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Authors: Anne Mccaffrey

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BOOK: Third Watch
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“Don’t you two know how to do anything but sit?” he complained. “Why don’t you go out front and juggle or tumble or something.”

“You’d have to change your new sign then to read ‘The Tumbling, Juggling Healing Horned Priestesses,’” Khorii pointed out. “It would be more fun than sitting here, but I don’t think it would project the dignified and reverent image you’re trying to achieve.”

“I suppose not,” Sileg was forced to agree.

“Sileg!”

“What?” the man answered irritably.

“Get out here and go find us some gimps! Preferably some with loud mouths.”

“Where am I going to find those?” Sileg asked.

“There are beggars on every street corner with terrible injuries. Go get some of them.”

“Yeah, but most of the injuries are fake, Pebar. They don’t want to be cured.”

“Who cares what they want! There’s another new act up the street that isn’t depending on the marks to come to them. Flying Tigers. Can’t figure out how the ifrit they do it. They’re amazing and astounding, but they can’t make anybody feel any better, so go drag some miserable sot in here for the girls to cure.”

“How about you recruit the gimps, and I’ll change the set a little so the tent is open and the girls are in plain view. This sacred thing is fine, but if the marks don’t see the girls doing their trick, or the gimp getting healed, they’re not going to be flocking over here with their money.”

“That’s where the big mouths come in,” Pebar said. “But you do have a point. Fine. You work on the display, pull back the draperies some, and I’ll go recruit some gimps and sickos.”

“You two seem to have a very good working relationship,” Khorii remarked to Sileg. “Your employer listens to you and heeds your advice.”

“He’s not my employer,” Sileg said. “He’s my brother. We learned our craft at our mother’s knee, and sometimes at her foot. We’re fourth-generation showmen.”

“Has your family always used aliens in your acts?” Khorii asked. “Like the tunnel and the snake and—well, us?”

“No, we’re the first. But you can’t just go with all domestic talent these days. Too much competition. So, during the off-season we go talent scouting.”

“That must be exciting, and dangerous, with creatures like the snake and the tunnel.”

“Expensive, too,” Ariin said. “Space travel isn’t cheap.”

“We pay our way providing entertainment for the crews,” he said.

“But with large fierce creatures like the snake and the tunnel, how do you persuade your transports to haul them for you?”

“The snake is pretty standard wildlife cargo,” he said. “It was only the growth that made her special.” He gave Khorii a resentful look.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I was trying to help. I didn’t realize I was ruining things for you.”

“Ruined it for her, too. She may have had a bellyache before, but she’ll starve now or get captured by some restaurant and served up as round steaks.”

“How horrible,” Khorii said, shocked at the consequences of what she had thought was a helpful act of kindness at the time.

“But speaking of food,” Ariin cut in, “we’re getting really hungry. Is there a patch of grass nearby where we could graze while your brother fetches the—what did you call them—gimps?”

“Nothing like that around here that I know of. When you prove your worth, maybe Pebar will buy you some snake steak.”

“We’re herbivores,” Khorii told him. “Vegetarians.”

“Then maybe he’ll let you each buy a piece of fruit from one of the vendors.”

A few very long boring moments later Pebar returned, towing a beggar behind him. The beggar appeared to have no legs and sat on a cart to which Pebar had attached a rope. Hauling the poor man before the girls in much the same way Khiindi had often presented Khorii with a rodent, Pebar stood back with his arms crossed over his chest, and said, “Do your thing, o’ healing, horned priestesses.”

Khorii and Ariin looked at each other and at the man.
“Uncle Joh said some horns once made his fingers and RK’s ear and tail grow back when they’d been cut off, but I don’t know if we can do legs.”

“You’ve had more experience at it than me,”
Ariin replied.
“The Friends never need healing, and neither do the Others. I didn’t even know we could do that until I came forward to meet Mother and Father.”

Khorii got down off the throne and knelt beside the wretched man. Even before she knelt she had smelled him, but fortunately her horn purified the air around him immediately, making prolonged proximity to his scabrous person much easier to bear. Besides the missing legs, he had thick crusts around his eyes, nose, and mouth, oozing sores on other exposed surfaces, raspy breathing and bleeding, cracked calluses on his palms and knuckles. “How long ago did you lose your legs?” Khorii asked.

“Born without ’em,” he said, with a pugnacious jut of his chin. “Leave me alone. I’m missing prime time and Blind Orange Anderson has been eyeing my corner.”

“How can he do that if he’s blind?” Ariin asked.

“Don’t worry,” Pebar said. “He’s next. Heal this one, and I’ll go get the other one.”

“I’ll have to see your stumps, sir. I’m not sure I can do anything for you if you were born without legs but…”

“Just mind your own business,” he replied, jerking back from her. Khorii sat back on her heels, puzzled.

Sileg grabbed the man and twisted his arm up behind him. “Go ahead and horn him, girlie. Now shut your mouth, Stumpy. You’re getting a freebie as it is.”

Khorii shook her head, perplexed by the man’s behavior, but Ariin, with a bored yawn got down from her altar, brushed past her sister, and laid her hands on the man’s shoulder and her horn against his forehead. “Calm down and let’s have a look,” she said. “I don’t know what you are so upset about. I’m the one who has to touch you.”

“Nobody asked you to,” he said. “Let me out of here!”

Gritting her teeth, Ariin yanked on the bottom of his robe. She was, like most Linyaari, quite strong in proportion to her size, and the man found himself flipped over backward. He fell off the cart, onto his rear, his perfectly good legs trapped halfway out of the depression in the cart where he knelt while begging.

“You had legs all along!” Khorii said.

“No, no, you cured me,” he said, pulling them back under him and covering him with the robe to escape possible stares from the passersby. “Now leave me the ’frit alone and let me get back to my business.”

“We can cure illnesses and injuries, but we don’t clothe them with a horn touch,” Khorii said.

“Pebar should have known. Stumpy’s a phony.”

Stumpy pulled his legs off the cart and stood, a bit unsteadily. Looking down at his hands, he said, “Aw, damn. Will you look at this?” The bruises and calluses were healed and the bleeding cleaned up. He wiped his face on the hem of his shirt, and his skin came away crust-and scab-free. “I’m going to have to grow them calluses back again,” he complained. “It’s going to hurt.”

“We can—“Khorii started to offer, but he glared at her.

“You two have done quite enough. Ruined the whole day for me.” He gave an indignant sniff, then sniffed again, experimentally. “Well, I’ll be! You did cure me after all.” Blowing his nose on his sleeve, he said in a clear voice, “Had a terrible cold, pneumonia probably, and it’s all gone now. That’s worth something.”

“Hallelujah, it’s a miracle,” Sileg said in a flat voice. “Go forth and take word to the multitudes, brother.”

“What’s in it for me?” Stumpy asked.

“You already got a free healing,” Sileg told him.

“That don’t pay for shill work and lost time at my place of employment,” the man haggled.

“Half a copper for each referral then,” Sileg said. “But don’t try to scam a scammer. We’ll check with the marks.”

“Done,” Stumpy said, and knelt back into his cart. In an obsequious whine he said to Khorii, “Give a poor callusless fellow a tow back to his corner, pretty missy?”

“I’ll kick your worthless arse around the rings of Octavia Prime if you don’t crawl on out of here right now,” Pebar said, hauling in another man, this one tall and thin with rust-colored skin and sparse white hair. He wore dark glasses and clung to a white cane.

He was no more blind than the other man was legless but had better manners. When Khorii cured the arthritis that made it hard for him to sit on his street corner for very long, he gratefully promised to move to another corner, minus the glasses, and shill for the girls until the act caught on.

This produced enough business to bring in a woman with female complaints, a man with indigestion, and a sick infant. The parents of the sick infant were well-off and donated enough that Pebar agreed that the girls could each have not only a piece of fruit, but all of the wilted flowers the florist cart had to offer.

Once they had eaten, the girls cured several more cases before the market closed, by which time Pebar had made plans. “We’ll drag the snake’s cage inside the tent,” he told Sileg. “They’ll be safe enough in there. Kind of poetic justice in a way that they replace the snake, isn’t it?”

Sileg rolled his eyes.

