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Though the very core of his being recoiled from the idea, fighting
desperately to eject it from his mind, it remained foremost in his
thoughts, clinging stubbornly like some malignant parasite feeding on his
brain. It had been this way since his talk with the Beysa, hounding him
until he retreated to the Vulgar Unicorn, returning to his old haunt like a
wounded animal seeking refuge in its lair. Even here, however, sur-
rounded by the familiar darkness and darker half-heard conversations,
there was no escape from the dread pronouncement.
Leave Sanctuary!
Lifting his tankard again, he was surprised to find it was empty.
Was that his third ... or fourth? No matter. It wasn't enough, which
was all that counted.
A brief nod at Abohorr was all that was necessary to obtain another.
That notable's attentiveness was a tribute to Hakiem's rise in position
and status, a rise he had never had cause to regret . . . until now.
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Advisor to the Beysa, he thought with a grimace. At first it had seemed
harmless, even desirable, to teach the ruler-in-exile the ways and thinking
other new home. Sympathy had grown into friendship, however, until he
was regarded as her most trusted confidant . . . almost a surrogate fa-
ther to the young girl stranded by circumstance in a foreign land. His
duties had been light, and his rewards great. Then, without warning, this.
TO BEGIN AGAIN
583
Lost in thought, Hakiem barely noticed the arrival of his fresh tan-
kard, though from habit he was aware of the bartender slipping more
than was his due from the pile of small coins on the table. Rather than
take the offender to task for his greed, he chose instead to review the
event which had led to his current state of mental confusion.
Visits from the Beysa were common enough, and more often than not,
involving subjects of a trivial nature. Usually, all that was required of
him was to listen while she complained or emoted about some new dis-
comfort or minor slight, venting the hurts or frustrations her position
would not let her acknowledge publicly. Thus, he was unprepared for the
direction their conversation took.
"I have news for you, old friend," Shupansea announced after their
normal exchange of pleasantries. "Both good and bad, I'm afraid."
Hakiem had already noticed that his royal visitor had seemed preoccu-
pied and distracted, and was glad the cause was to be revealed without
his having to draw it out of her.
"Tell me the bad news first, 0 Beysa," he said- "Then we can dispense
with it quickly. If not, then perhaps the good news will'cheer us both."
"Very well. The bad news is that I am about to lose one of my dearest
and most trusted friends."
Hakiem noted that no name was mentioned, and wondered if the omis-
sion was accidental or deliberate.
"That is sad news indeed." He nodded, silently speculating on who it
might be that they were discussing. "Friends are always hard to come by
and impossible to replace."
"Still, the same news is good," the Beysa continued, "as it represents a
promotion for that same friend ... a chance for me to express my
appreciation with a long-overdue reward."
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"So you rejoice for your friend's good fortune even though it repre-
sents a loss to you, personally. As I have said before, 0 Beysa, your
nobility of heart surpasses the nobility of your birth. I would wager that
your friend has benefited from your friendship, however brief, just as I
have, and will wish you well upon parting."
His comment was automatic, flowery politeness to fill his side of the
conversation while he awaited further information. The effect of the
words on Shupansea, however, was as profound as it was unexpected.
"Oh, I'm so glad you agree, Hakiem!" she cried, seizing his hand in an
uncommon display of emotion, Beysib women being usually very self-
conscious about touching males. "I was afraid you'd be upset."
"Upset? About what?" Startled by the turn of the conversation, he
practically stammered out the question, though it was now painfully
584
STEALERS' SKY
clear that he himself was the subject under discussion. "I . . . I'm afraid
I don't . . ."
"I'm sorry. I'm getting ahead of myself. It's so hard for me to remem-
ber court formalities when I'm talking to you."
She released his hand and stepped back, striking a regal pose almost
mocking in its severity.
"Hakiem," she said in her solemn, court voice. "It is with great plea-
sure that we hereby appoint you Royal Emissary, our Trade Ambassador
to the Glorious Home of Mother Bey . . . such as it is."
Hakiem could not have been more stunned if she had suddenly struck
him.
"Ambassador? Me?"
"That's right." Shupansea grinned, abandoning her attempt at dignity.
She was obviously delighted at her confidant's obvious surprise. "The
appointment papers were just signed, and I raced the rumors through the
palace so I could be the first to tell you.'*
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