The door to Kieransar’s suite slammed shut after the young prince stormed out into the corridor. Servants slipped quietly away from their master to warn others that the Crown Prince and Heir to the Hasshevaran Empire was on a rampage through the halls of the castle. The warning, however, was not needed, for the prince’s angry steps echoed off of the vaulted ceilings, alerting anyone with ears to their master’s feelings. The guards straightened their stance, held their laser rifles tightly, and tried to blend in with the furniture. Even Kieransar’s servant Ivret, a young male from the warrior ranks, trailed as far behind his master as could be considered proper.
Kieransar was blind to his home’s gilded finery, its lofty corridors, rare paintings and sculptures--the plunder of a score of planets--except to avoid contact with them. His father would not be pleased if he lashed out against the trophies of war.
Frustration, unease, agitation--all of these combined to form a heavy weight in Kieransar’s throat that turned every pleasantry into a snarl, every comment into a biting retort. If only I knew why!
But no cause jumped out from hiding to say, “Here I am. I’m the reason you’re surly and uncommunicative. Now you can do something about it.”
Instead the prince fretted and growled and searched for a cure to his emotional malaise. Maybe a good hunt would fill the emptiness that gnawed at him, the persistent feeling that he was not as he should be.
The only objects that made Kieransar slow his frenetic pace were the statues located in the Hall of Ancestors, a visual memory of his predecessors for thirty generations. These were the rulers who had made the world of Hasshevar great, conquering everything within the reach of their mighty fleets of starships. They were the reasons why the two-legged feline Hasshevarans, and no other species of sentient beings, ruled the Empire.
As he reached the first arch, Kieransar gave these honored Varans the customary hnismuth of reverence--wrists crossed at his chest, claws sheathed, and chin raised to bare the throat--wondering not for the first time why he had to do so. The thought that he would be joining this exalted line of gods in fifty or sixty years caused his anger to again boil over, and he stopped at the end of the line at the last two pedestals, each almost waist high.
On the nearer of the two pedestals, covered with a silken tarp, stood the statue of his father, Hanesar. Only on the day of the Emperor’s death would the cover be removed to reveal the visage of the new god in all of his glory and might. That duty would be left to the Crown Prince, who in that same sacred moment would be pronounced the new Emperor with the holy blessing of the gods.
The second pedestal waited for the commissioning of Kieransar’s statue on his twenty-first birthday. The artists would diplomatically ignore Kieransar’s tattered left ear, the result of a cubhood scrap, and also give him a more aristocratic muzzle with longer whiskers and less tooth. Except for those few adjustments, the sculpture would look like what Kieransar saw in the mirror every day.
Kieransar was a handsome example of a Hasshevaran male with his long brown mane and pointed muzzle. He stood ten tibs high--above average for royalty, though the warriors in his personal guard easily exceeded that measure. His lines were all pride with just a hint of arrogance. The six digits on each hand and foot were strong and well clawed, those same claws unsheathing themselves slightly in response to Kieransar’s bubbling anger. He caught the warning signs and forced himself to relax. The last thing I need is to ruin another pair of court shoes.
As Kieransar turned to leave, Ivret hesitantly caught up to him. Trying to appease his master’s anger, the young warrior-servant gave hnismuth to the statues and looked appreciatively at the empty pedestal. With as formal a speech as any in the castle, Ivret said in a wavering voice, “My Sar contemplates the great things of life, does he not?”
The prince quelled any further comments on his glorious future with a half-lidded stare. “And what, pray tell, are these great things you so reverently mention?”
The young warrior took a quick step backward, and his scent grew strong around them. With each breath, the prince could literally taste Ivret’s unease, bitter and unpleasant against the roof of his mouth. His own scent gave no comfort, laden with suppressed emotions that Kieransar could neither control nor release.
“Why--why, the promise of your ascension, my Sar.”
Kieransar’s ears perked up in interest as if waiting for an answer that would explain the emptiness he felt. “What will I ascend to? Perfection?” For I am definitely not perfect now.
“No, my Sar. You are already the Perfection of the people in this life.” The prince’s ears went flat, but Ivret continued, “Our model by which to live our humble lives.” Kieransar’s tail lashed in deeper anger. Ivret gave hnismuth, vainly seeking the response his master desired. “My Sar, please. You are the light of our lives. You guide us and make us whole. You--”
The prince raised his hand for silence, not trusting his voice to remain steady. He took a few deep breaths and forced his tail to settle into a more sedate rhythm. “Make preparations for my hunt,” he said quietly. Ivret hesitated, and Kieransar turned on the hapless warrior. “Now!” he snarled.
Ivret ran down the corridor, leaving the prince to his fury.
Once he was alone, Kieransar dropped himself heavily onto the pedestal, as if his fierce anger had driven all strength from his limbs. Hands clasped under his chin, he gave a mirthless laugh. “Oh, Ivret,” he sighed softly. “If I’m your light, you are truly in darkness. After all, how can I be your guide when I can’t see myself where I am going?” At that moment, the anger left him, the source of his emptiness found.
He became aware of the incongruity of his position on the pedestal and stood abruptly, peering around to see if anyone had witnessed his impiety. Seeing no one, he straightened his clothing and headed for the Hunting Grounds.
As he approached his father’s private conference room, Kieransar was startled to hear the sound of raised voices, one of them his father’s. Curious residents loitered in the hall, trying to catch the essence of the conversation. The guard to the conference room made no move to usher them away until he saw who was coming down the corridor. Then he made a show of his authority. “Go on now,” he huffed. “The Emperor is not to be disturbed.” The disappointed retinue dispersed hurriedly.
Kieransar tapped the guard on the shoulder and pointed toward the far arch. “You will guard over there for now.”
“But my Sar--”
Kieransar held up a sheathed hand. “I will guard my father’s door until further notice.” He watched as the guard went reluctantly to the new post, then leaned back against the wall by the door and nonchalantly cleaned his claws while trying to pick up the conversation inside.
At first, his keen hearing detected only meaningless babble, but soon that babble dissolved into the voices of his father and Kelhesa, his father’s First Counselor and once Kieransar’s royal tutor. The prince imagined the scene inside with his father, still a formidable Varan despite his years and gray mane, leaning across the table toward his advisor. Hanesar would be rubbing his thumbs together, as he always did when deep in conversation. Or maybe those piercing yellow eyes were trying to dissect whatever was in front of him as he rolled his long and handsome whiskers with a careless hand.
Kelhesa, on the other side, would be a far less imposing figure, being the oldest of the Council and holding at least fifteen years over the Emperor he chose to serve. His mane was completely white, and his fur more gray than bronze these days.
Father almost never raises his voice. Why would he now?
“Why?” moaned the Emperor, an echo of Kieransar’s own thoughts. “Why do you risk my displeasure for a god brought in by outworlders? Aren’t there enough gods in the Hierarchy to make a good choice?”
Kelhesa’s voice came across laced with sadness. “The people he hunts do not so easily get away from him, my Sar. It is not that I chose him, but that he chose me.”
Kieransar winced at the sound of Hanesar’s hand hitting the table before him. “Nonsense,” the Emperor said. “Ours is the choice. Should I not know? Will I not become a god when I go into the next realm and Kieransar takes my place as ruler?”
An uncomfortable pause followed. “The traditions of our ancestors say that this is so, my Sar.”
Kieransar imagined his father’s spiral eyes peering intently at the submissive form before him. “And do you agree with the traditions of our ancestors, Kelhesa?” The Emperor’s favored counselor remained silent. “Don’t answer. You might be foolish enough to say what you are thinking, and I would be minus a good advisor.”
The prince settled his place more firmly, expecting another uncomfortable pause and a resumption of the original topic--after all, what could the First Counselor say? Instead, Kelhesa asked abruptly, “May I retire to my chambers, great Emperor?”
Kieransar’s ears went up at the effrontery of his old tutor, but Hanesar merely sighed and said, “You may go, but you are forbidden ever to mention this god of yours again in this castle unless your Sar gives you leave. Is that clear?”
The old counselor sighed heavily. “I hear and obey, my Sar.”
The door opened. Kieransar’s reflexes left him--How close was Kelhesa to the door?--and Kelhesa caught him in all of his guilt.
The old Varan almost showed long teeth in a suppressed smile, and the prince avoided his gaze; seldom was he caught so surprised. Kelhesa allowed the door to shut behind him and asked formally, “What is my Sar doing so close to the door?”
“Guarding it from the curious, of course,” he answered innocently. He motioned the guard to return to his post.
Kelhesa unsheathed a claw and nicked his former student’s shoulder. “Of course.” His gray hand lowered itself to rest on that shoulder, and the counselor’s silver eyes clouded in sadness. “Of course. You are a good son to your father, Kieran.”
The prince’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “I haven’t been called Kieran since I came of age.”
“Yes.” Kelhesa’s eyes dimmed a moment as if reliving a seven-year-old memory. Then he came back to the present with a fierce look. “Well, if you didn’t act like a cub, I wouldn’t find myself treating you like one.”
Kieransar smiled, a toothy grin. “Claw to the heart, Kelhesa. You got me.”
Kelhesa gave the prince an intent look. “You’re going to the Hunting Grounds?” Kieransar nodded, and they walked down the corridor together toward that end of the park. The counselor broke the silence first. “So why have the domestics been skulking from shadow to shadow when you’re around?”
Kieransar ducked his head to avoid his mentor’s gaze. “Who says they’re skulking?”
“Who doesn’t?” Kelhesa stopped and faced his prince. “Now what is this about? Even your father is hearing the rumors.” Silence. “A female?”
“You’ve been listening to the servants too long.”
The counselor wasn’t to be put off. “Majisa?”
Kieransar’s nose wrinkled at the thought of her. “The Jewel of the Empire? The Beauty of Hasshevar? The vain, arrogant--” Kelhesa motioned for him to keep his voice down, “--empty-headed little . . .” The prince trailed off into a growl. “My only problem with her is keeping away!”
The old counselor smiled at the prince’s discomfort. “You should try to be more tolerant. After all, she is the obvious choice to be your Empress.”
A small shudder ran down Kieransar’s back. “I’d abdicate first.” He grappled with his emotions until they were firmly held and quickly returned to the first topic of conversation. “Now that you’ve shoved your whiskers into my private life, it’s my turn. Tell me what you and my father were talking about.”
“You heard the Emperor,” the counselor admonished. “I am forbidden to speak of it until he permits.”
Kieransar shook his head. “That’s not what he said. He said, ‘Until your Sar permits.’ I’m your Sar, too, so talk!”
“Echoing the words, but not the intent, eh?” Kelhesa took his hand from the prince’s shoulder, where it had stayed as they walked. “I don’t think it would interest you.”
Oh you don’t, Kieransar thought. Then you really don’t know what’s wrong with me. “Is it a new god?”
The advisor shrugged. “New to us, yes.”
He started walking again. “Where in the Hierarchy would this god stand?”
“He wouldn’t.” At Kieransar’s confused look, Kelhesa added, “He created the Hierarchy.”
Kieransar halted in shock. “Created?” Seeing his former tutor was not stopping, he bounded forward, slowing himself abruptly to match pace with the older male. “But the Hierarchy wasn’t created!”
“So they say.” He pressed his lips together, a hint that he would not say more.
Ignoring the hint, Kieransar continued on. “What does your god say?”
“Who says he’s my god?” Kelhesa muttered. Kieransar gave him a skeptical look. With a sigh, the old counselor answered, “He says that he created everything, including us, for a purpose.”
They reached the entrance to the Hunting Grounds, but Kieransar did not go in. “And the gods?”
Kelhesa motioned him onward. “I will let you think about what I have just said and leave you to answer your own question.” With that, he turned and walked away.
The prince reached out a hand. “But Kelhesa . . .” The old counselor did not even acknowledge he’d heard. Kieransar’s hand dropped limply to his side, and he entered the sanctuary.
Eager to reach the place where his prey lay resting, the prince paused only long enough to take off his shoes and restrictive clothing. He kept only his pair of patris--long, loose fitting pants that narrowed at the waist and didn’t entrap the tail.
A servant brought a choice of weapons, but Kieransar waved him off. “No weapons today. Claws and teeth are all I’ll need to hunt hellock.” The servant nodded, the tilt of his ears betraying how little he liked this news. Kieransar looked around. “Where’s Malkut?”
“He is still patrolling, my Sar. I could send a hovercraft to pick him up.”
The prince hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. “No need. I’ll go alone this time. Which range am I to hunt?”
“Range four, my Sar, near the lake. A daar-long run. The one to be culled has a red circle on its rump.”
Kieransar was off before the servant could say another word, the urgency he felt building in his chest threatening to burst if he didn’t do something soon.
He gave himself up to a ground-eating pace, enjoying the crisp air and vainly trying to convince himself that the emptiness in his heart had disappeared. He ran through vale and forest, fording a river at one point, never threatened by any of the land’s denizens, for they knew by some sense that he was the hunter and they were the hunted, should he so desire.
As Kieransar neared the resting place of the hellock herd and the unsuspecting cull, adrenaline pumped through his veins, heightening every sense, every part of his body. The thrill of the hunt drove out all other rational thought as he climbed a nearby tree, a stunted giant with thick, leafy branches from which to perch unseen. From tree to entwined tree he ran, never touching the ground, sometimes testing the air for scent, other times freezing in place for any betraying sound.
As simms became a haat and haats became a daar, Kieransar drew nearer to his prey, resting contentedly near the lake. That servant was right about how long it would take me to find the herd, he thought as he circled among the treetops to remain downwind. Finally, the prince got a good look at what awaited him. A hundred hellock stood beneath him and beyond him, dotting the hillside with their ponderous hulks. No hunt for kittens these; they were monarchs of the grass, with noble horns reaching to the skies, ready to slash at any interloper who would dare disturb their rest. Hellock were the most powerful creatures in the range that the Emperor permitted to be hunted without weapons, a most exhilarating challenge.
And one that in some ways was forbidden to him. He could only take those with the culling mark on their rumps--not the great leaders of the herd, the two or three females or, best of all, the dominant male who drove the herd and guided it to the best forage and water. They were too dangerous for one of his rank to contend with, for against them a mistake would be fatal. Not even a Sar’s pride could convince his people to let him take such a risk.
Suddenly, a lesser buck, at least seven tibs high at the withers and with two sets of menacing horns, cried out a danger signal. The rest of the herd leapt up from their resting places and scouted nervously for trouble.
Kieransar tensed, testing the air for what was troubling the herd. Is it me? No. His keen ears picked up a thrashing in the bushes.
The bucks stepped in that direction, heads down. A varaband, a small grass-eater with short, tufted ears and powerful hind legs, jumped out of the underbrush with a lupine running close behind. The varaband darted in among the hellock, dodging between legs and leaping into the air to avoid the hunter’s rapacious lunges. The bucks jumped, but did not draw back. The lupine looked up from its prey just in time to avoid being skewered on a pair of horns, yelping and retreating into the bushes as its intended victim raced across the vale and into the forest.