Khorii thought that he was beginning to like them and feel sympathy for them that he wouldn’t reveal in front of his harder-hearted brother. Still, it did not keep him from closing the front of the “tent” and snapping the lock on the cage, however. Apparently it would take some more time to work on him.

“Maybe tomorrow night you could nudge him into forgetting to lock the lock,”
Khorii suggested.

“Perhaps I will. My evil persuasive nudges that you so despise have done us
so
much good so far,”
Ariin replied sarcastically.
“Let’s get some rest. I’m sure my horn is clear as glass after all that healing we were forced to do.”

Chapter 8

K
horii was tired enough to sleep despite captivity, the cage, and the fact that she was slumbering inside an alien life-form. However, her dreams changed sometime during the night. They became full of doorsteps and trash in the streets, and dark, ugly passages full of slimy, rotting refuse where, for some reason, she was looking for food.

Then, joy of joys, she found it—large, juicy, filling and of no use to anyone except its fellow scum dwellers. Giving it no time to turn on her, she struck. It shrieked once before she bit it, then swallowed it and began digesting. But she did not wish to digest down here, nor to sleep the long sleep she needed while she did it. Although she had been released, cast out, she returned to the only nest she knew in this place.

Khorii’s mane ruffled with a breeze and she heard a rustling, sliding sound. What an odd dream. She’d never dreamed of killing a live creature before. She wondered why she felt no disgust or repugnance.

The rustling was closer and louder now. When Khorii sat up, she saw nothing at first, but as her eyes adjusted to the light, she spotted a long, low mound where none had been. Then the front end of the mound rose and fanned out into a scalloped hood the size of a land lorry’s wheel. Large golden eyes glinted in the dark, and Khorii briefly smelled the acrid scent of venom that she had smelled once before. Then she sensed movement and something soft and wet touched her hand. She recoiled with a start, but realized that it had only been the snake’s tongue extended in greeting rather than attack. While that registered, the hood closed, the snake’s head returned to the floor, and it wound its length around the cage.

Khorii had no idea how Ariin would react if she woke to find the snake wrapped around them, or how Pebar and Sileg would react. She entertained a brief fantasy in which the snake attacked the two men when they came in the morning and forced them to release the girls, but she realized the flaws in that dream even as she conceived it. The snake’s thought processes did not extend to opening locks or relationships between two-legged people. She—the snake—was simply looking for a safe place to rest and digest her meal before hunting again.

Whatever reaction her sister or the others might have when they found the snake in the morning, Khorii found the creature’s presence oddly comforting. She was sure the snake remembered her, at least, and far from fearing the creature, she felt, however unrealistically, protected by its presence.

When she awoke, however, it was to the lock snapping open and Sileg’s voice saying, “Brought you girls some grain to break your fast.”

“Clever of you,” Ariin said ingratiatingly. “You may notice that our horns haven’t the color they did before your brother began hauling in the gimps yesterday. We can only do our healing if we’re well rested and nourished ourselves.”

“So I figured. You perked right up after you ate that first bouquet of posies last night. I told Pebar that as business picks up, we need you in top form. By today word will have got ’round, and you’ll be drawing a larger crowd.”

“Oh, joy unending,” Ariin said.

The snake was long gone, and Khorii wondered briefly if she had only dreamed the encounter. Then she saw the round hole in the side of the tent enclosure and how the sides bowed out at the bottom in the approximate diameter of the snake’s girth.

As Sileg predicted, there were more people, a steady stream of them at first, then a large crowd gathered outside the entrance to the tent. Many carried crying children, and that became tiresome as the day wore on. Khorii wished their horns could abolish the noise permeating the air the same way they could cleanse it of bad smells. A lot of the children were just tired or overexcited, and a very gentle horn touch was all that was required to calm them. A few were frightened by the horns or the girls’ appearance and required extra time. For the most part, though, the injuries were slight and the healing not too draining. The donations were not draining the pockets of the marks either, however, and this did not please Pebar and Sileg.

They worked steadily into the late afternoon. The child Khorii had been about to calm with a horn touch suddenly bellowed and leaped down from her mother’s knee, running to the front of the tent. Khorii followed. A huge crowd clumped from just outside the tent all the way up the market street, where it parted to let another group of people pass through the center.

BOOK: Third Watch
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