|"I will protect her or no one will!"|
The next morning, everyone gathered after breakfast to discuss what they had decided. Even Laurel joined them, though she wore a veil over her eyes.
Carsius looked from one serious face to another. When Augustus nodded and Renata looked away, Carsius understood what everyone had decided.
"Laurel is to go alone," he stated.
"No!" The Elf-maiden cried, turning her head to show that she looked toward each of them. "Can you not any of you find the courage to accompany me?"
Atis shifted in his seat. "I'm sorry, Laurel," he said, "It's not a matter of courage, it's—unnecessary risk."
"I am an unnecessary risk?" she seethed. "If it weren't for me, you would not even be here! If it weren't for me you'd still be trying to figure out chemical compounds, maybe they would have caught you already! You're a ripe lot of failures without me!"
Her voice grew low and raspy at the end, and Carsius sensed a new and sinister presence within her.
"Laurel?" He inquired cautiously. He could see her white hands gripping the arms of the chair as she tried to regain control of her mental faculties.
"I—I'm sorry!" she gasped in a much gentler voice. "I didn't mean it."
"Perhaps you did, Laiddrynn," Deej spoke up. "These are deeper feelings, ones that, were you unafflicted by probes, you would be wise enough to set aside."
"All the more reason why I should not be left to make my own way!" she protested. "Isn't there something we can do? Some sort of intercom device at least so that I have an advocate in my head and not just an enemy?"
"Anything we plant on you may be discovered or noticed," Augustus explained.
"Sverana could help," Scander volunteered. He whistled, and the hawk flew down. "Sverana," he instructed his friend, "would you protect Laurel as you protect me?" He directed the bird toward her, but Sverana seemed loath to leave his arm. Scander moved his arm a bit quicker, but the hawk only squawked and gripped tighter. Scander finally walked over toward the Elf-maiden, and Sverana responded by flapping madly, snapping at Laurel's veil, threatening to snatch it away, then flying off to some inaccessible corner of the Marketplace.
Everyone sat in despondent silence.
"Well," Scander sighed, "that didn't work."
"Why can we not find some way to contact Ra'dith?" Laurel asked again.
"We cannot trust her, Laurel!" Carsius reminded her.
"Well I do!" Laurel retorted. "Is that not enough?"
In the stillness that followed the challenge, one by one everyone became aware of another presence in the room. All eyes darted for the shadows, but it was when they looked back at Laurel that they saw a figure now standing at her side whose approach they neither saw nor heard. The figure with the spiky pale hair gazed at each of them with glinting, silver eyes.
"It is enough for Truth to receive assurance of trust," Ra'dith stated. "I will remain watchful at every moment. She will never leave my sight."
Atis blinked furiously. "How did—the alarms, the cameras—you got past all the—" he couldn't admit that any of his traps and sensors had been deficient in any way, but he frowned deeply.
Carsius glared, "I cannot allow you to flaunt the skills of my team so brazenly and trust you—unknown as you are—with our most valuable member. You will tell us who you are and where you come from, and who sent you, and then we will decide whether you may accompany her."
Ra'dith did not move. "She will not leave my sight."
"Witch!" Gorrmunsa spat lividly. "Foul fiend of the furthest Reaches! You will tell us what we want to know, or we will pry it from you with force!"
Ra'dith turned that silver gaze upon him. "You will not touch me."
Barmier leapt to his feet. "We'll see about that!" He lunged toward her right then and there.
He landed face-first on the floor next to Laurel's chair, and Ra'dith materialized only a few feet away, poised to spring in any direction.
Barmier spat dust as the other men sprang to their feet and raced toward the black figure.
Trying to catch Ra'dith was like grasping wisps of black smoke. Anyone fortunate enough to catch her by the wrist or ankle found himself flung into the air or tripping over her as she slipped from his grasp. After nearly half an hour of fruitless chasing and grabbing and many painful blows and twisting of the arms and legs, the whole group ended up surrounding the table, with Ra'dith brandishing one of Barmier's knives against Laurel's throat.
"I will protect her, or no one will!" Ra'dith thundered in a deep, threatening voice.
For one minute, no one dared even twitch a muscle.
Carsius kept his voice even as he answered, "We will do as you say, since you give us no choice. Will you honor our request?"
Ra'dith withdrew the knife and laid it on the table as she took a seat next to Laurel. "I will answer your questions," she replied.
Carsius watched her carefully as he began the interview.
"Who are you?"
"I am Ra'dith."
"Where do you come from?"
"I come from Truth."
"Truth is the name of the faction you serve?"
"Truth is not a faction; it is an ideal. Truth serves us, it sets us free. I believe Truth; I am Truth."
"Truth is your name?"
"I have many names; Truth has but one."
"And where do you live?"
"I live where Truth gains a foothold."
"What is your homeworld?"
"There are many worlds I call home."
"Where were you born?"
"In my mother's eyes."
"That of my people."
"Who are your people?"
"All those who stand for Truth."
Augustus felt the impatience building inside him. He cut in, "Who sent you?"
Ra'dith kept her eyes fixed straight ahead as she replied evenly, "I am sent by Truth."
Augustus pounded the table, "Confound you! How did you hear of us?"
"The Beacon of Truth activated, and I was sent to watch over this one," she indicated Laurel.
"Why did they send you?"
"To observe your methods and record them for the education of other oppressed planets."
"How long have you been watching us?"
"She has never been out of my sight since the day I arrived."
The questioning dragged on all day long, but by sundown they really had not received much information beyond what they already accepted.
Finally, Laurel raised her hands.
"Enough!" she cried. "I accept Ra'dith as my bodyguard. I will depart in the morning."
Ra'dith held out her arm as if offering her elbow to Atis, sitting next to her, but instead Sverana appeared with a rush of wings. She perched on Ra'dith's arm and did not fly away as the black-gloved hand stroked her feathers.
Carsius sighed. "Well, all right. The three of you can do as you like; but—" he pointed at Ra'dith. "Her blood be on your head!"
Ra'dith nodded, "She will not be harmed."
Everyone retired uneasily that night. Augustus watched Ra'dith bring her chair next to Laurel's bed, spread a blanket over the weary Elf, and watch her drift off to sleep. He glanced at Carsius.
"We're not even sure if this Ra'dith is human, I mean, you saw how she fought; and what race has those silver eyes? Do you really think we can trust Laurel to someone who remains a stranger?"
Carsius studied his onetime protege. Thoughtfully he mused, "Does it occur to you that Laurel just might be safer than she's ever been in her entire life?"