Rules of Engagement
Chapter the Sixth: My Life For Love
Major Evan Doucette, Humanity's Ambassador to Sangheilios, held his breath as he waited for Councilor Barz 'Chavam's reply.
He was under no illusions as to the outcome of a fight. An ODST against an Elite, hand to hand, was a match already in favour of the alien; with Evan's right hand still in splints from the injury he suffered punching another Sangheili in its gruesome mouth on his wedding night as rebel forces had attempted to kill both Evan and his Sangheili bride, Relu, Evan did not fancy his chances. And that was assuming that the duel did not have further rules which Evan did not know; if the duel was fought with blades, for example, Evan would be impossibly out of his league.
Evan still had trouble reading Sangheili expressions, but from the way the Chavam kaidon's mandibles were fluttering, he could interpret that his adversary was distressed.
"A challenge, once issued, cannot be revoked," the kaidon said quietly.
Evan didn't need his interpreter and assistant, Lor'n 'Malach, to figure out that this was that damned Sangheili honour thing again. If 'Chavam took back the challenge, he—and his entire keep—would utterly lose the respect of the Council. Councilor 'Chavam was clearly not willing to gamble either his good name or his clan's future by admitting he had made an error in haste—by misunderstanding that Evan had demanded a doctor save Relu's life because he valued her enough to risk offending cultural sensibilities, instead of doing it as an insult to her and her sacrifice.
Relu's father did not seem so bad a person, for a Sangheili, and yet Evan was struck by the utter stupidity of this waste. The Sangheili culture simply did not allow for people to admit mistakes. Now Evan would have to fight the Councilor, and probably die, and either way, Relu would have to witness her husband and her father doing their level best to kill one another.
'Chavam stepped closer and bowed his long neck, murmuring words that only Evan could hear.
"Forgive me, human—Ambassador Doucette. You are a fine match for my daughter. I wish you two a long and happy life together once I am buried." He gazed meaningfully at Evan.
Damn these Sangheili and their love of death! 'Chavam was going to throw the match—deliberately permit Evan to kill him—to ensure that only he suffered for his mistake. And yet Relu and Evan would still feel the fallout of this terrible decision.
But Evan had no choice. If that was the kaidon's wish, then he would have to once again step up to a distasteful duty, and slay Councilor 'Chavam.
Then the Arbiter's gravelly voice caused 'Chavam to take a step backwards.
"But a challenge can be overridden," the Arbiter said.
The Councilors gasped and murmured.
"Yes, of course," one of them exclaimed. "We would not permit an Unggoy, or a Jiralhanae, to duel a Sangheili on the field of honour. This challenge is invalid!"
"That is no good reason," another Councilor retorted. "Would you dare insult the Ambassador that way? We do not duel the Unggoy because they are weak and stupid; Doucette, who fought off the attackers in his bedchamber, is neither. And we do not duel the Jiralhanae because we would not afford the savages such respect! Our exalted Ambassador deserves the right to defend his honour just as we do!"
Great, Evan thought, I'm glad they respect me enough to get me—or Councilor 'Chavam—killed.
"This challenge is not being overridden due to lack of respect," the Arbiter said firmly. "Councilor 'Chavam has a long history of battle honours that should make it clear to all in this room that he is no coward. And Ambassador Doucette has proven to us all that he is willing to risk not only his life, but the honour of his species as a whole, for something he believes in. Is that not a greater thing that merely his life?"
All around the room, heads began to nod.
"I believe that the old dueling tradition began, not out of a misguided belief that strength automatically equaled moral correctness—for if such is true, than a chief Jiralhanae is a more moral being than a Sangheili child—but who here would believe such a thing?"
Howls and cries of dissent filled the hall.
"Instead, it is a matter of conviction. It is easy to prate and blabber as the Unggoy do, throwing out strings of meaningless words, even insults—but it takes much more to believe so strongly in your words that you are willing to lay down your life in defence of their veracity." The Arbiter drew himself up and let his gaze meet the eyes of every Sangheili in the assembly.
