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
Rain poured down with shocking suddenness before Kriss reached the inn, soaking through his clothes in seconds and chilling him to the bone. But he was grateful for the dark cloak it drew across the city; even in the glare from the frequent bursts of lightning, the falling sheets of water would hide him from unfriendly eyes.
Andru’s looked as derelict as the Red Horse Inn, not a hint of light escaping around its closed door and shuttered windows. Kriss darted across the rain-pounded street and up onto the porch, seized the latch and pushed.
The door didn’t budge.
Kriss swore under his breath. He didn’t dare knock; he’d wake the whole inn and alert any watchers Salazar, Vorlick or the Family—or all three—might have nearby. As he stood there indecisively the rain suddenly slackened, and at the next flash of lightning he winced, feeling exposed.
He backed to the edge of the porch and looked up at his window, almost directly overhead. Even if he could somehow climb to it, he couldn’t get in; he’d locked it himself. Unless he could somehow pick the—
The front door swung open. Kriss squawked, stumbled back, and fell off the porch. Stunned, bruised and breathless, he stared up at Andru, who shone a flashlight down at him with one hand while holding a beamer in the other. “Are you all right?” the innkeeper asked.
Kriss wiped rain from his eyes and picked himself up, wincing. The bruises he’d just inflicted on himself throbbed in time with the renewed ache in his head, but otherwise… “Yes.”
Andru holstered the beamer. “You set off my alarms.” He held out his hand and helped Kriss back onto the porch. “You should have told me you’d be coming back late.”
His plans for a quiet escape in ruins, Kriss followed Andru into the common room, where the sullen red glow of a few embers in the fireplace seemed to only deepen the shadows in the corners. Andru turned on a single lightglobe over the bar, then cinched his dark blue robe tighter around his broad waist and sat on a bar stool, gesturing Kriss to another. “Where were you?”
Kriss remained standing. “I just came back to get the touchlyre. Then I’m leaving for good.”
Andru’s steady gaze never wavered, but one eyebrow quirked. “Why?”
“It’s not safe for me to be here.”
Kriss looked away and said nothing. Too many people had already suffered because of him and the touchlyre. He wouldn’t involve Andru and Zendra, too.
But Andru rose, towering over him. He gripped Kriss’s chin with one massive hand and tilted his head back, forcing him to face Andru’s glare. “Listen, boy. If you’re mixed up in something that may cause trouble for me or my inn, you will tell me about it!”
Kriss jerked his head free. “There’s no time. I have to leave—now.”
“You’re not going anywhere until you explain,” Andru said, steel in his voice.
“All right,” Kriss said. “All right. But then I’m leaving. And I won’t let you stop me.”
Andru folded his arms. “Talk.”
Kriss told the tale as succinctly as he could. He expected Andru to rage at him for involving him in a battle between Salazar and Vorlick—but the innkeeper only looked thoughtful.
“Some of this I guessed,” he said after a long pause. “I recognized your touchlyre as alien, and therefore valuable. When I heard Vorlick had arrived, and saw him here listening to you, I suspected he might offer to buy it. But I did not know of this girl, Tevera, or Salazar’s involvement, or the way the Family treated you. I knew your dreams of leaving Farr’s World, but not all of your reasons. Now I do.” He stood abruptly and walked out of sight into the short hallway that led to the stairs. Kriss heard him knock on Zendra’s door and a quiet exchange of voices. Then he returned. “I have an errand to run. You—”
“I’ll be gone when you get back.”
“—will stay here,” Andru said as if Kriss hadn’t spoken. “Zendra will join you. You still work for me, Kriss Lemarc, and I take care of my own.” He strode toward the stairs and his own quarters.
Kriss glanced at the front door. He could run now, leaving the touchlyre behind, and vanish into the rain before Andru returned. But if he did, Andru and Zendra would be caught in the struggle between Salazar and Vorlick, and he couldn’t let that happen. Instead he waited, staring with blind eyes at the near-dead fire, hearing footsteps on the porch with every creak of the inn in the wind or crack of the wood in the fire, expecting Salazar or Vorlick or both to burst through the door at any moment, beamers in hand, to demand he hand over the touchlyre. But the door remained shut until Andru descended, opened it, and vanished into the night without another word.
Instantly Kriss leaped up and dashed toward the stairs. He almost collided with Zendra as she came out of her room, brushing her gray-streaked hair. “Where are you going?” she asked sharply.
“Only up to my room.” He slowed, taking the stairs at a leisurely pace, but the moment he reached the upper hallway he fumbled for his key, threw his room’s door open and snatched up the touchlyre. He’d left his pack back in the Red Horse courtyard, so he simply clutched the instrument to his chest and ran back down the stairs two at a time. Zendra had built up the fire and sat at a table nearby, drinking from a cup, another steaming invitingly nearby. “Come on over and let’s talk,” she called. “Andru won’t be back for a while.”
