by John Shirley
Chapter the First: DemiLord of Paradine
Jann a Grelle soared over the plains of Paradine Prime. The great flying beast throbbed with life under his bare feet. He rode standing on Aleshna's back, braced against the clean, cool wind, streaks of cloud whipping moisture over his face, his bare shoulders. Should he lose his grip on the bridle-lines, a step to the right or left would send him sliding down the great blimp-like creature's side, to fall tumbling end over end to the land far below. A crosswind slapped at them and Jann had to hold hard to keep from falling, hands tightening on the lines, his toes digging instinctively into the fine piebald fur of his steed's hide; he grinned as his behemoth rumbled warningly.
"Easy, Aleshna!" Jann shouted to the behemoth. "I've got a good grip!" The behemoths had been known to swoop down and catch falling riders in mid-air, but it was a tricky maneuver and in the process of being caught a man's bones might be broken on his rescuer's thick hide.
But Jann exulted in flying—especially on this spring day on the planet Paradine; an exuberant, grass-fragrant day worthy of old Earth. The land far below, beyond the herd of behemoths Jann was leading, was stippled with pale purple amidst rippling fields of dark green clover set off by bristly copses of oak, their foliage the verdigris of old copper. The oak had long ago been brought like the clover, and many of the animals, from the home planet; but here and there were globes of bright yellow, the bubble-shaped foliage of the native Oosh tree, and magenta spikes of Paradinian tower cacti.
Lean of frame, black of hair and eye and not quite twenty-two years old, Jann made fine adjustments on the bridle-lines in his two hands. He could feel the air pressure changes reverberating through the soles of his feet; he sensed the muted ruminative rumblings of the creature’s call to its fellows in the herd flying below and a little behind them. His behemoth was twenty yards long, stubby-winged, beak-headed and amber-eyed. Jann felt its humming delight as he made tugged it to drive soaringly over the crystalline waters of the Great Blue Crater. The behemoth was indeed an it, the flying beasts having no particular sex, any of them capable of fertilizing any of the others; all able to bear young.
He leaned back as Aleshna drove down, digging in his heels, the beast's back wrinkling to give him a better foot-hold. He twisted the bridle lines toward one another so their microprogrammed fibers stiffened to hold him in place. The long lines, the harness just back of the behemoth's enormous beak, and Jann’s single anchoring sash, were twined of gold and black cords, the colors of Grelle Manor. The wind whipped his moth-silk tunic and trousers, rattling the cloth.
The primeval character of Paradine asserted itself whenever the sky-born herds of behemoths rippled the rolling hills with their shadows; when they shook leaves from the trees with their deep resonant calls, heard for fifty miles around.
Jann’s mother, Sena, did not approve: his father had died in a behemoth explosion, when lightning struck a badly designed bridle, and the hydrogen that kept the zeppelin-like creatures aloft ignited into a consuming ball of blue fire.
But Vonn a Vleet, Jann’s Instructor of Soldierly Arts, encouraged him to master the behemoths for that very reason: because riding them had killed his father. "If you turn away from the challenges of life, because of grief—because of a risk—you're left with its leavings!" he'd said.
Down they swooped toward the glittering waters of the crater…Closer, closer yet—and if he got too close, he knew, the behemoth, which disliked immersion, would whip very suddenly upward, the motion dislodging Jann from his place, possibly breaking his wrists. And a man with broken wrists could not hold on.
Closer…He felt the behemoth's skin contract warningly…
Jann hissed a command, twitching the bridle-lines and Aleshna pulled up, just skimming the waves of the Crater, so that spray chilled Jann's face. Rising, the behemoth sucked in a great breath of air, which drew it forward in something like a jet effect, but its greatest energy of upward motion came from its creation of more pure hydrogen gas, internally. It gleaned the hydrogen from the air it drew, and expelled the unused gases from vents on its side, furthering its propulsion. Glancing over his shoulder Jann thrilled to see that more than fifty behemoths were doing exactly as his lead flyer did, the gigantic herd behaving like an aerial school of gargantuan fish, turning as he turned, rising now, up and up till the air grew colder, through a gap in the clouds. The behemoth rose till the nimbostratus were arrayed below him in a vast cloudscape of spotless white.
A grumbling moan went through Aleshna, a warning to the herd that another behemoth, not a part of their extended family, flew challengingly near. Jann looked around, and his heart quickened when he saw it: a small “personal behemoth”, decorated with the red and blue streamers of Gollden Manor. The diminutive figure saddle-riding its back—most manor-ladies preferred a saddle—was Liana, the most marriageable daughter of Gollden Manor. She was small of stature but voluptuous; her long wavy golden hair streamed in the wind.
But Jann’s mother had a smoldering dislike for both Liana and Liana’s Father, Baron Dolliman Chesslander a Gollden. The Baron had always condescended to Jann, whose family estates were half the size of his own—and whose late father had criticized the Baron’s treatment of his harvesters.
Liana was just emerging from a cloud three hundred yards off—and he raised a hand to wave, grinning at her.
But had she not seen him? It seemed to him that she had pretended not to.
He decided she was playing a game—he was supposed to pursue. He laughed and shouted his command, and Aleshna set off in pursuit.
Liana seemed to have turned back, toward home. Jann followed, urging Aleshna to greater speed. The more powerful behemoth quickly overtook Liana, and he drew alongside, the stubby wingtips of their mounts just a yard apart. Liana wore a lady’s flying suit of buckskin, beaded in blue and red, tight-fitting and cut to expose her waist and cleavage. There was something particularly provocative about the thigh-length boots. He noticed that she carried a leather messenger bag on a strap over one shoulder. They were used for urgent contracts and letters of negotiation, when transmission was insecure.
“Hey-yo, Liana!” he shouted. “Slow down! Is there a ‘gagement I should know about?” Skyherders sometimes played a game in which behemoth riders captured trained birds in nets: each game was divided into four ‘gagements.
She slowed her behemoth, turning to him with an irritated flick of her tresses: a slightly-plump face with its almost comically large eyes and lips. She frowned, then seemed to remember herself and put on a teasing smile. “Jann! Dripping wet with clouds, you are!” The Golldens used the quaint Paradinian sentence constructions that Jann’s relatively progressive parents considered archaic; he had been taught a grammar more in line with the universal tongue of the settled galaxy, System Wide.
He felt a sadness he couldn’t identify, looking at her then, but he hunkered on the behemoth, to be more companionable, and said, “I wish you’d told me you were going riding! We could’ve gone together.” Then his eyes went again to the message bag dangling from her pale, plump shoulder. “But I guess you’re delivering a message for your father?”
“That is the truth of it,” she said—a particularly archaic construction. She didn’t seem happy that he’d noticed the bag.
“You look lovely,” he said, “though I wouldn’t think you were dressed for message carrying...”
Her cheeks reddened. She spoke with some asperity. “I had another mission too, you and I are not betrothed yet, and until we are, it is customary to date freely. Anything else is unwholesome.”
He had to speak sharply to Aleshna to keep the behemoth from crowding Liana’s mount; it was trying to snuggle close, a preliminary to mating. To Liana, with all the equanimity he could muster, he said, “I thought we had an understanding! If you'd encouraged me to ask your father—”
“He isn't receptive. Your Manor has not been productive, Jann—your mother gives away a third of your profits and more." She shook her head disdainfully. "You don’t drive your Harvesters; they smoke Groak and dream the day away...”
“That’s an exaggeration. Last year we did very well in creepers and wool and sensitive wood.”
“But you’re deeply in debt. I...My father is cognizant of that kind of financial willicumsery...”
He couldn't help laughing. “Does your family still use Old Paradine words like willicumsery? Far as I remember, the word means irresponsibility. Can you really say I’m irresponsible? Forget this tryst you have planned and let's talk about it, Liana!”
“That I cannot do—it would be...willicumseric! I’ll see you soon enough, Jann a Grelle!”
She snapped her bridle-lines and leaned right—the little behemoth looked at Aleshna with an unmistakable regret; groaning to itself, it rolled obediently away and down.
He watched Liana fly away from him, angling her behemoth down as if to go to some particular manor. What was in that direction? Jimson manor perhaps? The home of the conceited and wealthy Dalick Jimson? Dalick had long been mooning after Liana...
Why passively accept it, if that’s how things were going? Why not go after her?
He stood up, shouted a command. Aleshna veered downward, turned—and then he reined suddenly in.
He’d seen something disturbingly out of place gleaming on the grasses below. An attenuated blob of silver. Possibly a starcraft. He spiraled lower, letting Liana go. He had to know for sure.
Yes. A starcraft: landed where none had permission to be.
He commanded Aleshna to level off at three hundred yards, but the behemoth did not obey, wavering but still hesitatingly descending. The beast hadn't heard him clearly: Jann had instinctively lowered his command voice, for it seemed to him that the craft might be Kastillian.
A Kastillian craft was never a welcome sight. Paradine was independent from Earth for a century now—there was little help there in the event of trouble with the Kastillians. And little they could do to resist the Kastillians, if it came to that: Paradine had agreed to limit its technological growth because the decadent, mistrustful Kastillians, much closer to hand than old Earth, regarded any high tech as a forerunner to weaponry. With its tradition of preferring rugged frontier simplicity, Paradinians had for the most part shruggingly complied with the ban—especially outside Lapis. The city and the manors had electricity, solar power, remote phones, a few other technological conveniences—but energy weapons were few, and Paradinians had no interstellar attack craft.
Now Jann gave the command louder. With a steamy venting, Aleshna expelled hydrogen, and some oxygen, partly in the form of water vapor, the reduction of hydrogen causing it to lose some of its lift. The bridle-lines and the experienced grip of his toes kept him from slipping as he leaned to peer down at the starcraft. There were uniformed men moving about the spaceship’s companionway, and on the ground nearby. He caught the flash off a lens as one of them turned an oculator upward to take in the sky herd. They might not spot him—might well take the herd to be wild behemoths.
But if they thought that...
He heard the thud of a stropp—a hand-cannon, as some called it—and the shriek of a projectile. The herd was being fired on! Were they firing at him or taking pot shots at wild animals?
A scream of pain from the drag of the herd gave him his answer. He turned, saw that an elderly, slower behemoth had been hit by the stropp. Its lavender blood gouted and sparkled and it bucked in visible agony. Jann shouted his harshest command at Aleshna, and the herd, to flee for home. Aleshna turned north, but with a reluctance Jann could feel in his feet; it meant abandoning a herd elder.
A moment later the wounded behemoth exploded—becoming a living fireball—and the herd accelerated in fear.
Jann heard cheers and laughter faintly from the spacers below...
“They will pay for that, Aleshna,” he told the behemoth. It hooted skeptically, and moaned.
Flying back to the Manor, the herd moaned in consonance, the same four inhuman notes repeated again and again, a great rumbling funeral dirge that sent chills through everyone who heard it, even the Kastillians.