Aug 302012
 

A vast delta of tangled threads of water debouches from colorful (yellow, reddish, green) land into a deep cobalt waterway.Our first three days’ sail were slow, agonizingly so, as the craft tacked far south, out of sight of land, to pick up the Paivai Current. At midsummer, the Captain explained, the winds along that part of the coast are contrary, blowing eastward from the mouth of the Twolight Gulf. The southern swing into the Khorden Sea would save us days’ sailing, as the Paivai would carry us westward far more quickly than weary days tacking against the winds, along the coast.

Guildfolk are sometimes criticized for their unwillingness to share the intricacies of their craft with outsiders, but I found Captain Matyas pleasantly forthcoming. Perhaps, as the Lady’s escort, I received a higher degree of courtesy.  But the Captain impressed me as one justly proud of his skill and his ship, and welcoming the opportunity to display them.

His awe of the Lady tied his tongue at first, but within a few days her warmth and quiet humor restored a natural camaraderie among the crew. It was only sometimes in the fading light of day’s end, that she would walk restlessly along from quarterdeck to forecastle, face stony with inward worries, eyes traveling to the painted western sky with something like mingled hope and dread.

On the sixth day out from Port Aravas, I was standing on the quarterdeck, watching ungainly-looking greenfins cavort in the ship’s wake, bemused with their sudden leaps and rolls. Captain Matyas had explained that the ship’s passage churned the surface area in a way that took microlife from the immediate subsurface layer, and brought it to the surface. The greenfins were enjoying the bounty, passing as much mingled water and air as possible through the membranes along the insides of their lower jaws and feasting on the foamy mixture that resulted. Greenfins would follow a ship many kilometers if it crossed their path. He pointed out two whose movements seemed curiously synchronized—a newly-mated pair—and was explaining their breeding cycle to me when he glanced up.

A white flash in the sky: Small, distant. “Aahhh…” he turned, and stepped away from the rail, watching the bird’s approach. “I believe I know this one…”

Soon the sun was glinting clearly on white wings. Its approach seemed slow, for all the swiftness of its flight, for we were moving fast. Captain Matyas had tried to explain just how fast, earlier, but I still failed to grasp the conversion between sea measures and land ones. For all our speed, the bird was steadily overtaking us, flying purposefully. Finally it seemed to descend, and Matyas lifted an arm. With a final descent and a flapping flutter of broad, powerful wings, it grasped his sleeve.

The Lady was beside us, then, with Leifara, looking at the bird as Matyas gently stroked its breast with the back of a finger, murmuring something to it in the Allar dialect. After a moment, it extended one of the broad, vane-edged wings, and attached to the wing-claw was a small band. Gently, the Captain detached it, and turned his head, calling to one of the crew to bring a frame and fresh water. When the bird’s needs were attended to, he pulled the reader from his pouch, and slipped the band into it. Wordlessly, then, he handed it to the Lady.

She took the reader from him, and studied the brief message. Although the wind of our passage stirred her hair and fluttered the edge of the scarf about her throat just as ever, she seemed to grow very still, carved like stone. She read the message several times, and finally she passed the reader back to the Captain. For some moments, she watched the sea curl and heave behind us, then she turned to Matyas.

“I will be in your debt, Captain, if you will find a way for me to contact the Lyrin Chancel before we proceed up the Penryl Seas.”

Matyas frowned, thoughtfully. “Veran’s need is my compass, Lady. But the Lyrin Chancel…  The Lyoris marshes are set behind dangerous shoals—the Grinders. It will need standing off beyond those and sending the longboat in, perhaps half a day’s rowing. I can signal, possibly the marsh folk will send a punt to meet you, but it may entail a wait of up to a day or more. And the only signal that will reach them would be a firecandle—and they are easily seen from a great distance, possibly even from Gemarin Citadel, if the barbarians are there.”

Her brows drew together as she weighed this assessment.

“No signal, then. The kibri will be in seed, we may be able to flash-signal a harvesting party from further in.”

“Lady, why the Chancel? Surely it is a risk to take the time to go in person. The Captain’s bird-relays could take your message through Firemouth, and have a response by the time we pass there.” I glanced at Matyas for confirmation, and he nodded. “That is true.”

She shook her head. “It is not information I need from Lyrin.”

The color had suddenly drained from Leifara’s face. I did not understand, looking from her to the Lady.

“There is a scion of the Great Tree growing in the central courtyard at Lyrin.” All expression was leached from Leifara’s voice. She did not sound like a Herald at all. She sounded like a very old woman.

The Lady nodded. “Leirranayhafara, will you bear Veran Banner?”

I could see the Herald’s shoulders brace even as I heard the Captain’s intake of breath.

“I am Veran Banner,” Leifara responded, “until you bid me lay down, or release me upon the Starlit Road.” Expression returned to her voice, a kind of grim exultation.

Unlike the banner of the Royal House, or the banners of the Charter Cities and Great Houses and all who hold seisin of the Royal House, Veran Banner is almost never raised. Thrice in her life, a Lady of Veran will ride or walk under her banner: At her Intelument, at the Presentation of the Heirs, and at the Intelument of her own Heir. At those times, the banner is raised, designating her supreme authority to all the karils and Houses of Veran, even the Royal House itself. But they are ceremonial occasions, important but of fixed duration and significance under the Great Law.

Not in my lifetime or the lifetime of my mother has Veran Banner risen, apart from such occasions. The last time had been the opening of the Snowmarch. We’ve been dealing with the aftermath of the generations-long wars that had caught up the old Icemarch and split apart Whitewater and Bevan’s Gift in the wake of that opening for the better part of a century. But Veran Banner was not raised for any of that, wrenching as it was. There was something of the bleak ice of those far northern karils in the Lady’s face as she nodded to Leifara, and turned away to make for the ladder-steps that led to the waist deck.

Matyas looked at me, uneasily. “Does it mean what I think it means?”

I nodded. “The King is dead. The Lady will not present an Heir to the Royal House until the Banner is laid down. Until then, she speaks with the full authority of Veran, with all the Voices.”

I glanced up to the forecastle, where she had sought refuge in intermittent spray that washed the rail. Her hands were on the rail, before her chest, her shoulders bowed. She looked, not outward into the sea, but down, at her hands. I have never seen such naked terror and vulnerability in a human form. Leifara was behind her, still and silent as a statue.

Aug 272012
 

Read me the story:
Weapon discharging into a purple night sky, with a red nimbus.
“Ah, Boss? I think trouble might be heading our way.” The AI’s voice was a pleasant female contralto, but not overtly sexy, as Hadroun V-Yenappi was not one to occupy the long solitudes between planetfalls in playing pornographic games with the AI and holosim.

Now, intent on the intricacies of microbacterial populations in his life-support tanks, he did not at first register what the machine had told him. When it did penetrate, he nearly whanged himself a good one on the back of the head as he scooted out of the tank housing, and straightened. “Trouble? What kind of trouble?” he asked, as he stripped off iso-gloves and mask, and dropped them in the recycler.

“Analysis suggests pirate attack as the most likely scenario.”

Hadroun blinked. “Pirates? Here?!?” He was already on his way to the Scheherazade’s bridge, not a long distance to travel. There were no long distances in the Scheherazade.

“It does seem unlikely, but I cannot interpret the data any other way,” the AI said diffidently. “I was attempting to send a routine transmission to the Veran exchange beacon, and receiving no bounce-ping. A routine query to Veran spaceport control yielded the information that the orbital relay sat is down. Since the relay sat is part of their planetary security system, linked to multiple redundancies and backups, it is highly unlikely that a malfunction in one part of the net could impair transmission to the exchange beacon.”

“The planetary security system’s primary function is to deter pirate raids. In attempting further query to spaceport control some one hundred and forty-eight seconds ago, I have been unable to access any comlink. Such frequencies as there are,” was there a suggestion of a sniff in the AI’s otherwise noncommittal tone? It was certain that she regarded Veran as an unpleasant backwater, with no virtual reality net, no other advanced machine intelligences to interface with—a bore, in fact—“seem to be quite efficiently jammed. So I just took a quick peek with my scanners. There’s a lot of hardware up there. Big hardware. Mean hardware.”

“What the hell?” Hadroun was in the pilot’s chair by now, looking at the readouts the AI had acquired. “Who in the name of the seven twisted space gods… woha… that’s heavy stuff. Those aren’t pirates, that’s a full-scale invasion! But who…? And why…? Yikes! Shut down all scan!” No way did he want to make anything that could be remotely conceived of as a hostile move, in the face of that firepower.

“Already done, Boss. I only ran it for seventeen picoseconds. With them right on top of us, that was all I needed. But I’m pretty sure they detected us anyway.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Because they’re hailing us.”

“Oh. Pudu. Put it on.”

“IMF Cavell-Scheherazade, this is Klaros Expeditionary Legion Strike Force command. You are required to cease all scan activity, make no attempts to contact planetary locals, and remain in your ship. Do you comply?”

Hadroun muttered something under his breath, then “Scheherazade complies. We are non-hostile, repeat, non-hostile. Cavell Fleet maintains standard trading agreements with Klaros.”

There was both impatience and a touch of amusement in the response. “Understood, Scheherazade. All traffic is currently interdicted but you will be regarded as neutral so long as you comply with directives and make no hostile action. You will be contacted again shortly.”

The transmission light darkened.

“Huh. This is a pretty tankful of neocod!” Hadroun swung the pilot’s chair thoughtfully on its gimbals for a moment, then stood up. “Well, we can’t scan, but we can watch, anyway. Let’s have a screen, Sherry.” He strode to the other end of the bridge cabin, where a small lounge area was laid out around a galley and a holotank. A portion of the wall was already sliding down, revealing a flat-projection screen. As he disposed himself on one of the galley stools, the screen in its turn slid aside, revealing a blank expanse of glasteel, black now.

“Well?”

“One moment. It appears advisable to apply polarizing films, as I am reading considerable heavy-energy discharge flashes in the close vicinity.”

As he watched, finally, a dim window on the Veran spaceport area opened up. The multiple layers of glasteel, with their protective coatings and retractable outer hull plate, had added considerably to the cost of Scheherazade and the indebtedness to the Family Hadroun had incurred with her commissioning, but he liked to be able to look out the window.

Ahlaveh! They’re serious, aren’t they?”

The AI had been engaging in typical machine intelligence understatement with that “considerable.” The sky around the spaceport was a sparking, splotching patchwork of weaponry displays as Veran plasma chainguns answered Klarosian disruptor missiles. Even as he watched, the film darkened further, and he could feel a rumble through the deckplates. Concussion cannon.

“What I can’t figure out is why?” He frowned in bafflement.

“Why?”

“Yes, why? Klaros loves to throw their weight around, sure, but what is there here for them? Besides being the tail-tip of nowhere, this place hasn’t got a thing they can use, and it’s too far from the Reveille system to make it useful even if they did!” he fell silent, chewing his lower lip thoughtfully. Another thunderous rumble shook the Scheherazade.

“Fleet Intel files rate them with high religious motivations; could this be some kind of theologically-based action?” the AI enquired.

“Yeah, they’re religious nutjobs, but that’s never stopped them from making smart strategic decisions, militarily anyway. What’s the return in force-converting twenty-five million or so backworld mudfoots without significant assets and a year’s travel from anywhere?”

“I cannot offer a more detailed analysis,” Sherry suggested delicately, “based on existing data available to me, which is only the standard Fleet Intel briefing. We have never been to the Reveille system or any of the Klarosians’ ‘protectorates.’” It was as close as the AI could come to begging for information.

“I don’t know much myself. As you say, we’ve never visited this bunch of wyzos, and there’s a good reason for that. Cavells don’t deal in arms or military hardware. Klaros doesn’t do a lot of other business in the Hub. They’re not, uh… well-liked.” He called up the screen version of the Fleet Intel briefing and scrolled through it quickly.

“Yeah, seems accurate as far as it goes. Everything else I know I picked up second hand… baysaree gossip, mostly. They’re touchy, pushy, fanatical jingoists, manifest destiny types. Not a lot of fun to do business with. They stay within the UMC, but only just, and only when they think they’re being watched. But… and I emphasize that, they are also hard-headed realists when it comes to military and commercial strategy. Everyone thought they bit off more than they could chew with that Lojau Hen thing, but so far they’ve hung on to the protectorate, and rumor has it that they’re pulling upwards of thirty teracredits out of there every T-year.”

The AI couldn’t exactly sigh. “Yes, that fits in with what’s on record. No further analysis possible, and I am not, as you know, equipped for speculation.” The last was said with an ‘I leave that up to you irrational human types’ inflection.

Another, louder rumble and shockwave shook the little trader.

“Well, it looks like we’re going to be here for awhile. And I don’t think we’re going to be buying many artifacts at the Festival of Air this trip.”

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