(First chapter of this space-opera is HERE.)
Empress Shiralenn Beregtola ArdAnkadia, First Lord of the Warlord Council and Kai’s Preparer for the Ankadarul, did not want to enter her throne room that day.
Outside the Imperial Palace the air was warm, the late-spring weather perfect for walking in the palace gardens with the flowers from a hundred worlds, or swimming in the palace pools under the golden blaze of Lor, or riding in the ancient city parks among the towering harex trees.
A perfect day for rest.
Inside the Imperial Palace it was cold, almost wintry, ideal for chilling the fraught nerves of guards expecting disruption, focusing the attention of tired officials making decisions and suppressing the stench of criminals awaiting judgement.
A day with no rest.
It was never a good day to order someone’s death. Even a fool like ArKalak.
A kerring vibration around her neck sought to soothe her stress and she reached up to stroke Tegar, her kerchax. In response the small creature, something like a white-feathered fox with wings, stretched his long body further along the pauldrons and collar of her armor and rubbed his head against one of her long, pointed ears.
Shiralenn flicked her ear at him and he nipped at it.
She had had worse days.
A giant door of pale kring-wood opened and Iseli ArRukor, her Kuga Shin bodyguard, walked out in her red and steel colored powered armor. She spotted Shiralenn and flipped her heavy visor up. For a moment her eyes were brown, then the corneas turned dark and reflective in the light.
Shiralenn noted that her face was chalk white. That was comforting. If Iseli had been at all agitated about the coming events her skin would have been darker.
“It’s time,” Shiralenn said.
Shiralenn reached up her armored hands and gently brought Tegar down from her shoulders. She handed him to a nearby servant girl.
“Keep him in the corner. If he starts to make noise, take him outside and put him in a tree.”
The servant girl nodded and stepped back with the kerchax safely curled in her arms.
Shiralenn checked how her sword hung against the armored skirt of her sleek blood-red, steel, and gold colored powered armor, adjusted the hang of her floor length white-and-silver cape on her shoulders, and took the Iron Crown from another servant to settle it on her head.
For a moment she wished that Rinda, her old handmaid, were still alive to fuss over her appearance at the last moment. She missed the old woman every time she headed into the throne room. However, no one else fussed quite like Rinda had, so Shira just did without.
She would be fine. A full hour of preparation was enough time for Imperial vanity.
Iseli snapped her visor shut again and stepped back through the door. Shira followed ten long steps behind.
The throne room echoed to the sound of her armored boots striking white marble. Everyone else had soles that stayed quiet, but hers were purposefully tuned for impact.
It was always strange to be the only sound in a room full of people.
Stranger still to be the center of all attention in an empire numbering in the tens-of-billions.
She saw the throne, heavy steel coated in letters of gold, but that was not her destination. Instead she proceeded to the judgement bench, a padded, backless seat set three steps in front of the throne for ruling on the highest criminal matters.
She reached the seat, stopped, and then very purposefully sat down with her back to the gathered crowd, looking toward the throne.
Amin Tirzheth, the Palace Kevagerzia and a Mrin, with mobile ears longer than any Dankaran and a face covered in short black fur, approached with long digitigrade steps from beside the throne and said a short prayer over her beseeching Aihay to give her wisdom in her judgements. When he was finished he took his place at her right hand, with his eyes on the crowd and his long tail perfectly still under his gold robes.
Next came Durr Bagar TaiGillam, Shira’s prime minister and as average looking a Dankaran, brown haired, brown eyed and olive skinned, as ever there was, even in his smartly-fitted white and silver Imperial tunic, pants and mantle. He took his place facing the crowd on her left, unrolled a scroll, and announced,
“The Judgement Seat is filled and the court of the Kavan Durr var Ancadarul is now in session. Let all be silent and in waiting, for the Sword of the Preparer is swift and terrible.”
He looked around the room, swiveling his ears to listen for any noise of rebellion. Satisfied that all were in submission, he continued.
“By the authority of the Kavan Durr, let the accused, RaKash Durr ArKalak, be brought forth.”
* * * * *
Rakash Durr Velen Takarag Arkalak, fifth most powerful warlord of over one hundred in the Ankadian Empire, felt his world shake as the Prime Minister’s voice bid him enter the court.
Traditionally it was the Emperor himself who gave that command to a warlord.
He stepped forward to enter the throne room.
As the great kring-wood doors parted before him and revealed Empress Beregtola’s back, his horror was complete. His world fell.
She had refused him her gaze; denied him all honor.
There would be nothing left of his family when she was done.
* * * * *
Shira heard the soft footsteps behind her as the warlord entered, the rustle of fabric and the three light touches as he lowered himself to kneeling. She waited a ten-count, then flicked her left ear at Bagar for him to continue.
Bagar unrolled the scroll further, motioned to the guards lining the walls, and began to read the list of charges. As he read, he paused a beat after each charge and the guards struck the marble floor with the butts of their rail rifles.
“Rakash Durr Velen Takarag Arkalak, you are here accused of violating the tenets of the Ankadarul, of leading others astray in so doing, of profaning the honor of your Kavan Durr before unbelievers, of inciting others of the Ankadarul to rebellious heart against the Kavan Durr, of…”
* * * * *
Velen listened to the roll of charges. Each time the guards struck the floor it filled his heart with a toll of doom and he cringed and slumped lower.
When the last charge came,
“and most importantly, of profaning the very name and honor of Aihay before the hordes of unbelievers,”
he fell forward on his hands and face.
Destruction and death. There could be no other outcome.
* * * * *
Shira heard ArKalak’s hands hit the floor. She relaxed as she recognized his despair.
She needed that despair. She needed the other warlords to see it and remember. ArKalak’s destruction would be an example to all of them that she would not tolerate their rebellion, not even the legalistic kind.
The consequences if they continued to think otherwise could destroy the whole Imperium.
* * * * *
“Does the accused offer any defense?” Bagar asked.
Velen stayed still. Next to him he heard the footsteps of his oldest son, Kanik.
A hand reached down and touched Velen’s shoulder.
Velen nodded without lifting his head from the floor.
“Rakash Durr Velen Takarag ArKalak makes no defense, Var Durr. He agrees that the charges of the Kavan Durr are true and just. His only plea is mercy.”
On the Judgement Seat, Empress Beregtola’s ears twitched.
Bagar glanced at her, then continued.
“Very well. Are there any here who will plead on his behalf?”
Silence filled the throne room.
* * * * *
Shira listened to the silence.
Not only had he gone against her, but he had gone against her and then failed to come back victorious. In the minds of the warlords, victory justified just about anything, but to transgress and then fail to bring something home left one with no excuses.
Most of the Ancadarul thought the same. The traditional, unvoiced, belief was that victory equalled tacit approval from Kai.
The kevagerzia, however, insisted that the Teachings laid out a very different view of what Kai approved of. As an ArdAnkadia, schooled since she was a toddler in the Teachings and in proper interpretation, Shira agreed with them.
Sadly, this judgement would not offer an opportunity to correct the general misconception. However, it would help Shira to shore up her authority for future decisions, allowing her to enforce that lesson whenever the opportunity did come up.
She sampled the silence again.
Satisfied, she was just about to signal Bereg to deliver her judgement when a crinkle of paper shattered the air.
* * * * *
Velen withdrew the sealed paper envelope from his formal robes and held it out to his son.
It was a slim hope. A shaming hope.
But it was all he had.
Perhaps it would at least save the ArKalak family.
Kanik took it, flipped it over to examine the author, and paused.
After a long moment he spoke.
“Honorable Var Durr, Guenièvre Kozietulski has sent this letter on behalf of Rakash Durr ArKalak.”
* * * * *
Shira sat up straight when she heard Jen’s name.
What had that woman done?
Bagar looked at her in surprise.
Shira looked at him, then glanced at Amin.
Amin shrugged just enough for her to see it.
Shira glanced down, then up.
She closed her eyes and wrestled with the moment.
“Kring,” she whispered to Bagar.
* * * * *
Velen heard shifting and an unintelligible whisper from the Judgement Seat.
Then Bagar drew in his breath.
“Kavan Durr Beregtola says that the words of Guenièvre Kozietulski are kring. Bring the letter.”
Velen’s heart beat faster as a guard took the letter from Kanik and carried it toward Bagar.
He did not know what the letter contained, only the long strange conversation that had lead to it while he was still in ESU custody a month-and-a-half before.
His mind filled with the memory.
The small, cold, concrete walled cell, with a single cot, a sink, an unhidden toilet and a desk. On the desk, a copy of the Teachings and a copy of the book the Terrans called the “Bible”, both translated into Doga. Also, a stack of thick white paper, a pen, a list of all of his men that had died, and a stack of envelopes. One envelope for every man.
The expectation had been clear.
No one had spoken to him or brought him anything but bread, cheese and water until he completed writing death letters for every single one of them.
Finishing adequately had taken two weeks of non-stop writing. The list had included pictures of each man’s face and battle dagger where possible, which had helped him remember them, but there was no quick way to write three-hundred-and-twenty-six death letters.
The weight of doing all of them at once had shaken him.
The day after he had finished, a blank faced soldier had brought him to a room with a steel table, bolted to the floor, and two plastic chairs, one on each end, and left him. With nothing else to do, he had sat down.
One Terran hour later by the clock on the wall, Guenièvre had entered wearing a black military shipsuit and carrying a very large box under one arm, her long blond hair gathered in a neat ponytail that fell past her shoulders. Without her armor he could see that she was indeed as tall as an Ankadian man, just like he had heard.
She had set the box on the end of the table opposite him, opened it, and pulled out a battle dagger.
She had set it on the table with a precise click, then pulled out another.
Twenty-four in total, all arranged in neat rows.
Next she pulled out a stack of white paper, a pen, a small computer pad, and a small vial filled with red liquid.
She then sat down at the other end of the table, pulled over a dagger and a sheet of paper, and began to write in Doga.
For the families of each man she had slain, to be returned with the dagger to give testimony of the valor of a fallen son, that the family might have some peace and maintain their standing in the community.
The first letter took her twenty-minutes and two sheets of paper, copying from a document on the computer pad. When she finished she signed her name, placed her bloody thumbprint next to it, and clipped the folded letter to the dagger, which went back in the box.
Twenty-three more daggers. Twenty-three more letters.
She did not eat or drink or rest.
She said nothing and offered him nothing.
For eight solid hours he watched her write her honor letters and could not find the strength to break the silence once.
When she had finally put away the last dagger she pulled out something else.
ArKalak had jumped as his broken warsword clattered across the table and stopped in front of him.
He had stared at it, transfixed by the ruined symbol of his family’s glory.
Finally she had spoken, her voice so much softer than when she had demanded his surrender.
“There are two letters I can write for you, Velen ArKalak.”
“The first one is very traditional. In it I declare that you were an honorable and valorous enemy, recount my own strengths and victories in the past and how well you fought against me before I defeated you, and then declare that it was only because Kai gave me the victory that I was able to win.”
“That letter then goes home with you, along with this sword, and gives some defense to your honor as Empress Beregtola executes you and tears your family down to nothing.”
She had paused, waiting, and Velen had torn his eyes from the broken sword to meet her gaze.
Her tired, anguished gaze.
“What is the other letter?”
“The other letter is very simple. In it I plead for Empress Beregtola to spare your life and your family. So, which do you want, Velen ArKalak? Honor or mercy?”
He had struggled to say mercy then.
He would not have struggled now.
Not now that his only hope lay in that little piece of paper approaching the Empress’ hand.
* * * * *
Shira watched as Bereg broke the seal on the letter, briefly scanned it for anything unusual, then held it out to her.
She took the thick paper and unfolded it slowly. Jen’s thick, shaky print greeted her, but this time it was not Doga that she read but Hakat, the language of names, the Teachings, and truth.
