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Volume 6055

THE CONVERSATION HAD been repeated more times than she cared to count.  Lady Amber’s stay at Battersea was marred with the rancor of it.  Each time the voices grew loud with the intensity of feeling it engendered.  This evening Amber perched on the raised hearth of the library's immense fireplace as precariously as she felt her life had become.  Thoughtfully she sipped at black mentha without tasting it or feeling its heat.

Her son, Blane, so like his father as to take her breath away, even now was pacing with the long strides of Jer’ok.  This time around Blane's wife, Ashanti, was maintaining a determined silence.  She tried unsuccessfully to catch Amber’s eye for an empathetic moment of contact.  Ashanti and Blane had already passed many hours in much the same argument.  As a result the younger woman was able to align herself with both her husband’s and Amber's vantage.

Blane came to halt, but he did not face his mother.  He spoke instead into the fireplace where her gaze was fixed.

“Amber, I cannot understand why Jer’ok refuses to take an active role.  His way of life and that of the Sanaca, if not the Aranda, are as much at stake as the future of that whole region of Ashtar.”

It was neither strange nor offensive to the Arene wife of Leede Southerly – Jer'ok – that her son should address her by name, nor was any disrespect tendered or taken.  Mother and son had been separated when Blane was still a boy.  And he had returned to his family a man, a true son of Jer’ok-ta.  Now it only seemed natural for both the men in her life to know her as Amber.

Tonight did not mark the first time the Arene had found herself defending Jer’ok to the only person for whom she would ever deign to do so.  Even the High King had learned not to question Jer’ok’s ways in the presence of the man’s wife.  Amber might be tiny in stature, but she was well known in Meridum, and wherever she might travel, to be endowed with a will that put iron to shame.  Royalty itself soon discovered the wisdom of strategic retreat.  Amber Laxton Southerly had never been intimidated by Chimur’s ruling personages.

No doubt her strength of character was the result of being first and foremost a daughter of Chimur’s sister planet, Ares, and secondarily the only child of a well traveled mentor of socioanthropology who had been widowed shortly after his daughter’s birth.

Blane, himself the offspring of two characters of redoubtable strengths, would not defy that will; nor would he evoke it, if he could avoid doing so.  He waited for Amber to respond.

“Your father has been approached a number of times by agents of the High King's Rune Silentio.  They have accepted his refusals and his reasons.  So have I.”

With any other, her tone would said that was the end to the matter.  But this was her son – and Jer’ok’s.

“They are good reasons,” Amber continued without emphasis.  She fixed Blane with her regard and her eyes softened in spite of her distress.  “You, Blane, of all people, should understand.  I know you are not so foolish as to consider Jer’ok uncaring – or afraid.”  Amber’s voice, always soft and cultured for all her Arene roots, was modulated now, unlike that of her son.

“Jer’ok is short-sighted,” Blane blurted in honest frustration.  There was hardly need to answer the latter suggestion, especially between this woman and son.

He took a breath.  He did understand, fully, the aloof distance Jer’ok sought to maintain from Gemini’s san-k’aranda.  It was a temptation Jer’ok’s ta’el had faced more than once, but Garel was not so distanced from Blane as Jer’ok was from Leede.  After all, Leede and Amber had nurtured their boy from the beginning to be heir to Charwick.  Blane was to have risen rapidly to be a Prince of the Hua.  Had events not intervened, Leede almost certainly would have yielded the Charwick barony to his son at the latter’s majority.  Chimurian politics and the intrigues of the court of the High King chafed at the present Lord Charwick.

But neither Leede’s past nor that of Blane could be altered.  The Stars had dictated what was to befall each; of little matter to those Stars are the plans of doting parents of any generation.  And that, in fact, was the very point Blane was striving to convince his mother to accept.

“In this he is very wrong, Amber; he will regret his failure to act in this matter.”

Blane paused, in effect brushing aside his mother’s oblique reference to the jungle experience both men, under entirely different circumstances, had shared.  He smiled ruefully.

“In a way you're right, Amber; Garel of the Hunterfolk would not become involved in Gemini politics any more than would Jer’ok.  But Leede Blane Southerly already has and he looks to his noble sire to assume his responsibility.”

Amber heard the irony in Blane’s voice.  He was trying, however vainly, to lighten the tension between them.  But he would not yield the point to her.

