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In The Name Of The Mother

Part Fifteen

City of Landen, Landen Habitat, Planet Motavia

"Negotiate?"  Bran laughed.  "You have to be joking, right?  You're honestly telling me Lune thinks he can negotiate with us.  After what he did?"  The king of Landen gestured expressively.

Landen had far to go before it completely recovered.  While the monsters that had besieged the city had not brought with them the devastating fire that is one of the most feared weapons of war in a low technology culture, they had done considerable damage to the buildings of Landen anyway, ripping them apart in their search for easier prey than Kara's determined band.

Kara herself, back in her accustomed spot at Bran's right hand, shook her head as well.  ALthough she could see why the enemy would try something like this.  They would be expecting the people of Landen to be still shaking from their near defeat.  Well, Lune was in for a surprise.  The return of Bran and Lord Orakio, reinforced by robot troops and the warrior Thor (whom she still didn't entirely trust) had boosted morale to never before seen heights.

Bran seemed to think the idea of Lune coming for a peaceful talk was a ridiculous one.  But as she looked around the room, she noticed many others seemed to think it a very good idea indeed.

Orakio may have had to teach the Palm people the concept of war.  But other concepts they could pick up on their own.  Concepts like "lynch mob," and "assassination."   Our culture certainly has come along way, she thought wryly.  But in which direction?

Lord Orakio himself stood by silently.  Kara wondered if the android would be open to negotiations, or whether he would simply seize the opportunity to seize Lune.  No native of Landen would lift a finger to stop him if he decided to use that black blade on the Layan.  Not after Orakio had explained to them all just what was going on.  How Lune had subverted other towns and won them over to the mysterious cause of Laya.  How Laya had set herself up as a god, playing on the people's needs.  How Lune, in her name, had surely instigated this attack.  Anyone who used monsters like those could only be evil, she thought.  No, nobody here would stop Lord Orakio from taking vengeance.

Except maybe Bran.  He didn't seem to understand what was at stake.  Kara thanked him for what he had done to save her own life as well as others', but he hadn't actually fought that battle.  Hadn't seen what Lune's terrifying soldiers could do.  Hadn't seen them stalk children in the city streets.  He was still seeing it all from a distance, like Orakio himself.  Maybe she could tell him, later, what this war was really about.

Bran quieted the room, which had become filled the murmurs of debate.  The circlet of Laconia, the ceremonial and highly controversial crown of Landen, was back on his head.  That, combined with the changes his journey with Orakio had made in him, added up to a new, confident, and quite commanding presence.  He could quiet the room now, if he wanted to.  Before he'd left, he might not have been able to do so without assistance from either her or Orakio.  Kara glanced over at Thor.  The hunter seemed uncomfortable in this atmosphere, and from the casually way he was seated it was obvious Techna, wherever that was, didn't have a king.  She dragged her attention back to Bran.  Before Thor looked over and saw her staring at him.  Again.  Why was it that she was always...never mind.  Bran was speaking, anyway.  Time to listen up.

"Lune himself.  Plus Alair, and this Corm person.  Everybody else stays outside.  Outside the city.  Especially the Aeronians.  They can't come anywhere near the town, and no one is to speak with them under any circumstances.  It could endanger their lives."

She'd missed something.  But from the resumption of the buzz from the audience and the speed of the messenger departing, she could guess.  Bran was letting the enemy inside.  What was it Alec had said, so long ago?  You've invited the Dark Force's emissary in.  It's too late for you now.  She recalled it in a flash, feeling a sudden momentary chill.  He had been mad, of course, referring to Lord Orakio like that.  He fully deserved his self-imposed exile and probable death in the wilds.  But it described this situation well.

Not that she believed in Dark Force, no one old enough to work in the fields did.  But Laya had demonstrated herself to be evil enough to have a legend of her own.  Laya, the evil witch!, Kara thought.  The one who controls the monsters.  Some people who'd gotten garbled dribbles of information that was supposed to be for Advisors only must have spread that particular rumor around.  It wasn't the real story, but it was certainly close enough.

