Zur Nerses was the third of Goal’s four Ven suitors. The Zurs had ended up in Zyss after the 1676 conflict the Alnese called “the Islands Troubles” and the Ven called “The Islands Massacre”. The facts fit the Ven name better, but Goal understood why Arthmis did not insist on righting the historical record just yet.
When the Ven and the Alnese worked out their treaty two years later, in 1678, Pallas House stepped up and contracted one of the first four-year alliances envisioned to bring the two groups together. Pallas House received much praise for its leadership, along with more private urgings to keep up the good work. Everybody knew the Ven leaders were angling for more influential connections and were particularly keen on Justiciar Pallas Eden, the man who’d put an end to the Islands bloodletting. His disgrace and the loss of his title in 1684 didn’t lessen Ven enthusiasm much, particularly since he returned and resumed his work with Arthmis towards the end of the year. And so, Clan leaders put out some feelers once Goal turned 20. They found both Pallas Eden and Goal’s mother Pallas Leila willing to consider a temporary Ven alliance, and quickly went to work investigating possibilities. By spring warming the next year, Goal and her parents were scrutinizing a short list; soon thereafter, everything was ready for the typical introductions.
The Zurs and the Pallases met at Pallas House the first day. Introductions were made and both sets of parents got a chance to get acquainted while suitor and young woman exchanged a first few words. Nerses struck Goal as almost stereotypically Ven: Caramel skin, hazel eyes, bronzed chestnut curls, just golden all around. His noteworthy good looks did make him stand out a bit more. He reminded her of a shorter Ven version of her father, and wondered how much that had counted towards his selection.
Traditionally, the young suitor’s clan hosted a second meeting the next day, but the Zurs didn’t have a clan compound, so Arthmis stepped in. During that second meeting, Goal learned that Nerses was quite familiar with the Arthmis Academy. He’d taken an interest in her Order during the turbulent days of his move to Zyss, and jumped at a chance to hang out with an Alnese friend who’d started an apprenticeship a year earlier. Goal proposed that they meet at the Academy for their next get together, something of a first date. Nerses liked the idea, and they agreed to join the Academy’s afternoon training session for novices.
Nerses kept up with the Arthmis trainees. He stepped through the warm up basic eights with natural ease, and could parry the attack moves that followed. The young man had undeniable talent, though mostly not yet realized. Goal decided to share her assessment over cups of hot choctea in the Academy’s dining hall after the training session.
“You’ve got great form,” she began. “When did you start again?”
With a quick smile, he replied, “Thanks. A little over a year ago, when Healy joined the Order.”
“I think you’ve learned about all you can from that class, though. Are you thinking about joining up?”
Nerses looked almost startled, “Joining up? Joining … Arthmis?”
He stared at her, and struggling to keep her amusement from showing, she continued, “We do have Ven members.”
He countered quickly, “I’ve never seen them.” Then he seemed to stop himself from saying more.
Goal admitted, “They’re mostly in Chaix, and in Patras, that’s true.”
Directing his gaze to the Arthmis hawk feathers beginning to form on her shoulders and down her upper arms, he asked, “You’re what … in your fourth year?”
“Fifth,” she corrected.
“Healy’s just got the lead line. He tells me he can still get it undone if he fails his quals. Guess you’re past that now.”
She nodded again, “Made journeywoman last month.”
“What made you decide on Arthmis? Your father?”
“I’m not sure. I mean, yeah, dad had something to do with it, but actually, when I started, I was way more interested in Mythras. Boy, did he ever shoot that down!”
“He was quite unequivocal: Family tradition be damned! If it really had to be a martial order, he’d let me try Kalafo or Arthmis, but not Mythras.” At the time, her father’s response had scared her a little, but now she smiled at the memory.
“But he’s a legate!”
“Yeah, well, Mythras gave him that title to settle a debt. He’s Arthmin through and through, despite his little hiatus. Are you interested in Mythras?”
Nerses shook his head, “I shouldn’t really say this, since I am not exactly sure what Mythrans do, but I’m no warrior.”
“They’re trained to be warriors, that’s true, but then they have different options, just like Arthmin. My grandmother was a captain.”
“A captain?” Admiration registered on his face.
“And my grandfather joined the investigative branch, similar to Arthmis.”
“The one who’s become a monk?”