The message was very short, just seven words.
Lenn dar Shira, hir na kenda shal.
The first words Aihay had spoken to Ankad, her ancient forefather.
Seeker of Mercy, you are much loved.
Those seven words pinned her to the seat and searched her soul.
Who was she? Why was she? From whence did her power come?
What did she truly believe?
She was Shiralenn, Mercy Seeker, and Kaiag Rokoru, Kai’s Preparer, and all her power and her very existence were bound up in readying the student’s of Ankad to someday receive the promised Name.
What had Aihay done for Ankad?
What had Ankad done for his own warlords? For his wife?
What had Ankad’s son Barel done for his brother Telkir?
How then was she supposed to live?
Seeker of Mercy.
Yet how could she live if ArKalak did not die?
She stared at the floor and felt the fear wrapping around her, trying to quench the words of Guenièvre Kozietulski.
No, the words of Kai.
“Aihay, tagali haeg Rentotha. Merel tam.”
Aihay, remember your Sacrifice. Aid me.
How she would live was the wrong question. She had been here before, where the only option before her was death of one kind or another.
Kai had not failed her then.
He would not now.
* * * * *
A susurrus passed through the audience.
Velen wondered why, until the echo of a hard bootsole on marble told him.
The Empress had stood.
Footsteps approached him like thunder, driving him even flatter until they stopped an armlength away and settling cloth told him the Empress loomed above.
A whisper of velvet on steel told him she had drawn her sword, the Sword of Kai’s Preparer.
The Sword of State.
The Sword of Judgement.
The Sword of the Promise.
She would kill him herself. He would not die without honor.
Perhaps she would spare something for his family and the ArKalak name would go on.
He waited for the end.
“Look at me, Rakash Durr Velen Takarag ArKalak.”
Empress Beregtola’s voice rang out, bright and clear, gripping Velen’s heart with command.
He struggled for a moment to gather himself, then pushed back onto his knees until he could rest upright again. When he at last looked up to her face the look in her strange eyes was not what he expected.
Angry, but not cold.
Not the eyes of an executioner.
She held his gaze, letting her look sink into him, until everything else in the courtroom had faded to nothing.
“You are a fool, Velen ArKalak, and I have no other word for it. A fool.”
He shook at her words, but did not look away. He had no other choice. She was the Empress, and what she was saying was true.
“But I will own you as my fool.”
Velen’s world stopped.
“Yes, I will own you as MY fool, Velen ArKalak, and I will be to you as Ankad to Pirik, and Barel to Telkir.”
He stared deep into those eyes, utterly confused. He did not know what was happening. Ankad to Pirik? Barel to Telkir? He knew the stories, everyone knew the stories, but what…?
“Rakash Durr Velen Takarag ArKalak, I, Lenn dar Shira Beregtola Ardankadia, Kavan Durr of the Ancadarul and Kaiag Rokoru, hereby absorb the consequences of your actions and give you full pardon.”
Velen couldn’t comprehend what he had just heard.
How could she…
The sword came up and whispered across the palm of her right hand. The edge cut deep, right through the armored material.
Blood welled up.
Velen stared at the blood.
The blood of his Kavan Durr.
Watched it drip to the floor.
Watched it become a pool.
Suddenly he remembered his backroom councils with other warlords, their shared dreams of plunder, the drumbeat of war as they stirred up their subjects. His ears echoed with every word of disdain he had cast on the Empress, every warning he had heard from advisors, every arrogant plan he had laid out before his allies.
The list of names scrolled through his mind. The letters.
All those men dead.
His men dead.
He thought of the daggers on the table.
The exhaustion in Guenièvre’s eyes.
The weeping of his youngest daughter when he had come home.
And somehow, underneath it all, he heard the soft voice of Keva Takel, the kevagerzia of House ArKalak when he was a child, teaching of the mercy and love of Kai.
Suddenly, Velen understood how, and why, and what, and it filled him with shame like none he had ever known.
* * * * *
Over two-hundred lightyears away Kate watched the proceedings on the big screen in the stellars’ rec room aboard the E.S.U.S. scout carrier Stefan Renaud. Normally it would have taken several weeks for the signal to reach the ESU frontier, routing through the darknet, but Empress Beregtola herself had paid the astronomical cost for a dedicated wormhole transmission so Kate and much of the ESU was able to watch the judgement almost as it happened.
It had been exciting at first.
Kate had expected a massacre. Had been promised a massacre. Had seen all signs of a massacre.
Then Jen’s letter had intruded, and somehow ArKalak was pardoned.
Kate watched the murderer watch the Empress, watched the blood dripping to the floor from the Empress’ hand, and did not understand.
All she knew was that justice had been denied.
The wounded hand, the sword, the questions, it was all a farce.
How could any of them think that ArKalak’s crimes were covered by that?
And Jen had told her to do it.
How could she?
How could she betray them like that? Her people? Her nation?
How dare she.
Kate gripped the edge of the couch, listening as an angry murmur rose from the stellars around her in time to the building fury in her heart. Jen’s name was mentioned more than a few times.
Kate was just about to find her absent commander and demand an explanation when a still small voice said,
Kate focused on the screen again, her attention driven to the man on the floor.
* * * * *
Shiralenn wiped the sword on her cape and resheathed it, then turned to find the ESU delegation where they were standing at the front of the crowd. She saw the utter confusion on their terran faces, despite the fact that they were trying to hide it, and wondered how they would react to what she would do next.
Seven thunderous steps brought her before them, where she took off her crown, went down on one knee, and bowed her head.
“Delegates from the ESU, I apologize for the unprovoked invasion of your territory. Whatever reparations are necessary, I will pay, and if there must be a life, I will pay that too.”
She heard people draw in their breath all around her. The horror from her people was palpable. The moment dragged out in silence until it became surreal.
Something hit the floor behind her and a hand pulled on her cape.
She turned around and saw ArKalak sprawled out on the marble, one hand outstretched gripping the hem of her cape, his face pressed to the floor.
“Most noble Kavan Durr, let no dishonor or harm come upon you for the sake of this worthless dog. I will pay. I will pay whatever is necessary.”
Shiralenn’s heart softened as she heard the tears in Valen’s voice. She turned to look at him fully.
“It is done, Velen ArKalak,” she said softly. “I will not judge you.”
The warlord shuddered.
“Then let me make reparations on behalf of the most noble Kavan Durr,” he said.
Shira stilled, wondered.
“What would you offer to cover the debts of the Kavan Durr, Rakash Durr ArKalak?”
“House ArKalak will restore all conquered worlds to the ESU, return all slaves in our power who wish to return home, and pay war debt to the families of all soldiers we have slain. As well, I offer them my life to do with as they wish.”
Shiralenn almost fell over, but caught herself before losing her internal balance. Did I hear that? she thought.
“Is this truly your will, Rakash Durr ArKalak?”
“Yes, most noble Kavan Durr.”
Aihay, I was wrong, Shira thought. She reached out her good hand and rested it on Velen’s shoulder. Please show me yet more wondrous things.
Shiralenn looked up and searched the faces of the three Terran diplomats.
“Does this offer satisfy the delegation from the ESU?” she asked.
The three diplomats quickly conferred in English. After a few moments the senior diplomat silenced the other two.
“The ESU is amply satisfied with this profound gesture of good faith from the Kavan Durr of the Ankadarul,” he said. “The return of the worlds of New Gothenburg, New Marseilles and New Patras, plus containing systems, the restoration of all war prisoners in ArKalak family power, and payment of war debt to the families of soldiers killed in action against ArKalak forces, are more than sufficient. On behalf of the people of the ESU, we extend our forgiveness to Rakash Durr ArKalak and request nothing more from him and his family than continued peace from now on. Let there be no more death between our peoples on account of the past.”
Shira held the gaze of the diplomat for a long moment and smiled.
“So be it,” Shiralenn said. “The Kavan Durr thanks the generous people of the ESU for the life of her servant. May our two peoples long continue in peace.”
* * * * *
Kate felt her knees go weak. Around her the room was silent.
Three worlds freed, with one letter.
“Lieutenant-commander, what just happened?” one of the enlisted stellars asked.
Kate searched for words but couldn’t find any.
“We just got three of our planets back without firing a shot. That’s what, private,” Gustav said.
“Koz,” Kate croaked. When had her throat closed up? “Koz’d say God did it.”
Lord, why is my faith so small? Kate thought.
Jen. She had to talk to Jen.
* * * * *
Jen was sitting in her office reading a letter when Kate came in without knocking.
“Did you know?”
Jen folded the letter and put it back in the folder where she kept all the old letters that meant something to her.
“Know what?” Jen asked.
Kate glared at her.
“Did you know what the Empress would do? What ArKalak would do?”
“No. What did they do?”
Kate stopped, stared, thought for a moment.
“Weren’t you watching?”
“No,” Jen said.
Jen looked down.
“I was too scared.”
“Yes. It’s been over a month since I wrote that letter, that is what we’re talking about?” She glanced up to confirm then went on, “and I’ve been terrified of what might happen. I’ve wished a hundred times I could somehow take it back, or change something. It seemed like the right thing to say when I wrote it, but…”
“Do you want to know what happened?”
Jen felt Kate’s eyes boring into her and looked up.
“Shiralenn pardoned Arkalak, then… then ArKalak gave back all the worlds his family took in the wars. And the slaves, and money for soldier’s families.”
Jen stopped, trying to figure out the complex emotions exploding within her.
Surprise, awe, wonder, relief, joy.
A great deal of joy.
“All the planets?”
“New Gothenburg, New Marseilles, and New Patras.”
Jen threw her head back and yelled,
“Oh, merci Jésus! Il y aura la paix. Merci, Jésus. Merci!”
“You really didn’t know,” Kate said. “How do you do that? How do you trust like that?”
“Trust what?” Jen had started crying and had to stem the tears to focus on Kate. “I just… didn’t want anyone else to die, so I wrote a letter for ArKalak encouraging Shira to… to find another way. I had no idea God would do this with it.”
Kate watched her friend, still trying to understand.
“What did you say?”
“I reminded Shira what her name means.”
“Lenn dar Shira, hir na kenda shal,” Jen said. “It’s old Hakat for…”
“I know,” Kate said. “You showed me once.” She paused. “You just set hundreds of millions of people free with seven words.” Kate shook her head. “How do you do…”
“I don’t,” Jen said. “I don’t.”
“Where did you get this faith, Koz? Cause I want it.”
Jen smiled. “Whatever you need, is for the asking, mon sourette.”
“I think I’ll need more lessons in how to do that. It doesn’t seem to work for me.”
“You’ll learn, Kate.”
“You’ll teach me.”
Jen made no answer. Kate had touched on something else Jen wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about yet.
“What?” Kate pinned her with another stare.
“I… won’t be your teacher for much longer. You’ll be heading Rapier soon.”
“What do you mean? You signed up for another four, right? I put my papers in a few weeks ago. You should have had yours…”
“I didn’t re-up. I’m going home, Kate.”
“What! Why? Why! Why would you leave now?”
“Because the war is over, and I want to go home and be with my family.”
“But, I thought…” Kate looked lost.
Jen rose from her seat and gripped Kate’s shoulders.
“You are ready for this. You are ready to lead. That’s what Rapier has been about. Preparing all of you to lead.”
“I’m not ready. You can’t leave.”
“I’m not important, Kate. When I’m gone, you’ll find the trust you need. And I’ll pray that God does with you what he did with Elisha, and gives you twice what he gave me.”
Jen hugged her friend.
“Peace. This is not the time to cry. Get everyone together so we can celebrate what just happened. We’ll talk about where I’m going tomorrow.”
“I’m not letting you leave,” Kate said.
“No. None of you will. Go get everyone together. I think we need to pressure the cooks into making us a giant cake. It’s time to celebrate.”
(Continue to Chapter 5)