Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: Traitors
Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book. I began this practice in February. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site. If you want to read the opening to the previous four novels, click here.
This month, I’ve decided to excerpt Traitors. Traitors is the third novel I ever published, and I still remember the joy I felt in writing it. About the book, Locus Magazine said, “Intelligent, complex…an enjoyable fantasy that presents sociological commentary in the manner of a Le Guin SF novel.” SF Chronicle added, “An entertaining mix of intrigue, assassination, troubled loyalties and political rivalries.”
I’ve put ordering information at the end of the excerpt. First, however, is the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt itself. I hope you enjoy reading Traitors.
Emilio Diate—the greatest dancer the Kingdom has ever produced—has vowed vengeance on that government for its merciless execution of his entire family. Now forced to start over on the merchant island of Golga, where his dancing is forbidden, the handsome refugee joins the secret police with only one dark intention—to find his family’s killers and serve his own brand of justice.
But when love intercedes, Diate may become the victim of his own revenge. He falls for Sheba, not knowing who she is. As the conflicts between Golga and the Kingdom escalate, everyone Diate loves is in danger. A treacherous scheme may end his one true chance at happiness—and destroy Diate’s world.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Copyright © 2011 Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published 2011 WMG Publishing
Cover Art Ra2Studio/Dreamstime
Cover design Copyright © 2011 WMG Publishing
First published by Millennium 1993 in Great Britian.
First published in United States by Roc Books 1994.
Class-C ocean-going cruise ships had large under-the-seat storage compartments. Diate’s sister had told him that when she signed onto her post almost two weeks before. A bit of training, and she would have been on the ship instead of him. She would have ridden up front or in one of the booths, entertaining passengers, instead of lying in the storage compartment itself.
He hated it in there. The interior was made of an unfinished wood. Splinters dug into him. His shoulders spanned the width only when he remained on his side, with his knees pulled up to his chin. The first day he suffered leg cramps so bad that he could hardly keep quiet. The second day the pains subsided, but the ache remained. This morning, the cramps had started again, but his training had taken over. He didn’t utter a sound. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if he had. Silence was the least of his worries.
He needed food.
The slit between the seat top and the storage bin sent light into his little prison. Sometimes he watched the shadows pass, and sometimes he listened to the low hum of the ship. Occasionally the choppy ocean added a rocking rhythm to the ship’s gentle forward movement, and gave him something new to concentrate on.
Each time the ship had docked at a small island, he had worried that someone would find him. But so far, no one had.
He had picked a seat storage unit in a back room, thinking no one would use it. The lack of use had been a blessing. He had been able to sneak to the bathroom just off the storage compartment several times without being seen. Each time, he got a little worse: dizzy, unable to stand quickly, but at least he was stretching his cramped muscles. Once, as he peed, he heard another passenger in the corridor, and he hid in one of the stalls until the passenger left. No one else had come close to him.
But he hadn’t realized that the lack of use was also a problem. He got bored. He examined the compartment in minute detail to keep himself awake. When he slept, he talked. He had done that since he was a small child. He was afraid of doing it here, and only allowed himself to nap when the slit between the lid and the bin had gone dark.
Sometimes he reviewed the ship’s plan in his head, just to keep his memory fresh. A Class-C cruiser was large and capable of carrying three small Vorgellian air shuttles on its main deck. The passengers haunted the upper decks, and the lower decks were reserved for storage and engineering. He was glad the storage was down low. It kept the traffic in this part of the ship to a minimum. He wouldn’t be able to sneak out of the storage compartment at all if he were on an upper deck.
He slid an arm to the water stash near his head. At least he brought enough water for the journey. He kept the water in goatskin bladders he had stolen from a house near the port. He had tucked the bladders into his duffel, along with his paints, dance clothes and extra toe shoes. He had hung on to the duffel throughout the entire long trip.
Diate permitted himself a small sigh. Three more days until Rulanda. Then he would have to sneak off the ship and somehow explain his presence to the Rulandan authorities. Maybe they would grant him asylum. They certainly wouldn’t send him back. Rulanda was a luxury resort, and would do nothing to offend potential guests. The incident would be hushed and he would be safe until he thought of his next step.
Slowly he brought a goatskin to his lips and sipped the wooden straw he had left in the opening. The water’s warmth eased the dryness in his throat, but made his stomach rumble. He had eaten all his rations, even though he had tried to do so sparingly. He had to get food.
He needed a plan.
He had to be careful. This far away from the Kingdom, he might be safe, but he doubted it. The captain could do anything to a stowaway. He had heard stories about the ways stowaways were treated. Most were indentured. Vorgellian captives became little more than servants. If he got caught, he wanted to be indentured because his other choice was worse.
The captain would imprison him, and send him back. Home. To the Kingdom.
The copper stench of blood rose from the house. His father’s body, in pieces on the path, led the way like grotesque bread crumbs. His sister, sprawled on the porch, arms and legs extended, and inside, his brothers, his mother, and the baby, eyes open, their blood mingling into the copper river sopping his toe shoes…
He twisted his head, wishing he could move. Wishing he had left the memory behind when he snuck on board the ship. Hard to believe he had come home to that only a week before. Only a week since Myla had tried to warn him, since he had left her dance studio without removing his shoes, since he had run the short distance to his home.
He had been running ever since.
The dance had served him well. It had given him stamina when he thought he would collapse, strength when he needed one more push, agility to crawl into the smallest spaces to hide.
For six days.
When it got dark, he would search the other bins. If he didn’t find food there, he would risk going into the kitchen. He had to keep himself awake, and somehow, he had to stretch before that. He had managed to keep the blood flowing in his legs, but the cramping when he stood would be unbearable.
Footsteps outside made him breathe shallowly. He tried to lean farther into the wooden side of the bin as if that would protect him. Splinters pierced his back. A thin trickle of warm blood ran down his skin.
“…do not believe in Kingdom magic,” a male voice said behind the creak of the double doors. “It is not a true Talent. It has no biological base.”
“Outsiders don’t determine Kingdom Talents,” a female voice said. “Besides, magic sells as well on Rulanda as music does on Vorgel.”
“This is not Rulanda.”
The footsteps, ringing on the metal floor, grew closer. The storage bin shook each time a foot went down. Diate thought ships had to be sturdier than this. Didn’t the Vorgellians build them to last?
“Then you should have no fear of checking if her predictions were right.”
The voices were directly above him. Diate believed in Kingdom magicians. He was six when the Queen’s read him. This boy is a great Talent, the magician had said. And within him, he carries the seeds of destruction.
She had been right. He had destroyed his entire family.
The man and woman blocked the light coming in through the slit. The floor creaked, as if someone had shifted weight, and then a hand covered the slit in front of his eye.
The lid flew up and Diate blinked at the brightness. Perfume and musk mingled in the dry air.
“Shit,” the man hissed. His slender build and almond eyes marked him as a Vorgellian. His dark, work-stained uniform indicated he was a lesser crew member, not one of the captain’s personal staff.
The woman standing beside him was not much older than Diate. She was taller than the Vorgellian, and she wore thigh-high suede boots, tight black pants and a loose, ruffled white shirt. The red caste mark on her right temple marked her as part of the Kingdom. A Trader. With enough power to get a Vorgellian crew to do her bidding.
“Get out,” she said. It took Diate a moment to realize that she was talking to him.
Diate pushed himself up on his arm. It shivered beneath him. He sat up, and a wave of dizziness washed over him. He clutched the metal lip of the bin.
Her gaze had already taken in the thin blue lines that marked Diate’s forehead. Talents did not stow away on cruise ships. Only runaways did. Runaways whose entire family had been slaughtered.
“Not much of a dancer now, are you, boy? See what a Talent comes to when it mingles with traitors?” She knew who he was. His heart started pounding rapidly.
“My father was not a traitor,” Diate said. His voice sounded raspy. It hurt against the back of his throat. He had not spoken in nearly a week.
“No.” She crossed her arms in front of her, her light eyes mocking him. “He was a minor Talent. A poet, if I remember right.”
“He didn’t like what the government was doing to my sister.”
The woman shrugged. “She didn’t have your gifts. The system can only provide for Talents.”
Diate’s eyes were finally adjusting to the brightness. The room was smaller than he remembered. The six long, padded seats were spaced evenly apart and on the shiny metal walls hung costumes, clothing and shipboard entertainment packs. Double doors led out on each side, except behind him.
“You know this person?” the Vorgellian asked.
“I know of him,” she said. “Remember the documents security gave us when we boarded? He’s the missing rebel.”
The Vorgellian let air through his teeth and sat on a seat across from Diate. The padding wheezed under the Vorgellian’s weight. “We have never had a stowaway. I thought it was not possible.”
“The boy’s smart,” the woman said. “You don’t get to his level of proficiency without some kind of brain.”
“The captain will not be happy.” The Vorgellian stood. “I will bring him here.”
He rose, spun on one foot, and marched toward the double doors. He struck them with the heels of both hands, the gesture betraying the anger that his stance had not. The doors swung back and slammed against the outside wall.
Diate’s body shook, but the dizziness had retreated a little.
“Get out,” the woman repeated.
Her tone brooked no objection. He gripped the edge of the bin so hard the metal dug through his fingers. He took a deep breath and pulled himself forward, willing his body to work as he instructed. His muscles ached, a tight, painful ache he had never felt before. Each movement added to his dizziness. He swung one leg over, then the other, and stood before her.
