(First chapter of this space-opera is HERE.)
New Paris Star System
European Star Union Central Jurisdiction
Beaucoup rolled across the plains outside New Paris at a full gallop, over a ton of palomino warhorse shaking the land and air with the precise four-beat thunder of his hooves. Guenievre Kozietulski perched high on his back like a race jockey, with only her knees and calves as contact points, and urged him faster. Somewhere he found more speed and power, and Guen had a hint of what it was to ride upon a storm. A fence came into view, quickly closed, and then vanished away underneath with another surge of speed and a brief pause in the thunder. Then the beat resumed, even faster, and all that Guen and Beaucoup knew was the joy of freedom on an endless field of green.
Too soon the farmhouse and barn came in sight, both made of light pine and dark oak and surrounded by the dull black carbon of reusable fenceposts as well as the more colorful forms of various tractors, shelters, chicken houses, and outbuildings. Her father waved to her from in front of the barn and she sighed.
The green was not endless.
Guen slowed Beaucoup, bringing the mighty vakallarn stallion down to a canter, then a trot, then a fast walk. The jarring bounce to his walk and the perk of his ears showed that he had plenty more left and wanted to use it, but Guen knew that it was time to come in. The sun was getting close to the horizon and there was dinner to be made if the children were to get to bed before late.
“Doucement, mon grand. Nous pouvons aller dans les bois demain.”
Beaucoup turned his ears back to her, then snorted and shook, annoyed that she was speaking in French again rather than his native Doga. Two years of daily riding at a military stable on New Belgium, with a French-speaking trainer standing in for her when she herself had been out on a mission, was plenty of time for him to relearn commands, but he still preferred it when his riders used the tongue he had been raised with.
“Nukut!” She said in Doga and he moved back up to a floating trot, telling her with the effortless perfection of his gate that she was still asking far too little.
Up ahead her father waited, almost but not quite tapping his foot while Léon, the oldest boy at sixteen, waited alongside him. She guided Beaucoup toward them scattering chickens, ducks and geese as they glided across the barnyard.
“Are you sure three hours is enough?” Jan Kozietulski called. “The sun’s still in the sky. You could go out again.”
Guen tugged lightly on the reins and Beaucoup slowed to a stop next to the two men, barely even breathing hard. “I’ll get right to the cooking, papa. I said you wouldn’t do dinner, and you won’t.”
“Léon, get the horse for Guen. We want to eat sooner, not later.”
Léon reached for the reins and Beaucoup danced back, head high and snorting, muscles bunching in preparation to rear up and strike.
“Arrêtes, Lèon!” Guen yelled. “Beaucoup! Dak!” The horse stopped rock still.
Guen slid down, stroked the great horse’s neck until he settled, then took the reins and handed them to Léon.
He received them warily.
“Beaucoup is a warhorse, Léon,” Guen explained. “He will not let anyone else touch him while a rider is on his back. Remember that.”
She turned to Jan.
“You should know better by now, Papa.”
Her father eyed the horse with wary interest.
“I only ever saw them while I was getting shot at. I didn’t have much time to learn the fine points of their training.”
He watched Léon lead the warhorse into the barn without a hint of further incident while Jen pulled her helmet off and combed her sweaty ear-length blond hair back into form with her fingers. When the horse and boy vanished from sight Jan looked at his daughter again and she smiled at him.
“Yes,” she said. “They are much more interesting when one is riding them rather than being trampled.”
She tucked the helmet under her arm and headed toward the farmhouse alongside her father, sighing in restored contentment as she saw two of the younger children playing tag.
“So,” Jan said, “you have ground armies under your boots, made peace between the ESU and Ankadians, and been showered with medals and horses and fame. What will you do now?”
“Papa, don’t joke about such things. I didn’t make peace, or beat armies, though I did get showered with medals, horses and fame.”
“So you were just there when those victories happened? You had nothing to do with them?” He shook his head. “I guess you’ll have to give all those gifts back, then.”
“I’ll return the medals and fame with pleasure. If anyone tries to take Beaucoup I’ll shoot them.”
“So, what will you do now?”
Guen paused to scoop up a duck egg that one of the awkward birds had left lying out in the open before replying.
“Get some rest,” she said when she started walking again. “I’ve been fighting for ten years and I want to sit down for a while.”
“Yes, I do know how that is. But sitting down isn’t usually the best decision when you aren’t even thirty yet. There is a great deal you could still do.”
Guen sighed. “I’m tired papa. I don’t want to do anything.”
“Of course,” he said. “But you can’t run from your battlefield.”
Guen snapped her head around to glare at him.
“I’ve never…” she started, then caught herself and looked ahead again. She wrestled inside herself for a moment, praying silently and reminding herself of who God was and what was true. Finally she was able to hear what her father was saying. Begrudgingly.
“I will ask what comes next, papa. I hope it includes six months of sleeping.”
Her father nodded and turned aside to head to one of the outbuildings. Guen reached the paneled sapphire door a few moments later and it opened for her, held by Évelyne, the second oldest girl, a waifish thirteen-year-old with long brown hair and a permanently serious expression.
“Gueni, there’s a strange woman here to see you.”
“She has very long ears. And a kerchax. And armor.”
“Did she give you her name?”
“I can’t remember it.”
Guen glared at Évelyne, who just shrugged. Of course the girl would remember the kerchax and the armor and forget the name.
“Get the water started for soup while I talk to our guest. Also, put this away.” She handed the duck egg to the girl and headed for the front door.
What was God getting her into now?
* * * * * * *
One month earlier
Velen ArKalak sat in his study in his favorite armchair running through the lists of ESU slaves in ArKalak control. Freeing most of them had been a fairly simple matter, as the majority had belonged directly to the ArKalak family or to minor vassals such as merchants. A single signature from a secretary had sufficed for those belonging to the family, and minor vassals could do little to argue with a direct command that they sell a slave back to their Rakash Durr.
However, others had belonged to lesser durrs, some of whom were rather attached to their slaves, and buying them back had required negotiation with things other than money. That list, though short, represented a considerable amount of struggle.
The third list was a completely different headache. Shorter than the first, longer than the second, it consisted of slaves who hadn’t wanted to go home after they were freed. While many in the ESU would balk at the concept, forty years was a very long time, and many of the ESU citizens who had been captured and made slaves even ten years back now had families on whatever ArKalak planet they had been moved to. Many of those were loathe to pull up roots again, and getting video statements and contact information from all of them so that ESU officials could verify that their choice to stay was freely made was a nightmare.
Still, Velen found a strange peace to it, despite how much it looked like he was gutting his family’s empire. Most of his children did not understand at all, and watched with horror as their inheritance and power seemingly dwindled, but a few of them grasped some of the import of what he was doing.
A soft knock on the door announced his youngest daughter, Mivatharek, still on leave from the Neralenian convent in Geverell. He could still remember the pain of her hard fists beating on his chest when he had returned from Adalberto, and the worse pain of her tears and condemnation.
She had known that Empress Shiralenn intended to execute him. She alone among his children had wept openly, her love for him greater than her sense of decorum or honor.
“Come in, Miva,” he said, and marveled at who his little daughter had become as he again caught sight of her lithe, fully-grown frame, graceful with the controlled power of all Neralenians. He watched her scan the entire study in an instant, ears and eyes taking in everything, stance poised for just an instant in case something were amiss. Her gray cave kerchax, Hichik, followed with the same searching look.
Then Miva saw him and her gold-brown eyes were the same as those of the little girl he remembered, bright and full of curiosity. She smiled and it was his little girl’s smile, full of cheer.
He opened his arms and she gave him a strong hug, but he sensed a hesitation.
“What have you come to tell me?” Velen asked.
