Book: Uprising



Uprising




Uprising


Book Eight in the Chronicles of Alsea


Fletcher DeLancey

Heartsome Publishing











When head and heart are in conflict,

the body cannot move forward.

~ Lanaril Satran, The Book of Verity


Uprising



Contents


Acknowledgments

Map


MONSTERS WITHOUT

1. Even monsters have mothers

2. Insult and injury

3. Winning for losing

4. Selfish

5. Consequences

6. Hate and hope

7. Maneuvers

8. Space elevator

9. Dangerous love

10. High Council

11. Secrets

12. Cage of choice

MONSTERS WITHIN

13. Last resort

14. Catharsis

15. No winners

16. Conspiracy of silence

17. Sanctuary

18. Manipulation

19. On target

20. Lancer trainer

21. Without a monster

22. Forty-three percent

23. Healing

24. Bonding

25. Secret exploded

26. Not wanted

27. Mercy

28. Primitives

29. Repairs

UPRISING

30. Ten

31. Roots

32. Bondlancer's choice

33. Head of family

34. Efficient packing

35. Solace

36. Unexpected guest

37. Summer windstorm

38. Strategy

39. Explosion

40. Fallout

41. Avalanche

42. Make them pay

43. Scaling up

44. Co-conspirators

45. Vanished

46. Spies

47. Cellmates

48. Ocean of color

49. Return of the Bondlancer

50. I will not ask

51. March

52. Targets

53. Bricks and blades

54. Warrior

55. Symbols

56. Serenity Bridge

57. Tsunami

58. Suspicion

59. Uprising

60. Mindstorm

61. The last step

62. Behind closed doors

63. Aftermath

64. Twisted

65. Tallies

66. Revelations

67. Council vote

68. Valkinon

Epilogue

Glossary

About the Author

Also by Fletcher Delancey


Acknowledgments

This book has been incubating for a long time. I wrote its first chapter three and a half years ago, while writing Outcaste. Then came Resilience, progressing from birth through its release into the wild, and still Uprising wasn’t quite done.

It is epic in every sense: page count, scope of events, number of point-of-view characters, and time spent in creation. As a result, I owe thanks to quite a few people who helped me through the lengthy and demanding process.

First and foremost is my Prime Beta, Karyn Aho, who had her hands full helping me with numerous psychological journeys (of the characters, not me). There were a couple of dozen threads to track and weave, not to mention a whole basket of sometimes conflicting motivations. Karyn was a human lighthouse as I navigated that emotional landscape, making sure I didn’t crash on unseen rocks.

Rebecca Cheek provided her usual straight-talking feedback as well as offering a welcome fact check on the gardening and farming aspects of the story. She and I went through Master Gardener training together, but I will always consider her the Best in the West. It was quite a relief when she gave her stamp of approval.

Rick Taylor is my “narrative artistry” check, being an excellent weaver of words himself. He helped me avoid several pitfalls that would otherwise have marred the whole, and I’m so glad I don’t have to look back at those and cringe.

My thanks to Saskia Goedhart, who made sure I didn’t embarrass myself with the fight choreography; editor Cheri Fuller, who chased commas off the page (and who probably hates these semicolons); and Elle Hyden, who checked the finished manuscript for any escaped typos (and found one, because there’s always one).

For one chapter in particular—the launch of the space elevator cable—I really needed someone to check my work. I had done a ton of research and collated information from approximately 1.3 zillion sources, but it’s not my field. Astronomer S.N. Johnson-Roehr read that chapter and pronounced it “just fine,” which is science-speak for “considering that you invented a ton of stuff to build an imaginary space structure, it’s logical.” And that is the great joy of science fiction!

I owe special thanks to Dr. Carol Blenning, who stepped in at the last minute when my previous medical consultant had to reluctantly bow out. It is very hard for a consultant to come in blind on the eighth book of a series, but Dr. Blenning took a set of three PDFs, a few paragraphs of contextual narrative explanation, and a list of questions, and efficiently laid out all the answers. Best of all, she didn’t blink when I said I needed a life-threatening injury and could she suggest something? (Spoiler: she did.)

Through it all, my tyree was always there and always encouraging. Maria João Valente is my heart, my sounding board, my mixologist, and, more prosaically, my page layout technician. If you like the way this book looks, thank Maria.

And if you like the cover art, that’s down to Dane Low of Ebook Launch. He’s that rare artist who will do exactly what you ask, but then quietly nudge you a little bit to the left, whereupon the view suddenly looks different and one thousand percent better.

Finally: thank you to the readers who have reached out to share their experiences of these books. I never dreamed that Alsea and its inhabitants would become real to people all over the world, much less that these stories could literally change lives. For those who find hope in Alsea, know that it will always be there for you.


Uprising


MONSTERS WITHOUT

Uprising


1

Even monsters have mothers

Rax Sestak, formerly Weapons Specialist First Class, Third Pacification Fleet of the Voloth Empire, crouched by the small plant covered in delicate blue flowers and set his satchel beside it. From the satchel he produced a wide-mouthed pot and a hand spade.

With the precision he had once applied to firing mortars and missiles, he dug a line around the plant. His hand spade sank easily into the soil; there was only minor resistance from roots. Good. He had chosen the distance well and avoided unnecessary damage.

Once a complete circle was cut, he wedged in the hand spade and began levering up the soil plug. A bit of pressure here, a bit there, and the column of soil rose.

He stopped to wipe his brow. The unknown plant grew in full sun, and he was baking at the foot of this hillock. It was first spring, the annual burst of warmth unique to Blacksun Basin before the weather settled back to cooler temperatures and a more gradual shift toward summer. All over the Basin, the farmers—or producers, as the Alseans called them—had timed their plantings for this period to give their seedlings a boost of early growth. He had hoped to do the same but could find no one to sell him the seeds and starts.

Another careful application of leverage raised the soil plug enough for him to capture. He dropped the spade and cradled his prize in both hands, examining it to be sure he had not cut any important roots.

“There you are,” he said softly. “I promised I wouldn’t hurt you, didn’t I? Let’s make sure you’re protected.”

The root ball fit the pot but needed more soil to fill in the narrow space around the edges. He gathered and poured soil from his cupped hand, then used his thumbs to tamp it down.

Working more swiftly now, he scraped the surrounding soil into the hole he had dug to even it out, his father’s lessons echoing in his memory. We are stewards of the land. It provides, but only as long as we give it our care.

That was a long time ago, before Rax turned his back on the land and entered a military life, for all the good it had done him.

He brushed the hand spade clean, dropped it into his satchel, and dug out a water flask. Two deep draughts slaked his thirst. Though he wanted more, a third draught would empty the flask. He had too much military training to drink it all, even when a refill was a short skimmer ride away.

The bare patch of scraped soil was the only sign of his presence here. Satisfied, he picked up the pot with its precious inhabitant and made his way back to the skimmer.

To the south, verdant grasslands sloped down to the mighty Fahlinor River, its distant waters a shining silver ribbon in the late afternoon light. Round houses with domed roofs dotted the landscape, each far from its neighbors and centered in fields already bursting with new growth.

Across the river, the land rolled away in broad, smooth undulations, a gentle terrain suited to the peaceful race that farmed it. There were more shades of green than he had names for, punctuated by broad strips of ancient forest that guarded waterways and defined borders. Far away, at the edge of his vision, the sea of green washed up at the feet of snow-capped mountains.

Behind him were the first of the foothills that led to the Snowmount Range, the Basin’s equally mountainous northern border. East and west were still more mountains, all encircling this glorious bowl of fertile land that fed more than half the population of Alsea.

His parents would love this valley. But they would never see it, nor would they see him again.

The hum of insects lent the landscape a sleepy feel, their buzz accentuating a deep silence beneath. Though it held the largest city on Alsea, Blacksun Basin was still a place of open land and quiet sanctuaries, its palpable immensity soothing Rax’s soul. In his imagination, the Termegon Fields looked like this. Surely the mythical home of the Seeders could be no more beautiful than what lay before him now.

He was nearly to the skimmer when a low rumble disturbed the air. Louder and louder it grew, thrumming through his chest, until it spiked in a heart-stopping roar as three Alsean military transports streaked overhead. Instinct dropped him to a crouch, protecting the plant as he stared after the transports trailing thunder across the valley.

His vision wavered. Dread weighed his limbs, fear froze him in place, and he closed his eyes as the fading roar merged into a deeper, harsher sound: the motors and gyros of a pacifier, the most advanced heavy weapons platform in the Voloth Empire.

The flashback took him effortlessly.

Two curved display screens filled his vision, constantly updating with targeting data for the weapons at his fingertips. Behind him, the second weapons specialist watched the other two screens. Together they commanded complete coverage around their pacifier, raining death and destruction on their enemies. Their pilot operated the pacifier’s four jointed legs, walking the immense machine toward the city, while the engineer kept everything running smoothly. But it was Rax and his fellow weapons specialist who did the real work.

A new target appeared on his screen, and Rax spoke to the slender, blonde woman standing beside him. “Enemy or not?”

The woman could not understand his speech, nor did she need to. She consulted a portable scanner, then nodded and made a hand motion that simulated an explosion.

Rax swiftly prepped a tube and fired. With a muted thump, the missile streaked away. It took six seconds to reach its target.

In the seventh, a fireball lit up his screen.

He recognized the ID of that pacifier. His friends were in it. One was his bunkmate, the other three played with him on the zero-G netball team. He had laughed with them, drunk cheap alcohol with them, occasionally fought with them.

He had just murdered them in cold blood.

Trapped in the back of his mind, the still-free part of him howled in horror and disbelief. But the rest of him craved approval from the woman. He was desperate for it, needing it for his very survival, and when she smiled at him, his blood burned with joy. He grinned back and turned to his screens, searching for another target.

For her, he would kill them all.

A new sound gradually broke through the motors and thumping missile launches: the harsh breathing of a terrified man.

As another gasp was torn from his throat, Rax opened his eyes. He was not sitting in front of his targeting screens. He was crouched by the skimmer, still clutching the plant to his chest. Wildly he looked around, chest heaving, trying to reassure himself that what he had experienced was no longer real. There were no pacifiers here, no fireballs, no signs of war. Just the silence of a paradise, broken only by humming insects.

A paradise he had done his best to destroy.

He was a different man then, fully inculcated with the beliefs of the Voloth Empire. Obedience and service led to citizenship. Citizenship led to elevation. Elevated citizens went to the Termegon Fields when they died. It was the ultimate goal of all Voloth who hadn’t been born into citizenship: the slaves, who had no rights at all, and the hangers, whose handful of rights largely amounted to the ability to use and abuse slaves.

He had been a hanger, working toward citizenship through military service. It was the only option for a son of poor farmers unable to buy their way in, and despite the brutal training and harsh conditions, he had done well. Citizenship was in reach—until the Third Fleet was ordered to pacify a primitive planet named Alsea.

The so-called primitives had mental abilities no one could have predicted. With only their minds as weapons, they broke the back of the invasion, turned captured Voloth soldiers against their own comrades, and obliterated the assets of the Third Fleet. The two orbital invaders and four destroyers remained unharmed only because they were in space, well removed from the terrifying power of Alsean empaths. But one thousand pacifiers were either destroyed or captured, along with their four-person crews.

All four hundred aerial fighters were wiped out in the second wave of the invasion, their hullskins disintegrating in the Alsean atmosphere. They hadn’t known about the nanoscrubbers, microscopic machines teeming invisibly in the air and breaking down harmful radiation. They broke down hullskin, too, turning the Empire’s most advanced fighters into rocks that fell from the sky. Not a single pilot or gunner survived.

Never had the Voloth suffered such a total loss. Even the Protectorate, their technological equals, could not inflict that much damage. The closest thing to it had ironically occurred in the same place, when the famed and hated Captain Ekatya Serrado blew half of the Fifth Fleet to atoms while defending Alsea from the first invasion attempt.

Of the nearly five thousand soldiers who tried to pacify Alsea, only four hundred and forty-six survived. More than half of those couldn’t even be called survivors. The horrifying mind-rape had shattered them, leaving behind trembling husks with no coherent thought, just an unending loop of terror. The Voloth Empire evacuated thirty before realizing how useless they were as soldiers. It promptly turned its back on the rest.

Excluding the broken, insane shells, one hundred and seventy-two Voloth soldiers lived through that battle. Nineteen opted to return to the Empire. The others, like Rax, knew that nothing good awaited them back home. Soldiers who killed their own would not escape punishment. They had whispered amongst themselves of medical experimentation, because the Empire would want to see how their brains had been affected by the mind-rape the Alseans called empathic force.

In desperation, they begged for sanctuary from the people they had tried to annihilate and thought it a great victory when their request was granted.

After twenty moons of living under a constant cloud of hatred, Rax sometimes wondered if going home might have been easier.

With a shaking hand, he set the plant on the ground, then pulled out his water flask and tipped it back. There was no use in conserving now, not when he could barely breathe without coughing. Flashbacks always left him sweaty and weak, but the dry throat was the worst. Soothing it, he had learned, was the fastest way to evaporate the last wisps of horror.

He was reaching for the plant when a flicker of motion caught his eye. A fairy fly floated toward him, its broad, transparent wings reflecting the sun as it homed in on its next meal.

Fairy flies were common in Blacksun Basin, but their mastery of camouflage made them a rare sight. Their wings could only be seen when the light hit them at the perfect angle, and their bodies were the same color as the dirt that stained his fingers.

The fairy fly fluttered around his plant, between the outstretched hands he did not dare to move. Gracefully, it settled on one of the blue flowers and folded its wings.

Its nondescript brown body rippled into color. Blue, green, and charcoal gray perfectly matched the flowers, foliage, and shadows of the plant. Four feathery dippers slid out of its body and began sampling the nectar of several flowers at once. These too rippled with colors, mimicking whatever they passed over with eerie precision. The effect was to render the fairy fly invisible. Had he not watched it land, he would never have noticed it.

Until now, he had only seen images of this notoriously skittish creature. Surely its presence here, between his hands, was a sign that his soul could be salvaged.

His arms grew tired, but he remained motionless as the fairy fly walked over and touched every flower on the plant. At last it retracted its dippers, shook out its wings, and let out a shockingly loud buzz that nearly sent Rax over backward. A second call vibrated his ears, and the fairy fly rose into the air on its delicate wings.

Watching it float away, Rax lowered his aching arms and chuckled. “How do you make a sound like that with such a tiny body?”

The fairy fly vanished. From one blink to the next, he had lost sight of it.

“Be well, my friend,” he said. “And thank you.”

Uprising

Forty ticks later, Rax pulled his skimmer into the grassy lot in front of a plant and seed store. There were no other customers this time of day, exactly as he had hoped.

An Alsean man stood behind the front counter, eyes narrowed as he watched Rax approach with the plant. Though his age, work-hardened body, and silver hair were reminiscent of Rax’s father, his expression was not.

“We don’t serve your kind here,” he said.

Rax set the pot in front of him. “I’ve heard that from every plant and seed store in the Basin.”

“For good reason. Invader!”

He had a right to his hatred. That did not make it easier to bear, particularly so soon after a flashback.

“My name is Rax Sestak. I’m the son of two producers. I love growing things, just like you, but I can’t ever go home again. We have—”

“That’s your own fault. I’m supposed to feel sorry for you? My niece died in that battle. She was thirty-four cycles old and left three children at home. Her bondmate is the only parent they have now.”

Rax bowed his head. “I’m sorry for your loss. I mean it. If you want skin contact, you can feel for yourself.”

The man’s hands slid off the counter as he drew back. “I will never touch the likes of you.”

He always hoped he could reach them. Once in a great while, someone would listen long enough for him to apologize and express his regret. With their sensitivity to emotion, easily amplified through skin contact, even low empath Alseans could feel for themselves that he was sincere.

But to get that far, they had to listen. Very few did.

With a sigh, he picked up his plant and turned. “Thank you for your time.”

“Wait,” said another voice.

A well-muscled woman was stripping off a pair of stained work gloves as she strode into the shop from a side entrance. The closing door behind her revealed a brief view of the attached glasshouse.

“Not that I’ve any better opinion of your barbarian kind than my bondmate,” she said, “but I’m curious. Why are you carrying a silver everlasting?”

Rax looked at the plant in his hands. “Is that what it’s called?”

“You didn’t know?” She stopped in front of him.

“No, that’s why I brought it. I was hoping someone here could identify it and tell me how to take care of it. I found it in a field and—” He swallowed. “It reminds me of my mother’s favorite flower.”

She studied him from beneath dark eyebrows, which accentuated the ridges that drew a graceful fan shape across her forehead. One went from the bridge of her nose straight up into her hairline; the other two arched across to either temple. A pair of cheekbone ridges completed the facial set. It was one of the most jarring physical differences between Alseans and Voloth—and everyone else in the galaxy, for that matter. Voloth and Protectorate peoples were all from the same genetic stock, but the Alseans had something else mixed in.

“Hard to imagine you having a mother,” said the man behind the counter.

“Galor.” The woman spoke in a remonstrating tone. “You can feel it, surely.”

“Didn’t say I couldn’t feel it. Said it was hard to imagine.”

Rax turned to him. “I pray to Fahla every day to forgive me.”

He scoffed. “And does she? I heard you targeted our temples especially. She’s more forgiving than I thought if she can overlook that.”

“I don’t know. She’s never given me a sign. But I thought . . .” Rax lifted the little plant. “I thought maybe, when I saw this yesterday, that it was a sign of sorts. Mother’s flower was called meadow march, because it marches through the meadows in early spring. She used to go out and gather handfuls, and put them in little vases, and she’d keep one in the kitchen and put one in—” He took a shuddering breath. “In my room, on top of my bureau. Because producers should appreciate even the things we don’t grow, she said. But I didn’t learn, because I joined the military instead, and now I found this . . .”

Overcome by the memories and a deep longing for his mother’s voice, he stopped speaking. The flashback had left him too shaken. He shouldn’t have come here.

“Great Goddess above,” Galor said. “You miss your mother?”

His incredulity cut Rax to the bone.

“Even monsters have mothers,” he whispered.

“You don’t feel like a monster,” the woman said, still studying him. “You feel like a lost traveler.”

Rax tried not to hope too hard. “I’ll never see meadow march again. But this looks like it. I only want to know how to take care of it. Please, can’t you tell me? How much water does it need, how long will it bloom, when should I prune it? Will it even grow in a pot? Or should I put it back where I found it?”

She dropped her gaze to the plant, then pursed her lips and nodded. “It’ll grow. And it’ll bloom all spring. When the blooms fade, they turn silver, but they don’t fall off. They’ll stay on the stems through summer and autumn and only come off in winter. That’s why it’s called silver everlasting.”

The tiny gesture of kindness nearly undid him. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, I don’t want it. But anyone can feel what that plant means to you, so don’t let it die. They don’t like too much water. Let it dry out between waterings, and for the love of Fahla, don’t put it in the shade. It needs sun.”

“I know that from where I found it.” Rax cradled the pot. “And I don’t know what to say if you don’t want my thanks.”

“Is that really why you came here?” Galor asked. “Just to ask about that?”

“There’s another reason,” he admitted. “But you already said you won’t serve me.”

“What did you need?” the woman asked brusquely.

“Uh . . . seeds and starts for a kitchen garden. We’re trying to feed ourselves instead of relying on the government. Some of us are producers, and we’re working on a garden big enough for the settlement. But we can’t get a supplier.”

“Why don’t you ask the government?”

He didn’t know how to explain the realization they were all experiencing: that keeping to themselves was no longer enough.

“We’re trying to reach out. Be part of the community.”

Galor snorted in disgust. “You’ll have better luck teaching a dokker to sing.”

“Why now?” the woman asked. “It’s been a cycle and a half.”

“We were building New Haven, but it’s done. And there are only a hundred and fifty of us.”

“Got tired of your own company,” Galor observed.

“If we can’t go anywhere else, talk to anyone else, we’re just in prison.”

“Which is where you should be!”

He wondered if casual hatred would ever not hurt. “Do you know how many of us survived? Three and a half percent. Fahla saved her temples and she saved Alsea; she could have disposed of us all. But she didn’t. I don’t think she let us survive so we could spend the rest of our lives in a prison we built with our own hands. There has to be more.”

In the silence, he heard a hum followed by the sound of spraying water. It sounded like an automated irrigation system out in the glasshouse.

“That’s a lot of fine theology for someone who just wants seeds and starts,” the woman said. “But I’ll tell you what. You have the cinteks, we’ll sell you what you need.”

“Belsara!”

“You don’t have to,” Belsara told her bondmate. “You can check that sticky dripline in the glasshouse. I’ll take care of this.”

With a potent glare at Rax, Galor steamed out to the glasshouse and slid the door shut with more force than necessary.

“Don’t ever think you can apologize enough for what you did,” Belsara said firmly. “But you might be right about Fahla. So let’s get you what you need to start a garden.”




2

Insult and injury

Prime Builder Anjuli Eroles was a perfectly average mid empath. Her empathic strength lay at the precise midpoint of the scale, putting her with the majority of Alseans who needed close proximity to sense emotions. But when Chief Kameha approached her office, she could sense him before he reached her door. Like all Gaians, he was sonsales, unable to sense or front emotions, and broadcast his feelings like a broken water main that could never be repaired.

The water main was gushing down the corridor outside her office right now. She walked to the door and waited for her favorite part: opening it before he knocked. It was a trick that only high empaths could normally play, and she never tired of it.

Sure enough, Kameha’s hand was hovering in the air when she swung the door open. “Well met, Chief,” she said with a wide smile.

He shook his head, amused tolerance wafting off his skin. “Someday the fun of that will wear off.”

“We’ll both be retired by then.” She touched his palm in greeting, then stepped aside and gestured for him to enter.

He walked by on stubby legs, the top of his head barely coming to the level of her chest. Kameha came from a high-gravity planet and was typical of his people, but his height had brought him unwanted attention in the Protectorate Fleet. He once told Anjuli that the best thing about working on Alsea was that people stared at him because he was an alien, not because he was short. When she pointed out that they would stare at him less if he removed his eye-popping facial hair, which no Alseans possessed, he had laughed and grown that monstrosity even longer.

Kameha was her treasure, the Gaian engineer who, with the rest of a skeleton crew, had crash-landed his giant ship on Alsea before the Voloth invasion. When the rest of his crew returned home, he remained, working as her Chief of Advanced Technology. With his wealth of knowledge from the more technologically advanced Protectorate, he had moved them from a planet-bound culture to one that was stepping into the stars. The first component of their space elevator—the cable that was the basis for everything else—would launch next nineday.

They settled in at her drafting table, rolled out the blueprints and checklists, and spent a happy half hantick discussing the work that had been completed since their last meeting.

“The final batch was delivered yesterday,” he said, leaning back in the combination stepladder-chair she had designed for him. “We’re officially ready.”

“That’s it, then?” she asked. “We’re truly on time for the launch? No last-tick disasters or unexpected supply delays? The port platform hasn’t sprung a leak?”

“Shocking, isn’t it? I built in a shipload of extra time to account for all the delays I expected. They never materialized.”

“Yes, they did.”

“Fine, a few did,” he conceded. “But you have no idea what I’m used to. The Protectorate Fleet is an entire government on its own. That bureaucracy could fill this galaxy, and the number of ways things can go wrong or get lost? Infinite. You Alseans are paragons of efficiency by comparison.”

“Bureaucracy is a gas,” Anjuli said. “Release it, and it will expand to occupy any volume, no matter how large.”

He laughed. “True words. Which is why it should never be released.”

She rested an elbow on the table and leaned her head against her fist, the motion making several of her bracelets chime together. “It is such a pleasure to work with you, Chief. I don’t know if I say it often enough.”

“You do.” The skin above his beard turned pink, though she would hardly have needed the visual cue to sense his bright embarrassment and warm pleasure. “I never feel like I’m laboring in obscurity. I’d do this work anyway, but it sure is nice to get the recognition for it.”

“The first alien to work on Alsea was never going to labor in obscurity. You were a celebrity before you even accepted the job.”

“Nah, that was Captain Serrado,” he said easily. “And Lhyn Rivers. They have the star power. They can keep it. I don’t have time for speeches and interviews and all that.”

“Then you don’t mind that Dr. Rivers jumped in front of you and took the first Alsean citizenship?”

The light tone of voice belied her fury. Anjuli had worked night and day to convince the other five caste Primes and then the full Council that Alsean citizenship should be offered to aliens who performed special services for them. She had done it for this man, only to see her prize snatched away at the finish line by none other than Lancer Tal, leader of the Alsean government and pain in her backside.

It hadn’t always been that way. Lancer Tal had once been her best ally. She not only convinced Kameha to stay on Alsea, but also nudged him toward the builder caste despite the scholars wanting him as well. She gave the builders priority access to the alien ship’s advanced matter printers for the reconstruction effort. She even attended the grand reopening of the Whitesun builder caste house as Anjuli’s guest.

Then Prime Warrior Shantu inexplicably attempted to seize power by challenging Lancer Tal to an ancient ritual combat. Anjuli had watched that combat with her heart in her mouth, knowing that she would lose no matter who won. On one side was an irreplaceable ally, on the other her secret lover—and it was a fight to the death.

She never learned why Shantu chose such a terrible plan. She never had the chance to ask, because Lancer Tal rammed a sword through his chest in front of the full Council, an overflowing guest gallery, and every Alsean watching the live broadcast.

Anjuli’s special relationship with her died by that same sword thrust. She could not swallow her loss or her rage, but if Lancer Tal noticed, she didn’t care.

Taking away her citizenship prize had added bitter poison to a festering injury.

“I don’t mind.” Chief Kameha’s voice brought her back to the present. “I know Lhyn. She deserved that award. She paid the highest price imaginable for it.”

“I don’t deny her courage in withstanding torture for the sake of Alsea,” Anjuli said. “But I created that citizenship path for you. You should have taken the first one. I would have been delighted to give her the second.”

He stroked his startling facial hair, discomfort crinkling the air around him. “I’m glad she had the first,” he said carefully. “I know you wanted that for me, but it meant more to her.”

It was easy to sense that he was telling the truth, so she changed tactics and lied through her teeth. “Then I’m pleased it went to Dr. Rivers first. It worked out the way it was meant to.”

“It did.” Relief poured off his skin. “I’m glad you’re not upset about it. Lhyn would be hurt if she thought there was any rancor about her award.”

“Then we shall speak of it no more.” Anjuli smoothly directed their conversation to a review of the pre-launch checklist, and Kameha dove in with enthusiasm. At the end of their meeting, she waved him out with a smile on her face.

It dropped the moment the door shut.

Kameha was a good man, but he was an engineer, not a politician. He didn’t understand that Lancer Tal had insulted both of them. If Anjuli wanted to preserve the power of her title, she could not let this stand.


3

Winning for losing

“What ya think, Governor?” Vagron crossed his arms over his broad chest as he surveyed the neat rows of plants in the field behind the communal dining hall. “Looking good for two ninedays of growth, eh? And did ya see the saltgrass seedlings? They’re a hand high already. Damn, this soil is rich.”

Rax tried to dust the dirt off his hands, gave up, and wiped them on his trousers. “Don’t call me Governor.”

“Good thing you’re na my commanding officer.” Vagron bumped Rax’s shoulder. “I can call ya anything I want. And ya are the governor. I don’t see why you’re so fussy about it.”

“I’m the elected leader of a village of one hundred and fifty-three people. That doesn’t make me a governor. A headman, maybe.”

“Village elder?” Vagron laughed and jumped away as Rax swatted at him. “Eh, forgot you’re sensitive about the age thing. Village younger?”

“Shut it. Come on, we need to clean up if we want to get there on time.”

“Still don’t think that was a good idea,” Vagron said as they turned toward the simple house they shared. “The Alseans won’t like it if he wins.”

If he wins, probably not. But in the meantime, they’ll see one of us competing in their Global Games like a regular, normal Gaian.”

“They don’t think we’re Gaians. We’re Voloth and always will be.”

He was right. The Voloth only called themselves that after splitting from the Protectorate to form their own empire. In truth, citizens of both major powers were Gaians, but the Alseans could not grasp that their enemies and allies were the same species. It burned Rax to see Captain Serrado called “the Gaian who saved Alsea,” while he and his fellow survivors were always “the Voloth invaders.” They were Gaians, too, and they had invaded nothing in the past cycle and a half. But he was beginning to think that a lifetime of quiet living would never erase that label.

Perhaps it was time to stop living so quietly.

“Right,” he said. “And that’s why he’s competing.”

Uprising

“And they’re around the last turn!” The announcer’s voice boomed over the packed sporting stands. “Jeslen is still holding them off. Can she keep her lead down the final two hundred? Oh, there’s a burst from the pack; they’re not going to make it easy for her!”

Anjuli was on her feet along with fifty thousand Alseans, eagerly watching the action on the field. Attendance at the annual Global Games was mandatory for the caste Primes, an obligation she sometimes found onerous. Six days took an enormous bite out of her schedule, and who cared about events such as wrestling or hand-to-hand sparring? At least the knife throwing had been entertaining, with the Lancer’s Lead Guard competing fiercely against her birthmother and taking four medals before losing the championship with a spectacular sword throw.

But watching this young builder destroy her competition in the two-thousand-stride footrace? Anjuli would have traveled half the globe for this. The best part was that the race would finish right in front of her. There were some advantages to being a Prime.

“Kinis is giving it everything she has. She’s closing the gap . . . she’s closing . . . Jeslen might be in trouble!”

She held her breath. Kinis was in the merchant caste, and though she had nothing against the merchants these days, she didn’t want one to win this race.

“Oh, look at that burst of speed! Where did Jeslen pull that from? She’s brushing them off, she’s going to run straight into the stands . . . and she’s done it! Jeslin takes the red medal for the second cycle in a row and sets a new record!”

Caste Primes did not scream at sporting events, but Anjuli couldn’t hold it back. She jumped up and down, her voice lost among fifty thousand others. Directly below her, on a track crowded with competitors arriving at the finish line, Jeslen leaned over her thighs and gasped for air. Then she straightened and beamed a grin that could have powered Blacksun on a cloudy day.

As the announcer called out the names of the blue and gold medal winners, Jeslen jogged up to the base of the seat risers, where an older man with a matching grin reached for her. They met in a double palm touch and rested their foreheads together, a familial scene made public when hovering vidcams sent it to the enormous holograms at each end of the field.

“That’s birthfather and daughter, celebrating together,” the announcer said. “Jeslen’s bondfather went to his Return in the Battle of Alsea, but he ran this race with her. The dark blue armband you see on Jeslen’s right arm is her homage to him. She has worn it in every race she’s run since the invasion.”

Jeslen stepped back from her birthfather, pointed to the sky with her right hand, and tapped the armband with her left. The crowd roared as she spun in a slow circle. Then she jogged over and stopped directly beneath Anjuli, who leaned over the rail and offered her palm.

“Well done, very well done! Your fathers must be so proud, both of them. I know your bondfather was watching, too.”

The young woman’s palm was hot, and her heightened emotions poured through their skin contact. “Thank you, Prime Builder. I really wanted to win this for Ba.”

“And so you did. It was a joy to watch you. Such a fantastic finish!”

In her peripheral vision, she noted that their exchange was up on the holograms. They made quite a contrast in appearances: her black skin and tightly curled hair against Jeslen’s light brown skin and straight hair, her brilliantly patterned formal clothing against Jeslen’s black running tights and sleeveless white shirt. Jeslen had the body of a winden, all long limbs and sinewy muscle, while Anjuli was more plush.

She pulled the caste pin from the collar of her dress and held it out. “Please take this in thanks for the pleasure you’ve given us this day, and the glory you’ve brought to our caste.”

Jeslen made a quiet sound of surprise as she accepted the jeweled pin. It was surfaced with a light blue enamel, the color of their caste, and bore their emblem of a geodesic dome. Five precious stones set beneath the dome symbolized the other five castes and their dependence on the builders for infrastructure and technology.

“Are these starflowers?” Jeslen asked, staring at the gems.

“They are. A worthy gift for a worthy competitor. Your fathers aren’t the only ones who are proud of you.”

“Prime Builder, thank you. I’ll treasure this.”

Holding up her palm for a farewell touch, Anjuli said, “Bad memories are easy to recall, but sometimes we need a little help with the good ones. Let that help you.”

“I will.” Jeslen’s awe and gratitude, as well as a deep, abiding grief, came through her palm before she bowed her head and jogged away.

Anjuli climbed the steps back to the dignitary section. It was another advantage to being a Prime: the wide, padded seats and food bar, not to mention the premium location for seeing all the action.

The other five Primes were here, along with the Lancer and Bondlancer, Blacksun’s Lead Templar, and—for the first time in Alsean history—three aliens. Captain Ekatya Serrado was seated to the left of Lancer Tal, Dr. Lhyn Rivers was next to her, and behind them was Ambassador Solvassen. Chief Kameha had declined his invitation, citing a need to wrap up preparations for the cable launch.

Anjuli paused in front of Dr. Rivers, who was broadcasting her high spirits with the typical abandon of a Gaian. “I don’t think there’s been a single event you haven’t enjoyed,” she observed. “Either you’re an enormous sports fan, or you have nothing like this on your home world.”

“We do.” Dr. Rivers had the same sort of long-limbed, thin body as Jeslen, but she was far taller, pale-skinned, and had large green eyes that dominated her smooth face. “But your Global Games are much more interesting.”

“Are you taking notes?”

“Lhyn’s always taking notes,” Captain Serrado said. “Mentally if not literally.”

“Mostly literally,” Lancer Tal put in.

“Quiet over there, I’m researching.” Dr. Rivers loftily waved her hand at them before focusing her attention on Anjuli. “This is the first time you’ve given something to a competitor. May I ask what made Jeslen different?”

“Certainly. She runs not for her own recognition but for her bondfather’s memory. I thought she deserved an award for the sweat, tears, and time she’s spent on her goal. Awards mean more when they’re earned, don’t you think? And when they come from the person who had you in mind for them.”

The pleasure Dr. Rivers had been radiating abruptly faded. “Are we still talking about the Games?”

Lancer Tal shot up from her seat. “May I see you at the food table, Prime Builder?”

It was not a request. Anjuli followed her, ready for battle.

At the back wall of the dignitary section, Lancer Tal turned around and pinned her with a glare. “If you have an issue with me, talk to me. Don’t redirect your anger to an innocent woman who has no idea why you would be that cruel!”

“Does she have any idea that she’s a game piece in your political manipulations? You’re the one who put her in that position!”

“Have you bothered to read why I gave her that award?”

“Of course I have, and she deserves citizenship. But you and I both know she would have been equally happy to have the second one. You took that from me in a power play, and you think I’ll lie back and accept the insult? I spent half a cycle on that. You pranced in at the last piptick and stole it!”

“I did no such thing,” Lancer Tal snapped.

For the always controlled Lancer to be visibly angry meant Anjuli’s blade had not only slipped in, it had gone deeper than she expected. Her glee at such success was tempered by a slight concern about what she might have awakened.

“Then what would you call it?” she retorted. “Borrowing? You can’t give it back.”

“I’d call it using my executive powers to do what I thought was best at the time, which is my job. Not yours! I knew you’d be upset, but who are those awards for? Us, or the people we give them to?”

“They are—”

“I’m not finished! Chief Kameha was happy to see it go to her. The only person feeling insulted is you. Do you know what that tells me? It tells me you didn’t create that award for services rendered. You created it for self-aggrandizement. You wanted another feather for your oh-so-colorful cape.”

“How dare you!”

Lancer Tal stepped closer, radiating so much power despite her smaller stature that Anjuli felt intimidated.

“Do not start this fight with me, Prime Builder. I’ve tolerated your insubordination until now, but you have just found my limit. Dr. Rivers is special to me. If you ever go near her again with anything but the most open hands of friendship, I will make you regret it. Do you understand me?”

The crowd gave a sudden roar, jeering and shouting in such a wave of anger that it drowned out the announcer’s attempt to introduce the next competitors.

“You’ll want to get back to your seat for this,” Anjuli said with an insincere smile. “Your pet Voloth is about to start the sniper competition. Such terrible timing, too. Right after Jeslen won a race for her dead bondfather and was recognized by her caste Prime.”

Lancer Tal drew back. “Tell me you didn’t do that just to make this more difficult.”

“That would be an insult to Jeslen. But as you’ve so ably demonstrated, gestures of recognition can have multiple purposes. Enjoy the afternoon, Lancer Tal. I’ll be watching this disaster from somewhere else.”

In the height of rudeness, she did not wait for dismissal before turning her back and walking away.

Uprising

“This is not good,” Vagron said.

“No, it’s not.” Rax chewed his bottom lip as the stands thundered with fury. “Seeders, that was bad timing.”

“That was the worst timing,” Vagron corrected. “The most inspirational Alsean in the whole Global Games wins a race for her dead father, and two ticks later Geelish goes out there with a sniper rifle? For all we know, one of us killed that girl’s father. Ya know they think so.” He swept his hand outward, indicating the Alseans shouting and shaking their fists. Though most sat in stony silence, the others were loud enough to make the hatred seem universal.

“We need to send someone onto the field,” Rax said. “Tell Geelish to throw the competition. It’s enough that he got into the finals.”

Twenty of them were sitting together, finding safety in numbers. He was sorry he hadn’t brought fifty.

“Na possible. We can’t get on the field now.”

“Maybe Geelish will figure it out for himself.”

Vagron gave him a look of disbelief. “Geelish? My boots have more brains.”

“Shit,” Rax mumbled.

“We’ll have ta hope the big lump loses.”

“He’s not going to lose.” Rax was certain of it. This whole scheme was going straight to the sewer on a greased rail, and he could do nothing to stop it. “Why couldn’t we have had a runner? Or a wrestler?”

“Because the Fifth Fleet didn’t want runners or wrestlers. It wanted good shooters.”

“Shit,” Rax repeated.

He wished that his petition for the right to compete in the Games had never gotten off the ground. Instead, it had gone all the way to the High Council. As with any official matter requiring a vote, the outcome had been made public. The Prime Warrior, Prime Scholar, and Prime Builder had voted no.

Rax hadn’t been surprised. After all, it was the warriors and the high empath scholars who had fought in the Battle of Alsea, and the builders who had rebuilt afterward.

The Prime Producer, Prime Crafter, and Prime Merchant had voted yes. That left Lancer Tal as the tiebreaker. Citing the need for mutual healing, she had approved the petition.

He had wondered at the time if she acted out of guilt because it was his name on the petition. She had personally turned him during the battle, imposing her will over his and condemning him to a lifetime of nightmares. The balls of flame were permanently seared onto the insides of his eyelids.

Still, he counted himself fortunate. When the battle ended and Lancer Tal had no more need of him, she had the skill to release her mental hold. Many of the settlers were never released, their turning a brutal, permanent mindwipe by unskilled empaths. They no longer cared about lovers, spouses, or even their children. Their love was reserved for the Alseans who had turned them, leaving them not only traumatized but also brokenhearted. At the end of the battle, they were abandoned.

In a tactic borne of wretchedness and despair, the surviving Voloth had leveraged Rax’s connection with Lancer Tal. He was the one to ask her for sanctuary. He had been their voice ever since, and his latest plea had been for this: a chance to prove that they were not monsters and could compete in the purest spirit of sport.

He bitterly regretted his success now.

They watched in increasing dread as Geelish hit every target dead center. The Alseans did their best to encourage the other competitors, shaking the stands every time one of them stepped up to the line, but it wasn’t enough.

When Geelish made his last shot to clinch the red medal, a half-eaten salterin came flying into Rax’s lap. He jumped as the pastry’s still-warm filling splattered across his trousers.

“Time ta go,” Vagron said.

“True words.” Rax hardly noticed that he had used an Alsean phrase as he stood up and shook off the leftover food. “Come on,” he called to the others. “We’re leaving.”

“Before he gets his medal?” someone asked.

A water flask flew into their group, then another salterin.

No one asked any more questions.

Their attempt at a dignified retreat was thwarted by the amount of food flying through the air. None caused injury, but the humiliation factor was high, especially when Rax realized that the melee was being shown on the giant field holograms.

By the time they reached an aisle leading to one of the tunnels out of the stands, eight City Guards were waiting. They shouted for calm as they formed a ring around the settlers, then hustled them into the relative quiet and safety of the tunnel. Once out of range of the missiles, their pace slowed, but they stayed with the settlers all the way through the tunnel, down the stairs, and out to the park behind the stands.

“Keep going,” one of them said when Rax tried to stop. “Our orders are to take you to the magtran station and get you out of here.”

“For your own safety,” another added.

“But we need to wait for Geelish—”

“He’ll get an escort back after the medal ceremony.”

Rax sighed. “Thank you for the escort. For us and him.”

“Don’t thank us. We’re following orders.”

He didn’t need to be an empath to see how little enthusiasm they had for those orders. But if there was one thing he appreciated about Alsean warriors, it was their caste value of honor.

A capsule was being held for them in the magtran station, and the Alseans who had tried to board were none too pleased to see twenty Voloth being given priority instead. Several called out epithets that made Rax’s ears burn as he walked past them, refusing to look.

“Damn stupid idea that was,” a Guard grumbled when the capsule pulled out of the station.

Rax stared at the Blacksun skyline, an impressive view from the elevated magtran tube. He had hoped for so much more this afternoon. Even their worst expectations had not involved several thousand booing Alseans, a blizzard of thrown food, and a warrior escort as they were ejected.

“Would have been fine if the grainbird had lost,” another City Guard said. She looked over at Rax. “You thought you could win and nobody would care?”

“No,” he said tiredly. “I thought we could compete and show that we’re trying to fit in.”

She shook her head, her opinion silently clear.

The City Guards rode with them all the way across the city, then over the tops of the gargantuan trees of the eastern forest and up the hill to the final stop at Blacksun Base. It was ironic, Rax supposed, that he and his comrades were safest while surrounded by Alsean warriors on a military base.

They picked up their skimmers and drove back to New Haven. The mood when they arrived was somber indeed, though a few of the stupider soldiers were celebrating Geelish’s win. They quieted down upon seeing the stained and bespattered condition of the new arrivals.

“It was a good idea,” Rax told the group. “But the Seeders weren’t with us today. We’ll just have to keep trying.”

“That was a pathetic speech,” Vagron said as they walked toward their little house.

“That was all I had in me.” He stopped at the edge of the new garden. “But look at this. See, this gives me hope. Change can come if we’re patient.”

“Ya know,” Vagron said as he looked over the orderly rows of green, “days like today, I understand why my parents were farmers.”

Rax squatted down, picked up a handful of freshly tilled soil, and rubbed it between his fingers. “Me too.”


4

Selfish

“You did what? Anjuli . . .”

Irin’s disbelief and disappointment jangled on Anjuli’s senses. After thirty-four cycles, she and her bondmate were attuned to each other’s emotions. At the moment, she wished he were a little more opaque.

“I could not let that insult stand.” She poured a glass of grain spirits at the sideboard of their expansive sitting room. “You don’t know what she’s like, Irin. That woman lives and breathes power and manipulation.”

“You didn’t seem to mind it before. I remember you singing her praises not too long ago.”

“That was then.” She took a sip and rolled the spirits in her mouth. It was a pleasant burn.

“Bana.” He spoke the endearment in his most reasonable tone. “You picked a fight with the Lancer and started a riot. That seems a little excessive for a bit of piqued pride.”

“I did not start a riot. I was halfway home by then.”

His patient look made her itch. “Fool others if you will, but don’t try to fool me.”

When she made no answer but to stare into the golden depths of her glass, he sighed and pushed himself out of his chair. It was angled forward, giving him easier egress, and a hand-carved wooden clip at each side held the canes he needed to walk.

They had been playmates as children, friends during their training and apprenticeships, and lovers after that. She had never imagined anyone else as her bondmate and still could not, despite the burden of his disease. It ate away at his lower musculature, and though it could be slowed, it could not be stopped.

The disease had been part of their lives for almost as long as they had been bonded, and she knew not to offer assistance unless asked. But she could help in other ways. Every time she watched him slide with such ease from the chair she had designed and built, she wondered if Fahla had made her a builder for this reason. Her designs for their furniture, their house, and Irin’s workplace had become globally recognized, changing the lives of all Alseans with mobility limitations.

In time, her work brought her to the attention of powerful caste leaders who eventually set her on the path to Prime. Now she was collaborating with an alien to build their first space elevator and send her people to the stars.

She owed it all to this gentle man crossing the room with the aid of two canes, his eyes never leaving hers.

“I have always loved your fire,” he said when he reached her. “It set you apart when we were children and it sets you apart now. That fire pushed our caste to rebuild faster than we believed possible, and now it’s pushing us into the stars. But sometimes it burns things it shouldn’t. I know she killed your friend. But he didn’t give her a choice, and you have to stop punishing her for it. I fear for you and our caste if you don’t.”

“I’m not punishing—” She stopped at his look. “Is that truly what you think? This wasn’t about Shantu, it was about her stealing my work!”

“What did she steal? Chief Kameha is an Alsean citizen. She didn’t take that from him.”

“He should have been the first!”

“But he doesn’t care.”

She could still hear Lancer Tal’s voice, dripping with contempt, telling her that she had done all that work not for Kameha but for herself.



“Do you think I’m selfish?” she asked.

He tilted his face toward her, a silent cue, and she leaned down so he could kiss her. They rested their foreheads together, ridges intermeshing in a way that gave comfort to both.

“If you were selfish,” he said, “I would not be bonded to you.”

“Because you’d have left me.”

“No, Bana. Because you would have left me.”


5

Consequences

Rax bolted upright, gasping for air, the searing orange of the flames still burning in his mind’s eye. The details of the nightmare were already slipping away, but his heart raced and the sweat trickled down his chest.

Then he woke fully and realized that the orange light was still there, staining the walls of their shared bedroom in an eerie echo of his dream.

He threw the covers aside, took one look out the window, and ran for his clothing. “Vagron! Wake up!”

As he scrambled to dress, Vagron stirred in the other bed.

“It’s the middle of the damn night,” he muttered. “Go back ta sleep.”

“Get up! The dining hall is on fire!”

Vagron bolted upright. “What the—” He leaped from the bed and dashed to the window. “Shit!”

Less than a tick later, they were pelting down the brick path that led between two rows of dark houses to the center of their village. Each tiny house held a living area, kitchen, single shared bedroom, and full bath. For soldiers accustomed to living four to a bunk room, they were palatial. Right now, Rax wished there weren’t so damned many of them. The dining hall seemed like it was fifty kilometers away.

When they arrived, a curtain of flames had already engulfed the back wall and was licking at the roof. The loud crackling raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

“I’ll get the bell,” Vagron called as he sped toward the back deck.

“I’ll get the water. Be careful!” Rax shouted. The deck wasn’t yet on fire, but those flames were too close for comfort.

At meal times, the large bell suspended above the deck railing sounded sonorous and lazy, its deep notes pealing through the village in a slow rhythm. Now it rang a furious tempo, loud and chaotic.

Lights began appearing in the houses.

The fountain in the courtyard at the center of the communal buildings was a brilliant idea, drafted by one of their engineers and built by several others who had experience with plumbing and bricklaying. In addition to providing a gathering point and a place of restful beauty, it hid the hose and extra-wide standpipe they had installed for emergencies.

Rax opened the door beneath the fountain, dropped into the crawl space, and slammed down the firehose lever. With a quiet hum, the compartment holding the folded firehose swung out from the wall, lowered into a horizontal position, and lifted itself through the opening. Rax climbed out after it. He was pulling the nozzle toward the dining hall when the first settlers arrived.

“Take it around back!” He shoved it into the hands of the closest settler. “I’ll get the valve. Hit the button when you’re ready.”

Several of them got to work, helping to haul the hose around the still-dark front of the dining hall. Rax went back under the fountain and waited.

A green light blinked on beside the valve. He rotated the hand crank, listening to the splash of the fountain slow, then shut off altogether. All water was now diverted to the hose.

People were running in from all directions when he climbed out a second time, and a crowd had already gathered to watch the water being sprayed over the flames. The crackle was joined by furious hissing as fire and water fought for dominance, smoke rising from one and steam from the other.

Though the fire was vanquished in less than thirty ticks, the remainder of the night buzzed with noise and activity. Emergency response skimmers arrived from Blacksun Base to take over the firefighting and make sure the last sparks were out, the base investigators came in their own skimmer to examine the scene, and the settlers all pitched in to pull burned wood away from the building and save what they could of the interior. By the time the sun illuminated the still-smoking scene, Rax’s exhaustion rivaled that of his first days of military training.

He was wiping the soot off his face with the bottom of his shirt when one of the base investigators appeared in front of him with a sensor device in her hand.

“Bad news,” she said. “That whole wall was splashed with accelerant. The fire started there, not inside. This wasn’t an accident.”

He shook his head. “I wish I could say I was surprised.”

“I wish I could, too.” She hesitated, then looked him in the eye. “I don’t approve of revenge tactics like this. But you should have known better than to send one of your soldiers to take a red medal in the sniper competition. You’ve thrown a stone into a wasp nest.”

“I know. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”

Her expression said yes, that was as stupid as it sounded. “I’ll report my findings to the State House as soon as it opens. The Council will need to know.”

As she walked away, he dropped his head back and gazed up into the rosy dawn sky. The usual rich scent of dew-laden grasses and moist soil was overpowered by the stench of burned wood and fabrics.

He did not want that investigator to make her report. Getting the Council involved meant that Lancer Tal would hear about it.

When he was first named spokesperson, she had given him a wristcom programmed with her personal com code and instructed him to call if the situation warranted. He took pride in never using that code. The last thing he or any of them wanted was to feel dependent.

Now the Council would probably vote to call in warriors from Blacksun Base for the next nineday or two. He would have to submit a proposal for his people to stand guard instead. Limited as they were by their no-harm empathic directive, they would still need warriors to catch and detain any trespassers, but at least they could act as their own eyes and ears.

With a sigh, he turned toward home—and stopped dead when he saw the garden.

All night long, they had focused on the fire and its aftermath. No one had looked behind them at the garden.

It must have been producers. Only they would have had the tools and the skills to cause such irredeemable havoc so quickly.

Every single plant had been sliced off at ground level and left to die. It was a swift, devastating assault that destroyed any possibility of recovery. Had the plants been uprooted, they could have been replanted. Had they been hacked with less precision, they could have regrown. But this method . . . none of them would survive. They didn’t have large enough root systems to provide food while regrowing leaves. Without the nutrients derived from photosynthesis, the root systems would die.

His legs wobbled beneath him, and he sat abruptly on the edge of the deck.

In the hanticks he had spent preparing and planting that garden, he felt at peace for the first time in ages, perhaps since leaving the family farm to join the military. He had wondered if his parents thought of him while setting out their own first plantings, or if they even knew he was alive. The Voloth government had probably reported all the settlers lost in battle to save face. But with the warm soil crumbling between his fingers and the plants looking healthy and vigorous in their new places, he had hoped his parents might find a similar comfort. Maybe the act of doing what he had spent his adult life disavowing would create some sort of energy that could reach them.

The garden and his peace were gone. They did not have the funds to replace the starts. Seeds were much cheaper, but there was no time to plant them. The cooler weather was coming, bringing rains and soggy soil with it. Anything not already established would flail, sputter, and likely not survive the harsh environment before second spring.

They had lost their crop. Sure, they could plant summer crops, but the yields would be moons away and not the foods he had planned for.

Just like the Games, they had planned and worked and done their best, and it had all fallen apart.

He buried his face in his hands and swallowed against the constriction in his throat. Grown soldiers did not cry over a few dead plants.

The stressed boards of the deck creaked next to him, and a warm hand landed on his back. After a pause, Vagron said, “Well. They knew how ta hurt us, didn’t they? We’ll fix the dining hall in a couple of ninedays. But this . . .”

“Yeah.” Rax rubbed his eyes. “They knew.”


6

Hate and hope

Anjuli tore off another piece of warm bread as she watched the news report on the fire at New Haven.

“I never understood why they called it that,” she said. “You’d think at least one of them would have the sense to realize how insulting it is. They bombed our cities, tried to kill or enslave us, and then had the nerve to call their village New Haven. As if we invited them to settle here. As if we’re some sort of safe paradise they escaped to.”

“Maybe we are.” Irin refilled his shannel cup and set the pot in the wide swath of sunshine that illuminated their kitchen table. His chair was in the same path of light, setting him aglow with the warmth of the morning sun.

It was not an accident, this positioning. She had designed their kitchen with an eastern and southern exposure and installed large windows in both outside walls, ensuring that Irin could sit in the sun for all their meals. Heat eased his joints and muscles, so she made sure he had access to as much of it as possible.

She picked up the shannel pot and topped off her cup.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Irin said. “I would have done that.”

“You were busy feeling sorry for the Voloth.”

He eyed her over his cup. “Do you truly feel no responsibility? That was an act of revenge for yesterday.”

“I didn’t enter an enemy sniper into the Games.”

“But you did instigate a riot.”

“You can’t blame me for the actions of a few hundred angry Alseans.” Nodding toward the vidscreen, she added, “Or the few who did that. All I did was recognize a young woman who honors the memory of her bondfather.”

“All right,” he said in that reasonable tone that set her teeth on edge. “Let me ask you one thing. As a builder, do you not feel any sympathy for these Voloth who built their own village and just watched part of it burn?”

She laughed at the idea. “Irin, you are the kindest man alive, but in this case it’s misdirected. You haven’t seen the damage they did.”

“I’ve seen images.”

“That doesn’t begin to prepare you for seeing it yourself.”

They were fortunate to live in Blacksun, which had been protected from the invasion by Captain Serrado and her crashed ship. And Irin never left the city. Travel was difficult for him, but the real deterrent was his disinterest in the macro world. Irin was a builder in the nano world, spending his days staring at a microscope screen and working with concepts she could barely grasp. She liked things she could get her hands on, things she could see and feel and snap together.

“If you had been in Whitesun,” she continued, “and stood there in the rubble that was all they left of our caste house, you would have wept with me. Eight hundred cycles of architectural history, and they called it a target. They took the oldest dock in Wildwind Bay, the one where generations of children learned to swim, and smashed it to splinters. They burned an entire wing of the library. The only reason the books didn’t burn with it was because the library staff worked night and day to get everything underground before the invasion. Those blindworms bombarded Whitesun, broke it and burned it and tore it apart, and we’re still not finished rebuilding. We’re not finished in Whitemoon or Redmoon, and great Goddess, those villages that were wiped off the map by crashing fighters . . .” She shook her head. “You want me to feel sympathy because something they built burned? I wish more of it had burned. Maybe then they’d have some tiny idea of how much pain and suffering they’ve caused us.”

He sighed. “I understand how you feel—”

“No, you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be trying to paint them as victims. They’re not Fahla-damned victims! They are invaders.

“They were invaders,” he corrected. “And we destroyed them. We killed most of them and broke the rest. They’re not our enemy any longer, Bana. The battle is over.”

Her appetite lost, she shoved back her chair and stood. “I’ll tell you when the battle is over: when the very last stone is put back in place. When I stop having to review budgets and blueprints for rebuilding. When I can spend all my time looking forward, instead of diverting resources to rebuild what they destroyed, then the battle will be over.”

“And then will you forgive?”

She stopped, startled by the question. “Forgive?”

“Yes. When you can spend all your time looking forward, will you stop looking back?”

“I . . . don’t know.”

He nodded. “When I build a nanobot, every addition changes the nature of the machine. If I make a mistake, I can’t go back. I have to discard it and start over. So I look forward, because there’s no purpose in looking back. Back is done. Back is useless. It’s in the discard container.”

“Alsea is not a nanobot.”

“No, but every change alters it irrevocably. Alsea is changed, Bana. You’re building a space elevator. You can never go back to how it was before.”

A soft chime broke the silence. She looked down at the rolled reader card tucked into her belt pouch and found its edge glowing green. A message from her aide, no doubt, since she hadn’t yet put on her earcuff and couldn’t be reached by voice.

“That’ll be the call for a High Council meeting this morning. We’ll have to make a recommendation to the full Council on how to respond to this.” Which would be half a hantick out of her day, a loss she could ill afford. “I have to go to work.”

“I know.”

“I don’t want to leave us like this.”

“We’re fine. As long as you don’t forget to kiss me before you go.”

Ten ticks later, she swept into the kitchen for her last stop before leaving. Irin was still in his chair, holding the shannel cup between both hands and smiling into the sunlight with his eyes closed.

“Absorbing?” she asked.

His smile grew larger as he looked up at her. “Thinking. I was wrong; some things don’t change. Like mornmeals with you, and sitting in the sun. And the way I know you’re ready to leave by the sound of your bracelets.”

It was a quiet apology, even though he wasn’t at fault. She loved him for it. Leaning a hip against the table, she spun one of her many bracelets—which she had indeed just put on in preparation for leaving—and asked, “Why is it so important to you that I find a way to forgive?”

“Because your anger doesn’t bring you joy.”

For the first time, she thought she understood. “My anger doesn’t bring you joy, either.”

“We’ve been together a long time. I can’t help feeling what you feel. In some ways, you were happier right after the invasion than you are now.”

“I was focused on rebuilding. There wasn’t time for anything else.”

“Perhaps it’s time to find another focus?”

She shook her head, amused despite herself. “That was a setup. You led me in a logical circle. I am the Prime Builder, you know. I’ve some experience with debate tactics like this.”

“I like to think I taught you some of those tactics. Then we agree that the obvious focus is forward, yes?”

“I’ll try.”

“Good,” he said briskly. “Then off you go, and I’m going into the lab to make a pile of mistakes and throw them all in the discard container.”

“I wish I could do that with my mistakes.”

“Why do you think I love my work?”

She leaned down to kiss him, then shook her bracelets vigorously. The jingles filled the kitchen, along with his laughter.

Uprising

Galor was behind the counter when Rax walked into the plant and seed store. He looked exactly as he had before, scowling with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Belsara!” he called. “Your Voloth friend is back.”

“Need a tick.” Belsara’s muffled voice came from behind Rax, who turned to see what appeared to be a stack of boxes with legs making its way toward him.

He hurried over and pulled the top two boxes off the stack. They were quite heavy; he was impressed that she had been carrying so many. “Where do you want them?”

She stopped with a startled look, then pointed her chin toward a pallet near the counter. “Right there.”

Galor edged away as Rax approached with the boxes. He set them down carefully and stepped back, giving the Alsean space.

Belsara dropped her boxes with less concern. “They’re bags of compost; you can’t hurt them.” She dusted off her hands. “What do you need this time? Don’t tell me you killed those starts I sold you.”

“No . . .”

“Oh, good Fahla.” Galor was staring at him accusingly. “He did! I can feel it!” He advanced on Rax, his forefinger stabbing at the air as his voice rose. “I harvested those seeds and grew those starts with my own two hands, and I didn’t want them to go to the likes of you, but no.” He turned on Belsara. “You decide to sell them to a Voloth who doesn’t know how to do anything but destroy what other people build and grow! Are you surprised at the result? I’m not! Don’t you even think about selling any more to this—”

“I didn’t kill them!” Rax shouted.

As they drew back, he cursed himself for losing control.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a quieter voice. “I didn’t mean to yell. But I didn’t kill those starts.”

“Typical,” Galor said. “You won’t take responsibility. They’re dead, I know it. I can feel it.”

“What happened?” Belsara’s brows drew together. “Ah, no, didn’t you plant them right away? I thought you were a producer’s son.”

To Rax’s horror, tears pooled in his eyes. “We planted them the day after I brought them home. They had two ninedays of growth and they were beautiful.”

He blinked rapidly, trying to push back the traitorous tears. He could count on one hand the number of times he had wept as an adult; all but one had been here on Alsea.

“What happened?” Belsara repeated. Her voice was almost gentle this time.

Rax looked up at the store ceiling, stalling while he cleared his throat and swallowed. Even something as prosaic as a plant and seed store was built with artistry here. The exposed wooden support beams in this ceiling would count as quality architectural design back home.

“It was producers,” he said once he was sure of his voice. “I don’t know if they set the fire, but they killed our garden. Every single plant.”

Galor made a dismissive noise. “Impossible. You think that’s true, but it can’t be. No producer would do that.”

“They used pole cutters. The plants were cleanly cut at the soil level. No rough edges. No missed cuts. Nothing left above the soil. And none of us heard a thing, so they were fast and quiet. Who would have those tools and those skills other than producers?”

The two Alseans shared a doubtful look.

“If you don’t believe me, believe this.” Rax pulled out his reader card and gave it a tap. “I had to take images for my report to the Council.” The reader card unrolled itself and stiffened into a sheet. A few more taps brought up the first image.

As Belsara took the reader card from his outstretched hand, Galor stepped closer. They examined several images, then raised their heads and stared at each other.

“How is that possible?” Galor asked.

“I don’t know, but he’s right. This was a harvest job.”

“Those were my starts. And producers killed them?” There was fire in Galor’s eyes, but for once it wasn’t directed at Rax. “How could they do that?”

“Because they hate us more than they care about the plants,” Rax said.

“I hate you, too.” Galor glared at him. “All of you. But there are limits. If we go over them, we’re no better than you, and I won’t be brought down to the level of a Voloth.” He spat the last word. “Sell him what he needs. And take ten percent off.”

Belsara nodded. “Same order as before?”

“No. We don’t have the funds for a whole new set of starts. Not even at ten percent off, but thank you for offering.” Rax shot a grateful look at Galor, who didn’t seem to know how to respond. “One of our engineers came up with an idea for glasshouse substitutes, with lumber and plastipaper. We’ve already built them. All we need is the seeds. We’re hoping we can catch up if we get enough sun.”

“Lumber and plastipaper glasshouses, eh?” Belsara pointed at the reader card she still held. “Do you have images of those?”

“Uh . . . yeah.” He took the reader card, pulled up the images, and handed it back. They spent a long time flipping through them, leaving him with nothing to do but fidget.

“You’re sure you designed these?” Galor asked. “You didn’t get a builder to help?”

“Where do you think we’d find a builder willing to help us? Besides the warriors, they’re the caste that hates us the most.”

“Words for Fahla.” He sounded cheerful at the thought.

“What did you spend on materials?” Belsara asked.

“About forty-five cinteks per unit.”

The Alseans looked at each other, communicating without words. It was eerie to watch, but Rax had seen it before.

Belsara gave a quick nod. “All right, here’s our offer. Give us the blueprints for this design, let us sell kits for it, and we’ll replace your starts.”

“You’ll—what?” He couldn’t have heard that right, yet they seemed to be expecting an answer. “But this isn’t manufactured. We can’t get the rights to the design. We used available materials.”

“Sounds like a builder to me,” Galor muttered.

“We’re not offering to sell the design.” Belsara held out the reader card. “We’ll sell kits. People will pay for the convenience. And you get your starts. You might be able to catch up with seeds in these, but you’ll be dreading every weather report.”

He took the reader card in a daze. “Why are you doing this?”

“It’s a brilliant design.” Belsara scratched her neck and offered a rueful smile. “Much as I hate to say it. And it’s not right that any producer could take their revenge out on a garden. We’re better than that.”

We’re better than you, was the unspoken addendum, but Rax was so shocked by this generosity that for once the prejudice didn’t bite.

“I accept,” he said hurriedly. Part of him was afraid that if he wasted even a piptick, they would retract the offer. But another urge welled up from somewhere deep inside. Citizens always took advantage of hangers if they could, so hangers had to push back. One of the first lessons his parents had taught him was to never take the first offer.

Straightening his shoulders, he said, “I, uh . . . I want one more thing in the deal.”

Galor’s scowl returned, but Belsara looked mildly amused. “Trying to push a bargain?” she asked. “What do you want?”

Rax pointed at the boxes of fanten compost he had carried. “Three pallets of that. Our soil has a little clay in it.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You really are a producer’s son.”

“I never aspired to be a murderer.” He was taking a chance, but they were listening. “I wanted to be a citizen so I could protect my parents. Military service was my only option. They lied to us and beat us if we asked questions, so we learned not to ask. They lied to us about you. They said you attacked first.”

Both of them reddened, their anger so visible that Rax thought he knew how it felt to be empathic. “I know,” he said hurriedly. “I know you didn’t. We all know now. But that’s what they told us, and we obeyed orders. And you killed most of us. I’ll never say we didn’t deserve it, because we did, but . . . we’ve paid. You won. And you did more than that. You’ve heard of our empathic directive?”

“You can’t hurt Alsea or any Alseans,” Belsara said. “Smartest thing Lancer Tal ever did.”

“There was a side effect. Lancer Tal didn’t know it would happen, but it’s one of the reasons we asked for sanctuary here. She was working with the Protectorate ambassador to ship us somewhere else, but we refused to go.”

Their anger had given way to curiosity. He took a deep breath and spoke more slowly.

“We love Alsea. All of us. It may be an artificial love, but it doesn’t feel that way to us. It feels like this is where we were meant to be. That’s why we’re trying so hard to fit in and be independent. And yes, competing in the Games wasn’t our best idea. But we have to keep trying.”

In the potent silence, he heard the glasshouse irrigation system and wondered when it had activated.

Belsara let out a long exhale. “You’re not lying. But it’s hard to believe.” She held up her palm. “Hypothetical situation. You’ve received a message from your government. If you want, you can come home to full honors and citizenship. All you have to do is renounce Alsea as a primitive planet. What do you say?”

Her eyes hardened as she said primitive, and he winced. There was a time when he had believed exactly that.

He met her palm, giving her the skin contact that would make his sincerity undeniable. “I’d say thanks for the offer, but I’ve already lived half my life based on lies. I won’t live the rest based on more.”

She stared in his eyes, then at their hands.

“Well?” Galor asked.

“Huh.” Belsara dropped her hand. “Where do you want your compost?”


7

Maneuvers

Irin might not have been fond of travel or the macro world in general, but even he would not turn down the opportunity to be one of the first Alseans in space.

Anjuli flew them to Blacksun Base in her personal transport, a plush vehicle with military-level defenses that came with her title. Their early arrival meant she could land right next to the Protectorate shuttle, cutting down the distance Irin had to walk and enabling him to board without an audience other than the warriors guarding the craft. He had little trouble getting up the outside ramp or down the aisle to the window seat she suggested, but sitting was difficult. These seats were not made for people whose legs did not bend properly. Anjuli helped him down, letting him hold on to her shoulders while she bent forward and lowered him.

He relaxed onto the seat with an audible sigh and smiled up at her. “I forget how low normal chairs are.”

“These aren’t normal chairs,” she joked. “They’re for very short Gaians.”

He chuckled. “I doubt Chief Kameha has Protectorate shuttles designed just for him. And I’ve seen Dr. Rivers on the news. Most likely she has to duck her head coming through the doorway.”

“You’ll be seeing that for yourself soon.” She accepted the canes he held out and carefully stored them in the cargo space overhead.

“You look beautiful.”

His admiration warmed her senses, no less strong today than it had been thirty-four cycles ago. She closed the cargo door with a satisfying snick of magnets and did a slow twirl in the aisle. “You approve? I wanted to wear a full cape, but we’ll be sitting for hanticks.”

She had compromised with a half cape in the light blue of the builder caste, which complimented her brilliantly patterned orange-and-yellow dress. A wide, builder-blue belt cinched her waist and sparkled with a fringe of silver triangles that dangled from its bottom edge. The chest chain holding her cape in place bore the same decorative fringe, its free-moving bits of silver shifting and shining with every breath. Even her earcuff matched, though the triangles hanging from it were far smaller.

“I approve very much,” he said in a growl that made her laugh. “Have I told you how proud I am of you?”

“Not today.” She leaned against the seat in front of him, her bracelets chiming as she pushed up her sleeves. “Or yesterday, now that I think on it. Possibly it may have been a nineday.”

“No, it can’t have been that long.” He looked around the shuttle, absorbing every detail. “From the day we bonded, I knew you’d take me places, but even I couldn’t imagine you’d take me into orbit.”

“I think I took you into orbit quite a few times,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows for effect.

She was fortunate that Irin was who he was. A lesser man would have allowed his temper to degrade along with his body. She had seen it often, back in the days when she worked directly with disabled clients. By contrast, Irin’s disease seemed to purify him, distilling out the weaker parts of his character and leaving behind a quiet strength and calm acceptance. He never railed at his fate, nor mourned the loss of sensation that sucked away his physical pleasure in joining. Instead, he savored her caresses to his upper body and took pride in his ability to “send her into orbit,” as he called it, which was how the phrase became their private joke.

The pang of guilt pierced without warning. She had never told Irin about Shantu. Not because he would have begrudged her the opportunity to join with a whole, healthy man—on the contrary, he probably would have encouraged her—but because it would hurt him to know that his loss was her loss, too. She found enough pleasure in their joinings that her emotions did not betray her, even with full skin contact or in a Sharing. In truth, she missed the days when she could make him shiver.

Then had come the Battle of Alsea. After all those war councils planning a battle they could not possibly win, after accepting her imminent death and that of her entire civilization, their survival felt like a miracle delivered straight from the hands of Fahla. When Shantu returned from battle glowing with victory and triumphant joy, Anjuli threw eight cycles of friendship out the window and took him to bed. In those heady moments of their first joining, which had been athletic beyond even her wildest fantasies, she gave no thought to her bondmate or his. She gave no thought to anything other than celebrating their lives, their victory, their miracle.

Afterward, she could not give it up. Joining with Shantu, Sharing with him, seeing him as he allowed no one else to see him was a drug that ensnared her from the first taste. For more than a cycle, she lived a double life, hating the deception but unable to end it. Fahla was wise indeed to make Alseans empaths and not telepaths. Emotions required interpretation, and within that subjective space lay plenty of room to hide, even from someone who knew her as well as Irin.

The deception ended in spite of her, in the worst possible way. She would never forgive Lancer Tal for killing Shantu. Yet at the same time, she felt a shameful relief. Shantu’s death meant that Irin would never be hurt, and for that she was grateful.

But not to that woman. Never to her.

She sat next to Irin and chatted with him about the upcoming launch, until the appointed time drew closer and the first member of their group arrived. Chief Kameha strolled up the ramp with his eyes glued to his reader card, somehow navigating the entry without bothering to look. Then he raised his head and saw them.

The spike of anger startled her.

“Prime Builder,” he said in his gruff voice. “I’d like a word with you.”

She met him halfway up the aisle. “Is something wrong with the launch? Don’t tell me the spool malfunctioned.”

“What? No, the spool is fine. Lhyn Rivers is not. Was my language chip malfunctioning? Or was it your ears?”

She froze. He wasn’t supposed to know about that.

“Well met, Chief,” Irin said from his seat. “I haven’t seen you in a few moons.”

Kameha’s expression softened as he stepped past her. “Well met, Irin,” he said, leaning over the outside seat and offering a palm. “Glad you could come along for the ride.”

“I wouldn’t have missed it for all the shannel on Alsea.”

“Neither would I. Sorry to greet and go, but I need to speak with your bondmate.”

“Yes, of course. I’m sure you have last-tick preparations.” Irin waved them away.

Anjuli followed Kameha to the shuttle door and had barely stepped onto the ramp before he rounded on her.

“I told you that couldn’t happen,” he snapped. “I told you I wanted Lhyn to have the first citizenship. You stuck a knife in her anyway.”

The anger rolled off him, slamming against her senses, and she stumbled over her answer. “I did not—”

“Don’t!” He fisted his hands at the sides of his head, then slapped them against his thighs. “Don’t lie to me! I just want to know why. Why would you do that?”

“It wasn’t about you,” she tried to explain. “Or Dr. Rivers. Lancer Tal used both of you in a power play—”

“Oh, for the love of flight! Do you even know her?”

“Dr. Rivers?”

“No! Lancer Tal!” His smooth forehead furrowed as he peered at her. “You see her in every High Council meeting and you’ve worked with her on the rebuilding, but you don’t know her at all, do you? How is it that an empath can’t take one look at her and see how much she loves Lhyn? Power play my hairy ass!”

She recoiled, as much from the startling visual as from his anger, and he thrust his finger in her face.

“You need to apologize to her.”

“I am not going to apologize to Lancer—”

“Not her! Lhyn!” He glanced to the side and swore under his breath. “They’re already here. If you value our working relationship, you’d better make this right.” He vanished into the shuttle, leaving her alone to face the approaching quartet of Dr. Lhyn Rivers, Captain Ekatya Serrado, Bondlancer Salomen Opah, and Lancer Tal.

Her head throbbed from the aftereffects of Kameha’s wrath, flung at her with all the strength of a fusion reactor. She was unbalanced and confused, the worst possible combination for facing Lancer Tal, and had no time to recover.

“Prime Builder.” Lancer Tal’s voice was cool as she led the group up the ramp. “Let’s push Alsea into space, shall we?” She strolled past without another glance, her emotions tightly shielded behind the impenetrable front of a high empath. In her dress uniform, with its high-collared red jacket setting off her bright blonde hair, she was the picture of dignity and control. It made Anjuli feel even more unbalanced by comparison.

Not until Bondlancer Opah stopped and held up a hand did Anjuli realize that Lancer Tal had neglected to offer this basic courtesy.

She sensed nothing from the Bondlancer, whose high empathy was an open secret in Blacksun. Touching the taller woman’s palm revealed that her polite behavior covered a controlled anger.

“Well met, Bondlancer,” Anjuli said.

“Well met, Prime Builder.” Bondlancer Opah dropped her hand and followed her bondmate into the shuttle.

Captain Serrado didn’t even look at her as she went past. Though her expression was neutral, her unfronted ire threatened to blast a hole in the side of the shuttle.

Lhyn Rivers stopped at the top of the ramp and folded her arms. “You’ve thrown away a lot of goodwill, Prime Builder. For a really stupid reason.”

She was even taller than the Bondlancer. Their height difference had not bothered Anjuli before, but now it was one more thing adding to her sense of imbalance.

It had never occurred to her that Lancer Tal would pull others into a fight between the two of them. Was there anyone she hadn’t told?

Anjuli straightened her spine and pulled herself together. Chief Kameha had made himself clear, and she could not lose her working relationship with him.

“It was not my intent to damage anyone’s goodwill,” she said. “I apologize if anything I said offended you—”

Dr. Rivers made an amused sound in her throat. “If? You know I’m a linguist, right?”

Anjuli hesitated, unsure what her profession had to do with anything.

“I’m the reason Chief Kameha and Ekatya and all the Voloth can speak High Alsean. I programmed the language chips for their implants. I know what a real apology sounds like, and that? Back home, we’d call that an ‘up your ass’ apology.” She fixed Anjuli with a knowing look. “You were very careful at the Games. Everyone understood what you meant, but you could still deny the interpretation. As a linguist, I had to admire it. I’m not admiring your non-apology.”

It took only a piptick to reassess. Contrary to what Kameha thought, Dr. Rivers was not hurting. She was laying down a challenge—and enjoying it.

“Chief Kameha believes I slipped a knife in you.” Anjuli gestured toward the other woman’s heart. “You’re not injured.”

“He’s still protecting me. They all are.” Dr. Rivers uncrossed her arms and pushed her hands into her trouser pockets. “In a strange way, I appreciated what you did. Everyone’s still tip-toeing around me like I’m one unkind word away from shattering. I tell them I’m fine and they don’t hear me. They think being tortured for two days means I’ll never be whole again. But not you. It was . . . refreshing.”

“Refreshing,” Anjuli repeated.

Dr. Rivers cocked her head, as if she were carefully weighing her word choice. “Yes,” she decided. “Like a cold shower. It doesn’t feel good in the moment, but afterward, it feels great.”

Anjuli couldn’t stop the chuckle that bubbled out. “You’re not what I expected, Dr. Rivers.”

“I hear that a lot.”

“I can imagine.” She held up a palm. “Let me try again, then. I had no argument with you, and I’m sorry you were dragged into this fight.”

Dr. Rivers met her palm touch. “Thank you. That’s a much better apology. But don’t think I didn’t notice the passive voice.” As they dropped their hands, she asked, “Why did you drag me into it? I was just a proxy. Why not go to Andira directly?”

Startled by the casual use of Lancer Tal’s first name, Anjuli said, “It doesn’t work that way.”

“It does if you let it.”

“Perhaps it does when you can call her Andira. That’s not a position I’ll ever be in.” She stepped aside and gestured toward the open shuttle door. “The spool will launch soon; we need to be ready.”

“She didn’t do it to put you down,” Dr. Rivers said. “She did it for me.”

It was sweet, how she couldn’t see that Lancer Tal accomplished both objectives with the same move.

“Well, if someone else had to get it first, I’m glad it was you,” Anjuli said diplomatically. Only after she spoke did she realize it was true.

“Thank you. It did mean a lot to me. Are we done, then? You’re not going to be a dokker’s ass about this?”

“Not about this.”

Dr. Rivers shook her head, amusement rising from her skin. “I guess that’s all I can ask for.”

“It is,” Anjuli confirmed, but her smile was genuine.

The amusement evaporated, displaced by a sudden intensity. “I’m going to pass on some advice a friend gave me.”

She nodded, wary of this abrupt shift.

“You are what you do. Not what is done to you.” Dr. Rivers spread her arms, taking in the length of the shuttle. “What are you doing, Prime Builder?”

Speechless, Anjuli watched her walk through the door and noted that yes, she did have to duck her head.


8

Space elevator

Her first flight into space was nothing like Anjuli expected. The Protectorate shuttle was as smooth as an Alsean transport, even when they passed through the atmosphere. As Dr. Rivers explained to a fascinated Irin, the shuttle’s shielding absorbed normal buffeting and vibrations.

The seating arrangements had not been what she expected, either. Captain Serrado took the copilot’s seat, happily chatting with Chief Kameha as they prepped for liftoff and began the flight. Dr. Rivers walked up to Irin and introduced herself, then casually flipped a lever on the seat in front of him, twirled it around, and sat down to face him. Across the aisle, Lancer Tal did the same thing, creating two face-to-face seats for her and the Bondlancer. Anjuli’s seat was in the center of this impromptu grouping, and the conversation flowed more easily than she could have imagined.

Then again, she should not have been surprised. Lancer Tal had long ago proven herself adept at playing a role, and she played it flawlessly now. Irin was thoroughly enjoying himself, leaving Anjuli torn between gratitude for the result and annoyance at the cause.

But it was the Bondlancer’s first flight, too, which seemed to have inspired both Lancer Tal and Dr. Rivers—or Lhyn, as she insisted they call her—to narrate the journey. They were full of facts and figures, and one rather startling story of Lancer Tal spending a morning on her bonding break flying a fighter with Captain Serrado and shooting down drones in space. For fun.

“Warriors,” Irin said with a wide grin, which led everyone else to nod and laugh.

“Ekatya!” Lancer Tal called up to the front of the shuttle. “I need you back here. They’re ganging up on the minority.”

“Busy right now,” Captain Serrado called back. “You’re on your own.”

“Minority,” Lhyn snorted. “I’m the only scholar, and Salomen is the only producer. Are warriors so sensitive that they think parity is a disadvantage?”

“I didn’t have to bring you along,” Lancer Tal said. “It’s not too late to push you into the emergency pod.”

“Wait a tick, let me check something.” Lhyn looked around with exaggerated motions. “Ah, I was right. This is a Protectorate shuttle, and I’m a Protectorate citizen. Which means I brought you along, not the other way around.”

“I thought you were an Alsean citizen,” Anjuli said.

There was a charged silence before Lhyn’s lips quirked into a smile. “It’s called dual citizenship, and the advantage is that I get to be whichever one serves me best. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that’s Alsean. But right now, I’m holding my superior ancestry over Andira’s head.”

“Superior!” Lancer Tal sputtered. “You’re sonsales and gender-locked!”

“But we make better grain spirits. Yours tastes like boot polish.”

“Don’t blame us for your lack of taste.”

The Bondlancer joined the argument on Lhyn’s side, while Irin and Anjuli defended the glories of Alsean grain spirits. It wasn’t until the topic of conversation had moved on that Anjuli realized she had taken the Lancer’s side. She looked at Lhyn, wondering if that had been intentional, and caught a knowing glance that convinced her. Kameha, she concluded, was well-meaning but entirely blind when it came to how much protection Lhyn Rivers required.

All conversation ceased when the shuttle reached an altitude that enabled them to see not only the curvature of Alsea beneath them, but also the translucent glow of its atmosphere.

“It looks like an eggshell,” Bondlancer Opah said in an awed tone. “Such a fragile layer to be holding everything inside.”

Irin silently reached for Anjuli’s hand and squeezed, his wonder flowing through their skin contact.

“All that planning and worry and preparation,” Anjuli murmured. She could hardly believe this was happening.

“Here it comes!” Kameha called from the pilot’s seat. “It’ll pass by on the starboard side.”

Lancer Tal and Bondlancer Opah came across the aisle and crowded up to the window behind Lhyn. Everyone peered out, looking for their first glimpse of the spool booster.

Anjuli’s heart hammered in her chest when she saw the speck of light moving up through the atmosphere. “Fahla, thank you for this,” she whispered.

Irin squeezed her hand again. “Fahla helped. But you did the work. You and Chief Kameha and a thousand builders.”

The light resolved itself into a space vehicle that would have been impossible to build before their treaty with the Protectorate. Energy shield technology had eliminated the need for heat-proof exterior materials and negated concern about micrometeoroid impacts. The compact fusion engine enabled them to launch an extraordinarily heavy, bulky vehicle without concern for aerodynamics or fuel load. She remembered the last satellite they had launched, before the invasion, and how they had counted every grain of weight. It was laughable compared to the behemoth that sped toward them.

Larger and larger it grew, until she could make out the shield of Alsea emblazoned on the side, a fiery tree of life shining in the darkness of space. She had last seen this boxy vehicle sitting on its construction sled, firmly attached to the ground. It was surreal to watch it flying so smoothly toward them.

Closer it came, until she could see the grapplers on its narrow end and the thrusters studding its thick sides. Then it flashed past and continued on its way.

A low hum of engines vibrated through her feet as Kameha gave chase.

“Spectacular.” Bondlancer Opah turned to Anjuli, her dark eyes sparkling and the dimple in her chin deepening as she smiled. “Prime Builder, you should be proud. I am, and I had nothing to do with it.”

Anjuli could not catch her breath, overwhelmed by the import of this moment. “We should all be proud,” she managed. “We’re watching history.”

“We’re making history,” Lancer Tal corrected. “Shall we get to work, then?”

Anjuli dropped a kiss on Irin’s cheek, then stood and followed the Lancer down the aisle.

The aft door opened into a seating area that included food stores, a matter printer, and a table with six chairs. Full windows lining two sides made the room seem larger than it was.

Three vidcams and a holographic projector rested on the table. Anjuli palmed the control for the projector and activated it, then powered up the vidcams. Two of them rose, automatically set to focus on their faces. The third was tied directly into the projector. Their signals would pass through the shuttle’s quantum com to the receiving station on Alsea, where they would be edited into the live broadcast.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Always.” Lancer Tal took the chair at right angles to her.

“Chief?” Anjuli called out.

“Right here.” Kameha’s voice sounded as if he were in the room with them. Anjuli was quite impressed with Protectorate voice technology. “The signals are coming through at one hundred percent.”

“Then we’re starting.” Anjuli nodded at the Lancer.

“Alseans, well met from somewhere high above sea level,” Lancer Tal began.

“A little over two hundred lengths,” Anjuli interjected. “And increasing every piptick.”

“We’re chasing the spool booster, which just went past us looking perfect in every way.”

“It was beautiful.” Anjuli couldn’t help herself.

Lancer Tal raised an eyebrow, then offered the most genuine smile Anjuli had ever seen on her. “Yes, it was. Since we have a little time before it reaches the counterweight, perhaps you can show us how this first stage will work?”

“Certainly.” Anjuli tapped the control and a hologram of Alsea appeared, hovering over the table between them. “This is our shuttle,” she said, pointing to a red light that popped into existence above the planet. As a green light appeared much farther out, she added, “The counterweight is here. That’s not its final location, but it’s where we need it for this stage of construction. When the spool booster gets there, four builders in a second shuttle will attach it to the counterweight. Then the spool will activate.”

She switched to a hologram of the spool booster as it would look after its grapplers were hooked onto the massive counterweight. As they watched, a narrow door opened in the end facing Alsea and a wide ribbon emerged.

“Getting the cable to Alsea’s surface isn’t a matter of simply dropping it,” she said as two smaller doors opened in the booster’s sides. “We could, but we’d be waiting a long time for it to arrive. At this height, it needs acceleration.”

Small drones floated out, clamped to the base of the ribbon, and began propelling it back toward Alsea.

“And at the other end of its journey, it will need deceleration. The closer it gets to Alsea and the more it unspools, the more it will weigh and the faster it will fall. The drones will control its descent so it arrives at our port platform at a manageable speed. In the meantime,” she said as the holographic spool booster fired its thrusters, “we need to keep the center of mass at a gravitationally neutral altitude. As the cable rolls off the spool and goes down—which increases the drag toward Alsea—the booster will move the counterweight up to balance it.”

“Why is the cable so wide and flat?” Lancer Tal asked the first of their scripted questions.

“We need enormous load-bearing capability combined with very light weight. That means the thinner the cable can be, the better. The flat surface will also make it easier for us to attach the rails, and the width gives us room for the shield nodes.”

They moved on, showing the cable unspooling until it reached all the way to the new port platform anchored offshore south of Whitemoon. Then the hologram pulled back, swooping out to show Alsea and its completed elevator stretching into space. The cable was several times longer than the diameter of the planet. With a touch of the control, Anjuli set the hologram in motion. As Alsea rotated, the elevator swung through space with it.

Lancer Tal continued to play the part of interested questioner, though she no doubt knew this system nearly as well as Anjuli. They spoke of installing the new, lightweight magtran rails on the cable, a process that would be largely automated both for speed and safety reasons. They discussed the operation of the shield nodes, then moved to construction of the solar collector on the counterweight. The power it generated would be conducted by the cable itself, running both the magtrans and the shields.

Once the elevator was completed—hopefully in one cycle—they could run two magtrans, one on each side of the cable, each with a load capacity dwarfing that of any shuttle.

The last part of the system would be the elevator station itself, constructed with materials hauled up on the magtrans. It would be a launching point for new Alsean ships to be built, a docking port for ships from the Protectorate, and a place of interstellar commerce.

“Which is why we haven’t seen alien shuttles on Alsea, despite passing the time limit imposed by the Treaty of Alsea,” Lancer Tal said. “We’re open to trading, but Protectorate ships all have hullskin, even their shuttles.”

“With the exception of this one,” Anjuli added.

“And the second one we’ll be meeting at the counterweight. All the others are vulnerable to the nanoscrubbers. It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Lancer Tal said, going off script. “When we released the nanoscrubbers into our atmosphere all those cycles ago, they were nothing more than microscopic machines built to break down harmful radiation. How could we have dreamed they’d someday help save us from the Voloth and then become a barrier to interplanetary trade?”

“From the smallest seed does the mighty molwyn grow,” Anjuli said. “The radiation produced by hullskin isn’t harmful, but the nanoscrubbers don’t know that and we have no way to reprogram them. We’re building a space elevator instead. When Protectorate merchants realized how rapidly we were progressing, they decided to wait for us rather than build brand new shuttles just to land on our planet.”

She much preferred it that way. Two cycles ago, they hadn’t even known aliens existed. Their first introduction nearly wiped out their civilization. Regardless of how much the Protectorate alliance had given them in technological advantages, she could not imagine being comfortable with aliens regularly trafficking on and off Alsea. Better to keep them at arm’s length, safely removed on their elevator station.

Except for Chief Kameha, of course. Though Lhyn Rivers was also acceptable.

When they finished their presentation and powered down the equipment, Anjuli stood up, ready to get back to Irin.

“A moment, Prime Builder,” Lancer Tal said quietly.

Shek, she hadn’t moved fast enough. With a rigid spine, she retook her seat and prepared for battle.

Lancer Tal gestured at the dormant projector. “That went smoothly, don’t you think? We make a good team.”

Anjuli stared at her in surprise. “It—yes, we did.”

“I remember a time when we worked together very well. Do you think we can call a truce to whatever war we seem to be fighting and return to those days?”

For a heartbeat, Anjuli wanted to say yes.

You are what you do. Not what is done to you, Lhyn had said, and look at what she was doing today. What they were doing today.

Then she saw Lancer Tal impaling Shantu with her sword, spilling his blood on the Council chamber floor. She had turned her back on him as he lay crumpled in a spreading crimson pool, holding that bloody sword aloft and shouting that Fahla had chosen her champion.

She is what she has done.

She had taken Anjuli’s work out from under her and given it away, then used Chief Kameha to strike another blow. Anjuli had been forced to apologize for something that even Lhyn didn’t think was a real issue, and she still hadn’t resolved the situation with Kameha. There hadn’t been time.

“When you stop taking away the things that matter to me, I might consider it,” she said. “But you can’t seem to help yourself. What possible reason could you have had to drag Kameha into this?”

“I didn’t say a word to Chief Kameha.”

She let out a disbelieving huff. “He certainly knew a great deal about the Global Games for someone who wasn’t there and wasn’t told.”

“He was told. Just not by me.”

Great Goddess, the woman was intolerable! Sitting there so smugly, deflecting all responsibility. Anjuli’s bracelets jingled as she lifted her hands. “And there we have it. Convenient, wouldn’t you say? You never seem to have your fingerprints on these things! Except for the citizenship; you were proud of that one.”

“If you were half as intelligent as I thought you were, you’d drop that topic. The only reason I’m trying to make peace now is because you apologized to Lhyn well enough that she’s happy.”

“For someone claiming friendship, you don’t know her very well. She was happy to be treated like a normal person instead of something fragile. Maybe you should look to your own house before setting fire to mine.”

Lancer Tal’s light eyes turned as cold as the space outside. “Don’t presume to tell me how to treat my friends.”

“At least you have them! You killed mine!” Anjuli shoved back her chair and strode for the door. She expected an order to stay, another petty display of power, but heard only silence behind her.

Lancer Tal didn’t follow her into the passenger cabin for another five ticks.

Anjuli counted that as a victory.


9

Dangerous love

The cool, rainy days of spring settled in shortly after the fire, making rebuilding a hassle as the settlers strove to keep their materials dry. In an act of defiance, they rebuilt and roofed the deck while they were at it, extending it far enough to house twelve tables, and added planter boxes to the deck’s edge.

Rax and several other gardeners filled the boxes, reveling in the opportunity to plant for beauty rather than practicality. They planned their designs in advance, pooling their knowledge of the local flora. Rax was partial to the tall grasses with feathery, bright blue seed heads, which they matched with splendid orange flowers and his new favorite, the silver everlasting.

He spent much of his spare time relaxing on the deck, usually at the table in the southwest corner. It caught more sun, when there was sun, and was closest to the kitchen garden, which—thanks to the starts he had managed to procure—was flourishing despite the wet weather. They had edged the garden with plastipaper glasshouses, and the seeds had sprouted, but Belsara had been right. The little plants inside could not catch up with their larger brethren, having missed the early days of sunshine.

Today was another stormy one, with occasional cloudbursts so fierce that the water poured off the deck roof in an unbroken sheet. Rax loved these squalls. They made his little corner feel like a private, magical space cut off from the world by the roar and tumble of water on two sides. Adding to the sound level was the spatter of roof water hitting the rock path below, where it drained into a channel that directed it to an underground cistern. Every building in their village used the same water reclamation plan, created by one of their engineers who had grown up on a planet where the dry spells were long and the rains furious.

An abrupt dimming of light alerted Rax to another squall coming in. He looked up from his reader card to see a cloud system laden with enough water to turn it black. As it swallowed the last sliver of open sky, a bolt of lightning stabbed deep into the roiling clouds. The following thunder took less than five pipticks to arrive.

About a length and a half away, then.

He set down his reader card, picked up his steaming cup of shannel, and watched the show. The next lightning was followed by thunder in three pipticks, and the trees at the back of the garden swayed in a sudden wind.

With a hiss of water against leaves, the first raindrops arrived and swiftly turned into a downpour. Half a tick later, sheets of water began falling from the deck roof.

The warm cup felt good in his hands as the temperature plummeted and droplets sprayed inward from the temporary waterfall. A flash lit every corner of the deck, followed instantly by a deafening crack of thunder that rolled on and on, making his chest throb.

With a wide grin, he took another sip and almost jumped out of his skin as a body appeared next to him.

Vagron pulled out a chair on the other side of the table. “Weather like this makes it easy ta sneak up on a man,” he shouted.

They were separated by an arm’s length, but Rax still had to lean over the table to hear him. “Makes it easy to think, too,” he called back. “No distractions.”

“What ya thinking about?”

“Gardens. How fast the Alseans are building that space elevator. The news about the Bondlancer.”

Vagron’s brows rose. “What news?”

Rax held up his reader card, which showed an image of Bondlancer Opah in formal dress, walking through a crowd of producers in a park setting. Her jacket was off and draped over one shoulder, hiding her arm, but Rax’s practiced eye saw the fingers splayed against her stomach. Her arm must have been in a sling. “She was giving her first official speech in Pollonius and some warrior attacked her. The whole producer caste house was evacuated.”

“Shit on a brick, you’re pulling my thumb. Let me see.” Vagron took the reader card and read through the story. “Minor injuries; she walked out of there on her own two legs. Look at that. Every producer in town must have been there. She looks like a White Citizen going through a crowd of hangers.”

“Except a White Citizen wouldn’t even be walking. She’d be carried so her precious feet didn’t touch the ground us hangers were dirtying with our presence.”

In the tiered structure of the Voloth Empire, not only were slaves and hangers far beneath citizens, but even citizens had varying levels of superiority. At the top of the heap were White Citizens, who held unthinkable power and wealth. For hangers like Rax and Vagron, seeing one was exciting and terrifying in equal measure. They glittered and sparkled, a rare treat for the senses, but a hanger never wanted to attract their attention. Rax knew of a hanger who was sentenced to slavery for the crime of getting dust on a White Citizen’s shoes.

Vagron handed back the reader card. “I wonder how long they’ll make that warrior suffer before they kill her.”

“They don’t execute people for that here.”

“That we’re told.”

“They didn’t execute us.”

The reminder sobered both of them. Rax stared out through the curtain of falling water, remembering the day when Alsean healers euthanized two hundred and forty-four Voloth soldiers.

The victims of the first wave of mind-rape, the ones who were broken by terror rather than turned by love, were put into artificial comas as an act of mercy. He had seen some of those soldiers at the end of the battle. They were shattered, suffering so horrifically that he thought the murders he had committed were a blessing by comparison. He would not have wished such agony on his enemies, much less his friends and comrades. They were better off dead.

