Why couldn’t he have just let it lie until later?
Until I had a chance to put things back together?
Was it because I failed?
Light flashed on platinum and sparkled in sapphire as Dan rolled his father’s ring in his hand and ran his mind in circles. He was sitting in his tent, on his knees at his reading desk, a section of the Teachings forgotten in front of him. He had tried to focus on them, but all they seemed to do was accuse him, and so his mind had returned to his problems again. When the Preparer had gone down at the raider base, he had felt like the world was ending. Now, with the Preparer finding out about the town the Kerchaxes had helped destroy and starting an investigation, he felt like the world had turned on him.
He had thought, on that morning in Clisto, with the sword sparkling in front of him, that he had found a road home, a way back from the nightmare of the day before. Perhaps a way back from several years of nightmare, of the company shrinking as each battle took a small piece they couldn’t afford to replace, and of the work turning darker as their dwindling size cut them out of most normal security contracts. He had taken that road, put all he had into it…
And come up short.
It was a familiar feeling, but somehow it always caught him by surprise when it happened.
How had he thought he could make three thousand deaths go away?
How had he thought he could escape from that?
That any of them could?
Three days of investigations. Questions, reports, evidence. It would have been insane–perhaps it was–but once their agents had made it onto the Vorendrayg the main force didn’t have much to do until the ship reached Mirik Bay, besides rest, heal, and repair. None of those was much interrupted by an investigation. Well, rest was, but the other two went on alright.
And, it wasn’t as if the Preparer had needed to ask that many questions. Kris had told him everything on that first day. Dan had delivered the same story, as far as he could tell, and all the evidence that had turned up supported that story. No one had tried to hide the truth, on Dan’s orders, and so it had come out. Awful as it was. The only thing left, now, was to see if it would damn them.
Someone scratched at the entrance of his tent.
Dan closed his hand on the ring, then dropped it into the breast pocket of his undershirt.
Koo parted the flaps and walked in.
“You should have lied,” Koo said. “We would have covered for you.”
Dan got up and looked up at the blond snowlander to see if he had his little half-smile, the one that was always there when he was joking. Most people who weren’t familiar with snowlanders had trouble reading them. Not only did the epicanthal folds of their eyes make their expressions a little different than what most Okendans were used to, but their mainland culture avoided expression of emotions to an extreme degree.
Or so Koo had told him. All Dan really knew was that Koo had been entirely unreadable when Dan met him ten years before, and had loosened up since. He was certain it wasn’t only that his skill in reading the man had grown.
The half-smile was there, a flicker, but it didn’t seem real.
“Kris never would have, and she was the one he asked.” She could avoid conversations, redirect, stall, distract, obfuscate, and straight run away, but lying to a person’s face was an ability she did not have.
“We should have figured out what we would say before he asked.”
Dan thought about that.
Shook his head.
“Kris still would have told him if he asked. I think I would have too. Dammit, Koo, we’ve all been moping around for weeks. There’s no way to hide something like this. Not here.”
“So we just have to let this ArdAnkadia destroy us?”
“I don’t think he will.” Dan heard the doubt in his own voice. He touched his breast pocket. “You aren’t Okendan, Koo. He has the right to ask, and we have to answer.”
“We saved him.”
“That doesn’t bring those people back to life.”
Koo crossed his arms.
“It could wait.”
“It does seem suicidal,” Dan said.
Koo smiled for real this time.
“Are you sure you don’t want to disappear before this?”
“Where would I disappear to?”
Koo looked past him, then nodded.
“I don’t even know what he’s going to rule,” Dan said. “Jagan looked into all the laws, and everything we did is backed. Soldiers, even mercenaries, aren’t liable for command decisions they didn’t know about. He may come up with all kinds of things that we shouldn’t have done, but I’m pretty sure my head is safe.”
The flap parted and Kris walked in, glowing in her dress whites and with her hair braided, though without the kerchax feathers this time.
“Out,” she said to Koo.
Koo bowed, then looked at Dan one more time.
“If you change your mind after you find out your fate…”
Kris pulled the flap to the side and flicked an ear at the exit.
Kris let the flap fall and looked at Dan. He tried to figure out what was happening in that look, somewhere between a glare and suppressed affection. Something had changed between them, again, after she talked to the Preparer, but he didn’t know what. Only that she had stopped avoiding him, yet still wasn’t talking about the night of the party. Perhaps, after they knew what the Preparer’s ruling was, she would tell him where they stood.
“You aren’t dressed,” she said.
“I have twenty minutes left.”
“I have my pants on.”
She went to his duffel and searched through it. A moment later she pulled out his white dress coat and threw it at him.
Dan pulled it on and buttoned the double-breast all the way up.
Kris approached with his decorative breastplate and pauldrons and dropped the set down over his head. Her hands touched his sides as she fitted and tightened the buckles. He reached for one of those hands.
She swatted his fingers away.
She started tightening the buckles again.
“We’ve been over everything, and we’ll have his answer soon. There’s nothing else we can do. Worry…”
“…only makes you older?”
Kris stopped. Those words belonged to her father. One of his favorite phrases when trouble weighed heavy.
This time he succeeded in catching her hand.
She looked up at him without raising her head.
He had brought her to this. The Old Man had left him in charge and told him to keep Kris safe, and in this Dan had utterly failed at both responsibilities. He had thought he was leading right when he protected Rixken, but then he had failed at that responsibility too. And from that, they were here, facing judgement.
“This had to come, Dan.”
She flipped her hand palm to palm in his grip and squeezed.
Dan’s chest ached with a pain that moved up into his throat and tightened until he couldn’t breathe. He hadn’t just failed in his responsibility to the Old Man, and the Kerchaxes, but to her.
“Fifty-fifty, Dan. It’s my company. I could have said no.”
Kai she was beautiful. He wanted to hold her, to find a way to fix what he’d done, everywhere he’d failed…
She let go of his hand and wrapped both arms around him. Buried her face against his high collar.
Dan returned the hug, and they stood together for long minutes.
Until their unicomms jangled and told them they had to go.
The sky was gray overhead.
The stone was gray underneath.
Gray buildings crumbled all around.
The Preparer stood at the center of it, bright in dress whites and and held steady by a black exoskeleton, waiting for them.
All around militia, mercenaries, warsisters and support staff watched, most in their own dress clothing–the Warsisters’ was crimson–but others, like the mechanics who had come straight from repairs, in their work clothes. No one was speaking. It was not a day for chatter.
Dan tried to lead, but Kris kept pace at his side.
The Preparer drew the sword as they approached and rested it point down on the stone. Even in all the grim gray, it shone silver and gold.
Dan was certain he saw the point sink a few millimeters into the stone.
He took his place ten paces from the Preparer, Kris still at his side. Then knelt. The worn granite made his knees hurt.
Dan looked at the Preparer. Saw the man’s eyes flick toward his right hand, then back to his face. The man drew in a breath.
“Darra Krisga Edgana HarRukora,” his voice rang out. “Tegar Daneth Selanag KarLagren. What you two have done is not in question. You have both admitted to it, and evidence and testimony from your own people, your records, and from the Warsister blackhairs confirms it. Many innocent are dead, and your actions aided in their deaths. Will you be bound by me in the matter of law?”
Was that a traditional question. Dan didn’t know. He almost glanced at Kris, but stopped himself. Traditional or not, there was only one way to answer.
“I do, your Majesty.”
Kris echoed him.
The Preparer nodded.
“Good. My legal ruling is simple: No law will pursue what you have done. You were soldiers in the employ of a warlord, in a war approved by the regency council and with legal grounding, on a mission against a legitimate military target, and you were unaware that your commander intended to commit a war crime subsequent to the success of your mission. While it is in my power to rule beyond the written law, traditionally this is only done when a legal act is ‘unremittingly abominable’, and I do not find your actions to be such.” The Preparer turned and looked at the crowd.
“Law is satisfied!”
Dan breathed a sigh of relief. Kris and the Kerchaxes were safe.
The Preparer pulled the sword up. The blade sang a little as it came free.
It had sunk into the stonetop.
“The law of men speaks to little. Honor and righteousness to far more. Though the laws of the Empire will not pursue you, you know that you have lead your people astray in both these things. This must be dealt with.”
The Preparer paused, waited.
Dan felt the shame wash over him and remain, heavy and dirty on his skin. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kris’ ears press out low.
The Preparer nodded.
“For righteousness, there is confession. Normally, this is a thing done in private, with a keva to hear and represent Aihay. But what you have done is public, and with it both of you have wounded everyone under your command. If you will be bound by me in the matter of righteousness, then you will give confession now, for all to hear.”
If they would be bound to pour out their souls in front of everyone? To shame themselves before the people whose absolute respect they needed to command?
But Dan saw. He had misled. Now he must lead right.
And even more, he remembered another man, holding out his hand with a ring in it.
“Darra Krisga HarRukora, what do you say?”
Dan saw Kris shudder.
“I listened to my chief commander instead of my conscience and Aihay, your Holiness,” she said. “I knew HarMakeg was not to be trusted, that my father would not have worked for him under any circumstances, but I still approved a contract. It was sin.”
The Preparer turned to Dan.
“And you, Tegar Daneth KarLagren?”
What had he done? Dan knew he had done wrong, but what should he say? What could he say?
Get to the root of the tree. That was one of the few things he remembered from his father.
What was the root? He had also known HarMakeg wasn’t to be trusted. Not only from reputation, but from several questionable military actions he had taken in the past that got whispered through the merc community.
Why? Why had he pushed Kris to take the contract?
Five whys. That was also his father. He never liked asking that many whys. But he would ask another here.
To make sure his men got paid. To keep the company alive.
Why keep the company alive?
Because everyone who mattered was in it. And because it had belonged to the Old Man.
Was that wrong?
I am Aihay. I, and I alone, am Kai. You shall worship no other beside me, you shall obey no other before me.
He had read that scripture the day before. It hadn’t stood out to him then, but he had remembered it now.
And now he knew what it meant.
“I worshipped this company, and my men, and was willing to do anything to keep them together. I trusted money, and not Kai. It was sin.”
The Preparer sighed.
“I agree. These are your sins, both of you, and as a consequence of these choices, your hands have touched the blood of the innocent. But there is mercy.” He raised the sword and held it high. “As Preparer, I have heard your confessions, and seen your repentance. By the awaited Name, by the given Sacrifice, I pronounce you clean from your parts in HarMakeg’s wickedness, and forgiven for your evil. Continue in the way you have chosen, and you will not face Aihay’s wrath.”
The Preparer turned and surveyed the crowd.
“Righteousness is satisfied!”
Just like that? Just like…
Just like the Old Man holding out his father’s ring, saying he’d bought it back.
The Preparer lowered the sword and took a step closer to them. Dan heard a faint whine from the exoskeleton holding him up and noticed that he moved his left foot with a limp, despite the medical aid.
“That just leaves honor,” the Preparer said, “which is more fickle than the other two. You are safe from the law and have Aihay’s mercy, but the witness you have given to your men may yet destroy them. I am limited in what I can do, but, if you will be bound by me in honor, I will do what I can. Will you submit?”
“Yes.” Krisga’s voice was harsh, choked with tears.
Submit in honor? What did that mean?
Was this, too, like the Old Man?
Dan looked at the Preparer, studied his face. Young. Not a child, or even a raw recruit, but younger than Dan. Not nearly as experienced. Could Dan truly be bound by this man in honor?
He was Okendan, and this was the Preparer. Was that enough?
But what he had already seen of this man was. When he saw the sword that day, he had seen a road out, and this man knew the way. He would be bound.
“Yes,” Dan said.
“Then you will swear fealty. Ottik! Administer the oaths!”
The Preparer’s white haired secretary came forward with a reader in his hands. He lead Krisga through the swearing first. When he came to Dan, he read out the oath first, then prompted Dan through it.
“I, Daneth Selanag KarLagren, swear to be your servant and to obey you, Rixken Reglenag ArdAnkadia, before all others, save Aihay, in all lawful, moral, and honorable matters. My arms shall answer your call, my tongue shall give you only truth, and all that I own will be yours to command at will. I swear this before Aihay, and may he bind me to it and keep me in it.”
The Preparer was silent. Dan was certain the man was watching him more than Kris.
At last he spoke.
“And I, as your liege, swear to provide for both of you all my days, giving you justice to the extent of my might, discipline as I should find it necessary, and rule with mercy, compassion, wisdom, and temperance, at all times. If any would seek to harm you, they harm me, if any would insult you, they insult me, and if any would bring case against you, they must first lay it at my feet.” He raised the sword again and pointed it over their heads. “No justice on this world will touch you but mine, and if justice demands your life, it will be my blade which claims it.”
Krisga bowed her head. Daneth saw it and bowed his as well.
Steps approached. Daneth looked up and saw the Preparer looking down at them from a few paces away. He met the man’s gaze.
“You are my subjects now,” the Preparer said, “and I take responsibility for you and your names as long as you live in this world, Krisga HarRukora, Daneth KarLagren. I will neither abandon, nor forsake, either of you.”
Those words pierced Dan’s soul and struck a spark off a hardness he hadn’t even known was there. This man, this man here, would be the one to make ruling over Dan’s life from now on. And… that made Dan glad. As glad as when the Old Man had taken him in.
He tried to hold it back, but felt moisture welling up in his eyes.
The Preparer smiled. Then wiped all expression from his face.
“And now, as both of you are mine, I find discipline necessary.”
Two steps brought the man to just in front of Kris. Dan saw him wince as he moved, but the man didn’t hesitate.
“Krisga HarRukora, you are a great-granddaughter of Rakash Darr Tyren HarRukora, who put aside all personal concerns to keep the Southeastern provinces from dissolving into chaos after the storms. You knew better.”
Kris’ ears pressed low in shame again, and tears welled up in her eyes.
The Preparer transferred the sword to his left hand and rested it point down. Drew his right arm back, palm open.
The sound of the slap split the air, echoing back from the buildings running along the street a moment later. Kris rocked to the side, a handprint quickly appearing on her face. Dan stared, wondered if he should do something. No. Discipline. He knew what this was.
Two more steps brought the Preparer to Dan.
Dan looked up at him and waited.
“Daneth KarLagren, you were instructed in honor and history and righteousness by Edgan HarBergan, who spent his life defending the borders of those aggressed, and whose war record is blameless. You knew better.”
The Preparer drew back his right arm, fist closed. Dan didn’t move.
The world went black.
When it came back, Dan found himself flat on the cold stonetop, the smell of old granite sharp and smoky in his nose. Dan looked up and spotted Rixken looking down at him. The lines on his face told Dan the punch had cost him as well.
“Get up. I’m not done with you, Dan.”
Dan found his hands, pushed himself upright, and went back to kneeling. He could feel the side of his face swelling up, but he ignored it. Whatever was coming from this man next, he would accept it.
Rixken raised the sword again. The point trembled. He covered his right hand with his left for support and the point steadied
“Daneth KarLagren, when my life was at danger, and my future uncertain, you made the decision to risk your own life on my behalf. You fought with matchless bravery against impossible odds, and have continued to do so without promise of reward. Therefore, by right as the bearer of this sword, and with all the assembled as witnesses, I give you the title of Darr of the Third Order, by exemption of meritorious service.”
The sword came down and touched Dan on the head, the right shoulder, and over his heart with the tip of the sword. Dan felt each tap, even as he tried to process the words he had heard.
“You are now Darr Daneth ArLagren, nobility of the Empire, however much that Empire obeys me. You will receive lands and duties as soon as I have them to give.” Rixken stepped back and looked at the crowd. “My honor is satisfied. If any others have issue with either of these two, they may bring it to me, for these are mine now.”
Rixken sheathed the sword. The click as the guard hit the mouth of the sheath brought Dan out of the confusion he had been in.
Darr? ArLagren? HIM?
He… he… he had…
People were talking, moving, raising a wave of noise that quickly rose over the whole are, but Dan didn’t care. He was still watching Rixken. The man approached him again, and in the semi-privacy the noise granted, said in a soft voice, “Put your father’s ring back on. You don’t get to choose whether or not you are his son.”
Dan clenched his gut. Heat and then cold washed his face.
Again. It really had been given back to him again.
He unbuttoned his collar and shoved a hand down under his breastplate, extracting the ring from the pocket of his undershirt. He looked at it for a moment, bright and shining, then slide it back on. It felt right.
“Good,” Rixken said. “Now get up and fight for me.”
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.