Demons Of The Past 02: Revolution – Chapter 19
The EÃ¶nwyl found herself picking at her food, something very much unlike her. Even in very tight spots, she never had trouble eating; after all, if you had to act quickly, it was good to have your tanks full.
But her mind kept insisting on going back to worrying about what was happening to her â€¦
She’d used the word casually, but The EÃ¶nwyl didn’t really have friends. She couldn’t afford them. Not with her family still enslaved on a world that seemed to consume reason and hope just by its very existence. She could help people when opportunity permitted. She could even take missions like this one, based on the potential to save the people she’d sworn to rescue.
But she shouldn’t be thinking of them as friends, as people that were in and of themselves valuable to her. A trader had to consider the profit and loss, especially when the trader had something precious of her own to protect.
But the thought was still there, showing no sign whatsoever of leaving. The massive and dangerously intelligent Guvthor, Vick with his words sometimes sharper than his R’Thann fangs yet fiercely determined to drag them to victory despite their obvious inferiority to his “true People”, thinking of them in danger because she’d been just a few seconds too slow (too slowâ€¦ how?, a part of her asked with silky dangerous tones, ones that echoed a past she had almost walled away. There was nothing to sense, nothing to know; why regret that the impossible waited ten seconds longer?)â€¦ thinking of them in danger struck her heart with pain far greater than she felt with strangers in peril, even ones like Tyll and Jandy, the couple she’d saved from Contract back on Meletta.
But even with Guvthor and Sooovickalassa she could, with effort, convince herself that it was merely a matter of how vital a cause they were united in, how crucial all four of them were now to a mission that she had never imagined before that same dayâ€¦
The day ex-Captain Sasham Varan risked his life to pay a debt she hadn’t realized still weighed upon him; a debt which in truth she had actually almost forgotten, risked his life to save her own.
And that name was the one that truly distracted her, kept herself from tasting the rations set before her, kept her casting glances towards the bulkhead as though she could somehow see through it to where the one-time Imperial officer must be sitting. She wasn’t worrying about the success of their mission or the completion of her contract. She was worried about him, about what this Morno might be doing to him now, and the fact that no one had come to speak with her in the hours she’d been locked up made it worse.
As she thought that â€“ for about the hundredth time â€“ a figure appeared at the doorway, a broad quadrupedal semi-reptilian form with an upright torso and a pair of very nonhuman arms below a wide, flat head with large bulging eyes. The Tcherabat stared at her a moment, then keyed the door off. She could tell without actually seeing it, just by the way the large alien stood, hand on its sidearm, that there were others on each side. No chance to make a break for it here. “Follow me, please,” the creature â€“ whose name, she could now make out as she approached, was Green Lieutenant Thisst Lassa â€“ said in a deep, buzzing voice.
She stepped out, hands on her head as required, seeing the other two guards as she’d expected. “Where are you taking me now? Interrogation?”
Lieutenant Thisst didn’t answer directly. “Continue ahead of me in that same pose. Please do not draw either too far ahead or approach me too closely. Do you understand?”
Well, they’re not supposed to answer questions in general. “Yes, I understand.”
To her surprise, they quickly led her back through the same corridors she’d come through originally â€“ to the main landing bay in the carrier. That surprise was, however, completely overshadowed by seeing Guvthor and Vick also entering the landing bay, by different doors, and being led towards what seemed to beâ€¦ A spectator platform?
She felt a sudden, startlingly sharp ice-cold pain of fear in her heart. What would the Empire want them to witness in such a public venue? Anâ€¦ execution.
The three mounted the steps to the platform, their guards following and stopping at the edge, allowing all three of the prisoners to move forward. There areâ€¦ a lot of spectators. No wonder they weren’t being put in direct restraints; it seemed that most of the crew â€“ several thousand people! â€“ were gathered around whatever was at the center. She glanced at her two companions; as usual, Guvthor wore a deceptively tranquil smile, as though he already knew the answers to the questions; to her surprise, Sooovickalassa’s crest was high and he was stepping with confidence and pride, something contradictory to what she had seen in him last.