It took considerable time and worldwide debate for the Alseans to come to the same conclusion, but they eventually got there. In a single day, all of the comatose Voloth were released to death by a painless sedative overdose. Rax had watched the live coverage, with its numbers going from single to double to triple digits. He had not grieved. Those soldiers had died ten moons earlier; this was a welcome end to it.

When the numbers reached two hundred and forty-four, the coverage changed to show the major city temples. Every one of them tolled their great bells, one strike of the bell for each Voloth death. After an entire day of watching his people die and feeling nothing, Rax broke down and wept at the sound of those bells. Back home, his life and the lives of his family and friends were worth little. They would certainly never be mourned by any citizens. But the Alseans mourned them. They revered life so much that they mourned the deaths of their enemies.

In that moment, Rax turned his back on his former life. Everything he had been taught about “primitives” on other planets was a lie. Everything he was supposed to strive for was a misdirection. He and his comrades had been beaten into weapons and used to expand the Empire, all in the service of earning a reward that boiled down to nothing more than protection. Earning citizenship meant protection from the dangers of being a hanger, but Rax had never stopped to think about what he needed protection from.

His own government. His own people.

Here on Alsea, he lived more freely than he would have even as a citizen of the Voloth Empire. Some thrown food and an act of arson notwithstanding, he did not fear Alseans or the Alsean government. They had not enslaved him or sentenced him to hard labor, as he had expected. They had given him tools and supplies and a patch of land.

“Why aren’t we happy with that?” he asked aloud.

Lost in thought, he hadn’t noticed the storm moving away, or the fact that a normal tone of voice could now be heard.

“Happy with what?” Vagron asked.

“This.” Rax swept his hand outward, indicating the deck, the garden, the village. “We fought and killed and a lot of us died for the promise of rights like these. We’re living a life my parents could only dream of. We’re not afraid. But none of us are happy.”

Vagron shrugged. “Rights don’t mean as much when ya don’t have anyone ta share them with. They hate us. I’d choose being hated over being afraid any day, but . . .” He shrugged again. “Gets stale.”

The sheets of water had shrunk to individual streams, and even those were thinning to trickles. Rax gazed at the garden, freshly washed and gleaming in the brilliant sunshine that spilled through the clouds. “Do you ever envy the ones who lost their hearts?” he asked.

“Are your brains boiled? I like my mind intact, thanks. I may never see my lady again, but at least I still love her.”

A small blue-and-yellow bird flitted into the garden and began hunting. “Bring your friends,” Rax told it. “We have too many leafsuckers.” He turned to Vagron. “I can’t help thinking that they have something we don’t. They have someone who doesn’t hate them.”

Mind-rape, it turned out, did not limit its devastation to the victims. The Alsean high empaths who used such horrifying force had broken their highest, most ancient law to do it. They had acted against their morals and cultural training. Rax hadn’t understood how much they suffered as a result until he heard about the suicides.

In an effort to help their veterans, mental healers had set up supervised counseling sessions in which Alseans met individually with the Voloth they turned. The Voloth victims were thrilled. They were finally getting to see the Alseans they loved. Even Rax, who had not been turned in such a way, could understand it. He still remembered his burning desire to please Lancer Tal. That faint smile had set his entire world right; he would give anything to feel such pleasure and fulfillment again. How much more powerful must it be for the ones whose hearts were taken?

“We’re still better off,” Vagron said. “Whatever those high empaths feel for the ones they turned, it isn’t anything I’d want. Pity? Guilt? Na thanks. If it comes ta that, I’d rather be hated.”

“I suppose.” Rax planted his elbow on the table and rested the side of his head against his fist. “I don’t think Belsara and Galor hate me anymore. When I picked up the fertilizer yesterday, they asked about the garden. I showed them images, and they were almost friendly.”

“What a life,” Vagron said. “When ‘almost friendly’ is something ta be proud of.”

They sat quietly, watching the last drops fall from the roof and listening to the slowly fading gurgle of the drainage channel. The squall was off to the southeast, still unloading water in such quantities that it looked as if the clouds themselves were sifting to the ground in streamers.

Gradually, Rax became aware of a new sound: excited voices. He sat up straight and met Vagron’s equally puzzled expression. “What . . . ?”

The voices crested as a group of at least thirty settlers swept around the corner of the dining hall and began trotting up the wooden steps to the deck. “There he is!” someone cried in High Alsean. “Knew he’d be there!”

“Rax!” another voice shouted.

That one he recognized, just before Geelish separated himself from the crowd. He was tugging a woman along by the hand.

An Alsean woman.

Rax and Vagron had time to exchange horrified looks before the pair stopped in front of their table, still holding hands. Geelish was a head taller and at least ten years younger than the Alsean, but they both acted like teenagers wanting permission to stay out late.

“Rax,” Geelish said, his voice still too loud. “Meet Siatra. She wants to live with us.”

Siatra shyly held up a palm. “Well met, Governor.”

Rax climbed to his feet and met her palm touch. “Well met, Siatra. I’m, uh . . . I’m sorry, live with us?”

She stepped back and retook Geelish’s hand. “I know. It must sound strange to you, but if I could explain?” She glanced around. “Without an audience?”

“Right, ya lunkers, move off.” Vagron made a shooing motion. “Give the lady some space.”

Slowly and with a great deal of grumbling, the settlers shifted across the deck. They clustered around three tables and spoke in low, excited tones with many a glance back.

“Please, take a seat,” Rax said.

Geelish nearly broke his ankle jumping to pull out a chair for Siatra. She sat gracefully, giving him a smile, and he beamed with the light of twenty suns.

When the four of them had settled, Siatra folded her hands atop the table and addressed Rax. “I’m sure you’ve guessed that I’m the one who turned Geelish.”

“Yes. That was obvious.”

She cleared her throat. “I was bonded with another scholar, but he’s a mid empath and couldn’t fight in the battle. He never forgave me for fighting. He said it was a moral issue, that I shouldn’t have broken Fahla’s covenant, but I’ve come to realize it wasn’t about that. Not truly. It was about me doing something he couldn’t.”

“He was jealous,” Geelish interjected. “She’s special and he knew he didn’t deserve her.”

Rax thought he might sprain his eyeballs trying not to roll them. Geelish was not their brightest star, but surely even he could see what was happening here?

But then he thought of Lancer Tal’s smile, and the limitless pleasure it had given him. It didn’t matter how smart or stupid Geelish was; the man could not help viewing Siatra as the sum of all happiness.

“Are you still bonded?” he asked Siatra.

She shook her head. “I severed the bond two moons ago. I’m only sorry it took me that long. He made me miserable. I have Geelish to thank for helping me see clearly.”

Geelish’s joy was palpable. “I treat her the way she deserves. Even if she hadn’t come to me, I’d have been happier knowing she realized what she’s worth. She needed to be free of that man.”

“I know how this must look,” Siatra said. “Our counselor talked to us for five sessions in a row about consent and whether Geelish can truly give it. Whether I’m seeking love or merely running toward the easier path.”

“Your counselor approved this?” Rax couldn’t believe he hadn’t been informed.

They looked at each other.

“Not . . . exactly,” Siatra said.

“But we’re done waiting.” Geelish wrapped a long arm around her shoulders. “They can’t stop us from being together.”

“But you can.” Siatra fixed Rax with a look of such understanding that he knew she was reading his emotions. “I’m told we need your permission. So I’ve come to ask it. And I’ll tell you the same thing I told my counselor. I don’t think it matters whether Geelish can truly give consent. What matters is how we feel. He loves me. I’ve never felt a love like that. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be surrounded, bathed in adoration? I tried to stand against it, because it couldn’t be right, but I can’t stop him from feeling that way. I turned him. It’s done. I can’t change it back. And I love him.” She reached up to her shoulder to cover Geelish’s hand. “He taught me to never accept less than I deserve. He makes me happy. We make each other happy. If we can’t change what happened, why shouldn’t we take what happiness we can from it?”

“You’re not the same species,” Rax pointed out. “Have you considered the, uh, difficulties that might cause?”

“We’ve already worked them out,” she said simply.

Geelish looked like a child who had eaten an entire jar of sweets and gotten away with it.

Rax rubbed his face, willing that image out of his head. “I can’t make this decision myself,” he said at last. “It’s too big. We’ll have to convene the village and take a vote.”

Geelish sat upright, grinning broadly and pointing behind him. “Then we’re in! Everyone over there already said yes. They think most of the others will, too. We were only worried about you. But if you’re all right with it . . .” He pulled Siatra in and kissed her. “We’re in,” he whispered, cradling her face. “We just need to build a new house. I’ve helped build half this village; we’re good at it now.”

They were lost in each other’s eyes, and Rax recognized defeat when he saw it. Of course most of the others would say yes. Geelish’s good fortune was the fantasy of every settler who had been turned by an untrained high empath. If Siatra moved to their village, she would become a beacon of hope, blinding too many of them to the probable consequences.

When Geelish led Siatra across the deck, a roar of approval rose into the air. “Let’s get the votes!” someone cried, and the whole crowd thundered off, no doubt to canvass the village.

Rax and Vagron stared at each other in the quiet of the empty deck.

“Shit on a brick,” Vagron said vehemently. “First he takes a red medal at the Global Games, and now he takes someone’s bondmate?”

“They’re in love. I don’t see what we can do about it.”

“We can’t do shit about it. But that is a dangerous love. Ya think the Alseans hated us before? That won’t compare ta how much they’ll hate us now.”

Rax looked past him to where another squall was approaching, heavy and black with rain.

“Yeah,” he said with a sigh. “They will.”


10


High Council

Anjuli was naturally concerned upon hearing of the attack in Pollonius. But when she saw Bondlancer Opah the next day, striding down a State House corridor looking as if nothing had happened, her concern turned to irritation. How much of an attack could it have been if there were no signs of it a day later? She wouldn’t wish harm on the Bondlancer, but it was so unfair the way nothing ever stuck to Lancer Tal.

It seemed that Lancer Tal didn’t take the same view of her good fortune. Word swiftly went around that she had climbed to the pinnacle of bad moods and planted a banner on it. She snapped at anyone who came near, lashed out at those who told her things she didn’t want to hear, and even threw a Councilor out of her office.

The High Council met two days after the unfortunate Councilor was tossed, and Anjuli had a spring in her step as she entered the plush conference room on the fourteenth floor. If Lancer Tal was acting like a mountzar woken too early from its winter sleep, then she would happily poke the beast.

“Good morning,” she said, crossing to the sideboard. “I hope the kitchen staff made those marmello pastries again.”

Near the shannel dispenser, Prime Producer Arabisar held up a half-eaten pastry. “They only made one. I already took it. Delicious.”

“Liar,” Anjuli said cheerfully. “They wouldn’t dare make just one.” She scanned the tray, looking for the telltale dark orange stain where marmello juice had bubbled out during baking. “Ah! Here we go.”

“Must have missed that one.” Arabisar’s smile crinkled her eyes. She was as lean as Anjuli was round, and where Anjuli’s skin was black as night, hers was a rich brown. She looked good in dark green, the color of her caste, and always found some way to wear it. Today it was a delicate shawl around her shoulders.

“You two are welcome to the sweet things. Give me something savory.” Prime Warrior Ehron was perusing the tray of salterins, fragrant with their stuffings of meats and vegetables. “Ah, they’re still warm. Best part of a High Council meeting.”

Anjuli could never share a room with the new Prime Warrior without thinking what a pale shadow he was to Shantu. Where Shantu had been flamboyant and proud, Ehron was quiet and inoffensive. Where Shantu had used his commanding presence to take strong stands, Ehron mostly listened. It was appropriate, given his junior status: both he and Prime Merchant Stasinal had been elected to their positions not half a cycle ago. But sometimes Anjuli wanted to shake him and tell him to speak. He could never replace Shantu, but she wished he had the horns to try.

Prime Merchant Stasinal strolled in a tick later, greeting the others in a husky voice that no doubt came from a lifetime of sampling the grain spirits her family had sold for generations. She was as blonde as the Lancer but wore her hair in a short cut that framed her round face and made her look innocent. What came out of her mouth was far less so. She was sharp, cynical, and let nothing get past her, but her ethics were irreproachable. That quality was the reason for her election, and she had already proven herself a far better Prime Merchant than her corrupt predecessor.

Prime Crafter Bylwytin and Prime Scholar Yaserka arrived together. While both were tall and slender, the similarities ended there. Bylwytin swept in with elegance and grace; Yaserka looked and moved like an underfed dokker. His gray hair was always in a thin tail, he dressed little better than a student, and he was much too aware of his intelligence and education. Bylwytin rivaled Anjuli herself for showy clothing, though her fair skin meant she couldn’t wear the same brilliant colors, and she did not waste her breath unless she had something meaningful to say.

The six of them conversed comfortably as they waited for Lancer Tal. The view through the large windows was spectacular, overlooking the landscaped State Park, but Anjuli enjoyed the interior scenery more. This was the highest and smallest conference room in the building, reinforcing the elite status of the only people who ever met here, yet the windows and lofty ceiling made it seem spacious. Ancient tapestries hung upon the walls and colorfully spun the story of Unification, when Alsea’s warring kingdoms were brought together under one government. The heavy wooden table was surrounded by matching chairs that were five hundred cycles old and so skillfully constructed that even now they did not creak when moved.

But her favorite part had always been the intricate wooden scrollwork in the ceiling and cornices. She liked to imagine the builders and crafters on their scaffolds hundreds of cycles ago, meticulously creating artistry to last for many lifetimes. Such immortality, she thought, was the most compelling draw of her caste.

Lancer Tal arrived as the great bell of Blacksun Temple tolled morn-four. She was in a civilian suit today, her hair loosely pulled back in a clip, and she opened their business without delay.

For the next hantick they discussed the space elevator, the ongoing effort to root out corruption in the merchant caste, the latest effects of the matter printers coming online, and various agenda items brought up by each of the Primes.

Near the end of the meeting, a knock on the door startled all of them except Lancer Tal, who rose as if she had been expecting it. “It’s not on our agenda,” she said as she crossed the room, “because I just learned about this through unofficial channels. But we have a serious issue to discuss today. I’ve asked a guest to offer guidance.”

She opened the door and welcomed Lead Templar Lanaril Satran, who shrugged off a wet rain cloak as she stepped into the room. “Good morning, well met,” she said.

Anjuli and the others offered greetings while Lancer Tal took her cloak and hung it on a wall hook, then indicated one of the rarely occupied guest chairs. “Thank you for coming, Lead Templar. I know it was sudden.”

“It’s always a pleasure to aid the High Council when I can.” Satran settled into her chair. She had much the same coloring as Arabisar, but her black hair was wavy and cut just above her shoulders, and her eyes were a darker shade of brown.

“Will you please share what you told me this morning?” Lancer Tal asked.

“Of course. As you know, templars often counsel veterans who feel they need a more spiritual aid than the secular clinics can provide. We’re bound to confidentiality with a few exceptions, one of which occurred late last night.”

Beside Anjuli, Yaserka murmured, “We’re not going to like this.”

Satran glanced at him. “Probably not. A veteran wanted Fahla’s blessing on the course of action she has chosen, which is . . .” She took a breath. “To enter into a relationship with the Voloth soldier she turned and move to New Haven.”

“What!” Anjuli exploded. The table erupted with similar outbursts, including an actual swear from the usually quiet Prime Warrior.

“That cannot be allowed to happen,” Prime Scholar Yaserka growled. “How could she lower herself so far? Fahla, tell me she’s not a scholar.”

“No warrior would do that,” Ehron snapped.

“This is what happens when we break Fahla’s covenant,” Anjuli added. She had never approved of that tactic, though she could not argue with its success. It still made her skin crawl, the idea of so many high empaths throwing off the only restraint that kept them from abusing their powers.

“Perhaps a little less judgment?” Lancer Tal’s voice was calm but cutting. “And a little more sense. We need to determine whether the government has reason to intervene. The first issue, as Lead Templar Satran pointed out to me this morning, is consent. How can the Voloth soldier consent to a relationship with the woman who empathically forced him to love her?”

“You’re worried about the Voloth?” Anjuli was stinging under the subtle accusation regarding her lack of sense. “Who cares about his consent? He gave up his rights when he invaded and tried to kill us all. I’m more worried about what happens if we don’t stop this. We already had one revenge episode after the Global Games, and I think we can all agree that letting that soldier compete was a mistake.” She paused to give everyone time to remember that she had voted against it, and Lancer Tal had been the tie-breaker.

“If word of this gets out,” she continued, “New Haven will be burned to the ground and we’ll look like weak fools who have lost all touch with what it means to be Alsean.”

“I don’t think consent is the issue either,” Yaserka said.

“How can you say that?” Satran looked as if she hadn’t meant to speak aloud. “My apologies; I know I have no voice here. But you’re talking about the function of government. Government exists to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Regulating issues of consent is one of the most important parts of that.”

“No need to apologize, we appreciate your voice. And if this were any other situation, I would agree with every word. We cannot set a legal precedent for the perpetrator of empathic rape or force to benefit from that violence. We made the Betrayer outcaste and erased his name from history to ensure that.” Yaserka touched the tips of his fingers together in a steeple formation. “But this is a very specific situation born of war. The violence committed here was not a crime. Do we want to set the precedent of criminalizing one of its outcomes? I don’t believe this should be allowed, but not for reasons of consent. I’m concerned about the social precedent. No Alsean should be . . .” He made an ineffectual hand gesture. “. . . with a Voloth.”

Prime Crafter Bylwytin spoke up in her quiet voice. “We shouldn’t forget that this Alsean, whoever she is, did not commit empathic force of her own accord.” Her gaze went to Lancer Tal. “You asked her to do it. And you, Lead Templar, stood beside the Lancer and endorsed the strategy. Are you now thinking of punishing her for doing what you asked?”

“You’re supporting this?” Ehron demanded.

“No, Prime Warrior, I’m not supporting it. The idea makes my stomach churn. But what I’m hearing sounds like accusations of emotional profiteering against this woman. What about her consent? How much control did she have over tying her mind and emotions to an invading soldier? She agreed to be a weapon of terror. Halfway through the battle her orders changed, and she was told to empathically project love on him. A violent perversion of an intimate act. Did she have a choice? Could she have said no? I don’t know about the rest of you, but to me that always sounded uncomfortably close to a kind of reverse rape.”

“That is an extremely disturbing thought,” Prime Merchant Stasinal said.

“Words for Fahla,” Anjuli agreed.

“There is no part of this that doesn’t disturb.” Prime Producer Arabisar adjusted her shawl over one shoulder. “But isn’t the real issue one of reproduction? I’m not sure it matters what two individuals do, regardless of how we personally feel about their relationship. Yes, it’s unhealthy and it comes from an unhealthy situation. That’s not a governmental concern. What should concern us is that they cannot be allowed to bear offspring.”

The room was silent as everyone no doubt felt the same sense of horror. Of course a producer would be the one to consider hybridization, Anjuli thought.

Yaserka cleared his throat. “Well. We haven’t actually studied that.” The since no one thought it could happen went unsaid. “Given the fact that Gaians are gender-locked, we know the Voloth can’t get pregnant. That leaves the Alsean, and I greatly doubt it would be possible for her either.”

“It’s not,” said Satran. “The Alsean we’re speaking of was also concerned about that. Her lover assured her it was impossible because all Voloth soldiers are sterilized when they enter the military.”

“Great Mother,” Arabisar murmured. Bylwytin made a noise of disbelief.

“That’s hearsay,” Yaserka said in an unimpressed tone. “I’ll need something a little more trustworthy than the word of a Voloth soldier wanting to—never mind.” He wrinkled his nose as if he had smelled something foul.

“I’ve confirmed it,” Lancer Tal said. “I also wanted more solid data, so I contacted Captain Serrado. She said it’s the Voloth Empire’s way of ensuring that none of their soldiers lose their utility. Female and male soldiers are both sterilized, and the technique cannot be reversed by anyone other than a military healer.”

“Why not?” Yaserka asked.

“Desertion.” Ehron raised his eyebrows. “Correct?”

“Yes. We already know the Empire holds its military together through fear and punishment, with the promise of rewards. Any soldier considering desertion will also have to consider the fact that if they leave, they’ll never have children.”

“That is barbaric,” Arabisar said. “They treat their own people like livestock!”

“I’d bet there’s a black market for reversing that procedure,” Prime Merchant Stasinal mused. “Probably a lucrative one.”

“Captain Serrado said the penalty for illegally reversing sterilization is extremely harsh. Citizens are stripped of their citizenship. Hangers are sentenced to slavery.”

Stasinal nodded. “Very lucrative, then. The higher the risk, the more expensive the service.”

“As revolting as this is, it does resolve my concern.” Arabisar looked around the table. “If they cannot reproduce, then we needn’t fear hybridized offspring and the legal horrors that would unleash. Now it’s simply a matter of two people entering into a relationship. However ill-advised or unhealthy or morally wrong that relationship may be, the government has no basis for interference. We are not in the business of regulating individual lives.”

There was a short silence before four people began speaking at once. Lancer Tal had to shout to bring order to the room.

Thirty ticks of heated discussion later, Arabisar’s opinion was grudgingly accepted. To a person, every member of the High Council hated the idea of this relationship, but it could not legally be prevented.

It wasn’t until Lancer Tal stood up to leave that Anjuli remembered the one topic that hadn’t been discussed.

“Excuse me, Lancer Tal,” she said loudly. “How is Bondlancer Opah?”

The Lancer froze, then straightened and turned. “Salomen is well, thank you. Fully recovered from the attack.”

Lead Templar Satran shot her a glance, her brow slightly furrowed.

Interesting. If Anjuli didn’t know better, she would say Lancer Tal had just lied and Satran knew it.

“What happened?” she persisted. “We only saw the news reports.”

“That’s all anyone needs to know,” Lancer Tal said shortly. “She was attacked, the assailant is in custody, the situation was resolved.”

Ah, there was the irritation she had expected earlier. “The High Council is not ‘anyone,’ and the Bondlancer is a rather important figure in our government. I believe we’re owed a more detailed report.”

The look Lancer Tal leveled at her was molten. “This is a personal matter—”

“No, it’s not.” She was thoroughly enjoying herself. “It’s government business. If you want to keep your life private, I suggest retirement.”

Lancer Tal flushed, a rare loss of composure, and took a step forward.

Satran stood abruptly and put a hand on her arm. Leaning close, she spoke quietly into the Lancer’s ear.

With a tiny nod, Lancer Tal stepped back. “We’ve run over our time. I have another meeting, but Lead Templar Satran has agreed to give you the details you’ve so kindly asked for.” The sarcastic emphasis on kindly was not subtle, and she gave Anjuli another heated glare as she added, “I’ll be sure to convey to Salomen how concerned you are for her well-being.”

The door closed behind her a piptick later.

Lead Templar Satran retook her seat. “I’m sure you can understand that this has been very difficult for Lancer Tal.”

“Naturally.” Ehron frowned at Anjuli. “Her bondmate was injured and she wasn’t there to protect her. Any warrior would have difficulty with that. The fact that they’re tyrees makes it ten times worse.”

“A hundred times worse, I’d say.” Yaserka wrinkled his nose again, and Anjuli wanted to slap it off his face. “They’re divine tyrees. Always empathically connected, no matter the distance. Imagine feeling your bondmate’s emotions while she’s being attacked.”

“Is Bondlancer Opah truly recovered?” Arabisar asked. “As her Prime, I really am concerned.” Her silent disapproval was palpable; she wasn’t bothering to front it.

“Criticize me all you want, but don’t pretend you’re not glad I spoke up.” Anjuli swept her finger through an arc, covering the others at the table. “You all want to know, but none of you had the horns to ask. I can excuse that in our new Primes. The rest of you should know better.”

“I don’t want your excuse,” Stasinal said. “You were rude.”

Satran held up a hand. “I’m happy to say the physical damage has entirely healed. She was shot in the upper arm with a stud driver—” She paused at the chorus of gasps. “The stud went all the way through her humerus. She was taken to the healing center in Pollonius, where they removed the stud and patched the bone.”

“Hold,” Ehron said. “I saw that image of her walking out of the caste house. Do you mean to tell us she had a stud through her arm bone then?” At Satran’s nod, he smiled. “I met Bondlancer Opah when she was still pre-bonded with Lancer Tal. I thought then that she had the heart of a warrior. Seems I was right.”

“She may have the heart of a warrior, but she has the soul of a templar,” Satran said. “The assailant was a Battle of Alsea veteran suffering from profound trauma shock. She took our Bondlancer hostage as a means of drawing Lancer Tal in for an honor challenge—”

“She did what?” For a moment, as they all stared at him, Ehron looked apologetic for his outburst. Then he scowled. “Lancer Tal refused, I hope.”

“No, she accepted.”

“Fahla love her, but that was a mistake. She’s put a target right over the Bondlancer’s heart. Every warrior with a grudge will think all they have to do to goad our Lancer into a personal fight is hurt her bondmate.”

Satran hesitated. “It was not a warrior with a simple grudge. She was sworn to former Prime Warrior Shantu.”

Anjuli’s head snapped up. “What is her name?”

“I will not share that.” Satran raised her voice over the objections. “It’s no longer relevant. Her intent was to release the Bondlancer unharmed once Lancer Tal arrived. Unfortunately, the situation escalated, and our Bondlancer was a casualty of that. The warrior apologized for her act and has withdrawn her challenge.”

“She walked free?” Ehron asked incredulously.

“No one walks free from trauma shock, Prime Warrior. I’m treating her at Blacksun Temple while her case is being considered.” Her tone warmed. “Bondlancer Opah is the one who called for my assistance. She believes this warrior needs help more than punishment. She’s not filing charges.”

The laugh burst out before Anjuli could stop it. “She won’t file charges? No wonder the corridors clear out when Lancer Tal walks down them. She must be ready to break something.”

“Prime Builder, perhaps you could dig down far enough to find compassion for the woman who saved us all and pays the price for that every day.” Satran’s warmth had vanished; her stare was penetrating. “Lancer Tal is the reason we’re not dead or enslaved. She made the impossible decisions and took responsibility for them. She still takes responsibility for them, and the repercussions haven’t stopped. I’m grateful to her for my life and the continuing existence of Alsea as a free planet. You’re free to be as judgmental and petty as you wish, but keep in mind that you owe that freedom to the woman you’re denigrating.” She looked around the table. “Does anyone else have questions?”

No one did.

“Then if you’ll excuse me, I have duties at the temple. Thank you for including me in your meeting today.”

When the door closed behind the Lead Templar, Anjuli felt the weight of five accusing stares. Ignoring them all, she rolled up her reader card and strode out of the room.

It wasn’t until she was walking into her office two floors down that the thought suddenly occurred to her: Lead Templar Satran had said the physical damage was healed. And she had looked uncomfortable when Lancer Tal said the Bondlancer was fully recovered.

They were hiding something.

She reversed direction and went to her aide’s desk. “Do you know anyone who works in Blacksun Temple?”

He pursed his lips. “No, but I know someone who does.”

“Good enough. I need information.”


11


Secrets

Anjuli was not a spymaster. She was, however, the Prime of a caste whose members could be invisible. No one noticed the builder repairing a crack in a temple stair or tracing an electrical short in the wiring near Lead Templar Satran’s study. Templars, it seemed, were terrible gossips and paid little attention to who might overhear them as they walked down corridors or shared midmeal in the refectory.

It took time, but Anjuli eventually learned the name of the mysterious warrior: First Guard Rahel Sayana. The name came with a recent image showing Rahel sitting beneath the molwyn tree in the center of Blacksun Temple. She was distinctive: a powerful, broad-shouldered body, strong jaw, thick auburn hair in a braid, and slanted light brown eyes. With her exotic looks, Rahel could not easily be forgotten.

Anjuli certainly would not have forgotten meeting her, and she knew Shantu’s Guards by sight, if not by name. She also knew that the highest rank any of his warriors held was that of Lead. First Guard was a level above that.

Shantu had a high-ranking Guard that he had kept secret from everyone, even his lover.

At first, Anjuli was hurt.

Then she was determined.

She spent days plotting a way to get her hands on Rahel’s caste records. As Prime, she had access to any records in her own caste, but accessing those of another caste would necessitate an official request. She briefly considered asking Prime Warrior Ehron, but if he had done his own checking—and he had more resources than she did, including the Alsean Investigative Force—then he would know what she was doing. She didn’t trust him not to run to Lancer Tal.

The answer, when it came, was ridiculously simple: she sent a records request to the Redmoon warrior caste house. In terms of political gossip, Redmoon was as far from Blacksun as one could get without falling into the weeds. At the same time, it was a big enough city that the clerks in that caste house would not blink at a records request from a Prime.

The records arrived at her office less than a day later. She locked her door and read through the file from start to finish, ending even more baffled than when she had begun.

Rahel Sayana had sworn an oath of service to Shantu the day of her Rite of Ascension, the earliest time allowed by law. Nothing in the records indicated how Shantu, then the colonel in charge of Whitesun Base, would have met a twenty-cycle-old warrior who had barely finished training.

For the next sixteen cycles, Rahel remained in service to her first and only oath holder. She had served with distinction: her records were littered with honors and commendations. She had fought bravely in the Battle of Alsea, somehow leading her unit through the worst fighting on the planet with only a single fatality. None of her high empaths had even been injured, an achievement few other unit leaders could boast.

She was an accomplished, decorated, high-ranking Guard who had served Shantu for twice as long as Anjuli had known him—and she was a ghost.

Until she surfaced in Pollonius, attempting to avenge Shantu’s death by beating Lancer Tal in an honor challenge.

“I wish you had succeeded,” Anjuli told the image on her reader card.

The mystery deepened half a moon later when she learned that Rahel Sayana was not the only one in counseling with Lead Templar Satran. Bondlancer Opah was making regular visits, and on two occasions had emerged from Satran’s study visibly distraught.

Then came the image that rocked Anjuli back on her heels: Rahel and the Bondlancer walking down a temple corridor together, shoulders bumping as they laughed.

Anjuli could not imagine a less likely friendship. How could Rahel, a warrior so devoted to Shantu that she tried to avenge him, become friends with the bondmate of his killer?

The answer came in a High Council meeting, when Yaserka reported new statistics on Battle of Alsea veterans and their usage of the special clinics set up to treat their battle trauma. Then he mentioned the veteran who had moved to New Haven, and Anjuli stopped listening. She was too busy putting together the pieces of a horrifying picture.

Bondlancer Opah was an untrained high empath. Somehow, she had hidden her empathic strength from the testers, who should have taken her away for training and a change of caste at ten cycles of age. High empaths could only be scholars or warriors; it was unheard of for one to be a producer.

As Yaserka droned on, Anjuli silently ticked off the clues.

An untrained high empath being counseled by Lead Templar Satran, who had considerable experience with battle veterans.

A warrior who had injured the Bondlancer and was now mysteriously her friend.

A cover-up by the Lead Templar and Lancer Tal.

She barely made it through the remainder of the meeting and left as soon as possible. In the safety of her office, she locked the door and dropped into her chair, staring at nothing.

Bondlancer Opah had used empathic force on Rahel Sayana. It was the only thing that made sense. She had scrambled Rahel’s brain to the point that the poor woman not only apologized and withdrew her challenge, she even became friends with her violator. There were too many parallels with the Alsean who was living with her Voloth lover.

“Great Goddess, she broke Fahla’s covenant,” Anjuli whispered. If she could prove this, she would end Lancer Tal’s administration in a single stroke. The Bondlancer had committed the greatest crime possible, and Lancer Tal was covering it up with the willing assistance of the Lead Templar.

When the Lancer’s office released an announcement shortly afterward that Rahel Sayana had been selected to become the first Alsean space explorer, Anjuli was not surprised. What better way to ensure this secret was kept than to ship its victim off the planet? Rahel would serve on the Phoenix, the Protectorate ship assigned to Alsea and captained by Ekatya Serrado, Lancer Tal’s friend. If she put a foot over the line, she would no doubt never see Alsea again. Or breathe oxygen, for that matter.

Nothing could have kept Anjuli from attending the departure ceremony. It was her first chance to see Rahel Sayana in person. Nearly two moons had passed since the attack in Pollonius, and it had taken nearly all that time for her to put the pieces together. If she couldn’t help Rahel, at least she could bear witness to her suffering.

Even with that expectation, she was jolted when Shantu’s most devoted warrior walked onto the temporary outdoor stage in the dress uniform of a Bondlancer’s Guard.

“They took everything from you, didn’t they?” she murmured.

It was painful to hear Lancer Tal’s speech lauding Rahel and calling her an inspiration. It was worse when Bondlancer Opah spoke, testifying to Rahel’s personal qualities and calling her a friend. But the most horrifying moment came when Rahel took her leave of the Bondlancer—and dropped to one knee with her head bowed.

That was a position of the greatest humility, a public declaration of worship. Anjuli’s heart ached as she watched Bondlancer Opah extend a hand and pull Rahel to her feet.

They had shattered that poor woman, whose only crime had been to serve Shantu with the fiercest loyalty, and Anjuli could do nothing about it. She had no proof.

At the next High Council meeting, she antagonized Lancer Tal so overtly that the other Primes were visibly startled. If she couldn’t get justice for Shantu or Rahel Sayana, she could at least make the Lancer’s life a little less comfortable. She relished every flinch and sign of anger.

“Thank you, everyone,” Lancer Tal said at the meeting’s end. Her speech was clipped; she was barely holding on to her temper. “Prime Builder, come with me to my office.”

Anjuli ignored the pitying looks of her fellow Primes and followed Lancer Tal out the door. This was a fight she looked forward to.


12


Cage of choice

The Lancer’s office was three times the size of Anjuli’s, capped by a pair of wooden doors that she had long admired for their extraordinary artistry. Each door was carved and set with several different wood inlays, all beautifully worked to depict one half of a molwyn tree. The combined effect produced by the two doors together was an astonishingly lifelike, three-dimensional tree that practically begged to be touched and appreciated.

Anjuli had no time to touch it as Lancer Tal threw open one of the doors and strode inside. She followed and reverently closed the door behind her, taking a moment to run her hand down the equally beautiful wood on the inside. Here, the image was that of the shield of Alsea: similar to the outside, but with a telling difference. This side spoke to governance.

“I am done with this,” Lancer Tal growled. She stood stiffly in front of her desk, bathed in late morning light from the wall of glass behind her.

“Good,” Anjuli retorted. “So am I.”

“Your attitude is affecting the High Council. You’re openly insubordinate, disrespectful, antagonistic—you’re interfering with the operation of this government!”

I am? What about you? How can a Lancer who doesn’t respect the government run it?”

“Respect, what a joke. You don’t know what the word means. If the builders could see the childish way their Prime behaves—the utter petulance!—they would vote you out in a heartbeat.”

Anjuli’s fury rose. “If anyone could see the corruption in this office, they’d vote you out in a heartbeat!”

“Unbelievable!” Lancer Tal shouted. She tipped her head back and visibly controlled herself before speaking in a lower voice. “I will not let this continue for one tick longer. We will stay in this office until you tell me what I’ve done to earn such anger and disrespect from you, and then we’ll decide how to move past it.”

For too long, Anjuli had held her tongue out of political sense and self-preservation. Two people could no longer speak for themselves, and the Lancer wanted to know what she had done? Anjuli was finally angry enough to tell her.

“You want to move past it? Then bring Shantu back from the dead, and restore Rahel Sayana to the loyal warrior she was before she had the misfortune to cross you and your bondmate.” She observed Lancer Tal’s surprise with savage satisfaction. “Oh, is that not in the power of Fahla’s Shekking Chosen? Then we have nothing to talk about. Come find me in my office when you have a plan to repair the damage you’ve done!” She wheeled around and opened the righthand door.

A very large Guard stood facing her. His arms were as thick as her legs, and he looked as if a bomb beneath his feet would not move him.

“I did not give you permission to leave, Prime Builder!” Lancer Tal’s voice was pitched to carry as she walked up to the door. “If you won’t respect me, you will at least respect the title of Lancer. You don’t leave this office without being dismissed. Senshalon?”

The gigantic Guard snapped to attention. “Yes, Lancer.”

“Don’t let anyone else in. If the Prime Builder opens this door instead of me, you are to escort her straight to the builder caste house where you will file a claim for caste insubordination in the name of the Office of the Lancer. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Lancer.”

“Good.” She slammed the door and faced Anjuli with a hint of triumph in her eyes. “Now you have a choice.”

Anjuli burned with outrage. “Is there no end to your malice? That will be all over the State House in half a hantick! All of Blacksun will hear it by sunset! A formal claim at the caste house? Do you know how large that fine would be?”

“Quite substantial, I would imagine.” Lancer Tal shrugged negligently. “It’s not the fine that concerns you.”

“You’re trying to destroy my reputation!”

“No, I’m balancing the scales. I have looked the other way for eight moons while you needled and jabbed and baited, because I thought you needed time. But you need more time than I can afford to give you.” She walked toward the far corner of the room, where a gleaming shannel dispenser sat atop an antique sideboard. “Would you like a cup?”

The sheer effrontery of the woman!

“What do you think will happen here? We’re going to sit down like friends and have a nice chat? You just embarrassed me! You threatened me. In what world does that lead to a diplomatic resolution? Oh, I forgot—in the warrior world, where power is everything and the pain of a broken heart means nothing.”

Anjuli snapped her mouth shut too late, horrified at what she had revealed. But Lancer Tal did not respond. She stood at the dispenser, calmly filling a cup as if she hadn’t heard.

That was the end. Anjuli had never meant to make herself that vulnerable, but to do so accidentally and then be ignored? It was beyond endurance. A growl escaped as she stepped to the door and viciously twisted the lever. She was a piptick away from yanking it open when sense returned.

Opening that door would cost her everything. She would not be able to fight the claim of insubordination. Not when it was true, and not when the antechamber was full of witnesses. Her behavior at the High Council meeting would sink her as well. She would lose her seat. Everything she had worked for, everything she still hoped to accomplish . . . all lost, simply for opening a door.

Irin would be so disappointed in her.

She rested her forehead against the carved wood and tried to get her breathing under control. She was trapped, perfectly and without effort. It had taken Lancer Tal one tick and a handful of words to put her in a cage, locked by her own choice.

When she straightened, her captor was standing by the shannel dispenser, a cup in one hand. At least now she was paying attention.

“Do you even have a heart to be pained?” Anjuli asked. “How does the Bondlancer tolerate it? She must be as heartless and manipulative as you. She bonded with you for the power, and you’re just two seeds in a—”

The cup shattered against the wall.

Anjuli froze, shocked by her words and their result. Lancer Tal stalked toward her, emanating a danger that seemed to darken the room.

Obeying the deep instinct telling her to run, Anjuli took one step back and hit the door. Her hand scrambled for the lever, but fear had erased her spatial memory and all she encountered was carved wood.

It was too late. Lancer Tal stood before her, one arm pulled back for a strike and her face twisted with rage. Anjuli ducked her head and squeezed her eyes shut, anticipating the blows that would surely land her in the healing center.

So terrified was she that it took several pipticks to realize she was still unharmed. When she ventured to look, Lancer Tal’s arms were at her sides, both hands clenched into fists.

“If you were a warrior, I would challenge you right now.” The soft words vibrated with fury. “I would take great pleasure in beating you to the fullest extent allowed by law. The healers would need a nineday to put you back together again.” Her calm vanished. “How dare you insult Salomen! What in Fahla’s name has she ever done to you?”

From somewhere deep inside, Anjuli found courage she didn’t know she possessed. “I know about Rahel Sayana,” she said fiercely, though her legs trembled and her heart raced. “Shantu’s most loyal warrior, shattered and warped into a parody of herself. Your bondmate used empathic force on her. She broke her mind and rewrote her loyalties, as if that poor warrior were a Voloth. How fortunate that she had you and the Lead Templar to cover up her crime. How convenient that Rahel was shipped off the planet.”

Lancer Tal’s incensed glare morphed into something indecipherable. Then she let out a broken laugh that chilled Anjuli’s spine.

“So close,” she said, shaking her head. “You are so close to the truth and yet a thousand lengths away from it. Yes, Rahel Sayana was Shantu’s most loyal warrior. That’s why he tasked her to kidnap Salomen’s brother. She would have killed Herot Opah if she hadn’t been stopped.”

Anjuli pressed a hand over her pounding heart. “That wasn’t—”

“She didn’t use her real name for the covert assignments. Shantu locked her biometric data to her alias. But she used it when she came after Salomen. She told me she carried that name with pride.” She clamped her jaw shut on the word pride, nostrils flared for a harsh breath. “She said it during hostage negotiations, when she held Salomen trapped and bleeding. Do you know what Salomen did when it was over? Do you know what she did to the warrior who shot her and almost killed her brother?”

Anjuli thought she did, but she was still trying to take in the fact that Rahel was the one involved in Shantu’s terrible plan.

“She saved her.” Lancer Tal seized Anjuli’s forearm, her wrath burning through their skin contact. “Try listening to the truth instead of your warped fantasies. Salomen didn’t break Rahel. The Battle of Alsea did that. Salomen helped put her back together. That heartless woman spent five days in the healing center, sitting through counseling sessions with her attacker. She even took her home to Hol-Opah, and do you know why? Because they became friends.”

Anjuli stared in growing horror at the fingers gripping her arm. She felt no dissonance of untruth.

“Fahla, I hated that. I couldn’t think of a worse friend for her, but I’ve realized something over the past two moons. That warrior would do anything for Salomen.” Lancer Tal yanked Anjuli’s arm upward, holding it at eye level. “Lies cannot survive touch. Salomen is the best thing that ever happened to Rahel, but that truth comes too late for you. Take your vicious judgment and your appalling assumptions out that door. This conversation is over. My efforts to make peace with you are over. Remember that limit I told you about? You’ve crossed it, and there is no coming back. Get out.”

She shoved Anjuli back and tugged down the sleeves of her jacket, then glanced up with scathing contempt. “Why are you still here?”

Anjuli was incapable of speech, too shocked at her catastrophic error.

“Ah, I forgot,” Lancer Tal said. “You can’t leave until I dismiss you.” She moved toward the door.

“Wait!” Anjuli slid sideways, blocking the lever with her body. “I didn’t know.”

“Is that supposed to be an excuse?”

“No, of course not, but—” She stopped. The end of that sentence was, in fact, an excuse. “Lancer Tal, I apologize. I made a mistake. I formally retract my words about Bondlancer Opah.”

The silence grew as they stared at each other.

“I don’t accept your apology.”

She flinched when the hand landed on her shoulder, but Lancer Tal simply pulled her away from the door and opened it.

“Senshalon, the Prime Builder and I are done.” She turned around and brushed past Anjuli without looking at her. “Go.”

Slowly, Anjuli opened the door the rest of the way and stepped across the threshold. The Guards in the antechamber had resumed their normal activities. No one watched her other than Senshalon, who stood waiting for her to clear the door.

The Prime Builder and I are done.

She had meant that literally. It was final, spoken in a voice as hard as ice.

Anjuli felt as if a curtain had lifted, showing the last eight moons with startling clarity. She had sharpened her anger and grief into a weapon and flung it, over and over again, believing Lancer Tal’s tolerance to be born of her guilt. With such a deserving target for her hate, she had never thought there could be a point of no return.

Until it passed so abruptly that she hadn’t even seen it go by.

Summoning all of her authority, she looked the Guard in the eye. “I’m sorry; I need one more tick of her time.” Giving him no chance to react, she stepped back into the office.

Lancer Tal was crouched in the far corner, collecting the broken pieces of the shannel cup. When the door shut, her hands stilled and her back went rigid.

“I thought I told you to get out.”

Anjuli approached her as she would a vallcat in her garden. “You did. But I cannot leave without saying one thing, and I hope you’ll hear me out.”

After a pause, Lancer Tal reached out for another piece, its jagged shape at odds with the highly polished wood floor.

Anjuli took that as permission and crouched down beside her. She picked up a shard and said, “If someone insulted my Irin the way I just did your Salomen, I would wait until they were away from home, and then I would go and loosen every fastener in the roof. Then I would pretend surprise when the roof caved in during the next windstorm.”

Lancer Tal looked up, her expression unreadable.

“I truly am sorry,” Anjuli said. “I was wrong, terribly wrong. Bondlancer Opah has nothing to do with our fight.”

She waited for an answer that did not come, then sighed and picked up another piece. A slender arc of dark green crossed the top; at the bottom was a dot of red. It occurred to her that she hadn’t seen the design before it was destroyed.

“You will never, and I mean never, speak of her that way again.”

She caught her breath at the sudden surge of hope. “I promise.”

“She deserves your respect. Power was the last thing she wanted.”

When their eyes met this time, she understood that she had blindly struck the one place where Lancer Tal had no armor.

“No,” she whispered. “I don’t imagine that she did. I was at your bonding ceremony; I felt her.” She had felt them both in the Great Sharing. How could she have forgotten that glimpse into their hearts?

The Lancer held her stare far too long before tilting her head in an almost imperceptible assent.

Anjuli exhaled, her body sagging with the sudden release of tension. “Thank you.”

They resumed their cleanup in silence. It was impressive, the number of pieces a shannel cup could break into when hurled with sufficient force.

“Did you know this is the first time in eight moons that you haven’t been angry with me?” Lancer Tal asked.

Anjuli let out a sound that could have been a laugh. “Because I’m too angry at myself.”

“That’s an improvement.”

She reached for another shard. “Perhaps from your point of view. Not from mine.”

“Pain can make us say things we don’t mean.”

“So you did hear that.” She plucked out a white sliver that had lodged in the seam between the carved molding and the wall. “How did this even land here?” Adding it to the growing pile in her other hand, she said, “You killed Shantu.”

“I didn’t want to.”

“But you did it anyway.”

“I had no choice.”

She clenched her hand. “Yes, you did!”

“Anjuli, let go.” Lancer Tal held a hand under her fist. “Open it.”

She frowned at her fist, only now feeling the sting. Carefully, she relaxed her grip and let the shards fall into Lancer Tal’s palm. One remained, its point embedded in her skin and marked by a growing drop of bright red blood. It demanded her focus as the drop collapsed into a stream and ran down her palm.

Lancer Tal plucked out the shard, then put a hand under her elbow to help her up. “We’re done here.” She moved away and threw the shards into a bin next to the shannel bar. It must have been empty, for the shards clattered loudly as they landed.

Distracted by the sound, Anjuli was looking at the bin when she realized that Lancer Tal was pushing her forward, nudging her hands into the sink. Automatically she washed them, noting the pink of the water and marveling at how such a small amount of blood could look like so much.

By the time she had dried her hands, the Lancer was holding up a skin sealer. She felt like a child, offering her hand to be mended.

When the cut had been sealed, Lancer Tal drew her to the comfortable chairs by the windows. “What choice do you think I had?” she asked as they sat. “Because I assure you that I did everything possible to find a way out.”

“You are the master of manipulation. That’s not an insult this time. I’ve seen you do it and I’ve benefitted from it. The builders have benefitted from it. Everyone has. Why couldn’t you find a way to stop him?”

Anjuli’s voice was too high, her grief too close to the surface, and Lancer Tal seemed genuinely sad as she shook her head.

“I didn’t know if I could survive that challenge. There was every chance Shantu would kill me and leave Salomen with a broken tyree bond. Do you truly believe I would have let that happen if there were any alternative?”

When she put it that way, it was impossible. And yet—

“Why did you let him in the State House?” The question burst through eight moons of devastation. “Why didn’t you have him detained before he could challenge you in front of the whole world? You knew what he had planned!”

Lancer Tal leaned forward, her forearms resting on her thighs. “Then he would have issued his challenge to the warriors who detained him. They’d have brought him straight to me. He used a law so ancient that no one could stop it once it was invoked.”

“No. There had to have been a way. There’s always a way. Isn’t there?”

The cushion creaked when Lancer Tal reached out and took her hand. This time, her touch was gentle. It was her compassion that hurt.

“There was no other way.”

Truth. Undeniable truth.

“Damn him,” Anjuli whispered. “Damn you both.” She sucked in a breath, trying to hold back the tears. “Do you know what it was like to watch that? He cut you to pieces. I thought he would kill you. And then you killed him.”

Though Lancer Tal said nothing, her emotions spoke volumes. Anjuli met her eyes with a shock of comprehension. “You didn’t want to.”

“I told you that.”

“But—he was always your greatest threat.”

“If that’s how you think I deal with political threats, then you’ve had more courage than the entire warrior caste, antagonizing me all these moons.”

For someone trying to rebuild a bridge, Anjuli seemed capable only of knocking out more supports. She shook her head and tightened her grip, hoping the gesture would explain better than nonexistent words.

“He was a constant thorn in my neck.” Lancer Tal matched the strength of her grip. “And an arrogant ass. He was also a brilliant commander who saved thousands of lives in the Battle of Alsea. I wanted his expertise, not his death.”

Her vision blurred at the unexpected praise. “I was terrified for him during that awful battle. But he came back glowing. He said his whole life had been leading up to it, that he was born for it. He said if he Returned the next day, he would Return with joy because he had earned the right to stand proudly in front of Fahla.”

The compassion flowing through their touch was too much to bear. She dropped Lancer Tal’s hand and clenched hers into a fist. “And then he threw it away. All of it. His triumph, his life, us. And I wasn’t allowed to say good-bye. You didn’t let me say good-bye.”

The last word was little more than an expulsion of air as her chest caved in.

She had not wept for Shantu when he died, too shocked at the event and lacking any private opportunity for days afterward. When at last she found time to grieve, her eyes remained dry. The unshed tears could not breach the dam she had built.

It must have cracked, she thought dazedly. Dams did not simply collapse without warning. She had missed the warning signs and now she was here, inundated, in the worst possible place and with the worst possible person.

With her face buried in her hands, she didn’t see the Lancer move and was startled by the voice coming from so near.

“Take this.”

A kerchief was dangling in front of her. She accepted with a nod of thanks and held it against her still-streaming eyes.

Lancer Tal rested a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll fetch that shannel.”

The weight on her shoulder vanished, and she listened to the quiet sounds of the other woman moving around the room. Hot shame cut through her grief, slowing the flood. Despite all she had done, Lancer Tal was treating her with respect, allowing her time to collect herself and recover her pride.

By the time the Lancer returned with two cups of shannel, Anjuli had dried her face, blown her nose, and made herself as presentable as possible. She even managed a smile when she accepted her cup. The design, it turned out, was an arrangement of geometric patterns in the colors of the castes.

“Thank you. And not just for the shannel.”

“You’re welcome.” Lancer Tal sat across from her and took a quiet sip. “Losing a loved one is a terrible burden. Losing them before you can say good-bye—I’m not sure anything hurts more.”

That was the voice of experience, she knew. “Your parents?”

“After all this time, it can still feel fresh. Not often, but sometimes.”

Anjuli was enjoying the soothing warmth of shannel on her ravaged throat when her mind replayed the Lancer’s earlier words. Losing a loved one.

A loved one.

She spluttered and hastily set the cup aside, trying to keep the liquid from going down the wrong pipe.

“It’s not my business, Anjuli.”

“Is that why you took my hand? So the truth would run both ways?”

“I do wish you’d stop thinking the worst of me. Sometimes a gesture of kindness is nothing more than that.” Lancer Tal set her cup on the side table. “All I wanted was to recover our working relationship. I hardly think blackmail will do that. Not to mention that it’s not how I govern.”

She felt scraped raw. The woman she had hated for eight moons, who had threatened to destroy her career not twenty ticks ago, knew her biggest secret.

But this was also the woman who had allowed skin contact and offered respectful silence in a moment of grief.

“I know,” she said. “Even Shantu couldn’t deny your honor. Though I think he wished he could have.”

Lancer Tal smiled before her gaze dropped. “Did he give you that?”

She hadn’t even realized she was doing it. It was habit, rubbing her finger along the smooth curve of that particular bracelet. And she was sick of hiding.

“There’s an advantage in wearing so many,” she said, holding up her forearms. A quick shake made the bracelets dance and chime. “It would take a very observant person to notice one new one among all the others.”

“And the only person whose observation you care about is Irin.”

“I don’t want him to be hurt. Especially now, when it no longer matters.”

“It matters to you. Have you not told anyone else?”

“Great Goddess, no. Are you insane?”

Ignoring her rudeness, Lancer Tal said, “But that means you couldn’t mourn him.”

Anjuli could not believe she was speaking of this at all, much less with the Lancer, but it was such a relief that someone knew. “Mourn him? I can hardly even say his name in public. I’ve hated you for making him an outcaste. You took more than his life. You took his memory.”

“The entire caste voted on that. Do you hate all warriors or just me?” Lancer Tal paused at Anjuli’s glare, then briefly closed her eyes, her shoulders dropping. “I cannot apologize for doing what I had to. But I’m deeply sorry for the pain it caused you.”

It was the apology she had wanted for eight moons. She had imagined it in so many ways, always ending in triumph.

She felt no triumph now, only grief and an appalling truth she had never let herself acknowledge.

“I would have ended it with him if he’d won.” An unwilling smile crossed her face. “Don’t look so surprised. He would have killed you for political gain. How could I love the man who did that? He brought violence and barbarism to the heart of our government. There is blood on the Council chamber floor.”

“And I put it there.”

“You didn’t make the challenge. You’re just the one who finished it.”

Lancer Tal studied her. “You don’t blame me,” she said carefully.

Anjuli shook her head.

“Then why have you been so angry with me?”

“Irin asked me that. Frequently. I had a different answer every time, and they all made sense then. They still made sense half a hantick ago.” She slowly spun the bracelet, taking comfort in the smooth slide of metal. “I’m not angry with you. I’m angry with Shantu. But he’s not here.”

It was a monumental confession, yet Lancer Tal simply nodded.

“I’m sorry,” Anjuli whispered. “I didn’t know that until now.”

“I’m glad you know.”

“I’m not. It was easier being angry with you. Now I’m—”

“You’re what?” Lancer Tal asked when she didn’t finish.

She let her hands fall to her lap, bracelets jingling at the impact. “Heartbroken. Furious with a man I can never speak to again. When that fight started, I knew I was going to lose no matter which of you won. You walked away, but—”

“I was carried away.”

Anjuli looked up, startled. How could she forget that? She was haunted by the vision of Shantu falling to the floor, never to rise again. Yet she had forgotten Lancer Tal’s collapse shortly after.

The memories flooded back: The days Lancer Tal spent in the healing center as thousands kept vigil outside. The constant stream of worshippers in Blacksun Temple, burning offerings for Fahla’s Chosen. The way all of Alsea held its breath while she recovered.

Then she reappeared in the State House, looking as if the fight had never happened—and Anjuli’s pain and rage found its target.

“Goddess above,” she murmured. Without her impenetrable shield of anger, the truth bit into her conscience. Lancer Tal had done precisely what Alsea needed. She had proven that the crisis was over, that both the government and its leader were intact. Anything else would have been political negligence, yet it was the very thing Anjuli had punished her for.

“I know you understand the pain of loss,” she said, trying to defend the indefensible. “But you can’t understand the pain of loss that’s unspoken. That I’m not even allowed to have.”

“After all this, you’re still making assumptions about me.” Lancer Tal reached for her cup. “The only thing worse than that kind of pain is suffering it alone. Trying to look as if nothing is wrong when all you want to do is curl up in a dark room.” She sipped her shannel with a casual air, as if she hadn’t just described Anjuli’s experience with perfect accuracy.

“Who did you lose?”

“Someone I wasn’t allowed to have. But it got better when I could finally speak of it.”

Anjuli ran her fingertip along the bracelet. “Good for you. I’m not that lucky. There’s no one I can talk to.”

“Yes, there is.”

“Who, a templar? No thanks, I don’t—” She gaped at Lancer Tal’s expression. “You? Why would I—no, never mind that, why would you want to hear it?”

Lancer Tal tapped her fingertip on the side of her cup. “I’m angry with him, too. We were never friends, but I could always depend on his honor. Until he lost his damned mind and forced me to kill him in front of the whole world.” Her finger tapped again, two quick beats before she looked up. “I don’t want to spend any more time being angry with a man who will never hear my reasons. Do you?”

Anjuli shook her head. Anger had done her no good at all. It had nearly cost her everything.

“Then tell me about the Shantu I didn’t know. Remind us both of who he used to be.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

Lancer Tal leaned back, hands wrapped loosely around the cup in her lap. “How about at the beginning? When did he start to become more than a friend?”

“We shared midmeal after a High Council meeting,” Anjuli said slowly. “He told me that no one made him laugh the way I did.”

“Or smile. I noticed that a long time ago.”

“You did?”

“Shantu always smirked at the rest of us. He smiled at you.”

It didn’t seem reasonable that such a simple observation could elicit such happiness. But she had never thought anyone else noticed. Knowing that Lancer Tal had, and that she was listening—it was as if a solid wall had suddenly sprouted a door.

“He was so different, away from here. I suppose we all are, but he truly was.”

“Did you always call him Shantu?”

“He preferred it. I tried to use his first name once.” Her cheeks warmed at the memory. “That ended in a wrestling match. I lost.” She glanced up, looking for judgment, but Lancer Tal seemed intrigued.

“It’s difficult to imagine a playful Shantu.”

“Oh, he played. In that vexing warrior way.”

Lancer Tal’s smile allowed the door to swing wide open.

The stories bubbled up then, crowding for space now that they had an outlet. They filled the places previously occupied by anger and grief, and for the first time since his death, thoughts of Shantu did not suffocate.

The conversation lasted for a hantick, her words and memories coming easier with every tick. Lancer Tal seemed genuinely reluctant to end it, citing an appointment she could not reschedule. If it was political theater, it was the best performance Anjuli had ever seen.

After their cordial parting, she walked through the antechamber in a dreamy daze. Her title was safe, yet that was not the main source of the relief that lightened her steps and made the corridors seem more brilliantly lit.

Not until she entered the familiar space of her office did she understand what Lancer Tal had engineered. Had anyone told her to expect it, she would have laughed at the impossibility. But she felt better than she had in eight moons, because she had finally been given the freedom to speak of her lover.

To his killer.


MONSTERS WITHIN

Uprising


13


Last resort

Andira Tal bid good-bye to her guest, walked back to her couch, and fell into it with a groan. “Spawn of a fantenshekken,” she whispered, hands over her eyes. “That’s it.”

She dragged her hands down her face and blinked at the empty shannel cup left behind by the Prime Builder. Salomen had given it to her a moon ago, one of a set of six. Now there were five.

Anjuli Eroles had no idea how close she had come to being as shattered as the sixth cup. But she had known enough to be petrified with fear. The strength of her terror had fed the monster, and Tal had needed every last shred of her will to hold it back. She was a piptick away from losing when Salomen’s calming influence flowed through their bond.

So many times over the past two moons, Salomen had pulled her back from the brink. Tal hated the fact that she needed help, but Salomen had the same response every time: Who gave birth to that monster?

This time, even Salomen’s aid was barely enough. They fought with all of their combined empathic strength, Tal’s fist shaking in the air as the three of them did battle in her mind. At last the monster drew back just far enough for her to slam the door on its cage once more. With the snarling ringing in her ears, she had summarily ended a political partnership that Alsea could ill afford to lose.

Eight moons she had spent trying to save that partnership. Eight moons of tolerating everything the grieving Prime Builder threw at her—and she had set it all on fire in a single moment.

It took a great deal to surprise Tal, but she was truly shocked when Anjuli came back.

“Never let it be said that warriors have all the courage,” she murmured, letting her arms fall limply to her sides.

After five ticks, she felt recovered enough to take the used cups to her sideboard. From the cupboard beneath, she pulled out a bottle of spirits and popped off the tab. A heavy blue mist flowed out and down the neck of the bottle, caressing her hand with its cool touch.

She poured a healthy serving, drank half of it, refilled the glass to its prior level, and carried it over to her desk.

One tap activated her Gaian pad in its stand. A second called the Phoenix. Never mind the matter printers or the space elevator; she thought quantum coms were the true miracle of Protectorate technology. It had been one of the greatest adjustments to her thinking, the idea that the speed of light was slow.

She was no longer limited by Fleet rationing of personal quantum com time. Since the Phoenix was assigned to Alsea, calls between its captain and the Lancer were considered business. The com officer was used to her calls and routed them straight to their destination, which was wherever Captain Ekatya Serrado happened to be on her ship.

Today it was somewhere in the engineering section, judging by the equipment Tal could see behind Ekatya’s smiling face.

“Andira, how are you?”

“Not that well. Are you busy? Can we speak privately?”

Ekatya’s smile dropped. “Hold on, I’ll go kick my chief engineer out of his office. He doesn’t need it anyway.”

The pad went blank for half a tick, then blinked to life again. “This man needs to clean his office,” Ekatya grumbled. “I had to shove a pile of tools off the chair before I could sit in it.” She pushed a lock of black hair behind her ear. “What’s wrong?”

“Before I tell you that, how is Rahel Sayana doing?”

Her expression said she recognized the delay tactic but would go along with it. “Just fine, all things considered.”

“That doesn’t sound like a rousing affirmation.”

“No, it is. She’s everything you said she would be. But there were bound to be some settling in issues. We ran into one yesterday. I’m ashamed to say that seven of my security crew tried to bully her.”

“What happened?”

“Mayhem happened. Those idiots attacked her while she was practicing with her stave. She took them down in less than half a tick. Every one of them, Andira. Broken bones all over the place, and she didn’t have a mark on her.” She shook her head with a soft laugh.

Tal found herself smiling, both as a reaction to Ekatya’s mirth and her own pride in an Alsean warrior, even if it was that warrior. “Why is that funny?”

“Because . . .” Ekatya chuckled again before sobering. “There’s a lot of gossip floating around about why I accepted her. I needed her to prove herself, but I hadn’t figured out a way. She took that out of my hands.”

“You wanted her to take down your crew?”

“Well, it wouldn’t have been my first choice. But the whole ship is already buzzing with it. She took down security crew. Trained fighters. Seven of them at once. Honestly, I can’t think of anything she could have done that would have been more effective. Oh! Here’s a story you’ll enjoy.” Her face lit up again. “She’s been through her first exit transition from base space. Dr. Wells tested foramine on her brain chemistry and said it wouldn’t do any harm, but she couldn’t guarantee it would help, either. Rahel got it into her mind that she’d go without. I told her that was a bad idea. She said real warriors don’t need drugs to get them through physical discomfort.”

Tal wished Salomen were hearing this. “How long did it take her to realize she was insulting you?”

“About two pipticks. You should have seen the look on her face. She fell over herself trying to explain, but every word just dug that hole deeper.” Ekatya’s lips were twitching. “But I was a good captain. I said I thought the same thing my first time, so I didn’t take my foramine. And when we came out of base space, I spent the next hantick vomiting so hard I thought my toenails would come off.”

A chuckle rumbled up Tal’s throat. “Graphic personal illustrations; I salute your teaching methods. Then she took the foramine?”

Ekatya gave her a look of exasperation. “Apparently, all Alsean warriors are stubborn.”

“So judgmental. How long did she vomit her toenails off?”

“That’s the irritating part. She spent the transition in the medbay. Dr. Wells said she sounded like a child on a thrill ride, and when it was all over, the first thing she wanted to know was when we could do it again.”

Tal would never have believed she could laugh so soon after her encounter with the Prime Builder, but Ekatya always brought it out of her. “So much for the captain’s infallibility.”

“I know! Now she’ll never believe me when I give her advice. And Dr. Wells thinks Rahel is my personal gift to her. She’s running ten different studies. I’ll need more Alseans just to fill her data set.”

Tal sat back in her chair, more relaxed than she had been since getting out of bed this morning. “If Rahel makes it through with her flag still flying, we’ll see about getting you more.”

“Good.” Ekatya watched expectantly, her job done. There would be no more delays.

“Thank you for letting me ease into it.”

“Any time. What happened?”

She rubbed her forehead ridges. “I have a confession. I didn’t tell you everything about why we chose Rahel for this program.”

For a piptick, Ekatya looked hurt before a cool mask slipped into place. “Another lie of omission? I thought we were past that.”

“Ekatya, no—shek.” She hated that expression. “It doesn’t have anything to do with her service to you.”

“But it has to do with you.”

“And Salomen. If it were only my secret . . . Fahla, you have no idea how much I wanted to tell you.”

The mask fell away as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by open concern. “You’re protecting her.”

“Yes.”

“Is she all right?”

“Better than me,” Tal muttered. She took a fortifying drink and set aside her glass. “What I’m about to say could blow up my administration.”

“Could you just tell me? I’m starting to think I need to turn this ship around.”

After the last hantick she’d had, this simple gesture of support nearly unwound Tal’s control. She swallowed down the tightness in her throat and said, “Salomen didn’t just use empathic force on Rahel.”

Ekatya’s eyes rounded. “Didn’t just? Meaning something worse? What’s worse than that?”

“Remember when we were strategizing for the Voloth invasion, and you suggested we have our high empaths make the Voloth kill themselves?”

“Yes, but you said that wasn’t possible because self-preservation is the deepest instinct . . .” She trailed off, her mouth hanging open. “No.”

Tal nodded. “We didn’t know how strong she was before. We do now. She’s the strongest empath in our history. There has never been an Alsean who can do what she did.”

After a heavy pause, Ekatya said, “Well, Rahel is alive and happy on my ship, so it didn’t work.”

“It did. She was two pipticks away from shooting herself in the head. Lead Guard Vellmar stopped her by putting a knife through her hand.”

“That’s how she got that injury? How is she normal? Why isn’t she like—”

“A broken Voloth?” Tal finished for her. “I don’t know. Somehow, Salomen managed a perfectly targeted attack. Lanaril says there’s no damage. None. Those Voloth were shattered by the empathic equivalent of war hammers. Salomen went in like a surgeon.”

“How? She’s not even trained.”

“Pure instinct. This might sound unbelievable—” As Ekatya raised her eyebrows, Tal added, “More unbelievable than usual.”

Ekatya rested her chin atop her fist. “I’m listening.”

It was a relief to tell the whole story; to explain how Salomen’s mindstorm had flattened eight Guards and nearly killed Rahel while infecting Tal with the same lethal instinct.

“Salomen purged herself of that instinct by acting it out. I never got the chance,” she concluded.

“So you still want to kill her.”

“With every fiber of my being. It’s not rational. I know they’re friends now. I know it would hurt Salomen if anything happened to her. But I could cheerfully tear her apart with my bare hands.”

“And yet you touched her palm at the departure ceremony.”

“I wanted to wrap my hand around her throat,” Tal said flatly.

“I’m impressed. I was right there and never noticed a thing. If you ever retire from politics, you’ve got a second career in acting.”

“I had help. Salomen was feeding me some, ah, distracting emotions.”

Ekatya sat up straight and snapped her fingers. “That’s why you chose Rahel for this program. You wanted to get her off the planet.”

“She’s qualified,” Tal assured her. “I wouldn’t have put someone on your ship who wasn’t. But yes, we were hoping that would cure me. Ekatya, that instinct—it’s taken over my life. Salomen and I call it the monster, because it feels like I have one living inside me. I didn’t know what was happening until I broke a promise to Vellmar and gave her such a dressing down that she still doesn’t move the same way around me. A lifetime of living by my word, and I tossed it away without a second thought. That’s when we started trying to control it, but nothing works for long. And anything can set me off, especially if it has to do with Salomen.”

She saw the realization in Ekatya’s face.

“Shipping her out with me didn’t work, did it? What happened today?”

It was remarkably difficult to say, even to a friend who understood.

“I, ah. I almost killed Prime Builder Eroles.”

They stared at each other in silence.

“You’re not being hyperbolic, are you?”

She shook her head.

“Whew. That’s not good. What did she do to set off your monster?”

“She insulted Salomen.”

Ekatya waited, then frowned. “That’s it?”

“You see the problem.”

“Fucking Hades!”

Tal had learned enough Common to know what that meant. “Yes. That does sum it up.”

“But you didn’t kill her. You’re still in control.”

“By the edge of my fingernails. Ekatya, it was too close.”

“But you didn’t do it,” Ekatya insisted.

Tal appreciated her stubborn faith. “No, but what happens next time? I’ve fought this for two moons, and I just lost my last hope. I’m breaking the law now. It’s illegal for a Lancer to conceal an illness that may affect her governance. I either resolve this or resign.”

“What? You can’t resign! The Protectorate would birth a brick. I would birth a brick. I don’t want to work with another Lancer!” She lifted a finger. “Wait. You have a plan.”

“I have a last resort.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“I need to try to kill someone.”

Ekatya’s mouth formed an O. “That . . . seems like somewhere beyond the last resort.”

“Suppressing my monster doesn’t work. Trying to control it doesn’t work. Shipping Rahel off the damned planet didn’t work. There’s only one thing left to do. I have to let it win.”

“Shek, Andira. How are you going to do that?”

That was the big question. She had spent several ninedays thinking about it.

“When Vellmar first joined my Guards, she and I sparred with swords. She got past me and drew blood, and I was so mentally exhausted from everything that had been happening that I went into a rage. I—”

“When was this?”

“The day before I killed Shantu.”

Ekatya nodded. “Not a good time.”

“I forgot who I was fighting and went after her with everything I had. She was good enough to handle it. It was . . .” Tal smiled in remembrance. “Spectacular.”

“You Alsean warriors are a breed apart. You think assault with a deadly weapon is therapy.”

“You mean it isn’t for you? What about that bar fight on—”

“Oh, no.” Ekatya held up her hand, palm outward. “We’re not talking about me.” Her amused expression dissolved as she rested her forearms on the desk and leaned in. “You want Vellmar to recreate that fight. To let you lose control and really try to kill her.”

The sense of release made her chest hurt. “I could have spent a hantick trying to explain that to someone else.”

“I do know you, Andira.” Ekatya ran a distracted hand through her hair. “I wish you’d told me earlier, but I understand why you couldn’t. Will it be swords?”

“Too dangerous. Even as good as she is, I have a monster on my side. I might actually kill her. It will have to be hand-to-hand.”

“Have you told Salomen?”

Tal winced. “We’ve discussed it as an option. She’s not enthusiastic. Vellmar is her friend.”

“You’re her tyree,” Ekatya pointed out. “No one is walking away from this without getting hurt.” She paused. “That’s why you called, isn’t it? You have to do this, but Salomen will never support it. You need someone to tell you it’s the right thing to do.”

And that, Tal thought, was why she loved Ekatya Serrado. “Is it the right thing to do?”

Ekatya glanced down, pursing her lips in thought, then slowly nodded. “You wouldn’t consider something this dangerous if you hadn’t exhausted every other option.”

“I have.”

“Even if you resigned, you’d still have your monster. What would keep you from killing someone in your civilian life? You’re a walking bomb this way. You need to defuse it.” Her jaw firmed. “It’s the right thing.”

The pain in Tal’s chest was washed away by warmth. “If you were here, I’d probably crush you in a warmron.”

“Give me a warmron the next time you see me. Andira, be careful. I have a feeling you’re only going to get one chance at this.”

When Ekatya signed off several ticks later, Tal drained her glass before tapping her earcuff.

“Vellmar. I need to see you in my office.”


14


Catharsis

Vellmar agreed. But she had conditions.

“I want Colonel Micah there. And we’ll need Senshalon standing by if I can’t hold you off. Or if you push me so hard that I lose control, too. I trust him, and he’s the only one big enough to get between two fighters in a blind fury.”

“Done,” Tal said.

“We should bring in Dewar,” Vellmar added, naming their unit medic. “Unless we want the publicity of a visit to the healing center.”

“Not if I can help it, and I already planned to ask her. I hope your list ends there.”

“One more thing. No matter what happens, you don’t blame me for it. I want that in writing.”

Tal held out her arm. “I swear on my honor.” She smiled as they clasped forearms in a warrior’s agreement. After all this time, she was finally acting rather than reacting.

They set the time for the following morning, giving Vellmar a day to prepare. That afternoon, Tal wrote a directive absolving her of any blame for the outcome. She set the file to copy itself to both of Vellmar’s supervisors, Head Guardian Gehrain and Chief Guardian Micah, and paused with her finger hovering over the reader card.

Did she trust her Lead Guard this much? This directive gave her free license. Vellmar could take this and do anything short of killing her.

Then she remembered the Prime Builder cowering against her office door, frozen with fear.

A firm tap sent out the directive and its copies.

Salomen was anguished when she heard, but not surprised. That morning’s battle with the monster had frightened her, too.

“I cannot watch it,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I won’t watch you hurt each other. This is worse than Shantu in some ways. At least then I knew who to support.”

“Not me. Not this time. I know it’s habit now, but if you feel me losing control, you have to let me go.”

She pulled Tal into a desperate warmron. “I hate that you’re both having to do this because of me.”

“It’s not because of you. It’s because we’re divine tyrees. If we weren’t, your monster would have died in Pollonius.”

“So I should blame Fahla?”

“You’re her vessel,” Tal tried to joke. “Who better to blame her?”

Salomen was not amused.

They flew to Hol-Opah for evenmeal and stayed the night. Salomen’s refusal to live in Blacksun full-time had set the political gossips twittering for several moons, but by now Alsea was resigned to the fact that the first producer Bondlancer in sixteen generations was determined to remain a producer. Salomen still worked her fields, directed the plantings, and helped raise her youngest brother, Jaros. At ten cycles of age, he was far too young to lose her influence when he had already lost his mother.

Most importantly, though, Hol-Opah was Salomen’s heart-home. It was where she went to relax and recover from the demands of being the Bondlancer, and of all times, she needed it today.

The next morning, Tal left Salomen with her family and flew back to the State House alone. She took a light mornmeal in her quarters, then dressed for sparring in skintight leggings and a sleeveless shirt that fit closely enough to prevent an opponent from grabbing a handful of fabric. For half a hantick, she moved through her forms, warming her muscles and trying to ignore the tingle in her gut. Before Blacksun Temple tolled the next hantick, she would either have beaten her monster or been beaten by it.

At the appointed time, she bypassed the lift and walked down fifteen flights of stairs to the ground floor, using the exercise to loosen her legs. The first sign that today was not an ordinary day was the Guard blocking access to the corridor outside the training room.

“Lancer Tal,” he said, thumping his fists to his sternum and bowing his head.

She nodded her acknowledgement and walked past him, stopping in front of the training room door to shake out her hands. With a deep breath, she opened the door and stepped onto the wooden observation deck overlooking the space below.

A sweeping glance found Dewar already setting out medical supplies, Senshalon standing next to Micah near the left wall, and . . .

Her stomach contracted when she saw the red-haired woman stretching one leg on the bench beneath the deck. The interloper looked up and stared insolently, her light brown eyes adding to the sense of surrealism. For one wild moment, Tal thought Rahel Sayana was here after all.

“Vellmar?” she asked hesitantly. She knew it was, but the hair and eye color were disconcerting. Only now did she realize how much Vellmar’s black hair and dark blue eyes weighted her mental image of the woman.

“Not today,” Vellmar said. She offered no salute.

Tal had never expected her to go that far to play a role. “Are you ready?”

“I’m just waiting for you, Lancer. I was wondering if you’d lost your courage.”

Tal didn’t know how to respond. Vellmar never spoke this way. Not the tone, not the words.

Disrespect fairly steamed off Vellmar’s skin as she took her leg off the bench, stood straight, and cast a bored look up at Tal. “Or perhaps you did,” she drawled. “Since you don’t seem in any hurry to get down here.”

Tal stared at her, torn between irritation and an increasing discomfort.

You asked her to do this, she reminded herself. Play along.

She turned and walked down the steps to the training floor, where she toed off her shoes and left them beneath the bench. Ignoring Vellmar, she strode out to the large center mat and stood facing Micah. They had agreed to treat this as a standard honor challenge, with him as the judge.

“Is the judge prepared to begin?” she asked.

He stepped up to the edge of the mat, Senshalon moving beside him. “I am. Do the combatants confirm their commitment?”

“Yes,” said Vellmar.

“We do.” Tal shook her head the moment the words left her mouth. Vellmar’s hostile look confirmed her error. She could not speak for Vellmar and nearly apologized before remembering that she would never do that with an opponent in an honor challenge.

“Very well,” Micah said. “Then the rules are this: no eye, ear, or throat strikes, all other body zones within limits, and the fight does not end until one of you yields or loses consciousness. Begin on my word.”

They turned to face each other and dropped into their ready stances.

A heavy stillness settled over the room. Tal focused on Vellmar’s disturbing brown eyes and felt the familiar thrill of competition tingling through her limbs.

“Begin,” Micah said.

Vellmar struck out first, as Tal knew she would. They had sparred together often enough for her to develop an instinctive understanding of her Lead Guard’s habits and patterns. She blocked a quick triplet of punches with her forearms, sending each one to the side, before lashing out with a strike that snapped Vellmar’s head back.

With the fluidity that was a signature of her style, Vellmar let her body follow her head, rebalanced herself, and launched a backward roundhouse kick. Tal had not been expecting that and barely managed to deflect the kick upward while ducking beneath it. Using her bent knees as a spring, she threw herself forward and took Vellmar down to the mat, intent on putting her in a choke hold. But Vellmar twisted, using her weight advantage to shake Tal off. They scrambled up, facing each other in the same position as before.

“Point to me,” Tal said with a grin.

She and Vellmar had always made a friendly—if slightly vicious—competition out of their sparring bouts. But Vellmar did not smile back, nor acknowledge their connection, and Tal remembered too late that this was not a normal match. The familiar physicality had pulled her into the wrong mental space.

The strike came in the half-piptick before she could readjust her strategy, spinning her around. Despite the pain radiating through her jaw, she managed a kick with the momentum of her spin.

Vellmar dodged it with ease.

They traded blows back and forth for the next several ticks, too evenly matched and too familiar with each other’s styles to do any real damage. But the effort was taking its toll; both were breathing hard when they drew back in an unspoken agreement to pause and regroup.

Tal wiped the sweat off her forehead before it could get in her eyes and moved her jaw experimentally. She was going to have a sizable bruise there. Vellmar had gained strength in her strikes since she had begun training with Senshalon.

Vellmar eyed her. “Aren’t you going to give that point to me?”

She allowed no time for an answer before lunging forward, deflecting Tal’s block and slamming a fist into her side.

Tal grunted, the instinctive expulsion of breath helping to tighten her abdominals, absorb the impact, and fuel an upward strike that caught Vellmar under the chin and propelled her back. It earned her enough space to launch a swift side kick, but when her leg was caught and twisted, she had no choice but to let her upper body hit the floor.

Vellmar made her first mistake in not releasing the leg immediately, enabling Tal to use it as leverage. Bending the knee of the captured leg, she whipped the free one upward and wrapped it around Vellmar’s neck, dragging her down to the mat.

Vellmar curved her spine forward and pushed off, adding her momentum to the impact. She rolled on the landing and put herself out of reach.

Tal quickly rose to her feet, wanting to recover her balance before they engaged again. Not until she was straightening did she realize that Vellmar had something else in mind.

She was unprepared for the full body slam that tackled her face-down to the mat.

As they fell, the arms sliding around her body told her which pinning hold this would be. She barely managed to get her own arm into a countering position before Vellmar tightened her grip, pulling their bodies together and holding her down with her greater weight.

“You still think it’s about points,” Vellmar said quietly. “It’s not. It’s about you failing your tyree. You let her get hurt.”

Tal could not believe her ears. “Don’t you dare—”

“Don’t you dare to think you can tell me what to do. You’re not the Lancer here. I’m your equal in this fight.” She shifted her hold, pushing Tal’s shoulder joint into a painful extension. “I held Salomen like this when I shot her, did you know that?”

Rage pounded through Tal’s blood, her heartbeat hammering in her ears. “You are taking this too far,” she snarled. “Let go of me right now.”

“That’s how you think this fight ends? You started it, but I’m going to finish it.”

Tal shoved her arm upward, forcing enough slack into the hold around her other shoulder that she was able to reach Vellmar’s wrist. She gouged her thumb into the pressure point, breaking the hold, and shoved Vellmar away as she rolled free. Both scrambled to their feet, but Tal was faster and launched a kick before Vellmar could get herself into position. It connected high up, and if she was any judge, she had just cracked a rib.

She was too angry to care. Ruthlessly she targeted the same rib in a flurry of strikes, growling in frustration as Vellmar managed to deflect them all. But the assault was forcing Vellmar backward, putting her in a defensive position as she tried to find room to maneuver.

With implacable focus, Tal followed, keeping the pressure on. It didn’t occur to her that she was moving into a trap until Vellmar sprang it, tangling up her legs and sending them both to the mat. Tal landed on her back and had no time to draw breath before a stunningly powerful elbow drove straight into her nose.

Her vision whited out, the pain exploding through her head. Part of her mind clinically noted that her nose was broken, observed that she hadn’t experienced that since childhood, and pointed out that she was in serious trouble if Vellmar didn’t let her up. She was choking on the blood that poured down her throat.

Nor was that the only danger. A weight across her throat was cutting off what little air got past the blood.

“She’s very strong, your tyree,” a voice whispered in her ear. “It wasn’t easy to hold her. I had an arm across her throat just like this, though not quite in the same position.”

The pain receded beneath a wave of rage, clearing her vision enough to see the brown-eyed, red-haired woman staring down at her.

Rahel. Rahel had done this to Salomen. Rahel had threatened her, frightened her, hurt her . . .

“She was so brave, too—hardly made a sound when I shot that stud through her arm. It must have hurt so badly, but she only lost her balance for a piptick. I held her through it. Strong and courageous; what a combination. You don’t deserve her. You let me hurt her.”

Tal let out a gurgling howl of pure fury and clapped her cupped hands against Rahel’s ears. It was an illegal move and would disqualify her, but she didn’t care about winning cleanly. She only cared about killing this woman.

Stunned by the percussive blow, Rahel fell backward.

The instant the weight lifted off her throat, Tal surged up and reversed their positions. Using her momentum, she brought her fists together and came down with her upper body weight on Rahel’s cracked rib. Judging by the hoarse cry of pain, she was viciously certain she had displaced it.

She coughed and spat out blood, spattering it all over Rahel’s shirt. The sight drove her further into her murderous haze. She wanted to see much more blood, enough to mean this woman would never hurt Salomen again.

The blows rained down, targeting the broken rib, the jaw, the nose. She would leave the throat for last, making sure Rahel suffered as much as possible before she delivered the killing blow.

Someone wrapped their arms around her torso and lifted her bodily into the air. She screamed her rage, struggling against this person keeping her from finishing the job, but whoever was interfering was far larger and stronger than she.

She snapped her head back, connecting with her captor’s chin hard enough to make herself dizzy. A male voice swore a pained oath above her, and the hold around her chest loosened. Blindly she reached for any means of freeing herself, encountering the man’s hand in her scrabble. She wrapped her fingers around his thumb and wrenched outward with all her strength.

Another oath rang out as her captor released her. She pushed away from him, twisting around to find Rahel—and ran straight into an uppercut that lifted her off her feet.

She was unconscious before she hit the mat.


15


No winners

Colonel Corozen Micah was paralyzed with shock, unable to believe the fight had gone so far afield so quickly. Then pandemonium broke out.

Dewar was racing across the mat toward Tal, Vellmar fell back with a groan and curled into a protective ball, and Senshalon was shouting.

“Shekking Mother, what did you do? I had her! It was over!”

Vellmar didn’t respond, and Micah wondered if she could even hear him. Her ears were surely still ringing from the illegal move Tal had used on her.

“You didn’t have her,” he said, eyeing the blood on Senshalon’s chin as he hurried toward them. “You’re lucky she didn’t break your nose as well.”

Senshalon gingerly tested a tooth with his finger. “No, but she loosened two teeth.”

Micah’s earcuff came to life with the last voice he wanted to hear.

“What in Fahla’s name just happened? Where is Andira?” Salomen sounded panicked.

“She’s here,” he said, crouching down for a better look at Vellmar. “Safe. The fight is over.”

“And she . . . lost?”

Micah wasn’t sure how to characterize the end of that fight. “Vellmar performed her task,” he said, more for Vellmar’s sake than Salomen’s. “Tal will be fine.”

He felt secure in guaranteeing Tal’s physical recovery, if not the mental one. He had never seen her lose control like that. The sounds she had made . . . He shivered.

“I just landed. I’m coming down there.”

Spawn of a fantenshekken, she wasn’t even supposed to be here. Tal had said she was staying at Hol-Opah. “I would strongly recommend against that. Dewar is patching them up. I don’t think you want to see them until she’s done.” He paused. “Salomen?”

She hadn’t bothered to close the call, and was no doubt running across the landing pad. He sighed, tapped his earcuff to clear the frequency, and rested a gentle hand on Vellmar’s shoulder. “Can you hear me?”

Vellmar nodded once, her features twisted in pain.

“Dewar is working on Tal. She’ll help you as soon as she can.”

Another nod. Vellmar closed her eyes.

“Stay by her,” he told Senshalon, and moved over to Dewar. “How is she?”

“Beaten to a paste.” She had rolled Tal onto her side and was bandaging her nose in place. “Severely bruised abdominals, broken nose, bruised larynx, her jaw is already swelling, and she’s going to have a lump on the back of her head to match the one in front. Then there’s the concussion, but I can’t assess that until she regains consciousness.”

“But nothing is serious?”

“Besides what we all saw? That looked pretty serious to me.” She pressed down the last strip and shoved the wrapper in her pocket. Dabbing a sterile cloth against the blood still dripping from Tal’s nose, she added, “I need you to watch her. If she comes out of it, don’t let her roll onto her back. She should sit up and lean forward to drain this blood. Will you clean her up? And spread the salve?” Without waiting for an answer, she pressed two packets in his hand, then applied a skinspray to Tal’s wrist and moved away.

Micah ripped open the first packet and began wiping off the blood. If Salomen saw this, she would hit the farthest moon.

Dewar sprayed Vellmar’s wrist and urged her to uncurl, frowning at the silent refusal. “If you’re still hurting that much after the skinspray, then I think we’re too late to keep that broken rib from damaging your lung.” She loaded a different compound and thumbed the trigger.

This time the reaction was visible as Vellmar sighed and relaxed.

“Senshalon.” Dewar motioned him over. “Help her up.”

It took a bit more urging to get Vellmar to move, but she eventually allowed herself to be pushed into a sitting position. Dewar put a sterile cloth in her hand and pressed it just below her nose. “Hold it there while I get your rib wrapped.”

By the time she had secured a stabilizing bind around Vellmar’s chest, the cloth was already red. She briskly disposed of it and produced a fresh one. “The good news is that you’re so happy with all the drugs now, you won’t feel me set this,” she said, wiping Vellmar’s face.

The door flew open and Salomen pounded down the stairs. Careless of her shoes, she ran across the mat and slid to her knees between Tal and Vellmar. “Great Mother of us all, what did you—” She stopped, staring open-mouthed at Vellmar. “You made yourself look like her? Why would you do that?”

“Senshalon,” Vellmar mumbled. “The control.”

“Hm? Oh! Yes, of course.” He pulled a small control from his trouser pocket and pressed it.

With the deactivation of the colorizers, Vellmar’s hair returned to normal. She looked up at Salomen, revealing eyes that were blue once more, and said, “I’m sorry.”

Salomen gingerly rested a hand on Tal’s shoulder. “I should have been here. I don’t even know what you’re apologizing for. Surely not for winning the fight.”

“Nobody won,” Micah said.

“But Andira said—”

“It was never about winning.” He was getting a bad feeling about Vellmar, who had closed her eyes again. She showed no reaction to Dewar’s ministrations, not even when her nose was set with an audible click.

“That didn’t sound good,” Salomen said weakly. She took a deep breath and drew herself up. “Someone needs to explain to me what just happened, and why everyone in this room looks like their crop failed.”

“That can wait for later,” Dewar said as she taped a bandage across Vellmar’s nose. “First we need to get them to the healing center. I know Lancer Tal hoped to keep it more private, but they did too much damage.” She dug into her pack and took out a tiny tube with a screen attached at one end. Gently, she inserted the other end in Vellmar’s ear and shook her head. A quick look in the opposite ear brought the same result. “Lead Guard Vellmar has two perforated eardrums, a displaced rib, and possibly a punctured lung, and Lancer Tal should be under observation until we’re sure her larynx won’t swell up. I want her there for the concussion, too. Not to mention that both of them need intervention for these noses if they don’t want to look like wallballs by midmeal.”

Salomen appeared stunned at the list of injuries. “What didn’t they do to each other?”

They were all startled when Tal gasped and began coughing. “Water,” she croaked, struggling to sit upright.

Micah helped her up, and Dewar held out a flask. Tal accepted it with a nod of thanks and took several gulps.

“Fahla, I hate swallowing that much blood,” she said in a rasping voice.

“Are you all right?” Salomen reached for her face, then changed direction midway and settled for a touch on her leg.

“As well as I can be.” Tal’s gaze went to Vellmar, who had neither moved nor opened her eyes. “Is she?”

“As well as she can be,” Dewar answered. “You’re both going to the healing center.”

Micah thought it was a sign of how shaken Tal must be when she agreed without argument.


16


Conspiracy of silence

“What in the name of all that grows is going on?” Salomen demanded before the door had closed behind her.

“Ouch,” Tal whispered. “Salomen, please. Not so loud.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Do you have a headache? Is that from the concussion or the broken nose?” Salomen dragged the guest chair closer to Tal’s bed and sat down. “Or maybe it’s from the effort it must have taken for you to beat Fianna so badly that she’s temporarily deaf, with a lung they tell me missed perforation and collapse by the width of a hair.”

Tal closed her eyes and wished Micah were here. He had shielded her from Salomen’s rapidly rising anger on the way to the healing center, and after that the healers had shut the door in everyone’s faces while they tended to her injuries. Now she was on her own, and Salomen had clearly decided she was well enough for interrogation. Tal did not share her opinion.

Then the words registered, and her eyes snapped open. “She’s deaf?”

“You ruptured both of her eardrums. Healer Wellernal said he was surprised the bones in her middle ear were still aligned. He plugged something called isolators into her ears to heal the tympanic membranes, and she can’t hear a thing until the procedure ends tomorrow. She had a fractured jaw and a whole lot of bruising around her torso, because you turned a cracked rib into a fully displaced one, and then you came this close to driving the sharp end into her lung.” Salomen held out her finger and thumb, a breath of air between them.

“You told me this wouldn’t happen,” she said in a quieter voice. “You said you were taking every precaution. You assured me that Fianna was too good to let herself be badly hurt, and even if she wasn’t, Senshalon would stop you. You said I had to let you go, so I did. Then I find that Fianna wasn’t good enough, Senshalon wasn’t good enough, and everyone in that room has sudden amnesia. What happened?”

Tal should have expected this. If there was one thing Salomen did not tolerate, it was being held outside. She had been horrified and guilty in the training room, but having all five of them refuse to answer her questions had sent her emotions in a different direction.

The problem was that Tal still didn’t know how to answer.

“It worked,” she said.

Salomen shot her a disgusted look. “I know that. You think I didn’t feel it the moment you woke up?”

“Can we not celebrate that, then? Salomen, we did it. It wasn’t clean and it wasn’t easy, but it worked. The monster is dead.” In truth, she had thought freedom would be more of a triumph. Perhaps the medications and discomfort were holding it back.

Salomen picked up her hand and ran a gentle finger over the ravaged knuckles. “You nearly broke your hand on her face. How am I supposed to celebrate that? I’ve watched Fianna spar before. She never goes down for long. I keep seeing—” She looked up, the anger splintering into grief. “You really did try to kill her.”

Tal’s nod was cut short by a spike of pain. “It wasn’t working. I wasn’t angry enough. Vellmar woke the monster.”

“How?”

“I’m not ready to talk about that.”

Frustration prickled through their link, but Salomen’s touch was still tender. “She won’t speak to me. In the training room, she apologized. When I visited her just now, she did it again. That’s all she’ll say, that she’s sorry. I don’t know what she’s sorry for. No one will tell me, including you. She’s in worse shape than you are—which is damn well saying something—so why is she the one apologizing? Her knuckles don’t look like yours.”

Because she used words as her weapons, Tal thought.

“Did she try to kill you first?”

“No,” she said automatically, but then remembered an arm across her throat as she choked on blood.

Salomen raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t feel like no.”

Tal shook her head to rid herself of the memories and let out a pained groan when one spike turned into two. “Shek! Would you please call the healer? The paincounters have worn off.”

“We’re not done with this conversation,” Salomen warned as she reached for the vidcom on the bedside table.

“I know.” Tal hoped whatever paincounters they gave her would put her to sleep for the next two days. Perhaps by then Salomen would decide she didn’t want to know what had happened after all.

And perhaps dokkers would suddenly learn to sing.


17


Sanctuary

Despite the many duties and responsibilities weighing on her as Lead Templar, Lanaril Satran always found time for temple rounds. Running the largest temple complex on Alsea made for an unending list of distractions, but when she stepped into the temple itself, she was inevitably reminded of her true purpose.

This glorious open space, with the ancient molwyn tree at its center basking in light from the domed glass roof, gave solace to those in need. Some required only the peace of the temple and an opportunity to commune with Fahla. Others needed more: the comfort of being surrounded by worshippers, the feel of molwyn bark beneath their hands, or perhaps the visual and emotional boost of lighting a row of ten oil bowls—or an entire rack of one hundred—and watching the flames burn.

The needs of most worshippers were easily met by the temple itself, but there were always a few whose needs were greater. They were the ones templars were trained to find.

Lanaril began her round by walking along the circular wall with its cushioned benches. This was where the elders usually gathered, seeking physical ease as they gazed into the interior of the temple. Some were regulars, coming at the same time each day, and she always enjoyed chatting with them. She couldn’t stay long if they didn’t need her, but in truth, she needed them. They brought a continuity to her days that gave her comfort, and that had its own value.

With a smile at the last elderly man near the interior doors, Lanaril turned toward the molwyn tree and scanned the people standing amongst the oil racks scattered throughout the temple. Thirty of her templars were making their rounds, a sufficient number for the small crowd. This was a quiet time of day.

Seeing that the nearest worshippers were either content or already being cared for, she moved inward. On her second sweep, she noticed a figure on one of the deck benches.

To save the roots of the molwyn tree and keep soil from being tracked over the tiled floors, all larger temples had raised wooden decks built around their trees. Some worshippers preferred the benches edging the deck for their proximity to the sacred tree, while others avoided the greater visibility of sitting in the center of the temple. Lanaril could not have said what drew her gaze so unerringly to this one figure among dozens on those benches, but the moment she focused, she recognized her. It didn’t matter that Fianna Vellmar was out of uniform, or that her hair was loose and obscuring her face as she sat cross-legged with her head bowed. Lanaril would have known her from a much greater distance than this.

Moving quietly, offering a smile here and a palm touch there, she made her way to the wooden steps and then onto the deck.

Fianna did not look up when Lanaril sat next to her, a clear sign of distress though her front was perfect.

“This is the first time I’ve seen you here,” Lanaril said. “Did you come to speak with Fahla or me?”

“You. Lost my courage halfway through, so I thought I’d sit here and see if it came back.”

“Why would you need courage to see me?”

Slowly, Fianna lifted her head. Her hair fell back, revealing her face, and Lanaril could not stop the gasp.

“What happened to you?”

Fianna turned, showing the full extent of the damage. Though her nose was straight, the faded bruising around her eyes was evidence of a break. More bruises covered her jaw. But it was her expression that worried Lanaril the most.

“It’s all about cost, isn’t it?” Fianna looked up at the thick, gnarled branches reaching over their heads. “Lancer Tal asked me for help, and I gave it, but it came at a price. If I ask you for help, what does it cost you to give it?”

Lanaril did not know where to begin with the information packed into those short sentences.

“Andira did that to you?”

Fianna’s generous mouth tipped into a sad smile. “See? There’s the first cost. I don’t want this to affect your friendship with her. She told me what to expect.”

“We’re not talking about this here,” Lanaril decided. “Come with me.”

She led the way to the inner temple doors and through a maze of corridors most members of the public never saw, with Fianna following like a silent shadow. Another set of doors opened onto the interior courtyard, where they were abruptly plunged into brilliant sunshine.

The dome of her temple soared overhead, dwarfing the rest of the complex. Surrounding them on the other three sides were living and working spaces for the many templars who spent their careers here, as well as the guests who used the retreat quarters. Lanaril loved this courtyard, with its elegant arches, ancient downspouts for rainwater management, and equally ancient landscaping. The molwyn tree at its center was planted one thousand, three hundred and fifty-three cycles ago, ten cycles after the one in the temple.

She had little time to appreciate it now. With Fianna still following—always a step behind, never beside her—she crossed the courtyard and entered the back half of the complex. The sun-drenched hall was lined with floor-to-ceiling windows on one side and arched entries on the other, the nearest of which opened onto a long corridor. At its far end, she laid her palm on a biolock and stepped into the foyer of her personal quarters, where she quickly removed her shoes and nudged them beneath the shoe bench. Fianna did the same.

Not until they were seated on the sofa overlooking the private, high-walled garden did Fianna finally speak, her gaze on the view.

“I thought you’d take me to your study.”

“You’re not my patient. You’re my lover.”

“But I am a patient, aren’t I? If I come to you for help? You said you wouldn’t always have anything left to give me. I said I’d give you comfort.” Fianna faced her then, dropping her front and revealing the self-loathing Lanaril had feared. “Here we are, three moons later, and I’ve already come crawling to you twice. So much for your needs.”

Lanaril inhaled slowly, tamping down her first response and only then letting her front fall. “Do you think comfort is only provided in response to distress? Every hantick that we spend together, when you let me be who I truly am—that is a comfort.” Her words hit a wall of disbelief, and she shook her head. “I thought I was being honest when we had that discussion. I wanted you to go into this relationship with a clear understanding, but it seems I dug you a hole instead. You’re devaluing your own offerings while overvaluing mine.”

“No, that’s not—”

“We’re lovers, Fianna. That means we can expect more from each other than we do from anyone else. It means I should be the first person you come to when you’re hurting. It doesn’t mean you should be keeping count and worrying that you’re going over some pre-defined limit.”

She wasn’t getting through that stubborn warrior pride, the need to not be a burden. Hoping that physical contact might do more to get the message across, she slid her arms around Fianna and pulled her into a warmron, only to be met with stiffness and an alarmed intake of breath.

Instantly, Lanaril let her go. “You’re hurt there, too.”

“It’s healed. Just a little sore still.”

“More than a little.” She clasped her hands together to keep them out of trouble. “Please tell me what happened. Let me help.”

Fianna looked back at the view for some time before speaking. “Lancer Tal asked me to perform a special service.”

By the end of the tale, Lanaril was regretting having dropped her front. She could not hide her reactions, leaving her with the far more difficult option of trying to tamp down the anger that Fianna did not want to cause.

“Colonel Micah said I completed my task,” Fianna finished. “Lancer Tal sent me a message saying it worked. She gave me three days off to recover and said we’d talk when I come back. I don’t know what to say to her. I don’t know what to say to Salomen. I did my job, but—” She clenched her jaw, then spoke in a carefully controlled voice. “I think it’s going to cost me everything.”

Lanaril had known about Andira’s monster since the beginning. She had never expected her to go to such lengths to defeat it, and even now she didn’t know how it had been triggered. There was a significant gap in Fianna’s story, and she suspected it held something toxic. “What did you say to her? To make her lose control like that?”

Fianna met her eyes for the first time since beginning her tale, the guilt flaring hot. “Please don’t ask.”

Toxic, indeed. “All right. May I see the directive she sent you?”

Ignoring the relief pouring off her companion was a courtesy she often practiced in counseling. Doing it here felt wrong, a blending of work and home that she had always tried to avoid.

Fianna tapped open her reader card and held it out, but did not release her grip when Lanaril reached for it.

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

Two words was all it took to put Lanaril at ease. “You’re welcome. I never want you to feel uncomfortable with me.”

“I feel more comfortable with you than anywhere else.” Fianna held her gaze, making sure the message was received, then let go of the reader card.

Lanaril’s ease vanished as she scanned the file. “Mother of us all,” she blurted, and read it again to be sure her eyes hadn’t deceived her. “Do you realize what this means?”

Fianna shrugged. “She won’t hold me responsible. That doesn’t mean she’ll ever want me back. I can’t be her Lead Guard if she doesn’t trust me.”

“Of course she trusts you.” Lanaril tapped the reader card. “This is a public declaration of it. If I weren’t seeing it with my own eyes, I’d never believe Andira signed her name to this. She gave you permission to do anything. She ceded control to you. That took immense trust.”

“I was proud of it,” Fianna said, her eyes haunted. “But that was then. It doesn’t mean anything now.”

“Dokshin.” Lanaril held back a laugh at Fianna’s shock. “Yes, I do swear now and again, and that was a steaming pile of dokshin. This means everything.” She handed back the reader card. “Will you let me speak with her?”

“You can’t fix it for me.”

“No, I cannot. Only you and Andira can do that. And you will.”

Fianna looked back out the window, disbelief as obvious in the set of her jaw as in her emotions.

“You will,” Lanaril repeated. “It looks terrible from where you’re sitting, but it won’t stay that way.”

“You don’t know what I said to her.”

“I know she expects to speak with you at the end of your time off. If she were going to transfer you, she wouldn’t wait that long.”

“She would if she wanted to punish me before getting rid of me.”

“Andira Tal does not behave that way.” She stifled a sigh as Fianna’s jaw tightened. “I don’t think it’s good for either of you to wait three days. I’d like to arrange a meeting.”

“But then she’d know. I thought you didn’t want us to be public?”

Lanaril ran a gentle hand down the unbruised part of her face. “I wanted the chance to build something without the eyes of the world on us. Telling Andira is not going public. But I would tell the world if it would ease the pain in your heart.”

“I don’t need the world to know. I just need you.”

It was not until Lanaril closed her private garden gate and began crossing the State Park that she realized what Fianna had said. Declarations of love had been easy for her earnest younger partner. A declaration of need? That was something she had not expected to hear for a long time, if ever.

Then again, she had made it much harder for Fianna by weighting their relationship with her poor expectations, born of disappointing prior experience. She should have known better. It had already brought them to grief two moons ago, when the explosive discovery of Salomen’s true powers had terrified Fianna into abandoning her friend. For five days, while Lanaril was preoccupied with the emergency counseling of both Salomen and Rahel, Fianna gave no hint of her own anguish. Lanaril had been blind, Fianna unwilling to burden her, and in the meantime, the situation between Fianna and Salomen had grown so tense that Andira had finally exploded, breaking her promise to not interfere.

That was the first time Fianna had “come crawling” to Lanaril. Ironic that this time was also because of something Andira had—

Lanaril stopped walking.

“Oh, you didn’t,” she said aloud.

A light breeze blew her hair away from her face as she put the pieces together. Absently she turned into it, seeking the refreshing coolness on skin that was heating up with anger.

When the picture was fully formed, she resumed her course with longer strides and a growing fury.

Andira had gone too far this time.


18


Manipulation

Tal tapped out of the call from Guard Dewar and crossed the open space of their personal quarters. “We have a guest,” she told Salomen, who was slicing starfruit in the kitchen. “Lanaril’s here.”

Salomen set down her knife. “This should be interesting.”

Tal paused with one hand on the door, intending to ask what Salomen meant, but the chime broke her thought.

That was odd. Lanaril was right on the other side, yet invisible to Tal’s senses. She normally dropped her front once she entered their private corridor.

Even after walking in and offering greetings, Lanaril maintained her front. “What happened to your face?” she asked.

Tal examined her, wondering at the clipped voice and closed expression. “Are you all right? Why aren’t you letting us sense you?”

“You don’t want to sense me. What happened to your face, Andira?”

Salomen walked over to stand next to her as Tal said, “A sparring match.”

“A sparring match with what? It looks like a building fell on you.”

“It felt like it at the time. Can I offer you a drink?”

“Who are you protecting? Yourself, or Fianna?”

The air crackled with electricity, the three of them frozen in a tableau, until Salomen let out a soft breath. “Looks like I can stop worrying about that secret.”

“What se—” Tal took an involuntary step back, shocked by the sudden fury flooding her senses as Lanaril dropped her front. She had never even seen her friend angry before, but this went beyond mere anger. “Wait,” she said, holding up her hands. “What did I do to earn this?”

“You abused a trust,” Lanaril snapped. “I have watched you manipulate Councilors and aliens and the Alsean public, but this is the first time I’ve seen you manipulate someone sworn to your service. How could you sink that low?”

“I just spent the night in the healing center. When would I have had time to manipulate anyone?”

A decidedly unsympathetic Lanaril stabbed her finger in the direction of the temple. “Fianna Vellmar is sitting in my personal quarters right now, torn to shreds with guilt. She thinks that when she comes back in three days, you’re going to transfer her.”

“That’s ridiculous, I’m not going to—your personal quarters? Why is she there?”

“They’re lovers,” Salomen said quietly. “They’ve been together for three moons.”

She had no time to process this astonishing piece of information before Lanaril waded in.

“Yes, we’re lovers. I kept it quiet because I didn’t trust it to last and I didn’t want all of Alsea to watch us fail. Somehow we work, despite her youth, despite her inexperience. I’ve been so careful to not take advantage, but you didn’t give her the same courtesy, did you?” Her voice was sharp, the words slicing through Tal on a fiery blast of rage. “She’s too inexperienced to realize what you did. She thinks she’s in the wrong. But you and I know the truth.”

“I had no choices left. I had to ask—”

“You didn’t have to ask her! You did it because you knew she’d agree. You knew she hasn’t forgiven herself for running away from Salomen after Pollonius, that she’d do anything to pay off that debt.”

Salomen’s shock rattled Tal’s senses. “Andira?” she said cautiously. “Is that true?”

Tal didn’t need to answer. She had been caught with her front down; it was easy for them to sense.

She spun on her heel and walked into the kitchen to retrieve her glass of spirits. By the time she had downed a gulp and turned around, they were standing on the other side of the half-wall that divided the kitchen from the living area, a visible united front.

“That’s not why I asked her,” she said, setting her drink on the counter. “I asked her because she was the only person who could do the job. It had to be a woman, it had to be someone I trusted, and it had to be a fighter good enough to keep me from killing her.” She fixed her gaze on the dark blue liquid in her glass. “But yes, I knew she wouldn’t refuse.”

Lanaril’s fury surged anew. “How could you do that to—”

“Do you want to see Yaserka in the State Chair?” Tal interrupted. “That’s what would have happened if Vellmar hadn’t done her job. I fought that monster for two moons, and it was winning. Do you think I would have taken such a risk if I hadn’t tried every other option? I was out of time! It was either kill it or resign.”

“She’s not exaggerating.” Salomen took advantage of Lanaril’s stunned silence. “She asked for Fianna’s help after almost killing the Prime Builder. It took both of us to stay her hand.”

“Great Mother.” Lanaril exhaled as she looked toward the ceiling. “Does Fianna know she averted a crisis of government?”

“That’s not the sort of thing I tell my Lead Guard—” Tal stopped, pinned by a molten glare.

“If you’re going to put her into an impossible conflict of interest, don’t you think it might help to tell her the stakes?”

“Lanaril.” Salomen took both of Lanaril’s hands and turned her, taking the force of her stare off Tal. “You have a right to be angry, and Fianna should be proud to have such a spirited defender. But you’re tearing into my tyree in our home. She was only released from the healing center two hanticks ago. I’m asking you to take a step back and calm down.”

Lanaril closed her eyes, her anger receding from the pinpricks of chagrin. “I did attack you in your own quarters, didn’t I?”

Tal thought it best not to answer.

“What was the conflict of interest?” Salomen asked. “I didn’t like any of this, either, but I didn’t see whatever you’re seeing.”

The question drained Lanaril’s remaining ire, revealing delicate shards of pain that showed in her eyes when she faced Tal. “She swore to protect you. You put her into a position where the greatest danger you needed protection from was—”

“Her,” Tal said, the shock of it sweeping right down to her toes. “Shek, Lanaril, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that until this very moment.”

“Then you left her with nothing but a message and a promise to talk later. You dropped her in a hole and left her there. She came to me for comfort, but it’s not mine to give. I’m not the one she needs it from.”

And that, Tal guessed, was the multiplying factor that had sent Lanaril on such an unprecedented attack.

“Are you punishing her for what she said?” Lanaril asked.

Tal took another gulp of her drink, needing the delay. “I was too angry to speak with her in the healing center. I wanted to make sure I could be fair when we did speak.”

“Did she tell you what she said?” Salomen had seen a new opening for the information Tal still hadn’t shared.

“She asked me not to ask. Whatever it was, it hurt both of them.”

“Andira won’t tell me, either.”

They turned to look at Tal, who set down her glass with a decisive click. “What Vellmar said to me will die with us. But you’re right. I left her in a hole, and that was a poor payment for the service she performed. Lanaril, will you let me into your garden in one hantick?”


19


On target

As promised, Lanaril was waiting at the gate to her private garden. She took one look at Senshalon, standing behind Tal with the heavy target, and shook her head with a knowing smile.

“That’s your idea of a talk?”

“You have your methods, I have mine.” Tal walked through the gate, a blade case in each hand, and pointed her chin toward a grassy area surrounded by raised flower beds. “Set it up there, Senshalon.”

A gravel path led from the grass to the molwyn tree in the center of the garden, offering a perfect sight line. It was about fifteen paces, a short but practical throwing distance.

Senshalon locked the target’s legs in place, saluted, and exited through the gate. Lanaril closed it behind him and held out a hand. “Shall I?”

“No, thank you. I’m just taking them to the tree.”

As they crunched along the gravel, Lanaril said, “Thank you for coming so quickly.”

“It shouldn’t have gotten to this point at all.” Tal set the cases on the bench that encircled the molwyn’s black trunk. “I’m glad you stepped in.”

“Glad? I must be losing my ability to read people. I thought you were justifiably upset at being confronted in your one safe place in Blacksun.”

Tal looked up at the gray-bottomed clouds scudding across the sky. Luminous shafts descended between them, igniting scattered sections of the park, though Lanaril’s garden remained in shadow. “Briefly. But it was worth it to see the most even-tempered person I’ve ever known show me her other side.”

“I try very hard not to show people that side.”

“It does take a great deal of trust to let others truly see us,” Tal said in an agreeable tone.

Lanaril gave her a sideways glance and hummed thoughtfully. “It’s my job to stay calm, no matter what I hear or see in my temple.”

“I’m not in your temple. Nor am I your job.” Tal turned and raised both hands in the familial gesture. “Thank you for trusting me.”

The warmth of deep affection came through Lanaril’s skin as their palms met. “Don’t ever manipulate Fianna again.”

“Never, if it hurts her. I make no promises if it’s part of her training.”

“You’re impossible.” But Lanaril was smiling as she pulled her hands away. She walked toward the building and called back, “She’ll be here in two ticks.”

Tal opened her case, pulled out the first of thirty blades, and hefted it in her hand. Perfect weight, perfect balance, as all Yulsintoh blades were. Tipping the point skyward, she spun the handle and balanced it on her palm as the knife whirled in place. Just before it could wobble and tip, she turned her wrist, closed her fingers on the handle, and threw it at the target.

Thunk. Right at the edge of the central red zone; not bad for a first throw.

The target rippled and pushed out the blade, which fell to the soft grass below. Tal went through a quick stretching form, warming her muscles, then pulled another knife from her case and threw it.

There were four more blades in the grass when the crunch of gravel betrayed Vellmar’s approach. Tal neither turned nor offered any greeting. She simply pulled another knife and threw it.

Vellmar stood beside her, watching in silence for another throw. Then she opened her case.

“I asked Ronlin to get that for you,” Tal said without looking. “Given the circumstances, I thought you’d be more comfortable with a friend entering your quarters than me.”

“You have the security clearance.” Vellmar threw her blade and hit the target three hairs off dead center.

Annoying. Tal needed to warm up before her throws were that accurate. “But not the right,” she said, selecting another blade.

They practiced in silence until both cases were empty, then carried them to the target and began sorting knives from the pile in the grass. Tal chanced her first glance at Vellmar and winced at the bruises. She remembered every one of those blows, each meant for maximum pain. Vellmar had performed far beyond the scope of her duty, and Tal had repaid her by abandoning her to dread and shame.

She deserved every bit of Lanaril’s anger. Had anyone treated Salomen that way, she wouldn’t have calmed down as quickly—if at all.

They were halfway through their next set before she said, “I owe you an apology. I never meant to hurt you that badly.”

Vellmar’s throw wasn’t even a hair off dead center. “You told me to expect it. Why else was Dewar there?”

“Because we both believe in preparing for eventualities. I still hoped she wouldn’t be needed.”

“I’m fine.” The assertion was betrayed by her next throw, which was a full finger’s width from the center.

“Physically, yes. We need to talk about the rest.”

“I don’t know why you’re talking to me at all. Not after the things I said to you.”

Tal’s blade hit with such force that the handle quivered and the target needed several ripples to push it out.

“Why did you?” she asked bluntly. “I know you were playing a role, but somewhere in all that, you . . . shifted.”

They threw two knives each before Vellmar spoke.

“It wasn’t working. We’ve fought too many times. You know my style. I could look like her, and I could try to sound like her, but you always knew it was me.”

“Until I didn’t. Because you somehow became her. How did you do that?”

“Advanced behavioral management.” Vellmar’s knife flew right after Tal’s, the two blades thunking into the target in quick succession.

Tal took her time selecting her next one as she considered this unexpected information.

Advanced behavioral management was a specialty. All warriors learned the basics, but few took the advanced classes. She knew for a fact that Vellmar hadn’t.

“That’s not in your records,” she said, and threw her blade.

Dead center. She was nicely warmed up.

Vellmar’s thunked into the same place one piptick after the target ejected Tal’s.

“You told me the trick,” she said. “In Redmoon, after we rescued Salomen’s brother. You said that to manipulate others, I had to be the role I chose to play. Either be fully in the role, or be fully myself, because anything in between wouldn’t work.” She faced Tal. “Halfway through that fight, I realized that I was stuck in between. That was why you couldn’t forget.”

“So you made yourself into her. I saw her. When you were choking me and I wasn’t getting enough air, everything got confused and I didn’t know anyone else was in the room besides Rahel and me. I didn’t even recognize Senshalon when he tried to break up the fight.”

“He should have known better and kept his head back.”

Despite the tension, Tal found the humor in that. Trust her Lead Guard to criticize technique even now.

“Choking you was . . . hard,” Vellmar said, her eyes showing the truth behind the understatement. “I didn’t expect you to stay down. I thought you’d get out of my hold and exhaust yourself fighting me, and then you would come back from wherever you were and it would be over. But it went too far. You didn’t come back.”

“Once you triggered it, I wouldn’t have come back until it was too late.” Tal ducked her head, trying to catch Vellmar’s gaze as it skittered away. “I’m glad you knocked me out.”

“You’re glad,” Vellmar muttered, staring fixedly into the park beyond the stone wall.

“Senshalon pulling me off you wasn’t enough. Nothing would have been enough. At that point, it was either kill or—” She stopped. There was no good end to that sentence.

“Or be knocked unconscious by your Lead Guard?” Vellmar still would not look at her. “I never imagined Senshalon wouldn’t be able to hold you. Fahla, you fought him like a vallcat. I saw you coming after me again, and I—” She took a sharp breath. “I was afraid of what you would do.”

Tal closed her eyes, heartsick at the confirmation. While she had been fighting an illusion, Vellmar was caught in the brutal reality of her oath holder raining down hate and murder with every devastating blow.

“And instead of protecting me, you had to protect yourself from me.” She saw the tiny nod, saw walls as thick as these stones standing invisibly between them, and knew that words would not be enough.

Vellmar flinched at her touch, a flare of panic sparking beneath her skin before she allowed Tal’s fingers to close on her wrist.

“You did the right thing,” Tal said, letting their skin contact transmit her sincerity. “It wasn’t you I was trying to kill. I wasn’t seeing you.”

Vellmar finally met her eyes. “But I was seeing you.”

“You saw the monster, not me. We killed it. It’s gone.”

She held still beneath the searching gaze, inviting a presumption Vellmar would never have made on her own. This was a test she had to pass if they were to move beyond this.

After what felt like a tentick, Vellmar nodded.

Tal exhaled her relief. “Thank you. I truly wish you didn’t have to live with that memory.”

“That’s not the worst memory.”

Having not expected her to bring it up, Tal’s respect climbed another notch. “We need to talk about it.”

“I know.” Vellmar pulled her wrist free and chose another blade. It landed on the edge of the red zone, nearly a hand’s width from the center.

For once, Tal beat her throw, though hers was not a great deal better. “Those were the most poisonous words I have ever heard in my life. I understand behavioral management, but those words . . .”

Vellmar’s next throw was all the way into the blue ring. She sat on the bench and dropped her head into her hands.

Tal pushed away the knife case and sat beside her. “Tell me why.”

“I needed to make you angry.” Vellmar spoke to the ground between her feet. “To make you hate me, hate Rahel. The way I hated her that day.”

“I know that, but why—”

Her head jerked up. “I couldn’t save her! You didn’t fail Salomen. You weren’t even there. I was.”

Tal sat stunned as it all fell into place.

Vellmar could play the role because she had been there and seen it. But those words, those terrible, saw-edged, tearing words—they hadn’t come from Rahel.

They were Vellmar’s own nightmare.

“You didn’t fail her,” she said.

“No?” The word came out in harsh derision. “I stood there with Ronlin and six other Guards, seven disruptors between us plus my blades, and Salomen might as well have been alone. We were helpless because no one had a clear shot and no one dared move into a better position. I will never forget the sound she made when that stud went through her arm.”

“I understand that perfectly. I’ll never forget feeling her pain, either. But you did save her.”

“I did not! Salomen saved herself. I just cleaned up the mess.”

“You speak as if you swept the floor instead of keeping the whole damned house from collapsing. Salomen was two pipticks away from killing Rahel. That’s what you saved her from. You know she would never have been the same.”

“Speedy,” Vellmar said sarcastically. “A fifty-percent success rate, just what you want in a Lead Guard.”

Tal was unused to arguing with any warrior in her service unless his name was Micah. She looked at Vellmar’s tight jaw and burning eyes and had the incongruous thought that this was what should have happened when she broke her promise. Vellmar should have been righteously angry with her, rather than so devastated that she turned into a ghost of herself.

The ghost had disintegrated in the heat of this fury, and Vellmar seemed unaware of her transformation.

“You’re not Salomen’s Lead Guard. You’re mine. Ronlin was the one responsible for her safety. You were there as her friend.”

“Yes, but—”

“And I advise you to stay away from mathematics if you don’t understand weighting of variables. Salomen would choose her arm over her innocence in a heartbeat. They’re not even comparable.”

“I hid there while a vicious zalren hurt her,” Vellmar snarled. “And I did nothing to stop it. But that wasn’t enough of a failure, oh no, so I decided to compound it by abandoning her and saying unforgivable things to you. I failed her trust and violated yours. Why are you not rejecting my oath of service and packing me off to Last Port?” Her voice rose to a shout. “Why are you here?”

“Because I feel the same way!” Tal shouted back.

Vellmar stiffened.

“What you said to me—it was poisonous, yes, but not unforgivable. You know why it drove me over the edge? Because it was true. She was afraid of the dangers in my life. She was afraid of needing Guards and having to think about security. I tried to keep her safe, and what happened at her first public speech? All her fears came to life. You are the reason it wasn’t a catastrophe. You recognized the worst danger and stopped it. So shut up about your supposed failure; you didn’t shekking fail!”

She paused for breath and had to laugh at Vellmar’s expression. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be laughing, but good Fahla, you are blind. You’ve rescued an impossible situation twice now, first with Salomen and then with me, yet you’re telling me to send you to Last Port? No. I don’t let my most valued warriors go to waste that way.”

Vellmar’s jaw went slack. “Most valued—?”

Tal took her reader card from its pouch, unrolled it, and pulled up the directive she had written before leaving her quarters. “Read this.”

Sitting back, she watched Vellmar’s eyes move over the text and savored the bafflement.

“This is a commendation,” Vellmar said slowly.

“For service far beyond the scope of your oath. I didn’t give you all the reasons why I needed to beat my monster. I didn’t tell you that if we’d failed, I would have delivered my resignation to the High Council today.” Tal nodded at her shock. “Yes, it was that serious. My point is, I didn’t have to tell you that. I asked for your help and you gave it, even knowing the personal risk. That kind of loyalty and courage deserves two or three commendations.”

A tiny smile grew on Vellmar’s face as she bent her head to read it again.

“I haven’t sent it out yet, because I wanted you to be the first to see it. Give me that.” She yanked the device from Vellmar’s fingers and tapped it twice. “Done. It should be in your permanent record by tomorrow afternoon.”

The reader card was rolled up and replaced by the time Vellmar found her voice.

“That is—I don’t know what to say.”

“Say you’ll accept my apology for being an ass and leaving you to fear the worst. I’m sorry, Vellmar. Truly.”

Vellmar hesitated. She had been trained in a tradition that upheld a strict hierarchy of rank; this was far outside her comfort zone.

“I accept your apology,” she said. “But I don’t think—”

“Ah ah. Don’t say it’s not necessary. That negates what you just offered me, and I want the full value of that offer.” Tal held out her arm. “Thank you.”

Though dazed, Vellmar managed a strong grip as she completed their forearm clasp. “You’re welcome.”

Tal pressed the heel of her other hand against Vellmar’s wrist, holding it in place. “Understand this. Your debt is paid. Whatever you think you owe Salomen or me, it’s paid. You owe us nothing. Stop carrying the burden of that guilt and please, stop acting like you’re waiting for me to write you up. You haven’t been the same since I broke my promise to you. I regret that more than you can ever know. It felt so necessary at the time, but—” She paused, then said what Vellmar would not want to hear. “I broke more than a promise. I want my cocky, confident Lead Guard back.”

Denial rose, hot beneath her hand. “I haven’t been—”

“Yes, you have. The fault was mine, not yours. Stop trying to repair what you didn’t break.”

Vellmar tried to pull her arm back and found it caught fast. She stilled, her shoulders slumping. “I broke a promise, too. And a friendship.”

“True. But you repaired it. Two moons ago.” Tal released her. “Salomen would be horrified to know you’re still punishing yourself.”

Slowly, Vellmar turned her wrist and stared at the palm of her hand. “It’s hard,” she said, making a fist. “To stop worrying that I’ll do the wrong thing when I’ve already done it.”

“I understand, but you cannot let that rule you. This weight you carry is dragging you down.” Tal rested her hand atop the fist and gently pushed, then lifted it away. “Balance it with the confidence you’ve earned through experience.”

“Overconfidence leads to mistakes.”

“Lack of confidence leads to more. I’m guessing your instructors never told you that part of the quote because that was never a problem for you.”

“Not then,” Vellmar said quietly.

Another piece of the puzzle snapped into place. Vellmar’s record was stellar—one of the main reasons Tal had approved her as Lead Guard—but there was one significant learning experience missing from it.

She had never made a big mistake.

A thought that had been simmering in the back of her mind burst into brilliant focus, illuminating an entire future. And she could start right now.

“The higher you go, the greater the consequences of a mistake,” she said. “You will make them, I can promise you that. Don’t let the fear of them paralyze you. Fahla knows I’ve made my share, but I know something you haven’t yet learned.” She leaned against the back of the bench, relaxing her body language, and held back a smile as Vellmar unconsciously copied her.

“Most mistakes are fixable,” she continued. “Some are not, and we have to live with the consequences, but most of the time we can go back and make repairs, whether it’s to a relationship or a . . . plan.” She had almost said political plan, but it was much too soon for that. “You made a mistake with Salomen, but you went back and repaired it. I made a mistake with you, but here we are.”

“Do you know,” Vellmar said thoughtfully, “I never worried about those kinds of mistakes before. I was always afraid of the one they used so often in training. The one where someone dies.”

“We’re all afraid of that one. It’s the worst-case scenario. It’s also the one that every warrior can understand, no matter how young or inexperienced.”

“I wouldn’t have understood this. If anyone had told me I could live in daily fear of a mistake where no one died but I disappointed someone, I would have laughed.”

“Do you think you’ve disappointed me?”

The tension sprang back into her face. “I know I have. And Salomen, too.”

“Do you think that disappointment was permanent?”

Tal waited patiently while Vellmar thought that through. When she saw the answer coming, she asked, “Have I disappointed you?”

Vellmar’s eyes widened. “You, ah, I—”

“I know I have. I broke a promise to you. How could that not disappoint you?” She leaned forward. “Was it permanent?”

“No,” Vellmar blurted. A look of horror crossed her face as she realized what she had just admitted.

“But here we are. And we’re all right.”

She blew out a breath, relaxing once more. “We’re all right.”

One of the shifting shafts of sunlight swept over the garden, bathing it in sudden brilliance. Vellmar tilted her head back, smiling into the warmth. “We’re all right,” she repeated.

When Tal rested a hand on her shoulder, she looked over with an easy grin, the kind that had not graced her face for two moons. “I understand what you’re trying to tell me. Can we go back to the part where I show you which of us is the better blade handler?”

Tal chuckled. “That’s never been in question. I’m not the one holding four Global Games medals.”

They stood and plucked new knives from their cases. Tal was lining herself up for the throw when Vellmar spoke.

“Are you carrying a weight because of your mistake?”

It was a presumptuous question for a Lead Guard, but their boundaries had changed irrevocably.

“I feel terrible about what it did to you,” Tal admitted. “Salomen was furious with me. You wouldn’t believe the price she made me pay for it.”

Vellmar took the throw, her blade hitting dead center. “I’d believe it. She has a way.” She pulled another knife and hesitated. “You shouldn’t carry that. You were right to do what you did. I needed a kick in the backside.” Looking up, she added, “Don’t let it drag you down.”

“I’ll try,” Tal said, amused at having her own words turned against her. “How much did Salomen make you pay?”

“Not nearly as much as she should have.”

Tal’s blade centered itself on the target. “They’re not like us, are they?”

“Shek, no.” Vellmar didn’t seem to notice her profanity. “Thank Fahla for that. I used to think I could only be with a warrior, but can you imagine living with us?”

“Not in a hundred cycles.” Tal eyed her case; there were five knives remaining. “On the other hand, we’d get through the tough conversations a lot faster.”

Their next throws landed in the blue ring, sent off course by their laughter.


20


Lancer trainer

That evening, Tal went to Micah’s quarters for a much-needed injection of spirits and the company of her oldest friend. After relating her talk with Vellmar, she topped off his glass with the grain spirits he preferred and said, “I want you to devolve more of your Chief Guardian duties to Gehrain and spend more time with Vellmar.”

He lifted his drink with a questioning look. “Doing what?”

“Training her the way you did me.”

The glass stopped a finger’s width from his lips. Carefully, he set it down again and folded his arms on the table. “You want to train a successor?”

“She’d have to win the election, but Micah, she has all the qualities. She used advanced behavioral management on me. I’m supposed to be the master of manipulation, and I was thoroughly manipulated by a woman who never even took the classes. Eight moons ago, I gave her some advice I barely remember. She remembered and applied it in the middle of an extremely high-stress situation.”

“A combat situation, if we’re being honest,” Micah said.

“Yes. She’s that smart and that adaptable. She makes hard decisions, she makes them quickly, and she’s not afraid to pay the price for them. And her honor is beyond reproach.”

“Has she expressed that kind of ambition?”

“I doubt it’s ever occurred to her. But you and I know that ninety-eight percent of the people who want my title are the ones who shouldn’t have it.”

“Words for Fahla.” He took a thoughtful sip, then another.

She waited, letting him turn it over in his mind. Gradually his intrigue turned to approval, and a broad smile spread across his face.

“I thought my name would go in the history books as a footnote to yours, but this is much better. Colonel Corozen Micah, the Lancer-trainer. Responsible for two of Alsea’s greatest Lancers.”

“Speaking of ambition,” she said with a laugh.

“You’re not planning to retire any time soon, are you? Is this warming me up for the bad news?”

“No, not at all. But if that fight hadn’t turned out as well as it did . . .” She swirled her drink, watching the golden liquid move. “I spent two days in the healing center thinking about it. If I had to resign, what would happen next? There’s no one in the high ranks that I could picture in the State Chair. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. We’re not alone in the universe, and not everyone out there wants to be our friend. Our next Lancer needs to be someone trained for the new world, not the old one.”

“Agreed.” He held out his glass. “To our next Lancer. May she not take the State Chair for a tencycle or three.”

She tapped hers against it. “And may she remain blissfully ignorant of her fate until then.”

“Oh, no. You have to tell her earlier. Give her time to get used to the idea.”

“If you do your job properly, we won’t have to tell her. She’ll come to it on her own, like I did.”

“You had your father training you, not just me.”

“And she’ll have me, not just you.”

His eyebrows rose. “That sounded like a vow.”

She lifted her glass in acknowledgement and drained it.

He stared at her, then grinned widely and threw back his drink. “Ahh. Well, this calls for another.” Refilling both glasses, he added, “I wonder if historians will realize that the future of Alsea was decided in my quarters, over a fine bottle of grain spirits.”

“Only if you tell.” Tal accepted her glass. “Her official training started today. I could practically see it soaking into her brain, and she didn’t wait more than fifty pipticks before turning it back on me.”

“This will be a joy to watch.”

“Don’t be too smug. She’ll do the same to you.” Tal clinked her glass against his, waited for him to sip, and added, “I wonder how Lanaril will feel about being Bondlancer?”

Micah coughed up his drink.

She watched him scramble for a napkin and held back her smile. “You didn’t know? Really, Micah, it’s your job to know these things. They were lovers on my bonding break.”

His eyes were the size of shannel saucers. “That was Vellmar?”

She hummed agreement and sipped her drink, the smile breaking loose.

“You didn’t know either,” he accused.

“Of course I did. I’m just very discreet.”

“That may be, but it doesn’t change the fact that you didn’t know.”

“I’m wounded by your accusation.”

“Touch palms with me and tell me again that you knew.” He held up his hand, forcing her to abandon the ruse. She couldn’t lie through a palm touch.

“I found out this afternoon. Salomen said it only became serious three moons ago.”

“She knew?”

“Vellmar asked her not to tell.”

“Your Lead Guard has been courting Blacksun’s Lead Templar right under our noses and kept it secret for three moons.” Micah shook his head. “Stealthy and deceptive; she’ll make a perfect Lancer.”

“Now I am wounded.”

“No, you’re not.”

“What makes you think she’s the one doing the courting?”

He ticked off the points on his thick fingers. “Lanaril hasn’t taken a partner since severing her bond, her lovers are normally scholar caste, and she’d be much too aware of their difference in age and rank to do anything that could be seen as taking advantage. I’d guess Vellmar has been conducting a careful campaign.” A sudden grin creased his face. “For one of the most unattainable people in Blacksun. She does have ambition.”

Tal laughed. “Right on all counts. All she’s missing is her own Micah.”

“Don’t go soft on me until we’ve finished this bottle.” The gruff tone did not hide his pleasure. “Obviously I’m irreplaceable, but she might not need as much as you think. Can you imagine a better advisor than Lanaril? Or one more qualified to keep her feet on the ground? And she has Salomen, too.”

“Hm. When you put it that way, she already has more advantages than I did. I only had you.”

Micah balled up his napkin and threw it at her.


21


Without a monster

Half a moon after Tal’s monster died, the Phoenix returned from its patrol. Ekatya flew a shuttle straight to the State House landing pad, where Tal, Salomen, and a herd of journalists waited to greet it.

First to emerge was Rahel Sayana, wearing the dress uniform of a Bondlancer’s Guard. When she stepped onto the shuttle ramp, vidcams swarmed so thickly that Tal couldn’t see her face.

“About time someone got that treatment besides me,” she murmured to Salomen.

“And me. Poor Rahel, she looks like she was bitten by a zalren.”

Ekatya came out next, standing beside Rahel in a visual sure to be splashed all over the media. For twenty ticks they answered questions, until Ekatya smoothly sent the journalists packing. A few tried to approach Tal, who smiled and said, “This isn’t my story.” Her Guards nudged the disappointed journalists away, leaving Tal and Salomen alone with the shuttle.

Lhyn Rivers popped her head out of its entry. “Is it safe? Shippers, what a crowd. You’re a star, Rahel.”

“She’s the first Alsean space explorer,” Tal said. “The definition of a star. Welcome home, First Guard Sayana.”

Rahel spun and stared in visible surprise before wrestling her expression into a solemn mask. She walked down the ramp to stand in front of Tal, bowed her head, and thumped her fists against her sternum. “Thank you, Lancer Tal. It’s wonderful to smell Alsean air again.”

The last time they had met, Tal’s monster had been raging at its cage bars. It was disorienting to be this close to her and not feel the urgent call to violence.

Her hair was a darker, richer red than Vellmar had managed with the colorizers, and though the light brown of her eyes looked familiar, the exotic slant of them did not. She was slightly shorter and more powerfully built than Vellmar, and neither her expression nor her body language bore any signs of the disrespect that Vellmar had so perfectly embodied.

Tal found it difficult to believe she had ever confused the two of them.

A mounting distress pricked her senses; she had been silent too long. Ekatya and Lhyn had moved to bracket Rahel, and Ekatya seemed ready to physically intervene.

“May I take this opportunity to apologize?” Rahel asked. “I know that—”

“You already did,” Tal interrupted. “In writing, when you withdrew your honor challenge. I accepted that apology when I agreed.”

In truth, her agreement had been a single word. She knew it had not been enough, but at the time she had not been capable of more. Now she held up her hand and said, “The only acceptance that mattered was Salomen’s. Pollonius is behind us. I would rather look ahead.”

Rahel met her palm, a staggering relief pouring through. “Thank you. I—I need to say one thing. Pollonius may be behind us, but it will always be with me. Always.”

Her sincerity was undeniable, as was her shame and regret. Tal discarded her first thought—As it shekking well should be—and said, “Then use it. Let it drive you to honor.”

Rahel’s short nod might have looked curt, but the truth was in their skin contact: she was too overcome to speak. Yet she did not hide it by pulling away.

Tal had to respect the gesture. She dropped her hand first, tilting her head toward Salomen. “She’s been waiting.”

Rahel turned and transformed before her eyes. Radiating happiness and smiling broadly, she said, “Salomen, well met. It’s so good to see you.”

With a delighted smile of her own, Salomen touched her palm and went one step further, interlacing their fingers. “Well met. Have you had to teach respect to any more Fleet security staff?”

Rahel chuckled. “No, the word went around. I thought gossip on the Whitesun docks was efficient, but it’s slow as tree sap in winter compared to gossip on a Fleet ship.”

“I’d like to take offense at that, but it’s true.” Ekatya looked back at the shuttle. “We seem to be missing someone. What happened to Dr. Wells?”

“She was taking gas measurements after you opened the door.” Lhyn walked back toward the ramp and had crossed half the distance when Dr. Wells appeared, laden down with a pack on her back and two cases hanging on straps from her shoulders.

“For the love of Fahla,” Rahel muttered. She swung around and ran past Lhyn. “I told you I’d carry them!”

Dr. Wells slapped her hands away as Rahel reached for one of the cases. “Stop treating me like an old lady or I’ll start treating you like a child. You have your own bag to carry.”

“Yes, one bag. You have three. The least you could do is share.”

Ekatya glanced at Tal and shrugged. “They’ve developed an interesting dynamic.”

Dr. Wells won the argument and Rahel disappeared into the shuttle. When she reappeared a few pipticks later, she was carrying not only her bag but two Fleet bags as well.

“That girl.” Dr. Wells rolled her eyes as Ekatya and Lhyn went to collect their bags from Rahel. She held up a palm and said, “Well met, Lancer Tal.”

“Well met, Dr. Wells. Thank you for taking care of our warrior.”

“She needs it.” Offering the same courtesy to Salomen, Dr. Wells added, “She thinks she’s tough as hullskin. I remind her that even hullskin falls apart in the wrong environment, but I don’t think she ever hears me.”

“I heard that,” Rahel said.

“We’ve arranged for midmeal in the State House,” Salomen said, somehow keeping a straight face. “If you would all come with us?”

Rahel hung back as the others moved ahead, but Salomen turned and waved her on. “You too.”

“But—”

“Don’t be rude,” Dr. Wells said. “You’ve been given an invitation.”

“But I’m not—” Rahel snapped her mouth shut when Salomen took her by the upper arm and began marching her forward.

“I see you know how to handle her,” Dr. Wells commented. Rahel made a face at her, and even Tal had to smile.

Though she had expected the worst of this midmeal, having promised only to be civil, Tal found that being in the company of Rahel Sayana was not difficult. Salomen’s happiness at seeing her poured through their empathic link, this time without the monster’s growls to drown it out, and Tal could appreciate it. As the conversation ebbed and flowed, she observed the woman she had once needed to kill and noticed several things.

One, Rahel was relaxed and informal with Lhyn, Dr. Wells, and Salomen. She was far more formal with Ekatya and, of course, Tal.

Two, Lanaril had done Fahla’s own work counseling that woman. Rahel’s grief was a healed scar, visible on her emotional signature when closely examined, but not affecting her on the surface.

Three, she was uncomfortable in this elegant salon. It wasn’t even close to the most ostentatious of the State House salons—Salomen would never have chosen one of those for an intimate midmeal with friends—but everything in it bore historical significance, including the table and chairs they were using. Rahel was too careful. She moved like a child eating with the adults for the first time, as if she were afraid of picking up the wrong utensil or breaking something simply by touching it.

The longer Tal watched, the more irritated she became. Rahel Sayana was a First Guard, Shantu’s highest-ranked warrior. She should have been a fixture in the State House, known to the staff and other Guards. Eating in a salon should have been an occasional expectation of her rank and duties, yet here she sat, ill at ease and trying so very hard to hide it.

“What are you thinking?” Salomen whispered when the others were distracted by a laughing argument.

“I’m thinking Shantu was a dokker’s backside. Look at her. She’s nervous as a fanten on slaughter day.”

“Well, I did spring this invitation on her.”

“It’s not that. It’s the room.

Salomen watched for a few pipticks, then leaned back in. “Are you feeling defensive for her?”

“No, I—” Tal stopped.

A wave of warmth flooded their link as Salomen kissed her cheek. “Lancer Tal, the great protector.”

The words could have been heard as sarcastic, yet in combination with Salomen’s emotions, they were anything but. To her chagrin, Tal felt her cheeks growing hot.

“What’s going on over there?” Ekatya wanted to know. “You’re looking a bit red, Andira.”

“My fault,” Salomen said smoothly. “Warriors don’t like being reminded of their soft underbellies. Do they, Lhyn?”

Lhyn happily followed that line of conversation, with an assist from Dr. Wells, which soon resulted in the embarrassment of both Ekatya and Rahel. Tal quietly enjoyed the rebound while marveling at Salomen’s adroit manipulation of the room. And people thought she was the devious one.

After midmeal, Rahel went off to Blacksun Temple to visit Lanaril and stay in her old retreat quarters for the night. Tomorrow, she and Dr. Wells would take the shuttle to Whitesun.

Today, however, Dr. Wells had a mission in the State House.


22


Forty-three percent

Micah and Dewar strode down the corridor and stopped outside the largest guest suite in the State House. Lhyn Rivers had taken up permanent residence here—Tal refused to hear of her looking for housing elsewhere—and was joined by Ekatya Serrado when the Phoenix was in orbit and she was off duty. They were inside now, along with Tal, Salomen, and a Gaian healer Micah had never met.

“I need you to be my eyes and ears,” he told Dewar. “But you’ll have to be discreet, or Lancer Tal might throw us both out.”

“I can be discreet. I don’t know how good my eyes will be when their healer is using equipment I’ve never seen before.”

“Just monitor her. Make sure her words match her intent.” Micah pressed the chime.

Ekatya answered the door in casual dress, her hair loose around her shoulders and the lacing of her neckline left untied. “Come in, we’re ready,” she said by way of greeting. “Guard Dewar, it’s good to see you again.”

Tal and Salomen sat together on a couch, looking surprisingly relaxed, while Lhyn lounged in a chair opposite, her long legs stretched out and her bare feet on the low table between them.

At the far end of the couch, two side tables had been pulled together to house a pair of open cases sprouting complicated equipment from their depths. The only things Micah recognized were the inactive status displays. On the floor nearby was an open pack with Gaian pads and flat, square cases strewn around it, and straightening from a crouch by that pack was the stranger in the room.

“Colonel Micah, Guard Dewar, may I present Dr. Wells, my chief surgeon. She’s the best in Fleet and I’m happy to have poached her from her previous captain. Dr. Wells, this is Lancer Tal’s Chief Guardian and the medic I told you about.”

Dr. Wells offered a coolly courteous greeting to Micah and a warmer one to Dewar. “That was quite a story Captain Serrado told about the night she crashed the Caphenon. You crawled into an alien ship without hesitating.”

“People were hurt,” Dewar answered. “I can’t turn away from that.”

Dr. Wells gave her an approving smile. “People, not aliens, eh? I’d like to hear your side of it sometime.”

“I’d be happy to share. In exchange for stories of working as a healer on a Fleet ship?”

“It’s a deal. Now I suppose you want to know what I’m using on your Lancer and Bondlancer.”

She led Dewar over to the cases with their tangle of equipment and the two began speaking a language that, while ostensibly High Alsean, nevertheless made no sense.

“Micah, you can unbend your spine,” Tal said from the couch. “I told you there’s no danger here. We’re all friends, and if Ekatya trusts Dr. Wells, then so do I.”

Micah did not have that luxury. He crossed over to stand beside Lhyn, facing Tal across the table. “Why now?” he asked bluntly.

“Because this is the first time I’ve been allowed.” It was Lhyn who answered. “You know how long I’ve been waiting for this? Since the day we came back!”

“It’s been a long time coming,” Ekatya said as she sat in the next chair. “Lhyn’s recovery took longer than we expected.”

“Almost nine shekking moons,” Lhyn grumbled. “And you all think the torture was the worst part.”

“You haven’t had a panic attack in several moons, have you?” Micah asked.

“Nothing worth mentioning, but that’s not what’s been holding me up. I had eleven different drugs in my system. Neutralizing them didn’t fix everything. We’ve had to wait for my brain to heal. Neurons and neural connections take forever.”

“Three of those drugs were contraindicated with the others.” Though Ekatya’s voice was even, the skin around her eyes was tight. “They should never have been combined.”

“But who cared when I was supposed to die anyway, right?”

“Several people in this room cared very much,” Tal said. “We’ve been waiting for this as long as you have.”

Lhyn beamed at her. “It’s like every holiday I ever celebrated rolled up in one.”

“Dr. Wells is here to make sure the Sharing doesn’t damage Lhyn’s brain,” Ekatya said.

“Or yours,” Lhyn added, bumping her shoulder.

Tal caught Micah’s pointed look and sighed. “Micah, I appreciate your caution, but Salomen and I have been Sharing for moons already.”

“That is not the issue and you know it.”

“No, the issue is that you’re afraid I’m going to scramble the brains of your Lancer and Bondlancer.” Dr. Wells appeared at his elbow. “I thought you were empathic. Can’t you just look at me and know I’m a healer? We don’t do harm.”

“I’m a low empath,” he said shortly.

“Dr. Wells,” Ekatya interrupted. “Would you mind letting Colonel Micah touch your palm while you swear you mean no harm?”

“I would think the word of your Lancer should be good enough,” Dr. Wells muttered, but she held up her palm.

Micah met it and noted two things: her fingers were long and dexterous, and she had very soft hands. Unlike Dewar, who was both healer and warrior, this woman had probably never touched a weapon.

“I, Alejandra Wells, do solemnly swear that I intend no harm to anyone in this room,” Dr. Wells intoned. Her green eyes held a look of challenge as she added, “But if overprotective walking shuttles get in my way, I’ll have no problem sticking them with something sharp.”

She was not lying. About either statement.

Micah withdrew his hand and eyed her with greater respect. “I doubt I’m the only overprotective one in this room.”

“Now that we’ve settled that . . .” She turned to Tal and Salomen. “I already have baseline scans for Lhyn and Captain Serrado. I’ll need baseline scans from the two of you, and then a scan of just you Sharing.”

“And then I get to Share with Salomen.” Lhyn’s glee was so vibrant that even Micah could faintly sense it.

“Yes, we felt it best to do a test Sharing between them first. Then we’ll bring in Lancer Tal, and finally Captain Serrado.”

He would have reversed those last two, but she was in charge and prioritizing her superior. There was little he could do about it when Tal was nodding.

“Lancer, Bondlancer, are you ready to start?”

“Yes,” Tal said.

“Ready and curious, and I told you at midmeal to call me Salomen.”

“Sorry. Fleet training; it’s hard to shake. Let me get your scanning rings.” She crossed to her pack, where Dewar was examining a thin circlet.

“Is this a serpent?” Dewar asked.

“That one’s mine.” Lhyn raised a hand. “I’ll hold on to it.”

Micah stopped Dewar before she could hand it over. “May I?” he asked Lhyn.

“Sure.” She looked amused. “It’s not a bomb, Colonel.”

Small tabs hung from one side like little metallic leaves. He held it up and looked more closely, confirming that they had been colored to appear as leaves, too. The circlet itself was painted with hundreds of tiny scales, making it look like a serpent with a red stripe down its back, bright green eyes, and a smiling mouth.

“Your serpents smile?” he asked.

Lhyn chuckled. “No, that’s a special case. Dr. Wells did that to keep me from birthing a brick.”

“These are new technology,” Dr. Wells said, returning with two more circlets in her hands. “They only recently made their way into Fleet Medical. Kane Muir got his hands on a prototype much earlier and modified it. He used something very like this to torture Lhyn.”

“You can probably picture the scene. Dr. Wells was excited about this new device to make my brain scans easier for me, and then she came toward me with that torture tool in her hand.” Lhyn shrugged. “I had the worst panic attack ever. She had to sedate me.”

Dr. Wells looked pained. “I had no idea. I didn’t know Muir had one. He shouldn’t have,” she added, her voice hardening. “That man was a butcher. This is an incredibly precise instrument, designed to help people, and he turned it into a weapon.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Lhyn said.

“Doesn’t make it easier. I’m not supposed to have to sedate patients to keep them from going into respiratory arrest just from looking at me.”

Lhyn held out her hand for the circlet. “This was her solution,” she said, tilting it so Tal and Salomen could see. “She painted a horsehair snake on this one, and no one ever came near me with a plain silver one again.”

“I painted a few more, too.” Dr. Wells lifted her chin when every eye turned to her. “I wasn’t going to bring three more silver ones here. Sedating you once was enough.”

Lhyn sat up straight. “More horsehair snakes?”

“No, that’s unique to you.” Dr. Wells gave one circlet to Salomen and the other to Tal.

Salomen looked up from hers with an incredulous smile. “How did you know? Oh—Rahel told you.”

“She was right, then? The cinnoralis is your favorite tree?”

“Yes, but how did you know what the leaves look like? This is . . .” She examined it again, shifting the circlet around. “It’s exactly right! And beautiful. You did this? You’re a crafter.”

“I’m a healer who likes to paint. It helps me relax. And I knew because I asked Lhyn for an image from her files.”

“That’s why you wanted that? You sneaky—” Lhyn beamed at her. “You could have told me.”

“That would have ruined the surprise.”

“What’s yours, Andira?” Ekatya asked.

“Calligraphy, in High Alsean. It says ‘For Fahla and Alsea.’”

“Rahel didn’t know you,” Dr. Wells said apologetically. “I chose something that reflected what you do. I hope it’s all right.”

“It’s more than all right, Doctor. It shows how much effort you put into making all of us comfortable, not just Lhyn. Thank you.”

Dr. Wells appeared embarrassed until Ekatya said, “Where’s mine?”

Micah thought the doctor’s wicked expression did not bode well for Ekatya. She went back to her pack and returned with a fourth circlet, handing it over with a poorly concealed smile. Lhyn leaned over, took one look, and burst into laughter.

“What is it?” Tal asked.

“Just some words.” Ekatya set the circlet on her lap.

Tal raised an eyebrow at Lhyn, who needed a piptick before she could speak.

“It says ‘Because I’m the captain, that’s why.’ I think Dr. Wells has heard that a few times.”

“It does seem to be our captain’s last resort when she’s not winning an argument.” Dr. Wells folded her arms with a smirk.

With her cheekbones, she looked like she could have Alsean blood, Micah thought. Her light brown hair was in an exotic arrangement, bunched at the back of her head and held in place with two sticks. But what struck him most, as he watched her satisfied look, was how feline she appeared at the moment.

“Very nice,” Ekatya said dryly. “I’m overwhelmed with your effort to make me comfortable.”

“Oh, that wasn’t for you. That was for everyone else.”

Their ease with each other was clear even to a sonsales, and it must have taken days to paint that serpent for Lhyn. Dr. Wells was a caring healer.

He still watched carefully when she activated her equipment and lowered the circlet on Salomen’s head, its leaf shapes pointing downward and vanishing into the dark hair.

“I’m going to set it now,” she said. “The tabs will tighten against your skull. It might feel odd, but I promise they won’t get too tight. Ready?” She waited for the affirmation, then touched the back of the circlet.

Salomen’s eyebrows shot upward. “Odd, yes. Like having insects crawling on my scalp.”

“Rahel says it feels like a hairy watcher.”

Salomen laughed. “Then I’m amazed she’ll sit still for it. She’s not fond of those.”

“You’re much less trouble, that’s for sure.” Dr. Wells moved back to her equipment. “Starting the scan . . . now.”

Salomen did not shift an eyelash, and Tal looked equally unconcerned. Micah relaxed.

“Bondlan—ah, Salomen. Would you please think of something that makes you feel happy?” Dr. Wells asked, her eyes on the display in front of her. Dewar hovered over her shoulder, watching in fascination.

“You’d better be thinking about me,” Tal teased.

“If only we shared thoughts and not just emotions,” Salomen said crisply. “Now you’ll never know.”

“How do you know which is which?” Dewar asked. “That doesn’t look like one thing.”

“No, it’s quite difficult to isolate individual emotions. See this? That’s a surge of amusement tacked on to the happy thought. If I hadn’t memorized Rahel’s patterns before this, I’d be having a hard time. Salomen? Try again?” Dr. Wells waited, then made an adjustment. “Good, thank you. Now something that irritates you.”

“You’d better not be thinking about me,” Tal said.

“Do you see it?” Dr. Wells asked.

Dewar nodded. “The same signal as the first one. Definitely amusement.”

“Yes, we need to irritate her more.”

Tal opened her mouth, caught a remarkably sharp look from Dr. Wells, and closed it again.

Micah was impressed.

“Think about having to take Guards with you every time you go home,” Tal said in a low voice.

“Oh, very good,” Dr. Wells said. “That was crystal clear.”

They went on in this manner, establishing signals for many different emotions, some of which Micah would have been hard-pressed to manufacture spontaneously. But Dr. Wells seemed satisfied.

Salomen was much better behaved when it was Tal’s turn.

“These are excellent results,” Dr. Wells said when they finished. “Granted, my data set equals three, but so far it seems that Alseans are better able to isolate emotions than the average Fleeter.”

“That shouldn’t surprise you,” Lhyn said.

“No, but I do appreciate quantifiable evidence.” She tapped her controls. “Lancer Tal, Salomen, I’m ready for your Sharing.”

“I feel like we should light some candles first,” Lhyn said. “Maybe play soft music.”

“We’re not as limited as you Gaians.” Tal reached up, sliding one hand around the back of Salomen’s neck and the other along her jaw. “We don’t need a special environment to show each other how we feel.”

“Well, that was hitting low,” Lhyn muttered. But her eyes were bright, and she watched avidly while Salomen mirrored Tal’s hand positioning.

With a last look in each other’s eyes, they lowered their heads together until their forehead ridges meshed.

Having seen this several times before, Micah and Dewar were used to it. The three Gaians, however, were visibly shocked when the light show began.

The initial glow of their hands was faint, but soon increased to a point where Micah had to look away. He held back a smile as the previously unflappable Dr. Wells stared with a slack jaw, then uttered something in a guttural language that didn’t sound like Common.

Lhyn did say something in Common—Micah recognized their word for shekking—and clapped a hand over her mouth. When she lowered it again, she was grinning in delight.

Beside her, Ekatya looked as if she had been struck. She rubbed the back of her neck, then dropped her hand into her lap with a melancholy smile.

“Is that normal?” Dr. Wells whispered to Dewar.

“It is for them. Not for any other Alseans, or even normal tyrees. This is how we’ve identified our divine tyrees. At their bonding ceremonies, the molwyn tree recognizes the bond and lights up with that glow.”

“I saw the footage of their ceremony,” Dr. Wells murmured. “I didn’t think . . .”

Micah walked around the equipment and glanced at the displays, which showed dizzying pulses of colored lights and shapes that he couldn’t begin to interpret. “You didn’t think it was real.”

“I—no, I’m sorry, but I didn’t.” She glanced at her displays, then did a double-take. “Shippers, would you look at that!”

Seeing nothing different about the wildly pulsing lights, Micah looked at Dewar.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “But I think it’s showing that they’re mirroring some of each other’s emotions.”

“They are. This isn’t merely a matter of empathic access. They’re actually feeling some of the same things.” Dr. Wells looked up, her eyes wide. “Is that why you call it Sharing?”

“That’s part of it,” Dewar said. “It’s extremely intimate. There’s almost no way to hide in a Sharing.”

“No wonder your culture is so different. Lhyn! What are you doing?”

Lhyn was standing next to the couch, her hand hovering over Tal’s. “There’s no heat,” she marveled. “All that light and no heat; how is that possible? And why doesn’t this drain them?”

The blinding light lessened to mere brilliance, then a warm glow, and finally vanished altogether. Tal gave Salomen a quick kiss before pulling away. “Great Mother, it’s like trying to Share in a roomful of children. Couldn’t you people be quiet for ten pipticks?”

Salomen’s laugh deepened the dimple in her chin. “Remember the group Sharing with my family? Jaros was nine then and not half as obnoxious.”

“Not even ten percent. He was respectful.” Tal turned to Lhyn, who stood guiltily nearby. “Contrary to some.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it. You didn’t tell me that would happen!”

“We don’t think about it any longer. It’s part of us.”

“Gah!” Lhyn theatrically fell into her chair. “Seven moons I’ve been living here, and that never once occurred to you.”

“Excuse me,” Dr. Wells interjected. “I know we didn’t make that easy for you, but is that mirroring of emotions something that increases with the duration of the Sharing?”

Tal and Salomen had what appeared to be a silent conversation.

“I don’t think so,” Salomen answered.

“Not unless we join,” Tal added. “A joined Sharing creates a moment of perfect oneness at its culmination. Even low empaths will merge with their partners in those few pipticks.”

Dr. Wells looked intrigued.

“No,” Micah told her. “Absolutely not.”

“I don’t believe that’s your decision,” she said sleekly.

Salomen let out an undignified snort. Tal dropped her head, hiding her face, but her shoulders shook.

Micah crossed his arms and sent a forbidding glare at the healer, but in truth he was delighted. It had been a difficult few moons for Tal; seeing her lost in merriment was a pleasure.

“As much as I admire your dedication to science,” Salomen said, “that’s not something I’m willing to do in a roomful of grown children. Lhyn would be taking notes.”

Lhyn frowned. “You say that like it’s not reasonable. Of course I’d be taking notes.”

“I’m with Lhyn on this,” Dr. Wells said. “Think of what you could teach us!”

“Are your techniques so lacking that you need our guidance?” Salomen looked around at the shocked faces. “Why are people always surprised when I say something suggestive?”

“Because you’re so . . . proper!” Lhyn blurted. “I didn’t know you could talk like that.”

Micah pointed accusingly at Tal. “I blame you.”

“Me!”

“You’re the only one who wasn’t surprised by her suggestive mouth.”

Tal actually blushed.

“Oh, look at that!” Lhyn was gleeful. “You have to tell us what caused that color, because it is a deep, deep red!”

That set off a rapidly degenerating conversation that ended with Ekatya curled in her chair, holding her abdomen as she gasped for air, Tal laughing helplessly, and Lhyn announcing that she was scarred for life.

“There are advantages to being a low empath,” Micah said. “I never know what’s going on behind closed doors.”

“You do, though.” Dr. Wells turned to Dewar. “Don’t you?”

Dewar nodded. “But it’s considered rude to empathically listen to a joining couple. We raise our blocks to give them privacy. It’s like hearing a conversation as you walk past an open door. You can be aware of it, but that doesn’t mean you should listen.”

“Fascinating,” Dr. Wells breathed. She flicked her fingers outward, as if trying to shed temptation. “I would love to learn more about that. All of this, really. Lhyn’s told me what she can, but it’s just enough to whet the appetite.”

“Because somebody wouldn’t let me Share with Andira and Salomen,” Lhyn grumbled. “The most important research of my lifetime and it was always ‘Not yet, Lhyn.’ I was afraid I’d die of old age before you gave me permission.”

“Is that what this is for you?” Salomen asked. “Research?”

“Um. That’s not what I meant . . .” Lhyn exhaled at the sight of Salomen’s mischievous grin. “It’s not nice to tease the anthropologist. Especially one who’s been starving for this. I’ve missed it since the day we left orbit after the invasion.” She looked up at Dr. Wells. “Can I stop missing it now?”

“It’s time. Go ahead.”

With an ease that broke Micah’s heart, Lhyn put on her circlet and tapped the back to activate it.

“It’s better if I do it myself,” she said as she exchanged seats with Tal. “No surprises that way.”

She sat by Salomen, bright with joyous anticipation. They slid their hands into position and lowered their heads.

This time, there was no light.

Dr. Wells focused ferociously on her displays. Tal and Ekatya watched their tyrees. Micah put his hands into his trouser pockets and looked at shifting colors and lights that he couldn’t understand, but it was better than staring at something so intensely private. He had seen many Sharings before, but this one seemed different.

After several long, silent ticks, the shapes on the displays suddenly contracted, and he looked up to see Lhyn dropping her head to Salomen’s shoulder. Holding her close, Salomen said, “We’ll do it again. Without equipment or healers.”

Lhyn nodded but did not move.

“Well?” Micah asked.

“I don’t know yet.” Dr. Wells tapped several controls, making one of the displays go dark before it lit up with another scan. Shifting arrows pointed this way and that, accompanied by lines of textual characters. “I’m comparing Lhyn’s baseline to her results. It looks like—” She frowned and said something under her breath.

“What’s wrong?” Ekatya asked.

“I can certainly understand why she missed it.” Another few taps, a different scan, and she abruptly crossed to the couch, where Lhyn was only now lifting her head.

“I’m fine,” Lhyn said immediately. “She didn’t hurt me.”

“I know that.” Dr. Wells sat on the low table in front of the couch. “Four different endorphins plus two neurotransmitters and another happy hormone—your brain is sloshing with compounds that should have you ready to fly without a ship. You feel fantastic, don’t you?”

“Shippers, yes.”

“This should be like water to a taggat for you. I’m not sure why it isn’t, unless it’s the fact that your body is producing these compounds on its own rather than metabolizing them from an introduced drug.”

“Water to a what?” Salomen asked.

“A taggat,” Ekatya said. “A little desert animal. They don’t need water other than what they get in their food. The first people who tried to farm them found out the hard way that they can’t be allowed near water. Taggats will drink until they die.”

Salomen looked ill. “You just said it’s not that for Lhyn, yes?”

“Yes, but the fact that it’s not chemically addictive doesn’t mean it’s not psychologically addictive.”

“I understand,” Lhyn said. “But that part has nothing to do with you. I had this once and gave it up, remember? I was fine. It’s a love, not an uncontrollable craving.”

Dr. Wells hesitated.

“Don’t even think about it,” Ekatya said. “We’ve waited long enough.”

Though clearly not happy, Dr. Wells acquiesced.

The Sharing between Tal, Salomen, and Lhyn was quiet. Once again, Salomen took the direct Sharing position with Lhyn, while Tal completed the circuit by resting her hands on the backs of their necks. The glow reappeared as strongly as before, but it didn’t seem to affect the readings—or at least, not enough for Dr. Wells to make note of it.

For the final Sharing, they stood in a square with Lhyn facing Ekatya and Salomen across from Tal. Ekatya stripped the lacing from her shirt, leaving her upper chest exposed, and Lhyn unsealed hers to just above her navel.

Moving with care, Tal rested her hands on the skin over their hearts. Salomen laid hers on top.

The glow did not gradually increase this time. It erupted—from Lhyn and Ekatya. In the blink of an eye it raced up Tal’s and Salomen’s arms, hit their bodies, and exploded into shifting curtains of gold. All four of them stood still, eyes closed and apparently unaffected.

Micah took a shocked step back. “Great Mother of us all,” he whispered. How could two Gaians share the divine flame of Fahla?

“Somebody had better tell me that’s normal.” Though Dr. Wells kept her voice low, she injected a surprising amount of force into it.

“Ah . . .” Dewar looked at Micah, who had no answers. “I’ve seen it before. I’ve been part of it before. But that was in a group Sharing, where Lancer Tal and Bondlancer Opah were channeling the power of every high empath in the Lancer’s Guard.”

“Dammit!” Dr. Wells glared at her displays. “I can barely keep up with this. If anything goes wrong—” She stopped and stared, then dove for her controls. “That has to be an artifact. There is—no, I don’t believe that.” She looked at the Sharing women, then the display, and slowly shook her head. “Guard Dewar. Are you seeing this?”

Dewar and Micah both leaned forward to examine the spot she was pointing to. Unlike the rest of the image, which continually shifted its shapes and colors, this was an unmoving shadow.

“It’s non-responsive,” Dr. Wells said. “Damaged brain tissue.”

Micah turned, preparing to charge across the room and rip Lhyn out of that Sharing, but a strong grip on his arm stopped him.

“Don’t you dare.” Dr. Wells had not taken her eyes off the display. “They’re not causing it. She had that before. But it’s shrinking.” She looked up then, shock written all over her face. “This is medically impossible. They’re regenerating her brain cells and neural connections. They’re healing her.”

“I thought you said she was already healed.” Wasn’t that the whole point of waiting this long?

“She was. This is the brain equivalent of a scar. She was never going to regain full function in this area. At least, I would have sworn that before now.”

“Empathic healing,” Dewar said. “But neither of them are trained for it.”

“They’re probably not even aware of this. Not unless Lhyn showed them her scan, and I very much doubt she did. After she saw it the first time, she refused to look at it again.”

“She’s a scholar,” Micah said quietly. Lhyn’s identity was built around her intellectual capacity. It must have been devastating for her to lose even a fraction of it.

“Then it has to be instinctive.” Dewar watched the four women in their dancing column of fire. “They’re sensing it somehow. Something that’s not right in the Sharing.”

For fifteen ticks, the dark spot on the display gradually shrank. Micah alternated between watching it and the Sharing women, waiting for the divine flame to dim. But this flame did not behave like the others. It simply shut off, as if Fahla herself had blown it out.

Lhyn slumped forward, appearing half-conscious. Salomen and Tal leaped to catch her, while Ekatya clearly wanted to help but was swaying on her feet.

In a few steps, Micah had his hands around Ekatya’s shoulders and was guiding her to the nearest chair. She felt so small in his hands, lighter even than Tal, though the two women were similar in height. Yet the power he had seen coming from her . . .

She resisted as he tried to nudge her down, pushing at him with weak arms.

“Sit down, you’re as wobbly as a newborn winden. Dr. Wells will make sure Lhyn’s all right.”

She gave up and let herself relax into the chair. “There was a wrong thread,” she mumbled. “Black and sticky and . . . wrong.”

Dr. Wells was bent over the couch, snapping a wide bracelet on Lhyn’s wrist and activating a readout. “She’s fine,” she said a few pipticks later. “Just very tired and in need of sleep.”

Lhyn’s eyelids fluttered open. “What happened?”

Dr. Wells reached out to brush a damp wisp of hair from her flushed face. “Remember that number you told me to never say to you again? It’s not eighteen percent any longer. It’s forty-three.”

Lhyn looked blank. Then she sat upright, suddenly infused with energy. “Forty-three?”

“Forty-three point two, but I rounded down.”

She tried to speak and choked on her words. “Forty-three point two,” she managed. “Forty-three point two!” She covered her mouth with both hands, staring at Dr. Wells as if she were afraid the information might change if she looked away.

A single nod seemed to be the assurance she needed, and she launched forward, laughing and crying at the same time. Dr. Wells looked startled as she caught her, then smiled and wrapped her in a warmron.

“Forty-three point two,” Lhyn said in a rasping voice. “I felt it, but I didn’t know what it was. How high do you think it will go?”

With one hand, Dr. Wells deftly deactivated the scanner, slipped it off Lhyn’s head, and set it on the table. Resettling her grip, she looked up at the others with shining eyes. “I don’t know. But I know you’re going to find out.”


23


Healing

The next morning, Dr. Wells collected Rahel and flew to Whitesun, where she would pursue her research with Tal’s blessing. Tal hadn’t yet mentioned that to Micah, and when he appeared in her office before midmeal, she knew her time had run out.

“Something has been bothering me,” he said, settling his large body in the carved wooden guest chair.

“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable over by the windows? Can I get you a cup of shannel?”

“No and no, and you’re stalling. Why did Dr. Wells take base scans of you and Salomen? That had nothing to do with Lhyn or the effects of Sharing on her and Ekatya.”

She leaned back in her chair and crossed her hands in her lap. “Because that wasn’t about their Sharing. It was about ours.”

His eyes glinted. “Please tell me you have safeguards in place to prevent her from passing that data all over the Protectorate.”

“She promised confidentiality. And Ekatya vouches for her,” Tal added at Micah’s expressive eye roll. “She repeated that promise to me in person before you arrived last night. I can confirm her sincerity. She’s keeping her data out of the ship’s computers so it can’t be intercepted or requested by the government. This is her personal project.” Tal hesitated, knowing he was about to ask. “She’s helping us with our divine tyree question.”

“Why is it necessary to bring an alien healer in on this?”

“Because we’ve disabled ourselves by keeping it such a damned secret!” She sat up straight, resting her forearms on her desk. “The High Council is making a mistake. I agreed with the secrecy at first, but we’re up to ten divine tyree pairs. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Something is causing it. The longer we put off making it public, the worse it will look when we finally do. And all our secrecy means we haven’t turned the scholar caste loose on the question. We could have had answers by now.”

“We do have scholars researching it.”

“We have templars researching it.”

Micah’s head went back. “I hope you don’t use that tone with Lanaril. I’ve never seen her angry, but that might do it.”

Tal was tempted to say she’d had the privilege of seeing Lanaril angry, and it was a sight to behold. “Of course they’re scholars, too. But their research is built around the belief that this is Fahla’s plan. Dr. Wells won’t work that way.”

He frowned. “It is Fahla’s plan.”

And that was why she didn’t want to have this conversation. It was also why the issue of public knowledge was so sticky.

“Perhaps it is,” she said carefully, “but Fahla may be using methods we can detect. Which would lead to answers, and I would much rather have reasons and answers than faith.”

Micah’s spine went stiff, and his close-cropped hair seemed to bristle more than usual. “This from the first person Fahla has touched in one thousand cycles? Since when are answers and faith mutually exclusive?”

“They’re not. But faith doesn’t lead to answers. Faith is an answer, and that’s not good enough for me. As Lancer,” she added, heading off what was sure to be an outburst. “As a private person, I’m more than happy to accept this gift and not question it. As a Lancer, I have to make decisions based on facts, and we don’t have any.”

“Then open the question to the scholar caste.”

“And watch it blow up when someone talks? We’ve kept the secret too long. If it’s going to go public, we should have some answers to offer.”

Micah rubbed a hand over his hair. “Why is Dr. Wells going to Whitesun?”

“Rahel talked to her mother and . . . Sharro, I think her name is. Her mother’s bondmate. They offered themselves as test subjects for a Sharing between Alseans with no tyree bond. They also have friends who are normal tyrees. Dr. Wells is studying Sharings in different types of bonds to see if she can isolate the source of the divine spark.”

“So an alien healer is going to gather data on our most intimate and sacred exchange. Helped in her endeavor by a warrior you would have given anything to kill half a moon ago.”

Tal couldn’t help it; she began to laugh. “When you put it that way, it does sound rather unlikely.”

He wasn’t laughing, but at least his spine had softened. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

She hoped so, too.

Uprising

Sharing with Ekatya and Lhyn was the most beautiful thing Tal had ever experienced, until she Shared with Salomen.

Sharing with all three of them was sublime.

She had not expected it that first time, not with witnesses and brain scanners. But the moment she and Salomen connected with Ekatya and Lhyn, it was as if the pent-up power of a fusion reactor had found an outlet. It roared out in a mind-bending rush, effortlessly pushing the four of them into a state of unity. Tal and Salomen’s empathic range rocketed outward, surpassing what they could achieve themselves by an order of magnitude.

The explosion reversed, and they fell into the single, combined mind created in their Sharing. But something wasn’t right. Something vibrated at the wrong frequency, a sour note in an otherwise glorious symphony. None of them questioned the overwhelming need to find and fix it. None of them knew what it was when they did find it. They simply obeyed the compulsion to change the frequency of that vibration and bring it into harmony with the rest.

They poured out their need and hope and love, watching it vanish into a black crack that took all they had and wanted more. Yet it slowly began to seal itself. The tone of the vibration shifted, and they knew it was right.

Then they ran out of power, emerging from their Sharing with an abruptness that left Tal and Salomen dazed even as they scrambled to catch a toppling Lhyn.

When Dr. Wells explained what they had done, Tal’s first thought was a joyous one: miracle.

Her second was not.

Lie.

From their first meeting, Tal had known one overarching truth about Lhyn: her words matched her emotions. She was the most open person Tal had ever met, never concealing a thing, always eager to learn and equally eager to share her knowledge. She had shared even the most horrific details of her kidnapping and torture, not wanting to bear the burden of secrecy.

Yet she had hidden this. It was so counter to Lhyn’s character that Tal could not face her after their Sharing. She and Salomen had left as soon as courtesy allowed.

Salomen had no patience for Tal’s reaction. Lhyn owed that information to no one, she pointed out. It had nothing to do with truth and everything to do with identity. But her persuasion met stiff resistance until she brought up the fact that not even Lhyn had known what that wrong vibration was.

Only then did Tal understand, and her heart hurt with the realization. Lhyn had been so wounded by the knowledge of her brain damage that she had walled it off, determined to forget. Even when faced with it, she could not see.

When they met the following evening, Lhyn led off with an apology.

“There’s no need,” Salomen said.

“I think there is. That Sharing . . . there were residual effects. Ekatya and I could still feel you for a few ticks afterward. I felt—” She cast a glance at Tal.

“You felt my anger. It’s not always a wonderful thing to sense emotions, is it? You don’t always enjoy what you feel.”

“No,” Lhyn said quietly, and Tal waited no longer to sweep her into a warmron, absorbing her relief with the weight of shame.

“I’m sorry you felt that. I cannot apologize for the emotion, because we cannot help what we feel. I’d be apologizing to Salomen twenty times a day.”

“Forty,” Salomen said in an undertone.

It broke the solemn mood, bringing smiles to everyone’s faces.

“You gave me the gift of knowing you,” Tal said. “You gave it so freely that I came to see it as a right, and the first time you didn’t give, I felt betrayed. That’s my fault, not yours.”

“I didn’t want you to think less of me. You were all so worried and ready for me to shatter, but . . .” Lhyn lifted her hands. “You didn’t know about the real damage.”

Tal heard what she was not saying: that she had chafed at their careful treatment of her, and how much worse would it have been if she had told them about the brain damage?

Worse, she admitted to herself. She remembered Prime Builder Eroles in the shuttle, telling her that she didn’t know Lhyn. During a five-tick confrontation at the top of the shuttle ramp, Anjuli Eroles had learned something about Lhyn that Tal had willfully not seen for seven moons.

“You don’t look happy,” Lhyn said. “Are you sure you’re not still upset?”

Tal smiled up at her. “Shall I show you how I feel? And we’ll see about finishing the job we started last night.”

They did not finish the job that night or the next. On the fourth night, however, they watched the black crack shrink into a thin line, then a barely perceptible shadow, and then—

The symphony rang out around them in perfect tune, suddenly richer and impossibly vibrant, a glorious gift straight from the hand of Fahla. They did not fall out of this Sharing in exhaustion, but eased out with the greatest reluctance, all four of them leaning together in a laughing, euphoric group warmron.

When Dr. Wells and Rahel returned from Whitesun two days later, Lhyn submitted to her brain scan with barely restrained glee. “I don’t need it,” she said. “But I know you want to see for yourself.”

“Not having the advantage of godlike powers of perception, yes, I do.” Dr. Wells activated the scan, this time with Ekatya, Tal, and Salomen standing behind her.

“I don’t know what I’m looking at,” Tal said as shifting shapes and colors appeared on the display.

“Nothing.” Dr. Wells stared at the display, then shook her head with an incredulous laugh. “You’re looking at nothing. She’s completely healed. One hundred percent functionality.”

“Told you,” Lhyn said from her chair. “Can I take this off now?”

“Yes, Dr. Impatient Rivers, you can take it off.”

Lhyn stood up, passed the scanning ring to Dr. Wells, and reached for Ekatya’s hands. “I’m ready,” she said. “It’s time.”

Ekatya flashed a dazzling smile. Without breaking their gaze, she said, “Andira, Salomen, Dr. Wells—we’d like to formally invite you to our bonding ceremony.”


24


Bonding

Lanaril had watched Lhyn and Ekatya put off their bonding ceremony too many times. Lhyn wanted to wait until after the trial, which took far longer than Lanaril expected. Protectorate trials moved like tree sap in winter compared to their Alsean equivalent, where empathic scans could verify or even replace witness testimony.

Once that had finally ended, Ekatya’s patrol schedule and other variables kept getting in the way. Lanaril had begun to wonder if those two would ever set a date when she received the call from Lhyn.

It would be a small ceremony. Neither bondmate had family that could attend, and the secrecy surrounding their tyree status meant that none of Ekatya’s crew could attend either. As Ekatya said, the Protectorate would take a dim view of a warship captain bearing an alien empathic bond. Unspoken but equally problematic was the reaction of the Alsean public should it become known that aliens held one of their most precious bonds.

Fortunately, the attendance of the Lancer and Bondlancer gave Lanaril the perfect excuse to close Blacksun Temple, leaving only the matter of coordinating schedules. Andira and Salomen shifted stars and soil to clear a date before Ekatya had to leave on her next patrol.

Three days after Lhyn’s call, Lanaril stood on the deck at the center of Blacksun Temple and looked up through the branches of the ancient molwyn tree. The silver undersides of its leaves shone with a brilliance that only occurred in the slanted light of mornings and late afternoons—an ephemeral, uplifting sight and one of the reasons she loved afternoon bondings.

She was in her ceremonial clothing, marked as Lead Templar by the torso-spanning silver molwyn embroidered on the front of her tunic and the even larger one on her cape. The clothing was a requirement of her title, a gift from the Prime Scholar when she reached her rank. She had never known how much labor went into that exquisite embroidery, but the Prime Crafter once told her that each of the two designs had likely taken a highly skilled crafter more than one hundred days of full-time work to create.

Among the tiny knot of guests standing with her on the deck were Andira and Salomen, resplendent in their breastplates and full capes. Andira’s cape was the crimson of the warrior caste, Salomen’s the dark green of the producers, and each bore the shield of Alsea embroidered in black and gold. If Lanaril’s cape embroidery had taken a hundred days, Andira’s and Salomen’s must have required half a cycle each—or, as she suspected, an entire team of crafters laboring night and day for several moons.

Salomen’s father and two of her brothers came, their family ties to Ekatya and Lhyn sealed through their participation in Salomen’s bonding break. Chief Kameha was there, in the light blue cape of the builder caste, and towering over him was Colonel Micah.

There were only two representatives of Ekatya’s current crew: Dr. Wells, wearing her Fleet dress uniform, and Rahel Sayana, in the formal uniform of a Bondlancer’s Guard. Rahel came at Lhyn’s invitation, having become friends with her on their first patrol.

The last two guests attended via an extraordinary method. Andira and Salomen had placed a Gaian pad into a tall stand and used the quantum com to call Ekatya’s grandparents, somewhere halfway across the galaxy. It was the middle of the night for them, but they were wide awake and fascinated, smiling broadly as the other guests introduced themselves. Speaking through a translation program, they said they recognized every name from the stories Ekatya and Lhyn had told and were delighted to attach faces to them.

Once the introductions were complete, Rahel took it upon herself to keep them company. As the only guest who was familiar with both the ceremony and their language, she volunteered to explain what they would be seeing. Judging by their grateful smiles and excited questions, there was no greater gift she could have offered.

No pad had been set up for Lhyn’s family. With seven siblings and both of her parents still living, Lanaril would have expected someone to be contacted, but Lhyn had declined the offer.

“An alien ceremony on an alien planet? They won’t understand and won’t care. They’ll think I’ve gone native.” With a shrug, she added, “Maybe I have.”

After that conversation, Lanaril had a better understanding of Lhyn’s decision to make Alsea her home.

Due to the risk of exposure, today’s music had to be played from a recording rather than the normal band of musicians. Lanaril waited for the cue from one of her trusted templars standing by the main doors. When it came, she began the playback with a click of the control in her pocket.

A deep rumble of drums signaled the start of the ceremony, their throbbing notes rolling through the empty temple before ending with a final, echoing boom. The templars opened the great double doors to admit the bondmates.

As expected, Lhyn had chosen the formal clothing of her adopted caste, complete with a full cape in scholar blue. Her silver-streaked hair was piled atop her head and glittered with starspots and bluestones, courtesy of a finely woven jewel net that had certainly not been in her possession before today.

The true surprise was that Ekatya had also chosen to honor Alsean tradition. Lanaril had assumed she would wear her Fleet dress uniform and was stunned at the sight of her in embroidered trousers and boots that matched Lhyn’s, a black tunic studded with flakes of crystal, and a full cape in the crimson red of the warriors. The cape set off her black hair, which was neither loose nor clipped back as she usually wore it but swept up and topped by a jewel net. Where Lhyn’s bore bluestones, Ekatya’s sparkled with firedrops that matched her cape.

Those two nets were worth a Lancer’s ransom. Since Andira’s plan to gift her friends with a proper bonding break had been frustrated by Ekatya’s patrol schedule, it seemed she had found an alternative outlet. Lanaril wondered if either Lhyn or Ekatya truly understood what they were wearing atop their heads.

The templars ghosted out the doors and quietly shut them as the opening notes of the bonding ballad lilted through the air. Lhyn and Ekatya began their walk toward the deck.

It was a historic event, witnessed by a fortunate few: the first aliens to bear a tyree bond, taking part in an Alsean bonding ceremony. Treaties were all well and good, but to Lanaril’s thinking, this was the moment when their two cultures came together in blessed union.

An unmistakable voice rang out, filling the temple with a soaring melody. Lhyn and Ekatya stopped, exuding astonishment as they searched for the source.

To their left, a tall figure in shimmering white stepped from the doorway of a counseling room, the tricolored cape of the crafters swirling gently around her calves. She gave a short bow to the bondmates, never ceasing her song.

Lhyn covered her mouth, then broke into a brilliant grin as she pointed to Andira. With a matching grin, Andira inclined her head, admitting her responsibility.

Somehow, she had convinced Alsea’s greatest vocalist to rearrange her schedule on three days’ notice and travel to Blacksun to sing for fourteen people. Kyrie Razinfin, it turned out, was as much an admirer of Lhyn’s accomplishments as Lhyn was of hers. Now she paced beside the bondmates, accompanying them across the temple floor and up the steps to the deck as she sang. When she allowed the last note of her song to fade, Lanaril was so struck by the beauty of her performance that she nearly forgot her own role. She bowed to Kyrie, the traditional acknowledgement of the gift a singer brought to this ceremony, and received a bow in return. Kyrie turned to the bondmates and bowed a second time, lower as tradition dictated.

Lhyn promptly broke with tradition and offered a palm touch. “Will you stay after?” she asked as Kyrie met her hand. “It’s a small feast, but we would be so honored.”

“The honor is mine,” Kyrie answered.

Lhyn’s smile nearly split her cheeks, and Ekatya was beaming as well. They turned to face the molwyn tree, ready to resume, and Lanaril began the rites that had not changed in thousands of cycles.

“Lhyn Serini Rivers, Ekatya Lucia Serrado, what do you seek in this temple today?”

“We seek Fahla’s blessing,” Lhyn answered.

“For what purpose?”

“To bless the bond our hearts have made.” Ekatya spoke with perfect conviction.

“Will you show us this bond? And demonstrate with open hearts the love that you share?”

“We will,” they said together.

“Then please come to the molwyn.”

In a normal ceremony, the bondmates would stand by the molwyn tree with Lanaril while their guests observed from the temple floor, but it seemed ridiculous not to bring this handful of people along. Lanaril gestured for them to follow and smiled when Salomen picked up the stand holding the pad. Family was important to Salomen; she would make sure Ekatya’s grandparents had a perfect view of the proceedings. Rahel went with her and stood beside the pad, quietly narrating.

With one hand touching the ancient molwyn tree, Lanaril began the bonding prayer. She had not expected Chief Kameha or Dr. Wells to participate in the call-and-response, but they had memorized it and joined their voices to the others.

As always, her favorite part was when she told the story of how the bondmates met and when they knew their hearts were speaking to each other. Every story was different; each had a seed of truth and often humor. This one inspired a wicked smile from Dr. Wells, who leaned over to Chief Kameha and said quietly, “I didn’t know the captain had that in her.”

“Talk to me after; I have stories,” Kameha responded.

Ekatya glared at them, but they looked entirely unrepentant.

“I have stories, too,” Lhyn said in a stage whisper, and the guests burst into laughter.

The ceremony flew by despite Lanaril’s determination to savor every piptick. All too soon, Lhyn and Ekatya were speaking the ritual words of consent and the pivotal moment was upon them.

Templars took special training to anchor the Great Sharing. It was both an immense responsibility, requiring careful regulation of the empathic flow, and an extraordinary gift, reserved for those who worked to be worthy of it. What greater calling could there be than to hold two hearts in her hands and bond them together? In those precious pipticks, when she stood between bondmates and forged a union with Fahla’s power thrumming through her, she saw infinite potential and a glimpse of the divine.

Of course, not every bond lasted. Her own had not. But each bore the seed of something glorious. This one, she was sure, would bear out its potential and change the world. It was a shame that the event would be experienced by so few. When Andira and Salomen bonded, they had needed days to work out the lists of which guests would go where in the two Sharing lines. There had been hundreds of names to accommodate.

Lhyn and Ekatya had only nine.

They faced each other while Andira and Salomen took the role of attendants, undoing the bondmates’ shirts far enough to give Lanaril access to the bare skin over their hearts.

Andira had been accorded the place of honor in direct contact with Ekatya, standing behind her with a hand upon the back of her neck. Salomen took the same position behind Lhyn, trailed by her father and two brothers. Jaros stood on a stool that had been set out for that purpose, and Rahel anchored the end at the last moment, reluctant to leave Ekatya’s grandparents.

Behind Andira stood Dr. Wells, Chief Kameha, and Colonel Micah, with the Chief using a second stool.

This left Kyrie Razinfin standing alone and watching. Lhyn would have none of that, asking her to “add some crafter color to the lines” and refusing any answer but that Kyrie would anchor the end of Ekatya’s line.

When the chain was ready and its links connected, Lanaril took her place at its center. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes.” Ekatya spoke clearly but exuded a low hum of nervousness.

“For ages,” Lhyn said, beaming. Her empathic signature shone with anticipatory joy.

Lanaril laid her hand over Lhyn’s heart, then turned to Ekatya and hesitated. Though they had resolved the misunderstanding that crippled their early acquaintance, she had not yet found a way past the natural caution this woman wore like a shield.

Holding her hand just above Ekatya’s skin, she whispered, “Take me the rest of the way.”

It was a dramatic break from the ritual, and Ekatya knew it. Her surprise gave way to grateful comprehension as she grasped Lanaril’s wrist and brought it in, making the connection herself. Though she said nothing, the sudden increase in confidence was a welcome gift.

Lanaril held her gaze as she shifted her hand slightly, seeking the right placement. She had intended to offer reassurance, to nurture the fragile trust they had just established, but her plans were shattered by the energy that roared up her arms.

She had always known these two were blessed by Fahla. They held the first tyree bond given to aliens; how could it be otherwise? She had even known they possessed extraordinary powers in their bond, approaching those of divine tyrees.

But she had not realized they actually were divine tyrees until her touch unleashed their power. It stiffened her spine and lifted her chin, sparked along her nerves and crackled through her chest, and she gloried in the rush. This was no mere glimpse of the divine. It was a collision that subsumed her.

A hand tightened around her wrist, the tendril of concern lancing out. Of all things, Ekatya was worried about her.

Lanaril gathered up the immensity of their bond, forced it under her control, and opened her eyes. A nod was all she could manage, but it was enough to assuage the worry.

To her surprise, Ekatya slid her hand atop Lanaril’s and held it to her chest. With the pressure and her unwavering gaze, she sent a message as clearly as if she had spoken it aloud: We are doing this together.

On Lanaril’s other side, Lhyn did the same.

Lanaril dropped her head back, laughing up into the branches of the molwyn, and sent the power outward.

It leaped through her hands and flowed through the bondmates into the two lines of guests, then returned in a double loop of empathic connectivity. Her sacred duty now, in addition to controlling the power itself, was to guard the emotional privacy of the guests. This was a Sharing of the bondmates’ hearts only. She scrubbed the return loop of its emotions, allowing only Lhyn’s and Ekatya’s to travel unencumbered. And if she took a private joy in her experience of their hearts, that was between her and Fahla.

She held the Great Sharing for twice as long as normal. In most bonding ceremonies, the energy required for this merging came from her. Ending it was simultaneously a loss and a relief, as she let go of the emotions but recovered her strength. But tyrees provided their own power, and divine tyrees gave so much that Lanaril thought it might blow off the temple dome if she didn’t control it. Cutting herself off from that required an act of will.

She pulled back her hands and stepped away, keeping her spine straight though she felt diminished. The guests shifted into a loose group, murmuring amongst themselves while Andira and Salomen put the bondmates’ clothing back in order. By the time they were done, Lanaril had recovered enough of herself to speak the final words in a strong voice.

“You have all felt the power of this bond, Shared with open hearts by Lhyn Serini Rivers and Ekatya Lucia Serrado. Every one of you is a witness to their love. From this day forward, none may challenge their status as bondmates, for you have blessed them by your presence, as Fahla has blessed them by hers. I am Lanaril Faramon Satran, Lead Templar of Blacksun, and I say now for all to hear: this bond is sealed by Fahla and can never be broken, except by the will of Fahla or the bondmates themselves.” Turning to the bondmates, she said, “Your guests await your lead. Let the celebration begin.”

A tap of the control in her pocket notified one of her templars, whose response was immediate. Far overhead, the great temple bells rang joyously, announcing another bond created.

Lhyn bit her lower lip and looked at Ekatya. “I’m afraid to try,” she said.

Ekatya took her hand and led her to the molwyn’s black trunk. “We don’t need this to know, right?”

“No, but it would still be nice.”

“Only one way to find out.” Ekatya reached up and pressed her hands against the trunk at head height.

“Right,” Lhyn murmured, and laid her hands on the wood.

Lanaril did not know what to expect. That they were divine tyrees was not in doubt; whether the molwyn would recognize that bond in aliens was.

It took three pipticks for everyone to see the answer.

Beneath their hands, the bark began to glow. It grew steadily brighter, increasing in strength until Lanaril could hardly look—and then it flashed the length of the trunk and exploded into the miracle she had been blessed to witness once before.

“Fahla, my Goddess,” she whispered, sinking to her knees.

Lhyn cried out in her own language, but the tears streaking down her cheeks needed no translation. Beside her, Ekatya stared up in wonderment.

The flame traveled on, firing the limbs and branches and limning every leaf with unquenchable brilliance. It filled the empty temple with light and glory, a miracle witnessed by just thirteen people in the room and two more halfway across the galaxy.

As ten of those thirteen joined Lanaril on their knees, the divine light reflected off the glass roof and danced along the walls of the temple, sparking a tiny answering light from the front of a lens hidden in a power access panel. It had been overlooked for two and a half moons, since its owner had first installed it in an effort to gather information for his caste Prime.

Now it spied on a secret.


25


Secret exploded

The chime of her vidcom had Tal stumbling out of bed before she was fully awake. She raced to the desk in their quarters, where the smaller vidcom would be less disruptive to Salomen’s sleep than the large one on the dining area wall.