“Yeah, that one, Vrezh. Now that he’s become an ice mentor, he only uses his first name. Guess they told you about my family. At least the ones that are still alive.”
With a guilty little smile, he pointed to his hand-held in his shirt pocket, “I made a cheat sheet. I found it easy to remember your grandfather the monk. Stands out a little. No word about your grandmother the captain, though. I would have remembered that, too.”
“She disappeared before I was born, along with her entire ship. We never knew what happened. And she wasn’t even traveling in an unknown sector.”
“What was her name? I’ll add her to my cheat sheet.”
“Pallas Nambo Alinor. I like this idea! I think I’ll make one for myself.”
“You won’t need one. My family’s not that big. It’s just my parents and my little brother, and my grandma.”
Before they knew it, the conversation had taken a more serious turn. Goal wanted to ask just how many other family members had perished in the Islands Troubles, but didn’t know how. She decided on a more indirect question, “I thought Zur Najat was your aunt.” Zur Najat had become a prominent member of the Ven negotiating team from 1676 to 1678.
“Cousin-aunt, yeah. We do have lots of cousins here, from the one great-uncle who decided to make his fortune in Zyss. And on my mom’s side, we’ve got lots of cousins, too, but not in Zyss. They all ended up around Chaix.”
They’d circled right back to the Islands Troubles. Goal decided to bite the bullet, “Did you lose a lot of family in the Islands? I was only told about your grandfather.”
He stilled for a moment, looked down to his hands. Without looking up, he said, “All the ones who worked for the Kuans. My mom’s brothers, parents, grandparents. We worked on Ran Island, and Ran House got almost everybody out.” After another moment of silence, he looked back up and observed, “I’ve got Kuan cousins now, but I don’t know if they know it.”
Goal considered her response for a moment before observing, “You remember what happened, and you were, what, eleven? The older ones, the ones that were nine, ten, eleven years old, they no doubt remember as well and they know they have Ven relatives. The younger ones will know later. Their parents will tell them.”
He looked surprised, “I would expect the Kuans to say nothing about what they’ve done.”
“Yeah, well, I doubt very much that they will tell their children that they turned them into orphans before adopting them,” Goal commented wryly. “But they will tell them about all their lineages, including the Ven ones.”
Nerses didn’t hide his confusion, shaking his head as he admitted, “Some of your customs are so alien. I mean, I know how important it is to you to recognize all your ancestors, and I’ve even got your eight houses on my cheat sheet, but I would never expect the Kuans to include us. Not after what they did.” He averted his gaze again, then said with a sigh, “I’m sorry, Goal, I didn’t mean to derail the conversation like that. Winter lows, I’m supposed to try to impress you.”
“And who says you didn’t?” The words were out of her mouth in a flash, before she could think about their implications. When he re-established eye-contact, she continued, “So, are you going to help me with my crib sheet?”
He nodded, so she pulled her hand-held from her leg-pocket and opened her file on Zur Nerses, reading out loud: “Zur Nerses, son of Zur Eresh and Zarah. Sixteen-year old brother Tyr. Grandmother Zur Nourin, 65. Grandfather Zur Nerses, killed on Akhmin Island.” She stopped, looked up, and asked, “Was he the only one on Akhmin Island?”
“No, he was with my dad’s youngest brother. They’d just started a contract on Akhmin Island.”
“And your mom’s relatives, the ones that got killed on Kuan Island, what was their clan name?”
“Dimar. It’s not exactly a clan name.”
“I know. It’s like a family name, but we’ve learned that often, there are a whole lot of related brothers with the same family name. It’s a bit hard to translate into our system.”
He gave her a helpless shrug. She smiled back and entered the new information, then asked, “How do you find it, working with ours?”
He started to shake his head, commenting, “It’s a lot of information. I don’t remember all eight houses in your first circle, but I’ve got the four from your parents memorized: Pallas Thor Xhania Renan. Looked up every one of them.”
“And which one do you find most interesting?”
“My border clan relatives? Really?”
“Definitely. I know Pallas House is the oldest and most prominent, and I know the Ven leaders are most interested in making that connection, but Xhania is much more interesting.”
That made Goal chuckle. With a flirty look in his direction, she proposed, “We should go for a visit.”
He smiled back and replied, “I would love an invitation.”
And raising her cup to finish off the last of her choctea, she said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Later that night, she discussed her impressions with her mother.