"In ancient times, if two kaidons both felt their people needed, for example, a hunting ground or a boat launch—and both felt that there was insufficient food to share—then it made sense for them to duel for rights. The loser's people would still live to leave their land and wander in search of better hunting or fishing; this would be a hard life, but at least some of them were likely to survive. Not so if they were to both engage in outright conflict until one side was wiped out entirely, and indeed, we know that this happened…but many times the duel between kaidons spared the lives of their people.
"In these times, though, we no longer have the luxury of pitting keep against keep and kaidon against kaidon. Admiral Jar 'Wattin has already declared himself one of those kaidons of old, determined to dedicate his people to wiping ours out. We are one keep, one clan, now. If we slay one another, we hand victory to our foe.
"So, in this moment I, as Arbiter, judge that Ambassador Doucette believes strongly enough in his conviction to fight and die for it. I also judge that he is correct in his statement that our people, our soldiers, are the heart of the new Sangheili Empire, and as such we cannot spend them cheaply, for they are ourselves and our families and what we fight for now. My brothers, today we recognize we fight for our futures and our freedom to choose them, whatever they may be! No longer will others tell us for what and for whom we fight!"
The crowd rose to its feet, roaring, cheering.
The Arbiter turned to Relu's father. "Councilor 'Chavam, do you accept Ambassador Doucette's reasoning?"
The magenta-robed Sangheili dropped to his knees. "I do."
"As we have now judged that Ambassador Doucette is in the right, and you have concurred, there is no need for the shedding of blood, or the shaming of either of these brave warriors. Better that Councilor 'Chavam do what he does best, and continue to lead his people with a strong and steady hand, and better that Ambassador Doucette continue to do what he has already begun—teach us about Humans, and teach Humans about us, so that we might learn from each other's strengths. For if we as a Council stand stronger when we are united, how much stronger will we be if we add the Humans' strength to ours? There will be no force in the galaxy, not the Jiralhanae, not the Parasite, and certainly not Jar 'Wattin's pathetic rebels who will break us!"
As the Sangheili in the Great Hall cheered, Evan knew he was vindicated.
It was never truly dark on Sanghelios, but now, in the relative cool of the evening, when one of the suns was down and the largest setting, Evan and Relu sat side by side on a bench beneath a tree, watching the sky light up with shades of orange and lavender. Alien plants waved in the breeze, sending a mixture of scents wafting across the gardens of their home. Evan wondered how long it would take him to get used to the fact that Sangheili flowers did not smell, well, floral…there was something in this garden that smelled like a permanent marker, and another bloom with the disconcerting aroma of roasting beef. Relu, however, seemed content as she squinted her eyes and breathed deeply of the air.
Evan took a deep breath and wondered if he dared tell his wife what was on his mind, but when his hand trembled in hers and she peered at him curiously, he knew he would have to answer.
"I'm surprised we're still alive after the week we had," he said.
Relu's mandibles parted in a Sangheili smile. "You are very bold," she said, "to speak to the Council that way. But your courage has been rewarded." Her gaze dropped and she added, "I am glad you did not need to slay my father."
So she had intuited, then, that Councilor 'Chavam would have deliberately lost the duel.
"Me too," he replied, and then drew a deep breath. "Relu? Will you tell me what your father meant? He said you could not have young due to a cowardly accident."
She drew in a hissing breath. "Yes. It is why I volunteered for this duty. I could gain no respect as a warrior because I am female, and no respect as a woman because I am barren. So, I thought to gain honour through sacrifice. But you…you are not what I thought you would be, Evan Doucette, and now I find myself honoured simply to be with you. Still, you spoke truly in the Council chambers. I am not a desirable mate.
"When I was young, my father's brothers had each had several sons, and the children of my own age were all males. They treated me as they treated one another, so I grew up tussling with my cousins. My father, for his part, permitted it, He wished to show to his brothers that his own progeny was as tough as theirs. So, even though I was a female, I learned to fight. My father swelled with pride as I learned to box my cousins' earbuds and send them home to their parents, for I was strong and swift and gifted in battle.
