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Zara – episode 2

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy….

Your comments welcome as always.

Chapter 1

 

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

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

…remember that.

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

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

You are nothing…

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

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

Nothing!

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

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

…without me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And neither would I trade with her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My number will be next.

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

I tense.

Wait for it. Wait.

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

Now.

Now will you trade with that student?

No.

Fool! Arrogant imbecile!

 

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

Without being told to, I sit.

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

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

Then…

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

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

The woman taps her pad.

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

See; I am nothing, Grandfather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She passes it across the scanning contact on the pad.

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

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

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

 

Chapter 2

 

The woman’s eyes remain on the screen.

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

“Employment offer,” I reply.

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

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

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

“Dancing Master?”

“Dancing Mistress.”

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

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

I must remember, I am nothing.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman grunts, unimpressed. “Anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How kind of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

If she lets me go.

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

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

“Assets.” She flicks her fingers again.

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

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

It takes an age.

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

“I do, Ma’am.”

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

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

The second card.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 3

 

“First time?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triple redundancy systems for the FTL jump. Triple?

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

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

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

I hope he knew.

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

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

Eight interlocking Chang generators and triple phase Suidao FTL engines?

That’s military grade equipment.

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

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

They would hardly advertise that, would they?

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

Costs?

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

Crew?

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

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

Passengers? Accommodation?

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

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

Don’t I sound tough?

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

I look around the cabin at the other passengers.

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

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

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

The boarding officer buckles in beside me.

“Feeling better?” he says brightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 4

 

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

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

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

What is this ship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better now.

Letting go catches me by surprise.

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

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

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

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

There’s little privacy in the passenger section.

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

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

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

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

 

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

One comes across and introduces himself.

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

“Zara,” I reply, looking them over.

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

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

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

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

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

Paranoia aside, I need sparring practice as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll start with Fat Boy.”

I point.

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

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

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

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

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

“Done.”

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

I trip him as he hurtles past.

He lands like a pig in a puddle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The slow guy,” I say and point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++++

What happens next? Next episode: Episode 3

Elodie (Julius and Livia complementary theme) – another chapter

I have the audiobook of Angel Stakes from Julia and I’m checking it. Very few fixes required, so should be quickly returned to Audible to process.

I’ll tidy this New York story up into one post with links to all the sections in order at some later stage, but at the moment, this just follows on from the first scene with Elodie:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/julius-and-livia-complementary-theme/

I’m guessing the two stories will come together in a couple of weeks.

Enjoy! (And tell me what you think…)

<<***>>

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

She dives through some shops, trots across a couple of back streets, her heart pounding and her head swiveling left and right.

No one is following her.

The streets are empty.

Am I hallucinating again?

Was Barlett even there?

She’s in Greenpoint. Surrounded by film studios. Huge square buildings. Uniform and near featureless on the outside. A different world in each of them on the inside.

Each of them like a rabbit hole.

How many rabbit holes have I gone down?

She has to believe she’s not hallucinating, or else she might as well sit down and die right here.

Her cell is purring, but it’s not the alarm this time.

She knows the phone number. A landline. From an office. If she closes her eyes for a second, she can actually see the desk, almost hidden by the piles of paper, each pile with a foliage of multi-colored Post-it notes peeking out the sides. The drooping angle poise lamp. The reference books.

She doesn’t mean to answer, but there’s an ache in her throat, and while she’s hating herself for that, her thumb swipes the little green icon.

“Yes,” she says. Meaning I’m still alive.

She can’t go back. She told him that before.

“El.”

“Nate,” she says. “Why are you calling me?”

“I…” he stumbles over the words, and she suspects he changes what he was going to say. “I still care. You’re not well.”

She can hear the pain in his words.

“I know I’m not well,” she replies.

“The doctor said you should be resting at home.”

The doctor had said that. He’d said the growth in her brain was inoperable. That she would experience bizarre hallucinations. That it would be best to remain quiet in familiar surroundings. With people to look after her.

He hadn’t said she should give up and wait to die, but that’s what he’d meant.

She’d chosen not to. She couldn’t just lie in bed, dosing herself with drugs, letting the darkness creep in through the door like a tide. Wondering, every time she fell asleep, if this was the one she wouldn’t wake from.

“I can’t,” she says to Nathan, who would have taken time off from his research at the university at Ann Arbor, and would have sat with her while the long evening fell. “I free you.”

She closes her eyes again. She can imagine him sitting at the desk in the cramped little office with its single window looking out onto the campus. The view would be shrouded in snow now. Ann Arbor is white and cold and still this Christmas.

That office was the place where she developed her interest in the architecture of languages. Where she traced the roots of Sanskrit and Dravidian and Anatolian up into Proto-Indo-European and back down into Scythian and Mycenaean Greek.

The place where old languages come to die, the students joked.

The place where the close-faced federal agent had given her a frightening non-disclosure agreement and a few pages of puzzling transcript he wanted her to assess.

“Is it a code? Some kind of dialect of an old language?” he’d asked.

With nothing but the occasional headache to hold her back, she’d unleashed the full weight of her knowledge and her computing expertise. And had found, in the tangle of dead roots and archaic grammar, hints of a wondrous new language, just begging for investigation.

It was like finding gold in the pan, except the federal agent had closed the project and warned her to forget everything she’d ever known about it.

She hadn’t. She couldn’t.

Not even when the headaches and dizziness became impossible to ignore. When the doctor’s solemn words started pressing down on her, every word heavy as a boulder, every visit more and more of them, squeezing the breath from her chest, stealing the light from the day, until the only light she lived by seemed to be from her laptop screen.

And in chasing a supposedly dead language through the shadowy corners of the internet, she’d found the chance of hope, to buttress against the crushing weight of the doctor’s certainty.

Nathan is still talking, still trying to draw her back into his world. His arguments have grown cold.

“You don’t have to stay in bed,” he says. “You could come into the office when you feel up to it. I’d drive you. Take you back whenever you wanted. God knows I need the help.”

The way it is at the moment, his words spark off images in her head.

Office. Office.

