The next morning I found Kiri already at breakfast by the time I arrived. There was no sign of any of the others as I blearily sipped my morning tea. We had just begun to exchange the usual morning small talk when the mail clerk stopped by with the morning's delivery.
The royal palace, like any other large organization, runs all incoming mail past a small army of functionaries; if Kiri and I had directly received all the mail addressed to us we would have daily been buried under a small mountain of envelopes and parcels (not to mention gigabytes of email). Most mail was sorted and redirected in time for the afternoon's distribution; the morning's crop was usually relatively sparse, consisting of in-house memos and personal notes. So I wasn't particularly surprised to find an envelope hand-addressed to Kiri and myself, but when I recognized Senaria's handwriting I called Kiri's attention to it as I tore it open in my customary barbaric manner (to her endless frustration, Kiri has never been able to train me to use a letter opener).
It took only a few moments' reading to realize that all was not well. Kiri read the note over my shoulder, then tore it out of my hand and scrutinized it again, shaking her head.
"What's a locator?" I asked.
"It's a gadget that all off-road fliers have," she answered absently. "It lets you track the vehicle wherever it goes via the planet's satellite system. Sort of like a reverse GPS system. Of course, you have to turn it on. At least she's not trying to disappear," she added dejectedly.
I heard a thundering of approaching hooves in the hallway, and a moment later Rann burst into the room. In his hand was a twin of the envelope we had just opened. "Has anyone seen Sen this morning?" he demanded. "I got this note--"
"So did we, Rann," I said. "It looks like she's decided to take an unscheduled vacation." I suspect that up until this moment he had been hoping it was a hoax of some kind, because now his countenance dropped into the most utterly mournful expression I think I've ever seen on a human face. "Sorry, Rann," I said consolingly. "I'm sure she'll be all right. She even said she'd leave her locator on."
"That's great," he exclaimed in relief. "I can follow her."
"Oh, no you can't," I said firmly. "Not unless she asks you to." His face fell again, but he didn't argue with me. It would have been a grievous invasion of privacy had he done so, and he knew it.
"Did she explain to you why she was leaving?" asked Kiri. The result was totally unexpected, as Rann flushed a deep red.
"Maybe it's none of our business," I said discreetly to Kiri, drawing a furious glare, but fair was fair, after all.
"It's okay, Rann," she said grudgingly after a moment, remembering my account of the previous evening's doings. "I'm sorry. I had no business asking." Rann nodded in embarrassment, but didn't volunteer any more information, nor did we ask to read his letter from Senaria, although what with it being waved in our faces all this time it was tantalizing, to say the least.
The next actor to appear onstage was of course Gelhinda, also clutching an envelope of her own. I cringed inwardly, half-expecting a barrage of motherly panic, especially after the near-disaster of two days previous, but to my surprise she seemed relatively unperturbed by the whole thing. "Kiri, you know it's not the first time she's done this," she said calmly, "or you, for that matter." She turned to me. "Every now and then she gets herself tangled up in some situation and ends up having to go off by herself for a while to sort it all out. She'll be fine."
"Her locator is on," I contributed helpfully.
"So does anyone know just what set her off this time?" she asked. With an apologetic glance at Rann, I again covered the previous evening's events (it had after all been a public performance). "Oh, That Man," she growled. "I just don't understand how he comes up with some of the things he says. Lipstick, even! But I suppose he is an Earthman, after all."
I cleared my throat diplomatically. "Oh, of course I don't include you, Will," she backpedaled amiably. "But--"
Kiri interrupted her. "Alan's really not usually like this," she said defensively. "I'm not sure just what's gotten into him lately. He's been acting like a five year old trying to show off in front of--"
Just then That Man arrived with a jaunty greeting and sat down at the table with us. A moment later he became aware of four pairs of angry eyes converging on him. For a few moments he sat, nonplused. "What!?" he finally exclaimed. There was a momentary clamor as four voices spoke at once. We all looked at each other, and by tacit agreement left the floor to Kiri.
"Alan," she said coldly, "Sen has flown the coop. Apparently it had something to do with you." He looked at her in astonishment, silently pointing an inquiring finger at his chest, and receiving an answering nod from all four of us.
"What did I do?" he finally asked helplessly.
"Oh, Alan," was all Kiri said, shaking her head in disgust. And we left it at that.
Later that morning she passed along instructions to the communications office to have someone monitor Senaria's vehicle and provide us with a report if anything unusual happened. And then we went back to our daily routines. We all felt the gap she had left behind, and as the news spread through the palace staff many faces were seen that were noticeably less cheerful than usual.
Brinkman, I should add, was stunned, acting for all the world like a jilted lover. Things weren't made any easier for him by his inability to understand just what he had done wrong. Actually, I hadn't quite figured out myself why so much friction had developed between the two, and finally put it down to that meaningless catchall phrase, "personality conflict."
Things suddenly acquired a much different cast three days later, when a clerk from the communications office asked to see us, to report nervously that Senaria's "blip" had vanished. "Vanished?" said Kiri in surprise. "Could something just be obstructing the signal?"
The clerk explained that since the signal was picked up by satellite, she would pretty much have had to go underground for that to happen. "Of course," he added, "she could have just switched off the locator for some reason." Kiri thanked him and asked him to keep trying, and dismissed him.
After he'd left, she paced nervously for several minutes. "I'm going to try contact her," she said finally. "She did say she'd leave the locator on, and now we can't pick it up. That's a reasonable excuse to call, I think." But repeated attempts to reach her via telecom failed as well.
By late that afternoon I was growing worried, and Kiri frantic. Even Gelhinda was showing signs of genuine concern. Finally we called in Holan and explained the situation to him. The locator had been last picked up somewhere on the southern continent, and the nearest city large enough to support a military base was about eight hundred miles away. Holan shook his head. "It will be dark by the time they get there," he said apologetically, "and that district is solid forest. I don't know how much luck they'll have before morning. But I'll send out the orders."
Kiri acquiesced gratefully. "She's probably just exploring and inadvertently turned off her locator. But we are getting worried." Promising to let us know as soon as he had any information, Holan saluted smartly and departed.
We didn't get a lot of useful work done for the rest of the afternoon, though we tried. I don't remember ever seeing Kiri quite that tense, even after the assassination attempt; she was like a tightly wound spring and I did my best to position myself between her and the unfortunate officials whose duties brought them in our direction.
That night I suddenly awoke with the echo of her voice lingering in my ears. Sitting up, I saw her lying next to me, still asleep, tossing and turning restlessly and mumbling unintelligibly to herself. Trying not to wake her, I gently stroked her deep crimson mane, almost black in the dim light, until she finally slipped back into a deep sleep. I wondered what she had said that had awakened me; I could still hear her voice in my mind but not the words themselves. I fidgeted nervously myself for a little while, then gradually began to slide back into slumber.
Just before I fell asleep I unexpectedly heard her voice again clearly, this time in my head as my memory arbitrarily chose that moment to replay the almost lost thread. I'm sorry, Sen, she had said. Please forgive me. It's not your fault. Putting an arm over her, I held her tightly as I slowly drifted off into an unsettled sleep.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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