Aysha wouldn’t have thought there were even a thousand among the civilians willing to stand up and fight. Most of the ones she had met did nothing but cower like the Over-keva or fawn over her like the shopkeepers. This was definitely turning into an interesting discussion.
And a women’s combat league among the Okendans? She really should have paid more attention to what was going on in the city. She was almost sad that those women had never had any kind of real firepower to play with. Regretful even about the males, considering that Orlin would be beating at their borders for real, soon. Extra guns would be wonderful, even if they were held by a bunch of bumbling three-legs.
Unfortunately, they would need permission from the First Mother to get them weapons. Not much chance of that. Compared to any First Mother from the homeland, Mesra Trayl was permanently male-crazy, but she still wasn’t about to hand a bunch of Okendan stick-brains four battalions of anchors inside her own province.
Aysha heard a noise from the repair-bay’s small door and turned away from the discussion with the Over-keva to see her packsisters coming in.
What were they doing here?
They couldn’t be looking for her, could they? She wasn’t part of their pack anymore. She wasn’t even part of Zdar Army, technically.
Lelri, her second–EX-second–spotted her and locked on. Her eyes were determined, and the angry glances the others following her shot at Rixken ArdAnkadia, Aysha’s owner, no, new commander, said everything she needed to know.
Thashing Mother! They were here to rescue her. Maybe even challenge the male to another forfeit duel to get her bond. They were going to shame the whole army!
Aysha left the discussion group and moved to intercept her former pack before anyone else noticed them. She made it to Lelri before they were halfway across the huge bay.
Aysha slipped an arm around Lelri’s neck and put her in a silencing chokehold.
“All of you, outside now!” Aysha hissed.
The three other redhairs stared at her with wide eyes for only a moment, then spun about face and headed back out the door. Aysha followed, dragging Lelri, who knew better than to put up a fight.
When they were outside in the crisp air, and only after the door had clicked shut behind her, Aysha released Lelri and kneed her in the back, sending the woman stumbling forward and almost onto her face.
“What are you thinking!”
“We came…” Nakena started.
“I know exactly why you came!” Aysha shoved Nakena with both hands. “You idiots disregarded every tradition we have and came to rescue me, even though I lost.”
Lelri had recovered and glared at her.
“Our traditions cover losing to Warsisters. Getting thashed a few times, transferred to another army or another unit. Slaving around for a few months. Not being given to a man to be turned into his baby factory! We don’t care what Mesra thinks. We aren’t going to let that perverted three-legs do that to you. One night is enough. We’ll take you somewhere and see that he doesn’t get another.”
Aysha growled to cover any hint of a smile. She wanted to like what they’d done. If the previous night had gone differently, it would have meant worlds. It probably would have kept her from killing herself, just to know they cared.
But they still would have been wrong. Mesra had made a proper and deadly wager, and Aysha had been the champion responsible for fighting that wager. For any part of Zdar Army to go back on the outcome was unthinkable. Even if the winner was a three-legs. Even if he kept her as a slave for life and made her bear a hundred children. Her life had been his to end or keep, and he had kept it.
It was still his, whatever he said, and Aysha would honor that. Whatever he did.
But the fact that…
The fact that the male hadn’t touched her…
The fact that he had treated her with utmost respect, dressed her in his own clothing and treated her wounds, even made one of his own people her servant for mocking her in her defeat…
What her old packsisters were doing now was not only an insult to the honor of Zdar Army and an insult to her own, but also an insult to the honor of her new commander. Who, against all expectation, appeared to actually have some, male or no.
And thus, it was intolerable. She felt herself shaking as she stood there glaring them, her rage increasing as their presumption sank in, until she was withholding the urge to beat them all bloody by the bare thread of their own concern for her.
“What is wrong with you?” Lelri yelled. “We came for you! Did you enjoy last night that much?”
Aysha fixed her right arm to her side, rather than slap a woman who had been through eight years and countless missions with her.
“I have an anchor,” Aysha said.
Lelri shut her mouth and and leaned back on her heels. The others did the same.
“He gave you an anchor?” Yilan asked. “Just like that?”
“That must have been some tumble…” Vyzle muttered.
Laugh or punch her?
Laugh or punch her?
Aysha laughed. Hard. It broke the anger. When she stopped she could see the absurdity of the whole situation.
“He didn’t touch me. He threw clothing at me a minute after he walked in his room.”
“Is he broken?” Nakena asked.
Aysha smiled, remembering the blush on the male’s face and the way he had very pointedly avoided looking at her body. In retrospect, that told her everything she needed to know about what she looked like to him.
