The time! Where had it gone? The morning was past and she had no more than an hour before Shemric arrived for her lesson. Her Sendoran tutor was patient, but she did not want to give it more reason to disdain Solarians.
Melalie tied a scarf around her hair, slipped on her light jacket, and hurried outside into the wan Thanlian sunlight leaking through wreaths of cloud. Despite the chill, Melalie savored the fresh salt smell of the air. She took several deep breaths and strode toward the trinde tree that stood in solitary splendor opposite the embassy’s main entrance.
All four-day she’d planned to set aside time to consider the problem Shemric had set for today’s lesson. The Sendor had asked her to consider why its people had presented the trinde to the Solarian embassy. An odd question, but it would expect her to have reasoned out some answer.
She’d had to arrange the itinerary for a Solar theater troupe and clear all their visas, and her efforts had been repeatedly frustrated by the Chadiassans, who were hosting the tour. She hadn’t yet got final approval from the Chadiassans, but that would have to wait. Her lesson with Shemric was more important.
Melalie huddled against the trinde’s trunk for the slight protection from the wind. Above her, the tree’s long, tapered leaves grew outward and upward from the central trunk, then arched toward each other to join their gray-green tips as if in prayer.
"Think!" she ordered herself. "You’ve got to come up with at least a couple of ideas before Shemric gets here."
What about the tree’s location? The Sendors had chosen it. Encircled by the driveway to the embassy’s main entrance, the trinde drew the attention of every visitor to the compound.
Probably the Sendors saw in the trinde an assertion of sovereignty over the embassy compound. That would be one of their more obvious motives. Being Sendors, they would have several others, some of them incredibly complex.
"Mornin’, beautiful. Nothing better to do than admire this overgrown artichoke?"
She hadn’t heard Bailey Marshall’s approach. Melalie didn’t bother to conceal her annoyance with the CATT representative. She had little use for Consolidated Associations for Trade and Transport. "I’m working on a thought problem my Sendor tutor gave me. I came out here so I wouldn’t be disturbed."
"I figured you came out to enjoy the weather. Is it ever anything but cold and wet?"
"Not often. You get used to it. Or you stay indoors. Now, if you’ll excuse me... " She turned away from him to examine the trinde’s smooth-skinned trunk.
He moved in front of her and leaned against the tree. "So you’re studying with a Sendor. Are you fluent in Sendor-speak?"
"I do fairly well. It’s a complex language." She straightened and met his eyes. "Maybe I didn’t make clear that my tutor is due to arrive soon. I have a lesson to prepare before then."
Marshall folded his arms across his chest. "I get the point. But I have business with you."
Irritated by his persistence, she decided to be equally stubborn. His ego had been overfed by the welcome he’d received when he arrived by interplanetary transport a little over a four-day ago; he needed to learn there was one woman who would not jump at his bidding. "Your business will have to wait. I allow nothing to interfere with my lessons with Shemric."
"What kind of things do you learn from the big octopuses?"
She felt an angry flush spread across her face. "They aren’t octopuses! You think of everything in Solarian terms!"
"I am Solarian. So are you." Marshall waggled a finger in her face. "You’re kidding yourself if you think you don’t see things from a Solarian viewpoint."
"I certainly don’t think of the Sendors as octopuses."
"I’ll bet you did the first time you saw one."
"Why should I? They aren’t sea creatures. And they have twelve limbs, not eight."
He shrugged. "Whatever they are, they have knowledge we need. I’m assigned to a project that involves an exchange of information with them. I’ll need your help."
"My help?" What game was Marshall playing? He must know of the performance record that had banished her to Thanli. "Mr. Marshall, I don’t get involved in trade negotiations. I happen to feel embassy business should be kept separate from the work of CATT."
She flounced off toward the gate.
He caught up with her and barred her way. "CATT does the government a lot of favors. We expect a few in return."
"And you get them. More than a few. CATT operates out of the embassy facilities as though it were a government agency."
"Is that bad? CATT keeps the government solvent."
"I don’t approve of CATT’s methods. You can look elsewhere for help."
"The work fits into your duties as cultural attache."
"In that case, see me later in my office." She tried to step around him.
He grabbed her arm. "Look, this is urgent-"
She tore free of his grip. "I told you, I’m pressed for time."
"Guess you gotta learn the hard way. I’ll see the ambassador."
He stomped toward the main office building. Melalie almost called him back. She couldn’t afford to draw the ambassador’s ire. But surely Ambassador Staton would understand; he’d given permission for the lessons with Shemric. She didn’t work for CATT, and Marshall had no authority to order her around. She returned to her contemplation of the trinde.
In a sense Marshall’s comparison of it to an artichoke was apt. Could its shape and manner of growth provide the key to another motive behind the gift? The tree could symbolize the Sendoran character. As the tree’s outer leaves concealed layer after layer of inner leaves, all arching upward to focus on a single point, so the visible acts of the Sendor were undergirded by layer after layer of carefully shaped motives, all focusing toward the single intention of acting wisely.
The compound’s massive gates of iron grillwork swung inward. Almost as tall as the gates, a Sendor passed between them. Melalie rose and hurried to greet her tutor.
Shemric moved easily in spite of its great girth. Six legs resembling elephant trunks supported its ponderous weight and considerable height. Between the legs and the six tentacle-like arms a gleaming metal girdle clothed the Sendor’s barrel-shaped body.
Melalie tried to picture herself as she would appear to Shemric: a pale, spindly creature precariously balanced on a mere two legs. Her brown eyes would look dark and of limited use, comparing unfavorably to even the smaller two of the Sendor’s four opalescent orbs.
If Shemric thought her ludicrous, there was no hint of that in its manner. The Sendor reached down toward Melalie’s outstretched hands and touched her fingertips lightly with the tips of its two foremost tentacle arms.
"In welcome is pleasure when one can seek accord with the other." The deep voice poured out the words like the roar of water plunging over a precipice.
Melalie inclined her head and composed a response, proud of her mastery of the language. "The accord will be sought, that the pleasure may be welcomed."
The Sendor’s rumbling voice flowed once more. "In openness may we discover one another’s meaning." It extended all its tentacle arms toward her.
"May meaning open mutual discovery," Melalie intoned, opening both hands wide and extending her fingers.
"I listen with the ears of thought to that which speaks beneath your actions," Shemric concluded, bringing together the tips of four tentacles.
Melalie brought her fingertips together before her face. "I see by the inner light which illumines your words to me."
"Well done, small one."
Aglow from the praise, Melalie strolled beside Shemric along the driveway past the entrance to the main building. She preferred to endure the chill for the convenience of having the lesson outside, where she wouldn’t face the embarrassment of pretending not to notice that none of the furniture in the embassy buildings was designed to meet the peculiar needs of Sendoran anatomy. Shemric would never comment on that evidence of Solarian insensitivity, but it shamed Melalie.
It was enough that the embassy grounds owed nothing to Thanli and everything to Earth. Except for the trinde.
Between the driveway and the brown brick building, banks of flowers grown from seeds brought from the Solar home worlds struggled to bloom in the greenish sunlight, their faint perfumes recalling dew-spattered spring mornings beneath a warmer sun. As a turtle carries its home on its back, so the embassy personnel had brought with them across the galaxy building materials, household goods, plants, small pets-all that they needed to construct on an alien planet a small replica of their home. All the buildings and gardens in the embassy compound could have been located on Earth or on any of the space cities flung out like spores from the mother planet to scatter throughout the Solar system. Against all these the trinde stood like an accusing finger pointing toward the green-tinged sky, a reminder that the compound was one small enclave on a very large planet sixty thousand light-years away from the Solar worlds. Another motive!
They turned off the drive, entered the embassy gardens, and ambled along a sunlit path. "You bring an anxious mind to your lesson today," Shemric said.
"Am I so obvious?"
"Your actions broadcast your motives," the Sendor replied. "You await my coming beneath the trinde, and when I pass within the gate, you hurry away from the tree to meet me. Your haste shows that you have been working on the assignment I suggested and are eager for me to hear your conclusions. Yet you are anxious lest your presence under the tree before my arrival betray the fact that you waited late to embark on the study I recommended. You fear my reproof for that, but I do not reprove."
Melalie felt her cheeks redden. "I can’t understand how my motives are so clear to you."
Shemric continued as though she had not spoken. "I know you attach great importance to these lessons, so your waiting until so late to undertake the exercise suggests that you considered it merely a light drill which could be safely put off until the last moment. You believe such drills are necessary, and you perform them willingly enough, but you are impatient to attempt more serious efforts. But tell me, small one, how one separates the serious from the merely incidental?"
"I don’t know, teacher." Melalie felt like a child rebuked by her father. She found it hard to think of the sexless Sendor as "it" rather than "he." How did Sendors reproduce if, as Shemric had explained, they had no gender?
