Friday, September 30, 2016

to save my enemy 26

Without turning Theresa said shakily, “That would not have been comfortable for you.”
“It was not,” said Ranualt, dryly. “It became worse.”
Theresa spun around. “You’re joking! How could it be worse? . . .  Oh, no!”
 “Oh, yes!” Ranualt smiled, a crooked twist of his wide mouth.   “No one had explained to Mia about . . .”
He colored slightly.  How had events transpired that he was telling the Lieutenant about the worst night of his life? He never spoke of it to anyone!  And to speak of it to Lt. Williams!   A lover would wish to appear competent, at least, before his prospective partner.  Ranualt studied the pale Commonweal woman, standing so stiffly, the soft un-ornamented fabric outlining her well-proportioned form.  He had a wife, and she died. No more information was needed.  Enough!
“What happened?” 
Her voice was soft.  The question, undemanding.   Yet, caught in the memories of shrill, demanding Mia and her dark-eyed sullen mother he found he enjoyed the Lieutenant’?s almost musical intonations all the more. With a sigh he continued.
“At first I did not know how foolish Mia was.  I thought she was a little sheltered and afraid, so I treated her gently.” Speaking of loving another woman, to a woman desired. . .was that wise?  Would it have an inspirational effect?  He tried to read the Lieutenants flushed face.  Was it to hide arousal . . . interest that she hides her face away?   Very good, if it is so.  “I tried to explain to Mia that being kissed was a way of expressing admiration for her beauty. She said that she thought words quite enough.  She did not like being touched at all, and when she seemed about to go into hysterics again, I left her alone. I thought the household had been disturbed enough for one night.  The next day, I had her mother fetched and suggested that perhaps Mia had not been adequately educated about marriage.  They were closeted together for the whole day, and that night Mia was returned to me.  All she said was, “Well, if you insist!” 
Lt. Williams faced  the window again, her head down, body trembling.  She was breathing so hard, Ranualt began to fear for her health when he realized she was laughing silently.  Tears formed in her eyes as she fought to suppress the spasms. 
Glancing at his stern face Lt. Williams gasped.
“I am sorry, I am so . . . .sorry. . . I can’t. .help it.”  Her shoulders continued to shake until she finally began laughing out loud. “I can’t help it. . . .You asked your mother-in-law. . .to. . .Oh, if you insist!”
Lt. Williams laughter echoed through Mia’s reception room. 
Ranualt’s fingers tightened on the folds of his robes. Here he was telling the tragic story of his marriage . . .of that foolish girl and her stupid mother. . and she was laughing!  Reluctantly, his mouth twitched.  He remembered the stuttering formal words he had tried to shape when speaking to Mia’s mother.  Staring into those blank dark eyes.  That woman had known exactly what the problem was, yet forced him to speak each damning word.  He collapsed slowly onto one of the chairs, bent double as the roars of laughter, long overdue, were torn from him.  When he opened his streaming eyes Lt. Williams was sitting awkwardly on the window seat, wiping her eyes on the curtains. 
She smiled up at him shyly. 
“I am sorry to laugh, Commander, truly I am.  You are so dignified and in control all the time. I just. . .couldn’t imagine you. . .I really can’t imagine you ever having to ask for.  .for. . . for help.”  She waved her hands vaguely and giggled.
Ranualt settled back in his chair, hand on his chest, breathing deeply. 
“This is the first time I have ever thought of Mia with anything other than anger.  You are right. It is, after all this time, funny.”
“I take it, she didn’t enjoy it much. Poor girl,”  said Lt. Williams, drying her face.
“Not much,” said Ranualt, he never hesitated from facing the truth.  “I did try to please her, but she was determined to ignore me.  Her mother said it was her responsibility for the honor of her Clan, so she complied.”
“No disrespect intended, but I’ll take a side bet that the next night the poor girl said,  you want to do it again? Why?”
“Exactly so,” Ranualt snorted. “Poor girl? You sympathize with her!  I suffered also.”
“Yes, I expect so,” said Lt. Williams. “But you’re all grown up and can cope with adversity.  You said she had the mind of a child.  Her family should never have married her to anyone.  The poor girl didn’t have the maturity to understand any of what was expected of her.  She must have been terrified.”
“I did not know at the time.  I thought her young and very spoiled. It was not until much later that I discovered the extent of her problems.  But you are correct. She did not enjoy . . .being married.  Despite her all important beauty, I did not find her very interesting, so I did not bother her much. She did not take neglect well.  Mia became demanding.  At first she insisted that her mother live with us, and for the sake of peace, my father and I permitted it.  Then she demanded …”
“What?”
“Demanded the return of her suitors.” Ranualt folded his arms and scowled up at the painting.  “She had never learned to read or to entertain herself.  She was not suited for long periods alone.  And now that she was married, the young men could no longer come to see her and sing her praises.  She was angry with me!  It was my fault that her admirers could no longer visit.  I was an inadequate replacement for the constant parade of young men.  I had duties that kept me out of the house for hours, and when I was with her I did not say enough of what she wanted to hear. I grew bored with complementing her.  There is a limit to the number of times I could say the same words.”
“Now if she'd been interested in kissing things might have been different.” Lt. Williams giggled again. 
The corner of Ranualt’s mouth quirked, but he swallowed the laugh.
“The Alama saved me.  It was she that suggested that Mia hold ‘ladies meetings’.   Ours was the ranking Clan of the neighborhood, so all of the wives would be honored to attend.  She also suggested that when the ladies were not here, that Mia should sit to have her portrait painted.  I think there were five or so paintings, by different artists, by the end. Mia didn’?t really care about the gender of her admirers, she simply had to have them.”
“Well, it seemed to have worked,” said Lt. Williams looking around the room again at the chairs arranged so everyone would have an uninterrupted view of the beautiful Mia.  “?She looks happy in her pictures.”
Ranualt glanced up and away again. “Then. . . Mia became pregnant.”
Lt. Williams looked shocked for a moment, then groaned and covered her face. “Oh, that must have been particularly nasty.”
Ranualt chuckled at her reaction.  Somehow talking it over with Lt. Williams was. . pleasant. Her reactions to the story were not what he expected but, it was a pleasure to talk of anything with an intelligent woman.  When he had first noticed her amongst the Commonweal officers he had been stunned by her pale beauty.  To find her conversation made his blood rush as well had been an unexpected bonus.  She disagreed with him.  Had the temerity to insult wine!  If the conference had continued he would have sought many opportunities to speak with her, maybe even try to persuade her to a few private moments. . .perhaps some dangerous or risky interludes?  His body tightened as he considered the risk. . .the seduction.  Would she have complied?  Would she have slipped around security to seek him out the same way she had confounded everyone while making that table trap?
“If Mia unhappy was unpleasant, Mia pregnant was agony!” Ranualt continued.  “She screamed at everyone, including her mother. She broke ornaments and jewelry that was bought to try and distract her, and she threatened the staff. . . .threatened me!” He rubbed an arm meditatively. “I still bear the scars.  She didn’t understand that, no matter how hard she begged, the pregnancy would continue.  She hated the changes in her own body.  Her mother had to spend every minute with her, calming her down.  Mia even talked of ending the pregnancy, but as her family knew what they would lose if she did not produce a child for my Clan, they broke her heart by insisting that she had to have the baby.”
“First time she didn’t get her own way,” said Lt. Williams, shaking her head.  “Poor little spoiled baby.  Oh. . .the birth day must have been horrible.”
Ranualt shuddered. “I admit without shame, I left the house and did not return until they told me it was over.”
“Coward,” joked the Lieutenant.
He leaned forward to place one hand lightly on her chest, and tapped her chin with a finger. 
“Never!  Never say that again.” He growled.
Lt. Williams lowered her eyes, blushing.  She'd insulted a warrior! Not the wisest thing to do. “I apologize. I spoke without thought and chose the wrong word entirely.”
“Forgiven,” he said quickly and moved back to his chair. After a moments silence, Ranualt continued. “Mia enjoyed the parties that were held to celebrate my son’s birth.  Of course, she thought they were all for her. At one point she became angry when I wouldn’t let our son be sent from the room.  People were clustered around his bed and he was distracting her guests from her.   She complained that he was noisy and smelly, and wouldn’t have him anywhere near her … refused to feed him.  Her behavior offended the guests, who did not understand the problem.  Mia  was upset,  thinking that the pregnancy had destroyed her beauty.” Ranualt fell silent for a long moment. “To try and reassure Mia that her beauty had endured, her mother said that the trauma of the pregnancy and birth had enhanced her.  She now had a delicate, ethereal, fragile beauty.”
Lt. Williams frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Now you know why your attendants were so distressed when you would not eat!   Mia thought that if she was more fragile, more ethereal that the people would turn their attention back to her.  So she stopped eating.  The weaker she became, the more attention she got, and the less she ate.  At one point she had both her parents and her brothers kneeling beside her bed, begging her to eat something and she just lay there, smiling.  Until she died.”
He paced the room slowly, the vision of that long ago day so clearly before him.  Mia’s joy at the distress of others had revolted him then, but now … Ranualt sighed as something deep within him loosened and faded.  Mia was an unhappy, unfortunate person, but she did not deserve his hate.  Her life had been her own punishment.
After a pause Lt. Williams asked, “What about your son?  Where is he?”
“Ranualt Crai. My son,” said Ranualt proudly.  “He had his mother's beauty and my mind.”
“It was wise of you to choose to do it that way. Better than the reverse!”
“I though so.” Ranualt closed his eyes, the pain was still close to the surface. “He and his cousins, Naoth Roe and Teah Kree broke into the private cellars one afternoon when he was twenty.  Then they took one of the estate flitters.  It crashed in the mountains. Teah Kree was at the controls.  He and Naoth Roe were unharmed but my son died.  Teah Kress has not been sober a day since.”
“It doesn’t seem enough to say, I’m sorry for your loss,” said Lt. Williams softly.
“It is not, but it is more than many said.  The day after the funeral, my father started talking about another woman for me to marry. For the honor of my Clan.  I left and enrolled in the Fleet the same day.  I did not return while he still lived.”
Lt. Williams did not comment, instead she sat watching the shadows slowly passing across the room.  Ranualt was grateful for the silence.  The ghosts of memory were difficult to face and he did not want to endure any more today.  After a few moments Lt. Williams shifted uncomfortably on the window seat and  tried to use the curtains and wall to pull herself to her feet.  Ranualt crossed the room and put one hand under her elbow to steady her. The other hand he tangled with hers, interlacing their fingers and stroking his thumb across her palm.   He bent his head over hers enjoying the scent of her hair, the light brush of loose strands brushing against his face.
“I find I prefer the companionship of quiet, intelligent people,” he said as he turned to escort her from the room. 
The Lieutenant was not yet well enough for what he intended for them.  But when she was, he was determined! There had once been passion and strength in her eyes, power in the movement of her body. When she was healed there would be again.  She would have no complaints about his performance as a lover.  Lt. Williams would appreciate what Mia had not.
“I wish to show you the library next, Lieutenant.  It contains the history of Clan Ranualt and the history of the Korum.  When you have learned to speak I will have you taught to read.” He smiled lopsidedly. “You will become the first of your people to know our history and our ways.”
“Ah. . . but that isn’t going to be of any use to anyone, is it?”  The lieutenant said softly.
“You are incorrect,” said Ranualt, pausing before a heavy wooden door. “It will be useful for you to understand me.” 
He frowned as he pushed the door open. Too many occasions he had waited in this corridor for his father's attention.  Now that he was Patriarch this door still had the power to diminish his spirit.  Idly he considered having the door replaced. . .when they had the funds. He was distracted from his whimsical thoughts by Lt. Williams gasp.
“This is a library,” she said in a quiet husky voice.
“Yes. I said it is.”
“No, you don’t understand,” said the Lieutenant, with a soft laugh. “Any room may have lots of books in them but this deserves to be called a library.”? 
The long wide stone room was well lit by sunshine streaming in through tall narrow windows. High above the ceiling was interrupted at regular intervals by sky lights.  Between the stands containing hundreds upon hundreds of scrolls were comfortable chairs, low writing desks and the occasional deeply padded couch.  A computer console could be barely seen, half hidden behind a carved wooden screen.   At the end of the room under a flowing banner marked with the crest of Clan Ranualt was a wide desk, almost completely covered by piles of computer flimsies, scrolls and narrow boxes
“I love this room.  All that’s missing is a long haired cat, a coffee console, and then it would be perfect.”  said Lt. Williams with a sigh.  “Now, I can hardly wait to learn to read.”
“We shall have to see what can be done,” said Ranualt, watching her with amusement.  He lifted one of the dozens of reports awaiting his attention and let it fall back through his fingers to the table.  “As you see I have much to occupy me at the moment.”
A distant soft chime echoed through the corridor  A few minutes later there was a rush of soft footsteps, a knock on the heavy door and Elsia Ni entered.
“Two arrivals, Patriarch Ranualt.” She bowed and announced. “The Ident is of the school of Triath village. The Alama requests your guidance in this matter.”
“Have them brought to the library.  I will receive them.”  Elsia Ni bowed again and departed.
“What was that about?”
“We have guests, Lieutenant.  Visitors from a village that is under the protection of Clan Ranualt. I know why they are here.  Sadly, I must listen to them before refusing their request.” 
She waved vaguely toward the upper floors. “You’ll be busy.  I’ll find my own way back to my rooms.”
 “I prefer that you remain with me.”  He fetched one of the comfortable reading chairs and carried it to the right side of his table.  Then he tugged her gloves out of her waist band. “Put these on and sit here.”
“But it is dangerous for me to be seen,” said Lt. Williams, backing toward the door.  “I thought you said that you wanted to keep quiet about me beyond the estate for a little longer.”
“I said, that it was time for those of the estate to know of you.  The people who are arriving are under obligation to Clan Ranualt. They will not speak of it.  They dare not.  Sit there.” He pointed to the chair and turned slightly toward the door. “I can hear them approaching. Sit down now!”
Wincing, the Lieutenant perched awkwardly on the edge of the chair while Ranualt hurried to his place behind the table.  There was a soft knock on the door and the Alama entered.  When she saw the Commonweal woman seated she hurriedly closed the door, almost on the faces of the people following her.
“My Patriarch! Please!” she cried. “No one beyond our gates knows of this woman’s existence.  Let it remain so!  Permit me to take her to her rooms before she is seen.  It is not yet too late!”
Ranualt moved a few pieces of paper from the center of his desk and settled his hands on the bare surface.
“Alama, I hold your voice in high regard.  Indeed, in all other matters pertaining to the Clan, you are my wisest guide and authority.” He raised his head, eyes stern, face rigid. “But in matters pertaining to Lt. Williams I am the only voice.  Bring them in.”
The Alama stared at the floor, breathing quietly, her whole body held rigidly upright. “Patriarch. . .”
“Alama, you have heard my words.  Anything you say now had best be carefully considered.”
Glancing across at the shadow woman the Alama carefully blanked her expression.  “As you command, Patriarch,” and she turned to open the library door.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