“Aldirk,” she groaned upon seeing the face of her Chief Counselor. “I told you I was taking a free day today. I only got to sleep two hanticks ago.”

They had enjoyed a long feast after the ceremony, which carried over into a smaller gathering in Ekatya and Lhyn’s suite, which led to another foursome Sharing once the last guest had departed. Rarely had she enjoyed such a carefree, social day, and she had looked forward to sleeping in.

“I’m aware of your schedule, Lancer Tal.” Pinched nostrils evidenced Aldirk’s affront. “Unfortunately, we have an emergency that requires your attention.”

“What is it this time?” She raked her hair back, trying to shake off the last vestiges of sleep.

“I believe I can best explain by showing you this.” His face was replaced by a still image, and Tal was wide awake.

“Spawn of a fantenshekken!”

Across the spacious room, Salomen stirred in their bed, her consciousness flooding their link. “What?” she mumbled. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing, just the worst disaster I can think of short of the space elevator collapsing. How did this happen?”

“We don’t know yet. I’ve already contacted Colonel Razine. She’s at the temple with a team of investigators. All of the images were taken from the same angle, which gives her a good idea of where to find the cam.” He cleared his throat. “Unfortunately, the real issue is that this will be released today. I have a journalist from the Blacksun Spotlight sitting in your antechamber waiting for you. He says they’ll be publishing this today with or without your statement.”

“Shekking perfect.” She raked her fingers through her hair again. “I’ll be there in a tentick.”

He raised his eyebrows in an eloquently silent judgment of her appearance. “Take twenty ticks, Lancer. I’ll keep him busy until you arrive.”

Salomen was already up and pulling on her robe. “I heard part of that. The temple? Did something happen to Lanaril?”

“No, but something is about to happen to Ekatya and Lhyn.” Tal crossed the room, shedding her robe as she went. “Someone had a cam hidden in the temple. Their divine tyree status is going public today.” She stopped and reversed direction. “I have to call Ekatya.”

Salomen darted past and stood in front of her with an upraised hand. “You are not calling Ekatya.”

“She needs to be warned!”

“What she needs is to sleep the morning after her bonding! For the love of Fahla, let them enjoy it while they can. Their bonding break is already just four days long; will you take even that away from them? This isn’t going public in the next five ticks, is it?”

“No, but they might not be safe. They can’t go to Whitesun for their bonding break now. They’ll be walking targets.”

“But they’re not targets here in the State House. We have time to get more information.”

That did make sense.

Tal pressed a quick kiss to her cheek and wheeled around. “You’re right. Would you—”

“Go shower. I’ll put together a two-tick mornmeal.”

“You are a gift from the goddess,” Tal said as she strode for the bathroom.

“True words,” Salomen agreed, and in spite of the terrible start to her day, Tal had to smile.

Uprising

The call for an emergency High Council meeting had not included any explanation, a circumstance that made Anjuli nervous. Emergency meetings were bad enough; secrecy like this made it worse. The other five Primes looked equally uncomfortable as they sat around the table in a heavy silence.

Lancer Tal arrived with her expression set in stone. She slipped a file chip into the wall reader next to the vidscreen, pulled the control from its clip, and took her seat. “Thank you for coming on short notice. Prime Merchant, I know you were in Redmoon this morning. I’m sorry for the sudden recall, but we have a situation that requires immediate consensus and action from the High Council.” She thumbed the control. “Yesterday, I attended the bonding ceremony of Captain Serrado and Dr. Rivers. This is what happened when they touched the molwyn tree.”

The vidscreen came to life, and Anjuli sucked in her breath at the sight of Captain Serrado and Lhyn Rivers in formal Alsean clothing, standing with their hands upon the bark of the molwyn tree—which was not black, but a burning column of fire. Above them, the branches and leaves flamed so brilliantly that they were nearly white.

“Great Mother of us all,” she said. Beside her, Prime Warrior Ehron uttered a profane oath.

“Divine tyrees,” Prime Scholar Yaserka gasped. “Impossible!”

“Clearly possible, since we’re looking at it.” Prime Producer Arabisar was practical as always.

“But how?” Prime Crafter Bylwytin asked. “They’re not Alsean. They’re sonsales.”

Prime Merchant Stasinal stared at the image with narrowed eyes. “I didn’t even know they were bonding. The Savior of Blacksun and the first alien to receive Alsean citizenship, and that temple is empty. Kyrie Razinfin is there but not the Protectorate Ambassador? Not us?”

Anjuli hadn’t noticed what was now blindingly obvious. She had to admire Stasinal’s sharp mind.

“I hear the question you’re building up to,” Lancer Tal said. “Yes, I knew. That’s why the ceremony was closed. We didn’t want that information getting out on Alsea for obvious reasons. We also didn’t want it getting to the ears of the Protectorate government, because Fleet will pull Captain Serrado off this duty if they think she’s been compromised.”

“Compromised!” Yaserka sat up straight. “She and her bondmate were touched by the hand of Fahla herself, and they would call that compromised?”

“Lhyn Rivers was tortured because a member of the Protectorate government wanted her to say we’re dangerous,” Lancer Tal reminded him. “Yes, that’s what they would call it. But that’s only one of our issues today, and not the biggest one. The biggest issue is that this image was taken by a hidden cam and sold to the Blacksun Spotlight. It’s going public this evening.”

Anjuli remained quiet as the table erupted. Lancer Tal’s gaze had fallen directly on her when she said hidden cam. She looked back at the image and felt her stomach drop.

It was taken from the same angle as the image she had received of Rahel Sayana sitting beneath the molwyn: elevated, which had allowed a clear shot over the heads of the worshippers, and with the inner doors visible on the far side of the temple.

Do not feel guilty, do not feel guilty, she chanted to herself, but when she looked back, Lancer Tal was staring straight at her.

“How it happened is not the issue,” Lancer Tal said loudly, still looking at her as she cut off the arguments going around the table. At last her attention moved on. “The issue is that our secret is about to be laid open. We cannot continue to hide our divine tyrees.”

Anjuli was so relieved at being released that she barely heard Ehron say, “Why not? This has nothing to do with our divine tyrees.”

“Do you want Alseans to think the second-ever divine tyree pair are aliens?” Yaserka asked in a tone of voice that said you idiot. “Or would you rather tell them that there have already been ten Alsean pairs and this is just the eleventh?”

“Ah.” Ehron drummed his fingers on the table. “I see your point.”

“I’ve convinced the Spotlight to keep this dark until the evening news,” Lancer Tal said, “and promised a statement from the High Council before then. We need to come to an immediate agreement on how to handle this. I suggest the truth.”

“What, tell them we don’t know any more now than we did when you and the Bondlancer set a molwyn tree ablaze?” Yaserka’s voice rose. “We’ll look like grainbirds!”

“We’ll look like grainbirds no matter what. We kept this secret too long. You think telling the public when we have twenty pairs will be any better than doing it now? The best we can hope for is to turn this into a celebration. Stress the numbers. Stress the point that Fahla is speaking to us after a thousand cycles of silence. Stress the fact that she gave her gift to one alien who helped us survive the Voloth, and another who withstood torture rather than betray us.” Lancer Tal’s gaze went back to Anjuli. “We owe Captain Serrado and Dr. Rivers our protection. They didn’t ask for their bond to be turned into global news, but that’s what will happen in a few hanticks. I had to send them on their bonding break with security.

The rest of the meeting was a flurry of arguments that gradually settled into consensus. Anjuli heard most of it as noise passing over her head, too consumed with guilt and the certainty that Lancer Tal knew everything to pay much attention. Her fear was confirmed at the end of the meeting when Lancer Tal said, “Please stay, Prime Builder.”

Anjuli kept her eyes on her reader card as the other Primes filed out of the room. The door shut, leaving them in silence that rang in her ears before a quiet voice broke it.

“Is there something you want to tell me?”

She lifted her head. “You already know, don’t you?”

“I know you’re not a spymaster, and your informant wasn’t a professional.” The sentence dripped contempt. “If he had been, he wouldn’t have left his fingerprints and skin cells all over that cam and the power panel he installed it in. Colonel Razine matched the biometric data in less than two hanticks. But the stupidest thing he did was try to profit off the happiness of others. Had he not sold that image, he wouldn’t be in detention right now, telling Razine everything he did for you.”

“I did not tell him to leave that—”

“Did you know about the cam he installed outside Lead Templar Satran’s study?” Lancer Tal interrupted.

The scene on the vidscreen shifted, now showing a familiar image of Bondlancer Opah and Rahel Sayana walking down the corridor.

“I didn’t realize where they were,” Anjuli said weakly. “I only wanted—”

“To spy on my bondmate.”

“No!” She straightened her shoulders and faced her judge. “That wasn’t my intent. I knew you weren’t telling the whole truth about what happened in Pollonius. And Lead Templar Satran told us the warrior was sworn to Shantu.” She swallowed. “I’m sure you understand why that caught my attention.”

Lancer Tal nodded, but gave no other sign of what she was thinking.

“I suppose . . .” She was grasping at realizations that were only now coming to her, conclusions she hadn’t drawn because she hadn’t let herself think about them. “I focused on that because it was something I could still do. Shantu was dead, but his best warrior was still alive. I could at least find out what happened to her. What you were hiding. I only asked for information,” she added in a rush. “I didn’t know there were hidden cams. I thought—” The rush faded, leaving her feeling like a first-cycle apprentice making the most ignorant of mistakes. “I thought he just waited and took the images.”

“You’re joking. You thought he stood in the corridor for a few days until the right moment came along?”

She dropped her head, unable to hold that incredulous stare. “I never meant for any of this to happen.”

The room was quiet until a sigh sounded across the table. She chanced a look up and saw Lancer Tal resting her elbows on the table with her face in her hands.

“What a shekking mess,” she mumbled. “And all for nothing.” Wearily, she rubbed her face and lifted her head. “Had you not been sincere, I would have told Colonel Razine to find something, anything to charge you with. The damage you caused today—I don’t know how far it will go.”

Anjuli gave a careful nod, afraid to risk more.

“The irony is that we’re all in this mess because you’re an incompetent spymaster. If you were any good at it, you’d have ordered those cams removed as soon as you got the information you were after. But if you were any good at it, I’d have you in detention right now.” She exhaled. “So here we are, scrambling to clean up a disaster, trying to keep this from exploding in public, and on top of all the rest, you’ve singlehandedly ruined the bonding break of two people I truly care about and put Captain Serrado’s career at risk. Yet I can’t do a shekking thing to you because you didn’t order it done. You didn’t even know how it happened. Fahla!” she suddenly shouted. “Why can’t we have one shekking day where it all goes right?”

The last time Anjuli had felt this terrible was when she accidentally hurt Irin with a playful nudge, not realizing that he hadn’t been gripping his canes at the time.

If only the outcome could be determined by intent rather than action.

“If there is anything I can do,” she began.

“Oh, I think you’ve done quite enough.”

“Please. Let me try. Where did they go for their bonding break?”

Lancer Tal stared at her with eyes of solid ice. “Whitesun. Against my advice.”

“Because Lhyn Rivers was determined.” She was as certain of that as if she had seen it happen.

“Yes.”

“I could arrange for a top-level tour of the builder caste house. All the details of the post-battle reconstruction, all the historical tales. I could do a tour of all the city’s reconstruction. Or the most historical sites. I’ll do it personally,” she added, mentally calculating how many things she would have to rearrange to clear her schedule. “Let me repair what I can.”

Lancer Tal scoffed. “What makes you think they would accept that from you?”

“Because Lhyn knows that unlike some, I won’t treat her like she’s fragile.”

The words hung in the air, a stark reminder of how she had spoken when she was still trying to bait and hurt the woman across the table—who had gone very still.

“Wait,” Anjuli said hurriedly. “I didn’t mean it like that. Listen.” She leaned forward, desperate to be understood. “You know Irin. He’s fragile and strong at the same time, stronger than I could be if I were in his position, and he hates being coddled. I do everything I can to take care of him, but I have to be careful not to do too much.”

Though Lancer Tal’s expression did not change, she gave a slow nod. “Go on.”

“I understand Lhyn. I don’t have to know the specifics of what she went through to know that she needs to be treated like a fully capable person. And Captain Serrado would shift stars and soil to give Lhyn whatever she needs, as I do for Irin.”

A tiny smile tugged at one side of Lancer Tal’s mouth. “You do seem to have them figured out.”

“Why are they going to Whitesun for their bonding break? You can’t tell me it’s for the scenery. They’re going because Lhyn wants to learn and Captain Serrado wants her to be happy.” She saw what looked like approval and tried not to hope too hard. “Who better to teach Lhyn than me? I can answer any questions she has. And what better way to combat the negative stories about alien divine tyrees than to have the Prime Builder publicly guiding them on their bonding break? Send the journalists to me; I’ll take care of them.”

She ran out of words, arguments, and breath.

For a frightening piptick, Lancer Tal’s expression was blank. Then the tiny smile returned. “This,” she said. “This is why I once thought we made an excellent team. You have a rare capacity to see the macro and the micro view at the same time. Tell me, is our war over? Or are you just trying to save your skin?”

“I never wanted a war.” She realized how stupid that sounded as soon as it came out of her mouth.

“You created that war. Out of thin air.”

“I know. That doesn’t mean I wanted it. I was . . . stuck. On the micro view.” And she had felt far too vulnerable after their last private encounter, compensating for it with an extra-professional attitude. “I don’t think I ever thanked you for what you did for me. It helped. A great deal.”

“I’m glad.”

They stared at each other, mutually uncomfortable with the intimacy of the moment, until Lancer Tal gave a short nod and clicked off the vidscreen. “I’ll convey your offer. If they say yes, I expect you on a transport five ticks after.”

Relieved at the return to business, Anjuli said, “I will be.”

“One thing you should know, if you go.” Lancer Tal rose from her chair. “That security I sent with them? The officer in command is Rahel Sayana. Perhaps it’s time for you to talk to her instead of spying on her.”

Fahla, Anjuli decided, was entirely too fond of her jokes.


26


Not wanted

A piercing whistle preceded Vagron’s shout. “Rax! Get up here!”

Rax looked up from his weeding. Vagron was waving wildly from the back deck of the dining hall.

With a sigh, he stood up, dusted off his knees, and carefully stepped over two rows of horten to reach the gravel path. “What’s got you so excited?” he muttered.

The deck had become even more popular since their installation of a large vidscreen on the exterior wall. Settlers could relax outside and watch the news or their favorite shows, leading to occasional arguments over who got to watch what. But thrice per nineday, the entire village was in harmonious agreement: they were all addicted to the supremely dramatic weeper, Merchant of the Mountains. It was a guilty pleasure that Rax shared.

“Ya won’t believe what just happened,” Vagron said as Rax came up the steps. “Look!”

On the vidscreen, a journalist was standing in front of Blacksun Temple. “Lead Templar Satran has not been available for comment,” she said. “But calls for her to speak are growing, given her presence at the closed ceremony.”

The scene shifted to an image that made Rax drop into the nearest chair. “What—”

“They’re divine tyrees. Can ya imagine?” Vagron laughed. “She took down half the Fifth Fleet without blinking, defended Blacksun with a crippled ship, and the Voloth Empire couldn’t touch her. Now the Protectorate will do it for them. Fleet will throw her out faster than ya can say shit on a brick.”

Rax stared at the impossible vision. “But they’re Gaians.”

“That’s what the Alseans are saying. They’re na happy. I never thought anything could tarnish Serrado’s shine, but she managed it. It’s like she stole something precious.”

Shock gave way to a chuckle. It was spiteful and small-minded, but Rax couldn’t help feeling satisfied that Captain Serrado and Dr. Rivers would finally get a taste of what he and his fellow settlers dealt with.

The next day bore out his prediction: the news was full of angry editorials, interviews with indignant Alseans from all walks of life, and solemn speeches from templars who foretold the dilution and possible death of Fahla’s gift. The existence of nine previously unknown divine tyree pairs, initially staggering news, was all but drowned beneath the wave of global disapproval.

Lead Templar Satran broke her silence that evening, appearing on the most popular news show for an exclusive interview.

“I knew they were tyrees,” she said. “But I didn’t know they were divine tyrees until I connected them in the Great Sharing.” She held up her hands and looked at them as if they were foreign. “The power of it! You cannot imagine. It took everything I had to control it.” Dropping her hands, she fixed the interviewer with a steady gaze. “I’ve heard the predictions of this divine gift being diluted out of existence. I’m ashamed that any templar could dabble in such ignorant nonsense. It is not dilution when our goddess gives her gift to aliens. It is expansion. It is Fahla telling us, in the strongest way possible, how important these particular Gaians are to Alsea. A warrior who saved our entire planet from the first Voloth invasion and saved Blacksun from the second. A scholar who was tortured for her belief in us, who was willing to die for us. And we would deny Fahla’s gift to them? Denigrate it and fear it? Does that not say more about us than it does about them?”

A discussion panel followed, the arguments becoming quite heated among the five templars at the table. Eventually, three agreed with Satran.

The days after brought a flood of footage showing Serrado and Rivers on their bonding break in Whitesun. Every time Rax glanced at the vidscreen, there they were, touring reconstruction sites with the Prime Builder herself as their guide. That they would spend their bonding break appreciating Alsean resilience and accomplishments endeared them to the public. An interview in which Dr. Rivers enthusiastically recounted her favorite parts of the tour endeared them even more. Before Rax’s disbelieving eyes, the mood began to shift.

Then came the news that Captain Serrado had been recalled to Tashar, the seat of the Protectorate government, to answer for her complicity in “bearing an alien empathic bond that could compromise her independent thought and her command.” The quote came directly from the Fleet summons, leaked to the media by an unnamed source in the State House.

Alseans were outraged. They may have been unhappy with aliens having their precious bond, but to learn that the Protectorate saw it as dangerous and undesirable? That was not to be tolerated. Once again, the debate shifted, this time almost unanimously in favor of “their” Gaians.

“Must be nice ta have friends at the top,” Vagron grumbled as they watched the live footage of Serrado boarding her shuttle. “I’m surprised Lancer Tal isn’t going with her.”

“She’s busy pulling strings here,” Rax said. “Who do you think leaked that summons?”

The Phoenix had barely left orbit before the High Council issued a demand that Serrado be retained as the captain in charge of Alsea’s protection. It was supported by an easy majority of the full Council, and with the weight of the government behind it, the demand became a matter of planetary pride.

For half a moon, Alseans waited breathlessly while Serrado was sequestered with her superiors. It was impossible to avoid the endless analyses and predictions, and Rax was heartily sick of the What Will Happen to Captain Serrado Show.

“Airing every day, all day,” he groused when he walked onto the dining hall deck to find yet another panel discussion in progress. “Isn’t there anything else to watch?”

There was one unexpected benefit, however. When a second Alsean woman and then a man followed Siatra’s example and moved to New Haven, the news barely registered. What little coverage it garnered was scathing, and for once Rax was grateful that Serrado’s fate was sucking up all the airtime.

At last the announcement came: Serrado was on her way back to Alsea with her duty assignment intact. Rax half-expected a global holiday to be declared.

She arrived the day after the two-cycle anniversary of the Battle of Alsea. Yesterday, he and his fellow settlers had huddled in New Haven, guarded against reprisals by a unit from Blacksun Base. Today, she was being received with rapturous joy.

Rax and Vagron sat at their usual outdoor table, trading cynical comments as they watched the shuttle descend through the clouds and land at the State House.

“There she is! Captain Serrado has stepped off the shuttle ramp and is being greeted by her bondmate, Dr. Lhyn Rivers.” The announcer chuckled. “And what a greeting that is. I doubt you could fit the wing of a fairy fly between them.”

“Dr. Rivers stayed behind while her tyree was recalled to Tashar,” a second announcer reminded the viewing audience. “It’s difficult to imagine how divine tyrees tolerated a moon of separation, but they had no choice.”

“No,” the first announcer agreed. “As Dr. Rivers said, she feels safe nowhere but on Alsea. We can never forget that it was a member of her own government who ordered her torture.”

“Well, Alsea has prevailed,” the second said proudly. “Captain Serrado is still in command of the Phoenix, and Alsea finally has the full battle group promised in our treaty. Two destroyers and support ships are on their way.”

“Ya’d think she was Fahla herself.” Vagron tossed a blacknut in his mouth. “I expect ta see statues erected ta her any day now.”

Rax leaned forward to grab a handful of blacknuts for himself. “Do they really believe she’s still in command, or are they saying that to make it look good?”

“She is still in command. Of her ship.”

“But not of the battle group.”

“Ya think they expected that?”

“Like you said, they think she’s a goddess,” Rax said bitterly.

Onscreen, Bondlancer Opah was giving a double palm touch to Captain Serrado—the gesture reserved for close friends and family.

No Alsean would ever touch a settler that way. The three exceptions did so only to those settlers they had violated and bound to them during the battle. Sometimes, in his most secret fantasies, Rax envisioned receiving such an honor from Lancer Tal. It was a desire he would never admit aloud.

Vagron eyed him as he shelled another blacknut. “If it makes ya feel better, Fleet for sure knows she’s na goddess. That rear admiral they’re sending with the destroyers isn’t coming for the scenery.”

“The great Captain Serrado, put on a short chain.” Rax crunched a nut in satisfaction. The Protectorate no longer trusted her enough to continue her assignment without a supervisor on site.

But the Alseans loved her.

He tossed the uneaten blacknuts back in the bowl. “I’ve seen enough. I’m going to check the panfruits.”

“They’re still better used as weapons than food,” Vagron remarked, his gaze on the vidscreen. Captain Serrado was walking toward the State House, holding hands with Lhyn Rivers and flanked by the Lancer and Bondlancer.

On his way off the deck, Rax allowed his weight to hit the wooden steps more loudly than necessary. His childish display turned a few heads, but they soon swiveled back to the riveting news.

The announcers’ voices faded as he walked down the gravel path between adjoining plots, grain on one side and horten on the other. At the back of the garden, where the tall poles and vines would not shade the rest, they had planted their panfruits. The vines had snaked up to the pole tops in a shockingly short time and were now thickening, adding new leaves between the older ones.

He crouched at the base of one vine, the summer sun beating on his bent back, and carefully searched through the foliage. Though the vines were young, they already sported the sharp thorns for which they were famous. Having been scratched once, he had a healthy respect for their capacity to cause burning pain.

“There you are,” he said fondly. A hard, green ball was hiding on the vine, the exact color of the leaves and largely invisible unless one knew what to look for. In another two moons, it would be five times larger and bright orange on the outside, while the inside would be blood-red and sweet. He ran his fingers over the smooth exterior and smiled, imagining picking this exact fruit for mornmeal.

On the next vine, he found a blindworm happily chewing a hole in a panfruit. It curled into a crescent when he plucked it off, exuding the disgusting stench that kept many predators from eating it.

“Ugh,” he groaned, holding the creature at arm’s length. “You’re worse than Vagron after he eats marmello.” He looked around, checking the trees that marked the garden boundary behind the poles, and found a grainbird sitting on the end of a branch. They had a reputation for being stupid because they sang at all times of day and night, but Rax had found them to be extremely clever birds. Several of them had learned that settlers checking plants often resulted in food being tossed their way, so they had become quite tame and even came when called.

Rax held his arm straight up and whistled. The grainbird immediately launched off its branch, swooping up on outspread wings and smoothly plucking the blindworm from his fingers. It returned to its branch, quickly swallowed the meal, and tilted its head at him.

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “Let me look.”

By the time he reached the end of the row, the grainbird had eaten twelve more blindworms and lost four to a late-arriving competitor. Both birds looked disappointed when he brushed off his hands and told them he was done.

He cleaned up in the house he shared with Vagron, then hopped in his skimmer for one of his favorite rides. Three additional houses had been constructed for the new Alsean residents and their partners, and their flower boxes were empty. Rax had promised to fill them.

As always, he arrived at the plant and seed store right before closing, when Belsara and Galor were less likely to have customers. They had never asked him to, but he was not going to risk his hard-won relationship with them by irritating their other customers and possibly costing them business.

He parked on the other side of the lot from the two skimmers currently there and waited until the last customers left. One skimmer paused in its departure as he walked toward the door, but when he glanced at it, the driver looked away and drove off.

Unfortunately, Belsara was working in the glasshouse. That left Galor at the front counter, and his sour face did not invite lingering. Though Rax loved to spend time in this shop, with its profusion of plants and welcoming scents, he quickly picked out the plants he wanted, declined Galor’s half-hearted offer to help carry them out, and was soon arranging his boxes in the back of the skimmer. Behind him, a metallic slide and snap meant Galor had locked up for the night.

A skimmer came up the road, its engine drowning out the buzz of insects. He paid it no mind until it turned into the parking area.

He looked up in time to see the skimmer come to a hard stop in a billow of dust and then settle to the ground. Four Alseans jumped out and stalked toward him, three men and one woman. Two of the men carried postheads, the heavy wooden mallets used for driving stakes without splintering them.

“Voloth,” the biggest man growled. “We’ve been waiting for this.”

Rax held up his hands. “I have no quarrel with you.”

The woman laughed unpleasantly. “Too bad. We have one with you. You need to tell your friends that you’re not wanted here.”

They surrounded him, cutting off all escape. He backed up against his skimmer and kept his hands raised. “I can’t fight you.”

“Makes it easier,” a shorter man said with a glittering smile.

“Alsea is for Alseans.” The biggest man seemed to be their leader. “Not stinking Voloth. Especially not stinking Voloth who are taking our people!”

“We’ve taken no one.”

“I hear there are twenty Alseans in New Haven. Brainwashed, all of them, shekking you like you’re not animals.” The woman’s mouth twisted. “Disgusting.”

“Three,” Rax said. “Three Alseans have asked to join us. They’re in love, not brainwashed.”

“In love,” the big man scoffed. “Impossible.”

“He’s lying,” said the woman. “I heard it was twenty.”

“I’m not lying! You can touch me and see for yourself.”

“Did you hear that? He wants us to touch him.” The woman wrinkled her nose. “Is that how you start brainwashing them?”

“The only thing I’m touching you with is this.” The big man swung his posthead.

Rax dodged back, bumping into the third man, who shoved him forward again. The next swing caught him in the ribs, propelling him into the back of the skimmer. Cheerful yellow flowers filled his vision before he was yanked back and thrown to the ground. The short grass covering the parking area did nothing to cushion his fall; the soil had already hardened in the summer sun.

He had a brief glimpse of a posthead silhouetted against the sky before it came down, crashing into the ribs that had already been hit once. He bit down on the cry, long years of training in the Voloth military coming to the fore. If you let them see your pain, they hurt you more.

But his attackers weren’t Voloth officers. They were Alseans who could sense his pain, and they extracted it cruelly. The postheads slammed into him again and again, finding him regardless of how he tried to roll out of the way or curl up for protection. They cracked his ribs, displaced a kneecap, beat his back to a pulp, and broke one of the arms he had wrapped around his head.

Though he could not control the gasps or grunts, he never cried out.

After an eternity, the beating stopped, low voices murmuring around him as he gulped air and tried to hear past the ringing in his ears.

“. . . even wearing our clothing,” the woman said. “Give me your knife.”

He was on his side, curled into a ball, exposing his back but protecting his important organs. Someone grabbed his shirt collar and pulled.

A tearing sound accompanied a sudden looseness in his shirt. They were cutting off his clothes.

“No,” he mumbled. “I haven’t done anything.”

A fist crashed into his lower back. “Shut up!”

“Hold him still.”

“I’m trying!”

The knife sliced into his skin, a sharp, hissing pain compared to the blunt brutality of the postheads.

“Going to stop wiggling now, Voloth?” the woman asked.

More tearing sounds, and his shirt slipped forward, exposing his back to the evening air.

“Roll him over.”

The knife wound burned when he was forced onto his back and the split shirt was yanked off his arms. Two of the men held his ankles as the woman took her blade to his trouser legs, slicing them open from mid-thigh to the bottom. She stood back and ordered, “Take them off.”

“No!” Rax tried to stop them, using everything in his power to seize their hands and keep them away, but the empathic directive short-circuited the effort. His body would not obey.

They unfastened his trousers and pulled them off his hips, then dragged the tattered remains over his boots and flung them to the side. Two men grabbed his ankles again.

The woman held up her knife. “Hold very still,” she said with a smile.

“No, please,” he whimpered.

She cut the sides of his underwear from waist to leg opening, flipped the loose fabric aside, and leaped back with a horrified look. “Spawn of a fantenshekken! What is that?

Rax clamped one hand over his crotch, his broken arm making the other hand impossible to move.

“I didn’t see it,” said one of the men.

“It looked like a blindworm in a bush!” The woman burst into laughter. “Mother of us all, that is disgusting! There are Alseans shekking that?”

“Not me,” Rax moaned. “Lancer Tal turned me. Lancer Tal let me live.”

“If she’d seen that, she probably wouldn’t have,” the woman said. “You really are animals. You’re gender-locked like them.”

“I want to see,” the smaller man said. “Move your hand, Voloth.”

Rax refused. He couldn’t stop them, but he didn’t have to obey.

He didn’t see the larger man lift his posthead. It slammed into his hand, popping his wrist and breaking every finger while driving into the soft tissue of his penis and testicles. The pain came out of him in a sharp scream as he yanked his hand away and tried to roll into a ball, but they held his ankles and the woman pushed on his chest.

“See it?” she asked, laughing. “Like a dokker!”

“Alsea is for Alseans,” the big man growled. “Not for animals wearing Alsean clothes.”

Over the head of the woman, Rax saw the posthead rise into the air. “No!” he cried. “No, no, no—”

The pain turned his entire body inside out and tore the lining off his throat as he screamed, an endless, wailing cry of agony. He could not get enough breath, could not see, could barely hear over the blood rushing in his ears and the gurgling coming out of his mouth.

“Shekking Mother, I think you killed him.”

“We need to go. They probably heard that noise in Blacksun.”

Someone kicked him in the ribs, a tiny pinprick of pain amidst the roaring inferno between his legs.

“Alsea is for Alseans!”

Footsteps receded, followed by slamming skimmer doors and the roar of an engine. Only when the engine sound had diminished to a distant vibration did Rax let out a sob.

Slowly, he rolled onto his side and dragged his shattered hand closer. The wristcom gleamed in the slanted evening light, a salvation if only he could reach it. He had not thought he could move his other arm, not with the broken bone, but the excruciating flame that now burned through every nerve in his body had dulled his ability to localize pain.

He tapped the wristcom and brought up the call function, then found the one com code he had never called.

She would help him. She had let him live.

His head buzzed and darkness encroached on his vision, tunneling it down until all he could see was the illuminated face of his wristcom and the name it showed: Lancer Tal.

“Help me,” he whispered.


27


Mercy

Belsara hummed to herself as she pinched back the tops of her rapidly growing fellflowers. Despite the wide-open roof sections venting heat from the glasshouse, it was still warm and humid inside, and she had her shirtsleeves rolled up as far as they would go. Tomorrow she would forgo them altogether and wear a sleeveless shirt for the first time this cycle.

She paused in her work and lifted her head. Over the quiet hissing of the irrigation system, she thought she heard the cry of an animal.

Several pipticks of focused listening brought only the expected sounds of her glasshouse. With a shrug, she pinched off another stem.

The cry repeated, louder, longer, and undeniably full of pain. She dropped the plant tip and strode to the outside door. Whatever that was, she had never heard anything like it.

The door opened directly onto their parking area, empty but for a single skimmer with its rear compartment full of flowers.

It didn’t belong there. Galor had already poked his head in the glasshouse to tell her he had locked up for the night and was heading upstairs.

She jogged across the hard-packed ground and rounded the skimmer at a careful distance.

A large animal was lying motionless on the ground, pink and bloody. The last time she had seen this was slaughter day on her uncle’s holding, when the fanten was killed and skinned. What was a slaughtered fanten doing in her lot?

Then she saw the boots.

“Oh, Fahla,” she gasped as the scene shifted and resolved itself into a new picture. This was a person, lying on their side and curled into a ball. She raced over and crouched down, her hand trembling as she reached out for a bare shoulder.

Once again, the image shifted. This beaten body had no chest ridges, and the blood-streaked face lacked forehead and cheekbone ridges. She could hardly recognize him, but no other Voloth came to her shop.

“Rax! Can you hear me?”

A distant sense of pain came through his skin. There were no emotions indicating any level of consciousness, but he was alive.

“Goddess above, what happened to you?” She looked around wildly, searching for some explanation of how this impossible scene had come to be. A glow caught her eye, coming from Rax’s wrist. The fingers of that hand were bent in all the wrong directions, and his other hand rested in the grass next to it.

He had tried to call someone. Bare pipticks ago, since the wristcom was still lit. She leaned over, craning her neck to see the com code, then blinked and read it again.

Not in fifty cycles would she have believed that Rax had direct access to Lancer Tal. But if that was who he had tried to reach with his last conscious breath, then that was who he needed. Without giving herself time to reconsider, she tapped the wristcom and completed the call.

The voice that answered was unmistakable even through the tiny sound output of the wristcom. “Rax. I wondered how long it would take you to use this code.”

Belsara gulped. “Lancer Tal, my name is Belsara. I’m, uh, Rax is a customer of mine. He’s been attacked. He’s badly hurt. He tried to call you, but he’s, he needs help.” Part of her was horrified at the jumble of words coming out of her mouth, but the rest was too stressed to care.

“Is he safe now? Are you?”

“Yes, there’s nobody here.”

“Good. Give me your location,” Lancer Tal commanded.

The crisp order cleared out her confusion. She answered smartly, adding that she was in the lot next to the only skimmer.

“Thank you, that’s exactly what I needed to know. Stay right there and don’t close this channel. I’ll be back in a piptick.”

She sat back on her heels, looking at Rax’s slack face and trying to swallow her horror as Lancer Tal issued orders. There was a pause, then more orders, and then she heard her name.

“Belsara? Are you still there?”

She pushed onto her hands and knees, bringing her head over the wristcom. Given the condition of Rax’s hand, she didn’t dare lift it. “Yes, I’m here.”

“Medics are on their way. I want you to stay with him until they get there. Do you know who the attackers were?”

“I didn’t even know he was here. I just heard . . .” She swallowed. “I heard him scream, but I didn’t know that’s what it was. There wasn’t anyone here by the time I got out to the lot.”

“All right. I’ve sent out a team from the AIF. They’ll want to speak with you.”

In other words, her lot was now a crime scene and would soon be crawling with Alsean Investigative Force warriors.

“I understand.”

“I’ll stay on the channel with you until the medics arrive.”

She stared at the wristcom, baffled. “Why?”

“You said no one else was there, yes?”

“Yes, but—”

“I’m not leaving you alone.” While Belsara was getting over the shock of that statement, Lancer Tal spoke in a gentler voice. “How bad is it?”

“I don’t know. Bad. He’s lying on his side, and I’m afraid to move him. Whoever it was, they took his clothes.”

In the ensuing silence, she was newly aware of the insect song all around her.

“Have you ever seen him argue with one of your customers? Any negative interactions?”

“No, he—” She let out a harsh breath. “He only ever comes at the end of the day. I think he’s making sure he doesn’t meet any of our other customers. I never thought about that until now.”

“What does he usually buy from you?”

She listed off plant names, fertilizer products, stakes and poles, and spoke of the plastipaper glasshouse kits before she realized that this wasn’t part of the investigation and Lancer Tal couldn’t possibly care. “Are you trying to keep me calm?” she asked.

“Partially. But my bondmate is a producer and she’s sitting beside me, nodding her head and saying ‘kitchen garden and decorative planters.’”

Belsara barely managed not to gasp. The Bondlancer was listening in on this! “She’s right, that’s what—oh,” she said, staring at the blossoms visible in the open back of the skimmer. “Decorative planters. That’s why he was here. He came to get flowers and someone . . .” Someone beat him to a bloody paste while he was putting flowers in his skimmer.

The anger rose, thick and unexpected, as another realization followed the first. “He couldn’t fight back.”

“No.” Lancer Tal sounded regretful. “He couldn’t.”

A rumble rose above the insect song, and Belsara looked down the empty road before realizing she wasn’t hearing a skimmer. That was a transport engine, growing louder as it streaked through the sky toward her. The bright orange color was instantly recognizable.

“The medics are here,” she said.

“You’ll be busy soon. Belsara, thank you. You did a good thing.”

“I hope he’ll be all right. He’s a good man, for a Voloth.”

“He is a good man,” Lancer Tal agreed, and ended the call.

It wasn’t until Belsara was watching the medics swarm around Rax that she realized what Lancer Tal hadn’t said.

For a Voloth.


28


Primitives

Rax opened his eyes and noticed two things immediately: he didn’t hurt, and he had no idea where he was.

The ceiling over his head didn’t look Alsean. The instruments and wall displays in his field of vision were labeled in Common. Past the foot of his bed, the entire wall looked like privacy glass in its opaque setting. Alsean healing centers didn’t use that for whole walls.

Unless—was that plexan? Alsean privacy glass had more of a shine.

A plexan wall, Common labels: this was a Protectorate facility. Had they built a secret one on Alsea?

He lifted his hand and found it encased in a brace that started at his wrist and sent rigid branches down each finger. At least his thumb had escaped, a fact he found cheering out of all proportion. The lower half of his other arm was in a case he recognized as Alsean medtech.

The door to his room opened and a woman stepped through, her Fleet Medical uniform adding to his confusion. She had light brown hair worn up in a twist and when she turned, her face was as smooth as his.

“Good morning, Rax,” she said in Common. “It’s nice to see you awake.” She walked over to a wall display he couldn’t see and tapped it a few times. “And feeling fine, I hope. No pain?”

“Ah . . .” He cleared his throat and tried again. “No, no pain. Where am I?”

She pulled a water flask with a built-in straw from an overhead cupboard and offered it. “Don’t suck too hard. The straw will only deliver small doses, so you can’t overdo it.” As he took it from her hand, she added, “You’re on the Phoenix. In my medbay. I’m Dr. Wells, the chief surgeon.”

He nearly spat out his water. “What? Why am I here?”

“Would you like to sit a bit more upright?”

It wasn’t an answer, but he nodded.

“It takes verbal commands. Just say, ‘Bed, raise my head.’”

The bed responded immediately, lifting its top section in a smooth motion. His head and upper torso came with it.

“Bed, stop.”

The motion ceased, leaving him in a comfortable position.

Dr. Wells pulled a stool from the corner of the room and sat down, putting her head on a closer level to his. “I’m sure you can figure out how to get it to let you lie back and sleep when you need to.” At his nod, she gave him a small smile. “In answer to your earlier question, you’re here because you had some injuries the Alsean healers couldn’t repair. They did a beautiful job on your spleen, your hand, the knife wound on your upper back, your knee—everything, really. But they’re not familiar with Gaian genitalia.”

He had forgotten. It came back to him in an overwhelming, terrifying rush, that posthead rising into the air . . .

She touched his arm, jerking him back to the present. “You’ll be all right, Rax. I’m sorry to tell you that we couldn’t save your left testicle. But your right testicle was much less damaged, and the swelling has already decreased to the point where I’m not worried. Your penis will be back to normal in another day or two. Your reproductive capacity hasn’t been damaged. Neither has your sexual capacity.”

He couldn’t help laughing, first at her statement and then at her surprise. Whatever drug they had him on must be good, or his ribs would have been blazing with the motion. He caught his breath and asked, “You thought I was worried about having children? None of us can have children. We’re all sterilized.”

She shifted her shoulders beneath the dark green and silver jacket. “I know. It’s reversible, but I don’t have the authority to do that.”

“No, I understand. We’d have to get permission from the Alsean Council. I think we’d have a better chance of getting the whole Council to wear feathers and dance.”

“There’s an interesting image.”

“Most of us don’t want children anyway. Why would we want to bring children into a world that would hate them?”

She watched him in silence, then shook her head.

A twinge of guilt pricked his conscience. She had thought she was bringing him good news, and who knew how much time she had spent trying to save body parts he couldn’t use? “Thanks for saving my tog,” he offered. “I’d miss not being able to give it a tug.”

That made her smile. “Tug your tog? I haven’t heard that one.”

“Voloth military slang.”

“What do you call it for women?”

“Ah.” He pressed his lips together, embarrassed. “Rub your rib.”

“Rib?” she asked incredulously. “Let me guess, there’s an accompanying gesture?” She moved her hand to her lowest rib and shot him a wicked smile.

“Stop! Yes!” He could not believe a military doctor actually had a sense of humor. “They must train you a lot differently than they train our doctors.”

Her smile slipped. “I suspect we do quite a few things differently than your military. That wasn’t your first beating.”

She had scanned him, then. That meant she had seen his healed fractures and the scars on the backs of his thighs, but her matter-of-fact tone made it easy to answer. “It’s how they taught us not to ask questions.” Casting a glance around the room, he added, “Your medical bays are a lot nicer, too.”

“I’m beginning to think yours consist of metal tables and rusty blades.”

“Depends. If you’re an officer? A citizen? Top shelf. But if you’re a hanger . . .” He held out his braced hand and rocked it back and forth. “You’d better hope someone in medical owes you a favor.”

“Don’t they at least protect their investment? It takes time and resources to train soldiers.”

“Yeah, but we don’t always need the best drugs, do we? Whether we hurt or not, we still heal.” They didn’t always need the best equipment, either. And if an officer had an upset stomach while a hanger needed non-critical surgery, well, the surgery could wait. He didn’t say that, though. This Protectorate doctor already looked like she wanted to bang heads together.

“Doctor . . . Wells, right? Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Are you treating me because I’m a settler on Alsea? Last I heard, Fleet Medical wasn’t on call to treat Voloth soldiers.”

“Maybe we should be,” she said darkly. Her expression cleared as she added, “You’re here because my captain got a call from Lancer Tal, asking for care the Alsean healers couldn’t provide. They flew you up.”

“They,” he repeated. That couldn’t possibly mean what it sounded like.

“It would have taken twice as long for us to send a shuttle down and get you back here. Which reminds me, you’re about to have—”

The door opened again, admitting a familiar figure.

“A visitor,” Dr. Wells finished as she rose from her stool. Switching to High Alsean, she said, “Good morning, Lancer Tal.”

“Good morning. How is he?”

“Awake and chipper.”

In her perfectly tailored suit, Lancer Tal looked like she had just stepped out of the Council chamber. Rax could not process the fact that she was in his room.

“Rax, well met. It’s good to see you upright. Or mostly upright.”

“It’s, uh, good to be here. Well met, Lancer Tal.” He tried to collect some semblance of his dignity, but it was impossible in her presence. Besides the respect she had earned as the military leader who destroyed the invasion, she commanded him personally. Part of him yearned toward her even now, longing to do whatever it would take to please her. He had not been in her physical presence since being dragged before the High Council in chains, but the pull was still as strong.

“I wanted to tell you how the investigation is proceeding,” she said as she pointed toward the stool and raised a questioning eyebrow at Dr. Wells. The doctor gave a nod and went to the corner of the room to fetch a second stool.

“Investigation?” Rax said stupidly. Lancer Tal was sitting at his bedside and he couldn’t think.

“Yes, but first, I’m glad you tried to call me. It saved a great deal of time when we realized you needed more help than our healers could give you.”

“But—I didn’t? I don’t remember you.” He hadn’t spoken to her, had he?

“Belsara found you. She saw that you had tried to connect with me and put the call through. She stayed with you until the medics came, and then she and Galor helped with the investigation.”

She spoke of an AIF team and theories and footage from the shop cams, but he barely took it in until she unrolled her reader card and turned it to face him. “These are the last few customers of the day. Do you recognize any of them?”

Neither the first nor the second looked familiar. The third made him pull his head back. “Him,” he said in a shaky voice. “He was their leader. He was the one who—” Swallowing bile, he changed the sentence. “He said Alsea was for Alseans. Not for animals in Alsean clothing.”

Lancer Tal rolled up the card and replaced it in its pouch. “Alsea isn’t for Alseans who attack the defenseless. You said their leader. How many were there?”

“Four.” He described them to the best of his memory, but it was getting even harder to think when Lancer Tal looked so angry. “That’s all I remember,” he finished, his eyes on his braced hand.

“That’s all you need to remember. We’ll take care of it now. I can assure you that they’ll regret the choices they made last night.”

“They’re probably heroes,” he said bitterly. “It was only a matter of time.”

“Rax.” She waited until he looked up. “You live under Alsean law. So do they. They broke that law with malice aforethought. That makes them criminals, not heroes. They’re going to prison.”

He was a hanger at home and an unwanted Voloth here. In neither place did it make sense that anyone would be punished for hurting him.

“Do you think I’m lying to you?”

“No, but—”

“But you cannot believe I would prioritize your rights?” She either saw the answer in his face or felt it, because she shook her head and added, “Then perhaps you still have a few things to learn about us primitives.”

The word jarred him out of his stupor. He was shocked to hear it from her, but then remembered: the last time they met was right after the battle, when he was just beginning to realize that his government had lied to him.

“You’re not primitives,” he said in a rush. “I haven’t thought that for a long time. None of us think that. We only wish you didn’t think that about us.”

She looked right through him with those light blue eyes, probably sensing everything he was feeling. “Rax, you built a self-governing settlement. You have too much pride to depend entirely on us, so you’re growing your own food. You had that fire mostly put out before the firefighters arrived. And I hear the houses in your settlement have beautiful decorative planters.” She rose from her stool. “I haven’t thought you were primitive for a long time, either.”

She thanked Dr. Wells and had reached the door before Rax found his voice.

“Lancer Tal? Do you know what happened to the flowers?”

She smiled at him. “Belsara and Galor delivered them to your village early this morning. Your skimmer, too. How do you think I know about the decorative planters?”

She was gone a moment later, leaving Rax staring at the closed door while Dr. Wells returned to check his status displays.

“Belsara and Galor delivered the flowers,” he said to himself.

Dr. Wells tapped a panel and turned to face him. “Belsara saved your life. One of those broken ribs lacerated your spleen and caused internal bleeding. You wouldn’t have survived the night.”

“And she helped the investigation.” He could hardly accept it, but . . .

Maybe there was hope.


29


Repairs

The speed at which his bones healed was nothing short of astonishing. Rax knew Alsean medtech was ahead of the Voloth Empire’s, but it was different to experience it himself—and to realize that his Protectorate doctor was using it. That exchange of technology was part of their treaty, she told him.

When she removed the case on his right arm the next morning, he wondered how much the Voloth Empire had lost through its policy of invasion and destruction. What sorts of advances might those so-called primitive worlds have offered if given the chance? Their people surely wouldn’t do it as slaves. Even as a relatively fortunate hanger, Rax had lived by one overarching motto: never give a citizen anything you don’t have to. It was the only way to retain a shred of personal power.

But what haunted his thoughts as he waited for his hand and knee to finish healing was Lancer Tal’s statement: You still have a few things to learn about us primitives.

He and the other settlers had been feeling sorry for themselves because they were treated like lesser beings. Somehow, they had forgotten the disdain and outright hatred they had felt during the invasion, when their orders were to pacify the violent primitives. Their view of the Alseans then was exactly how the Alseans viewed them now. They were the violent primitives, invading a peaceful world that had never even heard of them.

The settlers had changed their minds after living on Alsea and realizing they had been lied to. But no one had lied to the Alseans. Their views were based on bitter experience.

Mere coexistence wasn’t enough to change those views, Rax now understood. They needed to be more active. They needed to show their respect for the Alseans. That was how he had reached Belsara and Galor.

Which meant that Geelish winning that red medal at the Games had sent exactly the wrong message. It hadn’t demonstrated respect. It had oozed superiority.

No wonder the Alseans had reacted with such rage.

A day later, his hand was free of the brace and he could bend his knee with only a slight hitch that Dr. Wells said would soon work itself out. Then came the moment of truth when she removed the last bandages.

“Don’t look yet,” she cautioned. “I still have to pull the catheter.”

With his gaze fixed firmly on the wall behind her head, he said, “I hate that word.”

“Pull?”

He could hear the smile in her voice. “No, but now that you’ve said it, I’m extra aware of what you’re doing.”

“Just a few seconds more.”

He felt the discomfiting but not uncomfortable sensation of something slipping out.

“Done. You can look.”

It took all his courage to look down. He expected something out of a horror vid, but his tog just looked a bit red and bothered.

“I wouldn’t advise tugging it for another day or so,” Dr. Wells said, demonstrating an excellent memory for Voloth slang.

“Thanks for the warning. I was waiting for you to leave so I could test it.”

Her chuckle made him warm all over. It felt good to interact with someone other than a settler and be treated like an equal. “Dr. Wells, thank you. For everything. I wish my people knew the truth.”

“So do I,” she said. “Maybe someday, somebody will tell them.”

Uprising

Rax received a shock when he met the crew member who was escorting him back to the shuttle. After almost four days on the Phoenix, he had grown accustomed to everyone looking like him. Staring into the face of an Alsean was discombobulating. When she introduced herself in Common as First Guard Rahel Sayana, he remembered why she looked so familiar.

“You’re the first Alsean to serve in Fleet,” he said.

“I am.” She offered nothing else as they walked through the medbay’s spacious lobby.

At the doorway, he stopped and turned, taking one last look at the high-ceilinged room with its potted trees and hanging gardens. “Compared to a Voloth ship, this is the Termegon Fields.”

“The what?”

“It’s where we believe—” He had been about to say the Seeders but changed his mind. “Where Fahla lives.”

She gave him a curious glance as they stepped through the double doors and turned right. “You believe in Fahla?”

Switching to High Alsean, he said, “I was raised to believe in the Seeders. But I never saw any sign of them caring about me or anyone I loved. Fahla cares about Alsea. She proved it during the invasion. She’s proving it with your divine tyrees. I believe in that.”

She made no response, but silently led him through the most beautiful ship corridor he had ever seen. There was art on the walls! And plants everywhere, and the ceilings were at least half again as high as he was used to.

“I never imagined a Voloth believing in Fahla.”

Startled by her voice, he looked over and found her watching him. “I’m really a Gaian,” he said.

She stopped walking and stared.

“We’re the same species,” he tried to explain. “It’s not Gaians and Voloth. It’s Protectorate and Voloth Empire. But we’re all Gaians.”

“Huh. I was wondering about that.” She resumed her path.

“About what?”

“Why you feel like them.”

That felt oddly like a compliment. Emboldened, he said, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking here. I think I’d like to learn more about Fahla. Study what your templars do. Do you know where I could start?”

She shook her head, a smile crinkling her eyes. “Fahla’s farts, that woman is sneaky.”

“What?”

“Haven’t you wondered why I didn’t take you to the lift in the medbay lobby? We could have gone straight to the shuttle bay.”

Actually, he hadn’t.

“Dr. Wells told me to take you this way. So you could see some of the ship, she said. I asked why she would want a Voloth to see any part of a Fleet ship. She said one corridor wouldn’t hurt. Now I know she wanted us to talk.”

“Why?”

“So I could talk to a Voloth for the first time. And sense for myself what you are, I think. Did you tell her you want to study with templars?”

“Uh . . . I mentioned it last night, yes.”

“Sneaky,” she muttered. “I don’t know the best place to learn about Fahla. But I know someone who does.”


UPRISING

Uprising


30


Ten

Salomen Opah was quite used to speechifying, as her mother had called it. She attended her first caste house meeting at the age of twelve and watched in admiration while her mother stood onstage and expressed her opinion in ringing tones to an entire auditorium. At sixteen, she began attending on a regular basis, and at eighteen she stood on that stage and made her first speech to her fellow producers. Her mother looked on proudly from the front row.

“You’re a natural,” she said when Salomen retook her seat. “I knew you would be.”

After her mother’s Return, speaking for Hol-Opah and its field workers became Salomen’s responsibility. She did not expect that some of the other landholders would attempt to take advantage of her loss. They tried to speak over her, to belittle her lack of experience, to patronize her as the “new head of Hol-Opah,” with a devastating emphasis on new.

She fought back with a clear voice and a fierce determination that her mother’s legacy would not be diminished through any lack on her part. It earned her a reputation as stubborn and unyielding, which she took as code for “we cannot bend her to our will.”

It seemed that she had barely won that battle when a new one landed in her lap, and she was fighting with none other than the Lancer of Alsea. That one had ended more favorably. In Andira Tal, she found a bondmate who loved what others called her flaws—because Andira exemplified those same traits.

But loving Andira came with burdens, the heaviest being the title of Bondlancer. Now Salomen tried to balance two very different lives, with one foot in the fields of Hol-Opah and the other in the opulent halls of the State House.

Being the Bondlancer, it turned out, involved a great deal of speechifying. At least now they never tried to shout her down.

Andira and Corozen Micah were easing her into the role as gently as they could. They had initially scheduled her in small-town producer caste houses, then moved her into the houses of other castes in larger towns. It didn’t take long to realize that no matter their caste, empathic rating, or economic status, most Alseans wanted the same thing: a government they could trust, so they could forget about it and go on with their lives. They neither knew nor cared about the balance of power in the Council, the back-room maneuvers, the compromises, or any of the thousand gears that all turned to keep Alsea running smoothly and in the right direction.

One of her greatest responsibilities as Bondlancer, she now understood, was to speak as a “normal” Alsean and assure the people that she had been inside, seen the gears turning, and verified for herself that the system was functioning as it should.

Today she stood on one of the biggest stages of all: the Blacksun producer caste house. The auditorium held twelve thousand seats, and every one of them was filled. Quite a few held children, brought by their parents to see the first producer Bondlancer in sixteen generations.

She gave the usual overview of her life and how she had met Andira, which was always well received by her caste. If there was anything producers loved, it was hearing how one of their own had pushed the Lancer to such heights of frustration that she had resorted to a formal challenge to resolve it.

She spoke of the divine tyrees and her experience as one, and of Alsea’s triumph in retaining Captain Serrado. Finally, she touched on the startling news that Rax Sestak had publicly forgiven his attackers at their adjudication hearing, saying that he wanted Fahla to forgive his role in the invasion and that seemed a way to begin.

When the question-and-answer period opened, she expected theology to be the main theme. Rax’s statement at the hearing had set off a global debate that was still reverberating a moon later, and the first two questions were indeed on that topic.

The third blindsided her.

“Is it true that you’re a high empath?” asked a man with dark skin and close-cropped hair.

“I—yes, that’s true.” It was an open secret in the State House and on Blacksun Base, but she hadn’t realized the word was out in the city itself.

“Why didn’t the testers take you?”

“It was an accident. Somehow the tester assessed me as a mid-empath, and I kept my true strength secret for most of my life.”

Andira’s communications advisor had drilled that explanation into her in preparation for this very moment. She had to admire his skill; the man had a way of arranging words so they told no lie while not telling the whole truth, either. In fact, the “accident” had consisted of her ten-cycle-old self using a purely instinctive power to block the tester’s empathic probes and deceive him. Not until recently had anyone realized that her strength was in a class of its own.

“But when you were old enough to understand that you were in the wrong caste, why didn’t you speak then?” the man asked.

“Because I wasn’t in the wrong caste. I admire our scholars and warriors, but I never wanted to be either. I was born a producer. It runs in my veins.” And it was her fear of being ripped from her caste and family that had fueled that instinctive power. “I do regret having missed all the proper training,” she added. “I have a tutor who is helping me catch up.”

She gestured to the microphone operator, and the hovering microphone flew off to the next questioner.

The remaining questions held no surprises, and after twenty ticks, the head of the caste house came onstage to thank her. She acknowledged the applause, then followed Lead Guard Ronlin into a secured meeting room. Here they would wait until the attendees had departed.

“That’ll be in the news tonight,” Ronlin said as he stood by the door. He was shorter than average but built of solid muscle. She had walked into him once, when she was following close behind and didn’t see him stop. It had felt like walking into a stone wall.

“It was always going to happen.” Salomen sat down with a relieved sigh and sipped her water. “Now is probably a good time. Me being a high empath isn’t that exciting compared to Gaian divine tyrees and a Voloth who wants to start templar studies.”

“Words for Fahla.” He tilted his head, listening to something on his earcuff. She still refused to wear one, to his consternation. “There’s a small group of producers gathering outside the back entrance. Will you be wanting to speak with them, or shall we run you past?”

“If this were the warrior caste house, I’d say run me past,” she joked. “They’re my caste. I’ll speak to them.”

“I’ll remember that when you give a speech at my caste house.” His smile was faint, but for Ronlin, that was the equivalent of an open grin.

The small group turned out to be close to thirty. Ronlin and her other Guards fanned out, broadsensing the crowd for any sign of malign intent. Just for the practice, Salomen dropped her blocks and reached out.

Far from malign intent, she felt excitement, pride, giddy nervousness—and an intense longing that drew her gaze to its source. There: it was the man who had asked about her high empathy.

No, she realized a piptick later. Not him, but the little girl who held his hand. Her skin was lighter than his, a rich brown, and her black hair draped all the way down her back. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet, staring at Salomen in mingled longing, delight, and a little bit of fear.

When Salomen moved toward her, the girl’s emotions dimmed behind a front that was exceptionally strong for her age.

Her father’s question suddenly made sense.

Salomen crouched down. “Hello. What is your name?”

“Rusill,” the girl said.

“Well met, Rusill. I’m Salomen.” She held up her hand.

Rusill touched it quickly and lowered her gaze. “You’re Bondlancer Opah.”

“That too, but I was Salomen all my life. I’ve only been Bondlancer Opah for nine moons.” Of course, to a girl this age, nine moons was half of forever. “Your front is impressive.”

Rusill’s head came up. “It is? Bai says so, but . . .”

“But he’s a mid empath,” Salomen finished for her, casting a quick smile up at the man in question. “You wanted to hear it from someone with a higher rating.”

The girl nodded and chewed her lip, her dimmed emotions building up a surge of determination. “I want to do what you did. Can you tell me how?”

“What I did?”

“Get a tester to say you’re a mid empath.”

A stone appeared in Salomen’s stomach. “You want to stay in the producer caste?”

Rusill nodded. “Bai says the scholar caste is right for me. But I don’t want to be a scholar. I want to stay in my own caste.”

“How old are you, Rusill?”

“Ten and a half,” she said proudly.

Ten. At some point in the next few moons, then, she would be facing the testers. They would mark her as a high empath and put her into training. At least here in Blacksun, she could still live with her family while she trained. But her choice of caste would be taken away, and there was nothing Salomen could do about it.

“I wish I could tell you how I did it.” Never had she spoken a greater truth. “But I cannot. It was an accident. What happened to me wasn’t supposed to happen, and it’s never happened to anyone else.”

“But it’s not fair! Why shouldn’t I get to be what I want?”

“Because you were born a high empath,” her birthfather said.

“I was born a producer, too,” Rusill said in a remarkable display of logic—and a repeat of her own words, Salomen realized.

“I agree with you. It wasn’t fair when I was your age and it’s not fair now. I wish I had the power to change that for you, but not even the Lancer can do that. I’m sorry.”

Tears filled Rusill’s eyes. “But you’re the Bondlancer. And a producer.”

“I’m sorry,” Salomen said again. She touched Rusill’s wrist, letting the girl feel the truth of it, but Rusill snatched her arm away and turned into her birthfather’s side.

He wrapped his arm around her back and gave Salomen an apologetic look. “I told her you couldn’t change the law for her. She insisted on seeing you.”

“If I could change that law, I would.” Salomen rose, no longer in any mood to speak to the people who had waited for her. Ronlin saw it on her face and hustled her away, making it look as if she were on a schedule and had to leave.

“Thank you,” she said when they were in the back of the skimmer. “For knowing I needed to get out of there.”

“You’re welcome. That looked like a difficult conversation.”

“You have no idea.”

“Bondlancer?” From the front passenger seat, Guard Demerah spoke cautiously. “You couldn’t have done anything else. It’s hard, at that age. But it works out for the best.”

Demerah was two cycles younger than Salomen and came from producer parents. She had become Salomen’s favorite Guard after Ronlin, and sometimes felt like a younger sister.

“I don’t see how we can say it works out for the best when we give people no other options,” Salomen said. “It works out exactly one way, and we tell ourselves that’s the best way.”

“Fahla always has a plan.” Demerah was a devout believer. “She’ll take care of that little girl.”

“Fahla didn’t make that law.” Salomen turned her head to stare out the window, and neither Demerah nor Ronlin spoke again.


31


Roots

When they passed through the gates and pulled up at the usual side entrance of the State House, Salomen exited the skimmer, looked up at that imposing building, and hated it.

“Change of plans,” she said abruptly. “I’m going home.”

Ronlin responded with the equanimity she had only seen him lose once. “Of course, Bondlancer.” Without a pause in his step, he changed direction and began walking toward the landing pad, murmuring in his earcuff as he moved. Her remaining nine Guards, seven of whom were disembarking from the other two skimmers, immediately followed. Three State House Guards, assigned to the building itself rather than any individual person, trotted down the steps to drive the skimmers into the underground parking area.

It was all a perfectly geared machine, and sometimes she hated that as well. One cycle ago, she could have changed her mind about where she wanted to go and it would have affected no one but her.

“I’m staying overnight,” she added.

“I assumed.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to do that.”

If he knew she was teasing, he gave no sign. “Once you return to Hol-Opah, it’s rare for you not to stay overnight. We’re always prepared for that.” He offered another faint smile. “And it’s easier now that we have a bunkhouse.”

After the events surrounding Shantu’s death and the threat to Salomen’s family, four additional Bondlancer’s Guards had been added to the unit: two to take turns watching over her 10-cycle-old brother, and the others to watch the house and sometimes her father or older brother on their errands in town. With at least two Guards always on-site, five to eight more accompanying Salomen whenever she was home, and another ten for Andira when she was able to come, a new outbuilding had been required.

Salomen was not fond of the reason for it, but she had made damned sure that building was a worthy addition to her land. It was built on the traditional circular base of rural homes, with a domed roof and a large skylight to direct natural light into the rooms of the interior core.

“I couldn’t keep you in my equipment building any longer,” she said. “It was either stare out my dining room window at a bunch of unsightly tents or build you something I didn’t mind looking at.”

“And we thank Fahla every day for your overdeveloped sense of aesthetics.” The deeper voice came from her left.

Salomen whipped her head around. “How do you do that? You’re almost as big as Senshalon and twice as quiet.”

“A lifetime of practice.” Corozen Micah’s craggy face was softened by a smile. “How are you? I hear your secret came out today.”

“This is why I don’t wear an earcuff. How would you get all your gossip if everyone knew I was listening in?”

“We’d use a different channel for the gossip, like we do for Tal. She said she can be there for evenmeal, by the way.” He rested a large hand against her upper back, a simple gesture of support that meant the world. Corozen was Andira’s oldest friend, virtual father, and Chief Guardian, which meant he supervised both the Lancer’s and Bondlancer’s Guards. But he was also Salomen’s Chief Counselor and had been indispensable while she learned to navigate life in Blacksun.

“Jaros will be thrilled to see her. As for me, I just met myself. Did you hear that, too?”

He nodded. “That couldn’t have been easy.”

“She was a beautiful little girl, full of hope. I took it away from her.”

“You did no such thing. What you did was refuse to lie to her.”

Ronlin had gone ahead, trusting her to Corozen’s care, and was already stepping onto the tree-lined path that led to the landing pad behind the State House. She watched his purposeful walk and appreciated that he had given her this moment.

“Don’t you think something is wrong with the world when the truth takes away a child’s hope?” she asked.

“Salomen, I’m going to tell you something I’ve had to tell Tal many a time. Your shoulders are broad, but they’re not that broad. There are only so many battles you can fight, and some battles are far bigger than you. This is one of them. It’s neither your fault nor your responsibility. You must accept that.”

She passed under the first of the majestic trees that lined the path and remembered Rusill’s anguished protest. But you’re the Bondlancer.

What good was being the Bondlancer if she had to sit back and accept that wrongs could not be righted?

Uprising

“You’ve been quiet this evening.” Andira’s head rested on Salomen’s shoulder as they lay twined together in bed.

Salomen made no answer other than to brush her fingertips along Andira’s spine.

“Except around Jaros,” Andira continued. “I think he’s startled at how supportive you’ve become of his dreams to challenge into the warrior caste.”

“I’ve seen the damage caused by stunting dreams,” Salomen said. “Rahel was an outcaste because her parents wouldn’t support hers. She was only five cycles older than Jaros when she ran away from home.”

Andira slid her hand along Salomen’s stomach. “You know the chances are good that he’ll forget about being a warrior in another cycle or two. The builders are getting buckets of interest with the space elevator in the news every other day.”

“I just want him to be what he wants to be.” Salomen caught the wandering hand and held it. “Thank you for coming out here tonight. I know it wasn’t on your schedule.”

“I always love coming to Hol-Opah. Listen to that.”

She cocked an ear. “All I hear is a grainbird.”

“Exactly.”

Ah, now she understood. Their quarters in the State House were silent because they were soundproofed to keep the city noise at bay. This room was quiet because there was no noise to hold back, other than the sound of the breeze rustling through the trees outside and the occasional call of a grainbird. Even the insects had stopped singing. Best of all, it was this quiet with their window wide open and the breeze caressing their skin.

“I don’t know how you managed it, growing up in Blacksun,” Salomen said. “You never knew what the night sounded like.”

“I never knew what I was missing until I came out here. You ruined me. For so many things.”

“Mm. One of my better accomplishments, I think.” Salomen was finally relaxed, with the beautiful silence of Hol-Opah and the warmth of Andira pressed against her. “Andira?”

“Hm?”

“Why do we stunt the dreams of so many children? Why does that law still stand?”

Andira did not ask what she meant by “that law.” No doubt Corozen had told her before she arrived.

“Because its roots go into the bedrock of our culture. It’s been the law forever. Changing it would mean changing everything.”

“But would it truly?”

Andira shifted away, propping her head on her hand. “She really got to you, didn’t she?”

“She was me. The only difference is that her birthfather knew she was a high empath. No,” Salomen corrected herself. “There are two differences. The other is that she doesn’t have a prayer of staying in her caste.”

“Salomen—”

“It’s not fair, Andira! It’s wrong. We didn’t always push our high empaths into the warrior or scholar castes. It was a strategic tactic that gave a queen the advantage she needed to conquer, and other rulers copied her. But it was always about subjugation. We’re one world now; we don’t war against each other. We should have given up this law when we created the unified government.”

“I agree. We should have, but we didn’t. And now the roots have spread too far.”

“Don’t use a plant analogy on a producer. I know how to trim roots. As long as you trim branches too, and keep the system in balance, the plant will live. It will thrive, if those roots were diseased.” Salomen matched her position. “Our roots are diseased. When four out of six castes are missing their high empaths, the system is out of balance.”

“It’s not out of balance. Just because it’s not fair doesn’t mean it’s not working.”

“But it is. I can grow horten in the shade and get a straggly, unhealthy plant that’s searching for sun. Or I can grow it in full sun and get a compact, bushy plant full of leaves. They’re both alive. They’re both working. But only one of them is healthy.”

“I think you’re taking that analogy a little far. Pull back and look at the bigger view. High empaths are a minority of our population. High empaths who want a different caste are a minority of that minority. Our culture is not unhealthy because a small number of people are initially unhappy with their caste options. And being initially unhappy doesn’t mean they stay that way.”

Salomen stared at her. “You really don’t understand.”

“Of course I do—”

“Of course you don’t. You had a scholar mother and a warrior father; you never spent a single day worrying about your caste options. The law happened to work perfectly for you. Well, it didn’t work perfectly for me. I spent a lifetime hiding who I was because of it. A lifetime of keeping a secret and being terrified of anyone finding out. And it’s not working for Rusill.”

“Salomen.” Andira’s voice was as pained as her emotions, but for the first time in their relationship, Salomen turned away from it.

“I’m tired,” she said. “It’s been a long day.”

“This is not about us.” Andira skimmed her fingertips down Salomen’s bare back. “Please don’t let politics into our bed.”

“Goddess above, Andira, you’re the Lancer and I’m the Bondlancer. How are we ever going to keep politics out of our bed?”

“Hard work and love?”

Andira’s hand traced a path over her waist, and Salomen softened enough to bring it down to her stomach and hold it there.

“I do love you, you know that,” she said. “But you cannot understand what this means to me. That’s not your fault. I just need to accept it.”

Andira scooted up against her back. “I’m not fond of that word. Accept. Not unless it’s spoken by someone on the other side of the negotiating table.”

“What else would you call it?” She was suddenly as weary as she had claimed to be a tick earlier. “We’re never going to resolve this argument, tyrina. Can we not simply enjoy the quiet, and sleep?”

“We can.” Andira brushed a light kiss against her shoulder blade, making her shiver. “I’m sorry this is hurting you.”

“I know.” Salomen lifted their joined hands to her lips and returned the kiss to Andira’s fingers. “You’re right. It shouldn’t come between us.”

It shouldn’t, she thought. But it was.


32


Bondlancer's choice

For three ninedays, Salomen tried to forget about Rusill. But every time she gave a speech, she looked in the audience for children of that age. Every time Ronlin asked if she wanted to meet people at the back door or be swept past, she had to force herself to not take the easier path.

When she went home to work her fields, she watched her younger brother and thanked Fahla for his mid empath rating and the choices it gave him. If high empathy was such a gift, why did it cost so much?

One evening, Andira took her to a concert in an attempt to break her melancholy mood. Salomen listened to a magnificent symphony backing four superlative singers and wondered how many musicians had been blocked from their life’s calling because they happened to be high empaths. They could perform as amateurs, but the support of the crafters was not extended to those outside their caste. They would not be trained by the best, nor mentored by the experienced, nor given free access to the library of instruments every crafter caste house made available for its members.

She had often thought about what she would have done had the testers taken her. Studied crop science, no doubt, and returned to Hol-Opah the instant she finished training. But she would have missed cycles of living and working under the tutelage of her parents. She could not have spoken in Granelle’s producer caste house except as a guest. Her older brother Nikin would have taken that role, and he hated public speaking. Worse, there was no scholar caste house in Granelle. The nearest one was half a hantick away by skimmer. She would not have belonged to the Granelle producer community, nor would she have belonged to the scholar community of a town she didn’t live in and had no history with. She would have been adrift.

After the concert, they walked down the broad staircase to the lobby, surrounded by Guards and watched by hundreds of attendees. Most continued their conversations, drinks in hand, but their body language and darting eyes indicated where their true attention lay.

Over by the refreshment bar, a young girl with long, black hair paid them no attention at all. She reached up for the drink she had purchased, showing more of her profile.

Salomen’s heart slowed. It wasn’t Rusill.

“What’s wrong?” Andira asked.

“Nothing.” She winced internally at the transparent lie, which served only to elevate Andira’s concern. “I thought I saw someone I don’t want to meet.”

“Ah. That’s how I spend half my days in the State House,” Andira joked.

It was an easy conversational out, and Salomen took it gratefully. But she could not shake the growing sense of shame that while she had escaped her fate, she was turning her back on others who would not be so fortunate.

But you’re the Bondlancer, Rusill had said, with her broken heart pushing jagged edges through her front.

The shame grew in leaps and bounds, every day weighing more, until Salomen sat down with the ancient paper volume Chief Counselor Aldirk had loaned her during her first lesson in what it meant to be the Bondlancer. She found the section she had remembered and read it carefully.

The prime function of the Bondlancer, overriding all others, is to assume the role of Head of Family for Alsea in the event of the Lancer’s Return. The Bondlancer must set aside personal grief, for the needs of the people are greater, and of greater importance, than the needs of the surviving bondmate.

The Bondlancer shall sit in the State Chair and present an unbroken leadership to the people until such time as a new Lancer is elected. During the interregnum, the Bondlancer will have no governmental power, as the Lancer’s powers will vest in the High Council. In the event of a tie vote within the High Council, however, the Bondlancer will retain the Lancer’s vote and be called to break the tie.

This duty requires an understanding of High Council proceedings and the legal and governmental issues of the Lancer’s incumbency. Therefore, the Bondlancer has right of access to the High Council at any time.

She put her finger on the final sentence and read it again. Then she closed the book and walked out of her office.

In the antechamber, Guard Demerah hurriedly set a cup on the sideboard and drew herself straight.

“I’m just going upstairs,” Salomen said, lifting a hand to stop her. “Finish your shannel.”

“Thank you, Bondlancer.” Demerah smiled as she retrieved her cup.

Trotting up the single flight of stairs to the fourteenth floor, Salomen grumbled to herself. Andira had promised freedom of movement within the State House but failed to mention that she would have to account for her whereabouts every damned piptick or be chased down by worried Guards.

She entered the antechamber of the Lancer’s office, which held not one but three Guards plus an aide, and consoled herself with the thought that however fussed over she might be, Andira had it twice as bad.

“Does she have anyone inside?” she asked as she crossed the room. Guard Senshalon, closest to the office doors and in her immediate line of sight, shook his head and opened one of the doors for her.

Andira was behind her desk, reading something on her Gaian pad. “Why would Dr. Wells want meteorological data from the time of the Caphenon’s crash and the Battle of Alsea?” she asked by way of greeting. “The last I heard, she was mapping the genes involved in a tyree connection. What does that have to do with which way the wind blew two cycles ago?”

“Good afternoon to you, too.” Salomen walked around the desk and leaned against it, her hands braced on the polished wood and one of her feet pressed against a leg of Andira’s chair. “I’m here on business.”

Andira looked up, now fully focused. “I can feel it. Will I need to hurt someone or throw them in the Pit?”

“No, it’s not personal business. Though I appreciate your willingness to abuse your power on my behalf.” She took a moment to absorb Andira’s affection before dropping the bomb. “I formally request access to the High Council at its next meeting.”

Andira sat back in her chair and pressed her fingers together. “This is about high empaths.” At Salomen’s nod, she said, “You know you’re entitled to it. But it won’t work.”

The assumption sharpened Salomen’s tongue. “Perhaps you could do me the courtesy of giving me a chance before declaring the outcome?”

“That’s not what I—” She held up a placating hand. “This is a matter of caste law. General caste law. You’d need a unanimous vote of the High Council to bring it before the full Council. It will never move out of the High Council because the Prime Warrior and Prime Scholar will always vote against it.”

“Then maybe they can be shamed into doing the right thing,” Salomen snapped.

“Possibly.” Andira reached for her leg, bare beneath the long skirt, and caressed the back of her calf. “But it’s not just a matter of the ruling castes wanting to keep their power. It’s also a matter of timing. Alsea has been constantly roiled for two cycles.” With her other hand, she counted off. “We’ve had the crash of the Caphenon, the Battle of Alsea, the Voloth settlers, the introduction of the matter printers, the space elevator that will open us for interplanetary trade, and now the divine tyrees. There hasn’t been a tick to breathe, and you want to throw a complete caste restructuring into the mix? It would blow up. We need stability, not more instability.”

“And if I waited a cycle, something else would come up that you’d point to as a reason why it was too soon. Five cycles after that, it would be yet another reason.” Salomen ignored the twinge of hurt in their link, her anger stronger than her compassion.

“That’s not fair,” Andira said quietly. “I’m not trying to find reasons to put you off. I’m telling you what the political landscape looks like.”

“And I’m telling you that I don’t care what the political landscape looks like. Put me on the agenda for the next meeting.” Salomen pushed off the desk, the motion making Andira’s hand slip from her leg. She was halfway across the office before her conscience pricked her. “I’m sorry,” she said, facing the beautifully carved doors. “This is . . . personal for me.”

“I know. And I know you don’t want any political advice right now, but when it’s personal, it hurts more to lose.”

Salomen’s shoulders stiffened. Before she could respond, Andira spoke again.

“I don’t want you to be hurt, tyrina.”

She turned. “Then support me.”

Andira didn’t answer, but it was there in their link. Salomen shook her head and walked out.


33


Head of family

Anjuli sat impatiently through the High Council meeting, eager to get to the last item on the agenda. Based on the unusually short debates as they worked their way down, the other Primes felt the same way.

Along with the Prime Scholar and Producer, she had sat on this Council when Tordax was Lancer. His Bondlancer had never once attended a meeting, and she had never heard of it happening in the previous Lancer’s term, either. It was a long-standing right, but Bondlancers did not make a habit of exercising it.

So it was with considerable anticipation that she watched Lancer Tal speak into her earcuff upon completing the penultimate item on the agenda.

“Salomen. We’re ready for you.” She nodded and tapped out of the call. “She’ll be here in a tick.”

“Now that we’ve reached this point, can you tell us why the Bondlancer is attending?” Prime Producer Arabisar asked.

“I think it best that Salomen speak to you in her own words.”

With no room left for further questioning, they sat in silence until a light tap on the door preceded its opening. Bondlancer Opah entered, dressed smartly in a suit with a daring neckline, heeled boots that made her taller than even Yaserka, and a half cape of her caste color. Her dark hair hung loose about her shoulders, and she swept the room with an assessing gaze before offering a grave nod. “Well met, Primes. Thank you for seeing me today.”

Greetings accompanied her as she took a guest chair and folded her hands on the table, projecting an ease Anjuli did not believe.

“When Lancer Tal first came to my holding,” she said, “she explained her role to my younger brother in words a child could understand. She said Alsea was like her holding, its people like her family, and that she had a duty to keep her family safe and whole.”

Anjuli wished there were footage of that conversation.

“I thought she chose that analogy for my brother’s sake, but when I began training for my role as Bondlancer, I learned otherwise. The Lancer is the figurative head of the Alsean family. And the Bondlancer becomes that head upon the death of the Lancer.” She looked around the table. “I have some experience at being head of the family. I’ve been the head of mine since my mother’s Return. But I didn’t skip along, unconcerned about my family until that moment. She told me it was my future role. She trained me for it. Long before it became my duty, I acted on that responsibility when my mother could not.” Her gaze fell directly on the Lancer as she added, “Or would not.”

Every head turned to Lancer Tal, who stared straight at her bondmate with an unreadable expression.

“The family of Alsea is suffering under an injustice that is far, far past the point where it should have been redressed. I believe part of the reason it has lingered is that no Lancer and no members of the High Council have personally suffered from it for generations. And I say that with some authority after researching the lives of every High Council member and Lancer for the past hundred cycles.” She interlaced her fingers and lifted her chin. “So let me tell you a story of what it’s like to have your caste choice ripped away from you—or to live in terror that it will happen.”

Anjuli listened in fascination as Bondlancer Opah spoke candidly of her childhood and a life lived in secrecy, loneliness, and fear. The story answered so many questions about her, birthing new ones in their places.

She had to respect such courage. Bondlancer Opah was laying herself open as no politician would ever dare, and she must have known it was futile. The proposal she was obviously working up to didn’t have the chance of a three-legged fanten on slaughter day, yet she spoke as if it did, as if belief and courage alone could correct an ancient injustice.

“I’m not proposing that high empaths be treated as all other Alseans,” she said, winding up her speech. “We all know the value they bring to the specialized jobs they often do. The warrior and scholar castes should still be open to them, without the burden of challenging. But they should have the choice of following either parent into their caste, just like the rest of us. They should have the choice of challenging any other caste, just like the rest of us. I believe that opening their options, while retaining the preference the warriors and scholars give them, is a compromise that will redress this great wrong without unduly affecting caste balance.”

She glanced across the table at Lancer Tal. “As our Lancer has pointed out, the number of Alseans this proposal would affect is not large. She states that saving the dreams of such a small minority isn’t worth the disruption it would cause.”

Lancer Tal closed her eyes and gave a tiny shake of her head. Anjuli would have bet a moon’s wages that she had not put it in those terms, but whatever diplomatic words she had chosen, the meaning was there. Bondlancer Opah was simply dragging that meaning into stark daylight.

“I take the opposite conclusion from those numbers,” the Bondlancer continued. “If so few people would be affected—if only a minority of that minority would choose other castes—then how great a disruption could it possibly cause? What is keeping us from saving them?” She leaned forward, making eye contact with each of them in turn. “I implore you to do what this Council was designed to do, and stand between injustice and those who lack the power to fight it. Let our high empaths have a choice. Stop punishing them for an accident of birth.”

Anjuli was the first to break the silence that followed. It was an easy vote, one she not only believed in, but which had the advantage of being one hundred percent politically safe since the proposal would never pass out of this room.

“I agree with Bondlancer Opah,” she said. “The builder caste suffers for the loss of its high empaths. Not only for what their empathic strength could contribute, but also for the talent we’ve lost because it was taken by the scholar and warrior castes. I vote yes.”

“We don’t take your high empaths,” Prime Scholar Yaserka scoffed. “They were never yours! They belong to no caste until they choose.”

“And such a choice they have,” Anjuli shot back. “Two out of six possible castes.”

“It’s the way it must be! The scholars and warriors have a greater need for high empaths to fill the roles we play. Counselors, healers, negotiators . . .”

“City Guards,” added Prime Warrior Ehron. “Firefighters who use their empathy to find victims unable to call out.”

“Oh, do stop,” Prime Merchant Stasinal said irritably. “You make it sound as though changing the law would drain your castes to the point of inoperability. That’s dokshin, and the Bondlancer already addressed it. We’re talking about small numbers. But that doesn’t matter, does it? I may be new to this council, but I already know how this will go. You two will vote against it because you’re nothing more than merchants protecting your supply. Fahla forbid that the rest of us have fair access.” Her sharp look softened as she gave a nod to the Bondlancer. “I vote yes as well, for all the good it will do us. If we were speaking of any other resource, this policy could not stand. Monopolies aren’t legal.”

“When held by a business,” Yaserka corrected. “The state does not fall under that limitation.”

“What are you voting, Prime Scholar?” Stasinal asked. “Let’s hear you put it on the record.”

Yaserka straightened his lanky frame. “Bondlancer Opah, you have my greatest sympathy for the difficulties you suffered—”

“I don’t want your sympathy,” Bondlancer Opah interrupted. “I want a fair vote that puts people before power.”

Anjuli raised her eyebrows, impressed.

Yaserka sputtered. “It is not about power. It’s about the best way to serve the people. The scholar and warrior castes are service castes—”

Stasinal let out an exaggerated yawn.

He shot her a glare before facing the Bondlancer again. “Your proposal is admirable and comes from a place of compassion, but we must think of Alsea’s best interests. Stripping the scholar and warrior castes of the high empaths we need to perform our functions does not serve those interests. In addition, Alsea is not served by shattering a system that has functioned very well for three thousand cycles. I must vote no.”

“I find it interesting that you call it a well-functioning system,” Prime Crafter Bylwytin said. “It functions well for you. Bondlancer Opah is correct. The system is unfair, and it punishes people for being born with high empathy. It punishes the four lower castes for not being the ruling castes. Let’s not forget that the reason you are the ruling castes is because you take all the high empaths. We say the castes are equal, but as long as two-thirds of them are stripped of their rightful members, that platitude is a joke and we all know it.” She nodded at Bondlancer Opah. “I also vote yes.”

“I vote no.” Prime Warrior Ehron looked at Stasinal. “You scoff at the idea, but the warriors are indeed a service caste. Many of us lay down our lives to protect others and to uphold the law. High empathy is an irreplaceable tool in that service. I wish we had more high empaths than we do.”

“What a coincidence, so do I,” Stasinal said.

Prime Producer Arabisar brushed her fingers against the brooch pinned to her lapel, its dark green jewels outlining the producer’s tree symbol. With a troubled expression, she met Bondlancer Opah’s expectant gaze. “The others are casting their votes without much thought, because they know it won’t matter,” she said. “But I honor your commitment to your title, and the courage you showed in telling us your story. I’m proud to see a producer filling the role of Bondlancer, and I think you deserve a more careful answer. Mine is this: it is an unfair system and it has been unfair for far too long. It is not good for Alsea and should be rectified. But even if we had a chance to do that today, I would vote no.”

Startled, Anjuli glanced at the Bondlancer and found her staring at Arabisar with a look of betrayal.

“This is not the time,” Arabisar continued. “We have staggered from one crisis to the next since the night the Caphenon landed. Truly, we must give Lancer Tal credit for steering us through the last two cycles without wrecking us on any of the traps that continually reach out. Altering our caste structure is a trap of enormous potential, with only the slimmest of safe passage around it. I do not believe that passage is wide enough for even Lancer Tal to steer us through. In another cycle or two, when the space dock is operational and Alseans have seen that we can be part of a larger galactic community and still remain ourselves . . . come back then, and I will vote yes with the greatest pleasure. But I cannot do it now.”

Stasinal and Anjuli exchanged incredulous looks. Neither had expected the Prime Producer to vote against their producer Bondlancer.

“The votes are tallied,” Lancer Tal said. “Given that this proposal required a unanimous result, my vote is not necessary. Therefore—”

“No.” Bondlancer Opah spoke in a voice of solid ice. “As the person who brought this proposal, I have the right to a full vote. Put yours on the record, Lancer Tal.”

The room dripped with silence as every Prime held their breath.

Lancer Tal’s expression wavered for half a piptick before she erased any emotion and said, “Very well. I agree with Prime Producer Arabisar on every point. The current situation is unjust and unfair—and now is absolutely the wrong time to attempt a correction. I would happily table this proposal and come back to it at a future time when our situation is not so volatile.”

“In five cycles, then? Ten? Do you think it will be during my lifetime?” Bondlancer Opah pulled her hands off the table, her spine stiff as a staff as she glared at Arabisar. “In a moon or two, I might come to appreciate your honesty. Right now, I’m appalled at your support for maintaining a cruelly wrong law. You’re saying that the very weight of an injustice is a reason for continuing it. As for you—” Her molten glare swung to Yaserka and Ehron. “You are cowards, both of you. Hiding your fear of losing power under a tattered veneer of service to the rest of us. Do you truly believe the dokshin that comes out of your mouths, or are you shoveling it in the belief that the rest of us are that gullible?”

They gaped at her, astonished at being spoken to in such a way, and she abruptly rose.

“Prime Builder, Prime Merchant, Prime Crafter, thank you for your votes. I’ll remember them, and your people will remember them when this meeting’s vote goes on the public record. The rest of you should be ashamed. In five ticks you have destroyed dreams and lives. Congratulations.”

She swept out of the room, leaving six Primes goggling at each other.

“This meeting is adjourned,” Lancer Tal said rapidly, and did not wait for a response before striding through the door.

“I wouldn’t want to be in the Lancer’s boots tonight,” Anjuli said.

Stasinal let out a whistle. “Words for Fahla. I had no idea our Bondlancer was such a vallcat.”

“Show some shekking respect,” Arabisar snapped. “Our Bondlancer has more integrity than at least a third of the people in this room.” She stood up and shoved her chair under the table, glaring at Yaserka and Ehron. “She was right about you. You shovel dokshin like you’re building a dam against a flood and tell us it’s a precious resource. If you think anyone in this room believes it, you’re stupider than a crate of dirt.”

She followed the Lancer out, leaving Anjuli wishing she were half as eloquent.

“Keep your death grip on the top rung of the ladder,” she said, “but at least be honest about why you’re kicking the rest of us off.”

When she entered the corridor, the Lancer and Bondlancer were long gone. She shook her head and spared a rare thought of pity for Lancer Tal. That woman was facing a summer windstorm.


34


Efficient packing

“Salomen!”

Tal caught a glimpse of dark green down the corridor: Salomen’s half cape swinging out as she darted through the door to the stairwell. Tal gave chase, reaching the landing in time to hear the door above her slide shut.

She raced up the stairs and burst onto the top floor, but Salomen was still ahead and moving with a rapid, angry stride. With her shorter legs, Tal had no chance of catching up unless she ran.

Perhaps it was best that way. State House staff were staring after Salomen with wary expressions; even the mid empaths among them knew an incipient explosion had hurried past. Tal did not want that explosion to take place in public.

At the entrance to their private corridor, she nodded at the Guards and forced herself to keep a stately pace. Here in this corner of the State House, thick rugs muffled her footsteps and no murmur of staff conversations followed. Though she normally relaxed as soon as she reached this point, the blessed privacy a balm to her senses after a day of being in demand, now she grew more tense with every step toward their door.

When she opened it, Salomen was nowhere in sight. Given the open floor plan of their quarters, that could only mean she was in the bathroom or dressing room. Tal was halfway across the space when Salomen came out of the arched doorway and strode toward the bed, arms full of her overnight bag, a small stack of clothing, and her favorite sandals.

“Here to say you told me so?” she asked without looking.

“You know I wouldn’t. I’m sorry, Salomen.”

“No, you’re not. That went exactly as you predicted and you’re glad it did. Oh, no, not exactly. You didn’t predict Arabisar siding with you. Good to know at least one of your Primes can still surprise you, eh?” She dropped her sandals into the bag.

Tal approached cautiously, stopping at the side of the glass-fronted clothing organizer that served as the head of their bed. “It’s not a permanent no. Arabisar and I will both work on it when the timing is better. I think we could—”

Salomen’s head snapped up, her eyes burning with the hurt rage clogging their link. “I watched you,” she said hoarsely. “After Ekatya and Lhyn were bonded. I watched you take a dangerous, explosive situation and turn it to your Fahla-damned benefit. I watched you push public opinion in the direction you wanted it to go. You got the full Council behind you. Goddess above, you even made the Protectorate blink! I see how much power you have; do you think I don’t? You’ll use it for Ekatya, but you won’t use it for me.”

Staggered, Tal put out a hand for support and knocked a book off the organizer. It thumped onto the bed near Salomen’s bag. “That’s what you think?”

‘That’s what I see.” Salomen rolled up a shirt and slammed it into the bag with such force that it was a wonder her fist didn’t come through the bottom. “It’s not a matter of thinking. It’s a matter of looking at the evidence. What was it Anjuli Eroles called you? A master manipulator? It’s curious, how that mastery isn’t enough when it comes to something that matters to me.”

“Salomen, please.” She stepped back as Salomen came around to the front of the organizer and bent to open a door. “I hate that I hurt you. But I’m asking you, please don’t let this be personal. It’s not—”

How is this not personal?” Salomen shouted. Holding a folded shawl in one hand, she furiously pointed the other in the direction of the council room. “You just went on record opposing me. My bondmate! My divine tyree, the one person on this planet who feels what I feel. You know how important this is to me and you won’t lift a finger to help. Well, keep your fingers and the rest of you to yourself. I’m going home.”

Shoving past Tal, she rounded the corner of the organizer and pushed the shawl into the bag. The other clothes followed with more speed than care.

Tal had anticipated this much of the outcome and cleared her schedule in preparation. “All right. I’d rather we went together, but I still have two more meetings I couldn’t get out of. I can be there by mid-one, though.”

Salomen shook her head. “Don’t bother. You’re not invited.”

“What?”

“I don’t want you there.” She picked up the book Tal had knocked off and threw it in the bag, then flipped the top flap in place and slapped down the tabs. Shouldering the bag, she straightened and met Tal’s eyes. “You’re toxic to me right now. I don’t want to hear explanations and reasons. I just want out of Blacksun.”

“You’re kicking me out?” Tal was too shocked to think.

“More like I’ve come to a sudden appreciation of having multiple homes to choose from. I’m choosing Hol-Opah for the next few days. You can stay here with your politics and your strategies to keep you company.”

Salomen was out the door before Tal could respond. The next few days, she had said. Of course it was more than one night. She didn’t even need to pack for a single night; Hol-Opah had everything she needed.

Slowly, Tal sank onto the bed. In the ringing silence of the empty room, she remembered Salomen’s first day here and how ridiculously bad she had been at packing. She had brought two enormous bags stuffed with so much clothing that Tal had teased her, saying she must have thought they were going to Last Port rather than a twenty-tick transport ride from Hol-Opah.

Now she was packed and gone before Tal could even grasp the deeper reason behind that searing sense of betrayal.

“Your packing has certainly improved,” she muttered, and dropped her face into her hands.


35


Solace

Under normal circumstances, Salomen loved the flight from the State House to Hol-Opah. By now she knew every field, stream, holding, and nearly every tree along the way.

Today she saw none of them, staring blindly out the transport window until the Silverrun River passed beneath. As always, she breathed more easily the instant they crossed it, an instinctive reaction to being home.

Up ahead, the holding’s large, round main house and its outbuildings—now including the bunkhouse—occupied a hilltop near the center of Opah land. She had spent her childhood running up and down that hill, playing and later working in the fields that surrounded it. The Snowmount Range dominated the view to the west and north, while the tree-lined Silverrun River made up the southern and eastern borders of their land.

Salomen barely waited for the transport to touch down behind their house before opening the door, getting to it even before Ronlin. With the bag bumping against her side, she ran down the ramp, across the yard, and up the six steps to the back deck, where her father stood waiting.

“Nikin called to say he saw you fly over,” Shikal said as she came up the steps. “He’s in the herdgrass field. I was just sitting down with my mid-morning shannel. Would you like—?” He stopped speaking when she dropped her bag and looked at him. “Oh, Salomen. Come here.”

She met his raised hands and rested their foreheads together. The love and sympathy pouring through his skin nearly broke her tenuous control, and she closed her eyes, breathing in his familiar scent. How was it that she was the head of this family, the Bondlancer of Alsea, yet still found so much comfort in her father’s touch? She was supposed to be a rock, the one that others leaned on.

“It’s not been a good day,” she said quietly.

“Today was the High Council vote, wasn’t it? That’s why you look so beautiful. I’ve always loved that half cape on you. So much like your mother.”

She straightened and brought their clasped hands down. “I wish she had been there. It might have gone better.”

“She always said you were a natural. I doubt she could do any more than you.” He tilted his head, gray hair brushing his shoulders, and looked her over with sharp eyes that had lost nothing to age. “The vote went the way Andira said it would?”

“Worse. The Prime Producer voted against me.” She scooped up her bag and gestured toward the door, closing down any further inquiries. “You said something about shannel?”

He preceded her into their dining room, full of light from the floor-to-ceiling windows facing west and north. For most of Salomen’s life, her family had gathered around the long table for meals, but her mother had Returned and her younger brother Herot was in prison. With Nikin in the fields, Jaros in school, and Salomen in Blacksun, this table was too big for Shikal to sit at alone.

Unwilling to face her empty upstairs bedroom, Salomen crossed the room to drop her bag at the foot of the wooden staircase and followed Shikal into the kitchen.

As with most traditional rural homes, their food preparation was done in a separate dome. Hol-Opah’s was attached to the main house on its northeast side and featured a sturdy table near the doorway, used as a staging area for meals. Currently it was set with a pot of shannel, a single cup and plate, and a loaf of bread.

“Sit down, I’ll get my own cup.” She started across the kitchen.

“You’d think I was a hundred and ten,” he grumbled, but there was no heat in it. “Get a plate, too. I’ll cut you a slice.”

