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The Shaman of Karres: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Monday, April 20, 2020 08:21 EDT

 


 

        Me’a grimaced. “This is a most appalling mess you present me with, Captain. My inclination is to have nothing to do with it. But I have been in coded subradio contact with the Daal of Uldune. Sedmon of the Six Lives has instructed me to give the Wisdoms of Karres any support they need. And that, in particular, applied to three of you. You, Captain Pausert. A particularly dangerous witch called Goth. And the Leewit.”

        The Leewit glowered at her. “You bet.”

        Me’a allowed herself the faintest hint of a smile. “Sedmon knows my weaknesses. I was specifically told not to gamble with you. Any of you. And part of that gamble would be the knowledge that there is a third, powerful, dangerous Karres witch unaccounted for. I have — listed among the powers she is reputed to possess –the ability to be invisible, and probably undetectable. So I need to ask: Where is this Goth? I think it would be wise, from my point of view, to include her in my calculations.”

        Both the captain and the Leewit scowled at her, but, before they could say anything Ta’zara said calmly. “Not to be told. This is your weak flank, Lady. You must know you have it, and live and behave accordingly.”

        Me’a sighed. “Strategically sound. But tactically, we need to penetrate two layers of guards. I want all the assets I can get. Besides, I hate the idea of an exposed flank.”

        Ta’zara shrugged. “Live with it, lady.”

        Me’a shook her head. “I prefer⦔

        A communicator on the desk buzzed. “Planetary police just entered the building.”

        “How many?” asked the other Na’kalauf bodyguard.

        “Just one. Chief-Inspector Salaman.” 

        “On her own?” asked the bodyguard.

        “Yes,” replied the voice over the communicator.

        Me’a pursed her lips, shook her head again. “It must be a trap. We’ll be clear in less than three minutes.”

        The communicator-voice interrupted. “She says to tell you she’s on her own and needs to talk to you and the people from the ship.”

        “It seems they pay more attention to comings and goings out of the airlocks than we realized,” said Me’a, sourly. “Well. We’ll be out of here with her then. If she’s providing a distraction, they won’t get it. If she really needs to talk — we can talk elsewhere.”

        So they were all bundled into an elevator — which certainly beat climbing all those stairs — even going down. That led into a tunnel with a small groundcar in it, which took them through the dark⦠somewhere.

        “They’ll bring the policewoman along presently. If need be it can be collapsed. Expensive, but hard for any copper to follow,” said Me’a.

        “I think,” said Ta’zara, “That my mistress should also be hidden. We do not need to tell the policewoman we have a way back to the ship.”

        “There is a screen she could sit behind,” said the other bodyguard.

        The Chief-Inspector arrived a few minutes later. Blindfolded. “We took a tracker-bug off her coat. She seems clean otherwise,” said one of the escorts.

        “That would be my assistant. He’s upset about this,” said the Chief-Inspector. “Now, am I going to be allowed to see?”

        “I think not,” said Me’a.

        “I think I can manage to speak without seeing. I assume the enterprising Captain Aron is here.”

        Me’a held a finger to her lips and then replied. “That is for us to know. Now what do you want?”

        “Something completely illegal of course. A temporary alliance, or at least a consultation. One of my informants among the gatherers brought me word of⦠an unusual story, involving Captain Aron. About granules being devoured by a porpentile — and that creature breaking up into little tumbleflowers.”

        “I see,” said Me’a, not helping.

        “I don’t,” said Chief-Inspector Salman, with a slight smile. “So your identity is still shrouded in mystery.”

        “Who was your informant?” asked Me’a.

        “A gatherer by the name of Malketh. And he’s safely off world already. You frighten them quite badly. But that wasn’t what I came to talk about. The Consortium are bound to get to hear of it as well. They still have the largest supply of granules, and the most to gain by keeping them rare.”

        “So do we,” said Me’a.

        “To some extent that is true,” admitted the Chief-Inspector. “But the Consortium have large stocks, and can hold out long after the tumbleflowers become too rare to support gatherers. And no gatherers means no smuggling. On the other hand, the Consortium’s expenses are very high because they’ve made a vast profit for many years, and expenses have a way of catching up and resisting any attempt to reduce them.”

        “Our expenses are very high too,” said Me’a.

