* * *
He dropped, letting gravity pull him down, using his muscles to jerk him forward and up. He rose beneath the gun, his shoulder lifting her arm, his hands steel traps as they closed on wrist and shoulder. He twisted and the gun fell to the carpet. He doubled her arm behind her back and rested his right hand on her throat, fingers digging hard against certain nerves.
"You didn't fire," he said calmly. "I gambled that you wouldn't. Not unless you were certain to hit what you aimed at. The danger of loosing off a weapon in a place like this is too great for you to have overlooked."
She lifted a foot and tried to smash his kneecap with her heel. He moved deftly to one side and tightened the grip on her throat.
"I could kill you," he said. "I could render you unconscious in a matter of seconds. Relax or I may do it."
"Assassin!" She was wild with fear.
"Fool!" His words reflected his anger. "You checked me, remember? Don't you trust your findings?"
She didn't answer.
"I came here to see the Matriarch," he said. "You can take me to her. Now be sensible and realize that I intend no harm." He removed his hands and scooped up the weapon. "Here," he thrust it into her hand. "Let's go."
They checked him first. They stripped him and examined the orifices of his body and only when they were perfectly satisfied did they allow him to dress. Even then the guards were watchful as they ushered him into the inner chamber where the Matriarch sat with the cyber and her ward.
"Dumarest!" The old woman looked her surprise. "What are you doing here?" He told her; she shrugged. "The man must have been having sport with you," she commented. "We have not been disturbed and my ward," —her hand reached for the slimmer one of the girl—"has not left my side."
"No?" Dumarest looked at the girl. She stared back.
"Not since the end of the storm," she smiled. "Did you enjoy it?"
"No, My Lady."
"Many did not. Such sounds can all too easily addle a person's brains. There are many dead, I believe?"
"Yes, My Lady." Dumarest sniffed at the air, the scent of spice was cloying to his nostrils but beneath it, very faint, he could distinguish the perfume she wore. "And you, My Lady. Did you enjoy the storm?"
"It was amusing," she said casually, then seemed to lose all interest in the visitor. The Matriarch did not.
She studied him from where she sat, tall in the soft lighting which softened but could not remove the stamp of fatigue from the hard planes of his face. The wound on his temple showed livid against the pallor of his skin. His clothes showed traces of mud, the bright fabric dulled by grime. His eyes, she noticed, never left the face of her ward. Inwardly she smiled.
Melga had jumped to the obvious conclusion that he was an assassin—she lacked any other explanation to account for his presence—but the old woman knew better. If the physician had never known the power of love she had. And Gath had reminded her of how powerful that emotion could be. Dumarest had come, not to wreak harm, but because he needed to be close.
"Sit," she ordered abruptly. "Join us."
"My Lady!" The cyber was quick to protest. "Is that wise?"
"What is wisdom?" Her face softened with memories. "Your logic, cyber? Perhaps, but what has logic to do with mercy? The man stays."
She waited until Dumarest had found a chair and lowered himself into its embrace. She liked the way he sat, remaining poised on the edge of the chair, cat-like in his relaxation. He reminded her of someone she had known, now long dead. The winds of Gath had resurrected his voice and wakened her memory. Now, somehow, Dumarest seemed to make the pattern complete.
"You arrive at an opportune time," she said, and wondered if he could guess how much she intended to hurt him. Emotional pain, of course, but as deep and as real as any physical agony. "I am about to name my successor."
"Be silent!" She didn't look at the cyber.
"Enough!" Her thin voice was strong with anger. Eighty years of rule had taught her how to command. "It is my will that he stays! My will that he listens!"
She softened a little at the touch of the girl's hand on her own, the firm, young flesh warm against the wrinkled skin. She softened still more as she looked at Dumarest. It was important that he should understand.
"The Matriarch of Kund," she said gently, "must forego all the normal pleasures of being a woman. She can have no children. She must not be too attached to any one person. She must devote herself, mind and body, to the good of the worlds she rules. It is a high honor. The position commands vast power and vast responsibilities. The person chosen can have no real life of her own. All she does must be for the good of Kund."
Her voice fell a little.
"No husband," she said meaningfully. "No lover. No man to whom she can give her heart. No man whose heart she dares to take." She paused before delivering the final blow. "I have chosen my ward, the Lady Seena Thoth, to succeed me as the Matriarch of Kund!"
His reaction disappointed her. He sat, watching the girl at her side, almost as if he hadn't heard a word she had said.
"Do you understand?" She gripped the soft, warm hand so close to her own. "She, my ward, will succeed me to the throne!"
"Yes, My Lady," he said quietly. "I understand. But that girl is not your ward."