He was taller than she was. The crown of her head revealed a thousand different hair colors, blending into one. She managed to watch him without tilting her head up. Her nose was small and upturned, her features delicate. With half an effort, he could knock her aside and run.
But he had nowhere to go.
“You realize stowing away violates the International Trade Agreement the Kingdom has with the Vorgellians. You no longer belong in our jurisdiction. You belong in theirs.”
Diate had known it. He had hoped he wouldn’t get caught.
“But you’re a Talent,” the woman said. “And I don’t think the Kingdom wants to give you up. I’m going to contact the Queen, and see what she wants done with you.”
The Queen. Diate closed his eyes. He had been her favorite, even after his father had begun his campaign. She would put her hand on Diate’s head and smile at him. You’re not crazy like your father, Emilio. You will bring a great glory to my Kingdom. Tearing his body to pieces and leaving those pieces on a path wouldn’t be good enough. She would do something else, something even crueler to show the other Talents what happened when one betrayed her.
His knee buckled beneath him and he collapsed on the floor. His body had never betrayed him like this before. Spasms ran through both legs. He leaned forward, clutched the backs of his knees, and stretched. Cries rose in his throat and he stifled them, but he couldn’t stop the tears of pain from coursing from his eyes.
“Look how pathetic the rebel’s son,” the woman said. She watched him for a moment, then walked away. He watched the fringe on her soft boots move to its own personal rhythm. She opened the doors gently, and pulled them quietly shut behind her.
The metal floor was cold. He remained in the pike position for a long time after the spasm left, stretching his body. The ship gave him no more cover. They would search him out, find him, and torture him. He would have to do what they wanted, until he thought of something else.
With an agility he didn’t feel, he rolled up, and extended one leg out behind him. He put his knee down, and his other leg forward, stretching his Achilles tendon and his back. He brought his arms up, and his back leg in, feeling the pull on his muscles. They hummed. The tight ache was easing. He was regaining control. He stepped into first position as the door opened.
The Vorgellian who had found him entered, followed by another Vorgellian. The new man was taller and huskier, with a darker suit, darker skin, and the trademark almond eyes. He waited in the door frame.
“The stowaway,” the Vorgellian said. His words were clipped. Lillish was not a language he knew well.
The other Vorgellian came into the room. He walked around Diate, grabbing an arm, poking his ribs. Diate did not move under the physical onslaught.
“You are quite thin,” the Vorgellian said.
His Lillish was better than his companion’s, but it still lacked the flow of a native Kingdom member.
“I would like to eat,” Diate said.
“In due time.” The Vorgellian nodded to his companion, and spoke in a language Diate did not know. The companion left, closing the door behind him.
The Vorgellian sat on the bench and patted the seat beside him. Diate sat down, wincing as his partially stretched muscles tightened up again. The padding felt soft after those long hours trapped in the bin. The Vorgellian stared at him, and Diate stared back. He had never seen one up close. The Vorgellian’s skin was smooth and had no facial hair. His eyes had an extra fold in the outer corners to give them the almond shape. His nose was as delicate as a woman’s. Diate had heard Traders complain that Vorgellians were impossible to recognize, impossible to read. But this Vorgellian wore his emotions like a shield. Beneath the curiosity was a lot of sadness.
“What purpose does a Talent have aboard my ship?”
“I am no longer a Talent.” Diate worked to say the sentence. Until a week ago, being a Talent had been the greatest joy in his life.
The Vorgellian raised a hand and traced the blue marks on Diate’s forehead. The Vorgellian’s fingers were warm. “One cannot deny one’s self.”
The gesture made him tremble. No one had touched him since he found his family. “They murdered”—the words brought back the smell, thick and coppery—”my family. They want to kill me.”
The Vorgellian shook his head. “You are their wealth. The Kingdom values wealth. I have read the papers they sent about you. I do not think they wished to harm you until you tried to leave them.”
Diate clenched his fists. He could never dance for them again. Each action would have brought back his father’s voice. The Talent system destroys people. By elevating Talents, and forcing the rest to a hard-scrabble existence, we are ensuring the downfall of this place. Someday the people will rise up against this oppression. Someday they will understand that the Talents are not their gods, but their destroyers.
“You have disappeared.” The Vorgellian’s hand slid down to Diate’s cheek and then off his face.
Diate started. He was still present. He had no magic powers. Then he understood what the Vorgellian meant. The Vorgellian had seen him get lost in the memory. No one had ever read him so clearly.
“I have no wish to hurt you,” the Vorgellian said. “You have suffered enough. I must give you to the Kingdom, but until then, I will treat you well.”
A thread of hope mingled with the hunger in Diate’s stomach. He swallowed, and forced the hope away. The Vorgellian could not save him. The Vorgellian had taken pity on him in his last days.
“I am Sehan,” the Vorgellian said. “Come with me. I will feed you.”
On the main deck, the cruiser had few corridors. The shuttle bays took up a large area, and the most of the deck remained open to the sky, in case a shuttle needed to take off. Inside, away from the bay, booths lined the walls and chairs dominated the centers. This was where the poorest passengers rode out the trip.
Fake walls separated eating areas from viewing areas. Large portholes that ran the length of the deck reflected the stars and the darkness of the ocean. Diate had never been on a ship. He had traveled between islands on the Kingdom’s only shuttle. The darkness extending forever fascinated him.
“You do not realize until you come here how very small we are,” Sehan said. “And how very small our problems. The world has a place for all of us. If the Kingdom did not know about you, you would be able to find your place.”
A few passengers sat in the booths near the walls. One young man had a large duffel bag tucked under his head like a pillow. His feet hung off the edge of the booth. A woman worked behind a counter, her hair tucked under a hat. Near her, four people sat at a table, talking and laughing. They had clear glasses filled with an amber liquid that Diate had never seen before. As he and Sehan passed beside them, Diate’s legs wobbled. The area smelled of stale food, old grease, and spices.
He had never been so hungry in his life.
Sehan clasped his shoulder, keeping Diate upright. “We will take you to a better place,” he said.
They walked around the kitchen to an elevator. Sehan pressed a button and a small light went on. Diate gaped at his surroundings. He had only read about this kind of technology. The Kingdom had little of it. Technology was too expensive, and they only cared about imports they could resell. The Vorgellians said the Kingdom members lived in primitive conditions. But the Talents and Traders studied everything from technology to languages, so that they could thrive on other islands. Diate had never learned Vorgellian. His sister had. They figured, between the two of them, they could learn every language in the world.
He had never expected to be alone.
The light went off, and the doors swung open, revealing a box-like room. Sehan stepped in, and Diate did the same. The little room was hot. Sehan pressed another button on the control panel, and the doors swung shut. The elevator rose. Diate’s already precarious balance failed him, and he stumbled against the railing lining the walls.
“The body does not like to be cramped in such a small place,” Sehan said with a smile.
Diate did not smile back. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
Sehan’s smile faded. He clasped his hands behind his back. “In all the years my people have serviced the Kingdom, we have never had a stowaway. Many have tried, and all have failed to board. Except for you. You are smart. You knew how to avoid security, pass the sensors, and where to hide.”
Diate thought for a moment about what Sehan said. Respect. Sehan was talking about respect. And he admired Diate—not just Diate’s dance.
“Can you help me get away from the Kingdom? They’ll kill me, you know.”
Sehan did not look at him. “I will do as I can.”
The elevator stopped, and Diate stumbled again. No amount of study could prepare him for the odd feelings that accompanied the new technologies. The doors slid open, and Diate had to use the railing to get his balance before following Sehan out.
They stepped into a corridor. It took a minute for him to compare the physical area with the map he had memorized. He was on the fourth deck, the deck filled with luxurious rooms and spacious restaurants. The deck where his sister would have performed, if she had lived.
The air was cooler here, and smelled of processing. The walls were white. The dark blue carpet was thick and plush, and the people who passed them were Vorgellian, but not in uniform. As Diate and Sehan walked down the corridor, they passed doors but no passengers.
His stomach growled, noticing the smell of roasted beef before his mind did. The smell grew stronger as they walked forward. They went up four stairs to an open area, filled with fake plants and wood benches. The restaurant. The one his sister had said convinced her to join the ship.
The room had the same open view of the night sky that the main deck had, only the layout here accented the sight. Four steps down led into a dining area filled with clear tables and chairs. The dishes were clear also, as were the sideboards and the work surfaces. Everything reflected the starry darkness. The people and the food itself were the only solid things in the room.
In the daylight, the restaurant would be light and airy. It would capture the warmth of the sun and the pale blue of the ocean. His sister had said this restaurant was the most beautiful place she had ever seen.
Diate liked the smells better. The roast beef dominated, because it steamed on a plate near the door. But Diate also caught the odors of sautéed onions, mild spices, and Erani coddles. His mouth filled with water, and it took all of his restraint to remain beside Sehan.
Music flowed in the background, soft enough to hide under human speech. The notes were delicate—an ancient harp, Diate guessed, and looked for the source of the sound. A minor Talent sat on a raised platform behind the roast beef, plucking at a harp almost twice her size. Minor Talents thrived on cruise ships. They had captive audiences, and received a living wage for their work. Kara would have danced here, even though their father wanted to stop her. She would have been confined to cruise ships for the rest of her life, making little money and having no family. And she had been willing to do that, to dance.
A wave of dizziness passed through him. Sehan touched Diate’s arm, to steady him and to lead him to a table. They sat in a corner away from the beef and the harpist.
The chairs were light, and had the smoothness of plastic. A waiter followed them, and Sehan ordered in Vorgellian. “I have ordered a little of many bland things,” he said. “The stomach does not like food after it has been starved. You must reaccustom yourself slowly.”
Diate believed his stomach wanted as much food as it could get. But he didn’t complain as the waiter set a dish before him covered with rice. The rice had a slight spice to it, and was the most delicious meal Diate had ever eaten.
He felt someone walk up behind him. Sehan’s gaze moved up, and Diate turned. The woman wore a flowing silver gown, with bell-like sleeves. The gown covered her feet, and made her look as if she were floating. Her hair matched the gown, and she had a small silver caste mark on the bridge of her nose. The magician. The one who had found him, probably.
“He’s not as ferocious as I thought he would be,” the magician said.
Sehan sighed. “Sit down, Torrie.”
She slid over a chair and perched on its edge like a small china doll. “He was in the Lower A Deck, Storage Compartment D.”
“You have spoken to Lanu,” Sehan said.
“Of course,” Torrie said. She still had not looked directly at Diate. “But I have still unnerved you, haven’t I?”
“There are many things in this life that we can not see,” Sehan said.
The waiter whisked away Diate’s empty plate, and brought him another, filled with a white gruel. He also set a plate filled with bright greens in front of Sehan.
“You need a magician aboard this ship.”
Diate stopped eating for a moment. “As a full Talent, you’re volunteering?” He couldn’t block his question, even though he knew he shouldn’t speak. Her actions were unheard of. Full Talents had no need to serve in places like a cruise ship. They were in demand everywhere they went.
“See?” Torrie said without facing Diate. “I told you he is a smart child.”
“I am surprised at you, Torrie,” Sehan said. “I would think the boy is someone who can help your fight. I thought you admired his father.”
“His father is dead.”
“Ideals live on.”
Diate felt as if he could leave the table and no one would miss him. He scraped the last bite of gruel from his dish, surprised to find himself full. The waiter, as if he knew, took the dish away, but did not bring another.
“The boy had a good point.” Sehan leaned forward, ignoring his greens. “Why would a full Talent want to serve on my ship?”
“I was not asking for myself,” she said. “I know of minor Talents who could serve you well.”
“I see,” Sehan said. “You wish to test Magicians on my ship, and if the test works, you will try to link more Magicians with navigation.”
“I do believe you owe me a favor. You would never have found the boy without me.” She stood and nodded to him. “I’ll leave you to your dinner now.”
Sehan watched her walk away. “I like it better,” he said, “when she does me no favors at all.”
Sehan gave Diate a cabin on the lowest deck, with the new crew members. Diate had stood at the door for a long time, remembering the layout. An elevator down the corridor led to the upper decks. He was as far from the captain and the valued passengers as he could be.
The cabin was small, but seemed roomy after the storage compartment. The walls were white without portholes. A regulation issue bed stood in the center, flanked by two tables. A door leading to a small bathroom opened on the left, and inexpertly done portraits hung on the walls. Diate didn’t like all the poorly painted eyes staring at him. He reached up to take one of the paintings down, but found he couldn’t dislodge it.
He sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.
The dizziness had faded, replaced by an overwhelming headache. He had to stretch his muscles, then sleep. Sehan promised him food, but decided that it was probably best if Diate did not leave the cabin again. The request seemed odd for Sehan, who had been kind before the magician turned up. Now he acted as if Diate posed a danger to the rest of the ship. He would receive his meals at regular intervals, and Sehan would provide books, if Diate preferred.
He wanted fiction books, which he doubted he would get on a Vorgellian ship. He asked for nothing, just in case they surprised him. He didn’t want to lose himself in a fantasy if he only had a few days to live. He needed to spend all of his waking hours on planning an escape.
The fact that he had survived this long was a small miracle. The Kingdom’s security guards were ruthless and they had been searching for him. He slipped through the gates at the port by walking at another man’s side, as if that man were his father. By comparison, getting on the ship had been easy—he had waited until the Vorgellian maintenance people took their break, and then he walked in the open hatch and ran to the storerooms.
He wished he could thank Kara. The game they had played as he helped her memorize parts of the ship—And where could a slim dancer hide on the main deck? he asked. Storage compartment D, she had answered—had given him a complete knowledge of the cruiser. The only thing he hadn’t counted on was a Kingdom member with enough authority to override Vorgellian custom. He had expected, if he had been found, to be sent on a slaver or work as an indentured servant, anything to keep him away from the Kingdom itself.
But his luck had only stretched so far. He couldn’t face the Queen. Not after what she had done. Even if she were civil to him, he would want to kill her. When he closed his eyes, he saw his family in their death tableau. He couldn’t even remember the sound of his sister’s laughter —
The door slid open and Lanu, the Kingdom member who had found him, stood there. Her arms were crossed over her ruffled shirt.
“Much better than a storage compartment, isn’t it, boy?”
Diate didn’t say anything. His mouth had gone dry. He didn’t want her anywhere near him. His aching muscles tensed.
She came in and let the door swing shut behind her. “The cruise ship will stop on Rulanda. You and I will get off there, and take a freighter back to the Kingdom. The Queen wants to see you herself.”
“Is she going to kill me?” Diate couldn’t stop the words from leaving his mouth. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer.
“She won’t let you dance, at least not as a Talent. She won’t be able to trust you to travel. And if you can’t be a Talent, what’s the point of living?”
Diate had never seen anyone with eyes as cold as Lanu’s. They chilled him. He made himself sit still, even though he wanted to back as far away from her as he could.
“Well, now that we know what’s going to happen,” he said, trying not to let his fear into his voice, “you can leave me alone.”
“Be nice to me, boy,” she said, “because I hold your future.”
“Hold it?” He dug his fingers tightly into the bed. The blanket scratched his palms. “You’ve already decided it. Sehan would give me a second chance. Why won’t you?”
She smiled, but the movement didn’t warm her eyes. “Sehan is sentimental. I am not. Your kind of courage doesn’t impress me, especially when you could have saved your entire family a long time ago. Or don’t you remember?”
Diate remembered. He had thought about it ever since the coppery scent hit him near his home. The Queen had made him an offer. If he stopped his father from speaking out, she would give Diate the best post in the industry. His family would have to separate, of course, and vow never to see each other again, so that they would not contaminate each other. But she considered that a small price to pay for the rewards both Diate and the Kingdom would receive.
Diate didn’t want his family to separate. They were wonderful together. And his father was harmless.
Or so he had thought.
Lanu smiled, just a little. For the second time that day, he felt as if someone could read his mind. “You see,” she said. “You could have prevented it all.”
A shiver started inside his stomach that took all of his dancer’s strength to control. “Why do you hate me so much?”
She stared at him for a moment, and her smile faded. Then she leaned back against the door. “I am not a Talent,” she said. “I have had to work for everything I have, and I will never rise above my station. You could have had it all, boy. For nothing. And you chose to throw it all away for a little bit of loyalty, a little bit of love, things that would not matter to you ten years down the road. I am not fond of Talents, boy. I am even less fond of Talents who give up everything on a whim.”
Diate’s hands dug deeper in the bed. “What happened to my family was not a whim.”
“Wasn’t it?” she asked. “Your father didn’t think of any of you. He only thought of himself, and his own glory. And you, you fell for it all.”
The shiver had traveled through all his muscles. Small spasms played a random pattern across his back. “You hate me because you think I was stupid.”
Her smile returned. “Exactly,” she said, and let herself out of the room.
The door slammed shut behind her, and Diate released the rigid control with which he held himself. Shakes and tremors ran through him. The spasms in his back traveled to his chest and arms. He flopped on the bed, and felt the rough blanket against his skin.
He hadn’t been stupid. He hadn’t.
Even though he might have been able to save them.
He should have asked them. It was their choice, not his. And he hadn’t said a word.
They wouldn’t have wanted him to save them. The cost would have been too great.
The cost was greater than any he ever would have dreamed of.
They would have hated him, but they would have been alive.
They would have been alive.
A hand over his mouth pulled him out of a sound sleep. He pushed and thrashed, choking. The blanket wrapped around his legs. The room was dark—so dark that he could see nothing, not even the person who held him in place. The hand over his mouth smelled of leather, a scent that made him think of home. He didn’t like to have the comforting smell associated with such terror.
They were going to kill him here. Quickly and violently, like they had killed his family. And they wouldn’t even give him the opportunity to beg for his life.
Another hand clamped his shoulder, and a long body leaned against him, pinning him to the bed.
“Quiet. It is me.” Sehan’s flat, odd accent.
Diate stopped struggling. His heart was pounding against his chest. Sehan wouldn’t kill him. Sehan had promised to help him.
“Do not move. Just listen. In fifteen minutes, the shuttle will leave this ship for Golga. It will land in the Port City to deliver some wine we picked up yesterday. I will leave your door open. If you can find your way to the shuttle, then you will have a chance. They hate the Kingdom in Golga, but if you get through and cover that caste mark, you might be okay. It is the best I can do for you. It is all I can do for you. If you get caught, I will deny any knowledge of this. Do you understand?”
Diate swallowed. His throat was dry. He nodded once.
“Good. I will leave. You must count to thirty before you stand up. That way we will not be seen together.” Sehan released Diate. “Good luck.”
Diate took a deep breath. His mouth hurt from the pressure of Sehan’s hand. Sehan slid through the door and left it open. Light from the corridor flooded the room, giving the furniture a gray, almost invisible quality. Diate counted, and did his warm-up stretches. Fifteen minutes was barely enough time to make it to the shuttle bays. Sehan did not make it easy for him.
When he reached thirty, Diate went to the door, and looked both ways. The corridor was empty. A few yards away was a core stairway for staff members. He remembered it from the map he had memorized. He was afraid to try the doors, afraid to wake someone up. But he had never used an elevator, and didn’t want to try with time so short.
Finally he passed a door in the right position. He turned the knob and shoved the door open. It revealed a platform that led to a ladder, hidden in a small, circular shaft. Warm air rose, fueled by an invisible breeze. The shaft smelled of oil and plastic. Diate walked to the edge, gripped the ladder, and started up.
He played a march tune in his head, moving his feet and hands in time to the music. The march would keep his movements constant. If he hurried, he had more opportunities to hurt himself, to slip or miss a rung. He tried not to think of the time deadline, but it insinuated itself into the tune in his head.
Out of time.
The tune repeated itself three times before he reached the top. He yanked open the door on the main level, and found himself in a shuttle bay, like the one the Queen used near her palace in the Kingdom’s only city, Tersis. This bay had no windows, only large oversized doors that blocked his entry to the flight deck. Two shuttles were directly in front of him. The third sat in the distance.
Only one had its running lights on, and he hurried over there, as a large bang echoed in the room.
The shuttle’s door was open. The pilot reached out and yanked Diate aboard.
“Thought you weren’t going to make it, kid,” the pilot said.
She pressed the control and the door slid shut. Through the windshield, Diate saw the bay doors rising, revealing the darkness beyond. His heart continued its panicked rhythm. What would have happened to him if the doors had opened when he was outside the shuttle?
The pilot resumed her seat. She was half his size, with delicate hands and ebony skin. Her blue, almond-shaped eyes marked her as Vorgellian.
Of course. Only Vorgellians knew how to operate the shuttles.
“Sit down and strap in,” she said.
Diate took the seat beside her and looked for a strap. Finally she reached around and pressed a lever. Two heavy bands of cloth bound his lap and chest, leaving his hands free.
“We got a few hours,” she said. “So try to relax.”
Relax? How could he relax? He could barely control his breathing. He had escaped the Kingdom twice in one week. And each time, he had gone somewhere worse. He had heard stories of Golga. The Golgoth enjoyed executions. People said the Golgoth laughed while Kingdom members burned alive.
Diate shut his eyes. Sehan believed Diate could pass. Diate hoped Sehan was right.
Diate’s first view of Golga came through the windshield of the shuttle. Dawn had broken over the ocean. They were high enough that Diate saw dozens of small islands dotting the choppy water, their long black shadows stretching out in the distance. Some of the islands were merely oversized rocks. Others were large enough to support settlements, although most did not.
The number of islands grew as they got closer to Golga. The shuttle had backtracked the ship’s passage, flying over the Kingdom just before the sun had risen over the horizon. Diate was glad. He didn’t want to see the trees and the low hills from the air. He especially didn’t want to see Tersis and the shining towers of the palace reflecting the sun.
The shuttle’s mechanic hum made conversation difficult. That was fine with Diate. He needed to watch, and think, and absorb.
Golga was a surprise.
An island twice the size of any he had ever seen appeared before the shuttle. It had true mountains, large and gray, touched with jagged white caps that he assumed were snow-covered. For a moment, he thought that was all he would see, then the shuttle flew over them, and the mountains tapered down into a lush greenness.
No trees graced the surface. Only measured plots outlined by brown lines he assumed to be roads. An occasional tiny building stood on the plots. As the shuttle dipped lower, Diate saw a rail line and a huge electric plant.
Diate clasped his hands together. The bucolic vision did not soothe him. Instead, the fear he had been fighting almost strangled him. Golga and the Kingdom had been enemies for over a century. They did not battle in the traditional sense. They interrupted each other’s trade, spied on each other’s businesses, and made plans for overthrowing each other’s governments. Defectors were killed.
Nothing is ever easy, Myla had told him when he complained that a dance move was too hard. Everything in life will give you a trial.
The shuttle banked and left the electric plant behind them. The roads got wider, and from the side window he could see an electric railcar chugging below. It looked like one of his brother’s toys.
People did live down there. People who killed Kingdom members.
He glanced around the shuttle, wondering how he could have felt safe here, even briefly. He sat in the seat beside the pilot. Behind them, rows and rows of boxes were stacked tightly together. The cabin smelled faintly of wine. He had seen other shuttles. This one was tiny compared to them.
Yet the pilot expected him to hide when they landed. He saw nowhere to go.
They banked again. As the shuttle lowered, the mechanical hum grew. He kept his gaze focused on the windshield. A large, gray city rose before him. Towers stood in the distance, flanked by the ocean. Golga was an island, but it was a large island. On this side, no mountains blocked the natural port. He had seen pictures of Golga’s harbor, which was, in fact, a large inlet, twice the size of any other harbor on the settled islands. On the far sides of the inlet, the mountains tapered down into small hills that disappeared into the water.
The city seemed to go on forever. As the shuttle lowered, he saw row after row of matching homes. The homes got smaller as they got closer together, until they became two story buildings with balconies. Apartment buildings. He had heard of them, but never seen them.
In the center of the city, four tall rectangular buildings stood around a wide expanse of green. On the other side of the grass and trees stood an even taller building which looked from the sky like an oversized skull. The Golgoth’s palace. Diate had seen pictures of that, too.
If he wasn’t careful, he would die there.
They flew over the palace. Diate’s knuckles turned white as he pressed his hands even tighter together. Finally, he could see the harbor. It was filled with ships of all shapes and sizes. Large port buildings blocked entry to the water itself. And to one side, various oddly shaped buildings stood behind a large fence.
The pilot pulled up the wire that had been dangling below her chin. A small black rectangle fit in front of her mouth. She pushed a button on the console, then spoke into the rectangle. She wasn’t talking to Diate.
He had heard of such communications devices, ones that allowed the words to travel great distances, but he had never seen them. He stared at her for a moment, then turned his attention back to the window.
The shuttle flew over a flat open surface tucked between the edge of the coastal mountains and the open harbor. As they got closer, Diate saw the familiar gleaming metal of a Vorgellian structure. Even the Golgans bought their technology from the Vorgellians. Diate had always thought the Golgans could do anything.
“I thought this was a rich place,” he said.
The pilot laughed. She put her hand over the mouthpiece. “It is,” she said. “They just don’t believe in beauty.”
The shuttle lowered until it hovered above the concrete expanse. The bay doors were sliding open. Diate’s throat tightened. He didn’t even speak the language here, and he had left all of his possessions on the Vorgellian ship.
He had no plan. How would he survive with no plan?
“I cannot acknowledge you once we land,” the pilot said. She had to shout above the noise. “I will deliver my wine and leave the doors open. You must get out yourself, and not be seen. There are guards, but they usually pay more attention to the shipments. Wait a few minutes, and then get out. Their attention should be on me at that point.”
Diate nodded. He was trying to make himself breathe easily. He had made a mistake coming here. He should have tried to talk Sehan into sending him away as a prisoner of the Vorgellians. Or sneaking him to Rulanda. At least on Rulanda, there were other Kingdom members, Talents who might have helped him out. On Golga, he would be alone, and an enemy of the state.
He didn’t even have any money.
The pilot eased the shuttle into large bay doors and it bumped to a stop. Diate clung to his belts for reassurance. He had experienced rougher landings, but had always known what would happen once he landed.
The interior of the bay was dark. It took his eyes a moment to adjust. He saw doors on the far walls, and tools hanging from pegs all around. Stairs led to observation decks.
The pilot pressed a few buttons, pulled off her headset, and then turned. “Get away from the window.” Her voice was sharp, as if she couldn’t believe that he had failed to do it. “And stay down.”
Diate unbelted himself. He crawled into the back between the boxes. They were stamped in a language he couldn’t read. Through small holes in the box sides, he could see wine bottles, their contents sloshing. The pilot eased the doors open, and voices, speaking in a guttural language he had never heard, echoed in what sounded like a large chamber. Footsteps rang on metal. The pilot stepped down, speaking the guttural language as fluidly as she had spoken Lillish.
If they were going to remove the boxes, he had to get out quickly.
A door clanged open behind him, then he felt the shuttle shake as boxes were removed through the rear doors. He was trembling. It was only a matter of time before they found him.
The pilot had left the front door open. He crawled to it, and peered out.
The shuttle bay lacked the sparkle of the bay on the cruise ship. Odors of grease and spent fuel tickled his nose. The metal walls were rippled and tarnished. Stains and streak marks marked the gray metal floor. Iron stairs on the far wall led to a row of windows near the ceiling. The windows were too far away to give him a view of their interior. Someone could be watching him from above.
That was a risk he had to take. The voices sounded far away, and he only had a few minutes. He stepped out, staying close to the shuttle, then rounded in front of it.
A group of people, including the pilot, huddled in a corner, arguing over a pile of boxes. The rest of the bay looked empty. Behind the shuttle stood the big bay doors, and to the front, a series of smaller doors that probably led outside. He had to choose, and quickly. If he ran to the bay doors, he would have to pass the knot of people. If he ran around front, he would be in better view of the windows.
For all he knew, no one stood behind those windows. And people were on his path to the bay doors. He took a deep breath, and pushed off the shuttle, running with large dancing leaps, landing as quietly as he could, so that no one would hear him on the metal floor.
Two guards came down the iron stairs near the double doors, their boots clanging on the metal. Diate’s heart jumped into his throat. He turned to run the other way, but more guards poured out of side doors. The sound of their marching feet echoed in the large room, and the group in the back corner turned to see what was going on.
Diate had nowhere to go.
But that wasn’t going to stop him.
He turned back to the front, and ran as fast as he could. He could get past two guards. He was quick and agile and young. They weren’t as young or as well trained. He could get around them and onto the street. Once on the street, he would be safe.
A blaze of heat seared across his right foot, and he jumped, breaking stride. The guard in front of him held a weapon in his right hand. He fired another shot that seared the floor next to Diate’s other foot.
Diate stopped. He couldn’t go around. They would kill him.
He was breathing heavily, even though he hadn’t run that far. His pulse pounded through his body. This was it, then. There was nothing he could do. Maybe he could talk his way out of this. Maybe he could get the pilot to take him back.
The two main guards walked over to him, still holding their weapons on him. He didn’t move. Their uniforms were black with silver trim, their faces pasty from lack of light. They were both young, but not as young as he was. Already their faces had deep lines etching their frowns in place. They smelled faintly of sweat and fear.
He didn’t like the scent of fear.
The shorter guard reached Diate first. With one gloved hand, he pushed Diate’s hair away from his face. Diate refused to flinch at the feel of warm leather against his skin.
“Talent,” the guard said with surprise. His Lillish was heavily accented.
“Stowing away?” the other asked.
The pilot walked over, surrounded by other guards. They kept grabbing her arms, and she kept shaking them off. She spoke sharply in the guttural language Diate had heard earlier.
The first guard answered in the same language.
She looked at Diate, eyes widening as if she were seeing him for the first time. She spoke again, and then said in Lillish, “You are a Talent.”
She shook her head as she addressed the guard.
The guard shrugged. He pointed to the main door of the cabin, his words clipped.
The pilot’s voice rose as she spoke. She kept glancing at Diate as if she couldn’t believe he was there.
The guard took a step closer. He spoke so sharply that spittle flew from his mouth. The pilot turned away. Her face had gone white. She kept gesturing at the shuttle and shaking her head.
The guard took her arm. She wrenched free, and walked over to her shuttle. She peered inside, and whistled.
Diate hadn’t moved. Myla had taught him that the ability to remain still was as important as the ability to move. He barely breathed.
The pilot pointed to the back of the cabin. Her voice had become strident. She turned to Diate. In Lillish, she said. “Who do you think you are? This is my ship. You had no right to be on it. I will see to it that you are turned over to the Vorgellians. They will make a slave out of you!”
A tremble ran through him. If he hadn’t heard her plan his escape, he too would have been fooled by her act.
The guard gave an order in a language Diate had never heard before. Other guards grabbed the pilot by the arms. She tried to shake free, but they held her too tightly. They led her toward the stairs. She struggled the entire way.
She wouldn’t be able to help him. He was on his own.
The guard turned to Diate, and said in Lillish, “What does a Talent want on Golga?”
Diate met that gaze, and saw no sympathy in it. He couldn’t run, and he couldn’t go back. He had only one choice. “Asylum.”
“Asylum?” The word managed to shake through the guard’s calmness. Never in the history of the two countries had a member of the Kingdom sought asylum from Golga.
“I want to defect.” Diate made sure his words were loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. He wanted witnesses. He wanted as many witnesses as he could get.
“Let’s take him to Scio,” the second guard said.
“We can’t.” The first’s frown had grown deeper. “Cases of asylum have to go before the Golgoth.”
The cell stank of urine. Diate didn’t want to touch the floor or walls for fear that something would contaminate him. A mattress, tossed in the corner, was the source of the smell. He stood near the bars, staring at the window cut into the wall high above his reach. The window was one square foot, and sent in pale yellow light that bathed everything in soft grays.
The guards had brought him here in a protected car on the electric rail system. The system was old and gave off sparks. The seats were worn, and the floor scuffed. Diate had sat at the edge of his chair. Outside, the sky was overcast, and the buildings looked even darker than they had from the air. He had never been to such a dismal place.
The train had stopped behind the palace, and the guards had brought him into one of those buildings around the park. They had led him down a flight of stairs, and into a cell without even telling anyone he was there.
He could rot here, and no one would know.
But, before they slammed the heavy oak door, they had promised him a meeting with the Golgoth. They said to prepare, that the Golgoth would see him in the next few hours.
Diate paced. All of the hope, all of the chances, had come to this. A meeting with the Golgoth, with the ruler of this godforsaken country. The self-declared enemy of Diate’s place of birth. No Kingdom member had ever requested asylum here because every Kingdom member knew the Golgoth would never grant it.
Although they had surprised him already. The pilot, whom he had expected them to kill, had left the island. They had taken away her license—she could never return to Golga and they had fined her—but she still had her life and her career.
Diate leaned his head against the cold metal. Had Sehan known this was going to happen? Was that why he was willing to entrust Diate’s life to one of his main shuttle pilots, because Golga would not kill her if they caught her? Was Golga less rigid than the Kingdom? He didn’t believe it.
They hadn’t fed him, and the hunger was back, gnawing at him. One bland meal was not enough to sustain him. Maybe he should raise a fuss, demand water, demand gruel, demand anything. They were going to kill him anyway. Why did he have to sit still for this?
Footsteps sounded in the outside hall, then he heard a key turn in the lock. The door swung open, and four guards faced Diate.
These were not the men who had captured him. These men had no expressions on their faces. They were slender and lean, and each movement spoke of their great physical strength.
“The Golgoth will see you now.”
Diate nodded. So it began—or ended. Either way, he would go down fighting. He would make his requests, and he would not be meek. He had nothing left to lose.
One guard held him while the other used a thin rope to tie Diate’s hands behind his back. The rope was so tight that it cut off the circulation to Diate’s hands. Two guards gripped Diate tightly, while two others trained their weapons on him. All the precautions against escape. As if Diate had somewhere to escape to.
They lead him out of his cell, and through the oak door. In the corridor, the lighting was bright. Diate blinked, nearly blinded by the change. The smells faded, leaving an echo in his nostrils and on his clothes. He wondered how he looked, and thought he could guess: a thin, dirty boy with a young man’s growth, blood still caked on his arms and shoes, clothes tattered from a week on the run. Certainly not the kind of person the Golgoth was used to meeting.
They turned and went down a narrow corridor tiled in white. At the end of the corridor, an open door revealed another, twistier corridor with stairs at the end. They climbed the stairs, Diate’s legs shaking beneath him. The dizziness hadn’t returned, but a weakness that felt like reluctance made each step forward difficult. The guard yanked Diate forward as if he were an animal, and he stumbled. The other guard grabbed his elbow, and propelled him up the remaining steps.
At the top, another door swung open, sending in the scents of perfumed candle wax. Each tile in this corridor had been painted in an alternating black or white pattern. Ceramic skulls, spaced about two feet apart and shoulder high, lined the corridor. Inside each skull a candle burned.
Even though the corridor was hot, a chill ran down Diate’s back. The guards pulled him forward, until they reached double doors painted black. Two more guards with ceremonial spears stood outside.
“The Talent to see the Golgoth,” one of Diate’s guards said.
One of the ceremonial guards pulled on an ornate red rope that hung beside the doors. The doors swung inward, revealing a large black room, with more skull candles and guards standing along the walls. On the dais in the back of the room, under a pool of light, stood a white throne. Skulls decorated the hand rests and the feet, as well as the posts at the top, and as Diate walked closer, he could see more skulls carved into the throne itself.
A guard kicked Diate’s feet from under him, and he sprawled forward, skinning his arms and legs. He remained on his stomach, gasping for air, shuddering at the pain that ran through him.
A voice, deep and commanding, spoke first in a guttural language he had heard in the port, and then in Lillish. “Let him stand.”
Diate didn’t look up. Hands gripped him, but he shook them off. He waited until his breath was even before he struggled to his knees. A bald man wearing a black robe stood in front of the throne. White skulls decorated the robe in almost a checked pattern. The man’s bony face looked like a skull itself.
The man was staring at him. Diate stared back.
A guard hit Diate’s shoulder hard enough to make him lean forward. “Show the Golgoth some respect.”
The man—the Golgoth—continued to watch Diate. Diate ignored the guard, and rocked back on his toes, then, in a fluid motion, stood up.
“A Kingdom member has never come before me seeking asylum. What do you really want, boy?”
“I don’t want to speak in front of them.” Diate indicated his jailers with a shrug of the shoulder.
“I won’t dismiss all of my guards.”
“You don’t have to. Just dismiss these four.”
The Golgoth looked over Diate and nodded at the men. Diate didn’t turn as they walked out. Instead, he watched a side door open, and a boy younger than he came in. The boy had bright red hair that curled around his ears, and a robe that matched the Golgoth’s. The boy’s face had the same bony potential, the same fierce, almost skull-like appearance. The boy stopped just behind the Golgoth.
The boy spoke in the guttural language.
The Golgoth nodded.
The boy walked around Diate, wrinkling his nose in distaste, then asked a question.
The Golgoth responded, then took one step closer to Diate. “My son wants to know what you want,” the Golgoth said in Lillish.
Diate couldn’t look at the boy. He could only look at the man, the one with the power to decide his fate.
“I want asylum.” He made sure that his voice was strong.
“I don’t grant asylum to Kingdom members, especially not Talents.”
“I am no longer a Talent.”
A slight smile played across the Golgoth’s lips, adding to his skull-like appearance. “Then what do you bring us?”
Bring them? Diate had arrived with nothing. If he had had anything, he would have tried to bribe his way free hours ago. “I can dance,” he said.
The Golgoth’s smile grew wider. “Dancing is a frivolity that we do not allow here. I only grant asylum to people who provide me some kind of exchange.”
Exchange. Diate understood the currency of exchange. But all he had was himself. Himself, and his knowledge. He swallowed heavily. All those conversations. All the times the Queen and her people had sworn the Talents to secrecy. All the dinners that Talents attended while no other Kingdom members could.
“I was a Talent,” he said, “and a friend of the Queen’s. I can tell you everything I know about her, and her parties and the way that the Kingdom works.”
The Golgoth’s smile faded. Some of the candles flickered. But no one moved. “How do I know that she didn’t send you herself to feed me information, the wrong kind of information?”
“Because she murdered my family!” The words left him before he could stop them. His voice cracked on the third word and he had to blink hard to prevent tears from following. He would not break down in front of this man. He would not.
“Really?” The Golgoth took a step back up and sat on the throne, hands clasped in his lap. “What is your name, boy?”
“Diate. Emilio Diate.”
“The rebel poet’s son?”
Diate couldn’t hide the surprise on his face.
“Not all of the Kingdom is a mystery,” the Golgoth said. “We hear things from time to time.” He leaned back and gripped the skulls between his huge hands. “And so you come here, to continue your father’s rebellion.”
“No,” Diate said. “I came here because I have nowhere else to go. And I haven’t thought about my father’s rebellion. I’ve just been trying to stay alive.”
“They’re trying to kill you too? A Talent?”
“There has been some talk of that, sir, among the Vorgellians. It seems that they all received information from the Kingdom about a renegade Talent who was to be returned to the Kingdom for assassination.” A man Diate had not noticed before stepped out of the shadows behind the throne. He was small and wiry with tonsured hair covering a rounded scalp. He spoke Lillish like a native.
The Golgoth replied in the harsh, guttural language he had used before. Then the boy spoke up in a piping voice, and the other man laughed. The Golgoth shook his head and turned his attention back to Diate.
“You want asylum from us, Emilio Diate?”
“Yes.” Diate swallowed the hope rising within him. They could be toying with him, just before they killed him.
“Then you must renounce the Kingdom. You must abandon your Talent, grow your hair over the caste mark, and never dance again. You must publicly decry them, and declare yourself a member of Golga. You will learn our language and train in whatever profession I choose for you. You will tell me everything you know about your former homeland. And you must never have any contact with any member of the Kingdom again. Will you do those things?”
Diate thought of his home, his father’s body scattered along the path, his sister sprawled on the porch. The stink of blood. The Queen’s painted teeth as she laughed. He didn’t care if he never saw the Kingdom again. But the dance. He had never lived without the dance.
The Golgoth’s son spoke, then laughed. He peered in Diate’s face and shook his head. Diate got the message. The boy expected him to say no.
“Why can’t I dance?” Diate asked.
“Because it is frivolous,” the Golgoth said. “We don’t believe in frivolity here.”
“But dance is all I know how to do.”
“Then you will learn something else.”
Diate took a deep breath. Dance was part of the world he left behind. Dance had no place here. Whenever he danced, he would think of the Kingdom, of the blood, of the Queen’s empty laughter. “I’ll learn anything you teach me.”
The Golgoth smiled. Then he clapped his hands. “Now, get him out of here, clean him up, and take him to my palace.”
Two new guards flanked Diate.
The Golgoth’s son stopped laughing. He gaped at his father, then spoke rapidly. The man with the tonsured hair added his voice to the boy’s. They didn’t like the Golgoth’s plan. Diate waited, not even daring to swallow.
The Golgoth smiled and shrugged. He glanced at Diate. “They don’t think I know what I’m doing. But I do. You must trust me, Scio.”
Scio, the man with the tonsure, frowned. He backed into his place in the shadows. The Golgoth stared at Diate. “You will be my protégé, Emilio Diate?”
A wild, kind of crazy joy filled Diate. He was alive. He would remain alive. The Kingdom would never threaten him again. “For you, Sire,” he said, “I will be anything.”
Fifteen Years Later
Step, lift, step, step. Diate watched himself in the mirror. Sweat poured down his chest and back, coating his thin cotton shirt and shorts. Step, lift, step, step. His bare feet were cold on the wood floor. The muscles rippled along his biceps as his arms moved in time to the imaginary music playing in his head. Step, lift, step, step.
The small exercise room was quiet, except for the whisper of his movements. Mirrors reflected him on three sides, with a wooden barre running waist high. A closed door led to the hallway, and another to the larger gymnasium.
He finished the cool-down, and walked over to the barre, placing his left foot on it, and stretching. After all these years, his form was still perfect. But his body had matured from a fifteen-year-old boy’s grace to a thirty-year-old’s precision. Some of the movements had grown more difficult, and he pulled more muscles now. But he was the strongest man on the force, and others had asked to learn his exercise routine. He would smile at them and ask them to join him for a week. They usually made it through a session and a half before begging out.
When he finished with the left leg, he put it down, and rested a moment. Then he brought the right leg up on the barre and leaned into it. He could feel the stretch in his achilles tendon, and along the back of the leg. The muscles in his sides and back bulged as he twisted to reach for his toes.
They had not seen dance on Golga in three generations. The Golgoth had never guessed that Diate’s strange exercise routine was the dance he had once performed before the Kingdom’s queen.
The exercise room door banged open. Strega entered. He was a slim and muscular young detective, with a continual perplexed look. When Strega saw Diate, he stopped.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
“You haven’t.” Diate finished his last stretch, then grabbed his towel off the barre. His exercise routine so intimidated the other detectives that they usually avoided him while he did it. They also avoided the exercise room because of the mirrors and barre he had added. Few people liked to watch themselves while they exercised, although he knew it would be good for their form.
“I, uh, hope you don’t mind if I use the room.” Strega’s hand played nervously with his towel.
Diate wiped the sweat off his face. “It’s not private.”
“No, sir, that’s right.”
Diate stopped drying himself off and leaned back against the barre. Strega was acting too guilty. “What are you doing here, Strega?”
“I, uh, I’ve been watching you work out, sir. I thought I would practice on my own before I tried working with you.”
Diate smiled. “If you can learn this routine on your own, you’re a better man than I am.”
“I had years of assisted training.”
Strega nodded. “I have found that I can’t do most of the fluid motions, and even the stretches hurt.”
“They’re supposed to, in the beginning.” Diate slung the towel over his arm. “I’ll work with you, if you like. But you’ll have to do it soon before you get into bad habits.”
“Yes, sir,” Strega said. “At your convenience, sir.”
Diate ran his gaze the length of the man. Boy, actually. He hadn’t yet reached twenty. Diate could work with Strega, if Strega had the right mental attitude. Of all the detectives who had approached him, Strega was the only one who had not approached it like he was making a challenge to Diate’s authority. He had approached it like a challenge to himself.
“Tomorrow,” Diate said. “Before early breakfast. We’ll start you with a half an hour. I don’t think you can do the full hour right away.”
“Thank you, sir.” Strega’s confused expression intensified. He was probably wondering what Diate was doing in the room in the hour before late dinner if he usually exercised in the morning. Diate didn’t have the heart to tell him that he usually worked out at least twice a day.
“Just do a lot of stretching today, and familiarize yourself with the barre and the mirror. We’ll worry about form tomorrow.”
Diate smiled at Strega, and received a nervous smile back. Then Diate grabbed his bag and his shoes, and headed for the showers.
The hallway smelled more of stale sweat than the exercise room did. But he rarely went into the main gym, didn’t know if the hallway smelled like the large open area where most of the Port City’s two hundred detectives worked out. It probably did. He pushed open the shower room door and peeled off his clothes. Then he crossed the sloping concrete floor, past the rusted drains, and took his usual stall in the back.
He turned the hand-adjusted controls, listening to the ancient metal squeak. They had never had the luxury of showers in the Kingdom, although he had heard of the devices as a boy. When he finished his dance, he usually took a dip in the pond near his home, and once a week, used his mother’s homemade soap and heated water for a real cleaning. The soaps provided here, milled by a factory miles away, lacked the fresh scent his mother had found.
Water leaked out the nozzle, then followed full force. He stepped under the stream, ignoring the usual temperature shifts from cool to scalding, and back to cool again. Something had made him reflective. He usually didn’t think about his boyhood that much. Probably the look on Strega’s face when he told Diate he wanted to try the routine—and the memory it brought of the fear Diate had once had of the Golgoth. He believed that the Golgoth would kill him if he found him dancing. But the dancing had given him strength, and the strength had made him a detective. It had taken two years before they found something for Diate to do. He had learned Golgan quickly, although not well enough to take a scholarly profession. The Golgoth had quizzed him extensively about the Kingdom until they had finally exhausted his store of knowledge. But he remained strong, and that strength had helped him get into the detectives and to rise through the ranks. He had become head of the detectives at the age of twenty-three, four years older than the boy who used this exercise room.
Being head of the detectives wasn’t enough, though. He wanted to help Scio with the secret police. He had appointed himself as head of the Golgoth’s local security, and Scio had complained. Scio believed that Diate would never belong in Golga.
Scio was wrong.
Diate dipped his head under the water, letting it flow into his mouth. Then he spat the water out, lathered his body, and rinsed off. The water had turned cold by the time he shut off the faucets. Off-duty at last. The day had been long, and unusually dull. Sometimes, after weeks of this, he would find himself wishing for action, and he would stifle the feeling. That attitude had gotten too many detectives in trouble.
Water dripped behind him. He shook himself off. He felt braced after the brisk shower. He loved the hours before meals here. The gym was nearly empty, and he didn’t have to deal with constant questions or the nervous looks from the cadets, who could not understand how a man who walked with the Kingdom’s grace and spoke Golgan with a lilting accent could be loyal to the Golgoth.
They would never know what true loyalty felt like, unless someone had given them a second chance at life.
He dried off and slipped into street clothes. His clothing was stark—an odd contrast with his gray uniforms—a form-fitting white shirt that gathered at the neck and wrists, and black pants with cuffs that hugged his ankles. Off-duty he wore sandals. Shoes hurt his feet even worse than going barefoot did. The bane of a dancer. Constant sore and aching feet.
Laughter in the hallway made him stop. For a moment, he debated leaving—his appearance always halted the free flow of emotions around him—but Beltar and dinner were waiting. He placed his uniform and towel on the wash pile and pushed the door open.
Four cadets were standing in the hall, their light blue uniforms unbuttoned and in a state of disarray. They stood at attention when they saw him, and their hands fluttered as if they could straighten their uniforms before he noticed. “At ease, gentlemen,” he said, and pushed past them. His footsteps echoed in the hallway. He knew the boys wouldn’t move until they could no longer see him. He had never shared that kind of camaraderie. As a cadet, he had not spoken the language well, and by the time he became a first-year detective, he was known of as the Golgoth’s boy. No one had wanted to approach him.
A cool breeze, smelling of salt and storms, greeted him as he opened the door. The city grew quiet at twilight. It had taken years, but he had finally learned to see the beauty in this place. The mountains added shadow and mystery, the ocean promised wealth. Storms often paralyzed the city and caused brownouts, but he had grown to love the wild whipping wind, and the pounding rain. The streets emptied during a storm, and the entire city hibernated.
He paused for a moment, surveying the street. Most people had already gone home, and were relaxing after early dinner. A few stragglers hurried out of the government buildings across the park. The gymnasium was attached to the detectives’ offices, across the park from the palace.
The concrete was wet, and the grass looked marshy. The storm he smelled had already passed. He hadn’t even heard it while he was working out. He sighed, and turned his back on the park, heading toward the merchant’s district, and dinner.
Most nights, he dined with his closest friend—his only friend besides the Golgoth—a wine merchant named Beltar. They had met during a smuggling case five years back. Beltar had been finding inferior wine among his stock, and had asked the detectives to locate the source of the problem. It had taken them nearly a week to discover that one of the pilots on the shuttle route had taken to switching cases, and selling Beltar’s more expensive wine for even higher prices on Rulanda.
Twilight had shaded the buildings a deep gray. The building facades changed as Diate moved from the government district to the merchant district. Here the buildings had more individuality—some with wide signs and glass fronts; others with small doors and no windows at all. The streets were paved with a red brick made on a small island just off-shore. Expensive enough to let shoppers know that they had moved into an exclusive area.
A group of teenagers huddled in the alley across the street. They were speaking in low tones. Diate glanced at them, and couldn’t see around their hunched backs. Teenagers didn’t belong here. They lacked the wealth needed to shop in this area. That, and their posture, made him suspicious.
If he went over there, he would interrupt something. It would take time, and he would miss dinner with Beltar. Diate looked away. He was becoming as bad as the citizenry he complained about.
He crossed the street, feet wobbling on the uneven brick, and turned at the corner. He stopped in front of a wooden storefront. A sign displaying a goblet and a bottle of wine hung above the door. No windows graced the front of the building—Beltar claimed too much light was bad for his wine. The wood facade was polished and gleaming. The brick sidewalk in front of the door was swept clean. Beltar did not advertise—he didn’t need to—but everything about his store suggested class.
Diate turned the knob and stepped inside.
The tangy scent of Beltar’s spiced reds mixed with the smell of onions sautéed in olive oil. Diate’s stomach grumbled. He hadn’t eaten lunch. He locked the deadbolt above the knob and wandered toward the back.
The shop occupied the front part of the building. Wine racks were built into the walls, with wine bottles resting in them. Along the back wall, the more expensive wines were locked in cases. Free-standing tables carried crystal goblets and ornate carafes, and a large red chair dominated the center of the room. Beltar’s chair. He entertained customers there when he was working.
Diate weaved his way through the displays. He opened a door half hidden behind the expensive wine cabinets.
Beltar sat on a tall thin stool, one arm resting on the counter. His robe was pulled tight across his bulk, and he had discarded most of the jewelry he usually wore to impress customers. Rings still flashed on his fingers. On the stovetop, a white sauce bubbled. Fresh baked bread graced two plates, and an open bottle of Chianti breathed on the small wooden table in the corner. Two crystal wine goblets stood beside the bottle.
“Have you ever heard the old saw about the ancient colonists?” he said without greeting.
“Which part?” Diate sat on the stool across from Beltar, glad that he didn’t have to explain himself.
“I was explaining to a customer this afternoon that names of wine varieties are ancient, dating before the first colonists ever discovered this planet, and he claimed that no ship ever discovered us, that we were all descended from the Vorgellians, and that most of us regressed. Only the Vorgellians maintained their technological superiority.”
“Where did he get that information?” Diate took a bread crumb and slid it into his mouth.
“He said he had evidence. He claimed that the colony ship business was all a lie.”
“How did he explain the sister ships flashing in the horizon on dark winter nights?
“He couldn’t. He said it’s a Vorgellian hoax.”
“This bothers you?”
Beltar shrugged. “I’m not fond of Vorgellians.”
Diate smiled a little. They had had that discussion before. Diate didn’t like the Vorgellian trade practices, but he had never forgotten Sehan’s kindness. Beltar knew that, and was taunting Diate instead of berating him for being late.
“What is this stuff?” Diate asked.
“Vorgellian stew. You’ll like it.” Beltar slid off the stool and padded to the stove. He picked up a wooden spoon and stirred, then ladled the sauce onto the bread.
“It is not Vorgellian stew.” Diate got up and stood near the stove. He loved the small apartment at the back of the store even though the color scheme was deep red. The apartment only had a kitchen, a bath, and a living/sleeping room, but the layout was pleasant and felt roomy. Beltar had covered the walls with wine labels from his travels. They added a necessary break to all the red.
Beltar could afford a huge apartment at the top of any of the buildings along the hills, buildings with a view of the entire valley, but he preferred ostentation on his person, not in his surroundings.
“You’re right,” Beltar said. “It’s not Vorgellian stew. It’s better than anything they would whip up.”
He pulled forks out of a drawer and handed Diate a plate. Diate carried the plate to the table, sat down and immediately started to eat. The white sauce had a garlicky taste mixed with the gamey flavor of rhoden.
Beltar poured the wine. The rings on his fingers clinked against the glass. “You look tired, my friend.”
“Long day,” Diate said.
Beltar shook his head. “Not that kind of tired. The kind of tired a person has when he’s been alone too long.”
Diate did not want to discuss his personal life with a man whose life was no better. “Good meal.”
Beltar shrugged. “Passable meal. I could take you somewhere with good food. You could have a rest, a vacation, for the first time in your life.”
“I don’t need a vacation.”
Beltar smiled. “And I don’t need to eat.”
Diate finished the sauce-covered bread, surprised at how fast he had eaten. As he leaned back, he discovered that he was full. He took the wine goblet, and felt the delicate glass shiver between his fingers. “What kind?”
“I told you. Chianti.”
Diate shook his head. “The spices.”
Beltar laughed, a deep throaty chuckle that resounded through his massive chest. “The one secret you will never get out of me, detective.”
Diate took a sip, marveling at the dry bitterness mixed with a subtle flavor he found in no other wine. He would never get the secret out of Beltar, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Beltar lived for his wines. He spent hours in the tiny kitchen after his shop closed, experimenting with flavorings, seasonings, and spices. Every other week, he traveled into the valley to check on his vineyards, and spent at least one week in four visiting new vineyards and sampling their wares. His trips usually took him off the island, and one of those buying sprees had put him in touch with the smugglers, and Diate, years ago.
“You know, you come here, eat my dinners, and stare at me three times a week when I’m home, detective,” Beltar said. “And you never tell me what you are thinking and what you are feeling. Do you tell anyone?”
Diate took another sip of the wine. He suppressed a sigh. Beltar usually wanted something when he started discussions like this. “What brings the question tonight?”
Beltar shrugged, and finished the last bite on his plate. “I have been thinking about you a lot lately. I walk down the streets, and I see the other detectives in groups of two and three, but you are always alone. And the more I realized it, the more I realized you are always alone. Even when you’re with me.”
“We talk,” Diate said. The wine tickled the back of his throat. He savored the smoothness. Once every few weeks, Beltar pushed Diate for information about himself. But Diate didn’t talk. He preferred to remain private, to keep his memories to himself.
“About me. About my wines. About my trips. I know that you live in a hovel not far from the palace, that you came from the most entrancing island on the planet, that you were raised by the Golgoth, and that you will not discuss your past. You also will not discuss cases, unless they center around travel or wine, and you are a very good listener.”
Diate took another sip of wine. Beltar’s place was usually a refuge from others who made demands on him. The Golgoth always wanted to know what was happening in his life, and Kreske, the Golgoth’s son, made the same demands— out of jealousy, though, instead of curiosity. The few women he had dated always wanted to know everything about him, and when he refused to speak, they made him into their project. He hated being a project.
He felt as if he had always been someone’s project.
“What do you want from me?” His tone had more anger in it than he wanted.
Beltar didn’t flinch. He studied Diate, fingers gripped tightly on the glass, cherubic mouth pursed. He waited a long time before he responded. “I am getting old, and lonely. I know a lot of people, but I like very few of them. I like you, detective.”
Diate set his wine glass down. “What do you want, Beltar?”
“I want company.” Beltar smiled. “I am planning a vacation, and I would like a friend to travel with me.”
“No women this time?”
“A friend,” Beltar said. “Not a lover. But I don’t even know if you can leave Golga. I know that you’re still wanted in the Kingdom—for what, I don’t know—but I don’t know if it’s safe for you to leave here.”
Diate picked up his glass. The spices had settled in the bottom. He swirled them around. “I don’t know either,” he said.
“Then let’s find out,” Beltar said. “I would like to make plans—”
The word stopped Beltar as effectively as a slap. The force startled even Diate. He didn’t move. His muscles felt as if they had frozen. He knew that he should speak, should reassure Beltar that he had not made a serious gaffe, but he couldn’t find the words.
Beltar set his glass down. He smiled as if he understood. Diate found that even more infuriating. “Let’s walk,” Beltar said. “I haven’t been out of this place all day.”
Diate drained his glass, thankful for the excuse to move. He made himself take a few deep breaths, to calm himself. Beltar’s offer was nice. But Diate couldn’t explain the fear that the offer raised in him. He slid his chair back and stood up, at the door before Beltar had gotten up.
“Looks like you need the exercise too,” Beltar said with a low chuckle.
Diate never needed exercise. In fact, the Golgoth worried that he got too much. You use that gymnasium like some men use strong wine, he often said. Diate privately agreed. When he danced, he felt nothing, thought nothing. Not even sleep gave him such a respite. When he slept, his dreams were full of blood.
“A walk would be good,” he said, and his voice sounded as if he hadn’t used it for days.
He opened the door, and stepped into Beltar’s back alley. The air smelled of rain, and the gravel shone wetly in the thin light that slipped through the curtained window. They had maybe two hours until curfew.
Beltar stepped beside him and closed the door. “Sometimes I walk to the ports at night. They remind me that my city, and my little room, are not the world.”
He was still trying to convince Diate to travel with him. “You’re preaching tonight.”
“No,” Beltar said, his voice a low rumble behind Diate. “I have been feeling alone, lately.” He looked away, silhouetted in the light coming from his kitchen window. “Maybe it’s just age.”
Diate said nothing. If Beltar wanted a deeper friendship, it was more than Diate could give. “I haven’t been to the ports in a long time.”
Beltar nodded, and clapped his hand on Diate’s back. “Then let’s go.”
The rain had left everything with a slightly damp smell. As they walked down the alley, the faint reek of garbage rose from the curb. Voices echoed from an open window: a man and a woman fighting; a child crying, with deep heavy hiccups. Diate wanted the sounds to stop. He always felt as if he should knock on a door, tell the couple to stop fighting, to pay attention to their child. But he was off-duty, and even when he was on duty these things were none of his business. Not unless they spilled outside, or had something to do with the Golgoth’s security.
Beltar turned toward the port, and Diate followed, half a step behind. The streets were deserted now. The red brick had become concrete again, and the buildings dilapidated. People who lived near the ports were transient, or poor. New visitors to Golga, no matter what part of the inlet they docked at, always saw the worst part of the city first.
Their footsteps rang against the concrete. Beltar meandered, hands behind his back, staring at the ports. These ports were built by Golgans, not Vorgellians. Most were large wood buildings noted for size and storage rather than beauty. The ports were designed to process hundreds of ships and most of the trade on the planet. In the last four hundred years, Golga had worked itself into an interesting financial position. It was the breadbasket to the other inhabited islands. Most grew only specialized crops. The temperate climate on Golga allowed for both a long growing season and the ability to grow a wide variety of products. What Golga didn’t grow or produce, it traded. Golga acted as the middle man for most of the islands. It bought at good prices and sold at even higher ones. Hence the large Vorgellian shuttle bay on the eastern side of the inlet. Fresh products arrived by air, and were shipped by air only a day later. Textiles and durables went by ship. The amount of money, people, and products that came through this area kept the detectives very busy.
No ships were coming in, the docking side dark, making the nearby streets darker still. Diate liked the docking lights. Their reflection gave the ocean a prettiness that it usually lacked. On those nights, when he saw the lights sparkling like captured stars in the water, he knew that the Port City could as beautiful as the Kingdom if it tried.
Beltar slowed down so that he walked next to Diate. “It’s quiet,” Beltar said.
Diate nodded. He wasn’t used to the silence. A chill ran down his back. Even the voices from the open windows had disappeared.
“Ever heard it this quiet?” Diate asked.
“Holidays,” Beltar said. “I suppose the same in the middle of the night. But not at this time.”
Diate took Beltar’s arm. The man’s warmth through his soft robe felt reassuring. “Let’s go back.”
Beltar turned into an alley. Diate followed. The garbage scent was stronger here. Up ahead, an animal rustled in the piles of discarded waste. A rat, probably. Diate would have to report the presence to sanitation.
As if they would do anything.
The noise didn’t quit as they got closer. Beltar glanced at Diate, and Diate felt more than saw his friend’s nervousness. Diate moved a little ahead. At least he was trained to react quickly to any threat. Even prepared, Beltar was at a disadvantage.
The garbage mound was in complete darkness. The creature made small whimpering noises as it rummaged. Diate was going to walk by, when he recognized the sound.
Someone was crying for help.
Only a handful of people on Golga spoke Lillish, and only Scio and the Golgoth spoke it fluently. Why would anyone call for help in Lillish here?
“Beltar,” he said. “Someone’s down here.”
Diate crouched, and stuck his hands in the garbage mound. Something sticky latched to his fingers. He winced, but forced himself to move the refuse. The cries grew more frantic. Beltar knelt beside him, and once Diate encountered Beltar’s hands moving against his own. Then he plunged deeper, the smell of shit and rotted food nearly overwhelming him. His arms brushed against something warm and soft. It moved, and he nearly cried out, in spite of his training.
He grabbed the limb, and the person—a woman—yelped in pain.
“It’s all right,” he said in Lillish. “We’re here to help you.” Beltar didn’t have to be told that Diate had found something. He came closer, moving debris aside like a shovel. Diate slid his hands gently up the woman’s skin. The refuse had covered it in goo. She was tiny. He moved his hands along her backbone to her neck.
“I’m going to pick you up,” he said in Lillish. “It may hurt, and I’m sorry, but we can’t help you here.”
She murmured a quiet assent. Diate drew his knees under him, braced himself and lifted.
A moan, as involuntary as a breath, escaped her.
“Let’s get her to the light,” Beltar said.
Diate walked out of the alley. The body he carried was limp against his. The woman they had found had fainted.
He wished the ports were active tonight. They needed help, and none was close. They needed light.
He hurried into the street, and the thin light falling from shuttered windows gave him just enough illumination.
Beltar took a step back. Diate was so startled, he almost dropped the woman. She was naked and covered with garbage, but worse than that, the smell he had noticed was coming from her. Her skin was swollen, pussed, red, and cracked. He had only seen damage like that once before, when one of his detectives had caught on fire during a fire-fighting effort.
But there had been no reports of fires in or near the ports, and she had been in that garbage for some time—since sundown at least.
Whoever had done this to her had done it deliberately.
Here’s how you order the rest of the book. The ebook is widely available. Here are the links to Kindle, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Other ebookstores should have it as well. A trade paper edition of the book will appear in Fall of 2012, and I’ll put ordering information here at that time.