“The Wind Harp” by Athena Andreadis
Read our interview with Athena Andreadis
When Némi Ferái Kámi-o sent me a formal summons, I took more than usual care with my appearance. Not that it would matter to him – his retainers, conscious of the length and renown of the Kámi-o lineage, constantly complained about his informality. Besides, he had seen me in all states of dishevelment ever since he had taken me as his fosterling, after my parents…
I walked down the flagstone colonnade, forcing myself into calm by watching the ketúo fronds sway and murmur their pleasing harmonies. It would not do to arrive early. The late morning bells began chiming when I entered the pavilion whose opalescent roof refracted Kánri’s light.
Ferái smiled at me as I bowed. The low oval table by his side was covered with datacrystals, tablets and commlinks. A light robe and loose trousers billowed around his neat frame and his gleaming black hair was held back by two combs of polished shell. Despite a smudge of ink on one high cheekbone, he still looked the epitome of elegance. I felt distinctly overdressed.
“What does Némi Ferái Kámi-o wish to share?” I asked, using formal address.
“Food, to begin with,” he answered in affectionate mode, gesturing towards the breakfast tray. I took a few bites but I might as well be chewing pebbles..
“The other members of the Circle think you are too young but I would like to entrust you with a mission. A difficult and dangerous one.” He placed his hand lightly on mine. “Please refuse if you think it is beyond you, Antóa.”
Refuse? I’d rather die than disappoint him. Nor would he have asked this of me if he thought I had no chance of success.
“The Kem-Fir tower has a new ruler,” he continued, absently rubbing his close-cropped beard.
“I thought Dor-Nys Nir-Vad was at her prime.”
“We all did,” he agreed ruefully. “The official word from Behtalka is that she fell unexpectedly ill – and refused to let any Confederation healers see her.”
“After all the Confederation efforts to create stable links with the Gan-Tem towers…”
“A loss for her people, first and foremost. But Serkadren cares little what happens on Gan-Tem as long as their weapons flow smoothly in his direction.” His eyes turned as hard as the agates they resembled. “I am not endangering your life to further the ambitions of the Melhuat of Behtalka. As is common with the Gan-Tem, the neighboring towers attacked Kem-Fir during the transition. Kem-Fir prevailed, but its water reservoir was damaged.”
“And I assume that Melhuat Serkadren dispatched a starship to the jump point, with instructions to supply Kem-Fir with water but only if the new Dor-Nys asks. And since such an action would fatally undermine her authority and the tower’s autonomy…”
“Indeed, she has not asked. To our knowledge, Kem-Fir has only two small starships. Neither is equipped to fetch water from the system’s asteroids, even if they could evade Serkadren’s patrolling fortress. They are feverishly trying to reconstitute the ducts connecting the reservoir to the aquifer. They may be attacked again. In the meantime–”
A Whittling… I guessed, letting the thought float unguarded. Ferái nodded.
“Officially you are there as an observer. Your true mission is to persuade the new Dor-Nys to stay her hand. If we can turn a Gan-Tem tower into an ally for Ténli…” He hesitated but I heard his thought clearly enough. Now it was my turn to touch his hand.
“I know you want Ténli-e influence to be as great as possible in the Confederation, Némi Ferái.”
“To the Behtalkat, the Talent is a weapon. But Serkadren is gentler than his sire. If we can guide him, the complexion of the Confederation may change.” He stood, raising me along with him, and formally pressed my hands between his. “Pronounce, Antóa Tásri, Erúe’s hope, Kandéi’s joy.”
For the mission, Ferái gave me the access codes to his own starship, the Sedói. After stuttering my thanks for the extravagant gift, I suggested it would be best if I went alone. He disagreed.
“All the risk and all the glory?” he asked. I felt my cheeks grow warm. He smiled, the amusement laced with sorrow. The image of Erúe – her calm bravery, her love of strange skies… but the slate-green eyes and the ability to gaze deeply into people, those are Kandéi’s. Then he turned as smoothly opaque as his hair combs.
“You will be on your own. We cannot override the Behtalkat jamming devices without triggering alerts. Only Kem-Fir’s Dor-Nys knows the full writ of your mission. We will decide what to disclose when you return.” I smiled at the when. He smiled, too, and brushed the back of his hand fleetingly on my cheek, releasing me to my task.
To go from Ténli to Gan-Tem required three jumps. The Sedói negotiated the journey effortlessly. It might look like a snowflake, but its engines would serve a parméi warship.
Half-listening to the ship’s chirps and hums, I went over the greetings for the Nim-Zad and Tel-Kir castes. The male Tel-Kir were the face of Gan-Tem to the outside world, but it was the Nim-Zad, the female law enforcers within the towers, that I feared.
The city-sized warship Melhuat Serkadren had dispatched loomed over the final jump point, its entire arsenal trained at the maelstrom of the wormhole entry. I ran a discreet scan – its scoutships were gone beyond sensor range. All but one, which approached me peremptorily demanding entry. Given their scanning hardware, sending someone physically seemed oddly inefficient. But when the long-legged scoutship pilot sauntered through the docking bay iris, I knew the ostentatious visit had little to do with vetting the Sedói.
“Antóa Tásri, conscientious like all the Kámi-o acolytes,” he drawled in Dominant Mode Behtalkat. The leakage of his thoughts was like a muddy pond churned by wind. “Not using a parméi? Why are the Ténli-e so chary of committing their resources for the good of the Confederation?” He prowled around my control console, the third-rank nostril gem of the Tohduat Order casting yellow reflections on the elaborate misedraht handle tucked in his armband.
“A parméi is too large and fragile to enter atmosphere, Nimbredaht Talsekrit,” I pointed out. I gave him the honorific of mentor he did not deserve, while using Dominant Mode myself. “Also, a small vessel shows good faith and I’m here only as an invited observer, after all.”
“The Gan-Tem are only impressed by brute strength!” he exclaimed, running his fingers through his spiky dark-blond hair, cropped closer than required. “My brother – the Melhuat–” he corrected himself quickly, “would make short work of their pretensions.”
“I feel quite safe, knowing a Tohduat warrior is nearby…” I said with a smile that I didn’t try to make warm.
Talsekrit glared at me. Most would consider him handsome and he was reasonably intelligent – no offspring of the Melhuat that was subpar in any way lived beyond Selection, nor did the hapless pardaht that birthed it. Yet his presence in my mind was flaccid, drab.
The Tohduat had wanted Serkadren. But their unlamented sire would not give away his most promising seedling – he had given them Talsekrit instead. The Tohduat had to take him and show gratitude with little to show for it: rumors said that Talsekrit’s Talent was Level Three, the lowest possible for entry into the Order. Whereas Serkadren had proved his Talent unequivocally by not only killing his sire, but by doing so with the tacit approval – and, some said, the covert aid – of the Tohduat.
“Where are your scoutships?” I asked him.
“Monitoring the situation on Gan-Tem,” Ensuring that no one smuggled water to Kem-Fir, unless it agreed to Behtalka’s terms. “I will be doing some reconnaissance myself,” he added, practically puffing out his chest.
“Is that wise?” I said. “The Gan-Tem–”
“–won’t be so foolish as to interfere with official Behtalkat representatives,” he interrupted, putting emphasis on official. The Ténli-e think they can still act on their own, I heard, despite the thought-shields. His Talent was low, all right. And to send her… she’s so young… I wonder what Kámi-o is after, he’s not to be trusted. Still, I assume my brother and the Order know of his plans.
“You and the pretty toy have leave to go through,” he said with a negligent wave of his hand. Leave… we did not need anyone’s permission to sail amid the stars, once. But that was before Behtalka engulfed the entire quadrant.
As soon as I emerged from the last jump point, I activated the magnetic deflectors. Less than a heartbeat later, a powerful energy discharge jolted the Sedói. I recognized the jagged burr design of the ship that filled my viewport – a Gan-Tem marauder three times my size. On its underside were two interlocked ovals, one orange, one dark red: the device of Kem-Fir Tower.
“Ténli-e witch,” came a hoarse voice through the comm. “My Dor-Nys doesn’t waste her time with Confederation spies.” And a second discharge slammed into the Sedói, rocking it like a seed pod borne on a turbulent creek.
The Tel-Kir warriors that crewed the Gan-Tem starships were not known to bargain much. I could outrun them, but I doubted they would listen to anyone they could herd like prey. I aimed the Sedói straight below the turret stalks and wedged it between a hatch and a launching vent. Besides magnets, I also used the gravity holds we had recently installed on the Sedói, hoping that the Gan-Tem had not yet perfected countermeasures.
“Stand and fight!” challenged my adversary, while he and his crew tried various ways to pry me off their hull, none gentle. “Or I release piercer motes on you!” I took a deep breath.
“Don’t deprive your Dor-Nys of her invited guest,” I said in a conversational tone, tamping down my fear – their hull piercers made short work of all metal. “It won’t compensate for being unable to evade the Behtalkat cordon. And hyperventilating will just make you thirstier.” At this, I heard a cough that could equally well be amusement or indignation… and he appeared on my communication viewscreen.
Though still rippling with muscle, his contours were starting to soften – the oldest Tel-Kir I had ever seen. He might be tipping thirty local cycles. Almost none of his caste lived that long. When they were not fighting for their towers, they faced off in the underground arenas. His hair was shaped like a rock formation sculpted by wind and the Kem-Fir interlocking circles had been cut into the side of his neck, the grooves inlaid with colored metal chips. Intricate studs decorated his nostrils, ears and eyebrows, their silvery sheen contrasting with his skin.
Cunningly shaped and fitted, a darter jutted from his left wrist, a flame thrower protruded from his right forearm. The links to his nerve endings were defiantly visible, at once decoration and bravado. His studs and prosthetics were kel-in, the sole resource that his planet possessed in abundance. Light, malleable yet unbreakable once forged, it had made it possible for Gan-tem engineers to create weapons irresistible to Behtalka.
The engineers of Kem-Fir tower were unparalleled. Their weapons responded directly to neuronal impulses. For the sake of such weapons Gan-Tem had been brought into the Confederation – despite the systematic killing of their Talented whom they considered possessed, despite the Whittlings whenever a Dor-Nys deemed that the population of her tower strained its resources.
“I heard nothing from my Dor-Nys that would make it worthwhile to spare you,” said the Tel-Kir, gazing at me with eyes as bright yellow as autumn grass on the plains of Nireg.
“Perhaps your Dor-Nys doesn’t tell you everything,” I replied.
“This is a feeble ploy to save your life.”
“Kill me and find out.”
His eyes narrowed. Then, with a snort, he snapped his visual display off. They stopped trying to dislodge me, though I kept a close watch on my sensors as we neared Gan-Tem, trailing its skeins of moonlets. At the edge of its atmosphere, I detached from my reluctant hosts. I kept the deflectors at maximum until the destroyer dwindled to a bright point in my rear viewports.
Under a turbulent sky pierced by meteors, I set course for Kem-Fir. Gan-Tem was tidally locked. The towers huddled in the narrow band between the day and night side, each perched on top of a water reservoir that also nourished their plant and animal food supply. The twilight zone was raked by hurricane-force gusts rising from the extreme temperature differentials. These now buffeted the Sedói, forcing me to constantly fire my corrective thrusters.
Kem-Fir was a hill-sized trapezoid that glowed a dull brown-red in the eternal gloaming. It rose steeply from a basin sparsely strewn with plants armored against the radiation from Gid-En’s flares. A few slit openings and dim green lights at irregular intervals broke the sheer, pitted face but I knew that the towers had hidden entrances.
My instructions were to maintain silence until hailed, so I landed on the flat top of the tower expecting a long wait. But I had barely anchored and powered down the Sedói when I saw a portion of the roof lift. Outlined against the dark gap I saw the silvery silhouettes of four Nim-Zad. Gid-En’s light reddened their studs and the tips of their plasma javelins.
The tower was filled with twisty corridors and irregular side openings, built for the inevitable moment when another tower would attempt to overcome it. Through the openings I caught glimpses of Kem-Fir’s inhabitants, their caste identifiable by their decorative scars and hair patterns. I saw a few sucking thirstily on the finger-sized dewgatherers that fluttered over tower reservoirs before my Nim-Zad escorts tightened their knot around me, blocking my view.
Eventually we reached a room whose sole furniture was a long, bare bench. Several more Nim-Zad stood around it, their clothes ranging from dark to light blue to match their status. Darters and stunners were seamlessly embedded in their arms. A beguiling musky scent permeated the room – the entire tower, I now realized, though here it was stronger.
“You can keep your innermost garment,” decided the senior Nim-Zad after they had searched me as gently as their destroyer had probed the Sedói. Inkblots of blood bloomed on my tunic. I was glad Ferái had insisted I take a hefty dose of immunohunters. “All else remains here – these, too,” she gestured at my hairpins. “We know of your dealings with the Idriem.”
I wouldn’t look very imposing wearing just a bodyform and waist-length hair, but she had a point. Hair ornaments, poisoned or otherwise, had been assassination tools on Ténli for generations before our starships alit on Idre and sampled its settlers’ exquisite biotech. And according to my sources, the Nim-Zad used similar means to settle matters of internal hierarchy.
She motioned me towards a rectangular opening covered by a semi-transparent membrane. As I crossed it, my skin prickled and a sharp taste flooded my mouth. Why and how did a Gan-Tem tower come to possess an Idri dampener?
On the other side was a high-ceilinged room that grew wider as you went further from the entrance. The musky smell grew deeper – but there was something else, as well. As soon as I crossed the barrier, pressure built up behind my eyes.
“I wish I could say welcome to Kem-Fir,” said a voice that vibrated like a crystal blade.
I edged cautiously forward. As my retinal microdots compensated fully, I saw a dais against the far wall. It was bordered with sconces whose cold fire rose vertically, undisturbed by any air currents I created by moving. Upon the dais a figure sat cross-legged. Her clothes, the same metallic bluish-white as that of the sconce lights, shimmered and threw refractions at her slightest move. Her hair fanned stiffly behind her like a great tree, laden with intricate metal adornments. A beautifully wrought kel-in mask covered her face. The expression on it was of calm detachment, but bright orange eyes gleamed through the eyeholes.
“Dor-Nys Teg-Rav,” I greeted her, “may wind never touch your face.” She extended her hand towards me. A small rectangle nestled in her palm, filled with clear liquid. I bowed. “I am deeply honored. But please give all available water to your people, they need it more than I.”
“A gracious Confederation envoy… who bothered to learn Gan-Tem caste dialects.” She let the silence lengthen, but Ferái had taught me well – I didn’t let it push me into nervous chatter. “You are not nobility. Should I consider this an insult?”
“You turned down several other candidates who outranked me,” I replied, willing my voice to stay steady. “I am fully empowered to negotiate–”
“Your finessing of my Tel-Kir, impressive,” she interrupted me. “But we don’t need any help.”
“If so, why did you consent to see me?” At that moment, I heard a distant sonic boom.
“I want you to see that Kem-Fir is strong and will get stronger. And I want you to tell your Behtalkat masters that we do things solely on our terms.”
“And their terms?”
“He’s canny, Serkadren.” She shrugged. “He offered to help us rebuild our reservoir. In return, Kem-Fir was to give him any Possessed born or found while his engineers were here – the girls to become his pardaht, the boys to become Tohduat. He sent the offer unencrypted, on the merchants’ frequency.” The merchants, the only caste untouched by tower enmities, the glue of Gan-Tem society. The mask could not change its expression. Her hands, though, dug into her knees before she could still them. And my eyes had adjusted well enough to see that her nails, bare of augmentation, were bitten to the quick.
