[This story is a sequel to “A Walk in the Mountains” in REALMS OF DARKOVER and “Believing” in MASQUES OF DARKOVER. “Shadow Thief,” however, can be read on its own.]

Shadow Thief
by Leslie Roy Carter and Margaret L. Carter

Eddard held open the door and bowed his superior officer through. The tavern was a favorite hangout for the Thendara City Guard older cadre. Only a few turned to watch the pair of them enter. The guardsmen lost interest on recognizing David and Eddard, since the two dropped in regularly. David made his way to their table in the corner near the fireplace, while Eddard walked to the bar and negotiated for their usual fare. Captain Mikhail Leynier stood to greet David.

“You’re not smiling, David. Is something wrong?”

“I’m not sure if we have a problem or not. Scout Eddard thinks we might have an issue to discuss. I don’t suppose he has mentioned anything to you about the thefts on the base?”

Mikhail looked toward the young scout, who approached balancing three drinks. Mikhail shifted into the corner to clear room for Eddard, pulling David into a seat next to him against the back wall. “No, my cousin twice removed has not been speaking to me recently since you have captured his every hour of late. We haven’t seen each other since last month when you brought him here for our cultural rehabilitation session.”

David rescued a tottering, full mug from his assistant and sat down. He grinned at Mikhail, waving the mug at Eddard, and said, “We aren’t making much progress turning him away from your back-country way of thinking, but you are making some inroads with mine. Every time I come here I learn something.”

“As do I, David. Congratulations on your promotion to Captain. What did you do to earn it?”

David delayed his answer while taking a long pull from his beer. Setting the near-empty mug down, he motioned Eddard to return to the crowded bar for a refill. Watching him dash away, David said, “Umm, can’t talk about it. Let’s say my superiors were quite pleased with my efforts of late. Eddard was a real help to me, but that is a story to be told later.”

The Guard Captain chugged his beer and pushed the mug aside next to David’s empty one. “Plying me with drink is not your usual style, David. Has our meeting turned from one among friends to one of interplanetary diplomacy? I would guess not, because I’m in uniform – you and my cousin are not.”

“No, no – it’s all off the record. I admit that it is a matter that could become an issue between our security people and your Guard, but I don’t want to drag any of our bosses into this just yet. I am seeking information that I can’t get from a data bank.”

“Ah, the type of knowledge that is gleaned from old wives’ tales, stories around the campfire, rumors, or snitches? I would think you thought better of me than that.”

“I know you well enough to say you are a straight shooter, well grounded in the scientific mind-set, and not one to glibly pass on explanations of things beyond your ken.” David took a shallow sip of his beer, watching Mikhail’s eyes narrowing. “Not exactly activity in the real world that cannot be explained by fact or proven by scientific theory.”

Mikhail looked over at Eddard, who was absorbed with gauging the level of the drink left in his glass, avoiding eye contact with the two of them. “Cousin, you studied at Nevarsin; what is he going to ask me?”

“Sir,” Eddard replied in casta, putting his drink down nervously, “he is getting reports of strange things happening in the bazaar on base, the one the Council has allowed to operate based on our agreement.”

“The one where they control the pricing on Darkovan products, using Darkovan contract employees to service customers without the option of making a profit on the exchange.”

“Yes, sir. They call it Exchange,” Eddard answered with a lopsided grin. “It is available only to service personnel attached to the base. The tourists have to shop off base.”

Mikhail frowned. “Do you use it, Cousin?”

Eddard looked over at his Terran supervisor before answering. Lowering his voice, he said, “No, sir! Their prices are nearly twice what I pay at home.” The Scout captain pretended he hadn’t heard, taking a long swig from his mug. David’s understanding of the Darkovan aristocrats’ language had much improved since his first arrival.

Switching back to standard, Mikhail turned to David and asked, “So, events of abnormal activity are occurring at your ‘Exchange.’ Why would the Guard become involved if these activities are not connected with any Darkovans – other than the contract employees you have hired?”

David glanced around to see if anyone might be showing too much interest in their conversation. “The Exchange is in our main administration complex, which keeps tight control over personnel going in or out. Internal Security is responsible for safeguarding these areas – they are a different organization from the one I work for.”

