Every Saturday I post a chapter or two of my young adult science fiction novel Star Song. Coming in in the middle? The whole thing starts here with Chapter 1 and an explanation.
By Edward Willett
Kriss expected Andru to protest or at least ask questions when he asked for the night off, but his employer, preoccupied, granted the request without even looking up from his computer terminal.
Though he wasn’t hungry, Kriss forced himself to eat a mid-day meal. Fortunately the inn was busy, so he didn’t have to face Zendra. As much as he appreciated her concern, he didn’t see how she could help, and he didn’t want to get her involved. He had brought nothing but trouble to everyone close to him—his parents, Mella, Tevera. He didn’t want Zendra to be the next to suffer.
He left half his food untouched.
The afternoon seemed to drag on for centuries; Kriss, wanting to be well-rested for whatever came that night, lay on his bed, watching the slowly creeping patch of sunlight on the wall of his room until the clouds obliterated it, but though he occasionally dozed off, he was never able to fall deeply asleep.
At last the room grew dark, and with a tightening and twisting in his stomach, Kriss sat up.
Time to go.
He pulled his knapsack out from under the bed and stuffed it with a blanket, then slipped his arms through the straps. He’d decided to leave the touchlyre locked in his room; if he didn’t escape, whoever captured him would still need him alive in order to get the artifact. But at the same time, it wouldn’t hurt to make them think he had it.
He tucked his flashlight into one of the pack’s outer pockets, then went to the door; but before going out he paused and looked around the room where he had lived for two weeks. It had gradually come to feel something like home. Now he wondered if he would ever see it again.
After a moment he turned off the light and closed and locked the door behind him.
He met Zendra as she came out of the kitchen with a food-laden tray and asked her for directions to the Red Horse Inn.
She raised one eyebrow. “The Red Horse? What do you want to go there for?”
“Just curious. It’s the only inn I haven’t seen. I must have missed it that first night.”
“But the Red Horse—” A customer called to her from across the room. “All right, all right!” She turned back to Kriss. “Straight down the street to Babus Place, left five blocks, then straight on Tailor’s Lane. Eventually you’ll come to a big courtyard. The Red Horse will be on your right. And sometime you’ll have to tell me what you really went there for.” The customer called her again, and she hurried off.
“Thanks,” Kriss said to her retreating back. “And good-bye,” he added under his breath.
Thunder rumbled in the west as he stepped outside, and a cold wind from the mountains ruffled his hair and clothes, making him shiver. No rain had fallen yet from the overcast sky, but in the last of the twilight he could see the clouds scudding furiously overhead, as though fleeing some onrushing threat. It would be very dark at the Red Horse, Kriss thought; from Zendra’s directions he knew it must be near the primitive outskirts of the city, where the streets were unlit. He checked again to make sure he had his flashlight, then jumped down from the porch and set off briskly into the teeth of the wind, dreading what was to come but anxious to get it over with.
He tried an old trick of his, putting his mind a day ahead and looking back on this night as history—but it didn’t help lessen the cold lump in the pit of his stomach. He knew he could be dead before the next day dawned, and even if he lived, Salazar or Vorlick or the Family—or all three—would be after him.
Run, a part of his mind whispered, as his legs carried him relentlessly toward the rendezvous. The woods are full of outlaws, the police said. Join them. Survive.
If it were only me involved, maybe I would, he thought. I have nothing left to lose.
But it wasn’t just him. Through his own stupid selfishness, he had also involved Tevera. Mella had been involved—and Mella had died. He wouldn’t let Tevera die for him, too!
He paused when he reached the last streetlight, just at the beginning of Tailor’s Lane, a narrow, crooked street leading off into the dark, twisted byways that rimmed Stars’ Edge. Somewhere among those black alleys and courtyards lurked Salazar, the shadowy enemy Kriss had never seen, with Tevera in his clutches. Elsewhere, Vorlick and his men would be making their way toward the Red Horse, and hidden from them all would be the Family, a law unto itself, determined to rescue one of its own. The three ingredients together made an explosive combination, a bomb that only he could detonate.
Stepping into the darkness, he lit the fuse.
