The Greatest Gift by Adrian Halpert [sci-fi]

The Greatest Gift by Adrian Halpert

“How did you survive the attack? The Remenka usually kill everyone.” The Regional Commander sat across from Kasan in a small conference room, his skeptical glare as cold as the metal table between them. Kasan’s wife, Reila, was on a chair beside him, translating the conversation.

Kasan avoided the glare by looking up at a large map on the grey wall behind the Commander. Towns were marked with yellow dots and were scattered, tiny bastions of civilization, across the vast, icy northern wasteland. Black lines, representing the poorly maintained highways, connected them in a delicate web. The Remenka prowled the tundra, preying on the convoys that occasionally traversed the huge, lonely distances between the towns.

Trees were almost nonexistent in this part of the world and wood was a valuable commodity. For several years, Kasan had believed that the profit from trade was worth the risk the Remenka posed. The viciousness of their attack on this trade mission had convinced him otherwise.

“We’re traders and have no fight with the Remenka. They’re also just as bereft of wood as you. When I promised to trade with them, they were happy to let us go on our way unharmed.” Kasan turned to Reila, who had moved to the edge of her chair as she translated. She was immensely talented, and her skill with languages had been crucial in making his trading enterprises a success. He gave her a smile she didn’t return as she finished translating.

“And they didn’t question why you wanted to come to our town first? They’d know we’d organize an expedition against them as soon as we found out about the attack.” The skepticism remained frozen on the Commander’s face as he spoke.

Reila turned her gaze to a blank part of the wall as she translated, as if bored or distracted.

“I told them it was for supplies. We’re quite far from home.” Kasan looked back at the Commander.

The Commander’s skeptical glare broke into a reserved smirk. “Reasonable I suppose…they’re not the brightest.”

“They were smart enough to avoid damaging my merchandise so they could run off with all of it.” With practiced ease, Kasan managed to check his anger and keep his voice neutral.

Kasan didn’t need Reila to understand the fury that exploded onto the commander’s face as he responded. “All at the cost of the lives of a dozen good soldiers. Were you as worried about them as you were about your precious merchandise?”

Kasan saw the brief flicker of a smile touch Reila’s lips as she continued to translate and he bowed his head in regret. “I apologize. I’m a merchant, not a soldier. I plan to make a generous donation to their families…”

The Commander scoffed. “Maybe you should learn to be soldiers so we wouldn’t have to protect you whenever you come up here. You’re lucky our own merchants are so eager to do business with you.” The Commander gestured toward the door, as if wanting to throw them out. “You’re free to go.”

Kasan stood up and gave a slight bow. “Thank you, Commander.”

He took Reila’s hand as she stood up and smiled as he glanced at her shimmering brown eyes. As they left the room and started down the empty corridor, he promised himself that this would be their last trip up here. He wasn’t willing to risk her life for another trade venture. No amount of profit could ever equal the gift she had been to him.

***

Reila’s gaze danced among the lights that glimmered above the bustle of the town’s market as she made her way through the crowds. The buzz of hundreds of voices engaged in barter or socializing, the colorful lights and cornucopia of merchandise seemed a distant world from the perpetual winter and brutal warfare that existed outside the town.

Her thoughts drifted back to when the Remenka had emerged from the sea of snow like specters and descended upon the convoy. After slaughtering the armed guard, they found Kasan and Reila huddled in the remains of an armored car. Kasan, unarmed save for a levelheadedness she couldn’t imagine having under the circumstances, jumped in front of her and tried to bargain for their lives. She knew that the crucial few moments he had bought had saved them. A Remenka shaman had soon appeared and instantly recognized what she was. It was then that her husband had been able to negotiate their freedom.

She was jolted from her thoughts when she saw the Remenka shaman, dressed like a local, drifting through the crowd toward her. She felt a surge of fear and ducked into a booth selling glassware and pretended to browse. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Remenka shaman walk up to the neighboring stall and look over the printed cloths. A moment later, she felt his mind touch hers.

She concentrated on recalling as many convoy dates and as much cargo information as she had seen in the commander’s mind when he had interrogated Kasan and herself. She then opened her mind to allow the shaman to see what she had seen. It meant little to her, but within moments, she had the sense that the shaman was satisfied.

“I’ll see to it you have safe passage home.” His thought was the last thing to touch her mind before she felt his presence dissipate.

Reila felt her body relax when she was certain the shaman was gone and turned her attention to admiring the glasswork of the artisan. When she had initially discovered that she was able to see into the minds of others, she had believed that she was a monstrosity. Kasan’s acceptance and love had been the greatest gift she could have asked for as she tried to come to terms with her ability.

She decided to barter for an elaborate glass sculpture of an anthropomorphized sun. It would be a present for her husband, whose skill in bargaining and negotiation had not only brought them a measure of prosperity back home, but this time had saved their lives. After the exchange, Reila took the sculpture and began to walk back through the market. As she walked, she reflected that no object, no matter how pretty or valuable, could ever equal the gift he had been to her.

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