The Thief of Joy and Light
by Danielle L. Parker
Captain Jim Blunt, a no-nonsense gun hung conspicuously off his dragging belt next to the more usual accoutrements of a Rim trader and outlaw, was taking no chances. The room was quiet at the moment, but all the same, the inn misnamed The Maiden’s Joy was that kind of place. It was with more than usual care that Blunt examined his fellow diners, even if that attention was prudently discreet.
By some inexplicable whim of Folded space, Cameltown fell at the crossroads of the routes plied between Old Earth, the outer Rim, and the still mysterious and threatening sphere of Aspian influence. Blunt could only consider such convergence a malicious whim of the Cosmos. No other reason for such favor had ever occurred to him during any of his brief stops here: not the view of the ugly spaceport squatting on its raw dirt, glimpsed through that projectile and beam-crazed window, nor the horse-faced native just wandering past, holding a sprig to his nostrils to assuage his spearmint addiction. And least of all, not Blunt’s fellow diners, on this or any other occasion.
To be sure, the view inside might be more interesting than outside for once. Blunt, lifting the tankard of brew to his mouth with an anticipatory wince, was familiar with a few of the habitués of this inn. The blue-tinged ident tattooed on the sunken cheeks of the host, old Sam Gentry, indicated the innkeeper had once been a fellow Earther, but no one had ever dared ask what crime had earned that decoration, or how a man with a life prison sentence had managed to surface on a distant Rim world.
Sam’s woman, a stolid, silent Filipino, stood behind the counter serving drinks to a trio of corporate pilots too wary to risk true drunkenness.
A small man in the mismatched garb typical of a self-employed Rim trader ate steadily in the corner, his ceaselessly shifting orbs managing to examine every occupant of the room without risking the affront of direct eye contact.
And at the center table, drinking a beaker of pulverized rodent and observed with varying degrees of puzzlement, alarm, or truculence by almost every other occupant of the room, was an Aspian.
Not even in the Rim did humans and their obdurate rival mingle easily. Cameltown itself had swung like a pendulum between the official control of Earth and Asp, as the fluid boundaries shifted and warped under the still-probing hostilities of the two species.
Jim Blunt, allowing his gaze to settle pointedly on that unnaturally tall, thin form, admitted his interest was piqued. Across the street and several doors down was an establishment where a human risked his life to one of those poisonous claws merely by crossing its threshold. It seemed to Blunt, lazily considering the question, that this particular snakehead was looking for trouble, or else on the outs with his own kind. It was a puzzle more intriguing than his usual musing on how old Sam managed to brew such urine-stinking swill, for sure.
“You seem interested in me, Earthman.” The English was delivered in a sibilant hiss typical of an Aspian, but perfectly distinguishable, all the same. The alien laid its three-fingered hand, the poison tipped thumb uppermost, on the table. “It is unwise to stare offensively in the Rim!”
Blunt’s indolent stare was unperturbed. “If you didn’t want to be stared at,” he retorted, “you should have gone to the Tasty Kvav. What’s your game, snakehead?”
The small trader stopped eating. The three pilots at the bar turned slowly on their swivel stools, and one dropped his hand to the gun on his belt, where it rested, slightly tensed. Sam Gentry, returning from the kitchen, stood with his long powerful arms loose at his side, his flat gaze waiting impassively for trouble.
But the Aspian suddenly whistled, the fluting sound that passed for laughter among his kind, and lifted his drink to his lipless mouth.
“Yes,” he said. “A – game, Earthman. It might be worth your while. May I join you?”
The yellow-faced Filipino woman silently placed a bowl of stew in front of Captain Blunt. The pilot fingering his gun scowled, confused at the turn of events, and the trader began to surreptitiously gather his kit and jacket for departure. But Blunt only shrugged.
“Why not,” he said. “But drink your rat first: I don’t like the smell of it.”
“Nor do I,” said the Aspian, with a sneer directed toward silent Sam Gentry. “It is a garbage-fed animal from his own kitchens, no doubt.” With sinuous grace the alien rose to his feet, abandoning his dinner, and took the chair opposite Jim Blunt.
“I am Kzirth,” he said. “You are James Sherman Blunt, Captain of the ship Pig’s Eye. I have been waiting for one of three humans. You are one of those three.”
The small trader pressed nervously past; Kzirth groomed one of his poison claws negligently with his flickering forked tongue. The pilots turned slowly back to their drinks, muttering among themselves, and looked at Captain Blunt with sidelong disapproval.
“Is that so,” said Blunt. “And who were the other more fortunate souls?”
“A female called the Babyface Imp,” replied the Aspian. “A truly astonishing reputation for one of your reputed tender sex. Or the one called Sly Thomas, also known as the Sly Hand. But I must confess, Captain Blunt, that I believe Kavi has seen fit to favor my enterprise with His and Her poisonous breaths. You are the very villain I believe I require.”
Blunt set aside his empty bowl with a dissatisfied belch. “Tastes like rat here, too,” he grunted. “Sam, you been cheating your paying customers again?” He squinted at his companion, picking his strong white teeth thoughtfully with the tip of his knife. “Villainy don’t come cheap,” he said finally. “You prepared to pay the going prices for it?” The Aspian smiled, revealing his thin fangs and darting blue tongue once more. “Is there any need for us to linger in this vile establishment?” he said. “Yes, Captain, I believe we can... negotiate.”
“I don’t negotiate,” Captain Blunt said, smiling out of his lazy blue eyes. “But you’ve talked me into some fresh air and entertainment.” He got to his feet suddenly, followed instantly by the alien, whose own movements were supple and swift. For a moment, the two seemed to measure each other across the table. They stood almost eye-to-eye, for Blunt was unusually tall for an Earthman, but so massive of shoulder and sinew that the alien seemed like a whip-like cobra beside him.
“I have a shuttle in port,” Kzirth hissed, drawing the cowls of his own loose scaled skin and his robe about his face. “There we may talk freely. The fat tongues of Earthmen hang lasciviously upon the wind. Come!”
Jim Blunt pondered this invitation for a moment, and then put his hand lightly upon the gun. “All right,” he said. “But no tricks, or I’ll kill you.” Leaving upon the table the tough plastic chips that passed for coinage in the Rim, he followed his companion out into the gathering dusk.
Only the first flush of the fever that would shortly fall upon the town could be discerned in the drunken voices and unsteady steps of the street throng; the red lights were just beginning to glow from the narrow balconies leaning over the alley, and here and there a practiced voice called temptingly after a spacer in the melee. Blunt paid such salutations no heed. His bright blue eyes looked for other dangers in the crowd, and now and then, as they passed unblinkingly over, met the same appraisal from eyes in another hardened face. Such gave way to him as he passed with the wary politeness a leopard reserves for the tiger, and rarely, nodded in fleeting salutation.
Never once did his guide glance back. Captain Blunt, strolling at a prudent distance behind, saw a second tall thin form in mottled orange and yellow scales press aside from his companion’s path and hold out his thin hands with the poison claws held deferentially down. Kzirth seemed to pay this tribute no heed, though as they neared the silent tall towers of the ships, in the darkness beneath their spires and in the shadows of the squat buildings a myriad hands appeared out of dark robes and shadows, three-fingered and clawed, with sometimes the hiss of dripping poison accompanying their silent homage.
It was no merchant or trading ship that Kzirth at last reached. Standing like a spear planted in the earth was a shuttle, but the bulges of cannons and torpedo bays marred its sleekly aerodynamic shape. A ripple in the air, like the shimmering of a heat mirage, further disguised its outlines. Seeing that, Blunt paused.
“Have no concern,” the Aspian said, turning back. “A corpse will not accomplish my mission.” And indeed, the ripple of deadly protection smoothed away as he spoke, and Kzirth gestured impatiently with his clawed digits. “Come!”
Jim Blunt assessed his situation thoughtfully. It was perhaps the first time a human had ever been invited inside a vessel in the service of the Aspian Duality, the Twin Personages who, alternately male and female in gender, were said to rule the still-mysterious realms of Aspian space. For Blunt now suspected that his poisonous host represented no less than those fabled Personages. There were no markings upon that ship, which loomed over him now like the shadow of a falling cedar, but that armament could not be mistaken, nor could the silent respect of Kzirth’s fellow vipers.
Seeing the Earthman’s hesitation, the Aspian whistled in mirthless laughter. “Do you fear?” he said. “Then fear more, for I tell you this, if you enter this ship, you will embark upon my service or pay with your life. Such a tale as I have is not to be lightly whispered into idle human ears. If you accomplish my mission, Captain, you will be recompensed beyond your own fevered dreams. If you fail me or do not accept this mission,” he stretched open his lipless mouth and delicately groomed his dripping claw with the darting tongue, “then we will see if your gun or my claw will prove the more deadly.”
Jim Blunt’s blue eyes narrowed, then he laughed sardonically. “I’d not put money on your sickle,” he said. “Lead on, snakehead.”
Kzirth bowed with more than human suppleness and a mocking flourish of his dank robe. The door in the foot of the ship opened with silent promise. “Enter, then!” he commanded in sibilant challenge.
