VIII. FINAL ENCOUNTER
GUY LOCKE WAS at the Settlement and met them upon their arrival. Pleased but puzzled, Jer'ok greeted his old friend warmly. The three dined together that evening, but Locke declined to extend the visit by returning with them to their jungle home.
Jer'ok sensed that Guy, like Amber and Blane before him, was ill at ease but disinclined to put his discomfiture into words. It was late in the evening before the Diyalan endeavored to convey something of what was distressing him. Unaccountably, Guy directed his remarks to Leede exclusively.
"My friend," he began with no more than an apologetic shrug for Amber. She felt a chill renewed. As the Diyalan spoke, his accent increased as a measure of the intensity of his feeling.
"Lee, you are aware of the political situation which faces us. I suspect you know something of my participation. I believe your personal knowledge of recent events in the fringes of the Sanaca lands and what those events portend would convince the governor that he is being led into a betrayal of his territory and its peoples."
In hushed tones that barely carried to Amber and could hardly have been heard at the nearby tables, Guy supplied an updated account of the events in the perspective of the territory as a whole. He tersely outlined what he discerned the strategy to be. The governor had been warned but declined assistance, other than the sincerely welcomed advice of Subcommandant Locke, who to him represented Chimur’s High King, and this new man, who clearly represented opposing interests, not necessarily serving official Krypta.
"We are at a climactic moment, Lee,” Guy concluded; “the next few months will decide the direction this region of Ashtar will pursue for decades. No one has the feel for this planet that is inherent in Jer'ok. Your perspective is both deeper and of greater breadth than that of the governor, for all his tribal pride in his jungle acumen. He knows of you and respects you, though you have never met.
“He would listen to you. It is he alone who will make the decisions that will determine the fate of your homeworld.”
Sensing defeat for his cause in Leede's bearing, Guy continued with increasing urgency, still taking care to keep his tone confidential. When he had depleted his store of arguments, the Diyalan waited for Leede's reply with one final argument.
“Jer'ok-ta of the Hunterfolk could greatly influence those decisions.”
The beast-man was reluctant nevertheless. Guy Locke knew him well enough to allow him time to ponder his answer. Guy and Amber exchanged a look, but Locke broke the contact and allowed his eyes to wander over the Ashtarian stars as a companionable silence settled among the three. For all the depth of their relationships of many years’ duration, none of them was insensitive to the full gravity underlying the commandant’s appeal and the pending response alike.
Locke deliberately relaxed, that Jer’ok would sense neither urgency nor the slightest impatience. In a moment Amber shifted ever so slightly. Guy wondered if she would speak and to what end. But she kept her silence. He watched her slip her hand in Lee’s, but neither husband nor wife broke the silence.
Locke allowed his regard to linger over these two. Never had the Diyalan been closer to any man or woman in his life of isolation imposed by his place in the Rune. Events of the recent past had revealed to him that Jer’ok was never far removed from Lee. But, if there was a third man at the table with them, Amber alone was sensitive to his presence or absence.
Locke turned his gaze out over the forests dim in the shadowy near dark. This place never failed to remind him that it was Jer’ok he had first befriended. Leede Southerly was very much the product of Guy’s mentoring – and the man’s own heritage of personal nobility.
On his part, the beast-man accepted without comment the interval of silence allowing him to ponder the situation. Over the years Leede Southerly had come to be known throughout court as a man of impeccable honour. The polished Lord Charwick avoided political entanglements to the extent his circumstances allowed. When involvement could not be forestalled, he was straightforward to the point of thoroughly dissuading importunists. On the few occasions he spoke out in the Council of Lords, all knew exactly where he stood. When he was silent, it was without dissembling. None presumed to infer his stance to their later satisfaction – or regret. Few, not even the High King, imposed upon those silences. Strahm Thurston Albritton had learned a difficult lesson in crossing wills with his liegeman.
Leede was aware that he possessed a knowledge and understanding of the present situation that was unique, but, for all his pride and self-confidence, he remained yet more akin to beast than humankind. Never was he more so than when on Ashtar, even here in the Settlement. Of the hypocrisies and half-truths of diplomacy and interplanetary relations the beasts know nothing and know little reason to care. Truth is a simple thing. It revolves around one’s basic needs.
