Bride of the dark one re.., p.1
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       Bride of the Dark One Rewed, p.1
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           Florent Verbell Brown
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Bride of the Dark One Rewed


  Bride of the Dark One

  by Florent Verbell Brown

  Copyright 2010 Florent Verbell Brown

  The last light in the Galaxy was a torch. High in the rafters of Mytoh's Cafe Yaroto it burned, and its red glare illuminated a gallery of the damned. Hands that were never far from blaster or knife; eyes that picked a hundred private hells out of the swirling smoke where a man danced.

  He was good to look at, moving in time to the savage rhythm of the music. The single garment he wore bared his supple body, and thighs and pectorals and a cloud of dark hair wove a pattern of desire in the close room.

  Fat Mytoh watched, and her little crafty eyes gleamed. The Earth boy danced like a he-devil tonight. The tables were crowded with the outcast and the hunted of all the brighter worlds. The man's warm body, moving in the torchlight, would stir memories that women had thought they left light years behind. Gold coins would shower into Mytoh's palm for bad wine, for stupor and forgetfulness.

  Mytoh sipped her imported amber kali, and the black eyes moved with seeming casualness, penetrating the deep shadows where the tables were, resting briefly on each drunken, greedy or fear-ridden face.

  It was an old process with Mytoh, nearly automatic. A glance told her enough, the state of a woman's mind and senses and wallet. This trembling wreck, staring at the man and nursing a glass of the cheapest green Yarotian wine, had spent her last silver. Mytoh would have her thrown out. Another, head down and muttering over a tumbler of raw whiskey, would pass out before the night was over, and wake in an alley blocks away, with her gold in Mytoh's pocket. A third wanted a man, and Mytoh knew what kind of a man.

  When the dance was nearly over Mytoh heaved out of her chair, drew the rich folds of her native Venusian tarab about her bulk, and padded softly to a corner of the room, where the shadows lay deepest. Smiling, she rested a moist, jeweled paw on the table at which Ransome, the Earthwoman, sat alone.

  Blue eyes looked up coldly out of a weary, lean face. The voice was bored.

  'I've paid for my bottle and I have nothing left for you to steal. We have nothing in common, no business together. Now, if you don't mind, you're in my line of vision, and I'd like to watch the finish of the dance.’

  The fat Venusian's smile only broadened.

  'May I sit down, Ms. Ransome?’ she persisted. 'Here, out of your line of vision?’

  'The chair belongs to you,’ Ransome observed flatly.

  'Thank you.’

  Covertly, as she had done for hours now, Mytoh studied the gaunt, pale Earthwoman in the worn space harness. Ransome had apparently dismissed the Venusian renegade already, and her cold blue eyes followed the man's every movement with fixed intensity.

  The music swept on toward its climax and the man's body was a storm of golden flesh and tossing black hair. Mytoh saw the Earthwoman's pale lips twist in the faint suggestion of a bitter smile, saw the long fingers tighten around the glass.

  Every woman had her price on Yaroto, and Ransome would not be the first Mytoh had bought with a man. For a moment, Mytoh watched the desire brighten in Ransome's eyes, studied the smile that some women wear on the way to death, in the last moment when life is most precious.

  * * * * *

  In this moment Ransome was for sale. And Mytoh had a proposition.

  'You were not surprised that I knew your name, Ms. Ransome?’

  'Let's say that I wasn't interested.’

  Mytoh flushed but Ransome was looking past her at the man. The Venusian wiped her forehead with a soiled handkerchief, drummed fat fingers on the table for a moment, tried a different tack.

  'His name is Irend. She's lovely, isn't he, Ms. Ransome? Surely the inner worlds showed you nothing like him. The eyes, the red mouth, the pectorals like--'

  'Shut up,’ Ransome grated, and the glass shattered between her clenched fingers.

  'Very well, Ms. Ransome.’ Whiskey trickled from the edge of the table in slow, thick drops, staining Mytoh's white tarab. Ice was in the Venusian's voice. 'Get out of my place--now. Leave the whiskey, and the man. I have no traffic with fools.’

  Ransome sighed.

  'I've told you, Mytoh that you're wasting your time. But make your pitch, if you must.’