Fighting the urge to keep looking over his shoulder, he walked steadily along the cobblestoned lane. The last streetlight disappeared behind him, and he had yet to see so much as the gleam of a torch in any of the buildings he passed. “Funny place to put an inn,” he muttered.
Abruptly he emerged into a large, echoing courtyard. The faint skyglow, the light of the city’s heart reflecting off the clouds, silhouetted the hulking shapes of dark buildings, crouched like huge sleeping animals all around the open space. Several streets met in the courtyard, spots of deeper blackness like gaping mouths. But where was the inn?
Kriss pulled his tiny flash out of the backpack pocket and switched it on. Its small circle of light showed him nothing but blank windows, sagging roofs and peeling plaster. Then something creaked off to his right, and he spun.
In front of a boarded-up wooden building with a toppled chimney and sway-backed roof hung a lopsided sign, swinging from a tall pole in the strengthening wind. Kriss walked closer and stilled it with one hand. His light shone on a red horse prancing across a green background. Faded gold letters spelled out, “Red Horse Inn.” He stared at it. No wonder Zendra had been puzzled by his interest.
“Not very lively, is it?” a shout rang across the courtyard, and in the same instant a brilliant light pinned him to the pavement. He turned toward it, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the painful glare. He could see nothing else.
“Who are you?” he shouted back.
“The one you came to see.” Echoes chased around the ring of deserted buildings.
Kriss wondered if Vorlick would reply to that, but if the other man was nearby he wasn’t revealing himself yet.
“You have the artifact?” Salazar continued.
“Do you have Tevera?” Kriss countered.
“Let me see her!”
The spotlight swung down, out of his eyes, so that he stood in a long oval pool of light, and for the first time he could see a shadowy group of figures standing behind it. Someone switched on a flashlight, and there stood Tevera, held at gunpoint by a grim-faced man. Kriss’s heart kicked once, painfully, at the sight. “Tevera? Are you—”
“I’m all right,” she called. “They haven’t hurt me.”
“And I’ll have no reason to, if you’ve brought me the artifact,” Salazar interjected. “So. I’ve shown you your girl.” The spotlight swung up, blinding Kriss once more. “Now show me the artifact.”
Rigel, where are you? Slowly Kriss slipped out of the backpack’s straps and held it up. “It’s in here.”
The remembered image of Tevera at gunpoint froze Kriss in place. His stomach churned. I’ve ruined everything by trying to protect myself. The Family isn’t there, Vorlick isn’t here, and as soon as Salazar sees I haven’t really brought the touchlyre, he’ll kill Tevera…
Acid burned the back of his throat. He felt like throwing up. He didn’t move…couldn’t move.
“I’m out of patience!” Salazar snapped.
But then another voice rang out from a dark alley by the inn, behind Kriss and off to his right. “So am I,” said the cold voice of Carl Vorlick. “How interesting to meet you here, Salazar. How unfortunate you have gone to all this effort for nothing. The artifact is mine.”
“Vorlick?” Salazar sounded incredulous, then angry. “I made a deal with the boy!”
“So did I. I wonder how he intends to keep both? Well, Kriss?”
Despite the chill wind, Kriss felt a single drop of sweat roll down his face. “I’m sorry, Mr. Vorlick. Salazar kidnapped a friend of mine. He said if I didn’t give him the touchlyre—”
“The threat is real, boy. Give me the artifact or the girl dies in front of you.” The spotlight angled down again, showing him Tevera. The man guarding her now had his brawny forearm across her neck and the gun pointed at her left temple.
“Kill her and you’ll never get it!” Kriss ripped open the backpack and turned it over, dumping the blanket out on the ground. “It’s still hidden, Salazar!”
“Hidden? Hidden in Andru’s! Do you really think the locks of a second-rate inn can keep me out? You had your chance, boy. Now your girl dies, and you die, and I’ll still have the artifact!”
“Is that true, Mr. Vorlick?” Kriss yelled in the direction of that other voice. “Are you going to let him have your prize?”
“Don’t look for help from him, boy,” Salazar shouted. “He’s already killed your parents!”
The words hit Kriss like a punch to the stomach. Vorlick? Vorlick killed my parents?