“Neither will I.” He headed for the door.
She scrambled up. “Andru said to stay here!”
“I’m not safe to have around.” He opened the door and cold rain splattered his face.
“You could be killed!”
“You could be killed if I stay,” he shot back, but still he hesitated, knowing that once he left Andru’s he’d be abandoning all his dreams—maybe forever.
He heard Zendra’s footsteps behind him. “Please!” He looked around at her, and saw tears on her dark cheeks. Her work-roughened hands twisted the heavy fabric of her white robe. “Don’t go!”
He wavered, but only for a moment. Then, “Good-bye, Zendra,” he said as steadily as he could. “Thank you for…for caring.” He stepped out and closed the door behind him.
As he hurried away from the porch darkness and rain closed around him, a comforting, concealing curtain that followed him as he ran, away from the spaceport, water splashing around his feet. After a block he slipped into an unlit side street and began zigzagging through alleys, always heading away from the city center.
Once, in a narrow, twisting lane, he thought he heard footsteps other than his own above the noise of the wind and rain. Peering back, he thought he glimpsed a dark form ducking out of sight. But though he stared for a long time, he didn’t see it again, and finally he ran on, telling himself he had imagined it. Surely no one could follow him in such a storm.
He dodged across a brightly lit thoroughfare, echoing with raucous music from an inn that didn’t keep Andru’s strict hours, and began picking his way along a garbage-strewn alley. Where did Andru go? he wondered. Surely not the police—Andru must know that Salazar owns them. Well, no matter; he’d made his decision and there was no going back now.
He didn’t stop moving until the first light of dawn forced its way through the lowering overcast. Then he paused in the shelter of a doorway on the very edge of the city. The rain had dwindled to a miserable drizzle, and Kriss savored the pleasure of being free of its icy grip, if only for a few minutes.
The house that protected him seemed deserted, as did those that surrounded it with sagging slate roofs and peeling plaster walls. Weeds pushed through the cracked cobblestones of the street. Only a few yards away the pavement ended entirely and gave way to a muddy trail that led into the rain-soaked fields beyond, dimly visible in the growing light.
He slumped to the ground, back against the rough wooden door, pulled his knees to the leather-wrapped instrument he held to his chest and rested his forehead on its slick upper edge, listening to the rain beating down around him and the distant drumrolls of thunder. Even when lightning cracked the sky open overhead and the building behind him shook in the following ear-splitting crash, he didn’t stir. All that mattered for the moment was that he didn’t have to move.
Almost asleep, his mind drifted…until a boot thudded into his ribs and knocked him sprawling face-first into a filthy puddle, the touchlyre beneath him. He gagged on foul water and tried to get to his hands and knees, but another blow smashed him down again. “All right, enough,” someone growled. “Haul him up.”
Rough hands gripped his arms and jerked him to his feet. He struggled feebly, dazed. Whoever held him shook him so hard he bit his tongue, and he spat blood as his captor asked, “Where to?”
Kriss tried to focus on the one who seemed to be in charge, a man he’d never seen before, big and bald, with a crooked nose and a face slashed forehead to cheek by a vivid scar. He wore expensive-looking clothes that were torn and mud-spattered, and his right arm hung in a blood-stained sling. “Not here. People will be stirring soon.” He pointed across the street. “There’s a courtyard behind that empty building. That will do.” He bent down and picked up the touchlyre one-handed, then strode across the cobblestones. Kriss, who had yet to glimpse the man holding him, was propelled in his wake.
Shoved roughly through the archway into the courtyard, he fell, scraping his hands and knees on the sharp, wet stones. “All right, boy, now we’ll have a little talk,” the scarred man said, and suddenly Kriss recognized the voice.
He struggled to his feet and turned. The man who had held him had held him once before—the night he attacked Kriss and Tevera in the alley across from Andru’s. Kriss looked from him to the scarred man. “Salazar,” he said hoarsely. “I hoped you were dead.”
“Some of my men are,” Salazar growled.
Kriss ran his tongue over his swelling lip. “Why don’t you just kill me and get it over with?” he said thickly.
“Don’t tempt me.” Salazar held out the touchlyre to Kriss, and when Kriss hesitated, jammed it viciously against his ribs. Kriss gasped. “Take it!”
Kriss held it tightly. “What do you want?”
“Unwrap it,” Salazar commanded, and Kriss numbly complied. The rain splattered against the polished wood, forming heavy drops that ran harmlessly away, leaving the surface dry. “Play it.”
“I’ve never heard it. Prove it does what I’ve been told.”
“Why should I? You’re going to kill me anyway.”
