AMONGST THE STARS, chapter three

And here we are with the final of the teaser chapters for Amongst the Stars! The book launches on May 25, in paperback first and then with the ebook to come a few weeks later. Here, the plot starts to thicken….

(And did you read chapters 1 and 2? If not, what are you waiting for!)

Penda

Penda drew in the aroma from the plate of dumplings, hot and sticky and browned crisp from where they had sat in the hot pan. She loved Arimondi dumplings, and she loved the little book of poetry and the ring she’d bought on the street. Most of all, though, she loved the view from this particular restaurant. It was a small place, and not well-known except for the locals who lived and worked in Central Donnust, but it had wonderful dumplings and a wide window that had a clear line of sight to the spaceport. She could sit here and watch the ships come and go…freighters and liners and pleasure craft and the occasional diplomatic yacht. Two ships lifted almost at the same time as she lifted the first dumpling to her mouth. Mmmmm, her favorite filling—brineshrimp from the Donnust River.

She was lifting the last dumpling with her chopsticks when the entire restaurant began to rumble and vibrate. This was the most thrilling moment of all, and she nearly dropped the dumpling as she fixed her gaze on the window. One of the big ships was landing. It was a huge thing, a boxy, bulky roidhauler that pushed the size limit of ships the Central Donnust spaceport could handle. Its landing thrusters were blasting away, casting a hellish red glow on everything, but Penda didn’t care. There wasn’t a ship anywhere that didn’t thrill her, somehow.

Just as the roidhauler touched down—its upper half towering above the rim of the spaceport’s docking rings—someone touched her shoulder. She looked up, expecting to see the server, bringing more tea. Instead she found herself face to face with her angry-looking father.

Did you enjoy your meal, Shooter?” he asked. “Because you missed your birthday party. Come on, let’s go.”

Penda was honestly sorry that she disappointed her parents and the rest of her family by not showing up for the party they had carefully planned. She tried to explain that she hadn’t wanted a party, but she saw that this hurt their feelings, all the same. The look on Mother’s face made Penda want to cry, but what made her actually cry was when Father told her that she had missed her birthday present. Father had arranged a brief flight on a ship for her. It would have been very brief indeed—less than half an hour, really, up to high orbit and back—on a charter liner whose captain was a good friend of Father’s. That had depended on the timing, though, and by not being at her party, Penda had missed it. The ship had had to leave, and who at all knew when there might be another chance.

Penda walked to her room—she didn’t run—and she closed the door, softly and deliberately. She sat on her bed, crossing her legs, sitting upright. When the tears began to roll down her cheeks, there were a lot of them.

How comfortable they all look together, Penda thought as she picked up another kroth puff. She was alone by the other wall, politely listening to these two delegates from…well, she couldn’t remember where they came from, she was only here because of their proximity to the kroth pastries. They were discussing the King’s plan for capturing an asteroid and mining it for the raw materials to make a starship…in fact, Penda wagered that most of the discussion in the room right now was centered on the King’s new and ambitious plan. She wasn’t listening at all; instead she was watching Tariana and Margeth as they spoke with Lieutenant Brand—a fine officer who reminded Penda of many such capable, young men at the outset of careers that must have always seemed destined for glory—and young Joskin, who wasn’t even that young anymore, and he was older than Margeth anyway, so why did she always think of him as “young Joskin”? Probably because he always seemed just slightly awkward, just a bit unsure of himself. Uncomfortable in his own skin. Joskin had to work at his confidence, which was a shame, because Penda had long since noticed that when he had no choice but to let it come out, his confidence was one of his best attributes.

What do you think, Lady Arrilori?”

Hmmm?” Penda said, directing her attention back to the two diplomats in front of her. “I’m sorry, my mind wandered. What was your question?”

The diplomat who had addressed her blinked. “What do you think?”

About what?”

About the King’s plan.”

Penda shrugged. “It’s a good plan,” she said. “That’s actually how it’s done in a lot of places, where I come from.”

So you approve.”

I do,” Penda said.

It sounds dangerous and expensive,” one of the diplomats said.

The stars are dangerous and expensive,” Penda said. “That’s why we go to them.” She held up her empty whynarii glass. “If you’ll excuse me?”

