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Chapter Five - Other Cracked Mirror books by Carmen Webster Buxton

Chapter Five



Stefan Hayden watched the storm from his office, a large room on the third floor that looked out over the formal gardens at the front of the house, and provided a good view of the enclosed yard and the gates to the compound. Stefan smiled to see people running for cover. At this season, rain might be torrential but it seldom lasted more than an hour. Next season the rain would fall more gently, but it would rain for days at a time.

Stefan had turned his attention back to the intricacies of his payroll system when the com set on his desk beeped in the two short beeps that meant Nisa Palli wanted his attention.

“Yes, Nisa?” he said, pressing the com switch. He refused to have a voice activated com, or even a video com. Francesca said he was too paranoid, but Stefan considered himself just paranoid enough.

“Your pardon, Baron Hayden, but we have an unexpected visitor at the front gate.” She had used his title, so someone must be listening at her end.

“Who is it?”

“It’s Baroness Leong, sir. She’s in her skimmer, with a pilot and three personal guards.”

Stefan pondered. As the head of House Leong, and more importantly, the head of the Leong-Norwalk Cartel, Elena was always scouting for resources to compete with the bigger cartels. The House of Hayden represented fresh blood. It would be better to see her in person than to try to rely on spies or gossip to find out what she was up to.

There was no sense in taking chances, however. Stefan leaned into the mike. “She can come in, Nisa. But her driver and all but one of the guards stay in the skimmer. Make sure D’Persis knows they’re here, and ask her to send Toth to me. I’ll see Baroness Leong in my office.”

“Just Toth, sir?”

“Just Toth,” Stefan repeated. “And have the kitchen send up some refreshments.”

He stared out the window while he waited, watching Elena Leong’s skimmer pull up in front of the house and wondering what she could have to say to him. He had known her for over half his life and had never once seen her so much as cross the street for an altruistic reason.

The door to Stefan's private entrance opened, and Hiram Toth walked in.

Stefan turned. “It’s Leong-Norwalk. She’s here.”

“I heard.” Hiram took his place behind the desk and scanned the instruments on the security console at his station.

Nisa came in a few minutes later, briskly professional in her gray business suit. “Baroness Leong is here to see you, Baron Hayden.” She stepped aside so that Stefan could greet his uninvited guest.

Stefan surveyed Elena as she walked in. In her youth, she had been a tall, willowy blonde with ice blue eyes, porcelain skin, and a natural grace. The years had dulled her complexion, but not the chill blue of her eyes. She had managed to retain her figure, but no amount of exercise could disguise the menace inherent in her stride.

“Hello, Elena,” Stefan said affably. “I’d wish you a good afternoon, but it’s turned nasty so it wouldn’t ring true.”

Elena shrugged and held out her hand. “I don’t mind the weather outside, Stefan. It’s what happens inside that I worry about.”

Her skin was cool, her grasp firm. “Would you care for some refreshments?” Stefan asked. “Perhaps some tea?”

When she accepted Stefan nodded at Nisa, then offered his guest a seat. Elena sank gracefully onto the sofa by the window while her personal guard took his position behind her. The man was very tall and broad shouldered, with rugged good looks. Stefan had heard gossip about him and Elena but he didn’t believe a word of it. It was more likely that she let everyone think the man was servicing her so they would discount his professional abilities.

Stefan stepped away from the desk to sit down across from Elena. Hiram moved closer, and Elena’s guard eyed him with detached hostility. Stefan noted the exchange without comment. Hiram was as loyal as they came, and Stefan had no doubts about his old friend’s professional abilities.

Stefan limited the conversation to idle comments about the commodities market until Nisa brought in a tea tray a few minutes later. She served cups of tea with the same professional air she used to conduct a business meeting, passed a plate of pastries, and then bowed herself out of the office. Stefan knew she would listen in from her own station. He wanted her to listen. He valued her opinion, and he trusted her without limit.

“Now, Elena,” Stefan said pleasantly, as the woman across from him set down her empty cup. “Why did you come to see me in a pouring rainstorm?”

Elena turned her mouth down in a mock frown. “Pooh! What’s a little rain? I certainly don’t mind it.”

“Maybe not, but your compound is on the other side of the city. You must have had a reason to come all this way.”

“Of course I had a reason.” She tilted her head and smiled at him, her eyes crinkling at the corners in an approximation of warm affection. He wondered if she practiced that maneuver in the mirror. “Although after all we’ve been to each other, I hardly think we need a specific reason to visit.”

Stefan laughed out loud. Elena hadn’t mentioned their past physical relationship in over two decades. “Oh, come, now! An ancient affair is hardly cause to pay unsolicited calls. I must have had a dozen lovers before I married, and none of the others stops by for tea.”

Elena managed to look hurt. “I would have called more frequently if my presence had been requested a few times.”

“Let’s discard this line of conversation, shall we?” Stefan said. He had things to do, and this was dragging out longer than he had expected. “Forget the half dozen times we ended up in the sack thirty seasons ago. Why the hell did you come here?”

“It was eight times,” Elena corrected, a wounded look haunting her eyes. “And I’m here because you’re in trouble. You’re staked out like live bait in a trap, and the timber cats are circling.”

She was good, he had to give her that. No wonder poor Harry Leong had fallen for her. Stefan reached across the table and took her hand. The metallic pale pink coating on her nails made them almost indestructible. “I never knew timber cats had such pretty claws.”

She snatched her hand away. “I’m trying to help you, if you’ll let me. You’re very vulnerable right now. That girl of yours still hasn’t found a husband, and everyone has their eyes on her as a way to get their hands on your house.”

Stefan leaned back in his chair, maintaining a bland facade. “Why is everyone worried about who my heir is? I’m not ill, and I don’t see myself as elderly.”

Her answering smile was less practiced than before, almost glacial. “Your health is, of course, a matter for concern. Even the healthiest-seeming man can be struck down—quite suddenly, too.”

