Playing with matches

181st of 2029 (007-98): Verasaryn

The Raledenet had arrived in system yesterday. We had been directed to proceed to Verasaryn for debriefing. Intelligence picked up Sakuya as soon as we landed, he looked so miserable. He'd had a picture of his family, Isabella had convinced him to give to her for 'safe keeping.' He'd been reluctant but she'd been very insistent. We were heading to debriefing, nobody was looking forwards to that, explaining just what went wrong. We spent the trip in silence, very different from our last journey to meet Kirsov. I hated visiting Verasaryn, the very air was thick and oppressive. We touched down outside the Guard's headquarters(1), an ugly squat complex of buildings designed hundreds of years ago. Ariaryn and I struggled to catch our breath, even the others were having difficulties(2), how did people breath this soup? Isabella produced to respirators and insisted that both Ariaryn and I put them on. "You've both just been shot, so put the bloody things on."
I was glad of the excuse not to breath the air but Ariaryn was reluctant "I trained here, all Guards do, I'm used to it." I could already see him tottering though.
"You got shot through the lung you idiot, so put it on." She thrust the respirator towards him, he grumbled again but put it on.

We approached the main entrance, no airlock. It seemed the Guards take their acclimatisation seriously. The young Serganet at the checkpoint looked twice at Ariaryn but said nothing. Kirsov's office was on the second floor, no lifts either. I'm sure Ariaryn was smiling at our distress forcing our reluctant limbs up the stairs, one point three Gs is no fun on the legs. Kirsov's trusty Seror was waiting for us, she smiled as we entered. "He's expecting you." The office was a plain and unremarkable as the one on Daramm. He was sitting reviewing our reports.
"Ah, good to see you." He looked at Ariaryn and suppressed a chuckle. "Dokhtor's orders I assume Sarganet?"
Ariaryn looked embarrassed "Yes sir." There it was again, sir, it sounded just plain odd.
He grinned sympathetically "Listen to her Serganet, better to recover and be ready remember. No shame in it, I've spent my time on breathing gear too." Ariaryn relaxed a little at this. He indicated we should sit. "So, what went wrong?"
Siish answered "It's in the report Geenor."
"Yes, but I'd like to hear your take on it."
Siish looked him straight in the eyes "If I had put the blame anywhere, I'd go with just dumb luck. I'd guess Trace's bodyguard stumbled on the case by accident, we were just lucky she didn't inform the authorities."
Kirsov nodded "My take too, but we'll know more once Trace is interrogated properly." He noticed me shudder at this. "You have something to add Komant?"
"He's just a civilian Geenor, I just don't think he knows anything."
"He knows enough for the Imperium to want him back I'd expect. And that bug he made" he pulled up Siish's report "hardly nothing." I knew when to shut up so stared at the floor and said nothing but I could feel Kirsov looking at me for a moment. "Anyway, I'm satisfied it was an unavoidable mess and you handled yourselves well in it. If you're interested, I may have other work for you." He took a datachip from a draw and placed it on the desk "If you're interested, let me know."
Siish picked up the chip "The Raledenet is due for its annual maintenance, so we'll need to arrange that first."
Kirsov rocked back "Well funny you should mention that. I think you'll find a booking already made at Daramm Up(3) for you, quite untraceable and unofficial you understand. Call it extra recompense. Oh and on that." He passed over a credit chip "That should cover what you've done so far."
Siish looked at the credit chip. Nobody had actually considered that they'd get paid. "We'll get back to you Geenor, but I think a break is in order." He picked up the chip.
Kirsov grinned "Naturally Siish, enjoy yourselves, you've earned it."

Jane was the first to bring up the credit chip once we left "So dear Kaptan, how rich are we?"
He sniggered "I hardly thought of you as the mercenary type Jane. But reasonably. With what we made on the trip, we have about twelve million keedits in the kitty."
Ariaryn whistled "That's a lot of money, more than I've ever seen in one place."
I looked at him "Ariaryn dear, there were fifty million in that case we just gave back to them."

183rd of 2029 (009-98): Touchdown on Daramm

Daramm and Verasaryn were reasonably well placed, less than two days between them at one G. I missed the speed and agility of my raider. I'd found myself thinking of Shadt and Sarah a lot lately. They'd been planning a life together. I missed my crew, hell I missed them all, Midori, Greg, Petra, the list just went on. I'd resolved to go see Ora and Oloku while we were on Daramm, Siish had said they'd got a nice safe posting. Ora had made Komanda, she had a position in some hush hush communications centre on Mrai(4) and Oloku lectured on martial arts at the academy. I had to laugh at that, a Yoshet now, teaching wet behind the ears Kadts how to defend themselves. There were a lot of people I had to catch up with in truth. But I wasn't looking forwards to it, I'd been through it all after repatriation. Everyone being so careful and nice, treating me like I was made of glass. The more they struggled to treat me like I was normal, the more obvious it became that I wasn't any more.

Everyone was splitting up after we docked, they all had people to see. Jane her family and Greg's. Ariaryn his in Yarnar, Siish was expected at the Manish estates. Naturally we'd see each other while we were here, there was the Rurur Garintylil(5) ceremonies, we'd have to attend those. I thought of the battle. Hard to imagine, it had only been five years ago, seemed like so much longer. I gently nudged the Raledenet into the docking bay and powered her down. Two weeks, my first vacation in four years.
I saw Isabella again as we were disembarking "So where you staying?"
"Well I've got an apartment in Antiavash(6), I was planning on staying there. I have to call in on the Manish's, but other than that I'm pretty much a woman of leisure." Her laugh was sad, she didn't have many friends outside of us. "I imagine you'll be staying with your family."
I forced a smile "Probably, at least awhile. Thought I might try to get away though. Maybe some time in the Lants(7), get back to nature you know."
She looked at me knowingly and grinned "Tell you what, why not come and join me in Antiavash, after you've seen your family. Keep me company. Two women on our own, could even have some fun."
I agreed, as much for myself as her.

184th of 2029 (010-93): The Manish Estates

Madam Manish was waiting. Blandii had laid out the table for lunch with his usual exactitude, she did not know what she would do without him. The door opened, she received her customary kiss on the check. "My dear it is so good to see you."
"And you Mother, it has been too long." her daughter surveyed the table and grinned "I swear Blandii must use a set square to lay out the dishes."
"He is simply thorough my dear. I must say I'm little surprised to see you, I would have expected you to see the children first. You know they miss their bawa(8) and your stories. They think your new life must be most exciting."
A chuckle "And their bawa greatly misses them. I'm planning on calling in on the school later today, I have a few new tall tales for them. But I wanted to see you first Mother."
Madam Manish tisked "You must mind your conjunctions my dear, there is no excuse for sloppy language."
This elicited a laugh "Oh Mother, you must forgive me, I've never understood your insistence on such precision."
"I just do not approve of the tendency of the young to introduce modern Vilani mannerisms into our language, simply no need for it." Madam Manish was more aware than most of the import of maintaining the slender line that separated the Mmarislusant from the Vilani. "However, I must ask what is so important you would put aside time with the children."
Her daughter could see no point in beating around the bush "Lord Sakuya Trace."
Madam Manish looked grave "I suspected you might take an interest in his fate."
"Yes Mother I do. So what is to become of him."
Madam Manish sighed, she knew this would not go down well "There is already an order transferring him to Sesh Liryn."
She could see the concern on her daughter's face "So soon?"
She paused a moment, she dreaded what she had to say next "There is worse, Oskar Sherin(9) has secured the release of Padter Kolnel-Lekhtenant and had her placed in charge of it."
Madam Manish saw her daughter's look turn to one of sheer horror. She spoke so very softly "Mother, he will not survive."
She spoke comfortingly "I know, but the order was signed by Oskar Sherin himself."
Her daughter spoke heavily "I suppose that limits your influence somewhat, I believe he still hasn't forgiven you for calling his wife(10) an ignorant intolerant shrew."
She sniggered slightly "No, nor his grandson an ill-mannered spoilt brat."
"Is there anything you can do Mother?" There was pleading in her voice.
Madam Manish drew a long deep breath "Perhaps, Lord Protector McCloud still favours me. For you I will try, I do understand your... distress."
Her daughter took her hand "I have forgiven you Mother, you must know that."
"Yes my dear, but I have not forgiven myself."
Her daughter kissed her check once more "What's done is done Mother" she sighed remembering "However, Siishubuu is also likely to call on you regarding the matter. I would prefer if you didn't mention my interest."
She smiled slightly "Of course my dear."
Her daughter chuckled "I do believe he has pre-empted you this time though."
"Oh how so?"
"He has already asked Sharik Gubashiidi to the Lord Protector's birthday ball(11)."
Madam Manish most uncharacteristically dropped her knife laughing "Your brother is full of surprises. And my dear, are you attending?"
"I wasn't planning to Mother, and no I do not wish you arrange an escort for me." Her heart was still somewhat tender from her mother's last 'arrangement.'
"A pity, it could have helped with Lord Trace."
"Mother?"
"Corwin(12) and Peter McCloud are without anyone to escort. Lord McCloud had asked me if could arrange something."
"Really?" She grinned evilly "Mmmm... I might just have a solution for that. Though it may annoy the Sherin's a little"
Her mother returned her grin "And that is a bad thing my dear?"