        “Only because we put a lot of barriers in your way,” replied Chief-Inspector Salman. “Because there is a lot of money to be made off the tariff, which exists to make money from a very lucrative business.”

        “And your point is?” asked Me’a, dryly. “Governments do not reduce spending, either. You will still want the money.”

        “True,” admitted the Chief-Inspector. “But in this situation, Camberwell’s Spacecraft Yards are a much bigger business, and much easier to tax. And they’re dying under the huge cost of air-recyclers. You could still run a lucrative business, as long as your margins are good. You’re more adaptable than the Consortium.”

        “Flattery, Inspector, gains little advantage with me,” said Me’a. “But I will consider what you have to say. I suspect you propose breaking open the Consortium’s store-caves, and getting the porpentiles into them.”

        “Yes.” The Chief-Inspector sighed. “It has been hard countering you, because you anticipate what I might do.”

        Me’a steepled her fingers, and permitted herself a wry smile, before saying: “I preferred having your predecessors here, Chief-Inspector. They reacted. You also anticipate my moves. Reacting to them is so much easier to deal with.”

        “Well, there’s a good reason for breaking the Consortium. If the price of granules falls, there will be not much revenue to be raised by taxing it. I will be reassigned back home to Camberwall,” said the Chief-Inspector.

        “At last you give me a good reason,” said Me’a, dryly. “Now, what do you propose?”

        “The court case against Captain Aron has become very contentious. The Consortium have arranged a major demonstration to demand the execution of the pirate. I have, as a result, had to pull our guard from the security area around the caves, to keep public order,” said the Chief-Inspector smoothly. “Of course their own security and perimeter are still there.”

        “So this is not quite the open-and-shut case you told us it would be,” said Pausert.

        “Why, Captain Aron, how surprising to have you here,” said the Chief-Inspector, mockingly. “It will indeed be a little more interesting than we thought, thanks to your sending me a large group of people to feed in my jail. It’s not the way to earn yourself popularity with the local gatherers hoping for somewhere to sleep.”

        “Er⦔ said Captain Pausert.

        “But, however, they have provided some valuable testimony,” said the Chief-Inspector. “Including some detailed identikits of some of the pirates who captured the liner that Councilor Stratel was on. I have files and pictures of a rather large number of the people here on Cinderby’s World. As I knew where to start with Bormgo’s goons, we have some remarkable matches. People who were on the lifecraft. People that these rescued slaves would never have seen in their lives.”

        “That’s good, isn’t it?” said the captain, warily. Every time he had had a brush with the law on various planets — from the trouble he’d gotten into rescuing the witches of Karres on Porlumma in the first place, to Gerota-town on Pidoon, he had come off the worse, or at least financially poorer.

        “It should be. Of course it all depends on what other bits of testimony Counselor Stratel can find. Anyway, under the circumstances, with the possibility of rioting, I have been able to prevail on Judge Amorant to relax the bail conditions for the young lady’s bodyguard, as they cannot fly the spaceship. Now, I had better get back. My assistant is likely to start doing foolish things if I don’t return soon. I will see you in court, Captain.”

        She stood up. “And I am sorry I couldn’t put a face to the legend.”

        “You are fortunate that you could not,” said Me’a. “Take her back.”

        After the policewoman had gone, Me’a said irritably: “It would be worth doing this, no matter what Sedmon of the Six Lives said, just to get rid of her. This raid will have to happen when the police are watching the court case.”

        “Might be when they’re expecting it,” said Pausert.

        “No,” said Ta’zara. “Not a strategy they would expect. You’re talking about letting the porpentiles into the caves. They expect robbery, not that.”

        “Actually,” said Me’a, “I thought robbery sounded more attractive.”

        “Then I guess you’d have the Empire, the Daal of Uldune, and us — the witches of Karres — after you,” said the Leewit, walking out from behind the screen, stroking a small rochat, which was hanging over her shoulders like a purple fluffy collar.

        “Where did you get that from?” asked the captain. “You’d better give it back,” he said.

        “It’s a baby and needs looking after,” announced the Leewit. “It was lost back in the tunnels and followed us out.”

        “They do live down there,” said Me’a. “Live and breed.”

        “I’m sure someone else would love to have it and would look after it,” said the captain, knowing he’d lost, but still trying. “There’s really no place for it on a spaceship.”