Should he consider that a threat? It was possible. “And what is it you’re proposing? Come to the point.”

“I’m proposing a match, of course,” she said, “between your girl and my oldest boy. You stay as the head of the House of Hayden, but your house joins our cartel.”

Stefan raised his eyebrows as if he were surprised. No point in telling her right up front he had no desire to bring Hayden into any cartel. Better to point out the complications. “Is Hans ready to settle down? I wouldn’t have thought so from what I’ve heard.”

Elena’s lips curved in an approximation of a smile. “Francesca hasn’t exactly been a candidate for the convent, if it comes to that.”

The comment left Stefan unruffled. Once Francesca had grown up, he had never expected her to forgo the pleasures of the flesh anymore than he had himself. And if her appetite was well known, at least it was also healthy. “True, but none of Francesca’s little friends had to be taken to the hospital after their affair had ended.”

An incipient frown marred Elena’s carefully sculpted countenance. “Those were vicious rumors. You should never listen to gossip.”

Stefan managed not to laugh. “Then you shouldn’t have paid the women’s medical bills. It lent credence to the stories.”

She shrugged and shook her head as if to suggest that his objections were ridiculous, but she wouldn’t stoop to argue. “Very well, if you have a prejudice against Hans, then there’s always Freddie. He and Francesca were very close once, and they’ve stayed good friends over the seasons.”

Stefan tapped his fingers on the desk. He had been more than happy to see his daughter’s relationship with Freddie Leong end only a season after it had begun, but it was true Francesca was still fond of him. “I hope I’m a tolerant person, but the idea of an otherwise healthy young man turning his brain into a chemistry set doesn’t strike me as sensible behavior. Freddie will be dead in a season or two, if you don’t cut him off. He’ll be worse than dead if you let him keep using and try to keep him on a leash.”

She frowned even more heavily, her age showing in the crease between her brows. “You seem to me to be very picky where Francesca is concerned. Everyone had assumed that she was the one dragging her feet, but I can see now that you think no one is good enough for her.”

Stefan laughed again, amused that she had assessed the situation so well. “I’m not that bad. But I do have higher standards than currently prevail in this city.”

“And where do you think you’ll find a paragon of virtue for her to marry?” Elena said.

“You’d be surprised,” Stefan said. “Is that it, Elena? Was that your only reason for coming here?”

“Naturally.” She seemed to be trying for a concerned look, but it came across as merely annoyed.

Stefan tried for a lighter note. “Sorry you’ve wasted the trip. You could try the Ruizes?”

“The House of Ruiz!” From the scorn in her voice, Stefan would have thought the Ruizes were criminals or beggars. “A hut would be more like it. A mere baronet! A Lesser House isn’t worth the effort.”

Stefan resisted the temptation to point out that she had been born a baronet’s daughter and had married into House Leong in spite of her in-laws’ objections. “Well, you have two sons. If you act quickly enough, you could marry one to a Ruiz and one to another Lesser House and make it up on volume.”

Her expression went from glacial to sour. “The affairs of a Great House are no laughing matter, Stefan. I thought you knew that.”

“Obviously not, since I balk at marrying off my only child purely as a business deal.”

Elena dropped her lashes for a second, and then looked up with an intent gaze. “It wouldn’t have to involve Francesca. You and I were once quite compatible.”

The suggestion left him stunned. “Aren’t you forgetting something? There’s the little matter of your husband—the man who gave you control of House Leong.”

“Harry’s health is failing rather badly,” Elena said, her tone as demure as a debutante declining a dance. “I may be a widow quite soon.”

“Don’t bother on my account,” Stefan said brutally. The last thing he wanted was Harry Leong’s death on his conscience. “I’d sooner sleep with a crested viper—it would be safer.”

This was too much, even for Elena’s complacency. “I’ll leave now, Stefan, since you seem unwilling to listen to good advice.” She rose smoothly from her chair and held herself regally.

Stefan rose with her and pressed the switch to summon Nisa.

“Baroness Leong is leaving now, Nisa,” he said when she appeared almost immediately. “Please see that she gets safely to her skimmer.”

“Of course, Baron,” she said, her tone polite to the point of deference.

Stefan dismissed Toth and stood alone at the window to watch the Leong skimmer depart through the gates. He wasn’t surprised to hear the door opening and closing behind him.

“You never told me you had slept with her.” Nisa’s tone held an accusing note.

Stefan didn’t turn around to answer her. “You never asked me. Besides, it was thirty seasons ago. You were a schoolgirl when it happened. It was a full solar year before I became engaged to Jian, let alone met you.”

“She still remembers it,” Nisa said, her voice harsh with disapproval, and maybe a hint of hurt feelings. “She even remembered how many times you made love.”

He finally turned to face her. She stood stiffly, her brown eyes cloudy, her expression hovering between censure and dismay. She looked almost prim in the gray suit. “Elena and I never made love. We gave full rein to our hormonal urges, but love had nothing to do with it. If Elena remembers how many times, it’s because she made notes afterwards, just in case they might come in handy.”

Nisa wrinkled her nose, her expression easing. “She was pretty foul.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Stefan said with feeling. “I’m just lucky Harry Leong was a bigger catch than I was. She hasn’t let the poor man out of their complex since she took over.”

Nisa’s eyes held alarm. “Do you think she’d really kill him?”

Stefan debated. It was a big jump from detaining a spouse to murdering him. “If it was the only way to get what she wanted, she might. So far, it’s suited her best to have him alive but out of circulation.”

Nisa lifted her chin. “Until she decided she wanted you back?”

Stefan had to smile at the thought. “She doesn’t want me back. She wants this House. If Francesca were inclined that way, Elena would have offered to sleep with her if it would get her Hayden.”

Nisa’s answering smile still seemed tentative. “But Francesca’s not at all inclined that way.”

Stefan grinned. “She’s made that clear.”

