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Peter David





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  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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  ISBN: 0-7434-2242-2

  ISBN-13: 978-0-743-42242-0

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  This one is for my mom, Dalia


  SHE KNEW HE WAS COMING before she even saw him.

  It wasn’t unusual for her to feel that he was approaching. Truth be known, most days she would get a cold feeling in the base of her spine. At those times, wherever she was—whether it be doing chores in her run-down abode or standing on the cracked and arid plain that constituted what she laughingly referred to as her property—she would stop what she was doing and wait to see if some sign of him appeared on the horizon.

  Most times, it did not. On such occasions, the feeling would pass, and she would return to whatever it was that she had been doing. In short order, she would forget that she had felt any sense of dread at all.

  This time, however, when she did see him making his approach, all those false alarms were naturally forgotten. Instead, all Rheela could think was, I knew it. I can always tell when he’s coming. A gentle breeze was wafting across the plain, which was an unusual enough event in and of itself. She straightened the strands of green hair that were blowing in her face and turned back to the house. “House” might have been far too generous a term; it was not much more than a hut, although it was built of sturdy enough materials that it managed to keep the interior remarkably cool, despite the crushing heat. Just to provide a bit of style, she had even constructed a small porch on the front of the hut. She now sat on the edge of the porch, arranging her hands neatly in her lap and staring out at the emptiness of her land. Every so often, she would glance down at her hands, turning them over and studying them as if she was looking at someone else’s hands. They were leathery and weather-beaten. When she had been a little girl, her skin had been so fair, so pale; but now it was such a dark brown that it seemed as if the sun had baked her as thoroughly as it had the land around her.

  It was amazing, though, that the vegetation—her crops—was still fighting resiliently for life. They poked up through the cracks, green and brown cacti-like plants that seemed determined to ignore the untenable nature of their respective situations. They were going to need water, though, and very soon. It wasn’t just her crop, either; she’d been hearing as much from other steaders as well. They spoke to her, as always, with that telltale look of annoyance and resentment, even as they talked wistfully of the rain that was needed in order to salvage their crops.

  She looked to the sky, trying to feel the moisture in the air, in her bones. Nothing was forthcoming. But she could have sworn that the intensity of the heat was growing, rolling in waves off the land. Not for the first time, she felt a sense of vague despair. She didn’t simply reside on the world of Yakaba. She fought it. She struggled with it every single day, the way that a germ cell would battle the white blood cells that strove to kill it. It wasn’t her favorite analogy, though, because that, in essence, made her the infection, and she didn’t fancy thinking of herself in that way. But perhaps that was how the planet thought of her.

  The wind was picking up, and she heard a distant rolling. Although she continued to sit on the porch, still she shielded her eyes with one leathery hand while studying the horizon line. Ironically, she knew what she was going to see before she actually saw it. Sure enough, there he was: Tapinza.

  Tapinza’s skin was not a golden bronze color despite the sun. Instead, much of the paleness that was typical for those of the Yakaban race was still present. Not unusual, then, that Tapinza was clad appropriately, with a wide-brimmed hat and long coat that flapped in the steady breeze as he sped toward Rheela’s stead. He was clutching the rigging of his customized sailskipper, guiding it with an expert hand. Rheela had to give him that much: When it came to sailskippers and similar desert transportation, Tapinza was second to none.

  What did surprise her, however, was the smaller form that was also clutching the main mast of the sailskipper. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, not quite believing what her eyes were informing her she was seeing. “Moke,” she called cautiously toward the house behind her, and when there was no immediate answer, she repeated, louder this time, “Moke!” Still no reply. She got up and went into the house to look around for herself, and, to her utter shock, found that Moke was, in fact, not there. She had been absolutely positive that her son had been indoors napping, and the fact that he was not was, to say the least, disconcerting. What brought it several levels above disconcerting was that it meant her eyes had not deceived her. It was unquestionably Moke clutching the sailskipper, the increasing breeze driving the skipper along faster and faster. And even from this distance, she could now hear the child’s voice calling, “Maaaa! Look, Maaaaa!” across the broken plains.

  “Hold tightly, boy,” Tapinza warned him, “we have quite a few solid gusts propelling us toward your mother.” Then he laughed quite heartily. Rheela had never liked the sound of his laughter. It sounded … cultivated. As if he had stood in front of a mirror for hours on end and practiced delivering a confident-yet-unthreatening laugh of which he could be proud. Everything about him seemed manufactured. For a woman whose very existence depended on nature, someone as “fabricated” as Tapinza could not help but set off all manner of mental warnings within her.

  Tapinza had a fierce scar that ran from the top of his forehead to just under his nose. How he had acquired it was something of a mystery; in all the years he had resided on Yakaba, he had never once hinted at the mishap that apparently had laid open part of his face. His brow was a bit sloped, his eyebrows thick and green, and the overall effect was to give him the air of a primitive.

