Why was she playing nursemaid to a barbarian?
No lying ta yarself, Zem. You did this ta you.
Right. It was because she had laughed at someone who was already having a bad day.
Every Okendan knew you didn’t pull a stunt like that in front of the Preparer, annoying walking conscience that he was. She should have known it as well, except that Okend hadn’t had an Emperor who was worth calling by the religious title in centuries. To predict Rixken she had to guess a little more like the Emperors in the stories and a little less like the ones in the news.
Going from those stories… hmm. How many more weirdos was he going to collect before he got where he was going? She glanced at the giant palefaced warrior-woman looming next to her. Maybe the next addition would be a handsome, suave, high-tree man that Zemril could run away with. Like that doctor, Sundrin.
“Are you going ta go in or are we standing out here ta enjoy the fresh air?”
Aysha turned to look at her. Kai those eyes were dark.
“You don’t like the outdoors?” Aysha glanced up at the blue sky and the swirling four-winged seabirds, snorted in the salt air laden with the smell of grilling fish from the nearby seafood stalls, and somehow ignored her own frosting breath.
Zem tugged her winter coat tighter around herself against the cold and glared. The barbarian shrugged in her borrowed green fatigues and opened the door to the tailor’s shop.
Finally! It was like the Irtrallans didn’t even feel the chill blowing in off the ocean. Even with Bristi curled around her neck, Zem was still freezing.
The inside of the shop was much better, all wood and tapestries and warm. A midweight hound was curled up on a bed in the corner and a pair of kerchaxes were draped over a carpeted perch in back. Rolls of fabric and unadjusted formal wear covered wooden racks, and plastic mannequins showed off a few exceptional examples of the shop owners’ work.
Both kerchaxes spotted Bristi on her shoulder and let out challenging kirps to which Bristi replied with a meek kiru. The kerchaxes settled again and Bristi curled tighter against Zem’s neck.
A moment after that a man and a woman, both with the shorter ears and light-olive skin of low-tree, came out from a door behind the checkout counter and approached them, eyes on Aysha. From their matching earrings, the two were almost certainly married.
“You’re Commander Theron, aren’t you?” the man said. “I’m Gallan TirHannit and this is my wife, Kelshi. It’s an honor to have you in our shop.” He gave her a half-bow, ears pressed out to the sides, that his wife copied.
“You know the Warsisters by name?” Zem asked.
The man glanced at her.
“Commander Theron’s pack has won the annual wargames three years in a row.”
Ack. Sports fans. And the Warsisters broadcasted their training? This province was crazy. Zem looked at Aysha and saw a faint blush on the pale woman’s cheeks. At least she had the sense to be embarrassed.
“What do you need from us, Commander? My wife and I will be happy to serve you at cost.”
Another glance told Zem that the Warsister wasn’t going to be finding words anytime soon. Perhaps she hadn’t known she had fans, or maybe she just wasn’t used to dealing with them.
Zem to the rescue then.
“She’s just Aysha Theron, now.” Zem stepped next to the former Commander. “The Preparer kinda beat her in a death match an’ now she’s pretty sure he owns her, laws on that aside.”
“You lost?” The man looked at Aysha, eyes wide with shock. Aysha’s blush deepened. “Sweet Kai, that’s what all the fuss was about yesterday. We were doing inventory.” He turned to his wife. “I can’t believe nobody told us, Kelshi!”
“Gallin! That’s not important.” The wife put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a little shake. “She mentioned the Preparer. He’s here!”
The man’s mouth dropped open and he gave Zem his full attention.
“The Preparer is here? In Emprin?”
“Yep. Rixken ArdAnkadia, the Preparer chosen by the kevas.”
“We heard about that on the radio. They said that there would be all kinds of trouble on the mainland…” He stared into space for a moment with his hands twisted together, then locked onto Zem again. “You have to tell the kevas! Elvar NirKosa is overkeva in the city. You must go see him!”