They said nothing else as she took her seat and poured the shannel, while he cut the bread and sweetened both slices with grainstem powder. With the familiarity of home soaking into her bones, Salomen soon relaxed enough to tell the story of her awful morning, including the way she had left things with Andira.

Her father listened without comment until she was done. Then he pushed away his empty cup and said, “You called the Prime Warrior a coward?”

“That’s not what I thought your first question would be.”

He waved that aside. “I miss Nashta every day, but there are days when I miss her more than usual. She would have loved to see our daughter stare down the Prime Warrior and call him a coward to his face. I doubt Ehron ever expected that from the Bondlancer.” A smile creased his weathered cheeks. “But if he knew you, he would have.”

“You’re proud of that? It wasn’t my most shining moment.”

“Oh, no doubt you’ve burned up some good will and you’ll have to bend your neck if you ever need anything from him, but perhaps a good dose of truth might open his eyes. He’s new in the position. His mind can be changed.”

“I doubt that,” she muttered, reaching for the bread knife.

“Now, about Andira.”

She stopped, then drew back her hand and waited.

“Your first disagreement, yes?”

“Disagreement? Hardly. You do remember that we started out on opposite sides of the negotiation table?”

That was waved aside as well. “Is this your first disagreement since she began courting you?”

“You keep using that word. It’s not a disagreement, Father. I told her she’s not welcome here. I think that qualifies as an actual fight, and yes, it’s our first serious one. We’ve had our tempestuous times, but I’ve never been this angry. I could hardly look at her.”

He nodded. “I had to make it up to Nashta with a new pair of gloves.”

“You—what? You and Mother never fought.” She blinked at the loud laugh that burst from him. “You didn’t! I would have felt it.”

“Not when you were a child. By the time your empathy was developing, we were mostly past that part of our lives. And after, we kept things out in the fields and never brought them home. But that first one . . .” He shook his head with a fond smile. “She did have a temper.”

She frowned as he rose from his chair. “What are you—”

“Stay here. I want to show you something.”

He was back in a tick, offering an unprepossessing pair of gloves. “Here they are.”

She had expected them to be stiff, given their obvious age and the number of stains, but the leather was still supple. Subtle differences in thread width and color were evidence of many repairs. These gloves had been used and loved for a very long time.

“We hadn’t been bonded for five moons, I think. Nikin was still two cycles in the future, and I was a poor producer who had bonded my way into the second-largest holding in the district. I had some misplaced pride and a need to prove myself.”

This was a story she had never heard, not to mention an implausible view of him. Her father, prideful?

“I loved Nashta fiercely, but I wasn’t good at letting her love me. Deep in my heart, there was always a doubt. I didn’t know why she chose me when she could have had anyone she wanted. So I picked and pushed, and one day I pushed too hard. She laid me out with some well-chosen words, stripped my pride down to the base metal, and then jumped in the skimmer and let me walk six lengths home.”

Salomen had to laugh. That did sound like her mother.

“Did I mention it started to rain? Hard. And hailstones the size of marmello pits.”

“Did she take pity on you?”

“Have you forgotten where you got your temper? She was in the bath when I came home. I went up the stairs and found her half-buried in suds, and her first words were, ‘Stop dripping on our floor and get your freezing ass in here with me.’”

Salomen dropped her head back and let go of a full, belly-shaking laugh. “Gah! My brain can’t hold the images!”

“Of course I got in fully clothed.”

“You did not.” She wiped her eyes.

“I did. Stepped right in and kissed her, because she said ‘our floor,’ not ‘my floor,’ and I finally understood what she’d been telling me since our bonding ceremony. We were a team. This was our house. And I was an ass.” He pointed at the gloves. “So I went out the next day and used our cinteks to buy her the nicest pair of gloves that could be had in Granelle, because she wouldn’t have done that for herself. I tied them up in paper and binding twine and left them on her pillow. She cried when she opened that gift.”

Salomen’s amusement dried up instantly. “Why?”

“She said it was the worst-wrapped gift she’d ever seen, and the most beautiful expression of love, because only someone who loved her would have made up after a fight with gloves. Others would have offered flowers or an expensive meal at a restaurant. I gave her something she could use and look at every day. And she did. She made those gloves last until Nikin’s twelfth birth anniversary.”

Salomen caressed the soft leather, noting every stain. “Then she wore them when I started working with her. I never paid any attention.”

“By that time, they weren’t much to look at. You wanted gloves like Nikin’s.”

“Oh, yes, the yellow ones!” She chuckled. “Those were ugly as the south end of a northbound fanten.”

“That they were, but you would not rest until you had a pair.”

“I had no taste then.”

“You do now.” He nodded toward the gloves. “Keep them.”

“No, Father, I cannot—”

“It’s not often a man can give the same gift twice,” he said gently. “With just as much love.”

She swallowed down the tightness in her throat and held the gloves against her chest. “Thank you. This means . . . everything. She wore these every day.”

He nodded. “There isn’t a doubt in my mind that Andira loves you like that. She would lay down her life for you. She already proved that.”

“I know,” she whispered.

“This is just your first fight. It won’t be your last. It won’t end the world or your relationship. Give yourself time to work through your anger. It’s all right to need time. I had six lengths of walking in the rain to work through mine, and your mother—well, she had a free hantick and a lovely soak in the tub.”

“She had the better end of the deal.” Salomen smiled down at her gloves.

“Not really. She had to teach a prideful young man how to accept love. I think in this case, you’re the one who needs to accept it.”

Caught by surprise, she could only stare as he pushed back his chair and came to her side of the table. Stooping down, he dropped a kiss on her cheek and walked out of the kitchen.


36


Unexpected guest

“Bondlancer Opah, I’m sorry to disturb you.” It was Guard Demerah, standing at the top of the back steps. Salomen hadn’t heard her approach, so lost in thought was she.

“Yes?”

“You have a guest arriving by transport. Lancer Tal already cleared it. She, er, she said the guest’s identity should be a surprise. But if you want to know . . .”

The implication was clear. Demerah was not sworn to Andira, but orders from the Lancer did carry weight. She was trying to juggle her loyalties, and Salomen’s first thought was to demand the guest’s name and settle the issue that way. But that would put Demerah in the difficult position of having gone against Andira’s orders.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’ll wait for the surprise.”

Demerah thumped a fist to her chest and made her way back down the steps.

Salomen had been out on the back deck for a hantick, steadily working her way through a bottle of her father’s good spirits. She normally went into the fields when she was home, but both Shikal and Nikin had forbidden it when they gathered in the dining room for midmeal.

“Remember, we promoted Jeshen to pick up what you couldn’t do,” Nikin had said, waving a fork at her. “If you keep running out there, you’re going to give him a complex.”

“Jeshen is prone to complexes,” Shikal agreed.

That was utter dokshin. Jeshen was one of the most unflappable men in the district, a fact she pointed out to them with absolutely no effect.

Defeated, she had come out here and dragged one of the chairs to the edge of the deck. With her feet up on the bottom railing—now in sandals; she had changed out of her formal clothing before midmeal—she gazed at the Snowmount Range and sipped the dark blue spirits. In her lap were her mother’s gloves, a gift she could not stop touching.

She had tried them on after her father left the kitchen. They fit perfectly.

The sky overhead was a faultless blue, but up near the Snowmounts, clouds were gathering and building rapidly into the towering columns that meant one of two things: thunderstorms or a summer windstorm. She hoped it was the former, but had a feeling it might be the latter.

Heat made the air hazy and brought with it the heady scent of cut grainstems; their western neighbors were harvesting today. Salomen bet they were eyeing these clouds and swearing themselves purple.

A new sound rose over the drone of insects, signifying a transport approaching from the east. With a sudden unreasoning irritation, she refused to look until it slowed to a hover. Only then did she turn her head to see who Andira had sent out.

The black-and-silver transport was a familiar model. Andira had one like it, as did all the caste Primes. It was an armored four-seater designed for security and comfort, and Salomen had no idea who was flying it. She stood up, set her drink and gloves on the top rail, and walked over to the steps as the transport settled on the ground.

While the engines were still spinning down, the pilot’s door opened and an unmistakable figure stepped out. Tall and lean, her hair in its usual braid, Lhyn Rivers pointed back at the transport and called out, “What do you think of my new toy?”

All annoyance vanished as Salomen trotted down the steps. “When did you get that?”

“Today. It’s been on order since our bonding ceremony. Something about shifting funds from west to east?”

Salomen met her in a two-handed palm touch, smiling at the idiom. “East to west, and don’t tell me you didn’t know that. Who shifted funds for you?”

“The Council, believe it or not. When they were worried that Ekatya and I might be targets because of our tyree bond, they allocated funds for protection.” Lhyn pulled her to the open transport door. “Then there was some confusion about who got the contract, and I don’t know what happened after that. But the end result is, we’re not targets and I still get this plush ride.”

Salomen ducked her head inside. “It smells new.”

“It smells fabulous. I’ve never had anything this nice before! If I’d known all I had to do to get one of these was bond with Ekatya, I’d have set that date the day after we got here.”

Running her hand over the luxurious material of the pilot’s seat, Salomen said, “No, you wouldn’t. You had to get the trial behind you first. This is even softer than Andira’s; she’s going to be jealous.”

“I think she’s mostly relieved that I’m not flying rented rattlebuckets any longer.”

Salomen backed out and straightened. “You talked to her.”

“She talked to Ekatya first.”

“Of course she did,” Salomen muttered.

“—and then came to me and said she thought you needed a friend,” Lhyn continued. “So I flew out to see if you wanted a proper Gaian warmron.”

Salomen stood still, immobilized by the short-circuiting of her assumptions.

From the first day of her bonding break, she and Lhyn had formed a close kinship. Yet she still felt like the odd person out, the late tagalong to the emotional triad Andira had created with Ekatya and Lhyn a cycle before Salomen entered their lives.

But Lhyn was here, choosing her. Offering solace that no one, not even her father, would think to give. Warmrons between adults who were neither bonded nor lovers were strictly taboo, but Lhyn was not Alsean and cared nothing for that social stricture.

Never had Salomen been more grateful for that fact. One step brought her into Lhyn’s open arms, and she wrapped herself in illicit comfort.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I did need one.”

Lhyn made no response other than to run a gentle hand up her spine, ending at the top of her back and pressing inward. It was a gesture that said she would stand there forever if necessary.

“Did you know that after my Rite of Ascension, I never had a warmron with someone my own height until you?” Salomen asked.

“How is that possible? You’re tall, but you’re not freakishly tall like me.”

“You’re not freakish, you’re exotic. And all of my lovers were shorter.”

“Shikal and Nikin are your height. Oh, you said after your Rite of Ascension. I try not to judge the cultures I study, but your adult warmron taboo is stupid.”

Salomen chuckled. “That must be why I keep breaking it.” The chuckle twisted into something else, and she pressed her forehead into Lhyn’s throat, trying desperately not to cry.

“Just let go,” Lhyn said. “You’ve had a dokshin day.”

Perhaps it was her matter-of-fact tone. Perhaps it was because, with Lhyn’s powerful broadcast of her emotions, Salomen was literally surrounded by sympathetic understanding and deep affection. She had managed not to break in front of her father, but she was neither the head of Lhyn’s family nor her Bondlancer. Right here, it was safe.

Lhyn held her even more tightly as Salomen released the tension she had been holding in all day, her body shuddering with labored breaths.

“I wanted to save her,” she managed. “All of them, the ones like me. I hate being the Bondlancer! It’s taken my privacy and half my life and it’s such a Fahla-damned burden, but I thought, maybe this is the other side of it. Maybe this is something I can do with it. But I can’t. They won’t let me. My own bondmate won’t let me!”

“She would let you have the world if she could,” Lhyn said softly.

“She voted against me!” That was what hurt most of all: in a vote that didn’t even matter, Andira had still gone against her.

“She didn’t want to. She tried not to vote at all.”

Salomen pulled back and wiped her cheeks. “Whose side are you on?”

“The side of both of my friends, who are both hurting.” Lhyn held her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “But you’re the one I flew out to see.”

“In your speedy new transport.”

Lhyn let out a surprised huff of laughter. “Very speedy. But I’m a bad friend, because I don’t have anything for you to blow your nose on. Shall we go in and get you cleaned up?”

Five ticks later, Salomen was back in the deck chair, holding a freshly refilled glass and feeling positively languid. Beside her, Lhyn extended her long legs onto the bottom railing as she cradled a full glass in her lap. They stared out at the mountains, or at least the parts they could see between ever-thickening clouds.

“You know,” Lhyn said, “you’ve already done a lot with your Bondlancer burden. You’ve given a powerful new face to your caste—”

“For all the good that does.”

“—and you saved Rahel. That’s something you couldn’t have done without your title.”

Salomen lifted her glass in acknowledgment. “I concede that point.”

“Do more than concede it. Think about it. You saved someone’s life. How many people can say they’ve done that?”

“Yes, but I put it in danger first.”

“You don’t take compliments well, do you? Or ever think the best of yourself.”

At any other time, Salomen would have tossed off a deflecting remark, but her father’s story was still fresh in her mind. “I think I might have inherited part of that. I always believed I was just like my mother.” She reached up and pulled the gloves off the top railing. “But it seems I have at least one of my father’s traits. And not the one I’d wish for.”

She told the story, laughing again at the image of her bedraggled father climbing into the tub fully clothed. Lhyn loved her mother’s greeting, calling it clear evidence that yes, Salomen was indeed just like her.

“I’m not, though,” Salomen said. “She knew how to accept love.”

Lhyn looked startled before a wash of understanding rolled off her. “We’re alike in that. Ekatya was an orphaned child raised by her grandparents. They doted on her. She never had a moment’s doubt from her first conscious thought that love was her birthright. I’m one of eight children. We always fought for attention—from our parents, from each other, from our teachers. I grew up thinking love was something that came in rations.”

Salomen could hardly imagine it. “Lhyn, I’ve Shared with you. You soak up love like a sponge left out in the rain.”

“Right. Because deep inside I know there’s a time limit, so it’s best to absorb all I can while it’s there.”

“You don’t feel that way about Ekatya, do you?”

Lhyn sipped her drink, her gaze on the mountains. “Not now, but it took a divine tyree bond to break that habit. When she left me before the Battle of Alsea, I watched her fly away in that shuttle and I knew she wasn’t coming back. Andira swore she would, but I didn’t believe her. Then she did come back, and I found out it was because your nanoscrubbers ate the shuttle’s hullskin and she couldn’t get into orbit.” She shook her head. “That was proof. My love didn’t bring her back, an equipment failure did. I was never going to trust her again, no matter what she said about choosing me. And then Andira connected us, and I felt what Ekatya felt, and it was . . . shekking miraculous.”

Salomen had not heard this story from Lhyn’s side. Ekatya had spoken of it once, but it had sounded very different then.

“Andira was right. Ekatya was always going to come back,” she said. “She was trying to choose between her head and her heart. She chose her head because she thought she had to. But it broke her heart to do it.”

“Mm-hm.” Lhyn took another sip and said casually, “Kind of like what Andira did this morning?”

Salomen froze, then turned to look at her. Lhyn was still watching the Snowmounts, her expression serene but for the twitch of her lips.

“I’m thinking about throwing my drink in your lap,” Salomen informed her.

Lhyn chuckled as she glanced over. “Thanks for the advance warning.”

“You’re awful. I’ll bet you were a terror in your academic debates.”

With a shrug, Lhyn said, “People either hated me or they wanted to be on my team.”

Salomen put that together with love came in rations and thought she understood Lhyn better now than she had half a hantick ago.

“A divine tyree bond broke your lifetime habit,” she mused. “It doesn’t seem to have worked for me. I know how much Andira loves me. I can feel how hurt she is. But I’m still here and I still cannot talk to her. I don’t understand how she could have cast that vote when it didn’t even matter.”

She expected Lhyn to point out that the vote would be public, that Andira was voting with the cautious eye of a Lancer and not the blind support of a bondmate, that politically it did matter.

She did not expect her to change the topic.

“Dr. Wells has a fascinating hypothesis,” Lhyn said. “She thinks the divine tyree bond is the brain equivalent of a quantum com. That there’s an on-off switch controlled by a series of genes. If you have yours switched on, and you meet a person who is also switched on, and that person happens to have a little brain com that vibrates at exactly the same quantum frequency as yours, then you connect. When your tyree’s brain com vibrates, yours does too. You feel it all, and distance doesn’t matter.”

She pulled her feet off the railing and folded up her legs, turning toward Salomen. “Here’s what I think,” she said earnestly. “If we’re listening to each other’s brain coms, then we have to interpret. Quantum coms are miraculous technology, but they don’t do much if the people communicating through them don’t speak the same language or have a translator program. When I first came to Alsea, I heard everything on your broadcasts, but I couldn’t understand. Not until I pieced together your language.”

Salomen stared at her. “Are you saying I don’t speak the same emotional language as Andira?”

“You do, but there are subtle differences. Language interpretation doesn’t occur in an intellectual vacuum. Our understanding is affected by past experience, knowledge, beliefs and expectations—all of it.”

Salomen was doing her best to keep up, but Lhyn’s brain worked differently. “I know you’re leading me somewhere,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m not following.”

Lhyn looked skyward, the thoughts visible on her face, then leaned forward with a pulse of enthusiasm. “Here’s an example. I was already fluent in High Alsean when we crashed the Caphenon and Andira pulled us out. Then she said something about Returning, and I thought that meant death. I didn’t know those two words weren’t the same thing. You use them interchangeably.”

“True,” Salomen said after a moment’s thought. “I don’t know why, but we do.”

“But in my culture, we don’t have a distinction between death and Returning. Some people believe in what we call an afterlife, but we don’t say ‘she afterlifed.’ We say ‘she died,’ and people who believe in an afterlife can infer that something happened after the death. People who don’t believe in that will take the verb as it is. She died. End of story. Two different interpretations of the same verb, both from fluent speakers. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“Not entirely.” Salomen hated to disappoint her, but Lhyn’s enthusiasm was undimmed.

“My language doesn’t have a verb for Returning. Common doesn’t have a verb for it. I speak thirty-eight languages fluently and fifteen more fairly well, and none of them have that verb. Because of my experience and knowledge, I would never have concluded that ‘Returned’ was a verb meaning ‘stood before Fahla and began a new life on a new plane.’ I had all the data right in front of me, but I couldn’t put it together.”

Understanding bloomed. “I have all the data from Andira’s emotions, but I have to interpret it. And that interpretation is affected by my own experience.”

“Right!” Lhyn sat back in her chair, beaming.

“That . . . makes sense.” Salomen stared at the mountains, needing the visual distance as her thoughts churned. “Did you know that we learn emotional interpretation as children? They teach us in school. Our empathy takes time to develop, so we can only learn about the things we sense.”

“Like learning any language. You start with the basic building blocks and add to it.”

“And the more you add, the more nuances and complications there are.”

“Right! But nuances and complications are what make a language rich. Think about how you could express yourself at the age of eight versus how you can now. You have a vast vocabulary to choose from. A lifetime of experience in the ways different words have different effects and powers. Surely it’s the same for how you sense and interpret emotions?”

It was all falling into place. Where there was nuance and complexity, there was a need for interpretation—and room for misinterpretation. “Why did I never think of it that way? I thought I knew . . .” Her vision sharpened, and she realized what she was looking at. “There it goes.”

“What?”

“Look.” Salomen pointed. “See the clouds moving?”

Lhyn squinted into the distance. “No? Oh, yes, now I do. They’re coming together.”

“They’re coming together and circling,” Salomen corrected. “In about half a hantick, we’re going to have a summer windstorm. If you want to go back to Blacksun, you need to leave now. Otherwise you’ll be here for the night.”

Lhyn frowned at the clouds, then shook her head. “I’m not leaving you. Not now.”

Had the chairs not made it impossible, Salomen would have given her a warmron for that. She settled for taking Lhyn’s hand and squeezing it. “Thank you. But if you’re going to stay, we have work to do.”


37


Summer windstorm

Nikin answered her call immediately. “We see it. Can you lock down the hill? Then we can finish here before running.”

On the tiny vidscreen of her com unit, Salomen saw the crew behind him, their movements hurried and purposeful.

“I can,” she said. “I have help. Will you have time to close up the fanten shelter?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. They’re probably already inside; we’ll just need to throw the latch.”

“Don’t linger, Nikin. You don’t have more than half a hantick.”

He gave her an assured smile. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of being blown to Blacksun. See you at home.”

Salomen slipped the com unit in her pocket and headed for the back door, Lhyn at her heels.

“Father!” she shouted into the dining room.

“I’m not deaf! You can come into the parlor and speak in a civilized tone.”

Lhyn snickered. “Some things really are universal.”

Salomen crossed the room and poked her head through the parlor door to find Shikal in his favorite armchair, book in hand. “Summer windstorm,” she said. “Can you pick up Jaros?”

He stood immediately and tossed the book into the chair. “I’m on my way. Nikin?”

“He’s finishing up. Lhyn and I will take care of things here.” She turned, pushing Lhyn in front of her as the three of them returned to the back deck.

Shikal paused to give Lhyn a stern look. “You stay with Salomen, do you hear me? She knows what she’s doing.”

“I have no intention of straying.”

“Good.” He trotted down the steps and strode for the skimmer barn.

“I’m getting the feeling this is serious,” Lhyn said as she followed Salomen down to the yard.

“It’s not if you’re prepared. If you aren’t, then yes. The first thing we need to do is lock up the outbuildings—oh, Fahla, the Guards. I forgot.”

“You forgot your Guards?”

“Not like that. I wish I could. Ronlin,” she said into her com unit. “There’s a summer windstorm on its way. You need to pull all the Guards back into the bunkhouse and close the storm shields.” She cut off his protest. “I hardly think assassins will be making an attempt in that. If they do, they’ll deserve what they get. I don’t need Guards in my house, thank you.” A firm tap ended the call rather rudely, but there was no time to worry about warrior sensibilities.

“Do I need to move my transport?” Lhyn asked as they hustled toward the equipment building.

“It’s armored; nothing will get through it. But you might get a few dings and scratches if you don’t.”

“It’s not even a day old! I don’t want dings and scratches. Where should I put it?”

“Bottom of the hill on the southeast side. Fewer trees there, and it will be protected from the worst winds by the hill.” Salomen surveyed the gear Nikin and the crew had left by the open double doors. “They were staging for a new project. We need to get this back inside.”

Lhyn picked up the handle of a fully loaded crateskate, activated it, and began pulling it toward the doors. “Where does this go?”

“How do you know how to work that? I never showed you. Put it there.” Salomen pointed toward an open space, then grabbed the handle of a second crateskate and flipped the switch. The rectangular platform rose on its hydraulics, and she pulled a pile of gear twenty times her body weight with the ease provided by the power assist.

“I’ve been spending time in New Haven,” Lhyn said as she maneuvered the crateskate through the doors and toward the area Salomen had indicated. “The Voloth settlers are an anthropologist’s dream. They’re forming a brand new culture, and they’re amazingly happy to talk to me. I helped them do some work and learned that crateskates are fun.”

Salomen laughed. “These are the times when I remember you’re an alien. Crateskates are tools.”

“Why shouldn’t tools be fun?”

They efficiently closed up the outbuildings—except the skimmer barn, which they left open for Nikin’s arrival and Shikal’s return with Jaros—and turned their attention to the deck. Once they had cleared off the furniture and stored it in the protected space beneath, they jumped into Lhyn’s transport for Salomen’s first ride.

“Nice,” she said as Lhyn landed smoothly at the bottom of the hill. “A bit short, though. I expect another later.”

“I should hope so. And I’ll expect more than a one-word reaction.”

They began the walk up the hill, swishing through calf-high grasses.

“When I was nine, I bet Nikin that I could somersault all the way from the top to the bottom,” Salomen said.

Lhyn assessed the distance. “I don’t think you won that bet.”

“But I did. He forgot to put a time limit on it. I never said I’d do it all at once.”

Lhyn’s guffaw rang off the hillside. “No wonder you’re head of the holding! Poor Nikin, thinking he was older and smarter. You must have had him turning in circles.”

“Why are you speaking in past tense?” Salomen shared a chuckle with her and added, “It’s true, I was a double handful. But he always looked out for me. We were a great team.”

They were high enough to see the two skimmers speeding toward them from different directions. “There he is,” she said, pointing. “And that’s Father with Jaros and his Guard.”

“You’re still a great team,” Lhyn said. “All of you. It’s so different from how I grew up. I think Alsean empathy dramatically changes the social dynamics of the family unit. It’s hard for the usual tensions and rivalries to take hold when you can sense each other.”

“They still take hold. Ask Herot. Might be that interpretation aspect you were talking about.”

They reached the top and entered the house through the front door. Salomen locked it and pointed to her right, through the arched doorway that led from the foyer to the parlor. “Will you lower the storm shields on that side? I’ll do this side, and we’ll meet in the dining room.”

Lhyn nodded and stepped through.

Salomen went through the opposite doorway into the office, where sunlight poured through three large windows. On the left side of each was a long, thin panel that concealed the strap-and-pulley system for the storm shield.

She opened the first panel and pulled the strap handle all the way to her shoulder. With a smooth rumble, the storm shield unrolled from its embedded case over the window and dropped a quarter of the way down. She released the strap, letting it snap back into place and reset the pulleys, then pulled it out again. The shield advanced to the halfway point.

Two more pulls had the shield fully extended, and she flipped the lever that locked it in place. The window was now protected by a flexible metal cover studded with small squares of stormlac, which was not quite as clear as glass but had the advantage of being pliable and resistant to impact. It was also costly—though less so now, with the advent of matter printers—which was why the storm shields for the outbuildings didn’t use them.

“Oh!” Lhyn said from the parlor. “These are different.”

“More expensive,” Salomen called out as she moved to the second window. “But worth it. We might be locked in until morning. No one wants to be sitting in a house without a speck of light and no way to see outside.”

“What a clever design.”

Lhyn was probably speaking to herself, but Salomen heard it and smiled. It was one of Lhyn’s most attractive qualities: her happy willingness to find things to admire, despite the technological superiority of her own culture. But as she often said, technological superiority did not translate to cultural superiority, and she was more interested in the latter anyway.

Salomen worked her way through the office and her father’s bedroom, arriving at the dining room via the central hallway at the same time that Lhyn came in from the parlor. Without a word, they started at opposite ends, working swiftly and nearly in tandem.

Lhyn finished her last window and leaped to the next just as Salomen reached for the panel. She pushed Salomen’s hand away and managed to get the door open before Salomen bumped her aside and grabbed the strap, only to be bumped aside in her turn. They were laughing and fighting for the strap handle when the back door opened and Nikin stepped in.

“Hoi, Lhyn, well met,” he said. “I see my sister has regressed again.”

With a shout of triumph, Salomen bumped Lhyn hard enough to bounce her away from the wall. “You may be taller than me, but two grainbirds could carry you off.” She swiftly lowered the storm shield as Lhyn grumbled.

“I think I should get a special qualification. You Alseans have denser muscle mass; it’s not fair.”

“Never mind, you’ve both regressed,” Nikin said.

Lhyn walked over to greet him with a palm touch. “That would imply we ever grew up enough to regress. Well met, Nikin. I heard about the bet you lost some time back. Somersaulting down the hill?”

“Oh, Fahla. She was such a trial. I don’t know how I survived growing up with her. Has she been fighting with you over all the windows and that’s why the upstairs still isn’t done?”

“Lhyn,” Salomen asked in an overly polite voice, “would you please do the kitchen windows while I show Nikin I’m still faster than he is?”

“Last one to finish does the dishes!” Nikin dashed across the room and up the stairs.

“Cheater!” Salomen gave chase, leaving Lhyn laughing in the dining room.

Nikin broke left and vanished into his room. Salomen went right, into what had once been their parents’ room and was now hers and Andira’s.

The six upstairs bedrooms were all wedge-shaped pieces of a pie, separated by a circular hallway from the three bathrooms that made up the inner core. She made it out of the third bedroom on her side at the same time Nikin emerged from his, and they ran for the front staircase in a shoving tangle of arms. She thundered down the wooden stairs and vaulted over the banister to avoid the last three steps.

“Ha!” she shouted as Nikin ran straight into the front door. “My feet touched first! And I was far more graceful.”

“Children.” Shikal’s voice brought them both upright. He stood in the front entry to the parlor, a stern look on his face that did not match his emotions at all. Then he broke into a grin. “You add a cycle to my lifespan every time you play like this.”

“Salomen!” Jaros squeezed around Shikal and rushed over for a warmron, a beaming smile deepening the chin dimple he shared with her. “Father said you were here today. We weren’t expecting you.”

“Last-tick change of plans.” Salomen wrapped him in her arms and absorbed the unfronted strength of his affection.

“Where’s Lancer Tal?”

“She couldn’t come.” It wasn’t a lie, but she still felt guilty and made sure she had no skin contact with him when she said it. Jaros worshipped warriors in general and Andira specifically, and still refused to use anything but her title. He would not react well to knowing that Salomen had forbidden her presence today. Hoping to distract him, she asked, “Are you heartbroken to miss your history class?”

“Ugh. We were going to study the charter of the first unified government. Boring. Lhyn!” He bounced away and slammed into Lhyn’s legs as she emerged from the hallway that bisected the ground floor.

“Hoi, skriddle!” she said, using the word for young boy in her native language. It was his new favorite. “I heard you were going to have a summer windstorm, so I came out to see it for myself.”

“Really?”

“No, but it’s a good reason, isn’t it?”

He nodded. “It got me out of school. But I didn’t get here early enough to help close up.”

“Ah. I think I took your job.”

“And she did it very well,” Salomen said. “If somewhat violently.”

They separated in the foyer, with Jaros and Nikin going upstairs to change, Shikal ducking into the kitchen, and Salomen taking Lhyn out to the back deck.

The Snowmount Range had vanished behind the green-black cloud mass looming over the landscape. It seemed to fill the sky from the ground up, slowly rotating as it menaced toward them. Lightning flickered in its depths, followed by bass rumbles that Salomen felt as much as she heard.

“West to east,” Lhyn noted. “Wow, it’s moving fast.”

“It’s not really moving. It’s sitting at the foot of the mountains and expanding.”

“You’re joking.” After a longer look at the angry clouds, Lhyn swore in Common. “You’re not joking. That is massive.”

“And getting bigger every piptick. We don’t have much time. Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Nothing. The birds and insects have stopped. They’re heading to shelter. We’ll be feeling the outer edge any moment.”

Salomen loved these rare ticks before the storm hit, when the quality of light changed. The hazy air of earlier had sharpened into perfect clarity, outlining every blade of grass on their hilltop and every stem of grain in the north field. The intoxicating scent of petrichor filled her nostrils, telling of rain that had already fallen, and the temperature was dropping by the piptick.

A quiet sigh passed over the landscape, gently ruffling the grasses.

“Time to go,” Salomen said.

“Why? It hasn’t started yet.”

“Oh, yes it has.” She tugged Lhyn’s sleeve. “Come on.”

“But I don’t—what is that?”

That was a sight she recognized, a shimmering curtain of movement. “Lhyn, come on. Now!”

It was only six steps to the back door. They had taken three when a flying branch smashed into the edge of the deck, breaking into a hundred pieces of wooden shrapnel that skidded across the planks and bounced off the side of the house.

“Fucking stars!” Lhyn darted through the door, followed closely by Salomen, who shut it just as the first hailstones began to ping off the deck roof.

Staring out through a square of stormlac in the nearest window, Lhyn radiated bafflement. “Where did that come from? Those clouds are nowhere near us!”

“No, but they’ll throw things long before they get here.” Salomen was a little breathless; that branch had been too close for comfort. Then she let out a snort of laughter. “You’re fast when you’re motivated. Next cycle, you should enter the Global Games instead of watching them.”

“Very funny. Do they have a ten-stride sprint? That’s the only one I could win.”

“I bet you could win the hundred-stride as long as I was behind you, throwing things.” She wrapped an arm around Lhyn’s waist and chuckled at her theatrical grumbles.

The wind arrived, a low moan that rose in pitch as the light dimmed. Within five ticks, the occasional ping of hail had become a rattle and the small stones bounced merrily in the short grass of the yard. Something heavy slammed into the wall, probably another branch, and a rushing sound announced the arrival of the rain.

“Wow,” Lhyn said. “I’d hate to be out in that.”

Jaros came clattering down the back stairs into the dining room. “It’s going to be a big one,” he pronounced gravely.

“Going to be? It looks pretty big already.”

“This is just the start.” He puffed up, pleased to be imparting wisdom. “Did you know that the first houses the Wandering King built in Blacksun Basin were square? That was how they built them where he came from. And then they had their first summer windstorm, and the houses all blew apart. Boof!” He put his hands together and threw them apart, imitating an explosion. “They built them round after that to deflect the wind.”

“How interesting! I knew it was a traditional design, but I love learning the reason behind traditions.”

They sat at the table to discuss historical housing design and other tidbits Jaros knew from school, and Salomen had a moment of private awe. Her little brother was happily talking to an alien in their dining room. Who would have imagined this a cycle ago?

Shikal came out of the kitchen with snacks, and the five of them gathered for an impromptu meal. Their conversation increased in volume as the wind rose from a moan to a shout and finally to a shriek, and the room grew so dark that Nikin turned on the lights. Lhyn was up and down from her chair like a ball at a wallball game, constantly checking the view. She nearly levitated when a long series of bangs indicated a flurry of debris being flung into their house, and Salomen told of the time a neighbor had been shingling his roof and lost his supply of shingles. “Every one of them must have hit our house,” she said. “We could hardly think for the noise.”

“We were picking up those shingles for a moon afterward,” Nikin added. “I found some tangled up in tree branches over by the Silverrun, in the southeast corner. They must have flown twenty lengths.”

By the time the snacks vanished, their lush green hilltop was dusted in white, the hailstones having collected themselves into a tattered blanket. The trees were in furious motion, looking as if they would uproot and fly away any moment, and the normally expansive view now ended at the edge of the hill. They were an island in the center of a black sea of screaming wind and horizontal rain.

“At least the hail stopped,” Lhyn observed. “Doesn’t this play havoc with your crops?”

Salomen shook her head. “Our summer crops are windstorm tolerant. That’s why we grow fewer varieties in the summer than we do in other seasons.”

“Anyone who wants to grow summer exotics does it in glasshouses,” Shikal said.

Jaros, ever the font of school learning, piped up. “A long time ago, when we all had to do what the kings and queens said, a king ordered the producers to grow different summer crops that he brought from Pallea. He thought they’d fetch a higher market price and he’d get more taxes.”

“I’m guessing that didn’t go well,” Lhyn said.

“Tell her what we call that winter,” Shikal prompted.

“The Winter of Want.”

“Nope, didn’t go well at all.” She flinched as something cracked against the wall. “Kings could be idiots, couldn’t they?”

“That’s why we have Lancers,” Jaros said wisely.

“And Bondlancers.” Nikin made a show of cringing at Salomen’s scowl. “Time to clean up!”

One effect of a summer windstorm was to force the normally active Opahs to sit down and take care of disliked indoor chores. Lhyn helped Jaros with his homework—largely by asking so many questions that he taught himself by teaching her—while Nikin invited Salomen to the office to help him finish the moon’s accounting.

“It’s odd how this never gets done except when I’m home,” Salomen noted.

“A strange coincidence,” Nikin agreed, handing over a stack of receipts.

She looked through the ridiculously thick pile. “Have you been saving these for half the cycle?”

“Silly question. How could I? You did the accounting last moon.” He began sorting another stack.

“And the moon before that, and the moon before that. Father!” she called. “Since I’m doing all the accounting, don’t you think Nikin should take over my speaking duties in the Granelle caste house?”

“That seems fair,” Shikal said from the other end of the office.

Nikin grabbed the stack out of Salomen’s hand and pulled the reader card over to his side of the desk. “Fine. You sort the receipts and I’ll do this.”

Salomen gave him a smug look and laughed when he flashed a rude hand gesture. Still chuckling, she began her much easier task.

When both homework and accounting were done, Jaros poured himself a fruit juice and Shikal emptied a bottle of spirits into four glasses. Properly fortified, they sat in the parlor to listen to the storm and Lhyn’s stories about New Haven. The community she described sounded strangely normal and not at all like an enclave of beaten invaders.

“It’s hard to study,” Lhyn said. “I mean, hard on the heart. They’re a new culture and a dying one at the same time.”

“Why are they dying?” Jaros wanted to know. He, Shikal, and Nikin were occupying armchairs facing the couch shared by Salomen and Lhyn.

“They aren’t; their culture is. They can’t have children unless the Council allows it.”

“And that will never happen,” Shikal told his son.

Lhyn nodded. “They’ll die out in one generation. But I think they’ll hit a critical point long before that. They’re too isolated. Unless they find a way to integrate into Alsean society, they’ll collapse under internal stresses.”

“Do you think they’ll find it?” Salomen asked. “Rax Sestak certainly made people think when he forgave his attackers.”

“I don’t know. I think it will be fascinating to watch. And probably tragic.”

“May I ask a difficult question?” Nikin waited for Lhyn to nod before continuing cautiously. “How can you study the Voloth when they caused so much harm? With your personal experience . . .” He trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.

“It wasn’t the Voloth who tortured me,” Lhyn said bluntly. “One thing I’ve learned is that there’s a difference between people who commit evil acts because they’re trained to do it, and people who commit them because they enjoy it.”

That was pure Lhyn Rivers, Salomen thought. Her thirst for knowledge extended even to things anyone else would want to avoid. Lanaril said that was how Lhyn dealt with her experience: by breaking it down to data she could learn from. It was also why she never shied from the word torture. Ever the linguist, she had explained that normalizing it stripped away its emotional context and therefore its power.

She had even explained her torture to a curious Jaros—who had read about it in the public declaration of her Alsean citizenship—by saying it was a particularly painful form of bullying. Salomen had been there for that conversation, ready to step in if it got too difficult for either of them, but Jaros simply nodded and said that the only way to treat bullies was to hit them back just as hard.

“I hit harder,” Lhyn told him. “I’m free and happy, and he’s in prison for the rest of his life. The person who hired him is locked up, too. I put them there.”

“Speedy,” Jaros had said with an approving grin, and that was that.

The conversation moved on from the Voloth, with Jaros asking about the new battle group in orbit and Nikin wanting to know what Ekatya thought of the rear admiral in charge of it.

“Not much,” Lhyn said, and regaled them with tales of ego and bureaucracy that rivaled anything Salomen saw in the State House. Jaros was full of questions and Lhyn patiently answered them, but Salomen sensed a growing unease in her as the afternoon shifted to evening and the darkness outside became absolute.

They put Jaros to bed together, a job Salomen looked forward to on the nights she was home. Here on the second floor, with no wraparound deck roof to deflect it, the rain lashed against the storm shields and the wind shrieked more loudly. Though Lhyn grew more unsettled by the tick, she masked it behind a smile and a quip to Jaros about his skill at sleeping through anything.

A hantick later, while being shown to the guest room she would sleep in, Lhyn’s disquiet turned to dread and Salomen could keep silent no longer.

“What is wrong? You’ve been hiding it all evening.”

Lhyn wrapped her arms around her torso, shrinking into a smaller version of her usual animated self. “I hate this.”

“Tell me.”

Her sigh sounded like defeat. “I can’t see. Outside. There’s nothing, not a single star. It’s just . . . nothing.”

Understanding hit at last. Lhyn’s torturer had held her in a windowless room to destroy her sense of time.

“Oh, Lhyn, I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about it. I should have—”

“No. No, you shouldn’t. I like that you forgot. I want everyone to forget. Shek, I want to forget. But I can’t, and I—” She glanced over at the window and shook her head.

“You’re not sleeping here.” Salomen seized her wrist and pulled her down the hallway. “You’re sleeping with me.”

The emotions tumbled off her skin, abject gratitude mixed with shame and a rising sense of no, and Salomen cut that off before it could reach the verbal stage.

“Don’t even think of saying no. You need it, I’m fine with it, you’re not an inconvenience, and I want you to stay here. Does that cover all the objections?”

The relief was palpable as Lhyn offered a tremulous smile. “Yes. Thank you.”

They took turns in the bathroom across the hall and climbed into the spacious bed together, the room glowing in the low light of twin lamps. Salomen turned on her side, propping her head in her hand. Lhyn matched her pose and didn’t flinch when Salomen reached out to touch her face.

“I’m always fascinated by this.” Salomen ran her fingertips over the smooth skin. “That you don’t have any ridges.”

Lhyn’s wide green eyes crinkled. “You’re distracting me.”

“Is it working?”

“Yes. May I?”

“You may indeed touch the Bondlancer,” Salomen said grandly.

Lhyn snickered. “I don’t think I’m in bed with the Bondlancer.” She touched a cheekbone ridge, then traced her three forehead ridges, one at a time. With a swell of interest, she repeated the movements. “I’ve only felt Rahel before this. Her ridges are broader than yours.”

“She’s bigger boned than I am.” Salomen held still, careful not to let her triumph show. Lhyn had forgotten to be afraid.

“Why are your forehead ridges so soft when your cheekbone ridges are like rocks?”

“For easier Sharing, I suppose. It’s where the empathic network is densest.”

“Hm.” Lhyn probed gently, absorbed in her explorations. “You touch foreheads as an intimate gesture. I thought it was because it’s part of the Sharing positioning. Was I wrong? Is it because of the empathic network?”

“I’m not sure you can separate the two. One leads to the other.” Salomen slid her hand along Lhyn’s jaw. “There’s some empathic sensitivity here, too, and on the back of the neck. And of course, over the heart. But this—it’s half of the hand positioning for a Sharing. An intimate gesture.”

Holding Salomen’s hand against her face, Lhyn said, “For us, too. But not for any physiological reasons I can think of.”

“Isn’t it interesting how we arrive at some of the same gestures for different reasons?”

“Fascinating, actually.” She tugged Salomen’s hand down and squeezed it. “Thank you for this. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the night.”

“You should have said something. How could you possibly think I’d be able to sleep, feeling that from you?”

A smile brightened her face. “Very selfish of me, I’d say.”

“Quite.” Salomen stared at their clasped hands. “I’ve just realized that I’m a hypocrite.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m perfectly at ease sharing a bed with you, and I know Andira won’t care. But I—” She forced herself to look up. “I wouldn’t be comfortable knowing she was sharing a bed with Ekatya.”

“They do have a special connection,” Lhyn said easily.

Relieved at her understanding, Salomen blurted, “Doesn’t it ever bother you?”

“No, because I know those two wouldn’t do anything without written permission from us. In triplicate.”

The laugh was so unexpected that she choked on it. “Fahla, you’re right. They’re both so honorable.”

“If they had to share a bed, they’d probably compete with each other to see who could build the biggest, strongest wall of pillows between them.”

Salomen rolled onto her back and covered her face as she laughed. “I can see it! They’d sleep on top of the covers.”

“With their boots on.” Lhyn’s voice was breaking.

“Andira would wear her breastplate.”

“Ekatya would be in her dress uniform. Probably armed.”

They howled with mirth, and when they wound down, Salomen said, “I miss her.”

“Good. Can she feel it?”

“Yes, but I don’t know if she can interpret it properly—oh. She is.” Andira’s hurt and worry had nibbled at the edges of her awareness all day, and though the hurt was still there, the worry now abated. Relaxing, Salomen added, “We’re all right now.”

“Just like that? Shek, I’m envious.”

“Well, we still have a lot to talk about. But I think we’ll both sleep tonight.” She hesitated. “Remember when you said Ekatya takes love as her birthright?”

“Mm-hm?”

“Why don’t I? I grew up with that kind of love, too. I knew my parents loved me. I felt it.”

A particularly strong gust of wind shrieked around the house, flinging rain so forcefully that she could hear it against the wall.

“I’m only guessing,” Lhyn said. “You kept a secret all your life. Maybe you thought they couldn’t truly love you if they didn’t know you.”

Salomen rolled over and stared. Lhyn was still gazing at the ceiling, but soon turned her head.

“Am I wrong?”

“I don’t think so. Fahla, I never considered that. Not consciously.” The memory rose, fresh and still strong enough to make her heart beat faster. “When I told my family about my high empathy, Father said he needed to build a new picture of me, but it didn’t mean he loved me any less. I was so relieved when he said that, because I could sense the truth of it. He loved me just the same. It was so overwhelming that I didn’t think about the other part of it.”

“That he didn’t know you before?”

She nodded. “Or maybe I didn’t think about it because it confirmed what I’d always believed.”

But Andira knew her through and through, every part of her.

She looked at Lhyn and realized that Andira had not shifted stars and soil just to save Ekatya. She had done it for Lhyn, too. And now Salomen was sharing a bed with her, having not even given it a second thought, and Fahla, she really was a hypocrite.

“They’re not the only ones who have a special connection,” she said.

Lhyn took the non sequitur in stride, smiling as she slid a hand forward. “I’m glad to hear you say that.”

Salomen covered her hand. “This is not where I expected to be when I woke up this morning.”

“Literally and figuratively, right? It certainly has been an interesting day.” Lhyn frowned as another violent gust vibrated the storm shield. “I’m ready for that to be over now.”

“It will blow itself out by morning. Shall we turn out the lights?” At the instant nervousness, she added, “I meant my light. You can leave yours on.”

“You’re a bad liar, but thank you.”

Lhyn rolled over and waved her hand down the length of the bedside lamp, reducing it to a bare glow as Salomen deactivated hers. The room took on a comforting ambiance more conducive to sleep, but she could not turn off her brain as easily as she did the light. It kept replaying the High Council meeting, one moment in particular, and she was never going to sleep if she didn’t get it out of her head.

“Lhyn?”

“Hm?”

“May I confess something?”

“Sure. I’m not Lanaril, but I’ll do my best.”

Salomen gazed up at the wooden beam that bisected the sloped ceiling. “In that meeting today, I kept thinking about how unfair it is that two people can ruin so many lives. The Prime Scholar and Prime Warrior will block any reform forever, but none of the affected castes can do a thing about it because they don’t elect those Primes. There I was, supposedly responsible like a head of the Alsean family, but I had no power at all.” She swallowed. “And then I thought, I do have power. I could use empathic force. I could have forced both of them to agree. I could have saved all the Rusills.”

Lhyn said nothing, but she was neither shocked nor afraid. She was simply . . . focused.

At last she rolled over and said, “You didn’t do it.”

Salomen matched her position. “No, but I thought about it.”

“Were you tempted?”

“For a piptick.”

Lhyn nodded. “Remember when my secret came out? About the brain damage, and Andira was so angry with me? She said she couldn’t apologize for her emotions because she couldn’t help having them.”

“I remember.”

“You can’t help what you think, Salomen. No one can judge you for that. We can only judge you for your acts. You didn’t do it.”

Oddly, that didn’t make her feel better. “And now I have to live with the knowledge that I could save them, but I’m choosing not to.”

“That’s the right choice and you know it. If you acted on that, you’d be making yourself into Fahla.”

“You don’t believe in Fahla.”

“I’m not so firm in my non-belief since I lit up a molwyn tree.” Lhyn smiled at her. “But I believe in you.”


38


Strategy

Salomen leaned on the railing of the back deck, a steaming cup of shannel at her elbow, and watched Lhyn and Jaros make a game of picking up storm debris. The trees around their hilltop were all Basin natives and adapted to summer windstorms, but they still shed leaves, twigs, and occasional branches. And judging by the amount of binding twine scattered across the grass, the neighbors hadn’t gotten their harvesting gear under cover in time.

The air was washed so clean that it seemed she could reach out and touch the Snowmount Range, and the sky was the crystalline, vibrant blue that only occurred after a summer windstorm. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with pure wonder, and thought that yesterday’s difficult morning might have been worth it for this.

“She’s an overgrown child, just like you.” Nikin set his cup next to hers and rested his forearms on the railing. “No wonder Jaros loves her.”

“I feel sorry for people who forget how to be children.” She bumped him with her hip. “Which is why I never feel sorry for you.”

“Herot forgot, I think.”

Jaros raced Lhyn to a large branch, then let out a screech when she grabbed him by the waist and hauled him back. “Cheater!” he cried, laughing.

“I think so, too,” Salomen said. “It started with Mother’s illness.”

Nikin sipped his shannel. “Did you know he’s studying soil science?”

“No!” She turned to face him. “He didn’t mention that on my last visit.”

“I think he didn’t want to tell you until he had something to show for it. To impress you.”

“As if I wouldn’t value the fact that he’s trying.” She returned to watching her other younger brother. “Do you ever feel like we caused that? We’re such a team, you and I. He was never part of that.”

“I’m not going to blame myself for his choices. You shouldn’t either. Stop taking responsibility for the world.”

She gave a short laugh. “That’s in my job description.”

“That’s Andira’s job description, not yours.”

She shook her head but did not correct him.

He set his cup down and turned, leaning a hip against the rail and shoving his hands into his pockets. “There’s something I wanted to tell you, but I never got you alone yesterday.”

“That sounds serious.” Except, she realized, it wasn’t. He was exuding excitement, anticipation, a little bit of embarrassment, and . . .

“Nikin. Have you met someone?”

The embarrassment grew. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of Father. He’ll be counting his grandchildren before I’ve finished courting.”

“You’re courting?” She clapped a hand over her mouth, dismayed at how loudly that had come out. “Sorry,” she whispered. “How did I not know that?”

“It just started. And you’ve been preoccupied.” He held up a finger. “Don’t you dare feel guilty about that.”

“Caught,” she admitted. “I’ll try not to. Who is it?”

“Marinda Remor.”

“Great Goddess above, no wonder you don’t want to say anything to Father!”

The largest holding in the district was formerly owned by Gordense Bilsner, a dokker’s backside of a man whose son had attempted to assassinate Andira. Salomen resisted the urge to turn and look up at the window his devastating plasma shot had gone through. It had destroyed the room she now slept in and would have killed her had Andira not sensed the danger in time.

The Bilsners, publicly shamed and unable to do business in Granelle any longer, had put their holding up for sale. Andira offered to help buy it, and Salomen, Nikin, and Shikal had discussed it for several days. They concluded that doubling the size of their holding was unsustainable with Herot in prison and Salomen taking on the mantle of Bondlancer.

The new owners were the Remors, a family of five whose eldest daughter, Marinda, was in training to be head of the holding. Though Salomen had only met her a few times at the caste house, her impression was of a smart and pragmatic woman who had more ethics in her little finger than Gordense Bilsner had in his entire body.

Nikin kicked a broken twig off the deck, his cheeks a little too pink to be blamed on yesterday’s sun. “I’d like to enjoy the courtship. We both want the time and peace to know each other better before our parents start planning the merger. And it would be a merger,” he added with a nod toward the east.

“No joke. Won’t that be ironic, if we double the size of our holding after all.” Salomen put her hands on her hips. “I’m planting my banner right now. This land can never be called anything but Hol-Opah. I don’t care if theirs is larger or how wonderful Marinda might be, I am not living on Hol-Remor.”

“I already told her that. She said she couldn’t imagine putting our land under her family name. You intimidate her.”

“What? I was nice to her at the caste house!” She frowned. “Is it the Bondlancer title?”

“Since when did you need a title to be intimidating? You were practicing for that when you were ten.”

“Fair point,” she conceded. “When will you tell Father?”

“The day before the bonding ceremony?”

“Coward. You know I won’t let you do that.”

“I know.” He turned back toward the yard, where Jaros was now chasing Lhyn, and sipped his shannel. “Give me another moon and I’ll see how the ground looks.”

“A peaceful courtship conducted in anonymity. I envy you.” She picked up her cup and studied him. They had the same dark brown eyes and hair, though she often teased him about the number of silver strands he sported these days. He and Herot were birthed by Shikal, while she and Jaros came from their mother and had inherited both her chin dimple and her fearlessness. Nikin had their father’s quiet strength and calm outlook on life.

“I could wish you’d had the same chance,” he said. “But then I remember, you’re not meant for anonymity.”

“But I am,” she protested. “I’m happy right here.”

“You were lonely right here.”

She had no argument for that. “Well,” she said in a bright tone, “let me know when you’re ready to truly intimidate her and I’ll invite you both to the State House.”

He shook his head and bumped her shoulder, almost making her spill her shannel. Then Lhyn chased Jaros onto the deck and their quiet morning was ended.

Uprising

Salomen flew back to Blacksun with Lhyn, to the visible dismay of Guard Demerah. Fortunately, Ronlin took her aside for what Salomen assumed was a reminder of who set the rules. If he hadn’t, she would have. It was bad enough that she and Lhyn would be closely followed by a military transport; she refused to countenance the thought of a Guard in the back seat. Besides, as Lhyn pointed out, the whole purpose of her armored transport was to make such close protection unnecessary.

Other than a demand for the proper admiration of her shiny new craft, Lhyn made no attempt at conversation. The peace and privacy freed Salomen to think about her conversation with Nikin, and she drifted into a daydream of the moment their father learned of the match. Nikin was right; grandchildren would be his very first thought.

Her pleasant daydreams were jolted by the realization that at least one of Nikin’s children might be a high empath. She didn’t know how she had gotten her strength, but something in their parents’ genes obviously carried the potential. Though Nikin was a mid empath, that didn’t mean he couldn’t pass that same potential to his children. And if he had a high empath child . . .

Heat prickled up her spine and out to her fingertips, her body preparing to fight at the mere thought of Nikin’s innocent child being subject to the same limitations she had been—but with no chance of rescue.

As would her own children, she realized. Though she and Andira had not yet discussed timing, they had already agreed to birth two children each. With two of the most highly rated empaths on the planet as parents, those children were almost certain to inherit their strength.

She didn’t believe for a piptick that revisiting the caste question at some later date would bear fruit. Regardless of the support Andira and the Prime Producer might offer, it still came down to the Prime Warrior and Prime Scholar. They would always vote no.

In a dreadful moment of clarity, she saw herself telling her children that they could not be producers because the law wouldn’t allow it. She saw the looks of devastation, the broken hearts, the cries of But it’s not fair, and somehow the faces of her future children turned into Rusill.

And then she saw a path forward.

She had tried the governmental route. She had used her title to access the top of the power structure and been struck down.

Perhaps, then, it was time to access the bottom of the power structure.

Uprising

Back in her quarters, Salomen dropped her bag on the bed and crossed to the large vidcom on the dining area wall. She didn’t even get it activated before sensing Andira’s approach.

Either she had timed her arrival perfectly, or Andira had cut short a meeting to see her.

She opened the door and leaned against the jamb.

Andira came around the corner of their private corridor a tick later, her neutral expression reflecting the caution that tempered her hope. “I wasn’t expecting you back today.”

“Did a lot of thinking.” Salomen held out a hand and smiled when Andira took it without hesitation. She drew her in, closed the door behind them, and wrapped her in a tight warmron. “I missed you,” she said, pressing her cheek against the side of Andira’s head. “It took all day to get to that point, but I missed you.”

“I missed you the moment you left.”

“I’m sorry I left that way.”

“Does this mean I’m not toxic to you now?” Andira did not raise her head as she asked, an act of self-protection that made Salomen’s heart ache.

“That was . . . not the best choice of words.”

“But was it a true choice?”

“It was true then.” She would rather have offered a compassionate lie, but their bond made that impossible. “That doesn’t mean I should have said it. It’s not true now.”

“It hurt.”

“I know. We hurt each other.”

“I didn’t know you felt that way.” Andira pulled back enough to meet her eyes. “How could I not know that? The day after our bonding ceremony, when I told you about Sharing with them—you understood then. You knew she wasn’t your competition. And then we found such harmony in our foursome Sharings . . . what changed?”

She didn’t know how to explain. “I lost faith,” she said at last. “I watched you play high-stakes politics on a galactic level for her, and then—” She shook her head, unable to find the words.

“And then I wouldn’t do it for you? Don’t you know I’d give you anything I could? But the one thing you want is the one thing I—”

“Do not finish that sentence.” Salomen was not yet far enough from yesterday’s betrayal to be entirely reasonable. “Don’t tell me it’s not in your power. It is. You’re just choosing not to exercise it.” She sighed and admitted, “As I chose not to exercise mine. I could have empathically forced them.”

To her credit, Andira’s shock lasted only a piptick before being snuffed out by assurance. “You would never do that.”

“No, but it leaves us where we are. You won’t do it, I won’t do it, and all the Rusills suffer for our ethics.”

Andira hesitated, then spoke too carefully. “I know how much you mourn the Rusills. But in this moment, I’m more concerned about your loss of faith. I do love Ekatya. You know that. But it’s a different love. It’s always been a different love.”

She was blaming herself, Salomen realized. Nashta had left Shikal in a field to walk home and work out that his self-doubts were his own problem, but that was not in Andira’s nature. She would take responsibility, try to fix it, and castigate herself for any lack of success.

Overcome by a need to ease the burden she had caused, Salomen tangled their fingers together and nudged her one step back, against the door. Slowly, she pulled up and out until Andira’s arms were outstretched and pressed against the carved wood. Nuzzling into the fragrant column of her throat, she kissed her way from collar to jaw, then around and up to an ear.

Andira’s breath hitched, her worry eclipsed by an unexpected jolt of arousal that traveled through them both.

In response, Salomen moved down to take her mouth in a passionate kiss. Though Andira returned it ardently, her hands remained loose, and her arms did not tense against the possessive hold.

“Tyrina,” she murmured, eyes closed. There was such need in her voice, echoed in her emotions, that Salomen let go and began undoing her belt.

“Wait. Shek, I want this, but—” Andira dropped her head against the wood with a thunk. “I’m in a meeting. I told them we’re taking a ten-tick break.”

“That gives me seven ticks.” Salomen freed the shirt and slid her hands upward.

“Fahla! Salomen, I cannot—” With a surge of despairing determination, Andira pushed her to arm’s length. “You know I’d rather stay here.”

She sighed. “I do. I should have called first.”

“I’ll come back at midmeal.” Andira leaned forward and gave her a frustratingly gentle kiss. Resting their foreheads together, she added, “Then I’ll convince you that you have nothing to worry about.”

“I know there’s nothing to worry about.” Salomen stepped away and crossed to the bed, very aware of Andira tucking in her shirt as she followed. “I’m feeling much better about you and Ekatya after taking Lhyn to my bed.”

“What? You did what?”

She pulled the shawl from her bag and went around Andira to the organizer. “Isn’t that why you sent her out? We spent the night together. It was lovely.”

Andira’s eyes were the size of shannel saucers, but they soon narrowed. “You are kicking the dokshin.”

“That’s a disgusting phrase. Why would I joke about sleeping with Lhyn?” Salomen bent to put the shawl on its shelf.

“I’m not hearing the word ‘joining.’ And I didn’t sense passion last night. Deep intimacy, but not passion.”

She closed the glass door and straightened, giving up the tease. “We had the storm shields down. Once night fell, she couldn’t see out any of the windows.”

“Oh, no.” Andira understood immediately. “She felt trapped.”

“And like a grainbird, she tried to hide it. I had to drag it out of her. But she only needed company. She was fine as soon as she knew she wouldn’t be alone.” Salomen reached for her hand. “I realized something last night. We all have our own connections. All four of us. Perhaps I just needed to know that I have a place in that, besides the one I have with you.”

“I don’t know how you didn’t already know that. But if yesterday was what it took for you to understand, then it was worth it.” Andira kissed her wrist and regretfully let go. “I have to get back.”

“Wait, before you go—I understand the other, too. About it not being personal. We’re not always going to be on the same side. We have to find a way to keep that out of here.” Her gesture took in their quarters.

“Agreed. We’ll talk at midmeal?”

“We will.”

Salomen watched her leave and wished that for once in their lives, they could ignore their responsibilities and simply take care of each other.

“Shek,” she said aloud. It was a profanity she rarely used, but nothing else seemed appropriate.

When she had finished unpacking, she changed into clothes suitable for her office and walked downstairs.

“Bondlancer!” Her aide stepped out from behind his desk. “I wasn’t expecting you today.”

“I’m not here for the full day. Do you have access to the standard media contract?”

“Er—yes, I can get that.”

“I want you to send one to the journalist who handled the Gaian divine tyree story.”

“Deme Cort?” he asked, using the honorific for a secular scholar.

“Yes, thank you, I forgot his name. Invite him for an exclusive interview with me.”

“That normally goes through the office of the communications advisor—”

“Not this time,” Salomen said firmly. “I would ask for your discretion as well.”

There were some advantages to being the Bondlancer, she thought when Deme Cort showed up at her office not one hantick later. He was a short, somewhat soft man with thin lips and shrewd eyes. She met his palm and invited him to sit in one of the comfortable chairs by the windows.

“I was surprised to receive your invitation,” he said, accepting the cup of shannel she offered. “Of course I’m willing to delay publication until the date you specified. Though you certainly have me curious as to the importance of that date.”

“It’s after the publication of the latest High Council votes and right before I step onstage at the Whitesun producer caste house.”

“And now I’m even more intrigued.”

“Then let me tell you a story.” Salomen set her cup on the side table. “After my speech in Blacksun, I met a little girl . . .”


39


Explosion

“I assume you knew nothing about this.” Communications Advisor Miltorin stormed into Tal’s office, reader card in hand.

“About what?”

“Your bondmate’s exclusive interview with the Blacksun Spotlight. This will blow up my office! I’m surprised Aldirk isn’t breathing fire right—”

“What in the name of Fahla is this?” Chief Counselor Aldirk appeared, also waving a reader card. “Why wasn’t I informed? This is a radical change in messaging! How could—”

“Settle, please!” Tal said loudly. “Thank you. Since I have no idea what either of you are talking about, would someone please enlighten me?”

Miltorin and Aldirk looked at each other.

“Today?” she added.

Miltorin tapped his reader card. “I’ve sent you the file. We’ll wait outside.”

They vanished out the door together, leaving Tal frowning after them. If they anticipated such a reaction from her that they didn’t want to be in the same room with it, this was not going to be good.

She read the opening paragraph in a state of disbelief, which soon gave way to wrath. The interview was long, detailed, and damning, a warhead set off in her own camp by her own bondmate. Her eyes had barely passed over the last word when she threw the reader card onto her desk and called Salomen.

“That didn’t take long,” Salomen said by way of greeting.

“How could you?” Tal could barely speak a coherent sentence. “I told you why this was not the time. You’ve thrown a bomb into a field of summer-dry tinder. This will set Alsea on fire!”

“Perhaps I have more faith in Alseans than you do. I trust them with the truth.”

“No, the truth is what you left out of that interview! Arabisar and I both said we would work on this when the time was right. You’ve made us look like obstructionists. You’ve betrayed me and your Prime! What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that the people should have a voice. A voice the current system doesn’t give them.”

“Oh, and you’ve elected yourself to be that voice?”

“No, Andira. They hardly need someone else making their choices for them.”

How dare she make it sound like Tal was the unreasonable one?

“Making their choices for them is what they elect the Council to do! And the High Council, and me. How long do you think Alsea would function if every individual had to agree on every little detail about our laws? It’s called government for a reason!”

“How exactly is it governing when the High Council won’t even let the question pass to the Council? We producers didn’t get to elect the Prime Warrior or the Prime Scholar. Neither did three other castes. Why should two people we didn’t elect have the power to prevent a question from even being discussed?”

“I cannot believe you did this. You—”

“I told a true story and shared my feelings about it. That you consider my truth a betrayal is something you should probably think about. I have to go.”

“Don’t you dare,” Tal snarled. “We’re not done.”

“But I am. I have a speech to give. Andira, please understand. This is not personal. It’s politics.”

She ended the call, leaving Tal speechless. Salomen had chosen her last words carefully, a pointed message that was all too clear. And though a tiny, rational part of Tal understood the truth of that message, the rest of her was too furious to give it much heed.

Uprising

Tal brought Miltorin and Aldirk into her office to watch the speech. The significance of the article being published immediately before Salomen’s Whitesun appearance did not escape any of them. It was her first speech to receive live coverage. She had timed this for maximum exposure.

Halfway through, Tal’s aide announced that Prime Producer Arabisar was in the antechamber.

She came in blazing, then stopped when she saw the three of them watching the vidscreen. “Your faces answer my first question.”

“I had no idea,” Tal said. “It was a preemptive strike.”

“From a producer.” Miltorin hadn’t yet recovered from the shock. “How did she know how?”

“Had the law worked the way it should, she would have been a scholar,” Aldirk noted. “And a worthy addition to our caste.”

“Did you have other questions?” Tal asked. “I doubt I can answer those, either.”

Arabisar took a seat and watched Salomen on stage. “She’s forced my hand. When the journalists swarm my office, and they’re probably already there, I’ll have to change my vote. I can’t be seen by my caste as going up against the Bondlancer on a question like this. I still agree with you, and I think this is a disaster. But as of now, it’s a disaster I have to support.”

“I understand.”

“But you cannot change yours,” Aldirk said.

Tal shook her head, watching Salomen flash a smile as the Whitesun producers laughed at the end of her story. “No, I cannot. It’s still the correct vote, but more importantly—”

“You can’t be seen as being led by your bondmate,” Miltorin finished. “It would undermine confidence in this government.”

“She’s forced my hand as well,” Tal said, overlooking his rudeness. “Even if the time were right, mine would have to be the last vote to change.”

“Does she realize that?” Arabisar asked.

“I’m sure she doesn’t.” Twenty-five ticks of watching Salomen, seeing her facial expressions and sensing the way she connected with her audience, had tamed Tal’s fury into a lower level of anger. She understood why Salomen had done it. She even felt a grudging admiration for it. But it was going to unleash a political nightmare.

When Salomen concluded her speech and opened the question and answer period, the microphone flew to an older man who said, “Bondlancer Opah, let me be the first to thank you for saying what so many of us have said for generations. It’s not right, it has never been right that our high empaths are stolen from us!”

The audience burst into applause and shouts of approval.

Tal covered her face with one hand and watched through her fingers. “Oh, Fahla.”

“It will be like this in all the producer caste houses,” Arabisar warned. “I guarantee it. That’s why I have to change my vote.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Salomen said. “I spoke for what I thought was the opinion of my caste, but it’s good to hear from this applause that I wasn’t wrong about your beliefs.”

That inspired a bigger wave of applause as the producers demonstrated exactly how much they approved.

“I have scholars in my family,” a younger woman said when the microphone reached her. “They’ll say you only did this because the law affects you. What can I tell them?”

“You can tell them I’m beyond the reach of this law. No one is going to force me into the scholar caste now. I was born a producer and I’ll die a producer. What motivation could I have for trying to change a law that can no longer affect me?”

The auditorium was silent as every producer waited for her answer.

“I’m doing it for our children,” Salomen said.

“She’s good.” Miltorin shook his head as the auditorium rang with whistles and applause.

“She’s been speaking in her caste house since she was eighteen,” Tal said. “She knows what she’s doing. In this part, at least.”

“I broke a little girl’s heart when I told her I couldn’t change that law,” Salomen continued. “It’s haunted me ever since. And I thought, if that hurt, how much more will it hurt to break my own children’s hearts? Mine will break right along with them. As I’m sure has happened to some of you, who have seen your children ripped from our caste.”

“Yes!” shouted a man near the front. Though he was nowhere near a microphone, his voice was loud enough to be picked up by Salomen’s. “Yes, a thousand times yes!”

Salomen motioned for the operator to send the roving microphone forward, and it soon hovered over the standing man. He spoke, breathless with emotion, his words spilling out as if he couldn’t say them quickly enough.

“My bondmate is a high empath scholar and we have three children. Two of them inherited her empathy. But they both want to be producers. The first time one of them asked me and I had to tell him . . . I had to crush him . . . the law is wrong! How can anything be right when it forces us to hurt our children?”

It went on in that vein, with stories of trauma visited upon children, friends, or other family. Producers of all ages complained about the caste’s loss of high empaths and repeatedly used the word “stolen.” They expressed anger at the two castes responsible for that theft, and the longer it went, the angrier they became.

Tal felt the moment when Salomen realized the mood was climbing too high.

“It’s spiraling,” Miltorin said. “She knows it. Look at her face.”

“We have the right to our anger,” Salomen began, and was promptly drowned out by a roar of approval. She held up her hands and waited for it to die down. “But we must use it constructively. Four people are preventing this law from even being considered for change. Two of them have acknowledged the unfairness of it, but feel the timing isn’t right. Let them know the timing is right. Write them, call them, tell them how you feel. Write the Prime Warrior and Prime Scholar as well. They’re not our Primes, but they still have to care for Alsea as a whole. I cannot accept that two people can block reform for all of us. They have to listen to our voices.”

“Wonderful,” Arabisar groaned. “My office is going to drown in letters.”

“Mine will be just as bad,” Tal said.

“Focus on the benefit,” Aldirk advised. “Yaserka and Ehron are about to be inundated with letters from producers. Imagine their joy.”

Despite the mood, Tal chuckled. “We won’t have to imagine it. We’ll hear about it.”

Salomen concluded the question and answer period, having calmed the mood somewhat but not entirely. When she walked offstage, Tal turned off the vidscreen and plunged the office into silence.

“Well,” Arabisar said, slapping her palms on her thighs as she rose, “Time to make myself look like a political puppet. Perhaps if I do it quickly enough, I can salvage my dignity.”

They bid her good fortune, then huddled to work out their strategy. It soon became obvious that there were no good options, only the least bad one. The understanding did not improve Tal’s mood.

In her first moment alone, she called Salomen, whose emotions had dampened in what was partly a typical post-speech slump and partly a reaction to the crowd response.

“Hello, tyrina.” Salomen sounded as tired as she felt. “Did you watch?”

“Of course I did. Got a little out of control, did it?”

“And here I thought you weren’t quite as angry with me.”

“Can you explain to me why I shouldn’t be angry?”

There was a long pause.

“No.”

“Did you expect their anger?”

“No,” she admitted.

“You should have,” Tal said shortly. “I won’t be in our quarters when you get back. It seems I have a new global disaster to sort out. Caused by my bondmate.”

“Andira, that was one caste house in one city. It’s not a global disaster.”

“It will be.” She tapped out before Salomen could say another word.


40


Fallout

Relations between Tal and Salomen were frosty for three days. Salomen refused to admit she was wrong, and Tal did not see how she could separate personal from political when she felt personally betrayed.

Alone in her office on the third day, she watched the sunset and lost herself in memories of joining with Salomen the day after the summer windstorm. Salomen had been so passionate that afternoon, driving Tal to the point of incoherence. Getting dressed and returning to work had been close to impossible.

Now she put the timeline together and realized that while Salomen was pouring such passion into their joining, she was simultaneously planning her betrayal.

For the first time, she understood why Salomen had been unable to stay in the same room with her after the High Council vote. The way she felt, she couldn’t fathom going back to their quarters.

“I’ll do you a favor,” she said aloud, letting the bitterness come out when Salomen wasn’t there to hear. “I won’t tell you to your face that you’re toxic to me.”

She spent the night at Blacksun Base, but got no sleep as she tossed and turned, cycling through anger, hurt, and depression. None of it was eased by her constant awareness of Salomen feeling just the same. Long before the sun rose, she gave up, dressed for work, and flew back to the State House.

Salomen was waiting for her on the landing pad, obviously wearing whatever she had grabbed and hurriedly thrown on. She hadn’t even fastened her jacket and was holding it closed at her throat against the cool pre-dawn air.

Tal stepped out of her personal transport and thought Salomen could not possibly have changed that much overnight. She looked ragged.

Then again, Tal hadn’t seen much of her in the last few days. She had worked late, barely glanced at her in their quarters, offered curt answers to conversational gambits, and generally behaved as if Salomen were an unwanted presence in her home. Now she examined her and saw clear physical effects of their estrangement.

“I cannot do this any longer,” Salomen said. “We must find a way past this. Can you not forgive me for doing what I believe is right? I forgave you, when you abandoned me to fight Shantu.”

Tal was brought up short by the reminder. How could she have forgotten, when her choice had hurt Salomen so deeply that it caused nightmares for two moons after?

It was as if she had held on to her anger only by refusing to see its source. But watching Salomen in the gray light, looking so gray herself, she finally saw the truth. There was no betrayal. Salomen had simply refused to accept injustice. Her methods were wrong, but her heart was right. It had always been right.

Opening her arms, Tal said, “I missed you.”

Salomen made a sound that broke her heart and buried herself in their embrace.

“I’m sorry,” Tal whispered. “It was easier to be angry.”

“I knew you would be. But I didn’t think I would lose your regard.” Salomen took a shuddering breath. “It’s been a high price to pay.”

“You haven’t lost my regard.”

“Andira, you haven’t looked at me in three days.” She leaned back and met her eyes with a painful desperation. “I made up my mind that if I couldn’t make you see me this morning, I was going home to Hol-Opah and you could find me whenever you decided to.”

The guilt was creeping in, taking up the space recently vacated by anger. “I’m surprised you lasted this long.”

With a tremulous smile, Salomen said, “There’s been quite a lot of work to do in my office.”

“How many interview requests have you gotten?”

“I stopped keeping track after forty. Ask my aide.”

“I have you beat by at least twenty.”

Salomen’s smile gained solidity. “I love you.”

“I love you too, tyrina.” Tal swept her back into a warmron and breathed in the warm scent of her throat. “Let’s not do this again.”

“Agreed,” Salomen said fervently.

Uprising

The problem, Tal soon realized, was that her estrangement from Salomen had affected the State House staff. They divided into two camps, following the examples set by their leaders, but the reconciliation of those leaders did not translate into a rejoining of the camps. In fact, it seemed to make it worse.

With most of the State House staff belonging to either the warrior or scholar castes, those favoring Tal’s vote were the larger camp. But Salomen became the figurative head of a vocal smaller camp, comprised of builders in the maintenance, equipment, and logistics departments, crafters in the art and historical maintenance departments, merchants who ran the restaurants and gift shops, and producers who maintained the landscaping and interior plantings.

Salomen also reported a surprising number of scholars and warriors approaching her in the corridors. Some spoke of their childhood dreams being taken from them; most told of friends or family who had been affected. The majority said they would not speak openly in their own caste but wanted her to know that she spoke for them.

The greater problem was that the split was reflected all over Alsea—and outside the State House, the camp sizes were reversed. The great majority of the builder, merchant, and crafter castes supported Salomen’s position, along with seemingly one hundred percent of the producers. The scholars were divided amongst themselves, with philosophical debates already raging, while the warriors were as united behind Tal as the producers were behind Salomen.

With the Lancer and Bondlancer visibly opposing each other via Tal’s vote and Salomen’s speech and interview, it mattered little that the two women had resolved their differences. Alseans viewed them as figureheads of radically opposing beliefs, and there could be no compromise. Either high empaths were given a choice, or they were not. Either the caste structure was reformed, or it was not.

“You must stay out of the public eye,” Tal insisted. “Any appearance you make now would look like a campaign effort. You’ll be adding fuel to the fire. Let me try to calm it instead.”

To her surprise, Salomen agreed. She had planned to work on Hol-Opah for most of this moon regardless; it was the harvest moon. “I’ve done what I needed to,” she said. “I gave the people a voice. They don’t need me to keep speaking for them.”

One cycle ago, Tal had worked the harvest at Hol-Opah. She wished she were there now, enjoying the simplicity of hard physical labor that produced tangible rewards. Instead she spent her days and too many nights in Blacksun, trying to guide an incipient avalanche while the woman who had pushed the first rock was safely removed from its path. At times she still resented Salomen for creating such a mess, but then reminded herself of what had first drawn them together: a shared sense of duty and willingness to fight for what was right.

They had met on opposite sides of the negotiation table. Now they were on opposite sides of a global debate.

As the moon wore on, that debate grew more heated, not less. Tal used every trick, every connection, every psychological tool at her disposal, but she was arguing for rational thinking and harmony when everyone—even those on her side—became less rational by the day. It was no longer a question of what was best for Alsea. It was a question of ownership and theft. Two of the castes saw this reform as a theft of what was rightfully theirs, had always been theirs, and should always be theirs. The other four saw it as long-overdue justice for what had been stolen from them for more than three thousand cycles.

It was not a surprise when the first act of violence broke out. Tal only wondered why it had taken this long for tavern fisticuffs to turn more serious. In Redmoon, a producer scuffled with a warrior, getting a black eye for his trouble. He went out to his skimmer, pulled a posthead from the back, returned to the tavern, and seriously injured his assailant.

It was the sort of assault that would normally have gone unremarked outside the local area. Now it was trumpeted across both continents and endlessly dissected, with both sides pointing to various parts of the story as proof of their claims. The warriors were arrogant and asserting a superiority that was not theirs, said one side. The warrior struck first. What happened to warrior honor?

The producer had provoked the fight, the other side retorted. The warrior was defending herself and her honor. Was she supposed to turn her back and slink away? What happened to producer reverence for life? The warrior would have died of her injuries had the medics not arrived in time.

Suddenly, it was no longer two castes against four. It was warriors against producers, with the other castes supporting their leaders in the fight.

“It was inevitable,” Micah said when Tal expressed her disbelief. “This started between you and Salomen. They’re rallying behind you.”

“They’re not rallying behind us. They’re using us as symbols.”

“Powerful symbols,” Micah agreed. “You’re the Lancer, and Salomen is the first producer Bondlancer in sixteen generations. And she has not been a quiet one.”

“She’s horrified by this.”

“Then perhaps she should say so.”

Salomen returned to the State House to record a statement decrying the violence and urging everyone to use words, not fists, and certainly not postheads.

The reaction was not what anyone had hoped for.

“‘Bondlancer Opah was shuffled off the world stage following her stand for truth, which embarrassed Lancer Tal and the ruling castes,’” Communications Advisor Miltorin read from one article. “‘For three ninedays, she was kept in isolation: no interviews, no speeches, no contact with the outside world. Now we have finally heard from our brave Bondlancer, but her speech makes it clear that she was brought back for the sole purpose of doing what she was told. If our Bondlancer is no longer free to speak her mind, then we must speak for her.’”

Tal could not believe her ears. “What in the shekking—how can anyone buy that pile of dokshin? When has Salomen ever given the impression that she’ll do what she’s told?”

Miltorin held up the reader card. “That was written by Deme Cort, who sees his career inscribed in the stars. You gave him an interview about the divine tyrees, then Salomen gave him hers—he’s made a name for himself as the man who knows what’s happening behind closed doors. People will believe this.”

“Then we’ll get Salomen back here to tell them she’s as likely to be held prisoner as I am.”

He shook his head. “That would be seen as proof. Naturally we would force her to say that.”

“You’re telling me that no matter what she says, it will reinforce this lie?”

“I’m afraid so.” He rubbed his chin in thought. “Perhaps if the two of you are interviewed together, live. Showing disgusting amounts of affection.”

They appeared on a global broadcast two days later.

“I can hardly be held prisoner on my own holding,” Salomen told their interviewer. “The usual problem is getting me to come into Blacksun.”

“It’s true,” Tal said. “We’ve spent moons finding the right balance for her, between the duties of a Bondlancer and her duties as head of her family and holding.”

“And right now, Hol-Opah takes precedence.” Salomen reached for Tal’s hand. “The autumn rains are coming. This is the time when we work endless hanticks getting the crops harvested. Our horten is scheduled for the distribution center next nineday; rest assured you will not be hearing from me. I’ll be up to my knees in my favorite crop.”

“I actually miss that,” Tal said.

“Falling on your backside in mud?” Salomen shot her a wicked smile. “I miss that, too. We can always use an extra pair of hands.”

“There’s no mud yet,” Tal pointed out. “The rains are late this year.”

“Yes, and we’ll have gotten an extra two ninedays of growth. We couldn’t be happier.”

“Bondlancer Opah,” the interviewer interrupted, “can you truthfully say that you were not asked to step aside after your speech in Whitesun?”

Tal tensed, waiting for Salomen’s response. Miltorin had expected this question and drilled her in the right answer.

“I’d already planned to spend this moon at Hol-Opah,” Salomen said, keeping to the script. “As I’ve said, it’s the harvest moon.”

“It doesn’t take long to answer a few questions.” The interviewer spread his hands in an open, friendly fashion that did not fool Tal one bit. “Surely you could have done so if you’d wanted to.”

“I want to be very clear about this. I gave that interview to the Blacksun Spotlight, and spoke at Whitesun, because I believed the people needed a voice. I spoke for them when no one else would. I did not plan to keep speaking for them. They can speak for themselves now. And have been, quite loudly,” Salomen added. “I came back after that appalling assault in Redmoon because if there is one thing I do not want associated with my name or my caste, it’s violence.”

“If you were asked to come back earlier, would you have?”

“Certainly.”

“Were you asked to step aside?”

She frowned. “I’ve already answered this. Can we move on?”

“Actually, you have not. Bondlancer Opah, were you or were you not asked to step aside?”

Tal knew they were sunk before Salomen opened her mouth. One thing her bondmate would never be was a liar.

“Andira did ask me to let her calm things down. But that is not the point, the point is—”

“Thank you, Bondlancer. I knew you would tell us the truth.”

Uprising

“That was supposed to be an easy interview! What the shek happened?” Tal demanded.

“He broke a promise!” Miltorin threw his hands in the air with an explosive huff. “He promised to ask that question exactly the way I phrased it to Bondlancer Opah, and there was to be no follow-up. I’m sorry, Lancer Tal, that wasn’t supposed to happen. I never expected that he’d be willing to destroy his connection with me for the sake of one interview.”

“One interview that turned Alsea on its ear! I was trying to put the fire out, not blow it into a damned conflagration!” Tal walked to her office windows and stared out at the deceptively peaceful city. “Salomen feels terrible for making things even worse.”

“It would certainly have been more convenient had she lied.” Miltorin joined her. “A truthful person makes my job harder.”

“What do we do now?”

“We castigate him for interrupting her. For not respecting her answer. We say she has always been free to speak.”

“A lie?”

“No, the truth. She was free to speak, you simply asked her not to.”

Tal shook her head. “How did it come to this?”

“It came to this when you bonded with a woman who matched your will but not your political sense.”

“True words,” Tal said ruefully. “She still catches me, sometimes. When I’m home but haven’t quite left the Lancer in the office. She’ll say, ‘That was a politician’s answer.’”

“She’s teaching you to be more truthful?”

“More honest, rather. With her and myself.”

“Damned inconvenient,” Miltorin muttered. “Couldn’t you have taught her to lie instead?”

As expected, the State House response to the interview was picked apart and roundly disbelieved. The headlines and discussion grew more breathless, focusing entirely on such statements from Salomen as I spoke for them when no one else would. One headline that nearly made Tal launch her reader card out the window was “Lancer Tal to the Voice of the People: Sit Down and Be Silent.”

Six days after the ill-fated interview, a group of producers walking across Whitesun’s central park ran into a group of warriors who had just left their caste house. Words were exchanged, then blows. By the time the City Guards arrived, five producers had to be taken to the healing center, two with serious injuries.

Three days after that, a group of young, drunk producers brought heavy equipment into the central park of their small town and drove it straight into the warrior caste house, causing significant property damage. Fortunately, the event occurred in the middle of the night. The caste house was empty, and no one was hurt.

But the warriors were livid. What should have been dismissed as a foolish and costly prank was instead seen as an attack on their caste. Tal was forced to make a statement reiterating the youth and drunken state of the producers and asking the warriors to hold themselves to a higher standard. Appealing to the warrior sense of honor would, she hoped, prevent escalation.

On the last day of Hol-Opah’s horten harvest, Tal was wrapping up the morning’s work and looking forward to joining Salomen for a celebratory midmeal at the holding. The end of the horten harvest meant the beginning of an entire moon of relaxation, and she wanted to start Salomen on that as soon as possible.

Up in their quarters, three bottles of Valkinon waited in her bag. They were the finest spirits on Alsea, and a label that held special significance for them both. Her plan was to fly out with Micah, who had become close friends with Shikal, and send the two older men into the parlor along with Nikin and two of the bottles. She and Salomen would take the last bottle onto the back deck, where they would absorb the view and the lingering scent of cut horten, and let the world go on without them for a day.

When Micah arrived in her office, she greeted him with a bright smile and a request for two more ticks. She had one thing left to finish and then they could go.

“Tal,” he said gravely. “You’re not going to Hol-Opah yet.”

His tone of voice made her pay attention to his emotions, a sticky blend of sorrow and horror. She pushed back her chair and stood, dread freezing her blood. “What happened?”

He handed over his reader card, open to a security update. In typically sparse terms, it outlined a rescue operation at a fire in Melladin, a northern town whose name held no significance. Tal didn’t understand Micah’s reaction until she read further down.

The fire had burned a producer caste house—with producers in it. Thirty-two had been taken to the local healing center for smoke inhalation and minor injuries; five more had been flown to Blacksun for specialized burn treatment.

Three warriors were being held by City Guards for arson and mass murder.

Twelve producers were dead.


41


Avalanche

Salomen had planned to spend this afternoon exactly where she was: in a chair on the back deck, with her feet up on the bottom railing and a glass of spirits in her hand. She had known the scent of horten oil would still cling to her skin despite her shower, and that it would perfume the air of Hol-Opah in an olfactory sign of celebration.

She had not planned to be alone, or for the spirits to come from a dusty old bottle of harsh grain spirits her father rarely drank, or for her heart to be broken open and bleeding.

Shikal and Nikin had both tried to talk to her. You didn’t make those warriors light that fire, they said. You cannot take responsibility for the world.

But she had, hadn’t she? She had taken responsibility while ignoring the advice of the people who did that for a living. Andira had tried to stop her, and Salomen had punished her for it. Called her toxic and walked away, only to return and do what she thought was best behind Andira’s back. She had used all the power of her title without the balance of restraint.

Andira’s three days of anger, which had cut so deeply at the time, now seemed far too light a sentence for the suffering and death she had caused.

“Yes, she’s still there.” Her father’s voice, at the open back door. “Well, if solace can be found at the bottom of a bottle of grain spirits, she should be feeling much better. But I’m afraid she’s learning nothing is there but glass.”

Salomen sipped her drink and stared straight ahead. He must be talking to Corozen Micah. Andira wouldn’t need to ask how she was feeling.

“I hope so,” Shikal said. “Neither of us are getting through. She’s lost in her own world.” A pause. “Good. Your usual chair awaits. We’ll see you soon.”

He came out on the deck, his comfortable old slippers scuffing on the wood. “You can probably already sense this, but Corozen and Andira are on their way.”

“I can sense it.” She kept her gaze on the long shadows trailed by the mountains in the late afternoon light.

He leaned against the railing, facing her. “You have never looked more like your mother.”

That got her attention. “Oh? When did she get twelve producers killed?”

“At the same time you did. Never. But she took on burdens that were not hers to bear. I loved her dearly, but I do wish she hadn’t passed that trait on to you.”

She dismissed his effort, well-meaning but mistaken, and resumed her perusal of the mountains. After a tick or two of silence, he kissed the top of her head and went back inside.

The red-and-silver transport streaked across the sky a tentick later. Andira was flying faster than she should and made the landscape echo with the roar of her aerial braking. Her vertical descent probably had Corozen’s stomach in his throat, yet she set it down with the gentleness of a skilled pilot and was running across the yard before Corozen got his door open.

Salomen watched her come, still in her State House clothes, blonde hair flying as she rushed up the steps. Her dress boots skidded on a bit of mashed horten, leading to the incongruous thought that even without working the harvest, she might still be brought down by it. In fact, that slippery bit of leaf pulp had probably fallen from Salomen’s own work boots.

She didn’t want to think about the symbolism.

Andira recovered her balance and came thudding down the deck, arriving with a breathless “Tyrina,” as she leaned down for a warmron.

Salomen stopped her with a hand to her chest.

“You won’t say I told you so, because you’re too good for that,” she said. “But I want you to know—” Her voice broke, and she carried on in a croak. “I’m so sorry. I was blind and arrogant and look what I’ve done, Andira, look what I’ve done . . .”

Her hand dropped as Andira enveloped her in a warmron, fierce physical protection and loving comfort somehow existing side by side in this gesture she could accept from no one else today.

“I’m so sorry,” Salomen repeated into her shoulder.

“I know you are, tyrina, I’ve been feeling it all afternoon. I know you’re blaming yourself.”

“Should I blame someone else?”

“Blame the murderers. Not the symbol they used. You made yourself a symbol, and they twisted that to their own ends.” She pulled back, her eyes glowing in the slanted light. “I’m a symbol, too. I’m implicated as much as you are.”

“But you didn’t—”

“Light the fire? Neither did you.”

“No, but you tried to stop me.”

“I tried to stop this. Not you.”

Salomen frowned. “I’ve drunk too much of these horrible spirits. I don’t see the difference.”

Andira squatted on her heels next to the chair, still holding Salomen’s hand as she looked up. Behind her, Corozen quietly crossed the deck and entered the house.

“What you asked for was fair and just. I never wanted to stop you from fighting for it. I only wanted to delay it until a safer time.”

“Was there ever going to be a safer time? They’re so angry. It all went out of control so quickly. I’ve been sitting here thinking about it, and I don’t think that’s just the stress from the last two cycles, do you? It cannot be.”

“No. I think that’s the stress from the last two cycles on top of three thousand cycles of resentment on one side and—” She took a breath. “Fear, on the other. Not that any warrior would ever admit that.”

“Fear?”

“In the High Council meeting, when you accused Yaserka and Ehron of being afraid to lose power—you were right. People express their fear in different ways. They talked about caste needs and caste services and everything but what truly drives them. Those warriors who lit the fire—they expressed their fear in violence.” Andira’s emotions darkened, dripping with contempt and shot through with a fear of her own. “They violated their caste oath and spat on the caste mission. No true warrior could do anything but condemn them. But I’m worried that too many warriors will condemn the act while supporting the message.”

Salomen squeezed her hand. “This is going to get worse, isn’t it?”

Slowly, Andira nodded. “I wish I could tell you otherwise.”

They discussed it at the dining table that evening, during what was supposed to be a celebratory evenmeal but now felt akin to a mourning meal. Salomen said very little, picking at her food as she listened.

“I don’t understand,” Jaros said for the third time. “How could any warriors do that? Warriors are good. They save people. They don’t hurt them.”

“Warriors are still Alseans,” Corozen answered. “There are good ones and bad ones.”

Salomen silently shook her head, sensing Jaros’s confusion as a tangled mass of broken trust. He was learning far too early that worship was bound to end in disappointment.

Jaros looked to Andira for a better answer. “But you’re the Lancer. Why couldn’t you stop them? You stopped Shantu.”

“I didn’t know about it. If I had, I would have stopped it. I’ve put out a directive forbidding any other acts of violence.”

Salomen’s head came up. “You did what? Andira!”

Jaros looked between them. “Why shouldn’t she?”

“Because she’s tied her reputation to their obedience!” Salomen dropped her fork on the plate. “You’re depending on the worst dregs of your caste to respect your order more than they love their anger. You cannot possibly think that will work!”

“What else could I do? Let it go unremarked? If I didn’t put out a directive, it would be read as implicit permission.”

“And now that you have, it will be read as a test of your control over your caste. You cannot hold them back alone!”

“Salomen—”

“No! No, you—you—” She choked on the words that crowded her throat. “What happens when they do it again? Your title is at risk!”

“It’s not. Salomen, it’s not. There is no Shantu waiting on the edges, ready to launch a caste coup at my slightest misstep. I have more room to maneuver than I did a cycle ago. And this is an unusual situation. The warriors on the Council won’t hold me accountable unless . . .” She trailed off, not wanting to finish the thought in front of Jaros.

“They could take your title?” Jaros asked in a small voice. “Because some warriors hate us?”

Salomen ached at that us. How many producers across Alsea were thinking the same? How long would it be before some warriors became the warriors and lines were drawn between their castes that could not be erased? Andira had said it would get worse, and if Salomen had learned anything in the last moon, it was to value her reading of the political landscape.

Later that night, after Jaros had been put to bed and the adults could speak more openly, she broached the topic.

“How much worse is this going to get?”

Andira and Corozen looked at each other, as if deciding who should speak.

“I think,” Andira said carefully, “that we’re seeing the beginning of an avalanche. It’s a few rocks and pebbles, bouncing along and raising a great deal of dust. It’s damaging and—” She hesitated but could find no other way to say it. “—and deadly. But if we stop it now, while it’s still small, we can limit the damage to what’s already been done.”

“And if we don’t stop it?”

“Then it grows.” Andira did not finish the thought, but Salomen heard it as clearly as if she had spoken the words.

Then there will be a caste war.


42


Make them pay

Salomen, Andira, and Prime Producer Arabisar attended the mass funeral pyre two days later. Due to the security threat, all three of them had left their breastplates at home and were wearing cuirasses. Salomen had never used hers before, though she had been fitted for it prior to her bonding ceremony. The addition of a backplate, throat guard, and shoulder coverage brought home her changed situation, and she resented the weight. At least the front looked like her breastplate, its shining golden metal bearing the shield of Alsea. With the ceremonial cape covering her shoulders and back, most observers would not realize she was armored.

While Andira gave one of the most difficult speeches of her career, Salomen stood beside her, trying to keep the guilt off her face and wondering how long it would be before a grief-stricken family member vented their anger on her. None did, but several cast dirty glances at Andira. That was worse, for being so undeserved.

At the end of the ceremony, she and Arabisar left Andira behind and approached the first of the still-burning pyres, discreetly trailed by six Guards.

“I am so sorry for your loss,” Arabisar said to the family, and touched palms with each of them one by one. Salomen followed suit, letting Arabisar take the lead. It was her right and responsibility as caste Prime, and this was a charged situation that Salomen did not want to inflame with a poorly chosen word.

They worked their way through eight pyres without incident. At the ninth, a grieving bondmate gripped Salomen’s hand during their palm touch and would not let go. Red-eyed and desperate, her agony searing through her skin, she said, “He was pregnant.”

Salomen froze. “Oh, Fahla. I’m—”

“They keep saying there were twelve dead,” the woman interrupted. “But there were thirteen. Our child died with him.” Her grip became crushing, though Salomen refused to show it. If she did, Ronlin would pull the woman away, and that she could not allow.

“I mourn that loss with you,” Salomen said. “If I could do anything to—”

“Make them pay!”

“They will. Lancer Tal already asked for the maximum sentence. I know it’s no consolation, but they’ve ended their own lives as well.”

“But it wasn’t just them, was it?” The woman released her grip, and Salomen forced herself not to flex her aching hand. “They were just the ones who acted. It’s all of them. All the warriors who think we need to be put back in our place for daring to ask for our high empaths.” She wiped her eyes and glared at Salomen. “Make them pay.”

“Bondlancer, I’m sorry to interrupt.” Arabisar appeared at her side. “But we must move to the next pyre.”

“I’m truly sorry.” Salomen offered a farewell nod to the grieving woman and stepped away. “Thank you for rescuing me,” she said quietly.

“I was expecting something like that,” Arabisar said, and then they were greeting the next group.

When they walked away from the twelfth pyre, Salomen was ready to drop from the emotional overload of touching palms with so many deeply wounded people. But she had one last task to do. Once they were far enough from the mourners to guarantee privacy, she stopped and said, “Prime Producer, may we speak?”

Arabisar inclined her head. “Of course.”

“I couldn’t do this until we got through that.” She lifted a finger toward the pyres, a gesture that would be hidden between them. “I wish to formally apologize for my behavior toward you at the High Council meeting. You gave me the gift of your honesty, and I . . . didn’t appreciate it then.”

“You threw it in my face,” Arabisar said coolly.

Salomen had not been particularly mindful of their age difference and Arabisar’s authority before. She was keenly aware now.

“I felt betrayed, but that’s not an excuse. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for putting you in such a difficult position afterward. I’d say you were right all along, but—” She shook her head. “That would be stating the blindingly obvious.”

Arabisar looked back at the twelve pyres. “I admit I was angry when you forced my hand. I didn’t get here by letting myself be out-gamed, and you danced right around me.” She met Salomen’s eyes and offered an unexpected smile. “But I felt better when I realized you danced right around Lancer Tal, too. I doubt that’s happened to her more than a handful of times in her career.”

With Andira’s anger still sharp in her memory, Salomen could not return the smile.

“You made a mistake, Bondlancer, but you made it because you believed in the integrity of our people. Because you’re new to this level of government and you lack the cynicism the rest of us have acquired. I can hardly fault such innocence. I can only mourn the loss of it.”

Salomen swallowed the tightness in her throat. “Thank you for being so gracious.”

“Thank you for your apology. I didn’t expect it, but perhaps I should have.” Arabisar held up her hand. “Shall we start over?”

When their palms touched, Salomen sighed with relief. “I never realized how taxing it could be to touch so many grieving people. You’re like putting my hands in cold water after a whole day of swinging a soilbreaker.”

Arabisar bit back what would have been an inappropriate chuckle, given their location. “I haven’t used one of those in a long time. Haven’t missed it a bit, either.” She dropped her hand and turned toward Andira. “She’s looking nervous. Shall we get her out of the danger zone?”

It should have been a joke, the idea of Andira being at risk in a crowd of producers. The fact that it wasn’t sent Salomen sliding back into her guilt.

The whole world had gone wrong, and she had pushed it there.

Uprising

At the State House, Salomen walked off the state transport and straight to the smaller one waiting to take her home. Andira kissed her good-bye and promised to be there by evenmeal, then took off again for Blacksun Base.

Salomen’s transport lifted off immediately after, heading west while Andira flew east. It was an appropriate metaphor, she thought morosely.

She hadn’t bothered to take off her cuirass or cape, and Shikal let out a whistle when she found him in the parlor.

“There’s a vision!” He offered a double palm touch and added, “I mourn the reason for it, but it certainly is bracing to see you in that regalia. Jaros will be sorry he missed it.”

“She could always keep it on until he gets home from school.” Nikin had come into the parlor from the front entrance, having been working in the office. “Did you have the conversation you hoped to with the Prime Producer?”

Salomen met his palms. “I did. She was kinder than I deserved. She said I made a mistake, but it was founded in innocence.”

“Never too old to learn, eh?”

“I suppose. It felt like I was thirteen again, apologizing to Mother for letting our new male fanten out of isolation.”

Nikin’s grin was a welcome bit of normalcy on this terrible day. “Ah, I remember that one. ‘But Mother, he looked so lonely!’ You set her breeding program back by a whole cycle.”

“At least he wasn’t lonely any longer.” Salomen unclasped the chain holding her cape in place and swung the heavy fabric off her shoulders, then rapped her knuckles against the cuirass. “Help me get this off?”

In her bedroom upstairs, she hung up the cape and propped the cuirass in a corner. It looked incongruous there, an object rooted in ancient war sitting on the polished wooden floor that had been trod by generations of producers.

A thought struck and she sank onto the bed, staring at the shining metal. The shield of Alsea sparkled at her, a symbol of her title . . . a symbol.

You made yourself a symbol, Andira had said.

Could a symbol stop an avalanche?


43


Scaling up

Had anyone asked Anjuli the name of the last person she expected to call her office, it would probably have been Bondlancer Opah. But there she was, casually dressed and apparently calling from her family home.

“Thank you for taking my call, Prime Builder,” she said politely.

As if she would ever refuse. For all her training thus far, this woman still did not realize the power of her title.

“It’s my pleasure. Is there something I can do for you?”

“I hope so. This needs to be a private conversation.”

“I’m alone.”

“Good.” Bondlancer Opah leaned forward. “Andira says what’s happening with the warriors and the producers is an avalanche. Still small, but sure to grow if it’s not stopped. Would you agree with that assessment?”

That did sound like something the Lancer would say. “Yes, I agree with that.”

“I have an idea for how to stop it, but it would need logistics at a high level. I don’t have the capacity to handle those. You do.”

Anjuli listened in disbelief, then intrigue, then admiration as the Bondlancer outlined a plan that was breathtaking in its audacity.

“You’re asking me to conduct a secret operation under the nose of your bondmate and my Lancer,” she said. “What makes you think I’d agree to such a thing?”

“You’ve already proven you’re not afraid to go up against Andira. You made her life difficult for eight moons. I didn’t think you’d mind making it difficult for a few hanticks.”

“This would do more than make it difficult.”

“It will, but she cannot know. She’s a symbol to the other side. If they think she’s involved in this—”

“It would probably end her government. You do know that she and I are no longer at war?”

“Would I be speaking to you if I didn’t know that?”

“Of course,” Anjuli muttered.

“I’m sorry that this will probably put you at odds again. I can only promise that I’ll do my best to bridge that gap afterward.” She grimaced. “Assuming Andira doesn’t stop speaking to me altogether.”

Anjuli felt a sudden fondness for her quiet home life with Irin. Poor Lancer Tal; she might never have such a thing with a bondmate like this.

“It’s a sound concept,” she said. “Except for one thing. You’re thinking too small.” She was a builder constructing a space elevator; scaling up was her specialty. “To stop an avalanche, we need a powerful, solid wall. Do you know what happens when a wall can’t hold an avalanche back?”

Bondlancer Opah might not be an engineer, but she was a producer and very aware of the natural power of their world. The painful realization showed in her eyes. “It becomes part of the avalanche,” she said.

“We need the other castes, not just yours and a handful of mine to handle the logistics.”

“I thought we would invite them after . . .” She trailed off as Anjuli shook her head.

“Let’s stop speaking in metaphors, shall we? We want to prevent a caste war. A march won’t be enough. We need an uprising.” She took a moment to enjoy the shocked look. “You’re playing on the big stage now, Bondlancer. You’ve already learned the consequences that can come from something as simple as a speech and an interview. This needs to be done right the first time, because we won’t get another chance. We either stop it, or we become part of it.” She checked her wristcom. “The other Primes should still be in the building. Can you come back for a meeting?”


44


Co-conspirators

One by one, they arrived in a cramped conference room on the third floor, accessible by stepping out of the stairwell and opening the door on the immediate right. It was the best Anjuli could come up with on short notice, but she thought she had done rather well. No one would expect the Primes on this floor, much less the Bondlancer, and this room was rarely used. Only the lower staff came here for their meetings, and there were none scheduled this afternoon.

Arabisar was the first to arrive. She had changed out of her funeral clothing but wore a reminder in the form of a gray mourning armband—the color of a pyre’s ashes. Her rich brown skin glowed with recent sun exposure.

“No shannel?” she asked, looking around the tiny room.

“Third floor,” Anjuli reminded her. “If you wanted shannel, you should have brought it from your office. It would have been better than anything on this floor anyway.”

The door opened again, admitting Prime Merchant Stasinal. “Clandestine meetings in back rooms; reminds me of when I was secretly negotiating to buy a producer’s grain supply before it went on the market.” She dropped a reader card on the table and raked her fingers through her short hair. “But it was very good grain. Made a fantastic run of spirits. Well met, Prime Builder. Prime Producer.”

As they exchanged palm touches, Anjuli said, “I didn’t realize the quality of grain was that important.”

Both women looked horrified. “Do you not drink decent grain spirits?” Stasinal asked.

“Of course the quality of grain is important!” Arabisar set her reading card next to Stasinal’s. “That’s why the matter printers haven’t made a dent in the grain spirits market. Or any of the food markets. They cannot reproduce the true tastes of what our producers grow. Have you tried a bowl of printed horten soup?” She shuddered.

“Clearly you need to educate your palate,” Stasinal decided. “I’ll bring you a few bottles.”

“Oh, that sounds taxing. What else can I claim ignorance on to make you feel the need to educate me?”

They were chuckling when Prime Crafter Bylwytin slipped into the room, lithe and graceful as always. Her flowing dress was a pastel shade of purple that made Anjuli’s eyes water, but with Bylwytin’s fair skin, it worked. She had barely finished her greetings when their last conspirator arrived.

The Bondlancer’s dark hair was pulled back in a tail, accentuating her strong jaw and the dimple that sat in its center. She was dressed well enough to be in the State House, but not so formally as to appear on duty. Like Arabisar, she wore a gray armband.

“Everyone knows why we’re here, yes?” she asked without preamble.

Anjuli’s eyebrows rose. “I would hardly invite them to a conspiracy if they didn’t.”

“Sorry, I’m—” Bondlancer Opah blew out a breath. “Not at my best today.”

To Anjuli’s surprise, it was Arabisar who responded. “I’d say you are quite at your best today. This time, you’re working with us.”

Bondlancer Opah offered a pained smile as she walked over to their little group and exchanged palm touches. Without a word, they chose their places at the table, with Anjuli and Bylwytin facing Arabisar and Stasinal. Though no one had planned it, Bondlancer Opah ended up at the head.

“Don’t give me credit for involving all of you,” she said. “Prime Builder Eroles said I was thinking too small. I was worried that this isn’t your fight.”

Stasinal shook her head. “It only looks like a fight between warriors and producers. Unless we do something, the other castes will be pulled in.”

“Even the crafters,” Bylwytin said. “I’m already seeing it. We’re usually immune to caste tensions, but not this time.”

“A war would engulf everyone.” Stasinal looked around the table. “It will be four castes against two, and those two castes have most of the weapons, all of the training, and all the high empaths. It would be ugly.”

“To say the least,” Arabisar said. “But we have something they don’t. Two things, in truth. We have the four of us willing to work together, which would not have happened with our previous Prime Merchant.”

“Words for Fahla,” Anjuli said fervently.

“And we have a Bondlancer willing to speak for her people.” Arabisar’s gaze grew intent. “Don’t underestimate the power you hold simply through caring. They know you care. They can see it and hear it. They’ll follow if you’re willing to lead.”

“I’m willing. But I need to know I’m not leading them to harm.”

“I understand why you need that. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. We won’t have the warriors to protect us.”

“And you can’t have yours protecting you,” Anjuli said. “If you’re speaking for the people, it shouldn’t be while you’re surrounded by ten Guards.”

“I know,” the Bondlancer said, surprising them. “I’d already thought of that. I can get away from them, but I cannot ignore my safety altogether. Andira would never allow it. She’d send Guards as soon as she knew where I was. So I’ve compromised.”

“How do you compromise on that?” Anjuli asked.

“I called in a warrior with unquestionable loyalty to me. Andira will trust her to uphold her oath. And she’s uniquely suited to this—she can help me disappear.” She looked more confident now. “You know her, Prime Builder. First Guard Rahel Sayana. She’ll get a shuttle off the Phoenix as soon as I give the word.”

Anjuli sucked in a breath. “That is . . . oddly symmetrical, isn’t it?”

“Speaking of protection,” Stasinal said, “that’s my greatest concern. If we’re to expand to the other major cities—”

“We’re expanding?” Bondlancer Opah interrupted.

“As I said, you’re on the big stage.” Anjuli gestured at Stasinal. “Whitesun is the commerce center of the world. What better place for the Prime Merchant to lead?”

“I’ll lead in Whitemoon,” Bylwytin said. “That’s the closest thing we have to a crafter capital.”

“Which leaves Redmoon for me,” Anjuli finished. “You and the Prime Producer will march together here.”

“Great Mother, you really are planning an uprising!”

“A short one, if all goes well.”

“All we need to do is remind the warriors and scholars that they depend on us,” Stasinal said. “I think the marches in Pallea will be peaceful. Like it or not, at this point in time, we aren’t the castes at the center of this fight. But I’m concerned about the two of you marching here.”

Arabisar spread her hands. “We’ll have to risk it. And trust that the City Guards will live up to their oaths.”

“No, wait.” Bondlancer Opah stared at the table, her forehead creased. “I might have a solution.” Slowly, her expression smoothed out, a faint smile curving her lips as she lifted her head. “In fact, I might have a solution to two problems at once. What if I said I could get one hundred and fifty trained soldiers willing to protect us? Soldiers who have nothing to do with the warrior caste?”

Anjuli was as baffled as the other three looked. “Where will you find those?”

“New Haven.”


45


Vanished

After what was now called the Melladin Massacre, Micah kept Salomen under close watch. That Tal worried about her would have been enough to warrant his attention, but these days he thought of Salomen as a second daughter.

She was not behaving normally. The massacre had affected her more deeply than they had feared, for she was distant, preoccupied, and monosyllabic. She briefly came to life while visiting the burn victims at the healing center, but as soon as Micah escorted her and Tal back to their transport, she fell silent once more.

When Tal said she was only a little better in the privacy of their room, his concern grew. If Salomen wasn’t talking to her tyree, something was very wrong.

He tried several times to speak with her. She was unfailingly courteous while freezing him out. When she smiled, it went nowhere near her eyes.

Her Guards were also affected. Lead Guard Ronlin, gruff and stoic as he was, could not hide his worry, and Demerah looked up to her like an older sister.

“Do you think she’s all right?” Demerah asked as they stood together outside the bunkhouse. “I spoke to her this morning and she didn’t even look at me. I don’t think she heard. It’s dangerous for her to be so unaware.”

“That’s what she has us for,” Micah said. “Whatever troubles her, she needs the time and safety to work it out. We can give her that.”

“Is she going to speak?”

There had been a growing call for Salomen to make a statement after the massacre. She had disappointed half the world at the funeral by speaking only with the families and not the public. Speculation had run rampant since then, not all of it positive. Some of the more conservative voices declared that she had espoused a dangerous reform, gotten members of her caste killed for it, and was now too guilty to show her face. As her Chief Counselor, Micah made sure those opinions were culled from her correspondence, but he couldn’t protect her from the news.

“I don’t know her plans,” he said. “Right now, I believe she’s simply recovering.”

“It was terrible,” Demerah agreed. “Those warriors are a stain on our caste. But don’t you think it’s for the best that she stays silent? I know she meant well, but she did stir up resentments.”

“You don’t believe the other castes have reason for their anger? You come from a producer family.”

She wrinkled her nose. “If I hadn’t been a high empath, I’d have been expected to stay on the holding and work for my older brother. He’s a dokker’s backside. Being taken away to training was an escape, not a burden.”

“The reform would still have given you an escape.”

“But it wouldn’t have been required. He would have found a way to make me stay.”

“You’re a confident warrior,” Micah said. “Your record rose to the top of a tall stack. I find it difficult to believe that you would have let anyone hold you back.”

Her smile was a sunbeam breaking through clouds, transforming her expression into one of pure delight. “Thank you, Colonel Micah. That means—” The sunbeam abruptly dimmed as she looked past him. “Where is she going?”

He turned to see Salomen walking toward the skimmer barn with a large bag slung over one shoulder.

“Salomen,” he called out, jogging toward her. “You cannot—”

“I’m just loading it in the barn. Will you please give me some space? I am very tired of being under scrutiny.”

He stopped. If she felt that way, they weren’t being discreet enough. “I’ll speak to your Guards.”

“Thank you.” She did not break stride and soon vanished through the side door of the barn. With the holding currently on post-harvest break, the main doors were closed and locked. All three skimmers sat inside, newly cleaned of a season’s worth of dirt. Nikin was doing maintenance on the six-seater and had gone into the house a tentick ago for midmeal.

Micah was speaking with Demerah about keeping a better physical distance when he heard the metallic clunk of the main doors unlocking. Only when they began to slide open did he realize that if Nikin was in for midmeal, Salomen would have given him that bag to take back to the barn when he returned.

He stopped mid-sentence and ran.

Before he reached the corner of the barn, the two-seater shot out through the still-opening doors. Salomen glanced at him, then spun the skimmer through an alarming high-speed turn and drove straight over the side of the hill.

Demerah caught up with him as they ran through the doors. The six-seater was useless; Nikin had engine parts strewn all over the floor. Without pausing, Micah raced to the four-seater and yanked open the driver’s door. Demerah slid into the passenger seat at the same time he landed in his. He slammed the door shut with one hand and reached for the steering yoke with the other—

“Shek!” he shouted. “Shekking Mother on a leaking raft!”

The steering yoke and shaft had been unbolted and were no doubt amongst the parts scattered on the floor. Nikin must have done it before going to midmeal.

He scrambled out again and ran to the edge of the hill. Salomen’s route was immediately apparent: the dust of the recently harvested field billowed behind her as she sped east.

“She lied to you,” Demerah said in a shocked voice. “She never lies.”

“She didn’t lie. She put the bag in the barn.” She simply hadn’t included the fact that she would then be driving it out of the barn. He blamed Tal for teaching her the tactical uses of half-truths.

Activating his earcuff, he barked, “All Guards, the Bondlancer is without protection and heading for the east border. I need eyes in the sky and I need them now.”

“Ronlin, confirmed. Eyes up in . . . six ticks.”

He couldn’t see the door of the bunkhouse from this position, but Salomen’s pilot must have jumped the steps and hit the ground running. Not one tick later, he appeared in their sightline, accompanied by a second Guard. They dashed down the hill toward the military transport parked at its bottom.

“Look!” Demerah pointed. “Who is that?”

While Micah had been distracted by their pilot, another transport had appeared. The familiar black-and-silver craft streaked over the fields and came to a hover, then sank toward the ground.

Salomen was driving straight to it.

“Unless I miss my guess, that’s Lhyn Rivers,” he said.

“She’s running from us to be with an alien?”

“She’s running from us to be with her friend,” Micah corrected. “I hope.”

Salomen came to a halt in a cloud of dust and leaped from her skimmer, bag in hand. The transport’s rear door slid open as she approached. Without slowing, she threw in her bag and jumped after it, her feet barely clearing the ground before the transport rose back into the air.

“We won’t be in time,” Micah said grimly. He called in the description, but Salomen was already over the Silverrun River and had a good head start. Her transport was designed for speed and maneuverability; their military transport was not.

“We can track her,” Demerah said, tapping her wristcom.

Micah shook his head. She could try, but he would bet ten moons’ wages that Salomen hadn’t taken her com unit with her.

“She’s . . .” Demerah trailed off. “In the house.”

Growling, Micah stalked toward the house and the idiot brother inside.

Thirty ticks later, an unrepentant Nikin had replaced the steering yoke, and their pilot reported the other transport lost. Micah and Ronlin drove out to Salomen’s skimmer, empty and forlorn in the middle of the field.

“She left a note.” Ronlin picked up an envelope from the driver’s seat. “It’s addressed to Lancer Tal.”

“She knew you’d be the one to find it,” Tal said when Micah called. “She’ll have written it with that in mind. Go ahead and read it to me.”

The envelope was unsealed. He pulled out a single folded sheet of paper and cleared his throat. “‘Tyrina, I’m sorry to worry you, but this is something I have to do. I’m safe with Lhyn and guarded by Rahel. You won’t be able to reach me, but I’ll see you at the State House in three days. Above all else, know that I love you.’”

After a pause, Tal said, “That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“What in Fahla’s name is she doing?”

“Does Ekatya know anything?”

“Ekatya is as baffled as we are. She’s in the middle of a five-day shift on the Phoenix; she has no idea what Lhyn is doing. But she confirmed that Salomen contacted her early this morning and invoked Rahel’s oath. Rahel left on a shuttle immediately after.”

“She didn’t ask you why Salomen needed Rahel?”

“She assumed I knew.”

Micah chose not to comment on her bitter tone. “I don’t think we’ll find her, Tal. She had help planning this. You know what Rahel’s capabilities are. That warrior hid from the entire Alsean Investigative Force for six moons. Three days won’t be a challenge.”

There was a long silence.

“Then I suppose I’ll see her at the State House. Come back to Blacksun, Micah. I’m not going to Hol-Opah if Salomen’s not there. It’ll be too tempting to beat her brother for putting her in danger.”

“I know what you mean.” He tapped out of the call and turned to an expectant Ronlin. “Take her skimmer and try not to run over Nikin when you put it back in the barn.”

Ronlin was not any more pleased with Nikin than the rest of them. “Not even a little bump? I could just flatten a few toes.”

“And bring the wrath of Salomen on your head when she finds out?”

Ronlin scowled. “It would have been easier if she’d told him where she was going. I could have encouraged him to share.”

“Which is why she didn’t tell him.” Frustrating as this was, he had to respect Salomen’s strategic thinking. She could have been a warrior. “Get your unit together and pack up. We’re going to Blacksun.”

“All of us?”

“She’s not coming back here. Whatever she has planned, she’ll go to the State House first.”


46


Spies

Salomen saw the ground drop away before she hit the pad and the door slid shut, cocooning them in the luxurious silence of Lhyn’s transport. After her wild ride through the fields, the sudden calm was disorienting.

“Are all your parts inside?” Lhyn asked without taking her eyes off the controls.

“I’m all here. Thank you for the perfect timing. That was down to the tick. Corozen figured me out before I was out of the skimmer barn.”

Rahel turned around in the front passenger seat, a wide smile on her face. “Well met, Salomen. Shall we go to the waterfall for a centering session?”

The laugh that burst from her throat felt rusty, as if her muscles had forgotten how to perform the task.

“I wish we could. I have fond memories of those days. You taught me so much about controlling my powers.”

“You and Lanaril taught me how to live again. Seems a fair exchange.”

Salomen could not resist. It had been such an awful few days, hiding her intentions from everyone while surreptitiously continuing to share plans and details with the Primes. But now she was free to speak, free to act, and in the presence of two people who would never judge her. She pushed forward and kissed Lhyn’s cheek, then reached out to wrap Rahel in an awkward, highly taboo but delightful warmron.

Rahel, who had ignored that taboo all her life, held on tightly, her unalloyed enjoyment a pleasure to sense.

“I’m so happy to see you two,” Salomen said as she fell back into her seat. “Let me state for the record that I’d make a terrible spy. How did you do it, Rahel?”

“I learned to walk the shadows from the age of fifteen.” She shrugged. “When you grow up there, it’s not hard to live in them.”

“I suppose it’s a matter of what you’re used to. I’m used to not having to think about every word I say.”

“To Andira’s eternal dismay,” Lhyn observed.

Her second laugh felt less rusty.

They bypassed Blacksun on its southern side, then flew northeast to a town Rahel had specified for its size: small enough for them to be in and out quickly, large enough that their arrival would attract little attention. Lhyn landed on the transport sled, which automatically retracted into their rented hangar. As the roof closed over their heads, they transferred their bags to the skimmer that waited beside the sled base. This time, Rahel took the steering yoke and Lhyn sat in the passenger seat. Salomen stayed in the back.

“Um. Rahel?” Lhyn said when they left the last houses of the town behind. “New Haven is the other way.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Then why are we going this way?”

“Because if anyone noticed an expensive armored transport land, or gets questioned by the AIF about the missing Bondlancer, they’ll say they saw us go this way. Which is the opposite way from where we’re actually going.”

Lhyn turned in her seat and caught Salomen’s eye. “I’d make a terrible spy, too.”

“You see why I called her in?”

“I not only see, I’m taking notes in case I ever need a spy of my own.”

Rahel drove them down the main road for another tentick before she turned east, skimmed over the stubbled fields of two holdings, then turned north and cut across one more holding before returning to a road.

“They’re expecting to meet a friend of mine,” Lhyn said. “I didn’t give your name or any specifics.”

“Good. I wish we could have asked them in advance, but with them being sonsales . . .”

“You did the right thing,” Rahel said. “Your plan depends on the warrior and scholar castes not finding out in time to make trouble. First rule of keeping a secret: tell as few people as possible. Especially when those people can be read from two rooms away, even by a mid empath like me.”

Though Salomen had heard all about New Haven from Lhyn, she was not prepared for the domesticity of the little village with its identical houses and perfectly kept flower boxes.

The Voloth settlers were coming out of their homes before Rahel brought their skimmer to a halt by the fountain in the central courtyard. “Stay here,” she said, opening her door.

“Rahel—for the love of flight,” Lhyn grumbled as the door slammed. “I’m the one they know.” Unbuckling her harness, she added, “But you should stay here.”

Salomen nodded absently, her senses assaulted by such an unprecedented concentration of sonsales individuals. For a tick or two, while Lhyn and Rahel spoke with the settlers, she tried to pick out individual emotions just to see if she could.

It was like trying to identify a single drop of water in a waterfall. By the time Lhyn opened the back passenger door and invited her to step out, Salomen had raised her blocks, unable to tolerate the constant roar.

“It is her,” someone said. In near unison, the settlers thumped their fists to their chests.

“Bondlancer Opah, it’s an honor to see you in New Haven.”

She turned toward the voice and recognized Rax Sestak. “Rax, well met,” she said, offering a palm touch.

The others were astonished by the gesture, watching open-mouthed as she greeted their leader. She looked over them, many with their fists still resting against their chests, and said, “You’re not sworn to me. You owe me no salutes.”

“You’re the Bondlancer,” Rax said.

She let it go. “I’ve come to you with a proposal. Is there a place you meet to discuss town issues? Your version of a caste house?”

“Yes, the dining hall.” He gestured to a larger building on his right.

“Will you gather your people? All of them?”

“We were already waiting for Lhyn and her friend. We’ll ring the bell and the rest will come.” He turned to lead the way.

“I’ve never seen so many smooth faces in my life,” Salomen whispered to Rahel as they followed.

“I have,” Rahel whispered back. “You get used to it.”

“And the constant assault of their emotions?”

“That, you never get used to.”

Uprising

“She’s prettier in person than in the news,” Vagron said as they waited for everyone to file into the dining hall. “I could rub that.”

“Go fuck a nut,” Rax said. “She can sense you. You’ll send her running back to wherever she came from.”

“Like she can sense all the other men and half the women in this room who are thinking the same thing? If she hasn’t run yet, she’s na going. That warrior is something else, too.”

Unable to resist, Rax asked, “But not Lhyn?”

“Too skinny. I like more curves. Besides, she reminds me of my sister.”

“What does it say about you that you’re drooling over the Alseans but not the Gaian?”

“I’m adapting?”

Rax slugged him in the arm but could not hide his smile.

They had not been roommates initially. In the reshuffling that took place as the settlers discovered who they could and could not live with, they had ended up together when both of their previous roommates asked for a swap. Vagron was older, quieter, and not tolerant of youthful energy. Though Rax was younger, he had left that kind of energy behind when he murdered his friends. Many of the others had responded to their mind-rape as he had, becoming subdued and more introspective as they tried to rationalize what they had done and what it made them. Others responded by growing louder and more uninhibited, as if by keeping up a constant state of noise and motion, they would never have to think.

All had their coping methods. Most had learned to trust specific high empaths: their counselors, the ones who joined them in counseling, the three living here in New Haven. But they were familiar.

Now an unfamiliar high empath stood on the wooden speaker’s platform at the front of the dining hall, patiently waiting as the last settlers straggled in, and Rax could feel the tension in the room. Though they were all programmed not to hurt Alseans, the Bondlancer had no such restriction. Knowing the Lancer, Rax thought the chances of her bondmate giving in to unprovoked violence were around zero. The others had no such assurance.

He saw no one else in the courtyard, then checked the tables in the dining room. They were all full.

“We’re in,” Vagron said. “Let’s see what she wants.”

Rax closed the door and walked up the side of the room to the platform. It was not meant to hold many people; they generally took turns standing up here to speak. With the Bondlancer, Rahel Sayana, and Lhyn Rivers already there, he had to step into a corner of it in order to not crowd them.

“Settlers,” he called. The low buzz of speculation came to a halt. “Thank you. As you’ve probably heard already, Bondlancer Opah has a proposal for us. Before we start, I’d like to ask her a question.” He turned to face her. “Bondlancer, except for the two people beside you and our Alsean residents, every person in this room has been hurt by a high empath. Will you give your word that you mean us no harm? Regardless of what we might say to your proposal?”

She was visibly shocked. “Of course. I would never—” She stopped, glancing at Rahel, who put a steadying hand on her arm. “I give you my word.”

“Everyone good with that?” Rax asked. He saw nods and shrugs, but no head shakes. “All right, let’s hear what the Bondlancer has to say.” He stepped off the platform and leaned against the wall next to it.

“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak,” Bondlancer Opah began with unexpected courtesy. “Though I’ve never met any of you until now, I’ve heard a great deal about you from Lhyn. I know you’re struggling for acceptance. I know you love Alsea, but you can only convince Alseans of that by getting to know them—and not many of us will give you the chance.”

A murmur of agreement swept the room.

“I can offer you a way to prove yourselves. To prove that you’re not animals being held back by an empathic directive. If you agree to my proposal, you’ll show all of Alsea that, given the chance to choose, you will choose to protect us.”

She outlined her proposal in a straightforward manner: they would act as security for a march in Blacksun involving the four lower castes. The march would have global coverage, which would inevitably focus in part on their participation. It was an opportunity for the whole world to see them acting as part of their adopted community, rather than living in seclusion as reviled invaders.

“I’ll answer any questions I can, but let me start with what I’m guessing will be your first: yes, I know you have a limitation no other security force would have. You cannot even act as your own security here.” She gestured toward the windows overlooking the courtyard. “There’s only one way you can protect us, and that’s to put yourselves between us and harm.”

“You’re joking,” one of the younger settlers called out. “First you rip apart our minds, and now you want to rip apart our bodies?”

“Yeah, we saw what happened to Rax!” another said. “We’re not signing up for that.”

A more measured voice spoke from a table full of quieter settlers. “You sound like a White Citizen. We’re not disposable.”

“What is a White Citizen?” Bondlancer Opah asked.

That inspired a cacophony of answers, all tumbling over each other and none of them polite, adding to the confusion on the Bondlancer’s face.

“Hold on, ya lunkers!” Vagron shouted in Common from the back wall. He strode forward, weaving between tables until he reached the center of the room. “Let’s give her a chance to prove she’s no White Citizen,” he continued in High Alsean. “To answer your question, Bondlancer, they’re the richest citizens in the Empire. They think hangers are dirt to be scraped off their shoes. We’re only worth noticing when we can be useful to them.”

“I didn’t know that,” Lhyn murmured. She shot Rax a wounded look, as if he were personally responsible for her ignorance on this matter. He shrugged and looked back at Vagron, whose accent vanished when he spoke High Alsean. It was always odd to hear him speak so precisely, but that was a function of their implanted lingual nodes.

“Eight moons ago, you were attacked at your first speech in Pollonius,” Vagron said. “Where we come from, a hanger who attacked a White Citizen would be tortured and executed.”

All around him, heads nodded vigorously.

“Tell us, then. What happened to that warrior?”

The Bondlancer opened her mouth, then shut it again and looked conflicted. “She’s making her reparations.”

Rax shook his head as the settlers grumbled amongst themselves. No one would trust that. It was the sort of thing citizens said when they didn’t want to use words like torture or slavery.

“We’ll need something more specific,” Vagron said.

“I cannot tell you more than that. The terms of her sentence are sealed for her protection.”

The settlers erupted in loud and profane disbelief, and Rax knew this proposal was going nowhere. She had lost before she started.

A loud thudding cut through the noise. He swiveled to see that Rahel had produced a metal stave from nowhere and was slamming its end on the platform.

“Are you all quite done?” she asked angrily. “You’re throwing a lot of disrespect at someone who’s offering you the best chance you’ll ever have of fitting in.”

“She’s not answering the question!” someone shouted.

“She’s not answering it because she has honor!” she shouted back. “She won’t betray someone else to get what she wants. I’ll do it for her.”

“Rahel,” Bondlancer Opah began.

“No. This is my decision.” She glared out at the settlers. “It was me. I’m the attacker.”

Rax gaped at her. That was inconceivable.

“It’s true,” Lhyn said. “I know you don’t believe it. You’re not used to mercy. But it’s true.”

Inconceivable, but . . . true? He did believe Lhyn. She had treated them like real people, listening to them as if their stories had value. She gave them the unvarnished truth, even when it wasn’t comfortable.

But the idea of one of the most powerful Alseans on the planet allowing her attacker to act as her Guard—he could practically feel his brain short-circuiting as he tried to grasp it.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her,” Rahel said in a quieter voice. “It wasn’t part of my plan. But things got out of control. She forgave me, and then she got me the help I needed. She made a deal to keep me out of prison. So when she called to invoke my oath to her . . .” She let the stave rest against her shoulder, both hands still wrapped around it. “If my captain hadn’t given me permission, I would have stolen a shuttle and coerced someone to fly me down. Nothing would have stopped me from fulfilling my oath.”

The Bondlancer turned to stare at her. “Are you insane?”

“Possibly.” Rahel grinned. “But at least it’s in a good way now.”

“Fahla, I’m glad Ekatya gave you permission. You grainbird.”

For some reason, the insult made the two of them smile at each other in a way that left no doubt as to their mutual affection.

Vagron cleared his throat. “I’m satisfied. She’s no White Citizen.”

Uprising

Once Salomen passed the test she hadn’t known would be necessary, the Voloth had a spirited discussion in which she fielded as many questions as she could, deferred several to Rahel, and had to admit an inability to answer a few. She knew she was asking a great deal. Not only could she not guarantee their safety, she couldn’t even guarantee her own. Nor could she be certain that their actions in the march would make a difference in how Alseans saw them.

But it seemed that honesty was all they wanted—that, and the right to make their own choices.

Rahel was very honest when she told them that if it came to a caste war, New Haven would be one of the first casualties. An Alsea fighting itself would not be devoting resources to maintaining and protecting a settlement of former invaders. Alseans filled with fury and looking for an outlet would find the settlers easy targets.

In the end, the majority of the settlers agreed. Thirty-two refused, which still left Salomen with over one hundred and twenty protectors willing to put their bodies between the marchers and harm.

The afternoon flew by as she, Rahel, Lhyn, and the three Alsean residents conducted a quick fitting of each settler. With her access to Protectorate data, Lhyn had procured the matter printer pattern for Fleet combat uniforms, which were made of a flexible but armored material that would turn away projectiles. They would prevent real damage, though not bruising. Prime Builder Eroles was waiting for the data, which she would use to print up standard sizes of the uniforms—with an Alsean twist on the colors—and then deliver them to New Haven.

It was surpassingly strange to be touching one Voloth body after another as Salomen took names and measurements. These people had invaded her world. Andira, Rahel, Corozen, Ronlin, Fianna—people she knew and cared about had fought them with everything they had. Warriors and scholars had lost limbs and lives. It seemed as if she should hate these soldiers out of respect for the sacrifices made to defeat them.

Yet they were so very ordinary. Some were brash, some bashful, some even flirted. All of them had hope. Many thanked her for seeing them as a resource rather than a burden.

“Even if it doesn’t work, you’re giving us a chance to try,” one young man told her. The scar that ran from his eyebrow to his jaw was fearsome, and when she cautiously lowered her blocks, his emotions felt older than his physical age. This was a young man who had known terror, who knew fear right now but allowed it little importance because he had something much worse to compare it to.

No one, she thought, could touch and feel these Voloth and still maintain their hatred.

They left New Haven after extracting a promise that none of the settlers would breathe a word about their presence or the march.

“Do you think they’ll keep their promise?” Salomen asked from the back seat.

“I do,” Rahel answered. “They’re soldiers. They understand secrecy and missions.”

“Rax knows it’s in their best interests,” Lhyn added. “If any of them tell, it could disrupt the march and that would disrupt their chance.”

“I’m concerned about the ones staying home,” Salomen said. “If they’re not part of the mission, will they still keep the secret?”

“They’re still part of the village. It’s literally all they have in the universe. If they commit an act that gets them ostracized, they have nowhere else to go. That’s a powerful incentive for cooperation.”

“What about the Alseans?” They had assured her of their cooperation, but they were also warrior and scholar caste.

“Same incentive. Or at least very similar.”

“They chose New Haven as their home,” Rahel said. “When you don’t fit anywhere else, you’ll do almost anything to protect what you have.”

They drove cross-country for fifteen ticks, then stopped in the middle of a field while Rahel applied colorizer drops to her eyes and spritzed it through her hair. The transformation was instantaneous as her auburn hair darkened to brown and her eyes turned hazel. She pulled her hair out of its braid and let it hang loose, then resumed their journey without a word.

Salomen leaned forward and rested a hand on her shoulder. “I know what you’re thinking.”

Lhyn looked over, her brow furrowed. “Now you’re telepathic?”

“She knows the last time I used colorizers was when I worked for Shantu.” Rahel did not take her eyes off the path she was picking across the fields.

“Oh. When you kidnapped her brother.”

Salomen didn’t need her empathic senses to see the guilt. “I’ve wondered how much of Shantu’s original reputation was him, and how much was really you. Did you ever find it unfair that he took the credit for your work?”

The distraction was effective; Rahel’s guilt diminished as she shook her head. “He was welcome to it. If people ever found out who I was and what I did, I’d never have walked the shadows again. I couldn’t do that work with a reputation for upholding the law. I needed to sell myself as someone who was happy to break it.”

“That shouldn’t have been too hard a sell, considering you were ready to steal a shuttle off Ekatya’s ship,” Lhyn observed.

“Some laws are more important than others.”

“I’m glad you’re on my side,” Salomen said.

“I am, too. Fahla’s vessel is a powerful friend to have.”

“Oh, for the love of—I keep telling you not to call me that.”

Rahel chuckled as she neatly slid their skimmer between two trees and onto a road.

They arrived in a town south of Blacksun, chosen for its location a mere twenty ticks from the starting point of the march. Rahel drove to a pleasant-looking inn and parked behind a tintinatalus tree with a massive trunk.

“Stay here,” she said.

Salomen watched her walk toward the entrance and thought she wouldn’t have recognized her from the back. Besides the hair color, her whole posture was different. Rahel normally moved with fluid grace and a long, powerful stride; now her steps were smaller and her back and arms were stiff. She did not look like a Guard.

“I have a feeling I’m going to tire of the words ‘stay here’ very soon,” Salomen said.

Lhyn hummed in agreement. “You and me both. I’m just as recognizable as you.”

“At least she parked us in the shade.”

“Fifty cinteks says that’s not why she chose this spot. She chose it because it puts the tree trunk between you and the lobby window.”

Salomen hadn’t noticed that. “No bet. You’d make a better spy than I.” She rested her head against the seat and closed her eyes, enjoying the quiet and the lack of emotions other than those pouring from Lhyn. After spending an afternoon at New Haven, even Lhyn’s uncontrolled output felt like a mere trickle.

She floated in the peace for a few ticks, then said, “Lhyn?”

“Hm?”

“Thank you. For staying with me, even though I won’t let you march.”

“There’s still time to change your mind. I’m sure Chief Kameha would join up, too.”

“No. I’m grateful for the offer, but having the first Gaian caste members in our march would cloud the waters. This has to be kept internal. Besides, I thought you had rules against interfering in the cultures you study?”

“I do. Great, huge ones. Enormous ones.” Lhyn turned around in her seat. “But I live here. I’m a citizen and a member of the scholar caste. I think I broke that rule some time ago. Besides, you heard Rahel. Some rules are more important than others.”

“I believe she said laws, not rules.”

Lhyn waved a hand airily. “Eh. Same thing.”

Rahel reappeared, still walking in that constrained manner, and passed a key chip to Salomen as she slid into her seat. “Only two keys, since as far as the innkeeper knows, there are two of us in the cabin. Not that you’ll be using yours, but . . . just in case.”

She started up the engine and drove around behind the inn, where a small cabin sat fifty strides from the main building. A flower-lined path led from its front door to the inn’s back door, and a clear patch of grass marked the parking area for a skimmer.

As the skimmer settled to the ground, she was already opening her door. “Stay h—”

“Oh, stop! There’s no one around! What are you going to do, teleport me inside?”

“I’m going to check the cabin. The innkeeper said it was ready, but that’s not a guarantee that the cleaning staff aren’t behind schedule.” Rahel was unimpressed with Salomen’s outburst. “Never assume. When I know it’s safe, I’ll come and get you.”

“Wait.” Salomen gazed at the cabin and let her senses loose. This range was no challenge at all, and she quickly verified the absence of life. “There’s no one inside.”

She took some satisfaction in watching Rahel’s take-charge attitude deflate slightly, and couldn’t help adding, “You forgot I’m Fahla’s vessel so quickly?”

Lhyn snickered. “This should be a fun two days.”


47


Cellmates

Being trapped in a cabin for three nights and two days was an extraordinary test of Salomen’s patience.

“The next time I visit Herot, I’m telling him how proud I am of him,” she said on the second evening. “He says he’s found a kind of peace in prison. I’m ready to climb the walls.”

“He’s freer than you are right now,” Rahel observed. “He has the run of a whole campus. Library, education center, training rooms, miniature caste houses.”

“And hiking trails,” Lhyn said. “Your prisons are palatial compared to some I’ve seen. If I had to be incarcerated somewhere, I’d choose Alsea. Except for the Pit.”

“I suppose it’s all relative. Oh, Rahel, the Prime Builder called while you were out getting evenmeal. The uniforms are already at New Haven.”

The checklist was getting shorter, and she couldn’t do a thing to help at this point. Her last contribution had been getting the Voloth signed on. It was frustrating to know that the four Primes were out there furiously organizing while she sat here doing nothing.

Avoiding being seen was now the entirety of her job. Once out of Hol-Opah and free of her security, she had called Prime Builder Eroles on her new earcuff. From that moment, the countdown had begun and the final preparations were put into play, the things they couldn’t do earlier for fear of word getting out. All involved more people with more knowledge than they had allowed before, including—scheduled for late tomorrow afternoon—the directives to caste members notifying them of the marches. At that point, they assumed word would begin trickling out to the warriors and scholars. Their hope was that ten hanticks would not be enough time for angry groups of warriors to organize.

One other event was timed to her call to Eroles: the leaked announcement of her disappearance. The global media was going wild with speculation. She cringed to see Andira being forced to make a statement that no, she did not know where the Bondlancer was, but she did know for certain that she was safe and well. Andira only knew that through their divine tyree bond, and Salomen had never been more grateful for it. Difficult as it was to sense what she was putting her bondmate through, she also knew Andira would have torn the world apart without the constant assurance of her safety.

Her lengthy disappearance was Prime Producer Arabisar’s idea, and there were times when Salomen wondered if this was a sly, particularly evil punishment for the way she had forced Arabisar’s hand with her speech: both putting her into virtual imprisonment and making her the head of the uprising. As Prime Crafter Bylwytin enthusiastically declared, this would have the same effect as the theater lights going out before a production began. When Salomen burst back onto the public stage, Alsea would be electrified.

On the third night, her nerves set in with a vengeance. The directives had gone out a hantick earlier; there was no turning back. She hadn’t been this terrified since she was eighteen and preparing to make her first speech at the caste house.

“Distract me,” she pleaded. “I’m losing my mind thinking about tomorrow morning.”

Her cellmates, as she had jokingly called them, looked at each other with identical expressions of you first.

Lhyn cleared her throat, her gaze still on Rahel. “I do have something I’ve been wanting to ask you.”

“You can ask me anything, you know that.”

“Right, but this is personal.”

“You’ve quizzed me on joining techniques. Is it more personal than that?”

“Probably?”

“After this, I want to hear about the joining techniques,” Salomen put in.

Amused, Rahel gave a nod. “I’m listening.”

Lhyn chewed on her bottom lip. “Salomen’s brother asked how I could study the Voloth after being tortured. I said they weren’t the ones who hurt me. But they did hurt you. How did you walk into New Haven so easily? And take all those measurements? You didn’t show any signs of stress. Why don’t you hate them?”

Salomen had noticed that as well but would never have mustered the courage to ask. She forgot her nerves as she waited for the answer.

“I did,” Rahel said. “A lot. But Lanaril helped me pull apart the reasons for my trauma shock. Most of it wasn’t from what they did to us. It was from what we did to them.”

She crossed to the window and stared out at the flower-lined path. “You haven’t seen horror until you’ve seen someone die of pure terror. Ten pipticks was all my high empaths needed to shatter their minds. I couldn’t live with that knowledge, so I hated the Voloth instead. And, um, Lancer Tal. They were safer to think about. I could tell myself that Lancer Tal caused most of my problems, and the Voloth deserved what they got.”

“Denial,” Lhyn said knowingly. “Your mind was protecting itself from something it couldn’t accept.”

Rahel turned with a small smile. “Lanaril?”

“Mm-hm. Now that I think about it, she’s the reason all three of us are sane.”

“Speak for yourself,” Salomen said. “What I’m doing tomorrow is the definition of insanity.”

“But it’s insanity with a clear purpose and full self-awareness,” Lhyn pronounced. “Which means it can’t be insanity.”

“That hurt my head,” Rahel said.

“Mine, too.”

Lhyn gave them an exasperated look, then softened as she focused on Rahel. “Lanaril pulled aside the curtain and helped you see what you were hiding from yourself. And that’s when you stopped hating the Voloth?”

“It wasn’t instant. But I started thinking differently. I saw the same things in different ways. And I had already learned that Lancer Tal wasn’t who I thought she was.” She shifted her gaze to Salomen. “Being forgiven for my own acts made me more forgiving of others. Then I met Rax on the Phoenix. He felt like any other Gaian on the ship. But the odd part? He was too calm about being beaten to a paste. The only people who can shrug off a beating are people who have been beaten before. People who think it’s part of life.”

“I hate that you know this,” Salomen said. Lhyn nodded in emphatic agreement.

“I know less than most of those Voloth do. After I met Rax, I asked Dr. Wells about it. She wouldn’t give me any details, but she did say that Voloth training seemed to involve a lot of broken bones and scarring.”

“Scarring,” Salomen repeated. “I measured a young man who had one from here to here.” She drew a finger down the side of her face. “I assumed he got it in battle, but . . .”

“They fought in impervious shielded boxes,” Rahel pointed out. “I don’t think many of them were injured in those. They were injured by their own officers.”

“You’re right.” Lhyn unfolded her long legs and stood up to refill her glass of spirits. “Salomen?”

“Please.” Salomen held out her glass.

Lhyn didn’t offer the bottle to Rahel, who never drank. “They’ve told me about their training. They had the questions beaten out of them. It’s how the Voloth Empire creates a military that follows any order and believes any lie.”

Rahel lifted her shannel cup. “Hard to hate people you pity.”

“That’s the truth and a half,” Lhyn said.

They sipped their drinks in thoughtful silence.

“Now then.” Salomen set her glass down. “About those joining techniques?”

Uprising

Salomen’s greatest aid through her three nights of imprisonment was Lhyn.

Knowing that the AIF was looking for three women together, Rahel had reserved rooms for two. She had planned to sleep in the living area, an idea both Salomen and Lhyn immediately rejected.

“The beds are big enough,” Salomen said. “We’ll share. We’ve done it before.”

She missed Andira most acutely at night. But something about Lhyn’s presence soothed her, and she thought it must be due to their foursome Sharings. Lhyn carried a piece of Andira inside her, and Salomen’s senses were responding to it.

It didn’t occur to her that she was providing the same comfort to Lhyn until the third night, when whispers pulled her from sleep. The words were nonsensical, confusing Salomen in her sleep-dazed state, until she realized they were not her language.

She rolled over and found her bed partner exuding an odd combination of guilt and excitement.

“And now we’ve woken her up,” Lhyn said in High Alsean. “I’m sorry. I did try—” She stopped, focusing somewhere over Salomen’s shoulder. “You could have trusted me.”

“Who are you—?” The answer came before Salomen finished the question. She pushed up on one elbow, wide awake. “I thought you and Ekatya couldn’t connect again!”

The telepathic connection that had saved Lhyn from her torture had been an accident on her side, due to shock and a deadly mix of injected chemicals, and an intentional intervention by Ekatya, whose chemical alteration was carefully controlled by Dr. Wells. Once Lhyn recovered, they had tried to reproduce it, but every attempt ended in failure.

“We couldn’t,” Lhyn said. “But then you all healed me. We connected right after.”

“When Ekatya was recalled to Tashar?” Salomen clutched her hand with a delighted grin. “That’s wonderful!”

“It is. But here’s the really wonderful part. It only worked when we were both alone and very relaxed. Ekatya usually needs spirits to get her there. I’ve been taking centering lessons from Rahel.” Her smile lit up the room. “But I’m not alone and it’s still working. You’re awake and it’s still working!”

There was pure joy in her touch, warm and rich. Salomen kept her grip, soaking it up. “Why didn’t you tell us? It’s been more than four moons.”

“I wanted to. Ekatya thought we should perfect it first. As if a scientific miracle can be perfected.” She turned her head, following the movements of a body that wasn’t there. “She says it’s a matter of practicality. That is steaming dokshin, Ekatya. They’re the two people in the universe we don’t have to be careful with.”

“Andira would probably say the same thing. She wouldn’t want to talk about it until she knew how it worked and had full command of it.”

Lhyn listened for a moment. “She says that’s why you’re perfect for Andira. You understand warriors.”

Salomen dropped back to the mattress, laughing until she coughed from the effort of trying to keep quiet and not wake Rahel. “The day I understand warriors is the day I meet Fahla.”

“You understood Ekatya within hanticks of meeting her.” Lhyn pulled herself up enough to rest against the simple wooden headboard and wrapped an arm around Salomen’s shoulder. “I’m fine and she’s safe,” she said to their invisible guest. “But you’re stuck. You can’t tell Andira you’ve checked on us without admitting how. And you can’t not tell her you’ve checked on us. Didn’t think about that, did you?”

Salomen sat up next to her, unwilling to have this conversation—or whatever it could be called—while prone.

As the ticks passed in an increasingly easy dialogue, she felt that only the thinnest of barriers kept her from seeing Ekatya at the foot of the bed. It was as if she simply didn’t know how, but if she did, it would all become clear.

She learned that this method of communication eased the physical symptoms Lhyn and Ekatya had previously experienced when separated by great distances. The chest pain, the restless energy, the inability to concentrate—all of them settled when they could speak mind-to-mind.

“The distance tolerance has really increased, though,” Lhyn said. “Our first time, it didn’t ease up until we saw each other. The second time, Ekatya felt better the instant she set foot on the space station where I was healing. Now we’re fine even when I’m down here and she’s in orbit.” She cocked her head. “Ekatya says ‘fine’ is not the same thing as knowing I’m safe.” In a conspiratorial tone, she added, “She’s trying to justify butting in. She knows Rahel would never let anything happen to us.”

“Perhaps she’s practicing her excuses for when she talks to Andira.” Salomen stilled, listening. She could have sworn she’d heard a faint chuckle.

“She says ‘no comment,’ which is Fleet speak for ‘you’re right but I can’t admit it.’” Lhyn laughed. “Well, it is! Don’t try to tell me I haven’t nailed the translation.”

They chatted for another quarter hantick, but Lhyn put an end to it when Salomen yawned for the third time.

“We have to stop. She needs to sleep.” She shook her head. “No, I really am fine. I sleep better with her. It feels safe. Comfortable.”

Salomen offered an encouraging smile that turned into yet another yawn. She slid back down and plumped her pillow before crashing into it and closing her eyes. “She’s right. I cannot stay up all night.”

“She says good night, and thanks you for watching over me.”

“We’re watching over each other,” Salomen said sleepily. She listened to Lhyn murmuring in her own language and realized that over these last days, she had grown so accustomed to the relentlessly powerful flow of Lhyn’s emotions that their very strength was a source of comfort.

The murmurs stopped, and Lhyn brushed a soft kiss to her temple. “Go to sleep, skrella-ni-corsa,” she whispered.

Salomen wondered what that meant, but the words were too heavy to push up her throat. She was asleep a moment later.


48


Ocean of color

The day of the uprising dawned gray and cloudy, and Salomen’s first waking breath told her the autumn rains were coming today. When she opened her eyes, Lhyn was watching from the other pillow.

“Early riser?” Salomen asked in a rusty voice. “Or did you never get back to sleep after Ekatya’s visit?”

“Some of each. Sorry we woke you.”

“I’m not.” She stretched and rolled to face her. “Do you think she’ll tell Andira?”

“Mm-hm. And Andira will scold her about lying by omission, and Ekatya will deserve every word of it.”

“They’re not fast learners, are they?”

They shared a chuckle at the thought, but Lhyn was abruptly serious. “I lied by omission, too. I didn’t tell you about the brain damage—”

“You didn’t owe us—”

“—because we’re the ones who caused it. When we connected.”

“What!” Salomen lowered her voice. “It wasn’t the drugs?”

“It was both. Turns out that connecting is a high-energy activity. By itself it’s fine, but the drugs magnified the effect so much that it burned me out. Literally.”

“Oh, Lhyn.” For such damage to be even partially self-inflicted . . .

Lhyn’s dismissive shrug was belied by the echo of grief in her emotions. “I told myself it was worth the price. That piece of my brain in exchange for my life; who wouldn’t make the trade?”

“That doesn’t make it any less of a loss.”

She gave a sharp nod, her mouth too tight. “Thank you for understanding that.”

“Of course.” But Salomen’s words were lost in the flurry of blankets as Lhyn threw back the covers and hopped out of bed. It was a definitive punctuation mark to an obviously painful topic.

Salomen slid out more slowly, wondering whether Ekatya’s reason for keeping their renewed connection a secret was truly about perfecting it or about protecting Lhyn from further trauma. Had their telepathy failed again, no one would have been the wiser. Lhyn wouldn’t have had to acknowledge another loss.

She was belting her robe when a memory surfaced. “What did you call me last night? Skrella . . . something. Right before I fell asleep.”

Shyness was not a characteristic she associated with her confident scholar friend, but Lhyn’s nervousness clung to her skin and she would not meet Salomen’s eyes.

“Skrella-ni-corsa. It’s an endearment in my language.”

“Meaning?”

“The closest translation would be ‘sister of the heart.’ It means, um—” She pushed her hands into sleep-tangled hair and offered a wry smile. “I don’t know why this is so hard. It means a person not related by blood, but someone we choose as family. Closer than a friend. Much closer than family we don’t choose.”

“Skrella-na—”

“Ni. Skrella-ni-corsa.” Lhyn spoke each part separately, then nodded as Salomen repeated them. “Good. A little flat on the accent, but anyone on Allendohan would understand you.”

“I’m honored to be your skrella-ni-corsa. Can I choose you as mine, too? It might—” Salomen stopped at the spray of incredulous joy that spattered across her senses. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”

“It’s not that, it’s—” Lhyn swallowed, her eyes a little too bright. “I don’t think your love comes in rations.”

Salomen heard the message and swept her into a warmron. “It does not,” she said firmly. “I either do, or I don’t. And when I do, I don’t stop.”

“I know,” Lhyn murmured. “It’s one of the things that makes you special.” She kissed Salomen’s cheek and pulled back, pulsing with new confidence that shone through her wide smile. “I should warn you that I’ll be impossible to get rid of now. Sponge in the rain, remember? I’m a very big sponge.”

“I’d say something about how much rain I’m capable of, but it’s too early for metaphors.” Salomen gestured toward the door. “Rahel is probably setting out the food. Shall we?”

Mornmeal was difficult. Salomen’s own confidence had hidden itself back in the bedroom as the reality of this day reared its intimidating head. With her stomach tied in knots, she picked at a few pieces of panfruit and tried to leave without eating.

Rahel was ready for that.

“You’re walking how many lengths today? And on a global broadcast every step of the way? I’m sure Alseans will be impressed to see their Bondlancer collapse halfway through.” She laid a slice of fanten on bread and briskly cut it up along with a variety of fruits, until everything was bite-sized. “Eat,” she said, pushing the plate across the table.

“You’re making me feel like a child.”

“I’m taking care of you because you need it. You’re going into battle. Don’t do it on an empty stomach. That’s a first-cycle trainee mistake.”

“Fine.” Salomen took a bite of the fanten and bread. It tasted like dust, but she chewed through it.

Then Rahel began telling Lhyn about a client she’d had when she was a prime, a man who couldn’t become aroused unless he was tied up and beaten with his own shoes.

“Your shoes wouldn’t work?”

“No, they had to be his. And not clean shoes he brought in a bag. The shoes he wore to meet me. Sometimes he’d walk through mud puddles on purpose, just to get them dirty before I used them.”

“How does a person end up with a need like that?” Lhyn wondered. “What causes it?”

“I don’t know, but after the beating, he could only finish in one position. And it wasn’t any of the usual ones.”

Salomen ate mechanically, her attention devoted to the outrageous tale Rahel was spinning, until she reached for another bite of food and found nothing.

“Distraction is a powerful tool.” Rahel picked a starfruit from the bowl. “Learned that as a prime.”

“I should be offended at how easily you just managed me.”

“But you’re smarter than that.” She popped the starfruit in her mouth and smiled.

Twenty ticks later, Salomen was washed and dressed in her formal regalia—the same clothing she had worn to the funeral pyres at Melladin and never returned to the State House. Her dark gray trousers were embroidered with green thread that would match her cape when she donned it, and her shirt was designed to go beneath the cuirass: smooth and plain in the torso, but with metallic discs studded all along the sleeves, reflecting the light with her slightest movement.

Her one concession to the practicalities of the day was to substitute her dress boots for a comfortable pair of walking shoes, which she had polished to a shine before leaving Hol-Opah.

Lhyn arranged her hair, putting it up in a formal twist that left her neck bare. “That should stay up even in the rain,” she said in a satisfied tone.

Rahel stood next to her, holding the cuirass. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

They lifted it over her head and adjusted the sliding shoulder tabs that snugged the breastplate and backplate against her torso. Salomen held out her arms, giving them room to close the side buckles with a series of sharp clicks.

She looked down at the silver shield of Alsea blazing across her chest and thought that today, she truly was living up to its promise. This was not merely a decoration that came with her bonding to Andira. It was an identity she was seizing with both hands.

They swung her dark green cape into place, with its far larger shield of Alsea embroidered in black and gold. As Lhyn smoothed it on her shoulders, Rahel fastened the decorative chain across her upper chest. When they finished, they stepped back to view their handiwork.

“Wow,” Lhyn said. “You look—”

“Magnificent.” Rahel thumped her fist to her chest and lowered her head. “Bondlancer. It’s an honor to serve you.”

Salomen pulled her into a warmron made awkward by the armor. “It’s an honor to be served by such a strong and loyal warrior. And a good friend.”

“Where’s mine?” Lhyn asked as soon as Salomen let go.

“Right here.” She opened her arms.

“Oof. That’s definitely bombproof.” Lhyn rapped her knuckles on the cuirass. “You really are the Bondlancer,” she said as they separated. “The only person who didn’t know it before now was you.”

Salomen bounced lightly, settling the armor and making sure everything was tucked in properly. “I kept trying to think of a way to take those,” she said, nodding toward the worn gloves lying atop her bag. “Short of wearing them, I don’t see a way.”

Rahel picked them up. “These are old.”

“They were my mother’s.”

“You want to bring her with you.” At Salomen’s nod, Rahel indicated the utility belt wrapped around her black Fleet combat vest. “I wouldn’t presume, but I can tuck them here if you’d like.”

It was such a simple thing, yet Salomen’s throat nearly closed. “I would like that,” she managed. “Thank you.”

She rode in the front seat this time, needing the extra space and easier entry with her cuirass. As Rahel drove, Salomen attached her new wristcom and slid the earcuff into place. With a tap, she activated it and called Prime Builder Eroles.

“We’re on our way. What are the latest percentages?” she asked.

“Astounding. Ninety-one percent compliance with the merchants in Whitesun.”

Salomen listened in growing awe as Eroles listed off the results of the caste directives sent out the previous day. An itch set in at the base of her brain, nudging her to acknowledge what she had been avoiding.

Rahel left the road and skimmed up to the top of a hill, stopping where a break in the trees offered a view of the floodplain below. The Fahlinor River cut through it, broad and smooth, and vanished into the southern edge of the city. To the west, the Silverrun River wound its way in, much wider here than at Hol-Opah. Blacksun was founded on the junction of these two great rivers, a point of power that was now contained within the State Park.

This was the gathering place, just outside the city where the Fahlinor made its entrance. Salomen stared down, feeling as if she had taken a posthead to the chest.

She had thought they might start with fifty to seventy thousand. One hundred at the most.

An ocean of color shimmered in the meadow below, each drop a formal, full length cape worn by someone from one of the four lower castes. They were walking out from Blacksun’s southernmost magtran station, moving away from the massive numbers of skimmers parked at the edges of the crowd, and shifting about in conversational groups. Beneath the threatening sky, their capes shone in a vibrant palette: the light blue of the builders, the dark green of the producers, the purple of the merchants, and the distinctive tricolored stripes of the crafters in yellow, green, and blue.

“Holy shekking Mother,” Lhyn said. “How many are there?”

“Prime Builder,” Salomen asked, “how many are marching in Blacksun?”

“So far? Confirmed participation from five hundred and eighty-six thousand, seven hundred and thirty-two. I expect that to easily hit six hundred thousand, possibly six-fifty by the time you start. Your announcement will bring them out. And it will grow as you move through the city.”

“You’ll have to keep the head of the march tight,” Rahel said when Salomen repeated the numbers. “So the Voloth can cover you. They’ll be lost in those crowds otherwise.”

She drove down the hill and circled around the teeming mass of Alseans, then slowly moved through the thinner crowds near the river. Finally, she resorted to opening her window and calling, “Make way! Make way for the Bondlancer!”

The word passed like fire through a summer-dry field, and people moved to the sides, staring as they eased through. Then the shouts began.

“She’s here!”

“The Bondlancer is here!”

“Bondlancer Opah is leading us!”

By the time they reached the tall platform that had been erected overnight, the crowd near the river was cheering. Salomen stepped out and found Prime Producer Arabisar waiting, her own cuirass bearing the tree of the producers.

“Welcome to the uprising,” Arabisar said with an elated grin. “We seem to have a few more than we expected.”

Salomen met her palm touch and sensed very little nervousness. Arabisar was excited and fully committed. “Are you sure you don’t want to take over for me?” she asked.

“I’m not the one they’re waiting for.”

“Will they be able to hear me?” She had to focus on the practical or lose her mind.

“Our builders have been moving out the holographic generators and adding new ones for the last hantick. We’re keeping up with the crowd. Come, Bondlancer. Time to show them what you’re made of.”

“I go where she goes.” Rahel had come around the nose of the skimmer and stood beside Salomen, her crimson cape standing out amidst the sea of four other castes’ colors.

“Prime Producer, may I introduce First Guard Rahel Sayana.”

“Well met, First Guard.” Arabisar held up her palm. “Alsea’s first space explorer is a worthy representative of warrior support. And Dr. Lhyn Rivers, well met. I’m glad to see you and glad you’re not marching.”

Lhyn touched her hand in turn. “I would if I could. But it doesn’t seem wise.”

“No,” Arabisar said regretfully. “Scholar support will come, I’m sure, but you would not be the best example at a time like this.”

“I’ll stay to watch the start,” Lhyn told Salomen. “Then I’ll take care of the rental and pick up my transport.”

“If you see Andira before I do—”

“I’ll tell her. But she already knows.”

The platform was accessed by a ladder. Arabisar led Salomen to the base of it and turned. “We were right; the caste directives were leaked. Lancer Tal knows there’s a march planned for all four cities. But she doesn’t know how big they are, or what this truly entails. And she doesn’t know you’re here. I told her none of us knew which march you were joining, but we all thought this one was too hot for you.”

“She called you?”

“She called all of us. I’m the only one who answered.”

“Poor Andira.”

With a knowing look, Arabisar said, “Just a few more hanticks, and this will be over.”

“It really was your punishment, wasn’t it?”

Arabisar smiled. “Shall we go up?” Without waiting for a reply, she began to climb.

Salomen followed with Rahel right behind her. On the platform, she looked over the massive crowd and shivered.

“Do you know what Shantu called you?” Rahel asked.

Salomen stared at her. “Now? Now you’re bringing this up?”

Undeterred, Rahel said, “He called you ‘Lancer Tal’s downfall.’ But you lifted her up instead. Look at these people.” She swept out an arm, taking in nearly six hundred thousand Alseans. “They didn’t know who they were waiting for, but now they do. You’re going to lift them up, Salomen. Just do what you do with all of us. Be yourself.”

“Not the vessel of Fahla?”

“Be yourself,” she repeated. “Anything else is a lie.”

“I’m not good at lying.”

“I know.”

“Ready, Bondlancer?” Arabisar asked.

Salomen cleared her throat. “I’m ready.”

At Arabisar’s hand signal, a group of builders busied themselves amidst the pile of equipment at the base of the platform. A squadron of vidcams rose and surrounded Salomen on all sides, ready to carry her voice and image to the holographic generators placed around the meadow. Small blue lights activated on the vidcams’ lower edges, blinking odd patterns before shifting to a steady glow. At the foot of the platform, a voice said, “Go.”

Fifteen gigantic holograms appeared, spaced to give everyone a good view of at least one.

The crowd gave an enormous roar, then whistled and clapped with unending enthusiasm. While Salomen took in the joyous display, Prime Builder Eroles spoke in her ear.

“You’re on in Redmoon . . . there’s Whitesun . . . and Whitemoon. Go.”

Salomen raised her arms, and the crowd settled into expectant silence.

“Fellow Alseans,” she said in her caste house voice. It echoed over the floodplain, amplified to a degree she had never imagined hearing. “Good morning, and well met.”

Another roar, distinguishable as two syllables, answered her. Salomen found herself smiling at the idea of six hundred thousand people shouting well met.

“I spoke for you once,” she said. “I thought that would be enough. But if the tragedy at Melladin has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot simply ask for the return of our ancient rights. Merely asking has inspired anger bordering on hatred. It has inspired such rage that thirteen people died for it.” She paused. “No, that’s not a mistake. The reports told you there were twelve dead. I spoke with the families and learned that one of the dead men was pregnant. An unborn child died with him, leaving a grieving bondmate and mother behind.”

The shocked and sympathetic murmurs sounded like a low wind blowing across the meadow.

“Thirteen dead just because we asked,” Salomen continued. “Because we are finally talking about it. We cannot let this go one step beyond the violence that has already occurred. But that doesn’t mean we back down and quietly shut our mouths. No, it means we stand up. We open our mouths, and we demand the return of our high empaths!”

The crowd erupted in cheers and whistles.

“Today, we are showing the warriors and the scholars that caste equality is not a joke,” Salomen called in a louder voice. “It’s not something we say out of one side of our mouths while perpetuating three thousand cycles of inequality. Today we show them that they need us as much as we need them. More, in truth. I see two-thirds of our castes before me right now.”

It was a pointed reminder of their strength in numbers, and they shouted their understanding and pride.

“But we must also remember not to judge the other castes by the actions of a few. Beside me stands a warrior I trust with my life. At the foot of this platform is a scholar I trust with my heart. And if she’s still talking to me at the end of this day, I’m bonded with the greatest warrior of our generation.”

That earned a mixed reaction of laughter, cheers, and scattered boos.

“Don’t blame Lancer Tal for voting no. She did it for the same reason Prime Producer Arabisar did: because she feared the violence my proposal might inspire. Both of them put the safety of six castes above the equality of four. It was a fair decision and a wise one. But the issue of violence is before us regardless, and the Prime Producer has already changed her vote. Our job today is to convince Lancer Tal, the Prime Scholar, and the Prime Warrior to change theirs. Think about that: three people.”

She paused, then said in a quieter voice, “Three people stand in the way of the equality proposal going to the full Council. Now look around and see how many stand beside you.”

All over the meadow, heads swiveled as the marchers took in the still-growing size of their crowd.

“Today, we will make our voices heard!” Salomen shouted. The last word had barely left her mouth when the crowd erupted in the loudest roar yet.

“I’m handing over to our Primes now. They’ll tell you what you need to know for your city marches. Be safe. I’ll see you at the finish.”

She stepped back, and Arabisar moved into the spot she had vacated.

“Well done,” Rahel said as Arabisar greeted the crowd. “You made me want to march.”

“You are marching.”

“Sure, but if I weren’t, I’d be putting on my cape to join you.”

“Let’s hope I can stir a few more people to think that way.” Salomen mentally counted down the ticks she had left.

“She’ll be proud of you.”

“Know her that well, do you?” She put out an apologetic hand, brushing Rahel’s sleeve. “Sorry. I’m a little tense.”

“I don’t know her at all.” Rahel covered her hand. “But I know my caste. There isn’t a warrior on the planet who wouldn’t be proud to have a fighter like you as a bondmate.”

“A fighter.” Salomen exhaled. “The last thing I ever wanted to be.”

“I don’t believe that. You’re too good at it.”

“Doesn’t mean I want it.”

“You fought for me. You didn’t want that?”

She hesitated, an unwilling smile crossing her face. “Obnoxious warrior. You really are good at distracting me. Let me watch Arabisar.”

The Voloth would arrive soon, and it would be Salomen’s job to explain to the crowd why they were there and what they were doing. The caste directives had not mentioned them for fear of losing participation, but Salomen was certain that once she brought Rax up on the platform and stressed that she had personally asked for their help—and explained how vulnerable the Voloth were making themselves by agreeing—the marchers would adapt to the idea. Seeing the Voloth in Alsean caste colors would help tremendously.

One of the most popular bands in Blacksun was arriving at the base of the platform, preparing to perform during the period between Salomen’s broadcast and the start of the march. Out on the river, daytime fireworks crouched on a raft, colored smoke and enormous explosions packed into tiny cylinders and waiting for the spark.

In another twenty ticks, the builders controlling the boards below would work their magic, and the vidcams currently hovering around Arabisar would hook into the government public station.

Andira was about to get the shock of her life.


49


Return of the Bondlancer

Communications Advisor Miltorin burst into Tal’s office without so much as a knock. Though the State House was not yet open for the day, quite a few offices were already occupied due to the startling news that had broken in the middle of the night. Tal herself hadn’t gotten more than two hanticks of sleep, having been woken for a briefing that left her wide awake and anxious. The call from Ekatya had not helped, raising a specter of jealousy she hadn’t thought herself capable of.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Miltorin said, hurrying to her vidscreen. He turned it to the government station and stepped back.

At this hantick, the station should have been covering global news. But the vidscreen showed only a blue background with a message in stark white letters.

BONDLANCER OPAH WILL SPEAK IN:

A countdown scrolled below the text, currently at seven ticks and eighty-two pipticks.

Tal sat heavily in her chair. “They took over the government station? It’s supposed to be a march, not a coup!”

“Prime Producer Arabisar lied. It’s not a few thousand marchers.” Miltorin walked to the windows and pointed south. “I just got word back from the last magtran stop on the south line. The entire floodplain between the Fahlinor and the Silverrun is packed with marchers. My staffer couldn’t make an estimate. She said we’d need to fly a vidcam out there for an aerial view. But she thought there were at least two hundred thousand.”

“Two hundred—great Mother.” Tal tapped her earcuff. “Aldirk, tell the City Guards we’re now thinking two hundred thousand. Do you have any idea of the route yet?”

“No. Traffic is still flowing. There are no signs or roadblocks anywhere.”

Tal shook her head at Miltorin, who said, “Where are two hundred thousand going to go if they don’t have a blocked route?”

An alert lit up Tal’s wristcom. Prime Producer Arabisar was calling. “Keep looking,” she told Aldirk, and switched to the incoming call. “Prime Producer. You lied to me.”

“Good morning, tyrina.”

Tal jolted upright. “Salomen! Fahla, I’ve missed you. Where are you?”

“Not too far away. Andira, I have two things to say. One, I’m sorry I couldn’t contact you. The only reason I could tolerate that part of our plan was because you always knew I was safe.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

“I know. I truly am sorry. And I’m sorry for the second thing, because you’re going to hate it. No Guards. When you see where I am in about six ticks, do not send my Guards. I cannot do what I’m trying to do while surrounded by ten of my own personal warriors.”

“What are you trying to do?”

“Make up for a mistake. Make lost lives mean something. I’m very serious about this. No Guards. If you respect me, you’ll respect that. I have Rahel with me, and . . . other protection.”

“What does that mean?”

“I have to go. You’ll get the answers to all your questions in a few ticks. Andira, whatever happens—I love you. I’m doing this because you taught me that one person can make a difference.”

“When did I—Salomen! Shek!” Tal tapped out of the now-dead call and jumped from her chair, unable to remain still. “She’s here. In Blacksun. She has to be, or she wouldn’t be telling me to hold back her Guards.” She strode to her office doors and threw them open. “Ronlin! Vellmar! Get in here.”

The two Lead Guards had been skulking in her antechamber for a hantick already. Vellmar at least had reason to. Ronlin was simply hovering in hopes of news. He was normally a man of few words, but in the last three days he had reached new heights of taciturnity.

As they hurried into her office, Tal pointed to the vidscreen and said, “Salomen called. And this march is bigger than we thought.”

Ronlin stared in silence.

“Is she here in Blacksun?” Vellmar asked.

Before Tal could answer, Micah barreled into the office. “Tal! Did you hear—oh,” he finished upon seeing the vidscreen. “You did.”

The five of them stood around, their tension rising as the timer counted down. By the time it reached zero, Tal was vibrating.

The screen changed to show Salomen from the waist up. She was wearing her Bondlancer regalia and appeared to be somewhere high above ground. Behind her was a sea of Alseans covering the floodplain.

“Good morning, Alseans,” she said. “Today is a day I hope we’ll remember for a long time, and for all the right reasons. Today is the day the crafters, the merchants, the builders, and the producers remind the warriors and scholars that we are not the lower castes. There are no lower castes, and there are no ruling castes. Or there shouldn’t be. The system we have now is a result of three thousand cycles of imbalance and injustice. It’s time for a change.

“When I proposed that the scholars and warriors allow the other four castes to keep our high empaths, to give our children a choice instead of forcing them to leave, the Prime Warrior and Prime Scholar both said their castes were service castes. That, they told me, is why they need all the high empaths that are ever born on Alsea.”

She glanced off to the side and gave a nod.

“I’d like to take this time to remind you of something we all learned by our second cycle of school. This is the warrior caste’s shield.”

Her image was replaced with a familiar emblem of two stylized swords crossing blades on a crimson background. Beneath them shone five stars.

Salomen’s voice spoke over the image. “Those stars represent the five castes that the warriors serve and protect. They are, indeed, a service caste. Here is the scholar caste’s shield.”

On a dark blue background, a shining line circled around itself to end in an arrow pointing up toward five stars.

“Five stars, representing the five castes that the scholars serve,” Salomen said. “The Prime Scholar spoke the truth. They are a service caste. Now, let’s look at the rest.”

A geodesic dome appeared on a light blue background, sitting above five stars.

“The builder caste, creating the infrastructure for the five other castes. The builders are a service caste.”

The tree of the producers appeared, its five branches tipped with stars.

“The producers, growing the food to sustain and support the five other castes. The producers are a service caste.”

The purple merchant shield came next, its stylized weighing balance topped with five stars.

“The merchants, providing the goods and services to support the five other castes. The merchants are a service caste.”

Finally came the crafter shield, a swirling line that exploded into triangles bracketing five stars.

“The crafters, using their imagination and creativity to make the art and culture that sustains the five other castes. The crafters are a service caste.”

Salomen came back onscreen. “We all learned this when we were children. How is it that so many of us forget as adults? All of the castes are service castes. We all depend on each other. That was the genius of the system when it was created: an egalitarian society in which we acknowledged the value that all of us bring to the whole. No single caste offers greater value than the others.

“Today, we are reminding ourselves of this great truth. If you have business in Blacksun, Whitesun, Redmoon, or Whitemoon, wait until tomorrow. The merchants are not open today. The producers are not delivering. The builders have put down their tools, as have the crafters.” She lifted an arm to indicate the enormous crowd behind her. “Nearly six hundred thousand of them are here with me and Prime Producer Arabisar.”

“Six hundred thousand?” Tal yelped.

“Hundreds of thousands more wait outside the city borders of Whitesun, led by Prime Merchant Stasinal; Whitemoon, led by Prime Crafter Bylwytin; and Redmoon, led by Prime Builder Eroles. We are all marching to our central parks in a celebration of how powerful we are together. The routes are being closed off as I speak. The magtrans will still run, but if you need to cross town in a skimmer, avoid Fahlinor Way in Blacksun from the southern edge of the city to the State Park.”

She listed the routes in the three other cities before adding, “I would like to invite the rest of you to join us. This includes our sisters and brothers in the warrior and scholar castes, if you support our call to return our castes to their original strength. The only thing you need is your full cape. Put it on and come down to the gathering place. We’ll wait for you, or you can join us on the way. Our march begins in forty ticks.”

She looked down for a moment, then faced the screen again. “And now I have a few words for residents of Blacksun. With the recent, tragic violence against producers, Prime Producer Arabisar and I felt it best to have extra protection. I have therefore asked for assistance from a special group that has not taken sides in this political question.”

The vidcam pulled back, revealing Prime Producer Arabisar on Salomen’s right, and on her left—Rax Sestak.

“Fahla on a funstick!” Vellmar burst out.

Tal stared in shock. Rax wore what looked like a Protectorate Fleet combat uniform, yet the color patterns were distinctly Alsean. The trousers smoothly shifted from scholar blue at the top to builder blue at the bottom, an artistic technique pioneered by a famous Pollonius painter half a thousand cycles ago. In her signature style, any two adjacent dots of paint appeared identical in color, yet the overall color changed dramatically from one side of the painting to the other.

By contrast, the jacket was an exuberant explosion of producer green and the three colors of the crafters, running rampant in jagged and geometric shapes that were as good as a signpost stating their origin. Only the crafters of Last Port had the right to use those culturally protected patterns.

Trouser design from the north, jacket design from the south—the combat uniform was a statement of Alsean artistry, worn by an erstwhile enemy.

“I asked for their help personally,” Salomen continued, stunning Tal yet again. “They agreed, in exchange for a few things I hope we can give them. Rax?”

“We came here in hatred,” Rax said. “We hated because we were told to. Our officers said you were primitive and violent. But we’ve lived among you for more than two cycles, and we know now—they lied to us. Our government lied. They are the primitive ones. We love Alsea, and we’ll do anything to protect it. All we ask is that you give us a chance. We ask your forgiveness for our part in the invasion. We ask Fahla’s forgiveness. And we ask that you understand, we are not Voloth. We are Gaians who were raised in the Voloth Empire. Even if the Empire promised us riches and citizenship, we’d never go back.”

He turned to Salomen. “Bondlancer Opah, one hundred and twenty-one Gaian settlers pledge their loyalty and assistance to you.”

“I accept your loyalty and assistance, and thank you for it.”

As they sealed their pact with a palm touch, Micah leaned toward Tal and said, “If Shantu were alive, his head would have exploded just now.”

Tal thought her head wasn’t far from that fate. Then her heart jumped as Salomen said, “Lancer Tal.”

The vidcam moved in, focusing on her face. She smiled and spoke in a warmer voice. “Tyrina. I’m sorry I had to be away for a few days, but I’m coming home now. I’m bringing a few guests. About six hundred thousand of them, though I’m told it will probably be closer to seven hundred thousand by the time I get there. Will you please bring Prime Warrior Ehron and Prime Scholar Yaserka out to the front steps of the State House? We’d like to talk to you about your votes on the high empath proposal. I’ll see you soon.”

The vidcam rose above her to give an aerial view of the crowd. It was the largest gathering Tal had ever seen.

Two new voices came on, instantly recognizable as the most popular news personalities on the government channel. They began spouting numbers and facts as the view changed to an equally enormous crowd outside Whitesun, then Redmoon, then Whitemoon.

“Altogether, it’s one point six million so far,” said one. “And growing every tick.”

“And did you see the entertainment?” the other asked. “Look who’s performing in Whitemoon while they wait to start their march!”

The scene shifted from the crowd to a tall figure in white standing on a platform. It was Kyrie Razinfin, backed by a seven-piece band and singing a rollicking tune that had half the crowd dancing.

Miltorin turned to Tal. “This is genius. They’ve taken it from a political statement to a party. And the Bondlancer’s message for you—she made it personal. She’s defused the tension and made it sound like you’ll be discussing this over dinner with the Prime Scholar and Prime Warrior.”

“She also put a big target on her chest,” Micah said. “Making it personal makes her the leader. Anyone who thinks twelve dead producers weren’t enough knows exactly how to kill this movement.”

“Lancer Tal, I’ll gather my Guards immediately and—”

“No,” Tal said.

Ronlin gaped at her. “She needs protection!”

“I know she does. And she specifically asked me to keep you here.” Tal held up a hand, forestalling another protest. “I know. Everything you’re thinking, I’m thinking too. But you saw what she’s trying to do. She cannot lead from behind a wall of Guards.”

“We’ll change into civilian clothes.”

“And wear what capes? Not your own. If you go without capes, you might as well be in uniform.”

“Lancer Tal,” Vellmar said crisply. “I request a day’s leave, effective immediately. I’d like to join Salomen’s march. As her friend.”

Since accepting Tal’s apology, Vellmar had found a new confidence in their interactions. She met Tal’s eyes with a steady gaze that transmitted her intent.

It was the best option available. “Leave granted. Go change out of that uniform.”

Vellmar thumped her fists to her chest and was out the door a piptick later.

“Lancer Tal, I request a day’s leave—”

“No,” Tal interrupted. “I just lost my Lead Guard. I need you to substitute for her today.”

“Yes, Lancer.” She had given him a promotion, if only for a day. His chest visibly swelled as he stood straighter.

Warriors. Tal heard Salomen’s voice in her head, amused and knowing. In a few hanticks, she would be hearing it for real.

A few desperately nerve-racking hanticks that would probably shorten her life by ten cycles.


50


I will not ask

Lanaril turned off her vidscreen and opened up the rarely used address system for the temple.

“This is Lead Templar Satran. Emergency meeting in the refectory in five ticks,” she said. “I repeat, emergency meeting in the refectory in five ticks.”

Templars and support staff were still trickling into the packed room when she began giving a brief synopsis of the situation for those who had missed the broadcast.

“I’m marching with our Bondlancer,” she said. “I’ve seen the damage this law causes. I’ve counseled families who lost their children from their castes. I’ve counseled high empaths who still carry the trauma of having their choice taken from them. But this is a personal choice. I will not ask you to march. If you choose to join me, I’ll be on the front steps in ten ticks. Don’t forget your capes.”

In her personal quarters, she quickly donned her ceremonial clothing and thanked Fahla for the sensible rule that all templars should wear low-heeled boots for comfort while standing in and walking through the temple. Then she hurried back through the corridors, across the courtyard, through another maze of corridors, and into the temple itself, where she stepped onto the central deck and laid her palms on the smooth black bark of the molwyn tree.

“Fahla, my goddess,” she prayed, “keep them safe today. This is a day that may change the course of our history. Please, help us make this change peacefully. We have seen too much violence, but today we turn our faces to you.”

She rested her forehead against the tree for a few breaths, then pushed off and walked to the massive double doors that opened onto the park. Four templars joined her on the way, their capes swaying gently as they walked.

“How many do you think will come?” she asked.

“All the support staff are already gone,” one answered.

“And the templars?”

“I don’t know. Everyone I talked to was going, but . . .”

“But it’s personal. I know.”

When they reached the doors, the others stood back, giving her precedence. She stepped through, preparing herself for disappointment—and stopped so abruptly that one of the templars following behind bumped into her.

All she could see were dark blue capes, their bottom edges swirling and snapping in the cool autumn breeze. The wide stairs were packed, with more templars spilling out onto the grassy areas of the park.

There must have been six hundred of them. Not only her own templars, but all those who were staying in the retreat quarters or were visiting to study in the archives.

Her vision blurred. Then she shook her head and called out, “Is there anyone left inside? Do we need to lock the doors?”

A rumble of laughter swept the crowd. “There are a few,” someone called out. “Enough to guard tonight’s dessert.”

“Since that’s the most valuable thing in the temple, we’re free to go,” Lanaril said. “Let’s meet our Bondlancer.”

A sea of dark blue parted for her as she walked down the steps, and she set off along the path, her heart soaring with gratitude. She had thought she might lead a hundred templars. Six hundred was beyond her highest hopes.

“Thank you, Fahla,” she murmured. “You have blessed me. And I hope you don’t think me greedy, but I’m asking for more. Please, keep all the marchers safe.”


51


March

The march began with six hundred and seventy-two thousand participants. More were streaming in, but they could delay no longer for fear of giving the opposition too much time to organize.

Musicians from the Blacksun Symphony were the first to move, headed up by the famed long-bell player, Chrysaltin. A slender, light-haired woman, Chrysaltin rode on a platform driven by a builder and loaded with her gigantic hanging tubular bells, the smallest of which was nearly as tall as she was. Choosing a cloth-covered mallet from the rack, she reared back and struck the largest bell.

It was the equivalent of Blacksun Temple tolling its great bell. The reverberations swept across the floodplain and were surely heard all the way to the State Park. Chrysaltin struck it twice more before stepping back to choose a smaller mallet.

Twenty percussionists cracked their drumsticks against the sides of their drums in perfect unison, three times and three times again, then launched into a toe-tapping marching rhythm as Chrysaltin began to play a melody. The wind instruments stepped up behind as the drummers moved out.

Salomen and Arabisar gave the musicians space, then stepped forward, flanked by Rax Sestak on Arabisar’s left and Rahel on Salomen’s right. Rahel had extended her stave and held it loosely against her shoulder, ready to swing into action. When one of the hovering vidcams got too close, she gave it a warning tap with her stave and held up a finger. The vidcam operator backed off, no doubt fearing for the integrity of the equipment.

A shrieking whistle alerted everyone to the first of the fireworks launching off the river raft. It exploded with a thunderous boom, notifying the city that the march had begun.

Salomen craned her neck to watch as she walked. More fireworks whistled up, painting the sky with images. The most common were the flowers, always with black centers, but varying in the colors of their petals: orange, blue, purple, red, even green. There was a molwyn tree, with a black trunk sprouting green branches that ended in sparks of light. There was even a winden, caught in mid-leap, sparks flying from its feet. Each smoke illustration hung for several pipticks before fading to white, leaving a clear background for the next colored image. Interspersed between the images were the charges designed solely for maximum sound, their booms reverberating through her chest.

She stumbled over the step from the meadow to the brick-paved road that would lead them to Fahlinor Way.

“Hoi.” Rahel caught her by the upper arm. “Won’t do to have you go face down before you even get to the city proper.”

“Thank you. It’s hard to look away from that.” She indicated the sky.

“They were a brilliant idea, weren’t they?” Arabisar asked. “The more we can give the impression of a party, the better this will go.”

“It’s the biggest party I’ve ever seen.” Salomen turned around and walked backward.

Behind them came an unending river of Alseans, most smiling as they watched either the fireworks or the entertainment on offer all around. Performing crafters had jumped at the opportunity to show off their skills to such an enormous audience. There were jugglers and stilt walkers, and smokebreathers blowing out impossible shapes of colored smoke. There were people costumed as windens or vallcats leaping about on spring-loaded shoes, soaring a body length into the air before landing and bouncing off again. There were crafters in outrageous bird costumes, waving wings that reached three times their height on either side. Far out in the field, Salomen saw a multi-legged blindworm that must have been made up of ten people, weaving its way through the crowd and occasionally shooting puffs of green smoke from its rear end.

Many more musicians and visual performers were interspersed among the marchers, helping them feel that even if they were a length behind the head of the march, they were still very much a part of it. At the far end of the field, distinctive in their identical costumes, were the Voices of the Deep. Salomen thought they were the best choir on Alsea, though Prime Crafter Bylwytin declared she had the better performers in the Whitemoon Temple Singers. From this distance and with the din of the fireworks overhead, the Voices were impossible to hear. But for the people nearer them, who would have to wait quite some time before they could move out, they were providing a free concert on a remarkable day.

Here at the head of the march, the Gaian settlers walked on either side of the river of Alseans, distinctive in their colorful uniforms and lack of capes. When Salomen and Arabisar had called for the marchers to line up and prepare to move, many had hung back at first, eyeing the settlers with expressions ranging from fear and loathing to disdain to an unsettled curiosity. Others moved in gladly, eager to be at the front and laughing at those who gave up their chance. Salomen had not anticipated that reaction, but the end result was ideal: the marchers walking closest to the Gaians were those who neither hated nor feared them.

They made their way up the quiet road, watched only by the few residents who lived on this outskirt of the city. Up ahead, Chrysaltin’s platform turned the corner onto Fahlinor Way, followed by the drummers and then the wind players. As Salomen neared the intersection, she saw a familiar figure running toward her, crimson cape billowing behind.

“Salomen!”

“Fianna!” Salomen trotted a few steps ahead and met her friend in a happy palm touch. “How are you here?”

The others caught up, and Fianna walked backward in front of her. “Took a day of leave. I told Lancer Tal I wanted to march with you.”

“As my friend or my security?”

“Your friend, of course.” She attempted to look innocent.

“You are full of dokshin. And you’re still wearing your earcuff.”

“It’s not active.”

“At the moment.”

“Only for emergencies,” she said, touching a fist to her chest. “On my honor.”

Salomen accepted the promise with a nod. “All right, as long as you’re the only Guard coming. Are you?”

“Ronlin said he tried, but Lancer Tal shut him down.”

“Good. In that case, I think it’s time you met First Guard Rahel Sayana. Rahel, this is Fianna Vellmar, Lead Guard for the Lancer and my good friend.”

The two warriors warily looked each other over, reminding Salomen of dominant male dokkers meeting in a field. She hid her smile and resolved never to share that thought.

They were an impressive pair, both tall and powerfully built, though Fianna had the edge in height while Rahel’s shoulders were more broad. Fianna’s black hair and blue eyes were a vivid contrast to Rahel’s red hair and amber eyes, but they wore identical expressions of cool calculation.

“You’re the one who put a knife through my hand,” Rahel said.

Salomen nearly stumbled in her surprise. “How did you know that? The records were sealed!” And Rahel had never remembered exactly how she ended up with a knife impaling her palm. Her brain had been too overwhelmed with the empathic force.

Rahel shrugged. “Not much to do in a healing center besides think. I thought a lot. After Lanaril gave me a reader card, I researched. The only blade-handler on your security team is Guard Demerah, and she wasn’t anywhere near me. Then I asked to see my medical records. The wound in my palm was wider than a standard blade. It didn’t come from a Guard’s kit.”

Fianna looked impressed in spite of herself. “But you didn’t know I was there.”

“No, but Salomen just called you her good friend. And you won four medals at the Global Games for blade handling.” Rahel’s gaze flicked down. “You carry them in your boots, don’t you?” At the reluctant nod, she asked, “May I see?”

Salomen had rarely seen Fianna so flummoxed. Still walking backward, she lifted one knee higher and swiped the blade from her boot in one smooth motion. Then she flipped it in her hand and offered it hilt first.

“They really are a caste apart, aren’t they?” Arabisar said in Salomen’s ear.

“Fahla, yes. I’m bonded to one; I should know.”

Rahel examined the knife carefully, flipped it again, and handed it back. “It’s a beautiful piece.”

“It is.” Fianna replaced it with the same balanced maneuver.

“I appreciate your accuracy. No grudge held?” Rahel switched her stave to her left hand and held out her right forearm.

Fianna looked from Rahel to Salomen, saw her raised eyebrow, and heaved a visible sigh. Clasping Rahel’s forearm, she said, “No grudge held.”

“Good,” Salomen said decisively. “Now that we have the dirt-kicking part over with, will you turn around so you don’t miss the corner?”

They had reached the wide boulevard that ran beside the Fahlinor River. Overhead, the elevated magtran line balanced its transparent tube atop great arches that strode across the city. Down the boulevard, Salomen could see that every cross street was blocked by construction barricades, building equipment, large delivery vehicles turned sideways—everything the builders could get their hands on to swiftly block off a route that spanned half the width of Blacksun.

The first onlookers waited here, smiling after the passage of Chrysaltin’s bells and the drummers with their irresistible rhythms. Many still smiled upon seeing Salomen and Arabisar.

Most stopped as soon as they saw Rax and the other settlers.

Fianna stayed in front, walking with a deceptively loose stride as she scanned the crowds. From her place at Salomen’s right shoulder, Rahel did the same.

Salomen opened up her senses and cringed at the blast of emotions from Rax, who was too near, and the other Gaians behind them. It was difficult to isolate Alsean emotions from that background noise, like trying to hear birdsong while transports roared overhead. Adding to the difficulty was the sheer number of Alseans around her. Unlike Fianna, she was not trained in crowdsensing, and it occurred to her how vulnerable they truly were.

She did not detect the spike of anger when the first rock flew.


52


Targets

“That didn’t take long,” one of the announcers remarked as Rax Sestak turned his back to let a rock bounce off it. “Do you think the thrower was targeting Prime Builder Arabisar or the Voloth?”

“Does it shekking matter?” Tal snapped. “Why isn’t the City Guard picking up that little blindworm?”

She, Micah, Ronlin, and Miltorin were watching the coverage in her office. She had opened one of her windows when the fireworks began, and they were still hearing them.

“If the City Guards pick up every person who throws something today, the detention center will be full in the next two hanticks and we won’t have any City Guards left on the streets,” Micah said sensibly.

Tal didn’t want to be sensible. “The least they could do is scare him. Ah! There goes Vellmar. If the City Guards won’t do their jobs, she will.”

Onscreen, Vellmar strode toward the rock thrower, a skinny youngster probably one or two cycles away from his Rite of Ascension. He took one look at the tall warrior bearing down on him and darted back through the onlookers, running as though his life depended on it. Vellmar immediately wheeled around and collared the nearest City Guard. She pulled him in by the front of his uniform, said something that made him blanch, then pushed him away and trotted back to her place in front of Salomen.

