Book: Vellmar The Blade



Vellmar The Blade

Vellmar The Blade


Vellmar The Blade


Vellmar The Blade

Sign up for our newsletter to hear

about new and upcoming releases.

www.ylva-publishing.com

Other Books From


Fletcher DeLancey

Chronicles of Alsea:

The Caphenon

Without a Front: The Producer’s Challenge

Without a Front: The Warrior’s Challenge

Catalyst


(Coming Winter 2016/2017)

Vellmar the Blade

Other Books:

Mac vs. PC


For those who strive.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Readers are awesome. They’re the ones who clamored for more about Lead Guard Vellmar, a minor character in Without A Front: The Producer’s Challenge who grew into a point of view character in Without A Front: The Warrior’s Challenge and now has a story of her own. It was a treat for me to back away from the more complex tales of the Chronicles of Alsea novels and focus on “regular” Alseans, unburdened by politics or global and galactic issues.

So thank you to those who wrote me and said, “More Vellmar!” I heard you. Here she is.

Thanks also go to my tyree, Maria João Valente, who supports my writing habit and keeps me well supplied with chocolate and gin; and to Karyn Aho, my Prime Beta, whose psychological input is always on point and insightful.

Special thanks go to the team at Ylva: Sandra Gerth, my editor; Cheri Fuller, my copy editor; Glendon Haddix, owner of Streetlight Graphics and our cover designer; and Astrid Ohletz and Daniela Hüge, who head up Ylva Publishing. These are the folks who make it possible for Vellmar’s story to be in your hands.


Vellmar The Blade

CHAPTER 1:


Bedtime story

Jandahar stood just outside the bedroom door and cleared his throat loudly. “Anyone wanting a bedtime story had better be in their bed by the time I come in this room, or—”

A stampede of small feet thudding across the wooden floor interrupted him, followed by creaking bed frames and the whoosh of blankets as his two children raced to beat the deadline. By the particularly loud creak of Milena’s bed, he guessed she had leaped into it from a good four paces away. If that bed lasted through her tenth cycle, he would be amazed.

“Look at that, already in bed,” he said as he walked through the door. “What a nice surprise! You didn’t wait until the last possible tick this time.”

Milena and her younger brother, Harren, blinked up at him from their beds on opposite sides of the room. Their covers were pulled up to their chins, hands still clutching the top edge in a position they clearly thought would fool him.

“No, Bai,” Milena said without a trace of guilt. “We were just waiting for you.”

“So I see. Your teeth are brushed?”

She nodded.

“Face washed?”

Another nod.

“Toes washed?”

A giggle escaped. “Bai!”

“You didn’t wash your toes?”

“We don’t wash our toes before bedtime!”

He turned around. “Harren? Are your toes washed?”

Harren smiled widely. “No, but my toes don’t stink like Milena’s. She didn’t put on clean socks this morning.”

“I did too!”

“Did not.”

“Did too!”

“Enough!” Jandahar cut them off before they could wind themselves too tightly. “Milena, let me see your feet.” He pretended not to notice the tongue she stuck out at her brother even as she pushed her feet out from under the covers. Making a show of approaching carefully, he gave an exaggerated sniff. “Well, they don’t seem too bad.”

“They’re clean!”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” He pointed at a suspicious spot.

She pulled up her foot to inspect it. “That’s just from my socks.”

“Your dirty socks,” muttered Harren.

“Hm.” He leaned a little closer. “Well, I’m sure you’ll put on clean socks tomorrow. Yes?”

Milena sighed as he tucked her feet back in. “Yes.”

“Good.” He resettled the covers over her. “Harren? Teeth and face?”

“Clean, Bai.”

“Which is more than I can say for your bed.” He crossed the room and tidied Harren’s blanket, which as usual was a twisted mess except for the small section he had pulled up while diving under it. Standing erect, Jandahar put his hands on his hips and surveyed the two children in their beds. “Since things are mostly clean and you’re in bed and ready, I suppose it’s time for a story. Which one shall I tell tonight?”

“I want to hear about Trevan the Treecat and how she fooled Moonbird into leaving her nest so that she could eat all the eggs!” It was Harren’s favorite.

“Bai, no! We had to hear about Trevan last time.” At nine cycles, Milena fancied herself much too old for Trevan the Treecat stories.

“That’s true,” Jandahar told his son. “Last time we did Trevan and the winden.”

Harren’s face fell. “But I like Trevan.”

“So do I. In fact, I like Trevan the best of all the animals. But your sister is right, it’s her turn to choose.” He pulled the chair out from the wall between their beds and sat down. “What would you like to hear, Milena?”

She flipped onto her side and propped her head on her hand, eyes sparkling. “The Fall of Blacksun!”

“That’s a war epic, not a bedtime story.”

“But it’s exciting.”

“Yes, and it would take a nineday to tell it. Choose something shorter.”

“The Last Charge of the Defenders!”

Jandahar could never understand where his daughter got her bloodthirstiness. “I think bedtime is not the best time for stories of war and death.”

“But they didn’t all die.”

“Why don’t you choose a story in which no one dies?”

She pouted for a moment, then brightened. “Tell the story of Vellmar the Blade and how she lost the championship at the Global Games.”

“Ah, that’s a good one,” he said in relief. “Vellmar the Blade, hm? Well, that was a long, long time ago, before we had our own space fleet. It was back in the Golden Age of Tal the Wise and Salomen the Strong, when Alsea prospered at the very beginning of the Discoveries.”

Milena settled onto her back and closed her eyes, the better to listen.

“It all began when Vellmar, who had just become Lead Guard for Lancer Tal, decided to enter the Games…”

CHAPTER 2:


The beginning

Vellmar stood straight and tall, fronting her nervousness while the aide announced her. Her boot heels thudded on the highly polished hardwood floor as she entered the office, then sank into the plush rug that padded the area around Lancer Tal’s enormous wooden desk, carved and inlaid by a master of the craft. The wall of glass behind the desk offered a glorious view of the State Park, with Blacksun Temple’s majestic dome rising over the trees.

Lancer Tal was in the far corner of the room, where an equally beautiful wooden sideboard held a collection of snacks, cups and saucers, and a shannel dispenser. Vellmar stiffened and smacked her fists together against her sternum. “Lancer Tal.”

“Vellmar, right on time. Can I interest you in a cup of shannel?”

It took a moment to get over the shock of her oath holder and the most powerful person on Alsea offering to serve her. “Ah…yes, please.”

“Good answer.” A quiet whoosh sounded as Lancer Tal filled two cups, followed by soft clinks as she set them in saucers. Holding one in each hand, she carried them across the room and set the first in front of Vellmar. “Sit down.”

That was not an order Vellmar could obey. She remained standing until Lancer Tal had walked around the desk and sat in her own chair, and only then did she gingerly lower herself to a chair that was probably hundreds of cycles old. Councilors and caste Primes had sat in this very seat. It was heady indeed for a warrior from Pollonius who had never dreamed of reaching such heights.

Lancer Tal sipped her shannel and regarded her over the rim of the cup. Replacing it in its saucer, she said, “Is any part of your back actually touching that seat?”

Vellmar awkwardly let her spine rest against the chair. “Yes.”

“Is it me causing this intimidation, or the office?”

“I’m not—” She stopped before telling an outright lie. “Ah…both, I suppose. But more the office. I’ve never been in here before.”

“I just realized that. Perhaps you should try the shannel and see if it helps.”

She picked up the cup and saucer, both emblazoned with the Seal of the Lancer, and took a sip. A small hum of fervent appreciation escaped before she could stop it.

The Lancer chuckled. “Good, isn’t it?”

“More than good.” She sipped again, savoring the excellent flavor. “Probably the best I’ve ever tasted.”

“It’s how they keep me in here sometimes. There have to be some rewards for the title.” Lancer Tal leaned forward. “Now that you’ve marginally relaxed, let’s talk about your Guards.”

Vellmar had sweated over her personnel reports for a nineday in an effort to make them as detailed, exact, and forward-thinking as she could. It was the first real test of her administrative capability since coming to Blacksun, and she was determined to impress. She was the Lead Guard of the most elite unit of Guards on the planet—those who protected Lancer Tal herself—and that meant she had to be the best in every way.

But she had expected to give those reports to Head Guardian Gehrain or, at the highest level, to Colonel Micah, the Chief Guardian. It had never occurred to her that Lancer Tal herself would ask to hear them. Nor had her nerves been soothed when Gehrain informed her that in fact the reports did go to him, but Lancer Tal wanted to test her new Lead Guard.

For the next hantick, she answered questions and offered assessments of the warriors under her direct supervision. It was nerve-racking, because the Lancer knew her Guards better than she did. Most of them had served with her for several cycles, while she had been here less than four moons.

But when the last question was answered, Lancer Tal gave her an approving nod. “Well done. You’ve demonstrated an excellent understanding of your Guards’ strengths and weaknesses, especially given the short amount of time you’ve been here.”

“Thank you, Lancer.” She kept the pride behind her front and hopefully off her face as she rose. “And thank you for the shannel.”

“You’re welcome. So,” Lancer Tal said in an entirely different tone of voice, “now that we have that out of the way, I understand that the deadline for entering the Global Games is the end of this nineday. Are you registered yet?”

There went her sense of accomplishment. “No.”

“Why not?”

The Lancer’s more familiar manner gave her permission to answer honestly. This was the woman she ran and sparred with, the woman who did not intimidate her. “Because my birthmother already entered. I had planned to ask her if we could divide the competitions between us, but when I called, it was too late—she had already filled out her card. She’s in every short-blade event. How am I supposed to compete against my own mother?” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “It took me three moons to decide to enter at all, and when I finally mustered my courage, I was one day too late. One day! I cannot believe it.”

“Perhaps you should sit down again. You’re vibrating.”

She had been so close to getting out of this office without making a fool of herself. “I apologize,” she said as she retook her chair. “I’ve let my personal…agitation show where it’s not appropriate. This is not your concern—”

“What do you mean, not my concern?” The Lancer leaned forward, hands clasped on her desk. “My Lead Guard is passing up the chance to bring the glory of the Games to this unit, and it’s not my concern? It most certainly is my concern. And do please stop drumming your fingers.”

Belatedly, Vellmar realized she had been beating out a tattoo on her leg. She flattened her hand and rested it on her knee, then moved it to her thigh, then propped her elbow on the arm of the chair.

“Good Fahla, I’ve never seen you so jumpy. If I hadn’t already seen you perform on a mission, I’d wonder about your capability.”

She looked up in alarm, but the Lancer was smiling at her. “I’m not jumpy,” she said, straightening and crossing her hands over her stomach. “I’m just…dismayed. All this time I’ve been working myself up to it, and now I have to wait until next cycle. I feel like a grainbird. I really don’t like feeling that way.”

Now the Lancer chuckled. “Who does? And what exactly is the problem of entering the same competitions as your birthmother? Are you worried she’ll best you? There would be no shame in that. She’s the reigning champion, after all. And I would be proud to have you bring a blue medal back to our unit. Not getting a red medal isn’t the end of the world.”

“No, that isn’t—” Vellmar paused, knowing that she was about to make herself sound like an arrogant pup. “With respect, Lancer, I’m not worried about her besting me. I’m worried about me besting her.”

“Ah, I see.” Lancer Tal sat back. “Go on.”

“She taught me blade handling from the moment I could understand which end of a knife was which. I’ve been her student all my life. But last cycle in Koneza—we had so much time on our hands, and so much of what we did was busywork. I petitioned the colonel to allow me to use duty time for throwing practice, and he approved. In effect, I trained nonstop for over a cycle. She never had that kind of time available to her.”

“And you believe you’ve surpassed her in skill.”

“I know it sounds overconfident, but yes, I do.”

Lancer Tal glanced down at her desk for a moment. When she looked up again, she had somehow transformed her entire bearing. Vellmar sat even more erect, pinned by the intense look in those light blue eyes and the stern set of her features. She never thought of Lancer Tal as attractive, because one did not think of the Lancer that way—ever—but in this moment she felt as if she were looking at a messenger of Fahla, her blonde hair aglow with something more than simple sunlight.

“Point number one. If you are truly at the top of your field in a skill, it is not overconfidence to state as much. Have pride in your accomplishments, don’t hide them. Unless it’s for strategic reasons, of course.”

Her wink put Vellmar more at ease, making it clear that she was referring to the first time they had sparred together. Vellmar had downplayed her sword-fighting skill, and Lancer Tal had not believed her for a moment.

“Take care in how you speak, yes,” the Lancer continued, “but false modesty is not a virtue. Not in my unit. I need to know the skills of my Guards, just as you need to know the skills of every Guard you’re leading.”

Chastened, Vellmar nodded and cursed the embarrassment that was heating her face. She could front the emotion, but she could not hide the flush.

“Point number two. If your birthmother is a good instructor, and I’ve no reason to believe she is anything else, she will not be hurt or upset if you win any of those competitions. Your triumph would not diminish her.”

How could it not?

She kept the thought to herself, but somehow the Lancer seemed to hear it anyway.

“You disagree?” she asked.

“Ah…well, I don’t disagree with the general…I mean…”

Lancer Tal raised an eyebrow. “Vellmar. You’ve been with me for almost four moons. Surely you know by now that you can speak the truth to me? I’m not going to send you back to Koneza if you disagree with my opinion.”

That was easy for her to say. But Vellmar had never been good at dissembling anyway, so she took a deep breath and dove in.

“My mother is one of the best warriors I know. She takes pride in that. She always taught me that the difference between good and better is usually a matter of work, and she works hard. But…she’s aging. I don’t want to be the one who takes her title away from her.”

“At some point, somebody will. Do you think she would prefer that title go to someone else rather than you?”

She had not considered that.

“You’re training Senshalon in knife fighting. That started almost the day you arrived, didn’t it?”

Puzzled at the change of subject, Vellmar nodded.

“Is he a good student?”

“He’s excellent.”

“And you’re enjoying teaching him.”

“Yes, of course.”

“How do you think you’ll feel the day he surprises you and disarms you with a move you taught him?”

It only took a piptick to see the logic trap. With her face warming even more, she admitted, “I’d be proud of him.”

“Just of him?”

“Well…”

“No false modesty. Wouldn’t you be proud of yourself as well?”

She was distinctly uncomfortable with the turn this conversation had taken, but she had gotten herself into it. Lifting her chin, she said, “Yes, I would. Because that would mean I did a good job training him.”

Lancer Tal nodded in approval. “And his success would reflect positively on your skill as an instructor.”

“Yes, it—” She stopped, finally making the real connection. “Oh.”

A wide smile brightened Lancer Tal’s face, transforming her back into a mere Alsean. “I do believe I just saw a light go on behind your eyes.”

“So blinding that I’m having difficulty seeing.” Vellmar felt an answering smile pushing its way out. “I never thought of it that way. I could bring her honor in this.”

“A great deal of it,” Lancer Tal agreed. “You’re not just any competitor. You’re her daughter and her student. If you win, she does as well.”

Vellmar relaxed into the chair, all of her agitation and worry draining out in the space of two heartbeats. She had needed a Fahla-damned map to find the truth, but there it was in front of her at last. “I wish I’d spoken with you earlier. You could have saved me a lot of wasted time and second-guessing myself.”

“Keep that in mind for the next time, then.”

“I suppose I’ll also have to keep in mind that Senshalon can occasionally be right. He’s the one who first got me thinking seriously about entering the Games. He said she would be proud of me.”

“Senshalon only looks like a musclehead. But I’ve never chosen my Guards based solely on their strength, and neither has Colonel Micah.”

The knowing expression directed her way made her face warm again, but this time it wasn’t embarrassment.

“Thank you, Lancer Tal. I appreciate this more than you know. And I’ll try not to act like a muscleheaded warrior in the future.”

“You haven’t yet. Don’t worry, if you do I’ll have Micah straighten you out immediately. He’s very good at that.”

“I have no doubt.” She slapped her hands on her thighs and rose from the chair. “Then if you’ll excuse me, I have a few calls to make.”

“Excellent. I’ve a few calls to make as well. We’ll need a proper celebration for all of those red medals you’ll be bringing back.”

Vellmar opened her mouth to protest but then saw the twinkle in Lancer Tal’s eyes. She raised a finger in a warning gesture. “False modesty may not be a virtue, but neither is tempting Fahla. Don’t put a cloud of bad luck on me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. But you might keep one thing in mind.”

“What’s that?”

“Don’t underestimate older warriors. I still haven’t forgotten the lesson I learned the last time I made that mistake.”

“How long will I need to serve with you before I can hear that story?”

“More cycles than you have left in your lifespan,” said the Lancer dryly.

CHAPTER 3:


Milena disagrees

“And so, after much persuasion, Lancer Tal finally agreed to allow Vellmar to enter the Games.” Jandahar paused to steal a drink of water from Harren’s glass. One of these nights, he would remember to bring his own.

“Why didn’t she just say yes to begin with?” Milena asked.

“Well, probably because Vellmar was her Lead Guard. That’s an extremely important and serious position. There was prestige associated with a Games medal, to be sure, but Vellmar already held one of the most prestigious ranks a warrior could hope to attain. And she had to spend a great deal of time training for the Games, which could take away from her duties.”

“Vellmar would never have shirked her duties,” she said stoutly. “She would have trained on her own time.”

“Perhaps. But the truth remains that we don’t hear stories of many Lancer’s Guards taking part in the Games, do we?”

“It still doesn’t make sense. I don’t think Lancer Tal would have kept Vellmar from the Games. I think the story’s wrong.”

“And who is telling this story tonight, you or me?”

When no answer was forthcoming, Jandahar reached out, ruffled her hair, and continued.



CHAPTER 4:


Practicing I

Vellmar was in what she called her focused zone. She had been in the training room on the ground floor of the State House since the end of her duty shift, practicing her throwing. It was just her, the knives, and a target, with nothing and no one around to interrupt, and she had long since lost track of time. Her vision had tunneled down so far that all she could see was the target, and her body felt as if it were an extension of her thoughts. She was no longer making any physical effort at all; she simply envisioned the throw and then let the knife leave her hand. These were the moments she treasured, when her skill took over her body and made it nearly impossible to miss.

Nearly.

She had set a goal of twenty-five perfect throws at the thirty-pace short-blade competition distance and was not allowing herself even a hair’s width of error. Each time her blade landed anywhere other than dead center in the target, she restarted the count. It did not matter if the throw was still in the red zone; in fact, she never threw a knife anywhere but in the red zone. What mattered was that it was in the exact center, because she would need to be more than excellent to win this event. She would need to be perfect.

Thunk.

Dead center. That was twenty-one. She waited for the target to eject her knife, then picked up another from the case at her feet. Take position, envision the throw…

Thunk.

Twenty-two. This was where she had lost the count last time.

Come on, just three more, she thought.

Take position, envision the throw…

Thunk.

Thunk.

Thunk.

“Yes! Finally!” With a whoop, she picked up a knife from her case and tossed it high into the air. As it came down, she snatched it by the handle and fired it at the target.

Thunk. It wasn’t perfect, but it was still in the red.

“If I hadn’t seen what you can do, I’d have thought that last move was a bit dangerous,” said a voice behind her.

Vellmar whirled, her heart beating triple-time. “Great Goddess above! You just scared me halfway to my Return!”

Salomen Opah, Bondlancer of Alsea, stood on the wooden observation deck that overlooked the training room. Her arms were folded on the waist-high railing, the position making her dark hair drape over her shoulders. She looked as if she had been there for quite some time.

“I’m sorry,” she said, pushing off the railing and turning toward the stairs. The snort of laughter belied her words. “Damn, I’m glad you weren’t holding a knife just now.”

“You would never have been in danger.” Vellmar was offended at the thought and more than a little disgruntled to see the Bondlancer laughing at her.

Salomen stepped onto the training room floor and came toward her, a broad smile accentuating the dimple in her chin and making her deep brown eyes dance. “I do apologize, Fianna. I honestly thought you knew I was there. I wasn’t trying to be quiet when I came in, but you have a focus like nothing I’ve ever seen. I really didn’t mean to startle you.” She held up a palm in an invitation that would have been rude to refuse. Vellmar met it with her own, relaxing as Salomen’s emotions flowed through the physical connection. An apology via palm touch could never be insincere.

“Am I forgiven?”

“Yes, of course.” Vellmar was already past her momentary umbrage. “I didn’t realize you took such pleasure in throwing events.” Salomen’s vast enjoyment could hardly be missed, even by an empath of half Vellmar’s strength.

“I never did until now. It really was a beautiful sight, and that’s not a word I ever thought I’d associate with a weapon. But what you do with them…there’s no other word for it.”

Vellmar leaned down to pull another knife from her case. “They are beautiful to me. The way the grip fits perfectly into my palm, the weight of it, the craftwork, even the shine off the blade.” She held it out, handle first, and Salomen grasped it carefully. “It’s very sharp,” she added.

“So I see.” Salomen folded her fingers around the grip and hefted it. “You’re right, it does fit nicely into the palm. And this is certainly more finely crafted than any blade I’ve ever used on the holding.”

“You use work blades. These are throwing blades. They’re two different animals.”

“The difference between a fanten and a winden, hm?”

“That’s a good analogy, in truth. Fantens are sturdy stock. They thrive in every environment, eat almost anything, but they’re never going to outrun you. And they’re not very beautiful.”

“But the winden is wild, fleet, and free,” Salomen said. “Creatures of the mountains, outrunning anything on legs.” She tilted the blade, watching the play of light along its length. “It really is a marvelous piece. May I be rude and ask how much a blade like this would cost?”

“I’ve never heard you speak rudely before and still have not today.” In fact, Vellmar thought the Bondlancer had quite a bit in common with a winden, given her natural elegance and quiet strength. She had an innate ability to make everyone around her stand a little taller, and Vellmar couldn’t help thinking that she looked good with a blade in her hand.

“Thank you, but that was not an answer to my question.”

“Right. Let me think… The case cost a little over three thousand cinteks, so the blade you’re holding would be about two hundred.”

Salomen’s eyes widened. “Two hundred! For one?” She hastily offered the knife back, but Vellmar held up her hands.

“Please, keep it. If it brings you pleasure.”

“Oh, Fianna, I cannot. This is yours.”

“Which means it is mine to give away. It seems to belong in your hand, Bondlancer.”

“Salomen,” she corrected. “You are not on duty, and we’re not in public.”

“And I’m still not accustomed to it,” Vellmar admitted.

“You’re not accustomed to me using your first name either, are you? Every time I call you Fianna, you look startled.”

Vellmar rubbed the back of her neck. “It’s not a name I hear often.”

“Yes, the warrior tradition of using family names. I’ve never quite understood it. Andira has known Colonel Micah for her entire life and still won’t call him Corozen.”

“Good Fahla! Of course she can’t call him that!”

Laughing at her horrified reaction, Salomen held out the knife again. “Really, this is much too precious for you to give away.”

Vellmar crossed her arms over her chest. “You will insult me if you do not accept.”

Salomen met her eyes, then nodded. “I would never wish that. Very well, I accept your gift. Thank you, I’m honored by it.” She lifted the knife once more, examining it closely, and Vellmar’s practiced eye could see the difference. Already she was handling the blade more confidently.

