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Read Chapter One
6.0" X 9.0"
SONY READER (TBA)
A Novel by
164 Americ Calendar
"Ships cluttered space surrounding the barren moon-base of Cold Rock, in Red Reach. Enough ships to tear reality.
Battlewheels hummed in place, engaging just enough for skim-telemetry to reveal the firefly tracts of rel-ships on their nervecloth displays. All about them, in ever-changing arcs, buzzed hoards of small, spherical rel-fighters manned by highborn pilots, the living weapons of the medium, who fought by interfering with each other as they flickered in and out of reality many times a second. Emotions soaked the medium in which they traveled: grief and anger, and a pale hope, held out against the horror of one last, soul-numbing turmoil of destruction, if their leaders, down on Cold Rock, could not find a way to end the war.
Vrellish clans had met on Cold Rock for a thousand years, coming from all across Red Reach to settle their differences by the sword, because swords were safer than space battles and habitat far, far more precious than any cause that might inspire battle. That was the great truth of Okal Rel. But Sword Law required shared courts of honor. And the Vrellish shared no liege with their enemies.
Di Mon, of the Green Vrellish, did not know what the defeated Nesaks planned. A duel to save face or a bargain to negotiate a safe withdrawal. Perhaps even some treachery with hidden weapons, meant to take the Vrellish leaders down.
He had talked his side into this meeting on the Cold Rock Challenge Floor in the hope that the Nesak survivors were as sick of grief and mad destruction as he was.
The Nesaks sent three representatives. Behind them were witnesses drawn from their battlewheels, all of them wearing their swords with pride, as if they had never participated in space-side massacres.
The inhabitants of Cold Rock filled the rest of the seats around the Challenge Floor, seated on thick rugs with children on their shoulders or in their laps. Both sexes managed the children and both dressed the same, right down to the swords worn at their sides.
Di Mon had been elected to speak for the Vrellish cause. Beside him, young Vackal Vrel fingered his sword. Hangst Nersal, of the Black Vrellish, stood large and menacing, backed up in space by the best standing fleet in all Sevildom.
The warrior, priest and princess facing them were members of the Nesak ruling family—or so Di Mon had been told. He understood very little of Nesak political structure.
The princess had wide, green eyes, long hair that fell to her shoulders, and a floor length gown worn beneath a bulky cloak of plain velvet. Neither she, nor the priest, wore a sword. That meant only one of the Nesaks was properly equipped to parley, under Sword Law.
"I am Prince Kene," said the Nesak warrior, as he drew his sword. "I speak for my people. Who speaks for the Vrellish?"
"I do." Di Mon cleared his own sword with equally formal intentions. "I am Di Mon, Liege of Monitum."
Kene frowned at the sextant crest of Monitum embroidered on the breast of Di Mon's silk shirt. "I would rather not negotiate with Montium," he declared. "Hangst Nersal is our kinsman descended from Prince Nersal Nesak. Let him speak for the Vrellish."
Hangst's jaw muscles clenched. Di Mon considered graciously conceding. But he was not feeling diplomatic at all. His heart hurt for the pilots he had lost. His blood boiled, as hotly as Vackal's, with a lust for vengeance that he had to fight to control. Hot sweat rolled down his back between his shoulder blades, heated by his skin despite the cool air in the cavernous chamber. They were all over-flown. Vackal was agitated. Hangst was grim. Di Mon was feverish with anger at the waste and stupidity of it all.
The silence grew so brittle that it had to break, soon, or draw forth blood.
Then Hangst Nersal stepped forward. "Well met, in honor, Prince Kene," he told the Nesak prince. "Ack rel."
Ack rel. People said it in grief and in parting. They said it in triumph, to mitigate the sting of an enemy's defeat. Most of all, they said it to remind themselves that the duty of all living souls was to preserve the potential for life in the universe for the sake of the Waiting Dead.
Ack rel, Di Mon repeated, silently to himself, and felt the great pressure of his hatred relax in his chest. Never had he wanted more desperately to believe the dead could live again, or felt more bitterly the isolation of his doubting nature.
The phrase worked its magic on the Nesaks, as well.
"Ack rel," said Kene. Turning to the robed man beside him, he said, “This is Ser Sarn, a priest, representing Zer’sis Ackal and his council.”
Di Mon knew Hangst had Nesak ancestors, but he had never felt the truth of it until then. Hangst and Kene were both wide shouldered, big men, while he and Vackal Vrel were lean, with sharper features. He felt momentarily insecure, and immediately regretted it.
I do not doubt you, brerelo, Di Mon silently promised his comrade and mentor, drawing strength from the word brerelo itself, which meant someone you trusted to stand with you in a common cause.
"Both sides have lost too many lives,” said Kene. “Survivors need time to grow strong, again. How will we settle our differences with honor, to conclude this war?"
"This is my reach!" Vackal cried, pushing forward. "I'll fight the duel!”
"Not a duel," the priest spoke up, in a booming voice of command. He waved the Nesak princess forward. "Marriage."
The Vrellish in the audience hissed and shouted. Di Mon clapped a hand on Vackal's wrist to stop him charging.
"Vrellish do not marry!" Vackal roared, struggling to break free of Di Mon. "I do not even pleasure female cattle like that one!" He spat in the princess' direction.