He wanted to deny it, but it made sense…such horrible, horrible sense. His parents’ mysterious, wealthy patron could as easily have been Vorlick as Salazar—more easily, since Vorlick had wealth and power even Salazar couldn’t match, according to Captain Nicora. If they had found out what kind of man Vorlick really was and tried to run…
But even if Vorlick had killed his parents, Salazar… “You murdered Mella!”
“She had a heart attack. My men were ordered not to hurt her.”
“That’s right, Kriss, he’s lying!” Vorlick shouted. “He killed your parents and your guardian. Promise me the artifact and I’ll get you and the girl away safely!”
“Would you trust your parents’ murderer?” Salazar bellowed.
A blast of icy wind howled through the eaves of the derelict inn, and a sudden, matching blast of red-hot fury roared up in Kriss. “I hope you both rot in hell!” he screamed.
Instantly a flaming bolt of red energy seared the air, and he jerked involuntarily. But the beam wasn’t aimed at him. It came from the darkness somewhere between Salazar and Vorlick, and ripped into the spotlight, which exploded. Glass shards skittered across the cobblestones and electricity arced through the wreckage. The man holding Tevera released her and staggered back, swinging his gun wildly, looking for enemies; and in the flickering light of the burning wreckage, Kriss, with astonishment followed by fierce pride, saw Tevera turn and, with a swift kick and two sharp blows of her hands, send the gun rattling away and the man sagging to his knees. Then she ran, and Kriss’s heart swelled, because she didn’t run for cover—she ran toward him.
She collided with him so hard she almost knocked him over, hugging him so tight he could hardly breathe, while new beams zipped across the courtyard, coming from Salazar’s men and aimed at the spot where Vorlick’s voice had originated. Two bolts tore into the walls of the Red Horse, and its rotting wooden beams exploded into brilliant flame.
Beams from Vorlick’s location answered Salazar’s attack, every searing flash leaving an afterimage in Kriss’s eyes, until it seemed the whole night burned. He stared at the battle until Tevera tugged at his arm. “Run!” she screamed.
He just looked at her, shocked to still be alive; then a beam from Salazar’s direction streaked by so close it seared his arm, and his paralysis vanished. He grabbed Tevera’s hand and ran back into Tailor’s Lane as a ray slashed through the place where they had stood. At the entrance to the street he glanced back, and in the bloody light of the burning inn he saw a smoking body sprawled on the cobblestones near the blasted light. Another beam flashed and a man screamed hoarsely.
Then they were out of the courtyard, though the shouts and screams could still be heard and smoke hung in the air. Together they ran toward the lights of the city, but before they had gone a hundred yards people leaped out of the shadows and surrounded them.
Tevera gasped, then suddenly released Kriss’s arm. “Yverras!” she cried, and hugged someone tightly.
Kriss barely had time to realize the strangers were Family before someone clapped a hand over his mouth and dragged him into a side street. “Listen, worldhugger,” a voice whispered—Rigel’s. “You did your part, and we got Tevera back. I suppose I should thank you for that. But you will not be permitted to see her again. Understand?”
“Good. Now, I’m going to let you go. But don’t follow us. Tevera is my responsibility. If you cause her any more grief…” He shook Kriss once, hard, then released him and hurried back into the lane.
Kriss leaned miserably against the wall, listening, as Tevera, sounding suddenly worried, called, “Kriss? Kriss?”
“Quiet!” Rigel snapped. “Let’s get back to the ship.” But Kriss heard his name from Tevera once more as the Family hurried away.
He stayed put until the faint noises of battle from the courtyard ended. He hoped both Salazar and Vorlick were dead, but didn’t really believe it. At least one of them would have survived, probably both, and would be after him, with resources he couldn’t hope to match and reputations to uphold—reputations, he thought, that were probably more important to them now than even the supposedly immense value of the touchlyre. What he had done tonight had made two of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth his bitter enemies—and shattered what little remained unbroken of his dreams.
Now, cut off from the stars forever, he had no choice; to survive, he had to flee into the wilderness—but he had to have some provisions first, or he’d just be saving his enemies the trouble of killing him. And he had to retrieve the touchlyre. Anywhere he left it he would also be leaving trouble.
He started running back toward the city’s center, and Andru’s—just the beginning, he thought bitterly, of a lifetime of running.
It consoled him very little that that lifetime probably wouldn’t be long.