Ownership changed everything.

“I would ask a gift in return,” Vellmar said.

“Of course. What can I do for you?”

“Let me teach you to use it.” She watched Salomen’s grip tighten around the hilt.

“Oh, no. I don’t think so. Fianna, no. Ask me something else.”

“Bondlancer…Salomen,” Vellmar corrected herself, “please hear me out. You are the second most targeted Alsean on the planet. Your Guards are some of the best to be found, but they cannot be everywhere all the time, and they are not infallible. If the worst occurred, you should be able to defend yourself. At the very least, you should know how to use a weapon.”

“I’m not a warrior.”

Oh, but you are, Vellmar thought. She had seen this woman show more strength than an entire unit of warriors put together. But she chose a different tactic.

“What do you think it would do to Lancer Tal if anything happened to you? Would she even survive the loss of a divine tyree bond?”

Salomen frowned at her. “You don’t fight fairly.”

“I fight to win. And what I’m offering is the gentlest method of defense possible. Think about it. A cellular disruptor causes horrific damage, even when the shot is not fatal. You’ve seen that. But a knife cut is clean and minimally damaging if the wielder knows what she’s doing. That’s one of the reasons I prefer blades. I’m not a good shot with a disruptor, but even if I were, I think I would still use blades. If I need to, I can kill quickly and painlessly, and that’s almost impossible with a disruptor. And if I seek only to neutralize, I can do so without permanently disabling my target. Now, the easiest weapon for you to learn to use would be a disruptor. But you would never carry one.”

“No, I would not.” She looked faintly nauseated at the thought of it.

“But you could carry a knife without it weighing you down or constantly reminding you of its presence. And if you were properly taught, you could use it—for self-defense only. The one weapon less damaging than a knife is your hand, but I don’t think hand-to-hand is a skill you would want to learn. Even if you did, the learning curve is steep and long.” Though Salomen could be a fantastic fighter if she wanted. She was nearly as tall as Vellmar herself, and a lifetime of working on her holding had honed her to a fine edge.

Salomen stared at the knife in her hand, then lifted her eyes to meet Vellmar’s gaze. “You’ve put quite a lot of consideration into this. I think I just walked into a trap that was waiting to be sprung.”

There was no use denying it. “I’ve considered this since the moment I met you and offered you my sword.”

“Then I suppose I should be grateful that it took you this long to spring your trap.” She sighed. “Andira has been saying much the same thing, and I’ve been putting her off as long as I could. I just didn’t want to accept this part of my title.”

“I’m sorry,” Vellmar said sincerely. Despite her warrior heart, Salomen was a gentle being whose soul would suffer if she were forced to inflict harm. But better that than the loss of such a soul altogether.

Salomen turned toward the target. “What would you teach me? To throw like you do?”

“Yes, though not at such a distance. If you needed to defend yourself, chances are that by the time you realized it, your target would be only a few paces away. Perhaps even within arm’s reach. I would teach you close-in throwing and, for the arm’s reach targets, the dartfly style.”

“Dartfly style? I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a specialized style of knife fighting, relying on speed and small, targeted cuts. You could take down an opponent twice your size without causing debilitating injury, and with less risk to yourself. It’s very difficult for an opponent to disarm a skilled dartfly fighter.”

Salomen was silent, staring at the target.

Vellmar left her to think about it. While crouched at the base of the target, replacing the ejected blades back in her case, she went over her argument and concluded that she had done the best she could. To her mind, Salomen was like a newborn winden, a tender target for anyone violently opposed to the Lancer’s leadership. She had no idea how Lancer Tal lived with the fear, but she knew it was there.

Salomen’s gaze was on her as she snapped her case shut and made her way back. The silence filled the room, and when Vellmar stopped in front of her, she said nothing to break it.

At last Salomen gave her a wry smile. “Dartfly, hm? It sounds so…harmless.”

“There’s nothing harmless in preventing your own death or injury. I don’t concern myself for a piptick with the well-being of anyone who would attempt to harm you. But I’m very concerned about your well-being. And I know that you would mourn forever if you were forced to truly hurt another Alsean.” She did not add or to kill. She didn’t need to.

Salomen tapped the flat of the blade against her leg. “Very well. I agree. I don’t like it, but I see the necessity. And I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have teaching me. Thank you, Fianna.”

“Don’t thank me. This is your gift to me; it’s I who should be thanking you.”

“I meant, thank you for caring so much that you spent more than three moons planning your argument.”

Vellmar ducked her head. “It’s my duty.”

“If that’s all it is, then I have misjudged our relationship. Are we not friends?”

There was a sad note in Salomen’s voice, and Vellmar felt an immediate need to smooth it away. “I would count your friendship among my greatest honors.”

“Good. Because I would rather have a friend teaching me than Andira’s Lead Guard.”

“Then that is who will teach you.”

They smiled at each other, the tension of the moment broken. Salomen’s expression turned playful as she reached out and squeezed Vellmar’s upper arm. “I thought so. You’ll soon be lopsided, growing such muscles on your throwing arm. You’ll find it difficult to walk a straight line.”

“That’s why I only use this arm half of the time. Then I switch.”

“You do not!”

Vellmar laughed. “I really do. But I’m terrible with my left arm. I can only hit the red zone seven out of ten throws.”

“Great Mother. No wonder Andira likes you. You’re the only warrior in this building even more obsessed with perfection than she is.”

They went back up the stairs and across the observation deck in companionable silence. As Vellmar held the door open for her, she smiled. More obsessed with perfection than the Lancer? She could live with that.

CHAPTER 5:


The greater hero

“Salomen was so smart to ask Vellmar to teach her,” Milena said.

“She was the most beloved Bondlancer in history.” Jandahar shifted in the chair and recrossed his legs. “She didn’t get that way by being stupid or letting opportunities pass her by. She went out and made things happen.”

“Imagine having Vellmar the Blade personally instructing you…” Milena’s sentence drifted into a hero-worshipping sigh. “I wish I could travel back in time. I’d ask her to teach me, too.”

“As if you could get near her even if you were there,” Harren scoffed. “She’d never even notice you.”

“She would too! She noticed everything! She was the best warrior ever!”

“No, she wasn’t. Lancer Tal was.” Harren had his own hero.

“Lancer Tal could never throw a sword.”

“No, but she could fight with one.”

“Not as well as Vellmar.”

“Vellmar wasn’t the one who killed the Challenger.”

“Yes, but Vellmar—”

“Stop!”

Both children went silent.

“Thank you. Now if you’re done arguing about who was the best, shall I go on?” Seeing the vigorous nods, Jandahar stifled a smile. “Let’s see, where was I? It’s so hard to remember with all these interruptions…”

“Vellmar was training,” Milena said.

“Ah, of course. Well, Vellmar trained like a warrior possessed, every day, for hanticks at a time. Sometimes other warriors came to watch, but she didn’t enjoy having an audience. She said that blade practice was a solitary pursuit. Yet she never minded when Salomen came, because the Bondlancer never cheered or offered boisterous encouragement like the other warriors. She simply watched in respectful silence. Many cycles later, Vellmar said that was the secret to Salomen’s success—her genuine respect for others, no matter what their station in life.”

“Of course she respected Vellmar! Who wouldn’t?” Milena asked.

That wasn’t quite the point Jandahar wanted to make, but he could teach that with a different story. “No one dared to ask if they could train with her,” he continued. “No one, that is, but a single person. There was one person she would not say no to, who was skilled enough to provide her with the enjoyment of a true training partner. And that one person was—”

“Lancer Tal!” Harren cried.

CHAPTER 6:


Practicing II

“May I join you?” asked Lancer Tal.

Vellmar glanced at the knife case in the Lancer’s hand and smiled at the prominent mark on the side. “That looks familiar.”

“I did notice that you have excellent taste as well. Yulsintoh’s craftwork is well represented in this room.”

“No other maker crafts blades with the same sense of balance,” Vellmar agreed. “Someday I’ll have a sword to match my throwing blades.”

“You still haven’t bought one? Even after he lowered his prices?”

Yulsintoh was famed worldwide for being the Lancer’s blademaker of choice and had raised his prices accordingly—so high that average warriors without family money could no longer afford them. When Lancer Tal had learned of his price gouging, she had threatened to carry another maker’s sword at her bonding ceremony if he didn’t make something more affordable for a warrior’s wages. Yulsintoh had responded with a new product line of high-quality blades lacking any adornment, and though the first models had only been made available a few ninedays ago, Vellmar had already seen a Guard in Salomen’s unit carrying one.

“No,” she admitted. “Because those blades are going to be popular. I want a Yulsintoh, but not one that looks the same as every other sword I see.”

“Don’t tell me you want one of those jewel-encrusted monstrosities.”

“And look like some puffed-up, big-bellied warrior whose last mission was running supplies between Blacksun and Redmoon? Not a chance.”

Lancer Tal laughed. “Fahla, what an image! No, I cannot see you with one of those. Then which one are you wanting?”

“Have you seen the one with the teffalar grip in a red and black diamond pattern? And golden scrolling on the blade?”

“His new design? Yes, I saw a review of it last moon, I think. Stunning looks and a new self-cleaning retraction mechanism.” She let out a low whistle. “Your taste is more than excellent. I think that’s the best blade he’s making right now, but it costs even more than the jeweled ones.”

“I know.” Vellmar sighed. “But it’s so beautiful.”

“Then you’d better start saving.”

“I have been since you promoted me.” She gestured at the case still in the Lancer’s hand. “Please, put that down. I’d appreciate a little company; I’m starting to get tired of myself.”

“Excellent. Can we start at fifteen paces? I’ll need to work myself back up to thirty.”

Vellmar agreed, and they began their training. It was harder for her to get into her focused zone this way, but she needed to practice that, too. In competition, she would not have the luxury of being alone in a silent room. And she truly enjoyed working with Lancer Tal, whose own skill enabled a steady rhythm of throws that soon lulled her into a state that was, if not quite her zone, at least a peaceful cousin to it.

The only time they spoke was when they were walking to the target to collect their knives, and then the conversation revolved largely around the minutiae of State House life and guesses as to the likely performance of various Games competitors. The very mundanity of it suddenly struck Vellmar as humorous, and her smile attracted Lancer Tal’s attention.

“Something amusing?”

As they knelt at the base of the target, sorting knives into two piles, Vellmar chuckled. “I was just thinking that if someone had told me a few moons ago that I’d be chatting with the Lancer about whether Torsenrall could win the sniper competition, I would have thought they were in need of a head healer. I guess I still haven’t fully adapted to the changes in my life.”

“I think you’ve adapted quite well, and the proof of that is the new knife Salomen recently acquired. That was well done, Vellmar. I don’t know if she would ever have accepted one from me, but you managed to get around her. Which tells me that you’re fitting into our unit just fine.”

Vellmar paused, taking a moment to bask in the unexpected compliment. “Thank you, Lancer.”

“I should be thanking you.” Lancer Tal put her last knife into the case and closed it. “Salomen has already made friends in Blacksun, but she has little trust in their motives. On the Opah holding, she knows she’s loved for herself. Here, she never knows if it’s her personality or her title that people find attractive. There are five people she never doubts, however: Colonel Micah, Lanaril Satran, Captain Serrado, Lhyn Rivers…and you.”

Hearing her name in such a star-studded list made Vellmar a little breathless. She had no idea how to respond and found refuge in good manners. “I take the greatest honor in her regard, and I swear to you that—”

“Don’t swear anything to me. This isn’t between you and me. It’s between you and her. I’m simply telling you that she needs friends, and she has chosen you. Now, I know how honorable you are, and I know the difficult situation this puts you in. Your respect for the Bondlancer title pulls you one way, while Salomen’s affection may pull you another. I will say only this: When it does not conflict with your duty, give the greater weight to her affection. Don’t hurt her with formality.”

Vellmar remembered the sadness in Salomen’s voice when she had asked if they were friends and suddenly understood the import of what Lancer Tal was saying. “I would never willingly hurt her. But what you’re asking me…that’s not how I was taught. She is the Bondlancer. And my private oath holder!”

“If I told her that she had to choose between holding your oath and being your friend, I know what she would say. Don’t you?”

Of course she did. What she didn’t know was how to reconcile the two positions the Lancer was asking her to occupy. She had been so careful in her interactions with Salomen, who had treated her as an equal from the very first moment of their acquaintance. It had always felt as if Vellmar had to be the one to keep her at a slight distance, rather than the other way around, because Salomen didn’t understand why they shouldn’t be friends. Vellmar, on the other hand, was painfully aware of their difference in rank and the dangerous line she was walking even addressing the Bondlancer by her first name.

Yet had she met a version of Salomen who did not hold the title of Bondlancer, she would have treasured that friendship. It was a conundrum she did not know how to get around without hurting the great heart of a woman she respected. And now Lancer Tal was almost ordering her to ignore the issue of rank.

“It might take me some time to find my way in this,” she said slowly.

“Salomen will give you all the time you need.”

“Will you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Friendships are never perfect. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes they get angry or hurt. If I make a mistake with Salomen, what will you do?”

Lancer Tal’s eyes narrowed. “That would depend on the mistake.”

Gathering her courage, Vellmar said, “Then you didn’t mean it when you said this wasn’t between you and me.”

The instant tension in the room was so great that she could hardly keep from looking away. But in the end, it was the Lancer who sat back on her heels. “Shek, Vellmar. Now you’re the one putting me in a difficult position.”

Vellmar’s whole body thrummed with the shock of having faced down her superior officer. No one had ever told her that the greatest risks she might take as a warrior could be in a silent training room, with no enemy in sight.

“The learning opportunities never end, do they?” Lancer Tal murmured. She looked up with a wry smile. “You have the right to ask me that, and more wisdom than I have at the moment. I honestly don’t know what I would do. My first instinct if you hurt Salomen would be to send you back where I found you, with a boot print on your back. But you can’t be her friend if you’re always fearing my reaction.” She ran a hand through her hair and sighed. “I suppose the only thing I can do is make you a promise that no matter my personal feelings, I will not allow them to affect our professional interactions. And I will not interfere in the relationship between the two of you. Is that enough?”

After careful consideration, Vellmar nodded. “It’s enough.”

They sealed the agreement with a warrior’s forearm grip. In their short-sleeved training shirts, the grip was the equivalent of a palm touch, making their surface emotions apparent to each other despite their perfect fronts.

“Great Goddess, you’re good at keeping your emotions off your face,” Lancer Tal said softly. “I apologize for causing you this fear. It was never my intent.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Vellmar answered, realizing the truth of it even as she spoke. “I’m afraid of the mistake.”

“Then you and I have something else in common.”

Suddenly, with a flash of intuition she could never explain, Vellmar understood what Lancer Tal was saying. She wasn’t speaking just of a possible mistake with Salomen, but of all the mistakes she could make in her governance of Alsea. Every day of her life she lived with that fear, and every day she shouldered the same responsibility in spite of it. The realization gave Vellmar even greater respect for her, and she squeezed her arm before letting go.

“Thank you for trusting me with her,” she said.

Lancer Tal nodded and stood, picking up her knife case. “I’m ready to try thirty paces now.”

They walked back to resume their practice, and for the next hantick neither one spoke a word. But something had changed in that room, and Vellmar would look back at it later as one of the great defining moments of her life. It was the moment she stepped into a new role with Salomen—and learned what it meant to be Lancer.

CHAPTER 7:


Salomen the Strong

“And that’s why she was such a great Lancer herself,” said Milena.

“Because she learned from the best,” Harren added. “Lancer Tal taught her everything she knew before she retired.”

“I think you two might be forgetting someone in your hero worship,” Jandahar observed. “Both Tal and Vellmar learned from someone else as well. Neither of them would have been the rulers they were without Salomen’s influence. It was her producer point of view that tempered their warrior tendencies.”

“But Salomen was more warrior than producer,” Milena stated.

“Where did you get that idea?”

“She was Salomen the Strong!”

Jandahar laughed. “She didn’t get that name by being the strongest warrior on Alsea. She got it by being the strongest empath.

“Oh.” Milena radiated disappointment.

“I know which story I’m telling next time. You two are just a little too fixated on warriors. You do realize there are five other castes, yes? Hm, let me think…” He tapped his finger on his chin and pursed his lips in an exaggerated manner. “Isn’t your bondfather in one of those castes? Remember him? The man downstairs, making your midmeals for tomorrow?”

“Bai!” They spoke in unison, then giggled.

“We know!” Harren said. “But warriors are more exciting.”

That was true, Jandahar thought. Though the castes were equal, each tended to focus on the exploits of their own. Only the stories of warriors were loved regardless of caste.

He was definitely telling a Salomen story next time.

“Well, on to the exciting part of this tale,” he said. “The Games opened with great fanfare, under clear blue skies, and Blacksun Basin was full to bursting with competitors and spectators. The blade-throwing events took place over three days, and the battle between Vellmar and her birthmother attracted every journalist in the area. They tried to make it seem as if the two were in a fierce rivalry, but the truth was…”

CHAPTER 8:


The Games I

“Shek, Bai, couldn’t you miss once in a while?” Vellmar grumbled as she rose from her chair.

Linzine Vellmar chuckled. “I will if you do it first.”

“I can’t. You never taught me how.”

That brought a full-throated laugh as Linzine slapped her daughter on the back. “Well said! So if you miss, I’ll know you never learned it from me.” She sat down in her own chair and made a shooing motion.

Vellmar could not keep the grin off her face as she walked up to the competitor’s box, outlined in white on the close-mown grass.

Any lingering fears she might have had about her birthmother’s reaction to this competition had vanished the previous day, when she had taken the red medal for the thirty-pace short-blade event and relegated her mother to blue. The difference between the two medals was, just as she had predicted, the width of a hair. All of her practicing had paid off, and Linzine was as thrilled as if she had won the red herself.

After the competition, they had gone to meet Linzine’s Guard unit, who had all flown to Blacksun in support of their star member. Vellmar spent a loud and boisterous evening being introduced as “my daughter, the one who took my medal away from me.” Nearly every member of the unit had privately informed her that they would have known her for Linzine Vellmar’s daughter at a glance, given their matching looks. It was true; Vellmar had inherited her height, her thick black hair, and her wide-set, dark blue eyes from her birthmother. Her slightly tipped nose and generous mouth came from her bondmother.

The spirits flowed freely that night, and bets were enthusiastically placed for today’s event. Vellmar was not sure how she had gotten back to her State House quarters and vowed never to drink that much again—at least not during competition.

This morning had been a difficult awakening. She was certain the temperatures were higher this afternoon than they had been the previous day, and the crowd was far noisier. She and her birthmother had been featured in a special broadcast last night—not that they had been aware of it while taking turns staring at the bottoms of their spirit glasses—indicating that Vellmar had left her small-town heritage in Pollonius and never looked back in her naked pursuit of ambition, while her mother remained loyal to her place of birth and resented her daughter for abandoning her roots. Now they were battling it out between them: youth and ambition versus experience and loyalty.



As a result, tickets for today’s event had sold out. She had seen pockets of empty seats in the stands yesterday, but today there was not a single one in evidence. Fifty thousand people were watching her compete with her birthmother, and she was feeling the pressure.

She set her left foot just behind the fifteen-pace line, pointed her left shoulder at the target as she pulled her right arm back, then exhaled and let her torso unwind. The knife departed her hand as if by its own volition, flying true and thunking into the exact center of the target before she had finished her follow-through. The crowd roared.

When Vellmar arrived back at the seats, Linzine tilted her head to one side. “I think the wind blew that one on target. Your release was slightly off.”

“If you’re going to lie, you should practice that instead of blade handling. Fahla knows you need it. A child could see through you.” She retook her seat as the next competitor rose.

She already loved these moments, when she and her birthmother sat side by side, watching the other competitors and talking in a way they never had before. They were teasing and joking like peers, rather than mother and daughter. It was as if by entering the Games, she had crossed a threshold and walked into her mother’s world. She had been greeted as an equal and found it deeply gratifying.

“She’s right, Vellmar,” said the competitor sitting next to Linzine. It took Vellmar a moment to realize he was speaking to her mother, who—as the elder warrior bearing the family name—was currently the only person who answered to it. For as long as they shared the same space, Vellmar was known as Fianna. It was an odd jolt of her childhood.

“What, that I need to practice lying?”

“That daughter of yours is as good as you. I was hoping that once you got old enough, the rest of us might have a chance to topple you off your throne. Now we’re looking at another tencycle of Vellmars taking home the medals? It was bad enough when all of us were competing for the blue medals because you always took the reds. Now we can’t even compete for that.”

Linzine looked at Vellmar, the pride glowing in her eyes. “She is good, isn’t she?”

“Please tell me you don’t have any more children waiting somewhere, ready to take even the gold medals away from us.”

“I do, but you don’t need to worry about him. He’s a Mariner.”

He gave her a mock frown. “That’s not making me worry less.”

“He doesn’t care about blade handling.” Vellmar leaned around her mother to speak. “His main interests are spirits, parties, and men. You have no need for concern.”

“Fianna.”

“It’s true, Bai.”

“It’s not true.” Linzine turned toward her and lowered her voice. “All right, it’s not true anymore. You haven’t seen him in cycles; give him some credit for growing up.”

“When did that happen?”

“It started when you left. He needed to get out from under your shadow.”

“Just because I’m taller—” Vellmar stopped as her mother’s eyes narrowed. “Right, old joke,” she muttered. “But I’ve never understood why you let him blame me for his problems.”

“He doesn’t blame you—”

“Oh, Bai, I’m not a fanten to be fed that slop. He does blame me, and he always has. As if my successes somehow curse him to fail.”

“Your successes…made him reluctant to try.”

“That is not my fault!”

“No, it’s not.” Linzine sighed. “Fianna, look at it from his point of view. All his life you’ve beaten him at everything. You’re a far higher empath, you took to blade handling like you were born with one in your hand, you were at the top of all your classes, you’ve advanced so swiftly through the ranks—”

“And except for the empathic ability, I’ve worked for everything you just mentioned! He always had that option; he just chose not to take it.”

“Have a little sympathy. How would you feel if you spent your days watching someone else do everything better than you?”

“I do exactly that right now. Her name is Lancer Tal. The only thing she doesn’t do better than me is blade handling. How do I feel about it? Honored to be serving her and hopeful that someday I can learn to be as good as she is.”

Linzine snorted. “Probably not the best comparison, daughter.”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s the Lancer. She was practically born into that title; her whole life has trained her for it. I have always admired the way you set your goals high, but you should moderate that one.”

“Are you truly telling—”

“I’m up.” Linzine gave her an apologetic glance and walked to the competitor’s box.

Vellmar quietly stewed as her birthmother made a perfect throw. When it was her turn, she stepped into position and somehow knew that this one was not going to land where she needed it to.

It hit the target half a finger’s width from the center, and the crowd roared even more loudly than when she had landed her last perfect throw.

They were cheering for her to lose?

“Don’t listen to the crowd,” Linzine said when she returned to her seat. “They don’t care which one of us wins. They just don’t want it to be the same one each time. Since you won the last event, they’re cheering for me now.”

“Well, you just won this event, so I’ll look forward to all the crowd support tomorrow.”

Linzine gazed at her steadily. “I am very proud of you, Fianna. I always have been.”

That was not something their family said out loud very often. Vellmar ducked her head. “Thank you.”

“I’m proud of your brother, too, because he has finally found his own path and is walking on it with steady strides. It’s not your path, and that’s all right. I ask only that you respect it when you see him.”

“When I—” She looked up in horror. “He’s coming here?”

“Your ba is bringing him. I was hoping they would be here by now, but she called and said they were held up at the magtran station. They should get here in time for the medal ceremony.”

She had been looking forward so much to seeing her bondmother, but now her anticipation suffered a sudden decline. It had never occurred to her that her brother would want to come to see her compete.

Now that she was thinking about it, though, it did make sense. He wasn’t coming to see her win. He was coming to see her lose. It would probably be the highlight of his life to see his sister lose a championship.

By the time her turn came again, she had managed to shake off her unhappiness and remind herself why she was here and how much she had enjoyed it until now. She made two more perfect throws, but her single error had cost her. Her birthmother took the red medal, and she took the blue. They were now tied.

At the ceremony, she stood beneath the blue banner and watched the gold medalist accept his prize. He waved to the cheering crowd, which grew louder when the music changed to signify a higher medal being awarded. The volunteer walked toward her with a blue medal resting on a padded tray, and behind him two people sidled into the competitors’ rest area. She would have recognized them at any distance.

As much as she and her birthmother resembled each other, so did Jerran and his birthmother. Both were shorter, with jutting chins and curly brown hair, and both walked with the same hip-rolling stride. They came to the front and applauded while the volunteer pinned Vellmar’s medal to her competitor’s vest.

Jerran was smirking as he clapped, and he raised a fist to his chest in a mocking salute. She ignored him, looking to her ba instead, who was jumping up and down with glee. The sight made her grin; her bondmother had always been more overt than her birthmother.

The jumping increased in height when Linzine accepted her red medal, and Vellmar laughed just watching it. Her mothers were quite a pair, and it was a joy to see them here in Blacksun. For their sake, she could tolerate Jerran.

After all, it was only for three and a half days.

CHAPTER 9:


Family

“You should be more like Jerran,” Milena told her brother. “He flew all the way from Port Calerna just to cheer for Vellmar. You didn’t even want to come to my demonstration bout.”

“But it’s so boring,” Harren protested. “Everyone in your class was doing the same moves. And I’ve seen you doing them in our garden eleventy million times. It didn’t look any different.”

Jandahar could sympathize. He was happy to support Milena’s love of the Alsansa fighting style, which gave her a constructive outlet for her boundless energy, but watching thirty children taking turns performing the exact same series of moves had taxed even his patience. He was proud of Harren for not whining until the twentieth repetition.

“That is how good competitors become great ones,” he said gently. “Remember what Vellmar always said: the difference between good and better is a matter of effort. Your sister is making that effort.”

“Because someday I’m going to be in the Global Games!” Milena flopped onto her side, looking at Harren with bright eyes. “And you’ll come to watch me.”

“I want to see you in the Games. Those will be exciting. Not like your boring demonstration bouts.”

“They’re not boring!”

“They are too. Why can’t we just go to see you instead of having to watch everyone else?”

“Because that’s rude! You have to watch everyone. Jerran watched everyone, even though the only person he wanted to see was Vellmar. He was a good brother.”

“Milena,” Jandahar said mildly. “Harren is a very good brother, and you know that. He came to your bout and cheered for you, did he not?”

She flopped onto her back again. “Yes. But he just said it was boring.”

“The other ones were boring.” Harren tried for diplomacy. “Not you. You were the best.”

Back onto her side she went, her eyes sparkling. “I was?”

Harren nodded.

“Good.”

Jandahar cleared his throat and resumed his story. “So after many cycles of separation, Vellmar and her brother were reunited at last. Their joy was so great that even a low empath could have sensed it.”

CHAPTER 10:


Swimming

“So, blue!” Jerran said jovially as the four of them walked to the competitor tent. “Nice color! I’ve always preferred it to red.”

“Then you won’t like my medal from yesterday,” Vellmar said.

“What happened between yesterday and today?”

“Bai took me back to her unit last night and poured half a lake’s worth of spirits down my throat.”

“Linzine, really?” her bondmother said. “You got her drunk?”

“I didn’t get her drunk!” Linzine protested. “My unit did.”

Jerran laughed uproariously. “You fell for that? You should spend more time with Mariners. We could train you to hold your drink.”

“Thank you, I don’t need training in that. I just need Bai to stop cheating.” Vellmar shot her birthmother a grin.

“I’ll have to now,” Linzine said without a trace of guilt. “It could only work once.”

“If she were less intelligent, it could have worked twice.” Khasa Londin looked at her daughter with sparkling eyes. “Fortunately for her, we gave her the best of both of our brains.”

“But you left out the evil parts,” Vellmar said. “I’m much less devious than either of you.”

Jerran snorted. “That’s not an advantage in Blacksun. Shouldn’t you be more devious? I always hear what a pit of zalrens this city is.”

“I’ve heard that, too. And I’ve certainly seen some of it.” Vellmar thought back to the events of her very first nineday in Blacksun, when she had helped Lancer Tal strategize to survive a fight to the death. “But I’ve also met some wonderful people. Some of them I’m lucky enough to call friends.”

She refrained from mentioning that one of those individuals was the Bondlancer herself. There was no telling what her mothers would say, and she didn’t want to know what Jerran would think of it.

The competitors’ tent was a hive of activity, with some competitors prepping for upcoming events, others coming in after finishing theirs, and volunteers scurrying in all directions. Vellmar and Linzine picked up their gear bags, bathed and changed in the temporary shower, and rejoined the others just outside the tent.

Vellmar nearly dropped her bag when she saw Head Guardian Gehrain speaking to her brother. He was out of uniform and looking relaxed as he laughed at something Jerran said. She joined the conversation and somehow managed to maintain a semblance of calm while accepting Gehrain’s congratulations and making introductions. When Gehrain excused himself five ticks later, she rounded on her brother.

“No. Don’t even think about it.”

“Think about what?” he asked innocently.

“He is my supervising officer! Find someone else.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know that? He didn’t say how he knew you.” Jerran looked after Gehrain, whose height made him visible above everyone around him as he walked away. “And that is one fine-looking warrior. Whew.”

Vellmar threw up her hands. “Gah! You’re like a hedgedog in spring! And he already has a lover.”

“Not the impression I got,” Jerran said in a sing-song voice. “He seemed very…sociable for someone who shouldn’t be looking around.”

She looked at her birthmother in mute appeal.

“Jerran, that would not be good form. Fianna has to maintain a professional relationship with him.” Linzine gestured at the dense crowds milling around the tent and stands. “There is no shortage of options here.”

He gave an exaggerated sigh. “Fine. May I just remind everyone that I didn’t start this? He came up to me.”

“No, he came to see me, and you happened to be standing here.” Vellmar could feel herself shrinking, going back in age to her childhood when Jerran continually stole or hid her toys. She was a grown warrior, Lead Guard to the Lancer, and still her brother could set off her temper within a tentick of arrival.

Their mothers chattered happily during the walk to the magtran station. As Vellmar listened with half an ear, she realized that she had not seen Gehrain with his crafter lover in the last moon. It must be one of Fahla’s jokes that he would be ready for a quick and easy joining while her brother was in town.

Linzine stopped in front of the magtran map inside the soaring lobby of the station. Through the wall of glass comprising the north side, Vellmar could see the Games stands above the tops of the trees, banners of all colors flying from the highest points. She had attended these Games so many times to watch her mother, but that view looked different now. She was a competitor, not a spectator. She tapped her chest pocket, where her second medal was now nestled in its protective box, and smiled to herself.

“I don’t think so,” Khasa was saying. “I heard it’s not as good as it used to be.”

“What about Bellarnos?” Linzine suggested a restaurant whose name caught Vellmar’s attention. “I’ve heard it’s expensive but excellent, and I think we deserve excellent today.”

“It’s extremely good,” Vellmar said without thinking.

The others turned to look at her.

“You’ve been there?” Khasa asked.

“Ah…Lancer Tal and Bondlancer Opah have.”

“You guarded them there.” Jerran nodded in understanding.

She hadn’t, actually. Salomen had returned from an evenmeal with Lancer Tal and told her all about it. But she couldn’t say that without answering difficult questions about why the Bondlancer was discussing restaurants with her, so she cringed internally and lied to her family. It was only a nod of the head, not an actual verbal lie, but it felt just as bad.

“Well, if it’s good enough for the Lancer and Bondlancer, then it’s certainly good enough for us. Shall we celebrate?” Khasa beamed at her family and swept off toward the line that would take them to the southeast quadrant of Blacksun.

They could not find four seats together in the waiting capsule, so Vellmar sat with her bondmother while Linzine and Jerran took seats farther in the back.

“I’m sorry we missed your event,” Khasa said. “The Games seem to be getting more popular. Even the extra capsules on the lines weren’t enough; we couldn’t get a seat.”

A chime announced the thirty-second countdown.

“It’s all right, Ba. I’m just happy to see you now. It feels like it’s been a cycle.”

Her bondmother beamed. “Half a cycle, but I know what you mean.” She reached over and ran a hand down the back of Vellmar’s head, a gesture that never failed to make her feel both loved and at least twenty cycles younger. “Every time I see you, it feels like it’s been too long. I wish you weren’t so far away.”

Another chime warned of their departure, and their capsule accelerated through its transparent side tube and down the hill. Smoothly it curved around and shot into the main trunk, where a few pipticks later a slight jar indicated their connection to the front of the magtran. Their speed never changed, but instead of a single capsule, they were now the first of several in the magtran currently hurtling over the city in its elevated tube. The rear doors of the capsule opened, allowing short-distance passengers to begin making their way back. Since Vellmar and her family were crossing most of the city, they stayed put.

“Blacksun is closer to Pollonius than Koneza,” Vellmar said.

“Physically, yes. But we all know it’s a world apart from the rest of Alsea. And I do worry about you.”

“Ba…”

“Just a little,” Khasa assured her. “I know you can take care of yourself physically. I just worry about the rest.”

“I’m not involved in the rest.”

“Fianna, I saw you during that combat challenge. Lancer Tal was on the floor of the Council chamber, and you were in the guest gallery. Next to the Bondlancer.”

She winced, having forgotten about that. Other aspects of the day had taken precedence. “I couldn’t guard her during the challenge,” she said. It was not a lie.

“No, but I was under the impression that her Guards would have been around the edge of the chamber floor.”

“They were. She asked me to watch Bondlancer Opah.”

“Who has her own Lead Guard. How does he feel about you moving in on his duties?”

“Ba, I’m not moving in on him! I don’t guard the Bondlancer.” Officially, she added silently. “But if the Lancer asks me to look after her bondmate while she’s fighting a challenge to the death, am I supposed to refuse?”

“No, of course not.” Khasa looked out at the city flashing by. “I just don’t want you wading into waters that are too deep.”

It wasn’t that Vellmar didn’t feel the same way, but hearing her ba say it like that got under her skin. “Maybe it’s time for me to learn to swim,” she said. As Khasa’s head swiveled toward her, she added, “Besides, Ronlin and I are friends. He would never worry about drawing lines like that.”

“Ronlin?”

“Lead Guard for the Bondlancer.”

“Ah.” Khasa seemed mollified. “It’s good that you’re making the right connections.”

The rest of the ride passed in less dangerous conversation. Soon they rose to make their way through the magtran to the last capsule, which was now only two capsules behind them. There were three seats available, leading to a brief argument between Vellmar and Jerran over who would stand. Vellmar eventually let Jerran have his way and sat down, watching the countdown clock at the front of the capsule and wondering about the engineering that allowed their capsule to detach without any discernible vibration. This was something that had changed since the crash of the Caphenon and the flow of Protectorate technology into Alsean building techniques. She remembered the moment of detachment being much more jarring a few cycles ago.

The clock reached zero, and the magtran began to pull ahead of them, racing down the line while their capsule swung off and coasted uphill into the station. It stopped at the boarding area with a slight hiss of pressurized air.

By the time they made their way through the crowds to the exit, Vellmar was more than ready for midmeal. The restaurant was easy to find, but things didn’t look promising when they arrived and found a line of people waiting outside.

“Shall we try somewhere else?” she asked.

Linzine grinned at her. “Let me show you something about being a Games medalist. Wait here.”

She walked past the people in line, gave her name to the manager, then pointed at Vellmar. The manager nodded and motioned them forward.

“This is the one time in the cycle when I can do this,” Linzine said as they followed the manager to the back of the restaurant. “And it’s even better now with you here.”

Midmeal was just as delicious as Salomen had told her to expect, and even Jerran was on his best behavior. Vellmar was startled to learn that he had taken and passed the pilot’s certification for flying rescue missions at sea.

“But you had to have studied for at least a cycle,” she said. “Why haven’t I heard about this?”

“He asked us not to say anything.” Linzine sprinkled grainstem powder on her bread. “Oh, Fahla, even the bread is sublime.”

“I didn’t want you to put a cloud of bad luck on me,” Jerran said.

“How would I—”

“Because somehow you always do. If you’re watching, I can’t do it.”

Her jaw was slack. “That is the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. I left home how many cycles ago and you’re still blaming me for your life?”

“Jerran, we’ve talked about this,” Khasa said.

“I know, but it worked, didn’t it? She didn’t know, and I passed.”

She closed her eyes, counted to ten, and reached out for the bottle of spirits in the center of their table. After topping off everyone’s glasses, she raised hers and said, “To Jerran’s success as a pilot. Well done, brother.”

Jerran was not a high enough empath to conceal his stronger emotions from her. He was stunned by her gesture and did not know how to respond. But when their mothers echoed the toast, he picked up his glass and drank. “Thanks, VC.”

Vellmar chuckled. “There’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.”

He grinned at her. “Maybe I’ll mention that to Gehrain if I see him again.”

“That would be a very bad idea.”

She was about to say more when both Jerran and Khasa froze in place, staring at something behind her.

“Hello, Fianna,” said a low voice. She would have recognized it anywhere.

“Lanaril.” She rose from her seat, the smile coming unbidden at the sight of Lanaril in her ceremonial garb. Her high-collared tunic was a dark blue verging on black, the better to set off the silver molwyn tree embroidered on her chest. Its branches reached up to her collarbones, and their pattern was repeated in gray embroidery on her black pants. She wore polished boots with a heel high enough to close much of the difference in their height, and Vellmar had to clench her hands to keep them from misbehaving. The urge to reach up and brush back that wavy hair, to cup her hand around the curve of her jaw, was nearly irresistible. But this was not her right any longer.

“It’s good to see you,” she said, holding up her hand for a palm touch instead. “You look…very official.”

Lanaril’s smile was as warm as ever. “That was the intent.” She rested their hands together.

Vellmar could not resist interlacing their fingers, and Lanaril did not stop her. They had both enjoyed the look of their different skin tones together, Vellmar’s light skin complementing Lanaril’s rich shannel.

“I had the honor of opening the Games this morning,” Lanaril continued. Her pleasure at their meeting came through her skin, warming Vellmar right to the tips of her toes. “I stayed until the midmeal break because there was a certain warrior competing in the short-blade event. Congratulations on your medal; your performance was very impressive. I’m only sorry I missed yesterday’s event, though I did see it replayed last night.” She pulled her hand away and looked around Vellmar’s shoulder. “Will you introduce me to your family?”

“Of course. This is my birthmother, Linzine Vellmar; my bondmother, Khasa Londin; and my brother, Jerran Londin. Everyone, please greet Lanaril Satran, Lead Templar of Blacksun.”

Her family members each stood at the mention of their name; now they all exchanged palm touches. Lanaril congratulated Linzine and made polite conversation, but Vellmar had never seen her family so uncharacteristically short on words. At last Lanaril bid them farewell and departed, leaving Vellmar to watch her all the way out.

When she sat back down, she met three expectant stares.

“She called you Fianna,” Linzine said.

“And you called her Lanaril,” Khasa added. “You’re on a first-name basis with the Lead Templar of Blacksun?”

Oh, shek. She had no way out of this one.

Jerran’s grin lit up his face. “You landed that? You always did set your goals high, but Great Mother!”

“I didn’t land her,” Vellmar began, but then stopped. She really had. It just sounded so…crass when Jerran said it.

Her mothers were exchanging looks.

“Fianna,” Khasa said sternly, “is this what you meant by learning to swim?”

“No! Ba, it’s not like that. Lanaril is…we were…augh.” She grabbed her glass and downed a gulp of spirits that were meant to be sipped. Setting it back on the table, she said, “I was with Lancer Tal on her bonding break, and Lanaril was there as part of her family, and…we just worked. Until we left.”

“As part of the Lancer’s family!” Linzine looked horrified. “What are you doing? Fianna, you risk everything by inserting yourself at that level. These people—”

“Stop right there, Bai.” Vellmar held up her hand. Surprisingly, both of her mothers sat back in their chairs. It was only then that she realized she had used her Lead Guard voice. Well, if that was an advantage, she would take it.

“Lanaril is not ‘these people.’ She is a warm, wonderful, giving person who would never willingly cause harm, because it’s not in her nature. And if anyone at this table speaks another judgmental word against her, despite having just met her and knowing nothing about her—” She glared around the table, making her irritation clear. “Then I will take insult on her behalf.”

Their eyes widened. That was a strong statement, but she would not back down from it.

Jerran looked at her thoughtfully. “She dropped you, didn’t she?”

She had not been this close to striking her brother since before her Rite of Ascension. “We weren’t looking for the same thing,” she said instead.

“Did someone finally pin you to the mat? And then she didn’t even want you?”

“Jerran,” their mothers scolded simultaneously.

“Show your upbringing,” Khasa said. “That was not worthy of it.”

“I’m just amazed that VC finally lost at something. I didn’t think it was possible.”

Vellmar pushed her chair back and stood. “Thank you for treating me to midmeal. I’d like to return the favor before you leave, but in the meantime, I need to get back to the State House.” Without another word, she turned and left.

CHAPTER 11:


Adult things

“Ugh, this part again,” Harren said. “Adult things.”

“You just don’t like it because you’re young,” Milena informed her one-cycle-younger brother. “When you get to be my age, you’ll understand.”

“But no one ever explains it. Why didn’t Vellmar and Lead Templar Satran just stay together after they met?”

Jandahar was not prepared to explain the difference between a vacation joining and a real relationship to his son. That, he had long ago concluded, would be his bondmate’s job.

“Sometimes people don’t know what they truly want,” he said. “Sometimes it takes them longer to understand themselves.”

Harren’s expression would have communicated his opinion even had his emotions not been crystal clear. “But they did know what they wanted. That’s why they joined during Lancer Tal’s bonding break.”

“How do you know they joined?” He was certain he had never mentioned that little tidbit.

“Of course they joined,” Milena said with all of an elder sister’s wisdom. “Everyone knows that. But they couldn’t be together then because Lead Templar Satran never thought she could be with a warrior. Vellmar had to prove her wrong.”

Did girls of nine cycles discuss this at school? He would have to speak with his bondmate. That special talk might be happening sooner than he had thought.

“Well, Vellmar had a chance to prove something the next day,” he said. “Though what she ended up proving was not what she had intended.”

CHAPTER 12:


The Games II

Linzine called later to apologize for Jerran, but Vellmar was having none of it. If Jerran couldn’t be warrior enough to apologize for himself, she had no interest in hearing anyone else do it for him.

Jerran vanished that evening to enjoy the Blacksun nightlife, so Vellmar was able to treat her mothers to an evenmeal earlier than she had hoped. She wondered if Jerran had been encouraged to absent himself, but if that were so, her mothers were not saying a word about it. The result was a meal with a great deal of reminiscing and laughter, which went a long way toward making up for the aborted midmeal. By the time they kissed each other’s cheeks and retired to their separate quarters, she felt loose and happy once more. She loved being around her mothers, even if they still had that inexplicable ability to make her feel like a child.

The third day of the Global Games was the most difficult, with the final two short-blade events scheduled on the same day. Linzine had warned her that this would be when the pressure really landed, and she felt it the moment she stepped into the competitor’s box.

Before she lined up for her first throw, she glanced around the field and was stopped by the enormous holograms at each end, which cycled between showing the competitors and selected spectators. In that moment, the holograms were sweeping across the dignitary section of the stands, showing the caste Primes. She waited to see if the one person she most wished for would be there.

The view moved past the Prime Crafter to show Salomen, then Lancer Tal, then Captain Serrado and Lhyn Rivers. Her breath caught in her throat as Lanaril came into sight, sitting next to Dr. Rivers. She was leaning forward, watching intently with a small smile, and Vellmar remembered another time when she had competed with Lanaril as an audience. Though the memory was bittersweet now, she chose to focus on how it had made her feel then. Turning toward the dignitary section, she raised her knife over her head and held the salute for three pipticks. Then she turned back, lined herself up, and nodded at the event referee.

The bell rang, signaling the start of a five-piptick timer. Twenty paces away, a circle the size of the red zone began moving around the target. There was no pattern to its movements, no way to accurately anticipate where it would be. It was an extremely difficult event to practice for, but also the most prestigious to win.

She let her blade fly, stopping the circle almost in the center, and smiled in triumph. This was going to be a good contest.

Linzine stopped her circle as well, and the battle was on.

The moving-target event differed from the static one in that precision was given a secondary score in the judging, with the primary points awarded on the basis of whether or not the circle was stopped. In most Games, the skill required to stop the circles multiple times without missing was demanding enough to separate the competitors; the precision points were needed only rarely to separate first, second, and third placements.

But most Games did not have both Vellmars competing.

They fought their way through the event, neither giving the other any room to win. Nearly all of the other competitors had missed by the sixth throw, though one lasted until the eighth. Vellmar and her mother made every one and matched their precision points as well.

A tie was declared for the red medal, throwing the crowd into a frenzy. The announcer’s voice boomed over the stands, informing all who could hear that a tie-breaker round had not been required in this event for thirty-eight cycles. Vellmar felt a burst of pride. Even if she lost the next round, she and her birthmother had made history.

Several of the other events scheduled that day had to be moved back, since no one had anticipated the need for extra time at the end of this one. The competitors were given a break period to rest and prepare themselves, and before she was quite ready, Vellmar found herself at the line again. She was nervous, given what the referee had told them during the break. For a tie-breaker round, the circles would increase their speed by twenty percent.

She set her foot in place, drew up her arm, and waited.

When the bell rang, she watched the circle for four pipticks, getting a feel for the increased speed. At the last possible piptick, she threw her blade and stopped the circle dead center.

The crowd roared.

The remainder of her throws were never as clean as that one, but neither were her mother’s. Their precision point difference went back and forth with each throw, but on the ninth, Linzine’s blade landed just outside the circle, earning her a dismal score for the throw. The noise from the crowd was deafening.

Vellmar stepped up for her tenth and final effort. All she had to do now was stop the circle; the precision didn’t even matter.

