OF THE SLAIN
by Nene Adams ©2001 -
All rights reserved
(Author's Note: In Old Norse poetry and
sagas, kennings - or metaphorical compound words/phrases - were
used to describe gods, people, animals, places and events in poetic
fashion. Sometimes the description has a correlation with mythology,
sometimes it has simply fallen into common usage. "Picker of the
Slain" is a kenning meaning "Wolf.")
"We've got a problem."
Lt. Commander Amalthea Quint glanced up. Standing in the doorway
was her fellow advocate and officer, Lt. Sean Yoltzin. He had a
habitually doleful expression. Right now, his face was so sorrowful
she half expected him to burst into tears. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Sean came into the office and sat down, waiting a moment for the
responsive foam chair to mold itself to his body comfortably. "Com
Center got a data-flash from Ifni." His frown deepened, threatening
to swallow his thin black eyebrows altogether. "Haven't you checked
your messages yet?"
"I was busy," Amalthea muttered, waving a hand over the crystal
info-sticks piled on her desk. "I've got a trial in three days,
defending that drunk-and-disorderly charge. Time is one thing I
don't have, so give, Lieutenant, and quit looking like you found
half a bug in your kelp salad."
"Ugh. That's nasty, Mal."
"But accurate, to a point." Amalthea touched a section of the desk
top; a wafer thin screen emerged and began to glow. "Are you going
to continue being mysterious and enigmatic, Sean? I hate guessing
Sean stood up and pointed to the screen. "Scuttlebutt says the
past is coming back to haunt you. Read all about it," he said darkly,
"but don't say I didn't give fair warning." As he exited, the chair
hissed softly and returned to its original neutral configuration.
Amalthea made a face at his departing back. "What warning,
you overacting drama king?" She sighed. "Okay, okay... let me see
what all the fuss is about."
She had an implant in her jaw which allowed her direct access to
the Avatar's AI. She subvocalized, "Access today's mail
since 0500 hours, text only, normal speed."
Lines began to appear on the screen and scroll past slowly. At
a certain point, Amalthea blurted, "Odin's Empty Eye!" feeling as
if she'd been punched in the stomach. She asked the computer to
replay the message, hoping she had misread it or misunderstood.
Her implant buzzed. "Lt. Commander Quint, report immediately
to Captain Khulat in the Com Room." The AI's voice was a blend
of male and female tones, laced with subliminal harmonics designed
to get the recipient's immediate attention.
"Acknowledged. ETA five minutes." Amalthea rose and brushed
a speck of lint from her uniform tunic, then left her office at
a quick trot.
As she passed Sean, he waved and called, "Good luck. You're going
to need it."
Amalthea grimaced and kept on walking.
Captain Khulat was physically unimpressive - short, slender as
a whip, delicately boned and fragile seeming- but she more than
made up for it in sheer presence. No one could ignore the captain
when she was in command mode. Energy fairly crackled off her, even
when she was standing still.
As Amalthea entered the Com Room, Khulat was in conference with
Praise-to-the-Crescent-Sky Nym, Avatar's cultural and diplomatic
specialist, and a native of Banjul. The captain was putting out
enough spiritual electricity to shame a Catherine-wheel competition.
She might have been mind-blind, but even Amalthea could sense white-hot
fireworks in Khulat's aura. This did not bode well.
Praise Nym was saying, "...can send all the formal protests we
want, but frankly, Ifni is in the right."
Khulat wore her thick bronze hair in braids. She had a habit of
tugging on a plait when she was thinking hard, or nervous, or distressed.
From the way she was yanking at her hair, the Captain was definitely
all three at the moment. "Damned if we do, and damned if we don't.
What we need is another option..." Khulat noticed Amalthea. "Ah,
Lt. Quint, good of you to join us."
Amalthea's spine cracked as she snapped to attention. "Ma'am."
She turned to Nym and bowed, low enough for her head to be level
with his hips, as demanded by protocol. "Ser Nym, may I inquire
as to the health and happiness of your offspring, marriage partner,
Nym was pleased. "You've made a good beginning in Banjul'ee etiquette,"
he replied, giving her a return bow that was one degree above superior-to-inferior.
He studied Amalthea's tall form for a moment. "Yes, I might make
a diplomat of you yet."
"Let's save this for later, shall we?" the Captain broke in. "Lt.
Quint, what do you know about the situation on Ifni?"
Amalthea had to swallow against the sudden lump in her throat.
"I only learned about it a few minutes ago. Details are sketchy,
but I believe the basics are that Corporal Jezzibell Kay of the
Fortunata has been accused of murdering an Ifni civilian."
"She's currently under arrest in the embassy." Khulat's golden
eyes narrowed. "I believe you know Corporal Kay personally?"
"Yes, ma'am." Amalthea and Jezzibell had met two years ago when
they were both assigned to the Fortunata. Their relationship
had been torrid, but ultimately didn't work out. Because she was
still in love with Jezzibell, Amalthea had requested reassignment
to the Avatar. "But I haven't spoken to her in weeks, not
since she went to Ifni. Communications blackout; personal messages
aren't considered priority."
Praise Nym hissed softly to himself, and ran plump fingers through
his mane of red-tinged hair. The brightly colored ribbons on his
formal robe fluttered. "Do you know much about Ifni?"
"Not a lot, sir. It's a restricted planet, and most information
is classified above my security level." Amalthea allowed a shred
of her worry to show. "Will Jezzibell be all right?"
Khulat shook her head. "We don't know yet. Things are a fekkit
mess on Ifni right now. They're an unaffiliated world, but a prime
source for dragon scales, water jewels and other valuable gemstones.
A recent change in government has created the possibility of alliance
with the Confederation, and with it, near unlimited trade potential.
Then this murder happened right in the middle of delicate negotiations.
Hub-Gov, Corps Admiralty, merchant's guilds and independent traders
are screaming. The kak is rolling straight down our necks."
"Excuse me, ma'am. Permission to speak freely?" Amalthea asked.
"Go ahead." Khulat studied the younger woman for a moment. Big
but solid, round freckled face, butter yellow hair, blue eyes. Amalthea
hailed from Yggdrasil, where generations of selective breeding had
created warrior-types that were the backbone of Confederation Corps
military services. Lt. Quint was much milder, much less formidable,
almost meek compared to the usually hair-trigger Yggdrasilans. Like
somebody crossed an accountant with a berserker, and the number-cruncher
won. She was a good officer, though, and an excellent advocate.
"I knew Jezzibell very well. I do not believe her capable of committing
cold-blooded murder." Amalthea held herself in rigid check. "The
charges against her must surely be false. Is someone looking into
Nym coughed delicately. "It may have been a crime of passion."
Amalthea's blood froze in shock. Jezzibell wanted to be free,
she said I was smothering her, so it shouldn't surprise me that
she's had other relationships. This was a logical response,
but had nothing to do with her aching heart.
Khulat was unsympathetic. "Now is not the time, Lt. Commander,"
she said firmly. "Suck it up and move on. You'll be representing
Corporal Kay in an Ifnian court."
Amalthea's mouth dropped open. "You're sending me?"
"It's time to soldier, soldier." Khulat tugged on another plait.
"The trial is scheduled for two weeks from today. Before you ask,
we're not requesting Kay's extradition to a Confederation court,
so you're stuck with Ifnian legal procedure. You've got an appointment
in sickbay for a memsynth neural transfer in fifteen minutes. Pack
your gear ASAP. I've got a transport pod standing by for departure
in one hour. Memsynth will give you all the background information."
She nodded at Nym. "Our diplomat has assigned one of his personal
aides to the case. I suggest you take full advantage of his generosity."
Nym toyed with a ribbon. "Fey Lonyali has studied Ifnian culture
for years. She's an expert and can be trusted absolutely."
"Listen to me carefully, Lt. Commander." Khulat leaned closer.
"The outcome of this trial is vitally important to the Confederation
and the Corps. Whether Kay is innocent or guilty doesn't matter.
The Ifnians - our potential allies - think she did it. This
is a time of political expediency. There's a load of heavy juju
behind this, and pressure is being brought to bear from the highest
levels. It's been explained to me that we have to work for the greater
good. In other words, the life of one junior officer is not worth
losing Ifni's goodwill. Understood?"
Amalthea flushed. Her mouth opened again, then closed with a click.
She understood, all right. She was being told to throw her client
to the wolves so that a lot of merchants (and the politicians connected
to those merchants) could strike it rich in the gemstone market.
She was being told to do a hatchet job on the woman she loved. It
was despicable. It was intolerable. It was...
"Lt. Commander. Quint, don't do anything now that you'll regret
later," Nym advised, not unkindly. "You are an intelligent woman,
yes? If not, you would hardly be given this assignment. Take this
for what its worth - it is unwise to burn one's bridges before one
knows what's on the other side of the river."
Amalthea was seething, but she clenched her jaw tightly shut. If
she objected, they would send somebody else. A person who didn't
know Jezzibell, and didn't care about right or wrong. By going to
Ifni herself, she might be able to figure a way out that would satisfy
"Get in, do your job and get out," Khulat continued. "Fey Lonyali
will help - she's been in this type of situation before. Both you
and she are authorized by the Advocacy and Hub-Gov to take whatever
actions you deem necessary to bring the situation on Ifni to a successful
conclusion. It would be best to avoid a trial entirely, but I trust
that you'll use your best judgment, since you know the Corporal
"What does that mean exactly, ma'am?" Amalthea asked bitterly.
"As I said, Lt. Commander, you are do to whatever is necessary.
I don't have to repeat myself, do I?"
"No, ma'am." Amalthea saluted, but the muscles in her jaw were
"Listen to Fey Lonyali," Nym said. "She knows that you're in charge,
but I urge you to pay heed to her advice."
Khulat measured Amalthea again with her intense golden gaze. "A
successful conclusion to this mission will go down a treat on your
permanent record. There may even be a promotion in it, or a higher
pay grade, maybe even your choice of plum assignments."
"Aye, ma'am." Amalthea's expression was cold, her tone icily correct.
"Well, what are you waiting for, a holo-engraved invitation?" Khulat
asked crisply. "Dismissed, advocate!"
"Aye-aye, ma'am." Amalthea spun around on her heel and stomped
away. She deliberately neglected to bow to Praise Nym - one of the
nastier insults available to her in Banjul'ee. He chose not to take
As soon as she was gone, Captain Khulat sighed. "Do you think we
did the right thing?"
The Banjul'ee diplomat smiled faintly. "Oh, time will tell, captain...
I do look forward to observing the outcome. Preferably from far,
far away. The stubborn nature of Yggdrasilans is well known."
They exchanged a glance, and Khulat chuckled, shaking her head.
"Not to mention the stubborn nature of one Yggdrasilan in particular.
Well, let's hope your third option works, otherwise..."
"We're completely kakked." Nym spoke that sentiment aloud
for both of them.
It wasn't until she reached the pod bay, head throbbing with a
monumental headache from memsynth transfer, that Amalthea met Fey
Her rich cinnamon skin, black hair threaded with tiny bells, and
spiral scars slashed into her cheek showed that Fey was a priest
of Vashti, from the Tyvesh homeworld. A First of Fist, meaning she
was of the martial priesthood - odd choice for a diplomatic envoy.
