Friday, June 11, 2010
Captain Terik u Selhdun has known darkness all of his life. Captain of the Necromancer, the ruler of Tiamat, his ancestral home, he is coerced into taking a small group of scientists in search of the legendary birthplace of humanity. Earth -- Terra -- was lost to history during the Exodus. From the beginning trouble dogs the expedition, from a failed assassination attempt to the manipulations of a despotic Suzerain and a brutal Navy Admiral who have no intention of letting Selhdun or his mission succeed.
The tropical sky was a cloudless blue that hurt Lyssra’s eyes. She let the press of the crowd move her along the broad walkway, and tried to keep Ilesha and Benin in sight. Only when the mass dispersed and the flat walk cleared was she able to catch up to them.
Ilesha and Benin hugged the shade and she saw Ilesha rub her arms where the sun touched her. Goose bumps crowded her own skin where the heated breeze brushed against it. She had to keep reminding herself this wasn’t Cyx. The air didn’t hold anything harmful.
Groundcars and freight trams moved along orderly roads around the base of the massive Ladder that dropped from the sky. Crowds filled the grounds, spilling out of fashionable shops and restaurants that Lyssra knew were beyond her meager purse.
No matter how harmless she knew it was, the sun on her exposed skin made her want to find a shielded building to hide in. She could tell by their soft muttering that Benin and Ilesha shared her uneasiness.
She scanned the crowds. Selhdun had said he would meet them at the dirtside hotel called the Ambassador near the Ladder. She watched a group of children pass, a trio of laughing caretakers struggling to maintain order among the half dozen boys and girls. The children’s high-pitched voices filled the soft tropical air.
She heard one of them squeal, "Oh, look, Theanna, a butterfly. Can we catch it and take it back with us? "
Lyssra looked around. The hotel should be here. The sign was high enough to see over the head of the oversized man who was just climbing out of a small, three-wheeled vehicle.
A piercing scream sent a bolt of pure adrenaline through Lyssra. Spinning around, she got Ilesha’s elbow in the chest, knocking the breath out of her lungs. Ilesha batted at her when Lyssra tried to pin her arms to her side. The younger woman’s panic was contagious; Lyssra heard the high-pitched voices of children yelling nearby.
Ilesha screamed again, and this time Lyssra saw the source of her terror. Something fluttered through the air over the children huddled beneath the protective embrace of their caretakers. It moved over their bare heads back toward Lyssra.
One of the children reached for it. Her caretaker pulled her back, hustling the group away from the Cyxers, and the multi-colored menace.
"Butterfly..." the girl said.
With a shudder Lyssra jumped back, slamming into Ilesha, the two of them going down in a heap of curses and swinging arms.
Cat-quick, Ilesha rolled and came up in a crouch, holding her carryon in front of her as she tore it open and pulled out the short-bladed knife she used in her herbal preparations. She lunged for the attacking creature, connecting instead with a man’s muscular chest. Lyssra sat up in time to see him push Ilesha to the ground and press his booted foot down on her wrist, trapping her knife arm on the hard ground.
Ilesha’s scream of rage could probably have been heard on Cyx.
Lyssra faced the newcomer. It was the oversized man she had seen earlier. He was well over two meters and heavy muscled. He raised his hairless head and met her gaze. His eyes were the oddest silver gray, reptilian in their coldness. He stared at her, ignoring the woman under his boot.
"Tell her to let it go, or I will break her arm," he said. "And if that does not stop her, I will break her neck." He spoke with an oddly accented voice.
"Who are you?" Lyssra said, looking around at the throng of faces taking in the bizarre tableau. Even the children stared; one little girl around Eleda’s age had her thumb firmly parked in her mouth while she solemnly watched. "What did you think we were doing?" she whispered to him, knowing more was going on here than she understood.
"Tell her to let it go," he said.
Lyssra watched the crowd move back as though some force pushed them. She watched a troop of whip-thin armed men she recognized as the cloned type owned by wealthy royal families pour into the gap the crowd left.
"Ilesha, do as he says," Lyssra hissed, never taking her eyes off the guards.
Ilesha released a torrent of curses that curdled the air. The outline of the giant’s boot pressed into the flesh of her wrist.
"Pakal, let her up," another man spoke. "It’s pretty obvious she’s no assassin."
A man sat alone in the three-wheeled vehicle. Lyssra couldn’t help notice the raised tattoo on the side of his head that meant he was a Hegemon pilot, with the neurological implant linking him to a Jumpship’s computerized brain. The nearest guards formed a protective shield around him as he climbed slowly out of the vehicle. Even the bedraggled Cyxers were enclosed in the potentially deadly human ring. The man they guarded wore a sardonic half-smile on his dark, aristocratic face; and, with a sinking sensation, she began to realize just who he was.
"Ilesha." Lyssra watched her sister climb to her feet. She had to salvage something of this fiasco. "For God’s sake, give me that knife."
Lyssra heard a child sobbing loudly. When Ilesha hesitated and opened her mouth to protest, Lyssra wrenched the knife from her and would have jammed it into her own carryon but the big man’s fingers closed over her arm.
"I will take that."
Lyssra had no choice but to release the knife. She rubbed at the numb flesh of her arm when he released her.
The man in the three-wheeler never took his gaze off Ilesha, and Lyssra nearly groaned aloud. Ilesha looked back at him and tilted her head, as though taking his measure. Benin tried to put his arm around her, but he might as well have been hugging wood; Ilesha ignored him.
"What were you doing with that knife?" the stranger said to Ilesha. "You don’t look like a suicide case."
"We were being attacked..." Ilesha watched the creature that had triggered the whole thing flit away toward a bed of glossy white Ishtar’s blooms. The children and their caretakers, Lyssra noticed, were gone. Ilesha’s scowl deepened. "What the hell is that, anyway?"
"That was a butterfly," Selhdun said. "Very dangerous creatures, butterflies. You never know what they might do."
Ilesha frowned. "Why do you let them fly around then?"
Lyssra saw something pass over Selhdun’s face. He was struggling not to laugh. Unfortunately, Ilesha saw it, too.
"You’re making fun of me, aren’t you? Butterflies aren’t dangerous at all." Ilesha clenched her hands into fists. "Who the hell are you?"
"Prince Terik u Selhdun, Ogema of Tiamat, Lord of the Realm." Despite being seated, he gave the impression of bowing and clicking his heels. "And you are the delegation from Cyx?"