A Kindness of Strangers
A gale of dust swept into the forbidding landing bay.
“Shit,” said Chandriss, wiping his face one-handed.
Victoria laid her head against his shoulder.
He put an accommodating arm around her.
“Have they forgotten we’re here?”
“Maybe,” he said. “We should stay put.”
Over and over, the thundering roar of takeoffs swelled and then became a fading whine.
“What was he?”
“It was a clone,” said Chandriss. “They never raise just one. They like spares.”
“But why did they send one?”
“I don't know.” Chandriss resettled himself. “They didn’t waste any troops on the venture.”
“Where is Aryn?” whispered Victoria.
“The very question. Not here. Far enough away that someone hoped make a minor annoyance vanish before Beltar's heir got back.”
“Why?” she said.
“Don't talk. It's better we not be noticed.”
Victoria leaned against him. He appeared asleep and was probably thinking. She wished she could sleep, but the roar of port traffic kept her alert even if she closed her eyes.
The chamber emptied out. The cumulative effect of the bustle was outward, as if the whole elaborate encampment was being emptied while pretending nothing out of ordinary was going on.
It was the flicker of motion that caught her eye. At frst she thought it was a man-bird hybrid. On a closer look, it was the head, arms, and torso of a man, mounted in a carriage with two bird-like mechanical legs.
He came and went, seen by everyone and noticed by no one. Victoria tried not to stare. He was the first person she had seen here who was not just something less than handsome but actually imperfect.
But that was not the oddest thing about him.
His activity was puzzling. Although he sometimes moved slowly as if the cart he pulled was heavy, the way it bounced on rough floor said it was empty.
And he was adept at evading notice, bustling here and there, in and out, establishing his right to be anywhere in the visible area and, she surmised, outside, too.
The vast space emptied out until there was only Chandriss, herself, and the flitting man, a demi-centaur with his mechanical legs and cart.
Victoria tried not to look at him, not wanting his attention, or for him to guess she was uncomfortable with his modification.
A functionary came into the room, looked about, apparently not seeing them. Then he did and stared.
Victoria shriveled inside. They were travel-worn. The stranger was in the heavy robe and tailored undergarment of a gentleman. Not the kind Chandriss was, but the costume of someone who had striven to become what he was. She nudged her companion.
“I see him,” Chandriss said, looked and made a small, dissatisfied sound. “Let me handle this.” He got to his feet, and not as a courtesy.
“Capin,” said the man. “Traitor even to his own kind.” He made a spitting sound.
Chandriss made a small motion.
The functionary stepped back fast.
“The prince-heir will be expecting us.”
“Oh, I doubt he even knows you exist. Rumor says he’s at Farnet-a, arguing with the ice people, or whatever they have sent to represent them.”
“So you just happened by,” said Chandriss, drily.
“I'm glad to see you again, renew our acquaintance. I have fond memories of our last encounter.”
“I’m,” pause, “glad you have not forgotten it.”
“Are you? Are you?”
Chandriss showed his teeth in something that wasn’t a smile.
Victoria sat very still.
“I could just leave you here.”
“That would be excellent.”
The man stared, blinked, then turned around and walked away.
“Chandriss?” said Victoria. “What just happened?”
A Kindness of Strangers is scheduled for February 2014.
Copyright 2013 Catherine Mintz. All rights reserved.