Nisa smiled more widely. “How is Francesca taking to your wild man?”

“She seems to be getting used to the idea. She even went to see him on her own yesterday.”

Nisa’s eyes widened in alarm. “Is that wise? You don’t know him very well, and the man is probably angry at you.”

Stefan recalled Ran-Del’s attempts at assault. “He’s mad as hell at me. I took Francesca out of the security program for his quarters for just that reason.”

Nisa tilted her head as she studied him. “Are you going to go through with it, Stefan? I rather hoped you’d change your mind once you had the man here.”

“No,” Stefan said, “I haven’t changed my mind. This man has the skills to keep Francesca safe. He’s a warrior—he knows how to kill, and he’d be willing to kill again if he thought it was right. He won’t care about wealth or position or power. She’ll have someone beside her who can’t be bought, and who has some psy talent to warn her of danger and deception. I couldn’t have asked for better.”

“Unless they actually cared for one another,” Nisa said dryly.

“I gave her time,” Stefan said, stung by the criticism. He rarely worried about anyone else’s opinion, but Nisa was an exception. “I let her play the field all she wanted. If she had fallen in love on her own, and the man had checked out clean, I would have let her marry whomever she wanted to marry. But she didn’t fall for anyone, and it’s too late now.”

“I suppose it is,” Nisa said, shivering.

Stefan pulled her close and held her tightly. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I won’t let it touch you. No one but Hiram even knows about you and me.”

“You think!” She looked up at him, her eyes alight with skepticism. “We’ve kept it quiet, but I’ll bet D’Persis knows, and maybe some of the other staff—and I’m sure Francesca knows.”

Stefan had trouble believing that. Francesca had never been one to keep her feelings quiet on any subject. “She’s never said a word to me.”

“That doesn’t mean she doesn’t know.”

“Maybe,” he said. “But she’s never been shy about these things before.”

“Maybe she’s not shy about her own lovers, but has she ever once spoken to you about yours?”

Stefan grinned with delight. “What a clever trap! You know very well there was no one between Jian and you. I was a grieving widower when you started working here.”

She gave him a fond look. “I remember. It took me three seasons to get you to notice me.”

“I noticed you well before that,” Stefan contradicted her. “I just didn’t want to be a dirty old man—or worse, a boss who puts the squeeze on an employee.”

She looked indignant. “I’m only nine seasons younger than you. I’d never have gotten this job if I were some young, inexperienced lightweight who was looking to do a little silk sheet overtime.”

“I’m glad we got that straight.” He lifted her chin so that he could kiss her.

She gave a little sigh when he let her go. “So, now that you have this wild man here, how do you make him want to stay?”

Stefan decided to tell her the truth. Everything was proceeding well with the plan, and she would need to know the details at some point. “That’s Francesca’s job. The Sansoussy don’t allow any unsanctioned sexual activity. Once she seduces Ran-Del, he’ll feel obliged to marry her.”

Nisa's eyes opened wide in alarm. “What? But, Stefan, what if she decides to have a fling with someone else?”

Stefan refused to be worried. “She won’t do that. We've talked about what marriage means. That’s why she’s been so wild lately; she was kicking up her heels while she had the chance.”

She gave him a skeptical glance. “Do you really think Francesca will be willing to stay faithful to someone who can’t even read and write?”

Stefan gave a small snort of annoyance, irritated that she had somehow fastened on Francesca’s main objection. “Why does it matter that he can't read and write? The man can read animal tracks like yesterday’s news bulletins.”

“Of course it matters,” Nisa said tartly. “How can Francesca establish a positive relationship with him if she can’t respect him?”

Stefan frowned. If both Nisa and Francesca saw this as a problem, then probably it was. “I’ll have to think about it.”

It was Nisa’s turn to look disgusted. “You’ve thought about nothing else for weeks. First you had the house torn apart to prepare secure quarters, then you went off for a week finding him.”

Stefan smiled and pulled her closer. “I was lucky I had you to run things for me while I was gone.”

“You remember that,” she said severely. “You spend too much time on this bat-brained project of yours, and I’ll take myself off and find another job.”

“I’ve been neglecting you,” Stefan said, in an overtly sorrowful tone. “How can I make it up to you?”

She smiled and leaned over the desk to press the security switch that locked the doors, even to Hiram.

“I’ll find a way,” she said, smiling with self assurance.

“I’m sure you will,” Stefan said, smiling back. “I have infinite faith in your competence.”

***

Stefan sat down to dinner, gratified to see his daughter take her place at the other end of the table. Francesca had been more likely to spend her evenings out and about in the city than in the compound. He helped himself to baked breast of prairie hen and found her studying him. “What’s so interesting?”

She gave him a glance from under her lashes as she sliced her meat. “You are, Pop. You look very pleased with yourself.”

Stefan suppressed a stab of irritation. “I am pleased with myself. And I’ve asked you not to call me that.”

She nodded as she chewed. “I know. Why are you so pleased?”

“Lots of reasons,” Stefan said vaguely. “Ran-Del passed his test, for one thing.”

Francesca frowned at him over her glass of wine. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’ve decided I can’t go through with it.”

Stefan reached for his wine glass. “Go through with what?”

“With your scheme to marry me off to a noble savage. I just can’t do it, not now that I’ve met him.”

Stefan raised his eyebrows. Flat denial at this stage sounded bad. He took a sip of wine and stalled for time to think. “I thought you seemed rather taken with him. You even disobeyed me to see him alone.”

Francesca flushed, which surprised him. She rarely showed embarrassment. “It’s not that he’s repellent or anything. It’s that he’s a real person with his own life to live, and you’ve made him miserable.”

“He’ll get used to the city,” Stefan said, watching her expression closely. If she really was reluctant to proceed, it could take weeks to find another suitable Sansoussy. And if Elena Leong was lusting openly after his House, then others would be, too. No, he couldn’t afford to wait. “And if Ran-Del’s lonely, I’m confident you can take his mind off of it.”

