Maicee yawned as he slid into his seat in the auditorium next to Benho. He'd managed to grab a couple of hours’ sleep, and looking at his friend, he guessed that was more than Benho had had.
“You and your night-time adventures,” Benho grumbled, rubbing his tired eyes. “I'm exhausted.”
“Something tells me that that's more because of your night-time adventures than mine,” said Maicee.
But they didn't have time to argue further. The crowd of students grew quiet as a tall, silver-haired man entered onto the stage in front of them.
“Take your seats,” he said in a voice used to authority.
Professor Lock-Tmy, Dean and Medical Director of Carooine Medical Centre, surveyed his students. Some here, he knew, would go on to greatness. Others, he thought sadly, should have paid more attention to their work than to the attractions of the city's bars and women. He sighed and looked at the paper in his hand before looking again at the trainees.
“It's my pleasure to be here today to announce the results of this year's surgical examinations,” he began.
He cleared his throat, then paused slightly, letting the suspense build. In general he was a serious man, known for his extensive medical knowledge as well as for being distinctly no-nonsense. But he did like to toy with his charges at times. He waited until he was sure that every eye in the auditorium was on him before continuing.
“It is only the second time that I have been able to say this in my long career as Medical Director here. But congratulations, each and every one of you will be joining the ranks of surgeons. Every one of you passed the examinations, though some did better than others.”
As he said this, he eyed a young student in the first row who had come very close indeed to failing.
Maicee turned to Benho, his mouth wide open. He couldn't believe that he'd actually passed. He let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding and grinned at Benho, who grinned back.
“However, it is my duty to remind you that the path ahead of you is a difficult one, one that will be far harder than the life of a trainee. You would all do well to remember the words of the esteemed ...”
The Director's voice droned on in his customary graduation speech, and Maicee sat back in his seat, relieved and overjoyed. He closed his eyes in gratitude and was almost asleep when he felt Benho nudge him.
“And so it is time to announce the winner of this year's Golden Scalpel Award for excellence in surgical training,” the Director was saying.
Maicee opened his eyes and shifted his position slightly, wondering which of his classmates had won the prestigious award.
“This year's winner has shown dedication, studiousness, and courage. All of which are key traits in a surgeon. Not only that, though, he has shown that he is a true surgeon at heart. Despite making a mistake in his final exam, a potentially fatal mistake, this doctor ...”
Maicee listened with growing panic. He wasn't talking about him, was he? No, he couldn't be.
“An accidental cut to the colon can be fatal, of course ...”
My Gods. He was. Maicee felt his face redden, and Benho's hand gripped his leg.
“But with his calm, logical manner this doctor rectified his mistake, and the patient went on to live. And this, of course, is the essence of being a great surgeon. To realise that no matter what your skills, it is your patient's life that is paramount. For his attitude of perseverance, his courage and sense of duty towards his patient, I award this year's Golden Scalpel to Doctor Maicee Lavurine.”
The auditorium erupted into applause, and Maicee could feel the tears welling in his eyes as Benho manhandled him into a back-slapping hug.
“You deserve this,” Benho whispered.
But Maicee was still too shocked to say a word.
Niku stirred in her warm bed, reluctant to open her eyes. The bed was soft and sweet smelling, and despite a strange pressure in her side, she felt better than she'd felt in a long time. Her nose twitched as she caught the scent of food. Hmmm. Maybe I should wake. She was, now that she thought about it, quite hungry.
Blinking a little in the light, she opened her eyes and stretched her tiny body. Something wasn't right. What was it? Confused, she peered around her. She was obviously in somebody's home. But it wasn't any of the palace chambers that she knew. She wasn't with her princess, and she couldn't smell her princess either. She struggled to come up with answers, trying to decipher what was going on here, but her brain was just too foggy.
“Ah, you're awake,” said a voice.
Looking up, she saw a large man dressed in a simple white cotton shirt and blue trousers. His pale blue eyes glittered with laughter, and his hair was shaved down to grey stubble on his head. He looked like he'd just woken up. More than that, he looked vaguely familiar.
“Let me just wash up, and I'll get you some breakfast,” he said before wandering out of the room, his steps still groggy with sleep.
He was, Niku thought, someone she knew. And though she didn't know exactly where she was or what was happening, she had a feeling of comfort. She wasn't afraid. She just wished that she could remember what had happened to her. And more importantly, who this man was.
The ceiling fan overhead creaked as it turned, slowly stirring the humid air. Maicee shifted impatiently from one foot to the other, and Benho frowned at him. The elderly Director tapped the papers he was reading into order, put them down on his desk, and gave his attention to the two young men.
“First,” he said, “let me congratulate the two of you on your excellent examination results. As you may already know, you both tied for equal first rank in your class.”
Maicee hadn't known that and was surprised, but Benho just nodded. The Director steepled his fingers together, peering over them at the boys.
“That being said, I have an offer to make you. I would like the two of you to remain here in Carooine City as my resident surgeons.”
Benho looked about to speak, but the professor waved a hand at him.
“No, no, no hasty decisions. There's no rush. Take your time and think about it. I'll give you two weeks to come to a decision.”
Maicee wondered who on Archeonis would need two weeks to make a decision like this. Carooine Medical Centre was well known as the best surgical hospital on Archeonis. This was the offer of a lifetime. Cases were brought to Carooine from all over to take advantage of the high level of care the Centre offered, and that meant plenty of interesting operations to do. And it also meant, if Maicee was being honest, that he wouldn't have to leave the city that he loved. Before he had a chance to speak, though, the Director was dismissing them.
“Now go, enjoy your party. I shall join you all later.”
Stuttering thanks and both still amazed at what had happened, Maicee and Benho left the Director's office, practically bowing and scraping as they did so.
Niku was drooling as the man came out of the kitchen, a plate in either hand. The smell of food was making her tiny stomach rumble. The man placed the plates on the table and pulled up a chair.
“I should introduce myself,” he said with a smile. “I'm Kabi, and you, you are ... Hmmm. I seem to have forgotten your name. I'm so sorry. How rude of me.”
He looked embarrassed, and Niku snuffled a little with laughter.
“I am Niku,” she said, moving carefully to the side of the basket she had been sleeping in. “And how did you know that I spoke the human tongue?”
She swallowed down the saliva that was threatening to spill out of her mouth, her little hands grasping at the top of the basket.
“Do be careful. You've had quite a serious injury, you know,” said Kabi, leaning over and gently helping the little Chamonkey out of the basket.
With relief and watering mouth, she scampered over to the plate and began scooping up pieces of omelette with her paws, pushing the delicious food into her mouth.
“You're still as greedy as ever,” laughed Kabi, turning his attention to his own plate, but using a fork to eat rather than his hands.
Niku eyed him curiously but couldn't speak through a mouth stuffed with food.
“I heard you calling out for help in your dreams as you were unconscious,” Kabi said, slicing through a chunk of omelette. “But if memory serves me correctly, you're currently supposed to be with Princess Ausanne.”
“How did you know?” choked the creature, coughing up flakes of eggs. As soon as the man had mentioned her princess's name, everything had come together and she was, even as she ate, beginning to remember what had happened.
“Because I'm the one who gifted you to the princess on her fifth birthday,” said Kabi with a gentle smile. “You were only a baby then. I'm sure you don't even remember.”
Niku sat back on her haunches and regarded him with solemn black eyes before approximating a smile with her furry muzzle. “That explains it,” she said. “You're Prince KabiOnn. The queen's brother and the princess's uncle. I have seen your portrait.”
She went back to eating, pushing a piece of food into her mouth before remembering her manners and hastily swallowing, saying: “It's a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness.”
Kabi sighed. “KabiOnn is a name I have not heard for many moons,” he said, shaking his head. “And it would be better if you dropped the Highness. In fact, try to call me Kabi for now.” He hesitated for a moment as though he were about to plunge into his memories, but then decided against it. It had been a long time, and some things were best left unsaid. And un-thought. “Tell me, Niku,” he said, picking up his fork again. “How did you end up in a damaged escape capsule on a beach in Carooine City? And how, more to the point, do you have a data disk?”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the data disk that he'd found clutched in the creature's hand on the beach. Laying it on the table between them, he finished his meal as Niku began to explain everything that had happened.
When the Chamonkey was finished, Kabi rubbed his chin with his hand and sighed. “You bring grave news, Niku.” He looked at the little creature, her black eyes shining, and felt a swell of apprehension. “This disk doesn't contain plans for a weapon at all.” His eyes fell to his rough hands on the table. “It's something much, much worse.”
For once, the Sansoe Bar wasn't hopping with loud music or crowded beyond safe capacity. The Medical Centre had rented the entire bar for the graduation party, and it was invitation only. Benho still had his quiet table reserved for him, though, and the two men made their way over, Benho catching Sa-li's eye and gesturing for drinks on their way.
Sa-li watched the handsome young doctors speculatively. Being the barmaid at the Sansoe meant knowing everything that happened in Carooine City, often even before it happened, and she knew that they'd both been offered jobs here. She hadn't considered a long-term relationship with the charming Benho, but now that it looked like he was sticking around for a while, well, why not? She hurried to get their drinks.
“So,” said Maicee, still overwhelmed by everything that had happened. “I assume we're going to accept the offer, right?”
Benho looked brooding and shook his head a little. “The thing is, Maicee, I've sort of got a little unfinished business elsewhere,” he said.
Maicee looked at his friend and wondered. He knew both everything and nothing about Benho. He knew they were friends. He knew that Benho had lived at the Medical Centre training academy until he'd come of age and moved out of the dormitories. He knew that Benho never lacked for funds. But he knew nothing about the man's family, and Benho never offered information. Maybe that’s why we’re such good friends, he thought. Because both had their secrets, and both knew not to pry. He'd thought often of telling Benho his own secret, but every time he did so, he got that strange, tingling, dangerous feeling, and so he didn't. Now it looked like Benho might be on the verge of giving up some information.
“Anything I can help with?” Maicee asked cautiously.
“Not yet,” said Benho, shaking his head and giving his easy smile. “Maybe another time. Mind you,” he added as Sa-li put drinks down in front of them and hurried off to take another order, “I wouldn't mind seeing more of her.”
Maicee grinned. This was the Benho he knew.
“I think I might be in love with her, you know,” Benho added quietly. “But I haven't said anything. There's still this unfinished business.”
He picked up his glass and drank, and Maicee watched him. Benho, who had always been so easy going, so unruffled. But now there was a hollow look to his eyes.
“This is official business. Let me in, or I'll have your head!”
“Emperor's lackey,” spat Benho, looking at the bullying military captain trying to force his way into the bar.
“Sir, this is a private function, I'm afraid ...” Sansoe's door guard was doing a poor job of preventing the captain from entering, and an even poorer one of keeping the patrons inside the bar undisturbed. Every eye in the house was on the confrontation happening at the door.
“Bring me the owner,” the captain snarled.
The door guard looked helplessly over at the bar. A large man there, wiping his hands on a towel, stepped out and nodded at the guard.
“I'll take things from here, Little Joe,” said Sansoe, the bar's giant of an owner. “Now, sir, I do apologise for any inconvenience, but as you can see, this is a private party by invitation only, and I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave.”
The military captain raised his sword threateningly, and the crowd gasped. The men of the Emperor were renowned for their ruthlessness in the face of obstacles. But Sansoe didn't move. He stood, looming over the captain, until the man had second thoughts and lowered his sword again.
“I'm here on official business,” the man repeated sullenly. “A few days ago, there was a pirate attack on the ship of an Ambassador, killing everyone on board. Records show that an escape capsule was launched, and we've just found the remains of that capsule on the beach outside of the City. Know anything about it?”
Sansoe whistled air through his teeth. “An Ambassador, eh?” he said thoughtfully. “No, afraid I don't. We haven't seen any new faces around here since the last transport ship left a week ago.” He looked down at the captain, who had re-sheathed his sword. “Offer you a drink?”
The captain scowled. “It's official business,” he said, emphasising the word ‘official’. “And the only reason I'm in this scum-hole is because I was informed that the Medical Director is here, and I wish to speak to him. Get him for me.”
Sansoe raised an eyebrow but said nothing, simply letting his large frame block the entrance of the bar.
“Looking for me?” said the steady and distinctive voice of Professor Lock-Tmy.
The tall man squeezed through the crowd of people surrounding the door, and when he came into sight, the military captain's face paled, the blood sinking out of it in a rapid wave.
“Governor, sir.” The captain saluted smartly.
Maicee grinned to himself. Obviously the man hadn't known that the Medical Director and the Governor of Carooine, appointed by the Emperor, were one and the same person.
Lock-Tmy nodded, and the captain dropped his salute. “Are you in need of medical attention, Captain?” he asked.
“No, sir. Not at all, sir. We're looking for the survivor of a pirate attack, sir.”
The captain was beginning to ramble in the face of obvious authority, and Benho looked at Maicee with amusement.
“You see, sir, the Ambassador of Britannia's ship was attacked two days ago, and everyone on board was killed, sir. Except, sir, we didn't find the Ambassador's body, and we think that the Ambassador maybe escaped in the escape capsule we found on your beach, sir, and that maybe, well, maybe, sir, that the Ambassador was taken to your medical centre, sir, since there was signs of injury and all ...”
The Director held up a hand to stop the flood of words spilling out of the captain's mouth. The captain stumbled to a stop.
“I'm afraid we've had no new patients for the past few days,” Lock-Tmy said thoughtfully. “So I don't think I can be of much help. If you require further assistance, I should be glad to ask the local sheriff to aid you. But otherwise, as you can see, we have a celebration going on ...”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Won't trouble you any further, sir,” stuttered the captain. And with a final, shaky salute, he left the doorway.
“Continue with the celebration, please,” said Lock-Tmy, turning to the crowd.
Benho waited until conversation had restarted and the bar was humming before leaning in to Maicee, looking at him suspiciously.
“What?” said Maicee, wondering what his friend was looking at.
“You know what,” said Benho.
“No, I don't,” said Maicee, confused.
“Oh yes, you do. The Director just told that captain that we haven't had any new patients for a few days, but that's not true, is it? We've had one new patient. One that only you and I know about.”
Gods. Maicee looked at Benho in horror. He was right.
“You think ...?”
Benho nodded. “I think that they're looking for that little furry creature of yours. And I think that if you don't know what’s going on, then you'd better find out, and fast.”
Maicee jumped up from the table so quickly that he knocked his chair over. “I've got to go,” he mumbled.
“Be careful,” warned Benho, but he was talking to his friend's retreating back.
Now, he wondered, what was all that about? He looked at the half-empty glass in front of him and shrugged. Sometimes patience was its own reward. He took a drink and settled back into his comfortable chair. Whatever trouble it was that Maicee was in, he knew that he'd find out what it was sooner or later. Might as well enjoy the celebration while he could. He caught sight of Sa-li through the crowd and winked at her.
Pounding up the stairs to the apartment, Maicee waved his hand over the scanner lock, gasping deep, unrewarding breaths. The door sprang open, and as he slammed it closed behind him, he froze in astonishment at the sight of Kabi chatting amicably to the little Chamonkey at the dining room table.
“Welcome home,” said Kabi with a grin. “You look stunned. This is Niku, and this, Niku, is Maicee, the surgeon who operated on you.”
“My pleasure to meet you,” said the Chamonkey, bowing her head in appreciation. “And thank you for saving me. I hope it wasn't too much trouble.”
Maicee's mouth flapped open and closed like a beached fish until he found his voice. “You can talk?” he asked incredulously. And then he had another thought. “You're the voice I heard in my head!” The high-pitched sound was unmistakable.
Niku turned to Kabi, a look of confusion on her face.
Kabi rubbed his chin, feeling the bristles and nodding. “You heard her too, hmmm. Not surprising, though, I suppose.”
“Not surprising?” said Maicee, approaching the table. “Not surprising? I thought I was going mad! And then ... and then ...”
“And then maybe you are, because there's a talking Chamonkey with telepathic abilities sitting in your dining room talking to your guardian,” finished Kabi, laughing.
“Well ... yes,” Maicee said, exhaustedly pulling out a chair and slumping into it.
“Stop panicking,” Kabi told him. “Niku is no normal Chamonkey. She'd been genetically modified to have the ability to speak and to communicate through thought when necessary.”
Maicee frowned at this. “But, but how is that possible? The Supreme Emperor outlawed gene modification long before I was born.”
“I know my history just as well as you do, boy,” said Kabi, irritated. “And I know what was done because I'm the one who did it. I created Niku.”
“You did what?!” Maicee sat upright in his chair and stared at Kabi, horrified.
“I created Niku,” Kabi repeated patiently. “I made her about fifteen years ago now, as a present for my niece.”
“Your niece? I didn't know you had a niece,” Maicee said.
“Of course I do. Aren't you one of them?”
Maicee shook his head. What? Kabi was his uncle? Where the hell had that come from? He'd had no idea.
“Must have slipped my mind,” Kabi said, looking slightly abashed. “I'm sure I meant to tell you. Anyway, I have many relatives. Siblings, nephews, nieces ...”
Maicee stared hard at his uncle, the temperature in the room seeming to have dropped by several degrees. “You never told me,” he said coldly. “You never wanted to talk about your family, nor mine, who are apparently the same as yours. You never answered my questions, never replied though I pleaded with you. Never told me why I have to keep my secret. You, Kabi, never told me a damn thing.”
“That's not true,” Kabi said. “I made an agreement with you.”
“Which I hope you haven't forgotten,” Maicee said spitefully.
“I haven't,” said Kabi. “I haven't.”
And Maicee regretted speaking in such a fashion. Kabi might have kept things from him, but he'd taken care of him, raised him. Maybe he hadn't done the greatest job, but he'd done what he could. And he had made an agreement with Maicee, though he'd placed no time limit on when the agreement should come into effect, when Maicee could learn all he needed to know. He sighed, scrubbing his fists into his tired eyes.
“By the way,” Kabi said casually, “Niku and I will be leaving on the next available ship.”
“No!” shouted Maicee, sitting bolt upright and remembering why he'd come rushing home. “You can't. The military are here. They're searching for it ... er, her. They found the escape capsule and think the survivor was some kind of Ambassador or something.”
Niku squeaked in fright, but Kabi looked thoughtful.
“Shh, shh,” he quietened the scared Chamonkey. “They're faster than I thought. Hmm. It seems that we can't wait for the next transport ship. We shall have to find some other form of transport to get us away from Carooine.”
Maicee looked from Niku to Kabi and back again, and then tilted his head back, closing his eyes. If Kabi was serious about getting out of here, then he supposed he couldn't stop him. And maybe it was better that he left with the Chamonkey before any of them got caught. He was, Maicee realised, an accomplice in all this after operating on Niku, and having the two of them off the island would be safer for everyone. Including him.
“I think, Maicee,” said Kabi, interrupting Maicee's train of thought, “that it would be better if you came along with us.”
Maicee's eyes snapped open. “No way,” he said quickly. “I've just been offered the chance of a lifetime, a job at the Carooine Medical Centre. No way am I leaving now.”
Kabi smiled a little and patted Maicee's hand. “It's time,” he said simply. “Come with me, and I will show you your heart's desires. I will show you your family. This is all a part of your destiny, my child.” He shrugged. “It may have come sooner than I had expected, but nevertheless, you will have to face it sooner or later. It may as well be now.”
He got up from his chair and stretched, reaching for his brown cloak and swirling it around his shoulders.
“I am going to make arrangements,” he said. “I will tell you more when I return.”
And he was gone, leaving Maicee staring at the little Chamonkey and puzzling over what Kabi had just said.
“I want to know, but I want to stay here too,” moaned Maicee, putting his head in his hands.
He despaired for a moment, then looked up to see Niku crawling into her basket and curling up, ready to sleep. She'd be fine. He needed a drink. And he needed to see Benho.
Benho eyed the military captain as he stood discussing something with Sansoe at the bar. After a brief conversation, the captain nodded and left again. He checked his chronos. Maicee had been gone for a while now. And it was odd that the military captain would come back like that after being so summarily dismissed by the Medical Director-cum-Governor. Benho pondered this for a moment, then beckoned Sa-li over to his table.
The party was calming down now, the older professors having left, and some of the students much the worse for wear passed out in dark corners. Sa-li checked that there were no orders to be taken, then came over and pulled out a chair. She'd been on her feet all day, and her legs were aching.
“What was all that about?” asked Benho.
“Oh, the captain?” Sa-li said, surprised.
Sa-li shrugged. “He came back asking more questions. Wanted to know if there was any girls that had appeared around here about fifteen years ago. Seemed strange, but Sansoe couldn't help him. There's no girls around here like that, though. Everyone who came around then were boys, like you. In fact, you were one of them, weren't you?”
“Yes,” said Benho, thinking back. “I came with a lot of others, right before the War started. But everyone I remember back then was male. And the only other kid around my age was Maicee, and we're both boys. I wonder who this little girl is?”
“Wait, little girl? Since when were you interested in little girls?” asked Maicee, having overheard part of their conversation on his approach. He grabbed a chair from a neighbouring table and swung it around, taking a seat.
“I'm not interested in little girls; that military captain is,” said Benho, glad to see his friend back. “What about two more drinks, Sa-li?”
The girl nodded and flicked her black hair over her shoulder as she stood, bending provocatively to push her chair in and give Benho a good look down her well-filled blouse.
“So what's this about a girl?” Maicee asked impatiently as Benho followed Sa-li with his eyes, practically salivating.
“Oh, that. Just gossip,” said Benho, tearing himself away from the sight of Sa-li and looking at Maicee. “The captain was here again asking if Sansoe knew of any young girls who came to Carooine around fifteen years ago. Weird question. Of course, all of us back then were boys, so ...”
He trailed off and saw that Maicee's face had paled slightly.
“You don't know the girl he's talking about, do you?” he asked, confused by Maicee's reaction.
“No, no,” Maicee said hurriedly. “Like you said, we were all boys.”
“So what's wrong, then?” asked Benho. “You look troubled.”
“Er, yes, yes,” said Maicee, blinking back to attention. “Kabi has just announced that he's leaving Carooine on the next ship, and he's asked me to go with him.”
“But you won't, right? I mean, you're going to stay on here at the Medical Centre, aren't you?” Benho said, looking at his young friend curiously.
Maicee sighed. Yes, he had been. But not now. Not after what he'd just heard. For whatever reason, things were getting hot around here, and he didn't think he should wait and find out why. The decision that just a few minutes earlier had seemed impossible had now been made for him. There was a fair chance—no, an excellent chance—that the military were now looking for him. And whilst he didn't think anyone knew his secret, he didn't want to risk anything. No. He was going with Kabi.
“I don't know,” he said slowly. “Maybe it would be better to see a little of the world before settling down. I think I might take Kabi up on his offer. I can always come back to Carooine later.”
“Then let's enjoy each other's company whilst we still can,” said Benho. “I'm going to be on the next ship out, myself.”
He paused while Sa-li came over with their drinks, then went off to take an order.
“To us,” he said, raising his glass and studiously avoiding looking at the beautiful waitress.
Maicee shook his head. Knowing Benho, he wouldn't even tell Sa-li he was leaving. The poor girl. But he raised his glass anyway.
“To us,” he repeated.
Taking a sip of his sweet drink, he wondered what the hell he was letting himself in for. But the dangerous tingling feeling he had let him know that he had no other choice but to leave Carooine.