Pictoria is the fourth book in the Ammonite Galaxy Series. Here are the first few pages:
SOME EIGHT MONTHS after her previous visit to Xiantha, Grace walked out of the Xianthan spaceport and smiled around at the dry landscape waiting for her. She took in a deep breath of air, and then turned to stare for a moment to the north. Her head moved up as she tracked the towering spike of the dark Xianthe which was soaring up to lose itself in the clouds. She was caught for many long seconds, reliving part of the fall which had nearly killed her, remembering what had happened in the cage at Lightning Corner. She sighed, and found herself looking down at her mangled hands. All these months later, they were smooth and tanned instead of black and covered with blisters. But nothing could hide the ugly stumps which truncated her fingers. Nothing could take away the fact that she had lost three whole digits and the top joints of another two.
Then her eye caught sight of a small band of rexelene which was nestling on her right ring finger. As a Kwaidian friendship ring, it should have been on the ring finger of her left hand, but that was one of the missing digits. So she had been obliged to slip it over the shortened tip of the right ring finger. Now it shone gently in the sunlight of Xiantha, and the sight of it calmed her down. It was a reminder of a warm and generous loyalty; of a protective shield of care which enveloped her and kept her safe wherever she went.
She wondered how Ledin was. He had been called back to Kwaide. He had been needed to run the orbital station there. They had only had three weeks together on Valhai; three weeks to make plans and to decide their future together. Not that it mattered; he was with her wherever she went. Sometimes she thought it was a solid physical presence, and not just an imagined mental link.
Grace twisted the plain ring with the thumb and index finger of her left hand, and looked back up again at the jagged peaks of the two Xianthes. She gave a slow smile, and then walked out into what served as a street.
"Grace! Over here! Hurry up, will you!" Diva was jumping up and down, waving her hands, and clearly excited to see her friend again. "We brought your canth too! We can go straight back to the lake! It is going to be like old times again! I came over from Coriolis two days ago, but was stuck on my own until now – Six has only just arrived from Kwaide today, too."
"I can't believe the babies have been born! You and Six are parents! That sounds really strange." Grace's face was illuminated by a smile. None of the three friends had seen each other for months, and they were anxious to catch up. Grace herself had been too busy on Valhai trying to sort out Arcan's foundation. She gave the Coriolan girl a huge hug, and then turned to Six, who was standing behind Diva, and put her arms around his neck.
"Tell me about it! Here, Grace, no need to suffocate me! If you do that to Ledin I'm not surprised he's gone back to Kwaide."
She gave him a fake punch on his shoulder. "He's coming over next week. He has a month's vacation. New Kwaide has implemented a system of regular rest periods now."
"Are you going to spend all of it here, on Xiantha?"
Grace shook her head. "Only the first half. I really need to get back to Valhai after that. Aracely gets a bit nervous if I am not around to take most of the decisions. We'll spend the other two weeks on Valhai. Have you seen the children yet?"
Six shook his head. "We have to wait for them to send a magsled for us. They want to be sure all the babies are doing well first. They thought sometime this week."
As they left Grace caught sight of the same vaniven cart which they had used on previous occasions. Its driver was staring at them with a strong measure of disappointment. It seemed that someone, at least, was not too pleased that they now had canths they could ride around on.
BACK BY THE Emerald Lake on Xiantha, the days were perfect. Although only eight months had passed since those first therapeutic swims in the lake, Grace knew that she had recovered much of her strength. She was able to swim fairly well now, and though she had to use both hands to hold her catana when they practiced hand-to-hand combat, she had much more skill than before. It was a slow process, but she was finally coming to terms with her disability.
The three friends were walking back from a search for sweetfruit one afternoon, laughing and joking with each other, when they saw a magsled skimming down the path to the shore. Diva and Six exchanged glances.
"What?" asked Grace, who had been sidetracked by the blue flashes of lake between the trees.
"It's time to go."
"Go? Go where?"
"To ... err ... Eletheia."
Grace looked from one to the other with a puzzled look, and then her face cleared. "Oh! You mean the babies – the Donor Headquarters. You are both ... Wow!"
"Are you sure you want to come with us? They are taking us to meet the ..." Six was finding himself tongue-tied for the first time in his life.
"Of course she is coming. We can hardly leave her here on her own. She will probably get herself eaten by the first ten-legged decipus which comes along," said Diva in a tone she usually reserved for children or dumb animals.
"I would not!" protested Grace. "I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thank you very much!" Then, as an afterthought, "Ten-legged decipuses don't really exist do they?"
"Decipi," corrected Six.
"Bless you!" said Diva.
"I wasn't sneezing, I was telling you the correct plural of decipus, dummy!"
Diva stared at him unbelievingly. "Did you just call me 'dummy'?" she asked.
"What if I did?" He jerked his chin up in a provocative manner.
"Just wanted to be clear, is all—" And she flung herself sideways at him. He gave a yelp of surprise and stepped quickly back, trying to avoid her. Unfortunately the grass off the path was treacherous; he twisted his ankle and went sprawling into a patch of yellow mellowbells. He landed on his rump, lay winded for a split second and then leapt up and advanced on Diva with such a menacing expression that even Diva found herself jumping hastily backwards, the satisfied chortle she had been about to utter drying in her throat.
Grace put herself between them. "If you two have quite finished, these gentlemen are waiting." She pointed to the two Xianthans who were watching their antics with great interest. Six grinned, and Diva tried to feign a regret she clearly did not feel.
Diva looked severely at Grace. "There is no point arguing, Grace. You are coming with us, and that's that."
Grace grinned. "Of course I am coming. I wouldn't miss meeting your children for anything in the world."
They walked over to check on the canths they were leaving behind to forage for themselves. The animals were knee deep in good quality grass, so they would be perfectly all right, at least for the rest of the day.
"Decipi!" whispered Six to Grace as they made their way back towards the magsled.
"Don't pay any attention, Grace," said Diva serenely. "He has overlooked one little detail."
"Oh yeah? And what's that?"
"If he's right, then he is about to be the father of 50 nomi!"
Six glared at her. "Very funny. As you can see, I am rolling about on the floor with mirth at your witty joke."
"Well, I hope being a father isn't going to ruin your sense of humour!"
"No, being married to you is bound to do that!"
She gasped. "I like that!"
"Good. I rather thought you would. Any girl would be bound to like being married to me." He preened.
"No, I didn't mean—!"
He looked at her with some severity. "Really Diva, you should say what you mean."
She gave a strangled squawk which sounded just like one of the avifauna from Pictoria, and then lifted her chin as high as she possibly could, looking down her nose at him as she swept regally in the direction of the magsled. He clowned about kowtowing to her and pretending to pull on his forelock until she rolled her eyes and got aboard.
Taking this as a considerable victory, Six climbed up after her, and then reached down to grasp Grace by a slim wrist and give her a helping hand. She still found some things awkward to accomplish with only her own battered hands.