“I can’t do it,” Francesca said firmly. “I can’t, and I won’t. You can throw this one back, Pop. I won’t marry him, and I won’t do anything to make him want to stay with me.”

Stefan said nothing for a few seconds as he chewed. This was even better than he had hoped for. She wasn’t reluctant because she disliked Ran-Del. In fact, she cared about him already. “You seem very concerned with Ran-Del’s feelings.”

Francesca waved her fork in agitation. “Of course I am. He has no idea what’s happened to him, and it’s made him very angry. Besides that, what is the poor man supposed to do with himself all day? He can’t read or work a terminal.”

“He seems to have a reasonable intelligence to me,” Stefan said, pleased she had put some thought into Ran-Del’s problems. “He’ll learn what he needs to learn.”

Francesca set her jaw in a way that reminded him of her mother. “Not from me. Let him go, please, Pop.”

Stefan saw no point in telling her that she had made him even more certain of his choice. “I’ll think about it,” he said finally, unwilling to lie to her outright. He wouldn't think about returning Ran-Del to the forest but rather finding a way to achieve his goal without risking her safety. “But I won’t make any promises.”

Francesca smiled gratefully. “Thanks, Pop.”

“And don’t call me Pop.”

“Of course not,” Francesca said in her most demure voice.

***

Ran-Del spent his second night in captivity much as he had the first, except that the grass was still wet from the rain. He pulled the covers from the bed, took them outside, wrapped himself up, and lay down upon the grass to sleep.

The next morning, he washed and used the strange cream that shaved his face so smoothly. Once he was ready, he performed the morning ritual, and then he sat and meditated for quite a long while. He had lost all sense of place or time when he felt a tiny tingle on his arm, and then abruptly samad state was gone. When his eyes focused, Stefan Hayden stood over him with a small meetal tube in his hand.

Ran-Del let his anger show. “What did you do? The First Discipline couldn’t have hurt me or even slowed my heart.”

“I’m aware of that,” Stefan said. “But you had been meditating for most of the morning, and I needed to talk to you. I only gave you a tiny bit of empranimine. It should wear off within a few minutes.”

Reassured but far from mollified, Ran-Del glowered. “You have no more patience than you have fairness.”

“All right, I’m a barbarian,” Stefan said equably, sitting down next to him. Ran-Del was aware of movement behind them, and he knew that Stefan’s guards were there, as always. “You can call me all those nasty names that you called me yesterday,” the Baron went on. “Just pay attention for a few minutes. I want to talk to you.”

“What about?”

“That.” Stefan tapped the band on Ran-Del’s arm. “You’ve hurt your arm trying to get it off.”

Ran-Del glanced down at the bruises on his right arm. “So?”

“So I’m prepared to take the resuscitator off—under certain conditions.”

“What conditions?” Ran-Del asked, suspicious. “Is this another trick?”

“Not exactly.” Stefan smiled, rather like a peddler who wanted to bargain for his wares. “I want something from you, and you want that thing off your arm. Maybe we can both have what we want?”

“What is it you want from me?”

“Two things,” Stefan said promptly. “‘The first one is that you swear not to try to stop your heart again.”

“What’s the second thing?” Ran-Del asked. Under clan law, a simple oath given to an outlander who held him prisoner wouldn’t be binding.

“The second thing is that you also swear not to hurt Francesca. She’s damn stubborn, and I can’t count on her to be sensible. I’d rather know that you wouldn’t hurt her, even if she were foolish.”

“Very well.” Ran-Del nodded once. “I swear to both things. Now take this off of me!”

“Not so fast,” Stefan said, grinning broadly. “I wasn’t born this season, you know. It’s not a simple oath I want. Give me your caste bracelet, please, Ran-Del.”

Ran-Del sat motionless. How had this city dweller learned so much about Sansoussy customs?

“Unless, of course,” Stefan said, his voice as sleek as a timber cat’s hide, “you weren’t planning on keeping your oath?”

Ran-Del weighed his options. If he didn’t give his true oath, Stefan would leave the evil thing on his arm, and it would interfere with his ability to reach samad state. If he did give his true oath, he would be bound not to use the Fifth Discipline, but all the other Disciplines would be available to him, even the Fourth. And he had no desire to hurt the woman.

He slid the knot to loosen his caste bracelet, slipped it from his wrist, and handed it to Stefan Hayden. He wasn’t surprised when the other man laid the bracelet on the paving stone and then pulled three smooth, triangular pebbles from his pocket. He placed one so that it touched the red warrior bead, a second so that it touched the three blue beads that represented the Jahanpur family, and the third one so that it touched the carved stone that stood for the Falling Water clan. Self, family, and clan, the three facets of Sansoussy identity, were all clearly marked.

“Put your right hand over the bracelet, please, Ran-Del,” Stefan said, “and swear to me that you will not use the Disciplines to take your own life, and you will not harm Francesca in any way.”

Ran-Del laid his hand on the triangular pebbles and spoke in a clear voice. “I swear by myself, my family, and my clan, that I will not use the Disciplines to take my own life while I am your prisoner, nor will I inflict any injury upon your daughter.”

Stefan smiled with relief. He handed the bracelet back to Ran-Del, and then he reached up and adjusted the dials on the underside of the band. Ran-Del felt a sense of freedom when Stefan slipped the device from his arm.

“There,” Stefan said. “Now we can both be comfortable.”

Ran-Del gave him a steely stare as he tightened his caste bracelet. “Just remember, outlander, I never swore not to hurt you.”

Stefan nodded. “I know quite well that if I didn’t have armed guards standing within range, I’d be dead on the grass in seconds.”

“The knowledge doesn’t seem to disturb you.”

Stefan laughed. “Of course not. It’s one reason I brought you here.”

Ran-Del gritted his teeth at the man's arrogance. “When will I find out the other reasons?”