    “Lord Charwick is sufficiently sophisticated to understand the dangers Ashtar faces and should become involved in them. He did not fail to do so in the past.”

“And very effectively, too,” Amber added in a wry tone that said she was succeeding in holding her temper under control.  “But,” she persisted, “it was entirely different . . . ”

“Why?” Blane interrupted impatiently.  “Because men were being killed in honest battle?  Because he thought his own destroyed?  It is more subtle a danger, now, Amber, but it is just as dangerous – to him, to you, to Ashtar, to all of us!  As Jer’ok, Father could do more than any man alive!”

Blane stopped, frustration finally threatening to take his words much too far.  The reference to the subject of their – argument, truth must be told – as “Father” was a gesture of reconciliation.  Blane swept one hand through his shock of thick hair in a gesture so like Jer’ok’s that Amber was startled.  Then with a sheepish smile for his mother, Blane turned back from the fireplace and sat against the arm of Ashanti’s chair.  There he accepted his wife’s restraining hand in his own and then a cup of the fragrant mentha.  But, like Amber’s, the beverage went untasted in his beaker.

For many moments each was silent as all three stared into the fire, each lost in thought, some of it shared, some within the private realm of the thinker.  Amber was remembering events of which Blane had never been told.  She knew he would never understand what Jer’ok had done while on the mission which had taken him into the depths of the Chimurian Sea.  Certainly High King Strahm Thurston Albritton had not.

Fear clutched at her heart.  The breach between sovereign and liege lord had only just been healed through the pleading of Lady Amber and Albritton's closest confidant, the Diyalan Guy Locke.  Amber fervently hoped the breach would never be reopened, but the dread of it maintained its hold on her heart to this day.  She shuddered.

Startled by her own frailty, she glanced at the others, but both Blane and Ashanti were too distracted to have taken notice.  It was Amber who broke the silence before it could work its hurtful way among them.

“I agree with you, Blane,” Amber declared reluctantly, “but I know Jer’ok has refused to take part in the political machinations for reasons he has justified to himself and to me.  He will never,” she hastened to add, and this time there was a real warning in her voice.  “He will never become a part of the Rune Silentio.  You must not ask it of him, Blane.  Hear me and take heed.”

That knowledge and the refusal of Blane, and of Locke and Albritton as well, to accept it was why she had taken the drastic step she had.  Jer’ok would not understand her decision.  She hoped never to be required to explain to him.

“I have advised Strahm Thurston and Guy that I will help the throne and the territorial authorities on Ashtar by acting as a messenger, no more, no less.  Jer'ok believes the local tribes, especially the Sanaca, must retain their ways and be allowed . . . ”

Once again Blane interrupted, this time with greater control and appreciative patience.

“I do understand your position, Amber.  We are grateful for your help.  And I know what it would mean should Jer'ok discover what you are doing for the Rune Silentio, for us.”

He stopped there.  They all knew just how protectve of Amber Jer'ok would remain for a lifetime.  Indeed, Garel was equally protective of his own mate, Ashanti.

“But this time,” Blane went on, “his way and the ways of the tribal peoples will be utterly ineffective.  The only way to preserve their heritage is to take an active part in protecting the new government.”  In his fervor, Blane was overtaken by Garel.

“This enemy is as strong as Thera or Muthus but with the subtlety of S’liss and is as elusive as Eelut.  We need, not the san-k’aranda family of Leede Southerly or even the lord of Charwick himself; we need Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda.”  The young man’s relaxed body moved subtly as he remained at the side of Ashtanti, but the images were there flowing from one Ashtarian beast to the next.

Amber smiled ruefully at Blane's half-growled references to the jungle fighters in the Aranda “language” he and his father often preferred to humankind tongues.

“Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk will be there when he is needed, and his ways will be effective,” she insisted, “but he and he alone will choose the time and place.  And it will not be Lord Charwick.  It will not be as Rune Silentio,” she warned anew.

“I only hope it will not be too late,” Blane retorted but in a low voice intended only for Ashanti’s ear.  To Amber he said soothingly: “We must not argue.  We must conserve our strength and courage for the coming battle.  It will be subtle, but it will be as devastating as any all-out war has ever been.”