to save my enemy 25

An hour later Ranualt was willing to share the Lieutenants opinion.  He had dreamt of, wished for and worried about his home all the years of his service, but somehow the memories had not included the length of the corridors or the many, many staircases. The Lieutenant’s complaint was based on walking up three grand staircases, while ill, to reach the Matriarch’s suite.  Having spent the morning walking through rooms and along corridors Ranualt was rediscovering the true rambling extent of his home.
Lt. Williams jumped as shouts echoed down the hallway, reaching for a gun lost on the other side of the border light years ago. Ranualt spun, dropping into a defense crouch just as swiftly.  The cries sounded as if someone was about to reach for a knife and run mad.  The Alama scowled and tapped her hand against her work book but otherwise did not react. 
Ranualt straightened, tugged down his tunic and asked, only mildly surprised. “They still quarrel?”
“Those two have fought since the day they were born,” replied the Alama.  “I apologize, Patriarch.  I have spoken to them many times but, despite every discipline, they still disrupt the serenity of the house.”
“What’s going on?” the Lieutenant asked, visibly forcing her hands to unclench. 
Ranualt turned away from the noise and led her down another corridor. 
“I have two cleaning women who are notorious for their arguments.   In a few minutes they will separate and go about their work again.  I think my earliest memory is of them shouting at each other from opposite ends of a staircase.  Come, the dining hall is down this corridor.”
The building was so large Theresa was way past getting tired, she was exhausted.  Who would have thought that walking slowly down corridors would leave her with muscles the consistency of cooked spaghetti.  She wanted to go back to her rooms, but she dreaded walking back up all those stairs.  Theresa watched as the Alama opened a door that Ranualt had already passed by.  Intending just to glance in, Theresa pulled the door a little further open. Before Theresa could back out again the Alama crowded close and left Theresa with no choice but to go in.  
Like many of the other rooms this room was huge, with high vaulted ceilings and delicate filigree metalwork in the tall windows.  Unlike any of the others at both ends of this room were gigantic paintings of the same tiny Korum woman.  One showing her seated, one standing.  The arrangement of the furniture puzzled Theresa.  A throne-like chair stood directly under the standing portrait.  A few feet away to one side was a slightly smaller, less ornate chair.  Arranged in half circles across the room, facing the throne was about two dozen other small chairs.  Theresa frowned at the arrangement. There was something about this room that just seemed wrong. It certainly did not match with the style of any other room she had seen.  Commander Ranualt entered the room as her attention returned to the paintings.
“She is very beautiful,” said Theresa.
Ranualt glanced up and away from the paintings, his face impassive.  “My wife, Mia.”
Theresa raised an eyebrow at the abbreviated name.  She had not seen any sign of a wife during the last few weeks, or during the tour today.
The shouts that had punctuated the tour echoed down the corridor.  The Alama slapped her hand on her work book and said something to Ranualt before stalking from the room.
“The Alama is going to talk to those two again,” said Ranualt, with a feral smile.
Theresa felt a little sorry for the cleaners who were incurring Alama’s wrath, but quickly turned her attention to the paintings again.  So, he had a wife.  The research department had never managed to get much data on the Korum family life, but shouldn’t she be here? Or maybe she’s angry at the Commander for bringing home injured stray animals, such as herself, and has gone off for a while.
“She had been dead these fifty years,” said Ranualt, in answer to her unspoken question.
“I am sorry for your loss,” said Theresa, blinking rapidly, then remembered – the Korum can live two hundred years.  Maturity at thirty plus fifty years of marriage. That would mean the Commander would be eighty, at least.  Dismissing the speculation she turned to examine the paintings closely.  The woman’s complexion was flawless, a dark, fine and glowing antique gold.  Her eyebrows winged up in a rather vacant expression, but that may be the painter’s lack of skill. Each feature was perfect and symmetrical. Her stance regal as she stared down at those below her.
“She was very beautiful.”  Theresa repeated.
“She would have liked you,” observed Ranualt, turning away from the paintings and staring out of the windows instead. “You could not say those words often enough to please her.  Her mother had three children, two boys and Mia. But Mia was the only one she loved,  her perfect child.  Perfectly beautiful.  A happy and delicate little doll.  Her mother worshiped her.”
“Oh?  Was that usual?”  Theresa glanced at the small chair just beside the throne, imagining the mother sitting, worshiping the daughter.
Ranualt snorted. “No. It was not wise, but wise was not a word you could use for either Mia or her mother.  Every day Mia was told she was perfect. She did not need to learn anything or do anything. Just by being beautiful Mia exceeded everyone’s rightful expectations. So Mia did not learn, never walked more than a few steps any day, and did not leave her parent's house.  Engaged in no labor.  Aspired to no ambition. All she did was sit in a room surrounded by people content to gaze at her and admire her beauty.”
“Um. . .that’s not. . “Theresa sought an appropriate word, “healthy?”
Ranualt considered the word for a moment. 
“Agreed.  Although, at that time, I did not know of it. I heard talk in the neighborhood of Mia’s beauty and her mother’s protectiveness, but thought nothing off it.  I was busy.  The responsibilities of the estate and the surrounds took up all of my time.” He sighed, staring off at distant memories. “When I was of age, my father called me into his office and announced that he wanted me to marry Mia.  He made much of her beauty and so I was not disinclined.  I was old enough to be agreeable to marriage and there was no one that I had met who was of particular interest to me.  All the women of the Rank were the same and our political commitments were close enough that a marriage would cause no excessive claims upon my father's status. That is, you should know, an important consideration for Korum marriages.”
Theresa, frowned but said nothing.
“So, obedient to my fathers wishes, I went to play court to Mia.”  He walked around the room again, waving his hands at the assembled chairs. “I found her in a room much like this one, although without the paintings.  The chairs were filled with young men, and their mothers, all sitting facing Mia and taking turns reciting her praises.  It is difficult to engage a woman’s interest under those circumstances.  Mia never favored one admirer over another.  She preferred quantity.  Eventually I was able to get her attention long enough to propose marriage.  Mia consulted with her mother and consented.”
“She . . .um. . . doesn’t sound too. . .”
Ranualt raised his eyebrows and assumed formal stance in the center of the room has hands folded over his chest.  Theresa was coming to think of that stance as Ranualt’s default position.  Whenever his mind was elsewhere, he stood in just that manner.  She found her attention drawn to his strong hands.  She had been taught the Korum never removed their gloves in public!  Strange, that she had not noticed it before now, his naked hands.  Theresa tried to suppress the blush.  She had seen hands before, she had even seen his several times.  Why, suddenly, did it seem an intimacy to see his fingers moving over fabric?  Unconsciously she hid her own hands in the folds of her loose sleeves.
“Intelligent?  No.” Ranualt had not noticed her inattention. “At times it seemed that Mia had the mind of a child. She was never educated. Early in her life she told her mother she thought it involved too much effort, so the tutors were sent away.  Consequently, she never learned to think, only to want.  She wanted dresses, admiration and presents, and her mother saw to it that she received them.  The wedding festivities, where she was the center of attention, thrilled her. The dances.  The presentations of gifts.  People coming from all over the Korum to attend the rituals, all congratulating me on my good fortune, remarking on Mia's beauty delighted her.  Mia enjoyed all that.  What she did not understand was, why it all stopped!  The parties ended, the guests departed and she could not go home.  She was here, with me.  Suddenly, Mia didn’t like being married.”
“Oh, no. . .”
Theresa flushed a little.  The remark seemed so inadequate.
“Mia wanted to go home.  The worst part for her was that her mother was not here.  She could not imagine her mother ever agreeing to anything that would result in Mia living without her.  She became hysterical.  It was necessary to send servants to fetch her mother back to explain.  Mia only calmed down when her mother promised not to leave.”
“On the day of the wedding?”
“Exactly so.”
Theresa breathed deeply, chewed her inner cheeks and stared out over the garden, biting her lips to stop them from quivering.  Oh goddess. His mother-in-law with them on the honeymoon!