“I think that City Guard just wet himself,” Ronlin said.

Micah snorted a laugh.

“Look what our roaming vidcam found!” an announcer said. “Bondlancer Opah will be getting a big addition of scholars to her march.”

The scene shifted to an aerial view of Fahlinor Way some distance ahead of Salomen. Filling the street from one side to the other was a solid block of identical dark-blue capes embroidered with silver molwyn trees. At their head was a black-haired woman whose cape bore a much larger tree design.

“That’s Blacksun’s Lead Templar, Lanaril Satran, leading what looks like her entire staff,” the announcer commented.

“And she’s in her ceremonial garb,” his partner added as the vidcam swooped down to face Lanaril. “Which means she’s putting the weight of her office behind this statement. That is—”

“Tremendous!” the first said excitedly. “Lead Templar Satran is laying down a line. By taking such overt action, she’s made it impossible for the other Lead Templars to prevaricate. If they don’t come out in support now, their lack of action will be taken as a statement in itself.”

“Satran has never been shy about making statements,” said the second. “Can anyone forget the night she smashed a panfruit on a live broadcast to illustrate the condition of the insane Voloth?”

A group of five people wearing the capes of secular scholars came out of a side street and stopped when they saw the templars. One called out, and Lanaril gestured for them to join. Smiling, they waited until the templars passed and then ran out into the street.

“Good Goddess,” Miltorin said. “She’s been picking them up all along the way.”

As the vidcam floated above the street, the number of new marchers following the templars became apparent for the first time. They hailed from all castes, including the warriors, and Tal could not help feeling proud of those sparks of red in the sea of dark blue, light blue, purple, green, and tricolored capes.

The announcers tried to count, lost track, laughed at themselves, and finally came up with “around four thousand.”

“And that’s why we’re crafters, not scholars,” one of them joked. “Returning to the head of the march—hoi! Did you see that?”

“First Guard Sayana saved Bondlancer Opah from a rock to the side of the head!” the other exclaimed. “Base, run that back for us at quarter speed?”

Tal leaned forward, intent on the vidscreen. Salomen had a look of concentration on her face and was unaware of the rock flying toward her from the right. Rahel thrust out her stave just in time, and in the quarter-speed replay, Tal could see it rebound from the impact. The rock bounced to the street a few strides away, and Salomen glanced over in surprise. In that moment, Tal saw what she had been concentrating on.

“She’s wearing an earcuff? A cycle I’ve spent trying to convince her to use a wristcom and earcuff, and this is the day she finally does it?”

Micah patted her shoulder. “She’s coordinating a massive event. She needs the ease of communication. A hundred cinteks says after today, she drops that earcuff and never uses it again.”

“No bet,” said Tal and Ronlin at the same time.

“Though it would make my life easier,” Ronlin added wistfully.

The coverage switched to Whitesun, where vast numbers of merchants were marching and the entire city was closed for business, including the docks.

“That will affect commerce and shipping all over the world,” Miltorin observed. “The effects of this are going to reverberate for ninedays.”

“That’s the point,” Tal said. “Did you notice Salomen’s language? She was careful to call it a march, but it’s much more than that. This is an uprising.”

Miltorin nodded. “It is, though I wouldn’t recommend saying that outside this office.”

“But they know.” Tal gestured at the screen. “If that rock had hit Salomen, she’d be unconscious. Those people aren’t upset about the high empath proposal. They’re not only upset about that,” she corrected herself. “They’re upset because Salomen and the Primes are flexing the power of their castes.”

Ronlin glanced at her, silent but showing all his unhappiness in his eyes.

“If I could,” Tal said, “I would leave right now with every Guard in my unit and yours, and we would surround her with an impenetrable wall of red. But I cannot. We cannot.”

“I know.” His shoulders dropped. “But this is difficult to watch.”

A typical warrior understatement, Salomen would call that. She refrained from pointing out that it was a hundred times worse for her.

It became even more difficult when the coverage returned to Blacksun a tentick later.

“The march has run into the first pocket of organized resistance,” said one of the announcers somberly. “It seems that most of the agitators aren’t trying to hurt the marchers, but I do see rocks. Some of these people went collecting on the river bank before they came here.”

Salomen and Arabisar were walking through a gauntlet, with fruits and rocks being thrown at them from both sides. In such a concentrated attack, Vellmar could do nothing but scan for more violent intent. Tal saw the focus on her face and knew she had relinquished the immediate defense to Rahel and Rax. She was reserving herself for anything more deadly.

Rahel was in constant motion, her stave a blur as she knocked projectiles out of the air. She ignored many, but those she let go landed harmlessly on the street.

On Arabisar’s side, Rax held a pair of flat green paddles like small shields, gripping a strap on one side in his fist and using the outside to block the projectiles. A few light spots showed where rocks had already chipped the wood; orange and red spatters marked the impacts of marmellos and panfruits. Other Voloth had run up from their positions and were using the same type of paddles to defend the marchers behind Rahel and Rax.

Tal breathed a sigh of relief when Salomen and Arabisar passed out of range. The other Voloth stood their ground, allowing marchers to move safely behind them as they continued to fend off the attack. When additional Voloth joined up from behind, those at the front peeled off and moved ahead. In this way, a steady stream of Voloth progressed through the defensive wall, while the marchers remained largely untouched. Some of the projectiles were thrown up and over the defenders, splattering fruit on a few unlucky marchers, but the Voloth seemed to attract most of the attack.

“They’re a diversion,” Ronlin said. “The crowd is angrier at them than at the marchers.”

“Interesting.” Miltorin watched a Voloth stop a rock aimed directly at her face. “Do you think they knew that would happen? Did they agree to this knowing they’d be the bigger targets?”

“Where the shek is the City Guard?” Micah growled.

With a tap to her earcuff, Tal called Colonel Razine at the Alsean Investigative Force. “Are you watching this?” she asked without preamble.

“Of course.”

“I want all this footage kept and analyzed to identify City Guards who aren’t doing their jobs. They’re welcome to their political opinions, but averting their eyes while peaceful marchers are attacked is a violation of their oaths.”

“I’m as angry as you are, Lancer Tal. It’s already being done. I’m told there should be two City Guards in that area who are conveniently elsewhere. Unless they have an excellent excuse, they’ll be looking for work soon.”

Tal thanked her for her efficiency and tapped out of the call. Onscreen, the announcers had realized that the Voloth had been carrying those paddles tucked into their belts at the small of their backs.

“They came prepared for exactly this,” one said. “Non-violent defense of Alseans. If I weren’t watching it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it.”

“Have you noticed something else?” the other asked. “Look at the colors of their paddles.”

Tal hadn’t seen anything unusual. She looked more closely and sucked in a breath.

“Great Goddess,” the first announcer said. “They’ve chosen caste colors!”

They had. Rax, Tal now remembered, was the son of producers. He had painted his paddles dark green. Other Voloth in the defensive wall held paddles painted the same green, as well as light blue, dark blue, a scattering of purple, some tricolored paddles, and—

No red.

“Where are the warriors?” she asked.

The announcers were asking themselves the same question, just as a new Voloth joined the defenders and pulled out a pair of red paddles. They stood out for their rarity, illuminating a fact Tal had never considered.

“An entire military built from non-warriors,” she said, aghast. “Why didn’t we realize that? It’s obvious. We knew these Voloth signed up because it was the only way to get citizenship.”

They had fought a battle against soldiers who were never truly warriors. For two cycles, they had viewed these settlers as defeated and reviled enemies. Now she looked at them and saw producers, builders, scholars, merchants, and crafters.

And one lone warrior, out of twenty currently in the defensive wall.

Two City Guards finally appeared and wasted no time seizing a pair of rock throwers. The other attackers ran away, melting into the crowd.

“Good to know we have at least two members of the City Guard doing their damn job today,” Micah snapped. “This had better improve, or our caste will be hanging its collective head tomorrow.”

The other marches were having no issues with violence. For the next forty ticks, the coverage lingered on the enormous crowds in Whitesun and Redmoon, then switched to the smaller but lively march in Whitemoon, where Kyrie Razinfin walked next to the Prime Crafter. In all three cities, Tal saw nothing more alarming than some shouting and waving of fists. The announcers agreed between themselves that the violence in Blacksun was due to the march being led by the two highest-ranking producers, and Tal remembered Prime Producer Arabisar saying that Salomen wouldn’t be marching in Blacksun for this exact reason.

She was going to strangle Arabisar the next time she saw her.

The State House Chief Guardian called in on her earcuff. “The evacuation is complete. There are no staff remaining in the State House other than Guards and essential personnel. All rooms facing the front are locked and the corridors are being patrolled.”

Tal thanked him and relayed the information to her group.

“First time in history,” Miltorin said. “I still haven’t found the right language for that statement.”

“Say it was evacuated for the safety of the Bondlancer,” Micah suggested.

“That’s as much as admitting we don’t trust State House staff. Not the most confidence-inspiring message.”

“We trust ninety-nine percent of them,” Tal said. “We’re just taking no chances with the one percent.”

“Minimizing risk to our Bondlancer,” Miltorin muttered to himself. “Extraordinary measures on an extraordinary day . . .”

He was still trying out word combinations under his breath when the coverage returned to the Blacksun march. As they watched one of the bands merrily playing half a length behind Salomen, an announcer spoke in a worried tone. “There’s trouble up front.”

The scene switched to show a group of seven people breaking away from the onlookers, rushing into the street, and attacking two of the Voloth some distance behind Salomen. The Voloth used their paddles defensively, blocking punches, but could not block all of them nor keep their arms up with Alseans physically pulling them down. Their faces were soon bloodied, which seemed to encourage the onlookers. More and more swarmed into the street, focusing their rage on the Voloth, until the scene resembled a riot. Now there were eight Voloth in trouble, one of whom went down under a pile of Alseans striking and kicking him.

“This is shameful,” said the announcer. “After the attack on Rax Sestak three and a half moons ago, everyone knows the Voloth can’t defend themselves.”

“If these are warriors, they’ve disgraced their caste,” the other agreed.

“They’ve disgraced their caste no matter which one they belong to,” said the first. “Though it’s difficult to imagine scholars doing this, isn’t it?”

The marchers were staring in horror as they walked past the melee. Many shouted at the attackers, but none moved to help the Voloth.

“Shameful is right,” Micah said in disgust. “They hit the Voloth behind Salomen because they’re out of reach for Vellmar or Rahel. They don’t have the courage to fight someone who can fight back.”

Other Voloth were running to the aid of their embattled friends. One threw her body across the man who was down on the street, covering his head with her torso and blocking her own head with her paddles as the blows rained down.

“I never thought I’d be angry on behalf of the Voloth,” Ronlin said with a scowl. “This is wrong.”

“It is,” Tal said. “It was also predictable.”

She knew Salomen had not anticipated this. Salomen didn’t think that way, didn’t expect the worst of others. But the Voloth had known, she was sure. They did expect the worst of others. They had seen it and committed it themselves. This must have been a gamble for them, offering their bodies in payment for the possibility of acceptance.

She had to respect their courage.

Four City Guards arrived from different directions and waded into the riot, yanking attackers away from their victims. The attackers were undeterred, pushing to get back and shouting at the City Guards as if they had no fear of detainment or any concept that they were breaking the law. A vidcam flew close enough to one to catch his words: “They’re Voloth! Why are you protecting these animals?”

“They’re not the animals!” a nearby marcher shouted. “You are!”

That raised a shout of agreement. As if activated by the same trigger, a surge of marchers stepped out of the line of moving people and converged on the attackers, bodily pulling them away. A few marchers were struck for their interference, but more moved in, overwhelming the attackers with sheer numbers.

The City Guards, freed of the need to rescue Voloth, promptly detained four attackers and restrained them with wrist ties. The others shouted at the Guards, incredulous at such treatment, but when two more of them were detained, the shouters abandoned the effort and ran.

Marchers and onlookers alike cheered in victory. Several marchers patted the Voloth on the shoulders and nodded before moving on, leaving them with stunned expressions.

“Did you see the same thing I did?” one of the announcers asked in a hushed voice.

“Alseans defending Voloth,” the other answered. “Incredible. If you’d told me this would happen today, I’d have asked you to bring me a bottle of whatever you were drinking.”

“I’d have bought ten more bottles!” said the first.

Three marchers helped up the woman who was protecting the fallen man. She looked frantic as the Alseans turned to her comrade, who had not made any attempt to rise.

“This doesn’t look good,” the first announcer said unnecessarily.

A City Guard pushed through to crouch next to the Voloth and speak with him. After a long pause, the Voloth raised his head and held out a hand. Amid a smattering of cheers, the Guard grasped it and pulled him up.

The woman stood beside him, a relieved smile lighting her face as he wiped blood from beneath his nose. They walked off side by side, the man limping slightly, and the onlookers applauded.

“That’s a relief,” said the first announcer. “Which is not something I imagined saying about a Voloth escaping serious harm. Do you know what I think? I think we’re watching history being made.”

“We already knew that,” said the second. “Four castes marching in global protests? Of course it’s historical. But Alseans and Voloth working together—”

“We’ll be talking about this for a long time,” the first finished.

“They’re right,” Miltorin said as the announcers continued their discussion. “That little scene will be on replay all over Alsea for the next moon. And that visual of the City Guard helping a Voloth stand? I couldn’t have planned it better if the Voloth had hired me and I’d had time to stage it.”

Tal nodded as Micah rumbled his agreement.

“He shouldn’t have been able to walk away,” Tal added. “Not after a beating like that. He only managed because Salomen outfitted them in Fleet combat uniforms.”

“Meaning?” Miltorin asked.

“They’re flexible light armor. The Alseans involved in that riot should have nicely bruised toes and knuckles. Or broken ones.”

Miltorin swung his gaze back to the coverage, which was still following the limping Voloth and the woman who had protected his head. “How did Bondlancer Opah manage that?”

“I expect to get that same question from Captain Serrado.” Tal suspected the answer involved a tall Gaian who had vanished at the same time as Salomen.

As if conjured by the thought, a call came in with Colonel Razine’s ID. Tal tapped her earcuff and said, “You found Lhyn Rivers.”

“How did you know that?”

“Good guess,” Tal lied. “She came to pick up her transport?”

AIF warriors had located Lhyn’s transport the day after she and Salomen had vanished, then followed their trail south. When a search of towns in that direction came up empty, Razine left a team in the hangar and expanded her net.

“She’s there right now, being detained by my warriors.”

“Put me through, please.”

Tal waited, then heard a breathless voice in the slightly tinny register that meant Lhyn was speaking into a wristcom.

“Andira! Fucking stars, will you tell them I didn’t kidnap Salomen?”

“You did take her off her land and out of the protection of her Guards,” Tal pointed out.

She was shocked to hear a shuddering breath. “It’s not funny, they’ve got my wrists tied, I don’t—please get me out of these!”

“Who is the warrior in charge here? I want a word,” Tal snapped.

Immediately she heard the clearer tones of someone using an earcuff. “Lancer Tal, this is Lead Guard—”

“I don’t care who you are. Your orders were to detain, not restrain. Take off her wrist ties and give her your earcuff.”

“Yes, Lancer.”

After half a tick and the sound of an earcuff being transferred, Lhyn’s voice came back clearer and calmer, though still trembling.

“Thank you. I was, um . . .

“About to have a panic attack,” Tal finished for her. “I know. I’m sorry, that wasn’t the intent. Emotions are a little high.”

Lhyn laughed nervously. “Right. Including mine. Am I being taken to Blacksun Base?”

“We only wanted you detained to learn where Salomen was. Since I’m watching her on a global broadcast, that’s no longer a concern. Come see me in my office; I have a few questions for you. Use the north side entrance. You’ll be escorted up.”

“Right,” Lhyn said again. “Time to pay the bill, I guess.”

Tal had a few short words with the Guard in charge, impressing upon him the importance of following orders, then ordered him to let Lhyn go and end the surveillance on the hangar. Her next call was to the Chief Guardian of the State House, alerting him to Lhyn’s impending arrival. When she closed that call, Micah was watching her with narrowed eyes.

Fortunately, she was spared from whatever he was about to say by an exclamation from the announcers. The head of the march had just met Lanaril’s templars, and a sea of dark blue lined both sides of the street. The templars had moved aside to allow the musicians to pass.

“What happened to the rest?” an announcer wondered. All of the marchers Lanaril had picked up along the way had vanished.

A vidcam soon found them, being led by six templars through side streets. They were making their way around in order to join the march farther back, thus reducing any confusion at the front. Tal had a feeling she knew who Salomen had been talking to on her earcuff when she was nearly brained by a rock.

When the last wind player marched by, Lanaril broke from the ranks and jogged to Salomen, who met her in a familial double palm touch that set the announcers buzzing. They nearly hyperventilated when Lanaril then ran up to Vellmar, pulled her into a warmron, and soundly kissed her.

Ronlin gave a shout and laughed, clapping as if he were watching a theatrical production. Tal joined in, thoroughly enjoying the shocked look on Vellmar’s face. She laughed harder when Vellmar got over her shock and lifted Lanaril right off her feet, only to set her down and kiss her in a way that surely increased the ambient temperature on the street.

The announcers were chuckling as well. “What were you saying about Satran making statements?” asked one.

“That she’s not afraid to make them! Ah, look at that, she’s broken a million hearts.”

“Which ones? The faithful worshipping her along with Fahla, or the fans who fell for Vellmar the Blade after her performance in the Global Games?”

“Make that two million hearts,” was the answer, and they laughed again.

Vellmar grabbed Lanaril’s hand and pulled her forward just in time to avoid becoming a traffic hazard, with a broadly smiling Salomen pushing her from behind.

The marchers passed between the standing ranks of templars, who waited until the last of the Voloth had gone by. Then they began stepping in, forming a new line of defense.

“Brilliant tactic,” Tal said admiringly. “I’ll bet Lanaril and Salomen cooked that up between themselves. No one is going to throw things at templars.”

The announcers had drawn the same conclusion and began discussing the historical resonance of templars protecting Alseans from violent reprisals. Then someone bounced past in a vallcat costume, leading the announcers to highlight the most exotic, ingenious, or amusing costumes among the four marches. Tal thought the fairy fly in Whitemoon was particularly inspiring, with its constantly changing wing and body colors.

“Notice the legs on that fairy fly?” one announcer pointed out. “Eight legs, four people, four caste colors.”

“Four castes working together to create something beautiful,” the other agreed. “A perfect encapsulation of the day. Oh, what’s this? Back in Blacksun, Vellmar has pushed Satran back and is shouting at the Voloth. Bondlancer Opah also looks concerned. She’s pulling Satran in next to her and—oh no!”


53


Bricks and blades

Salomen had kept her blocks down, stubbornly trying to crowdsense despite her lack of training and the way it drained her. The people throwing fruit and even rocks had not registered on her senses as being particularly violent, but rather angry and afraid.

Now, however, she felt an unmistakable spike of violent intent just as Fianna turned and pushed Lanaril toward her.

“Get your shields up!” Fianna shouted at the Voloth behind them. “Get closer!”

Salomen caught Lanaril’s hand and pulled her in, bracketing her between Arabisar and herself.

A hail of rocks flew toward them, too many for Rahel or Rax to defend against. Salomen instinctively turned and wrapped her arms around Lanaril’s shoulders, protecting her as much as she could while they moved in a side-stepping motion. One rock clattered to the street close by and came to a quick stop.

It wasn’t a rock but a paving brick, square and sharp-edged and heavy. The people throwing these had prepared in advance. They hadn’t simply run to the riverbank to fill their pockets with rounded river rocks. They had gone to a construction site for something more dangerous.

A brick whistled past her ear, and she let go of Lanaril to cover her head. Others hit the back of her cuirass with muffled clanks, the sound softened by her cape though their impact still jarred. Still more hit lower, but with room to shift and give, the thick fabric of her cape slowed them. By the time they struck her legs, their force was barely enough to bruise.

In times past, Salomen had disliked the weight of this formal cape. It was much thicker and heavier than her normal one, and the luxurious material was made even more dense by the embroidery. Today, she blessed Fahla for it.

Lanaril ducked down, making herself a smaller target. On her other side, Arabisar had also turned to shield her.

Salomen’s fear gave way to anger. She didn’t care about the bricks hitting her; they wouldn’t even dent the cuirass. But Lanaril had no such protection. How dare these dokker’s backsides try to hurt someone who had never done anything but help others?

With her head bent over Lanaril’s, she could not see what was happening. But she heard the screams of unfamiliar voices, calling out hateful names and urging attack. Rahel shouted in response, her words unintelligible though Salomen felt the fury behind them.

Another brick slammed into her back. A second hit the street so close that she had to step over it.

No more came.

Cautiously, she lifted her head.

Fianna and Rahel were fighting separate groups of attackers on opposite sides of the street. Two bodies were already laid out on the bricks behind them.

Rahel jumped over the woman she had just put down and swung her stave in a quick left-right motion that struck a heavyset man first on one side of the head, then the other. He slumped to the ground like a sack of grain.

Another man approached from behind, light flashing off metal as he raised a knife to strike at Rahel’s neck. Salomen had no time to shout a warning before Rahel dropped to a crouch and spun, her stave sweeping the startled man’s legs out from under him. She rose as he fell, then whipped her stave into a vertical position and smashed its end onto his sternum. He screamed and flung out his hands, as if trying to seize the oxygen that was suddenly too difficult to draw in.

She left him gasping on the ground and whirled once more, her stave horizontal and tucked in tight against her torso. It almost took down a woman who jumped back in time.

The woman hesitated, eyeing her opponent as if trying to figure out how to get past. Rahel gave her no time to consider the problem as she repositioned her stave and lunged to the left. The woman dodged right and probably never realized that the first thrust had been a feint. She jumped straight into a devastating blow to the side of her head and dropped, landing halfway across one of the other prone bodies.

Across the street, Fianna was using her fists and feet against two remaining opponents with knives. A third was on his back near the other body, holding bloody hands to his face. One of the others soon joined him, knocked out by a high kick.

The last opponent dropped his knife and backed away, but Fianna was too enraged to let him go and gave chase. He turned and barreled into a group of onlookers, who did not give way, instead shouting at him and shoving him back. Fianna grabbed his wrist and yanked him toward her as she ducked, slammed her shoulder into his lower body, and pushed up. He gave a startled shout as he flew through the air and landed painfully on the street behind her. Groaning, he tried to roll to the side, but she pounced and stilled his movements with a fist to the face.

Rax was in a frightening fight with another knife-wielding attacker. The large woman stepped to one side and then the other, her hate-filled gaze focused on Arabisar and Salomen, but Rax doggedly got in her way, blocking strikes with his paddles. In an impatient fury, she stabbed at his face, only to find her knife embedded in wood. Before she could react, Rax chopped the side of the other paddle into the bottom of the knife handle, dislodging it and sending it flying. It clinked onto the street ahead of them, bouncing and sliding far out of reach.

With a roar of rage, the woman slammed a fist into his side, then jumped back and shook out her hand. She had not counted on the protection of the combat uniform.

Her distraction proved her undoing. She was rubbing her wrist when Fianna seized it from behind and whirled her around, straight into a palm strike that broke her nose. She staggered back, both hands to her face. Fianna followed with an upraised fist, ready to finish her off, then looked startled when the woman dropped to the street unconscious.

Rahel set her stave upright. “I was out of opponents,” she said.

“I think we both are.” Fianna gave her an approving nod.

For Salomen, overwhelmed with the heightened emotions hammering at her senses, removing the worst was only a minor relief. She finally admitted that she didn’t have the strength for crowdsensing and brought up her blocks.

It was akin to stepping straight from the roaring machinery of a crop distribution center to the most remote corner of Hol-Opah, where silence reigned and the only sound was that of a breeze sighing through herdgrass.

She tilted her head back, reveling in the peace, then looked forward again and realized that unless she could stop the entire march—an impossibility with how closely they were packed and how many were behind her—the attackers in front of them were about to be trampled.

“Lanaril,” she said urgently. “We need to move them.”

Lanaril looked up, saw the situation at a glance, and nodded. They raced over to the nearest attacker, the gasping man with a broken sternum. Salomen spotted his knife lying in the street and picked it up. It was long and wicked looking, and she could not forget seeing him raise it over Rahel’s back. She caught his eye and said, “Nice. You deserve that.”

“Salomen, hurry.” Lanaril had her hands wrapped around one of his wrists.

She hesitated, at a loss as to what to do with the knife.

“Give it to me.” Arabisar appeared beside her, already holding one knife.

Salomen handed it over, then grabbed the man’s other wrist and ignored his agonized screams as they jerked him across the rough bricks and to the side of the road.

Several bystanders had recovered from their shock and joined Salomen and Lanaril when they darted back. In pipticks, the remaining endangered attackers had been moved to the sides. Salomen called out a thank you and rejoined the march just as it crossed the point where the fight had taken place.

Rahel jogged over. “Vellmar is trying to find a City Guard with some shekking honor to process those muscleheads,” she said. “She already knocked out one who should have been helping us fight. He’ll wake up missing two teeth.”

Salomen looked her over for injuries. “Are you hurt?”

“By them?” Rahel asked incredulously.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offer insult.” She smiled at her affront. “You aren’t even out of breath.”

That inspired a sideways look and a disgruntled huff. “I’ve worked harder going through my forms. Are you all right?”

She rapped her knuckles on her cuirass. “It’s not just ornamental. Lanaril?”

“I’m fine,” Lanaril said. “Though I have to say, I never thought I’d break the warmron taboo with you. On a public street, no less.”

“That doesn’t come close to counting as a warmron,” Rahel said. “If you ever want to break that taboo for real, call me. I’d love to give you one.” She twisted around to look behind them, then leaned nearer and added, “Though that fighting vallcat of yours might have something to say about it.”

Lanaril chuckled. “Quite a lot, I’m sure. Prime Producer, thank you. How are you doing?”

“As our Bondlancer said, they’re not just ornamental.” Arabisar rapped her own cuirass. “I’m newly fond of this chunk of metal.”

Salomen looked past her to Rax. “And you?”

He stared straight ahead and did not respond.

“Rax. Are you all right?”

The name caught his attention. “You’re asking me?”

“That woman tried to stab you in the face. Of course I’m asking you.”

He seemed shocked, as if he truly had not imagined any of them would care. “I’m, uh. I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”

“You took a good hit to the side,” Rahel observed. “That’ll bruise even through the uniform.”

“I’ve had worse. It hardly registers.”

“Thank you for your defense, Rax.” Arabisar held out the two knives. “First Guard, can you do something with these?”

“Ah. I’m glad you picked those up.” Rahel took them from her hand and tucked them into her belt. “Those cuirasses might not be ornamental, but you’re missing a few useful accouterments.”

“Never had a need for them before. Being a Prime is much more exciting since the Bondlancer came to the High Council.”

It could have been sarcastic, but Arabisar was smiling. Salomen briefly dropped her blocks to check and found the Prime stressed but exhilarated.

As their eyes met, her spirits rose. “Someone had to get in there and aerate the soil.”

Arabisar’s smile turned to a full grin. “I thought for certain you were about to say ‘fertilize.’”

“No, you’ve all been doing that quite well without me.”

Arabisar laughed, an infectious sound that set Salomen off. When Fianna rejoined them a tick later—getting another kiss from Lanaril for her valor—it seemed as if that fight had never happened.

Except, Salomen thought, they were more of a team now. They had a firmer hold on their purpose and less fear of the unknown.

And next to Arabisar, Rax seemed a little taller.


54


Warrior

Rax had never seen or imagined anything like this march. The idea of so many citizens protesting against a government decision was already unthinkable, but that the protest would be led by two of the highest figures of that government? Every time he tried to examine that, his mind skittered away from delving too deep. He simply had no frame of reference.

It was easier to think about the anger he could see in some of the onlookers. Anger, he understood. Anger expressed in violence was almost comforting in its normalcy.

He also understood that for most of the angry Alseans, directing that violence toward the settlers was easier than directing it toward their fellow Alseans. It was a familiar dynamic. After all, no hanger in the Voloth military could ever express their anger at unfair policies or unjust acts to any officer. But they could take it out on each other, and even more easily on slaves.

He was therefore unsurprised that the Alseans throwing fruits and rocks in the first attack had focused on the settlers while mostly ignoring the far larger mass of marchers. Nor was he surprised to hear about the second attack taking place behind them. What did surprise him was when Bondlancer Opah, listening to a report on her earcuff, relayed the news that marchers had come to the rescue of the embattled settlers and sent the attackers running. No settler had been seriously injured.

Maybe, just maybe, this gamble would pay off.

Then the third attack came, and he found himself fighting as best he could to keep a large and very strong knife-wielding woman from reaching the Prime Producer or Bondlancer. Thankfully, she was limited to stabbing and hadn’t known how to throw her knife.

Now he was contemplating the differences between the attacks. The first two were simply Alseans expressing anger. The last was organized. It had two distinct phases: throwing bricks to disorient or incapacitate, then attacking with knives. That they hadn’t gotten far was thanks to the competence of the two warriors fighting them off.

And they had been entirely unconcerned with him. The woman he fought only wanted to get past him. Anger that could not be diverted by a lesser target was a far more dangerous thing.

How many more pockets of better-planned, potentially lethal resistance would they find on this march?

His thoughts were interrupted by a little girl running toward him from the side, dark hair flying and green cape flapping behind her.

“Bondlancer Opah!” she cried.

Alseans might not have seen a girl as a threat. Rax, raised in the Voloth Empire where slaves could be forced to do anything, stepped in front of her. “No one goes near the Bondlancer,” he said, ignoring the vidcam that swooped up to hover nearby.

She peered around him as they continued to walk forward. “But I want to see her!”

“Rusill?” Bondlancer Opah came up beside him in utter carelessness of her safety. “What are you doing here?”

“Bondlancer—” Rax tried.

“It’s all right, she’s no threat. I know her.”

Rusill swelled up with pride. “She knows me. Let me past.” As Rax slowed, she ran in front of him and threw her arms around the startled-looking Bondlancer. “I read your interview! You’re doing this for me, aren’t you?”

“Keep walking.” Bondlancer Opah took the girl’s hand. “I’m doing this for you and all those like you, yes.”

“I knew you’d help! Thank you so much!”

“I’m trying, Rusill. All of these people are trying. I don’t know if we’ll succeed.”

Rusill swung their clasped hands and grinned. “You will. You’re the Bondlancer.”

“I am today,” Bondlancer Opah said cryptically. “Where are your fathers?”

“Watching at home. I wanted to come, but they said it was too dangerous. So I snuck out.”

The Bondlancer met Rax’s eyes over the girl’s head with an unmistakable look of oh, shek. Behind her, Prime Producer Arabisar smiled.

“Your fathers are right,” Bondlancer Opah told Rusill. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“But this is for me! You did this for me! I couldn’t stay home.”

“Haven’t you seen people throwing things at us?”

“That’s why I had to come! You shouldn’t be doing this by yourself.”

“Are you sure you want to stay in the producer caste?” Arabisar asked. “You sound like a warrior.”

Rusill pointed at the Bondlancer. “She’s a producer.” She stabbed her pointing finger toward Arabisar. “So are you. You’re doing this, so I should be, too. Warriors aren’t the only ones who can do things.”

Rax saw no hole in that argument.

“You’ve put me in a difficult position. It’s much too dangerous for you here. But I cannot let you go back to that mess, either.” Bondlancer Opah waved her free hand at the crowds of onlookers. “Your fathers need to know where to find you.”

“I can take her,” Lead Templar Satran said. “We’ll drop back in the crowd a bit. I’m not one of the targets.”

“But I want to stay with you!” Rusill’s lips wobbled.

“Rusill, I appreciate what you’ve done for me. You’re a courageous girl. But you’re in danger and you might get me hurt by being here.”

“How—”

“Because there are only three warriors protecting us, and they already have enough people to worry about without adding one more.”

Rax goggled at that. She saw him as a warrior? As if he were as valuable as her Guards?

It occurred to him that he might help her and himself at the same time.

“Bondlancer Opah?” he ventured. “I’m not a warrior. I’m a producer.”

Everyone in the front row stared at him. “You’re a producer?” Bondlancer Opah echoed.

“I would be, if I could be in a caste. Both of my parents are producers. That’s why I painted these your caste color.” He held up his paddles. “And I can’t fight for you. I can only defend you.”

Rusill eyed him speculatively. “Then you’re like . . . a warrior-producer?”

“I was a warrior because I had to be. But I never loved it. I didn’t even like it. Now that I have a choice, I’d much rather grow things.” If his parents could hear that, they would dance for days.

Bondlancer Opah gave him an understanding smile before looking back at Rusill. “I miscounted, then. I have only two warriors to help, and one very brave producer. You cannot stay, do you understand?”

“I suppose,” Rusill said dolefully.

Bondlancer Opah angled her walk until the girl was between her and Satran. “This is Lead Templar Satran. She’s my friend and my chosen family. I trust her as much as my bondmate.”

“May I?” Satran held out her hand.

Rusill studied her before accepting the offer. “I’m Rusill.”

“Well met, Rusill. I’m Lanaril. Bondlancer Opah is right; you have great courage. But we need to keep her safe, and that means we have to go back there.” She gestured behind them. “You can speak to her again at the end of the march.”

That seemed to do the trick. With a farewell to Bondlancer Opah, Rusill allowed herself to be taken a few rows back.

And just in time, Rax thought as he reached up to block a flying marmello.


55


Symbols

This time it was Tal ready to storm the streets and Micah holding her back.

“You have to let her finish this,” he said with infuriating calm.

“I don’t have to let her die! They had knives!” Tal was already calculating how long it would take her and thirty Guards to fly a transport to the landing pad nearest Salomen.

“And they were no match against Vellmar and Rahel. She does have protection, Tal.”

On the vidscreen, Salomen was dragging one of the would-be assassins out of harm’s way. Tal shook her head. She would have let them be trampled and called it swift justice.

Then again, perhaps not. Trampling them would traumatize the Alseans in the march. They didn’t deserve that, even if the assassins did.

“I told her she was setting Alsea on fire,” she said. “But it’s worse than that. She’s made herself the flame. She’s more of a target than I am.”

“She’s also a symbol,” Miltorin offered from the opposite chair. “A powerful one. What she’s doing here will change global opinion. It can no longer be argued that she’s a producer Bondlancer playing with power, or pushing a personal project without understanding the ramifications.” He pointed at the vidscreen, where several bystanders had joined Salomen and Lanaril to drag the unconscious attackers to safety. “She’s proving that she understands the ramifications. She’s not playing at anything. If you put a wall of red capes around her, you will take that away.”

Tal heard him. She heard Micah.

But she also saw Prime Producer Arabisar holding two knives as if they were alien artifacts.

“I won’t take it away. But she cannot be exposed one piptick longer than necessary. Ronlin—” She paused, startled by the speed at which Ronlin leaped to his feet. “Get your unit together. That march has to cross Serenity Bridge to get into the State Park. If there are any coordinated efforts to assassinate Salomen or Arabisar before the end, that’s the perfect place to do it. They’ll be trapped on the bridge.” And Salomen couldn’t complain about her Guards meeting her at the border of the State Park.

“We’ll take care of it.” Ronlin thumped his fists to his sternum and was gone so quickly that she swore there was dust in his wake.

Her next instructions went via earcuff to Head Guardian Gehrain, who had been busy setting up snipers and sweeping the front of the State House for threats.

“Gehrain, Ronlin’s taking his unit to Serenity Bridge. Have you finished your sweep?”

“Just now. I have a number of bored Guards here who were thinking about a scenic walk through the park. Toward Serenity Bridge, in fact.”

Micah, who was listening on the channel, gave Tal a proud smile. Gehrain was showing his training, having anticipated Tal’s change of mind.

“A scenic walk sounds perfect. Take anyone you can spare and sweep the park with Ronlin. Wait on this side of the bridge until you see the marchers, then do a return sweep.”

“I’m much happier with this plan,” Gehrain said.

“So am I.” Tal closed the channel and turned to Miltorin. “I appreciate your input and advice. That will be all for now.”

He took his dismissal gracefully, leaving her alone with Micah.

After a moment of silence, Micah said, “Rahel fought well.”

Knowing that the Guards were on their way had released enough of Tal’s tension to allow a chuckle. “No need to be so tactful. She’s a force of nature with that stave. Thank Fahla I didn’t meet her in an honor challenge.”

His eyebrows rose. “Never thought I’d hear you say that.”

“I can admit when I’m wrong.”

“Occasionally.”

“It’s not as if you liked her any better.”

“I hated her,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “She put me in a coma and left me walking with a staff for half a moon.” He looked back at the vidscreen, where Rahel had rejoined Salomen and was speaking to her. Salomen listened intently, then said something and smiled.

Tal recognized that smile. It was a real one, the kind Salomen only gave to people she trusted.

Micah recognized it too, judging by his next words. “But I couldn’t keep hating someone Salomen needed.”

“True words. You and I chose her Guards after narrowing down a mountain of possibilities, and what does she do? Goes out and finds two of her own. Vellmar swore a personal oath to her a hantick after they met, and Rahel—”

“Tried to use her and ended up serving her,” Micah finished. “She does have a way of shaking up people’s plans.”

“People? She’s shaking all of Alsea.”

They sat in companionable silence as the coverage moved to the far more sedate marches in Pallea. The Whitemoon march, having a shorter trip to the central park than any of the others, had elongated it by routing the marchers along the bayfront. Had she not been so worried for Salomen, Tal could have spent all day watching tens of thousands of Alseans in formal capes moving through such beautiful scenery. Unlike Blacksun, which was under a dark and threatening sky, Whitemoon’s brilliant sunshine sparkled off clear, blue water. It was a breathtaking scene.

The announcers returned to Blacksun to show a little girl running toward the head of the march. She looked like a miniature Lanaril, with the same light brown skin and wavy black hair, and was now bouncing back and forth, trying to get past Rax Sestak. The vidcam was close enough to catch Salomen calling her by name and the girl’s excited response.

Here was the start of it all. Tal watched the girl give Salomen a warmron, felt Salomen’s surprise and a slight unraveling of guilt, and said, “I should have seen it coming.”

“The uprising?” Micah asked.

“No. Well, possibly. I meant Salomen’s determination to push this reform no matter what I said. Look at her.” She gestured toward the vidscreen. “That little girl set off her protective instinct. I was an idiot to think I could talk her out of it.”

“Does anyone talk Salomen out of things?” Micah wondered.

After an earnest conversation, Salomen convinced the girl to go with Lanaril to a safer part of the march. Not half a tick later, more fruits were flying from both sides of the street. The crowd, having just seen Salomen caring for a child, roundly booed the attackers. Those closest turned on the miscreants, yanking fruits out of their hands and smashing them on the ground or, in two satisfying instances, back into their faces. A few fruits still made it into the air, including one panfruit that sailed straight toward Salomen. Rahel blocked it with her stave, but the panfruit was overripe and exploded on impact, spraying bright red pulp across Salomen’s face.

Tal jumped out of her chair, her heart beating faster.

“Tal.” Micah stood up and moved beside her. “She’s all right.”

“It looks—”

“It’s not blood. It’s panfruit pulp.”

Tal could not take her eyes off the scene. Salomen was wiping her face, her disgust strong in their link. She was not afraid. She was not hurt.

But her hand only smeared the red, and Tal’s breath was short.

It was probably a blessing that her aide opened the office door to announce the arrival of Lhyn Rivers. Lhyn walked inside and stopped to stare at Tal. “What—?” She turned to the vidscreen, and an explosion of horror blew through the room. “What happened to her?”

The waves of emotion short-circuited Tal’s reaction. “Micah, I’d like to see Lhyn alone.”

“She’s all right,” he told Lhyn on his way out.

The instant the door clicked behind him, Tal embraced her in a fervent warmron. “She is. It’s just panfruit pulp.”

“Fucking stars,” Lhyn breathed, her body going limp from the sudden loss of tension. “You looked—and she looks—don’t do that to me!”

“It’s impressive, the number of Common curses I’m picking up from you and Ekatya.” Tal was suddenly in a much better mood. “I’m so glad to see you.”

Lhyn pulled back slightly. “I’m glad to see you, too. But I thought you were going to tear a strip out of my skin. Does that part come later?”

“I wanted to thank you for being with her. She needed you.”

Her expression grew calculating. “You said you had questions.”

“I do.” Tal led her to the armchairs. “Are you the one who arranged the Fleet uniforms for the Voloth?”

Onscreen, a young man ran into the street to offer a kerchief to Rahel, who examined it and then handed it to Salomen.

“I gave the pattern to Prime Builder Eroles. She and the Prime Crafter adapted it with Alsean colors and printed them off. It’s in our treaty,” Lhyn added. “I checked. We can share textiles.”

“I don’t know that I’d consider light armor to be a textile. Happily, that one’s not my problem. Did you want to Share with Salomen?”

“Um. Wow, that was a jump. We didn’t do it.”

“I would have felt it if you had. That wasn’t my question.”

The coverage returned to Whitemoon, where the head of the march had left the bayfront and was moving toward the center of the city.

“It’s strange,” Lhyn said. “I’ve Shared with Lanaril and never thought I needed permission from Ekatya. But Sharing with Salomen . . .” She flailed a hand.

“It’s different,” Tal offered.

“But I don’t understand why. You do it between friends all the time. We all Shared at our bonding ceremony. You and Salomen Shared with a few hundred people at yours.”

“You do understand why. You just don’t have words for it.”

“It feels deeper.” Her forehead creased with dissatisfaction. “Which might be the most inane thing I’ve ever said. We’re all divine tyrees; obviously it’s deeper.” She glanced up. “Did Ekatya call you?”

“Yes. I heard all about your happy little predawn conclave.” Tal could not keep the bitterness from her voice.

“It wasn’t about excluding you. We didn’t even mean to wake Salomen. Ekatya couldn’t wait any longer.”

“How fortunate that she had the option.”

“You’re still angry,” Lhyn observed. “At her, or both of us? Or all three of us?”

“I’m not—” She stopped at the look of disbelief. “I don’t—shek.” Rubbing her forehead ridges, she tried again. “The day of the summer windstorm, when I sent you after Salomen . . . I hoped you could help her not feel excluded. And you did.”

“A little too well, is what you’re not saying. Andira, it’s not like that.”

“I know. I know, but I can’t help feeling—” Things that did her no credit, and she was loathe to speak them aloud.

“You were the nexus,” Lhyn said. “First with Ekatya, then between me and her, then between all of us. Now we’re finding our own interconnections. It doesn’t diminish you. It just makes the whole thing richer. More complex.”

“I felt you today,” Tal blurted. It was partially an effort to change the uncomfortable topic and partially because she needed Lhyn to know.

“Really? When?”

“When you were at the hangar.”

Lhyn leaned forward, intensely focused. “What did you feel?”

“I can’t describe it. Colonel Razine called, and as soon as I saw her com ID, I knew she’d found you.”

“Have you felt Ekatya?”

Tal shook her head. “I’m guessing we connected because of your heightened emotion.”

“Because I was heading for a panic attack. Do you think—? Shippers, if we keep doing these foursome Sharings . . .”

“I don’t know. We’re in new waters. But it seems safe to expect the link will get stronger.”

“Do you want it to get stronger?”

That was the big question. If they were finding their own interconnections, Tal could no longer coast on a primary position she hadn’t even realized she held—not until the possibility of losing it was staring her in the face. She didn’t know what the four of them were creating, but if she was too afraid to speak her truth, the others might create it without her.

“I know what I don’t want,” she said. “I don’t want to stop.”

“Me either.” Lhyn’s relief felt like the first breath of air after being underwater too long. “I don’t ever want to stop, and Ekatya—sometimes I think she needs it more than I do.”

“But I also don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m as vulnerable to something happening to you or Ekatya as I am to something happening to Salomen. I don’t know if I can live that way.” Tal waved a hand at the vidscreen. “This morning has already taken two cycles off my life.”

“Would never Sharing again keep that from happening?”

The best and worst part of talking with Lhyn was that her questions invariably drilled down to the heart of any matter. There was no avoiding seeing the conclusions when she shone a light on them.

“I’ve been jumpy as a fanten on slaughter day all morning,” Tal admitted, “and I thought I had a perfect excuse for it. But the moment you walked in that door, I felt better.”

“That might not be me.” Lhyn rubbed her fingers together thoughtfully. “Salomen said she felt better when we shared a bed. She said she would have missed you much more, but she thinks I carry a piece of you inside of me.”

“Which would mean you carry a piece of her, too?” That made a frightening sort of sense. “If you do—”

“Then it’s already too late.”


56


Serenity Bridge

In another circumstance, when he didn’t have to be on such high alert, Rax would have enjoyed the fantastic vistas on this route. Fahlinor Way paralleled the west bank of the river, and though buildings occasionally blocked the view, most of the time he could glance over and see the waters running wide and fast beside them. Between river and boulevard was a sloping, grassy field dotted by the last wildflowers of the summer, which faded into a belt of trees so tall that their tops brushed the low clouds and their first branches were five body lengths off the ground. Rather than obscuring the river view, the thick trunks enhanced it with their varied colors.

A crisp wind had sprung up, inaudible over the noise of the march but visible in the swaying of the trees. It ruffled the capes of the musicians in front of him and brought with it the wild, fertile scent of water and wet soil. He lifted his head and inhaled deeply, wondering if that was rain he smelled or just the river. The clouds were darker than they had been at the start of the march, and he had heard the Bondlancer and Prime Producer betting on whether they would reach the State House before the first rains of autumn fell.

On the left side of the street, high-value properties looked across the boulevard to the river. Somewhere on the other side of those buildings was the Silverrun River, drawing ever closer to its junction with the Fahlinor. This triangular bit of land above the river junction was one of the most expensive areas of the city, and there had been no more throwing of fruits or rocks once they entered. That made him more nervous, not less. He could not shake the feeling that those knife-wielding attackers were not the only sign of organized resistance. The closer they got to the end, the more likely it was that another attack would take place.

Up ahead, the platform holding the long bells made a sharp left turn toward the Silverrun. The woman playing those bells must have arms made of solid trialloy, Rax thought. She had been going nonstop all morning.

The drummers turned, then the rest of the band. Rax followed, staying close to the Prime Producer.

“I do love this view,” Arabisar said as they came around the curve.

“One of the best in the city,” Bondlancer Opah agreed.

“Memorize it, Bondlancer. We’ll never see it quite this way again, walking down the middle of the street.”

“I’ll never see any part of Alsea this way again. Andira’s probably going to triple my Guard unit after this.”

Arabisar laughed. “That’s assuming she lets you out of the State House.”

Serenity Bridge soared ahead of them, its elevated span crossing the Silverrun River over a beautiful series of arches. The boulevard continued west on the other side, tracing the southern edge of the State Park, but the marchers would turn north into the park itself. They would stay alongside the Silverrun until it poured its waters into the Fahlinor, then continue through the center of the park, past Blacksun Temple, and finally arrive at the State House.

Not until the musicians were already on the bridge did Rax see the ten Bondlancer’s Guards standing ready, crimson capes snapping in the higher wind that blew along the river. One swung in next to Rahel, a short, red-headed man built like a shuttle. His uniform sleeves held the red chevrons of a Lead Guard, and he spoke with quiet authority to the Bondlancer.

A woman of middling height with unfriendly eyes stepped up next to Rax. “Prime Producer Arabisar, well met,” she said, ignoring Rax. “I’m Guard Demerah. I’ll be taking over your protection.” Only then did she deign to notice Rax. “You can go.”

“I think not, Guard,” said Arabisar. “While I appreciate the additional security, Rax has been beside me every step of this march. I expect him to stay until the end. If you don’t mind, Rax.”

Bondlancer Opah cut off her conversation with her Lead Guard and looked over. “Rax stays. He may not be able to fight, but he’s good with those paddles.” She smiled at him, though it did not go to her eyes.

He was too startled to smile back. He had not expected either of these highly ranked Alseans to want him around once they had their Guards again. But if they did, then he would remain right here.

“I don’t mind,” he said. “It’s an honor.”

Demerah looked disgusted, but he knew whose opinion held more value. He straightened his spine and ignored the warrior beside him as they stepped onto the span of Serenity Bridge.

With the addition of the new Guards, he could relax enough to enjoy the spectacular view. Upstream lay the city they had marched through; downstream was the river junction, the far larger Convergence Bridge, and the forested expanse of the State Park. Above its treetops, he could see the massive domes of the temple and State House, and the smaller, brightly colored domes of the six caste houses.

They were almost there.


57


Tsunami

Not until Tal came out to the front steps of the State House did she realize how busy the builders had been. The wide path to the steps was cordoned off, along with a significant swath of grass on either side of it, and a giant hologram to her left was already showing Salomen’s progress through the park. She counted thirteen more holograms scattered about, some centered in landscaped clearings far out in the park, others studding the open meadow that stretched in front of the steps. Tall frames had also been erected throughout the park, bearing giant sound systems that would relay the words spoken here. We’d like to talk to you about your votes on the high empath proposal, Salomen had said, and the builders had made certain that conversation would be heard by all.

Head Guardian Gehrain had deployed Tal’s Guards in two facing arcs, each starting at one corner of the bottom step. When Salomen arrived, her Guards would move forward to line the bottom step, filling in the space between arcs. She would have an impenetrable mass of Alseans at her back and a semicircle of thirty Guards in front. Two snipers were stationed on the State House’s first roof level, five floors up. Two more were on the second roof level, with a broader view from ten floors up. An additional pair had scrambled up trees on either side of the meadow. Gehrain and Micah stayed with Tal.

For the first time in her service as Lancer, Tal’s Guards considered her the secondary target. Salomen was the primary one. It was an odd reversal that after two cycles of guiding Alsea through so much change, Tal should be representing stability and the old ways while Salomen represented radical reform.

Ronlin and his unit had indeed found a threat at Serenity Bridge: a determined warrior armed with five shock bombs. They were non-lethal weapons, using concussive sound and disorienting light, but if the warrior had thrown them into the packed crowd on the bridge—or worse, directly at Salomen and Arabisar—there would have been severe injuries and possibly deaths.

Tal knew that Vellmar would have sensed the intent in time and diverted the march away from the bridge. As it was, Ronlin’s unit dispatched the threat and allowed the marchers to proceed in blissful ignorance—except for Salomen, who had been informed.

The real concern was that the would-be assassins with knives and the warrior with shock bombs were all mid empaths. High empaths made the best assassins. Where were they?

Tal, Micah, and Gehrain shared the nasty suspicion that they were here, waiting for the end of the march and a stationary target in a location they could occupy early. Salomen and her co-conspirators had not given them much time, but if Tal had known in the middle of the night, so had others.

Standing at the top of the steps beside her, Prime Warrior Ehron looked over the preparations and gave a brisk nod. “She should have had this protection all along. It’s absurd that she and Arabisar went through half the city without it. Perhaps now she’ll have more respect for the service our caste offers.”

However unintended that aspersion might be, Tal was still offended. “She chose warriors she trusted to protect her. They did. She hasn’t forgotten that it was warriors who murdered twelve producers in Melladin.”

“Those weren’t real warriors. Surely she understands the difference?”

“But they were warriors who followed our lead, weren’t they? We stood against reform. So did they.”

“That is—”

“Truth,” Tal said. “However wretchedly they twisted our stance, they did hear the base of it.”

“We voted. They set fire to a caste house!”

“And all the world heard that second vote, didn’t it?” She watched the nearest hologram cycle through the marches of all four cities, all of which had reached their central parks at the same time. Whoever was in charge of logistics for this had done a superlative job.

On her other side, Prime Scholar Yaserka wore his full cape and an unhappy expression. “All the world is certainly hearing this vote. Do you realize what a precedent this sets? If someone doesn’t like a High Council decision, they just whip Alseans into a frenzy and force us to revisit it.”

“When was the last time you saw three million Alseans marching in unity?” Tal refused to look at him. The temptation might be too strong, and she’d have to punch that supercilious look off his face. Frenzy, indeed!

“It’s three million now?” Micah asked from behind her. “Last I heard, it wasn’t quite two and a half.”

He was handing her the blade to throw, and she could have kissed him for it. Turning to face him, she said, “That was the last estimate. They’re almost to nine hundred thousand here. And they did this on ten hanticks’ notice. Three million people. Can you imagine how many would be marching if they’d had a nineday to schedule it?”

Turning back, she glanced at Yaserka and had to stifle her smile. He looked as if he had bitten an underripe panfruit.

The hologram had switched back to Blacksun and zoomed in on first Arabisar, then Salomen. The smiles they had often shown in the earlier part of the march had vanished; both looked stern and focused.

She was basking in the closeup view of Salomen when she heard it: a faint rhythm of drums and long bells. The wind instruments were audible a tick later, having been dampened by a steadily increasing breeze blowing out of the north.

A shrill whistle split the sky to her left, followed by silence and then a shattering boom that echoed off the State House and vibrated through her chest. She watched in appreciative awe as smoke images began to appear, lasting only a few pipticks before being shredded by the wind. The whistles of launching fireworks were continuous, and for every smoke image, there were two or three sound charges that tried to overwrite the beat of her heart.

Among the distant tree trunks, shapes moved and resolved themselves into caped Alseans, walking in a line that stretched from one side of the park to the other. Coming up the path at its center were Chrysaltin and her long bells, followed by the drummers and wind instruments. The marchers had spread out and were filling the park.

It was a tsunami of Alseans rolling toward her, all for a single purpose, and all led by the woman Tal had waited three days to see. She craned her neck, trying not to be too obvious.

The musicians angled into the grass beside the path, allowing the marchers to pass, and there she was. Preceded by her ten Guards, Salomen moved with her usual confidence, tall and breathtaking in her regalia. The metal studs in her sleeves shimmered, and her cuirass shone like a beacon beneath the glowering sky. Rahel walked on her right, stave resting against her shoulder, and Vellmar strode in the outside position. On Salomen’s left were Prime Producer Arabisar, nearly as majestic in her own cuirass, and Rax Sestak, still holding his paddles.

Closer they came, the park behind them filling with people, until the grass was obscured and all Tal could see were Alseans—and one hundred and twenty-one Voloth in matching uniforms of Protectorate materials and Alsean colors.

Salomen was near enough now for Tal to see her face. A smile curved her lips, accompanied by a pulse of pleasure in their link, and Tal’s brain emptied of all thoughts but one.

Her bondmate looked magnificent at the head of nine hundred thousand marchers.

The musicians ended their martial piece with a flourish of drums and a final strike on Chrysaltin’s largest long bell. Behind Salomen, the marchers jostled to a stop. Lanaril was there, her hand resting on the little girl’s shoulder as they watched Salomen’s line cover the last few steps.

Out on the river, the builders fired off a thunderous salvo, six bursts of four sound charges each. Their echoes bounced off each other and filled the park with an impenetrable wall of sound, announcing the march’s arrival at the State House.

When the last crashing boom died away, Micah leaned forward and spoke into Tal’s ear. “She looks like a warrior queen of the old days.”

The Guards were taking their places along the bottom of the steps, while Salomen stood waiting, her heavy cape swaying around her calves.

“No,” Tal said. “She looks like the Bondlancer.”


58


Suspicion

Rax could not believe he was standing at the foot of the State House steps and at the left shoulder of the Prime Producer. While Bondlancer Opah and Lancer Tal spoke to each other in grand language designed to be written down in history books, he lost himself in memories of landing on this planet in an attempt to bring its primitive natives under the boot of the Voloth Empire.

It was impossible to remember how he had ever thought of these people as primitive. Impossible to remember his hate. The Rax in his memories was someone else, not him.

He wished he could continue to be the Rax of today: a trusted man, valued for what he had to offer. Having both the Prime Producer and the Bondlancer confirm his place in this march, even after reinforcements had arrived, was the highlight not just of this day but of his life. Never had he been treated with such respect by such high-ranking individuals.

Yet when this march disbanded, he would have to give back this uniform and return to New Haven. Perhaps he and the settlers had made a difference, but even if they had, the results would take time. Today would not magically change the world.

But it had been a wonderful fantasy to live in. He could hardly wait to sit down with Vagron and discuss it over a bottle of spirits.

He looked around, taking in the details of the scene for that future discussion, and finally registered the massive increase in security. They had marched through half the city with only Vellmar and Rahel, but now there were thirty Guards surrounding them. Twenty of them wore a slightly different uniform, with crimson color panels in place of the dark green ones on the Bondlancer’s Guards. He understood the significance a piptick later: those were the Lancer’s Guards.

At the very end of the march, Bondlancer Opah’s Lead Guard had peeled away to join his unit in front. Demerah had done the same, with a final dirty look at Rax as she strode ahead. The two had inserted themselves into the center of the line of Guards, which stood along the bottom step of the State House stairs. He understood the positioning when he realized that the Lead Guard was directly in front of the Bondlancer, with Demerah standing beside him. She must be the second-in-command, then.

The Bondlancer’s Guards were ten paces ahead, facing the crowd with identical stern expressions. The Lancer’s Guards curved around each side of the front lines and wore the same expression.

They must be rifling through everyone’s emotions, looking for threats. Were they rifling through his?

Thirty Guards seemed excessive, though, especially after braving fruits and rocks and even knives with just two. And these warriors weren’t guarding the Lancer. She stood at the top of the steps, speaking into a swarm of vidcams that were transmitting her image and voice to the holograms and speakers that studded the park. Only two Guards stood behind her, and one of them looked old enough to retire. Clearly, no one thought she was in particular danger.

The hair on the back of his neck rose as understanding hit. All through the city, the Prime Producer and Bondlancer hadn’t been considered targets in need of guarding. Now they were. There must be an immediate threat. But from where? Everyone behind him had been with them for the entire march.

From the State House, maybe? That building could hold an infinite number of assassins. But surely they had security procedures in place to keep such dangers from entering.

He turned to the left and looked at the crowd standing amongst the trees that lined the grassy area in front of the State House. Those people had already been here, waiting for the march to arrive. There were more on the right. Seeders, there could be any number of dangers hidden in those trees.

He glanced back at the Bondlancer’s Guards lined up at the bottom of the steps and noticed one with a different expression. In contrast to the stern, focused look on the other Guards, Demerah seemed angry.

And she was staring straight at Bondlancer Opah.

Rax had spent years in the Voloth military, where the greatest dangers in life came from his own officers. He was not trained to trust people like those Guards, but to view them with fear and the expectation that they might turn on him at any moment and for any provocation.

Guard Demerah looked like a Voloth officer preparing to unleash her fury on a hapless hanger.

“Excuse me, Prime Producer,” he said quietly. “I need to move back for a bit.”

She looked over in surprise. “All right. Thank you.”

Careful to move slowly, trying not to draw attention, he melted behind the Prime Producer and slid to the side. Now he stood directly behind the Bondlancer.

If Demerah noticed, she paid no attention. Probably she thought of him as an animal, not worth her time or effort.

He used his right paddle to brace the left one against his stomach, then pulled his hand out of the strap. Tucking the freed paddle into the belt at the small of his back, he took one more step to the right.

Next to the Bondlancer, Rahel noticed his movements and shot him a questioning glance.

He tilted his head toward Demerah.

Rahel frowned at him, then looked forward. Her stance shifted subtly, and she changed her grip on her stave.

She saw it, then. But all these high empaths around him—they were searching emotions, looking for intent. What happened when their target was another high empath who could hide that intent?

They wouldn’t know.

Demerah’s right hand moved upward to rest on her knife hilt. It looked casual, but no other Guard was taking that stance.

Rax reached for the Bondlancer’s right shoulder.

“What are you doing?” a voice inquired behind him.


59


Uprising

After learning of the warrior who had intended to terrorize them with shock bombs, Salomen attempted once more to crowdsense. She managed, with limited success, until she saw Andira standing at the top of the State House steps.

Then she wondered why she was expending so much effort on something that Andira could do far more easily, not to mention her Guards. “Pick your battles” was one of Andira’s philosophies, and Salomen had been picking the wrong one. She raised her blocks and inhaled deeply, reveling in the sudden peace. Sound charges were exploding over the river and reverberating through her chest, but that was just external noise. Inside, she sensed no emotions but those from her tyree, whose immense pride was putting a pleasant tingle in her stomach.

Her Guards reached the steps and turned, facing outward, and she stopped her own line a few paces away. This was the moment she had worked toward since the massacre. How had she thought she could crowdsense at a time like this? She needed all her concentration to manage the public dialogue she was about to have with Andira and the two Primes.

Vidcams whirred around her, and she idly noted that this was the first time all morning that it had been quiet enough to hear their tiny motors. Then Andira greeted her, and Salomen shut out every other distraction to focus on their words.

She was pointing out that three million Alseans had marched worldwide in order to convince three individuals to listen to them when a child’s voice behind her said, “What are you doing?”

Before she could turn her head, she was jerked backward and a large object was shoved in front of her face. She stepped back, trying to recover her balance, but her foot collided with something and she began to topple. A deep thunk vibrated in her ear, the sound of an object hitting and then splitting wood, and something warm and wet spattered her face. Close by, a man made a soft grunt of pain.

Andira’s terror exploded through her.

Her body twisted as she crashed to the ground, landing atop someone else, and a scream of rage blended with another, higher scream of fear. She heard the tink of metal on metal and a thousand gasps.

Having instinctively dropped her blocks to assess the danger, she was inundated with shock and fear from countless sources—and one fiery point of protective wrath that she recognized as Rahel. But the most powerful emotion came from the body directly beneath her. Whoever she had landed on was experiencing an extraordinary blend of pain and relieved satisfaction.

She put a hand down on the brick path and levered herself up enough to see that it was Rax. That explained the strength of the emotion, but wasn’t he on the other side of Arabisar?

Rax grimaced. “Got it,” he said, and turned his head.

She followed his gaze to the hand that was slipped inside his paddle strap. There was something odd about it.

“Oh, Fahla,” she whispered when the shocking image came into focus. “Rax!”

The tip of a knife blade protruded from his palm. It had gone through both the paddle and his hand.

“I’m fine,” he said with a pained smile. “She’s not.”

Salomen looked toward the State House steps and found her view mostly blocked: Rahel and Fianna were standing over her. Through a gap between their legs, she saw Ronlin, livid with rage, landing a blow on someone who lay on the ground. He stood up, revealing the limp form of Demerah.

Another high-pitched scream sounded behind her. Salomen pushed herself into a crouch and spun toward the sound, finding a wide-eyed and terrified Rusill staring at her. Behind her, equally wide-eyed, was Lanaril.

“She stopped the second one.” Lanaril spoke as if she couldn’t believe her own words. “Fahla answered my prayer.” She reached for Rusill, who turned into her with a sob.

“I’m sorry!” she wailed. “I just wanted to see! Did I make her fall?”

Salomen tried to stand but was stopped by a hand on her shoulder.

“Stay down,” Rahel said urgently. She bent over, sheltering Salomen beneath her torso. “We don’t know if she had accomplices.”

In a stunning flash of clarity, Salomen understood.

Demerah was the only one of her Guards who handled blades, carrying two on her hips and two more in her boots. Rax had stopped the first one, either Rahel or Fianna had stopped the second, and Ronlin had tackled her before she could draw from her boot.

But Salomen hadn’t heard that tink of metal until she had fallen, which meant the second knife had been streaking toward a target that was no longer there.

It would have hit Rusill, who ran away from Lanaril because she wanted to see.

The separation was instantaneous.

After all these moons of training, Salomen might have mourned that she could still lose control so easily. But she didn’t feel out of control at all. She felt wonderfully, furiously in control. Her senses expanded like a great bird of prey unfurling its wings, and she began hunting with a cold rage that filled her with power.

No one, no one, would hurt a child if she could stop it.

She stepped out of her crouched body and walked around Rahel and Fianna to get a clearer view. Andira was leaping off the last step, cape flying. Her terror still echoed through their link, but Salomen could not focus on her.

The crowdsensing that had defeated her before was now simplicity itself. All she had to do was tune out everything that was not violent intent, like picking out the unique buzz of a fairy fly while ignoring the other clicks, creaks, and chirps of insects that lived on her land.

There. Up above. She focused on the emotion and thought herself to it.

She was behind a State House Guard who stood at a window. He held a disruptor rifle balanced on the sill, aimed at her, but had no clear shot. Rahel and Fianna were in the way, and Andira crouched in front of her.

“You won’t kill me or anyone I love today,” she told the assassin. Not that he could hear; her body was eight floors down.

“Salomen, don’t!”

It was Andira, speaking urgently into her physical ear.

Salomen brushed aside the warrior’s empathic shields and forced a command into his head. Eight moons ago, when Rahel’s attack had shocked her into separation, she had responded with a devastating, primal instinct that had nearly gotten Rahel killed. Her skills were more finely tuned now.

The command, a simple stop, froze the warrior in place. He would not be able to twitch so much as a finger until she released him. Not even Andira could project this kind of targeted empathic force, though she had been delighted to learn that Salomen could. It was a far better option for self-defense than the knifework Fianna had tried to teach her.

“You don’t have to do this,” Andira said. “I understand your anger, but please don’t give in to it!”

“I didn’t kill him,” she said. “I just stopped him. There’s a sniper up here.”

“Where is ‘up here’?”

“In the State House.”

“There are four snipers up there. Gehrain deployed them to guard you.”

“He’s not one of yours. I do know the difference in uniforms between a Lancer’s Guard and a State House Guard.”

“Spawn of a fantenshekken!” Andira spat. “Vellmar was right. Where is he?”

“Eighth floor. Wait.” Salomen walked through the closed door and read the tasteful sign on its other side. “It’s the Silver Salon.”

“I’m sending up two Guards.”

While Andira made the call, Salomen walked back through the door to the window and looked out, searching for any other violent intent. She found none, or at least not to this degree. Out on the edges of the march, she could sense youthful minds that held the sort of intent associated with throwing fruits or rocks. It was tempting to freeze them simply to teach a lesson, but she didn’t want to risk losing her hold on the sniper.

“The Guards are on their way,” Andira said. “Do you sense any more danger?”

“No. Nothing left but rock throwers. Andira?”

“I’m here.”

“What was the point?” Salomen was looking at an ocean of Alseans filling the park as far as she could see. “We worked so hard. Tried to think of everything. We had three million people at our backs, and for what? So Demerah could kill me? Or Rusill, because she was standing in the wrong place? I can empathically force Ehron and Yaserka and be done with it. Then force the Council to the right vote. Why are we risking our bodies and lives when they still won’t do the right thing?”

The more she thought about it, in this beautifully cold state of rage, the more it made sense. She had tried going to the High Council. She had tried going to the media and speaking as a voice for the people. She had even tried leading an uprising. But it was all so useless. What she needed to do was lead the government, not the people. Make the changes that should be made.

“I could make Alsea perfect,” she whispered. “Fahla gave me these powers for a reason.”

A sudden gust of wind bent the trees in the park and ruffled hundreds of thousands of capes. In the odd dichotomy that came with separation, Salomen’s physical body smelled the coming rain, but it was her spirit self that saw the first drops land. They ticked against the window, droplets that held their shape and stayed in place. Within pipticks, heavier drops were running down the glass.

The rains of autumn had finally arrived.


60


Mindstorm

Over the sound of raindrops spattering the brick path, Tal heard the telltale whir of a vidcam hovering too close. “Get rid of it,” she ordered Vellmar.

She could not begin to calculate the damage if Salomen’s words were caught and transmitted across the world. Thank the goddess that Micah and several Guards were herding Arabisar, Lanaril, Rusill, and Rax toward the State House steps. They were out of hearing range, leaving only Vellmar and Rahel, the two people who knew more about Salomen’s powers than anyone besides Tal herself.

Vellmar pointed at the vidcam and flicked her finger to the side. When it failed to retreat far enough, Rahel held out her stave from her bent position. “Use this.”

“Thanks.” Vellmar gave the stave a mighty swing, striking the vidcam with such force that it sailed all the way to the State House and bounced off the wall before its operator regained control.

“Keep them away,” Tal said. “It’s critical.”

“I will.” Vellmar widened her stance, the stave held in both hands.

Rahel was draped over Salomen with one hand resting on her shoulder. Despite being told the danger was past, she hadn’t moved. Instead, she held her now-free hand just in front of Salomen’s mouth.

“Lip readers,” she said shortly. “Vidcams have powerful optics.”

Her calm practicality was impressive, as was the fact that she was protecting more than Salomen’s physical well-being. Tal gave her a grateful nod before focusing once more on her tyree.

Salomen’s pupils were dilated so far that her eyes appeared black. The droplets of blood scattered across her face added to her fearsome appearance, even more so when a wind-driven swirl of rain hit her cheek, turned pink with the blood, and ran down her jaw. Though she had looked frozen from a distance, her body trembled as it channeled an unthinkable amount of power.

She was teetering on the brink of a mindstorm. If she went over the edge, Tal would go with her, once again doomed to house a monster she could not defeat. It waited even now, growling faintly, a cold fury not yet fully formed.

There was still time to negotiate with it.

Tal moved closer and turned her head, speaking almost into Salomen’s neck to keep her own lips from being read. “Fahla did give you those powers for a reason,” she agreed. “It wasn’t to abuse them.”

“Is it abuse if it helps people?” Salomen asked. “How many people do I have to help before it’s justified? A few hundred? A thousand? Would a million do it?”

“It’s not a numbers game. I love your compassion and I understand your instincts. You know I do. But that’s not how it works.”

“Don’t try to tell me you wouldn’t do it if you could. You manipulate people all the time. You use your power to change things for the better. Why shouldn’t I?”

“It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s a difference of degrees, Andira.” Her voice turned seductive. “You’ve often said you wish you didn’t have to play the politician to get things done. Think of what we could do together.”

Tied to Salomen as she was, sharing her anger and conviction, Tal found it difficult to resist. “We could do a great deal together,” she admitted. “That doesn’t make it right.”

“I did what was right. I obeyed all the rules, and thirteen Alseans died. I did the right thing today and I almost died. How many more people have to die before I accept that this is what I need to do?”

Damn Salomen and her lifetime of debate experience. She made this sound reasonable.

“Empathic force is never the answer,” Tal said. “If you weren’t on the edge of a mindstorm, you’d be the first person to tell me that.”

“I see,” Salomen said icily. “I’m the one who holds these powers, so it must be me who’s not thinking clearly.”

Tal’s hands curled into fists as the anger spiked. She had said exactly the wrong thing.

With her black eyes staring into nothing, Salomen laid waste to Tal’s assertion. “Then empathic force wasn’t the answer when you used it to stop Ekatya from blowing up the Caphenon. It wasn’t the answer when we saved our world with it during the Battle of Alsea. It wasn’t the answer when you used it to save Herot. Tell me, tyrina, what was the answer for all those times?”

Tal searched desperately for a response and found only legalities. “I had warrants for all of those. You have a warrant authorizing defensive empathic force,” she added, hoping the reminder would jar Salomen out of her certainty. “This is what you trained for, what the adjudicator agreed you could do. Stopping an attack. You’re still legal right now, but if you use offensive force—”

“You only had warrants for two of those,” Salomen interrupted. “Not for breaking Fahla’s covenant. You made that decision all by yourself. No adjudicators, not even the Council, just the Lancer’s emergency powers. If I’m meant to lead the government with you, that’s what we’ll use.”

Shekking Mother, she had an answer for everything.

“Your Guards are here.” Salomen’s lips curved slightly. “The door is locked. Not being able to interact with physical matter is the only down side to separation.”

Tal could think of a few more but was not about to voice them. She glanced at the nearest hologram and confirmed her worst fear: it was showing a close view of Salomen’s face, sightless black eyes and all. The vidcams were beaming this image all over the world.

“Oh,” Salomen said in a surprised tone. “You sent Ronlin with Gehrain. I didn’t think you’d trust any of my Guards.”

“He’s earned it.”

“Lancer Tal,” Gehrain said in her earcuff a moment later. “We’ve neutralized the sniper, but he’s still not moving.”

“They have him, Salomen. You can let him go.”

Earcuffs were generally effective at filtering out background noise, but the sniper shouted loudly enough for Tal to hear.

“Charming man,” Salomen said as he screamed epithets. “I hope they put him in the same cell as Demerah. Now there’s a betrayal I never saw coming.” She gave a harsh bark of laughter. “I’m Fahla’s vessel and I didn’t even know that one of my favorite Guards was planning to kill me.”

A cold hand closed around the base of Tal’s spine. Salomen had never called herself that. She had repeatedly rejected it. That she would accept it now was terrifying.

With a desperate prayer that she was not about to make things worse, Tal stopped fighting and gave in.

“You’re right,” she said. What a relief, to embrace that crystalline anger. She let it rush through her veins, sharpening her wits and her resolve. “You’re right. It is the answer sometimes. It’s a gift. We’ll need to use it judiciously.”

“You’ll support me?”

“You know I will. You can feel it.” Tal nodded, though Salomen was not here. “Do you know what Micah said when you stopped your march? He said you looked like a warrior queen of old. That’s what you’ll be, tyrina. We’ll roll back a thousand cycles of bureaucratic idiocy and rule Alsea the way it should have been ruled. We’ll enact laws that keep Alseans from being hurt. Just laws, that put the people first and the selfish, short-sighted politicians last.”

“Yes,” Salomen breathed. “That’s all I want. Laws that equalize the castes and don’t punish people for their birth. I want all of us to choose our destinies—the high empaths, the outcastes like Rahel. The ones whose choices are blocked by nothing more than tradition.”

“That will be the first thing we do,” Tal promised. “Then we’ll plan for the future. I won’t have to keep fighting to get the politicians to see past their district, or their caste, or their shekking fear of change. We’ll force them to do what’s best for them. You’ll be the queen and I’ll be your consort, enforcing our will. And oh, Salomen, I will be such a glorious enforcer. So full of rage, because you’ll need your rage to fuel your powers. You can never let go of it, so I will never let go of my monster. I will be ruthless, the way I was with Vellmar.”

“Andira, no, that’s not—”

“We’ll have to plan as far ahead as we can.” Tal would not let her interrupt. “We’ll have to prepare Alsea for when we’re gone. We can guarantee a lifetime of peace and prosperity, but someday we’ll Return. By the time we do, Alseans will have forgotten how to govern themselves. They’ll be used to us doing it for them. They’ll fall apart into warring camps, fighting for the power. We’ll have to hope they consolidate under a new ruler in time, or the only question will be whether it’s the Protectorate that picks up the pieces or the Voloth Empire.”

“You’re out of your mind.” Salomen’s voice had lost its cold tone. “I don’t want any of that. For the love of our goddess, where did that come from? I just want to change a few laws.”

“Changes that will require you to empathically force the Council,” Tal said. “Once you do that, you can never stop. You think you can force them one time and walk away? As if you won’t become the most hunted person on Alsea? No one would rest until you were in the fifth level of the Pit. And me alongside you. Do you think they’ll allow Jaros to visit?”

Salomen inhaled sharply, her black eyes widening. Wind-blown rain had washed most of the blood off her face, and the wisps of hair that had been left out of her formal twist were plastered to her jaw and neck. Above her, steady rivulets of water dripped off Rahel’s vest and chin as she held her position.

Nine hundred thousand marchers—and thousands more who had waited at the State House—stood motionless in the rain. The air was charged with expectation.

Tal shook her wet hair out of her eyes and leaned closer. “You did everything right, tyrina. You brought them all the way here, to the very last step. Let me take them the rest of the way. Trust me to finish what you started.” She kissed Salomen’s cold cheek and whispered, “I promise I will finish it. Trust me.”

The trembling that had racked Salomen’s body ended with a sudden slump, and she fell forward into Tal’s arms. Tal nearly fell with her, shocked by the abrupt release from the rage.

As she and Salomen leaned against each other, Tal gave dizzy thanks to Fahla for the two moons that she had fought her monster. Back then, she had despised her own weakness. The monster had exhausted her with its constant attacks on her self-control. It had nearly gotten the Prime Builder killed. It had hurt Vellmar in body and soul.

But it had prepared her for this. She had learned to channel its strength, to use it to her advantage when she could. Without that experience, Salomen’s rage might have pulled her under today. Instead, they had both fought and won.

“Ugh,” Salomen groaned. “It’s usually easier.”

“You don’t usually come back from the edge of a mindstorm,” Rahel said.

Salomen stiffened, then raised her head and wiped the water off her face. Her eyes were their normal warm brown and full of shame. “Rahel. Goddess above, I’m sorry.”

“For what? I knew you wouldn’t do it.”

“I’m glad one of us knew that,” Salomen muttered.

Vellmar handed Rahel’s stave back and stepped around to crouch next to Tal. Holding up a hand in invitation, she said, “Two of us did.”

The soft glow of wonder filled their link as Salomen met her palm. “You’re still here.”

“Of course I am. You needed us now more than ever. It’s very insecure, wandering off and leaving your body like that.”

“A warrior statement if I ever heard one.” Salomen’s quip covered a relief so acute that it was a wonder she could front it. But Vellmar must have felt it through their skin contact, for a pained realization spread across her face.

Tal had just come to the same understanding: though Salomen had long ago forgiven Vellmar’s abandonment, she had never fully trusted her again.

Until now.

Tentatively, Vellmar lifted her other hand, offering the gesture reserved for family and the closest of friends.

It was a private risk made colossally public. Should her offer be rejected, the ignominy would follow her for the rest of her life.

Salomen did not keep her in suspense, smiling as she met the offered hand, interlaced their fingers, and touched their foreheads together. “You’re right,” she said quietly. “I did need you more than ever.”

Vellmar closed her eyes. Her expression was carefully controlled, but her chest moved in rapid breaths. The two of them were alone in a moment of profound healing, witnessed by tens of millions who did not know the truth of what they saw.

When they separated, Salomen sat back on her heels. “Fahla, what a day. Could someone please bring a bed out here?”

After her mindstorm in Pollonius, she had slept for most of a day and night, exhausted by her vast expenditure of empathic power. Though she hadn’t gone that far today, Tal felt her sinking.

“Do you have the energy to walk up those steps?” she asked. “If you need to lie down, you should. But if you can stand upright for a few ticks, I could use your support.”

“To finish what I started?” At Tal’s nod, Salomen held out a hand. “Let’s finish it.”


61


The last step

When Salomen stood up and took her first step toward the State House, hundreds of thousands of Alseans applauded. They had witnessed the first globally broadcast assassination attempt in history. They had seen the blood on Salomen’s face and waited in breathless silence while she stayed down, unmoving. Not until they saw her walking could they believe she was unharmed.

The applause swelled as she showed them, with her straight back and confident stride, that she was more than unharmed. She was unbowed and unafraid. Only Tal knew what it cost her to project that image. Salomen wanted nothing more than to collapse.

They walked up to Rax, surrounded by healers as he sat on the second step. Demerah was gone, having been taken to the healing center by Micah. He had not trusted that task to anyone else.

Tal looked around and saw the vidcams still keeping a respectful distance. That would not do. She beckoned them in, nodding as they immediately zipped over to hover nearby.

“Rax Sestak,” she said. “Are you familiar with the warrior’s oath of service?”

Her voice boomed throughout the park, startling him. He shook his head.

“In part, it says, ‘I place my strength between you and harm, my sword between you and your enemies.’ You did that today, on the march and especially here. If not for you, our Prime Producer might have been hurt or even killed. If not for you, our Bondlancer would not be standing beside me now. You came as our enemy, but today you were an ally and true warrior. Alsea owes you a great debt. I owe you a greater one.”

“No, you—” He stopped at the sound of his amplified voice. “You don’t owe me a debt. I was paying off mine.”

“Then it is enough.” She held out her forearm, trusting that he had been on Alsea long enough to know that it was an offer of respect between warriors.

He grasped it with his uninjured hand. “I’m—I was glad to be of service.”

“You were much more than that,” Salomen said. Offering her hand for a palm touch, she added, “When I asked for your help, I never dreamed it would come to this. Thank you.”

“It was an honor,” he said. To Tal’s surprise, he meant it. “Thank you for trusting me. For trusting us. All we wanted was a chance to prove that we love Alsea, too.”

“I think you proved that today.” Salomen dropped her hand and took Tal’s instead, squeezing it in a silent message. She needed to move on.

Still holding hands, they walked up the steps together. Prime Warrior Ehron and Prime Scholar Yaserka waited at the top, kept dry by the overhang of the grand entrance. Four steps below, sopping wet and getting wetter, was Prime Producer Arabisar.

Not until this moment had Tal realized the extent of Arabisar’s political astuteness. A lesser politician would not have accepted the power imbalance of standing below the other Primes, much less the visual of being soaked while they stayed dry. But Arabisar had walked through the city in solidarity with those who now stood in the rain. By continuing to stand with them, she maintained her solidarity and appeared as a true leader of her caste.

It was a delicious side benefit that her choice made Ehron and Yaserka look like spoiled, elitist politicians. Ehron was too inexperienced to understand the image he was presenting. Yaserka had never been astute enough to perceive it.

Tal lifted their joined hands and urged Salomen to stand next to her Prime. Then she let go and stepped up to Salomen’s other side, creating a line of three leaders on the same level, all in solidarity with the marchers. Vidcams hovered around them, recording this scene for the world and the history books.

But before she could finish what Salomen had started, Tal needed to conduct some fleet-footed damage control.

“I know you’re wondering about what you’ve just seen,” she said. “Not too long ago, Bondlancer Opah publicly acknowledged that she is a high empath. She has a particular skill in crowdsensing, but it takes enormous energy. You saw the effect in her eyes and her stillness. She was locating a second assassin.”

The marchers shifted en masse, their collective horror so strong that it might have taken visible form.

“It was a sniper,” Tal continued. “He has been detained, and the danger is past. But I am saddened to tell you that he was a State House Guard.” She paused to acknowledge the crowd’s well-deserved anger. The warriors had not covered themselves in glory today.

“After the Melladin Massacre, I was deeply ashamed for my caste. I consoled myself with the fact that it was a one-time, horrific event and in no way reflected on warriors as a whole. But today, I have watched warriors attack peaceful, unarmed marchers. I have seen City Guards turn a blind eye to violence, betraying their oath of protection because they didn’t agree with the opinions of those who needed protecting.”

She raised her voice. “I have watched as former soldiers of the Voloth Empire stepped into the breach that our warriors created. With no weapons and no ability to fight, they put their bodies between Alseans and harm. I have learned that the Prime Producer and my bondmate felt they could not trust the warrior caste to protect them, and were forced to ask their former enemies for protection instead. Thank Fahla they did!”

Even over the sound of rain spattering against the steps and gurgling through the water collection system, she heard the distant shouts of agreement.

“Some of us would like to believe that the murderers at Melladin were not real warriors. We’ll tell ourselves that the warriors who threw fruits and rocks, who threatened with fists and knives, who turned their backs on their duty—they weren’t real warriors, either. But what warriors could be more real than those who reached the top of their field? One swore an oath to protect the State House and all those within it. Another swore to protect Bondlancer Opah. Those oaths are sworn in Fahla’s name. They are sacred. But we all saw—”

The memory flashed across her eyes, of watching Salomen fall and not knowing, for one terrifying instant, whether she would survive a deadly, close-range attack. To her horror, her voice broke.

She cleared her throat and tried again, more quietly. “I saw a trusted warrior betray both her oath and her oath holder. And I saw a former Voloth soldier save my bondmate’s life. I can no longer stand here and assert that my caste has any inherent claim to superiority based on the services it provides. Not when so many members of that caste have proven that their service depends not on their oaths, but on their political opinions.”

On the other side of Salomen, Arabisar turned to look at her, slightly widened eyes the only outward sign of her surprise. She was expecting a simple vote change, not a rejection of the warrior caste’s ascendancy. But Tal was not speaking to the crowd ahead of her so much as she was to one man behind her.

“I can also no longer stand here and ignore the signs,” she said. “Three million Alseans have marched worldwide to address an ancient injustice. Those numbers cannot be ignored. Nor can the injustice. It began three thousand cycles ago—the same time that our divine tyrees began disappearing. One thousand cycles ago, they vanished altogether. Now the divine bond has reappeared, at all empathic levels and in all castes. It has even appeared in a pair of Gaians.”

Now it was Salomen staring at her, startled by the connections she was drawing. Of course, Salomen would never try to convince anyone of something she didn’t believe. Tal, on the other hand, had long practice at it.

She also had practice at offering a back door to political opponents who needed coverage for their vote.

“When aliens hold our most sacred bond, and former enemies save Alseans from their own people, I have to think Fahla is trying to get our attention. Fahla did not create the system that diverted all high empaths into two castes. We did. I believe she is telling us that it’s wrong. I am therefore invoking my power as Lancer to convene a High Council meeting, right here and right now.”

As a mighty cheer filled the air, she pushed back the wet hair from her face and allowed herself a moment of triumph. Ehron and Yaserka were trapped, with only her back door as an exit. Stopping a reform in the quiet luxury of the fourteenth-floor conference room was one thing. Doing it in front of the whole world was another. Unless they had bigger horns than she had ever imagined, she knew what their votes would be.

“Three Primes stand with me on these steps,” she said. “The other three are available via hologram. The High Council does not conduct its meetings in public, but given the request I’ve just received from three million Alseans, I believe today should be an exception.”

The holograms, which had focused on her and the Primes during her speech, now panned the crowd to show its elated response. Whether intentional or not, whoever was in charge of that programming had tightened her trap.

“I see what you just did,” Salomen whispered in her ear.

“I’ve no idea what you mean.” Happily absorbing the bright hope in their link, Tal added, “You seem more energetic all of a sudden.”

“I have to be, don’t I? I’ve been called to a High Council meeting.” Salomen shook her head, sending water droplets flying from her hair. “I do feel somewhat underdressed, though.”

The holograms changed to show Prime Builder Eroles standing atop a platform in the central park of Redmoon. Like Arabisar, she wore the cuirass of her office. Being Eroles, however, she had matched it with a brilliant orange-and-purple shirt that no one else could wear, but which made her black skin glow.

“Lancer Tal,” she said, “I’ve received your call for a High Council meeting and am available.”

Her image faded, to be replaced with that of Prime Crafter Bylwytin. She was also on a platform, artfully located so that Whitemoon Temple shone on the sun-drenched hilltop behind her. “I am also available, along with a few hundred thousand of my friends.”

Tal chuckled. “Whitemoon was the place to be today, don’t you think? All those crafters partying together.”

Salomen elbowed her just as Prime Merchant Stasinal appeared, speaking from the central park of Whitesun. “I’m ready as well. What is the issue under consideration?”

“That’s you,” Tal whispered.

The holograms returned to them a piptick later, and Salomen did not miss a beat. “Members of the High Council, thank you for seeing me today and hearing my petition. I’m proposing a reform to caste law that would allow high empath children the same choices as mid and low empaths . . .”

She quickly outlined her proposal, omitting the personal details she had included in her first High Council meeting. When she finished, Tal called out, “Prime Builder, how do you vote?”

“I vote yes. The builder caste has long missed its high empaths. I would rejoice to see them return to us.”

“Prime Crafter, how do you vote?”

“I vote yes,” Bylwytin said. “And hope the full Council will follow our lead.”

“Prime Merchant, how do you vote?”

“The same way I did the first time our Bondlancer asked. Yes. The only thing wrong with this reform is that it’s long overdue.”

Arabisar’s image appeared next, and she spoke without prompting, her head high and raindrops running down her cuirass. “The first time this was proposed, I cast my vote out of caution, not hope. Today, I cast my vote for hope and a better future. I vote yes.”

The holograms showed Tal next, demonstrating that the broadcast coordinator did not realize she always voted last. “Prime Warrior Ehron, how do you vote?” she asked.

Taking the hint, the coordinator replaced her image with that of Ehron, who appeared grave.

“I have seen things today that I never expected to see,” he said. “An honorable warrior betrayed her oath of service and attempted to murder the very person she was sworn to protect. A Voloth fulfilled that oath of service instead.” He looked down at Salomen. “Before this march began, our Bondlancer reminded us that all six castes are service castes. Our Lancer has pointed out the signs from Fahla, and she is correct, we should heed them. I cast my prior vote without benefit of the information I have today. Taking this new information into account, I must change my vote to yes.”

The crowd’s joyous roar put a lump in Tal’s throat. She had been so focused on Salomen and then her tactics that she had lost sight of the significance of what they were accomplishing.

Fortunately, the hologram coordinator moved to Yaserka next, giving her time to recover before she had to speak.

Looking extremely sour, Yaserka said, “In light of recent events and new data, I believe the question of this reform should be examined by the full Council. I therefore vote yes.”

Salomen clutched Tal’s hand, her shock vibrating through their link.

“Didn’t you trust me?” Tal murmured before her image appeared on the holograms. A pulse of warmth was her answer, and she allowed the smile she had been holding back to take over her face.

“In the normal course of events, the turning points of history become clear only when we can look back at them,” she said. “It’s rare to stand in one of those turning points and know, beyond any doubt, that this is the moment of change. But that is what is happening today. I vote yes.”

Salomen threw herself into Tal’s arms at the same instant that Chrysaltin struck her largest bell and nearly one million Alseans shouted their exaltation to the rainy skies. The band burst into celebratory music with a great deal of jubilant drumming, and the holograms showed similar celebrations at the other three marches. The Gaian settlers, who had formed a colorful cluster surrounded by templars, began a synchronized, athletic dance that exuded happy camaraderie. Some of the nearby Alseans swayed and clapped in time as they watched former enemies celebrate a victory that wasn’t even theirs.

“Goddess above, I don’t think I really believed . . .” Salomen laughed, then kissed Tal soundly. “You’re a miracle worker!”

“We’re a team,” Tal said. “I couldn’t have done it without your uprising. You made this happen. You and the four Primes.” She looked past Salomen to Arabisar, who was watching them with a wide grin. “Well done, Prime Producer.”

Salomen moved to the step above, allowing Arabisar to meet Tal in a palm touch.

“Thank you, Lancer Tal. And well done to you, too. That was a fancy bit of maneuvering.”

“I’ve honed my debate skills arguing with Salomen. It’s done me good, don’t you think?”

Arabisar held up both hands in the universal gesture of I’m not stepping in that and turned to climb the remaining steps, a laugh escaping as she went.

Salomen hopped back down and wrapped her arms around Tal’s neck. “It’s done us both good,” she said.

A rumble of thunder rolled across the skies, blending with the bells and drums of the band below, and a heavier rain swept in from the direction of the river. No one seemed to care. As far as Tal could see, Alseans were dancing, excitedly gesturing as they spoke with one another, or watching the other three celebrations on the holograms. They had made history today; walking away would be anticlimactic.

Tal, on the other hand, was suddenly very anxious to walk away. Having Salomen in her arms after three days of worry and several ticks of utter terror was overloading her brain. She detached Salomen’s hands from the back of her neck and pulled her up the steps.

“Where—?” was all Salomen got out before Tal yanked her right between Ehron and Yaserka, giving them only a nod of acknowledgment as she pushed through the high, arched doors. In the relative quiet of the great lobby, she paused long enough to remember the ground floor layout, then pulled Salomen to the left.

“Did we just leave our Guards behind?” Salomen asked.

“Ha. You’ll never manage that again.” Tal touched the palm pad by a camouflaged door leading to a part of the building that was off limits to visitors. A few steps down the silent corridor, she unlocked another door and pulled Salomen into a salon that overlooked the park in front. As the door clicked shut behind her, she swung Salomen around until her back collided with the wall.

“Oof. Andira, what are you—?”

“Off,” Tal muttered, scrabbling at the clasp of the chain across Salomen’s chest. “Get this off.” Her fingers, too cold from the rain, were not bending enough to manipulate such a fine mechanism.

Salomen batted her hands away and began doing it herself. “You could have asked. Ugh, this was heavy enough when it was dry. Now it’s like carrying Jaros on my back.”

“Please don’t bring up Jaros.” Tal seized the cape the instant the chain came free, pulled it off Salomen’s shoulders, and threw it atop a nearby table. It landed with a sodden sound.

She barely noticed Salomen undoing her own chain as she turned her attention to the cuirass buckles. These were easier, or perhaps her fingers were warming up. She had all the buckles undone on one side when her cape was pushed off her shoulders, lifting a weight she hadn’t been aware of. With no regard for the exquisite material, Tal kicked it out of the way and focused on the second set of buckles, then the shoulder tabs. By the time she lifted the cuirass over Salomen’s head, she was so frantic to reach skin that she simply tossed it to one side without looking.

A tremendous crash followed by a thump and a second, smaller crash indicated that something had gone awry, but she couldn’t be bothered to find out what.

“I think you just destroyed a priceless vase,” Salomen said. “The table’s not looking too well, either.”

“Don’t care. They can bill me.” Tal pushed up the shirt. “Off. Now.”

A shirt designed to go under a cuirass had no buttons or other fastenings, thus avoiding uncomfortable pressure points. Salomen had to pull it over her head, a difficult endeavor given the soaked sleeves. She hadn’t yet gotten her second arm free when Tal began running her hands over the newly exposed skin.

“Cold,” Salomen said, her stomach contracting.

“Not for long. I need to see—” Tal leaned down and kissed the soft skin at Salomen’s waist, then began working her way up.

“I’m all right, Andira.”

She shook her head and kept going. She would not be satisfied until she could see it, feel it for herself.

“Fahla,” Salomen groaned as Tal’s lips found a sensitive spot. “Never mind. Check everything.”


62


Behind closed doors

Micah entered the State House from the landing pad, thus avoiding the enormous crowd that occupied the State Park. It was an inspiring view from above.

He had left Demerah at the healing center, being treated for a fractured jaw while two of Tal’s Guards stood watch. With Gehrain and Ronlin still at Blacksun Base with the sniper, and Salomen’s remaining Guards barred from service until they could be empathically scanned and re-qualified, he had been forced to shuffle the roster to cover the losses. Fortunately, Tal was unlikely to let Salomen out of her sight for at least the rest of today. That made security easier.

For the moment, Vellmar was Salomen’s acting Lead Guard. When Micah called her from the transport, she assured him that she and Rahel Sayana had been on the job all morning and had no intention of stopping. She also pointed out that Sayana’s rank as First Guard made her the commanding officer even when Ronlin returned. Given Sayana’s duties aboard the Phoenix, Micah did not consider her an active member of the unit, but for today, he would take her assistance and be glad of it.

Following the directions Vellmar had given, he strode through the main lobby, let himself into the restricted section, and found Vellmar and Sayana guarding a closed door.

“How are they?” he asked.

