Zara – episode 2

Another couple of chapters, and I did some polishing on the first two, so here they all are together.

I’ve never written romance before (‘We can tell’ the shouts come in from the back).

Have I made it too much of an adventure to start with? Is it too technical, or not technical enough? Is the tech stuff that’s there easy to follow? Am I drawing pictures in your head? Have I held off what’s happened on the planet too long? Am I being too coy about the role of Dancing Mistress? Are you in Zara’s head? In her corner?

I hope you enjoy….

Your comments welcome as always.

Chapter 1

 

You are nothing without me. Nothing! It will serve you best to remember that.

My grandfather shouting, looming over me. Terrifying man, utterly terrifying. Strong and confident adults were afraid of him, let alone a fifteen-year-old slip of a girl as I was at the time. Those wild eyebrows over the cold, piercing eyes. That cruel mouth, and the voice that issued from it; born to command. The way he carried tension in his body, as if it could break out into violence at any second.

…remember that.

I remember. He’d spoken those words standing in front of the panoramic window in his study.

That window looked over the formal manor gardens, past the ornamental lake and down into the stretching crop fields below. There were misty woods in the far distance. No inch of ground that he saw from that window was not under his ownership. The manor itself bore his Name.

You are nothing…

Quivering in fear, I had stubbornly refused to believe it then.

The arrogance of untried youth. I’d put a lot of faith in the weight of history that lay on the manor and estates. Even later, as I began to see the troubles that he’d long known, I refused to believe.

Nothing!

The weight of history, I’d thought, though I’d not dared not speak.

But history has no weight, and forms no shield. History is simply a long time to collect enemies.

…without me.

And I am without him now. He is dead, murdered by exactly the enemies he warned me about, not six years after that lecture in his study.

The large counter at the front of the room clicks loudly. Everyone’s eyes jerk up, even though we know the number displayed is one more than the last number, and we all know what number we hold in our sweaty hands.

The last woman who’d entered the office at the front hadn’t come back. She’d gone out another way, gone through. They’d let her through.

As a distraction, I try to call her to mind. Young, tall, thin, short blonde hair, serious look. Nervous, but then all of us are. Who is she? A student perhaps, hoping to join some distant university off-world? A course unavailable here?

I don’t know. All I really know about her is she has been let through; that she’s getting off this planet.

Would I trade places with her? Without even knowing who she is and where she’s going?

She didn’t look stupid; she wouldn’t trade with me, even if it were possible, not for all my ‘privileges’ and ‘history’.

And neither would I trade with her.

Fool! Arrogant imbecile! Your pride will slow you, and then the hounds will drag you down into the dirt where you will die. I imagine my grandfather’s anger at my refusal to trade places with the student, spitting out the kind of hunting metaphor he always used.

In a strange way, it is comforting to imagine him still here, still angry at me.

The man whose number is displayed on the counter is walking to the front with a display of confidence. But I can see the sweat staining his shirt, and he surreptitiously wipes his hand on his trousers before he opens the door.

What? Does he think the official’s going to shake his hand?

I try to sneer, to show how confident I am. It doesn’t work, and no one is watching. Everyone is wrapped in their own world of misery and uncertainty.

I concentrate on my breathing. It’s not impossible that they have biometric monitors in the office. Everyone who goes in is nervous, even those that have no reason to be, but too much might seem suspicious.

The officials are suspicious of everyone; it’s their job. I must do nothing that increases that suspicion. It is, absolutely literally, a matter of life or death for me.

It would probably be more calming to distract myself by talking to the people sitting around me, but my throat feels paralyzed.

My number will be next.

The man comes stumbling back out of the office, his face a picture of confusion and shattered hopes. Rejected.

I tense.

Wait for it. Wait.

The counter clicks and I stand, walk on suddenly clumsy legs to toward the office door.

Now.

Now will you trade with that student?

No.

Fool! Arrogant imbecile!

 

The room is bright, cold, impersonal. No pictures, no windows. A table. A chair on either side. A woman sitting facing me. A pad in front of her, slightly tilted so I can’t see what’s on the screen.

Without being told to, I sit.

I curse myself silently, almost standing up again. I should have waited to be told. This woman has power over me. What if she feels I’ve been rude? What is the etiquette for such situations? I should know.

But she’s doesn’t care. She’s looking down at the pad. Stabbing the screen. Presumably still dismissing the last man from the list of applicants to get off-world.

Then…

“Name?” she says. Her fingers poise over the pad like poisonous spiders in ambush-stillness.

“Izarra Azenari,” I say, and spell it out. My throat is dry. I want to drink some water, but there is none in the room.

The woman taps her pad.

It’s not my name, obviously. I have shed my Name, and put aside my history because those things will kill me.

See; I am nothing, Grandfather.

I present my ID. It’s a genuine ID in the name of one Izarra Azenari, recent graduate, provisionally employed, and it’s from the real government department that issues IDs. It’s not a fake, and yet it is – Izarra, or Zara as she would be to her non-existent friends, is a fabrication with a real ID.

The picture is me, even if it shocks me to see it. Short, unstyled black hair in the common fashion. Tilting green eyes and outdoor skin that hints at the scrambled ethnic history behind the Name which I must now deny.

I recall seeing the photo for the first time, when the artist had finished manipulating it: removing the elaborate hairstyle, making the skin paler, the freckles more noticeable. I will never look like that I’d thought.

And here I am, recognizably the face on the ID, thanks to scissors and creams.

The ID with its embedded photo is a precaution from six months ago, when my Name was still my own and my money could still buy a ‘genuine’ identity document.

Grandfather didn’t know I bought it. I was still arguing to his face, too proud to concede.

And now, my famous Name and position, all my unbending arguments and pride, all my supposed privilege and history, everything has been subsumed and exchanged for that little card.

She passes it across the scanning contact on the pad.

And now I find out if my family’s enemies were watching me even then. I paid the clerk who made the documents, and I paid him well, but there was nothing I could do to stop him giving or selling the name of Izarra Azenari to others once I left him.

Such betrayals have dragged the rest of my family into the dirt and killed them. Every single one of them.

I wait for the woman’s eyes to rise back up to mine, an alarm to be sounded, and my life to end.

 

Chapter 2

 

The woman’s eyes remain on the screen.

“Reason for requesting permit to leave?” she says mechanically.

“Employment offer,” I reply.

She flicks her fingers impatiently, and I hand over the employment chip card. This one is genuine. I have an offer of employment off-world. All I need to do is to get to where the job is.

She slides the card across the scanner and places it neatly on the table beside my ID. She does not give them back to me.

Her eyes come up, and she’s frowning at what she’s seen on the screen.

“Dancing Master?”

“Dancing Mistress.”

Inter-system, faster-than-light communications are at a premium. Governments and commercial combines, the militaries, and other pan-system or federated organizations take the lion’s share of bandwidth. A private individual seeking employment off-world submits her messages to a server which bids for tiny gaps of opportunity in the data stream, and she pays for every word, every character. With words at such a cost, work description is reduced to a four character code which does not bother to differentiate on gender.

I bite my tongue, swallowing my retort about the official’s parentage, eyesight, intelligence and likely prospects.

I must remember, I am nothing.

I do not want to call attention to the job, because there’s a code within the code; another layer of deception. The definition of the role of Dancing Master/Mistress in the code frame is not the true definition of the job.

Something like that is known among the Names. I beg the stars that it is not known to this bureaucrat who has such power over me.

All for nothing if I do not get off this planet.

“Clearly, a poor choice of career,” the woman says.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She means that it’s a poor choice because it has led to my seeking employment off-world. Every world out here on the Margin clings its peoples. There are worlds where the population has fallen below the critical point; they remain only as salutary reminders to the rest.

But staying on this world means death for me. My family’s enemies have already claimed the estates. My re-appearance would be inconvenient for them, and an irritation that would be remedied swiftly by a fatal accident, regardless of whether the government arrests me for my fake ID and the slew of bogus charges in the meantime.

So much for history. So much for a Founding Family Name.

“There are opportunities here outside of your chosen career path,” the woman says.

Yes, there are always opportunities. There are thousands of jobs, mostly without prospects, but many of them are well paid. They’re traps. The planetary government is lavish with its currency, because you can only spend it here. Do well and attract a life partner. Have children. Put roots down. That’s their plan for you.

Not my choice, and anyway irrelevant to me. Some unforeseen event would reveal my fake ID, or I’d be recognized and dead shortly afterwards.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I say meekly. “I’ve come to realize that, but I thought I’d give my choice one last try.”

She looks at me with distrustful eyes. Perhaps I’m being too polite.

“What does it entail?” she says. “Dancing instruction? Is that any kind of job?”

Officials can refuse your permit to leave for any reason, including disapproval of the employment you’ve been offered elsewhere.

“It’s just the old title for the position. The Dancing Mistress is privately employed by a family to provide a finishing education for the female children of the family.” I spoke carefully, as if quoting from a book. I was. “Yes, formal dancing is included, as are deportment, etiquette, social graces, estate and household management. The Dancing Mistress also provides the services of a chaperone and confidant as needed.”

The woman grunts, unimpressed. “Anything else?”

“Sports, of specific, approved types,” I say primly.

I don’t list them. They vary from place to place, family to family. They include sailing, swimming, tennis, horse riding and fencing. So much for the official list. I must not think of the unofficial list, in case some suggestion of it appears on my face.

“You’re fully qualified for all of this?”

“Not exactly.” I bow my head as if to hide a blush. “I was also honest that it would be my first position. I believe the offer I have reflects that inexperience and lack of full qualifications.”

She grunts again, and surprises me by leaning forward, her elbows on the table. She makes eye contact, softens her voice deliberately.

“Look, Izarra, why chance it all? This job takes you deep into the Inner Worlds. The Inner Worlds. You know, they’re not like us, back there. They’ve no sense of honor. They are decadent, without the ethical backbone that makes the Margin such a fine place to live.”

“Ma’am,” I respond. Polite, without agreeing or disagreeing.

“This wealthy family might decide you’re not right for the job,” she continues. “They could discard you, leaving you penniless, without support and far from your home. That’s even before we get into the possibility that the job has been taken when you reach there. And this world you want to go to,” she glances down at her pad before locking her gaze back onto me, “Amethys. What do you truly know of it? There are planets in the Inner Worlds which are industrial nightmares, where you can’t even breathe the air without filters, where they tax the air. Whereas here, on Newyan, your home world, among people you know and trust…” she spreads her hands to encompass everything I will give up.