“Soon,” Stefan said. “Sooner than I had thought. Things are going well. You might even find out tomorrow.”

“What happens tomorrow?” Ran-Del asked, suspicious again. “Another test?”

“In a way. You’ll see.”

Stefan got up from the ground and brushed feathery bits of grass off of his trousers. The two guards moved also, and Ran-Del saw that he didn’t recognize either of them. How many guards did Stefan Hayden employ here in his own little village? The Baron didn’t seem worried that his employees knew he had abducted a Sansoussy from the forest.

“Do you want to go back to meditating,” Stefan asked, “or would you like to go up to the tower again?”

Ran-Del was torn. He wanted to get out of the two rooms of his prison, but he didn’t want to risk another attack of apprehension such as he had had the day before.

“You can take it as slow as you like,” Stefan said. “If you panic again, we’ll just come back downstairs.”

Ran-Del stood up almost reluctantly. He followed the other man back through the sitting room and into the corridor. This time he was prepared for the feeling of rising abruptly, and he wasn’t surprised when the doorway opened and the city of Shangri-La was laid out below him.

Ran-Del walked slowly to the window and looked out more closely. It was still overpowering, but he didn’t feel so threatened. He stared for a long time at the buildings on the horizon, looking to see how the transition from open countryside to city was accomplished, and noting that they weren’t far from the western edge of the city. Next he studied the other towers, complexes, streets, and shops. The Jordan River caught his attention quickly; he had never seen a river wide enough for large vessels.

Finally, he looked down into the Hayden complex, making a note of the distance from the main house to the front gate and the number of people walking about in the grounds. He sensed Stefan Hayden’s amusement and knew that the man must be aware of the motive for his scrutiny.

“The exterior wall is quite high,” Stefan said, “and there’s a force field net over the whole complex. The net lets in the air, and the rain, and even small day bats, but not flyters, and not people.”

Ran-Del didn’t answer.

“It’s lunchtime,” Stefan said. “Why don’t you sit down and eat with us?”

The invitation took Ran-Del aback. “Did you kidnap me so you’d have someone to practice your manners upon?”

Stefan smiled. “Not exactly. But now that I’m not worried about anything happening to Francesca, there’s no reason you can’t join us for a meal.”

“Why would I wish to share food with the people who’ve imprisoned me?”

“Because you’re bored all by yourself. And if you go back to your quarters and eat alone, you’ll miss a chance to see more of the house. It’s no good planning an escape if you don’t know where you’re going.”

Ran-Del decided he had nothing to lose. “All right. I’ll eat with you.”

“Good!” Stefan looked pleased as he led the way back down the lift. This time the doorway opened onto a still very long but wider room that led to another room with a window that looked out over an elaborate garden. Francesca stood waiting beside the window, looking out at the view. When Ran-Del followed Stefan into the room she turned, her jaw dropping in surprise when she saw them.

“What’s all this?” she asked, as the two guards took up positions against opposite walls.

“Ran-Del is joining us for lunch,” Stefan said. “Sit down, sweetie.”

“I’m not your sweetie,” Francesca said, but she took a chair at one end of the table. “Sit here, please, Ran-Del.” She indicated the chair to her left that had a view of the window.

One servant brought another plate and utensils, and another served the food. Stefan kept up an exuberant flow of chatter but Ran-Del ate quietly, watching the others for a clue to city table manners. City dwellers seemed not to pick up any piece of food with their hands except for the bread set out on a board; other than that, it was much the same as eating in the forest.

Francesca frowned as Stefan deftly slipped the knife off of the bread board before passing Ran-Del the bread. “Have you thought about what we talked about yesterday, Pop?” she asked abruptly.

“Yes,” he said, his tone pleasant. “I’m still thinking about it.”

Ran-Del sensed deception from the Baron. He wasn’t lying outright, but he was hiding his real meaning from his daughter.

“When will you decide?” Francesca asked, her tone insistent.

“You’ll know my decision tomorrow,” Stefan said.

This, at least, was the full truth. Ran-Del looked from one face to the other, wondering what they were discussing. As amazed as he was at Francesca’s lack of respect for an ancestor, he was more intent on sizing up his own chance of escape. Both guards watched Ran-Del closely. On the other hand, Stefan Hayden seemed relaxed enough to be careless.

The bread knife looked serviceable as a weapon, its blade long enough to inflict a fatal wound. The knife lay on the table right in front of Stefan. Ran-Del didn’t let his eyes linger there, but he was always conscious of its location.

Near the end of the meal, Francesca changed the subject to business. “Nisa was worried about the problem with the broken harvesters. Did it get settled?”

“Yes,” Stefan said. “We got the parts, and the machines are all fixed. There won’t be any difficulty bringing in the first wheat crop.”

Francesca went on to ask questions about the management of the Hayden estate. Ran-Del deduced that they must plant a lot of land in crops. She spoke of many workers and several types of produce.

Stefan grinned at his daughter. “You’re very agriculturally-minded all of a sudden. Are you showing off for Ran-Del?”

Francesca looked annoyed. “I've always known where my livelihood comes from, thank you.”

“Apparently,” Stefan said. “But you tried to hide it until now.” He turned to Ran-Del. “The Sansoussy farm, don’t they, Ran-Del?”

Ran-Del nodded. “We plant vegetables and fruits, but we have no room to grow grains.”

“Why not?” Francesca asked. “I understood that the forest was very empty. Couldn’t you clear enough room to plant what you want?”

“We never clear the forest,” Ran-Del said, shocked at the casual way she made the suggestion, as if cutting down trees was of no consequence. “We live in it as it is. We grow our vegetables among the trees, and also harvest berries and grasses and other things that grow wild.”

Stefan smiled benevolently at him. “I’ll have to show you our fields. We grow things on a much grander scale.”

“Pop,” Francesca said, a sharp note in her voice, “what are you talking about?”

“Just being hospitable,” Stefan said. “Don’t get worked up over it.”