She sees herself in a different office, and suddenly knows what she needs to be doing, right now.

“I’m dead,” she says, trying to grow a hard, shiny surface on her soul. “Whatever happens. Grieve and move on, Nate. I wish you every joy. From the bottom of my heart.”

“What do you mean—”

She ends the call, cutting him off.

Go, she wants to say. Be at peace. Turn away and find a new life. She wants that charmed combination of words that will comfort him and free him at the same time, but she’s better with old, dead languages than modern English.

Or maybe with a language that is old, but not dead. A language of hope.

She starts to jog.

It’s too late to worry about attracting attention.

Julius and Livia, complementary theme

As previously mentioned, to make Julius and Livia into a novella, I’ve decided to bind in a second thread. This is a story I started to write while I was staying with the daughter in Brooklyn this fall and it will make the second thread. The two threads will come together at the end.

So…Julius in St Jude’s will probably be chapter 1 and this chapter will probably be 2. There might be a short chapter after this that explains more of what the PoV character is attempting, then the novella would alternate between the two threads until they join.

Other stuff… Not had a good week for progress on the main writing projects. (But I said before, the chapters I put up here are just ‘playing’ at weekends with different ideas and techniques).

 <<***>>

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

For a heart-pounding minute… the street is empty in the numinous sunlight. Bright, blank advertising boards above the sidewalk numb the brain. The street signs twist and lie. The shops are silent; they leak their pungent breath over the street, over her.

She leans against a wall and pretends to be reading a message on her cell.

Important message. On the cell.

Her eyes are squeezed shut so tightly it makes her dizzy.

It—whatever it was—passes.

The sounds of cars and people and life seep back in.

Her sight is blurry with tears when she opens her eyes again.

What’s going on?

In a panic she can’t remember anything. Not even her name. Then there’s a vague sensation of talking to someone. Yes! There was a man, Barlett, speaking. It’s dangerous, he said.

Your funeral. He said that, too.

“You all right?”

A guy on the street. Talking to her.

“Get away from me,” she says. The words slur. Her mouth feels lopsided and she starts to walk away hurriedly. It takes effort.

Left foot. Right foot.

Gotta keep going. Important.

The man who spoke says something else. Probably as rude as she was to him. She ignores it.

It’s dangerous. It’s even dangerous for people to be seen with you.

Barlett had told her that, but she doesn’t know why.

Her cell is vibrating. There’s something showing on the glossy screen.

She keeps walking, but she looks at the cell.

Important. Something very important she must do.

There’s an animation on the screen. A rabbit in a waistcoat, with an old-fashioned pocket watch is gesturing at her.

Time to go down the rabbit hole.

Follow. Hurry. Tick tock.

Her fingers seem to remember, and she swipes a code in that sets it going.

The screen fades to black and she falls into a slideshow.

 

I am not mad.

I need to reboot.

My name is Elodie Villiers.

I am not mad. I need to trust me.

 

It feels like rocks colliding in her head. Things fall back into place, and it is a dark place.

 

I am 28.

That is too young to die.

 

Although she remembers the slide that will come up next, she lets it come anyway.

 

I have just suffered a blank.

I just need to reboot.

 

She stops the slideshow, and resets the timer in case it happens again—the blank as she calls it.

The episodes are getting more frequent now.

Or maybe it’s triggered by where she is. It’s her childhood home. Brooklyn. But the streets of this Brooklyn are like old friends who’ve grown strange while she’s been away. They look narrower. More people and yet less lively. Less real.

She looks around and seems to see new and old Brooklyn superimposed, like one of those trick photoshop images. Disorienting.

She stops looking. It’s what set the last blank off.

A block west.

Her head hurts, but she’s sure she remembered that right. She has to get there on time. Barlett won’t hang around, and he’d said something on the phone about this being the last meeting.

Either he has the information she needs.

Or her life is over.

She hurries, but stops herself from running. Running will attract attention. That’s dangerous. Not just because Barlett said so, but because she knows.

She knows things she shouldn’t.

She’s dangerous for them, and that means they’re dangerous for her. They protect their secrets with an absolute, fatal ferocity. How else could they have survived, especially here, in such a crowded area. Over 2.5 million people in under 100 square miles of city.

And that’s just Brooklyn.

All of those millions of people…none of them see it. She hadn’t, until she’d gone looking with electronic eyes and desperation. Now she knows, and she knows where they are, in general terms.

When the internet couldn’t make the last resolution, she resorted to old-fashioned methods. Most of the PIs she talked to wouldn’t touch it. Barlett said he was the best. He didn’t ask too many questions and she could afford his fees—just.

Somewhere here. This intersection.

She slows.

Barlett set up a meeting style. She’s never to go to his office, after the first meeting. She’s never to approach him. Just be where I say and wait, he’d said.

He’s ultra-cautious. And now he’s running scared.

Either he’s got what she needs, or he’s pulling out and she’s dead.

Or he’s set her up.

Imagining her head in a telescopic sight makes the skin on the back of her neck crawl, even though a bullet in the head won’t make much difference now.

Tick tock.

He’s not here.

Just as panic starts, and she’s about to look around wildly, she hears a hiss from behind.

“Walk, dammit.”

She walks.

She can hear a walking stick tapping, so she slows a little, catches a glimpse of him in a shop window.

Barlett looks different every time she sees him. Not huge things. No wigs or cross-dressing. Simple little things. Today, he’s limping and walking with a stick and a fedora tilted over his eyes. Scarf muffler, gloves, old coat buttoned against the cold. He looks like he’s eighty years old. He’s maybe thirty-five.

“Jesus,” he mutters as if talking to himself. He’s close enough she can hear him, far enough away it doesn’t look as if they’re together. “This is it. We’re even, and I’m done.”

Shit.

“What happened?” Her voice betrays her anxiety.

They walk on for several paces before he answers. He keeps his voice at the level of traffic noises. “I got too close. They’re good. They made me. Barely got away.”

The tap of the stick is like a metronome. It seems to cut through the sounds of the road—the big engines, the fat tires running over badly fitted manholes, people yelling, horns blaring.

