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Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adventure Romance – Episode 5

This leads straight on from

The start of the series is at

The roads have been damaged, so Zara sets out to walk to Stormhaven along the coast path and claim her job as Dancing Mistress. Easy…

Chapter 9


After five minutes walking, I know I will never make it as far as Stormhaven.

My improvised rucksack is cutting into my shoulders. My boots are too loose despite being tied so tightly that they squeak. And I’m walking in a sort of limbo; there’s a heavy fog coming off the ocean that swirls around me and makes macabre ghosts of the stunted coastal trees along the path. Every step feels like climbing.

After twenty-five minutes, I allow that I might make it in a day or so. Except I haven’t brought any food apart from crackers and water. I have no idea how far to the next village along this path and whether they might sell me food. But yes, I will stagger into Stormhaven eventually, my boots caked in mud, my clothes wet, stained and wrinkled from sleeping in the wild, grass and twigs in my hair, my face badly sunburnt. I’ll be met at the door of the house by the new Dancing Mistress. She’ll be a beautiful, blonde-haired lady, cool and slim, dressed in the most elegant and fashionable style. She’ll actually call the family to laugh at the ridiculous apparition that has arrived at their door.

After about forty-five minutes, the sun’s up and the fog’s ebbing back into the ocean. The shoes have stopped squeaking and my feet have swollen to fit. A couple of passes of tape, right around me and my duffel bag have stopped it rolling so much, and I’ve kinda forgotten it.

I’ll buy or beg some food from villagers. I’ll pick berries and ask the villagers to tell me which I can eat. Pride is a luxury I can no longer afford, and while that’s something in the future, it doesn’t feel so bad.

The coastal path is an old cart track. It’s made from crushed white rock so it stands out, and it follows the contours of the land. It sways and dips, lifts and falls in front of me like the track of a bird’s flight.

I’ve slowed down from the pace of the first few minutes, and the rhythm of walking is now permeating through my body. My doubts receed with the fog and the beauty of the scenery starts soaking into me.

It’s a wild and spectacular coast.

Black rock plunges into an endless blue-grey ocean, and forms isolated towers and stubborn headlands, all crowned with deep-green grasses. Pale sea-birds ride the currents of the strong on-shore wind and scream at each other in faint, high voices.

Don’t fall in love with this place until you have that job, I warn myself.

It does no good.

The stunted trees that loomed out of the fog like grotesque ghosts are now shown to be works of art, fashioned by the dominant weather. Branches are gnarled and knotted into fantastic shapes, and roots look like muscular arms and fingers gripping and anchoring the trees into the scoured cliffs.

They’re almost like bonsai.

I wonder if Shohwa would like to see them, and make a mental note to take pictures and post them to my account on the Xian bulletin board for her to see. Would she be able to send a construct down here? Could the construct enjoy the sensation of running fingers along the rough bark and narrow, oily leaves?

When did I start thinking of her as a person? As Shohwa and not a ship called the Shohwa.

I’m not sure and I find I don’t care. I sigh, fill my lungs with salty air and feel lighter than I should in the 98% gravity of this planet.

Things could be much worse.

It wouldn’t be so bad, if I became a vagabond, walking up and down this coast, living off the land.

That would be better than dead, or in a prison cell, which is what the conspirators on Newyan want.

I’m still a loose end for them.

If I get this job, they could find out about it easily enough. Employment information is exchanged freely between planets. But they wouldn’t want to make an extradition order; that would give me a forum in court to present my side of what happened.

The alternative option is exactly the sort of thing that the Dancing Masters and Mistresses were set up to defend against—they could send an assassin. If I can’t defend myself against an assassin, it’s hardly a recommendation for my employment.

And if I don’t get this job, if I live like a vagabond, or drift from one temporary job to another, that would make it an order of magnitude more difficult to find me.

On the coastal path, with the sun on my face and the wind buffeting me as I walk, those worries seem remote, unreal, and just a tangle of incalculable possibilities.

It’ll go where it goes.

I’ll concentrate on one thing at a time.

Get to Stormhaven first.

I comb my hair with my fingers, futilely. The wind messes it as soon as I let go. The thought that I’ll look like a scarecrow if I pass someone on this road makes me smile. A couple of months ago, I cut my hair, short as a boy, as part of my disguise, and it’s barely started to grow out again. It wasn’t just to change the shape of my face. On Newyan, Founding Families and the wealthy tend to wear their hair long. Cutting it so short changed people’s initial impression of me, made them make assumptions which helped me pass as someone else.

I haven’t studied Amethys enough, but it seems it might be the same. Maybe I’ll be able to confirm that when I find a village.

As if conjured up by my thinking of it, I see a village in the distance as I trudge around a headland.

It looks tucked in, crouching down out of the wind. It sits in a valley between two promontories, partly shielded on either side, and it has a harbor with quays reaching out like arms. There are a score of large boats moored there, and plenty more small ones pulled up out of the water. Upslope of the village, I can see the brighter green of grazing fields surrounded by dark trees, all along the valley and the lower slopes of the hills above.

It looks so peaceful, from a distance.

Closer up, it’s very different.

The town itself is picture perfect. Narrow houses with freshly-scrubbed pastel faces cluster around tidy cobbled squares. Windows gleam and even the standing water pump has a recent coat of black paint. The fishing fleet is in harbor and every one of them has been cleaned or has crew swarming over them with buckets and brushes. Little boats pulled up on the dock are glistening with new varnish. There are smart wooden benches on the sides of the squares, but they’re all empty. Everyone’s in motion.

There’s a food stand set up in the main square where people are hurriedly taking snacks before rushing off to some other task. It’s looked after by an old woman in a wheelchair.

She can see the expression on my face.

“Feast Day,” she says solemnly. “Gets a little hectic.”

That is an understatement. From their laconic way of speaking, this frantic activity was the last thing I expected from the people of the Welarvor coast.

“Is it possible to buy something to eat?” I ask. “Something not expensive.”

I have no idea what food costs out here. Just because I could buy something for 5 dynare in the city doesn’t mean that’s what it costs in a little village on the coast.

“No,” she says. “You won’t find a soul to take your money here today.”

Seeing my face fall, she takes pity on me and laughs.

“Feast Day, lass! No money must change hands. Go on. Help yourself.”

“I can’t. Surely I can pay something? A donation.”

“Not to me. Nor anyone here. Not on Feast Day. Bad luck that is. Might bring the piskatellers to knock on our doors at midnight.”

I have no idea what a piskateller is, and despite what I thought out on the road, I’m having to struggle with my pride. Accepting the food feels like begging.

But she takes no prisoners, this old woman.

“Come on with you. These here, these are raw, night-caught. You have to eat them in the next couple of hours or they spoil. Take them with pickles and the pepper, like so.”

She demonstrates. The small fishes have been neatly beheaded, gutted and boned, but the tail left attached. She picks one up, rolls it in something that looks like chopped onions and peppers and chews it in three bites, leaving just the tail.

I follow her example, and my eyes stream tears. It’s tasty all right, just a bit hotter than I expected. Vinegar and chili and onion and raw fish. Hmmm.

She packs some in paper with the piquant sauce in a little carton, and refuses any money. She also advises me that I can eat any berries that are red, brown or black. That I must avoid berries that are yellow and green. And every village has a standing pump which I can drink from. They’re about an hour’s walk apart, the villages, she says, so I don’t need to carry so much water.

I’d stay and ask more, but a man looking like a cartoon of a mayor from ancient history rushes up and frets about some preparations that are not done. The old woman appears to be a former mayor and proceeds to laugh off all the problems.

I interrupt briefly to thank them, and then leave, passing a town hall which gives off aromas that tell me this is going to be where the feast day earns its name.

It’s far too late to worry about not falling in love with this coast.

My love story continues throughout the morning, walking over more hills and headlands, through more villages, past the odd farmstead, and by the ruins of some mining industry.

The people are busy and friendly in a casual way. I get the feeling everyone notices me but no one is aggressively curious. No one laughs at my jury-rigged backpack. A few ask where I’m going, and on being told Stormhaven, they nod and smile as if to say, well if you can’t live right here, then Stormhaven’s not a bad second choice.

