The Orion Spur

Book Two: The Enemy Inside

By Harpy & HkdonXetG



Category : Original Fiction

Copyright Disclaimers :

This is an original work of fiction. Copies of this story may be made for personal use only, but must include disclaimers. Original characters and plot lines are copyrighted to the authors and may be used with permission.

Content Disclaimer : This story is rated Mature – for readers 18 or older

Sexual Content : This is a story that contains scenes of sexual intimacy between two females.

Violence Content : This is a story that contains some violence, though not overly explicit.

Feedback Request : Your feedback is the manna that sustains us, so please feed the bards at and

Acknowledgements : We would like to thank our wonderful beta readers, Bindi and Michele, for their time, comments, and continued support of this project.







After leaving The Kalenth Hegemony for freedom on Trengos, Kikola Karthen and Tehvay Veilan settle into their new lives. New jobs, new family, and new friends affect the women in different ways.

No longer having status and power, Kikola's world has become much smaller. She struggles to find acceptance in a world where her kind is seen as the enemy.

For Tehvay, it opens up a world much larger than she has ever known. Enjoying the approval she receives in speaking out against slavery, she finds an acceptance that Kikola does not.

Their differing levels of acceptance, and Tehvay's memories of past abuse, put a strain on their relationship. It is further strained by political turmoil in The Kalenth Hegemony that brings chaos and tragedy to their very doorstep.




In the waning decades of Earth's twenty-third century, humankind began to explore and colonise the neighbouring area of the galaxy known as the Orion Spur. Over the succeeding millennia, loose confederations of planets evolved into powerful empires. One such empire, The Kalenth Hegemony, became a dominant political entity in the region. Through indoctrination and conquest, the ruling elite cemented their power over the population, dividing society into a caste system in order to maintain social and political order.

The sparsely populated edges of the galactic spur, which no empire thought worth claiming, became known as The Graelands. It was home to Trengos, an under populated, resource-scarce planet, whose population went about their daily lives, unaware of the political upheaval taking place in The Hegemony.

The Kalenth Hegemony's traditional system of law, by which elite families had an equal vote in The Council, no longer suited one woman. She wanted a more radical system of government with herself at the helm, and she wanted to settle some old scores. 

After centuries of obscurity, Trengos was about to become key in events that would reshape the political landscape of The Hegemony and possibly The Orion Spur.



Tehvay Veilan was tall and lithe, with unruly blonde hair that reached to just below her chin. Having spent most of her twenty-eight years wearing the pale blue shirt and trousers of a slave, Tehvay now favoured dresses, the more colourful the better – anything but blue. Today, she was wearing a sleeveless yellow shift dress.

Smiling at the simple pleasure that would have been denied her as a slave, she strolled with shoes in hand – enjoying the cool, soft feel of the grass beneath her bare feet. She headed up a short rise to a stand of trees.

The background noise of people in the Dansek Botanical Gardens and the drone of the surrounding city fell in volume, as she entered the copse. Inside, the woman discovered a spring fed pond. A light breeze rustled the leaves overhead, goosebumps stood out on her tanned arms, and she shivered. She had only been on the planet for three months and the glorious hot summer was giving way to cooler weather.

Tehvay stepped into the shallow pool, registering the chilly water, but choosing to ignore it as she waded in up to her shins, looking to find where the water exited the pool. It must run down into the lake, she surmised, recalling the large lake she had seen earlier.

The water in the pond was crystal clear, and she could see tiny creatures darting along the bottom on spindly legs. They quickly disappeared behind pebbles and vegetation as she disturbed them with her movement. She gave an involuntary cry at the sudden sight of a rodent diving into the water and swimming towards her. It paid her little attention as it swam close by, nearly brushing up against her leg, before disappearing into a hole in the bank.

"Tehvay!" A voice called out.

Tehvay turned and saw Yuniph, her sister, trot into view with a concerned look on her face.

"It's okay! Just a lygat," explained Tehvay.

"Euww, I hate those filthy creatures," said Yuniph.

"They're harmless… as long as they're well-fed," Tehvay replied.

Despite being identical twins, Tehvay and Yuniph were easy to tell apart, because Yuniph wore her blonde hair long. Yuniph also favoured clothing with a more muted colour palette, preferring practical rather than fashionable attire. Today she was wearing a white, short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts. The length of their hair might have been the only physical difference between them; their lives, though, couldn't have been more different.

Yuniph had grown up on the planet Trengos with her parents. It wasn't an easy life, but her parents were hard working and they owned their own house. Yuniph didn't go to university; instead, she joined the Dansek Security Force and was steadily moving up in the ranks. Tehvay had lived most of her life as a slave until an unlikely chance encounter led to her being reunited with her family.

Tehvay moved towards the pond's edge and held out a hand to her sister. Yuniph obliged, took the outstretched hand, and helped Tehvay out of the water. Once she had firm footing on solid ground again, Tehvay tried to let go of Yuniph's hand, but Yuniph tightened her grip.

A sudden twinge of fear filled Tehvay's chest – a remnant of past abuses by her former owners. She didn't flinch or pull away. She had learned not to show any outward signs of discomfort. She breathed slowly to calm her heart rate. This was her sister, after all.

Yuniph raised their joined hands and studied them.

"I know we are identical twins," Yuniph said, "but there is so much about us that isn't alike at all." Yuniph turned Tehvay's hand over, held it palm up, and pointed out the calluses. "You have clearly done more manual work than me. You favour your left hand, where I favour my right." Yuniph gripped a couple of Tehvay's fingers between her thumb and forefingers. "And if I'm not mistaken, you have had a few fractures in your time."

"Yes," Tehvay acknowledged simply. She hadn't given it much thought until Yuniph pointed it out. She wondered if she should tell her sister how she came by those fractures, but Tehvay decided against it. She didn't think Yuniph was ready to hear the unsettling details about one owner's bad temper.

Yuniph finally released Tehvay's hand.

"Still getting used to it?" asked Tehvay.

"Used to what?"

Tehvay gestured between the two of them. "This. Us."

"Us? It's fine." Yuniph said.

Tehvay observed her twin's eyes dilate slightly – a sure sign she wasn't being completely truthful. Tehvay had long ago had learned to read the subtleties of other people's emotions, and what Yuniph wasn't saying spoke volumes. So, Tehvay tried a different tack to get Yuniph to open up. "Can I be honest with you?"

"I suppose so."

"I'm still trying to get used to it all. Being reunited with my family was something that couldn't happen. But it did, somehow. You know what I mean?"

Yuniph offered a slight smile. "Yes. If I'm being honest, sometimes this still feels like a dream – overwhelming at times."

"Exactly!" Tehvay agreed. "But let's not worry about trying to make up for the past twenty-eight years. We're just two sisters enjoying a picnic on a beautiful sunny day. What could be better?"

"That I had your fashion sense – according to Rikana," Yuniph joked.

A laugh escaped Tehvay's lips at Yuniph's mention of her friend and fellow security officer's often expressed critique. Tehvay pulled her sister into a hug. She felt Yuniph stiffen slightly before yielding and returning the embrace.

"And speaking of picnics, come on," Tehvay said. "Ima and Ita should have lunch all laid out for us by now." Ima and Ita, Tehvay repeated the Trengosian colloquialisms for mother and father. It still felt strange to her, but in a good way.

The sisters made their way back to the picnic site, and found their parents, Asta and Pallin, seated on a blanket near Yuniph's road vehicle. A picnic lunch had been laid out in the middle of the blanket.

Tehvay ran the last few tens of metres and sat down between them.

Asta offered her a sandwich. Tehvay took one and started eating it as her mother offered her husband one. All three of them were eating by the time Yuniph joined them and sat opposite Tehvay. She reached across the blanket and took a clear container full of cakes.

"Manners," said Asta with a smile as Yuniph helped herself. "Offer them around first. I remember even as a little girl you never could let anyone have the first one!" Her smile faded and she turned to Tehvay. "Sorry."

"What for?" Tehvay asked, taking a cake from the container Yuniph had dutifully offered to her.

"Talking about the past. It must be difficult—"

"Don't apologise, Ima. It's not your fault. I am happy you've had all these years in freedom – as a family. And I want to hear all about them. I want to hear all my sister's faults, so I can tease her about them." She smiled at Yuniph. "That is what sisters are supposed to do, isn't it?"

"I don't know. I never had one," Yuniph replied. "Until now, that is."

Tehvay thought her sister looked sad, but before she said anything her mother spoke up and changed the subject.

"That reminds me," Asta said. "Yuniph, your birthday is coming up in a few weeks, and that means it's Tehvay's birthday as well."

"It is? What day is it?" Tehvay asked.

"The eighteenth of Attamand," Pallin explained as he chewed and swallowed the last of his sandwich.

Tehvay spent a moment reciting the names of the Trengosian months to herself. Attamand was the eighth month on Trengos.

"We should have a party for both of you." Asta smiled and passed the plate of sandwiches to her husband. "Seconds?"

Pallin eagerly took a sandwich off the plate. Asta then held the plate out to Yuniph who took a half, and to Tehvay, who gestured no. She was content to nibble on the cake.

"Would you like that Tehvay? A birthday party?"

"I don't know. I've never had a birthday party before. I just marked the passing years on the first day of the Kalenth New Year."

"All the more reason we should have a party for you, and Yuniph of course," Asta replied. "Wouldn't you agree Yuniph?"

Yuniph didn't look up from her sandwich. "Actually, I have to work that day."

"I'm sure you could arrange to get the day off," Asta replied.

"I guess so."

Tehvay watched this exchange between Asta and Yuniph – observing the power mothers have with just a look that tells their child it wasn't a request. Even if Yuniph was on the losing end of that exchange, Tehvay envied her sister's close bond with their mother.

"There, then it's settled," said Asta. She passed the sandwiches around again. Only Pallin took up her offer. "I'll take care of all the arrangements," Asta continued. "Make sure you invite Rikana, Yuniph. You know how she likes a party."

"Yes, Ima."

"I can't wait to tell Kikola!" Tehvay exclaimed.

Pallin grunted. "How is your new recruit, Yuni?"

"You mean Kikola?"

"Yes," replied Pallin.

Yuniph quickly chewed the piece of cake she had just put in her mouth. "Efficient."

Tehvay smiled. "That's Kikola." Tehvay paused, hoping Yuniph would elaborate on Kikola's virtues as a security force officer. After all, she was more than qualified for the job. When none was forthcoming, Tehvay felt compelled to say something more. "Kikola thinks highly of Yuniph, Ita."

Pallin offered Tehvay a tepid smile.

Mention of the woman who had brought Tehvay to them and with whom Tehvay shared a life always seemed to bring about an uncomfortable silence. Tehvay recognised that it was taking time for her family to warm up to Kikola. Members of the ruling Elit caste in The Kalenth Hegemony were looked upon with suspicion on Trengos, and even an ex-Elit who had risked all to save their daughter from slavery still had something to prove to the Veilans. Kikola's tendency to seem somewhat unapproachable and aloof meant Tehvay's Ima and Ita didn't see Kikola the way Tehvay did – loving, respectful, and very understanding, though they were slowly coming around and accepting Kikola as part of the family.

The Veilans spent the next hour just relaxing in the suns and talked about everyday matters. Eventually Pallin looked up at the sky and shielded his eyes. "Well, we should be heading back soon," he said. "You've got a shift tomorrow, dear."

Asta sighed. "Don't remind me."

"Or me," Yuniph said. "I might get more days off now that I've been promoted, but tomorrow isn't one of them."

"'Sergeant Veilan.' Has a nice ring to it," Pallin said as he patted his daughter's shoulder. "We're very proud of you, Yuniph."

"Thanks, Ita."

Tehvay listened to this exchange with keen interest. As she helped her mother put things away, it occurred to Tehvay that she was the only one in the family who didn't have a job. As Tehvay helped her mother pack up the food, she said, "It's about time I went to work."

"How do you mean, dear?" asked Asta, folding the blanket.

"Kikola has a job, and I feel awful not contributing."

"Is Kikola pressuring you to go to work?" Asta asked warily.

"No, not at all. I just want to feel useful, to contribute to the household."

"What are you good at?" Yuniph asked as she picked up the hamper.

"Well, I …" Tehvay didn't know how to answer Yuniph's question. All she had ever done was be a slave and do whatever her owner told her to do. She had no education or business experience, save what she had learned from her mentor Boran during the few years she was with him.

"What would you like to do, then?" prompted Yuniph.

"I don't know. I hadn't given it a lot of thought. I—"

"How about a shop clerk or receptionist? Can you cook?"

"Yuniph, don't badger your sister with questions," Asta chided. "She just needs a little time to explore all her options."

"I'll have to ask Kikola." Tehvay heard how that sounded and sensed her mother's challenge forming. So before it was said, Tehvay rephrased. "I'd like to get her opinion."

Asta started to apologise. "Yes, of course. I forget she's no longer..." She paused and gave a dismissive wave of her hand.

"Perhaps you would understand her if you got to know her a little better."

"I try, dear, you know that. But she can be a little… don't take this wrong, a bit… private, standoffish, you know what I mean."

"Those are not the words Rikana used," Yuniph chimed in.

Pallin chuckled as he helped Yuniph stow the hamper in her vehicle. Tehvay's father had a good relationship with Rikana. In fact, both her parents liked the young woman – she was almost part of the family.

"Is Rikana coming over tonight?" asked Asta.

Yuniph shrugged. "You know her, if she's coming, she'll be there, if she's not, she won't."

Tehvay stood back and enjoyed the banter going on around her. As a slave, she was used to people talking around her, even about her, but back then she had no part in the conversation. Now it was different. These people, her family, might be talking about something where she couldn't join in, but she didn't feel excluded. She felt loved, happy. Nothing could destroy this new, wonderful life she had.


After finishing her shift, the newest member of the Dansek Security Force queued up at the exit of the central headquarters to sign the electronic duty log. Her shoulder-length dark brown hair was pulled back in a tight tail, as per regulations, and even at the end of her shift, not a hair was out of place. Kikola Karthen comported herself with a straight-backed military bearing and economy of movement unmatched by the other security force officers traversing the lobby. Though average in height, she had an air of authority; some would argue superiority.

There were several other officers going off shift as well. It didn't bother Kikola that none of them made any attempt to talk to her. She had been a loner most of her life, content in her own company; in fact she preferred it. It was only when she met Tehvay that having someone in her life had become important to her.

Kikola and Tehvay had arrived on Trengos three months ago under the assumed names 'Bastin' and 'Trellon'; however, the authorities knew their identities were fakes. So, Tehvay changed her name to 'Veilan', the name her parents had adopted from the transport captain who had brought them to freedom on Trengos. Kikola decided to revert to 'Karthen', but dropped the 'ap' denoting a member of The Kalenth Hegemony's Elit caste.

Most of Kikola's co-workers didn't know the full details of her past life, but her accent gave her heritage away and that was enough for most. Even though she had been with the Dansek Security Force for the better part of two months, she was still considered an outsider.

After signing out, Kikola left the temperature-controlled building and stepped into the cool evening air, made cooler by that side of the building facing east. She immediately felt a chill. It made her miss the thermo-regulating lining in her aloyd uniform. She wanted to huddle in her security force uniform jacket for warmth, but that would be a sign of weakness. She pushed away any thoughts of feeling cold and proceeded down the stairs to ground level.

As she descended, Kikola was aware of a figure, about twelve metres away leaning against the wall of a building across the street, basking in the last warm rays of Trengos' two suns. The young woman was of a similar height to Kikola, just short of average, with hair a shade or two darker than Kikola's, worn back into a loosely pulled tail so her hair was off her shoulders. She too wore the dark blue uniform of a Dansek Security Force officer.

Kikola immediately recognised the young woman: it was her partner Rikana Lardis. Rikana was the only one who had agreed to partner with Kikola, and she made no secret of the fact that she didn't like 'Heggers', as she called them.

Partnering with Rikana had taken some getting used to, because the young woman was impulsive, unruly, uncouth, and talked to Kikola as if she were better than her.

Kikola assumed Rikana was waiting for her and crossed the street. "Are you coming to the Veilans' house tonight?" Kikola asked.

Rikana often visited the Veilans' house after work. At first Kikola thought it was so Rikana could take advantage of a free meal, but the young woman seemed to genuinely like Asta and Pallin.

"Not tonight, I've got a date," said Rikana. "With a man," she emphasised.

"Good for you," Kikola replied. Satisfied that she didn't have to spend any more time with her partner, Kikola turned in an attempt to walk away, but Rikana continued talking.

"I tried it once, you know."

"Tried what?" Kikola cursed herself for getting drawn back into the conversation.

"With a woman."

"What with a woman?"

"Sex." Rikana pushed herself off the wall and moved towards Kikola. "I was drunk and thought it might be good idea. It was at first. She went to work on me, if you know what I mean, and it was a good orgasm. But then it was my turn and… suddenly being face to face with a feeta, I realised how ugly they are. And smelly." She shuddered.

Feeta? Kikola said to herself. She was not familiar with the term. When Rikana continued her story, Kikola got a clear understanding of what it meant.

"To think I've got one of them between my legs…" Rikana pulled a face. "Anyway, I made my excuses and got out there."

"Is there a point to your story?"

Rikana thought for a moment. "No. Unless it's that if you want to go down on me, don't expect me to return the favour."

Oblivious to the public surroundings and the people passing by, the young woman placed a hand over her crotch, moaned seductively and swayed her hips.

She thought it was another attempt by Rikana to get under her skin, but Kikola had come to the conclusion that her partner wasn't trying to be malicious or confrontational; it was just her attempt at humour. "I will bear that in mind," said Kikola calmly.

Wanting to curtail the encounter, Kikola started walking towards the public transport station. Rikana skipped ahead, turned to face Kikola, and started walking backwards. Kikola stopped before Rikana tripped or collided with another pedestrian.

"Oh, but you wouldn't be interested in me. You've got Tehvay. I bet she knows her way around your feeta, eh?" Rikana cackled.

Kikola wasn't about to reveal to Rikana that she and Tehvay had not as yet been intimate. For Tehvay, sex had meant only pain and humiliation in her life as a slave. Kikola understood it would take time to build a foundation of trust and intimacy for Tehvay. She was content to wait until Tehvay felt ready to consummate their relationship. In the meantime, Kikola was no longer taking the medication diproxaline, which suppressed one's libido, so she dealt with her sexual urges when she was alone.

Kikola's silence didn't stop Rikana. "Say, what with Tehvay and Veilan being twins, do you ever fantasise—"

Kikola cut Rikana's line of questioning off. "I prefer not to discuss my sex-life."

"You mean to tell me you've never looked at Yuniph and wondered what it would be like to – you know." Rikana winked.


"Oh, maybe you don't need to wonder. Is that how you got this job? You put out for Veilan and she put in a good word."

"No!" Kikola cringed that she refuted Rikana's crude inference. She knew better than to react. It was weakness an enemy could exploit.

Rikana shrugged. "Veilan likes men, anyway, or at least she claims to. She did dump her last boyfriend. Maybe he was missing something… or not missing something as the case may be."

"Sergeant Veilan is our superior officer. You should have more respect."

"For Veilan? Nah," Rikana replied. "We go way back. She knows my little foibles."

Mercifully, the public transport was pulling up to the station. "I will see you tomorrow," said Kikola. "Enjoy your date."

Rikana seemed to take the hint that Kikola wished for the encounter to end. She grunted in lieu of saying goodbye and walked away.

As she boarded the transport, Kikola took a moment to reflect on her new life. How far removed it was from the life of privilege and purpose that had been her birthright. All that was gone now. She had no family or friends, save the one person that mattered to her: Tehvay. And for Kikola, Tehvay more than made up for what she had lost.


Kikola stepped off the Dansek public transport and waited for the vehicle to depart before crossing the street. She knew the way by heart, because since they had been living in Dansek, Kikola knew most days she could find Tehvay at her parents' house. Kikola didn't mind stopping by the Veilans' house after work to pick up Tehvay. Kikola understood that Tehvay and her family had years of separation to make up for. Besides, it wasn't out of her way. She and Tehvay had sold their ship and bought a small house just a few streets away from Tehvay's parents and sister.

A middle-aged woman opened the front door of the modest semi-detached house. On first encounter Tehvay's mother, Asta, could seem anonymous and bland. Once you got to know her, however, she revealed herself to be quite multifaceted. This evening she wore a beige cardigan and wrapped skirt, however there were subtle threads of yellow running in all different directions that added a little colour and style. Her deep-set brown eyes sparkled, laugh-lines framed her mouth, and recently she had added some subtle dark highlights to her blonde hair. Kikola suspected that was to hide the few grey strands she had.

"Good evening, Kikola," said Asta, as she ushered Kikola inside.

"Good evening. Where's Tehvay?" Kikola asked.

"Where else? In the garden with her father. Come through to the kitchen."

Kikola had never felt comfortable in the Veilans' house. She and Tehvay had stayed with Tehvay's family after arriving on Trengos, which made things challenging – there was little room and no privacy. It wasn't an ideal way to start a new life with Tehvay, and Kikola could not wait to move out. It wasn't that Tehvay's parents weren't welcoming – well, as welcoming as ex-slaves could be to one who supported slavery, but because Kikola didn't feel at home there.

The only place she felt truly at home was the Karthen family estate on Kalenth, where she had been born and raised. Technically it was her Uncle Toman's house, since he was the designated head of the Karthen family, but any Karthen could enter any Karthen owned home on any planet and be 'home'. That life was gone now, and Kikola struggled to make Trengos feel like home.

"Sit down, I'll get you something to eat," said Asta.

"That won't be necessary."

"Nonsense. You've been at work all day."

"I don't want to put you to any trouble. Tehvay and I will eat later."

"It's no trouble. It's just leftovers from the picnic. Something to tide you over." Asta placed a plate on the table, gently pushed Kikola towards a chair, and started removing containers from a bag on the floor. "Help yourself," she said as she opened a container of sandwiches and put it next to the plate.

"Thank you." Kikola dutifully picked up a sandwich and took a bite. Most of the fresh food on Trengos, while containing the nutrients she required, lacked the quality to which her palate was accustomed. She found things were either too bland or foul tasting. The former was preferable. Unfortunately the sandwich fell into the latter category. Kikola, not wanting to seem ungrateful, took a second bite.

To Kikola's relief Asta produced a second container with homemade cheese and chebol pasties. Chebol was a versatile, pungent, root vegetable that could be served cooked or raw. Pallin grew it in the garden, and it was one of the few things Kikola had found that matched its Hegemony counterpart in flavour.

She reached for a pasty without invitation. She paused. "Sorry! May I?"

"Of course. You don't need to ask."

"I…" Kikola felt embarrassed. In the Hegemony Asta had been a slave, so it would not have occurred to Kikola to ask permission. Here though, things were different and sometimes Kikola overcompensated.

"I guess as an Elit you are used to taking what you want without asking, particularly from a slave," replied Asta.

Kikola knew Asta's observation was not meant to be vindictive. "Yes, you are right," she said. "However, I am not Elit anymore, and you are not a slave."

"I guess we were both given labels that we've outgrown," Asta replied.

Kikola studied Tehvay's mother as she moved around the kitchen pushing things into their place, making sure there was no clutter. She has spent nearly half her life a free woman, yet, as much as she wishes otherwise, she is still defined by her slavery , Kikola mused. Her movements are economical – a good slave responds quickly, never taking more time than necessary.

"This may seem like a strange question," Kikola ventured. "But do you ever miss it? Your past life I mean. Everything being safe, conforming to the expected, the routine."

"I would not describe it as safe," said Asta. "Though there was a routine." Asta stared off into the distance. She appeared to be remembering things she'd rather not. "Freedom is scary when you don't know how it works." She turned her gaze towards Kikola. "You get used to it, though. As to missing it, no. It haunts me every day."

"I am sorry, I did not mean to drag up unpleasant memories."

"You didn't. As I said, it's with me every day. What about you? Do you miss it? The power, the wealth, the status?" Asta asked as she sat down and helped herself to a sandwich.


"Good. I mean it's good that you admitted it. If you said otherwise, I would have thought you were lying."

"I gave it up for Tehvay. If I had it again, I would give it away again for her. However, it would make things easier if I could have both. The only thing I regret giving up is my family. My mother in particular. She understood me. I could talk to her."

"Well, I'm not saying I'm going to replace your mother, or understand you like she did, but you can talk to me."

Kikola regarded Tehvay's mother with newfound respect and gratitude. "I appreciate that."

Asta smiled warmly and got up from the table. "It's customary to have a chat over a cup of dyodpeth." She moved towards the dispenser. "Would you like a cup?"

The roasted bean beverage was popular, but Kikola detested the bitter taste of the stuff. "No, thank you."

"I thought all Elit were addicted to it. It was my job to make it."

Kikola frowned. In all the time they had known each other, she had never asked about Asta's owner. "You were owned by an Elit?"


"Which family?"


"My family has close ties with the Lentol family." Talk of a familiar subject suddenly made home seem not that far away. It gave Kikola a nice warm feeling, and she relaxed in her seat.

"The Karthen family," said Asta. "I recall visits by some of them. What were their names? Stram-something…"

The half remembered name made her sit up straight again. "Strambik."

"That's it. He was nice, for an Elit. He always smiled as I recall. His wife was not so pleasant. Was he a close relative of yours?"

"Strambik was my father."

Asta blushed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"

"Don't apologise," said Kikola. "My mother is much like dyodpeth – an acquired taste."

Asta smiled as she poured herself a cup of dyodpeth. She joined Kikola at the kitchen table.

"What does your father think of his daughter running away with a slave?"

Kikola felt the sting of loss as always, but she did not show it. "He's dead. He was travelling through the Graelands, returning home after a diplomatic mission; his ship was destroyed."

"I'm sorry," said Asta. "What about your mother? What does she think?"

"I don't know. I have not spoken to her. I assume she knows by now. My presence will be missed. I did tell her that I had romantic feelings for another woman and she seemed accepting of that. Though if she knew it was Tehvay, a slave, then I don't know how tolerant she would be."

"Tell me about her," prompted Asta.

"My mother?"


"My mother, Mariantha, is a judge, and that is why she comes across to others as hard and unfeeling. It comes with the job. But, she has a caring side. In fact, my mother is the reason Tehvay and I met."

"Yes, Tehvay told me about the trial and your mother giving her to you as a graduation present."

"You make Tehvay sound like a commodity. I never treated her like that." Kikola became defensive, though she knew Asta had accepted her relationship with Tehvay as genuine.

"I know. My daughter has told me that you treated her with a great deal of leniency... she said 'respect'. Is that because you fell in love with her?"


"And if you didn't love her, would you still have treated her with respect? After all, she was a slave." Asta waved a hand. "No need to answer that, sorry."

"No, I must," said Kikola. "Slavery was as normal as breathing. I saw no wrong in it. I like to think I treated slaves as fairly as I could. I never made unreasonable demands of them and saw no need to mete out punishment. Tehvay was the first slave that I owned personally, and that had a profound effect on me. When I first met her, she was very strong-willed, and she made it clear she didn't like being a slave. She challenged me to throw her out of an airlock if I didn't like the way she acted."

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me. I recognise that character trait in her sister," said Asta. "But what I don't understand is how you, as Elit, didn't just trade her in or put her down. Why tolerate a strong-willed slave?"

Kikola recalled having a similar conversation with Boran Zerbilla. "My upbringing might have been privileged, but in many ways it was sheltered. From the moment I met her, Tehvay tested me, made me see things in a different way. I had accepted so much without question. Tehvay expressed her opinions and they conflicted with mine. She opened up a whole new way of seeing things that I didn't know existed.

"Imagine that you… how can I describe it?" Kikola continued "It was like I had being going through life with a filter over everything I saw, heard, or experienced. Tehvay took away that filter.

"She has made me a better a person, and she is worthy of everyone's love, but I am not sure I am worthy of hers. She gave me companionship. Friendship. Love. Everything. For what? What have I given her?"

Asta reached out and patted Kikola's arm. "You gave her your heart. You gave her dignity and respect. You gave her freedom. Those are the most precious things anyone can have. She loves you for that. And so do I."

It feels good to talk, to finally open up to someone , Kikola thought, She was about to say something more, but suddenly the back door opened. Just a glimpse of the face made Kikola's heart jump, but then she recognised that it was Yuniph who had entered the kitchen, not Tehvay. She swallowed her disappointment so as not to show it as Yuniph took a seat at the table.

Kikola still could not get used to the similarity between the twin sisters. Even though almost everything about them – hairstyle, dress, bearing, and personality – were as different as day and night, there was always that moment when Yuniph would unexpectedly appear and Kikola would think it was Tehvay.

As she watched Yuniph sipping a cup of dyodpeth, Kikola thought back to the conversation she had had with Rikana at the end of their shift – asking her if she ever fantasised about having sex with Yuniph, because she and Tehvay look alike. No , she thought, I could never love this one .


The Veilans' garden was miniscule by Dansek Horticultural Gardens' standards, but there was nothing to rival it in their neighbourhood. It had the advantage of being slightly larger than the normal garden on the housing estate. The Veilans' house was the first house in the street and consequently the garden was a little wider. It backed onto a small stream that cut through the estate at an angle that made their property a little longer than the neighbouring ones. Its size was not the only difference. Every square metre was filled with a breath-taking canvas of flowers and vegetables native to Trengos, as well as some imported varieties, like chebol. Pallin cultivated it especially to please his wife, who loved to cook. Gardening wasn't just his profession; it was his passion, which he happily shared with his daughter Tehvay.

"Am I doing it right, Ita?" asked Tehvay.

The tall man with sandy, slightly thinning blond hair looked up from the flowerbed he was tending. He wiped his furrowed brow with his forearm. His skin was ruddy and tanned from all the years spent outdoors tending other people's gardens, as well as his own.

Pallin stopped what he was doing and went over to the delicate shrub that Tehvay was carefully pruning. He looked over his daughter's shoulder and smiled with a father's pride. "You are a quick study, Tehvay." He smiled broadly. "You obviously didn't get your knack for gardening from your mother."

Tehvay smiled back. "So she doesn't like gardening, then?" she asked.

"You know, I don't think I ever asked her if she liked gardening. All I know is I asked your mother once to help me clean up the plots for winter. She took a pruning tool and proceeded to cut all the leaves off my prized Calorian Shrenthine! They're difficult to grow in this climate and take a lot of care. The leaves change colour: sometimes they're a deep dark red, sometimes a pale yellow, and sometimes a rich dark green. They were in the process of changing from red to yellow, and she thought they were dead leaves and just clipped them right off!" He made a 'snip' gesture with his fingers.

Tehvay couldn't help but chuckle along with her father as he good-naturedly recounted the scene of carnage.

"I haven't asked her to help me after that," Pallin said. "Now Yuniph, she's a gardener. If she weren't in the security force, I'd have her working with me as a gardener."

Tehvay smiled and continued pruning under her father's watchful eye. She demonstrated an instinctive knowing of which stem to cut back, and she did so with a delicate touch.

"Well done, Tehvay. You're hired." Pallin's expression turned contemplative. "Say, how would you like to come work for me?"

"Me? I don't know anything about gardening."

"But you're a natural, and what you don't know I can teach you."

Tehvay dropped the tool and hugged her father. "I would love that!" she exclaimed.

"Talk it over with Kikola, of course," he said.

"Yes, I will – tonight. Thank you, Ita." Tehvay picked up the pruning tool. She shivered and looked up at the sky. One of the suns had already set; the other was hidden behind nearby houses.

"It can get quite cold in the evenings this time of year," confirmed Pallin. "Let's call it a night and head inside."

Tehvay entered the kitchen to find her mother, sister, and Kikola sitting at the table. Kikola was eating a pasty, Yuniph was biting into a slice of cake, and her mother was sipping on a cup of dyodpeth.

"Are you ready to go home?" Tehvay asked Kikola.

Kikola looked down at her plate to the half-eaten pasty. "I have not finished eating."

"Let her finish her pasty," said Asta.

Kikola looked to Asta, then to Tehvay. There was an almost pleading look on her face.

That's not like Kikola , Tehvay thought . She usually can't get away quickly enough. She knew that Kikola didn't begrudge her spending time with her family, but the former aloyd herself had always seemed uncomfortable around them.

"Finish your pasty," said Tehvay.

"Unless you want to go now?" asked Kikola.

"I can wait," said Tehvay. She washed the dirt off her hands, took a seat at the table, and helped herself to a leftover sandwich.

When Tehvay and Kikola were leaving, Asta gave Kikola a container with another pasty in it. "Take it home," Tehvay's mother said, "It'll keep until tomorrow."

"My thanks." Kikola took the offered container and looked to Tehvay.

Tehvay bade goodbye to her family, and she and Kikola left for the short walk home. The second sun was setting and the temperature had dropped a few more degrees.

"Here," said Kikola, taking off her uniform jacket.

Tehvay felt the warmth of Kikola's jacket draped over her shoulders. "Thank you. How did you know?"

"You looked cold."

"But what about you?"

"I am always warm with you," said Kikola, and slipped her hand into Tehvay's.

Kikola's hand felt icy, but Tehvay didn't say anything, because she knew Kikola wouldn't take back the jacket, no matter how cold she was. Tehvay squeezed Kikola's hand as a way of thanking her and transferring her warmth to Kikola in return.

As they walked on, Tehvay looked up at the western sky that was awash with red, orange, purple and blue. "Look at that sunset," she observed.

"It looks like a beautiful watercolour painting," Kikola replied.

"Spoken like a true artist," said Tehvay. "Hey, why don't you try it?"

"Try what?"

"Painting. I remember you said once that if you couldn't be an aloyd, then you would like to be an artist. Well, there's nothing stopping you from trying now."

"I don't know. I…" Kikola's voice trailed off. "To be a master artist one needs to have trained since childhood. It's too late for me."

"Don't be silly. You don't have to be a great artist. You just have to paint."

"It's not that simple."

"How do you know unless you try?"

"I will think about it."

Tehvay tugged on Kikola's hand to make eye contact. "Don't just think about it. Do it."

Kikola looked at her, then looked ahead. "How was the picnic?"

Tehvay recognised Kikola's attempt to change the subject, but was content to let it go, for now. "It was lovely. The Dansek Horticultural Gardens were amazing. It is rare that my parents and Yuniph have the day off together, so that made it even more special. And speaking of special, it is Yuniph's birthday in a few weeks, which means it's my birthday in a few weeks!"

"Really? How would you like to celebrate it? Perhaps I could get the day off and take you to the Dansek Horticultural Gardens again."

"I would love it if you took the day off, but my parents want to host a birthday party for Yuniph and me at their house. I've never had a birthday party before. I've never had a birthday before."

"Then we will make it memorable," Kikola said with a smile.

"And speaking of gardens, Ita has offered me a job to come work with him – as a gardener," Tehvay said.

"Do you like gardening?" asked Kikola.

"Yes, and Ita says I'm a natural," replied Tehvay. "So, what do you think?"

"About what?"

"About me going to work for Ita."

"If that is your wish," Kikola said.

Tehvay thought Kikola sounded non-committal.

"Then you don't mind?"

"Mind? Why should I mind?"

"I don't know. I just wanted get your opinion."

Kikola slowed her stride and regarded Tehvay with sincerity. "I think you can do anything you put your mind to, and if that is gardening with your father, then I am all for it."

Tehvay smiled. "Thanks."

They turned the corner into the street on which they lived. Two large orange-red orbs were rising in the eastern sky directly in front of them. "The moons are beautiful," Tehvay observed. "They seem close enough to touch."

"Hmm," Kikola acknowledged.

"Shibato only has one moon," Tehvay continued. "I used to love looking at it. Boran bought me a book about it, and a telescope so I could see it better. One time he even took me on a trip there. I actually preferred looking at it from a distance, though."

Tehvay's musings on moons reminded her of another planet in her recent past. "I didn't see any moons on Alopan. Does it have any?"

"Three," answered Kikola. "Though two of them are quite small when seen from the surface."

Tehvay recalled her time spent as a slave to the Taliss family, when she was parted from Kikola. "I managed to look up one night, and I wondered which point of light was you and how long before you'd come to rescue me. Now I look up at the night sky and wonder which points of light are The Hegemony, and if we are safe from them here on Trengos." Tehvay gestured at the expanse of sky above them. It was not fully dark, but a lot of stars were visible.

They stopped walking and Kikola stepped up close behind Tehvay's shoulder, took Tehvay's hand, and used it to point where she wanted Tehvay to look. "Do you see that bright reddish one?" Kikola asked.


"Just to the right of it there's a fainter white star. That's Kalenth." Kikola swung their arms right and up. "And do you see that group of three bright yellowy stars in a straight line?"

Tehvay grunted an affirmative.

"The middle one is Shibato."

"They all look the same to me," said Tehvay.

They resumed walking.

"Like you and your sister," said Kikola.

"What do you mean?"

"Sometimes it is hard to tell you and Yuniph apart."

"Do you find her attractive?" asked Tehvay.

"Who?" asked Kikola.

"Yuniph, do you find her attractive?"

Kikola seemed flummoxed by the question. "What? No!"

"So," Tehvay grinned. "That means you don't find me attractive."

"Yes! I mean, no! I mean—Of course, I find you very attractive. I love you."

Tehvay could see that Kikola wasn't entering into the spirit of the conversation. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to tease you."

"Anyway, you don't need to worry about The Hegemony," said Kikola. "At least not for another thirty years or so."

"Thirty years? How can you be so sure?"

"Because I was to be the Rivelor, leader of the next great expansion. It will take another thirty years to identify the next Rivelor and train them."

"Rivelor? What's that?" asked Tehvay.

"When The Hegemony wants to significantly expand its territory, the overall leader of the military campaign is called the Rivelor. It's not a title given to any aloyd. The Rivelor is selected before birth, nurtured and moulded even before beginning training as an aloyd."

"You were? You never told me that."

"I only found out after I had killed Taliss," Kikola replied. "I had assumed my upbringing was normal for all aloyds."

"So you were meant to lead another conquest?"


Tehvay came to a halt and faced Kikola. "And you gave all of that up for me?"

"After I rescued you on Alopan, it didn't matter anymore. The Hegemony, being Rivelor, none of that matters to me now."

Kikola not only sacrificed her career and family for me, but her place in Hegemony history , Tehvay thought. She suddenly felt a heavy weight squeezing her chest. Does she truly feel it was worth it, that I was worth it? Or will she one day resent me for it?

As if Kikola could sense Tehvay's concerns, she took both of Tehvay's hands in hers and gazed into Tehvay's eyes. "Before you wonder or second-guess whether it was worth it, I assure you it was. You are. And I would do it all over again and change nothing. No, that's not true. If I had known that killing Taliss would result in you being taken away from me, I would not have killed him." Kikola paused, her eyes glancing up and then back to Tehvay. "But then, we might not have escaped The Hegemony and come to Trengos, and you would have never met your family. So, everything happened as it was meant to, and I regret nothing – nothing other than the pain our separation caused you."

Tehvay lowered her eyes. "I wish I could believe that," she sighed.

Kikola raised Tehvay's chin with her finger. "Believe it." Her palm gently cupped Tehvay's cheek. "You are all that matters to me now."

Tehvay saw the truth in Kikola's eyes and felt it in the warmth of her hand. And in that moment, under the watchful gaze of Trengos' twin moons, Tehvay met Kikola's lips in a kiss so soft and reverent, that it sent a chill all over her body, and it wasn't from the evening air.

Maybe tonight , she thought.

They walked the short distance remaining in silence. As soon as the door closed behind them Tehvay turned to Kikola.

"Let's get to bed…" Tehvay looked down into warm brown eyes. "I think I'm ready."


Kikola frowned. "Ready?"

Tehvay had thought she was ready several times before, but had only had the courage to say it aloud four times. Fifth time lucky, she thought.

"Yes. You know. You. Me. Ready."

Kikola finally realised what Tehvay meant. "Are you sure?"

It was the same question Kikola had asked her the previous times. Tehvay loved her for not adding 'this time'.

Tehvay took Kikola's hand and led her up the narrow stairs to the bedroom that they shared.

They began their ritual of undressing each other. However, this time there was an urgency to it. She could not wait to see Kikola naked and run her hands and lips over her body and to feel Kikola do the same to her.

She had seen Kikola naked countless times, but this time she beheld Kikola's naked form through the lens of passion and her throat went dry. In that moment, it hit her. Tehvay knew that this would be Kikola's first time. The thought scared her a little. She wanted to give Kikola a beautiful first experience, but she was a little afraid. They had been here before. Tonight will be different.

For Tehvay, this too would be a first time: the first time she had ever made love with someone – not forced to perform a sexual act for her owner's gratification, but truly making love with the person she loved. Suddenly, she felt a twinge of anticipation bordering on fear. What if I can't do this?

She tried to push the fear away. Her hand reached out and settled on Kikola's waist. She inclined her head and their lips met. She felt an immediate spark like lightning striking dry tinder. That Kikola could elicit such a response with just a kiss made Tehvay yearn for more. Her body thrilled when Kikola's hand touched her waist. Her heart beat faster as the hand travelled upwards. She felt a thumb brush against her breast.

Tehvay broke the kiss, and took hold of Kikola's hand before it fully reached its destination. She covered her feelings with a smile.

"Let's get comfortable," said Tehvay, and led Kikola to the bed.

Kikola lay on her back and Tehvay moved to lie on top of her. They kissed again. Tehvay realised that she was holding both of Kikola's wrists in an effort to stop herself from being touched.

"Sorry," she said, as she pulled back and released her grip.

"It's okay," said Kikola. "We will do this your way. Whatever way you feel comfortable."

Memories of a lifetime of abuse came flooding back. She loved Kikola. She knew that the sexual act could be pleasurable, but for her it had only been a tool to subjugate and hurt her – an act solely for the benefit of her owners.


She looked down at Kikola.

"We don't have to do—"

"I'm okay. I'm ready," Tehvay cut her off.

She cupped Kikola's breast and lifted it to her mouth. She coaxed Kikola's nipple to harden with her tongue. Kikola moaned with delight. This emboldened Tehvay to trace a path towards the thatch of pubic hair. Kikola's breathing intensified. Tehvay allowed her hand to linger, twisting the hair gently around her fingertips.

When Kikola's hand came up and covered Tehvay's nipple, she flinched. Kikola immediately pulled her hand away and sought Tehvay's eyes.

Tehvay gave her an embarrassed smile. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I did that."

"Do you want to stop?"

"No, I want this." Tehvay pulled Kikola in close and kissed her mouth and neck. "I want you."

Tehvay's hand roamed freely and Kikola's body responded to her touch in a way that filled Tehvay with joy. She in turn welcomed Kikola's exploration up to the point when her hand skimmed across Tehvay's pelvic area. What had felt pleasurable suddenly made her flesh crawl. She screamed and jumped out of bed. She curled up on the floor, weeping.

Strong arms wrapped around her shoulders and held her tight.

"There is no rush," whispered Kikola.

"Next time. I promise," Tehvay sobbed. That's what I said last time, she thought.

"I know this is not easy for you," said Kikola. "We will do this when you are ready. Not before. And if the next time you can't go through with it, just stop. I won't mind. I love you. That's all that matters."

"I'm sorry."

"Shhh. We got further than last time," Kikola said with a hint of encouragement.

Why? Why can't I do it? If she ordered me to do it, I would. Why can't I do it of my own free will?



Boran Zerbilla ran a hand over his thick head of hair that was greying at the temples. Need a haircut, he thought. The hand stroked the month's growth of beard on his squared chin. And a shave . The hand ventured to his upper lip. Maybe it's time to lose the moustache as well.

Boran was seated behind a massive desk that allowed him a panoramic view of his estate through the floor-to-ceiling glass panels that framed three sides of the room. The spectacular views, however, did not interest him today. His eyes focussed on the doorway directly in front of him as if expecting someone to come through it.

"…reporting it."

"What? Sorry, I missed that." He focussed on the burly man with unnatural red hair sitting to his right.

Tremothen gave Boran a curious look. "Are you okay? You seem distracted." Tremothen turned his head to look at his wife, Marleen, and jerked his head in Boran's direction.

The pair were an unlikely couple. Tremothen easily made two of his waif-like wife. He was big, with a round face, she was thin, with a pinched face. He tended to smile a lot and openly, by contrast Marleen smiled less often and shyly. Yet they were alike in so many other ways. They wore similar clothing, favouring light-coloured trousers and casual shirts when working from the estate. They shared a love of music: Tremothen was a singer and Marleen an accomplished musician. If they hadn't hooked up with Boran, who knew where they would have ended up. Above all else, they were loyal. They were family.

"We're worried too," said the petite woman with wavy grey-brown hair, taking her husband's less than subtle hint. "About Tehvay, I mean."

Boran offered a weary smile. "She's safe," he reassured them.

"You've heard from her then?" asked Marleen.

"No. It's too dangerous for her to contact me. She's safe though." He glanced away. "At least I hope she is," he mumbled.

"Pardon?" Marleen asked.

"Nothing." Boran gave his attention back to Tremothen. "What were you saying?"

"There's an increased military presence around some core planets: Kalenth, Alopan, Franlence, Arcsanth. Several freighter pilots have been reporting it." He glanced down at the sheet of electronic paper in front of him. "I suggest we don't do any red runs there for the time being. However, we've got the Harbenfild contract, which is pink. It pays very well." He looked back at Boran. "Do you want to risk it?"

Red was the code word they used for any full on smuggling activities. Pink was for genuine merchandise with an 'added bonus'. White was used for any strictly legitimate business.

"I don't want us doing any runs there, red, pink or white. Let's stick to the borders."

Tremothen's eyebrows lifted slightly. "Okay, but it's good pay, and you need it after the expense of finding Tehvay. Hila could do it."

The mention of the two women who had meant the world to him jabbed at Boran's emotions. Not usually given to sentimentality, he nevertheless felt a fatherly affection for both Tehvay and Hila, and in Hila's case she just up and disappeared with no word. Not only a friend, Hila was a good earner and her absence was keenly felt. "I've not heard from her since she left here. I'm worried about her," said Boran.

"Well I'm not. She's crazy."

The new voice caused all three of them to look towards the door. Tana, Boran's daughter, was standing in the door's threshold.

"Never liked her. And then she stabs Karthen right here. Good riddance, I say." The attractive young woman sauntered over and stood at the left side of the table. "Good riddance to her and her little whore. And good riddance to Tehvay."

"Tana!" Marleen, who had been like an aunt to Boran's daughter, scolded her. "How—"

"Marleen, leave it," Boran interrupted. "Please."

The small woman scowled, but stopped her rebuke.

Boran ignored his daughter's comments and continued the meeting with his most trusted lieutenants, Marleen and Tremothen. "As I said, no runs to the core. Try and find something in the borders for us. Marleen, contact Pan Willam. See if she's got freight to move in the Theelin sector. Or even into the Graelands. Tremothen, contact your cousin on Alopan. See what he can find out about that increased military presence. And any news about the Taliss family."

"The Taliss family?" Tremothen's deep baritone voice resounded. "I thought we were done with them."

"Karthen said the Taliss girl, Jenissa, would keep quiet; I want to know if she has," Boran explained.

"Okay, but…" Tremothen paused.

Boran didn't need further explanation. "I know; your cousin will need paying."

Having been given their assignments, Marleen and Tremothen left the room, leaving Boran and his daughter alone. Boran stared down, mesmerised by the high-gloss finish of the exotic red onyx table, hoping his daughter would take the hint and leave as well. But he could feel Tana's hard, blue eyes boring into him. Finally conceding that she wasn't going to leave, he met her gaze.

Tana stood over him with her arms folded; her lips thin, her eyebrows drawn together.

Boran wanted to love his daughter, but she made it difficult at times. She was a constant reminder of his failings as a father, though he blamed himself as much as he blamed her for that. Tana's mother, Torrina, had left Boran soon after Tana was born, so he missed her formative years. When Torrina returned seven years later, it was only to dump the child off with him and leave. It was Torrina's way of punishing him, and he deserved it. He had thrown himself into building his import-export empire, neglecting his daughter and finding surrogate daughters in Hila and Tehvay.

Seventeen years later, his daughter was still a stranger, a stranger that looked a lot like the woman he had fallen out of love with. Tana had the same exotic bronzed skin tone and angular chin of her mother, and the same sharp tongue and penchant for spending his money. The only thing she inherited from him was his sense of style. Boran liked loose fitting, brightly coloured shirts. Tana's clothing were equally brightly coloured, but more figure hugging. He wondered if he should be concerned about the tightness of her dress. Some of his hired hands would see that clothing as an invitation.

Boran was about to say something fatherly, but Tana interjected.

"Have you changed your will yet?"

Her rather direct question caught him off guard. "Uh… no."

Tana sat down in the chair that Tremothen had occupied. "When are you going to do it?"

"I'm not planning on dying just yet."

"You stole a slave from an Elit. You helped that slave and an Elit get out of The Hegemony with false identities. Your days are numbered."

"Thanks for the support," he replied sarcastically.

That was one thing Boran could count on from his daughter: she never pulled her punches. "I'm just being realistic. Tehvay is out of the picture, so take her out of your will. And as for Hila and her little joy ride—"

"Kamina! She has a name."

"Whatever. They're both gone. You said you've not heard from Hila, and after she betrayed you, you'd be better off if you never see her again."

"She didn't betray me."

"She stabbed Karthen in your home and then took off without a word."

"And I want to know what the reason was." Boran looked away.

"Regardless, they're all in your will. They don't need to be there anymore."

"Is money all you care about?"

"I care about my money. It's not Tehvay's. It's not Hila's, or Hila's slut's."

"Do you hate them all that much?" he rounded on his daughter.

"Why do you love them so much?" Tana looked offended and defiant.

Boran regarded his daughter. Because they're nothing like you , he thought. He knew better than to step into that minefield by offering her an explanation, so he said nothing.

Tana got up, went to a side table, and helped herself to some fruit. "I thought Tehvay was okay," she continued. "I just…" Tana paused and looked towards Boran. "We had nothing in common, besides you." She turned her attention to the fruit in her hand. "But she's not here. She'll never be here again. I just want what's mine. What did she do to deserve any of it anyway? I know she wasn't sleeping with you."

Boran had turned his head to look at Tana while she spoke. Her last words caused him to swivel his chair around, allowing the rest of his body to join it. "How can you say that? You know what Tehvay went through. She was an object of abuse her whole life."

"Her and millions of others. I didn't see you go out of your way to help any other slaves. You used her to feel good about yourself."

The verbal blow hit Boran hard. She's right. I didn't care about other slaves. I only cared about one slave.

"Sorry," said Tana softly. "What you did for Tehvay was… good. And I don't mean you should have brought down all slavery singlehanded. But I'm your daughter. I was here all that time. I've been working for you since I was fifteen. And yes, you've paid me and paid me well, I'm not going to say otherwise. But this is a family business, and like it or not, I'm your family. I was here. I was here before you brought her here the first time. I was here when you went searching for her. I was here when you came back with her. And I'm still here."

Yes, for all her faults, Tana has stuck around , he thought . Tehvay and Hila are gone, but Tana is still here – despite me being a lousy father to her. Maybe it's time to change all that.

"You're right," said Boran simply. "I know I'm not a good person. I used your mother. I neglected you. And yes, I did use Tehvay to feel good about myself. But I also did it because it was the right thing to do."

Tana looked at him, not with the look of an adoring daughter for her father, but with the look of someone wanting to belong somewhere. Boran had kept her at arms' length for as long as he could remember, longer than she deserved.

"I'll change my will."


Gral'hilanth ap Falentha stood at the command console on the bridge of the heavy cruiser, Relentless . She wore a dark-grey uniform with a gold thread around the collar. Pinned to the collar was a gold insignia, a reverse 'C' with a single overbar, representing her rank as Aloyd, Third-Class. Her face was partially obscured by shadows on the dimly lit bridge, making her look much older than her age of nearly thirty-three. Adding to her careworn visage were four parallel scars marking her forehead and cheek above and below her right eye. The scars could have easily been removed, but Gral'hilanth wanted to keep them as a reminder, and punishment, for her former life.

Until recently, she had been an outcast from The Kalenth Hegemony's ruling Elit, going under the pseudonym of 'Hila Llyte'. She had been making a living on the fringes of The Hegemony as a freighter pilot – her self-imposed penance for a childhood mistake. A mistake she had recently been given the chance to rectify. The Council Member for Military Operations, Ambra ap Lentol, had given her the rank of Aloyd, Third-Class, but without the knowledge of The Council.

Ambra's full plan was unknown to Gral'hilanth, though she knew it involved wresting power from The Council and pruning the ruling Elit of those that Ambra deemed weak and ineffective. However, Gral'hilanth was not concerned with Ambra's plan. She was only concerned with retribution against Kikola ap Karthen. If playing lap dog to Ambra moved her closer to that goal, so be it.

The aloyd called up the ship's current position on her console. The readout indicated the Relentless was about eight light years from the border planet of Shibato. The planet was home to an old friend of hers, though she didn't think he would welcome her with open arms now that she had reclaimed her true identity. Still, they had unfinished business.

She wandered over to the navigation console and placed a hand on the shoulder of the ensign on duty. "Navigation, plot new course heading: four-nine-alpha-two-one."

As Gral'hilanth was ordering the course change, she was aware of being observed by the tactical commander of the Relentless, Captain Garin Eadmon, from the command station in the centre of the bridge.

The ensign hesitated and glanced at Captain Eadmon.

"Did you hear me, ensign?" asked Aloyd Falentha.

"Yes, Aloyd!" came the quick response. Followed a few moments later by, "Course plotted."

Gral'hilanth moved to the helm and again placed her hand on the shoulder of the officer at the station. "Helm, set new course."

"Yes, Aloyd. Course set."

The aloyd looked up at the main view screen and watched the readouts change.

When the ship was underway on the new course, Captain Eadmon approached the aloyd and made a discreet enquiry. "Aloyd, may I have a word – in your ready room?"

Gral'hilanth knew the sudden course change would require an explanation. Their orders were clear: patrol the border along The Hegemony and the Chanier Kingdom and await further orders. "Very well."

The aloyd led Captain Eadmon to the senior officer's ready room just off the bridge. This wasn't going to be a long meeting, so neither made a move to sit.

"Is there a particular reason why you have deviated from the set course?" asked Eadmon.

Gral'hilanth regarded the fifty-year-old captain. Eadmon was strikingly beautiful – distractingly so. In contrast to Gral'hilanth, Eadmon had a flawless complexion, black hair that swooped across her forehead and fell freely to her shoulders, and a shapely figure accentuated by her form-fitting uniform. Gral'hilanth realised she was staring and lowered her eyes. "Yes," she replied.

"May I know the reason?"

"I am not at liberty to say."

"I see. Should I note it in the ship's log?"

"No. It's just a short diversion, we will be back on the planned course soon enough."

"Yes, Aloyd."

The comm buzzed. Gral'hilanth dismissed Eadmon with a wave and waited for the door to close before pressing the button to activate it. The holographic image of a woman with long blonde hair parted just right of centre was projected above the surface of the table.

"Councillor Lentol. I, uh, wasn't anticipating communication from you."

The image of Ambra ap Lentol, Minister of Military Operations, flickered a bit. Gral'hilanth adjusted the signal frequency on her computer console until the councillor's image was sharp and life-like.

"How are you settling in?" asked the councillor.

"Fine," replied Gral'hilanth.

"Good. I am contacting you because a question was raised in The Council meeting earlier. The Kendai representative wanted to know why the Relentless had been assigned a top-secret mission without a Council briefing. I told them it was merely an exercise."

Gral'hilanth felt a little uneasy. "Did they accept that explanation?"

"Of course," said Ambra. "I am authorised to conduct military exercises without Council approval."

"Then why was it brought up?" Gral'hilanth asked. "What made them suspicious?"

"All aloyds are accounted for and it is unusual for a heavy cruiser not to be under the command of an aloyd," the councillor replied.

"What did you tell them?"

"I told them that since the Relentless has just undergone an upgrade, it was an exercise to test the new systems." The councillor's image disappeared momentarily as she moved out of range of the imaging cameras. "I am sending you a report. I want you to have Captain Eadmon authorise it and send it to the command base on Timar."

Lies upon lies upon lies, thought Gral'hilanth. I wonder who will be crushed when it all comes tumbling down.

A beep signalled that Gral'hilanth had received the report.

"What does the report contain?" the aloyd asked as she opened the report on a side monitor.

"It's a report giving the results of the new systems' preliminary shakedown."

Gral'hilanth glanced over the report. "Eadmon will question this report. She will—"

"She will do as you order her," the councillor said, cutting in. "Just as you will do as I order."

Gral'hilanth bottled up her response and nodded. "Is that all?"

"Yes. I will contact you again at the same time tomorrow. Goodbye."