The bell rang. Not one full piptick later, she let her blade fly without allowing herself to overthink it. Either she would win, or they would have another tie-breaker round, but she could not hold on to the blade until she was sure of her throw. This event was as much instinct as it was skill.

When her blade landed in the top left quadrant of the circle, she leaped straight up, punching at the air in sheer jubilation. Upon landing, she dropped to her knees, thrust her fists skyward, and shouted her triumph to the whole world. The announcer was saying something she could not make out, her birthmother ran over and pounded her on the back, and she wanted to freeze this moment in time and keep it forever.

“Look, Fianna, look!” Linzine pointed to the stands.

Vellmar watched in amazement as a wave rippled through the spectators, every one of them standing up to applaud. “And they were cheering for me to lose yesterday,” she said with a laugh.

“Not today, daughter.” Linzine held up both palms. “Simply spectacular. Well done, so well done!”

They stood hand to hand, grinning wildly at each other, and in her peripheral vision Vellmar could see that they were the sole focus of the field holograms.

Linzine grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her in for a forehead touch. “I am so proud,” she said fiercely. “You worked hard and you earned it.” Then she smiled and added, “But you still have one event to go.”

Vellmar pushed her away playfully. “I have two reds, Bai. Three would just be one more.”

“Insolent child! The forty-pace moving target is my specialty, or have you forgotten?”

She had not forgotten. In fact, the last event was the one she had found most difficult to practice for, and she had little expectation of winning it. But she was flush with victory, and Lanaril had seen her win in a tie-breaker. Anything was possible.

The medal ceremony passed in a near blur. Vellmar’s spirits were so high that it seemed her brain was overloaded, leaving her with passing impressions of standing beneath the red banner and thanking the volunteer who pinned on her second red medal. But she would never forget the moment when the holograms panned over the dignitaries as the final music played. Though she had only a glimpse of Lanaril, one detail stood out: Lanaril was holding her fist over her heart. It was a warrior’s salute, a personal tribute to her skill, and it meant as much to Vellmar as the red medal shining on her chest.

Fortunately, Linzine was looking elsewhere and did not notice.

The final event would not be for another two hanticks, so they retired to the competitors’ tent to rehydrate and find a snack. Khasa was waiting for them just outside. With a cry of joy, she held up both palms, then pulled Vellmar in and kissed her cheek.

“What a pair you make!” she said, her smile threatening to overtake her ears. “And such a pleasure for me, to have two of my favorite women to cheer for rather than just one.”

“Where is Jerran?” Linzine asked.

“He went to meet someone. But he sends his congratulations, Fianna.”

Vellmar did not believe that for a moment. And if he was meeting Gehrain, she would make sure he regretted it for a long time.

They strolled around the grounds for the next hantick and seventy, enjoying each other’s company and the loud, colorful, vibrant community the Games created. There were snack stands of all varieties and vendors selling every conceivable trinket and craft. The spirits producers had their own aisle of tents, as did the weapons makers. Naturally, they gravitated toward the blademakers, where they spent more than half a hantick comparing blades and commenting on the features. Though Vellmar was saving every cintek for the Yulsintoh sword she wanted, she couldn’t resist picking up a beautifully engraved boot knife and its equally gorgeous sheath. When the vendor offered to gift wrap it for her, she shook her head and clipped the sheath to her boot, then slid the knife in, enjoying its perfect, smooth motion.

She straightened to find her birthmother holding up the knife’s twin.

“You cannot have just one,” Linzine said. “It will unbalance you.”

“You’ll walk crooked,” Khasa added, her eyes twinkling. “It would be an embarrassment to the Vellmar name.”

“You’re Fianna Vellmar?” the vendor asked. “Why didn’t you say so? I couldn’t watch the event, but I could hear it. First tie-breaking round in thirty-eight cycles! Please, honor me by accepting this second blade as my gift.”

Vellmar didn’t know what to do with that offer. Accepting privileged seating in a restaurant was one thing, but taking a crafter’s labor?

“It’s all right, Fianna,” Linzine said. “He’s offering. You didn’t ask.”

“Of course I’m offering! I would be proud for you to carry my blade. Use it in good health, and if you find it worthy, all I ask is that you tell your friends.”

Ah, now she understood. This was an exchange of value. She gave him a slight bow, then took the second knife with a smile. “They really are beautiful. I’m sure I’ll have nothing but good things to say once I have the opportunity to put them to the test.”

They spoke with the crafter for several more ticks, and when they strolled out of his tent, Vellmar said, “You forgot to mention this part of competing, Bai. I would have entered the Games cycles ago if I’d known!”

The only thing that could have made her afternoon more perfect was if the crafter had been Yulsintoh, and the boot knife had been a sword. But it had been many cycles since Yulsintoh sold his blades at the Games. His work was in such demand that his customers sought him out, and he was reputed to never leave his home in Port Calerna.

Still, it made for a nice fantasy, which Vellmar enjoyed for the remainder of the afternoon.

By the time the final event began, the temperatures had risen to the level of discomfort. The Global Games were always held in the early spring, as a celebration of the end of winter hardship and the return of life to the land. For Vellmar, having lived her life outside of Blacksun Basin, early spring meant cool temperatures and unpredictable weather. But the Basin had its own weather system, and every cycle at this time, it experienced a burst of summer. Salomen had told her that this was what gave Basin producers an advantage over all others on the Argolis continent, even those in the temperate coastal areas. They timed their plantings for this period, so the seedlings would get a boost of growth before the normal, cooler temperatures of spring settled in.

The stands were packed to capacity when the competitors walked out to their chairs, and quite a few spectators stood along the wall at the very top. Vellmar hoped they had optic scanners. The holograms helped, of course, but they weren’t always focused on what individual spectators wanted to see.

From the very beginning of the forty-pace moving-target event, it was clear that the other competitors were fighting for third place. One by one, each of them failed to stop their circles, some missing multiple times. When Vellmar stepped up to the line for her seventh throw, she and her mother still had no misses, and she was slightly ahead in the precision score. But she was tiring. The target was only twice as far away as it had been for the twenty-pace event, but right now it seemed at least three times farther. The heat waves rising off the field made it more difficult to focus, and the sweat rolling down her face didn’t help. She lifted her sleeve to mop the sweat and was caught mid-wipe when the bell rang.

“Shek!” She blinked away a drop of sweat and peered at the target. On pure instinct, she let her blade fly and was surprised to see it stop the circle. The precision points were low, dropping her below her mother, but she was still in the running.

“I thought for sure I had you on that one,” Linzine said when she arrived back at her seat. “First rule of competition: bring a cloth for wiping the sweat.”

“Now you tell me. Thanks so much.” Vellmar bypassed her chair and walked to the refreshment table that had been set up in anticipation of the afternoon’s heat. She picked up a flask, uncapped it, and sighed in relief as the cool liquid slid down her throat.

“Lead Guard Vellmar? Would this help?” asked a voice at her side.

She turned to find a young girl in the uniform of a Games volunteer, looking up at her with what could only be described as worship. In her hand she held a small kerchief.

“Yes, it would. Thank you.” Vellmar accepted the kerchief and mopped her face with it. “Ah. Much better.” As she unfolded the cloth, she noticed initials sewn into one corner. “Hold, is this yours?”

“You can keep it,” the girl blurted. In a whirl of long hair, she turned and scurried away. Vellmar watched in bemusement as she joined another volunteer and whispered excitedly into her ear. Both girls grabbed each other and jumped up and down, screaming.

“I do believe you have your first fan,” Linzine observed from behind her. “Get used to it. By the way, it’s your turn. I didn’t miss.”

“Why not? You’ll have to at some point.” Tucking the kerchief into her pocket, Vellmar ignored the even louder scream from the girls and walked back to the line. She didn’t miss either, and after two more throws, the event ended its regulation time with the Vellmars once again tied for the lead.

“The tie-breaker round will begin after a fifteen-tick rest,” the announcer boomed. Many of the spectators began climbing down from their seats, headed for either the restrooms or the snack stands, and the noise level rose considerably. Vellmar took the opportunity to sit under a sun shade, enjoying the break from the heat and glaring sunlight.

Linzine slid into the seat beside her, a flask of water in her hand. “Fianna, whatever happens in this next round, I want you to know that this has been the best Games I’ve ever entered. It’s such a pleasure to have you at my side.”

Vellmar smiled at her. “It’s a pleasure to be here. I wanted to do this last cycle, you know.”

“Then why didn’t you?”

“Because I didn’t want to compete against you.”

Linzine looked at her blankly. “Why not?”

“Well…” It sounded so stupid, now that she was here. “I was afraid it might…hurt you, somehow, if I won and took your title.”

“Oh, Fianna. I hardly know what to say. I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but how could you not have known I’d be proud of you?”

“Because I was a grainbird?”

“You certainly were.” Linzine stood and upended her flask over Vellmar’s head, taking her by surprise.

“Bai!” Vellmar sputtered, shaking the water out of her eyes. Linzine stood helpless with laughter, making her an easy target when Vellmar tackled her around the waist. As they thumped into the grass, Linzine lost her grip on the flask. Vellmar scrambled for it, Linzine held her back, and they escalated into a full wrestling match. Eventually, Vellmar managed to scoop up the flask and pin her mother down. “Thanks for the shower,” she said, breathless with exertion and laughter, “but I think you need one, too!”

“You wretch! To think I gave birth to such an ungrateful child!” Linzine struggled to get away but was not in time to avoid her own soaking. The flask was empty when she was finally able to shove Vellmar to the side, and they both collapsed onto the ground, soaked and shaking with lingering chuckles.

“Oh, Fahla, that did feel good.” Vellmar sat up and squeezed the water out of her hair. “Not that I would recommend you try it again.”

Linzine pulled herself into a sitting position and tried to wring the water out of her shirt. “You realize we’ll be all over the news tonight. They’ll call it a spite fight between mother and daughter.”

“Let them.” Vellmar gave up on her hair and raked it back with both hands. “They have no idea—” She stopped as her mother leaped to her feet, stood straight, and thumped both fists to her chest.

There was only one person that salute could be for. She turned her head and groaned silently at the sight of not just Lancer Tal but Salomen as well, standing two paces away with identical grins on their faces. With a flush that instantly erased the cooling effect of her wet hair, she stood beside her mother and offered the same salute.

“Well met, Vellmar.” Lancer Tal was still smiling. “Will you introduce us?”

“Of course. This is my birthmother, First Guard Linzine Vellmar. Bai, please greet Lancer Andira Tal and Bondlancer Salomen Opah.”

“I am deeply honored,” Linzine said with no trace of embarrassment on her perfectly neutral but still wet face. “Please excuse our appearance. Had we known you were coming, we would certainly have—”

“Behaved in an entirely upright fashion and denied us the first opportunity we’ve had to see Lead Guard Vellmar so relaxed,” Lancer Tal finished. “Please, don’t apologize. I shall carry this memory for a long time to come.”

“Wonderful,” Vellmar muttered.

Salomen chuckled. “I think we should endeavor to surprise her more often, Andira. Who knows what sights we might see?”

Vellmar shot her a pleading look, meeting an unrepentant expression in return.

“I can assure you that my daughter does not normally disgrace her uniform,” Linzine insisted, visibly alarmed by Salomen’s suggestion.

Vellmar finally unbent enough to take her arm, conveying her own lack of worry through the touch. “Bai, they’re teasing us. Lancer Tal would never judge one of her Guards for a moment of off-duty playfulness. And Bondlancer Opah is…my friend.”

“Indeed I am, and grateful to be so,” said Salomen, stepping forward to offer a palm. “Well met, First Guard Vellmar. I hold your daughter in the highest regard, and a little wet hair won’t change that.”

Linzine touched her palm and looked at her in wonder. “Thank you, and well met, Bondlancer Opah.” Her expression grew more astonished as she touched palms with the Lancer. “Well met, Lancer Tal.”

“Well met. I do apologize for worrying you. I assumed you would know that Vellmar has a special standing in our unit.”

“Yes, don’t you tell your birthmother anything?” Salomen asked mischievously.

“You are not helping,” Vellmar grumbled, eliciting chuckles from her tormentors and a wide-eyed look from Linzine.

“The real reason we came out was to congratulate both of you on an enthralling performance,” said Lancer Tal. “I can’t recall enjoying the blade-throwing events at a Games quite so much.”

“I feel the same way. My daughter is here with me. It changes the nature of the competition, because no matter who wins, I cannot lose.”

“It’s all the same honor, isn’t it?” Lancer Tal asked.

“It is. The two reds she holds right now are still in the Vellmar name.” Linzine winked at Vellmar and added, “Of course, two are all she’s going to get.”

“Keep that fantasy,” Vellmar shot back. “I’m taking this one.”

“I think you’re about to settle the question.” Salomen pointed behind them, where the three judges were mounting the judging stand.

“Time to go,” Lancer Tal said. “First Guard Vellmar, it was an honor. I hope to see you again in the future. Perhaps your daughter might show you where she works someday.”

Linzine turned on her the moment they left. “How in the name of Fahla could you not tell me about this? The Bondlancer is your friend? And I’m not even sure what to think about the Lancer’s feelings!”

“Bai…it’s complicated. I don’t know from one day to the next quite what the Lancer thinks. But I did help her the night before her ritual challenge, when she knew she might not live through the next morning, and you can’t go back to normal after something like that. And my friendship with Salomen—”

“Salomen? You’re on a first-name basis with the Bondlancer?

“It just happened in the last few ninedays! She needs a friend in Blacksun, and the Lancer all but ordered me to ignore her title.”

The bell rang, summoning them back to the competition. As they turned back toward their seats, Linzine said, “These are dangerous friends, Fianna.”

“I know that. But they’re also good friends.”

Linzine shook her head, her concern unabated, but their arrival at the event space precluded further conversation.

As with the previous tie-breaker, the targets now moved twenty percent faster. Vellmar’s very first throw missed, raising an enormous shout from the crowd. She was disgusted with herself for letting her mother’s reaction rattle her nerves.

Linzine missed three throws later, tying the score, and Vellmar’s hopes rose. They battled out the remaining six throws, the sun seeming hotter with every passing tick and the target seeming to get farther away. But Vellmar was in her zone now, ignoring the heat and the noise and focusing solely on those damnably fast circles.

Neither of them missed again, and though they had each risen and fallen in precision points, they ended with the same score. The announcer informed the crowd of a second tie-breaker round, which had not happened in seventy-two cycles, and the roar was deafening.

In a tradition apparently designed to shake apart the competitors, there was no break before this round. That was an advantage for Vellmar, helping her to stay in her zone. Despite the targets now moving one-third faster than their original speed, she still hit every one.

So did Linzine, and their precision points—though considerably lower than the previous round—were once again the same.

“They’ve done it again!” the announcer bellowed over the roar of the crowd. “They’re certainly making our judges earn their wages today! A third tie-breaker has not been necessary for…” She paused for effect. “One hundred and eighty-nine cycles!”

Spectators were stomping on the floors of the stands, adding a deeper rumble to the cheers and applause, and Vellmar felt her focus slip. It was too loud, and the sun seemed much hotter. It almost made things worse when they were allowed another fifteen-tick break before the third round. She needed the water, but she would rather have just finished the event before she could lose her edge.

As she stood by the refreshment table, gulping down half a flask, she realized that the crowd had swollen to well beyond capacity. Not only was the wall at the top lined with people, but so were all of the aisles and even some areas of the field itself. A volunteer told her that the events held outside the stands had ended, releasing their audiences, and many of those people had heard the noise and come to see what it was about.

On the third round, the target speed was at its maximum: fifty percent above normal. Once again Vellmar used her first four pipticks to watch the moving circle and get a feel for it. It was so fast now that when she released her blade, she had no idea whether it would land true.

It did. She sighed in relief and turned back toward the seats, where Linzine was rising. They exchanged no pleasantries this time. The targets were too fast and the competition too intense.

Linzine stopped her circle, but it was close. Vellmar felt as if she had barely had a chance to sit before it was time to get up again.

Every throw now raised a huge shout, the announcer was scrambling to find new adjectives to describe the action, and the noise and tension finally broke through Vellmar’s focus. She misjudged the speed of her target, anticipating it too much, and her blade landed a hair’s width in front of it. The howl from the crowd was so loud that it hurt her ears.

There were two throws left in the round. She hit them both, but so did her mother. The moment Linzine’s blade buried itself in the final target, she threw back her head and roared a victory cry, which was all but drowned out by the pandemonium of the crowd. It had been the most hotly contested throwing event in memory, and while Vellmar hated losing it, she was proud that her birthmother still held the record.

“Congratulations, Bai,” she called over the noise. “You deserve the red.”

“But you made me work for it!” Linzine laughed. “Fahla, did you make me work! I can’t wait to do this again next cycle!” They came together in a double palm touch, grasping each other’s hands tightly and grinning like fools, and then the officials were hustling them to the podium to accept their medals.

Not until the announcer called out the results to the crowd did Vellmar realize the implication of her mother’s win. They were now tied in the blade-throwing events, with two red and two blue medals each, which meant there was no clear winner of the champion’s title.

“After a break to give our competitors a moment of rest,” the announcer boomed, “we will determine the champion with a final event. It is not often necessary, but we are fortunate today, because in fifteen ticks from now…there will be a sword-throwing competition!”

The uproar shook the stands, and Vellmar stared at her mother. “I didn’t even think about that.”

“You have your sword, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course, the regulations required it. I just didn’t stop to think about why.”

“Well, drink some water and start thinking about it. You still have the chance to take my title.”

They swung by the refreshment table, where Vellmar was grateful to find a volunteer holding two pastries for them. Her stomach rumbled the moment she saw them, reminding her that midmeal had been several hanticks ago. She picked up a flask of water as well and had managed to consume the entire pastry before they even made it to the competitors’ tent. Their knife cases were already there, having been collected while they were awarded their medals, but her gear bag was not where she had left it. Worried, she spun around and nearly walked into a wall disguised as an Alsean.

“Looking for this?” said the man, holding out her bag.

“Senshalon! What are you doing here? And yes, I was looking for that.”

Senshalon, by far the largest Guard in her unit, gave her a brilliant smile. “I’m the target thrower. They wanted someone who could get some distance.”

She dropped the bag next to her knife case, unzipped it, and pulled out her sword case. “They picked the right person. Just don’t throw the targets so far that we can’t reach them.” She flipped the latches on the case and gazed at her sword grip nestled in the foam. “Never thought I’d be using this today.”

“Have you practiced enough with it?” he asked worriedly. “I haven’t seen you throwing it anywhere but the base, and you haven’t been on the base much lately.”

“I certainly focused a lot more on knife throwing.” She straightened with her grip in hand. “But I still put in a few sessions, and I did it so much back at Koneza that it’s built into my muscle memory.”

He nodded as Linzine appeared with her own grip.

“Ready, Fianna?”

“I’m ready. Bai, this is Senshalon, the Guard I’m training in knife fighting. He’s our target thrower.”

“Well met, Guard Senshalon.”

“Well met, and a true pleasure.” Senshalon touched her palm. “I wish we could talk, but you two have to go out and make a whole unit of journalists deliriously happy. All of the other events are done for the day, so every journalist in Blacksun Basin is right here.”

“Then let’s give them a performance.” Linzine led the way out with all the calm of a seasoned competitor. Vellmar followed, feeling far less settled, and Senshalon brought up the rear.

When they emerged into the open space near the newly drawn throwing line at the edge of the stands, the air rang with the roar from the crowd. The announcer shouted something, but Vellmar couldn’t make out a word of it. She was on sensory overload, feeling the emotions of this crush of excited Alseans as a heavy pounding against her mental shielding. Closing her eyes, she took herself to her place of serenity, centering her own emotions and gradually shoring up her shielding until she felt, if not calmer, at least less overwhelmed. When she opened her eyes again, her mother was watching with a knowing expression.

“It’s not usually like this,” Linzine said, speaking loudly to be heard over the background noise. “In fact, I’ve never seen it quite like this. Don’t look at them. Look out there.” She swept her hand outward, indicating the open field they faced.

The permanent stands faced each other across the grounds, with temporary seat risers closing one end to form three sides of a rectangle. The fourth side was open to the land, as dictated by a tradition as old as the Games themselves. Despite the heat haze, Vellmar could see the foothills in the distance and behind them the great mountains ringing in the valley. Just the sight of them calmed her, and she gave her mother a grateful nod.

Given the dangers of throwing swords—not that Vellmar or her mother would ever miss—this final competition was held at the very edge of the stands, allowing them to make their throws into the unmown field outside. The spectators saw only their backs, but vidcams swarmed all around, recording the action for the giant holograms behind them.

Vellmar was never able to remember the details of this last event. She didn’t hear the announcer explaining the rules to the audience, didn’t even know it had begun until Senshalon stepped up with a stack of the large round targets. In a daze she watched him throw one, then the other out in a sidearm motion. They landed at slight angles, their design heavy enough to be easily thrown but light enough to not lie entirely flat on the long grass.

She took her place at the line next to her mother, extended her sword, and waited. At the sound of the bell, they both threw their swords. She knew it would be a tie long before they hit the ground.

Volunteer runners raced out to retrieve the swords, and then Senshalon was at the line again, this time throwing with greater force. The targets landed almost seventy paces away, a challenging distance, but the result was still a tie. When the runners held up the swords, each with a target impaled on it, the crowd noise swelled to such a level that Vellmar’s head began to throb. She was now at the point where she simply wanted to finish this and get out. Far from being in her focused zone, she felt as if her brain were wrapped in foam, dulling her perceptions.

Senshalon’s third throw was impressive. The targets landed at the upper range of her limit, and she focused on hers, readying herself for the throw. As she raised her sword, something caught her attention.

The grass was moving by her mother’s target.

The foamy feeling vanished, all of her senses sharpened, and she gasped when a small body appeared. It was too distant for her to see what it was, but it was clearly alive, and it had now clambered onto the target.

“Hold!” she cried, but the sound of the bell drowned her out.

Beside her, Linzine threw her sword.

Vellmar had no time to think about what she was doing. Her own sword whipped through the air, slicing toward her mother’s as both weapons climbed into the sky. She had thrown hers a piptick too late for an easy interception and watched fearfully as the two sharp weapons closed the distance to the target.

At the peak of their arcs, her sword impacted her mother’s with a clash of metal. The crowd gasped when the blades bounced off each other and fell to the ground, well short of the target.

“What in the name—” Linzine began.

Vellmar didn’t hear the rest. She was already running, desperate to know what was out there. Her overwrought brain was saying child, but as she drew near, she realized that no child could have gotten that far into the target range without someone else seeing it first. She pounded up to the target and saw striped fur and a pair of curious yellow eyes staring at her, showing no fear.

“Fahla on a shekking funstick.” She dropped to her knees. She had just disqualified herself and thrown away the championship title, all for a young vallcat. As she sat there cursing her luck, two other kittens appeared, squeaking as they tumbled over each other. With a trembling hand she reached out, gently nudged the first kitten off the target, and lifted the edge. Then she did the only thing possible: she laughed.

What were the odds that Senshalon would throw a target precisely onto the opening of a vallcat’s underground den?

