When she donned the Diadem, Aleytys was changed forever. An artifact of tremendous power, it has given her psychic abilities beyond her comprehension or complete control, while making her a target of the distant, dangerous alien race that created it. However, survival for herself and her infant son is Aleytys's first priority as she searches for a home and a history. Her quest has brought her to the barbarous planet Lamarchos, where she intends to aid her companions - the thief Miks Stavver, the native Kale, and the psychotic criminal mastermind Maissa - in the theft of a valuable cache of powerful poaku stones.
Moving across the perilous alien landscape in the guise of a mystical healer, Aleytys cannot help but attract the attention of the local gods, who expect her to do their bidding. But neither godly intervention nor the Diadem's awesome power can prevent the treacherous betrayal that will leave Aleytys stranded on this wild and dangerous planet - or save her from capture by the terrible zombie-like horde bringing chaos and horror to their world.
Ingeniously melding science fiction space opera with fantastic invention, alien worlds and technologies with epic quest adventure, Clayton has created a unique universe of wonders and terrors. With her extraordinary Diadem Saga, she joins such acclaimed masters as Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, and Marion Zimmer Bradley in the pantheon of speculative fiction's most revered science fantasists.
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By Jo Clayton
Openroad Integrated MediaCopyright © 1978 Jo Clayton
All rights reserved.
"Still raining?" Stavver ducked into the lock and knelt beside her, eyes on the rain which fell in a depressing, grey curtain.
Aleytys brushed her hands over her black-dyed hair, breaking up the clinging drops of mist that had drifted in from the rain, then glanced briefly at the moisture beaded on her forearms. "Not a break yet."
"Maissa will be spitting like a cat. She hates getting wet."
"I can't get the feel of her." She waited for a response. "Sometimes she actually frightens me." More silence. "So much anger ..." Still no answer. Flicking a hand upwards, she said, "What about up there?"
"A Karkesh skimmer went by a minute ago. Still no sign they know we're here." He relaxed against the far side of the lock and smiled at her. "You don't look like yourself."
Aleytys glanced down at her altered body. Her breasts were bare, except for pale blue tattoos of butterflies fluttering in a line to her shoulders. A wide coarsely woven batik, printed in pale blue, wound twice around her hips and pinned with a silver wire brooch. Her skin was darkened to a warm russet. "Each time I look in a mirror I get a shock." She ran her eyes over him, assessing his changes as well: white hair dyed black, pale blue eyes now deep brown, skin dyed darker than her own, finally, the bold blue lines of tattooing on face, arms, and shoulders. "Each time I look at you ..." She chuckled. "I woke up last night and nearly had a fit when I saw the stranger in my bed." She yawned and stretched. "What about you, Miks?"
"Standard tactic in my profession, Leyta."
"Well I haven't your vast experience with all this changing about. This is only the third world I've seen and Maissa wouldn't let me off ship to see more than a snatch of the place where we picked up Kale."
He wrapped his fingers around her ankle and waggled her foot back and forth, ignoring her protests. "Poor, innocent, little mountain girl." He chuckled. "I've seen you in action."
"That wasn't me, idiot. Let go." She pulled her foot free and feinted a kick at him. "You of all people — you should remember the diadem. You stole it." She touched her head and made a face at him when the faint chime sang through the hiss of the downpour outside. "It's let me alone since we left Jaydugar, thank the Madar."
The grin on his face dissolved. He got onto his knees and leaned across her to stare at the ceaseless, dreary rain. "Damn this weather. We've got things to do."
Aleytys watched him settle back, arms circling his knees, face pulled into a brooding frown. The pervading, dull hiss of the falling water pounded on the sensitivity which made him a brilliant thief and was also his major flaw. A quiet tension quivered in the beaded air while she waited silently for the return of the sardonic mask he used to hide this weakness from the world's malevolent eyes. She studied him, sensing a peculiar unease; curious because she could discover nothing in their present circumstances to justify his anxiety. Feeling about to find what was troubling him, she voiced a thought that lay like a wrinkle under the surface.
