WITH THE RETURN of rationality, Jer’ok swiftly cast a wary glance about his surroundings. Wholly unaware of the wave of interplanetary animosity about to break over him, the beast-man nevertheless remained subject to the wholly Aranda instinct to vanish from this place of killing. He regarded his victim with scorn. This was no foe worthy of a Pers-Alata. Jer’ok-ta would afford the slain k’aranda no honour. The remains of Derk Aliyan would be left for the creatures of the forest to make a final end to him.
As awareness of the circumstances – and of the nature of this tamed place – restored a sense of san-k’aranda reality, the beast-man eyed his surroundings anew, in search of the clearest pathway along which to withdraw. A distant movement caught his eye, and Jer’ok turned to face three figures, still well up the trail but running toward him with vengeance unmistakeable in their threatening gestures. As they raced toward him, Jer’ok’s hand reached to his knife but stopped, leaving the weapon in its place at his hip. As he watched, prepared for any eventuality, the san-k’aranda as one drew their weapons. Still more hunterfolk than humankind, Jer’ok had no mind to await any discussion of the motives behind the slaying of this, the bitter enemy who would harm Jer’ok and send his she into long sleep. To the beast-man these rapidly approaching bucks were no more to be trusted than the slain foe at his feet.
Where an Aranda buck so close to a killing madness might have advanced to meet this new battle despite the drawn weapons, Jer’ok’s humankind mind was urging strategic retreat. In less time than it takes to tell of it, the beast-man had taken heed and disappeared into the trees. By the time the contingent of Derk Aliyan’s followers reached their fallen leader, not so much as a swaying branch or rustle of leaves betrayed the progress of the departing killer. The frustrated Kryptane followers of the late Derk Aliyan were left to tend to their loss and plot dire revenge.
The early hour served Jer’ok’s jungle craft in covering the beast-man’s unhurried departure from the sleeping city into the jungle beyond. He felt neither guilt nor compulsion to evade challenge for his actions. Jer’ok-ta had avenged the harms done himself and his own, as was the way of his people. Now he simply returned to the life of the jungle folk in the untamed forests beyond the place of humankind hordes. Here in his own jungle Jer’ok of the Aranda was indifferent to any human threat launched by those lacking his jungle legacy. That a manhunt might be underway was a thing of supreme indifference. As for Derk Aliyan and all the jeopardy to Jer’ok’s personal security and peace of mind the Krytane had represented – they were tossed aside more easily than Mael dissipates the dried husks of Zeantha’s bland fruit.
GUY LOCKE STRONGLY protested, first to Governor Sethor, then to his superiors in Faxon and Meridum. In private audience with the Ashtarian governor, Guy made an impassioned plea for an end to any pursuit of the fugitive-unaware. Locke reminded V’Ran Sethor of Jer’ok’s unique nature. The Diyalan went on to apprise the governor of the recent capture of both the beast-man and his wife and of the subsequent attempts on her life, clearly perpetrated by Aliyan. With scant regard for Rune security the Diyalan left out no significant detail, even as the governor’s increasingly rigid posture joined his protracted silence in warning Locke his pleas were in vain. Locke knew too well the unspoken accusation that he himself had been Aliyan’s bitter adversary in the political arena. The governor was justified in his suspicion of the Diyalan’s motives. Guy searched his mind for the argument that might convince the Ashtarian that Jer’ok’s act was not properly judged by the rules of Gemini civilisation and its rigid law, but by the law of the jungle itself, by the ways of Aranda.
The cause was lost.
V’Ran Sethor was too close to his own tribe’s savage past to be willing to invite any conjecture of reversion on his part. He had to act as he deemed would another civilised man of the Meridum court. He would not subject himself and his territory to the derision and contempt of the worlds he sought eventually to join as a full partner. In this matter, Governor Sethor saw himself representative of all the peoples throughout Ashtar. If one man must be sacrificed for succumbing to savagery with fatal consequences, the price was a small one and a lesson to be learned. The governor cleared his throat and the Diyalan Subcommandant was silenced. At the Ashtarian’s gesture, more invitation than command, Locke swept one hand across his mouth in tacit acknowledgment of futility as he took a chair. The governor regarded him at length, a hint of empathy in his eyes.
“Commandant Locke, please know that I fully understand what you are telling me – and at what risk.”
Sethor allowed himself a rueful smile. “I have not been entirely oblivious to the intentions of Aliyan’s Kryptane faction, though I must admit that I believe Meridum to have similar, if more subtle intentions.” The Ashtarian leader shook his head, “Jer’ok would have made a convincing spokesman, but that, now, shall never be.” Sethor paused, but Locke maintained his attentive silence. With his regaining of control over his emotions, no indication of the internal struggle was permitted to show in the Diyalan’s impassive demeanor.