Finally she came to the edge, where she could see into the center of the hundred-meter wide cleared area the crowd was surrounding. Even her own ship had been moved aside to make the very center of the landing bay clear forâ€¦
A seven-pointed star was laid out in that space, with one figure at each of the points â€“ four of them human crewmen of the Kukanaro, the other three all Ptial. In the heptagram at the center of the star were two other figures: Commodore Veshdar Morno, andâ€¦ Sasham Varan.
For a moment â€“ just a moment â€“ she couldn’t grasp what she was seeing; it made no sense. The commander of an Imperial Ternam Ralyeh Carrier had no reason whatsoever to risk himself in a combat with a prisoner. It was crazy. And even if he did, Sasham Varan had no reason to believe that winning such a combat would get him released. That kind of thing was for imageplays, not real life.
But now one of the Ptial â€“ the one that had talked to Varan when they were first captured, Killaren’tian, was speaking:
“An unforgivable insult has been directed to a warrior of Ptial by the commander of this vessel. To prove the truth of his insults before the Lady, or to pay the price in blood for his words, Commodore Veshdar Morno will meet Captain Sasham Varan in honor combat, as decreed by the Lady and as honored by Atlantaea and now by the Reborn Empire.”
“Varan’s not a Ptial! He’s a psi and a criminal!” There were many similar shouts around the perimeter. “Commodore, get out of there and â€“”
“Shut UP!” Morno’s annoyance was clear in the brittle tone of his bellowed command. “Do I look like some kind of yellik idiot? Do any of you think I don’t know what I’m doing here? Eh? Any of you want to tell me that I’m so Towers-damned stupid that I’d get into a dueling ring with a renegade like Varan if I didn’t have some reason?”
That quieted the crowd for a moment.
“My top priority on this mission was not to screw up our diplomatic situation with Ptial. You all know that â€“ and that it’s not just my career riding on this one. Well, Varan was given Ptial citizenship by their leader after the Uralian Conflict.”
In the stunned silence, a steamkettle whistle of laughter erupted from Vick, followed by a rumble of amusement from Guvthor; The EÃ¶nwyl kept her reaction to a grin.
“I’m not going into details, but the long and short is, I have to do this.”
“And if you lose,” Killaren’tian said, “you must release Captain Varan and his allies.”
Morno’s jaw clenched so tightly that The EÃ¶nwyl could see the muscles standing out even from that distance. “Understood. And if Varan loses, he is required to fully cooperate with our investigation. As are his allies. Yes?”
I don’t remember agreeing to follow any Ptilian rules, she thought, and the bared fangs of Sooovickalassa indicated that he was thinking something similar. Guvthor was simply observing, a placid expression on his face.
“As can be seen,” Killaren’tian continued, gesturing at three semi-portable platforms with familiar equipment aboard, “We have made a great concession in the rules; three psionic inhibition generators will prevent any opportunity by Captain Varan to use his psionic abilities during the duel. On Ptial, this would be considered a grave breach of protocol, as the Powers of the Lady are never to be restrained.” Her smile was a snarl. “One foolish enough to challenge one blessed by Her must be willing to face Her power.
“But for the sake of your own laws and beliefs, this we have permitted. Thus it shall be a pure duel of warrior skill.” She turned to face the two men. “Commodore Morno, are you prepared?”
“I am.” Morno’s voice was calmer. He had clearly taken the time to clear anything but the immediacy of the fight from his mind.
“Will you abide by the terms of this duel as we have stated them?”
“I will.” He managed a very wry smile. “For the sake of my career, I don’t have much choice. Though if I lose, I’m not sure of my career either.”
“Captain Varan, are you prepared?”
“I am.” Varan brought his arms up, parallel and slanted slightly, and opened his eyes.
“Will you abide by the terms of this duel as we have stated them?”
She raised her hands. “Then let the Lady and the Universe be witness to the truth of claw and fang.” Her arms slashed down. “Begin!”