        “They seem to do perfectly well on spaceships,” said Me’a. “And they cope with the foulest of conditions. They cheerfully breathe the air outside the domes and they can eat almost anything. They are common on my homeworld, even if they don’t breed there. I had one as a pet, when I was young.”

 



 

        She seemed to be taking a rather nasty pleasure in both Pausert and Ta’zara’s reaction to the Leewit’s new pet. But it was her turn next. “Why haven’t you got any legs?” the Leewit asked.

        Me’a straightened up in her chair and said, her eyes narrow and hard: “Shut up, little girl. Or else⦔

        In reply the Leewit whistled at her. A two-pitched shrill and directional whistle, which hurt Pausert’s ear drums and shattered several pieces of glass, and made Me’a clutch her ears and wince in pain. The captain — and Ta’zara, stepping in front of the Leewit — prepared for consequences. A cocoon would protect her, the captain thought, preparing the klatha pattern. But it might be best applied to the Na’kalauf bodyguardâ¦

        The Leewit stepped out from behind the bulk of Ta’zara. “It’s important,” she said. She didn’t sound like a small girl at all, but far more like her mother Toll. Pausert was willing to bet she was channeling the teaching-pattern in her head. “And don’t make me whistle again. The next time I will break your ear drums and leave you deaf, if you’re lucky.”

        It was plain that Me’a was used to being in control and was not ready for this kind of situation. So the captain did his best to put a bit of caution into her calculations. “She’s a Karres witch, Me’a. And she’s a healer. Don’t do anything hasty.”

        Me’a turned her steely look on him. “It’s not a question I tolerate. You are in my control. I have three hundred⦔

        The sound was abruptly cut off, because Pausert had put her into a klatha cocoon.

        The Na’kalauf bodyguard reached for her and his hand struck the cocoon. He was ready to fight — as were the two other of her men in the room. “What have you done?” he demanded.

        “Something only I can undo,” said the captain. “And probably saved her hearing. Now I think it is time we all calmed down. The Leewit asked her a simple question.”

        “And I still need to know,” said the Leewit. “I’ve been able to feel it⦠like a sore tooth ever since we got close to her. And she can’t hear you now. She can breathe, but that is about it. If anything happens to the captain she’ll die like that. Not even a Mark 20 Blaster has any effect.”

        “It is my task to keep her safe,” said the bodyguard.

        “She’s safer than in a vault in the Daal’s Bank,” said the Leewit. “Clumping unhappy about it, but safe.”

        “I’ll let her out, if you keep her from doing anything stupid,” said the captain. “But if she puts a foot⦠uh, hand wrong, back in she will go. She’ll be safe all right, until I let her out.”

        “She does not like to have her⦠condition spoken of. But I will do my best. I bind myself to that,” said the bodyguard. He stepped up and pulled a wire free of its connectors. “That will stop her calling the others, until I have spoken to her.”

        “And you too,” growled Ta’zara, at her other two men. They nodded, wide eyed.

        So Pausert reversed the pattern. Like the Leewit when the captain had done it the first time to save her life, Me’a had not taken kindly to being imprisoned in the klatha cocoon. She started with swearing — well enough to get the Leewit to laugh. That didn’t seem to help. She stopped and ground her teeth. “Right. This farce stops now. Pa’leto, Mazan, Teem, take them down.”

        Nobody moved. “They’re a threat, Pa’leto. Take them. Or I will.”

        “No, Mistress. To get you free I gave my oath that I would stop you doing anything stupid.”

        “And that would be suicidal,” growled Ta’zara, “let alone stupid. Think about it, instead of yelling.”

        That silenced her. She sat and glowered at them for a few moments. Then she said: “I understand why the Daal of Uldune warned that you were to be treated with great care. What did you do to me?”

        “For us to know,” said the Leewit.

        “But you don’t want to have it happen again,” said the captain.

        “You could get a funny hat like the Daal,” said the Leewit. “He thinks it protects him.”

        “And does it?” asked Me’a, her voice slightly more normal.

        The Leewit just looked at her, and grinned.

        Me’a took a deep breath. “I have learned something of a lesson. But I am sorry, my⦠condition, is off-limits. It is something I must live with.” The steeliness was back in her voice again.

        “She’s a Karres healer, Me’a,” said Pausert.