Monday, September 26, 2016

to save my enemy 24

The next morning Elsia Ton came running into Theresa’s bedroom as she was emerging, wrapped in a towel, from the bathing room.  Before Theresa could dodge the Korum woman had snatched the towel away and almost knocked her over trying to drag fresh underwear up over her foot.  Struggling for balance Theresa chose cooperation over falling and endured the rapid dressing.  Usually Elsia Ton was gentle, fearful of disturbing any old injury. Today she was in a frantic hurry.  Once Theresa was dressed Elsia Ton started roughly brushing the long blonde hair.  Theresa squeaked once, when the brush passed roughly over a half healed scab on her scalp, but Elsia Ton continued to work.  Elsia Ton had barely finished pulling indoor shoes onto Theresa’s feet when Commander Ranualt was admitted to the suite.
“Oh. It’s you. I didn’t know you were here,” said Theresa, rising to her feet.  “When did you arrive?”
“Just this moment. The greatest part of the commitments I had in the Capital have been completed.  Aside from a few visits, I will be in residence here from now on.  I see is no point for you or I to dine alone,” he said, striding through the sitting room.  “Until you are strong enough to attend the main dining room, I shall join you here.” Ranualt looked past Theresa through to the solarium, smiling at the distant mountains.  “I always thought my grandmother’s rooms had the best view.”
Theresa nodded. She had wanted to talk to him. There was no one else she could actually talk with!  Now he was here, she had no idea what she wanted to say.  She waited while food was arranged on the low table before lowering herself as gracefully as possible onto her pile of cushions.
Ranualt hesitated, staring at the pillow Elsia Ton placed on the floor for him.  “Is this how your people dine?”
“Actually, it is. Well, in one or two areas on old earth.  And when dining informally, this is popular for others.  But for now, it is because I find it difficult to sit on a chair.” She flushed.  “If you remember I have some pretty deep claw marks on … my … on me.”
“Ah, yes!  I do remember.  On your. . . me?”   His gaze drifted down her figure and lingered on her butt and he smiled. “That isn't the word I was taught.”
“There are many words to describe that area of the body. Some medical and some impolite.”
“I will remember, both the words and the injury.”
Theresa’s blush deepened. “Well, don’t remember too much. I’d actually prefer it if you forgot the lot of it.”
Ranualt smiled.  “As you wish,” he said and lowered himself down onto a narrow cushion.  “But it will be difficult.  There is so much that is worth remembering.”
Theresa shook her head, refusing to respond to his words.  Maybe he was just in the habit of flirting?  He found her repulsive,  and that was not the worst of what he said.  Maybe flirting was part of the culture, or  he was just sarcastic? 
Repulsive, remember. His true opinion.
“Work harder,”  she advised him, a snap in her voice.  “I can barely remember anything after the pit, but what I do remember,” She shuddered. “It must have been very unpleasant for you to do those things, for me.”
Ranualt watched Elsia Ton pour steaming blue tea into a cup and chose his favorite sweetening stick from a jar.  To his surprise Ton hesitated a moment before putting the cup down first beside the Lieutenant's plate. Ranualt had rarely seen anyone look so nervous as Ton, waiting for his reaction.  The lieutenant did not even appear to notice that she had been favored, but glanced toward the cup, shrugged and took a cautious sip before smiling at Ton.
Ranualt smiled as well.  Had the staff thought he was in jest when he said Lieutenant Williams was to be treated with honor?  Of course she should be served first!  Ranualt continued to twist the sweetening stick in his fingers as Ton poured out the second cup and started serving the breakfast dishes, plain unspiced food for the Lieutenant and delicately prepared food for him.
“We both survived, Lieutenant,” he said, stirring the cup slowly.  “After breakfast, I will give you a tour of the house.  I understand from the Alama that you have not been well enough until now to even attempt it.”
“I’m not sure how far I can walk.”
Lt. Williams stared today’s new food, a fruit with pale gold flesh and green skin presented decoratively arranged on a separate dish.  She speared it and sniffed delicately, before biting off a corner.  Ranualt chuckled at her expression of delight after a display of such caution.  A few days rest brought improvements in her color and strength, a slow but steady return to the exotic figure that had first attracted his attention.
“I hope I am not allergic to this,” she said, swallowing the remainder of the fruit.  “As for the tour, I would like to, but I was under the impression that I wasn’t allowed out of these rooms.” She waved her cutlery vaguely. “There is a guard on the door.”
“The guard is for your protection.  Even on this estate there may be some who have lost a relative to the ongoing conflict between our two peoples.  The Alama says that she has prevented any knowledge of your presence from spreading.  Now I am in full time residence no one on the estate would dare to offer you any disrespect, and you may walk anywhere you wish within the building.”
“And outside?”
Ranualt cut his fruit into smaller slices and dipped into a sauce. 
“I would prefer that you did not leave the building without my company.  At least until the people of the estate become more accustomed to your presence.”
“Ah huh.” The Lieutenant glanced over her shoulder to the window framing the distant mountains. “A prison, no matter how well appointed, is still a prison.”
“Prison? No. I wish you to regard this as your home, Lieutenant!  Later I will show you how beautiful our home is.”
“You are willing to take the risk of people finding out I am here? People from outside? Isn’t that dangerous?”
 “I am retired and therefore unimportant to those outside these walls. It is time, past time even, for those who live on the estate to know your are here.  The Alama has been cautious.” He frowned.  “But I am here and will supervise your introduction into the estate families. Once those who owe me loyalty are over the shock, I will take you to a few other sites within the estate. There are some beauties to be seen.”
“People will wonder how I came to be here.  There will be questions.”
“You are here now, and there is no record of how you came to be in my possession.”
Theresa winced at the word possession but the Commander appeared not to notice.
 "No one can prove you have not been here for years. In a few weeks there will be no further need for concern.” Ranualt paused, slowly slicing the fruit on his plate.  “It will be a great insult for someone to attempt to remove you from my hands.”
“But the military?” asked the Lieutenant, looking over her shoulder at the window as if expecting to see fliers in formation.
“Provided I have some notice, we need not be concerned.”
“But if they find out about me I might still be questioned.”  She shivered, and stared down at her hands.
“They will not take you. I can prevent it. I will prevent it.”  Ranualt reached across the table to capture her hands and stroked her fingers gently with his thumb. 
She tugged her hands free and folded her arms tightly against her chest.
“You cannot be certain,” she muttered.
“By the time they discover you, I assure you, they will not be able to remove you from me without creating more problems than they wish to have.  In the interim, acquiring language is important.  I will consider how this is to be done while I still have duties to attend to.”
Ranualt rose from the table. “If you are ready, we may begin the tour.  I would appreciate hearing your opinion of my home.”
Elsia Ton fussed about tucking unmarked gloves into the Lieutenants waistband and brushing pack her pale hair.
“I have already formed one. It’s beautiful,” muttered the Lieutenant as Ton assisted her to stand. “But it has too many stairs.”