Amber was chilled to the bone.  This smoothness was a trick Blane had never learned at home or in the jungle.  She had glimpsed it on the rare occasion when Guy was fatigued or off-guard with her or with Leede.  Her son had been at court too often, and he had succumbed to the ways of the Rune.  Until now she had not realised how deep Blane’s involvement ran.

In a way, she surmised, he sought to compensate for his father's disinclination to become embroiled in the intrigues of Chimur's forthcoming bid to enter the Confederation.  The Arene woman shuddered again, and this time Blane took heed of her discomfiture.  With an utterly natural courtly grace, he bowed his head in acknowledgment of her place, both as his lady-mother and as the chatelaine of Charwick manor.  He set his beaker down and rose to refill hers.  Before he returned to his place beside Ashanti, he drew Amber close to his heart.

With that gesture, Blane elected to change the subject.

“Amber, what is this about new activity among the Khazarish?"  He gave Ashanti a reassuring smile and set down his beaker to cover her hand with his own.  As a child she had known firsthand the cruelty of that people.  The mental scars were still not entirely healed.  Ashanti reassured him with a nod.

“That is a matter Jer’ok will take action on,” Amber was stoutly asserting.  “I have received word that he suspected an encroachment from the north soon after I left Ashtar.  That is one reason Jer’ok has not followed me home this season.”

They all knew that another reason was that Jer’ok’s home had never been the ancestral estate of the Charwick lineage in this remote but ruggedly beautiful region of Tuatha's coast.  His home would forever remain the Ashtar of his childhood.  As much as Jer’ok loved Amber and his family, he often found cause to remain on Ashtar when she traveled to Chimur.

Another lengthy silence intervened as the fire crackled and flared with the mystery that has drawn humankind through all the ages everywhere in the Galaxy.  When the conversation resumed, other, lighter topics were pursued.

AMBER SOUTHERLY REMAINED in Tuatha for several more weeks.  Some of the time she passed at the estates and offices of her son's colleagues.  She was provided all the information she would require as a messenger and contact.  Every care was taken to limit her knowledge to no more than the essentials.  This was in truth standard practice among the Rune to keep each operative as ignorant as circumstance allowed – for reasons quite obvious to seasoned practitioners of the Rune Silentio arts.  But special precautions were extended to Amber because of the personal sacrifice her commitment represented.  In fact, the high king himself had commanded it.

Other times Amber spent in happy companionship with Blane and Ashanti and their small circle of friends, most often Guy Locke.  They rode frequently, and, occasionally, when the fickle weather permitted it, they went sail gliding, a sport at which Amber exhibited more enthusiasm than skill.  She could, however, outride most of her friends should she choose to show her skill with the blooded horses of Charwick.

Ashanti accompanied Amber on shopping expeditions to Meridum, and Amber all but inhaled the theatre and opera.  These performances were what she missed most while on Ashtar.  Guy joined them often in Meridum, but Amber found the Diyalan strangely ill at ease.  She wondered if his moodiness was a lingering after-effect of his role as mediator between her husband and Strahm Thurston following the events here on Chimur.

She knew Locke unlikely to raise the matter, and she never found a private moment to speak of such things with him.  Perhaps she was avoiding doing so.  Her own hurt ran deep.  After all, she had lost her unborn child and came close to losing her husband at the hands of the high king when the beast-man survived the threats of the Kryptane.  As the weeks wore on Amber ceased to wonder if she should make a greater effort with Guy.  But her conscience tweaked her more than once.  He was the closest friend Leede knew, and Amber was very fond of the Diyalan – if only for that reason, she reassured herself.

At last the time came when Amber grew restless with Tuathan society and began to be anxious to return to Jer’ok and his primitive but splendid world.

Alone over breakfast one morning, Amber dismissed the servants.  The solitude gave her time to think.  The quietude of the vast dining hall provided comfortable serenity in which the Arene woman could sort through her emotional turmoil.  Although she longed for her husband, she was not eager to face the almost certain confrontation when Leede Southerly learned of his son's activities in Chimurian politics.

Amber sighed as she stared past the garden's morning activity into the ancient forest beyond.  She would not be able to tell him of her own limited but, she believed, crucial involvement.  Ruefully, the woman realised yet again that her beloved Jer’ok would suffer anything to protect her, but would absolutely forbid her to take even the slightest chance.

Still, he would understand her eagerness to preserve the Primitive Planet and her peoples, humankind and folk.  Both the world of his birth and the peoples of his childhood and youth were second only to Jer’ok’s mate among his own affections, but he would object to her methods.  In fact, he had all but demanded that she refrain from any activity in this dangerous arena.

But Amber knew something of which Jer’ok was only dimly aware, for all his intelligence.  The new Ashtarian territory that included their home was in mortal danger.  In her mind Amber was thus able to justify her intended deception by silence, but her heart could not condone it.

The Stars were still engaged in the manipulation of Jer'ok-ta's future.

IN THE FINAL days before Amber’s impending departure for Ashtar, Guy Locke became a frequent visitor at the Charwick estate at Battersea.  Until then he had scrupulously avoided those rancorous arguments between mother and son.  For that gesture Amber had been grateful, but she did wonder where he stood.

As a member of the Diyalan Fleet of Gemini’s Asteri Forces, he had been deeply involved in court intrigues long before he had served the mission that had rescued Amber and her father’s surviving colleagues from the disastrous Ashtarian expedition.

Not a complete disaster, Amber reminded herself.  It was there she had encountered Jer’ok – in the best tradition of the ancient Terran lore she had devoured whenever her father had been too distracted to notice she was not hard at her assigned studies.  Mentor Laxton had never entirely approved of the ages-old Gemini fascination with matters Terran.  For all its longevity, the Arene mentor had dismissed the assimilation of Terran tradition as “that silly fad.”

Even all these years later, in a setting at which her father would have scoffed as one more part of the silly fad, Amber remembered and missed him.  She felt he would have been proud of her and of his grandson, even if they did fail to revere Ares as a sorely neglected source of Chimurian culture.  She could almost picture Mentor Laxton strolling through the manor, absorbing it all and taking pains not to allow his daughter to assume any airs as Lady Charwick.  For all the pride he never quite successfully concealed, he would have allowed no daughter of his to betray the slightest hint of the supercilious attitude he assigned to all things Chimurian.  It was a shame her father had died before he could meet the present lord.  Jer’ok would have been nothing short of a revelation.

Startled from her reverie when the hall clock chimed an hour much later than she expected, Amber nevertheless stared out over the grounds as she allowed her memories to dissipate slowly.  Reality would reassert itself soon enough.

When it did, Ashtar was foremost in her mind.

Over the past weeks Guy had taken every opportunity to assure Amber of his tremendoes respect for the Territory’s young governor.  V’Ran Sethor was a respected member of a tribe close to the Sanaca in heritage but less inclined to continued isolation.  In brief, the man had a good mind, a good education and good intentions.  But, according to Locke, he was being misinformed and misled by representatives of a power known well for its own private agenda for Ashtar.  If the alien power gained control, Locke worried, Jer’ok’s Ashtar and all it represented would disappear forever.

Amber knew what Guy was taking pains to omit.  The alien power was right here on Chimur; it was a major element of Krypta itself.  Surely, Strahm Thurston knew it too.  He had known when he threatened to make Lord Charwick's life forfeit over the failed mission.

THAT SAME EVENING Amber told her family she would be returning to Ashtar as soon as transportation became available.  Guy, who was dining with them, offered to accompany her.  Only this morning he had received the special assignment to assist and cooperate with the governor's advisors to the fullest extent.  Diyala, like Tuatha, was acting to prevent the downfall of the governor's territorial authority.  Once again the Stars’ plan for Jer'ok had been advanced.

ON THE EVENING before Amber's departure for Meridum and thence the ship bound for Ashtar, Blane and Ashanti unaccountably absented themselves from Battersea.  Just as unaccountably, Amber found herself grateful for the solitude their departure afforded.  For all its immense age the Charwick manor was surprisingly homely and for Amber rich with memories, many of them deeply rewarding.  The few heartaches had been largely overcome with subsequent turns of events, not the least of which was Blane's restoration to home and hearth.

After Blane and Ashanti made their departure, Amber rode her favourite mare along the path overlooking the sea.  On her return, she absently groomed the mare herself before returning to the manor house.  She passed the afternoon wandering from room to room for a personal farewell to the memories lingering in each.  Suddenly, the Arene called a halt to her peculiar reverie.  It was not as though she and Leede would never return . . . .

