Nekel rose early, and after dressing in silence, went out to the courtyard behind the house. It was still dark, and rather cold, though not nearly as cold as he was used to in his northern home. He performed his daily rituals, and practiced his martial arts for an hour with one of his companions. As the sun rose, he went back into the house to bathe and prepare for the day. He laid out his clean clothes for the day: a black shirt, black loose trousers, and a stiff black waistcoat. He saw the jacket that hung in the closet, and knew that it must have been intended to go with the waistcoat, but decided to leave it behind for the day. Nekel wanted to see the fabled city, and it would be somewhat easier not to be noticed if his clothing was more casual. After a short cold bath, he dressed, and noted again the discomfort of the metal in the wasitcaots. How do the Kedonese stand it, he wondered. Perhaps it was something one got accustomed to. After dropping a few coins into the purse he wore on his belt, Nekel set out into the city. The sun was fully up, and the streets were already crowded. He had forgotten how quickly Kedon grew how in the morning, and wiped a trickle of sweat from his brow. He wove through the crowded streets, ignoring vendors who accosted him with the virtues of their wares. The streets were as narrow as he remembered, though the architecture had changed much over the intervening millenia. Nekel thought the roads must be original, however; they were worn but solid, and they seemed well-maintained. He paused by a small corner booth, and beckoned to the shopkeeper. "I have heard that the great temple of Ancient Perzelsis can still be seen. Is this true?" The shopkeeper nodded, smiling broadly. "Oh yes, indeed! It is one of our great historical buildings. If you follow this street, and take a right at the end of it, you will soon find the temple. There is a marvelous library right across the street from it, and I believe they have a great deal of literature about the temple, if you need it. The librarians are quite knowledgeable about the history of our great city. If you don't wish to walk, I would be happy to summon a mechanical carriage for you!" Nekel shook his head, remembering the lurching smoking monstrosity from the day before. "No, thank you, I do not mind walking. Thank you again for the directions." He continued down the street, and as he turned the corner, he saw the temple. It was still magnificent, enough to take one's breath away, but as he got closer, he could see that while some of the original building had been maintained, much of it had been reconstructed. He called up the memories of Veren, traveling monk of the ----th millenium, and looked at the temple in his day. Yes, the dome had collapsed at some point, and been rebuilt; the builders had made some attept at accuracy, it appeared, but their own aesthetic had crept in along the way. He suspected that the stone structure had been reinforced with metal as well. It would be at lewast another fifty thousand years before these people would learn to project themselves backward into time, fifty thousand years before they would learn about true historical accuracy. Nekel entered the temple, and found himself standing in a large room; it bore many smilarities to the temple he had seen on Veren's journey, but much still was changed. He could see the bright casing of th machinery that adjust the great mirror in the dome, an an attendant stood by to assist visitors with the operation of the mechanism. When he and the other monks had stopped by on their way to the village of Kemal the temple had been full of worshippers and priests, the air heavy with incense, and the subtle tingling of power, for those who knew how to sense it. Now it was quiet and dim, the few tourists present speaking in hushed voices as they examined the legendary architecture, the great mirror, and the dias where the priests had performed their rituals. He felt a momentary sense of loss; he had despised the religion of the Kedonese; it was nbarbaric, earth-bound, primitive. But the temple was a grand thing, meant for more than the casual inspecting eye of visitors who had no belief in anything but their own place and time. He gave thanks inwardly for his own beliefs; the Temaltans had held their ideas for over two hundred thousands years; changes had come and gone, civilizations had risen and fallen, and in this time he occupied, the Temaltans had been beaten back; but soon Kedon would fall under the weight of its own hubris, and the warrior monks would rise again. He smiled at the thought, and left the cool of the temple for the library across the dusty street. _____________________________________ A pleasant chime sounded in the suite, and Gehne went quickly to the door. A servant stood there with a metal trolley; he bowed sharply, pushed the trolley into the room, saying "Here is your breakfast, ma'am! Oh, and this letter was delevered as well." He handed her a thick cream-colored piece of paper, and exited swiftly, closing the door behind him. Suka walked sleepily into the sitting room, wrapped in a thin silky robe. "Good morning, Gehne. "Is that nbreakfast?" She pressed a small button and one side of the cover of the trolley slipped back, the metal plates sliding under each other until it lay folded like a dragon's wing at the side of the cart. Steam rose swiftly into the air into a cloud, and Suka looked over the repast. There was a bowl of hot roasted gidics, and roasted fish, along with a loaf of freshly baked bread, and a small jar of seasoned oil. She pressed the button to uncover the other side of the trolley, and condesation rolled off the metal as th plates slipped back. There was a bowl of sliced fruit, and a bowl of chilled gidics under an insulated lid; cold boiled eggs were in another bowl, and a selection of juices were arrayed in clear glass carafes. "This looks lovely," exclaimed Suka, pulling a plate out from the tray that hung below the trolley. "Did you order this in for us Gehne?" The older woman caught Suka's hand by the wrist, and took the plate away. "No, I didn't, and let's make sure it's not a mistake before we eat anything, and they make us pay for it. This letter came with the cart; it's addressed to you." She handed over the thick parchment; Suka unfolded the letter, and read:
Dear Miss Loedi;
Allow me to once again beg your pardon for disturbing you in the parlor; in the future I shall be more careful, I assure you! However, that happy accident did allow me to make your acquaintance, for which I am grateful. It would do me a very great honor if you and any of your friends would join me at my table for lunch. The maitre'd knows me, and will be happy to escort you to the correct table.
P.S. Please do enjoy the breakfast; lunch is served rather late on this fine ship, and it would do to have you faint from hunger before the meal!
The name was a wild scrawl beneath the wax impress of a house seal; Suka examined it, but did not recognize the heraldry.
As soon as Suka's eyes left the page, Gehne snatched it, and quickly scanned the letter. "Tihs is the man you met in the parlor? The one who escorted you home?" Suka nodded, quicking filling a small plate with the food. "Have you ever heard of him, Suka?" The young woman looked up for a moment, and shook her head. "No I don't think so. Why? Whould I have?" "He's an airship captain, something of a daredevil, I believe. I know that I have seen his name in the newsppaers. He often enters airship races, and he once dropped a Shadka wreath on the top smokestack of the Amalgamated Kedonti factory. The wreath was shirveled within moments, of course, but that wasn't the point. Suka, be careful with this man. He is a part of society, but he is not predictable, he is not nobility, and he is not safe." Suka's heart sank, and she lowered herself into one of the cushioned chairs. "I take it, then, that I am not to join him for lunch today?" A smile twitched at the edges of Gehne's mouth, and she handed the letter back. "No, I think you can go; it would be rude to reject the invitation after he has sent us such a fine meal. But please, take Kedi with you. I would fele better if it was a full luncheon party, and not just the two of you." __________________________________________
A whooshing sound swept through Kedi's suite, followed by a faint chime. Her mother stepped lightly over to the message tube, and pulled out a thin canister. She twisted the top open, and looked at the scroll of paper. "Here, Kedi, it's for you. It has the Loedi seal on it, and I imagine it’s from Suka.” The elegant woman handed her daughter the roll of paper; Kedi took it and broke the seal, unrolling it quickly. “She says that she received an invitation for lunch, and that she would like me to join her. I’m to meet her at the top of the grand staircase at two o’clock.” Her mother took the parchment and examined it. “Well, that’s nice! I wonder who she received the invitation from? You’ll have to tell me all about it when you get back. It’s ten o’clock now, let’s see, what dress will you want to wear?”
“Suka, please stop staring out of the window. It’s rude, and unbecoming.” The young woman turned away from the window, and let the drapes fall back into place. “Do we have to keep the drapes closed, Gehne? It makes it so dreary in here.” She sat in a chair by a bookshelf, and picked up one of the much-thumbed volumes. “I wish you would let me stay out in the sunlight more, you know how much I enjoy it.” “Yes,” the older woman replied, smiling wryly, “and I know how quickly it ruins your complexion. Your mother would never forgive me if you appeared at a ball or a dinner with freckles or Suld forbid a sunburn. You wouldn’t want to do that to your old friend would you?: Suka smiled, and put the book down. “Don’t play that faithful-oldd-nurse bit on me, Gehne, you know I won’t fall for it. But you’re right, I wouldn’t want to draw any ire down upon you, so I will keep my face out of the sun when I can. But thank you for letting me go up on the deck this morning, the wind and air felt so wonderful!” Gehne went back to reading the book that she had put down when the younger woman had opened the curtains, and Suka stood again, wandering around the suite. She glanced over at the woman on the couch, and discerning that she was not watching too closely, Suka slipped out of her shoes, and dug her toes into the thick pile of the carpet. She picked up the book she had left on the table and carefully put it back into its place on the shelf. “Do you think my father will be back when we return?” she asked casually. Gehne did not look up, but shrugged non-comitally. “Who can say? His trips are never by any set pattern, you know that. Please stop pacing, it’s making me nervous. You’ve been edgy ever since we set out the second time, what’s wrong?” Suka ran her hands nervously over her hair; Gehne had pinned it up in two small buns at the back of her head, each bun enclosed in a small bronze interlace. “I don’t know. I thought I saw a man looking at me, and his eyes gave me the chills. I’ve never seen green eyes before, I didn’t know that you could have eyes that color. As soon as he turned toward me, I looked away, and I don’t think he noticed, but something about him…” She shuddered, her own intense pjurple eyes closing for a moment. “I havent’ seen him on board since then, so I think he was with the Temaltans, which would explain the eyes, I suppose. If it’s a color native to them, it wouldn’t have spread to the other lands.” “For the last time, child, please sit down, or go into one of the parlours! It makes me edgy just to watch you. Why don’t you try on some of the new dresses your mother got you? She was so happy to find them in time for this trip, it would make her so happy to know that you wore them on board the ship. She’ll be even happier if you come home with a young man with an eye for a wife, but that may be asking a little too much even of those gowns.” Suka laughed in spite of her misgivings, and went over to the large closet. The press of a small lever caused the doors to retract, and she examined the row of dresses. There were many in the fashionable warm tones; reds, yellows, russets, rusts, but here and there a cool color peeper out. Suka pulled out a dove-gray dress, and held it against herself. “I like this one, Gehne, do you think it will be alright for dinner?” Gehne squinted slightly. “Let me see it over here, the light is better.” The young woman move dot the center of the suite, and twirled, holding the dress to her shoulders. “There, does that give you a better idea fo it?” “Well, it’s not the normal color that a girl of your age would be wearing, but I will admit, it does a great justice to your eyes and complexion. Yes, I think it will be fine. You’ll catch the eye of everyone in the room, I’m sure.” She set down her book, and stood. “And if you’re going to get there in time, I’d best help you get changed.” “Oh, come now, Gehne, I can dress myself as well as anyone.” Suka pulled away, and walked towards her own room.” The nurse followed her obstinately. “That may be true enough, but I can dress you more quickly than you can dress yourself. You’ve only an hour or so, and you had best take a bath as well.” Suka opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it. “Very well, then. If you will hand me a clean shift, I will call you when I am ready to put the dress on.” Gehne already had the item in her hand, and passed it to Suka who closed the bathing room door, and turned on the faucet. As the steam swirled around her, making her bangs lay flat on her forehead, she carefully removed the metal spheres that held her hair in place, setting them carefully on a small shelf. She reached a hand up behind her, feeling for the small latch in the metal corset. She flipped the latch over, and gasped as the metal bonds loosened, sliding a few inches out from tnhe central support. She pulled the contraption off, and took a deep breath before removing her dress and worn shift and slipping into the water. A half hour later, she stood in the center of the suite still steaming slightly in a clean shift. “Raise your arms, dear, “ Gehne mumbled, tossing the dress over Suka’s head. She gave it a practiced pull downwards, and the dress slid into place, fitting to the younger woman’s curves. Picking up the truncated corset from where it sat on the floor, the nurse slipped it around Suka’s torso. “Hold that in place, dear, yes, that’s good.” She moved around Suka, checking that the fabric was laying flat and not folding oddly anywhere. When she was satisfied, she flipped the latch on the back of the corset, and heard the young woman’s breath catch as the bands of metal slid inwards, pulling her ribs and torso into the proper shape. “There we are! Now, just to do your hair and face, and you will be ready.” Suka took a seat on a stool at Gehne’s feet as the woman combed her hair with a bone comb until it shone and lay flat against her skull. Suka could feel Gehne’s fingers flying as she braided the dark hair, and wound it in coils against her skull, pinning it with long silver skewers. “Now, turn and face me, and I will make sure that they all notice your complexion.” Gehne dusted the smooth young face with powder, and smoothed the faintest hint of blush into the cheeks. “There, now you will glow like Lotha herself, and all the other young ladies in the room will go green with envy when the men take no notice of them.” Suka stood carefully, making sure not to tread on the hem of her dress. “Really, Gehne, you’d think I had nothing more on my mind apart from a good marriage! I will have you know that I also think often of dancing!” The nurse laughed, and touched a button by the door. A few moments, a knock came on the door, and Gehne opened it. A young man stood there, dressed plainly but impeccably. “Yes madame, is the lady ready to go to the dining hall?” Gehne nodded sedately, and stood back as Suka came to the door. She noted with a great deal of pleasure how a faint flush came ot the young man’s face as he saw the beauty of her charge, and gave her his arm to escort her. The two made their way down the grand stairway and made their way to a table. Several other young women sat there, and an equal number of young men sat at an adjacent table. Suka’s escort held her chair for her as she sat at the table, then bowed and took his leave. “Suka, I adore your dress,” one of the girls said breathlessly. “Where did you buy it?” “My mother got it for me, so I am not sure, but I believe she got it from one of the traders who came through. He said it had come from a craftsman in one of the other cities.” Suka spoke in quiet measured tones as she perused the menu that lay on the table. “I believe that I will have the sautéed eel, I hear that the chef aboard is a master of cooking them.” Another young woman approached the table on the arm of an escort, and sat quietly. Suka looked up and smiled. “Well, Kedi, it is good to see you! I had heard that you would not be able to come on this little trip!” The other girl smiled; her skin was as pale as Suka’s, but her hair was the color of wheat, and her eyes were a bright blue. Her grandfather, brought over to Kedon as an Ersan servant had begun a small business, and grown it into a large industry; when he died, his son inherited a fortune, and made his way into the higher levels of society. Many looked down on the family, scoffing at the notion of an Ersan nobleman, but Suka had always gotten along well with Kedi; she was a gentle soul, and Suka had found that she had a will of iron when necessary. “Yes, I was not feeling well earlier in the week, and the doctor thought that I might not be well enough to spend extended time at sea. But I improved quite a bit, and so was able to come. The doctor now claims that the sra air will be just what I need to recover completely; I think sometimes that he does not know hwat ghe is talking about, but that he simply likes to listen to himself speak.” A ripple of laughter went around the table, and one of the young men glanced over at the young ladies. Several of the girls blushed, and looked down at their menus, Kedi among them. The musicians took their place at the front of the room, and began to play quietly; the songs were simple and easy to listen to, and the mood in the room was light and easy. While the meals were being served and eaten, the conversation ranged from the weather to the voyage to the latest fashions in Perzelsis, and back to the weather again. “I hope it rains soon,” Kedi said as she calmly buttered a slice of bread. “The farmers need it, and the prices of food will soon go up if the crops suffer.” “I hope not! I am giving a party in two months, and I don’t want to spend too much for the food,” one of the other girls laughed. “Yes, you’ll be needing a new pair of shoes, and with the way you buy them, that will consume most of the money set aside for the party!” came a retort from the other side of the table, and the girls all smiled. Suka let her mind wander, chatting away without paying too much attention to anything she was saying. Her eyes continually drifted to the glass dome above the,. The glass was already beginning to glow golden with the evening light, and soon it would be dark. She had yet ot be able to persuade Gehne to allow her to come down into the dining room when the moons were visible through the dome When the dinner had ended, the group slowly dispersed. Many of the young ladies stayed for dancing, but Suka had no interest in dancing that night. As she traversed the staircase, she saw her escort waiting for her in the hallway. "Good evening, my lady. Allow me to escort you back to your rooms." Suka shook her head, and said, "No, I am not going back to my room. Please take me to one of the parlors, preferably an empty one." "But miss, it would been improper for you to be seen sitting alone in the parlor. Perhaps we can find one with some of the other young ladies..." "No, please, just take me to a parlor. I do not care if anyone sees me sitting alone, provided that they do not try to rememdy the situation. Here, this one will do fine. I can take myself to my room when I decide to retire. Thank you." "Very well, madame, but I wish you would reconsider. Let me get the lights for you." He moved toward the switch on the wall, but Suka shooed him away. "No, I like the dark, and the moon will give more than enough light. I just want to look up at the stars for a little while, then I promise you, I will go to my quarters like a proper lady." The escort left her reluctantly, and she sat in one of the chairs that lay below the skylight. The chairs were wooden, and made in flowing graceful lines; the moonlit shone off the metal, making even the bright color look cold. She settled into the chair, letting the train of her dress hang odwn onto the floor. Her mother did not approve of such lounging chairs, claiming that they ruined her posture, but Suka relished the chance to lie back without worrying about her straight her shoulders were. She let her eyes drift up to the skylight, the metal bars sihouetted against the starlit heavens. The edge of Lotha was just coming into view, and a few clouds drifted lazily between the sea and the stars. A lone airship made its way across the sky, visible only where its large gas-filled bulk blocked out the light of the stars. She watched the ungainly vessel float on the wind until it passed out of sight, then turned her eyes to the waves. The ocean looked black, much darker than the sky. Suka marveled that something so blue and beautiful by day could be look so threatening at night. She heard a quiet sound behind her, and turned around. A man stood in the doorway, leaning casually against the doorframe. He wore blue trousers that presumably had been nicely pressed earlier in the evneing, though they had now lost most of their crispness, and a white shirt with no waistcoat. On a closer inspection, she noticed that his waistcoat was gripped in his hand, and looked a bit worse for wear--she could see that a few of the metal rods were beginning to detach from the stiff fabric. He held a cigarette, and slowly exhaled a stream of smoke into the dark room. "Oh, I beg your pardon, lady, I did not know this room was occupied, since the lights were off." He hasitly extinguished his cigarette, and slipped on the waistcoat, though he neglected to button it. Suka stood up gracefully. "Please, don't let me disturb you. I was just sitting here to watch the stars. I suppose I really shouldn't be sitting here by myself in the dark. I was just about to walk back to my room; feel free to sit down." He bowed rather awkwardly, and stepped back from the door. "I didn't mean that you should leave. I will be happy to find another parlour, I'm sure there must be one available at this time of night. Most people are either in their rooms, or still dancing in the hall. I must confess, neither one held much attraction for me tonight. Like you, I enjoy watchking the stars go by. But please, sit back down, I will find another spot to sit." He turned to go, but Suka slipped through the doorway, and spoke quietly. "no, I really am leaving. My companion will become nervous if I do not come back soon, and she will probably faint when I come bakc without my escort as it is." The man laughed, and held out an arm. "Well, if you came back with an escort, even if he's not the same one you left with, perhaps it will not be noticed!" As they walked along the empty corridor, chatting pleasantly, Suka tried to place his accent. It did not sound like anything she knew on Kedon, nor did he have the tones of the Astaldak. He looked something like the priest, but his manner seemed much more relaxed. They arrived at the door of her stateroom, and she turned to face the intriguing stranger. "Thank you, sir, for escorting me! I hope we may meet again during the trip! I am Suka Loedi, daughter of Mukti Loedi." She bowed gracefully, and he returned the gesture. “It is a very great honor to meet you, Suka Loedi. I am Mariok Resul, captain of the fine ship Julani. I would consider it a great privilege to meet you again during the voyage.” He smiled, and as she entered her quarters, continued down the hallway. “Suka! Where have you been? I thought you would be coming back soon, did you stay out dancing with the other girls?” Gehne stood, setting aside her book as her charge entered the suite. Suka laughed, and shook her head. “No, I simply stopped in a parlour to look at the moons and stars. I know, it’s not proper to sit out by myself, but I just needed some quiet after the din of the great hall. You know how it plays on my nerves. The parlor was nice and quiet, and the sky was beautiful.” Gehne snorted indelicately, and accompanied Suka to her dressing room. “Stand still, let’s get you out of this corset, before it wrinkles your dress more.” Her practiced fingers snapped the latch open, and the metal bands slipped wide. Suka took a deep breath, and stretched, feeling the familiar ache of her ribs where the metal had bound them tightly. “And I suppose you walked all the way back by yourself, too? No, Suka, let me speak a moment. You know that I care less for the rules of society than your mother does, but there is still a measure of propriety to assume. Young ladies of good families simply cannot go clambering all over a liner at night by themselves! It doesn’t matter if anyone saw you or not, but you’ve got to learn that there is a time and place for everything.” “That’s not what I was going to say, Gehne. I didn’t come back alone; I met a fine gentleman, and he was kind enough to escort me home.” She lifted her arms over her head as the nurse pulled the grey dress off over her head. She felt light and free in the simple unbleached shift; the dress was beautiful, but rather heavy, and the corset added another ten pounds, along with its constriction. She sat on a low stool at her nurse’s feet, and Gehne combed her hair. Suka closed her eyes and let her spine relax; the comb moved smoothly through her hair, the teeth gently raking across her scalp. After all the tangles were smoothed out, Gehne picked up a thick-brisled comb and ran it over Suka’s hair, until it shone like the moonlit waves. “There. Now let’s just put this up in a braid, and you need to go to bed. It’s been a long day, and you need your sleep.” As she settled into the soft cushions of the bed, Suka’s mind drifted back to the quiet parlor. The moon had been so beautiful as it shone into the room, falling pale upon the carpet and chairs. The stars…she sighed as she drifted into sleep…the stars seemed so friendly…
The stars wheeled above in the huge dome of the sky. Nothing obstructed the view, and the horizon was empty all around. She could feel herself drifting, bobbing gently up and down upon the waves. She could feel a slight warmth on the skin of her ankle, and looked over to see a young woman with pale skin and ginger hair, asleep in the arms of a dark young man; her hand fell upon Suka’s ankle. The surge of emotion she felt while seeing the other woman surprised her, and she turned away. The waves turned bright and froze in place, becoming sand dunes under a blazing noon sun. Suka caught a glimpse of green eyes in a pale face, and shuddered. She turned to run, but the other young woman was there again, smiling at her. She felt caught between the two, pulled in both directions at once. “I want you,” whispered the man with the green eyes. “I want everything you are. Just give yourself to me, and you’ll never have to die again.” “I want you,” said the ginger-haired woman. “I want you to learn to give yourself up, to give yourself away.” “She will let you die,” came the words from the green eyes. “You will die, yes, but you will move beyond death. He would keep you in death forever.” Suka was confused, mind whirling. She turned her back on both, and saw a small child standing ankle-deep in the eddying sand. She had hair the color of burnished gold, and her eyes were wide and blue; the face was composed, but the eyes belied a deep grief. “What is it that you want me to do?” asked Suka. The child did not respond, but simply held out her hands. Suka reached out to pick up the child, longing to comfort her; the sand whirled between them, and Suka sank down into the ground, falling through the void, sand around her. Then the sand began to shine, each grain becoming a star in the sky as Suka soared through galaxies.
