The Money-Changer's Tale
The Money-Changer's Tale
When you land on DrumBae, you meet Keshik the moneychanger. He's everywhere in Drum Port; you see him outside the Portmaster's office, his trays of multi-colored currency bouncing against his gut, or changing money on the Street of Dark Windows where the miners get paid. He's a storyteller, and you've been told that if you slip him two krindars, he may tell you a story about a woman who was looking for something, and a man who found something he was sure had been lost.
Find him in the sun outside the bistro in Viceroy Plaza, buy him a small plate of grolak and bearnat stew, and he will start the story so:
There's a nameless bar in the old quarter of Drum Port that serves the best grolak on the planet. The owner is an ancient Hynerian female named Billix, but that's not her real name. Her name was once Errthan, and while she likes to hint about political oppression and the romance of rebellion, in reality she was merely an embezzler who'd gotten too greedy. She fled the Empire only three denches ahead of the Imperial Tax Collector.
Billix was on the bar one afternoon in late spring -- and you'll see that it's important that it was late spring -- when a woman came into the bar. Hynerians don't have much of an eye for mammalian aesthetics, but so far as Billix could see, the woman was likely to draw attention from the other bipeds. She had no obvious deformities, and her features, what could be seen of them behind a ragged curtain of dark hair, were regular and prominent. Billix decided she was probably Sebacean, which is both rare and possibly dangerous in this region, caught as DrumBae is in the disputed territories between the Peacekeeper and Scarran spheres of influence. Not that it was any of Billix's business who was Sebacean and who wasn't, so long as they paid in hard currency.
The woman came to the counter and slid onto a stool, her long green coat falling back to reveal slick black leather and the butt of a pulse pistol. Billix pretended not to see it; it was safer that way.
"Raslak," said the woman, and Billix laughed in her pale face.
"Where you think you are? We're so far off the main routes you couldn't find civilization with a Luxan's nose. Pintol ale is what we got, and be happy for it."
The woman stared at Billix from behind her hair, and then nodded. Billix drew her a mug, the woman passed across some Peacekeeper currency, and took her ale to a table in the back. She sat, of course, with her back to the wall. Billix sneered and went back to work.
The bar filled up later, and Billix was kept busy serving ale and grenlit ears to her varied clientele of Zenetan mechanics, multi-specied merchants of dubious legitimacy, and zelbar prospectors. She'd heard more than once that there was a pair of matched Indari geologists north of the Port, but she'd never seen them. And Indari wouldn't have any reason to come to her bar, anyway; she didn't serve arachnids.
The dark-haired woman was the first Sebacean Billix had seen in a quarter-cycle. And the first Canterel Tar had seen either. Two arns after the woman came in, Billix saw Canterel Tar drop into a chair at the woman's table. Billix lowered an earbrow; she wouldn't have thought the woman was naive enough to fall for Canterel's insinuations.
In the other stomach, though, she knew Canterel was good at telling people what they wanted to hear. And the woman was looking for something -- no one comes to DrumBae without a reason. Billix slipped down to the end of the bar nearest their table, and cocked her head while wiping down the counter. No good -- all she got was a few words before Canterel leaned in closer, his pendulous ears swinging.
"Bintak slavers . . . three monens now . . . Oh, yes. How many cycles? . . . but I have heard --" His voice dropped away.
The Sebacean woman nodded, and pulled her hair back from her face. The skin was white as Billix's belly, marked with a raw red line along the jaw. "Where?" She said, her voice low and harsh and clear to Billix's loitering ears.
Canterel didn't answer, but instead shoved his chair back from the table, the feet screeching along the ceramo-tile floor. The Sebacean examined him for a long moment, her fingers resting on the pistol strapped to her thigh. When she finally stood up, Billix breathed out a quiet sigh, and then ducked beneath the counter for clean tableware.
She didn't consider it her business what happened out at Canterel's warehouse. She'd heard about the late night shipments with the closed containers, and the shrieking, and about how the warehouse went quiet when the Scarrans passed through every quarter-cycle. She figured it was no business of hers if the Sebacean barely got a metra out of town before she was strapped up like a zamnok for auction.
What was Billix's business was that Canterel spent a lot of currency in her place, and his brutes did too; their force-knives could do a lot of damage to her tables. She'd seen it once, and it had taken half a cycle to pay for the repairs. She wouldn't cross Canterel again. The Sebacean would have to watch out for herself.
You blink in the afternoon sunlight. That can't be the end of the story. "So what happened next?"
But Keshik won't tell you more unless you pay, and he has other business too. You may have to wait while he changes krindars into Berdak coins, their iridescent surfaces shimmering in the sun. You sweat while you wait -- late summer can be merciless in Drum Port.
But eventually Keshik comes back to you, and settles into the seat opposite, his aged bones creaking, and draws the strands of his grey-green braids away from the remnants of his stew. You buy him an ale, and wait for more of the story.
There is more, of course. Keshik talks to everyone. Including Drummers like Jendle, and he tells you that picking the story out from what-was-dream and what-wasimagined in that shorted brain took six nights, and a lot of patience -- and ale. But you have realized by now that Keshik's an inveterate gossip. It's one of his few useful qualities.
Jendle's a Drummer, starts Keshik, and you've already figured out what that means. You've seen them around the port: the over-worked and underpaid planetary natives, who don't get translator microbes and do all the manual labor. They only eat raw greenleaf and grennelish stew, chomping away with their grey masticators, splattering the stew into their fur where it dries and hardens. Drummers don't bathe much.
Jendle works for Canterel, and he's good at his job. He's not smart, but he's attentive. And as kind as he can be to the parcels. The 'merchandise' as Canterel refers to them. Canterel gave Jendle a job, when no other offworlder would. Jendle knows it's because he's ignorant, and because he doesn't have translator microbes. But Jendle doesn't mind; just being in the Port is enough for now; he thinks someday he'll get to go to space too.
Like all the Drummers, Jendle gets by with a little bit of pidgin and a lot of body language. It's sufficient for what he does: he doesn't need highly advanced language skills to clean cells or prepare simple meals.
Canterel's complex is outside the city, and at times the power supply is uncertain. Summer is particularly bad, because the hot winds come up from the dry lands and knock over the lines that carry the power. When the lights go out, Canterel rages about his office and Jendle stays out of throwing-range. But the darkness isn't a problem for Jendle, nor the heat: when it gets really hot, he just vents through his kelfetz.
Lot 378 arrived in late spring, and she was trouble from the start. She fought Canterel, and he had to dose her more than once. She was so violent Jendle couldn't feed her by himself, and Canterel assigned two of his squad to stand by when Jendle opened the cell to replenish the food and remove the waste-bucket.
Jendle wondered why Canterel cared so much about Lot 378; other troublesome finds had been put down or sold off early. But 378 was a species Jendle had never seen before. She was remarkably ugly, her pale skin horribly exposed, without the soft purple fur that protected Jendle from the extremes of weather. Her small dark eyes were close together like a predator's, and she had a tail on her head instead of her hindquarters. Jendle felt sorry for her: he wondered if all her species were so unattractive, or if maybe she were deformed. His cousin Fredle had given birth to a pup with only three arms once: it had died shortly after birth, and Fredle had thrown the body into the river so it would not curse the family.
As the summer progressed, lot 378 began to suffer. She stopped struggling with the guards, she ate less and less, and red blotches began to appear on her face. It was a hot summer, and Jendle saw that when the cooling system stopped working 378 became very quiet. On the days when the power went out, 378 would sit on the floor by the vent, her eyes closed, panting.
Jendle could tell Canterel was getting worried. The buyers were behind schedule and the complex was filling up. Jendle spent more of his time feeding, watering, and cleaning up after the merchandise. He missed being able to watch the ships land from the hill behind the port.
On the hottest day of the summer the power failed entirely. Hours went by and even Jendle began to feel uncomfortable. When it was this hot he wanted to sit in the river, but there was no river and the merchandise had to be cared for.
Lot 376 was a Trimfeldian; Jendle carefully tipped over the bucket of distilled water and let it drain to the middle of the room. He then backed out slowly, his eyes fixed on 376's tentacles. Once 376 had tried to trip him, and it had taken days to get the smell out of his fur.
Two doors down, one of the guards was looking through the slot at 378. Jendle stood next to him, and tilted forward to look inside as well. 378 was in her usual spot on the floor by the vent, but this time she was lying down, stripped of her garments. Jendle grunted. The guard laughed. "Sebaceans. Dead soon." He added something else Jendle didn't understand, but he understood the amusement.
Dead? Canterel didn't like dead, and he might blame Jendle. Jendle switched his tail uneasily, but the guard stumped away down the hallway. Lot 378 wasn't dangerous anymore. The gate at the end of the hallway slammed as the guard went to join his fellows in a slindix game in the shade of the trees outside. It was cooler outside, with the breeze, and Canterel had gone to the port on business.
Jendle unlatched the door and edged it open. Lot 378 looked smaller on the floor, and her pale skin was blotchy all over. Her breathing was slow and heavy. Jendle looked up and down the hallway. No one would see him if he went into the cell and made sure she had enough water. If she died, Canterel might be angry. He didn't like to see Canterel angry.
Jendle stepped through the door, and at that moment, lot 378 rolled her head to the side and met his eyes. One hand motioned feebly, its claws scratching against the greenwood floor. She looked so ill, he was sure she could not harm him. And her eyes were so dark.
He lifted the bucket and crossed the floor, leaving the door ajar behind him. He was fit and strong and she could barely breathe. He would give her the water and food and go, and no one would know he'd come into the room.
Except he was wrong. She was lying down, and she was panting and unclothed; but she was not weak. As he crouched down with a beaker of water, she moved -- faster than he had thought possible. Her hands grabbed his ears and pulled his head down, while one leg jerked up. Crack went his forehead, and he fell sideways, spilling the bucket and the water on the floor.
Jendle squalled, and flung his arms around, but she was up and over him and his head hurt so much. He braced himself against the floor and struggled upward, but she got to the bucket before him. The green surface of the bucket cut a path across her pale outline as she swung it down hard once and then again.
And that's all Jendle had to tell Keshik. It took a long time, because he was terrified of Canterel. Canterel blamed the guards, of course, but if he'd ever found out there would have been a new purple rug on the wall of Billix's bar.
By now, of course, you need to know more of the story. "Who is she? Where'd she go?" You lean across the table, captured by the mystery.
But Keshik knows his audience, and knows better than most about supply and demand. He will tell you nothing more today, and leaves you with a promise to meet again tomorrow for more of the tale. The sunset outlines his bulky figure as he walks away through the emptying streets, jingling his change trays and singing something high-pitched and eerie that your microbes cannot translate.
The next day, after completing other business, you find yourself at Billix's bar, sitting in the corner and watching for Keshik. The pintol ale is passable -- you now know better than to order raslak -- and the food is tastier than you expected. You're there for more than an arn before Keshik arrives, but he is effusive with apologies, and only waits for his ale to be poured before continuing the story.
You've probably seen Indari on your travels; there seems to be between three and nine of them on nearly every station and commerce planet from the Nebari Sector to the Sugthan Nebula. With their five flexible limbs and five eyes seeing into infrared and ultraviolet, they're in great demand for technical work.
Having a pair of Indari on DrumBae is odd. Because these are miners, not mechanics, and they are only two. Keshik cocks his head at you to make sure you understand.
You nod. Indari never travel in even numbers: it has something to do with their reproductive system, but you've never cared enough to find out exactly what. There are some things you'd rather not know.
These Indari, Keshik continues, siblings by the names of Reselte and Ajurst, are prospecting for felarnium. If asked, they will warble endlessly and untranslateably about the geological conditions on DrumBae which make felarnium likely to be found here. The fact that no felarnium has been discovered on DrumBae in many cycles of searching, appears not to have influenced their optimism.
You want to ask about the Sebacean woman, but Keshik takes another sip of his ale, carefully smoothes his braids, and launches back into the story.
The Indari found her, of course. It was high summer, and whatever strength had propelled her escape wasn't sufficient to get her very far. Canterel's compound is some distance from the Port, on the edge of the hills, and the Indari were scouting along a summer-dry canyon winding up into the hills when they came upon her.
She was crouched naked at the edge of a small muddy pool, the only open water on this stretch of the canyon, drinking from cupped hands. Her skin was scratched and raw, her feet bloody. She tried to run when she saw the Indari, but Indari are faster than they look -- it's all those legs, you see -- and Reselte blocked her escape up the canyon while Ajurst approached from below.
She stopped in front of Reselte, weaving, faked a move to the left, tried to dodge right instead, and had a loose stone turn under her foot. That was enough to give Ajurst time to wrap two limbs around her from the back.
"Quietly, soft-flesh. We will not harm."
But she did not listen, would not listen; she struggled in silence, sweat making her limbs slick, panting unevenly. Two arms and two legs are not enough to defeat ten limbs, even when the Sebacean knew enough about Indari to aim for Ajurst's fifth eye. Shortly she was confined and quiet within the sample bag Reselte had carried, and the two moved off up the canyon, staying for their captive's sake in the shade as much as possible.
The Indari wouldn't tell Keshik where their camp was; mad they might be in their conviction that a fortune in felarnium was hiding under these hills, but not mad enough. Somewhere they could build into the slope, though, with a view of the port, and keep the entrance hidden in the shade of the tall purple trees.
Water was easy to provide; food was harder, and the Sebacean was clearly underweight for her species. She sat on the ground in the corner, watching, while Reselte found a container she could drink from. Ajurst examined their food supplies and eventually found some fruits that might suffice.
They had, of course, locked the entrance behind them. The lock was not complex, but it required three limbs to operate. There was no way she could escape.
Keshik pauses for a moment to point out that the Indari aren't slavers. But to aid someone unasked, and provide them with food, water, shelter, puts an obligation on the rescuee. This is simple to them, and Indari do not relinquish such obligations.
You raise an eyebrow, but it's no stranger a philosophy than many you've heard in your travels, and he continues with the story.
For the first day they did little with the captive. They provided water and food, and allowed her to rest in the corner on the limited padding of the sample bag. The cave was much cooler than it was outside, and she recovered swiftly from the heat, with access to plenty of water. Ajurst and Reselte spent the day examining the previous week's samples, and comparing them to references on their portable units.
In the evening, they opened the doors, and Ajurst waved her outside into the green sunset. "Pretty sky," said Reselte, and the Sebacean nodded jerkily, wrapped against the cooling air in the stained sample bag.
"Thank you," she said. "I would have died in the canyons."
Ajurst emitted the tangle of vowels that passes for laughter among the Indari, thorax hairs twitching with amusement.
"No thanks," Reselte said. "You work, work for food, water, clothes. Pay your debt."
The Sebacean looked at them, and out at the wild hills. In the distance, probably a full day's hike, was the Port. In the daylight she would suffer from the heat; in the night she would probably lose her way. And she was very weak, and without even shoes for her feet. Without their help, she would die here.
"I will work," she said. "For a while."
"For a while," agreed Reselte.
The tasks they asked of her were not too strenuous; they did not require her to travel far in the heat of the day, nor carry great weights before her strength had returned. But the days were cooling, and her strength returned quickly. She assisted them on their surveys, and tested samples in the simple lab they had devised. She kept the camp clean and neat, and spoke seldom.
They knew she must be far traveled, as DrumBae is many light cycles from Sebacean territories, but she kept her heart and her mind to herself. They learned little of her, until the day she asked them about themselves.
"I wanted to ask --" she said, and paused, her hands full of lingit rinds. "Indari are always three, five, seven. Why only two?"
Ajurst twitched uneasily; Reselte turned a third eye on her and blinked several times.
"We were three," Reselte said. "One died. And we are far from home, there are no other nest-mates to join us so far."
"There must be three of five genders, always, for the eggs to be fertile. Three, or five, or seven. At least three, always. Those are nest-mates. Breeding-family."
Ajurst was usually more quiet, but spoke now, curiosity winning out over reticence. "Sebaceans have breedingfamily ? You have?"
The Sebacean dropped one of the fruit rinds and picked it up in grimy hands before answering. "Yes. Yes, I have a breeding-family. A -- a nest-mate." She said nothing more, and the Indari did not ask. Separation from nestmates was sore, and long separation led to death; they would not dwell on this and bring her needless pain.
You get up suddenly; you've been sitting in the same hard seat too long. Keshik nods when you wave at the facilities in the rear of the bar. When you return, a few moments later, he has ordered a small bowl of grolak and shanting wings. You swallow most of your remaining ale and motion for Keshik to continue.
On a hot day late in the summer, when the heat was such that the Sebacean could not move from the camp, Ajurst and Reselte went down into the Port for supplies. They were delayed when they found the mining shop closed for midday; by the time they returned to the camp, it was late in the evening.
They had left the door locked, but the Sebacean had opened it somehow, and was gone. Gone also were several lengths of cloth from the storage cabinet, all the fruit, and a water container. In their place was a small green stone placed with great precision on one of the map overlays.
Upon further testing, Reselte discovered the stone to be almost pure felarnium ore.
Keshik settles back in his chair and swallows the last of his ale. Freed from his spell, you shake your head in disbelief. That can't be the end of it. "What happened to the woman?"
But Keshik doesn't know. No one knows. Perhaps she's lost in the hills, dead from the heat. Although he has heard recently of a rash of thefts in the old quarter of the city. Small things: clothing, shoes, food left out . . . He shrugs, his braids swishing against the worn cloth of his green robe.
"When did this happen?" you ask.
Oh, recently, he assures you. He'd had the story from the Indari within the past trading cycle. You do the math: twenty solar days, then, give or take.
Twenty solar days ago you were a long way from here, holding a cryptic message from someone you had every reason to believe was dead. But then death in the Uncharted Territories doesn't go by ordinary rules.
"Any of these characters around right now?" you ask casually. The bar is much more crowded than it was earlier, a dozen races jockeying for positions around the bar and Billix moving faster than you'd believe a Hynerian could.
Keshik nods, and tilts his empty ale glass wistfully. "That's Canterel in the corner," he says with a roll of his eyes to the left. "First time he's come to town in a while."
You glance that way while waving to Billix for another round, and see a fleshy biped male with scaly purple skin and hugeass ears. He's bulky, but most of it looks like fat. Around him, though, are three even bigger guys, and they don't look fat at all.
Your ale comes, and you sip from it. If Keshik's story is true -- if. If. If.
If wishes were horses, you'd all eat steak.
You ask Keshik for another story -- cover is important, after all -- but before he finishes you see Canterel rise and leave the bar through the side door. His entourage follows, the crowd parting and reforming around them. There's no time to wait: you toss a few krindars on the table, nod to Keshik, who seems unsurprised, and leave through the front door, which is closer.
You race around the edge of the building and flatten yourself against a wall next to a pile of garbage and empty ale kegs. Canterel and his bodyguards pass by the entrance to the alley, walking smoothly. You're in luck. This is the old city, and the streets are too narrow and twisted for surface cars; Canterel has to walk nearly a metra back to his transportation. You wonder why he was at Billix's at all, but it doesn't matter. He'll tell you before dawn. He'll tell you everything.
Canterel's party moves down the street, and you follow cautiously. You left the duster in the prowler -- it's too hot for leather -- and instead you're wearing the blue overrobe the natives wear against the sun. It's awkward but it hides your weapons.
Give him time to get to the parking lot, you think, and you can take him then. You wish it were just a little darker; summer nights in Drum Port are short, and the sky is still teal in the west, and burning green in the east where the moon the locals call Bafara leans up over the hills. Bafara blocks the dense sweep of stars across the heavens; the brightest glow comes from Scarran territory, and you're far too aware of how near you are to the border.
It's late enough that the streets are nearly empty. As you edge down the street, fifty yards behind Canterel, you become aware of a shadow pacing you, on the other side of the street. It's a slight figure in ratty dun robes, a fold of cloth pulled up over its head. After a few moments you can tell it hasn't noticed you: all of its attention is focused on Canterel.
You're almost at the edge of the city, where the cramped and picturesque streets give way to a sprawl of warehouses, cheaply constructed newer housing units, and parking lots. Pretty soon Canterel will be at his vehicle and you'll never have a chance at him. You'll have to move fast, but first --
The robed figure turns the corner after Canterel, and you take advantage of the chance to dash across the street. You peer around the corner and see the shadow tucked into the deeper shadow of a doorway. Ahead, the street opens out into a wide plaza. Canterel is weaving through an assortment of ground and air vehicles.
Now, while there's some distance between you and Canterel. You pull a fold of your own robe over your face, and throw yourself across the last ten yards. Your boot scuffs on the last few steps, and the figure in the doorway starts to turn, but you slam hard up against -- her -- and she falls back into the corner under your weight.
She wrenches against you, but she's trapped by your greater mass, and she's unarmed. She's completely silent as she struggles, and so are you; Canterel's not that far away. You free one hand -- the other has her right hand pinned against the wall -- and pull back her hood.
The moment your hand grazes her face, you both know. The tension doesn't leave her body -- it never does -- but she stops fighting you, and the only thing you can hear is the two of you, gasping for breath.
You shake your robe back onto your shoulders so you can see her more clearly. Her hair is longer than you've seen it in several cycles. Her face is thin, drawn with fatigue and old fear. You don't know what she sees in yours, other than relief and bitter joy.
When you dreamed of this, you always had something witty to say: but you would wake up angry, and begin drinking too early on those days. Now all you can manage is, "The pod blew up." You hardly slept for weeks because that was all you saw every time you closed your eyes. You finally scared Pilot so much he begged D'Argo to tongue you.
She wavers in front of you, and you want to scrub at your eyes but your hands are holding her and you won't let go. You're never going to let her go. She'll have to have you surgically removed.
"We weren't on it," she says. After a moment, this makes sense.
Your hands tighten on her shoulders. "Where is he, Aeryn?"
She shakes her head. "I don't know." In her eyes are all the days you've been apart. You got to mourn; but she kept going without you.
Oh, god. "Canterel knows?" Canterel is the Scarrans' chief buyer in this quadrant; if anyone would know, he would.
She shrugs. "Maybe. Do you have any weapons? I'm not --" And she gives you a smile, half bravado, half rueful amusement. She's nearly naked under the robes, and thinner than you ever remember her. Canterel didn't feed her well, and the Indari worked her hard. Your body doesn't care.
She's here. You laugh, and it begins to curdle, and you choke it back. Instead you put your hands on either side of her face, and she puts her hands over them, her eyes on yours. In the shadow of the doorway, her eyes are immense and dark as a starless sky on Earth.
"Yeah, babe. I got an extra." But you kiss her first, and again and again, before you dig under your robe for the spare pistol. Her lips are chapped, she tastes of rage and desperation, and she's everything you've ever needed. She's been dead for eight months and to hell with --
No. Canterel can't wait.
But he hasn't waited; when you look around your shoulder into the plaza, you hear the whine of a departing aircar. "Shit!"
"Gone?" Aeryn asks as she checks the cartridge on the pistol.
"Yeah," you growl. "We'll have to... wait. You know where his complex is, don't you?"
"Yes." There's a look on her face you haven't seen in a long time. Someone's going to die tonight.
Canterel isn't Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel, but he does have a castle. If a warehouse complex twenty metras outside of town and surrounded by a ten-foot fence could be called a castle.
But it's not built to keep anyone out, you realize. It's built to keep them in. You drop from the tree onto the top of the fence, and then to the ground. You turn to steady Aeryn, but she's there beside you already, her dull robe fading into the tawny bricks of the wall.
She leads to the right, and you follow, Winona sweaty in your hand. It's like old times. Except you're damned near stranded on this planet, you've got no backup, and Moya's seventy light-cycles away.
Bafara has climbed higher, and the world is awash in green and silver light from the moon and the dense spill of stars across the sky. The night is rarely completely dark here, not like Earth. You don't mind right now: it makes it easier to spot and avoid the guards, but you hope the light won't be a liability later, when you're getting away. If you do get away.
After a few minutes of hide-and-seek, you find yourself pressed against the wall of one of the smaller buildings. This one has touches of detail in the architecture that set it apart: overhanging eaves, some fancy curlicues around the doorways.
You pull her close and hiss into her ear, "This it?"
"Yes. The rest of the compound is just cages for the merchandise."
You look over your shoulder at the other buildings, standing sharp-edged in the moonlight. Full of slaves, full of stink and misery. Aeryn was in there, for weeks. Your hand tightens around Winona.
"So, how we gonna play this?" you ask softly.
She looks up from the door control, then back down to touch a panel with a tentative finger.
"We go in, we get any information we can, we leave." Her voice is flat. She's been doing this for a lot longer than you have; you're only just beginning to assimilate the possibilities.
Alive, alive, sings your mind. You shut it down. You're going to get information. Hope -- hope is too much to hope for.
There's a click as the door unlocks. It's been years since you were stupid enough to speak in these situations; instead you cock your head at Aeryn and she edges the door open.
You were right: it's a residence. Rugs soften the tile floors, and lights running along the floor reflect off the glossy walls; all the shadows flee upward, and it's disconcerting. You think that if you lived here you'd be constantly bumping into the furniture.
There's only one way to go; the two of you slip quietly down the hallway, which after about five yards ends in a T. The bad news is there's a guard around the corner. The good news is that he's far more surprised than you are. You drop him before he squawks and Aeryn finishes him with a kick to the head. The carpets cover the sound of the scuffle.
Now where? The guard was coming from the right; towards the left you see an open door to a lighted room.
Bingo. Should have bought a lottery ticket tonight.
It's not an office, at least. You've had too many confrontations in offices. Instead it's a pleasant room, coolly decorated in greens, blues, and an odd shade of peach. On the wall opposite the door hangs a piece of cloth woven in multi-colored blotches. Where there would be fringe on a human product you see glossy white teeth, attached by what appear to be strands of hair.
Canterel Tar sits in a comfortable chair in the corner, reading. He doesn't notice his visitors until you put Winona to his ear.
He doesn't move, but he puts down the pad he's been reading from. Cautiously, which is smart.
Aeryn closes and locks the door, unfamiliar in her tan robes. You keep Winona in Canterel's face and swing around to sit on the low table in front of him.
He's still a big purple guy. Other than that, looks like a businessman. But then, you remember enough American history to know that's what slavers are. It's all just business.
Danny. The gun shakes in your hand and Aeryn throws a glance at you before dropping the cloth covering her face.
"Do you remember me, Canterel?"
There are small bladders in the skin of his throat that pulse with his breathing. He shakes his head. "No. Should I?" He may be scared, but his voice is controlled. He probably thinks he's been in worse spots. He doesn't know Aeryn Sun.
She doesn't even have a gun in her hand, and she scares you anyway. "You put me in a cage a quarter-cycle ago. Do you remember me now?"
His throat-bladders pulse faster now. "You. Ah, well, I see now that that was an error on my part. I'm sure we can --"
She picks up a knife from the discarded dinner tray on the table. "You can keep your life if you answer every question we ask you. If you don't, you'll die. Is that clear?"
He looks from her to you, and back. Uncertain as to who's in charge. You feel like you ought to say something, but Aeryn's doing fine. Besides, you don't feel like playing good cop, and two bad cops are boring.
"All right..." His voice trails away.
Aeryn looks at you, and at the door. You're not sure this is a good idea, but she nods toward the door again. Fine, then, if that's the way she wants to play it.
You move to the door and stay there, listening for outside activity. There are no other exits from the room, and you can't afford to get trapped here. Your attention is on the hallway outside the door, but you can't avoid hearing the interrogation.
"No, not in over a cycle, I swear!" His voice rises, and your shoulders tense up. The information is meaningless if you can't get out of here safely.
Aeryn's response is too quiet to hear. But Canterel whimpers, and then there's a crack.
"No, not me, no! But -- but I know who to ask! Where to go!"
Her voice is as calm as it has been all night. "Where?"
"Bedi Prime -- Bedi Prime! There's a guy, a Luxan. He specializes in kids, the younger the better --"
Bile rises in your throat. It's been nearly a cycle, and Danny would be six. You close your eyes and grind your head against the smooth metal of the door. You don't want to hear this.
You feel like you've been wrapped in duct tape since the day the pod blew up. They were there, and then they weren't, and suddenly there were Scarrans, and Moya had to run. You never saw their bodies, but you knew this time your luck had run out. Five years: you'd had five years. Many people don't get that long.
So you freaked for a long time, and then you stopped. Pilot stopped having the DRDs follow you from tier to tier, and D'Argo brought you along on supply runs again. But you couldn't go into the Tier 5 cargo bay, where you'd put up a basketball hoop. And you didn't laugh. D'Argo and Chiana got back together, Noranti finally left, and you? You just ... survived. Still just one step ahead of the Scarrans, hoping the Peacekeepers were keeping the Nebari busy, and thinking it was always going to be like this.
Now, you almost dare to hope. Because you're listening to the woman you love torture a middle-aged businessman. While you've been stewing in your grief, she's been chasing after the people who took your son.
She's been hunting for him for over half a cycle, while you sat around grieving and useless because you didn't know.
You snap away from the door and grab Aeryn's hand as she winds up again. Her knuckles are sticky and purple. "Why didn't you tell me, Aeryn? Why didn't you come back?" The bones of her hand grind together, and rage makes your vision dim for a moment. "He's. My. Son. Aeryn. I had a right to know what happened. I had a right to know!"
"He's my son too, and you weren't there. Moya was gone. What else should I have done?"
"For a cycle? For a frelling cycle? You couldn't get word to me?"
"Um, if we're done here, do you think --" You don't ever want to hit Aeryn, but Canterel's an acceptable target. You backhand him hard enough to rock the chair onto two legs. He shuts up.
Aeryn wrenches her hand free. She's not afraid of this argument, but you can tell she doesn't want to have it here. Instead she turns back to Canterel, who's now bleeding from one of his oversized ears and glaring at you.
"Give me the name of the Luxan," she demands. "Then we'll go."
He opens his mouth, pauses, looks between the two of you. What he sees are two dirty Sebaceans, one in blue, the other in tan: dark-haired, light-eyed, and angry. He doesn't recognize John Crichton and Aeryn Sun: DrumBae is so far out in the boonies, he's never heard any of the stories.
He sees your desperation, and her bloody-minded determination. He doesn't see the years between you, the blood spilt, the backs covered again and again despite the misunderstandings and betrayals. He can't understand the rage of a Peacekeeper who became a mother despite herself, and and then lost her child.
It hits you that if Aeryn thought Danny was dead, she never would have come back. Zhaan died, and your twin died, and Talyn died. Danny would have been too much. Not even Aeryn would be strong enough for that.
The look on your face might be what convinces Canterel; you'll never know. Because he's barely said the name before Aeryn cuts his throat with his own dinner knife. The purple spills down over the body, and you track blood across the green and blue carpets as you leave.
It's about as hard to get out as you expected. Along the way, you bust open the slave cages, though, and Aeryn doesn't let you kill Jendle when you trip over him on the last dash to the gate.
danny danny danny
Maybe you can hope, now.
You argue on the way back to the port about which route to take.
"The pod has the range, and enough room for supplies." She's still in Peacekeeper mode, but moving more casually now, and meeting your eyes more often. There are still things to work out, but you begin to believe you'll live to try.
"But no weapons at all," you point out. "You know how close we are to the Scarran border." You want to do this from Moya, with D'Argo and Chiana at your backs. Aeryn needs to come home.
It's early morning but the streets are busy, merchants and laborers active in the cool before the sun drives them inside. The port is quieter: offworlders don't operate on the local schedule, but someone is waiting for you as you approach the gate.
Keshik shakes his tray at you with a secretive smile. "Change your krindars for your journey?"
Aeryn stiffens, but you put your hand on her arm, unfamiliar in the tan robe. "No, it's okay. He's -- a friend of Stark, I think. Aren't you?" You've finally put all the pieces together.
She shakes her head, confused. "Stark? But Stark's --"
"That is a tale I do not have the right to tell, my friends," Keshik says. But he smiles. "I knew when I saw you," he says, looking at you, "that this was your story also. That you were both the story. Was I wrong?"
"No," you say, and despite the distance you have yet to go, you can't help smiling in return. "You're not wrong."
"Will you tell me, then? What happened next?" Keshik looks so eager, you can't disappoint him. So you'll tell him about losing Aeryn, and finding her again. About how you've found some hope, despite everything.
You'll tell him some, but not the end, because you're not there yet. You'll let Keshik tell that part.
Your story will keep going, and you'll tell it as best you can. And maybe, like Keshik, you can give it a happy ending.
If you go to DrumBae, you're likely to see Keshik the money-changer outside the Portmaster's office. And if you buy him a glass of pintol ale, he may tell you a story about a woman who was looking for something, and a man who found something he was sure had been lost.
Notes: Many thanks to the LJ crowd for enthusiasm, to Fialka and Vehemently for incomparable beta, to Fialka (again) for Bedi Prime, to Maria Nicole and Melymbrosia for advice and last-minute surgery. And to Joss Whedon for one line of dialog that was too good not to use.
If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to cofax
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