An Elseworlds Tale of the Legion of Super-Heroes
by Dannell Lites
Ah don't own them, etc!! Yada, yada, yada!
Rated PG-17 for some m/m concepts. Nothing graphic a'tall:):) Once again, folks this is an Elseworlds! A Legion-Of Super-Heroes Elseworlds! It borrows quite heavily from actual history and, no doubt, a good many books, films and other such entertainments, unknown to moi!:):)
Thanks to moi's betas 'rith, Syl, DarkMark, TigerM and KJ! Like 'rith says ... sometimes ya'll just have to quite fiddlin' and Post that sucker:):) Thanks to Robert A. Heinlein for the use of his word, "frimp":):) Ya'll will NOT find it in ya'll's Funk And Wagnells, rest assured!
"Majesty?" The grating voice of her Earl Marshal, Tasmia Mallor noted, was not at all awestruck or even particularly respectful. With a sigh, she tried to ignore it.
"Tasmia," it persisted, even more disapproving than before if that were possible, "get up, lazybones. Your subjects await."
"Frimp my subjects," she muttered tartly. But her dark eyes opened and she stirred in the sumptuous bed. Judging by Jo's almost gloating smile, he had irritating news for her, she suspected. An all too common thing in these uncertain times.
"Lyddea would like to see you," grinned Nah, confirming his Queen's worst suspicions. Tasmia bit back a colorful oath, gritting her teeth. She settled for a sigh to register her unhappiness.
"And what does Lyddie want to see me about?" To her practiced eye Nah's shrug was a bit too merry. He was enjoying himself, hugely.
"No idea. She refused to say. Another complaint against Lyrissa would be my best guess. Is it ever anything else? You know, Tasmia, I confess I don't much like your children. Any of them. For sisters, the Princess Lyrissa and the Princess Lydea don't get along at all." The look of vexation she shot her Earl Marshall might have stunned a dinobeast at a hundred paces.
"Did you expect them to, Jo? They hardly know each other. And they are rivals for my throne, after all. Lyrissa knows very well which of them I intend to inherit the Kingdom. So does Lyddea." Jo Nah kept his face expressionless. When Tasmia didn't even bother to hide her ire beneath politeness, his brow wrinkled, but he did not speak.
Lyddea, youngest child of Tasmia Mallor, hereditary Queen of Talok VIII, was a sore point between the two old friends not likely to be resolved any time soon. Of the three living children that Tasmia Mallor had borne, Lyddea was the most troublesome; even her mother must admit that. That Tasmia preferred the clinging, fawning Lyddea over her elder sister Lyrissa, rankled the loyal Earl Marshal and he was not shy about letting Tasmia know it.
"No," the small woman reflected with amusement, "no one ever accused Jo of being shy."
"Now, now," returned the stern voice of the man in question. "Temper, temper, my liege lady. The Kingdom needs you, Your Grace." Groaning, Tasmia rose, the deep blue of her skin glowing in the light of the crackling fire warming the large, chill room. Her stoutly built Earl Marshal handed her a robe, smiling.
"The Kingdom," Tasmia reminded him sarcastically, "is a total mess. As if you didn't know."
"Yes," Nah acknowledged pointedly, "I do know the Kingdom's a frimping mess." He helped her slip one slender arm into the robe, brushing aside her long midnight dark hair. Even the first signs of gray lurking there in the dark mass could not dim its glory. "And whose fault is that, my Queen?" he demanded. She shot him another baleful glare.
"Not so loud, Jo," she growled, "I don't think the Khunds heard you in the next star system. Besides, you'll wake Querl." Loving eyes gazed at the mass of silky blond hair and soft green skin still sleeping soundly in the ornate bed. The Earl Marshal Jo Nah shook his head.
"Querl Dox, the Pride Of Colu," he reminded her, "is not a toy, Tasmia. Not a thing to amuse yourself with because you're lonely. You're playing with fire, my friend."
"I'm an old woman, Jo!" she snapped, peevish anger straining her patience. "Allow me this one pleasantry, my Lord Marshal."
"Of course," he returned caustically. "With anyone else but him." Tasmia's eyes narrowed in warning but the Marshal ignored them and plunged onward, heedless of the danger. Tasmia Mallor, Queen of Talok VIII, spun and faced her Marshal squarely.
"Jo, you're my friend and I love you, but ... tread carefully, old man!" she hissed. "Tread carefully."
"Why, Tasmia?" he chuckled. "Because I have the audacity to remind you that bedding your daughter's betrothed is dangerous? Not to mention tasteless. Frimp it all, woman, you could have any man you wanted! Any man in the Kingdom for a bed-toy if it pleased you. And no one would say a thing. Why him?
"Because I want him," she declared. "And because he's about as different as can be from ... " She said no more for several moments. When she spoke again her voice was light, frivolous.
"Because he loves me. And besides, he's mine. I bought and paid for him, didn't I?"
"No," Jo told her with amusement, "his brother Vril paid you to take his younger brother off his royal hands. To be specific, he gave you the planet Winath as Querl's dowry. For your daughter Lyrissa, I might add. Not you. He's to be First Consort of the Princess ... NOT the Queen. And if you think Vril Dox doesn't know what's happening with his little brother, you're an idiot. He's on his way to Talok right now, according to your Durlan spy master, Daggle. To demand Querl's wedding ... or the return of his dowry."
She sat down in the hoverchair floating nearby. "You know I can't do that, Jo," she grumbled. "I need Winath. It sits athwart the Khundish border, blocking the way of any invasion. If it weren't for Winath and Braal, we'd be hip-deep in Khund warriors tomorrow. I can't give it back, not even to The Tyrant of Colu."
"Then think fast, my Queen," Nah replied grimly. Tasmia's eyes, the color of jet, sparkled and twinkled with devilish merriment.
"What makes you think I won't marry him myself?" she quipped, just to see her old friend sweat. Startled, Jo shook his salt and pepper head and stroked his short, trim ginger-colored beard.
"You can't!" he cried, outraged. "You're already a married woman! Or have you forgotten?" Emphatically, he pointed to the thick golden bracelet encircling her right wrist.
"I'll divorce him," she returned. "Should have done it years ago." It pleased Tasmia to see that for one moment at least, her Marshal was unsure, not certain if she meant the threat or not. Then he relaxed.
"No you won't," he predicted. He pointed at the golden bracelet adorning her slim wrist again. "Keritalyn, remember? He's not just your husband ... he's a part of your soul. That bracelet says so. That bracelet that you willingly donned, you'll recall. In fact you insisted on donning it. Mere marriage wasn't enough for you. Now you're stuck. You can't divorce part of yourself. And even if you did divorce him ... you'd risk losing Daxam as an ally. And you can't afford to do that right now." The tall man looked almost triumphant. But when Nah spoke again his voice was soft, laden with gentle compassion.
"And there are ... other reasons ... you'll never divorce Lar," he told her. Tasmia scowled.
"I haven't kept the great Daxamite bastard dungeoned up for the last ten years out of passion!" she snarled.
The Earl Marshal bit back the wry comment stinging the tip of his tongue. He wanted to say, "Oh yes, you have. That's exactly why you've imprisoned Lar. The wonder is that you can't see it." But he said nothing, of course. Jo only shook his graying, aggrieved head in consternation.
"I tried to warn you," he reminded her. "I begged you to reconsider. First, when you made him the Mon-L, your Consort. And especially when you declared him keritalyn. That's an unbreakable bond. Like the inertron bracelets that symbolize it. I told you you'd regret it. Lar is like my brother. I'd gladly die for him and you know it. But that doesn't make me blind to his faults." Jo Nah smiled hugely. "Or yours," he emphasized. Laughing, Tasmia patted his grizzled cheek.
"That's why I like having you around, Jo," Tasmia informed him. "You keep me honest." Her companion snorted hot derision.
"No, I don't," he declared. "That was Lar. And look where it got him." Tasmia bristled.
"I forbid you to say that name again!"
"I'll say it as many times as it takes to make you listen," Nah promised. "Lar. Lar Gand. Your husband! And, by royal decree your keritalyn ... your soulmate."
"He's a traitor!" she cried, dark eyes flashing rage. "A traitor and a pain in the fundament!"
"Absolutely, your Majesty," her Earl Marshal agreed without question. It did not surprise him that her glance was full of mock suspicion when it fell upon him again.
"I was young and stupid," she averred, watching closely for Nah's reaction. "I made a mistake."
"Absolutely, your Grace," Nah returned in a voice dry as the desert winds of Talok VIII itself. "That's what comes of thinking with the wrong set of organs. You should have married Vril Dox all those years ago when you had the chance. Not sweet talked him out of his Body Shield. I can still recall your mother's look of total horror when she realized what you intended. To say that she was appalled is the understatement of the millennium. Poor Lyrissa the Elder was the soul of convention. She was all set for you to marry Vril Dox." Nah paused. "I'm convinced that it was the idea of you marrying a commoner ... and a Daxamite, at that, that finally killed her; NOT a heart attack. She was very fond of Vril Dox." Tasmia shuddered.
"Then she should have married him," Tasmia contended. "I'd rather couple with a pit viper, any day," the Queen of Talok VIII assured her Earl Marshal. "It's infinitely safer. And less repulsive. Thank the Ancestors Querl is nothing like him." Jo crossed his arms over his chest.
"If you say so," he muttered beneath his breath. "Speaking of 'The Pride of Colu' ... " Jo began in a louder voice.
"The 'Pride of Colu'," came a sardonic reply from the bed behind them, "is awake. And not at all fond of being spoken of as if he were an idiot or not present." The older man flushed scarlet and gritted his teeth. Damned impertinent puppy! The Queen's bell-like laughter filled the large room and tinkled off the cold stone walls.
"Doesn't much need my protection, does he, Jo?" Tasmia said proudly. Leaning down, she kissed the young man lying in her bed, still tousled from their passion of the night before. "Morning, love," she greeted him, "Mind your manners, now. It's too early in the morning to fight with Jo. This is going to be a wretched day. If I start biting and shouting now, I'll be hoarse before breakfast. Have mercy on an old woman."
The cold, green eyes softened, and the smile became quite genuine. The youth drew his knees up and rested his arms upon them. Chuckling dark mirth, he traced the line of her cheek with one long, elegant finger.
"Not so old as that," Querl told her. His eyes danced, reflecting the flames from the large room's fireplace. He watched her studying the flames closely, seeking answers in the shadows cast into the far corners of the large room. These days it wasn't hard to follow her thoughts.
"When you're gathered to your Ancestors, Tasmia, what will you do?" he chuckled. "Will you look down and see who's sitting on your throne? Haunt the one who holds your Kingdom?" Unlike his query, Tasmia's answer held nothing of lightness or frivolity.
"I can't wait that long," she said grimly. "I have to know before I'm gone that I've left my Kingdom in the proper hands. I've built an Empire -- the whole of the United Planets, half the Dominion and beyond. The galaxy hasn't seen my like in a millenium. I can't give that sort of power to just anybody, now can I? And Lyddie's going to succeed me."
The Queen was very careful not to take notice of the dark scowl of distaste that passed over the broad features of her Earl Marshal. She wasn't the only one to notice it. Nor was Nah the only one whose face cradled disapproval. The young Coluan prince looked at the stolid Earl Marshal with a smile at once compounded of anger and despair..
"How comforting it is," he observed with careful venom, "to know one's fate beforehand. And one's place. Win or lose, my future is assured. Queen against Consort, Bishops against Knights ... Pawns really have no place in such exalted company. Any Paragon master will tell you that." Querl's teeth set themselves and the muscles of his jaw worked. "But then, Paragon is a Daxamite game, isn't it? Not fit for a simple Coluan like me," he remarked, voice gone caustic with the acid of unspilled frustration. With a sigh, Tasmia took his face in her hands, looking deep into his bright green eyes.
"Mind me, my sweet, sweet boy. You were only ten when your brother bargained with me for your marriage to my heir. I thought you were only a convenience; living proof of a compact between your brother, the Tyrant of Colu and I. But suddenly, there you were, all intelligent silence and gangly knees, watching me and learning. How I waited until you were of age to take you from Lyddea, I can't tell you. I must be a stronger woman than I thought. I love you, Querl. I didn't take you into my bed or my heart lightly." He looked away, but she guided his gaze firmly back upon her. "But when I say we're done --- that's an end of it."
"I'll fight for you," he promised her. "If you give me to Lyddea she'll die childless. You may count upon it." Her embrace was warm and close.
"That's between you and Lyddie," Tasmia said. "Not my problem." The Earl Marshal shifted angrily from foot to foot and cleared his throat nosily. Tasmia gritted her teeth.
"Go ahead and say it, Jo," she urged him, "before you burst."
"And what of Lyrissa?" he demanded. "She's the eldest, not Lyddea. The eldest and the strongest, too. Lyddea's the youngest and the weakest. Don't be a fool, Tasmia just because you favor Lyddea over Lyrissa. How do you propose to keep Lyrissa from taking what you give Lyddea when you're gone? She will, I guarantee it. You can't just ignore Lyrissa."
"No? Watch me," said Tasmia succinctly. The Earl Marshal stomped his booted foot in frustration and threw back his head.
"Why Tasmia," he cursed, "give me one frimping reason why! Because Lyrissa loves her father?" The ringing slap that Tasmia discharged across her Earl Marshal's grizzled cheek would be some time in fading and the sound of it echoed off the cold stone walls for several moments before it dissipated.
"Damn you!" the Queen of Talok VIII cried. "Lyddie will be Queen because I say she will! And because she loves me. She's the only one of my children who does!" Jo Nah made no move to avoid the stinging slap from his Monarch. When it was done, he stood very, very still for several moments before he spoke.
"Tasmia," Jo said with soft sadness echoing in his strong voice, "Lyddie loves you all right. Lyddie loves you like a potter loves a tinker's dam." He bowed deeply to Tasmia and then to Querl.
"My Queen ... your Grace ..." With a curt wave of dismissal, the angry monarch watched her Earl Marshal's stiff-backed departure, his head held high.
"He's right, you know," Querl said. "Lyddea loves your crown, not you. She'll do anything to get it." Slightly annoyed, he watched as Tasmia smiled at him indulgently, almost as if he were a small child who'd just uttered something profoundly sweet. Tasmia sat next to him on the bed and he allowed himself to be pulled into her surprisingly strong embrace. The strength in that slight body never ceased to amaze him.
"They'll both do anything for my crown," she murmured. "Lyddea AND Lyrissa. I raised them to be strong. To fight for what they want." He smiled at her and pulled away to peer into her dark eyes, watching carefully for some sign, some clue in the curve of a sharp cheekbone, the sweep of an arched eyebrow.
"You have three children, you know," he reminded her gently. "Why is it, I wonder, that no one ever mentions Kel and the Kingdom in the same breath?" Tasmia's frown was a study in puzzled incomprehension.
"Kel? What does Kel have to do with the succession? Querl, Talok is a matriarchy. And the last time I checked, Kel was a man. He's not in line for the throne. I hope you're not trying to tell me that Kel loves me, too, and that I should consider him." The Coluan prince shook his head and tousled hair the color of sunshine set Tasmia's heart racing.
"No," he said, "Kel doesn't love you any more than Lyddea does." He kissed her palm and watched her eyes darken with rising passion. "I know of only four people who have ever loved you, Tasmia. One of them is dead. You just slapped another of them for trying to tell you the truth ... " He closed his eyes in pain. "And one of them has been locked up in prison for ten years by your decree." Tasmia's hands knotted themselves into fists at her side and her lips thinned in fury.
"And the fourth?" she asked, softly. Querl's lips touched her palm once more, brief and gossamer as the touch of a butterfly.
"The fourth," he whispered, "is sitting right in front of you." Her eyes shining, she ran lithe fingers through his long blond hair, then cradled his head on her breast.
"I'm an old woman, Querl Dox," she said, "I've conquered planets and star systems, birthed children and buried them. In my sixty years I've known heroes and Kings, bawds, tempters, accountants and little girls. But nowhere, nowhere have I ever found anyone to love save you."
"Liar!" he thought sadly, and was glad for the absence of Tasmia's Chief Councilor, the telepathic Titanian woman, the Lady Imra.
For several moments she held him very close, basking in the warmth of his youthful body. "Whoever said Coluans are cold and calculating never met this one," she told herself. The path before her was plain. But then, hadn't it always been so? She was simply reluctant to walk it, she knew. But walk it she must. One way or another. Sooner or later.
Sooner, she decided.
"Do what you must, woman," she castigated herself. "There's no other way to be a Queen, a strong ruler, and sixty seasons old all at the same time."
Moving crisply, her decision made, she rose and clapped her hands, once, impatiently. The guard bowed low as she entered the Queen's presence, leaving the door open behind her as custom demanded..
"Summon back the Earl Marshal Nah," she instructed her servant, her voice curt. "I have a task for him."
Deadly silent, the shadows reached out and engulfed the tall woman's opponent before she could avoid them. Blinded and afraid now, the shorter woman lashed out, instinct guiding her hand. But her blows fell on nothing. There was no one there to receive them. The taller of the two antagonists was gone. The Earl Marshal narrowed his eyes, but still they could not piece that darkness to see properly to the heart of this struggle. Nah smiled and considered the spreading darkness.
"That's her mother in her," he acknowledged.
From out of the shadows rose the sound of breaking bone and the smell of great fear. "Mercy, Princess!" cried a shrill voice, teetering on the edge of pleading, and Nah did not need the honorific to tell him that it was not the voice of the one he sought. A low voice, deep for a woman, answered and the shadows began to dispel themselves.
"Forgive me, Salu!" it said. "I hadn't meant to harm you. Sometimes I ... forget myself ... "
"And that's her father in her," Nah admitted. He stepped forward as aid was summoned for the luckless Lady Salu.
"Lyrissa?" he called softly.
In silent disapproval, the Earl Marshall watched the tableau unfold before him. From out of the plane of the elliptic the tightly bunched ships probed cautiously, proceeding with slow deliberation around the girth of the great yellow sun to their rear. Well armed, they advanced with more confidence now, meeting no resistance.
Floating in space, free of the constraints of gravity, waiting against the star filled garment of the eternal, a lone man observed them closely. The faint blue radiance that surrounded him reflected off his sapphire eyes and perhaps it was only the blackness of space that made them seem chill and harsh.
Watching, Nah made no judgments, reached no conclusions.
Patient as any webbed spider, the man waited, watching the advancing ships carefully. Smiling dispassionately, he saw the ships proceed beyond the illusionary safety of open space out into the confusion of the waiting asteroid belt. Their commander must be quite sure of himself.
With a single abrupt gesture, swift and sure as a striking hawk, he brought his hand down, pointing emphatically in the direction of the advancing enemy ships.
From above, along the z-axis of the newly ordained battlefield, ships descended like a swarm of annoying insects, small and quick, stinging their larger targets, then darting agilely away. All the while driving the larger more numerous vessels further into the asteroid belt.
Again, the floating man observed clinically; waiting patiently once more.
Sound does not carry in the vacuum of space and so he was denied the pleasure of any great rush of noise to accompany the destruction of ship after ship and the men who manned them. But the pyrotechnic display of lights and color as ships and men perished was beautiful beyond belief mirrored against the stark blackness of space... With a will he governed himself. Not now.
No, not now ... wait for it ... wait for it ...
Blue eyes sparkling in triumph, he gestured again and, from behind sheltering asteroids, cloaked ships rose and open fired upon the hapless intruders. The battle was quick, savage and very one sided.
Politely, the Earl Marshal Nah waited until the slaughter was done before he addressed the Prince of Talok VIII, the neglected, seldom regarded, middle child and only son of Tasmia Mallor, the Queen, as he divested himself of his clumsy VR gear.
"Kel," he said. "It's time to put away your toys. You're needed."
The vast inertron doors slid noiselessly open and the four guards escorting Jo Nah stepped cautiously through. Vigilant eyes probed the large room and although the plasma rifles the guards carried rested casually in the hands of their wielders, ready fingers never strayed far from the triggers.
Which was as it should be, of course.
Despite its size, Jo reflected, no one would ever mistake this place for anything but exactly what it was: a prison. Only the small holovid of a young Talokian girl sitting in one unobtrusive corner of the stark room gave any evidence of human occupancy.
"I wonder which it is," The Earl Marshall pondered the holovid for an instant, "the daughter ... or the wife ... ? The likeness is remarkable." Likely he would never know. But then, there were a great many things about the man in this room like that. With a wave of his hand he dismissed the guards.
"Sir?" came the slow, reluctant response from the senior guardsman. "Are you sure?" Wordless Nah stared at the man and frowned. "He's - ah - in a really bad mood today, Sir," the armed man amended with a smile, a feeble attempt at unfelt jocularity that fell quite flat. Again Jo signaled dismissal and this time he was obeyed.
Silent, Jo Nah watched his friend Lar Gand, the Mon-L, Consort to Queen Tasmia Mallor of Talok VIII, chin himself one-handed on the high exercise bar. In the dim light of the huge room his pale skin and space dark hair, peppered now like the night sky with sparks of silver, shone like a star.
"48 ... 49 ... 50 ... "
Casually, the powerfully built man released the bar and fell lightly to the floor some ten feet below. With a towel, he wiped the sweat from his face and then his broad chest. He was careful not to touch the glowing collar around his neck. But still Jo did not miss the brief flash of pain that crossed his handsome features when his hand strayed too near it. Nah waited patiently until he seated himself. When Lar spoke at last, it was not a question he asked in his deep, familiar voice, so Jo did not answer him.
"Vril Dox is coming," Lar said. "There's to be a Gathering ... "
The slender, azure skinned girl ran joyously down the hall and launched herself at the tall figure striding swiftly from the other end. With effortless ease, he caught her, lifting her over his head and spinning her round and round, smiling brilliantly.
"Kel!" Lyddea Mallor, Princess of the Talokian Empire cried, squealing with delight. Setting her lightly on the floor Kel Gand laughed as she hugged his neck and smothered him with kisses.
"Lyddea, little sister! Careful or you'll give me a complex. I'm not used to beautiful women throwing themselves into my arms."
Playfully, she slapped at his face. "No?" she teased. "I'm sure the Lady Luornu will be sorry to know that you don't think she's beautiful, brother. Or Lady Lori, or Lady Nura! But oh! I forgot! That was last week, wasn't it? You're a charming cad, you are." She buried her head in his neck and embraced him tightly.
"Oh Kel!" she whispered, ecstatic with pleasure. "She's really going to do it. Mother's going to name me her heir. She promised me. Are you happy for me, Kel?" Since she could not see his face, the warmth of his voice was sufficient to misguide her.
"Of course, I am little sister," he said smoothly. "Why shouldn't I be happy for my favorite sibling?" He grew serious for a moment and lifted her chin, staring deep into her eyes. The concern reflected in his own blue eyes might even have been genuine. After a fashion.
"Lyddie, you mustn't lift your guard just yet. Listen to me, now, carismia. This isn't the end. Make no mistake. Lyrissa won't take this lying down, you can be sure of that. This is only the beginning. Mother isn't done playing her games with us yet. And neither is Lyrissa."
"Why, I didn't know you cared, dearest brother," came a deep yet feminine voice at their back. Still smiling Kel turned to face it.
"Who says that I do, sister dear?" he returned cheerfully. In his arms Lyddea scowled, favoring her older sister Lyrissa with a withering glance. To her eternal irritation, the older, larger woman ignored her completely. Kel smiled more broadly still.
"It's merely entertaining, is all," he chuckled empty mirth. "I do so enjoy a good game. I'd be a fool not to, wouldn't I?"
Lyrissa's practiced sneer was a masterwork of its kind. "No," she admitted, "you're not a fool. There are many other things I could think to call you ... but that isn't one of them."
Kel bowed slightly from the waist. "You're too kind," he drawled, "you'll spoil me if you're not careful."
"What do you want here, Lyrissa?" demanded Lyddea. "Come to admit defeat?" Again she was ignored.
"You're looking lovely as ever, I see," Kel told Lyrissa. "You must tell me how you do it," he continued. "It has to be difficult to maintain such ... fragile ... beauty in an armed soldier's camp."
With a disparaging gaze, Lyrissa took in the tall, trim figure of her brother, her regard traveling slowly from sole to crown. She let dark, mocking eyes linger on the pale skin, the jet black hair, the smoky blue eyes.
"Such a handsome brother, I'm graced with," exclaimed Lyrissa. "It's really a blessing that you look more like Father every day. You remind Mother of him so strongly I'm sure you're a great comfort to her in his ... absence."
His smile never wavered; his face did not register pain or anger. Still and expressionless, it proclaimed his invulnerability and unconcern. No, it was only his eyes that ... changed.
"Charming ... as ever," he said said with lifted eyebrow and a sere voice that rivaled the Great Northern Desert in its arid, dry, emptiness.
"Now, now, children," scolded the Earl Marshal Jo Nah with cheerful patience. Stepping into sight from the shadows of the corridor, he gestured them forward and continued his discourse. "Let's try to avoid killing one another, shall we? That comes after your Mother is gone. Remember: timing is everything in these matters of state."
Kel inhaled deeply, and smiling, threw his arms around his two sisters in merry glee, ignoring Lyrissa's attempts to evade his embrace. "Ah, what a loving family we are!" he intoned. "Are we not blessed, my sisters? Can't you smell it?" He sniffed the air loudly. "The plot thickens, passions burn and we're the fat crackling in the fire!"
Laughing loudly, he watched Lyrissa and Lyddea vie for position as they followed the silent Earl Marshal down the long, empty corridor.
When they stood before the doors of the small study that Tasmia Mallor used for private audiences, Nah gestured the two girls forward and opened the door. He nodded at Kel and closed the door.
"We're to wait out here," he told the prince.
With a sigh of apparent contentment, Kel threw himself into a waiting chair. He draped one long leg casually over an arm rest, crossing his hands behind his head.
"Ahhh diplomacy," he crooned. "Such a taxing art! How does my poor, frail Mother bear the strain of it?"
The not entirely stolid Earl Marshal could not quell the smile that rose, unbidden, to his lips and did not try to conceal it. He snorted back quick laughter, shaking his head. But he did not speak. That would not have been appropriate. His long years of service to his friend the Queen had taught him caution, if not the detested article of diplomacy itself. It was only when his sharp eyes fell upon the small silver chain circling Kel's bared right wrist that he began to lose his smile.
"I see you still wear it," he said softly.
Instantly, Kel shot stiffly erect in his comfortable chair, staring at the elder man. A lesser man might have quailed under that hot scrutiny. The Earl Marshal Jo Nah merely looked sad. Quickly, Kel pulled his sleeve down to cover the gleam of metal on his exposed wrist. And his equally exposed heart.
"When my daughter Winema gave you that," Jo pointed to the silver chain, "it fit loosely around your neck. Now it's a tight fit around your wrist. You've grown tall like your father. How old were the two of you, then? Nine? Ten?"
"Eight," said Kel.
Jo shook his head. "You must have loved her a lot," he said.
Kel's hands balled themselves into fists for a moment before he relaxed. "Oh no," Kel said. "You must be mistaken. Haven't you heard, old man? I never loved anyone or anything." Nah said nothing; only glanced once more at the Prince's now covered wrist. Uncomfortably, Kel shifted his weight. "And if I did?" he said bitterly. "Does it matter? She's been dead for almost twelve years."
"Eleven years, nine months, two weeks, and four days," said Nah. "Did you think I'd forgotten? Not likely. A man doesn't forget the day, the hour, he loses his wife and only child. That bomb was meant for Tasmia. Tinya and Winema were just in the way. And you. It's a miracle you weren't killed as well, boy. You were there. A sprocking miracle."
Kel smiled as if at a secret only he was ken to. I'm lucky that way," was his wry observation.
Jo watched the young man seat himself once more with casual, near boneless grace in the chair and frowned. When did it happen, he wondered? When did I lose sight of him? Once upon a time he was like my son. Lar was free and happy. Tasmia was always smiling, laughing, eager and anxious for the next world to conquer. And I was a husband and father, not this aging, dried up stick. How in the name of all the Ancestors did we get here from where we started?
One step at a time, he answered his own grim question; one step at a time. "Look there!" he taunted himself. "Can't you see the footsteps clearly there in the sands of time? The big, stodgy plodding ones are yours"
"What happened to you, boy?" he asked Kel in bewilderment. "You were a sweet child." He shook his graying head. "I don't understand. What happened?"
The door opened and a familiar, commanding voice summoned Kel into his mother's presence. Rising languidly, Kel paused briefly at the door, straightening his cloak, and frowned at the Earl Marshal.
"I grew up, old man," he said simply, as if that explained everything. "I grew up."
The door closed behind him and Nah's last sight of Kel Gand, Prince of Talok VIII, was the sardonic, mocking smile he wore. As if the galaxy and all its inhabitants were a singularly unfunny joke perpetrated by an angry god.
"You have our leave to go," Tasmia said. Gratefully, but reluctantly, too, the guards withdrew, leaving her alone with her family.
"Cold comfort, indeed," she thought sourly.
"Tasmia ... the collar ... " Nah reminded her. Despite himself, he could not keep the briefest smattering of distaste from his voice. Tasmia lifted an eyebrow in wordless query and stared at her husband, waiting.
"Well, lover?" she asked. "Can I trust you?" Nah winced, but his stern look at the three children was enough to insure their silence. Even Kel; which surprised him.
Towering over Tasmia, Lar Gand leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. "Did you ever?" he wanted to know. Tasmia's smile wavered and her eyes grew chill. The Earl Marshal Nah stamped his foot in irritation.
"Stop it!" came his sharp demand. "The two of you have better things to do than rip and tear at one another, for the Ancestor's sake! Enough! Vril Dox is the problem here." He faced Tasmia squarely, almost as if he were confronting an enemy and not an old friend. His frustration with all these hurtful games rose to the top of his mind like soured cream and he cursed. More loudly than he might otherwise have done.
"You know sprocking good and well that Lar won't hurt you, Tasmia. If that was all he wanted you'd have been dead years ago." There was no denying that. Reaching up, she tapped the faintly glowing mechanism in a certain place keyed to her touch, and only her touch, and it came away in two distinct pieces. Without a word, Jo took them from her hand, watching Lar close his eyes, and rub his bare neck in freedom, then draw in a deep breath; savoring the taste of the air. As if it were somehow different, fresher, more pleasant, now.
The Queen's small hands stroked her husband's cheek and she embraced him, laying her head on his broad chest. "Damn, I've missed you," she said softly. "Are you well? I worry about you so ... "
For long moments, Jo Nah watched his friend Lar Gand struggle. The battle he fought was written plainly on his face. "You were never very good at hiding, were you, Lar?" he thought. "You always did wear your thoughts and desires on your face as open as the pages of a book." Jo's instincts told him that his friend had lost this battle; as he had lost very few physical ones. Tasmia's Consort closed his eyes. But not before Nah glimpsed his crumbling defenses; his ultimate defeat.
And the bitter self contempt for his own weakness that would still be there when the Mon-L opened his eyes once more.
"Damn you, Tasmia," Nah thought, waging his own losing battle with pathos, "damn you to Sheol. The both of you!"
Like a rusty hinge, long unused and shrieking its protest, Lar Gand embraced his wife, slowly, uncertainly, as if he couldn't quite remember how it was done. He caressed her hair with an unsteady hand, sweeping it from off her brow.
"You work too hard," Lar said, his deep voice low and quiet. He ran his fingers lightly over the frown lines at the corners of her mouth and closed her eyes with a kiss, masking the weariness lurking in the depths of those dark, onyx pools from his sad sight.
She ran her fingers through his hair and kissed his eyes in turn because she knew that it always left him breathless. He drew in a deep, shuddering breath. After forty years, it was still the same.
"I don't have you to laugh with me or to love me anymore," she said. "I haven't much but my work left." Her embrace tightened.
"Ancestors curse you, Lar Gand. Why can't you be as ugly and venal as I want you to be? Why do you have to be you? Strong and straight and beautiful." With a sigh, he stepped away from her, kissing her palm.
"You made me so," he said sadly. "Would you really have me any other way?"
"No," she said, shaking her head with equal sadness.
Jo Nah turned his face away from his two friends, feeling very much like an intruder. His gaze fell upon their children and he let it linger there, blotting out the sight of the tragedy unfolding at his back. He was a bit taken aback at the astonishment on Lyddea's face. Watching her parents, the youthful Princess gaped, as if she were lost in some twisted, alien landscape; lost and clueless for direction. Jo was tempted to smile.
"You don't remember them together do you, little girl?" he mused. "You were too young. Are the pain and recriminations all that you know of them, I wonder? Sad to think so, but it must be true." For an instant he felt pity for the girl. Until he saw the disgust and distaste in her eyes at her parents fleeting moment of happiness.