“I give you what I got, and I’m gone. Today. Got my bug-out money. Got a place way down south, on the coast,” he says, and there’s a humorless bark of a laugh. “Reckon I’m taking up fishing.”

“What have you got?” she says.

She doesn’t try to change his mind. Actually, him staying on would achieve nothing. It’s too late. Either he’s got what she needs, or she’s dead.

“Not a lot. They like a couple of restaurants,” he says. “There’s also a club, and a church that seem to be something to them. Haven’t found where they live and I’m not going to try.”

A church? She’s surprised.

Old habits die hard. She’d visited one when she’d got back to New York, on the basis of some old memory about the patron saint of lost causes. But her cause was too lost, or maybe God was busy watching the sparrows fall or something. It just made her angry and she left before the priest noticed her and started asking awkward questions.

But what would they want with a church?

There’s a squeal of tires and a driver hammers on his horn.

Cars stop and there’s shouting and cursing. People slow and get in her way, rubber-necking the street theater.

She’s twenty yards down the road before she realizes she can’t hear the tap of the walking stick.

She turns, even though Barlett has always told her not to.

Like Orpheus in the underworld, he’d said. Never look back at me, or you’ll lose it all.

There’s a walking stick. Pale, with a pistol grip. It’s fallen into the road, next to the edge of the sidewalk.

There’s no sign of Barlett.

 

Julius and Livia – another chapter

I’m at a point in this ‘doodle’ where something is about to happen, and because I’ve just written it as I’ve gone along, I haven’t prepared for what happens. 🙂

Anyway, this continues seamlessly on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/julius-and-livia-two-more-scenes/

What I’ll have to do is go back and write the other thread, and post that, because the end of this post is approximately where I think the two threads will collide. As I said before, this is just weekend writing exercises, so it will come out when it comes out.

As I’ve also mentioned elsewhere, the audio of Angel Stakes has completed the recording phase, but has to go through editing and checking and various other processes before it’s released, which will hopefully be sometime in February. I’m working on Bian’s Tale and Bite Back 6, but I’m not in a position to start giving estimates yet. I’m still annotating Angel Stakes for the German translation.

<<***>>

Manhattan Island, restaurant.

They walk. To the world around them, just three friends, out at night.

The restaurant turns out to be eccentric French-Asian. It claims gourmet cooking, and has tables in private circular booths set in an arc around a semi-open kitchen.

Julius realizes Four Altau security have followed them discreetly. One pair take single-diner seats on the bar that overlooks the kitchen, the other pair wait outside.

The conversation, mainly between Julius and Skylur, is desultory while they order meals and Skylur picks a wine.

The maître d’ presents the bottle. Julius and Livia remain silent while Skylur declares it acceptable and they each get a glass poured.

It’s a Chateau Margaux, ’82, and Julius is glad that Altau has indicated that he will be picking up the tab. How many meals for the homeless could he…

He can’t be distracted. He has to pay attention.

Skylur is resting his elbows on the table and peering at them over steepled fingers.

“You have made yourselves an interesting community, hidden away in New York,” he says. “Not truly diazoun, since you all interact with each other.”

It’s an unexpectedly gentle opening to the topic.

“It is unorthodox,” Julius says, picking his word deliberately, “but I believe it’s in tune with the requirements of the wider Athanate world. It is ahead of the trend, maybe.”

“Really?” Skylur slips effortlessly into Athanate, making their conversation private. “Trendy? Unorthodox is the new black?”

The word he uses for unorthodox is epitre. Rogues are epitre, and they are put down mercilessly.

“I’m not talking of fashions,” Julius says. “Things we can elect to do, if we so wish. I’m talking of a way of co-operating that we have to undertake in the modern world. And if we, as a people, can find sixteen words to describe the emotion of love and thirty-two ways to modify each of them, then surely we can see some differentiation in the quality of unorthodoxy.”

Livia smiles coldly.

“We will have to,” Skylur says, conceding the point gracefully. “Just as we will have to remain responsible for policing ourselves. For example, disposing of untreatable rogues. Or dealing with others who could damage our community.”

Julius blinks. Others could mean anything. It’s a conversational invitation to discuss what might and might not be acceptable behavior for members of the Athanate community, but there’s a point he wants to make first.

“You agree that we’ve been successful in living together and policing ourselves in the way we’ve pioneered in New York?” he says. “That we could be seen as an experiment for the whole paranormal world?”

If Altau agrees that, then Julius can argue that individual Houses, and the people in them, should be acceptable, regardless of their individual tastes.

“You exaggerate your case,” Skylur says. He’s seeing exactly where Julius is heading. “Hiding from the Warders and then revealing yourself to me because you knew you wouldn’t escape my attention is not the same as being discovered and judged by humanity. You have some merit to your argument, but your ship may founder on this one rock—will humanity accept what we reveal?”

The meal arrives. They’ve elected to go straight to the main course.

Conversation flags again as they begin to eat. Hinton’s recommendation has turned out to be excellent. The food is delicious and yet Julius’ appetite is not good.

“Are there other communities like we have in New York?” Julius asks. “Or anywhere else where evaluating what could damage the community is not based on a literal reading of the Agiagraphos?”

Julius has come to hate the Agiagraphos, the Athanate book of laws. It is so definitive and prescriptive. The world has changed, and the Agiagraphos has not. By the laws of the Agiagraphos, Livia should have killed the Athanate that failed to blur the memories of the girl he fed from. And Julius believes that is wrong.

However, though Julius has no time for the Agiagraphos, he worries about admitting such blasphemy in Skylur’s hearing. A disdain for the Agiagraphos is definitely epitre. Athanate have been executed for it before.

And yet the greatest law in the Agiagraphos is to remain in hiding from humanity. Whatever they do, that law cannot stand for much longer. Skylur’s Emergence plan acknowledges that, but what does Skylur believe?

“Well, the whole of Ireland has declared itself non-partisan and unaffiliated.” Skylur sips his wine thoughtfully. “And there have long been cities like Istanbul, which both sides have declared neutral zones, but yes, there’s nowhere that has developed quite like New York.”