But the damage had been done. The hellock were on the alert, keeping the more vulnerable members of the herd toward the center of their circle, including the one with the red mark. Kieransar muttered silently against whatever fates would keep him longer from his rightful prey and settled himself on the branch for a more lengthy stay. The adrenaline flow slowed, saving itself until the right time, and Kieransar found himself thinking again, much to his dissatisfaction.
Who is this god of Kelhesa’s, who boasted that he created the universe? What if he had? A feeling of relief swept over the prince. If Kelhesa’s god did as he said, then the gods of the Hierarchy would be subject to him. All of the Emperors, who aspired to godhood, would also be subject. Such a god would have to guide the universe and its people. That would mean I wouldn’t have to pretend anymore, the prince thought. I wouldn’t have to act as if I know where I’m going. I wouldn’t have to act as if I never make a mistake.
The relief turned to fear. But what would this mean for me? he wondered. Would this god take an interest in me? Kelhesa had mentioned a purpose. Would that mean I would have to obey him? What would he ask me to do? New and uncomfortable questions kept forming in Kieransar’s mind, culminating in, Does that mean I wouldn’t become a god when I die?
He shook himself from this troubling realm of thought and checked the herd. They were almost calm again, and his particular victim was wandering away from the center of the herd, toward the other side of the vale. It was an older female, past her prime and fawnbearing years but still powerful in her motions. Kieransar stretched his muscles slowly, readying his body for stealthy movements. He tested the wind, then sighed when he realized it would give him away if he continued on his present course. He would have to cross through the trees upwind of the herd, an impossible maneuver. If only I had waited for Malkut, Kieransar thought. This was never a problem for the two of us, even when we were cubs. Too late for regrets now, though.
He glanced through the leaves, hoping the female would change her mind, and saw another sight that riveted his attention. The leader of the herd, at least eleven tibs at the withers and with two sets of horns unequaled in the range, stood right beneath him!
Adrenaline poured through his body as he hid among the branches, amazed at this fantastic opportunity. No thoughts of the consequences crossed his mind as he poised himself for the drop. Not that he would kill the superb creature, never that, but if he could make the creature, this master of grass and wind, helpless for just a few seconds, he would have power over not just the animal, but over all his herd!
The great leader nuzzled near the base of the tree, looking for a succulent shoot or leaf, ears angled alertly to either side--but not up. Kieransar’s heart beat an excited pulse through his body as he crouched, then sprang from his perch and onto the back of the huge leader. The buck froze for an instant, then twisted its head to scrape off the annoyance. Kieransar wrapped his arms around the giant head, making the horns useless, keeping his claws sheathed except for the most necessary tips to maintain balance. The beast reared back on its hind legs, and the prince forced its head back. The great horns that had first threatened the prince now aided him, their weight pulling the buck off balance. As they both crashed to the ground, Kieransar twisted his body around to land on top. The hellock leader bellowed again while its herd looked on, startled. The smaller members of the herd ran toward the water while some of the bucks moved forward, bugling and slashing the air with their horns.
Kieransar knelt beside the fallen beast, holding its head to the ground by the strength of his arms alone. The leader snorted and tried to break Kieransar’s powerful grip, tried again, and failed, relaxing for an instant in the prince’s arms. The bucks stopped their posturing and backed away.
For that thrilling moment, the hellock and the herd which he led were Kieransar’s. His eyes shining in victory, the prince released his hold and jumped straight into the air to grasp the branch two full body lengths above him.
The leader was quick to its feet and angrily slashed with its horns, its fore-hooves resting on the tree itself to reach higher. It struck with a vengeance, and a horn tip ripped into Kieransar’s right calf. He growled in pain as he swung his body up onto the tree branch and away from the buck’s flailing horns. The leader bellowed once, twice, and then called to its herd. In one swift motion, the hellock turned and galloped onto the plains.
In the tree, Kieransar lay back on the branch, tired, wounded, and deliriously happy. What a wonderful day this had turned out to be. He might not have killed his cull, but he had mastered the lead buck. It was a pity he could not tell anyone back at the castle, but the prince was not in the mood for a lecture.
He quickly scanned the area for witnesses, knowing that a few guards were assigned to watch him, though not too closely for fear of disturbing his hunt. He could not see them, so he hoped that they were too far away to see him and what he had just done. Maybe I’ll tell the warriors in a few six-days. He would still hear from the Huntmaster, who had authority over everyone who stepped onto the Hunting Grounds, title or no, but the distance in time would also mean a less severe haranguing.
The hunting high left him, and Kieransar began to feel the intensity of his wound. He checked his leg and saw that, while the horn had missed any major muscles, it had taken a piece of flesh along with it. Nothing dangerous, but he cleaned it just in case, wincing at the coarseness of his own tongue. It would hold until he returned to the Hunting Lodge.
As Kieransar leisurely began to make his way back, a cold chill ruffled the fur on his back, a chill not made by the wind. With all thoughts of his triumphant hunt gone from his mind, he scanned the area uncertainly.
Something was not right.
He glanced at the ground and then among the foliage. Nothing larger than a bird caught his attention. He inhaled deeply, but could smell nothing unusual. Despite the comfort his eyes and nose gave him, the uneasy feeling grew and became a blazing certainty. He was being watched, and not by the guards. His teeth bared and his claws came fully unsheathed.
He was being hunted!
Kieransar whirled, hoping to catch a glimpse of his pursuer. No sound, no movement betrayed the hidden one’s presence. He paused for a few dasimms, then pelted among the trees at a breakneck speed. All the while, his instincts told him that not only was his pursuer close, but he was getting closer. Kieransar increased his pace, running dangerously fast along the linked branches, knowing that he was about to be caught. He dodged and twisted among the trees, hoping for a lessening of that unalterable conviction, but to no avail. Finally he stopped and whirled, claws at the ready, waiting for his fate to come rushing toward him. Chest heaving, he listened and heard only the birds chastising him for interrupting their singing. The sense of something waiting for him, expressly wishing to catch him, was still there, but nothing else. Without dropping his guard, Kieransar backed away slowly, heading for the river that was his next step home.
Humming sounds across the river drew his attention, and he crouched among the trees, searching for its source. A hovercraft carrying the Huntmaster and four guards flew into sight. Kieransar breathed a sigh of relief tinged with anticipation of an unwelcome lecture. If the Huntmaster was coming personally, then someone had seen what the prince had done, wasting no time in calling out the guard.
Kieransar looked around uneasily one more time, the sense of another presence in the trees fading with each passing moment as if some great eye had redirected its attention elsewhere. The prince smoothed his fear-roughened mane with a shaking hand, trying to collect himself before the others noticed his condition.
He jumped down from the tree and limped into a clearing, his wound making itself once again painfully known to him. Even before the hovercraft settled to the ground, the Huntmaster was yelling and pointing and asking him in a rumbling voice if he knew how important he was to the Empire and how dare he take such risks and the Emperor was going to hear about this . . . The prince took it all with a stoic fortitude that showed many years of practice.
The guards who silently escorted him onto the hovercraft made a display of watching the forest, though their ears were aimed in the direction of Kieransar and the Huntmaster. One guard, a hunting mate at times, gave Kieransar a sly, knowing glance, promising him with that look that the warriors would know all about the hunt before the hovercraft even reached the Lodge. Looking down on the forest to see if he could spot from the air what he had felt on the ground, Kieransar wondered if that were a blessing or a curse.
Finally, the entrance of the Hunting Grounds loomed into sight. The prince suppressed a relieved sigh, though he kept a respectfully attentive look on his face. The Huntmaster ended his harangue by saying, “I should ban you from the Hunting Grounds for a year for such irresponsibility.”
Kieransar’s ears went back in surprise. This is new.
The Huntmaster held up a hand, his formidable claws only partially sheathed, to forestall any arguments. “However, if you promise me you will never do anything like that again, I won’t take such drastic measures. I’m sure I can come up with some other punishment to match your disobedience. Of course, this depends on how your father reacts to the news. My Sar,” he added with a slight snort, as if not completely willing to give the prince the reverence he deserved until he had apologized.
Kieransar did so, with great formality. “I express my apologies, Huntmaster, for causing you so much worry. Had I known the anxiety I would generate with my little escapade, the thought never would have crossed my mind. So I give you my promise. I will never again jump a hellock buck leader who is under a tree without permission.” Of course, if the hellock buck leader were not directly under a tree . . .
The Huntmaster nodded, giving the prince an uneasy glance. Kieransar silently swore an offering to the gods if they kept the Huntmaster from bringing up past promises bent beyond recognition. A guard watched the approaching ground fixedly, only his twitching tail betraying suppressed mirth. Finally, the Huntmaster grunted and turned away from the source of his irritation.
When they touched down, the Huntmaster ordered the guards away and led the wounded prince to the medical ward, where they checked Kieransar from ears to tail.
Once the medics finished with the Sar and left him in blessed peace, Malkut strode into the room. His handsome face, all black except for the white circle around his left eye, characteristic of a warrior of the Tuani clan, lacked the look of awe and wonder that one was supposed to have when approaching royalty. It had lacked that look for years. Instead, an almost proprietary expression stole over his face. Friends and hunting partners since cubhood, the two were almost inseparable, and Malkut felt a personal responsibility for the welfare of his Sar.
Unfortunately, his Sar had other ideas about what did and did not constitute a threat to his well being, a cause of endless arguments. Malkut feared this would be another one. He waited motionlessly for permission to speak. Kieransar waved his hand in acknowledgement. “My Sar should have held on to the buck a little longer. Then he wouldn’t be sporting the handsome bandage on his right leg.”
The prince gave Malkut a hard glance. “You wouldn’t happen to be the one who told the Huntmaster, would you?”
“My Sar has great insight.”
“My warrior has great impertinence.” At these words, Malkut tensed. The prince continued. “And . . . some small amount of justification.”
Malkut cocked his head in puzzlement. “You aren’t mad?”
Kieransar shrugged and grinned, a lopsided smile that showed more of his feelings than it concealed. “You were doing your duty, unlike myself.” After a quick glance around the room, the prince asked, “So how much did you see?”
Malkut leaned forward. “Everything. Including the part that looked like you were trying to outdistance something.”
“Did you tell the Huntmaster?”
“Tell him what? That the Crown Prince was rushing around the treetops like a mad thing? I think not.”
Kieransar gave a deceptively casual stretch that tested almost every muscle in his body. “It was the excitement of the chase.”
The lie was accepted, if not believed.
“Of course, my Sar.” Malkut turned to leave but stopped at the door. “If you need to talk, I’ll be in my quarters.”
“Surrounded by thirty warriors who will try every possible means imaginable to get the story of the Sar’s great hunt out of you.”
Malkut gave Kieransar a studied look. “Will they succeed?”
“Only when they start mentioning bribery. Large sums. Just remember, I get half.”
“Of course, my Sar. When will they hear your side of the story?”
The prince looked at his bandaged leg. “Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, then.” At that, Malkut bared his throat--the closest he got to hnismuth unless it was a formal setting or he was displeased with the Sar’s orders--and took his leave.
The prince lay on the bed for a few more minutes, puzzling out exactly what had happened to him on the Hunting Grounds. His anger had vanished as if it had never been, and the feelings of fear from the daar before were already vague and dreamlike. Kieransar shrugged. What strange tricks a body can play on itself, he thought, deliberately trying to dismiss the entire episode. But it had seemed so real! Maybe I’ll talk to Kelhesa about it. With that in mind, the prince stretched again and then checked himself out of the medic’s ward.
As he crossed the castle’s threshold, the hustle and bustle of palace life whirled around him, and he found himself relaxing, allowing himself to become submerged within the swirling eddies of the mundane. His hunting experience took on the uncontrolled, fantastic colors of imagination, and he laughed at himself. Doesn’t seem nearly so serious now. His feet redirected their path and turned toward his own suite of rooms.
He hadn’t gone five steps in that direction when the sense of that presence returned even more strongly than before. He quickened his pace and glanced nervously over one shoulder, half expecting the watcher to be right behind him. Once again, he saw nothing. That’s it, he thought. Dreams should not leak into real life. I’m going to Kelhesa now.
He found the old counselor in his suite, a ceremonial guard at the door. The prince nodded impatiently to the guard, who disappeared inside to announce that Kelhesa had a distinguished visitor. Kieransar walked into the visiting chamber and shut the door firmly behind him once the guard had resumed his post. The prince’s body language, from the dilated pupils to the clenched jaw, spoke volumes.
“What’s wrong, Kieran?” the counselor asked worriedly.
“Please, Kelhesa,” the prince asked, “could you tell me about this god of yours?”
The old Varan looked at Kieransar intently, as if trying to read his emotions and understand his need. “Will you tell me what had happened to you?” The prince nodded urgently. Kelhesa twisted his whiskers slowly, ears cocked as if listening for an unheard command. Finally he nodded. “Perhaps a walk into the city, away from the business of castle life, would be in order.”
Kieransar thought a moment, remembering his father’s instructions, and gave a hesitant smile. “Echoing his words, counselor?”
“Grab my walking stick, cub, and be quick about it.”
passed the elaborately carved cane to his old mentor, and the two walked out
The sun had almost set when Kieransar, Kelhesa, and their personal guard reached the large and ornate gates separating the castle from the city. Kieransar waited impatiently as the castle guards opened the gates and parted the shield to permit entry into the upper city. He was frustrated by the game that Kelhesa had begun playing as soon as they were no longer alone. The counselor did not mention their previous conversation, just pleasant inanities that served to fill time. The way Kelhesa was acting, the prince felt as if they were spies in the midst of enemy territory.
Kieransar knew the Sa’s reasons, but he wondered what difference it would make if they went into the city. After all, he reasoned, there will be guards in Shadis as well. And they’ll tell Father about our conversation as quickly as anyone else. The longer the prince thought about it, the worse he felt.
To get himself away from this maddening train of thought, Kieransar turned his attention to the city which surrounded the castle. The prince gazed at the land beneath him and for a moment forgot what had brought him there. The view from the gate was spectacular when the sun cast its golden-red rays upon Shadis, Jewel of Many Facets. Like a prism, the shield refracted the sun’s light, bathing the city below in an ever-shifting rainbow of colors. This would change in a couple of daars, Kieransar knew, as the sun sank completely behind the mountain chain and true darkness settled over the land. Then the city would create its own illumination, using lights of all different colors and hues to make itself glow. Shadis Ma’fa. Jewel of the Night. The most beautiful city on Hasshevar, Kieransar thought.
Kelhesa motioned to a guard. “Have an aircar waiting for us at Field One.”
Kieransar nodded. That meant their destination was too far into the city to walk. Field One was the airfield closest to the castle, since no aircars were permitted to penetrate the shield to the castle. Only ground transport entered the inner shield, carefully scrutinized by zealous guards with every kind of sensor imaginable. The imperial family did not tolerate any breach of their security, however slight. Not even the Emperor’s aircar traveled through the shield except in case of dire emergency.
The counselor’s gaze followed the path their journey would take. “This walk seems longer every time I enter the city,” he sighed under his breath.
The prince’s ears twitched. “We could use ground transport to get to the airfield,” he said, not entirely able to suppress the condescension hidden within his words.
The counselor made a sound deep in his throat, a compelling argument against that and any other remark of its kind.
Kieransar concealed the smile he felt rising to the surface. He did not personally mind the walk. It did, however, remind him that there was another side to Shadis besides its beauty, especially for those who attempted entry uninvited.
Shadis, the capital of Hasshevar and the ancestral home of the royal clan, was surrounded by the tightest web of security in the Empire. Nothing could slip through the multi-layered shield and its complex array of scanners without being detected. Or so its designers had boasted when it was first created. Six hundred years had passed since the shield’s unveiling, and no one had yet proven them wrong. Of the many assassination squads sent to destroy the Emperor and his successors, only three had successfully breached the shield layer between the city’s two levels. And none had come close to the palace, either from above or below.
Shadis was actually two cities, with the upper circle reserved solely for royalty and those warriors, high servants, and noble Ri who attended to their needs. The competition for these coveted positions was fierce, and even nobles serving in so menial a position as footwasher brought honor to their families and clans. The lower circle was open to subjects of all races and species who had the proper passes and identification. There they would wait in hopes of an audience with the Emperor, or, more precisely, the Emperor’s holographic image. That practice had been put in place even before the building of the shield, after the assassination of Talesa, brother of the Emperor Shomesar. After his elite personal guards had made an example of the lone assassin, the Emperor closed the castle to all supplicants.
The isolation of the upper ring had not occurred until the shield’s invention made it feasible. Then the lower ring of Shadis thrived, with its proximity to the royal mystique as well as its exact representation of the throne room, where the Emperor dispensed justice from a distance.
Slowly, other members of the extended royal family (who had to worry about unrest on the planets under their control) had followed their Emperor’s lead. Now all but one major planet, and most minor-planet groupings, had some variation of the two-tiered city, pale shadows of Shadis.
A feast for the senses, Shadis was an artificial world where any imperfections hid behind closed doors. No unsavory scent dared wander in from the lower level, and the silvery echoes of chimes filled the air. Only foot traffic walked along the Grand Promenade, the whine of aircars and heavier machinery being relegated to the lower, less important streets leading through the servants’ area to the castle.
It was also freedom, or at least an illusion thereof, to those who would otherwise be surrounded by twenty or more armed guards once they stepped beyond the safety of the castle’s walls. For Kieransar, it was a fascinating glimpse into a world different from his own, the closest he could come to the people who would one day be entrusted to his care. He recalled the carefree days of his cubhood, when he had been too young for formal court training, yet old enough to wander the city with only Malkut and a few older warriors as escort.
It’s been too long since I was last here, Kieransar thought wistfully.
As soon as he stepped beyond the gate, his ears perked forward in curiosity and his pace quickened, the limp barely noticeable. Kelhesa and the guards lengthened their steps to keep up with the young prince. Kieransar watched them out of the corner of his eye, regretting the haste which sent him into the city without Malkut, the one person he would trust with his life. Or his secrets.
While the prince was acquainted with all of the guards in his service, he had learned long ago to constrain his tongue around them. They were Hanesar’s creatures first and foremost. Even if he had sole claim to their loyalty, the warriors’ barracks were a hotbed of gossip, as bad as the servants’ quarters, and the length of a secret’s life was daars at most.
On the other side of the argument, Malkut would be the last Varan on Hasshevar to understand the prince’s dilemma. His interest in the spiritual was limited to the odd coin and occasional thanks. Even his devotion to Dagmit, god of warriors and good wine, was more by default than anything else.
Then there was Ivret. The prince felt a prickling of guilt for leaving him in what would almost certainly be a state of bewildered anxiety. I should have said something to him before I left. He’s probably still wondering what he did wrong. And when he hears I’ve gone to the city without him . . . Kieransar mentally shook his head. But that would mean yet another warrior with the opportunity to overhear my conversation with Kelhesa.
Kelhesa led the small party along the Grand Promenade past the well-stocked shops that lined it. The crowds parted for them as if by magic, royalty and nobility alike crossing sheathed hands toward Sar and First Counselor as they passed. Then the people continued on with their duties and pleasures, not the least bit surprised to see the two walking the avenues with their entourage. A few followed from a discreet distance, ears perked in hopes of overhearing an indiscreet word or two echoing off of the walls. They were doomed to disappointment. The castle dwellers were too aware of the city’s acoustical properties to fall prey to that particular trick.
Kieransar played his part well. From his demeanor, no one would suspect that he was internally bursting with anticipation. Prince and First Counselor walked side by side, calmly discussing their best hunts, their hectic schedules, anything innocuous that came to mind. Slowly, their unwanted retinue dispersed, completely disappearing by the time they left the Grand Promenade. Then both Sar and Sa let the conversation die, each preferring silence to speech.
The silence lasted until they reached the airfield, a large circle of land just beyond the first spiral of the Grand Promenade. An unending stream of flying craft flitted in and out of the area. Kieransar watched the elaborate pattern of takeoffs and landings in awe, amazed at the abilities of pilots and air traffic controllers alike.
After a quick inspection of the aircar, the guards lined up ceremonially outside of it to let Sar and Sa enter before them. Kieransar entered first, making himself comfortable in the cushioned seats. Kelhesa stopped first at the pilot’s chair to give her instructions. The prince strained his ears, tilting them forward, but the voices were too low for him to hear.
When the counselor eased himself down beside the prince’s semi-recumbent form, Kieransar asked, “So where are we going?”
“Patience,” Kelhesa replied, “is a powerful weapon for those who acquire it.” The prince leveled a quelling stare at the counselor, who countered with a look of amusement.
The aircar rose straight up from its platform until it could fly high above the buildings that encircled the field. Kieransar looked out a window and noticed that the air around them was suddenly clear. Then the craft shot forward, leaving Field One behind.
From the air, Shadis showed an even more spectacular view. The city reflected the natural curves of the forest that had been their home before the Industrial Rise. The luminescent buildings of the city’s commercial sector ascended hundreds of stories above the ground. No harsh angles intruded, nor stark vertical lines, which the Hasshevaran eye could not readily see. As branches interconnected the native trees, so were the buildings united by numerous walkways. These long, enclosed avenues looped from structure to structure like the aerial pathways that had linked the great trees in ancient Shadis. Kieransar could even see vehicles driving on roads that other species considered impossibly high.
The aircar lowered altitude as it left the commercial area. The prince could easily see the demarcation between the business and residential sectors. The royal mansions were much smaller, the highest reaching only seven or eight stories. Great trees dotted the landscape, becoming more and more common as the aircar flew toward the shield perimeter, where the protected remains of an ancient forest flourished in unbowed majesty. Any buildings here were invisible under the foliage, the sky itself seen only in the few clearings designed for easy access by air.
As the aircar angled toward the wall that separated the two levels of the city, Kieransar relaxed, recognizing the area. He smiled.
“I see you remember some of your favorite hiding places,” Kelhesa remarked.
“They obviously weren’t the best. After all, you found me.”
“And it only took half a day of frantic searching to do so,” Kelhesa replied, and the prince’s smile turned into a grimace. “Your father was not pleased when the guard returned without you. You very nearly got some friends of mine in trouble with your escapades.”
Kieransar rubbed his left wrist reflectively. “I didn’t exactly get away unpunished,” he mused.
Kelhesa snorted. “I was in favor of something more severe than a wrist-band locator, myself. But then I nearly singed the hide off of your father when he did the same thing himself as a cub.”
“Oh, yes.” Kelhesa leaned back in his seat and stroked his whiskers in contemplation. “It seems to be a rite of passage for your family. You’d think we’d be more prepared, but every time it happens, we’re caught by surprise.” He looked closely at the prince’s arm. “Your father has the same scars,” he said, tapping Kieransar’s arm with a claw tip.
The prince looked at the wrist which had once worn the locator band. The fur had not lain properly since, mute testimony to his many vain attempts to free himself from the band’s presence. It grew in convoluted twists and whorls, though the furless patches were long gone. Even the color was different, a darker gold closer to the highlights on his face than on his arm. “You mean my father had a band, too?”
“The same one. And he couldn’t leave it alone, either.” The counselor chuckled. “Like sire, like cub. I suppose it will be your youngest brother’s turn, soon.”
“If he hasn’t started already.” This time the conversation continued without strain, unlike the contrived small talk on the Grand Promenade. Only when the aircar dipped to land did the prince look again at the view through the window. At first, he saw only greenery. Then he noticed the trees in the area did not stand as high as the giants the aircar had just overflown. In fact, few of them had yet reached maturity, as if nothing had been permitted to grow there until--
Kieransar’s ears rose in sudden understanding. No wonder Kelhesa seemed so unconcerned about the presence of the guards. He was going to the one place in the city that they would not want to enter. Lohansa’s Memorial. It was as abandoned as anything in the upper level could get. Kittens occasionally dared each other to run into the Memorial, tails bristling with excitement and not a little fear, but only the gardeners, whose job it was to maintain the environs, entered with any regularity.
It was a beautiful little enclosed park tucked against the wall dividing the upper and lower rings and so close to the shield that its hum blended with birdsong. For that reason alone, few people came to sit under its trees or by its streams. There were other, grander parks growing closer to their elaborate homes and workplaces. That, however, was not the only reason for its abandonment.
Nearly fifty-four years before, it had been a scientific laboratory devoted to finding new and faster forms of transportation. In fact, the scientists there had been researching the fastest form of all--teleportation.
The focus of their research had been a certain type of crystal, pale orange in color and not particularly attractive. First found on a derelict craft of an ancient and unknown origin, the crystals had been catalogued by royal archivists, studied briefly, and then stored and forgotten for years. A royal named Lohansa, digging through centuries of dust, discovered something amazing about them. When he sent a small charge through one crystal, it would glow. A larger charge would make one of its companion crystals glow even if they were not in the same room. And if more energy were poured into the first crystal, it would disappear and reappear beside its counterpart. Teleportation had been discovered.
Unfortunately, something went wrong. A spy from one of the less favored clans had tried to steal some of the crystals. Lohansa discovered him, and in the ensuing struggle, a laser pistol discharged, striking one of the crystals and starting a chain reaction among them. Most of the building disappeared in a cloud of energy, leaving a burning hull behind. Outer walls and rooms surrounded a gaping hole in the ground. Remote scanners had recorded the entire disaster. No one in the inner chambers had ever been found.
Rumors began circulating immediately about a curse of the gods for daring to research a forbidden object. Kieransar’s grandfather Jalisar, who was Emperor at the time, scoffed at the rumors and commanded that a memorial be built, but he could not order the people to visit it. Even so many years later, the residents of Shadis remembered and avoided the area of the catastrophe.
So it was no surprise to Kieransar when the guards looked at the opening of the park with obvious discomfort. As Kelhesa stepped from the aircar, he gave them an annoyed glare, then shrugged. “You may stay out here. I doubt there is anything in there that could harm the prince or myself.”
The guards’ commander aimed his scanner at the interior, moving it from right to left. When it beeped a negative, he grunted and nodded, satisfied that no one was inside. His warriors immediately took up positions around the enclosure without a word being spoken. Kelhesa motioned the prince to precede him. Kieransar hesitated a moment before walking into the Memorial. His whiskers twitched uncomfortably at the strong electromagnetic fields that distorted his directional sense and made the walls seem to undulate slowly in an unseen current.
As they followed the well-marked but little-used path, Kieransar opened his mouth to speak, but was silenced by Kelhesa’s upraised hand. Confused, the prince followed obediently, noticing as he did so that Kelhesa certainly knew the Memorial well. Not surprising, since Lohansa had been Kelhesa’s older brother. The counselor led him to the center of the Memorial, where all paths joined in a spiral reminiscent of a Hasshevaran’s eye. A large, oval stone rested in the exact center of the spiral. Kelhesa eased himself onto its glossy black surface. “Come join me,” he said quietly, his hand indicating the spot beside him.
As Kieransar sat down, Kelhesa pulled something from a pocket and began turning the dials. The prince looked at the device intently. “A baffler,” he exclaimed. “What do you need that for?”
“To give static to any electronic ear that might try to listen,” Kelhesa replied. “Including the guards’.”
“They wouldn’t dare!”
The First Counselor looked at him. “Where the safety of the Crown Prince is concerned,” he said mildly, “they dare a great deal.” As the prince digested that piece of information, Kelhesa continued, “I activated it when we first talked, but concealing it in clothing limits its usefulness. Now, I believe we should talk quickly. The commander will not appreciate it if we stay long after dark.”
“So tell me how you found out about this god.”
“And you will tell me about your adventure?” Kelhesa asked. The prince nodded. “Very well then. I was very close to Lohansa before he . . . disappeared. Very close. After his wife died, I took care of his daughter while he was working long daars at the laboratory. It was his way of dealing with his grief, but it was hard on the kitten. She was the cutest little thing, barely two years old when I began watching over her. Two wonderful years I had with her. I wish you could have met her.” Kelhesa broke off with a small laugh. “Of course, had she lived, she would have been your mother.
“I was a guard of your father as well, though that was a pleasant job at the time. He was only, hmm, four years old himself, and still going by his father’s name, Jalar. You never saw a kitten so excited as him the day he got his six-year name. ‘Everyone, I’m Hanis,’ he would say. ‘Not Jalar anymore. I’m six now, so you call me Hanis.’“ Kelhesa caught the glance Kieransar gave him and cuffed him lightly on the cheek. “Let an old Varan speak, cub. It’s relevant.” He clicked his teeth together in mock annoyance. “No respect from this generation. Now where was I?”
“Your relationship with Lohansa and his daughter,” the prince supplied helpfully.
“Oh, yes. It was a wonderful time. But then Lohansa started working with those thrice-cursed crystals.” Kelhesa nearly spat out the last few words. “I hardly saw him for a while, and little Faela just couldn’t understand why papa didn’t come home to see her. So I brought her to him. Then I was summoned away on a security call.” He stopped speaking for a moment. “Just as I reached the outer doors of the lab, I heard a terrible noise. When I looked back, I saw a fireball rushing up the hallway. I ran, and the force of the blast knocked me clear into the forest, on fire and near dead. Passersby put out the fire and got me to the medic’s ward in time. For years after, I wished that they had just let me die. I had lost both my brother and my niece, and it had been my fault that Faela was there in the first place.”
Kieransar interrupted, “But you didn’t--”
Kelhesa waved the prince’s protest aside. “As soon as I was able to go off-planet, Jalisar started looking for an assignment for me. Any assignment. He didn’t care so long as I was so busy I didn’t have time to think. So I found myself part of an archivist’s team on an information expedition. A ship of unknown design had been sighted just inside the Empire’s boundary. The Emperor ordered it captured, and our warriors found a new species of intelligent spacefarers. They called themselves himmans. Or, rather, we called them himmans, their own pronunciation containing sounds we don’t use. Humans,” Kelhesa enunciated, contorting lips around muzzle. “Ever heard of them?” Kieransar shook his head. “Didn’t think so. There weren’t many of them in the first place.”
“What did they look like?”
“Oh, the tallest of them was under nine tibs in height, I believe. They were biped, like us. Mostly furless, except a long, flowing mane on the tops of their heads. The male I worked with kept his clipped short, but I saw it lengthen rapidly over time.” Kelhesa closed his eyes for a moment, as if visualizing the beings he described. “The females were smaller than the males, and they tended to let their hair grow longer. They had hands similar to ours, except smaller, of course, but their claws couldn’t retract. The claws weren’t very formidable, either; I couldn’t imagine them defending themselves that way.”
Kieransar’s ears perked forward at the thought of a fight. “And how would they defend themselves? Teeth?”
“Hardly adequate to tear meat. The himmans I knew were omnivorous both by disposition and by choice.” Kelhesa looked the prince in the eye. “At first glance, you wouldn’t think a himman could be that much of a challenge. However, they are more at ease using anything that comes to hand than we are. For example,” at this, the counselor gestured behind them, “what if something tried to attack us right now? What would your first reaction be?”
“It would depend on the creature, I suppose.”
“Even before you knew what it was.”
“I’d leap back to a higher place before I . . .” Kieransar hesitated.
“Before you pounced.” The counselor nodded. “It’s instinctive. Even if you know you’re outmatched, the first reaction you have to quell is an outright physical attack.”
“And what would these himmans do?”
“I asked one of them that same question. Without hesitation, he answered, ‘I’d shoot it.’ Others said they would flee if they could, or look around for a weapon if they didn’t have one on them, but none of them answered the way you just did.”
“So they avoid physical contact?”
“No. They merely look for a way to ‘make the fight more even,’ as one himman said to me. However, I do not believe we came out here to contrast fighting styles. May I proceed with the story?” The prince nodded.
“We began translating the information in their computer databases. It went quickly once some of the himmans learned Empire Common. I and a royal archivist were charged with learning about their religion and morality. In doing so, we learned about a holy writ called the Book of Two Covenants. At least, that’s how it translated. The faith was called the Way. We read the book, talked to the himmans who believed in it, and wrote up our findings after a few more years of study. In the process, the archivist became the first Hasshevaran Wayfinder. He lost everything because of it and had to be smuggled off the planet, but rumor has it he’s still preaching, along with a few of the himmans who also managed to escape.”
Kieransar leaned closer to his former mentor. “And then you became a Wayfinder.”
“Oh, no, not and risk my position. That came much later. Three years ago, in fact, when my wife died. Then those stories had meaning for me. A young noble found me reading the Book of Two Covenants, and I discovered that there were other Wayfinders in the castle as well, a few Ri and several warriors. Unfortunately, your father found out and demanded that I change my mind. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘you’ve already changed it once.’ I refused for one reason.”
“What was that?”
“This faith taught me how to forgive myself. After fifty-four years of guilt, I finally could forgive myself. Your father couldn’t understand that, though. All he saw was the threat.”
“Threat?” Kieransar echoed, confused.
Kelhesa spoke slowly, deliberately, as if tasting each word first before letting it escape his lips. “The God of the Way has begun moving in the Empire. More and more of its subjects are turning from the old ways, and not just the poor anymore. That is what has your father worried. It’s not just a few powerless radicals who are proclaiming this God. Influential people are now joining, and your father fears for the Empire. He believes that it is impossible to reconcile this new faith with the Hierarchy.”
“But the priests say all faiths are contained in the Hierarchy,” Kieransar protested.
Kelhesa gave the prince a sad smile, one that seemed to carry all of the burdens of the Empire. “Then why does the Emperor forbid me to speak of it?”
Kieransar opened his mouth, then shut it when no answer was forthcoming. “I guess I’d have to read about this faith to find out.”
“I can help you there,” the counselor said, pulling a small, circular computer disk from his pocket. “This is a translation. It doesn’t contain everything, since we’re still trying to figure out the last portion, one called ‘Revealings’ or something like that, and a few others. However, it should at least point you to the right questions.” He placed the edge in Kieransar’s waiting hand, then pulled it back abruptly, palming the disk. “I would advise, though, that you not use a terminal attached to the castle’s main system.” At Kieransar’s startled glance, he added, “Strange things have been known to happen to these disks when people do.” Kelhesa again proffered the disk.
The prince took it, but sighed regretfully. “Do you remember those hectic schedules we were talking about? I think mine’s going to keep me running until at least the next six-day.”
Kelhesa smiled. “Don’t worry. If you’re supposed to read it that soon, a way will be found.” He shifted his position, trying to find one that did not rub so hard against old bones. “Now I believe it is my turn to hear your story.”
Kieransar nodded. “It all began this morning--no, I can’t say that. I’ve been feeling like this for some time now. I can’t even point to a particular time when it all started.”
“Feeling like what?”
“I don’t know.” The prince’s tail tip lashed a regular beat on the stone as he tried to find the right words. “Moody. Angry over nothing. I didn’t enjoy what I was doing. As if something were missing.” A laugh that sounded more like a growl escaped him. “It sounds so stupid now that I’ve said it. I’m the Crown Prince. I can have almost anything I want, and I’m not satisfied.”
Kieransar looked at the other Varan, hoping that Kelhesa would say something that would explain away the inner turmoil the prince had experienced.
The counselor, however, remained sympathetic but mute. Kieransar re-focused his glance from Kelhesa to the rock’s more neutral obsidian surface. His hand absently moved along its smooth contours as he continued his story. “So today I canceled all my appointments and went hunting, the one thing I always enjoy. For a while, it worked. I was so occupied with other things that I stopped thinking.”
“So it was your thoughts that disturbed you?”
“No. Yes.” Kieransar abruptly stood, looking around him, then settled into a tense crouch next to the rock. If Kelhesa recognized the move as the first step of an instinctive defense posture, he made no mention of it. “Do you realize that if Father died today,” Kieransar asked, “I would be Emperor?”
Kelhesa carefully hid a smile. “It has crossed my mind, yes.”
“What if I’m not ready? I would have no idea what to do. I don’t even know the people I’m supposed to be ruling.”
“That matters to you?”
“Of course it does,” the prince snapped. “What kind of a question is that?”
“One that some of your predecessors never once considered. The Empire is generally benevolent now, but it wasn’t always this way.” The old Varan reached over and touched Kieransar’s hand with his own, a conciliatory gesture. “But please go on with your story.”
The prince shook himself, forcing his recalcitrant mind to go further. “There was something there with me, Kelhesa. Something big. I couldn’t see it, but it was there. The presence I felt was . . . overwhelming.” A chill rippled across his back as he recalled the vastness of the Presence he had felt, a restrained might which had overshadowed everything around him into insignificance.
“I was,” the prince dragged the word out between clenched teeth, “terrified. Nothing in my life has come even close to what I felt on the Hunting Grounds, not even in the ceremonies the priests use to call up power. It wanted me, Kelhesa.” The prince’s voice fell to a whisper. “It could have taken me.”
Kelhesa tightened his grip on Kieransar’s hand as he asked, “Do you sense that presence now?”
Realizing that that was exactly what he was trying to do, the prince relaxed into a more comfortable sitting position. “No. Kelhesa, was it your god I felt?”
The prince bowed his head for a moment. “Kelhesa,” he said quietly, “I’m not sure I want to follow a god who hunts me like this.”
“How else was he to get your attention, my Sar?” the counselor asked, his voice equally quiet. Kieransar’s head came up at this statement, ears swiveling back in surprise. Kelhesa continued, “Would you have noticed anything less?”
“Probably not. Is that how he approaches everyone?”
The counselor chuckled. “Goodness, no. Had he revealed himself to me with such a show of strength, I would have been mortally offended. For you, though, it may have been necessary.” Kelhesa rose, wincing as vertebrae snapped wearily back into place. “Just remember, if the presence you felt hunting you is the God of the Way,” he held out a hand toward the prince, who ignored it as he uncurled from his place beside the rock, “it’s your choice whether or not you get caught.”
* * *
The commander of the guard was waiting for them when they left the enclosure, his warriors already in formation. “I took the liberty of ordering the aircar to remain on standby, Sar, Sa,” he mentioned smoothly, his outstretched hand guiding them to the machine. “Your highnesses must be anxious to get back.” A guard gave hnismuth to them both and opened the door.
Kieransar entered the car and sat down with obvious relief. Kelhesa looked at him, concerned. “Is everything okay, Sar?”
The prince waved him off. “Strenuous day, I guess.” He felt his own forehead and wondered how he had gotten so hot.
They did not talk during the flight, and when the aircar reached the castle, Kieransar immediately headed for his rooms. His limp was more pronounced than ever.
As he walked, the prince felt a burning sensation in his leg that grew more intense with every step. He turned down the corridor near his suite of rooms, then leaned against the wall to pull up the leg of his patris. The skin around his wound was puffy and red. He drew in a quick breath at the sight and began hobbling hurriedly to his door at the far end of the corridor.
Just then, Malkut walked into sight. He took one look at the prince, sniffed the air, and moved toward his Sar. “You’re sick,” he stated.
Kieransar only nodded, bringing his foot down and testing to see how much weight it would hold. He winced.
Malkut felt Kieransar’s face and laid his ears flat. “I’ll call a medic.”
The prince grabbed Malkut’s wrist. “Wait until I’ve reached my rooms.”
“I refuse to collapse in the middle of a corridor,” Kieransar hissed through clenched teeth.
Malkut muttered a few oaths under his breath as he took Kieransar’s arm. “Then at least lean on me.”
The warrior walked slowly, helping the prince to balance. His pace grew more rapid when he saw Kieransar’s eyes unfocus, the spiral opening as already large pupils dilated further. A few dasimms later, the prince only made the motions of walking, with Malkut carrying all his weight. Kieransar’s breathing grew ragged, and the warrior gave up all semblance of decorum in his scramble to get Kieransar to the room.
Malkut glanced around frantically for some help. His gaze went past the wide-eyed servants to focus on a female in medic’s gold at the far end of the corridor. “Nitae,” he shouted. The figure turned and stared. “Get down here! The Sar’s ill.”
She bounded down the corridor as Malkut propped the prince up against the wall. He fiddled with the palm panel, calling down curses on its manufacturer when it did nothing. Finally, he slammed Kieransar’s hand up against the identifier. The door opened, and he dragged the half-conscious prince to a couch, then sprinted for the communications link. Nitae ran in, taking the place Malkut had just vacated, and bent over her patient, checking the pulse and pulling the eyelids up.
“It’s his leg,” Malkut called over his shoulder. “The same one he hurt on the Hunting Grounds.”
“What did he hunt?”
“Hellock. The lead buck tore his leg with its horn.”
Ivret’s head popped out of one of the side rooms at the noise. “Malkut, what--”
Malkut raised an unsheathed hand for silence as he pressed the button. “Medic alert, Kieransar’s suite. We have an emergency.”
“What is the situation?” a voice responded.
Nitae pushed the warrior aside. “This is Nitae, Jashon. It looks like poison. Banil sap, probably, from the horn of a hellock. Get a team over here immediately.”
A muttered curse floated over the communications link. “I thought we had eradicated that weed. What are his symptoms?”
“Total dilation of the pupils, rapid and shallow breathing, erratic pulse . . .” As she progressed into more technical jargon, Malkut returned to Kieransar’s side. Ivret joined him with a wet towel, which he used to wipe the prince’s sweat-covered face. Kieransar’s head lolled in Ivret’s hands.
Nitae had not even finished her report when the first team burst through the door. Ivret and Malkut hastily backed out of their way. The medics examined the prince, a more in-depth version of what Nitae had already done, and consulted together.
“It’s banil,” one said. “If it were chofid, we wouldn’t see the dilation.”
A second medic set up the stretcher, directing it to hover at the height of the bed, while the third prepared a syringe.
Nitae stopped the latter’s actions with an impatient hand. “Make it a spray; it’ll work faster.” The medic arched his whiskers in agreement and transferred the sedative from syringe to spray bottle with one practiced motion. Nitae took the spray and shot it into the prince’s eyes. Kieransar spasmed, then went limp as the medication raced directly to his brain.
The medics eased him onto the stretcher and guided it out the door. Malkut shooed curious onlookers away while the four medics attached the stretcher to one of the hover cycles. Nitae adjusted the weight tolerance of the stretcher and then eased herself onto its edge, leaning protectively over the prince and gripping the sides tightly. The other medics mounted their cycles and checked the fasteners one last time.
Nitae turned back to the two warriors, their ears flat and tails still with worry. “He’ll be all right. Banil sap is too slow acting to be a serious threat.” As the last words escaped her throat, the medical team was racing down the wide corridors to the nearest medical ward.
and Ivret followed on foot.
Even after a six-day, Kieransar’s illness dominated conversation in the city. Hishtari found it hard to disentangle herself from the hoards of young Varans who descended on her and anyone else who worked in the castle as they came and went on royal business. She mentally berated the participants as echoes of partial conversations reached her ears, which were purposefully directed forward with not even a twitch to the sides to imply she wished to stop and gossip.
“I hear the priests have been spending more time with the prince than the medics have . . .” Hishtari heard one voice say before it faded into the stonework around her.
Another voice pulsed in and out, “ . . . younger brothers don’t have half his potential, from what I’ve been told . . . could have been a real tragedy.”
A third voice nearly caused her to misstep. “ . . . strange changes in behavior. Could the banil have affected his mind?”
Hishtari lengthened her stride. What a waste of the day, she thought, wrinkling her nose in disgust. Haven’t they other ways to occupy their time?
As she tried to slip past yet another group speculating on what they were not being told, she winced at the sound of a familiar voice. “Hishtari,” a friend called out. “Any news?” Immediately, the group encircled her, ears riveting on what she might say.
“I’m just a servant in the castle, Jesmari,” she growled. “I’m not even attached to royalty, much less in their confidence.”
“Don’t try to fool me,” the younger noble retorted. “Your ears are as long as anyone’s in the castle.”
“At least I have the native wit to know when to muzzle myself, Jesmari,” she hissed in irritation. She pulled him toward her until her whiskers touched his ear. “If Security hears this talk, you’ll never have a position in the castle,” she whispered fiercely.
Hishtari turned to the rest of the group, raising her voice. “The report is the same as it was yesterday. The Sar is doing well and may be permitted to leave his rooms today depending on what the physicians decide. Now let me pass or it will be your hides if I’m late.” An opening in the crowd appeared as if by sorcery; she wasted no time in using it. “Why don’t you go and do something useful for a change?” she called over her shoulder.
The Ri closed her ears to the hisses and growls that greeted her comment, glad of the scent-hiding perfumes that swirled around her. Else she might have offended someone with the depth of her irritation. They might also have smelled a swift array of emotions that she could not immediately quell. Jesmari’s off-hand remark about her supposed knowledge alarmed her.
