Authors: Kristine Smith
Her right eye looked much as it always did. Shinier due to the tears, but not injured. She leaned toward the mirror and looked more closely, until she was satisfied that the edges of the lens were as invisible. She waited until it absorbed its weight in water and the squeezing feeling subsided, then picked up the small case once more and resumed her exploration.
The second thing for which she searched, she found stuck to the end of a hair clasp. She pried this clear disc from its setting as she had the lens, then warmed it under running water, massaging it until it, too, softened. Then she held it to the opening of her right ear, shivering as she felt it adhere and spread. “Fourteen,” she whispered, knowing from experience that the sensor that had attached itself within her ear canal would replay her voice as though she spoke aloud. “Fourteen times have I performed these acts as my dominant has bidden me.” She would speak her thoughts aloud from now on, and use exact numbers, dates, hours. The time had come to be precise in all things.
“I am Imea nÃ¬aRauta Rilas, and this is my book.” She spoke to the mirror, and imagined the lens recording her reflection, her expression, as she knew it did. “I speak from laving cubicle number ten, locker area seven-oh-four, level fourteen, east transept, Elyas Station.” She paused, then uttered the date, the time. “My purpose in coming here is to kill nÃ Tsecha Egri, at the bidding of my most godly dominant, Morden nÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el.”
Rilas tensed as the second call for her shuttle echoed. Outside her cubicle door, up and down the aisle, voices rose. Doors clicked open. Footsteps sounded. She closed the jewelry case, returned it to the small bag, and resumed her search.
If I miss this shuttle, I will forfeit my billet
. Purchasing another would be simple enough, but it would be best, she decided, if she left this mongrel place as quickly as she could. Too many dangers awaited out in the concourse. Too many friendly humanish males. Too many chances to be remembered.
She paused, and willed herself calm. There was still one more thing she needed to find, and if she could not do so, there would be no point in continuing. She set aside the small bag and opened the larger one. The things she had thought felt like bricks proved to be embossed metal cases of the type that opened to form displays. “Displays for nÃ¡ Nahin, a broker in tile.” She opened one case, then another, feeling her calm ebb as the seconds passed and she flipped open cases then slammed them shut as prayers turned to curses and her temper roseâ
She found it in the last case, on the bottom of the bag, as was usual. A flat container the size of her hand, greyed blue in color and cold to the touch. She scraped a fingernail over the surface and watched as a thin layer of frost curled, then evaporated. She held the container gingerly, using her fingertips only, so as not to warm it too much, and opened the lid.
The cold that emerged caused condensate to form in the air aboveâRilas waved it away with one hand to prevent the moisture from settling on the most special objects within. Her prizes, so carefully designed and produced.
The projectiles filled both sides of the container, arranged lengthwise and nestled in molded depressions in the inner liner. Three on each side for a total of sixâtwo less than she had wanted, but those who made them had told her that she was lucky to get as many as this.
So they said. So they claimed.
She never knew when to believe scientists. They
shied away from her, and avoided telling her all they knew unless ordered by nÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el.
And even thenâ¦
She wondered about them, even as she knew that they had no choice but to aid her.
She lifted one of the projectiles from its niche and held it up as she had the lens. Muted silverâas long as her small finger, tapered at one end and flattened on the otherâthe small missile caught the cubicle light and split it as a prism would, sending a shard of rainbow shimmering across the ceiling. Rilas tilted it one way, then the other, looking for seaming or an opening, an inner darkness or shape that revealed that which it contained. Then she returned it to its place and closed the case. Tucked the case back in the bag and closed that as well. Tossed shop wrappings in the trash bin and gathered her baggage. She had all she needed now. It was well and truly time to leave.
The rasp of her boot soles against the bare floor filled the cubicle area. She met no one until she made her way through the narrow, winding aisles and reentered the concourse. The racket of voices battered her for an instant only, receding to nothing as the calm overtook her. Such was a familiar sensation, one she esteemed as she did her dominant and her goddess. She and her task had become one, and would remain as such until she discharged it.
As Rilas approached her gate, she passed a news kiosk. It was a humanish-looking thing, rounded as a hive, covered from floor to top with signs advertising concourse shops and with bright images from the covers of magazines. She quickened her step as she approached the garish thingâsuch subject matter held no interest for her.
Then one image among the many caught her eye. Her step slowed, then stopped. She approached the kiosk and with a cautious hand removed the latest copy of an Elyan publication from its rack.
The face that stared back at her, she had seen too many times before. In reports from her dominant, compiled by his spies who labored throughout the humanish Common
wealth. In holoVee displays, when important events of the past months replayed. In her mind's eye, as she considered her task and all that might prevent its completion. The face, brown-gold as some Pathen. The eyes, green as SÃ¬ah. The hair, black and clipped as short as that of the most ungodly HaÃ¡rin.