Delicate claws glittered on her fingertips. "Lt. Commander," Fey
said in a husky purr. "It is with great pleasure that I greet you
in Vashti's name." She spoke the Universal language common to the
Confederation with a slight accent.
Amalthea did not feel like returning the salutation. Besides, her
cerebral cortex was still trying to organize and process the load
of information that had been dumped into it, and her brain felt
like scrambled eggs. The endorphin patches on her arm hadn't kicked
in yet. She grunted, walked over to the transport pod, and tossed
her bag into the cargo hatch. She noticed another standard-issue
suitcase already inside, and guessed it was Fey's.
A white-suited technician joined them in the vast hangar. "We're
good to go in ten minutes. Please secure yourselves in the primary
chamber. Avatar AI will assist. Estimated time to arrival
on Ifni is one hour, eleven minutes, forty-six seconds."
Fey and Amalthea strapped themselves onto glossy black couches
with multiple-point harnesses, which the AI locked into place. The
locks were programmed to release as soon as they reached Ifni. The
pod's interior was featureless and smooth, with no windows or screens
of any kind. As soon as they were in place, the door clanked shut,
and Amalthea's ears popped when pressure was equalized. She avoided
looking at Fey.
Transport pods were essentially sealed cubes, whose size ranged
from two-person stripped units to massive boxes capable of holding
an entire troop regiment and their supplies. These were sent from
one world to another via hyperspace shifting, which involved hops,
skips and jumps through extra-dimensional portals. It was an extension
of the technology that allowed ships to travel the vast distances
between planets outside the Hub Worlds.
Amalthea didn't understand the process, but she did know that most
races could potentially suffer from shift psychosis - the reason
why they had to remain strapped down during 'flight.' A seriously
disturbed individual could compromise the door seal, killing everybody
in the pod... or not, depending on which theroretical mathematician
you talked to. Perhaps they still existed in potentia. Whatever.
Amalthea figured that was a poor substitute for actual living.
The couch was comfortable, made of the same responsive foam as
the chairs in her office. The straps were firm but not intrusive,
covering ankles, knees, thighs, hips and chest. Amalthea took a
deep breath, let it out through her nose, and closed her eyes. There
was a slight jolt when the pod began its first transfer. She was
a bit surprised; she hadn't noticed it being wheeled into the initiation
Fey's eyes twinkled. They were lime green, heavily fringed with
dark lashes. "Shall we discuss Ifni, mem? Or do you prefer
to sulk for the entire journey?"
Sulk? Amalthea turned her head, ready to blast the Tyvesh with
an angry diatribe, then controlled herself. She had no intention
of allowing Jezzibell to be sacrificed for expediency's sake; perhaps
Fey Lonyali had information which prove useful to her. There was
no sense alienating the priest when her mission had just begun.
"I crave your pardon," Amalthea said. "Memsynth always gives me
a ferocious headache. No offense was intended."
"Ah, that explains it." Fey's hairbells chimed softly as she shifted
on her couch. "Do you know any Jongku meditation rituals? They may
speed up neural synthesis and alleviate your pain."
"It is unncessary, but I thank you for the suggestion." Endorphins
were beginning to soothe away the sickening ache. Amalthea was now
able to access the information that had been dumped into her mind.
Much of it was unrelated to the case, notes from cultural anthropologists
who had studied Ifni. Nothing as recent as five years ago.
She kept searching and made an unwelcome discovery. Amalthea was
dismayed to learn that no one had thought to include a complete
briefing for the upcoming trial. She cursed the careless sickbay
technician roundly. Fey listened with wide-eyed appreciation. When
Amalthea ran out of obscenities, the priest said politely, "I could
teach you some Tyvesh. Has a lot of sibiliants and hard consonants,
very good for bawling somebody out."
"Maybe later." Amalthea was fuming. "Gods of my fathers, how the
fekk am I supposed to help Jezzibell when I don't have all
the facts? I could have gotten as much data from a tourist buzzbook!"
Fey chuckled. "If you wish, I can probably answer any questions
you may have."
Amalthea throttled her swelling anger. It was important to remain
in control. Otherwise, she'd be no better than her sibs, cousins,
uncles and aunts who had temper tantrums at the drop of a pin. She
would not succumb. She would not. Control, control,
control - that was her mantra. "Yes, please. Any background
information would be appreciated."
"Very well." Fey thumbed a button on the side of her couch. A small
globe light began to glow, brightening the dimness inside the pod.
"Ifni is ruled by a God-King, who is all-powerful in theory. In
actual fact, the sovereign relies on a parliament of appointed governors
to handle the day-to-day decisions in government."
"A blend of theocracy and bureaucracy. Is this effective?"
"Very." Fey's cheek scars were silver, in contrast to the rich
cinnamon hue of her skin. When she smiled, they nearly vanished.
"Ifni is a xenophobic society. For the last forty years, the God-King
and his government have permitted limited contact with the Confederation,
with only a small scientific and military presence in a strictly
controlled enclave. A few months ago, the former God-King died.
His heir has much more liberal views. Pantelion IV wants to open
Ifni to international trade, despite the strong objections of his
governors. The parliamentary majority is not in favor of
an alliance. A diplomatic team was working to assist Pantelion,
then the incident with Corporal Kay happened."
"What exactly did happen?" Amalthea asked. "I've been given no
"Corporal Kay was part of a Corps security team assigned to the
diplomatic party, which was staying in the royal palace at Pantelion's
invitation. They had complete access to the God-King's personal
quarters - an unprecedented honor, and completely against custom,
by the way. It appears that Corporal Kay became involved in a relationship
with one of Pantelion's minor wives, named Hatusu - the murder victim."
"How did Hatusu die?" Amalthea did not want to discuss Jezzibell's
love life. She knew that she would eventually have to examine all
the evidence, but for now, that was best left ignored.
"Multiple stab wounds with a non-energy weapon consistent with
a Ginzan ceremonial dagger." Fey reeled off the particulars easily.
"A joint investigation was performed by both Ifnian and Corps technicians.
Corporal Kay was found in the same room, unconscious. She had been
drinking heavily the night before, and there were traces of lotus
weed in her system - a potent though non-narcotic drug. There were
bloodstains belonging to the victim on her uniform. The dagger was
in her belt, and the blood found on it was Hatusu's."
Amalthea frowned. "Jezzibell is Ginzan. She would never allow anyone
to touch her dagger. If it was stolen, she would have made a huge
fuss. If she lost it - very unlikely, considering she always wore
it in a secure scabbard on her belt - she would have taken her own
life in shame."
Fey nodded, chiming her hairbells. "Certain concepts of honor are
taken seriously on Ginza."
"So the murder weapon is certainly hers. That's going to be difficult
to get around." Amalthea pinched the bridge of her nose between
thumb and forefinger. Something was nagging her... "Wait. There
was blood on the dagger?"
"Quite a lot, according to the report."
"It had been put into the scabbard dirty. Hmph. I've personally
seen Jezzibell spend hours rubbing and polishing when she had a
hangover that would have made an Yggdrasilan cry. Never too tranked
or pumped or torqued to disregard her sacred weapon. If blood seeps
between the blade and the hilt, it can rust the steel and cause
the blade to snap. That's a serious tabboo to a Ginzan."
"A point, mem. Now you need to know the worst."
"I'm not sure I can take more bad news." Amalthea sighed. "Go on.
"The God-King Pantelion is furious. He has chosen to interpret
Corporal Kay's alleged crime as an attack on his monarchy. The diplomatic
delegation has withdrawn back to Corps base, pending the outcome
of the trial. Relations are strained, to put it mildly. One of the
most vocally outspoken governors, demiurge Otanishan, has
been given the responsibility for prosecuting Corporal Kay. It doesn't
"That's insane. What proof do they have?" Think like an advocate,
not a jilted lover, Quint. "Is there evidence that Jezzibell
and Hatusu were having an affair at all?"
"No proof to support their theory, but they can place Hatusu and
Kay together. Kay has already admitted her relationship with the
deceased. And there's a witness who's sworn that she was within
ear-shot of Hatusu's room shortly before the murder took place,
and heard them arguing together."
"Kak on a crumpet. Well, if this witness is an Ifnian, I
might be able to discredit her in court."
Fey replied, "No, they're Corps, as a matter of fact."
"Kak, kak, and double kak. I want to interview
her. And my client, of course."
"It will all be arranged." Fey dug into a hip pouch on her trousers
and retrieved an info-crystal. "This is your special commission
from Advocacy Command. It gives you some of the same plentipotentiary
powers as a colonial governor-general."
Amalthea snorted. "They're sparing no effort, I see. Appearances
"I beg pardon," Fey said with a frown, "but I don't understand."
"Oh, I think you do." Amalthea was horrified to find herself lose
control, but she couldn't stem the bitter flood. "I know a little
about Tyvesh. You're a Fist of Vashti, right? Skilled in physical
combat, armed and unarmed. Don't think I don't know what your purpose
is here, mem. Command has sent you to make sure that Jezzibell
conveniently dies, thus saving a lot of trouble to everyone involved.
You call yourself a priest, but you're really an assassin."
"It is true," Fey replied calmly, "that I can harm with my skills.
I need no weapon to dispatch another to Vashti's arms, should it
be required of me. It is also true that Praise Nym hinted to me
that Kay's demise would be desirable. However... all I do is in
the name of Vashti. I would not dishonor my goddess with unneedful
sacrifice. Like you, I've been sent to Ifni under a cloak of falsehood.
I do not intend to sell myself, to cheapen my vows for gain. I will
defy wrong, and strive for right. Justice is my only interest here."
Her green eyes were cold. "Under any other circumstance, I would
demand blood for such an insult as you've given me."
Amalthea was shaken. Fey's words were utterly sincere; there was
no hint of deception. Amalthea prided herself on her ability to
read people. It wasn't quite a psience, but she had never been wrong
in all her years of advocacy. "I humbly apologize for offending
you," she finally said, and meant it. "I will perform any ritual
of expiation required by your custom."
Fey's lips curved in a tiny smile. "On Tyvesh, the penalty would
be too severe for comfort. Let me abide instead by Confederation
custom, and simply say, 'apology accepted.'"
Amalthea returned the smile. It was a fragile beginning, but there
was hope. Somehow, that made her feel a tiny bit better.
As soon as they arrived on Ifni, a squad of heavily armed guards
escorted the women to an office in the main complex. Amalthea glanced
around as they walked through the Confederation enclave. Surrounded
by high, electrified fences looped with razor wire, the camp buildings
were simple pre-fab huts arranged in a loose circle. Gravel crunched
underfoot. The air smelled sweet, like ripe peaches and nutmeg,
with traces of burnt caramel and cardamom. Outside the fence, trees
were crowned in yellow-green blossoms that fell in a gentle rain
and sizzled against the hot wires.
Fey and Amalthea found Commander Zellinger in deep conversation
with Chief Diplomat Worthy Tsang. Zallinger was typically Yggdrasilan
- two-plus meters of tightly packed muscle over dense bone, gilt-silver
hair cut in a military fade, and washed out blue eyes. He raked
Amalthea with a glare, then barely skimmed Fey before returning
to the taller woman. "Lt. Commander Quint... welcome to Heorot Base."
He offered her a hand.