“I know, your section is responsible for protecting your people from my people. They also protect your leaders from people like you who might get a notion of taking control. It is not unheard of from the facts we know of Terran history – facts you yourself have told us.”

David grimaced. “I know I once told you why the Marines were put on our planet-based ships to prevent mutinies, but that doesn’t quite apply to our present situation. Look, Internal Security asked External Security for help because they believe what is behind these strange activities might be related to something outside our knowledge base.”

“Really, David! Are you talking things paranormal, like ghosts?”

“Come to my office tomorrow. I’ll show you the ghost we caught on video.”

#
Mikhail had visited David’s office only a few times over the years he had known him. It was located in the barracks adjacent to the flyer airfield and surrounded by support facilities for keeping the array of ground craft and air vehicles in operation. The Terrans respected the Contract with the Darkovans and stationed very few flyers at Thendara base. Mikhail knew the Terrans kept a much larger force on one of the four moons that orbited Cottman IV. Their purpose was never openly mentioned beyond the Council walls. On the other hand, the ones located on the base were for emergency response, i.e., Search and Rescue. Mikhail had ridden a flyer only once, when they had rescued Eddard from the blizzard near Nevarsin. There were none outside their hangars and very few personnel presently walking around. Mikhail followed David into the two-storied building that held the Captain’s quarters.

David walked over to the desk console and touched a button. On the wall above the desk an image appeared. It displayed a picture of a room with counters laid out either side of a center aisle with a woman standing behind one counter, reaching into the back of the display glass as if pulling something out. The person, dressed in Darkovan clothing, had a puzzled smile on her face. Mikhail took a moment to adjust his eyes to the scene in front of him. “I never can get used to these images. They are so lifelike, as if I was actually standing in that room with her. Everything is, how does one say it? Clear, exact, focused – not like a painting at all.”

“It is not a painting, Mikhail. I will set it in motion momentarily, but I want you to see if anything in this picture seems – wrong.”

Mikhail studied the image. The room displayed was foreign to him and all wrong, but that was to be expected. Terran architecture was not made to please the eye. The space was too orderly, rigid in its angles, too efficient. It did not look “lived in,” did not invite you to see anything but the merchandise on display. The room did not welcome you the way a Darkovan shop would. The lighting was too harsh, not natural for his eyes, used to the red sun of his world. Too white. He squinted a little and tried to ignore the strangeness and see the “something” David wanted him to see. “No. Nothing unusual, David, except the woman looks like she was reaching for something and there is nothing there.”

“Good catch, Captain. She was, and it isn’t.” David pointed at the woman’s hand. “She was going to pick up a copper bowl to polish it – notice the cloth in her other hand.”

“Yes, I see it now. She is leaning on the counter top, and the cloth is protecting the glass from her leaving fingerprints.”

David manipulated the control on the keyboard, and the picture began to move. “This is in slow motion, Mikhail. Watch carefully.”

The woman withdrew her hand from under the glass counter and turned it toward her face. Mikhail saw her mouth something in alarm. A shadow blurred away from the counter top and streaked to the far corner of the room. Mikhail’s eyes followed its passage and saw it contract into an outline that appeared for a moment like a small human form. The shape misted into nothingness for a second, then flickered into a figure crouching down toward the floor, before being lost from view entirely.

“There is our ghost! Did you see it?” David pointed at the blank corner. Before Mikhail could answer, the image before him repeated itself, over and over again.

“I saw something flash across your screen, and I thought I saw it disappear, but I can’t be sure where it went. Can you slow the image down more, David? It all happened too fast.”

“I tried, but no. Not even our techs could do any better. Our camera at least caught an image; the attendant didn’t see or hear anything. Watch her hand.”

The woman flexed her fingers, then reached back into the display case to grope around the area where the bowl had lain. Her pointer finger rested on the cloth the bowl had been lying on, then moved over to another bowl sitting next to the cloth. She picked up that bowl and brought it out to be polished, shaking her head in wonder.

David stopped the moving image at that point. “She went on with her polishing. At the end of the day, when she was off shift, an inventory of the bowls on display found one missing. Of course, it was reported. A search was made, but it was not found. There is no way she could have removed it from the Exchange. The metal detectors would have picked it up immediately. She is quite distraught that she could be blamed for the theft. Maria is one of our oldest and most trustworthy employees. She insists that the bowl was found missing after her shift was over.”

“I assume you have ‘examined’ her with your machines to see if she is telling the truth.”

“Umm, her reaction to the questioning left no doubt as to her innocence. The bowl was of significant value to one of us, based on the artistic etchings in the metal, but the fact that it was pure copper made it by weight almost invaluable to a Darkovan. We watch these things very carefully. Maria knows this, having worked here for many years. She acknowledged the lapse in memory but thought it was because of her being distracted by the noise at the entrance of the store.”

“What noise?” Mikhail asked.

“A customer tripped and almost fell coming through the front entrance. The man yelled something like ‘Hey, watch it. Don’t push,’ then looked around in confusion as nobody was behind him.”

The Guard captain rubbed his jaw. “Your ghost must have entered at that moment, but why didn’t the customer see it? That thief is awfully fast, and apparent small in stature, but I would have bet the man should have seen something.”

David shook his head. “I questioned him later. He swore that he hadn’t seen anybody. In fact, he claimed he had not yelled anything but a surprised yelp at his own clumsiness.”

“Is this all of the moving images you have of your ghost?” Mikhail asked.

“Yes. We have had several more reported incidents of personnel ‘missing’ things but have had no luck proving a theft had occurred. Most of the disappearing objects have been ordinary tools gone from tool cribs or left unattended for extended periods of time and not where the user expected to find them.”

Mikhail looked over at his young cousin. “Most of these objects are metal?”

Eddard nodded. “And they are easily concealed, but big enough for our metal detectors anywhere on base to set off an alarm – hasn’t happened anywhere on base. I’m wondering, sir, could this be the work of a kyrri?”

Frowning, Mikhail looked at David to see if the Darkover species drew any sign of recognition from him. The expression on David’s face proved that it had. It would have been surprising if David, as the officer-in-charge of Terra’s Search and Rescue department, had not studied Cottman IV’s life forms. Mikhail asked David. “What do you know of kyrri?”

“A humanoid species that appears to be indigenous to this planet, with a sub-human culture that has evolved beyond simple tool usage. Until recently Terrans thought them speechless – we now know they have a form of psionic communication. That’s how your people learned the kyrri were intelligent enough to be trained in simple tasks. They use them as servants in your ‘Towers.’”

“Not quite an accurate description of the kyrri, but as I suspect, David, it is how you Terrans think of them. I’m curious. You just said, ‘…until recently.’ When have you been to a tower and seen a kyrri?”

David ran a hand through his brush cut and shrugged. “That’s part of the long story to be told later. We observed one in the wild. He led us to a village that helped us a lot. They are more intelligent than we thought.”

“And this observed behavior convinced you that one of the People could be your ghost?” Mikhail directed the question to David but watched his cousin’s face for a reaction to the answer. Eddard looked at the floor.

David hemmed and hawed. “Well, you know. It seems like, how did you call them, the ‘People’ – yes, that’s it – the ‘People’ used laran to talk, and so it follows, they could use psionics like your tower-people…”

“Stop right there, Captain! The kyrri cannot use laran. If someone told you they can, they have fed you misinformation.” Mikhail watched Eddard shaking his head. “Is it in your ‘databanks’ that they can do this?”

David shook his head, too.

“Then the answer is, no. A kyrri is not your ghost. You cannot blame this on a simple animal like one of your Terran ‘raccoons’ that pilfers shiny things to take home to his nest.”

Looking decidedly unhappy, David said, “Which then leads me to conclude it must be a tower-dweller that is doing these thefts.”

