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Book Excerpt


Excerpt from
BETWEEN DARKNESS AND LIGHT
Book 7 of the Sholan Alliance series
by Lisanne Norman

Published by DAW Books Inc. January 2003
© Copyright 2003 by Lisanne Norman
Used by permission of DAW Books Inc. All rights reserved.


CHAPTER 1

The Venture II, Zhal‑S'Asha 29th day (October)

A message beacon at the rendezvous point, responding only to Kusac's voice, had redirected them to new coordinates where the destroyer N'zishok was waiting for them.

Captain Zaykkuh instructed them to dock the Venture 11 in the ship's landing bay.

As they made their approach, Kusac looked round his crew of four. "This time, we really could be walking into a trap," he said. "I'm prepared to risk myself, but no one else. You can drop me off and go back to Haven." He still wasn't sure whether or not he was glad of their company.

"We made our own decision to join you," said Jayza.

"There's no way I'm leaving one of our cubs with aliens like them," growled Dzaou.

He stared fixedly at the tan-pelted male, frowning and swivelling his ears forward. "I'm still in charge, Dzaou, remember that. I want no unauthorized rescue attempts. You'll not put either the cub's, or our lives at risk."

"Kezule's request could be genuine enough," said Banner, looking briefly away from his consol at him. "He seemed pretty reasonable, wasn't at all what I expected."

"Never forget Kezule is a Valtegan," he said. "He's not a Prime. After his escape, he beat his Sholan female companion almost to death then raped her. Don't be fooled by his apparently civilized behavior toward us."

"Keeza agreed to go into his prison cell with him," said Banner. "She was working undercover. He needed to pair with her to save her life."

"After he'd bitten her to inject a poison that made her protect him while he hibernated to heal!" he said harshly. "Kezule's dangerous; Valtegans are stronger and faster than us. To them we're inferiors, not even worth considering as people."

"How do we tell Primes from Valtegans?" asked Jayza, breaking the small silence that had fallen after his outburst.

"All the females, and all lighter colored males are Primes," he said moderating his tone. "The only other Valtegans are the M'zullian half-breed warriors like those we have on Shola. Be especially careful with them, they could still have a psychosis about our species."

"Approaching their landing bay now," said Banner as the entrance to the N'zishok loomed large in the main view screen.

"Take us in," he said as they returned their attention to their work

*

Wearing his black priest's robe over his uniform tunic as a way of setting himself apart from his crew, Kusac began to lead the way down the Venture II's ramp, cautiously feeling the way ahead with his mind. This time there were no psi dampers in the docking bay. He sensed some twenty people in the near vicinity, mostly in small groups of two or three. Just as he focused on the largest, a group of six, his torc began to vibrate gently, automatically warning him that his mental touch was too strong and he was risking discovery. Instantly, he drew back.

The coldness of the deck beneath his bare feet made him shiver, reminding him this time of his return as a Valtegan hostage at Haven so many months before. Dismissing the memory as irrelevant, he put his small kit bag on the ground and watched the welcome party cross the landing bay toward them. Peripherally, he was aware that only one other vehicle was in the bay and that the other Primes present were involved in refueling and servicing it.

"I've sealed the Venture as you ordered, Captain," murmured Banner, coming to stand on his right. "No one but us can get in."

He nodded, studying the group of four green-clad soldiers that came to a stop in front of them. The lead two, dressed in black fatigues with gold details, were Primes. All carried side arms.

"I thought you said there was only one Valtegan here," muttered Dzaou.

"M'zullians, like those we have on Shola," reminded Banner quietly.

"Captain Aldatan," said the lead male, taking a step away from his people. "Welcome to the N'zishok. I'm Lieutenant M'zynal, head of security, and this is Lieutenant Shartoh."

He studied the young male in front of him, aware of his hackles beginning to prickle as he smelled the other's scent. The same height as himself, just over six feet tall, the Prime's flesh was pale green with a slight sandy colored tint to it. The round, hairless skull was topped by a ridge that began just above the brows. Large eyes, almost bulbous, regarded him unblinkingly. Under a nose with small vertical slits for nostrils, the wide, almost V shaped mouth held scores of tiny, pointed teeth.

M'zynal indicated the male on his left. "I'm afraid I must ask you to hand over your weapons before we can escort you to your quarters. You won't be needing them while you're with us."

He'd anticipated this. The la'quo pellet gun, broken down into its innocent-looking component parts, was stowed in various locations throughout his bag. He was confident that neither it, nor the pellets concealed inside a jar of tooth cleaning paste, would be discovered. The spray he'd left lying in a drawer of personal items in his cabin, hoping by its very anonymity it would pass any search.

"We're prisoners, then," he said, reaching for the gun that he carried in plain view on his weapons' belt.

Lieutenant M'zynal looked slightly shocked, his bifurcated tongue flicking out briefly. "Not to my knowledge, Captain. On the contrary, we've been told to treat you with all courtesy. Even we don't normally go armed on the N'zishok."

His companion gestured two of the M'zullian guards forward to take their weapons.

"Knives too," Shartoh said as he watched them hand over their firearms. "You understand, I'm sure, that we'll have to search you and your luggage once we reach your quarters."

Dzaou let out an exclamation of rage, silenced only when Kusac raised his hand warningly. "Our knives aren't considered weapons," he said, his voice deceptively soft. "They're eating utensils and the badge of our graduation from the Brotherhood itself. We won't remove them."

Shartoh hesitated, looking to M'zynal for instructions.

"Will you give me your oath they'll not be used as weapons?" the young Prime asked.

Kusac stepped forward, holding his palm up in front of the startled Lieutenant's face, and tensed his fingers. Five claws, each nearly two inches long, almost as sharp on the inner curve as they were pointed at the tip, slid out from their sheathings in his fingers.

Startled, the Prime nevertheless held his ground.

"You think we need knives, Lieutenant M'zynal?" he asked, a faint purr underlying the words. The claws retracted, his fingers relaxed and were once again a hand. "No more than you do."

"You may keep your knives," M'zynal said, his voice betraying only a slight quiver. "As you rightly reminded me, we both have formidable enough natural weapons. However, we'll still need to search you and your belongings once we reach your quarters." He indicated the elevator at the far end of the landing bay. "If you'll follow me, I'll show you where you'll be staying for the next few days until we reach our base."

*

Gradually lowering his mental shields and increasing his sensitivity, he allowed himself to passively absorb the thoughts of those around him as they followed M'zynal. During their journey here, as well as erasing Banner's memory of his masquerade of L'Seuli at Haven, he'd managed to relearn how to gauge the amount of mental filtering necessary to cut out most of the white noise and concentrate only on the minds he wanted. There was little he could glean, though, as he hadn't yet remastered the skills required to read alien minds, and all the Primes and Valtegans had strong natural mental barriers.

"Your weapons will be returned to you when you leave us," said M'zynal. "While you're with us on the N'zishok, and at Kij'ik, our base, your access to certain areas will be prohibited for security reasons. However, you're free to come and go as you wish throughout the rest of our facilities. Unless, of course, we're actually working together."

He could feel Dzaou's smouldering resentment and turned his head to glance at Banner. Before he could say anything, his Second flicked an ear in affirmation and fell back to take hold of their gunner by the arm. Briefly he wondered what psi gift the other had that was now allowing him to second-guess his concerns.

"What kind of work?" he asked a they entered the elevator.

"Training," said M'zynal. "And comparative anthropology."

"What makes you think I know anything about either?" he asked as they began to move upward.

M'zynal's round yellow eyes regarded him unblinkingly. "We know you're a member of Sholan Alien Relations and that you were involved in training the twenty warriors we sent to you," he said quietly. "Don't underestimate us, Captain. We're not like the Valtegans you met at Keiss, nor those you have on Shola. You know very little about either the General's time or the Prime culture."

He was the one who looked away, uncomfortably aware that the young Prime was right.

"Where is Kezule?" he asked abruptly. "And the Sholan cub?"

"The General and his wife have had to return to our base, but he asked me to tell you that he's looking forward to meeting you in just over a week's time."

He cursed softly. This he hadn't anticipated. "And the cub?"

M'zynal looked at him oddly and he felt the other's curiosity that he should be so interested in a hatchling. "With the General. He keeps him with him at all times. Shartoh will show you round once we've gotten you settled. The cabins are standard Prime ones with the low form-fitting sleeping mats. Its only for three days, though. Once we reach Kij'ik, you'll find the beds there are the regular kind."

"I take it you don't like the low mats," Kusac said, glancing back at him. He knew all about the communal sleeping arrangements and mats on the Kz'adul and began to wonder if this young officer was indeed a Prime despite his lighter coloring.

"They don't suit everyone," M'zynal said as the elevator stopped.

They followed him down the corridor till he came to an open door. "This is yours and the two next door are your crew's cabins. You all have your own showers and toilet facilities, and the Officers' lounge is at the end of the corridor on your right."

He looked in, coming face to face with another Prime officer. With an exclamation of surprise, he stepped backward into M'zynal.

"This is Noolgoi," continued the Lieutenant, a trace of pain in his voice as he put a steadying hand under Kusac's elbow.

"I can manage!" Kusac snapped, pulling away from him and turning back to the room. The other male had exited and backed off down the corridor by a few feet, looking as rattled as he felt. He could smell the faint scent of apprehension from him and realized Noolgoi had gotten as much of a shock as he had.

More cautiously this time, he looked inside. It was a standard single occupancy cabin with a desk and chair, and a couple of easy chairs and table. Beyond it he could see the open doors to the bedroom and the bathing room. It seemed spacious enough.

"Will the doors be locked?" demanded Dzaou before Banner could prevent him.

"Ah, thank you for reminding me." M'zynal dug deep in his uniform jacket pocket and pulled out a small packet. "Your keys, Captain," he said, holding them out to Kusac. "There's one for each of you. The General assumed you'll want to lock your quarters when you're not in them."

Gesturing to Banner to take the key cards, he stepped inside.

"Noolgoi will show you the Officers' mess and recreation lounge on this deck once you've settled into your cabins. If you'll allow us to do the search now, Shartoh can take you on a tour of the ship before our evening meal," said M'zynal. "You can join us in the Officers' mess or eat in your rooms if you prefer, just call Noolgoi on the desk unit and let him know your choice."

* * *

TeLaxaudin home world, Ghioass, same day

"He wakes," he heard Naacha say quietly.

"About time," a deeper voice replied. Sokarr's.

Annuur stirred, feeling a deep ache in every bone and joint. At the edges of his mind, he sensed the presence of his three sept companions, felt their concern for him. Naacha, the mystic, his mind calm as always, his concern masked with his customary gruffness even there; Lweeu, mate and life-giver to them all, her youthfulness betrayed by the constant sea of half-formed fears and worries that she tried to keep to herself; and finally, Sokarr, their nurturer . . .

His eyes flew open and he lifted his head sharply to look at Sokarr, trying not to groan out loud at the pain it caused. His last coherent memory before being thrown from his navigation couch against the far bulkhead had been of watching one of the ceiling struts falling toward Sokarr and Lweeu and being unable to warn them.

"I thought you were dead," he said lamely, realizing even as he spoke that the Camarilla must have retrieved them. Only on their home world or here - though his surroundings looked like the med level on Anchorage, he knew it wasn't - was Unity possible without the neural nets.

"I was," said Sokarr, leaning forward to touch noses briefly. The wave of affection that surrounded him was unrestrained. "Your injuries were greater. Four of our mystics were needed, as well as the TeLaxaudin physicians, to heal all the broken bones and damaged organs in your body. My own were slight by comparison."

Four? Since their mystic had joined them, he'd never known an occasion when Naacha hadn't been able to handle healings - even a simple death - on his own. He was one of the most powerful.

"He understates, as usual," said Naacha gruffly from the end of his bed. "An hour more, maybe two, and I could have done nothing. He'd have stayed dead."

As sparing as Naacha was with words, Annuur knew better than to discount him when he did speak. Lowering his head, he looked at Lweeu, knowing she was always a good barometer for the mood of the sept as a whole. Her eyes sparkled too brightly and between her mobile ears, her short crest of stiff hair was constantly moving. She was very distressed. He hadn't realized he'd been so close to death. It had obviously been a near thing for both himself and Sokarr.

Clenching his teeth together, Annuur pushed himself slowly upright, trying to ignore the swirling of the room. Finally he was sitting on his haunches. "We achieved the Camarilla's goal and survived," he said faintly, reaching out an unsteady forelimb to Lweeu. "Without risking our U'Churian family."

Gratefully she took hold of his hand, making soft chittering noises of comfort.

Naacha grunted, dropping back down onto all fours. "Camarilla don't interfere lightly. More trouble ahead."

"This was a major intervention," agreed Sokarr, looking across Annuur's bed to the window beyond. "They will need us again."

