First Move: The Golden Ball
Deha Dahl, the Manager of Dahl Estate, was playing dice. She placed a cube in the structure of balls, pyramids, and polyhedrons on the table. Her opponent, one of her more intrepid Estate aides, wiped sweat from her forehead as she studied the dice.
While Deha waited for her aide to make her move, she glanced around. They were in the Coral Room, a round chamber twenty paces in diameter. Painted a deep rose near the floor, the walls shaded into lighter coral hues and then into white at the top. Mosaics were inlaid in the domed ceiling high above them. The room’s three doorways each arched to a point and then curved out in a circle graced with a stained-glass window. The doors were solid amberwood. Deha insisted on only the best for these chambers where she played the dice game of Quis with her aides, her peers—and her adversaries.
Their audience of Estate aides sat in carved chairs around the table. They watched the game in silence, some no doubt wishing they could take the perspiring aide’s place and others grateful it wasn’t them in this duel of minds. All knew she had called this session to see how her opponent, an aide due a promotion, handled the pressure of playing against a Dice Queen.
A hand touched Deha’s shoulder. She looked around, surprised to see an aide who wasn’t among the group she had selected to view the session.
The aide bowed. “I’m sorry to disturb you, ma’am. But Captain Hacha thought you would want to know immediately. A craft crashed up in the mountains near Dahl Pass.” She paused. “It doesn’t appear to be from Coba.”
There was a time when Deha would have shipped the bearer of such news off to the setting-sun-asylum for the mentally diminished. No longer. She stood up. “Have Hacha meet me in my office.” She glanced at her dice opponent. “We will continue later.”
The aide nodded and started to speak. Then she stopped, her gaze shifting to a point beyond Deha. She stood up and bowed, not to Deha but to someone else. Following her gaze, the rest of Deha’s aides stood up, in a flurry of moving chairs, and bowed.
Deha turned to see who evoked such a reaction from her staff. A retinue had appeared in one of the doorways, soldiers in the uniform of her CityGuard. A girl stood in the center of the group, a gray-eyed child on the verge of womanhood, with fiery hair curling around her face and falling in a thick braid down her back. Tall for her age, she looked like the reincarnation of an incipient warrior queen who had transcended the millennia and stepped from the Old Age into the modern world.
Deha crossed to the girl and bowed. “Ixpar. What brings you here?”
Ixpar’s face was lit with contained excitement. “I heard about the craft that crashed near Dahl Pass. I came to help the rescue party.”
Deha silently cursed. It would be foolishness to let Ixpar join them. This was no normal child. Ixpar Karn: it meant Ixpar from the Estate of Karn. Of the Twelve Estates, Karn was largest, bigger even than Dahl. It was also the oldest. Its Manager not only ruled Karn; as Minister she stood highest in the hierarchy of the Estates. And she had chosen this girl to be her successor. Someday Ixpar would rule Coba.
But if she didn’t let Ixpar come with them, she risked alienating Karn. The girl was already a force in the flow of power among the Estates. Rumor claimed the Minister had been known to place her young successor’s opinions above those of her senior advisers.
Political prudence, won out “Very well,” Deha said. She raised her hand as Ixpar’s face lit up. “But I want you stay with my personal escort at all times.” She glanced toward the mountains. “We have no idea what crashed up there.”
* * *
In her guest suite, Ixpar changed into hiking clothes: a sweater, leather pants, and a leather jacket. When she left the suite, she found her escort in the entrance foyer, four tall guards armed with stunners. They accompanied her as she walked through Dahl. Always guards. At times she was tempted to hide or slip away. But she resisted the urge, knowing she was the only one who would find it entertaining.
Guards or no guards, though, she enjoyed the walk. It was hard to believe the Estate had once been an armed fortress. Its harsh interior had long ago given way to its present beauty, its stone floors softened with carpets and its formerly barred windows replaced by faceted yellow glass. Some corridors formed the perimeter of large balls, set off from them only by widely spaced columns. Just as the ancient warrior queens of Dahl had ruled from the Estate, so Deha and her staff now used it as their residence.
They left the Estate and walked through the city. Blue cobblestones paved the streets, which wound among buildings made from pale blue or lavender stone, with turreted roofs. Spires topped the turrets and chains hung from their, tips, strung with metal Quis dice. When the wind blew, which was almost always, the chains swung and clinked, sparkling in the sun.
