This is the seventh in a series of stories written by Arinn Dembo describing various bits of backstory in the SotS universe. It takes place after the events detailed in the first six stories Incident at Ko'Grappa, Incident at Avalon, Escape From Avalon--Part One, Escape From Avalon--Part Two, Rendezvous at Ke'Vanthu and The Council of Chozanti and is followed by The Battle of the Jade Mirror--Part Two.. The original post and discussion can be found on the Kerberos Forum.
These chapters and more are contained within a novel released as part of the Collectors Edition.
Cai Rui and his playmates sat in a circle on the cold cement floor, the three of them so close that their knees were touching. A beam of dirty winter sunlight surrounded them, filtered through a sheet of plastic nailed over the window–hole. The aluminum roof of the shack occasionally creaked with frost, and the wind beating on the walls made the plastic sheeting hum. The only other sound was the soft, continuous sigh of the rice pot steaming in the corner, filling the single–room dwelling with the smell of survival.
Steam rose to the ceiling and rolled along the corrugated metal roof, condensing on the cold surface. Occasionally a single drop of rice–scented rain fell into the center of the children’s circle, joining the previous drop to form a tiny pool.
Cai turned to Sara, sitting to his right with her tail neatly wrapped around her feet. He had never known her at this age, her creamy scales still the color of milk, her patterns pale pastel. She held her pale golden paws cupped to cover her eyes.
“Ok,” he said. “You can look.” He held up his own two hands, curled up into fists of mystery for the ancient guessing game. “Which one is it?”
Her pale green eyes narrowed, and for a moment her tongue flickered uncertainly. Finally she tapped the back of his left hand with her claw. “That one.”
He smiled and turned his hands over and opened his palm. The piece of candy, the very special prize, was in his right. “Sorry.”
“Bugger.” She rose gracefully, unfurling and stretching like a cat. “I hate this game. I’m going to go play outside.” She backed out of the circle of light and vanished, dissolving into the shadows of the room.
Cai Rui hid a smile. Even in his dreams, she was the same; if she couldn’t win the game, she would declare it pointless and refuse to play.
Cai Rui turned to his second playmate, a child with no face or features – instead the body was cut from the cloth of deep space, formed from black darkness scattered with distant stars.
“It is my turn.” Ishii spoke with the soft, vast voice of the waters. Black hands rose to cover the place where a child’s eyes would be.
Cai Rui put his hands behind his back and juggled the candy back and forth. He frowned with concern; this was the abbott’s very special gift. He did not want Ishii to have it.
“Ok.” When he brought his closed fists to the front, Ishii pointed to the left.
Cai Rui opened his hands. The candy was in the left. “Again,” he said, and Ishii obligingly covered his eyes.
He juggled the candy again, and on the next try Ishii correctly guessed the right. Cai Rui frowned. “Again.” Ishii covered his eyes. Somehow, Cai Rui felt him smiling.
He juggled the candy behind his back, looking at Ishii through narrowed eyes. Feeling oddly triumphant, he brought his fists back to the fore. Ishii looked down at them briefly and then back up into Cai Rui’s eyes.
“The candy is on the floor behind your back.”
Cai Rui flushed. “You’re cheating.”
“Yes,” Ishii said. “And so are you. Would you like to try again?”
Moved by the stubbornness that comes only in dreams, Cai Rui soldiered on. He tried everything. Once he hid the candy in the rice pot. Once under a broken brick. He hid the candy in pocket of his mother’s ragged jacket, as she lay sleeping on the floor. Nothing he did would fool Ishii. Every time, the dark child simply pointed to the place where the bright circle of sugar was hidden.
Finally, in desperation, he tried one last gambit. He held out his two fists, suppressing a grim smile. “Again.”
Ishii lowered his hands and looked at Cai Rui. He shook his head sadly. “You have swallowed the candy. A dangerous ploy – what if I did this?”
He raised one dark hand, and suddenly his black fingers had become four gleaming obsidian knives. So swiftly that it was nearly impossible to follow, his hand darted toward Cai Rui’s belly.
Cai Rui fell back, a cry of alarm and anticipated pain on his lips, but the blades did not penetrate. Instead Ishii squatted over him, letting the light of the sunbeam slide over the black metal just inches from vulnerable flesh.
He looked down at Cai Rui, the stars in the depths of his face shimmering like a dozen eyes. “The enemy will not be so gentle. To him, this is not a game. And he has weapons more terrible than mine.”
The tears of a defeated child sprang up in Cai Rui’s eyes. “Then how can I win? Where can I hide it?”
Ishii smiled. He gave his wrist a little flick and made his appendage a small human hand once more. Then he opened the hand; the striped disk of candy lay in the cup of his black palm. “Watch.”
Cai Rui stood, and suddenly the walls of his childhood home fell away, collapsing outward and vanishing. The two of them stood in a region of strange rolling dunes. As he focused on them more closely, he could see that they were mountains of candy, made up of billions of pieces identical to the one that he had tried to hide from Ishii.
Ishii climbed to the top of a pile, the candies crunching and sliding like scree beneath his feet. When he finally achieved the summit, he cocked his arm and threw the single piece out into the rolling white sea. It vanished into anonymity, one among billions.
In the blink of an eye, the two of them sat once more on the cold cement floor, facing one another cross–legged in a beam of winter sunlight. A drop of rice–scented rain fell in a silvery flash between them and joined the small undisturbed pool in the center of their circle.
Despite himself, Cai Rui smiled. “That was good,” he admitted. “What was that place?”
“The night sea in which your people swim.” Ishii shrugged. “I have no word for it. It is the treasure trove of your life, where all you have known and experienced falls into the birthgrave. My people have no such refuge.”
Cai Rui frowned. “Is the candy lost?” Cai Rui asked. “Will I ever see it again?”
Ishii held up his two open palms. “My friend…there is no candy.”
He woke up abruptly, sitting up with a start. As usual, his forehead smacked solidly into the bulkhead above him. This had happened so many times that now the impact was cushioned by a pad of soft insulation foam – he had taped one to the spot days ago, to spare himself more bruises.
Now he lay back with a sigh of irritation, rearranging himself in time and space, dreams fleeing in the wake of pain. The headache had been with him since he boarded, a constant drumbeat of pulsing agony. Drugs, light adjustments, tinkering with the atmospheric mix – nothing seemed to work. Life aboard a Hiver ship was a never–ending migraine. The most he could do was drive the pain into the background for a while, with the help of a fistful of pills.
A fistful of pills which had now run their course.
He pinched the bridge of his nose savagely, driving the pain back into the rear of his skull, and then opened his eyes in the dark. Something was wrong. In the six days he had been aboard the Jade Mirror, he had developed a sense of the rhythms and routines of the weary freighter. Instinct told him he had not slept long enough for this much darkness.
Wordless, he craned his head to look down from his topmost bunk. The ship was oddly silent – and curiously loud at the same time. He recognized the sound, a sweetly resonant high–pitched chirrup that seemed to issue from several places throughout the room. It was the great–grandfather of the old song of summer, when as a child he would creep from bed at night to sit on the cool stone steps and listen to the crickets singing.
It was the sound of Hivers snoring. And it came from everywhere.
With gradually building dread, he chinned himself down from the high shallow storage compartment which had been converted to make him a bunk. His bare feet touched the floor soundlessly and he crept to the side of a bulky shadow. As he bent, he saw the sleeper was Yzeket, sprawled ungracefully half in, half out of the doorway.
Cautiously he touched the warrior’s carapace. The massive chest moved slowly, the chirring song emerging in long musical sighs from the wingpits in his back as he slept. But the eyes were not covered by their protective lids—instead they seemed to be open, staring blind and sightless into the dark.
A cold chill washed over him. He looked down, and saw the customary weapons holstered in the chez–rek’s bandoliers were missing. With a sudden premonition he turned back to the place where his own clothes and weapons should have been, hanging in a sac beside his makeshift bunk.
Something in the bowels of the ship rattled, followed by a thud of heavy impact. Cai Rui looked up suddenly, eyes wide.
“No,” he said softly – more in disbelief than command.
The pain in his skull suddenly intensified, surging back into the space behind his eyes with a vengeance. He staggered and fell to his knees, clutching his temples. Beneath him the floor begin to vibrate, a rising thrum that spread from the depths of the Mirror and into his bones, his blood and brain, threatening to spin his body into fragments. The song of the engine whipped through him like a thousand burning wires, cradling him in a web of agony.
The sense of penetration was palpable, as if the surface tension of a liquid were suddenly broken. He fell heavily onto his side, head spinning, retching silently as the universe turned itself slowly, agonizingly inside out.
Lungs, heart, stomach lurched to a halt, in the interminable choking interval as the ship traveled through the skin of the universe. Its emergence was just as palpable, a slow revolution from the gut–wrenching realm of tortured amber to a place of pain and confusion, of tortured gasps and gagging heaves of stomach rebellion. Cai Rui writhed, holding his skull, trying with all his might to keep it from flying apart. His mouth was full of blood; sweat bathed his body.
The Jade Mirror had made another jump through the Queen’s Gates.
He tottered to his feet and staggered into the hall, half–stumbling over the bodies of several massive Hiver warriors. They lay where they had fallen, as if sleep had suddenly overtaken them all at once: between one bite and another of a ration bar, standing at a guard post, in midstep while exiting the head…
Along the gangway traveling the length of the ship’s spine he turned, listening. Somewhere in the command section he could hear a new sound, a trilling cascade of keystrokes. Even as he opened the control room hatch, some part of him recognized it – all Tarkasian computers made those eager little trills as they accepted commands.
The massive male turned toward him. His pupils had folded into a complex origame of amusement and surprise.
“Why…hello, stump. What’s the matter? Not sleepy?”
For days Lan Mak’Kona had spoken every word in this same tone – the contemptuous sneer of a bully who issues a challenge that others are too weak to answer. Cai Rui registered the insult without speaking, meeting the eyes of Sara’s younger brother without changing expression. Slowly he wiped the blood from his mouth, and then just as slowly and deliberately raised his eyes to the viewscreens, to take in the rolling tapestry of space.
In the course of his work he had studied spy footage from dozens of Hiver worlds, keeping track of every planet known to be a part of their Gate network. This one, however, would never have needed such an introduction. Any human spacer would have recognized it at a glance.
Outside, the void was awash with shattered ships. The scattered fragments of hundreds of broken hulls tumbled, silent and black. Here the cavernous, gaunt ribs of a sundered Hiver dreadnaught gleamed, rolling slowly up into the light as the ship completed a ponderous pirouette in the darkness. There the melted command section of a Tarkasian cruiser tumbled in slow somersaults through the night, trailing a necklace of wreckage from the SolForce destroyers that had smashed into either side, dragging it with them into death. It was a glittering field of devastation, extending as far as the eye could see, the remains of a battle so massive that its litter had left a permanent ring of debris in orbit around the tiny yellow star. Now this ring had become its own monument to the dead – a frozen, hallowed cemetery for the three races who had once fought and died to call this system their own.
He closed his eyes, letting the old plan slip away. He was lightyears away from that rendezvous, and the carefully–laid ambush that had once seemed so clever. Here and now, the future yawned before him like an abyss.
When he opened his eyes again a moment later, he discovered that there was only one question left to ask.
“Sara’s plan?” he asked the young Tarka. “Or yours?”
Lan Mak’Kona rattled his tongue with laughter. “You give my sister too much credit. Even now she rages at the helm, watching her precious pet disappear into my coils. No, her great scheme was only to help you capture your enemy and avenge your father–ape.” He bared his tusks in disgust. “Pathetic.”
“Ah.” Looking down at his hands, Cai Rui could not hide his smile. She had not betrayed him. It was strange, in the worst moments of life, how such a small thing could matter.
The son of the emperor looked at his face and made a harsh bark of disbelief. “Grak. The pet is happy now, is it? Still has his lady’s love? And much good that will do him.”
Cai Rui looked up and raised his eyebrows. “Always a pleasure to be chosen. By a woman of quality.”
Even as he spoke he knew that the bolt would strike true. Lan Mak’Kona stiffened visibly, his pupils slitted with fury. Cai Rui cocked his head, feigning mild interest as the boy battled with rage. The spoiled scion of a wealthy family, a male like Lan Mak’Kona made the Change by means of wealth – not glory. But son of an emperor or not, he was not likely to impress a woman of his sister’s rank.
Looking at him now, Cai Rui could almost see the yoke around that massive neck. The boy would never go far on his name alone. He would not have fathered many children among the elite, as yet; at best he might have hired himself out as a stud service to his inferiors – if his family would allow even that. How it must rankle him, that golden cage: to have the appearance of status, of power, of manhood – and not the reality. He would be little more than a plaything until he could distinguish himself in politics or battle.
Cai Rui shook his head, poisonously amused. All this trouble and pain – to be betrayed, in the end, by a 200-kilogram teenager.
“Well then,” he said mildly. “I suppose we have a new plan.”
The Tarka bared his massive tusks. “Not really. Only a few details have been changed.” His golden eyes gleamed savagely. “We still promise the Deacon to deliver a prized captive, in return for…certain considerations. We still meet his ship in a pre–arranged location to make the exchange.” His tongue rattled again. “But we do not open fire at the last moment with the cloaked cruisers lying in wait.”
The young Tarkasian rose from the pilot’s chair, advancing on Cai Rui with the slow, weaving predatory dance of a snake. “Instead, we see how deep his pockets go, this Ripper,” he rumbled softly. His head cocked to the side. “If he’s willing to pay a fine ransom for one filthy little ape – what will he give for a Hiver Prince?”
Cai Rui took a step backward, but the hand shot out too quickly, snapping shut around the bones of his arm in an eyeblink, with a grip like iron.
“Would he attack on my command, perhaps?” Lan Mak’Kona leaned close, bringing his ivory tusks within inches. “With a few well–placed blows, I might raise a full rebellion against this Son of Orr,” he hissed softly. “There are many who would prefer to see a son of the Kona sit in the Temple of Steel.”
Cai Rui bared his teeth in return. “The only child of the Kona fit to sit in that throne is your sister,” he said sharply. “As for you – I suspect that you are about to discover how my old friend treats royalty.” He lifted his chin, indicating the viewscreen.
Lan Mak’Kona turned just as the proximity warning of the old freighter began to pulse. Frozen, he watched as the fabric of space ruptured, and the massive nose of the enemy ship hove into view.
It was eerily at home against the backdrop of the drifting graveyard, a nightmare vessel bolted together from the dismembered remains of a dozen derelicts. Every portal bristled with guns, and every one of those guns was trained on the vulnerable flanks of the fragile Hiver freighter, helpless in the dark.
“Well done, Lan Mak’Kona.” Cai Rui laughed bitterly. “Your plan is without flaw. Even the Supreme cannot say that He has ever been where you stand now – standing alone at the helm of a rusting freighter in the face of an enemy cruiser. And you have cleverly arranged a slow death for yourself and all aboard, by delivering three prizes to an enemy of your people – a Hiver Prince, a filthy little ape, and a Tarkasian fool.” He shook his head. “What will you do for an encore, I wonder? Kill yourself before the Deacon can tear out your soul and make you his catamite—?”
The boy turned to him with a snarl of terror and fury. Cai Rui smiled – even as he registered the moment he had gone too far. He had only a split–second to regret his choice of words before the massive fist was in motion, hammering him back down into the black.