CHAPTER 13:


Vallcat

“…and it wasn’t until it stood up and shook itself that everyone else could finally see what Vellmar had seen before them: the biggest, most magnificent vallcat that ever lived. We do not see its like today,” Jandahar said.

“How big was it?” Harren asked. This was his favorite part.

“It was so big that if it were to lie upon your bed right now, there would be no room for you. It had teeth the length of your hands and claws as long as your feet. Its fur was so thick that you could put your hand on its neck and bury it all the way to your wrist. And its eyes—great, unblinking, yellow eyes—were the mark of a ferocious hunter.”

“But Vellmar wasn’t afraid!” Milena said happily.

“No, Vellmar wasn’t afraid. She reached out and allowed it to sniff her hand, and then the great beast sat down and bumped her with its head.”

“Because it knew! It knew she saved its life.”

“Indeed it did. And from that day forward, Vellmar took the vallcat as her personal emblem. She changed her family crest to honor the hunting cats, and whenever anyone saw it, they remembered the day that Vellmar the Blade chose life over glory, mercy over pride. This was the day when Alseans first recognized the warrior who would become their next Lancer.”

CHAPTER 14:


Laughingstock

“I cannot believe I gave up the title for a passel of vallcat kittens,” Vellmar said for at least the fourth time.

“I can.” Salomen reached across the table and topped off her glass. “Here, drink up. You still need it.”

Blindly, Vellmar picked up the glass and took a deep draught. She wasn’t certain how she had gotten to the Lancer’s State House quarters. The details were a bit fuzzy after leaving the Games. She remembered the crowd of journalists, volunteers, and spectators that had surrounded her in the field, calling out questions and frightening the kittens back into their den with the commotion. She had sympathized with the kittens, thinking that she would have followed them down their tunnel if only she could have fit. Overwhelmed by the sheer size and volume of the crowd, she had finally shouted at everyone to back away and demanded that the area be cordoned off so that no harm would come to the den while the Games were still running. Lancer Tal had appeared from out of nowhere and taken over, ordering the safety of the den and telling Vellmar to go with Salomen and her Guards. From that moment to this one, however, she could recall nothing but a gray blur.

“What a mess,” she mumbled, dropping her head to the table. “This is probably the best day of Jerran’s life. He would have flown around the planet twice just to see this. Everyone must think I’m as cracked as a bad blacknut.”

“Fianna, nobody thinks that. You acted on pure instinct—a very good instinct, it turned out. It just took some time before everyone realized it. Linzine said she would have been devastated had she impaled a vallcat kitten on her sword, and that’s exactly what would have happened if you hadn’t done what you did.”

“But I’m a laughingstock! How am I supposed to command a Guard unit now?”

“You are not a laughingstock. Don’t you realize what you did? You knocked your mother’s sword out of the air! Andira said she’s never seen anything like it. She thought you were skilled back in Koneza, when you hit a tin of shannel, but she says this was much more difficult. My own Guards think you’re half a goddess. If the championship were awarded on skill alone, versus hitting an approved target, you’d have it right now.”

“But I don’t have it, do I? Because I disqualified myself.”

Salomen made an inarticulate sound of exasperation. “Perhaps I should save my breath until you’re sober and just focus on getting you so drunk that your brain lets go of this single thought you seem to be fixed on.”

“You don’t understand! I worked so hard. I trained for moons for this.”

“No, you didn’t.”

Vellmar lifted her head. “I didn’t?”

“No, you grainbird. You trained for the medals. And you brought home four of them.”

She blinked. There was something wrong with this logic, but it was true that she had four medals. Except…except she didn’t know where they were!

“My medals.” She stood with some difficulty and braced herself on the table. “I lost my medals! We have to go back!”

Salomen rose from her chair, walked around the table, and gently pushed her down again. “I have your medals, Fianna. Don’t worry. You haven’t lost them.”

“You have them?”

“Yes. Great Goddess above, you are going to be so mortified if you remember any of this conversation tomorrow.”

“How is she?” asked Lancer Tal, who had once again appeared out of nowhere.

“Drunk as a Mariner on leave,” Salomen said. “But still very upset.”

“Well, she has reason for it. But you should hear the talk out there. I feel sorry for all the other competitors at the Games, because they just became a footnote in the news. Vellmar is the star, no doubt about it. Linzine said only her daughter could turn a loss into the biggest win of the Games.”

“She doesn’t feel like a winner. Andira, we can’t let her go back to her quarters like this.”

“I know. Besides, I have a feeling we wouldn’t get her out of here without carrying her, and that would stir up gossip she doesn’t need.”

“I’ll make up the couch.”

They talked back and forth while Vellmar watched, but her brain stopped processing the words. Then she laid her head back on the table and stopped processing anything at all.

CHAPTER 15:


A vallcat of your own

“And the vallcat became Vellmar’s friend, didn’t it?” Harren asked.

“Yes, it did. She would often return to that part of Blacksun Basin to visit it.”

“Why didn’t she just take it home with her?” Milena wanted to know. “That’s what I would have done.”

“Because it was a wild animal. It would have been miserable in the city.”

“Not if she kept it at Redmoon Base. There’s a whole forest around the base.”

“Vallcats aren’t forest animals. They’re specialized for hunting in long grass. You can’t take a wild animal out of its home and expect it to be happy. Vellmar knew that.”

“But imagine having a vallcat of your own,” Milena mumbled.

CHAPTER 16:


A passel of kittens

Vellmar woke in a room she didn’t recognize. Alarmed, she pushed herself into a sitting position and immediately regretted it. With a groan she closed her eyes and held her head in her hands, trying to keep it from flying into pieces.

“Good morning,” said an entirely too cheerful voice.

“Ugh.” She wanted to say more, but fully expressing the agony she was currently experiencing was not possible.

“Give me your hand.”

Someone tugged one of her hands away from her head, an imposition that she fiercely resisted. It wasn’t until her dazed brain finally recognized Salomen’s voice that she let go. A skin spray hissed into her wrist, something clattered, and Salomen said, “I’ve just given you a paincounter and anti-nausea spray. Now if you’ll drink this, you’ll start feeling better.”

She opened her eyes, staring blankly at the glass of juice that filled her vision. Carefully, she reached out, took the glass with both hands, and sipped it. Her stomach stayed where it was supposed to, which she took as a good sign. A full gulp also produced no untoward gastrointestinal activities, but it did serve to activate a powerful thirst. She drained the glass, and when she handed it back, she was sufficiently recovered to speak a full sentence.

“You just saved my life.”

Salomen chuckled. “I think you give me a little too much credit. In truth, I’m feeling guilty for getting you so drunk.”

Vellmar looked around, realizing that the room wasn’t unfamiliar after all. “Fahla! I spent the night here? In the Lancer’s quarters?” Shek, her career was over. What must the Lancer think of a Lead Guard who couldn’t even make it to her own rooms?

“May I remind you that these are my quarters, too? Now you’re not giving me enough credit! Stop being a shekking Lead Guard for a piptick. You stayed here because you’re my friend, and I have never seen you as upset as you were last night. I was not about to leave you alone in your quarters, so I brought you home. Andira was in full agreement.”

“Oh, perfect. Better and better.” Vellmar was on the verge of saying something she would regret, but the look in Salomen’s eyes stopped her. After a deep, cleansing breath, she managed a small smile. “I’m sorry. Shattering headaches make me a little short-tempered. Thank you for…everything you did for me. Even though I can’t remember exactly what it was.”

That seemed to have been the right thing to say. “You’re welcome. I really am sorry about the shattering headache. I didn’t know how else to calm you down.”

“It was probably for the best.” She saw her boots lined up neatly at the foot of the couch, then realized that she was still in yesterday’s clothes. “I’m not sure how you can bear being this close to me. I was sweating like a fanten yesterday.”

“Yes, you’re a little ripe.” Vellmar looked up sharply, only to see an amused smile on Salomen’s face. “I’m teasing you. But a sonsales could sense how uncomfortable you are, so why don’t you go take a shower?”

“I will.” Vellmar reached for her boots. “I feel like a rude date, sneaking out the morning after.”

“You’re not sneaking out.” Salomen stopped her with an upraised hand. “You have a clean uniform right there, and you know where our shower is.”

“I cannot—”

“Listen, Fianna, I’ve been here long enough to understand the value of appearances. You’re not going out there until you’re the very picture of a perfectly sober, perfectly in-control Lead Guard, ready to face the world.”

Vellmar sat back. “When did you become a politician?”

“Probably the day I moved into these quarters.”

The shower cleared the last vestiges of spirits from her brain, and by the time she was done, the paincounter had kicked in. She felt almost normal and began trying to piece together her scattered memories of the day before. It wasn’t until she was pulling on her fresh uniform that she realized how aberrant the behavior of those kittens had been. Fastening her collar, she strode into the living area and found Salomen sitting at the table.

“Do you know anything about vallcats?”

Salomen looked up from the book she had been drawing in. “You seem to be feeling better. Yes, we have them on the holding. Why?”

“They don’t usually come out in the heat of the day, do they? Why were they out of their den? And where was their mother?”

Putting down her pen and closing the book, Salomen considered it. “Now that you bring it up, I would guess that their mother is staying far away during the daytime, with all the activity of the Games. She’s probably only able to bring food back at night, which means those kittens are on half rations. Maybe when the target landed on their den, they thought it was their mother bringing food and went out looking for her.”

Vellmar was stricken by the idea of the kittens starving. “That explains why the one on the target didn’t hide when I came running up. It just sat there, staring at me. None of them were frightened until everyone else started crowding around. Salomen—we have to go feed them.”

A slow smile deepened Salomen’s chin dimple. “Last night you were devastated about giving up the championship title for what you called ‘a passel of vallcat kittens.’ Now you want to save them?”

“I’m not so upset about the title anymore. I do remember one thing you told me last night, about what I was really training for. You were right. I have four medals, and two of them are red. The title wasn’t meant to be mine this cycle. If it had been, Senshalon wouldn’t have thrown that target where he did. And yes, I want to go save them. You didn’t see the look that little kitten gave me—as if it was just waiting for me to take care of it.”

Salomen rose from her chair and tapped her over the heart. “You just look like a tough warrior on the outside. In here, there’s a pile of goo.”

“Don’t tell. My reputation would be destroyed.”

“That’s the trouble with warriors. They all want to look tough to hide their soft hearts. I’ve seen harder hearts in the Granelle Producer Caste House.”

“Warriors have selectively soft hearts,” Vellmar informed her. “We’re only gooey for those who need us. And those kittens need me. So what do I feed a passel of vallcat kittens?”

“At this stage? Their mother would probably bring them a long-eared field digger.”

“Perfect. We can pick one up at the market.” This would be easier than she thought.

“No, we can’t.”

“We can’t?”

“We’ll have to find a specialty butcher. It needs to be freshly killed, with the fur still on.” Salomen laughed at her grimace. “You are a soft bunch. You’ve never butchered your own food, have you?”

“I prefer mine already…plucked.”

“Then this will be an education for you.”

As it turned out, it was an education for more than just Vellmar. By the time she located a butcher who could supply their needs, Lancer Tal had returned from her morning meetings. She wanted to go along, which necessitated not just the Bondlancer’s Guards but also the Lancer’s. While the preparations were being made, Linzine, Khasa, and Jerran appeared—by direct invitation of the Lancer, Vellmar learned to her amazement—and wanted to accompany them as well. As word continued to travel, Colonel Micah, Senshalon, and Head Guardian Gehrain joined the group, losing no time in teasing Vellmar about her rescue mission. There were now seventeen people in need of transportation, which required a full-sized military transport, too large to land in front of the butcher’s shop. Lancer Tal took over the logistics, ordering most of the group to fly directly to the field in the military transport while she, Salomen, Vellmar, and Colonel Micah would take her personal transport to town.

The butcher nearly fell over himself with shock when both the Lancer and Bondlancer appeared in his shop, and it took all of Vellmar’s patience to convince him that they weren’t his customers, she was. After far too much obsequiousness, she finally made it out with a freshly killed field digger, which—to her considerable disgust—was still warm to the touch.

Salomen pronounced it to be perfect.

They landed next to the military transport, well away from the cordoned-off area around the vallcat den. Vellmar took one look at the crowd already standing just behind the ropes and was newly grateful for the full security. Since she had left this field yesterday afternoon, the den had become a tourist attraction.

“How in the name of our Goddess is the mother vallcat supposed to get through that?” she asked as their group walked over.

“She won’t,” Salomen said. “But I’m sure the crowd will disperse when the events are over for the day. And there are only two more days left in the Games. Once the temporary stands are disassembled, we can take down the cordon and there won’t be a visual marker to give away the den’s location.”

The Guards took up positions just inside the ropes, staring outward at the crowd, and Salomen informed the rest of their group that they would be staying behind as well. This was met with a chorus of groans, but the Bondlancer had learned to wield her authority, and no one questioned it. Only Lancer Tal accompanied them to the den itself.

They approached carefully, seeing no activity, and settled themselves just beyond the opening.

“How do we call them out?” Vellmar whispered.

“Unless you can imitate the grunt of a mother vallcat, you won’t be calling them. The blood will,” Salomen said. “Go ahead, cut it open.”

Vellmar stared at her. “Cut it open?”

Covering her eyes, Salomen laughed quietly. “Warriors. You all carry knives and you haven’t the slightest idea what they’re really used for. Give me that.”

Gratefully, Vellmar dropped the field digger into her outstretched hand.

Salomen pulled out a well-worn, curve-bladed knife, pinched up the skin on the digger’s back, slipped the knife in, and ripped downward with one brisk motion. Then she worked two fingers from each hand into the slice and pulled in opposite directions. The digger’s furry skin peeled off in two parts, now hanging over its head and rear feet.

“This isn’t how I’d butcher it for myself,” Salomen said in a low tone, “but the kittens aren’t concerned about skin and fur. They just need immediate access to the meat and organs. So you open it enough for them to get started.” She flipped the carcass over, inserted her knife under the belly tissue, and deftly cut upward, revealing glistening internal organs. Next she made side cuts halfway up each leg, then set the bleeding carcass on the ground at the lip of the den. “Now we wait.”

As she wiped her knife clean on the grass and sheathed it, Vellmar met Lancer Tal’s eyes over the top of her head. “Did you know she could do that?” she whispered.

The Lancer shook her head, her expression every bit as startled as Vellmar felt. “She hardly got any blood on her hands.”

“Amazing what you can learn from a producer, isn’t it?” Salomen didn’t take her gaze off the den opening. She wiped her fingers on a kerchief, and Lancer Tal was right. There was almost no blood on it.

They waited in silence for the kittens to appear. It didn’t take long. Within two ticks, the first kitten crawled cautiously to the opening, its nose wriggling as it scented the blood. When it saw the field digger, hunger overcame caution and it rushed out, falling upon its prey with a small growl. This seemed to be the magic call, and the other two kittens were soon competing for the meat. Between the three of them, they tore apart the field digger with a ferocious efficiency that was all the more surprising for their cute appearance. Vellmar’s respect rose as she watched. These weren’t helpless kittens; they were miniature predators.

“You’re just a little warrior with fur, aren’t you?” she murmured, watching the first kitten as it braced itself with two paws and wrenched away a mouthful of meat. “A new hunter, just learning her craft.”

Salomen glanced over and smiled. “And you saved her.”

“I did, didn’t I?” A rush of pride burned away the last vestiges of yesterday’s regret. She had done a good thing. True, it had cost her the title, but given a second chance, she would make the same decision. She lifted her head and found her mothers, standing with the Guards at the ropes. Khasa silently clapped her hands together, a gleeful grin on her face, while Linzine gave her an approving nod.

Vellmar grinned back at them. Never would she have imagined she could feel so good about losing a championship. She looked at Jerran, who rolled his eyes and shook his head, and laughed to herself.

By the time the kittens ate their fill, they had accepted their benefactors to such a degree that instead of retreating into the den, they sat down to clean their fur in the sunshine. With this important task complete, they flopped one by one into the grass, bodies tangled together, and slept.

“They’re trusting us to guard them,” Salomen said. “They wouldn’t sleep outside the den otherwise. We’re standing in for their mother.”

“So we can’t leave until they’re awake?” Lancer Tal asked. “Tyrina, I have meetings. Much as I’d like to stay, I cannot.”

“I know.” Salomen leaned in and kissed her. “I want to stay, though. Do you mind?”

“No, of course not. You’re being guarded by the best blade handler on Alsea.”

“Second best,” Vellmar corrected. “But I’m happy with that.”

Lancer Tal looked at the sleeping kittens, whose striped fur provided near-perfect camouflage in the grass. “You have a gift, Vellmar. Only Fahla knows how you could have seen something this small and this well hidden from almost one hundred paces away. It wasn’t even your target. I trust you more today than I did yesterday, and yesterday I already trusted you with my life. Today I trust you with Salomen’s.” She gave Vellmar a short nod, then rose and walked away.

One of the kittens opened its eyes at the movement, its ears already alert for danger. It looked after the Lancer, then checked to see that Salomen and Vellmar were still there. Confirming their presence, it yawned, settled back, and slept once more.

Vellmar reached out and tentatively touched its fur. When it merely shifted deeper into the pile of bodies, she indulged herself by stroking it head to tail.

“How does it feel?” Salomen asked.

Vellmar smiled at her. “Like the best day of my life.”

CHAPTER 17:


Injustice

“I still don’t think it’s fair that she lost the championship title,” Milena complained. “They should have given it to her.”

“But she disqualified herself,” said Harren. “You can’t win when you break the rules.”

Jandahar thought that wasn’t exactly true, but it was much too soon for his children to be learning that particular lesson. “Harren’s right. Vellmar knew what she was doing. She made a choice, and sometimes that’s what you have to do in life. You can’t always have everything you want.”

“So you have to choose which thing you want more,” Harren said wisely.

Jandahar smiled. “And other times, you have to choose which thing is right, even if you don’t want it.”

“But that’s not fair! She did the right thing, and she was punished for it!”

“I don’t think Vellmar considered it a punishment, Milena.”

“I don’t see how she could not,” she grumbled.

CHAPTER 18:


Growing up

Vellmar spent the day at the Games with her family and found it to be an entirely different experience now that she was done competing. She was relaxed and able to enjoy the atmosphere without constantly thinking about her upcoming events. They sampled delicacies from various regions, watched as many events as they could get tickets to—which was quite a few, since competitors were given free access whenever seats were available—and took another, more leisurely walk through the tents of the weapons vendors. She remained content with her earlier choice; no other knives looked as good as the ones she already carried in her boots.

They rode the magtran back into the city for evenmeal at a restaurant that Jerran suggested. Not until they were seated did Vellmar learn where he had gotten the recommendation.

“You met Gehrain? After our mothers specifically told you not to?”

“Jerran,” Khasa sighed. “Really?”

“I didn’t join with him!”

“Not for lack of effort.” Vellmar was just angry enough to say that out loud.

He glared at her. “In fact, I made no effort. Even if I’d wanted to, I wouldn’t have. Do you know what he wanted to talk about? You!”

He looked so disgruntled that she forgot her ire and chuckled. “It shouldn’t surprise you. I’m the only thing you have in common.”

“Fahla, your ego doesn’t even fit in this room. We have other things in common, but I’m not going to bother listing them.”

“Please don’t. I have to work with him.”

A sly smile crossed his face. “He was very curious about why I call you VC, though.”

“You did not—” She stopped as his smile bloomed into a full grin. “Shek. You did.”

He began to laugh. “I did, and he said he thinks you should start using that name again, because it’s even more relevant now.”

Their mothers looked at each other. Khasa snorted first, then Linzine gave up and began laughing, and soon all four of them were clutching their stomachs.

“It’s true,” Vellmar admitted. “I could never have imagined how accurate that name would become.”

“Vallcat Vellmar!” Jerran sputtered. “The wild cat no one dared to cross in school, because you had sharper claws than anyone.”

“As I recall, I used those claws more than once to defend you.”

He sobered and gave her a thoughtful look. “You did. I always wondered why.”

“You’re my brother. Family comes first. Even if you were a little dokker.”

The evenmeal was one of the most relaxed times she could ever recall spending with her family, and when it was over, she surprised herself by inviting them for a tour of the State House. She had wanted to show it off to her mothers but had not envisioned including Jerran in the invitation—or that he would accept with unconcealed interest.

They spent a hantick wandering through the quiet corridors, enjoying the peace of the State House when most of the workers had gone home. After the general tour, Vellmar showed them the training room, which impressed Linzine, and then took them into the Council chamber. She pointed out some of the more interesting parts of the carved ceiling, but of course the real attraction was the famous bloodstain on the floor, marking the spot where Lancer Tal had killed the Challenger. After many questions, her family agreed that they were universally envious of her prime seat to that historical event. Vellmar, who had witnessed exactly what it had cost both her Lancer and her friend, kept her own counsel.

The tour ended in her quarters, which everyone marveled over.

“These are palatial,” Linzine said. “My First Guard quarters aren’t this big.”

“And the view!” Khasa exclaimed, gazing out the window at the State Park.

“I know.” Vellmar stood behind her. “I have a nice view out of my secondary quarters on the base, too.”

“It must be quite a change from Koneza.” Jerran had never seen her quarters there, but everyone knew Koneza was not a luxury post.

“It is. In more ways than just the quarters. But if I hadn’t been posted in Koneza, Lancer Tal would never have seen me.”

“You must have Fahla’s favor,” Jerran said. “It’s the only explanation. Even when you lose a championship, you win. It’s very annoying.”

She glanced at him, but for once he didn’t seem irritated about it. Shrugging, she said, “I didn’t plan that. I just did what I thought was right.”

“Which should always be our goal,” Khasa said. “Doing the right thing doesn’t always bring rewards, but sometimes it does. And the best reward is knowing that you can be proud of yourself.”

At the end of the evening, Vellmar walked them to the front gate and pointed the way to the nearby magtran station. As goodnights were exchanged, Jerran surprised everyone by saying he wanted to stay behind and speak with his sister for a few ticks.

Linzine and Khasa looked at each other, then him. “Are we going to get a call from the city detention center in the middle of the night?” Linzine asked.

“Ba,” Jerran grumbled. “I think we’re capable of civilized conversation.”

“Let them talk.” Khasa pulled her bondmate away by the upper arm. “They need to. Until tomorrow,” she said over her shoulder as she urged Linzine forward.

“Don’t kill him,” Linzine called back. “He’s still our son.”

“Why do they assume you would kill me?” Jerran asked. “Why aren’t they worried about me killing you?”

Vellmar bit her lip, then laughed.

Jerran scowled, but it didn’t last long as he chuckled with her. “Never mind, forget I said anything.” He gestured behind them. “Can we go for a walk on the grounds?”

Though baffled by his behavior, she turned back and led him to a path that would take them to the main walk, her favorite part of the grounds. Jerran walked silently beside her until they emerged onto the wider path, lined on both sides by enormous trees whose overarching branches made it seem as if they were passing through a tunnel.

“This is beautiful,” he said.

“It is. Lancer Tal and I run through here almost every day that we’re at the State House. I’m still not tired of it. I don’t think I ever will be.”

