever, have so many tools and marvels, and yet I pity them, he thought wonderingly. But they are magnificent in their loneliness, in the isolation each carries with him even in the midst of all his fellows.
Then the door opened.
Alvin Tudev saw the Princess stop dead. She didn't simply stop walking forward; she froze, with the sudden, absolute shock of someone who had just taken a bullet.
For a moment, that was precisely what he thought had happened, and a spasm of horror rocked through him. He hurled himself forward without conscious thought, bulldozing through the plainclothes sergeants of his own detail to reach her, and he was only dimly aware of startled shouts as he hurled other human beings aside. He was already gathering his muscles to leap on her, smothering her in his arms and slamming her to the ground while he offered his own body as protection against follow up shots, when she broke her momentary stasis. Her head snapped around, and Tudev just had time to throw his own weight to one side before he plowed into her from behind.
He grunted with anguish as his solidly muscled bulk drove shoulder-first into the old-fashioned brick wall of the SFS's new admin building. For a moment, he was certain he'd broken at least his collar bone, but that scarcely mattered. Indeed, he hardly felt it through a flood of relief almost more terrible than his original horror as he realized his Princess was unharmed.
But if she was unhurt, then why stop so suddenly? And why was she?
The answer presented itself before his mind finished forming its second question. A small, sleek body dropped from the gutter with a high, ringing "Bleeeeeek!" of joy, and Adrienne's arms opened to receive it. The treecat fell into her embrace with a grace that seemed inevitable, and a triumphant chorus of other treecat voices joined the newcomer's paean of exultation. Adrienne's arms closed about the 'cat, hugging it to her, her brown eyes blazing with a joy and raw, loving welcome that hit the lieutenant colonel like a fist, and the 'cat clung to her in return, rubbing his cheek ecstatically against her own.
Oh . . . my . . . God, Tudev thought with an odd, distant sort of calm. His Majesty isn't going to be at all pleased about this!
Adrienne Winton stared into the brilliant green eyes, and an incredible wave of love and welcome poured from her. She'd studied all the information on treecats she could get her hands on, but none of it had prepared her for this moment. The descriptions of what it meant to be adopted had always struck her as maddeningly vague, incomplete, confusing. It had sometimes seemed as if all those fortunate souls were involved in some conspiracy to keep the rest of the human race from knowing what it felt like.
Now she knew better. They hadn't explained it because they couldn't. It was like smelling a color or trying to weigh diamonds with a spectrograph. There simply were no words for the sensation she felt at that moment, yet her brain stubbornly insisted on trying to find some way to process the information.
The treecat was an empath. She knew that, just as she knew that at this very moment, the lithe little creature could feel her own emotions and the brilliant welcome blazing in her soul, and she longed desperately for the ability to feel his emotions, in return. But she couldn't. Unlike him, she was only human, with the limited perceptions of a human brain. And yet . . . and yet there was something. . . . She couldn't pin it down, couldn't drag it out to look at it or analyze it. She couldn't even have proved she wasn't imagining whatever it was, and yet she was certain she was not. And whatever it was, it sank down into the dark and lonely depths of her spirit like cleansing lightning, bringing warmth and life to the shadows where she had been alone for far too long.
Seeker of Dreams stared into the human's round-pupilled brown eyes and tasted her confusion, puzzlement . . . and joy. He truly had not intended to bond to her when he reached out for her mind glow, yet now he had, and at last he fully understood that which had driven him to seek this moment. That yearning, that need and unused ability which had been part of him for so long, had flared bright and fierce in the instant he touched her mind glow. He had actually felt the sharp, reverberating "Snap!" as the two of them socketed into place, each filling the hole in the other's soul. He did not know if he had been meant from birth for this human, or if another of the People might have filled the wound gaping at her heart, and it did not matter. What mattered was that he had found her, and in the moment of finding, they had come together. He could already feel the increased power of his own mind voice, the sharper, stronger reach of his ability to taste other mind glows. It was as if his person had become a warm, brilliant sun, beaming power and strength into him, making him more than he had ever dreamed of being.
Yet even as he crooned his loving welcome and rubbed his cheek joyously against hers, he also tasted the tragedy of their bond. He was like a tiny world, circling the sun of her mind glow as the humans said the People's world circled its sun. Like the world, he had life and purpose of his own, yet also like the world, he could no longer be whole and complete without his sun. In that sense, the two had become one . . . yet his human would never taste what he was tasting, never know the depth of his love as he could know hers. He felt oddly certain that she had already tasted more than most humans ever didthat, like some of Death Fang's Bane's younglings, she was more sensitive, more alive to the bond than other humansbut her experience would never be even a shadow of his own.
And he also knew Sings Truly had been correct. This was a young human, but not nearly so young as Death Fang's Bane had been. Perhaps she would live another fifteen turnings, which would be a long life indeed for a human, but then she would die, and Seeker of Dreams would have lived only twenty-four turnings of his allotted forty-eight.
He did not think she realized that. Not yet, at any rate, for he felt no sorrow, no grief for him, and he knew he would whenever she finally realized their bond was almost certain to cost him half his normal span. And it would be a tragedy, he thought, to go into the dark so young. But it would also be right, for he would cling to her glorious mind glow wherever it went, into light or into dark or into nothingness at all, and be content.
Adrienne tore her eyes from the treecat as MacClintock's gentle voice invaded their reverie. She blinked at him, trying to refocus on something beyond the 'cat in her arms, and he smiled.
"Forgive me for intruding, Your Highness, but you've been standing there for just over five minutes," he said apologetically.
Dunatis sat on his shoulder, crooning down at Adrienne and her 'cather 'cat! she thought in exultant wonderand beyond them she saw Colonel Alcerro and Musashi. Both older 'cats crooned as if to vibrate the bones right out of their bodies, and as she stared at them, she realized she was hearing the same sound from dozens of other sources. She raised her head, gazing up at the treecats lined up along the admin building's eaves, and the same soft, welcoming music washed down over her from all of them.