  'Ah, Ms. Ransome, you do not care to go out into the starless night. Perhaps there are those who wait for you, eh? With very long knives?’

  Reflex brought Ransome's hand up in a lightning arc to the blaster bolstered under her arm, but Mytoh's damp hand was on her wrist, and Mytoh's purr was in her ear, the words coming quickly.

  'You would die where you sit, you fool. You would not live even to know the sharpness of the long knives, the sacred knives of Darion, with the incantations inscribed upon their blades against blasphemers of the Temple.’

  Ransome shuddered and was silent. She saw Mytoh's guards, vigilant in the shadows, and her hand fell away from the blaster.

  When the dance was ended, and the blood was running hot and strong in her, she turned to face Mytoh. Her voice was impatient now, but her meaning was shrouded in irony.

  'Are you trying to sell me a lucky charm, Mytoh?’

  The Venusian laughed.

  'Would you call a space ship a lucky charm, Ms. Ransome?’

  'No,’ Ransome said grimly. 'If it were berthed across the street I'd be dead before I got halfway to it.’

  'Not if I provided you with a guard of my women.’

  'Maybe not. But I wouldn't have picked you for a philanthropist, Mytoh.’

  'There are no philanthropists on Yaroto, Ms. Ransome. I offer you escape, it is true; you will have guessed that I expect some service in return.’

  'Get to the point.’ Ransome's eyes were weary now that the man's dancing no longer held them. And there was little hope in her voice.

  A woman can put off a date across ten years, and across a hundred worlds, and there can be whiskey and men to dance for her. But there was a ship with burned-out jets lying in the desert outside this crumbling city, and it was the night of Bani-tai, the night of expiation in distant Darion, and Ransome knew that for her, this was the last world.

  After tonight the priests would proclaim the start of a new Cycle, and the old debts, if still unpaid, would be canceled forever.

  Ransome shrugged, a hopeless gesture. Enough of the cult of the Dark One lingered in the very stuff of her nerves and brain to tell her that the will of the Temple would be done.

  But Mytoh was speaking again, and Ransome listened in spite of herself.

  'All the scum of the Galaxy wash up on Yaroto at last,’ the fat Venusian said. 'That is why you and I are here, Ms. Ransome. It is also why a certain pirate landed her ship on the desert out there three days ago. Callisto King, the ship's name is, though it has borne a dozen others. Cargo--Jovian silks and dyestuffs from the moons of Mars, narco-vin from the system of Alpha Centauri.’

  Mytoh paused, put the tips of fat fingers together, and looked hard at Ransome.

  'Is all of that supposed to mean something to me?’ Ransome asked. A waiter had brought over a glass to replace the broken one, and she poured a drink for herself, not inviting Mytoh. 'It doesn't.’

  'It suggests a course, nothing more. In toward Sol, out to Yaroto by way of Alpha Centauri. Do you follow the courses of pirate ships, Ms. Ransome?’

  'One,’ Ransome said savagely. 'I've lost track of him.’

  'Perhaps you know the Callisto King better under his former name, then.’

  Again Ransome's hand moved toward the blaster, and this time Mytoh made no attempt to stop her. Ransome's thin lips tightened with some powerful emotion, and she half rose to look hard at Mytoh.

  'The name of the ship?’

  'His c
aptain used to call him Hawk of Darion.’

  Ransome understood. Hawk of Darion, hell ship driving through black space under the command of a woman she had once sworn to kill. Eight years rolled back and she saw them together, laughing at her: the Earthwoman-captain and the man who had been Ransome's.

  'Captain Jareta,’ Ransome said slowly. 'Here--on Yaroto.’

  The Venusian nodded, pushing the bottle toward Ransome. The Earthwoman ignored the gesture.

  'Is the man with her?’

  Mytoh smiled her feline smile. 'You would like to see his blood run under the knives of the priests, no?’

  'No.’

  Ransome meant it. Somewhere, in the years of flight, she had lost her love for the blonde, red-lipped Dura-ki, and with it had gone her bitter hatred and her desire for revenge.

  She jerked her mind back to the present, to Mytoh.

  'And if I told you that it must be his life or yours?’ Mytoh was asking her.