Friday, September 23, 2016

to save my enemy 23

Determined that no one could accuse her of neglecting the Commanders guest, the Alama had personally supervised the creation of that woman’s wardrobe, monitored the strange restricted diet, and reassigned Elsia Ni and Ton from their other demanding duties to wait upon the foreigner night and day.
The Alama had found many legitimate reasons to not go near the woman herself, afraid that her anger, her disappointment might be revealed.  On first examination, the woman had no amazing beauty to recommend her.  After a few weeks of healing she was still nothing notable.  Shadow pale and small, how could anyone see anything particularly attractive about her?
Men, being the animals they were, would seek the strange and exotic for their sexual release.  It was the nature of men, and protesting did no good.  But sex was insufficient reason to turn away from seeking a legitimate marriage or to engage in at relationship that would endanger one’s home. The Alama had supervised Ranualt’s education and knew he was wise enough to know this.  Why now did he risk so much for such an unimportant pleasure? Was one courtesan could be held superior to another?
Unfortunately it had lately become clear that the woman would not do the honorable thing and die of her illnesses. Day by day reports came to her of the woman's improvement in health.
The Alama heard from Elsia Ton that the woman was reluctant to dress properly, preferring to wander around her rooms in a light nightdress.  Not willing to have that sort of impropriety in the house, even though the Patriarch was not present to be enticed, meant it was time for the Alama to act. Certain allowances could be made for the ill, but, if she was recovered enough to wander about, she was recovered enough to dress properly.
Gathering her work book and the pile of newly completed clothing, she set out for the Matriarch’s suite, again apologizing to that beloved woman’s memory for the use to which the room was now being put. 
Nodding to the silent guard, the Alama opened the door and swept into the suite.   The shadow woman was indeed walking through the rooms in her nightgown, bare handed and with uncovered feet despite it being almost noon.  Elsia Ton made her bow from her place beside the door.  Noticing the new arrival the . . .Lt. Williams . . even the shape of her name was harsh. . . turned to make a slight bow. 
“Alama.”
“Lewtent Willaahms.”  The Alama bowed and pointed toward the bedroom.
Lt. Williams preceded her, walking stiffly, into the back room. Once they were all gathered and the door secured, the Alama handed the new garb to her assistants.  Despite her reservations about the Commanders guest the Alama had ordered costumes that demonstrated the Clan’s great status.  The gold and silver threads covered the tunics so completely that they could almost stand alone. The trouser fabric echoed the embroidery theme, but would yield enough to make walking and sitting possible, even comfortable.  If the woman was ever seen by an outsider then the viewer would know immediately that she was held in high regard.  
God's grant that never happen.
The three Korum women held out the different outfits awaiting Lt. Williams choice.  The Alama noted Ni running an envious hand over the rich fabric but declined to discipline her at this time. To their combined surprise the Commonweal woman remained standing on the far side of the room, making no move toward her new clothing. 
The Alama snorted. If that woman would not chose then she will have accept another’s selection.  Crossing the room swiftly the Alama held the tunic up to the pale woman’s form to assess the size and fit.  The dark green color would flatter those odd eyes, although next time silver embroidery would be better to reflect the almost colorless hair.  Instead of being pleased by the offering, Lt. Williams backed away.  The Alama followed, seizing hold of the loose nightdress.  There followed a brief game of tag between the three agile Korum women and one stiff Commonweal officer that ended with Lt. Williams grabbing the offered tunic out of the Alama’s hand.
Finally,  thought the Alama in satisfaction, and watched open mouthed as the woman immediately turned the beautiful tunic inside out. In a few places, along the seams, the stiff ends of the metal threads could be seen poking through.  Well, that was untidy but understandable given the haste in their preparation.
But then the pale woman folded the fabric over, lifted the soft sleeve of her nightgown away from her arm and slashed the seam across an area of intact skin.  Immediately the unnaturally pale skin was marked with a narrow angry red welt.  Lt. Williams then righted the outfit and returned it to the Alama with another shallow bow.
“The fabric hurts her skin,” observed Elsia Ton, unnecessarily. 
The Alama leaned closer and pulled the embroidered collar of the nightdress away from the pale neck.  Underneath was an area of reddened skin that exactly matched the shape of the sewing. With a sigh, the Alama let the collar drop.
“Elsia Ni!  Go to the store rooms and find the softest, plainest fabric you can. Take it to the sewing room.  Let them. . . tell them to make outfits suitable for the least ranked of the field workers, no embroidery at all.  Tell then to sew it loose so that it will not abrade her wounds.” 
Elsia Ni fled the room.  As soon as Ni left, Lt. Williams tried to take the Alama’s work book.  When the Alama resisted,  Lt. Williams made a fist and moved her hand in circles in the air, then tried to take the work book again.
“What is she doing?” demanded the Alama.
“I do not know, Alama.  It is impossible to understand her. She does that every day,” replied Elsia Ton.
Reluctantly the Alama permitted her notebook to be taken from her hand.  With a smile Lt. Williams turned to a clear page and took up the pen.  After studying it briefly, she made a little row of marks down the page. 
Showing the marks to the Alama, she said. “Ohnn, two, freee, froor, frive.” Tapping one mark after another.
“What is this?”
Elsia Ton raised her hands in resignation. “I do not know, she makes the same sounds over and over.  Sometimes she points to fingers, sometimes she points to pieces of fruit on her plate, or things around the room.”
Lt. Williams tried again. “Ohnn, two, freee, froor, frive, sixh, sheveh, eighh.” When tapping marks on the page did not work, she pointed to the discarded clothing.  “Ohnn, two, freee.”  Then to the chairs near the wall. “Ohnn, two, freee, froor.”
“Counting? She is counting!” exclaimed the Alama.
“Well, yes,” said Elsia Ton, “But why?”
The Alama tapped her finger tip on the page and counted off the first ten marks in Korum, gazing directly into the green eyes.  Then she turned and counted the tunics and the chairs.  Lt. Williams smiled and made  more strange marks on the page.  Then speaking slowly she tried to imitate the sounds the Alama made.  She came quite close and with two or three repeats and more scribbling, was soon counting to ten correctly.
The Alama retrieved her workbook, and turned to Elsia Ton. “I will send you paper and pens. If she wants to learn to count, teach her to count!”
“As you command, Alama,” said Elsia Ton, rolling her eyes and raising her hands to the Gods in supplication.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

to save my enemy 22

“Elsia Ni has gone to speak to the cook. We will have something for you soon.”
Lt. Williams sighed, “Just a little meat.  A little water…”  Her voice faded and her eyelids drifted shut.  Ranualt stayed where he was for another hour, watching her breathe.
*
Fever returned, viciously hot.  For Theresa, the days passed in a haze of voices saying things she did not understand, hands pulling and pushing at her.  Odd tasting food and water was pushed into her mouth as she drifted in a fog of confusion and pain.  Her body fought the infection that tore through her systems.  For a time it seemed that the infection would win.  More than once her body was wracked by febrile seizures.  Her terrified attendants carried her to the bathing room to soak her overheated body in what felt like freezing water.  Theresa fought, cried and screamed, but was too weak to prevent any painful touch.
An unknown time later she began to emerge from the fog.   Attackers faded to be replaced by gentle hands and concerned attendants.  The infection left her weaker than she had ever been in her life but she awoke one morning to the realization that despite everything, she would live.  With the return of conscious thought came questions: what had happened and what was going to happen next? 
She had vague memories of visits from the Sector Commander.  There had been conversations, or she thought she remembered trying to explain something to him, but the details were fuzzy.  Despite hours of effort she could not recall exactly what they had spoken about. 
Several days after the worst of the fevers retreated she climbed from the bed - despite the protests of her attendants - and was able to stand unaided.  Walking without assistance was still beyond her strength for a day or so longer.  
A few days later she tried sitting at a table to eat one morning and discovered how many muscles were involved in that particular maneuver.  Her injuries were healing, but even so, there were only two positions that were moderately comfortable: lying face down and standing straight up.  Every position in between stretched some part of her painfully.   Her attendants watched in silence as she piled pillows on the floor near a low table, with a couple of pillows positioned under her knees and others under her butt she was able to balance in a semi-kneeling position.   In this position she could at least look around the room, and eat from a low table.  .
Lacking any other distraction, her major entertainment became watching Elsia Ni and Elsia Ton.  They were terrified, of her!  What they thought Theresa could do to them in her current condition was a complete mystery.  At the moment if she threw a punch at a sponge cake it wouldn’t even bruise the icing.   But the girls clung to the walls when Theresa walked the rooms for exercise and watched her every move as she ate. Eating implements were snatched from her hand as soon as she was finished and carried out of the room lest, she supposed, she attacked someone with them.  It was disconcerting to be the focus of such intent observation. Theresa assumed that the door of her quarters was guarded on the outside, but she was hustled away whenever either of her attendants wanted to leave the room so that she could not see out, and no one looking in could see her.
The suite of rooms she had been given were comfortable and spacious. The room she enjoyed the most was the enclosed veranda attached to her sitting room looking out over broad gardens. Theresa spent as much time as she could on the veranda filling her lungs with unfiltered and unprocessed air for the first time in years. 
When she felt better, perhaps in a week or so, she would start Tai Chi exercises in this room and force tightened muscle and skin to stretch.  But first of all she needed to be able to speak to her attendants.  She had the fairly strong feeling that she had discussed learning to speak Korum with the Sector Commander.  Or she planned to talk to him about it!  Or something like that.  The last few days were a little vague.  But he was not here, and as there appeared to be no one else who understood Commonweal, Theresa was stuck!  When Theresa approached Ni and Ton, pointing to pieces of furniture and trying to get names for the piece the girls had retreated to another room in confusion.  
Theresa retreated to the other side in frustration.  She needed the Sector Commander to help her get started with language lessons and she had no idea where he was!  It wasn’t surprising he was avoiding her.  After all, she was repulsive, wasn’t she; stinking and ugly and repulsive. 
That was what he said.  She rubbed her forehead. At least he had kept her alive. Odd that in all the sociological assessments and reports no one had discovered the Korum didn’t like the physical appearance of the Terrans.
But why then had they started that campagn against her back at the peace conference. No doubt it had been a conspiracy.
The whole thing on Station 5 must have been a malicious set up. The Korum had sat around talking about her and creating work for the psychology department on a whim, or maybe as a diversion. They probably planned it all before their arrival.  Pick out a woman and conspire to lust after her.  Give the Commonweal socio-linguistics department something to wonder about.
Damn them to the lesser hells for picking her as the victim of their gossip!   One day she would explain to the great and honorable Sector Commander how much she did not appreciate the selection.