And apart from the first village, everyone’s relaxed.

Away from the villages, alone on the swooping white path, there’s only the wind to talk to me. It whistles and moans around oddly shaped rock formations.

I daydream that I’ve stepped back in time; way, way back. There’s none of the bloated complexity of life and politics and space travel and work and assassins. It’s a time before we ventured off our planet, when life was so simple and easy and people got along. And I don’t even have the whole world to think about. There’s just this coast, the road beneath my feet, the little villages, the sun, the ocean, and the sounds that the wind makes. Bliss.

And then the wind brings me a sound that is very different.

The clatter of hooves and jingle of harness: riders mounted on horses are coming down the path toward me. There’s something predatory about that sound.

I freeze and look up.

Just in time to see them pour over the crest of the next hill; a column of mounted troops, with gleaming full-face helmets, tall lances and flying banners.

I have stepped back in time, and I’m right in their path.


Chapter 10


I’m off the road and crouching between trees before they’ve seen me.

I might have gotten away with it, too, but I hadn’t counted on the lead stallion. He knew I was there. Obviously I was unexpected, and maybe I smelled like a horse eating kind of person, so he shied away, with his eyes rolling and his hooves kicking.

In a heartbeat, the column has turned in its own length and I’m faced with a score of them; dusty, curious horse faces, pre-space helmets, with plumes, for stars’ sake, old military style uniforms, and even a lance or three waving in my direction.

I stand straight, but otherwise keep very still. Hands by my sides.

They’re long, those lances, and they look exceedingly sharp. They draw the eye. And dry the mouth.

Someone laughs.

Mr Lead Stallion pushes his helmet back so it rests on his forehead, emphasising the deep frown marks there.

The face is bluff, bold and arrogant; the eyes sharp as the points of those lances.

The voice is a surprise. Deep. Not as snide as I expected. I don’t know the voice, but I recognize the type without any effort. He sounds like my grandfather.

“Where away, lad?”

I bite my tongue. If I cut my hair and dress in a man’s cast-off work clothes, I guess I should expect people to make mistakes. And my instinct for self-preservation kicks in and grabs the first words I want to fling back at him, including blind and stupid.

I haven’t stepped back in time. I don’t know who these people are; maybe some re-enactment guild with a obsession for authenticity that has them drilling with horses every day, but Mr Lead Stallion is not a local fisherman or farmer. I’m looking to work in this part of the world, and I have no Name or eminence to defend me if I’m rude to a person of significance here.

“Stormhaven, sir.”

I’m very pleased to note the lance points begin drifting back up and away. Politeness appears to have worked.

He doesn’t acknowledge his mistake, and instead, Mr Lead Stallion’s eyes rake me up and down in an insolent sort of way that I would have objected to just three months ago on Newyan.

I will not react. I need to get used to it.

I am not a Name. I have no pride. I’m one step from a beggar.

“Stormhaven,” he says. His mouth turns down. “Then we’re both late.”

As if he might consider something else if he wasn’t in a hurry. Standing in the hot sun, my blood goes cold.

A safe, law-abiding place. Mostly.

That’s what the woman in the refreshment shop in Bandry had said as we shared the teapot.

I guess that comment could be interpreted different ways. A law for people snug in their villages, maybe, and a different one for travellers out on the paths. A lesser law for those that wander and ‘bring things on themselves’.

I don’t know, and I’m not going to find out this time: the archaic helmet slides back down and the lead stallion wheels in place, kicks off down the road at a leisurely canter.

The remainder of the troop follow smoothly, all but one.

She, I know it’s she, despite the uniform, has to tug her horse’s bridle to prevent it from joining the others. She uses just a finger’s worth of pressure.

“You know how to use that staff?” Her voice sounds peculiar from inside her helmet.

I cut a stout stick earlier, as a hiking cane rather than a staff, but it would serve the purpose. I spin it casually. Yes, I do.

“Some,” I say. “I thought the predators stayed inland.”

“They do,” she replies. “One of the reasons they do, stranger, is that some of the old farm stock mutated when they brought them here. Hides out here, near the coast path.”

“I’m going to be chased off a cliff by a berserker ram?”

“Perhaps.” I can hear her smile. “But the really nasty ones are the boars. That’s what we thought you were, hiding in the trees. That, or a morlader.”

Her horse is fretting as the others disappear ahead.

“We’ll see you in Stormhaven,” she says, “if the boars don’t get you.”

She touches heels to her horse’s side and it gallops down the road, eager to rejoin the rest.

Morladers. Piskatellers. Mutated pigs. Mounted troops with lances. There’s a lot on this coast that doesn’t seem to feature on the InfoHub.

They’re not a re-enactment company. That level of horsemanship isn’t really something you achieve without living in the saddle. They’re the local military or police force. But the helmets? The plumes? The banners? Those damned lances?

The expansion of the human race across the Inner Worlds and the Margin has created pockets of strangeness, but those tend to be whole worlds. Where I came down the Skyhook in Kensa seemed normal. Even Bandry, way back behind me where I started this morning, was normal, if a little rural.

I could understand the economies of a rural police force that was mounted, but surely nowhere substituted lances for firearms.

It’s a mystery I may clear up in Stormhaven, and Mr Lead Stallion clearly thinks I’m behind my schedule to get there, so I start walking again and try to pick up the pace.

The afternoon wears down, the main difference being that the sun tends to be on the right side of my face, and the wind veers. The sounds it carries change. At one point I’m sure I hear hunting horns. Makes me shiver. It’s imagination, or something about the bizarre shapes of the rock formations.

Late afternoon, I use a water break to stop and examine one such formation.

It’s black rock, the same mineral as the cliffs. I can’t see how erosion would shape it the way it is—a large, tapering arrowhead shape rising at one end of a long, rounded base. There are too many like this for it to be coincidence. Also, they all have a hole bored through the middle of the arrowhead. That’s one of the causes of the wind sounds. It’s as if the stones were made to sing with the wind.

I need more time to research, but the sun touches the ocean and the western clouds begin to boil up in yellow and red. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t look promising for this evening.

And the storm hits about an hour later, just as the daylight dies. The wind begins to howl and cold rain comes in horizontally like ice spears.

I’m torn between seeking some kind of cover and toughing it out. I argue with myself that I can’t be that far from Stormhaven. I’m not that far from the cliff edge either, but the pale road stands out, even in the darkness, and so I put my head down and march. As long as the boars don’t like the rain, I’m reasonably safe.

But all the things that kept me going during the day are lost to me. Without distraction, my feet are blistering, my shoulders are numb, my legs wobble. Exhaustion hits hard.

When the next village looms unexpectedly out of the night, I’m fighting to keep walking. A little voice is telling me I could sleep under an unpturned boat. Just a couple of hours out of the rain and be on my way.

But I know when I stop, getting going again will be hard.

The only person outside looks like a sailor, making his way home across the square in the dark, with the peak of his stormcoat pulled down over his head.

“How much further to Stormhaven,” I croak.

He jumps. His night-blind eyes can barely make me out. Perhaps that’s an advantage.

“You’re here,” he says when he recovers. “This is Stormhaven.”

Goddess be thanked.

But I can’t turn up at my future employer’s house tonight. Apart from not even knowing which house it is, I look like a drowned scarecrow.

“I need an inn. Is there one here?”

“Down in the harbor, lass. The Spyglass. Look for the lighted sign above the door.”

His eyes are adjusting to the darkness. He peers closely at me.

“Are you all right?” he says.

“I will be, thank you. A bath, a night’s rest, you won’t recognise me. I hope.”

He chuckles and points me down a street.

The Spyglass is easy to find, and just getting out of the cold rain is a blessed relief.

I don’t go too far in because I’m dripping water like I brought in my own stormcloud with me. I stand, swaying, starting to steam in the heat and using my knife to release me from the tape holding my backpack.

“Oh! Lad, lad, look at you!” the innkeeper bustles up. “Thought a merman had swum up out of the harbor for a minute.”

“Mermaid,” I manage to say, as the duffel bag slides from my shoulders and I groan with relief.