"Five minutes, General?" she asked at last, turning back to MacClintock.
"Almost six, actually." His right hand fluttered for a moment, as if he wanted to grip her shoulderan act which etiquette made totally out of the questionand his eyes smiled at her. "The average is around thirteen, I believe. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't bother either of you until you were both ready to come up, but" He waved the hovering right hand, and she blinked again as she followed it to the rest of her entourage.
Lieutenant Colonel Tudev stood watching with no expression at all. No, that wasn't quite correct. He was favoring one shoulder, and there were pain lines around his mouth, as if he'd injured himself somehow when she wasn't looking. For a moment she thought those lines were of disapproval for what had happened, but then she saw the wry resignation in his eyes, and a sense of apprehension surged through her.
Oh my God, Daddy is going to kill me for this! Bad enough I came to Twin Forks without telling him, but this!
One look at Nassouah Haroun's face more than confirmed her thoughts. Lady Haroun's expression was one of unmitigated horror, as if she were certain His Majesty would feel his daughter's appointments secretary should somehow have prevented this disaster from occurring, and the palace PR types looked equally horrified. In fact, they looked so stunned Adrienne felt the corners of her mouth twitch. She closed her eyes and clamped her jaws against the totally inappropriate laughter suddenly fighting to break free, and somehow she managed to stop almost all of it. The one spurt which did escape, she transformed into an almost convincing cough, but forty seconds passed before she trusted herself to open her eyes and look at them once more without completely losing it.
Oh, my. This is all going to be quite . . . difficult, isn't it, little friend? she thought, gazing down at the adoring treecat in her arms. I'll bet you never even guessed what a frying pan you were leaping into, did you?
The 'cat only sang his buzzing purr to her and reached out to pat her cheek with a gentle true-hand, and she smiled brilliantly and lifted him so she could bury her face in the soft, creamy fur of his belly. She held him that way for several seconds, then lowered him once more and turned back to MacClintock. Unlike his uniform tunic, the shoulder of her light jacket was unreinforced fabric, totally unsuited to treecat claws, so she cradled her new companion in her arms as she smiled at the SFS CO once more.
"I quite understand why you can't simply let us work through this at our own pace, General," she told him. "Besides, it would be impolite of me. There are people waiting for my speech out there, so I suppose we'd better get to it."
"Of course, Your Highness. Ah, just one thing first, though." She quirked an eyebrow at him, and he smiled diffidently. "I was just wondering if you've thought of a name for him, Your Highness?"
"Already?" Adrienne's other eyebrow rose to join the first one.
"Well, it seems to work in two basic ways, Your Highness," MacClintock explained. "Either a name comes to an adoptee almost immediatelyas it did to Colonel Alcerro hereor else he tends to spend quite some time thinking about it to get it just right. I was merely wondering which it would be in your case?"
"I see." She considered for a moment, then shrugged. "I think you'll have to put me into the second category, Colonel. It's going to take me a while to think of a name anywhere near the one this wonderful fellow deserves."
"Good," MacClintock said, and grinned at her look of surprise. "I fell into the second category myself, Your Highness. That's one reason I asked. I just wanted to assure you that not having a name jump up and bite you immediately doesn't indicate that anything is wrong with you or your bond." He reached out and touched the 'cat in her arms gently, running his fingers down its spine, and smiled as it arched in pleasure. Then he looked back at Adrienne again.
"And now, Your Highness, I'm afraid we really ought to get on with that speech of yours."
Henry Thoreau couldn't suppress his grunt of satisfaction as the cheering began. Princess Adrienne was over an hour late, but she was on her way at last.
His vantage point in the park gave him an excellent view of the speaker's platform, but he couldn't see much else. That was deliberatestaying back a little helped him blend anonymously into the crowdbut it also meant he hadn't been able to see whatever had occasioned the last delay. All he knew was that the Heir's entourage had stopped abruptly, stayed that way for ten minutes or so, and then started moving once more.
Well, it doesn't really matter what kind of glitch their schedule hit, he told himself as the leading edge of the Princess' attendants entered his field of view at last. What matters is that she's on her way now.
He drew the red handkerchief from his breast pocket.
Seeker of Dreams rode in his person's arms, and the noise of the humans beat over him like a great, rushing wind. He had never imagined so many mouth sounds being made all at one time, yet the mind voices of Parsifal and others assured him humans often made such noises. He found that hard to believe, but Musashi sent him an image of thousands of humans seated around a large green field while two smaller groups of humans ran back and forth, kicking a white sphere. Musashi was no memory singer, but his image carried the concentration and hint of excitement his person had felt as she watched the sphere move up and down the field, and then one of the humans on the grass hit the ball with his head, not his foot. It sailed right through the hands of another human and plopped into an upright net, and at least half those thousands of watching humans surged to their feet with a deep, roaring sound of wild approval.
Seeker of Dreams had no idea what the humans had been up to in Musashi's images. It felt almost like the competition as two teams of junior hunters or scouts raced one another through the branches searching for the senior scouts seeking to evade them. But that was differenta serious test to determine which were ready to assume more demanding, responsible dutiesand only those involved paid it much heed. Such competitions were the business of those being tested, yet the humans had gathered in huge numbers to watch others compete, and seemed wildly excited about the outcome.
Best leave that ground runner for a later hunt, he told himself. Besides, it is not the same as this excitement, anyway. This excitement is focused on my person, and through her, upon me, as well.
