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A DISTANT STAR
The wind whipped through the open door with a cold wail, pushing the old man before it and stirring the flames of the coals in the rusted brazier. Though the papers and maps before him stirred in the sudden draft, the younger man seated at the table paid them no heed. His gaze was fixed on his visitor. Even from across the room, the old man could see the candlelight reflected in his eyes, cold and hard as gold.
The old man shoved the door closed against the gale, then wearily crossed the room, his gait slow and awkwardly dragging. “It was a false lead, Jerrel. That runner you hired has returned, but it wasn’t worth the coin you paid. The man wasn’t your brother.”
“We could have found that out two weeks ago if we’d transported in as I’d planned.” The words were cold and hard as the reflected candlelight.
“Damn all backward worlds like this!” The younger man surged to his feet, shoving aside the table and sending his chair crashing to the floor. Standing, he towered over his companion. “Damn this
world, Norvag, damn you, and damn the Service rules you insist on following!”
Norvag’s eyes narrowed. “They’re good rules, Jerrel. It’s too dangerous to use Imperial technology on a world that isn’t ready for it.”
“I’m not planning on sharing any technology with anyone on this backward hell hole of a planet. I just want to find Santar!”
“And those fools assigned to Argus didn’t mean to cause any harm, either, but a lot of people died because they didn’t follow Service rules.”
“No one knew those superstitious farmers possessed such deadly weapons!”
“My point exactly! Two hundred years and the wounds still run deep. The Rediscovery Service’s mandate is simple. Find the lost worlds. Study them, but only by living as the local people live, using the technology they already possess. There’s a very good reason the Service doesn’t permit the use of anything except communicator implants until First Contact is authorized.”
“And what good does that do them, Norvag? The Service has a higher casualty rate than even the Imperial Marines.”
“Your brother knew the risks he faced! So did his partner. You can’t—” At the words, Jerrel’s blue eyes blazed.
Norvag bit back whatever else he’d meant to say, then continued more calmly, “Santar believed in the Service, Jerrel. He believed in everything it stands for, and he willing accepted the oath he made to abide by its rules, no matter what. He wouldn’t appreciate your breaking those rules now. Not even to save his life. You know that as well as I do.”
Jerrel’s broad shoulders slumped. He sighed, nodding reluctantly. “Santar’s always been too idealistic, and Danet isn’t much better. They should never have been partnered. They’re too much like each other.”
“Agreed. Idealism is all well and good, but a little goes a long way sometimes. Both of them would have done better with partners who were a little more practical.”
That brought an amused snort from the younger man. “Like you and me, you mean.”
An answering smile quivered on the old man’s lips. “That’s right. Brains and brawn. Said so, haven’t I? And more than once!” Norvag’s smile faded. “Let’s go back to Anweigh, Jerrel. Danet asked us to wait for him there. It’s the main trade center, and information can be traded as freely as goods.”
“Santar disappeared in Matcassen, not Anweigh.”
“But what if someone recognizes you, realizes you’re Santar’s brother?”
“How? By the fact that we have blue eyes? That’s about the only thing the two of us ever had in common.” Jerrel straightened. “The color of our eyes doesn’t matter, anyway. Even if it is a rare trait on this damned planet, it’s not enough for anyone to connect the two of us. And if someone does, then that someone knows something that I need to know, too.”
“Perhaps. But by the time you find out what it is…” Norvag shook away the thought, then lifted his clasped hands t o his mouth and softly blew on them to warm them. “By the time you find out anything, I’ll be damned near frozen to death. At least there was a decent fireplace in that inn in Anweigh. And good ale, which is more than I can say for your hospitality!”
That brought Jerrel’s head up with a snap. “Old fool! You should be using a thermal suit and a medical robot to help your leg instead of suffering in this infernal cold.” He dragged a battered chair near the brazier. “Sit, Norvag. Warm yourself.”
The old man gratefully settled into the chair and stretched his hands to the fitful blaze. “I’m not the man I was, it’s true, and winter is hard on old bones.” He grinned. “My first assignment for the Service was on a world a lot colder than this, and I swear I never even noticed the weather. But that was eighty years ago.”
“Eighty years. . .” Jerrel murmured, staring into the flickering orange flames. When his companion said nothing, Jerrel glanced over at him, his brow creased in worry.
“Two, three dozen planets with the Rediscovery Service in the first sixty-five of those years, and how many more with me over the last fifteen, my friend? Yet Santar disappears on his first Service assignment on a world that seems a child’s playground in comparison to some.”