Amalthea clasped foreams with him in the Yggdrasilan fashion. A
true warrior-guild officer. Uncomfortable furniture, antique weapons
on the walls, and a holo-snap of his Blood-Hag Social Club momma
hunting elephant birds on Rais. "I wish I could say this is
a pleasure, ser, but it isn't."
"A nightmare, yes?" Worthy-Are-Thy-Works Tsang was Banjul'ee; like
Praise Nym, he wore a formal robe with ribbons attached in so many
eye-searing colors that he resembled a fat circus tent.
"Every trial has that potential, of course," Amalthea replied smoothly.
She bowed to Tsang in the approved manner. Fey, who had more expertise
in Banjul'ee custom, made an elaborate salutation.
"Fey Lonyali... I have heard a great deal about you from ser
Nym," Tsang said, arching his reddish eyebrows. "I look forward
to seeing you in action."
Fey pursed her lips together and did not respond.
"Let's get to business," Zellinger grumbled. "Corporal Kay is in
custody, held incommunicado in a temporary brig. Her implant's been
disconnected from Heorot AI. That's her situation. Here's
mine. Every other day, some Ifnian functionary comes mincing in
here. He makes a lot of polite noise about Ifnian rights, we listen
to him politely, ser Tsang tells him to sit on an axe sideways
politely, and we all make nasty-nice together until he goes away.
I've got about fifteen dozen Confederation departments breathing
down my neck, and the flash-lines are burning up from 'interested
parties' who want to ensure that their fekkit interests on
Ifni aren't jeopardized."
Cords in his neck were standing out. His face was turning crimson.
Zellinger continued, "I am not a happy man, Quint. It is your job
to make me a happy man again. I want this fekkit nonsense
to go away so I can concentrate on my duties, which do not include
babysitting an alleged murderer and being polite to civilians. As
of now, I don't want to be bothered with it anymore. If I'm bothered,
I'll be disappointed. You do not want to disappoint me, by Odin.
Are you reading this clearly, Lt. Commander?"
"Aye-aye, sir." Amalthea snapped off a salute. "I respectfully
request that sir order his staff to refer all individuals with business
connected to this case to me. Sir will not be disappointed."
"I'm happy to hear it. Just bear in mind that it's your neck on
the chopping block." Zellinger turned to Tsang. "I'm allowing Quint
full access to all files relating to Ifni. I assume the diplomatic
corps will cooperate?"
"Naturally, Commander," Tsang replied. His ankle bangels clashed
as he turned to go. He said over his shoulder, "Come see me at your
convenience, Lt. Commander. You, too, Fey. I'm sure we can come
up with a strategy if we put our heads together." Then he disappeared
around the corner, ribbons fluttering.
Zellinger grunted. "See my secretary, Ensign Keel. He's my point
man - can't make a move without him. Hard to believe the boy used
to do scut work in Corps rehab until I snaffled him out. A real
jewel." He inhaled sharply and pinned Amalthea with a renewed glare.
"In two weeks, Lt. Commander, I want to hear that this thing is
wrapped up and tied with a bow. Understood?"
"Understood, sir." Amalthea gestured to Fey, and they left Zellinger's
office together. Ensign Keel was waiting for them outside. He was
Gizan, and wore a jewel-hilted ceremonial dagger on a belt around
his uniform tunic. A chrome intelli-deck was in his hand. "If you'll
follow me," Keel said. He wore his hair in a single inky braid snaking
down his back. All Ginzans let their hair grow long - to their heels
and beyond, if possible. It was considered a sign of maturity and
wisdom. The absolute worst thing you could do to a Ginzan, Amalthea
remembered, was cut off their hair.
Keel took them to a small pre-fab hut only a few meters away from
the main building. The interior was plain but scrupulously clean.
"I hope you don't mind sharing," he said, indicating the twin camp
beds set up side-by-side. "We aren't really set up to entertain
visitors, and I didn't think you'd want to bunk down in the BOQ.
"It's fine, Ensign," Amalthea replied. Her bag was at the foot
of one bed; Fey's was at the other. A desk and two chairs was wedged
beneath the rectangular window. "Much better than the Bachelor Officer's
Quarters, in fact."
Keel remained impassive. "I've already put you on the canteen schedule."
He pressed the deck's screen a few times, and the internal printer
extruded two plastic strips. "Here's your chits. You can draw on
common stores if you need anything except personal firearms. Commander
Zellinger has to give authorization for that. You've also got unlimited
access to Heorot Base files. I can remote-link your implant to AI
from here, ma'am." He pressed a few more buttons. "You should be
connected now, Lt. Commander."
Amalthea heard a distant crackle, like static from the bottom of
a well, then silence. Experimentally, she subvocalized, "Recognize:
Quint, Amalthea, Lt. Commander, 3Y923-5BY67, authorization code
"Recognized," Heorot AI acknowledged. Its voice was identical
to Avatar's. "Temporary security access granted Level
"End it." Amalthea focused on Keel. "Level One, huh?"
"Commander's orders, ma'am." The ensign turned to Fey. "I wasn't
given any instructions regarding AI access for you, mem Lonyali.
Shall I check with Commander Zellinger?"
"I have no implant," Fey explained. "My people prefer to communicate
with our gods in less technical ways."
"You'll need to put on combat Skinz; they're in these packs." Keel
did not react to the priest's joke. "It's orders - S.O.P. for hostile
worlds." He indicated two rectangular black packages on the top
of the desk.
"Fine." Amalthea was beginning to get impatient at the minutae
of military life.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Lt. Commander?"
"Give me ten minutes," Amalthea said, "and then I want to see Corporal
"Aye-aye, ma'am." Keel saluted and marched out of the hut, his
braid swaying from side to side.
Fey tore into one of the packs and picked up a Skinz. It hung from
her clawed fingertips, a faintly glimmering net that looked like
greased spidersilk. "How do you put this on?"
"You're never worn a nano-skin before?" Fey shook her head, hairbells
chiming. Amalthea rolled her eyes, went to the door flap and stuck
her head out. "Make that twenty minutes, Ensign." She turned back
to Fey. "Okay. Take off all your clothes."
Fey grinned, making her spiral cheek scars disappear. "You could
at least buy me dinner first," she said slyly. "That's a joke, yes?"
"That joke was old when Odin had both eyes." Despite her growing
apprehension - how was Jezzibell holding up? Had she changed at
all in two years? Does our love still stand a chance? - Amalthea
grinned back. "Putting on a Skinz is easy. Just press it against
you and wait. Embedded nanites are programmed to spread a microscopic
lattice over your flesh from scalp to soles. You won't feel a thing,
"And what does it do?"
"Think of it as armor." Amalthea stripped off her clothing, folding
tunic and trousers neatly over the footrail of a bed. Fey watched
out of the corner of her eye. The Confederation uniform was deceptive.
Clothed, Amalthea had seemed bulky, almost running to fat. Nude,
she was magnificent. Smooth slabs of muscle beneath milk pale skin,
chest and back covered in a wash of freckles. Not an ounce of spare
flesh on her strong-boned frame. She was not self-conscious about
her nakedness; Yggdrasilans had no nudity taboo.
Amalthea opened the second pack, withdrew the Skinz, and pressed
part of the filmy net against her abdomen. It stuck there as if
adhered, and began to spread. Amalthea put her arms up and closed
her eyes. In a few moments, she was completely covered. It was unobtrusive,
appearing to be no more than a sheen of oil over her freckled skin.
She opened her eyes. "If force is applied to any section of the
lattice - say, pressure wave from an explosion, or a projectile
weapon - the nanites lock together to form a shield. Kinetic energy
is transferred along the warp and weft to minimize damage to the
Fey looked at the dangling Skinz in her hands. "Is it effective
against plasma based weapons?"
"Not entirely." Amalthea opened her suitcase. There were several
clean uniforms inside, sealed in stay-fresh bags. She selected one
and began to draw it on. "The lattice is flame proof to a certain
extent, but if somebody hoses you down with a plasma rifle, you're
going to feel a little crispy afterwards. Oh, and the eyes aren't
covered, so they're vulnerable." She had taken her attention away
from Fey while dressing. As soon as she was finished, Amalthea glanced
in the priest's direction.
Fey had removed her bright orange top and trousers. Her dark hair,
entwined with silver bells, hung loose around her shoulders. Not
as tall as theYggdrasilan, the top of her head came just to Amalthea's
collarbone. She was lean, all whipcord muscle and dancer's grace.
"Like this?" she asked, pressing the Skinz to her flat belly.
"Yes," Amalthea answered, momentarily fascinated. So exotic, that
cinnamon red skin and lime green eyes... the way she moved was a
sensuous symphony, Mali love poetry set to invisible music. Very
different from Jezzibell Kay... Jezzibell! Amalthea turned
around to hide a flush of shame. Her beloved, the woman she loved
was in danger, and here she was daydreaming about a stranger.
Fey noticed her companion's red face. To avoid distressing Amalthea
further, she quickly dressed. "I think I'm ready now."
"Let's go see Jezzibell. I want to hear her side of the story."
Amalthea was brusque and business-like.
"Lead, and I shall follow your path in righteousness," Fey replied,
quoting from the Book of Vashti.
"Let's go." Amalthea ducked through the door flap, with the priest
Jezzibell was behind bars. Literally. The front half of a big animal
cage was spot-welded to the storage hut's crossbeams, creating a
secure cell in the back half of the structure. There was a single
armed guard with a needler. When Amalthea and Fey identified themselves,
he verified through Heorot AI before leaving them alone with the
"Hey, it's me," Amalthea said. Her stomach felt full of nervous
butterflies. "How are they treating you, Jez?"
"Mal?" Jezzibell came forward in a rush, grabbed the bars with
both hands in a white-knuckled grip. "Where the fekk have
you been?" She was fine-boned and petite, her face kitten-pretty.
Rage burned in her almond shaped eyes. "You're supposed to be a
big-shot advocate, so get me out of here right now!"
"Calm down," Amalthea said, taken aback by Jezzibell's hostility.
Then again, she's been through an ordeal, poor thing. "We
need to talk first."
"Are you deaf, or stupid, or what?" Jezzibell spat. She rattled
the bars. "I got no vid, no com, no VR console, no link to AI. I'm
bored out of my mind, and you want me to rot here some more? I didn't
kill anybody. That's a load of kak. It's a sick joke, and
you'll notice I'm not laughing."
Amalthea could sense Fey standing right behind her, but the priest
did not say a word. "You need to take this seriously, Jezz. The
Ifnians are, the Confederation, the Advocacy, the Corps... they
think you killed Hatusu, one of Pantelion's wives."
"I didn't do anything wrong," Jezzibell said stubbornly. "Okay,
so I was sleeping with her. Hatusu was lonely, I was lonely - it
happens. I bent the no-fraternization rules a little. No big deal.
We weren't hurting anybody."
"Did... did you love her?" Amalthea forced the words out past stiffened
lips. She did not really want to hear the answer.
Jezzibell laughed. "Gods, are you joking? Soppy, sappy, sticky
stars-in-your-eyes love... no wonder I couldn't stand the sight
of you after a while. Mind you, we had some fantastic sex - where
did you learn to do that thing with your tongue? - but you're not
Ginzan. Good for a giggle, all that love stuff you used to spout.
Amalthea reeled. Two years ago, Jezzibell Kay had been the center
of her universe. She had worshipped the ground beneath her little
pink toes. Wrapped in a romantic fog, she'd been blind to Jezzibell's
flaws. Absence had polished the mental picture to pristine perfection,
glossed over offensive personality traits, made the other woman
a goddess. Now she heard exactly what Jezzibell thought of her.
It was like being kicked in the face. Her stomach plummeted and
she thought she might be sick.
"To answer your question," Jezzibell continued, oblivious to Amalthea's
hurt, "I was not in looove with Hatusu. She's a wog... excuse me,
unaffiliated sophont. Yeah, I was with her the night she got terminated.
We shared a couple of bottles of native wine, and I gave her some
lotus weed. Not the first time, either. Don't look at me like that,
Quint. A girl assigned to a backward planet's got to find her amusements
where she can."
"Lotus weed is prohibited on on all military bases and vessels,"
Fey said, speaking for the first time.
"So?" Jezzibell shrugged. "I'll admit to the lotus, take my brig
time. I got no defense against that, 'cause it would have shown
up in my bloodwork. But no way am I having a murder pinned on me."
Amalthea struggled to control herself. She was torn between crying
for the loss of the perfect woman she'd adored, and taking said
woman by the hair and shaking her back teeth out. Concentrate
on the facts, Quint. "Hatusu was killed with a Ginzan dagger.
Her blood was found on your dagger, Jezz."
"That proves nothing. Do you know the effects of mixing lotus with
strong alcohol? Total zone-out. I was tranked to the eyeballs. You
could have marched a bugle parade through the room and I wouldn't
"Do you recall what happened that night?" Fey asked.
Jezzibell glanced at the Tyvesh priest. "Mal, is she with you or
"Just answer her, Jezz," Amalthea said wearily. "We're both here
to help." And you're not making it easy, she added silently.
Gods of my fathers, how could I have been so wrong about her?
"Well, it wasn't hard to sneak past the heed-ward in the
women's quarters. Maftet takes kahfe laced with sunfire brandy
after 2300 hours. Makes him too sleepy to guard the women effectively."
Jezzibell let go of the bars, sat down on a cot in the corner. She
began toying with the end of her long braid. "I got that tip from
one of the boys in my unit. I wasn't the only horny soldier pussy-footing
around, you know? Fortunata hasn't had shore leave in a long
time. As long as the wogs are agreeable and nobody complains, who
cares? Pentelion's wives don't get a lot of attention. They're starved
for a little company."
Fey took hold of Amalthea's upper arm and steered her towards a
chair. "Put your implant on record mode," she said softly. "We can
examine the testimony more closely later."
Amalthea did as she was told, activating Heorot AI's records/storage.
She sat there numbly, listening with half her mind. The other half
was busy trying to reconcile her memory of honeysweet Jezz with
this hard-eyed, harsh speaking woman behind bars.
Fey took over. "Go on," she said to Jezzibell.
"Hatusu was from some province to the west, a real country gal.
Plump and cute as hayell, just like I like 'em." Jezzibell's
eyes cut towards Amalthea, but the Yggdrasilan did not react. "Anyway,
I never paid much attention to her conversation. I wasn't there
to make small talk. I gave her a few hits of lotus. Gods, Hatusu
loved that stuff. Couldn't get enough. I didn't know the wine we
were drinking packed such a punch; tasted like candy but it knocked
me flat on my ass before we could get to flesh pressing. Next thing
I know, Commander Zellinger's standing over me with the face of
doom, there's Ifnians screaming everywhere, and Hatusu is grade-A
"There is an eyewitness who claims that you and Hatusu had an argument
shortly before the murder took place."
"We might have exchanged a few words," Jezzibell admitted. "Hatusu
was getting boring, all gimme-gimme and whining for attention. I
calmed her down with some more lotus. End of story."
"Do you have any idea who could have used your dagger without your
For the first time, Jezzibell looked troubled. "I figure some quaishin
came in when I was out, took my knife and did the deed. Do you have
any idea the amount of ritual cleansings I'm going to have to undergo
for that theft? The fasting? The weeks of celibacy? No booze, no
smoke, no meat, no nothing. I'm going to have to use all my savings
to pay the priests on Ginza for prayers and ceremonies, not to mention
having to give up a good three, four inches of my hair to the sin
doctors to get my honor back. It isn't helping that my dagger's
been confiscated, so who knows how many quaishin are putting
their dirty hands all over it? And it wasn't even my fault!"
She was clearly outraged - not at the death of her lover, but at
the inconvenience she was being put through.
Fey knew that quaishin was the Ginzan word for foreigner,
carrying strongly negative connotations which were not apparent
to the average offworlder. If Jezzibell had killed Hatusu, it was
a very expensive murder. Corporal Kay would be considered unclean
by her own people until she underwent the proper rituals, which
would cost her dearly. For this reason alone, Fey was inclined to
believe in her innocence. Jezzibell did not strike her as a person
who put up with inconvenience patiently, nor was she likely to perform
any action that did not serve her best interests.
"Where did you get the lotus weed?" Fey asked, moving away from
the murder for a moment.
Jezzibell squinted at her. "Ol' Anvil-Jaw asked me the same question."
At Fey's questioning look, she explained, "Commander Zellinger.
He's torqued that there's all these regulation breaches happening
under his nose. I didn't tell him a fekkit thing, 'cause
I figured I'm in enough trouble already. I say nothing without advice
from my advocate. Right, Quint? Isn't that the way it goes?"
Amalthea roused herself. Anger - both at her own foolishness and
at Jezzibell's callous disregard - was beginning to burn. "Your
rights as a Confederation citizen guarantee that you don't have
to incriminate yourself. However, you can and should tell me where
you got the lotus. I also want to know who told you about getting
past heed-ward Maftet, and how you met Hatusu, and who else
was breaking regs to get into the women's quarters. In short, Corporal
Kay, if I'm to save your life, I want to know every single detail
you can remember. Names, dates, everything. Hold back or lie to
me, and I swear by the Hellhorn, you'll be on your own!"
Jezzibell opened her mouth, stared at Amalthea, and closed it with
a click. She considered for a moment before replying, "I didn't
know you were so bitter about our break-up. I mean, okay, I figured
you were pretty serious back then, but I thought you'd gotten over
"I have gotten over it." Amalthea stood up as she made this
pronouncement "One things we'd better get straight right now...
you're in deep kak, Corporal. Very deep. Up to your chin
and moving rapidly north. I don't want to hear anymore about us.
There is no us, and I have no time to waste. So we're going to stick
to the facts. Now start talking."
There was an unspoken, implied or else attached to Amalthea's
last sentence. Jezzibell nodded. "Fine. Anything I tell you is protected
under advocate-client privilege, right?"
"Absolutely." Amalthea moved closer to the bars. "I'm recording,
Jezz. Go on."
Jezzibell took a deep breath and began.
Several hours later, Fey and Amalthea had finished cross-checking
Jezzibell's testimony against official reports collated by the ever-organized
Ensign Keel. Amalthea planned to interview the eyewitness, Lt. jg.
Rujat Pan, during dinner in the canteen. The two women were standing
outside, close to the fence; falling flowers dusted their shoulders,
leaving streaks of sweet-smelling pollen.
"The blood on the knife was definitely Hatusu's," Amalthea said.
She was wearing goggles, a banana curve of liquid pixels in a shatterproof
frame that fit snugly over her eyes. Heorot AI was projecting documents
and holo-pix of the crime scene on the goggles, according to Amalthea's
subvocalized instructions. "There were no fingerprints on the dagger;
it had been wiped clean. Keel directed the techs. When he worked
in Corps rehab, he used to do lab analysis and he's had some forensic
training. Didn't miss a step."
Fey preferred to use the display on a borrowed intelli-deck. "Our
killer could have masked his presence somehow. Surgical static-gloves,
"True, but..." Amalthea told the AI to superimpose an inventory
sheet from base sickbay over the current image. "Sorry. There are
sixteen pairs of static-gloves, all accounted for."
"Well, there's always an alternate explanation, if one looks hard
enough." Fey's hairbells chimed. "There were twenty Corps soldiers
in the women's quarters that night. Corporal Kay gave you a list.
All of them are potential suspects."
"I'm more interested in why she's hiding the identity of her lotus
connection. Well, I'll squeeze it out of her sooner or later." Amalthea
silently reviewed the crime scene holos again. Hatusu had indeed
been plump and pretty as hayel, until someone hacked her
torso apart. The Ifnian's face was peaceful, in contrast with the
violence of her death. "Autopsy showed no secondary injuries. Hatusu
was conscious and facing her attacker, yet she made no attempt to
"Curious. Did the wine and lotus not affect her as strongly as
it did Corporal Kay?"
Amalthea glanced at the autopsy report again. "There were high
histamine and serotonin levels found, indicating that her injuries
happened before she died. Hmph. If Jezzibell was, quote 'knocked
on her ass,' then Hatusu should have been similarly affected."
"And she was not. That is a question we should seek to answer."
Fey moved two steps away, absently brushing pollen off her fringed
orange shirt. "Perhaps we should ask an Ifnian healer... look
Amalthea didn't have a chance to clear her goggles. Fey pushed
her violently to one side, knocking them askew on her face. The
Yggdrasilan fell backwards in an undignified sprawl. Blinking rapidly
to bring her eyes back into focus, Amalthea saw Fey snatch something
in mid-air, spin around on her toes, and slam it into the fence
before leaping up and away. The resulting explosion made her ears
ring. Fey landed on top of her heavily, and Amalthea's breath went
out in a whoosh that left her gasping.
"What the...?" Amalthea wheezed. Fey jumped to her feet, grabbed
the taller woman's wrists, and tugged her to a safe distance. By
the time they reached the shelter of a hut, alarms were wailing
across the compound.
"Needler," Fey answered shortly, scanning the immediate area. "That
shot was aimed at your heart."
"Gods of my fathers, I'm wearing a Skinz. I wouldn't have gotten
"I don't put too much faith in technology. How would you say in
Yggdrasil... better to be safe than sorry." Fey dusted some gravel
off her trousers. She was holding something tightly in her fist.
Behind her, technicolor sparks were flying from the damaged section
of fence. One of the flowering trees was on fire; it stank of scorched
caramel and bitter almonds. A suppression team came running, followed
by an armed squad.
"Somebody better have a fekkit good explanation for this,"
Commander Zellinger said. He marched up, looming over both women
with an impressive scowl. Ensign Keel trotted breathlessly at his
Fey opened her hand, showing him a scorched but relatively intact
piece of ammunition called a needle. It was about a finger's width
and finned along its short length. The nose was crumpled. "Military
issue, I believe. Non-standard, at that."
Zellinger took the needle between his fingers gingerly. After a
moment of examination, a vein began to throb in his forehead. "This
is from an experimental model," he said softly. Fey stepped back,
almost tripping over Amalthea. An Yggdrasilan lowers his voice
to raise his sword, went the proverb.
He continued, "We have a case of these in storage. They're designed
to penetrate Skinz at close range. It's a good thing you shorted
it out; X-models are hard-wired hunter/seekers that'll keep flying
until they find a biological target."
"Odin's Empty Eye," Amalthea whispered. Such technology was rumored
to exist, but she had no idea there were actually working models.
