Many times I have begun this tale. Many times I have stopped after progressing mere words. My dilemma is not one of questioning the worth of setting the words to paper. It is a matter of how to authentically begin the story. You see, this is not my story. It is hers and it is his as well. If it were mine I would begin it the moment I met her grey eyes which beyond all reason saw me. That is not where their story begins. I think now I should start before I ever knew of her. I will start the moment he joined our expedition. That is the moment our fate and the fate of the universe converged.
Prince Alistair stood slightly above me on a dias. He was golden as the springtime sun and up to that moment the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen. It was not him I faced but a large gruff man scarred by battle and a dour, proud glare. A smaller man would have been weighed down by such a quantity of weapons and armor. He carried them as if they were part of his being, as if despite his own density he would float away without them.
I was invisible between the two of them. They might move worlds. I, at best, could guard their backs in anonymity. I might say it was safer that way but I would have died happily to protect either man.
“Thank you for coming,” Alistair said. “I didn’t know if you would come to hear my proposition even with Taln’s invitation. She was quite vocal that if we wanted a Darvinian warrior you were the one we needed.”
Grubs grunted, apparently unsure if the prince’s offer held even enough merit for words. It was true, we have fought side by side before, and even shared a bed, but Grubs was not my friend or lover. The Darvish did not make tight bonds with other races. They fought, they killed and at best they respected. My invitation might have been enough to get him here but I knew it was not enough to keep him.
“The job I would like to hire you for is a diplomatic one but there is a high likelihood we will meet with several deadly conflicts on the way. This planet has been granted the right to send a delegate to ‘the people’s’ home world. There we will submit a petition to be accepted into the Divine. If we are lucky they will send one of their own back with us to personally survey our planet’s worth.”
“Liked the battle part,” Grubs said. “No guarantee?”
“I’m sorry I can’t give my word there will be battle. I can say there is a sizable group of citizens who do not believe in this union. They will do anything to keep our planet independent. We have had a number of serious threats and intel that the dissenters have acquired stealth ships with war potential and tech to tap into our transporters.”
“Sensible rebels,” Grubs said.
I smiled to myself. It was hard to tell if he was admiring the dissenting faction for their initiative in finding battle tech or their dislike of the Divine Planetary League. The Darvinian home world had never made a petition to join despite being well within the borders of the Divine’s established zone.
“If there is battle the odds will be against us even with your help. My father would have sent a large escort to protect us but I declined. The People will not respect us showing up with an army or our inability to control a disagreement within our people. There is no point in showing up alive if the result is The People turning down our petition. I want a small group of people we can trust.”
“Not an ideal destination,” Grubs said. “Can’t trust the Pale Ones.”
“Battles will be spectacular,” I said.
Grubs looked at me and for the first time he smiled. His teeth like his skin were a cool green-brown. This skin was a natural armor and all Darvinians had very subtle facial expressions under the thick bark of their skin. As a result smiles were rare and I knew even before he spoke that if we had earned a smile we had earned his company.
“Like the odds. I’ll do it. Standard pay for a Darvinian elder merc plus ten percent fee for having to deal with the Pale Pacifists.” He said this last word as if it were a contagion he might catch.
His dislike of the People was racial. You’d be hard pressed to find a single Darvish mercenary who respected a single thing about the leaders of the Divine. I had often considered since working a few jobs with them if they ever realized that the People made the Darvinian way of life possible.
The Pale One’s, as the People were named by outsiders, strong dislike for any physical conflict that did not require skill and risk to win had long since caused a halt to the production and development of most mechanized weapons. Any that remained were an art form to use and did not provide the ability to exert lethal damage in a mass amount or at great range. Enhanced blades had replaced guns and bombs. Lasers existed in traps but were not built into man powered weapons. The Pale One’s had a way of knowing who violated their ban. They also had the capacity to eradicate those who disobeyed. Their ban was almost entirely successful and breaches were quickly and spectacularly taken care of.
Defensive tech, on the other hand, was encouraged to help the Divine planets ward off any attacks from the uncivilized outer planets and the independents.
Honor, for the Darvinian’s, was in a skilled blade and proximity to death. Despite being outside the Divine they obeyed these laws. In fact, their offensive weapon tech was the best in existence and had earned their world a level of comfort and safety not enjoyed by other independent planets.
The prince nodded to Grub’s price. Darvish did not haggle. A prospective employer either accepted or rejected the price they named. “We depart in six days’ time.”
I looked back at the prince. I had been in his employ most of my adult life and we had a friendship made possible by his lack of rank as a fourth son. I knew that his championship of this cause was one of loyalty and honor, not as a quest for glory or fame. He was an idealist and this was personal. Still, his sleepless nights did not show. His passion inspired me. I think I wanted his planet to join the Divine as much as he did.
When Grubs departed it was without a sign of respect to Alistair and with only nod to me.
“You’ll finally get to see one of them in the flesh,” Alistair said.
“If I’m allowed off the ship,” I replied touching my sheathed blade.
“I’m sure if you leave your weaponry behind I will be allowed an escort.”
I would have killed to meet one of the People, which isn’t saying much. My blade has always been ready drawn. Killing is a pleasure and a pastime. Still I was more than curious. The Pale One’s were rarely seen. Even when they travelled amidst commoners they did so with an invisibleness that was hard to believe considering their fabled beauty and grace.
Tales were told of them blooming amid revolutionary gatherings after being in their midst unseen the entire time. Witnesses claimed they had seen the hooded forms but thought nothing of them. They passed seen but unseen.
If it were true they surely used some tech unknown to the rest of us. Unlike the planets that joined their core, the People were not bound by any law to share their tech. They did not always share, they were the wisest as well as the most beautiful of all races. Like gods they ruled over us- their dominion sought where it was not yet received. Only planets that were adequately civilized and possessing some resource or tech needed by the Divine were accepted. We loved and envied them without question. We were not gods as they were. We were races but they were the Race. They were the People as their name for themselves translated. The implication being we were something else-something akin to animals.
Yes I wanted to meet one. Like many I wanted to see a Person and judge for myself if I was a beast.
We did not reach Anisel, which was the name of the People’s planet, without incident. Even before we reached our ship we were accosted. This confrontation was easily put down by the plethora of guards sent by the king to see us off.
I have never seen Alistair as calm as he was when he pardoned the survivors and sent them away to live their lives. I remember his words even now they seem almost prophetic.
He said, “Go with your lives and live them in peace. Our people have earned peace and the People can bring our planet freedom. You object to being owned by them but they are not slavers- they are saviors and you will see that. You cannot change what is to be but I cannot, and will not, condemn to death or imprisonment my own people simply for disagreeing. You do not believe as I believe but neither can you change the progress of our race. Go and in going remember that in their name I take nothing.”
As we walked away from the spot Grubs stepped over one of the bodies that had fallen in the combat. His hand twitched over his sheathed blade. It had seen no battle as we had been encased in the king’s men.
“We’ll wet our blades yet.” I said quietly. I doubted his ‘hrumph’ was been audible to any but me by this side.
I was correct. Whatever the prince’s speech earned him it was certainly not a ceasefire. On the second day out our teleport was tapped into. We had barely enough time to gather in the transport room before they appeared. I saw them from the hallway behind the shoulder of Drella, the ships second mate. We were severely outnumbered which was understandable since they had every way of knowing how many of us there were.
Grubs, the mechanic, our ‘wizard’, and our captain were already in the room. Alero, a king’s man, was pressed into a corner. If he had any interest in his flashy weapon it was unclear. The medic was already shielded. She would be useless to us until after the battle.
I saw very little of this first battle after that first glimpse of them all and my own blade meeting armored backs. They came in waves through the transport and I caught those I could unaware as they flicked into being. The rest I fought in a crouch partly obscured by bodies and blood. My blade was small and fast but barbed outwards when buried in flesh. Death was easily dealt with such a weapon but it was difficult to remove and on occasion got caught on bone and needed to be wrenched free. I was forced to abandon it midway through the fray.
The two came on me at once, one with a blade firmly jammed into his side. The other made a swing- too high and easily ducked. Many fighters underestimated the meaning of my small stature. I kicked out at his legs even as my hand met a two ended blade at my hip. This I soon jabbed into the thigh of the other as I rose. Standing on his fallen body I dodged to other’s weapon and slammed my blade into his neck.
They were many but not as trained or talented as I was. Even so, any blade could slay a warrior, and I had to stay vigilant.