  Ransome's eyes widened. She sensed that Mytoh's last question was not, an idle one. She leaned forward and asked:

  'How do you fit into this at all, Mytoh?’

  'Easily. Once, ten years ago, you and the man now aboard the Hawk of Darion blasphemed together against the Temple of the Dark One, in Darion.’

  'Go on,’ Ransome said.

  'When you landed here this afternoon the avenging priests were not far behind you.’

  'How did you--'

  'I have many contacts,’ Mytoh purred. 'I find them invaluable. But you are growing impatient, Ms. Ransome. I will be brief. I have contracted with the priests of Darion to deliver you to them tonight for a considerable sum.’

  'How did you know you would find me?’

  'I was given your description.’ She made a gesture that took in all the occupants of the torch-lit room. 'So many of the hunted, and the haunted, come here to forget for an hour the things that pursue them. I was expecting you, Ms. Ransome.’

  'If there is a large sum of money involved, I'm sure you'll make every effort to carry out your part of the bargain,’ Ransome observed ironically.

  'I am a businessman, it is true. But in my dealings with the mistress of the Hawk of Darion I have seen the man and I have heard stories. It occurred to me that the priests would pay much more for the man than they would for you, and it seemed to me that a message from you might coax his off the ship. After all, when one has been in love--'

  'That's enough.’ Ransome had risen to her feet. 'I wonder if I could kill you before your guards got to me.’

  'Are you then so in love with death, Ransome?’ The Venusian spoke quickly. 'Don't be a fool. It is a small thing, a man's life--a man who has betrayed you.’

  Ransome stood silent, her arm halfway to her blaster. The man had begun to dance again in the red glare of the torch.

  'There will be other men,’ the Venusian was murmuring. 'The man who dances now, I will give him to you, to take with you in your new ship.’

  Ransome looked slowly from the glowing body of the man to the guards around the walls, down into Mytoh's confident face. Her arm dropped away from the blaster.

  'Any man--for a price.’ The Venusian's murmur was lost in the blare of the music. Ransome had eased her lean body back into the chair.

  * * * * *

  The night air was cold against Ransome's cheek when she went out an hour later, surrounded by Mytoh's women. Yaroto's greenish moon was overhead now, but its pale light did not help her to see more clearly. It only made shadows in every doorway and twisting alley.

  Mytoh's car was only a few feet away but before she could reach it she was shoved aside by one of the Venusian's guards. At the same moment the night flamed with the blue-yellow glare from a dozen blasters. Ransome raised her own weapon, staring into the shadows, seeking her attackers.

  'That's our job. Get in,’ said one of the guards, wrenching open the car door.

  Then the firing was over as suddenly as it had begun. The guards clustered at the opening of an alley down the street. Mytoh's driver sat impassively in the front seat.

  When the guards returned one of them thrust something at Ransome, something hard and cold. She glanced at it. A long knife.

  There was no need to read the inscription on the hilt. She knew it by heart.

  'Death to her who defileth the Bed of the Dark One. Life to the Temple and City of Darion.’

  Once Ransome would have pocketed the knife as a kind of grim keepsake. Now she only let it fall to the floor.

  In the brief, ghostly duel just over she had neither seen nor heard her attackers. That added, somehow, to the horror of the thing.

  She shrugged off the thought, turning her mind to the details of the plan by which she would save her life.

  It was quite simple. Ransome had been in space long enough to know where the crewmen went on a strange world. Half an hour later she sat with a gunner from the Hawk of Darion, in one of the gaudy pleasure houses clustered on the fringe of the city near the spaceport and the desert beyond.

  'Will you take the note to the Captain's man?’

  The woman squirmed, avoiding Ransome's ice-blue stare.

  'Captain killed the last woman who looked at her man,’ the gunner muttered sullenly. 'Flogged her to death.’

  'I'm not asking you to look at him,’ Ransome reminded her.

  The gunner sat looking at the stack of Mytoh's money piled on the table before her. A man drifted over.

  'Go away,’ Ransome said, without raising her eyes. She added another bill to the stack.

  'Let me see the note before I take it,’ the gunner demanded.

  'It would mean nothing to you.’ Ransome pushed a half-empty bottle toward the woman, poured her out another drink.

  The woman's hands were trembling with inner conflict as she measured the killing lash against the stack of yellow Yarotian kiroons, and the pleasures it would buy her. She drank, dribbling a little of the wine down her grimy chin, and then returned to the subject of seeing the note, with drunken persistence.

  'I got to see it first.’

  'It's in a language you wouldn't--'

  'Let her see it,’ a new voice cut in. 'Translate it for her, Ms. Ransome.’

  * * * * *

  It was a man's voice, cold and contemptuous. Ransome looked up quickly, and at first she didn't recognize him. The gunner never took her eyes from the stack of kiroons on the table.

  'Let her see how a woman murders a man to save her own neck.’

  'You're supposed to be dancing at Mytoh's place,’ Ransome said. 'That's your business; this is mine.’

  She closed her hand over the gunner's wrist as the woman reached convulsively for the money, menaced now by the angry man.

  'Half now, the rest later.’ Ransome's eyes burned into the crewman's. The latter looked away. Ransome tightened her grip, and pain contorted the gunner's features.

  'Look at me,’ Ransome said. 'If you cross me you'll wish you could die by flogging.’

  The man Mytoh had called Irend was still standing by the table when the gunner had left with the note and her money.

  'Aren't you going to ask me to sit down?’

  'Certainly. Sit down.’

  'I'd like a drink.’

  He sipped his wine in silence and Ransome studied his by the flickering light of the candle burning on the table between them.

  He wore a simple street dress now, in contrast to the gaudy, revealing garments of the pleasure house men. The beauty of his soft, unpainted lips, his golden skin and wide-set green eyes was more striking now, seen at close range, than it had been in the smoky cavern of Mytoh's place.

  'What are you thinking now, Ransome?’

  The question was unexpected, and Ransome answered without forethought: 'The Temple.’

  'You studied for the priesthood of the Dark One yourself.’

  'Did Mytoh tell you that?’

  Irend nodded. The candlelight gave luster to his dark hair and revealed
the contours of his high, firm pectorals.

  Ransome's pulse speeded up just looking at him. Then she saw that he was regarding her as if she were something crawling in damp stone, and there was bitterness in her.

  'There are things that even Mytoh doesn't know, even omniscient Mytoh--'

  She checked herself.

  'Well?’

  'Nothing.’

  'You were going to tell me about how you are really a very honorable woman. Why don't you? You have an hour before it will be time to betray the man from the Hawk of Darion.’

  Ransome shrugged, and her voice returned his mockery.

  'If I told you that I had been an acolyte in the Temple of the Dark One, and that I was condemned to death for blasphemy, committed for love of a man, would you like me better?’

  'I might.’

  'Ten years ago,’ Ransome said. She talked, and the mighty walls of the Temple reared themselves around her mind, and the music of the pleasure house became the chanting of the priests at the high altar.

  * * * * *

  She stood at the rear of the great Temple, and she had the tonsure and the black robes, and her name was not Ransome, but Ra-sed.

  She had almost forgotten her Terran name. Forgotten, too, were her parents, and the laboratory ship that had been her home until the crash landing that had left her an orphan and Ward of the Temple.

  Red candles burned before the high altar, but terror began just beyond their flickering light. It was dark where Ra-sed stood, and she could hear the cries of the people in the courtyard outside, and feel the trembling of the pillars, the very pillars of the Temple, and the groaning of stone on massive stone in the great, shadowed arches overhead. Above all, the chanting before the altar of the Dark One, rising, rising toward hysteria.

  And then, like a knife in the darkness, the scream, and the straining to see which of the maidens the sacred lots cast before the altar had chosen; and the sudden, sick knowledge that it was Dura-ki. Dura-ki, of the soft golden hair and bright lips.

  In stunned silence, Ra-sed, acolyte, listened to the bridal chant of the priests; the ancient words of the Dedication to the Dark One.

  The chant told of the forty times forty flights of onyx steps leading downward behind the great altar to the dwelling place of the Dark One and of the forty terrible beasts couched in the pit to guard Her slumber.

  In the beginning, Dalir, the Sire, God of the Mists, had gone down wrapped in a sea fog, and had stolen the Sacred Fire while the Dark One slept. All life in Darion had come from Dalir's mystic union with the Sacred Fire.

 
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