"Thank you, Fey. That thing would have killed me." She got
to her feet and had to clutch the priest's shoulder for support.
"Did you see the sniper?" Zellinger asked.
"I'm afraid not. May I suggest, Commander, that you immediately
run a manual inventory check? Computer logs can be altered." Fey
reached up and tugged the goggles off Amalthea's face. "I also suggest
that you double the guard on Corporal Kay. If someone wants Lt.
Commander Quint dead, then presumably Kay is also a target."
"I'll see to it." Zellinger issued some curt instructions to Keel,
who sprinted away. The Commander tucked the dead needle into his
hip pouch. "Perhaps I should assign some protection for the advocate
"Unnecessary, sir." Amalthea stood up straighter. Her face was
pale, but some color was returning.
"I'm going to get to the bottom of this. Nobody shoots up my base
and gets away with it. When I find the svinzak who's responsible,
I'm going to personally cut the blood eagle into his back and hang
him up for a raven's feast!" Zellinger stomped away to direct the
Fey stood on tip-toe, the better to speak directly into Amalthea's
ear. "No Ifnian could have acquired a Corps weapon like that. The
base is too well guarded."
"Unless the quartermaster's been doing deals on the side with Confederation
property," Amalthea replied. Fey was so close, she could feel the
heat of the other woman's body, smell the spicy scent that wafted
from her glossy cinnamon skin. "It's been known to happen."
"No. Whoever wanted you dead knew that you'd be wearing a Skinz,
which is why they used a weapon guaranteed to circumvent your protection.
Ifnian technology is not as sophisticated as yours. The assassin
knows this base very well, is familiar with Corps armaments, and
has the means to get what he needs. And is very resourceful."
"But why? The trial isn't for another two weeks. Even if I was
killed today, the Advocacy would send somebody else to defend Jezzibell."
"This is connected to the case," Fey insisted. "We just don't know
"Too many fekkit things we don't know." Amalthea sighed.
"All right. Let's finish our info-gathering expedition. We've got
to interview Rujat Pan."
"There are ways of cunning murder even in public places like a
canteen," the priest warned. "Until we identify and capture the
assassin, you are still in danger."
"I'm not going to be scared off this case. Something is rotten
in Ifni," Amalthea glanced at the smoldering fence, "and I'm going
to find out what it is even if it kills me."
"By Vashti, I hope it doesn't come to that." Fey gave the taller
woman a brief hug. "Tyvesh soothing gesture," she explained to the
startled Amalthea, "meant to comfort."
"I think it's working." Amalthea felt herself grinning like an
idiot, and did not care.
"Good." Fey smiled and released her. "I wonder what they're serving
"Who cares? I've got a certain junior Lieutenant on my menu."
Amalthea touched the scars on Fey's right cheek. "I'll say it again.
Thank you for my life, Fey Lonyali. I owe you a debt which can never
"You're welcome, Amalthea Quint."
"Call me Mal."
Fey's lime-green eyes widened. "You permit me use of your short-name?
On Tyvesh, this would mean that we are friends."
"Yes. On Yggdrasil, too."
"Between friends, there are no debts," Fey said. Her smile was
as brilliant as a sun. "We sail together, you and I, our journey-thread
entwined, life-flames burning as one." Another quote from the Book
"I suddenly have a craving for Rujat Pan." Amalthea put the goggles
in her hip pouch. "Let's go find that canteen."
Lieutenant jg. Rujat Pan was Muradeen. The harsh canteen light
glittered on her iridescent facial scales, picked out blue-green
highlights on her cranial spikes. Her eyes were set in protrubent
scaled sockets, like a chameleon's. They swiveled independently,
one focusing on Amalthea, the other on Fey, then her split gaze
drifted here and there. "This person has given testimony already.
Why question this person again?"
Amalthea was starting to get a headache, trying to meet both of
Rujat's eyes simultaneously. She forced herself to concentrate on
one at a time. The Muradeen habit of referring to themselves in
the third person was also irritating. "I've read the testimony you
gave Ensign Keel. I want to hear the story again from your own lips."
"This person will not be inconsistent," Rujat chirped. Her voice
reminded Amalthea of a piccolo chorus. "Absolute truth was told
and will be told again."
"Good. That's all we want to hear."
Rujat sipped her warm protein shake. "This person became aware
that others were engaged in illegal activities while assigned to
quarters in the Ifnian palace."
"Please confine yourself solely to Corporal Kay's activities,"
Amalthea said patiently. Another problem with Muradeens was that
they tended to include every tiny, insignificant detail in a story.
Ask a Muradeen the time of day, and you were likely to get a half-hour
discourse on 4th dimensional theory, the space/time continuum, and
hyperspace distortions. Very smart but very long-winded. You had
to work to keep them on track. Ensign Keel had done a good job extracting
the precise information needed for the investigation.
"This person will comply," Rujat said primly, eyes swiveling. She
continued to drink her shake while reciting the facts.
Twenty-one Corps soldiers from Heorot Base had been assigned to
the diplomatic party staying in Pantelion's palace; three junior
officers, each responsible for six enlisted. Corporal Kay had been
under Rujat's command. It was light duty, consisting mainly of standing
around being decorative, and escorting diplomats around the labyrinth
of the God-King's quarters. Three shifts per 24-hour cycle, eight
hours each - the guard teams worked one shift on, two shifts off
on a rotating basis. Fraternization with Ifnians was strictly forbidden.
Doing a routine inspection one evening, Rujat discovered that the
two corporals assigned to Diplomat Tsang's rooms were absent without
leave. She investigated the lapse with typical Muradeen efficiency.
The AWOL soldiers were found participating in an unauthorized poker
game along with several others who were supposed to be on duty in
other parts of the palace. A scandalized Rujat decided to do a complete
check of the entire team. Corporal Kay was the only one still missing
after she'd rounded up the others.
Petty Officer Yerovah - no friend of Kay's, since he owed her money
on gambling debts - made a suggestion as to her whereabouts. It
seemed her illicit relationship with mem Hatusu was an open
secret among the enlisted soldiers. At this point, Rujat made a
report to Commander Zellinger's office, woke up the other two officers,
and went in search of Kay herself.
"This person was in the second octagon, fourth level, near mem
Hatusu's quarters, when voices were heard upraised in argument."
Rujat finished her shake and set it aside. "A verbal transcript
of what this person heard now follows."
HATUSU: Don't be cruel!
KAY: And you're being greedy. Relax. I said relax, Jinx take it!
HATUSU: Give it to me! I'm burning for it!
KAY: Let go! You ripped my shirt! *sound of flesh striking flesh*
I don't like it when you get this way, baby.
HATUSU: You hurt me.
KAY: Good. Now quit whining. I'll give it to you when I'm good
HATUSU: *sounds of distress* Please?
KAY: That's better. Here, drink some more wine... *several seconds
of silence* Wow. Tastes different this time. Take some of this,
baby. It'll make you feel better.
HATUSU: You're so good to me. *heavy breathing* I can feel the
heat already. Touch me... ah, yes. There. And again.
KAY: *heavy breathing, clink of bottle* Mmmm... *slurred* let the
"End of verbal transcription," Rujat said. Her tone was laced with
disapproval over the indulgent sexual habits of her fellow sophonts.
"This person was summoned to return. Commander Zellinger waited
and wished to see this person without delay. It was this person's
belief that Corporal Kay was unlikely to flee the premises."
"You left Jezzibell alone in Hatusu's room." Amalthea could believe
this. Muradeen were obsessive-compulsives when it came to honoring
their duties and obligations, absolute sticklers for protocol. Zellinger's
message would have come first in Rujat's priorities. After all,
disciplining a wayward soldier could be taken care of anytime; mollifying
a commanding officer awakened in the middle of the night by bad
news couldn't wait.
"Yes. There was no reason for this person to suspect that sexual
misconduct would become violent." Rujat's wandering eyes snap-focused
on Amalthea. "This person has done no wrong."
"I apologize if I've offended you," Amalthea said. "It was not
my intention to imply blame." As she'd thought, Rujat had not deviated
from the story she'd previously given. In fact, without checking
the archives, Amalthea would bet the Muradeen had quoted herself
word for word. She turned to Fey. "Do you have any questions?"
"Later, if you don't mind." Fey put her hands together and whistled,
a shrill twin-tone that wavered, dipped and rose. Rujat was so impressed,
she fluted in appreciation. Not many offworlders could sing Muradeen.
In the concise, compressed tongue of Murad, Fey was asking, "Query:
will it offend/discommode/inconvenience someone if someone requests
for further slaking of data-thirst during the next nutrient ingestation
period? Query ends."
The positive reply which Rujat made sounded like a snatch of melody
for harmonica and pan-pipes, with a wheezing bagpipe chorus.
Fey smiled and returned to Uni-lang. "Thank you," she said to Rujat.
"I know my accent is terrible."
Rujat waved away her modesty. "Difficult enough to learn and speak.
The attempt is crude but worthy of art." Her eyes were swiveling
in little circles, a sign of great respect. She let out a mini-sonata,
and Fey chuckled.
Amalthea wondered what those two were getting so cozy about. "How
about dinner?" she asked casually.
"I'd prefer to eat in our hut, if you don't mind," Fey replied.
She whistled another line before getting up from the bench and heading
towards the chow line.
Rujat kept one eye on Amalthea, while using the other to follow
Fey's progress. "That one will go far," she commented.
"Especially if I pitch her off a tall roof," the Yggdrasilan muttered.
She pushed the bench back, got up and joined Fey in line. Her implant
buzzedwhile she was waiting to be served. Amalthea listened to the
"Something wrong?" Fey asked.
"Message from ser Tsang. Tell you later."
In the small pre-fab hut, Fey was sitting on her bed, devouring
a plate of plankton steak with fried sweet potatoes. She had drizzled
it with fiery sauce from a suspiciously pink bottle secreted in
her travel bag. A holo-label on the front of the bottle declared,
Dharma Bum's Tao of Seven Hells Sauce, It's Karma Kickin' Good.
Amalthea declined to try it, preferring to stick to a pseudo-turkey
sandwich on maizebread.
"Not bad," Fey said when she'd finished. "On Xipitec, I had to
eat giant mealworms flambe at a reception once."
Amalthea had a strong stomach. She swallowed a mouthful of sandwich
and replied, "Chili con lunacy made with concentrated hot peppers
on Gamba. I cried for a week."
"Burned you coming and going, huh?" Fey pushed the plate away and
stretched out on her stomach. "Deep fried lake bugs on Pontus Prime.
With caramel sauce."
"Jellied eels in New London."
"Exploding brain fruit. Has to be eaten with a very long spoon."
Amalthea dropped the rest of her sandwich. "There is no such thing."
"There is!" Fey rolled over on her back. "It's considered a rare
delicacy on Dante's Inferno."
"You got me there. Join the Corps, discover exotic cuisine that
sometimes bites back." Amalthea was sitting at the desk. She shoved
her half-eaten meal into the recycler bin.
"I wonder why the canteen food here is all reconstituted rations."
"No idea. Why don't you ask the kitchen boss?"
"Perhaps I will."
Amalthea took a deep breath. "Tomorrow, I have a meeting with demiurge
Otanishan at the palace. Heed-ward Maftet will be there.
So will God-King Pantelion. Does one bow to a God-King, or crawl
on one's belly, or what?"
"One inclines the head, thus," Fey jumped up to demonstrate,"while
simultaneously holding the hands at shoulder height, palms outward."
"Thanks for the tip. Diplomat Tsang will be accompanying me. He
arranged the meeting." Amalthea bit her lip. "Tsang specifically
requested that you not be attendance."
"I see." Fey narrowed her lime-green eyes. "Well, I'm sure I can
find something to occupy my time while you're away."
"Fey, I don't feel right about this. You should be included. Tsang
said that the Ifnians were concerned about Pantelion's safety, with
you being a Tyvesh Fist. I think that's a load of kak."
"Don't be distressed on my account, Mal." It was the first time
she used Amalthea's short-name. "As I said, I have plenty to do
on my own. We can compare experiences afterwards."
Amalthea clenched her teeth together and rubbed her eyes. She was
tired, exhausted really, and wanted to do nothing more than sleep.
Preferably in her own bed on the Avatar. She did not want
this case. She did not want to deal with Tsang. She especially did
not want to see Jezzibell Kay anymore. Too many complications. Too
much hurt. Amalthea knew it was over between them. Whatever fantasy
romance she had created was just that - a fantasy. Reality had slammed
down with the subtlety of a blunt instrument, shattering her dreams.
"Did you find anything odd about Rujat Pan's testimony?" The priest
sat down cross-legged on her bed, facing Amalthea.
"Lt. jg. Pan came in on the end of the conversation, so it's incomplete.
All her testimony proves is that Jezzibell and Hatusu were alone
together shortly before the murder occurred." Amalthea stifled a
"Don't forget, Kay was found unconscious in the room next to the
dead body. By her own admission, she has no alibi."
"Are you suggesting that she did it?"
"No." Fey tapped her scarred cheek, lost in thought. "She has no
motive. Tell me, was Hatusu's body given a complete examination
by Corps medics?"
"I can get you a hardcopy of the autopsy reports. Ensign Keel is
a very organized young man. No wonder Zellinger can't do
without him. "
"Not yet. I must meditate on this further."
"I wish you'd stop that!" Amalthea exclaimed, getting in the other
camp bed. She had already undressed down to a thin cotton singlet.
"Have I mentioned how much I hate mysteries?"
"Sleep well," Fey replied, smiling.
Amalthea snapped off the light, rolled over, and pulled the blanket
up to her chin.
After a while, Fey's hairbells chimed softly. "Do you want to talk
"Talk about what?" Amalthea mumbled. Her jaw was sore; she'd been
grinding her teeth, thinking about Jezz.
"Your love affair with Corporal Kay."
"No. I don't have a fekkit thing to say about Corporal fekkit
Fey stared up into the darkness. She knew Amalthea was hurting;
she could sense the pain washing off her in waves so palpable, she
didn't need psi skills to detect it. "I was stationed on Ginza once,"
she said conversationally. "They seem to be nice people, until you
really get to know them."
"Ginzan culture stresses honor and personal responsibility." Amalthea
turned over onto her back. The evening was warm, but she still felt
"Only to other Ginzans." Fey wasn't certain this would help. Although
they had known each other a short time, she was beginning to like
her Yggdrasilan companion. Amalthea Quint was a deeply honorable
person, someone who assumed that others were essentially good. She
did not see the evil in people very easily. "Quaishin literally
means, one without honor. It's a word used for anyone who is not
Ginzan. The attitude they have towards quaishin is usually
masked behind a thin veneer of politeness, but don't be fooled.
In their culture, you can lie, cheat, steal or whatever to one without
honor - it doesn't matter. That's why you don't see many of them
in the Corps, and none in diplomatic services. They have to treat
fellow Ginzans respectfully, but quaishin are fair game because
they're animals, not really human. That's what ginza means...
"I thought ginza meant honor." Amalthea was trembling.
"It does. 'Honor' and 'human" are the same thing. Do you understand
that this is why Jezzibell felt able to treat you the way that she
did? In her culture's terms, a sexual encounter with a quaishin
has no real meaning, no emotional attachment. You heard how she
felt about Hatusu."
"I thought she loved me."
Fey replied sadly, "You projected your own feelings onto her. I
suspect you know that now. Yggdrasilans are passionate and unselfish
by nature. You love to fall in love, and your culture doesn't place
any taboos that limit your potential partners. On Ginza, it's different.
Jezzibell probably assumed you knew this."
"I didn't. I thought..." Amalthea had to hold her breath a moment
to fight back tears. "Okay. Maybe it was my fault. When you get
your advocacy license, they give you memsynth basics for a lot of
cultures you might encounter. Really basic, mostly focused on non-offensive
behaviors. When I met Jezzibell, she dazzled me. We were so hungry
for each other, I never bothered to do any further studying about
Ginza. I thought I knew everything. I was a fekkit idiot."
"Culture clashes can be brutal." Fey reached out a hand. Their
beds were separated by a tiny space, so she was able to touch Amalthea's
wrist. She was careful of her claws, not wishing to damage but to
comfort. "Don't allow it to destroy you, Mal."
"That which does not kill me makes me stronger." Amalthea quoted
the ancient Yggdrasilan saying without a trace of bitterness. She
tried to learn from her mistakes. "I had this shtupit vision
of Jezz, you know? She was crying and looking so helpless, needing
me to save her from the forces of evil..." To Amalthea's surprise,
she began to giggle uncontrollably at the mental image. It was good;
so good, in fact, that she could feel the hole in her heart starting
"Oh, and you'd come blasting in on your hover-steed to rescue the
princess held in durance vile!" Fey giggled, too. "Mal, don't tell
me you're addicted to holo-romances!"
"No." Amalthea wiped her eyes. "Opera."
"Let me guess... you're Seigfried and she's Brunhilde?"
"Gods of my fathers, my taste isn't that bad!"
"If it was, I'd have to sacrifice you." Fey scratched Amalthea's
"Then it'd be a mercy killing for sure."
They howled together for a while, until Amalthea's sides were aching.
Finally, she sniffled and said, "Well, that'll teach me to have
an overactive imagination."
"May I give friendly advice without offense?" Fey withdrew her
hand. "Next time you fall in love, learn everything you can about
that person and where they come from. That might prevent misunderstandings."
"Very sensible." Amalthea strained to try and catch a glimpse of
her companion in the dark; all she could see was the faint glimmering
of the priest's eyes. "I hate mysteries, anyway."
"So you said. Sleep well, my friend."
"You, too." Amalthea rolled over. The horrible sickness she'd felt
about Jezzibell's betrayal was nearly gone. In its place was a lightness,
a cleansing made not with tears, but with laughter. When she closed
her eyes, the image of Jezz she'd held in her mind was blurred,
In its place was cinnamon skin, exotic green eyes and the pleasing
chime of hairbells. A warm smile. A graceful, caring soul.
You love to fall in love... Fey's observation lulled her
The next morning, after Amalthea left for the palace, Fey Lonyali
walked into the canteen and strode through the doors marked AUTHORIZED
PERSONNEL ONLY with complete disregard for the message printed in
fourteen different scripts. These led into the kitchen, presided
over by Master Sergeant Yasuda. He was squat, fat and furry, dressed
in a sleeveless shirt and shorts combination. An unlit cigar was
stuck into one side of his short muzzle. Yasuda's gleaming black-button
eyes fastened onto Fey the moment she came within his line of sight.
The Master Sergeant - otherwise known as the Kitchen Tyrant, He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed
- was obviously calculating where Fey might have fallen in the chain
of military command. He concluded with disgust that she was a civilian.
A growl issued from behind the cigar clenched tightly in his fangs.
"No civvies allowed!" Yasuda snapped, pointing a stubby but
imperious finger towards the EXIT. He may have spoken in Universal,
but his choice of vocabulary was ripe. "This ain't no ladies tea
party, and I don't care if your lawful mate's the ruler of a dozen
worlds, and wipes his golden buttocks with spun rubies. Ain't even
an Admiral Four-Novas can tell me what to do in my own chow hall.
I don't give tours. Get it? Now get out!"
Fey paused beside a huge stove, where bubbling pots and pans emitted
scented steam. When she replied politely, it was in pure Figmo Rusty,
the Master Sergeant's planet of origin. "Do I look like I give a
green rat's ass, you stinkin' gank? Like I would even waste
my time in this piss-poor excuse for a barf bucket if I didn't hafta.
You and me, we gotta chew the fat now, 'cause I ain't getting no
younger and you ain't getting no prettier. "
Yasuda plucked the cigar from his muzzle. Although his face was
covered with peach-brown fuzz, she could still make out an expression
of atonishment. Several noncom workers stopped chopping, mixing
and cleaning, in order to better lend an ear to the exchange. The
Master Sergeant clashed his teeth together, turned to the kitchen
in general and barked in Uni, "Whatcha staring at? Get back to work
or I'll be serving you sorry svinzaks as the next chef's
special! On toast!"
The threat spurred everyone back to industry. Yasuda regarded Fey
once more. "Not bad for a jabber jockey," he admitted, using the
unflattering term for a diplomatic envoy.
"Not bad for a knuckle-dragging hash slinger," Fey said. They had
returned to speaking Rusty.
"Come into my office." Yasuda waddled out of the kitchen with Fey
in tow, leading the way to a tiny room just off the main chamber.
He sat down and poured himself a drink from a dark glass bottle.
The cigar was placed reverently on his desk. He switched back to
Universal. "Time to splice the mainbrace. The sun's probably over
the yardarm somewhere. What can I do for you, mem?" Her knowledge
of Figmo Rusty customs, where insults were considered the height
of decorum, had earned his respect.
Fey rubbed her throat. The scratchy, gargling Rusty language wasn't
easy to articulate. Now that the pleasantries were over, it was
a relief to revert to an easier language. "I was having a conversation
last night with someone who's been in the Corps for a while. I've
traveled to quite a few military bases myself. Everywhere we've
been, local cuisine is incorporated into the canteen menu. I wondered
why that wasn't the case here."
"You gotta beef with my chow?" The glass was drained, the cigar
replaced at a pugnacious angle. Yasuda refilled his drink and pushed
it towards Fey. "Take it up with the pecker checker in sickbay.
That'd be Lt. Virgil 'Gosh-Almighty' Gamble. When we were setting
up shop, he comes over excited 'cause I wanted to know where was
the local vittles I'd lined up. Gosh-Almighty put the nix on native
produce, and I reckon he's still working on clearing meat for general
consumption. Meanwhile, I'm feeding the line from stores and our
mother lovin' grunts are moaning for variety. I tell you, it's a
helluva amateur night around here."
"Did Lt. Gamble tell you why he wouldn't rate Ifnian produce as
safe?" Fey took the glass and drained it in one gulp, earning even
more respect from the Master Sergeant. Not many sophonts could swallow
genuine Rusty hootch. She didn't turn pale or pass out, which he
took as a good sign.
"Do I look like a techie scan-meister?" Yasuda's fur was bristling.
"All I know is that there's some incompatibility that might make
our grunts sick if they choke down the local lettuce or something
like that." He let out a gusty, cigar-flavored sigh and picked up
the bottle. "Refill?"
Fey shook her head. One was more than enough; she'd forgotten truly
raunchy homebrewed hootch could be. "Thanks for the low down, neighbor."