  Rheela’s impulse was to take issue—very loudly and very intently—with the fact that Tapinza had been reckless with her son’s safety. Ultimately, however, she decided to try and tone down her ire, because it was so rare that Moke looked as happy as he did at that moment. She actually heard that rarest of commodities on Yakaba—rarer even than water—namely, her son’s laughter, echoing across the plains. As opposed to the “manufactured” sound of Tapinza, Moke laughed with pure childhood abandon. There was such joy in it that Rheela felt a tightening in the pit of her stomach. She almost felt grateful to Tapinza, and she had to remind herself that such sentiments could prove disastrous if left unchecked.

  Moke looked like a miniature version of his mother, so much so that she derived some amusement from it. She had yet to cut his hair; it hung in ragged braids, framing his face when he was at rest (which was seldom). As it was now, it fairly flew behind him as he whipped along across the desert, holding on for dear life while simultaneously celebrating a
life most dear.

  For a moment Rheela was convinced that the sailskipper was going to crash into the side of the house, and then Tapinza whipped it around. The wheels scudded across the plain, chewing up dirt and sending a small cloud scattering. Moke jumped off the sailskipper and ran excitedly to his mother. “You should ride it, Ma!” he said without preamble. “Maester Tapinza said he would take you!”

  “Titles are never necessary among friends. A simple ‘Tapinza’ will do,” Tapinza said to him. But as he spoke, his gaze was not upon the son, but instead upon the mother. The comment was obviously being delivered to her, and the small child was, of course, unaware of the subtleties of what was happening around him.

  “Quite expertly guided, Maester Tapinza,” said Rheela; continuing the use of the title, she was sending a message so clear that a blind man could have read it from ten feet away. “However, considering I was under the impression that my son was indoors, I am most curious as to what he was doing sailing around the desert with you.”

  “You’re asking the wrong person, Rheela,” he replied. “I was simply out and about, minding my own business. I happened upon young Moke, wandering about on his own. I thought that it would be only appropriate to return him to you.” Just to be extra dashing, Tapinza removed his hat and bowed deeply, sweeping the hat across the arid ground. The gesture kicked up a bit of dust.

  Rheela shifted her gaze to her son, who had suddenly developed a great fascination with the tops of his own feet. “Moke,” Rheela said very slowly, very distinctly, “what were you doing out? It’s the hottest part of the day. You should know better.”

  Moke shrugged.

  “Moke, what would you have done if Maester Tapinza hadn’t picked you up?”

  He shrugged again. Much of his vocabulary seemed shaped by shrugs.

  She should have let it pass. But instead, Rheela felt—as unreasonable as it sounded—as if the boy was showing her up somehow. Being defiant of her while in the presence of a man in front of whom she did not wish to be defied. This time, she resolved, shrugs would not be sufficient. She took Moke firmly by the shoulders and asked once more, “Why were you out?” trying to make it clear by her tone of voice that an articulated response would be the only acceptable one.

  Moke took a deep breath, and then looked her squarely in the eyes. “Looking for Dad,” he said.

  Well, you deserved that, thought Rheela. She didn’t release the boy so much as her fingers simply slipped loose of him. He didn’t step away from her, though, but just stood there and eyed her with curiosity.

  “I didn’t find him,” Moke added, almost as an afterthought … and then he looked curiously at Tapinza and back to his mother. “Did I?”

  “No,” she said tonelessly. “No … I’d wager you didn’t.”

  “ ’Cause I thought maybe Maester Tapin—”

  “No.” This time she spoke much more quickly, and with far greater force. It was so loud, in fact, that Moke jumped slightly. “No … Maester Tapinza is not Daddy.”

  “Are you sure?” He sounded a bit regretful.

  “Yes … quite sure.”

  “How do you know?”

  Rheela didn’t quite have an answer ready for that one. Surprisingly, it was Tapinza who stepped in and said firmly, “Because if I was your father, Moke … I would never have left.”

  Much to Rheela’s relief, the response seemed to satisfy the boy. Feeling drained of any energy to continue conversation along these lines, Rheela ruffled the hair on his head and said, “Go in now. You’re overheated as it is. I want you to keep cool … at least, as cool as you can.” Moke nodded, then impulsively hugged his mother before darting into the house.

  “My home is considerably cooler,” Tapinza observed. “I have a cooling system now. You are welcome any time.”

  “Yes. I am well aware of that, Maester,” she said, with a laugh that was equal parts amusement and bitterness. “It is difficult to be unaware of that which goes on in your home. It is … quite impressive.”

  “Thank you.”

  She rose from kneeling, dusting herself off as she did so. “It was not intended as a compliment. However, you did bring my boy home … and I was not even aware that he was missing. For that, I do owe you my thanks. So, I suppose it all evens out.”