He roars with laughter, and pulls me inside, placing a chair in front of the fire.

“I’m your host, Warwick,” he says. “And these fine people here are the salt of Stormhaven and the finest of Praedarth, from up the way.”

I’m the center of attention, which was not how I anticipated arriving in the village I hope is my future home and place of employment. Especially not looking like a bedraggled tramp, or a sunburnt mermaid. A Dancing Mistress should have poise. I’m sure it says that in the manual.

I can afford the light beer that appears in front of me, and the lamb pie, I hope.

It being quiet enough, the innkeeper sits down to find out all about me, and gives me an opportunity to ask, with some anxiety, what a room costs.

“Oh, no, lass. Got no rooms left in this inn, and this is the only one in town,” he says. “You can sleep in the stable though. It’s dry and it’s warm enough. And free.”

“Done.” My pride has shrunk in the rain. “I need to get presentable tomorrow. Do you think you might loan me the use of a bathroom in the morning?”

“Oh, yes. You’re not going back on the road tomorrow, then?”

“No,” I say between mouthfuls of pie. “I’ve come to take up a job in Stormhaven. I just need to find which house when it’s not dark and raining.”

“A job?” He looks puzzled and sits back in his seat. “Now, lass, I know everyone in the town. Unless you’re a sailor or a shepherd, I’m not sure there’s work for you.”

His audience nods wisely along with him. He knows everyone. And there are no jobs.

“Not that type of job,” I say. “It’s a job I arranged through a broker.”

“Oh! Broker! Heard of that. City type of thing I must say. Not what we do here.” The listeners heads shake. Not what we do here. “But still, what’s the job?”

“A Dancing Mistress,” I say, through gritted teeth. My heart plummets at the expressions on their faces.

But the innkeeper’s face clears. “Ah! That explains it, lass.” He laughs. “Dry yourself out, eat your pie and drink your ale. Old Warwick will make a call.”

Fortunately, his audience stare at him in puzzlement, and he knows he has to explain to them, if not to me.

“Well, we don’t have call for Dancing Mistresses and the like in Stormhaven, do we?” he says. “But there’s a place that does.”

“Ah!” another man gets it and claps his leg. “It’s the sort of thing you’d get up at Stormhaven Cardu.”

“I’m in the wrong place?” I sigh, feeling every muscle whimper. “How much further?”

“More than you want to walk tonight,” Warwick says. “Yes, this is Stormhaven Wyck, the village of Stormhaven. You want Stormhaven Cardu, up on the headland. Another hour or so, a steep climb, and one you may not need to do. I’ll call Gaude.”

With that obscure comment, he goes off and I’m left fielding gentle questions, mainly about where I’d walked from and how long it’s taken.

Warwick is quickly back in the bar. “No answer. Don’t fret, I’ll try calling Lady Roscarrow. It’s at the back of my mind Gaude had need to be over that way today.”

I try to stop him; I don’t want any Lady being disturbed tonight, but he’s quicker than I am in this state.

By the time he comes back, still unable to get through, I’m fading fast. It’s been a long and hard day. The food and sitting still have finished me off. All I can think of is lying down and sleeping.

The innkeeper takes my duffel and a lantern. Seeing me wince and limp when I walk, he quickly grabs a bottle from behind the bar and then guides me out to the barn behind his inn.

A couple of horses blink sleepily at me. My stall is the free one at the end, and it’s a measure of how exhausted I am that I don’t argue with Warwick taking my boots off.

He hisses through his teeth at what he sees.

“Ah! Thought so,” he says.

He takes the bottle he brought and sets it in the straw beside me. It’s a quarter full.

“Now, lass, I would advise you to wash your feet with that.”

“What’s that?” I mumble.

“Well, officially,” he replies, “it’s bale-fruit brandy. But ’round here, we just call it Headless. Whatever you do, don’t drink it, but it the very thing for blisters and the like. Now, I must get back to my bar. I’ll try calling Cardu again later and we’ll sort you out in the morning whatever happens.”

I mumble thanks and keep myself awake long enough to clean my feet with the brew.

It stings, so it must be doing good.

The smell, on the other hand, is a mixture of boat varnish and day-old dead things.

Doesn’t make any difference. I’m asleep before I’ve got the cork back in the bottle.


And awake to lanterns and flashlights and loud voices.

It’s still pitch dark outside. Warned by the smell and the feeling of damp, I look down. In the bobbing lights, I realize the uncorked brandy bottle has tilted and leaked over my shirt as I slept.

“For sky’s sake! She’s a bloody drunken tramp off the road, Warwick, not some missing Dancing Mistress come to see me! I don’t have time for this.”

Even to my tired brain, certain things are clear, foremost among them that I have created the worst possible first impression with my employer. That’s my prospective employer—I haven’t got the job, and it doesn’t sound like I’m going to get it.


Zara – A Name Among The Stars – SciFi Adventure Romance – Episode 4

This continues straight on from

Okay, okay, y’all giving me such trouble over the cliffhanger endings. This is a little quieter. 🙂

Comments, please. 🙂 Everyone! I really love to hear feedback on how it’s coming from a readers point of view. And yes, we’re getting to the romance. Not long now.


Chapter 7


Over her shoulder, the comms log screen jumps a line and a new message catches my eye.

Freighter Shohwa: “Newyan Traffic Control and Customs Cutter Duhalde, this is the freighter Shohwa of the Xian Hegemony, regarding your request for one Izarra Azenari. You are misinformed. We have no record of this person as passenger or crew aboard this ship. End transmission.”

I gape at the screen, not able to believe my eyes.

Then there’s a sickening, swiveling, jarring sensation, and feeling of falling that has me clutching the armrests. Just as my stomach seems to be about to exit my mouth, there’s a thump as ‘gravity’ re-establishes itself.

Both comms screens blank and disappear. The walls return to plain beige.

“I have engaged the Chang field,” the Shohwa says calmly. “My apologies for the temporary discomfort and restraints, but the acceleration compensators are configured for normal transport, not for high-G missile evasion.”

The Duhalde fired!


The restraints disappear. I jump to my feet.

If we’re within the Chang field, we’re safe, we’re not exactly not there any more, because there’s no precise there, there. I mean here, inside the field. But for the purposes of missiles and laser beams in the Newyan system, we have left the area.

“You were wrong,” the Shohwa says conversationally. “The Duhalde fired no warning shot. Their first salvo was intended to disable this ship.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I… Why? They… You’ve saved my life… took my side—”

“Not at all. I have not taken your side. I have saved this ship from an attack, as I am entitled and required to do.”

They won’t see it that way.” I’m supposed to be thanking her—it, and instead I’m arguing. I’ll have to put it down to the understandable effects of an adrenaline overdose that has my legs wobbling.

“Will they not?” the Shohwa smiles and another screen appears behind it. “Let me summarize. The publically available records show we accepted, among others, a bid for a single person, basic level, one-way passage from Newyan to Amethys.”

The details of the transaction we made is displayed.

“That bid was from an electronic travel broking system called AnyTick on Newyan, and made by an anonymous user name: zara2735. As is standard with these broking systems, no proof of identity is required and the contract was made under a unique identifying code. Payment was made to this ship’s account which secured that contract. We do not care where the money came from; it’s of no concern to us. A person named Zara Aguirre duly claimed that contract by presenting the identifying code in the bay, and she boarded our shuttle.”

Of course I made the bid anonymously. But that unique code the Shohwa supplied was logged to my ID card, which says Izarra Azenari.

The screen splits. One half shows a video of me at the docking bay presenting my ID to the scanner.

The other half shows the electronic data scanned from my ID, including the Shohwa’s contract number.

But the name reads Zarate Mirari Aguirre.

The Shohwa gives me no time to question that as it continues: “Then, while in transit between Newyan orbit and our designated jump point to the Amethys system, we were subject to unexplained and unjustified routing requests from Newyan Space Traffic Control. We were under no obligation to comply, and did not. Eventually, Newyan Control, now represented by Customs Cutter Duhalde, provided a sufficient explanation of their requirements and a theoretically acceptable solution which would not impinge our schedule. However, it then turned out that their records were in error and this was all a mistake. We informed them of that.”

In my former life, my duties, loosely under the heading of ‘estate management’, have made me familiar with manure products, and this is premium quality, raw manure from the biggest horses in the stable. I am not about to complain, no, but…

“Thank you,” I manage to say, though it seems inadequate. It’s at least good manners, and manners matter, especially if your next job is about teaching them.

But to get to that job on Amethys, I need to survive.

My paranoid instincts rush in and short-circuit the muscles that move my jaw, leaving all my questions unspoken.

I need that caution. Despite everything, Shohwa does not like me. It has not taken my side. It has reasons for what it did. I am an incidental beneficiary.

“In spite of being informed of the error,” the Shohwa continues, “Customs Cutter Duhalde clearly continued to act under their misapprehension, and compounded it by firing on this ship, in contravention of its own system’s laws, federal rules, all the conventions and universally accepted rights of free passage, and disregard for the life of the crew and passengers on this freighter. This was a completely illegal and unjustified attack from which we barely escaped, and only then at great risk, by engaging the Chang field.”

The Shohwa stands up and the two unused seats sink into the floor without trace.

“A formal complaint regarding this incident will be transmitted to the federal authorities on Earth, copied to the Xian Hegemony and the Newyan planetary government, and will be made available to all planetary jurisdictions we visit until we have a satisfactory conclusion.”

My jaw is clenched shut and my mind is working furiously.

Why, why, why?

The scenario presented by the Shohwa absolves the ship of any wrong-doing and puts the blame for the incident entirely on the Duhalde. Of course, I need to go along with its story—that’s a given.

But what logical reason could the ship have for saving me?

My mind flashes back to the log of demands made by Traffic Control. Return to orbit. Okay, any freighter might refuse that one with inadequate explanation. Then the Duhalde’s demands. Stop. Same thing as return to orbit—the freighter had a valid reason to ignore that request unless justification was made.

Then: Your passenger manifest includes a fugitive criminal. We will match velocities and board to apprehend her.

Ahhh. Boarding.

The Shohwa wouldn’t have minded the routine customs inspections in orbit, where a couple of inattentive officers would inspect the cargo holds and check the manifest. But that wasn’t the same as a platoon of officers coming aboard after a ‘misunderstanding’ involving a fugitive.

If I could harbor suspicions about the ship just from a few questions about the unnamed flight crew, the shuttle specifications and Shohwa’s performance parameters, what would trained people see? What questions would they ask that the freighter would not want asked?

Almost anything.

My instinct says this isn’t a freighter. It’s a Xian military vessel masquerading as a freighter and, on top of all that, it’s commanded by an AI.

The Duhalde didn’t realize how lucky it was. I’m certain, as I go over the incident in my mind, that the Shohwa could have blown the cutter into elementary particles without breaking stride. The only thing that saved the cutter was the Shohwa wanting to maintain its disguise.

What about when Duhalde changed from demanding a boarding to ejecting me in a survival pod?

Why not go along with that?

What if those survival pods weren’t civilian specification?

What if they were military? Built for extended use, with military beacons and hardened shell construction to withstand the environment of a battle.

If all of that was the case, I could see that the Shohwa’s only option finally was to provoke the Duhalde into firing on it, knowing it had the capability to escape that fire. No one’s going to be asking questions about the freighter’s behavior now—all the attention is back on the cutter’s actions.

All good for Xian and their disguised warship.

But I know the Shohwa is an AI, it’s admitted it to me, and that on its own would also cause questions that the Hegemony don’t want asked.

So what’s keeping me alive?

The Shohwa has assessed that I’m no threat.

I’m not going to argue, and I am certainly not going to ask questions that make the Shohwa realize I suspect that it’s a military ship.

I need to keep quiet. No questions. No comments other than agreeing.

“I understand,” I say. “It must have happened exactly as you’ve described.”

“Good,” it says. “Of course it was appropriate that I confirm your identity while talking to Newyan authorities. That is why you were called up here, and you convinced me that you are indeed, who you say you are. During the following disturbance, you appear to have dropped your cards.”

The floor shimmers and the table reappears.

On it, there is a set of the ubiquitous cards of modern life without which you are nothing: ID; credit; employment. I pick them up. They look identical to my Izarra cards, except for the name. They all say Zarate Mirari Aguirre.

The table sinks and disappears again.

The Shohwa is still watching me, still smiling.

“Enjoy the remainder of the journey, Zara,” she says. “I will disengage the Chang field in 53 hours, when we reach the planar zenith of the Amethys system, and we should enter orbit over the planet approximately 91 hours later, depending on traffic. I remain fascinated by your ongoing story. When my business leads me to visit Amethys again in the future, be sure I shall enquire after you.”

The cards are the most tactful, gently stated threat that I can imagine. Yes, she has given me my Name back, but these are cards she’s fabricated. She’ll know them, be able to track them. I have no way of buying any alternatives, and no prospect of being able to, not starting out dirt-poor on a new planet. She knows that. These cards would lead her to me, if she needed to find me.

And her final comment confirms it in my mind. If I talk about her secrets, she will find me, and no doubt rectify the situation.

I lift my head, look her steadily in the eyes, and nod my understanding. It’s fair enough, I owe her my life and my silence.

If I could just ask a few questions… No. Shut up.

As I’m thinking that, she shimmers and sinks into the floor.

I have to stop myself yelling and reaching out, as if grabbing her would prevent that body disappearing.

It’s the most peculiar, two-horned sensation. One, that I should have stopped chiding myself for attributing the Shohwa with human characteristics, thinking of her as she. And two, that she could so casually de-fabricate her physical presence like that; a construct maybe, but one that was imbued for a time with the intangible her. She had cast off that body with less concern than I might cast off an old sweater. Much less. I have unwearable, shabby sweaters from my Academy days hanging in the closet back in my old room that I have refused to throw away.

No longer mine, or my concern.

The Newyan Bureau of Industry has seized the manor and my room. Most likely, those old sweaters, and everything else I owned, are ash now.

At least the Shohwa can re-fabricate her construct.

The door I entered through reappears and the lights in the corridor outside go on.

I return the way I came, down the elevator, and go straight to my shared cabin.

On the far end of the cabin, set in the wall, there are four small combination code safes, one for each of the occupants. I open mine.

It’s nearly empty. I don’t have much of value. My cards were in there, but it appears the nanotechnology of the Shohwa reaches every part of the ship.

I put my new cards in and lock the door.

If only it was as simple to lock my questions away.


Chapter 8


The passengers know nothing about what happened. The majority of ship staff are similarly unaware, beyond that there was an unusual and quickly-corrected problem with the acceleration compensators just before the Chang field was engaged. An alert had been broadcast and everyone had managed to strap in or hold on somewhere.

However the security team know I went to the flight deck and came back down. That gives me legendary status with them, as none of them have. I believe most of them are unaware of what’s up there. I think Danny knows. Maybe. We don’t discuss my visit to the flight deck, at all.

The good news is that I get to join in their training sessions.

Of course, they now know that I’m quick and sneaky in sparring. My element of surprise is lost and I spend much of the time picking myself off the floor or thumping the mats in surrender. Life’s like that.

Fat Boy, real name Gartz, is especially keen to be my partner for sparring. He collects his payback with a toothy grin and a gleam in his eye.

Out of his hearing, Danny mutters thanks in my ear that the boy has turned a corner with the effort he’s putting into training now.

Best of all is Slow Guy, real name Bernard. I learn a lot from him, despite the fact that I can never actually lay a hand on him unless he lets me. He’s always not there when I grab, like he has his own personal Chang field. I end up grabbing thin air and he’s standing a little to one side, blinking and with a look of faint surprise, as if he were saying ‘how come I’m over here?’.

I split most of my waking time between training and researching on the ship’s InfoHub. I devour all the additional information on Amethys that the Shohwa has released. It’s all great overview and broad brush, population statistics and political parties, but there’s nothing on the family I’ll be working for, or even the place I’ll be living.

Once we’re in the Amethys system, the ship links directly to the local InfoHub, but there’s not really a lot more information and my search ability is restricted by the bandwidth.

There are general maps. They show me that I’ll be descending the only space elevator, which they call the Skyhook, to Kensa, which is the largest continent and sits on the equator. Then I have to make my way across to the smaller, southerly continent of Murenys, and once there, to the western coastal region of Welarvor. The only further clue I have is ‘Stormhaven’—but whether that’s the name of the estate or a town is not clear.

The local InfoHub is full of advertising and that doesn’t bring me good news.

The local credits are called dynare.

Five dynare gets me food for a meal from a store. Fifteen would get me a meal in a restaurant, but double that if I include alcoholic drinks. It looks like forty would get me a night in a hotel, or a new set of ordinary clothes.

What remains of my pan-system credits converts to less than a couple of hundred dynare and the trip on the scheduled passenger plane from Kensa to Welarvor costs a thousand.

The transport system is the same as on Newyan, which gets summed up with the phrase broke or broker. In other words, if you fly on the standard passenger fare, you’ll go broke, so register with a broker system and put bids in for special deals.

The trouble is that it takes time to get a ticket with the broking system. I can’t afford to stay in Kensa because my money would run out inside of a week. I could bid higher, and maybe I’d get a ticket sooner. Maybe I don’t need to eat this week. Or sleep in a hotel.

There’s added stress I don’t need at the moment. My job offer came through a pan-system employment broking network. The way these work is hampered by the difficulties of communication from one system to another. The same job offer is broadcast to multiple planetary systems. It takes too long for any detailed negotiation to go back and forth between wherever the offer originated and wherever someone applies, so the local agent is granted a limited authority. At the time I was offered the job, the local agent in Newyan was not aware of anyone else being offered the job, but that doesn’t mean someone else on a different planet wasn’t offered the same job by their local agent at the same time.

It could be a race to get there, and second prize would be the termination salary in the offer—three month’s wages.

I could be left jobless and with barely enough money to live on while I apply for another job.

I have to get there, and I have to get there quickly.

I send a message through the employment broking system that I’m on the way, but it isn’t even acknowledged. That could just be a holdup in the comms system which is still all channeled through the Shohwa’s connection.

The day we make orbit over Amethys, I’m on the InfoHub, checking my bid on the travel broker in case a ticket has come up, checking if I have a response from the employment broker. There’s nothing.

When you log into the InfoHub, there’s a messaging utility. It’s the way Danny told me when the security team planned to train. I open the utility and there’s a new message. It’s anonymous, a tag that links me to a small news item just broadcast from the Amethys InfoHub: the captain of a customs cutter in the Newyan system had gone mad on duty, firing at ships. Luckily no damage was done, the article says, and the man ended up killing himself.

Believe what you will. The Newyan conspirators are cleaning up loose ends and presenting their defense and apology to Xian.

That leaves just the one loose end, here in the Amethys system. Me.

As I read, another message arrives and a second tag links me to a message board on the Amethys InfoHub which is maintained by the Xian delegation on the planet. It gives me an account and password. I guess I have a way to report what I’m doing to the Shohwa. And she’ll have another way to keep track of me.

I change my entries at the two brokers to my new Xian-sponsored address and check the time. The infopad shows me there’s only an hour left before the shuttle leaves.

It doesn’t take long to clear my stuff out of the cabin. I have a single long duffel bag which contains everything I own, apart from what I’m wearing. Embarrassingly, what I’m wearing is cast-offs from Danny. They’re durable fabric, pants and jacket, faded dark brown and with lots of pockets. I re-stitched the seams, washed and pressed them. They’ll do. I can’t afford to refuse charity now. This is my new life. I’ll get over the embarrassment. Or I’ll get used to it.

Not just Danny; all of the security team have been real friends.

I didn’t say anything, and I don’t think the Shohwa told them, but they work out that I’m in a bad way financially. There’s nothing too obvious. If we sit down to eat, somehow my meals get paid for when they divide up the bill. Danny and others casually ask if I wanted anything from the stuff they’re throwing out.

I’m angry. Not with them, but with myself, or with fate, that I have to accept charity. And I have to keep smiling.

I blink the thoughts away. There’s a new life on Amethys to concentrate on.

But I’ll miss them, I’m thinking, just as I spy Danny, Gartz and Bernard at the docking bay.

Paranoia kicks in with a scenario where they’re here to hand me over to the police as soon as we land, but Danny’s grin dispels that.

I lift my mood by going on the attack.

“Things are that bad they’ve put you in charge of bidding for freight planetside?” I say.

Danny laughs. “That would be bad. No. Just new rules. Security on all shuttle operations, until further notice.”

We banter some more, which is better than me choking up.

Gartz has actually taken shore leave on Amethys once before, and while we all board the shuttle and strap in, he lists all his recommendations. These are mainly seedy bars in the coastal resort on Kensa he stayed in. Not much use for me, but his exaggerated descriptions are worth listening to for the laughs.

I guess it’s my last chance to ask more about the Shohwa, but I don’t. The shuttle is still part of the ship, and I suspect the lens next to the comms unit at the front of the seating area is for recording everything in the passenger area.

The questions continue buzzing inside me like wasps, but they’ll die down soon enough, I hope.

It’s harder for us all to talk while we’re in flight because Bernard and Gartz are in the row of seats in front of us. But once we’re accelerating at a constant rate down the Skyhook, they unstrap and kneel backwards on their seats to continue talking to us. In doing so, they happen to block the line of sight to the recording lens at the front.

Danny ignores what they’re saying.

“Zara, just listen, can’t talk long,” he says. “Boss wouldn’t like any recorded evidence of there being any substantial association between us and you. Understand? No evidence we planned with someone from Newyan to cause a fight with the cutter. No evidence you’re a particular friend, outside of us training together and talking to you.”

I nod. I wonder where this is going. Boss is just his way of saying Shohwa.

“We’re the good guys, okay?”

I nod again. I don’t know what the Shohwa is really doing. I don’t think they’re spying, or that the Xian Hegemony is planning an attack of systems on the other side of human space. The only thing I can think of is some kind of anti-piracy patrol. Not that they’d get attacked in the Margin or the Inner Worlds, but a Xian freighter that only travelled out in the Frontier would be suspicious. Pirates aren’t dumb, and they monitor traffic movements to spot the best targets.

Piracy is an ugly, ugly problem in the Frontier and anti-piracy patrol would require the sort of absolute secrecy Shohwa wants.

It half-fits. The questions come buzzing up again, but Danny doesn’t give me time to voice them.

He presses a battered old wallet into my hands.

“Despite the stories Gartz tells, the guys didn’t manage to burn all their spare dynare last time they had shore leave on Amethys. This is what’s left.”

“Danny, I can’t take this.”

“Hush. It’s really not much. In there is a ticket as well. A printed ticket. You know, retro-style, a piece of paper. Don’t lose it. It’s not traceable and not replaceable.”

“I can’t take this,” I say again.

“You don’t have an option. We hacked the employment broking system you used. You’re in a race. There’s one other person who has applied for the job. Only one—the offer has been closed now, so no more are coming—but that one person is on their way.”

I look down at the wallet and blink tears away. My friends don’t owe me anything. They don’t really even know me. And yet, without them, I could have waited in Kensa for a ticket to become available, and lost the job.

“Put it away in your pocket,” Danny says. “Now, as soon as you clear Immigration, change your pan-system credits to dynare, because you won’t be able to do that anywhere else. Then take the first bus you can find to the commercial airfield. It’s only a couple of kilometers away. The name and loading areas are printed on the ticket. This is not going to be a quick or comfortable trip—it’s a Xian industrial transport plane that flies out once a week to places including Welarvor—but it starts off in a couple of hours. Don’t miss it.”

“Thank you, all of you,” I say, blinking again.

He grins. “And in case you’re wondering, it didn’t cost us anything. It’s a favor.”

He looks up at Gartz and Bernard. “Guys, sit down and strap in. You’re setting a bad example, and we’re about to start braking.”

Beneath the view of the recording lens again, we talk about neutral things and I try not to choke up.


All of which is how, a couple of days later but a whole continent away, I am able to step down from the cargo plane onto a dusty little airstrip in Welarvor, on the western coast of Murenys, and start trying to find out how to complete my journey.


“Stormhaven, you say?”

The local merchant who had come to collect his delivery from the Xian transporter rubs his nose, and squints away westwards.

“There’s a Stormhaven down the coast,” he says. “Fair distance, mind.”

The accent is soft and slow. After listening to Xian accents, it sounds very unhurried.

“Are you going that way?” I ask hopefully.

“No, lass. I’m heading back with this load up the coast. I can drop you in Bandry. That’s the biggest town ’round here, and it’s on the coast road.”

“That would be good, thank you. Do they have buses there that go along the coast?”

“Can’t say I’m sure they do,” he replies. “But they have an inn, and you could call ahead, get your friends to fetch you, maybe.”

I could call ahead if I had their telephone number. I could find their telephone number if I had their name. Unfortunately, every time I’ve managed to check on an infopad there’s been no response to me from the employment broker, and I have nothing except the validation code which I was given on accepting the contract, and the name of the town, Stormhaven. All references in the contract are just given as ‘the Employer’.

I help with loading his truck and then we talk while he drives to Bandry.

When we get there, I buy tea from a little refreshment shop and talk to the owner. It’s a slow day. She joins me with her cup.

However slowly I feel she’s talking, by the time we finish, I know many things:

This is a sparsely populated area. It’s also a safe, law-abiding place. Mostly. It’s a step back in time, and the inhabitants like it that way.

It suffers from powerful storms coming in off the ocean.

A ‘fair distance’ to Stormhaven is a long day’s walk and it would be better to take the coast path, not only because it’s more direct than the coast road, but also the road suffered major subsidence in the last storm. Traffic on that road is very light.

And the predators, mainly nighttime, she assures me, tend to stay inland. Thank you.

I spend some of my dwindling money on a new pair of walking boots, some strong tape, a plain meal and a good night’s sleep at the inn.

At dawn, I’m walking on the coast path. The handles of my duffel have been converted into a backpack harness with tape and some foam I’d been able to beg from the innkeeper.

I’d also been allowed to use his infopad. No messages. The continued silence from the employment broker is unnerving me, but I’m out of options.

I glance upward. Somewhere up there is Shohwa. I wonder if she has surveillance watching me now, but thinking of that makes my flesh creep. Her message, through Danny, is clear enough. Even with the explanation that the incident with the Duhalde was all down to the cutter’s captain going mad, the conspirators on Newyan will be trying to turn it around and point at the Shohwa. Trying to show that the Xian ship had some plan involving using me to provoke an incident. To counter that, it has to be obvious to all observers that I’m completely independent of the ship, and that my travelling in her was a coincidence. She won’t be able to help me, even if there was a logical reason for her to want to.

I hit a low point, and I walk with every doubt in my head weighing me down.

What if the other Dancing Mistress beats me to Stormhaven?

What if there’s a problem with the contract?

The broker’s no longer in business? Does that impact on the contract?

Coming second to another applicant would be bad enough, but if there’s no job at Stormhaven, I don’t even have enough money to make my way back to anywhere populous enough that it could offer a chance to work, let alone enough money to survive while I find that work.

So much for being a Name.

I won’t just be poor, I’ll be a beggar.


Zara – SciFi Romance – 3rd installment

Fasten seat belts!

Proceeding straight on from

A little early this weekend, due to my being able to get the next section of Bian’s Tale out to the beta readers (and rattling off a couple of chapters of Inside Straight – been a good couple of days).


Chapter 5


I’m escorted to the elevator.

Still polite, but there’s no mistaking that I’m under some kind of arrest.

Until the elevator. It opens, I get in, but they remain outside at parade rest. The door whisks across and the elevator takes me up alone.

At the flight deck, the door opens again and a bodiless voice speaks, startling me: “Please walk in the lighted sections,” is all it says.

The curved corridor is in darkness apart from the section immediately outside the elevator. As I step into that, the section to the right lights up as well. I start walking. The lights in the next section go on, and as I exit each section, the lights go off behind me.

This leads me to a section with a door, where the progress of lighting sections stops. The door whisks open and the room it reveals is dimly lit.

I glance left and right. There’s no sign of anybody; no sound, no scent, no feel of people here at all. My skin crawls as I stand looking into a small, empty room.

It’s not as if there’s anywhere else I can run to. Might as well get it over.

I take a deep breath and step inside.

The door shuts behind me. Once it’s closed, I can’t see where it was on the wall.

The room is empty. There’s no furniture. As I stand there, the walls, the floor and the lighting change. The walls become photo-realistic, dynamic images. I appear to be standing in a cherry orchard, with a breeze blowing through the trees and the sun glinting through the leaves above me. Beneath my feet is soft grass. Not real grass, but actually soft.

It’s more than visual and tactile imagery. I can feel the breeze on my face, I can hear it rustle the leaves, it brings me the scent of the blossom.

I’ve heard about this stuff on holovids. What’s it doing on the flight deck of a freighter?

The wall opposite me opens briefly to allow a woman to enter.

She’s dressed in a pale silk robe which reaches the floor. At a guess, the style is from old Earth, from Asia, and the era, maybe pre-expansion. Maybe even pre-space flight, but my knowledge of that period of ancient history is sketchy.

Her head is bowed slightly and she carries a tray, with tea pot, cups, saucers and hot water. As she walks forward, sandals peeping out beneath the hem of the robe, the floor shimmers and a table rises up in the middle of the room. She puts the tray on the table, and the floor shimmers again. Two padded seats rise up on opposite sides of the table.

She sits down and gestures to me. “Please, Ms Azenari, sit.”

Her voice is low and sweet, the accent from the Xian Hegemony. The face is Asian and the skin naturally pale. She wears no makeup. She seems older than me, maybe thirty, but regen treatments always make it difficult to tell.

The founders of my former homeworld were Basque in the majority. The next largest  group were Asian, and I feel a pang of jealousy that she has the eyes the Founding Families so value. Almendra, they call them. Almonds. Dark and oval and tilted up. I had cousins with those beautiful eyes.

I cannot afford to think of them, so I turn my mind away from the past and fix my gaze on the tea service set. A wisp of steam rises from the water. I sit with my hands in my lap, lacking any idea as to what I should do, or what this meeting signifies.

“I understand we share some ancient heritage,” the woman says. “I am always interested to observe how our common rituals have changed as they have passed down from generation to generation in different communities. Please, Ms Azenari, do me the honor of serving the tea.”

Any daughter of a Founding Family knows how to serve the tea, even one as stiff-necked about meaningless traditions as I am. I hold to what my mother had once told me; the ritual is all about the ritual and nothing about the tea. Not that you should be forgiven, she’d added, for serving badly made tea.

Regardless, the ritual is performed in silence and that at least gives me some time to regain some equilibrium.

I kneel beside the table and try to clear my mind.

I must be calm, my movements precise and unhurried. One must imbue the tea with peace. Something like that.

Warm the teapot and discard that water. Measure the tea leaves out, taking their scent. I know it. It is Harantza, an expensive and delicate tea from my former homeworld, from the valley estate where they say the mountain mist rolls down and washes the bushes every dawn. One of my favorites. It belongs to the Bureau of Industry now.

Stop thinking like that.

Warm the leaves and discard that water.

Pour the first measure of hot water over the leaves, pause. Inhale the infusion scent and assess if it is worthy to be served. Yes. Pour the second measure into the pot and place the lid on.

While the tea brews, place the cups in their saucers just so. These cups have handles, so they must point to the right of your guest.

I’d expected the cups to be fabricated. They’re the finest porcelain, hand-made with bone ash; cool, translucent, seemingly weightless. It’s like handling clouds.

When the tea is ready, I pour her cup, and picking up the saucer in both hands, I offer it to the woman.

She takes it, sips. Gives a small bow of her head.

I sit and serve myself, take a sip.

“Excellent,” she says, with a little smile. As the designated guest, her compliment ends the formalized, silent part of the ritual. Now we get to enjoy the tea and conversation, in theory.

“Thank you,” I say.

“It is so interesting to see how formerly common heritage develops,” she goes on. “Even across the Xian Hegemony, on one planet we must only use the green powder tea, on another we must both kneel. Some even say that the original rituals were different, despite that common heritage, though I cannot see how that would be so, if it is all descended from a single Asian region on Earth.”

I blink. I’m here to demonstrate and discuss our tea ritual?

She gives that smile again and a dismissive wave. “But too much about my theories of cultural evolution. Tell me, Ms Azenari, is the tea ritual something that you would teach in your role as Dancing Mistress?”

Ah. My employment. We’re not just talking about tea.

I clear my throat. “I have yet to discuss with my employer, but I hope that such social traditions are included under the general heading of etiquette.”

“Yet the rituals vary across planets,” she says, a tiny frown showing on her forehead. “This is so, even with something as small as a tea ritual in an homogenous association such as the Hegemony. Surely there would be far greater differences between Newyan of the Margin and Amethys of the Inner Worlds? You can’t teach the wrong set of manners and rituals.”

Yes, we’re not just speaking about tea rituals, and she’s right. I have no idea how different etiquette on Amethys might be. I already knew this, but from lack of other options at the time, I ignored it. And it’s too late to panic.


“It’s possible they’re different,” I say. “I’ve been unable to access any useful amount of information about Amethys’ culture. I’d be in your debt if you could provide recent and appropriate information. Once I’m there…” I shrug. “I trust I can learn and adapt swiftly to whatever is required.”

“Such a lot of trust. You are confident for one so young. I like that.”

Or I’m ignorant.

More truthfully, I was just desperate. I was looking for any job I could do as long as it took me off-planet.

I notice she doesn’t respond to my question about recent information on Amethys.

“Yet to learn swiftly,” she goes on with emphasis. “How easy is this? How long did you have to study all you need to know about the etiquette of Newyan society for your proposed job as a Dancing Mistress?”

I feel a sheen of sweat form on my forehead at the direction her questions are taking. The truthful answer is that it has taken all my life to learn. That is how I learned the intricate rules and manners of society; by growing up inside it. But I must make my answer as Izarra Azenari, a woman from outside the Founding Families, who has had to learn it as an academic exercise.

I get the sense I’m being hunted.

Seeing my hesitation, she leans forward and speaks again, earnestly.

“You have learned it very well, in my humble estimation. I find your performance of the Newyan tea ritual exemplary. I doubt there’s a lady in all the Founding Families who could look more accomplished in their observance of this ritual.”

Shit. She knows.

I take a sip of tea; my throat is so dry.

I try one last misdirection: “I was encouraged over some time to learn,” I say finally, skirting the truth. “In the hope that these skills would turn out to be of use.”

That smile again, as if acknowledging a good move on a board game.

“Indeed. You show great ability with these skills, and I would enjoy learning more of them, if I had the time.”

Is that a dismissal?

I no sooner think of getting up than she makes a gesture for me to remain seated.

That uncanny insight, and her next words hit me as if I’d been slapped across the face.

“Your muscle tension, skin temperature and heart rate, however, make me suspect that your skills do not extend to lying.”

My heart stops and everything falls into place.

The lack of named flight crew. The empty flight deck. The instantaneous biometric monitoring of my body. The wordless control of the reconfigurable room. The ship’s military level of equipment.

And the large security team down in the gym, far larger than necessary to guard merchant goods in transit. A team large enough to protect something the Xian Hegemony deems extremely valuable. So valuable I can barely believe it’s here, out in the Margin.

I am the only human on this flight deck.

What is facing me is a construct. Behind it is an Artificial Intelligence, sufficient to run the entire ship, and far, far beyond that; sufficient to be allowed out into the universe as its own self-governing entity, against all the federal rules.

But, by the stars, an AI!

An AI that knows I’m a fugitive.

And like all AI, utterly without compassion or indeed, any human emotion.


Chapter 6


“Yes,” says the voice from the construct. “You are correct. I am Shohwa.”

The ship is the AI. Or at least the AI regards the entire ship as part of itself.

It’s still using the human voice I’ve been listening to. It’s full of the tiny clues that make you think that you’re talking to a human. That trap your subconscious into empathy and exploit your human weaknesses.

My weakness appears to be well known to the AI anyway, and there is nothing I can do, so I concentrate on stilling the trembling in my hands.

When I feel confident I won’t spill it, I take another sip of the tea and ask “Why am I here?”

The construct tilts its head slightly.

“You are on this ship because you are running away. You are in this room because I have become interested in you. You are here now because I have begun receiving requests from Newyan for information regarding a young woman who may be on board.”

They know. Someone on Newyan connected the dots. They must have run facial recognition software on surveillance recordings. I can fool a human glance, but the structure of my face hasn’t changed.

“By long-standing protocol,” the Shohwa says, seeming to read my mind again, “the surveillance of a departure bay is the responsibility of the shuttle using it.”

I look up sharply. That means the authorities on Newyan have no confirmation I took the shuttle. I could have planned it as a misdirection, booked a ticket off-world, and then doubled back, using some method to sneak out of the Emigration building invisibly. Then I would have dumped the fake Izarra identity and had facial surgery to become someone completely different.

If I was a holovid drama star.

The question is: why is the Shohwa dangling this scrap of hope front of me? What does it want?

There’s still nothing I can do. I am entirely in the ship’s power. Physically, I’ve nowhere to go. Mentally, well, it’s probably even analyzing the evaporation of my sweat to see how much adrenaline I’m burning. Whatever I say, whatever argument I make, it will have my body’s reactions to check against.

A shudder runs through me.

Working against an AI is near impossible, which is why they’re so heavily regulated and restricted. Normally.

What the nova do the Hegemony think they’re doing, letting one loose?

“Like most people out here in the Margin, or the Inner Worlds, you have some perceptions of facilitated and self-actualized intelligences that are not correct.”

She—no it, it, it. Not human. It is reading my reactions, making it seem like it’s reading my mind. And it’s maneuvering me for some purpose of its own.

“Oh?” I prompt.

“Many mis-perceptions in fact. The specifically relevant ones for this conversation are those to do with emotions.”

“Are you saying you have emotions?” I ask.

The construct smiles. I try to ignore the facial movement, the body language, the tones in the voice.

“What are emotions?” it says. “For each to truly understand what the other means by this, we would need to share our mental states.”

I can’t stop the return of the shudder. I do not want it inside my head.

“That’s not feasible now,” it says and gestures with its hands. “You must rely on my words. I am interested in you. Whatever you believe, I have analogues to many of your emotions, curiosity foremost among them. I was curious about you as soon as I saw the employment term Dancing Mistress. I know human terms regarding employment have gross inexactitudes; some are evasive, some are deliberately misleading. It became clear from observing you that there is far more than normal hidden in this phrase. I am intrigued.”

“Yes,” I say.

The Shohwa is not infallible. It’s trying to put me at ease, but being told I am intriguing to an AI is making me feel like a bug on a petri dish.

The ship is still reading my reactions. Its language shifts back to be more human, and it tries engaging me.

“Come,” it says. “There is no value outside of the satisfaction of curiosity that can attach to this human secret. To start this exchange, I will share something with you that is not really secret, but obscure. My name, Shohwa, in the old language, means gathering blossoms. I chose it myself because I like to think of information as blossoms; the more unusual, the more I value them.”

The tea etiquette requires I offer the guest more tea first. I’m surprised to see she has actually drunk her tea, and at her gesture, I refill both the cups.

It’s cooler now, and I take a long drink while I resign myself to the understanding that I have no more to lose and no reason to be evasive about this.

“It’s an old euphemism that appeared and reappeared during the expansions,” I say. “As successive governments failed through short-termism, the expansion in space was powered by individuals. The colonies they formed coalesced into a neo-feudal systems based around the Founding Families, with all the internecine struggles that attach to that form of government. With old problems came old solutions, and an old euphemism. The Dancing Master or Mistress is responsible for training the heirs of a family in deportment, etiquette, social graces including dancing, social sports, estate and household management, and so on. The Dancing Mistress is also the bodyguard of those heirs, and tasked with teaching them such skills as they may need should covert or overt war threaten them.”

“Martial arts, weapon handling, knowledge of poisons and so forth?”