Her point about the possibility of losing the job if I’m delayed is valid. It’s a provisional offer with no guarantee that other offers have not been made. Similarly with the security of the position. I could fail and be out of a job the same day I take it up. That’s the level of desperation my search arrived at before I found this advertisement.

As for the rest of her arguments, well, on a personal level, the honor and ethics displayed toward my family here suggest I can’t find a lower level elsewhere, however hard I try. I will not use the name of the planet, the name the Founding Families chose. It hurts too much. It means promise, and that promise has been broken.

She’s not to know all that. In her eyes, she’s made good arguments. Given me sound and sensible advice.

My grandfather made good arguments, too. Perhaps ones I should have heeded.

But both their arguments are two sides of the same coin.

Grandfather wanted me to form alliances with stronger, more politically secure Names, to protect us against the attacks he saw coming. To form those alliances, all I would need to do was marry one of the eligible bachelor sons, and cement the union by producing more sons like a conveyor belt.

“It’s not like we’re some Frontier world,” the official says, pulling my attention back to where it should be. “I know you have college education, but that’s not a problem with all men. Some of them quite like it, you know.”

How kind of them.

I will pull my fingernails out, one by one, without anesthetic, before I’m allowed, allowed to have an education or an opinion by a husband she considers suitable for me.

And from a completely different section of society, that was exactly the problem I had with my grandfather’s plans. The Founders must be turning in their graves to contemplate the spineless, opinionated, ill-educated, arrogant fops that their descendants—

“It seems to me, that your intended career is really just a way of teaching young women how to be more marriageable in their society. Now that’s a skill we could value here.”

She’s changed tack. My reactions must be showing on my face.

I clear my throat. “There is the…the social opportunity of my position,” I say, and shift my weight on the chair as if uncomfortable. “I might be fortunate, and better myself.”

I lower my face again, pretending a shame I do not feel, because there is no way, no way that I will be using this job to claw my way back up the social ladder. I will not return to a point where I attract enemies such as my Name attracted here.

And no marriage. All my fingernails, and all my toenails. Without anesthetic. Stars witness my oath.

The point of telling this lie is that the official understands the mercenary motivation. She thinks I’m looking to snare myself a rich husband, or become a kept woman. Earning my living on my back one way or another. Grunting in childbirth or grunting to convince some sweaty oaf he’s a rampant sex god.

No.

Not here on this world, and certainly not where I’m heading.

If she lets me go.

I have plummeted in her opinion, but I don’t care about that. I want her to think this world would be better rid of me, and the sooner the better.

It may be working. She stops trying to engage me. The voice goes back to brusque, all-business tones.

“Assets.” She flicks her fingers again.

I hand over the last data card and she wipes it over the scanner, then places it next to the others.

Her hands poise and then tap-dance across the screen.

It takes an age.

“Well,” she says finally. “If you’re convinced you know your mind.”

“I do, Ma’am.”

She makes a last entry, then she hands the cards back, one by one.

“Your ID, updated to show an exit permit. The ID is keyed to allow admission to the secure departure area for passengers, and remains your prime form of identification in transit off this world. Identification requirements for any worlds you visit are solely your responsibility.”

The second card.

“Your employment card, updated to show off-world.”

She gives a satisfied little toss of her head as she hands the last one back.

“Your asset card. The goods you have declared to be shipped off-world have attracted the statutory 35% export tax applicable for miscellanea. The passenger ticket, which auto-confirmed on the change of status on your exit permit application, has attracted 40% emigration tax. Those charges have been debited. I have allowed 250 credits to remain on your balance, and marked that sum as permitted to be exchanged for pan-system credits to cover your incidental travel expenses. In compliance with Emigration Credit Regulation 403, section 5, all other assets are subsumed into the Emigration Holding Fund. You may apply for a return of those assets, should you decide to return to this world, such application to be made at any suitable Bureau of Immigration office.”

I can see that I have ceased to exist for her.

I take the cards and walk numbly through the door behind her.

They’ve stripped me of nearly everything. 250 local credits converted to pan-system credits won’t pay for my food on the journey.

But my equipment is cleared. I’m cleared. I have half an hour to board and I don’t care what they’ve taken from me. I’m leaving.

Interrogating the asset card gives me the shuttle bay of the ship that picked up my ticket bid, and a warning that loading will commence momentarily.

It’s all I can do not to run down the corridor to the passenger boarding zone. That would not be dignified behavior for a Dancing Mistress, whatever her true and secret role out there among the Names of the Inner Worlds.

 

Chapter 3

 

“First time?”

Turns out escaping the Emigration office isn’t the end of questions and lies.

A man in a merchanter uniform is hustling people aboard the shuttle already, reading ID cards and asking questions I can’t answer truthfully.

“Yes. First time. Really nervous.” I put in a little quaver and flap my hands a bit, hating myself.

It works. He goes into protective mode. I’m seated up near the front, and as I clearly can’t even manage to log into the seat’s infotainment pad, he taps it with his override card and logs in for me.

As soon as I can, I will find a Universal Temple and chant prayers to atone for all the lies, banging my head on the floor if that’s what the priests advise.

And then I should find a Shrine to the Goddess and tear my flesh for every time on this escape that I have helped perpetuate that stupid, helpless, nervous female stereotype.

My humor is getting as dark as my worldview. I’m going to have to ditch that and my current attitude before I start work on Amethys.

We’re still connected to the world’s InfoHub, so the infotainment pad has endless channels of the local low-budget shows and dramas. There are news channels as well. I’ll get back to them. At the moment, I skip past everything and go straight to the ship’s information channel, flicking down through the menus to get the real skinny.

She’s called the Shohwa. New, barely five Terran years old. Latest inter-system freighter design out of the Xian Hegemony. She’s a gleaming spine two thousand meters long, surrounded by modular, multi-functional racking systems, capable of storing blah, blah. Drill down. Flexible envelope of operations, blah, blah, more advertising. I drill down again, looking for the engineering specifications.

It’s too late to recall my bid and I really need to be off this planet, but I want to know how much risk I’m going to be exposed to as a result of the way I’ve had to purchase my ticket.

I’ve heard that, on the Inner Worlds, they run scheduled services between planets. Out here, in the vast expanses of the Margin and the Frontier, if you can’t afford your own inter-system ship, and you’re in a hurry, the only option is to log onto a travel broking system and set up an automated bid for a passage.

It’s a gamble. You can end up with just about anything. One of the infrequent passenger liners with unexpectedly free cabins, a chartered ship desperate to fill the last passenger bunks, a top-line freighter filling unused cargo capacity, a tramp freighter looking for unskilled crew, all the way down to the manifestly inadvisable and vague ‘passage in exchange for services’.

I’d gotten lucky with the Shohwa. Maybe. Maybe. Something just felt out of kilter.

I’d bid for what I could afford which put all the options with passenger liners out of the question. It looked as if I’d got the next best possible result, a good freighter, but I’m increasingly wary of anything that could be described as good luck.

Another two levels down into the information and I’m finally into top-line engineering description.

Triple redundancy systems for the FTL jump. Triple?

Historical jump navigational accuracy is showing to within minute fractions of a percent, with each jump actually appearing in the table. Show offs.

In-system propulsion rated at 30 ms² and acceleration compensators. They need the compensators for the load hauling capacity and flexibility, I guess.

‘Estate management’ covers a great deal. Grandfather had insisted I supervise an entire cycle of the estate’s business. I was no expert, but over a year, I’d had to learn about soil nutrients, field preparation, planting, reaping and storage. Then I’d shadowed a cousin on the floor of the Bourse, forced to stand with my hands behind my back as trading was done with hand signals, shouts and nods, where that final nod committed our estate produce to a price and delivery contract, as firm as a book full of legal phrases. And, thanks to my grandfather, I’d shipped with that cargo to its destination on another planet. When the last container had been emptied, I was the one, alone, the representative of my family, that stood tall and shook hands with the customer to confirm the deal had been met in all particulars. I’d never told Grandfather how incredibly proud that made me, and now I never would.

I hope he knew.

But all that means I know about freighters. About haul capacities, and the economics of risk and return.

The Shohwa doesn’t look like a freighter under the skin.

Eight interlocking Chang generators and triple phase Suidao FTL engines?

That’s military grade equipment.

Oh, crap. I’ve leaped out of the frying pan, but what kind of fire have I landed in?

The engineering detail runs out. I work my way back up through the menus and try and find where the Shohwa has visited, but that’s not logged. The distances are shown as part of the promotional bit about how good their navigational systems are. There’s nothing there that looks alarming: they seem to be inter-system jumps between the Hegemony, the Inner Worlds and the Margin. Nothing to suggest the Shohwa trades in dark depths of the Frontier.

They would hardly advertise that, would they?

The goods are only mentioned in terms of how diverse the shipments that they’ve carried are. Again, no obvious red flags like ‘heavy agricultural equipment’, which all too often means weapons.

Costs?

I follow the links. Actual costs would normally be settled in the Bourse, but indications are given. They’re on a rough par with what my cousins arranged for shipment of our produce. Slightly more expensive, but the Shohwa is trading on its speed and reliability. Nothing there to increase my suspicions.

Crew?

And here again it gets strange. There’s no mention of the flight crew or officers. All the details are about Cargo Management Teams and Dockside Controllers and Handlers and Environmental Specialists. They’re all labelled staff.

Why isn’t there at least a captain’s name?

Passengers? Accommodation?

Down in a sub-menu. Clearly not the priority in the operation of the Shohwa. A half-dozen private cabins, but those aren’t in reach of the travel bid I put up on the clearing board. I’ve got a bunk in a shared room with four others. Mixed.

I can survive narrow bunks and being cramped for space with men.

Don’t I sound tough?

The shuttle’s doors are closed and sealed. My ears pop. A vibration builds up, and I can feel the heavy clunks as the shuttle is re-oriented by the bay handling gantries.

I look around the cabin at the other passengers.

I guess there are seventeen, sharply different from the Shohwa staff. There’s nothing defining about them—they’re just a group of travelers of mixed age, race, gender and current fortunes.

Not what you’d expect if the Shohwa wanted to press-gang crew, or sell passengers to slavers out in the deep.

I shudder. I paid way too much attention to holovid dramas in my teen years.

The boarding officer buckles in beside me.

“Feeling better?” he says brightly.

“Oh, yes, just sitting down and browsing made everything feel more normal again. It’s silly. I mean, this is just routine for you, isn’t it?”