As predicted, Siish called on his mother later that day. He kissed his mother lightly and sat. Blandii had already brought tea. Madam Manish smirked ever so slightly "So Siishubuu, your employment with Kirsov Geenal-Majkor, it went well?"
He was uncomfortable enough without her playing with him so obviously "Mother, you have retired?"
His mother was caught off guard a moment "Siishubuu?"
"I believed you were still a member of the Security Committee. As such there would be very few reports you would not be privy too if you so choose."
Madam Manish couldn't help but smile just a little, so much of his father in him "Indeed Siishubuu and yes I have reviewed your report to the Geenal-Majkor, most unfortunate. However at least nobody was killed. All in all an acceptable result in the circumstances."
There was the slightest trace of anger in Siish's reply "Two people were killed Mother, one far to young to be in this business. And two of my ami seriously wounded. All in all a fairly bad result I'd say."
His mother studied him carefully at length "Yet you will do it again."
His anger slipped away and his head fell forward "Probably, yes." It struck him as odd that he was so sure that they all would.
Madam Manish spoke gently "I can guarantee your father would have been proud of you though." She poured him a tea "But regardless, I believe you are on holiday, will you be staying with us?"
"Most likely Mother."
"I've already had your room made up."
"Thank you Mother" he considered, he'd avoided asking too long "I have a favour to ask Mother." Might as well come straight out with it.
She suppressed the urge to smile and tried, with limited success, to sound innocent "Yes Siishubuu?"
He took a deep breath "The young man we brought back."
"Trace Marquis' son?"
"Yes, he was taken by intelligence after we returned. I am... concerned what may happen to him."
"He will be interrogated and hopefully eventually paroled in some fashion I imagine. Once we can be assured he won't draw undue attention to himself."
His mother was not making this easy, he drew breath again, time to be blunt "Mother, I am asking if you can expedite the process. He is... fragile, I doubt he would fare well in intelligence's hands."
Madam Manish sipped her tea slowly and delicately, making a point of deliberating "I may" she emphasised the word "be able to do something. However, the case is under the auspices of Oskar Sherin, so my influence is limited. But I will see what can be done." She sipped her tea again
"Thank you Mother." He waited for the toll
"Now Siishubuu, the Lord Protector's birthday ball is almost upon us, have you asked to escort anyone yet?"
And there it was "I have already invited Sharik Gubashiidi Mother."
She feigned surprise "Really! I am most relieved, it would have been such a scandal if my son were to attended unaccompanied. And she is quite the dancer I am told."

186th of 2029 (012-98): An apartment in Antiavash

I'd arrived at Isabella's the night before, I didn't want to spend too long with my family, it had been... difficult. They tried, but it just wasn't the same any more. My mother Renal was still morning father Wilhem. Mother Seshka and father Erras told me of all the news. My sister Liakti had matched to Shen Raaryn and there was a baby expected soon. Kamees had joined the Navy and was away at the academy, while Jkaee had just graduated from the Tandaryn Lajkca y Daramm(13) with honours in composition and performance. He'd make a fine musician, the whole family was proud of him. I just didn't fit in with them any more.

Isabella's place was not what I'd expected. I'd thought it would be one of those small two bedroom things, compact for someone living alone. It was huge, four bedrooms, separate kitchen, dinning and living. Apparently a gift from the Manish's when she decided to stay, something to get her started in the Protectorate. I had to chuckle, Isabella looked lost in the place as she gave me the grand tour. Her taste in décor was conservative, subdued without much movement. Oddly it was quite restful. I noticed very few 'personal' touches, just a few pictures of Isabella with the Manish's. Most noticeable was a big family portrait of the whole Manish family, Siish and his brother and sister with their spouses, Madam Manish, the grandchildren and Isabella. There were five grandchildren, so it had to be fairly recent. She also seemed to have a thing for sesherin, the apartment was full of sculptures and paintings of them. I slept well, I'll say something for luxury apartments, the beds are really comfortable.

Isabella woke me early "Hey sleeping beauty, breakfast's up and you got mail."
I didn't want to get up. Four years cooped up in an Imperial prison and best part of four months on a starship. I eventually emerged, clean and bright, there was a bathroom just for me off the bedroom. This place was pure bliss. I wandered out into the kitchen, Isabella was eating. "Over in the pan, I'm no Ariaryn, but not that bad."
I grinned as I served myself eggs and sausages "Isabella, I love this place, I think I'll marry you."
She sniggered at that "Well probably more reliable than my last proposal. But first you have to call me Issee."
"Issee?"
"Just an old nickname, I worked in a small hospital during the war, mostly with children, they had trouble saying Isabella."
The thought of Isabella working with children and being called Issee seemed to somehow suit her. "You said I had mail? How can I have mail?"
"Ah, the universe works in mysterious ways." She handed over two gilt-edged envelopes.
"This one is from Peter McCloud, isn't that Lord Protector McCloud's son's spouse?"
"Yeap" She was smiling knowingly
"What's he writing to me for?"
"Well if you open it, you'll find out." Her smug look was infuriating.
I opened the letter "My dear Afira Renal Wilhem Corig Corig Seshyishinaer, may I have the great honour of escorting you to the Lord Protector's birthday ball? I look forward to your reply presently. Peter Arthur Anna Blumme McCloud Mrigadeer. But isn't he..."
"Gay as the oceans are deep? Yeap, but he is a wonderful dancer and quite charming. I got one from Corwin. Apparently neither had partners for the ball and somebody suggested us."
"The Lord Protectors ball, I thought you weren't going?" Isabella had the benefit of being favoured by Madam Manish. It meant she got invitations to things like that.
Her eyes were twinkling "Well the entire Sherin clan will be there and in the circumstances, I changed my mind. Being seen with the Lord Protector's son..." she just smiled.
A sudden thought "What about Jane?" I couldn't go with her.
Isabella just grinned "I'm sure something can be worked out."
I picked up the second, no name on this one. "So who's this one from?"
"No idea."
I opened the letter, my jaw dropped "It's from Sharik Gubashiidi. An invitation to lunch. Why in the name of every single god and spirit does she want to meet me?"
Isabella slapped me playfully "You know, sometimes you are just so incredibly dense Afira."

The invitation was for one in the afternoon, at Iesejk's in Waicir(14) on of the finest restaurants on Daramm. I caught the scheduled shuttle and arrived around ten minutes early, I'd managed to convince Isabella to come with me, I just didn't want to meet her alone. She was already there and stood as I entered, she was pretty, very pretty. I still didn't quite understand what was going on. "Ah Corig Wa, I've been so looking forwards to meeting you" She looked a little surprised at Isabella's presence "and Isabella, how are you, I haven't seen you for an age." She smiled and embraced first me then Isabella.
"Please call me Afira."
Her smile was a little odd "An you simply must call me Sharik" we all sat "And Isabella, you are looking so well, Kamsi(15) was asking after you the other day, hoping she might catch you before she set off on her latest expedition." She seemed nice, but I still felt uncomfortable, I wasn't used to mixing with her level of society.
Isabella flicked out her napkin "So Sharik, to what do we owe the pleasure?" I guess four years with the Manish's had taught her how to blend in.
"Well, the ball is fast approaching and I thought perhaps we could fit in a little shopping later."
I was a little puzzled "Shopping?"
"Yes my dear, we'll need new gowns you know." She talked as if I were a child.
"I was just planning on dress uniform."
"Oh how... Imperial(16). But you'd look stunning in something by Eervir(17)."
The waiter approached "Hello, my name is Enli I will be your server today, would you care for anything to drink?"
Sharik looked up "May I?"
I wasn't quite sure what to do "Please." Isabella just nodded.
"We'll have bottle of Imadi I think, a twelve if you have one."
"I think so Wa." He left.

I'd grown up in a simple working family and was so out my depth here. Isabella seemed to be coping so I just followed her lead. We ate and we shopped, we drank wine as we tried on outfit after outfit. Eervir himself saw to us. I had to laugh, he was the first person I'd met who was honest. He said whatever I choose would have to altered, to hide the scars. He didn't treat me like I was fragile and would break, just was honest. I let Isabella and Sharik help me pick a dress, it was something that Jane would have approved of. The ball was in a few days and the outfit was made to measure and expensive but I had four years back pay and well we were rich now. I smiled, I liked Sharik, she'd do.

188th of 2029 (014-98): Waicir, Rurur Garintylil

She was utterly insane "Isabella, you can't, not dressed like that."
She was adamant "I can and I will and people will just have to damn well deal with it."
"Isabella, please see reason, it's a memorial, a lot of people died."
"Yes I know, I was there remember. And I will wear this, damn what anyone thinks."
There was no reasoning with her, she just stood there, arms folded, I wasn't going to change her mind "At least wear something to cover it up while we're travelling, please. You can take it off at the ceremony."
She sighed "Okay" she went to her wardrobe and got a long winter coat "only till we get there."

We caught the shuttle to Waicir, we sat. I could see people looking at Isabella in her heavy coat. People were looking at her in her heavy winter coat "Well it would be worse if you weren't wearing it."
She wasn't in a good mood "Maybe, but I'd feel better and it's bloody hot in this thing."
I tried to be understanding "I know, we'll be there soon though." We sat quietly awhile longer. I tried to make conversation "So, what do you think of when you remember the battle?"
She looked at the floor and sounded far away "The number three." We rode the rest of the way in silence.

The others were already there, all dress in uniform like me. Jane looked at Isabella "Why are you wearing that coat, it's the middle of summer?"
She looked at "Afira thought what I'm wearing was... inappropriate."
"And what are you wearing sweetie?"
She took off her coat and stood there, dress uniform of an Imperial Navy lieutenant, medal on her right breast. Everyone just stared, Ariaryn was the first to say anything "Well, it'll get a reaction."
Siish turned to her "You sure Isabella, it might not be too popular."
She was annoyed "Yes I'm sure and I don't care about the reaction."

We stood waiting for our passes, the bashet looked at Isabella and paused. Siish spoke "Is there a problem Bayanshet?"
He looked at Isabella and then at Siish "No Vebmral, no problem."
"Good, now our passes if you please." The passes were issued. We sat. The stadium filled, people stared and gawked at Isabella, they muttered and moved on. Nobody would sit near us. I was supposed to sit with the others of the Thirty-Seven, but I sat next to Isabella. It was the least I could do.
I saw Madam Manish enter. She had the whole family with her, Gam and Mazun, Eneri and Kamsi, all the grandchildren.
She came over. "Isabella, you're looking well my dear." She turned to Siish. "Well Siishubuu, move along, I'm not as young as I was, I'd like to sit." She sat beside Isabella. I watched as the stadium continued to fill. Many glowered at us, but some made a point of coming over. Sharik Gubashiidi, though her parents sat with the Sherins. She sat by Siish, took his hand and smiled at me. Seven other councillors(18), Eelamm Marsheel(19) himself, Corwin and Peter McCloud. I looked at those around us and those not, points were being made. Hawks and doves as the Verasti Dtareen would say. But those by us were smaller than those who chose to sit elsewhere. Eelamm Marsheel shook Isabella's hand before he sat. I could see cameras flashing at us. There was quite a stir, I could see Sherin Femral giving an interview flanked by his father. I chuckled quietly, the news channels would be busy tonight no doubt.
A reporter came up and asked Madam Manish for a comment. She simply replied "I'm sitting with my family." Eelemm Marsheel told her "The dead don't really have sides." She asked me, I just said "My friend." Very busy tonight.

We sat through speeches, a parade, fireworks. It was long and mostly boring, I was glad when it finished. Madam Manish spoke to me briefly after "Corig Wa, so good to finally meet you. Siishubuu has been most remiss."
I wasn't sure what to say "My Lady Councillor Manish, I'm honoured."
"I hear you lunched with Gubashiidi Wa the other day, I do hope the two of you can be friends."
I thought what an odd comment "I'm sure we will be My Lady."
She smiled "Good, good, I think it is so important the two of you get on." She noticed my confusion, tisked and shook her head slightly. Very odd.

191st of 2029 (017-98): The Manish Estates

Siish came down for breakfast, there was a lot to do today. Clothes to prepare, a bouquet to pick up. The ball was the social event of the year, it was important to get it right. He kissed his mother, sat and looked at the spread somewhat disappointedly. "I see Eneri is cooking."
"Yes Siishubuu?" She understood his meaning.
He looked at the table again "It's very... healthy."
"If you mean your usual fats, grease and sugars are missing, yes. Eneri is only thinking of our health Siishubuu, he is after all, a Shugilii(20). And given your uniform appeared to be a rather... snugger than last year, it would do you no harm to forgo indulging your, what is the term? Candy dentine."
"Sweet tooth Mother, and I like indulging my candy dentine."
"I am sure you will have ample chance for that tonight Siishubuu."
Madam Manish served herself some of Eneri's healthy breakfast "Siishubuu, have you talked with Corig Wa?"
He was a little puzzled and a touch uncomfortable "Afira Mother, about what?"
"Yes Siishubuu, Afira, about your feelings."
Siish suddenly moved from a touch to extremely uncomfortable "Mother?"
She sighed, sometimes her son was infuriating "Have you informed her you love her?"
His discomfort increased by at least an order of magnitude "Mother, I, um, I'm fond of..."
"Siishubuu you are in love with her. You know it, I know it, Gubashiidi Wa knows it, all your friends know it, I would not be surprised if half the Protectorate knew it. The only person who seems to be unaware of it is the lady herself. Though one has to wonder how she's missed it. You need to do something about it."
He drew a deep breath "Mother, it would be pointless."
"Pointless? How so?"
He fixed his gaze on the table "You don't approve of her."
"On the contrary Siishubuu, I barely know her, but by all accounts she's a fine woman and an excellent officer."
His eyes remained firmly on the table "But you'd never allow a match."
She sighed slightly "Perhaps, but there are other options. A discreet arrangement is always possible. They are far more common than you might imagine."
He became slightly angry "I don't want 'an arrangement' Mother, I want a match."
"Siishubuu any match must be able to give you children. And no matter how good a woman your Afira is, she can not do that."
Siish's anger grew "And love Mother, what of love?"
She laughed "Siishubuu you are such a hopeless romantic, you will one day inherit my place on the Council(21) and your spouse will become Madam Manish. Your match is not a question of love, it's a matter of politics. And anyway, love is no guarantee of a stable match, respect and honesty are far more important."
It was Siish's turn to laugh "How can you be honest and respectful if you have 'an arrangement' Mother?"
"If Siishubuu, your spouse is party to that arrangement from the start."

191st of 2029 (017-98): The Lord Protector's birthday ball

Isabella and I had taken Jane dress shopping the day before. She found something she liked, it followed her new style, low cut, revealing and sultry. I wondered what had happened to change her. She was always daring, but never so brazen. Ariaryn was to be her escort, they were planning to meet up at the ball. Isabella did not approve. "Jane, it's just not the way it's done. He comes here and picks you up, bringing you a bouquet and then takes you to the ball."
She snorted "Seems kind of archaic to me. Why not just meet up like a regular ball?"
Isabella tried to explain "Because it's not a regular ball, it's the Lord Protector's birthday ball. It's the way things are done. I'll call Corwin and Peter and get them to pick him up first. I assume he's got you the flowers?"
"How would I know?"
Isabella just shook her head. "Jane my dear, I will get them to pick up some flowers too."

Ariaryn arrived with Corwin and Peter. He looked good, black suit, white tie, satin waistcoat. "I got you flowers." He presented Jane with a beautiful bouquet. Isabella looked at Cowin, he smiled and shook his head. I think that meant he got them himself. He seemed more than a little awkward when she kissed him, blushing bright red again. I looked at Jane, I had seen that look in her eyes, just once before, for another man. I wondered what had happened to him, but now was not the time.

I thought our arrival was impressive, limousine, red carpet, flowers, glamorous gowns and elegant suits. There were photographers, reporters, film crews. The light, the attention, it didn't take long to change from impressive to intimidating. I was so thankful for Eervir's dress, it hid the scars and made me feel a little attractive again. It didn't hurt having a handsome man beside me. We were announced and greeted by Lord Protector McCloud and his spouse Leena. Isabella was right, Peter was attentive, charming and a wonderful dancer. I chuckled just a little, it was a pity he was gay.

Jane and I were at the bar, Isabella and Ariaryn were off on the dance floor along with Corwin and Peter. I could see Siish and Sharik there too. I wanted to talk with Jane though "Sweetie, you know he's besotted with you?"
She turned to me "Ariaryn? Yeah I know. But..." She didn't finish.
"Greg?"
"Yes, Greg. It's not easy you know deary."
"You've never told me what happened Jane."
She took another drink "We were at Igoo, last big battle. We were covering the withdrawal. The drive was out, I was working in engineering, getting it back online. Just before we jumped we took a meson(22) hit."
"Greg?"
"Yeah, it hit the bridge."
"A lot of people died Jane, it's just the way things were. I assume that's what happened to your hand?"
She nodded "I know, but I took it hard." You could here the hurt in her. "I fell apart, drank a lot. I lost count of how many people I had in my bed. When Siish found me I was mess deary."
"And?"
"I don't want to get hurt again."
I hugged her. "Sometimes sweetie, you've just got to take a chance. He's a good man."
She laughed "I thought you said he was a kid."
I had to chuckle "Yeah he is, but a damn good one."
The dance had finished, the others had come back, Sharik was hanging off Siish's arm. Jane turned to Ariaryn. "You want a drink dear?" He nodded, she called the bar tender over and got a linkwin. She smiled at me and turned the glass three sixty degrees as she passed it to him.

The night was growing old, Jane and Ariaryn had spent a lot of time on the dance floor now, Isabella was with Peter. Sharik took my hand "You alright Afira?"
I didn't understand "Yes? Why?"
She looked at me "Jane, Ariaryn?"
I still didn't understand "Yes?"
"I mean, Siish says you share a room on the ship."
The keedit dropped, I laughed "No, no it's not like that." I had to think, why did we share a room still "we're like sisters." My eyes fell to the floor "After... I didn't want to be alone you know."
She stroked my left check "Not really, I don't anyone can know." She took my hand again "You know, I'd really like to be friends. We should be friends."

Lady Councillor Inash Gubashiidi surveyed the ball carefully. These things were as much about politics as socialising. Nashu Manish was with Ashi Minomoru as usual, but for how much longer. Ashi was ailing and his son Kaito was enamoured with Kamees Sherin. The McClouds, Minomorus, Khaadiis and Mavals commanded twelve votes and the Lord Protector, but three of those votes depended on the Minomorus. When Ashi retired the balance would change. She should be happy, she had always voted with the Zagiirmiskurs, they had been good to her family. But the Zagiirmiskurs were allied to the Chaudhrays and Sherins, and tomorrow Oskar Sherin would step down in favour of his son. Kamees Sherin had almost destroyed the Protectorate once, giving him another chance didn't seem a good idea. She wanted to switch her allegiance but the question was how to do so and what price could she secure for it. She waited for Madam Manish to be alone and approached "Ah Nashu, you are looking ravishing tonight."
She smiled recognising the opening "And you also Inash"
Madam Gubashiidi sighed heavily "Such a pity about Ashi, he really hasn't been the same since his beloved Margaret passed. I do fear he will be joining her all too soon."
Madam Manish knew this all too well "Yes I fear you are right, it will be great loss."
Madam Gubashiidi continued "So many changes Nashu, did you know Oskar is to retire tomorrow?"
"I had heard rumours."
"Kamees will bring such an interesting view point to the Council."
"It will be exciting Inash."
Madam Gubashiidi nodded "Yes, but I find I tire of excitement now, the perils of age I suppose." she made a point of sighing "Of course Kamees will inherit his seat on the Security Committee" she paused, it was time to make her proposal "unless overturned by a two thirds majority."
Madam Manish understood her meaning "Of fourteen votes."
"Yes, fourteen."
It was acceptable "You know, Inash, I have often thought you would make a fine addition to the Committee."
She nodded "Sharikkamur and Siishubuu, they make a lovely couple don't you think."
"Yes, quite handsome."
Madam Gubashiidi grinned "You know I have hopes there, it has been far too long since I attended a match."
Madam Manish suppressed a laugh, they had both been at the match of Wilhem Eiammes and Ora Ludteen not eight days ago "I must agree Inash, far too long for the both of us. Perhaps with suitable encouragement." But there were complications "Corig Wa, such a tragedy how she has suffered."
Madam Gubashiidi nodded again "Indeed, unspeakable what they did. We all owe her a debt."
"Quite, she so deserves to lead a happy life."
"Oh yes, certainly. Sharikkamur lunched with her the other day, she was saying how she hoped they could be friends. I think we should all do our best to accommodate her."
It was Madam Manish's turn to nod "Yes I think we should."
Inash looked over at a table "Colin and Saraa Kirsov such a lasting match don't you think? Do you see much of them nowadays?"
Nashu smiled politely "Yes, from time to time. Now you must excuse me Inash, I am afraid I promised Samuel at least one dance. But I will find time to talk again before the evening is out." The floor was not the only place where dancing took place here.

Samuel and Leena were sitting quietly as Nashu approached. "I'm terribly sorry Leena, but I must steal your spouse for just one dance."
Leena grinned "I saw you talking with Inash, of course you must." They approached the floor, Samuel was tired, it had been a long night "So Nashu, what did Inash want?"
"She informed me Oskar will be announcing his retirement tomorrow."
"It had to happen, so now we have to deal with Kamees on the Council." He sighed deeply "How long do you think Ashi has left?"
"A few months at most, he already wishes to retire."
Samuel chuckled "I suppose I should start work on my retirement speech now then."
It was Nashu's turn to chuckle "Perhaps not, Inash is willing to switch allegiance."
Samuel's eyes narrowed "Her price?"
"Oskar's seat on the Security Committee. Oh and a match between Siishubuu and Sharikkamur."
He frowned "Steep, but worth it."
"I think so."
"Can you convince Siishubuu to the match?"
She looked down "Probably, but it will require something from you Samuel. The matter I mentioned before, young Sakuya Trace. We will need him freed."
"Well if we have the Committee back, we can do it. But it will be tantamount to a declaration of war with the Sherins."
She smiled wryly "Keeping Kamees off the Committee will do that anyway."
Samuel nodded knowingly "I will call an emergency meeting as soon as Oskar makes his retirement official."
"Good and then Ashi can retire. Spend his last days with his family."
The Lord Protector hummed "Nashu with a two thirds majority we can get the treaty to the assembly for ratification(23)."
"Samuel he deserves to spend his final days with his grandchildren, perhaps even reach some peace with Kaito."
"We only need wait till the next regular meeting Nashu, only six days Nashu."

192nd of 2029 (018-98): The Manish Estates

Siish was fuming, the very idea, it was outrageous "I won't Mother, I utterly refuse!"
She knew this was going to be difficult but she hadn't anticipated quite how difficult "Please see reason Siishubuu, you must and you must today."
"I will not propose to Sharik and that is that."
One more appeal to reason "Siishubuu, I don't think you realise the desperateness of the situation. Kamees Sherin will inherit his father's seat on the Council, Ashi Minomoru will die soon and his son Kaito will take the Minomoru's three votes to the hard-liners. They will control the Council. There will be war again. And this time we will not survive."
Siish was still furious at the very suggestion "You talk like Sherin Femral is the enemy Mother and anyway, we won the last war."
"He is Siishubuu, a dangerous and reckless extremist who will drag us to destruction. And we only 'won' because the Imperium didn't realise we'd lost." She turned away, she had hoped to avoid this and she did not feel good about it "Siishubuu there is another consideration. If you agree I will secure Sakuya Trace's liberty."
Siish fumed again "Mother! Even for you that it too much! Demanding my match for that boys freedom!"
"Siishubuu, I am no fool. I have read all your reports, I know what happened on Winchel. You do not want it for your own account, you want it for Corig Wa's." She hesitated, considering how far to go "Sakuya Trace is in a bad place Siishubuu, a very bad place. It will destroy him and destroy him quickly. And the woman you love will not be able to sleep at night when she learns what happened to him."
His rage boiled over "Mother, you wouldn't dare tell her! You are many things, but you are not a monster."
His mother was ashamed "No you are right, I wouldn't tell her." She took another tack "Siishubuu, do you remember how Isabella was when she first came here?"
Siish had been serving in the fleet and not seen her much then, but he'd seen enough to remember the wreck of a woman she had been then. Like a wounded animal, aching from some hidden pain. He also remembered how attentive and concerned she had been for Sakuya. He spoke quietly, not wanting to understand "Isabella?"
"Yes, she came from where young Lord Trace is now."
Siish stood in shock 'I thought you had that place purged?"
She drew a heavy breath "I did but it changed when Oskar Sherin took over as head of the Security Committee. Yet another reason why you must do this, so we can regain control of the Committee."
Siish made a decision. His mother was right, she would not be able to live with herself if she found out. Nor could he bear the thought of Sakuya suffering like that himself. "You know the Luriani have a saying, shi tarasa shish garia yishi tyain toi lasres."
Madam Manish smiled, he'd understood "You shouldn't dance while your feet are on fire, very appropriate, but then again they have a saying for everything."
He took a deep breath "I will not promise Mother, but I will talk with Sharik."

192nd of 2029 (018-98): The Gubashiidi Estate

They were walking in the garden, the two matriarchs were taking tea in the drawing room. "So what do you think they're talking about Sharik?"
She stooped to savour the fragrance of some roses "Politics I imagine, Oskar Sherin is retiring, lots of wheeling and dealing."
He hesitated, uncomfortable "Yes so I've been told." He resolved to be frank and honest "Sharik, Mother wishes me to propose a match with you. Apparently if we do your mother will switch her allegiance in the Council."
She didn't look up from the flower "Yes I know, Mother told me this morning."
He was surprised at her nonchalance "Doesn't it annoy you, even a little."
She stood and turned to face him "Perhaps a little but I do understand."
"Sharik do you love me?"
"Love? No, but I am very fond of you, I think we would make a successful match."
He took the plunge "I'm in love with somebody else."
She smiled at him "Yes I know, Afria. I like her."
"Mother suggested we could have an 'agreement' regarding her."
She took his hand "Have you talked with her?"
"No."
"You should. But if she's agreeable and you're discreet, yes we could have an 'arrangement.' As long as you'd accept an 'arrangement' for me if I'd like one."
Siish was a little astounded "Do you have somebody?"
She giggled politely "No. But you never know."
They walked together in silence awhile longer while Siish considered. Finally he stopped and turned to her "Sharikkamur Gubashiidi Mesu Mmarislusant Advocate, would you do me the great honour of becoming my match?"
She blushed "Siishubuu, you are such a romantic. Given the circumstances there was no need to be so formal. But..." She lowered her eyes and fiddled with her hair demurely for a moment "Siishubuu Manish Khaadii Mmarislusant Kaptan, I would be honoured to accept your proposal." She reached over and kissed him.

193rd of 2029 (019-98): The Gubashiidi estate

The two matriarchs sat opposite each other, enjoying a healthy breakfast. Nashu had to speak "I must say Gahashi(24) is an excellent Shugilii, this is quite delicious."
"I will pass on your compliments my dear. She studied with Ziishau you know."
Nashu nodded "Yes, as did Eneri. It is so important to keep these traditions alive, don't you think?"
"Oh yes, they are what defines us." Inash took another helping "So... do you know? Will they or won't they?"
Nashu sighed heavily "I'm as much in the dark as you Inash. Siishubuu refused to answer. The pair of them really are infuriating."
Inash agreed totally "Yes completely. I have never understood why the young must so complicate things. You come out and say what you mean, so much easier."
"I concur completely, direct and to the point. Always the best policy. Do you know where they went?"
"Sadly no Nashu. Sharikkamur seems as evasive as Siishubuu. But I think we both know where they're going."

193rd of 2029 (019-98): An apartment in Antiavash

Jane and Ariaryn had spent the night of the ball together and the next. It was good to see her so happy. Not that I was planning on picking out a new dress for a practice ceremony, but I did expect I'd been needing my own room on the Raledenet now. I'd got into the habit of scanning the news channels of late, what with Rurur Garintylil and the ball it seemed like I was on them a lot. They'd called my gown 'ravishing' and a lot of fashion pages were predicting it'd be the style for the season. I had to smile at that, something designed to hide my mutilation a fashion statement. Isabella had been more concerned with the news of Oskar Sherin's retirement from the Council. She didn't like the idea of Kamees Sherin being on it. We'd argued over it, she couldn't see he was a great man, that the Council would be better with him on it. She thought he was a dangerous warmonger. There'd been shouting even, until Jane and Ariaryn came out. Guess we both would have to avoid politics. Isabella had apologised for the argument later, so had I though, and I not just to be polite. She was too good a friend to lose over something as stupid as that.

I was cooking breakfast, a peace offering when Ariaryn came out. "Jane still asleep?"
"Yeah, though she's bloody hard to sneak your arm out from without waking her."
Isabella was sipping her coffee "So what's on you two love birds agenda today?"
"Well we've got another four days until the Raledenet is ready again and there's a three day cruise on the Jkemmla Yokwin(25) leaving today. So we thought we'd take a trip."
I flipped the pancakes I was making "Sounds romantic, who's idea?"
He sounded just a little embarrassed "Mine." my mouth formed a tiny grin, he was good for her.
The intercom buzzed, odd, this early. Isabella stood and went over "Hello?"
The voice replied "Ah Isabella, good, is Afira there too? May I come up?" it was Siish, very odd.
"Yes and of course." She buzzed him up. "I wonder what he wants?"

He entered as Jane emerged from the bedroom. Jane's hair was a tangled mess, her nightshirt twisted and dishevelled. I grinned, obviously a good night for the two of them. Sharik was with him, something was up. Jane looked at Siish "So our intrepid Kaptan, why you here?"
He appeared awkward "I have er... some news. But first I'd like to talk with my dinkir, alone."
Things were moving from odd to plan weird. "What's up Siish?"
He fidgeted "I'll tell you in a bit dinkir, alone."
Sharik turned to Isabella "We should let them be alone and I could kill for a coffee."

I sat on the bed, Siish look very nervous. "So Siish, things have been weird since we got here, what's up?"
he took two long slow breaths "Dinkir..." he hesitated awkwardly "I'm in love with you."
It's a good thing I was sitting, weird had turned to bizarre. I didn't know what to say "It's not Ytirpel Tlil(26) yet is it?"
You could see he was slightly annoyed "No dinkir, it's not. I'm serious."
I sat there mouth open "I don't know what to say Siish. I'd never considered."
He stood, still uncomfortable "There's more dinkir." He hesitated again and drew another long breath "I've asked Sharik to be my match."
I was annoyed, you don't barge in, tell somebody you love them and then in the next breath tell them you've asked somebody else to be your match. "But you just said."
He sat on the bed next to me "Yes, it's complicated dinkir."
Annoyance turned to anger "Then explain it to me."
"It's politics dinkir."
My voice was growing loud "Politics!"
His hand moved towards mine, I folded my arms firmly in front of me, his hand hovered and moved back "Yes dinkir, politics, the Council, it's delicate."
"Stop calling me dinkir, use my name!"
"Afira, Sharik's mother, she'll support mine in the Council if I match with Sharik."
Louder "And that's a good reason!"
"Yes, the hard-liners and moderate, the balance, its changing, there could be another war."
"War! What the hell kind of excuse is that!"
His eyes were downcast "It's just politics."
"You're not a politician Siish!"
Quietly "I will be though, eventually."
I was yelling "Damn you Siish you can't come here and do this to me!"
He sighed again "There's more, it's the only way to get Sakuya."
"Sakuya! Don't you dare! Don't you dare put this on me!"
"I have to do it Afira, it's the only way to save him."
I stood, I was so angry "I don't want him that much!"
He looked at me "Yes you do, you really do. So do I."
I wanted to slap him, hard. I grabbed the clock and threw it across the room with as much force as I could "Why the hell are you telling me this? Why are you doing this?"
He paused, unsure "Sharik... she's agreed... we can have an 'arrangement,' if we want."
I stood there stunned "So she's to be your match. And I'm to be what... your mistress!"
He couldn't look at me "It's not like that..."
Screaming "It's exactly like that Siish!"
Pleading "Afira, please"
I was almost losing control "Siishubuu Manish, how can you do this to me! You're such a, such a..." I struggled for a word, it just came, I didn't think. I spat it out "Mmarant!(27)" I regretted it as soon as I said it.
He sat there, I could see he was hurt, really hurt "It's okay, I'm sorry."
My head was spinning, I sat back heavily on the bed. So many feelings. Jealous? Yes. Love, I wasn't sure. Angry? As all hell. Mistress? Maybe, perhaps it was the best I could have. No, no I was better than that. If I was to be anyone's lover it would because I wanted it. Lover? I sat there panting, I needed to think "No Siish, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that." I really was sorry. I took his hand "I need time Siish, a lot of time."

The others sat outside. They heard a raised voiced muffled from the bedroom. The looked awkward. Jane spoke "At least she's yelling, that's a good sign(28)"
Isabella grinned "Never can get my head around that."
Jane chuckled "Never worry when the Luriani is yelling, worry when they're not."
"Yeah why?"
Jane looked at her "Because sweetie, that's when they won't walk away."

They sat, trying not to listen. They heard the word Mmarant. Jane again "Oh that's not a good sign. Sharik what the hell is going on?"
She sipped her coffee, betraying nothing "I'm sure we'll find out soon enough."
Ariaryn surveyed her carefully "Gubashiidi Wa..."
She interjected "Sharik, please call me Sharik, I think it's so important we can all be friends."
His eyes narrowed "I expect you do. So Sharik, will you be looking for an engagement band(29) soon?"
She still betrayed nothing "Engagement band? I couldn't say"
Ariaryn sat back smugly "I'll take that as a yes."

Siish and Sharik left soon after announcing their engagement. They had a lot to do. Jane wanted to cancel their trip. I told her no, I was fine, she should go have some fun. She deserved it, they both did. The news was full of the shock changes in the Council. Kamees Sherin had been denied his father's place on the Security Committee, it had gone to Sharik's mother. People were predicting all kinds of dire instability. I sat at dinner with Isabella, Ariaryn had made something for us before they left. It was good, far better than either of us could do. She looked at me "You really alright Afira?"
I put down my cutlery "No not really, a lot to take in." I tried to change the subject "Jane and Ariaryn, they're good together." She nodded, her mouth full "Pity they can't have children though."
She grinned "Oh I don't know, there are always arrangements that can be made for that."
It brought me back, arrangements. I needed help "Siish asked me, asked me if I'd like an 'arrangement,' to be his mistress."
She put down her fork "It's a lot more common than you'd think. What do you want?"
"I don't know, my heads a mess right now."
She stood, came over, sat beside me and put her arm around me "Depends on if you love him dear. He sure loves you and loves a precious thing, too precious to waste."
I snuggled into her "Yeah, but it's dangerous too."
"I know."
Augustine, I hadn't thought "I'm sorry."
She just smiled "It's okay, I'm sorry too. I'm better off without him. Better to know he's a child before I married him."
I laughed "What should I do?"
"Listen to your heart, it's really all any of us can."

196th of 2029 (022-98): The Manish Estates

Madam Manish was waiting for her daughter. She sat delicately as she always did "So Mother, you called me?"
"Yes my dear, I have secured Sakuya Trace's release."
"At the cost of Siishubuu's match. A huge price Mother, possibly too much."
"There were other reasons for that, Trace Lul's release was simply a fortunate by-product."
Her daughter wasn't so sure, but no matter "What is to happen to him now?"
"We can't admit we have him. So parole with a new identity."
"Will he agree?"
"He already has. Sesh Liryn has the effect on people."
"Yes I am well aware. And Sesh Liryn itself?"
"Sesh Liryn will be closed. It's gone too far twice now, I won't have a third time on my conscience."
"Padter Kolant?" There was concern in her daughter's voice, and perhaps just a trace of fear.
"She is returned to her institution my dear, she can not hurt anyone there."
Her daughter nodded "And how is he?"
"He is apparently sensitive and high in empathy. I imagine he did not fare well." She paused a moment "There is something more my dear."
"Mother?"
"During his... interrogation, something came up."
Her daughter looked concerned "What Mother?"
"He was working on something called the Ogura project(30)."
There was anger in her daughter's reply, with a hint of contempt "And My Lady would like to get information from him?"
"Calm yourself my dear. No, but if his... integration into our society went successfully, if handled very gently, it would be of great value if he continued such work here."
Her daughter understood "So My Lady would like his sponsor to be somebody who could encourage that."
"Yes my dear, I think you know who I have in mind."

Madam Manish waited for her daughter to depart before calling her son. He had a lot to arrange but this was important. He answered promptly "Mother?"
"Siishubuu, I have news of young Lord Trace. He is to be paroled, he will be arriving on Daramm tomorrow."
Siish's was obviously relieved at this news "That's wonderful Mother. I will return tomorrow to sign the sponsorship papers."
"That will not be necessary Siishubuu and anyway you have far too much to do."
"Mother? How can he be paroled without a sponsor."
"He will have a sponsor, Isabella."
Siish was clearly very surprised "Isabella?"
"Yes, his recovery will be... difficult, not to mention the problems he will face integrating into our society. Can you think of anyone better to guide him than someone who has been through it herself?"

197th of 2029 (023-98): An apartment in Antiavash

The Raledenet would be ready tomorrow but we weren't leaving. Siish and Sharik still had a lot to arrange and Sharik had wanted to get to know us all better. Tomorrow we were going to spend a few days on the Gubashiidi estate. Well eventually. Isabella and I had something to do first, Sakuya. She was fusing, she'd been irritable since she'd found out he was coming back yesterday. There'd been papers to sign and arrangements to make. "It'll be fine Isabella, you've got everything you need and he's only been gone two weeks."
She kept fusing "He was in Sesh Liryn, you don't know what the means, two weeks there is more than enough to..." She didn't finish.
"You keep going on about this Sesh Liryn, what the hell is it?"
She sat down and indicated I should too "You probably don't want to know. There are things about the Protectorate that you possibly shouldn't know."
"Oh now you have to tell me."
"He's been tortured Afira."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing "You're lying, we'd never."
She looked at me "No I'm not lying, I know you don't want to hear it, but that's what Sesh Liryn is. I know, I was there."
I looked at her, I still didn't believe it "You've got no scars, no marks at all!"
She sighed heavily "There's more than one way to torture somebody. My scars are all on the inside Afira. Sesh Liryn may not be what you suffered, but it's not a... good place."
I still couldn't take it in, I thought of the pain I'd seen in her eyes "But, it's can't be, we'd never allow it."
"Yes you would, or some on the Council would. It'll be gone now I imagine, now the moderates have got the Security Committee back. But it's real."
I sat there trying to accept it, but I couldn't "I'll only believe this when I see it.
She sighed again "When we get Sakuya, you'll see it."

The boat touched down in Antiavash's upper bay. It had been cleared, special order from Lady Councillor Manish. The head of the Security Committee can achieve a lot of things. We were waiting. I still refused to accept what she'd said. I watched as the door opened, two guardsmen, then Sakuya, he looked fine to me. Yes his hands were tightly clasped in front of him, his head was down, but as far as I could see the worst they'd done was shave his head. He shuffled slowly forward, not looking where he was going. One of the Guardsmen reached out to help him, he flinched. Maybe perhaps it had been a little hard, but still. I went to call to him, Isabella put her hand on my arm "No." Closer, head down, shuffling, arms tight. What the hell was wrong with the boy? He reached us, one of the Guardsmen handed Isabella something to sign. "Hello Sakuya." He looked away and clenched tighter to himself. "It's me, Afira." He turned and looked at me for a moment. I'd seen that look before, in the mirror. I went to hug him "It's okay." He withdrew. Again "It's really okay Sakuya." He fell into my arms and burst into tears. Isabella hadn't been lying.

We got him to Isabella's apartment and into bed. He lay there curled in a tight ball. He hadn't said a word since we got him. Isabella gave him a sedative "He needs to sleep." She turned off the light as we left him to sleep.
"It's like he's not there."
"He isn't. How were you when you came back?"
I remembered laying in a bunk on the Martinez with Jane and Siish taking turns sitting with me "What the hell have they done to him? "
She shrugged "I don't know, it's different for everyone. But it wouldn't have been pleasant. I imagine there were drugs, sleep deprivation, several different types of humiliations. What ever would break him. He's delicate, it would have been easy for them." She sounded almost clinical, but I noticed her hand was balled into a fist so tight it was turning white. "To be honest he could have been a lot worse. I think they didn't have him long enough to do too much damage. He'll be okay now, I've scheduled the trace op for tomorrow and then I'll start working with him."
"I'll stay, be with him."
"No. You need to go and get to know Sharik." She sounded distant, detached.
"But you can't do it alone, you can't be with him twenty four hours a day." I was starting to get annoyed.
She looked straight at me "You want to help him?"
"I just said I did!" I was annoyed now.
"Then the best thing you can do for him is go be friends with Sharik. If her and Siish's match falls over everything he's suffered will be for nothing. I can take care of him on my own for a few days."
I looked at her, her hand still clenched tight "Is that what happened to you?"
Finally I heard emotion in her quiet reply "Something like that."

Isabella was scrubbing up, Eneri was standing beside her. "You don't have to do it, I'd be happy to do it for you."
"No thank you, the procedure is simple enough. The thing nearly inserts itself. I've read up on it a little."
He grinned "I know you have and more than a little. You've read every damn bit of paper on it, including twisting Mother's arm to get the classified design specs. You want to find a way to get it out again."
"Wouldn't you, if you had one buried inside you? Tamper proof, such a delight wandering round with something that can blow my head off if it malfunctions."
"They're designed not to come out Issee, you know that."
She frowned at him "The Imperium is trying."
He nodded "Yes I know, we sent them what information we could, but both patients still ended up tetraplegics."
She smiled "Ah well, you know" she slapped her leg "prosthetics, wonderful things."
It was his turn to frown "Issee you know you're going to have to scrub up again now. But a spine is not an arm or a leg. If you try to dig it out I'm sure not even I'll be able to put you back together this time."

Isabella had sat on the bed next to him for several hours, waiting for the aesthetic to wear off. She'd tried to explain before, but he was too far gone then. She remembered how she'd been. He tried to sit up, she pushed him gently back down, she smiled. She'd tried the same thing, she could even remember the face of the nurse who'd pushed her back "Try not to move. It's over faster if you stay still."
He struggled to clear his thoughts "Isabella?"
She smiled at him, it was the first thing he'd said since he came back "Yes."
"What's happened?"
She took his hand and sighed "I tried to explain before, but I don't think you understood. Do you know where you are?"
His eyes flitted to look around "No."
"You're in my apartment, recovering. You've been in surgery." She was keeping it simple, a few things at a time. Let him absorb it slowly.
"Surgery?"
"Yes, there's been a device inserted at the top of your spine. It's called a trace."
"Trace? Why?"
She took a deep breath, this was the hard part "It's tracks where you are." She considered a moment, it was simply enough, he'd understand this "There's a base unit. The trace limits how far you can go from it."
"Why?"
"It's part of the parole conditions. They do it to everyone."
"Parole?"
"Yes, you've been released into my custody, I'll be taking care of you."
She could see the memories of Sesh Liryn coming back to him, the fear in his eyes "That place."
"You're safe now, you're out of there."
"They... did things" he was struggling to say
"It's okay, I know, you don't need to say, not till your ready."
"No, no you don't understand..."
She held his hand tightly "Yes Sakuya I do understand." She turned and pulled up her hair to show the scar on her neck "I was sent there too. I do understand. You're going to be alright, you're safe now."
He relaxed "The trace, what happens if I go to far?"
"There's a warning when you get near the limit, a sort of jolt. If you keep going it blocks the nerve impulses down your spine. It paralyses you."
He sounded frightened "Permanently?"
she chuckled, just a bit "No, only until they reset it."
"Does it hurt?"
"If you go too far?"
"Yes"
She held his hand again "They'll tell you no." However, she knew the truth and she didn't want to lie to him "But yes, it hurts like hell if you go too far."

199th of 2029 (025-98): The Lord Protector's Office, Waicir

Madam Manish almost burst down the door, Lord Protector McCloud had been expecting her. She flung a file on his desk "Murdered"
He picked up the file and placed it to one side "I know, I've already read it. I am so very sorry Nashu, I shouldn't have tried to push things."
She stood for a moment, considering. Ashi Minomoru not only been her political ally, he'd been her friend. Finally she spoke "I'm sorry too and I agreed to it as well, but no you shouldn't have."
"They say the poison originated in the Imperium Nashu."
"Yes but that proves nothing and it makes absolutely no sense for them to kill him. And it wasn't Kaito, despite his disagreements with his father, he's devastated."
The Lord Protector nodded "And he's the one who demanded the additional tests, we'd have never detected the poison without them. The Sherins?"
She sat, drawing a long slow breath "They'd be my first suspects, but there's no proof at all." She looked at Ashi's picture on the wall "He was a good friend Samuel."
"For me as well Nashu. This is bad, very bad. Politics has always been cut-throat, but assassination? We are becoming far too much like the Imperium Nashu."
"I know but now we have to deal with it. And Kaito, has this made any change in his position?"
Samuel McCloud lent back and sighed "No, if anything its made his anti-Imperial stance worse. He's agreed to vote with us to classify his father's murder, out of respect. But beyond that he's with the Sherins."

202nd of 2029 (028-98): The Gubashiidi estate

Five day, we'd spent five days here. I'd enjoyed it, I'd found despite myself I liked Sharik. Perhaps not ready to be her friend yet, but I could be. But I had made a decision and it was time to deal with things. I went to find Siish. I found him by a small stream, fishing! I couldn't control my laughter "Siishubuu Manish Khaadii Mmarislusant Kaptan, I have never in my life seen you fishing."
He turned to see me "Errr a new pastime dinkir. Khugi(31) has shown me how, he spends a lot of time here. It's relaxing."
I chuckled "You mean it gives you the two of you time out from Sharik and her mother." I liked Gubashiidi Geenant, we got on well together, he was teaching me magic tricks, a man of surprising talents.
"Well that too. But it is kind of soothing."
I sat on the bank beside him "You catch anything?"
He seemed a bit glum "No not yet, but apparently that's not the point."
"So Kaptan, what's next? Should I be looking for a new job?"
"Dinkir?"
"Are we going back to the Raledenet or are you settling down with Sharik?"
"We're going back to the Raledenet. In a few days. A few more things to organise."
"Oh and what does your fiancée have to say about that?"
He smiled "She understands"
"Oh yes, she's very much into understandings" I probably shouldn't have said that, I could see it had smarted.
"Afira, whatever you decide, you're still my friend, I wish you could get on with her."
"I know Siish, I actually do like her" I just wasn't ready to be her friend yet. "But on understandings, I've made a decision, I need to talk with the two of you."

The three of us sat in the Gubashiidi's library, leather bound volumes surrounding us. There's something about an old fashioned paper book that adds a sense of seriousness to a room. The two of them sat across the reading table from me. I guess I'd have to get used to that. Well I'd made my choice, no point in being coy. "I don't know if I love you Siish." You could see the disappointment in his eyes "But I want to find out. You can have a 'discreet arrangement' but there are some conditions of my own."
Sharik nodded "I'm listening."
"Well actually, that's one of them, you both need to listen and agree."
"Of course Afira."
"And I'm not your eshal Siish, I'm your nuntarri(32), I need to be treated with respect, by everyone. You, Sharik, Your family, Sharik's family. I'll be discreet, but I will also be acknowledged."
Siish spoke first "Yes naturally."
Sharik however had a different view "Nuntarri? As in the holodramas?"
"Yes."
"Dear there haven't been nuntarri since the First Protectorate."
"Then it's high time we revived the tradition."
She considered for a moment and grinned "I suppose it is." She chuckled "Will you also be adopting the hairstyle and dresses?"
I grinned "No, I think I'll pass on those." I sat a moment, this was going okay, I could do this "And my time with Siish is mine, not stolen moments fitting into the cracks. Proper time"
Sharik laughed "Dear, I doubt very much that will be a problem. But yes of course. But by the same token, my time with him is mine."
I grinned "Of course." I could be her friend "And I will be discreet, but I won't be skulking in dark corners out of sight when I'm with either of you. I'm not something to be ashamed of, not something to be hidden away."
"Anything else Afira?"
"Yes, I want children. I want my own match. When I find him, he has to know and if he doesn't agree it ends."
Sharik smiled "I don't think anyone would dream of denying you that Afira. Not after what you've been through." She grinned "Well now that's settled, we'll need to be getting you a new gown."
"A new gown?"
"Yes engagement party, you will be coming I assume. If the holodramas are to be believed, a nuntarri would be in attendance."

254th of 2029 (080-98): Archduke Sirean's office, Dirir

Archduke Sirean Fierana was reviewing the latest intelligence reports from the Protectorate. It did not make good reading. He heard the intercom buzz and looked up. "Yes Ma?"
His secretary sounded a little concerned "You have a visitor Your Grace."
"Visitor?" Ma said his name "Well show him in immediately." The old man entered, Sirean stood, a little concerned "Your Grace, to what do I owe the pleasure?"
The old man noted his concern "Just a social call Sirean, just a social call. I was passing through the system on my way to a... situation in Antares and well I like to keep in touch when I can. One never knows."
Sirean breathed a quiet sigh of relief "It is an honour of course. Please sit. Ma could you fetch some refreshments please?" His secretary departed.
"So Sirean how are things... progressing?"
"Have you seen the reports?"
He smiled "I browsed them on arriving. Not good reading. The moderates majority slashed from five to one. And an assassination? I was lead to believe they were rare in the Protectorate."
Sirean nodded "Yes, but the hard-liners have lost control of the Security Committee. That at least is a good thing."
"The report said the poison used was of Imperial manufacture. Were we responsible?"
"Most certainly not, it would have been extremely counter productive." he chuckled and added Though I must admit I've been tempted with Kamees Sherin once or twice."
The old man looked at him "I assume you're joking."
Sirean grinned "Yes, well mostly. Kamees Sherin dead as a martyr would probably be more dangerous than Kamees Sherin alive."
The old man hummed "Yes probably. Is there any good news?"
Sirean's mouth formed a slight smile "Well you know of the Imperial POW's who elected to remain in the Protectorate after the war?"
"Yes, the defectors."
"I prefer stay-behinds your Grace. I'm sure they faced a hard choice."
"I'm sorry, I must apologise, of course."
"I apologise as well. But anyway, one of them turned up to their Rurur day memorial in her Navy dress uniform. Caused a huge stir, quite a scandal."
The old man looked puzzled "That's good news?"
"Well yes, because a significant number of senior Protectorate officials elected to sit with her openly. It's the first sign of a crack in their anger."
"Hmmm, hard to see it Sirean, but I'll take your word for it. Anything else?"
"I have an invitation to attend the match ceremony of Lady Councillor Manish's son."
"A social event?"
Sirean grinned again "Yes, with the most powerful member of the Council, a significant event your Grace."
The old man chuckled "You know, we have cut-throat Byzantine politics, powerful feuding families, delicate obtuse politicking at social events and now even assassinations. They really would have fitted right in here." He considered for a moment "You know, I've heard Protectorate social events can be... most enjoyable."
Sirean smiled knowingly "Indeed you grace, say what you will about them, they do know how to throw a party." He paused a second "An invitation would be a simple matter to arrange."
"That would be most kind Sirean."

1. The Protector's Guards had their headquarters on Verasaryn. Its lower population density and smaller hydrosphere provided much greater scope for training grounds than Daramm.

2. The atmosphere of Verasaryn is over 50% denser than that of Daramm, most Luriani find it hard to breath near sea level.

3. Daramm Upport. The orbital portion of the main starport.

4. Daramm's inner moon.

5. Literally Rurur Memorial Day. Falls on the 188th of each year.

6. The vast majority of Daramm's population live in huge city tower complexes anchored in Daramm's many shallow seas. Antiavash archology was home to almost two million people at the time.

7. A remote nature reserve famed for its rugged beauty.

8. Bawa, a compound of ba (smaller) and wa (woman) usually translated as Miss. The male equivalent is Balul. Originally honorifics referring to an unmatched adults, such usage had been obsolete since pre-contact times. The words are only retained now as terms of endearment.

9. Lord Councillor Oskar Sherin, father of Fleet Admiral Kamees Sherin. A powerful member of the Lord Protector's Council and political opponent of Lady Councillor Manish.

10. Madam Caroline Sherin, matriarch of the Sherin clan.

11. The premier social event in the Protectorate. An event normally restricted to the highest levels of society. The ball is a deliberately anachronistic event, patterned after the great balls of pre-spaceflight Terra.

12S. econd son of Lord Protector Samuel McCloud, an arbiter on the bench of the Daramm High Court. Normally he and his spouse Peter would attend social functions as a couple, but the anachronistic nature of the birthday ball dictates a mixed gender couple.

13. Senior University of Daramm, the most prestigious tertiary institution on Daramm.

14. One of only a handful of traditional cities on Daramm and seat of the Protectorate Council. Home to over two million people at the time.

15. Kamsikinash Manish, a noted archaeologist and spouse of Lady Councillor Manish's son Eneri.

16. Protectorate culture was usually regarded as markedly less marshal than Imperial. The Luriani themselves never developed a ruling military elite and overt expressions of military traditions were far less prevalent, primarily inherited from the Verasti Dtareen. Thus dress uniforms were usually reserved for military functions with even serving personnel wearing civilian clothes for other formal occasions.

17. Eervir Ajdkar, one of the leading Luriani fashion designers of the period.

18. The full Lord Protector's Council consisted of the Lord Protector and twenty councillors. It had long been the seat of real power within the Protectorate.

19. Marshall Despi Eelamm, commander of the Verasal (short form of verastifersaal), the Protectorate Army. Normally a cadre organisation, heavily weighted towards support and technical services. During times of need it could be rapidly expanded from a trained militia known as the Iadtlu.

20. Food preparation specialist in Vilani and Mmarislusant culture. The biochemical nature of life on the Vilani's homeworld of Vland is totally incompatible with humans. Therefore the role of the Shugilii arose to prepare food suitable to be eaten. They fill the role of a priestly caste in other cultures. They also serve as dietitians and encourage healthy eating habits. Curiously Daramm is one of the few worlds were the Shugilii's traditional role of food preparation is still important. There is an extremely high level of heavier elements in Daramm's food chain making it slightly toxic to most humans. While the Luriani are adapted to deal with this, most other branches require their food to be treated beforehand. In addition to being a Shugilii, Eneri Manish was also a trained doctor and head of surgery at Antiavash central hospital.

21. Members of the Lord Protector's Council were theoretically non-hereditary life appointees. However the seven great houses (McCloud, Sherin, Chaudhary, Minomoru, Khaadii, Zagiirmiskur and Maval) had had permanent representation since the First Protectorate. The exact protocol for inheritance depended on the family. In the four Verasti Dtareen families (McCloud, Sherin, Chaudhary and Minomoru) the eldest child took the Council seat, the two Mmarislusant clans (Khaadii and Zagiirmiskur) followed the Vilani practice of third child inheritance, while the Luriani Maval family worked by consensus.

22. Meson gun. A form of particle accelerator the fires exotic particles that can bypass normal matter and damage the interior of a ship.

23. The Treaty of Ghou that ended the Luriani War was never formally ratified by the Protectorate. Ratification required first a two thirds majority in the Lord Protector's Council followed by a simple majority in the Protectorate Assembly.

24. Second daughter of the Gubashiidi's.

25. The shallow sea that surrounds the archipelago that the Manish Estates and Antiavash archology lay in.

26. The traditional Luriani calendar consists of three 188 day long years followed by two individual leap days know as Ytirpel Tlil (Fools' days). These days were traditionally religious festivals where friends would attempt to play practical jokes and pranks on one another.

27. A short form of Mmarislusant. It was in common use during the early years of the First Protectorate but has since taken on extremely negative connotations. It has long been regarded as an exceedingly insulting term.

28. The Luriani have long dealt with their passionate natures and developed numerous customs and protocols for dealing with anger and temper. They regard expressing their anger as healthy and have many methods for a party to walk away without losing face, allowing tempers to cool.

29. The traditional sign of a Luriani's relationship status is a silver band on the left wrist. Normally made of silver (though Verasti Dtareen sometimes favour white gold or even platinum), they are usually exchanged upon the promise of entering a formal relationship. The exact nature of the relationsship is indicated by various charms attached to the band.

30. A top secret Imperial project to develop jump 4 drives.

31. Khugi Gubashiidi Geenal-Lekhtenant, Sharik Gubashiidi's father.

32. Eshal and nuntarri are both usually translated as lover. Eshal is the usual Luriani term for a partner outside a formal relationship and at the time was frequently seen to have negative connotations. A nuntarri on the other hand was a type of romantic companion that used to be present in the upper levels of Luriani society during the First Protectorate. A nuntarri was openly acknowledged and had a high social standing. The role and term fell out of use during the years between the First and Second Protectorate.