"Are we really supposed to fool anyone into thinking we're natives of this soggy ...?" She shrugged and jerked a thumb out the lock where the rain had begun to thin. Ghost images of several trees were developing in the greyness.
Stavver blinked slowly and lifted his head, the somber frown flowing into blandness. "Maissa explained all that."
"I still don't believe we'd convince a blind baby we belong."
Stroking the darkened skin beside the jutting beak of his nose, Stavver said patiently, "People see what they expect. Would the nomads on Jaydugar know Maissa wasn't a caravanner?"
Aleytys rubbed her shoulders against the ridged metal of the ship, frowning thoughtfully. "Isn't this different? You said there aren't as many physical types on this world as we had at home."
"You're the key, Leyta. If they accept you as genuine — and why shouldn't they, aren't you a genuine healer? — you cover any slips we make. You're to be gikena, healer and worker of small miracles. We're merely humble nonentities attached to your service." He dipped his head in a servile bow. "Who would look twice at us?"
"It only takes one. The right one."
"So we're all from across the sea. Strangers. That should explain any oddities. If the natives accept us, the Karkiskya certainly will. From what Kale told us, his people have very little contact with them." He grinned at her. "Kale says you've got the language down better than any of us."
Aleytys heard the dry note in his voice and turned her face away. "One of my talents."
Outside, the rain was only a trickle of wetness, the shimmering, orange circle of the sun visible through the thinning clouds as it hesitated just above the western horizon. Swinging around so her legs hung out the lock, she gazed thoughtfully at the dark, steaming earth with its thin patches of short, prickly grass, debating whether to say what she had to say or leave it till Maissa returned. She walked her fingertips over the heavy, batik material, drawing a measure of reassurance from the familiar feel of herself. "Maissa puzzles me," she said slowly.
Stavver's long back was curved into a section of lock-side, while his thin, wiry legs stretched out over the black, rubberoid flooring. He ran lazy eyes over her body, the smiling mask back on his face again. "No doubt."
"My skin crawls when she's around you or Kale." She waited for an answer. When he stared past her out the lock, saying nothing, she gave an impatient exclamation. "Dammit, Miks, this isn't idle chatting."
"She doesn't like men," he said reluctantly. "I don't want to talk about her, Leyta."
"I guessed that," she said dryly. "All men?"
"And you said she hates getting wet?"
"Mmmhh." Aleytys slicked the mist off her knees and stared thoughtfully at the rain pools below. Silence spread through the lock, vibrating tensely against the irregular pattering of the breaking rain. The warm, humid air made their lungs labor and their nerves tighten but neither made a gesture toward the more temperate atmosphere of the ship. The shadows of the grey half-light deepened their facial lines and occluded their eyes, obscuring expression and giving a somber harshness to both faces.
"She's due back about sundown. How long is that from now?"
"The 'phemer lists the day length as nineteen hours. That leaves her about two to play with."
"She went to get caravans with horses. She didn't say how she planned to acquire them. Do you know, Miks?"
"What difference does it make?" His mouth tightened repressively. "Let's not discuss it, Leyta."
She glanced around at him, eyes moving over his curved shoulders and forbidding face. "Why not?"
"You won't like the answer."
Aleytys reached back and set her hand on his leg, feeling the hardness of the long, wiry muscles in his calf. "She's a killer?"
He nodded. "It's how she gets her kicks."
"You called her to us."
"You remember how close we came to getting snatched by the Rmoahl Hounds? She was the only one I could reach that day."
"I'm not blaming you, Miks. But I also have to remember the price we pay for her help. Stealing the treasures of the Karkiskya for her. I don't like being a part of slaughtering the innocent."
"The Karkiskya are far from innocent." The next words came out slowly, painfully. "Keep clear of Maissa. Don't question what she does; do what she says, don't get underfoot, and you'll stay alive."
"If she's so dangerous —"
"Leyta, believe me, Maissa in a fury is capable of anything."
"Am I so helpless? Even without the diadem I crossed a world alone and pregnant."