I give him a little eye flutter in case I decide to pump him for information later.

It’s too much of a risk now. I can’t afford to attract attention by asking too many questions. Of course they aren’t going to sell me into slavery on some desperate Frontier world. Of course. Rationally, it’s a lot more dangerous to attract attention to myself and have questions asked about who I really am. So I shut up.

He can also see what I’m browsing, and I head back up into the news channels.

I pull up the overview pages and scan down the main items.

‘Advances made in securing assets of mega-corruption enquiry’. They’ve seized more estates. Some property has even been surrendered in an attempt to prevent what had been done to my family. Making an example of us had clearly worked; the other Founding Families are panicked. Or they’re exempt because they’re part of the plot.

The boarding officer glances over and I flick past the article, pretend to read something about a holovid star instead.

When he gets bored and looks away, I return to the news overview screen and I see more confirmation tucked away in a corner among the ‘Other headlines’. Last week the strapline was ‘Fears for safety of missing heiress’. This week it’s ‘Heiress wanted in connection with corruption enquiry’.

The picture next to the news item is me. It’s a year old, taken at one of the ridiculous debutante balls where I failed so spectacularly. The media use that picture because I look like a debutante and that fits with their story. Good. I look nothing like that now.

Heiress is a misnomer. They’ve already stolen the estates. I’m heir to nothing.

And the corruption? That’s theirs, entirely theirs. I know. At Grandfather’s insistence, I worked a year on the estate accounts. There probably are vast amounts of money missing, but they’re missing from the Bureau of Industry accounts, not from our estates.

I don’t follow the links to read the articles. Somewhere on the InfoHub there’s a AI spider, feeling the tug of the strands as people read articles. Even if I’m logged in as the boarding officer, I can’t be sure of how much analysis might be being done right at this minute. Could they connect all the dots? Work out that it’s me on board this shuttle? I don’t know.

And I’m still on the planet, although that’s about to change.

There’s a snap as the shuttle locks in above the maglev rail, and red warning lights come on for the passengers. The seals open and we’re shunted into the evacuated tube of the space elevator. Immediately, we start to move forward, and from there the acceleration is gradual but relentless. The tube begins its rise and we’re pressed back into the seats.

After five minutes the acceleration eases off gradually until we’re back to near-normal weight, hurtling along silently and without vibration inside the vertical tube.

The tube is an opaque nanostructured sheath, and this is a no-frills freighter shuttle so there are no windows to look out anyway, but I close my eyes and imagine the planet falling away beneath us and the curvature starting to appear.

The boarding officer touches my hand to catch my attention and taps the info pad screen.

He’s read my mind and selected a channel with a view downwards which is transmitted live from the tube terminal, still a thousand klicks above us. On screen, the tube itself disappears from view as it falls away beneath the terminal. The rest of the picture is dominated by the planet. It almost glows, and there’s a swirl of white weather systems like lace over a pale blue and green surface.

It’s beautiful. It looks so calm and peaceful from here, my home planet.

That’s so false, that thought. It’s not calm and peaceful, and it’s not my home planet any more.

That is, it’s not my home planet as long as I get on board the Shohwa and out of the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Industry, and the grasp of whoever else betrayed and murdered my family.

 

Chapter 4

 

An hour after being spat out the terminal of the space elevator tube, the shuttle floats into the docking bay of the Shohwa, and gets locked into position.

They actually seal and pressurize the bay, so we get to disembark from the shuttle for the short walk to the exits. I get to look around.

From the folded wing structure, the shuttle is not only compatible with maglev space elevators, it’s capable of atmospheric flight. Not a standard freighter shuttle.

What is this ship?

But technically, I’m still within the jurisdiction of the planet, so I keep quiet.

We’re immediately under way, only the slightest tremors getting through the acceleration compensators and revealing the movement.

Inside the ship, my opportunities to look around are limited. The inside of the freighter is divided: flight deck, engineering, environmental, staff quarters, passenger quarters, common eating and recreational areas, the holds. All areas except passenger quarters and common areas are out of bounds to me. I see a couple of instances of passengers visiting staff quarters in the company of staff, but I’m not interested in that.

What I am interested in is that I never see anyone accessing the flight deck area. Access to areas is by elevator and each elevator has a level indicator above it. The elevators are right opposite the eating area, so I can sit and watch without looking too obvious. The flight deck, level 1, never lights up.

So maybe there’s another way to access that area. Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe there’s a reason for every anomaly that I’ve seen, all of which suggest that the Shohwa is not exactly what it says it is.

My shared room is okay. The woman and two men I bunk alongside  would be good travelling companions if I could relax. As it is I listen and keep my distance, saying as little as possible.

The recreation area has info pads, and I try to query the ship’s navigational data. How long will the trip take? How fast are we going? The sort of queries any passenger unused to space travel might make.

I get fobbed off with a bare minimum of information. I know the navigational parameters of any FTL trip are complex. The Chang generators work better the further they are from any massive bodies. Get far enough away from a star and its planets and, to outside observers, a Chang generator would look like a small, perfectly symmetrical singularity as it pokes a hole in the local space-time dimensions. However, navigation from inside the Chang field requires ‘referent masses’ – you need to measure the distortion of the field by those masses to know where you are. Too close and the distortion itself creates an error, too far and the limit of sensitivity of measurement creates an error.

In very approximate terms, for a star of unit solar mass, any FTL jump requires you to be around two Astronomical Units or say, 300 million klicks, away from the star, and about one AU away from any super-massive planet. The shortest path to achieve that is to move out of the plane of rotation of the planets.

You need the same considerations of distance from mass for any waypoint you use to check your position while the Chang field is active, and of course you need them again for the star system where you intend to arrive.

And the velocity and acceleration with which you enter the Chang space is preserved on exit, but of course, the departing and arriving star systems may have motions relative to each other which also need to be taken into account.

Get any factor wrong by a significant amount and the deep takes you. Or you smear the ship across a million klick arc of space.

That’s why every jump has three computers dedicated to it.

Those three computers would have had their first estimates before we even left orbit. They are refining them as I try, and fail, to query the navigation.

The estimates I get from talking to staff are ‘a few more days to jump’ and ‘about the same time in the Amethys system’.

I think my best bet is to try the guy who was the boarding office for the shuttle.

“Oh! Well, Ms Azenari, it’s really complex, you see,” he says. “I mean really difficult, even for the guys with training. We don’t want to bother the passengers with all that stuff. Look, why don’t you use the time to catch up on your favorite holovid dramas. The Infotainment system got a complete update at Newyan—all the latest hot shows.”

When I was my family’s representative, and a ship was carrying our produce, all I had to do was ask and I got answers.

This is my new life and I have to get used to it.

It’s a good learning experience. A valuable lesson. I keep telling myself that and trying to unclench my jaw as I walk away.

I have to acknowledge there’s been…resistance to some lessons in my life.

For example, my grandfather’s lessons about cementing the family’s position in the planetary hierarchy. I spectacularly failed to snare a husband at the debutante balls and frustrated my grandfather into near apoplexy.

I can’t claim it was anything other than being headstrong and intolerant of patronization, but would my marriage have saved the family? More than half of those ‘stronger, better-placed’ Names that I was urged to ‘be more amenable to’ have joined the list of Founding Families who’ve lost their estates.

But maybe not their lives. That’s the sting.

We were singled out. We were the arrogant, isolated family that could be used as an example. The breath of scandal about my parents. My inability to attract marriage proposals. The fear my grandfather inspired in others. The success of our estates.

Yes, we were the perfect example, and that’s partly my fault.

Tears are an indulgence I’ve not been able to allow since I went on the run. I may not have the luxury again once I arrive at my destination.

Better now.

Letting go catches me by surprise.

There’s grief, like a cold stone in my chest. The death of my grandfather, my cousins. Murdered in a supposedly unrelated series of ‘incidents’—accidents, random assaults, home invasions, ‘suicides’. The deaths aren’t even limited to just the family. Some of our employees were fatally caught up in the incidents.

And the next zones of destruction, moving outward as if from an explosion with my family at its heart.

The tenants on our estates, the workers, all thrown out and decreed unemployable in whatever jobs they had been qualified for.

The whole structure of friends and associates, in business and personal lives, all under suspicion because someone powerful decided that their fake corruption enquiry needed a central character, a face, and ours was the best fit.

There’s little privacy in the passenger section.

By luck, I was on my way to the common area gym when I stopped to question the boarding officer. I continue to there. It’s empty.

I let the sweat hide the tears as I pommel the punch bag and thrash my body to exhaustion on the machines.

It’s efficient. A word my grandfather used a lot. I get to hide my grief and at the same time get my body in top physical condition as required for my role of Dancing Mistress.

Inefficient would be trying to squeeze any more information from the ship’s infopads. About anything of interest to me. I can’t even get current data about Amethys or about the family who I will work for. Inter-system information services share the same bandwidth restriction that I encountered when applying for the job—unless a major corporation or federated service has an interest, the data comes through like droplets through the roof while there’s a thunderstorm going on outside.

 

I’m in the gym again a couple of days later when some ship staff I haven’t seen before join me.

One comes across and introduces himself.

“Hi, I’m Danny. It’s my misfortune to be department boss for this bunch of lame-bones,” he says, indicating the rest of them with his thumb. He has a nice smile. His accent is pure Xian; liquid, quick-slow, quick-slow.

“Zara,” I reply, looking them over.

If he’s upset by my reticence, he doesn’t show it.

“Look, we want to do some sparring, ya mind if we move this equipment back over there?”

Some of them have already taken their tops off and are limbering up.

It’s written all over them: they’re security of some kind. Young guys, tall, powerful, brash. Cropped hair. Tattoos. Almost like a military unit.

What the hell does a ship need a security team of this size for?

Paranoia aside, I need sparring practice as well.

“Go ahead,” I say. Then: “You have an odd number.”

He chuckles. Little girly wants to play with the big bad men.

“Yeah, we make do. Gets a bit rough and that evens the numbers out sometimes.”

My jaw is starting to clench again. If I was thinking clearly, I’d go take my shower.

“Oh, I see,” I say with my brightest smile. “They’re just learners. It’s okay, I’ll go easy.”

Danny’s eyes, up to that point wide-roving and lazy, go suddenly narrow and gleam with focus.

“I’ll start with Fat Boy.”

I point.

He’s fat like I’m pretty, but there’s just a hint that’s he’s fond of his food. His pals will be merciless in teasing him, and he shows it’s a sore point with a scowl at me.