A little subdued, Amber retired early to her boudoir outside the master bedchambre, where she took a light supper.  Afterwards, she curled up before the fire with a shamelessly romantic deep space adventure, replete with swashbuckling space-farers in hopelessly impossible intergalactic vessels and a swooning princess in dire need of repeated rescues.  Just as she intended, the breathlessly paced absurdities lifted Amber’s mood.

It was not long before her eyes grew heavy and the Arene woman nodded off to dream of returning to Jer’ok’s side on the Primeval Planet – a vast improvement in story line.  Presently, she smiled and stirred in her sleep and the book dropped to the carpet with a muffled thump.

Amber was startled awake.  The thump was echoed with a light rap at her door.

“My lady?  Amber?  You have a guest.  Will you come down or shall I bring Subcommandant Locke up?”

Amber had not expected Guy at Battersea.  They were to have met at Medidum's terminal on the morrow.  Her heart beat faster; had some harm befallen Blane – or Jer’ok?

“Please, show Commandant Locke up here,”  Amber responded calmly.  “And ask if he has dined.”  She saw that her own supper cart had been discreetly removed while she was napping.

In a moment Guy Lock filled the room with his presence.

“I have already eaten, thank you, Amber.  I wanted only to speak with you privately before we embark for Ashtar.”

He stooped to retrieve her book as Amber motioned him to a chair next to her own.  He grinned at the title as he handed the volume to her.

“Is there not sufficient adventure in your own life, mate of Jer'ok?” he teased.  “How many times has the fair princess swooned thus far?”

“Almost as often as she had been rescued,” Amber laughed.

“Is anything amiss?” she enquired carefully when Guy settled into the chair.

“Ah, no, I am sorry to have caused you any concern.  It is just that I felt compelled to speak with you before we are caught up in the shipboard formalities.  Do you mind?”

“Of course not, Guy, you are always welcome at Battersea or at the plantation.  Will your present duties allow you to join us there?”

“It is unlikely, Amber.  I hope you will convey my regrets to Lee.  I expect little or no time for friendship.”

Was there bitterness in that last admission?  Amber could not recall having heard quite that tone in Guy's voice ever before.

“Leede will be disappointed,” she ventured.

“No less than I,” and Locke lapsed into silence.

“What is it, Guy?” Amber asked softly, “what is wrong, my friend?  Has the High King . . . ”

“Forgive me, Amber, my dear, it is nothing like that.  I had no intent to alarm you.  Nothing could be further from . . . ”   He stopped, and Amber knew a different kind of fear.


He regarded her steadily for a long moment, and she could not draw her eyes away from his.  “Has Jer’ok never told you?”

“Told me what?”  Although her heart suddenly beat faster, Amber's confusion was unfeigned.  Coyness had never been in her repretoire of wiles.

“I think you know.”

For a moment the Arene was too stunned to speak, but, as always, her honesty prevailed.

“Yes, I do, Guy, but . . . ”

The Diyalan claimed one of her hands.

“You know my feelings for Lee.  But, were it not for his love for you, I would have courted you myself on the death of Rand.”

Amber did not reclaim her hand.  Her heart began to resume a more normal rate, but it went out to her . . . friend.

“Jer’ok knows of course.  You could not conceal this from him.  Yet he trusts you.”

“Of course, he has always known.  And I would do nothing to abuse his trust or to cause either of you any hurt.  It is just that we are headed for what may be the most difficult juncture in Gemini's history.  And all of us are a part of it.  There can be no escape.”

Guy turned away, releasing her hand with a reluctance that touched Amber deeply.  He leaned back in his chair.  His face was obscured in shadow.

“I want you, as well as Lee,” he assured her in his quietest voice, “to know I will always be there for both of you . . . or for either of you, should the need ever arise.  He is my friend and you are . . . more than a friend.

“If you have need of me, Amber, ever, I will be there for you.  I am not Jer’ok, but my feeling for you is no less for being that of a man of,” Guy managed a wry grin, “uncomplicated civilisation.”

Silence descended.  The fire burned down to glowing coals with nothing further passing between the two of them.  It was nevertheless very late when, without another word, Guy Locke rose and let one hand caress Amber Southerly's golden hair as he passed her on the way to the door.

“Thank you,” she whispered, “I'll not forget.”  The door closed quietly between them.

And thus was the final piece of the Stars’ plan set in place.


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