"Aleytys, my Lee, my innocent, healthy-souled mountain girl — you'll never understand Maissa. Never. To know her you'd have to walk in her shoes, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone." He sighed and moved to sit beside her, his long legs dangling out the lock. "She was born on Iblis. Her mother was a two-obol whore on Star Street in Shaol. Her father — who knows?" He stared gloomily at his bare feet. "She was raised to the infant trade. Knifed her mother when she was seven and took to the streets."
"Knifed her mother?" Aleytys felt a sick horror clutch at her stomach.
"Her mother. The woman who rented her child to anybody who'd give her the price of a drink. Maissa was two years old the first time."
"Madar." Aleytys shut her eyes, a sour taste in her mouth. "Two years old."
Stavver shifted slightly, his skin squeaking across the metal. "Right. Since then — well, she's survived."
"You're right, Miks. I'll never empathize with the result of that life. Madar! I won't try." She shuddered.
"So walk lightly around Maissa until this game is over."
"Isn't there some way to help her?"
Stavver made a brief, impatient sound. "She doesn't want help. Let it lie, Aleytys. Don't interfere in what's none of your business."
Aleytys wrenched her thoughts from the sickening images in her mind. "Well," she said briskly. "All that being true, then you'd better know this right away. If this world doesn't welcome me, you can forget about my being gikena."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Aleytys smiled tightly and watched her toes wiggle. "Exactly what I said, Miks. If the natives don't accept me, they can make it impossible for me to do any of my 'tricks.' Better put the ladder down so I can ask them to let me play the game." She glanced up at the dark grey blanket of clouds. "At least the rain has stopped for a while."
"Superstitious nonsense. Wake up, mountain girl. You left your witches and demons behind on Jaydugar." With his narrow face pulled together in a frown, he jerked her around and glared into her face. "God, woman, if you spoil Maissa's plan ..."
She caught hold of his thin wrists and pulled his hands away from her. "Can I fly a starship? Can I walk into a fortress like you and steal the teeth off the guardians without disturbing their sleep? No, and I'd never try it. I haven't the training or the wish. So, don't you question me, Miks, when I tell you what I know of my own skills."
"All right." He dropped his hands to his knees. "Explain."
"Each world has ..." She hesitated, searching for the right words. "The shemqyatwe. Remember them?"
"The witches. I remember. When we rode with the wagons of the nomads. Khateyat and her girls. So?"
"They called the ones I'm trying to explain the R'nenawatalawa."
"I've heard the word — some kind of native gods."
"No. Not gods. They who are."
"They? What th' hell ..."
"They who are the essence of each world."
"Some kind of elementals?" His voice vibrated with skepticism.
"Yes, I think so." She shrugged impatiently. "What does a name matter? They are ... they."
Aleytys nodded at the scene outside. "So this: let down the ladder, I need to touch the earth. If this world is hostile to me, it will fight everything I try to do. Let down the ladder and you can see for yourself."
Face skeptical, Stavver got cautiously to his feet, keeping his head down, his back bent so he wouldn't hit his head on the curving top. He thumbed the touch plate, waking a faint hum as the ladder extended downward. "Make it fast. I don't think Maissa will be very understanding." He sat back down, legs dangling over the rim of the lock.
Mouth twisted into an unhappy smile, Aleytys pulled the cloth from her waist, stabbing the brooch through the folds so it wouldn't get lost. "Wish me luck, my friend."
"Luck, Aleytys." He touched her ankle briefly.
She dropped down the extruded ladder until her feet squelched into the earth the rain had churned into a semi-liquid mud. After paddling through water and mud to a grassy hillock several meters from the base of the ship, she knelt in silence, feeling for the elemental forces that had their ambiance in this particular conglomeration of matter. Then she bent over and placed her hands, palm down, flat against the soil.
She could smell the dark brown richness of the wet dirt, the sharp green peaks of the grass and leaves. A cool-warm breeze coiled around her flanks while a living warmth crept up through her arms and filled her. At peace, she settled, legs crossed; hands resting lightly on her knees. Her breath slid in and out in gentle serenity while she waited for them to come closer.
