"Highness, Lieutenant Holan is here to report on the search," Valkar announced hesitantly. We had waited all morning to hear something, refraining with difficulty from barraging his office with inquiries. I nodded, feeling my stomach knotting up, and a moment later the young liaison officer was standing before us. I noticed that his face was pale, and that although most Deshtirans are well acclimated to the heat, even allowing for the near-runaway greenhouse effect, drops of sweat stood out on his forehead. "Well?" said Kiri finally, her own voice tight.
"Highness, we've located the wreckage of Senaria's flier." I saw Kiri start noticeably, and the knot in my stomach suddenly assumed significant proportions. "It was in one of the unexplored forest areas of the southern continent. We found the major part of her flier lodged in a tree several hundred feet above the ground. There were a few scattered pieces down on the forest floor. Apparently the motor exploded." He hesitated for a moment. Kiri and I were too stunned to say anything. "We also found a considerable amount of fresh blood on the forest floor. Tests confirm that it matches Senaria's. She may have been thrown from the craft when it exploded. We found no trace of--" and he hesitated for a moment, "a body."
Kiri swallowed. "Have you determined what happened yet?" she asked softly.
Holan shook his head. He too seemed to be close to tears. Senaria had been very popular with the palace community, and not just because of her undeniable good looks. "We're working on analyzing the wreckage now."
For a long time Kiri said nothing, her face a papery white. "Continue searching the area," she said finally in a dull voice. Holan looked even more uncomfortable, if that was possible.
"Empress--" he began, and stopped as though unsure how to proceed.
"Yes?" she prompted him gently.
"I think you should know that we did encounter a number of wild dogs in the vicinity. Although they wouldn't attack a living human being, if she had been killed by the fall..." I shuddered.
"You have your orders, Holan," I said quickly. "Thank you for your efforts. Report back to us as soon as you have anything further." He saluted and made a hasty departure.
I turned to Kiri. Her face might have been composed of stone at that moment. "She's not dead until they find a body," she whispered, half to herself.
I took it upon myself to relay the information to a stunned palace staff, as well as to Gelhinda, Rann and Brinkman. Gelhinda took the news with her usual composure, although she was obviously shocked, as was Rann. Brinkman, on the other hand, rather fell to pieces. For a few moments I seriously feared he was going to suffer a heart attack, he turned so pale. "My god," he said finally. "This is because of me, isn't it? What have I caused?"
I shook my head. "She left of her own free will, Alan. It's not your fault." But inside I knew that there was more here than just annoyance over an ill-considered comment. I again wished I knew what she'd said in her letter to Rann.
Speaking of Rann, he asked if he could join the search, and of course we gave him our blessing. By taking the Futaba he could be at the base in the southern continent within minutes, and Kiri hadn't hesitated in giving her okay. Shortly thereafter the Futaba was disappearing into the hazy sky. "Bloody fool didn't even take a toothbrush," Kiri muttered as she transmitted a personal request to the base's commander to allow Rann to participate.
The next day the news got much worse. Although no body had yet been found, bloody fragments of Senaria's clothing had been located and identified scattered over the immediately surrounding area. Stubbornly Kiri asked that the search be continued for one more day. When nothing further was found during that time, we sadly agreed that it was pointless to continue. "If by some miracle she is alive," I argued unconvincingly, "she'll turn up. If she was hurt and crawled away on her own there would have been a trail for us to follow. If she is alive, she walked away. And that means she's okay." It was a pretty slim reed to base our hopes on, but it was all we had.
When Gelhinda arrived for lunch that noon, there was a dark green band freshly painted across her face. Even through the pigment we could see that her eyelids were puffy and her eyes red. There was no sign of Brinkman, for which I was grateful, and it wound up being a very quiet meal. Afterwards, Kiri and I returned to our room, where she produced a small bottle.
"Have you got a steady enough hand to paint me without making a mess?" she asked softly, and I responded with a somber nod. When we finally emerged for the afternoon's meetings, more than one eye went suddenly moist at the sight of the telltale bands on both our faces, for by now there was probably no one left in the palace unaware of their meaning, or of the import of our decision to wear them.