“And the strict interpretation of the Agiagraphos? Surely, if the greatest rule is impossible to keep, then all the rules are due to be re-evaluated?”

“There have been many changes,” Skylur agrees. “Some quite startling. Recently, an Athanate who went rogue was not executed. It seems, at least in that case, there might be differentiation even in the status of rogues. That rogue was treated and has recovered.”

Even Livia is shocked. She stops eating to stare at Skylur for a long minute, then returns attention to her food.

“This is very good,” she says.

Julius is unsure whether she means the meal or the news that the absolute rules of the Agiagraphos are becoming nuanced. He suspects the ambiguity is deliberate. Although Julius knows she fears the Altau’s powers, she’s not overawed and she’s certainly not cowed.

“So ‘unorthodox’ is not a death sentence anymore,” Julius presses the point.

Skylur purses his lips. “Possibly. Let’s say that anything that gives us examples of the different Athanate philosophies co-existing responsibly has some value. After all, there have been times in the past when the different creeds of Athanate were not in conflict.”

Livia looks up again, her gaze calculating. “You’re looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses,” she says. “Panethus and Basilikos have been at war since long before your brandy was laid down. Exceptions are just that.”

It requires some gall for Livia to lecture Skylur on history, but he lets it pass with a shrug. “Maybe we are doing something entirely new. Maybe every previous example of co-operation was just an exception,” he says. “But the first sea-creature to pull itself out onto land was an exception.”

Julius feels they’re agreeing on individual points and yet totally in conflict, but before he can redirect the conversation, Livia speaks again.

“So we must evolve,” she says. There is anger smoldering in her eyes.

Julius wants to say something, anything, to calm her down, but she anticipates him and one glance from her silences him.

Livia and Skylur are like beasts circling each other, waiting for a sign of weakness.

Skylur remains silent, eating his dinner, sipping his wine and watching Livia. He does not have to wait long.

“What haunts you, Altau?” she says. “When you wake in the long winter nights, with a word on your lips, or a vision fading before your eyes, or perhaps a scent escaping into the cold air, what is it that’s woken you?”

Julius shivers. They’re still speaking Athanate, but she’s slipped into the older, formal style, the language of the oral tradition and recitation, with its own rhythms and descriptive phrases. He’s witnessed this before and it’s never a good sign.

“Long ago, I had a villa, high in the Etruscan hills,” she says. “It was a place to be away from the relentless crush of Rome. A place to take my ease. It was very beautiful. Cyprus trees stood sentinel to mark the boundaries, and line the paths through the grounds. There was a farm, with meadows and wheat fields, orchards of citrus fruit, and rows of well-tended vegetables, bordered by herbs. There was a grove of olives, a hillside of vines, a stream that was cool even in summer. Closer to the buildings, I planted banks of maple for color, walnut and oak for shade, and beds of flowers, chosen for their scent.

“I loved it very much, my beautiful villa.

“My House comprised just five Athanate then, and we raised cattle and horses, sheep and chickens. And toru, sufficient to our needs.”

Julius twitches at the Basilikos word for human Blood slaves, but Skylur might as well be carved from stone, and Livia does not pause.

“We thrived, when others did not, and so we grew. Peasant families came to us: for food in winter when their harvests had failed; for protection from the bandits that still roamed the hills; for curing when they fell ill or were injured; for resolution when they had disputes.

“We gave from our bounty and, in return, we took our tithes: work when it was needed; food when they had spare; Blood when we so desired.”

“They feared you,” Skylur says.

Livia’s smile is tight and humorless. “All marai fear our fangs, Altau, unless we train them like you do your kin. In exchange for all we gave them, yes, we took the sacred Rahaimon, their offering of fear, along with their Blood, and we blurred their minds so that it seemed to them they’d had an unremembered nightmare. Such is the rule of the Agiagraphos, and besides, it suited us that their fear would be fresh and sweet when we next sought it.”

Again, Julius twitches. Livia is deliberately provoking him, but Skylur’s face does not betray what he thinks.

“But it was neither our toru,” Livia says, “nor the marai from whom we reaped our dues, that brought about what wakes me in the dark.”

And now, her eyes cloud. Julius stretches out hesitantly, covers her hand with his, and she allows it. He has not heard this, but he fears he knows what must come.

“I was in Rome with my Diakon, for, however much I hated the city, it was not wise to become forgotten in that society. Yet we returned early: some premonition sent me home, feverish with worry. As soon as Rome was out of sight, we left the carriage to follow us. Instead, we took two of the horses and rode. When they could carry us no longer, we ran on, into the gathering dark. And still, we were too late.

“This is what wakes me, Altau, in the shoals of the night. Not the sight of my beautiful villa destroyed, not the thought of the animals and stores stolen, not the crops torn up. None of those. It was the savagery. The viciousness. The thoroughness. The attackers had taken all of them—the remainder of my House, my toru from the farm and all the marai from the surrounding land that they’d been able to catch. They’d killed the men and left their mutilated bodies in piles on the ground. They’d violated the women and children, and when they’d finished with them, they’d trapped those still alive in a barn and set it burning.

“The details we learned later from those few marai that had been able to escape. When we arrived, all I saw was the bodies, the mob and the flames. All I could hear was the screaming from the barn and the laughter of the mob.

“Laughter, Altau, laughter, as women and children died in agony.

“Two against a mob of a three hundred? I would have fought, and died killing some of them. But my Diakon caught me, held me in the shadows, away from the farm, until the screaming from the barn finally stopped and the attackers left.”

“Who?” Skylur’s voice is soft.

“Villagers. Peasants. None of those we helped or fed from. Just people who were far enough away that we hadn’t had anything to do with them, and yet close enough that they were able to see how well we were succeeding, because that’s what caused it: plain human jealousy and greed and envy.”

Julius knows she wakes in the night, but she’s never before said anything about this.

“Do you hear screams echoing in the night, Altau?” she says. “Do you wake and wonder if your home is on fire, because your nostrils are full of that smell? Do you scrub yourself even though it seems you can never get rid of the feel of that smoke on your skin?”

“The screams will never fall silent,” Skylur says. “And those memories will never fade if you treat all humans as if they were the ones who attacked you.”

“I was Basilikos before the attack, and I’m still Basilikos, not out of some sense of revenge, but out the simple fact that we are greater than they.” Livia leans forward over the table. “It was right that we chose the name Basilikos, the House of the Rulers, and we should be their rulers, never their slaves. Yet by this path to Emergence you will make us less than humans. You absolve us of observation of the Agiagraphos rules, you sweep away its trusted certainties. Very well. But in its place you raise this simple creed, with its one great commandment—that all we can do must be acceptable to humans.

Skylur starts to argue, but Livia is in full flow.

“Once, they built many-columned temples to you, Altau. They sang songs and held games in your honor. They proclaimed you a god. They believed. They came to you for healing and divination, and you gave them what they asked for. Many years ago.

“So, what gods does an old god like you believe in, Altau?

“If in this bright new world, we may only do what they want, then we bow down to humanity as our god. Just as they bow down to their gods of fame and wealth and beauty. And jealousy and greed and envy. Gods for whom there is never enough.

“What will you do, Altau, when their hollow-bellied gods demand cleansing by fire and the sacrifice of living children? When your kin are screaming in the flames?”

“Not all humanity,” Julius whispers. He has to stop her.

“No, not all, but enough,” Livia replies. “You cannot convince all of them. No matter what the issue placed before them, humans will sink into mobs, each believing their own truths and decrying the lies of the others.”

Julius starts to argue the point, but Skylur cuts across him.

“Whatever our path,” he says. “I will do everything I can to prevent it descending into the scenes you describe, and I believe the quickest route to that situation would be for humanity to discover us while we are divided among ourselves and displaying behaviors that would terrify the majority of humans.”

Julius and Livia – two more scenes

A continuation of my weekend scribbling, taking the story of Father Julius and Livia in New York from the end of the last post

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/julius-and-livia-a-couple-more-scenes/

Work on Bian’s Tale was slow this week as I came down with a head cold. Should be back on track next week, but I also have the annotations for Angel Stakes to be translated into German, and the checking of the audio for Angels Stakes, which is due.

While suffering like a man from my cold, I did have some great ideas for scenes in Bite Back 6, which *might* be called Inner Game.

I also have had some messages asking what the hell is the ‘Afro-centric steampunk’ I mentioned recently, so I’ll give teasers from that as well.

Julius and Livia seem popular enough for a novella, but I’m not sure there’s enough from just them alone. I have a second thread which I sketched out when I was staying in Brooklyn last year, which might work. Stay tuned.

<< *** >>

Manhattan Island, penthouse.

Skylur Altau leads them to a room that owes more in design to a luxury penthouse than a business meeting room. And when they’ve shed their coats and are seated around a circular, sunken sofa, he fetches a tray with an oddly misshapen bottle, an empty jar and five glasses.

It appears they are alone on this level. No servants. No security.

“I found this when I was packing to come here from Denver,” Altau says, holding up the bottle for their inspection. It is made of strange, coarse glass that is opaque and gritty. “I’d completely forgotten it.”

The bulbous base of the bottle is held in the remains of a sort of leather cover. There are characters branded into the leather, but not even the alphabet is familiar to Julius, let alone the words.

“Oh! Exciting! What is it?” Hinton says, leaning forward with her eyes shining.

“A brandy made from fig wine,” Skylur replies. “I believe I remember the family who used to make it, now I think back. They presented some to me as a gift. They lived near the Alzani River, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.”

The seal on the bottle has been removed, but apparently not entirely successfully, as Altau carefully decants the brandy into the jar through a filter.

The brandy is dark. It appears oily and smooth.

They watch silently as he pours a generous tot from the jar into five glasses.

Altau are not known for using poisons, Julius tells himself and picks up his glass, swirls the brandy, sniffs like a connoisseur.

Livia’s mouth twitches, as if from half a smile.

Keensleigh frowns, his nose held over the glass, his Were sense of smell probably trying to untangle the aromas to test them for poison.

“Of course it may be ruined.” Skylur holds his glass up against the light. “But I have hope.”

“Hope,” says Livia quietly, raising her glass as well.

The others echo the toast, touching glasses, and they sip.

Julius does not die. Not immediately anyway. The impression on his tongue is sweetness, not entirely masking great strength.

“It’s lovely!” Hinton says. “This would be such a good mystery drink for my Wednesday wine society. Do you have more? Could I buy some?”

“Alas, this bottle is the last survivor,” Skylur says.

Hinton gasps and covers her mouth with her hand. “And you got it out just for us!”

“How old is it?” Keensleigh asks, intrigued despite himself.

“I admit, I’m not absolutely sure. I believe it was bottled shortly before it was given to me, about three thousand years ago.”

There is a momentary stunned silence. Then, even more shocking than his words is Livia’s reaction.

She laughs; a bright, sharp sound in the quiet penthouse.

“Your reputation has you as a subtle man, House Altau. That was as subtle as a truck.”

He smiles.

“Call me Skylur, please. May I call you Livia, House Fabia?”

She nods, eyes narrowed.

“Subtlety is a gift to those with time, Livia,” he says, taking another sip and leaning back, resting his arm along the sofa. “We don’t have that luxury.”

“The Athanate have made their own problems with their own damned political preoccupations and conflict,” Keensleigh growls, and indicates Hinton and himself. “Why are we being included in them?”

Julius is tense. There is merit to what the Were says. The great ideological clash of Panethus and Basilikos Athanate has broken out into constant armed attacks, from what he has heard. However careful and secret those attacks are, eventually they will lead to humanity discovering the Athanate.

“May I call you Aaron?” Skylur says mildly. When the Were nods curtly, he continues. “Aaron, it isn’t just our problem, nor is it entirely caused by us. In truth, as far as conflicts go, the largest battle of recent times was when the Were of the Central Mountain Confederation tried to invade Colorado, the territory of my associates, the Denver pack.”

Julius appreciates the clever riposte. It’s not just that one battle; the Were Confederation has been far too open in its sometimes violent takeover of packs down the spine of the States, and everyone here knows it.

Skylur holds up a hand to forestall Keensleigh’s rejoinder, and reaches to a side table to pick up a small, utilitarian box. He places it on the table between them.

“Here’s an example of our problem,” he says. “This was manufactured by the US Army. It detects the presence and concentrations of specific proteins in the blood. Those proteins are present in Were as well as Athanate, and not in humans.”

Keensleigh’s eyes widen.

“And in Adepts, to a much lower, but measurable extent,” Skylur says to Hinton. “We are all discoverable by humanity. And even if we stopped all conflict right now, the possibility of hiding in the regulated, documented, electronic, recorded and paranoid modern world is evaporating. We all will be discovered, whatever we do.”

“So much for our toast,” Livia says. “It’s hopeless, then?”

“Nothing is hopeless.” Skylur leans back again, the relaxed host. “But we need to prepare, and we need to start that now. All of us.”

“This is Emergence, I guess,” Julius says. “The problem with being hidden is that we, I mean the hidden Athanate of New York, have been cut off. We’ve had little more than hints and rumors of the issues. Even at the meeting with your Diakon…”

“Which was, of course, a tense affair,” Livia interrupts him. “Very short of any exchange of real information.”

Tense hardly covers it.

They’d been admitting to living illegally, against the rules of the Agiagraphos and the Assembly, in the domain assigned to the Warders. By the old rules, that was a death sentence. Julius had made the argument that the Warder’s domain was an exception created by the Assembly and only subject to the more lenient Assembly rules. The Altau Diakon had observed that any historical exception might be arguable, but that it no longer applied was not.

The Diakon was right; this was Altau’s domain now.

They are sitting in his penthouse. His word is their law.

“I’ll ensure that a summary file of information on the global situation will be sent to each of you later,” Skylur says. “All of you. It’ll include an analysis as we see it.”

Keensleigh isn’t interested in the Athanate by-play. Although he has co-operated from time to time, in a minimal way, with Julius and Livia, he doesn’t really care about them or the Athanate rules. If Altau executes them, it’s simply not important to him.

He’s interested in what that file will say of course, but Julius can see he’s suspicious. A sharing of information suggests alliances.

“You’re just assuming that we’re going to go ahead and enter into an association with you?” Keensleigh can’t seem to stop sounding confrontational.

Julius is still unsure why the Were has come. It must be something powerful that has drawn him into Manhattan. Something that’s important to Were.

Skylur shakes his head. “The information is free, Aaron. The same applies to what you fear I will hold over you.”

Keensleigh twitches, his face pale. He knows exactly what Skylur means.

Julius does not, but Hinton evidently does.

“Oh! The ritual,” she says, excited. “Aaron, that’s wonderful. Not that your pack has a problem, of course I don’t mean that, but that other packs with halfies can get help.”

Isolated as they have been, Julius has heard this rumor. He’d dismissed it as fantasy.

“This is about the rumor of a ritual that helps new werewolves change?” he asks.

“Yes,” Skylur says. “But it’s no rumor. It works.”

If the Altau have control of it, Julius can’t believe it would be offered for free. A halfy, a werewolf  who cannot change, is facing inescapable, painful death. Packs will give anything to save them.

“It so happens, we do have a problem,” Keensleigh says.

The words come out painfully. Julius thinks he sounds like a man with his testicles in a vise.

“That’s so awful!” Hinton says. “But it’s good news then, isn’t it? Why… Oh… You’re thinking there’s a catch?”

She turns back to Skylur, her face a picture of moral outrage.

Julius is very good at reading people, but Skylur is difficult. There might be a hint that he’s enjoying Hinton’s act, but Julius can’t be sure.

The Altau leader takes a card from his pocket and reaches over the table to offer it. Keensleigh accepts it warily.

“That’s the contact for the Denver pack,” Skylur says. “Call it and arrange with them for your halfies to attend the next ritual. Send a lieutenant along to keep order and observe.”

“And in exchange…” Keensleigh prompts, still suspicious.

Skylur shrugs. “If it works, tell other packs. Pass on the contact information. That’s really between you and the Denver pack.”

“So why am I here? Just so you could hand me this?”

“So we could meet. Although the woman who performs the ritual is an associate of mine, a sub-House in fact, she is also the Assembly syndesmon, and that position must be independent enough to represent both Were and Athanate, each to the other.” He empties his glass. “She insisted that the ritual had to be open for everyone, so it is. She’s even intent on offering it to the Confederation.”

Keensleigh chokes on his drink. “What does the Denver alpha think about that?”

Skylur actually chuckles. “That’s his problem, isn’t it? Ask him. Tell me what he says!”

Keensleigh smiles. It’s an uncertain thing, his smile, but genuine. “Thank you.” He looks down at the card as if the writing on it might fade. “Is there really nothing in exchange?”

Skylur makes an airy gesture. “I would welcome co-operation for mutual benefit. We’d like to see you down in New York more often, Aaron. Liaison meetings, sharing of information, and so on. If that develops into an association, that would please me, but it’s by no means a prerogative.”

He pours another tot for them all.

The Were alpha leaves half an hour later, a spring in his step, eager to be home with good news.

Julius suspects that the Adirondacks pack will be a full associate of Altau within a month.

 

Manhattan Island, office.

Skylur suggests they find somewhere to eat. Hinton recommends this wonderful restaurant. It’s only a couple of blocks away. Unfortunately, she has to return to Long Island. There’s a gathering of her community and she’s needed.

Julius is impressed. He can sense that there’s something the Adept desperately wants to ask Skylur, but she’s resolutely refusing to raise it at their first meeting. Her goodbyes include ensuring that she can return for a further meeting.

Of course, the Altau leader has unfinished business with them, so Julius and Livia agree to dinner with Skylur.

There’s a brief hiatus while Skylur insists on arranging a car to take Hinton and her purchases back home. Julius is left alone with Livia in the lobby.

Livia has become very focused.

Altau has been a model host so far. What has concerned Livia so much? Not the revelation of ages. She has to have known that Skylur is older than her.

Julius and Livia met the Altau Diakon together. Julius is good at estimating relative ages, and he knows the Diakon is older than Livia. He assumes she knows it too, so it should not have been a shock to hear Skylur is even older.

And Livia is old. She is Roman. Not the modern Rome of the crumbling Coliseum. Not even the old Rome of the Empire. No. House Flavia dates back to the days of the Republic. Like all Athanate, she guards her exact age, even from him, but he’s a good student of ancient history. Over the years, he’s engaged her in discussions about the principle characters in the formation of Rome.

He’s sure the woman standing next to him was an observer as Roman politicians first developed public, traitorous backstabbing into a fine art.

“Are you alright?” he whispers in her ear, aware that there may be microphones in the lobby.

Her eyes swivel and fix him, making his heart forget to beat.

“I taught you about wines and spirits, many years ago, little Ruben,” she murmurs, using her pet name for him, a tease about his hair and his tendency to blush. “Tell me, what did you think of Altau’s brandy?”

“Sweetness in front, underpinned by strength.”

“Exactly. Get past the sweetness. Pay attention to underpinnings. Our lives may depend on it. Mine surely does.”

 

 

Julius and Livia – a couple more scenes

LOL. I wrote a Christmas scene that was just some doodling about what’s going on in the background at the start of Bite Back 6, and got a lot of positive reaction to it.  https://henwick.wordpress.com/2016/12/24/christmas-story/

So… here are another couple of scenes with Father Julius and Livia in New York. Remember, these aren’t main Bite Back characters and probably won’t appear in the main books, though I may sketch out a short story with them in posts like this. And no, it hasn’t distracted me from writing Bian’s Tale for long. I wrote these scenes on my ‘day off’.

Update on Angel Stakes audio… Julia thinks she’ll have the recording done this month. After checking and admin, I’m estimating that the audio will be available in February. I’ll do a specific post when I feel the schedule is clearer.

<< * * * >>

Brooklyn, waterfront.

Father Julius crosses the road, sidles around the iron gate with the flaking keep-out sign, and heads down toward the river, steps crunching on uneven gravel.

He wears soft boots which keep his feet warm, and are comfortable for walking. He doesn’t know how far he will have to walk today, beyond the five miles he has walked so far. By the same consideration, his coat is warm. It’s old-fashioned, his woollen coat; military, snug, double-breasted, with wide lapels. He has put his collar and hood up, even though he knows it completes the image and makes him look like the sinister assassin character out of the video game. The hood is necessary. It hides his thick, red hair, which is too recognizable. He doesn’t want to be stopped by any of his parishoners at the moment. Time is precious.

Is he too late? Where is she?

The red hair has always been a problem. He has it cut frequently to keep it from being unruly, and that makes the Bishop think he’s vain. Julius does not discourage it. Better the Bishop think of vanity than start to suspect what Father Julius really does in his own time.

Like keeping the hidden Athanate community of New York from spinning out of control.

A flurry of snow swirls out of the evening.

And behind it comes a young man. An Athanate.

He’s distressed, stumbling. He cringes at the sight of Julius.

But he’s not dead, merely ‘reprimanded’, and a load lifts from Julius’ shoulders.

Julius lets him go: alive he’s not a problem to them. Unless he makes another mistake, and then not all Julius’ pleas will save him.

He walks on quickly.

She’s there, down near the water. Her hands are thrust deep into her coat pockets and she’s looking at the river, lost in thought.

She doesn’t turn as he approaches, but in the same way he can sense her, she can sense him.

“You haven’t visited me for ages, Julius,” she says. “We speak only when there’s a problem.”

“We do. I’m sorry.” He doesn’t argue. They don’t have time to argue and besides, she’s right.

She spins, secure that the evening’s poor light will hide her uncanny speed and suddenly, she’s behind him, arms gripping his body, imprisoning him. She’s pulled his hood back and her lips are resting on his neck. When she wants, she moves in a blur, evidence of her elder Athanate abilities. She’d given him just enough time to gasp, no more.

“So visit me now,” she whispers.

It’s like falling, the rushing sensation in the pit of his stomach. But it’s not fear, or at least, it’s not just fear. It’s the same thing it’s always been, that shivery, rabbit-snake fascination. That heart-thrashing desire.

“Livia,” he says. His voice is thick and slow, and he has to swallow. “We don’t have time. A message has come. Altau wants to see us now.”

“Some things are more important than our new lord and master.” Her fangs are out. He can feel them graze his skin and he has to clench his teeth. She makes his whole body sing. She always has.

He takes her hands in his, raises them to his lips and kisses her cold fingers.

Taking a deep, calming breath, he speaks again: “We can’t keep him waiting.”

“We could run.”

“I can’t.”

She lets him go with an unhappy sigh, and they start to walk slowly back toward the light. They are close, shoulders almost touching.

He raises his hood again. The flushed skin of his face feels like a beacon in the darkness and he really can’t have his parishoners seeing him like this.

“You’ve come to take your disguise very seriously, Julius,” she says as he hides behind the hood. “So seriously, it’s become more important to you than…old friends.”

“It’s not, but it’s complicated,” he says,

She laughs.

Complicated? I disagree. Everything has become painfully simple. You do know, my little, black-frocked priest, there’s every possibility we won’t be allowed to walk away from this meeting with Altau?”

“If he wanted to hunt us down, he could.” Julius gestures, sweeping the argument away. He’s had this discussion with others, many times, over the last couple of weeks. “There’s nowhere to go, and no way to get there.”

“Yes, he could hunt us. But why bother to chase us all around the city or the country if he can get us to turn up at his door like good little sacrifices?”

“I really don’t think that’s what he wants.”

“Maybe. Bazhir wasn’t clear one way or the other. Anyway, I’ll amend what I said. There’s every possibility, I won’t be allowed to walk away.”

“I won’t leave without you, Livia.”

He hadn’t intended to say that. It sounds so trite. So melodramatic, so puffed up. He lowers his head to hide more blushing.