The sheer power of it lashed at him, making him taut and uneasy, yet there was an odd euphoria in it, as well. It was all but impossible to separate individual mind glows from one another in the midst of such tumult, but he tasted the welcome, the excitement, the sense of deference. In a strange way, it tasted much like his own feelings for Sings Truly. Or perhaps that was too strong. Perhaps it actually tasted more like his feelings for Leaper of High Branches, his own clan's chief elder. He did not understand how such intensity of emotion could focus on one so young as his person. If they had been able, as he, to taste the glory of her mind glow, perhaps he might have understood, but they were mind-blind, and she was far too young to be an elder in anyone's clan.
He looked up at her, and she looked down quickly, as if she had felt his eyes. Her mouth moved in the expressionthe "smile"he had been told humans used to show pleasure to their mind-blind fellows, and the deep warmth of her mind glow echoed the expression. He bleeked up at her, reaching high to pat her cheek once more, then turned his attention outward. It was difficult to separate himself from her mind glow, but he badly wanted to understand why all these others felt such respect and veneration for her.
He sent his empathy questing outward once more, and fresh surprise at the manner in which his range and sensitivity had increased washed over him. He could actually reach out into that vast crowd and taste the mind glows of individual humans he could scarcely even see, despite all the background energy and passion. It was difficult to tune that background down enough to taste clearly, but it ought to have been completely impossible, and he reveled in his newfound abilities.
There was an older female human, her mind glow blazing with welcome. And there behind her was another female, this one less delighted to see his personnot from any personal animosity, but because of something else, some human thing Seeker of Dreams did not understand but which appeared to involve decisions and the making of rulesbut still excited and focused. And there
Seeker of Dreams stiffened as he sensed the dark, twisted knot of wrongness pushing through the crowd towards his person. It was terrifying, like finding one's self trapped on the ground as a death fang closed in, and he gave a high, warning squeal of alarm. He jerked up, head questing, eyes searching for the one he had tasted, and then he saw hima male human, little older than his own human, who thrust his way through the crowd while his own burning stare locked to Seeker of Dreams' human. And something was wrong, wrong, wrong! Seeker of Dreams tasted the deadness, the emptiness within his mind glow, and that was terrifying enough. But there was worse. For even as the empty human forced his way towards Seeker of Dream's human, some tiny part of him cried out, screaming for help, as if his innermost self were trapped in a bog of quicksand. That tiny part wailed in terror, fighting desperately against whatever pulled him forward, yet it could not resist the compulsion, and the taste of the human's despair was almost worse than Seeker of Dream's sudden realization that the other meant to slay his person!
He reared up in her arms, baring his fangs, and those around his human faltered and fell back from the rippling snarl of his war cry. Some cried out in alarm, and one or two of her protectors reached for the weapons they carried, but they lacked his empathy. They could not taste what he tasted, and so they turned towards him, guided by their physical senses alone, unaware of the danger coming closer with every instant.
But others could sense what he sensed, and he heard the sudden, high-pitched snarls of at least a dozen People. Dunatis and Musashi, Parsifal and Leaf Hunter and others whose names he had never learned reached out to him, tasting what he tasted, sensing the darkness through him, and he heard more human cries of shock and confusion as a wave of cream-and-gray fur exploded from the roof of the new admin wing.
Sixteen treecats launched outward in prodigious leaps that carried them clear of the crowd and into the trees of the landscaped grounds. They flashed through the branches, converging on Seeker of Dreams and his human and the darkness that threatened them, and consternation and confusion came with them. Not one human being had the least idea of what they were doing, or why, and there was no time for anyone to figure it out.
Alvin Tudev heard the 'cat's sudden, rippling snarl. He'd never heard anything like it, but he recognized its meaning with the instant intuition of instinct. His own head came up, searching for whatever threat the 'cat had detected, but he saw nothing. Only the path to the speaker's platform, and the rows of spectators behind the barricades holding them back.
But some of those spectators were beginning to react to the treecat's snarling fury. They recoiled, shrinking away from him, and heads were turning as a flood of additional 'cats flashed through the trees towards them. They had no idea what was happening, but they would have been more than human not to be alarmed, and alarm pushed them back. They couldn't move farthey were too tightly packed for thatbut their common instinct seemed to be to avoid crowding the Heir.
All but one. Tudev didn't think about it, for there was no time to think. There was only time to see and react, and he did. He saw the one person who bucked the movement of the crowd, kicking and shoving to get closer to Princess Adrienne, and trained instinct shrieked a warning even louder than the 'cat's snarls.
Seeker of Dreams sprang from his human's arms. She tried to prevent him, and he felt her surge of confused fearnot for herself, but for himas her arms tightened. But she was an instant too late, and he arrowed through the air like a vengeful demon. A gray-haired male human flung up his arms, covering his head with a strangled cry as Seeker of Dreams landed on his shoulders, but he didn't even pause. He only ricocheted onward like a rebounding ball, on a course that took him straight towards the empty one.
Tudev saw the young man's hand slide inside his jacket, saw the Heir's treecat slashing through the crowd like a missile, heard the other 'cats' passage through the trees like a gray hurricane. The rest of his detail was still looking in the wrong direction, drawn towards the only threat they could identify: the 'cats' movement. Only Tudev realized, however imperfectly, what was actually happening, and there was no time to explain it to anyone else.
"Gun!" he screamed, and for the second time that day, he flung himself at Princess Adrienne's back.
This time he didn't turn aside at the last moment.
<Alive, Seeker of Dreams!> The mind voice shouted in the back of Seeker of Dreams' brain. <The humans must have him alive!>
It was Parsifal. Mind voices were fast and certain, much quicker to give and receive information than the humans' mouth sounds, yet even so there was too little time for Parsifal to explain what he meant . . . and Seeker of Dreams did not want to understand. His human had been threatened. All he cared about was the need to end the threat, quickly and forever, and he bared his claws as he bounced from the last innocent human and launched himself straight into the face of the empty one.
<Do not kill him!> Parsifal screamed, and now Musashi and Dunatis added their mind voices. Seeker of Dreams hissed defiance, but their command beat in upon him.