The two diplomats bowed, and Penda wandered off in search of a refill for her glass, and if she happened on a waiter with a tray of fresh kroth pastries—well, some sacrifices had to made, didn’t they? She had no idea why she found these particular shellfish so amazing. She’d tasted seafood on dozens of worlds, but these captivated her like none other.

Well, there really IS no accounting for tastes, she thought as she began to wander about the room, mingling from group to group. By the Starshaper, they really do look all the same. All the same kinds of clothes, all the same tones of voice…all the same skin color. Penda looked down at her own attire when she passed by a mirror. Looking different from everyone else certainly gives me license to dress differently, doesn’t it…if I’m not going to fit in, I may as well enjoy it…but then, fitting in has never been my strong suit, has it? She thought back to her early days on Oryllior, and her struggles to fit in there, as well—on a world where nearly every sentient species in the Galaxy was represented. Oh, Monannon…if you could see me now….

As she circulated, it turned out that every conversation really was about the King’s proposed plan. Reaction seemed divided between those who were amazed at the possibility of such a plan, those who wondered if it could possibly work, and those who seemed to be having trouble realizing that after ten thousand years of dreaming about the stars, Xonareth was finally about to start working to achieve them. Penda was almost relieved when she found a couple of diplomats who were discussing finer points of some bit of Xonarethi politics, although that conversation wore out its welcome with typical quickness. Thus she ended up moving from group to group, never saying much beyond extending a greeting here or a pleasantry there. Even now that the planetary discussion would shift toward Xonareth’s travel to the stars, Penda didn’t quite think it her place to offer her thoughts on such things. Despite living here for nearly two years, this was not her world and she had no stake, and in any event, any thoughts she would have to proclaim on the subject would be heard not as thoughts logically derived from facts and her own moral direction, but rather as a Proclamation from the Arrilori. She didn’t want that. Even after two years, she had no idea what their place was on this world.

Or, frankly, in this universe.

She had thought to understand her place, long before, when everything had been so simple. On Oryllior all she had to do was master her lessons and absorb all that Somorr Chryderyn had taught her. But even then, Penda had managed to make what should have been a simple situation complicated, hadn’t she? So it was that she had been sent to find her way and await her inevitable summons back to Oryllior…and now she was here, without any more idea of her place now than ever.

She glanced again over at Tariana and Margeth, laughing with Joskin and Brand and now another couple of younger men and women from one of the delegations.

The Princesses have a place. Why don’t I?

Ah, Lady Arrilori,” said Chancellor Vorrimos. Penda hadn’t even noticed him approaching. That ability of his, to slip into and out of the attention of others, was perhaps his most notable skill. It certainly served him well in his current position. “It occurs to me how strange this must seem for you.”

Strange, Chancellor?” Penda prompted as she picked up a fresh glass of whynarii.

Indeed,” Vorrimos said. “You come from a place where all the worlds know how to reach the stars. Our world is just starting to figure that out.”

Every world figures it out, sooner or later,” Penda said. “And the way to the stars is the same, no matter what sun your world orbits.”

So we are letting this vex us more than we should, is that what you’re saying?”

Perhaps a little,” Penda replied. “I flew once for a Captain who insisted that I learn more about ship engine repair than I ever wanted to know. It all seemed like…some language that I couldn’t begin to speak, but he did manage to teach me some things.”

Vorrimos actually shifted his arms: he moved his hands from behind his back, and put them in his pockets. Penda nodded with satisfaction. He only did that when he was interested in what he was hearing.

Such as?” Vorrimos asked.

Oh, things like how to properly install a stabilizer control relay, how to calibrate hyperdrive manifolds…these are all things you’ll all have to learn. Well…not all of you, but you know what I mean.”

Indeed.”

Well, to make this long story short, there was something that Captain always said to me when I was getting myself worried over a job that unknown numbers of ship mechs and engineers had done more times than there are stars in the sky.”

Oh?” Vorrimos was actually smiling now. “And what was that?”

He said, ‘Stupider people than you have done this job before.’” Penda smiled at the memory. “He was a gruff old bastard.”

Vorrimos laughed at that…more of a chuckle, actually, but it was still an honest laugh. “Indeed,” he said. “Indeed! And I suppose the lesson is that stupider worlds than ours have made it to the stars.”

I wouldn’t put it quite that way,” Penda said.

No, I suppose not,” Vorrimos replied. “We will have to think up a more diplomatic way of saying it. We don’t want to be distasteful, do we?”

Indeed we don’t,” Penda said.

Indeed we don’t.” Vorrimos looked around, sighed, and clasped his hands behind his back again. “Well, a Chancellor’s duties never end. Until later, Lady Arrilori.”

Penda nodded as the Chancellor went off to the next polite conversation. I can’t believe I made him laugh. Tariana and Margeth will never believe me. Fresh off that triumph, she drained her glass and picked up another. Then she decided that she could use a bit of fresh air, so she ducked through a door out onto a terrace overlooking the city.

No one else was out here, for obvious reasons: it was quite cold tonight, with a chilling wind blowing straight down from the hill country to the northwest. Off in that direction was an enormous cave, a great dodecahedron hewn inside the rock, and in that cave was a dead Arrilori spaceship. Its hull had been full of nalanxes, the weapons which disrupted the Cintronia crystals, and they had almost perished there, sealed in by that awful woman, Yarreen. Penda still shuddered to think of that: other than heights, her greatest fear was being sealed in someplace, with no access to the sky or stars. And they still had no idea what that Arrilori ship was doing in that cave in the first place. The King’s archaeological teams hadn’t found much of anything to give them an idea on that score, and even Billestiforr and his flights of speculative fancy had yielded nothing.

It was cold on the terrace, but it didn’t bother Penda much. Despite her upbringing on Khandasha, one of the hotter worlds, cold no longer had much effect on her—not this kind of cold, at any rate. Not a mountain breeze that was only strong enough to make the flags flutter. It was a constant breeze, though, and anyone else would find it irritating. Penda moved to the railing and looked out over northern Chrodeliss. She could see the lights on the Royal Palace in the distance, that imposing rockpile of a building that stood atop one of the hills, and the lights of the city streets stretched out away from her. The sky was full of air traffic, skimmers and airships and skybuses and just about every other vehicle imaginable. Chrodeliss was beautiful, but it wasn’t all that unusual for Penda. She had, after all, flown to hundreds of planets and seen ten times that number of great cities, from the skyspires of Numoria to the underwater globe-cities of Fanntann. Chrodeliss was amazing, but to her, it was another city of people yearning for the stars.

I lift my gaze to the stars, I give my heart to the sky, and I am home.

Chrodeliss would never be home. Neither would Starhollow. Xonareth could never hold her heart completely, and Khandasha was gone. Only up there, amongst the stars, could she ever truly be at home.

Until, that is, the Order called her back to Oryllior, after which, she would never fly again.

Penda sighed and sipped her whynarii, wishing suddenly that she had grabbed another plate of kroth pastries.

Oh!” someone said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know there was anyone out here.”

It was a young man, dressed in a fine white military uniform, complete with gold braided piping on the shoulders. He had big brown eyes that matched his finely-combed brown hair, and the uniform he wore fit him so perfectly that Penda wondered if it had been tailored for him that very morning.

There is,” Penda said. “It’s all right, though. I don’t bite.”

Oh good,” the man said as he came out. In his hands he held a glass of some cocktail or other (it was bubbling) and a plate of (Penda couldn’t believe it) kroth pastries. “I was afraid that I would be the first one bitten by one of the Arrilori.” He smiled and came over. “Am I free to join you, or did you wish to be alone?”

I only wish to be alone if my other choice is listening to more talk on Xonarethi politics or asteroid mining,” Penda said. “I’ve had quite my fill of all that for one day, thank you very much.”

Me too,” the young man said as he joined her by the railing. “I don’t know why they assigned me to this delegation in the first place. I know nothing at all about politics or government or anything else. I just do what I’m told. Easier that way.”

I suppose,” Penda said. He seems awfully comfortable talking to me, she thought. Most people act like it’s the greatest honor of their lives, being addressed by one of The Arrilori Visitors.

My, it’s cold out here,” he said. “I think maybe I’m being too familiar just now. You are one of the Arrilori, after all.”

Here we go….

My name is Ulden Drorili,” the young man said, bowing. “I am at your service.”

Thank you,” Penda said. “I’m sure you know my name already, but in the interests of politeness, I am Penda Rasharri of the planet Khandasha.”

It is my great honor, Lady Arrilori,” Ulden Drorili replied. “And now that that is out of the way, may I speak to you informally?”

Starshaper preserve me, I pray that you do,” Penda said. “I don’t recognize that uniform. Where are you from?”

I am from the city of Tolandis,” Drorili said. “The jewel of Lake Irari.” He laughed. “Sounds more impressive when we say that. Truthfully, Tolandis is the smallest of the eleven cities.”

Southern hemisphere, yes?” Penda said. “It’s autumn there now.”

Indeed it is,” Drorili replied. “We’re an inland city, five hundred korili from the sea, but we’re on the shores of Lake Irari, like I said. Lake Irari is the largest freshwater lake on Xonareth. It’s forty korili wide at its widest point, and four hundred korili long, end to end. It empties into a nice, deep, long river that goes right to sea, so we do have trade…but in winter, the winds blow the entire length of the lake, pick up moisture, and then dump it on the city. Tolandis is snowier in winter than any of the mountain cities.” He took a deep breath. “By the time we get back, it might already be snowing there…and you know all this already, don’t you?”

Penda nodded.

I suppose you get that a lot,” he said. “People telling you things you already know.” He suddenly held out the plate of kroth pastries. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude. I took more of these than I can really eat, and I couldn’t help noticing before that you like them….”

I do,” Penda said, politely taking one. “I must admit to having developed a weakness.”

As do we all,” Drorili said as Penda ate the pastry. “We don’t get them often in Tolendis. We’re too far upstream for them to spawn in our river. There is a freshwater shellfish that’s a bit like kroth, but nowhere near as tender in the flesh. Here, have another.”

Insistent young fellow, isn’t he? Penda thought. Nevertheless, she helped herself to another of his pastries. After all, he did take too many, and even Penda knew that you couldn’t put them back once you took them.

I heard that your home planet was destroyed,” Ulden Drorili went on. “That must be a terrible burden to carry around with you. How many of you are left? A few thousand? I can’t imagine such a thing. It must be so awful. How do you live with yourself, knowing that you weren’t there?”

Penda swallowed the pastry and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. She suddenly found this eager young man more company than she wanted just now.

PROBLEM DETECTED

I’m not sure I could do it,” Drorili went on. “Keep on living when everything about my culture, my heritage, was already dead. What’s the point?”

Penda looked at him. He was smiling pleasantly as he looked out across the Chrodeliss cityscape. It wasn’t so cold now, she noticed. The wind hadn’t slackened at all, and yet, it wasn’t so cold now.

PROBLEM DETECTED

ATTEMPTING IDENTIFICATION

Why was it so warm?

NEURAL PATHWAYS AFFECTED

IMPAIRMENT OF COGNITIVE FUNCTION CONFIRMED

Penda began to feel…light…and heavy…at the same time….

JUDGMENT: IMPAIRED

HIGHER FUNCTION: IMPAIRED

She dropped her glass. It shattered on the floor. Bits of glass flew everywhere.

Only two,” Ulden Drorili said, looking at his plate of pastries. “I figured it would take at least four.”

SOCIAL CONTACT QUESTIONABLE

LIKELIHOOD: FOOD-BORNE CONTAMINANT, ARTIFICIALLY INTRODUCED

ISOLATING CONTAMINANT

PREPARING COUNTERMEASURES TO DEPLOY ONCE CONTAMINANT IS IDENTIFIED

Drorili put down his plate and glass and slipped an arm around Penda’s waist. She found herself involuntarily leaning against him.

LIST OF POSSIBLE CONTAMINANTS NARROWED

LIKELY ORIGIN: NATIVE FLORA

BEGINNING ISOLATION PROCESS

There, that’s a good Arrilori,” Drorili said. “Although we both know you’re not Arrilori, don’t we? Of course you’re not. None of you are. But it helps to have a hoax that people want to believe.” He begin guiding her toward the railing. “Now, you and I will take our leave. We have things to talk about.”

He reached up with one hand and undid a pin on his uniform. It turned out to be connected to a thin-filament cord that…Penda blinked, her vision was so cloudy…was woven into the very braided piping on his uniform.

That’s clever!

I really am surprised how easy this was,” Drorili said. “And they say that you are the strong one. But that’s why it had to be you, isn’t it?” He looped the pin around the railing, hooking it on tight. A thin-filament cord, likely strong enough to hold several hundred pounds. More than enough for two human bodies…even one carrying additional weight, as hers was….

FOREIGN SUBSTANCE IDENTIFIED

VARIANT OF NATIVE FLOWER

DEPLOYING CONTAINMENT NANODRONES

Penda shook her head. What had happened here?

You’ll want to hold on tight,” Ulden Drorili said.

What…what are you doing….” She could manage no more than a mumble.

SPEECH INADVISABLE AT THIS TIME

I told you,” Drorili said. “We need to have a chat. What happens after our chat depends on what you say. You don’t understand, you see. You don’t know how things were supposed to be on this planet, before you showed up. We had a King. He was going to make things better for all of us. But then you came along and destroyed everything. We’re in the wrong future now, and it’s all your fault. Someone needs to answer for that…all three of you need to answer for that. You’re going to be first, is all. And something is coming!” He smiled again.

Such a nice, handsome smile. He was probably such a nice boy before…this.

NANODRONE ACTIVITY COMMENCING

LIKELIHOOD OF COMPLETE SUCCESS WITHIN SIXTY SECONDS: EIGHTY-SEVEN POINT NINE PERCENT

You,” Penda mumbled, lolling her head to one side. “You…you shouldn’t…shouldn’t have….”

Drorili was pulling on a protective glove…likely for his hands, if he was going to hold onto that cord on the way down…. “I shouldn’t have what?” He shifted then, tightening his grip on her waist and taking the cord in his left hand…By the Starshaper, he really intends to go over the side here….

You shouldn’t…have…chosen me,” Penda said.

CONTAINMENT AT FORTY-SIX PERCENT COMPLETION

EXERTION NOT ADVISABLE AT THIS TIME

Penda grated her teeth together. He should not have chosen me, she thought.

And why not?” Drorili asked.

Penda lifted her head up. “I heal fast,” she said.

Penda snapped her left wrist over his right forearm, the one he had around her waist. She twisted it, as hard as she could manage. Not as much as she wanted. Not as much as she’d usually be able to do. But enough. He gasped. She managed to spin away, out of his grasp. Awkwardly, ungracefully. She tumbled to the floor, but it was enough.

ATTEMPTING EXERTION DESPITE CAUTION AGAINST IT

RELEASING ADRENALINE INTO BLOODSTREAM AT VERY HIGH LEVELS

Penda jumped to her feet, now wobbly more because of this damned dress than whatever it was he’d tried to dope her with. “You were right,” she said. “Two of those pastries weren’t enough.”

I see that,” Drorili said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny crystalblast gun. “I congratulate you, my lady. I don’t often underestimate people. Maybe next time I’ll try for one of the two youngsters. Make no mistake: the Arrilori Judgment is coming!”

You do that,” Penda said.

I knew I should have worn something I could fit my blazegun into….

Drorili lifted his little gun and aimed it at a flag bearing the crest of Star House Kourdovi. “King Draden forever!” he shouted, and then he fired. The small blast was enough to set the flag afire. Penda jumped forward, but Ulden Drorili had already jumped over the edge. She was able to see him slowly fall to the ground, fifty feet below, the cord unfurling from the braiding of his uniform in a nice, slow, measured pace.

He had a good plan, she realized. It might have worked if he’d known more about me.

She stood there breathing heavily. Her head suddenly felt light again.

ADRENAL RELEASE AND INADVISABLE LEVELS OF ACTIVITY INTERFERING WITH NANODRONES

OVERRIDING HIGHER COGNITIVE FUNCTION AS ENERGY-SAVING GESTURE

Penda had no choice. She fought it, but despite her efforts, she felt the world going dark, and herself falling to the floor….

What was that about…what did he say….

Lieutenant!”

Such an insistent voice…I wonder who she is…she sounds like…someone I know….

Lieutenant, are you all right? Lieutenant!”

He said something…what was that?

Lieutenant, please!

Oh, all right, girl…that’s who you are.

Penda opened her eyes, blinked, and blinked some more until the face above her cleared into something like focus.

You don’t need to be that close to me, Princess,” Penda said.

Sorry,” Tariana said, with her standard eye-roll. Nevertheless, she did move back, giving Penda more room. “You’re all right, though.”

I fainted, Princess! Of course I’m not ‘all right’.” Penda tried lifting her head, and found it oddly heavy. “Damn!” she said as she relaxed back down.

What happened?” someone else asked. Princess Margeth. She was right there, too.

By the Starshaper, ladies, you might give me a bit of space!”

Sorry,” the two Princesses muttered in unison as they moved back a bit so that Penda could make another attempt at getting up. This time she fought harder, pushing against what felt like two dozen extra pounds that had been attached to every joint, and struggled up until she was sitting. Then, finally, her head began to clear.

COGNITIVE FUNCTION RETURNING TO NORMAL

NANODRONES BEING DEACTIVATED AND EXPELLED

NEW NANODRONES QUEUED FOR CONSTRUCTION

I suppose he got away,” Penda said.

The person who used this?” said someone nearby. A familiar voice. A Kingsguard…a Captain…Captain Ubani. He held up the pin which was actually a grappling hook, and the cord still hanging over the side. “Yes, he’s gone,” Ubani said. “We’ve locked down the entire Central Square, but we estimate you were out for at least four minutes before anyone found you.”

Oh,” Penda said. “Where have you been, anyway? Haven’t seen you in two months.”

Security is a busy job, My Lady,” Ubani said.

Penda nodded. “Well, I’ve been busy too.”

See?” Ubani grinned. “We still understand each other!”

Don’t flatter yourself,” Penda said. Romm, that’s his name. Romm. Then she grunted at herself. Cognitive function returning to normal, my arse, she thought. I can barely count to ten yet. “Four minutes, huh? No wonder I’m actually cold. Could someone get me some—”

Tea?” It was Prince Joskin, who had arrived and was leaning down over her with a cup of steaming tea in his hand.

Penda laughed as she took the cup. “You, young sir, are a prince in more ways than you know.” Joskin blushed and stepped away, putting his hands behind his back. Lieutenant Brand was there, too. The entire group, almost. Together again.

She sipped and savored the hot liquid as it went down. Spiceflower tea: perhaps the one consumable native to Xonareth that she might love as much as kroth. She took one more sip and then looked at Captain Ubani again. Still as ‘ruggedly handsome’ as ever, to use the phrase that Tariana and Margeth had both agreed upon to describe him, when they had felt the desire to needle Penda a bit. It fit, though: Ubani was a strong-looking man, pleasantly tall, with short-trimmed brown hair and a bit of a smirk on his lips. He had served them well during the Yarreen affair, and then—having distinguished himself with some merit during that adventure—he’d surged up the Kingsguard ranks, until now he was a Captain in the King’s closest security detail, reporting only to the Kingsguard Brigadier himself.

Well?” Penda said. “You have to know more than ‘he got away.’”

Not much more,” Ubani said. “In fact, I only just got here. As soon as I heard the report come over the wave, I came running.”

It’s true, he did, ma’am,” Lieutenant Brand said. “He knocked over the Rinsharage ambassador’s wife coming through the door.”

Yeah, that was funny,” Margeth said.

Marg,” Tariana cautioned, although Penda heard the note in Tariana’s voice that indicated that she thought it a bit funny herself.

Funny for now,” Ubani said. “Until later, when I’m drafting half a dozen official letters of apology.”

So what happened?” Tariana asked. “Someone drugged you?”

Must have,” Penda said, and she took another sip of tea. “Decent plan, really. Too bad for him that he chose me instead of you.” She gave a mirthless laugh. “I actually said that to him, believe it or not. Those words may end up haunting us.”

How did he drug you?” Margeth asked.

He put something in the kroth pastries. Don’t worry, just the ones he shared with me. I don’t think he drugged an entire platter…otherwise we’d have a whole room full of fainted diplomats.”

Not sure that would be such a bad thing,” Ubani said.

My father needs to know about this,” Joskin said.

He will,” Ubani replied. “Brand, why don’t you go fetch Lord Vorrimos.”

Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Brand said, and off he went to do just that.

You were out here long enough with this man to share kroth pastries?” Tariana asked.

Penda nodded. “He seemed friendly enough. Not like that, don’t give me that look. I came out for some air, and he came out, too. I just thought he was…there. Must have followed me. He said he was from Tolandis.”

We’ll look into that,” Ubani said.

Well, don’t look too hard,” Penda said. “I’m sure he was lying.”

Probably.”

What did you talk about?” Tariana asked.

It was mostly just small talk, until the drug started taking effect. Then he said that I was no Arrilori. But the drug didn’t work as well as he’d hoped, so he fled.” She looked at Ubani. “Before he went over the side, he said ‘Draden forever!’ And then he said something about the ‘Arrilori Judgment.’ He said that the Arrilori Judgment is coming.”

I wonder what that means,” Tariana said.

That kind of thing is how our problems usually start,” Margeth said.

Indeed it is,” Penda said. “Anyway, he was trying to take me with him, but I recovered enough strength to force him to give up that part of his plan.”

You heal fast,” Tariana said.

Penda smiled. “That I do,” she said. “I suspect we haven’t seen the last of him. He did give me a name, though. Ulden Drorili.” Any hopes that Penda might have had on that tidbit being helpful vanished when Joskin groaned and Captain Ubani laughed. “False name, I assume?”

I’m afraid so,” Captain Ubani said. “You see—My Lord! Your Highness!”

Ubani suddenly rose and snapped to attention. Queen Aafilia had come, with Lord Vorrimos preceding her.

What’s happened?” Aafilia asked. “An attack?”

Of sorts,” Penda said. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

Captain?” Aafilia said, looking at Ubani.

We’ll take measures, Your Highness.”

I hope so. There is another matter, you see. We need to leave immediately and proceed to the Palace.”

The Palace?” Tariana protested. “I thought we were returning to Starhollow tonight.”

Events have made that impossible,” Vorrimos said. “We are dispatching the diplomats, and then all of you and the King will be escorted to the Palace. Captain, you are needed.”

Yes, My Lord,” Ubani said as he rose. He looked at Penda again. “You’ll be in good hands, Lady Arrilori.”

I’m sure I will, since you are promising it,” Penda said. Ubani smiled—not quite a grin—and then he bowed and headed off to execute his duties.

What’s happened?” Tariana asked. “Are we under attack? Yarreen? This Dradenite who tried to kidnap the Lieutenant?”

Kidnap?” Aafilia suddenly looked deeply concerned. “A Dradenite? Vorrimos, you didn’t tell me about this.”

In my defense, Your Majesty, it only happened minutes ago, and we’ve been dealing with the evening’s other major event.”

Yes, yes, you’re right, as always. But if it was a Dradenite who attacked her, that might be a part of a larger tapestry. Now, if you’ll all come along—”

Penda glanced at Tariana just in time to share a mutual eye roll with the Princess. “Is anyone going to tell us what’s happened?”

Aafilia sighed and looked at Joskin. “It’s your uncle,” she said. “Our former King.”

Draden?” Joskin asked. “Did…did he….”

Penda glanced at Tariana, who had stiffened at this. The last thing Draden had seen, up until now, had been the full majesty of hyperspace, the sight of which Tariana had forced upon him by asking Nella not to close her window shields while traversing the Startrails. No human mind could withstand the sensory input of the Startrails, and thus Draden had been in a coma ever since, leading to Dennory’s ascension to the throne.

No, he didn’t die,” Queen Aafilia said. “Rather the reverse, actually. My dear brother-in-law has woken up.”


Ooh! What happens next? Wouldn’t you like to know!!! Well, the book is out on May 25!

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