Miva stepped back from him and gave a soft two-part whistle. Hichik bounded into an armchair with a beat of his wings and curled up for a nap. Velen watched as his daughter nervously adjusted her gray-green forestry robes and he began to worry. After a moment of fidgeting she settled and looked up.
“Honored father, I have been praying much lately, and I believe that even after you have made restitution to the ESU our family will still have another debt that must be repaid.”
Velen sat up in his chair and focused on her.
“Indeed?” he said.
“The woman Guenièvre interceded for us, her enemies, when she should have given us nothing but hatred. We would have nothing if she had not done so.”
Velen nodded. It was very true.
“So you are saying that we owe her a debt of honor?”
Velen thought, then sighed. He could not disagree, but he had no idea what Miva had in mind to suggest.
“I will grant that.”
Velen watched his daughter’s bright eyes gauging him and could tell she was calculating how to proceed.
“I do not believe any gift of price could compensate for what she has done,” she finally said.
Velen nodded, agreeing again. Guenievre Kozietulski’s service was not the kind that could be repaid with anything money might buy. It was more in line with what the Empress had herself done, something that demanded a permanent stance of gratitude. That something so important had slipped his mind was shameful, and something he would have to remedy.
Still, Miva was being very coy, which meant that she knew that whatever suggested rememdy she had was one he wasn’t going to like.
“What do you propose, treasured daughter?”
He watched his daughter hesitate as he repeated the traditional greeting, emphasizing her place in his heart. For a moment she looked uncertain, then her resolve firmed.
“I propose that I carry our gratitude to her in person and, if possible, enter her service.”
Velen twitched. Except for the first part, which made eminent sense, he disliked that idea for any number of reasons.
It also wouldn’t work, thankfully.
“She is a commander in the ESU Stellar Corps,” he said. “You may certainly convey our thanks to her in a diplomatic fashion, but I greatly doubt that they will allow an Imperial agent to follow around their finest soldier and see how their elite forces function.”
Miva did not flinch.
“Imperial Intelligence reports that Guenièvre is retiring presently and most likely moving to her father’s farm, where she will be a private citizen. Our present standing with the ESU would certainly allow me to serve her there.”
Velen slumped. He had not known she was retiring. If she was no longer surrounded by military secrets the ESU government would probably favor the increased diplomatic ties with an Ankadian Rakash Durr. Having Miva following her around would at the very least help keep the woman involved with the political scene between the two polities, something that apparently could only benefit things.
Velen studied his daughter more closely, trying to see past what he expected of her.
“Is there more to this than honor, treasured daughter? Why do I not just send your brother Ikat?” Sending the youngest son was the traditional way of recognizing a deep bond of honor between two families, and was often still done for that purpose, though usually as an exchange and often with the intention that the traded sons would end up married to younger daughters. It would be inappropriate in this situation, but his point wasn’t to make an actual suggestion, but to goad his daughter into either abandoning her idea or openly defending it.
“Because Ikat would curse you for taking him away from Layaminir HarRikil when he has almost convinced her father to relinquish her hand,” Miva said. “Also, because Jantola is a woman and would not want a hulking Ankadian man following her around scaring off potential suitors.”
Valen smiled at her response then refocused his attention.
“Why you, treasured daughter?”
He watched Miva tremble as he used the term a third time. She knew she was the most loyal of his children, despite the raging disagreements they sometimes had, and his three repetitions served as an unmistakeable plea for her to support him in the battles he was facing.
For a moment he saw her resolve falter again, but then it firmed once more. Velen sensed her decision to discard her ploy.
“Honored Father, I wish to serve Jantola in order to take the measure of the woman who stopped the Warlords, seized the ear of the Empress and brought Racash Durr ArKalak to tear down his own empire in repentance. She knows something of Aihay that we do not, and I would seek it.”
Velen knew then he would not win. His daughter sought the Name. A hundred generations before her had heard the same call and had never found it, but he was less inclined now than he would have been before to condemn the effort as useless.
Not in Guenièvre Kozietulski’s case.
He sighed deeply and felt very old.
“If that is what you seek, I will not bar you from it. You will of course need the Empress’ permission to release you from your vows, but after that you may leave to serve Jantola.”
Why my dearest daughter, Terai Durr? I have no other allies like her.
“Thank you father.”
She smiled and hugged him again and he felt like his heart broke when she squeezed.
“Before you go, speak to your mother, your brothers, and your sisters. Tell them I want each to contribute a gratitude gift, something appropriate for Jantola and her father. I understand he is like a keva and has adopted many children. I am certain Jantola will appreciate any gift that considers them.”
“Of course, honored father.”
He looked at her as she repeated the traditional greeting and smiled at her.
“Do not even think of leaving until your mother has arranged a proper feast for you. You may not come back for many years, so we will celebrate.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
New Paris Star System
European Star Union Central Jurisdiction
Guen walked through the house dodging children and toys, taking just enough time to locate her militia-issue rail rifle so she could set it behind the door before checking on the visitor.
Glancing through the sapphire windows she saw a young woman, thin and graceful, wearing the familiar green and gray light scout armor of a Neralenian. Her helmet was off, hooked to one hip, revealing a Dankaran face and ears and tightly bound hair in a plain shade of brown.
Like most Neralenians she had a kerchax nearby, in this case a gray one with stubby wings and big eyes, but the giant rail rifle such women usually carried was nowhere to be seen. Also missing were any visible blades, pistols, launchers, cannons, bows or backup weapons.
Behind the woman was an Ankadian sky-bike attached to a large hover trailer. Nothing was visible through the windows of the trailer and it looked like the kind that could be used to transport anything.
As Guen studied the woman’s face more closely she recognized something in the features.
ArKalak. She looked like Velen ArKalak.
“Jésus, que me faites-tu?”
She opened the door.
“Hello! You were looking for me. How can I help?”
The woman looked at her, eyes brightening.
“Jantola Kozietulski!” she exclaimed. “It is an honor to meet you. I am Mivatharek Velentola ArKalak.”
His daughter, then. Guen held out her hand and the woman approached to shake it.
So she had been briefed on Terran greetings.
“You are Velen ArKalak’s daughter?”
The woman nodded.
“The youngest. There are four before me.”
Guen rifled her memory for Ankadian formalities. Shira rarely observed them when she called.
“How stands your father?” she asked.
“He stands stronger than before, honored Jantola.”
“Please, call me Guen or Guenièvre here on the farm. What sings your mother?”
“She sings comfort that her husband lives.”
“Where go your siblings?”
“My brothers go home, annoyed that they have no war and no slaves and my sisters go out, rejoicing that they still have brothers.”
Those were not standard responses.
“Why are you here, Mivatharek ArKalak?”
“Please, call me Miva. And I’m supposed to ask about your family before you ask about my business.”
Miva smiled a wide, toothy smile at her, showing off her pronounced canines.
Guen returned the smile with a smirk.
“My father’s fine, he has no wife, and my siblings run under my feet all the time. Why are you on my farm?”
“Didn’t the Empress tell you I was coming?”
Guen looked at the woman, thought for a moment.
Then it clicked.
Revenge. Shiralenn had mentioned having arranged for her own surprise in order to get back at Guen for dropping the letter in her lap in front of her whole empire.
“Oh, yes. She did. But she didn’t tell me why you were coming.”
“Ahh,” Miva paused and looked around. When she met Guen’s eyes again she looked more serious.
“I am here to thank you for my father’s life. And for my family.”
“I would have…”
“Most people would not,” Miva said. “My family still exists because you did what most would not.”
Guen felt very out of place, suddenly receiving attention that she knew belonged elsewhere.
“I just showed your father the same grace I’ve received myself.”
“What grace? What planets have you destroyed and been forgiven for, Guenièvre Kozietulski?”
“That’s a very long conversation.”
“I came here to have that conversation. And to give you my family’s thanks.”
Guen felt called out. She had come to the farm to get away and hide for a while, and now suddenly she was out in the open again.
Words about candles and stands rippled in her mind and she opened the door to the house wider.
“Would you like to come in for dinner? Do you have time?”
“I have as much time as it takes.”
Guen sighed internally.
Oui, Jésus. Je suis une lumière.
Dinner at the Kozietulski house was usually simple, the only thing it could be with ten children and two adults. That night it was rabbit stew and potatoes, a favorite that the children very quickly devoured. As Ankadians liked their meat and had almost no dietary restrictions, Miva dove in with the same relish as any of the children.
Jan Kozietulski found the food somewhat less involving as he sat across the table from their visitor, exchanging meaningful glances with his daughter. The question of how long he would have an Ankadian in his home featured largely among his silent comments.
Guen idly wondered what his reaction would be if Shira ever came to visit with her entire entourage.
Still, he received Miva warmly, if uncomfortably.
The children had a far different reaction, treating Miva like a wondrous curiosity. This despite the fact that most of them were war orphans.
“Why are your ears so long?”
“Because I’m Dankaran.”
“Why are Dankaran’s ears long?”
“I don’t know. Why are yours so small?”
“Why are you in armor? Gueni doesn’t wear her armor when she’s home.”
“I was on my skybike. I always wear armor on my skybike.”
“That’s a kerchax.”
“Yes it is.”
“What’s his name?”
“Hichik. It means ‘Secret’.”
“Why do you call him Secret?”
“Because he finds them for me.”
“Your skybike has a very big trailer behind it. What’s in the trailer?”
“That’s a surprise.”
“Papa doesn’t like surprises from Ankadians.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t, but this is the good kind of surprise.”
In between eating and talking, Miva relaxed and revealed a bright and infectious smile. When the food was gone she showed off the tricks her Kerchax could do, then took the children outside for the surprise. As Jan and Guen watched, she opened a trailer filled with the kinds of gifts the family of a Rakash Durr thought appropriate for a soldier-turned-farmer and his ten adopted children: recurve bows of white kring wood with training arrows, sense-enhancing Ancadian hunting visors, exquisitely crafted fullerene multi-tools, a boku game board with silver inlay and hand-carved pieces, Ankadian hair-ornaments made from feathers, crystal and rare woods, a mated pair of tree kerchaxes with six kits, a set of inhaxahni vines ready for planting, and three saplings each of murako, kring, dirik and harex trees.
The kerchaxes were the best received, with the bows close behind. Jan saw nothing needing his disapproval so he let the children enjoy their bounty.
“Seems a little cheap, though,” he said, “considering these folks still own several planets, even after returning ours.”
Guen watched as Josué, nine, aimed at one of the older boys with an arrow. Instantly the bow and projectile vanished from his hands into Miva’s and the boy stared at her in wonder.
“These gifts are a token from the ArKalak family,” Guen said. “A thank you. They would probably consider any attempt to actually repay the debt they think they owe me with material things an insult to me.”
“You really did set three planets free with a letter.”
“I didn’t, Papa. The Lord gave me the words to say, and I said them. He did the work.”
Jan looked at her, then nodded.
“I’m still proud of you, Gueni. And I don’t know why he would give me the job of raising such a wonderful daughter.”
Guen looked down to hide the tears in her eyes and covered it with a smile.
“Where will you plant the trees?” she asked, hoping to deflect the conversation.
“Around the house.”
“Are you sure? Most of those trees get over a hundred meters tall.”
Jan looked at the meter high saplings and coughed.
“Maybe around the chicken yard, then. Will those critters eat my birds?”
“Not if they’re trained, I think.”
“When are you leaving?”
“You can’t hide forever.”
“You know I want to.”
“And God isn’t going to let you.”
“Oui,” she said with a little sigh and looked up at the sky.
“So, when are you leaving and where are you going?”
(Continue to Chapter 8)