"Goodbye, Councillor." The aloyd went through with the niceties of protocol before shutting the comm off. She was feeling edgy and frustrated. Gral'hilanth wanted to exact her revenge against the woman who she felt had destroyed her life: Kikola ap Karthen. If it hadn't been for Karthen, Gral'hilanth would have graduated from the Elit Military Academy as an aloyd, which was her birthright. Instead, she was an aloyd in name only, being forced to patrol the backwaters of The Hegemony's least populated sector and bide her time while Ambra's scheme unfolded.

She pressed the comm button for the bridge. "Captain Eadmon, report to my ready room."

The captain promptly returned to the aloyd's ready room. "Do you have another course correction, Aloyd?"

"No. It is something else." Gral'hilanth directed the captain to take a seat opposite her.

Eadmon did as instructed, sitting on the edge of the chair as though at attention.

Gral'hilanth inserted a data chip into the computer console and transferred the report to it. She removed it and handed it to Captain Eadmon. "I want you to authorise this report and send it to headquarters on Timar."

"What report is it?"

"It is a just a status report on the upgraded systems and how they are performing."

Eadmon frowned. "The systems were tested in flight after installation, before you took command. We've not run any specific tests or scenarios to put them through an equivalent assessment since."

"Has there been any issues with them in normal day to day use?"

"No," Eadmon admitted.

Gral'hilanth sensed that Eadmon was far from satisfied. The captain looked like she was working hard to keep her frustration hidden.

"Then sign the report and send it. Need I remind you that you send only the report?"

"As commanding officer the report should come from you—" The frustration was becoming more evident.

"As commanding officer, I am ordering you to do it."

Gral'hilanth waited for a further comment from the captain, but Eadmon's look softened as if she was finally resigned to the situation.

"Very well, Aloyd. I'll sign the report and send it." Eadmon to rise from the chair, and then changed her mind. "May I speak freely, Aloyd?" Eadmon ventured. "Don't worry, I am not going to press you for details about this report."

"Go ahead, Captain."

"I was wondering where you served before this posting."

Gral'hilanth felt an anxious rush of panic. She wasn't prepared with a convincing backstory to explain where she had been prior to this assignment, and Ambra had admonished her not to discuss it with anyone. "Why is that relevant to you?"

"I, uh couldn't help but notice that you are not as familiar with on-ship protocols, like the course change you ordered. Standard operating procedure is for you, as aloyd, to direct your orders to me, and I as tactical commander direct the crew."

"I am aware of SOP, Captain," said Gral'hilanth.

"I just assumed you were stationed on a military outpost."

"I like to do things my way," Gral'hilanth snapped. "Being unpredictable keeps those beneath me on their toes."

The captain blanched. "I meant no disrespect, Aloyd."

Gral'hilanth was not about to admit to this career officer that the sum total of her experience as an aloyd was one year at Elit Military Academy before being expelled. So, she deflected the conversation.

"Prior to this, you were in command of the strike ship Crusade under Aloyd Kikola ap Karthen. Is that right Captain?"

"Yes, sir."

"What did you think of her?"

Gral'hilanth sensed a hesitation from Eadmon when she shifted uncomfortably in the chair.

"You may speak freely."

"Before or after murdering Supreme-Aloyd Taliss?" Eadmon asked.

It was impossible to keep the death of Supreme-Aloyd Taliss a complete secret. Only the Elit and senior military officers knew that Aloyd Karthen had killed him, and only the Elit knew the true reason why.

"Before," said Gral'hilanth.

"Aloyd Karthen was a very efficient and competent aloyd considering her inexperience. Though some of her decisions were… unexpected. However, she did not connect with her subordinates very well."

"Do you think I connect with them better?"

"Yes, sir. You may keep details back, which Aloyd Karthen did, but I've seen you on the bridge and in the ship's bar. You don't treat the crew with the disdain that she did. Or any other Elit I've met." Eadmon realised that was probably not the right thing to say. "Apologies, no offence meant, Aloyd."

Gral'hilanth smiled. "None taken. I have spent—" She stopped herself before she said too much. "Let us just say, my training has been different." She leaned forward and rested her arms on the desk. "You were telling me about Aloyd Karthen," she prompted.

"Yes. She seemed isolated from everyone, even the senior officers. She appeared to have more concern for the welfare of slaves than anyone else."

"One slave in particular," muttered Gral'hilanth.

"Pardon, Aloyd?"

"Nothing. What is your opinion of Karthen after she murdered Taliss?"

"I am not sure. I didn't think she had it in her. If I may be candid, Supreme-Aloyd Taliss had my full respect as a senior officer, but he was not a very pleasant person. I will not miss him as a man."

"What particular thing was there that gave you that opinion of him?"

"He had a taste for young slaves."

Gral'hilanth nodded. She had heard of a lot of depravity in her travels, had seen her fair share too, and, on occasion, indulged in some.

Captain Eadmon continued. "So, where did you say you served before this assignment?"

Gral'hilanth thought long and hard before replying. Under other circumstances she would probably have enjoyed the captain's company, but as her commanding officer Gral'hilanth found her constant questions mildly irritating. "I was at the Elit Military Academy. That is all you need to know. Dismissed."

"Yes, sir," Eadmon stood up, brought her left arm up to the left side of her chest in a salute and left.


"Captain on the bridge!" a lieutenant from the communications section near the aloyd's ready room called out.

The bridge crew became even more alert and efficient. The first officer immediately vacated the command chair and waited upon the captain to assume command of the bridge. Eadmon, however, went straight to her own ready room next door.

Prior to taking command of the heavy cruiser Relentless , Captain Garin Eadmon was in command of the strike ship Crusade, whose primary function was troop support for the fleet's state of the art heavy cruiser, Sword , commanded by Commodore Heln. The ambitious Captain Eadmon was pleased to be promoted to command of the Relentless ; it may have been an older model, but at least the systems had been recently upgraded. However, after finally getting her hands on a proper ship, Captain Eadmon was not all that pleased about being sent on patrol to the Theelin sector with a seemingly inexperienced senior officer, Aloyd Gral'hilanth ap Falentha, of whom Eadmon knew very little.

The Theelin sector was at the edge of The Hegemony, bordered by the Graelands and the Chanier Kingdom. The Chanier was considered a backwards society, no threat to The Hegemony and barely worth conquering. In fact, The Hegemony treated the kingdom as little more than an autonomous region within it.

Not only were the orders to patrol a pointless area of space, but that they were to maintain a strict communication silence. Other than the daily-automated course transmission to Command, only the aloyd had permission to make or receive any transmission off the ship.

Until now.

Garin sat down at her desk, inserted the data chip into the computer console, and pulled up the report it contained. It was as she had been told, a status report on the ship's systems. Why do I need to authorise it? she wondered. It was data that was normally transmitted in the daily-automated report.

Garin turned her mind to the aloyd newly assigned to the Relentless . The captain had never heard of Aloyd Falentha before. The aloyd was still only Third-Class, so had probably been flying desks up until now, Garin surmised. She had tried to uncover the aloyd's previous assignments, but had been fobbed off with an answer that contained few details.

There had to be something more to this , she thought. An Aloyd, Third-Class being put in charge of a heavy cruiser was unusual. Garin could only recall that happening in times of war before.

She shook her head, sighed, added her official signature, and sent the report. Garin then called for her first officer to come to her ready room.

Commander Enice Peamertin was a tall, broad shouldered woman. Her square face was lined with age and experience. They had known each other at military school and had served together under Commodore Heln before Garin was promoted to captain. When she was given command of the Relentless , Garin specifically requested that Commander Peamertin be assigned as her first officer.

"Have our orders changed?" Commander Peamertin queried as the door swished shut behind her.

"No," replied the captain.

"Oh." The commander knew better than to press the issue further.

Garin directed the commander to take a seat and then asked her first officer if she had ever heard of Aloyd Falentha before the Elit officer had come on board.

"No, Captain," replied the commander. "Why?"

"Just wondering. I like to know who I am reporting to."

"I know a Lunguseth Oalanic ap Falentha," Peamertin recalled. "Fine officer. I served with him before my assignment." Lunguseth was a rare rank, reserved for those officers that married into the Elit.

"Ah yes." Eadmon nodded. Eadmon remembered hearing of Lunguseth Falentha many years ago, though she had never met him.

"I believe it's customary for the first child of a lunguseth to become an aloyd."

Maybe they're related then, thought Eadmon. That might also explain some of her irregular ways.

"Did he ever mention his daughter to you, then?"

"Come to think of it, no. He never mentioned having a daughter, especially one who is an aloyd."

"That's very strange." Eadmon contemplated for a moment. "I've been in the military my whole life. My parents were military. My older brother is a captain. My younger sister is a commander."

"Yes, mine too," said Peamertin.

"So, don't you think it's unusual that Lunguseth Falentha never bragged about his daughter the aloyd like a proud father would?"

"Yes, strange that, now that you mention it, but then she's an odd one – if I may speak freely."

Garin nodded. "She doesn't act like any aloyd I've ever seen.

The most un-aloyd type behaviour that Garin had noticed was the way Falentha engaged with the crew. She had an easy rapport with the junior officers and the enlisted crew. There was still some coolness in those interactions, but by Elit standards they were positively relaxed.

That gave her an idea. She came around her desk and escorted Peamertin to the door. "Commander, you have the bridge for another few minutes. Send Ensign Aylandro to my ready room."

"Yes, Captain." Commander Peamertin said and returned to the bridge.

Eadmon had barely sat down at her desk again when a beep signalled someone was waiting to enter.


Ensign Aylandro stepped into the room. He snapped to attention as the door closed behind him.

"At ease," the captain gestured for him to take a seat.

"What can I do for you, sir?"

Aylandro was young and enthusiastic, barely a year into his commission. He had been with Eadmon on the Crusade . When she had been given her sudden reassignment from the troop ship, she had asked for Aylandro to accompany her. That request had been granted. He was a good pilot, and eager to please.

"What do you make of Aloyd Falentha?" she asked directly.

"She's not had the chance to distinguish herself in any action, but she seems competent."

"Do you find her behaviour… different?"

"In what way?"

"On the bridge, when she wants to set a new course she goes to the navigation console and requests it and then to the helm for you to execute the course. I noticed the way she likes to lay a hand on your shoulder."

Aylandro blushed. "Yes, that's kind of weird. Not saying I don't like it."

"You've also had a drink with her in the bar."

"I'm not the only one, but yes." He frowned. "What exactly do you want me for?"

"I am curious about our new aloyd. I have had no success getting anything out of her. Maybe you'll have better luck."

"Me, sir?"

"Yes," Eadmon said knowingly.

Aylandro's eyes widened with understanding. "And if I find anything out, you want to know?"

"Yes, Ensign."

"And you don't want the aloyd to know that I'm reporting anything to you?"

"You're a smart man," Eadmon smiled.

"But would she…? I mean I'm just an ensign."

"Just use your considerable charms to find out anything you can."

"Yes, sir!"


Gral'hilanth was a little surprised to be ambushed by the junior bridge officer in the corridor outside her private quarters; it was nowhere near the crew quarters.

"Aloyd Falentha!"

"Yes, Ensign Aylandro."

"May I have a moment or two of your time?"

"Shouldn't you go through your immediate superior before coming to me?"

"Well, uh, this is more of a personal matter."

"Shouldn't you take it up with the medical officer?" The joke slipped out before Gral'hilanth could think.

The ensign's cheeks reddened in reaction, but he pressed on undaunted. "No, sir. What I'm trying to say is, I'm just…" He smiled with a boyish charm. "Well, I'm ambitious, sir. I don't want to be an ensign for much longer, and I thought the best way to achieve a promotion is to be of service to my commanding officer." He edged closer to the aloyd and turned his smile up a notch. "Now I know what you're thinking."

I seriously doubt that, thought Gral'hilanth.

"But I'm not asking for something I don't deserve," he continued. "I just want you to consider me for anything that you might have in mind."

Gral'hilanth was amused at the suggestive tone in the ensign's voice, amused enough to play along.

"Come on in, Ensign." Gral'hilanth opened the door to her quarters and gestured for the ensign to enter.

"Thank you, sir."

They stood in the centre of the lounge. "Would you like a drink?" asked Gral'hilanth.

"Yes, thank you, sir."

"What would you like? A beer or—"

"A beer! Yes, sir," he cut her off in his eagerness.

"Slave, two beers!"

"Yes, mistress."

The sudden appearance of the blue-suited slave seemed to startle Aylandro. He watched the red haired slave walk into the galley. A few moments later, it returned with glasses of beer and served them. The slave then retreated to stand against the wall.

Gral'hilanth lifted her glass and encouraged the handsome, dark haired young officer to join her in drinking the glass of beer. When Alyandro had taken a few sips, Gral'hilanth took the glass from his hand, and placed the half-empty glasses on a nearby table.

"So, you said you would do anything." She placed her hand on the small of his back and slowly circled around him. "Did you mean anything ?"

He turned his head and said, "Anything, sir! You name it, I'll do it, or get it, or kill it."

Gral'hilanth stopped in front of him and moved in closer. "Really, Ensign. Anything?"

"Yes, sir."

She stepped back, picked up her glass of beer, and drank the rest of it in one long swallow before placing the empty glass back on the table. Gral'hilanth's every movement was meant to hold the young ensign's attention. He licked his lips as though parched. She picked up his glass and handed it to him. He gulped it down eagerly.

Her tone then changed from seductive to conversational. "Have you ever owned a slave, Ensign?" the aloyd asked.

"Uh, no, sir."

"They are very useful. They do as they are told. Watch," she directed him. "Slave, kneel."

"Yes, mistress," the slave intoned as it sank to its knees.

"Crawl over here and lick my boots."

"Yes, mistress." The slave did as it was ordered.

"So, Ensign," Gral'hilanth addressed the young man, ignoring the slave that was at her feet. "Did you really mean 'anything'? Because that is what slaves are for. Are you a slave?"

"No, sir," replied the unsettled young man.

"No, sir," she echoed his words. "Look at it. It will keep licking my boots until I tell it to stop. That is true obedience. And while obedience is demanded of you, mindless obedience is not. Stop licking."

"Yes, mistress." The slave started to move away.

"Stay on the floor at my feet!"

"Yes, mistress. Sorry, mistress."

"If I ordered you to lick my boots, Ensign, would you?"

"I… No, sir!"

"Wrong answer, Ensign! If I order you to do something, you do it. You have no choice in the matter, just as this worthless slave has no choice."

"Sorry, sir."

"If you want to impress your senior officers, you do so by obeying their orders to the best of your ability. You do not try to impress them by toadying and scraping and offering to do anything. That makes you little better than a slave. You are a soldier, Ensign, not a slave. Start acting like one! Now get out of my sight."

The door closed and Gral'hilanth looked down at the slave kneeling at her feet. She was disgusted by its submissiveness. It had been a household slave of her parents. They offered her a personal slave to take with her, and she selected the one that was nearest. She didn't care which one she chose. She hadn't even bothered to find out its name. For fifteen long years she had to live among the Quernals and Labrors. Just one step up from the insignificant slaves , she thought. But no more. I am Elit again.

Elit, but with needs that were not deemed acceptable.

The first night that she had ordered the slave to her bed, it was completely oblivious of what Gral'hilanth needed. Frustrated at its ineptitude, she had kicked it from the bed and made it sleep on the floor. It soon learned how to please Gral'hilanth.

"Come!" Gral'hilanth ordered the slave, and headed for her bedroom.

The slave hurried to her and started to undress her. Gral'hilanth stared blankly at the uniform jacket being carefully put away by the slave. The light glinted from the aloyd rank insignia on the collar. She had been through so much, suffered years of frustration and humiliation to finally achieve her life's ambition, but now that she had, Gral'hilanth felt empty. No great victory, no family pride – nobody knew but Ambra, the crew of the Relentless , and her slave.

As the last of her clothing was removed, Gral'hilanth loosened her hair and let it fall freely onto her shoulders and led the slave to the bed.

Gral'hilanth allowed her hands to travel over the slave's soft skin. It lay there and allowed the exploration. In the low lighting of the bedroom, the slave reminded Gral'hilanth of Kamina, her deceased girlfriend. Consequently, she treated it gently, passionately. She gave the slave a long, ardent kiss – the kind of kiss she would share with Kamina, the only woman she had ever really loved – the one who had given her those scars on her forehead, the one who had captured her heart, and broken it.

When Gral'hilanth's fingers entered its vagina, she found it dry, not like Kamina's, which was always moist in anticipation. And when her fingers sank deep, the slave gave a muted grunt, not the cute little cry that Kamina would give. Gral'hilanth straddled the slave's thigh, and ground her own sex against it, all the while thrusting deep with her fingers.

The slave reached up and cupped one of Gral'hilanth's breasts; the other hand reached around and grabbed her buttock. Gral'hilanth groaned as she felt a finger probe her anus. Gral'hilanth closed her eyes and thought of Kamina, and for a few seconds the two of them rocked in unison. Gral'hilanth opened her eyes and looked down at the face beneath her. She didn't see the slave. She saw Kamina, though not the living, breathing, vibrant Kamina, but a dead lifeless Kamina with blank eyes. She stopped her movement.

The slave's dull eyes did not change as it realised Gral'hilanth had stopped, and it did the same.

"Finish me off with your tongue," said Gral'hilanth. She flopped over onto her back and spread her legs.

The slave performed its task, but there was no passion, no connection – no love for Gral'hilanth.

I don't deserve it, she thought.


Garin Eadmon came out of her bedroom, having changed into a pullover shirt and loose-fitting pull-up trousers, which she favoured when she wanted to relax. She walked into the sitting room of her private quarters and selected some soothing instrumental music to set the mood for a quiet evening. She then went over to the food dispenser and ordered a gwinvin . With drink in hand, she made herself comfortable on a small sofa and took a sip of the crisp, off-dry fermented wine.

Garin was just settling down with her book reader when the door chime rang. This didn't surprise the captain, though she wasn't expecting someone at this hour.


Ensign Aylandro entered.

"Back so soon," the captain said.

"Yes," he said in a disappointed tone. "I wasn't very successful."

She put her drink down. "What happened?" she asked, pointing to a chair to the right of the sofa.

"The aloyd invited me in," said Aylandro as he sat down. "She offered me a beer."

"Then what?"

"I told her I was willing to do anything she wanted. Then she got her slave to lick her boots."

"What a strange thing to do," said Garin. "And then?"

"And then she said something like, blind obedience is for slaves and told me to go."

"That was it?"

"That was it."

Eadmon sighed. "Never mind. Maybe she'll reveal something in time. I just don't like not knowing whom I am working for."

Eadmon stood up, Aylandro got to his feet a second later.

"Well, if Aloyd Falentha doesn't want you, I may as well make use of you." She took his hand and led him to the bedroom.


Birdsong and the sweet scent of flowers drifted in to the bedroom from the open window. The short, mild winter on this part of Yun'thul was well and truly over, replaced by the long hot summer. The early morning sunshine bathed the room in a deep yellow glow. Already the temperature was pushing twenty Celsius and would rise much higher by mid-afternoon.

Jenissa ap Taliss closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She sensed the body heat behind her before she felt gentle hands loosen the ties on her gold-coloured nightgown. The garment slipped off her shoulders and pooled at her feet. She stood there naked, her breathing was short, she was afraid it would catch in her throat at any moment. She felt those hands that had raised her to heights of pleasure the night before lift her hair and start brushing.

"Another beautiful day," said Jenissa.

"Not as beautiful as you," replied Menari.

She felt the slave's breath on her shoulder. She wanted to turn and embrace Menari. Shower her face and body in kisses and feel the slave's own sweet kisses in return. But even in private they tried to remain circumspect. Only at night would they take things further. Caressing with fingers and mouths. Bringing each other to muted release lest anyone hear.

In these moments, when it was expected for a slave to be close to its owner, they would risk a furtive glance, allow a hand to linger in contact, inadvertently press against body parts that should remain un-pressed. It was almost a game.

A dangerous game.

The heat from behind rose. Jenissa felt a nipple press briefly into her back and a hand brush her buttocks. The hand settled for a moment on her hip. She couldn't help herself.

Jenissa turned and placed a quick kiss on the lips of the slave. Her hand reached out and cupped Menari's sex. The moist heat of Menari's eagerness was apparent through the flimsy material of the slave's uniform. Before Menari could respond Jenissa stepped back.

"Later," she promised the slave.

Menari's dark skin flushed. "My lady teases me."

"Your lady loves you. And later she will show you. But for now we must be prudent. I must be your mistress and you must be my slave."

Menari bowed her head. "Yes, Ma'am."

Jenissa could see that Menari smiled as she said it. The slave did not fully appreciate the gravity of the situation if they were discovered. Jenissa was all too aware that The Council knew Kikola ap Karthen had fled The Hegemony with her slave Tehvay – a slave that Jenissa had told her family she had put down. At the time, Jenissa had been questioned and had confessed to being threatened by Karthen. But someone, somewhere knew that Tehvay had gone with Karthen and that someone might know that Jenissa was not threatened, but had helped willingly.

I should have accepted Karthen's offer to leave, Jenissa thought. I fear I cannot maintain this folly much longer.



It was midday and the streets of downtown Dansek City were bustling with shoppers. Tehvay was still not used to such big crowds, but she wanted to face them alone, and Kikola did not try to persuade her otherwise. Despite the crowds, she felt safe. Most people ignored her simply because they were preoccupied with their own thoughts and tasks. Those that made eye contact offered a quick smile before moving on.

She walked past a shop selling baked goods. The aromas wafting out from it caused her mouth to water and her stomach to crave some food. She was about to enter when a voice stopped her.

"I wouldn't eat anything from there."

Tehvay turned and saw Rikana Lardis. She smiled at the young woman, pleased to see a familiar face, but surprised because of the time of day. Rikana wasn't dressed in the dark blue uniform of a Dansek Security Force officer on duty; instead she was resplendently clothed in a long sleeveless jacket over a tight fitting shirt that left her mid-riff exposed and a short, ruffled skirt. The whole ensemble was a pattern of swirls: red with black swirls, but the lower down the pattern went, the black became more dominant and it eventually became black with red swirls. Tehvay's own green and gold dress seemed tame by comparison.

"Hi, Rikana. I thought you'd be at work."

She had never really spent time alone with Rikana before, other than the odd few minutes at her parents' house. Tehvay had always found the security officer to be pleasant and respectful to her and her parents, though she could seem quite mean to Yuniph until you learnt that it was her way of trying to be funny. Kikola had confided to Tehvay that Rikana was difficult to work with, but actually good at the job, if a little offhand with some people. This was high praise coming from Kikola, who was not one for hyperbole.

"Not today," replied Rikana. "Day off."

"Oh. I thought Kikola said you and she—"

"Day off." Rikana repeated. "I've got a cold. Cough. See?"

Tehvay smiled. "I won't say anything."

"Thanks. But I don't care if you do. They won't fire me."

"Oh, okay," replied Tehvay. She raised her arm and gestured towards the shop. "So, why shouldn't I eat anything from here?"

"Smells nice, but that's all fake." Rikana pointed to a vent just inside the doorway. "The food is overpriced and awful. I'll show you the best place to eat. It's cheap and delicious."

"Thank you."

"Follow me, Miss V." Rikana headed off down the street.

Tehvay hurried a few steps to catch up. "Call me Tehvay."

Rikana glanced sideways at her. "Nah." After a few steps Rikana spoke again. "It's a sign of respect."

"You don't call Yuniph 'Miss'."

Rikana cackled. "That's because I respect you."

Tehvay wondered if that meant Rikana didn't respect Yuniph, but decided that she wouldn't force the issue.

Rikana led Tehvay down a side street off the main thoroughfare. They walked past a long blank wall before they came to a set of double doors that were propped open.

"I've been here before," said Tehvay. "This is the market where Kikola and I first met you."

"That's right. This is the place where you'll find the best produce. Freshest meat, veg and all."

"And fruit. You told me the fruit I picked wasn't good," said Tehvay. "If everything is the best here, how could that fruit be bad?"

Rikana cackled. "It was good enough to eat. But not perfect. Namida fruit is lovely, but it's out of this world when you get one that's just ripe. Let me show you."

Rikana angled towards the very fruit stall where they had first met. She nodded a greeting at the owner and quickly selected three specimens of the pale blue fruit. She paid for the fruit and brought them to Tehvay.

"Right, this one." She handed it to Tehvay. "Give it a gentle squeeze with your thumb and forefinger. Put your thumb there," she said, pointing to a spot near the stalk, "and your finger on the opposite side."

Tehvay positioned her thumb and finger as directed and gave a gentle squeeze.

"Do you feel it? When you release the pressure after squeezing?"

"I'm not sure."

"Try it on this one and see if you notice the difference." Rikana handed her another fruit.

Tehvay squeezed as before. "This one is firmer. It feels like it's pushing back when I squeeze."

"Exactly. The first one is too soft. It's good to eat for another couple of days, but that softness tells you it's overripe. Smell that one." Rikana pointed to the fruit in Tehvay's hand.

Tehvay felt a little self-conscious as she sniffed the fruit. "Smells okay to me."

"There's a certain layer to the smell that's hard to describe. Here smell this one." She handed Tehvay the first fruit again.

Tehvay detected a stronger odour, but was still unsure.

"Now this one." Rikana handed over the last namida.

"Yes!" exclaimed Tehvay as she brought the fruit to her nose. "This one doesn't have the… the…'oily' smell."

"That's it! If it's firm and has that 'oily' smell, then it's only got a short time before it goes overripe. But if it's firm and doesn't have that smell then it's perfect. And once you've eaten a perfect namida, then less than perfect is no good."

"Thank you for showing me that."

Rikana shrugged. "I showed your sister how to do it. Though whether she took notice of it, I've no idea. Anyway, let me show you the best place to eat!"

Rikana headed off down one of the aisles, ducked between two stalls and headed up a stairway to the upper level.

"Here." Rikana pointed at the stall.

There were three mismatched tables set out by the stall. There were ten mismatched chairs distributed unevenly between the tables. It didn't look very clean, but it was far from grimy. The large man in greasy overalls behind the counter waved a greeting at Rikana.

"Two screamers, Satto."

"Screamers?" queried Tehvay.

"Slabs of blended griscut meat and herbs. It screams as it's cooked."

"What kind of meat is 'griscut'? Tehvay asked.

"Don't ask," replied Rikana, and cackled.

"Anything to drink?" asked Satto.

"Dyodpeth for me. Miss V.?"

"Dyodpeth for me, too."

"Two dyodpeth, Satto. Thanks."

They sat down at a table with their cups of the steaming beverage and food. The screamer was served between two slices of bread with fried chebol. Tehvay bit into it. It was hot and greasy, but as she chewed her mouth filled with the rich flavour of the meat and herbs.

Rikana must have seen the enjoyment on Tehvay's face. "Told you it was delicious. Not very healthy though, but worth treating yourself now and again."

Tehvay mopped up some grease from her lips with a napkin and swallowed. "How can something this good exist?"

Rikana cackled and attacked her food.

Tehvay took the time to study her companion. The young woman was shorter than Tehvay, and curvier. Tehvay's body was lean and angular; Rikana was almost voluptuous. High cheekbones and round cheeks gave Rikana's face a child-like appearance. The most striking thing about her, Tehvay decided, was her eyes; dark-brown almost black irises stood out in stark contrast to the white orbs, and the black eye liner Rikana used accentuated the contrast even more.

"How are you settling in?" asked Rikana after a few bites.

"Good, thank you. It still feels a bit strange. Like this is some dream and I'm going to wake up."

"Welcome to life, Miss V." Rikana raised her cup and took a sip.

"You've known Yuniph a long time haven't you?"

Rikana shot Tehvay a wary look. "About six or seven years. Why?"

"Just curious. So, before you joined the security force."

"Yeah, but it's a boring story. Let's talk about something else."

Tehvay regarded the young woman. She's not as tough as she pretends to be, Tehvay thought. She's putting up barriers to hide something. No. Not to hide something, to protect herself from getting hurt.


"Rikana!" A man's voice interrupted.

Tehvay turned to look at him. He was a dark-skinned young man with soft features, short black hair, and dressed in a simple black jacket and trousers. Just behind him was a woman with similar features and long black hair. She wore a modest light jersey and trousers.

"Tru, I didn't know you were back from university. Hi Ell," Rikana nodded a greeting at the woman.

"I graduated last week and…" the man paused as he caught sight of Tehvay. "Yuni?" He sounded unsure. "When did you get your hair cut? It looks great."

Tehvay ran a hand through her hair. It was starting to get a bit long.

"And the dress. It's stunning," said the woman.

Rikana started cackling.

"What's so funny?" asked the man.

"I'm not Yuniph," said Tehvay. "I'm Tehvay. Yuniph is my sister."

"Sister?" the woman questioned.

"Yuni doesn't have a sister," the man said with suspicion.

"You've been away too long," said Rikana. "Miss V. here turned up a few months ago." She invited them to sit down and join them. "I suppose I should introduce you," continued Rikana. "This is Trujilon and Ellovene Berneth. Ell and Yuniph went to school together."

"Ell's my big sister," said Trujilon. He shook his head. "The likeness is uncanny. You're almost identical. Apart from the hair."

"And the better fashion sense," muttered Rikana. "They're twins," she added at normal volume.

"Twins!" exclaimed Ellovene.

"Yes! Mr. and Mrs. V. had twins. Isn't that a kick? Yuniph's sister!" Rikana exclaimed.

"But…" Trujilon began. He paused when Satto brought the order for him and his sister.

"Refill?" Satto enquired of Rikana and Tehvay.

"No thanks," said Tehvay.

Rikana just shook her as she took another bite of her food. "Screamer's great," she said with her mouth full.

"Why didn't Yuniph ever say anything?" Ellovene asked.

"Because she didn't know until a few months ago, when Tehvay showed up on Trengos."

Trujilon finished a bite of his screamer. "Showed up? Showed up from where?"

"Err… It's… complicated," said Rikana, her usual carefree attitude evaporated.

"I was a slave in The Hegemony."

"Okay, maybe not that complicated," said Rikana.

Tehvay could see shock and sympathy and confusion on the faces of the newcomers.

"Is that true?" asked Ellovene. "You were taken from your parents."

"You were a slave since birth?" Trujilon interjected.

Tehvay didn't know which question to answer first. This wasn't a topic she really wanted to discuss with virtual strangers in a public place.

Rikana jumped in. "Yes and yes."

"How were you able to escape?" Trujilon asked.

"Well, I…" Tehvay's discomfort was obvious. She felt relieved when Ellovene interrupted her.

"You're free now. I guess that's all that counts."

"Others aren't so lucky," said Trujilon sombrely.

Ellovene shot a look at her brother. "Sorry, Rikana."

"What do you mean?" Tehvay asked.

"Rikana's parents were killed in a raid several years ago," Ellovene offered.

"Oh, I didn't know. I'm sorry, Rikana."

Rikana shrugged. "Can't cry over dead parents."

From anyone else, the words would have shocked Tehvay, but she took this as part of Rikana's defence mechanism.

"A lot of planets in the Graelands get raided," Trujilon replied. "Trengos has been hit more often in recent times. We're seen as a soft target because no one in power does anything. We want to change that. Ell and I are part of an organisation called the Planetary Protection Group. We're trying to raise support from the various governments to do something about it."

Tehvay was appalled by the revelation that slavers were attacking Trengos. She thought that she had escaped to a place of safety. "You mean they don't do anything about it?"

Rikana swore. Trujilon shook his head.

"But they have to!" Tehvay cried.

"That's what we want them to realise," said Trujilon. "And once we stop the raids, we want to try and hit the Heggers somehow."

"Let's not get carried away," cautioned Ellovene. "We have to walk before we can run."

"If you need me to punch some Hegger face," said Rikana. "Give me a call."

"I'd like to help too." Tehvay offered hesitantly. "If I can."

"I know where you can get some inside info on the Heggers." Rikana looked at Tehvay. "We'll finally see what side your girlfriend is on."


Kikola didn't talk much to Yuniph as Yuniph drove them home from work. At the best of times Kikola found it hard to have conversations with people, but with Yuniph it was even harder. The woman looked identical to Tehvay, but Kikola found it so hard to relate to her. They had the same full lips and blue eyes. With Tehvay, the eyes sparkled like the summer sky, but with Yuniph they were like a clear winter's sky. With Tehvay, the lips were inviting, sensual, but with Yuniph the lips rarely broke into a smile.

Kikola was grateful when the journey came to an end. She got out of the vehicle and followed Tehvay's sister into the Veilan's house.

Tehvay appeared from a door to Kikola's left. She looked excited about something. "Come in here." She grabbed Kikola's arm and pulled her into the room. "You too, Yuni."

In the room were Rikana and two people Kikola had never seen before, a young man and woman.

"This is Trujilon." Tehvay indicated to the man, as he and the woman rose from the settee. "And this is his sister, Ellovene."

Ellovene glanced at Kikola, and then turned her attention to Yuniph.

"Ell!" cried Yuniph. "You're back in town!" The two women embraced and Trujilon stepped up to greet Yuniph with a peck on the cheek.

"Good to see you, Tru. What are you two up to?" Yuniph asked, as she and the siblings sat down on the settee.

"They've got plans to stop the slave raiders," announced Tehvay.

"And stop The Hegemony," Trujilon added.

What they said took Kikola aback. "That's ambitious," she said, but her observation was drowned out.

"What?" asked Yuniph incredulously.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," said Ellovene.

"Oh, Sis, we've got to think big if we're going to achieve anything," countered Trujilon. He looked at Kikola. "Tehvay told us about you. You know, being… Elit."

Kikola thought he struggled to get the word out and by the look on his face it was evident what he thought of her, or at least the Elit.

"I was Elit. But no longer."

"That's good to hear," he replied.

"Tell Kikola and Yuniph about the group," said Tehvay. She perched on the arm of the chair Rikana was lounging on.

Kikola sat down on the one remaining armchair as Trujilon outlined details of the Planetary Protection Group. He explained that their mission was to raise support to combat the slave raiders hitting the planet and to punish The Hegemony for their role in it.

"So what do you think?" asked Trujilon when he had finished.

"About what?" asked Kikola.

"Our ideas."

"You have no ideas. What's your strategy for engagement with The Hegemony?"

"Strategy for engagement? We hit them where it hurts."

"Where is that? How will you do that?" Kikola pressed. "What resources do you have to achieve this goal? Ships, soldiers, logistics, finances?"

The questioning annoyed Trujilon. "We don't have all that now. As I said, we need to raise awareness. Get the governments to agree with us."

"A waste of time," said Kikola. "You have no hope of stopping The Hegemony, not even with the help of all the districts on the planet."

"Kikola!" Tehvay interjected.

"We can try," countered Trujilon. "Make sure they know we won't just roll over without a fight."

"You will not win if you are prepared to sacrifice yourself in a futile gesture. If you engage The Hegemony in a military action, they would expend less effort than you would swatting a fly. They would not notice your act of defiance.

"You need large spaceships capable of delivering significant firepower. This planet is incapable of building one ship, let alone a fleet, within the next fifteen years even if you pool your resources. Your only hope is to buy second hand from one of the other major powers. As much as they might want to hurt The Hegemony, they won't give them away for nothing and you do not have the ability to afford it. Even if you did, you need trained crews. Also it is unlikely that any power would sell you ships with their current systems installed. You would have to develop your own or buy obsolete ones."

"I thought you said she could help," Trujilon said to Tehvay.

"What would you like me to say?" asked Kikola. "That you will win? You will not."

"What do you suggest we do then?" Trujilon challenged. "We have to try."

"No. You have to succeed. There is no trying if you want to win. What is it you want? Is it to live? Then run. Find another planet. Go to the Losper Empire, somewhere that can protect itself. Better still, go to The Hegemony, you will be safe there, they will not attack themselves.

"Do you want to hurt The Hegemony? Then guerrilla warfare is your answer. Hit them before they know who you are and where you are.

"Do you want to stop The Hegemony? Bring it to its knees? Then you need to unite all systems in the Graelands as well as the Losper Empire and other major powers."

"Way to piss on their parade," said Rikana. "Is that it? It can't be done, so don't bother."

"I did not say that. I am merely being realistic. You cannot talk about action against The Hegemony, no matter how noble the intentions, without the military hardware and strategies to wage a military campaign."

Kikola was beginning to feel isolated in the discussion, but support came from an unexpected source.

"Kikola is right," said Yuniph. "A group of civilians, however well-intentioned, cannot fight The Hegemony. It would be suicide."

"We're not advocating that, Yuni," said Trujilon. He leaned forward to look around his sister between them. "We want the governments of the planet to do it."

"I just pointed out how improbable that is," said Kikola. "You need to adjust your goals."

"To what?" His head snapped around to look at Kikola.

"The only immediately achievable thing on your agenda is stopping the slave raiders," Kikola replied. "They are only in it for the money," Kikola explained. "If you make it difficult for them, they will not bother Trengos."

"True," said Ellovene. "So what do you propose?"

The aloyd part of Kikola's brain kicked in.

"Implement a planet-wide traffic control system. Any ship approaching and leaving requires clearance from control. If any ship deviates from their flight path, intercept it and arrest the occupants. If they resist, destroy the ship."

Kikola could see the scepticism of her proposal on the faces of Yuniph's friends.

"We would need co-operation from the other districts for your plan to work," said Trujilon.

"Why? This will be a benefit to them."

"They won't like us intercepting their traffic," replied Trujilon.

"When they realise their trade is not being restricted and slave raiders are being stopped, they will not complain."

"This isn't The Hegemony." The young man's voice rose as he tried to contain his anger. He looked around at the others as if looking for support. "You can't unilaterally decide to intercept traffic and tell those affected not to complain."

Kikola was a little surprised by the outburst. "That is not what I meant," she said. "You are the ones who want to stop the slave raiders. I am only suggesting a method by which to do so."

"We have friends in other districts," said Ellovene, trying to placate the rising tension in the room. "They can take this to their governments to gain support."

Kikola observed the woman. She appeared to be less impulsive than her brother. She's a thinker , thought Kikola. That makes her more dangerous. She mentally shook her head. Why am I thinking like that? She realised she was thinking like a military officer. Everything and everyone was either an asset or threat and she needed to know which. Kikola turned her attention back to the problem.

"Then start here. Set it up for all ports in Dansek. Once the other districts see the success the system is having, they will want to cooperate."

"How do we set it up though?" asked Trujilon, his minor outburst of anger seemed to be over.

"You can get satellites for monitoring and communication fairly cheaply," said Kikola. "The major expense will be the intercept ships, but I am sure there are some local pilots who would like regular employment. There will be a need for a couple of security personnel on each ship of course, but it all seems achievable relatively quickly and economically."

"We should be able to do that," said Trujilon.

"You can't," said Yuniph. "It would be illegal to operate an intercept."

"Yuniph, how can you say that?" Tehvay looked at her sister with astonishment. "If it stops the slave raiders, I say the law can go hang."

"You don't understand, Tehvay. This is not how things are done in a free society," Yuniph said dismissively. "You should keep out of things until you learn."

Kikola wanted to leap to Tehvay's defence, but like everyone else in the room, she was stunned by Yuniph's rejection of Tehvay's participation in the discussion.

Rikana spoke up. "Veilan, you're being a feeta."

"Yeah, Yuni," said Trujilon. "That's not like you."

"I'm sorry," said Yuniph. She turned to her sister. "I'm really sorry, Tehvay. I didn't…"

"That's okay," said Tehvay. "But I can't learn unless I get involved."

"You're right," said Yuniph. "It's just that following the law is important. I don't want you to get into trouble." She looked around the room. "Any of you."

"We're already in trouble," said Ellovene softly. "We live on a planet that is getting raided more frequently. It may be happening in some outlying districts now, but how long before the raids come to Dansek? We've got to stand up and do something before it's too late."

Trujilon glanced at the chronometer on the wall. "Speaking of too late," he said, "We must be going." He climbed to his feet.

Ellovene stood up and joined her brother. They both thanked Kikola for her input and agreed they would give the matter some thought.

Trujilon then turned to Tehvay. "We'll see you at the meeting tomorrow."

"Meeting? What meeting?" asked Kikola.

"A meeting for the public to get to know the PPG," Tehvay replied. "I said I'd go."

Kikola didn't want to discourage Tehvay from getting involved in a cause, however misguided Kikola thought it was. "That is fine," said Kikola. No it's not, she thought.

"And you, Rikana?" asked Trujilon.

"You bet!"

"Do you need a lift home?" he asked.

"No. I'll invite myself to dinner here. Mr and Mrs V. won't mind." Rikana looked at Yuniph. "That is if I can get a lift home afterwards."

"Sure," said Yuniph. "Anyway, I thought you were supposed to be ill."

"I got better," said Rikana.

As the young woman spoke, Kikola noticed Rikana winked at Tehvay. What's that about?

Trujilon and Ellovene said their goodbyes and left. A few moments later Rikana and Yuniph left the room leaving Kikola alone with Tehvay.

"Why did Rikana wink at you?"

"What?" The question caught Tehvay off guard.

"Rikana winked at you."

"Oh, that! Nothing. Just a joke."

"A joke is not nothing."

"Are you jealous?" asked Tehvay.

No…maybe, thought Kikola. You are developing a life that's independent of me. You might wake up one day and find you don't need me. That scares me. She smiled at Tehvay. "I am not jealous, just curious."

"I ran into Rikana when I was out shopping. We had lunch and met Trujilon and Ellovene."

"They seem like nice people." Kikola didn't know what else to say.

"I can meet you at work tomorrow," said Tehvay. "We can eat out and then go to the meeting."

"I don't think I should go. I would not be welcome."


"You saw how Trujilon reacted to me. It will take time for me to be accepted."

"Yes," agreed Tehvay. "And the sooner you start, the sooner you'll be accepted."

"Maybe another time. You can go."

"I don't want to go alone," said Tehvay.

"You won't be alone. Rikana will be there."

"I mean, I want you there with me."

"It would be difficult for me to sit there while someone opposed to my people makes a speech inciting hatred and violence towards them, especially to a crowd that is sympathetic to their cause."

"It won't be like that. You can say something to show that not all people in The Hegemony are bad."

Kikola shook her head. "Not this time."


Yuniph pulled her vehicle to the side of the road and stared straight ahead. After a few seconds she turned her head to look at her passenger. Rikana stared back.

"Aren't you getting out?" asked Yuniph.

"I'm disappointed in you, Veilan," said Rikana. "I never thought I'd say that. Annoyed by you, yes. But never disappointed."

"If we tackle the slave raiders it must be with the backing of a recognised authority. I cannot condone a… a vigilante approach."

Rikana sighed.

"I'm serious, Rikana. I—"

"You of all people should know this is important. What if the Heggers invade? Are you going to sit back and let them because you don't have a rule book telling you that you can fight back?"

Damnit, Rikana! Yuniph bit down on the response. "That's different."

"It's the same!"

"No. We have laws that the slave raiders are breaking. We have rules and regulations already in place to deal with them."

"It pains me to say it, but Karthen had a good idea. If it makes it easier for you, take it to Commander Simeal and get it authorised."

"It's not that easy. He'd need to find a budget and probably extra officers."

"But if it were official policy, you'd go along with it?"


"Why are you being so 'by the book'? You've gone against policy before."

"What?" Yuniph shot an angry glance at Rikana. What is she talking about?

"Picking up strays off the street and taking them home is not in the rule book," Rikana clarified.

"That's…" What is it? she thought. Charity? Human decency? "You weren't breaking any laws. I couldn't arrest you."

"You could've left me," said Rikana. "You could've taken me to a hostel. Why do something about me then, and not do something about the slave raiders now? It's not like you to not care about something."

"There are a lot of things for me to care about at the moment. A lot of things I don't want to care about, but I can't avoid them." Yuniph paused and lowered her gaze. "How do you do it?"

"Do what?"

Yuniph looked up at Rikana. "The not caring thing."

Rikana shrugged. "Don't know. Guess it comes naturally." The young woman looked out of the window. "Is this where I should be caring that you want to not care about something?" She gave a hollow chuckle and looked back at Yuniph.

Yuniph offered a smile. "No," she replied.

"Good," said Rikana with relief. The relief faded and a more serious look replaced it. "But if you… I mean everything with… family… If you want to talk."

Yuniph could see the offer terrified Rikana. Sympathy and empathy were not usually in her colleague's vocabulary.

Rikana flashed her patented wicked grin. "Not saying I'll listen or anything."

Yuniph looked down at her driver's controls debating whether to open up to Rikana. What would Rikana think of me if I did? I'm not the do-gooder she complains about me being.

"Go on, out with it," Rikana urged.

Yuniph didn't make eye contact. "What can I tell you?" That I resent Tehvay usurping my position in my parents' affections? That I wish she'd never turned up, or she'd just go away so everything can go back to normal?

"Look…" Rikana said.

Yuniph raised her head and looked at Rikana.

"Family can be a pain," Rikana observed. "But… but… I'm not good at this feelings shit. You know that. Give it time and you and Miss V. will be annoying the fuck out each other and you'll feel better about being pissed off about her."


"I can read you like a book, Veilan. You do the right thing even if you don't like it. You gave me a home and regretted it every minute I was there. It was only the fact that you knew I wanted to get out as soon as possible that you allowed me to stay."


"It's not that you hate Miss V., it's that you don't know her. She doesn't conform to your nice set of rules of how things should be, and if you let that be known you fear you'll be hated."

Did I say that stuff out loud, or is she psychic?

"Did that make you feel better?" Rikana asked.

"Err… no."

"Good. Now you know why I don't care. Caring is difficult and it hurts."

"I don't feel better, but it helped, thank you."

"You're not going to give me hug or anything?" Rikana's face screwed up in disgust.

"Don't worry, you're safe. You're also a lot smarter and better with the 'feelings shit' than you give yourself credit for."

"Seriously though, it's okay if you don't like your sister. I mean, there'll be some people queuing up to punch you, and I'd be in that queue just because I'd get to hit you, but it's not against the law to not like someone."

"I don't hate her. I can't hate her. It's as you said. She's upset the status quo. I'll just have to get used to it."

"But don't feel you have to. Get used to it, I mean. If she's annoys you or upsets you, tell her. Lay down some boundaries or something. It doesn't have to stop you being friends. Look at us."

"True." Yuniph nodded. "Wait! We're friends now?"

Rikana blushed for the first time that Yuniph had ever seen. "You've only just figured that out? You're so dense, Veilan." Rikana cackled. "But if you tell anyone, I'll have to kill you."

Yuniph reached out and grabbed Rikana. "Give us a hug, you dumbom."

Rikana let out a cry. "Hey! We're not at the hugging stage yet!" She scrambled out of the vehicle then ducked her head back in the open door, a wide grin on her face. "And don't even think that we're ever getting to the sharing of clothes stage. I wouldn't be caught dead in your stuff. Your sister on the other hand has much—"

"—better fashion sense," Yuniph finished. Another reason not to like her.


The last few months had been troubling for Mariantha ap Karthen. Shockwaves had rippled through the Elit, caused by her own daughter's actions. She thought the worst of it was over, but like a tsunami, the first wave was not necessarily the biggest.

Even though he was dressed for work in his immaculately tailored black trousers and dark grey blazer, her brother-in-law, Toman, looked haggard. He slumped into the chair in her office and shook his head.

"I am worried," he said.

"What about?" asked Mariantha from behind the sleek, black wood desk that dominated her judge's chambers.

"Ambra ap Lentol. At the first Council meeting regarding Kikola shooting Supreme-Aloyd Taliss, she was adamant that it was a military matter, and The Council should allow her to deal with it."

His eyes looked left and right as he spoke. Mariantha didn't know if he was deliberately avoiding looking at her as he recalled her daughter's indiscretion, or whether he thought he could find the answers to his troubles.

"I remember you saying at the time," Mariantha replied.

He nodded. "And you know she voted for Kikola to be executed."

Mariantha did not know that and was initially shocked, but she thought of the young girl she remembered Ambra to be. There was always something I didn't like about her, she thought. Any of the Lentols to be honest. They were always Strambik's friends.

After her husband's death, Mariantha saw them less and less, but the Lentols wouldn't let an association with a founding family go easily.

"At the second vote," continued Toman, "she wanted some sanction against us and the Taliss. The Council, however, deemed it a family matter since no laws were broken."

Mariantha moved to a side table and poured a drink. She handed it to her brother-in-law.

"Thanks," he said, and took long sip. "However, she's like a Ybrikkian hanging onto an intruder. She got support from a fair few families for the views she expressed at the meetings, and she doesn't want to let go of that attention."

"What is she doing now?"

"She's being vocal about Kikola's… 'affliction' is how she puts it. She's hinting that it might spread a bit further in the family."

"The little bitch!"

"Quite. The Kendai representative raised a question about a warship without an aloyd assigned to it on unregistered manoeuvres. She claimed that it was on flight trials, testing newly installed systems."

"Is it?" asked Mariantha.

"As far as anyone can tell. However, Lothila ap Taliss approached me. She has learnt that several warships are patrolling areas not mentioned in the Military Ops briefs to The Council."

"A Taliss told you this? Can you trust her?"

Toman finally fixed his gaze on Mariantha. "Yes. Kikola may have killed Supreme-Aloyd Taliss and threatened Jenissa ap Taliss before absconding with that slave, but the Talisses, like the Karthens, have the good of The Hegemony and the Elit at heart."

"I have been thinking about Jenissa," said Mariantha as she moved behind her desk and sat down. "About her statement that Kikola threatened her."

"What about it?"

"First she said the slave had been put down. Why lie about that?"

"Kikola threatened her to keep quiet," replied Toman.

"That's just it, though. Jenissa knew Kikola was gone, had left Alopan. There was nothing stopping her coming clean straight away. She would have been protected against any retribution that Kikola might take. There was nothing to fear."

"What are you suggesting?"

"That if Jenissa lied once, she lied twice. The first time about the slave being put down, and the second time about Kikola threatening her."

"For what reason?" asked Toman.

Mariantha thought for a moment. "I do not know, but I intend to find out."

"How—" a beeping cut Toman off. "I have to go. My shuttle is ready to take me to the Civic." he said. "I will see you tonight."

Mariantha nodded. "Safe flight."

After Toman had left, Mariantha had a slave come and clean up. As she watched the slave pick up the empty glass, the judge's thoughts turned to the slave that was at the centre of all the trouble, and what part the Taliss girl, Jenissa, might have played in Kikola's escape.

The only way to get an answer is to ask a question , she thought.

It took nearly forty seconds before the image of Jenissa ap Taliss appeared. The young woman looked radiant, golden curls tumbling over her shoulders, the flush of youth on her cheeks.

"Jenissa, I am Mari—"

"I know who you are," Jenissa stated coldly. "I have nothing to say to you. Do not contact me again."

The connection was terminated.

Mariantha bristled at being dismissed by little more than a girl. That is not someone who can be threatened to lie about a slave. There's only one thing to do.

A few moments later another face appeared. "Prepare a ship," Mariantha said. "I wish to travel to Yun'thul immediately."


Boran hated rain. That was one of the reasons he set up his home on this part of Shibato. Out of three hundred and seventy five days in the Shibatoan year, rain could be expected, on average, on only six of them. This was one such day.

He stared out of the rain-streaked windows at the dark clouds that were not dispersing and only seemed to be getting worse. These were not the only dark clouds gathering. Even out on the fringes of The Hegemony rumours had reached him: unusual military manoeuvres; increased military presence on some core planets; Council meetings being subject to blackout.

Not that The Council released details of their meetings to the general public, but councillors had Fethusal who worked as secretaries and took minutes. These minutes would get filed and somewhere credits would be transferred and these files would be transferred in the opposite direction. Boran knew people who knew people who knew people that got these files.

As he was watching the clouds, there was a huge crash of thunder and the clouds seemed to explode downwards. Out of the clouds a shuttlecraft appeared and headed straight for his estate.

He quickly grabbed a weapon out of a drawer and ran outside. Tremothen appeared next to him, and they watched the shuttle circle briefly before setting down.

"That's a military shuttle," said Tremothen.

"I know, but what do they want?"

He recognised the dark grey of an aloyd's uniform as soon as the hatch opened, but it took him longer to recognise the aloyd herself.

He signalled his guards, who were now rushing to the scene, to stay back and lower their weapons.

"Let us get out of the rain," the aloyd said and walked past him.

"Hila?" Boran turned to Tremothen. "Stay here." He hurried after his uninvited guest. "Hila? What is this?" Hila pushed open the door of Boran's study. He followed her and closed the door after him. "Hila—"

She stood with her back to him. Without turning around, she spoke. "Gral'hilanth. My name is Gral'hilanth Lintana ap Falentha. Hila Llyte is dead. She never existed."

"What's going on?" Boran moved to stand in front of her. "I always suspected you had ties to the Elit. Those moments when you were relaxed, you'd let your accent slip – just the odd word here and there. But an aloyd? I never suspected that. Is that why you hated Karthen so much? Is that why you attacked her?"

"She said she would not say anything," Gral'hilanth muttered. "I should have known better than to trust her word."

"She didn't say anything, but it didn't take a genius to work it out. You didn't like her. She is mysteriously attacked. You disappear."

Hila didn't reply.

"Where's Kami?" asked Boran. "What does she think of your new job?"

"Kami… is de—" She cleared her throat. "Dead."

"I'm so sorry," said Boran. He moved towards his old friend. "How did she die?"

"That is not important."

"Not important?" He reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. "Hila, she—"

"I don't want to talk about it!" she cut him off forcefully. Her demeanour softened. "It's too painful still."

"Okay." He put his hand down. "Well, whenever you're ready."

He was trying to process it all, but none of it made sense. The face was still Hila, though she had acquired a scar since he'd last seen her, but everything else was a stranger: the blonde hair, the uniform, the stance.

"So why are you here?" he asked.

"I am here for Karthen. Where is she?"

"I don't know," he replied.

"Do not lie."

"I'm not lying."

Boran could tell that this version of Hila was losing her patience. Something flashed in the bright blue eyes of the woman before him, something that Boran had never seen there before – pure anger.

"Where are they? You were helping them escape. You must know where they are." She took a step closer to him.

"I told you, I don't know."

"I have a warship under my command," she said. "One word from me, and I could have this entire estate obliterated off the map."

"Karthen tried that threat," he countered.

"Unlike her, I am telling the truth."

Boran believed her. "You'd be dead before you could push the comm button." He powered up his IPB and positioned his index finger in the trigger.

The aloyd eased her posture and shook her head. "Just tell me, Boran."

Even my name on her lips is different.

"I told you, I don't know where they are. All I did was provide Karthen and Tehvay with new identities and enough money to buy a ship. Where they got a ship, what sort of ship, and where they went… you know how I operate."

She walked around Boran and over to the window behind his desk. She allowed her left hand to trail across its red onyx surface as she went past. "What are their new identities? You must know that."

He moved to the glass wall on the left, sat down in a chair, and casually held his weapon in his lap – just in case. "I do, but I'm not going to tell you."

She turned from the window and took a step towards him. "You do not owe Karthen anything, so you do not have to protect her."

"No, but I want to protect Tehvay. It's a package deal."

"Boran, please. For old times' sake. I don't want to harm Tehvay. I just want Karthen."

"Orion's Balls! You say 'Old times' sake'. The Hila I knew, the friend I knew, she's gone. So don't talk about 'Old times' sake'!"

There was a brief flicker on her face that might have been his friend, but it was gone as soon as it appeared. "Well this is the real me. Get used to it."

"There's nothing for you here. Just go."

"Despite everything, I still like you, Boran. So for old times' sake, I will go. A word of warning though. Others may come looking for Karthen, and they will not be as nice as me. So I suggest you leave. Go into hiding. Get yourself a new identity."

He digested her words. He believed them, but something stopped him from admitting it to her. Instead, he averted his gaze.

"Think about your safety," she continued. "If I cannot deliver Karthen to The Council, they will ask me what I know, and I will be obliged to give them your name."


Ambra watched the lights of Ralkatar spread out far below her window. She loved this view from the top floor of the tallest building in Kalenth's capital city. It felt right that she should be looking down on everyone.

"Sarray, drink."

"Yes, Mistress."

She saw the faint reflection of the dark haired slave appear behind her own in the window. She liked this slave. It was well trained. It knew what drink she required without being told.

The councillor held out a hand and the slave placed the glass into it. She watched the slave's reflection melt away as it resumed its position against the wall. The black liquid slipped down her throat like treacle. Its smoky flavour lingered on her tongue like a lover's kiss.

A beep from her desk attracted her attention. It was late, but reports were coming in all the time. The beep signalled one that she wanted to see, the others could wait.

She sat down at the console and selected the message. All ships sent a daily automated report detailing its movements. This one was from the Relentless . Ambra had hopes for Aloyd Falentha, but suspected the aloyd would need firm guidance at first to know her position. The message confirmed it.

She keyed for an encrypted channel and waited for an answer. The 3D image of the aloyd's face was a far cry from the vibrant, black haired woman Ambra had first met. Now the aloyd was blonde, her hair tightly pulled back. The face looked pale and the eyes dark rimmed. A scar marked the forehead and cheek around the right eye.

"Councillor Lentol. I was not expecting another call from you today."

"I was not expecting to make one."

"Is there a problem?" asked the aloyd.

"Yes. You disobeyed an order."

Ambra could see Falentha's mind racing whether to either deny or justify the transgression.

"I have been patrolling the borders as ordered."

Bad girl, thought Ambra. Someone will suffer for that.

"Those orders also stipulated that you refrain from contact with anyone but me."

Falentha's eyes dipped.

"You left the ship and went to the surface of Shibato," Ambra continued. "To whom did you speak?"

"I went to see someone about some unfinished business."

"Zerbilla lives on Shibato. Was it him?"

"Yes, Councillor."

"And did he provide you with information about Karthen?"

The image of Falentha straightened up and looked forward. "No."

"So, let me get this straight. You disobeyed an order. You contacted an old associate from your previous life, putting my plans in jeopardy, and it was for nothing." A punishment is due .

"I am sorry, Councillor."

"Bring the Relentless to Kalenth."

"Councillor, I—"

"I am ordering you back to Kalenth. Can you follow that order?"

"Yes, Councillor."

"Good. I need to go somewhere. See if you can regain my trust by being my ride." Ambra allowed herself to smile.

"Yes, Councillor. I will set course immediately."

"I will look forward to seeing you." Ambra terminated the call.

The anger that she had supressed started to bubble to the surface. She pushed it down. Bad people need to be punished.

"Sarray, bed."

"Yes, Mistress."

Ambra pushed her chair back and headed to the bedroom. She heard the soft padded footsteps of Sarray hurrying to catch up. She stopped by her bed and allowed the slave to remove her jacket. Ambra knelt on the floor and bent over the bed.

"Number four."

"Yes, Mistress."

She heard Sarray slowly getting undressed. Then Ambra felt her skirt being pushed up and her panties removed. She felt shame and disgust at being exposed and knowing what was coming next – knowing that she would enjoy it and hate herself for enjoying it.

The naked slave came into view on the other side of the bed, opened a drawer and removed a strap-on sex toy. Ambra watched the slave attach it and walk around behind her.

The cold hard tip brushed past her labia and sank deep. Sarray's hands settled on Ambra's hips, and the slave started thrusting in and out. Sarray was well trained; it knew not to stop until ordered to do so. The thrusts were coming harder and faster, over and over. Ambra grimaced in disgust as she felt her body respond to the stimulation. I am glad it has stamina thought Ambra. Bad people need punishment.



There were more people at this meeting than had shown up at the first meeting Tehvay had attended the previous week. At that meeting, she had watched from off stage as Trujilon, Ellovene, and the other members of the PPG leadership spoke to a group of about fifty people. This week, four times that number of people were in attendance. Word was spreading.

Ellovene's brother Trujilon and two other leading members of the PPG were seated at the front of the stage. Behind them on stage were the other members of the PPG leadership, including Ellovene, and Tehvay who had been invited to sit with her. A hush fell over the hall as Trujilon stepped up to the podium and began to speak.

"Thank you everyone for coming, especially those who are here for the first time. My name is Trujilon Berneth.

"You are probably wondering what is the PPG? I will get to that in a minute, but let me ask you this – how many of you have heard about the slave raids in Salnadar?"

Almost everyone in the meeting room raised their hands.

"How many of you know someone who was captured or killed during that raid?"

Only one or two hands went up. Trujilon slowly raised his hand and kept it up as he spoke. "Yes, I know someone. Harolf was my roommate for all five years at University. I was studying Civic Planning and he was studying Agriculture. We were at the opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum, but we were like brothers."

Trujilon lowered his hand and grasped the lectern. From her position, Tehvay couldn't see his face, but she could tell it was hurting him to recount the story, just as it had the week before. "Three months ago, Harolf went home to Salnadar on final semester break to see his family. One night, a group of slave raiders came to his family's farm in the middle of the night, yanked everyone out of their beds, and marched them outside. Harolf was the oldest of four children. He tried to fight back, to protect his family. He was severely beaten; only pleas from his mother made them stop."

Trujilon took a drink of water before continuing. "Harolf's family were put onto the transports and taken by the slave raiders, but not Harolf. They left him for dead. He died two days later. I was at his bedside when he died. And even though his eyes were swollen shut and his jaw broken, Harolf was able to tell me every horrifying detail of what happened, and that's why I am able to tell you. Do you know what his last words were?" Trujilon paused and looked out at the audience. "His last words were: 'Tell them I'm sorry. I'm sorry I couldn't save them.'"

Tehvay watched Trujilon straighten up and turn his head slowly to scan the crowd.

"I vowed that night that I wasn't going to let Harolf's death be in vain; that I wasn't going to sit by and allow one more citizen of Trengos to be ripped from their beds and taken against their will and sold into slavery."

There were murmurs throughout the assembly hall.

"Will you?" Trujilon demanded. "Will you sit by while your friend, or your neighbour, or members of your own family are rounded up and sold to The Hegemony, never to be seen again? Or will you join us…" Trujilon pointed to those on the stage with him. "Join the Planetary Protection Group and fight for your rights," he said pointing around the room at people in the audience, "and the rights of all Trengosians to live in peace and freedom!"

Several people shouted 'Yes!' while others wanted more information. That's when another member of the PPG leadership stood up and took over that part of the meeting. When that man was finished explaining more about what the PPG was trying to accomplish, Ellovene got up to address the group.

"Are there any questions?" Ellovene asked.

A man raised his hand. "I'm all for what you want to do, but what exactly do you want from us if we sign up? Is there a membership fee or something?"

"There is no membership fee. However, the Leadership does incur some costs now and again which we pay for. If anyone else wishes to cover those costs, we'd be most grateful." Ellovene conveyed the plea for money gently. "What signing up to join means is that you're adding your voice to the cause. We ask you to tell your friends and family about us. We ask that if we have to go and picket a government office to get heard, you'll be there. We ask that you help in any way you can. If all you can do is just sign your name in support, then that is all we'll ask of you."

"Well, sign me up," the man said.

"Any more questions?" asked Ellovene.

Tehvay looked around at the assembly, but no one raised their hands. She timidly stepped on to the stage and spoke to Ellovene. "I'd like to say a few words, if I may."

Ellovene smiled. "Sure!"

Ellovene asked for everyone to be quiet, and then she introduced Tehvay. "This is Tehvay, a friend of ours," Ellovene said. She stepped aside and gestured for Tehvay to step forward. "Go ahead Tehvay."

"Well, I, uh," Tehvay suddenly felt at a loss for words. As a slave Tehvay had been made to stand before a crowd at a party and degrade herself. This group was larger and not expecting her to do such a thing, but it was somehow more terrifying. Looking out at all the expectant faces made her stomach knot up and her mouth go dry. She fought the urge to run off stage. Her mind went blank and panic was setting in, until she saw the half-full glass of water, which Trujilon had just used. She grabbed it and finished its contents.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. "It's okay Tehvay," Ellovene reassured her. "Take your time."

"Hello, my name is Tehvay…" She paused to try and calm her nerves. "Tehvay Veilan."

"We can't hear you!" someone shouted from the back of the hall.

"Oh, okay." She raised her voice. "Is that better?"

Several people in the back of the room called out that they could hear her now. That helped to settle Tehvay's nerves and she continued. "Good. Because I want you all to hear what I'm saying. I want to say to all of you is that I know what it is like to be taken from one's family and forced into slavery." Tehvay paused and shook her head. "Actually, no I don't know, because I was taken at birth, so I never even got to meet my family."

There were some murmurs: a few people questioned if she was saying she had been a slave. She hesitated. Should I really to go into detail about my years as a slave? Tehvay looked to Ellovene, who nodded to go ahead.

"Yes, for years I was a slave. And unless you've been a slave, you have no idea how awful it is. The life of a slave is no life at all. Slaves are not even considered human beings. They are referred to as 'it'. Your owner can do anything they want to you…" She emphasised the word 'anything', allowing it to resonate with the audience. "They can even have you put down on a whim. And a slave has no voice, no say in where they go or what they do, no value except to their owner."

Tehvay looked up and saw all eyes upon her. She took a deep breath and continued. "What is worse than the humiliation, the tedium, the hard work – is that at the end of the day, you're no more to them than a stick of furniture." Tehvay's lip began to tremble as she shared the painful revelation. "I, I don't know what else to say… other than it has to stop. We need to make a stand and say 'No!' to the slave raiders. Not our mothers, not our fathers, or sisters or brothers, or children. Not here. Not now. Not ever again!"

Tehvay hadn't meant to give such an impassioned speech. She was almost embarrassed; however, that soon changed when the room erupted in spontaneous applause. Ellovene and Trujilon came over to her and gave her a hug.

"Tehvay, that was wonderful!" Ellovene said.

"Yeah, you were brilliant!" Trujilon turned Tehvay around and pointed to the queue of people waiting to sign up to join the PPG. "And look! Normally we might get a handful of new people to join, but there's got to be at least half the crowd eager to sign up all because of you!"

"Oh, I don't know about that. I'm sure it was your presentation."

"No, I'm telling you, it's you!" Trujilon replied. "Can you come and make a speech next week, and the week after that and the week after that?"

"Why don't you let the poor woman catch her breath, Tru," said Ellovene. "Though, seriously Tehvay, you're a natural. Your speech made me want to join up again!"

They all laughed.

"Well, let's get you home," Trujilon said, "so you can start writing your speech for next week."


Ambra merely glanced up from her work as Aloyd Falentha entered her office. "Take a seat," she said and gestured to the settee against the wall. Only after she finished the correspondence she was working on did she turn her full attention to the aloyd. Ambra thought the aloyd lacked the poise and polish of an academy graduate, however, the dark-grey uniform suited Gral'hilanth much better than the Quernal rags she had been wearing when they first met.

"Would you like a drink, Aloyd Falentha?"

"Yes, thank you, Councillor," replied the aloyd. "I'll... excuse me."

Contractions with the personal pronoun were used by the lower castes of Hegemony society, not Elit. Ambra was pleased to hear Gral'hilanth correct herself.

The aloyd continued. "I will have a durm—"

"Sarray, a glass of water for the aloyd." She fixed her brightest smile on the officer. "One shouldn't drink on duty."

As Ambra spoke, the door chime went off, and Sarray hurried to answer it.

Two blonde-haired missiles came screaming into the room. Ambra knelt down, and they hit her with a force that almost knocked her backwards. Their shrill, excited voices pierced her ears. She straightened up and held a finger up. They fell silent.

"Good boys," she said. "Remember, you are Elit. Shouting and screaming for attention is what the Quernal do." She smiled as they shuddered at the word. "Now, give me a hug. Quietly." She drew the last word out and lowered her voice.

Her sons giggled as they crushed her between them, pecking her cheeks and neck with sloppy kisses. She gave each one a kiss on the forehead.

"Now, let me look at you. Have you grown since I last saw you?"

"Yes!" They said together.

"Are you sure?"


"I only saw you this morning." She gave each one's stomach a scratch, and they squirmed with delight. "You wouldn't be lying would you?" she teased them.

They both shook their heads.

Haranal and Jenton were identical. As babies, even Ambra had difficulty telling them apart. Now, at the age of four, there were enough subtle differences that a mother could tell which one was which: Haranal had a fleck of green in his left eye and Jenton had two freckles on his nose.

"I am taller than Jent," said Haranal proudly.

"You're not!"

"I am."

"You smell."

Ambra smiled at the exchange. She loved her boys; both were destined for important roles. Haranal was to be an aloyd, Jenton a governor. Even greater when I take control, she thought. Haranal would be Rivelor, and Jenton would govern many systems, not just a planet.

"Who would like a drink?" she asked.

"Me!" They both put their hands in the air.

"What do we say?"

The boys turned to Sarray. "Slave, drink!" they shouted.

"Good boys." She gave them both a hug and led them to a small couch in the corner. Sarray gave them both a glass of some carbonated fruit juice. "Now boys. I have some news. My role demands that I have to go away for a while." The boys looked at her in shock. "Do not worry. I will call you every day, and before you know it I will be back home."

"I don't want you to go," Haranal moaned.

"You must be big and strong, Haran." Ambra gave him a firm look.

"I will."

"You too, Jent."

Jenton nodded.

Ambra finally turned her attention to her husband, Larndan, who had accompanied the boys to see their mother. He stood off to the side while his sons lavished affection on their mother.

Larndan smiled at her. "I see you are all packed," he said, looking towards the two large suitcases near the door.

Ambra only married Larndan because she felt it her duty to marry and have children. He was from the Gronason family, one of the newer Elit families and had readily agreed to take her name. As an archaeologist, Larndan was occasionally away on field trips, and when he was home, she would find the need to be busy in work. Once in a while she would submit to her wifely duty and have sex with him. It always left her cold and feeling sullied, though she never showed it. Just like she never showed how much she enjoyed sex with women.

If there was one thing she liked about Larndan, it was that he never pestered her for attention. He was content to live his life and let her live hers. He also loved their sons as much as she did.

"I will be gone for at least ten days," she said to him. "Then, if things go to plan, I will be very busy afterwards."

"Your big announcement."

"My big announcement," she concurred. He knew she was planning something, but she had not shared the details.

Her husband noticed that Ambra had company. He regarded Aloyd Falentha with a curious look.

Ambra smiled at the aloyd. She gestured to Larndan. "This is my husband Larndan Anthan Marven ap Lentol. This is Aloyd Gral'hilanth Lintana ap Falentha."

"A pleasure to meet you," said Larndan.

The aloyd offered a non-committal grunt and a single nod of the head. She needs to learn some manners and respect, thought Ambra. "These are my sons, Haranal Larndan Kartrin ap Lentol and Jenton Ambran Marven ap Lentol."

The aloyd glanced at the boys who were busy playing on the couch.

Disrespecting my husband is one thing, disrespecting my sons is another. It's bad. Bad people need punishment.

"I will be with you shortly," Ambra said to Falentha, maintaining her pleasant exterior. She bade goodbye to her husband and gave her sons one final kiss.

After escorting them to the door, Ambra returned to the waiting aloyd.

"I need to go to Yun'thul," she said. "Straight away."

Falentha looked confused for a moment. "On the Relentless ?"

"Is that a problem?"


"Good. Then let us depart."

"Yes, Councillor." The aloyd finished her water, stood up, and started for the door.

Sarray picked up her mistress' luggage. They were heavy, but the slave was more than capable of carrying them.

"Aloyd Falentha, help the slave carry my luggage."


"Do I have to repeat myself?"

"I think you do," said the aloyd. "I am not a slave. I don't carry luggage."


The aloyd sighed and relieved Sarray of half its burden.

Ambra smiled inwardly. This one still needs work, but there is no one else I can trust with my secret.


Gral'hilanth had been a little concerned as to what mood Ambra would be in. When the councillor had summoned her to Kalenth, she had seemed a little annoyed with Gral'hilanth. However, the councillor was nothing but sweetness and light. Watching the scene between the councillor and her sons was like watching a deadly creature play with its offspring: it looked like family bliss, but woe betide any outsider that crossed them.

That made Gral'hilanth more wary.

She had escorted Councillor Lentol from the surface , and as soon as they were on board, the Relentless departed for Yun'thul. Now that they were underway, Gral'hilanth and Captain Eadmon were enjoying a pleasant dinner in the councillor's private quarters.

Gral'hilanth sat at one end of the table, and Ambra sat at the other. Eadmon sat between them. Ambra's slave hovered near the councillor's shoulder, ready to serve. It was an odd dynamic between mistress and slave. Ambra barely said a word. Just a gesture or a look and the slave sprang into action – filling a glass, removing a plate, adding salt to the meal.

I'm surprised she doesn't have the slave feed her, Gral'hilanth mused. The only time Ambra issued a full command to the slave was to order it to attend one of her guests. By the end of the meal, even those instructions weren't verbalised.

The captain had tried to prise details from the councillor as to the purpose of the mission, but Ambra remained tight lipped. Gral'hilanth could tell the captain was not too happy at being kept in the dark, but Eadmon let the matter drop.

"More wine, Captain Eadmon?" Ambra asked.

The councillor raised a finger and the slave immediately appeared at the captain's side ready to pour.

"No thank you, Councillor." Eadmon drained the last drops from her glass and stood up. "I must go. I have to be on duty at 07:00."

"The joys of being an aloyd," Gral'hilanth raised her glass to the captain. "I have the luxury of being able to be late." She downed the contents of her own glass and signalled the slave for a refill. She was beginning to feel a pleasant buzz.

The captain said nothing in return, just saluted and left.

"Something stronger, Aloyd? Durmywid?" Councillor Lentol offered.

Gral'hilanth looked at Ambra. "Don't mind if I do."

"Sarray." Ambra raised an eyebrow and gave a brief nod.

"Yes, Mistress."

The slave moved to a side table to get the drink while Ambra sauntered around the table towards Gral'hilanth. The councillor dragged the captain's vacated chair closer to the aloyd and sat down. The slave returned with two glasses of durmywid.

"A toast," said Ambra, picking up the glass nearest to her.

Gral'hilanth picked up her glass and waited.

"To the future. May it bring both of us what we desire."

The word 'desire' resonated in Gral'hilanth's alcohol fuzzed brain. She smiled and held her glass out. The councillor clinked her glass against Gral'hilanth's and downed the spirit in a single gulp. The aloyd usually liked to take her time savouring the aniseed taste of durmywid, but followed Ambra's lead.

The drink burned the back of her throat, and the pleasant buzz she was feeling increased a notch.

Two more glasses appeared. Gral'hilanth reached out to take a glass. "A toasht," she slurred.

Just as she was about to raise the glass to her lips, a hand stopped her. It took Gral'hilanth a moment to realise what was going on. Gral'hilanth tried to pull her hand free and a few drops splashed out of the glass onto her hand.

"I am disappointed," said Ambra. Her hand pushed Gral'hilanth's arm harder to the table. "I had hoped you would follow orders."


"Silence!" Ambra twisted Gral'hilanth's arm back and the durmywid spilled over the table. The slave quickly moved to wipe up the drink, but Ambra stopped it.

If Gral'hilanth could've broken free, she would have decked Ambra, but the blonde haired woman was strong and had Gral'hilanth immobilised.

"You're nothing without me," Ambra continued, her voice hard. "Your rank is meaningless. You're only an aloyd because I gave you the rank bars. I can just as easily take them away. But while you wear the rank bars of an aloyd, you will act accordingly. You will respect the chain of command, you will be punctual, and you will follow orders to the letter. This is not a game. Do you understand?"

Gral'hilanth was slow to answer. Ambra twisted even tighter. "Do you understand?"

"Yes, Councillor!"

Ambra released her grip and stood up.

"You have to ask yourself what your priorities are and where your loyalties lie." The councillor's voice softened. "I need to gain control of The Council and The Hegemony itself. Until that time I demand complete obedience from you."

Gral'hilanth rubbed her arm to try and get the circulation going again. "How does going to Yun'thul help you gain control of The Council?"

"There's a wound there," Ambra replied.

"A wound?"

"Yes. One that The Council thinks is healed. I'm going to show them that not only is it still open, it's a fatal wound. And I won't be trying to sell them the cure, just a painless end."

The alcoholic buzz subsided slightly as Gral'hilanth absorbed Ambra's words.

The councillor regarded Gral'hilanth with a look akin to a lover's gaze. "Follow me and I can give you everything you want."

"Everything I want?"

"Yes. Everything. Power, status… revenge."


"If that is what you want. You can kill her or keep her as a slave." Ambra walked behind Gral'hilanth's chair and said, "Whatever you desire."

That word 'desire' again, said in a soft, breathy tone. An uneasy feeling came over Gral'hilanth, but she was willing to play Ambra's game.

She turned around in her chair and looked at the blonde haired woman. "And what do you desire?"

"Many things," Ambra replied. "Some are best kept private, as I am sure you know. But right now I want to know that I can trust you to obey me."

I don't like this one bit, thought Gral'hilanth. But if it leads me to Karthen, I will do what I must.

"You can trust me," said Gral'hilanth.

"Then obey me. Clean up the spilled drink."


Ambra took the cloth from the slave and held it out to Gral'hilanth. "Clean up the spill."

The aloyd stared at the cloth.

"Would you rather lick it up?" asked the councillor.

Gral'hilanth snatched the cloth and wiped the table. "Happy now?" the aloyd asked after she had finished the task.

Ambra smiled. "As long as you obey." She turned to the slave. "Sarray, slap the aloyd's face."

Gral'hilanth rounded on the slave as its hand connected with her cheek.


Gral'hilanth stopped, her fist raised. The slave stood still, head bowed.

"Good. You obeyed," said Ambra. "You do not touch my slave unless I order you. Sarray, remove the aloyd's jacket and touch her breast."

Gral'hilanth seethed inside as the slave obeyed.

Ambra stepped up and placed one hand on Gral'hilanth's other breast. She placed her other hand on Sarray's breast. "To me, you're the same as Sarray. You're someone who has to follow my orders or be punished. You might be asking yourself, why you should. Well, it is simple. If you do not, I will destroy you. Destroy your family." Ambra laughed. "How would it look when the person, who exposed Karthen's depravity, spent years among the Quernal doing the very same?"

"I could expose your depravity."

"Ah, but unlike Karthen I would be here to deny it. There are no witnesses. It would be your word against mine. If I decry you as a liar, then your word against Karthen would be called into question. Perhaps The Council will come to the conclusion you lied about that too. You've disgraced your family once before, would you risk doing it a second time?"

I will kill you, Gral'hilanth thought. "No."

"So from now on, you will obey me, do whatever I ask?"


"Good." Ambra removed her hand, turned, and walked towards the door to the bathroom. "Sarray, remove the rest of the aloyd's clothes." Ambra entered the bathroom.

Silently fuming, Gral'hilanth stood there naked for several minutes, before Ambra returned.

"Sarray, clear the table." Ambra ignored Gral'hilanth, sat at a side desk, and started reading.

Gral'hilanth wanted to say something, but bit her tongue in mute impotence and suffered her humiliation.


Tehvay came home from the PPG rally eager to share what had happened with Kikola. She was disappointed to find the house empty. It was too late to call her parents, but Tehvay was so excited about it all that she just had to share it with someone right now or burst. She knew there was only one person who would appreciate what it had taken to stand up at a gathering of hundreds of people and tell her story.

She activated the communications panel on the house's central controls and made a call. Soon the holographic image of a familiar face was projected over the desk.

Boran questioned her. "Tehvay, is something wrong? Where's Kikola? Did something happen?"

"No, nothing's wrong. I just missed you, that's all. Something wonderful—"

"Are you calling from a secure console?" Boran interrupted.

"—has… what? I don't know, why?" Tehvay noted that Boran's face was tense and his brow furrowed. "Did I call at a bad time?"

"No, it's just—"

Tehvay was disheartened that her old friend was not happy to see her. "I thought you would be glad to hear from me."

"I am – very glad," Boran rushed to say. "Does Kikola know you are calling me?"


The conversation was not going the way Tehvay had hoped it would, considering she and Boran hadn't seen each other in more than three months. "What's going on?" she asked. "I thought you would be happy to hear from me. Now I'm getting the feeling that this was a big mistake."

"I am glad, very glad to see you. But you are taking an awfully big chance contacting me. I thought you knew that it had to be a clean break." Boran image flickered slightly. "Look, we can't stay on the line much longer. My communications are most likely being monitored."

"I thought you had the best encryption system money can buy."

"I did, I do, but The Hegemony has better monitoring systems." A pained expression crossed his face. "It's not safe for you to communicate with me."


Just then Kikola came through the front door and found Tehvay in the front room talking to Boran's image.

"What is going on?" Kikola asked in a concerned tone.

"Oh, you're home," Tehvay said. Given Boran's reaction and the look on Kikola's face, Tehvay was realising this may not have been the best thing to do.

"Boran, why did you contact us? How did you find us?" Kikola asked sternly.

"He didn't call us. I called him," confessed Tehvay.

"Why would you do that? You knew that after we left Shibato, we couldn't tell anyone where we were, especially not Boran. That way if the authorities ever came looking for us, he could honestly say he had no knowledge of our whereabouts."

Tehvay felt horrible. "I just wanted to tell Boran about our lives in Dansek. Finding my parents, about us, about what happened tonight at the PPG rally." She had been switching her attention between the holographic image of her friend and Kikola. She settled her gaze on the image. It started to blur from the tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry. I miss you so much, Boran."

"I miss you too, Tehvay." He offered a sympathetic smile. "What was that about finding your parents?"

Kikola intervened. "Tehvay, the less Boran knows about us, our lives, the better for him and for us."

"It may already be too late for that," Boran's image said.

"Why? What has happened?" asked Kikola warily. She came and sat next to Tehvay so that the sensor would pick up her image to transmit to Boran.

Tehvay relaxed as she felt Kikola's hand slip into hers.

"Hila…" Boran shook his head and looked off to the side.

"What about Hila?" Tehvay asked Boran.

Boran focussed forward and explained. "Hila came to see me about a week ago, only she wasn't Hila anymore. She now goes by the name Gral'hilanth… Gral'hilanth ap—"

"Falentha," Kikola concluded.

"And who is Grayhill-- Graylianth?" Tehvay directed the question to Kikola who had turned a shade paler at the mention of that name.

"Gral'hilanth," Kikola repeated the name slowly. "A ghost."

"A what?"

"Never mind."

"Oh, I assure you, she is very much alive," Boran replied. "And she came to me looking for you."

"I see," said Kikola sombrely.

"What does she want with you?" asked Boran.

"No doubt to finish the job," Kikola replied.

Boran frowned. "What do you mean 'finish the job'? You mean when she attacked you?"

Kikola nodded. "When I was twelve, I was at the Academy with my Uncle Toman. I found out that a cadet had cheated on her first year final assignment. I informed my Uncle and the cadet was expelled."


"So, that cadet was Gral'hilanth ap Falentha," Kikola explained. "She left in disgrace and was never heard from again. She must have changed her appearance – her hair, her eyes – and started a new life as 'Hila'. What did you tell her?"

"Nothing," Boran replied. "I didn't know where you had gone…until now that is." There was an uncomfortable silence. "And to think I considered her a friend," Boran muttered. "I guess she still is, of a sort. She warned me, you know. To get out while I could."

Tehvay saw Kikola's jaw tense and her shoulders slump, and she got a nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach. "I've just given our location away, haven't I? I've just put all our lives in danger. My parents and sister, you, me, Boran – we're all in danger because this Gral'hilanth is looking for us and I just told her where we are!"


Mariantha found the heat on Yun'thul oppressive and cloying, not the dry heat to which she was accustomed from living in a desert environment on Kalenth. Governor Ultessi ap Taliss had been reluctant to let Mariantha see her niece, but the judge could be quite persuasive.

"Wait here," said the governor and went to fetch Jenissa.

Mariantha was left in a large room decorated in pastel orange, yellow, and red. Large portraits filled the walls. The floor was littered with patterned rugs. The furniture was made from dark wood with intricately detailed padding using more gold thread than decency demanded. Silver and gold doilies were draped over the furniture and tables. Porcelain figurines and vases cluttered the tables. Hanging over the centre of the room was a large crystal chandelier. The room was a perfect microcosm for the governor's house and every other Taliss house Mariantha had seen.

Tastelessly contemporary, Mariantha thought. She longed for the minimalist décor of her own home.

An open window let in the overly sweet-scented air from the gardens. She could hear a fountain bubbling somewhere in the distance and longed for a cool drink.

The governor soon reappeared with a slave bearing a tray with several jugs of chilled juices and water.

"Would you like some refreshment?" asked Ultessi.

"That is kind of you to offer," Mariantha said to the governor. "Namida juice," she said to the slave.

The slave poured some pale blue-green juice into a glass and topped it up with some water. It brought the glass over to the judge.

"Where is Jenissa?" asked Mariantha, taking the glass from the slave.

"She will be here shortly."

Mariantha took a sip of the sweet juice and waited. Jenissa soon entered the room. She was dressed in a peach coloured dress, low cut and sleeveless. It was ruffled and pleated and trimmed with gold cotton. It was in stark contrast to the straight, simple lines of the dark green jacket and skirt Mariantha wore. Though she had to admit the style suited Jenissa. A slave followed the young woman. It occurred to Mariantha that she was the only one without a slave. She had slaves to see to her personal needs, but never brought one with her on business. This visit straddled the border between personal and formal, but she had decided to leave her slave on the ship.

"I told you not to contact me," said Jenissa.

"Yes, you did. I do not take kindly to being told what to do in such a manner."

"If you've come—"

"Jenissa!" Ultessi cut her niece off. "There is no need for such rudeness."

The use of a contraction with the pronoun 'you' was only used when speaking to someone of lower caste or status, such as a child. Jenissa's use was not just discourteous, but considering the status of the Karthen name and Mariantha's own seniority over her, it was downright offensive.

"I am sorry, Aunt Ultessi."

"I am not the one you insulted."

The young woman composed herself after the rebuke and addressed Mariantha again. "Please accept my humble apologies. I am mortified to have treated you so disrespectfully. I can only imagine how you must feel to be on the receiving end of such vulgarity."

"I accept your apology."

"Thank you. You are most kind. However, if you have come all this way to discuss events on Alopan, then your journey has been wasted. Good day." With that, Jenissa turned on her heels and started to walk away.

"Governor, impress upon your niece the importance of my visit," the judge requested.

"Jenissa, stay!"

The young woman obeyed her aunt.

"You will speak with Mariantha. This is a matter of family pride. Need I remind you of the great privilege and honour you have of bearing the name Taliss? Recent events have cast our family, and that of the Karthen family, in poor light. If we are to elevate our prestige, the two families must work together, cordially at the very least."

As the young woman turned and walked back to the centre of the room, Mariantha could see Jenissa was not pleased at being schooled in family etiquette. "I will leave you two alone," the governor said to Mariantha. She left the room with her slave in tow.

Mariantha observed Jenissa's own slave hovering a pace behind her mistress.

"You may have your say," said Jenissa. She turned and gave her slave a pointed look. The slave muttered an apology and moved to stand against a wall.

Mariantha took a seat on a nearby settee and motioned for Jenissa to join her, which the young woman reluctantly did.

"As you know, I am a judge. The truth is central to my role and my own values. I raised my daughter with that belief. As a child, whenever she lied to me, I could see it. I would tell her, 'Elit do not lie'. It was a mantra she learnt and obeyed. It would appear to be a lesson that you did not learn or were not taught."

"Are you calling me a liar?"

"Yes," said Mariantha. "I mean that not to insult you, but only as a statement of the truth. You have made two statements. One or both are lies."

Jenissa glanced away for a moment. "If you are referring to the matter of the slave Tehvay, yes, I did lie in saying that I had it put down. My statement for The Council after they had learned your daughter had fled with the slave is true. I was threatened to keep the truth hidden."

Mariantha knew that was a lie when Jenissa didn't make eye contact. "Kikola had fled Alopan, therefore, she could not harm you. Why then did you lie? And what circumstances changed that you felt it safe enough to ignore her threat for the second statement you made?"

Jenissa turned her body away from Mariantha. "I do not wish to discuss it. If that is all you have to say, then I bid you goodbye."

Mariantha was an experienced judge. She could read subtle hints in tone of voice and body language that could mean someone was lying or trying to avoid saying something. She noticed a brief flicker in Jenissa's eyes as the young woman glanced towards her slave. There was a slight dip of the head, as if she was physically avoiding the questions. Something is not right.

"No, that is not all I have to say. I said, Kikola learnt not to lie, but there were times when she got older that she refrained from saying anything rather than tell an untruth. I could see when she avoided having to lie. Most times I could even tell what she was not saying. Sometimes I could get her to reveal what she was omitting. The last time I did that, she confessed to being in love with a woman."

Shock, fear, and confusion were evident in Jenissa's expression. Once again there was the look towards her slave. This time the look was not as fleeting. Mariantha studied the slave. Its expression was harder to read, but there was…

Ah! The truth hit Mariantha.

"You knew why Kikola fled with the slave," said Mariantha. "You knew and you allowed it."

"I did not," Jenissa protested and stood up. "I was threatened."

Mariantha stood as well and confronted the young woman. "Lie! I can read you as easily as my own daughter!" Mariantha accused sternly.

"I—I am not a liar!"

Mariantha could see Jenissa was scared that her feelings for her slave had become known. "Your secret is safe with me," said Mariantha softly.

"What secret? I have no secret!"

"My dear, it is as plain as the crimson blush on your cheeks. You love your slave."

"I do not love my slave! What sort of… depraved animal do you think I am?"

"Ma'am!" the slave's voice showed its pain at Jenissa's denial.

Jenissa looked again at her slave. This time it was clear. "I— I am sorry, Menari. I do…" Jenissa collapsed back down on the settee in tears.

The slave was torn between its duty to remain where it was and the need to rush forward and comfort its owner—its lover.

Mariantha gestured to the slave that it should heed its heart and approach Jenissa. Mariantha turned her back to give them privacy. She listened as the sobs subsided and the two whispered to each other. When the two fell silent, Mariantha turned again to face them. The slave quickly took two steps away from Jenissa.

"Is it that obvious?" asked Jenissa. "I thought we were discreet."

"Only to one versed in the subtle language of human duality," Mariantha replied as she sat next to Jenissa once again. "Does anyone in your family know?"

"No! At least no one has said anything."

"Then I hope it remains that way."

"Indeed!" said a new voice.

Mariantha wheeled around to see who had spoken. Standing in the doorway was Councillor Ambra ap Lentol.



The morning weather hinted at a lovely day ahead as Kikola and Tehvay walked to the Veilan's house. Tehvay looked distracted.

"What's the matter?" asked Kikola. She tugged on Tehvay's hand gently.

"Have I ruined everything by calling Boran?"

"No," Kikola said firmly. "I admit it wasn't a good idea. But you have not ruined everything."

"What if they come for us? Or Boran?" Tehvay was becoming visibly upset.

"Then they come." Kikola felt at a loss. The situation was not ideal. There was always the possibility of The Hegemony coming after them; however that should be her problem and not Tehvay's. "Your call might not have been intercepted. They might have already known where we are. Stop blaming yourself."

Tehvay opened her mouth to say something.

"What is done, is done," Kikola continued. "They are not here now. They won't be here tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. If they turn up, we will deal with it. If they turn up, it will not be your fault."

Tehvay nodded.

"You go to work with your father knowing that you will have many more years to enjoy it."

Tehvay smiled. "I will."

They arrived at their destination. Tehvay opened the door and called out. Pallin's voice called out in response and he and Asta came from the kitchen. Pallin offered Kikola a quick smile, and then hugged his daughter and dragged her off to the garden before they went out to work.

"Come with me," Asta said to Kikola.

Kikola dutifully followed Tehvay's mother into the kitchen. Asta went to the stove and stirred the contents of a pot that was simmering on the hob. A familiar smell wafted towards Kikola.

"That smells like Hukha soup."

"It is," Asta replied. "A particular favourite among the Elit, as I recall." She offered Kikola a spoon and invited her to try it.

Kikola put her hand up. "I wouldn't want to deprive you of your breakfast."

"No, it's not my breakfast. I made it just for you."


"Why, what?"

"Why have you made it for me?"

Asta sighed. "Tehvay mentioned you're not eating well, that you've lost a bit weight. I figured you're not used to the food on Trengos. I must admit it took me a while to get used to the food here."

"I thank you." Kikola took the spoon. She stirred the contents intently. The brown liquid was just the right consistency, the pieces of fish not too big. It made her stomach rumble and her mouth salivate with anticipation. She put a spoonful in her mouth and savoured the taste of the Hukha, a freshwater fish originally native to Kalenth; though, as The Hegemony expanded so did the availability of Hukha.

"Mmm, delicious," said Kikola. Maybe not quite as good as our chef back home made , she thought, but still very good – by far the best-tasting thing on this planet.

Asta smiled, seemingly pleased that Kikola liked it. "I'll put it in a flask and you can take it to work."

"Thank you. It's really very good."

"So, how are you adjusting to working for the Dansek Security Force?" asked Asta as she carefully filled a flask. "I know it's a far cry from being an aloyd."

"Yes, it is very different." Kikola recalled the mantra drilled into her by her mother, 'Elit do not lie' as she pondered Asta's question. "To be honest," Kikola said, "I find I am experiencing difficulty in assimilating to life on Trengos. When I was an aloyd, I had no need to concern myself with other people's opinion of me. I was in command. There was no fraternising with subordinates or people of lower castes. Tehvay provided all the social interaction I needed. Now that we're here, on Trengos, my success depends on my ability to prove myself to others."

"You mean to Rikana," Asta offered.

"Well, yes. She doesn't seem to like me much."

Asta gave Kikola a sympathetic look. "Don't be fooled by her bluster. She's got a heart of gold. She'll warm up to you. Just give it time."

"You and Yuniph seem to understand Rikana quite well."

"As well as anyone can understand Rikana, I suppose," Asta said. She handed the flask to Kikola.

"Thank you." Kikola put the flask in her shoulder bag, "I was hoping you could give me some insight – to help me understand her better. To help improve our working relationship, I mean."

"I will if I can," Asta replied. "The first thing you should know is that Rikana was orphaned when she was a girl."

"I didn't know that."

Asta started packing her own lunch for work. "She doesn't like to talk about it. Her parents were killed by slave raiders, so now you know why she is so outspoken in her dislike of them."

"I see. Now it makes more sense," Kikola replied.

Asta paused in her task. "Rikana puts on a front. She acts tough and confrontational. That's just her way of getting a measure of someone. Don't back away from it. If she thinks she can walk all over you, she won't respect you."

"I do not think it's a front," said Kikola. "I have seen her deal with criminals."

"Oh, she can back it up if she has to, don't underestimate her in that regard. But, what I mean is, she likes to test if someone is worth being her friend."

Friendship with Rikana? thought Kikola. It hadn't occurred to her.

"I do know she lived with you for a time. Was she that challenging with you at first?"

"Yes, she stayed with us for nearly two years. It must be five or six years ago now that Yuni found Rikana sleeping rough on the streets and persuaded her to come back here with her. Rikana was grateful for a warm place to sleep," Asta explained. "But, no. She didn't act that way with us. At least not with Pallin and myself. With Yuniph it was different." Asta glanced towards the kitchen door, and back to Kikola. "Yuniph can be a little… prudish," she whispered in case her daughter could hear through the closed door. "Rikana has no boundaries. She would walk around in her underwear. I think Rikana picked up on Yuniph's unease and did it just to tease her."

"What about you and Pallin? Did that bother you?"

"No. As a slave, you have no personal boundaries. Or were the slave quarters in your house different?"

Kikola blushed. "I don't know. I never visited the slave quarters."

Asta waved her hands. "Sorry. I didn't mean to… forget I said anything."

"You have nothing to apologise for," Kikola replied. "Besides walking around half-naked, was Rikana an easy house guest?"

"Well." Asta smiled. "We didn't lay down any strict rules. All we asked was that she let us know when she was coming or going, and to keep her room tidy."

"Something tells me she had trouble with that," Kikola observed.

Tehvay's mother chuckled. "Yes, that was never Rikana's priority. Not like Yuniph. My Yuniph is very neat and orderly."

"Yes, which is why it seems so unlikely that the two of them would be friends."

"Maybe that's because you don't know either of them that well. From the outside it can seem unlikely, but I guess we're the closest thing Rikana has to family," Asta explained.

"Then she is lucky to have you." Kikola felt she should say something more. "Yuniph is very efficient – a good leader."

Asta smiled with a mother's pride. "With a good heart, like Tehvay. She got Rikana the job with the Dansek Security Force."

"And me," Kikola added. "For which I am grateful, though I think that was only so Rikana can keep an eye on me. I think they still don't trust me."

Asta sighed. "People in the Graelands are always going to be suspicious of people from The Hegemony. You doubly so, because you are – were Elit. You just have to persevere and earn their trust. The fact that Pallin and I trust you helps."

Kikola acknowledged this revelation with a smile. "I am glad I have earned your trust. It is hard to let go of old ways and embrace new ones. Tehvay once told me that my conformity to Elit societal rules made me more of a slave than her," Kikola recalled. "In some respects she may have been right. Before, everything about my life was predetermined. Now, I have the freedom to choose what I will do and how I will live my life. This newfound 'freedom' I have terrifies me, but it must have been even more terrifying for you to have freedom for the first time. How did you cope?"

"When we left The Hegemony and came here," Asta waved her free hand, "there was a group who helped refugees and escaped slaves. We were the first legally freed slaves they'd ever met. They helped us find housing and employment, and provided counselling to help Pallin and me adjust to daily living as free citizens. At first, we were overwhelmed with so many choices, so many decisions, but we adjusted. It got easier as time went on. We found friends, bought a house, and made a good life for Yuniph and us." Asta patted Kikola on the arm. "It'll get easier for you, too."

"I hope so," Kikola replied. "Were people suspicious of you when you first came here?"

"When they heard our accents they were, but once they found out we had been slaves, they were welcoming."

"Accents? What do you mean?"

"We had Hegemony accents. They've changed a bit over the years. How do I sound to you?"

"Like everyone else here." A troubling thought struck Kikola and it set off mental alarms. "I know my Elit accent stands out, but what about Tehvay? Her accent is Hegemony. Are people suspicious of her? Do you think she is in danger?"

"Relax. She's not in danger."

Asta's assurances did little to assuage Kikola's concerns. "How can you be certain? This group with whom she's got herself involved has strong anti-Hegemony feelings."

"They've accepted her."

"But not everyone who supports them will know who she is. I knew it was a bad idea. I should never have allowed her…I…" Kikola looked at Asta. "I didn't mean—"

"I know what you meant," said Asta gently. "It's okay for you to be protective of her. You don't have to apologise for that. I see how much you love my daughter. I'm grateful Tehvay has you."

Kikola appreciated Asta's kind and reassuring words. She felt a step closer to belonging. "And I am grateful she has you, too – that we have you."


Kikola turned to see Yuniph standing in the doorway to the kitchen, ready for work. If there was one thing Yuniph and Kikola had in common, it was their respect for wearing the uniform. Yuniph's was as smart and buttoned up as Kikola's – everything straight, no creases out of place. Even Yuniph's long hair was tied back without a strand out of place, just like Kikola's.

"Morning," said Kikola.

Yuniph wrinkled her nose. "Do I smell Hukha soup?" She went over to the pot on the hob and lifted the lid.

Asta closed the lid again. "I made some for Kikola to take to work," said Asta. "The rest is for dinner."

The brief flash of disappointment on Yuniph's face was immediately replaced with a grateful expression as her mother handed her a sandwich. She looked at Kikola. "Ready to leave?"

"Yes," said Kikola. She thanked Asta for the soup and followed Yuniph out to her vehicle.

"Ima doesn't make Hukha soup for just anybody," Yuniph observed as she engaged the destination preset. "She must really like you."

"It was very kind of her." Maybe this is another step towards finding my place among these people.


Kikola and Rikana found themselves in an area of the city that was not the friendliest. Suspicious, wary, and hostile eyes followed their every move. Kikola patrolled the street, alert to her environment, ready to act. In contrast Rikana slouched, not paying attention to her surroundings.

The suspect they had been chasing had escaped into the crowd. He could be anywhere – anyone: average height, grey jacket and trousers. They only knew what he looked like from behind.

If this were The Hegemony and Kikola still an aloyd, finding the suspect would have been simple. She would have started interrogating and executing until someone gave him up. That extreme sort of action was not permissible here, and now even Kikola herself would baulk at taking such action.

"Officer Lardis."

"Officer Karthen." The reply was laced with sarcasm and lack of respect.

Kikola ignored it. "Pay attention. We may yet still be able to apprehend the suspect."

Rikana stopped walking. Kikola stopped, turned, and looked at her.

"You're not my boss," said Rikana. "You don't tell me my job."

"I am—"

Kikola stopped talking when Rikana suddenly reached out without looking and grabbed a passing youth around the neck. The young officer pulled her arm tight to her side, forcing the youth to bend over, and he started swearing.

"Stop complaining," Rikana told the youth, giving him a shake. "Do you want to show me what you've got or have I got to search you?"

Kikola didn't know how to respond and could only watch as Rikana rapped her knuckles on the top of the young man's head.

"Ow!" cried the lad. "It's in my pocket."

"Show it to me. Slowly."

The youth reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a small pouch. Rikana snatched it from his hand.

"Aw," she sighed. "That's not worth the paperwork." She released her hold and the youth straightened up. She held up his pouch, daring him to take it back, but he resisted. "We had report of a robbery," she told him. "We chased the suspect in this direction. Do you know who we want?" Rikana loosened the opening to the pouch and threatened to tip it. "Or do I have to give a description?"

"No. I know!" The young man's wide eyes fixed on the pouch. "Please! I'll tell you."

"Tell away."

"Grondo. Lives in—"

"Yeah, I know Grondo." Rikana pushed the pouch into the young man's chest, and he carefully tried to remove it from her grasp. Before relinquishing it, Rikana tightened her grip on it. "Do yourself a favour, throw this shit away." She let the pouch go.

"I will," said the lad, relief flooding his face as he stuffed the pouch back into his pocket. "I will."

Rikana watched him scurry away and turned back to Kikola. "He won't."

"He won't what?" asked Kikola.

"Throw it away."

"What was it?"

"Dust," said Rikana. "It's a drug. It's cheap. It makes them feel good for a bit, so they buy more. It's addictive and deadly as fuck. Someone like him, he's been using it for a couple of years. If he keeps using it and gets lucky, he'll live another ten years. Even if he quits now, there's no guarantee that he hasn't already killed himself, but the sooner someone quits the greater the chance they'll survive."

"Then why give it back to him?"

"Because it's all he's got to make him happy. I said it's cheap, but these people around here are not rich, and they consume a lot of dust. If I took that little bit, he'd likely have to steal to get his next fix."

"Surely something can be done?" asked Kikola.

Rikana gave her a look as if to say Kikola was stupid. "Of course something can be done. We arrest the suppliers, but other suppliers pop up. There are groups who try to wean the users off it, but it has a low success rate. Kids are told of the dangers before they can get hooked; some of them get hooked anyway. People are morons, and unfortunately we can't arrest them for that. As long as they're not breaking other laws, we don't bring the users in. We would do nothing else if we did."

Kikola understood Rikana's frustration. She also understood why Rikana, even though she hated the idea, gave the drugs back. It created a bond between her and the downtrodden people in this part of the city. A heavy-handed approach would only increase the already palpable tension.

It was yet another layer to the contradictory nature of the young woman. She was brash, confrontational, and prone to using a bit more force than was necessary, but she could be sensitive, diplomatic, and kind.

I wonder if she's aware of her conflicting character? Or is it all just an act to get what she wants? pondered Kikola.

Rikana sighed. "Let's go catch us a bad guy." She perked up. "I haven't broken a nose in a long time. Maybe today's my lucky day!"

Kikola followed Rikana as the young officer set off along the busy street. After a short while, they turned into a narrow alley.

"Grondo lives in a basement about halfway down," said Rikana.

"We should call for backup," said Kikola. "We're too susceptible to ambush in this location."

"People around here hate us, but they're not going to ambush us."

"How do you know?"

"Because I know these people. I've worked these streets for years. They don't like us, but as long as we're arresting someone else, they'll leave us alone. They're selfish that way!"

She's smarter than she likes to let on, thought Kikola. Maybe I can learn something from her.

Rikana descended a set of steps to a basement level. The door at the foot of the steps looked flimsy, but when Rikana banged on it, it revealed itself to be sturdier. After knocking, Rikana sprang catlike two metres up the wall and pushed the security camera, located over the door, so that it pointed in another direction.

Kikola thought there was going to be no answer, but eventually the built-in comm crackled.

"Who's there?"

"Is that you, Grondo?" replied Rikana.

"Who wants to know?"

"I do."

"Who are you?"

"Who am I? Aw, Grondo, you're hurting my feelings. How could you forget me so soon?"

"Whatever. Go away."

"If that's what you want," Rikana said. "I'll just take what I got elsewhere. Maybe Tase will remember me."

"Hold on."

Rikana flashed a grin at Kikola. "So stupid," she whispered and drew her IPB.

Kikola took that as a sign to do the same.

A locking mechanism could be heard disengaging and the door opened a fraction. Rikana kicked the door, brought her weapon up, and rushed in. Kikola took a step towards the door.

"Watch out, Karthen," Rikana called.

A body flew through the open door, hit the wall, and crumpled to the ground. Rikana followed, stamped hard on a hand that was holding a knife, and pressed her weapon to the head of the suspect. Grondo's cry of pain over his injured hand was cut off when he heard the whine of the IPB at his temple.

Rikana leaned down. "Damn, his nose is not broken." She pulled her weapon hand back as if she were going to hit him.

"Officer Lardis. The suspect is subdued."

Rikana glanced up at Kikola and then back down at the suspect. "I guess it's not my lucky day," Rikana said to Grondo. "Let's see how lucky you get." Rikana put restraining cuffs on Grondo and hauled him to his feet. She grinned again at Kikola. "Good work, Karthen. You didn't get either of us killed. I'll make a cop out of you yet."

Rikana cackled as she pushed Grondo past Kikola and up the steps. "Careful now, don't trip!"


Kikola and Rikana had got Grondo back to Headquarters without further incident, and had just finished securing him in a cell when another officer approached them.

"Karthen, Commander Simeal wants to see you in his office."

"Thank you, I will go right away."

The other officer turned and walked away as she was speaking. Behind her, Rikana cackled.

"Still making friends," the young officer said, and poked Kikola in the back.

Kikola took a breath and turned to Rikana. "One of us has to."

Rikana looked surprised for a moment, then gave another burst of her cackling laugh. The laugh faded. "I guess if Simeal wants you, I'll have to do the paperwork." She shuffled past Kikola and slinked away down the corridor. When she got to the end, she turned. "Put a good word in with Simeal for me."

Kikola recalled her earlier conversation with Asta about Rikana. Is that her warming up to me? Kikola wondered.

Kikola hurried upstairs to Simeal's office. She paused outside, straightened her uniform and knocked.

"Come in!"

She entered the office and stood to attention.

"Relax," said Commander Simeal. "Take a seat."

"Thank you, sir." Kikola had been taught that a subordinate officer must obey and respect a superior officer. While she didn't like Simeal, he was her superior officer, so she offered him due respect, and sat down.

Simeal gave a forced smile. "Just waiting for—ah, here she is."

Kikola turned in her chair as the door behind her opened. It was Yuniph. Outside of work she was Tehvay's sister ; in work , she was Kikola's superior. Kikola stood up.

" Take a seat , Sergeant," said Simeal.

Kikola waited for Yuniph to sit before taking her seat.

"Sergeant Veilan has been telling me about this Planetary Protection Group. What do you think of them, Karthen?"

"Their goals are admirable, but they have no thought of how to achieve them. They lack any strategy."

"They seem to be gaining popularity," Simeal commented, pointing to an article on his news reader.

"Their popularity is not dependent on their strategy, only their goals."

Simeal grunted. "Sergeant Veilan told me about your strategy to implement one of their goals: intercepting slave raider ships."

Kikola frowned. "One achieves a goal. One does not implement a goal. One implements a strategy to achieve a goal, sir." She corrected his misuse of the word.

Simeal looked confused by her correction.

"Commander Simeal thinks it's a good idea," said Yuniph. "He wants you and me to sit down and come up with a detailed plan. What's needed and how much it will cost."

"If it gets the go ahead, I'd like you to organise it, Karthen," said Simeal. He glanced towards Yuniph. "Under Sergeant Veilan's supervision, of course." The commander directed his gaze back towards Kikola. "You're the most qualified in running something like this that we've got."

"Yes, sir."

"Dismissed, the pair of you. Get the numbers back to me as soon as you can."


Kikola and Yuniph had been in Yuniph's office pouring over figures for more than an hour. The estimates were coming together, but Yuniph was concerned the numbers were still too high.

Yuniph looked up from her desk at Kikola, who had stood up to stretch. "What's the minimum we can get away with?" asked Yuniph.

Kikola replied, "Three interceptors per shift."

"So that'll be nine." Yuniph made a notation on the electronic paper.

"Plus spares, just in case," Kikola added. "However, don't say 'just in case'. Say that it's required ."


"Always ask for more, because you'll be given less than what you ask," said Kikola.

"Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it."


" It means things don't always work out the way you plan . The ideal is far removed from the reality. "

Kikola gave her a quizzical look.

Yuniph explained, "I always wanted a sister when I was growing up , and now I've got one."

"You don't want Tehvay?" Kikola sank back in the chair opposite Yuniph.

"No, I didn't mean that. However, it's not like I imagined it would be. I wanted someone to share secrets with , to grow up with . Someone who's like me. I don't know Tehvay. I see someone who looks like me, but is different in every other way. If she weren't my sister, I don't think I would be friends with her."

Feeling wounded, Kikola swallowed the answer she wanted to give, but Yuniph must have read it in her face.

"Sorry, I don't mean that I hate her or wish what she went through on her. If we had grown up together things would've been different. But, s he's grown up in an environment I can't conceive of. She's been shaped by that, and the events in her life, not mine."

"She deserves your support. You are her family."

"I will do what I can for her, to help her in any way that I can , but she's not my sister."

"She is. Just because you didn't grow up together doesn't change that."

"I'm not talking genetics," said Yuniph. "I'm talking about in here." She tapped her chest.

Kikola digested Yuniph's words. "Change is difficult. I know all about that. Forget about the sister you wanted and accept the sister you have now. Forget about the missed opportunities and make new opportunities."

"It's just—"

"It's just nothing," Kikola interrupted. "The first time I saw Tehvay was when my mother gave her to me as a present. At that point I saw only a slave. A possession. A thing, not a person. We talked. I got to know her. She touched me in ways that made me change everything I had accepted. Give her a chance to do the same to you."

Yuniph nodded. "I'm sorry if I haven't been more welcoming. To both of you."

Kikola offered a wry smile. "I find it difficult to make friends. Maybe I am not the easiest to make friends with."

"Rikana only dislikes you, so you can't be that bad. If she truly hated you, she'd want to inflict pain on you."

"I thought I noticed a thawing in the hatred from Rikana this morning," said Kikola.

Yuniph chuckled. "She told me if she ever said something nice about you, I had permission to hit her. That's about as close to praise as you're likely to get from her."

I was right, thought Kikola. Rikana is not as hostile as she seems. We just need to understand each other.

Kikola's musings were interrupted by Yuniph, who stretched her arms and yawned.

"I need a break," said Yuniph. She pulled out a container of sandwiches.

Kikola remembered the flask of soup that Asta had made for her, and went to get it. She poured some into a cup. She noticed Yuniph eyeing it and remembered her disappointment this morning.

"Would you like some?"

"Ima made it for you."

"She didn't say I couldn't share it."

Yuniph shook her head. "I'll be having some when I get home."

Kikola poured some soup into a second cup and placed it in front of Yuniph. "There is too much for me. It would be a shame to waste it."

Yuniph smiled. "Thank you," she said, and took a sip. "Lovely."

Kikola felt relaxed. Maybe things will all right here. The Hegemony will forget about me. I have a new life, maybe even friends. Everything has worked out well.


Gral'hilanth watched the young, blonde haired woman intently. She could see a bead of sweat trickle down the side of her face. She could see the rapid rise and fall of the young woman's breasts.

The girl was scared. Trapped. This wasn't going to end well.

"We know you lied. We know why you lied," said Ambra , her voice was soft and soothing like liquid silk . "Will you admit it?"

" I admit nothing ," Jenissa replied. In contrast to Ambra, the young woman's voice was sharp and close to breaking.

The two women sat facing each other in high backed, armless chairs. Ambra had positioned herself as close to Jenissa as possible. Their knees were almost touching. Gral'hilanth stood a metre to the right of the councillor. They were the only ones in the room.

Jenissa's eyes kept darting to the door. Looking for rescue from her aunt or looking for her slave, Gral'hilanth didn't know; neither was forthcoming.

Ambra remained patient and calm. She leaned forward, putting herself lower than Jenissa, giving the young woman the false belief Ambra was being subservient. "Karthen had feelings for the slave , and you knew that. We just want the truth. That's all."