. The name choked Rilas. Jani Kilian. The KiÃ¨rshia. The Toxin. The bringer of pain and change. Rilas felt her calm depart as she thought of her, living a damned life in a damned place on the world around which Elyas Station orbited. Once, Kilian had worn the uniform of her soldierly Service and committed crimes that it pained any godly idomeni to recall. Now, twenty humanish years later, she served as a priest at the bidding of godless Tsecha, a mockery of all in which any godly idomeni believed. Ruled over a mongrel enclave that had no right to exist, a place of infamy and broken faith, of false teachers and the lies they spread to promote their own power.
“Toxin.” Rilas touched a finger to the middle of Jani Kilian's forehead and traced a small circle once, then again. As the final call for her shuttle sounded, she paid for the magazine with a vend token. Then she rolled it so as to hide Kilian's face and hurried to her gate.
â¦for these reasons, the wholeness of a soul is not dependent upon the health or condition of the physical body in which it resides, and those who espouse such are ignorant of the will of the gods. Therefore, to allow the death of a body for the stated purpose of preserving the integrity of its soul is as sacrilege, and those who defend and perform such acts are as anathemaâ¦
Jani Kilian read the passage once, then again. Then she closed the leather-bound scroll and backed away from the pedestal on which it rested for the first few steps, reluctant to turn around.
It won't bite.
Well, not yet anyway. “When will you publish it?”
NÃ Tsecha Egri stood in front of the workroom's narrow window and looked out over the Bay of Siros. His orange shirt rivaled the rising Elyan sun in brilliance, his bright blue trousers sedate by comparison. He wore his hair in the idomeni equivalent of a Service burr, and the blaze of backlight through the glass rendered the short, pale brown strands nearly invisible, accentuating the outline of his skull.
He cracked open the pane seals, allowing the smells of sea and sun into the workroom. “I already have, nÃ¬a.” He didn't look at her as he spoke. “NÃ¡ Meva sent the transmission to Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a Temple yesterday evening.”
Jani imagined the elder female bearing down on the enclave com room, the wafer containing Tsecha's treatise gripped like a ward against demons, grey-streaked
horsetail flicking with each stride.
Yet another exiled propitiator.
At the Elyan enclave only a few weeks, and already Tsecha's invaluable sounding board in matters of theology.
They're two peas in a pod.
Meva as eager to disseminate her dominant's seditious essays as he was to write them.
Unlike some of us.
Jani slumped against the wall and tugged at the front of her grey wrapshirt, a near perfect match for her grey trousers. She never felt comfortable in the clashing bright colors that most HaÃ¡rin and Thalassans wore, preferring to stay with drab and somber despite the ribbing she occasionally took. “If you already sent it, why pretend to ask my advice?”
“I do not
, nÃ¬a.” Tsecha's shoulders rounded in anger. “I esteem your advice.” He straightened slowly. “I did consider my arguments with care. I spent much time reevaluating bornsect histories. I could find no flaw. I then gave a draft to nÃ¡ Meva, and she could find nothing to dispute.”
“You showed it to her before you sent it.” Jani heard her own voice, soft and steady, and wondered at her calm. “But not to your religious suborn. Not to the one you're training to take your place. Not to me.”
Tsecha stilled, his hesitation obvious. Weighing his wordsâanother humanish habit he had adopted. “You have learned much these past months, but not enough to contribute to this level of discourse.” He looked across the room at Jani, the backlight casting his face in shadow, obscuring his expression. “Not yet. In time, yes, I will discuss these matters with you in the same depth as I do with Meva, but until that timeâ¦” His voice had grown quieter, the usual booming baritone thinned and drained. “I must be sure of the logic of my arguments. Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a Temple will take any error and use it to render the entire treatise as nothing, and I cannot allow that to occur.”
Jani pushed away from the wall and paced the workroom. It was the largest and most well-appointed space in the small house, which was located in the heart of the Thalassan enclave. Tsecha had claimed it as his own despite the objec
tions of nÃ¡ FeyÃ³ Tal, the dominant of the Elyan HaÃ¡rin and his nominal superior, who felt he should reside within her enclave. But bowing to authority had never been one of Tsecha's traits.
Neither is listening, come to that.
“You've called the entire concept of Wholeness of Soul into question. One of the cornerstones of VynshÃ rau faith.”
“Most other bornsects believe in the concept as well, to their great detriment.” Tsecha once more turned his face to the window. “It is an argument that needs to be made.”
But do you have to make it now?
Jani kept her comment to herself. She'd never held back her own actions for the sake of anyone, family or lover or friend. Maybe this was just life's way of paying back with interest. “The new meeting room's not ready. Dathim told me he'll have to work through the night.”
“You change the subject, nÃ¬a. Have I angered you that much?” Tsecha shut the pane, then turned and walked to his worktable, a V-shaped stone slab that took up almost a quarter of the room. “So he will work. So he will complain. And still the room will be completed on schedule, and the visit will take place tomorrow, as is planned.” He fussed with a stack of wafer folders. “It is a social visit, nÃ¬a. So Governor Markos has told us. A courtesy call. I do not know why you worry so.”
Jani stopped in front of the table and studied her old teacher. Read their shared history in his stark, high-boned face, the mutiny, and the subterfuge, and the lies. “Governor Stanislaw Markos of the Commonwealth colony of Elyas is coming here to ask you to act as go-between for him with Wuntoi and the other anti-CÃ¨el bornsect dominants. He's bringing with him the governors of Amsun and Hortensia.”
Tsecha rolled his eyes, but the gold on gold shading of his sclera and irises blunted his attempted display of humanish irritation. “I know all this, nÃ¬a. I do not know why you are tellingâ”
“Secession. Elyas wants to secede from the Commonwealth, and Amsun and Hortensia and the rest of the Outer
Circle want to go with her. They believe CÃ¨el is on the way out, and the VynshÃ rau with him, and they want to make nice with Wuntoi and his Pathen because they're the likeliest successors. That's why they need you. They know they'll need the support of the Outer Circle HaÃ¡rin to have any hope of pulling this off, and the HaÃ¡rin support Wuntoi as the next Oligarch.” Jani planted her hands atop the table, spread her fingers, pondered her gold-brown skin. “This could blow up fast. You should be keeping your head down now, for the sake of Markos and the others, if not for your own, and instead you're attracting attentionâ”
“The danger is the governors', nÃ¬a. They are the ones who wish to secede.” Tsecha leaned against the table, his voice deceptively light. “If their attempt fails, it does not affect the Elyan HaÃ¡rin.”
Jani fought the urge to grab Tsecha by the shoulders and shake him. “Thalassa, in case you've forgotten, is in a different situation than the HaÃ¡rin enclave. You'll dodge the spray when it hits the fan. You'll be able to leave. You'll have a place to go. But what the hell do you think will happen to Thalassa? We're hybrids, in a diplomatic no-man's-landâ” She stopped when she heard her voice ring in her ears and saw Tsecha's shoulders start to curve. “You could have waited,” she said after her heart slowed and her hands unclenched. “Your treatises. You could have published them some other time.”
“They are necessary now, nÃ¬a.” Tsecha averted his gaze as he spoke, something he seldom did when they stood so close together. “To alter thinking. To persuade, and enrage.”
“I think you have the âenrage' part covered.” Jani turned and walked to the other side of the room. “I'm not too sure about âalter' and âpersuade.'” She stopped in front of a display niche and plucked a small stone ovoid from its base. “It's hard to get anyone to listen once tempers overheat,” she said as she hefted the stone. “I should know.”
“I must speak. I must protestâ”
“But why now?”
“You do notâ”
“I don't mean to interrupt.”
Jani and Tsecha both fell silent and looked toward the entryway.
“NÃ Tsecha. Jan.” Colonel Niall Pierce doffed his brimmed white lid and stepped just inside the room. “Just came from the new meeting house. Checking on preparations for tomorrow.” He wore semiformal kit of dress desertweights, the white tunic and gold-trimmed headgear startling against his tan trousers and sun-baked face. “Dodging flying tile shards.” He grinned, the scar that cut his face from his nose to the corner of his mouth twisting the expression into something sinister. “NÃ Dathim NarÃ© is not happy.”
“Dathim is never happy.” Tsecha gestured impatience, the edge of his hand cutting through the air like a blade. “Always he complains of schedules, of lack of supplies, ofâ¦”
Jani watched Niall, who seemed transfixed by Tsecha's rant.
He knows we're meeting the governors, but he can't figure out why.
She had tried to keep him from getting involved in the security arrangements for the get-together, but he was Admiral General Hiroshi Mako's man on the spot, and the presence of three high-level colonial officials dictated his participation.
He'll escort them here and wait outside while we talk to them. He won't be able to find out a thing.
She hoped. She prayed.
“â¦and still, he is not satisfied!” Tsecha stepped around the table and strode to the door. “I will go and speak with him.” He brushed past Niall, barreling through the foyer and into the street. “Ridiculous, and trulyâ¦”
Jani stepped outside in time to see the brightly garbed figure vanish down an alley between two houses. Sensed Niall draw alongside, and felt his stare etch the side of her face. “Go ahead and say it.”
“I never thought I'd see Tsecha grasping for an excuse to get the hell away from you.” Niall set his lid back atop his head, then squared it by running the thumbs and forefingers of both hands back and forth along the brim. “I debated
whether to go in. Then your voices began carrying and folks stuck their heads out to listen. Decided I had better throw myself on the grenade before they started selling tickets.”
Jani glanced toward a nearby house in time to see a head duck back inside a doorway. “We weren't that loud.”
“The sound-shielding doesn't exist that can filter out nÃ Tsecha Egri once he boils over.” Niall stared up at a seabird that swooped overhead. “Anything you can talk about?”
Jani gauged the man out of the corner of her eye. With his skin, uniform, and bronze Service burr, he appeared as grave as she, a study in brown and white. He stood a little shorter than she did, his frame lean and muscled, his narrow, wolfish face hardened further by the cheek-cleaving scar. Only his eyes, honey brown and long-lashed, offered a sense of his humor, his well-schooled intellect, his warmth.
Jani pretended interest in the blooms that filled a streetside planter. “What's the word?”
Niall studied her for a moment, then shrugged. “Avelos and the Amsun gang just arrived and are currently ensconced in Markos's villa. Wallach and the Hortensian contingent won't arrive until dawn. Cutting it close, in my opinion, but they didn't ask my advice regarding travel arrangements.” He drew closer and lowered his voice as a trio of Thalassans emerged from a house across the way. “Jan? We may be on different sides of the fence, but I can still listen to whatever you can afford to tell me.”
It's your skill at filling in blanks that worries me, Colonel.
Jani watched as more Thalassans wandered into the street. “Do you want to take a walk?”
Niall exhaled with a grumble. “You want to walk, we'll walk.”
They set off along the narrow lane, past the low, white houses with their arched doorways and passages and domed roofs in shades of blue and yellow. While a few Thalassans had brought plants from their home colonies to display in window boxes and planters, native flora dominated the landscaping. Instead of hybrid lawn, creepers in blue and red-
dappled green carpeted the spaces between houses, their low tangle broken up with clusters of the same brilliantly flowered shrubs that dotted the hillsides. Like Karistos, Thalassa hugged the cliff line, and the creepers had been trained to stream over the edge, fringing the rock face with variegated ropes of leaves. Views of the Bay of Siros filled the eye from three directions, and the buildings closest to the brink had been trimmed with terraces so Thalassans could enjoy them whenever they wished.
“I still can't get used to this scenery. Been here six months Common and it still takes my breath away.” Niall leaned against a guardrail and pulled his nicstick case from his trouser pocket. “So.” He removed a silvery cylinder and crunched the ignition tip, then stuck the filter end in his mouth and took a pull. “You two having another difference of opinion?”
Now it was Jani's turn to shrug. “It happens.”
“More and more, seems like. What was it this time?”
Jani rolled up her shirtsleeves and held out her arms so the sun could warm them. “I thought that Thalassa would take the place of Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a for him, that he'd come to consider it home. Now I think it reminds him of what he lost. He spent his entire adult life up to his chin in worldskein politics. He was one of the most influential idomeni who ever lived.”
“He still is, gel.” Niall tugged at his tunic's banded collar, then wiped a few beads of sweat from his brow. Even with cooling cell-equipped clothing, Elyan heat battered non-native humanish with ovenlike intensity. “Just because CÃ¨el stripped him of a title and made him HaÃ¡rin? Doesn't mean a damned thing to anyone I talk to. Call him by his bornsect name, AvrÃ¨l nÃ¬Rau Nema. Or call him Egri nÃ¬Rau Tsecha or nÃ Tsecha Egri or a sack of laundry. He's still a power to be reckoned with.” He stepped back from the rail until the shade of one of the Karistos region's weird palm trees fell across him. “CÃ¨el thought that if he made him HaÃ¡rin, he'd neuter him. All it did was give him the freedom to rebuild
his power base, surround himself with like minds.” He took a last drag on his 'stick, then flicked the spent cylinder into a trash bin.
“He never needed moral support, or an audience.” Jani pushed down her sleeves and refastened the cuffs. “He believes that which he believes. Fine. It's not just duty that compels him to speak out, it's something more. It's in his blood and bone, the air he breathes. He could no more keep quiet about what he feels is wrong with VynshÃ rau religious doctrine than I could flap my arms and fly across the bay.”
She paced along the rail. “But what he doesn't realize, or
to realize, is that every time he shoots off his mouth, I'm the one who gets hit with the flak. Questions about where
stand. Rumors that Thalassa is a training ground for anti-Commonwealth extremists. And when I try to tell him that Thalassa doesn't have a diplomatic leg to stand on, that Chicago is afraid of us and
radicalism is assumed to be
radicalism, he tells me that I do not know of that which I speak.” She stopped and glared out at the sun-seared water until her eyes teared from the brightness. “So on he flames. I put out one fire, and a week or two later another pops up to take its place.” She turned to Niall to find him leaning on the rail and watching her, his head cocked. “What?” She caught the bare twitch of his lip, and felt her face heat. “Shut up.”