Like her father, Lyrissa was easy to read. Her smile was blatant, blazing forth for all the world to see. It was infectious and Nah almost followed suite before he brought himself up short. "Lyrissa, Lyrissa!" he cautioned, wishing that he dared speak the words aloud. "Guard your heart, little Princess! Guard your heart!" He peered at Lar and Tasmia from the corner of his eye. "It won't last. You know that. It never does."
It was Kel who surprised him. The Talokian Prince observed his parents with almost clinical detachment. The sharp intelligence in his deep blue eyes, banked and concealed like the embers of a smoldering fire most times, didn't miss a thing. Not the passion in the embrace nor the words not spoken. Nothing escaped his scrutiny.
But that wasn't what surprised Nah. The thought that there might be more to Kel than the frivolous, sarcastic face he turned to the world was not an entirely new one. And if he had never before been presented with such stark evidence of such a thing, still he had not dismissed it out of hand as so many did.
No, it was the amorphous seeds of memory stirring in those icy blue depths that compelled Jo. Could it be? Possibly. Kel was just past twenty. ld enough, Nah suspected, to recall his parents before ...
"Compassion? From Kel? Not very sprocking likely," he told himself, angry at his own bad judgment.
The guard who stepped into the room was nervous; cautious and uncertain enough to make Jo wonder how sharp her ears were. Tasmia stepped out of her Consort's arms, holding onto his hand until, with a squeeze, she released it, too. All business now, the Queen regarded the interrupting servant sternly and waited for her to speak.
"Highness," the guard informed her Queen, bowing low, "The Tyrant of Colu and his retinue have arrived in the main courtyard." Tasmia waved her dismissal and turned to Jo with a smile.
With more than a touch of malice, the Earl Marshal Nah returned his monarch's smile, chuckling low in his throat.
"He'll be furious that you weren't there to greet him personally," he was duty bound to remind her. Still smiling, she directed him out the door with a merry gesture.
"He'll also know who's in charge of this little tete-a-tete, now won't he?" she grinned hugely. "Go! Go! After all, it would be unforgivably impolite to keep him waiting. And we can't have that."
Jo's mocking bow, low and sweeping, was good practice for greeting Vril Dox, he told himself. As he exited the royal presence at a slow, languid pace, in no apparent hurry to accomplish his commission, the only one who wasn't laughing was Lyddea, who merely looked confused.
"Ancestor's help us all," Jo thought, having quite lost his merriment. "She won't last an hour on the throne."
The banquet in "celebration" of Vril Dox, the Tyrant of Colu's, state visit to his fellow monarch, Queen Tasmia of Talok VIII, was in full swing and going splendidly. From all points of view, Jo Nah thought as he watched the sullen, fulminating Vril Dox turn away a nervous servant. "Tied up with Imperial affairs", Tasmia had begged his royal indulgence. The luckless Councilor who delivered the message had barely escaped the Coluan ruler's swift hand.
Having had the entire afternoon to brood upon the slight, Dox was in a fine fettle. "In fact," Jo thought to himself, only avoiding a smug grin by inches, "if I didn't know better, I'd say that His Intelligence Supreme, the Tyrant of Colu, was in a royal snit." He did chuckle at that. He couldn't help himself. He watched as Dox turned away all food and drink, brusquely. His grin widened.
"Having a food taster sample your fare at a public feast not your own is probably a good idea in his case, the Shades know," Jo reasoned, "but not very diplomatic, I suppose. So the Tyrant goes hungry. And far be it from Tasmia to provide such a simple accommodation as a taster. Why that would be an insult! It might imply that His Highness wasn't loved and venerated by one and all. Heaven forfend such a thing!" Jo watched the Coluan despot fume. "He really is kind of attractive hoist up there on the point of that petard," the grizzled Earl Marshal decided.
From his station just behind Tasmia's right elbow, Jo Nah surveyed the crowds of Courtiers and foreign dignitaries, reflexively. He smiled at the Lady Imra and felt her warm reassurance echo through his mind. Apparently no more than the usual mischief was afoot this evening. Whisper quiet, a sigh of relief escaped the Earl Marshal.
His eyes were drawn to the tall, golden haired young girl standing directly behind Vril Dox. She had, of course, not been introduced. Body Shields never were. They were invisible until they were needed. That's what she had to be, after all. Jo gusted a sad sigh.
"The waste," he mourned. "Ancestral Shadows ... the waste of it all."
She reminded him a bit of Lar. The same sapphire blue eyes and high cheekbones; the same air of detached skill and fixed determination he remembered from Lar's time as Tasmia's Body Shield. But then, he supposed that was something common to all Body Shields.
The cream of Daxamite youth, five hundred were chosen in each generation, trained by the Body Guild, and their services auctioned by contract to the highest bidder. Highly trained and motivated, they were just as their name suggested: shields for the bodies of others. It was their duty to impose their invulnerable bodies between their "employers" and all harm. Strictly regulated, cared for, and watched over by their Guild, they were not only a necessity for people such as Vril Dox, but a status symbol as well.
Upon them depended the economy of Daxam to a large extent. Since the Time of the Great Darkness, so long ago now, Daxam had been ostracized and mistrusted by the rest of a galaxy still smarting from the wounds the unknowing Daxamites had inflicted upon it in service to The Dark Lord. Legends said that for a time, there was serious talk of attempted genocide, even. Tongues and small wars raged on both sides until a compromise had been reached. The Body Guild. Body Shields were the sole Daxamites allowed off their heavy gravity world. They provided an invaluable service and so Daxam was allowed to go its own way, unmolested.
So long as they were willing to sacrifice their best young people to the cause of continued existence.
Jo looked again at the young girl. Oh yes! There it was. Just as he'd seen it in Lar's eyes so long ago ... that look of trapped resignation, deeply covered over by fierce, unyielding pride. In that, she might have been Lar's twin. Jo allowed himself to acknowledge the significance of her presence. He had found himself saddened to hear of Dev-Em's death. The buoyant, carefree Body Shield was a bright, laughing spirit who had left his mark in more ways than one. Jo glanced from the corner of his eye at Tasmia and then at Lar.
Oh, yes, more ways than one.
Tasmia had never cared for the idea of a Body Shield at all. "Slavery is illegal, Jo!" was the Princess Tasmia's withering reply to her doting, worried Earl Marshal's only suggestion that she employ one. And then came Vril Dox, courting her Mother's throne and her ... bringing along his Body Shield, Lar Gand. She rejected Vril Dox but somehow managed to convince her mother that she needed a Body Shield. One particular Body Shield. Vril Dox's Body Shield to be exact ...
And so the deed was done. The furious Vril Dox had made his frustrated way back to Colu sans his expected Princess ... and his Body Shield. Jo smiled at that memory. When Tasmia married Lar, to everyone's shock and utter amazement, the Body Guild had simply send a replacement, unasked. The Rules of the Guild demanded it, the Guildmaster said. Since the Rules of the Guild also strictly forbade intimacy between a Body Shield and their "client" Tasmia was in no position to deny them, Jo reflected. If the Guild was willing to look the other way ... then so was she.
Kal-L was a quiet young man, Jo recalled. Rarely speaking, he wore his earnestness and loyalty like a second skin. It was simply a part of who he was. In the beginning, Tasmia barely noticed him and that was only proper, of course. And if Lar felt any kinship for the young, indentured Daxamite, so much like himself, he was careful to keep it within circumspect bounds. And that was only proper, too. "We're all such proper sprocking bastiches," Jo thought and the acid of his memories began to eat its relentless way through the carefully erected barriers of his mind. And then ... and then ...
Jo Nah closed his eyes in pain and his hands writhed in agitation, opening and closing, opening and closing, reflexively ... Quickly, he crossed his arms over his chest, cradling his traitorous, speaking hands in his armpits to still them. His attempt at looking formidably alert was a good one, he thought.
"Could it really be that simple?" he wondered. "Could all this nass have started with Grev's death?"
Tasmia and Lar were both hard hit by the death of their eldest child; their son. Without seeming effort, Jo remembered the loud voices, the stinging, hasty recriminations ... the pain in Lar's eyes when Tasmia moved on with her life, busying herself with Imperial affairs ... and he couldn't seem to follow her. The torment as they grew further and further apart ...
Or was it Kal-L's death that proved the final catalyst? Jo could never make up his mind about that.
He'd suspected that Kal-L's replacement, the brash Dev-Em was doomed in any case. And he knew it. "Live fast, die gloriously, and leave a beautiful corpse," the Body Shield had once quipped to Jo. And so he had, by all accounts. Even before Tasmia tired of him and passed his contract on to Vril Dox (returning a favor ... or so she claimed ... ) the handwriting had been plain on the wall of Dev-Em's future. Indeed, he hadn't lasted long in Vril Dox's strenuous service. The Tyrant of Colu was not well liked. He had many enemies. Jo sighed. He'd rather liked the impulsive young Dev whose favorite beverage, like his own, was Silverale.
He looked again at the lovely girl guarding Vril Dox now and could not help but wonder how soon news of her death might be afloat on the galactic winds.
"The waste ... " he mourned again. "The waste ... "
Briefly his attention was drawn to a slim young man clad in dark blue with intelligent brown eyes and unruly nut brown hair, held in precarious place by a simple matching head band. Smiling inoffensively, the youth sat quietly, inconspicuously at the rear of The Tyrant's retinue, sipping his wine, letting the conversation and jocularity flow around him; for the most part unnoticed. Momentarily, Jo wondered what his function could be in Dox's company. Probably a clerk or some such thing, he decided and promptly forgot the young man when Lar's voice drew him back to himself.
"Please to the Ancestors," Jo prayed, fervent and fearful at once, "don't let them argue. Not in public."
"Why can't you underestimate me like everyone else, Tasmia, m'love?" her Consort joked.
"I can't afford to, lover," she answered him, stroking his hand. "You've led too many rebellions against me." Lar threw back his midnight dark head and laughed with great pleasure. Many of the guests smiled to see the grim and moody Consort, the Mon-L, laugh so heartily. No doubt at some witty jest of Her Majesty's. He kissed her hand.
"And I damn near won the last one, too," he chuckled, saluting her merrily with one risen eyebrow. She smiled and took his hand in hers, noting the pleasure her Courtiers and Councilors took in the sight. To her left Querl Dox gave no outward sign that he saw her crowd pleasing gesture and she almost frowned before she remembered what she was about. When she withdrew her hand it was slow, languorous, as if she were loath to do it. But her tone was acid.
"Peace!" she growled. "Leave it in peace, Lar!" He placed his hand over his cup and the wine steward moved away without filling the waiting vessel.
"You ask too little, Tasmia," he murmured, sweet voiced. "Why not eternal peace?"
After a moment, he summoned back the steward and waited impatiently as the startled man filled his cup. His lips touched the cold, golden metal. Careful of his unsteady hand, he set the heavy, ornate flagon down on the table to his side.
"Tell me wife and keritalyn of mine ... " the venom in his soft voice was deep and abiding to Jo's ears, "did you ever love me? Even once?" With a gesture, Tasmia sent an unhappy steward scrambling away from her quick, threatening hand.
"No," she said.
Lar leaned back in his chair and smiled at a passing dancer, a pretty young girl who blushed pink with anticipation and fled behind her hands, giggling with pleasure at her luck.
"Good," he replied still smiling at the dancer. "This will be so much more pleasant that way."
Under his breath, the Earl Marshal Jo Nah cursed and cursed and cursed.
And, across the room, Vril Dox caught sight of the anger written on the aging Earl Marshal's face ... and smiled.
Silently, Jo Nah, Earl Marshal of the Talokian Imperium, watched as his Monarch closed the door behind her, pulled her thick cloak more snugly about her shoulders and moved off down the chill stone corridor, her bare feet scarcely noticing the cold of the stone beneath them. She paused, after a moment, and almost turned around... Nah could see her head turn, her hand reach out for the door ... But she paused, then lost her will. Frowning fiercely, she stalked off down the passageway, never looking back.
Jo gritted his teeth. "Tasmia," he thought, his scathing anger building and following the sight of her down the corridor like a baying hound, "how can anyone so smart be such a fool? And so cruel? Damn you!"
Without any thought of common courtesy or politeness, he flung open the door to Lar Gand's room, almost with a snarl and stormed in.
It was worse inside, of course.
Huddled in the middle of the large sumptuous bed, surrounded by the silken, disheveled bed sheets sat Lar Gand, Consort to Queen Tasmia Mallor. Naked but for the thin cover of the rumpled sheets the Mon-L was almost motionless. He rested his head despondently on his knees, hugging them as if in desperation to make himself somehow smaller. As if it might please him to disappear altogether.
"Ancestral Shadows, Lar!" Jo growled, "why don't you just throw yourself directly in the path of a frimping Nova Bomb the next time and be done with it? It'd be a lot quicker!"
Carefully, Jo seated himself on the edge of the large bed. With a quick hand he reached out and gathered a handful of the black and silver hair at the nape of his friend's neck and jerked the Consort's head back roughly, almost painfully. But the Daxamite made no sound of protest or resistance and that made the Earl Marshal even angrier.
"Sometimes I think you like pain," the smaller man hissed. "Is that it? Do you enjoy it? You must! Else why do you keep coming back for more?"
"It lets me know I'm alive, at least," admitted Lar. "Do you think castration would help? I'm open to suggestions ... "
Nah scowled and released him, pushing him none too gently away, as if tossing aside something unpleasant or unwanted. He did not miss the brief icy spark of anger in the Consort's blue eyes. But he did ignore it as best he could. It wasn't easy to push aside the hurt he saw so meticulously shielded in those sky born depths. His stomach clenched in painful rebellion. Nonetheless, he persisted.
"No," Jo returned, sharp voiced. "This hasn't got a frimping thing to do with sex and you know it. Sheol, man! How many times has she done this to you?" Cruelly, his voice rose in a very poor imitation of Tasmia's sultry contralto, "'I worry about you so!'" he mocked. "'I don't have you to laugh with me or love me anymore. I haven't much left but my work.' And all the while rutting with that Coluan pup every night! In your bed. It's enough to gag a maggot, isn't it?"
Not at all to his surprise, Jo's world exploded in sudden agony and he found himself levering himself painfully up from the hard stone floor where he'd landed. His nose dripping blood onto the intricate weave of the bright gold and crimson of the Kpaistan rug covering the floor, Nah smiled. Without rancor he gazed up into the furious face of Lar Gand looming over him and wiped away the blood, leaving a rusty smear across his bearded cheek.
"Are you upset, Lar?" he sneered. "Are you angry, old man?" His friend's clenched and bared teeth proclaimed it. Jo nodded in agreement, a sharp gesture wielded like a bladed weapon. "Good!" he cried. "Then do something about it! Stay angry if you can. Hit something if you must. Hit me! But do something for the love of the Ancestors! Anything!"
The Daxamite lowered his fist, frowning. "And what do you suggest I do about it, old man?"
Jo sighed at this small sign of defeat. Stepping to the ornately carved clothes chest at the foot of the bed, Jo flung it open and tossed a scarlet and blue bodysuit embroidered in gold thread to the other man. "You could start by putting on some clothes," he pointed out to the still naked Consort with no small amount of sarcasm. "Staring at your ugly hide isn't doing a thing for my cranky disposition, I can tell you that." Hastily, the taller man snatched the clothing from midair and, flushing and embarrassed, turned his back on the Earl Marshal to dress.
"Shades curse you, you old fool, you shouldn't have done that," Nah chastised himself. "You were never a fair man and that proves it beyond a doubt. Don't burden him with your anger as well as his own." Silently he watched the other man dress himself. But what to do?
"You're an ass, Jo Nah," he told himself. "A Rimborian smuggler's boy out of the Rings who got lucky. You pay lip service to all this Talokian religious claptrap because you have to. But you never believed in it. Not for one instant. You never believed in their 'keritalyn' did you? Destined soul mates? Two halves of the same whole, the same soul reunited? 'Rubbish!' you told yourself." He watched Lar Gand stomp on his boots, his face still aglow with his anger and his memory of Tasmia's passion; abandoned once more but still yet struggling and he sighed.
"But sometimes it does happen. Why, it even happened to you." For a brief moment he cherished the memory of long dark hair the color of midnight and eyes to match that came to comfort him in his still raw grief. Twenty years was not enough time to forget Tinya. Or to mourn. No, not by half.
He lay both hands on his friends broad shoulders and turned him slowly around so that he could look into his eyes.
"Lar ... Lar ... " he pleaded softly, "what in the name of the Ancestors am I going to do with you?" The other man swallowed hard. Unbidden, the Daxamite reached out and used his sleeve to wordlessly wipe away the drying blood on Nah's face.
