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He had spent a hundred years seeking the woman called Silver;
he still didn't know if he was going to kill her.

Garth Kristinsson's parents were free-traders, the aristocracy of con artists, able to fleece the dishonest with their own greed. But his father's last scam went horribly wrong, and at the last, both his parents were dead. Garth wanted answers no authority could give him, so he searched for decades for any clue, any lead on his father's partners-in-crime. One of them still lived — he would find her on the mysterious planet Nuala.

Nuala . . . planet of deadly radiation levels, humans who heal by touch, and the rarest platinum group metal in the known galaxy.

"Silver" is Darame Daviddottir, a famous free-trader who is now a citizen of Nuala — her husband, Sheel Atare, leads one of the planet's most powerful tribes. Together they have brought an uneasy peace to a world racked by sterility, intrigue, and unimaginable wealth. For the first time in countless generations, Nualans are actually working together, their council a voice for interstellar trade and a sounding board for inter-tribal cooperation. But the new ruler of Atare's ancient enemy is a spoiled and arrogant genius named Rex Dielaan. When off-worlder Garth meets aristocrat Rex, it is a meeting of two con artists ripe for mischief . . . and maybe murder. Two misplaced quests explode into a conspiracy of death, treason, and abduction. There's a plan afoot leading toward war, and it threatens Nuala's peace, Atare's prosperity . . . and Silver's life.

Excerpt from HIDDEN FIRES

      At last Lowe gestured for the wait to leave the brandy. In the stillness that followed, the old man slowly turned his glass stem between a strong finger and thumb, watching the reflections thrown by the fluid within. "And what of you, Garth?" he said finally. "It has been a while since you graced my establishment."

      "Here and there," Garth replied, hazarding a grin. "Norwood most recently."

      "A very quick trip. You intend to find another ship heading that way?" Keen grey eyes raised to meet icy blue innocence. "I can save you some looking. A transport left a few days back — there won't be another until next month, at least."

      Probably true . . . it was too easy to check the story. Was Lowe actually going to hire him for something? But the old man preferred experienced free-traders — Garth knew his own training was still too meager to satisfy Lowe.

      "Let us dispense with fencing. I take it you are still searching for Hank Edmonton and Silver Meath?" Lowe's voice was very quiet; Garth did not remember it as so quiet.

      "Silver Meath. Hank Edmonton is dead." He tried to keep the reply simple as he concentrated on the heady vapor of the brandy.

      "People die," Lowe said conversationally, almost as if agreeing with something.

      Garth acknowledged the unasked question. "Natural causes, apparently. He pushed FOY as far as it would go, and his heart finally gave out. I think he left free-trading not long after dad died." Tell only the truth; Lowe had a nose for ragged tales, and it was said he could smell a lie at ten paces.

      "I noticed during your absence that a century had passed since the unfortunate demise of your parents. A hundred years is a long time to follow someone merely to ascertain your father's last emotions before death claimed him." Lowe's eyes had not swerved from his face.

      That was essentially what Garth had told Lowe. No one knew the entire story — good luck and a glib tongue had kept all secrets safe. But an uneasy feeling traced his spine; Garth had a feeling his luck with secrets was about to run out.

      "Rumors still surface about that job . . . about the aftermath. Almost five hundred bars of gold vanished from that vault. Must have been, oh, 150, 160 a piece for them. You certainly don't need to work. Is your only goal in life to find this woman?"


      Lowe's eyebrows lifted slightly at his emphatic tone of voice. "A hundred years, and only a few months for you. . . . Any chance you might tell me the entire story this time?"

      "Are you calling me a liar?" Very soft; Garth felt muscles starting to bunch and fought it.

      Lowe's expression softened. "No, you're not lying. You're simply not telling me all you know or suspect — it's quite a different thing." His gaze dropped to his brandy snifter. "I can't help you unless you tell me what is going on. And this is probably my last chance to help you. Information is my lifeblood, Garth — why have you never used the best source at your disposal?"