That evening we sat for several hours with Gelhinda, sometimes talking, sometimes just sitting in silence. "Her father died unexpectedly when she was only ten," she said at one point. "She just couldn't comprehend why he didn't come back, and part of her withdrew into a shell somewhere. Over time she came to understand what had happened, but by that time there was a permanent fear of being abandoned that was hard-wired in and that no amount of introspection could erase. Ever since then she was an unusually independent child. I always had the feeling that any control I had over her was tenuous, and I did everything I could to make sure that when she did break away once and for all she'd have what she needed to manage her life on her own."
"And then with Lev's murder it all came true again for her in a particularly horrible way. I knew it was terribly hard on her, but it wasn't something she was willing to talk about." It had come true before that, I thought to myself, remembering Kiri's fifteen months in space, but I knew this wasn't the time to mention it. Eventually we made a discreet departure and left her to her grief.
The next day I was dumbfounded to discover that apparently most of the palace staff had acquired the dark mourning bands across their eyes. It was like being surrounded by despondent raccoons. I think that not until then had any of us realized just how much affection Senaria had engendered among those who knew her. The biggest surprise came that evening when Brinkman finally reappeared, sporting a band of his own. It seemed so out of character for the brittle, cynical physicist that I must have just stared for several seconds. He didn't seem to notice, being somewhere in a world of his own.
The following morning I looked out from my balcony and saw him sitting under the same tree where he had spent so much time with Senaria, staring vacantly into space. I'm not quite sure why, but a few minutes later I sat down next to him. I suppose something told me that this wasn't the time to ostracize him over a petty inconsiderateness.
"Hello, Will," he said absently as I stretched out my legs on the grass. "How's the business of empire doing?"
"It continues," I answered. "Endlessly. As it should, I suppose."
For a while he was silent, again staring blankly at something apparently situated in another dimension. "So what's on your mind?" he said at last.
"You are," I said. "I think you need to talk to someone."
"Yes," he agreed, "I suppose so. You know, Will, Kiri was right the other night."
"She's always right, and she never lies," I said. It was pretty close to the truth, too. "About what?"
"About me. About how completely wrapped up in myself I am. About how I treat people that want to be close to me." He said it calmly, methodically, as though reciting a law of physics.
"Slow down," I said. "That's quite an indictment. Are you sure that you don't want to plea bargain some of those charges?" I saw the old cynical half-smile flit across his features for just a moment, quickly replaced by the distant stare again.
"Kiri asked what happened with Carolyn," he began, and stopped.
"Carolyn?" I prompted after a decent pause.
"Carolyn was my wife, many years ago. It was a few years after Kiri and I--well. Carolyn was special. She was considerate, she was intelligent, and she saw right through me. And in spite of that, she loved me. But I didn't think I needed to change. I was brilliant," and he spoke the word in a way that gave it a particularly bitter edge, "I was successful, and I felt the world could damn well take me as I was. I called that 'being true to myself.' She finally told me that while she could put up with the little insensitivities, and the rudenesses, and the self-centeredness, ultimately she couldn't take the fact that I seriously believed they were virtues."
"After she left, I gradually realized that I had really loved her, and that she was gone, and that it was my fault. But rather than do something about it, and try win her back, I decided that if changing my perfect self was what it took then I was too good for 'love.' And that's who I've been for all the years since. She was the only woman I've ever really cared for in all that time. But now--" The vacant stare returned. I wondered what he was seeing.
"But now?" I asked. He just shook his head, and I couldn't get much of anything out of him after that. Eventually I returned to my office, leaving him to his visions.
That afternoon Rann returned with the Futaba, looking as though he hadn't slept for days, which was probably the case. Too heartsick to even take a much-needed shower, he had simply gone to his room without comment and collapsed onto his bed in exhaustion, not to reappear until the next morning.
Later that evening I found Brinkman in the living room, sightlessly watching the telecom. Although a program was in progress, the sound was off. He didn't seem to care, and looked up absently as I entered.
"What have I done, Will?" he said brokenly. "I should never have come. Why didn't I just leave well enough alone?" I sighed. It was rather obvious that he had been deep into Gelhinda's liquor cabinet.
"This wasn't your fault," I answered patiently. "You're drunk, Alan. Why don't you go to bed? You'll think more clearly in the morning."
He went on as if he hadn't heard me. "Why didn't I just tell her," he muttered sadly. "I don't understand myself any more. I should never have come," he said again.
"Tell her what?" I asked. For several seconds he seemed on the verge of saying something.
"Nothing," he finally mumbled. I persuaded him to lurch his way back to his room and heaved a sigh of relief as he closed his door behind him.
The next morning at breakfast he was indeed sober, and a lot more clear-headed. "Kiri, Will," he began, "I know this is a real imposition, but I think I ought to go back to Earth. You don't have to take me yourselves; if there's some kind of shuttle or cargo ship I'll be glad to ride whatever's available. But I know now that I don't belong here."
"Alan, are you sure?" asked Kiri. "You know we're not blaming you for this. A few cultural gaffes are hardly the cause of what happened."
"That's very generous of you," he said. "But I know differently, and my being here isn't making things easier for any of us. I think it would be best if I went home."
"It's your decision, Alan," I said, "and if it's what you want we'll arrange it. Let me find out what's happening in the next few days." The conversation turned to other topics, but he was obviously very much preoccupied, and left shortly after picking at a skimpy helping of cereal.
It was just as well, as not long after he'd left Rann finally reappeared, looking scrubbed and rested but still utterly dejected. We didn't ask him about the search, nor did he volunteer any information. When he got up to leave, he whispered something in Kiri's ear, and she excused herself and followed him from the room. I saw why a little later, when Rann appeared bearing a freshly painted mourning band.
That afternoon I idly watched the two of them, both stripped to the waist beneath the blazing sun, practicing their customary afternoon swordplay in the courtyard. The regular audience had gradually dwindled over the weeks, although I reflected that they were missing the real show, for Rann had begun to display a remarkable talent. As both Senaria and I had discovered, Kiri was a master at adapting the level of her play to the abilities of her opponent, gradually notching up the difficulty as appropriate. Her own genetically enhanced agility and strength rendered her not only a near-unbeatable opponent against a real enemy, but also a superb trainer to a sufficiently gifted student. Rann was certainly proving to be such a student.
The thought of Senaria once again reminded me of the aching void she had left behind. Watching Kiri throw herself into her swordplay with Rann, I wondered if she were also subconsciously trying to fill a gaping hole left in her own life. More than I had previously realized, we had all loved the seemingly unsinkable young woman for her ability to elevate our spirits, even at those times when we knew her own were so low. And I knew Kiri's feelings for her had gone even deeper, although she had always managed to discreetly avoid speaking of them.
My thoughts were interrupted by an unexpected grunt from below, as Kiri staggered backwards and sat down heavily, rubbing a newly inflicted bruise on her side. For a moment Rann looked utterly aghast as Kiri stared up at him in sincere surprise, and then he fell horror-stricken to his knees begging forgiveness.
For just an instant I was worried, then I saw Kiri's face break out into a delighted grin. "Rann," she said firmly, interrupting his stammered apologies, "that was wonderful! You actually hit me! That's the first time in ages that anyone's gotten in a solid blow." And she leaned forward and gave the near-prostrate boy an enthusiastic hug, to his utter stupefaction, and dragged him back to his feet.
"But Empress," he stammered, "I've hurt you. I can't believe I did that." At that Kiri lost patience with him and grabbed him by the ear, giving him a good shake.
"It's a bruise, you booby," she roared. "That's the idea, isn't it? Now do it again! More bruises!" I decided at that point to leave him to his fate, and turned away from the window, my own feelings an odd amalgam of melancholy and pride.
At dinner Rann looked more self-confident than I could previously remember seeing him. I think it had finally sunk in that he had actually bested (if only for a moment) the legendary Mikiria, and while he was far too modest to puff up like a peacock he nonetheless looked not at all the worse for the ego boost. Kiri herself looked rather pleased; after all, good teachers take as much pride in the accomplishments of their students as in their own, and she was certainly among the best. Only Brinkman still looked downcast, although he did his best to hide it and not cast a damper on everyone.
It was I who suggested that perhaps we could all use a vacation, and that since Brinkman had wanted to return home we might make a second attempt at Earth. "That's assuming you still want to go, Alan," I added. He nodded wordlessly.
"Maybe not Earth," Kiri said a bit hesitantly. "But we could certainly drop Alan off there. Maybe do some touring along the way--Pluto, Saturn, that sort of thing. It might give you some interesting data to play with when you get back," she added enticingly to the physicist. The thought definitely seemed to raise his spirits a bit, and soon he and Kiri were deep in a discussion of what kind of sensors he'd have at his disposal on the Futaba, computer data storage formats, and so forth, until finally a numbed Rann and I excused ourselves and fled to the living room.
THE THREE MINDS. Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2001 Lamont Downs. All rights
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