“Certainly you can understand the impropriety of inviting a assassin into my presence.”
Guy all but cringed at the word so carefully emphasized. He might have preferred “murderer.” At least that crime bore no connotation of treason. Locke refrained from protest to hear V’Ran Sethor out.
“And to abide by his words would be folly – perhaps political suicide. I flatter myself, Commandant, that I am good for the future of this planet. I will make no such mistake as you are suggesting.”
Having made his position clear, the governor relented slightly, “It is indeed unfortunate that your savage was not more careful in selecting the time and place of visiting his vengeance on my late advisor. You say that a man should be judged in accordance with his own world. You know as well as I it cannot be so simple – especially at this time and on an Ashtar that stands on the brink.
“My friend,” V’Ran took the chair next to Guy and consciously allowed the formality between them to ease, “it is sometimes necessary for the ‘innocent’ to suffer the consequences of their acts in order that the higher cause of law and order be preserved. We are proud of our system of justice. It is both impartial and fair. But, as you know, it is imperative to avoid mercy where it might be construed as weakness or, worse, as a condonation of the old ways.”
Guy could offer no counter to the governor’s words. His friendship for Jer’ok did not blind him to the truth of them, though failure here meant death or worse for Jer’ok. At least he might be able to forestall that latter fate.
“Governor, my sources inform me that Jer’ok faces, not death, but a more diabolic fate, at the hands of Aliyan’s partisans. There is conjecture –” Locke did not add that it was of Rune Silentio operatives – “that the intent was to gain control of his mind through outlawed compounds – and other means.” Locke paused to allow the full implications of what he was leaving unspoken to be comprehended. “We have reason to believe he would then be returned to Ashtar’s jungles to achieve some end which we have thus far been unable to discover. If Jer’ok should somehow be returned a prisoner, I hope you would take the necessary steps . . . . ”
“Have no fear, Commandant,” Sethor interrupted with ready assurances, “Jer’ok will be held here in the capital prior to trial and then in accord with the result.” There was no doubt that the governor was anticipating Jer’ok’s condemnation. “Already, I have been approached to arrange for extradition to Krypta. They wish to conduct his trial themselves.”
“He would never be tried. He would simply disappear, presumed to have made his escape. Then, when he did resurface here or . . . . ”
“I quite agree,” the governor interrupted again. Locke wondered if Sethor was truly aware of the hazards Jer’ok and, through him, Ashtar would face should Aliyan’s faction succeed in their malign political designs. The Diyalan tried to find some thin strand of hope in what V’Ran was telling him.
“I have put off any response. After all, I can hardly extradite a man who is not in my custody.
“Do not concern yourself, Commandant Locke. I regret that Jer’ok will almost certainly be executed if – when – he is in fact returned to the capital, but he will first receive the same justice as would any other man. He will not be surrendered to the questionable justice of Krypta and her internal turmoil, of which I may be more aware than the Rune Silentio can countenance.”
V’Ran Sethor regarded Guy steadily: “I will, of course, deny having conceded any such awareness as well as any insights into the affairs of the Rune.
“Neither,” the governor concluded, “will Jer’ok be returned to Tuatha for trial.”
“They have approached you?” Nothing in Locke’s voice or posture revealed more than the question raised in the steadiest of voices. Here was betrayal of the highest order.
“Yes,” Sethor’s regard seemed bemused, “I must say I am as uncertain of the Tuathan motives as I am of those of Aliyan’s people.” He waited, but the Diyalan offered no comment.
In fact, Guy, too, wondered at this devastating development. But, he considered, perhaps Blane was behind it. He might believe his father more likely to receive justice in Tuatha. Guy, however, thought it unlikely. The high king had already denounced Leede Southerly publicly and in no uncertain terms.
With that admission on the part of Governor Sethor, Locke knew the interview had come to a close. Nothing was to be gained in further protestations. Guy managed a wry smile, “It is, in any event, most unlikely that Jer’ok will be captured. I rather imagine he has long since vanished into the jungle and is beyond the reach of all of us.”
Locke rose to take his leave. But V’Ran Sethor was not done with him. What the governor said in response to that last observation chilled Guy Locke to the bone.
“I do not believe he is beyond your reach, Subcommandant Locke.”
The governor rose with an air of what Locke under different circumstances might have recognised as reluctance. “I have been granted authority to order you to bring him to me.” Sethor was not looking at him, and Locke had exerted control over his stunned expression in an instant.
