Chapter 4: Beginnings, Part B

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?”

She nodded.

“I’m Ven.”

“Yeah. So?”

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 did?”

“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?”

“Definitely Xhania.”

“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. 

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Chapter 4: Beginnings, Part A

Djazin had met Liz thirteen years before, right after marrying Joran. Kissing cousin Joran, as Kyet called him. He’d joined her family on Alnos in 1672 to pursue his engineering education, thus setting into motion her unexpected journey into the heart of Alnese high society. Before Joran’s arrival, Djazin was following a most ordinary path for a Ven girl. Her family lived in the Ven quarter of the Alnese capital, Zyss, and sent her to a Ven primary school under the watchful eyes of her two older brothers, who were completing the same basic education in the boys’ wing.

The school had been cobbled together about thirty years before at what was then the edge of the quarter. Though the Alnese were perfectly happy to leave the Ven to their own devices as a general rule, they had taken an interest in the school. The Alnese tended to take an interest in anything that involved children. The Ven suspected a nefarious purpose, but began cautious informal conversations about their educational endeavors. They were proud of their school, despite its obvious poverty. And almost immediately, much to the Ven’s surprise, the Alnese had offered to support the school.

After loudly proclaiming the importance of maintaining their independence, the Ven accepted. And once Alnese funds had started to flow in and transform Zyss’ Ven school into something rivaling an Alnese academy, the Ven even accepted an Alnese proposal to enter into a series of regular cultural exchanges.

By the time Djazin had begun her schooling, pupils of the Ven school regularly attended Alnese sister academies and institutes, sometimes even in co-educational groups. Djazin attended a class sponsored by Zyss’ Music Academy when she turned eleven. The class was a revelation. Music felt as important as the blood coursing through her veins. She could not stop at the conclusion of the class. She had to find a way to continue.

As if in answer to her prayers, Joran arrived the next term. Djazin’s next-oldest brother was just concluding his ‘tenth’ at the Ven school and was set to begin his apprenticeship as a solar board mechanic. Her brother’s graduation left her parents in something of a quandary. They didn’t want Djazin to continue attending school on her own, but there weren’t any other Sotoros boys about the quarter to continue with the expected vigilance. Her father had immigrated to Alnos by himself, and so there were only a few cousins on her mother’s side in another town.

Djazin could tell that Joran was surprised by her parents’ ideas about girls and education. He knew how to hide it, keeping his own council as her parents debated whether or not to pull her out of school. But at a remarkably opportune moment, he pointed out how easy it would be for him to take her along once he began his engineering apprenticeship.

Djazin’s mother was reluctant at first. After all, tagging along with Joran meant leaving the Ven quarter and going deep into Alnese territory. True, her mother did that herself six times a week to go to her job as a cook in Zyss’ medical school, but that was different.
Wisely, Joran let Djazin’s father argue for the advantages of his proposal. “For the love of God, woman,” her father said, “you know Djazin has gotten only good marks in math. And Joran’s main sponsor is a woman. Let Djazin listen and watch and learn whatever she can. It’s better than to have her locked in here all day long. Or what do you propose to do? Take her along and turn her into an Alnese domestic as well? Send her to the Solar factory along with her brothers?”

Once her father had put it that way, her mother relented. She still had Djazin’s oldest brother accompany Joran and Djazin to Zyss’ engineering institute the first day. A bit miffed at having to miss half a day of work, her oldest brother had dutifully shown their parents around the halls and tutorial rooms of the institute with his handheld, gone through introductions with Joran’s main tutor and the other engineers, and then cut out.

At first, Djazin didn’t understand or appreciate her good fortune, but now she remembered that day with fondness. Her world expanded beyond Zyss’ Ven quarter, beyond her family and the little Ven school, and even offered her a way to pursue her passion. Joran’s main tutor sent Djazin to get assessed the next day, and ordered a course of studies once the result came in. Officially, Djazin studied the foundation subjects for systems engineering. But in Alnese fashion, the institute Counselor had consulted Djazin while working out her term plans, and added music studies alongside mathematics and physics.

Soon, Joran was absorbed by his own very demanding double major. He aimed not just to become a systems engineer, but to master structural and materials engineering, too. “Don’t you know I want to build bridges?” he’d joked with her once, and she had laughed at the image he’d evoked. Bridges made sense on Kobra, the planet where he was born and had grown up, but they made no sense at all on a planet without roads, like Alnos.

When Djazin understood the possibilities opened to her by Joran’s studies, she started to pay attention to what he and his tutors were doing. Often, when he’d sit to solve a programming puzzle or started to trouble-shoot an ailing system, she’d quietly follow along. And then one afternoon, Joran was working through matter-antimatter mechanics when she suddenly saw the phase scales he needed to understand to solve his practice problems. She grabbed the nearest light pencil and scribbled down a quick representation for herself.

The engineer saw her, linked their two notepads, glanced over Djazin’s notes, and forwarded them to her cousin. And then, the engineer forwarded Djazin more of Joran’s practice problems. Djazin solved them. Not perfectly, and not all correctly, but she solved them.

That day, Joran made them both a cup of choctea before heading back home. “So, you too are an engineer?” He observed, “A budding engineer. Or maybe a budding scientist? But my aunt and uncle haven’t noticed because you’re a girl. I hate to admit it, but at least on Kobra we’ve learned not to throw away half our talent. What do you think? Would it cause a scandal if I suggest that you should dedicate yourself to your studies and become a professional, like me?”

Predicting her parents’ reaction was difficult, and Djazin almost suggested that Joran leave well enough alone. She stared at her choctea and tried to formulate a safe, non-committal answer.

“Well, which of the two would you prefer?” Joran persisted.

And with a quick side-way glance in his direction, Djazin actually blurted out, “Music.”

Taken aback by her answer, Joran commented, “I thought your counselor just threw that in because the Alnese have this thing about art.” He was alluding to the fact that all Alnese studied creative arts and eventually adopted a creative endeavor as they transitioned into work. Making art was as natural as breathing to an Alnese, and any education plan included at least one form. “Do you play an instrument?”

Djazin shook her head and explained, “I just started. I like the lira, and keystrings, but you don’t want to hear me play.”

Joran laughed. Then he got serious again and admitted, “Yeah, it’s unlikely that my aunt and uncle would be thrilled with a future musician in the family.” His face turned pensive for a moment as he continued, “But you know, we engineers, we create things, too. My lead tutor’s just assigned me to go study the solars in your brothers’ factory because she wants me to apply what I’m studying about materials, how to design materials for multiple functions. I love that. I get such a charge out of working out better materials.”

Djazin tried to reflect a little of his enthusiasm back to him, knowing full well that her cousin had a finely tuned bullshit meter. With a little shrug, she said, “You know best. Engineering, then.”

Joran threw her a more probing look, then made a point to finish his choctea before telling her, “My mentor is very impressed with you. Why don’t you talk to her, ask her which forms of engineering come closest to music. You’re probably good at math because of your interest.”

A little later, Joran devised a plan to win her parents’ approval for Djazin’s professional training. He told them that Djazin was impressing his tutors, that the good daughter they had raised wasn’t wasting her mind on Alnese junk like multimedia games or participation-stories, but making real progress with her foundation courses. Joran ended his little speech by pointed out the folly of letting a great opportunity slip by, explaining, “You could get two for the price of one, you know. The Alnese don’t mind at all if she studies engineering as well.”

Two for the price of one. That convinced Djazin’s father, and thus her whole family. She started to shadow her cousin, though she narrowed down her choice to statistics and systems engineering and did not work on three fields at the same time, the way Joran did. Or not officially, in any case. No one in the Ven quarter knew how much time Djazin continued to devote to her music studies.

Joran was soon too busy to pay too close attention. His tutors turned into mentors and started taking him along to their work sites around Zyss, where he got to blend materials science and systems engineering to build and test the most advanced bio-technological systems on Alnos. For days on end, Djazin would only see him in the morning and the evening, on the way to and back from the Institute. Joran was practically radiating with happiness. He’d tell her about his most interesting challenges, and she’d listen and smile. Her systems work was adequate, her progress towards credentials steady, good enough for the kinds of jobs a Ven woman could expect after graduation.

Djazin enjoyed four years of Alnese education, four years with the freedom to explore the mathematical signatures of sounds. She turned into a musician with no one in the Ven Quarter the wiser. It was only when her cousin was about to conclude his three different apprenticeships that the jig was up. Djazin had just turned sixteen, too young to continue on her own, without her chaperone.

Djazin met with her institute counselor once more. They went over the remaining requirements she needed to complete her credentials. In less than a year, she’d be ready for an apprenticeship. She proceeded to her instrument lesson. While practicing her scales with her lira master, Djazin made up her mind to marry Joran.

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Chapter 3: Ice Sheltered, Part B

When Goal awoke again, her grandfather stood over her. He had taken a hold of her left hand, and was caressing it gently.

“Vrezh,” she greeted, her voice barely rising above a whisper.

“Goal,” he greeted back. Leaning down, he kissed her hand, then straightened up and murmured, “Even the thought of losing you is intolerable.”

She looked down to her right leg and saw that it had acquired its own splint. A slight ache intensified when she tried to move it, and she stilled the rest of her body as she moved her head to scan the chamber. Lex was slumped over in another cot.

Her grandfather followed her gaze and reflected, “To think that I absolutely forbade any more joinings. Now I am in his debt.”

“I feel so much better.”

Her grandfather smiled, “Kim made a good call.”

“The ice mentor?”

“Yes.”

“Who’s also a doctor?”

He seated himself onto a body chair close to her cot, saying, “Mythran, too. Did she tell you that? Formerly from the House of Ran. My sponsor when I first followed the call of Pallas-Metis myself. All of us in ice have benefited from her care at one point or another. She likes to say she is as old as the change in our climate, but that’s not entirely accurate.”

Goal observed, “She reminds me of Peg.” Tzalque Peg had been the clan physician of the House of Pallas for two decades, and was still mending members whenever their scrapes took a more serious turn.

“Peg could be her granddaughter. In many ways,” acknowledged her grandfather.

