Where was he?
Fuzzy warm darkness surrounded him, filled with the beep of machines and the whisper and gurgle of fans and pumps. He breathed in and the sharp tang of raw brass filled his nose. Along with that scent was the sweet smell of silver, the odd, earthy smell of hydrogen peroxide, the sharp acid of white vinegar, and the bite of raw alcohol. Altogether it smelled… very clean.
He tried to move and found he couldn’t. He felt something on his chest. Restraints? He didn’t feel anything on his arms. More like a crash harness, then. He tried to move his arms again. They still wouldn’t. Also, his left leg ached faintly and was equally useless. And something was on his head, like a helmet?
Was he paralyzed?
He tried not to think about that. He focused on the smells and the sounds. And the crash harness, looking for what they meant. He was obviously injured, so…
Mobile hospital. He was in a med-bed in one of the mobile hospitals.
What had happened?
He cast back in his memories.
He remembered the base. The battle. The victory.
The Girdens exploding out of the bay.
He had hit one several times, but it hadn’t stopped it. The original Girdens could take a standard railrifle hit on the chest glacis without any damage. His hadn’t cared either until… right. The shot in the side. Something had exploded under him. Then, pain. Lots and lots of pain. A crash. And something hitting him in the head. He hadn’t had his helmet on. They had gotten him out, a medic had injected him with something, and now he was here.
Why couldn’t he move? The blow to the head?
Why did his leg ache? Did he still have a foot?
He couldn’t move. Couldn’t check. Couldn’t know.
He was paralyzed… something had happened to his neck and…
How long? Could it be fixed? Would he be functional again?
What was happening outside?
Had they lost anyone?
His heart pounded in his chest. He tried to slow his breathing but it kept speeding up.
Aihay! Help! HELP!
“Hello?” he called. “Can someone hear me?”
Calm down. Calm down, Rixken!
“Is someone there!?”
The blackness to his left slid up, turning into a rollaway door that vanished into the top edge of the medical alcove. Soft light flooded in, blinding him for a moment. He closed his eyes, blinked a few times. When he could see again, wide, dark eyes framed by white hair tipped with deep forest green looked down at him.
“Bright day, your Majesty!”
Faced with beauty, panic vanished.
Sundrin’s greenhair apprentice smiled. She was one of the Warsisters it really hurt to look at. Worse, her personality matched that beauty with genuine, open kindness. She almost seemed to have her own private sunbeam following her around. The smile just took the combined brilliance from stunning to blinding.
She leaned in as if to check something.
Was he wearing anything? Panic almost returned. He tried to move again. Still not happening. But he thought he could feel fabric covering him. Yes, definitely. It shifted against his skin as he breatheed. Good. Not naked.
Silly. She had probably already seen him naked when he was on the operating table. Thankfully, she hadn’t seemed interested in dragging him off anywhere when he talked to her before leaving Emprin. Although… he remembered Sundrin saying she was a secret Ankadarul, like Patalla. In that case, any interest might be of a more appropriate variety.
Somehow that made the smile more threatening. He wasn’t sure he could resist a smile like that if it was offering a lifetime of kind commitment rather than one night of dirty pleasure.
She straightened back up after tugging at something on his arm. A catheter, maybe?
“Why can’t I move?” he asked. “Am I…”
“You’re not paralyzed. It’s just a nerve block using your implant and an NI helmet. I’ll switch that off, now.”
She turned to what had to be a console next to the bed and clicked away at some keys.
Suddenly his body felt much more alive. He lifted an arm and it moved. He wiggled his toes. He…
The pain in his leg tripled and a new ache jabbed him in the side.
“How bad is it?” Desseri asked. She glanced away at a something. “Hmmm. Do you want me to put the pain block back on?”
“No. I’ll deal with it. I have to check on things.”
He tried to sit up. The pain in his his side went from a jab to a stab. He gasped.
Desseri rapped him on the forehead with her knuckles.
Kind, but firm. He’d have no chance.
“I need to…”
“You’re just as impatient as one of the redhairs! You’ve been out for three days but you haven’t missed anything important. We raided another base and won, last night. We lost five pilots and seventeen troopers, spread over all three forces. These raiders are pathetic. We should have cleared them out years ago.”
He looked at her, but tried not to meet her eyes. With her ears pinned back, her glare was forbidding.
“Everyone you need to talk to will come give their reports once I’m done checking your wounds. Until then, Commander Serlan said the plan is proceeding as set. You getting shot hasn’t set it back. As I said, these raiders aren’t worth much in a fight.”
He lay back a little to take tension off the wound in his side.
“You took a bunch of shrapnel when that shot shattered your anchor’s gyro. Your calf was pierced through and burned, your side took a shallow puncture wound, and you got a minor concussion when your helmet hit you in the temple. Why it was loose and not on your head…”
Rixken blushed. He had taken it off and put it on the top of the control console when he thought the battle was over. He always hated how it felt pressing in against his ears.
“The concussion is cleared up already and the other wounds aren’t too serious. You’ll be walking with a med-skeleton for a few weeks if you want to go anywhere, but that’s all.”
He nodded, then had another thought. If the shot had hit the gyro…
“Your anchor is being repaired. You won’t have it for a week, no matter how much you complain. You’re lucky it was a squad of Girdens that shot you. We recovered enough spare parts to fix yours with no problem. Is that all?”
He lay back the rest of the way and relaxed. He was out of excuses.
“Good. You won’t win with me. I’ve fought stupid redhairs my whole life. I will see you healthy before you get out of here. And don’t think Sundrin will show you any pity either! He taught me most of what I know.”
Commander Serlan dropped by first, with a pair of after-action reports compiled by the head commanders of all three forces and a new report on the current activities of Ardis PirGevgen. She didn’t say much about any of it, except that they were ready to move on to negotiating with the coastal cities. And that he should see to his mercenary commanders.
Did she mean the tension that had been growing between Krisga and Daneth over the past few weeks? The curtness of her comment left him without the courage to ask.
Sundrin stopped in after she left and checked his vitals, made a few comments about commanding from further back, then went out and sent in Aysha.
She looked like a mess.
It wasn’t her hair. That was in perfect order, short though it was.
Not her clothing either. Fresh uniform. Ironed. When did she do that?
Her face was composed, too. Stony.
But her eyes. Dark circles ringed them, combining with her black irises to give her a grim, haunted look. Her knuckles were another clue. Bandaged on both hands, the bandages scuffed and bleeding through.
How many walls had she been punching?
She stood at attention next to the alcove, silent, waiting for him to say something. He looked around the hospital for what he could see and spotted a rolling task chair. He pointed at it.
“Sit. I’m not going to chew you out.”
She fetched the chair and sat down.
What to say to her? He prayed and pondered. She was obviously taking his getting shot personally. He doubted it was because she cared that much. More likely it was an honor thing. She and the others had failed to protect him, when that was their entire job. That probably would have hurt her plenty, but it came on the heels of her loss in the arena. Even more… He was her way home. If she failed at this, she was likely never going to be part of Zdar Army again, whatever happened with the invasion.
He glanced at her. She wasn’t looking at him, but was instead staring straight ahead, waiting. He needed to hear what she was thinking.
“Explain what happened,” he said. “From your perspective.”
“I know. What happened?”
She clenched her fists.
“The squad surprised us. But we… three of my packmates broke for cover instead of staying with you. They expected all of us to do the same. You included. We reacted poorly, and you almost died.”
He looked at her hands. She was digging her nails into her palms.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have gone for cover. They just wanted to escape. If I had taken cover, they would have run into the rest of our force without shooting me.”
She snapped her gaze to his face, ears tilted forward. Looked away again. Frowned. Started to say something. Stopped.
She looked very confused.
“Rixken. I’m lying in a hospital bed. Call me Rixken.”
“Rixken.” She twitched as she used his first name, like it hurt. “We failed. Protecting you was our job, and we failed.”
She wouldn’t defend herself. Did she want him to chew her out?
“You aren’t trained for bodyguarding, are you?”
She shook her head.
“Then why would you expect to be good at it within a week of starting?”
She went still. Then her pale face went even paler.
“I… we…” She stopped. More expressions flickered across her face. More like hints of expressions. She kept whatever she was actually feeling hidden.
He combined what he had learned of Warsister combat doctrine with what she had described and what he was seeing now. There. That made sense.
“You’re used to going in and destroying your targets and getting out. Every single one of your sisters is expected to keep moving and to fight at the level of Imperial special forces. Your pack acted like I was a sister, expecting me to keep up, and I moved like what I am… a moderately competent Imperial who’s been in live combat all of six days in my entire life.”
She met his gaze again. Now her face was all frown.
“How did you beat me?”
Her eyes went wide, as if she hadn’t expected the question that had come out of her mouth. She blanched again and started to look away once more.
“Stop sitting at attention and look at me.”
Her eyes came back.
“Are you confused about how I won?”
“You don’t… have some special advancements in your anchor?”
“It’s a standard Girden Mk1b. The motion-assist and tactics learning functions are a little better than the originals, but not much. It’s probably about equivalent to your own anchor.”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? Everything you see says I’m far less competent than you, but that day in the arena… you saw something more. Much more.”
Her ears perked and she leaned just a little toward him.
“Why did I tell the First Mother she should help me get away from my brother?” he said.
Her eyes flicked down for a moment, then back.
“Because your Kai is with you.”
“Exactly. That’s the only explanation I can give. Make what you will of it.”
She studied him for a minute, then dropped her gaze to the floor and stared at it in silence.
Rixken settled back into the bed. Talking to her had been surprisingly tiring, and he had more conversations after this one.
“Go talk to Tegar KarLagren. I think he mentioned that the Kerchaxes have done some bodyguarding in their history. They should be able to set up some training exercises for you and your pack. Next time you’ll be ready.”
Aysha saluted, fist to chest, and left.
Time for a nap.
After he woke, Ottik, his white haired secretary, came in with a computer tablet stuffed with paperwork. Rixken sat up as much as the alcove would let him and worked through the salvage numbers from the last two battles, repair recommendations from Patalla on the kills made by his personal cadre, a full update on the status of his personal anchor, letters from leaders of the coastal cities, and some blackhair intelligence reports on raider activity throughout Akati that showed some worrisome troop movements.
He saved the letters for last, as negotiation with the coastal leaders was his next real step. The first letters weren’t from the leaders however, but the kevas and the families of the rescued slaves that had already gone back home.
All told they had set free close to five-thousand young men and women stolen from the northern and southern coasts of Akati. None of them could have been home for more than a week, but already…
It was a lot of thank-yous.
One of Serlan’s reports had mentioned that word of their actions was spreading throughout Akatia and having the intended effects, but Rixken almost didn’t care.
A young father whose wife had come home.
Parents rejoicing at the return of an only son.
A keva praising Kai for Rixken’s faithfulness in answering their requests.
This was more important.
The fact that getting the city leaders to look for a freighter, or supply reliable provisions and recruits, would be easy was a side item.
He took his time reading through all the notes of gratitude, before reading the responses from city leaders and writing a few short replies. He handed the outgoing messages to Ottik, but stopped the young man as he got up to leave.
“Ottik, you’re good at reading people, correct?”
Ottik tilted his head, then nodded.
“It’s one of the goldhair traits I tested at acceptable levels for.”
Rixken wondered once again what the man had actually failed at. He hadn’t asked, but maybe someday. Right now, he had something more important to ask.
“Is there something I should know about my mercenary commanders?”
Ottik’s eyes widened a little, then he smiled.
“Ah, you can’t tell?”
Rixken pursed his lips.
“Forgive me, your Majesty. I don’t know anything confidential, but I can see that they are both very depressed over something. From mutterings among the Kerchaxes, I think it’s over something they did working for HarMakeg. Also…” He paused, twiddled the fingers holding the computer tablet. “Also, Daneth and Krisga are in love with each other.”
Rixken sat up and knocked his head head on the top of the short alcove. Thankfully it was padded. That didn’t help the stab from his side, though.
“Are you… no. Nevermind. That’s not surprising. It also doesn’t explain all the tension.”
“Well, I don’t believe they are doing anything about it.”
Thankfully, Rixken thought. That was a conversation he didn’t want to have.
Ottik must have read his face, because he nodded.
“I agree, your Majesty, it would be a complication for you, especially as Preparer. However, I think their affection is the kind they can’t ignore. That combined with the other issue I mentioned is probably making a serious distraction.”
Hmmmm. Serlan had been right. He would have to deal with this. Somehow.
“Before you send those messages, get whichever of those two you think will tell me the most and send them.”
“Krisga, your Majesty.”
“Krisga, then. Send her. Also, get Sundrin and tell him I want something I can actually sit up in. Now, not later. Then come back once you’ve sent those messages on their way. I may need your insight.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Ottik left. In the silence, Rixken prayed about yet another challenge he would have to face with inexperience: Counseling.
Krisga crept into the mobile hospital. From his seat in a reclining chair set next to his alcove he could see the vibrance that normally charged her motions was missing. He motioned to the task chair as she got close. She bowed and took it.
“Did Ottik tell you why I wanted to talk to you?”
“He just said I should be ready to answer personal questions.”
She was looking at his right cheek, just below his eye.
“Darra Krisga Edgana HarRukora, please look me straight in the eyes while I’m talking to you.”
Krisga cringed. Suddenly he was looking directly into a pair of brown eyes that wavered with each breath the woman took.
He had never done anything like this before. What to do? He prayed and came up with a combination of things kevas had said to him and a few times he had seen HarBergan handle subordinate’s personal problems when they became public.
Going from all of that, the very first step was to find out what exactly was going on.
“Krisga. I believe there are two separate issues severely affecting both you and Daneth. I could be wrong, because I do not know, but I believe this to be the case. Am I right?”
What was that look HarBergan had used? He had seen it twice. HarBergan only used it on commanders.
He let the lightest frown settle between his eyebrows and around his mouth, leaned forward despite the pain in his side, and held her with that look until she began to fidget.
“How old are you, Darra HarRukora?”
“And how many people do you command?”
He leaned forward a little more. And didn’t wince.
“And how many of them would you accept an answer like that from?”
She was desperate to look away.
He didn’t let her.
“None,” she whispered.
Rixken leaned back. Thank you, Aihay.
“Lay it out for me,” he said. “Start with whichever one shames you less.”
“It’s very personal, your Majesty.”
He tilted one ear to the side in annoyance.
Rixken waited for several more long breaths.
Krisga’s shoulders slumped and her face fell.
“Daneth is…” She stopped. “We are… we are passionate about each other.”
Her blush deepened.
“We have done… nothing immoral, your Majesty.”
If her blush could have lit her face on fire, it would have.
Rixken sank into his chair, remembering a worse mistake from his youth that he had mishandled. He had repented long ago, but he still wasn’t in a position to condemn anyone without compassion. However, there were some things he had learned, from the long lectures of others if not from experience, that could help.
“You are a free woman, correct? You have no family constraining your choices?”
“So, you are free to marry Daneth if you choose to?”
She bit her own lip.
“Tell me why you haven’t.”
Her teeth pressed deeper. If she didn’t stop she would draw blood.
This was like taking a fortress. Wall upon wall to break through, with the prospect of unknown dangers lurking behind each one.
“Do you find him a poor candidate for a husband?”
“Is he unwilling?”
The blush made a resurgence, along with another headshake.
What was it?
“I will not tell Daneth your reasons.”
She stopped biting her lip and took a deep breath.
Here it came.
“I… my brother died. There is no one to carry on my father’s name. If I marry… if…”
It all fell together in an instant, and Rixken understood. A family name was no small thing. A noble family name was even less a small thing. Especially one that had endured for many centuries.
“I don’t know much about the HarRukoras. I should have asked before. I’m sorry. Where were your ancestral lands?”
“Emprin, your majesty.”
Rixken caught his breath. That explained even more.
That explained volumes.
For a moment he considered that he had just affirmed the Warsisters as the government of Emprin. Could he go back on that? No. It was done, and he couldn’t go back on that now. It was the Emperor’s prerogative to uproot a noble family and give its province to whoever he chose, but he wished he had known before he made the decision.
“I apologize. I didn’t know. I had assumed Emprin’s noble line was no more.”
Krisga shook her head.
“You made the right decision, your Majesty. The Warsisters have not abused the land. Even if you could have, putting me in charge of the province would not have protected its people. That… is the job of a Rakash Darr.”
“Not many of them look at it that way.”
“My family has never forgotten.”
He did. This was a family with honor. A very old honor. For its last daughter to hold the choice to end that in her hands…
But it was not a choice.
Rixken bowed his head and prayed for a long moment, putting the truth of the matter before Aihay. An old tradition occurred to him, but it balanced against the duties of a wife, the importance that Daneth’s own family name might have, and the sacrifices that any person had to be willing to make when founding a marriage. Until he knew that those fundamentals were considered… how to do that?
He looked up.
“Krisga, I have three questions for you that I expect you to answer.”
He waited until she nodded that she was ready.
“First, if continuing your family’s name was not a consideration, would you marry Daneth?”
She shivered. Her silence continued for a long minute.
Rixken nodded. Good.
“Second, since it is a consideration, can you stop loving Daneth?”
She tried to say no. He saw her start to mouth the word. Then stop.
Without warning she burst into tears. It was not a drizzle. Rixken forgot his third question as the owner of his mercenary company bawled in front of him with giant, racking sobs that bounced off the bare metal of the mobile hospital until his ears hurt from them. As he was attached to the wall by a catheter and several wires, the only thing he could do was wait until she was done.
A half hour later her sobs turned to sniffles, then stopped. She looked up at him red eyed.
“How do I end my family, Preparer?”
He thought of several smart things to say. But there was nothing he could think of that would make the end of the name HarRukora any less terrible.
Yet, there was another way to look at it.
“Tell me this. Is the name KarLagren worth investing in?”
Krisga’s eyes went wide.
After a moment, she smiled.
“Then take what’s left of HarRukora, and invest it.”
“But we’re in the middle…”
“Make the decision with him and settle the issue. You two can have the wedding after we survive all this.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Rixken sighed. One issue down. Did he have the strength for the other?
If not, he would have to find it.
“Now, tell me about the other issue.”
When Krisga finally left, Rixken had no idea what he was going to do. Only that what the Kerchaxes had done was something that could not be ignored. He would have to investigate. He would have to find out.
And some way, somehow, he would have to deal with it.
For their own sakes if no others’.
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.