The guys all out-mass me, out-reach me, out-punch and out-kick me. If I let them, any one of them could pound me into the mats that they’re busy laying out. The trick is not to let them.

I have two huge advantages I can take. The first is the guys know how big and tough they are, but they have no idea how fast and sneaky I am. They’re overconfident. The second is Fat Boy is too angry to think straight, and he’s out to prove a point.

Danny holds up his hands and steps back. A ring of spectators forms.

“Competition rules and three points?” Danny suggests as Fat Boy bristles and glares.

“Done.”

Fat Boy moves from a perfunctory bow straight into a full lunge. Wants to grapple. I don’t.

I trip him as he hurtles past.

He lands like a pig in a puddle.

“Point!” Danny yells. The rest of them laugh.

“That’s not a throw!” the poor guy shouts as he gets back to his feet, red-faced. He’s actually right. Danny shrugs and smiles again.

My opponent is not fat and neither is he dumb, but he’s still out to prove a point.

He gets hold of me and hurls me, using brute strength. It works, and he gets a point, but then gets over-confident again.

One point each later, I catch him in ude garami, the bent-arm hammer lock, and he has to thump the mat to surrender or dislocate his shoulder. I win.

“Well, that was entertaining,” Danny says. “Okay, guys, show over, pair up.”

I think Danny means to pair with me, but he waves for me to choose.

“The slow guy,” I say and point.

The slow guy had barely bothered to watch the sparring. He’d been loosening up, moving like a sleepy bear, and looking for all the world as if he was rusty.

He blinks, and smiles like I’d just handed him an ice-cream with chocolate.

There are smirks on other faces, and I know I’ve made the wrong choice, big time.

But a call interrupts Danny. He picks up his comm unit and there’s a sudden tension that flows out from him to the whole group of them.

He turns to me. His eyes are back to that gleaming, narrow focus, his arms are loose, his weight held just so.

“Ms Azenari,” he says painfully politely, “your presence is required on the flight deck.”

 

New serial story begins!

Ha! The time to write has rushed upon me. I said I wanted to write something completely different. The result of feedback was fairly strongly in favor of SciFi Romance. Love in Space. Romance Among the Stars. Whatever.

I have no idea yet what it will be called. A Name Among the Stars? Dunno. When I publish, I may use a pen name. It’s fairly normal when changing genres for writers to do that. It would lose me some cross-over… so I’m still thinking.

Kissy-kissy… No, not really. This is a romance, but it’s in an adventure setting. You know I make my heroines suffer, so welcome to Zara, the lass I’m throwing into the deep end.

I started this last night after dinner, and wrote about another 3 hours today. I was really trying out the style and getting a feel for Zara, so that’s the sort of feedback I need. Can you see her? Do you feel that connection? For some reason I’m writing in the present tense again. It just felt appropriate.

This will be longer than Change of Regime, so I will try, as part of my writing development skills programme, to write a couple of chapters at a time. Again, all in development time.

Acknowledgment to Nick Foreman for the SciFi art.

Comments, feedback, opinions…all welcome.

++++++

 

I’ve edited these early chapters and added them to the next episode here:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/zara-episode-2/

Update and progress

Change of Regime

The serialised story that appeared here on the blog is now available as a novella on Amazon. It’s edited, and there’s also an additional chapter, an epilogue, which didn’t appear on the blog. It’s 25k words long.

USA https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0711ML84S/

UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0711ML84S/

The appearance of this novella and also the fact that Bian’s Tale is my priority at the moment has prompted several people to contact me asking why Bite Back 6 is not my priority project. I’ll take the opportunity to answer that here.

Firstly, Change of Regime didn’t actually take any time from my writing schedule. It was conceived, planned, plotted, written and delivered in my development time. Do I need development time? Yes. I want my books to be 20% better than other books and I want readers to tell me the books get better and better. Part of what I do to achieve that aim is I practice and experiment with writing styles and tools. Change of Regime allowed me to look at multiple PoVs, use the present tense and trim down descriptions. It also kept me fresh for Bian’s Tale. I’ll continue to use my development time in this way – which means any new serialised novellas/novels will be produced in the same way – a chapter a week. (Development time is 2-4 hours at the weekend).

Secondly, I’m writing Bian’s Tale as my priority project now for several reasons, not least because readers asked me for it. However there is a hard-headed economic reason as well. I’m losing readers, and I’ve been losing readers ever since Sleight of Hand – each Bite Back book I release has fewer readers than the last. Now, some of those may be readers who love the story and are waiting for me to finish the series so they can binge. Great, but not something I want to rely on. So, what can I do to gather more readers into the series? Write other books, like Bian’s Tale and Change of Regime. Submit stories to anthologies like The Biting Cold (which went into the ‘A Very Paranormal Holiday’ anthology) and Enzili (which went into ‘Vampires of the Caribbean’ anthology). Serialise novels. Marketing. Etc. Etc.

New serialised story

Okay, Change of Regime was well received, so I will continue to use my development time to produce serialised stories. The next will be away from the Athanate storyline. I did show you an example a couple of months ago, a chapter from a steampunk story set in Africa, but the response to that was muted. I will write that story anyway, but perhaps not as a serialisation.

So what do you want to see here on the blog? I have an outline for a Sci-Fi Romance and another for a Horror. Place your votes in the comments.

New pages on the blog

I’ll be adding a new page or pages on the blog to handle the serialised stories (when I work out how to do it!).

Other stories

I mentioned Enzili above. This story is in the Vampires of the Caribbean anthology, but will shortly be available for me to publish seperately. Now… Enzili is a short story and ends with the resolution of one major incident, which was all there was space for. There are three other issues that are left ‘for later’, and I have the plot to resolve these in ‘Enzili 2’ (not decided on a name yet).

Do I publish Enzili now and Enzili 2 when I write it? Hold off publishing Enzili until I have Enzili 2? Hold off until I can put it all together and make 1 novel instead of 2 novellas?

Vote in the comments.

Progress

All writing was on hold while I spent the last week with Jessica in New Orleans, where she’s filming ‘Underwater’ with Kristen Stewart and others. Back now.

Bian’s Tale is still being problematic. I’m getting feedback from beta readers on the first 2 sections (out of a total of 5 for the first book), but the feedback is not concentrated on one single issue. It will sort itself out, but it is taking longer than anticipated.

Inside Straight, Bite Back 6: I have some good chapters done and loads of scenes sketched out. This book is nudging me, wanting to be written NOW.

 Audiobooks

Unbelievably, we are STILL waiting for Angel Stakes to go through ‘checking’ and ‘processing’ at ACX/Audible. I have no control over this part of the production I’m afraid.

Raw Deal is done. I have submitted a minor correction and the audiobook should shortly go into the ‘checking’ and ‘production’ at ACX/Audible.

 

 

Update and 2nd part of Tullah & Kaothos

The Angel Stakes audiobook has passed the ACX/Audible technical checking process and is now in ‘production’. Sooooon.

I will be contacting the beta readers next week with parts 1-3 (of 5) for Bian’s Tale. Was aiming to do it this week, but the last couple of chapters need work.

Here the second part of the scene where Tullah first meets Kaothos (if follows straight on from last week). As explained with part 1, this didn’t fit into the books, so I thought you might like to see it here. It’s not a mini-story really, just a scene.

Following a request last week about any such orphaned scenes, I will start a folder of them and eventually provide them as an ebook.

Part 2

Not along the track! Straight up the hill.

The track was a lazy path, winding back on itself. Whatever was coming was taking the shortest route and making a heap of noise about it.

Tullah’s mind seemed to fragment; parts skittered and rippled out and down from where she stood.

What the hell? Totally weird.

She felt the ground. Felt the weight of trees, the grip of roots, the cold, deep strength of rock below, the chill of water, the tiny pulses of life. And, from lower down the hill, the heavy tread coming toward her.

“Bear! Don’t worry,” Dale yelled “I got this.” He threw his hands up above his head. Twin streaks of pale light arced up into the night sky and then fell, soft as feathers, at the edge of the clearing nearest to where the noises were coming from.

Two blossoms of flame leaped up where the light touched the ground.

It was a half-way good idea. Fire would scare an animal away. There were only two things wrong with it.

Adept fire came in many forms, from the gentle light that burned in the hand without harm, to the other extreme, fintyne, the white fire. Dale had just tossed magical napalm down the hill.

That was bad enough, but Tullah knew, because the ground knew, that it was no ordinary bear coming up the hill. She could feel fifty-foot limber pines pushed aside, their roots straining in the earth. She could feel the weight of the paws. The were-bear would not like the fire, but neither would he be scared by it.

There was a sound, like the hiss of water on a red-hot plate.

Her dragon was laughing.

Fire is my element sighed the trees.

The fintyne seemed to hesitate. It diminished and was sucked down into the earth, finally flickering out. The dirt beneath it swallowed it and steamed. The dying fire came to her, and Tullah felt a warmth spreading through her boots, her feet, up her legs. Her skin tingled.

“Huh?” Dale said, walking backwards in a hurry and looking at his hands as if the answer was there in his palms.

A heavy silence. Then the pine sapling at the edge of the clearing shook and swayed and bent.

Old Earl, rumpled and dressed in the same farm coverall as yesterday, pushed his way past, letting the pine spring back after.

He stomped up to the patches of scorched earth where the fintyne had landed, sniffed and scowled.

“A good thing that didn’t catch,” he growled. “Fire burns up hills and down wind, or don’t they teach that these days?”

“Earl. Good…errr…morning,” Tullah said. The stark blackness of the night was just hinting at a change in the east.

“What…” Dale said. “What’s happened? What’s going on?”

Earl came and stood in front of them.

He was standing two foot lower on the hill, and they still had to look up at him.

His head tilted as if he was inspecting them. Tullah’s stomach fluttered, and she felt Kaothos sinking down, out of sight.

“Wind’s changed,” Earl said. “Be too cold for the little uns.”

Truth, Tullah thought, but not the whole truth.

“We’re lucky they didn’t wake up when you shouted,” she said to Dale, partly to get Earl’s attention off her.

Dale blustered and Earl grunted.

“Why don’t I build up the fire,” she said. “I guess the kids should eat a good breakfast before we walk back down?”

“Yeah. Made the call. Their parents will be at the trailhead at noon to pick ’em up.”

They had lots of time, as long as everything went to plan.

Tullah retreated to the fire and fed in the logs she’d gathered.

Dale seemed relieved to have something to do as well, and he fetched the food and pans, ready to  cook when the kids started to wake.