"You could never find the words, could you, Lar?" he thought. So it appeared that he was going to have to. He tightened his grip on those tense shoulders.
"I love you like a brother, Lar Gand," he said quietly. "For forty years, I've fought with you, fought for you, and fought against you. I've eaten with you, slept beside you, suffered with you, and laughed with you. I was there the day your first child was born. And the day he died. When Tinya and Winema were killed I wept in your arms. You're a part of me. And I'm a part of you."
"The best part," Lar murmured, embracing him tightly. "I think ... I think I'd have gone mad these last ten years if not for you." His throat working in soundless pain, Jo Nah held on with all that he had left. When the embrace had worked its soothing magic on them both, they stepped back for a moment and, smiling, stared at one another. For a brief span they simply basked in one another's presence. Finally, Jo spoke, breaking the companionable silence.
"You realize, don't you," he said, his face all seriousness but his eyes twinkling and mocking in mirth, "what this situation calls for?" Lar nodded.
"Heavy drinking?" he inquired, hopefully.
"Absolutely!" Jo assured him.
From the table at his back the Daxamite retrieved a small brown glass bottle and handed it to the Earl Marshal who grabbed it gleefully.
"You didn't forget!" Jo cried.
"How could I?" returned a grinning Lar. "You'd have killed me if I did. Vintage Silverale. Direct from Rimbor. Courtesy of the best smugglers on the Rim."
"Shhhh!" Jo advised, sotto voce. "Not smugglers," he insisted. "That would be ... illegal. We'll just call them 'independent entrepreneurs', hmm?"
"Of course," Lar murmured in sardonic reply. "How crass of me."
Jo did not concern himself with the passage of time. He had no idea know how long the two of them laughed and drank together. The day fled on swift wings and the rest of the world did not matter. They were disturbed only by the occasional interruption of servants sent to fetch more liquor. If it was a matter of worry to any that the Earl Marshal of the Talokian Empire was unavailable for most of an entire day, no one spoke of it.
The sun was rising, kissing the dawn with rosy lips when Nah guided his friend's unsteady steps toward his waiting bed and much needed sleep. His own course was none too straight he noted with disapproval. "For shame, old man," he smiled at himself. "What would Tinya think?" Unbidden, laughter rose to his lips at the thought.
"She'd have given me nassing hell is what!" he decided. "And then she'd have kissed me and put me to bed."
"To the bed!" Jo announced loudly, bleary eyes focusing on his intended target. His brown eyes narrowed and he gritted his teeth in determined concentration. "We can make it! Forward, I say!"
"Just as soon as the room stops spinning," agreed Lar. He glanced at Jo in doleful accusation. "Did you move the bed?" He shook his black and silver head. "We'll never make it that far," was his mournful opinion.
"Nonsense!" Jo cried pulling the Mon-L to his swaying feet. With less than lightning like reflexes the Earl Marshal reached out and caught the tottering Daxamite just in time to prevent him from falling over. And then lost his own balance. With an audible cry of distress the two men went crashing to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. Struggling valiantly, Nah managed to dislodge one knee from his midriff. After that breathing was a little bit easier. So was talking.
"Lar, you can take your hand off my ass any time now," he snarled.
"Just as soon as you get your elbow out of my eye," protested Lar. "You first."
It took them several unsuccessful tries, but they finally disentangled themselves and lurched to their collective feet. Carefully Jo sat Lar Gand on the side of the bed and lay his tall body back on the pillow, then leaned back, puffing a bit at the exertion. "Damn," he muttered darkly, "I don't remember you being so heavy." Woefully he glanced at his companions flat belly and slim hips. "And I can't even blame it on you," he observed querulously. "You're not getting fat. I'm just getting old."
Positioning himself, he grasped one of the Consort's boots and began to tug. With an almost audible "pop" the soft leather footwear came off and sent him spilling across the room like a ripe seed. "Ouch!" he observed to no one in particular, rubbing his sore head where it smarted from striking the opposite wall. Off came the other boot and soon Jo had the bed covers thrown back and the Mon-L gently tucked in, curled into the comfort of warm blankets. Lar hated the cold. Nah smirked in triumph, fell heavily into an ornate rapawood chair and pulled it closer to the bed.
"Never could hold your liquor, could you, Lar?"
Lar Gand was smiling in soft dream-like joy.
"Remember, Jo ...?" he murmured. "The Patriarch ... ?" Jo's smile answered Lar's own.
"I remember," he said.
It was not a memory that would leave him any time soon. Nor had it faded in the many intervening years. Clearly, Jo could still picture him with remarkable ease. The Patriarch of Braal. For over a thousand years the hereditary ruler of more than half a quadrant, the tall unyielding old man was like an aged, hoary hawk hunting the skies of his desert home. Until the Battle of the Venado Nebula. It was the first of Tasmia's many victories and it remained one of her most stunning. Outnumbered more than ten to one by the forces of the ancient Braalian Empire, the youthful Talokian upstart Mallor had nonetheless prevailed. When The Great King of Braal fled the field of battle, he left a few things behind, Tasmia had noted with surprising vitriol. Minor, apparently replaceable items ... such as his Queen, his eldest son, Rokk, his youngest daughter ...
And his father, the Patriarch of Braal, a proud, fierce old man, perishing of shame for his son's cowardice.
Jo could still recall that lavish spaceship, agleam with the shimmer of gold and silver and precious woods; the air redolent with the heavy scent of sacrificial incense. Stronger, though, than even that rose the bitter, acrid smell of biting fear and defeat. The personal quarters of The Great King lay far from any battlefield. But still there was death here.
They expected to die. It had shocked Jo when he sensed that. Like the fine sheen of sweat that clothed their bodies in unseen garments of desperation, the knowledge was there. Certainly, Jo was sure, had it been Tasmia and her retinue who lost that battle, their fate would have been plain. Resigned and frightened, the royal captives waited.
It was almost a relief Jo had realized, when the door irised open to reveal Tasmia and her Consort. All faces turned to them in expectation. Stillness settled like a blanket over the captured royal party. No one dared to stir, lest they draw attention to themselves and be the first to fall. Their eyes were the only things that moved, searching the face of Tasmia Mallor, seeking clues to their fate in the flicker of an eyelash, the sweep of a high boned cheek.
No one ever knew, later, quite how it happened. As he watched the thing unfurl like a tattered banner, Jo realized that no one had told him. No one had told the aged Patriarch the simplest thing about his son's enemy. He did not know.
Careful of his years and dignity, the old man in the gilded robes sitting in his jeweled chair rose to his feet. His white hair and fierce eyes shone in the dimness of the torch lit room. But, as The Patriarch of Braal sank slowly to one knee in obeisance, Nah did not think that the brief look of pain that crossed his sharp angular features had much to do with age or infirmity.
It was not his body that hurt, now.
Jo's eyes widened. It was all he could do not to laugh. He had turned to Tasmia to make a joke, in fact. Until he saw the utter horror upon the faces of the Patriarch's household; the ones who did know the face of Tasmia Mallor, the victor of Venado and their captor.
For the Patriarch was kneeling before the wrong person. In all the excitement, the aftermath of battle and defeat, no one had chanced to tell the Patriarch that his captor, the victor who held the lives of what remained of his son's abandoned household in the palm of her hand, was a woman. And Tasmia and Lar had been standing side by side, Jo recalled.
The Patriarch was bowing before Lar Gand, the Mon-L, Tasmia's Consort. By Braalian standards, the much more commanding of the two. Almost unnoticed, Ewa, until lately Queen of Braal, fainted silently dead away and no one even dared to go to her aid in light of the fear that gripped them like a vise. Tasmia's wrath at such a thing would be terrible, they believed. Surely they were doomed. As the Patriarch himself kenned his mistake, Jo could swear that no one was breathing.
Still dressed in her armor, stained even yet with the grit and grime of battle, Tasmia Mallor smiled down at the proud old warrior. With one hand she reached out and entwined her fingers with those of her Consort. The other she extended to the Patriarch, tenderly helping him to his feet.
"Never mind, Grandfather," she'd said. "He, too, is Mallor."
Jo closed his eyes and, in his dreams, he watched Lar Gand smile in his sleep.
"I remember," the Earl Marshal whispered.
When he woke to the touch of a small, soft hand gently shaking his shoulder, he groaned, sore and stiff from sleeping in the hard chair's scant comfort.
"You're too old to be sleeping in chairs, Jo," said Tasmia with sad affection. "Your bed is calling to you, old man." For a long moment she stared at the man still sleeping on the bed before she turned red eyes back upon her Earl Marshal and friend.
"He doesn't need you to guard his sleep," she said. "He has ... " She grimaced, as if at a jest in questionable taste. "Who were you guarding him against, anyway?" she demanded. Jo held his silence, but his face hardened like the stone beneath their feet and he looked away.
There was almost no anger in Tasmia's soft cry of, "Damn you, Jo Nah. Damn you ..." Only a wistful agony that tore at Jo's heart before he thrust it away.
Glancing away from her pain, Jo drew a deep breath. Turning back once more he saw her brush a tousled strand of night dark hair off her husband's forehead. The morning sunlight, streaming through the window glinted off the gold of the heavy bracelet encircling her right wrist, symbol of her soul union with the sleeping man on the wide bed. Brief as a candle flame, and just as burning, she stroked the sleeper's cheek lightly before her fingers curled themselves into her palm and her hand fell away. On the bed, Lar Gand murmured sleepily and curled into the caress.
"Why can't you do that when he's awake?" Jo pleaded angrily. "When he knows it's you? Where he can see you?" For a moment Tasmia continued to stare at her soul mate. Then she looked up at Jo and her face was utterly still, dark eyes expressionless like chips of volcanic stone.
"Because then he'd win," she said.
And before Jo Nah could protest, could cry out or perhaps simply cry, she was gone in a swirl of silken cloth and damning pride.
Lyddea Mallor threw herself into a chair, scowling petulantly.
"Mama, I don't understand!"
Her mother gritted her teeth and swore under her breath. "Shades of Talok, girl! What don't you understand? It's plain as teats on a Goddess, child." Lyddie wrinkled her nose in distaste.
"It's all so boring!" she cried. "You promise this, Vril Dox promises that ... and what does it all have to do with me when I become Queen? It makes my head hurt. Why can't we just take what we want? All this talk, talk, talk ... " Tasmia sighed in irritation.
"Pay attention, Lyddie! This is important." Lyddie pouted, but waited for her impatient mother to explain it to her one more time. "We need Winath. For one thing, Winath feeds at least a quarter of the worlds in its quadrant. Well-fed people are happy people, Lyddie, remember that. They don't make revolution. And as long as we leave the Winathians alone to worship their Twin Deities and grow their crops ... they're content." With a frown to mirror her displeasure, the Talokian monarch noticed that her daughter wasn't really paying attention. Shadows take her!
"Not only that, Lyddie," Tasmia continued in a louder voice, demanding the young girl's attention, "but Winath is a border world, as well. And they're right in the path of the Khunds. The only other invasion route into the Empire open to the cursed Khunds is through the Gordanian Protectorate ... " A slender blue hand reached out, activating a breathtaking stellar map in 3-D that filled one corner of the large room with light and color. Planets whirled around bright suns. The galaxy spun in tranquil splendor as Tasmia pointed.
"... and then here, past Braal." Her smile grew predatory. "Not even the Khunds are that stupid. Invade an entire world peopled by warriors gifted with the ability to manipulate magnetism, one of the primal forces of the Universe? I think not. There's a reason that, for over a thousand years, the High King of Braal was once ruler of most of this galactic arm, Lyddie." She saw no need to mention her victory over, and eventual absorption of, The Braalian Empire. The current High King, Pol Krinn, was a loyal young man, and brave. Why, he had grown up in this very Palace before Tasmia dispatched him back to his home world to rule in her name.
"All right," conceded Lyddie, staring at the map in narrow eyed concentration, "I can see why Winath's important." Tasmia allowed herself a small flush of pleasure. Nodding, the future Queen of Talok VIII considered, then grinned in triumph, as though she had finished a hard job and done it well. "That's why you made the treaty with Vril Dox in the first place, isn't it, mother? Because you needed Winath!" Tasmia's return nod bespoke her pride in her daughter's accomplishment. "Exactly!" she replied. Lyddie practically beamed and returned to studying the map. Tasmia poured herself more wine and turned to face her youngest daughter once more.
"Technically, until you marry Querl, thus fulfilling the letter of the original agreement, Winath still belongs to The Tyrant of Colu: Vril Dox by name, Shades curse him! And he's come to demand one or the other. Querl's marriage to my heir or the return of Querl's dowry, Winath. He's trying to force my hand about the succession. And he's far from the only one." Lyddie stifled a yawn. Again, she had lost interest.
"Why not just let the Khunds have him?" she advised, sleepy and bored, now. "Without you to prop him up, they'd swallow his little Kingdom and not even notice it. You can always get it back later. Sans Vril Dox. Let The Tyranny and the Khunds go at one another. In the end, they'll weaken each another, then they'll be less trouble that way." Laughing, Tasmia saluted her daughter with her wine cup.
"That's good thinking, child!" she acknowledged. "There may be hope for you yet! Unfortunately, we can't let the Khunds have access to all that Coluan technology. Not even for the brief time it would take us to get the Shadows-bedamned place back from their grasp. No, we'll have to do it another way. Which means that to deal with Vril Dox, I've got to have Winath." Lyddie said nothing, only gazing at her mother intently, waiting to hear more.
"The only pest in the ointment being your father." Tasmia's lips thinned and her black eyes narrowed. But then she smiled. "But he's only a minor pest. I'll soon have what I want." Lyddea's lovely face composed itself into an awesomely ugly sneer that almost frightened Tasmia with its intensity.
"Father is so weak, I wouldn't be surprised," she exclaimed with rising derision.
Instantly, much faster than she could stop herself, the Queen of Talok VIII's slim hand lashed out and slapped her youngest child hard on the cheek. The girl would carry the mark of it for days. Shocked, her daughter reeled back and clutched her smarting, stinging cheek. Tasmia was almost sure the child was about to cry. Anger suffused her at the show of weakness. Devil-Shadows take her, Lyddie was her heir, how could she be so .. so ... Tasmia lowered her hand and clenched it into a fist at her side. Instinctively, she took several steps back, away from the still tempting target of her foolish daughter. It was only her voice she wielded as a weapon, now.
"Weak, Lyddie?" came her forceful hiss. Lyddea blinked rapidly and her color rose, but, wisely, she held her tongue. With a loud crash Tasmia Mallor flung the wine cup she grasped against the stone wall hard enough to bend the malleable gold of its construction into something twisted and ugly. Lyddea gasped at the flash of rage in her mother's black eyes.
"When you were four years old," began the galaxy's greatest conqueror, biting off her words like bullets from a gun, "I lost an important battle. By the time the Dark Circle was done with us there were only two ships of us left and I was unconscious, badly wounded. Most everyone else was dead. Your father held off half a Dominator BattleFleet for three days until we were relieved. With his hands." Tasmia stared at her daughter in wrathful incomprehension of her willful ignorance and the girl shrank even further from her.
"Weak, Lyddie?" she demanded.
Tasmia closed her eyes in resignation. How had it come to this, she wondered? Where had she failed her youngest daughter? How - How -
Lyddea was staring at her. Staring at her with eyes like the twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Perhaps once, something had; but no longer. Now, there were just piles of picked bones back in there, some scribblings on the walls, and some gray ash on the floor where the fires had burned themselves out. The place needed to be aired out, too, Tasmia was sure. After all, she reflected with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, it must be hard to breath in an atmosphere that poisonous ...
For the first time in more years than she cared to admit to, Tasmia Mallor felt the stinging rush of threatening tears. Her eyes flew wide.
"Ancestors help me," she thought. "Did I - did I do that?" Anger rose up to deny it. No! She couldn't have. She loved her children. She did! Didn't she? Yes, yes! A thousand times yes.
"Then how did this happen if you didn't do it? Have you an answer for that, you great bitch?" came that strident accusing voice of self doubt she kept so silent most of the time. "Look at her! So full of greed and envy, she's likely to burst. And Kel!" The Talokian monarch shivered. "What a piece of work he is! Shadow Walker ... Quechyrhin, the Trickster, made flesh. With a mind like a Coluan and a form like mortal sin ... He's the one who should be Great Ruler. If he were a woman you'd have to kill him."
Very deliberately Tasmia forced herself not to think of Lyrissa.