But Livia slips her hand into his and presses herself against his arm as they walk.

“Well then, that is the only reason I will go.”

 

Manhattan Island, office.

There are two others waiting in the lobby of the new headquarters building of Altau Holdings.

They’ve been there for some time, and Aaron Keensleigh makes no secret of his anger. The tall, powerful Were alpha probably couldn’t hide his emotions if he tried, and he doesn’t try. The Were don’t come down out of the Adirondacks much, and they don’t like the city. They also don’t like the Athanate. They certainly don’t like politics.

Julius is surprised the alpha is here at all.

The other person waiting is a complete contrast. Faith Hinton just loves the city. She only lives out on Long Island, you know, but the shops are so wonderful here in Manhattan, she simply cannot resist. Just look at all these…

Her hands press against her cheeks, framing her heart-shaped face, as if she is shocked by what she’s done.

She sits surrounded by branded shopping bags.

Julius has to bite his lip to stop the threatening laughter, entirely inappropriate in the circumstances. The Adept’s happy, babbling song of praise to Manhattan had to have been sheer torture for Keensleigh over the hours they’ve been waiting.

And he should not fall into the mistake of dismissing Hinton, as the Were probably has. That empty-headed facade is very practiced and expertly acted.

Both Keensleigh’s anger and Hinton’s exuberance simply bounce off Livia’s stone face. Since they crossed the river, Livia has not uttered a word.

And that, perhaps, is also practiced, he thinks.

House Altau does not leave them long, now they are assembled. Within a minute, one of Altau’s elite security is guiding them to an elevator.

To Julius’ immense surprise, the Altau leans in, enters the code for the penthouse into the elevator’s pad, and then steps back, leaving the four of them to ascend alone.

Even Hinton’s chatter stumbles as the doors open to reveal Skylur Altau himself, alone and casually dressed.

“Welcome,” he says, with an open handed gesture.

Livia tenses beside Julius. She does not like what she cannot predict, and in one move House Altau has demonstrated how unpredictable and confident he is. He is not scared of any of them, not even all four of them together, and he does not care if they know it.

 

 

 

An excerpt from Bite Back book 5

Very slight spoilers…

I generally feel with these quiet parts of the Bite Back books that I’m going overboard. Readers generally come back and tell me I’m not. Anyway, I’m going to try out a short section on this blog that hasn’t even been seen by the beta readers yet…

How in such a complex, structured society as the Athanate, could you win an argument? The issue under discussion is this: when the paranormal races reveal themselves to humans, should they agree to abide by human law, or should there be a separate law for them? A very intricate sort of problem and one on which a great deal hangs in the balance.

The Empire of Heaven (China and most of south-east Asia) stood aside from the first Athanate Assembly when it was invoked in the 1920s. The Empire of Heaven is the largest group after the two main creeds of the Assembly, Panethus and Basilikos. As the parameters of the new Assembly are being hammered out in book 5, the Empire arrives at the meeting, in the person of their Emperor’s own Diakon, Xun Huang. What side of the debate will he come down on?

This is a small part, a quiet interlude in the usual rush.

This is Huang’s speech to the Athanate. He may have been influenced by Maya Angelou (paraphrased here): “They may forget what you said but they will never forget what you made them feel.”

 

Huang walked to the center of the floor and stood still, waiting until the silence spread.

When he did speak, his voice was so quiet everyone had to lean forward to hear.

I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t what came.

“I am old, even as we Athanate count it,” he said.

His words were slow and formal, with a rhythm that seemed to carry me along.

“Many, many years ago, I buried my father in an unmarked grave, beneath a solitary Linden tree on a south facing hillside, near a quiet river. In the heat of summer, the Linden’s leaves are thick and dark and green. They take the shape of hearts, and beneath their shade, the ground is always cool; the air always holds the scent of limes. As winter nears, those leaves turn and fall like a harvest of the richest gold, and make a crown to rest upon my father’s head.

Between the wars that tore our land, I would return there, and lie on that hillside. It eased my soul, and restored my strength in a time of great turmoil.

Then, beside my father, I buried my sons and my daughters, their youthful faces as yet half-formed, unblemished by age.”

Huang paused and looked up and down the ranks of Athanate, and we were silent. The whole auditorium had unconsciously synced their heartbeats with their neighbors’, until we were a creature with a single pulse, waiting, listening.

“No man should bear that sorrow,” Huang continued. “No woman either, and my wife joined them before the leaves had fallen again. I planted the trees that were their only marker.

From that moment,  I slept only when exhaustion took me, because on waking, for a moment it was as if I could turn and see my wife again, only for that dream to fade, and the nightmare of life to begin again.

When the Emperor found me, I sought death every day in the face of the enemy. What prize could he offer me, in my despair, that would make me want to become immortal? What reward to become Athanate, and know that sorrow for eternity?

He spoke to me; simple words, words he told me he first heard from the lips of the Kumemnon herself, her own words: This is the gift and the sorrow of the Athanate; to see your loves pass before you like the days of summer, while your heart still beats. To keep your vigil in the shadows, and rise again with every sun.

That part you all know. Many carve it above doors to their hidden sanctuaries, to remind them that as there is light, there must be darkness, and the world turns regardless.

But the Lamentation of Arunne goes on: To be bound upon the wheel of heaven; to toil and toil and never be done. To love without reserve forever, and rise again with every sun.

He paused, and in the depths of the auditorium the Athanate shivered as the words touched us.

Huang went on.

“That is what he said to me, and I bared my neck to him.

On that hillside now, beside the quiet river, there grows a forest, such that I may not find my family’s trees among those that mark my kin. I return there sometimes for a night. To sleep, to dream, and rise again with the sun.

The war took away my family, and my Emperor replaced it with duty. He offered me no soft consolation, no comforting lies. As one who passes from childhood must put away the easy refuges of youth, to become Athanate is to shoulder a greater destiny. And to achieve that, one may not live as a man or woman may live, under the strictures of their society.

The Athanate people must retain their own laws and customs.”