Another was already upon me certain of his blade sinking into my back. His steps and their proximity were easily detected. I turned and swung to meet him. He was too large and his weapon jarred me. It dug into my arm as it came free. Even as his blade bit me through my crackling armor my blade was diving at his chest. I dug one end and then the other through his chest. He tried to raise his wet blade again but my third stroke pierced into him and its force knocked him back. He fell and I had a moment to retrieve my preferred blade and bury it in his heart just to be sure.
With a roll I moved to the periphery of the battle and began anew. When the last was slain I was soaked with blood and sweat- my breath came fast and hard.
From the center of the room Grubs spoke. “You fought with us.” His gaze was fixed on Alistair.
“Who has more reason to fight than I?” Alistair wiped a trickle of blood from his eyes with an equally bloodied hand.
I wonder if he knew how rare that sentiment was among royalty or even the rich that employed fighters. I wonder if he realized none of his brothers would have fought. They would have waited near a transport pod sure their lives were more important than such a fray. I wonder if he understood he earned Grubs respect that day- a loyalty no paycheck could buy.
“Well fought,” the captain grimaced. One arm hung limply at his side and one of his left ribs could be seen under peeling flesh. The three of us were the least injured aside from the medic in her impenetrable shell. Both the king’s man and the second mate were unquestionably dead. The others were unmoving.
The medic was already descending. It was a favorable outcome for an ambush. The mechanic did not recover and after three days was eased into the afterworld. The wizard was ordered to his bed and held in a drugged stupor.
Once more after that day the rebels tried to attack us. The second time the captain was able to shut down the transport in time and only a few severed limbs came through. Grubs was disappointed. The rest of us were relieved.
Anisel, or ‘the ground’ as the word translates, looked pure blue as you approached it. Just a perfect uninhabitable water planet. It had four silvery moons hovering like jewels around it. The single continent glowed a soft even golden light. We all stared down as we approached.
Even the ship’s captain, who as part of his profession had travelled extensively, had never before seen Anisel so close.
As we approached it was evident much of the land was constructed not by nature but by a purposeful practiced hand. Small star shaped islands dotted the outskirts and much of the shore was constructed of golden platforms and marble towers. We flew to the center of the landmass. It was the only ground non-People were permitted. Here, close up, we could see the tall pale trees and the silver patterned roads. By the time we landed outside the eerily pale city I was frightened and overwhelmed as no battle had ever left me. While the beauty might be soothing to beings like the pale ones it made me feel like a trespasser in paradise.
Even as we landed our screens showed us a small group of the People. Most hovered on air that glittered with small electrical currents. Two rode on large slender mammals with white trappings that matched the tufts of white fur on the front of their muzzles. They halted a few yards away from us, and, as one, looked up directly into the viewing screen.
They were perfect but not as I’d expected. Now I understood how they could blend in. While each was without flaw and imbued with lovely features their very lack of fault made them forgettable. I cannot now remember them individually. I had trouble seeing one of them for the others. It did not lessen their appeal, it was only unexpected.
Nor were they pale in the traditional sense. Some were quite dark and husky. They were more faded than pale as if all the vive that made their color had been drained away leaving red, blue, brown and green alike- a grey with a hint of colored flame buried beneath. They were black and white in a world of color.
“I suppose now we go out there,” Alistair said. He didn’t move. I doubt he remembered to breathe. He was a frozen sunbeam under the blind haughty stare of the People. I took his hand and tried to lead him to the door but he did not respond.
“Get on then,” the captain said. “All of you. Don’t need more than one man to stay with the ship and that’s me.”
Grubs was the first to ground. He might have no desire to be here or to see this place but he was hired to protect the prince and he would follow his mission to the end. I followed him. Even the sun on my back was their sun and panic danced in my stomach. When I reached ground I looked back to the ship to dull the relentless and new beauty. The prince looked confident now as he strode downwards. In the darkness of the ship’s door our grizzled captain glared out.
Grubs and I waited by the steps as the prince approached them. One of them, with skin that should have been a deep, oak-brown and grey-green hair stepped forward. He dominated his finery as soon as he moved away from the others. Some spark came to life with the motion and he seemed suddenly filled with power.
“Welcome Prince Alistair Herides Domig. I am Rv’Illect’im Tryili Sesishmi and I will be your guide for your stay.”
Alistair bowed his golden head to the slender man. “These are my companions Grubs of the Darvinian Front and Taln Keay.”
None of the People looked at us. The man with the unpronounceable name appraised us briefly as one might inspect livestock. The prince was a perfect delegate for them though I had not fully understood until then. Everyone knows that the People prize beauty and intellect above all and see both ugliness and stupidity as offensive. Still, I’d always imagined they would be able to look passed it to the truth at the heart of things. Here I felt like a blight on their land. Of course their urge would be to eradicate people like me. Only he, my golden prince, did not seem like a weed. He was the only one they could bare to look at.
Races considered unathsetic from the dominant humanoid mammalian norm had made it into the divine. In that moment I knew that any race able to make it despite a lack of beauty must have been able to make a case much stronger than Alistair’s for admittance.
Then the man spoke again. “Next sunrise I will show you and those you wish into the city. Then you can meet with a small council assemblage. For now feel free to explore the land. I am told outsiders enjoy visiting our shoreline bluffs and our cousin trees. I will guide you and stay with you until nightfall if you wish.”
I didn’t wish. The land was intimidating enough I didn’t need the man. It was not my decision and I knew what the prince would say before he spoke. Alistair would want the company. He was fascinated and it would never have occurred to him that the People were anything but his friends or felt anything towards him but goodwill.
“We would love your company, Rv’Illect’im Tryili Sesishmi. It is an honor.” How he said the name I don’t know. I couldn’t even remember it.
His statement was greeted by a smile that revealed pale greyish green teeth.
Alistair and the man walked in front, and Grubs and I came well behind. There is little I can say of the land we passed. Reed-like plants the color of winter sunshine at dusk covered the ground and curled down at the edges of the twinkling path. We approached a tree line and as we came closer I could hear the rush of faraway water and under this sound there was a soft fluttering song.
Many things I guess before being told or truly knowing. It is a gift I possess that comes from being enough outside events to have time to truly view them and a nature that desires to understand and to know. I did not understand the whispering song until we were close to the trees. Alistair and the man had passed them with only a brief stop and moved onto the bluffs.
Grubs began to walk by them with little more than a glance but my gaze stuck. Cousin trees was an accurate description. Their leaves rustled like voices, not blown by any wind but by the trees intent. This was the first thing I noticed, and it demanded I look further and understand. They were slender as saplings and had only a few branches each. These branched were entwined in a circle and the trees were neatly spaced in this circle. I walked to the center of the ring and looked at them.
Their voices were as pale as they were but as I listened and looked I seemed to hear words and voices no louder than butterfly wings. Their trunks curved in a fashion akin to human form. At the junction where branches began each held a wooden face nearly invisible behind a veil of budlike branches and flowers. I had heard a name for trees like this in Alistair’s land- Dryads. On my home world we had no such legend, and I was left breathless. I almost expected the wooden eyelashes to life and look out at me with the People’s cold eyes. For certainly that is what they were.
I touched one of these faces softly. “Your song is lovely.”
Grubs swore. I think it wasn’t until then that he saw them buried in tree-flesh. “They are plant people,” He said. Had I known before then that was what the Darvish were? I doubt it, but I knew it then. No other intelligent life form had ever developed along those lines- mammalian and plant. I didn’t even understand how it was evolutionarily possible. Now in one moment I knew of two races that were both plant and man. Two races that appeared to have no other similarity.
“They are trees,” I said under their hushed peaceful charm.
“No, useless reed people.”
I smiled at him. “Flowering trees then.”
“Better to be an oak.”
“I wonder how it happens that some walk about and some are planted.”
“Don’t care. Less of them walking about.”
“How is it no one talks about this?”
“You see more than most,” the Man said. I don’t know when he had come up to us. The prince was still standing next to the bluffs staring out. “I will ask you not to speak of it. There is no harm in the knowledge or we would not allow you here but neither are they an attraction for common visitors to ogle.”
“Are they actually you grown differently or some different similar breed?”
The man peered at me and I didn’t understand the gaze. He still wasn’t quite seeing me but it was no longer disgust or disinterest behind his eyes. “Your mind is sharp, girl, what are you called?”
“That is our business and though you have thought to ask it does not earn you an answer. Be wise enough to understand that some things are not for idle discussion. You are of the Twin Races and of all races I would think you could understand that there are things that are sacred and not for speaking.”