Leede had no inclination and Jer’ok no words calculated to convince a polished man of Gemini or of Ashtar to the causes of Chimur. He could merely state the truth. If it was accepted, well and good. If not, Jer’ok of the Aranda was not one to waste breath on futile argument. His way was that of the beasts: fight or flee.
Innate prudence born of one’s kind dictates the choice. In choosing flight, the option of later battle is ever present. In choosing battle, the result is always clearcut: victory or defeat. More often than not, defeat is temporary, at least among the predator beasts. Nature, while often profligate by certain humankind standards, does not unnecessarily squander her resources. So, even in defeat, there remains the hope that the future will hold another chance with a different result. Jer’ok, alone among the creatures of Ashtar, was endowed with exclusively humankind foreknowledge that one day he would choose battle and go down in the permanent defeat of long sleep. He not only accepted that foreknowledge, his untamed spirit would prefer to meet the swift death of mortal combat to some languishing alternative.
The pro-hominid in Jer’ok was averse to entering a field of battle he little understood. He found here no duty to self or mate. But the humankind in Jer’ok knew a higher duty. His cultural inheritance and the more direct inheritance bequeathed by his Tuathan parents demanded of him a response to the call of friends and their future security which could not be denied.
As a son of a noble Ashtarian tribe, perhaps the governor retained some of his empathy with the Sanaca and other peoples who would of necessity live with his decisions. And so the choice was made. Jer’ok would yield to the summons.
Leede pressed Amber’s hand in reassurance and waited until the commandant met his eye. Guy Locke saw the affirmative in the other’s expression. Without a word Locke grasped Leede’s shoulder in a gesture combining his gratitude and acknowledgment of all that lay behind this decision. The beast-man sensed all encompassed in this gesture in keeping with friendship and deference to his unexpressed hesitancy. No man other than Guy Locke could appreciate all that was behind this concession.
“Thank you, my good friend,” Locke said with sober restraint. “It is a great thing you promise. You will not have cause to regret this decision. You and the governor will have more than a little rapport. V’Rand Sethor is a good man, comparable perhaps to Darad himself.”
With that the matter was dropped for the time. The three lingered over mentha and seri and companionship going beyond words. When at last the friends were taking their leave of one another, Guy commented to Leede in an afterthought: “You know, of course, that the governor’s new advisor bears a name all too well known to you – Aliyan, one Derk Aliyan.”
SUBCOMMANDANT LOCKE PRECEDED Lord and Lady Charwick to the governor. The Diyalan advisor was promptly granted an interview with the governor in Sethor’s austere office, located in the massive edifice housing all but the judicial branch of his government. With no little anticipation the governor granted a full afternoon to his coming interview with the man he knew to be the redoubtable Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk.
What seeds Jer’ok’s words might have sown for Ashtar’s future will never be known. For the beast-man was destined never to meet the governor.
THE SECOND AND final attack on Amber came in the Settlement. This time she would have surely died but for Jer’ok’s intervention. When her attackers had been driven off, Jer’ok carried his unconscious mate not to their apartments at the inn, representative of the hazards of consorting with humankind, but to the jungle that was to the beast-man the only true shelter from humanity’s depradations. In the security of his forest he held his mate close to him until her senses were restored. Her calm upon regaining consciousness was confirmation of his suspicions.
“Now you will tell me what this means.” There was no anger in his terse demand, but only love and fear for her. “It is not the first time you have been thus attacked.”
Numbly Amber shook her head.
“Only once before – in Meridum. There were three men and . . . .” She stopped, unwilling even now to evoke the challenge lying dormant in Jer’ok’s heart – now or ever again. But she had no need to finish.
“ . . . And Derk Aliyan,” the beast-man supplied. “I should not have allowed him to live this long. Jer’ok will permit no more attacks on his mate.”
“You must not,” she protested. Sensing his rejection of her warning, Amber placed her hands against his chest as though she could physically restrain him. Her eyes held his, “Jer’ok, there are more dangers here than you know. Wait until it can be accomplished elsewere, at a time less fraught with danger. Besides, you have a duty now that goes beyond any you owe me.”