Air, warm, humid and rich with hidden growth, wafted to Captain Blunt’s nostrils as he stepped cautiously within. There was no light except for a dull yellow-green glow that seemed to emanate from the metal walls. Kzirth put back the double hoods of cloth and skin that had shielded his face. In the sickly ambiance, the metallic green edgings of his golden scales glowed with their own reflective light, as did his lidless yellow eyes. In silence the two climbed to the shuttle’s small bridge, and Blunt, looking about keenly, saw that Aspian ships shared many commonalities with their Earthly counterparts, even if the lurid green scripts that scrolled across many screens meant little to him.
“Be seated,” said his host. “Do you dare drink with me, Earthman?”
“I’ve had my rat for today,” said Blunt, who had not moved.
“This you have not had,” said Kzirth, producing a small flask, whose contents he poured carefully into two tall thin beakers. The liquid seemed to smoke. “It is an honor I pay you, human, in the hope you will be able to aid Those Whose Names Must Not Be Mentioned... not for your life, Earthman.” He stood back and folded his hands into his sleeves, leaving the two misty beakers between them. “Choose.”
The Earthman shrugged. “Let’s get down to the sharp stuff, snakehead, and keep the honor out of it. I ain’t drinking no unknown hooch. What is it you want done?”
The Aspian hissed something in his own sibilant language. “Very well, Earthman. This is a question of — a god! One whose name I scarcely dare speak aloud, lest the Shawl of Despair fall upon me even here. One whose mercy is surcease from life, and whose kindness is to allow those who seek him to cease from all joys and sorrows.” Here Kzirth’s tall thin form seemed to hunch in upon itself, and his hissing voice fell low. “His Name is Lziren.” And the Aspian’s cobra-like head turned from side to side to examine the shadows in the yellowish room, his clawed hands emerging to rake the air nervously.
Blunt’s space-bleached brows drew together. “You snakeheads always had more silly idols than any sane man could keep track of,” he retorted impatiently. “Though I never heard of this Lziren. What’s all this got to do with an Earthman?”
Kzirth whistled mirthlessly. “Listen, human. Of late, upon a world far from here, which is holy to us, and whose name no man has yet heard, the influence of The Decayed One has grown inordinately powerful. Many are the gods worshipped there, and there is much jostling among them for the pre-eminent place. It is not uncommon for the acolytes and priests to support their own godling militantly. Perhaps that is why his influence has grown strong — too strong.
“But my own agents,” and here he hissed with clear anger, “have failed to discover the reasons! Three of my best have I lost to a dishonorable death of their own delivery. And now,” he hesitated, and then again raked the air sharply, a mist of poison evaporating from his jutting sickle shaped claws, “now even Those whom I serve have felt that sickly breath upon their necks!”
“I’m starting to get the specs,” Blunt said, his white teeth flashing in a mirthless smile. “So how’s a human to succeed where three poisonous vipers have failed? Keep talking, snakehead.”
Kzirth folded his arms more calmly. “The world Fzil receives visitors and worshipers from many species,” he said. “Humans are an unknown sort there, but that will not be unusual. You will go to pay homage to the Great Lziren, and you will insinuate yourself among his worshipers and acolytes, and learn what you can. If you unbelieving Earthmen prove as susceptible to the Shawl of Despair...” he gave a low whistle of bitter amusement. “Then I need not waste any poison upon you at least.”
Blunt considered this in grim silence. At last he said, “How will I get there?”
“You need not worry about such details,” said his host. “The Pig’s Eye will be taken in tow by my ship; we will provide you the necessary protocols when we arrive at Fzil. I will arrange to meet you every third night in a place of your choosing there. Other help I do not promise, but you may ask. I will tell you everything I know about Lziren.”
It was a wild venture. Blunt stood considering. “One hundred thousand Earth Monetary Units, safe passage back to the Rim when done, and I’ll take on your job.”
The Aspian was silent a long moment. Under his loose sleeve the claws worked convulsively, in and out, during the pause. “One half of your exorbitant sum is being paid into your account as we speak,” he replied at last in a low hiss. “The rest will be paid if you perform the job satisfactorily. If you flee, be assured there is no place where I shall not find you.” His yellow eyes gleamed with deadly malice.
“I never skipped out on a job yet,” Blunt retorted. “It’s a deal.”
“Then drink with me,” said the Aspian, and took up one of the beakers in his thin digits. “Then it is a deal, Earthman.”
Captain Blunt scowled, but he took up the smoking glass in his hands, and quaffed the icy libation in one swallow. Wiping his watering eyes he lowered the vessel.
“I might have had worse,” Blunt panted, coughing and shuddering, “But not much worse. Tastes like the snake’s own drool. I think I’d have preferred shaking hands after all. What’s it called?”
“Rzilovath, The Tears of the Twins,” said Kzirth. “An honor, Captain, that you are too uncivilized to comprehend. And now,” he turned swiftly to his board with a flare of his loose robe, “Be seated, Captain. You are about to see worlds human eyes have never beheld!”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker