K M Tolan
“Your pet human just escaped.”
Mikial's amber eyes closed for a moment. Do you have to keep calling him that? She relaxed her grip on the exercise rope and dropped to the hardwood floor. Her muscular six-hand frame easily absorbed the fall. Knees bent, Mikial pulled back an unruly swipe of cinnamon hair and glared at the Lead of her Surian Guard. “Ryan Donald is Earth's Ambassador... providing I can ever get him back to his home again. He's nobody's pet, Nenya, least of all mine.” She stood, wiping a rivulet of sweat from her light mocha cheeks. Nenya's irreverence bordered on contempt... as usual.
Nenya clasped her hands in hollow contrition. “Forgive me, my Suria. Your... Ambassador just escaped.”
And to think we came from the same background. Like Nenya, she had been born into the Datha combat sect as a rare female Dathia, and still had the claws to prove it. Neither of them were within a stone's throw of petite, most of their curves owed more to predatory physiques than shapely breasts and hips. They were both barely into their twenties, and unmarried, but that was where the similarities ended. Mikial envied Nenya's ebony skin, having lost much of her own pigmentation in an unasked for metamorphosis from which Surias emerged.
Grabbing a towel from its rack next to a series of kick bags, Mikial wiped her face and pressed on with the conversation. “So how did Ryan manage to escape? Kinset has nothing but water around it, and I don't think he is that good a swimmer.”
Nenya smiled. “He stole your airsail. If you hurry, you can see him flying overhead.”
Mikial stared at her, mouth sagging. “He... took my airsail?” She threw down the towel. “There isn't enough charge in those batteries to light a glow stone!” Not caring if her public image as her race’s supposed savior was tarnished by anyone seeing her running about in only brown exercise shorts and a brief top, Mikial made for the door.
Nenya, looking far more respectable in a two-piece black dress uniform with flowing side skirts, dashed after her. The three other members of her Surian Guard were quick to join them in the tower's foyer, speeding with her through double ironwood doors and down polished black basalt steps. Outside the southeast tower entrance, she had an excellent view of a coastline cast in the gold hues of an early morning.
“There!” Nenya shouted, pointing beyond the cliff edge upon which the Datha war college perched like a great red brick. “He's already over the strait.”
Squinting, Mikial caught the orange glint of a rising sun off twin props. She watched as the airsail flew unchallenged toward the distant shores of Kioranna. “He's not going to get much farther.” She launched herself across the intervening green between the college and a road winding along Kinset's three gorges, her goal a wide flagstone path adjacent to a scenic turnoff. The soft grass between her bare toes spurred her into a fresh burst of speed.
Nenya easily caught up with her. Together they vaulted over the decorative railing bordering the grounds. “Excuse me, Suria, but where are you going?”
“The sea!” she snapped. Then, mindful of the warning tone in the Dathia's contralto voice, panted as she ran, “I have to keep the only human ambassador we have from drowning!”
Nenya leapt forward and turned to block her halfway across the road. “You're not allowed to swim in the ocean! You know that!”
Mikial stopped with a threatening growl of her own. “Who mentioned anything about swimming? Didn't you say your family were fishers? You can still pilot a boat, can't you?”
Nenya bared her teeth only enough to remain on the edge of insubordination. “No tricks, my Suria.”
No tricks? You're actually going to go along with this? Mikial pointed toward the winged silhouette over the ocean. The airsail was already losing altitude. “Do you mind if we dispense with the stupid comments? If my Surian Guard can't follow orders to keep me from swimming away then you all deserve to be replaced.” She glanced at the other three Dathia.
Nenya's lips puckered ahead of a reluctant sigh. “It's off-season. We should be able to find something to pluck this human from the water... assuming a skathe doesn't gulp him down first.”
The five of them sped down the flagstones to a still-closed cafe whose wide windows offered a breathtaking view of the ocean below. Mikial quelled the growing excitement in her chest. She had not expected to make it even across the road before being dragged back. Mikial moved among the empty tables to the back wall and summoned the elevator, the cafe's white tiles feeling as cool against the soles of her bare feet as the water no doubt was. At least it was summer. The ocean temperature should be tolerable without the need of a cold suit.
Her Surian Guard piled into the cage with her, and they descended quickly down the shaft. The doors opened upon a small marina sheltering bobbing surf riders behind a rock seawall. Fortunately, the industrious Cothra sect had seen fit to berth a few fishers here as well. The salty scent of weathered planks, along with the slopping rhythm of waves against pilings, raised Mikial's hopes even further. As if to dampen her optimism, two Dathia fell in on either side of her, their eyes alert.
Mikial's attention, as well as Nenya's, fell on a moderately sized yellow fishing vessel halfway down the first pier. A web work of nets hung from the catamaran's boom cranes, each net neatly bound up in ropes. Hopefully the fisher still had good batteries.
“Watch her,” Nenya growled, her side skirts flying like twin banners as she ran to the boat.
Mikial feigned impatience, and fought an urge to use one of the most pronounced physical differences between her and the rest. The long specialized hairs lining her ears would stiffen the moment she tried to signal anyone. Fading from light cinnamon to translucent white paralleling the top of her braided head, her Ipper ear fans would give her away in a moment. Of the four sects comprising the Qurl race, the Ipper Qurl were most at home in the water—hence Nenya's prudent caution to keep her away from it. Signaling to the Ipper now would only raise suspicions that much more. Once the boat was away, her ear fans would be much less noticed in the toss of spray and wind.
Nenya disappeared inside the small pilot room on top of the narrow second deck, and then waved a beckoning hand through one of the windows.
“Stay to the center, please,” one of her Guard cautioned as Mikial moved quickly up the pier. At least the Dathia was trying to be polite. Just the same, the two guards chose to lift her onto the fisher's work-worn deck rather than trust her to simply hop up on her own. Both stayed with her, letting the trailing Dathia release the moorings.
Green waters boiled up from beneath the pontoons, reassuring Mikial there was life in the batteries. Nenya made deft use of the steering jets to coax the ship into the marina's channel. The Dathia poked her head outside an open side window, looking as if she were enjoying herself. “Suria, up here! Cullay, come with her.”
Mikial climbed the narrow ladder, her legs absorbing a slight rolling motion as the fisher passed the seawall. Inside the pilothouse, Nenya beckoned Mikial to a wide leather seat and handed her a pair of field glasses. “Steer it just like you would a carriage, but easy on the turns. I'll be in the deck house below getting us ready to haul in today's catch.”
Nodding, Mikial watched the Dathia slide down the ladder rails with the casualness of experience. Too bad you weren't staying up here. Mikial regarded her companion. Cullay was not much larger than herself, and she had beaten the girl once in a sparring match.
The field glasses found Ryan low on the horizon just to their starboard. Mikial slowly turned to port, the fisher cutting through the low waves in crisp white sprays. She motioned Cullay to open the forward window, allowing the refreshing sea breeze in to toss their hair... and hide her signaling.
A Sounding signal was much like waving hands and singing aloud—with the hope that someone would notice. With Ipper signaling, one's emotions could also be thrown in for good measure. Somehow the brain made sense of it all, but only after a lot of practice. Even with a year of training under her belt, Mikial knew she was but a rank novice. The Ipper were doing their best to change that, and were her staunchest allies. Perhaps their loyalty came from the sect's clairvoyant tendencies, however the Ipper disapproved of her asking about what they termed “Other Octaves”.
A tap raced down her ear fans along her personal Note. As she suspected, the Ipper had indeed kept someone listening for her. Not her best friend Paleen, however, which was no surprise as the Ipper was up to her own ear fans in wedding plans. This signal had a distinctly male timbre to it. <Yes, Suria?>
There was something odd about his “speech”, a telltale lilt speaking of lands far removed from either Kinset or her original home in the Qurl Hills. <Who is this?>
<Pell of Chenka Holding. May I be of service?>
That's all the way down the southern hemisphere! <I need the Kinset Ipper, not you!>
She could have sworn the unseen fellow smirked at her short reply. <Distance means nothing, Suria. Surely Paleen said as much?>
Oh, so now you know her too, do you? Mikial wondered if her clever girlfriend was stooping to a little matchmaking. It would not be the first time. This Ipper “felt” about her age, and part of her swore she had met him before. Hissing, Mikial reminded herself what she was about to do out here. <Inform Kinset Ipper that Ryan is in flight and I am going to try for the water.>
<Understood. Ipper are already pacing you. Good swimming, Suria.>
Exhilaration raced through Mikial's body. Ahead, the errant airsail could be seen clearly against morning's pearl skies, circling low like an inquisitive fish hawk. Below her, two Dathia leaned on the railings, pointing at Ryan's maneuvers. Mikial turned the chair to look across the back sorting deck between the two hoist cranes. The white cliffs of Kinset were well over a length away. Nenya apparently still busied herself in the deck house.
That left just the calico Dathia beside her. Cullay's attention seemed caught by something off to their right.
Mikial also glimpsed a brief flash in the waves. “Fish?”
Cullay shook her head. “Ipper. Itsa! Almost two dozen...” Frowning, the Dathia turned to her, the girl's yellow eyes narrowing.
That was all Mikial needed to hear. Cullay wasn't stupid. Bracing her feet against a metal ring surrounding the chair's base, Mikial launched herself at the Dathia, her momentum sending both of them down the pilothouse ladder in a confused tumble. Teeth clenched, Mikial used the jarring impact on the deck below to jam her knees into Cullay 's stomach, momentarily knocking the breath from her.
Knowing Nenya would be on her in an instant, Mikial scrambled across the rolling deck toward green waves beckoning beyond the nets. She plunged into the bracing water. Now let them catch me!
Thousands of tiny glands along her skin reacted to the shock of immersion, generating an immediate electrical field. The Ipper called it a surge—a ripple from head to foot that could push one through the water like a frightened fish. Mikial used it now to shoot downwards into the cobalt depths. Through squinting eyes she saw several frothing comets rise to meet her.
A deep gurgling impact announced something else entering the water behind her. Was Nenya truly stupid enough to follow her under? Mikial's eyes widened as a ball anchor narrowly missed the right side of her head. Another chunk of metal plunged to her left, both trailing ropes. Heavy wire netting blossomed around her like a collapsing parachute, and suddenly she found herself in real trouble. Even Ipper had to come up for air. Alarmed, Mikial fought an urge to flail against the mesh, hoping instead that arriving Ipper would come to her aid.
The first to her side was an Ipper male wearing little more than a blue thong. Bubbles raced along his pale body. She met his lips in a hard embrace through the netting, taking in a needed gulp of air. Two other Ipper attacked the wire with long knives to no avail, the entire tangle already being hauled toward the surface. Her rescuers were unable to do more than watch in helpless frustration as the strong arms of four Dathia hauled her back on the deck like a prize fish. The Ipper knew better than to follow.
Nenya bent over her with a satisfied smile full of teeth. “I learned how to make capture nets when I was ten.” Her tone warmed to a syrupy sweetness. “You know, that human of yours suddenly found all the power he needed and zoomed off. One would almost think you two planned this together.”
Mikial tried to kick the Dathia, but the netting simply tightened around her. “The only thing I plan on doing is wiping that grin off your face. Get me out of this!”
“Better you just lie there until we get back.” Nenya's humor congealed. “We mustn't let our Suria get herself hurt. Fine Suria we get stuck with... trying to run off to her Servant mommy every chance she gets.”
“She's still our Suria,” Cullay said with a glower in Nenya's direction while rubbing her shoulder.
“Not until she stops throwing our Tasuria's generosity back in her face!” Nenya spat. The girl stormed off to the pilothouse.
Mikial thumped her head against the deck in frustration and lay back in the cold netting, watching the clouds spin around as Nenya turned toward the marina. She would have been glad to trade places with Ryan up there about now. Still, he had made it out, and she had come close to escaping herself.
Suppressing a shiver, Mikial stood stoically in the reception area outside of Tasuria Hiah Techemon's private study. An occasional drip of salt water spattered upon the ornate wooden floor tiles. She felt and looked like freshly delivered produce from the fish market since Nenya had not allowed her to change out of her sopping exercise clothes. No doubt upon Tasuria Hiah's orders.
She regarded the closed set of white doors with their fancy gold trim and seashell handles. How long had she been waiting now? One entire chime? Mikial used her Datha hunting eyes, special glands buried beneath her temples, to trace out the electrical aura moving about inside as if oblivious to her presence. Kinset's co-ruler was clever when it came to the little details.
Mikial glanced at the rich leather seats beside her, imagining how they would look after having been soaked by the briny auburn knots sagging from her scalp. She could be clever too.
Finally, the doors creaked open just enough for the Tasuria to edge herself halfway out and regard Mikial like some errant schoolgirl. Hiah wore one of her summer dresses, a splash of orange fading to yellow and cream at her shoulders. Around her waist she wore her Tasuria's brown-and-yellow belt. She and her husband Tenes only recently became Tasur and Tasuria, the smooth beauty of middle age still shaping Hiah's tan cheeks and curled lips. Dark brunette hair tumbled in neat tresses down her shoulders and back, giving the Tasuria a soft countenance as pleasing as the brief smiles that often flashed across Hiah’s lips.
Animosity toward Hiah did not come without effort, but this morning Mikial felt up to the challenge. “Your door squeaks,” she pointed out with sour distain, hoping to find a hole in the Tasuria's seemingly endless patience.
Hiah's eyes closed for a moment's sigh. “Come in, Mikial.”
“I'm going to ruin your carpet with all this dripping,” Mikial warned, following her into the cozily cluttered study. Skirting a stack of books, she scooted over to a small porcelain tiled hearth where a hidden glow stone supplied heat from within artificial logs.
Hiah took her place behind a delicate-looking desk fashioned from the ginger grains of polished sheld wood. “You are less concerned, it seems, about ruining your already faltering reputation. If you were as diligent about staying here as you are about leaving, I would not now have to consider something as unthinkable as locking my own Suria in her tower until she accepts her responsibilities.”
“Ryan needed to leave. The Me'Aukins told us months ago they were willing to take him back to Earth as a peace gesture, yet you wouldn't let him go. What was I supposed to do?”
Hiah held up a warding hand. “If the Me'Aukins want their world back from these humans, then they should deal with them directly instead of dragging us into their troubles. Bad enough that the humans fight amongst themselves over Me'Auk.”
“With respect, Tasuria, that is not your concern,” Mikial returned. “Our alliance with these Me'Aukins hinges on the promise that I would help them free Me'Auk. Earth can't push their former colonists off that planet without our Datha, and I can't get things started without Ryan.”
“You had no business making such commitments, Suria, which is why I wanted Ryan kept from furthering your mischief.”
“Great Suria,” Mikial corrected. “Your former Tasuria nearly started a second civil war over refusing to recognize me for what I am. Part of my agreeing to be Kinset's Suria was so I did not have to see you make the same mistake.”
The Tasuria lost some of her pleasant demeanor. “I think we all suffered enough as it was, Mikial.”
“I did not mean to remind you of their deaths,” Mikial defended. Both the former Tasuria and her husband had committed suicide rather than swear allegiance. “Like it or not, we are both stuck with my being a Great Suria.”
Hiah remained undaunted. “You may be only the third to wear a four-banded belt, but that does not give you license to involve us in squabbles between dangerously powerful creatures.”
“The last Great Suria didn't ask anyone's permission when she destroyed our civilization four hundred years back, so don't expect me to beg now in order to save it.”
Hiah regarded her with the kind of pitying smile reserved for an impossible student. “Corias Charrid's choices were obvious. Yours are not. What happens if Earth realizes you intend to boot them from Me'Auk if they don’t leave willingly? What if they decide to team up with their former colony instead of fighting them, and both come here after us? You think your little Me'Aukin friends will stand with you then?” She gave a snort. “They cannot even save their own world, much less ours.”
“They can with our help,” Mikial ground out. “In any case, Ryan's on his way. What excuse do you have to keep me here? Let me guess... afraid I will run off and join my Servant mother in Kioranna. I got a belly full of that from Nenya. Speaking of which, I want that insolent little beast sent back to whatever fishing village spawned her.”
“And you are evading the subject by throwing your heritage with our former slave race in my face… again. You know how sensitive a subject that is here.” Hiah leaned back in her chair with a puckered brow, as near to anger as Mikial had ever seen her. “Once word gets out of what you did today, rumors about your wanting to run away will be taken as fact. Is it any wonder that even your Surian Guard are starting to despise you?”
“They are your Surian Guard,” Mikial spat in return. “How many times do I have to tell you I'm just trying to get to my friend's wedding? I'm her Champion, Hiah! You've no right stopping me.”
“I am not stopping you,” Hiah countered. “I am trying to fight this fear everyone has of your running off. I invited both families here to have their wedding, did I not? The offer still stands.”
“Paleen deserves to be married at home, and I'll not spoil it for her.” Mikial balled her fists. “I've already caused enough damage in her life.”
“And apparently not enough to your own, Mikial. Seven months have passed since you emigrated here, and yet you refuse to give our Surs the courtesy of a Presentation dance. Now this.”
“As if they would want a Servant wife.”
“You are not Servant!”
Surprised at the outburst, Mikial stuffed a rejoinder back in her throat. So this is what it took to elicit some passion from beneath all those smiles. She clasped her hands in front of her. “Forgive me, Tasuria. I am proud of my heritage, but not when I use it to upset you.”
Hiah put a hand to her chest as if startled by her own vehemence as well. “Mikial, I am not trying to be upset with you. We are far more conservative here than in the Qurl Hills. I wish you would understand this and show a bit more restraint in these matters.”
“Perhaps it would be best if I dismiss myself?” Mikial asked, her voice barely above a whisper. She did not doubt for a moment that Hiah would lock her in her rooms if the Tasuria finally lost patience.
“I have some hot murr in the next room. Have you eaten?”
“Almost, but the fish changed direction.” Mikial was relieved to see the edges of Hiah's tension crumble at her humor. Indeed, she had pushed the normally composed ruler off her shelf. “I suppose I should consider a Presentation dance. Any chance we could get it over with in the next chime?”
The remnants of Hiah's strained expression melted into a burst of laughter. “You look in the mirror lately?” A measure of her formidable calm returned a smile to Hiah's face. “I too will compromise. If your friend is willing to wait, I will have an airship take you to your former Holding.”
“I'm sure she would.”
“Fine. Let’s get you fed, then.” Hiah paused. “About Nenya. If you really want her dismissed, then it will be done. Just keep in mind that even Kinset has only so many unmarried Dathia.”
“An apology might suffice.”
Hiah's smile broadened. “See? You can be quite reasonable when you give yourself time to think. Perhaps it is best to let tempers cool. I shall have a Shandi Counselor talk with Nenya. You should resume your morning schedule as not to stir things up further. That means leaving for Tassomon's Tomb to write in your journal as you always do.”
Mikial nodded, not wanting to be in Nenya's boots for that little meeting. The predominantly female Shandi sect did not just deal with physical healing, but maintained a separate discipline in Mental Studies as well. Tasuria Hiah had, like many Tasurias, started out as a Shandi. She even wore a small gold lantern pin from the prestigious White Canyon college in Tessana Holding. Now, she wore both Shandi and Cothra bands in her belt, though Mikial had seen little evidence that Hiah preferred the abilities of the engineering sect.
A small black carriage took Mikial away from the High Keep after a satisfying breakfast of meat cakes and a chance to look like something other than flotsam. Dressed in simple green pants and a top, along with flowing white side skirts, Mikial sat in the back seat and combed out her braids while anticipating her next move. She had not expected Nenya to let her anywhere near the ocean, let alone pilot a boat across it. This morning's feint went beyond its goal of Ryan's freedom and nearly led to her own escape. Paleen's wedding was less than a week away now, and Mikial dearly missed the rolling hills of her former home.
Kinset was a beautiful city, there was no mistaking that. The stained glass domes atop the many buildings shone like earth-bound stars during the day, and transformed the coastline into a bright jewel box at night. The small continent that was the city's namesake was also the largest of the eight Qurl Holdings, boasting mountains, lakes, and every other kind of topography imaginable. She could even saddle up a yhas a few lengths from the city and lose herself in the surrounding forests. She could not, however, ride one of the long-necked animals down a city street without being run over by a wide assortment of carriages and transports. Some here considered the Qurl Hills quaint and backward, but at least Mikial could enjoy a quiet morning's ride along almost any avenue there.
She glanced at her driver. His black uniform with its red trim and buttons threatened to make every wrinkle in her dress shrink away in envy. He was Tassomon Order—a member of a Datha brotherhood sworn to uphold the ideals of the last Qurl to wear the title of “Great” before his name. After Great Suria Corias Charrid all but destroyed the Taqurls in a horrific civil war she’d instigated, Great Tasur Gile Tassomon arrived to shape Qurls from the clay of those humbled survivors. He also, much to Mikial's relief, paved the way for the successor who would follow him centuries later. Once the Tassomon Order finally accepted her, Mikial knew of no more supportive group she could trust outside of the Ipper. Trust she was about to lean on.
Mikial raised her ear fans, wondering who would accept her next Sounding signal.
The presence that flowed back down in a responding tap was quite familiar. <Yes, Suria?>
<You again, Pell?>
She could feel his amusement. <We do seem to keep bumping into each other.>
Her suspicions awoke. <Any chance you're a Sur? An unmarried one?>
<I'm afraid so. I am also your new trainer. Paleen and I will both be working with you in order to advance you quicker. And yes, I did volunteer. We've met before, and I must admit you are a hard one to get out of my mind.>
<I don't remember you at all.> She hoped her scowl flowed back with her signal. <Inform Kinset Ipper that I am heading for Tassomon's Tomb as planned. Have them tell the Ipper north of here to get Ryan into the air again. Nobody suspects he turned back, so he will have no trouble landing outside on the plaza. Just tell them to have Ryan keep the propellers turning.>
<At once, Great Suria.>
She gave a low hiss, sensing an unwelcome interest wrapped within Pell's signal. <And tell the Ipper I want another trainer. I just dumped one annoying Sur, and am not in the mood to be told by another how much better off I'd be with him.>
<At once, Great Suria.>
She could have sworn he smiled.