“Remember what I said last night,” Francesca said. “Don’t you go making plans.”

He raised his eyebrows as if he were hurt by her comment, but Ran-Del could tell his feelings were uninjured. “Now, sweetie, don’t make a mountain out of a paca’s burrow.”

She snorted in a very inelegant fashion, and rose to leave the table. Her father got to his feet, and Ran-Del followed their example. The two guards were already moving toward the door. Ran-Del lingered by the table as if he were waiting politely for Francesca to precede him. As soon as she was between him and the guards, Ran-Del lunged across the table and grabbed the bread knife.

“Move away, Francesca!” Stefan shouted, as Ran-Del seized him from behind. Ran-Del used his left arm to pin the Baron against him while his right hand held the knife to Stefan’s throat. Ran-Del dragged his erstwhile host backwards, keeping the sharp edge of the bread knife against the Baron’s skin. The two guards both crouched with their weapons drawn but didn’t fire.

Francesca stood staring at Ran-Del, her face drained of color, and her features frozen in a horrified expression. “No! No, please, Ran-Del! Don’t hurt him!”

“Keep back.” Ran-Del pressed the knife lightly into Stefan’s flesh, and a narrow line of blood appeared across his throat. “Move any closer, and I’ll kill him.”

“Do as he says.” Stefan’s voice held only calm assurance. “Both of you, put your weapons down.”

The two guards hesitated. The taller one moved first, bending down to place his shock pistol on the floor. The other one followed suit immediately after.

Triumph surged, but Ran-Del suppressed it. He wasn’t even out of the house yet, let alone the compound. “Move to the corner, away from the door. Now!”

The two of them moved slowly in the direction he had indicated and stood waiting. Ran-Del inched his way sideways, moving towards the door to the corridor. If he was lucky, he might be able to get to the front gate. Or maybe he could drag the Baron to one of his own flying machines?

“Stay here, Francesca,” Stefan ordered.

She stood staring at him, her eyes huge with distress.

Ran-Del had made it to the doorway when he sensed that there was someone there already. He didn’t even have time to glance over his shoulder before the blast caught him. He tried to pull the knife back in a fatal slash across Stefan’s throat, but he no longer had any control over his muscles.

Stefan pulled away from him, and Ran-Del fell to the floor. He was still grasping the bread knife as he writhed on the carpet, the charge from the weapon expending itself on his nervous system.

Francesca ran to her father and clutched him. “Are you all right, Pop?”

“I’m fine, sweetie.” Stefan pulled away from her long enough to bend over Ran-Del and pry the knife from his clenched fingers.

Ran-Del saw the guard called Toth standing in the corridor. Toth lowered his rifle with a satisfied expression on his face.

Ran-Del fought for control, beginning the mantra for the Third Discipline in an effort to stop his body’s movements.

“Thank you, Hiram,” Stefan said. “You saved my life.”

“My pleasure, sir,” Toth said. “What do we do with him now?”

“Put him back in his quarters, for now,” Stefan said. “I have plans for him later.”

Ran-Del could only grit his teeth and endure the guards’ handling. He had failed but there would be other chances.

***

Stefan led Francesca into their private sitting room and poured her a glass of wine. She still looked shocked, and he wanted to help her calm down.

“My God, Pop, I thought he was going to kill you!” she said, sipping her wine and shivering.

“So did I, for a few seconds,” Stefan said. “Don’t worry about, it sweetie. It won’t happen again.”

“Of course it won’t,” Francesca said. “Because you’re going to send him back, aren’t you, Pop?”

Stefan decided to stall. “I told you before that I’m still thinking about what to do. I’ll tell you my decision tomorrow.”

Francesca’s eyes opened wide. “Pop! Are you completely nuts? The man just attacked you—almost killed you—and you’re still making plans for me to marry him?”

Stefan wasn't ready to tell her the whole truth. “I don’t blame Ran-Del for attacking me, Francesca. He’s got no reason to be fond of me—not yet anyway.”

“Pop,” Francesca said, “this is not going to work. Even if I did persuade Ran-Del into bed, it wouldn’t make him suddenly see you in a different light.”

She didn’t understand about Sansoussy customs. “It would if you married him. Then I’d be close kin. You have obligations to your kin among the Sansoussy. One of them is not to murder them.”

Francesca let lose a string of obscenities that made Stefan raise his eyebrows. “What does it take for you to see how crazy this is, Pop?” she said.

He smiled a little, but didn’t answer directly. “Elena Leong came to see me this morning.”

Francesca pursed her lips like she had a bad taste in her mouth. “What did that old whore want?”

Stefan gave her a pained look. “Please, Francesca, she’s my age. And,” he added, thinking it over, “you’re being very unkind to the whores of this world.”

“Well, what did she want?”

This was one time it wouldn't hurt to tell the full truth. “She wanted to arrange a marriage between you and whichever of her sons I could be brought to stomach.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “Elena wasn’t the first, and she won’t be the last. If I don’t get you married soon, you may find yourself standing at the altar with someone you like a lot less than Ran-Del.”

Francesca lifted her chin in a stubborn gesture. It took Stefan a moment to realize she had learned it from him. “What makes you think it’ll stop them if I am married?”

He shook her shoulders lightly, intent on making her see his point. “It ups the number of people who’d have to be put out of the way by one. You’re still young enough that people see you as someone who can be intimidated, who could be pressured into giving up control. Having Ran-Del in the picture would give you breathing room. No one will try to crowd him because they’ll be a little afraid of him.”

“You make him sound like a big, loyal guard dog,” Francesca said with asperity, brushing his hands off her shoulders. “Why can’t we just beef up the security staff?”

“It wouldn’t take the heat off you as far as needing a husband, and it wouldn’t give you a family of your own.”

She glared at him. “You’re not going to let him go, are you?”

She had figured it out. He shouldn’t be surprised. “No, sweetie, I’m not.”

