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Authors: Anne Mccaffrey

Third Watch (9 page)

BOOK: Third Watch
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“He’s following us,” Khorii told Grimalkin. She had decided she really didn’t like Pircifir all that much. For a moment there, she thought he actually might have sold them. And while Grimalkin’s history showed him to be anything but trustworthy, he had been, for the most part, a nice kitty who had been her friend, or at least seemed to be, for a long time.

For the first time in her life, she was among supposed allies, all of whom had given her reason to mistrust them. It didn’t exactly frighten her, well, not too much, but it annoyed her that they couldn’t be better behaved, and it also made her rather sad and disappointed. Not even Elviiz was smart and invulnerable anymore. Everything had changed far too much lately to suit her.

“Yes, and so is his trainer, who is actually his partner,” Grimalkin told her. “While they are watching us, they’re leaving the specimen unguarded.”

“What does that matter? It’s not ours. Ariin and I read the knowledge of where to find their original planet. Let’s just go there instead.”

“I want that specimen,” Pircifir said.

“We noticed,” Ariin snapped.

“Don’t be difficult. I never meant to leave you behind, and you know very well he could never hold you. All you’d have to do is return to your humanoid guise and convince him he’d been hoaxed, and he wouldn’t even want to keep you.”

Khorii started to tell him that they couldn’t do that, but Ariin stepped on her foot.

Grimalkin smoothly intervened. “How do we know that, brother? An unsavory character like that would find some way to recoup his investment. Best get the ladies safely stowed aboard the ship before we continue.”

“Continue what?” Ariin asked suspiciously.

“Why, our mission, of course,” he replied.

“This is our mission, you silly cat,” Ariin snapped, but Grimalkin just grinned an amused grin at her.

“I realize that. But Pirci and I cannot complete our mission with you hampering us.”

“It was my mission with Pircifir before you two came along,” Ariin said.

“Please be more cooperative, or none of us will accomplish anything here,” Pircifir told them.

Much against Ariin’s will and Khorii’s inclination, the girls returned to the ship, whereupon the two Friends left again.

“When are you coming back?” Ariin demanded.

Grimalkin waved his hand. “Sooner or later.” Khorii was reminded of the wave of his Khiindi self’s retreating tail as he sauntered off to do exactly as he pleased.

As soon as they disappeared, Ariin was back out the hatch.

“What are you doing?” Khorii asked.

“Following them, of course. This was my idea, and that cat of yours isn’t going to leave me sitting on a spaceship while he steals it to reingratiate himself with his friends.”

“We can’t follow them. They’re gone.”

“Yes, but we know exactly where they’re going, don’t we?”

“I suppose. They’ll be trying to steal that thing as soon as everyone is asleep.”

“Of course they will. And they’re bound to run into trouble. The man who owned that thing is as shrewd as they are. The Friends always think they’re smarter than everyone else, and really, they can be so transparent because they never ever give anyone else—not even us—credit for having any brains at all.”

“You can’t go alone,” Khorii said. “Those streets are not safe. Didn’t you feel that stew of greed and anger and violence all around us?”

“No, but I have not led the sheltered life that some girls have. I don’t expect everyone to like me and admire me and want to be my friend.”

“That’s a good thing,”
Khorii thought, but mostly to herself. “Nevertheless, if you’re going, I’m going, too.”

Ariin huffed, but then seemed to reconsider. “Come on then.”

Khorii followed her, but almost at once wished she hadn’t. The market was emptying by the time they walked back through the gates. People crossed in front of them, dark shapes in a dark city, and melted into the nearby buildings. The rugs and stalls full of unusual merchandise had magically disappeared. No spitting camels or even heavily laden beasts of burden wandered the streets. Banners were rolled up, tattered bunting flopped listlessly against the buildings. The more enticing smells of their earlier visit had faded, and the more noxious ones intensified. The temperature had also dropped sharply. The girls were well protected by their shipsuits, but Khorii’s cheeks were cold. From the shuttered windows and closed doors, she felt that she and Ariin were being watched. It wouldn’t be hard. Their hooves clopped against the pavement louder than any other sound. Lights blinked out in twos and threes, then in entire banks as they walked farther down the street toward the carnival tents.