Monday, September 19, 2016

to save my enemy 21

Ranualt looked away, but the Alama was not inclined to be merciful.
“Patriarch, your father is dead! You can no longer punish him. Your wife is dead!  Your son is dead!  There is no one to inherit except a fool and a drunk. Your obligation to the Clan is to marry!”
“Teah Kree is still drinking, is he?” Ranualt continued staring out of the window.
“Constantly! His family tries to conceal it, but he has destroyed his health. He is not expected to live much longer.  Patriarch…” she stopped as Ranualt raised his hand slowly.
“Dear Alama.  I wish I could make you happy but my honor will not permit it. I owe a debt to the woman who lies ill upstairs. Should the God’s decree she dies we shall revisit this discussion, but if she lives, and I pray she will, then the matter is settled. As for the estate, we will do the best we can until hard work gives us stability.”
Alama was not yet done with the subject. “No one yet knows that woman is upstairs, Patriarch. Ton and Ni are my granddaughters, they will say nothing.  There is still time to send her away.  She is so ill that it is unlikely that she will live. If your honor requires you save her life, so be it, but let her not destroy our Clan.” She stopped as Ranualt snapped up his hand.
“Enough! Do not ask me to behave in a dishonorable manner.  Lt. Williams risked much, years ago, to save my life and the life of Praetor Kim Path. Her actions meant that we did not resume that bloody war! She will live the years of her life in this house, in honor.”
“I do not suggest dishonor!  You can still satisfy your obligation to her,” said the Alama, urgently.  “The estates are extensive. There are places where she could live quietly with staff to supervise her.  All comforts and luxuries will be hers. Only no one would know of her existence and the safety of all who live here will be assured.”
“No, Alama, that will not do!”  Ranualt said sharply. 
The Alama rose from the floor and bowed, eyes carefully downcast as she did not trust them to be clear of emotion.
“I hope you will still work with me, Alama,” he said quietly.
With a deep formal bow the Alama replied. “This is my home and it is my honor to serve.  Please excuse me.”
She barely waited for his gesture of dismissal before fleeing the room.  Ranualt returned to pacing.  He depended upon the Alama for her good sense as much as her business acumen. To quarrel with her was unfortunate, but on the subject of Lt. Williams he would not accept any alternatives.   As the sunlight faded from the window and the room lights automatically lit, he finally returned to the couch and started working on the financial records, seeking the extent of his nephew's embezzlement.
*
The next morning Ranualt was seated at the head of a vast dining table that could comfortably seat fifty, wondering why it was necessary to use this room at all, when Elsia Ton approached him.
After a perfunctory bow the worried woman started her lament, “Patriarch, we have tried all we know, but your guest will not eat.  Today we took five plates to her hoping to tempt her appetite, and she turned away from all of them without even a taste.”
Ranualt regarded the devastation he had wrought on his cook’s excellent breakfast and considered.  It was possible that the contrary and unpredictable Lt. Williams was trying to starve herself to death, but that didn’t seem to match with yesterday’s behavior and her general manner. Of course, he knew little about her.  He had followed reports from across the battle zone as best he could, but the activities of an interpreter did not rate a spy’s attention.  Despite his subtle inquiries he had never heard what became of her after the collapse of the peace conference.
The warriors of the commonweal were a stubborn lot. Perhaps her honor would not permit her to accept imprisonment. She was a mystery. Their whole society was a mystery.
With a sigh he rose from the table.
“Let us see what can be done with her.”
*
Lt. Williams had obtained a nightgown since the previous day.  The sleeves were brilliant blue and well covered in thick embroidery. Elaborate and beautiful designs placed on an article of clothing intended to be seen by the wearer and one other. Ranualt had his suspicions on whose delicate stitches they were.  Similar designs had graced his clothing when the Alama had been his grandmother’s maid.  Perhaps it was the Alama’s attempt at an apology.  It was too soon to look for acceptance. 
Lt. Williams was reclining as he had left her, lying quietly face down on a pile of pillows, her head resting on her pale, still swollen hands.  Elsia Ni rose from a chair beside the head of the bed to make her bow. Ranualt acknowledged her with a slight nod.  Lt. Williams may have forgiven her, but he had not.
“She sleeps much of the time, Patriarch.” Elsia Ton remarked, a little concerned that she had dragged the Patriarch away from his meal and, when he arrived, the guest was again asleep.  But at her words, Lt. Williams stirred and opened those strange green eyes.
“Sector Commander,” said Lt. Williams, her voice distant and the words slurred. “I am deeply honored by your visit. I would bow, but I think I would fall over if I tried to stand up.”
“Stay where you are, Lieutenant.  Your attendants have come to me with the complaint that you refuse to eat.”
He gestured to the table nearby, where a selection of dishes, some chilled, some warm, waited. “I am unable to obtain supplies from across the border. You will have to make do with the poor fare that my estates can offer.  We will endeavor to find something to please.”
Lt. Williams closed her eyes and shifted slightly in the bed.
“Please do me a favor, Sector Commander.”
“If it is within my power,” replied Ranualt cautiously.
Lt. Williams smiled. “It’s nothing difficult, Commander.  Just. . .please, could you sit down. It is very difficult for me to raise my head to talk to you.”
Ranualt settled on the chair that Elsia Ni had left.
“Better,” said Lt. Williams.  “I’m . .I’m. . .sorry, Commander. I am not trying to be difficult. It’s just. . .the food’s. .not safe.”
“Safe,” Ranualt frowned, the honor of his Clan had been impugned.  “No one will attempt to poison you while you live here.“
The Lieutenant’s hands moved restlessly over the blankets and pillows.  “Foreign foods. Strange. . .to me..to my physiology. This isn’t my home planet. The proteins, the carbohydrates might be chemically the same but there is a risk. What is harmless to you might be poison to me. Unintentional poison.”
Ranualt found his attention focused on her hands. One still swollen, the other as pale as the uniform she had once worn.  Soft and cool.  He wondered what it would feel like when her hands wandered over him, the way they moved over the blankets.  His body tightened at the thought.
“Allergic reaction. . . possible poison. . . don’t eat what you don’t know!” She clutched her head. “Goddess, I don’t know if I’m saying it right, I feel so fuzzy!  They teach us in the Academy Survival Training Course, if you’re stuck somewhere and have to eat the local flora and fauna you have to be careful. I can only have a small amount of something new.  Eat nothing  after for a few hours.  Eat only that for a few days. Very small amounts. Once I’m certain that it’s safe I can try another new thing..”
“Survival training,” said Ranualt, surprised that he had forgotten. It had been years since he had taken part of any landing on any inadequately analyzed planet, or eaten anything that his science team had not first checked. “My apologies, Lt. Williams. Returning to my home, I had forgotten that this was foreign ground to you.  I will explain to your attendants and they will keep careful record of what you eat and what is proven safe.”
“Thank you,”  she said, her voice a fragile thread, “and only water to drink, filtered water, for the first few months.”
Ranualt gave brisk orders to Elsia Ni and the Korum woman hurried out of the room, carrying the rejected tray.

Friday, September 16, 2016

To Save My Enemy 20

“Stop!” Ranualt sprang to his feet.  The decrepit chair overturned, two legs came off, and it crumpled to the floor with a satisfying crunch.  Ignoring the destruction of his father's favorite chair Ranualt began to pace across the library floor, braid whipping behind him like a snake. He passed the Alama three times as he walked from window to door and back again, before stopping and facing her. Raising one hand to his forehead he pointed to the tip of his index finger at peak of his right eyebrow.
“I have a headache, right here,” he said.
The Alama’s smile flashed briefly before she patted him gently on the head. “You still have to go to school, Ti.”
Ranualt nodded and said quietly, “I know.”  He spared a glance for the wrecked chair before settling on one end of a couch and patted the cushions beside him.  “Come. Sit and tell me the worst of it.”
The Alama moved slowly to sit beside him.  Ranualt Ti had played at being Patriarch as a small boy, announcing to everyone around him that he would solve everyone’s problems!  There would be no one hungry, no one punished where there was no crime. Everyone would have the job they loved and not just the one they were given, and marry for love not obligation. His grandmother had told her maid that she believed the boy would try to fulfill the boast.
Now the maid carried the Alama’s responsibilities, and the boy had discovered the reality of the world.
“Your nephew came to ask for money.  Money to give to the Praetor as bribes for some matter or another.  At first your father refused, as is our family tradition.  Then came the announcement that you had been promoted.  For meritorious service!  Your father was overwhelmed with pride.  He could talk of nothing else, but that you had risen to Sector Commander by your own skills!  He had the whole neighborhood here for a celebration that lasted a week! Then your nephew came to him.  He told your father that he had heard a rumor that, because you had refused to render the proper payments, your rank would be taken from you.  The boy said he had the ear of the First Praetor’s son, and could facilitate the payment in time to save you.”
Ranualt cursed and slammed his hand down on the window ledge. “God’s take it, father should have known that was not true! They could not remove me once I was confirmed!”
The Alama clutched his arm. “He was afraid. Your father thought you would lose something that you had worked toward for so long.  The boy worked on his fear and  prevailed.”
“How much, Alama?  How many times?”
“Patriarch?” She stroked the arm of the couch, unable to meet his eyes.
Ranualt turned burning midnight eyes on her. “I am not a fool.  Once a purse is opened, those thieves return again and again.  How much did they take?”
She turned away, fiddling absently with the seals on the household account book. “The total profits from the year of your promotion until the year of your father's death.  Six years.”
Ranualt snorted and started pacing again. When he had worn out the emotion he returned to stand beside the couch.
“Go on.”
“A few times, Naoth Roe would come with guests.  The First Praetor’s son and his friends. Many others. They would stay for a few days and drink as much as they could.  Your father ordered me to open the private cellars for them.” Seeing the flash in Ranualt’s eyes, she quickly continued. “I did not, of course. But they managed to consume a few of the best years from our sales room.”
Ranualt waved her to continue, his eyes staring vaguely into the distance.
“After your father’s death Naoth Roe came to me to ask for money, but I said that as you were now Patriarch, I must obey your wishes on the subject.  If he wished to make his request in writing, I would include it in the next package I sent for your review. He left to think about how it should be phrased, and when he tried to come back and drink with his friends, I fed them unseasoned wines from the most recent pressing and they all went away very ill and did not return.”
“I remember what that does,” said Ranualt, wincing at the memory.  “That particular argument is most persuasive.  You did well.”
“Thank you, Patriarch.”  The answering smile was faint, but reassuring.
“Do you know what he used the money for?”
“I have no certain knowledge, Patriarch.” She studied the seal of the account book with great interest. Ranualt nodded. “I suspect it was all wasted in the traditional ways.”
“I will make my own inquires, Alama.  But I would also value knowing your suspicions. I am certain you have been working hard since my father's death to recover from those losses.  How do things stand now?”
Ignoring the implied praise the Alama unrolled the ledger on their laps, turning to the latest entry.
“We have barely recovered,” she said, pointing to the annual summaries as she turned the book.  “The payments were set abnormally high, no doubt as punishment for all the years we rendered nothing more than lawful taxes.  We have had to use banked funds to meet our obligations, and there have been replacements of damaged equipment and emergencies. Usually that would not be a problem, but as you see. . .” The Alama pointed to the families asset balance. “We are in a fragile state.”
Ranualt turned back over the last few years of entries.  A brief review was enough to show the Alama’s hard work.  She had contentiously documented the lost profits from the wasted wine and a monetary gifts marked given to Roe by Ranualt's father and balanced them against a slight increase in production, in sales.  The Alama had recorded it all.  She had kept the estate going through period of great trial and she had triumphed, in a way.  No land had been sold, no monetary obligations incurred but, as she put it, the Clan’s finances were fragile.
“I am in your debt, Alama. Your debt and my grandmothers. No one else could have done so well.  I wish I had the means to reward you.  As soon as I am able, I will do so.”
The Alama rose and knelt before him, a gesture so uncharacteristic that Ranualt almost dropped the ledger.
“Patriarch, I have worked hard for the Clan Ranualt. I hid the true nature of our finances from everyone, saved all that I could, met all obligations and kept high the honor of your family.  In all this I had hope that all could be well when you returned, because then. . .then you would marry and have a child, an intelligent, wise child to inherit all.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

To Save My Enemy 19

The Alama and Ranualt entered the room at a dead run to find Elsia Ni struggling to lift Lt. Williams from the floor. The blanket had come unbound and the bandages on her pale back showed the stains of fresh blood.  Cursing, Ranualt pushed Elsia Ni away and lifted Lt. Williams from the floor.  The blankets caught about his legs and dragged the other end down her chest.  The Alama, moving swiftly, grasped the trailing edge of the blanket from under his feet and tossed it over Theresa’s body.  Elsia Ton rearranged the pile of pillows and, taking some of Lt. Williams’s weight, tried to lower her down to the bed.
“No Patriarch, she lies face down to spare her back!” cried the Alama, realizing Ranualt and Elsia Ton were working at cross purposes. 
While Lt. Williams was being settled the Alama turned to scold Elsia Ni who huddled against the wall weeping.
“What were you doing?  She is your responsibility and I find you have dropped her upon the floor.”
“I am totally at fault, Alama.  I left the room for a few moments and when I returned . . .”
Ranualt left Elsia Ton to the task of arranging blankets and turned on the hapless Ni.
“While she is in your care to do not expect to find you adding to her injuries,” he began.
When Theresa floated back to consciousness her first thought was that she was in the middle of a cat fight.  Voices of various pitches were shrilly bouncing through her head, and the echoing was making it impossible for her to string thoughts together.
Clutching her head to stop it from splitting open Theresa cried, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up all of you!”
Instant silence, then a gentle hand moved over her scalp finding the newly acquired lump.
“I cannot leave you alone for a moment,” observed the familiar voice of Sector Commander Ranualt.  “Please take a care of your head. Thus far it is the only part of you without damage.”
Theresa tilted her head and opened her eyes reluctantly.  His face was far too close and his magnetic eyes added to the disorder of her thoughts. It took most of her will, and his continued pressure on her latest bruise for her to move her away.
“This time it was an accident. I gave the girl who has been looking after me a fright and we both ended up in a tangle.” Theresa smiled at her attendant. “Please apologize to her, for me, for the fright. I meant no harm.”
Sector Commander Ranualt stared at her for a long moment. 
“Please. I was just trying to go to the bathroom by myself and I fell,”said Theresa. “They have all been very patient and kind to me since my arrival. That lady even washed my hair,” Theresa ran her fingers through her blond mop. “You remember what a smelly mess that was.  Please thank her for all her hard work.”
Ranualt stood slowly and turned to the three Korum women.  He engaged them in a discussion that seemed to Theresa longer than necessary to pass on a simple thank you.
Now that she had a throbbing headache to deal with as well as renewed burning pain in her back it was even harder for Theresa to concentrate. She let her eyes drift shut and let the discussion continue without her. Here and there she heard a vaguely familiar sound, a question or an exclamation word, but they were all speaking too fast.  Frustrated Theresa tried to escape the aching of her head.  The induction words for deep hypnosis came to mind and she took that offered road.
It took several minutes for the others in the room to realize she had gone to sleep. Ranualt studied her still form without comment.  The light blanket did not conceal the curves of her body, rather it softened and enhanced. The memory of cleaning her now returned with passionate strength.  His hands tingled as he remembered the soft curve of her breasts filling his hands, of watching water running over the damaged but strong muscles of her buttocks. 
He must prevent anyone ever suspecting the extent of his attraction.  An emotional bond, however light, created a risk, something that could be used against him.  At this time of change he would permit no vulnerabilities.
“As Lt. Williams has no objections, Elsia Ton and Ni will continue to attend her.  See to it that she is not left alone again,” he ordered, and gesturing for Alama to accompany him, passed out of the room.
Both women bowed, grateful that the Patriarch’s anger had vanished almost instantly the strange woman had spoken to him.
“Alama, you and I will speak of household matters,” he called over his shoulder and marched through the building, down to the family library.
 Ranualt walked around his father’s heavy wooden desk and lowered himself gingerly into the old, barely padded chair.  The old wood creaked alarmingly, but held.  For some unknown reason his father had refused to replace this chair, although it had grown more decrepit and dangerous with each passing year. Ranualt shifted position and the chair swayed.
“We will have to make replacing this chair one of our early concerns,” Ranualt smiled up at the waiting Alama.
To his surprise Alama did not instantly agree and Ranualt felt his smile fade.
The Alama placed the household accounts ledger on the table before him, but did not open it.  Fearing what was to come Ranulat permitted his face to settle back into the familiar impassivity.
“Tell me!” he commanded.
The Alama hesitated, then said. “During the last years of your father’s life, he took much comfort from the frequent visits of your nephew, Naoth Roe.”

Monday, September 12, 2016

To Save My Enemy 18

Sector Commander, (retired, or near enough as made no difference), Ranualt Ti walked under the lintel set in place almost eight hundred years ago by his revered ancestor, turned and smiled at the crowd waiting just inside. The residents of his estates were well represented, one from each of the disciplines, the farms, the servants of the Clan stood, arranged by rank and duty. His people, his responsibilities and his strengths. Slowly Ranualt bowed to the crowd. They bowed in return before the representatives filed out and down the stairs to spread the news they had witnessed his return with their own eyes. Once the great doors thudded closed he lifted off his cloak and dropped it into waiting hands. A very young server was nudged forward to receive Ranualt’s heavy gloves, which were ceremoniously placed on a pillow and carried from the room. Ranualt wiggled his fingers, enjoying the freedom of movement.  Here he did not need any form of decoration or crest to announce his identity. No concealment. No barriers. Here was his place of safety and security. Here he might rest unconcealed.
This was the Clan Ranualt, and he was Patriarch!
The Alama stepped forward to make a deep bow of behalf of all who lived under  his protection.
“Forgive me, dear Alama. I have been away too long.” Ranualt suppressed his shock at the sight of his oldest friend. She had aged so much in the last few years.  He had left her with the burden of the estates, and the responsibility of dealing with his ailing, irritable father. In comparison, life on the borders was stress free.
“It has been my honor to serve.” The Alama said in the same soft voice and gracious manner Ranualt remembered from his early childhood.
“We are honored to have you,” Ranualt lowered his voice. “I know you would prefer to speak of estate matters, but I think it best to deal with my guest first.  Thereafter you shall have my undivided attention for all other matters.”
The Alama nodded and waved to dismiss the staff.  Ranualt studied the older woman curiously. She was, despite the years, still energetic and he counted himself fortunate that his grandmother has thought to extensively educate this intelligent woman.  No doubt she managed the vast estates better than he could.  But there was something in her manner that nagged at him. She looked directly into his eyes, yet he could read nothing in them.  In her loyalties there could be no doubts so why did she conceal her thoughts as if he were some stranger?
Ranualt followed the Alama through the house.  He would address his concerns to the Alama as soon as he had dealt with problem of Lt. Williams.
*
Lying face down on her bed Theresa looked over her shoulder at the doorway to the bathroom. Ten feet, she estimated between herself and her destination, if that, but right now in her fragile condition the distance was as intimidating as a ten click full-pack run.  Her injuries has started healing, finally.  At least she hoped they were. One thing was certain, they had started stiffening. Her muscles and abused skin hurt more now than when the injuries were inflicted. The scabs tightened and every movement pulled and cracked them. The time she spent in deep, self-imposed hypnotic sleep had kept the pain at a distance, but it hadn’t helped her flexibility nor her strength. Theresa wiggled on her pile of pillows. Those animals in the pit had gone for face to face fighting, therefore when the claws came out, mostly they went straight into her back.  It was impossible for her to get into a comfortable position. Until now she had never realized how much she depended upon her back. Experimentally she wiggled her smallest finger and felt an answering tug on her shoulder. There was no movement that didn’t result in pain.
The young woman who brought the food Theresa refused to eat had tried her best to make a comfortable bed. Theresa could lie face down, her body slightly elevated on the ridge of pillows down the middle of the bed, her arms resting forward on the mattress to either side. The problem with sleeping face down was she had a choice, suffocate or neck ache, depending on whether she chose to rest her face on the pillows or over the edge.  But it had never been her practice to sleep face down and how could anyone sleep in one position all the time?  Besides, the injuries on her front hurt as well!
Maybe she just felt so rotten because she was tired of being in pain.  She could barely remember a time when she was able to move freely. 
That was it.  She was tired.  Tired and still feverish.  Tired, feverish and hungry!
Tired, feverish, hungry, thirsty and needed to go to the bathroom. Which brought her back to the original problem.
Getting out of bed without hurting herself.
It was better to start the journey before the issue became more urgent.  Ignoring the small bell that would summon her young attendant Theresa started shifting her lower body sideways until her body was tilted on the pillows. Then she straightened her weak arms to start levering herself backwards, down the pillows, across the mattress until her toes reached the floor.
Okay.  Now the object is to stand up without hurting her body in any way, shape or form. Theresa considered her options.  She could bend her knees.  That would stretch the injuries on her butt, but if she pushed up at the same time as she bent her knees, then she would be kneeling beside the bed pretty quickly. 
It was the best plan she could come up with.
The maneuver worked fairly well and with minimal swear words.  The only down side was that when she was finished Theresa was now kneeling on the floor, with her blanket over her head, wearing only bandages.  Well, being naked could not be helped.  The wounds were all over her body, and with the frequent dressing changes she needed, her attendants had not bothered with clothes. Theresa’s own preference would be to wear clothes when possible.
 Wasn’t it somewhere in one of the old books on war about being naked in the presence of your enemy being a bad thing?
If it wasn’t, when she got home she would write a book and put it in!
Climbing to her feet took another few minutes, and more swear words.  When she was done Theresa pulled the blanket off the bed and wrapped it, sarong-like, about her body.  Not the latest fashion, but much, much better than nothing.  Holding on to a side table for balance Theresa waited until the waves of dizziness and nausea retreated.  This was better than the first time they had helped her to her feet, when she had heaved up what little water she had in her stomach all over the floor.  Gathering her strength and courage Theresa pushed off from the bed and staggered toward the bathroom.  The necessary taken care of she poured herself a cup of water.  Her hands trembled uncontrollably and most of the water splashed over her face and the floor but each action was a declaration of independence.
She was trembling with fatigue and covered by a thin layer of sweat by the time she was ready to make her way back to bed.  What had appeared to be a ten click run moments ago, now was a light year! Leaning heavily on the wall stared at her destination as if concentration would make it move closer.  Her head felt light and hot, and she was breathing heavily. Gathering her courage she let go of the supporting wall and stepped forward.
The door swung open and the familiar figure of her nursemaid hurried in carrying fresh supplies.  She stopped dead seeing the empty bed.  Then, spotting Theresa in the middle of the room charged across to seize her by the arm.  Theresa resisted enough to put them both off balance. In the next few seconds they swayed as bandages cascaded to the floor, Theresa’s improvised clothing loosened and her vision grayed.  The blankets tangled both women’s feet and, clinging to each other, they fell hard against the stone wall. Theresa shrieked as the surface abraded her wounds and collapsed unconscious.