Norvag glanced up, frowning. “Danger doesn’t have to come dressed as a seventy cubit Thersasian rock lizard to be dangerous, Jerrel. And if you’ve forgotten the singing spiders of Taursus IV, I haven’t.”
Jerrel’s mouth lifted in a mirthless smile. “I haven’t forgotten.” He shrugged a massive shoulder. “But you and I survived both the rock lizards and the spiders. Santar’s mission here was simple observation and recording. You saw his orders—study the society here and decide if the people could accept First Contact, if they were ready to be brought back into the Empire. Pretty straightforward Service work, yet the computer on his scout ship lost track of him despite the communications link planted in his skull.”
Norvag shook his head doubtfully. “If Santar were wounded, unconscious—even dying—his ship’s computer would have beamed him back up automatically. You know that.”
“Unless a severe head injury damaged the com link. But the computer records indicate only that the connection with the link was broken six months ago,” Jerrel said fiercely, beginning to pace restlessly. “If it hadn’t been a one-man ship, we might have— There are a dozen possible explanations for a failure!”
“Possible, perhaps, but none probable except that the link itself was damaged or destroyed. And that happens only if—”
“I would know if he were dead, Norvag.”
“You haven’t seen him since he entered the Service, and you’ve been half a galaxy away for most of that time.”
“I was half a galaxy away, yet I knew we had to come. Knew even before Danet broke Service rules to tell us he’d disappeared.” Jerrel halted his pacing abruptly. “He could have ordered the link to shut down.”
Norvag snorted. “Even you, who seem to think some guardian force watches over you, have never considered shutting down your link. Why should Santar?”
Jerrel opened his mouth to protest but the words died unspoken. Slowly the angry tension drained out of him to be replaced by a dragging weariness. His face fell and his shoulders sagged. He shook his head hesitantly. “I don’t know, Norvag. I just don’t know.”
At the pain in his friend’s face, Norvag said soothingly, “Still, it is a possibility.” He shifted in his chair, easing his stiffened leg.
Jerrel laid his hand affectionately on his companion’s shoulder. “You have many fine qualities, my friend, but you’ve never been very good at dissembling. I know you think Santar’s dead.”
He squeezed Norvag’s shoulder gently, then let his hand drop. “I can’t give up hope. Not yet. Besides you, he’s the only person in this universe who matters to me.”
Norvag studied the expression on Jerrel’s face, then sighed and turned his gaze to the fire.
“If only you would be willing to accept the Triumvirate’s ruling. . .”
Jerrel’s head jerked up. “Admit my father was a traitor? Recognize the power of those three fat, corrupt—”
“They are the Triumvirate. And your father did refuse to support them in the war.”
“That didn’t make him a traitor.”
“It did in the eyes of the Triumvirate, and of most of the other nobles. You and Santar are the last of the bn’Hadar family. Will you let your name—a name that has hundreds of years of history behind it—die out because of your father’s mistakes?”
“He fought for what he believed in!”
“And that cost him his life and your inheritance.”
Jerrel took a deep, steadying breath. “His life I regret. The inheritance means nothing.”
“Without it, you’ve spent the last fifteen years roaming the galaxy with no home but your ship and no friend but me.”
A muscle at the side of Jerrel’s mouth jumped. “The life I live has made us both wealthy.” He paused then, eyes glittering dangerously, added, “Adventurers, I think you called us once. It’s as good a name as any. Better than mercenary or profiteer. But if the life is no longer to your taste, you’re free to go.”
Jerrel waited but Norvag said nothing, only sat staring into the dying fire with a fixed, stony expression.
“Why don’t you try joining the Rediscovery Service again, Norvag?” Jerrel continued bitterly. “They’re generous masters. Look at you! Sixty-five years of distinguished service and all you have to show for it is a pension you can’t live on. That and a leg that can’t be healed because they followed the non-revelation policy instead of rescuing you when you needed help. Just as they’ve refused to look for my brother.”
“It was a risk I accepted when I joined the Service.” Norvag got to his feet with an awkward lurch to confront the angry young man before him. “Whatever the price I paid, I at least knew I was doing work that mattered. Santar understood the importance of that, even if you never have.”
When all the answer he got was a stony glare, Norvag sighed. “I agreed to join you because I didn’t want my friend’s son to throw away his life as his father had. But in fifteen years you’ve never listened to me. Not once. You won’t listen to me now.”
