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FIRES OF NUALA by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel is a Book View Cafe e-book release. ISBN: 978 0 9828440 7 6.

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Nuala. Cursed by riches--and radiation...

For more than 150 years, she has traveled the Seven Systems, slipping in and out of Cold Sleep. She is a free-trader, the aristocracy of con artists, able to fleece the dishonest with their own greed.

The woman is known as Silver, when she is named at all -— and she may be the finest free-trader living. But even she is not prepared for the reality of Nuala, planet of deadly radiation levels, humans who heal by touch, and the rarest platinum group metal in the known galaxy. Eighty percent of the citizens are sterile, and the wealthy send their children out to seek mates and find others willing to expand the planetary gene pool. A Nualan can smell a lie at fifty paces. Truth, honor — and their children — are everything to the people of Nuala.

On Nuala, for the first time, Silver will be forced to use her real name — Darame Daviddottir — and she will walk the thinnest line between truth and lie of her long and varied career.

The scam she's come to join has just been blown to the skies, along with the throne lines of three separate sovereign nations. Now Darame has just one decision — which group of Nualans will she support in the days to come? Mere chance threw her into the camp of the Atares, leaders of the largest clan on Nuala. Will she help them? Thwart them? Wait for the dust to settle?

The tipping point may have already occurred. Turns out she's mentioned in Nualan religious prophecy, and has caught the eye of the last adult male of a throne line. Sheel Atare is a "hot" healer, able to close ripped flesh and draw fever with a touch. A reclusive professor and medical doctor, unprepared to rule, Sheel Atare needs all the allies he can get.

Even allies who may be connected to those who brought down his house.

Excerpt from FIRES OF NUALA

      Strange how she was never conscious of ship movement. Somehow it was slowing, now . . . . Topside Mona would be arranging their last trajectory, calculating the mass ratios, taking care of the millions of details Darame had never understood and never cared to understand. Now followed the part she hated, the long, cold night in the belly of the ship, before an in-system lander docked with their vessel. This time that image seemed ominous. . . .

      The corridor was deserted, which suited Darame's current frame of mind. No use for that medtech, or any of the others on this trip. Why so many new people? That still bothered her: so many new to the fold, or part of Brant's team. Only Halsey and Mona were long-standing partners. . . . Darame tried to calm her growing unease. Surely Halsey knew better than to trust Brant! To even work with him again, except that the stakes were so high —

      Holy Virgin, this was Nuala, not a mere hop to Emerson. Furthest of the Seven Sisters, a law unto itself, only remotely tied to the alliance which bound mankind together. Maybe not even human . . .

      She shoved the thought back into her subconscious. Too late to worry about it, they were hours away. Surely people from off-planet weren't allowed near the dangerous places. Surely people tainted with radiation were isolated. . . . The thought of being touched by a genetic nightmare brought vivid pictures to mind. Reaching Halsey's room, she pounded on the door to drive away the image.

      "Enter, enter," came a brisk, cheerful voice, the annoyance edging it disappearing when he recognized her. "Such a racket, Davi! Ready for action, are you?" His round face beamed as he extended a meaty arm to offer a brief hug. Not a contact person, Halsey — she was the only one he touched when others were present, and even alone the embrace was frugal. He was tanned, which he certainly had not been back on Caesarea, but otherwise he looked the same. Always the same . . .

      "Ready for anything Brant can dish out, old man," she murmured, testing the range of her voice. The low notes were returning already — good, all would be normal by planetfall. "Changes already?" She settled into the seat next to his, accepting the warm broth he was pouring into a mug. Halsey was the last alive who remembered 'Davi,' the ten-years-Terran child dumped into his lap by grudging relatives. That nickname no longer seemed a part of her, except when Halsey pulled it out of storage. Where her mother found the name "Darame" was not known, but its multisyllabic roll of letters had served her well, and this time it would serve her better.

      "Some changes, but nothing we can't handle. Before we start final memory, what name will you use this trip?"

      "Darame." This caused Halsey's thin eyebrows to lift. "Didn't you tell me Nualans are the best in the Seven Systems at sniffing out truth?"

      "It is said their people do not lie." His expression was serious.

      Darame grimaced. "Wonderful. I can smell worm-rotten fruit already. But I imagine they have the best interrogation equipment, as well. If a false name trips a stress, they'll dig deep; even my shell might crack. Better to give them no doubt about the foundation of my story." She grinned suddenly. "After all — I've nothing to hide."

      Her mischievous grin was infectious; Halsey's smile blazed like a torch at nightfall. "Boast, boast." But he straightened his shoulders, his pride in her a glint in his eye. No world had a record of her, no agency a shred of evidence. Darame had been cautious during her lengthy career, and thus had no secrets. How could she feel any guilt for her line of work? Those she fleeced were greedy fools, exploiting their own people and planet for gain. Halsey chose his prey carefully, choosing only those who previously had been predator. It was a very old human tradition, the mirror game; cheating a mark with his own greed. . . . The Caesarea Force turned a blind eye to Halsey's scams, a fact which simultaneously amused Darame even as it confirmed her suspicions about most authorities. The greatest philanthropist of the planet could be forgiven the source of his money, since he only struck at those the Force could not reach, the wealthiest and most devious of the underground economy.

      "Very well — Darame," Halsey continued, stressing her name. "Let us get to the vitals. The only 'change' from what we decided back on Caesarea is in the long term portion of the plan. We may be able to turn this into a trade agreement." His pleasant tenor voice rolled smoothly through familiar code words. Darame nodded her understanding. The truth of this con would only be known when they hit dirt — Brant could not trust any sort of message. But the original plan had involved a simple "in-and-out" scheme, attempting to use an insider's greed as a weapon. If someone could be bribed into awarding them a middleman contract, they would simply disappear with the shipment, leaving the official with the first installment of the bribe and a great deal of explaining to do. But if those involved could be induced to "join" their team . . . this could become a lifetime position, a bent elbow in the trade laws, the perfect niche to skim cream from milk.

      That farm image, a remnant of her distant past, brought a smile to Darame's face. And a tiny shrug. Either way made no difference to her. Brant and Halsey could retire on the original agreement. If things became long-term, perhaps the rest of the crew could live like kings as well. Halsey would tell her no more — he never did. The same routine as always. . . . Why am I nervous?

      "Brant is disappointed at the timing. . . . It would have been better if we had arrived earlier. We will be met momentarily by a trinium transport, which will take us to a drop point outside Atare."

      "A mining transport?" That was not simply unusual, it was abnormal.

      "The only passenger station is far to the south, a small, neutral city called Amura. Brant's 'sponsor' did not want to wait the days necessary for a ship to bring us north, and so arranged for a special lander to meet Rover." Smiling at the added questions in her eyes, Halsey paused to sip his kona. Darame waited silently and wrinkled her nose at the mere thought of drinking the bitter brew. Halsey had few annoying habits, and fewer vices. She'd allow him a bit of mystery in his schemes, and his stimulants.

      "Disappointment?" she prompted finally, when she realized he wanted a leading question.

      "The Festival of Masks, a rather . . . boisterous . . . celebration, will be over by a planet day by the time we enter the city. It would have been a good time for us to arrive, a chance for you to strike up conversations with no suspicion. The night following begins the Feast of Souls, a somber religious holiday."

      "Religious holiday?" Darame repeated casually, submerging her tension. Memories of Gavriel flitted through her mind — of portions of Emerson and Kiel. Just what they needed, a religious complication.

      "It's all right," Halsey said hastily, as if reading her mind. "The Nualans are very religious, but tolerant — even of their own schisms. As luck would have it, it is an heir's birthday, and Brant has arranged for us to be invited to the private celebration."

      "An ambassador's aide arranging invitations to royal parties . . . He moves quickly, as always," she murmured, pouring another cup of the nutritious broth. Easy on the stomach for a few hours . . .

      "The communique was signed off by Second Ambassador Brant," Halsey offered, a definite twinkle in his eye.

      "Second Ambassador? Good heavens, Halsey, did he marry someone?" Her surprise was genuine. The Caesareans were lax about some things, but usually strict about seniority and promotions. Brant had not been with their foreign branch of government that long. Of course, with Nuala so isolated, the rules could be different for this outpost.

      "Or perhaps a death . . ." Halsey did not continue on that path; he always avoided reminding Darame that Brant's methods were occasionally very direct. "At any rate, he has hold of several important ears. The code breaks down into the names Iver and Caleb — they'll be your marks. But the emphasis is light on the last code, so I think you can simply get your bearings the first night." He smiled as he spoke, leaning back in the flexseat with an audible creak. Darame half-closed an eye, waiting for the snap, but the mold held. "Good. You need some time to play. Your last job ran past the deadline."