The empty human's hand rose, and Seeker of Dreams diverted his attack in the last fraction of an instant. He hit that hand and its arm with all six sets of claws, and the empty one screamed as centimeter-long knives of bone sank deep. Needle-sharp fangs slashed the back of his hand, slicing muscle and tendons, and his fingers sprang open involuntarily. The pistol fell free, bouncing as it hit the ground, and he shook his arm in frantic horror as Seeker of Dreams clawed and bit and tore.
The programming burned into his brain commanded his left hand to press the button in his pocketthe one which would detonate the three kilos of explosive he wore like a breast plate. If he'd gotten close enough, that would have been his weapon to assassinate the Heir; since he had been intercepted, it was the precaution which should have killed him and half a dozen otherspossibly including the Heir, even nowand so insured no one would ever realize he'd been adjusted for his role.
But powerful though it was, that programming had never counted on eight kilos of enraged, scimitar-clawed treecat. The pain and shock were too much to be ignored, and his left fist beat frantically at the monster ripping his right arm to pieces. It was raw instinct, inescapable as breathing, preempting the commands another had locked him into obeying, and it delayed him just long enough.
Two more treecats hit him, and he screamed in agony as the extra weight took him to the ground. The newcomers went for his left arm as Seeker of Dreams had gone for his right, and he writhed and fought madly as the hissing, snarling confusion of gray fur and bone-white claws enveloped him. He had no way to know the last thing they wanted was to kill him. All he knew was that a tornado had crashed over him, and there was no time for him to do anything except try frantically to protect his face and eyes.
Adrienne clutched desperately at the treecat, but he squirmed out of her arms like an Old Earth eel, then flung himself away from her, still trailing that terrible, rippling war cry. She reached out futilely, instinctively starting after him. She was completely focused on him, unaware of anything else . . . and completely unprepared when eighty-four kilos of hard muscle and bone slammed into her from behind.
Her neck whiplashed as Lieutenant Colonel Tudev brought her crashing to the ground. He had no time to be gentle; he hit her like a rugby player charging for the goal, and her universe went dark as her head hit the ground.
Seeker of Dreams felt his human's mind glow go out, and a wail of grief and terror escaped him. He turned from the empty human, streaked and splashed with his target's blood, and the other humansthose few who had not already gotten as far away as they couldfell over one another in frantic efforts to clear his path. He shot back towards her, wailing his fear, and behind him two SFS rangers, a Twin Forks city policeman, and two members of the Heir's security team flung themselves upon the young man the 'cats had brought down.
Seeker of Dreams scarcely noticed. He flashed across the ground towards his person, and then skidded to a halt. Another human was just rolling off her backthe big, heavily built human for whom his human had radiated such affection and trustwhile she lay very still on the ground. Blood seeped from one temple, darkening her tightly-curled hair and streaking her dark skin, and something deep inside Seeker of Dreams twisted even tighter at the sight. But he could also sense her mind glow once more. It was weaker, dimmer and slower, yet it was there, and he felt a great shudder of relief go through him as he realized she was only stunned.
"Sorry, little guy," Tudev muttered. The wailing 'cat had exploded back out of the confusion like a blood-soaked ghost, closing in on Adrienne like a homing missile. The lieutenant colonel had already realized he'd knocked the Heir out when he tackled her, and he hoped to hell that was all he'd done. Still, a concussion was better than a bullet would have been, and he'd had no way to know how efficiently the new 'cat and the Forestry Service rangers' 'cats would neutralize the threat.
The treecat didn't even look up. It only crouched on all six limbs, pressing its nose beseechingly against the Heir's face. Its eerie wail had faded, but Tudev could hear the small creature's frantic, buzzing purr even through the confusion of shouts and screams and other panic sounds. He looked down at the 'cat, still more than a little groggy himself, then knelt beside it. The shoulder he'd hurt before hurt even worse now, and it refused to move when he ordered it to, so he used his other hand to stroke the 'cat gently.
"She's going to be all right," he told Seeker of Dreams. "You saved her, and she's going to be all right."
Henry Thoreau was much too far away to see what had happened, but he knew it hadn't been what was supposed to happen. There'd been shouts and screams in plenty but no explosion, and he felt a sudden, dark shudder of fear. The lack of an explosion might mean some alert bodyguard had recognized the threat, gotten his weapon out, and killed the programmed assassin, but it was far more likely something had gone wrong and they'd taken the young man alive. And if they'd managed to do that and handed him over to a psychiatrist, the fact that he'd been adjusted would be glaringly obvious, and then
Thoreau swallowed hard. He had to get out of here. Even if they had the kid alive, they'd need time to figure out he'd been adjusted . . . and by whom. Or they ought to. But he couldn't be sure of that, and he and Krogman had to get off-planet now.
Fortunately, the panicked reaction of the crowd should cover his escape. Some people, predictably, were fighting to get closer to whatever had happened, drawn to the excitement like moths to a flame, regardless of danger. But a much greater number wanted to get away from a situation of which they grasped only fragments, and Thoreau let himself merge into the stream of humanity funneling towards the park gates.
The treecats called Dunatis and Parsifal looked at one another as the human scouts and hunters converged on the one Seeker of Dreams, Musashi, and Leaf Hunter had brought down. Other treecats gathered around them in the trees, and Parsifal tasted the fury washing about their mind glows. The bright, jagged need to attack flickered within all of them, yet they had themselves under control, and he turned back to Dunatis.
