The Colors of Space
Chapter 10

Copyright© 2016 by Marion Zimmer Bradley

The green-sun Meristem lay far behind them. Karol’s burns had healed; only a faint pattern on Ringg’s forehead showed where six stitches had closed the ugly wound in his skull. Bart’s wrist, after a few days of nightmarish pain when he tried to pick up anything heavy, had healed. Two more warp-drive shifts through space had taken the Swiftwing far, far out to the rim of the known galaxy, and now the great crimson coal of Antares burned in their viewports.

Antares had twelve planets, the outermost of which--far away now, at the furthest point in its orbit from the point of the Swiftwing‘s entry into the system--was a small captive sun. No larger than the planet Earth, it revolved every ninety years around its huge primary.

Small as it was, it was blazingly blue-white brilliant, and had a tiny planet of its own. After their stop on Antares Seven--the largest of the inhabited planets in this system, where the Lhari spaceport was located--they would make a careful orbit around the great red primary, and land on the tiny worldlet of the blue-white secondary before leaving the Antares system.

As Bart watched Antares growing in the viewports, he felt a variety of emotions. On the one hand, he was relieved that as his voyage in secrecy neared its official destination, he had as yet not incurred unmasking.

But he felt uncertain about his father’s co-conspirators. Would they return him to human form and send him back to Vega, his part ended? Or would they, unthinkably, demand that he go on into the Lhari Galaxy? What would he do, if they did?

At one moment he entertained fantasies of going on into the Lhari worlds, returning victorious with the secret of their fueling location, or of the star-drive itself. At another, he could not wait to be free of it all. He longed for the society of his own people, yet ached to think that this voyage between the stars must end so soon.

They made planetfall at the largest Lhari spaceport Bart had seen; as always, the Second Officer was the first to go through Decontam and ashore, returning with exchanged mail and messages for the Swiftwing‘s crew. He laughed when he gave Bartol a sealed packet. “So you’re not quite the orphan we’ve always thought!”

Bart took it, his heart suddenly pounding, and walked away through the groups of officers and crew eagerly debating how they would spend their port leave. He knew what it would be.

It was on the letterhead of Eight Colors, and it contained no message. Only an address--and a time.

He slipped away unobserved to the Mentorian part of the ship to borrow a cloak from Meta. She did not ask why he wanted it, and stopped him when he would have told her. “I’d--rather not know.”

She looked very small and very scared, and Bart wished he could comfort her, but he knew she would shrink from him, repelled and horrified by his Lhari skin, hair, claws.

Yet she reached for his hand, gripping it hard in her own dainty one. “Bartol, be careful,” she whispered, then stopped. “Bartol--that’s a Lhari name. What’s your real one?”

“Bart. Bart Steele.”

“Good luck, Bart.” There were tears in her gray eyes.

With the blue cloak folded around his face, hands tucked in the slits at the side, he felt almost like himself. And as the strange crimson twilight folded down across the streets, laden with spicy smells and little, fragrant gusts of wind, he almost savored the sense of being a conspirator, of playing for high stakes in a network of intrigue between the stars. He was off on an adventure, and meant to enjoy it.

The address he had been given was a lavish estate, not far from the spaceport, across a little gleaming lake that shimmered red, indigo, violet in the crimson sunset, surrounded by a low wall of what looked like purple glass. Bart, moving slowly through the gate, felt that eyes were watching him, and forced himself to walk with slow dignity.

Up the path. Up a low flight of black-marble stairs. A door swung open and shut again, closing out the red sunset, letting him into a room that seemed dim after the months of Lhari lights. There were three men in the room, but his eyes were drawn instantly to one, standing against an old-fashioned fireplace.

He was very tall and quite thin, and his hair was snow-white, though he did not look old. Bart’s first incongruous thought was, He’d make a better Lhari than I would. His firm, commanding voice told Bart at once that this was the man in charge. “You are Bartol?” He extended his hand.

Bart took it--and found himself gripped in a judo hold. The other two men, leaping to place behind him, felt all over his body, not gently.

“No weapons, Montano.”

“Look here--”

“Save it,” Montano said. “If you’re the right person, you’ll understand. If not, you won’t have much time to resent it. A very simple test. What color is that divan?”

“Green.”

“And those curtains?”

“Darker green, with gold and red figures.”

The men released him, and the white-haired man smiled.

“So you actually did it, Steele! I thought for sure the code message was a fake.” He stepped back and looked Bart over from head to foot, whistling. “Raynor Three is a genius! Claws and everything! What a deuce of a risk to take though!”

“You know my name,” Bart said, “but who are you?”

Suspicion came back into the dark eyes. “Does that Mentorian cloak mean--you’ve lost your memories, too?”

“No,” said Bart, “it’s simpler than that. I’m not Rupert Steele. I’m--” his voice caught--”I’m his son.”

The man looked startled and shocked. “I suppose that means Rupert is dead. Dead! It came a little before he expected it, then. So you’re Bart.” He sighed. “My name’s Montano. This is Hedrick, and I suppose you recognize Raynor Two.”

Bart blinked. It was the same face, but it was not grim like Raynor One’s, nor expressive and kindly like that of Raynor Three. This one just looked dangerous.

“But sit down,” Montano said with a wave of his hand, “make yourself comfortable.”

Hedrick relieved Bart of his cloak; Raynor Two put a cup of some steaming drink in his hand, passed him a tray of small hot fried things that tasted crisp and delicious. Bart relaxed, answering questions. How old? Only seventeen? And you came all alone on a Lhari ship, working your way as Astrogator? I must say you’ve got guts, kid! It was dangerously like the fantasy he had invented. But Montano interrupted at last.

“All right, this isn’t a party and we haven’t all night. I don’t suppose Bart has either. Enough time wasted. Since you walked into this, young Steele, I take it you know what our plans are, after this?”

Bart shook his head. “No. Raynor Three sent me to call off your plans, because of my father--”

 
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