The people at the table, the ex-councilors and others, ones who were the most intelligent and trustworthy people Bran could find to spearhead his plans for the rapidly developing war, turned in their chairs as the door to the room opened.  The first one through the door was not the messenger, as it should have been, to announce the guests.  It was instead an older man in a brown robe like a priest.  Corm, Kara guessed, and clutched the hilt of her sword.  But he wasn't here to launch an ambush, it seemed, for he stepped to one side respectfully.  "The Lord Lune," he said in a voice that had eroded with time but remained strong, "and the Lady Alair."

Silence, as the notables entered the room.  It was the first time for all but Bran to see Lune, and the first time every living being in the room had laid eyes on Alair.  Bran noted the changes in his adversary since they had last met in Cille's palace.  Though he still wore the attire of a Palm warrior, he was perhaps even more a stranger than before.  If time and trials had made Bran harder, they had worked their magic doubly well on Lune.  He was no longer the confused but determined alien from the encounter in Divisia.  Now he looked more like the matchless warrior Orakio had claimed he had been from the moment of his birth.  His face was resolute, the strong cheekbones making him look grim instead of innocent.  His hair, uncut, had grown into a thick wild mane that made him look even larger than he was.  A thick silver band with a blue gem set in the middle of it encircled his throat.  He was no longer a man to be trifled with, to have snappy witticisms thrown in his face.  As he looked up at Bran it was the meeting of equals, where probably neither had considered the other a worthy foe before.

But it was Alair that drew Bran's eye, as she had drawn the eyes of the others in the room.  Alair's sister wore a long gray and black dress that wasn't merely Palmlike but actually Palm, if Bran's rather untutored eye was any judge.  Certainly it looked more like the other dresses in the room than Lune's outfit looked like Bran's own tunic and trousers.  Yet both outfits, on these two people, put everyone else's to shame.  Still, it wasn't her clothes that caught his eye.  It was, of course, the hair that Orakio had told him could be found on any of Laya's genetically engineered creations.  Lune wore his long without much care given to its appearance, but Alair's had two small braids in the front, each held with a blue band, and it fell straight down her back like a glowing green waterfall.  Blue also peeped out from beneath the green strands that fell across her forehead, revealing the presence of a circlet or headband of her own.  Her face...Bran shook his head.  All in all she was without a doubt one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen.  But she wore, slung across her back, what could only be another ancient weapon, like Lune's deadly slasher, revived by Laya for the express purpose of killing Palm people.  Alair's beauty was something he couldn't afford to be captivated by.  Not when his duty might require her death.

Bran looked over at Kara for reassurance.  He frowned.  He hoped Kara had taken a good look at Alair, because she seemed to be spending the majority of this introduction staring at Lune.  And, now that he noticed, Lune seemed to be rather taken with her.  Bran sat back.  "Lune.  Alair.  Please...sit down."  He hoped it didn't sound as annoyed as he thought it did.

Lune looked up, focusing.  "Bran, of course.  I remember you, too.  Thank you for seeing us."

"And your attendant, this is..."

"Corm," Lune said.  "He's a priest...of a new religion, it seems."

"We've heard about your new religion," Bran said.  "With Laya as god."

Lune shrugged.  "We didn't ask him or anyone to do this.  We tried to tell them Laya isn't a god but it just seemed to make things worse.  But really we're forbidden to interfere with your people's society.  If they want to make up gods it's not our business."

"Well, it certainly makes a good story."

"I'm telling you the truth," Lune said.  He clearly was getting angry.  Where had the startled man who had calmly ate with Cille and then challenged Orakio to a fight because it was his mission gone?  He seemed to have been replaced by a man with little patience and a lot of hostility.  "Things have gotten a little out of hand, I'll admit.  But we didn't intend for this to happen."

"And now that it has, you're not averse to using it for your own ends, are you?" Bran said.

"And if I'm not?  Haven't you deified Orakio?"

"Hardly," said Bran, but he knew he was sounding defensive.

"You're so blind.  He's crippling your people.  He's clearly malfunctioning.  He say that Mother Brain gave him orders when everyone knows the Mother is dead!"