Another tick passed in silence, but she would not break it. Jerran had said he wanted to talk, so it was his job to start the conversation. In the meantime, she tilted her head back and inhaled happily. Some of the State House producers had been through today, trimming branches, and the air was full of the sharp scent of broken wood and crushed leaves.

At last he sighed and said, “I like who I am in Port Calerna.”

Unsure how she was supposed to respond to that, she took the safe route. “Bai said she’s proud of you. She said you found your own path.”

He nodded. “Do you know how long I’ve waited for either of our mothers to say they were proud of me?”

It would be so easy to make the obvious retort, but she held her tongue.

“And then I come here and it’s like I never left. Jerran,” he said in a perfect imitation of Khasa. “Fahla, I hate that tone. I hate feeling like I’m still in that place where I can never do anything right. And you’re still the perfect one.”

Her patience was running out. “Is there a point to this?”

“Yes. Just…give me a tick.” He leaned down to scoop a small twig off the path and snapped it into tiny pieces as they walked. “I like who I am in Port Calerna, but I don’t like who I am around you. And it occurred to me yesterday that I’m the only one who can change that. So that’s what I’m doing.”

“Ah…all right. What exactly are you doing?”

He threw away the last piece and dusted off his hands. “I’m telling you something you need to know. You said you and the Lead Templar were looking for different things. But you’re wrong.”

She took a deep breath, tamping down her anger. “I would appreciate it if—”

“Just shut up and listen. I saw it yesterday. She saluted you when you won your red medal. She’s a scholar—a templar—and she gave you a warrior’s salute.”

“I saw it,” she said quietly. “Thank Fahla Bai didn’t.”

“Maybe she wouldn’t worry so much if she had.”

“She’d still worry.”

He nodded. “They worry about both of us, you know. They’ll never stop. But I don’t think they need to worry about you and Lead Templar Satran, because I saw her afterwards, too. At the vallcat den.”

Frowning, she said, “I didn’t.”

“You hardly saw anything. I don’t know what I expected when we got down there, but it wasn’t you shouting orders. You had just thrown away the championship—literally thrown it away—and it was like you didn’t even care.”

“Oh, I cared. It just wasn’t what I was thinking about at the time.”

“That was obvious. You were standing there like Fahla’s chosen warrior, protecting those vallcat kittens, and Lead Templar Satran was watching you. I saw it, VC. She was watching you like she had never seen you before. Like she had just realized she made a mistake.”

She stopped. “Why are you telling me this?”

He turned to face her. “Because I was a dokker’s backside yesterday and I don’t want to be like that. We may never be friends, but we’re family. And…” He shrugged. “Maybe someday I want someone to look at me like that.”

She stared at him, letting her senses sink through his outermost barrier in an emotional skim.

He was telling the truth.

“She told me she didn’t want anything more than what I gave her on that bonding break,” she said.

“Maybe she didn’t—then. Maybe she changed her mind.” With another shrug, he added, “I know something about the way changing location can change how you feel.”

For the first time in their lives, she looked at him and saw an adult. “I do, too. Coming here from Koneza changed everything for me.”

“Did you, um…” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked off into the trees. “Did you Share?”

“No. And she never dropped her front.”

He met her eyes then. “So, a vacation joining. Fun for everyone, for as long as the vacation lasted. And she thought that was all it would be, but now she’s thinking again.”

“I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with you.”

“I can’t either. Shall we get back to talking about those two blue medals of yours?”

She punched him lightly in the shoulder, then set off down the path again. “I’m proud of those two blues, because I was competing against the world champion. To be honest, I would have hated it if I’d won all four reds.”

“I don’t think Ba would have,” he mused. “She seemed just as happy to see you win as she was to win herself. Must be a parent thing.”

As they walked along in silence, Vellmar stole side-glances at him. She could hardly believe this was her brother. Maybe he really had grown up.

“I’m impressed by your pilot certification,” she said. “That was a lot of work and effort. They don’t give those away to anyone who applies.”

“Thank you.”

But he did not look at her, and when she skimmed him again, her brows furrowed. “You don’t feel as happy as I would expect.”

He picked up another twig and began systematically destroying it. “I wanted to be a rescue diver. Piloting was my second choice.”

“What happened to your first choice?”

“I wasn’t good enough,” he said bitterly. “I couldn’t pass the test to get into the training program.”

“That doesn’t mean you weren’t good enough. It just means diving isn’t what you’re best at.”

He threw away the last pieces with such vigor that they bounced off a nearby tree trunk. “Easy for you to say. You would have passed it.”

“Jerran, you need to stop thinking of me as the perfect older sister. I’ll always be older, but I was never perfect. I just worked hard.”

“I could have worked for a cycle and still not passed that test. And now Bai and Ba and even you are telling me I should be proud, and I am, but…it’s still the same old story, isn’t it? I’m still settling for second best.”

She reached for his arm and stopped him. He glanced up at her, his mouth tight, then looked away again.

“Do you know why I carry a sword instead of a disruptor?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Because you’re a champion blade handler.”

“And the second reason?”

He shrugged again.

“Because I’m not a good shot. I just don’t have a feel for it, and I don’t like them as a weapon. Disruptors feel heavy and bulky and…and wrong to me. So I could practice for a cycle and become a mediocre shot, or I could practice for the same cycle at something I’m already good at and get even better. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Not really. But I know you’re trying to make a point.”

“Piloting is what you’re good at. You could practice for a cycle and be an average diver, or take that same cycle and turn yourself into an excellent pilot. And as a Lead Guard, I would choose the excellent pilot over the average diver. That’s what those tests are for. They’re not just about screening out the losers. They’re about finding the winners. You won the test for the pilot training. And then you studied for a cycle, and now you’re a pilot. That’s not second best.”

There was hope in his eyes as he stared at her. “Do you really believe that? Or are you just saying it because I told you about Lead Templar Satran?”

She held up her hand in invitation and interlaced their fingers when he met it.

“I believe that,” she said. “And thank you for telling me about Lanaril.”

A smile brightened his face as he felt her sincerity. “You’re welcome. Thanks for the, um, Lead Guard talk. I’m a little sorry I told Gehrain about your nickname now.”

Chuckling, she let go and resumed their walk. “It was bound to get out someday. And as nicknames go, it could be worse.”

“It could be a lot worse. Vallcat.”

“Shut up.”

He laughed and bumped her with his shoulder, and as they walked to the path that would take them back to the gate, she thought maybe it wasn’t just Jerran who had grown up.

CHAPTER 19:


Nickname

“I want to be called Vallcat,” Milena announced. “Or VC.”

Jandahar was ready for this one. “When you save a vallcat’s life and tame it, we will all call you that. Vellmar earned that name. That’s why she was so proud of it.”

Milena sighed. “It’s not fair. There aren’t any vallcats in Napoline. They don’t like the ocean.”

“Then perhaps you will need to travel.” He rubbed her small shoulder. “Vellmar didn’t set out to earn that name. It was given to her as a tribute for her deeds. Perhaps someday you will do something very special and be given a name as a result. And it will mean much more because it was a gift from others, rather than something you asked for.”

As she sighed again, clearly not convinced, Harren said, “Will you tell us about the Voloth at the Games?”

“That’s a different story, Harren.”

“But it was the same Games.”

“Yes, but we’re telling the story of Vellmar, and she had nothing to do with that. The Voloth was competing in one of the shooting competitions.”

“And he won, and people were upset about it!”

“Again, that’s not the story we’re telling tonight. You won’t trick me into letting you stay up later.”

He burrowed deeper into his blankets, dismayed at having his intentions exposed. “I just wanted to hear it.”

“Next story time will be your turn, and you can request it then.” Jandahar reached out to tweak his blankets straight. “Now, back to the story we are telling.”

CHAPTER 20:


A few new things

The last day of the Games was the best. Vellmar could not remember when the four of them had been so companionable. It felt like a day out with friends, but with all the richness of family history. They laughed, told jokes no one else would understand, and had many moments of “do you remember” that made her heart ache as she watched her mothers packing that evening.

“I wish you weren’t leaving so soon,” she said.

“Well, at least we finally got that tour of the State House,” Linzine teased. She folded a tunic and set it in her bag. “But we have so enjoyed our time here.”

“And this day was…special,” Khasa added. “We’ve waited a long time for it.”

“I knew it would be special when we woke up this morning and realized the city detention center hadn’t called.”

“Or the cold room at the healing center.”

Vellmar shook her head as they laughed together. “I’m glad you’re so amused.”

Khasa stepped over and kissed her cheek. “It’s not amusement, Fianna. It’s happiness.”

“And a sense of accomplishment.” Linzine was not done teasing. “Our jobs are finally finished. We can relax.”

“Ha,” Vellmar said. “As a substitute mother to a passel of vallcat kittens, I can tell you that you’ll never relax until someone else takes over your job. And I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

“Listen to the sudden expert.” Khasa elbowed her bondmate. “A mother for all of two days. And to babies that tear apart carcasses.”

“Didn’t I do that as a baby?” Vellmar asked.

Linzine chuckled. “Very nearly. And speaking of experts…” She picked up a case emblazoned with the Global Games championship emblem. “I believe this is yours.”

Stunned, Vellmar opened the case and gazed at the beautifully crafted blade belt nestled within, its red buckle proclaiming its wearer the champion blade handler of Alsea. She lifted it from the padded bed and looked questioningly at her birthmother.

“I’ve been staring at that belt for the past three days,” Linzine said. “And each day I thought the same thing. You won it. That last throw of yours was sensational. I could not have duplicated it in fifty attempts. I don’t care what the judges say, you’re the champion now. And I’ve never been so proud of you.”

Vellmar swallowed the lump in her throat. With great care, she folded the belt back into the case, closed the lid, and held it out. “Your pride is the award I want, Bai. But this isn’t mine. The judges chose the right person.”

“Fianna—”

“No, listen. I was at the end of my endurance in that event. You had to calm me down, remember? The noise, the pressure, all those unshielded people… I lost my focus. You were the better competitor. You were just as calm and focused in the final event as you were in the first one. So it doesn’t matter how good my last throw was. The truth is that I was done, and you were still battling.” She smiled. “But you’ll need to watch your back next cycle, because I won’t be a tender newbie anymore.”

Linzine accepted the case with an answering smile. “I look forward to the competition.” She tucked it into her bag, hesitated, then looked up with a serious expression. “Now I’m afraid we must speak to you about the one topic we’ve been avoiding. You seem to have managed the end of your affair with the Lead Templar well enough to escape any problems, but your friendship with the Bondlancer is another issue altogether.”

Vellmar silently thanked Jerran for his unexpected discretion. “I’ll be careful.”

“That might not be enough,” Khasa said. “Duty and honor are not just ideals. They’re also your protection against the venomous zalrens infesting this city and the games they play.”

“I know that. But I also know that a person I admire, who deserves nothing but the best, has offered me her friendship. Am I to throw it back in her face because I fear what others might make of it? I like her, Ba. She has already been a good friend to me.”

“And what happens when you fall from her favor? You cannot treat this like any other friendship. If this one goes bad, your career goes with it.”

“Do you honestly think I haven’t considered that? I’ve held her at the ends of my fingertips for exactly that reason, but that’s a poor way to treat a friend—punishing her in advance for something she might never do.” She saw Linzine opening her mouth and held up a hand. “I understand why you’re worried, and if I didn’t know Salomen, I’d probably think the same thing. But she’s not a fickle member of the Blacksun elite. She hates that mentality as much as we do. She’s a producer, as true and solid as any of our friends, and yet look where she is. How is she ever to find honest friends of her own if everyone she meets sees her only as the Bondlancer? She doesn’t use her power as a weapon. I think the only way I could lose her favor would be if I failed in my duty, and in that event I wouldn’t deserve it anyway.”

“She may be a producer,” Khasa said, “but power changes those who hold it.”

“But it can only change a person within the constraints of their heart. Salomen’s heart is not that small.”

“You’re very protective of her,” Linzine observed.

“I’ve felt that way since almost the moment I met her. She had so little idea of what her title truly meant. She knows more now, but…yes, I worry about her. And I don’t want you to judge her the way everyone else does. She deserves better.”

Her mothers looked at each other, then back at her.

“You said the same thing about Lead Templar Satran,” Khasa said.

“And it was true for her, too.”

Linzine sighed. “Fianna, you’re a good and true friend, and your defense does you credit. But Bondlancer Opah is not the only one in this picture, and Lancer Tal is a member of the Blacksun elite. Her favor may not be as solid as you believe the Bondlancer’s to be.”

“I know. That’s why I asked her about it.”

“You—” She stopped. “You what?”

“I asked her. No one can be a perfect friend, so I asked her what she would do if I ever hurt Salomen, by word or deed.”

“You asked the Lancer… Great Goddess above. What did she say?”

“She promised not to let my friendship with Salomen affect her professional relationship with me. And before you ask, yes, I believe she’ll keep that promise. If I didn’t believe in her integrity, then how could I give her my public oath?”

For a moment, neither of her mothers could find their voices.

“You have bigger horns than even your birthmother,” Khasa finally said. “Sweet shekking sunrise, you put your career on the edge of a blade, just for…for…” She sputtered to a halt.

“For a clear view of the field. I am not going into this blind.”

“And are you truly that comfortable with your view?” Linzine asked.

“Of course not.” She looked at Khasa. “I’m in the deeper waters now, and I’m learning to swim. But that’s how we grow, isn’t it?”

Once again her mothers had a silent conversation together. Linzine nodded slowly, and Khasa turned back to Vellmar.

“It does seem that your eyes are wide open. We can only hope that those who hold your trust are deserving of it. But the Lancer obviously respects you, and I must admit that watching our Bondlancer butcher a field digger makes me think she’s not quite what I had believed.”

“You should have been there today, then. She made me do it, and I made a bloody mess of it. It looked easy when she did it, but…ugh. It’s not at all. Not even with her instructing me every step of the way.” She grimaced at the memory of her fingers digging into those soft, slimy organs. “And it’s disgusting. But at least she enjoyed herself. She says warriors have an inordinate fondness for blades despite never using them for anything practical.”

Khasa laughed. “She has a point there. Perhaps you should tell her that isn’t true for all warriors. Just the obsessed ones.”

“A producer would certainly have a different idea of practical use, wouldn’t she?” Linzine mused. “What an interesting pair they make. I wonder what drew them together? They’re from such different worlds.”

“Linzine,” Khasa said in an admonishing tone. “Really. They’re tyrees. Fahla chose them.”

“And Salomen gave up so much because of Fahla’s choice,” Vellmar added. “I’ve seen it. I won’t be one more thing she has to give up.”

With a sigh, Linzine said, “Well, we did raise you to trust your own instincts. I suppose it would be hypocritical of us to argue against it any further when your instincts are speaking so loudly to you. I’ll try not to worry so much.”

“If you must worry, worry about my reputation,” Vellmar said, attempting to lift the mood. “If the teasing I’ve taken from my unit for the past two days is any indication, I’ll spend at least the next cycle living these Games down.”

“Then they’ve accepted you. They wouldn’t tease you otherwise. That’s good to know. Well, daughter…” Linzine raised her palms.

Vellmar intertwined their fingers, happily absorbing the unstinting love that came through their physical touch, and leaned in to kiss her cheek. Khasa was waiting when she turned, a sad smile on her face as they touched palms and kissed.

“It has been such a wonderful few days.” Khasa squeezed their hands. “I don’t want it to end. But you’re in a good place, Fianna. And you’ve earned every bit of it. Just…be careful, please.”

“I will.”

Jerran was waiting for them at the entrance of the inn, and the four of them walked to the magtran station together. After a final good-bye in the lobby, Vellmar turned toward one magtran while her family walked to another. It felt lonely sitting by herself. The warm and loving presence of her mothers, and even of Jerran, had made Blacksun seem more like home, but now the melancholy was settling in. It was the one hardship of a warrior’s life that she had never reconciled herself to: the constant shifting of bases, units, and friendships. Gehrain had once told her that Lancer Tal kept good warriors forever, and his own six-cycle stint as Lead Guard seemed to bear that out. She could only hope that doing her best would be sufficient, because more than anything else, she did not want to start over again in a different place.

The Guards at the front gate saluted her as she entered the State House grounds. “Lead Guard Vellmar,” one of them said, “Head Guardian Gehrain left instructions that you were to report to the dining room as soon as you arrived.”

“Has something happened?”

“He didn’t say.”

“Very well. Thank you.” She walked briskly down the side path that would take her to the entrance closest to the dining room. Gehrain knew she was still on leave; he wouldn’t have called her in unless it was important. And in their line of work, anything that important was likely to be bad news.

Then again, she thought as she approached the dining room door, bad news wasn’t usually accompanied by party music, was it?

She opened the door to find her whole unit already there, food and drinks in hand and smiles on every face.

“Here she is, our Global Games champion!” Gehrain shouted.

The whistles and applause made her blush. “Are you all that bad at keeping score?” she called over the noise. “I just put the champion on a magtran!”

“Details.” Colonel Micah’s voice cut effortlessly through the room. “We know who the champion is. And even if we didn’t, we can certainly count two blue and two red medals!”

A clamor arose, soon coalescing into a chant. “Show, show, show, show!”

“Well, I don’t walk around town carrying them on me,” she said. “They’re in my quarters.”

“Then go and get them.” Senshalon held up his glass. “We’ll find a way to keep ourselves busy while you’re gone.”

That raised a happy cheer and the sound of many clinking glasses.

“All right, all right,” she said, laughing.

By the time she returned, Lancer Tal and Salomen had joined the party. The chant renewed as soon as she came in the door. “Show, show, show, show!”

She held up one open medal case. “One blue!” she called.

“Blue!” they shouted back.

She handed the box to the nearest Guard and held up a second one. “One red!”

“Red!”

Passing that one off, she held up their twins. “And one more of each!”

They roared their approval, and she received so many backslaps that she was certain she wouldn’t breathe normally again until the next nineday. Then someone shoved a drink in her hand, someone else shouted, “Tell us!” and after that there was nothing for it but to tell the whole story, which until now she had managed to keep to herself.

“You thought it was a child?” Gehrain asked incredulously.

“Just for a piptick. I didn’t know what to think; I just saw the movement, and then I saw whatever it was crawl onto the target. What would you have done if you knew something was about to die and couldn’t identify it?”

“I’d probably have watched in horror as whatever it was died, because there is no way in Fahla’s wildest dreams that I could have made that throw.”

“That was one shekking incredible throw,” Colonel Micah agreed. “And I say that in the best, finest sense of the word.”

This brought on quite a few profane agreements, until Micah held up his hands for attention. “Lead Guard Vellmar,” he said when the room had quieted, “I am pleased to announce that your fellow Guards have pooled their funds to give you a token of their respect for your champion performance.”

“Oh, no.” Vellmar knew she was in trouble when everyone laughed.

With a flourish, Micah produced a wrapped box. “I hope you can fully appreciate the initiative, creativity, and organizational skills your Guards have shown by designing and having this made in just two and a half days. I know I do.”

“Designing? Oh, Fahla, what have you all done?” Vellmar put her drink on the nearest table, accepted the gift, and gingerly began to unwrap it. She took as long as she possibly could, ignoring the calls of encouragement, and finally pulled off the lid. “A tunic?”

The chuckles started even before she lifted the tunic out, swelling to loud laughter as she revealed the design. “You shekking dokkers,” she said, and had to laugh herself.

Someone had gone to the trouble of looking up her family crest, then cleverly redesigned it to include three gamboling vallcat kittens across both front and back. It was well made, extremely cute, and utterly unwearable. No warrior with a shred of pride would have kittens on her family crest.

“Oh, how lovely,” she called out. “A particularly colorful dust rag! Thank you so much!”

“Are you joking?” Senshalon asked. “We all put in a pile of cinteks for that. Do you mean you don’t like it?”

“Of course I like it. I love it. I’ll think of you every time I use it to polish my medals.”

They howled with laughter, and she knew it was more pleasure in their own prank than anything she had said. But it warmed her soul, because her mother was right. This kind of elaborate joke meant that she was fully accepted in this unit, and it was in that spirit that she gave in to their demands and donned the tunic. Roars of appreciation followed as she turned in a circle, modeling the tunic with exaggerated movements.

Salomen came up beside her and held up a hand for quiet. When she could be heard, she turned to Vellmar. “While we honor your good nature and courtesy in wearing a gift we know you hate, I would like to assure you that we’re not quite that evil. This is your real gift.” She held out a box, identical to the first in size, shape, and wrapping. The only change was the color of the ribbon.

“I’m extremely suspicious.” Vellmar accepted the gift, unwrapped it, and lifted the lid. Another tunic was nestled inside, and while it seemed similar to the one she was currently wearing, the lack of laughter told her otherwise. An expectant silence filled the room as she shook out the tunic and held it up.

“Goddess above,” she said quietly, and could speak no more. The lump in her throat was too large.

This tunic, like the other, was modeled on her family crest. But instead of kittens, it had three full-grown vallcats in a gorgeous stylized design. Their bodies blended together, with one cat looking left, one looking right, and the third staring straight ahead. Its yellow eyes were wild, its mouth half open in a snarl, and it exuded a controlled ferocity that made the hairs on her neck stand up. It was glorious, an emblem worthy of a war banner.

She looked at Salomen in mute appeal and whispered, “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say thank you,” Salomen whispered back.

Vellmar took off the first tunic and donned the second, if only to give herself time to swallow that lump. Murmurs of appreciation drifted through the room as she straightened the cloth, and she looked out at a sea of smiles.

“I will wear this with pride,” she said, and if her voice was abnormally rough, no one had the bad manners to comment on it. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so proud. This is the best unit any warrior could hope to serve with, and I thank Fahla that my life has led me to this point. Thank you, all of you.”

“You’re welcome,” Lancer Tal said. “In turn, we’re also thanking Fahla that she led you to us. You haven’t even been here half a cycle, but you’ve already brought us the glory of the Games and a story that all of Alsea will remember for cycles to come. If this is how your first cycle is going, we can’t wait to see what you’ll do next!”

That broke up the rather too-serious moment, and the party picked up again soon after. Vellmar was in top spirits and could hardly remember having been melancholy earlier in the evening. Never in her life had she been so sure that she was where she belonged.

She stayed as long as she could, but her leave would end tomorrow morning, and she was not about to show up for duty with a hangover. The party was still in full swing when she said her goodnights and stepped out the door. She hoped she wouldn’t have to discipline any of her Guards tomorrow.

Wearing one tunic and carrying the other, she walked back to her quarters and stepped inside with a sigh of relief. It had been an emotionally packed day, and she was glad to be in a place where she didn’t have to work quite so hard to keep herself in check.

After dropping the kitten tunic on a chair, she turned on a lamp and stopped, staring at the out-of-place object on her dining area table. It was a beautifully inlaid wooden case, and the small envelope propped against it bore the Seal of the Lancer.

With a chill settling at the base of her spine, she broke the seal and pulled out a single sheet of paper.

Vellmar,

I hope you don’t mind a little unauthorized entry, but I did not want to give this to you in front of your unit.

