The Embrace of the Four-Armed Houri
by Danielle L. Parker
|part 1 of 4|
Jim Blunt, Captain of the starship Pig’s Eye, earns a living the hard way at the raw edge of human space. Caught between Earth’s long arm and the unwelcome attentions of humanity’s alien rivals, the Asp, the captain sometimes finds himself in more trouble than even an outlaw trader can handle.
Yellow rain slashed like driven nails. Jim Blunt, his six-foot-plus frame bowed beneath the buffet of the relentless wind, flinched at a massive discharge of lightning. The cracking carillon in its wake pained his eardrums.
But at least the gaudy display served a purpose. Now he glimpsed the hulking stone mass of the terminal ahead. Shielding his face from the foul-smelling torrent with an uplifted arm, he bolted for its shelter.
His outstretched hand fetched up against a cold, slime-encrusted stone surface. He fumbled blindly at an old-fashioned iron handle and pushed the door open. A welcome glow lay inside.
“Shut it, mate,” a nasal Australian twang commanded. “It’s bloody hell outside. As usual!”
Blunt did not need to obey. The wind sucked the door shut with a crack like a gunshot. Wiping his burning eyes with his streaming sleeve, he gasped, “That’s acid!”
“Sulphur,” the twanging voice agreed. A long-limbed man unfolded from a chair set by the fireplace. Blunt, blinking, saw the lanky form was encased in incongruous garb-tights and a stiff tabard over a long-sleeved tunic. The tabard was decorated with an ornate shield. A flaming mountain was worked into the center. The angular face above was a spaceman’s seamed visage, but its tan had faded to an unhealthy yellow.
“Lucky you’ve got solid tripartic plating on that shuttle of yours, mate,” the man continued. “Step up to the fire. You look like a wet cat.”
Blunt stretched out his hands to the flames. The glance he turned on the other man held wariness.
“How’d you know what kind of skin I have on my shuttle? And who are you?”
“Rod Blair, customs agent,” the Australian replied crisply, thrusting out his hand in welcome. “Who’d you expect to meet, Himself in the flesh? As for how I knew...” Courtesies complete, Blair re-settled in his chair. “They do things a little differently around here, mate. Your shuttle has been thoroughly conned. He doesn’t like sloppy work.” The Aussie’s face grew long and mournful.
“You’re working for the natives?”
A flicker of emotion fled across the Australian’s bony face.
“Aye,” he answered. “Me, an Earthman — that’s what you mean, isn’t it? A spaceman, grounded? Well, it’s none of your damn business! And if you take my advice, you’ll stick strictly to business while you’re here. Safest world you can visit on the Rim if you do. There’s no crime here!” Blair’s wide, thin lips twisted on a bitter taste.
“And if you don’t stay clean,” he continued, “you’ll wish you were blowing your guts into hard vacuum. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Now! You’re not our usual pilot for the annual shipment. What happened to old Detmos?”
A gleam came into Blunt’s eye. “He played a bad hand of cards.”
Blair raised a skeptical brow. “Suppose it’s none of my bloody business at that. Your authorization checks out as legit. Good enough.” He got to his feet and, after rifling through the neat stack of papers on the table, handed Blunt a small parcel. “Chit in there, signed by the mayor, no less. It should cover all your local expenditures. You’ve got three days to conclude your affairs and depart. Don’t linger, don’t ask questions, and keep your nose bugger-free. Otherwise...” Another grimace twisted the man’s face. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
But Blair avoided his stare.
“The Argos is where old Detmos used to stay,” the customs agent said. “It’s as good a place as any. Mayor likes to eat there, so should make it easy for your business. Look for a sign with a white spaceship painted on it.” He crossed the room. “Through this door. You’ll find it easy enough if you keep your hand on the fence. Good luck, Captain Blunt.”
The howl of the wind as Blair opened the door terminated any chance for further questions. Blunt, shrugging his powerful shoulders, ventured into the furious torrent once more.
The aforementioned fence, although he could scarcely make it out through slitted and tearing eyes, proved a chest-high stone wall, pitted and etched by centuries of acidic rains. Blunt, shielding his face in the crook of his arm, pushed into the storm with its guidance.
After minutes of struggle, he reached a break in the wall, without a hint as to which direction he should turn. Where was the damned town? If he ventured forth without the slender protection of the wall, he might never find it.
Growling a curse that even he could not hear in the storm, he stretched his hand, searching for the continuation of his stony guide.
But his hand, groping forward, met something else, something fleshly and warm and soft. He thrilled to recognize it. A woman! What he had filled his cupped palm most satisfactorily. Perhaps he heard a cry, but it was torn on the storm. Tightening his grip on more manageable female anatomy, he drew his struggling prey inexorably toward him.
“I’m lost!” he bawled into the ebony hair tangled around him like a living cloak. “Lost!”
The heart-shaped face pressed to his chest turned up. The girl raised a slender arm clad in a wet blue cloth and pointed into the darkness. Her words, whatever they were, were torn from her lips.
Those lips were red and sweetly bee-stung. Focusing his stinging eyes on them with hunger, Blunt bent closer. Her breath was scented with clove.
“Help me,” he said.
The girl seized his hand and pulled in reply. Blunt offered no resistance. Wherever she was going, he wanted to follow. It has been — how long? — since he had seen any woman without the raddled face of a port whore. He knew women who, like himself, frequented the thinly-explored star lanes of the Rim, etching the same hard-won living on a dangerous frontier. But they were few. The bitter cost of their survival showed in their seamed brown faces and unfriendly eyes. She... she was young, and beautiful! That much he knew by the hot thrill of his veins.
The girl towed him without hesitation, as if the acidic rain and sulfurous wind bothered her not at all. Blunt gave up trying to discern their direction and merely shielded his face as best as he could. Suddenly his feet struck a threshold; warm light poured forth. The girl released his hand. Blunt groped forward. He glimpsed her, shutting the door behind them.
In the sweet peace that fell, he smelled the rich scent of stew simmering in the crockery pot upon the hearth and heard the comforting, gentle crackle of an open fire.
“Take this for your eyes.”
Her hand placed a cloth dampened with a fresh scented liquid in his fingers. Blunt wiped his eyes. Immediately, he felt relief.
The girl moved away from him and took off her wet blue cloak. Lifting his head, he met her defiant glance.
“You thought I was human!”
In all aspects but one, she could have passed for the beautiful young woman he had supposed her. Four slender arms were revealed as she hung her cloak upon a hook. Her face was more heart-shaped than the human norm. Her knee-length, shining black hair sprang thickly from an indention in her forehead. Her large dark eyes, lustrous as velvet, were lidded with a second membrane he glimpsed as she blinked. Its tissue-thin cover protected her vision from the rain. She was maidenly slender. Her breasts were small, and her hips merely hinted at roundness.
Only the double sets of arms truly betrayed her mixed ancestry. These were thinner than any normal human limb, and there was something of the insect in their inhuman dexterity.
Blunt leaned against the door with his arms crossed upon his chest. His blue eyes glinted beneath his lids.
“Yes,” he replied simply. “I did.”
The girl moved toward the pot on the fire and took up a long spoon to stir its contents.
“I’m a mule,” she hissed over her proudly straight shoulder. “That’s what you Earthmen call us, isn’t it? Mules! So you’d better go — wherever you were going. I suppose you were trying to find the inn. There’s a rope outside. We string them to guide us when the storms come. If you keep your left hand on it all the way, it will take you directly to the inn.”
Blunt said nothing for a moment. Then he straightened, took off his wet vest, and shook the rain out of it. He hung it on a hook next to her cloak.
“That stew smells good,” he said. “I’ll pay you for a meal, if you have enough for two. And I’ll stock your firewood, if you like. You must burn a lot of it in this weather.”
The girl looked up from where she knelt with the spoon still in her hand. Her eyes were wide and startled.
“Y... yes,” she said. “I use a lot of wood. I could use someone to... to... that... that chair. You can sit there if you like.”
Blunt hung his vest on the back of the indicated chair. Its wooden frame was small for his frame, but he settled his damp boots on the fireplace fender without complaint. His footwear steamed. He leaned forward to take the bowl the girl proffered.
“Do you have bread? Biscuits?”
“Yes,” she whispered, and hung her head so the black hair hid her face. Her double hands suddenly trembled upon her knees.
Then she got up abruptly, with another defiant toss of her head, and went to the table to uncover a cloth-wrapped half loaf of bread.
Her home was just a room, built of white-chinked walls of permacrate scrap. It was open to the roof. A plank platform spanning several rafters stored food supplies in crocks and jars. A narrow bed with a colorful, hand-worked coverlet was separated from the main room by a lace curtain, now hooked back. Its bedside table held a blue-flowered china basin and pitcher of water. The two wooden chairs by the fire, the round table with wooden bowl filled with fruit, and a handmade shelf holding neatly folded clothing and sundries completed the simple furnishings. Yet everything was clean and polished.
The girl put a slice of dark bread in his hands. Blunt set bowl and bread aside to await his hostess. She served herself with a hand that shook slightly and retreated to her chair. The second pair of her thin fingers plucked restlessly at her skirts, but she did not seem to be aware.
“My name’s Jim Blunt. You can call me Jim. I’m from Tennessee, if that means anything to you. That’s on Earth.”
“A...Anya,” she whispered.
Jim Blunt nodded and took up his bowl and spoon. The stew was unfamiliar but delicious, the bread was rich and chewy, like the rye he remembered his grandmother baking. They ate in a long and somewhat tense silence.
“That was good,” he said at last. “I haven’t had home cooking for more years than I like to think of.”
The girl dropped her spoon with a clatter and clasped one set of hands to her chest.
“You... you won’t hurt me, will you?” she burst out.
Jim Blunt considered the question seriously. “I’m going to make love to you,” he said. “So I can’t promise that. Men hurt women a little, I suppose. We can’t help it.”
His eyes fell upon her with a considering gleam. “You knew what you wanted when you brought me here. Are you afraid to go through with it now?”
The girl wrung her upper set of hands, while the second pair pinched her skirt with anxious fingers.
“No. No, I don’t think so.”
“Good.” Blunt put his empty bowl on the hearth. “But if you are, you can ask me to leave now, and I’ll go. But later, I won’t.”
“You don’t know why,” she whispered. “You don’t understand why I... tomorrow is my wedding day.”
The captain raised one blonde brow. “I don’t cuckold other men. But that’s tomorrow, isn’t it?”
The girl hung her head and put both sets of hands to her face as she nodded.
Blunt rose to his feet. “Don’t cry,” he said in a suddenly husky voice. “You’re lonely. Just as I’m lonely. It won’t be a happy marriage, will it? I know what you want: the same thing I want. There’s no crime in comfort. If there’s a sin, I’ve done worse already.”
“I shouldn’t do this,” she said, weeping into her hands. “You don’t know. You don’t know. Yes. When I saw you, I wanted... before—”
The man pulled her upper hands away from her face as he knelt beside her. She looked up with tear-wet eyes. “You were beautiful,” she whispered. “I thought you were beautiful.”
“You are beautiful.” His tanned face was taunt and intent. “But it wouldn’t really matter if you weren’t.”
Her cold hands fluttered in his as silence stretched. At last they lay calm.
“That bed’s too small for me.”
She pulled her hands from his slowly. “Yes. I’ll get the blankets now.”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker