from Inquestor Tales: by S.P. Somtow

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. . . the child's eyes, amber-clear, deadly . . . "When I die, hokh'Shen, I want to be a comet."

***

"A comet." Shen Sajit, wrapping his kaleidokilt around his waist and readying his array of musical instruments for the second half of the concert, watched the childsoldier they had assigned to guard him: lithe, slender, the black hair matching exaaly the midnight of his tunic, the short cloak thrown sharply over his shoulder at just the regulation angle, the gravi-boots, iridium-laced, glistening. "Why a comet, boy?"

"Because they experience the tumblejoy. Master Musician, when they appear in a planet's sky as harbingers of the firedeath."

"You've lost me. Things have changed since I was a boy here, a childsoldier myself, when I swapped my eyes for the killing laser-irises and learnt to inflict the whirling-death on cities. I don't know why I came back."

For a moment the childsoldier seemed to lose his reserve. " You were here once, you the most famous musician in the Dispersal of Man?"

"Is it strange to you that someone can survive the years of child- soldiery?"

"I have never thought of it," the boy said wistfully. "Were you really here? You must be a thousand years old."

Sajit smiled a little at this. "Almost."

"Why did you come back?"

Idly Sajit touched his old whisperlyre; the strings stole warmth from

his fingers, adding it to their resonance. He looked at the room they had given him behind the small stage that was used for the childsoldiers' assemblies, for making announcements, for meting out punishments. It seemed little different from the grubby rooms of his childhood: first as a whore's son in Airang, then here in the childsoldiers' city, impressed by the Inquest into the trade of killing. He wished he had not come back. From the minute he had set foot on Bellares, the barrack world, he wanted to go back to Elloran's palace, to be again among beautiful things.

"I asked for a leave of absence from my Inquestor," he told the boy, "so that I could better remember certain flavors, certain smells, certain colors. I am writing a new music for him, you see." But now that he had seen he did not think he wanted to remember these things. He had not expected the years to have softened the past's ugliness so much. He wished he could tell the boy about Varezhdur the golden palace that flew from star to star through the light-mad overcosm; of the gardens within labyrinthine gardens, of the long dark corridors lined with holosculptures of weeping pteratygers that slowly flapped their wings in the wuthering artwind. But it was useless to talk of such things. Doubtless the boy would be dead in a year. Instead, he simply said, "Over there, the amplijewels — hand them to me. Here. And the belt with the buckle of mating flamefish. And . . . what is your name, boy? You've attended me three days and I'm tired of calling you hey, boy."

"N-narop," said the boy. Then, bursting out, "You asked my name! They never ask me my name." He looked away, embarrassed.

Sajit was dressed now. He gestured for the hovercushion to descend towards the floor; the boy Narop made to lead him by the hand. Sajit said,

"No, no. I'm really not a thousand years old, you know." The boy shrank away, afraid of offending. For Sajit came as Inquestral envoy, and a word from him could mean instant death, just like that. Sajit knew this too well.

Things weren't that different after all.

A displacement plate was set into the floor; Sajit saw a small insect crawl onto it and vanish. As he made to step out of the room he saw the boy, anxious, unsure. He beckoned him forward. I was like this once, he thought. He tried to drown out the memory in the strains of the music he was about to perform; but it kept surfacing. "What did you mean, Narop-without-a-clan," he said, "when you said you wanted to be a comet when you die?"

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