Annuur followed his gaze. In the distance, the shapes of five Watcher ships could be clearly seen, the sixth shrouded behind a covered armature.

"All will need to be processed," said Lweeu, following his gaze. "Captain Tirak is not pleased at what we did."

"Tirak's awake?" asked Annuur, surprised.

"They could not stay in the ship while it was being repaired," said Lweeu.

"What's he said?"

"Nothing, yet. He waits for you," replied Naacha, trotting round to the side of the bed and rearing up on his haunches again.

"Someone has a sense of humor to allow the rest of our family to be wakened during this time," Annuur murmured, glancing at Naacha. He found himself unable to look away from the swirling blue tattoos on the other's cheeks until he felt a hand touch the underside of his jaw and raise it.

Naacha's eyes held his as firmly as his hand held his chin. "Glad am I you are still with us, Phratry Leader," the mystic said quietly before releasing him.

Surprise and pleasure washed through Annuur in equal measures. He knew that Naacha had chosen to join their sept out of the many that had courted him, but he hadn't known till now that their taciturn mystic cared so much for them.

"So am I," he said with heartfelt sincerity, beginning to sway slightly as his aching body started to tremble with the effort of remaining seated.

Naacha leaned against him, offering him support just as the door opened. The TeLaxaudin Azwokkuss, his bronze spindly limbs partially concealed by the colored strips of drapery that fell from his waist and neck, stood there. A faint thrumming filled the air before he began to speak.

"Your Captain have I brought," he said.

"Azwokkuss said you were awake," began the black-furred U'Churian coming into the room. He stopped dead, mouth falling open in shock. "Sokarr! But . . . You were dead! We left your body in the . . ." He ground to a halt.

"Azwokkuss definitely has a sense of humor," Annuur murmured very quietly as Naacha helped him to lie down.

"The cold, it must have been the cold," Tirak said, starting forward again. "It put you into suspended animation." He stopped at the foot of Annuur's bed, eyes wide, ears disappearing into his mane of black hair.

"You haven't a mark on you," he said in a voice so quiet they had to strain to hear him. Leaning down, he grasped the end of the bed for support. "I don't understand. It's only been five days, how could you possibly have healed so quickly?"

"Our mystics can do many things beyond navigating or planet-forming worlds," said Annuur tiredly, settling himself on his side against the soft bedding. He knew that wakening Tirak and bringing him to them had been a small act of revenge from Azwokkuss and the Reformer faction of the Camarilla for making them have to intervene in such a drastic fashion. "Don't forget we saved your people many generations back when a solar flare would have almost destroyed them."

"Where are we?" Tirak asked abruptly, straightening up. "We're not on Anchorage, are we?"

"We're on the TeLaxaudin world," said Sokarr, dropping down onto all fours to go fetch a nearby chair and push it over for the Captain. "They brought us here to heal us."

Seeing the small Cabbaran struggling with the chair, Tirak went over to take it from him, then returned with it to the end of the bed, where Annuur's head was, and sat down.

"The jump point," he said slowly. "As we entered it, Sheeowl said it was different. I don't remember anything after that until I woke here five days ago."

"Yes," agreed Annuur. "It was a TeLaxaudin one, sent to fetch us here."

"Sent?"

"It's more than a jump point," said Sokarr. "It transports people and things."

"Did you send for help? How could you? We were running silent to avoid the M'zullians picking us up."

"They could see what was happening and came to help us," said Annuur.

"It was they who slowed you, when you were spinning out of control, - Tirak said slowly. - Why didn't they take you then, and why take us all? I assume the other three ships are here too."

"All six are here, Captain," said Sokarr, unable to prevent himself glancing out of the window at the ships sitting on the landing pad.

Tirak looked, remaining silent for some time.

"A drink, please," said Annuur quietly to Sokarr. His throat was dry with talking.

Lweeu beat Sokarr to his night table. Annuur's mobile upper lip curled gently in a smile when the older male deferred good-naturedly to her. Many had doubted his wisdom in choosing one as young as Lweeu, not yet out of her first century, as their mate. Her talent as an engineer had been a factor in choosing her, but Annuur had to admit he'd been drawn to her by her youth and personality. His sept had accepted his choice because it was his right as their patriarch to choose their mate, but little incidents such as this confirmed that he'd chosen wisely.

While she held the glass, he raised his head to sip the drink through the flattened straw. It had a strange tang to it and he glanced quizzically at her.