“I’m a Neralene agent, Jir TarHannit. I already know who the overkeva is an’ he’s next on my list of people ta see. But first… can we do business?”
The man put his hands at his sides and took a deep breath.
“Great. My tall friend here needs a set of Imperial dress whites, traditional, and three sets of basic fatigues like what she’s got on, but that fit her. Also, a weapon sash, and if you know someplace that can make one, a battleknife.”
The wife produced a computer tablet and noted the items down.
“LirBogget down on Ninth can arrange a battleknife,” the husband said. “We’ll need updated patterns for the uniforms, or pictures, but we can handle all of that.” He turned to Aysha again. “You really need a set of Imperial dress whites now?”
Aysha took a deep breath and let it out until she appeared to have regained her composure.
The man’s face fell.
“Mips. Now who are we gonna root for?”
LirBogget’s weapon shop was between the tailors’ and the Over Keva’s gerzai, so they stopped in on the way. While Aysha went through a rather lengthy interview going after the major details of her entire life, Zem browsed through a wide selection of conventional firearms, bows, and survival blades. When the Warsister rejoined her, Zem asked about the high availability of weapons within the city.
“We never suppressed the militia,” Aysha said. “Everyone was too busy trying to survive, and it’s not like an army with hunting rifles would be able to do much against our anchors and powered armor, anyway.”
Zem wondered at that, but figured that two centuries of working together probably wasn’t about to fall apart now. She took the opportunity to buy the barbarian a standard Imperial pistol for a sidearm and left it at that.
“Did you expect something different?” Aysha asked as they exited the shop.
“I just thought you Warsisters hated men having guns. Don’t you cut the balls off any man that looks like he might cause trouble?”
“We don’t do anything like that here. They used to do that in the homeland with males who didn’t pass the breeding tests, but now they just kill them.”
Zem stopped walking.
“You kill ‘em? All of ‘em?” She had read that, but thought it Imperial exaggeration. Even barbarians couldn’t be that bad. Considering Orlin and Reglen, though, why not?
Aysha looked at her and shook her head.
“Only in the homeland. Zdar Army, here, we made compromises. Mother kept most of our breeders in New Irtralla when we came, so we had to build up a new stock. Everyone needed to cooperate after the Storm, so the First Mother made an agreement with the civilians here that all our babies would be ours, but any sons we didn’t want would go to the kevas. We do the same with the daughters that can’t test into a career, but there aren’t many of those.”
“Wait, so you’re all half-Okendan? But you look…”
“We still had some of the gene-tech and sisters who knew how to use it back then. They transferred Mother’s improvements to the first few generations of babies until we were able to get our program stable again. We get a few darkhairs now and then, especially when a sister gets an eye for one of the civilians, but most of them get a perma-bleach when they grow up, so it’s hard to tell. Still, those she-hounds on the homeland told us we’re impure and locked us out of their bloodlines. Doesn’t keep us from smashing them during the Grand Games every five years, so I suppose we don’t need it.”
Breeding programs. Killing all the men. Death games.
Zem looked straight ahead and started walking again. Best just to not know.
“Stop!” Aysha said.
Zem stopped. What was the barbarian…
She heard the hiss and crackle of high powered lasers and looked to Aysha. The warrior woman was pointing at something else. A thin, high tower with a moveable base that was topped with the dome of a long-range interdiction laser. And it was tracking and firing at something. Zem could tell from both the motion and the distortion of the air just in front of it.
She searched the city for similar towers. There were dozens that she could spot, and on all of them the laser domes were turning.
Nat nat nat nat nat.
“They won’t break through,” Aysha said. “We always made sure to keep ahead of Ambril’s artillery.”
“That’s good ta hear, but it still tells me Rixken had best not stay here.”
She followed the direction of the nearest tower to see if she could spot its target, but whatever it was shooting was far off and high in the sky. Possibly in the edges of space.
“Let’s go find that keva,” she said.
The Over Keva’s gerzai was a fairly typical timber-frame barn three-stories high and with an L-shaped floorplan. Carvings and intarsia depicting scenes from the Teachings covered the front of the building, protected by a shingled awning, and the whole structure had the attractive gray weathering of wood that had spent a good century getting stressed by sun and wind.
Inside, it smelled of incense and dried redflowers and had more intarsia story depictions as well as a beautiful collection of framed nature sketches. No one met the two of them, which wasn’t unusual. Except on Songday once a week and during evening lessons, most gerzais only contained the keva and his family. The overkeva for an entire city should have had a secretary, usually a Neralene, but she might have been off running an errand. Or…
Zem cocked an ear.
Three people talking. Two men and a woman. Mostly the men. Behind a door in the back corner.
Zem motioned for Aysha to follow and lead the way past rows of pews and the central lectern with its oversize copy of the Teachings to just outside a closed door carved with the word, “Office”. Aysha moved to open the door, but Zem stopped her with a wave of her hand. Always good to find out what people might not want you to know.
“I assure you, he’s a true Preparer, Elvar. I talked to him for two hours and I can already see why the Council chose him over his brother.” Male, young, high-tree. Educated. Also, familiar. Talked to him, had he?
“Even so, there is not much I can do. We exist at the mercy of the Warsisters. We cannot antagonize them.” Male. Older. Much older, by the quaver in the tones. Local.
“He defeated Commander Theron.” Who was this guy? She was certain she had heard his voice and recently. “He has Mesra’s permission to be here. She’s selling him weapons! As long as you don’t stir people up to overthrow the Warsisters, I don’t think she’ll do anything.”
“The new Emperor is planning to invade us. Great Kai, we just saw the turrets shooting down his artillery outside!” Old man again. “We need to focus on getting ready for that. The city fathers are putting all their resources into servicing the bunkers for when, not if, we need them.”
“So, hunker down and hide from the storm?” That passion placed it. Sundrin. The missionary doctor.
“Hiding from the storm has kept us alive, doctor. We have not served Preparer or Emperor for two centuries, and yet we are still here.”
“You’re a keva! Great Aihay above…”
Sundrin’s voice stopped.
“What about a call for a general contribution and some volunteers from the militia, Overkeva?” this was the woman’s voice. Confident. Practical. Middle-aged? Mature, definitely.
“If we help this man, and his brother does break in and find out, no amount of hiding will help us. Everyone has already heard of the gas attacks in Ambril. We simply can’t risk…”
Ok. Time for Zem.
She tested the knob lightly. Not locked. Good. Glanced at Aysha.
The barbarian wasn’t doing anything. Probably didn’t know what to do. Well, Zem knew.
“Hold her,” she whispered and peeled Bristi off her neck.
Aysha took the glaring kerchax and stared at Zem.
Zem turned back to the office. In one quick motion she turned the knob and shoulder-checked the door. The boom and crash as it knocked something over was quite satisfying.
The over-keva, an old low-tree man in a set of gold-trimmed white robes, rose halfway from his seat behind a book-heavy desk.
“Who are you…”
“Field Agent Zemril NerMagten, at your service.” She used her best high-tree accent and flashed her ID. The man went a little pale. “And you should be ashamed of yourself, Overkeva NirKosa. High Keva PerKeltan gave his life to appoint Rixken to Preparer, and here you are talking about crawling into a cave while he walks by, without even a hello.”
She gave him a smile heavy with fang, then took in the other two people. Sundrin was in forest-green medical scrubs, and looking quite handsome in them, while the woman wore the skirt and tunic of a Daughter of Charity. Definitely the secretary.
Zem advanced to the center of the room, grabbing a chair on the way, and sat down where she could put her feet up on the desk and lean back.
“So, now that me and the Preparer’s new bodyguard are here, why don’t you tell us why you won’t be helping him out any.”
The overkeva looked past her to where Aysha had entered the room and got even paler. Then looked back to Zem and hemmed and hawed.