She felt a probing. Fingertips rippling through her body: exploring, curious, excited. She felt like laughing; like leaping joyously to her feet to dance a maenad dance. As it pulsed through her, she felt the different aura these had. Unlike those of Jaydugar, these were not slow, vast, immensely wise, these were sprite-like. Somehow younger. Given to practical jokes and rippling laughter. Feelings of exuberance and joyous abandon. She felt their excitement racing through her quiescent body.
Softness brushed against her knee. Tilting her head down she looked into bright, black eyes that examined her with disconcerting intelligence. A small animal, fur a bright russet brown, sat on rabbit-like hind legs, fore limbs ending in agile black three-fingered hands held crossed over a cascading ruff of white fur. She smiled affectionately down at the small one. "I greet you, friend."
The pointed ears that stood tulip fine over the small dome of his skull twitched amiably as he scrambled onto her knee, the nails of his narrow nervous feet pricking rapidly over her skin. Fluffing his fur to shake off lingering traces of rain, he settled contentedly into the curve of her hand. "Sister."
Aleytys blinked, a little startled under the surface of her calm, to find an animal speaking to her. "Yes?"
"I am speaker. The voice of Lakoe-heai."
"Ah." The words in the high voice were clear and distinct. She gazed into the bright, black eyes and understood that the speaker was the means of communication they had chosen on this world. They. Lakoe-heai they called themselves here. Addressing the intelligence behind the black eyes, she said softly, "You know we come as thieves?"
The animal moved restlessly, shifting against her palm. Aleytys cautiously lifted her free hand and scratched him behind the ear. He sighed plaintively as her searching fingers found a nerve complex where their probing brought delight to his small body. Joy bubbled feverishly through her. A fluttering laughter fell on her senses like rose petals while a bright, beaming interest surrounded her, vibrating the air until it tickled her skin.
"You don't care about that. You have a purpose we serve?" The small head moved once again against her palm. "Not one but four."
She chuckled. "Four out of one. Thrifty." Then she sobered. "One of us — one will kill."
"We hear. It is known. There is already blood."
"Ah." The pleasure soured in her. "I feel there will be more. It sickens me."
"Not your doing, forget it. Life and death are both parts of the whole, one flowing into the other, death and life." The speaker smoothed his small, black hands over his stiff, springing whiskers.
"Ah." She sucked a breath deep into her, expanding her stomach, then let the air slip out in small bundles until no more would come. Sitting in silence she felt warm in the energetic approval of the Lakoe-heai. Warm in spite of the thickening mist that threatened to break into rain again, and happy to be out of the artificial womb of the ship, happy to be in touch with the earth and the world's life. Once again, she grew aware of the complex hierarchy of smells that matched the interweaving of life sparks. They rose in a glistening crescendo even to the clouds where unseen birds circled and soared among the drifting minutiae of the aerial bacteria that spread across the sky in brightly colored swirls.
After a dreamy, timeless time she sighed and stirred. "Then I may play at being gikena?"
"Sister." The small voice gleamed silver in her ears. "Be what you are."
She frowned. "I don't understand."
Laughter circled joyously around her, hidden in thunder that boomed through the clouds, filled with a whooping amusement that brought images to her mind of soap bubbles bouncing wildly through bright spring air. The speaker animal snuggled against her stomach, ears flickflicking in response to the forces whirling wildly around them. The small voice spoke again, filled with amusement. "Sister, you are gikena born."
"But I'm not born of this world."
The word suddenly had meaning for her. "You call me kin?"
Aleytys looked dreamily down at the tiny beast curled in a ball of white and russet fur against her stomach, his head tilted back so the black eyes met hers, the look of intelligence startling in his beast face. She sighed and slid her hands under him to lift him back on the ground.
Excerpted from Lamarchos by Jo Clayton. Copyright © 1978 Jo Clayton. Excerpted by permission of Openroad Integrated Media.
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