Her youngest child, her daughter, was shocked, the Queen knew, at the suddenness of her mother's embrace. Tasmia's touch was fire and desperation. And the older woman had no idea at all what her child made of the bitter tears that fell like brief, scalding desert rain from her mother's eyes. And, like the rain, sank into the sands and was gone, leaving no trace of its passage. As if it had never been.
"Mama?" The girl in her arms hugged her tightly. "Mama, I'm sorry ... I'm sorry ..." sniffled a frightened Lyddie.
"Are you, Lyddie?" Tasmia wondered in the privacy of her thoughts. "Are you really? Or do you only see your throne slipping away?" Lyddie was waiting for her mother to smile and reassure her that it was only a flare of temper; nothing more. Nothing to come between them. Tasmia searched her eyes and knew that all she had to do was say the word and ... and ...
Lyddie would love her again?
Carefully, Tasmia Mallor, Queen of Talok VIII and Great Ruler of the Talokian Imperium, picked up her discarded, damaged wine goblet and set in on the serving table. It fell over, no longer capable of being what it once was, nor of being repaired. With a steady hand, she swept it into a nearby trash vent and reached calmly for another. The wine, Lacrima Asterae, the Star's Tears, flowed into the new, unmarred cup, reflecting blood red patterns on the cup's polished silver sides.
"Go home, Lyddea," she said.
Sobbing, the girl fled.
When the silence became too oppressive, she reached for more wine and considered the new cup from which she prepared to drink. Was it a strong enough one for the job? Only time would tell. That was the trouble with ... cups ... the most attractive of them were frequently flawed. She studied the reflection of her face in the gleaming metal until she could bear it no longer.
"Curse you," she said to the stranger staring back at her. You'll do what you have to, won't you, woman?" Yes, she would. Carefully, so as not to damage it, she set the cup down.
Then the young girl still living at the heart of Tasmia Mallor cried.
But, when she was done, it was the dry-eyed Great Ruler of Talok VIII who clapped her hands softly.
"Fetch the Mon-L," she crisply ordered the guard who answered her summons.
When the Chamberlain opened the door to announce him, Tasmia watched the young dancer slip her hand from out of Lar Gand's, step with quick silence into the shadows, then disappear like mist. The same one from the Feast? Yes, it was. At her side, Tasmia's hands clenched in rage. Furious, she opened her mouth to shout, to release her pain and anger, give it voice and form. To make it real. To let him know that...that...
That what? That he had hurt her? Had pricked her pride? That she still cared? She set her teeth.
Had she not had enough of that years ago? Tasmia regarded him carefully; the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his head as he watched the dancer melt into the darkness of the corridor. It must have been the look in his eyes that gave the game away, she decided. That still plain look of isolation and loneliness that clung to him like a second skin.
Suddenly, she knew.
He had taken no comfort from the dancer. The smile that graced Tasmia's cupid's bow lips was frank and open, tinged with the sweetness of victory.
"Oh, I know you, Lar Gand," she thought. "I know you too well. You've not lain with her, have you? I'd wager my crown that you haven't. But I'll bet she offered. And you...couldn't. Betrayal isn't in you. It suits you for me to think you made love to her, though, doesn't it?" In the privacy of her thoughts, she watched again the perfectly timed departure, the artful clutch of Lar's hand after the dancer's as the younger woman slid from his stiff embrace. Softly, she began to applaud.
"Well played, Lar, well played!" she cheered him. "Why, for a moment, I actually believed you!"
Tasmia showed him her disdainful back then, stalking away from him with heavy steps, retreating into the coolness of the shadows of her sanctuary. When she heard the door close behind her, she deliberately did not turn to see if he had followed her. She knew that he would. Hadn't he always? She would not allow him even that small triumph. She dared not. For Tasmia had always known that once she permitted him back into her heart, or even acknowledged his continued presence there in any way, she was undone. That he would have won. Even his voice, when he spoke, struck her like the edge of a bladed weapon, and her hand shook as she poured wine for herself.
"What do you want from me, Tasmia?" he demanded.
Spinning to face him, her fingers grasped the wine cup like an anchor as if it might ground her, lend strength to her suddenly shaky knees.
"You know very well what I want, Lar!" she growled. "Damn you! I've got to have Winath to deal with Vril Dox, and you know it! We've run out of time for these petty games. You want Lyrissa on the throne. And for years, you've used Winath as a lever to try and move her there. And I've opposed you at every turn. Even when I imprisoned you, the two of you, you and Lyrissa, conspired behind my back."
He stared at her, making a sharp gesture of dismissal with his hands. "That isn't why you sent me away, Tasmia," he said softly. "All that came afterwards, and you know that." Tasmia gulped her wine, and poured more.
"Lyrissa is a rebel!" she averred, over the rim of the goblet. "She's rash and impulsive!" Tasmia's lips skinned themselves back from her teeth in a very credible snarl. "You set too much store by her. You love her too much!"
Eyes blazing, he shot out of the chair in which he'd reclined, and grabbed her wrist that raised the cup to her lips for more wine. When Tasmia tried to shake Lar off, he held her tightly. She had only a faint hope that he did not feel the chill suffusing the flesh of her hand, or the slight tremble she herself felt there.
"And just how do you think she got that way?" he hissed. "Where do you think she learned it?"
"You're her father!" Tasmia spat, struggling vainly for release once more, "You made her!"
"Oh, yes!" Lar cried. "For eighteen years, I made her, shaped her, taught her! Loved her. I loved her because you didn't! I have an eidetic memory, Tasmia! I recall every year in vivid detail. We'd only just conquered the Dark Circle System, and you'd only just found Dev-Em. I distinctly remember landing on my buttocks when you kicked me out of your bed for him."
"Not before you kicked me out of yours for Kal-L," she raged.
She watched the blood drain from his pale face like water from a broken jar, leaving Lar white with fury. His eyes flared red for a moment, and Tasmia found herself very glad of the stasis collar that stripped him of his powers. But, in the end, he turned his back on her, and she watched the muscles of his neck and shoulders tense and flex beneath the alabaster skin. Soon, she knew, would come the sound of splintering wood, as the table he leaned upon gave way under the silent assault of those hands. She knew him very well.
Embracing Lar from behind, Tasmia lay her cheek against the sun-like warmth of his broad back, and smiled against the skin. She kissed the tiny spot in the small of his back that she knew so well, and felt him stiffen beneath her skilled hands.
"Don't," he hissed. "Let the dead rest, Tasmia." The whisper of her laughter ran chills down his spine.
"'Don't!' he cries," she mocked him. "Ancestors, did you hear him? 'Oh stop, before my heart cracks!'"
"Stop it!" He was trembling, now. Instantly, she tore herself away from him in a fury.
"How?" Tasmia cried. "It's all I have left of you! It's what I live for! Tormenting the little bits and pieces of you that Kal-L left behind." The table went flying across the room, and shattered against the far wall with a sound very much like breaking bone. Sadly, Tasmia regarded the broken pieces of the beautiful, inlaid bit of the woodcarver's art.
"You're still a glory of a man, lover," she sighed, "but you were always hell on the furniture."
An uneasy silence fell between them, then. Perhaps it was because she knew that he would not do so that Tasmia bridged that yawning chasm separating them. Or perhaps it was something else that spurred her. He was never a great talker. She lifted her hand to touch him, then thought better of it, and lowered it slowly.
"I didn't kill him, Lar," she said softly.
"No..." His voice shook for a moment, and Lar could not bring himself to look at her. "You didn't kill Kal, Tasmia..." And then he turned and did look at her, long and hard.
"But someone very much like you did."
"Oh no," she challenged him. "You'll not prick me with that aged pin, m'love. Kal was my Body Shield. Once upon a time, before I made you more, that was your job. To protect me. He was your replacement. Your Daxamite Body Guild sent him to me when I married you. If you need someone to blame for his death, blame yourself."
"And if you need someone to forgive..." she thought in despair, "forgive yourself."
Slowly, he gathered the pieces of the sundered table and, like a puzzle, began fitting them together again, focusing all his attention on the simple task. Sooner or later, he would likely succeed, Tasmia knew. He was good with his hands. And, while he shunned matters of the heart, his quick mind and agile fingers were well suited to building and designing. But after a few moments, he gave it up.
"He loved you, Tasmia," her Consort said. "Kal loved you. He died for you." With a sigh, she knelt there beside him on the floor, and gathered his head to her breast, cradling it there like a child. He did not stop her.
"No, Lar, my once love," she told him gently, "Kal loved you." Her dark eyes, clouded now with memory, drifted to the room's large fireplace, and she kissed his hair. "He stood right there on those stones, and told me so. On his knees, he begged my forgiveness for loving you. For being weak enough to come between us." His hand clutched at hers as if by instinct. "And when he died...it wasn't my heart he was shielding from the assassin...no, it was yours. He was bound. Bound by tradition, and the Rules of your Guild. Those...and something more. In the end, he saved me, not even because it was his duty...but because he thought you still loved me. Poor, foolish Kal. If only he'd known..."
She stroked the soft night dark hair, then kissed away the tears in his eyes in silence. The taste of salt lingered on her lips for long moments, before it faded.
"Shades help me, Lar!" she mourned, in the quiet of her mind, "Don't you understand? You were always my only weakness. You. The only thing that let me know that I was Tasmia Mallor...and not just The Great Ruler...another in a long line of strong, capable Queens. The only thing that I could not live without. And so, of course, I had to prove to myself that I could."
She contemplated the desolation of the last ten years of her life, while she held him closely. The warmth of his body seemed to lessen the chill of it, somehow. She sighed when his arms drew her closer, relaxing into the comfort there. The touch of his lips was gentle, and she fancied he could taste the sweetness of the vintage wine she drank there. For many long moments, they lay together, tightly entwined, speaking only with the closeness of their bodies.
It was jarring when the silence was finally broken. "You're wrong, you know..." he whispered in her ear. "You don't need Winath to deal with Vril Dox. In fact, it's best if you don't have it. That way, you've a perfect excuse for not giving it back to him. And he can't force you on the matter of the succession."
"Perhaps," she admitted in answer. "But that doesn't resolve the succession. And it doesn't settle matters between us, now does it?"
"I suppose not," he said. Slowly, he released her and moved away. While Tasmia poured more wine to fortify her courage, Lar stationed himself before the crackling fire, and she watched reflections of the flames dancing in his eyes. Her hands were steady now. They had ceased their feverish trembling. The wine warmed her, and she smiled.
"So we stand together against Vril Dox, then?"
She did not like to admit to herself that she held her breath waiting for his answer, but the relief that flooded her with his simple nod of the head could not be denied.
"Yes, but you're still wrong to want Lyddie on the throne." She suspected that her silence told him more than she meant to reveal, but she could not help it. It almost frightened her, she was so tired. So very, very tired. Tired and weary of a great many, many things.
"But that still won't stop you from doing what you must, will it?" she cursed herself.
Tasmia swallowed her wine quickly, and poured more. "We can argue about the succession some other time, Lar," she told him in a firm voice. "But for now, Vril Dox is the enemy, not either one of us. Jo was always right about that."
Chuckling, he lifted his hands, and warmed them before the spitting fire there in the large, chill room. "But sooner or later, you'll have to deal with me," he said. "I'm like The Great Darkness, old woman. There's no way around me."
"You forget, Lar," she reminded him with a smile. "I command the Darkness. It's my element." He shook his head.
"Not this time, my heart. Not this time."
She studied him as he watched her down her wine, and refill the cup yet again. The decanter was almost empty now, she saw, and frowned. Gently, he took the silver goblet from her reluctant hands, and set it aside.
Now it was Lar's turn to frown his displeasure. "You didn't drink this much in the past," he said in soft worried tones that lapped at the edges of her sadness, like the sea upon the shore. Unconsciously, her small hands knotted themselves into spasmodic fists. As little as she could bear his coldness, Tasmia found that she could endure his love and concern even less.
"And what do you do when you're sad, Lar?" she flared at him. "What do you do?"
With his eyes tight shut against the image before him of her pain, he murmured, "I try and reach out. To touch something that makes me happy."
Since his eyes were closed, he did not see her hand reach out for his. He did not see it ball itself into a fist and fall away, short of its goal. But he could hear the pain that lived in the sharp, indrawn breath that wasn't quite a sob. When Lar opened his eyes again, she had her back to him, stiff and erect. But when he touched Tasmia, she shivered and flinched from him. Her shoulders shook, but no sound was allowed to escape the black hole of her pride.
She needed surcease, ease for her pain and loneliness. But not from him, he knew. No, not from him. She was not yet ready to accept that. Too much still lay between them. Too many years of torment and apartness. Too much pain. He could not comfort her. He could only fuel her agony. No, he could offer her no balm for her seeping wounds.
But he knew who could.
Lar bit his lips. And because the damnable collar stripped him of his invulnerability, he bled. The salt taste of it flooded his mouth, recalling the earlier taste of his own tears. Blood and tears came from the same inner wellsprings of the body, so he supposed it was only right and just that they taste so similar. It was hellish to see her suffer like this. And he could end it with a single gesture. Oh, yes, he could. All he had to do was summon the man who could comfort her.
All he had to do was tear out his heart.
It would be as if he were giving her, finally and irrevocably, into the hands of another. Could he do it? Even for her own sake? To ease her pain? Was his pride the match for hers? Just how much did he love her? More than his life, yes. But more than his pride? That was another matter, wasn't it?
The anger that gripped him made him dizzy. Blindly, he groped for a chair, and fell into it heavily, as if his body were an unwanted weight dragging him down. The boy was so young...and not what he appeared to be, Lar suspected. How could he be, with such a kinsman as Vril Dox? And worst of all, he was stolen. Stolen from her own daughter's bed. That rankled deeply.
Staring into the fire, Lar covered his ears against the soft murmurs of pain coming from Tasmia, stabbing him through the heart with each tiny cry.
"Choose, you bastard!" he forced himself. "Your pride...or the other half of your soul..."
Steeling himself, Lar walked to the door. He could only pray that his voice was steady, that it did not betray him, when he called to the guard there.
"Find His Grace, Lord Querl Dox, the Pride of Colu," he instructed her. "Tell him..." His hand clutching the jamb of the door tightened its grip, until his knuckles were white. "Tell him the Queen has need of him, and he must hurry to her quickly."
When the boy arrived, Lar Gand forced himself to met the younger man's green eyes at an even level. He could only give a small nod of his head when Querl moved to take Tasmia into his arms. He watched carefully as Tasmia melted into the youth's embrace, and told himself that he would not shame himself or Tasmia by spilling his guts or his tears over the carpeted floor. He would not.
Leaving in as much silence as he'd arrived, Lar told himself that the sound of the joy that rang in Tasmia's voice when she cried, "Querl!" was enough.
It would have to be.
"You are well?" inquired Vril Dox of his younger brother. Querl nodded.
"Oh yes. Tasmia takes good care of me." The Coluan Tyrant eyed his brother dispassionately, then dismissed him.
"Better you than me," he observed with acerbic calm. "I'd rather couple with a pit viper, I must say." Querl smiled at that. He wanted to laugh, though he thought it best that he not. But his repressed merriment must have shone in his eyes. Vril lifted one blond eyebrow in silent inquiry. Querl managed to confine his laughter to a single harsh chuckle.
"How strange ... " he mused. "She said almost the exact same thing about you. Her very words, as I recall."
An icy calm descended over Vril's broad features, settling in like a Winter blizzard, and just that simply Querl knew that he had made a grave mistake.
"You've been too long in this nest of snakes," observed Querl's brother,his voice harsh, accusing. "You've forgotten your roots, brother ... "
Querl smoothed his brow, cleansing his face of all expression in unconscious imitation of his elder brother. But his voice was another matter.
"You sent me here, brother ... " he reminded Vril. "When I was only ten."
Vril's voice lashed out like a whip, now. "I sent you here to do a job, Querl," he snarled. "You were to be Consort to Mallor's Heir. Not her personal bedtoy! It was your task to curry influence, gain the ears of the right people ... To be my eyes at her Court."
Querl smiled. Now it was his turn to lift a single blond eyebrow in mocking inquiry. "And I haven't done that, Vril?" he countered. When his elder brother held his silence and did not speak immediately, the youth plunged ahead. "I'd say I've done that rather well, brother. In fact, better than you could ever have hoped for. Instead of wasting my time with either of her daughters I've gone directly to the source of power here in this Court: Tasmia herself. That should please you." He broadened his smile until it was a most unpleasant thing, indeed.
"But ... Oh ... !" he murmured, "I forget ... That was supposed to be your job, wasn't it? All those years ago. And you failed. Beaten out by your own Body Shield; a Daxamite commoner. How ... embarrassing ... for you, brother ... "
The green of Vril Dox's face darkened beneath the studied assault of the anger that threatened to overwhelm him at Querl's words. For a moment Querl thought that his brother might actually strike him and his eyes widened. But nothing, nothing could curb the savage joy, the satisfaction, the wounds left by his barbed words brought him. He watched Vril struggle with his temper for long moments, reveling in the sight.
"Let him learn what it means to govern himself, to set aside his pride," Querl thought in triumph. "As I have learned." Suddenly, just as quickly as that, the battle was done and Vril faced him, calm and measured once more. Under tight control. Peering at his younger brother from the corners of his green eyes, he waved his hand in casual dismissal once more.
"You've turned yourself into a laughingstock, is what you've done," he pointed out, his voice steady and level. "You've sacrificed all your credibility, now and in the future, for the sake of the present. Or haven't you heard the jokes, the gossip?"
Querl blinked rapidly, setting his teeth. "Yes, I've heard them," he was forced to admit. "What of them? There's always Palace gossip. No intelligent being pays it any heed."
"An 'intelligent being'," pointed out Vril in tones that fairly sang with irony, "can tell the lay of the land from Palace gossip, little brother. And what about the Princesses? Tasmia is an old woman. She isn't going to live forever, you know. What then? What becomes of you, then? You ... and all my careful plans? Do you really think either Lyrissa or Lyddea will be content with their mother's leftovers?"
Querl's eyes narrowed, flashing green fire. He bit his tongue to stifle the retort that rose so quickly, so naturally to his lips. Vril's cruel words rankled and stabbed at him deeply. Mostly, he admitted to himself, if to no one else, because they were true. "I'm happy," he thought in growing desperation. "For the first time in my life, I'm happy. Tasmia loves me. She does. And you never did, Vril. No one else ever did. To you Vril, I was only a tool ... a thing to be used and then discarded if need be. Tasmia sheltered me when you sent me away. I don't care about Lyrissa or Lyddea. I don't want to marry either of them. I refuse. I want to stay with Tasmia. That's all I want."
And that, he knew with mounting despair, was likely the one thing that he could not have.
Vril must have sensed it, Querl decided later. Effortlessly, he moved in for the coup de grace. "Listen to me, Querl," he said, and his voice came close, so very close, to encompassing equality that Querl stood dumbfounded. "If, as you say, you're in such an enviable position with Tasmia, then use that position, Querl. Help me. Help Tasmia. She's got to realize that this matter of the succession has to be settled. If she loves you then she'll want to see to your future. She must name her Heir and confirm you as her Heir's Consort."
When he left, silent and withdrawn, Querl did not bother to look back. Could not bring himself to endure the look of anger and disdain staining his brother's face.
But the voice of that rage and frustration followed him most of the way back to his quarters before it released him from its fierce grasp.
The waiting man checked his chrono, cursing reflexively under his breath. Nass take it! Now he would have to hurry or he would be late for his other appointment of the evening. And it was a vital one. Too vital to be ignored. He gritted his teeth. Much as he might want to ignore it ... he could not. He had no choice, now. Events had forced his hand.
Standing before the door to his suite, he activated the new, hidden chameleon cloak so recently installed in his clothing. Surrounded now by a sophisticated holo-field, he stepped calmly from his rooms and scanned the empty hall. Good. No guards about. Not that it made any difference. Gone was the true man with his distinctive face and air of command. In his place stood the image of another, older man, taller, thin and fair of skin, with graying mouse brown hair and brown eyes in an angular, acerbic face.
The man he was to meet knew him only as "Middle Man".
Striding down the empty corridor, he stealthily entered the room, one of many that stood long empty and unused in this huge Palace, that he had previously chosen for the meeting and closed the door behind him. He darted into the shadows, seconds later, when a guard on routine security rounds opened the door and gave the room a cursory inspection. When the oblivious guard left, he stepped from the darkness and looked around.
He didn't see anyone, of course.
"You can come out now, boy. He's gone. I want to see you," the disguised man commanded the air.
The conspirator searched the room, sweeping the distant shadowy corners with keen eyes. In vain, he knew. The soft spoken young meta would not be seen until he willed it. It was, after all, his purpose here, was it not? He frowned in annoyance. It was just like the irritating, rebellious youth to disobey him despite orders from his own government.
"You are prepared?" he inquired softly of the young man. There came no answer.
Vastly displeased, he turned his disdainful back and waited. Let the boy play his games. In the end, his game was the only one that mattered. None of his sharp senses alerted him in the least. But, eventually, he received an answer, a voice responding from out of the dimness.
"Of course, I'm prepared, Middle Man," replied the voice, annoyed, now. "I know my job. And I'm very good at it. I don't need you to tell me how to do it."
The other crossed his arms over his chest. "I said I want to see you. And I have orders for you."
"Damn you, Norg!" he cursed. "This is too important to leave to chance! There can be no mistakes ... no room for errors! EarthGov sent you here to me because they said you were the best! And the treaty between Earth and my people is binding! It specifically binds you to our service for the duration of this mission!"
"My briefing gives me a certain leeway in how that mission is carried out," the acid voice said. "Don't push me, Middle Man! I understand why EarthGov agreed to this. What I don't understand is why you want this done. What you stand to gain. You don't like me ... and I don't like you."
"No one asked you to like me," he sneered. "Only to obey me. Your obedience is all that we require. Nothing else. Least of all your understanding. Your limited intellect could never comprehend our reasons, in any case. Suffice it to say that this will be done because we wish it to be done! That's all you need to know."
He didn't see or hear a thing. He hadn't expected to, really. But the door opened itself and then closed softly but firmly behind the angry, departing meta.
Cursing virulently once more, "Middle Man" slipped unnoticed back to his own quarters, palmed his shielded Omnicom, uplinked to the SleepNet, and prepared to retire for the evening. He had much to discuss in his dreams with the Ministers back home before the night was done.
Vril Dox ignored the wine and watched in cold distaste as Tasmia swallowed hers quickly. She rose and poured more, frowning as the last of that particular bottle soothed her dry throat with its warmth. Sighing in contentment she looked at her Earl Marshal and Jo Nah nodded. More wine would arrive shortly, Vril was sure.
"All right," Vril was curt. "Shall we get down to business?"
Tasmia's smile was almost open mockery and it made Vril flush. Bad enough that this was happening on her terms. That custom demanded that he leave his Body Shield behind for such a private audience as this. What matter that regardless of custom, he would simply have had to find an excuse to leave her behind in any case? Insult be damned! His lack of faith in Tasmia's security measures was no insult. Simply an irritating fact. One of many in recent days. He calmed his considerable temper. This must go smoothly, he reminded himself firmly. Nothing must be left to chance. Nothing.
"And what business would that be, Vril?" Tasmia chuckled.
The Queen of Talok VIII took a stance by her Consort's side and Dox watched the Daxamite draw in a quick, sharp breath. and only narrowly averted letting his angular features lapse into pointed lines of distaste. Thrice-damned upstart.
"Well," the Tyrant of Colu observed with caustic mien, "there is the matter of Querl."
"Ah yes," Tasmia assumed an air of solemnity. "Whatever shall we do with Querl?" Dox crossed his arms over his chest and lifted an arch eyebrow.
"I'd say it's more a matter of what you haven't done with Querl ... or perhaps I should say what you have done." It gave him great pleasure to see the Daxamite's eyes glitter like stone and the muscles of his jaw work themselves in silent pain.
"Oh you remember me, don't you, Lar Gand?" he thought in triumph. "Yes, you do. Good. Because I remember you. You weren't the first thing she's taken from me ... but you'll be the last." He smiled at the sight of the stasis collar that wasn't quite covered entirely by the cloth collar of his red tunic. "Not that she's had much joy of you of late."
"No, no, no," Tasmia laughed, but the flash of temper her jovial words brought Dox did not keep him from noticing that her comforting hand reached instinctively for her Consort's before she stopped herself. "Vril, Vril," she sighed in mock exasperation, "where's your sense of timing, man? That legendary intellect? It's much too early in the Game for this sort of direct frontal assault! You're slipping. Or not paying attention. Tsk, tsk. That will cost you."
Dox quirked his lips in a smile that was almost a sneer. "Cost me what, Tasmia?" he asked.
"Winath," replied Tasmia succinctly, still grinning.
The green skinned ruler allowed himself a short barking laugh. "Please, Tasmia," he shook his head in feigned annoyance. "Who's playing the fool, now, Your Majesty? I don't want Winath. I'd piss on the malodorous pest hole if I thought that would rid the Universe of it. No, you need Winath much more than I do. Which is why you'll do exactly as I say in order to keep it, won't you?"
"Modest as ever, I see," Tasmia observed. The Talokian Queen rubbed her jaw in contemplation. "Well, you see Vril, Winath is something of a problem," she confessed, her apologetic tone almost, but not quite, convincing. Vril managed to look bored.
"Then solve the problem, Highness," he instructed. "You really only have two choices. You can marry Querl to your Heir, as per our original agreement ... or you can return Querl and Winath, his dowry, to my care. I really don't care which you do. But make up your mind soon, though." He glanced at Lar who stood very still in his unnoticed corner. "Your family squabbles are your problem."
Tasmia sighed and shook her head in despair. "I'm afraid that is the problem," she mourned. "You see, Winath isn't mine to return, I'm afraid." She lowered her coal black eyes in modest embarrassment and blushed a becoming shade of cerulean. "In the salad days of my green youth, overcome by a fit of passion, I gave it to my Consort." Her smile, as it spread over her delicate features, was remarkably toothy and predatory.
"Who isn't giving it to anyone," said Lar Gand, the Mon-L.
Vril's answer, when it came, bordered suspiciously upon a growl. "How can any two even semi-sentient beings make such a tangle of so a simple thing?" he demanded. Tasmia shook her head in sad agreement.
"Such, my friend, is the role of sex in statecraft," she informed the angry Coluan. "You really should try it sometime."
Was that quickly muffled laughter from the grizzled Earl Marshal Nah? Vril ground his teeth and forced himself to ignore it. But Tasmia's darting glance of merry approval in the older man's direction made even that small, onerous courtesy virtually impossible. Frowning, Vril lifted one dispassionate blond eyebrow in acerbic inquiry.
"Be that as it may, Tasmia," Vril replied, "the situation still remains. You may - "
The servant with the wine slipped so silently into the room that no one really noticed him until he dropped his tray with a loud clatter and the delicate crystal wine decanter shattered on the stone floor, splashing its aromatic contents willy-nilly.
Afterward, Jo Nah was to reluctantly admit that he was never certain of all that he saw. The servant stumbled, let out a startled cry, then seemed to skitter backwards across the room as if pushed by some unseen hand. He remembered seeing Vril Dox pale. He recalled that distinctly. Tasmia spun on her heels at the unexpected noise to her back and, from the far corner of his eye, Jo thought he saw a brief blue-black clad flicker of motion. He thought he recognized the unassuming young man who'd caught his eye at the Feast. The one thing he was always positive about was the gun. For the barest instant the young man standing suddenly revealed in their midst looked startled. And then the metal of the small laser pistol he carried glinted in the dimness of the room's torch light as he pointed it.
Almost before he realized it, Jo was moving, but even as he did, he knew with a sinking lurch of despair that he was too late; too far away. He wasn't going to make it.
He was always absolutely certain about what happened next, though.
The gun aimed itself unerringly at Tasmia. Jo was never in doubt about that. He remembered watching the look on the young man's face change from determination to ... something else. Uncertainty? Remorse? The assassin hesitated for the briefest of instants, the gun wavered momentarily before it snapped back into place. This time, though, there was no hesitation at all. In fury at his own laggard slowness, Jo Nah, Earl Marshal to Queen Tasmia Mallor of Talok VIII, watched helplessly as the weapon discharged itself at his friend and ruler. And he was too far away.
But someone else was moving as well.
Someone closer to Tasmia.
A tall figure clad in red and blue threw itself in front of the Queen, shoving her firmly away with quick, desperate hands. Jo was always to remember the look of surprise and then utter horror that claimed Tasmia's face in that moment. The slight woman careened backwards, until she crashed heavily into the opposite wall. Jo dove for the assailant, cursing and shouting now, but again he was tardy. His headlong plunge propelled both he and the smaller, slighter youth into the large ornate desk that dominated one corner of the room.
With a heave that brought him up short of breath, the youthful would be killer flung Jo away and he went spinning backwards. But still Jo's blurring eyes brought him the satisfying sight of the other man flailing in the clutches of some unseen force, stumbling back into a rocky wall and pinned there like a prize insect on a display board, unable to move, now.
Stupid, stupid, useless old man! he cursed himself roundly, his hands knotting themselves into ready fist as he climbed slowly - so damned slowly! - to his feet.
Silently, the young man still pinned against the rocky wall was screaming and Vril Dox was smiling.
Biting back yet more curses in the tongue of his native Rimbor and many other worlds, Jo Nah yanked the Coluan ruler's recalcitrant hands away from the controls of the slim yellow belt that spanned his waist. Thrice-damned impenetrable force shield made quite a weapon when properly employed. And trust its inventor to know just how to use it.
"No!" Jo snarled, loud enough for all to hear, "if he's dead he's no use to us! The dead can't speak ... " In silence, he felt the crushing field flicker and die as the young man collapsed to the floor, his pistol clattering upon the stone from now nerveless fingers. Kicking the gun away, Jo pushed the startled, unhappy Vril Dox aside, then leaned down, grabbed the assassin's sharp chin in a painful grip and squeezed until he saw the young man's eyes water.
"And you will speak to us ... won't you boy? I guarantee it!" he hissed.
Standing once more he pointed to the wine bearing servant (bereft now of his burden), cowering in the corner beneath the brightly emblazoned mosaic of the Great Seal of Talok VIII.
"You!" he ordered, his voice firm and level now, "go and fetch Minister Daggle. Tell him to bring the Lady Imra to the Security Quad. Now. Move! Go, boy, go, go, go!" He didn't even wait to see if he'd been obeyed before spinning to face his Queen. Tasmia! Was Tasmia ...? His eyes widened.
NoNoNoNoNo ... please gods no ... he pleaded silently, his thoughts falling into chaos.
Pale and shaken, Tasmia Mallor threw herself to her knees, gathering her Consort's still head into her lap with trembling hands.
"Lar ... Lar .. " she choked. "Oh, you great fool! You great, magnificent fool! W-why? Why?"
Lar Gand touched her cheek, then, and she clutched his broad, calloused hand in both her smaller, softer ones and held it there, feeling the swiftly fading warmth and life lingering in his flesh. He smiled in answer.
" ... keritalyn ... " he whispered.
Vril Dox watched gratefully as his Body Shield reluctantly nodded, her long blonde hair sweeping her shoulders, and wordlessly withdrew.
He needed to be alone.
Alone to think ... to plan ...
His breath coming in great ragged gasps, Dox sat himself carefully down in the wide, inviting chair in his Palace suite. He closed his eyes and forced his pounding, racing heart to slow. After a moment, his hands, when he reached for the wine decanter to pour himself a much needed cup of the potent drink, were steady, no longer shaking from his hurried flight away from Tasmia and the others. Slipping away unseen had been simplicity itself. He tensed as his ears brought him evidence of the chaos lurking just outside his door; barked, hoarsely shouted orders and the tromp of many marching, running feet rang through the corridors of the Imperial castle, echoing and magnified by the ancient stone.
"Calm," he urged himself. "Remain calm. All is not yet lost."
The voice from the shadows, when it came cutting through the silence like a blade, was calm and certain and it froze him in his overstuffed chair like an insect trapped in amber.
"You're very clever, brother."
Vril's hands tightened on the arms of his chair. In the gloom he was certain that the other could not see his knuckles whiten with the effort.
"Querl!" he cried. Catching firm hold of himself, he turned to face the other man. Stepping from the shadows the younger Dox nodded in affirmation.
"You startled me, boy," Vril said evenly and then frowned. "What are you doing here?" the Tyrant of Colu demanded, deliberately unleashing all the arrogance of his high station to shine through the simple words.
Querl shook his relaxed blond head in apparent disappointment. "Vril ... Vril ..." his dry voice cut through the tension in the air like a laser. "Did you really think I wouldn't figure it out?" Vril stared at his younger brother, his sparkling green eyes hooded and unreadable. "That's your biggest flaw, I'm afraid," Querl continued conversationally. "Your oh so casual assumption that the rest of the Universe is beneath you; that everyone else is hopelessly stupid. That will be your downfall, in the end." The older man did not deny it, merely frowning his disdain. Querl lifted one sardonic eyebrow in reply.
"You're not the only one with a twelfth level mind, brother," he said softly.
Vril Dox waved one hand in casual dismissal. He was quite proud of its steadiness. "I'm sure I haven't the least idea what you could possibly mean. I can only assume that you must be demented." Querl studied his elder brother with enforced detachment, much as he might regard a mathematical equation whose essential error was not at all immediately obvious. When he spoke his voice was low and steady as he willed it.
"Oh, they'll learn nothing from that poor boy they're interrogating, will they? No, you're much too devious for that, I'm afraid. He doesn't know you. You've hidden yourself well, I'd guess. He's only a tool, after all. As his government is only a tool. I wonder how long it took you to find Earth and its legendary metas? Years I should think. But then, you always were persistent. I don't imagine it was very hard to convince them to help you, was it? Did you lie to them and tell them that the Great Queen, the Great Conquerer, Tasmia Mallor was a threat to them? Ah! I see that you did."
"You can't prove a thing!" snarled Vril. "You always were a fool, Querl."
Again, the younger man shook his head in seeming dismay. "Now, now, Vril ... what was it I just told you about overconfidence? Although, I suppose if you were inclined to listen to me it wouldn't be a problem, would it? Sadly, you're quite right. I have no proof. And I won't insult your intellect by assuming that such a thing even exists. No, I can't prove that you tried to have Tasmia assassinated."
The smile that spread itself across Vril Dox harsh, stony visage was an ugly thing to behold, born of pride and wallowing in contempt. Querl ignored it.
"Anymore," he said quietly, "than I can prove that it was you who arranged for the placement of the bomb that killed her son Grev." Querl watched Vril's eyes narrow dangerously and smiled. "I think your best plan was the one that killed Kal-L, though," Querl continued, insinuating a note of false pride and approval carefully into his level voice. "Now that one had real promise. You were ready for her Body Shield that time, weren't you? But where in the Universe did you find such an ancient, obscure weapon, brother? I mean, a projectile weapon that fired lead slugs? Not even his serum could protect him from that, could it?" Softly the Pride of Colu began to clap his hands in ironic salute to his sibling. "How perfect for a Daxamite! And what a pity Jo Nah was there to prevent your assassin from taking another shot." He lowered his eyes in sympathy. "I suppose I really should have warned you how ... inconvenient ... that great Rimborian oaf can be." When Vril did not bother to answer him Querl struck back in the best way he knew how. He hit Vril solidly in his pride.
"Grev Mallor ... Tinya and Winema Nah ... " the names of the dead flowed from off his tongue like water, "... Kal-L ... And now quite possibly Lar Gand ..." One last time he shook his head in mock consternation. "Ah Vril ... you keep missing the target ..." Querl's lips set themselves in a long, straight line of repressed anger. "But then ... you have very special, personal reasons for wishing to see Lar Gand dead, don't you? Rejection is a harsh thing, isn't it? Tasmia rejected you in his favor ... and Lar ... Lar -"
Vril catapulted to his feet, body trembling with rage, and regarded him acidly.
"You really are an even bigger fool that I gave you credit for, Querl!" he spat but then lowered his voice to its familiar level sneer. Querl was not mislead by the careful, false tones of regret that lived in that rich baritone. Vril sighed.
"Just think, brother, what the two of us might have accomplished together? If only you had obeyed me, done your duty. Why, we could have brought Mallor to her knees years ago; swept her from off her throne and claimed it for ourselves! But no. You had to fall in love, you miserable stupid boy. And what good has it done you, I wonder? Just look at you. Your knowledge is useless ... and you? You're stymied and impotent to act. Threaten and posture all you like, Querl. It'll do you no good."
Chuckling, Querl crossed his arms over his chest.
"You misunderstand me, Vril," he said. "I haven't come here to 'threaten and posture' ... Not at all. I've come here to end this once and for all." Startled, Vril Dox almost jumped when his impenetrable force field sprang to life of its own accord, it seemed.
"Quite a device, isn't it, brother?" came Querl's conversational voice as Vril fumbled with frantic, futile fingers to shut the device off. "Most sentients consider it your greatest creation, you know. Myself I would have said that the Omnicom was the crowning glory of your fertile mind. Swift, inexpensive communication across interstellar distances and with any computer or AI is most handy. Sad, isn't it, how often the invention of a weapon outshines more useful but less martial concepts in the minds of the great unwashed mass of sophonts? Your death really will be a tragedy, if only from a technological point of view."
Querl watched Vril struggle in vain with his invention in silence for several moments before Vril spoke once more. The Tyrant's green eyes fastened upon those of his younger brother in a paen of rage and loathing. "Damn you!" he shouted, "what have you done? What have you done?"
"Oh, there's no use fighting, I'm afraid." Querl advised. Turning his hand, he displayed a palm-sized remote sensor. "I have complete control of the device. Including the size of the field it generates. I told you that you weren't the only twelfth level mind in existence, didn't I? I did warn you."
With a few deft strokes of his long, elegant fingers the younger Dox keyed the remote and heard the mastermind behind Tasmia's attempted assassination cry out in pain as the impenetrable force field contracted around him. He watched in satisfaction as Vril collapsed and fell writhing to the stone floor. He would have screamed, Querl was sure of it, but the contracting field had not left him enough oxygen for that. Before he caught himself, Querl drew back his foot to strike at the dying man, slowly being crushed to death and suffocated by his own invention. His eyes blazed emerald fire, but he held himself firmly in check. Of what use was risking a broken foot? The field was still impenetrable, after all.
"Did you really think I'd let you get away with it, Vril?" His voice was a sibilant hiss whistling between his bared teeth. "If so, then you're the fool, not I, brother. I'll never let you harm Tasmia. Never! You deserve to die for what you've done to her. Tasmia ... and so many others. Such a pity, really. I doubt the people of Colu will mourn ... but, who knows? Anything is possible. What a grievous, tragic accident! Killed by your own malfunctioning invention. Rather appropriate, I would say, wouldn't you? But, who could have forseen it? Unfortunately, no one but you really understands the device, do they? You made certain of that. Or so you thought. So exactly what it was that went wrong with it will be impossible to say, no doubt. Perhaps overuse? Why, in your ... zeal ... to protect yourself in the wake of Tasmia's near death who knows how long you had it in almost constant use? One might rather expect a burned out module or perhaps a decaying comp circuit. Tragic ... simply tragic ..."
With a small, telling smile Querl Dox sat himself down in the chair so recently vacated by his elder, made himself comfortable, and settled back to watch his now feebly struggling, dying brother. There must be no mistake, he told himself coldly, distancing himself from the scene unfolding before him. He must be certain that Vril was dead. There was no room for error. Later, he will slip back unnoticed his own quarters in much the same way that he arrived here in Vril's rooms undetected. This ancient palace is a maze of tunnels and hidden passageways. And, living here for more than half his life, he knows them all. He will not be discovered. He is confident of that.
Still, he cannot deny the swift surge of satisfaction that claims him at the thought of his victory. Triumph is an exquisite knot of joy in his chest that he savors with all relish.
And yet ...
Yet ... in the end he cannot force himself to watch. He must look away for he cannot bear to see the bloody pulp the inexorably contracting field has left of his only flesh and blood. He managed to stumble to his quarters and into the bathroom before his stomach rebelled and emptied itself. Gasping and spent, he clung to the cool, soothing porcelain of the bowl, the sour taste of his own vomit harsh in his throat.
"And now you're no better than he was," he whispered in weak accusation, his voice thin and uneven even in his own ears. He clutched at the porcelain and trembled.
"Oh Tasmia ... Tasmia ... forgive me ... forgive me ... "
But there was no one, of course, to hear his plea.
The physician cleared his constricted throat loudly to capture Tasmia's attention. He stared at the floor, engrossed in the bright, colorful pattern of the soft rug beneath his feet. He did not dare to met his monarch's black eyes. Pain like that reflected in those jet-dark depths could blind a man, he was sure of it. Patient, he waited and did not count the time. His head still bowed, the Chief Physician to Queen Tasmia Mallor of Talok VIII gestured and the other, lesser men of his vital trade withdrew, gusting sighs of great relief beneath their breaths with gratitude. They were very glad, at this moment, not to be him. Not be be charged with the heaviness of his incipient burden.
Not that they were afraid of the Queen. Oh, no. Tasmia had never been known, as some rulers were, for anger and cruel whimsy. Not for her the quick, ruthless expenditure of her wrath upon the blameless bearer of bad tidings.
At least never before.
Now, who might say?
It was a tragedy and that was plain. And tragedy has a way, they knew from experience, of changing people; of bringing forth the worst in them at the most inconvenient of times. Why take chances, after all? Yes, best to let the Chief Physician run the risk of censure, of danger. That was part of his job, after all, was it not?
He did not see her (he still refused to met her eyes), but he could feel her hot gaze upon him like heat from Talok's burning desert sun. He shivered in the scant comfort of his heavy robes despite the overly warm atmosphere choking the large room. Light from the brazier, from the torches deeply ensconced in the stone walls, cast itself upon the ceiling, upon the bed in the room's center and the still form lying in the huge bed. Shadows danced and capered madly about the room like the Ancestral deities they represented. The Queen had long since ordered the dousing of the more brilliant and penetrating artificial overhead lights. He thought, perhaps, that she drew comfort from the nearness, the closeness, of the spirits of her Ancestors.
Or, perhaps, she simply did not wish for anyone to see her suffer.
"Majesty?" he inquired softly, once again.
He met her eyes this time as she looked up. And was, indeed, almost stricken sightless. He swallowed convulsively, but did not look away. Captured by those eyes, now, he could not. She did not need to ask the question. She need not give it voice. Her stiff, unyielding body shouted it, screamed it; demanded it.
So he gave her the only answer he had. The truth. He owed her that much at least, he decided. His voice did not tremble or quiver. He was as proud of that as we was of anything in his long life. He wanted to be strong for her. In the days to come, she would need all the strength she could garner. Both from within herself and from others. Frequently, he knew, one keritalyn did not long survive the death of the other. He was determined to be one of those to lend Tasmia strength. Now, if she would only accept it, he thought with slowly mounting despair.
"He is dying, Majesty," the Chief Physician said and winced when the Queen recoiled from his words as if he'd struck her with his hand. Ancestors, that would have been much kinder, he realized. "There is little that can be done. I am sorry."
Quickly, she turned away so that he could not see her face, cloaked now in the comfort of cool shadows. For a timeless instant her small shoulders shook. But only for a moment before she mastered herself. Still, she did not turn to face him as she addressed him.
Thank the Ancestors for that.
He blanched. "B-beg pardon? Majesty -I-I-"
Her voice rose, then cracked like a whip. "Are you deaf as well as useless? I said GET OUT, damn you! Get out!"
Bowing, he backed carefully through the heavy oaken door and shut it silently behind him. But not before he heard the soft sobs issuing from within, oozing through the cracks around the thick wood like some virulent poison racing its deadly way through the body. He hurried down the long corridor, hands over his ears to shut out the pity of it.
It didn't work, of course.
Tasmia Mallor sat down upon the lavish bed and lay her head down slowly on the chest of the dying man who lay there so quietly, so still and silent. Her cold, nervous fingers could not feel the heart beat beneath their shaking caress. Her sharp ears could barely detect the irregular beat of the straining, noble heart within that broad chest. Breath trapping itself in her constricted throat, she waited in agony for the next beat, the next soft lub-dub, lub dub, to reassure her that Lar yet lived. But for how long, she wondered? How long? Tears moistened exposed, tanned flesh and the bed clothing alike, falling like rain from the silent, weeping sky.
She pulled up the bed covers, tucking them more tightly around his unresisting body with great care as if she feared to cause him any further pain. The guard, when the Queen summoned her, was plainly startled and very uncomfortable. She shifted from foot to foot, awaiting an order. When one was not immediately forthcoming she gathered her courage and spoke to her monarch.
"Majesty? How may I serve you?"
Tasmia closed her eyes. She was growing weary of that word. So very weary.
The Queen never looked up and for that the guard was almost grateful. Gulping, she repeated herself.
The Queen spoke softly - so very softly - so that the beleaguered soldier could barely hear her. "The fire," she said, "stoke the fire. It's cold in here."
Sweating in the overheated room, the guard frowned, but wisely held her silence, stilling her tongue. Her bow of leave-taking was deep and low.
"Yes, Majesty," she replied evenly, retreating on swift feet to discharge her errand.
Satisfied, Tasmia stroked Lar's chill cheek. He hated the cold so.
The doctors had explained it oh so very carefully. hadn't they? Oh, yes. Very carefully indeed. Her Chief Physician, she suspected, wanted her to understand, to find succor in their helplessness. The others, she was convinced, were merely frightened.
"No!" she'd cried from the heart when they broke the news to her. "No! He can't be dying! He can't! Impossible! He's invulnerable, for the Ancestor's Sake! Invulnerable!"
The Chief Physician looked away, unable or unwilling to met her blazing, demanding gaze as it pierced his heart. The others held their collective breaths and awaited the falling ax. But not upon their necks, thanks be to the Ancestors. Prayers of all descriptions skittered like quick vermin toward the Cave of Shadows.
"Not while he wears the collar, Majesty ..." the Chief murmured.
He flinched when his unintentionally barbed remark struck home, drawing blood. He hurried on. "And to put it upon him once more would only exacerbate the situation, now, I'm afraid," he told her quietly, anticipating her next query. "The wounds are there and cannot be undone. Taking off the collar now would only serve to render his body invulnerable once more. And we have no way to heal torn, invulnerable flesh, Majesty, no way to stitch it or repair it. No, pulling off the collar now would not heal him. Quite the opposite, in fact. Best to let us try and do our best for him."
He did not need to say that their best would not be good enough to save him. They all understood that.
Tasmia had never thought about losing him. Not once had the notion crossed her busy mind. It didn't seem possible, after all. The word echoed within the labyrinth of her mind like a benediction, a prayer, a protective mantra ...
... invulnerable ...
But not invulnerable enough, it seemed...
Not invulnerable to love.
Not as she was.
For good or ill he'd always been there, a part of her life; a part of her. The vows said so, didn't they? Even when they fought, when they dealt one another pain after pain after pointed pain for so many endless years, she had always known that he was there. Always known that he was there for her if she really needed him. She stroked his smooth cheek with pale, trembling fingers.
"You can't leave me, Lar," she whispered into the dimness, into the shadows where her Ancestors might hear her pleas. "I won't let you, do you hear me? I won't let you! I-I haven't given you permission to go - I haven't! Shades damn you, don't leave me alone ..."
Her composure abandoned her completely, then, as if it had never been. Salt tears, bitter as the flaming alkali winds of the Great Southern Desert scalded her cheeks, tracing strangely numb and icy paths over the bright cerulean flesh there. She lowered her head once more to lay it upon his chest, always so strong and broad until now. In despair she clutched at him with frantic hands, as if she might physically prevent his coming departure.
"Murderess!" she accused herself. "He lies her by your hand. Who made him wear that bedamned collar in the first place? You! You deserve to be alone, you great bitch! He's not doing anything now that he shouldn't have done years ago. He's leaving you as you well deserve! Ancestors, the two of you even made jokes about it. 'Why not eternal peace?' he jested and you laughed. You laughed! Well, now, he's going to get his 'eternal' peace, isn't he? And at least he'll be free of you. You won't be able to hurt him any more. Won't that be a tragedy for you both!"
Her eyes widened and she straightened as if electrified.
Merciful Ancestors, YES! Why hadn't she thought of it sooner, she wondered? Please don't let it be too late. Please.
She leapt for the door and flung it open in such haste that she almost struck the guard posted there. The poor woman lurched to the side so hastily to avoid the heavy oaken thing that she dropped her ceremonial spear and must bend awkwardly to retrieve it. Her eyes alive with hope, Tasmia grabbed hold of herself. Her voice was even calm and steady when she spoke, much to her relief.
"Send for the priest Arrah," she instructed. "Immediately!"
Clad in plain brown homespun, Jan Arrah stepped into the large overheated room thronging with Ministers and Councilors of the Talokian Imperium. His long curly blond hair kissed his slight shoulders, gleaming golden in the flickering torchlight like a halo.
Murmuring, the courtiers and High Government functionaries of the of the Empire made way for him, parting before him like the sands of the Great Desert driven by the burning winds of the Sirocco, the hot dry wind blazing irresistibly from the south.
After all, it wasn't every day that even such exalted company as this saw a priest of the Order of The EverChanging.
Especially not this priest.
He was not a particularly tall man, the priest Arrah. But his Presence filled the distant reaches, the nooks and crannies, of the large room with ease, spreading like calming oil cast upon turbulent waters.
Gliding forward, he extended his hands; long fingered and delicate, they looked almost frail in the dancing light. They gave no hint of the vast power that rested within them.
"Tasmia, my friend," he murmured.
Standing tall and unmoving, Tasmia Mallor, Queen of Talok VIII, swept the room with her dark obsidian gaze, making her Ministers most uneasy.
"Leave us," she instructed them in a serene voice.
Obediently, they began to file out, still murmuring. She watched them go and it was not until the last of them departed, closing the door carefully behind him that she moved to accept the proffered hands, so deceptively fragile. Then, she clutched at those hands, lay her head on his slender shoulder and wept.
"Shhhhh," he urged her stroking the dark mass of her disheveled hair. "Shhhhh ... "
"Ancestral Shades, Jan! " she sobbed. "He's dying ... dying ... They tell me there's nothing they can do. I can't ... I can't... "
He lifted her sharp chin and caressed her with his eyes. "All things Change, Tasmia," he said softly. "Death is only another sort of Change. You mustn't fear it so."
She embraced him even more tightly. "Ancestors, Jan! Please don't preach at me! I know that you're the Head of The Order of The EverChanging! I'm not afraid to die! You know that! I'm not! No, I'm not afraid for myself ... " Her eyes ghost to the large bed and the still form of her Consort. "Help me, Jan .. please to the Ancestors ... you have to help me ..."
As if his body were suddenly too great a weight for him to bear, he fell heavily into a nearby chair and lowered his head. "You don't know what you're asking of me, Tasmia .. " he whispered.
She knelt by his chair and grasped his shoulder so hard that she was certain it must be painful. But he made no outcry.
"You're wrong, Jan! I know exactly what I'm asking of you!" she hissed. "And I know exactly why you're going to give me what I want!" She shook him almost savagely. "You owe me, Jan! You owe me!"
He ducked his hands into the safe cradle of the long voluminous sleeves of his robes and closed his eyes before she could see them darken with memory.
Lovely Utopian Trom ... Its single habitable valley lush and green amidst the radioactive desolation of the rest of the small planet. Laughter and the closeness of friends and family ... It seemed so long ago now. So long ago that everything changed ...
That everything ...died ...
Death and burning ....
The coming of Roxxas The Butcher and the shrill sounds of screams mingled with the sickly sweet odor of charred meat racing on the shouting winds ... Fire and pain ... Fear and self loathing ...
So long ago ...
But not long enough to forget.
He'd hidden himself, cowering among the hideously burned bodies of his people for over a week before Roxxas and his men finally corned him in the ruins of the Church. It was almost a relief to see the grinning pirate raise the deadly needle gun and take careful aim ...
And then fifteen year old Jan Arrah, who would one day become the spiritual Head of an Order devoted to peace and the preservation of life, in his shock and fear, did a shameful thing.
Instinctively lashing out with the elemental power that was his alone to command now, his in all the Universe, he touched the gun wielding pirate with the Gift his people were granted by The Eternal.
One moment the luckless pirate was a man, flesh and blood and bone; the next his compatriots found themselves staring at a crystal statue sparkling in the rays of the waning sun, the look of surprise on his thick features captured exactly at the moment of transformation.
The resplendent figure shone still and multicolored in the gold and purple of the setting sun, cold and pristine ...
... and very, very dead.
Falling to his knees, Jan Arrah vomited until he had nothing left to spew forth. Sobbing uncontrollably, he did not see the remaining pirates, panicked and terrified, now, turn and flee. But he did hear the harsh voice of Kivun Roxxas shouting at their retreating backs.
"Cowards!" the pirate leader howled. "Puling cowards!"
The boy looked up just in time to see the mega watt laser pointed in his direction. The powering weapon's strident hum shrieked loudly in the silence of the now dead world of Trom.
Jan Arrah closed his eyes, offered up a silent prayer, and waited to die as he deserved.
It was the sounds of a scuffle that brought the young transmuter back to himself. He looked up into the dark compassionate eyes of Tasmia Mallor and knew that he was safe at long last. At a distance he saw Roxxas struggling futilely in the arms of two burly Imperial Guardsmen, held fast by brutal hands. Tenderly, Tasmia wiped the blood and vomit from Jan's face with the sleeve of her uniform.
"Tell me what happened here," she said quietly.
And so he did.
It should have been Jan Arrah's testimony before the Imperial Court that convicted Kivun Roxxas of murder and attempted genocide. Jan thought that Tasmia was the only one who'd ever understood why he'd refused to testify. With the death of the nameless pirate who'd tried to kill him Jan Arrah lost that right. How could he help condemn a man for the crime of murder when he himself was equally guilty of the same crime?
"Let the boy be," were the Queen's firm orders. "Surely you've enough other evidence against that soulless dirj to convict him without burdening that poor child any further."
Indeed they did.
Jan Arrah spent the day of Roxxas' execution on his knees, praying for the soul of the man they were beginning to call The Butcher of Trom; the destroyer of his world, all he knew and cherished.
Praying for Roxxas ...
... and for himself.
When Jan Founded the Order of The EverChanging, it rocked the foundations of Talokian society.
"Heresy!" cried the Elders. "Abomination! Forbid, Majesty! You must forbid this obscenity!"
Tasmia set her teeth and pointed a warning finger at the Eldest. "Touch one hair on his head and you'll answer to me, priest!" she promised. "Now get out!"
The Order flourished, much to the disgust of the Talokian clergy who thundered against it. People flocked to Jan Arrah in droves; the poor, the friendless, the disenfranchised, the ones who slipped between the cracks of any society. They listened to his simple message that someone did care about them, that they must care for one another.
They listened and they were Changed.
Jan Arrah was there to Bless the birth of Tasmia's first child and he was there when they buried him. Both events came close to scandalizing the Imperium. He became a fixture at Tasmia's Court. Revered and held in awe by many of even his most fervent opponents, the Head of The Order of The EverChanging cast peace and serenity before him wherever he trod.
Returning reluctantly to the present from the safe haven of the past, Jan choked. "Tasmia," he pleaded, "you're asking me to betray everything that I believe in. Everything that I am ... "
How could he do it, he despaired. To interfere with The Eternal - the one Universal Constant. To thwart the process of Change ...
It was anathema. Heresy of the highest order. Sacrilege. Within the concealment of his sleeves his hands trembled. Would he burn in the cleansing fires of Sheol if he did this thing?
Yes, he would.
He shivered at the flaming memory of Trom. More fire and burning ... Could he never escape them?
Tasmia clutched his knees and lay her head in his lap. "Please, Jan," she begged, this woman, this Queen who had never before begged for anything from anyone in all of her long life. "It's not for me, You know that. I don't deserve it. No, it's for a brave man whom I've treated shamefully. Oh, Daxam's Moons, Jan ... I never even got to say goodbye .. never got the chance to tell him how much I still love him ... You've got to help me .. please help me ...."
With gentle hands he lifted her chin once more and wiped the tears from her eyes as she'd once done for him so long ago. When he gazed into her eyes he saw not a great ruler, not a stately Monarch, but a lonely woman in pain.
He caught his breath.
Would he burn ...
Oh yes; yes he would.
'So be it, then,' he decided. 'Then I burn.'
"What you want is very dangerous," he cautioned.
"I don't care about the danger!" she cried.
When he frowned, she smiled and kissed the palm of his hand. He curled the fingers of his hand into the palm her lips had touched as if to shield it.
"Jan," Tasmia said, "you mustn't worry about any danger to me. I told you. You're my last hope. Keritalyn. I can't live without Lar. I can feel that, now. He's a part of me. If he dies ... " Her tiny smile was tinged with sadness. "How can only part of a person survive? Either we both live or we both die."
He kissed her cheek, chaste as the abstinence his vows required of him. "I can't let either of you die."
She embraced him fully, then, wrapping her arms around his slim waist. "Tell me what you need," she whispered in his ear.
He melted into the embrace and held her fiercely as though his life were in her hands. "A quiet place to prepare will do to begin," he smiled. "Then I shall need all the medical data collected on Lar's ... condition to study." With a single harshly barked command she made it so.
She engulfed his small soft hands in her war hardened ones. "What else?"
"Tell the Lady Imra that we're going to need her assistance. I'll let you know when I'm ready to begin."
When she turned away to leave he held onto her hand to prevent it. In a last ditch effort to make her understand, he told her, "Tasmia, I've never done anything like this before. No one has ever done anything quite like this before. Theoretically, it's always been possible, but ... " He let the ominous pronouncement fade into the shadows of the huge room, leaving so very much unsaid.
With a smile of confidence she caressed his cheek and left, closing the door in her wake.
With a sigh, he approached the warmth of the burning brazier, settling limberly into a lotus position. Clearing his agitated mind, he sought the EverChanging Center of all things, reaching for its soothing embrace like the comfort of a lover's body.
He found it, of course.
The medical data, he soon discovered, was much more straight forward. The problem was relatively simple. Lar's Daxamite invulnerability prevented any readily available treatment for his great injuries. It was impossible to suture or incise invulnerable flesh; there was no way to regenerate invulnerable tissue. Given the limits of Talokian medicine and Daxamite physiology, it would be necessary to persuade Lar's body to heal itself. From within. There were Daxamite medicines, naturally occurring Daxamite endorphins and hormones that could accomplish the task. But they could not be administered from the outside. The invulnerability prevented that. It would be necessary to use the resources of Lar's body, the blood, serum, and other things to be found there, to create the needed chemicals by transmutation.
It wouldn't be easy. He would be working with extremely complex organic proteins and peptides. Biochemistry was never his forte. In the absence of another Daxamite it would be necessary to work using Tasmia's body as a rough template to guide him through the tedious, exacting procedure.
And, under the circumstances, considering the likely result of this reckless meddling ... he was sure that Tasmia would insist upon that in any case.
Very strongly insist.
And the Lady Imra would make it all possible via a telepathic Link between the three of them. Much depended on the skill and strength of the steady icy calm Titanian telepath.
Taking a deep breath, Jan Arrah rose and stepped to the edge of the large bed and its still, unmoving occupant. Carefully, he lay his hand on the chill forehead of Lar Gand, The Mon-El.
"Pray for me, my friend," was his fervent request. "Pray for all of us."
Then he summoned the Guard and told her to inform the Queen that the time had come to begin.
They gathered swiftly. It did not surprise him in the least that he was the only one of them who was nervous. As ever, Imra Ardeen remained cool and collected, in total possession of herself. Alpha Class telepaths were rare and quite rigorously trained in The School of The Mind on her native Titan, Jan remembered. The Saturn shaped symbol of her status, embroidered in gold thread on the breast of her plain red jumpsuit as required by law, shone in the torchlight.
Tasmia was a cypher; hiding behind behind a cold blue mask of Imperial dignity. It was impossible to guess what was going through her mind just now, although Jan would have given much to be privy to such. No sense asking the Lady Imra, either, Jan was sure. She was an ethical telepath.
Ethical to a fault, sometimes.
"Jan?" Tasmia's voice summoned him forth from his ruminations. He was running out of excuses. He wouldn't be able to delay for very much longer he was sure. Taking a deep breath he approached the Queen.
"Tasmia ..." he began. He would fail, of course. But he had to try, nonetheless. Imra wasn't the only ethical one involved here, after all. Her stern look was far from placating.
"No more warnings, Jan. I know what I'm doing."
He gritted his teeth. "Do you, my friend? Do you indeed?"
Her return nod was swift and sure. Jan sighed. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately. "Listen to me!" he insisted, snatching her hand to capture her complete attention. "This is dangerous, yes. In more ways than one." Tasmia's answering frown leant him a small bit of hope. Seizing the initiative, he plowed forward. "The only time anything even remotely like this was done ... the results were ... surprising. When this is done your mind and body will be in tune with Lar's. You really will be part of one another. And once done it can't be undone. Think about what that means, please, I beg you."
Tasmia's laughter resounded throughout the spacious room. "Oh, Jan! Lar and I are already part of each other. We have been for more than forty years. Since I first laid my eyes on him when I was only seventeen. It doesn't frighten me. Keritalyn, Jan. Remember?"
"Yes, I remember, Tasmia," Jan ground out in a quiet voice. "Do you? By your Ancestors, think, woman, think! I'm not speaking metaphorically or spiritually here, Tasmia! This is physical! Imagine how it will be to be able to really know what Lar is thinking, what he's feeling! And he'll know the same. Neither of you will ever be able to hide again. Ever. Anywhere. How will that be, Tasmia, how?"
It seemed that both their gazes fell upon the Lady Imra at the same time.
She had never had a lover. They both knew that well enough. Amongst the Court, she was derogatorily known as "The Ice Princess". It was a rare and brave man who could approach a telepath. Her power, the power to know, to uncover all things and lay them bear for her inspection was frightening. Everyone, after all, had something to hide; some small part of themselves they did not wish to show to the world. In the company of a telepath that wasn't always possible.
Calm and serene, the Lady Imra remained coolly inscrutable, leaving no fainest clue to her own feelings in this matter.
To her credit, Tasmia did pale a bit at the thought of being constantly exposed to her Consort.
But, in the end, it did not deter her.
"Let's do this Jan and stop talking about it."
He bowed his head. "Very well, Majesty."
It took only picoseconds for the telepathic Councilor to Link minds with the other two. Philosophically girding his loins for the task ahead Jan Arrah went to work. He reached out to study a molecule of cooper based hemoglobin. He touched it lightly, adding and discarding an electron here, a proton or a neutron there. In a little under a minute he had a working molecule of the powerful Daxamite healing endorphin xylotanase. He released it and proceeded to the next.
Later, to Tasmia it seemed she only blinked and it was over and done. It wasn't until she noticed that the guard had changed that she realized more than eight hours must have passed. Her telepathic control relinquished, Imra Ardeen was barely in time to catch Jan Arrah's slight body when he slumped to the hard stone floor, unconscious and exhausted.
When Tasmia opened her eyes the first thing she saw was Lar Gand. With a hand that trembled the Talokian Queen peeled back the edges of the bandages still stained with his blood. The flesh beneath was now pink and healing, no longer raw and red, but Tasmia's was forced to look twice to be certain. Damnation! Tears had a way of obscuring one's vision. Which was why she rarely indulged in them. But now she couldn't seem to stop weeping, curse her eyes.
Sobbing deeply for all the times she hadn't allowed herself to cry, Tasmia Mallor lowered her head onto her Consort's broad chest and wept from the heart.
The hand that rose to stroke her mane of black, black hair was unsteady and far from at its strongest. The smile that accompanied it was wane as a disappearing Dry Season moon.
"Now I know I'm dead," Lar Gand whispered, his voice weak. "This has got to be the Great Reward." He tried unsuccessfully to chuckle. "Funny. Never though I'd end up here. Always figured my Eternity would be spent in a place a little ... colder ... than this ... "
The Daxamite version of Hell, Tasmia knew, was a frozen wasteland, peopled by the immaterial, phantom, untouchable souls of the sinful dead.
She embraced him, showering him with kisses and her flowing tears. "No, Lar, no," she couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry so she did both. "You're not dead! You're not! Neither of us are dead. And from now on we're going to live, I promise you. Together."
He found the strength to squeeze her hand. His eyes shone like bright, faceted gems.
"I'm going to hold you to that promise." he threatened.
Reaching out, she removed the stasis collar from his neck, tossing it into the burning brazier. The smoke of its passing rose up toward Heaven.
"I'm going to hold me to that promise," she vowed.
His attempt at mirth was more successful this time, she noted with a glad heart. Clapping loudly she summoned the Guard. "Call the doctors," she instructed. Her kiss to his cheek was soft and yielding. "Rest," she whispered in his ear. "We've a great deal to talk about when you're up to it."
She turned to the rest of the room, the sound of his even steady breathing like music in her ears. "Ja -- Jan!"
She was shocked to see the Lady Imra seated on the floor tenderly holding Jan Arrah's curly head in her lap. The Alpha Class telepath seemed somehow ... softer, less formidable, now. Or was it only the Talokian Queen's imagination; her own fresh emotions transferring themselves to the Titanian?
Imra stroked the fallen priest's hair. "He's fine, Majesty," came the reassurance from the mind reader and Tasmia breathed a sigh of relief. Imra smiled much to the Imperial woman's surprise. "Don't concern yourself, Your Grace. I'll take see to him."
Turning to other business, Tasmia Mallor had no doubt that she would.