After a moment of silence, Vrezh resumed, “You know about your husband? Zur sounded the alarm when he got to the Vinyat station, and that sent all of your father’s companies into ice to find you. Well, now that we know you’re alive, I think Eden will just bring one company with him. I expect him tomorrow.”

Goal nodded briefly.

“Yours wasn’t the only attack,” her grandfather informed her, “It was part of something bigger. I don’t know too much, but the notices I got indicated several attacks in several places, including Zyss. Eden will tell us more when he gets here.”

“Ven attacks?” Goal clarified.

Vrezh nodded wordlessly.

Goal didn’t have to be told that a wave of attacks meant trouble, and reflected, “We’ve had peace for a decade, ever since our agreement to form alliances and turn them into citizens.”

Her grandfather observed, “Right. And yesterday the Ven ventured all the way here to target you. Oh, there is no doubt they targeted you. Thank God they didn’t know a whole lot about ice.”

“No surprise there,” Goal responded, “Many Ven are told over and over to stick to their own kind, so they don’t learn much about us or our world.”

Vrezh shifted forward and clasped her left hand between his, “This once, I’m glad of it. I doubt they’d have left you to freeze to death if they’d known more about our world. Not after coming all the way here to kill you.”

“Pretty stupid, even for Ven,” she conceded. “I mean, they must have known we were coming to see you. They must have known there were at least some people living here.”

He gave her hand a squeeze, “Well, let’s not underestimate them in turn. Kim insists that we tell only your parents that we have found you alive for now, and your unit, of course. Let your aggressors think that you have perished, that they succeeded.”

“Won’t they grow suspicious if my body does not appear?” Goal protested.

“That’s easy enough to remedy. Your father can find your body in a few days.”

She smiled, “Good plan.”

They both heard Lex stir. Goal twisted her head and saw that her former uncle had sat up. When her grandfather looked in his direction, Lex averted his eyes and said, “I didn’t want to defy you.”

Giving her hand another squeeze, her grandfather replied with quiet intensity, “You’ve done some excellent work here. We are in your debt.”

Lex looked up. Through their linked minds, she could sense the tension in him dissolving, but his face betrayed none of his feelings. Then again, her grandfather probably was the one man on Alnos who didn’t need to read her former uncle’s face to understand his emotions. He said, “You know Kim wants you to continue. I agree. With your help, Goal will heal as fast as she would in Zyss.”

Lex averted his eyes again and said, “As you wish. But …” He paused, his face becoming even more neutral, “I know Kim doesn’t want to have anyone else join with Goal. But what if you joined with me?”

Goal’s grandfather showed a moment of surprise. He considered Lex’s proposal, and then began to nod slowly, “That could speed things up. I recommend you stay with her conscious mind, focus on pain relief, and I’ll focus on the cellular repair.” He shifted back towards Goal, let go of her hand, and brushed two fingers up and down each arm, then down each leg. Just like Ice Mentor Kim, each time his fingers neared the breaks, he slowed, stopped for a few breaths. Goal felt a tingling through the dull ache radiating from the broken bones.

Lex got to his feet, stepped out for a few moments, and returned with a second body chair. He set it down next to the Vrezh’s chair, and sat down very close to him.

“Renew your link with her first,” Vrezh ordered.

Lex feathered a caress up her cheeks and temples with both hands and slid his fingertips into position as Goal closed her eyes. The golden light of his first contact ebbed up around her until it suffused her inner vision. She sighed. Next to her, she felt her grandfather shift, then felt the energy inside her grow stronger, brighter. The tingling in her limbs started up again, grew stronger than the ache even around her broken thigh-bone.

Good idea, Lex, she sensed her grandfather communicate soundlessly. And a moment later, Lex commanded, Sleep, followed by, Your body needs to repair itself. Sleep will reduce all distractions. A pulse of well-being followed, a calm pleasure that permeated her body and limbs down to her fingertips and toes.

With a breathy moan, she let her mind grow quiet again, and was soon dreaming of a warm spring meadow full of bright blue crocuses and yellowbells. Lex glided her over the wildflowers reclining on a solar, lowered her into a flowery embrace punctuated by red and black butterflies. Sunlight always speeds recovery, he quipped, sitting down next to her solar, leaning against the board. A spring breeze cooled her face and seemed to play with his golden hair. The Zhoni sunlight warmed everything: The dew-misted spring meadow, her healing limbs, her soul.

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Chapter 3: Ice Sheltered, Part A

When Goal came to, Lex was cradling her against him. The pain in her arms and legs pulsed on in reduced fashion, closer to a manageable ache, and she felt light and warm. She tried to move, and found her broken arms restrained in light metal splints secured with surgical silk. The leg with the shattered knee also had been cradled in metal and silk. Only her broken thigh bone remained untreated.

“She’s come to,” Lex observed, “I need to wrap up.”

From somewhere behind them, the ice mentor admonished, “Stay put and don’t be such a fool. How do you plan to go on guiding her healing?”

“Isn’t Vrezh taking over when he gets here?”