Three gifts in one, I mused, Serkadren wanted to show her and everyone in Behtalka’s orbit how easy it is for him. He will instruct his engineers to choose the best apprentice weaponeers as well, Kem-Fir will lose its knowledge monopoly in one fell swoop. An uprising or a Whittling now if she refuses, annihilation of the tower by starvation or takeover later if she accepts.
Just then, I heard a low hum behind me. Through the barrier came the Tel-Kir who had harassed the Sedói. A whiff of barely suppressed triumph hovered around him. He went to the dais, touched the edge of Teg-Rav’s over-robe. A discharge ran through his fingers and the musk in the room got overlaid with the acrid scent of burnt flesh. When he withdrew his hand, I saw spots of blood glisten on the garment. The dull throb behind my eyes sharpened to a fiery spike. I felt such spikes whenever I faced a Tohduat who could not – or would not – control his Talent.
“Please greet our guest,” Teg-Rav told him. He stood stock-still, looking down at me from his great height. “Properly this time, Tan-Rys.” The scent in the room turned slightly bitter and his yellow eyes flickered like brush fires. He ostentatiously went on one knee, touched my ankle. Unlike her, he was easy prey, I sensed him think. We’ll demand his ship’s weight in water.
“Do you wish to best your adversaries?” I challenged him as he snapped upright.
“With your puny help?” he jeered.
I inhaled and spoke as fast as I could, switching to the tonals forbidden to all but the Dor-Nys. “I brought a drug that can put some of your people into temporary suspended animation. This will let you repair the reservoir ducts without a Whittling.” I kept addressing her but pinned my gaze on him. “Do you want to protect your people as you have vowed to do? Or do you seriously think that capturing the Melhuat’s low-Talented brother will be your salvation?”
“I should have pulverized you when I had the chance!” he growled. I dove for the floor. A needle from his arm darter flew through where I had just stood and buried itself in the wall.
“Pause!” I heard Teg-Rav shout, an arena fight command. When I looked up, she was standing at the edge of the dais, the sconce lights swirling restlessly in her wake.
“Who else knows you’re Talented? And that Tan-Rys is an Amplifier?” I asked her as soon as I was reasonably sure he would obey her. “How long before the resonance between you grows so strong that the dampener fails? And what will happen when the Nim-Zad realize you let the Idriem test you so that they could customize the dampener?”
Slowly she removed her mask. Her fine-hewn face bore no decorative scars, except for the two interlocking circles inlaid on her left temple and cheekbone. She was young, younger than I, but the skin around her eyes was as discolored and cracked as her lips.
“My people must not find out,” she said, her tonals shifting to equal address. “At least not before Kem-Fir has fully recovered. We will exchange Serkadren’s brother for water – or for Behtalkat engineers without tithes of people or skills from us. I thank Ténli for its offer, but my people would never accept it. Even if it works as you say, it will make us dependent on you.”
“Besides, why should we trust you?” added Tan-Rys. “What is Ténli’s gain in this?”
“The motives of Ténli I will discuss with your Dor-Nys,” I said. To my surprise he gave me a genuine smile. What a Tel-Kir you would make… I turned to Teg-Rav. “Serkadren will not ransom Talsekrit. Talsekrit is still alive, alone of the Melhuat’s half-brothers, only because he is a Tohduat. But even if Serkadren valued him, the Melhuat of Behtalka can never appear weak to the other Confederation members.”
Teg-Rav stumbled. Tan-Rys stiffened but she raised her hand and he went instantly still. Slowly, she sat down at the edge of her dais. Then it is well that I told the Nim-Zad to start the Whittling as soon as you walked into this room, Antóa Tásri.
“I’m too thirsty to continue blocking you,” she murmured. She rubbed her eyes tiredly. “The first of many such decisions. Now you know why a Dor-Nys always wears a mask.”
Perhaps I could still retrieve something from the ruin, if I acted fast enough. In measured steps, I went to her and gathered a fistful of her robe, ignoring the jabs of electricity that racked my arm. “If you grant me a few kos-it of time, I will go into suspension with Tan-Rys to show your people it can be done. We will endure the black sleep together, he and I, and awaken together – or not at all. If not for this time, then for the future, so that you have choices.”
We underwent the ordeal in Tan-Rys’ starship, anchored next to mine on the rooftop of Kem-Fir. It was a compromise: they would not allow me to bring anything inside the tower, I deemed it foolhardy to give them access to the Sedói.
I persuaded Tan-Rys to consume several dewgatherers before we lay down on the hard platforms in the crew quarters. He was already parched, and the black sleep would dehydrate him further. A watchful ring formed around us, bristling with biometric testers. I proffered him the two identical plungers. They contained a dose calibrated to hit hard but wear out fast. He watched me discharge mine before following suit. A few heartbeats later, darkness pulled me under like a cold seawave.
When I surfaced, I tried to stand up but my legs kept folding under me. The Idriem had warned us about the nausea and disorientation. I had faintly felt Tan-Rys at the edge of my awareness but his presence had been oddly reassuring, a whiff of warm wind. It was the rest that had been disquieting. As I continued the contest with my limbs, he glared at me from the floor.
“Done this before?” he rasped.
“Once,” I answered. I didn’t think it was a good time to tell him I had emerged with a tiny cardiac arrhythmia – and that the damage had defied the repair efforts of Ténli’s best healers.
“You’re braver than I thought.” Gritting his teeth, he managed to get up. Nobody presumed to offer him aid. I consulted my time keeper – the people of Kem-Fir out in the wilderness might still be alive. At that point, silence swept the room and the circle around us opened to let Teg-Rav through.
“What did the instruments show?” she asked.
“The Ténli-e spoke truth, Dor-Nys,” said a woman whose studs and inlays indicated she was an engineer. “The instruments showed them close to death across all metrics – heartbeat, temperature, oxygen consumption, brain activity.”
“And you, Tel-Kir, how do you fare?” she asked Tan-Rys. He flexed his hands, making the links to his weapons thrum.
“Well enough to resume protecting Kem-Fir, Dor-Nys.”
“Now that I’m here, I would like to see the Ténli-e vessel,” said Teg-Rav.
“It is reckless enough to come outside – but enter the witch ship? This is improper, Dor-Nys,” said the senior Nim-Zad.
“You also felt that Nir-Vad’s choice of successor and her last wish were improper,” replied Teg-Rav. The hush deepened and the air in the room turned sour with electricity. “It is good to speak your mind. But don’t make it a habit to constantly question the decisions of your Dor-Nys.”
“May I offer you some water?” I asked as soon as we were in the Sedói. Tan-Rys entered behind Teg-Rav while two Nim-Zad were stationed outside, weapons readied.
“Not while my people thirst,” she replied removing her mask as slowly as an aged woman. “However, I think my Tel-Kir needs it.” Tan-Rys scowled but emptied the bowl I handed him, though he stopped drinking every now and then to glance at her.
“Many in the Confederation would like to see Behtalkat rule moderated. For that to happen, the rest of us must band together and give them no excuse for intervening. Is the Melhuat’s brother still alive?”
“He is,” she admitted after a tiny hesitation. “Of course, the Nim-Zad examined him thoroughly. But I won’t let the Tel-Kir exert themselves until our aquifer is repaired.”
“Afterwards, he’s ours,” rumbled Tan-Rys, eyes and teeth glinting. “A Tohduat in the arena – that will be rare entertainment!”
“It’s true that Serkadren cannot show weakness by offering ransom. But the Tohduat leave none of theirs unavenged. Not a surprising policy, when they glean Talented children from all members of the Confederation. If you kill Talsekrit, you hand Behtalka the perfect reason to obliterate Kem-Fir.” I sensed Teg-Rav parsing the permutations. “If you return Talsekrit, Behtalka will be in your debt, rather than the other way around,” I pointed out. I took a deep breath. “And if you allow the people now wandering outside to return, it will signal to the other towers and the rest of the Confederation that Kem-Fir’s Dor-Nys is confident in her rule.”
“I cannot do that,” she said quietly. “Once chosen for Whittling, they receive the outcast caste mark. If a merchant convoy is nearby sometimes they collect survivors, especially if they’re young. But none can ever enter a tower again, theirs or any other.”
“Then let me take them. I can be considered a merchant of sorts.”
“In this?” she asked, gesturing at the Sedói.
I had been feeling cold ever since the black sleep, but now I grew colder. “How many went outside?” The Sedói could hold about twelve people. Seventeen, if I removed everything but the engines and the control console …
“One hundred eighty-three,” she replied. I sank into a seat.
Suddenly Tan-Rys put his hand on her robe and kept it there. The low sizzle was clearly audible. “Let me take them, Dor-Nys,” he said so low I could barely hear him. “My marauder is big enough.” She looked at the thin rills of blood seeping from under his hand. Carefully, she interposed her own hand between his and her garment.
“Where do you propose to take them? Such an act will make you an outcast as well.”
“I’m already spending the gift of a second life,” he replied. “I will take them to our merchant outpost on Regadif. It is a free zone, nobody will interfere with us there. It won’t be easy living without the scent of a Dor-Nys, in a place where castes shift and mingle – but it’s our old home.” He touched the two circles on his neck. “We of Kem-Fir still have its two suns as our device.”
“When Rovbehim and Tuvrehad shifted orbits and boiled Regadif’s seas away, the Ténli-e helped build the ships that brought the Gan-Tem here,” I added. “Perhaps our peoples can fly together again?”
“I wish I could fly between the stars,” she said longingly. “The only time a Dor-Nys goes outside is when she takes over another tower. And when she lies on her death platform, surrounded by her companions.” She pulled one of the adornments from her halo of hair and held it out to Tan-Rys. Then she handed me Talsekrit’s misedraht. “Tell Serkadren of Behtalka that this and the Tohduat who carries it are gifts from the Dor-Nys of Kem-Fir.” Then she took off her two over-robes and dropped them on the floor.
Tan-Rys and I hurriedly strung a web between our two ships made of ribbons from Teg-Rav’s robes stretched on kel-in wires. As we flew around Kem-Fir, the winds that raked the twilight plucked the web. And the banished came – they came to the call of the windsong and Teg-Rav’s scent. They staggered and crawled into the docking bay of the marauder, skins blistered and peeling. We didn’t get them all. Some had impaled themselves on thorns, walked into the path of kel-dif lizards, gone under Gid-en’s merciless light. I helped them lie down wherever I could find a spot and I pressed plungers, calculating and recalculating the doses and hoping I had enough. Even so, I knew that some would not awaken when we reached Regadif.
The Nim-Zad flung Talsekrit at me when I was detaching the web from the Sedói. He was clothed in bruises, gashes and crusted blood. I cared for him as best I could and put a force field across the entrance to the sleep cubicle of the Sedói. He was furious with shame and fear. When he saw his misedraht handle peeking from my armband, he locked himself in silence. I didn’t envy him – Serkadren was known for finesse, but not for gentleness. The Tohduat were known for neither.
“Care to cajole the Behtalkat at the jump point?” asked Tan-Rys as we sped to our destination. He had agreed to let me attach the Sedói to his marauder and act as his astrogator ‘this once’. “You’ll be better at it than I.”
“Anyone would be better at it than you,” I teased him. He let out his harsh cough of amusement. “But our best safeguard is Talsekrit.”
When we emerged from the jump point, the Behtalkat ship’s weapons strafed the space around us. But it was only a gesture, their missiles went ostentatiously wide. I had beamed an unencrypted message at maximum boost as soon as we had left Gan-Tem.
“I will not be able to contact you openly, but the merchants always leak information,” Teg-Rav said, filling the viewscreen. “You will be welcome in Kem-Fir as long as I am its Dor-Nys. Longer, if I’m successful.” Her eyes flickered to Tan-Rys. “May you never be bested, Tel-Kir.” And the viewscreen went dark. He leaned over and touched it.
“May wind never touch your face, Dor-Nys,” he whispered.
We got little sleep between flying, monitoring our sleepers, and the damage to our bodies from windblown grit and Gid-En’s radiation. The pain was fierce – I heard stifled moans escape Tan-Rys when he thought I was dozing – and we lacked regenerating stem cultures. As Regadif’s two suns grew in our screens, he kept rubbing the kel-in ornament Teg-Rav had given him. In my fatigue I must have slipped, because he answered my unspoken question.
“Each ornament on a Dor-Nys’ hair comes from a past Dor-Nys. This was Nir-Vad’s. Do you know what signals the succession?”
“The Dor-Nys takes a lover openly,” I replied.
“I’m past my prime, though Nim-Zad still ask me to sire more for their caste and mine. Yet Nir-Vad chose me. When she removed her mask, I thought I would be consumed. But she smiled, and said, ‘I am too ill to be pleasured, Tel-Kir. Just keep me warm.’ When the time came for me to be staked down next to her platform, she used her last wish to give me my life. The senior Nim-Zad were furious at the custom breach. She made me swear I would never let harm come to her successor. I think she knew Teg-Rav and I were Possessed.” His eyes filled and he must have been worn out, because he let them overflow. “I keep wondering if I kept my promise.”
And as the full repercussions of my actions sank in, I wept with him.
“You exceeded your brief by far,” Némi Ferái Kámi-o remarked, as quietly as was ever his wont. “You went to Kem-Fir to prevent a Whittling, not to bring a starship’s worth of outcasts to Regadif.”
“The group will be a refuge for Talented Gan-Tem,” I argued, determined to remain calm. “Serkadren and the Tohduat are now in Teg-Rav’s debt. Serkadren cannot attack Kem-Fir or Regadif without harming his own standing.”
“The Circle met yestereve,” he said. My heart sank below the garden flagstones. He put his hand on my wrist – gently, though the regenerating skin stung even at the lightest touch – and I girded myself to hear the rest. “Your name will henceforth be Tásri-e.” And he let his happiness flood my mind. “Do not be so overwhelmed, nobility of merit is not hereditary,” he reminded me, his smile broadening.
At that moment, one of the Kámi-o retainers glided through the translucent pavilion curtains holding a message tablet. “Némi Ferái, Némi Antóa,” he greeted us, bowing. Némi Antóa… Had the Behtalkat not destroyed our orbiting science stations, my parents might have lived to see this day. Collecting myself, I focused on the tablet which Ferái had activated.
“Antóa Tásri-e,” said the man on the screen in Dominant Mode Behtalkat. Dressed in a opulent ivory suit that outlined his body, Serkadren was as handsome as an ice crystal lit by the noonday sun, his closely cropped hair lighter than davói fields in summer. “The Tohduat tell me my brother will mend fully. I also understand that Kem-Fir can once again meet its obligations to the Confederation. I am delighted to be so deeply in debt to someone of such intelligence and courage. If you and your guardian would accept my hospitality, I would like to thank you in person.” The warmth in his beautifully modulated voice didn’t quite reach his cloud-grey eyes.
“Is it true that he plans to change Behtalkat law?” I asked Ferái, whose mien had darkened.
“It is true,” he admitted. “Besides pardaht, he also wants to have an official consort.”
“Preferably a Ténli-e noble, to burnish his rule.”
Ferái cast me a long, troubled glance. “I could wish you less astute. We Ténli-e never contract loveless unions, yet I cannot deny how much such a connection would help our cause. He might even abide by Ténli-e custom and leave his consort free to take lovers. But I never thought to sacrifice you on this altar. Nor had he reason to cast his attention on you – till now.”
“I will do whatever I must to protect our people on Ténli, on Regadif, on Gan-Tem–”
Ferái stood up abruptly. Putting his hands carefully around mine, he bowed deeply over them and held the bow – he, the first among equals of the Ténli Circle!
“Ténli is honored that you walk on it, Erúe’s pride, Kandéi’s joy… Ferái’s hope.”
About the Author
Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. She conceived of and edited the feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky (2013, Candlemark and Gleam). Her work can be found in Scientific American, Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.
Read our interview with Athena Andreadis