“Fine. Better than—”

An enormous series of crashes interrupted Vellmar’s answer. It sounded as if a body had fallen onto a table and then the floor, taking everything with it, yet neither Vellmar nor Sayana reacted.

“Have you taken leave of your senses?” Astonished at their lack of concern, Micah put his hand on the door.

“Colonel, I wouldn’t advise—”

“Do your jobs,” he snapped, and opened the door.

The first thing that caught his eye was the fallen table and shattered vase. Then he saw Tal’s cape on the floor and Salomen’s flung over another table. But Tal and Salomen were nowhere to be seen.

His heart beat triple-time as he entered the room. Two steps past the entrance, he sighed with relief. They had merely been hidden from view behind the open door.

Then he realized that Salomen was topless, her head resting against the wall and her eyes tightly shut. In front of her, Tal was bent over and—

He backed out in a hurry and shut the door as quietly as he could. Vellmar and Sayana were staring straight ahead at the opposite wall, their expressions stern but their lips twitching.

“Everything all right in there, Colonel?” Vellmar asked.

He glared at her. “Next time, warn me.”

“I—” She stopped. “Yes, Colonel. I’ll be sure to do that.”

“Good.” He spun on his heel and walked back down the corridor. Not until he reached the lobby did he allow himself to laugh.


63


Aftermath

Salomen’s late burst of energy lasted exactly as long as it took Andira to check her for injuries. They had migrated from the wall to a lounge that was probably six hundred cycles old and not designed for a vigorous joining, but by then Salomen was equally unconcerned about damage. Her pleasure had been explosive, and she thought she might have kicked over a small table at the foot of the lounge. She fell asleep before she could ask.

When she woke, soft lamplight filled the room in place of daylight. She pushed herself into a sitting position, confused by the familiar blanket that fell to her waist. Andira must have brought it down from their quarters. A pile of neatly folded clothing was waiting on the table near the lounge, so perhaps she hadn’t kicked it over after all.

In her drowsy, befuddled state, it took a moment to realize that she wasn’t alone. Andira sat in a chair next to the head of the lounge, one hand resting atop a palm projector in her lap. She was smiling at Salomen, that particular soft smile no one else ever saw.

“Welcome back. Are you feeling better?”

“I was feeling fine when I fell asleep.” Salomen touched the side of her neck, where warm skin indicated that the marks on her throat ridges were still there. She eyed Andira’s throat, similarly marked, and added, “Very fine.”

The smile turned self-satisfied. “I felt guilty about that. For ten pipticks or so.”

“That was ten pipticks longer than necessary.” It finally registered that Andira was in casual clothing and her blonde hair was clean and dry, shining in the lamplight. “Did you go upstairs to shower?”

“Mm-hm. I brought back some clothes for you.” She pointed. “Had to pick up the table, though. It was halfway across the room.”

“Ah. I wondered.” Salomen cast aside the blanket and pulled on the loose trousers. As she donned the mercifully lightweight shirt, she said, “I’m envious of your shower. I must look like I got on the wrong end of a fanten stampede.”

“You look glorious,” Andira said seriously.

The surprise of it made her fumble a button. “I wonder if I’ll ever get used to that.”

“To what?”

“Such . . . depths of admiration from you.” She settled the last button and raked her fingers through her loose, tangled hair.

“Don’t leave this room, then. Half the population of the State House feels that way about you now.”

“I don’t care about them. I care about you.” She remembered Fianna and Rahel, still standing by her even after she had nearly succumbed. “And a few others.”

“Speaking of those few others, I spoke with Nikin and assured him that you were in one piece. Did you know he and Shikal marched? And almost all of your field workers?”

“Really? Why didn’t Nikin call me?”

Andira tilted her head and waited.

“Oh,” Salomen said weakly. “I didn’t have my com unit.”

“You were a little difficult to reach for a few days,” Andira said with typical understatement. “But now that you’ve seen how convenient an earcuff is, you’ll keep using it, yes?”

“And have people in my ear every tick of the day? No, thank you.”

“I did hope I might get some benefit from what you put me through. Apparently not.”

Salomen stepped over to the chair and began combing Andira’s hair away from her face. It was silky and untangled, a pleasure to touch, and she had missed the feel of it. “I’m truly sorry for what I put you through. I’ll try to atone, but not by wearing an earcuff. What about Jaros?”

Andira closed her eyes and let her head fall back, soaking up the attention. “He stayed home with Jeshen to watch him and thought it very unfair that he wasn’t allowed to go. He thought it was supremely unfair when he saw you on the vidscreen with a girl his age.”

“Oh, no. Please tell me Father already dealt with that and I don’t have to.”

“Fahla is smiling upon you. It’s a good thing you sent Rusill away from the front, or Jaros wouldn’t have spoken to you until his Rite of Ascension.”

“He’s threatened that before. Once, he even made it through three entire hanticks.”

Andira chuckled. “Three? He must have been furious with you.”

“The air crackled around him. He’s such an easy child most of the time, but when something sets off his temper, run for the fields.” Salomen paused her caresses and waited for Andira to open her eyes. “Do not say what you’re thinking.”

Wisely, Andira let it go. “Rusill is safely with her fathers. They apologized profusely for her behavior and thanked you and Lanaril for keeping her safe. Lanaril thought they might be angry with her for losing Rusill at the end, but they said she managed better than they did half the time. And Ekatya’s back from her shift on the Phoenix. She said if you want her to forgive Lhyn for that disappearing trick, you have to come to evenmeal tomorrow.”

Ekatya knew her too well, Salomen decided. “Blackmail, the weapon of choice for so many politicians. I would love to see her. How is Lhyn?”

“Feeling much better now that she has her tyree back. I guess we know how they manage their separations.”

The flare of betrayal was quickly suppressed, but Salomen had been expecting it. “I hope you weren’t too hard on Ekatya. She had a good reason for not wanting to talk about it.”

“Protecting Lhyn, I know. And I understand that, but—”

“Protecting her?” She laughed. “I knew it! She has Lhyn convinced it was about wanting to have control over it before telling us.”

“What? Why wouldn’t she tell her the truth?”

“Probably too afraid of the reaction. Typical warrior.”

A playful spark lit Andira’s narrowed eyes. “Clearly you’ve recovered if you’re already casting aspersions on us. To think I brought you food. I should have saved the kitchen staff the trouble.”

“You brought food? Is there shannel?” Salomen glanced around and found a tray atop the table that had previously housed her sodden cape. “Oh, thank Fahla.”

“I’ve been called worse,” Andira muttered as Salomen nearly leaped across the room. “And you’re welcome.”

Not until her third sip of shannel did Salomen realize what was missing from the tray. “No panfruits or marmellos. Did you think I’d be traumatized?”

“I thought I was traumatized. Micah had to hold me back when you were hit with panfruit pulp. I’ll never see those fruits the same way.”

“That’s a shame.” She began assembling a plate from the delicious items on offer. “I was thinking about making fanten with marmello sauce for evenmeal tonight. As a way of apologizing for running away.” It was one of Andira’s favorite dishes.

“Hm. Perhaps I’m not as traumatized as I thought.”

Salomen smiled to herself and topped off her shannel cup.

“You missed evenmeal today,” Andira added, “but I’ll happily take payment the day after tomorrow. The person you really need to apologize to is Micah. He said you turned the rest of his hair silver.”

“His hair was already silver. He says that’s because of you.” Salomen took her plate back to the lounge and eyed the projector in Andira’s lap. “What were you watching?”

“Nothing important.”

She couldn’t answer with her mouth full, but her arched eyebrow conveyed the message.

Andira sighed. “I should learn, shouldn’t I?”

Salomen nodded and took another bite. She was famished.

“I was reviewing the, ah . . . attempt.”

She stopped chewing, then hurriedly finished and swallowed. “I want to see it.”

“Are you—”

“I’m sure. All I saw was the back side of Rax’s paddle. How did he know? Did you get a chance to ask him?” She still could not believe that she had never seen a hint of it in Demerah. How could someone hate her that much and hide it?

“Finish that and I’ll tell you.”

Salomen devoured her meal and listened to the improbable tale of a sonsales alien seeing what more than thirty high empaths had missed. She mourned the reason for his perspicacity but could not wish it away. Difficult as it was to grasp, she would be dead if it weren’t for him.

“He was angry with himself,” Andira said. “That paddle was the same one he used to block the knife during the march. Remember how big that warrior was? She buried her blade in his paddle and started a split in the wood. It must have been a million-to-one chance that he would catch Demerah’s blade in the exact same place. It finished the split and went through his hand. If he’d used the other paddle instead, he wouldn’t be in the healing center.”

“He’s angry because he didn’t think to switch paddles?”

Andira nodded.

“Is he sure he’s a producer? That sounds like a warrior.”

“He’s a producer who spent several cycles being brutally trained as a warrior. I expect there are parts of that he’ll never lose. None of them will.”

Salomen set aside her plate. “I’m ready.”

While Andira was telling her tale, she had pulled the little table in front of the lounge, set the palm projector on it, and taken a seat next to Salomen. Now she reached out to tap the projector.

A holographic image at one-quarter scale appeared in the air. At the moment, their perspective was from the State House steps.

“Rax started here,” Andira said, pointing to the Gaian standing next to Arabisar. “He’s realizing the high level of security.”

Rax looked around, a growing frown on his face, then froze as he stared at Demerah. He said something to Arabisar and smoothly slipped behind her. Another two steps took him behind Salomen, where he paused to remove one paddle.

“Poor man,” Salomen murmured. “Rahel can tell him exactly how long it will take to recover from that mistake. Oh, no, here comes Rusill.”

The little girl burst from the front line of marchers and ran across the gap. Taken by surprise, Lanaril stood motionless for a piptick before giving chase.

Andira stopped the playback and pointed at Rahel, whose head was turned toward Rax. “She saw him. Vellmar felt him, obviously, but she said she dismissed it because he had zero violent intent. She’s embarrassed about that now.”

“Should she be? Isn’t that what she’s trained to scan for?”

“Yes, but she’s a warrior.” Andira said it as if it should explain everything, and Salomen thought it probably did.

The playback resumed, showing an unspoken exchange between Rax and Rahel. Rax lifted a hand over Salomen’s shoulder, and Rahel shifted her stance.

“Look where Demerah’s hand is,” Andira said quietly.

“Goddess above.” It seemed obvious, but no one had seen it. No one but Rax—and then Rahel.

Demerah drew and threw the first blade so rapidly that Salomen couldn’t follow the movement. She pulled the second in a cross-body draw—she wasn’t ambidextrous like Fianna, Salomen thought—and threw it right after the first. Beside her, Ronlin reacted almost instantly, barreling into her before she could reach for a third.

Rax had yanked Salomen back the instant Demerah moved. Her blade hit his paddle just as he thrust it out.

“Stop,” Salomen croaked.

She was speaking to Andira, but the projector was voice-activated. It froze the playback with her and Rax toppling backward and Rahel lunging toward them.

Andira’s worry settled over her like an itchy blanket. “I didn’t want to—”

“No, I need to see this.” She could not take her eyes off the staggering reality of what she had lived through. It had all happened so quickly that she hadn’t had time to think, but now she understood why Rax had blocked her view.

“She knew I was armored. She aimed for my face. For my face, Andira. How could—” She stopped as the true scope of betrayal burned through her chest to settle, hot and heavy, in the bottom of her stomach. “What did I do to deserve that?”

Andira slipped an arm around her waist, a gentle gesture at odds with the anger scorching their link. “What you deserved was her loyalty and respect. If she couldn’t give that because she disagreed with your reform, then she should have withdrawn her oath.”

“Did she always hate me? Am I that blind?”

She resisted the pressure of Andira’s hand against her jaw until it grew too insistent to ignore. Not until the last possible piptick did she look away from the hologram and into the worried eyes of her bondmate.

“Don’t look for reasons, tyrina. You’re trying to make sense of this, but none of us can. Whatever justifications she told herself won’t make sense to anyone but her.” Andira touched a fingertip to the dimple in Salomen’s chin. “You’re not responsible for her choices.”

Salomen closed her eyes. Hatred was simple, a shallow emotion with no nuance, but it was also powerful and sticky. Demerah had tarred her with it. She needed every bit of Andira’s beautifully complex love to counter its suffocating effects.

The nice thing about having a tyree, she thought as Andira drew her into a warmron, was being relieved of the burden of asking. She had never been good at admitting weakness or need, but with Andira she didn’t have to. Silently she nuzzled in, letting their connection melt away the coating of hatred. The piney scent unique to Andira’s skin soothed her, a visceral assurance of the physical presence she had missed so much over the last three days.

When she felt able to breathe again, she dropped a grateful kiss on Andira’s throat and straightened. “Thank you. I’m all right now.” She paused, frowning at the sudden heaviness in their link. “But you’re not.”

“I’m sorry,” Andira said in a tight voice. “This should never have happened. Any of it. Micah and I were so careful when we chose your Guards—”

“Andira.” Salomen reached for her hand. “If I cannot be responsible for her choices, neither can you.”

“It’s not just Demerah. We evacuated the State House. We ordered everyone out except a few essential personnel and the State House Guards. We locked the doors of every room facing the front. We made this place into a fortress and never thought—Fahla.”

Salomen squeezed her hand, wishing she could help as much as Andira had already helped her.

“We were all scanning the crowd.” Andira blinked back tears. “No one thought to scan behind us because none of us imagined that a State House Guard would break their oath. I was so upset with you for slipping your Guards, so worried about your safety, but you chose the best Guards of all.” She wiped her eyes. “Vellmar was the first to realize the true danger. The moment you hit the ground, she was telling everyone on the channel to scan the State House. I didn’t want to believe it, but then—”

“I found him.”

She nodded. “And even then I couldn’t believe it until you said he wasn’t one of mine.”

Salomen pulled her into a warmron. “This is worse for you than for me, I think.”

Demerah’s treachery was personal for Salomen, but Andira was shaken by a more foundational blow. That not one, but two elite warriors could break their oaths—her caste trust was deeply bruised.

Unexpectedly, Andira chuckled, her dark emotions lightening to gray. “What a day, when we’re comparing who had it worse.” She squeezed so tightly that it was difficult to breathe, and when they separated, she did not release Salomen’s hand. “Speaking of which, I had to reassure Ronlin that he hasn’t lost his position. You might wish to reiterate that.”

“Why would he—oh. He’s blaming himself for not catching her before she could act?”

“He has the strength to see through her front. And he was standing right next to her.”

“But there was no reason for him to probe her.”

“That’s what you need to tell him. We all know he’s not at fault. I think even he knows. But sometimes emotion trumps logic.”

Salomen looked at the hologram, still frozen on the moment of betrayal from a person she, Andira, Ronlin, and everyone else was supposed to trust with her life. “You know what? I’m not hurt anymore. Now I’m furious. Show me the rest.”

“You don’t need—”

“Yes, I do. Will you set it back? I want to see the whole thing.”

A smile quirked one side of Andira’s mouth. “You are the most stubborn person I’ve ever known.”

“I think you know at least one other at the same level. You’re wearing her skin.”

Andira shook her head, amusement further lightening her emotional signature as she leaned forward to reset the playback.

Salomen watched intently. The attack wasn’t as shocking this time, and she was better able to focus on the details. She saw that Rax hadn’t meant to pull her to the ground, but when she blindly stepped back into his leg, she had thrown them both off balance. No doubt he had intended to shield her until Demerah was taken down. After all, he had also known that her only vulnerable point was her head.

What astonished her most was what happened when they fell. Rahel reacted at the same time as Rax, thrusting out her stave as she lunged to the side. She was too late for the first knife, missing it by a hair. But somehow, while her body was still in motion, she swung the stave forward and down—and slapped the second knife into the ground. It hit the brick path, bounced once, and slid to a stop.

She let her body’s motion carry her through two quick side-steps and settled into a ready position between Salomen and Demerah. Fianna leaped to cover her, knife in hand and poised to throw.

It had all taken two or three pipticks.

Salomen stared at Rahel, holding her stave and watching as Demerah was knocked unconscious.

“That was—did Fahla help her? How did she do that?”

“I don’t know. The last time I saw anything like that was when Vellmar knocked her mother’s sword out of the air at the Global Games.”

Salomen shook her head as the scene played on. Her holographic self disentangled from Rax and pushed into a crouch, looking up at Lanaril and Rusill. Rahel set a hand on her shoulder and bent over, using her own body as a shield.

“She stopped him, too,” Salomen realized. “The sniper. She made his shot impossible from the beginning.”

“Her and Vellmar both,” Andira agreed. “Can’t say I ever imagined giving Rahel a commendation, but I understand why Shantu valued her so highly.”

Now Rusill was weeping into Lanaril’s stomach, and Salomen had seen enough. She paused the playback and pointed. “That’s what made me separate. When I realized that if the knife hadn’t been stopped, it would have hit Rusill.”

Andira looked at her oddly, then slid her finger along the base of the palm projector. The image ran backward at half speed, until the second knife was in the air and Rahel was frozen with her stave a finger’s width from the blade.

She gave the base a quarter turn, shifting the scene to a view from the side with Demerah on the left and Rahel on the right. A few taps later, she touched Demerah’s hand, then her knife. A shining green line appeared, showing the knife’s flight path.

Without a word, she tapped one more control.

The green line lengthened. While the first part was solid, this new segment was a series of dots, showing the path the knife would have taken had Rahel not stopped it. The dots extended above Salomen’s falling body, skimmed safely over the top of Rusill’s head, and ended at Lanaril’s heart.

Salomen’s own heart felt too large, pumping too rapidly to be contained in her chest. She pressed a hand over it and stared at the horrifying truth. “Does she know?”

“I think she does by now. Vellmar is with her.”

“You showed this to Fianna?”

“I showed it to her and Rahel, yes. Rahel has just become her very best friend.”

Salomen’s laugh ended in a half-sob. “Of course she has. Of course. Do you think Fahla planned this? Rahel says Lanaril taught her how to live again. Now she saved Lanaril’s life.” Tears rose to her eyes, blurring the dotted green line. “If that had hit—”

“It didn’t.”

“But if it had—”

“Salomen, it didn’t. Don’t focus on what didn’t happen. You’ll make yourself insane. Or if you want, let’s try this one. I did my best to stop you from seeing Rahel after she attacked you in Pollonius. If you’d listened to me then, Rahel would be in prison and Lanaril would be dead.”

It was too much to think about, those could-have-beens. Andira was right; her brain would implode if she spent any more time on this path. Her heart was still beating too hard.

“Turn it off,” she said.

Andira deactivated the projector immediately.

“Where is she?”

“Outside. She and Ronlin are the only ones I trust right now.”

“Is she going to be my Guard all night?”

Andira shrugged, her amusement tingling through their link. “I did try to tell her to go off duty and let my Guards take over. She informed me that I’m not her oath holder. Politely, of course.”

“I wish I’d heard that.” Salomen pushed the little table aside and went to the door. Before opening it, she raised her blocks. Her senses were still too raw to handle any emotions other than Andira’s.

Rahel looked up and beamed. “You’re awake. How do you feel?”

“Get in here,” Salomen said.

Rahel’s smile dropped. She walked inside and let out a whuf when Salomen pulled her into a warmron.

“Thank you.” Salomen’s voice cracked, and she held on more tightly. “For saving her. And me. For everything.”

As always, Rahel gave a quality warmron. “I’m glad I was here today.”

“Me too. I don’t know how I could have lived with the knowledge that my march killed her.”

“It would have been hard on Rusill as well,” Andira said from her seat on the lounge. “Imagine growing up knowing that your poor behavior killed the Lead Templar.”

Rahel pulled away and snapped into a respectful posture, both fists against her sternum. “Lancer Tal.”

“Would you relax? You don’t have to salute every time you see me.”

Salomen choked back a watery laugh and wiped her eyes. “Be patient, Andira. She doesn’t have much practice serving in the State House.”

“True words.” Andira walked up to stand next to her. “Don’t worry about giving Salomen a warmron in front of me. I’m the one who taught her to break that taboo.”

“You did?” Rahel’s eyes were the size of shannel saucers.

“She did,” Salomen said. “I’ll tell you someday.”

“Soon, I hope.” She pulled a familiar pair of gloves from her belt. “I kept them safe for you.”

Salomen took them reverently and paused, staring at one of the stitch lines marking a repair.

Perhaps it hadn’t been Fahla who helped Rahel perform an impossible feat. Perhaps her mother’s spirit really had been with them, brought by the love embodied in a worn pair of work gloves.

“You gave me a way to bring her with me. I won’t forget that.” She rubbed her thumb along the soft leather and added, “You’re off duty. Andira and I are going to our quarters, and you should rest. I’ll need you tomorrow.”

“What are you planning?” Andira asked suspiciously.

“To see Demerah.”

She shook her head. “I know better than to argue. But you’re taking Vellmar, too. No disrespect meant to you or your abilities,” she told Rahel. “Demerah is a high empath.”

“Understood. Though she’s no challenge for Sal—um. I mean, Bondlancer Opah.”

“I said you’re off duty. Call me by my first name. Oh, I need to arrange quarters for you.”

“Lancer Tal already did. Lhyn dropped off my bag.”

“And invited her to evenmeal,” Andira added in a stage whisper. “Which she avoided by staying on duty.”

Salomen folded her arms across her chest.

“I couldn’t go! You don’t have any Guards you can trust.”

“I think you didn’t want to go to evenmeal with your captain.” She knew she had hit the target when Rahel dropped her gaze. “She doesn’t bite.”

“She doesn’t bite you,” Rahel muttered.

Andira somehow managed not to laugh. “Rahel,” she said in a voice that was only slightly strangled, “did you ever share meals with Shantu?”

“Drinks, usually. In his private study.”

“At his house?”

She nodded.

“Then you know how to mix a formal service relationship with a less formal one. This is the same thing.”

“With respect, Lancer Tal, I served Shantu for half my life. When I was seventeen, I’d sit in his office at Whitesun Base and discuss my training with him. It’s not the same thing.”

“True,” Andira agreed. “This time, you’re on more level ground.”

Rahel looked startled, then thoughtful.

Salomen put an arm around Andira’s waist in silent appreciation. Rahel didn’t realize it, but Andira had just mentored her.

And Fianna was her new best friend.

Compared to that, changing three thousand cycles of caste law was nothing.


64


Twisted

“I miss taking the magtran,” Salomen said from the back seat of Andira’s private transport. Fianna shared the back with her, while Rahel was up in the front passenger seat. One of Andira’s Guards was piloting them to the healing center.

“The view’s better from up here,” Fianna said.

“It’s faster,” Rahel added.

“I still miss it.”

“Because you can’t use it like you used to,” Rahel said wisely. “We always want what we can’t have.”

“A warrior philosopher,” Fianna teased. It was remarkable, the difference in her behavior toward Rahel today.

“My closest friend is a philosopher.”

“Speaking of Sharro,” Salomen asked, “how is your little brother? Isn’t he about two moons old now?”

Rahel lit up as she turned around to face them. “Two moons and one nineday tomorrow. He’s beautiful. He has Mother’s hair and Sharro’s eyes. Sharro says she hopes he has her temper, too, since she can only handle one firebreather in the house.”

“You have a two-moon-old brother?” Fianna was visibly surprised.

“My father, brother, and sister all died in the Battle of Alsea. Then my mother thought she lost me after Shantu died and I, um, vanished. So she started a new family.”

As Rahel faced forward, Fianna gave Salomen a look that said Why didn’t you tell me?

Salomen shrugged. It wasn’t her story to tell, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t nudge these two to know each other better. “The timing worked out well,” she said. “Rahel was able to get leave from the Phoenix and be in Whitesun for the birth.”

“It was fantastic.” Rahel’s smile was audible in her voice. “First time I ever saw Sharro look disheveled. Then the healers threw me out of the room for the parental bonding, and when they let me back in, she looked like she was ready for clients. Mother looked like she was never going to let either of them out of her sight.” She turned again. “Don’t ever think a crafter can’t be dangerous. Anyone who gets between my mother and her baby will die painfully. She has access to cutting torches.”

“Her mother is a metal sculptor,” Salomen told Fianna. “She does beautiful work.”

“They marched in Whitesun. They think you’re the greatest Bondlancer in history.”

“They might be a little biased. What did they think about your performance yesterday?”

The flush rising in Rahel’s cheeks accompanied a warm blend of pride and embarrassment. “They didn’t say much about that.”

“You’re in a transport with three high empaths and you’re trying to lie?”

“We’re almost there,” Rahel said brightly. “Shouldn’t we go over our security plan?”

In fact, Rahel was more famous than ever. Her status as Alsea’s first space explorer—and the first person to communicate with a new, alien empathic species—was temporarily overshadowed by the images splashed all over the media. The two most popular were of her stopping a flying knife with her stave, and standing bent over Salomen, using her body as a shield. Fianna was equally well represented between her very public warmron with Lanaril and facing down armed attackers with nothing but her bare hands. Andira had been exultant about the coverage last night, reading aloud to Salomen as they relaxed in their quarters.

“Listen to this. ‘When asked why she didn’t draw her own knives, Lead Guard Vellmar said she was reluctant to shed blood in front of children and civilians. Then came the true blow: “I didn’t need them,” she said dismissively. “Those dokkers weren’t good enough.” Of all the punishments awaiting the assailants, the worst might be knowing that Vellmar the Blade didn’t consider them a threat.’” Andira laughed. “I might have this framed for her. That quote is going to follow her through her career, I guarantee it.”

Salomen wished she could be as proud of her own coverage. There were plenty of images of her during the march, but every outlet seemed fixated on her and Andira crouched in the rain, facing each other in what looked like an intimate moment—except for the wildness of her black eyes. Bondlancer Opah locates the sniper was the usual caption. Bondlancer Opah nearly fails her greatest test was what they should have said.

Thank Fahla for Andira’s unbreakable strength of will.

She marveled that Fianna and Rahel were here now, escorting her through the healing center. That they knew the truth and still believed in her . . . she would never take that for granted.

Fianna entered Demerah’s room first. Rahel brought up the rear. They took up posts on either side of the door as Salomen approached the bed.

Demerah’s scowl highlighted the purple and yellow bruising on her jaw. She sat up straighter, the motion rattling the cuffs that held one wrist to the bed. “I didn’t ask to see you.”

“Too bad. I’m here.”

“I don’t have anything to say.”

Salomen dragged the guest chair over and made herself comfortable. “Here’s my offer. Answer my question and I won’t bother you again. Or, act like a petulant child and I’ll come every day and annoy you.”

“Come here all you want. I won’t be here tomorrow.”

“No, you’ll be at Blacksun Base, waiting for your hearing. You think I won’t go there? I have quarters there. Perhaps you’ve forgotten.”

The scowl grew.

“I just want to know why. You were—” She couldn’t say one of my favorite Guards; that would be impolitic. She couldn’t say like a little sister, because she would never admit that now. “I thought I could trust you,” she said instead. “What did I ever do to make you hate me that much?”

Demerah turned her head away and stared at the opposite wall.

After a tick of silent waiting, Rahel walked over to stand in her line of sight. She crossed her arms and looked bored.

“Shekking—” Demerah flailed at her cuff, then gave up and rested against her raised pillow. “Why is she here?”

“Rahel? After yesterday, you wonder why I would trust her?”

“I wonder why you ever trusted her! Shek! She attacked you! And you hurt all of us, but Ronlin said it was an accident, you just didn’t know your own power when you defended yourself. I could have accepted that. But then—! All those ninedays we had to watch you in Blacksun Temple with her. Taking her to Hol-Opah like she was worthy. She is outcaste garbage and you wasted yourself on her.”

Rahel did not move an eyelash.

“You’re not going to tell me you tried to murder me because I helped Rahel,” Salomen said.

“You could have been great. The first producer Bondlancer in eons.” Demerah blinked back angry tears. “You’re the worst. Making her our first space explorer. Trying to destroy our way of life while running away with aliens and then, Mother of us all, asking Voloth for protection. Preferring a Voloth over me!” Her expression shifted to one of haughty pride. “I listen to Fahla. I saw how she protected our temples from them in the battle. I see how she’s kept the Gaians away with our nanoscrubbers—they can’t fly into our atmosphere without disintegrating their hullskin. They’re waiting for the space elevator. Alsea is for Alseans.”

It was such an incoherent mess of grievances that Salomen didn’t know where to begin. The first thing that came out of her mouth was, “If that’s true, why did she give the divine tyree bond to aliens?”

“She didn’t,” Demerah spat. “You did.”

Salomen’s head went back. “What?”

“You think we don’t know you’re Sharing with them? You gave Fahla’s greatest gift to aliens. And then you left Lancer Tal to shek one of them. Three days in the arms of an alien!” She jerked her head toward Rahel and added, “With Shantu’s dishonored blindworm to watch over you, how appropriate. Did she join in?”

Though Rahel remained motionless, her climbing rage was evident to every other person in the room. The attack on her honor had fizzled with no effect, but the attack on Salomen’s hit its mark.

“You didn’t plan it,” Salomen realized. “I thought it was about the caste reform. It was about me.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. It was about saving Alsea from you. You want to start a caste war and hand Alsea to aliens on a golden platter. I swore an oath to Fahla, not you. Fahla needed my service.” She lifted her bruised chin. “I did my best to serve her. I’m only sorry I failed.”

Salomen had thought she was prepared, but nothing could have inured her against such angry and hateful words from a person she had trusted.

She faded out, lost in a memory of her mother.

If you want friends, Nashta had said, do what is easy. If you want to hold up your head, do what is right. The second won’t bring many friends, but the ones it does bring will be real.

She looked up at Rahel, then over at Fianna, whose perfectly fronted fury burned in her eyes.

Her thoughts settled back into place, and she rose from the chair. “Thank you for explaining. I won’t bother you again.”

“That’s it?” Demerah asked. “No response? No defense? Are you proud of what you’ve done? Will you dance when Alsea burns?”

Salomen was halfway to the door when she heard Rahel’s voice.

“She didn’t start a caste war. She stopped it. Do you know what would have made Alsea burn? Killing her.”

“I don’t have to listen—”

“Shut your shekking mouth.” Rahel spoke softly but with so much venom that Demerah drew back. “She is the voice of the people. Losing her would have made the four lower castes rise up in wrath. The warriors would have split right down the middle, and Lancer Tal would have led half of us and the other four castes, probably five, to tear Alsea to pieces until she rooted out every person who thinks like you. If you thought killing the divine tyree of Fahla’s Chosen would make peace, you’re as delusional as you look.”

“The opinion of a fantenshekken,” Demerah scoffed. “Sorry, but I value Fahla’s word over yours.”

“Rahel,” Salomen said.

Rahel cast a disdainful look at Demerah and stalked out. Salomen watched her go, then turned back to her former Guard.

“I learned an interesting thing this morning,” she said in the most casual tone she could manage. “You didn’t know about the sniper.”

Demerah stared out the window, affecting unconcern.

“Fahla has a sense of humor, don’t you think? If you hadn’t tried to kill me, I wouldn’t have known about him either. He would have had his shot.” She lowered her voice. “If only you had waited one more tick. I’d be dead, and you’d still have your freedom, your rank—your honor.” Savage satisfaction heated her belly at Demerah’s intake of air, and she could not resist twisting the knife. “I’d say Fahla had the last word when she used you to save me. In the end, you did serve her.”

Stricken, Demerah faced her at last, doubt and fear in her eyes. Salomen had planted a seed that would grow for a lifetime.

She felt no pity as she turned away.

Fianna followed her out and closed the door. “Well done,” she said.

“It was petty. But it felt good.”

“If you can’t be petty with someone like that, I hate to think what your standards are.”

“True words,” Rahel said. “I’m sorry if I spoke out of turn. I couldn’t let her blame you for what she would have caused.”

“Did it make you feel better?” Salomen asked.

Rahel held up her forefinger and thumb with a small gap between them. “I’d feel better if I could challenge her. Much, much better.”

“I’d pay to watch that,” Fianna remarked. “I’d pay even more if you’d give me the right to challenge her.”

Salomen wanted to give them both warmrons. She wished she could keep them as her Guards, but it would be a demotion for Fianna, and Rahel was living out her dreams on the Phoenix.

Other than Ronlin, she wasn’t certain she could ever trust another Guard the way she had before. Depressed by the thought, she stopped in front of the entrance to the staff and visitor’s bathroom.

Fianna glided past and into the room with the smoothness of one who has done it countless times. Half a tick later, she escorted out a healer’s assistant with a gracious thank-you that Salomen echoed.

“It’s clear,” Fianna said as he left. “Do you want to be alone?”

“That’s the last thing I want.” She went straight to a sink and splashed cold water on her face. The shock helped clear her mind, and she stood hunched over, gripping the edges of the basin as water dripped from her nose and chin.

“Salomen.”

She glanced up.

Rahel held out a dry cloth. “She lied,” she said as Salomen accepted it.

“How can you know that?” Fianna asked from her position by the door.

“You high empaths always think you can’t be read. There are so many ways to read a person.” Rahel turned back. “She didn’t hate you. She loved you. But you didn’t live up to her expectations.”

Salomen thought that over as she finished drying her face. “I’m a fallen idol?”

“Worse. You’re a fallen idol who didn’t reach for her hand to help you climb back up. Or Fahla’s hand.”

Fianna made a sound of disgust. “She probably thinks they’re the same thing.”

“She’s a little insane,” Rahel agreed, “and not in a good way. How did she get past the screening?”

“I asked Andira last night. Her records are top of the pile. There was no indication of any behavior like this.”

“Lanaril said it may be more Battle of Alsea damage.” Fianna shrugged as they looked at her. “It was a topic of conversation. But she’d have no patience for the pile of dokshin that blindworm just tried to feed you. Using Fahla as an excuse for oath-breaking and murder? It takes a lot to make Lanaril angry, but that would do it.”

“I’m sorry she made herself unworthy,” Rahel said quietly. “I know you wanted to forgive her.”

Salomen frowned. “What gave you that idea?”

“You didn’t?” Fianna asked.

“No. Forgive her? Not in ten lifetimes.”

They exchanged baffled looks.

“I thought—” Rahel began.

“You thought I’d offer her the same thing I offered you? Never. You and I forgave each other. There was fault on both sides. But you didn’t intend to hurt me. You didn’t plan it. She meant to kill me.” Salomen threw the cloth into the bin with more force than necessary. “But that isn’t the worst of it. Everything you described, the things Andira would have done—you were right, but you left out the ending. After she tore the world apart, she would have torn herself apart. Demerah would have killed her, too. And that—that I will never forgive.”

They stared at her in startled silence.

“Then why did you come?” Fianna asked.

“I needed to understand why she did it.”

“Do you?”

“Not in the slightest,” Salomen said. “And I’m very glad I cannot.”


65


Tallies

Anjuli exited her office and smiled at the familiar faces in the corridor. She had never realized how many State House Guards were employed in this building until they vanished, sent away on paid leave to be rescanned and cleared for duty once more. Empathic scanning for clearances was a specialty skill and a demanding one; most high empaths could not perform more than three per day without compromising accuracy. Colonel Razine had flown in specialists from all over Alsea to help her local unit handle the high volume. Even with the extra assistance, it had taken two ninedays to repopulate the corridors.

Every now and again, word was whispered around that a particular Guard had not come back. Though the Guards caught in the scans could not be charged for acts they had not committed, their security clearances were revoked, and they would never work in the State House again.

Gradually, the Guards that Anjuli recognized reappeared, and each one made her feel that much better. Each was another piece of normality after an extraordinarily abnormal half moon. She looked forward to the day when her own protective unit shrank back to its normal size and she could move around town without falling over Guards.

She made her way upstairs to Lancer Tal’s office, where three Lancer’s Guards were on duty. They had also been required to undergo scans, but every one of them had made it through, along with the remaining Bondlancer’s Guards. Nevertheless, Bondlancer Opah had not returned to the State House since the day after the uprising. Nor would she until every single person who worked here was rescanned. Not even the Primes were excluded. Colonel Razine had scanned them personally, and Anjuli hoped she never had to go through that again.

“She’s expecting you,” the Lancer’s aide said when she entered the antechamber.

As always, Anjuli paused to admire the exquisite woodworking of the inner doors before pushing one open.

“Prime Builder, well met.” Lancer Tal rose from behind her desk and crossed the room to offer a palm touch. Genuine pleasure came through her skin, a novelty to which Anjuli was not yet accustomed. Far from reigniting their adversarial relationship, her involvement in the uprising had earned the Lancer’s admiration. It was Irin who pointed out that yes, she had coordinated an enormously public undermining of Lancer Tal’s authority, but she had also helped her tyree—and unwittingly offered political cover for a very unpopular vote among the warriors.

It was her skill in coordination that the Lancer wanted now. She led Anjuli to the comfortable seating by the windows, offered a choice of shannel or spirits, and frowned when Anjuli chose spirits.

“That bad, eh?” she asked as she poured two glasses.

“It’s not what we hoped.” Anjuli accepted her glass and eyed the dark blue liquid before taking a sip. “You do have the best spirits.”

“I’ll pull the tabs on a case of Valkinon if this reform passes. Tell me the bad news.”

“I’ll tell you the good news first. Twenty-six builder votes, and I’m still working on the holdouts. Twenty-nine producers, though Arabisar says the last one just wants attention. She’s sure it will be unanimous when the vote is called. Twenty-three crafters, and Bylwytin thinks she can push two more over the fence.”

“And the merchants?”

“That’s the bad news. Sixteen.”

Lancer Tal closed her eyes. “Sixteen,” she repeated.

“Stasinal is furious. She says the no votes are evenly divided between those who think it’s too radical, and those who are worried about corruption.”

“You’re joking. So the anti-corruption efforts bite my hand not once, but twice. That was possibly the worst idea I ever had.”

“I disagree. It needed to be done. I don’t understand their concern, though. Why would we expect high empath merchants to be corrupt when we never expected it of scholars or warriors?”

“The warriors and scholars have three thousand cycles of structures and norms to regulate high empaths. The other castes have nothing. The voices calling this a radical change aren’t wrong.”

“It would be radical no matter when it happens. We could wait another thousand cycles and it would be even more radical. Why can’t they see that?”

“Change isn’t comfortable.” Lancer Tal swirled the liquid in her glass. “We’ve had a great deal of it lately. I think perhaps the builders are more at ease because they’ve been directly involved.”

That was true. From the day the builders had repositioned the Caphenon in preparation for the Voloth invasion, they had been at the forefront of the many changes rippling through Alsea. The merchants, on the other hand, had taken the worst impact of the matter printer introduction and had reason to distrust additional change. Stasinal had achieved miraculous representation in the Whitesun march, but that was one progressive city. The more conservative areas were not as supportive, and thus neither were their Councilors.

Lancer Tal set her glass on the side table. “Two warrior Councilors have moved over to our side of the ledger. I’m guessing that won’t help much.”

“Every single one helps. But the real problem is still the scholars.”

“Yaserka,” Lancer Tal growled. “He knew what he was doing.”

“He did phrase his vote carefully.” Anjuli could not deny the thrill of hearing the Lancer’s ire directed at another Prime—and in solidarity with her. “It was a signal to the scholar Councilors.”

“They heard it.”

“He must have circulated debate points. I keep hearing the same wording over and over. He has them lined up. But Ehron doesn’t.”

After Shantu’s spectacular fall, Ehron’s inexperience and lack of connections had worked to his advantage, putting him over the top in an election that sought new blood in a Prime Warrior. That same inexperience was now a liability.

“Shantu always did believe in the superiority of the warriors,” Anjuli continued. “No matter how loudly those Councilors repudiated him, they still think he was right about that. Ehron’s vote was genuine, but he doesn’t have the power to push them.” She took a too-large gulp and added, “The irony hasn’t escaped me.”

Lancer Tal nodded but made no comment. She would not bring it up.

Anjuli needed to. “If Shantu were alive, he could convince the warriors. But if he were alive, the reform would never have made it out of the High Council. He would have stood on those steps and told the entire world no.”

“He would have,” Lancer Tal agreed. “And it would have blown up. Having doubts about a reform is a very different thing than being told you’ll never have the chance to vote, because one person took the decision out of your hands. He would have sent most of the undecideds straight to the yes side while making it impossible for them to have a voice.”

“Like closing a valve and turning up the pressure.” Anjuli set aside her glass and idly pushed her bracelet back and forth. “It feels as if the world is different since he died.”

“You’re different,” Lancer Tal said.

“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean—I am, yes. Look at us and you can see that.”

“That’s not just you.”

It was not an admission she would have expected the Lancer to make. But then, she hadn’t expected quite a few things in the last two moons.

“Thank you for that. It’s not what I’m trying to say, though. It’s . . .” She cast about for an explanation. “When you build a house, it doesn’t look like a house for a long time. You have to lay the foundation first. Then you put up the framework. All that time, it looks like a pile of stones and rods. Then you get to the point where you can build up the walls and drop the roof on, and it happens like magic. No house for ninedays, and then suddenly—” She snapped her fingers. “There’s a house. Practically overnight.”

“Overnight for the people who weren’t building it,” Lancer Tal said.

“Yes! You understand. We’re building a new Alsea. And even though I’ve been a part of it, I’m still looking at this new house from the street and thinking, ‘Hoi, that happened quickly.’ It’s a beautiful house. I don’t understand how anyone can prefer the old one. It had a leaky roof and uneven floors and the closets were too small.”

Lancer Tal chuckled. “That’s a builder’s analogy if I ever heard one.”

“But you see it, yes?”

“I do. I also know that some people will always prefer the uneven floors and small closets. They’re familiar. Comfortable.”

“The new house will be comfortable as soon as we spend some time in it. But when Shantu died, we were still laying the foundation. He couldn’t see what the house would look like. If he were here today, I think he still wouldn’t see it. He’d prefer the uneven floors. It’s almost as if it was his time to go.”

She had never put it into words before. Saying them aloud raised a flush of guilt, but it was also a tremendous relief. She imagined that pressure valve being turned, and yes, that was the right image. She had kept her memories of Shantu under pressure. She needed to let them go.

“He didn’t fit in this new world,” she said. “Do you think that was why he tried so hard to hold on to the old one?”

Lancer Tal stood up from her chair, took two steps across the space between them, and sat beside Anjuli on the couch. Holding up her hand, she said, “Yes.”

Anjuli met her palm touch and dared to interlace their fingers. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I—it has meant so much to be able to speak like this.”

“I’m glad you felt you could.”

With a short laugh, she released her grip. “Could? You forced me into it. But I’m glad you did.”

Lancer Tal’s smile was one she had never seen before: open and easy, making her look far more approachable. “Shall we get down to the names, then? Who do I need to push off the fence?”

They pulled out their reader cards and went to work. Lancer Tal took notes while Anjuli listed individuals who were not firm in their dissent and thus susceptible to personal pressure from the top. She had gathered background information on them to streamline the effort—“narrow my target,” Lancer Tal called it—and spent half a hantick carefully detailing what she knew about each one of them. It was the sort of task Chief Counselor Aldirk often performed, but in this instance, a high empath scholar was not the best person for the job.

She resented expending all this time and effort on something that shouldn’t be necessary. If this were a simple majority vote, they would already be done with it. Unfortunately, changing caste law required a seventy-five percent majority. The rule had been laid down in the formation of the unified government as a means of preventing any four castes from forcing change on two others. Which, Anjuli thought wryly, really meant ensuring that the four lower castes could not overcome the power of the warriors and scholars.

It was proving effective now. They needed twenty-three out of thirty Councilors from each caste, plus the Primes. Or, if they could get unanimous votes out of four castes, they would only need to find sixteen additional votes in the other two.

As things stood, they did not have the votes to pass the reform. If Lancer Tal could perform miracles, they might push enough undecideds or weak no votes over to the yes side, but time was running out. The full Council vote would be next nineday.

“The important thing was getting it out of the High Council,” she said when they finished. “Even if it doesn’t pass the Council, it’s free of the most difficult trap. We’ll simply have to keep revisiting it until it goes through.”

Lancer Tal rolled up her reader card with a sigh. “That’s what I tell myself. Then I envision telling Salomen that the vote failed.”

“She did risk it all,” Anjuli said quietly.

Watching an assassination attempt on a live broadcast was a shock she still hadn’t moved past. For all their concerns about violence in Blacksun, none of them had believed it would come to that. Nor had she imagined a Voloth saving the Bondlancer’s life. It had forced her into some uncomfortable self-examination.

“She did more than anyone could ask.” Lancer Tal slipped her reader card into its pouch and leaned back. “If I have to tell her that it wasn’t enough . . .”

Anjuli had a sudden urge to break into the houses of all the Councilors voting no and block their plumbing. “How is she doing?”

Lancer Tal hesitated, then apparently decided that Anjuli’s status as a co-conspirator entitled her to a real answer. “It hasn’t been easy for her. There’s no simple way to accept that people want you dead. But the real issue is that she let herself become fond of Demerah.”

“I can see where it would be difficult to know you misjudged someone so badly.” Especially for a high empath.

“Everyone misjudged Demerah. That isn’t the problem. It’s only been fourteen moons since Salomen’s brother betrayed her. Now it’s happened again, with someone else she was fond of.”

“Oh,” Anjuli breathed. “Oh, that’s terrible. I didn’t realize—I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

“Besides getting the votes? No, but thank you. At least she’s finding amusement in the story that she made it rain. Her family has started calling her Rainbringer.”

The timing had been too delicious for some of the more excitable news outlets to resist. The autumn rains had begun the same moment that Bondlancer Opah had frozen, her black eyes staring into nothing. That image of her was everywhere, along with a second favorite: the same frozen Bondlancer, now soaking wet and with a worried, equally wet Lancer Tal crouched in front of her. Anjuli would always wonder what their conversation had been about. It certainly wasn’t just about finding a sniper—not when they had been so careful to make sure their words couldn’t be transcribed. Practically every lip reader on the planet had tried, to no avail.

The office door opened. “Lancer Tal?” the aide said. “Dr. Wells is here.”

With a startled look, Lancer Tal checked her wristcom. “We’ve run over our time. Send her in, please.”

Anjuli stood with her as a slender Gaian in a Fleet uniform walked in. Her hair was twisted up and held in place with two wooden sticks—a style Anjuli had never seen before—and her eyes sparked with intelligence. She held up a palm and offered a perfect greeting to Lancer Tal, who introduced Anjuli.

“This is Dr. Wells, chief surgeon of the Phoenix. She’s been working on a project for me.”

“I’ve finished my project,” Dr. Wells corrected as she politely touched palms with Anjuli. “Well met, Prime Builder.”

“You finished? You have an answer?” Lancer Tal sounded disbelieving. “Or you couldn’t find an answer?”

“I found an answer, and it might affect your caste reform.”

Lancer Tal’s eyes widened. She looked at Anjuli, then back at Dr. Wells. “Prime Builder Eroles is aiding me with that. I’d like her to join us, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.”

They moved to the conference table, where Dr. Wells set up a pad and activated its virtual screen. For the next half hantick, she led them through a breathtaking tour of facts, figures, and biology that left Anjuli wondering why the ground wasn’t shaking beneath her feet.

At the end, Lancer Tal sat speechless for the first time since Anjuli had known her. She rubbed her forehead ridges, shook her head, and finally said, “I’m going to ask you to go through this again with our Prime Scholar. He’ll want to confirm it.”

“I expected that. He’s welcome to all my data.”

“And then I’ll ask you to attend a Council meeting.”

“I . . . didn’t expect that. I’ll need to ask Captain Serrado about involving myself in your political process.”

The sound that came out of Anjuli’s throat startled her as much as the others. “It’s too late for that, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes,” Dr. Wells said. “I’m afraid it is.”


66


Revelations

“Salomen!” Nikin called from the parlor. “It’s starting!”

“We’re on our way!” Salomen shouted.

In the kitchen beside her, Lhyn was pouring the last glass of what looked like cloudy water. Hurriedly she pushed it next to three others, then picked up all four together. “Ready.”

“The advantage of long fingers,” Salomen said, collecting the other three. “I could have used a tray, you know.”

“You could have.” Lhyn led the way out. “But you have me, so why bother?”

They entered the parlor, where Shikal and Jaros were watching the large vidscreen. Nikin was speaking in low tones to the sandy-haired woman sitting next to him, currently Shikal’s favorite person in the world. Marinda Remor had finally been acknowledged as the woman Nikin was courting, and just as predicted, Shikal was already counting his grandchildren.

Sitting alone on the couch and standing out in her Bondlancer’s Guard uniform was Rahel. She had shuttled down to Blacksun with Ekatya and Dr. Wells and was then sent with Lhyn to Hol-Opah as “additional security,” a blatantly transparent order that she related with a grin.

While Lhyn crossed the room to distribute drinks among the others, Salomen let Rahel tug one from her grasp before sitting next to her.

“Thank you,” Rahel said politely, then smiled with a surge of pleased recognition. “Tang water!”

“Lhyn made it for you. And to introduce my family to the wonders of Whitesun cuisine.”

“I wouldn’t call it cuisine.” She sipped the drink and closed her eyes. “But it’s home.”

The live broadcast of the Council session was showing a full chamber. Thirty Councilors for each caste, plus the six Primes, filled the tiered seats lining the two long sides of the room. On an elevated dais at the room’s head was the ornate State Chair.

Lhyn sat on Salomen’s other side and accepted her drink. Onscreen, Andira had stepped onto the dais and was walking to the large bell suspended in a polished wooden stand.

“She does look good in uniform, doesn’t she?” Lhyn whispered.

The scene shifted to pan across the guest gallery’s front row, pausing on Lanaril and Ekatya. They sat side by side and were leaning toward each other, Lanaril gesturing as she spoke and Ekatya looking patiently amused.

“I think you have an obsession for uniforms,” Salomen whispered back, eyeing Ekatya in her Fleet dress uniform.

“Not true. I have an obsession for the women inside them.”

Salomen’s laugh was covered by the sound of Andira striking the bell to start the session.

“Councilors and fellow Alseans,” she said, her voice easily filling the chamber, “the scheduled vote on the high empath reform has been postponed for half a moon.” Amid the gasps and cries of discontent, she held up her hands. “I believe you’ll agree with the decision when you’ve heard what we have to tell you today,” she called in a louder voice. “The mystery of our divine tyrees has been solved.”

Silence sliced through the room, cutting off words and half-finished protests.

“I thought that might get your attention. Prime Scholar Yaserka has asked to be the first to speak today. Prime Scholar?”

Yaserka rose from his seat in the bottom row of the scholar section. “Thank you, Lancer Tal. For the past nineday, I have been studying the results of research into our divine tyree mystery. I’m convinced that these results are accurate and must be taken into account before we vote on the reform.” He paused. “It may surprise you to learn that they come not from our own scholars, but from Dr. Wells, the chief surgeon of the Phoenix.

The scholars and a good number of other Councilors burst into loud expressions of disbelief.

Yaskerka ignored them with the aplomb of a seasoned politician. “I do indeed wish that our scholars had been able to solve this mystery,” he said in a calm voice that forced the others to stop and listen. “But it is a fact that the Protectorate is more advanced in genetics, and that is where the solution to this mystery lies. We are fortunate that Dr. Wells is an expert in the field. We’ve asked her here today to share her results with you.”

He tossed his long, thin tail of gray hair over one shoulder. “Some of you will find her explanation difficult to follow. Others will find it fascinating. Anyone who wishes to look at her data may ask my office; she has made it freely available and so will I. This should be shared broadly.”

“Get on with it,” Lhyn said. “That man bloviates like a leaky air line and has just as much to say.”

Salomen snickered. “He really does.”

Yaserka managed to bloviate for another five or six ticks before finally introducing Dr. Wells, who entered through the main doors and traversed the length of the chamber floor amid an expectant silence. She walked up the steps to the guest dais and stood next to the table where a holographic projector waited.

“Councilors, thank you for the opportunity to speak. As Prime Scholar Yaserka said, some of what I’m about to cover won’t interest many of you, so let me offer a quick summary before I get into the fine details.”

“Look,” Salomen told Lhyn. “Another woman in uniform.”

“Yes, but she frightens me.”

On Salomen’s other side, Rahel let out a snort before clapping a hand over her mouth.

“You two are like children,” Shikal said. “Quiet down and listen.”

Dr. Wells had activated the holographic projector and was showing an image of two Alsean heads with transparent skulls. In the brain of one, a small, purple area was highlighted. In the other, the same area was orange.

“You already know that tyree bonds occur when the empathic centers of two people recognize each other and connect. This has a genetic component. The empathic centers of different Alseans operate at different energy frequencies, and as far as I’ve been able to guess, the pool of available frequencies is in the hundreds of thousands. But if two Alseans meet and are operating on the same frequency, their empathic centers connect.”

The orange highlight turned purple, matching the other, and a purple line stretched out to connect the two heads.

“Divine tyrees connect the same way, but on a more finely tuned frequency that conveys far more information.”

The two highlighted brain areas turned to a rainbow of shifting colors, and the line between them matched in both color and pattern.

“Because of the nature of this connection, the activity in one divine tyree brain is felt in its matching partner regardless of distance. But there’s another critical component to this: the switch that toggles the connection on and off.” Dr. Wells pointed at the head on the left. “If this person lacks the genes that toggle the connection on, here is what happens.”

Though both empathic centers continued to surge and ebb in a matching swirl of colors, the line between them turned to a static purple.

“As you can see, these people have every reason to be divine tyrees. They are operating on precisely the same frequency. It’s unique to them and should carry a wealth of emotional data. Their empathic centers have connected. They have a tyree bond. But they don’t have a divine tyree bond, because this person doesn’t have their switch toggled on.”

She turned to face the chamber. “Three thousand cycles ago, your ancestors shifted all high empaths into two castes. Those castes acquired more status and more power. As a result, high empaths tended to bond with other high empaths. For any number of reasons, including simple exposure within the pool of acceptable mates, your high empaths bonded far less often with mid or low empaths.”

“Great Mother,” Nikin exclaimed. “Is she talking about—”

“Inbreeding,” Marinda said in an awed tone. “They lost the genes.”

Lhyn nudged Salomen and lifted her chin toward the new couple. “Made for each other,” she whispered. “They’re finishing each other’s sentences.”

“She’s finishing his, at any rate,” Salomen whispered back.

A quick smile crossed Lhyn’s face as she shrugged. “That works.”

Dr. Wells tapped a control, and the two Alsean heads were replaced with a slowly spinning strand of genetic material. “The difference between divine tyrees and normal tyrees is a matter of three genes,” she said as three spots of light appeared in the holographic strand. “Three genes are all it takes to toggle that switch into the on position, but all three have to work together. Over a period of two thousand cycles, your high empaths slowly bred one of those genes out of your available genetic pool. It’s been lost for a thousand cycles.”

In the rapt silence, not even a cough could be heard.

“Which brings up the obvious question of why you’re seeing divine tyrees now. The answer is that one of the remaining genes has mutated in such a way as to reactivate the on switch.” She cleared her throat. “It mutated due to the radiation that entered your atmosphere when the Caphenon crashed and the Voloth invaded. The radiation produced by our hullskin.”

The chamber erupted with noise.


67


Council vote

The frenzy of news coverage and debates sparked by Dr. Wells’s presentation was unparalleled in Tal’s memory. Only the debate over whether to euthanize the broken Voloth came close. This topic hit much closer to home, making opinions even more emotional.

In the beginning, many scoffed at the idea of trusting the research of an alien healer. As Dr. Wells’s data and methodologies were circulated through the scholar caste, however, a consensus arose. Not only was she correct, this research was a spectacular breakthrough that opened whole new branches of study and medicine.

Dr. Wells had even created a test to determine whether an individual carried the mutated gene that activated the divine tyree switch. Healing centers were swamped with Alseans wanting to take it, but the tests could not be processed rapidly enough to keep up with demand. Waiting lists quickly grew.

Tal worried about the initial outrage that alien radiation really had contaminated their atmosphere, despite Alsean nanoscrubbers breaking it down. She herself had been shocked to learn it and needed several days to adapt. Dr. Wells had provided weather maps to show the distribution patterns; naturally, Blacksun Basin was a global hotspot. So were the villages where Voloth fighters had crashed during the invasion. When Tal arrived at Hol-Opah after the Council meeting, she found Rahel telling the Opahs about sifting through the rubble of her home village within hanticks of a fighter crashing into it. Jaros breathlessly asked if she had the gene.

“I was the first person Dr. Wells found it in,” Rahel answered.

“Then you’re a divine tyree too?”

“I’m a potential divine tyree. I’d still have to meet someone who carries the gene and has an empathic frequency identical to mine. It’s not likely.”

Despite this practical answer, Jaros was convinced that he now knew another divine tyree and floated off in gleeful pride.

His reaction turned out to be predictive of Alseans in general. Once they moved past the shock, they realized that the radiation had done nothing but mutate a single gene which, judging by the enormous waiting lists, everyone hoped they had.

The debates then turned to theology, and for once the templars spoke with a single voice: this was the hand of Fahla made visible. She had sent the Gaians to correct a wrong Alseans had done to themselves. Lanaril in particular was delirious with joy, convinced this was the single greatest miracle in their history. It had inspired her to begin work on the book she had long threatened to write.

The secular scholars were less persuaded. Some agreed with the templars, while others pointed out that everything in Dr. Wells’s research was clearly explainable science with no miracle in sight. Many grumbled that if Fahla had sent the Gaians to do this, surely she could have done so without allowing a Voloth invasion right afterward.

Templar or secular, all scholars did agree on one thing: the high empath reform must go forward.

Knowing that, Tal was considerably surprised to find herself facing a united Yaserka and Ehron at the next High Council meeting.

“Our Councilors will support the reform,” Yaserka said, “but we have a condition.”

“Oh, for the love of Fahla,” Arabisar snapped. “Our goddess drops a miracle in your lap and you still want to throw your power around?”

“We have unanimous votes in our castes,” Eroles added. “We only need sixteen of yours.”

“I can count, Prime Builder.” Yaserka’s eyes gleamed with well-fronted satisfaction. “You might find seven or eight, if you looked under every rock. You won’t pass this reform without our help.”

“What is your condition?” Tal asked, interrupting what was sure to be a rancorous discussion.

“The warrior and scholar castes will retain the sole right to put up candidates for Lancer and elect that office,” Ehron said.

“You must be joking!” Stasinal’s angry voice rose above the others. “This reform is about caste equality. You want to build in inequality from its birth?”

“Prime Merchant.” Ehron leaned forward, earnest where Yaserka was already gloating. “Please understand, this is not about inequality. This is about preserving the peace.”

“Of course it is,” Stasinal growled. “The peace that’s threatened by the warriors.”

“I concede that.”

His unexpected honesty silenced the room.

“What are you saying?” Prime Crafter Bylwytin asked.

“I’m saying that this is a dangerous time. Outside this room, I’ll never admit it, but I can’t control my caste right now. Neither can Lancer Tal.”

Tal inclined her head. “Salomen was almost murdered for this reform. We just completed the first-ever emergency rescanning of the entire ranks of State House Guards, Lancer’s Guards, and Bondlancer’s Guards. This building is safe, but outside? There are warriors who will still rationalize violence in the name of preserving our caste integrity.”

“Especially now,” Ehron said. “It’s easier to stop a proposed reform than to fight one that’s already imposed.”

“Imposed.” Arabisar’s voice dripped contempt. “So that’s what you call a seventy-five percent majority vote of the Council.”

The arguments spiraled up until Tal had to raise her blocks to shut out the pulsating anger. She understood it, but she also understood Ehron and Yaserka. In fact, their maneuver worked to her advantage.

Throwing four more castes into the mix would upset the smooth line of succession she had planned. She knew how to make Vellmar electable by the warrior and scholar castes, but there was no way to prepare her for a six-caste election. It was extremely unlikely that a warrior or scholar would stand a chance in the first such election. Or the second, unless the first Lancer so elected did a spectacularly bad job.

She had resigned herself to losing her hold on Alsea’s future. Not too long ago, she might have quietly arranged the very thing that Ehron and Yaserka were doing, but that was before she had to contend with a bondmate who would see such machinations as a betrayal—and who always knew when she was lying. Yaserka’s greed and Ehron’s inexperience were an unlooked-for gift, handing her the one thing she wanted while taking all the blame. She only had to tell the truth, with a tiny selective bias.

When her ears began to ring with the volume of the shouting, she rapped her knuckles on the table.

“Enough! You have every right to be angry. You saw full equality within your grasp, and they’re taking it away.” She held up a hand, forestalling another outburst. “But I ask you to consider this. We’re changing three thousand cycles of history. You need time to build new social structures in your castes to handle that change. Your task is already enormous. Perhaps it’s better to work on that now, and worry later about adding structures for training up an entire generation of politicians.”

“It can’t be that difficult,” Stasinal muttered.

Tal fixed her with a steady gaze. “I trained for this position from the day I began my warrior training. Guiding six castes is not the same as guiding one.” She looked around the table. “It’s a concession, and a bitter one, but it’s not unreasonable. Not when the stability of our world is at stake. My advice is, take their offer. If you don’t, they’ll sink this reform and we’ll have to start all over again.”

“And we’ll have the same condition then,” Yaserka added.

If looks could kill, he would have dropped dead on the spot six times over. Even Ehron was disgusted.

To Tal’s surprise, it was Anjuli Eroles who conceded first.

“Lancer Tal gave me some advice last nineday. She said I should pick my battles and not fight the ones I can’t win. I think we all know we cannot win this one.” She looked at Arabisar, Bylwytin, and Stasinal in turn. “Not yet, anyway. Let’s take the win we have.”

One by one, the others gave in, though Stasinal made her feelings known in no uncertain terms.

“I believe in your sincerity, Prime Warrior.” She slid her furious gaze to Yaserka. “But you. You’re riding on his reasons with none of your own. You’re making a power grab, a greedy, disgusting power grab, and you had better hope you never need the aid of the merchants. You’ve made an enemy today.”

Eroles caught Tal’s eye, her expression conveying the same thing Tal was thinking. The days of two Primes at each other’s throats—a time that ended with the fall of Prime Warrior Shantu and Prime Merchant Parser—were upon them again. Only the names and one caste had changed.

Three days later, the modified high empath reform passed the full Council with a unanimous vote.


68


Valkinon

Salomen celebrated the stunning success of the reform by inviting her four co-conspirators to Hol-Opah. Protocol dictated that the Bondlancer should host such a gathering in one of the State House salons, but these days she was even less inclined to follow protocol than before.

Her father and brothers took part as well. They knew little about the Prime Merchant, Crafter, or Builder, but were nearly prostrate with awe at hosting the Prime Producer. Salomen rolled her eyes the third time she caught them talking about it while preparing the food.

“She’s just an Alsean,” she said in exasperation. “You’d think I invited Fahla herself.”

“If anyone could, it would be you, Rainbringer,” said Nikin.

She snapped him with a towel.

When the Primes arrived—each in a private transport, which dropped off the Prime and her guest before parking at the bottom of the hill—Salomen and Andira escorted them up the back steps to the deck, where the food and drinks were laid out. Though it had rained earlier in the day, the late afternoon sun was warm, and Salomen wanted to enjoy it for as long as possible.

Prime Producer Arabisar’s bondmate was taller than Salomen and had a shock of silver hair to match Shikal’s. He was courteous but reserved, though given the alacrity with which he accepted a glass of Valkinon, Salomen suspected the reserve would soon dissipate.

Prime Builder Eroles arrived with Irin and hovered protectively behind as he slowly climbed the stairs with his two canes. Shikal waited at the top with a smile and a full glass, which he offered to trade for the canes once Irin was seated.

A tentick later, Shikal came in the kitchen as Salomen was opening another bottle of Valkinon. “She thinks she’s taking care of him, but it’s the other way around, isn’t it?”

Salomen nodded. “You wouldn’t believe how tough she is in the State House. I think Irin keeps her grounded. He doesn’t let her fall too far into the role.”

“As you do for Andira.” Shikal picked up a newly poured glass and went to deliver it, leaving Salomen blinking.

Prime Crafter Bylwytin’s bondmate was a short, plump woman who laughed easily and produced a pocket-sized wind instrument when she arrived, stating that if entertainment hadn’t been planned, she’d brought it with her. Salomen liked her on sight.

She disliked her last guest just as quickly. Prime Merchant Stasinal’s date had sharp, beautiful features and was overdressed for their casual deck party. She dripped with jewels and unsatisfied expectations, having clearly anticipated something more elevated from the Bondlancer’s home.

“I thought Stasinal was smarter than that,” Salomen grumbled when she and Andira had a moment alone in the kitchen.

“Stasinal hit the peak of her power early.” Andira leaned against the counter and sipped her drink while Salomen took the wrapping off another tray of food. “Parser fell when no one expected it, and suddenly she was the head of her caste. She’s still enjoying the benefits.”

“Benefits. Is that what you call that woman? I’ve seen classier benefits in a pleasure house.”

With a wicked grin, Andira set down her glass and pressed Salomen into the counter. “Have you? This is a story I haven’t heard. Do tell me about your visits to a pleasure house.”

Salomen shivered at the purr in her voice. “I’m just saying Stasinal should spend her cinteks on someone who does it for the honest work.”

“No argument here, but that wasn’t what I was asking.”

She didn’t fight the gentle hold slowly pushing her wrists behind her back. “I went for the massages, not the other services.”

“A pity.” Andira leaned in and nuzzled the soft skin beneath her ear. “I could live for a moon on the images I have in my mind,” she whispered, and closed her teeth on the lobe.

“Salomen, do you have—oh, good Goddess.”

Salomen scooted away from Andira to find Nikin in the kitchen doorway, holding a hand over his eyes.

“Is it safe?” he asked.

“For now. Andira might have had a bit to drink already.”

“I resent that. You think I need spirits to appreciate what I have?”

“Andira.” Nikin tried to look severe. “I love you as my bondsister, but I really prefer to think of you and Salomen spending your evenings talking. Just talking.”

“You must be a lower empath than your rating if you can still entertain that belief.” Andira retrieved her glass and took a theatrical sip. “Speaking of which, when are you going to ask Marinda to bond with you? Salomen and I are vividly aware of how much you enjoy talking to her. You talked for a hantick last night.”

Salomen could not hold back her laugh. “Nikin, your face! If it helps, we’re also vividly aware of how much she enjoys talking to you.”

He stepped past her and grabbed the tray of food. “I hope you’ve enjoyed the educational value. If you need any tips, you know which door is mine.”

“The things I’ve missed, not having siblings.” Andira watched him leave, her smile expanding as she turned her attention to Salomen. “Can we get back to you and the pleasure house?”

“I had no idea you had such a fascination. Andira,” Salomen protested as she was once again pushed against the counter. “We’re hosting a party. We cannot hide in the kitchen.”

“Says who? Your family is doing a fine job of entertaining. Arabisar wants to take Jaros home with her.”

Salomen let her head fall back as Andira kissed a line up her throat. “She has three children; she doesn’t need Jaros. Besides, she couldn’t keep up with him. Her eldest is my age.” She finally located her will power and pushed Andira away. “After. We’ll do this after.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.” Salomen kissed the tip of her nose and slipped out to rejoin their guests.

The Valkinon flowed and the conversations grew easier and louder, until the sun neared the horizon and the air became too cool to stay outside. As the party moved into the dining room, Prime Producer Arabisar approached Salomen and asked, “Are you sober enough to drive?”

“Yes, why?”

“I wonder if I might get a tour of your land.”

Salomen was happy to oblige. They weren’t halfway down the steps before Stasinal asked if she could come along.

“Where is your date?” Salomen asked before she could stop herself.

“Talking to your bondmate.”

“Trying to trade up for a divine tyree?” Arabisar chuckled. “That woman has more jewels than brains. You should start screening for basic intelligence.”

“Intelligence isn’t my priority at the moment,” Stasinal said easily.

“It’s possible to find your priority and intelligence at the same time,” Salomen observed as she led them into the skimmer barn.

“I’m not so certain.” Stasinal opened the back door of the four-seater and smiled at her across the roof. “Lancer Tal might have cornered that market.”

The point of bringing the Primes here had been to get to know them in a more relaxed atmosphere. Salomen supposed it was working—she hadn’t realized Stasinal was such an unabashed flirt.

With a squad of Guards following in the six-seater, she drove her guests on a circuit of Hol-Opah, pointing out highlights and hitting the best viewpoints. When they agreed to her proposal of a short walk, she parked at her favorite trailhead and led them to the bank of the Silverrun River, then upstream to her canyon.

“What a lovely surprise!” Arabisar said when they entered the cool, lush space with its rock walls rising over their heads. “It’s like a self-contained world down here.”

“You haven’t seen the best part.” Salomen pointed ahead. “Right around that corner.”

She stepped back and let them pass, then brought up the rear as they rounded the spur of rock and found themselves facing her waterfall.

It wasn’t tall, only half a body length, but the autumn rains had swollen the river and turned her quiet little waterfall into a roaring torrent. Two giant boulders on either side of the canyon squeezed the Silverrun to a fraction of its width, forcing it into a jet of whitewater that exploded straight into the air before falling and churning over the rocky stream bed.

“I concede,” Arabisar said. “I thought my family holding was the most beautiful on Alsea, but we don’t have a waterfall. This is splendid.”

Stasinal nodded. “Imagine growing up with this! I’d have been swimming here every summer’s day. What a childhood you must have had.”

“I did. It’s a gentle waterfall in the summer. One of my earliest memories is of my mother teaching me how to shoot it in a floater ring.”

They traded childhood stories as they walked back, and by the time Salomen pulled into the skimmer barn, she considered her social strategy a success.

The sun had set during their tour, and the bright windows of the dining room framed the now-lively party. Bylwytin’s bondmate was playing a bouncy tune on her little pipe, while Irin demonstrated a hidden skill at percussion using spoons on glasses. The others clapped along, laughing, and Jaros was so fascinated that his nose was nearly in one of the glasses.

“Wonderful, I’ll be hearing Jaros banging on cups for the next two moons,” Salomen said as she followed Stasinal up the steps.

Stasinal laughed. “That’s what you get for inviting the rabble to your home.” She went through the door and held it just as Salomen felt a tap on her shoulder.

“May I have a word?” Arabisar asked.

“Of course.” Salomen nodded at Stasinal, who let the door shut.

Arabisar walked to the railing a few paces down the deck and leaned against it, admiring the rosy light of sunset on the Snowmount Range. When Salomen settled in beside her, she spoke without taking her gaze off the mountains.

“I saw you as a political ally when we first met. A gift from Fahla, a producer Bondlancer at last. Then you did that interview for the Blacksun Spotlight, and I saw you as a political liability.”

Salomen closed her eyes. “I apologized for that.”

“Yes, you did. I’m not done.”

It felt like being scolded, though she sensed no anger. No, she thought a moment later, it felt as if Arabisar had some lesson to impart. Salomen might have the higher rank, but Arabisar held the edge in age and experience.

“I didn’t know what to expect from our uprising,” Arabisar continued. “All I knew was that we had to try. We had to try because you gave us the opportunity. By the end, you were far from a liability. You were an inspiration.”

She turned, resting on one forearm. Though Salomen felt the weight of her gaze, she wasn’t ready to meet it.

“I know the Bondlancer. I made history with her. But tonight I met Salomen, down at that waterfall. I’d like to tell you something, and I hope you’ll take it as it’s meant.” Arabisar touched her wrist, bringing Salomen’s head around. When their eyes met, she said, “I’m proud of you.”

Salomen had no idea why those words would bring so much pain along with the pleasure. “Thank you. That means a great deal, especially after the earlier impression I made.”

“You do tend to make strong impressions.” Arabisar hadn’t let go of her wrist. “I suspect you share that with your mother.”

It must have been the spirits that made her late in realizing what their touch had revealed. Salomen drew back her arm. “You didn’t know her.”

“No, but I’ve read her caste records. They have quite a bit in common with yours. Either you’re genetically incapable of staying quiet in the face of injustice, or she taught you that.”

“Or both,” Salomen managed.

“Do you realize how many of those stories you told at the waterfall involved her?” Arabisar asked. Her eyes were too sharp, too knowing. “I think I know a little more about what drives you. You’re listening for an approval you can no longer hear. That voice is inside you now. Listen for it there.” She wrapped her fingers around Salomen’s wrist again, not a light touch this time but a solid contact, meant to transfer emotional truth. “Nashta Opah is surely beaming with pride over what her daughter has done. You might need to lower a few walls around your heart so you can hear her.”

She let go and turned away. Salomen stared at the mountains, tracking her footsteps across the deck and through the door.

The sunset had intensified, turning the clouds over the Snowmounts into brilliant streamers of fire. It was a beautiful evening, but she felt cut off from it, as if she were observing from a distance. Her mind was too full to settle on any one thought.

Behind her, the door opened again. The comforting presence of her father surrounded her as he stepped up to the rail.

“Lovely night,” he said.

She made a noise of agreement.

“Are you coming back inside?”

“In a tick. I needed a rest.”

He planted his hands on the top railing. “Hosting is taxing. Your mother was good at it, for a hantick or so. Then she’d hit her tolerance and end up out here.”

She tried to keep quiet, but it burst out of her. “I miss her.”

“I do, too. Every day.”

“Do you think she’d be proud of me?”

His surprise was a flash of heat tinged with guilt. “Of course she would.”

“Are you?”

“Salomen.” He rested a hand on her back. “What’s wrong?”

“Can you not answer?”

After a pause, he said, “I am ridiculously proud of you. And worried that you need to ask. I thought you knew.”

Yes, she knew, but she didn’t want to have to interpret emotions. She wanted it to be simple. Undeniable, the way it was with Andira. How could she explain that?

“Have I been remiss?” Shikal asked. “Goddess above, I thought it was coming out of my pores. I didn’t think I needed to say it.”

“She never will.” Salomen’s voice was hoarse as she finally met his eyes. “I’ll never hear it from her.”

His understanding crashed around her, a wave breaking on the shore. “Oh, Salomen.”

“I wish I could hear her. Just one more time. Why does it suddenly hurt more?”

“Because it comes and goes. It’s the nature of mourning. Grief keeps its own calendar, and pays no mind to our expectations. You’ve done something phenomenal, something you want to share. If she were here, you’d be telling her every detail.”

“But she’s not here.” She didn’t understand why tonight of all nights, she seemed trapped in a pain that should be behind her.

“Some days are harder than others,” he said. “Some hanticks are harder. But you have something you didn’t when she Returned. You have a bondmate standing at our back door, trying to decide whether or not to disturb us.”

Salomen didn’t need to look; Andira’s concern filled their link. “She’s courteous that way.”

“She’s courteous in every way, except when Nikin catches you in the kitchen.” He rested a hand against her cheek and touched their foreheads together, a priceless gesture of family love when she needed it most.

She closed her eyes and reached for his other hand, his work-roughened skin rasping against her own. The memory hit with such strength that she could hear her mother’s exasperated tone.

“You’re not using your lotion,” she said, echoing the voice in her mind.

He chuckled. “I’ve had my hands in and out of water all evening, what’s the point? I’d only wash it off again.”

They separated, still holding hands, and smiled at each other. He had always answered Nashta the same way, and she would always toss up her smooth, cared-for hands in a show of despair. It was a ritual, one that held no significance outside the two of them—and Salomen, who had spent many evenings in the office overhearing these interactions that now held so much meaning.

“Sometimes I see her in you,” he said. “Looking out through your eyes.”

“Or speaking with my voice?”

His smile grew. “Yes.”

“Then she is here, isn’t she? In a way.”

He pressed his free hand over her heart. “She always will be, for as long as this beats.” With a quick kiss to her cheek, he released her and made his way to the door.

Andira opened it for him and let him pass, then crossed the deck to stand next to Salomen. In an unspoken choreography, they both turned to the view, resting their forearms on the top railing and one foot on the bottom.

Salomen smiled faintly in recognition. Like her parents, they were building their own tiny rituals.

“We’re missing your company, tyrina,” Andira said.

“Sorry. I just . . . fell into a hole, I suppose.” Salomen leaned their shoulders together, her gaze on the fiery clouds. “It’s one of those nights where it feels like Mother died yesterday.”

The immediate understanding soothed her in ways that even her father’s could not. Shikal had lost a bondmate, but Andira knew what it meant to lose a parent too soon.

“Sometimes it hits you on the side of the head,” Andira said. “I’ve been expecting this.”

“You have?”

“This isn’t just about Nashta. It’s about losing people you trusted.” She moved her arm around Salomen’s and laced their fingers together. “I wish it had been anyone but Demerah.”

Salomen’s first thought was to correct her. She hadn’t given a thought to Demerah today. But the words resonated inside her, a reverberation that said they had struck something solid.

Demerah should have been among her Guards tonight, but she was gone forever. Her brother Herot should have been in their dining room, helping to serve drinks and entertain guests, but he was only halfway through his prison sentence.

Herot, she would someday trust again. Demerah, never. And her mother . . .

“I didn’t realize,” she said. “I didn’t understand what she gave me until I lost it.”

“Demerah?”

“My mother. Unconditional love. Unconditional trust. I wish I’d understood what that was worth.”

Andira was silent, her only response a squeeze of their hands and a deep surge of sympathy. At last she said, “I think it’s a good thing you didn’t understand then.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s only one way to learn that lesson. By losing. We don’t often value what we’ve always had.”

Salomen turned that around in her mind, examining it from all angles. “All right, but why learn the same lesson over and over? I keep losing people. I try so hard not to, but it keeps happening.”

“I know. Have you noticed what else keeps happening?”

“What?”

“You keep gaining people.” Andira straightened, pulling Salomen up with her. “Me, for one. Lhyn chose you as her family; do you know the value of that? I think the only person she loves more than you is Ekatya. Vellmar overcame a lifetime of training to see past the Bondlancer and be your true friend. Rahel has been through the fires with you, and she’s still there, immune to the heat. Lanaril, Ekatya, Micah . . .” She held up a hand and made a show of counting. “How many is that now? I lost count.”

Salomen wrapped her in a fierce warmron, her heart suddenly lighter. “Me too. You made your point.”

“Did I?” Andira kissed her throat. “You feel better.”

“I still miss my mother.”

“You always will.”

“Does it get easier?”

“It does.” She pulled back and looked at her solemnly. “There will always be times when it hits you like a posthead. They get farther and farther apart, though. And in between those times, you have so many people who love you.”

“I’m feeling very loved right now.” Salomen folded her back into an embrace, absorbing the rich depth of their connection. A soft pattering reached her ears, and she lifted her head to see the rain falling once again. “I suppose we should go in.”

Andira held her hand past the railing and let the drops hit her skin. “That reminds me. Your brother changed your name. He said Rainbringer is too hard to say, so he’s shortened it to Rainbird.”

“Rainbird,” Salomen repeated. “Really.”

“I think it’s rather sweet, don’t you?”

“I think it’s rather close to grainbird.”

“I’m certain that’s a coincidence.” Andira’s grin and her emotions said the opposite, and Salomen couldn’t help smiling.

“Let’s go, tyrina. I have to speak with Nikin about a matter of respect.”

Andira dried her hand on her trousers. “You’re all right?”

“I’m all right. As long as I have you to keep reminding me of what I’ve gained.”

“You’ll never get rid of me,” Andira promised. “And for the record, the count is seven. So far.”

It was the so far that made her heart swell. When they rejoined the party, Arabisar caught her eye with a questioning look, and Salomen gave her a confident nod. She looked around the dining room at her family conversing with four Primes and their bondmates—and one badly chosen date she was certain she’d never see again—and nodded once more, this time to herself.

Yes. Her mother would be proud.


Epilogue

Rax pulled his skimmer into the lot at the plant and seed store and had to maneuver carefully to find a place to park. Belsara and Galor were having a sale on winter planting stock, and it seemed that half of Blacksun Basin was taking advantage. It was a good thing he had asked Belsara to set aside his order yesterday. Judging by the jammed lot, he would be lucky to find anything left.

He jogged across the soggy ground, anxious to get indoors before the rain got worse. Vagron joked that autumn in the Basin consisted of two kinds of weather: rain that soaked you and rain that drowned you. It wasn’t much of an exaggeration.

Inside the high-ceilinged shop, he was too busy shaking water off his rain cloak to see the Guards spaced around the walls. But he recognized her voice instantly.

“Well met, Rax.”

Bondlancer Opah stood in front of him, wearing mud-stained boots, a rain cloak that had seen hard use, and a bright smile. She could hardly have been more removed from her regal appearance the day of the march.

He stuttered a greeting, and her smile grew as she waved a hand down her body. “I’ll tell you a secret. This is who I really am. They only stuff me in the fancy clothes when I need to be the Bondlancer.” She lifted her hand for a palm touch and focused sharply when he met it. “It looks good.”

He made a fist, then wriggled his fingers, still amazed at the Alsean medtech that had returned most functionality to his hand within a nineday and full use in less than a moon. Yet even that had paled next to the experience of empathic healing. To have a high empath sit with his hand in hers, using those terrifying powers to help rather than hurt, was a revelation he hadn’t fully come to grips with. He had seen how the effort tired the healer, who told him that such skills were normally reserved for more grave injuries. But Lancer Tal herself had asked that he be given the best of care.

“I thought I’d have limitations,” he said. “Your healers are nothing like what we had back in the Empire.”

“Yes, Dr. Wells had a few things to say about Voloth healers.”

“You know her?” He shook his head; what a stupid thing to say. Of course she knew Dr. Wells. Lancer Tal did, so—

“I’m getting to know her. She came to our anniversary party last nineday. She says what she thinks. I like that in a person.”

He did, too. It was something he was trying to learn to do himself, but the training was hard to overcome. Vagron was much better at it. “I wish I could always have her for my healer. Wasn’t your anniversary half a moon ago?”

“I’m impressed you know that.”

“It was in the news.”

“Ah.” She looked down and kicked the toe of one boot against the floor, seeming ten cycles younger. “I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the vote then.” Planting the boot, she crossed her arms and said, “We didn’t want to celebrate until all of that was done. Then we had a party at Hol-Opah, and Dr. Wells told stories about landing on exotic planets and curing plagues. My little brother has suddenly decided that he wants to be a healer and work for Fleet so he can rescue aliens.”

“Is that possible?” Rax tried to imagine Alsean healers working in Dr. Wells’s medbay and found that he could easily picture it.

“I think it will be. Our first Alsean in space is working out well. The next step is expanding the program.” A rueful expression crossed her face. “For the last cycle, my brother wanted to be a warrior. I spent all that time wishing he’d outgrow that dream and move on to a different one. Now he has, and I’m thinking Fahla has a nasty sense of humor. She gave me what I wished for.”

“We have a saying like that. Wish not, lest it come to pass.”

“It must be universal. How are you, Rax? Is it easier?”

He flexed his fingers again, a habit developed during the last moon. “It is. It was never going to change overnight, but it’s changed more than I thought it could.” His gaze went to the front counter, where Belsara was speaking to a customer. “I used to come here just before they closed, so I wouldn’t be seen by other customers. Now I come when I want to, and the customers don’t hate me. They’re not suddenly friendly, but they don’t hate us. It’s progress.”

“I’m glad. You deserve it.”

“Thank you.” He glanced around and realized that they were the object of a great deal of covert attention. “I’ll know we’ve finally been accepted when people stop staring at me.”

Her smile was small but genuine. “What makes you think it’s you they’re staring at?”

“Because they—” He stopped when the realization hit. “Oh.”

“One of the many drawbacks of being the Bondlancer. I thought if I came in my field clothes, I might not be recognized.” She indicated the Guards along the walls. “I forgot a detail. Next time, I’m putting them in field clothes, too.”

The knowledge that she also dealt with this made her seem more approachable. “Is it lonely?”

She didn’t answer right away, giving him time to castigate himself for asking such a personal question.

“I’ve lived behind one wall or another for most of my life,” she said. “The difference now is that I’m not the only one behind it. No, it’s not lonely any longer.”

He held his breath, shocked by the honest answer and afraid to move for fear of breaking the moment.

She slid her hands into the pockets of her cloak and shifted her weight, taking a more relaxed stance. “I spent most of this cycle kicking against my title, but it’s really a matter of perspective, isn’t it? You look at a muddy field in spring and all you can see is how much work it will be to grow anything in it. Then at harvest time, everything is so lush and beautiful that you can hardly remember what that muddy field looked like.”

The bustling shop faded into the background as her words painted a vivid image in his memory: sunset on a late summer day, when the slanted light fired his home fields and each seed head was outlined in gold. He had run through those glowing fields every evening as a child, thinking only of the waiting meal after a hard day of labor and never seeing the beauty.

Bondlancer Opah, he suddenly knew, had never seen anything but the beauty.

“Perspective,” he murmured, still caught in the memory. “Isn’t it funny, how often we don’t have it until we lose something.” Then he heard his own words and cringed. An invader talking about loss when he had tried to take away the very thing—

“Someone once told me we don’t value what we’ve always had,” she said, interrupting his self-flagellation. “I think there’s a corollary. We don’t know how to value a thing we never had. I thought of my title as nothing but a burden, but it’s brought me friends who enrich my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined a cycle ago. The caste reform would have died on the vine if I weren’t the Bondlancer. I couldn’t have saved a good friend without that title, or been able to properly thank people who deserve it. It’s been a tough cycle, but I wouldn’t change it now. It’s a beautiful field with a great deal of potential. I’m wondering what I can grow in it.” Her smile held a wicked edge. “Once the Council has had a little time to recover, I’d like to see if we can grow fewer outcastes.”

He thought about Vagron, a man he’d never met before the battle who had become his best friend. He thought about the village they had built with their own hands, the garden that had borne a glorious crop of panfruits, the templars who welcomed his desire to learn, and the fact that every morning he woke up a free man.

“I know what you mean,” he said. “I wouldn’t change it either. The only thing I wish I could have from my old life is my parents.”

There was so much understanding in her eyes that for a moment he wondered if she was projecting.

“I would wish that for both of us.” She turned and raised a hand, inspiring an instant reaction as the Guards along the walls flowed toward them. “It was good to see you, Rax. I’m truly happy that the sacrifice all of you made is paying off. We’ll see each other again, I’m sure. Be well.”

She touched his palm and stepped past him. Her red-headed Lead Guard materialized at the door to precede her, and with a gust of wind-blown rain, she was gone.

More Guards poured past Rax as he made his way up to the counter, where Belsara was watching him with an odd expression. “Well met, Belsara,” he said. “Were you able to save my order, or did the horde get to it?”

She pointed a thumb behind her. “Saved it. A few things got added to it.”

“What? But I didn’t—” He stopped as she shook her head.

“Bondlancer Opah thought you could use some supplies to expand your garden. I wasn’t about to tell her no.”

“Oh. That was very kind of her, but I can’t pay for it.”

“You’re not paying for anything. She set up a prepaid account in your name. That order didn’t dent it.” She smiled at his shocked silence. “That was how I reacted when she told me she’d be buying more supplies from us. There are at least six good shops between here and Hol-Opah, not to mention the one in Granelle, but she’s coming here. Do you know what she told me?”

Dumbly, he waited.

“She said you couldn’t have saved her life if I hadn’t saved yours first. She’s thanking us.” Waving a hand toward the crowd, she added, “They’re not all here because of the sale. They’re here because somehow, word got out that Bondlancer Opah was shopping here.”

“Huh.” Rax looked around the busy shop and remembered the Bondlancer’s last words. She was using the power of her title to thank Belsara.

Flexing his fingers, he said, “She’s right. I’m here because you didn’t let me die. I wish I could thank you half as well.”

“You don’t owe me anything. But you can get that pile off my floor and out of the way. I’ll call it even if you don’t ask me to help you carry it out in the rain.”

“Fair enough.”

It took four trips to get everything in the skimmer. Bondlancer Opah had added quite a bit to the order, and Rax couldn’t wait to get home and unload it.

He closed the rear door and paused, the rain spattering off his hood as he repeated the thought: to get home.

Across the road and to the north loomed the thickly forested mountain flanks, all that was visible of them beneath the lowering clouds. But he could envision their peaks. He knew their shapes and their names. He knew this part of the Basin, and the plants that grew here. He was planting their winter crop and planning the spring one.

Lancer Tal had implanted a love of Alsea in him, but she couldn’t make it his home. He had done that on his own without realizing it.

“Wish not, lest it come to pass,” he murmured. He had once wished he could go home, and now . . . here he was.

Bondlancer Opah was right. Fahla did have a sense of humor.


Glossary


Uprising

UNITS OF TIME

piptick: one hundredth of a tick (about half a second).

tick: about a minute (50 seconds).

tentick: ten ticks.

hantick: ten tenticks, just shy of 1.5 hours (83.33 minutes). One Alsean day is twenty 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 (Earth) days.

cycle: the length of time it takes the Alsean planet to revolve around their sun (thirteen moons or approximately seventeen stellar months).

Alsean days are divided into quarters, each five hanticks long, which reset at the end of the eve quarter. The quarters are: night, morn, mid, and eve. A specific hantick can be expressed in one of two ways: its place in the quarter or its exact number. Thus morn-three would be three hanticks into the morning quarter, which can also be expressed as hantick eight (the five hanticks of the night quarter plus three of the morning). In the summer, the long days result in sunrise around morn-one (hantick six), lunch or midmeal at mid-one (hantick eleven), dinner or evenmeal at eve-one (hantick sixteen), and sunset around eve-five (hantick twenty).


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

ADF: Alsean Defense Force.

AIF: Alsean Investigative Force.

ba: short name for bondparent (either bondmother or bondfather).

bai: short name for birthparent (either birthmother or birthfather).

bana: an endearment between lovers or bondmates.

block: the emotional equivalent of fingers in the ears; a mental protection that prevents one from sensing another’s emotions.

bondmate: a life partner.

cinnoralis: a tree with rich brown wood used in woodworking, and leaves that are dried and burned for their relaxing scent.

cintek: the Alsean monetary unit.

crateskate: a motorized platform for easily moving large crates or heavy equipment.

deme: honorific for a secular scholar.

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.

dokshin: vulgar term for dokker feces.

empath (low, mid, high): the three measured levels of Alsean empathic sensitivity. Low empaths normally detect emotions only through skin contact. Mid empaths can detect emotions without touch, but only at short distances. High empaths can sense emotions at significant distances and are also capable of projecting emotions onto others.

evenmeal: dinner.

Fahla: the goddess of the Alseans, also called Mother.

fairy fly: a pollinating insect famous for its camouflaging ability and gossamer wings.

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. Selective emotions can be fronted; a “perfect front” refers to a protection so solid that no emotions can be sensed at all.

gender-locked: an Alsean who is unable to temporarily shift genders for the purposes of reproduction. Considered a grave handicap, denying the individual the full blessing of Fahla.

grainbird: a small, black-and-red 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 the crushed stems of a particular grain, which yields a sweet taste. Commonly used in cooking; also used to sprinkle over fresh bread.

horten: an Alsean delicacy, often used in soup. It comes from a plant that, once harvested, stays fresh for a very short time and must be processed immediately.

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.

marmello: a sweet, orange fruit.

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.

mountzar: a large, carnivorous animal that lives at high elevations and hibernates during the winter.

palm touch: the standard greeting among Alseans in which two people touch their hands together, palm to palm, at eye level. The skin contact allows an exchange of emotions regardless of empathic sensitivity. It is impossible to lie during a palm touch. A double palm touch is done only among very close friends or family.

panfruit: a common breakfast or dessert fruit, with an orange skin and blood-red pulp.

the Pit: Alsea’s highest security prison, consisting of five underground levels. It is reserved for empathic offenders; the underground location prevents outside contact and weak points. The worst, most violent offenders are housed in the fifth level.

posthead: heavy wooden mallet used for driving stakes without splintering them.

probe: to push beyond the front and read emotions that are not available for a surface skim. Probing without permission is a violation of Alsean law.

reader card: a portable computing device composed of a flexible material that rolls into a cylinder and tucks into a pouch worn at the belt. Reader cards unroll and stiffen into a sheet for use, then relax and roll back up for storage.

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.

salterin: a pastry stuffed with a savory filling of spiced meat, vegetables, and proprietary sauces. A specialty of western Pallea, originating in Whitesun.

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 and family, or for medical purposes.

shek: vulgar slang for penetrative sex. Usually used as a profanity.

sonsales: one who is empathically blind.

taggat: (Common language) a small animal adapted to a desert environment. Taggats need no water other than what they get in their food, and will drink themselves to death if given access to an open water source.

Termegon Fields: the home of the Seeders, according to Voloth belief.

tintinatalus: a tree with silver wood used in woodworking.

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, solitary feline species, striped for camouflage in the open grasslands they inhabit. Vallcats are known for their strength and ferocity, though they do not attack Alseans unless provoked.

warmron: an embrace. Warmrons are shared only between lovers, or parents and children—and then just until the child reaches the Rite of Ascension. A warmron is too close to a Sharing for it to be used at any other time.

weeper: a soap opera.

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.

winterbloom: a small, low-growing plant that flowers in the cold seasons. Its leaves have a fresh, invigorating scent.

wristcom: a wrist-mounted communication device, often used in conjunction with an earcuff.

zalren: a venomous snake.




Published by Heartsome Publishing

Staffordshire

United Kingdom

www.heartsomebooks.com

Also available in paperback.

ISBN: 9781912684045

First Heartsome edition: April 2019

This is a work of fiction. Names, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to action persons, living or dead (except for satirical purposes), is entirely coincidental.

Fletcher DeLancey asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

Copyright © 2019 Fletcher DeLancey

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.


About the Author


Fletcher DeLancey 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 in the sunny Algarve and is retraining her green thumb from wet Oregon gardening to survive-a-Mediterranean-summer gardening (and thinks about writing a new book: How I Learned to Love Succulents).

She is best known for her science fiction/fantasy series Chronicles of Alsea, which has so far collected an Independent Publisher’s Award, a Golden Crown Literary Society Award, a Rainbow Award, and been shortlisted twice for the Lambda Literary Award. She has also been awarded the Alice B. Medal in recognition of career achievement.

Fletcher believes that women need far more representation in science fiction and fantasy, and takes great pleasure in writing complex stories with women heading up the action. Her day is made every time another reader says, “I didn’t think I liked science fiction, but then I read yours.”


All about Alsea: alseaworld.com

Uprising

Uprising

Uprising

Uprising


Also by Fletcher Delancey


The Chronicles of Alsea series:

The Caphenon

Without A Front: The Producer's Challenge

Without A Front: The Warrior's Challenge

Catalyst

Vellmar the Blade

Outcaste

Resilience

Uprising

Now available worldwide in paperback and ebook.


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