"Hey, you see Gosh-Almighty, tell that gank he'd better
not show his ugly face in my chow hall until I get some decent grub
to work with." Yasuda bared his fangs. "Otherwise, I'm gonna hafta
start serving slop-on-a-shingle three times a day if the re-supply
ship don't come in on time. That'll really torque off the brass.
Any kak comes down on me gets rolled straight onto his plate."
"No problem. I'll be sure to mention it." Fey handed him the empty
glass. "Gotta haul ass," she said in Rusty. "Can't waste no more
time jawing with low-life scum like you."
"Go drain your brain. I got better things to do."
"I'll give your love to Lt. Gamble."
"Hey, it ain't detachable!"
Fey laughed, shook her hairbells at the Master Sergeant, and sought
the EXIT. She had to see Lt. Gamble, and she also had an appointment
with the Muradeen, Rujat Pan.
Amalthea returned to base alone; Diplomat Tsang had elected to
remain in the palace until sundown. Ifnian regulations required
offworlders to travel in heavily curtained palanquins carried by
muscular bearers in eyeshades, to shield them from the possibly
traumatic sight of an offworlder. The palanquin swayed, rolled and
dipped until Amalthea's stomach was imitating the motions with near
She was a definite shade of pale green when she finally got back
to Heorot Base.
"You don't look well," Fey said when she caught sight of Amalthea's
complexion. "Do you need a healer?"
"No, just some time on land that isn't moving up, down and sideways
simultaneously." Amalthea smoothed her butter yellow hair with both
hands and peered at the priest. "What have you been up to?"
"Some very interesting investigations," Fey replied. "How was your
"Fairly exciting. Demiurge Otanishan was foaming at the
mouth. He demanded the immediate execution of all non-Ifnians, war
to be declared against the alien destroyers, etc. Otanishan's line
of fiery rhetoric is going down well with his fellow governors,
as Tsang told me later. God-King Pantelion didn't speak at all.
Heed-ward Maftet kept looking at me and making signs to ward
off evil. What I learned between the invective is this - a fair
trial will be impossible, yet the Ifnians insist on trying Jezzibell
themselves. Even if I mounted the greatest defense in history, she's
still going to be found guilty. Otanishan isn't interested in justice;
he's using this as an excuse to put himself in the #1 demiurge
slot. Be the hero who faced down demons and won. If I hear the words,
'unholy Confederation plot' one more time, I'm going to scream."
"Well... I don't know about unholy, but there's certainly a plot
behind Hatusu's murder." Fey let this bomb drop with a sly grin.
"You're yanking my yin, aren't you?"
"Would I do a thing like that without a proper invitation?" Fey
rolled her eyes. "I don't know if it's a national trait, but it
seems to me that Yggdrasilans are very impatient people."
Control, control, control, Amalthea silently repeated her
mantra. Always control. You really don't want to strangle her,
Quint. "Are you trying to say that you know who killed Hatusu?"
"Yes. Proving it is another matter, but I have some ideas on that
Amalthea was sure her eyes were bulging. "You've obviously been
busy. What did you do, beat a confession out of somebody and forget
to tape it?"
"Don't be offensive." Fey handed her an intelli-deck. "First, let
me give you a lesson in biology."
"Didn't someone once say, 'you could at least buy me dinner first?'"
Amalthea glanced at the display. "What's this?"
"The reason why Master Sergeant Yasuda - the kitchen boss to you
- is unable to serve local cuisine in his canteen. I also had a
chat with Gosh-Almighty Gamble, the base physician."
Amalthea was scanning the chemical symbols without comprehension.
She looked up. "Are you planning to translate this gibberish into
something an idiot like me can understand?"
"Briefly, most Ifnian vegatation contains a complex polysaccharide
that's impossible for most non-Ifnians to digest. Consumption can
cause a number of reactions, from hiccups to intestinal lesions.
Hence the ban on native foodstuffs."
"What does this have to do with Jezzibell's case?"
"Ah, therein lies a fascinating tale." Fey tapped the deck's case
with a claw. "I had an idea, a hypothesis. Since Gosh-Almighty still
had samples he'd taken from the body at autopsy, he performed a
series of tests at my request. The results were startling, to say
While Amalthea listened grimly, Fey explained what she had learned.
When she finished, Amalthea put the intelli-deck into her hip pouch.
"I'll go and pin down Corporal Kay." Her shoulders were rigid with
barely suppressed fury.
"Shall I fetch Commander Zellinger?"
"Please do. Ask him to meet us in the brig." Amalthea remembered
an old Yggdrasil saying: Put your hand in the wolf's mouth and
expect to get bitten.
To put yourself in the wolf's mouth meant to undertake something
very hazardous in the hope of reward. Someone on base had a secret
and was willing to kill to keep it. He was playing a dangerous game.
His hand was in the wolf's mouth... and Amalthea intended to make
"Oh, and while you're at it," Amalthea said to Fey's retreating
back, "you might remind Ol' Anvil Jaw about my plentipotentiary
powers. There are a few others I'd like at our meeting - a certain
diplomat and a pair of Ifnian natives. You know who I mean."
Fey waved a hand in acknowledgement, and trotted on.
Diplomat Tsang's ribbons fluttered in agitation. He was not used
to obeying orders, but when those commands came from a huge, square-jawed
Yggdrasilan commander of uncertain temperament, he obviously felt
that discretion was the better part of valor. "I have persuaded
demiurge Otanishan and God-King Pantelion IV to be here,
but it took a great deal of convincing."
"We won't disappoint them," Zellinger replied, a steely glint in
his eyes. "Welcome to Heorot base, gentle sophonts." He made the
Ifnian greeting gesture stiffly but with perfect correctness.
Otanishan's return greeting was done in a series of angry jerks.
"The God-King asks: why have you barbarians brought us into the
presence of the unclean?" He indicated Jezzibell, who was still
God-King Pantelion was so covered in veils, robes and shawls that
no hint of flesh could be seen. Even his eyes were covered with
an embroidered gossamer band. He looked like an animated laundry
heap. A heavy gold scepter was clutched in one gloved hand. It was
clear that he did not intend to communicate directly with the unholy
"I beg your pardon," Amalthea said. "I thought it was important
that all interested parties be present for this meeting. Please,
if you'll take a seat, we'll begin."
Otanishan used a silken square to ostentatiously dust off a chair
before guiding Pantelion to it. He sat at the God-King's feet, glaring
around the room. Zellinger and Tsang sat down to one side. Fey stood
next to Ensign Keel, who was recording the event.
"First of all, let me state for the record that Corporal Jezzibell
Kay is innocent of Hatusu's murder." Otanishan started to protest.
Amalthea held up a hand. "If you'll hear me out, I think I can prove
it to your satisfaction."
"Beware of cunning tricks, O Radience," Otanishan urged Pantelion.
"These destroyers will do anything to save their own."
Pantelion cut him off with a gesture, and nodded at Amalthea to
"Thank you, ser." Amalthea clasped her hands behind her
back. "Kay's trial was to be held in two weeks. I've been here two
days, reviewing evidence and the like. I also talked to Lt. jg.
Rujat Pan, the eyewitness. My problem is that the investigation
was hampered by my own complaisance. I'll explain."
She began pacing back and forth. "When I spoke to the eyewitness,
I was familiar with the penchant for Muradeens to be extremely long-winded.
It's common knowledge. Therefore, I asked her to confide herself
only to the facts as they related to the events she overheard. Muradeen
are also literal minded. She did exactly as I asked. I assumed this
was all I needed to know, and since it jibed with her original testimony,
I didn't probe further. Another incorrect assumption. My partner,
Fey Lonyali, interviewed Rujat Pan later in her own tongue. Some
details emerged which made the nature of Hatusu's death a very different
affair from the one we had supposed."
Ensign Keel started, then went still again. Fey watched him carefully.
Commander Zellinger's mouth drew into a tight, thin line.
Amalthea stopped pacing. "Assumptions are dangerous. If making
them was a crime, the incarceration plants would be full."
"This is all very entertaining," Tsang said, "but are you planning
to become less cryptic and more to the point?"
"My point is, honored Diplomat, that we all made incorrect
assumptions. For example, we assumed that the murder weapon - a
Ginzan dagger - belonged to my client. She was at the scene. She
could be placed there shortly before Hatusu's death, and she is
Ginzan. Logical, eh? But can we be certain that it was really her
dagger in the sheath?" Amalthea turned to Jezzibell. "Did anyone
ask you to identify the murder weapon as your property?"
"No," Jezzibell admitted. "They told me it was, but I never saw
"Another assumption. And then there's the matter of Hatusu's autopsy."
Amalthea abruptly switched her attention to Pantelion. "Forgive
me, ser, if I speak of things that are upsetting to you.
It is necessary."
Pantelion waved at her to continue.
"After my colleague learned why Ifnian produce is verboten
in the canteen, she formulated a theory and spoke to Lt. Virgil
Gamble, the base physician. He performed some tests on samples taken
from Hatusu's body. Now, lotus weed is a recreational drug, non-addictive
and harmless... for most sophonts. Ifnians don't look that much
different from Yggdrasilans or Ginzans or any of several dozen other
races, but they do have a specially adapted physiology, uniquely
suited to their world. I have copies of the report I can download
for you, but the upshot is this - lotus weed contains chemicals
that have a devastating effect on Ifnians. I speak of immediate
addiction and eventual death."
Jezzibell let out a gasp. "I didn't know," she said. "You can't
blame me for that. I didn't know. The kak-brained
wog should've told me."
Amalthea ignored her. "Lotus is a powerful intoxicant to an Ifnian.
The effects are disruption of brain chemistry, erratic heartbeat,
hormonal flush, elevated blood pressure, increased sexual arousal.
Withdrawal pain is severe, characterized by 'burning' sensations
and an uncontrollable craving. With continued abuse, expect death
by seizure, cardiac arrest or respiratory failure will occur within
six months to a year. Lt. Gamble ran a series of projections that
prove this conclusively."
"So!" Otanishan leaped to his feet and shook his fist at Diplomat
Tsang. "A heinous plot! The unholy Confederation would destroy Ifni
from within by use of this demon's drug!"
For the first time, God-King Pantelion spoke aloud. "Be silent,
demiurge. Exercise logic, if you have any. Conspirators would
not reveal themselves to the highest officials in a land they plot
Otanishan's mouth dropped open. "But... but Your Radience!"
"I said, be silent." Pantelion inclined his veiled head towards
Amalthea. "Your information shows my poor Hatusu was doomed before
the knife fell. Why kill her then?"
"Because she was addicted." Amalthea's blue gaze swept from
the God-King to Commander Zellinger. "Another assumption we've made
is that Hatusu and Corporal Kay were alone together when the murder
took place. I'm sure you've all seen the testimony given by Lt.
jg. Rujat Pan. One thing she said stands out: after overhearing
the argument, she 'was summoned to return.' Muradeen always speak
very precisely. Why didn't she say she got a message over her implant?
Fey Lonyali questioned her again, this time in her native tongue.
It turns out that Muradeen-to-Uni literal translation can be problematic.
What Rujat Pan meant was that a certain person joined her at the
location, and issued an order for her to report to Commander Zellinger."
"Who?" Tsang blurted.
