LeBlanc cursed herself for her foolishness. She had let herself fall prey to the common fantasy of returning to a time of her life which now existed only in a sepia retrospect. She had sprawled on her heart-shaped bed and dreamed of rebuilding a relationship which had never really been more than a coming-together of a few children equally scorned by most of their age group. What she had remembered as a daring quartet of adventurers was no more that a rag-tag crew of outsiders, inventing their own world and trying to inhabit it. She had learned the impossibility of catching a dream in even the finest net.
Impatiently, she sprang up and began pacing the over-crowded bed room, kicking aside garments tried and discarded, tangling her bare feet in sashes and ribbons. She stood for a while and looked into the tall case which stood empty opposite the bed. The wild thought of kidnapping her selected prey and locking him in the container flashed into her mind and was rejected only reluctantly.
Then, like the practical woman she had made of herself, she pulled up the reins of her rebellious mind and started to dress. He would be here soon and she was resolved to play her ace this time. It would be the fourth time they had met this year, the fourth time she had twitched the bait of historical spheres and he had obediently come to her hand. His tentative and uncertain memory of her as Talya lessened each time and she was growing impatient with her progress. Hand-kissing was as far as physical contact had advanced; she would have welcomed a hearty slap on the back or any other acknowledgement that they shared something, anything, worth sharing.
He obviously did not recognize her. How could he, she admonished herself? She had changed in so many ways, in both appearance and behavior. The more he saw of her as the woman she was now, the less likely he was to connect it to the girl she had been in their past. If she wanted him to know who she was, she would have to come right out and tell him.
The sound of his voice from the floor below momentarily unnerved her. What would he say when she finally told him? His temper had never been particularly sweet and this was the sort of thing that used to set it blazing. He hated to be played for the fool. She fanned herself vigorously for a few minutes and, steeling her courage, started down the stairs.
As was the usual pattern, Nooj was waiting in the reception room. He never relaxed and helped himself to the refreshments kept spread out there, never seemed even to notice the hospitality offered by the housemen. Maybe she should try female attendants? No. She wanted no competition. It would be her or nobody. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door.
"Meyvn! How good to see you." That was not what she had intended to say. She had meant to use the pet name from their childhood. Well, she had missed her chance this time.
He moved to her and took the hand she held out, bending over it and placing a light formal kiss on the smooth skin. "Lady LeBlanc. It is kind of you to make time receive me." He looked up at her and smiled. She noticed it was a sort of falsely ingratiating expression. The sphere collecting must be going badly if he thought it necessary to butter her up like that.
It might have been all the practice she had been doing in her room with the door closed in front of the full-length mirror. It might have been her impatience with herself for her cowardice. It might have been the sudden understanding that she had him at a disadvantage and could act as she chose. Whatever it was, she said it. "Oh Noojie-Woojie, I can always find time to visit with you." With that, she flicked her fan wide and simpered behind it.
LeBlanc felt as though she had been extracted from her body and was watching an exceptionally sharply focused sphere recording. Her heart beat so fiercely she thought she might faint as she saw the color flooding Nooj's face, turning it as scarlet as his shirt and then receding with the suddenness that often precedes a tsunami. She recalled he always went ashen when upset but she had never seen him so pale as he was at this moment. Her fear of fainting transferred to him. Everything was happening so slowly. He looked at her and his mouth dropped open; his eyes widened behind the lens of the spectacles. Sound ceased in the room. Paralysis froze the scene.
Then sensation surged back with such a rush that she nearly fell before the onslaught.
"Wha...what did you call me?" His voice was raspy, choked as though the throat through which it must emerge had grown narrow and dusty.
She could not speak.
"Who are you?" Nooj reached out his left hand and tore away the fan, snarling into the face now revealed in its entirety. "She was brown haired and brave and honest. How do you know her?"
LeBlanc finally managed to whisper, "I'm Talya, just grown up. I'm Talya."
"No. You're not Talya. She would never have done such a dishonest thing. Have you killed her? If you have, your life is forfeit and you won't last another hour." He gripped her upper arm until she could feel his fingers grating against the bone.
"I'm Talya. You left me and I wanted to find you. That's all I've done." She heard herself whining and wished she could stop. This was not the way it was supposed to happen. He should be happy to see her - at worst, a little annoyed that she had fooled him. He was not supposed to be this coldly furious man who could kill her with a flick of the hand.
"Please, Nooj. Let me explain. You're hurting me." She whimpered.
With a sneer of disgust, he released her and folded his arms, the cane ominously poised. "Tell me about Talya. If you can."
LeBlanc sank onto the couch and caught her breath. "I am Talya. When you didn't come back home to Kilika, I decided to come to the mainland to find you. Talya as she was didn't fit, so I changed her to give her a better chance."
"You were looking for me? Why?"
"Because you're important to me, you ought to know that." She let a tint of hope creep into her voice.
"If you are, indeed, Talya - tell me who our companions were." He was implacable.
"There was Aquil, the laughing one, and Langt who became a priest. And me, I was the tom-boy who bandaged you when the guard shot you." She spoke with quiet certainty.
Nooj lowered himself limply into the chair behind him. "So you are Talya. Well, now that you've found me, are you satisfied? What do you plan to do now?"
"I don't know. I don't know what I expected when we met again. I guess I thought you would know me. I knew you."
"Ah, but I have not changed as much. Or maybe I have. I don't suppose you expected me to be missing so many of the parts I had when we were kids."
"I heard you had been hurt. Didn't know how much. And you have changed, as much as I have, just in different directions. Noogie, is there anything left for us?" She leaned forward and reached out as though to touch him, then drew back when she saw his expression.
"Don't call me that! I don't like it."
"You can't stop me. It's all I have left of the boy I knew and ..."
He held up a palm to quiet her. "Stay away from memories. They're dead, like the people who inhabit them. I am not Nooj the Adventurer; I am Nooj, the Deathseeker. You are not Talya; you are the Lady LeBlanc. We don't have any memories in common."
"So it's true. You are looking to die. I hoped that was just part of the stories about you. Why?" She gazed intently into his eyes.
"It's too long to tell and not your affair. Do you have a sphere for me or was that just another trick of yours?"
She rose tiredly. "It was not a trick. I have a sphere for you. A good one this time. It shows someone using that queer machine in the first one I found for you. Don't worry, I plan keep my word and pass along any historical records I find. You don't have to run away from me again." LeBlanc pushed the bell on the wall to summon Ormi.
Nooj raked her with a glance. "I do not run away from anything. You may remember that."
"You just assured me we have no memories to share so how can I know that?" She took the sphere from the turtle-shaped houseman and passed it to Nooj. "I'll send word when I have more."
"Spira and I are both appreciative of your generosity, Lady LeBlanc." He bowed and was gone.
"Ormi, please send for my masseur. I need to rest and make new plans." The woman trudged up the stairs, more dependent on the hand-rail than was her custom.