They passed bright temples dedicated to the sungoddess Savina or the dawn god Sevtar, and saw ball courts filled with exuberant players, men and women laughing in the wind. The day was bright, gusty, and fresh. She wanted to jump. Shout. Get into trouble. Of course she couldn’t. But it was still a glorious day.
Ixpar knew the route to the airfield well; the Minister often brought her to visit Dahl, which had long been an ally of Karn Estate. This time Minister Kant had sent her alone. It was about time. Ixpar felt as if she were straining in a harness, struggling to fly in the currents of power among the Estates.
Other feelings also stirred within her, less comprehensible than politics. She felt painfully awkward, tall and gangly, with big feet. She grew so fast lately, like a spindlestalk plant. She thought of the youth Tev, with his lean muscles and curly hair. At night she tossed in bed, reminding herself that a woman’s intentions toward men should always be honorable. It didn’t help. She couldn’t stop herself from thinking up ways to convince him that he should let her compromise his honor.
The growl of an engine interrupted her thoughts. Beyond the end of the street, the airfield waited. With her retinue, Ixpar crossed the last stretch of pavement and walked onto the tarmac. Crews were wheeling out two windriders, aircraft painted like giant althawks, with wings of red plumage edged in black, gleaming gold heads, and landing gear as black as talons. They looked ready to leap into the sky.
The rescue party was assembling near a hangar. In addition to Deha, the group included Rohka, who was the Estate Senior Physician, and the young doctor Dabbiv, his gaze intense as he spoke with a pilot. Deha’s personal escort stood by the hangar door: Hacha, captain of the escort; Rev, a broad-shouldered man who towered over most everyone else; slender Llaach with her night-black hair; and Balv, youngest of the four.
Ixpar soon found herself in the same craft as the escort, with Balv as pilot. He went about his preflight checks as if what he were doing was perfectly normal. Well, this was Dahl. Things were different here. Modern.
Hacha sat next to Ixpar. As tall as Rev, but leaner, the captain looked like her name: tough and craggy. Following Ixpar’s gaze to Balv, she chuckled. “He’s a pleasant one to look at, heh?”
Ixpar reddened. “I was just watching his flight preparations.”
Deha settled into the copilot’s seat and leaned back to talk to Hacha, saving Ixpar from more embarrassment. Discreetly, so as not to be caught staring again, she watched the Manager. A braid of black hair hung to Deha’s waist and tendrils curled about her classic face. A dusting of silver showed in the hair at her temples. Her most compelling feature was her eyes; huge and black, they drew attention.
The rider soon lifted off, its wing slats spreading like giant feathers to catch the wind. The dome of the Observatory passed below them, glistening in the sunlight. As the ground dropped away other towers became visible, spires reaching into the sky. Seen from above, the Estate looked like a sculpture: bridges arched in frozen lace over courtyards, battlements glowed an antique gold in the sunlight, and curving walls added scalloped edges to the design.
Then the parks set aside for the Dahl Calanya came into view.
Ixpar pressed her nose against the window, straining to see the forbidden Calanya. Surrounded by a massive windbreak, the parks made a tapestry of lawns and lakes dotted by a myriad of colorful flowers. She could just make out a fountain, a hazelle stag rearing on his hind legs. Arches of water curved up from his horns and fell sparkling into a basin.
The View widened to include the city of Dahl nestled in its mountain valley, its streets accented by the specks of pedestrians. The rider soared higher and Dahl receded until it was no more than a pattern of colors in the panorama of the Teotec Mountains. Ahead, peaks climbed so far into the sky that she grew dizzy trying to sight their tips; behind, forested slopes plunged down until, out of sight beyond the horizon, they became cliffs that met a desert whipped by the wind.
It was out there, a day’s ride into the desert, that the strangers had built their starport.
Starport. It had an eerie sound. People from above the sky. Ixpar had seen them years ago when their military commanders came to Karn, imposing warrior queens with hard edges to their personalities. Skolians they called themselves, even though they looked like Cobans. Their talk of building a port in the desert had troubled Minister Karn. Now Ixpar sensed unease in Deha as well, an apprehension that whatever had crashed in the mountains was not born of Coba.