Earl muttered and tramped up and down, disappearing for minutes at a time and sniffing at everything. At least he ignored them while he did.

Tullah knew he’d sensed something, and that was what had him storming up the hill in the darkness. For the change in the weather, he’d have come up at breakfast.

Was a dragon dangerous? Of course she could be. Any spirit animal with such control over fire that she could extinguish fintyne like that could also start fires. But any sort of competent Adept and spirit guide could do that. Even barely competent. Dale for example.

Kaothos?

But the trees did not sigh and her dragon did not talk to her.

And spirit above, but it was turning colder by the minute.

 

Dawn broke even colder and a chorus of sleepiness and irritability came with it.

Here, Earl made himself useful.

He plucked entire tents up in one, and had them wrapped and rolled and tied up in minutes. He shook sleeping bags out, like a bear might hunt for grubs in the bark of a fallen tree.

It worked. As Dale and Tullah were ready to dish out the breakfast, there were shivering, yawning lines of children ready to receive it.

She was too busy to worry about a missing spirit guide then.

Too busy on the walk back down, with just her and Dale to shepherd twenty-seven troublemakers along the path. Earl followed at a distance, growling from time to time.

Busy, busy, busy and the responsible adult, so the last person that would be collected.

Earl had left them at the trailhead.

The last children and Dale had gone.

Ma would be here soon.

Tullah left her backpack on the ground and walked back into the trees, climbing up a way until she found a fallen log to sit on.

Did I dream it all?

Silence.

She held her hand up in front of her.

Concentrated.

A witch light bloomed in her palm. Warm. Tiny. Familiar.

All a dream then. A strange, strange dream.

Tears rolled down her cheeks. It was no use telling herself she didn’t care whether she had a spirit guide or not, that there was no point being an Adept, because she could remember what it’d felt like when she’d had that wonderful dream. Like she could fly. Like she could reach up and touch the stars. Like she was complete.

A spirit guide like no other. The missing part of her soul.

It felt like something had been torn out of her heart and she would never be whole.

The heat of the witch light was making the freezing air swirl and waver around her hand.

Roiling; that was the old word for it.

Glowing.

Huh?

Her hands tingled and she held both up in front of her.

The air shimmered and boiled around them. Leaves on the aspen trees above her began to thrash. Branches creaked as they bent. She was surrounded by a wind that spun and spun and lifted two brilliant streamers of harmless witch flames, up from the palms of her hands, up to shake and sway the trees.

“Tullah?”

And nothing. No flames, no wind.

A yellow leaf spiraled lazily down in front of her face. Another.

“Tullah?” From the parking at the trailhead.

“Here, Ma.”

“Come on, come on,” her mother called out as she walked up to meet her. “They’re going to have a party for all the kids to make up for missing the trip. I promised you’d help out.”

“Gee. Thanks.”

Mary Autplumes-Leung looked her daughter up and down. “Y’know, you always hear the comment that the best children are the ones you can give back at the end of the day,” she said, with a smile in her voice. “It’s not so, really.”

Tullah grinned and started down to join her.

“Old Earl was all stoked up for nothing by the sound of it,” Mary said. “Nothing happened did it?”

Tullah shrugged non-committally.

Mary sighed and turned back toward the car. “You didn’t feel anything, did you?”

Tullah knew exactly what she meant. Her mouth opened and she stopped herself. Shouldn’t I say something?

“Not that it matters, of course,” Mary said.

“Ma—”

“Being an Adept isn’t everything in this world. Some people just aren’t quite a match for a spirit guide. It’s not a matter of fault at all.”

“Ma—”

“And you know, it doesn’t make any difference to your father and me.”

“Mother!”

Tullah lifted her arms up, felt the tingle all down to her hands; the pressure of flames beneath her skin, ready to leap out.

“Yes?” Mary turned and looked at her.

Shhhhhhhhhh said the wind in the aspen.

“I love you, Ma. Gimme a hug.”

Mary laughed and they hugged each other.

“I love you, too,” Mary said. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yeah. Let’s go play with the rugrats.”

Don’t you call them that in front of their parents.”

“Course not, Ma.”

Tullah and Kaothos 1

I’m not ready to go into a new serial this weekend, so instead, here’s part 1 of a two part scene I sketched out back when I was writing Hidden Trump.

Because Bite Back is told from Amber’s point of view, this would have had to be revealed in some kind of discussion with Tullah, and there was nowhere to put it.

Obviously, if you haven’t read Sleight of Hand & Hidden Trump, this is a spoiler.

What other news? The audiobook of Angel Stakes had to go through the technical checking at ACX/Audible twice due to an obscure issue with the recording level. It’s all fixed and I am still hoping the audiobook will be available this month. Julia Motyka is back in the studio this week to record Raw Deal, and as that’s much shorter, I hope it will not be long before it’s available too.

Bian’s Tale 1 will have 3 (of 5) sections with the beta readers soon. It’s much harder to catch the ‘voice’ of Bian at this stage, and book 1 of any series has to be good, so it’s been the slowest of any book I’ve written.

I’m off to visit Jessica on set in New Orleans for a week next month, so any ‘must see’ ideas welcome, as well as the usual requests for feedback on this weekend writing… 🙂

Oh. A glossectomy? Surgical removal of the tongue…

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞

Part 1

This is absolute shit! Absolute, freaking, premium grade, steaming shit.

Despite everything, Tullah kept her face neutral and her mouth shut. Mouth shut was important. The hills might not have eyes tonight, but they sure as hell had freaking ears and good hearing. If she let so much as one swear-word slip, the whole group would be chanting it by the end of the weekend, and someone would know where it had come from.

She wanted to scream. Everything had gone wrong.

These trips were supposed to be done in summer, not fall. There was supposed to be one responsible, fully qualified person for every five kids, not two for twenty-seven. The weather forecast was supposed to be gold-plated mild, not cold enough for snow.

And there was a great party back in town tonight. She’d lay odds that at least two of the responsible, fully qualified people who were supposed to be here were going to that party, while she was halfway up the mountain and blundering around in the dark.

But these trips were a tradition for the Adept community of Denver, and traditions had the force of law. Stopping a trip would be like getting toothpaste back in the tube.

All the children in the Adept community spent weekends in the Rockies. As they got older, the support system, supervision and numbers in the group dropped until finally, each was expected to look after herself or himself on a solo trip. Those solo trips were hardcore: no tents, no packs, no food. Just some water, a knife and whatever small items they could carry in a pocket.

It was all geared towards the Adept’s version of the Native American vision quest. The first people in this land had fasted in the wilderness to find their totem animal. The Adept spin on it was that one of the solo trips would result in the appearance of the spirit guide that was so important to the working and manipulation of the energy, that indefinable essence that linked everything.

No spirit guide, no Adept.

Not that the kids this trip were anywhere near that stage. They were an unruly, unmanageable, ungrateful mob of ankle-biters, aka normal kids. Tullah would have cried many tears if the trip had been called off, as it should have been. Tears of pure joy.

This was a clusterf—no! Don’t think it, and you won’t say it.

It wasn’t just the party back in Denver, the number of supervisors and the weather. It was the knock-on effects that had rippled through the whole day. Because the other three supervisors had pulled out at the last minute, valuable time had been spent fruitlessly trying to organize replacements. Because of that, they were late to start. Because of that, they were late to get up the mountain and because of that, they were so late to set up camp, most of it had to be done in the dark.

It had taken over three hours to settle the kids down for the night.

She suspected there were a few who were still awake. Lying in their tents, listening for her to swear, probably. Little devils.

At this age, they were allowed tents. She had been the one to put most of them up. Dale had managed to put up two. The third he’d attempted, she’d had to pull down and re-erect.

At least everyone had gone along with her idea for fewer tents and more kids per tent. They’d need to crowd in and keep each other warm.

Where the hell has Dale got to now? Why hasn’t he lit a fire?

Dale was the other responsible, fully qualified person on this trip. He only came camping as a supervisor for the kids. He didn’t do solo trips any more because he already had his spirit guide. He’d gotten his early; he’d been twelve when he’d come down from his very first solo trip and announced his spirit guide. Beaver.

Tullah snorted. Appropriate. Dale was stuffed full of dreams and little else.

Heavens preserve me from getting a beaver spirit guide.

But at eighteen, and a veteran of a dozen unfulfilled quests, Tullah couldn’t afford to sneer. If she heard the phrase late-blooming again, she was going to perform a glossectomy on the speaker. Without the benefit of anesthetic.

Enough. We need a fire.

 

Dale wasn’t in their tent. Wasn’t in the camp as far as she could tell. He was probably communing with nature. Chewing wood, or whatever it was beavers did in the dark.

Tullah sighed and started gathering sticks and pine cones.

A spirit guide would be handy right now.

As the child of powerful Adepts, Tullah had some natural ability. For example, she could make a faint light which helped her to see the twigs and windfall branches on the ground. But she needed to concentrate to do it. If she was hurrying or even if she had her hands full, there were too many things to juggle mentally, and her witch light went out. Wouldn’t happen if she had a spirit guide.

Suck it up, girl.

Half an hour later, when she finally had enough wood gathered, the real fun started.

A lot of it was green wood. Some of it really damp.

She sighed and slumped down. The kids had eaten the pre-prepared cold meals for dinner, so she didn’t really need the fire for cooking until tomorrow.

It wasn’t for safety from animals either. In this part of the mountain, no expedition of young Adept children set off to make camp without passing by Old Earl’s cabin. The kids didn’t really like him, and he did smell a little strange. They didn’t understand why they had to pass by and talk to him, or that, occasionally, he turned groups back. But, late as they were, Earl had told them that they should go up and take a left at Echo Lake and camp where the lightning had cleared some pine. They’d be safe enough there. He’d even hauled some of the tents up.

No, it wasn’t dinner or safety. The real benefit of making a small fire tonight was it could be used to dry out some of the wetter wood, and tomorrow wouldn’t be a repeat of today, with delays rippling through until she had a complete meltdown.

And without drying it, she was going to need lightning to get some of this wood to burn.

She was smart enough not to want lightning.

Grumbling quietly to herself, she peeled dry mosses and bark off the branches she’d gathered and made a separate pile of that with twigs and pine cones for kindling. Then she split the remaining wood into dry and green piles.

Now to start the fire.

She knew how to make a bow and string firelighter, but she also knew how to keep a flint and steel kit in her pocket.

Still no sign of Dale.

Screw Dale. No, not literally. Not going to happen.