"Azwokkuss said to give you this when you woke," she said. "It'll help the pain."

All ready a welcome numbness was beginning to creep through his limbs.

"A night's rest and you should be fine," reassured Sokarr. "The damage was deep and they wanted to monitor the restructuring process. Stronger analgesics would have interfered with that."

"The solar flare wasn't the only time you interfered in our past, Annuur," said Tirak suddenly. "You stayed very quiet when we discovered that there was a genetic link between us and the Sholans. When did your people interbreed us?"

Annuur waved the glass away and lowered his head to the bed again, closing his eyes. Azwokkuss couldn't have anticipated this. The TeLaxaudin wouldn't be that vindictive. How was he supposed to answer him?

"We were not involved with your species before the flare, Captain Tirak," he said at length.

Tirak regarded him steadily. "Your people turned up very conveniently in time to repair the genetic damage done to those on Home and our nearest moon. How did you know there was an inhabited planet in our system? How could you have the knowledge to help us if you'd never been to our world before?"

Annuur hadn't expected Tirak's questions to take this direction. He'd assumed he'd focus on the why's of their attack on the M'zullian destroyer and the TeLaxaudin part in it.

"And what the hell were you doing attacking the M'zullians and risking our lives and the Alliance to do it?" Tirak continued angrily after a moment's silence, almost as if he'd been following Annuur's thoughts.

He was too exhausted to lie. "Thousands of years ago, the TeLaxaudin lost a matter transformer in hyperspace," he began.

"Annuur, you cannot tell our Captain!" exclaimed Lweeu, her mobile nose twitching in distress.

He ignored her interruption, aware through Unity that Sokarr was already reassuring her that the Captain wouldn't leave here remembering anything of this conversation. "They searched for it for many years before giving up, assuming that it was gone forever. When we heard of the destruction of the two hunter worlds, we knew that somehow the M'zullians had found it and turned it into a weapon. It had to be . . ."

"Hunter worlds?" interrupted Tirak.

"Sholans," Annuur corrected himself tiredly. "The transformer had to be located and destroyed. It wasn't until the M'zullians used it on the J'kirtikkians that we knew exactly where it was. We had an opportunity to destroy it, and we took it."

"You've known all along what killed the Sholan worlds and you didn't tell the Alliance about it? You were prepared to let the J'kirtikkians die and risk everyone and everything just to get it yourselves? Dammit, Annuur, you're no better than the Chemerians!" the U'Churian growled angrily, his thick mane of black hair beginning to rise around his shoulders. "If we'd known, we could have captured it . . ."

Annuur lifted his head to look Tirak in the eyes. "Our common enemy is now halved, Captain, at no loss of life to ourselves, and the weapon is destroyed with no chance of them making another. Had we told the Alliance about it, they would have demanded to have one of their own, just as you were about to do. It was never designed to be used as a weapon, Captain, nor should it be."

"Leaving that aside, when did you intend to tell me this? We're family! There should be no secrets between us! Now I find out you're working with the TeLaxaudin, that when we'd barely come down from the tree canopies, you interbred us with the Sholans! How can there ever be trust between us again?"

"Enough!" roared Naacha. "Be silent, Child!"

Shocked by the outburst from the usually silent Cabbaran, Tirak glanced over at him.

As the silence lengthened, Annuur looked up at Tirak again. Their exchange had used up most of the little energy he had remaining and his awareness of the others in his sept had faded. He saw what he expected. Tirak's eyes were wide and staring, fixed, he knew, on the swirling tattoos on Naacha's face. As he watched, the Captain began to sway gently.

"Sokarr, support him before he falls off the chair," he said. "Lweeu, fetch Azwokkuss!"

* * *

Ghioass, Zhal‑S'Asha 30th day (October)

Shvosi acknowledged Azwokkuss' mental message with a sigh. It meant the Camarilla was due to convene shortly to make a decision on Annuur's so-called seditious behavior. As his Operator, her testimony for or against him would hold much weight.

I'll meet you in the refectory in ten minutes, she sent.

Take transporter and be here now.

I prefer to walk, she replied drily. Sometimes her TeLaxaudin colleague's reliance on technology irritated her, like now.

We are products of our own worlds, responded Azwokkuss with a chuckle.

Apologies, Skepp Lord, she sent, instantly contrite. Thought was private, not meant for you to hear.