The conversation had started formal and about nothing in particular. Then Ambra turned on her charm. It was almost a seduction. Ambra's gentle conversational tone however, had hidden claws. With Gral'hilanth's experience negotiating business deals and the occasional foray into intimidation, she knew what Jenissa was experiencing and feeling.

Jenissa had obviously thought this was going to be a polite chat and nothing more. Which was why she had cordially agreed to it. However, before she knew it, Jenissa was trapped. The subject of Alopan and Karthen was raised. Gral'hilanth could tell the young woman's mind was racing, looking for a way out as she realised the gravity of the situation. To get up and walk away would be admitting guilt and the possibility of others finding out. Staying was the better option for Jenissa. Or so she was mistakenly thinking.

Gral'hilanth saw the moment clearly where Jenissa decided not to fight, but to co-operate, hopefully believing that by doing so, things would be better.

"I told the truth." Jenissa's voice was less brittle.

"My dear, there's what people believe, and then there's the truth. I don't care what people believe. I care about the truth. You do too, do you not?"

"Yes," Jenissa replied with a single nod of the head.

"Will you tell me the truth?" Ambra smiled sweetly. "Please."

Gral'hilanth had felt the force with which the councillor used the word 'please'. It was a simple word, but Ambra wielded it like a weapon. Gral'hilanth felt pity for Jenissa.

"Aloyd Karthen said she was in love with the slave." Jenissa spoke quietly, her eyes downcast.

"There, that wasn't so bad was it?"

A simple shake of the head caused Jenissa's long, golden curls to sway gently.

"We just want you to admit it on the record," continued Ambra . " A simple public declaration saying you lied , and to denounc e Karthen. " Ambra smiled shyly and looked down, " Will you do that for me?"

"That's all you want?" Jenissa sounded uncertain.

"Yes. " Ambra straightened up slightly. " And also for you to admit why you lied."

Gral'hilanth watched the exchange. Ambra was good. She knew what she wanted and how to get it. She made a powerful ally, and a dangerous enemy.

"I won't say that." Jenissa was resolute. She looked away and crossed her arms.

"Please," implored Ambra.

The councillor was so convincing even Gral'hilanth wanted to comply. She would have been impressed if she weren't horrified.


Ambra sat up straight. "You will. " Her voice was still soft, but it contained a more authoritarian edge. " If you don't, we will say it." Ambra smiled. "It is the truth after all."

"I will deny it."

"Deny it, and this will go on. There will be more questions, and not just from us. Make the statement now and we'll leave. " Ambra leaned forward in her submissive posture again. " You can go about your business. " Again, the sweet, honeyed voice came out. " There will be a little fall out from it, but not as much as if you refuse. You want things to be over, don't you? So you and your slave can be together , don't you?"

Don't do it, Gral'hilanth thought. She remained stoic, burying any feelings of sympathy. She thought of Karthen and how this would further tarnish her name. To try and avoid watching the slaughter of innocence, Gral'hilanth allowed her eyes to wander around the room, focussing instead on its contemporary décor. What captured her attention, amidst the silver and gold furnishings and porcelain vases filled with flowers, was a large crystal chandelier. The light coming in from the windows reflected like so many stars. Will I have a home as nice as this one day ? Gral'hilanth wondered. She dismissed the thought and turned her attention back to the young woman and the spectacle that was still ongoing.

Ambra continued. " Refuse, and Menari could be taken away. Neither of us wants that. "

Jenissa visibly flinched. She would do anything to protect the slave and Ambra knew it .

"You promise Menari will not be taken away."

"Promise," said Ambra and smiled.

Gral'hilanth almost believed her. Jenissa did.

"Very well ," she said with a gentle, resigned sigh . " I will make the statement."

Ambra reached out and placed a hand on Jenissa's knee. " You are doing the right thing. I will give you o ne hour to compose yourself and think of what you want to say ," said Ambra.

"Thank you," said Jenissa.

Only Ambra could make someone thank the person that was about to destroy their life. Gral'hilanth was grateful she was on Ambra's side.


The governor's estate on Yun'thul had formal gardens and walking paths edged by tall manicured hedges. It was a good place to be alone with one's thoughts. Gral'hilanth decided to go for a walk to clear her mind and to get away from Ambra for a while. She walked along the pathway for several minutes. Finally it came to an end and opened up to a magnificent vista. To her left, the land rose gently in rolling green hills and orchards. To her right, the fields sloped gently down to a line of trees that marked the river. The heady smell of flowers, grass, and soil overpowered her. The humidity made breathing and walking arduous. She could have remained cool in her uniform jacket but had chosen to remove it to feel the sun on her bare arms.

The weather and scenery reminded her of a day long ago on a planet light years away. She was sixteen, her family was visiting relatives for a few weeks, and she had gone out on her own exploring. It was by a pond on a broiling hot a day that she had fallen in love for the very first time.

The girl was a few years older than Gral'hilanth, a Labror.

"What's your name," the girl had asked.

"Gral'hilanth. Gral'hilanth ap Falentha."

"Oh!" the girl chuckled. "One of those Elits."

Gral'hilanth smiled. She had never heard anyone be so disrespectful, yet in a playful way.

"Gral'hilanth is an ugly name," the girl continued. "It doesn't suit someone as pretty as you." She chewed her lip in thought. "Hila! I shall call you Hila."

The young Elit nodded. "I like it. What is your name?"

"Jacenth Llyte."

And thus began a summer of love. Jacenth showed the young Gral'hilanth things she never dreamed were possible.

But all good things had to come to an end. Gral'hilanth couldn't risk her indiscretion being discovered. On the last day of summer, she met Jacenth at their special meeting place. After they made love, Gral'hilanth led the young woman to the pond's edge and held her down. As Jacenth realised what was happening, she stared up in terror at Gral'hilanth. Her struggles and thrashing disturbed the water, obscuring her face. Eventually she stilled, the water cleared, and a face stared blankly back.

It was Kamina's face.

"Kamina!" Gral'hilanth let out an involuntary cry of anguish as the face disappeared.

Gral'hilanth suddenly remembered where she was and looked around to see if anyone had heard her. She was relieved to see that she was alone.

With a heavy sigh, Gral'hilanth made her way back to the governor's residence. The atmosphere inside might have been cooler, but it was no less oppressive.

"Ready?" asked the councillor with a knowing smile.

Gral'hilanth nodded. I'll do what I have to do if it gets me one step closer to Karthen.

They entered a large room where most of the household were gathered. Front and centre were Jenissa and her aunt, Governor Ultessi ap Taliss, and just behind them stood Mariantha ap Karthen and the slave Menari.

"What is the meaning of this?" asked the governor. "Why have you called my staff here?"

"I feel that this needs to be witnessed," Ambra interrupted. She turned to Jenissa. "Are you ready to make your statement?"

Jenissa looked to her aunt. "I…"

"Come on, the sooner this is over, the better," Ambra prompted her.

"This is unprecedented," said Mariantha. "You have no right to force Jenissa to say anything. This is neither a court of law nor Council-sanctioned."

Ambra turned on her patented sweet smile. "No one is forcing anyone to do anything. Jenissa wishes to make an announcement. Isn't that so?"

Jenissa nodded.

"Then carry on, dear," said Ambra.

Jenissa kept her eyes down, and her voice steady. "I wish to apologise for giving a false statement in relation to the incident on Alopan. I was not threatened by Aloyd Kikola ap Karthen when she took her former slave from me."

"Tell everyone why you helped Karthen," prompted Ambra.

"I was foolish. I was swayed by her plea. She claimed to be in love with her slave. I let her have it back."

"And what do you think of Karthen now?"

"She is an abomination. She is depraved. She was spreading her… sickness, and I was weak. I am sorry."

"Sorry for what?"

"I allowed myself to be infected by her words and succumbed…"

"Go on."

"Enough!" Mariantha stepped forward and put herself between Jenissa and Ambra. "This travesty stops now. You've had your fun, Councillor Lentol. Now go."

"This is not your house. This is not your courtroom. You have no authority here."

"Governor, put a stop to this," Mariantha implored.

The governor looked around at the assembled crowd. "Enough has been said. This is over."

"It's not over," said Ambra. "Jenissa has just confessed to unnatural sexual acts with her slave. We must ensure it can never happen again."

Gral'hilanth nodded to a couple of soldiers. They moved to Menari. Jenissa flinched as if to try and protect Menari, but other soldiers detained her. Menari was dragged forward and forced her to her knees.

Gral'hilanth removed a strap from her pocket, walked around behind the slave, and wrapped the strap around its neck.

"No!" Jenissa cried.

Gral'hilanth ignored the young woman's anguished cry. She cast a glance at Ambra for final confirmation, and then pulled the strap tight. The soldiers held Menari still as its body tried to buck. Gral'hilanth pulled harder until she felt something in the slave's throat give way. Its desperate attempts to breathe stopped, and its body fell limp.



Silence hung over the assembly like a pall. Jenissa felt a crush of grief hit her like a collapsed building. Part of her wanted to die under the weight of it; part of her wanted to rise up and choke the life out of Councillor Lentol, as she had ordered the life choked out of Menari.

Jenissa's aunt Ultessi spoke. "What right did you have to put down a Taliss slave?" The governor was incensed. "This was a private family matter."

"That is where you are wrong, Governor," said Ambra. "It is very much a matter for The Council." The councillor faced Jenissa. "Jenissa, by your own admission you have lied to The Council and consorted with a slave. Your actions make you unfit to one day represent The Hegemony as governor. I will take this evidence to The Council and have you declared H ebsifilla."

Jenissa only half-listened to what Councillor Lentol was saying. Her life was over the moment Menari took her last tortured breath. She would never be able to erase the memory of Menari's desperate struggle as Lentol's henchman, Gral'hilanth ap Falentha, choked the life out of her. She was fighting it because of me. She didn't want to leave me! Jenissa silently lamented.

"You've done what you came here to do, Councillor." Mariantha said. "You need to leave. Now."

Ambra smiled. "This isn't over Judge Karthen. This is just the beginning." With that, Councillor Lentol turned and walked out of the hall, with Falentha and guards falling in behind her.

The governor ordered everyone to clear the hall. A few slaves stepped forward to collect the body, but Jenissa ordered them not to approach or touch Menari. They did as they were told and returned to their positions against the walls.

Jenissa didn't bother to look around to see if anyone was watching. She was beyond caring. She collapsed on the floor and gathered the lifeless corpse of her once beautiful lover into her arms. "I a m sorry. I a m so sorry," she whispered as she brushed Menari's hair out of her face and kissed the blue-tinged lips.

"Come." A hand reached down and touched Jenissa's shoulder. "You must let Menari go."

"No!" Angry tears streamed down her cheeks, and she turned her back on the older woman.

Mariantha knelt down next to her and gently said, "You can do no more for Menari now. Let… her go."

It wasn't lost on Jenissa that Judge Karthen had honoured Menari by saying 'her' rather than ' it ' . She glanced towards Mariantha and then back to Menari, whose once sparkling brown eyes stared lifelessly into oblivion.

With one last kiss on the cheek, Jenissa allowed her lover's body to slip to the floor.

Mariantha signalled for some slaves to come and gather up the body. "Take good care of it," she said.

Jenissa began to openly weep as Menari's body was taken up and carried away. Mariantha helped her off the floor and onto a nearby settee. "What have I done? What have I done?" Jenissa asked wailfully.

With an arm around Jenissa, Mariantha replied, "You were given no choice."

"But I was – I was given a choice. " Jenissa shrugged off the older woman's arm and spoke to the judge as though pleading her case. "Your daughter offered to take us with them. Instead I chose to stay." Jenissa lowered her eyes. "I was too afraid."

Jenissa looked along the corridor down which Menari's body had taken. "Menari chose to stay with me, because she loved me that much." Tears started flowing down Jenissa's face once more. "And now she is dead and my life is over."


The Dansek autumn was being kind. A late spell of good weather meant the birthday party for Tehvay and Yuniph could be held in the garden. Red, blue, green, and yellow lights had been placed around the garden to provide a festive atmosphere. Outdoor heaters were on hand for later, to take the nip out of the chilly evening air. Tables with food and drink had been set up against the house and the kitchen table held some back up provisions if needed.

When a guest arrived, her mother would call Tehvay over to introduce her. Asta kept a cheerful expression as she greeted the guests, but Tehvay noticed her mother's discreet check of her personal communicator for any word from Yuniph. A couple of hours before the start of the party, Yuniph had suddenly announced she had to go out, and had yet to return.

The guests were friends and neighbours who had known the Veilans for years , but this party was the first opportunity most were getting to meet Tehvay. There was great enthusiasm to find out more about Asta and Pallin's long-lost daughter. Tehvay smiled and thanked them for coming, offered them refreshments, and patiently answered their questions about what it was like to be reunited with her family.

"You surprise me, Tehvay," said Asta, as the latest arrivals moved off to get something to eat.

"Oh, how so?"

"You seem so at ease with meeting new people. Yuniph is not as comfortable in large groups."

"Neither is Kikola." Tehvay glanced over to the spot where Kikola had posted herself. She had found the gap between the refreshment table and the fence that separated the Veilan's garden from their neighbours, her back to the wall of the house.

Trying to hide in the shadows, thought Tehvay.

Kikola wore an unassuming black dress, similar to the one she had worn to the party on Kalenth, though this one was not as finely tailored, Tehvay thought it suited her just as well. Tehvay herself wore a white and gold dress that she had bought especially for the party. The colours were split down the middle, but the design was asymmetrical. The right hand side was white with a high collar and sleeve covering her arm. The body of it fell in waves down to her knee. The left hand side started just above her left breast, was a bit more form fitting than the right hand side and ended at her mid-calf. A silver necklace with a yellow crystal, a birthday gift from her parents topped off the ensemble.

Tehvay's attention returned to her mother, who was looking over Tehvay's shoulder towards Kikola.

"Kikola is learning how to live in a world outside the privilege and restrictions of Elit society. It isn't easy, but she is making progress," Asta observed.

"Yes, I know she is," said Tehvay, "and I am so very grateful."

"I hope it isn't gratitude that keeps you with her."

"No, Ima. I love her, and I am grateful for her love in return. And I am grateful to you for taking her under your wing."

"I don't know which of us is more surprised by that!" said Asta. "I guess I saw someone who was as lost as your father and I were when we first arrived. I was just passing on the help we received, but I've grown to like her." Asta blushed. "Why don't you go and see if she's all right."

"Sure." Tehvay left her mother's side and went to see if Kikola needed anything.

"How are you doing?" Tehvay said as she approached.

"I am fine," said Kikola. "I have just been watching you greeting your guests."


"And I was just admiring the ease with which you talk to others, especially people you don't know."

"Ima was just saying the same thing. I give the credit to speaking at PPG rallies. I had to become comfortable with public speaking. And to be honest, I rather enjoy it."

Kikola gave her a noncommittal hum just as Trujilon appeared from inside the house. He, along with his sister, had been one of the first to arrive.

"Where's Ell?" Trujilon looked around the garden for his sister. "Ah, there she is!"

Tehvay looked to where Trujilon's attention had been drawn and saw her father escorting Ellovene around the garden. Pallin took every opportunity to show off his horticultural domain. Her father glanced over at her and waved. He tapped Ellovene's shoulder and pointed to where Tehvay was standing. Ellovene came over as Pallin drifted off to find another guest to impress.

Ellovene glanced around as she walked over. "Where's Yuniph? We haven't seen her yet."

"It's not like her to miss her own birthday party," Trujilon observed.

"I don't know. I'm sure she will be here shortly." Tehvay reached for a nearby tray of refreshments. "In the meantime, may I offer you another beverage and something to eat?"

Tehvay offered some to Kikola as well; Kikola politely declined.

Ellovene took a bite of a small pastry. "This is delicious!" She waved the half eaten pastry at Tehvay with one hand and brushed a crumb from the corner of her mouth with her other. "Who made them?"

"My mother and I did. Well, my mother did most of the work. I just helped." Tehvay rolled her eyes. "A bit."

"Chief taster, I bet!" Trujilon laughed as he helped himself to one of the pastries.

"Well, if we served these at the next PPG rally, we'd double our recruitment!" Ellovene claimed.

Everyone chuckled – everyone except Kikola. Tehvay was aware of Kikola's opinion of the PPG; however, she wasn't inclined to steer Trujilon and Ellovene towards another topic.

"And speaking of the next PPG rally, we have a surprise for you," Trujilon added. He glanced at his sister. "We were going to mention it tomorrow, but… shall we tell her now?"

"Yes," said Ellovene. "We had a meeting with the other committee members, and—"

"—And we're all in agreement that you should become a member of the leadership committee as well." Trujilon said, barely containing his enthusiasm.

"Me?" Tehvay asked in disbelief.

"Yes!" said Trujilon. "You are a very persuasive speaker, and you offer a singular perspective on slavery. It wasn't even us that proposed it. Szymon did."

"Well, I…" Tehvay glanced at Kikola who remained inexpressive, but not hard to read. "I'm flattered. May I think about it and get back to you?"

Trujilon and Ellovene put down their drinks. "Of course," Trujilon replied.

"Forgive us," Ellovene added. "This is your birthday party. We can discuss this another time."

"We should go look for Yuniph," Trujilon said to his sister, and the two of them drifted away.

Tehvay turned to Kikola. "Is something wrong?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Because you didn't say one word to Trujilon and Ellovene. I know you don't like parties, but it's something more, I can tell."

"It's nothing."

Sometimes Kikola's impassive face spoke volumes to Tehvay. "This is about them asking me to be on the leadership committee, isn't it?"

Kikola didn't respond.

"I didn't say I would do it. I said I would think about it."

"So you did." Tehvay was about to say something more, but her mother was approaching them. "We'll discuss it later, okay?"

They opened up their circle of two to include Asta, who was looking a bit worried.

"Have either one of you heard from Yuniph?" Tehvay's mother asked. "Guests are noticing her absence. She's not answering her communicator. She hasn't sent me a message. It's most unlike her."

"No, we haven't," Tehvay replied.

"I'm beginning to get concerned for her safety," said Asta.

"I am sure she is fine," Kikola replied. "She is more than capable of looking after herself."

"Yes, you're right," said Asta, and her shoulders visibly relaxed.

A small disturbance caught their attention. Rikana had come over the fence and landed a metre away from Pallin, who was standing nearby talking to a guest. Tehvay watched the exchange between her father and Rikana with some amusement.

"Hey, Mr V.," she said brightly.

"Good evening , Rikana," Tehvay's father said. "What have I told you about climbing over the fence?"

"That it's adorable." She dipped her head and raised her eyes to look at him.

"Uh, huh." Pallin patted her shoulder. "I think I used the word 'don't' in there somewhere."

"I'll remember next time, Mr V."

Rikana slipped between Pallin and the guest and came over to where Kikola, Tehvay, and Asta were standing.

"Hey, Mrs. V."

"Hello, Rikana. I'm glad you could make it."

"You know," Rikana shrugged. "Party. Food. Drink."

Asta chuckled quietly as Rikana looked around. "Well, help yourself."

"Yeah, thanks."

Kikola's fellow officer barely gave her a look as she greeted Tehvay. "Hi, Miss V. Great dress."

Tehvay noted Rikana's ensemble: a purple and black blouse, matching skirt cut in the style popular with Trengosian youth – from right thigh to left ankle – and black leggings. On top of that she wore a loose fitting jacket that appeared to be made of many random shaped pieces of material, all in varying shades of red.

Rikana's bold fashion choices match her personality , Tehvay thought. "Thank you, and you look very stylish, especially that jacket."

Rikana, who normally had a quick comeback for everything, just blushed at the compliment. "Um…" Rikana reached into her jacket and held out a small package to Tehvay. It was poorly wrapped in plain paper. "Happy Birthday," she muttered.

"Thank you, Rikana." Tehvay took the proffered gift.

Rikana reached around Tehvay to the refreshment table, grabbed a bottle of beer, and slinked away.

Tehvay opened the gift to reveal a small, delicate porcelain figure of an animal.

"I didn't expect that sort of gift from Rikana," said Kikola.

Tehvay held up the figurine to examine it. Delicate strands of fur had been painted on its body and tiny dots in its eyes brought the animal's expression to life.

Pallin came over to his daughter. "She's quite the talent," he said.

"Rikana?" Kikola queried.

"Yes, she makes these." Asta took the gift from Tehvay to look at it, then handed it back. "Not very often, mind. Special occasions, like birthdays. She has given me one every year."

"It's lovely," Tehvay replied.

"She is full of surprises," said Kikola.

Suddenly the back door opened and out walked Yuniph. "Hello everyone."

It suddenly got very quiet among the party guests as Yuniph approached her parents, Tehvay, and Kikola. "Sorry I'm late."

Tehvay had to do a double take just to be sure it was Yuniph. Yuniph no longer had long blonde hair. It was cut short, almost as short as Tehvay's hair.

Any concern over her daughter's safety was gone. "Sorry? I should hope so," said Asta. "You said you were just going out to run an errand. You failed to mention you would be gone for hours."

"I didn't know it would take hours."

"Had I known it was for this," said Asta pointing to Yuniph's hair, "I never would have allowed it."

"'Allowed it'? What am I, ten?"

"Yuniph," Pallin chided.

Yuniph changed her tone to one slightly less petulant. "I thought I'd be back in time for the party."

"Why didn't you let us know you were going to be late?"

"Because I didn't know until it was too late."

Tehvay found this exchange between her mother and sister uncomfortable in the extreme. She had never seen her mother so angry or her sister so defiant. Her stomach was in knots – torn between wanting to run away and wanting to intercede.

"How could you be so thoughtless to us, to your guests, to your sister?"


"Hey, what have you done to your hair, Veilan?" Rikana interrupted Yuniph's admonishment. "Now you look exactly like Miss V., except without the fashion sense." She looked at Yuniph's plain white dress and laughed.

"Shut up, Rikana. I am sick and tired of you telling me I have no fashion sense. And while I'm about it, I am sick of being compared to Tehvay all the time."

"Yuniph!" Pallin chided again.

"We don't compare you to Tehvay," Asta replied.

"Ha! Ever since she showed up, you barely notice I'm in the room. It's all about Tehvay for you two."

"That's not true," Asta countered.

"Be honest, Ima. Would we have bothered with this birthday party if it weren't for Tehvay?"

Asta didn't reply.

"No offence to Tehvay," Yuniph continued, "but since she arrived, I've been practically invisible. And that's another thing, she's over here all the time. I feel suffocated."

"We had no idea you felt this way," Asta replied.

"We are trying to get to know the daughter we lost. We make no apologies for that, but we have never stopped loving you," said Pallin.

"I'm leaving. This is getting too much for me," said Rikana. "Thanks Mrs. V, Mr. V. Happy Birthday Miss V. I'll see you at work, Veilan. And as for you Kikola, good luck telling them apart now!" Rikana cackled and leapt over the fence the same way she came in.

All the other guests had discreetly slipped out as well. The party was decidedly over. It was just the Veilan family and Kikola standing in the garden amidst the empty chairs, half-eaten plates of food, and an uneaten birthday cake.

"Perhaps we should leave as well," Kikola said to Tehvay.

"If anyone's leaving, it's me!" Yuniph turned on her heel and went back into the house.

Pallin called after her. "Yuniph, come back." He started to follow her.

"No, wait," said Tehvay. "I'm the one she has an issue with, so I should be the one to go and talk with her."


Tehvay found Yuniph in her bedroom staring at her reflection in the mirror and running her fingers through her hair.

Yuniph glanced at Tehvay and said, "For what it's worth, I am sorry if I ruined your birthday party."

"You didn't ruin it. I had a lovely time. The only thing that could have made it better was having you there to share it with me."

"How can you be so nice after the awful things I just said?"

Tehvay sat on the edge of Yuniph's bed. "Come sit. Let's have a chat."

"I really don't feel much like talking right now."

"That's all right. We don't have to talk if you don't want to." Tehvay made room for Yuniph to join her and patted the spot. "Please? Consider it a birthday present to me."

Yuniph smiled half-heartedly and sat down next to Tehvay. For a few minutes neither spoke, and then Tehvay picked up a soft toy from the bedside table. It had six legs, one of which had been reattached, a tail that looked like it had been chewed off about half way, a pointy snout, one long ear and one chewed nub where the other ear should be, and wings.

"What's this?" asked Tehvay.

"Something silly," replied Yuniph. She took the toy off Tehvay and held it in her lap. "It's a dryg, a mythical creature. I named it Idris. It was my favourite toy when I was a baby. I took it everywhere. Slept with it. I was maybe four or five before I could leave it home when I went to school. Never could throw it away though. Did you have one?"

"One what?"

"Favourite toy?"

"No. I didn't have any toys."

"Sorry." Yuniph bowed her head. "Stupid of me. I should have thought."

"No, no, you shouldn't have to think about it. No one should." Tehvay reached out and held one of the creature's wings between her thumb and forefinger. "I can't miss what I never had. I can't relive the past with the knowledge of what I know now."

She returned Yuniph's stuffed toy to its place of honour and took a deep breath. "My first owner liked young girls. He had four of us. We shared a cell. I can't even remember their names now. For all the terrible things we endured together, we weren't close. We weren't friends. We had been raised to believe we were property."

"Tehvay, you don't have to—"

"Please, I want to." Tehvay looked her sister in the eyes. "One night our owner came to our cell, pointed at one of the others and said he was going to kill her in the morning. That was it. We just went to sleep. There was no fear. No trying to console the one he pointed at. If he had pointed at me, I would have reacted no differently." Tehvay decided not to go into details of what happened the following morning. "If I look back and think about what I should've done, how I would react if it happened today, I would go insane. So don't you do it."

Yuniph wiped away a tear. "You've been treated like dirt your whole life. I should treat you better. I'm sorry."

"I'm not saying this to make you feel sorry. I'm just explaining why I didn't have toys," replied Tehvay. She smiled, but she could see that it didn't help Yuniph feel better. "Let me apologise to you."

Yuniph looked perplexed. "Why should you apologise to me?"

"Because in all my enthusiasm in discovering that I had parents and a sister, I never stopped to think how this would affect you. The kind of adjustments you would have to make. The questions, the emotions, the loss."

"Loss! What loss?"

"The loss of your family as you knew it," said Tehvay. "You were an only child until I showed up. In an instant, your family history had been rewritten, your world turned upside down."

" Did Kikola say something to you?"

"No, I knew something was bothering you. I just didn't know what it was until now. "

Yuniph stood up and paced the floor a few times. Tehvay sat quietly on the bed and waited for her sister to decide to open up to her. Finally, Yuniph re-joined Tehvay on the edge of the bed.

"Don't take this the wrong way," Yuniph began. "I'm glad you're free from slavery. I'm glad Ima and Ita have found you again. But you're a stranger to me – a stranger with my face, but a stranger nonetheless. We should have shared so much growing up, but we didn't. And now there is this woman who has nothing in common with me that's inserted herself into my life. You even stole my friends!"

Tehvay assumed Yuniph meant Trujilon and Ellovene, but she didn't want to invoke logic by pointing out that she hadn't stolen Yuniph's friends. Yuniph was too emotional for that. Right now Yuniph needed to vent, and Tehvay wasn't going to interrupt her.

"I can't relate to your upbringing," Yuniph continued, "the horrors you've endured." She held up her hands. "I'm just being honest. I'm just telling you how I feel. I am grieving the loss of the family unit I had known all my life. Not that finding out I have a sister was a bad thing. It's not. I'm very happy I have a sister."

Tehvay reached out for Yuniph's hand. "So am I."

"It's just…"

"It's just that you wish it was someone more like you."

Yuniph drew her hand away. "Yes. That makes me a bad person, I know."

"No it doesn't. It just makes you, you," said Tehvay. "Kikola is going through a similar adjustment. Everyone around her is different from the people she is used to. She finds it difficult to fit in. It doesn't make her a bad person, just like not knowing how to cope with me doesn't make you a bad person."

"That's good of you to say," Yuniph replied, "but there are times I resent it as well – not so much that you are here a lot."

"No you're right. I do spend a lot of time here. And I can understand why you would resent it, feel suffocated."

"No, I don't feel suffocated. I just said that because I was angry."

"I don't blame you for feeling angry. It was never my intention to make you feel like I was somehow trying to take your place in Ima and Ita's eyes."

"No, I know you weren't. It's me," Yuniph said. "I was feeling left out, an outsider, whenever the conversation turned to your time as a slave. That is an horrific experience that you and our parents share that I will never be able to understand or be a part of. Does that make sense?"

Sadly, it did," Tehvay replied. "I'm sorry. I will try not to talk about it when you're present."

"No! I don't want you to feel that you have to censor yourself when I'm around. It's my issue, so I need to get over it. Besides, it must be the same for you when we reminisce about family memories. I just realised how painful that must be for you," said Yuniph. "I'm sorry."

"No need to apologise. I admit, at first I felt a twinge of sadness that I wasn't here to share those memories with you, but I am very happy to hear about them, because in the retelling, I become part of it."

"You know, now I'm so glad I got my hair cut and stormed off in a fit of pique," said Yuniph. "If I hadn't, we never would have had this conversation!"

Tehvay gave Yuniph a warm hug. As she pulled back and looked at her sister, Tehvay still had a question.

"May I ask you something personal?"


"Why did you get your hair cut today?"

Yuniph hesitated before offering an explanation. "To be honest, I was feeling sorry for myself because I was jealous of you. It was, in hindsight, a childish act of defiance."

"Getting your haircut?"

Yuniph got up and looked at her reflection in the mirror again. "Yes. I did it to get back at Ima and Ita for lavishing all this attention on you," Yuniph confessed. "I'm not proud of it, now that I've had time to reflect."

Tehvay stood and joined Yuniph at the mirror. She was taken by just how alike they looked now that Yuniph's hair was a similar length to her own. "I have a confession to make."

"Oh, what's that?" Yuniph asked.

"I am jealous of you sometimes."

"You are jealous of me? Why?" Yuniph questioned.

"Perhaps jealous is too strong – envious," Tehvay replied. "I am envious of the close bond you have with our parents, especially with Ima. No matter how close we all become as a family going forward, I will never know what it is like to be raised by loving parents or grow up with a sister and best friend. And I resent the years taken from us by a cruel twist of fate."

Yuniph glanced away.

Tehvay gathered Yuniph's hands in hers. "But I am grateful too – grateful that we have the rest of our lives together. And that's what we should focus on – not what we've lost, but what we've gained. Let's start right here, right now being sisters. What do you say?"

Yuniph grinned. "I say, let's go eat some birthday cake – sister!"

The words were sincere. Tehvay believed Yuniph truly meant it. However, she also knew the issues had not been resolved in one conversation. But it was a big step in the right direction. Tehvay turned to gaze at their reflections in the mirror once more. Yuniph turned to look as well. Their eyes met in the glass.

"Sister," said Tehvay, and smiled.


The ship was fast. Too fast.

"Back off!" ordered Kikola.

"Are you crazy? They're getting away!" shouted the pilot.

"And we are not going to catch them if we follow them. Once they hit the atmosphere they will have to slow down. We can move faster than them up here. They are being tracked and we can intercept when they try to leave. Now, back off."

The pilot grumbled and broke off the chase. The quarry disappeared from visual but the sensors still had them.

Kikola hit the comm. "Interceptor Four, this is Interceptor One. Move to co-ordinates eight-zero, minus three-five. Wait there."


"Interceptor Three, this is Interceptor One. Hold position over the southern pole."


"Interceptor Two, this is Interceptor One. Move to co-ordinates minus eight-zero, minus one-one-five."


Kikola turned to the pilot. "They are flying low over the ocean. They know they are not welcome so will try and leave the atmosphere before reaching land, here," she tapped the screen. "So get above there."

"This better work," he muttered.

A head poked into the cockpit. "Why haven't we caught them yet?" asked Rikana.

"Patience," said Kikola. The sensor showed the target was climbing. "All Interceptors converge on me, now!"

"Shall I—" The pilot started to ask, but Kikola knew what he was going to say.


The pilot punched a button on the console in front of him. A stream of energy shot out of the lead interceptor ship causing a large ball of heated plasma in the upper atmosphere. The slave raider's ship was travelling too fast to avoid it.

"That'll blind 'em," chuckled the pilot.

"Well done," said Kikola. "Get alongside them."

"Now?" asked Rikana with a big grin.

"Now," said Kikola and followed the younger woman to the airlock.

Rikana was continually bouncing on the balls of her feet in anticipation, while Kikola remained passive. The contact light came on.

"Come on," urged Rikana. The seal light came on. "That's it!" She pushed a button and the door slid open revealing the airlock door of the slaver's ship. Without waiting for instruction, she sprayed the liquid explosive on the door, placed the detonator and stood back. Only then did she look to Kikola. A simple nod was all it took, and she detonated the explosive.

As the smoke cleared a hole large enough to walk through had appeared in the airlock door.

Kikola tossed in a stun grenade, and Rikana rushed in as soon as it had gone off. Kikola shook her head at Rikana's impetuous nature, and followed her colleague through the blast hole and onto the slaver's ship. There were two bodies just outside the airlock, knocked out by the grenade. That left four more, if the sensors were correct. Kikola cuffed the unconscious figures and moved on.

Weapons fire caught her attention and Kikola hurried on. She found Rikana cuffing two more inert bodies. "One's holed up in the 'pit, the other ran off down there." She nodded to a stairwell.

"I will take the one in the cockpit," said Kikola.

Rikana said nothing before heading off. Kikola inched towards the open door to the cockpit. A shot whizzed out, and she ducked.

"You are beaten. Surrender," Kikola ordered.

"I ain't beaten 'til you drag me out of 'ere." The reply was punctuated by another shot.

"If that is how you want me to do it." Kikola tossed in another grenade. When the smoke cleared, she went in and handcuffed the disoriented criminal .

Kikola headed down the steps to find Rikana. She heard the sounds of something hard hitting flesh and bone from outside the hold. She entered and saw Rikana standing over the prone body of the final raider, raining angry blows down on it with a chain. There were a lot of chains in the hold, designed to secure people by the throat to the wall. The raider was long dead, but still Rikana swung the chain and cursed every time it made contact.

Kikola stood back and waited for Rikana to tire. Eventually the woman gave up, dropped the chain, and silently walked back to the interceptor without a word.


After returning to headquarters, the surviving slavers had been put in the cells. Kikola and Rikana had written up their reports and were now waiting for Yuniph to read them. Yuniph looked up at the pair.

"Your reports—" she began.

"Are accurate," said Rikana.

"I was going to say vague."

"There is not much to put in it, Sergeant," said Kikola. "We boarded the ship, stunned five and brought them into custody. The sixth died before being apprehended."

"Their injuries were—"

"They resisted." Rikana stared straight ahead.

Yuniph looked at Kikola.

"They resisted, Sergeant," said Kikola.

She sighed heavily. "Very well. Dismissed."

The two officers walked silently down the corridor to go and sign out. As if by some unknown communication, they both came to a halt near the stairway down to the lobby area. Rikana stared out of a window at the evening gloom. Kikola studied the floor.

Eventually Rikana spoke. "This doesn't make us friends or anything, but, thank you for not saying anything."

"I do not desire you as a friend," said Kikola, and looked up. "However, I do not dislike working with you."

Rikana turned from the window, a frown creasing her forehead. "Speak properly."

Kikola ignored her barb. "I know what happened to your parents. I know the anger you must have felt confronting that raider, seeing those chains and knowing that your parents could have met their fate that way if they weren't killed."

Rikana sniffed and looked away. "I don't want your sympathy."

"It is not sympathy. I am saying I understand your anger. Please accept some advice. Keep that anger in check. If you are going into a situation like that again, or any combat situation, remain calm. Anger is distracting. It attracts the attention of your enemies. It gives them something to use against you."

Rikana shook her head causing the barely contained mass of curls of her hair to sweep across her back. "I don't want your advice, either."

"You might not want it, but you need it."

The young officer raised her fist and looked like she was about to punch the wall. Instead, she exhaled noisily and tapped the wall gently. "So you never feel angry?"

"Feel it, yes. Show it, no." Kikola moved into Rikana's eye line. "Every time you throw an insult my way, I get angry. I want to react and lash out at you. However, I know that you have reasons to mistrust The Hegemony and, by association, me. I know that reacting to that anger and destroying you would serve no purpose. And I know that giving in to that anger would be a sign of weakness."

"What's your secret for combat situations? How do you stop yourself from showing anger?"

Kikola recognised a shift in the tone of voice of the younger woman. For all her lack of breeding and abrasive ways, Rikana had a sense of honour. Kikola decided that given a sense of purpose and a bit of guidance, there could be an understanding between them.

"Win," said Kikola. "There is only one goal of any conflict and that is to win. Focus on that and use whatever advantage you can to secure victory. Know your enemy's weaknesses and exploit them. And as I said, show no weaknesses of your own."

"Simple as that?" Rikana showed genuine interest.

"The theory is simple. The execution takes practice. That is why we spend ten years training before being given command."

"What if you can't win?"

"Survive. If you survive, then you can win another day. But make sure you do. Never let an enemy think you are beaten for good."

"And if you can't win or survive?" Rikana asked.

"Then you lose."

"Surely you go for the noble death?" Rikana took a skipping leap to the top of the stairs. "Take as many of them with you before you go? Aaaarrgh!" She mimed throwing herself down the stairs.

Kikola allowed a laugh, and then turned serious again. "There is nothing noble about dying in battle. If you die, you lose. We do not accept losing."

"We? Or do you mean 'them'? The Heggers?"

"I mean 'we'. Me and whoever is on my side."

Rikana approached Kikola and stared her straight in the eye. "Then you better pick your side carefully."

Kikola smiled. "You learn quickly, but—" she moved with lightning speed, grabbing the younger woman and pinning her to the wall, "—you still have much to learn. Choose your side carefully and I might teach you."

Rikana laughed. "I'll let you live, for now, while you may be of some use."

"Good," said Kikola. "You're not showing weakness, but you can't win this battle. How do you survive it?"

Rikana tried moving, but Kikola had her immobilised. "I guess I made a mistake somewhere."

"You did. You were over-confident. You underestimated me and got within my range." Kikola relaxed and let Rikana go.

A passing colleague gave them a curious look. Rikana told him what he could do. Kikola thought it physically impossible.

Kikola continued. "As well as knowing your enemy's weaknesses, know their strengths. In close quarters unarmed combat with me, you will not win, or survive. On that slaver ship you won because they underestimated you. News will get out that slaver ships will be targeted if they come here, so the next one that tries will be prepared for us to intercept it. They'll be better armed and ready to use force. Do what you did today, and you will lose. If you lose, I lose, and I don't like losing."

"Neither do I," said Rikana.

The younger woman held out a hand, Kikola reached out to take it and was caught by surprise when Rikana moved the hand away and lightly tapped her on the cheek. "Ha, ha. Gotcha."

"Or did I let you win?"

Rikana frowned. "There has got to be something I'm better at than you."

Kikola nodded. "There is… I… Asta told me about the present you gave Tehvay. That you make them."

"That's right. What of it?"

"You never struck me as the artistic type." Kikola gasped. "Sorry, that was judgemental of me."

Rikana cackled. "If you can't judge others, who can you judge? It's no fun judging yourself!"

"No it's not," Kikola agreed. "I find I am constantly judging myself on Trengos. Am I fitting in? Am I acting too much like an Elit?"

"Hey! I judge you enough, so you don't have to."

"That's very kind of you," said Kikola, and smiled.

"That's judging me! I'm not kind," said Rikana with mock sternness. "At least not your kind, as I have pointed out before!"

Laughing with Rikana felt good to Kikola. Growing up she had often wanted to share in the laughter of others, but she had been shaped to be the best, most efficient military officer she could be. Laughter was not a part of that plan.

"Back to those animal figures," said Kikola after the laughter subsided.

"My…" Rikana hesitated. "My mother taught me. She was the real artist in the family. They're not that hard to make. Don't tell anyone," she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and leaned forward, her eyes darted left and right. "I use a mould." She straightened up. "I just paint them."

"I have always wanted to paint," said Kikola, "but it wasn't meant to be."

"Why not?"

"I was meant to be an aloyd, not an artist. It's deemed unnecessary to train for a role one is not fulfilling."

"Heggers, you're so weird." Rikana paused. "Does that word bother you?"

"What word?"


"Should it?"

Rikana snorted. "Some people think it's offensive."

"It's only a word."

"You should."

"Should what?" asked Kikola. "Find it offensive?"

"No, stupid. Paint – if you want to."

"You're the second person who told me I should paint."

"Let me guess – Miss V. was the first."

"Yes." Kikola smiled at the name Rikana used for Tehvay.

"Do you want to or not?" Rikana pressed.

"I don't know."

"Look, if you want to paint, I can give you the address of the shop where I get my supplies."

"That's very kind of you, though I am not sure I would know what to buy, or where to start."

"Don't worry. Olliad is very patient with newbies. She should be able to give you the name of a teacher. You can see how good you are before buying."

"My thanks."

"Don't get all gushy. It's just an address." Rikana transferred the information to Kikola's comm device. "This still doesn't mean we're friends."

"Right, not friends. Got it."

"Though I guess you're not half bad, as Heggers go."

"High praise, coming from you."

"I guess you're anxious to get home to Miss V.?"

"Tehvay is going to another PPG meeting tonight. Aren't you going?"

"Nah. Been. Signed up." Rikana grinned and spread her arms wide. "Killed a fucking slaver!" The grin faded.

"Is that the first person you've killed?"

Rikana shook her head. She reached behind her head and pulled her hair free. "Killed a few bad guys on duty. The bosses prefer us to use stun settings, at least on those we want to talk with later. But if you're exchanging fire and they're trying to kill you, it's allowed. Stun setting is not as accurate on these things." She patted the IPB on her hip.

"You seemed accurate enough when you shot me at the spaceport."

Rikana shrugged. "I got close. Must have been my lucky day, something was distracting you."

"I guess I forgot my own training," said Kikola with a wry smile.

"What about you? You killed anyone?"

Kikola thought back to all the lives she had taken. "Yes," she said quietly. Then she thought of Supreme-Aloyd Taliss. "Only one of them deserved it though."

"Let me buy you a drink," said Rikana. "There's a lot we can learn from each other. You can teach me more about military tactics, and I can teach you how to loosen up a bit."

Yuniph was working late, so Kikola's plan was to catch the transport home, get a meal from the dispenser, and wait for Tehvay to return. Rikana's offer sounded better. "I would like that. Is there a good restaurant nearby? You can buy me a drink, and I will buy you something to eat."

"A good restaurant? Do you want good décor, good service, or good food?" Rikana asked. "You'll be hard pressed to get all three."

"I will leave it up to your judgement!"

Rikana cackled and they headed downstairs.


As the front door closed behind her, Kikola reflected on the evening she had spent with Rikana. The young woman had given Kikola a list of where she considered the best places in Dansek to eat, shop, or get drunk. Kikola was, in fact, pleasantly surprised by the restaurant Rikana had chosen for their meal. It was small, hidden away down a narrow alley off a side road from the main shopping thoroughfare. On entering, the waiter immediately called for a beer for Rikana. It turned out to be a regular haunt for the young officer. While the décor itself left a lot to be desired, the service was quick, friendly, and human – most food outlets went for automated servers since they were more efficient. Kikola found the food to be quite palatable by Trengosian standards.

The dinner conversation had been informative, though Rikana did most of the talking. Either she tried to make jokes, some of which Kikola found funny, others that just went over her head, or she bombarded Kikola with questions. Kikola was more at ease discussing their intercept mission and exchanging ideas on how to go about policing. Kikola tried to impart her military training, while Rikana explained why it wouldn't work on the streets, or grudgingly accepted that Kikola's idea was a good one. By the end, Kikola felt they understood each other better.

After a quick shower, Kikola changed into a sleeveless vest and loose fitting trousers. She headed back downstairs just as Tehvay came through the front door.

Tehvay smiled and came to Kikola for a kiss, and Kikola was happy to oblige.

"How was the meeting?" Kikola asked.

"Good. I need to get something to eat." Tehvay moved by Kikola to the kitchen. "Do you want anything?" she asked over her shoulder.

"I have already eaten, thanks."

"Okay. Go sit down." Tehvay nodded to the sitting room. "I'll come and join you in a bit."

Kikola happily did as instructed and settled on the settee. Tehvay soon joined her, carrying a plate of food in one hand and a drink in the other. She sat down, placed her drink on the low table in front of them, and cozied up to Kikola. Kikola draped her arm over Tehvay's shoulders and watched her partner tuck into the dispenser meal.

"We heard the news," said Tehvay as she swallowed.


"Mm-hm," Tehvay hummed as she leaned forward to take a mouthful of her drink. "The successful intercept." She beamed a wide smile at Kikola. "Slave raiders in custody. It's brilliant news!"

"Yes. Very good."

"When the audience heard that news, I think it doubled the number that signed up. It's great, a positive result so soon after implementing the plan. So tell me about it." Tehvay took another bite. She didn't wait to swallow all of it before adding. "I take it you were involved."

"Yes. Rikana and I boarded the ship and apprehended the culprits."


"And what?"

"I want details." Tehvay grinned and gently nudged Kikola in the ribs. "I want to be able to tell the group what a hero you are. I'm so proud of you."

"I was just doing my job."

"You're too modest. Go on, tell me."

"I can't. It is up to the Dansek Security Force, probably Commander Simeal, to release any details. All I can tell you is what you already know."

Kikola hated to see the look of disappointment on Tehvay's face. What harm would it do to share some unclassified information? Kikola thought. "What do you want to know?"

Tehvay put her food down on the table, threw her leg up on the settee, and turned to face Kikola. "Well, I know a slave raider ship was intercepted, boarded, and ten arrests were made. Was it just you and Rikana against all ten of them? I can't imagine they just handed themselves over when you boarded. Were there ten? Or more?"

"I can't confirm the number." Kikola leaned forward and reached for Tehvay's drink. "Do you mind?"

"No, go right ahead."

Kikola lifted the glass to her mouth and took a sip, and then placed it back on the table in front of Tehvay. "I can confirm that they didn't come quietly."

"Are you saying they resisted?" A surprised look appeared on Tehvay's face. "Did they fight back?"

Kikola didn't respond immediately, weighing how much of the details she should share.

Tehvay's eyes grew wider. "Were you in danger?"

"Do not worry. I am fine."

"Yes, but you might not have been."

"I have been in more dangerous situations." Kikola smiled reassuringly. "And your attempt to elicit more information will not succeed."

Tehvay gave a comical pout and settled once more against Kikola. "So what have you been doing this evening? Not too lonely on your own?"

"No. I was not on my own. I had a meal with Rikana after we finished our shift."

"That's nice." Tehvay shifted to look at Kikola. "Are you becoming friends now?"

Kikola recalled Rikana's avowal that they were not friends. "No. But I am beginning to understand her a little better."

"Oh? What did you talk about?" Tehvay took another bite of her food.

Kikola absent-mindedly reached out and wiped some food from the corner of Tehvay's mouth with her index finger. Tehvay caught Kikola's finger in her mouth and closed her lips around it. A growing heat spread slowly through Kikola as Tehvay sucked and licked her finger.

"She told… me…"

Tehvay pulled her head back and glanced up at Kikola. "Told you… what?" Tehvay didn't wait for the answer. She straightened Kikola's second finger and took both fingers in her mouth again. Kikola was so fixated on what Tehvay's lips and tongue were doing that she abandoned all conversation and sought Tehvay's lips with her own.

She opened her mouth and welcomed Tehvay's exploration. Their kiss was interrupted when Tehvay's plate slipped to the floor.

"Leave it," breathed Tehvay. She shifted position, straddling Kikola's lap, pinning her to the seat.

As Tehvay's lips locked to hers, Kikola felt a tugging at the drawstring on her trousers. She leaned back, eager to help facilitate Tehvay's advances.

Tehvay pulled Kikola's trousers down. Her hand descended. Kikola let out a breathy moan as two fingers pushed past her labia. The moment was over as soon as it happened. Tehvay pulled back and raised her right hand. The tips of the first two fingers glistened.

Tehvay placed her second finger in her mouth and used her index finger to beckon Kikola closer. Kikola obeyed. She took Tehvay's finger in her mouth and tasted her own essence. Tongues probed around fingers, seeking each other. Hoping to do the same to Tehvay, Kikola slid her hand down until it found the bare flesh of Tehvay's leg, and then it changed direction, lifting the fabric of Tehvay's skirt out of the way. Tehvay did not object, so Kikola slowly moved her hand up Tehvay's thigh. She felt Tehvay's muscles tense. Should I stop , thought Kikola. Tehvay relaxed. Taking that as a sign to continue, Kikola moved her hand again, and this time Tehvay allowed Kikola to touch her clitoris, Kikola's heart pounded as she let her fingers probe lower.

Fists pushed at Kikola's chest. Tehvay grunted. It took Kikola less than a second to realise what was happening. She withdrew her hand.

"No! No!" Tehvay skittered backwards and sat heavily on the low table, sending her drink to the floor. She turned her head to avoid Kikola's eyes. "Sorry. No," she muttered.

After taking a few moments for both of them to settle, Kikola gently reached out. Her fingers brushed Tehvay's fingers. Tehvay responded and their fingers entwined.

"I am sorry," said Kikola.

"It's my fault."

"No," Kikola said firmly. "This is not your fault. Don't ever say that. Don't ever think that."

Kikola had never felt so helpless as Tehvay flung herself against her chest and cried. All she could do was hold her and love her.



The epicentre of political life on Kalenth was The Civic, a complex of governmental offices that included the Departments of Justice, Commerce, Science, and the Arts, to name a few, as well as the Elit Military Academy, and The Council Chambers. The Council Chambers was a grand edifice designed in the neo-classical style of the First Expansion, when the seat of government moved from the capital city of Ralkatar to a location some two hundred and thirty kilometres away. The building had five sides, representing the five original families that formed The Hegemony. The outer walls were made entirely of photochromic-graphene composite glass that automatically lightened and darkened based upon ambient light levels.

The Council was gathering for an emergency session. A single representative from each of the ninety-one Elit families was either present or connected via a secure communications link.

Ambra settled into her seat and waited. She was planning to address The Council today, and rather than make small talk with the other councillors around her, she sat alone going over in her mind what she wanted to say. She looked out of the nearest set of doors. The overcast sky meant the outer walls were clear. She observed the people walking across the Civic campus, oblivious to what was about to happen inside these hallowed walls. A bell sounded and the doors started to close. Ambra gave one last look out at the ordered buildings that made up the Civic. Will it look the same when those doors re-open? she pondered.

The large metallic doors on each of the five sides closed in unison with barely a click. Ambra started to feel a rush like she was standing on the edge of cliff and about to step off. She was ready to put her plans into motion and shake this august body to its core.

Chairman Guljein ap Maldan, an imposing figure with greying temples, took his place behind a tall wooden desk on a raised dais at the apex of the pentagon-shaped room. The desk incorporated a leather seat covered by an intricately carved canopy that featured the Great Seal of The Kalenth Hegemony: five gold rings, representing the five founding families, above a star field, a ribbon weaved through the stars and rings, binding them together. The ribbon represented the ideals of The Hegemony and the five words of the official motto were etched on the ribbon in the ancient language as it passed over each of the rings: Dothi, Cyfaw, Cydra, Fynia, Cymda. Wisdom, Justice, Equality, Prosperity, Society.

Much simpler, more utilitarian, desks for each of the other ninety council members were positioned around the rest of the chambers, angled towards the chairman's position. He called for order and everyone took their seats.

"This meeting has been called under Article Twelve by Councillor Lothila ap Taliss and supported by Councillor Toman ap Karthen," Maldan announced. "As allowed, Councillor Taliss now cedes the floor to the designated head of the Taliss family, Darith Durell ap Taliss."

A hologram of the lean face of Darith ap Taliss appeared in front of the chairman's position at the front of the room. Images of it were also projected on monitors at each councillor's desk.

"Darith Durell ap Taliss, The Council recognises your right to address it," declared the chairman.

"Thank you, Chairman Maldan," said Taliss. "As you are all aware, a member of The Council, Ambra ap Lentol, entered the Governor of Yun'thul's residence unannounced and accused a Taliss family member of helping a slave escape and of engaging in unnatural practices with her own slave. This accusation was without evidence. The family member was interrogated without legal representation. The family member was coerced into making a false confession and then made to watch her slave be put down in an unusually cruel manner. All of this was done without any legal right or authority from The Council."

A low murmur rose up from the council members in attendance.

Ambra stood up at her desk. "With respect, I am a sworn member of The Council, and therefore all my actions are Council sanctioned."

"Councillor Lentol, you will be given your chance to respond. Please sit down and wait for the appropriate time," Chairman Maldan admonished her.

"My apologies." Ambra sat back down.

"Please continue."

"Thank you," said Taliss. "Councillor Lentol's actions were provocative. They were purely for the purpose of besmirching the good name of the Taliss family. I hereby submit an action to formally censure Councillor Lentol and require that suitable reparations be made."

"Thank you Mr. Taliss. Councillor Lentol you have the right to explain your actions before a decision is made whether to proceed with a vote on the proposed action."

Ambra appeared outwardly calm. Inside she was churning. She wanted to take a deep breath, but knew that would be a sign of weakness. Now to take the first step, she thought. She glanced around the assembly room and met the gaze of several representatives whom she had approached beforehand for support.

Ambra rose from her seat and walked to the front of the room. In contrast to her usual black suit, Ambra wore a red suit so that she would stand out from the other councillors and could be seen from the back of the chambers.

She climbed up to a podium just below and to the left of the chairman. On the podium was a pitcher of water and a glass. A less confident person would pour some water and take a drink. Not Ambra. She deliberately moved it to one side and began speaking.

"In response to the ludicrous suggestion that my actions were not authorised, I remind everyone that I am Council Member for Military Operations. As such, I oversee the military. That includes investigating any misdeeds by those in the military. Aloyd Kikola ap Karthen was a military officer. Her actions while serving fall under my jurisdiction. Therefore my interview of Jenissa ap Taliss was fully justified and within my authority."

She paused to glance at the image of Darith ap Taliss and judge his reaction to the dismissal of his claims. He appeared to be annoyed. Good. You're about to get even angrier.

"During the interview, and I stress interview, not interrogation as Darith ap Taliss so offensively claimed, Jenissa ap Taliss admitted that she had feelings for her slave. It wasn't just a case of 'engaging in unnatural practices' as Taliss suggested. It was a profession of love."

There were a few gasps from the assembly.

"The termination of the slave was witnessed by several people who observed Jenissa fall to her knees in grief and cradle the slave's body. So, for anyone to come before The Council and try to dismiss this abomination of our society as some personal attempt on my part to besmirch the name of Taliss is grossly mistaken. They either do not know the full facts or believes the name Taliss carries more weight than the name Lentol."

Murmurs spread through the assembly of councillors. Maldan called for order.

So far Ambra had felt she was in free fall, but now it was as if her feet had stepped gently onto solid ground. I have survived the first step. Now is the time to land the first blow.

"We have a society that has slowly lost its way. A society that has become corrupted from the inside, corrupted by such a slow, insidious corrosion of our morals that we cannot see it for what it is." Her voice was calm, but raised slightly above normal volume. She wanted everyone to hear every word.

"We are weak ." She allowed the last word to sink in. The Elit despised weakness. It was something to be pitied in others. To call another Elit weak was a great insult.

Ambra asked the question on every councillor's mind. "Why are we weak?" she asked. "Because we train our children to be artists and business leaders, authors and musicians.

"We are meant to be strong.

"We are meant to conquer.

"We are meant to rule.

"We are meant to be equal, but we are not.

Ambra paused and cast her gaze around the room before continuing.

"Let us examine The Sylfainer."

She allowed the word 'Sylfainer' to sink in. The families that founded The Hegemony were given the honorific 'Sylfainer'. The title had fallen out of common use, but was still maintained in official Council business.

"The Maldan family. The esteemed leader of this Council is a member of the Maldan family. Are you aware that over seventy percent of all Council leaders have been from The Sylfainer? The majority of those have been Maldans. Is that the equality The Kalenth Hegemony was founded on?" She didn't wait for any response. The pretence that this was anything other than a statement of intent was gone. She raised the volume of her voice a bit more.

"The Willenth family. Twenty of the top twenty-five Elit businesses are owned or co-owned by the Willenth family. Was The Hegemony established to make them rich? If they want money, let them run their businesses, but let us not call them Elit.

"The D'Angel family. Famous for its great artists, poets, and sculptors. Can we rule the people with art?" Her verbal blows were coming fast. She could see faces getting angry. Some angry that the very fabric of their society was being attacked, others that such a travesty had been allowed to continue for so long. She wasn't about to relent on her onslaught.

"The Taliss family and the Karthen family. Are they as useless as the others?" Ambra paused for dramatic effect. "'But they are strong families,' I hear you say."