But Jer’ok caught her hands in his own and gently but firmly held them still.
“Jer’ok’s first duty will always be protection of his mate. That is as it should be. Jer’ok will put an end to this threat. Then he will try to speak to this alata the words that should already be guiding his dealings with the worlds beyond Ashtar.”
Amber would have protested further, but Jer’ok was was not to be swayed.
“This Aliyan has had it his way. He has held both of us captive. He has come very close to killing you. Now it will be the way of Jer’ok-ta. You will return to our home. Jer’ok will come when this thing has been done.”
JER’OK WOULD HAVE preferred to track Aliyan in the jungle, but the man was now almost constantly at the side of the governor, in whatever capacity and name the cunning Kryptane had assumed. An attack in the governor’s office or any such place of humankind presence was worse than stupid. Aliyan did attend the governor’s public appearances, but the guards were too many. To attack at such a time might be successful, but it might also be construed as an assassination attempt. In any event, it was not in Jer’ok’s nature to make so public a move. So the attack would of necessity take place when Aliyan was in transit to or from his attendance on the governor.
Once Derk Aliyan’s customary patterns were known, Jer’ok needed only the course of a day to select the means of his ambush. Each second dawn the Kryptane traveled on foot through a section of the Settlement’s vast Reserve Park. Jer’ok inspected the spoor with care and knew this was a daily habit of long standing. What his senses could not tell him was that Aliyan’s bodyguard, the same three who had twice attacked Amber, remained close to their client, although themselves well hidden and some distance from his chosen trails, through the entire interval of the Kryptane’s seeming solitude.
At second dawn of the very next day Jer’ok was awaiting Aliyan’s approach as he would await his prey in the jungle. The beast-man’s innate jungle craft was rewarded. Aliyan, entirely at ease, strolled directly beneath a branch overhanging the simulated game trail. Overhead the silent predator watched and waited for the proper moment.
THE BEAST-MAN BROUGHT Derk Aliyan down without a sound, not even the brush of leaves among the branches. In killing, Jer’ok is absolutely cold; he does it not for pleasure as might the civilised hunter, but for food and to preserve his own life or the lives of those for whom he cares. Rarely had he killed in revenge, nor was revenge the primary motive behind the dispatch of the Kryptane.
In the snapping of Aliyan’s neck between his two hands, then, Jer’ok felt only the satisfaction of a needful duty well performed and quickly to be forgotten. There was no further emotion in his heart. His handsome face was calm, unmarred by the violence of the deed. Aliyan, himself, had no more than an instant to recognise his assailant and to know abject terror before Jer’ok had realised his grim intent. But he was now fully Aranda, irrational, mad by any humankind standard.
The early-rising citizens of the Settlement started at the chilling scream of a victorious hunterfolk buck, many of them hearing that sound for the first and last time in their lives. Jer’ok’s attack was so silent and so swift, that, had he not from unbreakable habit stopped to voice that eerie call, the cold-blooded murder of the governor’s Kryptane advisor by Leede Southerly, Lord Charwick of Tuatha, might have languished forever lost amidst the unsolved files of the local intraplanetary police. As it was, it was his challenge that drew the attention of the bodyguard, who had momentarily and then permanently lost contact with their client. They, of course, recognised the assailant as soon as they caught view of the tableau of slayer and slain.
IT WAS INEVITABLE that every hand should turn against him, but the savagery of it would have confounded Jer’ok. All unaware of Derk Aliyan’s true affiliations and private mission, Krypta denounced Southerly first. Certain factions within that nation heaped scorn on him as the ugly product of a decadent civilisation. The infuriated governor declared him an incorrigible anachronism out of the savage past Ashtar was striving to leave forever behind. Tuatha joined in the Gemini-wide denunciation and put a price on his head, while earnestly disavowing any connection with the activities of Chimur’s Rune Silentio. High King Strahm Thurston Albritton ordered the beast-man hunted down and returned alive to stand trial in the Settlement.
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