Understood. I get your food?

Please, she said, getting up from her meditation cushion.

Leaving her small indoor conservatory, she scurried round her living quarters to find her note reader. Rearing up onto her haunches, with her spatulate four fingered hands, she scrabbled through a pile of papers on her desk until she found it.

Securing the device in a pouch on the body harness she wore, she dropped down onto all fours again and headed for the door.

It was a balmy day outside, with the sun shining in a lightly cloud flecked sky. Linking into Unity, she searched for the weather report - no rain was scheduled until nightfall. Satisfied, she trotted out of the Cabbaran enclave and headed for the moving side walk that would take her to the main TeLaxaudin center.

Ghioass, the TeLaxaudin home world, and primary home of the Camarilla, was a strange mixture of contrasts. Here, where she lived, the environment reflected the Cabbaran world, one of lush vegetation surrounding the adobe dwellings. Each one had been grown from the raw soil by its owner using only their natural psi talents. Their personal individuality was reflected in the shapes of the buildings and no two were alike. Her people were terraformers, capable of reshaping a world and all its growing things. They could do naturally what the TeLaxaudin had once used their matter transformers for.

Three species lived here, much the same way as they did on the Cabbaran home world, which provided a second, lesser chamber for the Camarilla. The TeLaxaudin population was not large, and was controlled, an easy task when each TeLaxaudin was born male in gender and didn't develop into a female till half way through their lives. They were one of the Oldest species in this galaxy, and had developed a highly technological life style.

Reed slim and just over three feet tall, the TeLaxaudin were fragile in build. Their body shape and size had placed certain restrictions on them. Recognizing this, millennia ago, they had interfered in the evolution of a larger, more powerful species, one whom they could train to help them. The U'Churians were therefore the second inhabitants of this world. The numbers of these, their Children, were far less than those of the TeLaxaudin themselves. Again, their population was restricted so that it remained at a stable number.

The six foot tall U'Churians lived either in villages adjacent to the TeLaxaudin cities and commuted, or in appropriately sized accommodation provided by their smaller employers. When not working, they were free to come and go as they pleased, and had their own entertainment outlets - shops, restaurants, theaters and so on, in the cities. To Shvosi's way of thinking, too many of the TeLaxaudin considered them as invisible servants, there to perform a function and no more. They weren't even granted citizenship of Ghioass. This attitude was part of the reason for the current split in the ranks of the Camarilla.

The third species, and the only other member of the Camarilla, were her own, the Cabbarans. Four legged, when they sat up on their haunches, they were almost four feet tall. They were vegetarians, with forward facing eyes set in a long face that ended in a snout with an almost prehensile upper lip. A narrow stiff crest of dark hair ran the length of their skulls and down their neck, spreading out in a ruff across the shoulders and again over the flanks. On her shoulders, Shvosi's sandy body fur had been shaved to display the intricately colored tattoos that showed her Family and her rank as a Phratry leader, and her cheeks bore the spiraling blue tattoos that marked her as one of her people's mystics.

She was passing out of her sector now and into the more modern area of the TeLaxaudin city. Buildings here were also designed to be aesthetically pleasing, to the TeLaxaudin's more insectoid senses. Their usual low lying buildings were dwarfed here and there by slim organic shaped towers that spiraled high above them. Transparent brightly colored surfaces and shimmering force fields, blended with metal and polished stone, all glittered in the sunlight. A movement to her left drew her attention and she saw that the TeLaxaudin were reshaping one of the civic buildings, adding another level and a tower. As she looked, the outline blurred and the roof split into four sections that suddenly reared up to become the new walls. From one of them, a sloping roof started to form, rapidly advancing toward where the beginnings of a whorled tower was taking shape.

She stopped for a moment to watch properly, rising up on her haunches to get a better view. Reshaping of buildings didn't happen that often, but when it did, whether by her people or theirs, it never failed to entrance her and fill her with a sense of wonder. Gradually the blurring decreased and the outline became more pronounced until minutes later, the basic reshaping had been completed. This was only the first level of changes, there was more still to be done as the design was strengthened and refined.

Remembering her meeting with Azwokkuss, she dropped down to the ground again and hurried toward the moving walkway.

*

She arrived at the Council chamber refectory panting slightly, and hurriedly threaded her way between the other diners and through the ornamental greenery and water features till she saw Azwokkuss at their usual table.