Friday, September 9, 2016

To Save My Enemy 17

Ranualt sighed as his staff divested him of his cloak and the body guards dashed off to confirm the building’s security.  With a bow, the housekeeper indicated a small group of people waiting.  As soon as Ranualt turned his attention to them, the trio knelt silently on the stone floor.  Ranualt approached, smiling slightly.   Two young men and a young woman. One youth carried a basket of fruits and vegetables grown on Ranualt’s own estates. The other held a carrying case with a variety of the wines from the famous cellars. The woman held out lengths of stiff embroidered fabrics. Replacements and additions to his limited Formal wardrobe.  
Gods bless the Alama.  He may not be able to come home to receive the respect and greetings of his folk, but she could, and did, send them to him.
“Welcome home, Patriarch,” they chorused as he halted before them.
“Thank you. It is good to be home.  Please make yourselves known to me.”
The three stood.  The youths identified themselves as Tai Him and Ali Trin, sent to serve as needed while Ranualt continued in the Capital. The young woman waited until her companions had received their orders and departed before identifying herself.
“I am Elsia Ton, the Alama’s assistant.  I am sent to answer any questions you may have about the estates . . . and the people who dwell there.”
Yes indeed, let the Gods bless the Alama.

Ranualt chose to take Elsia Ton to his private office to question her.  There, with guards posted in the corridors leading to the chamber, and the room searched for listening devices of all types, he’d still insisted that all references to his guest be vague.
“How are matters with my . . . guest?”
“She will not eat. She barely drinks,” declared Elsia Ton, her concern for the damaged woman clear.  “She is so pale we fear at every moment to find her life departed.”
“She has been pale since I first met her, and she was in health then.  It is the nature of her people to be pale. Although . . .,” Ranualt poured a healthy measure of wine into a glass and contemplated its color and clarity. “She has good reason to be unhealthy now.”
“After much thought we summoned the estate healer.  He was reluctant to give her any medications not knowing what form of animal she is.” Elsia Ton paused.  The Alama was bold enough to make the decision, but Ton was the one facing the Patriarch.  He did not react negatively to the information, so she continued.  “But we agreed that leaving her infections untreated would be the greater risk to her life.  He gave her some medication and treated the wounds as best he can. There has been some improvement.”
“Good.  Who else has seen her?”
“My sister Elsia Ni,  the Alama and the healer are the only ones who have been in her presence when her face is uncovered.  She has been placed in your grandmother’s chambers as they will afford her privacy during her illness, and arrangements have been made for a wardrobe to be created for her as soon as we know . . .if . . . what will be required.”
“You have all done well.” Ranualt continued staring into his glass.
Elsia Ton waited a few minutes for another question, but none seemed forthcoming.  “The Alama respectfully requests clarification of the person’s presence.”
Ranualt sighed. “Explain to the Alama that the persons name and rank is Lieutenant Williams.” Elsia Ton echoed the unfamiliar syllables.  “She is to be treated with the respect due an honorable warrior.  A lady of status.” 
He did not know her family and their lineage but was prepared to consider that they must be highly regarded in the Commonweal.  Why else would she have received the prime assignment of attendance upon the peace conference?  Translator and assistant to the senior Admiral? Someone must have paid well for her to receive that posting.
 “The Alama does request that you journey to us as soon as you can, as we cannot communicate with her.”
“Cannot. . .?  Oh.” Ranualt bit his lip, holding back the curses that would be inappropriate for Elsia Ton’s ears.  He would have to guard his tongue now he was back in civilized company. “The Lieutenant does not speak our language, does she?  The Com . .  Her people use machines to translate for them.”
“Do you have one?” asked Elsia Ton, hopefully.
Ranualt considered the possible penalties incurred by possession of such a device.
“No.  Unfortunately, we will have to do this the hard way. She will have to learn.”
“Who will teach her, Patriarch? You are the only one we are aware of who was given clearance to learn. . . .other ways of speaking.”
“She will have to learn when I have the time to teach her, but that will not be soon.”
“The Alama asks that you visit us soon, Patriarch. For reasons beyond your  . . .guest.  A prolonged absence will attract questions, speculation that you no longer love your home, that we have lost your approval.”  She sounded so hurt and young that Ranualt almost laughed. 
“Of course I am coming home.  It is a difficult path I walk now.” He rested his hand on the old wood table beside him, idly tracing the grain with his fingertips.  It was amazing how much you forgot living on space ships.  Simulated this, fabricated that.  Fake foods and false people. He had almost forgotten the beauty of soft fabrics and real woods. Of holding a real scroll in your hands instead of reading from a computer screen. The movement of air not contaminated with the taint of metal. In that moment he missed his home so much he could barely draw breath.
A brief visit home, before returning to take up his tasks in the capitol would not excite comment.  Of course he must go home. Those who lived in Dan distrusted their servants as much as their fellow nobles. A few days would serve to settle things at home and then he could return. He rang a small bell on the desk.  Within seconds the door opened to admit  a servant.
“Have my flitter brought around, I am going home for a few days. Give no information about my whereabouts to anyone . . .including my nephew.”
The servant bowed himself out of the room.  The Alama had trained his staff well.  Ranualt turned to Elsia Ton.
“We will be leaving in a few minutes.  You may steal a moment to notify the Alama of my intentions,” he added with a smile.
“That is not necessary,” replied Elsia Ton,  proudly. “The Clan of Ranualt stands ready to receive you at any time.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

To Save My Enemy 16

The gallery shook again as Naoth Roe collapsed, staggering back to injure of the toes of several high ranking watchers.
The First Praetor spared a glance to the unusually noisy audience before continuing.
“Saddened though we are by your decision, we must accept it.  However, before you leave us, Sector Commander we must seek your advice.  We must attempt to replace you, although, how any could be considered equal you, is beyond mortal expectation.  Knowing the warriors of the Korum as you do, will you advance a name for our consideration to be the next Third Sector Commander?”
Naoth Roe was up again, mouthing “Delay.  Say nothing now!” 
Really! How had his sister managed to spawn such a fool?  If Roe didn’t learn to school his excessive behavior, his emotions would lead him to an early grave.
“I am aware of the breadth and extent of the manifold abilities of my subordinate officers.  I have been awed and overwhelmed by the results of their labors, and the ongoing expansion of Korum’s reputation, that can be credited to their hard work.” Ranualt said, wondering if  words being forced to be both truths and lies would join together and seal his mouth shut.  “But I find myself unable to think of a single ranking officer who the people of Sector Three deserve.”
There were some of talent and ability, but he would not warn the Praetorate or Senate of their existence. Let the talented take them by surprise just as Ranualt had done, so long ago.
“So you advance no name?”  The other Praetors and Senators shifted to whisper, urgently, with their entourages. “A name may come to you after a period of consideration.  We shall await your contribution to our deliberations.”
Ranualt shook his head, “That will not be necessary. I will not bring any name to you.”
This time the whole gallery collapsed in laughter as Naoth Roe sank slowly into his chair, stunned beyond belief that his uncle had publicly surrendered a Sector Commander’s final lucrative bribe opportunity.  Whole families had lived for years on the bribes raised to advance a single officer to a lessor rank.  And whole families had been destroyed when their bribe attempts failed. With one sentence Ranualt had cast it all away! 
The Praetors, Senators and others turned to stare up at the hysterical crowds.  They would receive reports later in the day, and would, no doubt enjoy discussing the embarrassment Naoth Roe was to his Clans.  At this moment, they only felt ignorant, and disliked the sensation. 
“With all due respect, Praetors, Senators, ” Ranualt enjoyed that phrase.  He had learned it years ago from a Commonweal Captain and used it at every opportunity confident that only he knew it was a subtle insult. “I will withdraw now, so that I might complete my duties in a timely manner and begin my life as a private citizen of the Korum.”
The baffled Praetors graciously granted permission. The Senators were to busy arguing about the soon to be vacated post to acknowledge Ranualt’s bow.  As fast as dignity allowed Ranualt withdrew, hardly daring to breathe. He made his way out through the corridors that seemed much emptier than when he’d arrived.  Fewer approached him to greet or to be recognized this time. His unprecedented behavior on the floor confused those whose every waking moment was spent maneuvering for more influence, more power.
They couldn’t figure out what profit he could possibly expect from his actions.  Those few who cautiously exchanged greetings did so knowing that Sector Commander Ranualt Ti had wrought some truly spectacular victories during his career.  He might yet astound them all.
Ranualt answered the remarks politely and ignored all questions concerning his plans.  It was important that he remain in the Capital for a little while.  He must walk the halls, see and be seen,  He must attend the mind and honor destroying gatherings that the cities inhabitants considered so vital to life.  There must be no suggestion that he had committed some dreadful crime, and had been compelled to publicly surrender all of his honors before withdrawing to the wilds of Dan in disgrace.  The Clan of Ranualt would stand as a rock for others to crash against, there to falter and be turned aside. If Ranualt retreated too soon to his estates, the gossips might put it about that it was exactly that, a retreat. So for the moment he must abandon Lt. Williams to the care of his devoted staff. 
The thought of Lt. Williams distressed face, as he had last seen it, returned to plague his confidence.  His memory drifted over her generous curves. Although damaged now, the potential for a satisfying life together was great.  She would have safety and protection, and he would have a companion he could respect and admire.  Someone whose presence in his life came with no family obligations to satisfy.  He imagined they could spend evenings discussing old battles, the different worlds and life they had seen.  She could teach him all she knew of the Commonweal’s people’s.   And in the nights he would hold her cool white body in his arms and teach her to give and receive pleasure.
No children, unfortunately, but given the state of the empire, who would willingly bring a child into such chaos.
For a few hours he loitered in the sheltered gardens, admiring the graceful trees and exchanging formal nothings and convoluted insults with any who chose to approach him. Later in the afternoon Ranualt returned to his family’s capital residence.  Ostentatious, oversized and located far too near the Great Hall,  the residence was an expensive necessity.  Until Ranualt had arrived two days ago the building had stood empty, except for the staff, since the death of his grandfather, the last of Clan Ranualt to involve himself in politics.  Even his presumptuous, ambitious nephew had not dared to take up residence within this house without leave - which was probably why the building was still furnished.  Ranualt had little affection for the old building. His visits to the Capital were always reluctant and he chose to stay in Military hostels when the option existed. In his heart his home was the heavy stone keep, huddled in the midst of farms and vineyards at the base of purple hills, beneath clear and open skies far, far from the capital.

Monday, September 5, 2016

To Save My Enemy 15

There! Let them make of that what they would.  It was not as if it were not true.
Fourth hour struck before Naoth Roe could gather his wits for a reply. Ranualt gathered his cloak and signaled for his bodyguard to join him.  The journey to the Great Hall would take only minutes, but processing through security checkpoints could take a full hour, when you were not prepared to tender bribes.  Naoth Roe attempted to take up position at his uncle’s right hand, within the circle of guards. Ranualt stopped him with a glance.
“You will not be accompanying me!”
The boy accepted the rebuff with the ease of much experience. It was unlikely he’d ever been chosen to walk beside those he worshiped.
“I could watch from the gallery” said Naoth Roe. “My friend, the First Praetor’s son, will find a place for me.”
 Naoth Roe waited as if expecting some sign, some acknowledgment  from Ranualt that he was impressed by the association. The idiot boy thought entry into the inner circles of power, if managed correctly, could bring the Family greater prominence.  So many fools had been rendered impoverished by holding similar ideas. 
“Do as you wish!  You are not my son to be advised.  Enter through the public doors.  I will not take you through the warrior’s entrance.” 
The boy bowed, formally, as his uncle swept from the room, face turned away. Ranualt had no doubts as to the boy’s expression. 
The  hall was overflowing with people trying to achieve closer proximity to the powerful. Position, rank assignments, employment went to the one with the richest bribe, or the choicest piece of blackmail, rather than to one who could do the job.  Ranualt, impassive expression firmly in place, walked the halls, politely greeting those who called to him, and ignoring those who thought themselves above acknowledging his existence.
At the precise chime of fifth bell the Senate door opened and Ranualt walked alone into the center of the hall.  Nine Praetors in nine huge chairs awaited him.  Nine Senators in full regalia. Nine personal secretaries taking notes.  Nine groups of toadies and underlings in tight clusters.  Nine ostentatious displays of power and privilege. Above them, in the public balcony, crowds of supporters, petitioners and sycophants.  Inbreeding, infighting and corruption!  Ranualt kept his gaze straight ahead and kept his opinion from his face.
How had the Korum survived such leadership?
Ranualt bowed to each of the Praetors, then knelt to touch the symbol of the Gods carved into the floor.  The Praetors and their entourages spared a moment from their more important activities of drinking and gossiping, to acknowledge the trivial matter of his arrival.
Ranualt raised his gloved right hand to his left shoulder, displaying his family crest, and permitted his voluminous cloak to fall in dignified folds about his body.
“We greet our Noble and Honored Commander of the Third Sector Fleet,” intoned the First Sector Senator.  The First Praetor took a sip from a glass and looked in Ranualt’s direction, but made no other sign of acknowledgment. The Third Sector Praetor and Senator nodded, a scant millimeter of movement, in Ranualt’s general direction. The bastard had inherited Kim Path's position after the assassination. Ranault was not able to prove his complicity which was one of the reason he had taken no action against noble Kim's replacement.
Ranualt bowed again.  Here he was for all to see, the first Sector Commander to complete his tour of duty poorer than when he started.
“Home ahead of schedule,” remarked the First Praetor finally, flicking a glance at Sector Commander Ranualt.
“Hardly so. There are reports and records that must be completed before I begin my retirement that can be better dealt with here than on the outer borders.”
“Your colleagues and predecessors have all chosen to complete those tasks after their retirements,” replied the First Praetor, in the same dead calm voice. “Why do you do otherwise?”
“My esteemed colleagues and predecessors returned from their duties eager to enjoy the manifold delights of life in the Capital, and many used the uncompleted records as an excuse to linger.  Indeed, there is the story of one taking thirty years in the Capital to report on his ten years as Sector Commander, he enjoyed the Capital so.”
There was a ripple of barely polite laughter from the gallery as the Fifth Sector Praetor’s face turned stony.  The activities of his Great, Great Uncle,  that particular retired Sector Commander, had become the by-word for incompetence and procrastination, even decades after his death. 
“I, however,” continued Ranualt, “am impatient to return to my home and estates, to take up the tasks that have descended upon me following the demise of my Revered Father. I will not be lingering in the Capital.”
“No doubt you are eager to begin your new life and responsibilities, but there is no reason to disappear from public life.  We have many positions requiring the wisdom and stability of a strong leader.” The First Praetor waved vaguely in the direction of his secretary, who rose, record book in hand.  “What was it we were minded to grant to the Sector Commander, in acknowledgment for his years of service, to occupy his mind and declining years?”
Declining years? Another ripple across the gallery.  It was hardly a polite observation, but not yet an insult.  Ranualt kept his eyes strictly on the Praetor, face still. There was a rustle of movement from the galleries.  His fool nephew was climbing over other watchers, trying to position himself directly in Ranualt’s line of sight.  Many in the gallery were whispering and pointing, including the oversized son of the First Praetor.  Naoth Roe glanced over his shoulder at his friend, and waved.  The Praetor’s son waved him to continue and started whispering to his cluster of cronies. 
‘Gods help us all,’ thought Ranualt. ‘The boy thinks he is being supported, when he is being mocked.’
The secretary began reading the description of a planet, that if it truly existed within Korum space, was exceptionally well hidden. Ranualt was not overly surprised to discover that this paradise was named Tallis.  Murmurs started building in the galleries and several of the Senators looked around in alarm, concerned that this prize was being offered to someone of low regard, instead of being kept for their own retirement. 
How can it be, they are being taken in by their own lies? thought Ranualt.
The list of virtues completed, the First Praetor smiled benevolently upon the gathering. 
“Tallis requires a governor, Sector Commander. Will you accept our invitation to provide Tallis with the benefit of your wisdom and guidance?”
Naoth Roe waved his hands trying to attract Ranualt’s attention.  The shame of it! The boy was publicly begging!
Ignoring him, Ranualt bowed. “I, respectfully, decline.” 
Naoth Roe collapsed like a flag deprived of wind, behind him his alleged friends shook with suppressed laughter.
“Perhaps you think you require a greater challenge, some task that is difficult enough to be worthy of your abilities and intellect? Perhaps Tallis is too mild?”
Naoth Roe jumped up again, hands clasped before his heart. 
Ah Gods, how the winds of his ambition blows, thought Ranualt. 
“Indeed, First Praetor, that is not my motivation.  The only demand I wish to put before my abilities is caring for the estates and obligations of my Clan.”
Frantically, Naoth Roe shook his head and Ranualt sighed.  He really had to talk to his sister about the boy. He needed some occupation far away from the Capital. The only down side to making that suggestion was,  his sister would expect Ranualt to begin training Roe to assume the responsibilities of the Clan Ranualt.  Never would Naoth Roe be permitted to assume that responsibility!  The Clan deserved a better keeper than one who would thrust it all into the hands of a grasping thief, in the hope of being given permission to thank the thief, for the theft.  He had nieces and another nephew to consider for that task, now that he had no son. The memory descended upon him like a deluge of cold water.
No son!
He suppressed the pang. Now was not the time for distraction.
He emerged from the memory, aware that the secretary had been twittering on about another possible assignment and was now waiting.
“I, respectfully, decline.”
Whatever it was they offered he wanted no part of it.
No son, no child and now, with Lt. Williams to be hidden and protected, no future marriage. He had not considered that complication. But his obligation to the lieutenant was great. Not only his own unworthy life but the life of his friend and senator. If the Gods had been kind  his son would have survived and the attempts to seek peace continued.
No. He would not repine. The obligations he had acquired were great.  He could not think of the Lieutenant here and now.  To save her, first he had to survive.
The First Praetor made a show of considering the problem, picking up and discarding one scroll after another, a pensive expression on his puffy face.
“I am aware that my Honored and Respected colleagues,” he flicked gloved fingers in the direction of the other Praetors, “often have need of advisers of skill and wide knowledge of the Korum, and of the other races beyond our borders. Will you consider honoring one of us by permitting us to employ you?”
Ignoring Naoth Roe, who was pointing repeatedly at the First Praetor, while the son and others in the galleries rocked with laughter, Ranualt bowed again.
“I am deeply honored that any of the Praetors would consider accepting my  contributions to their works. But, I respectfully decline.”
Let them make of that what they will.
“So, you will have nothing from us,” said the Praetor, with an extravagant show of sadness.
“That is so.” 
And give nothing to you, either!