Chapter Four

THE WRONG LANCE

@2020 Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Chapter Four

Surebleak

Jelaza Kazone

Emissary Twelve, Val Con thought, as he and Miri escorted that middling large person through the garden gate and down the path that would lead them, roundabout, to the Tree Court. . .

Emissary Twelve was something of a curiosity. Val Con had spent some time as a hopeful Scout, living with Edger and the Knife Clan of Middle River. He had learned that Edger represented one end of the Clutch spectrum– open to new experience, and able to entertain a certain tolerance–not to say fondness–for humankind. On the other end of that spectrum stood the brood mother, who was inclined to view anything different as dangerous, and to meet all perceived danger with deadly force.

Others of Edger’s clan had fallen somewhere between the two extremes of T’carais and brood mother, with Edger’s heir, the young T’caraisiana’ab standing closest to his progenitor, and Selector standing nearest the brood mother, though they had scarcely been shoulder-to-shoulder, and room for two or three well-shelled Clutch between them.

He had not, during his time with the Middle River Clan, been summoned, or shown to, the Elders, though Edger had twice been called to attend that august body. It had been Handler who had instructed the brother of the T’carais in the history, function, and physiology of the Old Ones.

However, as befit one of the clan who also stood high in the esteem of the T’carais, he had several times walked the caverns in company with Edger, Handler, and, on one notable occasion, with Selector.

What had made that particular tour so notable had been a minor rockslide, not so much blocking their way as narrowing their access. Val Con could have skipped over the fall with ease, and despite his shell, Selector might have passed with only a very little more trouble.

Still, after a long study and a series of notes sung very nearly below Val Con’s ability to hear, Selector had turned, gathering his brother’s brother to him with a curt wave of a three-fingered hand.

“We will go by another path,” he said. “Stay close and do not wander.”

The admonition not to wander had been fair enough, and indeed he had stayed close. Which is how he happened to enter the cavern on Selector’s heels before that person checked his stride, muttering something under his breath.

Thus prompted, Val Con had looked about him with some interest, and seen, not tender crystals, nor yet full-grown blades, ready for inspection and selection.

No.

The cavern, chilly by even Clutch standards, had contained. . .

Eggs.

Dozens, hundreds. . .of large, dark eggs, their surfaces faintly iridescent, even in the dimness, as if they had been dipped in oil.

Or as if they were coated in ice.

Selector let his breath out in a long, slow sigh.

“You will follow exactly in my footsteps. You will touch nothing. You will say nothing. You will think nothing. Do you understand me?”

“Yes. . .” Val Con breathed, and did as he was told.

After they had finally gained the room of newly grown knives from which Selector was to choose only those most perfect, Val Con had watched carefully, and had taken care not to ask any questions–not for a lack of curiosity, but because he did not wish to agitate his brother’s brother any further.

Later, he sat alone by the hearth, telling over his trove of questions, seeking to frame at least one which would not be found offensive, yet still elicit an informative answer.

And, while he sat mulling, Edger came to him.

“You have questions, Brother. Ask.”

“Who are they. . .meant to be?” Val Con said after a moment; not his best question, but the thing he was most curious to learn. “Those waiting in the cold?”

“Gently asked,” Edger said. “They are meant, my brother, to be what you may call soldiers. They are our defense, our offense, and our shame. We cause them to be born. . .rarely, and only against an enemy which has chosen to contest us.

“We call them Short Lives. We call them Destroyers. We call them the Quick and the Dead. As they are now, we call them the Unrequired, and we hope that name grows no longer.”

“The Yxtrang,” Val Con said then, recalling his history; “they run from Clutch ships.”

“They do, now. When first we encountered them, they were of a mind to conquer us. We have several times been required to answer the Yxtrang with the Short Lives. They forget, after a certain passage of time, and the Unrequired must be waked again.”

“Short Lives?” Val Con asked then, and was answered with another sigh.

“Once the eggs are quickened, they are born within hours. Within a day, they have their full strength and all of their skills.

“Within three revolutions, those who have survived the task for which they were born. . .die, shell-less, nameless, and unmourned by any clan.”

Shell-less, Val Con thought now, and a terrifying warrior within a day of hatching. Such a one, perhaps, would look very like Emissary Twelve.

In the office at the port, Val Con took a hard breath against rising dismay.