"Apologies," she said, flopping down onto the cushions at her side of the low eating table. "Were reshaping the Assembly House for summer. I had to watch."

The TeLaxaudin nodded, his eyes glowing as the lenses spun and adjusted themselves to close vision. His mandibles clicked gently and he began to hum. "Never can you resist watching," he said. "I know this."

As she composed herself more comfortably, a bronze colored arm as slim as a twig pushed a plate of assorted salad toward her, followed by a divided dish filled with other delicacies.

Her long snout began to quiver as the delicate scent of the rare mushrooms and the bitter-sweet vegetables wafted up to her.

"Azwokkuss, is real treat," she said, top lip curling back in a smile. Her colleague had chosen all her favorite foods. "Thank you." She reached into the dish for a slice of mushroom. "Is too expensive."

The TeLaxaudin watched her eat it daintily and with obvious pleasure before reaching into his own bowl for one of the fried insects he enjoyed. He peeled it carefully, dropping its chitinous covering into the side bowl he'd been provided with for that purpose.

"We eat well now, enjoy now, as no knowing how Council meeting will go yet. Potentialities being read at moment." One elegant hand waved toward his right where a group of TeLaxaudin sat deep in discussion. "Hkairass and Isolationists plot already."

She sighed. "How long before he starts change? Then we get few years peace at least!"

Azwokkuss' humming had an unmistakable chuckle to it. "Irreverent female! Gender change not matter of humor, very serious."

"Maybe motherhood makes him tolerable, sweetens disposition," she retorted, eyes twinkling as she helped herself to the salad.

Mandibles trembling, Azwokkuss laughed in his own peculiar way. "Maybe," he agreed. "But sadly more like him to take his place."

"Are more of us, and every time he fights us in Council, more commit to our view," she said. "Today important, Annuur will talk of debt we owe Child race, that their trust of us abused by likes of Hkairass."

The oval bronze head bobbed in agreement. "I know. Keep fine speech for him in Camarilla Council meeting."

Her short ears drooped a little. "I find difficult to deal with Hkairass in Council. He intimidates me," she admitted.

"Does it purposely," Azwokkuss replied, reaching out to push her bowl of delicacies closer. "You young, depends on it. At home, you rule one hundred of your people. Are you not Phratry Leader, equal to him? Let him not do this, then he will stop."

Shvosi smiled and took a handful of sliced red peppery vegetables. "Easy to say. Today he wears the reds and yellows of determination, as well as exuding the scents to match."

"Gives too much away. I wear blues and lilacs of tranquility for me, not to show others. Say to Hkairass you sit on him if upset you," he advised, nibbling the last of his food.

She looked at him in shock.

"It squash him if you sit on him," he elaborated, mandibles quivering in amusement. "Think it in mind when he at full flow. Flat TeLaxaudin no menace to you."

She laughed.

"You not alone today. I there in Unity with you, also Kuvaa, and Khassiss moves nearer our beliefs every time it comes up. Female TeLaxaudin opinions carry great weight with us as are older, more experienced. Also others of our belief will vote our way." He picked up his bowl of fruit flavored water and gently lapped at it.

"I know," she began as through Unity they all heard the call to gather in the Council chamber.

Skepp Lord Hkairass has a matter to Speak on that needs urgent discussion before the session involving Phratry Leader Annuur.

Hurriedly, she snatched the last of her delicacies up and stuffed them into her mouth, chewing furiously.

"You choke," he warned. "Got time. No can begin till all there."

"Being late won't help," she mumbled, swallowing her food down then picking up her own drink and lapping furiously at it.

"How is . . ."

"Annuur fine," he said. "Took Tirak to him yesterday." The mandibles quivered again. "Payment for causing so much trouble to us in Camarilla."

She laughed as she shuffled back from the table then dropped down onto her hoof-tipped forelimbs. "Was evil! Explanations would be demanded."

"Yes," agreed Azwokkuss cheerfully as he got to his feet. "Was point. Tirak will forget when all Children are processed anyway. Annuur will not, maybe teach him circumspection."


Excerpt from
BETWEEN DARKNESS AND LIGHT
Book 7 of the Sholan Alliance series
by Lisanne Norman

Published by DAW Books Inc. January 2003
© Copyright 2003 by Lisanne Norman
Used by permission of DAW Books Inc. All rights reserved.



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