The purplish fur on my face lifted at the mention. What he said was true. The People had long known the secrets of the Twin Races but it was a secret we shared with no one else. I lifted one delicately clawed hand to my face. I rarely remembered my race or the things that make us different. Most of the time I felt like just one of Alistair’s people and it helped that in his fondness for me Alistair seemed to forget I was different.
Most of my people were lovely- a treat of a race for The People. The dark twins especially were attractive. I had broken with them and their secrets a dozen years past. Yet still I was one of them. I would never have spoken our secrets even though I wanted no place living in them. “I understand.”
“And your sister, I have not seen her. Could it be you travel alone, Taln?”
“How empty that must be for you.”
I could not break his gaze. How much did he see of me? Yes, I could no more speak of the trees than I could of the twins. Somehow, those eyes would know my intent. “The universe is wide.”
He nodded and moved over to the prince. I looked to Grubs only to see he had moved away. He was far from the trees and was having a one sided glaring contest with the tree nearest him. I felt like I’d been tested and I didn’t know if I’d passed or failed.
I went to bed that night not knowing but still hearing the song of the trees in my ears. It made my sleep restless. I didn’t understand them but I knew they spoke to me.
The next day the three of us went into their city led by one solitary Person. He paid only enough attention to us to see that we were following. So I had space to observe him and the others as we passed.
On closer inspection, I found that though they were all without fault they were not all beautiful. The absence of fault did not create beauty. Some of the People were truly lovely and they shone forth out of the perfection. These I didn’t ever gaze on for long.
None of the people on the jade and marble steps met my eyes. Some looked over us and then averted their gaze. This was perhaps the most polite reaction. From a few the prince received a smile or a friendly glance but these turned to ice when the glance met me. A few, mostly of the tiny population of children, looked at Grubs and I with open disgust.
There were very few children in any event. Those we saw were all very young, couldn’t have been more than four or five. They were the only extreme in age in the population. There were no adults showing even a faint sign of the infirm or decrepit. Even knowing they were an eternal people this seemed wrong.
They left me feeling no doubt that they saw my presence as wrong. By the time we were led into a crystal and silver filigree building I’d had enough of the warm streets. Still I was not ready for the wide hall that greeted us. The domed ceiling was coated with diamonds and shone down both colder and brighter than the stars. The walls were lined and mounted by carved marble statues of fabulous beasts. Silver columns divided the hall into four room-like sections. These were trimmed with diamonds. Through this immense hall the bright silvery song danced out. It was from an instrument I didn’t recognize but it filled even the empty spaces with jewels and richness. If Alistair and our escort had not continued walking I doubt I could have moved. Here eyes saw me and did not move away. Here eyes viewed me as a blight. I longed for the veiled glances and avoidance from outside. If there had been shadows on the wall I would have wished to be one.
We approached a dais on the far wall. Three figures were seated there behind a wide table. There were no seats on the opposite side of the table. I curled inward as we drew up. Their eyes skimmed me just long enough to leave their judgment.
The three judges gave Alistair their names. I would find them for this record but there is no written transcript of this meeting. After they introduced themselves one bid Alistair to state his case.
I wish I could tell you what he said. Even sum it up but I heard nothing. I stood there crushed under a weight both ephemeral and solid. Grubs was as stiff as a statue at my side and no more comfort than a stone would have been. When I glanced at him his hand was on his blade, had even lifted it a few centimeters so I could see the gleam of steel. Then Alistair’s voice ceased.
“We will grant you an escort,” one of them said.
The music lulled into cessation. I had stopped being aware of it but its absence left my heart grasping for something. The song the musician had been playing was the only warmth in the room. When the musician stepped forward, it did not quell my fear.
She was stunning. Even among the others she shone. Her hair was a silvery pale brown and was hung in intricate patterns across her head and back. It was strung with glittering beads. Her gown consisted of little more than beads and lace. She walked with music in her steps and her eyes, silver and green at the same time, swept the council. She glowed with almost color among the pale ones.
To be judged harshly by those eyes would have been a hefty blow. Perhaps that is dramatic to say but it is what I felt. The entire place had me in such a state of self-loathing and fear.
“I am S’Ayronella Dwini Varash. I have been chosen to judge your application on your home soil. I believe it is your custom to shake hands on such an occasion.” She extended one slender hand.
After a pause, Prince Alistair took her hand. “You honor me.”
“You have earned our respect Alistair Herides Domig.” She smiled at him with both her eyes and her mouth. “You do honor to your people with your championship of this cause. You and your dedication are why I asked your petition to be considered.”
To my surprise she neither continued to address the prince nor turned away. Instead she leveled her metallic eyes at Grubs. “I thank you for resisting the urge to draw on me and mine. You honor your contract even in adversity. Should you think to raise your blade on me again I would only ask a weapon of my own to defend myself.”
Grubs let go of his swords hilt.
When her eyes came to me I was almost ready for it. I was almost ready for the music in her voice. I was not prepared for the warmth of her green eyes when they met mine. She did not observe me with distaste as one would an animal. She looked me in the eye and she saw me. “May you go like an unseen shadow in our bright streets.”
I loved her, I would have followed her to the ends of the galaxy for the kindness of her gaze and because she used the keenness of her mind to know how to put me at ease. It would be saying too much to say she had the same effect on the others. She got Grubs attention, I believe, somehow she cut through his prejudice and she became a person not a Person to him. She made him curious. I doubt I will ever understand what Alistair thought of her. As flattering as her words were, he had a significant amount of experience with politicians. If she meant to make him feel indebted she certainly failed. Still I can say when he woke the next morning it was her name on his lips.
“Go now, your ship will be made ready for me. Any upgrades will be performed at our expense. When complete, I will join you and we will depart. Until then feel free to stay in our city, lodging will be provided and your guide can show you around.”
“Thank you,” Alistair said. His gaze was alternately on her and on everything else.
“And you?” I half whispered. It was not my place to speak but I could not hold it in.
“I have preparations to make. We will not meet again until we depart.” Ayronel left without a farewell. Her green eyes stayed with me; they have not left me yet and I’d wager I’ll see them until the day I die.
The Pale One’s city was not as bad after I had her permission to creep along in the shadows. I hid there an invisible witness when I could. When I couldn’t I squared my shoulders and felt my blades hidden beneath cloth against my flesh.
Before I go on I must clarify an issue that will soon arise in my narrative. I was not present for everything that occurred. For the sake of telling events in a way that will communicate our experience and what drove us I will make educated guesses on what happened in others minds and hearts at certain moments. I will provide dialogues I never heard. Some of these things I was told by the others after the fact. Some I have gleaned from security footage from the ship and recorded calls on the ships monitor. If some of it was an invasion of privacy at the time I assure you all those who participated would not object to this story being told.
This being said I will return to the voyage at its first inception.
Only the captain was there when Ayronel boarded the ship. The rest of us were still in the city. We had not been alerted that she was boarding and we didn’t expect it since the baggage they were bringing for her had not been taken to the ship.
The captain, who never did provide me with a name, watched her approach in the viewing screen. He scowled as darkly as he could at the image and though he keyed the door open he did not move to meet her. Rather he stayed glaring at the screen even after she ascended.
When she entered his body grew rigid. He gave the screen one last long glare. When he turned his head to look at her his gaze was, if not friendly, at least civil. She was much as she had been on the day we met her. She approached him slowly across the wide room.
Welcome to my ship,” the captain said.
The two stared at each other. Then with the tips of her fingers Ayronel caressed the ship’s controls. “She is an older vessel, not at all what I’m accustomed to seeing. She has great bones.”
“Bones,” The captain scoffed.
“You have some issue with our changes? The robot workers noted resistance from you but I cannot fathom why. We made only simple upgrades nothing to compromise your ship.”
“Your people made nothing but simple upgrades,” the captain said and he stood to look her square in the eye. “You don’t fool me, girlie, with your imbedded orders and your polite words. There were changes in there your people never would have ordered. I’m just trying to figure why you care what sort of long distance scanners I’m equipped with, and what use any of your personal changes have to a voyage there and back.”
Ayronel smiled and shook her head. “Why should it matter either way, Captain? If I made a few out of the ordinary upgrades they are still free upgrades. Perhaps you should thank me. I have done you a service and your vessel will surely fetch you better paying fare now.”
“You’ve an agenda. I don’t like agenda’s aboard my ship lest they are spoken and agreed upon. Keep your scheming to your quarters and keep me and my ship out of it.”
“I look forward to getting to know you and your ship,” Ayronel said.
The captain slammed his hand down on the controls. “You may be important, your whole damn race may be important but that won’t buy you a damn thing here. You stay away from me and stop messing with my ship or I’ll tell the crew you’re plotting something strange and not at all along to help Prince Alistair’s planet.”
“You’ll tell them what exactly?” Ayronel shrugged. “You’ll tell them that I upgraded communications out of my own finances and replaced your deep sleep pods which were in critical condition? You’ll tell them, perhaps, that I added a state of the art emergency escape mechanism? You are a base man with base suspicions. I think you are rather too clever to go to anyone with silly suspicions. Did you ever think that perhaps I am just afraid of being adrift in space?”
“You are not afraid of any such thing.”
“That may be true, but you are not acquainted with me enough to know. Save your judgments for when you are sure they are due. I assure you that I will not drag you anywhere you don’t know you are going ahead of time.”
“As you say, I don’t know you, so what are your assurances worth? All I know is that you are sneaky.”
“Your head is like a rock. Careful its weight doesn’t crush you.” Ayronel turned from him and walked from the room. The captain did not offer to show her to her quarters. He did watch her as she walked through the metal corridors. He wasn’t glaring now. She might be an adversary but she was a good one.
As she walked, Ayronel looked neither to the left or right. She strode confidently as if she’d lived on the ship for months. She navigated to her living quarters as if her feet already knew the way. The captain did not turn on the private cameras in her quarters. To do so would have been an invasion of her privacy. Law demanded all personal quarters be equipped with recording equipment so that there was a record for criminal proceedings in all locations. To view this footage was criminal outside of trial or by enforcers.
So when Ayronel’s slender elaborately dressed form entered the quarters, the captain sat back in his chair. He opened the upgrade orders on his screen and set his eyes to them. He didn’t see them. He saw her taunting gaze. He smiled. This was going to be fun.
By the time Alistair, Grubs and I reached the ship her things had been loaded and she was ensconced in a knot of her people. They spoke softly to each other and other than a brief greeting we did not speak to her. It felt like an imposition to take her away from her goodbyes. The length of the anticipated journey would be nothing to one of the People or so I assumed. How could I truly have known?
She did not reemerge as the ship departed but stayed sealed within her quarters. After a few silent hours we all retreated to our rooms.
“I don’t trust her,” Grubs said as he stared up at my ceiling.
I rolled over to face him. Though we had taken up sharing a bed on a rather regular basis we had yet to take up talking. It hadn’t been a part of our relationship in the past and until that moment I hadn’t really seen it as an option. I was afraid to upset this new development by responding in her defense but not responding at all didn’t seem like a good way to nurture a deeper relationship.
“We don’t even know her,” I said.
“Know enough. Captain doesn’t like her.”
“Doesn’t he?” I thought about it and laid one hand on his chest. “I didn’t even know they’d met. He has always looked a little dark when she is brought up. This whole assignment is almost over anyhow. I guess it doesn’t matter what we think of her. I hope she starts coming out of her rooms. I can guess at how you feel but for me, I’m fascinated. She’s so…”
He snorted his derision. “What’re you on? Thinks she’s better ‘n us. She’s not coming out. Its good she doesn’t; she nothing but useless cargo.”
I shook my head and smiled. “You’ve never felt the need to talk about ‘useless cargo’ before.”
“Never had cargo this useless.”
I lay back on my bed and stared at the featureless ceiling. “Think anyone will attack us on the way back?”
I don’t know how he knew but he sounded so sure and in the end he was right. No rebels attacked our ship on the return journey. Perhaps they didn’t dare with a delegate of the People on board. They wanted freedom for their people not be eradicated by an angry master race.
Nor did Ayronel emerge. I can only guess at her reasons but my guess would be that she was nervous and didn’t dare to let us see it. I imagine her sitting still the whole journey with her hands folded in her lap and her elaborate glittering head bent. She never signaled us for anything. For all purposes, she might not have been there. I began to agree with Grubs that she thought she was better than us.
By the time we landed, Alistair was a bundle of nerves. He paced in his quarters as we descended. I sat on his floor and played with the end of my tail. The deep purple fur there was soft and I braided little bits only to brush it out.
“She’s going to deny us,” Alistair said at last. His hand tightened into a fist. “If only I could have spoken to her…I could have made her see…I could have explained so she’d see it all as I do.”
“She won’t say no. She said she was the one who decided to consider your application.”
“That’s the crux! They should never have considered it. We aren’t ready to be part of the league.”
“She thought you were.”
“Most planets apply for hundreds of years. This was our first application. I only made it because I wanted to get the process started. We are so close to being ready! A few decades and we’ll be there but surely you know as well as I that I never should have seen the fruition of my action. It was just a head start so we wouldn’t have to wait so long once we were ready…”
“She thought you were ready.”
“I could have made her see that we’ll be there soon. So very soon, really. But I didn’t even get the chance to speak to her. If she turns us down they won’t even take an application for another hundred years. I will be the one who kept my planet out of the league.”
“Or you will convince her now. Or you are wrong and your world is ready now. Alistair, you are not helping yourself doing this. You need to go out to the lobby and get ready to escort her down. All you have to do is shine and believe in your own cause.”
He spun to me. His face was angry but melted into something else and he said nothing.
“I few decades is nothing to them. Show her how close you are and remember that she is the one who wanted to consider your planet. Perhaps she had her reasons and perhaps they are sound. “
“I’m glad you are here.”
She was waiting for us, still and colorless as a stone statue, by the exit. Her eyes which had won my eternal devotion simply by seeing me were shielded now by a veil that covered her from brow to breast. She stared out the open door and did not so much as turn her noble head to acknowledge us.
Alistair gave her a bow, “Follow me, S’Ayronella Dwini Varash. My father and brother’s will be waiting to welcome you.”
I stepped out first, even if I didn’t believe rebels would dare to attack us with her here it was my job to make sure. Alistair led her with his fingers barely brushing her back. She followed without a word. Grubs came last and I swear I could feel the dagger’s he glared at her.
This world was nothing like Anisel, nor was it akin to the frozen mountains of my home world. Of all places, this felt like home to me. There was a steady drizzle from lively grey clouds. Had we been outside of the city there would have been a plethora of green enviorns to choose from but here there was only brick, metal, wood and smooth stone.
As soon as our feet touched ground we were surrounded by a lavish escort. The swirl of color and sound bounced off of Ayronel just as the rain flew off of her grew gauze veil leaving her dry and calm. She looked at none of it her face focused only on the castle gate.
Alistair was speaking. The panic beneath his courteous tone left a tight knot in my chest. Despite comforting him, I was very concerned. All this Woman had to do was say no and his dream was dead. The woman we’d met on Anisel had calmed me. She had seemed kind and wise. The woman I saw now was no more emotive than a carved piece of wax and it would take heart and imagination to see the future that Alistair believed was coming for his world.
The gate swung wide as we approached and inside waited the King, Alistair’s three older brothers and other important members of the court. Ayronel parted from Alistair’s guiding hand and went to greet the king.
Saski, the bride that had been chosen for Alistair, peered from the crowd. Her long, wild, dark hair and crafty eyes were both contained and mute for a public appearance. I nodded at her as I passed but her eyes didn’t note me. They never did and why should they? Despite the attention Alistair paid me I was nothing more than a hired blade. She was the picture of propriety and womanly greed. I often wondered what Alistair thought of her.
I was not allowed into the throne room. It would have been bad form to imply anyone needed protection in there. So the royals entered alone with Ayronel in their midst but not before I saw her white knuckled hands and knew all was not as it seemed.
Saski had attached herself to Alistair, driven not by love but by the need to be important enough to be present. They were the last to enter.
Those that remained in the entryway gave the door a wide berth and checked their colorful voices. Grubs and I stood next to the thick wood door. I twisted my hands together before placing them on the hilts of my blades and allowing them to express their nerves there.
The royals emerged after only a short time. Ayronel and Alistair, with Saski still on his arm, broke away from the group. There would be a feast that night but I feared there would be nothing to celebrate. Ayronel was not seeing the world around her. Her eyes which could see so much were not even bothering to look and that was when I knew she intended to refuse the petition.
I bit down on my lip so forcefully that I tasted blood. It was one of the drawbacks of me picking up that particular human habit. Lip biting isn’t such a big deal until you have fangs to mangle yourself with. I turned and spat blood tinted saliva on the ground, glad to be in a world where I could do this without feeling like a base animal.
“No point in the tour now. I hope he doesn’t know that,” I said. It would be torture for Alistair to have to show the features of his beloved planet if he knew that Ayronel’s mind was already made up against him.