"In time, I began to teach my younger cousins how to fight. My younger male cousins excelled in sparring when they went to school, and my father was proud—but I was jealous, for my older cousins went to War College and to war, and I had to stay home in the keep, learning to tend a household, to use tools, cook food, build walls and oversee the serfs. In my free time I tormented my sisters and taught them to fight as well. When we finally went to Finishing School, we were chastised and punished for quarrelling with our classmates and not behaving as well-bred young ladies ought to behave. My father was ashamed, and we were drilled hard to learn what is expected of a Sangheili female. For my part, I had learned that there was one way to act in front of others' eyes and another way to behave in private, with only my cousins for witnesses. This division grew more difficult as my cousins went off to battle, and I was left behind, unable to express the truth of myself save in solitude, and then…
"Then, in my last year of Finishing School, young men came to court me.
"It is not fair to say that I did not like young men, for I am not one of those who prefers the company of other females. What I did not like was the fact that these warriors pursued me only until I challenged them to spar, and when they laughed and conceded to humour me, I thrashed them soundly. After that they went before my father the kaidon, spitting venom and threatening to tell their own powerful fathers about the virago Barz 'Chavam had spawned. Once it had happened several times, I was called before my father to justify myself.
"I told my father I would not bow to some overweening fool, or suffer a mate who was not my equal, and that if no warrior would marry me as I was, then I would fight on his Home Guard instead. My father sighed sadly and bitterly and said the fault was his, for encouraging my warlike nature and permitting me to wrestle with my male cousins in my youth.
"He looked into my eyes and asked me to forgive him.
"I realized then that my actions were hurting him—straining his credibility with the other kaidons, making him doubt his worth as a parent. I am one of the few Sangheili blessed to have a relationship with my sire and I did not want him to suffer for his unusual willingness to have a hand in my upbringing. So I vowed to do my best to be a proper Sangheili woman and marry well, and turn my efforts to a career as an administrator, craftswoman, and mother, though I felt sick in my hearts at the thought of never again testing my skills against another in the ring.
"Shortly thereafter I received a new suitor from a well-appointed kingdom in the west, the son of a powerful kaidon, and this time I did not challenge him to fight me. He was strong and handsome and seemed decent enough, and if I felt he found my father's status more appealing than he found me, well, ours would hardly have been the first such match. At the urging of my family, I accepted his marriage offer, and my father told me he was pleased. My pride almost burned away my nagging dissatisfaction as it became harder and harder for me to keep my true nature in check.
"I went with my fiance back to his keep, travelling by boat up river—only to find ourselves in the midst of a naval battle in progress. In his absence, his keep's serfs had revolted, running for refuge with the rival keep on the other side of the great lake that bordered their lands. When they launched their navy to attempt to stop the serfs fleeing in little boats, the rival keep's navy came out in force, angry that we had invaded their territorial waters. And now that my future mate had arrived, the lead captain promptly turned control of the battle over to him, and I found myself in the midst of a war at sea.
"My proposed mate was furious when he heard of the rebellion; he ordered his troops to fire on the serfs' boats and sink them. This is when my proposed mate and I had a…a falling out. I made the mistake of reminding him that if we were to use all of our ammunition on sinking the boats, we would have none left to defend ourselves when the enemy fleet came upon us. He told me the other keep had no right to interfere, but when I challenged the lead captain, he admitted that his ships had invaded their waters. My fiancé persisted that he would not go back to his father to confess that the serfs had escaped; he would ruin his soldiers and sink his own ships before admitting that he had failed. And then he turned on me.
"He said he would not be questioned in front of his troops by a female, and I told him that if he were to persist in his madness he would have no troops left to command, and his keep would be left vulnerable to attack by sea. Enraged, he lashed out at me, and I did not see the blow coming, for he did not throw down the challenge as an honourable warrior would have. He simply cuffed me upside the face, as a nanny would to an unruly, biting child, and I staggered backwards in shock.
"It was my misfortune that we stood upon the highest deck, and that the ship heaved as I stumbled. I fell over the railing, down to the vessel's main deck below. Had I not fallen into a box of flour sacks, I would surely have broken my back. And yet the gods had not blessed me, for in the box there was a fishing spear and…"
Relu's voice at last choked off.