“Zandru’s hell, that is even more ridiculous,” the guard Captain exclaimed. “It goes against everything our leroni believe in. No tower-trained sorcerer could ever hope to conceal such a theft from a keeper, let along from a fellow leronis. No knowledge can be gained from stealing trinkets and tools from you Terrans, certainly no monetary reward. It is beyond …”

“You said, ‘tower-trained sorcerer,’ Mikhail. Are there no Darkovans with laran running around loose? Scout Eddard said something about being tested for it – couldn’t someone have slipped through untested?”
Stricken at having his name brought into the conversation by his superior, Eddard blurted out, “Cousin, we have our own tales of rogue leroni…”

Putting a hand on his cousin’s arm, Mikhail stopped the outburst. “I’m sure there are a lot of tales of heroic, and non-heroic, exploits of leroni who have left the cloistered confines of a tower to seek adventure and fame. But there are many, many more tales of Darkovans who died of threshold sickness. We test for laran because without training it may kill those who show signs of its development.” Looking at David, he continued. “An untrained telepath is a danger to himself and to others. Could one have escaped notice? Not likely, but for the sake of your argument, say it is true. What do you want from us?”

“A leronis to catch a thief,” David answered grimly.

#
Istvanna stared down at the small boy dressed in Darkovan street urchin clothing splayed face up on the stretcher in David’s office. “Is he dead?” She glared at the Guard Captain. “You asked for my help to identify a corpse? Really, Mikhail, this is beneath you.”

David stepped between his friend and the middle-aged women dressed head-to-toe in the red robes of a leronis. “He is not dead, Maestra, just stunned.”

The two Darkovan nobles simultaneously gasped out, “Stunned?”

Raising his hands in a placating gesture, David backed to the stretcher lying across his working desk. “We had no choice. This kid has some form of mind control psionics. He makes people forget seeing him. We set a trap for him in the Exchange shopping area – a stun mine set to detect the movement of metal. It was our only hope of catching the thief.”

Istvanna, fuming, said, “The use of such a weapon is forbidden on Darkover. This is unforgivable! Cousin, you must report this to the Council immediately.”

Mikhail looked at David, then back to Istvanna. “Domna, I didn’t know this was Captain Fairechild’s plan to capture the thief. If I had known, I would have counseled him to find another way, but the use of Terranan weapons on their own base is allowed.”

“Not against our people!”

“Couldn’t be helped,” David interjected. “The mine dropped two of our own who were shopping at the time. Would have taken out the Darkovan contract employee, but we replaced her with a security guard undercover.” Appealing to the leronis, he said, “Ma’am, this kid is dangerous. Mikhail told me an untrained telepath…”

“… is a danger to himself and to others. Yes, I am well aware of what my cousin told you. I see the child is breathing. I shall start my examination now.”

Istvanna approached the stretcher and extended her hands over the body, moving them over the surface and stopping briefly over the boy’s chest. Reaching past the neck opening, she pulled out a necklace thong, followed by a small, felt pouch. She dropped it into a pocket at her waist and continued her search. David motioned to Mikhail, and the two captains withdrew to the other side of the office.

“What did she find?” David asked.

“From the way Istvanna is frowning, I’m suspect it is a starstone. This could take a while, maybe …”

Istvanna turned from the unconscious body and declared, “I cannot continue my examination under these conditions. I want her removed to the Citadel immediately, but first you must nullify the sedation that is keeping her unconscious.”

David said with surprise, “Her? Wait, but… If he, she gains consciousness…”

“The threat is past. Captain Mikhail, you will take custody of our injured subject. If you encounter any opposition from the Terranan authorities I will ensure the Regent files a grievance personally with the Legate’s superiors. Am I clear on what I am asking for, Captains?”

Mikhail stiffened at her order and turned to David, an apologetic set to his face. “David, you know the agreement between our worlds gives me the power to do what she is demanding. I accept full responsibility for everyone’s safety. Please help me get the prisoner off your base and give me the drug. I won’t administer it until she is safely away from all Terrans.”

“Damn it, Mikhail, before I can do that, the Legate will have to approve the prisoner’s release, and he won’t like being threatened. This will get out of hand real fast!”

Eddard approached his arguing superiors and politely interrupted them, with a worried glance at the leronis. “Excuse me, sirs, but the only Terran who heard the domna’s ‘threat’ was Captain Fairechild. I think he misinterpreted what she said.”

Puzzled, David said, “She spoke Terran standard, how…”

“Sirs. Remember that we asked for a Darkovan healer to examine our prisoner’s condition, as he/she was not responding to being stunned as we expected. The healer told us our prisoner needed to be placed under the immediate care of Darkovan psionics experts only available at one of their towers. Captain Fairechild agreed to move the prisoner as long as he accompanied him/her to retain custody until formal turnover procedures could be worked out. That is what I think I heard.”

Mikhail and David nodded. The Scout Captain said to Eddard, “Thanks for clearing that up. Now, let’s get our prisoner the help she needs.”

#
The three men watched while the young Darkovan woman, now dressed in a plain white robe, was escorted, fuming, to the waiting carriage and handed up to disappear inside. She was followed closely by Istvanna. The carriage quickly drove out the citadel’s courtyard gate escorted by a troop of Guard cavalry and disappeared down the busy main street of the town.

The Terran Scout Captain turned to the Guard officer beside him and said, “She doesn’t look too happy about being sent to the tower here in Thendara. I thought it was a great honor to be selected to work in a tower?”

Mikhail sighed. “It is and she isn’t – working, that is. The tower is where she can be isolated from others until she learns to behave herself.”

“Sounds like our definition of a prison. We at least have a trial before we convict our citizens. Granted she is not a Terran, but …”

Mikhail cut him off. “By the treaty agreement between our worlds, we take care of our own – whether they be a drunk tourist or a vicious murderer. Your Legate accepted this punishment, and a rather large compensation for such a petty crime as it was.”

“Justice is in the eye of the beholder. I want to know why she did what she did,” David said. And how she did it. “What did you learn from interrogating her?”

“It wasn’t an interrogation, David. She was brought here to be examined by Istvanna, who happens to be the king’s house leronis. Istvanna is a distant cousin from my father’s side of the family; that is why I asked for her help.”

David looked at Eddard. “Any relation to you? Don’t answer, you’ll just confuse me.” Turning back to Mikhail, he asked. “So – what’s her story?”

“Her name is Gwennis. Her mother made a meager living as a hedge witch here in our poorest side of town. A couple of years ago the mother passed, but not before she gave the daughter the starstone. Gwennis never knew who her father was because her mother would not speak of him.”

David pointed to the young scout standing next to him. “She has six fingers like Eddard. Is she a distant relative of yours?”

Mikhail snorted. “Six fingers are not prevalent in a lot of comyn families. You know I don’t have six fingers. Most likely she is a nedestra offspring of some minor lord. We’ll probably never know.”
David shrugged. “But she does possess laran.”

“She does. Istvanna says Gwennis is as hard to handle as a feral cat. She has been told that if she shows herself willing to behave and learn at the tower, she’ll get her stone back.”

David frowned. “I don’t think we have heard the last of this story.”

#
The door to his officer whooshed open, and David looked up to find a disheveled woman dressed in a dirty, white robe staring at him with her knotted hands planted firmly on her hips. It had been over a month since he had seen her last.

“Gwennis? How…”

“You have to help me. I can’t stand to be locked up in that tower anymore.” Gwennis threw up her arms and started pacing before his desk. “They took my stone away and wouldn’t give it back unless I showed a willingness to follow their rules. When I resisted, they threatened to touch it. Do you know what that does an empath? It was horrible. It scared me to death.”

“No, no, I don’t know anything about starstones. The Darkovans haven’t let our scientists examine them, but I doubt if your healers would harm anyone with torture. Perhaps it was done as part of your training. Istvanna said that she would make sure you got the stone back when you could be trusted with it.” David slowly stood and gestured to the chair next to his desk. “You need to calm down, young lady. Sit!”

Gwennis glared at him. She doesn’t like taking orders, David thought. Maybe I’m pushing her too hard. What if she…

The agitated girl took a deep breath and calmed herself, then sat. She looked at him as if she had heard his thoughts. David knew from the literature that psionics supposedly had that skill.