* * *
“There!” Deha had to shout to be heard over the engines. “I saw something below that crag. A glint, like metal.” She glanced at Balv. “Can you take us down?”
He squinted into the glare from the snow. “There’s room behind those rocks.”
The rider descended, its wing slats drawing together like huge feathers. The snowskis unfolded with a grind, sailing over the snow, jolting the cabin when they skimmed over patches of rock. As they shot past a huge drift, Balv snapped the wings in flush to the hull. After they were clear again, he opened the metal pinions and braked against the wind until the rider skidded to a stop.
Captain Hacha disembarked first, followed by Balv, then Delia and Ixpar. Llaach and Rev came last. Not only had the guards hung stunners from their belts, Rev carried a honed discus in a sling over his shoulder and Llaach had a dagger on her boot.
The second rider landed, bringing more guards and the doctors. With Hacha in the lead, they hiked to a hill of boulders that hid the downed craft. Ixpar clambered up the mound, dislodging rocks in her hurry. She reached the top—and looked out at the wreckage of a starship steaming in the melted snow.
Incredibly, it was hardly bigger than a windrider. Even as a wreck, hints of its former grace showed, making it look like an alabaster sculpture, broken against the mountain.
Hacha reached it first. She vanished through a hole in the hull, but reappeared almost instantly. “There’s a pilot in here,” she called. “I think he’s alive.”
They sped in a sliding run down the hill, their boots kicking up flurries from patches of snow. At the ship, Rev grabbed a twist of metal and shoved it upward, widening the rent in the hull so the others could enter. The interior was chaos: crumpled bulkheads, sparks jumping from panels, broken shards everywhere. The pilot lay collapsed across his forward controls.
Rohka, the Estate Senior Physician, knelt by the man. “He’s still breathing.”
“We better get him out of here,” Llaach said. “If this craft is like a windrider, these sparks could start a fire. The whole ship could blow.”
“I doubt starships run on petrol,” the doctor Dabbiv said.
Rohka glanced at Rev and Hacha, the two tallest people in. the group. “Can you carry him?” Working together, Hacha and Rev eased the man out of his seat. They took him out of the ship and carried him to a wall of rock Ixpar thought surely must be thick enough to protect against even the explosion of a starship. After they set him gently dawn on the ground, the doctors went to work on his wounds.
Ixpar knelt to look at the pilot. He was metal. His skin and hair shimmered like gold. His face could have been a mask of the wind god Khozaar; it had that same flawless beauty. But where myth claimed Khozaar was as supple as the wind, this man was huge, bigger than Rev even, with a massive physique to match.
She laid her palm on the pilot’s cheek, checking for fever. Despite its metallic cast, his skin felt warm. Human. She wanted to touch him more, to stroke his hair and face, but she held back. Instead she helped the doctors untangle him from his torn jacket. She uncovered his arms—and dropped his sleeve, gaping at him.
Llaach made an incredulous noise. “That’s impossible.”
“I don’t believe it,” Balv said. “He’s a Calani.”
Ixpar didn’t believe it either. But the evidence was inescapable. The man wore three gold armbands on each of his upper arms.
“Three bands.” Rev’s voice rumbled. “He’s a Third Level Calani.”
“For wind’s sake,” Dabbiv said. “He can’t be a Calani. He’s not even from this planet.” The doctor pulled scraps of cloth away from the man’s waist. “They don’t have—hey!” He dropped the scraps. “Look at that.”
A weapon, huge and black, glittered on the pilot’s hip.
“That’s some stunner,” Llaach said. “What is a Calani doing with a gun?”
Captain Hacha frowned. Then she headed back to where Deha and the other guards were examining the ship. Apparently the Manager didn’t believe it might explode; they were all walking in and out of the wreckage.
Ixpar turned back to the pilot. She wasn’t sure which she found more unsettling: an offworld Calani or a Calani with a gun. She ran her fingers over the engravings on his armbands. “These hieroglyphics are Skolian.”
Dabbiv glanced up from the splint he was setting on the man’s leg. “You can read Skolian?”
“Minister Kara had me learn it.”
“Can you make out the name of his Estate?” Balv asked.
“Something about an office,” Ixpar said. “It’s a title-Third Office, I think. It must mean his Calanya Level.” She pieced out the inscription. “Jagged Imperial Third Office. No, it’s Officer, not Office. Tertiary Officer?” She studied the glyphs. “Jagernaut. That’s what it says. Jagernaut Tertiary, Kelricson Garlin Valdoria. Imperial Space Command.”
“What does it mean?” Llaach asked.
“If we don’t get him to a Med House” Dabbiv said, “that won’t matter. He’ll be too dead for it to make a difference.”
Manager Dahl’s voice came from behind them. “This man is an Imperial citizen. You all know their Restriction laws. We are forbidden interaction with him. We must take him directly to their starport.”
Ixpar stood up. “He’s hurt He needs our help.”
“The starport has medical facilities,” Deha said.
Senior Physician Rohka looked up from the leg she was sprinting. Ixpar could guess the doctor’s thought; it would take nearly a day to reach the port.
“He will die before we get there,” Rohka said.
Deha considered the doctor. Then she turned to Ixpar. “Would you come with me?”
The Manager led her to an area behind another outcropping. Hacha and Rev were both there, studying a panel from the wreckage. A symbol glowed on it, a black triangle inscribed by an amber circle. Etched within the circle was the gold silhouette of an exploding sun.
“Do you recognize this symbol?” Deha asked her.
“It’s called the Ruby insignia,” Ixpar said.
“What does it mean?”
Ixpar thought back to what the Public Affairs Officer from the Imperial delegation had told Minister Karn. “Ruby refers to the rulers of an ancient empire that predates the Imperialate. The Ruby Dynasty.”
“I thought a council ruled the Skolian Imperialate,” Deha said.
“Now, yes. The Assembly.” Ixpar brushed her fingers across, the insignia. “The Ruby Empire collapsed five thousand years ago. Apparently only ruins remain.”
“This insignia is part of the pilot’s identification.”
“When the Imperialate was forming, about four centuries ago, they decided to use the Ruby symbol for their insignia.” Ixpar shrugged. “They put it on everything.”
Deha regarded her uneasily. “But this comes from his personal ID.”
Personal ID? That intrigued Ixpar. “Maybe he descends from the Ruby Dynasty.”
“Does that have any significance?”
“I’m not sure.” She considered the thought “We had better get him to Dahl.”
“If he recovers, it won’t be long before he realizes no reason exists for the Restricted status we convinced his military to give us.” Deha grimaced. “What if he decides to notify Imperial Space Command? Right now they think something is wrong with us: It’s the only reason they leave us alone. Do you really want ISC to institute formal assimilation procedures for Coba? You’ve met their warrior queens, Ixpar. They conquer. Period. The Restriction is our only protection.”
“They aren’t all warrior queens. Half their military are men.” Ixpar glanced at the pilot. “An army like that can’t be harsh.”
“That assumption is based on our culture. Not theirs.”
Ixpar turned back to her. “If we take him to, the starport, we’ll be returning a dead man. These Imperial warrior queens you so fear aren’t just going to show up, take his body, and forget we let one of their sons die.” She thought of how his cheek had felt under her hand, how it made her want to touch him more. “And just look at him. He’s so beautiful.”
“Just because he’s a handsome young man instead of a craggy old Manager doesn’t make the danger less.” Deha considered her. “Does anyone at the port monitor these mountains?”
“I don’t think so. The port is automated. No people. Every now and then we hear that a ship came in to refuel, but the crews never leave the port.”
“According to his ship’s log, he was lost when he crashed.”
Ixpar understood what Deha left unsaid; if they buried the pilot and destroyed his ship, their anonymity was safe. But when she looked at him, he brought images of desire and fatherhood to her mind. Her instinct was to protect him.
“Deha, no. What if we take him to Dahl and never let him go? His people sent him out without any protector. It’s their own fault he ended up like this. He’s ours now.”
“He might escape. We can’t risk that.”
The doctor Dabbiv came over to Deha. “If we’re going to save his life, we have to leave for Dahl as soon as possible.”
Deha looked at the Skolian. In the sunlight, his skin, hair, and armbands gleamed like gold. Softly she said, “He truly is a beauty.”
Her voice returned to its matter-of-fact tone. “Very well. Put him in my rider. We will take him to Dahl.”
Copyright © 1997 by Catherine Asaro