<This is not right,> he said flatly. <Seeker of Dreams was right. This one> his tail flipped towards the bloodied young man being handcuffed below them <is empty. I have never tasted the like in any human, yet there is something. . . . There!> The human writhed madly, screaming a wordless protest against the alien commands buried within his mind. He fought frantically to obey them even as the tiny, independent core of him which survived wailed in the bottomless terror his mind-blind human captors could not understand. <Did you taste it?>
<I did,> Dunatis replied grimly, and several other mind voices agreed. <This is evil, brothers.> Lieutenant General MacClintock's companion looked out over the surging sea of humans, and his tail flicked with fury. <This was done to him. I do not know how, but it must have been the work of some human evil doer.> The other 'cats nodded. All of them had bonded to Forestry Service personnel, and all had been forced to confront the division between law abiding people and criminals. <I have never heard of its like, but there is much we still do not understand about the tools and knowledge of the humans. No doubt they will know how this could be accomplished. Yet they are occupied now with surprise and confusion. It will be some time before they think clearly, and they are mind-blind, unable to taste what hides behind their fellow humans' eyes.>
<But we are not mind-blind,> Parsifal said, and Dunatis flicked his ears.
<Spread out, brothers,> he commanded. <It may be that the evil doer responsible for this thing is nowhere near, that he had no need or desire to witness the working of his plans. But it is also possible he is near at hand. Seek him, and if you find him, summon us. Perhaps> there was grim, vengeful anticipation in Dunatis' mind voice <we can . . . delay his steps until our humans arrive to ask him how his day has been.>
Thoreau wanted to use his size and strength to plow an escape route through the crowds, but he dared not. He had to blend, vanish into the protective confusion, and so he let the press of people carry him towards the gates. They were moving slower than he would have liked, but at least they were moving, and
A high, sibilant hiss from above jerked his head up. Grass-green eyes blazed down at him from a branch two meters above his head, and the hiss became a low, rumbling snarl as his gaze met those eyes. He swallowed in sudden terror and started to turn away, only to freeze as another hiss came from the tree behind him. Another 'cat hissed at him, and then there was anotherand another!
Henry Thoreau stood paralyzed as fourteen silken-coated arboreals glared down at him, lashing their tails while ivory claws kneaded in and out of the tree bark. There was nothing cute or cuddly about them, and he felt the bright, angry intelligence behind their unflinching eyes as they pinned him with their green glare.
They know, he thought. The little bastards know I had something to do with what just went down! But how? How could they know? Unless
And then he had it. They were empaths, and his emotions might as well have been screaming his guilt at the tops of his lungs, as far as they were concerned. But they were the only ones who knew. If he got away, there would be no way they could pass that information on to anyone else.
All he had to do was get away.
He swallowed again, then began to back slowly away.
He'd gotten perhaps three meters when a needle-fanged tide of treecats came flooding out of the trees.
Adrienne Michelle Aoriana Elizabeth Winton opened her eyes slowly. Her head hurt, her face hurt, her back hurt, and her right eye refused to focus properly. Aside from that, she thought woozily, there's not a thing wrong with me. Now if I could only remember why I hurt. . . .
She stared up at the ceiling, trying to get her thoughts herded up and moving in a single direction. It was a difficult task, but then something shifted on the pillow, right beside her left ear. Silky softness stirred, just brushing the surface of her skin, and she gasped in sudden memory. Her head snapped over, and the bright green eyes of the treecat looked back at her while a soft, buzzing purr welcomed her awakening.
She stared at the 'cat, and her thoughts were still slow and confused. But she wasn't too confused to recall that moment when the 'cat dropped into her arms, and she reached out for him once more. Pain lanced through her skull with the movement, but the 'cat flowed into her embrace, hugging her neck with his strong, wiry forearms while he rubbed his head ever so gently against her cheek.
"I see you're awake," a familiar voice said, and she looked past the 'cat as Alvin Tudev, one arm in a sling, appeared in the door of what she now realized was a hospital room. "Good," the lieutenant colonel went on. "It's been a while."
"How" She cleared her throat. "How long is `a while,' and what happened?"
"A while is several hours," he replied. "And what happened is a bit complicated. As far as your headache is concerned, I'm afraid that's my fault. I hit you a bit harder than I meant to."
"You hit me?" she repeated carefully, and he nodded.
"One of the things bodyguards do when there may be bullets flying around, Your Highness. There wasn't time to ask politely, or I would have." He smiled, and she realized his half-joking tone was a reaction to his relief that she was all right. "As to why I hit you, you can thank your little friend." Adrienne raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged. "He and his buddies have just demonstrated a very good reason for a monarch or his heir to be accompanied by treecats everywhere they go," he said in a much more serious tone.
"An assassin," she said. The word came out in a half-whisper and her eyes darkened as she realized what Tudev was leading up to, and he nodded.
"An assassin," he confirmed. "But the 'cats sensed him before he got into range, and they all went straight for him. Your friend got to him first, but the others were only seconds behind. They not only took him down, they managed to hold himaliveuntil us mere two-foots could figure out what was going on and close in on him. And that," he added grimly, "wasn't as easy as you might think, because the poor bas" He stopped and cleared his throat. "The assassin was wired up with enough explosives to send himself into orbit without counter-grav," he continued, "and he would've done it, too."
"That's crazy," she said.
"No, Your Highness," he said even more grimly. "It was supposed to look crazy." Adrienne looked at him in confusion, and he sighed. "We're still just getting started, Your Highness, but it's already clear your intended assassin was psych-adjusted for the job. It's going to take weeks to even begin finding all the triggers and compulsions, but it seems pretty evident that one of his compulsions was to blow himself upand take you with him, if possiblein order to keep us from realizing he'd been programmed."
"Oh my God," Adrienne whispered, and Tudev nodded.
"I think Heand the 'catshad an awful lot to do with the fact that you're still alive, Your Highness. More than that, the 'cats may have caught us a break on cracking this entire plot wide open."
"What do you mean? And what plot?"
