The First Sdhlain: Sdhlai 5

They paused, both seemingly unsure of how to proceed. Something thumped against the wall. Walks-in-Shadow's breath caught in her throat. Red Star sounded very close to here. What if this is all a trap? What if this is part of some elaborate plot to get me to tell them where the Key is?

Lee'sar coughed. "My mother taught me lots that I've forgotten, but one thing I remember is that ladies should always go first." He smirked. Walks-in-Shadow was quickly growing tired of his self-centered posturing and attitude.

She frowned, unsure of how much she should tell him. "I . . . I stole something that the Master wants back. He sent the Guards out to catch me. They succeeded. Here I am."

As she spoke, Walks-in-Shadow observed Lee'sar carefully. The events in the cafeteria were still blurred in her mind, and this was the first chance she had to glean something of his origin. She spoke slowly, in measured steps, in an attempt to remove any inflections that would give her away. His eyes were sharp; she didn't plan on taking any chances with the rest of him.

He had a broad-featured face, with wide-spaced eyes and a long fleshy ridge instead of eyebrows. A flat nose and thin lips only made it more obvious that he was a member of no species Walks-in-Shadow had ever seen. A greenish tint to his skin made her think of slithery things that had no name, things that warmed themselves in the sun and then slinked off in the darkness. Had Walks-in-Shadow ever seen a snake, she would have had more than a vague feeling to base her conclusions on.

Even now, Lee'sar narrowed his eyes. "I don't think that's quite all there is, eh? Red Star seemed even more pissed off than usual, which is saying something. And the fact that you're simply bound instead of dead . . ." Something flicked across his eyes, a quick clouding that Walks-in-Shadow realized was some sort of eyelid. "No, I definitely think there's more to this story than you've told old Lee'sar."

Walks-in-Shadow felt something approaching physical pain. A handshake was no Promise, to be sure, but something deep inside of her wanted to tell him everything. Something else inside berated her for agreeing to speak with him in the first place. Known quantities are dangerous enough, it said, and unknown quantities are even worse.

He stood up and dusted himself up perfunctorily. "When you feel like bringing more to the table, let Jam'ee know. She knows where to find me." He strode towards the door.

Torn, Walks-in-Shadow had to stop from screaming. She clenched her teeth and mustered what little calm remained in her aching skull. "Hold on. I'll tell you more. It wasn't just a trinket that I stole. It was . . ." she paused a second, despite herself, and Lee'sar glanced back at her. "It was the Key."

For a split second, his face contorted into some expression that she did not understand but which made her blood run cold. And then, just as quickly, it was replaced by something much like astonishment. "The Key? The Key? How the hell did you do that?"

He reached the door and threw a deadbolt of some sort. He tried to make it look like that was his plan all along, but Walks-in-Shadow could smell something different in the air, something acrid. He was excited, or scared, or angry, or something. She wished that he and Jam'ee weren't the first of their race that she had met. Even a few encounters in years past would have given her more cues as to their behaviour.

She shook her head, wishing that she had time for a cleansing trance. "I can't tell you that. It is something my people have been working on for . . . a very long time. But I managed to steal it. And hide it, before Red Star caught up with me." She smiled wanly.

His eyes widened. "Red Star caught you and he didn't . . ." He trailed off, then shook his head. "Never mind. So you hid the Key, and Doctor Dick hasn't had you offed because you're the only person that knows where it is." He took another long drag on the cigarette. "Well, hell. I sure picked the wrong time to blow back into town."

Walks-in-Shadow couldn't suppress a snort. "Blow back into town? Those two Guards didn't look like a welcoming committee to me."

Lee'sar waved his hand dismissively. Walks-in-Shadow noticed that the back of his hand was covered with small shapes . . . scales of some sort? He chuckled. "They wouldn't have caught me if I didn't want to be caught. I had to come and see how Jam'ee was doing anyway."

The girl started at the sound of her name, then returned to whatever the hell it was she was doing. Walks-in-Shadow wondered. What is she to him? Daughter? Lover? Slave? Some combination? Something else? Or is that just my cynicism talking?

As if he had heard her thoughts, or at least guessed them, he continued. "She's my younger sister. Our parents . . . our parents are far away." His quick glance towards Jam'ee told Walks-in-Shadow that far away was a convenient fiction. "So I need to look after her, you know?" He shrugged.

