/> K M Tolan



K. M. Tolan


Ryan Donald leaned closer to the screen, his Irish temper barely under control. He wanted to strangle the bastard. “Commander, having your cruiser tag along is sending all the wrong messages, can’t you see that? These people are going to hate our guts for previously siding with the slave race their ancestors created. I’ll be damn lucky to get that princess or whatever the hell she is to give me the time of day without even more gunboat diplomacy.”

His antagonist, Vice Commander Powel, glowered back over the stub of a cigar he chewed on. Along with the crew cut, the man was all military theatre. “Hogwash, Captain. You equipped those ex-slaves with three times the firepower and still got your butts handed to you by these…what’s that name, again?”

“Qurls,” Ryan patiently explained again. “Specifically, one of the four subspecies called Datha Qurl.”

“Oh yeah…them. Walking war machines, you said. Biologically specialized for one purpose. If the claws don’t get you, they act like a goddamn electric eel and electrocute your ass. And let’s not forget that other bunch who practically downloaded your mind.”

“That would be the Shandi Qurl,” Ryan explained, preferring not to be reminded of how those females had gotten into his head. He was well on his way to losing this argument.

“How much technology did you end up giving these aliens, Captain? Enough for them to silence those beacons you left behind?” Powel leaned back in his chair aboard the other ship. “We’ll be lucky if one cruiser is all you’re going to need. Hell of a way to make first contact by giving weapons to the wrong side. So who exactly is this contact of yours?”

“Her name’s Mikial. I saved her life during the war we started, and she saved mine when these Datha wanted to blow my ship and crew to hell and back. I don’t know what kind of leader she’s turned into…it’s all done through some kind of biological transformation. I got the drift that she’s probably going to be influential. I figure we’ll--”

A loud warble cut the conversation short, similar alarms pulling Powel from his seat as well. Ryan left the briefing room, happy to be rid of that pompous tin pot for a few minutes. He looked up at the tactical screens. He had not seen this much excitement on the cramped bridge since they left Earth.

“Tachyon emissions spiking fore and aft!” a Lieutenant bawled out.

“We’re in the middle of a bloody star cluster,” Ryan reminded him with a look of tested patience. “There’s all kinds of crap out…” He stared at the screens again, his jaw dropping at what emerged from sudden flashes of light. “Sweet Mother of God…”


Mikial Haran knew the instant she saw the airship that it had no business anywhere near a college. Pressing her angular mocha colored cheek against the cold pane of glass, she studied the interloper with amber eyes. She knew a predator when she saw one. Like a determined behemoth, the dirigible swiveled its four engine pods against cross winds while struggling up the valley’s west escarpment. Its streamlined black fuselage was tipped by troop doors.

Mikial pulled back thin lips beneath a narrow nose to reveal a feral set of teeth and regarded her mentor. “We’re in trouble.”

Rensa Teal, a short brown-haired female sitting at the study’s ironwood table, looked up from a cup of murr with one of her sour expressions. “If you would concentrate more on political science than learning that horrid human speech, you would find yourself in less trouble, Great Suria.”

Mikial flinched at the title, the source of everything going wrong with her life up to this point. A Sur or Suria emerged from Change fever with the abilities of one or more sects in addition to their own. The mysterious natural selection determined her race’s leaders. Only twice before in history did someone end up with the attributes of all four biologically specialized sects. That was how saviors were picked, and, like her, they carried the honorific Great.

Trouble was, there was nothing to save her people from any more. Ostensibly, she became a Great Suria because humans had encroached on her world. She helped chase them off, but always assumed they would come back again. They hadn’t. She did, on the other hand, have powerful enemies among her own kind who did not want to lose power. “Rensa, I am not kidding! There is a Datha warship heading this way, and it’s probably after me.”

“White Canyon is too high and the air too thin for airships, Mikial. Finish your murr.”

Extending a forefinger’s claw, Mikial tapped at the tower’s window. “Tell them that!”

Sighing, Rensa stood up, the Shandi Qurl straightening her yellow dress. “This is a college, Mikial, not some Datha training ground. They will turn back soon enough. You, on the other hand, need to stop thinking like one. Your days of being a Dathia ended nine months ago. A Suria’s duty is to learn how to eventually replace her Holding’s Tasuria and rule with more than a soldier’s mindset. Doubly so for a Great Suria. That fact needs to be pounded into your thick skull. And why do you still insist on twisting your hair into combat braids?”

“My braids are fine,” Mikial growled back, brushing her hand along the wide auburn cords. She had allowed them to grow out, wasn’t that enough? “If my days as a Dathia are ended, then how come I still have to stare down at most males?” She turned to look pensively at Rensa, folding her arms over moderate breasts couched in enough muscle to send the word “petite” screaming. Still, Rensa had a point. Her smooth skin had lost much of its darker pigmentation, and the spray of fine filaments rising along her tapered ears belonged to no Datha. Fading from auburn to white at their tips, the ear fans were the most obvious mark of what Change fever had molded her into, almost killing her in the process. The belt around her cream-colored dress said the rest. Red band for the Datha, blue for Ipper, yellow representing the Shandi, and finally Cothra brown. All bordered by a white Suria’s stripe.

Movement drew her back to the window. Mikial sucked in a breath. “Um, Rensa…it hasn’t turned back. Does White Canyon have any Datha defending it? Some kind of escape tunnel?” Her eyes darted about the circular study’s bookshelves and portraits for something resembling a weapon.

“The only battleground you are going to find here employs the subtleties of social sciences …” The Shandi paused after looking out the window herself. The Datha airship was close enough to see each flash of its engine blades as it fought to remain steady over the college’s terraced entranceway. Snow swirled across the gray plaza like errant windstorms.

“You think they've come to learn subtlety?” Mikial commented, pointing to rappelling lines flying out the back of the dirigible's open troop doors.

Rensa’s lips parted. Datha, in full olive combat dress, slid down the lines like eager spiders. “This...can’t be right.”

“We are leaving.” Mikial headed for the door, her mind racing through precious few options. They would have seen the Surian flag flying over the tower. Her chance of even getting to the college’s common mall in the main building were slim.

“Dathia, hold!”

Years of training froze her in place near the door long enough for Rensa to get in front of her. If nothing else, the Shandi knew her way around Datha, and Mikial’s suspicions that the Shandi Teacher specialized in the sect solidified as the middle-aged female faced her. “You will stay here, and I will handle this. Acknowledge that order!”

“Acknowledged,” Mikial blurted out. Specialized in Datha? This Shandi should be Datha! No doubt she was married to one. Most in Rensa’s predominately female sect were. “I would bar that door if I were you.”

“You are not me,” Rensa snapped back. “Nor will you be running me off like your last instructor with such obstinacy.” She threw open the old wooden door to the tramp of boots coming up the winding staircase.

Teeth bared, Mikial felt the surge of energy coursing down her wrists. Her palms were already glistening with conductive sweat in preparation for giving the kind of lethal electrical charge her original sect was capable of delivering. She welcomed the sensations with a veteran’s fierce grin. How long had it been since she had done anything exhilarating? Oh yes. Nine months.

“Get that look off your face!” Rensa warned. “Ears forward and claws in, Suria! I am certain there has been a mistake.”

From the way Rensa stood in the doorway, Mikial knew even her mentor did not believe such a hopeless assumption. She had to admire the Shandi’s courage, but was not about to see it cost Rensa her life. Shaking her head, Mikial easily pushed the female aside and braced herself as a half-dozen large Datha burst into the foyer outside her rooms. They all wore camouflage combat dress and helmets; however their dart rifles were still strapped to their backs. Mikial’s instincts backed off upon spotting the lead Datha’s lean features and long white braid dangling behind his helmet.

“How dare you come up here like this!” Rensa spat, advancing on the towering officer.

Mikial put a restraining hand on Rensa’s shoulder. “It’s all right. They’re friends.” She eyed the Datha who had once been her Strike Leader. “We are friends, aren’t we, Parva?”

Parva Conn gave a curt nod, his usual flair for witty retorts absent. “Two Kinset airships are on their way here, Great Suria. We have to move. Now!”

Mikial shook off his grip on her arm. “That is absurd! Kinset may be the largest Holding, but they are not so careless as to violate Tessana Holding’s sovereignty just because those stupid humans have made a mockery of me.”

Parva’s gray eyes flashed with earnestness. “Mikial, you have been replaced. Didn’t anyone tell you? Some Cothra girl back home came down with Change fever. Kinset is using this as proof you are not a true Great Suria, just a mistake that needs correcting. They’re coming to arrest you.”

Two Datha wordlessly moved around Parva and took her arms, their leather gloves still cold from the outside.

“Haven’t got time to explain this,” Parva finished. He stuffed a pair of gloves inside her Suria’s belt. “Hope you remember how to climb a rope.”

Stunned, she let them all but carry her downstairs. Impossible! There is never more than one Suria per Holding. That natural law never changed!

Another dozen Datha formed a corridor in the mall, their rifles at the ready as they kept back a growing knot of outraged academicians and students emerging from classrooms and reading nooks. Mikial glanced up at the large gold lantern hanging in the main foyer to greet new students to the prestigious college. Its replica was pinned to the belts of every Shandi who went beyond healing skills to learn Mental Studies. This won’t be forgotten nor forgiven, she thought as they hurried her through large brass doors into the biting cold outside. Her white cotton dress was no defense against the frigid winds kicked up by struggling airship’s props. Parva cut away most of the fabric around her legs while another Datha anchored one of the lines.

Pulling on the gloves, Mikial seized the thick black cord and began ascending the twisting line hand over hand, sucking in lungfuls of thin frigid air. Numbing cold aside, it was the first thrilling bit of exercise she had done in awhile. The Datha crew wrapped her in blankets the moment she was aboard and took her to the small pilot’s cabin above the troop compartment. A thermos bottle full of hot murr was thrust into her hands, the rich spiced beverage warming her while the rest of the Strike came aboard. Mikial watched through the broad sweep of observation windows as the granite halls and towers of White Canyon swung out of view.

Parva came up the narrow stairs, tossing aside his gloves. He looked at the only one in the cabin who wore tailored brown leathers instead of combat gear. “Full speed, pilot. As much as you can get.”

The Cothra Qurl at the controls nodded. Being Cothra, he probably helped design the airship.

Mikial heard the engines strain, the airship tilting forward down the snow-covered tumble of rock along the mountain’s broad left shoulder. Her scrambled thoughts cleared upon seeing two elongated dots farther down the slope.

“That’s them,” Parva said with a grin. “Idiots should have turned by now. We’ve gravity on our side this time.” He dropped into the seat beside her and took a swig from the thermos bottle.

“So we have both violated Tessana Holding’s sovereignty,” Mikial said, shaking her head with disbelief.

Para wiped his lips and pulled off his helmet, his white braid falling across his shoulder. “We had permission, actually. The Ipper tipped us off, and the Tessana approved our extraction.” The Datha regarded her ear fans. “Can’t you use those things yet? Have the Ipper told you anything?”

“I’m still in training, and no. My best friend is now my Ipper tutor, and Paleen hasn’t taught me how to tap her back yet.”


“Contact me…hard to explain because it’s mostly feelings.” Mikial frowned. “She’s told me nothing, which means the Ipper Qurl wanted this to be a nice little surprise too….” Her throat choked on the rising anguish inside her. “Another Suria. This can’t be real!”

“Maybe Kinset’s Shandi did some tampering,” Parva guessed. “We’re checking to see if this Cothra girl has been in contact with them recently.” He stood up and walked over to the stairwell. “Everyone! Strap in, we’re about to engage!”

Mikial didn’t need further direction to pull on the chair’s harness, noticing how their pilot was also securing himself with an anticipatory smile. “First place they are going to shoot is the pilot’s cabin, Parva. Might want to get that helmet back on.”

Parva reseated himself and strapped in with a knowing grin. “Problem with these airships is that you can’t fire directly up unless you want to hit your own ship.”

The pilot pulled at a chord, sending a bell ringing throughout the ship. His hands worked several brass levers. The mountainside rushing beneath them abruptly disappeared, the cabin tilting in a severe ear-popping climb through the thicker air. For a few minutes there was nothing but the harsh blue of a winter sky in the observation windows. When they leveled again, Mikial saw the two airships several hundred spans below them involved in hard turns back down the slope.

“Out of range and out of speed,” Parva said with a laugh. “Well done, pilot. We’ve got our lead, so let’s exploit it. Back to the sky port.”

“And then what?” Mikial asked.

“Powered airsails are waiting there to take you out. Two days and you will be back home, Mikial.”

“And then what?” she repeated softly.

Parva exhaled a long breath, then looked at her. “That is up to you, Great Suria.”

Mikial frowned. “Itsa! You want me to kill her.”

He looked down. “Our Taqurl ancestors had this dance…”

“Chakee’s Challenge or something like that. I have heard the legend it’s based on. Both Surias supposedly went at it with knives.”

“The precedent was set in any case,” he replied with an unconvincing voice. Parva glared at the thermos bottle. “Definitely not the drink for this sort of thing.”

“So what was she? Cothra?”

Parva nodded. “Cothra by birth and now Shandi, too. Name’s Cimee.”

“Cothra and Shandi.” She gave a snort. “That’s not a fight, Parva, that’s me slaughtering another girl based on some four hundred year old fable. Is there an Ipper on board? Someone who can send a signal back? My mother is a Shandi. She should be able to tell if this girl’s a fake or not.”

Parva gave her a long look. “I thought I had an Ipper on board. Isn’t it your strongest second ability?”

Mikial flicked her ear fans in frustration. “It is not as easy to learn as you’d think. There is a lot more to signaling than raising one’s ear fans, Parva. It’s all I can do to answer Paleen when she taps me. The Ipper just make it look easy.”

Aided by northerly winds pushing down the valley, the airship came in view of Tessana’s Gray Lake within two chimes. Once an ancient caldera, the lake's heated springs held even the iciest winters at bay within the surrounding basin. Light twists of steam coursed across waters warm enough to bathe in. Along the shoreline, tall tropical broadleafs mixed with municipal buildings and brightly painted homes.

The airship sped toward southern ridges whose crests were leveled for seven lengths to accommodate mooring towers and warehouses. Tessana Holding was situated midway along the Masar Range dividing Dessa’s largest continent, and was the hub of Qurl transportation and commerce. Mikial knew that the sky port in the Qurl Hills, her home and destination, would be lost among the many barns and towers here.

Their pilot ignored the beckoning forest of mooring poles for a smaller plateau to the west. Two landing roads striped its surface. Between the roads sat well-ordered lines of airsails in colors as bright and varied as a spring bouquet. Extending like whiskers from the cliffs, launch rails facilitated the gliders’ departure from powerful catapults.

Sport flying wasn't on the minds of the Datha who seized her dirigible’s anchor lines. Engines swiveling, the airship settled adjacent to a landing road. The Datha ground crew literally ran her and Parva across the grass to two catapults on the windy northern face. Waiting in the launch cradles were aircraft a technological leap ahead of any glider. These were new powered airsails from the Qurl Hills, olive-drab wings supporting two engine nacelles whose props were already spinning up.

I hate flying. The dismal thought came the moment Mikial’s foot stepped on the catapult’s wooden swivel base. Her grumbling disposition changed upon seeing the pale-skinned young Ipper female waiting in the airsail’s rear seat, her white ear fans tossed in uplifted winds. The Ipper wore the camouflage dress of a combat signaler. Those hazel eyes and impish face were more than just familiar. They belonged to one she’d sorely missed seeing these past months. “Paleen!”

“Say hello later!” Parva shouted as he rushed to the catapult next to them. The Datha pointed eastward. “They build them to be fast out at Kinset!”

Mikial looked to where two lethal shapes glided across the lake. Giving a hiss, she jumped into the front cockpit, reached up, and brought down the glass canopy. “Aren’t you supposed to be planning a wedding or something?”

“Yes, and you are still going to be championing me when this mess is over.”

“Well, hang on, they’re swiveling us into the wind.” Finding the throttle, Mikial advanced it until the props whined into blurs.

“Don’t worry...” Her friend's light voice cut short with a gasp as they were both slammed back in their seats. The brief length of rail ahead of them disappeared, replaced by nothing but sky.

Gripping the center yoke, Mikial put them in a slow turn back toward the cliff, showing her tail toward pursuers who had no hope of catching them now. Dipping the left wing, she watched Parva's departure in an air machine similar to her own – also with an Ipper signaler in back. Nodding, she straightened the airsail. A bubble compass upon the dash helped her set a southwesterly course toward the Qurl Hills. Satisfied, she looked back at Paleen. Slender and fair skinned like most Ipper, she was a startling contrast to Mikial's large frame. Sandy brunette tangles half-hid hazel eyes that once were easy going. War caused by human intervention had irrevocably changed that. “Why why why didn’t you tell me about this other Suria?”

Mikial’s ear fans rose with Paleen's “tap”. Instead of mere words passing through the filaments in what the Ipper termed as her personal Note, Mikial felt a startling wash of love and concern. Signaling was an odd place between thought and speech, expressed by the Ipper in channels and octaves. Paleen had only sent words to her before – not emotions. Mikial sent her surprise racing back up her fans in Paleen’s personal Note. <How did you do that?>

“Sending feelings are normal between friends at close range, even if you haven’t got the Common Notes figured out yet.” The following emotion was as intimate as an embrace. <You are still a Great Suria, Mikial.>

<Why didn't the Ipper tell me?>

Paleen switched to regular speech. “Because you're swimming too close to the problem as usual. I know that sounds ridiculous...but in time you will understand. For now, just fly. Signaling is distracting enough without having to pilot this thing.”

“Fly,” she muttered, glancing down at all the improvements in instrumentation since she had last used one of these. Most noticeable was the welcome addition of a battery gauge directly in front of her yoke, it's black needle pointing assuredly at full. There was an altitude barometer down to the right, and even tiny lamps beneath the dashboard. Air from tiny heaters warmed her feet. Looking out the canopy, Mikial saw Parva’s airsail holding position off her rudder.

“Come right two points west,” Paleen said, her voice slightly distant.

“Acknowledged.” She aimed the nose for a gap between two frosted peaks. “Are the batteries going to last the whole trip?”

“No. We'll be spending the evening in Kioranna's northern plains.”

“Hopefully without any cavalry seeing our intrusion.” Mikial frowned, knowing the alliance between the Servant country of Kioranna and her Holding was fragile at best. It brought to mind the other Servant country that had started the recent war and bore both its name and the brutal consequences. “Anything happening with Minnera?”

Paleen shook her head. “Everything east of the Qurl Hills has been quiet since the war. Their army’s all but destroyed, so I guess they won’t be interested in taking over the world any time soon. Especially since they’ve got no humans to make advanced weapons for them anymore.”

“Until those creatures come back looking for some other way to find a foothold on our world. Beacons or not, I can’t believe they are just going to forget about us. You would think that the Minneran War was incentive enough to keep us from forgetting about them, but Kinset seems determined to erase things, starting with me.”

Paleen put a hand on Mikial’s shoulder. “By the way, we’ve asked your mother to have a medical look at this new Suria. The Shandi agreed to allow it, and even Tasuria Sencia has offered herself for deep questioning to allay rumors your sect is spreading about a Shandi plot. We should have both reports soon.”

Mikial nodded. “Was going to ask for that.” She placed her hand over Paleen’s. “Good to actually see you again.”

It was a long trip. Paleen's directions took them away from the white teeth of the Masar Range and across southern Tessana’s wooded hills. Scattered clouds promised excellent flying weather, and the cushioned seat helped ease the discomfort of six chimes worth of flying. Parva kept an even distance behind them, everyone relying on Ipper navigation as their battery power slowly ebbed.

Paleen provided small talk enough for an armada of airsails, most of it centered on her upcoming Third Promise to a Cothra both of them knew well enough to make discussion delicate at best. “Dalen has been asking after you. Says you haven’t sent letters or anything. He was about to come up and visit.” Paleen’s voice lowered. “Still can’t get him out of your heart…is that it?”

“Surias can only marry Surs,” Mikial replied, looking for some maneuvering room through another of Paleen’s awkwardly honest conversations. “You know that as well as I do, Paleen. Otherwise, I would’ve been the one about to give Third Promise and you’d be my champion. Dalen Goss and I went through a lot together.”

“Like him getting you both in serious trouble over these powered airsails,” Paleen pointed out. “Now, he’s famous because of them. Funny how quickly the Minneran War changed attitudes concerning forbidden technology.”

Mikial nodded. “I’d still like to know where he dug up the ancient Taqurl sciences used on these engines.” She shook her head. “I should’ve turned him in for using forbidden technology, not helped him test it. Or fall hopelessly for him in the process. Hooking Dalen up with you was the best parting gift I could give him after my Change.”

“No regrets?”

“None,” she lied. Hopefully, the bitterness would not find its way across to Paleen’s ear fans. She deserved better. Needing a distraction, Mikial glanced at the battery gauge. “We're at fifteen percent. Where is this camp of yours?”

“To your left and in sight,” Paleen replied.

“Finally.” Below them, the forest quickly surrendered to widening meadows sparsely marked by trees and occasional patches of snow. They had reached the northern edge of Kioranna's plains. Weathered gray palisades cut across the mouth of a broad field spilling out onto an ocean of tall grass. Inside the rectangle, a clutch of ramshackle buildings surrounded the dark shape of a Datha airship.

“It’s abandoned,” Paleen assured her.

“And that village?” she asked, spying a circlet of houses a couple lengths west. Smoke drifted lazily from a few chimneys.

“Parva had them scouted out. There are only three families. Don't worry.”

“Tell that to those families. To many we’re still the enemy.”

Slowing the engines, Mikial began their descent, the airsail passing through a flat wisp of clouds.

“Set your wing down two notches...lever is by your right leg.”

“Got it,” Mikial said, catching sight of a string of small lamps laid out along a gravel road servicing the fort. She eased the control to its second setting, the airsail rocking as the wing's rear panels angled down to slow them. She glanced down at her left leg. “This the gear? The nose doesn't drop like it used to, does it?”

“Not as bad.”

Mikial nudged the engine throttle back and deployed the wheels. The airsail became less than graceful, but still manageable. She lined up on the road. Several dozen Datha were running out to greet what she hoped would be a respectable landing. It wasn't. The first bounce told her she had come in too fast. The second underlined the fact with a jarring kick in the pants as the craft bounced drunkenly from side to side before finally settling in a mixed cloud of dust and snow.

“Clumsy!” Mikial spat, stopping the engines. She used their remaining momentum to steer the airsail off into the frosted grass, making way for Parva.

“Haven't...lost your landing habits,” Paleen said between breaths. “Maybe I fly next time?”

“You should've flown this time,” she grunted, unsnapping the canopy to let in the brisk winter air.

“I was joking. Can't fly and signal at the same time, you know.”

Many of those helping her from the cockpit were Datha she recognized as former comrades whom she had fought alongside during the Minneran War. There were no hearty welcoming hugs behind eyes that blazed with indignation over her being usurped. Only when she was wrapped in a warm winter field coat and handed a hot cup of murr did smiles finally break out.

Parva’s landing was as graceful as a falling leaf. The commander motioned her to follow him through a sagging gate.

“You could've picked something less obvious than this,” Mikial grumbled.

Parva shrugged. “It's defensible, which is more than I can say about some open field.” His boot swept across the high grass beneath the entrance, loosening the flakes of a recent snowfall. “This place hasn't seen yhas hooves in several summers, so don't worry. That town over there is just about as dead...only a few stubborn ones left.”

“And when word of this gets to Kioranna’s Steward? Itsa! We've finally got on good terms with them and now they will be telling her about this...invasion.”

“They can tell her we're protecting her natural-born daughter,” Parva returned, his bared teeth suggesting that further debate was going to lead into a shouting match.

Inside the fort, swathes of blue-and-green paint clung with failing fingers to the dried boards of a barracks and stable. The Datha airship was anchored next to a two-story headquarters whose brown tiled roof sagged on the verge of collapse. Armed Datha patrolled serviceable scaffolds along the fort’s walls. Parva walked toward a cluster of camouflaged bubble tents alongside the airship. Mikial’s nose caught savory smells coming from covered fire pits. A couple of Ipper, looking incongruous in olive combat dress, waved enthusiastically.

Parva turned to Paleen. “Smells like they’re cooking up some field hens. Go help yourself.” Parva’s gray eyes fixed on Mikial with a Strike Leader’s demeanor. Saying nothing, Mikial followed him inside the tent, the officer closing the flap behind them. Parva kicked aside a cot and warmed himself over a round heater’s fan. “So what have the Ipper told you?”

“Absolutely nothing. Not even Paleen.”

He nodded. “Those Kinset airships look to you like they knew we were ahead of them? My guess is that they didn’t, which means the Ipper are not giving them reliable reports either. Are you certain that sect hasn’t got something up their sleeves?”

“No more than usual,” she replied carefully, seeing all kinds of suspicions whirling in Parva’s eyes. “What about the Shandi?”

“They’re practically falling over themselves in cooperating with us.” Parva shook his head. “Doesn’t make sense. This whole thing reeks of plot. Kinset’s Tasur and Tasuria have been accusing you up and down of being an aberration ever since those beacons the humans left behind suddenly stopped bleating.”

She agreed, having heard that much. “If the humans were willing to start one war in exchange for a foothold on Dessa last year, they will happily start another if given half the chance. My guess is they’ll try picking another side next time – ours. That became evident when their captain, Ryan Donald, gave me a translation book he made.”

Parva’s expression darkened. “The plan had been to kill them, remember? Not send them back to get more help.”

Sighing, Mikial sat on the cot. “They said they wouldn’t return, Parva. Not unless it was another ship bent on revenge. What they gave the Minnerans were toys compared to what Ryan said they had. I either had to let them escape or risk seeing our whole world burn. Now is not the time to remind me that I made a mistake. Kinset is already doing a fine job of it.”

“You were half-delirious from Change Fever,” Parva pointed out, his voice apologetic. “We could defend you based on that alone, but now there is another Suria taking your place. It means you’ve only one role left. Rule all the Holdings. That is what a Great Suria is meant for, and what Kinset fears most. They’ve been leading the Eight Holdings for four hundred years, Mikial. They are not interested in a Judgment that doesn’t see you dead. There has never been a Dathia becoming a Suria, let alone a Great Suria. This whole thing will tear our sect apart if it’s not dealt with quickly.”

“Yes, I know. Kill my rival. It is what we’re so very good at, isn’t it?” Mikial rubbed at her head, imagining where that would lead. The Shandi would be horrified and never forgive her sect. The Datha Qurl was comprised mostly of males – female Dathia were rare exceptions. The Shandi were the same but opposite, and most Datha ended up marrying a Shandi. It would indeed tear this sect apart. She stood up, realizing that murdering her usurper was the whole point of Parva’s private meeting. Giving an exasperated breath, Mikial unzipped the flap and left to find something to eat.

After a hot evening meal, she stood outside the fort watching an orange sun sink beneath waves of grass. In its place, the sky filled with the flowing purple majesty of the Curtain, the swirl of stars and gossamer filaments casting its own hues across the land. “Didn’t think I’d be seeing Kioranna so soon.”

“Didn’t think I would be out here at all,” Paleen added beside her. She rubbed her arms beneath a coat similar to Mikial’s. “Cold wind.”

“Not much to break it out here.”

The Ipper stared toward the darkening village. “Do they really hate us?”

“Care to go over and ask?”

Paleen shook her head. “I’m not going near them.”

“That’s part of why they hate us,” Mikial softly answered, her breath coming in steamy puffs. “Our Taqurl ancestors fashioned them to be a slave race, and we still call them Servants to this day. They are fading out here, Paleen. Most of the babies they have will be Qurl, and end up given to the nearest Holding like I was. They hate us for that too.” She let out another long breath. “Your sect is actually withholding information. It’s about as unprecedented as my getting replaced.”

Paleen returned an undaunted scowl. “Mikial, when you shoot a dart, that’s it. Say what you want. Do what you want. It doesn’t matter because the dart’s going to go where you aim it. What if that weren’t true? What if you had to watch everything you said and did afterwards for fear you would miss that mark?” Paleen reached up and put a hand on Mikial’s shoulder, turning Mikial to face her. Her ear fans flicked in agitation, some of the fear crossing over to shake Mikial’s own fans and thoughts. “Mikial...my sect doesn’t dare even breathe right now.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

Paleen’s smile softened the worries. “Swimming beside you, silly. Like I always have and always will.”

“My sect wants me to kill this other Suria.”

Paleen nodded. “You will do what you have to, Mikial. It is as simple as that.”