Zem studied him as he searched for an answer and did her best to look like she was pondering the best way to serve him his own intestines. While most civilians knew far more about the Daughters of Ankad’s Ceaseless Justice than the Daughters of Neralene’s Quiet Step, an Overkeva, even one two hundred years removed from contact with the mainland, would have access to resources that told him plenty. Much of it probably exaggerated, but the more terrified he was, the less hurtful she would have to be.
Rather than how to slice him up, what she was really considering was the best manipulation. Was he a corrupt coward, or a coward on behalf of others? Corrupt cowardice was often easier to control than cowardice on behalf of others, as it cared more about keeping its power. From the conversation earlier, and the way Sundrin had been talking to him, she was going to go with cowardice on behalf of others. Invoking his oaths to shame him, then, would just call up his oaths to his people, and those would probably win. Even if she did it publicly, he would just sink into a martyr complex and bear it.
A waste of time, at best.
What she needed was for him to see Rixken as one of his people, and not some useless outsider pulling resources from them. If she could get that, then the old man would make himself do whatever was necessary to keep Rixken alive. That would require…
Yuck. Zem was going to have to be motivational. She hated that.
It always left her feeling extra dirty.
She dug deep for every psychological guilt trick she had, opened her mouth, and… stopped. The words wouldn’t come.
Honest didn’t mean nat. Honest was for fools. She needed this man to pour his everything into…
You think like Imrien.
Ow. Where were these thoughts coming from?
Honest. She hadn’t been honest since…
Convincing Rixken to take the sword.
Zem took her boots off the desk and sat up straight.
“Look, yar holiness, I understand tha’ ya have a whole province of people ta care for, I do. But yar here ta lead ‘em ta be more than safe. Just because yah’ve had a whole army of women showin’ up all yar men and makin’ ‘em hide for two hundred years doesn’t mean they aren’t still men. It doesn’t mean they can’t fight, especially when they should, an’ if ya remind ‘em of that, maybe you’ll end up with a better world than yah’ve had for awhile. Maybe men who remember they’re men’ll help keep Orlin from breaking in here, an’ maybe if they fight for Rixken, Aihay’ll put someone in charge who doesn’t gas cities just cause they don’t do what he tells ‘em.”
The overkeva stared for a moment, then dropped his head.
“Our men can’t fight. The Warsisters hold the borders and do all the work. The militia is just games that they let us play to keep the young men from getting too rowdy. If real soldiers get into the cities we’ll all be killed.”
“I’m not saying don’t make a place ta keep yar wives and babies safe. Yar men’ll fight better for that. An’ I’m not sayin’ send everyone off after Rixken. The idiot’d probably refuse if he thought it would let yar people get hurt! But I am sayin’ ta stand up an’ fight! An’, if ya believe yar a man, then at least come see yar Preparer an’ give him a chance ta lead ya!”
He raised his head and gave her a tired look.
“Are you telling me that after three-hundred and fifty years of worthless men we finally have a Preparer worth following?”
“I’m not sayin’ ya do or ya don’t, but ya won’t find out if ya don’t set foot back on the path, will ya?”
The old man looked to Zem’s left, to where Sundrin still sat. A staring match went on between the two.
The old keva at last nodded.
“Take me to him.”
This chapter is part of the in-progress serial web novel The Unbroken Blade, intended to be book one in The Shattered Empire trilogy, and features a mix of sci-fi and thematic elements reminiscent of near-future military fiction such as Gasaraki or Isaac Hooke’s Atlas series and sci-fi combat classics such as Mechwarrior/Battletech and Gundam. The story is rich with battle and conflicts of honor and conscience arising around a civil war on the forested world of Dankar, far from our own, but is primarily focused on how the main characters deal with the challenges they face, not their machines or their world. Follow this blog to receive each chapter as soon as it is released. Like and share to give me a shot of encouragement. Full chapter updates on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.