It seems Yulsintoh watched the Games and was particularly impressed with the Lead Guard who gave up a championship to save a vallcat. He contacted me to inquire whether you would be interested in carrying his brand in next cycle’s Games. If you win—and he is certain you will—he can greatly benefit by marketing the sword you use.

I told him that in fact you admired his designs and could probably be convinced to carry one if he were to provide it. He was delighted to hear it and asked if I knew of any design in particular that you would want.

I trust I chose well.

Congratulations,

Lancer Tal

With trembling hands, Vellmar unlatched the lid. There, nestled in high-quality foam padding, was a teffalar-wrapped grip with a black and red diamond pattern. It was Yulsintoh’s newest design, the one she had thought she might be able to afford in two cycles’ time.

It fit in her hand as if custom made for her, and when she extended the blade, the balance was perfect. Lancer Tal must have entered her quarters more than once, because the only way this weapon could be so ideal for her was if Yulsintoh had worked from the measurements of her old sword.

She held the blade to the light and sucked in a breath as the golden scrolling glowed, almost as if it were lit from within. This was the most beautiful sword she had ever seen. Like her tunic, it was worthy of a Lancer.

The very room she had been relieved to enter suddenly seemed too small to contain her. She retracted the sword, clipped the grip to her belt, and strode out her door, heading for the nearest exit onto the grounds. As she rounded a corner, she nearly ran into Lancer Tal and Salomen, who had been walking in the opposite direction.

“Going anywhere in particular?” Lancer Tal’s gaze flicked downward to the new grip at Vellmar’s side, and a small smile warmed her expression.

“It’s been a full day,” Vellmar said. “I’m in need of some clean night air.”

“I’ve been feeling rather crowded myself. All of these people in town for the Games, all the journalists wanting quotes and the politicians wanting to be seen, and then that whole mess with the Voloth winning the shooting competition.” The Lancer shook her head. “I’d like nothing more than to get out for a quiet walk under the moons, but Micah would have my head if I left the State House alone.”

“So would your tyree,” Salomen said.

“It seems we both need the same thing.” Vellmar happily accepted the invitation. “I was thinking I might go out to the Games field, now that everyone has gone home. Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of the kittens’ mother.”

“Ah, a stealth mission.” Lancer Tal’s eyes lit up. “We can take my private transport just to the edge of town and go from there.”

“Agreed.”

“Salomen, do you want to come along?”

“I think you two need to skulk off by yourselves. I’ll be happy curling up with a book. But before you go, you might want to put on more appropriate clothing.” She looked pointedly at Vellmar.

Only now realizing that she still wore her new tunic, Vellmar asked, “Meet you back here in three ticks?”

“Agreed. And Vellmar?”

“Yes?”

“The sword looks good on you.”

Three ticks later, they stole out of the State House like a pair of trainees breaking curfew, and soon Lancer Tal was landing her transport in a little copse of trees at the edge of the broad, grassy plain. The lights of Blacksun did not extend this far, but Alsea’s two moons were in half phase, easily lighting their way.

Without a word shared between them, Vellmar took the point position and felt the Lancer following close behind in a single-file formation that minimized the sound of their passing. Mindful of the wind direction, she circled around until they were approaching the den from downwind. When they reached the cordon, she stopped and crouched into the grass, scanning the area intently for any sign of movement.

Lancer Tal knelt noiselessly beside her. “How close do you want to get?” she whispered.

“That bush.” Vellmar indicated the largest shrub between them and the den, which was no more than five handspans high. But it was the best they had.

They waited another tentick before making their move, reaching the bush and taking up position behind it. Now their view of the den was somewhat blocked by branches, but they could see enough.

For nearly a hantick they lay in the fragrant grass, watching and waiting. Vellmar catalogued the sounds and scents around them, and when the grassbuzzers began singing once more, she knew that the creatures living in the immediate area were no longer concerned about the presence of two Alseans. Other than the scent of their bodies, there was now nothing to give their presence away to the mother vallcat. And the breeze was blowing their scent back the way they had come.

It occurred to her that not many people would consider this activity a means of stress release. But the Lancer seemed content, lying on her stomach with her chin propped on her crossed hands as she watched the den. Vellmar remembered her mothers worrying that this woman was a member of the Blacksun elite and wished they could be here now. Surely they would revise their opinions. No image-conscious politician would be lying here in the grass, ignoring flying insects and poking grass stems and every other discomfort, just for the chance of glimpsing a vallcat.

A sudden tension in Lancer Tal’s body alerted her. She looked back at the den and held her breath, stunned by the reality of the adult vallcat. In the past two days, she had become accustomed to the size and appearance of the kittens, forgetting what they would eventually become. This was not an animal she would want to put on the offensive.

The vallcat padded up to the den entrance and dropped a disheveled, limp carcass on the ground. A soft grunt reached their ears, then another, and a moment later the three kittens came rushing out of the den. But instead of falling on the meal as they did when Vellmar made her offerings, they ran in circles around their mother, bumping into her legs and pushing against her body. She sniffed them all carefully, offered a few cursory licks, then lay down with an audible sigh, ignoring them until they left her alone and began tearing into their meal.

Vellmar could not say how long she and Lancer Tal lay there, entranced by the sight of the family. The kittens finished their meal and washed themselves, then began playing on and around their patient mother. It was hard not to laugh when a kitten clambered onto her back, hung for a moment off the side of her neck, and then dropped down, only to climb up and do it again. The mother tolerated endless amounts of exuberant play, her expression one of resigned forbearance, but when she decided playtime was over, she let her kittens know in no uncertain terms. One was sent rolling with a swipe of a massive paw, and a low huff stopped the other two in their tracks. A second huff had them scurrying back into the den, and the mother rose to her feet. She stretched, yawned, gave herself a vigorous shake—and turned her head to stare unblinkingly at her Alsean observers.

Without taking her eyes from them, she stalked forward, every movement a study in grace and power. Vellmar was frozen in place, torn between admiration for this perfect predator and concern for the woman beside her. It had never entered her mind that she might be putting Lancer Tal in danger during this little escapade.

She slipped one hand out from beneath her chin, reaching toward the sword at her side.

“No,” Lancer Tal whispered, her gaze never wavering from the approaching vallcat. “Drop your front.”

Vellmar glanced at her incredulously. “What?”

The vallcat stopped just on the other side of the shrub and sat down. She lifted her head, nostrils flaring, then lowered it to look directly into Vellmar’s eyes. Her jaw opened slightly, and she huffed.

“Drop your front,” Lancer Tal said more forcefully. She reached down and took Vellmar’s hand in a strong grip. “Feel her!”

Vellmar dropped her blocks, reaching out with her empathic senses. At first the Lancer’s emotions were all she could sense, due to their physical connection, but eventually she was able to make out a different, slightly alien set of emotions, somehow channeled through Lancer Tal. When she identified the strongest one, a shiver tingled her fingers. She had been prepared to draw her sword on this?

Slowly, she pulled herself into a kneeling position.

The vallcat watched, motionless.

Vellmar lowered her head, baring the back of her neck in a language she thought the hunter might understand. When she raised it again, the vallcat huffed once more.

“You’re welcome,” she murmured.

The vallcat rose to her feet and trotted back to her den. Picking up the bare-boned carcass in her jaws, she gave a twitch of her tail and vanished into the night.

“Shekking Mother,” Lancer Tal breathed, rising to her feet. “Absolutely incredible!”

“How did she know it was me?” Vellmar was still stupefied as she stood upright.

“She smelled you. Did you see her sniffing her kittens? And then she came over here and sniffed you. You’ve been petting them, haven’t you?”

“I have.” Vellmar had felt guilty about it, but they were so irresistible.

“Your scent is on their fur. And surely she must be able to smell that there were other carcasses here that she didn’t bring. That’s how she knew her kittens have been eating while she was gone. I’ve no idea how she knew we were here, but she certainly knew you were the one.” An enormous smile broke across Lancer Tal’s face. “I cannot wait to tell Salomen how right she was about that tunic design!”

She drew that?”

“She was drawing the joke version the night you slept in our quarters. But when you said the kittens were just little warriors with fur, she had the idea for the second one.”

Vellmar looked at the den, now a barely distinguishable darkness in the grass. “When I become head of my family, I’m changing our family crest. Salomen’s design is…it’s unique and beautiful and I want to keep it. I want the Vellmars to remember the honor of a crest drawn by the Bondlancer.”

“And what that crest means,” Lancer Tal said. “Vallcat Vellmar.”

“Oh, Fahla. You too? Did Gehrain tell everyone?”

“Not yet, but it’s only a matter of time.” She chuckled. “I don’t know why you’re complaining about it. It’s a perfect nickname. You could have been named after a hedgedog.”

“No, that was my brother, the one who wags his tongue like a bored merchant.”

Now Lancer Tal laughed out loud. “Perhaps, but you should have seen Salomen’s face when I told her about your nickname. She was just finishing her second drawing then, and she was thrilled to learn how relevant it really was. Oh, and she said you always look unsettled when she calls you Fianna, so she’s going to try VC and see if that’s easier for you.”

Vellmar smiled as she thought about another person who insisted on calling her Fianna. “I’m getting used to it these days. Seems like I’m getting used to quite a few new things.”

“Aren’t we all,” Lancer Tal said.

CHAPTER 21:


Just like you

Jandahar ended his story and looked for signs of wakefulness in his children. They were both asleep, breathing deeply. Harren’s mouth was slightly open, his face relaxed as only a child’s could be, and Jandahar dropped a kiss on his forehead before straightening out the blankets that had already gotten tangled.

Milena was frowning in her sleep, apparently still indignant over Vellmar being punished for doing the right thing. She was such a fierce child, so concerned with fairness and justice. But unlike others her age, she did not reserve that concern solely for herself. She was just as likely to be outraged about injustice to another, a tendency that had already resulted in several fights at school on behalf of younger children.

He kissed her as well, then tucked an errant foot back under the covers.

As he turned toward the door, he smiled at the sight of Milena’s favorite painting. Others had come and gone, but this one seemed to be standing the test of time. It was Vellmar the Blade, wearing the family crest she had created in honor of the hunting cats. At her side sat a giant vallcat, its head coming all the way to her waist, and she rested one hand on its neck. Her other gripped a gold and silver sword, ablaze with reflected light.

“She wants to be just like you,” he told the painted figure. “And I think she’s well on her way.”

He tapped the painting as he passed, then turned out the light. A last look into the darkened room confirmed that his children were still asleep, probably dreaming of glory and Games and ferocious vallcats. Sometimes he envied their simple dreams, but then he reminded himself that his job as a father was to keep that simplicity in their lives for as long as he could. So far, he was doing well.

With a quiet tread, he stepped into the hall and closed the door, leaving them to their dreams.

CHAPTER 22:


Second chance

After her adventure with the vallcat, Vellmar was too energized to simply sit in her quarters. She saw Lancer Tal safely to the State House, changed back into her new tunic, and set off across the State Park to Blacksun Temple.

Though temples were at the service of Alseans twenty hanticks a day, Lead Templars were not. It took some convincing before an aide finally called Lanaril in her personal quarters and informed her that Lead Guard Vellmar was asking to speak with her.

The aide tapped out of the call and looked her up and down. “She’ll meet you in her garden,” he said in a disbelieving tone. “Please come with me.”

She followed him along a curving corridor and out a small back door into a walled section of the temple grounds she had never seen before. The garden was not large, but it was well cared for, with a small fountain splashing in one corner and vines nearly obscuring the stone walls. Beautifully coordinated banks of flowers and greenery set off three benches, one of which looked onto the fountain. The other two were placed on opposite sides of the ancient molwyn tree in the garden’s center, their curved design creating a not-quite-closed ring around the trunk. Scattered around the garden, ingeniously placed ground lights lent the space a soft, welcoming feel.

The aide gave her one more skeptical look before leaving her alone.

For a moment she stood motionless, absorbing the peace of this place that was Lanaril’s private escape. Then she trod the path to the nearest bench beneath the tree, sat down facing the door, leaned back, and closed her eyes.

When the door opened again a tick later, she kept her eyes shut and smiled. Lanaril was coming to her. She wanted to put off the moment of seeing her until she had wrung every bit of enjoyment out of this anticipation.

Footsteps whispered along the stone path; Lanaril was wearing soft-soled shoes. Vellmar recognized the stride, having watched it enough times on Mahaite to memorize it. She had noticed then how Lanaril moved with a quiet grace and wondered if it had to do with many cycles of walking soundlessly in the temple, keeping her presence from interfering with the worship of others. Lanaril had said that her job was never to intrude, but simply to be there when she was needed.

The footsteps drew nearer, then stopped in front of her. A subtle scent of spicewood drifted to her nose, and her smile grew.

After a moment, she heard the slight rustle of clothing and felt the air move as Lanaril sat beside her.

“So this is the famous tunic,” Lanaril said. “Salomen was hoping you would like it enough to wear it.”

“I don’t like it.” Vellmar opened her eyes and turned, finally allowing herself to drink in the beauty of Lanaril Satran. Her rich skin glowed in the lights, and her deep brown eyes shone with humor.

“You seem very comfortable in a tunic you dislike.” Lanaril lifted a hand as if to trace the design, but diverted the move into a rub of her bare arm.

“I didn’t say I disliked it. It’s just that like isn’t a good enough word. I’m honored to wear a crest that Salomen designed, and after tonight, I’m proud to bear a vallcat on my chest. Or three.” She unclipped the belt cinching the tunic around her waist and let it fall to the bench. Then she unfastened the tunic, took it off, and draped it over Lanaril’s shoulders. “You look cold.”

“I might have forgotten my jacket when I heard that the famous Lead Guard Vellmar was in my garden.” Lanaril pulled the tunic tighter and rested against the back of the bench. “It already smells like you.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible. I just got it.”

Dipping her nose to the tunic’s opening, Lanaril smiled. “Trust me, it does.”

With that single act, Vellmar knew that Jerran had been right. “I do trust you,” she said. “I know you’ll always tell me the truth, which is why I came here to ask you a question.”

A guarded look came over Lanaril’s normally serene features. “Yes?”

“Why did you send me away if it wasn’t what you really wanted?”

Her eyes drifted shut, and she gave a slight shake of her head. “Was it the salute?”

“That meant everything to me, but no, it wasn’t that. My brother saw you watching me at the vallcat den. He said you looked like you had just realized you’d made a mistake.”

“You come from a perceptive family, it seems.”

“He’s…more perceptive than I ever gave him credit for.” If only he could hear her say that.

Lanaril looked up into the tree, her thoughts showing in the set of her features. When their eyes met once more, Vellmar braced herself for the quiet battle she had come here to fight.

“Fianna, what we had on Mahaite was beautiful and exactly what I needed. It was a perfect, protective bubble from my real life. I wanted to keep that perfection. I knew it couldn’t survive Blacksun.”

“But you never told me why.”

Lanaril held out her hands, as if to indicate the whole city. “So many reasons. Our age difference, our caste difference, our rank difference—”

“Those are excuses, not reasons.”

Annoyance flashed in her eyes. “Is this the arrogance of a new champion?”

“I’m not the champion. Not this cycle. But you told me that you didn’t want more, and I accepted that. I walked away because that was what you wanted. I don’t think it’s what you want anymore, and you’ve admitted as much. So I need to hear a much better reason—a real reason—before you’ll convince me to walk away again.”

“Fahla save me from overconfident warriors.” Lanaril brushed her hands through her hair, and Vellmar followed the movement. She remembered the feel of that silky hair, the same color as her own but so much softer.

Smiling at the memory, she said, “I just lost to my birthmother, who showed me the difference between skill and experience. If I was overconfident before the Games, I’m not now.”

Lanaril laughed. “The journalists certainly bent that corner of the story. I don’t know how they could, after seeing you and your birthmother together. It’s so obvious that she loves you and was thrilled to have you at her side.”

“Journalists only tell the part of the story that sells. And you’re only telling me the part of the story you think you can sell me. I’m still waiting for the rest.”

“Annoying, obstinate…” She straightened and pointed back toward the temple. “Do you know what I do in there, every day? All day?”

Knowing that any answer she gave would be the wrong one, Vellmar shook her head.

“I give. I give myself to anyone who needs me, and they all need me. They need me to reassure them, to understand them, to help them understand themselves…to tell them that I know their pain or suffering, to tell them that it won’t hurt forever. And every time I give, I am diminished by it. Not much and not permanently, but there is a cost to what I do, and I pay it every day.”

A shadow of grief crossed her face. “Today I spoke with a man who can’t conceive, who thought he was being punished for something, because how else could he explain not being able to bear a child for his bondmate? They had planned two, one borne by each, and he couldn’t keep up his side of the bargain. It’s a biological malfunction, a harsh truth of life, but he felt it in his heart and soul, and he needed my help. That is what I do with my days. I stand between the profane and the divine, I help people find meaning and acceptance, and I do that regardless of my own state of faith.”

Though her front was still perfect, as it had always been between them, her emotion showed in her eyes, in the line of her mouth, in the way her spine now slumped as she leaned against the back of the bench. “They come in to tell me the good news, too, and there’s nothing I love more than joining in those celebrations. If my days were filled with only that, I would have so much to give you. But they’re not. I go to my quarters at the end of the day, and more often than not, I have nothing left. That’s not much to offer a partner.”

Vellmar willed her hands still, though they ached to provide comfort. “And that’s what you think a partner is? Someone who only takes from you?”

“No, of course not, but…” Lanaril sighed. “Taking is half of it. You should be able to expect certain things from a partner, but I can’t make you any guarantees.”

“I’m not asking for a guarantee. I’m just asking for a chance.”

She had never heard Lanaril’s laugh sound cynical until now.

“I’ve heard that before. People say one thing and do another. Even with the best of intentions.”

Ah, now she understood. “Someone made you a promise once. And then they broke it.”

“I don’t blame him. He didn’t understand what he was promising.”

“Then he didn’t understand what a promise is. It’s not something you agree to when everything is perfect and then renege on when things go wrong. My whole life has been about oaths and promises. Sometimes they’re not easy to keep. But I’ve never broken one.”

Lanaril looked at her thoughtfully. “You would have a different view of it, wouldn’t you?”

Vellmar had never realized it before now, but Lanaril was a protector, just like herself. She simply protected different things, intangible things. But who took care of the protector?

“I don’t have that much to give, either,” she said. “My duty shifts rotate depending on what Lancer Tal needs, and I’m always on call for her. But what I do have left, I would like to give to you.”

A slow smile lit up Lanaril’s face. “That was a beautiful non-promise.”

“I won’t make you a promise until I know I can keep it. But if you’ll allow it, I can take some of that burden. Lancer Tal requires my attention, not my faith. She doesn’t need my comfort or affection. She gets that from Salomen. I still have that to offer.”

“And what will you ask in return? What will you need from me?”

“You.” Vellmar pointed at the temple. “Those people seek your comfort, your guidance, but they don’t seek you. Do they even see you? I want Lanaril, not the Lead Templar. I want to see past your front, to know who you really are. To be the one allowed to give you the comfort you need.”

“Fianna…” Lanaril sounded weary. “Sometimes that person you’re talking about—she’s all I have left at the end of the day. I don’t know if I can give her up as well.”

“Not give her up. Share her. There’s strength in sharing. On Mahaite, you said I gave you the peace you needed. Why would I not be able to do that here? I’m the same person.”

“But I’m not.”

“I don’t believe that. You’re the same person, just dividing yourself a different way. I don’t think Fahla expects you to spend your life alone. She didn’t expect it of Lancer Tal.”

Lanaril’s eyes widened, and Vellmar wondered if she had finally stumbled onto a winning argument.

Throw enough blades, she thought, and one of them is bound to hit the red zone.

“You have such passion,” Lanaril said. “I saw it on Mahaite and at the Games, and then I saw a whole different side of it when you saved those vallcat kittens. And here is yet another side. It’s quite a sensation to have all of that directed at me.”

Vellmar clamped down on the inappropriate thought. She was balanced on the edge of a knife; Lanaril could go either way.

After a long, silent suspension of time, Lanaril reached for her hand. The truth of her emotions sang through her skin.

“I will accept your non-promise,” she said. “If you’ll accept my non-guarantee.”

Vellmar’s smile was half relief and half giddy joy. “Do we seal this deal with a warrior’s clasp, or is there a scholar equivalent?”

Lanaril answered that with a kiss, and as Vellmar slid her hand around the beautiful curve of her jaw—a right that was hers once more—she marveled at the fact that she had Jerran, of all people, to thank for this second chance.

She would have to tell him. Later.

Glossary

UNITS OF TIME

piptick: one 100th of a tick (about half a second).

tick: about a minute (50 seconds).

tentick: ten ticks.

hantick: 10 tenticks, just shy of 1.5 hours (83.33 minutes). One Alsean day is 20 hanticks (27.7 hours) or 1.15 days.

moon: a basic unit of Alsean time, similar to our month but 36 days long. Each moon is divided into four parts called ninedays. One Alsean moon equals 41.55 stellar days.

cycle: the length of time it takes the Alsean planet to revolve around their sun (13 moons or approximately 17 stellar months).

UNITS OF MEASUREMENT

pace: half a stride.

stride: the distance of a normal adult’s stride at a fast walk (about a meter).

length: a standard of distance equaling one thousand strides (about a kilometer).

GENERAL TERMS

ba: short name for bondparent (either bondmother or bondfather).

bai: short name for birthparent (either birthmother or birthfather).

bondmate: a life partner.

cintek: the Alsean monetary unit.

dartfly: a small, bloodsucking fly known for its speed and agility.

dokker: a farm animal similar to a cow. Slow moving and rather stupid, but with a hell of a kick when it’s angry or frightened.

evenmeal: dinner.

Fahla: the goddess of the Alseans, also called Mother.

fanten: a farm animal similar to a pig, used for meat.

front: a mental protection that prevents one’s emotions from being sensed by another.

grainbird: a small black and red seed-eating bird common in agricultural fields. It is known for singing even at night, leading to an old perception of the birds as lacking in intelligence—hence “grainbird” is also a slang term for an idiot.

grainstem powder: powder derived from crushed stems of a particular grain, which yields a sweet taste. Commonly used in cooking; also used to sprinkle over fresh bread.

hedgedog: a small, round-bodied herbivore commonly found in agricultural areas. Known for the fecundity of the females and the high sex drive of the males.

joining: sexual relations. Joining is considered less significant than Sharing between lovers. The two acts can take place simultaneously, though this would only occur in a serious relationship.

magtran: a form of public transport consisting of a chain of cylindrical passenger carriers accelerated by magnetic fields through transparent tubes.

midmeal: lunch.

molwyn: Fahla’s sacred tree. It has a black trunk and leaves with silver undersides. A molwyn grows at the center of every temple of decent size.

mornmeal: breakfast.

producer: a member of the agricultural caste (also includes fisherfolk).

Return: the passage after death, in which an Alsean returns to Fahla and embarks on the next plane of existence.

Rite of Ascension: the formal ceremony in which a child becomes a legal and social adult. The Rite takes place at twenty cycles, after which one’s choice of caste cannot be changed.

shannel: a traditional hot drink, used for energy and freshening one’s breath. Made from the dried leaves (and sometimes flowers) of the shannel plant.

skim: to sense any emotions that an Alsean is not specifically holding behind her or his front.

