The final whispers of a prayer on his lips, Darquin got up from the padded kneeling plank at the foot of the statue of Valen, then left the central temple of the Ranger compound. Outside, tall lamps of incandescent crystal shimmered in the gathering darkness, illuminating the garden and stone paths while the final splinters of pale daylight at the horizon beyond Tuzanor. Darquin looked up at the emerging face of one of Minbar’s moons, smiling weakly. Time passed as it always did.
Seeing the one moon fade into view reminded him that the Phoenix waited on the edge of the Minbari system for the whole crew. The future, he decided, lay waiting at a 60-degree angle and straight on for several thousand AU’s. He took the garden path pointing toward the nearest shuttle pad, running his palm over the occasional brush.
As he entered the wide halo thrown over the immaculate pastures beside the landing pad, the distinct shape of a Minbari Ranger moved down the opposite end of the stone path. Highlighted with the rounded bone crest fashioned for females in the religious caste, her face was briefly hidden in the landing lights’ glare until she stood in front of him, holding three cream-colored packages in her arms. “Anla’shok Darquin?”
“Uh, yeah, over here! Did I miss my shuttle?”
“No, it will be some time yet.”
He smiled as he recognized her. “You were on the Phoenix, right?”
“Yes, I assist Doctor Trassano. I am Daanike.”
Darquin rested his closed fingers over each other, bringing his thumbs together, to give Daanike a proper Minbari greeting. “I’d offer to shake your hand, but they’re both occupied.”
“This is why I’m here,” she said, gesturing with her armful. She squinted at her charges and gingerly passed one of the boxes to him. “I was assured that they were safe for transport, but I thought you would prefer to inspect them yourself before we left.”
“Thanks.” Opening the package, Darquin found a folded sheet of paper and a round crystal with ghostly scintillations of milky blue and verdant brightness. He held the crystal up to the light at the other end of the path, watching its center explode into a billion multicolor refractions. “Whoa, trippy. Where did you–”
He unfolded the paper and found a handwritten message, his eyes widening as he read. “Hell… who gave this to you?” He found himself checking his fingers for burns or tingling sensations even as he listened to her answer.
“From, from fellow Rangers. Sech Nelier’s acolytes.”
Darquin slipped past her and started a rapid march to the launch pad. “Any security people in the boarding area, do they have any scanners?”
“Yes, of course, but–”
“C’mon, I wanna scan these myself. When that’s done, I need to find someone.” With his chin, Darquin tapped a button on the comlink he wore on the back of his hand. “Darquin to Phoenix, patch me through to Tianmun in Security, like yesterday. Hey, Tianmun, it’s your missing boss. Get ready, I might need you to hold a couple things in quarantine when we dock….”
Dunstan Kordieh stepped into the library, pausing to look around before going more than a few steps. As far as he could tell, he was alone, and so the Minbari would allow him to be there. He pulled an old scroll from one of the shelves, and settled into a deep chair to read.
It wasn’t easy to focus. Early that morning, he’d sent off his gifts to the three Phoenix crew who had helped Katia on Mars — Daanike had been kind enough to offer to carry them back to the ship. And later in the day, he’d said goodbye to Katia herself.
He was a bit frightened at the turn things had taken with Katia — someone who was clinging to him as desperately as he was reaching out for her. He hoped that her loyalty and faith in him wouldn’t get her in trouble. He wanted to avoid that — hence, his decision to send the gifts with someone else.
He suddenly started violently at the sight of a young girl, coming out from the back of one shelf and circling around to the next. A strange mix of emotions — loneliness and panic — knotted themselves around his throat and kept him from speaking for a moment.
She lifted a hand to her mouth, chewing on a nail as she searched the shelves. Human, Kordieh thought, and she couldn’t be more than fourteen. What could she possibly be doing here? A parent in the Anla’shok, perhaps. Not an orphan, he hoped. Please, God, not an orphan.
He forced words out, surprised at how normal they sounded. “Excuse me.”
She turned to look, offered a decidedly guilty smile. “Hi.”
“Who are you?”
“What are you doing up so late?”
“I couldn’t sleep. My father’s out on assignment, and he should have been back by now.”
“I see.” Relief, just a little to offset the guilt, and it opened the door to temptation. It had been so long since he’d talked to someone who didn’t know. Just a simple conversation, perhaps a friend to make …
“Who are you?”
“My name is Dunstan.” He bit his lip. “And I’m afraid you’d better go.”
“What? Oh, come on. There’s no one else here, I won’t bother you.”
“No, I mean it. I — it’s not safe to be around me. You’ll get in trouble if anyone sees you with me, and I don’t want that to happen.”
Her dark eyes, set deep in a face the color of milk chocolate, narrowed in confusion. “Why?”
“In the morning, find Sech Nelier and he can explain it to you. Just … go. If you see me again, find someplace else to be. If I see you, I’ll do the same.” He blinked, hard. “Please, Candace.”
“I … okay.” She tucked a scroll under her arm and moved quickly toward the door. “Goodbye, Dunstan.”
“Goodbye, Candace,” he whispered as the library door closed. “I’m sorry.” He turned to the back of the chair, bringing his hands up to hide the anguished grimace emerging on his face.
With a start Dunstan nearly gasped at the gentle hiss of metal slinking over metal, like the slither of a metallic snake. As he turned to follow the sound, a Ranger stepped out of the shadows cast by the ancient shelves nearby. “Chief Darquin… how did you know I was here?”
“I can’t tell you that.” Darquin moved further into the light, holding one fist loosely at his side. “It’ll spoil your exams on stealth.”
“Can you tell me… how long you’ve been here?”
The cold, unreadable expression on Darquin’s face dissolved into a more gentle, unimposing one. “A while.”
Dunstan turned his eyes back to the Ranger’s fist. “I didn’t know anyone was here.”
“Yeah. I got that impression. Got a minute?”
He watched Darquin saunter to the reading table and slide out a chair for himself. “It’s late.”
“I know,” Darquin said. “Just wanted to ask you a couple things. You wanna leave?” He raised his empty palms into view. “I won’t say a word.”
Suspicion, dread, and death-wish anticipation stilled Dunstan’s tongue, looking for whatever boom that Darquin was going to lower on him. Part of him welcomed a verbal trial by fire, but he grew to realize he was the only source of his apprehension. Darquin hadn’t said or done anything to indicate he meant any harm. Kordieh nodded, sighing, letting his shoulders droop. “All right.”
“Why did you send the gifts, the stone?”
“Only what I said in my note. I heard what happened to you on Mars.”
Dunstan frowned, confused. “From Katia.”
Darquin nodded, absorbing the answer. “I didn’t know you had anything going with her.”
“It’s… it was something of a surprise to me, too.” He looked away, blushing a little before his face tightened. “I’m sorry if that offends you.”
“Not offended,” Darquin said quietly. “But you must admit I got enough reason to be concerned.”
Dunstan gave him a weak, accepting nod. “Why did you go?”
“Excuse me?” Darquin said with an incredulous chuckle.
“I… couldn’t help but wonder why you went back for Katia and her friends. From what I was told, everyone thought you were on your way back to Minbar.”
The Ranger sat back in his chair, then shrugged. “They’re my friends. And I guess I always had this thing about facing down bullies.”
“I wish I could’ve gone. But I’ve never faced Psi-Cops before.”
Darquin smirked. “I got a bad feeling you just might have your chance one day.” He watched the quivering neck muscles under Kordieh’s ear. “I mean we’re bound to bump heads with them again eventually.”
Dunstan Kordieh blushed for true this time, a lengthy spell of blatant crimson on his face, and tried to make eye contact as he smiled at Darquin. “Ah. I’m sorry, I’ve been… dwelling on the past.”
“And you figured everyone else was,” Darquin added. Slightly stunned, Kordieh nodded to him. “Lots of people been there, I think. Um, I was wondering. Sech Nelier told me that you were working on a… mah’uzeed, is that right?”
Kordieh nodded again, interested now that Darquin seemed to be.
“Multilayered word there. I wasn’t sure it was the one I heard since it doesn’t literally say ‘footpath’ or anything.”
“The roots all have multiple meanings, I think. When it’s used to address no one in particular….”
Darquin scowled, deep in concentration. “It comes like a haiku once you put it all together: ‘Made by one’s hand, skilled with craft, crafted with skill; fire undone, a seed that rests.’ If I got the translations right.”
“That’s fascinating. It sounds like the building of the mah’uzeed.” Dunstan found himself looking at his hands. “And then its purpose.”
“Leave it to the religious caste to leave out everything else. But then it sounds better than calling it ‘those bunch of steps that go ’round and ’round and the karma goes out here.'”
Kordieh laughed, feeling some of the tension slip away out of his body, and as he caught his breath, decided not to take it back again. “The gifts — the crystal globes,” he said, “I made them out of fragments I swept up off the floor of the mah’uzeed. Seemed a shame to let them all go to waste.”
Darquin nodded. “I can see that. I brought up the mah’uzeed because… well, I never heard of it before and I was wondering what it’d be like to walk the path. Maybe when you’re done with it, I could…?”
“I — of course,” Kordieh said, eyes widening in surprise. “I’m afraid it’ll be quite a while yet, though, there’s a lot I have to do. But if you want, I could send you word when I am done.”
“Sure.” Darquin stood up, gesturing vaguely toward the ceiling. “I’ve got to get back.”
Kordieh nodded. “I’d better get back to my rooms.” He moved toward the door ahead of Darquin, pausing as he opened it to look back and add, “Thank you. For everything.”
Darquin shook his head gently as he stood up. “I didn’t give you that much to begin with. Good luck.”
Leaving her place behind one of the bookshelves, Candace made as stealthy a move for the door when she heard Dunstan offer his thanks. It sounded like a good time to bail. As her father had taught her, she took a straight and relaxed course for the door. Once she was out on the garden path, in the moist cool night, she dove behind the nearest bush.
As she wrestled with her hurried breath, the sound of the library door opening heralded the Ranger. Peeking through an opening in the brush, she could see the Isil’zha pin on his chest as the folds of his Anla’shok duster flickered in and out of the darkness untouched by towering pillars of clear, glowing crystal. She waited until she saw him walk to the far end of the path before she let herself breathe again.
“Hey, kid, heads up!”
Candace gasped as he spun around and lobbed something into the night. She brought her hands up to catch it, following the glinting crystal ball’s descent. In her hands, it shone like a dying golden-green sun. And yet its light refused to die.
(c) 1999 Jamie Lawson and Joe R. Medina. All rights reserved.