“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just leave you for Vorlick’s man.” Salazar laughed. “You weren’t nearly as clever as you thought you were, boy. You were followed twice. We chased him off, but he could be back any minute with reinforcements. So play, or I will kill you.” He nodded to his henchman, who grinned and drew a long black knife from a sheath at his waist.
Kriss took a deep breath. He did not want to play the touchlyre—then, or ever again. It had been his dearest possession, a link with his lost parents; but now he knew it for a dangerous alien artifact, a bit of bloody space debris that had already led to more deaths than he wanted on his conscience. How could he let it invade his mind again after all the grief it had caused?
Let Salazar have it! he thought bitterly. I’ll be glad to be rid of it. He glared at the black wood, the silver strings, the copper plates, and made no effort to protect any of them from the rain. Let it rot!
For the last time, Kriss thought, and touched the plates.
Kriss gave no thought to what he would play, wanting only to get it over with. Perhaps because of that lack of conscious direction, in an instant he had no control at all. The touchlyre’s invisible fingers reached into his mind, found his fear, guilt and hatred, ripped those emotions from him, funneled them through itself—and hurled them at Salazar and his henchman.
Kriss felt every muscle in his body snap as rigidly taut as though cast in steel as the power of the instrument poured through him like a purge of live steam. Salazar’s man screamed and collapsed, and Salazar’s face slackened, his knees buckled, and he fell to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been cut, unconscious or dead.
Only then did the instrument’s screaming strings subside. Kriss gasped, swayed, and fell to his knees, his heart beating a ragged rhythm in his chest. The touchlyre fell from his nerveless hands to clatter against the paving stones. Kriss stared at it as though he had never seen it before.
Salazar moaned, and Kriss, overcoming a sudden overwhelming feeling of distaste, snatched up the touchlyre—unmarked by its fall against the stones, he noted distantly—and clambered to his feet. He had to escape. Salazar had said one of Vorlick’s men had followed him, too. What would Vorlick do with the power the touchlyre had just displayed?
I should destroy it, he thought, grabbing the leather covering from where Salazar had dropped it and wrapping it up again, but a surge of terror struck him like a physical blow at the thought, and he froze for a moment, feeling the touchlyre’s immaterial fingers lingering in his mind. Then Salazar’s hands twitched against the wet stones of the courtyard pavement, and Kriss dashed past his fallen enemies into the street.
A man hurried by, hunched over against the steady drizzle. He didn’t even look at Kriss. Otherwise the street remained deserted, though Kriss had thought the instrument’s screaming loud enough to bring the whole city running.
Around here they’ve probably learned to ignore things that don’t concern them, he thought. Suits me fine. No one will tell anyone they saw me.
He hurried down to where the pavement ended. As he stepped from the worn cobblestones into the mud of the waterlogged track leading into the fields, he glanced back. He was afraid he would see Salazar and his henchman emerging from the courtyard. Instead he saw Rigel and three other Family crewmen just rounding a corner into the street.
Kriss spun and plunged off the track in among the tall stalks of corn, higher than his head, but heard shouting behind him, though the words were lost in the hiss of the rain on the corn and his own gasping breath, and knew they had seen him.
Water stood inches deep on the ploughed soil, and rich black earth clung to his feet like lead shoes. He lost one boot and sock, then the other, staggered on a few more steps, and then fell, twisting awkwardly so that he splashed down on one side, touchlyre still cradled against his chest. Holding it with one arm he managed to push himself up with the other and get to his feet once more, but now he could hear sound of the Family men crashing through the corn in pursuit.
Gulping air, he ran on, the long leaves slicing his bare hands and face, but within a dozen steps he fell again, and this time as he struggled to his feet Rigel and his cohorts reached him. He spun to face them, arms wrapped around the touchlyre.
Rigel, panting, glared at him. “The Captain wants to see you. Why did you run?”
Kriss replied by lowering his head and charging. He hit Rigel in the stomach with his shoulder, sending the Family man splashing backward into the mud, kept his own feet and tried to dash back into the corn, but he was tackled from behind and fell face-first into the muck, the hard shape of the touchlyre driving the breath from his body. Someone hauled him to his feet and took the touchlyre from him while he gaped helplessly, trying to force air back into his body, and by the time he was breathing normally Rigel had seized his arms from behind and was pushing him back through the field toward the city.
Rigel released him as they reached the paved street, but with four of the Family surrounding him, and barefoot on the cobblestones, he couldn’t run. Despite his helplessness, he walked defiantly, head up, though he knew his final bid for a kind of freedom had been defeated.
Suddenly Rigel grabbed his arm and pulled him to a stop. “Salazar!”
Kriss jerked around to see Salazar stumbling out of the courtyard, his once-fine clothes even muddier than before. Fresh blood soaked the bandage on his arm, and ran down his face from a cut on his forehead. Kriss’s companions tensed, flicking glances at the surrounding buildings.
But Kriss watched Salazar. The scarred man’s little eyes blinked in bewilderment, as though he had misplaced something. His gaze met Kriss’s for a moment, but wandered on with no spark of recognition. He brushed past the Family group and moved uncertainly down a side street, vanishing into the rain.
Rigel stared after him, then shook his head and started forward again. “Come on, worldhugger, we’re in a hurry.”
Not having much choice, Kriss followed. “Why couldn’t you let me go?” he said bitterly. “You said you never wanted to see me again.”
“I didn’t,” Rigel snapped. “But the Captain had other ideas. Now be quiet!”
Kriss subsided. It occurred to him that the touchlyre might do to his new captors what it had done to Salazar, if he could grab it from the Family man holding it, but he pushed the thought away. However Rigel and his friends felt about him, they were Tevera’s family. If he hurt them he would hurt her. And after his encounter with Salazar, after feeling the touchlyre rip his emotions from him and forge them into a weapon, he thought he never wanted to touch it again.
They strode on through the rain-swept streets, Kriss limping as the cobblestones bruised his unprotected feet. The few people they passed, cloaked and hooded against the storm, seemed more concerned with keeping as dry and warm as possible than with five offworlders, one of them a bedraggled, muddy, barefoot boy.
At a corner where they should have gone straight to reach the spaceport, they instead veered left, startling Kriss. A few minutes later they turned another corner—onto the avenue that led to Andru’s. He stared at the inn in disbelief. “What are we doing here?”
“I wish I knew,” Rigel growled. He led the way up onto the porch and knocked. The door opened and they entered.
Kriss looked around the dim, shuttered room. A dozen Family men and women stood silently along the wall of the common room nearest the bar, half-hidden and ominous in the shadows cast by the single light over the bar and the fire in the hearth. Andru stood in front of the bar, arms folded; Zendra stirred the fire with a poker. She smiled tentatively at Kriss, but he ignored her. He pushed through his escort and crossed the hardwood floor, leaving a trail of muddy footprints, to confront Andru.
“This is how you ‘take care’ of me? Turning me over to my enemies?”
Andru, his eyes still on the door, didn’t even glance at him. “Quiet, boy.”
“Let him speak!” Rigel’s cry startled Kriss. He turned to see Tevera’s brother striding toward them. “I’d like to know what’s going on, too. This worldhugger put my sister in danger…”
“And helped rescue her,” Andru growled.
“She wouldn’t have needed rescuing if not for him! And after that I warned him to stay away from the Family. We even left a man here to make sure he didn’t try to contact Tevera again. Then suddenly you show up at the Thaylia and the next thing we know the Captain is ordering us to go and get him!”
Andru’s steel-gray brows drew together. “Are you questioning orders?”
Rigel stiffened, and almost replied; then he dropped his gaze and muttered something too soft to hear.
“Your questions will be answered in Council…but not until your Captain arrives.” The innkeeper swept the crowd with his stormy eyes as though daring anyone to take exception.
But Kriss thought he already had his answers. “The temptation was just too much, wasn’t it?” he snarled at Andru. “You’ve decided to take the touchlyre for yourself!”
Zendra gasped, and Andru raked him with blazing eyes, raised his enormous, calloused hand…then clenched it and let it drop. “Events will speak for themselves,” he said, his voice tightly controlled. “Be silent.”
Zendra came toward Kriss from the fire. “You should get out of those wet clothes…”
He turned on her, voice half-choked. “Drop the charade! How much extra did Andru pay you to ‘mother’ me so I’d trust you both? It worked, you know—I thought you really cared!”
She went white, but he pressed on, wanting to hurt as he had been hurt. “I’d even started to think of this place as home—but at home you’re safe.” He looked around at the Family. “Safe,” he repeated bitterly.
Zendra’s hand suddenly cracked across his cheek, then she sobbed and ran into the hallway. The door to her room slammed. Kriss stared after her, his ears ringing, and raised a hand to his burning cheek.
An iron grip seized his shoulder. Andru spun him around and shoved him hard against the bar, then held him there. “Listen, boy!” Andru snarled, his dark, weathered face, twisted in anger, only inches from Kriss’s. “Everything she did for you was out of the goodness of her heart.”
But Kriss refused to feel remorse. “All I can see from here is betrayal.”
The powerful, gnarled fingers dug deeper into his flesh. Andru’s other fist clenched. Kriss waited for the blow to fall—but then cool, wet air rushed around them and Andru growled a curse, shoved Kriss away and turned around.
Kriss, rubbing his bruised shoulder, looked past the innkeeper to see a black-clad man and woman entering the inn, silver beamers drawn. They scanned the room with emotionless eyes, then stepped to each side of the door, crossing their deadly weapons over their hearts.
Behind them, moving slowly and with great dignity, came Nicora, Captain of the Thaylia.