Limping heavily, Norvag crossed the room and jerked open the door. The icy wind rushed in, instantly banishing whatever warmth the fire had generated.
“Santar’s dead, Jerrel, and you’re on a fool’s mission.” When he received no reply, the old man shook his head regretfully, then silently left the room.
As he drew the door shut behind him, one last, frigid blast of winter air forced its way in. It swirled across the room, extinguishing the guttering candle, then wrapped around the room’s sole occupant.
Jerrel, gaze fixed on the closed door, suddenly shivered.
The leagues flowed by under Nareen’s running feet, slowly or swiftly as the terrain dictated, but always steadily. Even the biting winter wind had not delayed her.
It was her second day on the trail and she gloried in her continuing strength. Even the urgency of the message she bore could not dampen the pride that surged through her.
“Be proud of your work,” Gravnar had told Nareen often as she struggled through her lessons. “No one can travel as swiftly or carry messages as accurately as a runner. Pride makes you run faster and longer, see and remember more. But pride is the only emotion you can afford. To observe you must put aside everything else, every personal feeling. Emotions cloud your vision.”
“But how can you see without feeling, too?” she had protested in those first grueling months of training.
“You must learn,” had been the stern reply. “As a runner, your task is to carry the Master’s messages, to remember everything you see and hear, and to report accurately. That is all. It should be enough.”
It had never been enough. Not really. Even Nareen’s memories of her bitter childhood and the recognition of her good fortune at being selected to train as a runner could not extinguish the independent spirit that burned within her.
That spirit had made it difficult for her to submit to the rigorous mental training every runner had to undergo. The arduous physical discipline she had accepted joyfully, grateful for the chance to dispel some of the energy that frequently led her into mischief. But only by dint of much hard work had Nareen learned to at least feign some semblance of the emotional uninvolvement required of a proper runner.
Even now, bearing an urgent plea for help for the city-state of Kalinden, the only real home she had ever had, Nareen knew she ought to be coldly intent on her mission. Instead, she couldn’t help worrying. There was Gravnar and her friend Trizgar, who had been sent to warn the holdings along the border about the invading beastmen. If the savages came as far as they had the last time they’d crossed the border, if they were half as murderous and vicious as they had been then. . .
A stumbling misstep brought Nareen’s thoughts up short. She glanced down at the jagged rock she’d tripped on. It would have been so easy to have fallen. With a mental shake she started to run again, this time with her mind on the uneven trail before her. Not concentrating on her work had often gotten her in trouble, but if it caused her to be injured now there was no one else to carry the message for help to Matcassen.
Twilight was fading to darkness when Nareen finally saw the stone walls of Matcassen in the distance, looming black against the sky.
Nareen couldn’t decide whether she felt more pride at completing her journey so quickly, or relief that she wouldn’t have to spend another night slowly picking her way along the rugged trail by the light of the half moon. It would be good to be warm again.
She stepped up her pace and soon found herself on a road that ran directly to the main gate. Nareen pulled her small, heavy-hafted dagger from her belt. As she passed the signal bells mounted by the side of the road, she struck them twice, sharply, with the butt of the dagger, in the universal signal that a runner was approaching.
At this time of night the city gates would be closed to all except traveling Masters and runners. The signal bells were Nareen’s guarantee of entry into the city.
The gate, however, didn’t open. Nareen jerked to a stop, astonished. With the butt of her dagger she pounded on the heavy wood.
“Open up!” she shouted, ignoring the need to regain her breath after that last, long run. “I am a runner from Kalinden. Open to me immediately!”
A murmur of voices arose from behind the gate. A heated argument was being conducted in whispers but Nareen could distinguish no words. She pounded on the gate again.
“Fools! The penalty for delaying a runner is death! Your master will not be pleased with your stupidity.”
The whispering stopped. An iron bolt was drawn back and a heavy crossbar lifted. The massive gate swung open, just wide enough to let her slip through, then thudded shut behind her. A flare was thrust in her face.
“Idiots!” Nareen snapped, trying to see beyond the light. Her fingers curled around her dagger.
“Aye. It be a runner, Hasst,” said the one who held the flare.
“Of course I’m a runner. Did I not say so? And take that flare from before my eyes.” Anger surged through Nareen—at the slowness of the gatekeepers, at the unnecessary delay when she’d strained every fiber of her being to bring her urgent message here as fast as was humanly possible.
“Oh, aye,” said the speaker, hastily complying with her demand.
Nareen was surprised to see a number of armed men standing in the shadows beyond the two gatekeepers.
“What’s this?” she demanded. “You greet me with soldiers?” Her gaze skimmed over the men, quickly taking in their number, armaments, and rather shabby dress.
“Beg pardon, runner,” said the one addressed as Hasst, stepping forward with a clumsy bow. “Master’s orders.”
“To delay a runner?”
“No.” The man paused uncomfortably. “Had t’be sure you were a runner.”
“That’s ridiculous! Who else would I be?”
Hasst and the man who held the flare glanced at each other, then at the men behind them as if seeking an answer to her question.
“Robber, ‘mebbe?” Hasst offered at last.
“Absurd. No one would dare disguise himself as a runner.” Nareen unobtrusively returned her dagger to its sheath at her waist.
“Week ago. Came right in, jus’ like you. Tried to kill t’Master, he did, pretendin’ he were deliverin’ a message.”
Nareen couldn’t be certain, but she thought Hasst looked slightly paler. Her own blood drained from her face. The penalty for impersonating a runner was well known, and horrible.
“Died this mornin’,” Hasst’s companion added, wide-eyed. “Took him most of a week t’do it, too.”
For a moment Nareen said nothing, too stunned by this unexpected news to react. Before she could recover, a tall form materialized from the shadows.
“What is the meaning of this?” the newcomer demanded. The guards stiffened at the peremptory tones.
“A runner, captain,” one said, saluting smartly by bringing his right fist up to thump his chest. “The gatekeepers have just let her in.”
“A runner!” The one addressed as captain stepped forward into the light. His eyes glittered in their deeply shadowed sockets as he looked Nareen up and down. “How can you idiots be sure? Don’t bother to answer,” he added sharply, cutting off their excuses, “I see you haven’t the slightest idea.”
“Sir,” said Nareen, defiantly meeting the man’s gaze. “I am Nareen, Sixth Runner from Kalinden. I bear messages for your Master that cannot wait.”
The man was unmoved by her demands. “Maybe you do. We’ll see.” He turned slightly and pointed at two of the guards. “You. And you. Take this woman to Tork. He will decide if she is what she claims to be. Kill her if she tries anything.”
Nareen bit back a sharp reply. She’d recognized the name Tork. At least they were taking her to the chief runner of Matcassen. There would be time enough to lodge her protest when she was brought before Master Lindaz.
The two guards wasted no time in leading her through the squalid streets. While her thoughts whirled with the gatekeeper’s news, her mind carefully recorded the state of everything she saw, each building they passed and every turning.
The way hadn’t changed from what she’d been taught by a Matcassen runner several years before, but the city was more noisome and run-down than she’d expected. Matcassen controlled vast holdings, including territories that had once been independent city-states with their own Masters. Yet none of that wealth seemed to have reached the people of the city.
Nareen knew that Gasperian, the present Master of Kalinden, and his ancestors were considered unusual in their willingness to share with their people the treasures in gold and silver wrenched at such cost from deep within the earth. But because of their historical generosity, Kalinden enjoyed a peace and prosperity known to few of the larger and far more powerful city-states that ruled the civilized areas of Errandane.
As her escort led her deeper into Matcassen, Nareen noted there were guards posted in the streets, something she had never seen in Kalinden, and guards at the Great Hall. Her companions were evidently known, for doors in the Hall quickly opened before them.
Instead of being taken to the main reception hall as was customary, Nareen was led to a small room off a side passage. Her escorts remained in the room, alertly poised on either side of the entrance. Before she had time to grow impatient, the door opened to admit a wiry man about her size dressed as she was in the tunic and special aard leather boots that identified a runner.
“Welcome, runner,” he said, closing the door behind him and stepping forward. “I am Tork, chief runner for Master Lindaz.”
“I am Nareen, sixth runner for Master Gasperian of Kalinden,” Nareen said, rising from her chair to greet her visitor. “Your Master seems to have forgotten the courtesies due a runner, Tork.”
Though there was little to be gained by her protest, it was a relief to Nareen to vent some of the frustration and anger she felt at the unnecessary delays. With Kalinden at risk, every minute was precious and not to be wasted.
The man flushed under his tan. “I regret your reception, Nareen of Kalinden. There is much to explain and little time. Please, sit down. I have ordered food to be brought. While we wait, you may give me your report.”
Nareen drew herself up straighter. “My message is intended for Master Lindaz. It is urgent and should not be delayed,” she protested.
“I will be the judge of that,” Tork said. “You will give your report to me. Those are Master Lindaz’ orders,” he added as Nareen started to object.
Nareen had no choice. A runner, even a runner carrying a message as important as hers, was obligated to obey a Master’s orders. And though she’d often rebelled against what she considered the many unnecessary rules and restrictions that dictated a runner’s actions, Nareen knew she would gain nothing by disobeying now.
Swiftly, as she’d been trained to do, Nareen gave her detailed report, beginning with the beastmen’s first incursion across the border. She included the required information on conditions in Kalinden, reviewed her observations of the crofts, herds, and state of the land she’d passed through, then, for Tork’s benefit, listed the changes she’d observed in the path she’d taken. There was one small consolation, at least—much of her report was of little interest to Lindaz, anyway. His advisors and overseers would want the most recent information available on his holdings, but like any Master, Lindaz would pay scant attention to the mundane details of the daily operations in his territories.
At last she sat, waiting quietly for Tork to rouse from the listening trance. When he finally stirred, he turned first to the guards at the door, who had stood silently throughout Nareen’s report.
“Leave us,” he said. “You can see she is a runner, just as she claimed. Inform Master Lindaz she bears an urgent message for him and may be trusted.”
Nareen waited until the guards had left the room before speaking. “It seems strange that Matcassen should greet a runner so discourteously,” she said at last, sharply, relieved to vent her growing impatience.
Tork met her gaze, clearly nervous. “It was necessary. You must have been told of the attack on Master Lindaz. It was not the first. There have been problems in many of the holdings and attacks against several of the advisors and scholars, as well.”
“Why? Other than the beastmen, Kalinden has never had such problems.”
“Gasperian is a wise and generous master. Kalinden is fortunate. You saw the conditions of the streets of Matcassen. Did that not tell you something?”
“I am a runner. I observe, I do not judge.” Nareen knew that wasn’t quite true. She was forever getting into trouble with her tendency to have opinions and express them plainly, but it was the proper reply expected of her and she did try to think and act as a runner ought.
Tork glanced at the door, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “That is what we are taught. But who sees more than a runner? Who knows more of what passes in the world than we do? If we—”
He was interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Tork had only enough time to sit back in his chair before the door swung open. A servant entered bearing Nareen’s meal.
Neither spoke while the servant set the plate of food, two goblets, and pitchers of water and wine on the table. Only when the door had shut again and the servant’s footsteps had disappeared down the stone passageway did Tork resume.
“Eat. You must be hungry. It will be awhile before Lindaz will receive you, and five, perhaps six days of hard travel still lie before you.”
Nareen was reaching for the pitcher of water, but her hand froze halfway. “What do you mean? It took me only two days from Kalinden.”
“I know. This is information that must go to the Ruling Council of Errandane in Anweigh. Although Lindaz is required by law to send a runner, he will not. That leaves only you.”
“I have to return to Kalinden. I can’t go on to Anweigh!” Nareen thought of Gasperian and his advisors, of her friends, anxiously waiting for her to return with word that help was on its way.
“There is no one else to send.” Tork met Nareen’s startled gaze. “There are only five runners in Matcassen. Master Lindaz does not like the expense of keeping us.”
“That’s impossible! For a city the size of Matcassen, you must—”
“You can expect no help here, runner. Not to carry your message and not to aid Kalinden.” Tork hesitated, then continued slowly, “Perhaps it’s just as well. You cannot be unaware that we ‘helped’ Bayanar two years ago. That city now belongs to Matcassen.”
“I had heard. . .” Nareen paused, then carefully poured out the water while she digested Tork’s startling information. “Bayanar had been claimed by Matcassen for generations. Kalinden, never. Our situation is different. We are at peace with our neighbors and the beastmen—”
“Are attacking Kalinden, not Matcassen.”
“But the laws of Errandane—”
“The laws are what Master Lindaz says they are. Or perhaps I should say, what the Lady Xyanth says they are. Kalinden is better off without Matcassen’s help.”
“But there are no other cities close! Runners have been dispatched to Narlon and Pasmene, but neither city is half as powerful as Matcassen. Besides, it will take weeks for their troops to reach Kalinden. Anweigh is even more distant!”
Tork met Nareen’s worried gaze directly. “Then Kalinden will have to stand alone.”