“Decided on a career change after all, did you, ladies?” the barker’s voice inquired from somewhere behind them.

“How did that happen? People shouldn’t be able to sneak up on telepaths,”
Ariin thought indignantly.
“Why can’t we read him now?”

“We don’t actually know who he is exactly, do we?”
Khorii asked.
“Perhaps he has some special abilities himself. Shielding, for instance.”

“We got worried about the snake and decided to check on her,” Khorii said. “Is she all right?”

“How should I know? I turned her loose,” the barker said. “A giant snake is not rare enough to be of any use to me.”

“Where did you turn her loose?” Khorii asked. “How will she survive?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care. But I can’t support a beast that size if she’s not working. You two, on the other hand…”

“Khorii, watch out, he’s—”
Ariin began. Normally they would have been able to know their opponent’s intent, but again, he was frustratingly blank. Then a net was cast over both of them, and they were expertly rolled up in it like the prey of a huge spider. Rough hands shoved them off their feet and dragged them into a doorway.

“You don’t want to do this, really,”
Ariin projected at their captors.
“This is a very bad idea.”

“I don’t think this pair is sensitive enough to respond to your pushing, Ariin,”
Khorii told her.

“Now that we’ve got them, what are we going to do with them?” the man who had been the snake’s keeper asked. “We’d better lie low and keep them out of sight in case their gentlemen friends come looking for them.”

“They’re long gone,”
Ariin prompted.
“They didn’t own us. When they refused your offer, they didn’t ask us if we wanted to work for you.”

“That’s right,”
Khorii added, though her prompt wasn’t as subtle as Ariin’s.
“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be in show business.”

“There, you see? My sister wants to work for you, too. You should take this net off of us before it damages us. It’s too tight. Besides, you can’t show us to people all bound up like this. There’s nothing interesting or unusual about that.”

“Take the net off, Sileg,” the barker told the snake keeper.

“What if they get away?” Sileg asked.

“We have to let them loose sometime so we can work on their act. Besides, I have the feeling that they might enjoy our kind of life. The door’s locked, the windows are barred and their friends are nowhere in sight. Maybe they got bored with this pair.”

“Maybe you’ve been hitting the bottle again, Pebar. They all looked pretty chummy when they left here earlier.”

“All I’m saying is that they certainly disappeared fast enough after leaving these two at their space vessel,” Pebar said. “The fact that the girls tried to follow them indicates some sort of a falling-out, don’t you think?”

“I’m telling you, Pebar, don’t count your take from these two until that ship leaves here for good.”

“Then send a boy to keep an eye on it and report back to us,” Pebar told him. “And hurry back. We’ve work to do with these two.”

Chapter 7

I
t’s okay now, Pebar. The ship is gone,” Sileg reported when he returned.

“Did you make him think that?”
Khorii asked Ariin.

“N-no. I didn’t.”
Ariin sounded shocked.

“How can the ship be gone? Did they really go off and leave us?”
Khorii could not believe that Pircifir and Grimalkin would just desert them.

“Most likely they didn’t even realize that we weren’t on board. I have tried to tell you how little notice these people take of anybody else. Can you see now how important you were to your precious Khiindi?”

“I hope that’s it,”
Khorii said stubbornly.
“Because if it is, they’ll be back as soon as they do notice we’re gone. I know you hate Khiindi—I mean, Grimalkin—but I think being my cat all those years changed him. He isn’t bad, and he does care about me.”

“Good for you. He doesn’t give a dead stinkweed for me.”

I can see why,
Khorii thought to herself, then felt bad about her unkind, if honest, reaction. It wasn’t Ariin’s fault she was like this, it was just her response to her own certainty that Grimalkin and Pircifir had abandoned them. But Khorii knew that wasn’t the case.

As they debated what had happened, Pebar and Sileg untangled the net and released them.

“You understand now, little dears, that you are alone except for us,” Pebar told them as he pulled the webbing from their legs, torsos, and finally their heads. “We will feed, shelter, and protect you in exchange for a little honest work. Now then, what else can you do other than ruin my snake act?”

“We’re healers,” Khorii told him. She and Ariin had reached a silent agreement that their best course was to play along until they could find some way to free themselves. Either the ship would return for them, or they would find another way out. Ariin still had her crono and once their hands were free and they were unobserved, they could easily just return to the time before they left the ship. “We’re sorry we cost you your act, but we simply can’t help it. If something is injured, sick, or in pain, we cure it. It’s our nature.”

“Hmm, sounds useful,” he said, turning on a lamp.

The girls rubbed circulation back into the places where the nets had cut into them. Khorii thought Ariin looked very funny with her face gridded and dented by net marks, but then realized she looked the same.

“It’s going to take a little retooling on our part though. Expensive. We have to let people know we’re in a new business and even though you girls will be paying your way soon enough, I’ll be out of pocket in the meantime.” The lamp’s light glinted from his greedy eye and the crono on Ariin’s wrist at the same time. “Here, that looks expensive,” he said, snatching the crono and pulling it over her hand before the feeling had returned to it again. “That should help offset the expenses.”

“Look at it closely. It’s not precious metal. It’s old and worn. It doesn’t even keep good time. It’s worthless.”
Ariin projected as hard as she could, but Pebar pocketed her crono without looking at it again and began hauling heavy chests out of corners and down from high shelves.

Sileg helped him with other chests until there were six in all. Then the two of them hauled out bundles of fabric, billowing armloads of gauzy sheers from one trunk, stiff folded packets as unyielding and inflexible as heavy packplas, brilliant silks from another, and pots of paint and brushes in the last.

Pebar held up a sheer white robe to Khorii. “Put this on.”

Obediently, she slid it on over her shipsuit.

“I meant take off what you’re wearing and wear this instead,” the man said, with exaggerated patience.

“It looks better over the other clothes. Purer. It will make a better act,”
Ariin nudged.

Since nudity and false modesty were not Linyaari traits, Khorii had already unfastened the wrists and neck of her shipsuit, and started to pull the filmy garment over her head.

“No, no. On second thought, leave the suit on and put the gown on over it. Yes, I like it. The gown lends the ethereal quality we’re seeking, but the suit lends a certain purity that will go well with the tinge of sacred awe your talent should inspire in people.”

“Yeah, Pebar, and it’s not like there was anything to them. They’re way too skinny to fill the gowns out right. I’m going to have to take the shoulders in and lower the belts on the gowns as it is,” Sileg, apparently a critic of both tailoring and female form, declared.

“Fine, fine. Now then. Billing. The Healing Horned Princesses?”

“How about The Healing Horned Priestesses instead, Pebar? Gets the religious angle that way, too. People will feel like they’re dropping offerings in a collection plate instead of paying admission.”

“Ye-es. In fact, if they’re as good with people as they are with snakes, we could change our entire approach. Turn the tunnel into a temple and sit the girls up on a throne, have the marks bow as they come in and make donations appropriate to the healing they need. And how deep their pockets are, of course. I like it. I like it a lot. We should change our image too, Sileg. To fit in with the ambience.”

“Yeah, we could be like temple deacons or something.”

“Exactly. The helpers of the divine ones who take care of all the mundane details, like money.”

“We’re not divine and we’re not priestesses,”
Khorii thought exasperatedly.
“And those two are certainly not any sort of spiritual functionaries.”

“No, but our gift is true, so we’re not fundamentally misleading anyone. Play along till I can steal my crono back, anyway.”

“I guess we’ll have a chance to help people while we’re waiting,”
Khorii agreed.
“Right now it seems we haven’t got any other choice.”

T
he next day, the alien tunnel’s exterior had become a cobalt, gold, and carnelian tent, the colors achieved by feeding the appropriately dyed silks to the organism. Khorii and Ariin, clad in their white shipsuits with the skirts of the white wispy gowns spread around each of them like the petals of a lotus, sat on a pair of altarlike thrones and waited. And waited. And waited. So did Sileg, who stood behind them with a fan of rather mangy feathers.

BOOK: Third Watch
3.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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