The Elders. . .were not physically quick, but he was not at all surprised to learn that they had the ability to monitor insults to the fabric of the universe itself. The Elders would not–could not–come themselves, but they could send. . .a newly born and fully capable Emissary, very quickly, indeed.

Miri paused, then, bringing his attention back to the garden. They had reached one of the last wide spots in the path, and she had paused to speak to Jeeves.

“Best wait for us here,” she said. “No sense you having to bushwhack your way down the path.”

“Yes, Korval,” Jeeves said, which was, Val Con thought, very nice in him.

Emissary Twelve scarcely seemed to mark the fact that they had left their escort behind.

Miri led the way down the path, Val Con walking with her. They breathed in the scent of leaf and loam, of flowers and–

Miri, the garden, Emissary Twelve–vanished in a blare of static; his ears roared, and cleared to hear with remarkable clarity, a large, calm, and very familiar voice.

“Road Boss yos’Phelium, Team Leader Soreya Kasveini of TerraTrade Survey is here to conduct an interview. Are you available to her?”

Gods, TerraTrade. He blanked the screen on his desk, closed his eyes, and visualized the Scout’s Rainbow, feeling his heartbeat slow, and his breathing steady. His temper. . .well. Uncle Er Thom has used to say that manners were both one’s first defense, and first offense, had he not?

“I am pleased to speak with Team Leader Kasveini,” he said, untruthfully. “Please, bring her in to me.”

* * *

Val Con was on to something, Miri thought, feeling his concentration deepen. Maybe he’d actually met somebody like Emissary Twelve, back when he’d been living with Edger’s clan.

She hoped he had remembered something useful, because Emissary Twelve was starting to make her nervous. There was something more than just a little not-quite-right about–

He was gone; vanished between one step and the next one, leaving her alone inside her head.

She reached out, in a way she couldn’t have described, if asked, but which was as natural as extending her hand. At the end of her mental fingers, she found him; his pattern edgy and ill-tempered, with a metallic patina of what might be formal manners overlying it all.

If she had to guess–and it looked like she was going to have to–she’d figure that the TerraTrade survey team had made it to the Road Boss’s office. She took a deep breath, disengaged, and damn’ near ran into Emissary Twelve, who had frozen so completely she didn’t seem to breathe. She was staring into the shrubberies that overgrew the pathway.

“Is there a problem?” Miri asked.

The saucer eyes never moved, but the chest did, rising and falling in one careful breath.

“There are predators hiding inside those leaves.”

“Predators? I– “

She closed her mouth, and looked harder at the bush that seemed to be the greatest source of concern. There, among the leaves, were two pair of glowing green eyes.

“Cats,” she said; “just cats.”

“Predators,” Emissary Twelve insisted.

“Well. . .yes. They hunt small things,” Miri said; “pests. Mostly rodents.”

“They will not attack?”

“They have no reason to attack,” Miri said. “They might follow along, though. They’re curious.”

“Sentient?” demanded Emissary Twelve.

Miri blinked, then shrugged.

“Let’s go with yes,” she said; “but they’re really self-absorbed.”

Emissary Twelve shifted her gaze to Miri’s face.

“If they attack, I will defend myself,” she said flatly.

Oh, no; Miri’d seen Clutch move when they were defending themselves. Cats were fast, but they weren’t that fast. Besides which. . .

“If you think they’re attacking, you’ll defer to me,” she said, reaching into High Liaden for just the right icy inflection. “The cats are part of this household, and they are under the protection of the delm. Understood?”

There was a long-ish pause, eyes open and staring, then a blink.

“Understood.”

“Good.” Miri turned and started walking again. It had seemed a good idea to leave Jeeves–to leave Jeeves’s chassis–back where the path was more open. Now, though, she regretted the loss of a visible display of authority. Her previous experience of Clutch hadn’t encompassed anything like this nervy, cautious person. Of course, Edger was too tall, and too well-shelled, to be concerned about the possibility of an attack by house-cats. And she’d never seen Edger, or Sheather, or any of the marketing research team anywhere near the end of their resources.

Even Watcher–well, Watcher hadn’t liked them, but she hadn’t gotten the sense that he’d been a danger to them.

The path curved around the big bush that she thought of the gateway to the Tree Court.

“Here we are,” she said, over her shoulder. “Mind the footing.”

The Tree was in a rare good mood, she thought, as she picked her way over the surface roots toward the massive trunk. The breeze was warm, with a faint edge of brisk; and there was ozone in the mix, which wasn’t usual. On the other hand, maybe the Tree was adjusting the air to their guest’s preferred sort, as a courtesy.

She paused halfway between the end of the path and the Tree itself, waiting for Emissary Twelve, who came to her side, and stopped, looking up.

“I cannot escort that to the Elders,” she said, sounding tired and irritable and more than ready to call it a day.

“That’s right,” Miri said easily. “It took the largest vessel the Clutch own to move it–and the house–from Liad to this location. I’m pretty sure the Tree’ll be pleased to give you all the information it has about the mending of the flaw in the universe. Edger had perfect recall, as far as I could ever tell, and Sheather, too. Is your memory that good?”

My memory is not impaired,” Emissary Twelve snapped, which Miri chose to read it as just fact, rather than a comment on Ren Zel’s shortcomings.

“That’s good, then. All you have to do is listen–and remember.”

“Listen,” Emissary Twelve repeated, flatly.

“Right. How we do it, is we put our hands flat against the trunk–here, I’ll show you.”

She stepped up to the trunk, receiving an impression of amused welcome as the brisk little breeze ruffled her hair.

“Good-morning to you, too,” she said. “This is Emissary Twelve. She’d like you to tell her about the flaw in the universe, and what you and Ren Zel did to close it. Are you willing?”

There was a stirring of pride in the air, which Miri took for yes.

She turned to Emissary Twelve, who was standing a few steps too far from the trunk.

“Gotta come closer,” she said, and the Clutch obeyed, reluctantly, Miri thought.

“Right,” she said, and turned back to the Tree. Closing her eyes, she placed both hands against the trunk.

The bark warmed under her palms, and she felt a rush of affectionate greenness. Sighing, she leaned into the feeling.

“Your turn,” she said, without opening her eyes.

She felt the Tree greet the guest–warm and open, but without overt affection. Behind her eyes, she saw a glittering golden expanse opening on all sides, and flowing away–to a dark and inimical shadow at the edge of the field of gold. And where the shadow touched, gold blackened and shriveled.

Wind blew in a frigid gale from the shadow, a wind that carried the stench of rotting vegetation, and old blood.

More gold blackened, until there came a flash of pure energy, a counter-wind lashed into being, and–

Somewhere, somebody screamed–a terrible gargling shriek. Shadow and gold alike snapped out of Miri’s awareness, and the bark went cold and inert under her hands.

She spun, one hand snatching at her hideaway–and falling away as she dropped to her knees beside the inert form of Emissary Twelve.

* * *

The breeze had become insistent, pushing them into what might have been an ill-advised trot, had the overgrowth not obligingly moved aside, rather than entangling their feet, or whipping back to strike an unprotected cheek.

His legs being longer, Daav came into the Tree Court one step ahead of Aelliana–and slammed to a halt, throwing an arm out to stop her, as well. The breeze that had harried them died in the same instant, as they surveyed the scene before them.

One Clutch Turtle measuring its relatively meager length on the ground at the foot of the Tree.

One Korval delm on her knees beside said Clutch, a slender hand on the shell-less breast, above the woven leather harness.

On either side of the delm of Korval, her honor guard; two cats–one white and fluffy, the other sleek and striped–poised over ready toes, considering the downed visitor with what could only be disdain.

“What,” Aelliana said quietly, “has occurred here?”

The kneeling delm lifted her head, but any explanation she might have expected to embark upon was lost to the Tree’s sudden and succinct sequence of images.

“Pretty much that’s it,” Miri said, when the Tree’s narrative came to an end. “Mind you, I was in the loop, standing right next to her. It was. . .intense, but not overwhelming.”

She gave a wry smile.

“To me, anyway.”

She sat back on her heels, moving her hand from the Clutch to the back of the cat at her right.

“This is Emissary Twelve, by the way,” she added, and shook her head, her gaze wandering back to the fallen. “Something not quite right with Emissary Twelve, if you ask me. She’s edgy and outta temper; threatened to murder the cats if they tried to pull anything.”

She looked back up.

“Edger got along just fine with cats.”

“Possibly Edger had prior experience of cats,” Aelliana suggested.

“Maybe. Val Con–I felt him get hold of something, right before he–I’m guessing the survey team came ’round for their interview. . .And now here I am thinking maybe it’s best Emissary Twelve here is taking a nice nap.”

Another wry smile.

“Time limit on that, though.”

Aelliana strolled into the center of the court, and sat down on the grass, facing Miri across the supine form of the Clutch. After a moment, Daav joined her.

“If it can be told,” he said, using his chin to point at the sleeper; “what does Emissary Twelve want with Kor Vid yos’Phelium?”

Miri sighed.

“You gotta understand that Kor Vid’s the Emissary’s third choice.

“First, she wanted–immediately, she said, in a way that sounded even faster than standard human-issue immediately–Ren Zel, destroyer of the universe. ‘course, that hit a stone wall, with him and Anthora at the Healers. She got real put off when I told her that he was already forgetting what he’d done, and might not be able to tell the Elders–Emissary Twelve is sent straight from Elders–anything more than they already know.”

“What do the Elders know, I wonder,” Aelliana said.

Miri looked at her owlishly.

“That there was a flaw in the fabric of the universe which they’d been observing for some while. She didn’t phrase it this way, but the impression I have from Emissary Twelve is that their noses are outta joint because Ren Zel fixed it.”

“They have him as destroyer of the universe? It would seem to me that his name ought to be adjusted to include redeemer of the universe,” Daav said.

“Yeah, the Elders apparently see that Ren Zel saved one of two possible universes, and the other one died because of it. The way I do the math, that makes him savior and destroyer in the same sentence, but apparently the Elders are peeved.”

“Ah,” said Daav.

The fluffy white cat stretched high on pink toes and walked across Emissary Twelve to claim Aelliana’s lap.

“One wonders what the Elders were intending to do about the situation,” Aelliana said, stroking her sudden tenant. “Before Ren Zel won the game, that is.”

“Emissary Twelve didn’t say. What she did say, since she hadn’t been given any orders about people inconveniently losing their memories, was that she’d take Daav yos’Phelium, instead. Seems he promised, if the Elders had more questions, that he’d return to answer them.”

Aelliana turned to look at him.

“Really, van’chela. However did you come to be so inept?”

He moved his shoulders.

It seemed unlikely that the Elders would be able to produce further questions in my remaining lifetime. Also, they were pushing strongly for guarantees, and a willingness to answer further questions mollified them, so that I was able to extract myself.”

He frowned.

“I note that Emissary Twelve has shaved her dice,” he said slowly. “Daav yos’Phelium guaranteed that he would return to answer questions about Korval’s relocation, the condition of the Tree, and the state of the ship which had been placed at Korval’s service. He promised nothing regarding the salvation or destruction of universes.”

“It would seem that the delm is not eager to accommodate the Elders,” Aelliana said. “At least so far as sending clan members to them.”

Miri looked down, seeming surprised to find the brown-striped cat had climbed onto her knee and was lounging at his ease, purring.

“Well, assuming that the Elders are annoyed with us, the delm’s official position is that we’re naturally grieved to have offended an ally, but we’re not sending any of ours for them to vent their spleen on.”

Aelliana inclined her head.

“Do we know for certain,” Daav said, “that a universe was destroyed?”

Miri sighed.

“For the purposes of this conversation, let’s assume that two universes went in, one came out–just like the Elders are saying. Frankly, I’m not feeling up to considering the melding of two universes, or multiple cascading time warps, or anything else that needs more math to think about than a merc captain’s likely to have on her at this hour of the day.”

“Simplicity serves us best,” Daav agreed. “So, then; Ren Zel preserved our universe, which action caused the demise of a second. A wise choice; I could have made no better.”

“Given that the delm does not care to send any of the clan to the Clutch, how was the problem of Emissary Twelve to be solved?” Aelliana asked.

Miri waved a hand over her head, possibly indicating the Tree.

“My idea was that maybe we could do a substitution that would satisfy everybody. Emissary Twelve owned to having a non-defective memory, so I figured if the Tree told her what happened, then she could tell the Elders, and nobody had to be disrupted.”

“Except that Emissary Twelve could not accept the Tree’s sending.” Aelliana shook her head. “There must be a way ’round that. . .”

From above them, high and away in the Tree’s branches, came a sharp snap and the sound of something falling, swiftly, through leaf and branch.

Miri extended her hand, fingers closing around the pod when it struck her palm.

Daav sat up straight, ice running his spine.

“Tell me that is not–“

Miri shook her head.

“It’s for Emissary Twelve, all right. And I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a bad idea.”

* * *

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