“No. I don’t think so. He’s like… some of those kevas we’ve heard about. The ones who only look at their sworn woman.”
Lelri, Yilan, and Nakena nodded, though in Aysha’s hearing, none of them had ever credited those stories with much truth. Neither had Aysha, but maybe she had more credit for them now. Vyzle still looked skeptical.
“But he doesn’t have a sworn woman,” Vyzle said.
“He didn’t mention one,” Aysha said.
“Maybe he plans to make you his.”
“Ha! Then he’s far more stupid than I’ve taken him for. No. I don’t know what he plans. But he threatened to burn the base down if I told him again that he could thash me.”
“You told him to thash you? Mother, Aysha. You’re far too traditional.”
Aysha chuckled at that. Vyzle gave her a crooked smile.
“Sakit!” Lelri cursed.
Aysha studied her. Her ex-second was staring at the stonetop, hands fisted. The others looked at her, their worry focused on their head packsister now.
“You didn’t just come to grab me, did you?” Aysha asked. “What else did you do?”
“She challenged the First Mother on letting the three-legs have you.” Yilan tossed her necklength hair. “Said she should have substituted additional equipment. Then…”
“I can tell it myself!” Lelri shot a glare at Yilan, then looked back to Aysha. “I challenged the First Mother to a duel of rebuke if she didn’t take you away from the male.”
Aysha stamped one foot.
“You are withdrawing that challenge right now,” Aysha said. “There is no call for it at all.”
“You know I can’t…”
“She’ll have to release you from it. Yes, you’re getting a punishment detail no matter what, but at least she won’t shoot you!”
Aysha walked past Lelri, grabbed her by the arm, and dragged her along.
“We’re going to talk to her right now. All of you are going to beg at her feet and I’ll see if she’ll still listen to me. You had better hope that she will, or you’ll all be lucky to stay combat active!”
Mesra let them cool in the waiting room outside her office for twenty minutes before calling them in. When they entered the rotunda she was sitting in an armchair near the windows sipping daw juice. She raised one eyebrow a hair when she saw them, then appeared to disregard everyone but Aysha.
For her part, Aysha led her old pack within three paces of the First Mother, then pointed at the floor. All four of them went down on one knee.
Good enough for three, but one of them needed to go deeper. She grabbed Lelri by the hair and thrust her from kneeling to facedown on the floor hard enough that her forehead thumped on the hardwood. It would be better for her if Aysha was rough. The First Mother would be less inclined to do permanent damage.
She left Lelri flat on the floor and straightened up to attention.
“These four squeakers have come to apologize, First Mother. In remembrance of my former service, I beg you to be merciful with them.”
“Indeed? Apologize? For what?”
She dropped her eyes to Lelri.
“Is this about that message you sent, Pilot Tosram? Does this mean you don’t want me to shoot you between the eyes tomorrow?”
Lelri went flatter.
“I wish to withdraw my complaint and my challenge. I was completely disrespectful and insubordinate, First Mother. I dishonored Zdar Army, yourself, my pack, and my former pack commander. Further, I failed to properly assess my former pack commander’s situation, such that my complaint doesn’t even have any grounding in reality. I give no excuses for this behavior. I am fully responsible and should have known better.”
Mesra regarded the grovelling redhair for a good sixty seconds, at least.
“Consider your challenge withdrawn. Now get up off my floor and take your pack back to my waiting room. I wish to speak to Sister Theron alone. I’ll decide what to do with you after that.”
Lelri nodded, got up, and lead the others out.
Aysha waited, staring straight ahead, while the First Mother looked her up and down.
“Is it true he put you back in your anchor?”
“Yes, First Mother.”
“I couldn’t quite believe it when Patalla came with her request, but that little bluehair insisted it was so.” She took another sip of her daw juice. “He really didn’t touch you?”
“He gave me clothing and treated my wound. That’s all.”
“Did he not find you attractive?”
“I am certain I had an effect on him. But… I am convinced he found the idea of taking an unwilling woman outrageously vile.”
“Hmmm. More Okendan males would than you may think. Likely any of the kevas in Emprin would be appalled in the same situation, whether or not you might seduce them in other circumstances.” The First Mother paused. “Are you angry with me for leaving you in the grips of a male?”
“You made a wager. I was your champion. I lost.”
“And how would you be talking if he had used you as a breeder?”
Aysha shivered. Why was she receiving such close attention? It was unusual. She glanced at the First Mother.
Mesra Trayl was staring at her glass with an expression Aysha had never seen on her face before. Somewhere between sorrow and exhaustion. Regret? Wearyness? The First Mother drained her glass and set it down, then met Aysha’s gaze, her normal calm back in place.
“I’m sorry, Sister Theron. That was not a question you can answer properly. I am glad you were well treated and quickly restored. Give me your estimate of the Preparer from what little you’ve seen so far. Honor, character, capability, resolve.”
Aysha shook off the strangeness of the previous moment and thought of the male, Rixken.
“I can say nothing against his honor so far, as I’m am uniformed, armed, and rekeyed to my anchor, as he promised. From the little that I have seen so far, his character is very similar to what I’ve heard of the civilian kevas, though I have spent very little time with any of them.” She suddenly thought of Sundrin and realized that he was very similar to Rixken in several ways. Thinking of everything she had seen or heard of Sundrin, she couldn’t imagine him being pleased at the idea of thashing a woman either. “He is very like Sundrin in his… care for others.”
She compared Rixken and Sundrin for another moment, then put the Doctor out of her mind and thought about Mesra’s requested information again.
“I’ve seen him discipline one of his people for disorder and disrespect, but otherwise speak to all of them in a patient and calm fashion. I mentioned his care for people. I know he can fight from experience,” though she still couldn’t figure out how he had moved as fast as he had in the arena, “and he seems to have a grasp of strategy and logistics. More importantly, he asks questions and listens to advisors. Right now he should be putting together a proposal for arming the militia that he intends to present to you on behalf of the civilians. With the help of the militia commanders and any number of other individuals.”
The First Mother’s eyebrows went up.
“Arming the militia? Really?”
“They may have as many as sixty-thousand who can use small arms effectively, many of them women, and a number who could pilot rebuilt anchors. If they can be trusted as a rear-guard, it would allow you to shift more of your own forces to the front lines.”
“To be shot in the back?”
Aysha didn’t know what to say to that. She had thought of it herself, even though they had ruled over the people of Emprin for centuries and received few complaints or troubles from them in that time.
She saw a ghost of a smile on the First Mother’s lips.
“I doubt they would betray us in battle,” the First Mother said. “And after all these centuries of looking up to our forces, I doubt they would betray us outside of it either. And Orlin has already given them indications that he might be a far worse master than we ever have been. I will hear his proposal.”
She paused, stared out the window to the Northeast, then looked back to Aysha.
“Analysis. What should I do with him?”
Aysha had already thought of what the best course for the Warsisters was, now that they were honorbound to help the Preparer. Even though it wasn’t her job, she hadn’t been able to stop herself.
“I believe your best option is to give him all the help you can afford. Once Rixken leaves here, Orlin will have to split his forces to go after his brother. That will take pressure off Emprin. Orlin’s forces will also have less morale in every battle, knowing he lacks legitimacy, and, if Rixken makes it to a province he can rule from, that lack of legitimacy might split the entire Empire. Rixken’s success could turn into considerable indirect benefits for you, and every moment he lives outside Emprin he is at least a distraction to his brother.”
The First Mother nodded.
She pulled out her unicomm and called someone on it.
“Tatali, send Dingo pack back in.”
The door opened and Aysha’s old pack marched back in, heads low. The First Mother pointed at the floor next to Aysha and they lined up there at attention. The First Mother looked them over for a long minute, before settling on Lelri.
“Pilot Tosram, due to your great disrespect I find it necessary to assign your pack some kind of punishment detail, but I am at a loss for something sufficiently degrading. Might you be able to suggest something, perhaps something horribly shameful yet appropriate, considering your recent miscalculations and who they were directed against? Something that will get you out of my sight for the foreseeable future?”
Lelri stared at her, wide eyed and sweating. Opened her mouth, then shut it, as if she couldn’t think of an answer.
“What is the worst possible fate you can imagine for your pack, Pilot Tosram, short of losing combat status? Think hard. Think very hard.”
Aysha recognized the twitch in Lelri’s right ear and the way her eyes flickered as she cast around in her mind.
“I believe you had some convictions about what that might be earlier this day, Pilot.”
“First Mother, being assigned to escort the Preparer to his destination would get us out of your sight. It would also require us to submit to the male that we behaved dishonorably toward.”
“Yessssss. It would.”
The First Mother leaned forward.
“You four are transferred to the command of Sister Theron, subordinate to the Preparer Rixken ArdAnkadia, until further notice. If you can manage to do this task without further dirtying Zdar Army’s honor I might consider restoring you to more worthwhile work when you get back. Understood?”
“Understood, First Mother!” the packsisters all said.
“Good. I’ll have your full orders sent to you with within the hour.”
She gave Aysha a tiny smile for just an instant.
“Now, all of you, get out of my office.”
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.