Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Science Fiction > The Door Through Space > CHAPTER SEVEN
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
 Shainsa, first in the chain of Dry-towns that lie in the bed of a long-dried ocean, is set at the center of a great alkali plain; a dusty, parched city bleached by a million years of sun. The houses are high, spreading buildings with many rooms and wide windows. The poorer sort were made of sun-dried brick, the more imposing being cut from the bleached salt stone of the cliffs that rise behind the city.  
News travels fast in the Dry-towns. If Rakhal were in the city, he'd soon know that I was here, and guess who I was or why I'd come. I might disguise myself so that my own sister, or the mother who bore me, would not know me. But I had no illusions about my ability to disguise myself from Rakhal. He had created the disguise that was me.
When the second sun set, red and burning, behind the salt cliffs, I knew he was not in Shainsa, but I stayed on, waiting for something to happen. At night I slept in a cubbyhole behind a wineshop, paying an inordinate price for that very dubious privilege. And every day in the sleepy silence of the blood-red noon I paced the public square of Shainsa.
This went on for four days. No one took the slightest notice of another nameless man in a shabby shirtcloak, without name or identity or known business. No one appeared to see me except the dusty children, with pale fleecy hair, who played their patient games on the windswept curbing of the square. They surveyed my scarred face with neither curiosity or fear, and it occurred to me that Rindy might be such another as these.
If I had still been thinking like an Earthman, I might have tried to question one of the children, or win their confidence. But I had a deeper game in hand.
On the fifth day I was so much a fixture that my pacing went unnoticed even by the children. On the gray moss of the square, a few dried-looking old men, their faces as faded as their shirtcloaks and bearing the knife scars of a hundred forgotten fights, drowsed on the stone benches. And along the flagged walk at the edge of the square, as[49] suddenly as an autumn storm in the salt flats, a woman came walking.
She was tall, with a proud swinging walk, and a metallic clashing kept rhythm to her swift steps. Her arms were fettered, each wrist bound with a jeweled bracelet and the bracelets linked together by a long, silver-gilt chain passed through a silken loop at her waist. From the loop swung a tiny golden padlock, but in the lock stood an even tinier key, signifying that she was a higher caste than her husband or consort, that her fettering was by choice and not command.
She stopped directly before me and raised her arm in formal greeting like a man. The chain made a tinkling sound in the hushed square as her other hand was pulled up tight against the silken loop at her waist. She stood surveying me for some moments, and finally I raised my head and returned her gaze. I don't know why I had expected her to have hair like spun black glass and eyes that burned with a red reflection of the burning star.
This woman's eyes were darker than the poison-berries of the salt cliffs, and her mouth was a cut berry that looked just as dangerous. She was young, the slimness of her shoulders and the narrow steel-chained wrists told me how very young she was, but her face had seen weather and storms, and her dark eyes had weathered worse psychic storms than that. She did not flinch at the sight of my scars, and met my gaze without dropping her eyes.
"You are a stranger. What is your business in Shainsa?"
I met the direct question with the insolence it demanded, hardly moving my lips. "I have come to buy women for the brothels of Ardcarran. Perhaps when washed you might be suitable. Who could arrange for your sale?"
She took the rebuke impassively, though the bitter crimson of her mouth twitched a little in mischief or rage. But she made no sign. The battle was joined between us, and I knew already that it would be fought to the end.
From somewhere in her draperies, something fell to the ground with a little tinkle. But I knew that trick too and I did not move. Finally she went away without bending to retrieve it and when I looked around I saw that all the fleece-haired children had stolen away, leaving their play[50]things lying on the curbing. But one or two of the gaffers on the stone benches, who were old enough to show curiosity without losing face, were watching me with impassive eyes.
I could have asked the woman's name then, but I held back, knowing it could only lessen the prestige I had gained from the encounter. I glanced down, without seeming to do so, at the tiny mirror which had fallen from the recesses of the fur robe. Her name might have been inscribed on the reverse.
But I left it lying there to be picked up by the children when they returned, and went back to the wineshop. I had accomplished my first objective; if you can't be inconspicuous, be so damned conspicuous that nobody can miss you. And that in itself is a fair concealment. How many people can accurately describe a street riot?
I was finishing off a bad meal with a stone bottle of worse wine when the chak came in, disregarding the proprietor, and made straight for me. He was furred immaculately white. His velvet muzzle was contracted as if the very smells might soil it, and he kept a dainty paw outstretched to ward off accidental contact with greasy counters or tables or tapestries. His fur was scented, and his throat circled with a collar of embroidered silk. This pampered minion surveyed me with the innocent malice of an uninvolved nonhuman for merely human intrigues.