The Ashtarian went around to face the control array in his desk, keyed in a code and allowed a document to purr out of the slot into his hand. Slowly Guy moved closer to the desk. As he approached, he saw the device of the Rune on the emerging sheet. Still, he would have protested so cold-blooded an imposition on his friendship with Jer’ok. The governor waved him to silence with an impatient gesture:
“It is important to my territory,” he said in the cold imperious tone of all his authority, “that this renegade savage stand trial. You are the only Chimurian capable of effecting his arrest.”
“You mean I am the only off-planet humankind he trusts,” Guy’s voice was bitter with the rank injustice of what the governor was demanding. “What makes you think I could track Jer’ok down? He will be suspicious of even my approach.”
“In fact, the lady-wife of Lord Charwick returned to the plantation before these unfortunate events unfolded. She is in need of protection.”
Locke would have protested; Darad and the Sanaca were fully capable of protecting Ambe’lei in Jer’ok’s absence, but V’Ran Sethor was now every inch the envoy of the High King:
“It is only natural that the closest friend of Leede and Amber Southerly would hasten to the Lady Charwick’s side to advise her of her husband’s unfortunate violence and to protect her from the almost certain retribution the less disciplined elements from Krypta might take against his family. It is only natural that soon Jer’ok, too, will come to her. I understand that his devotion to her is beyond that most men bestow upon their wives. When he comes home, you will arrest him with the aid of the force I will provide for the purpose.”
Locke did not reply immediately. Without further word, Sethor placed the Rune’s written order on the desk in front of the Diyalan and resumed his seat to one side. The governor allowed the Diyalan the time he needed without intrusion. When Guy began to speak, it was more to himself than to the waiting Ashtarian.
“He would never return to Amber if there was so much as a single stranger near their home.” The Diyalan lifted bleak eyes to meet those of the governor. “If I am to take him, it must be alone.”
V’Ran nodded slightly, “You will use your own judgement. Only return Jer’ok to the capital. I will construe your failure as an admission of the more general inadequacies of the government in Tuatha.”
Guy Locke had little choice. He stood to execute an ironic salute before Governor Sethor and took his leave without another word, a mild breach of protocol considering the circumstances. Having failed here on Ashtar his last hope was to convince the court in Meridum of the wrongs of this course.
But here again Locke failed. His colleagues at the Rune confirmed the order, as did the Rune Silentio Commandant himself. Subcommandant Guy Locke, personally, was to assure the capture of the man who was the closest friend he knew. It was a betrayal beyond any measure. Jer’ok would be at first deeply grieved and then utterly unforgiving. Locke, himself, would never be capable of justifying it to himself. As for Amber, she would harbor suspicions of her own. There would be no forgiveness on her part.
Now, at the end of his resources, the political light had finally dawned on Guy Locke. The Ashtarian governor and High King Strahm Thurston Albritton were acting in concert. They were actually using Lee. The two were turning on the one man who had served the people of his birth as none other could. He had fought openly and bravely – and too often in solitude – against the enemies of the Chimurian throne. He had served when he did not fully believe in the cause thrust upon him. And, now, between them Chimur and Ashtar would condemn this uniquely steadfast nobleman to the ignominious death of a traitor. Following their own laws – to which he had more than once bowed without benefit of full belief but trusting in the honour of the high king, his kinsman – they would now punish him. They would destroy the Lord of Two Worlds.
BUT NONE OF the players in this emergent drama was guided by self. Each was directed by a perception of higher duty, even as Jer’ok had been when he slew Derk Aliyan in what would be starkly condemned as a premeditated attack in cold blood. To preserve Chimur’s position with the nascent nationhoods of Ashtar, Guy Locke would betray friendship and destroy all the faith Amber as well as Jer’ok had placed in him, because he believed in the humankind future of both planets. In a feeble effort to reconcile himself to what the grim future held, Guy had to concede that Jer’ok at least would be a sacrifice to the preservation of the Ashtar he loved. And there was always the remote hope that circumstances would exonerate the beast-man – if he survived to stand trial on Ashtar. At least, Locke told himself, he could assure that much.
EVEN HAD HE had known of the forces arrayed against him, Jer’ok was confident no man, Jer’anda or san-k’aranda, could track him in his own jungle. He soon assured himself that no one was launching any effort to pursue him on behalf of the slain Kryptane, and the beast-man relaxed his initial vigilance to take up the routine of the solitary hunterfolk buck.
Once again Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda gratefully shed the stifling veneer of civilisation with a shrug of copper shoulders and a defiant toss of his shock of dark chestnut hair. Once again the beast-man blended with perfect ease into his element. He was at peace, within as well as with his surroundings. Time did not exist. For now not even Amber could draw him. The danger to her had been eliminated. At a final lingering image of Aliyan’s death, promising the termination of the threats to Amber’s life and Jer’ok’s liberty, the beast-man filled the jungle with his bold Aranda announcements of victory and of challenge to the jungle at large.
To the east one of the Aranda heard the calls but turned away with no more than a shake of his shaggy head. The solitary buck felt no urge to battle this day. Perhaps upon another return of Sanjera. To the west Lopus lifted his head from his tranquil grazing and turned a watchful gaze in the direction from which Mael was carrying the messages. The creature tested the air briefly. Then he dismissed the hint of danger with a flick of his tail and returned to the succulent grass. A herd of ungainly Raffa stampeded a few metres before grasping any danger to be at a remote distance. To the south a lithe Black Lion lifted his head toward the faint sounds. For long moments he regarded with unblinking scrutiny the direction from which they had come. But then, he, too, unmoved by the challenge, closed his eyes in lazy content and, purring, licked the itching reminder of a recently healed wound. His mate lounged nearby with her placid gaze fixed on him.
Hearing no response to his challenge, Jer’ok relaxed, perhaps with the merest touch of disappointment. He knew he was in his prime and in the way of hunterfolk deemed himself invincible. It would be good to prove his prowess against another. In only a moment the need for testing his mettle passed. The beast-man relaxed and sought cool water to slake his thirst and ease the tropic heat. In lieu of battle it would do to erase from his hide the last hovering vestiges of the Settlement’s oppressive scent. Jer’ok lingered long in the welcoming waters until hunger turned his thoughts elsewhere. The beast-man, always the efficient hunter, ate well that day and then selected the broad branch of a stately jungle patriarch from which to survey the incidents of the Ashtarian second twilight and near-dark. Then Jer’ok of the Aranda slept as does the innocent who knows nought of the wickedness that drives the planets in their devious courses. Imminent betrayal so close to home and heart could not be further from his thoughts.
FOR MANY DAYS thereafter Jer’ok moved folklike through the jungle. There was neither direction nor haste in his bearing. The whim of the moment was his sole guide. When he hungered he ate, when he tired he slept. Occasionally he stopped to pass the time of day with k’aranda or a migrating band of Aranda. The flight of birds raised his head in fascinated attention. Now and then he fled the snarling attack of Harr or Pardu. Once, for the sheer joy of it, he refused to flee before the charge of irascible Phaco and tasted once again the thrill of mortal combat. More often than not he merely observed as his jungle home thrived with uninhibited, unspoiled vitality.
This was the freedom for which Jer’ok lived. It was an existence with no constraint other than that imposed by one’s own senses, wits and physical prowess. Jer’ok normally assessed his own capacities with uncanny accuracy. His was perfect health of mind and body. Never would he move a split-second too slowly. Here in his own environment he would never overestimate his strengths, nor would he underestimate those of an antagonist.
It was only when the beast-man walked among humankind that Jer’ok’s senses became momentarily dulled and left him open to man’s intrigues. Always he came away disgusted with the ways of his species. The beast-man shook his head. Deep in his chest a low growl rumbled as he remembered his recent brushes with the Khazarish and those offworlders with whom they consorted. And yet Jer’ok was a man and all too often sought out the company of others of his kind.
Jer’ok stirred languidly and then stretched with the sleek grace of a great cat as he pondered the ways of the people of his birth. Alone among humankind Amber had come to accept Jer’ok and his ways with neither question nor antipathy. Once the Stars had entwined their lives, Amber had trusted him implicitly. And she alone elicited Jer’ok’s absolute devotion. That she was worthy of his trust, Jer’ok harboured not the slightest doubt. But to him Amber was mate and somehow set apart from others of Gemini. Still, while Jer’ok saw in his mate the most beautiful of women, his conception of himself almost always was of a hunterfolk buck rather than of a man, a Tuathan. The wonder to him was that this woman had accepted him as he was without demanding that he submit to the confining bonds which marked the tedious lives of others of Chimur and Ares.
Thereafter the emptiness marking Jer’ok’s days held a different import. Uninvited, a restlessness crept into his wandering. The joy of battle was no longer so exquisite as it had been. His victories held no savour. The simple exchanges with k’aranda and the occasional Aranda were unsatisfying. Even Muthus became uninterested where he had been pleasantly taciturn. As Jer’ok watched Solea in her fullest glory fill the jungle with a glow of ethereal light, the beast-man acknowledged loneliness. Once again he sought the companionship of his own kind. He yearned for his mate.
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