"Did you see," she wheezed, sounding half-strangled, "when the doctors worked on me?"
Evan took a deep breath. His first concern had been ensuring that Relu's wounds were being properly tended to; he had felt odd about seeing his new wife, unclothed, lying on the table and covered in her own blood, but he had not trusted the doctors to work, and to remain uninterrupted by others, without himself and Lor'n standing guard over them. It had been hard enough to trust that they had been performing to the best of their ability. Evan had only basic field medicine, and could not judge the quality of their surgery save for the fact that Relu had survived.
So, while he did not want to admit it, given the look on Relu's face, he had to nod. Yes. He had seen the terrible scar on her lower belly.
Relu bowed her head. "I was cursorily stitched up, the most rudimentary care to make sure I survived as they put me on a smaller boat and sailed me back to land. My prospective mate—and his father—feared my father's retaliation should I die in their care. Infection set in, and my life hung in the balance for several weeks. In the end, I survived, but…"
Evan wrapped his hand around hers and stroked it gently. He had guessed what was coming, and though it did not change his opinion of her, he could tell that she was disturbed by it.
"…I was no longer able to bear eggs. I was useless as a mate, and sullied by the filthy touch of the doctor's claws. Disgusted—and more than a little frightened by his own part in the matter—my proposed husband rejected me. The Chavam elders, though angry, accepted the annulment of the marriage proposal, for a barren wife, unable to lay, cannot meet her fundamental duty…" A tear slipped from Relu's eyes.
Evan couldn't stand to listen to it any longer. "You think your only value is in having children? That's…that's ridiculous. There are plenty of Human couples who don't have children because they don't want to. And there's no stigma if they can't. I…look, I can't speak for every Human being ever, but where I come from, we marry the people we love. It shouldn't matter if they're a different religion or the same gender or a different culture. Maybe some people care about biological kids, and I…well, I always thought I might have some some day, maybe, but we're different species—we can't have biological kids anyway."
Relu gave him a twisted smile. "Which is the only reason I was an acceptable prospect for your wife—in fact, a desirable one, for I could be faithful to you and not rob the Sangheili of my potential young. And you, as a target for the rebels, could use a virago for a wife." She leaned back and sighed. "In the end I think it was for the best, anyways. My father was very upset that he would never be able to find me a mate, but in consolation he permitted me to join the females of the Home Guard. I excelled, and rose swiftly up the ranks, until his barren daughter became his Home Guard Captain. And yet it always chafed me, that I could not achieve the honours accorded to our males, or venture forth from my keep to do battle, or ever win back what had been taken to me—until I heard that the Human Ambassador would need a Sangheili bride and a bodyguard."
Evan shook his head. "That's not right."
Relu's hand gently closed on his. "Then perhaps together we should see if we can change it," she said softly.
Evan took a deep breath. "I…I know you have the weight of your people's expectations on you. But if you are not happy in this marriage, then I will find a way for you to be freed from it."
The Sangheili's face took on a look of apprehension that Evan swore must mirror his own. "And if I say I doubt I could find a better match?"
He let out his breath. "Then we will make both our people's lives better…together." He leaned over and pressed a kiss to his wife's cheek.
Her hide felt like soft suede, warm with life, and smelled like sea and sand. It was a little awkward, because she was larger than he was, and he had to press his hands on her neck to coax him to stay near. But he did not need to close his eyes to chase away the sight of her many teeth or her taloned hands. "Relu," he murmured softly, his eyes looking into hers. "You are beautiful."
He would probably always consider human women to be more attractive to look at, and yet Relu was a wonder, and she was with him—by her own choice, now, and by his.
She touched her tongue to his cheek, the Sangheili variation of a kiss. He could feel her mandibles moving back and forth against his skin and he did not draw away.
Instead, he reached out for her, and Relu, purring softly, welcomed him.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'd like to thank everyone who followed me through this story.
Upcoming stories: Writing two Halo chapters a month has been a strain on me, so for the rest of the year I'm going to concentrate on finishing "Mercenary Hearts." I'll be returning to "Blood Shadow" in the New Year, and also the second of the "Duels of Honour" duology.