"To take your second question first, this had to be an inside job in at least one respect. The killers were here waiting for you, in position, before your visit was announced. That means somebody gave them a copy of the Alpha List, because Twin Forks was only on the Alpha List; it never appeared on any of the decoy lists. And that means somebody was able to extract a Blue File and decrypt it, which takes a very highly placed source, and that implies a far wider reaching plot than anyone in my line of work likes to think about. Still, given your father's success in concentrating authority in the Crown, I can see where he could have aroused the, um . . . forceful opposition of some powerful people."
He paused, and Adrienne nodded with a shiver.
"As for cracking the plot, however," Tudev went on with a wolfish smile, "we believe we've got the man who actually triggered the assassin's attack in custody, and we owe that to the 'cats, too. He was two-thirds of the way out of the park when ten or fifteen of the 'cats zeroed in on him. The Forest Service types' best guess is that they were able to pick up his emotional reaction to the failure of the attack and use that to target him. Apparently," the lieutenant colonel's smile turned even more lupine, "he panicked and tried to run, and the 'cats swarmed him. They didn't actually hurt him muchaside from a lot of scratches, some pretty deepbut they absolutely shredded his clothing, and his confidence went with it. By the time the first Twin Forks cops got there, he was curled up in a knot in a corner of the fence screaming for someone to rescue him. He practically begged them to listen to his confession if they'd just keep the 'cats away from him. And he did confess, too."
"But" Adrienne paused, thinking as hard as her aching head allowed, then shrugged. "Will that hold up? Can't an attorney argue that it was coerced?"
"Ah, but it wasn't coerced by an officer of the court, Your Highness. In fact, the cops were scrupulous about informing him of all his rights, and they never threatened him in any way. It was the 'cats he was afraid of, not them, and the 'cats have no official standing . . . except that of minor children." He shrugged. "I don't see any problems. Particularly not," he added in icy tones, "in a case like this one."
Adrienne looked at him, wondering if he even realized how utterly implacable he sounded. But then his expression changed, and he cleared his throat once more.
"Ah, there is one more thing, Your Highness," he said with an edge of discomfort. "I was, of course, required to inform His Majesty of everything that occurred." Adrienne nodded, her face expressionless iron, and he went on. "I commed the first report to him immediately after the incident, because I wanted to be certain he got it from us rather than the newsies. Since then, I've sent several follow-up reports on all that's happened."
"I see," Adrienne said.
"Yes, Ma'am." Tudev checked his chrono and drew a deep breath. "Forty-seven minutes ago, we received a transmission in the royal family's encryption, Your Highness. It was addressed to you. I've had the com techs set it up on your terminal here, but we require your voice print to release the encrypt."
"I see," Adrienne said again. Then she nodded to him. "Very well, Colonel. Thank youfor everything, including my lifebut I would appreciate it if you could leave me alone for the next little while." She smiled wanly. "I've got some mail to listen to."
"Of course, Your Highness," Tudev murmured, and withdrew. There were some things, he thought, no bodyguard could protect a person from.
Seeker of Dreams had followed the subtle flow and change in the taste of his person's mind glow as she and the one called Tudev spoke. He liked Tudevliked the taste of his mind glow and his fierce protectiveness. But he'd also tasted Tudev's unhappiness over whatever he had just told her . . . and the bitter hurt which had flared through her when she heard it. It was not anything Tudev had done; Seeker of Dreams knew that. But it was whatever had caused the great sorrow which every one of the People had tasted in her mind glow, and he tensed inwardly as she gathered her courage.
He reached out to his link to her and felt it there between them. It was unlike the bond he might have established with another of the People, for her end of it was anchored in a strange blankness, an almost-awareness which hovered just below recognition. She knew it was there, he thought; she simply could not perceive it, could not reach out and complete the weaving another of the People would have accomplished.
Yet he felt and tasted so much even through the unfinished weaving, and if she could not reach out to him, still he could reach in to her. And so he extended himself into their linkage, cautiously, testing each step as he took it, until he could lay his mental touch upon the grief at her heart. And then, as he would have with another of the People, he drew that grief to him.
He tasted her surprise, her sudden suspicion that he was somehow soothing her, and his buzzing purr deepened. She sat up in bed, and he flowed into her lap and curled there, tucking his nose against her, smelling the strange-not-strange scent of her, and his grip upon her sorrow tightened. It was her sorrow, not his, and so it did not bite upon him as it did upon her. He was distressed that she felt it, but it could not hurt him, and he spread himself across its jagged edges. She was mind-blind. He could have reached in through their link, had he so chosen, and taken her sorrow from her so completely she would feel none of it ever again, and she could not have stopped him. But that was against the most ancient traditions of the People. Deeply though he was tempted, he would not do it, for what would begin as an act of love could well become something else with the passing of time. Even the most well meaning person could do incalculable damage if ever he decided what pain, what sorrow, he would take from another, for he could always find sound reasons to take one more pain, one more unhappiness . . . until the one he loved and had tried to help became like the empty human who had sought his person's life. Pain and sorrow were terrible burdens, to be shared with those who loved one and healed when healing was possible. Yet as he himself had told Parsifal, even among the People, the most powerful mind glows and the strongest People were often bred of sorrow and the need to face it.
Adrienne looked down at the 'cat, her eyes huge. The subtle touch deep within her was more sensed than felta presence which revealed itself only in the absence of her pain. No, she thought, not absence. The treecat had not taken her pain from her; he had simply . . . moved between it and her. As Alvin Tudev had placed his body between her body and harm, so the 'cat had somehow placed his love between her and her sorrow. It was still there, and it still hurt dreadfully, but she no longer faced it alone, and that made all the difference in the universe.
"Thank you," she whispered, bending to press a kiss between his ears, and his purr buzzed still louder as he leaned his weight against her. For one more moment she allowed herself to luxuriate in his love, but she had her own responsibilities, and she refused to put off that which she must do.