Walks-in-Shadow smiled for the first time in what seemed like ages. "Yes, I know. But now it is your turn."

"Ah . . . yeah," he said, his tone mocking, "the good ol' quid pro quo."

Leaning nonchalantly up against the wall, Lee'sar folded his arms and gave her a quizzical look.

"Whatcha want to know 'bout me, sweetpea?"

Walks-in-Shadow didn't need any special skills to know that his facade was firmly back in place. It had slipped, just for a moment, when she had mentioned the Key, giving her a glimpse of . . . something but the moment was gone. She had spent too long observing the Thul not to recognize the posturing which took the place of open interaction. Lee'sar might not be Thul but he mimicked them to perfection. If she was to gain any useful information she would have to dig for it and even then it would be suspect. Know your enemy her people said, and she certainly knew the Thul but Lee'sar was something else and until she knew what, he was potentially more dangerous than anyone, save the Master.

"Well . . . ?"

Lee'sar's tone was still bantering but the flick, flick of those strange inner eyelids betrayed his mounting tension. She had spent too long in thought. Settling comfortably on the bed, Walks-in-Shadow tucked her legs beneath her and let herself sink into a light focus state. To him she would simply look relaxed, and non-threatening, but appearances could be deceptive. In this state she would sample him, every hormonal shift, every muscle twitch, every inflection. Sooner or later she would know.

"Red Star . . . why is he afraid of you?"

Lee'sar gave a dismissive snort but Walks-in-Shadow read a measure of relief in the almost imperceptible loosening of his neck muscles.

"He touches me, he's dead meat." The tone was sneering but there was an undercurrent of grim pleasure in there as well.

Walks-in-Shadow deliberately looked him up and down. She didn't say anything but her expression made it clear that she couldn't see how Red Star could possibly be threatened by a male half his size and a full head shorter. A slight tightening of the eye muscles showed that her ploy had worked and when he spoke there was outraged male pride in his tone, but it was at odds with the calculating way he watched her reaction:

"More than one way to skin a Thul . . . sweetpea. F'rinstance, if he had a go at you again his head would be demoted from his neck . . . "

Outwardly Walks-in-Shadow just looked surprised but inside she had gone still with shock. Not at the words, no. At the way Lee'sar's hand caressed his own throat as he said them. The implications spawned by that gesture bounced around inside her skull and multiplied with each bounce . . . did Red Star now wear a binder too? Could a binder do more than just cause pain and paralysis? Could it kill? Her? . . . and the girl?

Sheer force of will stopped Walks-in-Shadow from touching the binder at her own throat but she couldn't stop the look she darted at Jam'ee. The girl still played with her toy, apparently unaware of the sudden tension in the room. When Walks-in-Shadow looked back at Lee'sar she saw that he was looking at Jam'ee too, but his expression was bleak.

So . . . binders could kill, but not all binders were made of metal. For a moment her natural empathy got the better of her and she had to close her eyes against the pain. Of all her people only she could feel the cruelty of Lee'sar's plight because only she had a choice. He could escape, any time he chose, but to stay free he would have to sacrifice the only person he cared for. She could have stayed safely at home, bearing kits, treasured for the hope that sprang from her loins . . . but that would have meant another generation condemned to slavery while they waited in vain for a male of her line to be born with the Gift. How long had they waited? To even think that the Gift could not pass to a male was heresy and yet, in two hundred turns, only one male had been born with the mark of the Gift and the poor little mite had died before drawing his first breath . . .

"Hey . . . are you ok?" The question was accompanied by a gentle shake.

Reflexively, Walks-in-Shadow slapped Lee'sar's hand away and retreated to the other end of the bed. Her lapse into empathy and introspection had been a dangerous mistake but it had been enlightening as well. That he could no more sacrifice Jam'ee than she could let her people remain enslaved meant that there was a core of goodness in him. But it also meant that he was the Master's puppet. Like it or not, while Jam'ee wore the binder he would do whatever the Master wanted . . . and the Master very much wanted to know where the Key was.

Eyeing him dispassionately now she realized that in another life she could have liked him, would have liked him, but in this life he was the enemy. Something in her expression must have betrayed her because he drew back, concern replaced with a curious look of . . . satisfaction? . . . before sauntering back to his favourite section of the wall and lighting up one of his smoke sticks. It made the air stink.