“Did our last winter-storm do away with all your wits? I won’t risk a second joining. It was hard enough to get you into her head without her injuring herself more. Now that you’ve succeeded, finish what you started.”

Goal felt Lex sigh beneath her.

The ice mentor must have heard him, too. A moment later, Goal felt the old woman slide next to them. Lex sat up slowly, careful not to jostle her. Goal opened her eyes and saw the ice mentor pull back his hair and wrap a black bandanna around his head as she asked, “Can you maintain contact with gloves?”

He shook his head.

“Uncle Alexander,” Goal breathed.

A shy smile stole across his lips, “Just Lex. You must know that.”

She did. Convicted of killing a child, Alexander had been shunned and banished a decade ago, and according to Alnese custom, that meant he was never to be seen, heard from, or spoken of again.

Goal stirred against her former uncle and blurted out next, “Nerses. My baby!”

“Your grandfather sent a message,” the Ice Mentor soothed, putting a hand on Goal’s shoulder, “Your husband and son arrived at the Vinyat Arthmis Post yesterday and Nerses raised the alarm. They’re safe.”

After giving her a little squeeze, the Ice Mentor stepped back, and Goal returned her gaze to her former uncle, repeating, “Safe?”

He nodded, “Probably in Arthmis lock-down by now. Don’t you think?”

That observation helped clear her head. Of course the first thing the Alnese security corps would do was surround Nerses and Amadeos with body guards! With a sigh of relief, she relaxed against Lex.

Just Lex, the shunned man she could no longer know.

Things had not worked out quite according to custom with her former uncle. Four years ago, he’d become the cause for her father’s fall from grace, rocking the family with the biggest scandal to befall it in generations.

“Or Eden’s whore.” Through their linked minds, Lex had followed along.

“Eden’s whore?” Goal echoed.

Lex nodded.

A more recent memory threatened on the edge of Goal’s consciousness. Nerses’ Alnese whore. Let’s test her and see if she’s any good. To push it away, Goal concentrated on the family scandal.

Four years ago, when she was about to complete her Arthmis apprenticeship, she’d been called in for a short conference with her commanding officer. He offered her a few days of leave and explained that her father was about to be expelled for conduct unbecoming an officer. Pallas Eden had been carrying on with shunned Alexander the entire time he’d been in ice, and was refusing to give him up. In fact, her father had resigned his commission and declared his intention to go into ice himself. Goal had hurried home to find Pallas House in uproar and her mother ready “to kill the bastard” herself, but nothing, neither threats nor entreaties, dissuaded Pallas Eden from going through with his ice exile.

Lex chuckled quietly, “Yeah, I can imagine your mother chasing after him with a knife.”

“She didn’t go after him with a knife.”

“No knife? What was her weapon of choice?”

“No weapon. Actually, I think mom understood better than anyone else what he’d do, and how he’d do it.”

Pallas Eden was one of few people on Alnos with not one, but two titles: He was an officer of both the security forces and the warrior corps, Mythras.

Goal repeated slowly, “Eden’s whore.” She understood. With his Mythran title, her father could request any services he wanted from a shunned former warrior. And she reasoned through the rest of her father’s story, “So, dad resigned Arthmis and embraced his Mythran calling to join you. Mythras would have to agree. The Order would never go back on its peace offering to my father, would it? And then what? How did Mythras talk him into coming back? And Arthmis into taking him back?”

She felt Lex shrug, and then he informed her, “Mythras sent four clients, two men and two women. Straight to him.”

“Oh.” Goal hesitated briefly before continuing, “Dad must not have liked that.”

“Your father went ballistic. He challenged them all, cursed Mythras, ranted and raved like a lunatic. Took quite a while for me to talk some sense into him.” Lex paused, then continued, “Since then, Mythras has sent someone four times a year, like clockwork. The Order keeps us on our toes. Surely you know Eden visits every month. Sometimes someone arrives the same day he does, and sometimes someone arrives the day he plans to leave, but they always time it so he knows.”

Mythras had shown its usual evil genius in meeting out punishment, that much was clear. The warrior corps accepted Eden’s claim, but reasserted its authority by making it clear that all Mythrans had an equivalent entitlement.

Lex reprised his reporting, “After the first time, the two Orders had a meeting, and a meeting of minds. I don’t know how they worked out their differences, obviously, but I do know Arthmis did not want to give up your father. He’s too big an asset. And I’m sure my Mythran brothers and sisters wasted no time pointing out how stupid it would have been for him to go gallivanting about in ice with me without a care in the world.”

Laughing would have hurt, so Goal repressed most of it, “Yeah, without a care in the world.” She half-chuckled, half-sighed at the comic picture of her father and her former uncle wandering about in splendid white isolation. “Because we have no problems here, on Alnos.”

And that brought her back to the present. She closed her eyes to ward it off a little longer. As if to help her, Lex observed, “And now he’s a Justiciar again. Looks like everyone was right.”

It had taken her father two years to earn his Arthmis title back after his return. He’d taken a lot of punishment during these two years reduced to a simple foot soldier, but he’d managed to prove he was a loyal Arthmin who understood that no one was above the law.

“It would not have made sense to take him back only to keep him as someone’s lackey forever,” Lex commented, continuing to share her thoughts.

“Yeah,” Goal agreed. Still, her father was a hard act to follow.

After another pause, Lex asked, “Do you feel more ready now?”

Goal hesitated. She didn’t feel ready to revisit her assault, but in truth, she didn’t remember much of it. Nerses’ Alnese whore. Let’s test her and see if she’s any good. Just that one statement, the pain in her broken limbs flaring up, a weight pressing down. “I blacked out,” she finally said.

From the back of the cave, the old Ice Mentor broke in, “Four Heshtis. Had to let them keep you, unfortunately. But I know them well.”

Goal gathered up a little courage and garbled out a few details, “They used weapons. I told Nerses to take Amadeos and run. I stayed back to cover them. And then …” Nerses’ Alnese whore. Let’s test her and see if she’s any good. She choked trying to speak that memory and fell silent.

The Ice Mentor resumed, “When I got close enough to see what was going on, it was just you and these four Heshti fools. Later, I found some tracks, followed them for a bit to a glider landing. I was pretty sure your husband got away. Vrezh confirmed my conclusion today.”

The old ice mentor stepped closer and put two fingers on the free leg. Her eyes narrowed. Full of fire and life, they slanted up over two broad high cheekbones. And suddenly Goal realized the ice mentor must have straightened her other broken limbs and put on the three splints.

Every time one of the men had climbed on top of her, his weight had twisted one or another broken bone further. The excruciating pain had not only knocked her out repeatedly, but also wiped out most other memories, even the memories of the rapes.

The ice mentor continued her examination and aimed at Lex, “You should have become a physician. Would have been a better use of your talents. Of course, I told Vrezh the same thing when he appeared on my doorstep twenty years ago.”

She glided her fingers down Goal’s thigh, stopped just above the break, and caressed the inflamed flesh gently, instructing, “You two will have to stay joined for a while. He’ll have to take some breaks and renew contact periodically, but he’s got a good link going, and he’s so very good at following instructions.”

“Instructions?”

Goal detected a slight smile as the ice mentor explained, “Before I joined Pallas-Métis and apprenticed as an ice mentor, I practiced as a physician. But I gave up most of my tools a long time ago, just kept the ones of a country doctor. Not quite what’s needed here. Had to improvise, get him to the cellular level to help still the pain, shrink the swelling, get new bone growth accelerated.” She shook her head slightly and recited more to herself than to them, “Compound fracture all twisted on itself. Must have hurt like an ice storm against naked flesh.”

“Yeah,” Goal breathed.

“Well, d’you hear?” The ice mentor grabbed his right hand and guided it over the bump of flesh still swollen around the fracture. “Can you see it?”

He nodded.

“Clearly enough so I can set it?”

“Yeah.”

The ice mentor straightened out, “Goal, I can’t set this one with him busy stilling the pain. Now, we’ve got two options. We can wait for your father, who is surely on his way here and will bring help. I’ve already messaged Mythras to send a surgeon. Or I can direct Lex to stop everything else except visualize the bones and help me put the pieces together with as little cutting as I can manage. I’ve got to cut a couple of the shards out, get the bones aligned, do a bit of cleaning.”

“Kim, you can knock her out, no?” Lex interjected. “Then all I have to do is monitor her. I’d be able to focus on the break most of the time.”

The ice mentor nodded, “True.”

Lex said, “I think we should get it done.”

The ice mentor directed her gaze at her, and Goal nodded slowly.

“All right,” the ice mentor turned and left them for about ten minutes. Lex shifted and slowly lowered Goal’s torso down to the field cot they shared. When the ice mentor returned, she cradled a cup in her hands and commented, “It’s not anesthesia, but it should do the trick.”

Lex reached for the cup and placed it gently against Goal’s lips. She started to sip the bitter brew.

Watching her grimace, the ice mentor reassured, “It’s best to take it straight, child. Works faster, and you’ll clear it faster, too.”

Goal tried to swallow more of the ice mentor’s draught at a time, and grimaced again. Her lids grew heavy, and she felt light-headed.

“That’s it,” Lex whispered against her ear.

She felt the ice mentor’s fingers back on her thigh, and a slight puncture, and then she floated away.

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Chapter 2: Alnos Born

When Djazin arrived at the Ashewe summer compound, she found the estate in an uproar. She hurried to the bungalow she shared with Liz of Nambo House, her best friend since music school, and found her friend in their bedroom, packing.

“All hell’s broken loose on Alnos,” Liz informed her, “K’elle and Vinyat had a conference with Pallas Eden and he wants us at a more secure location. K’elle is working something out with the O’bonne. A university retreat not too far from here.”

Liz stopped what she was doing and Djazin sat down on her bed and asked, “What’s happened on Alnos?”

Djazin could tell that her friend did not relish being the bearer of bad news, “A series of attacks. And some bombings. Well, four of them, in four different cities, including Zyss.”

“Attacks?” Djazin repeated, and she knew there was more to it. Though unusual, attacks on Alnos would not make her friend uncomfortable. Unless, of course … Djazin spoke her inference, “Ven attacks?”

With an unhappy look, Liz nodded.

“I see,” Djazin said. After a moment of silence, she inquired further, “How many deaths?”

“K’elle didn’t tell me. But one attack was on Goal and Nerses. Well, all the attacks targeted Ven-Alnese couples, and the bombs took out sponsored centers. Ours in Zyss. But the bomb went off early in the morning, before the seminars had started.”

“Jotun blizzards!” Djazin cursed in spite of her relief at hearing that most of their friends and teachers were most likely safe. Then she remembered what Liz had just said about the attacks, “What about Goal and Nerses?”

“Nerses got away with Amadeos. Goal is missing. They were on their way for their summer visit to Ice Mentor Vrezh.”

“They were in ice? How would any Ven know where to find them in ice?”

Liz shrugged and fell silent. Then she remembered, “Oh, um, K’elle wants to talk to you. Privately. She … has some news.”

“News?” Djazin echoed.

Liz met her gaze and told her, “About Joran.”

“My husband?”

Liz nodded, “They got to him, but he survived.”

That attack did not come as a surprise, but Djazin still caught her breath.

“K’elle told me that Eden had him taken to a Mythran clinic. He’s expected to survive.”

“That bad?”

“Apparently, there were four attackers, and they had weapons, too. Both Joran and his body guard were seriously injured. Actually, the Ven used weapons for all their attacks.”

One bodyguard. Joran never took security seriously, despite the death threats. “Weapons?” Djanzin repeated quietly to herself. If nothing else, the presence of weapons indicated the seriousness of this wave of Ven attacks. Djazin shivered and crossed her arms as if to protect herself, “Pallas Eden’s alarm makes sense.”

“Yeah,” Liz concurred. “Look, call K’elle. I don’t think it’s just the news about your husband.”

Djazin didn’t think so, either. With a quick smile to her best friend, she got to her feet and returned to the bugalow’s combination family room and kitchen to find her handheld and send First Officer K’elle her signal.

The Mythran warrior did not take long. Fifteen minutes later, Mythran First Officer K’elle Kuan Safyr arrived. Djazin served some chilled mint-sparkle, an O’bonne summer favorite cleared by the obstetrician during her earlier visit, and began with, “Liz told me about the attacks, and about Joran.”

“Your husband is expected to recover, though it may take a while.” The First Officer offered between sips.

“That’s good to know,” Djazin replied. After a short pause, she encouraged the First Officer to go on by observing, “Liz thought there’s something else.”

First Officer K’elle smiled, “There is. Nambo’s a good observer. It’s just … a bit delicate.” She took another sip, then began, “You know my eight and I are here for the security of Pallas Kyet and his family, and First Lieutenant Vinyat is here for the security of Pallas Vailexi and her family.”

“Yes,” Djazin acknowledged. Kyet himself had observed that their little retinue had the best security details on O’bonne.

The First Officer looked away and continued, “Ordinarily, I would never presume to ask such a question, Sotoros Djazin, but it’s part of my job: Are you expecting an alliance child?”

Of course the Mythran officer knew of her pregnancy. That was to be expected. Djazin answered honestly, “Yes and no. It’s complicated.” To an Alnese, regardless of biology, a clear “yes” meant that the child was Joran’s, and Joran’s only, and a clear “no” meant that the child was not his. According to their unique views, Alnese mothers always made the final determination, and everyone accepted their choice. Or their choices, as often happened. As was most likely to happen with Djazin.

The First Office asked the logical next question for an Alnese, “Do you plan on recognizing another father?”

“Yes.”

The First Officer drew the correct inference, “Pallas Kyet?”

Djazin nodded wordlessly.

Looking a bit puzzled, K’elle continued, “I’m not sure I understand, Sotoros. It’s a bit unusual for a woman to conceive an alliance child with a second father, even if there are difficulties fulfilling an alliance contract. True, your alliance does go back a decade and there’s been no child, so most of us think there might have been difficulties.”

“I did get pregnant almost immediately after I got married, but lost the child due to a genetic incompatibility.”

K’elle looked even more puzzled, exclaiming, “But you’re the same species.”

“It can happen within the same species,” Djazin smiled briefly. “In any case, I doubt very much my husband wants a child from another father. That’s not the complication.”

The First Officer’s face went blank for a split second. Djazin might not have caught that moment of determined neutrality but for the fact that she’d grown quite skilled at spotting it. The Alnese knew perfectly well how few of their ideas about family ties the Ven shared, yet they never ceased to be surprised by concrete examples. In spite of all their travels and all their mixing across the universe, the Alnese remained persuaded that theirs was the only right and natural way to work out family ties. And to them, a shared child pointed in only one direction, a solution to a failed alliance contract.

“I see,” the First Officer said a moment later, her face once again reflecting the mindfulness of an attentive listener. Djazin could see her evaluate whether or not to press for details. K’elle decided against it, as she made clear when she spoke again, “I think you know why Mythrans have been assigned to Kyet and his family. We have watched over him since the day he was born, and we have watched over his family since he contracted his alliance. I need to know whether that will soon include you.”

Djazin took a deep breath and said, “I think so. My child is an alliance child, just not with my husband.”

The Mythran officer pointed out, “Pallas Kyet has four alliance children with his wife. I am not sure how he could have an alliance child with someone else.”

“That’s what’s complicated,” Djazin acknowledged. “I’m not contracting an alliance with him, obviously.”

“Oh.” Djazin could tell she’d once again managed to surprise the Mythran First Officer, but it took K’elle just a moment to regain her composure, “If I could give you a little advice: Perhaps you could be … circumspect … about the relationship. We stand ready to extend our duties to you and your child, of course, but it would make it easier if the child’s blood tie to Pallas Kyet were not generally known.”

“Yes. Lately, I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Djazin suppressed most of a sigh.

The First Officer got to her feet and announced, “I must get going. Mythras joins Legate Pallas Eden in his concern, and we have identified a more secure location for all of you. There is no need for panic, but both Vinyat and I would be grateful if you could be ready tomorrow morning.”

Rising herself, Djazin pointed to the bungalow’s bedroom, “As you can see, Nambo Liz has already started to pack.”

The First Officer smiled again, and observed, “The Nambos have always distinguished themselves as among the most level-headed people on Alnos.”

Djazin smiled back and nodded, “Yes, they have.”

After the First Officer had left, Djazin joined Liz back in their bedroom. Two hours later, they’d managed to squeeze their accumulated gear into four suitcases, two equipment backpacks, and the two cases for their instruments. Djazin shook her head and commented, “We started with one suitcase each. Where the blazes did all this other stuff come from?”

Liz shrugged and observed, “We don’t have to take it all with us, you know. We could just leave some and have the Ashewes give it away.”

“Right.” Though Djazin recognized that unloading some of their O’bonne spring acquisitions would have made a lot of sense, she didn’t feel up to unpacking and sorting at this late hour. She smiled back at Liz, “Never mind.” And they both made ready to catch a few hours of sleep.

Before turning off the lights, Djazin quickly went over the instructions she’d gotten that morning from the doctor. Monthly visits until the end of summer, when they were all expecting to return to Alnos.

When she’d been wrapping up her hair up after her consultation, and she’d looked into the mirror to guide any rebellious strands under her white scarf and paused and really taken a look, and thought, We don’t look that different, the Ven and the Alnese.

Djazin had the classic butternut-tan skin and the hazel eyes of a Ven. Or, as Ven men liked to say, the golden eyes and golden skin of a Ven. Her grandfather said it often enough: The Kobrans have always coveted Venuer’s gold, our people, and don’t you trust that modern veneer of universal brotherhood they’ve donned lately, they’ll revert back to their old greed soon enough. But of course, recently, Ven men had found a new preoccupation, a new threat to Ven survival: the Alnese.

The Alnese didn’t kidnap the Ven to take them half a universe away into generations of servitude, like the Kobrans. Quite the contrary: It was the Ven who’d moved to Alnos. And yet, most Ven were convinced the Alnese coveted Venuer’s gold just as much as their old enemies. They just used seduction instead of kidnapping to achieve their aim.

Djazin had finished tucking a few rebellious auburn strands under the scarf, then slipped her coat on and stepped back into Doctor Eyinge’s consultation cabinet.

The obstetritian had been studying something on her data screen, though she’d shifted slightly towards Djazin and waved her down to a body chair in front of her desk. She’d also changed back into a simple O’bonne suit, sunflower yellow with red accents complementing her coal-dark skin.

“Now, Miss Sotoros, you have some concerns about genetic incompatibilities?” The doctor had thrown Djazin a quick glance, and after sliding into the chair, Djazin had nodded.

“I don’t see anything worrisome. Do you have any specific worry?”

“Well, it’s …”, Djazin had found it surprisingly hard to speak, had taken a slow breath, then finally had explained, “We’re not the same species. I mean, the father is not Ven.”

With a slight shrug, Doctor Eyinge had scanned her report one more time and replied, “No, he’s not, but that’s about the only thing I can say about him. Let’s see, there’s Orin, Kobran, Danyx, even a little O’bonne. If you don’t mind my asking, what species is the father?”

“Alnese.”

“Alnese? No wonder I can’t pin anything down. They’re the original Space Gypsies, aren’t they? Picked up people wherever they went before they settled down. And even after that, they never really stopped mixing it up with new visitors.”

The Alnese said that about themselves often enough, but Djazin had never really thought about what that meant until she’d made her decision. “And, it’s okay?” she’d asked, bracing herself for the possibility that it might not be.

Doctor Eyinge had gifted her patient with a reassuring smile and nodded, “Yes, it’s okay. Actually, we’d probably have identified the man in question as a very good match, genetically speaking. I heard that the Alnese always do genetic screenings before they plan for a pregnancy. Have I been misinformed?”

“They do, yes. The Alnese do. But we Ven, we don’t.”

“True.” After a slight shrug, the doctor had commented, “Probably don’t think it’s necessary, seeing as you don’t mix much.” She had tapped a couple of commands into her data screen and a moment later, Djazin had heard her handheld ping.

“There you go,” Doctor Eyinge had reassured, “I’m glad you’ve done it now and set your mind at ease. You are healthy, your pregnancy is healthy, and you’re about to contribute a little more to Alnese diversity. Not too much Ven mixing in yet, from what I’ve read.”

For some reason, that had prompted Djazin to respond, “They’ve been trying. I mean, the Alnese. There are quite a few of us on Alnos now, and the Alnese have been trying to get us to adapt more to their customs.”

“Is that what led to your pregnancy?”

Djazin had been about to shake her head, but had stopped, thought about it for a moment, and had finally waved a hand back and forth, “Sort of, yeah. Not formally, though.”

“Ah.” The doctor had smiled again, “And now, let’s talk about your care. How much longer do you plan to stay on O’bonne?”

They’d worked out a monthly schedule of visits using O’bonne’s five-week monthly schedule, and the doctor had tapped in a number of recommendations. A second ping had alerted Djazin to her proposed next appointment, and she’s sent back a quick confirmation.

When Djazin was about to leave, Doctor Eyingo had risen, bowed slightly, and told her, “Congratulations, Ms. Sotoros. You are about to have a wonderful experience.”

Djazin had returned the O’bonne bow with a soft, “Thank you, Doctor Eyinle.”

On her way out of Doctor Eyinle’s office, she’d stopped by the nutritionist’s station, as instructed, and picked up instructions for her Ven-O’bonne diet. But she’d delayed summoning her glider to return to the Ashewe compound until the early evening and spent the afternoon meandering around town.

She’d needed some time by herself. Her grandfather’s grumblings had circled about her mind. They lure us to their world with their immense wealth, put us to work just the same as the old slave-drivers, and if we want to stay long enough to get our fair share, they ask us to abandon our traditions and become Alnese.

And there she was, as if on cue, poised to become the example to prove her grandfather right: Djazin, mating with an Alnese, crossing over, abandoning her traditions.

The trouble with this script was, Djazin was born on Alnos, and she’d grown up on Alnos. She had never actually set foot on Venuer.

Djazin.

Alnos born.

A daughter of Alnos.

With golden skin and curly auburn hair. Not so different from the wild curls of her Alnese lover, Kyet.

Seduction. It cut both ways.

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Chapter 1: Into Summer Ice

Soft, quiet voices.

Not whispers, exactly, but subdued, kept low, they rippled through her blackout until she started to understand words.

A male voice, “I can’t.”

“You must.” The second voice a little higher-pitched, probably female.

The male voice continued, “In her state, it’s dangerous. I don’t know how she will react. If something goes wrong, Vrezh will-”

“Look at her!”, the other voice cut in, “Everything has already gone wrong.”

“Precisely. I can’t even touch her.”

“Do it!”

“An order?”

“Do it!”

She moaned.

The voices had brought back throbbing pain in her limbs, a steady, knocking burn. It had broken her endurance earlier. She curled up and whimpered, but these very actions sparked an even more intense agony. The pain even cut off her scream. Then, through the haze, she heard the male voice murmur very close to her ear, “I can help you, but I have to touch you to do it. And then I have to get inside, to join.”

Her eyelids fluttered open.

His face hovered just above hers, hair framing it like a golden waterfall. Some of it brushed against her left cheek. With a little flick of the head, he lifted it off. She recognized him immediately. In the ten years since he had disappeared from her life, he had barely changed. A few fine lines had started to etch around his eyes and around his lips, but to her surprise, he looked almost as radiant as she remembered him.

Another wave of pain broke over her and she closed her eyes again. Eyes closed, eyes open, it didn’t really make a difference. She was just grasping at straws. Exhaling slowly, she tried to say something. She understood what he was trying to tell her. She wanted to tell him, ‘Yes. Go ahead.’ She managed one minuscule nod.

He slipped both hands under her torso and cradled her head against him. The agony of it almost knocked her out again, and she let out a little shriek. By the time she could feel something other than the burning in her limbs, his fingers were already in position, his mind already touching hers.

The terror of it engulfed her. Despite his warning, despite her understanding and approval, it swept through her with such force that it actually vanquished the physical pain for one moment.

Another man inside her.

She started to hyper-ventilate.

He held back, waited for her terror to crest and break. He started to hum quietly, and when her moment of panic finally spent itself, he focused, pulled their joined minds into a golden-white light. The light grew and started to permeate her broken limbs, work itself into her chest, then her belly. A feeling of well-being began to saturate her. The throbbing in her arms and legs died down to an echo of itself.

“Good. Good.” It was the second voice, only closer.

He stopped humming, and let his fingers slip between her curls into a very gentle caress.

She sighed.

The second voice ordered, “Stay with her.” And after a short pause, “Pallas Thor Goal, as hard as it may be, don’t break off the link. Stay with him. His strength will do more than simply kill the pain.”

She half-opened her eyes and caught a quick glimpse of the ice mentor, a short woman with hair as white as the snow outside.

“Your grandfather will be here soon,” the ice mentor continued.

“Shhh.” He brushed her eyes closed again with his thumbs.

She felt herself fainting again, only this time, she was slipping into light, not darkness. With another sigh, she let herself go.

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