      "Because you always tell me to give it up!" The return to normal volume sounded like shouting, but Garth couldn't help it. Old resentment mingled with new pain, as the old man obliquely confirmed earlier guesses. Time was running out for Lowe . . . there would be a new pillar of information on Caesarea Station the next time Garth passed through. "I'm going to find this woman if it takes a thousand years! All your meddling to keep me on false trails has only made it harder — it hasn't changed my mind."

      "You think I've tried to stop you?" Lowe looked up once again. His face was intent — then Garth thought he saw a trace of humor. "I haven't done anything more than keep a vague eye on your travels." Lowe reached absently for a piece of the cheese the wait had slipped onto the table. "Do you really think someone has muddied the waters? Beyond what Hank, Silver, and your father did after the job," he added.

      Garth remained silent. He had been so sure Lowe was trying to stop him. . . . So. Was there someone else planting false clues, or was he merely paranoid about the whole thing?

      "Are you going to kill her, Garth?" Lowe asked pleasantly.

      Like a conversation about the latest live band, or interactive show . . . Garth thought deeply. "What makes you think that?" he said finally.

      "I can't think of any other reason why you wouldn't question me about that job," Lowe answered.

      "Why would you know anything?"

      "It's my business to know things. I know what the prime minister of Caesarea had for breakfast before it's digested. I have heard every rumor ever attached to any free-trader, any job. Yet you have never questioned me. It seems I will have to question you."

      Garth felt his thin face tighten. Before he could speak, however, Lowe added: "I know where Silver is."

      As his fingers curled, Garth released the snifter in his hand for fear of fracturing it. "Now?"

      Lowe smiled. It was odd, seeing that smile . . . Lowe hardly ever smiled. "If she still lives, right this moment. And if you tell me what I wish to know, I will tell you where she is. You are . . . twenty-five years behind her, what with this added delay? I can put you one trip behind her."

      "Why?" What he really wanted to ask was: What do you want in return? But Garth knew Lowe would get around to that eventually.

      "I was very fond of your parents. They did me many . . . services. I feel I owe them what little I can do for their only son." Lowe refilled the brandy snifters. "Now. Your father was involved in his latest scam. It was with two other people, neither of them your mother. . . ."

      Sweet saints, guide me. Garth picked up the tale at that point. "I still don't know exactly what the scam was, but I think you're right — the goal was that big gold shipment going to Kiel. Did you ever hear what was taken?"

      "480 bars of gold," Lowe told him.

      "Well, 160 bars of gold were deposited in my parents' account at Traders the day after my father died." Lowe nodded at this statement. Traders' Trust was the bank used by almost all free-traders, and was considered one of the few institutions off-limits to scams. Traders handled only precious metals — the currencies of six planets were mere promissory notes to Traders, and were redeemed with high penalties. It was also the only existing reserve which never surrendered accounts to heirs without instructions left by the depositor. A trip of a hundred years was nothing to Traders — when a free-trader returned, his or her metal wealth would be waiting. It had survived recession, war, and political upheaval; Traders was more solvent than many countries.

      "Possibly one-third of the take, then. No one demanded a planning fee?" Lowe asked.

      Garth shrugged. "He didn't tell mother much, when they talked. From the little she said, I think the group planned it together. At any rate, we knew how things would finish. His partners would leave in a hurry, drawing off any pursuit, while dad deposited the money in Traders."

      "What went wrong?"

      After a long pause filled by the taste of brandy on his tongue, Garth said: "I don't know. So much was going on then . . . Lise had just married, and was shipping out to Gavriel the day after Dad was due back. She already had new citizenship papers. We were watching, and waiting . . . and then the police arrived, to say that Dad's body had been found in an abandoned transpo tunnel."

      "No one saw anything?"

      "No one admitted to seeing anything. No one spoke." This was harsh; the memories rising to the surface were recent in Garth's timeframe. "Lise was frantic, and Mom was in shock. After pacing the floor all night, Mom insisted that Lise take ship as scheduled. Insisted on it — said it was what Dad would have wanted. I went with Lise up to Caesarea Station to see her on board her ship. By the . . . by the time I returned, Mom had slashed her wrists."

      "You have no idea why?" Lowe's voice seemed to come from far away.

      "No. Unless it was grief . . . but I can't accept that. Mom adored him, but she didn't live for him, if you know what I mean." Garth realized he was drawing patterns in the air with his fingers, and gripped his hands tightly together. "There was no message, except — except she had given one of her favorite holos of the family to Lise, before Lise left. I found the copy sitting on my pillow when I got back, along with 250 cubiz Caesarean. Everything after that is fuzzy . . . was fuzzy for a long time. I didn't find out about the gold deposit and withdrawal until several days later."

      "Withdrawal?" Lowe said suddenly.

      "Yes." Garth finally looked up, catching the glint of Lowe's eyes with his own gaze. "The deposit was made that afternoon, probably while Mom was killing herself — certainly while I was returning from station. I don't know if she saw it or not, it didn't occur to me then to check whether anyone had accessed the file from our home. The account was emptied that evening — everything, the new gold and everything else my family had as assets."

      "But . . . how? Traders is inviolate if anything is. . . ." Lowe had tilted his head to one side and was staring hard at Garth.

      From Lowe's expression, Garth knew he was going to have to supply the final puzzle piece. "Oh, whoever cleaned us out had the proper codes. They even left a message: 'Aesir considers the debt to be paid.'" He kept his eyes on Lowe's face as he spoke.

      There was no flicker of change. Lowe repeated the last words, his tone almost a whisper: "Aesir considers the debt to be paid." Then a sip of brandy, and silence.

      Instinct told Garth to remain silent; minutes passed. Abruptly, Lowe demanded: "Tell me everything your mother said, from when your father died until she took her life."

      Puzzled, Garth did his best to reconstruct the last clear day within memory. Lowe asked questions; he wanted nuance, tone of voice, any messages or mail received — "Is this leading anywhere except into your private mental vault?" Garth asked abruptly.

      "Will you never learn patience?" Almost testy. Garth was surprised; it was as close to losing his temper as he had ever seen Lowe approach. "Do you want certainties or supposition? Very well — did the police investigate the possibility of murder? In your mother's case," he added, as Garth's eyes narrowed in irritation.

      It struck him dumb. Never, even for a moment, had he considered that possibility. "But — the coroner said — "

      "They knew your mother was in the business?"

      A pause. "I think so. They didn't seem to think it odd that she'd done it right after dad was killed . . . or that I knew nothing about it." He did not add that they'd wired him, just to be sure. He held no anger over it — it was all part of the business.

      "They are trained to see anomalies — I know, you children have only contempt for them, but trust me, the Caesarean Forces are among the best. They find out what is needful without trampling everyone's rights underfoot. A great skill. On another world, they would have locked up Hobbs' crew just to be certain they'd covered all exits. Here, they merely watch and wait. A blessing you obviously do not appreciate." Lowe shrugged in dismissal. "If they saw nothing to make them suspicious, it was either suicide, or done on such a level that they could have proved nothing even if they'd suspected." Lowe fixed Garth with a hard stare. "Your mother would not have killed herself unless there was something to be gained by it."

      "What could possibly be gained by it?"

      "There are things," he said vaguely. "But that doesn't matter, now. I have heard of Aesir, but I can no more tell you what it means than I can change the rotation of this station. Secret and deadly, that is what it means. I don't know if Silver can tell you any more, but it would not hurt to ask. If you ask politely, you might be amazed what she'd tell you. A generous woman." He sipped at his brandy.

      "You'll tell me where she is?" Garth finally said.

      "I can tell you where she went, last time she was here, ten years ago Terran. She was finishing up a job, and about to start something with her old mentor, Halsey."

      That name caused Garth to straighten. He had heard of Halsey. Probably the richest free-trader still living, he was older than memory. Most people in the business could trace their line of learning back to him. So Silver was one of his own students . . . no wonder she left such a sketchy trail.