Orakio stepped forward.  The tension was unbelievable.  Kara found she could scarcely breathe.  Would he do it?  Had her thoughts been exactly as prophetic as she feared.  When that sword came out it would all be over.  People would be dead, and there would be no going back.  And would be fair repayment for what the two had done to Landen.  Lord Orakio would be defending his people, doing his job.  Then Alair spoke.

"We aren't here to talk about the Mother."  Her voice was calm and sure, washing over the angry leaders of the two sides.  "We're here to talk about putting an end to this fighting before people get hurt.  We don't want to see anybody die.  That's not why we're here."

"Yeah," said Bran.  "You hate to see death so much when you sent those killers to this town you couldn't be there with them, right?  I bet that just tore you up inside."

"I don't have to take that from you," Lune said.  "You don't know a thing about me."

"Lune..." said Alair, putting a hand on his arm.  "Stop fighting with him.  What's wrong with you?" she said softly.  "Do you feel all right?"

"I'm fine," Lune muttered.  "I'm sorry.  It's just...lately it's been a little hard for me to think clearly.  All this going on, I guess.  Maybe I'm just tired."

"Our bodies need recharging just like a robot's would," Alair reminded him.  "We shouldn't have come."

"If the two of you are done whispering," Bran said, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair, "Maybe you could tell us what you are here for?"

"We're here," Lune said,  "to persuade Orakio to leave your people alone."

"Leave us alone?" Bran said.  "And just how is he supposed to do that?  His job is to run this world, and from what I know he takes it pretty seriously."

"Androids do," Lune said.  "He must either undergo repairs to correct whatever malfunctioning is causing him to behave so erratically or be neutralized in some other fashion."

Lune might have believed he was doubletalking Bran, but Bran had been around Orakio for too long.  Polite phrasing no longer concealed the truth from him.  "You mean he should be killed."

The buzz from the seated people was much louder this time, and its theme was not of negotiations but rather of swift action.  Bran quieted them down again.  "I think it's pretty clear what people think of that idea.  Go home, Lune.  Go back to Dezo.  We like Orakio and we think he's doing a great job.  We don't need interference from another world.  What do you know about Mota, anyway?"

"What do you know about Mota?" Lune yelled.  "Orakio has deceived you if you think he's doing what's best for you.  Building walls with no purpose, building machines with no purpose.  Why build reactors so far underground, ones not connected with any existing system?  What else has he done that we don't even know about?  You'll have your systems manager, but it'll be someone who knows what they're doing?"

"Someone like Laya?"

"That's right?"

"I don't think so.  And I don't think anybody else does."

The chorus of 'No' was short, loud, and very eloquent.

"Orakians!" Lune said.  "You people just don't understand anything!'  He was purple now.  But he hadn't reached for his slasher.  Kara knew she might have to do something to protect Bran if he did.  She just hoped she could.  Lune looked tough, and she didn't even know whether her heart would really be her attack.  Alair looked troubled but then again she wasn't trying to restrain her brother.  Kara hoped the metal artifact on her back wasn't a gun.  Maybe she should go for the sister first.

"Like I said before, Lune.  Go home.  Take your tame Aeronian fanatic with you, and go home.  If you want peace, that's what you're going to have to do.  And you can start out by pulling out of Rysel."

"Rysel?  Oh, of course, Rysel."  Lune's voice had suddenly changed.  It was less rage and more...cunning?  That didn't seem to make much sense, Kara thought.  But the big man seemed less inclined to mix it up with the entire town now.  "I know all about Rysel.  But tell me, what do you mean by 'pull out of Rysel?'"

His tone was mocking, and Bran frowned.  "Don't be coy.  Your troops came from the east.  That means Rysel.  No way could you have gotten them across the lake without people noticing, and if you didn't have Rysel in your pocket you would have flown the biologics in closer."

"Biologics?" Lune sneered.  "I thought they were Bio-hazards.  Like in your legends."

Bran's lips tightened.  "We know what they really are.  Laya's creations.  All too real.  We're not quite the simple people you think we are."

"Yes, you are."  Lune said.  "He was right about everything."

"Who was?"

"It doesn't matter.  You're twice wrong.  We didn't come from Rysel, and we don't want peace.  We want your immediate and unconditional surrender.  This playing around has gone on long enough.  We came here on a peaceful mission, but you're threatening the balance that the Mother and her servants work for.  Laya will be told what has gone on here, and if Laya commands your death, she'll have it.  Believe me."

"Get out of here," said Bran, rage in his voice and heart.  "Get out of here while you still can and leave Rysel alone or we'll throw you out.  I had...a friend from Rysel, once.  I won't let you destroy his city or twist the minds of its people."

"Why," said Lune simply, "don't you make me?"

"Because that's my job," came a new voice.

"Who are you?" Lune demanded.

"My name is Thor," he said, slowly standing up.  "And you can think of me as the king's champion.  I'm the one who does the making."

Unbelievably, he was smiling.  Bran groaned and covered his eyes with his hand.  Orakio stood as impassively as ever.  Kara didn't know what to think.  She'd heard this hunter was good, but surely even he must have some doubts about fighting Lune himself.  And if a fight really did break out here, who knew where it would end up.  She had to head this off somehow.

"You'd better take it outside, then, gentlemen," she heard herself saying.  Did I really just tell them to go ahead?

"Fine with me," said Lune, staring at Thor with unconcealed hatred.  "One place is as good as any, to die."

"Keep up that optimism," said Thor.  "It'll make it easier on you."

Alair grabbed her brother's arm as he started forward angrily.  Whatever other attributes the lady had, Bran thought, she was far stronger than she looked.  Restraining Lune looked like a job for several people.  But then again, Orakio had mentioned how close the two were to each other.  It could well be that Alair's influence was even more profound than he had first thought.  Bran also remembered how Orakio's original plan had been to kidnap Alair and use her to force Lune into giving himself up.  Now, looking at the two of them, he was glad it hadn't worked out.  Perhaps things would have gone Orakio's way, perhaps not.  Kidnapping Alair could just as well have turned the full force of Lune on the android.  Now there would be a good fight.

"What are you thinking?" Alair hissed.  "You can't fight this Palman.  It's just wrong.  You're more than a match for him.  You'll kill him and then where will we be?  I think we made things worse by coming here.  We should never have listened to that man.  Let's just leave while we have the chance."

"You can leave, Alair.  I can't."

"You won't prove anything by killing him."

"Maybe not.  But I have my honor to think about."

"Honor?"  Alair drew back, surprised.  "These are Palmans.  Who cares what they think?"

Lune looked over his shoulder, back towards the throne.  "Maybe I do."

"Listen to yourself!  Do you have any idea what you're saying?"

He looked into her eyes.  "Look.  If I beat him, it will prove something.  It will prove to them that they can't win this war.  We want to stop it, don't we?.  We thought a demonstration of our power on their town would do it.  It didn't.  But maybe a face to face, one against one fight will.  If we could settle this here, it would be so much better."

Alair's hand slipped off of his arm.  "You have a point.  But I know that's not the real reason you're fighting.  I think you need to go back home.  Remember what's important."

"I..."  Lune rubbed his temples with his fingertips.  "I think maybe you're right.  I think I do need to get away from this planet for a while.  Sometimes I feel very strange, here."

"I know, I've felt it, too.  It's a strange world."

"It's...more than that.  But I think you're right.  Once he's dead, and the war's over, I'll go back home to Dezolis."

"Even if the war doesn't end," Alair said sternly.  "Promise me."

Lune smiled, suddenly.  It was the first time in a long while that he had really looked like himself, Alair thought.  She smiled, too.  "You know I could never refuse you," Lune said.  "I promise.  With my whole heart."

"I'm glad," she said softly.  She squeezed his hand.  "But you should come to Mystoke before you leave.  I'll bet they've nearly finished my castle."

"You never told me about any castle!  What's this?"

"Later," Alair said.

Lune turned back to the waiting Thor and an expectant crowd.

"All right, champion.  Fight me.  I'm ready for you now."

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