AMONGST THE STARS, chapter one

(Here is the text of Chapter One of AMONGST THE STARS! Enjoy, folks!)


Lt. Penda Rasharri

At first, it was the voices.

Voices raised in song, and voices raised in shouts. Voices lifted in cheer, and voices shouted in anger. Voices in a thousand languages, and in a thousand others.

What are they all saying, Father?” Penda asked.

He laughed and squeezed her hand. “Even the best linguodrone in the Imperium might have trouble telling you what every one of them is saying, Shooter.”

Shooter. His nickname for her. Short for “shooting star,” because that’s what Father often said Penda was. A shooting star, lighting up his sky.

Penda looked around the spaceport at all the people, all of them beings from one star or another, not all of them human.

A language for every star, she thought. Who could ever speak them all?

***

Lieutenant Penda Rasharri extended her senses to the universe outside the ship, and she realized that the Princess was going to have trouble with this one. Sure enough, the Princess slammed her fists down on the console in frustration.

The Startrails are not a place for tears,” Penda said. She reached out with her starsense and felt the currents of the Startrails nearby. It was easy to see the way out…but for some reason, the Princess hadn’t spotted it yet. Penda lowered her gaze back to the pages of her book. The Princess would calm down soon enough. She always did.

I’m not crying,” Princess Tariana Osono said. “I’m not. You always think I’m crying.”

Not always,” Penda replied. “In fact, you don’t cry any more often than anybody else. I just like to needle you a bit. Gives you something to—”

Something to focus my anger on,” Tariana finished the thought. “I get it.”

Fine,” Penda said. “Of course, if you could learn to focus on your Stardancing without the aid of anger, it would make these lessons go quicker.” She kept looking at the page of her book, knowing full well that Tariana’s gaze still had not returned to where it needed to be. “Staring at me isn’t going to get us back on course either,” Penda pointed out.

We’re lost,” Tariana said.

No, you’re lost,” Penda said. “I know exactly where I am.” She looked down at her book again, and then she closed it and shook her head. “You know, the Xonarethi revere this writer, this Gorion Hadral. I honestly don’t see why.”

Lieutenant!” Tariana protested. “We’re in trouble here!”

No, we’re not. Think on what you know.”

Oh, fine.” Tariana turned and faced her controls again. “Let me figure this out.” First she retied her thick, dark hair behind her neck and then she loosened the collar on the flightsuit she was wearing.

Her mother would be furious if she saw her daughter wearing a simple flightsuit, Penda thought. But I think she looks better in a flight suit than in any gown I’ve ever seen…but then, that’s easy for me to say. I don’t wear much else besides flightsuits.

All right,” Tariana said. “Let’s do this.”

Penda couldn’t help grinning. She knew how this worked, and she knew that now the Princess would start to cut through her own frustration and figure things out. Meanwhile, Penda put the book aside. Almost two years on Xonareth, and she’d yet to find a native writer who truly spoke to her. Maddening, that: ten thousand years of literature, surely there was someone whose work would find her heart.

I found something,” Tariana said.

Really,” Penda replied. “Do tell me. I’m all ears.”

Why are you being so mean?”

I”m being impatient, actually,” Penda said. “Come on, Princess. You can do this. You know what you’re looking for and you know where it is.”

But the pattern isn’t circular.”

Did I say that the pattern would always be circular?”

No,” Tariana admitted. “You said to look for the pattern.”

Exactly.”

All the other patterns have been circular.”

And this one isn’t. Don’t make assumptions about the Startrails. Listen to what they’re telling you, and they’ll always bring you home.”

Tariana nodded. “Let me do this now.”

Penda smiled as Tariana again extended her thoughts and senses into the void and the depths of hyperspace. She reminds me so much of myself at that age, Penda thought. It took me so long to get beyond the point where I would react with panic first, and only think on what I knew second. So much had happened to her, to them all—best not forget young Margeth, because if you did, she would let you know about it—since they had met on the Gavinar Royal Yacht. So many things had happened, and they had learned so many things about one another. I hope that their mother is pleased by the women these two are turning out to be, Penda thought. I hope she’s proud, when she meets them again. Penda didn’t allow herself to think about the possibility that Tariana and Margeth might not see their mother again. Failure was all too possible, all too real, for her to give it extra power by visualizing it.

I found it,” Tariana said. “Oh, my…it was right there the whole time. I’m an idiot.”

Hardly,” Penda replied. “If you were an idiot, Princess, I wouldn’t be letting you fly the ship at all.”

Now that’s not your decision!” the spaceship replied, and Penda laughed. She still found it amusing that this ship both talked and had feelings.

I was just seeing if you were listening, Nella,” Penda said.

You do like your little tests, don’t you?” Nella said. “Ashan, are you almost ready?” Ashan was what Nella called Tariana. It was an Arrilori word that meant The One Who Named Me. At the same time, Tariana had offered the ship a name: Nella, after a character in some story. Tariana and Nella. Starpilots always had special bonds with their ships, but for these two, it went far deeper. Penda had read stories of such bonds between living ships and their pilots, but those stories were more like tales of lovers. Tariana and Nella weren’t that, but there were times that gave Penda concern. Several times Tariana had taken Nella into space and been gone so long that Penda had had to come after her and remind her that there were other beings in her life, people who weren’t ships, people who needed her to be there. Tariana had always returned from such incidents without any argument at all, and quite a bit of apology—the Princess was quite good at contrition—but still, those moments gave Penda pause when they happened.

Stardancers are a strange breed, she thought. Married to the sky, the stars, and the ships. I wonder if Tariana ever thought that it might be that way. The stars always exact a price.

All right,” Tariana said. “There it is. I’ve got it.”

I knew you would,” Penda said. “Now what?”

I follow it,” Tariana said with the eyeroll that Penda had come to know so well. “Isn’t that what you always say? If you don’t know where the road leads, all you can do is follow it?”

I say a lot of things,” Penda said. “Are you sure it’s the right road?”

Yes.”

And how do you know?”

Because it feels right.”

Penda grinned. “Once again, you live up to my high hopes for you, Princess!”

Tariana harumphed and then got that look in her eye, the one that meant that she was in communion with Nella.

I wonder what that’s like, Penda thought…and then she had to grab onto her armrests as Tariana plunged Nella forward, along the pathway through hyperspace which she hoped really was the one that led back to Xonareth. This had been their farthest journey yet, and the Startrails were harder and harder to discern, the farther one got from one’s starting point. The only way to find one’s way back and forth again was to follow the trails and note their own unique sensations at each juncture along the way. It was like following a trail through a forest by tasting the air behind each tree. The problem with that—besides the fact that earthly metaphors to describe the Startrails were never, ever, ever a good idea—was that eventually the air stopped smelling of where you had been.

Penda stretched out with her own senses, too. Not that she doubted Tariana, but she had to be sure. She couldn’t help herself. She had to know.

Well, what do you know, Penda thought. She got it right, again.

Penda didn’t acknowledge the other thought that had popped into her mind just then: that Tariana had taken them farther in a single jump than really should have even been possible.

Fifteen minutes later, Penda reached out and felt the Startrails, and this time, they felt right. And surely enough, when Nella emerged and opened the forward window shields again, there was the Xonareth star before them. Minutes after that, they approached the familiar blue planet of Xonareth itself, with its two moons—silver Darnon and blue Sairnon—in orbit nearby.

Well done,” Penda said. “Amazing what you can do when you get past the moments of crippling self-doubt!”

Tariana sighed. “It’s not like I enjoy that,” she said.

You’ll get over it,” Penda said. “After all, I did.” She glanced over and saw the skeptical look on Tariana’s face, and then she nodded at the looming planet before them, with its moons. “Look how close those moons are to being lined up,” she said. “This Blackday is going to be quite a sight, isn’t it?”

Tariana nodded. Blackday was another of Xonareth’s revered celestial events, an accompaniment to Blacknight, which was when the moons’ orbits placed both in the planet’s shadow on the same day-long period, allowing every place on the planet surface to see a starry sky by night, unimpeded by moons-light. Blacknight happened every fourteen months or so, but Blackday—when both moons eclipsed the Xonareth sun at the same time—was far rarer, only happening above one of Xonareth’s thirteen cities once every eight-hundred thirty-three and one-third years. The next Blackday was to come in just a week’s time, and it would be over Chrodeliss. By the time the next Blackday came around, Penda would be dead, along with however many generations came after her between now and then. She was mulling that over as they crossed the orbital paths of both moons and approached the planet itself.

Look,” Tariana said. “The ships!”

Penda nodded. She, too, felt a good portion of the same thrill that the Princess did. The ships of Xonareth, more than fifty of them, hanging in orbit above Xonareth. There were sixty-one in total—though not all were there right now—all left behind after their rescue from the destruction of the hidden Arrilori installation beneath the peak of Mt. Kurelnar on the Isle of Idai. There had been a hundred ships in all, docked and maintained for a reason no one had ever learned. Thirty-nine of those ships had been stolen by the one person who had managed to learn of that installation’s existence: Yarreen, the deranged daughter of the thieving scholar Billestiforr. She had taken thirty-nine of those ships with her followers to who-knows-where, and Penda had little doubt they would one day see Yarreen again and learn what she had found out there, amongst the stars. For now, though, there were the sixty-one ships—the Xonareth Star Fleet, such as it was. They were mostly passenger ships and freighters, with two combat pinnaces remaining. The largest ships were almost entirely crewed now, but there was still no sense of what their mission would be. It seemed a waste, though, to simply use the ships to move things and people from one of the thirteen cities to the others.