Sharing: the act of physically connecting the emotional centers between two or more Alseans, resulting in unshielded emotions that can be fully accessed by anyone in the Sharing link. It is most frequently done between lovers or bondmates but is also part of a bonding ceremony (in which all guests take part in a one-time Sharing with the two new bondmates). It can also be done between friends, family, or for medical purposes.

shek: vulgar slang for penetrative sex. Usually used as a profanity.

sonsales: one who is empathically blind.

templar: a member of the scholar caste whose work revolves around religion.

teffalar: a product made from a rare tree, used in the manufacture of sword grips. It wears well, absorbs vibrations and sweat, and costs a fortune.

tyrees: Alseans whose empathic centers share a rare compatibility, which has physiological consequences. Tyrees can sense each other’s emotions at greater distances than normal, have difficulty being physically apart, and are ferociously protective of each other. Tyrees are always bonded, usually for life.

vallcat: a large, powerful cat adapted to hunting in long grasses.

winden: a large six-toed mammal, adapted to an alpine environment. It is wary, able to climb nearly sheer walls, and the fastest animal on Alsea. Winden travel in herds and are rarely seen.

zalren: a venomous snake.

Excerpt from


The Caphenon

CHAPTER 2:


Night-three call

Half a lifetime of training had Andira Tal on her feet and mostly awake before the vidcom could chime a second time. She yanked a robe over her sleepwear and strode toward the dining area, where the large vidcom hung over the table. A call at night-three could only be bad news, and the ID confirmed it. Chief Counselor Sunsa Aldirk would not wake her unless it was something he couldn’t handle on his own for a few hanticks, and there was very little that Aldirk couldn’t either handle or delegate.

“Yes, Aldirk,” she said as soon as the screen went active.

“Lancer Tal, we have both a state and military emergency. I’ve just received a call from Whitemoon Base, which patched me through to the Astrophysics Laboratory.” He paused, giving her time to wonder what sort of mess could possibly involve government, military, and astrophysics simultaneously.

“And?” she prompted.

“And we are possibly being invaded by aliens.”

Were it anyone else, she’d have thought it a prank. But even aliens were more believable than Aldirk pulling something like this. Wordlessly she gestured for him to continue.

“The lab confirms an incoming space vessel on a trajectory which will end fifty lengths northwest of Blacksun. It was initially flying straight toward the city, but the ship has been continually adjusting its heading. The scholar in charge is of the opinion that it’s attempting to land in an unpopulated area. Colonel Mendalia from Whitemoon Base postulates that the aliens think we can’t detect them and are attempting to surprise us.”

Shocked as she was, Tal could still see the hole in that theory. “They had to fly right past our observational satellites to enter our atmosphere. They’d be idiots to think we can’t detect them.”

Aldirk’s eyebrows rose. “I didn’t think of that,” he admitted. “Then why put down in the middle of agricultural fields?”

“I have no idea. But I do know we’ll be there to meet them. I’m putting Blacksun Base on immediate scramble, but they’ll need more time than we probably have to fully mobilize. We’ll have to have an early greeting party. I’m taking my Guards.”

“Lancer Tal! You cannot possibly go out there—”

“I cannot possibly stay here,” she interrupted. “Three thousand generations of Alsean history just ended, Aldirk. The only question now is what our future will be, and you would have me cower inside the State House while somebody else finds out whether or not we’re about to be exterminated?”

He looked at her for a moment without speaking, his face softening into an expression she’d never seen before. “Be careful, Lancer.”

“I will.”

Vellmar The Blade

Eight ticks was an impressive response time. Tal stood by her state transport, watching her Guards shout back and forth as they loaded gear and weapons, and felt a swell of pride in their professionalism. Like her, they’d all been asleep eight ticks ago. Now they were in full combat kit and preparing for a mission that none of them could have conceived of before now. And they were doing it without a moment’s hesitation.

Colonel Corozen Micah strode toward her, his bristly silver hair shining in the landing pad’s floodlights. “We’ll be loaded in another five,” he said as soon as he reached her. “But the biggest thing we’ve got are the shoulder-mounted launchers. I don’t like going in this way.”

“I don’t either, but we can’t afford to wait. The Astrophysics Lab says they’ll be landing before we even get off the ground, and we’re easily a hantick ahead of the fastest deployment a heavy weapons unit could make.”

“We could wait for the aerial support. That would at least give us class four and five missiles.”

“We could, but they’re still scrambling their launch and farther from the landing site than we are. Colonel Northcliff estimated they’d be arriving half a hantick behind us. Do you want to wait that long while aliens land their ship and do Fahla knows what?”

“I don’t want any of this,” he grumbled. “I liked it just fine when we thought other life in the universe was something we argued about over a bottle of spirits.”

She couldn’t help smiling. Even at a time like this, Micah’s gruff humor remained intact. “That argument is over for all time, Micah.”

They watched the Guards, having given all of the orders they could for the moment. After half a tick of silence, Micah asked, “Have you woken up to this yet?”

She shook her head. “No. You?”

“No,” he said, looking up into the night sky.

She followed his gaze. Though their largest moon washed out some of the stars, and the State House’s landing pad lights interfered with many more, the brighter ones showed through. She knew every constellation and in which seasons they came and went. Right now the Archer hovered over the northern horizon, her arrow—or his, nobody had ever agreed on that topic—aimed at the Winden fleeing toward the east. The Treecat was right over the Archer’s head, the final star in its tail marking the Northern Home Star, which forever remained still while all of the other stars moved around it. They were ever on the march, but always knew where their home lay. Every Alsean, even those who cared nothing for the constellations, knew where the Home Star was. She’d learned about it when she was four.

Looking at it now made her ache inside. These stars had always been her comfortable companions, their timelessness offering a sense of security and a connection to her ancestors. She had never minded night watches when she had been a Guard, so long as the sky was clear and she could see. The earliest Alseans had looked upon the same stars, seen much the same patterns, guided their travels by them. But now it all felt different. These stars weren’t safe anymore. Their mysteries weren’t just for scientific and philosophical exploration. Something had come out of them: a giant ship that even now was screaming through their skies with unknown intentions. Whatever happened next, Alsea would never be the same. The import of the moment was so immense that she still couldn’t grasp it, and yet she had to. She was the Lancer, and the whole world expected her to lead.

Never had the title weighed so heavily.

Her wristcom buzzed and lit with a message. She read it and stared at Micah. “It should be right over our heads in the next tick.”

As one they turned to face south, where the massive main dome of the State House loomed fifteen stories high. The landing pad sat at its base, a short walk from the Councillor’s Entrance. Paths radiated out in all directions, winding their way through the trees and formal gardens that made up the walled park. She had often been out for a run at this hour, enjoying the quiet, the rare privacy, and the darkness.

It was not dark now. Aside from the floodlit landing pad, the State House itself was ablaze with lights in all five domes and on every floor except the fifteenth, where her own quarters were located. She could see shapes hurrying back and forth across the large windows, everyone busy on some frantic errand.

“I don’t hear anything,” Micah said. “If it’s that close, shouldn’t we—”

An earsplitting boom cracked the sky in half, stopping her heart and sending every warrior on the landing pad into a defensive crouch. Simultaneous with the deep boom was the higher sound of breaking glass, and she watched in shock as seemingly every window in the State House exploded, the shards sparkling in the lights as they dropped to shatter on the ground below. A piptick later came the roar, louder than any transport engine she’d ever heard. It passed over their heads and moved off to the northwest, only gradually fading.

She straightened and tried to calm her racing heart. It hadn’t been an attack after all. For a moment she had expected the State House to explode along with its windows, taking her and everyone else with it. But the ship had kept going. It hadn’t even slowed down.

All activity on the landing pad had come to a standstill, her Guards staring at the State House or in the direction of the receding roar. Next to her, Micah rubbed his chest.

“Holy shekking Mother,” he murmured. “Now I know what cardiac arrest feels like.”

She nodded in agreement. “And we’re going to meet that with hand disruptors, rifles, and a few shoulder-mounted launchers.”

He met her eyes. “Second thoughts?”

“Second, third, and fourth. But we have no choice.” Raising her voice, she shouted at her still-stunned Guards. “Move it! Get the rest of this gear on board; we lift off in three ticks!”

Projection

Fletcher DeLancey

An erotic short story in the Chronicles of Alsea

Lieutenant Telorana Candini settled the bottle more comfortably in the crook of her arm and pressed the call button. Before she had even released it, the door unlocked with a snick and Guard Soral Dewar spoke through the com.

“Enter, Telorana. I’m in the kitchen.”

She pushed the door open and found Soral standing in the archway across the room, a small towel in her hands. “How did you know it was me?”

“I felt you coming into the building.”

“Right. I’ll never get used to being around an empathic species.”

“If it helps, we still haven’t gotten used to the fact that there are other species.”

“Good point.” Telorana stopped in front of Soral and took a moment to admire her features.

When they had first met, at the base of an escape ladder on her crashed ship, she had been startled by how alien the Alseans appeared. Though Gaian races the galaxy over were varied in their builds, skin tones, and other phenotypical measures, they were still recognizably Gaian. But the Alseans’ facial ridges marked them as something distinctly other.

Six weeks later, she viewed those ridges as exotic and beautiful—especially Soral’s. The ones along her cheekbones cast enticing shadows, and she longed to trace the fan-shaped design on her forehead.

There were other, unseen ridges, she knew. The thought of them had intrigued her ever since she learned about the unique Alsean reproductive system. Today’s news had given her just enough courage to do something about it.

“Captain Serrado pulled us into a meeting today,” she said. “The Protectorate finally found a shuttle to come get us. We’re leaving in twelve days.”

Soral’s gaze softened, then dropped to the bottle in Telorana’s arm. “Is that supposed to make me feel better about losing a friend?”

“You won’t lose me. We can still talk on the quantum com.”

“Not quite the same thing, is it?” She turned and tossed her towel back into the kitchen, then pointed toward one of the comfortable chairs by the window. “Sit.”

Telorana sat and watched her fetch a pair of glasses from the sideboard. “It’s not the same thing, but I’ll be back. We have a treaty. That means a rotation of ships being sent out here, and I’m sure I’ll be on one of them.”

“For a while.” Soral brought the glasses back, expertly pulled the tab on the bottle, and poured the smoking blue spirits. Taking the other chair, she lifted her glass and said, “To unexpected friendships with smooth-faced aliens.”

Telorana laughed. “To unexpected friendships. And courage.”

Soral raised her eyebrows as she drank, then set her glass on the small side table and waited.

That was the thing about Alseans, Telorana thought. They knew what you were feeling, so they didn’t ask questions. They just waited until you spoke.

She cleared her throat. “So, um…this is the part where I usually talk about short lives and war and how we don’t know what will happen, so we should live while we can.”

Soral nodded.

“Right. And, well, I think that speech would be lost on you because you’ve probably known since the day we met that I’m attracted to you.”

“I was wondering how long it would take you to say something. Quite a long time, it turns out. I thought you had a reputation as a wild one?”

“I do, but…you’re different.”

“Because I’m empathic?”

“Because you’re you.” She didn’t know how else to explain it. She had been fascinated by Soral Dewar since the moment they had met. An hour before, Soral hadn’t known of the existence of her species. A minute before, she and twenty other Alseans had been training weapons on Telorana, her captain, and her commander. But as soon as Soral understood that there were hurt people still inside that ship, she had unhesitatingly followed Telorana into the wreck.

For half the night they had worked together, and Soral amply demonstrated both her skills as a medic and her gentle, caring nature. How someone like that could also be a fierce warrior, one of the elite Lancer’s Guards, was something Telorana still couldn’t understand. In the Protectorate Fleet, there were doctors and there were soldiers. The two jobs required different training and different personalities. But Soral was an intoxicating blend of both.

Soral tilted her head. “I’m attracted to you as well. But I’m also very aware of our different physiologies.”

“That’s part of the attraction for me.” Telorana grinned, feeling more confident now that she was past the issue of rejection. “That and the empathic part.”

“You want a Shared joining?”

“Is that possible?” Because if it was, fuck yes, she wanted it. To join both bodies and minds? Where else in the galaxy would she get the chance?

“I’m sorry,” Soral said. “Overcoming your lack of empathy would take too much focus. I can join with you, or I can Share with you, but not both at once.”

Telorana sipped her spirits to cover her disappointment. A moment later she realized how ridiculous that was with an empath sitting across from her, but it was hard to break the habits of a lifetime.

She set the glass down and reached out to run her fingertips along the back of Soral’s hand. “But maybe you could do one after the other?”

Soral’s smile was beautiful, white teeth flashing against dark skin as her eyes crinkled nearly shut. “That I could do.” Her smile turned mischievous. “Which would you like to start with?”

Telorana closed her fingers on Soral’s wrist, pulling her up with her as she stood. “This,” she said, and leaned in to kiss her.

They might have physiological differences, but kissing was exactly the same. She sank into it, molding their bodies together as she buried her fingers in thick curls. Her desire surfaced abruptly when Soral pulled her closer, caging her with strong arms. Alseans had very dense musculature, and Telorana found that strength to be one Hades of a turn-on.

Their kisses grew more intense, hands rubbing curves and planes, and Telorana gasped when Soral cupped one of her breasts, unerringly capturing a nipple through the fabric of her shirt.

She nipped the side of Soral’s throat and whispered, “When do I get to see these neck ridges come out?”

Soral chuckled. “You’ll have to work a little harder. They won’t surface until I’m much more aroused.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t have said that. I’m very goal-oriented.”

She pursued that goal with single-minded determination. Soon she had Soral stripped to the waist, exposing several delicious ridges and lovingly exploring each one with tongue and teeth. Her favorites so far were the pelvic ridges, which vanished beneath Soral’s waistband and hinted at delights yet unseen.

But despite Soral’s obvious and vocal appreciation of her efforts, the neck ridges remained submerged. Telorana was beginning to feel inadequate. She pulled away from a perfect nipple, sucked the chest ridge just above it, and then tugged at an earlobe.

“If you can’t Share with me,” she murmured, “what about projection?”

Soral went stiff, then pushed her away. “You have no idea what you’re saying.”

“I think I do,” Telorana began, but then noticed the distress in Soral’s eyes. “Er, maybe not? What’s so awful about it? Can’t you just—”

“It’s a crime,” Soral snapped. “Especially with someone like you. You have no protections. It would be like empathically forcing a child.”

Well, that was a bit offensive. “I’m not a child. And I’m not asking you to force me, just to project your own feelings on me. I want to feel them, too. Besides, it’s not a crime if I consent, isn’t that right?”

Soral stared at her. “You would consent to me controlling your mind.”

“I trust you.”

“You’ve known me for less than two moons!”

“I know you risked your life to save my crewmates. I would trust you with my life, so why not my mind?”

“Great Mother,” Soral whispered. “You do trust me that much. That is…”

When she didn’t seem capable of finishing, Telorana reached out for her hand and intertwined their fingers. Looking into her nearly black eyes, she said deliberately, “I consent.”

Soral sucked in a breath, her eyes wide. Then a slow, dark smile edged onto her face.

A surge of heat went through Telorana’s body. Startled, she released their hands and stepped back.

Her mind was bombarded with thoughts of what she wanted to do to Soral, and none of them were gentle. She saw herself taking Soral in every way imaginable, a nonstop stream of erotic images that made her face hot and her hands tremble. This wasn’t desire. It was unadulterated lust, and she was shaking with the effort of controlling it. Never in her life had she felt so animalistic, not even when she took that illegal aphrodisiac on Erebderis Station. She couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t do anything that might break the tenuous hold she had on herself.

In the tiny part of her mind that was still rational, she appreciated the irony that she could trust Soral but not herself.

Soral took a step closer, and Telorana closed her eyes. She couldn’t look at her right now, with her naked torso and perfect breasts and oh, those ridges—

“Telorana.”

“I can’t.” She almost whimpered from the effort.

“Don’t be afraid of what you’re thinking.” Soral’s voice was right next to her ear. “It’s coming from me. Telorana—I consent.”

Her eyes snapped open. With a growl, she slammed into Soral, knocking her back against the wall. Seizing her head, she kissed her possessively, then ripped her trouser fastenings apart.

Soral grabbed her, whirled them around, and shoved her against the wall so hard that it knocked most of the air out of her lungs. Before she could recover, Soral’s hand was in her pants, sliding through a veritable ocean of wetness.

Neither woman would give up her dominance, and they battled from one end of the room to the other. The first round went to Soral, who bent Telorana over the back of a chair and held her there with that damnable Alsean strength while she took her from behind. “Fahla, you’re so smooth,” she gasped as her fingers plunged.

As soon as Telorana recovered, she took Soral up against the wall. She thought the top of her head might blow off when she discovered that Soral had ridges inside as well.

Three orgasms later, she had burned off enough of that raging need to revert to less aggressive lovemaking. They spent the rest of the day exploring each other’s bodies, learning their differences and similarities, careening from clinical observations to mind-blowing sensations and often laughing in between. It was the most incredible, intimate, glorious sex she’d ever had.

When they finally flopped onto their backs, panting from their latest efforts, she let out an exhausted groan. “No more, please. You Alseans are made differently, but my body can’t take any more. I need food and sleep.”

Soral laughed. “No one is forcing you. You could have stopped any time if your poor little Gaian body was so taxed.”

“How could I stop when you were projecting?”

Soral looked at her with a furrowed brow. “You thought I was projecting?”

“Well…yes. Weren’t you? You said those thoughts were coming from you.”

“When we started. Projection takes an immense amount of concentration. I let go right after you threw me against the wall.”

Telorana propped herself up on her elbows. “That was me?” she squeaked.

“That was all you. I just released it.”

“Holy Seeders. I didn’t know I had that in me.”

Soral brushed a hand along her cheek. “You Gaians are an odd race. So out of touch with your own wants.”

“I can’t argue that.” Telorana caught her hand and pressed a kiss against it. “I wonder what other wants I have that I don’t know about?”

Soral’s slow smile lit up her face. “We have twelve days to find out.”

Note from Fletcher DeLancey

“Projection” is an unseen interlude near the end of The Caphenon, a novel that begins with the crash of a giant spaceship on a planet whose inhabitants had no idea there was other intelligent life in the universe. The crew of that ship had saved the planet from invasion, but it was only a temporary reprieve.

The Caphenon is about what happens when good people face hard choices, friends find themselves on opposite sides of conflict, and politics interferes with everything. At its heart, it is the journey of three powerful women who are swept up in events that put an entire civilization at risk.

The Caphenon is the first book in the Chronicles of Alsea, an ongoing saga based around the planet Alsea and its unique inhabitants.

To learn more about the Chronicles of Alsea, the universe it’s placed in, and the upcoming books, check out www.chroniclesofalsea.com.


Vellmar The Blade

THE STORY DOESN’T HAVE TO END ON THE LAST PAGE

Take it with you—on a shirt, a phone case, a mug and so much more. Choose your caste, or give a caste gift to a friend. That way, Alsea will always be there.

http://www.cafepress.com/chroniclesofalsea

About Fletcher DeLancey

Fletcher DeLancey spent her early career as a science educator, which was the perfect combination of her two great loves: language and science. These days she combines them while writing science fiction.

She is an Oregon expatriate who left her beloved state when she met a Portuguese woman and had to choose between home and heart. She chose heart. Now she lives with her wife and son in the beautiful sunny Algarve, where she writes full-time, teaches Pilates, tries to learn the local birds and plants, and samples every regional Portuguese dish she can get her hands on. (There are many. It’s going to take a while.)

She is best known for her geeky romance Mac vs. PC and her science fiction series, Chronicles of Alsea. Currently, she is working on the next books in the Chronicles of Alsea and as an editor for Ylva Publishing.

CONNECT WITH FLETCHER:

Website: www.chroniclesofalsea.com

Blog: www.chroniclesofalsea.com/blog/

Facebook: www.facebook.com/fletcher.delancey

Twitter: @alseaauthor

E-Mail: [email protected]

Other Books from Ylva Publishing

www.ylva-publishing.com


The Caphenon

Chronicles of Alsea – Book #1

Fletcher DeLancey

ISBN: 978-3-95533-254-9 (mobi), 978-3-95533-255-6 (epub)

Length: 165,000 words (374 pages)

On a summer night like any other, an emergency call sounds in the quarters of Andira Tal, Lancer of Alsea. The news is shocking: not only is there other intelligent life in the universe, but it’s landing on the planet right now.

Tal leads the first responding team and ends up rescuing aliens who have a frightening story to tell. They protected Alsea from a terrible fate—but the reprieve is only temporary.

Captain Ekatya Serrado of the Fleet ship Caphenon serves the Protectorate, a confederation of worlds with a common political philosophy. She has just sacrificed her ship to save Alsea, yet political maneuvering may mean she did it all for nothing.

Alsea is now a prize to be bought and sold by galactic forces far more powerful than a tiny backwater planet. But Lancer Tal is not one to accept a fate imposed by aliens, and she’ll do whatever it takes to save her world.



The Tea Machine

The Teatime Chronicles – Book #1

Gill McKnight

ISBN: 978-3-95533-429-1 (mobi), 978-3-95533-430-7 (epub)

Length: 97,000 words (321 pages)

The story of a love that never dies…except it does, over and over again.

London 1862, and Millicent Aberly, spinster by choice, has found her future love—in the future! She meddled with her brother’s time machine and has been catapulted into an alternative world where the Roman Empire has neither declined nor fell. In fact, it has gone on to annex most of the known universe.

Millicent is rescued from Rome’s greatest enemy, the giant space squid, by Sangfroid, a tough and wily centurion who, unfortunately, dies while protecting her. Wracked by guilt and a peculiar fascination for the woman soldier, Millicent is determined to return in time and save Sangfroid from her fatal heroics. Instead, she finds her sexy centurion in her own timeline. And Sangfroid is not alone; several stowaways have come along with her.

Soon Millicent’s mews house is overrun with Roman space warriors and giant squid.

Coming from Ylva Publishing

www.ylva-publishing.com


Catalyst

Chronicles of Alsea – Book #4

Fletcher DeLancey

Captain Ekatya Serrado’s fateful decision before the Battle of Alsea has made her both a hero and a renegade. The Protectorate now requires her to prove her loyalty, first as a desk-bound spy and then on a dangerous mission. With her every move weighed by suspicion and the price of failure too high to bear, she must find new allies and solve a mystery, all while grappling with the unexpected consequences of her tyree bond.

Vellmar the Blade

© 2016 by Fletcher DeLancey

ISBN (mobi): 978-3-95533-715-5

ISBN (epub): 978-3-95533-716-2

Also available as paperback.

Published by Ylva Publishing, legal entity of Ylva Verlag, e.Kfr.

Ylva Verlag, e.Kfr.

Owner: Astrid Ohletz

Am Kirschgarten 2

65830 Kriftel

Germany

www.ylva-publishing.com

First edition: 2016

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.

Credits

Edited by Sandra Gerth

Proofread by Cheri Fuller

Cover Design & Print Layout by Streetlight Graphics



home | my bookshelf | | Vellmar The Blade |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу