Once more, the combatants leapt up and faced each other. Mikial drew hard from her own bio-electric glands, her fingers crackling with gathered energy. Satisfied that the Datha’s companions were still honorable enough to stay out of the fight, she spun on her foe with a hiss, every fine hair on her arms and neck erect. She could kill too, if that’s what he really wanted.
“Datha, stand down!”
Years of conditioning took hold. Mikial immediately retreated eight paces. Her adversary did the same. Blood dripped from his hand, and from multiple scores where her claws had marked him. Mikial knew that more than sweat was trickling down her face and arms. Her eyes moved to the source of that compelling command, a voice she recognized. The other five Datha on the bleachers did the same.
Tasuria Amari Enyan of Tessana Holding finished pushing aside the paneled wood doors and entered the room. She looked as tall and glacial as the mountains that protected her Holding. Amari retained the fair complexion of her original sect, the Ipper Qurl. The long brown filaments of her ear fans flicked with irritation, and were the only outward suggestion that the Tasuria was more than a little upset by what she saw. Her clothes were a casual mix of brown and white wools tied by a belt with a prestigious three bands of color in them. Her words, brief when she spoke them, were without compromise. “Datha! Ground yourselves!”
Mikial noted with satisfaction how stiffly her attacker walked to the far wall, his belabored breath all but confirming damage to his ribs that would soon need attention. He placed his hands on the tongues of two snarling morra heads wrought in iron. The crystal eyes within the sculptures momentarily brightened to a dull red.
Taking her turn, Mikial placed her hands on the cool metal within the mouths, pressing her palms down and discharging. The eyes flashed a bright pink, drawling looks from the other Datha helping their comrade from the room.
The eldest Datha among them turned to face the Tasuria. His hair was drawn back through a copper coil. The male’s black beard was braided like coiled serpents. His gruff answer seemed unimpressed by Amari’s rank. “Yes, Tasuria?”
Amari’s brown eyes narrowed. “No Shandi Healer present, Principle? Combatants allowed to charge themselves? I’m no fool, and I should remind you that my husband is Datha as well.” She stepped forward until her short nose was almost touching his broad nostrils. Her words were drawn out in a hiss as lethal sounding as any blow landed. “What, Principle, is going on here?”
“We were just sparring,” Mikial blurted out. Principle Katel? The head of Kinset’s Datha was in on this? “Forgive my interruption, but we got carried away.”
Her adversary looked at her in confusion, confirming Mikial’s suspicions that this had been far more than a sparring match.
Amari gave a less than convincing smile. “Carried away, Suria? Is that what this is?” Her look toward Principle Katel was without charity. “This gross dereliction will result in my formal complaint to your Tasur. Furthermore, Principle, the Suria is still under my charge. I am transferring her lodging from the War College to the College of Arts immediately.” Her tone dropped to sub-freezing levels. “If you object, you may do so to your Tasur. I’ll be happy to explain the circumstances to him.” Stepping back, Amari placed a hand on the injured Datha’s chest. “This one has two fractured ribs.” Amari’s ear fans spread fully along the sides of her head. For a moment, her eyes lost focus, then she spoke once more. “I have sent for a Shandi Immediate Team. Perhaps you should have briefed this Datha on how Mikial became First Student in her graduating class last year.” The Tasuria gave Mikial a look as sharp as her tongue. “Get your shoes, Suria. Exercise is at an end, and so is my patience with you.”
The Tasuria practically chased her out into the narrow hall leading to the exercise tower. They passed lamps, sculptures, and classrooms at a pace so brisk as to be worrisome. At least the hall was heated.
“Your injuries?” Amari inquired curtly.
“Nothing I can’t retreat with,” Mikial returned, feeling more than a few bruises. “We do seem to be retreating, Tasuria.”
“We most certainly do.”
Mikial eyed four Dathia approaching them up the stairs winding down to the Hall Of Weapons. They wore armor beneath green jackets, and pistols at their side. She breathed easier upon seeing the leaf insignia sewn into their shoulder patches. Amari’s Tasurian Guard. The Dathia wordlessly closed ranks around them. Together, they entered one of the four main halls that lead to a magnificent courtyard beneath one of Kinset’s famed glass domes. Mikial could only glance at ancient swords, shields, and other artifacts from ages whose history had been lost when the Taqurls fell. Min Saja had obliterated all but civilization itself. Some of the devices used in that complete destruction were rumored to be in the depths of this building, but none would be found among these displays. Taqurl sciences were forbidden, as were the relics spawned from them.
They turned away from the courtyard, keeping their brisk pace beneath vaulted ceilings and glittering chandeliers that belied the grim purpose of the exhibits below. Swords graduated to rifles, and rifles to energy cannons similar to those Mikial herself had carried into combat. Armored suits within glass cases evolved into the heavy ballistic jackets now worn by most Datha. Weapons introduced by human sciences had caused this recent advancement. Mikial was thankful for the early morning in one respect – there were no visitors to stare at her and mutter Servant underneath their breaths. Kinset was known for its arrogance as well as its architecture.
A small white bus waited outside the West Doors. Amari hurried Mikial into the curved back seat. One of her escort took the driver’s seat while the rest remained toward the front in deference to Mikial and Amari’s privacy.
Amari looked up front before sitting down next to Mikial. “Head west down to the High Keep and take the Circle around to the Shandi college.” The Tasuria then turned to give Mikial a cursory inspection, letting the sensitive glands in her palms sense irregularities. She ran her hands along Mikial’s scored face, then checked both ribs and stomach for serious injuries. “Some bruising, but nothing serious. You were lucky.”
“Luck had nothing to do with it, Tasuria.”
“Neither did intelligence. You need to stop acting like a Dathia, Mikial.”
She frowned. “I thought I was. You recognized what they were doing. To accuse Kinset’s Datha Principle of an assassination attempt would only further erode my standing with my sect here, such that it is. Besides, I suspect that nobody would believe me.”
“A Great Suria would not have been idiot enough to accept the challenge. Now sit back and let me do something useful with my Shandi talents. Your cheek has some deep scratches that need seeing to, as do your arms.”
Mikial did as she was told, knowing better than to debate with the one who had mentored her these last nine months in how to cope with becoming a Great Suria. Despite appearances, Amari was as warm inside as Mikial wished the bus was. The cabin heaters were only beginning to have an affect on the chilled air as the bus moved away from the entrance.
Outside the broad windows of the little bus, dawn was only a pale hint in the eastern sky. The heavens were still dominated by the glorious swirl of iridescent rose and purple stardust that was the Curtain. Beneath it, the city that was the Holding’s namesake glittered like an open treasure box. Mikial had seen enough pictures and maps to know that Kinset spread itself over three magnificent costal gorges over three hundred spans in depth. Even the Datha War College with its fortress-like shape and corner towers was crowned in beautiful glowing glass domes girded in belts of bright red light.
“They kept me cooped up here all yesterday,” Mikial said slowly as not to interrupt Amari’s work on her cheek. Casual conversation was preferable to concentrating on the odd electrical numbing as Amari closed her wounds. “Any chance I can visit Two Bridges when the shops open?”
A light chuckle escaped the Tasuria’s lips. “Did you have time to pick up a few hundred favors when they came for you? Two Bridges did not earn its fame for being inexpensive.”
“I was stuffed into an airship with only my night clothes on.”
“Kinset’s violation of our sovereignty has not gone unchallenged,” Amari replied, apparently catching the accusation within Mikial’s statement. “We left for Kinset the following morning. I brought a few things that you will find waiting for you in your rooms.”
“Is it true that those navigation beacons left by the humans have ceased bleating?”
“Yes, and now Kinset feels it has all the proof it needs to question whether or not the creation of a Great Suria was truly necessary.”
“As if I had a choice in the matter? Any Datha knows that you don’t turn your back on an enemy. Especially one as hopelessly superior to us as those humans. Creation doesn’t make mistakes. Surely you can’t believe otherwise.”
“Stop squirming. You will walk before us as a Great Suria and defend yourself accordingly. Not try and pry answers out of one who will be among those judging you.”
“My apologies, Tasuria. I’m not used to seeing you as anything but a teacher.”
“I’m trusting that you will have your own chance to teach a lesson or two. Now be still while I tend to your arms. Look out the window to your left. Two Bridges is coming up. Looking will cost you nothing.”
“Nothing is what I have to spend,” Mikial said with a sigh, turning to the window. The sky had lightened enough to discern a breath-taking drop alongside the road. An emerging sun shot orange rays down the gorge, throwing sheer cliff faces across the gap into harsh relief. The College of Social Sciences sat atop Kinset’s middle gorge like a crown of crystal-capped towers. Her new home for the next few days would be on an adjacent crest across the southern most gorge. Inwardly, she was elated at the change of lodging. The Ipper college hosted the most renowned dancing school in all the eight Holdings. How long had it been since she had danced? As far as Mikial knew, she was still the youngest Three Beat dancer in the Qurl Hills. She was probably the most rusty, too. Even getting to use one of the school’s practice rooms would be a welcome bit of wonderfulness in this place.
Thoughts of how little dancing she had done lately played a sour note that turned her interest toward one of Kinset’s other notable landmarks. Two great arches of stone and metal reached across the gorge. Supported upon them was a city within a city; a microcosm of boutiques and gardens. Trucks and carriages threaded their way beneath street lamps and even trees. Mikial stared with amazement as a tram snaked its way beside the shops, disgorging early passengers. Busy roads swept beneath flanking gates where long-necked animals, cast in bronze, stood on their long rear legs in rampant poses.
“Yhas,” Mikial said as they passed the entrance. “Nothing here but transports and carriages. No yhas.”
Tasuria Amari looked up from her ministrations. “This isn’t your Qurl Hills, Mikial. There is not much use for them here, though you’ll find yhas in the countryside.”
“I used to ride one…” Mikial stared out at the causeway – three lanes worth of it. “I’ve never seen so many buses and carriages.” Even through the window she could hear a steady thrum of electric motors.
“We’ll need to get you cleaned up,” Amari said, giving her work a nod of approval. “I’ve closed your scratches, but some warm sponging to cleanse the skin is in order.”
“You’re better at that then I am,” Mikial admitted, inspecting the red lines along her arms.
“Your Shandi abilities would improve if you bothered to work with them as you have learning that horrid human language. At least you can stop your own bleeding if needed.” A soft disapproval crept into her tone. “I do not want that becoming a useful asset. Yes, an attempt was made on your life this morning. In the hands of friends, such knowledge would be a call to war.”
Mikial leaned her head against the window and sighed. “I never thought I’d ever understand what Great Suria Corias Charrid felt like.”
Amari put her hand over Mikial’s. “Min Saja has not arrived. You’re not her. Not yet.”
No. I’m just her direct descendant.