Kunut-Am Smith gazed down into the bowl of noodles and wondered at it. The steam rose up from the hot food and veiled his spectacles with the promise of a mystery. The children he had been set to watch had as usual wandered off to find more entertainment than one ninety-year-old grandparent could possibly afford. Sometimes he suspected the children were set to watch him rather than otherwise. He smiled to himself, remembering other times of quiet. He was not hungry, he could not remember being hungry, which was no doubt a good thing and a sure sign of the prosperity he had earned and his children had earned. They were all hard-working, his children, his grandchildren, and their wives, all of them. He had lived to see prosperity. He had perhaps lived too long.
They thought him too old to understand and they had set his noodles in his hands with smiles and reassurance, and told him not to worry so many times it could not be ignored that they were afraid. Not of the Safe House; they had got used to the Sanctor days ago. And not afraid of the Harad or the aliens they carefully called Harket that they had encountered there. They kept it from him, but he was not a fool nor yet as senile as they would have liked to believe. He knew all about the Circle work and the radiation damage and the proposed tectonic shift, the Harket Magic.
He stirred his noodles with red chopsticks and looked through the noodles and their soft convoluted tangles, remembering.
“They take no prisoners, give no quarter,” his commanding officer had warned him. “It’s us or them, so shoot first or you’re dead. It’s a kill or be killed war, and the Harket don’t play games and they ain’t got no honour system we’d recognise.”
He had been a hair’s-breadth too slow and the Harket Ragonda had torn his engines out from under him and left his crippled ship for dead. He’d set the automatics on mayday and turned down the emergency systems to the barest survival limit, and tried to be fatalistic as he strung out the last minutes of his life until he lost consciousness. Then there had been hands on his face. Long, white-fingered hands, cold as ice, and he had looked up through a tunnel of pain and recognised death. Death, with eyes like stained glass windows full of light and compassion; green as the lost oceans of Ur. Death, with a golden cloak decorated with black and scarlet ribbons, death in gold embroidered yellow silk, death in a golden mask that breathed chlorine fumes with a bitter rasping sound and then pressed the gilt mask over his face and gave him back his life with fresh and oxygen-rich air.
“Ehren,” the creature that refused to be death had ordered, pressing its talons on his chest, forcing him to breathe; nodding earnestly when he complied and dragged life back inside his lungs, only to feel the pain of the rad burns on his face and arms.
Death and her brothers lifted him free of the cockpit straps, raised him up and wrapped his burns in ice and silk. The gold of Death’s hair untangled over his arm as she lifted him and gave him something sweet and purple to drink until the pain drifted away, and then the Guardians had left him to drift too and to dream while they decided what must be done with him. They had assumed he slept, that he did not understand because they spoke in the half-and-half languages of demons and the fairy folk, but their hands gave them away and they misjudged how his body would deal with their drug. The anagha root.
He smiled, repeated the word. He had heard the Harket arguing in the same way, seen the cup of blue-purple liquid forced on their own, watched how sleep took the fool boy as it had not quite taken him, and he had told his son, Vitor, not to worry so about the children; they could come to no harm around the aliens. He had scolded them, forbidden the word Harket, insisted on the other, almost as debased name: “Call them Kark,” he insisted, and because of his great age and his position as head of the family, and because he had reminded them all of those three golden medals in the deed-box, they had been quiet and considerate and had pandered to an old man’s whims.
He stirred the noodles and carefully lifted a mouthful to his lips, wondering what flavourings his youngest daughter-in-law had added to this meal to pleasure and surprise him. Sometimes there would be a choice morsel hidden at the bottom of the bowl, sometimes he had to wait for the last meal of the day for fruit or one of Jessi’s carved toys which he could then graciously pass on to one of the babies.
He remembered too much. He remembered the last days of a war and the people who he had slowly identified and come to call Karkaranji. One did not have to be half-dead to recognise them, only for them to be a little careless, as they were careless around the children. He had kept his distance, knowing that they could not be expected to recognise him or remember as he did. They were not the same; but the difference was a matter of time only, and the way they threw away their lives making magic for the children.
“Karkaranji scum!” his sergeant had cursed them when they carried the half-conscious man through the lock-link from their ship to the newly-captured battle cruiser. But his eyes leaked so much the Golden Lady Commander had been concerned for him, and Kunut-Am had tried to explain. She had set the automatics on the gurney and let it float across the link to where the Urthan officers waited to surrender.
“Am Rha,” she had said. “Say ehren,” and her cold hand had lingered on his arm as if his dancing tattoos had fascinated her. Then she and the others had bowed, turned and gone back to their own ship, closing the lock behind them and only waiting long enough for his own to get their wits back and themselves inside before unshipping from the holding grapples and letting them all go.
“They take no prisoners,” he had told the amazed Captain when he could talk freely again, when the alien respirator had been disconnected and the faded marks of the healing burns had been examined and speculated on. “And they give no quarter.” But they thought him delirious, and half-mad with pain, and they had not understood. Nor had he ever been able to explain, just as no-one on Daydar IV would be able to explain what was happening to them. The word no-one would believe was rescue.
He put down the “surprise” noodles untasted and wondered if anyone else had been left behind when the Lord of the Morning opened his heart to the world. He hoped not. It was too terrible to endure, unless one was a very old man and an enemy of long standing. He closed his eyes and basked in the sunlight, and as he did so the world trembled.
He might have fallen, but that was not permitted. He was perhaps the oldest man on the colony. He was the oldest man the Lord of the Morning had ever officially not actually met. The reality might have stilled the wild beating of the old man’s heart, but the need for him reached him before the shock of what was being done. He had ninety years of experience to offer, and the dragon was desperate for experience. It wrapped him in a cloak of starlight and children’s love, and consumed him.
The Warward of Rha, spread thin across the galactic arm of the Protectorate, blinked the slow welcoming blink of recognition and acceptance, and went on with their work.
Charles Hurley did not quite believe what he was watching until he found himself unable to meet anyone’s gaze. All about him, people he knew, loved and respected, were standing in a dream from which he had been excluded. He found himself thinking of the old children’s tale that had so delighted Patricia when she was small, the words reciting themselves gently in the vault of his brain. “And when the Princess pricked her finger on the needle, she fell into a long long sleep, and everyone in the Palace slept too; the king on his throne, the knights on guard, the pages in the hallways and the stable boys in the yard. Even the birds and beasts fell into the enchantment and slept.” So around him, seated and standing, open-eyed and awake, one by one his colleagues were falling into the enchantment. Scat Chief Marilla had the same strangely inward gaze as all the others, his own wife and children included.
He looked across at the vid team, their equipment on full automatic; Tallen Chiris, wrestling with the console single-handed, was the only person left behind, or so it seemed, but he could not attract her attention as she concentrated on the remotes that had fallen unheeded from Ben Linden’s hands. So he was not quite the only one immune to the Harket magic. A movement at the edge of his range of vision made him turn in surprise. He saw another free soul casting about for anchorage and understanding and felt he understood the other man’s confusion. Sender Phils was gazing about the Star Chamber of Kniva like a child at a freak show, equal proportions of thrill and terror on the saturnine face. Charles Hurley started forward, not quite sure what he intended to do even as he realised what it was Phils held in his hands, hands that moved automatically and against his conscious will to resist.
Slowly, inevitably, Sender Phils raised his gun and aimed with the assurance of an assassin at the boy who held the world.