      "They were heading to Nuala." Lowe's voice was ridiculously calm, considering what he'd just said.

      For a moment Garth was blank — Nuala? A country on Emerson? Then the name gathered meaning. Nuala? Holy Virgin, was he cursed? She'd gone to that radioactive slag heap? "Why?" he heard himself whisper.

      Lowe allowed amusement to slide across his face. "Because she's a free-trader, Garth. Nuala is the wealthiest planet in the Axis Republic. Between the myths surrounding it and the dangers threading it, it's the biggest challenge imaginable short of charting a new star yourself." Lowe reached for the plate again, and nibbled at another piece of cheese. "She's a gypsy, the best of our breed. The scam is half the fun."

      You call this fun? Garth kept the words to himself, wondering if his face gave him away. He began to despair of learning this game. What could be worth going to Nuala?

      An unreadable expression crossed Lowe's face. "I do remember one thing about Aesir . . . but it may not apply in this case. Weren't the Aesir the warrior gods of ancient Norse mythology?"

      This thought gave Garth pause. "Maybe," he said at last. "My people remember them only in story and song — their worship was dust long before we left Mother Earth."

      "I don't see a connection — not a direct one. But Silver was born on Gavriel . . . perhaps she can find a link. Surely it cannot be coincidence."

      Lowe pushed his empty glass to one side. "The ship you seek is one of the Tiger fleet, called Crowned Tiger. It leaves for Nuala in about three days. They need crew, and pay profit-sharing as an incentive. I'll send word to the captain that you're interested. It's a safe ship; no need to have someone timelock your Freeze tube."

      The last words were brisk, but well-meant — they would save him inadvertently offending the captain of the long-hauler. In them Garth also sensed dismissal, and realized it was time for good-byes.

      "Thank you," he said aloud, unable to comprehend that he finally had what he wanted — Silver's direction. Lowe had turned out to be a better friend than he had hoped.

      "You may pass in transit, you know."

      "But I'll only be a trip behind, and that's worth anything." A strange combination of excitement and dread began to knot beneath his sternum.

      "Almost anything," Lowe said gently.

      Garth found his response puzzling, and knew his own expression had changed.

      Lowe was watching his face. Something he saw there did not comfort him. Shaking his head slightly, Lowe said: "Be careful out there. And always think through your actions to their ultimate conclusion. You'll live longer." Pausing, he finally added: "I hope I have done the right thing."

      There was nothing to say to such fatherly concern, so Garth gravely extended his hand. Lowe touched his wrist lightly in farewell and remained at the table as Garth moved off into shadows, heading into the bowels of the restaurant.

      Hesitating at the elbow of the corridor, Garth turned back toward Lowe, prompted by a moment of unease. He saw the man pull a small device out of his pocket and point it at the blank wall beyond the table. A huge screen flared into life, flickering in communique mode.

      "2618ABD," Lowe said quietly. In moments the line was connected, and Lowe said: "Yes, this is Lowe for Captain Morse of Crowned Tiger. Tell him I've found him crew."

      Even an introduction . . . Garth considered waiting, but decided to move on; it was not courteous to eavesdrop on a friend, and Lowe was merely doing as he had promised, insuring Garth a smooth transition onto Crowned Tiger. Long strides carrying him through the bar, Garth headed out toward the bag drop to retrieve his bakit. This time he could feel it, the closeness, the rightness. Lowe had finally told him the truth, and he was going to find Silver. Any thoughts about the mysterious planet Nuala were kept firmly in the back of his mind.

      His people called it wergild, the price owed to blood kin upon the death of a valued relative. Garth suspected Silver owed him wergild, a large one — now there would be a reckoning.

      In the meantime, Captain Morse had finally answered Lowe's call. "Morse, I'm not the only one who needs to get to Nuala — I found you that last hold man I promised you." Lowe was not smiling . . . but then, he rarely did.

[The above text is a passage from the novel HIDDEN FIRES. This text is © copyright 1991, 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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