Suka woke reluctantly, trying to hold onto the sensation of flying for as long as possible. She reached out a hand to touch one of the sparkling points of light, but her fingers met only the smooth cool cloth of her bedsheets.
The inert body suddenly jerked, and the dark-haired man rolled over, coughing madly. The sailors gathered around him, and quickly pulled him to safety away from the splintered wood. “Sir Nekel! We thought you were lost! You were not breathing, and we could not find a heartbeat. The mast fell right through your quarters, and—“ He waved the man away, and sat down on a large metal chest. “I am fine, I think I just got the wind knocked out of me.” He concentrated on the crushed ribs that ground together, and felt them begin to knit. He felt a slight tickle by his eye, and brushed at it with his hand. His fingers came away red with blood, and he chuckled. “Head wounds always look worse than they are. See, I think the skin is already beginning to close up. Just a little cut. Please, go back to your positions, or we will be lost in the waves.” The sailors looked relieved, though the storm was unabated. Lightning still flashed, crashing down into the ocean with a great hiss of steam. The ship bucked at each crest, and shuddered as it crashed into the troughs. The thunder roared as if determined ot deafen all present, and each sailor believed in his heart that the ship would sink at any moment, and they all wondered at the ambassador’s calm. When the morning finally dawned cold and gray, the ship had been reduced to little more than the battered sides and keel. Even the ambassador had to marvel that it still floated, but it rod eon the waves like a fish. They spent two days in that condition, as thirst slowly overtook them in the heat of the days. By night they could see little save the flashes of phosphorescence as schools of fish swam below them. Finally on the third day, one of the sailors gave a hoarse shout, pointing off to the horizon. A low dim shape could be seen just above the water, but it was solid and did not shift, as a cloud would have. A few hours later, a loud blaring sound roared across the waves; as the occupants of the ship watched, a huge shape hove into view. It was larger than their ship had been, even when it was whole, and it gleamed a dull red in the sunlight. A thin coating of rust gave the body of the ship a rich patina, and the sharp prow cut the water into twin sheets as it advanced. Nekel had heard of the great Kedonese ships, but had never seen one in person. It rose high above the waves, and great bands of metal traversed its hull like ribs. The prow swept up in a graceful line, and at the top of the line stood a small group of people. They were well-dressed, and he assumed that they were passengers on the great liner. The ship slowed as it neared the derelict, and the sailors could feel the swell that passed under their keel as the behemoth came to a stop beside their vessel. A man leaned down from the railing on the great metal ship, and called out, “What in the name of Servak did you fellows do to your ship? Were you trying to catch the lighting from that blew through?” He laughed uproariously at his own joke as his men threw lines across to latch onto the remnants of the wooden vessel. At the end of each line was a small metal ball; as soon as the balls hit the deck, each one blossomed into a rigid flower, latching onto the wood with six panels of sharp teeth. The sailors jumped back in surprise, one of them swearing loudly. “Our new catching lines! Quite an improvement over the weighted ropes, don’t you think,” yelled the man, watching the sailor’s response. “Gives us a better hold on your ship, of course. I think you’d all be better off to board our vessel though. Yours might give you a rather bumpy ride since she’ll be right in our wake.” The side of the metal ship opened, and a large walkway descended; it halted a foot or so above the remaining deck of the wooden ship, and the sailors clambered aboard. “Alright men, let’s swing her around! We’ll lose a few hours on our trip, but we’ve got to get these brave men onto solid ground again!” The huge ship swung around slowly, metal groaning as it strove to combat the inertia and the mass of the water pressing in on its hull. The captain met the men at the foot of the gangplank and ushered them aboard. “Welcome, gentlemen, to the Perzelsis! She is the largest, fastest boat of her kind, and few who are not native to Kedon have ever set foot on her decks! May I take the liberty of asking where you are from?” Nekel bowed uneasily, find it difficult to stand straight on a deck that did not rock underneath him. “I am Nekel, of the Temaltan monks. I am traveling to Kedon as the first ambassador from our lands to yours.” The captain beamed with effusive goodwill, his swarthy face glowing like bronze. “Well, then, this ship is the finest escort you could hope for! I take it you have never been aboard a mechanical vessel? Well, that’s not too unusual, even the Ersans only have a few of them, and they chose to make their purely military ships. This beauty, on the other hand,” and he stamped on the deck beneath his feet, “is the finest in luxury that Kedonese technology can make. If you will follow me, I shall give you the grand tour of her!” As they passed through a set of swinging doors, Nekel noted that he had hardly ever seen so uch metal in one place. The buildings on Temala were predominantly made of wood or stone, and the ships were the traditional wooden boats with canvas sails. The walls of the corridor through which he found himself passing were a rich dark wood, bound and riveted with bands of a bright metal that shone in the light from the strange lamps that were hung on the walls. “What sort of lamps are these? They do not flicker like the ones we use,” commented one of the sailors. The captain nodded, and paused in his walk. “Yes, we have found that there is a certin kind of energy in the world, similar to lightning, that can be produced and used by ordinary men. We channel that energy through wires and a small glass bulb, and it produces this light. We use it almost everywhere, since the energy can be created. We can never run out, and we can create as much as we need.” He turned down a shorter hallway, and opened another set of doors. “Welcome to the Atrium, gentlemen! I daresay you have nothing like this in your wooden ships!” Nekel saw immediately that it was true. A wide stairway lead down two flights of stairs onto a floor as large as any building most of the men had seen. The richly carpeted floor was a wide sea of reds and yellows, and the walls were made of the same dark wood overlaid with the bright metal. At the top fo the walls, where he had expected to see a wooden ceiling, the metal bands arced away from the wood, and inter\lacced themselves to form a large web, overlaid with glass. The dome let the natural sunlight pour in, and the Atrium was as brightly lit as the deck had been. The floor was covered with tables laid with brightly colored linens and fine dishes, and at the center was a broad wooden dancing floor. Nekel could see the dias where the musicians would sit, and at the far end of the room, the entrance to the kitchens. The doors were made entirely of the shining metal, and seemed to have many separate panels. The caravan wound through the hall, the captain’s rich voice bouncing off the walls and ceiling. The sailors were completely captivated, Nekel noticed, and he himself was impressed despite his best efforts. On the far side of the hall, they entered into another corridor, this one somewhat plainer than the other, though still more opulent than any of the men were accustomed to. More lamps hung on the walls, casting their same steady yellow glow. Spacious rooms opened off the hallway, each lit by a skylight similar to that in the grand dining hall. “Our parlours are often frequented by our passengers; they are warm even on the chilliest days at sea, and provide a comfortable place to gather. At the end of the hallway was a large door, of the same wood and metal construction as the others, but it did not appear to have a knob or handle of any kind, save a gleaming lever in the center. The captain pushed the lever down with a click, and the panels of the door telescoped into the walls with a smooth mechanical whirr, and left the way clear to proceed. “I am afraid that I cannot offer you any of our first-class staterooms, as they are all booked. I can, however, fit you up quite comfortably in some of our second-class rooms. We should be underway no more than an hour. It would be less time, but it can sometimes take upwards of twenty minutes to dock. The ports are getting so crowded these days. “ As he spoke, he took a large key from his waistcoat pocket, and turned it in the lock. At the final click, the door split down the middle, releasing the key; each side of the door retreated into the wall, and the captain ushered Nekel into the room. “Please, gentleman, you will excuse me; I must see to it that the ambassador is settled. The porter is coming for you to escort you to your rooms—ah, yes, there he is now. Thank you and enjoy your stay aboard the Perzelsis!” Nekel stepped into the room, boots sinking into the deep rug on the floor. The captain’s effusive voice faded into the background as he moved over to the window; it rose from the floor to the ceiling, and had a solid web of metal on both sides. As he leaned closer, he could see strands of the metal even running through the glass. “Very well, then, ambassador, if the room is satisfactory, I will take my leave of you. If you will look behind that door there, you will find a bathing room. I dare say you might feel like taking a good soak after floating out in the open like that for two days.” As the door closed behind the captain, Nekel pushed the lever on the door to the bathroom. A solid-metal tub met his eyes; a gleaming spout arced from a mass of shining pipes set into the wall, and there were many small wheels and gears. He cranked the handle with the symbol for “hot” on it, and water streamed into the basin, steaming. As it poured, the wheels and gears spun, tossing little reflections across the walls. The Temaltan took a deep breath, and felt the steam fill his lungs and ease his breathing. He adjusted the other handle, making sure that the water would not scald him, then stripped off his tunic and trousers, and stepped gratefully into the hot water. Forty minutes later, he tied the cord around the dressing robe that he had discovered in a cabinet as the last of the grimy bathwater swirled down the drain. Walking back into the bedroom, he saw that a change of clothes had been laid out on the bed. They were a far cry from the fine clothes he knew he would be expected to wear as an ambassador, but they were much better than the battered tunic and trousers that had survived the days at sea. He pulled on the deep red trousers, and slipped a mustard yellow shirt over his head. The waistcoat matched the trousers and he buttoned it, noting the rather awkward fit; the man for whom it had been made must have been somewhat narrower in the ribs than he was. A long green coat was laid out on the bed, and he picked it up. Slender rods of metal were sewn into the vertical seams, and as he pulled the coat on, he could feel his back being forced into a more upright position by the metal. A loud metallic squeal sounded dimly outside, and he peered out the window. A large city was coming into view, the shining shapes of other ships passing by on their way to and from the docks. The buildings of the city rose blindingly into the sunlight, sparkling almost as brightly as the waters of the sea. Nekel left the room, and made his way out onto the uppermost deck, having inquired the way form a porter he met in the hall. There were many people milling about the deck, enjoying the breeze. He could hear one or two shrill complaints about the delay, but most of the passengers seemed to be in no particular hurry. He noticed one young woman in particular. She stood next to the railing, her skin pale against the rich crimson of her dress. The dress hung in a long straight line, but was held tight against her slim form by an elegant metal corset that fitted around her torso. As he looked around the deck, he could see that most of the women, especially those of what appeared the be the noble classes, wore such corsets; they almost looked like a flock of birds in cages, he thought to himself. The girl’s dark hair made him think of a raven; she moved somewhat languidly, and seemed to be lost in her own thoughts. “Sir Nekel?” He heard a voice behind him, and turned. One of the sailors approached him, dressed in clean clothes. “Sir, it is almost time to dock. The captain will wish as short a turn-around time as possible, so it might be well-advised to wait near the gangway.” Nekel nodded absently, and moved towards the steps that lead down to the lower decks; he tossed one last look over his shoulder. If only he could catch a glimpse of her eyes! The ship came to a halt several yards from the shore; one of the deck hands gave a loud unintelligible cry, and there was a muffled boom. Two strong cables shot out from the sides of the veseel, and latched onto the dock. With another cry, the deckhand threw a switch, and the cables began to be wound back on twin winches, pulling the boat into the dock very slowly. The gangway clanged down, and the Temaltan party came down onto the platform; a small crowd had assembeled, some of the unabashedly craning their necks to see one of the famous warrior monks. “I thought their order had died out years ago,” one well-dressed woman whispered to her husband. “Oh, not at all. They used to control most of the planet, but their power waned somewhat after their war with the Astaldi people. Most Ersadans now have never seen a Temaltan monk; this is the first time they have sent ambassadors out to the larger world in almost a millennia.” Nekel heard the whispers, but kept walking, wishing that he could have had clothes in less bright colors. He did not feel comfortable in such an outlandish getup, and wanted nothing more at that moment than to arrive safely at the ambassadorisal residence so that he could find some clothing more suitable. The Temaltan sailors surrounded him, and escorted him through the crowd to a waiting carriage. He did not see any deshas harnessed to the vehicle as he climbed in, but after he and his men were seated, a large belch of smoke erupted from a pipe at the front of the coach, and the wheels rumbled into action. With a jerk, it begamn moving; the driver who sat atop a small seat just behind the smoke stack wore a long coat, grimy from the smoke, and a pair of bright metal goggles. As the strange vehicle lurched along the streets, Nekel looked out of the windows at the city. While it had blazed brightly like a flame from the seaside, at ground level he could see the film of grime that the smoke of the factories had left. He had not seen the factories themselves, save for the brief glimpse of the massive buildings from the deck of the ship, but they were legendary. The Kedonese, once they had developed the physical sciences, had become enamored of technology, and built factories so large they were almost cities in themselves. They supplied technology, weaponry, and machinery to the rest of the planet. A hundreds years ago, they had begun building boats of metal; many of them sank to the ocean floor before they began to perfect the arts of ship building, overturned by waves or sunk by rocks on the shallow continental shelf surrounding the island nation. Now glass-bottomed vessels routinely sailed over the wrecks to give paying passengers a look at their history. Nekel’s musing were cut short by the forward lurch of the carriage as it came to a halt. He untangled himself from his traveling companions, and stepped down from the carriage. The building in front of him was small by comparison with others occupied by the Kedonese nobility, but it was as large as any of the buildings he had seen on Temalta, save only the novices’ sleeping quarters. The reddish stone rose three stories above the ground, accentuated by a pale marble that formed the corner columns of the building. A pattern of metal stars was emblazoned over the door, and as he entered the place, he saw the same pattern inset into the floor of the entryway. He smiled slightly at the irony, remembering bronze stars in a stone floor, and lifted his eyes to the hall that stood before him. The room rose all three stories, each of the other stories ending in a balcony that overlooked the entrance. Rows of columns supported the balconies, and at the far end of the hall stood a great glass window, facing north. “Greetings, sir, and welcome to Kedon. We are very happy to have you here.” A thin man with bronze skin stepped out from the left wing of the building, and bowed. He was dressed in the Kedonese fashion, in brightly colored shirt and trousers, with a stiffly buttoned waistcoat that accentuated his slim figure. His long black hair was pulled back in a metal band, and fell in a tail down his shoulders. “The architecture is a bit out of date, perhaps, but the building is still quite lovely. I believe it will be very good for greeting guests and lodging emissaries.” He bowed gracefully, despite the metal rods in his waistcoat that Nekel knew must be constricting. “I am Tirol, the steward. I have arranged for the rooms to be readied for you and your men. We can save the tour of the grounds for another day; I am sure you would like to rest after such an arduous voyage. Now, if you will just follow me.” He moved swiftly to the stairs that wound upwards on the left side of the hall, and began climbing. Nekel followed him, and the other men came behind, marveling at the height of the room. When they reached the top fo the staircase, they saw that the third balcony was in fact, a rather narrow façade; one could stand and look over the balcony, but there was not room for much else. Tirol opened a door in the back of the wall and lead the company into the living quarters. “I have been instructed that you are not accustomed to much grandeur or the usual accoutrements that we accord to nobility here, so the rooms have been left very simple, at least by our standards. If anything needs ot be added or removed, please let me know and I will ensure that it is done. Gentlemen, you may find your rooms off to the right, adjacent to the balcony. Sir, if you will follow me again.” He turned toward a door on the left, and pressed two levers into the door; Nekel could hear a slight whirring, then the door slid to the side, and they entered. “Now sir, to lock this door, you have only to press this lever here, on the inside. After that is done, the door can only be opened by this key.” Tirol held up a small key on a chain that hung around his neck. He delicately took off the chain, and handed it to Nekel with a small bow. “There are no copies of the key, for your privacy and safety, so please be assured of your privacy here. The bathing room is right through that door, and you will find a new set of clothes appropriate to your station and your tastes in that wardrobe over there. If you wish, I can show you more of the room, since you may be unfamiliar with some of our ways; however, if it will be more convenient for you, I shall retire and let you rest and accustom yourself to the room and the residence.” He stood straight and still, waiting to see what orders Nekel would make. “Thank you, Tirol, I am very tired. I would like nothing better than to sleep for a night and a day, but I will settle for just a night. I believe it is late afternoon now, so I will retire. Please wake me in the morning.” The steward bowed, and was gone swiftly, the door clicking closed behind him. Nekel pressed down the lever, and heard well-oiled machinery slide into place. With a nod of satisfaction, he undressed, and fell into the large bed. He was asleep almost as soon as he pulled the thin sheet over his head
Over the years, many other young men and women would find their way to the island and make their home there. The community grew, and eventually Tsuda was forced to draw up a rule of life for those who lived there. At first, she resisted being the leader of the community, insisting that the blessed Mede knew more and was more suitable to the role; Mede declined, claiming that her family needed her time, and she would not be able to give enough time to the order. So Tsuda became the head of the new movement, and took the name Sulan; she left the former name as she left the former life she had lead… And so Sulan bound a book of her remembered lives, and all that she had learned in her sixty years on the island among the Children of Suk, setting down the rule of the order, and the command to leave behind hatred and fear, learning to love. The book was richly decorated in her own hand, and the Children of Suk have preserved it intact ever since. They will not reveal where the book is kept, but when a novice is ready to commit completely to the service of Suk, it is said that they are shown the book. And so, having completed her life’s work, the Blessed Sulan lay down and her soul took flight. Some of the younger novices said that she had flown to the stars, but those who knew her best claimed that they did not see her soul in the sky, and that she had merely flown into the next life. They buried her on one of the central islands, and to this day, the exact location of her burial place is not known, for the order keeps it a secret, for fear that the Temalans should descrate her remains. But they erected a memorial to her on the first island; it was a large winged figure, reaching for the stars, a design purportedly taken from the book she had made. It can still be seen there today. -------from the Life of the Blessed Sulan, by Mei Nevrekti
Nephan stirred, groaning, and sat up. His head was a roaring maelstrom of pain, and it took a moment for him to remember where he was. He could still feel the flies crawling on his skin, and made a motion as if to brush them away. His fingers quickly met the wires, and he let his hands drop. His head pounded, and he took a deep breath. He heard a small hiss from the wall nearest the bed, and the pain in his skull eased as the oxygen content in the room rose. “Greetings, Master Nephan.” The voice spoke calmly into his mind; the new interface had a slight accent but he couldn’t quite place it. “And who are you?” he grumbled, slipping into his red robe. His head still throbbed, and he sat on the edge of the bed for a moment before standing and walking into the room that held the machine. “I am Ked.” “You don’t talk much. An improvement on the last one, then. Good. I am going to the Guild Hall to speak to the Recorders. I believe my hook-up is long overdue for a cleaning. Please see that it is done so that the machine is ready for use again as soon as possible.” He walked out, and stepped onto the walkway. His thoughts raced; there were many causes for awaking with a headache after a projection. It was tricky business, and somewhat difficult, even for those as practiced in the art as he was. But the possibility of an error nagged in the back of his mind, and he could not completely ignore it. Had he made a change, by sending the Ersan to his death? He shrugged slightly, unwilling to keep the thought in mind. The headache was fading rapidly, and it was probably nothing. He walked through the door to the Guild Hall, and headed directly for the room of the Recorders. Only one Recorder was currently available, and he entered the room quietly. The Recorder looked up, and almost winced. “You are Adept Nephan of the second order? Yes, I see you are. What brings you to the Recorders today?” “I need to find a good shell for Projection into the Kedonese Renaissance. I know that few of our people were present on Kedon at the time, and I would like to see if there is anyone who could make an appearance without too much danger of changes to our own time.” Nephan kept his voice low and controlled, masking the urgency he felt. When the Council realized he was in the building, they would surely ask to see him, and he wished to avoid that if at all possible. Rudeness to the Recorders, however, would get him nowhere, so he held his peace for the moment. “Hmmm…not too many deaths then, comparatively. There was a change in policy regarding the training of novices, and training deaths become virtually unknown. It weakened the ranks, but we had greater numbers. The usual ebb and flow of customs, you know.” As the Recorder rambled, the green light flickered over the whites of his eyes as information was brought to him. “Ah…now there’s an interesting one. Apparently, Temalta sent an ambassador to Kedon. It doesn’t say why. We didn’t go far beyond our own lands at the time, but perhaps the masters wanted someone to keep an eye on the rising power of Kedon. At any rate, a lightning storm sprang up around the ambassador’s ship, and a bolt hit the mast. It fell, and crashed through the deck, killing the ambassador. The ship finally made it to the Kedonese lands, but just barely.” The Recorder looked up, his eyes clear again. “Will that serve your needs, Adept?” Nephan nodded, anxious to leave the Hall again as soon as possible. “Yes, that sounds wonderful. Please have the information necessary sent over to my machine as soon as possible. I plan to set out again as soon as the machine is cleaned.” He turned and exited the room, his red robes whispering along the floor. As he walked by the statue of Learan the Projector, one of his colleagues stopped him. “Nephan, were you just on a Projection? Did you change anything?” “Yes, but I don’t think I changed anything of any significance. Why?” “Because a good hundred of us developed screaming headaches earlier today. You know the dangers in making changes. Even small ones can cause a small disconnect; and a significant change will drive those involved mad.” He focused his piercing green eyes on Nephan’s face. “You are getting reckless. You changed something, and the Councilors will know it soon. Be careful.” The Historian shook him off, and quickly walked down the hall and out the door. As he sped along on the walkway, his eyes were drawn to the moon that hung large in the night sky outside of the dome. He could make out the complex that held the telepaths, and wondered briefly if his short venture into the Guild Hall had already been recorded and stored in their brains.
He had been noticed by the optical sensors in the gates as soon as he entered the hall, but since the Councilars had not expected him back so soon, they had not programmed the gates to alert them to his presence. The record of the green-eyed man passed through their fibers and machines, and up to the moon. A telepath stirred slightly at the sight, eyes fluttering. The moment passed, and she fell back into the deep dreaming. Nephan plugged himself into the machine, noting the new wires. The old ones had gone out of date while he lay in the Projection, and Ked had instructed the cleaners to replace them after they had finished cleaning the machine. The Historian lay back in the bed, and his machine flashed the images and memories of the dead ambassador into his mind. He fixed his thoughts on the past, and slowly slipped away, body trembling, then lying perfectly still.
Tsuda tucked a stray strand of hair back up under the cloth around her head, and went back to pulling up the vegetables that would be used in the stew that day. She brushed the loose dirt off the bulging roots, and laid them on a clean cloth that she had spread on the ground. The sun blazed down overhead and she felt a bead of sweat make its ticklish way down her spine. She heard the rustling of plants behind her, and turned to look. Mede casme through the foliage, a tiny infant cradled in her arms and swathed in cloth to protect him form the rays of the sun. “Are many of them ripe yet? I wasn’t sure how fast they might grow.” “They look ripe, I doubt they’d get much bigger if I left them in the ground.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of a grubby hand, leaving a streak of damp earth across her brow. “And how is little Meikan doing today? Did he finally decide to take a nap?” Mede nodded, and held out the little bundle to Tsuda, who took it carefully, and pulled the edge of the blanket back from the baby’s face. Two wide brown eyes looked up at her sleepily, and Meikan yawned, his breath smelling faintly of warm milk. She laughed, and gently brushed his thick brown hair off his forehead. “I don’t think I ever saw a baby with so much hair before! He looks so much like you, aside from the color of his hair.” She gently handed the baby back, and gathered up the cloth with the vegetables, and the two women walked back towards the small hut in which Mede and Judak had made their home. She set a large wide-mouth jar on the small rock stone and lit a fire under it. She left the fire to heat, and drew water from the well and poured it into the pot. In a little while, the water was bubbling slowly, and she dropped the cleaned vegetables into the pot, along with a small bird that Judak had shot and cleaned. “Meikan’s sleeping again, so I’ve got a few minutes. Is there anything I can help you with? I hate to have you doing everything,” Mede said, leaning against the wall. “Oh, don’t be silly. You still need to be resting. Meikan was only born a week ago, and you haven’t quite recovered yet. The stew should be ready in an hour or so, I just need to make sure to stir every so often.” They heard the sound of runnig feet, and turned towards the door in time to see Judak rush in. “That trading ship just landed again. I don’t know if this is a normal stopover for them, but if they are stopping for water, they will surely see our house. Mede, take Meikan and go into the forest, away from the lake. Just in case something happens, I don’t want them to know that you are here. Tsuda, you go with her; I can pretend that I am a fisherman making my home here for a few months.” The women quickly slipped out of the door, and headed into the trees. They could hear the sailor’s voices, laughing as they came up the road. Tsuda stopped for a moment to look behind her, and saw a flash of bright blue through the trees, and heard a young woman’s voice calling out, though she couldn’t make out the words. She saw Judak come slowly out of the hut, and speak to the woman and the sailors for a moment. Looking back towards the trees, she could no longer see Mede and Meikan. “At least they’ll be safe,” she thought, and retraced her steps. As she emerged from the trees near the edge of the clearing, the little group of newcomers turned towards her. “Tsuda?” asked Kaedti, taking a tentative step forward. The women who stood before her had her friend’s bright purple eyes, but she looked older than she should, and her hair was hidden behind a scarf. “Kaedti? What are you doing here?” Tsuda whispered. The slim figure in the blue skirt was no longer the uncertain girl that Tsuda had known on Mei; the two years under Vedek’s rule had sharpened her and brought her into adulthood. She stood straight, chin up, and looked directly into Tsuda’s eyes, something she had not done often when the two lived on Mei. “I came because I have nowhere else to go. My father is dead; they made sure that everyone on Mei saw him set out for Ersa, then sank the ship before he could get halfway across the ocean.” Her voice was calm and measured, though Tsuda could see her eyes blazing. “I heard that you and Mede were here, and I wanted to be here with you.” Tsuda turned away, and looked out over the island and out to the horizon, where the sea sparkled in the sun. “Kaedti, you have no idea how much seeing you here brings joy to my heart. You have grown into a beautiful young woman. But I live here to make reparation for the evils I’ve held in my heart, and to learn to free my soul from anger, fear, and hatred. It wouldn’t be like our classes again, Kaedti.” The young woman stepped closer, until her face was only inches from Tsuda’s. “I don’t want it to be like classes again. I want to know more of what you know. I want the monks gone as much as anyone. I pity them, and they disgust me, but I do not hate them. Do you know what I saw in your statues? I was too young then to know how to tell you what I saw, but I had two years to think about them. I saw life, and joy, hope, and a hint of the glory of the gods. The monks had always told the Astaldi that spirit cannot and must not be portrayed in earthly things, and I had almost begun to believe it myself, but your statues did away with all of that. It was as if goodness, beauty, even truth, had been made rpesent to my eyes in a way that all the words in the world never could have done. I don’t know what it was that inspired those works, but whatever it was, I want to learn it.” Tsuda put her finger tips to her temples, trying to think. This was no place for a refined young woman like Kaedti; she was used to servants and dinner parties, not manual labor and cooking. And she held roughly to the beliefs of the Astaldi, since they were similar to those of the Ersans. What would she think about the ancient ways of Suktis? And would she understand about the past lives? Would she be willing to look back into herself? “I want to say yes, Kaedti, since you are so eager to be here. But why not go home? Why not go back to your own people on Ersa? Surely they would be eager to receive you again. You would even be able to tell them about wht the monks are doing, and even do some good that way.” Kaedti shook her head. “The monks carefully patrol all large ocean-going vessels, and even those they let pass through are often attacked by raiders. It is not safe.” She let her eyes drift out towards the ocean, and the outlying islands in the distance. “Besides, I have more memories here than in Ersa. I have accepted the Astaldi as my people, and I would not leave even if I could.” Her voice dropped down into an intense whisper, and for the first time, Tsuda noticed the brightness of her eyes, as if tears were waiting to burst forth and it was taking all of her energy to hold them back. “Please, Tsuda. I will go where you go, stay where you stay. Your people have already become my people, and whatever gods you serve will be my gods.” Mede had quietly come out through the trees to see what was happening, and was surprised to see Kaedti standing there. She could not hear the conversation that took place, but she could see the torn look on Tsuda’s face, and the expression of pleading on Kaedti’s. She sent up a wuick prayer for she knew not what, and watched quietly. Tsuda stood in silence for a long time, thinking. Finally, after what seemed like ages to Kaedti, she turned and gave a small nod. “It is not the way that I would have planned for you, Kaedti. It will not be the life you were accustomed to, and many parts of what you want to learn will be very painful.” She sighed, and placed a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. “But love does not happen in isolation; if you have come to us, then we need you as much as you need us. So, welcome to the island.” Mede saw a look of relief flash across the young woman’s face, then she sank to the ground by Tsuda’s feet, and clung there, trembling. “Kaedti! What’s the matter? Isn’t that what you wanted?” Tsuda helped her get to her feet again, and supported her with an arm around the waist. “Yes! Yes, it is what I wanted. I just..it has been a long time since I was at home anywhere, and I have been through so much to get here. I am so happy!” She smiled radiantly and the two made their way slowly up the hill to where Mede, Judak, and Meilan were waiting.
Vedek watched the water slip by under the keel of his ship. In five years, he had no been able to find the Ersan or the Selidian, much less the Suktisian consciousness he sought. They had disappeared into the central islands, and there were hundreds of islands where they might be hiding. He had begun to hear rumors of a religious order, newly risen in the heart of the Astaldaki lands, but he had yet to capture any of its members. Every time he would deduce a possible location for the order, his men would storm an island, to find nothing but ashes in fire rings, the ashes sometimes still warm. “Bring her ashore at the next island, Nekisti. We need more water, and I want to question the islanders.” Vedek shouted across the desk to the helmsman, who nodded. In a few hours the boat was docked at one of the channel islands, and the monks quickly disembarked. Vedek directed a few of the younger monks to work at restocking the ship, and made his way with a band of his closest associates to the market place. As they strode through the streets, black robes fluttering in the wind, the eyes of the islanders followed them. “Astaldi, I am looking for two young women! They have incited riots, and caused the deaths of many of their countrymen, your own people. One woman is pale-skinned, with ginger hair and brown eyes. She is originally from the Selides, and has introduced a foreign religion into your lands. She is easily recognized by her appearance. The other woman is far more insidious. She is Astaldi born, but she has the white hair of the water spirits and the purple eyes of the Suktisian witches from long ago. She can blend into any village by covering her hair, and she may walk among you even now. These women are a danger to you!” Vedek’s voice rose and echoed off the stones and wood of the crude plaza, the men and women pausing to listen. There was something sullen in their gazes, but Vedek did not notice. “Anyone who turns these women over to us will be doing their people a great service, and you will be paid well for it.” At that, a ripple of disgruntled mutters broke out, and Vedek looked around at the faces nearest to him. “You think we would turn over one of our own to you, for money?” spoke one man. He stood calmly, leaning on his bow. Vedek noted the long scar that ran down the left side of his ribcage, and turned towards him. “I think it is your duty to rid yourselves of someone who has caused you nothing but trouble. I merely wish to compensate you for the information we need.” A gasp behind him caught Vedek’s ear, and he whirled around just in time to see two of his men fall as knives were pulled out from between their ribs. Behind them stood two women, dressed in men’s pants, a wild look in their eyes. Vedek and the remaining monks instinctively backed into a circle, with Vedek at the center. More of the rugged-looking men and women made their way through the crowd as the man with the scarred chest nocked an arrow. “These are not your people, Temaltan. These islands are no longer under your control. We live free and we answer to no-one.” He walked forward slowly as he spoke, until he stood just out of range of the monks’ swords. “We have tried to tell you that, of course, but your people seem to be rather thick-headed. We’ve decided to try again; perhaps if we kill the military governor, your homelands will understand that we are not to be trifled with.” Vedek started at the mention of his position, and the Astaldi laughed coldly. “Oh yes, we know who you are, Master Vedek. We know who our enemies are, and we do not underestimate them. It’s a lesson you should consider learning.” He let the arrow fly, and Vedek could feel it fly by his cheek as he moved to one side. It lodged itself in the spine of the monk behind him, and the man sank to his kknees, groping frantically behind his back, trying to pull the object from his back. The other monks closed the gap, but the Free Astaldi were already upon them. The swords of the Temaltans were little use fighting in such close quarters, and the knives of the Astaldi did not take long to find their marks. The scarred man drew a blade and swiped at Vedek’s neck; the monk swept the blow aside with his sword, and plunged his short knife into the man’s chest. “This will give you a matched pair, Astaldi,” the monk sneered, but the retort was cut short by the blade that slipped into his own belly. He could feel the warm blood pouring out and down his legs, and he fell, the dead Astaldi beneath him. In a few moments, the monks were all dead, and only three or four of the Astaldi fighters remained standing.
A pale body twitched on a cold bed. Wires that linked into neurons hummed as information ran up and down their length, and into the walls of the room.
One of the Astaldi got slowly to his feet, holding a hand over a wound on his side. “This is the price of tyranny! You cannot dominate us! We may submit for a time, but we will do whatever is necessary to maintain our freedom.” He spat into one of the pale faces of the monks, slowly growing cold on the ground. The saliva mixed with the blood that ran from a deep gash on the man’s forehead, and spilled to the ground.
The Astaldi sank to his knees; he pulled his hand back from the wound, and a gush from the wound stained his side and leg with crimson. He fell forward, face laying on the hard stones of the pavement; his last breath exited his body with a laborious wheeze, and his eyes grew dim. The flies buzzed for a moment in the late afternoon heat, then settled on the dark skin and the pale.
Kaedti paced restlessly by her window, skirt swishing quietly over the stones. She could see a ship being unloaded on the docks, and was waiting for some of the sailors to pass by her window. Vedek might be able to keep her inside her house, but he could not keep her from speaking to those who passed by her window. She had heard nothing of her father since he was sent away over two years ago, but she expected an Ersan fleet to come into the harbor any day. Finally, she noted, the sailors were hoisting their bags onto their shoulders and making their way up into the town. She waited until they were close, and waved a red cloth out of the window. Well acquainted with this routine by now, the sailors glanced around to check for guards, and stood outside the upper story window. “Any news from abroad, gentlemen? Tell me what you’ve seen and heard lately.” “Nothing so beautiful as you, lady,” one of them shouted, and the others laughed. Kaedti reigned in her impatience, and forced a laugh, tossing a small gold coin to the sailor. “Now, tell me something I haven’t heard before!” “There was a riot in the marketplace on Selni last week. The monks demanded a higher tax on the merchants than they were willing to pay. Five stall keepers were killed, but they got two monks, so all those who protested were taken to the prison.” “There is an envoy from Kedon that arrived in the outer islands in the west last month. They are hoping to establish a better trade route, and perhaps send an ambassador to one of the islands.” “There was a goat on Leji that had a kid with two heads!” The other sailor turned to look at the one who had mentioned this odd fact, and he shrugged. “I thought it was interesting.” Kaedti smiled, and handed the man a gold coin, and gave one to each of the others who had told their news. One young sailor in the back of the crowd stepped forward, and she acknowleged him. “My lady, I am a sailor on a ship that follows the currents into the central islands. We often make stops at the islands we know to be uninhabited for fresh water. When we were on our way back from our latest vvoyage, we made our usual stop, but found that the island was no longer uninhabited. Three people lived in solitude there; a young man and his wife, expecting their first child, and a young woman about your own age. She kept her face and head covered, but her eyes were the brightest purple I have ever seen. After I assured the young wife that I would tell no-one about their presence on the island, lest it get back to the monks, she told me that they had come to the island to escape the dominance of the Temaltans, and to practice their religion in peace. I do not believe that that was the entire reason for their presence there, but I did not feel that I should press them further.” Leaning out of her window, Kaedti pressed several coins into the man’s hand. “But tell me, if you gave them your word that you would let no-one know of their presence on the island, why have you told me?” The man smiled, his white teeth striking a brilliant contrast with his skin; “Lady, just before I left to return to my ship with the supplies we needed, the woman with the purple eyes pulled me aside. She asked if I knew of the island of Mei, and I assured her that it was one of the stops on our voyage. She then inquired if I knew of the daughter of the Ersan ambassador, and again I told her that I knew of you. I told her a little of what had happened in recent years, and she seemed disturbed by the news. She asked me to tell you that she is safe, and that you should not worry.” Kaedti was breathing quickly, heart racing; Tsuda and Mede safe, and hidden in the central islands! Her mind raced, invernting and discarding a hundred plots for escape to the island. “The rest of you may go, and thank you for your information, it is much appreciated!” She signed to the sailor who had mentioned the island to stay behind. She waved to the men as they set out on the roaqd again, and turned back to the sailor. “You know where the island is? You can find it again?” “Oh, most assuredly. It is one of our common stops.” “When will your ship set sail next?” He thought for a moment. “We must take on new supplies and a new cargo, as well as make some necessary repairs. Perhaps in a month?” “If I can contrive to get out of these walls, can you smuggle me aboard your ship, and let me off at the island? I can give your captain whatever price he wants to pay for my passage.” The sailor looked dubious, but replied that he thought he could. “Good. When I am ready with my plan, I will hang this green cloth outside my window. If you are walking by and see that cloth, please come to the window.” She tossed down a small leather bag of coins, and he caught it deftly. He tossed the small bag lightly in his hand, listening to the jangle of the coins, and grinned. “Very well, lady! I will watch for the green, and we will get you out of that tower yet!” Kaedti turned back to the small room with a determined look on her face. It would require all of her skills to escape, but it just might be possible now. She set about making her plans, heart racing with misgivings, worries, and hopes.
“This trunk is to go down to the docks tomorrow morning,” Kaedti told the monk who stood outside her door. “I am packing some things to send to the new Kedonese ambassador in the western islands, as a gesture of good faith from Ersa. Make sure that it arrives there before the ship sails at noon.” The monk looked at her with a hint of suspicion in his eyes. “Which ship does it go on?” “The only one bound for the western islands tomorrow, of course. It will be wooden, and have large sails made of cloth,” she remarked wryly. “Will that help? If you cannot find it from that information, then you are as foolish as my father always said.” The monk snorted, and turned away. “The trunk will arrive at the docks on time, never fear.” She shut the door to her room, and turned to her maid. “Laedi, it’s almost time. I am afraid that they will question you when I’m gone. Please, try to get away if you can. See if they will let you go to the market when they deliver the trunk to the docks.” The girl nodded, and smiled bravely. “I know the risks of what I am doing. I will not tell anyone how you got out.” The rest of the night was spent preparing, and in the early hours of the morning, Kaedti curled herself up tightly into the trunk, giving thanks for her petite size. Laedi arranged a pile of rich fabrics in the space at the top of the trunk, and closed the lid. She took a large chunk of sealing wax and, melting it with a candle, applied generous daubs to the front of the trunk, and sealed it with Kaedti’s personal seal, as well as the Ersan seal that the ambassador’s daughter had left in her room. A moment later, there came a knock at the door, and two of the monks entered the room. “Do not enter before my lady bids you,” scolded Laedi, scurrying the draw the curtains around the bed, which she had arranged to make it look as if Kaedti was still asleep. “You will wake her! Just take the trunk and be gone with you.” She grabbed a basket and made for the doorway, until one of the monks blocked her way. “Where do you think you’re going?” “To the market! My lady is not feeling well, and she needs an herbal tea. I do not have the plants that she needs here, so I am going to get some.” “We will walk with you. The market is on the way to the docks, and you can make sure that we don’t upset your mistress in any way.” The man’s voice dripped sarcasm as he picked up one end of the trunk. He grunted, and motioned to his companion to pick up the other end. The strange trio made their way slowly to the market, where Laedi selected some simple herbs from the vendor and stowed them in her basket. She turned as if to proceed back to the house, but was stopped by the monks again. “You’re coming down to the docks with us. Master Vedek would not like you to be running around Mei nby yourself.” “But my mistress needs-“ “Your mistress needs to learn her place in the world, is what she needs,” grumbled one of the monks, picking up his end of the trunk again. The strange procession slowly moved down towards the docks, where they found the ship preparing to leave for the western islands. The captain glanced quickly at his first mate, who nodded slightly. “Is this the goods from the lady Kaedti? She told us that she had an important shipment to take to the new delegation in the western islands.” “Yes, this is it. But I think we shall open it and inspect it before we leave; we want to make sure that the lady gives a correct and appropriate representation of this island.” The monk drew his knife to cut through the wax seals, but the first mate stepped between the monk and his ccargo. “I’m afraid we cannot allow that. Lady Kaedti has paid us well to take care of her gift, and I do not think that she would care to send it to the Kedonese with the seals broken open.”
The younger of the two monks made a motion to draw his sword, but the other placed a hand on his chest. “Leave it,” he muttered under his breath. “At worst she has smuggled out some messages, but we can deal with that. After all, we have keep the sinking of her father’s ship a secret from her for two years, we can silence any message she might try to send.”
Inside the chest, Kaedti’s heart seemed to stop as she heard the muttered words. She blinked back angry tears, and strengthened her resolve to escape. She felt herself lifted onto the ship, and the trunk stacked with other boxes and cargo to be loaded, then carried down into the hold. A few moments later, the lid cracked open, and the dark face of the first mate peered in. “Are you alright in there? I was worried that you wouldn’t have enough air.” Kaedti’s face and neck were beaded with sweat, and she took a deep breath of the cooler air in the hold. “Yes, I’m fine, thank you. Will you let me know when you’re under way? I don’t want to come out until we are well away from the shore.” The first mate nodded, and closed the lid of the trunk again. Back on the shore, the two monks turned to go back to the ambassador’s house. “Where is that maid?” one of them asked, looking around. “I don’t know, she was here a moment ago. She must have left while you were wasting time arguing with the sailor. No doubt she is off on a tryst with a stable hand from the market, and will be back in a few hours.”
Kaedti stood by the railing of the ship, and looked up into the stars as they slowly wheeled past the mast. The first moon had risen, and turned the sails into sheets of ice, gleaming slightly in the blue light. “How many days until we reach the island?” she asked of the first mate as he walked by, checking the sails. “We must make our regular port stops; this is still a business trip, even if you have paid the captain for passage. You’ll want to stay below during those times. I think we will probably reach the island in two weeks, perhaps three.” “Can’t we get there faster? I can pay the captain more if he can take me directly to the island. It cannot be more than a week’s direct sailing.” The first mate roared with laughter, shaking his head. “Even if you could pay enough for the missed business, it wouldn’t be enough. The merchants on the islands trust us to appear on time. Lost time is lost reputation, lost reputation is lost business. I do not think you have enough money with you to pay for our good name.” Seeing Kaedti’s downcast expression, he smiled, and added, “Besides all that, lady, if our ship were to make such a strange trip, to an uninhabited island, someone would surely hear of it, and a report might reach those from whom you are feeling. That is the last thing you want, so let us go about our regular business, and no-one will think anything of it.” Kaedti nodded, and the first mate went on, checking the sails and rigging.
The wooden doors slammed back against the stone walls as Vedek stormed into the Ersan ambassador’s house. A phalanx of monks marched in behind him; with the arrival of the new reinforcements from Temalta, they had finally been able to storm the grounds of the house, and enter it. “Maedik! You cannot keep us at bay any longer!” The challenge echoed from the walls, and was met with silence. “Spread out, see if you can find them. Do not harm them, I want to discuss a certain matter with the ambassador and his daughter.” Vedek spat out the commands, and motioned to a group of monks to come with him. He ascended the stone staircase, and began to explore the rooms with his sword drawn. As he drew back the curtains that lead to a lushly decorated sitting room, he saw them. Maedik and Kaedti sat calmly in their chairs, watching him as he entered. “Maedik, your days of hiding are over. You will be called to answer for your actions.” “And what actions might those be?” rumbled the larger man, red hair and beard bristling. “Hosting a party? Inviting people into my own gardens?” Vedek scoffed, “Sedition, treason, blasphemy, and any others that I can persuade the tribunal you are guilty of.” “Ypou cannot have me executed, you know. The word would get out sooner or later, and then you would have a real war on yyour hands.” Kaedti squirmed uncomfortably at her father’s words, but he did not seem fazed by them. “No, and I do not intend to have you killed. We shall expel you from this lands, of course, and forbid you or any of your people to return, but there is no profit for us in killing you.” He paused, turning slightly on his heel as he cast an eye towards Kaedti. Maedik rose swiftly, but stopped as he found one of the monks’ swords held against his throat. Vdek continued. “You see, you have nothing that we need, and we would prefer to see you sail away as soon as possible. However, your daughter was a friend to the woman we are looking for. The people are much in support of her, and until we find her, the resistance on Mei and some of the other islands will be strong. No-one seems to know where she had gone, but it is always possible that your daughter might.” Kaedti stiffened in her chair as the cold steel of a Temaltan blade whispered across her throat. She swallowed hard, feeling the razor edge of the blade dig ever so slightly into her skin as she did so. She met her father’s eyes calmly, and he slowly lowered himself back into his seat. “That’s better. Now, young Kaedti, do you know where your friend went?” The young woman’s voice was full of disgust as she answered. “No. And if I did, I would never tell you. I would rather die before I would give even a rat to you.” “And if I were asking you for a rat, that might be a problem for you. However, I want something more. And I was not asking.” He nodded to the monk who stood behind Kaedti; he grabbed her hair, and pulled it back roughly, and once again held the sword to her neck. “Now tell me where she might have gone. There are thousands of islands, but surely she must have had some kind of plan, or even just a preference.” Kaedti could feel the sharp pressure of the blade on the thin skin at her throat, but she pressed her lips together and refused to utter a sound. After a few moments, Vedek waved a hand, and the sword was resheathed, and the monk released Kaedti’s hair. “Have it your way, then. Your father will be on the next boat to Ersa, but you will remain here until we find Tsuda, with or without your help.” Maedik roared, and lunged for Vedek, but the younger man dodged his first blow, and before he could reach out again, he found his arms gripped securely behind him. “I will not leave without my daughter!” “Actually, I think you will. Feruk, Loisti, please escort the good ambassasdor to his ship. We will send his belongings after him; it may take us a few months to pack them up, though.” Still struggling the ambassador was forced through the doorway, and down the stairs. Vedek could still hear his yells until he was out of the house. He turned back to the young woman to find her staring at him out of wide blue eyes, cold with disgust. “Do not worry, young Kaedti, about your precious body; I am not going to force myself on you, nor will any of my men. We do not mate for pleasure, nor would we do so for procreation with of one your race. You need not fear that. But I can send your spirit flying away with a single stroke of my sword, and I would fear that much more if I were you.” Kaedti clutched the arms of her chair until her knuckles turned white, but she remained silent.
As the sun rose, the small boat rose and sank on the swells. Judak stowed away the oars carefully. “It’ll soon be too hot to row, and we don’t have any water. I don’t think we should stop at any of these islands, they’re too close to the Free Astaldi. Let’s just float through the day, and wait for nightfall. When it’s dark, we’ll beach on the nearest island.” With that, he unrolled the hammock and carefully spread it over them. The shade was cool at the moment, but Tsuda knew that it would soon get stuffy under the heavy cover; at least they wouldn’t burn, she thought, remembering Mede’s pale skin. Mede lay quietly in Judak’s arms, but stretched one hand across the boat to lay gently on Tsuda’s ankle. The couple soon drifted off to sleep, but Tsuda remained awake, her thoughts too restless for sleep. The light filtered in greenly through the woven fronds of the hammock, and occasionally, a small breeze would find its way into the boat. Her thoughts drifted back and forth, between past and present. She gradually sank down into the now familiar trance, falling backwards into memory.
A man with skin like bronze
The tickle of a beard against her belly
A small child giggling
The comfort of a hand to hold
The beauty of the moon rise on a quiet garden
Warm brown eyes set in a pale face
She awoke gradually, not wanting to leave the comforting images behind. She had usually sought out the stronger memories, the ones that tended towards tragedy, as the signposts of her life’s journey. These images were mostly new; they had made a small appearance in her other visions, but only as counterpoints to the tragedy. Now they had swum unbidden to the forefront of her mind’s eye, and she dwelt on them as she rose towards consciousness. Tsuda held the memories in her heart, feeling them almost like a small but intense flame. She imagined her heart as a metal lamp, empty and cold, and the memories like a candle lit inside the lantern. Her chest ached, and she gasped for breath as the memories swept over her conscious mind. Kaedti’s wide and trusting eyes, Mede’s unasked loyalty, her own parents quiet acceptance and love. With a quick motion, she threw off the hammock from where she lay huddled, and drank in the fresh sea air. The waters were clear and blue, and the sunlight reflecting from them was blinding. The breeze brushed lightly over the sweat on her forehead, and tossed wisps of hair over her eyes. Her dark skin warmed as the sun poured over it, and for the first time in months, she did not feel empty inside. “I am not yet who I must become, but perhaps it is enough to be on the path,” she whispered, letting the words drift away on the wind. The boat bobbed on the waves, drifting swiftly in the current as the islands passed on either side. As evening fell, Tsuda began to roll the hammock up; Mede sat up to help, and between the two of them, they got it safely stowed away before Judakl woke. Mede looked down at her fiancée and smiled. “I think he’s exhausted. He didn’t really get any sleep last night, and goodness knows he didn’t get much rest on that trader ship. I think I’ll just let him sleep a while.” Tsuda smiled, seeing the love in her friend’s eyes, and grabbed a paddle. “I’m going to head for the next island we see. We need water and food, and I don’t want to go another day without them. We’re still in the central islands, I think, so I doubt we’ll run into any of the monks.” The boat scraped bottom a few hours later, and Tsuda leapt out to pull it up on the beach. By that time Judak was awake, and he and Mede helped to beach the boat. The island was a small one, with no obvious signs of a stream. As they trekked further inland, the trees seemed to be all palms with little edible vegetation,, and Tsuda began to be worried until they nearly fell into a small lake of cold clear water. At the far side of the lake Judak noticed some frujit-bearing trees and went to stock up. After about an hour, he returned, fruit stowed in a rough bag he had quickly woven from two large palm fronds. “The other beach is just past the edge of the lake; the island is quite small, and as nearly as I can tell, uninhabited. It’s possible that some Astaldi live here, but I didn’t see any signs of it. It might be a good idea to stay here for several days.” Mede agreed readily, and set about finding stones to build a firepit, but Tsuda stood deep in thought. After a few moments, she walked over to where Mede knelt, clearing a space for the ring of stones. “Mede, I think that I want to stay here.” “Yes, Judak thought it would be a good idea to camp here for a few days.” Tsuda ripped up a dry weed, and tossed it aside. “No, I mean after that. I want to stay here. I cannot go back to Mei, and I have nowhere else to go.” She paused, then continued without looking at her friend. “I want to get rid of this emptiness inside me; I want to remember love. I know I have been loved, in every lifetime, but I have spent too much time focusing on the hatred and anger, the violence, the bloodshed…” she shook her head, and began placing stones in a ring. “I want…” She paused, looking down at the rock in her hand. “I don’t know how to explain it. But I am going to stay here.” Mede sat back on her heels, looking at Tsuda. The coldness that had occupied her friend’s features for the past months seemed to be melting; her face showed a hint of the animation she had had before leaving Mei. “I will stay here with you. I’m sure Judak will, as well. We can live here as well as anywhere. Unless you wanted to live alone…” her voice trailed off as she placed the final stone in the circle, and began to pile the dry weeds in the center of the cleared circle. A small smile crossed Tsuda’s face. “It would be a little pointless to try to learn about love on an island all alone, don’t you think?” In a few minutes, a small fire was crackling in the pit, and Judak brought back two birds he had shot down. He and Mede sat by the fire to pluck and clean the fowls. “Judak, what would you think about making a home on this island?” He shook his fingers slightly, which were sore from plucking the birds, and replied, “I think it would be a fine idea. I would be happier here than in Mei whil,e the priests occupy her. There is no other place that has my loyalties, and I will be happy wherever you are.” He plucked the last feather with a flourish, and stood. “Besides, I know that you would not be truly happy unless you were with Tsuda wherever she goes, and I take it that she is staying here.” Mede blushed slightly, and nodded. “Yes. She wants to stay here. And I think it will be good for her, but I cannot leave her.” She sighed, and set her plucked bird down on a large clean leaf beside Judak’s and stood. “I have been by her side for several lifetimes now, and I do not think I can leave her now. I love her.” Her fiancée pulled her into a close embrace, and gently stroked her ginger hair. “I know. And I would do nothing to damage that love, or separate the two of you. We will make our home here.”
The Astaldi people have always been quick to dancing and laughter, and slow to war. When the Temaltans came, they accepted their presence and continued their lives much as they always had. But when the Temaltans pushed too far, the Astaldi held their ground. The central islands, which were largely untouched by the presence of the warrior monks, became home to many cells of resistance. These groups were violent in nature, and often took roving bands of the monks by surprise, slaughtering them and packing the bodies into boats which were released into the currents for their comrades to find. Many in the islands thought that there would be nothing left of either culture, and there was nothing to suggest that this would not be the case. However, when no-one could have expected it, a light came out of the darkness and blood of the central islands and swept over all of the Astaldak lands. Some have even maintained that it changed the future of the world.
-------from the Life of the Blessed Sulan, by Mei Nevrekti
Tsuda waited in the small clearing and looked around. The man on the last island had told her to come here, and she would find the nearest group of fighters. The tiny island seemed to be uninhabited, but she waited anyway. Mede sat beside her on the grassy ground and felt the warmth of the sun on her shoulders. She closed her eyes, and leaned back against the large rock that Tsuda was sitting on. She felt like she was about to fall asleep, when she noticed a moment out of the corner of her eye. A small group of men and women had stepped into the clearing, all of them armed. Many of the members of the group carried the bows and arrows that were traditional Astaldi weapons, and they were aiming direcrtly at the two women in the middle of the clearing. Tsuda slowly stood up, and looked at the leader of the group. He had a long scar running down the left side of his ribcage, and his dark hair stuck out in wild curls. “What are you doing here? Why do you seek the Free Astaldi?” “Because I want to fight with you. I want to become one of you. I want to see the monks drown in their own blood.” The man nodded, and replied, “And so do many in our islands. Only those willing to give up everything can jnoin us. Why should we accept you?” Tsuda held out a hand slowly. “Give me one of your arrows, and I will show you.” He looked over his shoulder at one of the women who held a nocked arrow, and nodded to her. She slowly relaxed her arm, and lowered the bow to her side; she extended the fletched end of the arrow to Tsuda, who took it calmly. Mede watched as Tsuda drew the sharp point of the arrowhead across her forearm. The blood ran freely, and began to drip down onto the grass as Tsuda stood still as one of her statues. “I will give everything I have to see that their menace is wiped off the face of this earth.” She reached out with a blood streaked hand and the leader clasped it solemnly. “Very well, then, mistress. And who is your friend here? Is she a fighter too?” Tsuda shook her head. “No, she will not fight. But surely you need help in the camp? I cannot leaver her out here by herself, and she will be glad to help in any other way she can.” Mede stood quietly as the leader looked her over, and slowly nodded. “Very well, we will take her with us. But do not slow us down, or you will be left behind.” “I can keep up with you,” Mede said in a voice of quiet strength. “We will see if you can keep up with me.” The boat scraped quietly onto the sand, the sound hidden behind the crashing of the wave. The moonlit water shone like silver, and Vedek wished that the clouds would cover the moons again. “Move forward,” he called in a hoarse whisper, and the monks advanced cautiously. The tree line was only a few yards away, and they moved stealthily towards it. As the last line of men entered the trees, an arrow hissed through the air and buried itself into the neck of one of the warriors. He fell to the ground with a soft gurgle, and at first none of the others noticed. But in another moment, scores of arrows were flying through the air. The monks shouted, and dove behind tree trunks, drawing their swords. “They cannot fire arrows forever! Let them spend their artillery, and cut them down!”
Tsuda heard his words from the bush where she hid, and tried to aim for his voice, but he kept himself well behind the tree. With a grimace, she turned away and took careful aim at the gleam of a face that she could see behind a slender palm. Her blazing purple eyes caught the moonlight, and the monk saw them glitter. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but she had released the arrow, and he fell face down in the sand, driving the arrow yet further into his rib cage.
When morning came, the boat was gone, the remaining monks in it; the bodies of those who had died lay where they had fallen, blood soaking into the ground in congealing puddles. The small band of fighters roved carefully among them, taking any weapon or armor that might prove useful. Tsuda went over to the man she had slain in the night, and began the grisly task of checking for valuables. As she unlaced his leather belt and scabbard, pulling it off his body, his head tilted towards her and for a moment she looked directly into the glassy eyes. She could see where the blood had splattered his face, and a fly crawled across his lips. She shuddered, and quickly finished the scavenging, piling her finds with all the others.
“How many dead, Herun?” asked one of the women, dumping a few knives and boots onto the pile unceremoniously.
“I counted twelve, but I think we wounded one or two more who will die before they make landfall again.” Herun assigned three of the men to bring their boat from where it lay hidden in the shade of the trees. When it lay on the sands under the warm sunlight, they began loading the new cargo inside. A few minutes later the boat was loaded, and they pushed off into the surf; it was one of Herun’s rules for the cell that they never spend a night on an island where they had been seen by the Temaltans.
Tsuda paddled absently, her thoughts on the pale face of the dead man she had seen at her feet. She had thought that killing one of the monks would fill her with a sense of power, or happiness, or even excitement. Instead, she felt sick to her stomach and fought back a rising tide of nausea. I will not appear weak, she whispered to herself, and redoubled her efforts. The small boat cut swiftly through the water, racing along to another of the central islands.
Vedek raged for three days after the attack. He had traced her to the groups calling themselves the Free Astaldi, and even learned about their presence on that particular island. How was it that he had lost fourteen men, and apparently not killed even one of their number? He closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. There had to be a way to get to her. He had already informed all the men and women serving as spies that he wished to have her taken alive; her intelligence value to destroying the Free Astaldi cells was invaluable, he had said. Whoever killed her would die slowly and painfully, and htat was a promise. Over the next few weeks, the reports of Free Astaldi attacks on monks and anyone suspected of collaborating with them came in at a steady pace; the Ersan ambassador continued to rage in his house, and the monks executed anyone suspected of giving information to the Free Astaldi. Trade between islands slowed as the monks inspected every boat entering and leaving a harbor. The merchants screamed imprecations at them until one was slain on the deck of his own ship, ostensibly in self-defence. After that, the overt resistance from the traders fell away, but the sullen grumbling remained. Many trade ships that made runs throught the central islands would have their crews drop a box or two of cargo overboard in the shallows; tbhe Free Astaldi were always in need of supplies.
Mede knelt in the dust by the fire pit, stirring a pot of stew slowly, trying to keep it from burning or boiling over. She thought about the course life had taken over the past year. It had been nearly six months since the desperate night-time flight into the water, and four months she Tsuda had begun to live with the Free Astaldi. They never spoke of what happened during the short trips the band took, and Mede did not care to know. She had almost given Tsuda up as lost to fear and anger in this life, but sometimes when the talked, she could still see a glint of emotion in her friend’s face, and hoped again for a few previous moments.
A scuffle broke out across the clearing, and she swiftly got to her feet. Some of the others in the camp came over to try to see what was happening. Some of the men were dragging a handful of captives into the camp. Tsuda loped into the clearing a moment later, having heard the noise and decided to investigate.
“Herun? Herun! We have caught some of the traitors! They served on a trading ship and they carried a monk on board. When they stopped to refill their water barrels, we came upon them and took these prisoner.” The gathering cfowd murmured, and Mede craned her neck to get a better look. As she did so, one of the prisoners raised his head to speak. “It was no chjoice of ours! Had he not been allowed on our ship, we would not have been allowed to leave harbor. Many of us have wives and children to feed, and if we did not go on this trip, we would not be paid. Please, we have no more love of the Temaltans than you do; let us go, and we will tell no-one what we have seen here.” Mede gave a steangled cry as she recognized the worn face of the unfortunate sailor. “Judak!” she whispered. At that moment their eyes met and Judak’s voice faded. “Mede? Mede, is that you?” Mede did not notice the others staring at her as she pushed her way through them and ran o embrace her fiancée. “How did you find me,” she whispered, tears falling freely down her cheeks. “You told me that you were heading for the central islands, so I took a job on a trading ship that ran through the islands regularly. I’ve asked about you in every port, and no-one had seen you. I was beginning to give up hope., But what are you doing here, of all places?” Herun stepped out from the trees, and examined the scene in front of him. “Sulodni, you say that these men were on a trading ship? Well, we cannot allow them to elave, not now that they have seen who we are, and where we are. And you,” he said, looking down at Mede and Judak, “You said that you have been asking about your woman in the ports and towns all through the central islands? That is bad news for you, I am afraid. Now people may notice that you, a missing sailor disappeared while looking for a woman by her description. We can’t have that kind of thing.” One of the other sailors had been fuming silently for a while, and this pronouncement was the last straw for him. He began to fight violently against those who held him, and shouted in Herun’s direction. “What do you mean, you can’t have ‘that kind of thing’? You mean the kind of love that any decent man has for a good woman? Or do you mean the desperation for work that drives a man to do things he might not, in order to provide for himself and nhis family? None of us wanted that cursed monk aboard our ship, but he came whether we would like it or not. You and your kind aree only making things worse for the rest of our people. You strike out at the Temaltans and then disappear into the night. The rest of us who hav to live in our own towns day and night, are the ones who pay. The monks kill anyone thought to have dealings with you, and now you will kill anyone who is simply on the same ship as one of them? You have become the same as the monks! You—“ His speech was cut off suddenly by the short blade that protruded from his chest. He gasped, small bubbles of bloody foam appearing at the corners of his mouth, then slumped to the ground. Judak looked shocked, and Mede felt ill, and turned her face away from the body on the ground. Herun lowered his arm, hand on the now empty sheath on his belt. “Never say that we have anything in common with the monks of Temalta! We fight for the freedom of the true Astaldi, those whoi are brave enough to stand up against oppression, those who would rather die than be coerced by the enemy into being or doing something alien to their nature.” A cheer went up from a few of the men, but others stood in silence, looking at the body that now lay slumped upon the ground. Tsuda stood still, staring in wide-eyed horror. Herun turned to Mede and Judak. “If you swear to remain with us, and never leave our company, you may remain here. But we cannot allow either of you to leave now, knowing what you have seen and heard.” Mede straightened up and prepared to refuse the offer, but Judak spoke first. “We will not leave, if that is what is required. I will gladly stay anywhere Mede is.” Herun studied him for a moment, then nodded. He knelt by the dead man’s body and pried his knife loose. Wiping it clean on the grass, he slipped it back into the small sheath on his belt, and walked away into the trees again. The next instant, Tsuda saw Judak and Mede locked in an intense kiss, and she looked away. Her eyes landed again on the dead man’s corpse, and her thoughts spun rapidly. How could someone so eager to fight for the freedom of the Astaldak be so ready to kill one of their own? She had heard reports about other Astaldaki being killed by resistance cells, but had assumed that they were all Temaltan informers or more likely, just rumors spread by the monks to spread distrust among the islanders. But here lay a man who had no apparent loyalties to the monks, and had simply done what nayn man would do to provide for himself and his family…a family that would never see him again. She wondered what they would tell his family; the monks would probably tell them that it was the cost one paid for supporting the Free Astaldi. She left Mede and Judak alone, and wandered among the trees, trying to clear her mind.
Mede and Judak didn’t bother to get up from the ground where she had knelt beside him. Mede had no home to invite him to, and he had nothing to offer her, so they simply sat in the grass in the clearing. Mede told him of all that had happened to bring her to the central islands, from the night on the branch floating under the stars, to the time spent with Relni and her family, and the two month long search for the Free Astaldi. She cried when she spoke of the changes she had sene in Tsuda, and he held her close. When her story was done, he told her about searchinjg in the ports nad towns for her. Once, he said, his ship had even left him behind; he had had some slight rumor that he pursued until the sun went down. He had run back to the harbor to board the ship, and seen it sailing away, black against the setting sun. “But nothing could keep me from finding you. I would travel hundreds of years just for this moment, if I had to,” he whispered, brushing her ginger hair out of her face. Mede cluing to him, her words gone. Tsuda wandered through the trees for what seemed like hours. Her legs ached and she wanted to sit and rest, but every time she sat down, she found herself leaping back to her feet and pacing. She pressed her fingertips to her temple, and groaned slightly. “What do I do now?” she whispered. “I cannot stay here, not now…This will never do. Becoming like the monks will not rid the world of them, nor will it bring back those we have lost. It will not even soothe the ache of the memories, but enflames them. Oh gods, I wish I could forget all that they have done, I was happier before I remembered.” Slowly, the sun sank and the whole island was cast into the short gloom of twilight; one by one the stars came out in the sky. Tsuda watched them, dancing ever so slow a path from one side of the sky to another. The memories of the night sky out on the ocean came back to her, and the sky seemed to glow with a million miniscule flames. Tsuda felt her legs quiver, and slowly dropped to the ground. She rolled voer onto her back, and saw the cold disc of Lotha heave into view. “Please…if Mede was right, if you are ones who have learned what you needed…olease help me. I no longer know what to do.” Her eyes fluttered, and she slowly sank into an exhausted sleep while the sky wheeled overhead. She woke suddenly in the middle of the night. Lotha was almost directly overhead, larger than Tsuda had ever seen her, and Lede was racing towards the far horizon. An almost palpable silence lay over the land, and she could see a faint mist rolling in from the sea. As she looked out to the horizon, she thought she could see a large island, one that she was sure had not been there by day. As she watched, a light began to shine from within the island, and she heard a faint voice booming out over the water. The light pulsed brighter, then flashed up into the sky and was gone. A loud crack issued from the island, and she saw it begin to quake. In a few moments, it faded into the mist and was gone. She felt as though her heart had faded out with it. I am empty, she thought, and there is nothing left of me. Is that all there is to me, a shell with nothing inside? Every time I live, I end up empty and aching for something that I do not have. As she turned back towards the clearing and the hammock that she had striung up for a bed, she saw the pale form of Mede. She was curled up by the side of Judak at the foot of a large tree. Her skin shone silver in the light, and her mouth was slightly open in sleep. Tsuda couldn’t help smiling as she looked at her friend. Mede had not wanted to be here, she reminded herself. She should be back on Mei, starting her own household, and having beautiful children with Judak, not here in the cold night air, crouched at the foot of a tree. A tear slipped down Tsuda’s cheek, and she dashed it away. Mede stirred in her sleep, and opened her eyes. She saw Tsuda standing at the edge of the clearing, and sat up. “Tsuda, are you alright? What are you doing wandering around at this time of the night?” “I…I don’t know. I thought I was doing what I needed to do, but…” Her voice lowered to an intense whisper. “They…I can’t do this. I want the monks dead, all of them, but not our own people. Not innocent people. I think they would have evne killed Judak if you hadn’t stepped in. Why can’t they just kill the monks and leave everyone else alone?” Mede sat quietly in the hammock, watching her friend’s distress. After a moment, she replied in a low voice, “Because that’s what always happens. First you begin by taking your revenge on your enemy. Then you must destroy anyone who has helped them. Finally you destroy anyone who does not agree with you. It’s what hatred always does. It will eat you from within, Tsuda; the hatred will devour you, and there will be nothing left, and I will have lost my dearest friend.” Tsuda looked up, startled, to see great streams lof tears running down Mede’s face. “There is nothing left of me, Mede. I am empty. It is all eaten away.” Mede shook her head, and slowly climbed out of the hammock. “No. I can see it in your eyes. As long as you can still feel the emptiness, there is something of you left to feel. You cannot give up hope, Tsuda. You can still leave the hatred behind.” “It will go with me wherever I go.” “Only if you let it. You could leave it behind tonight. It might take years to completely let go, but you could begin.” Tsuda looked over her should at the rising moon. “Lotha help me, I do not even know who I am anymore.” She flexed her fingers contemplatively; the moonlight made them look like bones, she thought. She looked out through the trees; in the distance, she could see the light sparkling on the waters. With an ache, she turned away from the sight, only to find Mede standing beside her. “We can go, Tsuda. We can go tonight, right now, and start again somewhere new.” The island was silent, as the disc of the second moon rose swiftly over the horizon. Even the insects ceased humming for a moment, and Tsuda could hear her own heart beating. “Will you go with me?” The words were so quiet that Mede could hardly hear them, but she reached out and took her friend’s hand. “To the ends of the earth. Beyond, if need be.” The small golden moon seemed to be leaping into the sky, following the lead of the larger colder orb. The twin lights reflected in the eyes of the women as they stood together. “I want to go. I cannot live like this.” Tsuda’s words were quiet, but firm, and though another tear slipped down her cheeks, she did not waver in her resolve. “Let me wake Judak, and we will be ready to go. Can you get us around the guards?” Mede asked, turning back towards the hammock. Tsuda nodded, and Mede shook Judak awake gently, motioning him to remain silent. He looked at her, questions in his eyes, but kept his mouth closed, and got out of the hammock. He silently untied the ropes that held the hammock to the tree, and rolled it up under his arm. The three made their way quietly down towards the beach. As they neared the edge of the trees, Tsuda could see the dim shapes of the guards at their posts. She whispered under her breath, muttering words as ancient as the seas, calling up the power that she had known in lifetimes past, and the guards heads drooped. One by one, they fell asleep, leaning on their spears and bows, as the little group passed through on their way to the beach. Judak quickly found one of the beached canoes, and pushed it out into the waves. Tsuda and Mede climbed in as it bounced on the waves, and Judak followed shortly after. Handing Mede one of the paddles that were stowed on board, he took the other, and they slowly guided the boat out into the open water. Heading once again for the current that flowed through the islands, they paddled as hard as they could. The little boat floated out under the stars, and drifted through the islands into the night.
I am an awkward, stubborn, slightly insane woman who would rather talk Plato than Prada, rather watch Frank Capra than Carrie Bradshaw, and rather listen to Norse myths sung in Icelandic than anything currently on the radio. Yeah. Told you I was weird.