“He’ll get over it,” Grubs replied.
I wasn’t so sure. I gazed after them wishing that I could lend her my eyes which saw this world with such love. Or at the very least that I could give Alistair my heart so his own would not get broken.
“Get a drink?” Grubs asked.
It seemed like as good a way to spend the afternoon as any since we were not invited along. It wasn’t far to the nearest alehouse, which was filled to the brim with nobles. Normally it would have bothered me to have a drinking place filled with their likes but with Grubs at my side I was able to sit back and watch with a smile.
I had only seen him drink once before and that time it had been me who made the mistake of agreeing to match him drink for drink. Needless to say I didn’t recall the end of the night and I lost some decent coin. Everyone knows not to try and outdrink a Darvinian. I have since become aware that everyone wants to prove they are the exception and there is always someone in a crowd willing to bet things they can ill afford to lose for the opportunity to prove they can do the impossible.
I nursed one drink the whole night and did not touch the potent stuff Grubs kept in his bag. Alistair would need me later and I was satisfied laughing at the buffoon who passed out on the table infront of a still sober Grubs.
After the third encounter, Grubs finished his final drink dropping the cup with the pile of others and stood up. I narrowed my eyes and tried to discern some instability or sign of inebriation but he seemed as unaffected as when he’d entered. The only change I noticed was the weight of his purse.
“You ever get tired of doing that?”
Grubs snorted and weighed the pouch in his hand.
We headed back to the palace in the wet dusk. When we arrived I was surprised to be told our presence had been requested and we were swiftly escorted to the private rooms assigned to Ayronel. I was more surprised when we entered that the captain was there.
Ayronel stood by the dark window staring out. She was colorless in the bright blue room. Grey as any ghost’s her hair moved in the wind from the open window. As aesthetic as she was standing there my eye was drawn to the prince and stuck to him like a magnet.
My darling Alistair, who deserved only happiness because it was all he ever dreamed of giving to anyone else, was as stern faced as his father at an execution. He sat hunkered down in his chair and did not lift his eyes to welcome us. If anyone but Ayronel ever brought that look to him I would have been hard to hold back.
“You’re here?” Grubs said to the captain.
“Practically dragged by armed guards,” He said. “Maybe now you’re here they’ll at least explain why.”
“I never asked you be forced here.” Ayronel said in a voice so soft it melded with the wind and rain- just another song of nature. “I apologize if you were inconvenienced.”
“Then I’m free to go?” The captain said.
Ayronel looked up from the window. “You are here, Captain, because you wanted to know anything I intended to use your ship for. You are of course free to go but I think you may want to stay. It was no coincidence that you and your ship came to me. I chose you and I believe you will want what I offer, but first…”
The captain looked unconvinced but he didn’t leave.
I was so tight inside my skin that not acting took all my effort. My tail twitched without my say-so communicating to any who knew one of the twin race exactly the state of agitation I was feeling. I watched her, a velvet shadow, and him, a golden sunrise, as their eyes carefully avoided one another.
“Tomorrow I will speak to this worlds status. I could wait but there is no reason as we all know what my answer should be.”
“You will say no.” I said. I had dreamed of the security and wealth that would come with being classified as a Divine world. To never fear a plague again, to know that military forces beyond my wildest dreams waited if ever we were attacked. And the trade ships that would come! Oh I had dreamed it all even knowing it would not come. I had never felt so hopeless.
“Will I?” She said. “This world isn’t ready.”
The stars were closed to me. She was there, untouchable and unchangeable. What further damnation could those lips speak? And then she did speak but her voice was for Alistair alone.
“The truth cannot be changed, but the fate of this world can. I admit I knew that there was little chance that things would come out any differently than they have. Tomorrow I will announce that you have been rejected unless you do me a favor of equal weight.”
“You cornered me.” He said in a weighty voice I didn’t know. “I’ve had all day to think and without you our request would be sitting in the queue just as I envisioned when I sent it. You accepted it knowing if you did we would come to this place.”
“Your criticism is true. I used you but you can still have what you desired. I hope I was not wrong about you. I saw a man who would die for the good of his world in a heartbeat. I didn’t envision that in the end you would feel I asked to great of a sacrifice. You see, I was very careful what world I chose. Your world is so close to being ready, I could overlook the few decades you are wanting but as I said…if I am to go out of my way for the benefit of your world than I ask the same of you.”
“What is it you offer?” the prince asked. “How could we possibly help the People?”
“I offer you death and your world life and all you must do is follow me on the journey I must take. And I’ll tell you this, my people will not consider what we are doing an aid to them. Death will follow us every step of the way and I have little doubt that my people will be leading the charge.”
“If you anger them enough to kill us why would they honor your word that this world should be Divine?” I cut in.
There was a twinkle in her eye as her eyes met mine. “I was told you were bright. It won’t matter what I do. Once I have spoken the word it is their word and it would be disgraceful to dishonor that even if I did become an outcast afterwards.”
“I will do what I must,” Alistair said. How quickly he signed away his life, with no questions asked. I will never forget that. He did not care what she asked of him. It could have been anything.
Ayronel turned her eyes to the captain then and her voice as well, like a song, changed course. “And you Captain, I do not expect this world to be worth your life. Will you come with me to the distant ends of the universe? I can promise you little but adventure and to captain a ship that will change the course of history.”
“That is a lot to promise with little proof,” The captain said. “I am an old man, and that ship is my life. You bargain so freely with others’ lives. Where are you taking us and why.”
“Those are questions I cannot answer yet,” Ayronel said, and then she leaned toward him, her words again focus entirely on him. “I can promise that you will learn things that no one in this galaxy knows, something that not even my people remember and something that my people have purposely forgotten.”
At this the captain’s lips quirked. “Adventure and knowledge? And all you ask is my life and my ship, it seems a cheap price to pay. What is this thing you seek to know?”
“It is better if you did not know.” Ayronel said. “You are with me?”
Ayronel turned her voice to me and it chilled me. Like the caress of warm water it ran over my body. “And you, Taln? The chances of my people letting anyone who comes with me live are almost nonexistent.”
That she would even ask me was all I needed. The mystery she offered was a undeniable bonus but when she turned that voice to me I would have given her my life then and there. I needed no promises, no reasons.I wanted it because she wanted it. “I’ll go.”
She touched my hand then. Her fingers were soft and cool. “I knew you would not fail me.”
I knew then that I was her slave. I had made that choice. I was her creature.
When she turned to Grubs at my side I felt him tense. He didn’t even wait for the musical voice to pour from between those pale lips.
“Stop there. I fight for money and I don’t want your money.”
“Are you certain? Your friends will need the help of your blade.”
“My friends can take care of themselves. You don’t own the Darvish.”
“I ask to own no one,” Ayronel’s harmony quieted. “I will not demand that anyone come with me.”
“If you will not go for her,” the prince’s voice cut in. “I will pay your price. Isn’t there a specific price that your people ask for a death mission? A life price? If I pay that will you come? She says we will die but I don’t want to and I’ve seen you fight…you and Taln. There are no other fighter’s I want beside me.”
“You think you can afford my life price?” Grubs asked. It surprised me that he was considering it until I recalled Alistair fighting the rebels. He wasn’t coming for me, that was for sure.
Alistair smiled a brilliant white smile at me, his earlier depression seemed to have fled, he didn’t have a soul that could hold onto sadness. “Since Taln’s agreed to go without payment, yeah.”
I swore internally. I might love these people but I needed money to eat and keep a roof over my head like anyone else.
“I will pay Taln.” Ayronel said. “As I will pay the captain. And tomorrow I will speak the yes that will be your payment Alistair.”
I don’t know if it was a credit or a glaring fault on her part that she trusted Alistair to keep his word after he had already been given his ‘payment.’ I had known the prince for many years and it still sometimes took me off guard the seriousness with which he took a promise. If it hadn’t been her, for I would serve her in the fires of hell, and I had been him I wouldn’t have kept my word. Certain death? Adventure is one thing and so is a good battle but I don’t like the odds of certain death at the hands of the People. She didn’t doubt him or us.
That first night Ayronel played her strange instrument in the lounge of the ship. It helped keep us all from thinking about what was happening. The prince’s world was now Divine but in the process we were apparently making ourselves the enemy of every person who lived on a Divine world. Every moment the ship moved away from Anisel the more we tensed waiting, perhaps, for firey death to fall from the sky.
The ships medic swum up to the walls to listen. I found myself watching her. I had long since stopped noticing medics; I think we all had. If you thought of them as sentient beings it became heartbreaking to see them confined to the interior walls of the ship unless they were called forth into their shield. Somehow it made her seem sentient that she listened, more so when Ayronel wove the creature into her wordless song.
Medics were always of the same race and in their own way they were sentient at least until they were installed in the ship. It’s an odd story, when I bother to think about it, but no one thinks about it. That’s just the way things work.
Medics weren’t equipped for space travel. The density of their planet and the fact that they lived underwater made it impossible for them to travel in the spacecraft made for other species. They were confined to their planet until they applied to the People to become part of the Divine.
It turned out another anamoly in their genetics made them a perfect accessory to space travel. Their bodies ran off of the same sort of electrical current that ran through spaceships making them ideal to be ‘programmed in.’ They had developed a way to do this that was now installed in all sizable ships. The walls were filled with water that the Medic’s purified as it was used. In the same way they purified the water they were capable of curing poison’s and minor illnesses. Then they were mechanically enhanced to cure battle wounds.
How loney they must be stuck in the walls- sacrificing their higher intelligence to be able to process the computer cells needed to perform fully. But each and every one of them volunteered. It was said that most stayed happily on their planet reeping the benefits of being Divine but a select few heard the call of the stars and could not resist. They gave everything willingly just to be able to touch the heavens.
Ayronel was crying as she watched the sad eyed medic in the wall. Did they regret it? I wondered once they were trapped. They were barred for the rest of their unnaturally lengthened life from going home or hearing the voice of another of their kind. Whatever Ayronel saw changed the creature forever for me. I swear her music woke something intelligent in the medic’s pupilless eyes.
The medic pressed its webbed hand against the wall. Ayronel leaned her face against the wall. To explain what I felt would be pointless, it is easier to explain what I knew. I was sure watching this one tender moment that Ayronel like me saw things that other’s missed. Whatever it was inside her that allowed her to see how the medic had been wronged was what was driving the suicide quest we were on.
She had seen something she wasn’t meant to see and the unshakable desire she had to right what was wrong had taken over. I believed she could do it. Whatever horrible truth we were off to find I believed she could do it right up until we received the call. Then I began to have doubts.
The call came directly through and did not wait to be answered. The sceen just manifested and out of it looked a faultless grey face. The man who stared out at us was not beautiful the way Ayronel was and where her eyes soothed his were so hard you could shatter against them.
“S’Ayronella, the elders are curious as to why you are not returning.”
“Am I not free to see the worlds as I please, S’LLorvenor?”
“You are free to do as you please but they are not fools. Rethink this my Cherish. You have yet to do anything to shame your grounds.”
“And I will not. You of anyone should know how I feel. I will not have my children grow from shame. I will find it and I will make reparations.”
“There is no shame. Some things are private and it is not shame to leave them in shadow.”
Ayronel suddenly seemed to be made of color. Her eyes were a biting green and her skin the white of a cherry blossom. “They are ashamed! They lie and they hide because they are ashamed. It is not hidden from public eye it is removed from all record and we are lied to.”
I watched in silence as we all did. This might be the closest we ever came to understand why were were going to die.
“Please, Cherish, my Cherish, I do not want to have to hunt you down.”
“Then do not my Cherish,” Ayronel had faded back into pastels and would soon be her usual black and white self. “Stay quiet and let me go. Only you have any knowledge of my heart. For the love I once gave you, give me time at least.”
At her words there was, if only for an instant, real pain in his gaze. “Time is all I can give you unless you come back.”
I heard the echo of what he meant. ‘Come back to me’ said his eyes.
“Goodbye.” Ayronel said.
The screen went blank and showed only the water in the walls, the medic and the starry sky. Ayronel did not meet our eyes and she set down her silver instrument.
“S’Ayronella,” I said and reached out to her. I didn’t know how to comfort a goddess but I also didn’t know how to leave her in pain.
Her gaze snapped up to me and it was blank. “No, S’Ayronella Dwini Varash, at least for now I am one with my people and none here have earned the right to use a familiar moniker.”
Correcting me had restored her strength so I bit back my disappointment at the rebuff.
“What is a Cherish?” Alistair interjected. I hadn’t realized he was beside me until his hand patted mine.
At this Ayronel gave one chuckle, “I suppose it is similar to your version of a fiancée…but don’t think of it that way expect for a base understanding. Your people do not live forever and it would be impossible for you to truly understand what bonds we form and those we don’t. I owe nothing to that man except children and I doubt I will make it that far.”
“Then you love him?”
“I did once. He was not well liked when we grew and I saw something in him other’s didn’t.”
“Have a drink,” Grubs said. He tossed her some of his special brew and she caught it. If any of us thought his warming to her odd we did not remark. She raised one brow but tasted the liquid.
“That’s actually quite good.” She remarked. “Another night we shall all have to sit down. I have a brew much like this. But tonight I suggest we rest.”
Later that night I heard her arguing through the walls. I could not hear either her words or the other’s but the tone chilled me and I wished that Grubs had been sharing my bed. Eventually, I fell asleep but we plagued by vague dreams of wings and flame and the darkness of earth pressing in around me and choking in my lungs.
I woke and left my rooms and in my wandering I found Ayronel at the helm of the ship staring out at the stars. I turned to leave, she had been rather clear we were not friends and I had no need to disturb her lonely vigil but then she spoke.
“Taln, the ship is dreaming my dreams and I fear you’ve caught it. I apologize.”
“Yes. Out there,” She motioned to the stars “Live secrets I don’t know and I have only clues to follow. Little meaningless clues and if I’m wrong then I’ve given us all up for nothing.”
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t understand.”
“My people did not come from Anisel. We made it only a century or two before the Divine was founded. There is no record of where we came from before that.”
I thought of biting my lip but it still hurt from the last time I’d tried that so I was still. For a people who valued knowledge only second to beauty not having a record of something was a significant thing. “Could it have been lost?”
“The elders claim it was forgotten but if it was forgotten it was forgotten on purpose. I’ve spent my life searching for answers and found only shadows. Half the shadows were in the elders eyes. No, our past holds something they want to forget.”
“Why not just forget it? Everyone has things in their past they regret.”
“And anyone with a past they regret seeking to rule other’s owes those they rule the truth. So why wouldn’t it be the same of us as a people? We claim to be wise and capable of leading all of you to a higher evolution…”
“But you need to know the secret and judge if you deserve to rule.”
“I suppose. We are a lie until we do that. We claim perfection but only by trying to erase something ugly. I won’t rest peacefully until I know what.”
“If there is no record how do you know where to go?”
“I don’t, except there is a record of us traveling to Anisel. We are going to the first planet it is recorded our ancestors stopped at. I hope there is some record there.”
I stood with her for a while longer in silence but finally I turned and left. As if mystically times Alistair came in then. He patted my shoulder.
“You okay? This ship is haunted with bad dreams.” He said.
“Yeah, just going to slip off and get some rest,” I yawned and covered my mouth. I was always careful to do this and not expose the wicked sharp teeth in my mouth to him.
“Night,” He said. I paused outside the doorway and waited. It was automatic and I am a little ashamed to admit it. I think I suspected they would become lovers, maybe even that they already were. They had been together a lot in the two weeks it took us to get off the planet.
He’d even ignored an indignant Saski much to my delight. His parents may think she was perfect for him but it was for all the reasons I hated her. She was a rabid social climber and while maybe that would be helpful to Alistair it led to her vision of his life not including rabble like me.
Did I hope to catch them in an embrace? If so I was disappointed. They stood stone still just looking out the window together. I went to bed.
It was a week later, and after many arguments behind closed doors, that he beemed onto our ship. LLorven was armed to the teeth when he appeared. He did not use our ship teleport but some device attached to his wrist.
Both Grubz and I had our blades out before he had fully materialized.
His nose crinkled at us and he took a step forward before Grubs aggressive movement with his huge sword checked his movement. “Suggest you go right back where you came from.”
“You? You dare suggest something to me?” He turned his eyes behind us to where I heard her soft stepps approaching. “You should teach your creatures respect.”
“And you should be wary of blades at your throat that are hungry for your blood,” She replied cheerfully. “Have you come to kill me or to beg me to come home?”
“Neither,” LLorven said through gritted teeth. “I came to warn you. They have called out for your capture and the extermination of your crew.”
“You promised you’d keep quiet.”
“I did as long as I could.”
“Scum,” I swore and if her hand hadn’t caught my arm I would have slit his throat without hesitation.
“Taln,” She said and I noticed that for the first time she used only my first name. Something had changed and even before she spoke I knew what. “The fact that he’s here means he’s on our side. I don’t ask you to like him but he has likely saved your life.”
LLorven didn’t stay with us long. He stayed only long enough to annoy the rest of us with his haughty attitude and to exasperate Ayronel with his pleas but in the end he left. He wanted to warn her but wasn’t willing to fight at her side.
His warning came in handy very quickly. We were sitting at the table for a supper together when they appeared. They were dressed in a dark green and their brown feathers were slicked back from their beaks, just like LLorven they appeared directly in the room with us.
In the time it took the Bird-men to stretch out their bladed wings I had slid under the table and rolled back. From the vantage I was able to draw my weapons and creep forward unseen in the shadows. I couldn’t see much but their orange clawed toes and Grubs who had leapt away from the table behind them and had already cut one down and had sharp feather’s stuck to the blood on his weapon.
The others were still seated which I took to mean they hadn’t been fast enough. I pictured to worst to motivate me. They had a blade wing to Alistair’s throat and probably to the captain’s as well. Maybe they were binding Ayronel’s soft wrists behind her back and if I didn’t figure something out Grubs would fall quickly to this number of well-trained fighters.
The one advantage we had was that they didn’t seem to know I was there. As if she sensed this Ayronel spoke.
“If we surrender now?”
It stopped the immediate advance on Grubs and gave me the space of a thought as they responded in chirps I couldn’t interpret. I lined three small knives up on my fingers without thought and darted forward toward Alistair’s feet. I surfaced and was already releasing the first blade- it sank into the bird man at Alistair’s throat.
The next two knives took out the two creatures wrestling with the captain. Immediately the captain was up his weapons already in hand and the prince and I drew blades at the same time.
The sound of battle has a sort of rhythm that I’ve always felt and in the first few moments of dodging and slicing out I didn’t notice a difference. It actually wasn’t until I saw Ayronel with her fingers on her strange instrument that I realized she was doing something to us. There was no time to consider it.
I fought by Alistair. It wasn’t until later that I realized that Grubz spent the battle protecting the woman he’d refused to serve- even then without knowing it he couldn’t stand to see her in pain. Now that they saw me I realized I was outmatched.
It was all I could do to stay alive between the two that converged on me. My knives hit again and again but the force wasn’t enough to cut through their feathers. When one of their beaks sank through my armor into my shoulder I screamed. I think it would have been it for me there if I hadn’t realized as the other beak descended that they fought in pairs. They fought just like my twin and I had been taught to fight.
I stabbed up at the neck of the one attached to me and dropped my legs falling to the ground and out of the other’s dive. As I had hoped the death of its partner slowed the remaining creature enough for me to kick his friend off of me and skitter back a distance. When he charged at me I sank in to Ayronel’s rhythm and waited. I let her guide me even as blood pumped from my shoulder. My body flung to the side and my blade cut through the bony orange ankle of first one leg then the other. The momentum of my slide carried me out of the way as it fell and I was able to aim one last shot into one of its yellow eyes.
My hand came up to my shoulder expecting to try and staunch the flow of blood but the wound was oddly bloodless. Ayronel’s song had changed and somehow I knew without thinking about it that I didn’t need to worry about bleeding out as long as her slender finger’s moved.
I did however lose consciousness from the blood I’d already lost. The last thing I saw was Grubz facing three of them with Ayronel kneeling in front of him.
The captain leaned back in his chair with his feet propped on the control panel. He looked across the room at Ayronel and Alistair as if he was mildly confused by their presence. He’d hoped deep down that he could dissuade them from addressing the problem head-on. His hand brushed over the controls that had been his primary companion for over fifty years. He felt like he was offering to abandon his wife, and he knew the feeling as it had been almost twenty years since he last took his ship home. The feeling in his stomach looking across the control room was identical to the tight knot that had nearly kept him land bound all those years ago.
“How long until we are out of the cluster of planets and can settle into our sleeppods?” Alistair asked.
“Too long,” The captain said. “Your enemies have already found us missy.”
“Are you glad now for the state of the art equipment?” Ayronel asked with the quirk of a smile.
“Hardly,” The captain responded. “They have everything we have and more. We can’t outrun them. I’m afraid you wasted your money.”
“I admit I thought we’d get farther.” Ayronel slid her fingers over her instrument which had yet to be cleaned after the battle and was sticky with partially dried blood. “But it isn’t my people who found us just trackers. They are bound to have them on every Divine planet.”
“And we are in a cluster of Divine planets all phoning their masters that we’re here. How long until there is a mass force we cannot defeat?” The Captain said. A few weeks ago he wouldn’t have dared refer to the Pale Ones and masters around either Alistair or the Woman but things had changed.
“We cannot give up,” Alistair said with a cheerful undercurrent that was severly irksome to the captain. He always tried to keep that ire in check and remember that the prince was still just a child. At twenty-five years old he was by far the youngest of those aboard the ship. The captian did better liking him if he just thought of him as a child about knee high.
“I’m not suggesting we give up. I’m suggesting we jettison and go into hiding.”
“You don’t think they’d find us on those planets?” Alistair inquired.
“Well we don’t do it here,” The captain said. “We use some of those fancy trinkets Miss High and Mighty installed. We jet out of here fast as we can, do a few time jumps. It won’t matter that it’ll drain the ship since we’ll be abandoning it. After the second time jump we set it up for a third…”
“But by the time the third jump happens we’ll have left to huddle on one of the planets below,” The prince finished.
“No,” Ayronel said. Her arms folded under her chest.
“Little lady, I’m afraid you don’t have that kind of power here. I’m not going to die at your say so just because you’ve got to much pride to admit we’ve been outplayed. Both of our warriors are in the infirmary and Taln will be no good for a good week or two until that shoulder heals. You really think we have that kind of time?”
“We won the fight! Why do we have to abandon ship,” Ayronel hissed.
“Maybe we should wait to discuss this till we are all here,” The prince interjected.
The captain and Ayronel both looked to him with a snap of anger. The captain had nearly forgotten the boy and his interjection was the sort of rabble pleasing nonsense that made everyone love him. It was also the sort of drivel that got you killed when a decision needed to be made.
“This is my quest. I do not need bodyguards to think for me.” Ayronel sneered.
“Their lives are just as much at stake as ours and if you recall, Taln came of her own will. Why shouldn’t they have a say.”
“There isn’t time for it, boy,” The captain swung his legs down and walked over to the lovely weed and the prince. “Your heart is awfully communistic for a prince. Truth of it is I don’t want to let my ship go but sometimes the only way to have the opportunity to win is to quit before you lose and try again. Eventually when they find us they aren’t going to board the damn vessel and you know it. They’ll blow us out of the sky if they have to. How long do you think it will take them to get there? I’d wager only until they are willing to see the little princess dead and I’d wager they are there already.”
“If we abandon ship how will we go about procuring another? I have no connections to black markets.”
“Let me worry about that, wouldn’t want to dirty your hands. Pack what you can into the escape pods- any upgrades you can detach will be a godsend later and firm currency we can hold in our hands.” The captain said. He felt better about both of them now that he’d won the argument. It was almost enough to make him forget he was talking about abandoning his ship. At least with it’s current upgrade state they weren’t likely to scrap it.
No someone would by the bits worth the most. He’d grown fond of medic in the way he’d once been fond of his father’s horse. It would be good for her not to be blown to bits and if they stayed aboard the ship that is what would happen.
“I’ll start programming the ship and you lot get to packing our things and our unconscious warriors.”
“Yes,” Ayronel said her eyes retreating inward and her fingers playing with the gauzy fabric of her dress. “Thank you captain. I can admit when I am out of my element and this is one of those times. My people have never known war, never known odds that are not in our favor. Do you have a planet in mind?”
“Not yet but I’ll pick a douzy for you.”
As it happened we never got the chance to implement the captain’s plan. The only luck we had that day was that the captain made his plan and the things that would be most precious to us were already aboard the escape pods- including me. I remained drugged into a comatose state throughout the entire proceedings.
The view out the panel cleared the fuzziness from Grub’ mind instantaneously. Darvinian’s processed drugs differently than the average mammalian metabolism most were designed for. Later we realized out errors in treating him and began to apply the medicines specialized for the Pale One’s, which worked better if not perfectly. We had not yet made this discovery on our journey and Grubs came out of his medical stupor long before he was supposed to.
The captain later told me it was yet one more piece of Felicity that happened that day that made him a believer in Ayronel’s quest- thought this was something I’m not sure I ever heard him admit till the very end. When he saw Grubs awake in his med unit it had the effect of saving two lives- Grubs’ own life and that of prince Alistair.
“Did you hear me?” The captain said. His voice cut in an out through the com which on its own was a sure sign of distress. Grubs hardly noticed that. He only saw the view in the endless expanse of starry sky.
He should have stayed abed with the wounds he sustained in the battle and he would have if it hadn’t been for the captain’s frantic voice and the flock of angry griffon’s in the sky. His feet were already swinging to the floor as the captain spoke.
Pain and drugs dimmed his senses enough that he didn’t manage to process the captain’s words and thus he didn’t respond. He did hear the captain’s tone and so he struggled to get his mind in check as he reached for his weapons where they lay beside the bed.
Grubs’ naked chest was criss-crossed with deep cuts only freshly sealed by the medic. Older scars marked him as well many were brutally puckered and off color from the uniform brown green pattern of his hide. He wore the scars as many would wear a tattoo or tribal piercing. They were marks of his manhood. No Darvinian would stand to have their scars removed- a man or woman without scars to prove their worth were no better than a child or a coward in the eyes of their people. Grubs already had enough near death wound scars to mark him as a hero. Many women would vie to produce such a warrior’s offspring. It did have the effect of making him look like a warrior from an old barbarian legend.
The series of chains that held his weapons in place clicked shut leaving no visible sign of where it could be opened.
He had never seen a griffon before but he recognized it instantly. There were only two things anyone could do when a griffon attacked- run or die in glory on their sizzling wings. While running didn’t appeal to him he was on this mission to protect Alistair. He didn’t take that vow lightly. He would even deign to run from this fantastic beast.
The Griffon’s were at least five tons each and instead of a head in the traditional sense they had a large beak that sat atop their furred shoulders. This was of a material denser than any metal that had been produced and shimmered with all the colors of the rainbow. When that beak parted it revealed a long snakelike black tongue and two gleaming eyes set at the back. The body was feline in shape but other than patches at the shoulder and the tail it was completely bare of skin or fur showing the firmly packed red muscle underneath covered only in a clear gel. The beast had for feline legs but instead of paws it had the talons of a bird- each nail fully capable of tearing into the hull of a ship.
There are only two creatures in the known universe who can claim the void of space as their natural enviorment. The griffon is one of these. Arguably griffons are the less dangerous of the two because they never attack unless provoked. They usually like ships, drifting beside them when they have encounters and chirping loudly.
Grubs didn’t understand why we would have antagonized such a beast. We were certainly not looking to prove our metal trying to kill it. So he assumed that this was another trick of the Pale One’s. Some crafty magic from their twisted high and mighty brains.
“Com system isn’t fully functional…Alistair’s room in dead zone…warn…” The captain’s voice came and this time Grubs did process it.
“Taln and Ayronel?” He asked as he pulled an animal hide coat over his broad shoulders.
“Safe,” the captain said followed by a fuzzy breakup during which Grub’s strapped his pack to his shoulders. “Temperature dropping…”
Grubs didn’t catch anymore but he got the drift. Now that he had seen them he could feel the thuds as they struck the ship. We were losing air. The prince didn’t have long. If his room was not affected he would be find inside for a while but if that room was compromised or he opened the door…
“Stick a knife in the next Pale One I see…” He grumbled. They had all the power in the universe and they were hiding behind tricks used to infuriate animals? This was the people that everyone bowed down under and sang praises to? They wasted so much time on their ridiculous pretty faces they might as well have been wall hangings for all the real purpose they served.
If the captain heard he didn’t respond, least of all to point out that we had a handy Pale One in one of our escape pods.
Grubs stepped into the hall after shoving his feet into his boots. He left his shirt behind as it didn’t seem worth the time to claim it. What little else he owned was in his room and he didn’t even debate if he had time to venture there.
The air in the hallway had already plummeted in temperature. His breath steamed in front of him. That was all he needed to start off at a run to the prince’s chambers. While Grubs could go nearly a dozen hours without air and over an hour in subzero temperature the prince was a frailer breed. He would need a steady supply of oxygen and warmth to keep himself alive. The air was going with the heat through the holes created by the Griffons’ talons.
He pounded on the prince’s door with enough force to dent the thin metal.
The door opened almost instantly and Grubs was caught momentarily off guard- just enough to open brain space to wonder what the fancy little man was doing with two large bags strapped to his shoulders. There was no time to ask questions unless he wanted the Prince to asphyxiate as he froze to death.
“Escape pods now.” He said. The prince opened his mouth and expecting questions he didn’t have time to answer or a request to go back and grab something, Grubs place one hand behind his back and shoved him into the hallways and reiterated, “Now!”
For a short ways the prince ran in front of him. Where Grubs breath was a light steam the prince’s breath being hotter made a dense cloud of white every time he gasped. The first time his golden employer stumbled Grubs scooped him up and slung him onto his shoulders.
He ran full tilt across the ship. One of his knees which had been damaged in the fight wobbled at the extra weight and screamed it protest. Grubs had seen men die of space exposure. It wasn’t pretty and there was little honor in it. He currently wanted to die with a Pale One on his blade and to see the Prince marry his dark wisp of a bride that he’d left in tears when we departed.
There were few humans who were worth the trouble but Grubs thought that this one should procreate. More like him were needed.
The prince was blue in the face and lolling in and out of consciousness when they arrived. Grubs shoved Alistair into one pod and quickly keyed it closed. Frost covered his skin and he felt it crack as he moved- he would be oozing blood when he warmed up. Best not to think of that. He struggled to recalled the launch code but after three tried he successfully launched the pod.
Only then did Grubs climb into the escape pod next to him and seal himself in the safe chamber. He ached to collapse in the warm air that was pumping into the small chamber but first he had to launch. It would do him not good to be in there if he remained inside the ship.
As his pod detached he sank back onto the only seat. Conciousness was already waivering when Ayronel’s lilt came through com’s he didn’t know the pods had. They shouldn’t have had them. She’d thought of it- almost useful that one.
“Everyone make it?”
“What happened?” The prince said. His voice was breathy but it was a good sign that he was conscious.
“Griffons attacked. Know anything about that Girly?”
“I have a name!” Ayronel snapped. “It is a name I worked hard to earn use it or none at all.”
“Coms in pods?” Grubs said. He knew he wouldn’t hear my voice but he listened for it anyway.
“Yes,” Ayronel said. Her voice smiled and he wanted to hit her for being so smug sounding. “They are equipped with more than that, luckily for us. For obvious reasons we cannot go to ground here. First we must ensure that where we go we go together.”
It was true. We couldn’t afford to land anywhere nearby. The Pale Ones knew we were here. It would be suicide. We could probably manage to go under the radar traveling in pods. Maybe get somewhere safe.
“Press the flashing green display button,” Ayronel continued.
Grubs jabbed it angrily. “Going to explain why the pods are packed with our equipment too?”
“We would have told you when you woke up. We planned to abandon the ship and try to escape view.”
“Still the plan, isn’t it S’Ayronella?” The captain said.
The propriety of the name she insisted on galled Grubs. What right did she have to act like she was above anyone. It was her people that got us in this mess.
“Yes, now that our vessels are bonded together I will send us on a time jump. With no planned destination we may have to drift after that. I’m sorry for that but this is an improvisation. I didn’t expect the griffons anymore than the rest of you. All of you will have to go to sleep.”
“And you, Ayr?” Grubs asked. I sorely regret that I was not there at that nicknames inception. I never got to hear him utter it with vehemence and I think all the rest of us understood it wasn’t a name for us to utter. Why she permitted it from him was a quandary in those early days. After a while it didn’t matter anymore. Maybe it was just that she knew she couldn’t stop him.
“I am unaffected by time and with a guide and us cloaked I am confident I can find the nearest likely planet. We have limited range of course so I can’t be choosy and we will be ship wrecked there. We will be alive and with prospects and that is something.”
Grubs hated the plan. If he hadn’t been chained to the others he might have turned around and tried to fight the griffons with only his pod and his blade. But he was chained and he wouldn’t do anything to compromise the safety of the other’s. Even the insufferable flower maiden with her bossy voice and useless mannerisms.
“Taln?” the prince whispered.
“She is safe with me in the master pod.” Ayronel soothed, “Sleep well.”
The last things Grubs heard was Ayronel softly singing a lullaby he knew from his youth about a child’s root reaching out for a cool stream and the mother’s hands cupping what the child could not reach. His gruff voice muttered a few words before he slipped into the dreamless black.