  “The boy,” Tapinza said slowly, “does deserve a father, you know.”

  “Very little in this life has anything to do with what is deserved, Maester. If I have learned anything in my time in this sphere, it is that. If you’ll excuse me …”

  She turned to head back into the house, but then realized that Tapinza didn’t seem to be showing any intention of departing. She turned back to face him, one eyebrow cocked in curiosity. “Something else, Maester … ?”

  “Is it really so necessary that you address me formally?”

  “I do very little in this world that I don’t deem necessary, Maester.”

  Tapinza gestured toward the house. “At the very least—even if you have little regard for what is deserved—the child should be entitled to know who his father is.”

  “That is between Moke and me.”

  “And me.”

  Her temper flared, and she took a step down from the porch. “What do you mean by that?”

  “I asked him if he knew. He said he did not.” Tapinza idly moved his hat from one hand to the other. “I asked him, if he did not know who his father was, how he would recognize his father if he did meet him. He said that he hoped that, instead, his father would recognize him. It was somewhat sweet, actually.”

  “Perhaps it was, but I will thank you not to discuss such matters with him. Ultimately, they can only serve to upset him.”

  “I would not do that for all the world.”

  “Maester,” and she came down the last step, standing eye to eye with him, “I think there is very little you would not do for all the world.”

  “Who is his father? I know beyond a doubt that it is not I,” and he smiled mirthlessly, “having never had the pleasure of—”

  “Shut up,” she said sharply, and then inwardly cursed herself for allowing him to rattle her so easily.

  “The people of Narrin are likewise curious.”

  She shook her head. “The people of Narrin must have very little of true import on their minds, to worry about matters that are none of their affair.”

  “You fascinate them, Rheela. Fascinate them and frighten them, because they depend on you so, yet they know little about you. People fear that which they do not know.”

  “I do not see the good people of Narrin flocking to my door to try and learn more of me,” she replied. “If they are so overwhelmed with curiosity, let them ask. Otherwise, they—and you—are cordially invited to attend to your own business and leave me to mine.” She paused, and then said in exasperation, “What do you want of me?”

  “You know what I want, Rheela. We have discussed it innumerable times.”

  “No. We’ve ‘discussed’ nothing. You’ve spoken of it, and I have turned you down. That does not fit any definition of ‘discussion’ that I know.”

  He sighed heavily. “You provide a service, Rheela. A service for which you charge nothing. That is foolishness.”

  “Is it?” She was only half-listening to him now. Instead, she was starting to detect the first bits of moisture. They were meager and spare, but it was enough to work with. She could almost sense the desperation in her crops. The juices that were nurtured inside the plants were still there, but they would not last much longer if some sustenance was not provided, and soon. She licked her dry lips and looked to the skies, reaching out, gathering strength.

  Tapinza was clearly oblivious to what she was up to. “Part of the reason people fear you is because you act in an altruistic manner. The average person does not understand altruism.”

  “But you are not an average person. You are the most successful businessman in Narrin Province … possibly in all of Yakaba. So you would be far more likely to understa
nd it, yes?”

  “Oh, yes. Likely to understand. That does not mean that I endorse it, however, or think it to be anything other than foolishness. And you seem like such a bright woman, Rheela….”

  “Do I? If I am so bright, then why did I allow Moke’s father—whoever he is—to get away?”

  “Even bright women have their lapses. For they remain women, after all.”

  “Your sympathy is appreciated,” she said with rich sarcasm.

  “You seek to help people out of the goodness of your heart. In that way, you hope to raise them up to your level. But people do not like to be raised, Rheela. It is much too much effort. They would far prefer to drag you down than to be lifted up themselves. When you treat people with such compassion, they are reminded of their own shortcomings. That will not endear you to them, no matter how much you would wish it otherwise. Now, commerce, trade, self-involvement, self-benefit … these are things they can appreciate and respond to. Since you do not charge them for the gifts you give them, they ascribe no value to them. If you charged them …” He smiled broadly. “They would come to love you.”

  “Perhaps, Maester, I care more about being loved by myself than I do about being loved by others.” She took a deep breath to steady herself, channeling the effort. The skies began to darken slightly.

  “I would not want you to do anything that would be at odds with your conscience,” said Tapinza. “That is why, as always, I would be happy to serve as your agent in the matter.”

  “My agent.”

  “For a reasonable commission, I would broker your services to the residents of Narrin Province. They would pay handsomely, willingly. Plus, I am greatly respected in these parts, as you know.”

  “Respect and fear are not the same thing.”

  “They are when they need to be. In any event, people would view you in a different light by dint of your association with me. Of course … there are other associations that could accord you even greater respect and esteem in the eyes of others….”