"You are wanted in the Great House of Shanitha, thcarred man." He spoke the Shainsa dialect with an affected lisp. "Will it pleathe you, come wis' me?"
I came, with no more than polite protest, but was startled. I had not expected the encounter to reach the Great House so soon. Shainsa's Great House had changed hands four times since I had last been in Shainsa. I wasn't overly anxious to appear there.
The white chak, as out of place in the rough Dry-town as a jewel in the streets or a raindrop in the desert, led me along a winding boulevard to an outlying district. He made no attempt to engage me in conversation, and indeed I got the distinct impression that this cockscomb of a nonhuman considered me well beneath his notice. He seemed much more aware of the blowing dust in the street, which ruffled and smudged his carefully combed fur.[51]
The Great House was carved from blocks of rough pink basalt, the entry guarded by two great caryatids enwrapped in chains of carved metal, set somehow into the surface of the basalt. The gilt had long ago worn away from the chains so that it alternately gleamed gold or smudged base metal. The caryatids were patient and blind, their jewel-eyes long vanished under a hotter sun than today's.
The entrance hall was enormous. A Terran starship could have stood upright inside it, was my first impression, but I dismissed that thought quickly; any Terran thought was apt to betray me. But the main hall was built on a scale even more huge, and it was even colder than the legendary hell of the chaks. It was far too big for the people in it.
There was a little solar heater in the ceiling, but it didn't help much. A dim glow came from a metal brazier but that didn't help much either. The chak melted into the shadows, and I went down the steps into the hall by myself, feeling carefully for each step with my feet and trying not to seem to be doing so. My comparative night-blindness is the only significant way in which I really differ from a native Wolfan.
There were three men, two women and a child in the room. They were all Dry-towners and had an obscure family likeness, and they all wore rich garments of fur dyed in many colors. One of the men, old and stooped and withered, was doing something to the brazier. A slim boy of fourteen was sitting cross-legged on a pile of cushions in the corner. There was something wrong with his legs.
A girl of ten in a too-short smock that showed long spider-thin legs above her low leather boots was playing with some sort of shimmery crystals, spilling them out into patterns and scooping them up again from the uneven stones of the floor. One of the women was a fat, creased slattern, whose jewels and dyed furs did not disguise her greasy slovenliness.
Her hands were unchained, and she was biting into a fruit which dripped red juice down the rich blue fur of her robe. The old man gave her a look like murder as I came in, and she straightened slightly but did not discard the fruit. The whole room had a curious look of austere, dignified poverty, to which the fat woman was the only discordant note.[52]
But it was the remaining man and woman who drew my attention, so that I noticed the others only peripherally, in their outermost orbit. One was Kyral, standing at the foot of the dais and glowering at me.
The other was the dark-eyed woman I had rebuked today in the public square.
Kyral said, "So it's you." And his voice held nothing. Not rebuke, not friendliness or a lack of it, not even hatred.
There was only one way to meet it. I faced the girl—she was sitting on a thronelike chair next to the fat woman, and looked like a doe next to a pig—and said boldly, "I assume this summons to mean that you informed your kinsmen of my offer."
She flushed, and that was triumph enough. I held back the triumph, however, wary of overconfidence. The gaffer laughed the high cackle of age, and Kyral broke in with a sharp, angry monosyllable by which I knew that my remark had indeed been repeated, and had lost nothing in the telling. But only the line of his jaw betrayed the anger as he said calmly, "Be quiet, Dallisa. Where did you pick this up?"
I said boldly, "The Great House has changed rulers since last I smelled the salt cliffs. Newcomers do not know my name and theirs is unknown to me."
The old gaffer said thinly to Kyral, "Our name has lost kihar. One daughter is lured away by the Toymaker and another babbles with strangers in the square, and a homeless no-good of the streets does not know our name."
My eyes, growing accustomed to the dark blaze of the brazier, saw that Kyral was biting his lip and scowling. Then he gestured to a table where an array of glassware was set, and at the gesture, the white chak came on noiseless feet and poured wine.
"If you have no blood-feud with my family, will you drink with me?"
"I will," I said, relaxing. Even if he had associated the trader with the scarred Earthman of the spaceport, he seemed to have decided to drop the matter. He seemed startled, but he waited until I had lifted the glass and taken[53] a sip. Then, with a movement like lightning, he leaped from the dais and struck the glass from my lips.
I staggered back, wiping my cut mouth, in a split-second juggling possibilities. The insult was terrible and deadly. I could do nothing now but fight. Men had been murdered in Shainsa for far less. I had come to settle one feud, not involve myself in another, but even while these lightning thoughts flickered in my mind, I had whipped out my skean and I was surprised at the shrillness of my own voice.
Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved