JER’OK WAS ALREADY in the Settlement when Amber touched down with Guy Locke in the Diyalan’s flyer. The beast-man greeted them warmly as they entered the private lounge directly from the field.
“I have had your belongings sent on to the plantation, Amber, and yours will be delivered to the inn, Guy. Shall I have a vehicle summoned? Or would you prefer the walk?
“It is a splendid day and the inn is not far,” Leede started. Observing the conspiratorial grins on both faces, he added, “even by humankind standards.”
Judging Amber’s expression correctly, Guy was quick to agree, “By all means, let us walk. I have never had the time to explore the urban jungle of which the Settlement is so proud.” Guy winked at Amber and suppressed a chuckle at Leede’s frankly scornful expression. “Will you be our guide, Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda?”
Guy’s command of the hunterfolk speech was surprisingly good. Utterly at ease with these two, Leede bowed gracefully in appreciation of the accomplishment. His wonted guard was down and his humankind humor was allowed to emerge in the absence of strangers in the lounge.
“As you will,” he replied.
Their route took them through the pride of the nascent city, an ample area allowed to remain essentially in its natural condition. Both Amber and Guy recognised the subtle transformation from Leede to Jer’ok the instant the three of them stepped from the walkway beyond the landing field onto the trail leading into the depths of relatively untamed forest.
But, as they trod the mildly manicured trail, even Jer’ok could forget for the moment that he was actually surrounded by the incessant bustle of humankind whose business brought them to one of Ashtar’s most cosmopolitan enclaves.
Despite the name by which local Ashtarians knew this place, “the Settlement” was in fact a booming metropolis literally growing out of its jungle habitat. Gemini’s fascination with ancient Terran culture had obviously taught her planners and developers more than one lesson, which could be put into practical application on the one planet in the system where humankind’s traditional notions of advancement had been retarded – once the experiments in directed-genetic evolutionary ecology had been proscribed by edict of the present high king’s distant ancestor.
As a result of Ashtar’s remarkable history, the Settlement was avoiding the mistakes of humankind’s distant Terran past. Invisible from orbit as well as from the air, the Settlement could actually be approached from any direction without revealing its presence until the visitor suddenly became aware of the buildings apparently arising out of the surrounding forest growth and naturally occurring boulders, rock formations, and planetary bedrock itself. But the pride of the Settlement was the immense expanse of virtually untouched jungle through which Jer’ok, his mate, and their closest friend now strolled as though in the Sanaca lands surrounding the Southerly plantation some many kilometres – and, seemingly geological ages – distant.
Granted, there were few large predators about, against which patrons of this “Reserve Park” were protected by a complex of cleverly concealed barriers, in the unlikely event the great carnivores had any cause to hunger for the flesh of passing humankind or their domesticated beasts. But the Reserve was otherwise as complete a jungle wilderness as its acreage permitted. As the three proceeded, it became impossible either to see or to hear any indication that a city surrounded the deepening forest.
Jer’ok’s only quarrel with the Reserve was directed to those very protections. It was not in Ashtar’s nature ever to be a place of benign safety. To him this small forest was unnaturally isolated and unnaturally silent. To the beast-man such silence spelled danger of unknown ilk. But to the lesser senses of his companions, it was as if they had already come home to the Ashtar of their first acquaintance years in their shared past. Jer’ok allowed himself the rare luxury of relaxing to match their light mood combined with the joy of reunion. But in truth the place made his skin crawl with the constant expectation of disaster.
Upon reaching Locke’s inn, the three paused for the midday meal on its patio, itself keeping to the Settlement’s natural theme with a design that served diners on a massive flat boulder ending in an escarpment high over Reserve Park. The rich effluvia of tropical foliage and a myriad of blossoms were wafted to the patrons on the occasional breeze. In today’s clement weather the sheltering walls and roof were fully retracted. From the high vantage, Jer’ok could point out the general location of the plantation for Amber. Guy watched their eyes warm in anticipation of the woman’s return home.
The Diyalan found himself breathing a silent prayer for their protection and undisturbed peace. But he better than any other knew Jer’ok’s safety to be a fragile condition. And these were times of particular hazard to the beast-man, whether he accepted the threat or chose to reject it in the manner of the beast secure in his own savage abilities.
After her long sojourn at Battersea, Amber indeed could believe she was already at home with her jungle lord. She, too, would put aside thoughts of danger for the present. Her hand reached to Jer’ok’s. He smiled as he claimed it in his own and rested it against his knee. Despite his crisp informal garb Amber found it impossible to identify her husband as Leede Southerly in this place. Here he was inevitably Jer’ok-ta of the Hunterfolk, the man with whom she had fallen helplessly in love during her very first Ashtarian expedition. Even after so many years, Amber Laxton Southerly experienced a surprisingly sharp twinge of melancholia at the dimly remembered disasters that had proved fatal to her mentor-father at the very moment that brought her to her soul-mate.
Ever sensitive to the slightest nuance in his mate's state of mind, Jer’ok turned to her with a subtle expression of query. Amber shook her head with a rueful smile and pressed his hand in reassurance. But there was something in her eyes which was less than completely reassuring. Jer’ok wondered about that even as their casual conversation proceeded in a new, even frivolous direction. In a moment he laughed aloud at Guy's anecdote, ready to relax his guard still further. The Diyalan was an accomplished raconteur.
But, for all the levity of the moment, Jer’ok sensed something in his friend that only tended to reinforce the vague unease lingering about Amber. His natural defensiveness remained in place. For all his sensitivity the beast-man could discern nothing more in the two people closest to and most fully trusted by the wary child of the primal jungle surrounding this place of humankind craft. Certainly, he had no inkling of personal danger at their hands. Their subtle auras denied any such possibility.
“Will you come with us to the plantation?” Jer’ok asked Guy as they rose to return to their respective apartments.
“No, Lee, I regret that the governor's business appears to be urgent. I must attend him before this evening. Will you remain here?”
“No.” There was no regret in Jer’ok’s voice. “We will be going home as soon as Amber is ready.”
And so the friends parted. Jer’ok and Amber retired to the apartments the innkeeper held in constant readiness for Lord or Lady Charwick. The tastefully stark appointments were a reflection of the couple's profound connection with Ashtar's wilderness – and included the only private entry (and egress) the establishment offered.
By a tacit mutual eagerness to be away Amber was as quick as Jer’ok in replacing her traveling attire with the brief costume more in keeping with her identity as mate of Jer’ok. Jer’ok merely divested himself of the chafing suit the Settlement’s recently acquired civilisation demanded. Underneath was the loincloth he preferred – and the knife which never left his side so long as he was capable of defending himself.
He watched the metamorphosis of Amber from Lady Charwick to mate of the beast-man. Not for the first time he marvelled at the contentment her mere presence afforded him. Today Amber seemed more radiant than ever. Jer’ok was struck yet again by her beauty and the ease with which she prepared to reenter their jungle habitat. The woman’s metamorphosis was no more complicated than her exchanging of some Meridum designer’s pride and joy for the simplicity of clothing Amber had fashioned with her own hands from the skins provided by the prowess of her mate.
His heart quickened at her obvious eagerness to be rid of the constraints of civilisation and back to the freedom of his jungle. Indeed, Amber's love for Jer'ok – and his for her – had evolved in the savage depths of Ashtar’s primeval forest, in a locale not so very distant from the Settlement, which had commenced its growth in the years following their initial encounters and separation prior to their marriage. The love of Jer’ok and Amber was never stronger than during the all-too-few intervals when they were alone on Ashtar with no peril confronting them. Today, Jer’ok recalled the serene beauty of a recent solitary evening and was eager to make his mate a part of it.
WITH BARELY A fleeting thought for civilisation and all its trappings, it was a splendid hunterfolk buck and his lithe she who turned their backs on the inn and the Settlement and fled into the jungle, which eagerly swallowed them with no more than the swish of a swaying frond.
Together the two ran in silence until Amber’s laughter turned Jer’ok back.
“You forget I am not as swift of foot as your Lael – or Mei!” Amber teased. Jer’ok stopped to join her laughter as he returned to her side, stopping nearly a metre away. From that vantage he studied her boldly, as if evaluating her virtues with a critical hunterfolk eye.
“Nor does Jer’ok’s mate have the resplendent beauty of his mother or his first flame!” he pronounced at last. He came close enough to stroke her arm before touching her hair. “Amber lacks their downy coats,” Jer’ok mused, “and her hair is golden instead of black tinged with grey. Jer’ok has made a poor choice.”
His heart quickening at that casual contact, the beast-man drew drew his mate closer. “And her eyes,” he continued; “they are something altogether different. Jer'ok has made a foolish choice,” he repeated. “All the jungle knows his mate is lacking in most all the traits his brothers seek.”
He stopped. Each looked deeply into the other’s eyes.
“Amber, my heart,” Jer'ok embraced her as he whispered her favourite endearment. “It has been far too long. I have missed you.”
LATER, A NIGHT that, in the tradition of savage Ashtar, strove to outdo its predecessor in stark beauty, found Jer’ok and his mate swimming side by side through the glowing waters of the jungle lake Jer’ok had enjoyed on his way to the Settlement. When one gracefully dove beneath the surface, the other could follow the phosphorescent course of every move.
When at length they selected a comfortable tree to protect them from the hazards of near-dark, Jer’ok and Amber loved with a lingering sensuality that burst into a depth of passion revealing far more than mere words ever could the emptiness of their long separation. Jer’ok led his ardent mate to the very brink of exquisite bliss and deliberately held her there until together they swooped into the reward of shared ecstacy.
When Jer’ok emerged from the tranquility that followed, he again contemplated the stars for a long time while Amber slept peacefully in his arms. At length he, too, relaxed in untroubled slumber with no prescience of what was to come.
In the days to follow some of Jer’ok’s indifference toward time was transferred to Amber. Neither might have had a single care in the cosmos. They did not take the most direct route to their Ashtarian home, nor did they travel with any haste. Often they detoured for some unique vista the bountiful jungle seemingly provided for their eyes alone. At such times they paused a while to share their love in answer to the compelling invitation of the Primeval Planet in her most alluring guise.
On occasion they met Muthus and passed a few days in the company of Jer’ok’s most congenial jungle companion. There were days when they talked of everything and of nothing as they walked or paused over a meal provided by Ashtar’s rich bounty. Other times neither broke the tranquil stillness for hours, each content in their intimate solitude. And then the stillness and their solitude was rudely broken by the insistent chattering of little Farr.
“Now I know I am truly home,” Amber laughed, “I have even missed Farr. What does he have to say for himself?”
She grunted in most unladylike fashion as the little creature leapt into her arms to snuggle in her bosom with bold abandon. Farr was seldom shy in the presence of Jer’ok’s mate, but he could on occasion reveal a trace of jealousy. Today, however, her favour was obviously to be courted. Amber knew a compliment when she received it and obliged by cuddling the Ashtarian lemur closer. Not unaware of Jer’ok’s watchful eye Farr curled his bushy long tail about Amber’s arm in obvious contentment.
“He is angry at Jer'ok's long absence,” the beast-man replied with an uncharacteristic grin, “and he tells me Saar, too, has deserted, following his new mate deep into the jungle bound for a distant savannah.” Almost as an afterthought, the beast-man added: “And there appears to be a letter for you. It was brought to the Sanaca within the last few days.”
And thus the spell was broken. As the couple regretfully ended their homeward trek, Jer’ok related the incident that had ended in the wounding of the Black Lion. When he concluded, Amber urged Jer’ok to report to the authorities or at least to advise Guy Locke of the intruding Khazarish. She paused on the brink of something further but shook her head under Jer’ok’s enquiring regard.
It was days later before Amber told Jer’ok of Blane’s work as they relaxed on the verandah of the plantation’s great house. She was surprised by her husband’s silent acceptance of the situation. Blane’s activities could not have been unexpected. With deep regret Amber held back her own involvement, which had been inaugurated with the message Farr had announced.
JER’OK LEFT THE plantation to determine the present whereabouts of the Khazarish. Amber took advantage of his absence to establish her primitive yet effective communications system. Her instructions had been simplicity itself. They involved visual signalling with coded messages passed by carrier hawk or deposited at specified locations at prearranged times. The incodation assured Amber never understood the contents, a precaution which acknowledged her non-professional status. She did, nevertheless, come to recognise a pattern of distribution which led her to a tentative identification of several of the messengers. To her relief, Blane was not among them. But she knew Guy Locke to be deeply involved under a different identity.
IN ONLY A matter of days, Jer’ok returned in a cold fury and immediately departed to confer with Guy at the Settlement. This time there was neither meandering nor lingering along the way. The Khazarish were indeed active again and more vicious than ever. Jer’ok had determined the presence of numerous, apparently independent bands. The beast-man’s demoralising tactics of old would have little impact on so many acting over so large an area. And it seemed they had colleagues, less superstitious and less vulnerable to Jer’ok’s dangerous games.
One particularly depraved band, led by Khafajah Khan himself and immune to Jer’ok’s non-lethal methods, was daily closer to the Sanaca lands and Jer’ok’s home. In fact, the beast-man was coming dangerously close to discovering that Derk Aliyan, carefully disguised to prevent intervention by Krypta’s legitimate government, was a frequent guest of the Khan. But, to the beast-man’s annoyed surprise, the Khazarish were being effectively harassed by agents of the governor, an impediment to Jer’ok’s own investigations.
For his part, Aliyan was at a loss to explain the hindrance of his planned takeover. As a last resort the intrepid Kryptane elected to revitalise his squandered career in the Thespian arts.
A DOWNED CHIMURIAN flyer lay in ruins somewhere just beyond the grounds of the Southerly plantation. Amber and the Sanaca field youth heard the screaming descent, and the Arene woman asked for volunteers to determine the extent of the damage to craft and pilot. But the Sanaca met Jer’ok himself who had discovered the pilot wandering in a daze an astonishing distance from the small craft. The beast-man was bringing the unfortunate man, a Chimurian of uncertain nationality who identified himself simply as Woodston, to the plantation to recover from his experience.
As the Stars would have it, no meaningful report of the unfortunate incident could be made. The descent would have been recorded at the Settlement’s field, but Woodston was suffering traumatic amnesia and could provide no further detail. Oddly, the Sanaca could find no trace of the downed craft. It was as if the jungle had swallowed it whole. In fact, Woodston’s initial inchoherent ravings led his appreciative audience to believe an unusually large bed of quicksand was somehow a part of his dreadful experience. Without identification of the flyer, no investigation could fill in the numerous gaps in the incident. Moreover, the man had barely escaped a band of Khazarish with his life. That narrow escape Jer’ok could verify in part. He had witnessed it and aided in driving the intruders away. None of them, however, discovered either the craft or the quicksand which was supposed to have swallowed it whole. Suspicion had not yet blossomed into outright distrust. Jer’ok was wary but not disposed to any action.
Aliyan was skilled at more arts than those of the theatre. His convalescence in the Charwick household was most productive, advanced in part by his shameless eavesdropping on a private conversation between his host and a visitor from Diyala.
Careful to avoid suspicion on the part of the redoubtable beast-man, whose reputation was fully known among Kryptanes, Derk Aliyan nodded his acknowledgment to Lord Charwick and Subcommandant Locke as they passed him on the verandah. The two were deep in urgent discussion as they walked the grounds while the Aliyan remained on the verandah to take in the refreshing evening air. The Tuathan and Diyalan knew they could not be heard over so great a distance. They had no reason to suspect the other guest carried a sophisticated – and completely illicit – device for listening and recording conversations never intended to be shared with others.
To Aliyan's amusement, the conversation between the two men was conducted in carefully subdued tones for all the heat it engendered between them. In fact, the Kryptane would not have been at all surprised if the two had come to physical blows. The conversation between Southerly and Locke was not unlike that which had brought Amber and Blane close to impasse. As Amber had predicted, Jer’ok was not to be embroiled in the politics of the court. If the beast-man was to take any action at all it would be in his own unique way and for reasons of his own.
It was the Diyalan who had the last word, as Jer’ok lapsed into a stony silence that would have deterred any lesser companion.
“Take care, my friend. You and yours – even Darad and the mighty Sanaca people – may well be at risk here. And,” Locke added in a voice barely more than a whisper despite their isolation, “the high king is loath to make the situation public. Too much is at stake.” He paused as though some new thought had come suddenly to mind. Then Locke observed with deep sadness, for he was a loyal man, “There will be sacrificial victims, if I am not mistaken.”
Thereupon the two lapsed into a strained silence, and Derk Aliyan knew there was no more to be gained from his eavesdropping. After a reasonable interval he retired to his own quarters. For all he knew the pacing of the two might continue throughout the night.
When the Kryptane made his appearance at breakfast, the commandant had already made his departure and Southerly was nowhere in evidence. Lady Amber, however, was as charming and solicitous of his needs as ever. If the Arene wife of Leede Southerly was distressed by anything that had come to pass overnight, she was too much the reserved Lady of Charwick to reveal any discomfiture to a guest who was no more than a casual acquaintance.
As the result of that single conversation conducted within the unsuspected hearing of the imposter, the role of Subcommandant Guy Locke in these clandestine affairs of state was fully evaluated by the enemy. But it was only when word of the Kryptane’s narrow escape eventually made its circuitous way to Aliyan’s headquarters and was subsequently conveyed to him by way of that illicit communication device that the man knew his lovely hostess was also taking an active part in the counterespionage he had been encountering. Jer’ok’s role, while potentially dangerous, remained unclear.
What was entirely clear was Aliyan’s immediate assignment: Capture both Lord and Lady Charwick and deliver them alive to Khafajah Khan's well hidden mission headquarters. It was just like Derk Aliyan’s superiors to issue orders of such magnitude without so much as a hint as to how the thing might be accomplished.
In the end it was simplicity itself. Derk Aliyan and a party of Khafajah Khan’s men simply turned on his late hostess and in due course issued an ultimatum to her husband. Within hours both Lord and Lady Charwick were indeed prisoners.
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