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Strangler's Veil

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Yarol the Venusian strolled at his ease along the narrow paths of Sardoz Market, beneath Titan’s yellow sky.

There was no wind, but a fog the color of the dust of Mars swirled about in a slow and almost seductive dance, now cloaking, now unveiling the stalls. Yarol had been on Titan many times in his short life, but he had never seen it before. It was a rare phenomena, occurring unpredictably; a child could grow to adulthood without ever experiencing it, and it only lasted for a day or so.

The folk of Titan called it Strangler’s Veil, and they held that it was a time of strange luck. If they were content with their lives as they were, they either stayed in on the days of Strangler’s Veil, or, if necessity forced them out, they wore scarves of indigo spider’s silk wrapped about their faces, and made the gesture of stability every time the temple bells rang out the two-hour mark. But if they were unhappy with their lives or merely wished for something different, they went about with their faces bare, breathing deep.

Yarol knew that the Strangler’s Veil had a mundane explanation. It was a microscopic airborne plankton, colored by iron, too tiny and delicate to be harmful to anything larger than a beetle, though it could clog the lungs of the fingernail-sized rodents that lived in trees and thatched roofs. After a Strangler’s Veil, many of the pale creatures would choke and die, tumbling down like furry hail and giving the phenomena its name. But the plankton broke down quickly when inhaled by people, without even causing as much irritation as dust or smoke.

The young Venusian gave a delicate sniff when a crimson streamer wrapped around his face. His sensitive nose picked up the faintest floral sweetness, like a rosebud on the driest of Martian days. There was no flavor that he could detect.

Well, now he had breathed in the Strangler’s Veil. Though he was from another planet, it too was one laced with strangeness and mystery, and he believed, like the folk of Titan, that now his luck would change. But unlike those cautious people, he knew already that luck was always changing. It was the nature of luck, and of life. Yarol believed in the legend, but also believed that it would make no difference to him.

He had already concluded his business on Titan when the Strangler’s Veil descended, a little matter of smuggled goods and, more interestingly and profitably, a smuggled person. Yarol was never told why that soft-spoken, gray-haired woman needed to be smuggled into Titan, rather than declaring herself like any resident, trader, or tourist. She was no native of the moon, that he could see; more intriguingly, she was no native of any world he knew of.

Her clever fingers had an extra joint; her skin, which he had first taken for an extremely dark brown, was actually purple; her hair was more silver than gray, and when he’d chanced upon a fallen strand, he had been unable to break it. When he secretly touched it to a flame, it did not melt, as he half-expected, but neither did it burn; it exploded, blistering his fingertips. When the woman had seen him next, she’d glanced at them and smiled, but said nothing.

He’d hoped to learn her secrets, or at least her origin, but she had been close-mouthed and let no clues slip. When he landed on Titan, she paid him, thanked him for his time and discretion, recommended a local salve for his burns, and vanished into a crowd.

Yarol headed deeper into the market. Because of the Strangler’s Veil, many booths were closed, and it was some time before he found one which was both open for business and selling anything that he found palatable. Now of all times, he was not in the mood to eat those pale mouse-like creatures, even fried to an appetizing crisp, nor did he wish to drink a sticky-sweet cup of red tree syrup, no matter how traditional both those delicacies were on this day. Nor did he particularly want to sip Venusian frog-broth. It never tasted quite right, away from Venus, and he could enjoy the flavors of home when he went home.

But his patience was rewarded when he chanced upon a stall from which the appetizing aromas of Titan puff-bread stuffed with roasted lemon-peppers arose. Yarol ate his snack and paid the unveiled proprietor, wondering why that cheery-looking woman might wish to change her life.

Then a movement caught his eye. He gave a curious glance at the man who had just stepped away from the booth next door, a tall weathered man with colorless eyes. It was rare to see an Earthman on Titan; the atmosphere gave them a range of unpleasant and potentially lethal symptoms, of which the mildest were heart palpitations and nightmares. This man was pale beneath his spacer’s tan, and beads of sweat jeweled his face, but he held himself steadily, if a trifle stiffly.

Yarol wondered what business could be so pressing as to bring a human to Titan, and what sort of human could stand so tall beneath its smothering sky. He had no spider silk wrapped about his face, but neither did he make any special effort to inhale the scarlet fog. If a questing tendril brushed against his face, he breathed it in, and if not, he did not seek it out. Not a desperate or unlucky man, then, but neither was he afraid of a sudden turn of luck. Or, perhaps, he simply did not believe in the legends.

Yarol watched the man pace down the road, his intrigue only growing as the Earthman, when he came upon a slowly melting ice temple, made an excellent approximation, for a person with only ten fingers, of the correct salutation to the Evanescent Goddess. But he seemed to have no business with the Impermanent One but courtesy, for rather than lighting a match and praying, he crossed the street and vanished into a tavern.

The Venusian’s own business was done, and coins jingled in his pocket. But his restless heart was already seeking the next adventure, and the Earthman seemed as if he might be part of one.

Ready for a conversation, an assignation, a duel, a job, a journey, or merely a moment’s diversion, Yarol followed the stranger into the tavern.