She drew a deep breath and reached out to the com terminal. It wasn't a standard hospital unit, and her mouth crooked in a half-bitter grin. The special high security com systems followed her wherever she went . . . even here, in a hospital room. Had a tech slipped in and connected it while she lay unconscious? Probably not, she decided. Among the many details her security detachment always worried about whenever she traveled was which hospital she would be taken to in case of emergency. If they worried about things like that, then they probably also saw to it that the hospital they chose would have the proper communications equipment if she happened to need it.
She pushed the thought aside and pressed the acceptance key beside the blinking light of a waiting message. A soft tone sounded, and she cleared her throat.
"Message release authorization," she said slowly and distinctly. "Adrienne Michelle Aoriana Elizabeth, Alpha Seven, Hotel Three, Lima."
A moment passed while the computers considered her voice and the authorization code for this trip, and then the screen lit with her father's face.
He looks dreadful, she thought. His eyes were swollen, and the lines in his face looked etched and burned with acid as he stared into the pickup. He said nothing at all for several seconds, then inhaled sharply and began, abruptly, to speak.
"I know why you went to Twin Forks, Adrienne," he said, and she sat very still, for his voice was different. It was flat, harsh, its edges eroded and raggeda far cry from the toneless, uninvolved, and perpetually, lethally reasonable voice she'd come to dread. "I knew you were going before you ever left Manticore, and it made me furiousjust as you meant it tobut I didn't say anything. And because I didn't, I almost lost you."
His flat voice wavered suddenly with the last four words, and he stopped and clamped his jaw, nostrils flaring while his cheek muscles clenched. Adrienne stared at the display, stunned, for she had not heard that much emotion from him in the entire ten years since Queen Solange's death.
"I know I've hurt you, Adrienne," he said finally, his voice flat once more, but hoarse. "I even know how and why. I'm not an idiot, however idiotically I've acted. But knowing wasn't enough. It should have been."
He sounded almost as if he were rambling, but each little burst of words came out in a staccato rhythm, focused into laser sharpness despite his harrowed tone.
"It should have been enough. It would have been enough, if I hadn't been so afraid. But I thought No, that's wrong. I didn't really think at all, but I thought I had. And it seemed safer to be cold, to push you away, to" He paused and cleared his throat once more. "I don't have to tell you all the stupid things I did," he resumed after a moment. "God knows that if I know what they were, you know even better. And I know I have no right even to hope you might understand why I did it . . . or forgive me for it. That's why I won't ask you to."
"But" He stopped again and drew a long, shuddering breath, and his swollen eyes gleamed suspiciously. "But I almost lost you today," he said hoarsely. "Perhaps I already have, and I won't blame you if that's true, but today I almost lost you forever, like . . . like I lost your mother. And I realized that if I had lost you, if you'd . . . died today, then any chance I might ever have had to tell you how sorry I am, or to tell you how much I love you, or to even try to repair some of the hurt and harm I've done would have died with you. And I can't have that, Adrienne. Maybe that's the ultimate cowardicethat I'm too terrified to lose you with the coldness still between us to keep that safe, uncaring coldness there. I don't know. I only know that when Colonel Tudev's first message came in, I"
He broke off, face working, and covered his eyes with his hands. His shoulders shook, and Adrienne heard the treecat in her lap crooning to her as tears spangled her own burning vision.
"I'm sorry, baby," he told her in a shaking voice. "God, that sounds so stupidso useless and tiny after all I've done, but I can't They're the only words" He sucked in a deep, wracking breath. "I don't know another way to say it," he said finally. "I won't blame you if you don't forgive me. I made my choices, my decisions. They were wrong. They were stupid. They were cowardly. But I made them, and they hurt you horribly, and if you hate me for that, I earned it, and I know it. But this much I promise you. It may take something as horrible and terrifying as today to get through to me, but I can learn, Adrienne, and whether you can forgive me or not, I will never shut you out again. Perhaps we can never be like we were before your mother died. If not, the fault is mine, and I accept that. But now I know how stupid I've been. I can't turn away, pretend I don't know. So at the very least, I will treat you as a monarch ought to treat his heiras someone to be consulted and involved, whose opinion counts and who has the right to demand explanations of me. I would like . . . like very much" his voice cracked again "to do better than that, as well. I would like to learn to act like a father once more, but I know that's not something I can demand of you or order you to let me be. It's a position I'll have to try to earn again. I may not succeed, but I intend to try, and" he managed a shaky smile while tears trickled down his face "one thing I've learned to do is try really hard when I want something badly."
"I know you have, Daddy," she whispered through her own tears as he paused once more, and her hands caressed the treecat in her lap. She'd waited so many hopeless, pain-filled years to hear those words. Now she had . . . and he was right. In her dreams, she'd seen them coming back together, their scars magically healedseen him once more as her adored father, and seen her as his beloved daughter. But he'd hurt her too badly for that. The wounds went too deep, and that innocent perfection had been lost to both of them forever. They had become worse than strangers to one another; they'd become sources of pain, of hurt and loneliness, and that could be neither forgotten nor forgiven in a moment, whatever she wanted. Indeed, she didn't know if it could ever be forgiven at all.
But I do know that if we don't try, we can never even hope to fix it, she thought, feeling her tears splash her hands where they rested on the treecat's silken fur. And at least he's come this far, reached out this much to me after so long. I can't just rush home and tell him all is forgiven, that it's all water under the bridge. But I can go home and let him try, and I can try, and maybe we can patch something together between us once again, if only for the sake of Mother's memory.
"On another matter," her father's voice said from the com, and she blinked, then rubbed at her eyes with one hand, "I understand I also have to change my opinion of treecats." He managed a more natural looking smile, and there was a ghost of true humor in his voice. "Colonel Tudev has kept me up to date, so I know one of them has adopted you. And I also know he and his friends are the reason you're still alive. Which means, of course, that I owe them and all their relatives a debt I can never hope to pay.