Prince Kene was too astonished, for an instant, to attack Vackal, and in that instant his sister, herself, laid a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"It is Hangst Nersal," she said, looking at him swiftly and immediately dropping her wide, green eyes to the floor, looking flushed. "To whom I am betrothed."
"Hangst then!" Vackal spat. "It makes no difference."
Hangst Nersal stared, stony-faced, at the Nesak princess as she made herself look up again and meet his eyes. She wore a modest dress of light blue beneath her velvet cloak. Her long black hair was bound in ribbons that became her green eyes. She was not entirely grown up, but promised to be full-figured. Nothing, at all, like a hard-muscled Vrellish woman.
"You are my destiny," the green-eyed princess told Hangst Nersal, with the certainty of a religious zealot. "And I am yours."
"Really," Hangst said coldly. "How so?"
The priest answered. "It is her duty to restore the lost souls of the San line to us, through you. When we began this war, we believed that your ancestor, Nersal Nesak, had been reborn among our warriors. But the new zer-sis, Ackal, has seen that his soul is still bound to the Nersallian line, and we cannot prevail in our goal of uniting all eternals while a great soul stands against us, blinded by the influence of childhood."
Their new zer-sis, Ackal, is clever, Di Mon decided, his hand still clamped harshly on young Vackal's arm. How better to explain the failure of a priest-inspired war, than by discovering a spiritual miscalculation in one's predecessor. And not only that, but one that needs a generation to be put right again. Which is exactly how long they think they need, in order to prove, once again, that Nesak wives can breed warriors faster than we can restock ourselves with highborn relsha.
Vrellish of both genders were warriors and Vrellish women bred with difficulty. Di Mon was afraid the Nesaks were right about the breeding differential, and resented it.
"Fool priests!" Vackal cried. He snapped free of Di Mon's restraining grasp and sheathed his sword in a contemptuous gesture. "Give Hangst your plump princess! Vrellish women are generous! I am sure his mekan'stan will share him, provided you throw in her brother to give us a fair crack at soul-stealing in the opposite direction!"
Vackal's speech whipped up cheers among his followers, accompanied by more than a few obscene gestures.
The Nesak princess averted her bright, green eyes and Prince Kene moved to shield his sister from Vrellish mockery. Nesaks thrust fists into the air, shouting insults about Vrellish sexual habits.
Seconds short of mayhem, and to Di Mon's complete astonishment, the priest broke into song.
Zer Sarn had a powerful set of lungs. The words sounded as if they might have once been English: a dead tongue that Di Mon's early years of scholarship had required him to master. The song calmed the agitated Nesaks and astonished the Vrellish observers.
As the audience settled down, Di Mon turned to Hangst.
"Will you do it?" he asked. “To buy peace, without blood, will you marry?”
Hangst thought through the ramifications. "They will except a true marriage," he said, when he was done. "I will be unable to sire for vassals or to keep up mekan'stan relationships. It will offend the kinf'stan."
Di Mon wet his thin lips, wondering how he could feel disappointed when moments before he had felt murderous. Mood swings were a symptom of rel-fatigue, he decided. He wanted to see the green world of Monitum again; to ride his favorite horse, there, at his home estate of StableHome. He wanted to spent time in Green Hearth, deep within the barren world of Gelion where the Demish ruled the Ava's court. He would even be glad to sit through some interminable Demish recitation of everyone's ancestry, if only he could do it without dreading the next update of losses, in a war that was consuming lives he valued and threatened human habitat that, by its rarity, had to be even more precious to a space faring culture.
"What if it was temporary?" Di Mon asked his brerelo.
Hangst looked at him, hard, and Di Mon had the eerie sense of sharing the same thoughts. Hangst, too, wanted to go home: not fight one more, insane, battle in space, perhaps destroying Cold Rock in the process.
Hangst decided, and pushed forward.
"I accept," he told the Nesaks. "I will honor the terms of marriage as you understand it, but only until your princess has produced three children. Then she, and the children, will return to the Nesak world of SanHome."
The Nesak princess gave a small cry of joy and threw herself at the feet of her predestined husband.
The priest conceded with a nod. "So be it. Do you, Hangst Nersal, so bind yourself by oath?"
"I do," said Hangst, looking as grim as Di Mon felt. Hangst would be challenged for this betrayal of Vrellish culture.
"Rise, Beryl," Zer Sarn told the princess. She tried, but her gown and her trembling impeded her. Kene's jaw clenched, but he stood firm. It was Hangst who put his hand down to his controversial bride. She rose and stood beside him on her own, looking much steadier.
"Beryl Nesak," the priest addressed her, "in the name of the zer-sis and all the Waiting Dead who are your ancestors, I name you married to Hangst, Liege of Nersal. Take no man to your bed, but him, and bear him children. Manage the keeping of his home estate and keep his faith strong. Love as life demands us love each other, but remember that only the soul is immortal and no life more important than the soul's right to be cleanly reborn."
The girl looked up with tears in her wide green eyes. "Do not fear for me, uncle, nor you, Kene. I will not fail in my mission."
"Take good care of my sister, Liege Nersal," said Prince Kene. "You may lack respect for our women because they do not fight like your Vrellish she-animals, but you have the soul of a great man. One of ours. I know that you can love, and so, because I know her, I know that you will learn to love Beryl. Treat her well while she is with you. And when the third child is old enough to leave home, send for me, and Beryl will return to SanHome with the children. She will always be your wife, but this will free you from your side of this bargain."
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