Anger began to show in her voice.

"Yes. Out of the fourteen Rivelors that have shaped this great Hegemony, there have been five from the Karthen family, three from the Taliss. Only two of the others have been from outside The Sylfainer. And the latest Rivelor, Kikola ap Karthen, turned out to be a degenerate who indulges in debauched acts with her female slave! And what do we do?

"We turn a blind eye and hand the position of Rivelor to the Taliss family. The Taliss family that also condones acts of depravity from one of its own with another slave. Jenissa ap Taliss with her female slave!"

There were audible gasps from some and agreement from others.

"Two families that worked together to try and hide such unconscionable, disgusting, perverted behaviour. Mariantha ap Karthen was present when I arrived on Yun'thul. She tried to stop my lawful actions. She comforted Jenissa ap Taliss after the slave was put down."

"This disease has infected the very heart of the Elit, and we need to cut it out to make us strong again."

Ambra waited for the clamour from the assembly to fade away. She lowered her voice and slowed the pace of delivery.

"We Elit are soldiers, politicians, governors.

"These are the Elit roles we must fulfil. These are the Elit roles that make us strong. Not scientists, businessmen, artists... you know the rest of the list.

"We need to get rid of The Sylfainer. Excommunicate them. Make them Fethusal. They are no longer fit to have control over this so-called equal society."

She smiled to herself. After her tirade, her casual call for the removal of the founding families passed by with barely any strong reaction.

She raised her voice and picked up the pace of her speech.

"We cannot carry dead weight.

"We must make ourselves leaner and stronger if we are to survive.

"The Sylfainer are no longer needed. If we want The Hegemony to prosper and expand, we need to discard the old and embrace the new. We need to adapt if we want to survive.

"If we lose respect for ourselves, the Quernal will lose respect for us!

"If the Quernal lose respect for us, they won't need us!

"The whole of the Elit will suffer!

"We need to act before it's too late! We need to act now! We need to cure ourselves before the Quernal take it upon themselves to put us out of our misery!"

The swell of voices had risen and fallen as her speech went on, but when Ambra stepped back after finishing her speech, pandemonium erupted. Heated debates broke out among the councillors. The council members for the founding families found themselves being barraged from all sides. Only Chairman Maldan seemed immune to the argument. He glared across from his dais at Ambra. She smiled back.

"Order!" bellowed Maldan. "Order!" Eventually the melee subsided, councillors returned to their seats, and he made an announcement. "As chairman I reject the action brought before this Council today. And I remind Councillor Lentol to refrain from making inflammatory speeches that border on treason in future."

Ambra addressed the chairman. "I wish my speech to be considered a proposed action. I want a vote on the need for reforms." She turned her attention to the assembly once more. "We must be united on this, because I intend for us to win this fight one way or another."

Chairman Maldan looked around as if trying to find support. He realised he only had one option. "We will reconvene in twenty-five hours. We will discuss any reasonable reform proposals that Councillor Lentol wishes raised. This session is closed. Records to be for Council only."

A bell sounded and the chamber doors re-opened. Ambra left her podium and waited for the chairman. He climbed down from his position and approached her.

"A point of note, Chairman Maldan. I have at my disposal over three quarters of the fleet. Make sure that my proposals are not met with too aggressive an opposition."

"Is that meant to be a threat?"

Ambra smiled. "Yes it is. Very good of you to notice." She walked away from any response he might have given.

She paused at the chamber doors. The sky was still overcast and the clear walls still offered the same view, but the outside world looked very different to Ambra.


Ambra pulled her robe tight as she hurried through her penthouse to answer the comm in her office.

"Lights. Thirty percent." She settled down at her desk, and took a moment to compose herself before answering. Her parents' faces appeared.

Ambra felt a duty to love her parents. It was the Elit way. They both had respectable roles: her father, Benlen, was a diplomat, her mother, Kartrine, was a planetary governor. Yet Ambra felt they were weak.

When her father was sent on pointless missions, he didn't complain. If Benlen ever had an important assignment, he was usually given a subordinate position to another diplomat as part of a team.

Her mother was governor of Edalcim. While it was one of the first planets to become part of The Hegemony, its glory days were long gone. The Hegemony had expanded and what was considered an important outpost fifteen hundred years ago was now seen as little more than a quaint oddity. The population had dwindled to less than a million and her mother seemed disinclined to halt it. No one wanted to live in the old cities that hadn't seen any major new development in centuries, not when they could live in modern luxury on another planet, or live on the nearby capital planet of Kalenth, just a mere seventeen-hour spaceflight away.

Both of them seemed to settle for less. Ambra was not going to do that. So it came as little surprise when they called her after her recent speech in The Council meeting.

"What are you doing?" asked her father. His face conveyed his usual standoffishness when talking to her. No matter how hard Ambra had tried, she couldn't break down that barrier. It had been there her whole life. He had never mistreated her, but she always felt that he never loved her unconditionally – not the way she loved her own children.

"Ambra," said her mother. "We have heard news about The Council meeting. You appear to be stirring up trouble. Say it isn't so." By comparison, her mother's face showed the love she had for Ambra. Yet, Ambra felt she did not deserve it. It was her mother who had instilled in her the imperative to get married and have children. It was her mother who had taught her the proper way for an Elit to behave.

It was down to her mother's teaching about Elit morals that Ambra loathed herself every time she felt attraction to other women, and every time she felt ashamed for feeling repulsed when her husband lay atop her and she did her duty.

"It is so," said Ambra. "We do not have equality in the Elit. I am sick and tired of being at the bottom."

"The bottom?" queried her father. "You have one of the most important roles in Elit society. You have one of the most important positions on The Council. You're not on the bottom."

"It's not just about position, it's about respect. It's not just about me; it's about the family. All families that are not considered part of the inner clique."

"This is not the way to go about things if you want equality," said Benlen. His once fine blonde hair had turned grey and was very thin, almost gone, revealing his baldpate underneath. The lines on his face made it seem lumpy, but the dominant feature was his bulbous nose. Ambra was always grateful that she had inherited that aspect of her features from her mother.

"I don't want equality," said Ambra. "I want to be on top. I want to rule. I want them to know what it is like to be disrespected, to be looked down upon."

"Ambra, it is not the Elit way to look down on other Elit," said Kartrine. Her thin, lined face topped by recently cropped and dyed brown hair was still regal, deserving of the name Elit, but Ambra had long ago learned to read the bitterness behind the pretence of strength and nobility.

"Then tell those Elit that look down on us. Tell those that honoured you with the title of Governor, but gave you a backwater planet, not worthy of being governed by a Lentol."

Ambra's parents had been old when she was born: her mother was fifty-five, her father sixty. She was their only child, and until now she felt like their only disappointment.

"You are creating hostility where it should not be," her father stated coldly.

"I am eliminating hostility where it should not be. I see no need to continue this discussion. I have made my decision. The Council will be taking a vote. There is no going back now."

"Ambra—" her mother started to speak.

"Goodbye." Ambra terminated the communication. She stayed at her desk for a few more minutes, expecting her parents to call back, but they didn't.

Eventually she got up and walked to the window. The weather had closed in as night fell, and the usual galaxy of lights beneath her was limited and diffused. The sound of the rain, pattering against the window as the gusts of wind ebbed and flowed, made her feel uneasy.

"Sarray, drin—" Ambra sighed. She had left Sarray tied to the bed. She wandered over to a side table and poured herself a durmywid. She settled down in a chair and turned on the news.

The main news headline concerned the report that the tensions between the Losper Empire and the Andantian Republic were escalating and shots had been exchanged along their border in the disputed Aquin system.

Other items were of less interest. A new, faster transport ship service had started operation between several of the core planets. A contract to build a new manufacturing complex on Franlence had been signed. And sporting results.

The local headlines were just as boring.

Wait until they hear my news, Ambra thought as she settled back and drained her glass.


The Council Chambers had an electric buzz to it. Tensions were high among the council members in attendance. Ambra's proposal for reform was up for vote. There were formalities to observe. A short statement from the proposer and a counter statement from an opponent would be made, and then the topic would be open for discussion. Any council member could voice an opinion and the proponent and opponent would have right of reply.

Ambra stepped up to the podium at the front of the room and looked out over the assembled faces. This was her moment.

"Sixteen hundred years ago, our founders had a vision. A society governed equally by an Elit few. Unfortunately the descendants of those people have lost that vision. They don't share the power equally.

"So now is the time for a new Elit. It is time for The Sylfainer, which have skewed power in their favour, to be removed. It is time not for change, but a re-establishment of the social order. A return to old values, with new families.

"If I win this motion, then any family that votes against me will find themselves discarded with The Sylfainer.

"Vote wisely."

Subdued murmurs followed as Ambra stepped down from the podium.

Chairman Maldan called for order as Toman ap Karthen stepped up to the podium. All eyes turned their attention on him. He filled the glass from the pitcher of water.

He looks scared, thought Ambra. He should be.

"This Council has had its divisions in the past, but has always spoken with one voice after a vote has been cast. Councillor Lentol spoke of old values. That united voice is the oldest value that the founders laid down. No matter what internal differences we have, one family, one vote, one answer, one voice. Vote for her proposal, and we will lose that voice and that core value."

He paused to take a sip of water.

"The Hegemony has only ever got larger and stronger, and the Elit has done the same. Let it continue to do so."

Toman stepped down.

He already looks defeated, thought Ambra gleefully.

Councillor Maldan addressed the meeting. "We have heard a statement from the delegates for and against. I am opening the floor up to discuss the matter before any vote."

Ambra looked around and saw many council members signalling for attention.

"Councillor Kendai," Maldan announced. "You may speak."

The representative from the Kendai family stood behind his desk and addressed the assembly. "The Kendai have served as members of the Elit for close to eight-hundred years, yet are still looked down upon by the Sylfainer as newcomers. I can only imagine how members of the Talcolga and Despani families, our newest members, must seem to them."

Ambra looked towards the representatives from the families mentioned. Councillor Talcolga was nodding his head vigorously in agreement. Councillor Despani on the other hand kept her face neutral.

Councillor Kendai relinquished the floor.

"Councillor Karthen, you have right of reply."

Toman ap Karthen stood up at his desk. "I would like to remind The Council, and Councillor Kendai, that length of membership of the Elit has no bearing on the closeness to any family, Sylfainer or otherwise. My own son married into the Despani family. He even took their name. Also the Lentol family have had close ties with the Karthen family and have enjoyed the support and friendship from my family over the years. Councillor Lentol's parents were close friends of my late brother, Strambik ap Karthen."

"Councillor Lentol, you have right of reply."

Ambra got to her feet and addressed her comments to Councillor Karthen. "I have not forgotten my parents were close friends with your brother." She turned her head to look around at the other councillors. "It was even proposed that I marry his son, but that was vetoed by his wife, Mariantha. She only maintained a perfunctory friendship with my parents after Strambik's death and that has dwindled to non-existent at this point in time. And for those that do not know, Mariantha was a Willenth, before marriage." She sat back down.

Councillor Maldan selected another to speak. "Councillor Genacket. You may speak."

The Genacket representative remained seated at his desk. He was a frail man; at one hundred and twenty-five he was the oldest serving councillor. His voice wavered as he spoke.

"The Genacket family was admitted into the Elit at the same time as the Kendai family, yet unlike the Kendai family, we have earned respect by being valued members. And you, girl." He raised a withered arm and pointed at Ambra. "You advocate this decimation of all we as Elit have achieved because of a minor issue that does not warrant discussion at this level."

"Councillor Lentol, you have right of reply."

"The Genacket family was not admitted into the Elit. It was formed by a branch of the Maldan family. As several other families were also created from branches of The Sylfainer. As if they do not have enough power biased towards them." Ambra stood up to deliver the conclusion to her rebuttal.

"And to suggest that this is a minor issue shows how out of touch some Elit are becoming. We had someone chosen to be the Rivelor fall in love and run off with a slave. Perhaps one of you can explain how that is in line with Elit standards. Standards that we dedicate our lives to uphold."

"Councillor Karthen, you have right of reply."

Councillor Karthen had remained standing at his desk. He turned to look everyone in the eye, before settling on Ambra. Ambra smiled sweetly and sat down.

"There are standards. There are rules. There are laws," Karthen began. "If Councillor Lentol is dedicating her life to uphold standards, then she is focussing on the wrong thing. We make the laws. We uphold the laws. If someone breaks them, then they are punished. But rules are not laws and neither are standards. If someone breaks a rule, they are not punished with the full might of the law. If someone does not conform to the standards we set, they are looked upon with scorn, or mocked. They are not executed. They are not imprisoned. They are not used as an excuse for revolution. My niece broke no laws. She breached no rules. She merely chose to go against the standards we set for ourselves. Ourselves . And that is the crucial word." He paused to scan the assembly. "Councillor Lentol speaks of history. Standards change, rules change, laws change. And the only change that sees us become stronger is for the changes to move forward, not backwards."

As Toman sat back down Ambra could detect a shift in the room. Council members that had been neutral or only leaning slightly in her favour looked to be in agreement with Karthen.

"Councillor Augree. You may speak."

"As you all know I was vocal in condemnation of the actions of former Aloyd Karthen when she killed Supreme-Aloyd Taliss. I felt her actions demanded a severe punishment, but The Council voted for a minor reprimand. It was not the outcome I wanted, but I accepted it, as did Councillor Lentol who felt the same as me. My reasons for wanting punishment were not borne of malice or hatred for Karthen or her family. It was borne of what I felt was right. What our laws demanded. And that is why I oppose Councillor Lentol's proposal."

"Councillor Lentol, you have right of reply."

Ambra laughed derisively. She didn't even bother to look in Councillor Augree's direction when she countered him. "There are no laws that prevent a restructuring of the Elit. If there were, then it would not have grown."

"Councillor Karthen, you have right of reply."

"Councillor Augree has been a staunch opponent of mine on certain matters in the past, and also a staunch ally on other matters. His honesty and integrity in voicing his opinion and for accepting victory with humility and defeat with grace has been an example to us all. What will happen to those that oppose Councillor Lentol in her proposed new vision for the Elit? Will she try to get rid of them as she is trying to do with The Sylfainer now?"

Voices of support for Karthen sounded. Ambra seethed inside. She stood up to make her rebuttal but was cut off by Councillor Maldan.

"Councillor Karthen, you will refrain from speculating as to the future actions of Council members."

"Apologies, Chairman Maldan."

"Your comments will be struck from the record."

The bastard, thought Ambra. Karthen knew exactly what he was doing. The words might be struck from the record, but not the minds of those that heard them.

Other councillors voiced their opinions, some for, others against Ambra, but little was said that swayed any fence sitters to change their minds.

Finally it came to the vote.

The wait was agonising. It went on far too long for Ambra. Far longer than it should have. Ambra's monitor showed that one more vote needed to be cast. Whether that vote was enough to sway the outcome or not was not shown.

Eventually the ninety-first and final vote was registered and the final result was displayed for all to see. Ambra's heart sank when she saw 'For: 45' appear.

Uproar filled the chamber. It took a while for Ambra to filter the noise and realise that no one was celebrating. Then her eyes read the second line displayed, 'Against: 45'. And the final line, 'Abstention: 1'.

Councillor Maldan once more called for order. "The vote is a tie. Councillor Lentol has the option to withdraw her proposal or call for another vote."

Ambra knew that another vote could not take place within seventy-five hours. I hope that's enough time to find out whom I need to sway. "I wish to re-submit my proposal for a vote."

"We will reconvene in three days," announced Maldan.

Even if I lose the second vote, the damage is done , thought Ambra . The Council is split, and I will make sure the split is final, one way or another.


Ambra had ordered Gral'hilanth to her private quarters on the Relentless to go over possible battle strategies in the event of armed resistance from the founding families. Gral'hilanth was one of the best pilots in the Orion Spur, but her knowledge of tactical formations was rudimentary at best. Her benefactor was not in the mood to tolerate Gral'hilanth's inexperience.

To Gral'hilanth's dismay, the councillor demanded another 'loyalty test'. This time it escalated.

"Sarray, number three."

The slave obeyed its master. It disappeared into the bedroom and returned shortly, naked, and wearing a phallic device. With one nod from her mistress, the slave approached Gral'hilanth.

Gral'hilanth swallowed hard. She received no order from Ambra. It was implied in the order for the slave that she would have to lay there and take it.

This is for the family, she reminded herself as she lowered her trousers.

Ambra sat in a comfortable chair and watched as the slave positioned Gral'hilanth at the end of the table and made her lie back. The slave mounted Gral'hilanth, entering her roughly.

Gral'hilanth was no stranger to rough sex, but the slave took no care to ensure Gral'hilanth's pleasure. She tried to gain some enjoyment out of the experience, and settled a hand on the slave's slender waist.

"No touching," said Ambra. "Just lie there and take it."

Gral'hilanth removed her hand, closed her eyes, and waited for the humiliation to be over.

The slave had been pumping her for several minutes.

Does it never tire?

Gral'hilanth's felt the urgency of an orgasm was imminent. She couldn't bear Ambra being witness to it.

"Okay, Ambra, you've had your fun." Gral'hilanth tried to get up.

The slave pushed her back down.

"That is not for you to decide," said Ambra. "Sarray, harder."

Gral'hilanth tried to control her body's reaction to the thrusts coming hard and fast, but she couldn't. Finally, she had to give in and let go. Her muscles tensed, her body quivered as the orgasm erupted inside of her.

To Gral'hilanth's relief, Ambra finally ordered the slave to stop. Gral'hilanth climbed to her feet.

"Go," Ambra said. "I will call you when I have thought of another suitable loyalty test for you."

What more do you want from me you sick bitch? Gral'hilanth wanted to say, but she swallowed her reply. The bile of resentment, humiliation, and anger left a bitter taste in her mouth, but Gral'hilanth was resolved to comply with everything and anything Ambra's perverted mind could dream up. Maybe she'll grow tired of the games and move on, but then maybe she'll grow tired of me , she thought . What have I got myself into? What choice do I have?

"Yes, Councillor." She quickly dressed and hurried back to her own quarters.

When she got there, her slave was standing next to the wall, eyes downcast, ready to attend.

Ever since Ambra had started her humiliation of her, Gral'hilanth would inflict on her slave the same humiliation she had suffered. Tonight her rage and self-loathing needed a different kind of release – something more visceral and brutal. "Come here," she commanded.

As the slave got within reach, Gral'hilanth backhanded it hard across the face. The slave reeled from the blow, but tried not to react to the painful sting. Gral'hilanth didn't wait for the slave to recover. She swept the slave's legs from under it and kicked it in the kidneys as it hit the floor. Her anger was on full boil, and she was just getting started. Gral'hilanth reached down, grabbed the slave by the neck, and hauled it to its feet.

Gral'hilanth could see the slave was scared, but doing a very good job to maintain its façade of acceptance. That angered her even more. She wanted it to show fear. She wanted it to break down and cry. She wanted it to beg for its life.

"Tell me, slave, should I kill you now? Put an end to your miserable existence?"

"If that is your wish, Mistress."

"No!" Gral'hilanth bellowed as she leaned right into the slave's face. "I am ordering you to tell me. Tell me, shall I kill you right now? Do you want to die, right now ?"

"I cannot say, Mistress," the slave replied blankly. "I live only to serve you, Mistress. It is not my place to want or ask for anything."

The slave's words ran through Gral'hilanth's mind like an indictment of her utter enslavement to Ambra's will. Something inside her snapped. Gral'hilanth grabbed her slave by the hair and forced it to its knees. Her free hand settled around its throat and squeezed. The slave's usually dull eyes were starting to reflect the terror it must have felt as it fought for breath.

Suddenly it was Kamina's face staring up at her. Gral'hilanth gasped. The face of her deceased lover disappeared and was once again her slave's terrified visage.

Gral'hilanth released her grip around the slave's throat and pushed it away. Her anger spent, her mind unnerved, Gral'hilanth retreated to her bedroom, fell back onto the bed, and gave in to exhaustion.

When Gral'hilanth opened her eyes, she was a little disoriented at first, because the room was very dark. "Ambient lights, twenty-five percent" she called out, but nothing happened. She was aware of a naked form lying next to her. It wasn't her slave, that much she could tell. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, her heart leapt. It was Kamina! The same full lips, the same cute dimples. Gral'hilanth reached out to touch her. Kamina laughed, threw the covers off and got out of bed.

"Kami!" Gral'hilanth called out, as the young woman headed for the door.

Kamina smiled and beckoned her to follow. Gral'hilanth followed Kamina into the corridor. The young woman reached a door at the other end. She smiled again as she looked back to see if Gral'hilanth was following her.

"Kami, wait."

The surroundings were very familiar to Gral'hilanth. She had followed Kamina into the cockpit of the Glyndwr , but Kami had disappeared. How could this be?

Kamina's laugh came from behind her. Gral'hilanth turned and just caught a glimpse of Kamina disappearing back down the corridor towards her bunk.

"Kami!" Gral'hilanth called. There was a faint beeping coming from somewhere.

Gral'hilanth gave chase. Kamina stood at the far end of the corridor, her face in shadows.

"Aren't you going to answer that?" Kamina's voice whispered in her ear.

The beeping got louder as Gral'hilanth ran down the corridor. Kamina was in reach now. The beeping intensified. Her hand reached out and Kamina melted away.

Gral'hilanth bolted upright in bed with a start, her heart pounding. It must have been a dream, but she still heard the beeping. As she came into consciousness, she heard a voice calling "Aloyd Falentha". She realised she was back on the Relentless and it was the comm beeping.

She selected voice-only and activated the com. "Aloyd Falentha here."

"Sir, you need to come to the bridge right away," said Captain Eadmon urgently. "We have a situation."


Gral'hilanth entered the bridge, closely followed by Ambra.

"Aloyd on the bridge."

All eyes fixed on Gral'hilanth. She ignored them. "Report!" she demanded of Captain Eadmon.

"A striker group, the Sword and Crusade , entering the system. They should reach orbit in ten minutes."

"What about them?" asked Gral'hilanth.

"They are not responding to communications," replied Eadmon.

"I have not ordered them to Kalenth," said Ambra. "They must be taking orders from someone else."

"Let's not jump to conclusions," said Gral'hilanth. "Who's in command of the group?"

"I should be!" Ambra declared.

Gral'hilanth ignored the councillor and looked towards Eadmon. Ambra, however, did not want to be ignored.

"I told you there could be resistance to my plans. This is clearly an aggressive move."

"Maybe your opponents feel the same and called them in for protection," Gral'hilanth countered.

"We don't have time to debate," said Eadmon. "The incoming group is operating outside expected protocols. They will be here soon. What are your orders?"

We need support , thought Gral'hilanth. "Communications, contact the Formidable , get them here to support us."

"Already done, Aloyd," said Eadmon.

"Good work." Gral'hilanth took a moment to examine a readout. "What are their capabilities?"

"The Sword has the same capabilities as us. The Crusade is primarily a troop carrier, not designed for combat, but it can deliver a punch and it's heavily shielded."

"Who is commanding the group?"

"Aloyd Tokask. I don't believe she has any combat experience. However, Commodore Heln is very experienced, but he is cautious. I believe he'll keep his distance and try to talk to us." Eadmon glanced to Ambra. "Unless he has orders to the contrary."

Gral'hilanth nodded. "How long until the Formidable arrives?"

"Twenty-eight minutes."

"We'll need to stall until they arrive and we have the advantage."

"Or hit them straight away," said Ambra. "They'll know we have back up on the way. They'll want to deal with us before then. We need to do the unexpected and gain advantage while they least expect."

The strategy sounded good to Gral'hilanth, but she didn't know if it was sound. Stalling and avoidance were tactics she knew about. She looked at Captain Eadmon for her opinion of the councillor's plan.

"In a fire fight against the two ships we might last long enough for the Formidable to reach us," said the captain. "But we'll take a lot of damage and incur major casualties."


"We could put the planet between us and the incoming striker group," said Eadmon. "We've encrypted the military satellites in orbit, so we'll know where they are, but they will not know where we are. They most likely will split up in order to find us. That way we can engage one of them for a short while before the other gets within range. With luck we can keep the other one away long enough so we're not too badly damaged by the time the Formidable arrives. However, the best strategy is to remain hidden for as long as possible, as far away as possible, until reinforcements arrive."

"I will not hide!" said Ambra. "I will not run! I will face my enemies and defeat them!"

"We still don't know their intentions," said Gral'hilanth.

"The ships have dropped to sub-light and are on an orbital insertion vector," the officer on the tactical console announced.

"Intercept and engage!" Ambra commanded.

No one acted. All bridge staff looked towards Captain Eadmon, who in turn looked towards Gral'hilanth.

"You have your orders Aloyd Falentha," said Ambra. "Intercept and open fire."

Gral'hilanth swallowed hard. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to be back on the Glyndwr hauling freight.



A table finally opened up at the crowded café, and Tehvay grabbed it. An automated serving device came to life and asked in a pleasant female voice, "Party of one?"

Tehvay replied that she was waiting for two others to join her. A moment later, place settings for three were set out on the table, along with one glass of water in front of Tehvay. She found herself saying "Thank you," to the device.

It replied, "You're welcome."

Tehvay sipped on her water while she waited, glancing towards the door every few minutes. By the time her glass was half emptied, her friends had arrived. She waved them over to her table and watched as the man and woman made their way through the swarming restaurant towards her. She greeted them both with a warm smile.

"Sorry it took so long," said Ellovene. "We had to circle a few times before we found a parking space."

"We're going to have to increase the budget for snacks at those PPG leadership committee meetings, I'm starving!" Trujilon added. "Glad we dropped you off to grab a table first!"

As soon as they sat down, the automated serving device recognised that the party of three was complete, came to life again, and displayed the menu. They each ordered one of the specials and a cup of dyodpeth.

Three steaming cups of dyodpeth arrived at the table almost immediately. Tehvay wrapped her hands around her cup and brought it up to her nose. She breathed in the steam and noted the rich, earthy, slightly acidic aroma of the dyodpeth beans. She took a long satisfying sip of the dark roasted liquid. "That certainly warms my insides."

Ellovene and Trujilon agreed that a hot cup of dyodpeth was just what they needed after walking half a kilometre in the chilly evening air from where they had to park their vehicle.

As they ate their meal, the conversation naturally turned towards the PPG leadership committee meeting they had just come from.

"So, what did you think of your first leadership committee meeting?" asked Trujilon.

"Interesting, though I didn't have much to contribute," Tehvay replied.

"The leadership committee thinks enough of you that they asked you to be part of the delegation that goes to Inosa," said Ellovene.

Inosa, the nearest inhabited planet to Trengos, was also experiencing an upturn in slave raider activity. News of the PPG had reached there and some were interested in forming their own organisation similar to the PPG.

"Yes, but why me?" asked Tehvay.

The black-haired woman replied, "Because everyone is impressed by your charisma and ability to connect with others when speaking at the rallies."

Tehvay blushed and turned her attention to her meal. She had ordered fish, but it was sadly lacking in quality. She reached for some sauce to improve the taste.

"You're left-handed!" Trujilon suddenly blurted out.

Tehvay froze as if she had been caught stealing. She looked at the black-haired man, who was staring at her hand with his fork halfway to his mouth.

Ellovene snorted and nudged her brother. "He's a bit slow," she said to Tehvay.

"What? I only just noticed," he explained.

"Is it a problem?" asked Tehvay.

"No," said Ellovene.

"After Yuniph had her hair cut, I thought it would be harder to tell you apart," said Trujilon. "I know Yuniph's right-handed, so that makes it a bit easier."

Tehvay thought of her sister. For all their physical similarity, there was so much difference between them.

"How is Yuniph after…" Ellovene let the sentence trail.

"The party?" asked Tehvay.

Ellovene nodded.

"She's fine. We chatted. Cleared the air a bit. But it's still going to take time for both of us to adjust. Finding a long-lost sister has affected her more than I thought." Tehvay finished adding sauce to the fish and tried another bite. Much better .

Ellovene picked up her cup of dyodpeth and took a sip. "I think it has less to do with having a long-lost sibling and more to do with her sibling being an ex-slave. It's just my opinion, mind," explained Ellovene, putting her cup down.


"Former slaves come to Trengos with fresh optimism seeking a new life, but the reality of it is a bit harsher. They are considered outsiders by native Trengosians, who have trouble relating to those who were ex-slaves. They can't imagine what it would be like to be a slave for The Hegemony, and they don't know what to say to those who were. Children can be cruel, and Yuniph was teased at school for having parents who were former slaves ."

"I had no idea. She never talked about that. Neither did my parents."

"Your parents may not have been aware of it. Yuniph tends to keep things to herself most of the time, in case you haven't noticed."

Tehvay smiled wryly into her cup of dyodpeth.

"Besides," said Trujilon, "once we became friends, we made sure the others didn't bother her anymore. She learnt to stand up for herself eventually. I think that was why she went into the security force and not further education. She found somewhere she can make a difference and help those that can't help themselves."

"Thank you for telling me. It explains a lot." Tehvay glanced at the time displayed on the automated serving device. "Is that the time? I need to get going. Kikola will be home from work shortly."

"We'll drive you," Ellovene offered.

"Thanks, I appreciate it."

Trujilon paid the bill and the three friends started to make their way out of the crowded café, when Trujilon said to Ellovene, "Why did I pay? You're the one with a job."

"Because you're a fool," she replied, and poked him in the side.

"I'm a fool?"

"So, you admit it. Well done."

Tehvay observed the brother and sister tease each other with good humour. Is that what close siblings do? She wondered. I wonder if Yuniph and I will ever be that close.


Rikana wouldn't call herself domesticated, but she could whip up a tasty meal using real food in a short amount of time. It was something she had learned from her father. Her original plan for the evening was to go home and spend some quality alone time. That plan was scuppered when Yuniph invited herself over. Rikana figured the best way to get rid of her was to feed her as soon as possible. So, within thirty minutes of arriving home, they were seated at the table eating a meal of renjur sausages, served with ator and mashed calrot. The meat and vegetables were staple food on Trengos, common and versatile. Rikana's secret weapon in converting the everyday meal into a culinary masterpiece was the rich gravy made with the juices from the sausages and finely chopped chebol.

She glanced up as Yuniph pushed some of the yellow mashed calrot and a few of the green ator onto her fork and ate it. She could tell Yuniph was enjoying the food but something was on the blonde-haired woman's mind.

"So," said Rikana. "Are you going to eat that?" She gestured to the half-eaten sausage on Yuniph's plate with her fork. Before Yuniph could reply, Rikana speared it and took a bite off the end.


Rikana cackled around the mouthful of sausage. Yuniph pushed her plate away.

"They make your hair greasy," said Rikana. "Oh, wait. You don't have any!"

Yuniph ran a hand through her recently shorn locks. Rikana had to laugh at Yuniph's attempt to be rebellious. The shorter hair was an effort to copy her sister Tehvay. But where Tehvay's hair was wild and looked like it had never seen a brush, Yuniph's hair was lustrous and perfectly styled. Tehvay's hair made her seem interesting, someone unconcerned with how she looked to others, someone with an edge. That appealed to Rikana's sensibilities. Yuniph's hair just made her look boring.

With a sigh, Yuniph picked up her plate, and Rikana's, and headed towards the kitchen.

"You don't have to do that," said Rikana.

"If I don't, you won't."

Rikana cackled. Tidying up was never at the forefront of her priorities. She stood up and went to the sofa. She pushed aside a pile of clothes. An item of underwear caught her attention.

Well, they're not mine, she thought as she held them in front of her crotch.


Rikana looked up at the sound, Yuniph was averting her gaze. Yuniph's prudishness was one thing Rikana always found amusing. "Yours?" The item of clothing was clearly meant for a man, but Rikana couldn't pass up the opportunity.

"Obviously not."

"Are you sure? Maybe, you're hiding something."

Yuniph sighed. Rikana bundled up the underwear and dropped it behind the sofa. She picked up the remaining clothes and dumped them on top of the underwear. Then Rikana flopped down on the couch and picked up a namida fruit from the bowl on a small table to her side. She squeezed the fruit and brought it to her nose. With a satisfied smile, she dug her thumb nail into the skin of the fruit. Yuniph sat down next to her.

"Want one?" Rikana waved the namida at Yuniph.

Yuniph shook her head. Rikana turned her attention back to the fruit. She pulled at the hole she had made and the skin fell away, revealing the segmented interior.

"Mmm." Rikana made a contented noise as she popped a segment into her mouth.

"You said I could talk to you," said Yuniph. "About any problems I had."

Rikana concentrated on licking some juice off her fingers. "Yeah, but I kind of hoped you wouldn't take me up on the offer."

Long ago Rikana devised a method on how to get the measure of other people. Start off antagonistic towards them and see how they deal with it. If they ran away, they were not worth it. If they responded in kind, they were worthy of respect, but that was all. If they handled it with humour, or ignored it, then they were someone she could get along with. She had worked out that Yuniph was too strong to run away, too nice to respond in kind, too serious to laugh it off, and too sensitive to ignore it. She knew Yuniph had long since become immune to the jibes, and Rikana had long since got any enjoyment out of them. But she wasn't going to let Yuniph know that.

Rikana looked up and could see Yuniph was being serious. "Go on," she said, putting the namida down on the arm of the couch and turned her full attention to Yuniph.

"I always thought I was the good guy. Standing up for justice. The downtrodden. The victims."

"Well, you are," said Rikana brightly. "Is that it? Glad I could help." Rikana picked up the namida and popped another segment into her mouth.

The blonde-haired woman leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees. "I feel… I don't know… lost. Real injustice is going on out there," she flung her right arm up to gesture at the ceiling.

"You're on the rotation for interceptor duty. You'll get your chance."

"I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about what happened to Tehvay - what's happening to millions of slaves, right now!"

"Yeah, it sucks, but Karthen has a point, I guess. We're not big enough to make a difference."

"A single voice can make a difference. If one person hears it and joins in, then there are two voices. And if two people hear them and—"

"Yeah, yeah. I get the picture. You don't need to preach to me. Give me a big weapon and point me at them. I'll do the rest."

Yuniph offered a wry smile that quickly faded. "Remember that day when Kikola first came here and you left us alone."

Rikana looked down at the sofa. "You didn't? Not where I'm sitting, please!"

"Be serious." Yuniph tapped Rikana's knee with the back of her hand. "She told me I could never know what it's like to be a slave. No matter how bad I think it is, it's worse." Yuniph tilted her head to look at the ceiling. "These last few months I felt like Tehvay was stealing my parents away from me, I've harboured some dark thoughts. And I hated her for making me feel that way."

"I thought you cleared the air after the party."

"We did. And Tehvay was super nice about everything. I wanted her to hate me. Or shout at me. Something. But, no. After all the horrors she had to endure, putting up with my insecurities was like finding a hole in her least favourite shoes." Yuniph uttered a hollow laugh. "I guess having more than one pair of shoes, hole or not, would seem like a million credits to a slave."

Yuniph shook her head. "She's been beaten. Raped. Degraded. Forced to do things that no one should ever have to do. What's a petty sister to all of that?"

"Shit, Veilan. I didn't know it was that bad." Rikana hesitated before laying a hand on Yuniph's shoulder.

"Tehvay's the hero. She's the one putting her voice out there at these PPG meetings. I'm just hiding behind a badge and a uniform."

"We all hide," said Rikana. "We all fail to live up to standards. Whether they're are our own or other people's."

"Yes, but letting yourself down is harder than letting someone else down."

No it's not, thought Rikana.

"Look, Veilan, bitching about all this to me is not helping you. You're smarter than me, so you've probably already figured out the answer. Or at least the answer I'm going to give you."

"Get over it?" Yuniph offered.

"Exactly. You know what the problem is: you're too fucking nice. You know what the solution is: continue being nice and don't let it bother you. Look, there are no easy problems in life, but there are easy answers. The goal is to survive. You do that by not giving up and by not letting the problems beat you."

"What if the problem is insurmountable?" asked Yuniph.

"Then you make it un insurmountable." Rikana frowned. "Or is it surmountable? Mountable? Table? Whatever. You break it down and deal with it a bit at a time. And maybe a problem is in- un insurmountable. In which case tell it to fuck off and make it work its arse off to beat you."

A faint chuckle escaped Yuniph's lips.

"The only one beating you up about this, is you," continued Rikana. "Just stop it."

"How do I do that?"

"Whatever works for you? Get laid, or something."

Yuniph blushed.

"I don't have all the answers," said Rikana. "What I do know is that your sister, whether it's despite of what she's been through, or because of what she's been through, is kind of an okay person. Poor taste in who she loves, but not everyone is perfect. That includes you." Rikana paused. "I'm perfect though. Don't ever doubt that."

Yuniph looked at her earnestly. "Don't ever change. You're like a force of nature. You cut through everyone's problems without caring if you hurt their feelings. Not because you want to hurt them, but because it's what they need."

"Hey, don't—"

"I'm not finished," Yuniph interrupted. "I need you. I need you to show me what I know. I know how to help others, but I sometimes forget how to help myself. Thank you." Yuniph smiled. "You may now make a suitable humorous and/or insulting quip."

Rikana didn't know how to respond. She looked down at the partly consumed namida in her hand. "Nah, I can't be bothered. Make up your own."

After a few moments of silence, Yuniph spoke. "I better go. I know you've probably got things you'd rather be doing."

"Yeah, like what – laundry?"

Yuniph glanced towards the pile of clothing Rikana had tossed behind the sofa. "You said it, I didn't." She stood up and headed for the door. "I'll see you in work."

Rikana bowed her head, hoping Yuniph wouldn't see just how bad Rikana felt for her friend's predicament. "Bye."


Kikola came home from work early with a surprise for Tehvay – a bouquet of flowers. "Tehvay," she called out.

There was no response.

She walked towards the kitchen. "Tehvay?"

Still no response.

This was the fourth night in a row that Kikola had come home and Tehvay was not there to greet her. Kikola surmised that Tehvay was at yet another PPG function. Kikola allowed herself momentary irritation, but reminded herself that it was her own fault for not letting Tehvay know she would be home early.

She left the flowers on the kitchen table and went upstairs to change clothes. She was disappointed that Tehvay was not there to help her. Their evening ritual was something Kikola looked forward to. Tehvay undressing her was tantamount to foreplay. Even if it didn't result in sex, it was still sensual and intimate.

Reluctantly she took off her security force uniform and hung it in the wardrobe. It struck her how light it felt in comparison to her Aloyd's uniform, which hung in the far corner – a shrine to past glory. She pushed away other garments to look at it more closely. It seemed a lifetime ago since she had worn it. She reached out and ran her hand down the sleeve. Kikola didn't have the heart to dispose of it – it was too much a part of her still.

Kikola shook off her melancholy and thumbed through the rest of the clothing looking for something to don. She finally selected a light green short-sleeved shirt and dark blue drawstring slacks – not necessarily the most fashionable choice, but comfortable and handy.

How empty the place seems without Tehvay's usual chatter , thought Kikola, as she walked downstairs to get something to eat. The food dispenser produced a nutritious, if uninspired, plate of food. Kikola normally wasn't fussy as long as the meal met the nutritional requirements, but tonight she didn't have much of an appetite. She picked at the food and stared at the empty chair across the table.

I didn't leave everything to stare at an empty chair , she thought.

Kikola could hear the door open and voices laughing. Tehvay came into the kitchen, followed by Trujilon and Ellovene. Kikola didn't look up from her plate.

"Oh, good. You're home," said Tehvay cheerfully. "I thought you were working overtime this evening."

"No, I came home early – to be with you."

"I'm sorry. You didn't call to tell me."

"No, I wanted to surprise you."

"And you have." Tehvay noted the flowers sitting in the middle of the table. "What are these?"

Kikola merely shrugged and glanced at the flowers.

Tehvay picked up the bouquet and breathed in their fragrant aroma. "Alstromara and zinlantha – they're lovely. Thank you."

Kikola offered only a nod of her head.

"Well, we probably should let you two get on with your evening," Ellovene observed.

"Yeah, I want to tell the others the good news – that you've accepted," said Trujilon.

Kikola couldn't resist asking. "Accepted what?"

"I'm joining a delegation the PPG is sending to Inosa."


"No what?"

"No, you aren't going to Inosa."

Tehvay turned to her friends and said, "I will call you tomorrow, and we can go over the details of the mission."

"Uh, sure," said Trujilon as his gaze moved from Tehvay to his sister.

"Well, good night." Ellovene tugged at her brother's sleeve to signal they should leave.

Tehvay showed the brother and sister out, and then came back into the kitchen. She stood in front of Kikola and crossed her arms. "Care to explain?"

Kikola looked up from her plate of food. "Explain what?

"Your surly mood for starters."

"I was expecting to come home to you, not an empty house – again."

"I'm sorry." Tehvay uncrossed her arms. "We went for a meal after the meeting. I wasn't expecting you to be here."

Kikola grumbled. "They asked you to go to Inosa."

"Yes, and I accepted."

"I warned you about getting too involved with those people."

"Those people? You mean Trujilon and Ellovene?"


"They are my friends."


"Yes, friends. Do you even understand the concept?"

Kikola felt the sting of Tehvay's question. Kikola's mind searched her memory for someone she could consider a friend. She remembered her uncle Toman's words of advice the day she entered the academy: 'Aloyds don't make friends; they only have colleagues and subordinates.' Kikola had taken her uncle's advice to heart. There was no one in all of her life that she could count as a friend. Tehvay came the closest to being that for her…and so much more. I don't want to share you with others.

"Well, your friends are monopolising too much of your time with this PPG business already."

"No they aren't. I want to help them."

"Not by going to Inosa."

"And why not?"

Because I want to protect you, to keep you safe, and I can't if you are light years away. And I would miss you, and I want you to be with me, always. That's what Kikola wanted to say, but she couldn't get the words to come out.

"Because… because I… because you can't."


"I mean—" Kikola started to explain herself, but Tehvay wasn't finished.

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous!"

I care for you. I want you with me, she wanted to say aloud.

"So you're not denying it!"

Kikola was confused. She was not understanding Tehvay's reasoning and tried to assert her own logic on the conversation "I gave up everything for you, so that we could be together. And now I feel like..." I am losing control. "I want control."

"So you admit you'd be happier if we were back to 'owner and slave' again."

"No! But, it was a simpler time then. A time when I felt I had control," Kikola explained.

"So are you saying you want control? Of me? Of who I have as friends? Of my body?"

"Yes... no, I mean, I don't know."

"I may not be the slave you fell in love with, but this is who I am now, and if you can't handle it, then perhaps we need to re-examine our relationship!"

Kikola didn't immediately respond. By the time she could, Tehvay had turned on her heel and walked out.

"Tehvay?" Her voice was quiet, plaintive. "Tehvay?"

She got up from her chair and watched as the front door closed.

"What just happened?"



Everything was happening too quickly on the bridge of the Relentless . Gral'hilanth needed more time to process Ambra's command to fire, to think of the consequences, and then to obey it. The steely glare from Councillor Lentol didn't help. The expectant look from Captain Eadmon didn't help. This was going to be Gral'hilanth's first battle ever, and she was way out of her depth.

"Striker group closing," a bridge officer called.

"They're powering up their shields and weapons."

"Aloyd Falentha, you have orders to fire," said Ambra.

"Cap—" was all Gral'hilanth could say before the ship rocked.

The rumble of deck plating and bulkheads, reverberating from the blast, had barely subsided before another blast hit. Alarms sounded.

"Do your job," Gral'hilanth told Eadmon over the cacophony.

Captain Eadmon needed no further prompting. From her command chair, she barked out orders to various stations. The whine and thump of the weapons fire being returned was heard and felt. This was followed by a sudden sinking feeling as Kalenth's gravity fought with the ship's artificial gravity.

What is she doing? Gral'hilanth wondered. The aloyd sought refuge in her chair and looked at the readout. The Relentless was descending towards the planet. That was not good news. The Relentless was built in space to operate in space; it wasn't designed for atmospheric flight.

A quick glance at velocity and trajectory gave Gral'hilanth the answer: too fast and shallow. The Captain was planning to bounce the Relentless off the atmosphere in order to confuse the enemy and gain position on them.

It was a rough ride for several seconds, but then things smoothed out. Alarms still sounded. Readouts flashed red. The impact from enemy fire ceased.

Eadmon called out for damage assessments.

"Damage control teams to deck thirty-one section twelve."

"Engine room operational."

"Sick bay on standby."

"Escape pods primed."

"Damage control teams to deck seven section four."

"Decks five and six, sections four to eight are venting atmosphere and have been sealed off."

Another blast rocked the ship.

That wasn't enemy fire, thought Gral'hilanth. Decompression? Armament store?

Eadmon called out for the status of the weapons systems.

"RBat four non-op. RBats one through three damaged. All other Bats fully op. MLs fully op."

The response was instant, but it took Gral'hilanth a few moments to decipher: They had lost one of the four rear weapons batteries. Three others were damaged, but operational. Thankfully all the others on the ship were okay, including the missile launchers.

"Are we running?" Ambra demanded as she pulled herself off the floor. "I gave you orders to fight."

Eadmon shot the councillor a withering look. "I'm keeping us alive!" She turned to a security detail. "Escort the councillor off the bridge. Take her to an escape pod in case we need to evacuate."

Ambra glowered at Gral'hilanth as she was removed from the bridge , but the aloyd didn't countermand the order. Once the councillor was gone, Gral'hilanth turned her attention back to her readouts.

The weapons fell silent.

"Tactical! Report!" Eadmon barked.

"The Sword is on an orbital vector," responded the tactical officer. "The Crusade was pursuing but has turned back out of weapons range."

"We're lucky they didn't press their advantage," Eadmon told Gral'hilanth. "Do you want to press our advantage?"

"What?" Gral'hilanth was confused.

"We can keep going, or we can go back and win this fight."

"Can we win?"

"Now that they've made a mistake. The Sword and Crusade are on different orbital tangents." She pointed at the display. "We can slingshot around the second moon. We'll encounter the Sword before the Crusade can join the fight."

"We have sustained damage, casualties," said Gral'hilanth. "Can we take more?"

"Plenty more," replied Eadmon "We'll survive until we get backup."

Gral'hilanth assessed the situation. "Do it!"

The course around the moon took several minutes, but there was still a lot of action on the bridge. Damage and casualty reports still came in: Eighteen confirmed deaths, thirty critical injuries, forty-two minor injuries, and seventeen missing. Eadmon, however, was concentrating on their course and bolstering the forward shields.

Soon, Kalenth started looming large on the sensors. The Sword and Crusade were on different sides of the planet. The projected flight path of the Relentless intersected with the projected flight path of the Sword . They could only wait until the Sword was within weapons range.

Gral'hilanth watched as another signal appeared on the monitor. It was the Formidable , commanded by her father. She was grateful that the call for back up went out before the engagement had begun.

Eadmon contacted the Formidable and relayed course information. Its projected flight path altered to intercept the Sword .

"LORAMS targeted!" The officer on tactical called out.

"Fire!" Eadmon ordered.

Two volleys, each consisting of four long-range missiles, LORAMS, speared out ahead of the ship.

"The Sword has launched its own LORAMS."

"Deploy countermeasures," Eadmon ordered.

Gral'hilanth watched the monitor. Points of light moved ahead of their position while the same happened with the Sword . The points appeared to be on a collision course, but passed by each other and continued on their way. The forward weapons opened fire on the incoming missiles. The points on the monitor decreased until only one was visible. The point merged with the Relentless . Gral'hilanth braced for impact.

The bridge rocked, and sparks flashed across Gral'hilanth's vision. She didn't know if they were real or imagined. Sight and sound came back.

"Report!" shouted Eadmon.

"Shields held. Minimal damage."

"What damage have we inflicted?" Eadmon demanded.

"Two LORAMS hit the Sword . We have no data on damage yet."

"We're about to find out."

The Sword and Relentless were heading straight for each other.

"Helm, attack pattern Ultra! Tactical, full spread!" ordered Eadmon.

The whine and thump of the weapons discharge filled the bridge. From her console, Gral'hilanth could see that the Sword had sustained serious damage to their propulsion and navigation. It returned fire.

Gral'hilanth gripped the arms of her chair as the Relentless took several more hits. She looked down at the monitor and watched as the Formidable's signal bore down on the Sword . The signals merged, and then there was only one.

" Crusade is breaking orbit and leaving the system," said the tactical officer. "It has jumped to light speed."

"Can we pursue?" asked Gral'hilanth.

The look from Eadmon told her it was not an option.

"Call from the Formidable, " announced the communication officer.

Captain Eadmon looked over to Gral'hilanth. "Do you want to take this?"

Gral'hilanth nodded. The viewscreen sprang to life and the image of her father appeared.

"Aloyd Falentha," said her father. "The Sword is destroyed. We are picking up survivors. Thank you for softening her up for us."

"Captain Eadmon deserves the praise," said Gral'hilanth. "As do you for finishing the job."

Her father gave a slight nod. "I can see you have taken some damage. We can cater to any wounded you have."

"Lieutenant," Gral'hilanth called to a bridge officer. "Go to sickbay. See who can be transferred."

"Yes, Aloyd."

Gral'hilanth turned back to the screen.

"We will send some repair teams to help you," her father offered.

"That will be most welcome. Is that all Lunguseth Falentha?"

"Yes, Aloyd. Formidable out." The communication ended.

Gral'hilanth turned to Captain Eadmon. "Have all hands stand down from battle stations. You have the bridge."

"Yes, Aloyd."

The voices were silenced when Gral'hilanth left the bridge, but alarms still sounded in the corridors. She found the nearest head, locked herself in a cubicle and threw up.


It wasn't her first space battle and thankfully it wasn't her last. However, it was the least satisfying.

Captain Eadmon allowed the shower spray to wash the grime away, but it wasn't washing away the sick feeling she had. All survivors from the Sword were accounted for. Commodore Heln was not among them.

She had never said it, but she had liked Heln as well as respected him. Their time together as part of the same striker group had seen them disagree several times, but those disagreements had never been personal.

She thought back to the mission on Gatlor where Aloyd Karthen was prepared to inflict collateral damage on the civilian population. She had voiced her dislike of killing her own then. This time was worse. Not only were those on the Sword her own, she knew some of them personally. Garin regretted their deaths had to come at her hands, but it was a matter of survival. And pride, she thought . She hated losing.

The sound of her door chime pulled her out of her thoughts. Garin turned off the shower, grabbed a bathrobe, and headed for the door as she put it on. Because of the lateness of the hour, the sight of Aloyd Falentha surprised her.

"May I come in?" asked the aloyd.

Eadmon stepped aside and gestured for the blonde-haired woman to enter. The aloyd didn't wait for an invitation to sit and slumped into the nearest chair.

Garin adjusted her robe and took a seat opposite the aloyd. She could tell by the aloyd's pallid complexion that this was not going to be a quick visit. She had seen a similar look on junior officers' faces after their first combat mission.

"I have submitted a formal commendation of your actions in battle," Aloyd Falentha said.

For what it's worth, Garin thought. We may have started a civil war. There is little honour in that. "Thank you," she replied.

"You saved my li—the ship," the aloyd continued. "You have my gratitude."

"I didn't know that you showed gratitude for it. All aloyds I've known expect us to follow orders with no acknowledgement in return."

"I'm not… I am not like other aloyds."

"So I've noticed."

"This conflict has brought me out in the open so to speak." The aloyd resumed her speech without looking at Garin. "You will probably hear the truth in due course, if you haven't already."

Not for wanting, thought Garin.

"I was appointed to this rank by Councillor Lentol just prior to taking command of the Relentless . It was done without the knowledge of The Council. If she gets her way, then my rank will be official." Falentha frowned. "Or more official?" She shook her head. "The upshot is, that before setting foot on this ship, I was not an aloyd. I should have been, but I did not complete my training."

That explains a lot , thought Garin.

"I can understand that you might have misgivings about this situation. You probably have a lot of questions too."

Far too many.

"I—" Falentha was interrupted by a call from Councillor Lentol.

Garin couldn't tell what was being said because the aloyd said nothing, but her ashen pallor was punctuated by crimson. Garin guessed that whatever was said could not have been good.

"I have to go," said the aloyd. "We'll talk more tomorrow." She stood up. "My thanks once again."

Garin watched the woman go. What the hell am I involved in?

She climbed out of the chair and headed for the communications console. Garin waited impatiently for the calls to connect. A face appeared. It was almost like looking in a mirror.

"Hey, Gar." A grin spread across the person's face.

"Hey, Bree." Garin smiled as she addressed her sister. "Just a moment. I'm contacting Cayle." Her smile faded. "We need to talk."

"All right."

Another face appeared next to her sister's. The man was still handsome, despite the faint lines around the eyes and the receding hairline. Though, Garin was a little taken aback by the thin moustache clinging to his upper lip that hadn't been there the last time she'd seen him.

"Cayle," she greeted him.

"Garin, Breena. It's good to see my little sister and baby sister."

"Cay!" Breena hated being called 'baby sister'. Cayle was seven years older than Garin; Breena was fourteen years younger than her.

Garin had been close to her brother growing up, but by the time Breena was old enough to have a conversation with, Cayle was already a lieutenant and Garin was a first-year cadet at military school, and neither had much time for their baby sister. It was only after Breena herself became an officer that they really got to know each other.

"We have something we need to talk about," said Garin, becoming serious.

"Yes," said Cayle. "I heard about your victory. Very commendable."

"You heard about that?" asked Garin.

"News like that travels fast," Cayle replied.

"Victory?" asked Breena.

"I was in a battle with a striker group," Garin explained. "Apparently they were attempting to kill Councillor Lentol, who was aboard my ship."

"Are you all right?" Breena looked shocked.

"Yes, I am fine. Where are you?" asked Garin.

"I am on leave," said Breena. "I requested a sabbatical from duty."

"Why did you do that?" asked Cayle. "It will affect your promotion chances."

"I'm already a commander. I'm at least eight years from becoming a captain. Taking a year out won't make much difference."

"Are you pregnant?" asked Cayle.

"What?" Breena appeared annoyed by the question. "No!"

"I can see no other reason for you to take a sabbatical."

"That's not important," Garin interrupted the exchange. "Bree, you'll probably be called back to duty soon. The reason I'm calling is that the Elit are on the brink of civil war. We're going to have to choose sides."

"Civil war?" Breena queried.

"Councillor Lentol is trying to wrest power from The Council. That's why they tried to kill her. The Elit families are taking sides. Aloyds are taking sides. We need to make sure that we're all on the same side."

"I'm under Aloyd Talcolga, with a striker group consisting of the Vanguard and Intrepid ," said Cayle. "He's ready to support Councillor Lentol. I'm on your side Garin. Councillor Lentol seems to be the leader we need."

I'm not so sure about that, thought Garin.

"Who were you under before your sabbatical?" Cayle asked Breena.

"Aloyd Willenth. The Fearless and Spartan ."

"If he recalls you, refuse!" Cayle said forcefully. "I'll speak to Aloyd Talcolga and get you recalled under him. You can serve as my first officer."

"No! I mean, that's nice, Cay," replied Breena, "but what about your existing first officer?"

"Don't worry about that. Where are you? We'll make it a priority to come and get you," he said.

"I'm on Yerhulin."

"Yerhulin! That's hardly a holiday spot to spend your R & R," Cayle scoffed.

"I'm visiting an old friend." Breena scolded her older brother. "What I do with my time off is not your concern."

"Sorry, baby sister."

"Don't call me that, Cay." Breena bristled.

"Then you can address me as, 'Sir'. I am your superior officer."


"Enough!" Garin interjected. "Bree. Stay put until Cayle comes for you. Cayle, keep her safe."

Breena glowered and nodded once.

"I want us all to survive this. That's the only priority," Garin stated firmly.


This time there would be victory. Ambra strode with purpose to the front of The Council Chambers. She stood in front of Councillor Maldan and addressed him directly.

"Assassination. Deaths of innocent people. Is that what you want the Elit to become?" She turned abruptly to address the assembled councillors. Her long, blonde hair swished and settled over her shoulders. It stood out in stark contrast to the black suit she wore. She had worn red previously to make herself noticed. Now she chose to wear black – a statement that she was serious and determined enough to take control.

She raised her voice and spread her arms. "We have always resolved internal disputes with a vote, not murder. I know there is fierce opposition to my plans, but this is further evidence that the Elit, this Council, the Sylfainer are broken. They see my death as the only way to silence me. But I won't be silenced!"

Rather than take the podium, Ambra walked slowly to the centre of the chamber. Each stride was measured. Not too long, not too short. Perfectly controlled. Her eyes were focussed on the spot where she planned to stop, but her peripheral vision picked up the heads of the other councillors turning to watch her as she walked by them. She felt confident, not cocky. She had the moral high ground after the attempt on her life.