        “It is untreatable. A degenerative condition, not that uncommon on my home-world.”

        Pausert started to get some idea quite what made the smuggler boss tick. Looking closely, the lines around her eyes were probably from dealing with pain. She was younger than he’d thought at first. She had to be ruthless and driven to get that far, that fast, in a large, powerful organization, especially in a wheelchair. Pity was something she actively fought off. In a flash of insight, Pausert knew that hope was too.

        “It’s not only for you,” said the Leewit. “There’ll be others. I need to know in advance.” She stepped forward and took Me’a’s hand.

        “Don’t touch me⦠oh. What did you do?” demanded Me’a, in a tone between suspicion and awe.

        “Stopped you feeling the pain. It’s still there, I just blocked it for now,” said the Leewit. There was that adult tone to her voice that Pausert knew meant she was getting help again from the teaching pattern the young of Karres had imprinted in their minds. It allowed them a lot more freedom, and more help when they needed it.

        “I don’t allow myself drugs.” That same steely control came through in Me’a’s reply.

        “No drugs. I just stopped the nerve from producing the chemicals to send news of the pain to your brain. It’s not going to last. Now shut up. I need to concentrate.” Her hands glowed slightly with klatha force.

        Pausert walked over, put his hands on her shoulder, and then moved to the other shoulder because the rochat squirmed away under his hand. He willed himself to lend her his strength. They stood like that for quite a long time. Me’a eventually decided to put an end to it. “I need my hand back.”

        “Shut up,” said the Leewit, and then added a few more words in another language that made Me’a open her eyes wide in amazement. “Nearly done.” Then the Leewit pulled her hands away and said: “Now I need food. Lots. Pancakes with wintenberry jelly.”

        “What?” asked Me’a, taken aback by the change in direction.

        “She’s used a lot of energy. She needs food. Now,” explained Ta’zara, with a suggestive crack of his knuckles.

        Me’a looked at him, looked at her bodyguard. “See to it,” she said to one of her men. “Now. Just what have you done to me? When will the pain come back? And how did you know our native language? Such bad words too!” Her tone was⦠odd. Almost plaintive.

        The Leewit yawned and flopped into a chair. “I only like the bad words. You had an autoimmune disease. I’ve stopped your body reacting to it. You’ll get some odd aches, and funny sensations as the nerves get used to it. It was starting to affect your hands too.”

        “Do you think I didn’t know?” snapped Me’a, sounding more like herself. “What have you doneâ¦?”

        “Lemme eat, and I’ll explain,” said the Leewit, tiredly. She looked very small and frail, and the captain put his hand back on her shoulder, supporting her, until the food arrived. Then she ate with ravenous speed, and startling volume. The small rochat stuck its head out, and snatched a bite — but it had to be quick about it.

        The passing time had obviously given Me’a time to think, and to calm down. “Shall I have more food brought, Your Wisdom?” she asked politely.

        “Reckon I’m about done,” said the Leewit. “But the captain could probably use some.”

        Me’a nodded. “It shall happen as fast as possible, Your Wisdom.”

        The Leewit wiped her face on her sleeve, and her hands on her trousers. “You’re not hurting any more, are you?” she asked of Me’a.

        “No. It is something I have lived with for a long time. Is it⦠really going to last?” There was a desperate appeal in her voice.

        The Leewit nodded. “Yep.”

        “I want to believe you, but⦔ Me’a’s voice fade off.

        “You’ll see,” said the Leewit. “I don’t care if you believe me or not. I gotta sleep.” And she leaned herself into Pausert and snuggled down into the chair.

        The captain had helped himself to two of the new plate of pancakes. “Rest,” he said, calmly, looking at the smuggler boss. “We’re going to have to get her back onto the ship, and Vezzarn off it before the trial.”

        “That can and will be arranged,” said Me’a.

        And so it was. It seemed like Me’a had given them a degree of cooperation before — but now all her power and assets were at their disposal. It appeared this was not the only tunnel under the dome city, and the ropes had been a mere minor route for the less-trusted. They had a route to outside — several, in fact. One of them came out a few hundred yards from the spaceport perimeter. Another had targeted the store-caves of the Consortium. “We’re not there yet,” admitted Me’a. “But you did disturb a plan that is only weeks from completion. It won’t matter, now.” 


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