The sunlight bore down on the landing strip. It glinted off the surface of the bronze freighter that had just touched down. Zeeona stood beside her father, as he waited to greet his new guests. It was a position she frequently had to occupy. He had spent much money to educate her, and to teach her charm and grace. He liked to use her to make a good impression.
Two men emerged from the freighter. One was clad from head to foot in black leather. He appeared dark and brooding. Zeeona didn't altogether like the look of him. There was something disconcerting about him that suggested hidden depths to his character.
The other man was totally different. He wore a blue and grey outfit. His curly hair, and smiling eyes told of a lighter persona than his companion, a man who might have heroism and compassion. There was darkness in him as well, but it was buried deep, suggesting a man who had overcome his fears and resentments. Zeeona felt that he was someone she wanted to know.
Her father took a step towards the newcomers. He crossed his wrists in the air, fists clenched, the traditional salute of the Betafarlian warlord. "I am Zukan," he announced. "You are the guests of Betafarl. Which of you is Avon?"
The man in leather inclined his head. "I am Avon."
"And your associate?"
"Tarrant," replied the other man.
Zukan nodded to them both. "You are welcome," he said. "I present my daughter, Zeeona."
Their eyes turned upon her. Avon's were cautious, appraising her as if he were determining whether she posed a threat.
Tarrant looked at her differently. His expression was appreciative, but politely so. It was clear he thought her beautiful, even desirable, but his mind was not filled with lascivious desires. Not like some of the vicious pirates Zukan associated himself with.
Zeeona managed a slight smile for Tarrant's benefit, before she launched into the formal greeting. "Betafarl is honoured by your presence. Come freely. Go safely, and leave something of your happiness behind."
The dark one, Avon, raised a eyebrow sardonically. "Well now," he replied, "that all depends on whether we brought any happiness with us."
"Perhaps we'll find it waiting for us here," Tarrant said.
Zeeona caught a quick glance he threw in her direction, and she lowered her eyes modestly. She had been schooled in the correct way to deport herself. She would not want Tarrant to form the wrong impression of her. There were ways to go about these things.
Avon misinterpreted the comment, perhaps by choice. He turned back to Zukan. "You show great foresight and determination by agreeing to this meeting, Zukan. But then, I wouldn't have expected anything else from you."
"You do me honour," replied Zukan formally.
"When will we talk?"
"Later," Zukan said. "You are our guests. First you are to be made welcome. We have prepared suitable accommodations for you." He made a signal, and the guards who lined the edge of the landing strip fell into formation. They marched as an escort behind the little group that started to make its way from the freighter.
It was a short journey by ground car to Zukan's palace. The building stood on an outcrop of rock above a cluster of buildings that formed a town below. The ground cars were admitted through large and ornate gates, and then started to follow a winding path round the tor towards the summit.
Tarrant and Avon rode in the back of one ground car. Much to Tarrant's disappointment, Zukan and his daughter travelled in another.
Tarrant had to admit to himself that Zeeona was beautiful, quite the most beautiful woman he had seen for a long time. He was beginning to think that this trip to Betafarl might be worthwhile after all.
Of course, it was also essential to secure Zukan's support for the rebel alliance, to install him as nominal leader even. That was Avon's plan, and it made sense. Tarrant supported that.
He was just surprised that Avon had wanted him along at all. Usually on journeys like this, Avon preferred to travel with Vila. Yet for some reason Vila had taken to sulking and getting drunk and refusing to set foot outside of Xenon Base. Avon had not even tried to persuade Vila to accompany him - something had happened on Malodaar to alter their relationship. Whatever it was, Vila refused to say anything, and Tarrant knew he'd get nothing out of Avon. Well, let it be their secret, he thought.
Their vehicle came to a halt. The door was held open by a guard, and Tarrant and Avon stepped out to find themselves standing before Zukan's palace.
It was a huge stone building of fairly primitive construction. It had probably been here for centuries, since before the Betafarlians had developed independent space flight, the seat of their tribal chieftain. Some structural alterations had been made, a few pillars added here and there, copying the more refined architecture of other worlds. It seemed that Zukan was trying to improve his image.
Tarrant looked around, but Zeeona was nowhere to be seen. Zukan was standing beside the steps that led up to the main entrance, flanked by guards and attendants. Of the other ground car, there was no sign. Presumably it had borne the warlord's daughter away, around the side of the building and out of sight. Tarrant felt a twinge of regret, but he didn't let it bother him. They had come to Betafarl for a specific reason. Zukan's daughter might have proved an interesting distraction, but at the moment he was more interested in getting Avon's alliance off the ground.
Led by Zukan, they ascended the steps into the building.
The warlord said, "If you require rest or refreshment, it can be provided."
"It can wait until later," Avon replied. "We came here to talk."
Zukan nodded. It was clear he appreciated straight talking. "Very well," he said. "We shall talk. Follow me to my audience chamber."
They proceeded further into the palace, through the rough stone corridors. The walls were covered with many colourful hangings, tapestries and hunting trophies. There were brackets for torches to light the corridors, but these were empty now. Zukan's ancestors had had electrical lighting installed.
Eventually Zukan stopped by a large pair of doors. He signalled to one of the guards, who threw them open. Rather than the expected audience chamber, they were confronted with an open space, a courtyard into which the intrusive light of the two suns shone brightly.
Zukan turned to one of his aides. "Finn," he said. "I would talk with Avon. Take his subordinate to the guest quarters, and see that he is comfortable."
Tarrant took a step forward. He didn't like being referred to as Avon's subordinate, nor to being shunted away from the negotiations with Zukan. The final straw was to see the sarcastic smile that started to spread across Avon's face. "Now just a minute," Tarrant began.
He found his words cut off by a curt reply from Avon. "I shall join you later, Tarrant. Zukan and I shall speak together, as leaders. We will pass relevant information to our underlings later."
Tarrant wouldn't let his protest drop. He and Avon had reached an understanding in the past year. Neither tried to compete for control of the group any more. Avon had become leader by default, since he seemed to have a definite plan for their activities, the beginnings of a scheme to combat the pacification programme. Tarrant was willing to go along with it, and accepted Avon's leadership for the present. But he didn't need Avon acting so damn superior. "I'm not an underling, Avon," Tarrant snapped. "If you didn't want me along, you shouldn't have insisted I come with you. You should have brought Vila, if you wanted a yes-man."
Before Avon could reply, Zukan raised an imperious hand for silence. "What is happening here?" he demanded. "Why is your man arguing? I would not tolerate such behaviour from my followers. They know well that business is conducted by their lords."
Avon nodded. "Tarrant is insubordinate," he replied, "but he has his uses. Go, Tarrant, and leave us leaders to do the talking."
Suddenly, Tarrant understood. Avon was playing to Zukan's mentality. The warlord would only negotiate with the one he believed to be the leader - he could only talk business with someone he felt to be on an equal level with himself. Tarrant nodded, and backed down. He knew they couldn't afford to antagonize Zukan. He was crucial for the success of the rebel alliance.
Continued in Star One
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