Penda glanced again over at Tariana. “Well?” she said. “This is when you always comment on how beautiful they are.”

I don’t say it every time,” Tariana said.

It’s all right, Princess! It’s good to have a mantra like that.”

Like ‘Think on what you know’?”

Ouch,” Penda said. “If it helps, the ships are beautiful.”

Have you ever seen a ship you didn’t think was beautiful?” Tariana asked.

Penda thought back. The Princess’s question wasn’t misplaced. Penda had seen so very many ships, and every single one of them, from the most elegant passenger yacht to the largest asteroid-mining scow, was beautiful to her in some way or another. It’s impossible to not be beautiful when one is lit by the light of the stars….

I suppose I haven’t,” Penda said. “I never realized how much you and I have in common, Princess! But perhaps you should direct your attention to our atmospheric re-entry?” She eased herself into her seat-restraints.

INCREASING HEART RATE IN ADVANCE OF ANTICIPATED EVENTS

Nella and I were just discussing that,” Tariana replied. “Weren’t we, Nella?”

Indeed we were,” the ship responded, aloud so that Penda could hear it. “Re-entry is almost—wait—what is that!”

Penda could barely react before something flashed outside the forward windows, and then Nella lurched violently.

Ashan!” Nella cried out. “I am hit!”

Hit by what?” Tariana yelped as she pushed herself back up and pulled her restraining straps over her shoulders.

I do not know!” Nella said.

Here we go, Penda thought.

INCREASING ADRENAL PRODUCTION AND FOCUSING ATTENTION

There was another flash from space, and Nella lurched again. This time she began tumbling end over end, and the planet spun wildly in the window, sometimes disappearing entirely before spinning into view again…each time closer….

Tariana screamed.

It’s crystalblast!” Penda cried. “We’re being fired upon!”

Tariana stared at Penda, with wild terror in her eyes. “Yarreen?” she asked.

Doesn’t matter now! Get control of your ship!”

Tariana nodded, closed her eyes, and took the controls in her hands. But then the look on her face became one of high terror. Tariana turned to Penda again, and now she looked on the verge of panic. “Lieutenant! Nella isn’t answering me!”

What?”

I’m sending to Nella, but she’s not responding!”

Penda leaned over and grabbed Tariana by the forearm, squeezing hard enough to be felt but not hard enough to hurt. “Princess! Princess!” She waited for Tariana to look into her eyes. “Can you control the ship?” she asked.

Tariana took a deep breath and grabbed the controls again. Nothing happened. She looked fearful again—

Switch to manual, girl, Penda thought. She was about to say it aloud when Tariana nodded once to herself, reached to a side panel, and flipped a switch. Then she took the control arms again and began trying to take control again. This time, though, without Nella’s assistance, the ship resisted.

You can do this!” Penda shouted over the noise the hull was starting to make. They were already entering the upper atmosphere. “I’ve taught you how to do this! You’ve done it before! It’s no different!”

There was another burst of crystalblast outside the window, and Nella lurched yet again. This time, though, Tariana did not scream, but rather focused on the task at hand. First, guiding Nella out of her spin. Penda had taught her things like this, after all: even though Nella was more than ten thousand years old, and even though there were many things about her that were different from any other ship Penda had ever known, spaceflight was still spaceflight and physics was still physics. Ships still had to deal with things like gravity and atmospheric friction, which meant that they still needed some sort of stabilizers. Tariana remembered this and activated Nella’s stabilizing thrusters. A new roar rose from Nella’s engines, and Penda could see that Tariana’s controls were already giving her much less resistance. Seconds later the planet itself stopped whirling about before them, instead looming huge now.

Entering atmo,” Tariana said.

Atmo. She’s picking up the pilot lingo well enough, but….

Another blast, and another lurch.

There’s still another ship out there,” Penda said.

Who is it?” Tariana asked yet again. “They’re—never mind. Stop asking questions I can’t know yet, right?”

Something like that,” Penda said. “Get into the atmosphere, quickly! They’ll have a hard time firing on us if they follow.”

Tariana obeyed, bringing Nella onto a typical entry plan. Nice and shallow…nice and shallow….

Yet another blast. This one missed, but the crystalblast bolts flashed by uncomfortably close….

Go in steeper!” Penda cried. “Yes, steeper! This is no time for a nice, textbook reentry!”

But if I go steeper—got it.” Tariana nodded and pushed her control arms forward, sending Nella into a steeper dive. Almost immediately the ship began to buck and rattle, but the steep dive would create significantly more turbulence for their pursuer as well. The ship shook and shuddered more and more as the atmosphere about them thickened. The Xonareth surface now filled the entirety of the forward window.

Hold onto her!” Penda shouted over the din. “But don’t fight her too much, either!”

Tariana flicked her a glance of irritation—likely for the contradictory nature of her instructions—but then the girl turned her attention back to her flying. It hadn’t taken nearly as much as usual to get her to focus…but then, life-threats could do that.

Suddenly Penda became aware that they were spinning again…and Tariana was having trouble pulling them out of it…but then, little by little, Tariana regained control. Penda switched on a tactical viewer, suspended above the main forward windows, and on it they could see their pursuer, falling back a bit.

You’re doing fine,” Penda said.

I know,” Tariana replied. “I’ve got an approach vector.”

Good!” Penda could see that Tariana did, indeed, have Nella on a tight and straight course, as straight as possible, as close to vertical as possible. Speed was what mattered now, and Nella was one of the fastest ships Penda had ever seen. So too, however, was the ship pursuing them. The pursuer was matching their course, but their continuing shots were firing wide, and only one now managed to hit Nella, and that was a glancing blow off her belly. The jolt was barely recognizable as such, given Nella’s vibrations from atmospheric friction.

The other ship’s falling back,” Tariana said.

Not for long,” Penda replied. “Don’t relax.”

Tariana nodded and kept the pressure on. Penda looked up at the flight deck ceiling, and she hoped that her faith in Nella’s strength was well-placed. Nella was a strong little ship, after all.

The atmosphere was thickening quickly, and soon they were flying through the highest wisps of cloud cover which thickened as they dropped through the air toward the planet surface. The clouds were typically dense for a Starhollow Isle spring, and Penda heard Tariana utter a word she’d learned from young Master Gharanas, one of the words Penda didn’t find particularly objectionable but which she was sure Queen Ryann of Gavinar Five, Princess Tariana’s mother, would just as soon not find a prominent place in her daughter’s vocabulary.

Approaching the surface,” Tariana said as she glanced at a screen that a year before she hadn’t been able to read at all. Penda nodded with approval. “The other ship’s still on us, though.” She pulled back on the controls as she started bringing Nella out of her steep dive and onto a new course, parallel with the planet surface. Then they broke through the thick gray clouds, and below them were the gray waters of the North Starhollow Sea. There was a fishing boat out here, and as they streaked over it, Penda saw the boat’s crew scrambling in sudden terror.

Sorry,” she said. “I hope we didn’t scare away your day’s catch.” Her regret was genuine, for those were kroth fishermen, and Penda had come to love the tender flesh of those crustaceans.

He’s still with us,” Tariana said, and then—as if on cue—their pursuer fired, getting of a good clean shot that struck Nella in the hind quarter. Nella lurched again, but Tariana kept her ship under control and then brought Nella down even lower, until they were twenty feet above the water…then fifteen…then merely ten.

Penda pointed at the darker gray mass, looming before them. Everything in this part of the world was a shade of gray, this time of year. “Approaching Starhollow Isle,” Penda said.

Mountains,” Tariana said. “Mountains and clouds.”

You might want to consider—” Another direct hit from their pursuer cut Penda off, and Nella tipped wildly to one side, and there was an awful and deafening scraping sound as one of Nella’s beautiful, curving wing-protrustions grazed the water. Tariana quickly righted the ship, and the ride smoothed. Then she applied even more speed. Penda swallowed. She certainly hadn’t expected this. Now they were leaving the sea behind and flew over land.

This far north, Starhollow Isle was a rocky, tortured place, with hundreds of tiny islets and reefs breaking the pounding sea before the Isle itself rose almost immediately to the great heights of its broken mountains. Tariana had flown Nella over this expanse many times, finding something strangely compelling about the stony mountains of gray and black rock where no trees and few grasses grew. This was land of waterfalls that tumbled thousands of feet, of mountain peaks that were crags of cracked rock. Only the hardiest of beasts could survive up here, including a smaller breed of lindiath whose agility made Tassi’s look like clumsy oafishness. The only thing north of these lands was more sea, and eventually the ice caps of Xonareth’s north pole.

Nella shuddered again under another volley of crystalblast. Tariana ignored this as she flew straight toward the misty mountains that towered before them…and now, over them. Penda hissed, despite herself. Why is she not flying with the sea? It’s so much safer!

Time to do this,” Tariana said.

Princess—”

I’ve flown here before, Lieutenant,” Tariana said.

With a strange ship firing on you?” Penda asked. “And without Nella in your head to help?”

I know how to do this,” Tariana said, through clenched teeth.

Penda shook her head and tightened her restraints. She’d heard this tone in the Princess’s voice before, and she didn’t like it. It meant that she was doing something impulsive in response to a perceived challenge.

Tariana banked Nella up and over one set of very tall cliffs, and then around another rocky promontory. Ahead of them rose the highest of the peaks in this range, and Tariana flew straight toward them and then beyond, into a great valley that soon narrowed to a deep canyon between two towering pairs of peaks. Penda glanced at the tactical viewer. Their pursuer was falling behind.

Princess,” Penda said, but Tariana made no reply. She flew Nella into the deep spaces between the mountains, and as the terrain brought her higher and higher, the rock gave way to snow-covered heights. She flew into and out of banks of clouds and mist, and once through a patch of fog so thick she had to rely on her instrument screens to keep them from crashing into walls of solid stone. Penda was just on the verge of relaxing a tiny bit when Tariana cut Nella hard to the left, dropping her straight down into the deepest mountain valley on Starhollow. Penda gasped and grabbed onto her seat’s armrests.

This canyon cut deep between two of the greatest mountains, and at its bottom was a narrow but raging river, inflated by the snowmelt of spring. Tariana banked Nella hard left, then hard right, then hard left again, matching the twists of the canyon as if she knew them already. Penda couldn’t help feeling a bit impressed. She had known for some time that Tariana had the aptitude to be an amazing starpilot—she had already proven as much by somehow keeping them from being blown from the sky before Yarreen’s ultimate escape, a bit of flying that had partially involved flying the ice canyons of Sairnon—but this was still an unnerving exploit, even for an experienced pilot. It also reminded Penda of something in her own past, but best not dwell on that. Tariana banked them hard again, squeezing through a precariously narrow cleft in the rock, and then she banked up, flying up the side of one of the great mountains. Penda recognized this mountain as one of Starhollow’s highest peaks, and they crested it and came over and above the great Starhollow Glacier, coursing down from this mountain and its immediate brethren, down toward the sea. Tariana brought them through the dense mist shrouding the peak, and then they were flying down toward the Isle’s central mountain range and beyond it, the southern valleys of Starhollow Isle.

Penda drew a deep breath. If the flying before had been difficult, this was the hardest. These were the highest mountains, with the sharpest drops. Tariana flew around one crag and then plunged into another valley only to roar up and out the other side. Meanwhile, her pursuer remained behind, getting off the occasional shot, a few of which actually hit. Tariana flew on, clenching her jaw more and more, winding up one mountainside and down the next. Still they could not shake their pursuer.

They’re closing,” Penda said.

I know,” Tariana said, uttering another Xonarethi curse word. Tariana’s anger flared, and she released the control in her left hand long enough to pound the console with frustration. “Damn it, Nella, where are you?” She snarled, and then she took the control again and cut the ship into a new direction, whipping around one mountain and then another.

Where are we—” Penda began, but again she was cut off by a volley of crystalblast. One hit was particularly nasty, and Nella’s engines took on a different tone, with a new whine that could not mean anything good.

Oh, Starshaper, no,” Tariana said. Penda could see that Tariana was genuinely struggling with the controls now. Nella’s handling was markedly different. The ship’s responses had been damaged, and her handling was sluggish.

PRINCESS!” Penda shouted. This was getting out of hand.

I can do this!” Tariana said as she looked at the mountain in front of them. “That’s it—I can do this! Hold on!”

Penda sensed that she had no choice in the matter, she she gripped her armrests as strongly as she could. She hates being unable to do anything, Penda thought. She values action above all things…if there’s something she can do, she will—

The thought died in her mind, right there, as she looked forward through the windows and saw what Tariana intended to do.

Penda couldn’t even bring herself to say “Princess”.

They were flying along a towering cliff face to their left, and ahead of them was a narrow spire of rock, almost a needle, rising beside the cliff. The spire had probably been a part of the mountain once, but centuries of wind and ice had broken it away until the needle of rock was all that was left. Even more remarkable, though, was the bridge of ice and snow, a hundred feet tall but almost certainly no more than a foot or two thick, spanning the distance between the cliff and the spire…and they were flying straight toward it.

Princess?” Penda said. “You—oh, no—”

Tariana was really doing this.

She banked Nella hard to one side, so they were flying as though the cliff face was above them and not to their side. The rock spire would pass beneath them. The cliff face looked so close that Penda felt as if she could reach out and touch it with her fingers, and the obstruction of the ice bridge was in front of them…and they were flying straight toward it….

INVOLUNTARY ACCESS OF MEMORY NOTED

Penda saw another rock wall in her mind…from the vantage point of another ship…seconds to react….

TERMINATING INVOLUNTARY ACCESS OF MEMORY

REDIRECTING SENSORY ATTENTION TO IMMEDIATE MATTERS VIA PAIN STIMULUS

Penda bit her tongue, and her attention returned to the ice wall ahead of them…but not quite ahead of them, more off to one side, slightly…ever so slightly….

She glanced at the tactical screen. Their pursuer was still with them, but they had stopped firing….

Then they were there…flying directly between the rock spire and the cliff face…terribly close to the ice bridge….

The next lurch was the most violent one yet as Nella tumbled out the other side, nearly spinning around every possible axis. The gray cliff face tumbled into view and out and in again.

PRINCESS!” Penda screamed again.

I’ve got her! Lieutenant, I’ve got her!”

Tariana regained control, or enough of it that she was able to pilot them back into open air, far enough away from the mountainside that Penda began to breathe again. They arced about, and Penda gasped when she saw what had happened: Tariana had grazed the underside of the ice bridge with Nella’s own wing, scoring it and allowing the impact to make the bridge collapse. All that ice and snow was falling now in a giant avalanche, straight down.

By the Starshaper’s Nine Lovers,” Penda said.

Look,” Tariana said, pointing at the tactical. Their pursuer had been forced into a wild maneuver just to avoid crashing or being severely damaged by the avalanche. “It’ll take them a few minutes just to figure out what happened. Let’s get out of here.” She brought Nella about and flew down into the glacier valley, pouring on as much speed as she dared. Meanwhile, Penda drew in a deep breath, and let it out…and then another…and then still another.

It’s all right, Lieutenant,” Tariana said.

If you say so,” Penda said. Where did she ever learn something like that little maneuver? And when did my timid young Princess become so reckless?

Tariana flew them down through the very mountains in which they had first landed, two years before, and then they were flying over the river valley and into the city of Starhollow itself. She landed Nella in her usual place, on the great grass lawn behind the mansion of Star House Kourdovi. The grass was green and some of the early flowers were blossoming, but most of the garden vegetation was stubbornly refusing to bloom, so abnormally cold had the spring been to that point.

We’re down,” Nella said.

Nella?” Tariana said. “You’re back?”

I am,” Nella replied. “Although I’m going to need a bit more repair work than I’m used to.”

Well,” Penda said, “perhaps we should—”

She was interrupted by another sound: the thrusters of another ship on approach. Tariana whirled and looked through the forward windows, where they could see their pursuer landing just a few steps away. Penda braced herself for Tariana’s reaction.

What?” Tariana yelped. Then, she whirled and headed for the door. “I’ll kill him!” she yelled as she stormed out.

Now Princess,” Penda said with a sigh, but it was too late. Tariana was already on her way to the entry ramp. Penda could do nothing but follow her, which she did, just in time to come outside and see the Princess walk right up to the other ship’s disembarking pilot.

Now wait,” that pilot said, holding up his hands. “Before you get all—OW!” That last came from the blow Tariana landed to his nose.

You idiot!” Tariana screamed. “You could have killed us!” She emphasized her point by kicking the other pilot in the shin, and he yelped anew.

Princess, please!” Zeyke cried as he began hopping on the foot that Tariana hadn’t kicked. This looked ridiculous, as Zeyke was tall and lanky, and his mop of hair kept flopping in front of his eyes. “My Lady, please! She asked me to do it!” He pointed at Penda, who stopped and let out a heavy sigh.

Perhaps I should have planned this part of the thing better, she thought. Tariana was already facing her, rage in her eyes.

Lieutenant—?!”

Yes, Princess, I asked him to do those things. I asked him to fire on Nella. Low-strength only, though. I think you’ll find that Nella is just fine—and I advise you not to try kicking me!

You didn’t mention how angry she’d be,” Zeyke said to Penda.

Oh please,” Penda said. “You know the Princess, you had to know how this would go over.” Zeyke was an excellent pilot, better than he tended to give himself credit for, but he also made everything else sound as though it had been created or concocted just to make his own life more difficult. “And Princess, like I said, Nella is fine!”

Nella’s not fine! She couldn’t even communicate with me” Her face changed, and she got the expression she always got when she was mentally communicating with Nella. Penda waited…and Tariana’s look of irritation shifted. “Great,” she said. “My own ship conspires against me!”

I do apologize,” Nella said, projecting her voice outside.

Hey!” someone new said as he jogged into the circle. “What’s going on! What in the name of all the hells happened to Nella?” It was Gharanas of Star House Cheyendi, the young man who had caught Tariana’s fancy in the first days they had been on Xonareth—and she had caught his, as well. Gharanas was turning out to be a very gifted engineer, with a great deal of skill with working on the ships and especially in the area of manipulating the Cintronia crystals—the source of power for all Xonarethi technology—to do new things. “What’s with all this scoring?” he asked, pointing to the dark streaks on Nella’s hull where Zeyke had landed hits.

Zeyke was shooting at me,” Tariana said. “But it’s all right, because it was all just a test. Isn’t that right, Lieutenant?”

Penda nodded. “That’s about right,” she said. “And you did very well! Especially that last bit of flying, over the mountains. I figured you’d try to stick to the shoreline. Although that thing with the ice bridge might not have been the best idea you’ve ever had.”

Aye!” Zeyke said. “Why did you do that? I almost died when you did that!”

Oh, you did not,” Penda said to him. “You’re a Captain in the Xonareth Starforce for a reason, you know. That posed as little challenge to you as you did to the Princess here.”

Well, sometimes I wish I was back in my skimmer,” Zeyke grumbled. Then there came a grunting sound from his own ship, and he winced and turned in the ship’s direction. “I’m sorry, Syrene. I didn’t mean that.”

Zeyke’s ship, Syrene, made a sighing noise.

One of these days I’ll get used to all this business of having these ships talking in my head,” he said. “But anyway, if we’re done with today’s exercise, I really need to be getting on with some work. I have a training class in an hour and I’ve done no preparation for it. And the practice for our maneuver at the Unveiling—”

Don’t remind me,” Tariana said. “We shouldn’t be using these ships for something like that.”

It’ll be fine,” Zeyke said. “You’ll see. If I may?”

Go ahead,” Penda said. “And thank you.”

Zeyke nodded, and then he walked back to Syrene, taking off seconds later and flying back up into the clouds.

Stunt flying,” Tariana said, shaking her head. “So undignified.”

That sounds like your mother talking,” Penda said. “Maybe you could say, ‘distasteful’?”

Tariana laughed. “Then I sound like Lord Vorrimos,” she said, naming the Chancellor to the King.

Behind them, Gharanas whistled. He had just finished surveying Nella’s hull and was coming back around front. “He really hit her dead on,” he said. “If he’d been shooting at full power, he’d have done some real damage.”

Penda nodded. “Our friend Zeyke is much better at his job than I think he likes to let on. That man’s got some lethal action in him. One day it might be tested.”

Ohhh, I hope not,” Tariana said.

Well,” Gharanas said. “I suppose I should get my tools and start buffing Nella’s hull.”

I would like that,” Nella said. “I am always grateful of your touch.”

Nella!” Tariana protested.

I fear I have said something awkward?” Nella replied, and Penda began to laugh.

This has been a really strange day,” Tariana said, shaking her head.

Seconds later they heard a new vehicle on approach, this one a skimmer bearing King Dennory’s official crest, which came over the mansion and landed where Syrene had been moments before. The skimmer’s passenger—who hopped out before it even came to a full stop—was Margeth, Tariana’s younger sister, who was nearing thirteen years of age. She was dressed in a newly-typical outfit for her in which none of the articles of clothing—her shirt, her jacket, her pants, her socks, her shoes—were in matching colors. Her hair was now so long that Penda was wondering if she might need to enlist Tariana’s help in suggesting that she cut it. She had one long lock that she had had tinted blue, while the rest of her hair was the same bright blond that it had always been. Margeth had embraced the idea of color in her appearance in a way that Tariana had not. Margeth reached back into the skimmer and pulled out a long, slender case which held the latest musical instrument she’d been learning—a reeded wind instrument—and a force-shield umbrella, against the shield of which the drizzle made tiny flashes of energy as they vanished in puffs of steam.

Marg!” Tariana said as she hugged her sister, who awkwardly returned the embrace as best she could, given that he hands were full. “An umbrella? It’s barely raining!”

My hair is freshly done,” Margeth said. “Unlike yours. You’re a fright!”

Hardly,” Penda said. “Your sister looks like a starpilot. Not a fright at all!” She glanced at Gharanas, who was still making a show of looking over Nella’s hull but who was actually staring at Tariana. The flightsuit did a wonderful job of accentuating her curves, and there was something appealing about the way her hair was messily tied back. And both girls with their olive skin, not nearly so dark as Penda’s own….

I thought you weren’t coming back until tonight,” Tariana said.

Dr. Reemana is sick,” Margeth said. “So no lesson tonight. She did leave me some assignments to work on, though.”

Tariana laughed. “Professator Jarel will be pleased!”

Margeth wrinkled her nose. “Don’t remind me.” She looked over at Gharanas. “Why do you keep looking at Tari like that? You know what she looks like!”

Gharanas shook his head and turned away, the reddening of his cheeks visible even though he wore a beard.

Marg,” Tariana said.

I should go inside,” Penda said. “One of us should change out of a flightsuit, at any rate. And since that damned Parliament is starting the day after tomorrow, who knows when the last time we have a peaceful night will be.”

Don’t remind me,” Tariana said. “I just want to fly.”

Not if you keep roughing Nella up,” Gharanas said.

What did you do to her, anyway?” Margeth asked. “Poor Nella!”

Oh, don’t feel too sorry for Nella,” Tariana said. “She had her own part in it, didn’t she, Lieutenant?”

Penda merely shrugged, and then she turned and headed for the mansion, nearly being knocked over by the two giant six-legged beasts—one pure silver, and one a mix of black, brown, and orange—who were bounding across the grass to greet the others.

And will you stop staring at me!” Penda heard Tariana say.

Can’t help it,” Gharanas replied.

Penda couldn’t help wondering if Queen Ryann Osono of Gavinar Five would ever think her daughter beautiful when dressed in a simple flightsuit with the collar open and with her wonderful hair tied back with a single cord, with the tail hanging off-center. She decided that even if she didn’t say so, the Princesses’ mother would find her daughter beautiful as such. Mothers always found their daughters beautiful. After all, her own had….

After a nice, long bath, Penda stood at the library window and watched as Tariana and Gharanas worked to wipe and buff Nella’s surfaces, while Margeth entertained the two lindiath. Tassi, the tabby female, had been the first creature of Xonareth they had met after their landing; Alenn, the silver male, had found Margeth—or had she found him?—in the hills west of Chrodeliss during a near brush with death when Yarreen had sealed them all in an abandoned Arrilori cavern.

Tariana and Gharanas worked well together, handing each other cloths and tools without looking at one another—even if Penda could see even from this distance that Gharanas frequently ended up staring at the Princess as she worked. In this, she supposed that all things were the same, throughout the Galaxy. Then she watched Margeth for a time, and the way her movements echoed and foreshadowed the movements of the two lindiath. The younger girl’s affinity for the beasts of this planet was something amazing to behold, and it had even saved them all from disaster a number of times. Tariana with her ship, Margeth with the beasts: the older girl, walking the Starfold Path, and the younger girl, the Wisdomfold Path.

I wonder if there is a name for the path that I am on, Penda thought. It was far from the first time she had thought of that. Perhaps the Arrilori, in whatever ancient wisdom they had possessed, had had a name for it. Penda was a starpilot and had never known a time when the stars hadn’t called to her, but none of the ships had bonded to her the way Nella had to Tariana, or Syrene had to Zeyke. Maybe there was something else awaiting her…something different. She was, after all, also a member of the Order of Oryllior, and she had heard tales of sentient ships before: living ships, cruising in the deep black to their own purposes. Like the Ghost Fleet, a collection of enormous ships that had been seen by some pilots who had ended up wildly off course and only by some miracle of the Starshaper found their way home to report what they had seen.

Legends, heard on Oryllior and written down in the Texts of the Stars.

What legends would they report when they returned?

Penda drained her cup of tea and considered brewing another, before she decided that she’d better not. The tea—an herbal blend made from a certain mountain flower—was the closest thing she had ever found to her favorite tea from Khandasha, her homeworld; she would never be able to taste that tea again, because her world was gone, destroyed in a calamity that had wiped out an ancient civilization, known throughout the Imperium for its commitment to the stars and to all the voices of what some called “the Cosmic Fugue”. Khandasha had been a crossroads world, with four hypergates instead of the usual one, which had been a major reason the spaceport there had been such a glorious blend of voices and species and beings. One could barely enter a single business on Khandasha without hearing at least three spoken languages…and this planet, Xonareth, was the exact opposite.

Xonareth was a world of just one language, with just one race of humans. There was no one here who even looked like Penda, with her black skin.

No one had ever made her feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, but there was still always that feeling that she was more alien even than either of the two Princesses. How was it that this world, even with its small population which had dwindled in the face of the ongoing failure of eleven of its cities, could be one where everyone looked the same?

She reached up and fingered the bit of stone she wore around her neck, a fragment of Khandasha. Her world, gone. The thought had come to her many, many times since she’d received word of her world’s fate: I will be an alien everywhere I ever go.

Was there any place she could ever feel at home? Could she even feel that way when she finally returned to Oryllior, whenever that came to pass?

She left the window and walked back to the suite of rooms that had been their home since their arrival. She entered her own bedchamber and knelt on the floor, before the Oryllior sigil she had painted on the wall. She lowered her head once, then twice, and then a third time before she began her daily recitation of the Orations:

I take the first step, the First of Three….”

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