On the opposite side of the room, Walks-in-Shadow stared at him in silence. She already had more than enough revelations to think about, not least of which was the conviction that she had been out-manoeuvered, that instead of skillfully sounding him out, he had masterfully told her exactly what he wanted her to know. Yet what she did know couldn't possibly be of any benefit to him. Confused and angry she hugged her knees and refused to respond.

"What? No more questions?" When she still didn't react he shrugged elaborately and ground the stub of his smoke stick under his heel. It left a black mark on the floor covering. "Guess I'll go play with Red Star then. Ta Tah."

Walks-in-Shadow stared at the scorch mark for a long time after the door hissed shut behind him.

Jam'ee drifted from corridor to corridor, bored, tired, bored. She passed the infirmary and did a double take. Gork lay bloody, swollen and stiff as a stick in his bed. Jam'ee cocked her head to the side and let her tongue flick out across her top lip. Gork was supposed to be working, Gork was supposed to be in the cafeteria, Gork was not supposed to be in the infirmary. Jam'ee let it slide for the moment, pleasantly distracted by her brother's amiable chatter with the Master. She crossed the hall to the staff room, and stopped short of entering.

"She's too smart, I'm getting nothin'." Lee'sar sighed, circling a finger around the rim of his mug. "Why me, anyway? She dun trust me, and youse guys know that. Why bother?" The Master reclined in a well padded chair, warm mug in hand, half raised to his chin.

"Well, not yet she doesn't, work on her."
"What if I don't want to?"

"You will." The Master gave one of his customary, all-knowing grins, eyebrows arched. Lee'sar laughed, falling back against his seat in disbelief. Jam'ee smiled.

"Wow, you really do know me too well, Master." Lee'sar wiped a hand over his mouth to muffle a giggle. "But, seriously, even if I got her to trust me, I doubt she'll give me anything to go on. I mean, she's scared, right, and that's a good thing and a bad thing. She's gonna keep her mouth shut till she's sure no one's got it in for her."

"And guess what?"

"What?" The Master tipped his head to the side, curious. Lee'sar spread his arms wide and tossed him a quizzical look.

"Who, out of every Thul in this place, has it in for her bad?"

Jam'ee saw her Master look as if he were on the verge of laughing so hard he'd cry.

"Ah . . . don't tell me . . . " He fell forward onto his elbows and put his head in his hands, fingers in his hair. "Red Star."
"Well done! I am proud of you!" Lee'sar sneered, hooking an arm around the back of his chair, the other on the table top. "So, what're you going to do about it?"
"What?" The Master snapped his head up in surprise. "I don't like where this is going, Lee'sar."
"And where would you like it to go, Richard?" Lee'sar chortled, and lurched to his feet. He shuffled over to the kitchen bench to refill his mug and put some music into the sound machine. Jam'ee poked her head in and gave the Master a grin full of teeth. He frowned.

"Jam'ee." He beckoned with a forefinger. She came to sit at his feet, legs curled beneath her. Lee'sar twisted his features into a look of disapproval, fingers clenching around his mug.

"Sis, the hell you doing here?"
He sighed. "Oh, figures."
"Master?" Jam'ee looked up, schooling her features into a look of innocence. "May I help?"

He licked his lips thoughtfully, eyes narrowing.

"Well . . . " His pupils darted to her brother, who was watching them with a look of contempt. Lee'sar leaned forward and let his teeth unfurl. "Don't even think about it."

"About what, Lee'sar?" The Master grinned. "You said it yourself, you're getting no where. Let Jam'ee here have a go."

Jam'ee gave her brother a hopeful look, which he melted under.

"Jizzu." He swore. "S'not like I have a choice in the matter anyway, is it?" He sneered, brushing his mug aside, his appetite lost. The Master bowed from the neck.

"Well done! I am proud of you!" He laughed, patting Jam'ee's blue head. "And now, I have to check up on Gork."

"Poor bastard. Maybe you should let Red have those collace pills he's been buggin' you for . . . He needs a good calm down . . . " Lee'sar shook his head, looking down at his lap. "Poor bastard."

The Master sighed, getting slowly to his feet like an old man. "Too addictive." He stated, and that was the end of that.

Back Forward

Return to The First Sdhlain.

Last Updated: 2002.11.17.2325