She bent her attention to the steel and flint. Ten minutes later, she had a steady flame and could start feeding one of the bigger logs into it.

Just as the log caught, Dale ambled into the light.

“Where the hell have you been?” She spoke quietly, desperate not to wake any of the kids, but with enough hiss in her words to give him an idea how pissed she was.

“Oh, girls are better with kids. You were doing fine.” He yawned and made a waving gesture as if dispersing smoke. “I was checking there were no predators around.”

“Earl already told us that.”

Dale snickered. “What does a smelly old man at the foot of the hill know?”

Tullah was stunned into silence for a minute.

The kids, the five and six year olds, couldn’t see past Earl’s appearance. You kinda expected that. It had to take monumental stupidity and genuine effort for an eighteen year old like Dale to keep that mindset. Especially as he was an Adept with a spirit guide.

Wait, maybe beavers are short-sighted or something?

“How clever,” she said sweetly. “You spotted he’s old. How old do you reckon?”

“I dunno. Sixty? Seventy?” Dale was just about smart enough to sense he was being set up. “You telling me you know? Big deal.”

“No, actually, I don’t know exactly. But I do know he was called Old Earl the first time my mother came up here. She was six at the time.”

Dale squinted at her, not believing.

Tullah ground her teeth. “Have you ever actually, really looked at him?”

Dale waved his hands again. “Whatever. There’s no point talking if you’re going to get so wound up about nothing. I’m going to bed.”

She practiced deep breathing for five minutes.

There was no way she was going to share a tent with Dale tonight. No way she was even going to fetch her sleeping bag from the tent. She didn’t care how cold it was, bed was going to be beside the fire. Besides, there should always be one responsible adult on duty, and Dale failed that description on two counts.

She banked the fire and shoveled dirt around it to keep the air intake low. That would keep it alive without consuming all the wood she’d gathered.

They hadn’t put up all the tents, so she made a bed of the unused ones and wrapped herself in one of the groundsheets.

Neat. She was snug and comfortable.

She realized she’d forgotten to eat dinner. Too intent on getting the kids fed. Lunch? Ah. Too busy trying to rustle up some last-minute help for the trip. In fact, no breakfast either. And only a protein bar yesterday.

She was not going to move now. Not going to fetch a snack from the Dale-infested tent, any more than she was going to sleep in there.

It was much better to be out here in the open air, under the huge bowl of night.

With silent stars, hard and cold, shining like a bucketful of diamonds thrown across the sky.

Ashes settling, wood turning into the ghosts of trees, softly as the flutter of moths.

The clean smell of pinewood smoke, full of happy memories.

The deep glow of embers.

Like … eyes.

Red eyes.

Watching.

Stupid. Nothing up here.

Her own eyes closed.

It was time to take stock. Take a long, hard look at herself. There was no point coming up here two or three times a year and wandering off for a little constructive fasting and meditation. Nothing was happening.

In fact, she was pretty sure nothing was going to happen. Spirit guides didn’t creep up on you in the night while you experimented with fasting-induced hallucinogenic meditation. Didn’t sit watching you from the shadows with red eyes, wondering if you were their host. Wondering whether their soul matched with your soul.

No. That’s what the Adepts said, Ma included, but Tullah wasn’t as indoctrinated as some of the kids. She was a modern, scientific thinker. With a side understanding that science hadn’t explained everything yet. She was pretty sure that spirit guides were an integral part of a person. A sort of mild schizophrenia that manifested around puberty.

Dale was a beaver. Always had been, always would be. A goofy dreamer.

And she was a nothing.

She’d always known she was different to the other Adept kids. It was time to face up to exactly what that difference was. She had no spirit guide. She wasn’t ever going to be a full Adept.

So it was time to make a positive decision. Stop waiting around for her non-existent spirit guide to manifest, and do something with her life instead. Plan ahead. Her grades were good enough for med school. Or law. Pa would love to be able to say my daughter the doctor, or my daughter the lawyer. It’d go some way to making up for his disappointment that she wouldn’t ever be an Adept.

Ma was more difficult.

If only she had a bear spirit guide like Ma’s.

No.

Time to stop wishing.

It was no great thing to be an Adept. Yeah, it was cool being able to do things. But RULES. Oh, my God. She couldn’t show anyone who wasn’t an Adept. Couldn’t do it to benefit herself substantially or materially. Couldn’t do it to hurt someone. Couldn’t do it without another Adept present. Couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t, until there was no real reason to do anything with the gift. And the meetings! Sweet mercy! Discussions that never reached conclusions. Blah, blah, blah.

It should have been cool, but it wasn’t, and it wasn’t going to happen anyway. No loss.

So suck it up. Move on.

The fire was dying, and from those cooling ashes rose the ghosts of all her childhood hopes and wishes; grey wisps, vanishing into the cold, clear air.

She shivered. Rolled over.

Constellations hung above. Pictures made of stars. The water-bearer. The goat. The scales. The dragon.

She tip-toed on the edge of sleep.

Itchy.

Embers glowed in the darkness. Big embers. The whole fire must be one huge ember fanned by the wind. Two fires?

Itchy. All over. What?

Shit! Ants!

She leaped up, dancing, brushing frantically. Lungs bursting as if she’d been holding her breath.

The kids! Oh shit, they’ll be eaten alive.

But she couldn’t see. Night folded around her, as dark and depthless as raven wings. No fire. No stars. No camp. Nothing.

Nothing but the wind. A hot wind; hot as if it’d just slipped over sun-baked rocks. It rushed through pines that she couldn’t see, until the noise was like the sea on the shingle. Sibilant.

It spoke. “Greetings, Tullah Autplumes-Leung. Well met.”

“What? Who’s that? What’ve you done with—”

“The young ones are well and asleep, and they are not here, exactly.”

“What do you mean, here?”

“Here. Where we are.”

“But I was right there.”

“Yes, but now you are right here. With me.”

This was all kinds of crazy. “Who?” she said.

“I am Kaothos.”

“Chaos? What kind of a name… Have I gone insane?”

Kaothos, Tullah Autplumes-Leung. No, you are not insane. You are not even mildly schizophrenic.”

“You’re quoting things I was thinking. Now I know I’m crazy. Or dreaming. This is all happening in my head.”

“All basic human experience is inside the head. Philosophically.”

“Thank you for that. So much. What is happening?”

“We are having a conversation.”

A frustrating conversation with an invisible entity. And I’m not crazy?

“What are you?” Tullah said.

“Your spirit guide, of course. As to what type…something that’s best to keep our secret, for a while. Look.”

The darkness moved. Flowed into a shape, then seemed to retreat a little from her so she could see better. Stars appeared at the edges, so there was an outline. A great sinuous body. Eyes like lamps. Wings!

“Oh, my God.”

Dragon!

No-one had a dragon as a spirit guide. Bear, horse, lynx, wolf, moose, eagle. All of those and more. Even beaver. Known entities. Real animals.

No-one had even mentioned the idea of a dragon. Tullah was suddenly sure there’d be a rule against it. Anything that freaking cool obviously had to be forbidden.

Cool? Ultra, super, hyper, über cool. Beyond cool.

“A dragon! A dragon. Now I’ll show them—”

“Nothing. You should show them absolutely nothing.” Kaothos’s voice whispered around them.

Tullah mouth dropped open. Was this going to be the ultimate Adept experience? Not able to do anything with her abilities because of Adept rules, and not able to even show what she had as a spirit guide?

“Why?” She tried to keep the whine out of her voice.

“Because this is something very rare. I’m not sure how or why it happens. I don’t even know why my instinct is to keep this secret.”

“Does it have some kind of purpose? Having a dragon spirit guide?”

“I believe so. One we must find, while we discover many things together.”

“We can’t hide it from everyone, Kaothos. Dale might not notice, but Ma…”

“We can say that I have not fully revealed myself to you. Some spirit guides are shy like that, are they not?”

“Yes.”

“Then that is what we should do, Tullah. Tullah.”

The darkness flowed again.

“Tullah? Tullah! What the hell are you doing?”

Dale.

She blinked and turned around.

He had to be able to see. It had to be as plain as if it were branded across her forehead: I have a frigging dragon spirit guide!

“What?” she said. “What do you mean? What’d you think I was doing?”

“Err…dancing, sort of.” Dale rubbed his eyes.

He snapped his fingers together. A flame sprang up in the palm of his hand. He peered at her in the light cast by it.

“Was that some sort of Native American dance?” he said.

He hadn’t a clue. Not a clue, about Kaothos.

“Very ancient dance called keeping warm,” she said.

Tullah pulled another couple of logs and eased them into the quiescent fire.

“Yeah, it is cold,” Dale said.

He was right. This wasn’t just a chilly fall night.

“Too cold,” she said, and put another log on the fire.

She didn’t want to say let’s take the kids back. You didn’t call off the trip or cut it short unless something was massively wrong. Tradition had that sort of inflexibility.

And she had some powers now that she hadn’t had when they’d come up the mountain.

“Better the mundane path than reveal the secret,” whispered the wind.

Okay…

“Maybe we should think about cutting the trip short,” she said. “Aim to be down by the end of the day.”

“Nah,” Dale said. “Don’t want them to think we’re weak. We got the tents, we got the fire. We can handle it.”

Oh, ‘we’ got, did we?

Tullah didn’t have time to snark. Her head lifted, turned. There was something coming up the track from the lake. Something big.

 

 

Closing chapter of the Long Island Athanate

Ooooh. Here already. If this was a novel, I’d put this writing aside for a day or two and then re-read and edit it. I think it would be better. However, the whole idea of a weekly serial is it comes out every week. It’s good discipline for me to be inflexible with my writing schedule.

Over the next couple of weeks, I will go back over the whole novella, edit it and append an epilogue (basically to tie up the Elodie situation neatly). That will be what I publish. I think the name will be ‘Regime Change’ with ‘Long Island Athanate’ as the series name in case I write more with these characters. I may need to add a couple of lines of explanation and background of the Athanate for those people for whom this will be the first experience of the Bite Back world.

Next serial…we’ll see. Certainly posting a serial on this blog has been popular enough to keep going in the way I have. Something different perhaps. Comments below 🙂

What else? The Angel Stakes audiobook has been paid for and Audible/ACX have acknowledged and processed the payment, which only took 10 days(!). Next step is their internal technical and checking processes, which have taken a couple of weeks for previous audiobooks. I’ll post of FB and here when it’s finally published.

