Authors: Colin Alexander
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
I almost dropped the tray when she spoke, I was so convinced that it would take forever until I heard her speak. Temporarily, I forgot the line I had worked out to follow up any opening. Fortunately, I’m good at thinking on my feet.
“What should I call you then?” I asked.
“Nothing would be fine,” she answered, “but if you have to call me something, use my name.”
Her reply surprised me a bit. Not for its content, but for its tone, which was low pitched and completely controlled. It was a peculiar role reversal, given the situation. My voice was the shaky one.
“I need to know your name before I can use it,” I said, reasonably.
“Jaenna a Tyaromon is my name,” and there was defiance in her voice.
“Well, then Jaenna, here is your meal.” I set it down on the table and backed off against the cabin wall. “I’m Danny Troy.”
“Dannytroy,” she said, making one word of it. “Do you not claim an ancestor?”
I wasn’t accustomed to Imperial naming. People used a given name and the name of an ancestor, usually but not always the father. The “a” stood for a long word that meant “descended from.” Introductions and formal speech called for the full name. I seemed to remember from the Teacher that females rarely “claimed an ancestor.” The forcefulness with which Jaenna gave her name made me wonder why.
“I should have said Danny a Troy,” I apologized. “Where I come from, we drop the ‘a’. You can call me Danny.”
“I do not see why I should call you anything other than the freebooter
you are,” she shot back.
would lose its colorful connotations in translation. It’s an odoriferous species of slime mold found on many Imperial worlds. I had not been complimented.
I had the feeling that if I let the conversation lapse into silence, those were the last words we would have. So, I tried again.
“Look, I’m not trying to pretend you’re enjoying yourself, but it has to be boring as hell to sit and stare at the walls. You can talk to me.”
“And why should I talk to a freebooter?” There was an edge forming under the soft voice. “You attacked my ship, killed most of the crew, and I am simply going to sit here until Carvalho wants this cabin back and kills me too.”
“Wait, just wait a minute,” I began, rather defensively. “I can’t say anything about what happened to your ship, I joined this one after that fight. I’m not trying to say it was right, it wasn’t. But that’s past and done. Your father will pay off Carvalho and you’ll be swapped back. Carvalho hardly went to all that trouble just to kill you.”
“Dannytroy,” she asked, “are all you freebooters cretins as well as murderous thieves?”
Jaenna did have a way with words.
“No,” I told her, “I’m not stupid.”
“Well, you talk as though you are. My father is a great ruler in the Inner Empire, one of the most powerful to give first loyalty to the emperor. What is the real value of a daughter to him: to create a tie to another family or kvenningar for alliance or to consolidate power. For that, you want a desirable daughter. I am nothing much to look at and I have too independent a mind to make a tie when there are alternatives. To my father, I am worthless. Certainly, I’m not worth the embarrassment of paying ransom to a freebooter. He will not pay Carvalho’s ransom and when Carvalho finally figures that out, he will kill me.” Nowhere in that speech did she let me hear any hint of emotion.
That was the end of our conversation. I protested that it wasn’t true, that it wouldn’t happen that way, all to no avail. Jaenna had decided that she was through talking and had turned back into stone.
I left with my head a little woozy. Jaenna had given me a lot to think about in a short of time. It was inconceivable to me that a father would value a daughter only as a political pawn, and would leave her to die if she could not be used that way. In fact, it twisted my stomach so badly that I was at loose ends until I could go back with the next meal.
When I did go back, as much as I wanted to talk Jaenna out of her convictions, I felt that I had to talk about something less gloomy first. Nothing I thought of on the way sounded right in my head, if you can imagine Danny-boy Troy without a ready line, so I fell back on something Jaenna had said before.
“You told me you aren’t worth looking at. Is that why you sit there buried in that cloak?”
“If it is, it is my privilege,” she said.
“Well, I’d like to judge for myself what you look like.” Yes, I
curious. There was no immediate response, however, and I wondered if she was going to go back to ignoring me.
In fact, there was no answer until she had finished the bowl. Then, just as I was ready to give up and leave with the tray, she stood up and said, “Wait Dannytroy.”
I waited. Standing, I could see she measured no more than five one or two. After a pause, she pulled the hood back on her shoulders.
After the buildup, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but whatever I was expecting wasn’t what I saw. As with most Srihani, there was the same mixture of features that, on Earth, I had associated with discrete racial groups. Jaenna’s face could have graced a Thai princess, with a soft helmet of black hair behind. The curves at her cheeks and the smooth sweep along the jaw to her chin looked delicately sculpted, but it was a sculpture of stone. Her complexion matched her hands, a pale, Irish cream with a few freckles across the nose and onto the cheeks. The eyes that looked out from mildly slanted lids were chips of emerald.
As I looked at her, she raised her arms in a shrug and the cloak fell open. Beneath, she wore a formfitting shipsuit of the same neutral gray as her cloak. The figure it revealed was slim with graceful curves at breast and hip merging at a slender waist. Her youth showed in her face, but hers was the body of a young woman, not a girl. There was no question in my mind. Jaenna a Tyaromon could have stopped the action in any Earthside bar just by walking in.
She didn’t seem to share my opinion. “As you see,” she said, “too small, too skinny and the face is wrong.”
“Jaenna, I don’t know anything about styles in your empire, but where I come from, you could start fights.”
At that, I saw a hint of dimples under the high cheekbones. There was even humor in her voice when she asked me what hole in the Outer Empire I came from. When I told her it wasn’t in the empire at all, her eyes lit up.
“At the next meal, Dannytroy, tell me about your home. I’m sure you have other weird ideas as well.”
“I’ll trade you stories,” I promised.
I wanted to know everything about what it was really like to live in the great Galactic Empire of the Srihani. It was the same question I’d had from my first day on the ship, but my shipmates had been of little help. Jaenna, though, had actually lived on one of the most important Imperial worlds. The empire was her home, so she would see it differently than a gang of ruffians whose interest revolved around what could be grabbed and how much it could be sold for. When I brought Jaenna her next meal, all of my questions came out in sort of a babble, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her soft voice filled the otherwise quiet room as she talked about her homeworld.
Surprisingly, to me anyway, it was difficult at first to develop a feel for the empire from her description. Jaenna was young (not to imply that I was
, mind you, but Jaenna was young
) and had never lived anywhere but home before leaving on her ill-starred trip. Seen through her eyes, and then filtered through my perceptions, her world sounded a lot like mine. There were mountains and oceans and plains and cities, and if they all had strange names, so did the ones in China when I had first learned to read a map. People woke up in the morning and went to their jobs, families had children that grew up in fits and starts, businesses produced goods and services. It was like reading the Lonely Planet guide about a distant country and trying to feel, from that alone, what it was like to live there. So, I asked her to tell me about herself.
“I am the youngest of four daughters and a son,” she began. “My father, Tyaromon a Vinoya, is the governor of Kaaran, one of the richest worlds of the Inner Empire.”
“Inner Empire?” I asked. “Why do you call it that?”
Jaenna shrugged. “I suppose you wouldn’t know. It’s the part of the empire where the Fleet is able to prevent freebooter raids and, while the kvenningari play their Game of Empire, open fighting is rare. It’s called ‘inner’ just because it’s on the inner side of the spiral arm. Kaaran is one of the Independent Worlds, which means our first loyalty is directly to the emperor, not to any kvenningari. Of course, since one or another kvenningari represents the interests of the emperor, my father might as well be ruler in his own right. My brother will succeed him as ruler. Technically, the emperor appoints the new governor, but for centuries the governor has made the decision himself. My sisters, now they are truly beautiful. They are all tall, have much more in the chest and hip than I do, and they have rounded eyes. My father will use them to create ties to strengthen his position. Now, I will agree that my father is powerful enough that he could create a tie with me, but with three older, more attractive sisters, why would he bother?”
“Jaenna, what do you mean by a tie?”
She stared at me, then said, “A family tie. What other kind would there be?”
“I don’t know.” I was trying to ask if she meant a marriage and realized I could not find a word that meant “marriage.”
Jaenna shook her head and when she spoke it was almost as though she was lecturing. “A tie is a contract between families. It is sealed, biologically, with a male from one family and a female from the other. Whatever the families contribute to this joint venture passes to the children of the union. This custom is basic to society, even if only the future of a single shop is at stake. At the level of a planetary governor like my father, a tie is immensely important. Think of all the allegiances and businesses that are affected.”
“And what about the guy and the girl? Don’t they get a say in it?”
“Why? This isn’t about individuals. It’s about families, about business.” Jaenna paused, but when I didn’t say anything, she went on. “In the old empire, go back a thousand years, more, male and female were equal and the female entered the tie with as much authority as her family’s contribution merited. And, no, it never mattered if you liked the partner, not even then. Why would you care? If you want love, find someone you like. It has nothing to do with the tie. The only rule is that children come only from the tie. Children are business,” she said emphatically. “But, it’s not like that anymore. Females don’t own property, they cannot run any part of the tie, even what their own family contributes. This is custom, of course, not law, so there are always exceptions but this is how life goes in the Inner Empire.”
Jaenna let out a big sigh. “It’s probably just as well I’m so unsuitable for a tie. Could you see me doing what the rest of them do? Be an ornament? Gossip? Compete over costumes, parties and who I could take to bed? Of course, how would you know?” Her shoulders gave a convulsive twitch. “This is the truth, though. When my father hosted dignitaries, which was often, I would always be late and I would usually be in rough clothes, dirty from the woods or practice fields. I never mastered the polite conversation you’d expect from a well-bred daughter. I would question and challenge. My father says my tongue is sharper than most politicians’ knives.” Jaenna laughed, but there was no humor in it. “You see this cloak? My oldest sister, Couloura, gave it to me, but not for my pleasure. She said it would let me sit like a shadow at a party, unseen, unheard. Of course, I wore it all the time, everywhere. Father was not pleased with any of us.”
I expected Jaenna to stay bitter but her whole face lit up when she started talking about her home. There was a much-favored pet, which sounded like a fuzzy armadillo and acted like a dog, that had tagged along everywhere. She even told me about a little, stuffed doll her mother had given her that had also been a constant companion, until a few years ago. (Do girls everywhere love their Raggedy Anns? It seems that way.) She told of watching her father’s guards drill, and of listening to tales from their commander, who had a supply of genuine war stories to tell. And then there was brother Valaria.
“My brother is truly remarkable,” she said. ”I’m not saying this just because he is tall and handsome and looked like one of the ancient heroes in his Fleet uniform during his service. To my sisters, I am a nuisance at best and an embarrassment at worst, but Valaria always made time for me. When I was little, he used to carry me around on his shoulders. He listens to me when I want to talk about business and politics. I don’t try to fill him with flattery either, and he appreciates that. He gets enough of that elsewhere. And he is my hope for the future, my way into the system.
“I would not play the social games, so instead I studied. There were good machines for this and there were a couple of mentors who were willing to work with me. And, over time, Valaria came to appreciate what I knew and how I could think. We would talk far into the night about the tie Father will make for him and of how to run it. That tie is crucial. In the empire, a son has no independent authority until either he makes a tie or his father dies. We also talked about how we would run Kaaran after Valaria succeeds Father, and it was always ‘we’ running the operation. Valaria is happy to have me as a secret advisor and if my role has to be secret, well, it is better than the alternatives. That is how I ended up here, though.”
She stopped there and it was another day before I could persuade her to continue.
“I wanted a chance to take on some real responsibility,” she said. “I had to find out if I could actually
something as opposed to talk about doing it. Valaria agreed that it was a good idea. We got our chance when Father made a deal with one of the kvenningari that brought him control of a starship base in the Outer Empire. In the marches of the Outer Empire females and males are more nearly equal than anywhere else. I was certain that I could manage the operation, better than it is currently being run. Father was dubious, to say the least, but he listened to Valaria and, eventually, he agreed. I thought everything would finally work out. Jerny, Father’s senior advisor, told me at the last moment that he would go along to help me get started. He was my first mentor and I was sure he would help me make everything work right from the outset.