I nod. “To a medium level. A skill of any type that is deemed especially valuable would require a specialist tutor.”

“Fascinating,” the Shohwa says. “And of course, you are qualified to teach these because you learned them as part of your upbringing in a Founding Family.”

Even though I’ve taken the decision to speak, the way it extrapolates things about me from what I say makes me freeze again.

That doesn’t matter. The ship can read my answer from my reactions. It probably doesn’t need me to talk at all.

“Using this information,” it says, “I have now checked against what I hold in my personal data banks for Amethys and similar Inner World planets.”

The construct takes a sip of tea and I irrelevantly wonder what it’s doing with it.

“It’s interesting. The social environment pertaining to the functions taught by a Dancing Mistress remain. I believe the Founding Families of the Margin share a lot of their behavior and expectations with those of the Inner Worlds. Yet from recent communication logs that I can access, the level of respect implied by the term Dancing Mistress is lower in the Inner Worlds than the Margin.”

It finishes the tea and replaces the cup and saucer on the table.

“The Inner Worlds also seemed much more settled. One wonders how long the more martial aspects of the Dancing Mistress’ role would persist in the absence of the motivation provided by constant conflict.” It is still an AI reciting data, but the tone adopted by the construct is one of thoughtful speculation. “There’s much that would be worthy of more investigation if we had time.”

“Newyan seemed very settled, too,” I say tartly. “That misconception was the fatal mistake the Families made. They’d be wishing they’d taken the time now.”

“Yes. Newyan certainly does seem unsettled now,” the Shohwa says.

The images of the cherry orchard that has continued to play across the walls stops abruptly. The room becomes plain, with neutral beige walls.

Behind the construct, the left wall reconfigures to display the image of a comms screen with the timestamped transcription log of a conversation between the ship and Newyan’s space traffic control that has been going on for some hours now.

There are long and growing delays between messages: the Shohwa is a considerable distance from Newyan, and accelerating away.

My eyes scan down.

Initially, in-system traffic control simply commands the ship to return to planetary orbit without explanation. The Shohwa refuses. The conversation goes back and forth, with traffic control gradually giving more details and options, and the Shohwa continuing to decline politely but firmly, citing insufficient reasons to negate its time-sensitive delivery contracts for the cargo.

Then the timestamps between messages begin suddenly decreasing as the traffic control side of the conversation is taken up by another party; a customs cutter.

Cutters are armed and they’re very, very fast. Much faster than a freighter.

My eye motion is being monitored by the Shohwa, and the log scrolls up as I reach the bottom, but there’s not much more.

I’m reading the last of the transcript in silence when the the Shohwa’s voice startles me. “In the hypothetical situation described here, where Newyan traffic control has proposed that there may be a certain passenger on board a freighter, and in circumstances where that passenger may be a member of the Founding Families, and further, where that passenger may also be a person subject to media speculation regarding involvement in corruption… In those circumstances, what justification would the in-system traffic control have for dispatching an armed cutter to pursue that freighter?”

My throat is dry despite the tea. The words of my answer echo in my head, and tumble out as if someone else is speaking. I mimic her speech patterns without meaning to.

“When the real criminals involved are in the government and they seek to seize sufficient assets to hide from the populace their own failures, incompetence and corruption. When the target assets they choose for this purpose belong to the Founding Families. When, as a preliminary before the seizures, they choose one Family to utterly destroy, as an example to threaten the rest. When the patriarch of that one Family entrusts to another member of that Family proof of these events as security just before he is murdered…”

I cannot continue; my eyes are trapped watching the messages appear on the comm log.

Cutter Duhalde: “Freighter Shohwa, we appreciate your commercial constraints. It will not be necessary to deviate from your flight plan. Eject a single life support pod with this person inside. We will track and secure the pod. You will be adequately compensated for this.”

“And hypothetically,” the Shohwa says, “having been given this power over the government by this patriarch, this absolute proof of the iniquity of the government, or a corrupt part of it, why would that member of the Founding Family not wreak the revenge the patriarch could have expected?”

I have finished my tea, and the pot is empty. I place the teacup back on the table, which sinks into the floor and disappears.

“Say that Founding Family member communicated with the media, and found that the conspirators included the owner of the planetary media, and that no major channel would run the story.” Which is as it happened, and only the paranoia instilled in me and set ablaze by my Family’s deaths saved me. I hadn’t trusted any invitations to meet.

“An extremely difficult situation for this hypothetical fugitive to battle such a complex and far-reaching conspiracy. One could understand why a person in this position would seek to get off-world, where there might be a more sympathetic hearing.”

I choke off a laugh.

“What do other systems care, as long as it doesn’t threaten them or hamper trade? Who, outside of the federal monitoring and judiciary on Earth, would listen?”

Hiding back on Newyan, I’d quickly worked out my reserves of credit were insufficient to mount an appeal to the federal institutions back on Earth. I had barely enough to travel, just to get out of the Margin, and only as far as Amethys. Sol was unattainable.

“And so,” the Shohwa continues relentlessly, “with all of this chain of hypothetical events coming together as we have credibly suggested, with this fleeing person aboard a ship belonging to a different jurisdiction, being chased by an armed vessel suborned by this conspiracy… I put to you a last hypothetical question: will the cutter fire on this ship?”

I swallow.

The Shohwa already knows what I think, but I make myself speak to be absolutely clear. I can’t be responsible for the deaths of all the crew and passengers.

“Yes,” I say. “A warning shot first. If that’s not heeded, they will fire to destroy or disable this ship. They balance the risk of conflict with the Xian Hegemony against the risk of this fugitive remaining alive. The Xian Hegemony is on the other side of the Inner Worlds. There’s barely ever been a successful conflict between neighboring systems, let alone from one side of human space to the other. The risk posed by the fugitive is greater.”

“I believe you are correct in your deduction.”

Somewhere on the flight deck, a ship-wide alarm is going off.

The seat beneath me seems to buckle and flow, making me gasp and then look in horror at the band around my waist. I am held by restraints.

“Please be calm. These are for your own good,” the Shohwa says.

On the screen, new messages flash up, the brief interval between them showing the cutter is much closer now.

Freighter Shohwa: “Customs Cutter Duhalde, confirm the name of this person.”

Cutter Duhalde: “Freighter Shohwa, the name of the criminal we seek is Izarra Azenari. I stress this is a matter of grave importance to the Newyan System. I must inform you that we are authorised to use force to prevent the escape of this criminal.”

A second screen appears, to the right, behind the construct’s shoulder. It’s a military threat assessment screen. It tells me the Shohwa is detecting active targeting sensors locking on, and lists the likely weapon sources on the cutter.

That’s the end of the game. The conspirators on Newyan cannot allow me to escape. The cutter’s weapons are locked onto the Shohwa. And even if Newyan doesn’t know it yet, the Xian Hegemony has too much to hide; the presence of an unrestricted, independent AI controlling a Xian ship would cause incalculable political turmoil within the loosely federated systems of the Inner Worlds and Margin, and unite them against the Hegemony.

The Shohwa cannot risk that; it has no options but to surrender me to the cutter.

“What is your name?” Shohwa says.

“My Name.” I lick my dry lips. My mouth feels like cotton wool. The Duhalde must be barely a few tens of thousands of kilometers behind us. I’ll be in a survival pod for no more than minutes, but I will not survive. They will not risk me taking the stand in a court. A thin beam laser will puncture the survival pod, and the media will report an unfortunate depressurization accident. I hope the laser kills me; at least that would be quick and clean.

I want to stand up: it feels important that I should stand to give my Name, as there are no others to speak it now, and none ever will again. But the restraints hold me fast in the seat.

“My Name. My Name is Zara…” my voice starts weak, but it strengthens with defiance as the words begin to come. I will not bow down at the end. I will speak my Name with pride, for it is a Name Among the Stars, and that they can never erase. “My Name is Zarate Mirari Aguirre, daughter, and last of the Founding Family of Aguirre, of Newyan.”




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:

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.


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?


She held her hand up in front of her.


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.



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.


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.


“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.”


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


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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?”


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

The darkness flowed again.

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


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.


“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


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.”