Chapter 15

Julius

Mandaviran, Warder’s Court, South Prospect, Brooklyn

“You’re familiar with the kinirak,” Skylur says. “Good.”

“Flavia is an old House. Not old enough to lay claim to a place in Itrexia, but old enough that the rituals of the Mandaviran are the heart of our physical training.”

Skylur has lit a rush candle and placed it in the very center of the Mandaviran. It gives off a fragrant scented smoke: sage and cedar wood, cypress, thyme and lemon.

“You know then—”

“Yes,” Livia interrupts him, indicating the candle. “When the flame dies, we fight.”

They move opposite to each other, and begin stalking the sandy circumference of the Mandaviran anticlockwise.

“Is this consecrated?” Livia says. “The old tales said that only a king might consecrate a Mandaviran, and so the last one vanished with the fall of Itrexia.”

His face is still, but breath huffs out of Skylur. “The old tales are right, as far as they go. Yet this is a true Mandaviran.”

“So there is truth when they also say the king escaped the fall of Itrexia and became a god in another land, where he was worshipped—”

“We’re not here to discuss old tales of the Athanate. We’re here to resolve the future.”

“Not yet. The flame has not died,” Livia says. Then she quotes from a classic Athanate text. Julius recognizes it as a poem called The Fall of Itrexia:

We saluted the king

And stepped the sacred circle.

Yet still, proud Itrexia fell,

When our feet had worn all paths to dust.

“None of the poets you have read were ever there, Livia. It wasn’t the observance of rituals or the arbitration of disputes that ground Itrexia to dust. The city died by assault from human kingdoms, in blood and flames and screams. You asked me what wakes me in the night. Now you have your answer.”

“And are we so much different then?” Livia asks.

“Perhaps not. But it remains that I must rule, or risk the greatest of disasters for Athanate and human alike. And in pursuit of that, I’ll allow no one to stand in my way on the path I’ve chosen.”

Livia is silent for an entire circuit of the Mandaviran. The rush candle still burns, but the wisps of smoke are growing thinner.

“Is this my korheny then?” she says.

Julius shakes his head. She’s proposing offering her life as a sacrifice.

Skylur remains silent, so Livia continues formally. “I offer my life in exchange for all the hidden Athanate Houses of Long Island, Athanate and human alike. Take my life, Altau, and spare theirs.”

Julius is so close to completion. Elodie is not healed yet, but he’s nearly reached a stage where he can risk leaving her to sleep. Which will give him enough time to offer himself as korheny. It’s his role, he can’t let Livia do this. He can’t. The thought of her dying is like hot coals burning in his chest.

Just a few moments more, that’s all he needs.

“No,” Skylur says.

Livia kicks sand over the candle, extinguishing it, and attacks in a blur of movement.

Julius is so much younger than Livia and Skylur, so much less powerful, he can barely see the blows they exchange for their speed. Blade screeches across blade, sliding off pelea, making a wicked hiss through the empty air. Sand explodes from their steps as they stamp and twist and turn and thrust and swing at each other.

And they part, springing back. Already, sweat glistens on their bare skin. Their lungs heave to feed their muscles.

To Julius’ eye, Livia looks more the part of a fighter in the Mandaviran. Honed to perfection. Deadly. Skylur’s body seems…unexceptional. And yet Livia believes herself so outclassed, she might as well make this her sacrifice.

“Is there no way?” Livia says.

“There is one way,” Skylur replies, “and that is through me.”

Does he mean that only if he dies will the Long Island Athanate survive?

“You’re no different from Basilikos, really,” Livia says, “except by your preferences for your physical needs. You believe you’re superior to humans, and on top of that, to all Athanate as well. Which of us is worse?”

Skylur simply smiles. “But who will judge me?” he says. “And as for you, are you above judgment, Livia? Who will sit in judgment of you?”

“Not humans, as you would have it!”

She strikes out again. The exchange is swifter than the last, a blur of confused motion to Julius.

Livia is bleeding when they part. A cut across her belly. Not deep as far as Julius can judge. The thought of the kinirak’s blade passing just an inch or two deeper makes him ill.

“Not humans in judgement of you,” Skylur says. “Not the Hidden Path party, not Basilikos, not Panethus.”

Livia snorts. “It appears I’m left with only you, Altau. In the Mandaviran.”

Another blinding exchange of blows.

Livia has another cut, on her chest. Skylur is untouched.

He can’t let this go on. Julius has to move. Now.

His moving brings Elodie back to consciousness.

Her mind is full of confusion and fear and a wrack of emotions he can’t spare the time to untangle.

But she’s still his responsibility.

“Elodie, listen to me,” he whispers. “Listen, and trust me. You’re on the way to healing. You’re going to be fine. I can’t go with you all the way. I’m sorry. I know I should, but I can’t. There’s something I have to do. You’ll sleep now, and someone else will be with you when you wake. I’m sorry. You are so brave. I wish I could have stayed with you.” Julius rests his forehead against hers, and with their minds touching, gives her a little push that will send her into a deep, restful sleep.

“May your life be long and full of joy,” he says as her eyes close again.

He lays her down gently on the floor, and turns to the Mandaviran.

“Stop!” Livia says, and he stops, on the very edge of the sand, as if her hand had prevented him.

“No one else may enter the Mandaviran,” Livia says.

Even now, the force of her will is stronger than he is.

“You wouldn’t have to be toru any more,” Skylur says, “if I killed her.”

“No!” The word is torn from Julius. “Don’t hurt her. I offer my korheny. Take my life in exchange.”

“No,” Skylur says and Livia lunges forward again, her kinirak slicing upwards to gut Skylur.

But he isn’t there. He spins away and lashes out with his pelea, striking Livia on the side of her head.

She collapses, stunned, face-first into the sand.

Skylur grabs the straps that fasten her pelea and lifts her, drags her, until she is kneeling, swaying at the edge of the Mandaviran, in front of Julius.

“Judgment is due, Livia,” Skylur says. He lays the blade of his kinirak alongside her neck. “You offered me korheny in return for the lives of the Long Island Athanate, who elected you to rule them. But I don’t value your death against what I might do to them. This hidden community that is no longer hidden has its own value to me. They are in no danger if they give me their oaths, or leave for Ireland. I truly hope they stay. As your toru said, they are a sort of model for the Athanate world at large.”

Julius mirrors Livia’s position, kneeling.

“Stay out of the Mandaviran,” Livia mumbles, her eyes slowly clearing after the disorienting blow to her head.

He’ll stay out for the moment. If Skylur kills her, then he’ll enter the Mandaviran and die on the blade of Skylur’s kinirak.

“You come here to the Warder’s Court, in justified fear of your life,” Skylur goes on, “and almost immediately, you ask about the disposition of those Houses sworn to you. Panethus and Basilikos equally. Humans and Athanate. A strange attitude for a Basilikos House to take. Almost as strange as setting up your toru as a Panethus House.”

“It amuses me,” Livia’s voice is scratchy, but still defiant. There’s blood leaking from the corner of her mouth.

Skylur’s lips thin. It’s not a smile exactly.

“And you’ve told me what wakes you at night, Livia, House Flavia. In great detail. The screams of your House, your Athanate, your toru and marai dying in the flames. The smells and sights you have described so vividly.”

Livia does not speak.

Describe, what a wonderful word. Your pelea describes your arm. It tells me the length and thickness and shape of your arm, even while it hides what is beneath. The vulnerable part. Why do those remembered screams wake you at night?”

Skylur sinks down on one knee behind her. His blade still rests against her throat.

“Because you failed them.” He speaks into her ear. “They looked to you for safety, those little farmers, and you failed them. That’s what wakes you. And why are the lives of the Long Island Houses so important? Why did you stay here, rather than fly away? Because they look to you for safety and you fear failing them too. You will do anything to keep them safe.”

Livia’s eyes close. She’s still panting from the fight, sweat trickling down her face. When she speaks it’s very quiet. “You’d base all your decision on one unremarkable quirk of my character?”

“Unremarkable? Not all the darkness in the world can extinguish the light of one candle.”

“You’re insane, Altau.”

“Maybe I am. I see visions of salvation, and I will follow them as single-mindedly as Elodie Villiers did.” Skylur sighed. “I will not stop or turn aside, neither I will let anyone stand in my way. But enough of this challenge, I have tried emotion, reason, logic and the Mandaviran with you. If I have failed then I must challenge Julius instead.”

“No!” Livia flinches and the razor blade of the kinirak nicks her throat, breaks the skin.

“No,” she says again, holding still. “I’ll do what you want.”

“Are you sure? You may not want to pay the price.”

Carefully, she nods her head. “I will change, Altau. I will mold myself to your requirements. I will become Panethus. Spare him.”

Skylur laughs. The blade moves away. There’s a hiss as he sheathes it in the sand.

“House di Firenze, attend,” he says.

Julius nods acceptance of his role of witness to an oath. Anything to save her. He has no idea how Livia would be able to change, nor how Skylur would monitor or enforce it, but at least it buys time, and a desperate man will take that.

“Livia, House Flavia, are you willing to do my bidding?” Skylur asks.

Livia’s breathing is gradually slowing. Her eyes are focused on something beyond Julius. “I am, Altau,” she says.

“Good. Then under the aegis of the authority invested in me as Master of House Altau, I hereby appoint you Diakon of House Altau. You are to immediately establish, continuously maintain and always enforce the domain of House Altau in New York State, fixing the mantle in Manhattan, or such location as we shall agree.”

Julius is stunned. Not only does Skylur want Livia to be Panethus, he wants her to be his Diakon. His mouth opens but no sound comes out.

“You will, through cooperation with others sworn to me, protect the territory of House Altau, currently all North America, or such extent as we shall later agree and claim. You will, with due dispatch and in full cognizance of Athanate laws and imperatives, communicate to all parties that House Flavia, a House that declares its abidance by the ancient creed known as Basilikos, accepts and agrees this commission and will remain fully and at all times within the loyalty and mantle of House Altau.”

Livia’s eyes are wide and disbelieving, searching the space around them as if looking for a sign that this is all a ruse.

“You will immediately make such script as shall render this oath as a warrant before the Assembly, or other body of Athanate as may later be lawfully designated to have authority.”

There is a shocked silence.

“House Flavia?” Skylur gently prompts.

Livia swallows.

“I accept,” she says. Her voice shakes. “I swear, on my Blood, to honor this commission, and to return oath for oath, faith for faith, Blood for Blood, life for life.”

“I grant the position, obligations, rights and privileges within my gift and contained in this oath,” Skylur says.

“My Blood is yours,” Livia whispers.

Skylur pulls her head back and sinks his fangs into her throat.

Her breath hisses in sharply. Then it’s her turn. Skylur’s throat is offered. She bites, delicately, pulls his Blood in through her fangs. Licks his flesh to speed the healing afterwards.

“It is done,” they both say.

Julius manages to stutter: “So witnessed.”

Skylur stands and begins to unstrap his pelea. He looks enormously satisfied.

Numbly, Julius helps Livia with hers. Then, ignoring her protests, he cleans her wounds, running his tongue along them so his bio-agents will close the gashes.

“You are crazy, Altau,” Livia says. “Why?”

Skylur is cleaning his pelea and kinirak before storing them back in the cabinets.

“On a purely practical level,” he says, “My former Diakons, Houses Bazhir, Tarez and Trang, have their hands full with their territories, so I have no Diakon, and I need one. I find you suitably qualified.”

“Even as Basilikos?”

“Especially as Basilikos. Whatever the composition and leadership of the current Assembly, I will lead the Athanate in Emergence. That needs to be not some Athanate, but all Athanate. Emergence will break over us faster than we can react. I do not have the time to convert all Basilikos to Panethus, any more than I have the opportunity to achieve the same thing with conflict. The only path left to me is to lead all Athanate, whatever their creed, so I better get used to it. And on a minor point, keeping you as my Diakon will make running my domain here in New York easy. You will see to that, won’t you? Both of you.”

“Yes, Altau.”

“The House style is to call me Skylur, Livia.”

“Yes, Skylur.”

 

Long Island Athanate – second last installment

This post was supposed to get the story to the end, but this scene jus’ growed and growed. So, okay, this is the second last installment of the Long Island Athanate. To come, there’s the scene that you’d expect from the last sentences of this chapter, then there’s an epilogue.

I have had some feedback in the comments, but not as many people comment as actually visit these posts…

So… some prompts. Please comment in response:
Are you enjoying the story?
Has any of it caught you by surprise?
Do you like the present tense mode of telling a story?
Do you like the split point of view, switching between Julius and Elodie?
What is the story lacking?

Or ask any questions brought up by this installment / the whole story.

I’ll post a link to a downloadable word document in the comments if you prefer to read that way.

Chapter 14

Julius

Warder’s Court, South Prospect, Brooklyn

They kneel on either side of the woman they’ve just claimed, either as kin or toru. Julius is unsure which.

“Heal her, Julius,” Livia says.

“I can try, but—”

“Do better that that! Heal her! Swear it,” she cuts across him, grabbing his hand and lacing his fingers with Elodie’s so their hands are tied together.

Elodie has lost consciousness.

Julius opens his eukori, the Athanate mental sense that allows for sensing and influencing another person’s mental or physical state. His vision darkens. He senses them: Skylur and Livia are like terrible dark suns hanging in an alien sky above him. He forces his mind away from them, down to Elodie, and allows her sensations to flood his mind.

He sways, stunned and disoriented. He feels, as if it were a distant memory, that hands support him so he does not fall.

Elodie is dying. He knows it is entirely possible to follow someone down into death while locked together by eukori. Some Athanate die like that when their kin die. What he is trying is dangerous.

As Julius-Elodie, they know the blinding pain in their head, the pressure of it, the exhausted and feeble pulse of blood through their heart, the tired rise and fall of their chest, the whisper of air.

“Brain tumor.” Julius mumbles. “Too late.”

“You can do it! Swear,” Livia says again.

“I will heal her. On my Blood, I so swear,” he says, the words coming slowly and indistinctly.

Julius is so completely in sync with Elodie that her mouth moves to form the same words.

Julius feels Livia’s eukori touch on him. She gives him the strength to keep Elodie’s heart pounding and her lungs breathing.

I can do this. I can.

He’s aware, through Livia, that Skylur watches impassively.

He’s telling us that it’s our problem.

My problem.

He can’t think about that now. He can’t talk either. He has to concentrate on this woman, Elodie, or she’ll slip away.

“Bring the three of them,” Skylur orders the security team. “Feed Mr. Barlett and let him rest in one of the rooms upstairs.”

Julius loses eukori contact with Livia and her strength ebbs from him, but he’s steadier now.

The Altau security carry him and Elodie. It’s awkward. They hold him and the woman side by side, so he can maintain physical contact with her and use his own body’s capabilities to maintain hers through the eukori link.

He can’t sustain her like this for long. He’ll have to move to the next phase, healing her. He’ll have to bite her for that.

They go down a spiral staircase. One floor. Another.

They’ll be going to the oordeelstoel, the Warder’s Seat of Judgment, but Julius loses all sense of location while he concentrates on keeping Elodie alive.

If they’d just reach wherever their going and leave him, that would help. As they walk down the steps, it’s like trying to do it carrying too many things at once. Every time he thinks he has a firm grip on Elodie’s life processes, something else fails, falls away into darkness and he has to scrabble to get it back.

It gets better when they stop.

The Altau guards lower him carefully on the floor, propped against a wall. They reposition Elodie so she is lying back against him and he has his arms around her.

“I will not let you fall,” he whispers to her, though he knows she can’t hear.

In the stillness, he tries to clear his mind. He visualizes inhaling pure light and breathing it into her body.

His fangs manifest and he bites her. Syncing with her body, his Athanate glands have formulated bio-agents to attack the growth in her head, as if it were in his own. As he bites her, these flood into her blood system.

Breathing light into her body, as he sees it.

It will do no good if her heart stops beating, so he has to stay locked with her, keeping the boundaries between their bodies blurred.

He’s never healed someone so close to death. He’s still not sure it can be done, but he gave his oath to Livia, and that might as well be his own life.

He’s aware of Skylur and Livia at the edges of his perception. He hears their voices as if down a long passage.

The guards have gone, leaving the four of them alone. He’s also aware they’re in some kind of a wide corridor that curves.

Not the oordeelstoel. That would be a conference room or a court or an auditorium.

A flicker of hope lights his heart and is dashed as he listens to what they’re saying.

“Compassion, Livia? For a human?” Skylur says.

“Ruben likes to take on hopeless cases,” Livia replies, waving it away. “And if he succeeds, maybe there will be some entertainment out of it for me.”

Livia is deliberately pushing Skylur as if she has a death-wish. Julius wants to interrupt, but he can’t even speak.

“What have you done with the other Houses?” Livia says.

Skylur smiles thinly. “Why do you care?”

“Being Basilikos might make me un-human, but it doesn’t make me un-Athanate. I care about them. I’ve cared ever since they asked Julius and me to run our association.”

“You care even for the Panethus Houses? And the humans in the Panethus Houses?” Skylur says. “If you say you care for them, how do you make a distinction between humans inside and outside of our communities?”

“I don’t make those kind of distinctions generally and I don’t hate humans, I just believe we are superior,” Livia says. “You hold a mirror up to me, Altau, as if that were all that’s required. I see myself, but what you don’t understand, is that’s not as you see me. Tell me why I’m wrong. Or at least answer my question about the other Long Island Athanate.”

Julius wishes she would hold back, but that’s not like her.

“I have done nothing, yet, with the other Houses,” Skylur says.

Julius can see both are refusing to give an inch, but it’s Skylur who has the power.

Livia has run out of patience. “So, we’ve established I am Basilikos, and I’m not going to change,” she says. “You are Panethus. We aren’t compatible. You have claimed this territory and we’re not strong enough to contest it. How do we resolve the situation?”

“You mean how am I going to resolve it?” Skylur replies. “Like this.” He presses a discreet button set in the wall against which Julius is resting.

The opposite wall cracks in the middle and begins to slide open.

There’s a darkness beyond the retreating wall, and the impression of size, of depth. A breath of air, dry and chill, carrying a hint of scent that might be sage.

Then lights begin to brighten slowly, revealing a bare arena.

The floor is sand, smoothed so that there is not a ripple in the surface.

Julius’ heart misses a beat before he can catch it, and his senses dull again as he has to concentrate on re-starting Elodie’s heart and calming his reaction.

He knows what it is, even though he’s never seen one, outside of Livia’s oldest books.

“The Warders, long before they were Warders, or Athanate Houses in the Netherlands, were old,” Skylur says. “Older even than House Flavia.”

“A Mandaviran.” Livia’s voice echoes in the chamber. She is standing right at the edge of the arena. There is awe in her tone.

Julius tries to say no, but keeping Elodie alive is taking all his effort. He stretches one hand out, as if to call Livia back, but she’s not looking.

The Mandaviran. Sometimes called the Hero’s Circle. Or the Last Place of Judgement.

It is an old and bloody tradition, so old that the books say the last sanctified Mandaviran existed in fabled Itrexia, the long-lost city of the Athanate, where the high towers of morning gazed out over the glittering Caspian Sea.

Even if it wasn’t pure myth, Itrexia is long gone. But modern Athanate books sometimes mention the Mandaviran, in a famous saying:

Beyond emotion, there is reason.
Beyond reason , there is logic.
Beyond logic, there is faith.
And beyond faith, there is only iron in the Mandaviran.

The Mandaviran is the place of the last argument of Athanate. If all other courses fail, then two sides unable to reach an agreement meet on the sand.

Livia is more than a match for anyone else Julius knows, but Skylur is older, faster, more powerful. For them to meet on the sand is merely offering Livia an honorable death.

He raises his mouth from Elodie’s neck, calls out: ‘No, Livia! Wait!”

But immediately, Elodie begins to slip away, and he has to return to healing, torn between the woman he loves and the oath she made him give.

Julius can only watch as Skylur opens a cabinet on the wall.

He brings out the glittering pelea, the one-sided armor that covers a fighter from the shoulder to the hand. It’s segmented like a lobster, heavy and slick and held by leather straps. And he brings out the kinirak, the blade. It is a sword like no other. There is a brace which lies along the forearm, with leather and chainmail straps for the top of the forearm and the wrist. The handle stands up at right angles to the brace, positioned so the wrist is never bent. The blade itself flows from the back of the brace; opposite the handle. It has an easy, graceful curve so the tip ends in line with the fist. It has all the horrific beauty of a tool designed to be perfect in its function of delivering death.

I have to heal Elodie and stop this.

Desperation gives Julius a healing strength he didn’t suspect he possessed, but progress with Elodie feels as sluggish as the flow of tar in comparison to the flickering speed with which Skylur and Livia strip off, don the pelea and fix the kinirak in place.