“He does have Kuan cousins,” Pallas Leila informed her. “Maybe you remember that Lady Ciani ordered Islander Houses to return any child with a living parent in return for keeping the others. Kuan House kept two of the Dimar children, sent two more to Chantico House, and eventually agreed to send the oldest back to their surviving relatives in Chaix. Zur Najat got all her surviving children back even before that, during the negotiations.”
“Yeah, I remember. The islander leaders were impressed by the fact that Zur Najat asked for all her children back, not just for her son.” Goal reflected back on the turbulent days of 1676, when one islander leader in particular had come into conflict with her father, a conflict that eventually cost both of them dearly.
“So you like this boy, Zur Nerses? You haven’t asked much about the other two.”
“I do like him. I think I’ll take him to Iceland after I meet the fourth contender, to Xhania House.”
Throwing her a long look, her mother observed, “Xhania? Funny how many Ven have gotten interested in your grandfather’s house since working out Lady Ciani’s origin.”
“Yeah mom, and I’m sure that’s part of it, but I don’t think that’s his only reason. You know, the others have the same information about me, and so far, he’s the first to want to know more about Xhania.”
“Actually, I think it’s a great idea. Let your Xhania aunts and uncles and cousins check him out.”
Goal spent the next week meeting her fourth suitor and his family. It took another week after that to work out a short leave from her Arthmis duties, but then everything was ready. Nerses met her at the Arthmis Academy and they rode an Arthmis glider to volcanic Iceland in the Antarctic Borderlands and to Xhania House.
Over the past century, Xhania House’s dominion had increased from Iceland’s northern coast to the entire island as the climate warmed. Xhanions were not interested in changing a hunting and herding lifestyle they had perfected over a millennium, and so they did the logical thing when the planet started to change on them: They’d moved south. Xhania House had even given up some of its holdings in more northern latitudes to relocate its snowdeer herds closer to the south-shifting tundra on the island and to retain polar hunting grounds. Laying claim to all of Iceland brought the added benefit of considerable geothermic wealth. The clan had developed the island’s resources and formed a cooperative with its neighbors to build up a whole new infrastructure directing Iceland power northward to Alnos’ cities.
Goal had worked out a four-day stay. The first day, her kinspeople took them out to hunt for arctic grouse and arctic hare, and the hunting party brought back enough game for the rest of their stay. The second day, they joined the snowdeer herd grazing its way through the southernmost range and followed along until dusk, exploring the tundra meadows alternating with rocky spines. On the third day, her cousin-uncle Milo gave them an extended tour of Xhania House’s greenhouses, and of the geothermal systems the clan harnessed to generate the required heat and winter lights. Nerses took a special interest in the greenhouses, and spent a couple of hours asking question after question. Finally, on the fourth day, Goal took Nerses to a spa the clan had developed around several hot springs a few milotres from the clan compound.
They each spent some time alternating between hot and cold pools and getting massages before meeting in the spa conservatory, a glass-enclosed wonderland of exotic plants and flowers arranged around four hot pools connected by a lazy river. Xhania House’s conservatory had won praise all over Alnos, and it did not fail to impress Goal’s suitor. They started in the first hot pool, and after a lazy few minutes soaking in the warmth, cooled off under a cold waterfall that splashed into the lazy river to the right of the pool. They made a complete round in the lazy river before checking out the second pool, then repeated the process with the third and fourth. They worked out that the second pool was the hottest, and the fourth the coolest, and after a few more rounds meandering through the conservatory’s exhibit, retired to the coolest fourth pool for a little private time.
His skin was as smooth and silky as it promised, even after several hot soakings. He brushed light kisses against one shoulder, up her neck, and finally against her mouth. His lips matched his skin, smooth and silky, like a soft cloud leaving dew on hers. Goal nudged him against the wall and shifted herself into his lap, making as much skin-contact as she could. The pool became too hot for them and they rolled into the cooling waterfall next to it. Giggling, redirecting the splash at each other, they finally stilled and set off for a final few lazy rounds.
Xhania House prepared a small feast for Nerses and Goal for their final evening meal, complete with all the borderland specialties that were hard to find in Zyss. Goal could tell her Xhania relatives liked Nerses. And right before they boarded their glider the next morning, Uncle Milo let her know that Xhania House approved of her choice.