A low rumble from her tutor refocused the thoughts she had allowed to wander. "I didn’t mean to treat the assignment lightly," she said. "I guess I still don’t understand my own motives."
"Because you do not yet have the courage to examine yourself, your own motives come as a surprise to you when you hear them explained. When you no longer fear to probe your depths, you will have no need for a tutor."
"I don’t think I can ever reach that goal." Melalie concealed her discomfort by examining a large rose. She ran one finger lightly over its velvety, deep-red petals. Her mother had grown roses like this on their Solar home world. She sniffed the bloom and turned away. Roses grown on Thanli lacked the sweet fragrance of her mother’s roses.
"How stupid and shallow we Solarians must seem to you, Shemric! We cannot even explore the little depth we have."
The discreet cough, Melalie suspected, concealed the Sendoran equivalent of laughter. "I do not think you shallow. It is because you do not plumb your depth that you do not measure accurately its extent. But, small one, it is an unworthy motive that leads you to characterize your private failing as a racial blemish. You do this to excuse yourself from the task of learning your own mind. If as a race you were incapable of self-understanding, you would have no desire to accomplish it."
They stopped by an aviary filled with brightly colored finches. Shemric seemed fascinated by the noisy little birds. Embarrassed, Melalie could only return the conversation to safer ground. "I still have not given you my conclusions about the gift of the trinde tree."
The long vertical slit that was Shemric’s mouth widened into what had to be a smile. "Very well, what has the trinde taught you?"
Melalie explained the theories she’d come up with. Shemric listened without comment. Resting three of its tentacle arms against the wire cage, it watched the tiny feathered creatures launch themselves continually into futile flight. Melalie waited for her tutor’s response.
Shemric turned away from the caged birds. "You wish me to comment on those conclusions before you continue?"
Melalie confessed that the three motives were all she’d discovered. "Are there many more?"
"Even the simplest action arises from no fewer than four motives," Shemric replied. "Do you believe I have chosen for you an elementary exercise?"
"In our last session you chided me for my impatience and told me I wanted to fly before I learned to crawl. So I assumed you were giving me an easy exercise."
"Ah, but I might have given you an impossibly complex problem so that you would be forced to accept the truth of my admonition."
"And I was too stupid even to realize how difficult the assignment was. You must-"
Shemric waved a tentacle. "I said only that I might have given you such an assignment. Recall, please, my words to you when I suggested a subject for your study."
Brow furrowed, Melalie struggled to remember the exact wording Shemric had used. "You said, ’You may want to consider the motives which underlie this exercise I give you. Behold the trinde tree! The Sendor people gave it to the people of the Solar worlds. The motives behind the gift are worthy of study. This four-day I would like you to consider this assignment and seek the motives behind it.’"
"You remember well, small one," Shemric commended. "You recorded my words faithfully. How is it you failed to hear their meaning?"
"What do you mean? I didn’t spend enough time on the exercise, but I did try to do what you... Oh!"
Melalie’s hand flew to her mouth. She spoke rapidly, words tumbling into each other. "Oh! You told me to consider your motives in giving me the exercise. You wanted to see whether I really knew how to listen to you, whether I would hear what you actually said or what I thought you said. And of course, I did the latter! But I see now! You must have wanted to know whether I could discern between a simple exercise and a complex problem. The exercise you really set me was simple. But the problem of the trinde must be incredibly complex. And I failed to see that. You knew I would misunderstand. You planned to use that misunderstanding to provide the subject for this lesson. That would be your third motive. And the fourth?"
She hesitated, then continued. "Your fourth motive was, I think, to show me you were right in declaring me unready for any complicated effort. You intended that I realize how little I know."
Shemric’s opal eyes glowed. "You have indeed done well in discovering four motives. However, I did not insult you by offering the simplest assignment possible. There were more than four motives to be discerned.
"A fifth, small one, was to test myself. I wished to see if I had taught as well as I hoped. And I find I have done nearly as well as I wished. But not quite. You perceived four motives, I have confessed a fifth, but there is a sixth, and it is one that has great significance. You should see it easily."
Melalie thought. "I don’t ... unless-the trinde! You wanted me to think about it although you knew I could not fathom the motives underlying the gift. You thought it important to direct my attention toward the tree-but I don’t know why."
"Nor will I tell you; it is for you to discover."
"Is that my new assignment?" Melalie laughed. "I won’t wait until time for you to come again before I attempt that lesson, I promise."
"By all means, work on it. But you may find you need more than a four-day to discover the answer."
"I’ll probably need a lifetime." Melalie scowled in mock exasperation. "I know another motive for the gift of the trinde tree. The tree was given to provide Sendor tutors with a puzzle for their Solarian students."
"You have exceeded my greatest expectations in perceiving four of the motives behind the gift of the trinde. I believe you will soon learn to fly, little one. You may be ready to progress to a new phase of learning. We will discuss that possibility at our next meeting."
Her tutor raised its tentacles in salute and ambled off before she could respond to the unexpected praise.
Melalie walked back inside the embassy building. A large screen over the communications desk in the lobby flashed a message: "Melalie Noris, report to Ambassador Staton’s office."
So Marshall had gone to the ambassador. And the ambassador must be supporting him. Melalie dashed to the elevator and ascended to the third floor. A gate of polished steel barred her way to the ambassadorial suite. She placed her right arm before a wall sensor; it read the data encoded into the beads of the identification bracelet required of all Solarian citizens. The gate lifted and allowed Melalie to pass.
She entered the outer office where Elyn Gramm, the ambassador’s personal secretary, sat at a datrix console. Her rigid posture and mechanical movements reminded Melalie of the embassy’s robot guards.
"Elyn, I just got word the ambassador wants to see me."
With a cold nod, the secretary flipped a switch. Ambassador Staton’s face appeared on a screen, angry eyes peering out beneath a thatch of silver hair.
"Ms. Noris is here, sir."
"About time," the screen image thundered. "Get in here, Noris."
Melalie entered the spacious inner office where the ambassador sat at his desk against a background of genuine oak paneling. He waved her to a leather-upholstered straight chair facing him.
"Bailey Marshall tells me he tried to see you on urgent business and you refused to talk to him." He brushed an imaginary bit of dust off the polished mahogany desk.
Melalie gripped the chair’s padded leather arms. "I was very busy when Mr. Marshall saw me, sir. It was just before my scheduled lesson with my Sendor tutor, so I asked him to make an appointment for another time."
The ambassador’s fist crashed against the polished desktop. "Damn it, Noris, I told you those lessons are not to interfere with your duties!"
Melalie took a deep breath. "Ambassador Staton, I am not only responsible for interpreting Solarian culture to the people of Thanli; it is also my responsibility to study and document Thanlian culture."
The ambassador placed his palms flat on his desktop and leaned forward, his always-florid face now scarlet. "I do not require a lecture on the nature of your duties."
Melalie swallowed. "Sir, I’m only explaining why I didn’t listen to Mr. Marshall’s request. Since it was not government business but something CATT wanted, I thought-"
Ambassador Staton crashed his fist again. "Noris, you and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for CATT. The Solar Council couldn’t afford to maintain an embassy this far from home without the support of CATT."
"I understand that, but I didn’t feel my work was related to CATT’s activities."
"In that case, you’ve been incredibly naive." The ambassador unlocked a desk drawer and took from it a small silver case. He opened the case and held it so Melalie could see its contents. Cradled in a hollow beneath a clear plastic shield were two red crystals the size of grains of rock salt. "Do you know what this is?"
"I ... I think so." Her nails dug into the leather.
"It’s murgold." He waved it in front of her face. "Ever seen it before?"
Why was the ambassador doing this? He must know she’d seen murgold and under what circumstances. Her family history was a part of her personnel record.
Maybe he had never bothered to read that record.
Maybe Ambassador Staton was not aware of the special horror murgold evoked for her. Maybe this conversation was nothing more than a ghastly coincidence.
Her training in Sendoran logic told her otherwise. Afraid to answer the question, she tried to fathom his motives.
He continued as though she had answered. "You know its value, I’m sure."
She nodded. She knew its commercial value. Her whole year’s salary would not buy one of those small grains.
She also knew its cost. A fortune squandered. A mind tortured by its craving for the stuff. A life cut short; a reputation smashed.
She shut her eyes to banish the vivid image of her father’s crumpled body lying in a pool of drying blood.
"Bailey Marshall presented that case to me yesterday. One grain will go to you when you successfully complete the duties CATT assigns you. The other stays with the embassy as the payment for your services." He snapped the silver case shut.
Melalie’s throat constricted. Her mouth opened, closed, opened. No sound came.