"The same person who recognized the symptoms of addiction when
he witnessed Hatusu's behavior that night, and realized that he
could make a great deal of money by supplying lotus to Ifnians -
but only if the effects weren't known before he introduced the drug
to the populace. The person who could get access to restricted technology
and try to kill me. He didn't do this because I was close to the
truth, but to cast more confusion on the case. He also concealed
the fact that the murder weapon did not belong to Corporal
Kay; it was a Ginzan dagger, all right, but they all look alike
to us quaishin. Who's the only other Ginzan assigned to Heorot
Commander Zellinger stood up. It seemed to take a long time for
him to reach his full height, and when he did, he loomed. "I trusted
you, filthy nidhingr!" He was looking at Ensign Keel.
Keel dropped the recording device. In the same motion, he whipped
a matte black needle gun from his hip pouch, too quick for Fey to
intervene. "I'm no oathbreaker!" he cried. "What does it matter,
they're just quaishin! Animals without honor."
"You used to work in a rehabilitation center," Amalthea continued,
staring at him. "Drug addiction is something you know a lot about.
As the commander's secretary, you've got access to files, records
and stores without question. You were in charge of the tech team
that searched Hatusu's room. You knew that Jezzibell would never
name a fellow Ginzan as her lotus supplier. Only Ginzans are truly
human, and humans stick together - until profit is involved."
Jezzibell shrieked an obscenity. "Jinx take you, Mahudar Keel!
You let me rot! You'd let me die!" The abuse became spluttering
Keel aimed the needler at Amalthea. "It's an X-model," he said,
licking his lips. "Your Skinz won't protect you."
"What are you going to do, kill everyone in the room?" Pantelion
asked gravely. "It's too late for that." Otanishan moved in front
of him, a feeble attempt to shield his divine king. Tsang joined
them, adding his bulk as additional protection.
Keel's eyes were wide open, white shining all around the black
pupils. "Don't touch me," he warned. "Or I'll..." He never finished
In a blur of movement, Fey hooked her claws into his glossy braid
and yanked his head back hard enough to make him screech. The nano-lattice
of his Skinz made it impossible for her to wound him; his hair was
the only vulnerable point he had - or so she thought. She used the
braid as a handle, spinning him around. His finger tightened spastically
on the trigger, but the needle impacted harmlessly against the wall.
"His eyes!" Amalthea called, cursing herself for being too slow.
A sudden terror bloomed - what if Fey was hurt because of her hesitation?
She started towards the battling pair. "Go for the eyes! They're
Fey freed one hand and swiped it across Keel's face. Blood and
fluid spurted, and the Ginzan screamed. He fired again, the needle
landing in the floor by his foot. Amalthea got there just as Fey
snatched his dagger from its sheath. The blonde Yggdrasilan grabbed
his flailing arm, trying to wrest control of the gun. Zellinger
had drawn his own needler and was bellowing for the guards. He couldn't
get a clear shot.
Fey's lips curled back in a snarl. She chanted something in her
own tongue and drove the dagger into Keel's unprotected eyesocket.
He spasmed, nearly throwing Amalthea to the floor. The priest kept
tight hold of his braid, winding its length around her fist. "Move
away!" she barked.
As soon as the Yggdrasilan was clear, Fey tripped Keel, adroitly
guiding his fall so that he landed face-down with a bone-rattling
thump, force driving the knife hilt deeper into his brain. His toes
drummed the floor for a moment, then were stilled. Slowly, a last
breath in his lungs sighed out past stiffening lips, and Ensign
Keel was dead. Amalthea kicked his needler away, just in case.
Fey clasped her hands together over her head, a ritual offering
of the victim to her goddess. "The cycle is complete. As Mahudar
Keel deprived Hatusu of life, so has he paid in kind. It is done,
in Vashti's name."
"Never trust a weapon till it's tried, ice till it's crossed, or
a liar till he's dead," Zellinger said, turning his head to one
side and spitting. "No place in Valhalla for you, boy. They don't
let genocidal svinsaks feast with heroes."
Amalthea stared down at the corpse. She had no guilt about her
part in his death. He deserved it. Keel would have condemned a world
to death for the sake of his greed.
She was just glad that it was over, and that Fey wasn't hurt.
"Tell me the story again." Fey was sitting cross-legged on her
bed, facing Amalthea.
"You could read it on an intelli-deck. I filed the reports myself."
"I prefer to hear it from your own lips."
"Okay, Keel told Rujat Pan to report to Zellinger, which she did.
Although she was the superior officer, Keel was known to speak with
the commander's authority." Amalthea was laying on her stomach.
"Once Rujat was gone, the ensign took a peek into Hatusu's quarters.
At this point, Jezzibell was pretty much out of things from a combination
of smoke and strong wine. Hatusu, on the other hand, was deep in
lotus ecstacy. He worked for a Corps rehabilitation center before
being assigned to Heorot Base. I think he probably recognized some
signs of addiction - we'll never know exactly how he learned about
its effect on Ifnians. Keel was a bright man. He immediately saw
a business opportunity."
"Once people were hooked on lotus weed, they'd pay any price, do
anything to get their next dose of drug. He could have made himself
"Short-term, until the law caught up with him. By then, he'd have
made his fortune in jewels and gotten away." Amalthea reached out
an arm to snag the beaker of hootch that Fey had smuggled out of
the canteen, with Master Sergeant Yasuda's blessing. She took a
sip, grimaced at the taste, and swallowed anyway. "Keel used his
own dagger to kill Hatusu, and took Jezzibell's as a replacement.
Only another Ginzan could have told them apart. He avoided leaving
fingerprints like this." She slapped her free hand against the metal
"Ah, yes. The Skinz. A blow causes nanites to lock together to
form a shield, which would have masked his fingerprints just long
enough." Fey shook her head, hairbells chiming.
"He didn't use Jezzibell's dagger for the murder because that's
heavy taboo to a Ginzan. Had to use his own for the blood letting.
Didn't bother him to steal her sacred weapon and let her take the
blame, though. Human customs are crazy!" Amalthea pushed the beaker
"Yes, they're all crazy!" Fey jabbed a clawed thumb at the
side of her own head. "We all have our own customs, which can seem
a bit mad to others. Keel wasn't insane, though. He knew exactly
what he was doing. By the standards of his race, Keel's only crime
was in abandoning a fellow 'human' to her fate." She picked up the
vessel and shook it. "Maybe I should go to the canteen for a refill."
"My liver won't thank you." Amalthea made a face. "Jezz is going
to get a general court martial for sure. Zellinger's seriously torqued.
She's looking at jail time, possible dishonorable discharge. I've
already flashed Advocacy Command, told them to pick another defense
"Some good did come of it. God-King Pantelion was impressed by
your public demonstration and honesty. Demiurge Otanishan
has decided that the Confederation isn't so unholy after all. The
alliance will go through as hoped. Diplomat Tsang is full of praise."
"Speaking of praise..." Amalthea rolled over on her side, picked
up the beaker, and set it on the floor beside the bed. "I think
I was set up."
"What do you mean?"
"Captain Khulat and Praise-to-the-Crescent-Sky Nym. They led me
to believe that Jezz ought to be sacrificed for 'the greater good.'
Actually hinted she'd be better off dead, so diplomatic negotiations
wouldn't be ruined. Hinted that way to you, too."
Fey's eyes sparkled with suppressed merriment. "Mmm-hmm. And?"
"Gods of my fathers, it's like they wanted me to charge in, full
of righteousness and indignation, fangs out and hair on fire! Maybe
they wanted me to stir things up. It got me motivated to prove Jezz
was innocent before the trial. If I hadn't believed that I was the
only one interested in saving her, I'd probably have waited until
the trial to reveal the truth, rub their collective noses in it,
do some grandstanding. That would have been too late, of course.
The Ifnians would have found her guilty anyway. Otanishan wasn't
interested in punishing the guilty."
"Yggdrasilan stubbornness is legendary." Fey touched Amalthea's
arm. "So it is on Tyvesh as well. We make a good team, Mal."
"That we do." Amalthea felt the priest's claws prickling slightly
on her skin; it wasn't an unpleasant sensation. There was a familiar
warmth growing in her belly, a desire to find out what kissing Fey
might be like. She resisted the temptation. Control, control,
control... "You know, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful
Fey withdrew her hand, reached into her hip pouch. She handed the
Yggdrasilan a crystal info-stick. "The complete cultural compendium
for Tyvesh, glossary included." Her eyebrows raised at the dumbfounded
expression on Amalthea's face. She quoted from the Book of Vashti:
"Know your enemy, but know your friend even better."
Amalthea laughed. After a moment, Fey began to laugh as well.
When she got her breath back, Amalthea remembered something she'd
wanted to ask. "What was it you said during the fight?"
"You said something in Tyvesh. Was it a prayer?"
It was hard to tell if Fey blushed, but her cheek scars went from
silver to pink. "I don't know if I should tell you."
"I can look it up in the glossary." Amalthea waited. Finally, she
coaxed, "Come on, give. I won't be insulted."
"You might." Fey took a deep breath. "I told him, 'if you harm
her, I'll ensure your torment lasts forever.' I was terrified he
might hurt you, kill you. I couldn't stand it."
"Why?" Amalthea thought this might be the most important moment
in her life.
"Because... well, because I'm extremely attracted to you." The
Tyvesh priest fiddled with her fringed shirt. "In a romantic way.
I would like to have an intimate relationship with you. But I assume..."
"Haven't we had enough assumptions around here?" Amalthea could
almost hear her soul singing. You love to fall in love...
aw, fekkit - take the plunge, Quint. You only live
once. "We haven't known each other for very long, but I'd like
to get to know you better. A lot better." She smiled nervously.
Fey's answering smile was incandescent. "Then let's start now."
"Do you think this is wise?" Amalthea asked. Fey lay down beside
her, their faces barely apart. Her breath smelled like cloves and
anise. Silver bells gleamed in the inky darkness of her hair.
"Wise? Perhaps not. But necessary, I think." Fey leaned closer,
clawed fingertips of one hand resting on Amalthea's freckled cheek.
Her lips brushed the other woman's mouth.
Amalthea made a muffled sound and pulled away. "Aren't you going
to buy me dinner first?"
"That joke was old when Odin had both eyes... or so a beautiful
Yggdrasilan once told me."
They kissed again, less hesitantly. After a while, Amalthea sighed.
"Sweet. I've been wanting to do that."
"So have I."
Fey purred, "Since the moment I saw you pouting in the transport
pod. Pale skin, pale eyes, pale hair... and all those pretty spots!"
"I should warn you, Yggdrasilans love to fall in love," Amalthea
"So do Tyvesh. We've terribly romantic. Maybe I should buy
you dinner first."
"Just shut up and kiss me again, mem. I'll start brushing
up on Tyvesh customs in the morning."
"Good idea. We have lessons enough for tonight. And the first one
is... how do I get rid of this fekkit Skinz?"
More laughter, which later turned to moans. Shadows moved on the
walls, hairbells chimed a soft rhythm that followed the beating
of their hearts. Two figures entwined on a bed, illuminated by golden
globe light, cinnamon skin against milk-pale flesh, trembling and
Outside, stars spun gently around Ifni's twin moons, and the bittersweet
scent of yellow-green blossoms filled the night.
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