I try so hard not to be noticed! Hishtari thought back to all of the little tricks she used to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. Not that such a pose was possible any more, with the First Counselor calling on her so often of late.
She joined the small line at the gate entrance, where guards checked the entrants with routine thoroughness and ushered them through the shield in small groups. Hishtari used the delay to collect herself and her thoughts, using one of the nearby mirrors to check the condition of her wardrobe. It won’t do to arrive in disarray, she thought, the turmoil in her mind calming as she completed her survey.
Anyone familiar with Hasshevaran clan patterns would know that she claimed the Vorae standard, with her forest green eyes and shining black fur, naturally short from her ears to her toes. Her family had been bred for generations to capture that obsidian luster. Even the jagged white blaze across her cheek, considered a flaw by genetic purists, only enhanced the Varain’s beauty. Exotic was the word many had used.
Her clothing consisted of hues of red and gold that contrasted well with her fur tone. A length of copper material draped across her shoulders to unite at the waist. Elaborate interweavings of scarves flowed across her chest and down her arms and legs, mostly concealing the rust-colored pants that stopped at mid-calf. She smiled at the flattering arrangement of fabric she had designed.
A guard looked at her admiringly before gesturing her to approach the gates. After that, only a few simms passed before Hishtari found herself escorted through and on her way to Kelhesa’s suite of rooms.
Kelhesa’s personal guard saluted her as she approached. “The Sa is expecting you,” he said, opening the door. She walked through the visiting chamber, where another guard opened the door for her to the counselor’s personal rooms.
The Sa already wore a pair of patris, but nothing else. Servants bustled about pulling out clothing from large closets to present to the counselor. The number of pieces piled behind him in rejection was an eloquent explanation as to why Hishtari had been summoned.
He glanced up when the door slid shut behind her. “Ah, Hishtari. Good. I need you to choose my wardrobe today. The old eyes can’t tell shade from shade anymore.”
She crossed sheathed hands to him and tilted her chin up just a fraction, as befitted her rank. “I am always at your service, my Sa.” At a wave of her hand, the Sa’s regular servants quietly filed out of the suite. Hishtari picked through the discards, mentally visualizing Kelhesa in their colors. “Do you have anything in mind, Kelhesa?”
“It’s a court session, Hishtari, so nothing too elaborate.” The counselor shook his head at the colorful piles, growling, “Had I known beforehand what being First Counselor would entail, I would have taken the military path. Instead, I find myself worrying about all this,” his nose wrinkled, “frippery.”
Hishtari tossed the lengths of expensive fabrics aside with a careless flip of her wrist. “Then we will dispense with the frippery and aim for a more austere look.” She looked at him closely from several different angles, absently biting a nail tip. Her eyes narrowed as they flicked from one color to Kelhesa and then back to another color.
With Kelhesa watching her in amusement as she circled him, Hishtari felt not unlike a small bird of prey hunting one of its larger cousins. He towered over her not because she was female, but because she was not royalty. None of her clan had the height or wideness of chest that he displayed even at his age. In fact, very few of the royals, young or old, looked so handsome bare-chested. An idea formed.
Finally, she spoke. “How does ‘barbaric’ sound?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Imagine, patris, belt, court shoes,” Hishtari paused. “I suppose you need your medallion and hartain.”
“Add chestpiece, medallion, hartain, bandeau, those gold wristbands of yours--”
“I haven’t worn those in years.”
“--but no shirt or any other ornamentation.”
“Not even a ceremonial dagger?” he gibed at her gently.
The Varain centered one ear on him as she dug through a mound of jewelry in the back of a drawer. “If you desire, my Sa.”
“No, I don’t think I could go that far.”
Hishtari pulled the wristbands out with a hiss of triumph. “You could wear an empty scabbard like they did under Emperor Shomesar,” she mentioned, buffing them with a cloth set aside for just such a purpose.
Kelhesa snorted at that remark, then reached a hand out to her. “I can do that, Hishtari. You start on the rest of my new image.”
Tossing the bands and cloth to the Sa, the Varain sat in one of the nearby chairs and swept several strips of different colored fabric into her lap. She cleverly braided the short lengths to form the Sa’s belt and chestpiece. “How is the prince doing, Kelhesa?”
“He’ll be completely well in a few more six-days. In fact, that is why I called you here.” He worked the cloth with a practiced ease uncommon in the highest class. “I understand that those two kittens of yours are nearly ready for their Naming.”
“Why, yes,” Hishtari answered in confusion. “We leave for Tahlmin next six-day.”
The counselor clicked the bands into place. “Have they completed their first service?”
“Not yet. Everyone here seems too busy for a pair of orphans, no matter who their parents were.” Her tail swished at that admission. “I’ve arranged something for them on Tahlmin; a royal there said he wouldn’t mind sponsoring them.” The Ri motioned for Kelhesa to raise his arms; she wrapped the belt around his waist, then brought the remaining fabric up across his chest.
“Good, good.” The Sa twisted his head slightly to see her progress. “What if I arranged for them to do that here?”
“With whom?” She attached his medallion of office to the fabric where the two strips crossed.
“Majisa has invited Kieransar to a small meal, and they will need a few servants for the occasion.” He craned his neck to see himself in the mirror, but his angle was wrong.
“The Sar,” she whispered, half in shock.
“Would the kittens be ready today?”
“Yes, yes.” She put a hand to her heart and felt its rapid beating as she imagined what doors this opportunity would open for her small charges. “I’ll have Darine pick them up from school immediately.” Her glance returned to the old Varan, eyes narrowing shrewdly. “Why do I have the feeling that your favor has fangs in it?”
“You always look beneath the surface, don’t you, Hishtari?” Kelhesa spent a moment fiddling with his wristbands before slowly answering, “I want you to observe Kieransar.”
She fastened a blue and silver bandeau across his forehead. “What would I be looking for?”
“Just give me your general impression. I don’t want to bias you too much.”
“Does this have anything to do with the prince’s changed behavior lately?”
“It might.” He placed a hand on her arm. “I would very much appreciate this, Ri.”
She pulled herself from his grip and walked to the other side of the room where his court outfit rested over the back of a chair. “Let me think about this.”
“You don’t have much time to decide.”
Several simms passed in silence as Hishtari prepared the silvery blue hartain, the ceremonial robes worn in court. She fastened the shoulder-piece in place and untied two small knots, one on each side of his neck. A long rectangle of fabric adorned with rounded fretwork fell over each shoulder almost to the floor.
She picked up a brush to put the finishing touches on the Sa’s white mane, deftly twisting small locks of hair around his headband. “There,” she said with approval, transferring her attention to the clothing. “I really shouldn’t let you go out like this, or you may start a trend. And where would I be if the court decided for simplicity?”
“Still telling courtiers why one color will not go with another, even if they are wearing less clothing.” Kelhesa rose from his seat and looked at himself in the mirror. “Such good taste you have, Ri,” he remarked, admiring the swirl of colors. “You can make even so old a Varan as I look younger.”
Hishtari did not look up. “I only bring out what is already there, Sa.”
The counselor smiled. “You have been a great help to me lately.” His nose twitched, reacting to an errant scent, and he turned his head toward Hishtari in surprise. “What’s wrong? Why are you so anxious at that remark?”
“It’s nothing, Sa,” she answered calmly.
“Hishtari, you can’t hide behind sweet fragrances in my chambers. Give me a complete answer.”
The Ri stopped her adjustments and met the counselor’s eyes in the mirror. “You do call on me a lot. People wonder, especially after your talk with the Emperor.”
Kelhesa tilted his head at her, regarding her with a narrowed glance. “Are you worried that someone will find out you are a Wayfinder?”
“It’s a legitimate fear, Kelhesa.” She resumed brushing his hair, not because it required the attention, but because she needed to keep her hands occupied. “I saw what happened to Telmar and the others in the Quiet Purge three years ago.”
“There won’t be another purge, not while I have the Emperor’s favor.”
“For the kittens’ sake, I can’t risk disclosure,” Hishtari said soberly. “As their guardian, anything I do or say will have repercussions on their futures.”
Kelhesa settled back into the chair. “Perhaps there will come a time soon when our people won’t need to fear discovery,” he remarked slowly. He watched the Ri carefully as he spoke the next few words. “Even the Imperial Branch is not immune to the Master’s call.”
When Hishtari caught the hint contained in that ambiguous statement, she nearly dropped the brush. “You’ve been talking to the prince, haven’t you?”
“Actually, he approached me.” The counselor shrugged. “The Master does as the Master wills.”
Hishtari stared at him in horror. “And you’re trying to tell me there won’t be another purge? The Emperor will want to know everyone you have contact with, and I’ve been coming nearly every day for the past twelve!”
“Watch your tone, Ri,” Kelhesa said sharply. She visibly tensed at his words, and he sighed. “Little one, half the castle calls on you for your opinions on clothing. No one will twitch an ear at your visits.”
She turned her back to him, her hands occupying themselves with the fabric in his wardrobe. “I must sound like a coward.”
“That’s the last word I would attribute to you. As I recall, it was your influence with your family that kept Telmar’s sentence from being worse than branding and banishment.” His voice softened. “Just don’t let your caution deafen you to a higher call, Ri.”
Her eyes and ears tilted to the ground.
Kelhesa pushed her chin up with one long finger until old eyes met young. “Take your kittens and serve the Sar today. That’s all I ask.”
“As you wish, my Sa.”
* * *
The kittens’ reaction to the news was delightfully predictable. “The prince?” they squeaked, eyes wide, ears straight, and tails quivering.
Hishtari winced at the high pitch of their voices. “Yes, the prince,” she replied.
Darine, Hishtari’s only live-in servant, drew the kittens through the door where Hishtari had met them. “And if you serve well, maybe he will give you your names,” the matronly Varain said.
“We can really get our names today?” one asked. “We don’t have to wait--”
“But we’re not on Tahlmin, yet,” her brother interrupted. “I thought--”
“Enough!” Hishtari cried. “At least wait until I’ve answered one question before asking another. No, you don’t have to wait until we reach Tahlmin.”
“So we do get our names?”
She nodded. “Solari and Emriri, as promised.”
“Can we wear the clothes you made?”
The Varain swept a hand across the receiving room toward their chambers. “I’ve laid them on your beds.” Before she could blink, they had shed their school shoes and bags, rounded the corner, and vanished from sight. She followed at a more leisurely pace, thinking, Would that they always obeyed me so quickly.
As she passed the stairwell, the Ri glanced longingly up toward her own rooms, wishing she had time for a shower. No, what I really want is to bury myself in pillows and not come out again for a six-day.
“Shall I help them dress, Ri?” Darine called as she deftly picked up what the kittens had left behind. “You probably want to prepare yourself.”
“Yes, Darine. That would help.” Hishtari leapt up the stairs, calling back, “But I’ll be down soon to finish them up. After all, it’s their day.”
Her home was large, but not palatial by any means. Certainly not as grand as those of royalty around her in upper Shadis or in the palace. However, it was more tastefully decorated than most. Upstairs, in Hishtari’s private sanctuary, the lighting remained dimmed. Lights in her tiny sleeping room didn’t even reach levels of normal illumination, leaving it in perpetual, soothing twilight. No furniture, just pillows.
In her study, Hishtari used every color in the rainbow, from rhodis to violet, each slowly merging into the next. Cushions and chairs dotted the room so she could choose to surround herself in whichever color reflected her mood. Ledges wide enough to support her jutted from the walls at many different levels, some nearly to the ceiling that rose three full body lengths from the floor.
Passing quickly beyond both the sleeping chamber and study, the Ri entered her dressing room. “Lights, full,” she called. She untied the scarves, carefully hanging them on rods to keep them from creasing in the wrong places, and chose a more subdued style of clothing to replace what she had worn in the morning. Can’t outshine the ones you serve, I suppose, she thought, looking with mild regret at what she had just put away, and descended to help her young charges.
Downstairs, the furniture bespoke a more utilitarian style, since many of the finer things were lost on, if not destroyed by, young kittens. Even here, every piece showed her good taste. Soothing forest tones welcomed the visitor in the reception room, while more earthy colors dominated the hallways and the kitchen in the back. Hishtari followed the corridor even farther back to the chambers of the kittens.
They were nearly ready when she entered. Darine turned the kittens toward Hishtari for a final inspection. They were a handsome young pair even in their unadorned shirts and patris, with their smooth, brown fur and cream-colored muzzles. Most people found it impossible to tell the two apart; even the white marks on their ears matched. Such confusion was normal, since there was almost no difference in frame between the male and female of the species.
The Ri turned to Darine. “I didn’t know they could dress that quickly.”
“And everything is in the right place, as well,” Darine replied, nodding her mottled gray head.
The kittens were so excited that Hishtari thought their heartbeats would run off without them. “Let me look at you both.” She twirled each of them around, scrutinizing them with a professional eye. “At least you’re presentable,” the Ri muttered under her breath.
She wetted a finger with her tongue and smoothed away the remains of lunch on one kitten’s muzzle. The other came in for her turn. They submitted cheerfully to such motherly attention, though they could barely keep themselves still.
Straightening up, Hishtari gave them one final glance. “Now, you’ve both had your water?” They nodded. “And gone to the bathroom?” Another nod. “So you won’t suddenly need to stop on our way to the Hunting Grounds.”
“We’re ready, Hishtari.”
She took a little hand into each of hers. “Then why are we standing around here? Your destiny awaits.”
Hishtari led her two young charges to the Hunting Grounds, following nearly the same route she had traversed to reach Kelhesa’s quarters. As they walked, the kittens overwhelmed her with questions.
“But why do we have to serve? Darine can do better.”
“Everyone has to, Sal--”
The kitten hissed. “Don’t say it,” he warned, tail swinging back and forth like a pendulum. “Don’t even think it. That was my dad’s name, not mine anymore.”
“It’s still yours until . . .” Hishtari looked at the little Varan, whose open face revealed to her his earnestness. She crossed sheathed hands to him, though they rested nowhere near her chest. “Very well, oh Nameless One. Even the prince had to serve for his six-year name.”
“The Emperor too?”
“The Emperor too.”
Why am I always on the losing side of these “why” games? Hishtari wondered idly. “Haven’t I answered this question before?”
“You said it was to test our scents,” his sister spoke up.
“That’s one reason, yes. Kittens have a very special smell to them that Varane don’t like, unless they’re your father or brothers or closely related. Instinct would make them react against you. They wouldn’t mean to, but they might hurt you.” Or even kill you, she thought but did not say.
“But you like our scent, right?”
“I love your scent. All Varaine do. It makes us want to protect you. However, you don’t have that scent anymore, and this service will prove that.”
“What’s the other reason?” asked the cub-to-be.
“It’s the same reason why you will have trials for Coming of Age at twelve and First Rites at eighteen--to make sure you deserve your titles. Can you obey, are you strong, and, finally, can you lead?”
“But why?” two voices wailed in perfect unison.
She raised her eyes skyward. “Ask the gods. They’re the ones who ordered it, the priests say.”
When they came to the entrance of the Hunting Grounds, Hishtari pulled them both toward her and nuzzled them, whiskers mingling with whiskers. “I am so proud of you,” she whispered. Her ears twitched as she realized that soon they would no longer be “kittens” in the legal sense, rankless, genderless, invisible in the eyes of the law, but young nobility, kit and cub.
Her tail wrapped around first one waist and then the other as they clung to her. You won’t be just mine anymore, she lamented, then controlled herself. “Now don’t worry, I’ll be right beside you if you need me. Just remember to keep your ears aimed at the one you are serving, so they don’t have to repeat themselves. And watch how you speak.” She smiled as she let them go. “If your voices go any higher, you’ll run out of sound.”
With those words of encouragement, Hishtari pushed them toward the picnic area, a part of the Hunting Grounds kept clear of any dangerous wildlife. Guards kept watch in inconspicuous places, Hishtari’s first clue that the prince had already arrived. Malkut and Ivret sat attentively behind the Sar, who was stretched out on the grass awaiting the arrival of Majisa.
Hishtari saw his head turn as they approached. A look of relief swept quickly across his face as he recognized them. Hishtari inwardly chuckled. Are you hoping Majisa will decide not to come, my Sar? she thought as she gave hnismuth. The twins anxiously bowed; no kitten would show throat to a Varan for fear the temptation would be too great, and no Hasshevaran other than a kitten could bow with any grace.
Kieransar nodded his acknowledgement. “Are these the ones Kelhesa was talking about, Ri?” he asked.
“Yes, my Sar,” she replied.
He sniffed each of them in turn before inclining his head slightly, a signal for her to proceed.
Hishtari relaxed and spoke the traditional words. “Great prince, this one dares to ask permission to serve.”
“May I request the names of those who serve?”
“This one is named Hishtari, daughter of Glediri of the Vorae. Two others, who have not yet been given names, wish to show their worthiness in service.”
Kieransar looked at the kittens with narrowed eyes, as if debating their worthiness. His tail, however, moved in long arcs of amusement. “Are you sure they’re old enough?” he questioned, watching the kittens squirm. At Hishtari’s exaggerated nod, he said, “Very well. I accept your service.”
At Hishtari’s gesture, her charges gave hnismuth for the very first time--it was a sight to make her tail kink--and sat near Malkut and Ivret to await Majisa’s entrance. As soon as they were out of earshot, the prince tipped his head forward slightly. “How long can they last?” he asked, his voice barely crossing the distance to the Ri.
“First serving, maybe pour you a drink,” she whispered back.
“And then where will you send them while you finish serving here?”
Hishtari looked at him closely, surprised that he would actually be interested. “This is the Hunting Grounds, my Sar.”
“And their six-year names are a key to certain previously inaccessible playgrounds?”
“My Sar speaks the truth. A friend of mine promised to look after them until I have finished here.”
The prince nodded and waved her back toward the others. Hishtari knelt near the warriors and watched, blending into her surroundings, the observer rather than the observed.
Malkut, too, spent his time in observation, watching his Sar curiously. Kieransar had been acting strangely all six-day, what with priests entering and leaving his rooms at all daars. Not to mention his unusual interest in the people around him. It’s as if he’s seeing them for the first time, Malkut thought. And his temper! Normally, the prince was irritable at best when ill. This time, he was almost . . . indifferent to it. Well, Kieransar had let out a few snarls and biting remarks against Ivret, but--and at this Malkut couldn’t stop himself from shaking his head in amazement--the Sar had actually apologized. Ivret had looked as if his heart stopped.
Malkut’s gaze drifted to the warrior sitting beside him. The latest in a long line of servants, Ivret had come far since his arrival. His reactions during the Sar’s illness, his ability to keep a calm front when muzzle to muzzle with panic, had impressed Malkut. He vividly recalled the scene of a nervous Ivret staving off a group of court gossips who, except for Kieransar’s weakened condition, would never have dreamed of coming near the Sar’s rooms. He’s still too obsequious for his own good, but that will pass. After all, he still has six months to go before his test of First Rites. After that, he’ll learn that a warrior can get away with more than an ordinary servant.
A commotion at the entrance of the Grounds brought Malkut out of his reverie. Majisa entered with four Varaine, warriors attached to the princess as her personal servants; a few discreet hand signals spread them out in a large circle, mingling with those of Kieransar’s guard.
Majisa’s ears flattened when she saw who was to serve them. “I don’t remember asking for more servants.”
“That’s because I did, Majisa,” Kieransar said calmly. “I’ve been asked to give them their names, something I will find great pleasure in doing.”
His tail didn’t even twitch, Malkut noticed with approval, then quietly sniffed the air. The prince’s smell remained unchanged. He’s getting much better at controlling his feelings.
“Of course, Kieransar,” Majisa conceded with a demure nod, then sat beside him.
However, Majisa herself served the prince. The kittens found themselves scurrying from one dish to the next, bringing small samples of everything to the princess, who in turn offered them to Kieransar. Malkut watched in amusement as the kittens adjusted to this unexpected change in plans with heads close together and whispered comments. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, but the glances they gave each other when they left Majisa’s side made him glad the princess couldn’t hear them either.
The conversation meandered from topic to topic, all of which were Majisa’s choice. Kieransar made the appropriate noises at the appropriate times, but volunteered nothing. The Sa certainly understands the workings of the monologue, Malkut thought wryly. If only she would talk about hunting. Kieransar is always enthusiastic about that. However, no one had spoken to him about hunting since his accident. Malkut could have told the Sa she worried needlessly about offending Kieransar, but that would have been revealing what the warrior considered confidential information. Besides, her manner, not to mention her scent, is definitely predatory. Doesn’t Majisa realize that this will only drive the prince further away? She’s so obvious about what she wants. No wonder Kieransar is keeping his distance. He doesn’t like being hunted.
Judging from her expression, the princess realized that something was amiss. Her eyes darted from face to face, settling on her diminutive servants. Majisa turned to the prince. “These kittens have served nobly, Kieransar,” she purred. “They are truly worthy of gaining their names. However, they appear to be growing tired.”
Kieransar, who looked rather tired himself, motioned for the Ri and her kittens to approach him. “I have found your service to be of incomparable value, Hishtari of the Vorae, and that of your charges as well.” He turned to the kittens, who, faces blank, looked to Hishtari for help.
“Kneel down,” she whispered.
They did so, and Kieransar lightly placed a hand on each small head. “What names have been chosen for them?”
“Solari and Emriri, my Sar, when they have Come of Age.”
“And until then?”
“The one on your left would be Soli, the other Emri.”
“Then until the day when you gain full rank and title, you, Solari,” he moved his hand down from the kitten’s head until it cupped her chin, “are Soli, and you, Emriri,” he did the same to Soli’s brother, “are Emri. Do you accept this as your right and due for your service here today?”
Big eyes lifted to his. “Oh, yes, please,” their little voices piped.
Kieransar raised his hands to the scent sacs behind his ears and pressed down. “It is so ordered,” he said, rubbing the scent-laden palms on the head of each kitten, proclaiming them kit and cub for all the world to know. Their actions might still show kittenish tendencies over the next several twelve-days--and adults might still think of them as kittens--but no Varan could harm them. They were safe.
“Now,” the prince continued, “I believe you have other things to do today.” Soli and Emri did not move from their kneeling position. “You’re dismissed.”
At that, Soli’s eyes rose from their view of the ground. “Please, my Sar, could we stay for the rest of the meal?”
“We won’t get in the way,” Emri added.
Malkut looked over at Hishtari, who covered her face with her hands.
Kieransar’s eyes flitted to where Majisa sat, rigid with consternation at the young ones’ request. That’s decided him, Malkut thought. As long as the kittens are around, there is no way the Sa can get as close to him as she would like.
The prince gestured toward Hishtari’s resting place. “I don’t see why not.”
Malkut shifted slightly to gain Kieransar’s attention. “Perhaps it would be wise if you returned to your chambers soon, my Sar.” He rose and offered his hand to help a startled Majisa rise, whispering as he did so, “I mean no disrespect, Sa, but Kieransar is uncomfortable showing his injury in front of others. I’m sure you understand why he wants to leave last.”
“Of course, warrior,” she said, standing gracefully. Raising her voice, Majisa addressed the prince. “I hope you will join me again soon for a meal, Kieransar.”
He smiled politely and nodded, his smile turning into a closed-eye sigh of relief as he watched her retreating figure. When Majisa and her warriors could no longer be seen beyond the entrance of the Hunting Grounds, Kieransar finally relaxed. “That was the longest meal of my life,” he muttered under his breath, just barely loud enough for Malkut’s pricked ears to catch.
“And much too short for your hostess.” Malkut shook his head. “That one is determined to be Empress with or without your help, my Sar,” he said soberly.
Kieransar groaned. “And I’m expected to marry her!”
Giving his prince a penetrating stare, Malkut asked, “Is that such a bad thing?”
“Not if she really is the best choice.” Kieransar’s eyes glazed slightly on that last word, as if thinking about other matters. “But how can I know what the best choice is if I’m not allowed to study the matter? I can’t decide such important decisions based on a few brief encounters.”
Malkut’s gaze became quizzical. “But you’ve known her all your life.”
“I wasn’t--oh, never mind.”
The warrior shrugged. “Marrying Majisa would bring you that much closer to reinstating the two Lines of Succession.”
“Not to mention giving her a chance at the title of High Empress if she has both a son and a daughter.”
Malkut eased himself lazily onto his back. “Well, you could just make her First Consort instead and dash all her plans at once.” Ivret looked properly shocked at that remark.
“Hishtari,” Soli whispered loudly enough for Malkut to hear. “Wouldn’t Majisa have to be High Empress if she married the prince?”
Malkut watched Hishtari’s discomfort with amusement. How will you get yourself out of this one in Kieransar’s presence, Ri?
The prince, who also heard her, saved the Ri from having to answer that possibly incriminating question. “No, because she’s not the Scion. You see,” he continued, leaning toward them, “there were two lines of succession, the Heir and the Scion. The Heir always became Emperor with the title ‘Sar.’ The Scion, well, she always became First Priestess with the title ‘Sara.’
“Every four generations, the lines came together through marriage. When that happened, the Heir and Scion received the title of High Emperor and Empress. That was supposed to happen with my father and Faelinsara’s daughter. However, when she and her father Lohansa died in that accident, the Line of the Scion died with them.”
“And Majisa is the closest Varain to that line, which is why Kieransar will probably marry her,” Malkut interjected, receiving a glare for his helpful commentary.
Soli and Emri thought about this for a simm, faces screwed in concentration. “So the Scion would have been your mother if she hadn’t died,” Emri said slowly.
Kieransar nodded. “And my sister--if I had one--would have been the new Scion.”
“And the whole thing would have spiraled all over again,” Hishtari added.
Soli spoke up. “That means your,” she paused, “great-grandson would have been High Emperor?”
“Exactly.” Kieransar turned to their guardian. “Smart kittens.”
Hishtari ducked her head at that remark, but not before Malkut saw the proud smile. “They have promise, my Sar.”
The prince passed a weary hand over his eyes. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll return to my rooms.”
“Of course, my Sar.” As if on cue, the kittens lost all semblance of decorum and ran yelling through the woods. Hishtari raced after them.
They watched Hishtari and her two ecstatic charges disappear into the trees before rising themselves. Kieransar tiredly dusted the grass and twigs from his clothing and reached for his cane, his only concession to his infirmity.
Knowing what the prince’s reaction would be, Malkut did not bother offering to call for a hoverchair. He reluctantly settled for walking as close to Kieransar’s stiff leg as he was permitted. Ivret stayed slightly behind the two of them, watching his prince carefully. The rest of the guard ranged around the three as they slowly made their way to Kieransar’s chambers.
* * *
When Hishtari finally slipped through the door to her home, she did not even turn on the lights. Racing up the stairs, she passed a hand over the perfume selectors and then dived into her mound of pillows. The Ri stayed that way until the mists spraying above her head seeped into every upstairs corner, their pervasive smells easily covering her own over-stimulated scent glands. “Spray off,” she hissed, trusting the computer’s sensitive audio sensors to understand her muffled voice.
An unwelcome buzz sounded from the door. The Ri closed her eyes and groaned. “Door, who is there?”
The computer’s melodic voice responded, “The First Counselor Kelhesa desires entrance.”
Definitely too much excitement for one day, Hishtari thought as she pulled herself up and headed for the door. “Allow entrance,” she called. The door opened for the imposing figure of Hanesar’s favorite advisor.
“I came to offer my congratulations,” Kelhesa said, looking around, “but it appears you will have to pass them on for me.”
“I sent Soli and Emri back to school.” She motioned for him to sit. “How did the Court react to your wardrobe?”
The counselor took the most comfortable chair, saying, “Half were scandalized, while the other half took notes. In all, a rousing success.” He tilted an ear at her. “I’m surprised no one has called you for your expertise.”
“I haven’t had a chance to review my messages quite yet.”
“I can imagine. Taking care of two kittens who have just received their names must be a tiring job. Your cub and kit must be proud of themselves.”
Giving an exaggerated sigh, she said, “They’ll be insufferable now.”
“Word has it they served for the entire meal. That’s quite a feat for ones so young.”
Hishtari nodded. “They lasted far longer than I would have wagered.” She watched the Sa shift uncomfortably and guessed at the source. “It’s obvious you want to ask about Kieransar. Go ahead. The kittens aren’t here to be offended.” The last came out in a voice closer to a snarl, and the Varain mentally berated herself for her lack of control.
“Claws in, claws in!” Kelhesa cried.
“My apologies, Sa.”
“None necessary, Hishtari. Your day has been unusual enough without my interference.” Kelhesa gave her a tentative smile, one she did not return. “Well, what were your impressions?”
“I’ve often served royalty who were in Kieransar’s presence, and that is not the same Kieransar,” she stated.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve never seen him answer questions so freely. And the way he reacted to the kittens! He never has that kind of patience normally. In fact, Majisa must think she’s gained ground in the fight to win his respect. He didn’t interrupt her, smell bored, or even yawn, though I know he wanted to.”
“And what other impressions did you receive?” Kelhesa asked, leaning forward.
Hishtari sighed inwardly, knowing she would not be afforded the time to find the best words. “You ask a great deal for such a short period of observation,” she remarked, though her words lacked bite. “However, he did indirectly speak of a choice before him, one he was currently unwilling to make.” Even as she said those last words, Hishtari wondered if they were true, remembering the look of longing that had briefly touched Kieransar’s face. “Or perhaps unready would be the better term. He said he needed a chance to study the issue.”
“By questioning the priests until all daars, for example?”
“That would fit with what I sensed,” Hishtari confirmed, then hesitantly added, “I am assuming the choice would have to do with the Master and the Way.”
Kelhesa arched his whiskers in agreement and settled back into his chair. “So he hasn’t decided, then.”
“He may not have announced his choice, but I sense he wishes to accept. Deep inside, perhaps he already has.”
“I wouldn’t think that discretion is part of Kieransar’s character. When he makes a choice, everyone knows it.”
“Perhaps when you taught him, but now . . . I think you do him an injustice. Kieransar knows exactly what his father thinks of the Way, and I’ve noticed that the Emperor is the one person he doesn’t want to disappoint.”
“Your ability to discern is far better than mine, Hishtari.”
Even though he spoke only the truth, Hishtari still thawed slightly at the compliment. “Diplomat,” she muttered.
He huffed at her dig, then looked toward the door. “I suppose I should be away before someone wonders about the length of our talk.”
“Congratulatory visits do tend to be short, my Sa.” She let her gaze become more conciliatory. “Though yours has been less forced than some I’ve seen.”
Kelhesa shrugged and cocked his head. “It’s the diplomat in me.”
* * *
Hanesar’s claws nicked polished wood as he tapped the table in irritation. “You haven’t stated specifically what he told you, priest.”
Destori, the First Priest of Hasshevar, took a deep breath before answering. “He has told me very little, Sar. He questions a great deal.” At the Emperor’s pointed stare, the priest elaborated, “The only facts I know for certain are that Kieransar felt something out of the ordinary on the Hunting Grounds and he wants to know what it was. Though he refuses to go into details, I speculate that whatever happened has affected him deeply. A case in point is how I became involved in the prince’s search.
“A few days ago, one of my assistants called me in the early daars of the morning to answer questions he felt were beyond his explanation. The sun was high in the sky before I left Kieransar’s rooms.” He settled more firmly into the chair he claimed as his own whenever he met with the Emperor in the private audience chamber. “It felt as if his religious training had already started.”
“That thought should fill you with delight, Destori.”
The priest slumped forward slightly, affecting a frailer pose. “I am an old Varan, my Sar. I relish a full night’s sleep.”
“You’re a sorcerer,” Hanesar growled. “You probably have more years left in you than I’ve already lived.”
Destori acknowledged the truth of this statement with a nod. Though nearly ninety years old, the priest had the health of a Varan in his prime. No white streaked the naturally blue-gray fur, and he still outfought most of the younger priests he trained. Even the furred tattoos that covered his left arm in a swirl of inks and dyes had not faded with time. However, it was his eyes that caught and held the attention of others, those ageless blue eyes that betrayed his profession. The mark of a sorcerer.
Even the Emperor had trouble meeting those cerulean orbs for long, though he tried. What aren’t you telling me, priest? he wondered as he returned the conversation to its original topic. “But Kieransar’s ‘experience,’ his recent behavior--none of this can be attributed to the poisoning?”
Destori shook his head. “Inquisitiveness is not one of banil’s symptoms, no, Hanesar.” The Emperor searched the old priest’s face for any hint of humor but found only seriousness. The priest added, “And neither are hallucinations.”
“So you spent an entire day with my son, and you can tell me nothing specific?”
“I wouldn’t place it at that extreme, my Sar. His questions do have a certain pattern to them.”
“And what kinds of questions did he ask?”
“They center around which gods have the power to contact him directly.”
Hanesar’s hand reached absently toward his whiskers as he pondered what he had just heard. “So we’re back to whatever he felt on the Hunting Grounds.”
“As I said, the incident seems to have made a deep impression. I told him that only the highest gods in the Hierarchy have such authority. Of those, three are currently known to intervene so obviously in mortal affairs.” He paused. “Unfortunately, the prince seemed dissatisfied with our answers.”
“These gods would give certain distinct signs to prove their legitimacy.” Destori shifted forward in his chair, elbows resting lightly on the tabletop. “Some of them you probably learned in school, like Cala and her spear of light. Others are known only to the priesthood, to confirm a vision or manifestation.”
“So, you are having a problem identifying one?”
“I wish it were that easy,” Destori muttered. “Kieransar maintains that no such manifestations appeared. Frankly, we in the Order are at a loss.”
“None of our gods fit?”
“None. In fact, Kieransar seemed to expect that.”
“Why? Did he have another god in mind already?”
“It is a possibility.”
Hanesar rolled his whiskers in contemplation. “Has he made any references to Kelhesa’s religion?”
“The Way?” Destori snorted. “When we asked him if he had heard about it, he said, and I quote, ‘If it could have any bearing on my experience, I want to know more. What can you tell me?’“ The priest gave Hanesar an amused look. “Your son is quite adept at answering a question with a question.”
“So what is your opinion, Destori? Should I be concerned about his unusual behavior?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“Then what do you advise?”
The old priest’s eyes unfocused slightly as he turned inward on the problem. “There have been foreseeings . . .” he said, more to himself than to Hanesar.
Gray and gold ears riveted on Destori. “Foreseeings? About Kieransar?”
Destori stiffened slightly at his own slip, the only outward sign of his disquietude. The fact that he had reacted at all surprised Hanesar. The sorcerer rarely betrayed what he was thinking. “A few of the priests sense a coming unrest, a time of danger,” Destori finally said, “focused in part on Kieransar.”
The Emperor leaned forward across the narrow table that separated them, bringing his eyes uncomfortably close to Destori’s. “Why haven’t I been told about this before?”
Destori glanced away, unwilling to meet Hanesar’s penetrating stare. “Divination is an inexact science at best, Hanesar. We didn’t wish to worry you unduly.”
“Worry me, Destori?” Hanesar asked mildly, his eyes partially lidded. “Why should the fear of losing my first-born son worry me? After all, he’s only the hope of the Empire.”
“I assure you, my Sar, the prince will sit on high as the next Emperor,” the priest stated with unwavering intensity. “Everything we have foreseen points to that. He will be the leader we’ve been waiting for.”
“And his preoccupation with gods and powers?”
Destori hesitated. “If there is something, some power, trying to contact the prince . . .”
“We have no guarantee that this power is benevolent. I would prefer having him under our protection.”
“I don’t think your priests could make the castle any safer than it already is, Destori.”
“I didn’t mean here, my Sar.” At the Emperor’s questioning glance, the priest added, “I meant Tahlmin.”
look of stunned disbelief uncharacteristically crossed Hanesar’s face before
melting into a mask of concentration.
“Perhaps I should talk to Kieransar myself, first.”
After a six-day of constant occupation, Kieransar’s quarters appeared almost habitable. The servants made sure of that, once they discovered that the prince wouldn’t throw them out on sight as he usually did when confined to his rooms. Of course, the cleaning of his sleeping chambers had been done while Kieransar was with Majisa. Pillows which before had been scattered haphazardly throughout the chambers after yet another game of “pillow-ball” to relieve the day’s tedium were placed neatly in corners and on the prince’s bed. His clothes resided in their proper places, and the disks of books stacked up against the mobile computer terminal rested in their proper casings. Ivret, too, looked less harried than the prince’s servants usually did under these circumstances.
The Sar lay sprawled out on his bed with the computer terminal hovering beside him. The toes of his injured leg peeked out from underneath a medical blanket. The thin, specially made fabric sent soothing pulses to counter the itching common to such wounds. It helped, though Kieransar’s hand still absently reached downward from time to time while his mind pondered other things. He peered intently at the screen, his ears first perked forward, then laid back in frustration as if competing with the hardware itself.
Aside from the clans whose specialty they were, relatively few Hasshevarans truly understood the workings of the machines that made possible the ease of their daily lives. A person spoke, and the computers obeyed within the limits of their programming, making further knowledge unnecessary. Even fewer could communicate using the machines’ own language, and Kieransar was one of those few despite his royal birth--an oddity, he realized, in an age of specialization. He could say without conceit that there were none better on Hasshevar, though he did garner a certain amount of pride from that admission. After all, he could not boast of his looks, since they had been deliberately encoded within his cells, and though his intelligence was also given to him, the genetic designers had intended that intelligence to focus on the vagaries of interstellar rule, not the details of binary code. It was Kieransar’s independence, his way of saying, “I am more than you made me.”
The ringing of tones alerted the room’s two occupants to a guest waiting outside, and the guard in the corridor called, “The First Counselor wishes to see you, my Sar.”
Kieransar looked up from his work and casually pushed a button, clearing the screen. “Allow him access.” Ivret opened the inner door to reveal Kelhesa, still in robes of state.
At least, he wore the hartain and medallion. The customary floor-length and elaborately embroidered robes were nowhere to be seen. Both Kieransar and Ivret took a long second look at the counselor’s unusual apparel, the warrior trying not to make his stare too obvious. The prince didn’t bother to hide his surprised double take. “It appears I’m not the only one giving the gossips something to talk about.”
Kelhesa watched the prince’s reaction in amusement. “I doubt that anything I do could make the court lessen its interest in its foolhardy prince.” He crossed hands to Kieransar before making his way to the nearest chair, a heavily padded one with the requisite slit for the tail. “How is my Sar feeling today?”
The prince turned in his bed to face the counselor, wincing at the fire in his leg. “As well as can be expected, I guess, after being almost killed from a flesh wound.”
“A flesh wound contaminated with banil sap, no less.” Kelhesa gave his former student a solemn look.
“How was I supposed to know that the buck had sharpened his horns on a banilog bush less than a daar before I jumped him? I thought we had eradicated it from the Grounds years ago.”
“Weeds aren’t known for their tractability.” Was there a hint of a smile on his old tutor’s face? “And neither are Crown Princes.”
Kieransar fell back on his mountain of pillows, covering his face with large hands. “I know, I know. I’ve gotten that talk from just about everyone who dared. I was wondering when it would be your turn.” One eye peeked out from between two fingers. “What do you do, put your names on a list to see who’s next? Or is it by rank?”
“We draw lots.” The old Varan’s smile faded to a troubled look, but he tried to keep his next words light. “And my sources tell me that your father has decided by imperial decree that he is next. But not just to talk about your battle scars.” He glanced meaningfully at the disk beside the computer.
Those words brought Kieransar to a sitting position. “How . . .?” He stopped as Kelhesa’s ears twitched toward Ivret, who was in his accustomed place in the corner nearest the door.
The young warrior kept his back straight, and he looked directly into his Sar’s eyes. His tail moved uncomfortably. “My Sar’s reading material is his own business.” The prince sighed, realizing for the first time how much his servant knew despite his precautions. As if he knew his master’s thought, Ivret hastened to comfort the prince. “I would never betray you, keeper of my soul.”
Kieransar’s ears perked and his eyes widened in amazement at the use of so powerful a title. It spoke volumes to the prince about a side he had never before seen in his young servant. “That’s the Emperor’s role.” Ivret said nothing. The prince motioned to him with a flick of his hand and said, “Speak freely.”
Ivret shrugged. “I’m no expert on religion. But the Emperor himself gave me to be your strong arm. And if I am your arm--”
Kieransar completed the old saying, “--then I am your heart. Thank you, Ivret.” His mind returned to the problem. “So who told?”
His gaze transferred to his old tutor, who shrugged. “One of the maids, perhaps? It’s impossible to keep a secret for long in this castle. Especially when you draw as much attention to yourself as you have this past six-day.”
The prince gave Kelhesa a questioning glance, but it was Ivret who answered. “You have . . . greatly changed since your last talk with the counselor.”
“Have I?” Kieransar’s face grew thoughtful. “I’ve been . . . experimenting, I suppose, is the word for it. Acting as if I were a Wayfinder, applying some of its precepts.”
Kelhesa acknowledged that with a measured sweep of his tail against the side of the chair. “You certainly have an audience for it.”
“No wonder my father wants to see me. Who has he talked to?”
“Several of the priests. Destori, of course, and Jeleret--”
“Jeleret.” Kieransar spit that name out in distaste. “I haven’t liked him since I was a cub. Destori sent him to me after we started talking. He is supposed to be the resident expert on the Way.”
“Yes, we’ve had many a talk on the subject.”
“Can you believe,” and at this the prince shook his head, “that he doesn’t even have a copy of the Book of Two Covenants?”
“Not even the Library computer contains a copy, Kieransar.”
“So I found out after my first talk with Destori,” the prince grumbled. “Emperor’s orders.”
Kelhesa shrugged. “I’m sure Jeleret has much of it memorized.”
“Only the parts he disagrees with, it seems.”
“That’s unfair, Kieransar,” Kelhesa admonished.
“Well, how could someone get a balanced view of the Way if Jeleret’s the only source of information?” Kieransar slipped the disk into the computer’s slot. At the counselor’s abrupt intake of breath, he raised a calming hand. “Don’t worry,” he said, a smile twisting its way to the surface. “I disabled the system some time ago. This terminal only does what I tell it to do.”
Kieransar nodded. “If my father knows about the disk, he sniffed out its existence from somewhere else.”
“I believe the disk is safe for now. However, if you show more knowledge of the Way than Jeleret has exposed you to . . .” Kelhesa trailed off ominously.
“I just don’t understand how he can feel threatened by this.” At Kelhesa’s glance, the prince squirmed. “Okay, maybe I can a little. But it’s not as if I’m allying myself with Sebe or anything.”
“Hanesar is worried about you. If he thinks this ‘absurd religion,’ as he calls it, might endanger your chance to gain the throne, there is very little he wouldn’t do.”
Kieransar winced at the tone of the counselor’s voice. “Thank you for the warning, Kelhesa.”
The old Varan watched his prince intently. “I am always at your service, my Sar.”
“You’re placing yourself in an awkward position, you know. The priests already suspect you’ve talked to me about the Way.”
“However, neither they nor the Emperor know how much to attribute to me and how much to your…” Kelhesa pulled his chair closer to the prince’s bed, “renowned stubbornness.”
“And the disk?” Kieransar asked in a nervous tone.
“We’ll have to make certain Hanesar never knows I gave it to you,” the counselor answered firmly.
“I’ll think of something to tell him if he does know I have it. Besides, losing it won’t hurt my studies either way. I’ve scanned it into the memory banks of the Library.”
“And when your father orders it deleted?”
Kieransar sat up straighter. “He may find that a little harder than he thinks.”
The old Varan waited for more of an answer. When he didn’t receive one, he asked, “How will you stop it?”
The prince tapped the computer’s keyboard methodically. “I’ll tell you once I talk with my father. Maybe we won’t need to worry.” But his scent told the others how unlikely he thought that scenario was.
* * *
Less than a haat after Kelhesa left, Hanesar made his planned visit. Kelhesa must have some kind of information network, Kieransar thought admiringly. I should take notes.
As the door opened to let his father enter, the prince found himself oddly detached from his surroundings. This was the moment he had been dreading. Strange. It’s not as if I’ve already made a decision or anything.
The Emperor walked into the room and stood at the foot of his son’s bed. Tail twitching uncomfortably, he waited for a servant to bring in his favorite chair. He scanned the prince from ears to feet, not saying a word. Kieransar sat patiently, betraying nothing to his father’s probing yellow eyes, a trick he had learned from that self-same monarch.
As soon as his chair had been placed by his son’s bedside, Hanesar waved the servants out of the prince’s chambers. He hesitated at the chair as if making a choice, then positioned himself precariously on the edge of Kieransar’s bed.
The prince’s eyes absently sought out the Emperor’s wrists, but any scars hid underneath large communicator bands that allowed constant contact with every part of the castle. As he watched the blinking lights, Kieransar realized that he had never seen his father without them; they had been a part of the image he had of the Sar for as long as he could remember. I wonder in how many other ways I’ve mixed “the Emperor” with “Father”?
“The medics tell me that you’re doing well,” Hanesar began, sniffing the air. “A few more days of observation here, and then you’re free of them, at least until the next time.”
Kieransar lowered his eyes. “I’m hoping to avoid a ‘next time,’” he said as his hand once again crept down his leg. He quickly suppressed that urge.
“No dizziness, no movement problems?” A tremor in the Emperor’s voice caught the prince’s attention.
Kieransar shook his head, suppressing a smile. Why, he’s as nervous as I am. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought. “Just an itch I know I’m not supposed to scratch,” he remarked.
Hanesar aimed a glance at the stacks on the table before him. “You have been spending a great deal of your time at your terminal, I see.” He picked up a handful of disks and read their titles. “The Great Spiral, The Stories of Romafta and Her Servants, A Complete Index to the Hierarchy. Thinking of joining the Order?”
“Just interested, that’s all.”
Returning the disks to their original resting place, the Emperor asked, “Why didn’t you just access the Library’s listing? These are all in there.”
“I never connect my personal terminal to an outside source,” the prince stated emphatically. At Hanesar’s questioning gaze, he added, “If I can enter another information center, someone can enter mine.”
Hanesar arched his whiskers forward, then quickly back to their original position. “Secrets, son?”
“Of course,” Kieransar answered, startled as he realized the battle of wits had begun.
“Is your current preoccupation one of them?”
“No,” he said and grinned disarmingly. “After all, you know about it.”
Hanesar slapped the blanket with his tail. “So tell me about it.”
“Well, considering how important the gods are to maintaining the Empire, I figured I should find out more about them.”
“What made you take such an interest in the gods now?” Hanesar asked.
“One seems to have taken an interest in me.” The prince made a display of rearranging the blanket around his leg with one hand before adding, “Who am I to disregard a god?”
“Can’t you wait until you’re twenty-one to choose a god like everyone else?” Hanesar asked lightly, resting his hand on the prince’s arm.
“I’m just precocious.” The prince’s face closed to a more serious gaze. “Father, I felt something on the Hunting Grounds. I’ve checked the scanners, and I could find nothing out of the ordinary in that sector during my hunt. Only Malkut was anywhere near me; all of the other life signs were animal.”
“From that you’re certain you met a god?”
“If it wasn’t a god, it was a good imitation.” Kieransar leaned toward his father, covering Hanesar’s hand with his own. “That’s why I’m talking so much to the priests. I want to investigate any god who might have done this.”
“Even Kelhesa’s god?”
Kieransar didn’t even blink at that challenge. “If his god has something to say, yes.”
“So you’ve talked to him about this?”
“Would you recommend that?”
“No.” Hanesar’s tone was clipped, but he didn’t pull away from his son. “I wouldn’t.”
The Emperor closed his eyes tightly, a sign Kieransar recognized as deep concentration. “That religion is for another race, another time. The people who wrote its Book of Two Covenants are long dead.”
“Have you read the Book?”
“Some of it.”
“I would read all of it if I could. Then I could make a decision about the Way based on all of the facts.”
“Why is it so important for you to learn more about this alien religion? It’s not as if the Hierarchy doesn’t give you any choices.”
“I want to learn about them, too.” His voice rose with excitement. “I want to know what the gods promise and command. What they desire from us. What our purpose is, both now and in the Spiral to come.” Kieransar leaned back, his strength spent.
The Emperor smiled sadly. “I’ve had this conversation before.” Kieransar aimed both ears at him, and Hanesar sighed and squeezed his son’s hand. “Kelhesa said many of the same things when he became a Wayfinder.”
The prince cocked his head in confusion. “I haven’t made a decision yet.” Hanesar looked unconvinced. “No, really. I don’t know enough yet.”
“And if you had to decide now?”
Kieransar was silent for a long moment under Hanesar’s probing eyes. “What would your reaction be if I chose the Way?”
Hanesar rose from the bed and walked to his chair, twirling it musingly. “It’s more exciting, isn’t it?” he remarked slowly, not looking at his son. “A new god with a new message. Far more glamorous than the staid and solid gods of the Hierarchy.”
The tip of Kieransar’s tail curled indignantly. “You make it sound like something a cub would do.”
“Isn’t it like a cub to rush in all unknowing?”
“But that’s why I want to investigate this for myself.” The prince blinked tiredly, trying to focus his thoughts, realizing how unready he was for this conversation. “It’s important to me,” he pled.
Hanesar’s eyes softened at the sight of his son’s weakness, and he returned to his place on the bed. “Then it’s important to me too, son,” he said, stroking the younger Varan’s cheek. “And you’re right. This issue needs to be studied. It’s good that the priests are involved already. This problem of the Way should have been worked out years ago.”
The prince moved his head back. “Worked out how?”
“We have enough information about the religion to compare this god’s powers and preferences to those of our own.” The Emperor visibly relaxed as he pondered this solution. “Sacred creatures, spheres of influence, and the like. It should be possible to discover where he fits in the Hierarchy.”
“What if he doesn’t want a place in the Hierarchy?” Kieransar asked tentatively.
“Well, the Hierarchy presupposes many gods, each with his or her specialty. What if this god claims he has power over everything, that he’s not limited to a specific role or niche in the cosmos?”
Hanesar waved that thought away with a partially sheathed hand. “Nonsense. Nothing has so much power. It’s that kind of arrogance that set me against the Way in the first place.”
Kieransar tried to control his angered smell, his flexing claws, but he was too tired. “Why are you so afraid of this god? You ban his works, persecute his followers, why?”
Hanesar still did not raise his voice. “Should we allow into the Empire every god who happens to gain adherents, no matter what nonsense they spout?”
Kieransar bit back a bitter tone for a more reasonable one, wishing that his father weren’t so good at nettling him. “If it’s nonsense, the light of day will reveal it. There’s no need to forbid it.”
“Son, the people of the Empire are not as discerning as you may think. Even today, we sometimes find hidden covens dedicated to Sebe or Mofta. Would you truly want their followers to openly live in the Empire? Some with positions in the castle, perhaps?”
“Those gods have proven their alliance with the Void. This one makes claims of the Spiral.”
“You argue passionately for someone who hasn’t made a choice yet.”
Kieransar drew in a ragged breath. “I’m tired, Father. So much has happened, I don’t know what to think--”
“Then forget about this for a time. Wait a couple of years.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Very well.” Hanesar’s voice took on a commanding edge. “As soon as the medics pronounce you fit to travel, I’m sending you to Tahlmin.”
“The planet of the First Priest?” The prince brought himself up on his elbows. “But there’s no need--”
Hanesar pushed his son back gently into the pillows. “If there is an outside force trying to reach you, I want you as well protected as possible. You would have gone for religious training when you had your twenty-first birthday anyway.” The Emperor shrugged. “You’ll just start early.”
“Two years early!” Smells of confusion and anger rose in a nose-wrinkling combination. “Besides, I’m in no danger here.”
“You’re obsessed, Kieran.”
“I always go into things wholeheartedly.”
“Not like this. It’s not natural. Your words alarm me.”
“You’re turning my life into chaos over something I said?”
“I made the decision to send you away even before we talked.” Hanesar pushed a button on his wristband. “The priests agree. I’ll be sending Jeleret with you.”
“So he can mold me back into something you can use, is that it?”
He ignored his father’s hiss. “Is it so dangerous for me to think for myself instead of reciting the thoughts my teachers put there?”
The Emperor cocked an inquiring ear. “How can you be so certain that these are your thoughts?”
“How could I be certain of my thoughts on Tahlmin? The priests have a vested interest in keeping me in line.” Before he could continue, the door tones rang.
“Permit entrance,” Hanesar said to the computer.
The door opened, and Jeleret walked in. Kieransar turned away in disgust. Like Destori, the marks on Jeleret’s arm showed his affiliation with the sorcerous side of the Order, though his eyes had not yet deepened into that soul-piercing blue. He gave hnismuth to the two and asked the Emperor, “You called me, my Sar?”
“Have you made arrangements for your people?”
The priest gave hnismuth again in affirmation. “As you ordered. The Conqueror has more than enough room--”
“No.” Both priest and Emperor returned their gaze to the prince as he spoke. “I don’t want you along, Jeleret.”
“But I would be more than happy to instruct you during the trip to Tahlmin, my prince.”
“When we get to Tahlmin,” Kieransar snarled, “you will have five years to do what you will with me, priest. Until then, you can keep your sorcerous claws away from me.”
One of Hanesar’s ears rose in shock, a loud admission from one normally so reserved.
The priest inclined his head slightly. “As you wish, young Sar.”
“Kieransar,” the Emperor began warningly.
“There is no need, my Sar,” the priest protested. “I understand completely. Your son is still weak, and--”
“And had he been less antagonistic, I might have changed my mind,” the Emperor interrupted.
At Hanesar’s words, Kieransar realized that he had just made a monumental mistake. “But you said you’d already made the decision.”
“I say many things to test the reactions of others.” Unblinking yellow eyes betrayed his father’s anger. The Emperor looked at the priest and angled his head toward the door. After Jeleret left the room, he continued, “I don’t know who or what warped your perceptions, but I will find out.”
“What did I say? I’ve never liked that priest. You know that.”
“It’s not just what you’ve said, it’s your attitude, your conduct.”
The prince turned to Hanesar in desperation. “Father, I’ll take instruction under the priests, I’ll accept some of their members as part of my own guard if necessary, just don’t make me go to Tahlmin!”
“I have spoken.”
Kieransar’s voice dropped to a whisper in an attempt to contain his fury. “Forgive me, my S-sar,” he hissed. “My injury forces me to sleep now.” He turned his back on his father and closed his eyes.
The Emperor turned slowly from the tense form of his outraged son and opened the door. As the door slid shut behind him, he slumped slightly, so slightly that even those nearby him did not notice the change. “Forgive me, son.” No one heard those words. “I do love you.”
* * *
When Kelhesa walked into the prince’s room that evening, he found Kieransar busily at work on a second terminal, hardly turning an ear toward the counselor. “You’re just in time to see my revenge.”
Kelhesa cocked his head. “Revenge?” he asked softly.
“Sorry. Wrong word.” But Kieransar didn’t look very contrite. “I’ve almost finished a program that will make this book the most available story in the Empire.” He tapped in a few more codes, waiting patiently for their effect.
“What are you doing, Kieran?” the counselor asked warningly.
The prince winced at the use of his cubhood name, knowing from experience that Kelhesa would not rest without an explanation. Now. “Do you remember the intruder code that invaded the computers a few years ago, the one that baffled the technicians for over a year until it mysteriously disappeared? How it kept replicating itself, and no one could stop it?” A mischievous expression crossed his face.
“Yes, but . . .” Then Kelhesa realized what his former charge was saying, and he laid his ears back in astonishment. “You did that?”
The prince’s fur ruffled in pleasure at his mentor’s reaction. “I should have been born a technician. Computers, I understand.” The screen flickered, and Kieransar’s fingers danced once again over the keyboard. “I’m modifying that code to carry this file with it wherever it goes. But there’s one difference between this code and the original. This one doesn’t have a limited life cycle.”
Kelhesa shook his head in computer-illiterate exasperation. “A limited what?”
“Life cycle. It won’t stop like the other one did. Whenever someone uses the Central Library, which is every time a ship comes into port, the intruder code will invade the onboard computer. It’s a very quiet code, not wanting to call attention to itself. It probably won’t be discovered for twelve-days. It doesn’t destroy anything, and it really won’t take that much space, considering how big the Library computers are. But every once in a while, someone will activate it. If they try to erase it, or they come into contact with uninfected software, the code will order the computer to make copies of the file.” He tapped a few more keys, and the screen went blank. The prince looked up in triumph at Kelhesa, who was smoothing back his whiskers in contemplation. “Done. Now this book will go everywhere.” He grimaced. “Even Tahlmin. What did I ever do to deserve this?”
“The same thing I did, I suppose,” Kelhesa mused. “You spoke your mind.”
“At least you won’t go alone. I volunteered to go with you. After all, I know more about the Way than our resident expert Jeleret.”
“And my father agreed?”
“Not entirely. I can teach you for the twelve-day that it takes to reach Tahlmin. After that, Hanesar wants you to confine your studies to the Hierarchy.”
“Under Jeleret’s watchful eye, I suppose.”
The counselor nodded. “Jeleret has orders to steer you to a more acceptable god.”
“No doubt by any method at his disposal,” Kieransar added, smoothing the hair on his arms back down.
Kelhesa considered the implications of that statement before replying, “They would need Hanesar’s explicit authorization to go beyond a certain level of persuasion.”
“Why doesn’t that make me feel any better?”
“At least you won’t have to worry about the priests on the way to Tahlmin; they’ll be traveling on one of the warships. I did gain that concession from your father.”
“I’m surprised you even bothered to fight for that,” the prince remarked sourly.
The acrid smell of displeasure bit the air, and Kelhesa moved as if to leave. “If that’s your attitude, I could just cancel this altogether.”
“Kelhesa, I--” Kieransar tried to leap from his bed, but his leg gave out beneath him. The counselor caught him by the arm before he fell all the way to the floor and helped him into a sitting position.
“Watch yourself, cub. You’re not quite healed yet.”
Kieransar’s tail curled as the stabbing pain raced from his leg to the base of his skull. “So I keep reminding myself.” He waved away Kelhesa’s still-supporting grip. “I’m fine.”
The old Varan patted the prince on his shoulder before withdrawing the hand. “Well, then I should be going. I have packing to do.”
“You won’t be in trouble for this, will you?”
“Well, your father won’t do anything in haste. He figures if he gives me a long enough branch to walk on . . .” Kelhesa shrugged the thought aside. “He’s just doing what he thinks is right.”
“I know,” the prince acknowledged grudgingly, then added in a quiet voice, “I don’t want to hurt him, Kelhesa.”
The counselor gave his Sar a sympathetic glance, then left him to his thoughts.
Kieransar gazed at the empty screen a moment before pushing the terminal away abruptly. “I just hope all this is worth it.”
* * *
Three days later, the Emperor watched as the ship carrying his son sped away, a shooting star in the heavens. Impatient cub, he sighed. Why did you have to choose this path? At least it had been stopped before any damage could be done. Five years of training in the Order would surely overcome the rebellious thoughts of a six-day. As if one could choose a god in such a short time, with such abandon. The rashness of youth, he thought sadly. But the old ways will win out. They always have.