Sold like a slave. Bartered for the substance she hated and feared more than anything else in the cosmos. How could the ambassador do this to her?
What motive would impel the ambassador to demand and CATT to pay a fortune for her services? What made her worth so much? She was nobody. Her father had been a respected scientist, but she’d inherited neither his ability nor his interests. Her career in the diplomatic service was unspectacular. Her work was mundane, her record spotted by her folly at Sianna. She was, in fact, expendable.
Her eyes widened, her breath came in short, rapid gasps. She stared at the ambassador.
Those red crystals were blood money. They had to be. Whatever assignment CATT planned to send her on, she wasn’t expected to survive. The murgold was a bribe. Not for her. Of course not. The bribe was for Ambassador Staton. The grain of murgold he said was for her would, no doubt, be his along with the other when she failed to return.
The ambassador leaned back in his chair, hands folded over his stomach, waiting. His satisfied smirk reminded her of a cat that had just killed a mouse.
He seemed so sure of her. Did he think she shared her father’s mad desire for murgold? Or did he merely assume the wealth represented by that single crystal was sufficient to override her scruples?
In the most forceful tone she could muster she said, "Ambassador Staton, I don’t want the murgold. I will not accept assignment to CATT."
The ambassador jerked forward. His face purpled. "You’re turning down a fortune?"
"I want no part of that murderous stuff."
"It doesn’t have to be murderous. Scores have found it the key to new realms of knowledge."
Melalie’s hands traced the grain of the leather on which they rested. "Scores more have destroyed themselves. That’s too high a price for any kind of knowledge. I refuse to traffic in the stuff that killed my father."
"Your father shot himself. Murgold didn’t kill him." The ambassador’s hard eyes bored into hers.
Melalie glared back. "It was responsible."
"You admire the Sendors. You study their language and culture. You’re tutored in their philosophy. If the Sendors are so worthy of emulation and the murgold traffic so despicable, how do you explain the fact that they initiated that traffic?"
Melalie recoiled as though he’d struck her. "They aren’t ... they couldn’t ... It’s a lie!"
"It’s true." His smirk returned. "They’re the source of all the murgold on the market. They control its supply. That’s why the crystals cost so much."
Melalie sat in stunned silence.
The ambassador continued. "CATT’s trying to find another source. If it can increase the supply, the price’ll come down, and people like your father won’t have to blow their brains out because they can’t afford a second dose." He leaned forward, his face earnest. "I understand your father was led to the brink of a major breakthrough by his use of murgold. Think of what he might have accomplished if he had been able to obtain one more crystal. Frustration is what killed him, Miss Noris, not murgold. And your Sendor friends were the cause."
"No!" She rose, placed her palms flat on his desk, and leaned over it. "No!" she screamed again.
He rose to his feet. "Yes!" he shouted in her face. "By helping CATT you’ll thwart the ones responsible for your father’s death."
She shook her head with a violence that sent her hair tumbling across her face. "Not the Sendors. That’s impossible."
"Is it?" He straightened his body and crossed his arms. "I’d say you’re as wrong about the Sendors as you were about the Siannans."
Melalie crumpled into her chair. Tears flowed down her cheeks.
The ambassador settled back and rested his arms on the desk. "I’d have preferred not to bring that up, but I have to be blunt. If you refuse to help CATT, your job here is terminated. You were given a second chance when you were assigned to this post after you made a fool of yourself on Sianna. You’ll not get a third chance. Your career in diplomatic work will be finished. And you’ll be expected to repay the grant that financed your education."
Melalie wiped her cheeks. "What is it CATT wants?"
The ambassador’s smirk expanded into a full-blown leer of triumph. "Marshall will give you the details. You’ll be working with him."
Melalie groaned. "Ambassador Staton, I cannot work with Bailey Marshall."
"You are in no position to dictate with whom you will and will not work. You have only two choices: accept whatever duties CATT asks you to fulfill, or return to the Solar Worlds and never leave again. Which is it?"
She’d lost. What other kind of work was she trained for? She’d dreamed of achievements that would wipe out the stain of her father’s death. Instead, jobless and in debt, she’d be forced back to an empty house to live among the ghosts she’d failed to lay to rest. She preferred death. "I’ll accept the assignment," she mumbled.
"Good. See Marshall."
Melalie left the embassy building. She did not, however, go to see Bailey Marshall. She hurried to her apartment in the part of the complex reserved for single staff members. She needed time to get herself together.