“Even though he tried to kill you?”

“He was trying to escape more than he was trying to kill me. I can’t fault him for that. If he were inclined to sit in his room and mope, I wouldn’t want him for you.”

Francesca clamped her jaw shut. “But, Pop, it’s not fair to Ran-Del.”

Yes! She cared what happened to this particular Sansoussy. His plan would work. “I’m willing to be unfair in these circumstances. Besides, in the long run, I don’t think it’ll be such a terrible thing for Ran-Del. He’ll spend his life in a clean, comfortable house, be exposed to culture and learning, and have the most beautiful woman in Shangri-La as his wife.”

Francesca twisted her lips into a fake smile and folded her arms across her chest. “The most beautiful woman, Pop? What about Nisa?”

Stefan’s mouth dropped open as he goggled at her. “How long have you known?”

“For several months.” She sounded unbearably smug. “You didn’t really think you could keep it from me, did you?”

“I had hopes. Nisa knew better.”

“She’s no fool. You couldn’t love her if she were.”

She had a point. “It’s true that respect is as important as attraction in a relationship. I’ve come to realize that in the last few days.”

Francesca wrinkled her brow. “You’re plotting something. What are you up to now, Pop?”

He smiled reassuringly and answered with the perfect truth. “You’ll find out tomorrow.”

***

By that evening, Ran-Del had recovered from the effects of the blast from the shock rifle. He ignored his dinner tray, and paced back and forth in the garden, restless and on edge. His psy sense told him something was going to happen soon. He couldn’t tell what it was, or even whether it was good or bad, only that it would happen, almost certainly within a day.

It was dusk when the door from the house opened, and Toth stepped into the garden with two other guards behind him. Ran-Del recognized Merced—the protective white sheath on his broken arm made him easy to identify—but not the third man.

“Baron Hayden wants to see you in his office,” Toth said without greeting or preamble.

Ran-Del’s reply was a suggestion on how Baron Hayden could occupy himself.

Toth smiled grimly. “I’m real happy to hear you say that.” He shook out a silver-colored wide double loop of something that didn’t look quite like metal. “I was afraid you’d go quietly.” He handed the loops to Merced. “I thought Merced would appreciate putting these on you.”

The three of them advanced on Ran-Del from three different sides. The Sansoussy dropped Merced with a flying kick to the head, and inflicted a devastating body blow on the other guard, who staggered for several seconds but recovered enough to help Toth hold Ran-Del down on the ground while he forced both loops over his wrists, and then slid one set up his forearms. When the two of them stepped back, Ran-Del was helpless, his arms immobilized behind him from his wrists to his elbows. Merced stumbled to his feet and dealt Ran-Del a vicious kick to his left side.

Ran-Del grunted in pain.

Toth pulled his colleague back. “That’s enough. He’s not in a position to defend himself.”

They pulled Ran-Del to his feet, and Toth gave him a shove in the direction of the door. “Move, wild man. Baron Hayden is waiting.”

***

When Ran-Del was pushed into Stefan Hayden’s office, he gave the room a quick, curious glance. An office seemed to be a room like any other. One wall was mostly windows, another mostly shelves. A large glowing ball stood in one corner, but it was the blocky table behind which Stefan Hayden sat that dominated the room.

“Why is he in restraints?” Stefan asked, closing a drawer in the table and getting to his feet. Was it a table or a chest of drawers? It had a space for his chair, too.

The guard grunted. “He wasn’t exactly eager to come here.”

“It’s just as well,” Stefan said as he came around from behind the table-chest. “This way you can leave him alone here.”

Toth looked unhappy, and Ran-Del could sense his unease. “Are you sure you want to do that, sir? Remember what happened this afternoon?”

“I can remember,” Stefan said. “But you’ve got him trussed up like a roasting hen, Toth. He’s not going to do me any harm.”

“All right, sir,” Toth said, exuding reluctance. “Just keep your shock pistol handy.”

“I will.” Stefan waved a hand. “I need to talk to Ran-Del alone.”

Ran-Del stood, feet apart, facing the row of windows. His eyes scanned the night sky. The stars were just coming out over the city. They seemed dimmer here than in the forest. Would he ever see them again without walls around him?

“It’s a nice view, isn’t it?” Stefan said.

“Yes,” Ran-Del said. “It’s a shame you’re alive to see it.”

Stefan laughed. “You did your best. You had no way of knowing I had Toth standing by.”

“Toth will not always be there.”

“Maybe not.” Stefan looked at Ran-Del sympathetically. “I’d ask you to sit down, but I don’t think you’d be very comfortable. I hope those restraints aren’t as painful as they look.”

“I’ll survive.”

“I’m sure you will. You’re young and healthy.” Stefan’s mouth twitched in a reluctant smile. “You seem to have recovered from the shock rifle.” He moved to the corner of the office where the giant ball stood. “Come over here, Ran-Del. I want to show you something.”

Suspicious, Ran-Del moved slowly. The glowing sphere spun slowly, floating freely above a cylindrical base. He realized with a shock that it was meant to represent the world. The oceans were golden, the continents a deep brown, ridged with mountains. White swirls of clouds wound about the whole, reminding Ran-Del of a psy bead from a giant caste bracelet.

“This is Haven,” Stefan said. “This is our world, yours and mine. It hangs in the heavens like a beautiful jewel, and we sit upon it, a poor scrap of humanity, little more than dust on the surface.” He kicked a button on the base, and a short string of white lights appeared on the globe. “That’s us, Ran-Del. This is Shangri-La.” He indicated a small cluster of lights. There were two other clusters nearby. “Those are Paradise and Eden, our sister cities. Eden is six hundred kilometers down river and Paradise is four hundred or so kilometers up the river, in the foothills of the Decatur Mountains.”

Baron Hayden waved a hand at a ridge of mountains to the north and east of the cities. “The Horde live in the Decaturs—fiercer than your people. No mysticism or meditating among the Horde. Their ancestors were anarchists; they came to Haven to get away from any kind of government. Once they had settled in the Decaturs, they proceeded to do exactly as they chose, which in many cases included killing each other off for no discernible reason. We estimate there are only between twenty and thirty thousand of them.”

Stefan touched a section of the globe that seemed to Ran-Del to be very near to Shangri-La. “This is your forest. It stretches for over a thousand kilometers; your people live in only part of it. Your ancestors sought a life free from the cares of city living, but they actually work harder than we do to survive. According to the last guess I heard, there are about fifty thousand Sansoussy.”

Stefan sighed. “That’s it. There are a little over two million people in Shangri-La and another million and a half in each of the other two cities. A little over five and a half million people on all of Haven. We’ve been here for almost five hundred seasons. This planet has traveled around its sun one hundred and twenty times since humans first set foot on Haven’s soil, and yet there are fewer than six million humans alive on Haven today. What do you think of that, Ran-Del?”

Ran-Del looked down at the glowing globe. “How much is a million?”

A reluctant laugh burst from Stefan. “I’m sorry. I never thought—a million is a thousand thousand.”

Ran-Del pondered this information. “There are a hundred times more of your people than of mine?”

Stefan raised his eyebrows. “You’re very good at arithmetic for someone who didn’t know what a million was.”

Ran-Del shrugged as best he could with his arms restrained. “Why are you telling me this? Why did you have your guards drag me here to show me lights on this ball that you say is the world?”

“There are things I want you to know. One of them is that I firmly believe we all depend on each other. What would happen to the Sansoussy if the cities disappeared?”

It was an easy enough question. Anything they bought from peddlers would become unavailable. “We’d run out of metal. Knives, razors, arrowheads, and cooking pots would be in short supply within a few seasons.”

Stefan nodded. “You’re right. What would happen in the cities if your people were gone one morning?”

Ran-Del tried to stretch his shoulders back. His arms ached. “Nothing. Your people don’t need mine.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Stefan said. “We buy herbs from your people to make medicines. And in my grandfather’s time the Sansoussy warned us that there would be an earthquake two days before our instruments showed any sign of it. Besides,” the Baron said with a smile, “there’s the question of what we could learn from your people, if we were only willing. We do need each other, Ran-Del.”

Ran-Del snorted. “What about the Horde? They raid my people’s villages, looting and killing. We wouldn’t miss it if it stopped.”

“Almost certainly not,” Stefan said. “But the Horde are not all the same. They’ve changed over the years. And even the Horde serve a purpose. They keep the predator population down considerably.”

Ran-Del saw no point in arguing so he said nothing.

“Did you know that some of your ancestors may have come from this city?” Stefan asked.

Ran-Del could sense no deceit but still, he let his disbelief show on his face.

“It’s true,” Stefan insisted. “When people in the city were born with psy talents, they were persecuted and so eventually, they left and made their way to the forest. Your people welcomed them, made them part of the group. Their descendents are Sansoussy now.”

The claim of kinship was too remote to impress Ran-Del. “It was a long time ago. And what has this to do with me?”

Stefan smiled. “Nothing directly. It’s just that your being here fits in with a dream of mine. We’re too separate, Ran-Del. We’ve split humanity up, and it’s hurt our ability to survive and to prosper. Your people live only for the life of the mind. Mine live for control of resources, of scientific and technological knowledge. The Horde—well, the Horde have their own set of values. We’re all so completely different, it’s as if we're different species. I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see us all learn from one another, help each other.”

Ran-Del snorted with disgust. “Fine talk from a man who trapped me like a wild animal and holds me prisoner even now.”

Stefan grinned. “You have a point. Anyway, the time has come. ”

“The time for what?”

“For this,” Stefan said, moving to his table-chest and reaching into a drawer.

Ran-Del turned, uncertain what was coming. What purpose could Stefan Hayden have for him? Stefan pulled out an unfamiliar object. It looked vaguely like a shock pistol, but it was smaller.

“Don’t worry,” Stefan said. “It isn’t in the least painful.”

Ran-Del tensed and balanced on his feet, prepared to run, even if he couldn’t get out of the room.

“I want you to know,” Stefan said, “that I’m well aware how much I’ve wronged you. I’ll try to make things as easy for you as I can. I was damned lucky to find you, Ran-Del.”

The Sansoussy tried to use his psy sense to fathom the other man’s intent. He didn’t sense any hostility as Stefan brought the weapon up and fired. Ran-Del fell to the floor before he even knew what was happening.

***

Ran-Del woke with a bad headache. He felt grass under his face, and thought that he was back in the garden, but when he sat up, there were no walls in sight. Instead, he was in a sort of meadow. A clump of silver oaks some distance to his left suggested the presence of water, and the sun on the horizon told Ran-Del that it was early morning. There were no buildings. Except for a blanket on which he lay, and a bundle of bedding behind him, he saw no sign of human habitation at all.

Shangri-La seemed to have disappeared completely. Ran-Del felt a surge of excitement as he realized that Stefan Hayden must have released him from the city. He jumped to his feet eagerly, and found he wasn’t as free as he had thought. A narrow band clasped his left wrist; a length of silver-gray cable attached to it snaked to the ground. When Ran-Del moved the cord to see where it ended, the bundle of bedding moved. Ran-Del heard a low, moaning sound.

He yanked back the blankets and uncovered Francesca Hayden lying on the ground. In the next second, he saw that the other end of the two-meter long cable was attached to a second band that fastened firmly around Francesca’s right wrist.

Francesca moaned again, and held her hand over her eyes. Ran-Del waited tensely while she sat up and looked around. He could tell as easily from her expression as from his psy sense that she was as surprised as he was to find herself in these circumstances.

“Damn,” she said, groaning. “I’m sorry, Ran-Del. I’m afraid my father is a hopeless romantic.”

2010-07-19 18:44 Читать похожую статью
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