"But just because I can't pay it, doesn't mean I don't have to try, so as soon as I finish recording this message, I'll be sitting down with the Prime Minister to discuss the withdrawal of the Crown's opposition to the Treecat Rights Bill. The Sphinx Forestry Service will be getting a somewhat larger budget over the next few months, as well, and I would be very grateful if you would ask General MacClintock if he would be so good as to accompany you back to Manticore so that he and I can discuss how best to clarifyand enforcethe treecats' legal status as quickly as possible.
"In addition," his recorded image looked straight into the pickup, meeting his daughter's gaze levelly, "I would ask you and your new friend to come home to Mount Royal Palace. I understand from Colonel Tudev that the 'cats have rather conclusively demonstrated their ability to sense the hostile intent of would-be assassins. I find that an excellent reason to encourage my daughter to consort with them, and I intend to ask the SFS to reassign a few of their enforcement personnel to the PGS. More to the point," his mouth tightened, and grim pleasure flickered in his eyes, "I agree with Colonel Tudev. This had to have been arranged with the help of a high-level leak and, probably, with some high-level conspirators, as well. And that being the case, I am looking forward with considerable anticipation to introducing as many 'cats as possible to the people here at Court who might have profited from your demise. I know it won't be admissible in a court of law, but if we know where to look, I feel quite confident that men and women like Colonel Tudev will be able to find the evidence we require. Or at least," his smile was cold, "to keep the guilty parties far too busy running for their lives to try any more plots . . . or ever enjoy themselves or their lives again."
Adrienne felt her own mouth quirking as she visualized the scene as her 'cat and a dozen or so others suddenly found themselves with the free run of Mount Royal Palace. Whoever had tried to kill her was undoubtedly well enough connected to realize why they were there, and for the first time in far too many years, she found herself in complete and total agreement with her father.
For several seconds she smiled at the com while her father smiled out of it, but then his smile faded and his voice softened.
"But that's for the future, Adrienne. For now, just be well. Come home to me. However foolishly I've acted, I love you, and I want the opportunity to prove that to you once more. Please."
He stopped speaking and gazed out of the display for a moment longer, and then the message ended, and Adrienne leaned back against her pillows and hugged Seeker of Dreams to her breasts while fresh tears misted her vision. He twisted in her arms, wiggling until he could nestle his blunt, triangular jaw down into the angle of her collar bone, and the deep, buzzing strength of his purr burned into her flesh and sinew.
It was all his doing, she realized wonderingly. He'd dropped into her life like a whirlwind, and he was the only reason she was still alive. He and his friends were the only reason anyone even knew there'd been a plot to be discovered, not simply some lone, deranged assassin, and they were the ones who were most likely to discover who the plotters were. And if the miracle she'd prayed for occurredif somehow she and her father were able to piece back together even a shadow of the warmth and love they once had knownthat, too, would be possible only because of the 'cat in her arms.
"I haven't even named you," she whispered into one tufted ear, and the ear twitched. The 'cat raised his head just enough to look into her eyes, and she smiled tremulously. "I guess I really am one of the slowpokes Colonel MacClintock was talking about," she told him, "but you'll have to be patient with me. It has to be the right name for all you've accomplished this afternoon . . . and somehow I don't think you'd like `Miracle Worker' very much when you learned what it meant!"
Seeker of Dreams gazed into his human's eyes and tasted the fragile bubble of amusement deep within her. He did not yet understand what had passed between her and her father, but there would be time for that, and now that he knew the source of her hurt, he could help herand her fatherdeal with it. He knew he could do that much, and he looked forward to it. But just now, what he most savored was the humor and the joy within her, and the way the sorrow and the release of long held pain made both of them brighter despite their fragility.
He felt the turnings he might have known fall away from him, cast aside without regret as his empathy nestled close to the brightness and the beauty of his person. He would never know what those lost turnings might have brought to him . . . yet if he had not chosen, had not bonded, he would never have known even a fraction of the joy and awareness and love that were his now. It was a fair trade, he decided, and reached up to touch her face with one true-hand.
Adrienne Winton looked into her 'cat's bright green eyes, and ever so dimly she sensed the depths of his thoughts, the solemnity of his contemplations. There was something painfully profound about the moment, a sense of decisions made and prices paid, and for one more moment her breath caught in her throat as a poignancy she did not truly understand swept over her.
But then the 'cat she had yet to name reached out a true-hand. He touched her face, then leaned closer, until the very tip of his nose brushed hers. His whiskers quivered as their eyes held to one another, so close her own tried to cross. She held her breath, waiting for some deep, meaningful signal from him . . . and then he drew back and nipped her sharply on the nose.
"Owwww!" Her hand shot up to cover her nose, but the cat had already sprung away from her. He landed on the head of her bed and clung there, head-down, with both true-feet and one hand-foot, flirting his tail daintily while he bleeked laughter at her. She could almost hear his mental "Gotcha!" and she laughed back at him as she felt her spirit soar.
Seeker of Dreams felt his person's joy rising like sap in mud time, felt the scaly mental scabs cracking ever so slightly about the wounds deep within her, and bleeked another laugh at her. He remembered what Sings Truly had said, of how even the best hunter could suddenly find himself the hunted, and he knew she had been right. He had come hunting his dream; now he had found it, and it had captured him, and in the fullness of time, it would slay him.
But if not that, then something else would slay me in time, he thought. And though the choice was mine, the joy will be a thing we both share. Perhaps our time will be short, but oh, how we shall blaze against the night! The memory singers of the People will sing our song so long as there are People, and she and I will go on as one forever!
He gazed down at her for one more brief, endless moment, and then he released his grip on the head of the bed and pounced upon her, growling and capturing her hand and arm like a kitten, and the happy music of laughter, human and treecat alike, burned like a beacon against the darkness.
|Title:||Worlds of Honor|
|Copyright:||© 1999 by David M. Weber|