Ambra reached the centre point of the assembly, and began. Her voice was as measured as her pace to get there. "Those of you who voted against me have another chance to save your position. You can side with me, or you can side with those who resort to assassination attempts to maintain their grip on power.

"We need strong, decisive leadership. Give me control and you will prosper. Deny me and see this wounded, lumbering beast stumble and die, leaving you to scrabble about in its decaying corpse for some shred of dignity."

As she spoke she turned to all five sides of the room, finally coming to a halt facing the chairman's podium.

Toman ap Karthen approached and stood next to Ambra to address the assembly. "I will not see this society destroy itself with another vote. Councillor Lentol has made it clear that she is dissatisfied and desires reform. But if you think that is all she will be happy with, you are mistaken. She wants the power. You have all read her proposal. Dissolve The Council. Set up a new governing structure with herself as the chair. What other reforms will she seek without your knowledge? What other reforms will she make without your approval?"

"Whatever they are," declared Ambra. "They will be made without your approval." She leaned towards Toman and whispered for only him to hear. "I know it was you. When you fired upon me, you sealed your fate."

She stalked back to the front of the hall. " No more discussions ," she told Maldan. "We vote now!"


The high patchy clouds cleared as Councillor Toman ap Karthen's shuttle sped south and east over the sea. He looked out at the sun beating down onto the azure waters. It's beautiful, he thought.

Toman had made this journey countless times before, but had never stopped to appreciate the splendour of Kalenth as it sped beneath him. Usually he had his nose buried in some report that needed his attention.

It shouldn't be this nice. Not today.

Land replaced the sea. Green fields. Mountains. Lakes. Scrubby wasteland. Jungle. Every type of terrain it seemed scrolled underneath him.

The narrow straits that separated the continents disappeared in a blink. The rocky hinterland gave way to the sand dunes of the Nevaruk Desert. Soon, the green oasis that was his home appeared.

The shuttle descended and landed.

As he walked from the shuttle to the house, each step seemed to take longer than the previous one. His feet were getting heavier. His vision narrowed onto the entrance. The more it filled his vision, the further away it appeared.

The large doors felt heavy as he pushed on them. His feet felt heavy as he lifted them over the threshold. His heart felt heavy as he realised the significance of the moment.

The icy, air conditioned blast of air hit him like a hammer, at first, but soon his senses returned to normal.

"Rephon!" Toman called to his nephew who was passing at the top of the stairs.

"Uncle Toman?" Rephon trotted down the stairs.

How like his father he looks, thought Toman. "We need to get out. Evacuate the estate, plan Gamma. Start preparations immediately."

"Gamma? Are you sure?"

"Yes. Ambra ap Lentol won the vote. It is no longer safe for our family to stay. Inform the entire household. We must move quickly." Toman looked towards the wing where his home office was situated. "I..." He looked back to his nephew. "Can you handle it? I need to make some calls of my own to other families."

Rephon nodded.

Toman raised his hand to his nephew's shoulder and looked him in the eyes. "Good man. I am counting on you." Toman gave his nephew an encouraging pat on the back."

Toman walked away as Rephon set off to start the evacuation. He closed the door to his office and sank down in his chair. His personal slave appeared.

"Go to the slave quarters in the basement," said Toman. "The estate is being evacuated. You will need to be with the other slaves for now."

"Yes, sir."

The slave disappeared as quickly as it arrived.

Toman sighed, took out a piece of electronic paper, and began to compose a note.

Dear Family,

I have failed.

Ambra ap Lentol has declared the founding families Fethusal. She says that no one will be harmed. However, I do not trust her.

She rightly suspects that I organised the attack on the Relentless. She will not let me live for that.

I have allowed a monster to gain control of The Council. I cannot stop her from destroying our way of life. The only thing I can do is to prevent her from using my death as a tool of her twisted propaganda.

I am handing control of the evacuation to my nephew Rephon. It is my wish that he assume the title of Family Head.

Save yourselves until the time comes that Ambra can be stopped. And that time will come. I am just sorry I won't be there to see it.


Toman read the words. He read them again.

He slipped his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket and took out a small bottle.

He opened the bottle and downed the contents in one go. Doesn't taste so bad.

He closed his eyes and the bottle slipped from his hand.


After hearing the initial news from Governor Taliss, Mariantha had turned on the Yun'thul news channel. Nothing. An hour passed, and then the announcement was made. Ambra ap Lentol had declared herself Bren, ultimate leader of The Council and The Hegemony. Her first decree was to declare the founding families no longer Elit.

Mariantha had tried calling Toman without success. Then the call from her son, Rephon came.

"Mother…" His voice sounded weak and small. His eyes were downcast.

"Rephon, what is going on?" She had other questions she wanted to ask, but limited herself to one at a time.

"It's Uncle Toman… he is… dead."

Considering the news coming from Kalenth, Toman's death didn't come as much of a shock as she would have expected. "How?" Mariantha asked.

"Suicide. He left a note. He felt he had failed the family. He was responsible for the attack on Councillor Lentol."

There was a long pause. Mariantha had loved her brother-in-law, yet she could not find it in her to grieve. She felt anger, bitterness, resentment, and many other emotions, but not grief.

"You are not safe," she said to her son.

"Uncle Toman put me in charge. Preparations are being made," Rephon said.

Mariantha nodded. Ever since the uprising on Alopan over a thousand years ago, every Elit family she knew had a sanctuary in case of trouble. It might be a planet or moon, which might or might not appear on official navigation charts. Mariantha was privileged to know of both the Karthen and Willenth safe havens. The Willenth hideaway was nearer to Yun'thul.

"I will try and join you when I can," she said.

Rephon offered a small smile.

How like his father he is when he smiles , she thought.

"Stay safe." Rephon looked behind him. "I need to go. You know where we are."

And with that the communication ended.

Why did I stay here? I should have gone back to Kalenth. She knew why she had stayed. Jenissa.

It had been fifteen days since Ambra ap Lentol had ordered the death of the slave. Jenissa was inconsolable and had taken to her bed. Her own aunt seemed to distance herself from her niece. Mariantha felt she couldn't leave Jenissa in such a shattered state. So, she stayed and tended the distraught young woman, rarely leaving her side, cajoling her to try and eat, offering her a shoulder to cry on when despair overcame her.

Mariantha hadn't liked Jenissa's initial rudeness towards her, but she respected it. It showed strength in one so young to stand up to an elder, whether the rudeness was deserved or not. She was strong then, but not now. Look at her. Grieving for a slave. The harshness of her thoughts stirred up conflict in Mariantha. She understood loss, but Elit were meant to be stoic, at least around strangers.

Maybe that is where things went wrong, Mariantha pondered. Kikola was never one to express her emotions. The training we gave her was responsible for that. But I was reserved around her. If I had allowed myself to be a proper mother to her, none of this would have happened.

Jenissa was finally sleeping after her aunt's physician had been called and prescribed her a mild sedative. That was before Rephon's call.

The hours passed slowly. It gave Mariantha time to digest the news about Ambra ap Lentol's take over, Toman's death, and the loss of her prestige as Elit. She had hoped it was all a mistake. Sadly, it was not.

Now, Mariantha moved over to the window looking out over the moonlit gardens. Insects with bright blue bioluminescent bodies flittered among the flowers. Its profound beauty brought tears to her eyes. Would life ever seem this idyllic again? she wondered.

A moan distracted her. She turned to look at the bed. Jenissa whispered the slave's name and started weeping. Mariantha crossed the room and cradled the young woman, persuaded her to take a drink, and held Jenissa until she had drifted off to sleep again.

Mariantha dozed in a chair near Jenissa's bed and woke up with the golden light of dawn flooding the room. Jenissa emerged from the bathroom, pale faced, eyes red.

"I heard the news," the young woman said. "Will she come after me?" Her voice wavered with fear.

Mariantha hadn't considered what Ambra's next course of action would be. The announcement on the news said those expelled from the Elit would not be harmed. They would be declared Fethusal and lose their Elit rights.

Ambra is a liar. Trouble. Jenissa should be worried. "I don't know. All I do know is that everything has changed."

"I should have run when your daughter gave me the chance. It's too late for Menari, but I am not going to stay anymore."

"What are you saying?"

"I am going to run."

"Run? To where?"

"A wise man once said: 'It doesn't matter where you are running to, it's what you are running away from that counts.'"


Boran didn't like unexpected visits. He especially didn't like unexpected visits from Elit. He really didn't like unexpected visits from Elit when he was about to run.

It had been six days since Ambra ap Lentol had announced a purge among the Elit and declared herself Bren. However, Boran had been preparing ever since Hila's – Gral'hilanth's – visit. It was the sight of seeing his old friend standing next to Lentol in a broadcast that convinced him it was finally time. Assets had been sold and money had been put in accessible accounts throughout the Spur. The estate's hired help had been dismissed. Only Marleen, Tremothen, and Tana were going with him. A ship was ready and only the final few loose ends were left.

He hoped he could deal with his uninvited guests quickly. He entered his office. Tremothen stood glaring at two seated figures. He recognised the long golden curls of the younger of the two women, Jenissa ap Taliss. Boran didn't recognise the older woman accompanying her, though there was something familiar about her.

The dark-haired woman stood up. "Boran Zerbilla?"


"I am Mariantha ap Karthen."

"Kikola's mother?"

"That is correct." She suddenly seemed at a loss as to what to do next. "I… We…" She recovered herself quickly. "We have come to ask for your help."

"Help? Do you need some freight hauling somewhere?"

She didn't appreciate his flippancy and shot him a withering look. "In a manner of speaking. But let us not play games. You are aware of the situation. Jenissa and I want to leave The Hegemony. You helped my daughter. I would appreciate it if you could do the same for us. You will be recompensed, of course."

"Just the two of you?" asked Boran. He sat down behind his desk.

"Yes." Mariantha sat back down opposite him. Tremothen moved up to stand behind the two women.

He rubbed the stubble on his cheeks with both hands, hoping it would somehow relieve the stress. He didn't need this complication. "No," he said. "Sorry. You'll have to find someone else to help you."

"Please… we—"

Orion's Balls, she said 'please'. "Okay. Fine. It just so happens we'll be heading that way."

"Heading what way?"

"To where your daughter is."

Mariantha smiled. "Thank you."

"You've got to be joking!" said Tremothen. "We can't take them with us."

You're right, Boran thought. "Why not?"

"Because we can't drag Elit around with us."

Jenissa mumbled something.

"What was that?" asked Boran.

"We are not Elit anymore." The young woman's voice was barely more than a whisper. "You saw the news. We are not Elit anymore."

Tremothen snorted derisively. "That's not the point—"

"It is the point!" Jenissa cut him off. She stood up and faced off with the burly man. "What are you? Some hired thug? A muscle with no brain? Whatever you are, you are nothing! You have no breeding. No revered family stretching back thousands of years. What meagre education you received, everything you have ever done in your life has amounted to this: being the right arm to a criminal, because you do not have the intelligence to be a criminal on your own."

Throughout Jenissa's retort, her voice remained calm and level. Its cultured tones resonated off the office's glass walls. It had a quality that Boran could listen to all day, a similar quality that he had found with Kikola's voice. It was the one redeeming feature of the Elit. So what Jenissa said next made him pay attention. The anger was totally at odds to the demure Elit woman that had been sitting in front of him until now.

"That is the point!" Jenissa declaimed. "You are nothing more than a parasite living off an insect under a rock!" She pointed downwards with an emphatic gesture.

Boran noted the surprised expression on Tremothen's face as Jenissa took a step towards him.

"Yet, for all my breeding, for all my heritage, for all my education and training to one day govern a planet. Right now, you are more than me."

From behind, Boran saw her shoulders sag.

Her voice returned to its former cultured tones, "So if you want me to get on my knees and beg. I will. I will do whatever is needed to get out of here, because here I am nothing. To no longer be Elit, is to be less than nothing."

Tremothen was stunned by the outburst, but Boran could see his resolve. He could also hear the Elit self-belief and arrogance in Jenissa's words, but the girl knew she was beaten and was dealing with it the only way she knew how. However, Tremothen was the longest serving and most loyal of his associates. Boran realised he could not force this on him.

"Every fibre of my being thinks taking them is the wrong thing to do," Boran said to Tremothen. "I have no love for Elit, you know that. I know that if we meet Karthen and she finds out I didn't help her mother… well I shudder to think what she would do. I also know what Tehvay would want me to do. But, I'm giving this choice to you. It's your life on the line too if you're running with me. If you say, 'no', then we leave them."

Tremothen looked at Boran. "You're the boss, Boss." He turned his attention back to Jenissa, who had returned to her seat. "And, like the girl said, I'm not smart enough to do this on my own. I wouldn't want to make the wrong decision."

"There is no wrong decision," said Boran.

"Yes, there is. We can't leave them. We either take them or we kill them."

Jenissa looked like she was about to protest, but Mariantha stopped her.

"If we kill them, Karthen will kill us," Tremothen concluded.

"Then there is no choice. They come with us." Boran turned to Mariantha. "I assume you didn't come here on a public transport, did you?"

"We came on my private transport."

"With a crew?"

"Yes." Mariantha stepped forward. "They are staying. You will not be killing them."

"That's not your decision to make," said Boran.

"You're right, it's not my decision," said Mariantha. "It's theirs. They decided they would rather stay. You will not kill them for that."

"I don't like loose ends," Boran stated.

"I am not asking you to like it."

In the brief time he had spent with Kikola, he had seen a woman who exuded confidence and would stand her ground when needed. Two traits that were obviously inherited from her mother. However, he had also seen Kikola interact with Tehvay, and at times she had seemed almost introverted and shy, two things he could never imagine Mariantha being. She looked at him with a fierce, defiant gaze. Jenissa may feel beaten, and no longer consider herself Elit, Boran thought. Mariantha, on the other hand, would always be Elit. Even if the situation is forcing her to run, she will not give that up.

"I hope you're prepared to slum it," said Boran. "I have a luxury, private cruiser, but I'm sure it won't be up to your standards."

Mariantha stood up. "We will pay you to take us to my daughter. We will not be paying for your poor attempt at humour."

"Oh, that comes for free," said Boran.

"I was afraid of that." Mariantha fixed him with a stare. Yet, behind Mariantha's glare, Boran was convinced he had caught her smiling.


The Formidable was older than the Relentless. Its corridors were a little shabbier, a little darker. The crew, however, were as sharp and efficient as any.

The junior officer leading Gral'hilanth stopped outside a door with a faded signage that read 'Ready Room' and underneath in slightly less faded lettering 'Lunguseth Oalanic ap Falentha'. The officer snapped to attention and saluted. She returned the salute and dismissed him.

As an aloyd she did not need to signal her arrival, she could just march in, but this was her father. Gral'hilanth pressed the door chime and waited. The door opened a few seconds later, and she took a few tentative steps forward.

Her father was seated at his desk. The room was indistinguishable from any other ready room on any other ship: rectangular, dark grey and functional. He rose and saluted. There was a mixture of emotions on his face. Gral'hilanth could detect a little pride at seeing his daughter in uniform for the first time in person. However, she could also see doubt, the cause of which she could only guess at.

"Father, I wanted to personally thank you for your actions in battle. I know I should have come sooner…"

"I was doing my duty."

"And doing it very well. I have submitted a commendation report for your actions."

He gave a single incline of the head to show his appreciation. "I do not serve to garner commendations and medals. A job well done is reward in itself."

Was that a barb at my failure? Gral'hilanth thought. He had tried to instil that dedication in her from an early age, but she was always too eager to finish a task quickly, rather than correctly. Her expulsion from the academy had hit him harder than it had her. It was her inability to face his disappointment that had been a prime factor in her self-imposed exile.

Oalanic had achieved as much as was possible for a Fethusal in the military, he had married into the Elit, and thus given the rank of Lunguseth. The rank of aloyd was denied him because it was considered a birthright. As his firstborn, it was Gral'hilanth's duty to become an aloyd in his stead. Her actions reflected on him. Gral'hilanth's expulsion was his shame to carry as well as hers, and now she was a source of pride again.

What would he think of me if he knew I was a puppet for a power hungry tyrant who treats me no better than a sexual plaything for her own deviant proclivity?

Gral'hilanth brought her attention back to her father who was standing stiff and straight. She realised that she had been standing there too long in silence, and therefore, he had remained on his feet as well. After all, she outranked him.

Gral'hilanth sat down on the opposite side of the desk from her father. She gestured for him to take a seat.

"Whatever reasons for which you do something, others will see it differently," she said. "One can only hope they see it in a good light."

He frowned in confusion. "Uh, quite. Whatever light anyone sees it in, it's how we judge ourselves that matter. We destroyed one of our ships. There was an aloyd on board. An Elit."

"Tokask. I know. It was her decision to attack the Relentless . We merely defended ourselves. Did you know her?"

"No." He shook his head. "Some may claim she was just lucky to get the first strike in. I know Councillor Lentol does not take well to opposition." He lowered his eyes. "I am hearing that some families are supporting her out of fear of what will happen if they oppose her. That is not a good platform for support, because if these families lose their fear…"

"Are you saying we are on the wrong side?"

He shook his head. "I am saying that we could end up on the losing side. As you pointed out, it is for someone else to decide if that is the wrong side or not." He paused. "However, I do have some… questions."

"About what?"

"Your cousin Ill'sandreth has told me what transpired at The Council meetings. What Councillor Lentol said; her desire to make the Elit strong, pure."

"Do not concern yourself. She is merely saying that the principles have been corrupted. She told me herself that you are an example of what an Elit should be: loyal, dedicated, someone who thinks of the greater needs of the society more than themselves. If she were concerned about Elit purity, she would not have ousted the founding families."

"Still, even the most loyal of us have doubts when such change is proposed."

"Of course there will be questions. Councillor Lentol has taken me as a confidante. She values the Falentha family's loyalty. You have nothing to worry about." I hope my sacrifices are worth it. "I am making sure that she has no cause to doubt our loyalty." I'm on my knees every day proving it.

"If there is no doubting our loyalty, why do you have to make sure of it?"

Because I am a disgusting degenerate who is allowing herself to be humiliated on the promise of power and revenge.



Kikola was lost as to what to do. At first, she waited for a while, hoping Tehvay would come back home. When an hour passed and Tehvay still had not returned, she grabbed her coat and started walking straight to the Veilans' house, because that was where Tehvay most likely had gone. Halfway there, Kikola thought it better to give Tehvay some time to cool off.

She kept walking and walking, trying to make sense of what she had said to make Tehvay storm out of the house. She was so absorbed in her thoughts that when Kikola finally realised how far she had walked, she was only about a kilometre away from where Rikana lived. As bizarre as the reality was, Kikola was coming to see Rikana as something of a friend.

Kikola covered the distance quickly, but once at Rikana's door, she found herself hesitating to announce her presence.

What if she's not home? What if she laughs at me? What if—

Kikola's hand took on a life of its own and knocked. She waited. She was about to give up and walk away when the door opened. Rikana stood there wearing a short skirt and oversized shirt; her hair was loose and wild.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"I was in the neighbourhood," Kikola replied.

"This isn't your neighbourhood."

Kikola conceded. "I was out taking a walk and I ended up here."

"Shouldn't you be home with Miss V.? Let me guess… she didn't like the flowers."

Kikola lowered her eyes at the mention of the flowers. "The evening didn't go as planned. I— I didn't…" Didn't what? "…know…" Know what? "…where else to go."

"What is it with you and Veilan? Does my door have a sign that says 'ring for counselling services'?"  Rikana asked in her usual sarcastic tone.

Kikola breathed an internal sigh of relief at seeing a way out. "I am sorry. I will leave."

"No, wait." Rikana reached for a jacket hanging on a peg. "Come on. Let's go for a drink, and we can talk."

For a moment Kikola saw Rikana drop her defences. The brash exterior fell and revealed the person underneath.

The moment didn't last long. "I think we're both going to need to get drunk for this one." She cackled.

The drinking establishment was near Rikana's home. It was large, with various sized sections, some elevated, some sunken, around the central bar. It was also very quiet – only a handful of patrons were seated around the place.

"Sit there," said Rikana, pointing to a table in an elevated portion. "I'll get the drinks."

"I will just have a water."

"I said, I'll get the drinks. Sit!"

Kikola was already regretting it, but she did as she was told. The area where Kikola sat was big enough for six people. Despite its elevated position, the majority of the bar was hidden from sight by panels of coloured, frosted glass. With the muted lighting, this gave the large establishment, a cosy and private feeling. A short while later, Rikana returned with a tray. On it were four small glasses containing a clear liquid, two large glasses of dark gold beer, and a glass of water.

"Drink this first." Rikana placed one of the small glasses in front of Kikola.

"What is it?"

"Livatten. Now drink." Rikana picked up one of the remaining small glasses off the tray and downed the contents in one go.

"What's livatten?"

"It'll make things bearable. Drink!"

Kikola obeyed. The colourless, odourless liquid burnt as it slipped down and left a rather pleasant fruity aftertaste. Rikana took the beers off the tray and placed one in front of herself and the other in front of Kikola. Rikana took a long sip of her beer and poured one of the livatten into it. She nodded for Kikola to do the same.

"So talk," said Rikana.

Kikola took a drink and started talking. "Tehvay and I had—" she blurted out and stopped herself.

Rikana shot her a wary look. "I don't think I need to know that. Whatever you get up to with each other is your business."

"What?" Then it dawned on Kikola what Rikana was insinuating. "No! Not that! We had an argument."

"Oh, is that all."

"It's the first time."

"It happens. It probably won't be the last time." Rikana tipped her glass of beer and drained the glass.

Kikola took a deep breath. "It might be; she left."

Rikana sighed. "How drunk am I going to have to get to cope with this?"

"I don't know," replied Kikola. "I am new to this situation." She frowned as she noticed another tray of drinks on the table. Rikana was knocking back a shot of livatten with her right hand and taking a beer off the tray with her left. Kikola glanced down at her own beer; she had barely drunk a quarter of it.

"Go at your own pace," said Rikana. "But you're going to need more than that to get through this."

Kikola picked up her beer and took a drink.

The alcohol was having its affect. Kikola was not a big drinker, and after a couple more sips her head was buzzing. "I don't think I should drink more." She reached for the glass of water.

"Why? It's not like you're going to get anything else tonight!" Rikana cackled and placed a shot glass in front of Kikola.

"Hey, Rikana," a voice called out from the shadows nearby.

Kikola turned to look at who had spoken. The young man was dark and swarthy. A few days growth of beard clung to his face. He stood with a half full glass of beer in his hand. "Thought I saw you come in. Want some company?"

"Not tonight." Rikana jerked her head towards Kikola. "Busy."

"Who's ya friend?" He looked at Kikola with a smile and a winked.

"I—" Kikola started to speak. Rikana's cold hand covering hers made her stop.

"She's my friend. Find your own?" Rikana's voice was light and playful.

The man smiled and gave a little laugh. "Didn't know you liked your own kind."

"Well, I'm diversifying." Rikana's thumb stroked the top of Kikola's hand. "What she lacks in one department, I'm sure she can make up for in others."

The man's laugh grew louder. "Have fun. See ya 'round." He wandered off.

"See ya," said Rikana. When the man was out of sight, she removed her hand.

Kikola stared down at her own hand. The feel of Rikana's light touch still lingered on her skin. Strange thoughts she didn't want to think started creeping into her mind. She picked up the glass of livatten and took a dainty sip of the liqueur. Surprisingly the livatten tasted smoother and sweeter with every drop. She lifted the glass and finished it in one swallow.

"Okay, so what made her walk out on you?" Rikana returned to the reason they were there.

Kikola struggled to make sense of the situation, and the alcohol wasn't helping her clarity. She tried answering Rikana's question, but all she could think about was Rikana holding her hand. "I am not at all sure…" Is she flirting with me?

Rikana was staring at her over the top of the glass as she drank her beer. "Come on," she said as she put the drink down. "Spit it out."

"What was the question?"

"Why did Miss V. walk out on you?" Rikana uttered a small laugh. "If I was her, I would. You're not my type after all." She cackled. "Though if I was Miss V. you would be my type." Rikana looked up at the ceiling and frowned. "In which case I wouldn't leave. Though you can be annoying." She paused. "But, would you be annoying if I was her?" She shrugged and looked at Kikola. "So spill."

Kikola concentrated on what she remembered. "She wanted to go to Inosa with the PPG and I thought she shouldn't. Only it might not have come out quite as I intended it. She said something about 'master and slave' and me wanting to control her body."

"Oh, so you go in for that kinky stuff, eh?" Rikana teased.

Kikola looked aghast.

"Relax, you're secret is safe with me." Rikana winked. "Though it's nothing to be ashamed of. We've all dabbled a little! Do you use your cuffs?"

"No, it's nothing like that!" Kikola was almost in a panic at the easy way her words could be twisted against her.

"Hey, I was just kidding. You don't look so good."

"I'm not feeling all that well–" Kikola's stomach began to spasm.

Kikola remembered Rikana dragging her from the seat and quickly getting her outside. The chilly air woke her up for a moment, but then the grogginess took over again. The rest of the night was a blur.  


Tehvay went to the only place she could, to her parents.

"What's the matter?" asked her father.

Tehvay didn't know how to answer. She was still trying to process the situation herself. All she could do was sit there and cry.

Her mother whispered something to her father. He nodded and left the room. Asta sat down next to her. "Talk when you're ready, dear."

"I just…" Tehvay could say no more.

A few moments later, Yuniph popped her head around the door. "What's going on?"

It only took a look from her mother to tell Yuniph to leave. When Asta wiped the tears off her daughter's face, Tehvay broke down in fresh sobs.

"Come on, let's get you to bed. Sleep now and we can talk in the morning. That'll be better."

Tehvay allowed herself to be led upstairs to the spare bedroom.

Yuniph came to give her a set of nightclothes. She gave Tehvay a brief hug and left.

Tehvay looked around the small room and remembered the last time she had slept in it. It was when she and Kikola had first arrived on Trengos and stayed with her family until they got a place of their own. What am I doing here? she asked herself. And why hasn't Kikola come looking for me? Tehvay changed and got into bed. It was a long, miserable and seemingly sleepless night.

The next morning, Tehvay knew she would have to give her parents an explanation. Reluctantly, she came downstairs dressed in Yuniph's nightclothes, expecting to find her parents and sister seated at the kitchen table – the scene of many conversations she had had with them over the past few months. When she walked in, only her mother was there waiting for her.

"Has Kikola called?" Tehvay asked.

"No," Asta replied. She rose from the table and poured Tehvay a hot cup of dyodpeth. "Would you like something to eat?"

"No thank you, Ima. My stomach is feeling a little unsettled. I'm not sure I could tolerate any food."

Asta returned to the table and placed the cup in front of her daughter as she sat down.

If Tehvay had to say which of her parents she favoured in looks, she would have said her father – the square chin and rectangular shape of her face were clearly his. Or maybe Tehvay thought that because she spent so much time with him. As she studied the face of the woman seated opposite her, she saw her own deep-set eyes and rounded nose. Thin lines creased her mother's brow and her cheeks were a little fuller, but Tehvay recognised the beauty her mother must have been and still was.

"Do you want to talk about what happened between you two?"

Tehvay's eyes gazed down into the steaming cup of dyodpeth. "Kikola and I got into an argument last night."

"What was it about?" Asta asked.

Tehvay took a sip – a stall tactic as she tried to decide how much to share with her mother.

"Trujilon and Ellovene asked me to be part of a delegation that is going to Inosa to discuss starting a PPG there."

"I see. And Kikola wasn't supportive of this?"

Tehvay's emotions came flooding out as she recounted the argument. "Not only was she not supportive, she actually forbade me to go to Inosa!"

"She forbade you? That doesn't sound like Kikola."

Tehvay felt a little betrayed by her mother seemingly siding with Kikola, but quickly realised that she might have overstated the truth. "Okay, forbade might be a bit strong," Tehvay admitted, "but in essence she said I couldn't go, which is the same thing."

"Why do you think she reacted that way?"

"I don't know…" Tehvay paused. "Because she wants to control me. She practically admitted she'd prefer it if we went back to being owner and slave!"

Asta sat back in her chair. "Hmm, did she say those exact words?"

Tehvay recalled what was said, as she remembered it. "Not in those exact words, no. But that's what she meant. She said that it was a time when she felt she had control."

"I see." Asta took a long sip of her dyodpeth. "Then what happened?"

"Then I said that if she felt that way then perhaps we needed to re-evaluate our relationship, and then I left."

"Do you think, just perhaps, Kikola was voicing her concern for your safety, and rather than wanting to control you, she just wants to protect you?"

"I need her love and support, not her protection." Tehvay looked away. She could feel a build-up of anger that she couldn't explain.

"I think she's proven her love and support, don't you?" Asta tilted her head to get into Tehvay's eye line. "And as for wanting to control you, are you certain you aren't projecting your own fears?"

"How do you mean?"

"I mean, Kikola is bound to feel like she's not in control of her life anymore, and she might even be missing her old life as an Elit. And that scares you."

"Scares me? How?"

"You're scared that as you embrace your newfound freedom, Kikola may not embrace the person you are becoming."

How did she know that, when I didn't even know it? Tehvay thought. "Maybe you're right, but I am not going to give up my independence for anyone, ever again. Not even to help Kikola feel more in control of her life."

"Nor should you, but a relationship is give and take. If you go off to Inosa, she will be here alone worrying."

"She won't be alone. She'll have you. You'll look after her, won't you?" Tehvay suddenly felt worried about Kikola being alone.

"I'll look after her, of course," replied her mother. "However, I'm not you. I'm not the one Kikola gave up everything for. She gave it up for you. And as I've got to know her, I know she would do it all again. But that doesn't mean it was easy for her, or that she doesn't miss the status she once had. She walked away from it all to be with you. I'm not saying you should give up your involvement with the PPG, but don't forget to make time for Kikola. Is it imperative that you go to Inosa?"

"I wouldn't say imperative, no."

"Then perhaps you should rethink going– for Kikola's peace of mind."

Tehvay stared into her cup of dyodpeth. "Yes, I could do that, but it might be too late."

"How do you mean?"

"She didn't stop me from leaving. She didn't follow me, and she hasn't called. So what am I to think?"

"This is the first serious relationship for either of you, yes?"

Tehvay nodded.

"In any relationship, there are bound to be misunderstandings. Kikola doesn't strike me as the type to pack up at the first sign of trouble, and neither do you. The two of you have some things to work out, but you will."

"I suppose so." Tehvay brought her cup it to her lips and finished the last of the beverage.   

Asta retrieved the pot and poured her daughter another cup. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" she asked.

"No, Ima. I have no secrets from you. Ask me anything."

"It's about your love life." Asta shifted in her seat and a slightly embarrassed look came over her. "Does Kikola take control… in the bedroom?"

Now it was Tehvay's turn to shift in her seat and look embarrassed. "Well, you see… the thing is… Kikola and I are not exactly… what I mean is, we're not… we haven't…"

"Oh! I'm sorry. I just assumed that your relationship was intimate."

"It is intimate," Tehvay said, "sort of. It's not for lack of wanting. It's just that we get to a certain point, but then all these painful memories come flooding back and I just can't." Tears welled up in Tehvay's eyes.

Asta reached for her daughter's hand. "My poor child. You never said anything."

"I thought it would've resolved itself by now."

"What about Kikola?"

"She's been very patient and never pushes for more than I am capable."

"I am glad to hear it. She is a remarkable woman, your Kikola."

"Yes, she is." Tehvay smiled, then her face became sombre again. "She never complains, but I know it must be so frustrating for her. And the more time that goes by, the harder it gets for me. Not only do old memories get in the way, but there's the disappointment I know Kikola must be feeling." Tehvay hung her head.

"Maybe that's the key for both of you."

"What is?"

"New love is fraught with insecurity," Asta said. "Physical intimacy bonds two people in a way that no mere words can ever do. And with that bonding comes the freedom to shed one's fears, to trust, to feel in control."

Tehvay listened intently to her mother's wisdom as Asta continued to explain.

"Maybe by getting past this impediment to your intimacy, you will free yourself of painful memories that hold you back from enjoying the indescribable pleasures that two people in love can share together."

"I will try. Thank you Ima, thank you." Tehvay leaned over and gave her mother a kiss on the cheek.

Asta smiled and pointed to Tehvay's cup. "Drink up, and then go home to Kikola."

Tehvay drank. The beverage warmed her inside, but there was another warmth there: the warmth of having a mother to turn to in times of trouble.


It must be morning, Kikola surmised since she was waking up in bed.

How did I get home?

She ignored the pounding in her head and looked around.

This isn't home!

There was movement on the other side of the bed.

"You're awake," said Rikana.

Kikola stared in shock and sat up. "What? Wh— how? What?"

Rikana cackled and got out of bed. "Breakfast?"

Kikola averted her gaze from her naked colleague. She looked down at herself, and she too was naked. By reflex, she pulled the sheets up to cover herself. "What time… what happened?"

"What do you remember?"

"Drinks. Talking. You and I leaving the bar."

From the corner of her eye, Kikola saw Rikana pick up some underwear, study the article of clothing intently for a moment, then discard it.

"Anything after that?" Rikana pulled on a skirt and top.

Kikola thought hard. "No."

Rikana cackled again. "Woo, if only you could remember." She made a purring noise.

Kikola turned back to face the young woman. "We… did we… no we didn't. Did we?"

"We? Do you remember what I said? I only accept one way traffic." She waved a finger at herself and Kikola. "So there was no 'we'. You on the other hand…" she let the sentence trail and allowed a smirk to curl her lips. "You were… unstoppable."

Kikola's eyes grew wide with disbelief. "No! It can't be. It… never… I… wouldn't… I haven't… Tehvay…" Kikola stopped when she saw Rikana laughing.

"Tehvay, exactly. You couldn't stop talking about her. How beautiful she is. How magnificent she is. How you feel you don't deserve her. How she completes you. I could have got down on my knees and begged you for a fuck, but even in your drunken state you would never betray her that way." Rikana paused. "Not that I did get down on my knees and beg you. I was just being hypothetical."

"So nothing happened?"

"Plenty happened. You talked about Tehvay. I listened. Now that you're sober, well, more soberer, it's my turn to talk and your turn to listen. You're a meathead. You had a little disagreement with your girlfriend, and now you think the Spur is going nova. Get over yourself and go talk to her."

Kikola reflected on the situation. She hung her head. "She left."

Rikana tossed a wadded up ball of Kikola's clothing at her. "She was probably pissed off at you. It happens. It doesn't mean she doesn't love you or doesn't want to see you ever again. People argue."

"Not us." Kikola detangled the mess of clothing and found her shirt. There was something encrusted on it that might have been vomit. She impotently held it out towards Rikana. The young woman chuckled, opened a drawer and tossed a clean shirt at her. It landed on Kikola's head. "Thank you," she said and put it on.

Rikana sighed. "Look, I'm going to put this down to you being an inept inbred idiot. Couples argue. They say things in a way they don't mean, and sometimes they walk away from each other to create a space that they need before they really say or do something bad. They get over it. You'll get over it."

Kikola slipped on her underpants. "Really?"



"By not boring me with this shit!"

"Is this some sort of reverse psychology?"

"Huh? In what way?" Rikana asked

Kikola rubbed her temples. "I don't know. I have a headache." Kikola grimaced. "And an awful taste in my mouth."

"That taste ain't me." Rikana cackled.

"I need some water. May I have some, please?"

"Sure." Rikana left the bedroom and returned with a glass of water. She handed it to Kikola.

"Thank you." Kikola took a sip of water, then drained the glass. She glanced at the chronometer. "We should be going to work."

"Not today, we'll call in sick." Rikana retrieved the glass from Kikola.

"That would be deceitful."

"How do you feel?"

Kikola's stomach did a slow roll. "Not very well."

"So you won't be lying then."

"I suppose not. What about you? How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine. I just need something unhealthy for breakfast before I start the day. You'll need some, too. Then I'll call you a taxi so you can go home and make up with Tehvay."

"Thank you. That's very kind of you."

"I'm doing this for my benefit. I want to make sure I don't have to listen to you feeling sorry for yourself again." Rikana grinned. "Though having you sharing a bed has its benefits." She raised two fingers in a V shape in front of her mouth and licked them.

Kikola finally started to understand the young woman's humour and smiled.

The breakfast did little to settle Kikola's stomach, but a hot shower somehow made her feel a bit better. Rikana called her a taxi while she got dressed. A few minutes later the taxi arrived.

"Okay, off you go," said Rikana.

Kikola stared blankly, her head still pounding.

The young woman nodded towards the door. "What are you waiting for? A goodbye kiss? Go home!"


The house was eerily empty and joyless. At least that's how it felt to Tehvay as she came through the front door. Kikola must have already left for work. That was to be expected; however a small part of her was hoping that Kikola would have been there, sick with worry, waiting for her to return. Better still, thought Tehvay, I wish we hadn't quarrelled in the first place!

Tehvay noticed the bouquet of wilted flowers still lying on the kitchen table – the one Kikola had brought home to surprise her. She located a vase and put them in water, taking pains to arrange it, hoping the flowers could still be saved – like their relationship.

She sighed and headed upstairs. As she entered the bedroom, Tehvay noticed that the bed had not been slept in – no evidence that Kikola had spent the night or went to work that morning. Tehvay's heart sank a little, but she didn't want to jump to any conclusions. Right now, all Tehvay wanted to do was get out of the clothes that she had been in since yesterday and get cleaned up.

She stood in the shower, allowing the hot water to wash over her body, rehearsing what she would say to Kikola when she saw her. Maybe I should give Kikola a call now to let her know that I'm back home, Tehvay thought. Oh, but I don't want to get into a discussion over a comm device. We need to talk about it face to face.

As Tehvay towelled off, she heard a noise downstairs. She quickly put on a dressing gown and went to investigate. She was surprised to find Kikola standing in the kitchen holding another bouquet of flowers.

Tehvay noticed that Kikola looked a little worse for wear. She wasn't at all the spit and polished officer without even a strand of hair out of place. Instead Kikola had dark circles under her eyes, and she was wearing a strange shirt; oversized, bright pink and red diagonals, something that Kikola would never own.

"What are you doing home? You weren't here when I got home this morning. I assumed you had already gone to work."

"I didn't go to work today. I called in sick. Here, these are for you." Kikola glanced down at the wilted flowers on the table. "A fresh bouquet for a fresh start."

Tehvay accepted the proffered flowers and inhaled their fragrant aroma. "They're lovely. Thank you." She couldn't let the shirt go unremarked. "Where did you get that shirt? It looks like something Rikana would wear."

Kikola looked down and pulled her jacket closed. "It is Rikana's. I spent the night there. My shirt got… it was… dirty."

"Tehvay, I am not exactly sure what happened last night, but if I said anything to upset you, I am very sorry."

"I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have walked out on you last night. That was wrong of me. Forgive me?"

"There's nothing to forgive. I should not have said you couldn't go to Inosa with the PPG. It is not my place to say where you can and cannot go."

"No, you do have a right to voice your concerns. This is a partnership, and when we have disagreements, we don't argue and we don't run. We sit and talk things over – work things out."

"It's not that I want to control you or return to being owner and slave. I don't. I just want to keep you safe. It's all I have ever wanted." Kikola broke eye contact and glanced down at the floor.

"I know that," said Tehvay. "I apologise for not listening to you, for not giving you a chance to explain your position more clearly." Tehvay raised Kikola's chin and held her gaze. "I owe you so much. You gave up everything – your career, your position, your family – for me. I didn't stop to think how that would make you feel. Of course it must've made you feel like you had no control. And I can't blame you if you do resent all the time I have been spending with my family, Trujilon and Ellovene, the PPG."

"No, I am happy that you spend time with family and friends. I suppose I was a little jealous of the time the PPG takes away from us. But you are passionate about it, so I should be more supportive."

"You are… very supportive. And you have been very patient. Not at all demanding."

Kikola gave her a half-smile. "I am more than willing to be patient, for as long as it takes. I just want you to be happy and fulfilled."

"And I want the same for you. Starting now." Tehvay took Kikola by the hand and led her upstairs.

I will not allow anything spoil this for Kikola or for me, Tehvay silently vowed. She let her dressing gown fall to the floor and joined Kikola on the bed.

"I want you to just relax. I'll do all the work."

Kikola was about to protest the need, just as she had done many times before, but Tehvay stopped her with a kiss – a kiss that deepened with each breath. Tehvay liked to kiss Kikola. Her lips were so soft and yielding – nothing like the owners who had filled her mouth with rapacious tongues and other things.

Her lips took a meandering path to Kikola's breasts. As Kikola responded to her caresses, Tehvay felt the pleasure she was giving Kikola reflected back to her. It was heady and arousing in ways Tehvay had never before experienced. For the first time, she felt empowered to discover what making love truly meant.

Kikola's hips rose up to meet Tehvay's mouth as her tongue lavished long broad strokes through moist folds. Kikola's gentle moans were becoming more urgent. Her clit was pulsing with arousal. Tehvay knew it was time to explore uncharted territory.

She moved up to kiss Kikola's abdomen as her fingers replaced her tongue. She hesitated for a moment. Her mind flashed back to the last time she was made to perform a sex act: her owner laying beneath her, telling Tehvay what to do and how to do it; the threat of a beating hanging over her if she got it wrong. This is different, she thought. This is the woman I love.

"Are you okay?" Kikola asked with concern. "Do we need to stop?"

Tehvay glanced up and smiled. "No, I'm fine. How about you?"

"Fine, yes… better than fine."

"You ready for this?"

"Yes! So ready."

"Good." Tehvay inched one finger inside and let it come to rest.

"You might feel a little discomfort, but it won't last. Okay?"

"Yes! Anything! Please."

She took Kikola's nipple in her mouth and sucked on the hardened nub as her finger pushed past the thin membrane. Kikola grabbed hold of Tehvay and held on until the twinge of pain had passed. Once Tehvay felt Kikola's vaginal muscles relax, she slowly withdrew.

"Are you finished?" asked Kikola.

Tehvay smiled. "No, I've just begun." Her finger went in deeper, but not too deep. Kikola whimpered as Tehvay gently moved inside her – slowly withdrawing then entering again. Kikola gasped as Tehvay quickened her pace. Kikola's hips met each thrust with urgency.

There was much more Tehvay could have done to prolong it, but as this was Kikola's first time, she didn't want to make her sore. So when she sensed that Kikola was close, Tehvay plunged in as deeply as she could and used her thumb to stroke Kikola's hooded pearl. That sent Kikola over the edge. She let out a guttural cry as her body stiffened and shuddered.

Tehvay held Kikola in her arms and listened to her breathing return to normal. A feeling of elation and relief washed over her. It had been such a long journey to this moment for the two of them. There were times when it appeared they might never get here: so many obstacles – some seemingly insurmountable. Yet through it all, Kikola had been steadfast in her determination that the two of them were meant to love each other.

Tehvay suddenly felt quite overcome with emotions. Tears started welling up in her eyes.

Kikola leaned up and wiped away a tear that had rolled down Tehvay's cheek. "You are crying. Are you all right?"

"Yes, yes I am fine. How about you?"

"I'm better than fine!"

Kikola wanted to kiss Tehvay and asked her permission. "You never have to ask me that," Tehvay said. And to prove it, she pulled Kikola into an embrace and allowed Kikola to take the lead.

Kikola was careful not to cover Tehvay with her whole body as she leaned over Tehvay and kissed her. Tehvay parted her lips, inviting Kikola to deepen the kiss. She welcomed Kikola's tongue to explore her mouth, to taste her own essence on Tehvay's tongue.

Tehvay's pulse quickened to feel Kikola's hand softly caress her breast. Her abdominal muscles clenched involuntarily when Kikola's fingers traced a path to Tehvay's hips. Tehvay so desperately wanted to feel Kikola inside her, to experience a flood of desire coursing through her bloodstream and the indescribable pleasure of joyous release. But Tehvay hadn't felt aroused by another's touch or by her own for a long time. That thought brought up memories of the last owner who abused her. Gallish, the woman Boran killed. She would order Tehvay to masturbate in front of her but not allow Tehvay to reach orgasm. If Tehvay showed any signs of pleasure, Gallish would order her to stop and administer an electric shock to herself. The shock did no lasting damage, but it hurt a lot. Sometimes it would cause her to lose bladder and bowel control. Tehvay quickly conditioned herself not to react to genital stimulation.

Tehvay touched Kikola's arm. "Kikola, stop."

Kikola looked up, "Am I doing it wrong?"

Tehvay pulled Kikola in close and held her in the crook of her arm. She stroked Kikola's dark brown hair and kissed her temple. "No my love. You were doing it right. It's just…"

How can I explain it to her? That her touch doesn't excite me, no matter how much I want it to, Tehvay thought. I can't tell her, because none of it is her fault. She only wants to love me, and my broken soul won't allow it.

"Did it bring up bad memories?" asked Kikola.

"Maybe one or two, but those have been replaced with one very good memory." Tehvay gave her a knowing smile.

"I am glad. I hope it will be nothing but good memories from here on out."

"So do I. But I need to take things one step at time. There are some things I can't talk about yet. One day, maybe."  

"I understand."

Do you really? Kikola had said she understood many times, but Tehvay needed to hear Kikola proclaim it again.

"You know I will never force you to do anything you are not ready for," said Kikola, her voice was small, almost pleading. "All of this is on your terms. I only want to be with you."

Tehvay languidly closed her eyes and invited Kikola to join her in a kiss.

They remained wrapped in each other's arms for several minutes. Finally, Tehvay loosened her hold and looked down at Kikola.

"I want you to know that I've decided not to go to Inosa."

"Really? That's… if you are sure."


"I love you, Tehvay."

"I love you too, Kikola."

Tehvay was feeling the effects of the sleepless night she had and wanted to close her eyes. She pulled Kikola in closer, leaned over and gave her one last kiss, and then started drifting off to sleep. The last thing Tehvay remembered was Kikola's arm wrapping around her waist and their hands entwined together.




The shift on the interceptor had been routine. Kikola sat in the galley staring into a glass of water. All she could think about was Tehvay and what finally happened last night. She knew the mechanics of sex, but had never experienced the intensity that making love offered. She closed her eyes and relived the sensations her body felt – the spark of desire, the warmth of Tehvay's skin, the longing at her core. Self-pleasuring paled in comparison to having Tehvay touching her so deeply, so intimately for the first time. And Kikola felt Tehvay's tenderness and love with every kiss, every stroke. The only thing that would have made it perfect was if she could have given Tehvay the same gift. That will come in time. We've taken the first step, she thought.

Kikola was startled by Yuniph's voice from the comm. "Officer Karthen, report to starboard airlock. We've got an unapproved ship. They've agreed to let us board."

"On my way."

Kikola took a final swig of her water and hurried to the airlock. Yuniph was already waiting there.

"How many on board, Sergeant?" asked Kikola. Both of them liked to keep it formal while on duty; one of the few areas in which they both felt comfortable.

"Six," Yuniph replied. "They claim to be here on a personal matter."

"Have you called for backup?"

"They've been compliant so far, but I've called in Interceptor Four just in case."

Kikola nodded and turned her attention to the airlock panel. The contact light came on just before she felt the slight judder. Once the seal light came on, Yuniph opened the door. Kikola took point and led the way.

The door to the other ship was open and a man and woman stood there waiting for them. The man rushed past Kikola before she realised what was about to happen.

The man grabbed Yuniph. The sergeant's defence training kicked in, and she threw him to the floor. Her IPB appeared in her hand, and she pointed it at the man's head.

"No! Sergeant Veilan, stop!" Kikola shouted.

Yuniph shot a look at her.

"It's all right." Kikola gestured at Yuniph to put the weapon away. "He just mistook you for Tehvay."

"You know him?"

"That's Boran Zerbilla."

Yuniph released him and stepped back. "I'm sorry, but you shouldn't try to grab a security officer like that."

"My mistake," said Boran. He climbed to his feet and smoothed out his trousers and casual button-down shirt. "Would someone like to explain?"

"This is Yuniph, Tehvay's sister," said Kikola. "Tehvay's twin sister."

"Twin sister?" Boran looked baffled.

"It is going to take some explaining," said Kikola. "It looks like I am not the only one with explaining to do." She turned away from Boran to the impeccably dressed woman in the airlock. "Mother, what are you doing here?"

Mariantha walked slowly towards her daughter. Kikola could see moisture in her eyes and a lot of conflicted emotion on her face. "Kikola. It is so good to see you again."

Kikola could not resist it; she closed the gap between them and enveloped her mother in an embrace. "I have missed you."

Yuniph's voice interrupted the reunion. "Officer Karthen."

Kikola took a step away from her mother and turned to face her colleague. "Yes, Sergeant?"

"I take it you can vouch for these people."

"Yes. They are not slavers. This is my mother, Mariantha ap Karthen, and Boran Zerbilla, a good friend."

"Welcome to Trengos," Yuniph said. "You may continue on your way." She turned to Kikola. "Officer Karthen, we must return to the ship."

It was ingrained in Kikola that an order from a superior officer had to be obeyed. Yet she hesitated.

"Sergeant, might I have permission to accompany them to the surface? There is so much I need to tell them."

"We are still on duty," Yuniph stated.

Kikola glanced at Boran, who was looking at Yuniph. She could tell he was trying to make sense of it all, but she had her orders.

"Yes, Sergeant."

Mariantha glared at Yuniph. "I have come halfway across the Spur to see my daughter. She will return to duty when I am finished speaking with her."

Her mother could be a force of nature that was impossible to resist. As a judge, Mariantha commanded attention in her courtroom. Outside the courtroom, she could adopt a tone of voice that demanded everyone stop and pay attention to her. The voice, coupled with a glare and a stance that made her seem twice as imposing, was enough to freeze Yuniph. Even Boran took his cue to slink back inside the airlock.

The sergeant took several heartbeats to recover. She blinked slowly. "A minute," she muttered, and retreated back to the interceptor.

Mariantha's stance softened when Yuniph left, and she turned back to Kikola.

"There's been a change in The Council," her mother told her. "Ambra ap Lentol has taken over. She has declared herself Bren."

"Ambra? Bren? Nobody has claimed the title Bren in over a thousand years."

"Well she has, and she has expelled the founding families from The Council – declared them all Fethusal. I decided to flee rather than stay and suffer the humiliation." Mariantha paused. "Your Uncle Toman is dead."

The news hit her like a gut punch, but Kikola retained her calm façade.

"How did Uncle Toman die?" Kikola asked her mother.

"He took his own life," her mother replied. "He was the primary speaker against Ambra. He also organised an attack on her ship that failed, and it shifted The Council's favour in her direction. He must have felt disgraced, and Ambra wouldn't have let him live anyway, no matter what promises she might have made to the contrary." Mariantha shook her head sadly.

"That is… regrettable." Kikola shook her head. "And Rephon?"

"Your brother is safe. At least he was the last time I spoke to him. Ambra promised that no one would be harmed during the transition."

Kikola tried to process what she was hearing. "How did you come to be with Zerbilla?"

"Jenissa ap Taliss told me about him." Her mother glanced over her shoulder. "She is here with me. Her slave… Ambra ap Lentol had it killed."

Kikola felt a pang of sorrow for the young woman. She knew how much Jenissa loved Menari. "I must get back to work. We will talk later."

Her mother's demeanour changed from soft to hard. "How can you take orders from that woman? She's not Elit. Why aren't you in charge?"

"No, she's not Elit. Neither am I, here. And now, neither are you." Kikola squeezed her mother's arm. "I really must go. I will come find you after my shift." She glanced past her mother to Boran. He was flanked by a man and a woman Kikola recognised as Boran's trusted advisors, Tremothen and Marleen, who had helped in the plan to rescue Tehvay. Kikola gave a welcoming nod in their direction and hurried back to the interceptor.


Tehvay was anxiously awaiting Kikola's return from work. Memories from the previous night were still foremost in her mind: the sounds Kikola made, the smoothness of her skin, the taste, the emotions. Ima was right, thought Tehvay. Physical intimacy does bond two people… and with that bonding comes freedom. Tehvay wanted to be free of her demons from the past and free to give herself to Kikola fully. So, she had their evening planned out from the moment Kikola would walk through the door to the moment they would finally drift off to sleep in each other's contented embrace.

Tehvay was in the kitchen preparing a nice meal for Kikola, made with fresh ingredients from the market, not the food dispenser. She stirred the pot, careful not to spill the sauce on her favourite green dress. She wore it especially for Kikola, because she knew Kikola liked it, and she wanted the evening to be perfect.

Tehvay was so engrossed in what she was doing that she didn't hear the front door open. Her heart leapt when Kikola came into the room.

"You're home!" Tehvay stopped what she was doing and greeted Kikola with a kiss.

"Look," said Tehvay pointing to a pot on the hob. "I've made dinner to surprise you."

"And I have got a surprise," said Kikola.

"A surprise?" Tehvay was intrigued. "It isn't flowers is it? Because I got some for you this time." She pointed to a lovely bouquet that dominated the centre of the table.

Kikola smiled. "No, not flowers. Even better. Follow me."

Tehvay turned off the hob and followed Kikola into the lounge.

When she entered the room, Tehvay was surprised to find they had guests. She was a bit disappointed, because it meant the romantic evening she had planned for the two of them was over. However, her disappointment changed to celebration when she recognised the gentleman with the designer suit and broad smile standing before her.

"It can't be… Boran?" Tehvay launched herself at him and joyful tears flowed as Boran swept her up in his arms.

"Hey there," he whispered. "No need for tears now."

"I thought I'd never see you again," said Tehvay.

"It seems Orion had other plans," Boran replied.

Tehvay finally pulled back from Boran and noticed Kikola standing with a middle-aged woman in a form-fitting, knee-length green dress, with flowing black hair, polished nails, and the same determined brow as Kikola.

It took a moment for Tehvay's brain to register that the woman was Judge Mariantha ap Karthen, Kikola's mother. "I don't understand. What are you doing here?"

"I am here to see my daughter," Mariantha remarked.

She crossed to the other side of Kikola, revealing someone else from Tehvay's past that took a moment for her to recognise. The usual glorious golden curls fell lankly over her shoulders, and the simple plain black dress was light years from her usual finally detailed attire.

"Hello Tehvay. How are you?" asked Jenissa ap Taliss.

Tehvay was struck dumb. She never expected to see her former owner ever again. "I—I'm fine, Ma'am." Tehvay cringed inside at how easily she acted like a slave again.

"Jenissa." The young woman bowed her head. "You may call me Jenissa if you wish – anything but Ma'am. You are not my slave anymore."

"Um… I…" Tehvay struggled to find her voice. "Is Menari with you?"

At the mention of Menari's name, Jenissa broke down.

Boran laid a hand on Tehvay's shoulder. "I'm afraid Menari is dead."

"Oh. I am sorry." Tehvay was conditioned never to ask what happened to a slave and discouraged not to form emotional bonds with other slaves. Still, she knew how much Jenissa loved Menari, and felt genuine sadness for the young woman's loss. Tehvay observed Kikola's mother placing an arm around Jenissa's shoulders in an effort to comfort her. She thought it strange to see the judge demonstrating compassion like that. Where's her compassion for her daughter? Tehvay wondered.

Tehvay directed their guests to make themselves comfortable. Mariantha and Jenissa sat in two armchairs. Tehvay settled down on the settee between Boran and Kikola.

"I cannot believe you gave up everything for this tiny hovel." Mariantha looked around the room with disdain.

"Mother! You are forgetting; you too have given up everything."

"Yes, but I will not lower—"

"It's so great to see you again." Boran said loudly, curtailing Mariantha's speech. "Marleen, Tremothen, and Tana send their regards."

"Are they here on Trengos?" asked Tehvay.

"Yes, though they remained on the ship. I thought it would be too much if we all turned up at once, but they can't wait to see you."

"I can't wait to see them, and I can't wait for you to meet my family!"

"I'd love to meet them, though I met your sister earlier. Yuniph is it?" Boran replied.

"You did? Yes, Yuniph. How? When?" Tehvay was still a little overwhelmed, and the questions came tumbling out.

Kikola explained. "Yuniph and I were on an intercept mission when we encountered Boran's ship."

"And let's just say there was a case of mistaken identity that nearly had me arrested!" added Boran.

"Did you choose this backwater planet for your exile because your family was here?" Mariantha asked Tehvay.

Tehvay was taken aback by the judge's question. It felt like she was being cross-examined. "I, uh…"

"We didn't know Tehvay's family lived here," Kikola responded. "It was a happy coincidence."

"I don't believe in coincidence," said Mariantha, "and I don't believe you are happy with a low-rank security job instead of the prestige and glory that being the next Rivelor would have brought to you and to the Karthen family."

"Mother, I assure you I am at peace with my decision to choose love over prestige."

"Well, I am glad you are at peace with your decision," Mariantha replied with obvious sarcasm. "My life and that of the rest of the family are in ruins, your uncle Toman is dead, and Ambra is now Bren, all because of your carnal feelings for a fugitive slave!"

"Tehvay. Her name is Tehvay," Kikola reached out and took Tehvay's hand. "I truly regret the trouble I have brought to you and the family, but I do not regret my decision. I love Tehvay with all my heart and we are content in our life together here on Trengos. I will be even happier if that life includes you."

Tehvay listened to this exchange with mixed emotions. She had never stopped to consider how their actions had affected Kikola's family. She could almost feel empathy for Kikola's mother, especially for the loss of Kikola's uncle.

Kikola's mother said nothing in response, and for a few moments no one spoke. Eventually Tehvay broke the silence. "Who's Ambra?"

"There's been a change of power in The Hegemony," said Kikola. "Ambra ap Lentol has seized control of The Council."

"Is that bad?" asked Tehvay.

"Yes," said Mariantha curtly.

"She has declared herself Bren and is purging The Council of those opposed to her," Kikola explained to Tehvay.

"Bren?" queried Tehvay.

"It's a title once given to the supreme leader of The Hegemony," said Jenissa. "I remember it from history class," she added when the others turned their attention towards her.

"About three hundred years after the founding of The Hegemony, Narish ap D'Angel was declared Bren," said Kikola. "It was meant to be a title shared among all families, handed over every ten years. However, he abused his powers and made it an hereditary title. For over two hundred years the D'Angels ruled The Hegemony. The other Elit families were marginalised. Eventually the old order was restored, and the position of Bren abolished. The D'Angels agreed that they would concentrate their efforts in more artistic roles for being allowed to remain in the Elit."

"Is that why you came here? Because this Ambra has taken control?" Tehvay asked Boran.

Boran nodded. "The political turmoil in The Hegemony was becoming bad for business," he said. "I had already begun to liquidate some of my holdings when Mariantha and Jenissa arrived on Shibato. Jenissa remembered me from when we rescued you and thought I could help them. So, to make a long story short, here we are." 

Tehvay regarded the group sitting in her lounge: the judge that had returned her to slavery, her former owner, and her very dear friend. It was almost overwhelming to think of what it all would mean to their lives going forward.

Tehvay needed a moment to collect her thoughts, soshe went to the kitchen to get some refreshments. A bowl of peeled namida fruit sat on a worktop. Tehvay had planned for her and Kikola to feed it to each other. She could just imagine sucking the juice off Kikola's slender fingers. A noise behind her pulled her out of her reverie. She turned and saw Judge Karthen standing in the kitchen doorway.

Tehvay was unsure what to say to her. This was the woman who had spared her life, and unwittingly, given her a new and better one, but Tehvay was still reluctant to consider her an ally.

"I met your sister earlier on," said Mariantha. "A rather wilful creature, ordering my daughter about. I recall you were quite wilful at your trial. I hope you do not order Kikola about."

"And what if I do? Does it offend you?"

"She is Elit, you are a slave. How she could lower herself to—"

"Oh! She lowers herself quite easily when I tell her to get on her knees and lick me." Tehvay hissed, keeping her voice low. "Is that what you want to hear? Is it?"

"If you are trying to shock me, you will not succeed."

"What do you want from me then?"

"I want you to understand. Kikola was tutored and mentored and shaped into the perfect soldier, fit to be not just any aloyd, but the Rivelor. She was to ensure the Karthen family name would be remembered for eternity. When she told me that she was in love with another woman, I was disappointed. Had she had fallen for some respectable Fethusal senior officer, that sort of thing can be tolerated if knowledge of it is contained within a family, but if it became widely known it would be an embarrassment. I even hoped she would find a man to marry, even if it would only be to keep up appearances. Through all of it, though, she would still be my daughter and I would support her. But a slave? I should have had you executed when I had the chance. If I had, none of this would have happened."

Tehvay felt the sting of the judge's rebuke, and she wasn't going to leave it unanswered. "My parents told me they remembered you from visits to the Lentols. They said you weren't a very nice person. I see you haven't changed."

"The Lentols? Your parents were slaves to the Lentols?"


"They were freed?"

"Yes. When my mother was pregnant. However freedom was only for them and one child. I was taken into slavery."

Mariantha studied her carefully. "The Lentols should have had your mother put down instead of freeing her."


Kikola heard what sounded like a slap and went into the kitchen.

"What's going on?" she asked.

The red mark on her mother's cheek told her what had happened, but she asked the question anyway.

"Nothing," said Mariantha. "Nothing that I did not deserve."

"I thought you wanted to use the toilet?"

Offering no reply, Mariantha turned and walked into the hallway and up the stairs.

Kikola looked at Tehvay. "You slapped my mother?"

"Yes," said Tehvay. "I'm sorry, but she said a few unkind things about me which I tried to ignore, but when she said the Lentols should have had my mother put down instead of freeing her, I just reacted."

Anger boiled up in Kikola. She had tolerated her mother's rude behaviour towards Tehvay for the sake of decorum, but this time her mother had gone too far. "I am going to have a word with her." As she turned to go and confront her mother, a hand on her elbow stopped her.

"Don't," said Tehvay. "You heard your mother. She said she deserved it. Confronting her won't make the situation better, only worse."

Kikola's voice was raised. "She cannot talk to you like that!"

Tehvay's voice was barely above a whisper. "I've been spoken to worse." 

"That doesn't excuse her behaviour."

"Please, let it drop," Tehvay pleaded. "For me."

Kikola felt the anger dissipate and hugged Tehvay. "If that is what you want."

"Go back in and see to our guests," said Tehvay. "I'll bring in the refreshments."

"Are you sure? Do you want me to help? You go back in, I will get—"

Tehvay placed a finger over Kikola's lips and kissed her on the cheek. "Go on." She gave a smile and nodded her head in the direction of the door. "I can manage."

I am glad one of us can, Kikola thought.

Kikola was still irked at her mother's behaviour, but she let the matter drop and returned to the main room where Boran and Jenissa were left waiting. Kikola wasn't sure if Boran and Jenissa had overheard the commotion in the kitchen, but she didn't mention it. She tried to engage Jenissa in conversation, however, the young Taliss woman only replied with a monosyllabic 'yes' or 'no'. She was almost grateful when Mariantha returned to the group, and relieved that the red mark from Tehvay's slap had faded and nothing more was said.

Tehvay came in bearing a tray of snacks and something to drink.

Kikola poured everyone a glass and offered them to their guests. Jenissa passed on anything to eat or drink. Boran was happy to try it. Then Kikola came to her mother. Mariantha took the glass and smelled the drink before she tried it.

"It is called seidfalr," explained Tehvay, "a fermented cider that my father makes from the fruit of the fala tree. He's quite a good gardener."

"Is that so?" replied Mariantha. She brought it to her lips and took a small sip. "It's not in the same class as the cider back home." She took another small sip. "Still, not bad," she conceded.

"I will tell him you liked it," said Tehvay.

Boran tasted it and said, "This really is good. Perhaps your father would consider going into business together."

"I'm not sure. He might," Tehvay said thoughtfully. "He doesn't produce a lot of it."

"Even better! If it's rare we can charge more for it!" Boran raised his glass and took another swallow of the seidfalr.

"Perhaps you can discuss with him when you meet my parents."

"I will," Boran said. He emptied the glass of every drop.

Mariantha put her glass down. "I think we would all agree that it has been a very eventful day. Perhaps we should call it a night."

"Not yet," said Kikola. "I would like to know more about the situation in The Hegemony."

"Why the concern?" Mariantha asked with thinly veiled bitterness.

"I am curious," Kikola replied. "And I care."

"I'll be happy to tell you what I know," Boran said, "but I agree with Mariantha. It has been an eventful day."

"I have an idea," said Tehvay. "Kikola, you have a day off work tomorrow, don't you?"


"Why doesn't Boran come back tomorrow morning? You can talk about it then."

"Sounds good," said Boran. "I'll bring Tremothen and Marleen along," Boran offered.

"That would be wonderful! I'm anxious to see them again," said Tehvay. Not wanting to seem impolite, Tehvay asked Kikola's mother and Jenissa if they would like to come back tomorrow. Answering for both herself and Jenissa, Mariantha begged off, saying it had been a long journey and they needed to catch up on their rest.

Tehvay turned her attentions back to Boran. Her excitement to have him here in the flesh was almost overflowing. "I would love for you to meet my parents then, as well!"

"That would be great," said Boran.

"Good, I'll arrange it." Tehvay touched Kikola on the arm. "I'll send a message to Tru and Ell to see if they can come. I'd like them to meet everyone as well."

Kikola nodded, and Tehvay excused herself and left the room. She returned a few moments later carrying her comm unit. "Trujilon says he can come tomorrow morning. Ell can't make it. She has to work."

Kikola's mother rose from her seat, which prompted Jenissa to stand as well. "It is getting late. It is time we returned to the ship."

"Right," said Boran, taking his cue from Kikola's mother. He turned to Tehvay and gave her a fatherly hug. "I'll see you tomorrow then."

Tehvay and Kikola watched from the doorway as Boran, Mariantha, and Jenissa drove off into the night. 

"That's not the evening I had planned for us," said Tehvay.

"Nor I," replied Kikola.

"Is what your mother said true? Did you rescuing me and giving up your career lead to your Uncle Toman's and Menari's death?"

"It might have played a part, but no, we are not responsible for their deaths. Ambra ap Lentol is responsible. She used us as an excuse to overthrow The Council and seize power."

"What happens now?"

"What do you mean?" asked Kikola.

"I mean, your mother didn't come all this way just to see where we live. She's come to try and convince you to go back and stop Ambra."

"Perhaps," said Kikola, "and perhaps she and Jenissa came to start a new life. Who knows, they may grow to love it here as much as we have."

"Well, at least one good thing has come out of it. They brought Boran with them."

"True," said Kikola with a smile. "'So what happens now?' you ask." Kikola took Tehvay's hand. "Now, we go upstairs and let tomorrow take care of itself."


The ship was quiet. Everyone else on board had retired to their cabins for the night. Boran, having traded his suit for more comfortable lounging slacks and long-sleeved shirt, settled into the darkened cockpit, cradling a drink. He looked out at the lights of the spaceport. The port authorities had told him it could be several months before he'd get a covered hangar, maybe longer. In the meantime, he'd secured a remote open bay away from the general passenger terminal. If he squinted he could make the lights look like stars and pretend he was in space.

Maybe I should just have a hangar built, he thought.

"Thought I'd find you here."

Boran turned to look at his daughter, Tana, who was framed by the cockpit doorway. She was wearing a jumper and form fitting slacks as though she had just come from exercising, though Boran had never known his daughter to be a fitness buff. Shopping was more her sport.

Tana entered the cockpit and sat in the co-pilot's chair.

"How's Tehvay?" she asked.

"She's good. She's happy. I'm going to see her again in the morning. She's taking me to meet her parents. You can come along."

Tana shook her head. "We're going to need an income."

Boran's finances were not foremost in his mind. "I've—"

"We're perfectly placed to take advantage of the local haulage market."

Boran frowned. "We are?"

"I did a little research while you were out. Everyone around here is independent. 'Inter-planetary distribution network' appears to be an alien concept around here. We talk to suppliers. We talk to customers. We hire pilots. The market will be ours in no time."

"Simple as that," he said, nodding and smiling.

"If you want it. You're better at the negotiations than me."

"Don't underestimate yourself."

"I don't." She looked offended by his words. "I can do it, but I recognise that you're better at it."

Boran was silent for several seconds. "Do we ever talk about anything other than business or money?" He looked at his daughter earnestly. "What's the last book you read?"

Tana looked confused by his change of subject. "I don't know. Some crappy fantasy novel. What's that got to do with anything?"

"Maybe it's about time I got to know you better." 

His daughter stood up. "It's late. We're on a planet in the arse end of nowhere. And you want to talk books." She shook her head slowly. "I'll make some contacts and get back to you." She headed for the exit, stopped, and turned back. "I don't hate you. I know you don't hate me. Let's not complicate things, okay."

"Tana, I… Now that Tehvay is back in my life. I'm going to put her back in my will."

Tana shrugged. "I figured as much."

"It'll just be a payment, and if you keep the business running, a percentage—a small percentage—of the profits."

"Then I better go and get us some business." With that, Tana left.

Boran leaned back in the pilot's seat. After seeing Tehvay again, the thought of settling down on Trengos seemed a more acceptable idea. About forty percent of his business involved trade coming from or going to the Graelands, so Trengos would be a convenient place to set up shop and wait for the winds of change in The Hegemony to blow his way again. Pan Willam on Argos Station would still be a useful contact for trading wholly within the Graelands, Boran thought. This could work.

He stood and finished his drink. Rain started to patter against the cockpit windows. I should find somewhere drier to build a new estate.


Tehvay opened the front door as Boran's surface vehicle pulled up outside the house. Two people hurriedly exited the vehicle and headed towards her, pausing only to close their coats to protect against the chilly morning air.

Before she could utter a word, Tehvay was lifted off her feet by Tremothen's enthusiastic embrace.

"Put her down, you big fool," said Marleen. When her husband obeyed, the small woman crushed Tehvay in her own hug. The three of them stood on the pavement, hugging and grinning at each other, while Boran stood a short distance away smiling at all of them.

Kikola came out of the house donning a light jacket, and joined Tehvay and her friends. "It's good to see you both again," she said to the couple.

"Good to see you, too," said Tremothen.

"It is chilly standing out here," Kikola said, gesturing towards the house. "Come in."

Marleen nodded at Kikola, took her husband's arm, and started to walk towards the entrance.

"Wait," said Tehvay. "I was going to take Boran around to meet my parents before they go to work this morning. Why don't you two come with us?"

"We'd love to," said Marleen. "But we wouldn't want to impose."

"It is no imposition. They'd love to meet you," said Tehvay.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes!" Tehvay assured them. "They don't live far from here. I thought we'd walk."

"Sure," replied Boran.

Tehvay turned to Kikola. "We won't be long. If Trujilon comes before we get back, be nice to him."

"I will. Give my regards to your parents."

Kikola went back into the house while Tehvay, Boran, Tremothen, and Marleen set off on the short walk to her parents.

Tehvay led the way, with Boran beside her and Tremothen and Marleen walking behind.

"Are we going to meet your sister this morning?" Tremothen asked.

"No, Yuniph had already left for work when I called my parents this morning," Tehvay replied.

"What's it been like for you, being reunited with your parents and sister?" Marleen asked.

"Is it 'reunited'?" Tremothen asked his wife. "I mean she never knew them before."

"You know what I mean." Marleen hushed her husband.

Tehvay glanced over her shoulder to answer Marleen's question. "Finding my family has been wonderful, though it's been an adjustment for all of us, especially my sister."

"Oh, why is that?" Marleen asked.

"She found it a challenge suddenly having a twin sister she knew nothing about. She felt excluded by the attention I was getting. Everything is fine between us now though."

"I'm glad to hear that," Marleen replied.

Boran chimed in. "I'm happy that you have found your family."

Tehvay noted a sadness to his tone. She stopped walking and turned to him. "You are still my family, Boran." She looked at Tremothen and Marleen. "You are my family, too. Kikola is my family. We are all family now."

Boran smiled at Tehvay affectionately, and then he reached out and ruffled her hair. "I'm used to seeing you in short hair."

Tehvay ran a hand through her hair to smooth it down. "Yes, when you freed me, I got it cut because it was my choice. Now… I don't know, I've been letting it grow out a bit. Again, my choice. That's freedom," Tehvay said. "I—Your moustache! You've shaved it off!"

Boran laughed as he rubbed the stubble over his lip.

"It'll be back before long!" said Tremothen. "He gets rid of it every few years. Within six months it's back."

"Am I that predictable?" asked Boran.

"Yes," Marleen agreed. "Your hair is lovely, Tehvay," she added. "Unlike mine." She pointed to her greying hair.

"I didn't marry you for your hair." Tremothen patted his wife on the bottom.

"And you think I married you for yours?" She returned his pat with a slightly harder one as he smoothed out his bright red hair.

They continued on their way. Before too long, Tehvay led them up a garden walk of a semi-detached home that was similar to Tehvay and Kikola's house a few streets away. "Here we are."

Tehvay opened the door to her parents' house and entered. Her father appeared, already dressed in work clothes for his first landscape job. Pallin smiled at his daughter and stepped aside to allow Boran and the others to enter.

Pallin took everyone's coats and put them in a cupboard under the stairs. Tehvay observed her father's facial reaction to the vibrantly coloured clothing their guests revealed as the coats had come off. His eyebrows registered the bold shade of purple of Boran's suit jacket, Marleen's flaming red dress, and the broad green and blue striped shirt Tremothen sported. Tehvay's parents favoured more practical attire in shades that didn't make them stand out. The contrast between business people and ex-slaves was not lost on Tehvay.  

"Come on through," said Pallin. His manner was polite but aloof.

Tehvay frowned at her father's unexpected reaction. It never occurred to her that her parents wouldn't immediately warm to her friends.

In the kitchen, a large pot of tea sat on the table. Asta, who was also dressed for work in her factory uniform, picked up six cups from the counter and placed them on the table.

"Boran, these are my parents. Asta and Pallin. Ita, Ima, this is Boran."

"It's so good to meet you," said Boran. He gave their hands a quick shake. "Tehvay… well, she deserves every happiness, and finding you… wow! Amazing! You should be proud of her. When I first met her, she was… well, you don't need me to tell you… anyway, she's… blossomed into a… a… I'm babbling. I'll shut up."

Tehvay introduced Tremothen and Marleen. They kept their greetings to a minimum.

"Tea?" asked Asta.

"That will be lovely," said Boran.

"Yes, thank you," said Marleen.

"That would be great," said Tremothen.

"Sit down," said Asta as she poured.

"Boran, Tehvay has told us so much about you," said Pallin. "Everything you did for her, taking her out of slavery, searching for her when she was recaptured, helping her escape with Kikola. We can't thank you enough."

"No need for thanks. Tehvay is like a daughter to me. I'd do anything for her." He took Tehvay's hand and gave it a squeeze.

"Don't take this the wrong way," Pallin briefly glanced at Asta. "What exactly are you doing here? I mean what are your intentions?"

"Ita!" Tehvay was surprised by the odd questions.

"Intentions? I'm not sure I understand."

"We've just found Tehvay," said Asta. "Now you've turned up. We're concerned that—"

"Oh, I see," said Boran. "You're worried that I've come to take Tehvay away. I assure you that's not the case."

Tehvay suddenly felt distanced from everyone. The conversation was about her, but she was not involved. It was like being a slave and hearing your owner discussing a price for you.

Her mother must have sensed Tehvay's discomfort and reached out to take her hand. It snapped Tehvay back to the moment.

"We're sorry," Pallin said to Boran. "But we had to ask."

"I understand," said Boran. "No offence taken. In fact, you asking that question allays any fears I may have had about you accepting Tehvay. I know all too well how hard it is to accept—to know how to understand—a child you didn't raise from birth."

"Tehvay said you have a daughter of your own," replied Asta.

"Tana, yes. Her mother raised her on her own for seven years, then gave her to me."


Boran scrunched his face up in thought. "She didn't say. Sadly, we were not very communicative by that stage."

"And you had trouble accepting your daughter?"

Boran lowered his head. "Yes. My ex-wife could be difficult to get along with at times. She created a perfect replica of herself in Tana. I had trouble looking past that. In time, and with Marleen and Tremothen's help, Tana and I found a way to make this father-daughter thing work. She's twenty-four now and she's still with me. We… we… have an understanding."

"What sort of understanding?" Asta asked.

"I'm not sure," said Boran and chuckled. "But she came here to Trengos with me, so we must be doing it right. I like to think I did a better job with Tehvay." Boran looked at Tehvay, his brown eyes sparkled. "And she did a good job with me."

"We owe you all a debt of gratitude that I'm not sure we can ever adequately repay," Pallin said. "If it weren't for the three of you, Tehvay would have never escaped slavery, would never have made her way to Trengos, and would never have been known to us." His eyes began to fill with tears.

Tehvay leaned over and gave her father a hug, and then looked around the table at the people she loved all gathered together. It was an emotional moment for everyone. Tehvay could see Boran's lip quiver slightly. Marleen was wiping away a tear. Her mother searched her pocket for a tissue. The only one not crying was Tremothen.

"I know one way you can thank us," he said.

"Oh, and how's that?" Asta said, wiping her nose.

Tremothen smiled and pointed to the counter. "You could give me a slice of that cake!"

Marleen slapped her husband's arm while everybody shared a good laugh, even Marleen.

Asta brought the cake over to the table and served everyone a slice. By the time they were finished, Tremothen had her parents laughing at his bad jokes. Asta offered more cake, and Tremothen said yes, but his wife said no. Marleen had glanced at Tehvay, who reluctantly acknowledged that it was time they departed – her mother had a shift to get to, and her father had a couple of landscaping jobs scheduled. There were hugs and handshakes all around as the group left the Veilans' house.

As Tehvay waved goodbye to her parents, Trengos' twin suns were breaking through the cloud cover. The suns were noticeably closer to each other than when Tehvay had first arrived on the planet. She linked arms with Boran, closed her eyes and smiled as the suns' light kissed her face. Life is perfect.


After Tehvay and the others had left, Kikola closed the front door and retreated into the kitchen. The food Tehvay had been cooking the previous night still sat on the hob in a covered pot. She wondered if she should dispose of it, since it had sat out all night, but decided to wait and ask Tehvay.

She made herself a cup of tea and sat down, noting the vase of flowers in the centre of the table. She was so pre-occupied last night that she hadn't taken time to stop and admire their beauty. She recognised that these were flowers Tehvay and her father had grown themselves, not some bouquet purchased at a market stall on the way home from work. A home-cooked meal and fresh-picked flowers, Kikola thought. How different their evening had turned out.

As she sipped her tea, she wondered how the life she and Tehvay had made for themselves here on Trengos would be affected with the arrival of her mother and Boran, and moreover, how the political upheaval in The Hegemony might cast a long shadow of uncertainty for all of them.

The house's sensors alerted Kikola to someone being at the front door. It was Trujilon.

"Come in," said Kikola. "Would you care for something to drink?"

"No, thank you. I've just had breakfast," replied Trujilon.

Kikola showed him to the lounge. When he removed his jacket, she took note of how smart he looked in dark blue slacks with a crisp white shirt that contrasted his dark skin. He dressed to impress, she thought.

"Tehvay will be back shortly," said Kikola. "She just went round to her parents."

"So, who is it that Tehvay wants me to meet? She wasn't specific in her message."

"Friends of hers from Shibato. Boran Zerbilla and his associates Tremothen and Marleen Scows," replied Kikola.

Kikola wasn't one for small talk, but Tehvay had asked her to be nice. It wasn't that she disliked Trujilon, or his sister; she had nothing in common with them.

After a minute of awkward silence, Kikola spoke. "How are the plans for the trip to Inosa going?"

The question caught Trujilon by surprise. "Huh? Oh, okay. I'll be going on my own by the looks of it. Everyone else has commitments."

Kikola knew he meant Tehvay. "It's not that I don't want Tehvay to be involved, but…" Kikola trailed off. She didn't want to expose her insecurities.

"That's okay. Tehvay explained everything." His mouth turned up in a quick smile, that he held for slightly too long. "Um… I mean… you were concerned for her safety. Not that you'd be lonely if she… the weather looks like it might turn out nice today."

"Yes," Kikola agreed, relieved that he changed the subject. "Cold, but dry."

"Actually it should be quite mild later," he replied.

"I grew up in a desert, so it'll be cold for me," said Kikola.

"Right." Trujilon licked his lips.

"Are you sure you wouldn't like a drink?"

"No, thanks."

Kikola tried to think of another topic of conversation. The silence drew out and she decided to let it continue. Mercifully, the others returned before the silence became painful.

Tehvay introduced Trujilon to the Shibatoans and soon they were all chatting like old friends. Kikola sank back in her chair and half listened and half wished she could slip away. That changed when Boran mentioned to Trujilon about the current situation in The Hegemony.

Being reminded that Ambra ap Lentol had declared herself Bren and assumed control of The Hegemony, Kikola's aloyd training kicked in and her mind had begun clamouring for more information to better assess the situation. Not that she planned to return to The Hegemony to take up arms against Ambra; however, she might be able to offer her brother Rephon some practical methods of defence, should it come to that.

Kikola waited for a pause in the conversation and then spoke. "Who has control of the military?" she asked.

"Lentol has most of it," said Boran. "Hila is her lap dog, or so it seems. From what information I could gather before leaving, Lentol had been moving aloyds loyal to her into strategic positions. Those likely to be opposed to her were allocated desk jobs or sent to distant outposts."

"What do you mean by most of it? Fifty-one percent? Sixty? Seventy-five? Ninety-nine?" Kikola pressed.

"I don't have the figures," Boran replied. "What does it matter anyway?"

"Significant resistance takes time to put down. The longer it takes, the weaker Ambra becomes. If her advantage is greater, then the resistance will be put down quickly, and she can turn her attention elsewhere." Kikola paused. "She might think she doesn't need a Rivelor to fulfil the plans to conquer the Graelands."

"If there's resistance within The Hegemony, the PPG would want to know," said Tehvay and looked at Trujilon for confirmation.

The young man nodded. "Anything we can use to hurt The Hegemony is a plus."

"I am not sure any resistance to Ambra will share the same ideals as the PPG," said Kikola.

"Why not?" asked Tehvay.

"Those opposed to Ambra will be the ones in favour of maintaining the status quo," Kikola explained.

"Maybe not," said Boran. "Yes, the Elit are at war with each other for control, but this could prompt open opposition among the rest of the population." He gave Kikola an embarrassed look. "There is almost universal hatred of Elits among the Quernal."

"I'm aware of certain factions that would love to see the Elit toppled," said Tremothen. He turned to Trujilon. "Perhaps your PPG can contact one of these groups, find out what's going on, and what they can do to help them rise up. How large is it?"

"How large is what?" asked Trujilon.

"The PPG."

"Oh, very big," said Tehvay. "Hundreds. Maybe a thousand."

"Tehvay," Kikola said softly. "They're not big enough."

Tehvay looked crushed.

"Maybe not," said Trujilon. "But it's a start."

"It's a start to suicide," said Kikola. "You can't hope to succeed."

Trujilon conceded with nod of his head.

"All revolutions start with one idea by one person," said Marleen. "Lentol did it, there's no reason we can't do the same."

"Ambra is Elit," said Kikola. She sounded more defensive than she meant to and the looks from the others told her they had noticed her tone. "What I meant is that she already had more power to begin with than we do. Now as Bren, she has even more power." Kikola rubbed her temples in thought. "It pains me to say it, but the best thing is for Ambra to take control without resistance."

"What?" All but Tehvay cried in disbelief.

"The Hegemony must appear strong to its rivals, otherwise they will attack. The Losper Empire, or the Andantian Republic, could seize the opportunity to regain systems they have lost, and more. That will only complicate matters. Right now it is a conflict contained within the Elit and Fethusal castes. If a hostile power tries to take advantage and forces Ambra to fight a war on two or more fronts, the lower castes will be caught in the crossfire. Millions more people will suffer." Kikola considered what she was saying. "It is always better to face one enemy at a time."

"Surely we want Lentol to face opposition from all sides," said Tremothen.

"Yeah," agreed Trujilon. "We might be small, but our best chance of success is if she's distracted."

"Your best chance is still close to zero. You are an idealist with grand plans, but little experience of doing things on a planet-wide scale, let alone a Spur-wide scale."

The young man looked like he was about to protest, but knew Kikola's assessment, though cutting, was true. "Yeah, you're right," he muttered.

"There is one chance," said Kikola. "Ambra has made a fatal mistake in declaring herself Bren."

"What's that?" asked Boran.

"She made herself Bren," Kikola replied. "The beauty of the Elit ruling The Hegemony was that no one single person held all the power. Any insurgent had no single target to assassinate, so could not cut off the head of government."

"So she's made herself a target," said Boran.

"Yes," agreed Kikola. "Though don't underestimate her. She is probably a well-defended target. If she thinks she has enemies, she'll remain a well-defended target. If she thinks she's won and any opposition negated, she might relax her guard. A single person could take her out."

"That sounds like a good plan to me," said Trujilon.

Tremothen and Marleen voiced their agreement.

"Um," Tehvay looked around the group. "This might seem like a silly question. But if this Ambra is killed, who'll take over?"

"That's the most sensible question I've heard today," said Kikola. She saw Tehvay blush with pride. She looked around the assembled group. "You can't go in unprepared. You can't start a conflict until you have the forces to achieve your goal. And most importantly, you can't start until you know how you want it to end."




Ambra looked out of the shuttle's window at the Relentless. It was not the latest class of heavy cruiser, but she knew it to be the best. When she took control of Military Operations, an initial order for a new class of heavy cruiser was a done deal. One was already in service and a further nine were already in various stages of assembly. However, incompetence by her predecessor had allowed construction to begin before all the problems were ironed out. Ambra only wanted perfection. She had cancelled production of further ships, but had to accept at least six of the new class into service. It would be another seven years before the first of her new and improved heavy cruisers would be built. In the meantime, she had instigated a programme to retrofit older models with the latest systems. Thus she chose the Relentless as her flagship.

The Relentless filled the view from the shuttle. Dark grey ablative armour, no windows. Bold angles, no curves. It looked like what it was meant to be, a weapon.

The shuttle pulled alongside an opening in the side of the ship and smoothly entered the shuttle bay.

It took several minutes before the landing protocols were completed and Aloyd Falentha came out of the cockpit. The aloyd looked less than pleased to be playing the part of Ambra's personal shuttle pilot. I will have to make sure she still knows her place, thought Ambra.

Gral'hilanth opened the exterior door of the shuttle and stood aside. Ambra climbed from her seat and walked to the exit. Sarray followed quietly a few paces behind. Two security guards followed the slave.

Ambra paused once she had exited the shuttle and dismissed the security detail. They saluted her and Aloyd Falentha, and then marched away.

"You're awfully quiet, Aloyd Falentha. Nothing to say?"

"No. Bren."

Ambra noticed the pause before her title and smiled inwardly. She knew it wasn't because Gral'hilanth was still getting used to it. It was because the aloyd hated being subservient to her, and only tolerated it because Ambra promised her a way to take revenge on Kikola ap Karthen.

Dealing with the former aloyd was on Ambra's list of things to do, but a long way from the top. Karthen posed no immediate threat, but she was an embarrassment and a blot on Ambra's reputation. So while Karthen was not high on Ambra's list, she was there somewhere, even if it was only as a carrot to dangle in front of Gral'hilanth.

Karthen had been Ambra's first choice for her right hand. Who better than the next Rivelor to help Ambra usher in a new era? Ambra had recognised the subtle signs in Karthen that she had discovered in herself. Signs that Ambra thought she could exploit, but the former aloyd had seemed oblivious to Ambra's overtures. Maybe I should not have been so subtle, she thought.

Despite her obvious shortcomings, Gral'hilanth was proving to be an acceptable alternative to Karthen. Even more so, because Kikola ap Karthen, as it turned out, had a troublesome streak of morality. Falentha had proven she had no such scruples. Now that Ambra had won the vote, taken control of The Council, and declared herself Bren, all that was left to do was root out any remaining opposition.

"I have some good news for you, Aloyd." Ambra reached into her pocket and pulled out a small box. She handed the box to Falentha.

The aloyd tentatively took the box.

"Open it."

Falentha did as instructed. "Aloyd, First-Class rank bars," Gral'hilanth said as she opened the box. "For me?"

Ambra laughed. "No. For your father. I am abolishing the rank of lunguseth. Your father is Elit. He deserves the rank of aloyd."

"Thank you, Bren. He will be honoured."

"He will outrank you, for now." Ambra took back the box and started walking.

"For now?" asked Gral'hilanth hurrying after her.

"Your position of Aloyd, Third-Class will suffice – for now. However, once any resistance is dealt with, I will think of a suitable position for you." Ambra paused outside a lift. "Being in the military is not for you. You're still Hila Llyte inside. A freighter pilot. A Quernal."

"Bren, I assure you—"

Ambra raised a hand to silence Falentha. "I have not yet appointed a new Council Member for Military Operations. Continue serving me well through this transition, and I will consider you for the job."

The door to the lift opened and they entered the lift. Sarray pressed the appropriate button.

"I am not sure I am the political type," said the aloyd.

"You'll be whatever I want you to be. Just as you'll do whatever I want you to do."

"Yes, Bren."

Good girl, thought Ambra.

"Do you know where the main Karthen family estate is on Kalenth?"

"Yes," replied Gral'hilanth. "It is located on the southern continent in the Nevaruk Desert.

"Good. Destroy it. I want it razed to dust. I want to make sure they have nothing to return to. This ship is capable of doing it from orbit. It won't take long. Consider it a reward for your loyalty."

The doors to the lift opened. Ambra stepped out and turned back to the aloyd. "Come to my quarters when you've completed the task."

"Yes, Bren."


"Target destroyed."

The tactical officer relayed the information to his superiors. Gral'hilanth stared straight ahead, but from the corner of her eye she could see Captain Eadmon looking at her.

"You have the bridge, Captain," said the aloyd, and left the bridge.

As Gral'hilanth navigated the corridors towards Ambra's private quarters, she thought about what she had just done. This wasn't the first time Ambra had ordered Gral'hilanth to carry out actions against the Bren's political enemies. The promise Ambra had made before The Council, that no one would be harmed, was soon broken.

Since her ascension to Bren, Ambra had launched a campaign against the founding families who opposed her on The Council. She had already ordered the arrest and execution of Chairman Guljein ap Maldan and the forfeiture of his family's estates. Now the destruction of the Karthen estate. There were no deaths in the action she had just taken, but it struck Gral'hilanth as a pointlessly destructive act. Even if it was the family home of her nemesis, Kikola ap Karthen, destroying it did little to quench her thirst for revenge.

There was only one thing driving Gral'hilanth, and that was the thought of Kikola ap Karthen seeing her in an aloyd's uniform and grovelling before her, begging for mercy.

Sarray opened the door to Ambra's quarters and allowed Gral'hilanth to enter.

"This way," said the slave and headed towards the bedroom.

The aloyd's heart sank. It looked like Ambra had another loyalty test for her to endure. As soon as they entered the bedroom, Sarray removed her blue slave's uniform. Ambra stepped up and allowed her hands to wander over the slave's naked body. Her touch varied from gentle to rough. The slave did its best to not react to either.

Ambra pushed the slave face down on the bed. "Come here, Aloyd."

Gral'hilanth moved closer.

"Sarray has been a good slave today. I think it deserves a treat. So, you are going to put your tongue to use and give it an orgasm. I will be in the main room waiting."

It could be worse, thought Gral'hilanth after Ambra had left. She settled on the bed and proceeded to perform her task.

Gral'hilanth thought she might be losing her touch, but eventually the slave's body succumbed and it muffled its cries into the pillow.

Gral'hilanth gave her face a quick wash before leaving the bedroom. On entering the main room, her feet became rooted to the spot. A man in a dark grey uniform, with silver thread woven into the collar, was standing with Ambra. She immediately recognised the uniform of a lunguseth and the man who wore it.

"Father! I…"

"You are probably wondering why I asked you here," Ambra said to Gral'hilanth's father.

"I am curious, yes, but I assume I will find out in due course."

"Indeed you will." Ambra handed a small box to Oalanic and gestured for him to open it. "Oalanic Andor ap Falentha, under my authority as Bren, the rank of lunguseth is being abolished. You are Elit. Therefore, effectively immediately, I am promoting you to the rank of Aloyd, First-Class."

Gral'hilanth's father looked up from the box in his hand to Ambra and then to Gral'hilanth. "I joined the military to serve The Hegemony," Oalanic began. "I did not seek out medals and commendations, or promotions. I believed that doing my duty was its own reward.

"Being promoted to lunguseth was perhaps the worst thing that happened in my career. It singled me out as different. The other aloyds were my social equal, but I could never attain their rank.

"This honour you have given me is beyond measure, and for which I am truly grateful."

"It is a rank you should have been given years ago."

Oalanic stood up straighter as he pinned the insignia for an Aloyd, First-Class – a reverse 'C' with three over bars – on his collar.

Gral'hilanth offered him a smile, then saluted. "Sir." Her father returned the salute and Gral'hilanth relaxed. He saluted Ambra.

Ambra returned his salute. "You will need a new uniform to go with the rank bars. See the quartermaster immediately and have them issue you an aloyd's uniform."

"Yes, sir."

"I prefer Bren," said Ambra.

"Yes, Bren," Oalanic replied.

"And you are to have a new command. The Formidable is a fine old ship, but an Aloyd, First-Class should command a striker group. The heavy cruiser Bulwark has just been retrofitted. You will have command. You will leave for Timar in three days." Ambra smiled. "This promotion deserves to be celebrated with family," she said as an aside. "Good luck, Aloyd. You may go."

Gral'hilanth was about to leave with her father, but Ambra stopped her. "I didn't mean you."


Oalanic gave his daughter a slight shake of his head. Ever the soldier, he saluted, turned on his heel, and left.

"Will that be all, Bren?"

"No." Ambra sat down in a nearby chair. "After mentioning a new uniform to your father, a thought occurred to me. I should have a uniform made, so I can blend in better with the crew of my flagship. What do you think?"

"Whatever you say, Bren." Gral'hilanth wanted to get away and was ready to agree with whatever Ambra suggested.

"But not in that drab grey colour you and everyone else wears. I think it should stand out from the crowd."

"Yes, Bren."

"What do you think of red? No, purple. Nothing too bright or garish, mind. And an insignia, one that is worthy of Bren. I know, a dryg. Fierce, powerful, mystical."

The dryg was a mythological creature. It was a symbol used in the early days of The Hegemony, but had long since been consigned to fairy tales and bad fantasy novels. Gral'hilanth was bewildered by Ambra's musings, but played the dutiful underling. "Sounds good. If there is nothing else, Bren, I would like to spend a little more time with my father."

"We are not done here." Ambra stood and walked towards the bedroom


Tehvay looked around the table as Boran relayed news of the change of power in The Hegemony to the PPG leadership. There were seven of them, including Trujilon and Ellovene. Tehvay made eight. They had gathered at the home of Szymon, the head of the group's leadership. Their faces were hard to read, except for Trujilon's. He was hearing this for the second time, unlike the others, and was fired up for action.

When Boran finished speaking, Trujilon jumped up from his seat at the table next to Tehvay.

"This is a great opportunity for us to strike!" The young man was animated. "We have a few small ships that can raid The Hegemony border regions."

"To what end?" asked Szymon, an older man with short grey hair atop a round face.

Trujilon couldn't answer him and sat back down.

Szymon addressed Boran from his place at the opposite end of the table. "This woman who's declared herself Bren, is she going to be better or worse than the old ruling Elit? From what you've said, she's removing the founding families from power. That sounds like a good thing to me."

"I don't know her personally," said Boran. "From what I know of her actions, and speaking to Kikola and Mariantha ap Karthen, this Ambra is much worse."

"Well, they would say that. They are opposed to her."

Tehvay spoke up. "Kikola had been chosen as Rivelor to lead the conquest of the Graelands. If the old regime were still in power, it would be another thirty years or more before they were ready with a new Rivelor. Ambra doesn't have the same need for a Rivelor. Once she's suppressed any internal opposition, she'll come."

"Can you be sure?" asked Szymon. "She wants control of The Hegemony, that's obvious. What evidence do you have that Ambra would invade the Graelands?"

Tehvay was stumped and turned to Boran.

"Ambra has seized power in The Hegemony," said Boran. "If history is anything to go by, those that ascend to power that way are seldom content. They always want more."

Szymon rubbed his neck as he thought. "This situation is much bigger than we can handle."

"We need to test oursel—" Trujilon started.

The older man stopped him. "I understand, Trujilon. I really do. But the PPG is not large enough to act on this galactic stage."

"The Losper Empire is," said Ellovene. "We should tell them that The Hegemony is at war with itself. They can take advantage of that. And in exchange for the information, we could ask them for protection."

"Yes!" Trujilon leaned forward in his seat. "If The Hegemony's enemies can take advantage of the situation, the new regime will be too busy to invade the Graelands. It'll weaken them further, and maybe even see them crushed for good."

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," observed Tehvay. "Kikola said that it's better for the civil war in The Hegemony to be over as quickly as possible. If the Empire takes advantage, then millions of people will suffer."

Szymon nodded. "It is likely the Losper Empire already knows what's going on in The Hegemony. They probably have spies inside, and if not, they can monitor across the border. It is unfortunate for the innocent civilians, but there is nothing we can do." He gave Tehvay a sympathetic look. "Thank you for bringing this to us. And thank you, Boran. I think the only thing we can do is take it to the government. Let them decide which course of action to take. Is everyone agreed?"

"Shall we propose a course of action that we think they should take?" asked Ellovene.

"I can't see what harm that would do," Szymon replied. "What are the options?"

"Approach the Empire," said Ellovene.

"Any others?" Szymon paused and looked around the table.

"I'd like to suggest, for the moment at least, we take no action," offered Tehvay. "The situation in The Hegemony is still ongoing. I think it'll be better to wait until it is resolved, or at least we have a better idea of what's going on. In the meantime, the PPG redoubles its recruitment efforts, we continue our mission to Inosa, and we recommend to the Dansek government that contingency plans should be developed."

Szymon nodded. "Very well, then let's vote. All in favour of Ellovene's proposal."

Ellovene, Trujilon and one other raised their hands.

"And Tehvay's," Szymon said as he raised his hand.

The remaining three raised their hands. It was a formality, but Tehvay raised her hand as well.

"Okay." Szymon nodded. "I'll take the information and Tehvay's proposal to the government," he said. "We have a public meeting scheduled in three days' time. We'll have a get together before that. We might even have a response from the government by then."

The meeting was adjourned and members started to make a move to leave.

Ellovene came over to Tehvay and Boran. "We're going for drink. Do you want to join us?"

"Ell… I hope you don't… I mean, me suggesting a diff—"

Ellovene laughed. "No, I don't mind. That's what this is all about. For people to have their voices heard."

Tehvay breathed a sigh of relief. She had felt like she was siding against her friends. "If Szymon is only giving the government my suggestion, then your voice is not being heard." That gave Tehvay an idea.

Before everyone left, Tehvay suggested putting both options to the government.

Everyone agreed to present both ideas, then said goodnight to Szymon and filed out into the chilly night.

"So, about drinks?" Ellovene asked.

"I would love to, but Boran is taking me out for a meal tonight."

"You kids can join us if you like," Boran offered.

"That's okay," said Trujilon. "We finally learned our lesson with these meetings and had a big meal beforehand."

Ellovene rolled her eyes. Tehvay chuckled.

"Well, some other time," said Boran.

"Count on it," said Trujilon.

"Good night, Boran," said Ellovene. She reached out and gave Tehvay's arm a friendly pat. "We'll talk with you tomorrow."

"And whatever the government decides, at least we're doing something," Trujilon added.

The brother and sister said goodnight and left Tehvay and Boran standing on the pavement alone.

"You've come a long way," Boran said. "Being part of this group. I'm proud of you."

Tehvay blushed and shrugged.

"Don't be modest, Tehvay. I'm a coward. I ran. You're making a stand. That's brave. You should be proud of you."

Tehvay thought for a moment. "We both ran. And now we're both making a stand." She nodded her head slowly. "I think we're both brave."

"I think we're both hungry," said Boran. "Come on."


Mariantha walked into the ship's lounge. It was the top deck of Boran's luxury cruiser. When in flight, the ceiling could be made transparent for stargazing. Mariantha was glad that it was opaque at the moment. She wanted anything other than to see the murky Trengos sky above.

The lounge itself was spacious, several couches and armchairs were dotted around the perimeter of the room. Two tables occupied the central area. Kikola sat in a chair staring out of a window. Jenissa sat at one of the tables staring at the floor. Kikola is more at ease with the people on this planet than she is with her own kind, Mariantha thought.

Mariantha's decision to flee The Hegemony had been a knee jerk reaction, borne from fear for her safety and empathy for Jenissa ap Taliss. During their flight from Yun'thul to Shibato and from Shibato to Trengos, Mariantha had grown fond of the young woman. In fact, she realised she had more in common with the Taliss girl than her own daughter. Seeing Kikola again reminded her how much she missed her daughter and how much she longed for a closer relationship with her.

"I have made a decision. I am going back home," she said.

"Pardon?" Kikola looked at her mother in confusion.

"I am going home – to The Hegemony."

"You can't!"

"I must. Marleen just informed me that the Karthen estate on Kalenth has been destroyed."

"Were there any casualties?" Kikola asked with concern.

"Thankfully, no," replied Mariantha. "Your brother and the rest of the family have made their way to safety."

"Good. You must stay here mother. It will be too dangerous for you to return to The Hegemony now."

"No, my place is with the family."

She looked at Jenissa. "The founding families must work together to defeat Ambra ap Lentol. Do you want to come back with me, Jenissa?"

Jenissa looked up at her. "I am staying. There is nothing for me there."

"Your fam—"

"My family did nothing to stop Menari from being murdered. Besides, they would not welcome me back. I have brought dishonour and shame to the Taliss name." Jenissa glanced at Kikola. "I meant no offence."

Kikola nodded.

"Very well," said Mariantha. "If I can, I will inform them that you are safe and well. I will not say where."

"My thanks."

Kikola stood up and approached her mother. "What do you hope to achieve? You will be going back to chaos. You will not be safe."

Mariantha could read the desperation on her daughter's face. Kikola was worried for her, but could not come out and admit it directly.

"My safety is not important – our family is – and I cannot abandon them to their fate at the hands of Ambra ap Lentol!"

"No! I won't allow—"

"Kikola Mariantha Jacand ap Karthen, you will not tell your mother what she should or should not do."

Kikola fell silent and bowed her head. Mariantha pulled her into an embrace.

"I don't want you to go," Kikola mumbled against her mother's shoulder.

"We don't always get what we want." I wanted to hold you close like this and be your mother so often, it hurt. Mariantha disengaged from the embrace and held Kikola by the shoulders. "Come with me."

Kikola blinked in surprise. "I… can't."

"You can. You must. Your family needs you. I need you."

"I can't go back."

"You were raised to never back down. You were raised to face any difficulty and win."

Kikola shrugged out of Mariantha's hands, turned away, and mumbled something.

"What did you say?" asked Mariantha.

Her daughter turned to face her. "I have faced my battle and won."

"What does that mean?"

"I was raised to be a soldier, an aloyd, the Rivelor. I was not raised to be a person, to be who I am, to be me. I was confronted with a choice, be what was expected of me, or be what I wanted to be. I chose the latter. I chose, I fought, and I won."

Mariantha's frustration at Kikola's obstinate attitude boiled to the surface. "You mean you chose gratification over duty, over family."

Kikola's cheeks flushed. "It is not that. I chose Tehvay because she loves me for who I am, not who I am expected to be."

It was Mariantha's turn to blush. "I guess I deserved that. I know I pushed you to be the perfect daughter, the perfect student, the perfect aloyd. Perhaps I didn't show you as much affection as I should have." A terrible thought came into her mind. "Is that why you crave affection from a female? Is it my fault?"

"No mother. It is not your fault. It is not anyone's fault," Kikola assured her. "I have no explanation for why I fell in love with Tehvay, but it has more to do with who she is and how she makes me feel – really feel. Before Tehvay, my emotions were shut off, compartmentalised. Now I feel all sorts of emotions that I am finally learning to express, thanks to Tehvay."

Kikola is right, Mariantha thought. I raised her to think with her mind, not feel with her heart. It took Tehvay to bring out that side of my daughter, perhaps for the better.

As if her daughter had read her thoughts, Kikola reached out for her mother's hand. "I love you, Mother."

It brought a tear to Mariantha's eye to hear her daughter say she loved her with such sincerity. "I love you too, my daughter," Mariantha replied. "Come with me. Bring Tehvay."

Kikola removed her hand and for a moment looked away. "I cannot ask Tehvay to leave her family—"

That hit a nerve in Mariantha. "What about your family? You left us for her!"

"What choice did I have?" Kikola asked. "Besides, we are considered fugitives in The Hegemony."

Mariantha looked from Kikola to Jenissa and sighed. "We are all considered fugitives now."

"Then stay here with me, please," Kikola said.

Mariantha saw the anguish in her daughter's eyes. She had also seen first-hand just how much her daughter loved Tehvay. And she had to admit, Kikola was a different person because of Tehvay. Mariantha was reminded of her late husband, Strambik, and how difficult the years have been being parted from him. How can I begrudge my daughter her chance at happiness with the person she loves?

"If you won't return with me," Mariantha replied, "then I want you to do two things for me."

"What's that?" asked Kikola.

"Look after Jenissa. Be her friend. And…"

"And what?"

"Hang on to Tehvay. I can't say I am happy that she took you away from me, but she's good for you."


Tehvay stood near a wall of windows and glanced out at the steady stream of shuttles and cruisers taking off and landing. It evoked memories of when she had first passed through the doors of the Dansek spaceport with Kikola to start their new life on Trengos, and all that had transpired in the months since that day. Her mind flashed through their chance meeting with Rikana in the market that to led to her being reunited with her family, the PPG, Boran's arrival, and of course her deepening intimacy with Kikola. She was brought out of her reverie when she heard the pilot announce that it was time to depart.

The Dansek government had heard the PPG's proposals and decided to follow their recommendations to approach the Losper Empire for a possible alliance, as well as develop planet-wide defence contingency plans. An envoy was appointed to speak to the Losper Empire, and he was to be escorted by members of the Dansek Security Force.

Rikana immediately volunteered for the security detail to accompany the official. According to Rikana, 'it beats chasing spotty teenagers on the cold streets'. Yuniph volunteered as well and was put in charge. With some persuasion, Yuniph agreed to take Mariantha to the border so that she may return to The Hegemony. Tremothen and Marleen had agreed to go with Mariantha, partly for her protection and also to gather information from their business connections for Boran.

That was why Tehvay, Kikola, Boran, and Jenissa were at the spaceport – to see them all off.

"Ilistan will meet you on the Graelands side of the border," Boran said to Tremothen and Marleen. "The pilot has the coordinates."

"Right," replied Tremothen.

"You may have to wait a couple days, but Ilistan's getting away from Dameb as quickly as he can. He said he's heard rumours of Losper forces gathering along the border, probably in an attempt to reclaim Otopa at least and Dameb with it."

"And how much am I supposed to pay him?" asked the man with the flaming red hair.

"Too much," said Boran. "Eight thousand credits to take the two of you and Mariantha to Gatlor and another eight thousand to transport you two back here."

"Do you want us closing out your accounts on Gatlor?" asked Marleen.

"No, leave one open with twenty thousand credits," Boran said.

"Will do," replied Tremothen.

"I needn't tell you—"

Tremothen anticipated what his boss was going to say. "We'll be careful."

Boran laid his hand on Tremothen's shoulder. "You don't have to do this."

Tremothen's frowned. "Someone has to make sure Ilistan holds up his end of the bargain."

"Besides, who else can you trust with your money?" the grey-haired woman added with a grin.

Boran hugged his old friends. "Still, steer clear of trouble. I want you both back."

"We will," Marleen replied. "Look after Boran," she said to Tehvay as she gave her a hug.

"I will miss you," said Tehvay. She disengaged from Marleen's embrace and gave Tremothen a hug. "Take care of each other."

"We will," said Tremothen. "You too," he added, glancing in Kikola's direction.

Marleen and Tremothen picked up their bags and made their way to the entry ramp.

Boran put an arm around Tehvay's shoulder, and together they watched Tremothen and Marleen go aboard.

Tehvay felt a tear fall onto her cheek. She had only just been reunited with Tremothen and Marleen, and now they were leaving again. At least Boran is staying with me, she thought. She leaned into Boran and gave him a squeeze around the waist.

Out of the corner of her eye, Tehvay could see Kikola saying goodbye to her mother.

"I suppose I should go and say goodbye to Kikola's mother," she said to Boran.

"Kikola would appreciate that," Boran said, and gave her a gentle push in their direction.

Kikola's mother was just saying goodbye to Jenissa when Tehvay came up to the small group of former Elit. Tehvay drew herself as tall as she could when Mariantha's eyes locked onto her. I can't claim to be sad to see her go, Tehvay thought, but I do feel for Kikola. Who knows when she will see her mother again?

"Safe journey," Tehvay offered.

"My thanks," Mariantha replied.

The older woman turned to her daughter. "Remember what I said: Take care of this one, too." There's was a slight tilt of the head in Tehvay's direction, then Mariantha turned and headed for the ship.

"Did she just say something nice about me?" asked Tehvay.

Kikola blushed. "She thinks you are good for me."

"Ah! So she does have your best interests at heart."

"Yes," Kikola agreed. She appeared to hesitate a moment. "There is something… My mother wishes for me… us to look after Jenissa, help her adjust. I thought…" Kikola glanced to Jenissa. "I thought maybe Jenissa could move in with us. Just for a short time! That is if you agree."

Tehvay did not feel any bitterness towards Jenissa; in fact it was the opposite. She felt sympathy for her over the loss of Menari, but didn't necessarily want her staying in her home.

"I—" was all Tehvay managed to say before Jenissa interrupted.

"That is most kind of you. However, I discussed this with Mister Zerbilla, and he is more than happy for me to stay on his ship. I think that would be for the best. I am sure Tehvay does not wish to have a former owner hanging around."

"That is all in the past. Now you are a friend, and you are welcome to visit us whenever you like," she said.

"Thank you. I will do that."

The doors of the VIP lounge slid open and in walked Yuniph, Rikana, and the government official. The ambassador went directly to the ship, however, Yuniph and Rikana hung back.

Boran and Jenissa politely stepped back to give Tehvay and Kikola a few moments to say goodbye to the officers.

"Have a safe trip," Tehvay said to her sister.

"Don't worry, I will. It's Rikana we have to worry about," Yuniph teased.

"Rikana, please take care of yourself and take care of my sister," Tehvay said.

"She'll be fine," Rikana replied, "as long as she doesn't bore me senseless."

"I think it's Yuniph who will get bored of you first," said Kikola.

Tehvay's mouth dropped open. She was shocked to hear Kikola make such a comment. Then she noticed Kikola smiling and Rikana doing her best not to respond in kind. Did Kikola just make a joke? Tehvay thought. Kikola had made the occasional joke in private, but Tehvay had never known her to make one in public.

"It's time to go," said Yuniph. She gave Tehvay a hug and whispered, "Take care of Ima and Ita. They might be lonely without me under foot."

"I will." Tehvay tried to hold back the tears. "Please, promise me you won't take any unnecessary risks."

Yuniph smiled. "You know me, I'm always careful."

Kikola turned to Rikana and said, "Don't expect me to hug you."

"You wish," Rikana cackled.

Yuniph addressed Kikola. "Officer Karthen."

Kikola's instinctual reaction was to come to attention.

"Relax. I just wanted to say… what I mean is… I have recommended you for promotion to sergeant. See the commander in the morning."

Kikola came to attention again. "Understood."

"Don't I get a promotion?" asked Rikana.

"When we get back," said Yuniph. She turned back to Kikola, "Take care of things until I get back," Yuniph said. "Especially my sister."

Kikola nodded. "You can count on me. Good luck with your mission."

"Thanks." Yuniph was about to leave, but stopped and looked back at Tehvay. She closed the distance between them and gave her sister another hug. "Would you believe I'm going to miss you?"

Tehvay replied, "I can believe it, because I know I'm going to miss you."

Rikana rolled her eyes. "And speaking of missing… we've got a ship to catch. Let's go." She gave Tehvay a friendly smile. "Keep this one out of trouble while I'm gone, Miss V." She nodded in Kikola's direction. "I can't wait to make her life hell when I get back."

Boran and Jenissa left to go back to his ship as soon as the hatch closed. Tehvay and Kikola decided to stay in the lounge and watch the ship move away from the building to the launch area. A few minutes later, it rose steadily into the air and streaked off.

"You and Rikana seem to be getting along," Tehvay said to Kikola.

"She tolerates me," Kikola replied. Kikola slipped an arm around Tehvay. "Come on. Let's go home."

Home, thought Tehvay. A small word that meant so much.


With little in the way of entertainment on board the small transport ship, Yuniph and Rikana spent most of the time in the bunkroom they shared. Yuniph sat at the table by the foot of Rikana's bed. Rikana sat on her bed, with her back against the wall and one arm propped on the table.

A holographic projector displayed a game onto the table top. It consisted of coloured hexagons, each colour representing a type of terrain: yellow for sand, light green for grassland, dark green for hills, blue for water, white for snow and grey for cities. Various holographic pieces were distributed around the playing surface. The red pieces belonged to Yuniph; the green pieces belonged to Rikana. The green pieces outnumbered the reds.

Yuniph's finger pushed at the image of a red game piece and it moved from one hexagonal division to another. Rikana cackled, and moved one of the pieces stationed near her capital. A thin beam extended from Rikana's piece to Yuniph's piece. Another beam returned the other way. Yuniph's piece disappeared in a fiery effect.

"Got you on the ropes," Rikana crowed.

Yuniph smiled as a pinging sound rang out. A red piece appeared on one of Yuniph's cities. The one closest to Rikana's capital.

"What? No!" Rikana cried.

Yuniph pushed the new piece to a dark green tile. Multiple beams shot out, three of Rikana's pieces disappeared before they could return fire. Crucially a beam hit the grey tile representing Rikana's capital.  

Rikana sat up straighter. "You can't do that!"

"I just did," Yuniph said with a hint of smugness.

"Pfft! Too much damage. I can't recover from that!" Rikana hit the reset button.

"That puts me four ahead now." Yuniph rubbed her hands. "Another game?"

"Later." Rikana picked up a bottle of beer off the table and took a swig. She looked around the room. "I don't like being this close to Hegger space."

Nor me, thought Yuniph. She felt a billion eyes looking at her, as though The Hegemony knew she was close. She decided to take her mind off the troubling thoughts. "Why did you come with me?" she asked.

"To kick some Hegger arse," Rikana replied.

"No, not now. When I found you sleeping rough."

Rikana took a swig of her drink and stared into the bottle. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was cold, hungry, and desperate. I figured you might want something in return - if you get me - and I thought if that was what it took, fair enough. You wouldn't have been the first to proposition me."

Yuniph looked at her with shock. "If I wasn't the first, why were you on the street?"

"Let's just say I was only prepared to go so far to get a meal and a bed. You weren't even the first security officer to find me, though you were the first woman."

"Not the first security officer? Who was it? I will have words with them when we get back."

"It wasn't in Dansek," said Rikana. "He was a sick fucker. And he won't be taking advantage of anyone else again."

"You didn't—"

"No! I didn't kill him, though I bet he wished I had."

Yuniph thought of her sister. If Tehvay had killed those that had her abused her, how would I feel? Pleased, she concluded. But if she had even thought of fighting back, she would have been killed herself, and we would've never known each other existed. Yuniph shook off the thought as unthinkable and regretted having ever felt jealous. Now she felt only gratitude.

Rikana tilted her head back and drained the bottle. She held it above her mouth and shook the final drops out. "That's the last bottle," she said as she placed it on the table. "Should have brought more. Oh well." She let out a long sigh.

"The dispenser stuff is okay," said Yuniph.

"If you like drinking piss. And I'm not talking about it being recycled." Rikana shook her head. "I'll stick to water from now on."

Yuniph stood up, walked the few paces to her bunk and flopped down on it. As soon as her head hit the pillow the comm beeped.

"We've been contacted," said the pilot.

"Our contact?"

"Who else?"

"Are you sure it's them?"

"The code matches."

Yuniph and Rikana headed to the cockpit. Tremothen was standing behind the pilot. He gave Yuniph an odd sideways look for a moment, and then a smile flicked across his lips. She guessed he was still not used to her resemblance to Tehvay.

"Where are they?" asked Rikana.

The co-pilot tapped the display in the centre of the console. A small dot moved slowly towards the middle of the screen. The minutes dragged as the other ship finally came within visual range and made its approach. It was an unremarkable transport ship. It was a standard model, looked to be several years old, but reasonably well maintained, and no distinctive markings. A few minutes later the two ships were docked.

Yuniph assessed the man that came through the airlock. He was in his thirties or forties, medium build, with lank brown hair that brushed the collar of his black and white striped jacket. However, the thing she noticed most was that he was nervous. His eyes darted from side to side, and he licked his lips and looked ready to run. That put her on edge. He flashed a smile and spread his arms. "Is Bo with you?"

"Bo?" Yuniph asked.


"No. He stayed behind," Tremothen replied.

"Oh, right." He grinned for no discernible reason. "So, where's my money?"

"Are you Ilistan?" asked Rikana.

"Err, yeah. That's me!" His mouth snapped into another grin and he shrugged.

"Is that your first name or last?" Rikana pressed.

"What? My first or… yes."

"Yes?" queried Yuniph. "Which one is it?"

"Both." Another random grin and small movement of his arms. He licked his lips. "Ilistan Ilistan. That's me!"

"Ilistan Ilistan!" Rikana half stifled a cackle. "Your name is Ilistan Ilistan?"

"Yeah." He looked confused. His eyes flicked from Rikana to Yuniph and back. "What's wrong with that?"

"It's stupid, that's what!" Rikana didn't bother stifling the cackle.

"Do you have ID?" asked Yuniph.

"No need," said Tremothen. "It's him."

Ilistan grinned and waved his arms. "Money? You've got my money right?"

"You know the arrangement," said Tremothen. "You'll get paid half when you get us to Gatlor and the other half when you return us to Trengos."

"Gatlor? Nobody said nothing about going to Gatlor. You tell Bo, my price has just doubled!"

Tremothen raised his comm unit and showed it to Ilistan. "As you can see, your transmissions indicate that you were informed it would be Gatlor and you agreed."

Ilistan glanced at the screen. "Yeah, okay! But things are different now, that was twelve days ago! You tell Bo, it's double or no go!"

"Wait here." Tremothen and Marleen left the airlock area, leaving Ilistan with Yuniph and Rikana.

"Which one of you is Mariantha ap Karthen?"

"Do we look like Heggers to you?" asked Rikana in her usual confrontational manner.

Yuniph noticed Ilistan's eyes were still darting around nervously. They finally settled on her, and he took a closer look at her uniform.

"You're cops! This is a trap!" Ilistan exclaimed. "You can't hold me! Is this a trap? I know my rights! You can't prove anything!" He seemed to get more agitated, circling his arms wildly.

Yuniph expected trouble at any moment. Her hand hovered near her weapon. She glanced across to Rikana. Her partner was already drawing her weapon.

"Woah! Don't shoot!" He jumped back and put his hands out in front of him.

Mariantha came up to the airlock. "Are you Ilistan?"

"That's me." He grinned and gesticulated with his arms.

Rikana released her weapon's safety and powered it on. Ilistan froze.

"Please. I'm allergic to being shot." He nervously chuckled.

"Put the weapon away," Mariantha ordered Rikana.

Rikana did not take the instruction kindly and scowled at the older woman.

"He's acting weirdly," said Yuniph, drawing her own weapon.

"Yes he is," said Mariantha. "Unfortunately that's not a crime. Put your weapons away."

"I don't trust him," said Rikana.

Mariantha fixed a stern gaze on the young woman. "I am sure that if you shot everyone you didn't trust, there would be a lot of dead bodies. Now, lower your weapons."

"Yeah!" Ilistan agreed. "As she said!"

"Keep your eye on him," Yuniph said to Rikana. "I'm going to check out his ship."

"Check? It's fine! No need to check it!"

Rikana frowned as she watched Ilistan grin and wave his arms. "Can I punch him?" she asked.

"Hey!" Ilistan protested.

"Please let me punch him," said Rikana. "Just a little bit."

"You're not coming with me!" Ilistan looked towards Mariantha as if recognising her authority. "She's not coming on my ship!"

Rikana punched him on the arm.

"Oww! Why do all of Bo's friends keep hitting me?"

"Because you're bloody annoying," said Tremothen as he and Marleen returned. "Boran has agreed to your price, but not a credit more."

Ilistan seemed pleased until Tremothen added, "And you don't get a single credit until Marleen and me are back on Trengos."

The dark-haired man pouted. "Fine."

"I was just about to check his ship," said Yuniph.

"I think that is a good idea," Tremothen concurred. "We'll both check the ship."

"Don't hit him again," Yuniph said to Rikana. "Unless we don't come back."

After Ilistan's ship had been inspected, Mariantha, Tremothen, and Marleen transferred to it. Once it had departed, the pilot set course for the Losper Empire.




The offices of the Council Chairman were situated underneath The Council Chambers. It consisted of a private suite of offices for the chairman, a cabinet office for meetings with heads of departments, and several side offices for the chairman's staff. After she had Chairman Maldan executed, Ambra moved from her offices as Councillor for Military Operations into the Chairman's offices, but only temporarily. Ambra didn't like the subterranean environment – too dark and dreary. She had plans for new offices. They would be the tallest building in The Civic, where she could look out the windows and survey her domain. She would stand tall and proud as a Bren should, not hide away like a pathetic civil servant.

Ambra looked across the conference table to her new personal secretary, Lonnodren ap Onacon. Until recently, Lonnodren had been a successful businessman. However, when Ambra decided that Business was not a suitable role for Elit, Lonnodren had requested a position in the new government. Since the Onacon family had pledged their allegiance to Ambra in The Council, she was willing to give Lonnodren a job on her staff. The Bren only wanted competent politicians in her cabinet, but she saw an opportunity to train him while using his business acumen to sell her new policies to those that were still resistant to change.

Lonnodren was of a similar age to Ambra, impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit that complemented his light brown skin. His hair was softly waved, rising directly from forehead and held in place by liberal amounts of hair product. All done, Ambra suspected, to show off his perfectly straight nose, and clean-cut jaw, with an ever so slight dimple. Only the faint shadow of a few hours beard growth marred what Ambra thought could be an attractive face.

"I can't thank you enough for this post," said Lonnodren. He had mentioned his gratitude several times, yet his gratefulness, while sycophantic, was tinged with a certain charm. "This gives me a great opportunity to contribute to your bold vision for The Hegemony. Who better to learn the business of government from, than the Bren herself? "

"An opportunity that I believe you deserve. In fact, I want you to oversee the construction of my new offices. Do well and I will see that you get a respected position, either in my cabinet, or a governorship." Ambra gestured to his data pad. "See that—"

The beeping of the comm unit interrupted her. Lonnodren hurried over to the communication console and answered it. Aloyd Falentha's face appeared.

"Who are you?" asked the aloyd warily.

"I am the Bren's new personal secretary. Do you not recognise me?"

A moment's confusion flickered across the aloyd's image. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously as if she almost recognised him.

"I am Lonnodren ap Onacon."

The aloyd reacted by hardening her features. "I want to speak to the Bren. Now!"

"What is it, Aloyd Falentha?" Ambra asked as she stepped up to the console. She gestured for Lonnodren to step aside and took a seat.

The aloyd took a second to compose herself. "A corvette on border patrol has picked up someone I think we should speak to," replied the Aloyd.


A new face replaced the aloyd's.

"Interesting," mused Ambra. "Come and collect me immediately."

"As you command, Bren."

Ambra killed the connection. She turned to Lonnodren. "You have some sort of history with Aloyd Falentha?"

"We were at school together," he replied.

"School friends, that's nice."

"No, Bren. Not friends. Though it looks like she's had more facial surgery than me." He rubbed his nose.

"Do tell." Ambra instructed as she went back to the table.

"A childish response to a childish insult. She broke my nose."

Ambra chuckled. "Sarray, drinks," she commanded as she sat down.

Sarray hurried to pour and serve the drinks.

"Sit." Ambra pushed a drink towards Lonnodren's seat as he returned to the table. "Tell me more."


Jenissa had accepted the invitation to dinner, but only out of respect for Mariantha. Maybe if Boran had not been going, she would have found an excuse to decline the invitation. Still, Jenissa had promised Mariantha that she would allow Kikola and Tehvay to help her adjust to life on Trengos, and she realised that locking herself away in her cabin wasn't going to bring Menari back. 

When she and Boran arrived for dinner, Tehvay welcomed them in with a smile and ushered them into the living room. It was an unwelcome surprise to discover that the guest list also included Tehvay's friends, Trujilon and Ellovene, and that Boran had been aware they were invited.

"Why did you not tell me?" Jenissa whispered to Boran after the introductions were made.

"Because you wouldn't have come," he replied.

He was right. Jenissa had no interest in making small talk with strangers, but they were there now. So she pushed down the anxiety she felt and tried to be gracious, or failing that at least not to be unsociable. 

The meal was bland, but palatable, much like the company. Jenissa didn't follow much of the conversation. She found Trujilon to be a bit too sure of his own opinions, as young men are. On the other hand, his sister Ellovene piqued Jenissa's interest. The dark-skinned woman with wavy black hair was soft-spoken, well educated, and had a way of drawing others into the discussion. Ellovene made the mundane seem remarkable, and Jenissa listened more intently whenever she was speaking.

When the conversation circled back to Tehvay's parents and her father's love of gardening, Jenissa noted how Tehvay's eyes brightened.

"Boran, you must come and see!" she said excitedly. "Ita gave me a cutting off his night blooming flower. It should be out now. It's beautiful. It has these purple glowing veins and the scent is like… like… oh, I don't know."

Boran laughed. "Let me smell for myself."

The two of them stood up from the table. "What about the rest of you? Do you want to come and see?" asked Tehvay.

"Sure!" said Trujilon and climbed to his feet.

Kikola stood up too.

"No thank you," said Jenissa. "I will stay in the warm."

"I'll stay too," said Ellovene. "Besides, your father has shown it to me before."

After Tehvay led the others out to the garden, Jenissa and Ellovene remained at the table, neither saying anything, and then Ellovene got up and reached for Jenissa's dish.

"I'll clear these plates away," she said.

The sight of the woman's dark brown hand taking the plate from in front of her startled Jenissa. She thought for a moment it was Menari's hand. Her eyes travelled from the hand, up the arm, and locked on to rich brown irises. Menari's face floated above her. She blinked and Menari disappeared to be replaced by Ellovene. The face was older, the features not as sharp, the eyes sparkled, not with love, but something else, and one corner of the mouth was twisted up in a half smile, not the full, beautiful smile that Menari only showed when they were alone.

"Didn't mean to make you jump," said Ellovene.

"No, you didn't. I was just thinking of someone… something else."

"Do you want to give me a hand?" Ellovene nodded down at the table.

"A hand?"

"Clearing up."

"I…" Clearing up after herself was something she was learning to do. Clearing up after someone else was still an alien concept. "I suppose so."

Jenissa picked up a couple of plates and followed Ellovene to the kitchen. She saw where the woman put the dirty plates and put the ones she was carrying next to them.

Ellovene turned to Jenissa and said, "I guess being Elit, you had slaves to do this for you?"

Ellovene's tone was not challenging; it was almost sympathetic.

"Yes," said Jenissa, unsure of what else to say.

"Tehvay told me that she was your slave for a short time; that you helped in aiding her escape."

"Yes, she was and I did. I am afraid Tehvay has not told me anything about you." Jenissa paused. She could have left the conversation there and retreated behind the safety of the wall she had constructed around herself. But an instinctual part of her decided to make the effort to break out. "Do you have an occupation?"

"I'm a journalist," Ellovene replied.

"What do you write about?" Jenissa asked, leaning against the counter.

"I write about whatever the news wants me to write about, but I'm particularly interested in telling the human story." Ellovene paused. "Actually, I'd like to write about you."


"Yes. To so many here on Trengos, The Hegemony is a huge threat. The Elit who control it are a mystery, a faceless evil. I'd like to write your story. Put a face to the enemy, so to speak. I'd protect your identity of course. But I want to show the people here that you're just like them. You're not all to be feared."

"I don't know," Jenissa responded. She was torn over the idea. Elit did not air their private business in the news, but a part of Jenissa wanted Menari's story told. It was wrong that she should die a nameless slave, forgotten.

"I would be very grateful if you consider it. I've been getting Tehvay's story. I've even got a few things out of Kikola. It would be nice to get another view."

"I will think about it."

"How about I come visit you on Boran's ship some time?"

Jenissa was feeling cornered and wanted to change the subject. "Sure," she muttered.

"Good." Ellovene's face broke into a smile. "I'm tired of writing press releases for the PPG, and my brother's speeches!" The woman chuckled.

The back door opened as Ellovene spoke.

Trujilon came in and took off his coat. "What was that about my speeches?"

"Just saying how well written they are."

"It's my delivery that really sells them." He looked at Jenissa as he spoke and flashed her a broad grin.

The other three followed him in and quickly closed the back door.

"You made the right choice. It's freezing out there," said Boran, rubbing his hands. "Shall I get us all some nice hot dyodpeth?" He headed towards the dispenser.

"Not for me," said Kikola.

"You go sit down. I'm the host," Tehvay said to Boran.

"No, you sit. I can handle it," Boran replied.

While the light-hearted disagreement between Tehvay and Boran continued, Trujilon got five cups of dyodpeth from the dispenser.

"Dyodpeth's ready!" announced Trujilon and carried the cups on a tray through to the lounge. Boran and Tehvay followed.

Ellovene touched Jenissa's elbow and smiled. "Coming?"

Jenissa noticed Kikola hanging back. "I will join you shortly."

Ellovene headed for the lounge leaving Jenissa alone with Kikola.

"Did you enjoy the meal?" asked Kikola.

"Yes, thank you." They both knew Jenissa was lying.

"We have to get used to the taste of food here – that and many other things."

"I appreciate any help you may give, but I do not want your pity," said Jenissa.

"You think we invited you out of pity?" Kikola gave her a shocked look.

"Then what? Guilt?"


"Yes, guilt – for ruining my life!" Jenissa exclaimed. "If you had not killed my grandfather, then Tehvay would not have become my slave, and you would not have got me involved in your scheme to free her, and I would not have had to lie about it, and Menari would still be alive."

"I never meant for any of that to happen," said Kikola. "I certainly regret what happened to you and Menari, but nothing can change it."

Jenissa took a deep breath. "We have respected your mother's wishes and made an effort. I think it is best if we do not socialise any further. Another time, another place, we might have been friends. However, please do not think that I consider you an enemy. I just think it is best that we keep our distance. For now."

"If that is your wish. If you change your mind, you know where we are."

Jenissa said nothing more, joined the others, and waited for the evening to end.


The Relentless was travelling at faster than light speed. Garin could detect a subtle difference in the vibrations of the deck plating. It was as if the ship was more nervous. She settled back into the chair at the centre of the bridge and observed the crew going about their duties. For them there was still work to do. For Garin it was a matter of waiting. Waiting for something to happen.

"Captain Eadmon," the officer at the communications post called. "There's a call for you from the Vanguard. It's a personal call."

"I'll take it in my ready room."

Garin covered the distance to the corner of the bridge as quickly as she could without breaking into a run. She activated the comm before sitting down. Her brother's face appeared.

"Garin, it's Breena. She's missing," her brother began with preamble.

"Missing?" She sat on the edge of her desk chair and leaned towards the comm display. "Cayle, what are you on about?"

"We stopped at Yerhulin, and I couldn't find her," her brother replied with concern. "There's a record of her arrival, but no departure. She didn't answer her personal comm, and it was impossible to find with a trace. She's gone."

"Gone," Garin repeated. "That's… Keep looking."

"I can't. We've been ordered back to Kalenth. Are you still there?"

"No. We've been ordered away." Garin wanted to tell him they were rendezvousing with a corvette, but with the leader of The Hegemony on-board, she refrained from giving too many details. "What's happened to Bree?"

"I don't know." Cayle's face looked as worried as she felt. "Maybe she was recalled by Aloyd Willenth. I don't know. He was in command of the Fearless. Fleet Command doesn't know where it is. It's gone dark."

"Was the Fearless spotted near Yerhulin?" asked Garin.

"No. I checked with local traffic control."

"Then something must have happened. She wouldn't go back unless the Fearless turned up to take her back. We told her to wait."

Cayle ran a hand through his thinning hair. "I've left instructions with the local security force to keep a look out for her. They'll contact me directly if they find anything out."

"Let me know the moment you hear anything." Garin paused. "She'll be fine, Cayle. Wherever she is, Breena can look after herself."

"I know, but I want to know for certain."

"Keep me informed." Garin terminated the communication. She didn't like this. Her sister must have gone into deep hiding. And there was only one answer to why she would do that: She didn't want to be found. But what side is she hiding from?


It was morning on the ship and everyone, apart from Rikana, was up and about. The pilot and the government representative were in the aft lounge having breakfast. Yuniph left them to go back to her quarters and change into her uniform. Technically she was working all the time, but on-board the ship she had relaxed her strict sense of duty and only changed into her uniform after breakfast, changing back into her casual clothes after dinner.

The co-pilot said good morning as he passed her on his way to the cockpit. She noted his uniform collar was not fastened and his hair not combed. Perhaps relaxing my rules on appropriate attire sends the wrong message. This is a government ship on a diplomatic mission, not some pleasure cruiser, she thought. She then realised that she was probably not that influential with the co-pilot.

There wasn't a lot to do other than sit around and play games with Rikana, so Yuniph decided to follow the co-pilot and change later. She stuck her head through the cockpit door. "Do you mind if I join you?" she asked.

The co-pilot turned from his console and shook his head. "Be my guest." He gestured to the pilot's seat and carried on with his task.

Her attention was drawn to the unfastened collar again. Yuniph could imagine the mocking she would get from Rikana if she voiced her opinion about it. It would no doubt end with a critique of her lack of fashion sense. So Yuniph fought the urge to say something about it and slipped into the pilot's seat.

Yuniph had flown the Dansek prisoner transport on several occasions, and while this ship was a good few years older and a different type of ship, the basic layout and readouts were the same. Something caught her eye on the navigation panel.

"Is this right?" she asked. "It's reporting our position to be well within Hegemony space."

"What?" the co-pilot whipped his head around. He punched a button. "Shit!" He studied the screen. "How did that happen?" A couple more buttons were hit harder than necessary. "The initial course calculation was off, but we double checked that!"

The co-pilot swore again. "There's no way it can be that far off." He punched some more buttons. "It's not correcting."

"Is something overriding the input?" asked Yuniph.

"It's… there." He pointed at a screen to his right.

Yuniph stretched in her seat to see what he was pointing at. "What is it?"

"It looks like we got hit by a random cosmic ray burst. It must have been while we were asleep. The shielding on the computer must be damaged and a section of the memory core has been compromised."

"In what way?"

"Some bits are permanently set. We can't change them."

"Can we work around the problem?"

"That depends on how big an area of memory has been compromised and also what else has been affected. I better run a full diagnostic."

An alarm sounded and a light flashed on the console in front of Yuniph.

"There's a spike in the ion flow in engine one," said Yuniph. "Critical."

"Shut it down!"

"Already on it."

The alarm stopped, and the warning light went off.

"Do you feel that?" asked the co-pilot.

"Yes," said Yuniph.

Yuniph could feel a steady thumping through the seat. "That's—"

For several seconds Yuniph thought she was dreaming. Noises and voices sounded but didn't make sense. She tried opening her eyes. What she saw made no sense.

The co-pilot's bloodied face was centimetres from hers shouting something.

"—t! –t—G—out! Get out!"

She coughed as a foul taste seared the back of her throat.

Something was pulling at her arm, trying to lift her from the seat. She turned her head and saw Rikana. The young woman's face had a black smudge on it. Yuniph reached out to wipe the smudge off her friend's face. Pain flared in her shoulder, and it took her a while to realise that the charred and bloodied hand she could see reaching out was her own. The tip of her index finger looked to be missing.

Yuniph cried in pain as Rikana pulled her injured shoulder around her neck and started dragging her out of the cockpit.

"—ip! Abandon ship!" Yuniph winced against the automated voice blaring the warning.

"Come on," said Rikana. "If I die on this thing, I'll never speak to you again."

Fire and smoke were billowing from the aft of the corridor and Rikana appeared to be dragging her towards it.

Yuniph wanted to protest, but a thump and scream from behind her stopped any protest.

Rikana swore and half leapt, half fell on the door release. Before the door was fully open, Yuniph was thrown inside closely followed by Rikana, who swore some more as she punched the control to close the door.

The escape pod was released just as the ship disintegrated. Yuniph watched the shower of debris through the porthole. Her view was blocked when Rikana placed something on her forehead.

"Hold that there."

Yuniph felt her hand being moved and placed on her forehead. She wanted to protest that it was a waste of time treating her. "Don't bother," she whispered.

Darkness overcame her.


Yuniph opened her eyes. She was on her back, looking up at an unfamiliar ceiling. Harsh bright lights directly above her made her close her eyes again. She heard voices and opened her eyes again. There were people milling around her. They were apparently treating her. One of them applied a dressing to her burnt right hand, while another attended to her forehead.

She looked around. Dark grey walls, the uniformed guard by the door. This is a Hegemony ship, she thought. Military by the look.

"Hold on a moment." A female voice called out.

The attendants turned to the one who had spoken. Yuniph looked in her direction. Next to the woman was a screen showing Yuniph's face.

No, that's not me, she thought. That's Tehvay. Yuniph studied the face of her sister. There was a subtle difference to the sister she knew. That is what she looked like when she was a slave. When she was beaten and raped. When she was broken.

"DNA confirms this one's a slave. BK2561891. Known as Tehvay. It's a wanted fugitive. However there's a tag on its file that Aloyd Gral'hilanth ap Falentha is to be notified if found. Just give it the bare minimum of treatment and put it in the holding cell."

They think I'm Tehvay.

The attendants stopped treating her, and she was led to a cell. It was difficult for her to walk, but no one offered to help her. The cell door shut behind her with a hiss, a clunk, and a couple of clicks. No point locking the door, I'm in no fit state to escape.

Yuniph staggered to the bunks and laid down on the bottom one. Whatever pain medication she had been given was wearing off. The searing pain in her head made her feel nauseous. If she stayed still and tried to ignore the pain, it was bearable.

Some time passed and Yuniph heard the door open. Then she heard Rikana's voice.

"—of shit fuck. I'll punch your face so hard you'll be shitting your own teeth."

The cell door closed. It sounded like Rikana gave the door a kick for good measure.

"Hey, Veilan. How are you doing?" Rikana's face floated above Yuniph.

Yuniph winced as she moved her head to glance at her shoulder. Her sleeve was ripped and discoloured with dried blood. "I've been better."

"You've looked better."

"What's going on? The ship? The others?"

"The fucking thing blew up. I barely got you to the pod in time."

"The others?" Yuniph asked again, but she somehow knew the answer.

Rikana shook her head. "It happened so fast."

"Where are we?"

"Heggers. They must have picked up the automated distress call."

Rikana moved out of Yuniph's field of view. She heard what sounded like another kick at the door and grabbed her head as the pain reverberated behind her eyes.

"Why are you here?" Yuniph whispered to avoid making her headache worse.

"I head-butted the Hegger scum in charge." There was a pause. "Heggers have such fucking hard noses. So, they threw me in here with you. Why did they lock you up?" asked Rikana. "They wouldn't tell me. Or let me see you. "

"Rikana," she whispered and beckoned her friend closer. "They think I'm Tehvay. We have to play along and let them continue thinking it."

"What? That's insane."

"Why? We're both dead anyway. We know that. At least this way they'll think Tehvay is dead, and they won't go looking for her. She'll be safe."

Rikana shook her head. "No."

Yuniph's head hurt like a rod was being driven through her eyes, but she struggled to lean up. "Please."

Rikana stopped shaking her head and looked down. "Okay. I don't like it, but if it keeps Miss V. safe…"

Yuniph reached out with her uninjured hand and took hold of Rikana's arm. "Thank you." She studied the young woman's face. Tehvay is my sister by blood, but Rikana is my sister in my heart. "I love you," she admitted.

Panic flashed across Rikana's face. "I thought… You don't mean in a 'wanting to do things to my feeta' way, do you?"

Despite the situation, Yuniph laughed. "No, I don't mean that."

"Good." Rikana looked relieved. "I, um, I love you as well. And I don't mean in a 'wanting to do things to your feeta' way either."

"That's settled then," said Yuniph. "We both love each other, but not each other's feetas."

Rikana smiled. The smile faded and she suddenly pulled Yuniph into a hug.

"Finally got to the hugging stage," Yuniph teased, and returned the hug as best she could.

Rikana disengaged from the embrace, making sure her eyes didn't meet Yuniph's gaze. "Just get some rest," she whispered, and retreated to the corner of the cell at the foot of the bunk.

Yuniph slumped back. It was a long time before she fell asleep.


Jenissa hated snow. As she watched the flakes fall from the dreary Trengos sky, she recalled the last snowy day she had seen. The day she left Alopan. The day things started to go wrong in her life.

This snow was not the pristine white snow that floated down and covered the gardens of the Taliss estate. This snow was grey and dirty, driven by a strong breeze, and when it hit the ground it melted straight away.

It can't even snow properly here, she lamented to herself.

She turned away from the window in the dining area of Boran's ship and took a seat as far from the window as possible.

In the time since she had lost Menari, Mariantha ap Karthen had become her rock. Someone she could lean on in the dark moments. Someone who understood the depths of her despair. Someone who knew what it meant to have everything taken away from her.

However, Mariantha had gone back to The Hegemony, and Jenissa was now abandoned on a backwater planet. Alone. The life she knew. Gone.

Mariantha's daughter, Kikola, was the closest Elit, but she seemed to have adapted to life on Trengos. She had lowered herself to take a menial job. She was even starting to talk like a Quernal.

If I had accepted Kikola's offer, I would at least have Menari. Sweet, innocent, beautiful Menari.

Tears flowed down Jenissa's cheeks. When her tears eventually subsided, Jenissa looked down at her right hand. She didn't recall picking up the knife.

Another thought from that last day on Alopan surfaced. Tehvay cutting her own wrist. The slave had lost hope. She thought she was lost, abandoned, by the woman she loved.

Oh, Menari, why did you have to leave me?

She broke down in fresh sobs. Cold metal at her wrist brought her focus back.

Do it, there is nothing left.

She tried to push the blade into the underside of her left wrist, but it was as though some invisible force was pulling in the opposite direction.

She relaxed and let out a plaintive cry of frustration.

Do it!

Jenissa took a deep breath and tried again. A small spot of blood appeared at the tip of the knife.

No pain. Do it. Just cut. Quickly!


Jenissa looked up at the sound of her name. Ellovene walked slowly towards her. The woman's eyes were fixed on the knife.

"What are you doing?" Ellovene's voice was calm as she edged towards Jenissa. "Put it down. Please."

"Let me do it," Jenissa pleaded.

"Why?" Ellovene locked eyes with Jenissa. "Things can't be that bad."

"They are," cried Jenissa. "I have nothing. I am nothing. Everything I had, or was, is gone."

"Nonsense." Ellovene smiled. "Tehvay told me all about you. She said you were a strong, vibrant, young woman. You've been through hard times. You've lost a lot. And while things might seem bleak now, things will get better. Become again that woman Tehvay told me about. Live life. Don't throw it away."

"Menari was taken from me. I watched while the life was choked out of her. I watched and did nothing." Jenissa sobbed through her self-loathing.

"There was nothing you could do," said Ellovene. "It wasn't your fault, and your death won't bring her back. But your life will keep her memory alive. All the good times you had. The love you shared. Don't let it die. Honour Menari's life by living yours."

Ellovene was right next to her. Jenissa felt a warm hand envelop her right hand and lift it away. When she felt Ellovene trying to loosen her grip on the knife, she allowed it. The knife fell to the floor with a clatter, and Jenissa was wrapped in Ellovene's embrace.

"You have so much here," Ellovene whispered in her ear. "Friends. A future. You just have to see it and want it. Please! Say you want it! Please!"

Jenissa buried her face in Ellovene's shoulder. She clung to the woman tightly. She felt she wasn't alone.

"I want it," she mumbled against the woman. "I want it."

"Good." Ellovene patted the back of Jenissa head. "If you ever feel that way again. Call me. I'll be here for you."

Fresh tears flowed from Jenissa as Ellovene rocked her gently.


They spent days in the cell. Yuniph was not sure how many, maybe six or seven. During that time, no one came to see them. The only interactions she and Rikana had with their captors were the twice-daily meals that were automatically delivered through the dispenser.

Rikana had made a daily ritual of kicking the door in frustration and shouting to get someone's attention. She was just about to start again when the door to the cell opened for the first time. Guards rushed in and forced the two of them to their knees. Yuniph winced out loud from the pain in her shoulder that had gone without medical treatment.

The guards stood close by with their weapons trained on Yuniph and Rikana. They were made to stay in that position for several minutes. Finally a woman in a dark grey aloyd's uniform entered their cell and stopped directly in front of Yuniph.

"Do you recognise me?" she asked.

Yuniph looked up at the woman. Her head still hurt, so it was hard to focus on the officer's face. The tag over her left breast said 'Falentha', but it wasn't someone she had met before.

"Hila Llyte," said Rikana.

"I wasn't talking to you."

Llyte. The name was vaguely familiar. As Yuniph struggled to make a connection, a hand gripped her face and forced her to look up. The information she needed came at once. Hila Llyte. Rikana had suspected her of being a slaver. It turned out she was acquainted with Boran Zerbilla and had helped rescue Tehvay.  More details were coming to her. Yuniph recalled from their mission briefing with Kikola that Llyte had changed her name and was now working with Ambra ap Lentol, the self-declared Bren of The Kalenth Hegemony.

"Yes," said Yuniph, pretending to be Tehvay.

"Where's Karthen?"

Yuniph said nothing.

Falentha nodded, Rikana let out a grunt. Yuniph turned and saw blood trickling from her friend's mouth.

"Don't hurt her!" Yuniph hoped that her imitation of Tehvay's accent was good enough.

"Oh! You care about the cop? Don't tell me you've dumped Karthen for this one!" Falentha laughed, and turned to Rikana. "I am glad I didn't kill you on Argos Station, now."

Yuniph's eyes opened wide as she looked at Rikana, trying to signal her friend not to provoke their interrogator further. But with her usual bravado, Rikana spat blood; it landed on Falentha's trousers.

"I could beat you to the other side of the Spur and back if you didn't have your goons with you," she said. "Go on, try me."

The aloyd nodded again, and Rikana doubled over gasping for breath from being punched in the diaphragm.

Falentha ignored what was happening to Rikana and continued her interrogation. "Did you leave Karthen on Trengos?"

Yuniph remained silent.

"I know slaves are conditioned to say nothing when being threatened with death, but I assure you I know many ways of extracting the information I want that will have you begging me to kill you."

"We don't owe Karthen anything," said Rikana. "She was the one that dumped you remember."

Yuniph frowned at Rikana, wondering what she was playing at.

Rikana ignored her and continued. "Karthen dumped her and returned to The Hegemony."

"Then where did she go?" asked Falentha suspiciously.

"How the fuck would we know?" Rikana continued answering. "She said she wanted her precious life back and left."

Falentha turned her attention back to Yuniph and crossed her arms. "If you and Karthen aren't together anymore, then why were you caught in Hegemony space?"

"We were on a trade mission to the Losper Empire," responded Yuniph. "It seems our ship had an error in the course."

"A big error," said Falentha. "Where you were picked up is a long way from any route from Trengos to the Empire."

"We visited Argos Station first," Yuniph tried to make it a convincing lie.

Falentha nodded to one of the guards. He kicked Rikana and cracked some ribs.

"Just in case you're lying," said Falentha. She turned on her heel and marched out. The guards followed her.

Yuniph rushed over to Rikana.

"Don't fuss, I'm okay," the young woman said.

She helped Rikana to the bunk and sat next to her.

Is this really it? Yuniph asked herself. There must be some way out of here. There must be!




Albenatan, Kikola's art teacher, was not very old, but he looked it. Lined skin, thinning, unruly grey hair, and he was rake thin, as if he hadn't eaten in a long time. He wore dirty white, paint-spattered dungarees over an old, stained shirt. Kikola herself had changed out of her uniform and into trousers and a long sleeve shirt. Unlike Albenatan, however, she wore a smock to avoid paint splashes on her clothes.

The art studio itself was as run down as its owner. The walls that were visible behind the canvases and easels were dirty. The windows were smeared with paint, as was the tiled floor. Kikola had not chosen Albenatan based on his looks or the state of his studio, but it was convenient to get to from work – a short walk – and despite his somewhat irascible manner, he had a lot of patience with her.

The art teacher placed a vase on a table in the middle of the studio. It was an old vase, dark red with a yellow ribbon pattern on the side.

"I have tried this," said Kikola. "It was not successful."

"That's your problem," Albenatan replied. "You look at this as though there is a single, correct result. You spend time trying to replicate what you see perfectly, and when you can't do that, you think you've failed."

"Surely, that is the point."

"No! If you want to see the subject of your painting, then just look at the subject. If you want an exact copy, then take a picture. Art is about capturing the essence of the subject and adding your own essence to it."

He shuffled over to an easel.

"Look! Do you like this?" He directed Kikola to observe the picture.

"Yes." The picture was exquisite. Minute details on the surface of the vase were visible: thin cracks in the glaze, a chip on the lip. It was perfect.

"Compare it to the real thing." He pointed at the vase. "Is it an exact copy?"

Kikola studied the vase -- the cracked glaze, the chipped lip were all there -- only, not quite. The pattern of the cracked glaze was different. On the real vase there was no crack over the yellow ribbon pattern that adorned the side, yet Albenatan had drawn it so. The chip on the painting was larger, more defined, and to Kikola's surprise, in a more aesthetically pleasing position.

"I think I see what you mean," Kikola said. "The vase is not perfect, so it is not possible to capture it perfectly. The crack you painted over the ribbon makes the crack and the ribbon stand out more, draws your attention to the detail and highlights the… the character of the object. And the position of the chip, by moving it to the right side of the ribbon it… balances the whole thing."

Albenatan grinned. "Good. You understand. It's not what I intended, but that's what art is all about. I put into it what I feel, and the viewer gets out of it what they feel. I put the crack over the ribbon, because I enjoyed painting the random lines and went too far. The chip is on the right, because I knocked the vase when I walked past during the session and set it down in a different position. But the point is, it doesn't matter if I paint over the ribbon or put the chip in the wrong place. They are all elements that make up the object, and as long as they are there then I've 'succeeded' as you put it."


"But nothing. My instinct tells me if what I put down is wrong, and then I correct it."

Kikola's arched eyebrow registered her surprise.

Albenatan chuckled. "Yes, even I make mistakes. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Sometimes, like the cracks, they work. Now you try."

Kikola moved over to her easel. Albenatan took the vase off the table and replaced it with a basket of flowers.

"No!" he called out as he saw Kikola select a brush. "Try it with this one first." He hurried over and selected the largest brush.

"It is too big," Kikola protested.

"You are trying to capture the essence of what you see," Albenatan patiently explained. "Start off by capturing it with broad strokes first, then you can try with greater detail. Remember, the purpose of me teaching you is so that you learn how to paint, it is not about you producing pictures."

Kikola nodded and set to work. The brush was a little unwieldy at first, but her teacher showed her a technique to use it for some finer detail. When she had finished, Albenatan looked at her work.

"Good. Good."

"Is it?"

"Go across the room," he waved her away and started turning the easel.

Kikola walked across the studio and looked at her painting. It wasn't a perfect representation, but from this distance the detail didn't matter. The greenery of the stems and leaves, and the bright colours of the petals, looked like a basket of flowers. Not the basket of flowers that occupied the table in front of her, but a basket of flowers. A smile spread across Kikola's face as she realised that art is in the expression of one's own creativity.

She couldn't wait to get home and share this breakthrough moment with Tehvay.


"Tehvay?" Kikola called out as she came through the front door with her artwork in hand.

"I'm upstairs. I'll be right down."

Kikola went directly to the small downstairs room that she had turned into her own home studio. She set her painting on her easel to display it. She was anxious to get Tehvay's opinion of her work.

She heard the fast steps of Tehvay running down the stairs. Like an excited child, Kikola thought. I never ran downstairs as a child. It would have been undignified. I envy how Tehvay embraces simple joy.

"How was your art lesson?" Tehvay asked as she came into the room. She stopped when she saw the painting. "Is that your latest project?"

"Yes. What do you think?" Kikola stepped back from the artwork to allow Tehvay a better look.

"I like it very much. It's different from your others. More – joyful." Tehvay reached out and ran a finger over one of the petals. "Zinlantha. It's perfect."

Kikola stood up next to Tehvay and looked at the painting again. Leave it to Tehvay to see things in a fresh, new way. "I had a bit of a breakthrough today."

"I can see that. It's lovely, Kikola. Your best work to date."

Kikola smiled as she basked in the praise. The smile faltered when Tehvay offered to sit for her.

"Sit? You mean you want me to paint you?"

"Yes," said Tehvay.

"I don't know. I haven't painted a live subject before."

"Then consider it practice." Tehvay sat down on the sofa. "Would you like me, nude?"

Kikola's mind flashed back to Gatlor and her visit to her cousin Trin'hale. Our visit, she corrected herself. Tehvay was a slave then, but she was there. She had persuaded Trin'hale to sketch Tehvay. If Trin'hale had told Tehvay to pose nude, Tehvay would have had no choice but to obey. Kikola would not have liked that, but this was different. This was Tehvay's choice. After a moment of internal objection, Kikola wanted to say 'Yes!', but there was a part of her that couldn't say it. Fortunately for her, the decision was taken out of her hands.

Tehvay grinned. "Go on, just a little bit." She unzipped her dress and allowed it to fall off her shoulders. She reclined on the small sofa in the corner and struck a seductive pose.

Kikola immediately began to paint. With the broad strokes she was making, Kikola felt frustrated that she wasn't doing justice to Tehvay's perfect body. A thought struck her.

"I need to start again," she told Tehvay.

Kikola quickly discarded the canvas, replaced it with a piece of paper and picked up a graphite marker. As her eyes flowed over Tehvay's curves, she captured the essence of Tehvay's beauty in the flowing strokes of the marker.

"May I see it?"

"It's just a rough sketch."

"That's all right." Tehvay got up and stood beside Kikola. "Is that how you see me?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well, my breasts are more ample than in real life and my lips fuller."

Kikola felt her cheeks flush. Tehvay was standing so close. "I, uh… yes."

"It's quite sensual."

Kikola's mouth went dry as Tehvay's sultry voice resonated in her ear.

"Here, let me try painting you."

Kikola went to sit down on the sofa.

"Nude," said Tehvay.

Kikola liked where this was going, but suddenly felt awkward and self-conscious stripping off her clothes. She could not recreate Tehvay's seductive pose, so sat upright at one end of the sofa.

Tehvay picked up a clean brush, but instead of dipping it into the paint, she joined Kikola on the sofa. "Lights, twenty percent."

The lights in the room dimmed. Kikola felt her heart thumping in her chest in anticipation of what Tehvay might do next. As Kikola's eyes adjusted to the low lighting, she could see Tehvay leaning over her. Kikola closed her eyes expecting to feel Tehvay's lips on hers. She opened her eyes wide when she felt, instead, soft bristles brushing a line up the inside of her leg.

Kikola let out a soft moan when the brush traced a path up her torso, across her breasts, and down the other leg. It both tickled and aroused. But when she felt Tehvay's tongue rake across her nipple as the tip of the brush's handle rubbed against her clit, Kikola thought she would pass out from the current flowing between those two pleasure points.

She didn't even know how they got to the floor, but the next thing Kikola knew, Tehvay's fingers replaced the brush between her legs and teased her slick folds in long, bold strokes.

"Tehvay, please," Kikola pleaded. She wanted to feel Tehvay inside of her, filling her.

But Tehvay didn't.

Kikola almost yelped with disappointment when Tehvay took her hand away.

Is Tehvay having a flashback again? Do we need to stop? Kikola was just about to say something when she felt a sudden jolt of carnal need. It took her breath away. Tehvay had taken her hand away and replaced it with her mouth.

Kikola's hips rose up to meet Tehvay's tongue as it darted in and out.  

"…so close," Kikola groaned.

Just when Kikola thought she couldn't take it anymore, Tehvay replaced her mouth with her finger, plunging it in while her mouth captured Kikola's throbbing clit.

Her lungs expelled a guttural groan and her whole body felt like it would shatter from the intensity of her orgasm.

It took a few moments for Kikola's muscles to unclench and for her breathing to return to normal – a few moments more before she could string together a few coherent words. "Who knew painting could feel this good."

Tehvay smiled down at Kikola before relaxing on the floor next to her.

Kikola had experienced Tehvay's love in such a deeply intimate way, and she longed to share that same gift with Tehvay, to feel Tehvay's body respond to her touch. She wanted to hear Tehvay call out her name in passion and blissful release. Maybe this time, she thought.

Kikola reached up to cup one of Tehvay's exposed breasts. Tehvay didn't jump, or try to pull away, which was encouraging. As her hand slipped lower to push the dress away from Tehvay's hips, Kikola saw a flicker in Tehvay's eyes that told her Tehvay was still fighting the nightmares that haunted her. Kikola removed her hand, allowing Tehvay to get up off the floor.

"I'm hungry," Tehvay said, slipping the dress over her shoulders and fumbling for the zip. "Lights, ninety percent."

Kikola had said all the words she could to tell Tehvay that she understood. She understood the journey Tehvay had undertaken just to get to this point, and was grateful to Tehvay for coming this far. All she could do was be patient and wait. She got dressed as Tehvay headed for the kitchen. Just as she was about to follow Tehvay, there was a knock at the door.

"I will get it," she called out. She opened the door and was shocked to find Rikana standing there.

"Rikana! I didn't know you were back. Is Yuniph with you or has she gone home?"

"I—I need some help, I—" Rikana struggled to speak. She looked past Kikola to Tehvay who'd come to see who was at the door. "I'm sorry."


Rikana thought she was dreaming for a moment. Reality hit her and all she could do was apologise to Tehvay. She was ushered inside and sat down heavily in an armchair.

"What happened? Where's Yuniph?"

Rikana didn't know who asked the questions. Her mind replayed the incident.

The door to the cell opened.

"On your feet!" a guard barked.

Rikana supported her cracked ribs with her arm as she slowly obeyed the order. The arm was roughly torn away as her hands were cuffed behind her back. A second guard cuffed Yuniph.

The two of them were marched out of the cell, down a short corridor and into another room. There were three people in the room. Aloyd Falentha, a slave, and a blonde-haired woman that Rikana didn't recognise.

The blonde-haired woman spoke. "You are going to deliver a message to Kikola ap Karthen." She looked at Rikana. "That is, you are going to deliver the message." She turned to Yuniph. "Your death is going to be the message."

"No!" Rikana struggled.

The guards took hold of her and dragged her to the side of the room.

"Rikana," Yuniph spoke softly. "This is right. This is how it should be."

Rikana looked at Yuniph. A bright red scar stood out on her friend's forehead. The bruising that had accompanied it had almost faded. The injuries didn't hide the fact that this was the face that had saved her life. All those years ago, cold and alone on the streets, she had given up until Yuniph came along and saved her, given her life a purpose.

"You saved me," said Rikana. "Thank you."

Yuniph smiled and nodded.

"I'll make them pay for this." Rikana's voice broke.

Falentha stepped up behind Yuniph. Light caught the knife blade as it drew a red line across Yuniph's throat. It seemed to take forever before any blood started flowing, but when it did, it didn't stop.

When Yuniph's body slumped to the floor, Rikana's legs went weak, only the guards holding her prevented her from falling. She was thankful that her tears blinded her so that she didn't have to see the lifeless body of her friend.

She was dragged away. When the tears finally cleared from her eyes, she was standing in a hangar near a small spacecraft. Falentha appeared beside her and nodded at the guards. The cuffs were removed. Rikana's instincts were to strike out, but she reined them in quickly.

Kikola's advice came to her. She couldn't win now, so the only option was to win later.

Falentha held out a data chip. "Here's a recording of the slave being put to death to show to Karthen."

Rikana snatched the data chip. "I'll be back, and I'll shove this up your arse."

"I have had worse things shoved up there." Falentha muttered. She nodded in the direction of a small transport ship. "It'll get you across the border before it falls apart. If you ration yourself carefully the protein supply for the food dispenser will last that long as well."

Rikana stared long and hard at Falentha, wanting to remember every facet of the face that she was going to see in pain before she squeezed the life out of it. The thing she remembered the most were the piercing blue eyes that reflected back their own pain.

Rikana choked back her tears as she told Kikola and Tehvay of Yuniph's fate. A thick pall of sorrow filled the living room, and for several moments no one spoke or looked each other in the eyes.

Finally, Rikana turned to Tehvay, who was stunned into silence, the shock clearly visible on her ashen face. "Yuniph could have told them they had the wrong person, but she let them think they had you. She died to protect you."

"Why? Why would she do that? I don't understand," Tehvay said mournfully.

"So you could finally be free. She did it because she loved you."


Tehvay had watched Kikola and Rikana leave the Veilan's home and wished she could go with them. She hurt inside at the loss of Yuniph and struggled against the grief, but she knew she had to remain strong for her parents. She went back inside to her parents' lounge. Asta and Pallin sat on the sofa clinging to each other and weeping openly. Tehvay sat on a nearby chair and tried to comfort them as best she could. It wasn't that she didn't want to deal with her parents. She didn't know how. She didn't know what she was expected to do, or say.

"Shall I make some dyodpeth?" asked Tehvay. She stood up, desperate to do something.

"No," said Pallin. "We'll need something to make us sleep. Not keep us awake."

"What about something to eat?"

"We can't eat at a time like this," said Asta.

Her mother's voice was strained. Tehvay couldn't tell if her mother was angry at her or not.

"I just want to help," said Tehvay plaintively. "I don't know what to do."

"Just be here." Her father beckoned her to sit back down.

Tehvay returned to her chair.

"What cruel fate," said Asta. "To be reunited with you. A complete family again. Only for Yuni to be taken away." Her mother reached out and grabbed Tehvay's arm. "We need you more than ever."

"I can't replace her," said Tehvay. She jerked her arm out of her mother's grasp. "She was your daughter."

"You're our daughter too."

"What I mean is, you had all that time together."

"It's not about that," said Pallin. "We're not asking you to be her. We lost you and you came back to us. We've lost Yuni, and she's not going to come back. We couldn't bear it if we were to lose you again."

"You won't lose me," said Tehvay. She didn't know what else to say.

"We might have only met a few months ago," said Asta. "But you've been my daughter your whole life. When you walked through that door, I thought I was seeing a ghost. When I held you, all those years disappeared. You were my child, my first-born. I knew you would become part of our family."

"First born?"

"Yes. You were born first. Yuniph was born a few minutes later."

"How do you know?"

"When they came to take one of you away, I knew which side of the cot was empty when they left. Besides, Yuniph had a small birthmark on her bottom." Asta broke down in fresh sobs.

"Why didn't you tell Yuniph about me?"

"It was easier," said Pallin as he consoled his wife. "We had so much to deal with. We were so busy getting our lives sorted out, work, house, just learning to do basic things that any free person would know how to do. By the time she was old enough to understand, it would've only complicated things."

"There was never a right time to tell her," said Asta. "After so many years, we saw no point in upsetting her. But we never forgot you."

Tehvay recalled her transition to freedom with Boran. It was slow and difficult. It must have been harder for her parents with a baby to look after.

"Now we must never forget Yuniph," said Pallin.

They sat for hours. Finally the grief couldn't hold the tiredness off for any longer, and Asta and Pallin went to bed. Tehvay settled into the spare room, but she couldn't sleep. Eventually she got up and without thinking wandered into Yuniph's room. It looked like Yuniph had only just left and could come back at any minute.

Tehvay sat on the bed and picked up the small stuffed animal from the bedside cabinet. She recalled Yuniph telling her it was a dryg named Idris, a toy Yuniph had since she was a baby.

Tehvay never had a toy to play with when she was a child. She lay down on Yuniph's bed, held the toy to her chest, and let the tears flow.


Rikana's revelation of Yuniph's fate had been a shock to Kikola. However, when the younger woman came seeking her support in telling Yuniph's parents, Kikola's aloyd training kicked in, and she forced herself to remain as outwardly calm as she could. Tehvay was obviously upset by the news, though she seemed to take it somewhat better than Kikola expected.

With Tehvay, Kikola and Rikana broke the bad news to the Veilans. Asta and Pallin were understandably devastated. Kikola and Rikana thought it best for Tehvay to stay with her parents, and they left the Veilan family alone to grieve. Rikana didn't want to return to her empty flat, so she went back to Kikola's house.

Rikana immediately made herself at home, helping herself to a drink and slumping onto the settee. Kikola knew the young woman had weeks on the long journey home to come to terms with Yuniph's death, but was still visibly upset.

"Thank you for being with me when I told the Veilans," Rikana said after taking a mouthful of beer. "I couldn't do it on my own. All the way back I was dreading it. I could have called ahead, but…" Rikana wiped her eyes. "Thank you."

"It's what friends are for," said Kikola.

Rikana gave a hollow laugh. "Yes. I took too long to admit that to Yuniph. I'm not going to make that mistake again." She held the bottle of beer up and looked at Kikola. "Friend." She tipped the bottle in Kikola's direction. "Yuniph drove me mad at times. I'm sure I did the same to her. But she never complained. She was always so fucking nice all the time." Rikana tried taking a swallow of beer, but choked on a sob.

Kikola crouched down next to the settee and placed a hand on the young woman's shoulder. Rikana had seemed upset earlier, but now grief and anger really took hold. She gave a scream of primal rage.

"Why? Why her?" Rikana allowed her tears to fall unbidden. "All she ever wanted was to help people. She went out of her way to help me. Me! What the fuck did I do to deserve that?" Fresh sobs overcame her.

Kikola couldn't offer any words, so she did the only thing she could. She pulled Rikana to her and wrapped her arms around her, allowing the younger woman to cry herself out.

After nearly a minute Rikana raised her head, shrugged out of the supporting arms, and reached into her pocket and pulled out a data chip. "The execution is on here." She tossed it at Kikola. "Falentha wanted you to see it."

Kikola caught the chip. "Why?"

"I told you, because they thought Yuniph was Tehvay. They killed her to send you a message!"

The accusation was thrown half-heartedly, but it found its mark.

There were no words Kikola could offer that would have expressed the depth of her remorse. A simple 'Sorry' would be wholly inadequate. A shift of blame would be meaningless. Rikana had lost a friend. No words could make up for that. If Rikana wanted to blame Kikola, she would take it.

Kikola remained silent and looked down at the data chip in her hand. After staring at it for several seconds she walked to the display console.

"I'll wait outside," said Rikana, climbing to her feet. "I can't watch it."

Kikola waited until she was alone before inserting the chip. It wasn't the first death she had witnessed, but it hit her in a way that no other had. She thought back to Gatlor and the two teenagers she had casually executed without a thought. They had been faceless, nameless, inconsequential, but the woman being executed in the vid had a familiar face and a name Kikola knew.

Another name that Kikola knew was the woman in the background of the recording: Ambra ap Lentol. This wasn't just Gral'hilanth taking revenge, this was supported by the leader of The Hegemony. This made it both political and personal.

The tears slipped down her cheeks before she realised she was crying. Kikola angrily wiped her face and ejected the data chip. A few moments later Rikana came back in.

"I am going back," said Kikola. "I am going back and taking down Ambra."

"Ambra? As in Lentol?"


"What's she got to do with this? It was that feeta Falentha that murdered Yuniph."

"Ambra was behind it. She was the blonde haired woman."

Rikana frowned. "That was Lentol?"

Kikola nodded.

An angry look crossed Rikana's face. "The fuck."

"I am going to stop her," Kikola replied.

"Isn't that suicide? You said it was impossible."

"Yes. And Ambra also knows that it's impossible."

"Then why do it?"

"Because I know something she doesn't."

"What's that?" asked Rikana.

Kikola looked at the young woman. "I am going to win."





Kikola settled into the pilot's seat and made herself comfortable. She wanted to return to The Hegemony alone, but there were two people who wouldn't let her. She looked behind her to the woman she loved. "Ready?"

Tehvay nodded.

Kikola knew that Tehvay was torn between staying with her parents and going with her. Asta and Pallin wanted Tehvay to stay. Kikola felt badly for them, but was pleased that Tehvay was coming with her. If they were going to die, they would die together. Though dying wasn't the plan.

Kikola turned to the woman in the co-pilot's seat, that despite her unorthodox way, Kikola was glad to have by her side. "Ready?"

Rikana grinned determinedly. "Let's go fuck some Heggers."

Clearance came from traffic control and Kikola coaxed the ship off the ground. Soon they were climbing rapidly and the pale blue sky turned dark.

"Course set," said Rikana. "Wait, what's that?"

Kikola looked at the sensor monitor Rikana was pointing at. Tehvay leaned forward between them.

"What's wrong? What is it?" asked Tehvay.

"Whatever it is, it's big," said Rikana. "Fucking big."

Kikola raised her eyes from the display and looked out of the window. There was a brief flash and a Hegemony warship dropped from light speed, filling their field of view.

"Heggers," Rikana spat. She glared at Kikola. "How do we win this one?"

Kikola didn't have an answer.



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