      "Past?" she said innocently, and he laughed, his huge frame shaking. Darame had boarded scarce moments before takeoff, the authorities in close pursuit. It seemed like yesterday. . . . It might as well have been yesterday — she was bundled into Cold Sleep right after briefing. Time off after this job. When was my last vacation? A year ago . . . More than that . . .

      She let him enjoy the joke, while she pondered a few more questions. Usually she preferred to find out things from the natives of an area, but basics had to be observed. "Halsey . . ." she began.

      "Yes, Davi?" The big man patted moisture from his red face.

      "The succession in Atare — on the entire planet. Your notes say it is a matriarchy?" If power was in the hands of women, why play up to the men?

      "Yes and no. Descent is matrilineal. You remember that eighty percent of the population is sterile?" he asked in turn.

      "The genetic mutation problem."

      "Exactly. It's one of the reasons we've brought gene packets as part of our trade package; they always need new strains. But they prefer the natural process, and so fertile people have power — it's as simple as that. Certain families have historically had great fertility, and this helped them move into positions of great power. The Atare family not only controls the trine mines, it is also one of the strongest and most numerous clans. Power is shared between the eldest male and female of a single generation who are children of the last eldest female. The man carries the name of the clan as his title — in this case, Atare — and the female, whatever the clan, is called The Ragaree, the mother of the heir. Does that make sense?"

      "Then . . . the man's children do not figure into the next ruling generation?" she continued.

      "No. I think they become the head of the judicial branch or something, but they have nothing to do with the rule. The ruler's sister's children will rule, and must be trained for their role. They are living repositories of what the Nualans value most: healthy, fertile genetic material." Halsey had his superior look on his face.

      "I heard somewhere that they dote on their children," she murmured aloud. "I doubt that they look at their offspring as living tissue cultures."

      "Their children are everything to them," Halsey stressed, serious once more. "Each royal family has their own system to protect their heirs. Among the Atare, it is an organization called the guaard. It's modeled somewhat on the janissary system; they are totally loyal to the ruling Atare and Ragaree. Guaard have existed over a thousand years, and there is not one recorded incidence of betrayal. Brant claims they are incorruptible by any normal means. Fortunately the royal family and its hanger-ons are not so virtuous."

      Smiling slightly, Darame straightened in her chair. "Halsey . . . I . . . need to prepare myself on something. Are the Nualans . . . Do they look human?" she said quickly. "Not that it's a big problem, but —"

      "My dear child!" Halsey said, seizing her hand. "Do you think I'd throw you to dogs like a bone? Of course they look human! I'd call the Atares quite human. After all, they've been bringing back spouses ever since they succeeded in passing the radiation belt. By now their heredity is mostly off-worlder." Then he winked. "Not bad looking, either."

      "If you had your choice of materials for a baby —"

      "No, no! Not the Atare clan. At least not the ruling line. Their looks are solely from generations of having their pick of mates. After all, even if some of the ragarees weren't much to look at, the idea of all that wealth, prestige, and security must have tempted a lot of people. They have become an unusually handsome line. This assignment won't be a chore."

      "At least it will be a feast for the eyes?" she suggested, lifting her mug as if to toast him.

      Halsey raised his steaming kona, gently bumping it against her molded cup. "Probably better than that — they are known as scholars and lovers, my dear Davi. Bored you shouldn't be, in any fashion!" His merry laugh rang out again as he sipped his kona.

      We'll see. They value fertility among some sects on Emerson, too . . . so they only have sex during certain times of their year, and it's poor sport, my alpha male friend. But men rarely think about how a woman sees such things. Something bothers me about this job, old man.

      As if by command, memory finally returned. . . . She had not worked with Brant since she heard about that Emerson fiasco. Darame answered Halsey's smile, not wanting him to worry, even as she calculated how much credit she could withdraw from her account without causing comment. This place was too much of an unknown to make any better plan. Trust and adore Halsey she might, but she wanted enough money on her person for a ticket to Caesarea, if something went wrong. . . .

[The above text is a passage from the novel FIRES OF NUALA. This text is © 1988, 2010 by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Jonathan Matson, Literary Agent, Harold Matson Company, Inc., Associate: McIntosh, McKee & Dobbs, Inc., 276 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10001 TEL: (212)679-4490, FAX: (212)545-1224, E-mail: hmatsco@aol.com.]


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