“I’m calm as you asked, and sitting. You need not fear me – I promise not to hurt you. I didn’t like being stunned.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through that. You were sent to a tower because you needed training. It’s been over a month, and we haven’t heard anything from the Darkovans about your progress.”

Gwennis brushed a strand of reddish-blonde hair from her face. “After the demonstration of their power over me, I pretended to be the docile little girl they thought I should be. It wasn’t that hard. Those tower leroni think anybody in her right mind would want to become like them. Since I needed the stone to go through their training, they gave it back to me. So, I left.”

The frankness of her story worried David. It was so – well, emotionless. “How did you get past the guards and that force field that I’ve heard they have at the entrance of the tower? More importantly, how did you get past our sentries?”

Gwennis made a disdainful moue. “I didn’t bother. I climbed out my bedroom window and down the wall. They never would have thought of something that simple. As for your guards, the same way I did before. You Terrans really do believe in ghosts.”

“There’s the problem, Gwennis.” David walked back to his chair and sat. “You think only of yourself.”

Looking down at her hands, the young woman let the defiant pout slip from her face and said, “I am just trying to survive the best way I’ve been taught. I never tried to hurt anyone. My mother took away people’s memories to relieve them of the pain they were feeling – she used her power to ease suffering, not to make money.”

David felt sorry for the kid. Now he realized why the thefts were always small. With her talents, she could have made a much larger killing, but it would have brought a lot more attention to her activity. That would have led her to defend herself, and loss of life would follow close behind. “Stealing relieves nobody of anything but their money and only adds to their suffering. Locks are not made to keep thieves out, but to keep honest people honest. I am the Terran equivalent of a Guardsman, like Captain Mikhail. What do you want from me, Gwennis?”

Sitting erect in her chair, Gwennis stated forthrightly, “That Eddard boy is a Darkovan, isn’t he? He works for you. Why can’t I? There must be some use you could make of my, ahh, skills.”

David pondered. The fact that she evaded surveillance on my high security base, slipped easily through psionic barriers from her own people, and had the physical skills to climb sheer walls – yeah, I could find work for her. “Scout Eddard does not have psionic skill – the thing you call laran.”

A slight smile appeared on Gwennis’ lips. “I know.”

“That is also why I might not want you. You will have to make an attitude adjustment before I trust you not to read my mind – if you can do such a thing.”

The smile disappeared from her lips.

“Good. I just might be able to arrange something.”

#
The carriage waited near the front gate of the Terran base, its door open. Two uniformed scout security personnel marched through the gate and approached three Darkovans standing alongside the carriage.

“You understand there is no formal agreement on what you have proposed, David.”

“True, if you mean there is nothing in writing or recorded orally that constitutes a legal compact between our governments. As in the case of Eddard, the services to be rendered by Gwennis fall into that same category – paid employee with restrictions on off-world deployment. Yes, Mikhail, I’m aware all of this is dependent on a gentlemen’s agreement among all participants.”

Gwennis said barely under her breath, “I’m not one of the gentle people.”

David addressed her remark. “Not yet, you are a proven thief and a breaker-of-laws. You will have to swear under a truth spell – I believe that is the correct terminology Darkovans use – that you will not steal anymore. And you will commit yourself to getting basic training at the tower before you start your employment with us. One step away from your agreement, and you’ve lost your chance with us.”

“I will not be used by the tower people …”

Istvanna cut her off. “This Terranan is willing to have you work for him. Why? I don’t know. Probably to train you as a spy – not that it would ever work with you being watched constantly by leroni.”

Shaking his head, David said to the glowering woman, “No more than Eddard is a spy for us. You have told us that an untrained psionic is a danger to all. All we are asking is that Gwennis receive enough training to make her an acceptable member of both our communities. She has the right to refuse her services to you, as she has so stated. She can also refuse the services of her skills to us – whatever those skills are.”

Mikhail turned to Gwennis. “This agreement is based entirely on trust. I trust David to keep his word because I have worked with him and respect what he has done for Darkover. You will earn my trust if you fulfill your agreement with David on the conditions of your employment. The choice is yours, damisela.”

Gwennis nodded and stepped into the waiting carriage.