Part One of Triad

Saga of the Skolian Empire (Volume 10 of 11)

Catherine Asaro

Tor Books

Chapter One

Sky Ship

Today, Soz’s world would change forever.

Born Sauscony Lahaylia Valdoria Skolia, she just went by Soz to most everyone. She had spent her first seventeen years of life in an idyllic existence, but she was determined to leave it behind. Today she would leap for the sky---with or without permission.

Soz stood outside, on a walkway that topped the massive wall surrounding her home. The house was a small castle of pale bluestone, with turreted towers at its four corners. The muted calls of children and the whistling of lyrine in their stable came from below, in the courtyards. Beyond the house, the village of Dalvador rose like an island in the plains, beneath the lavender sky of the world Lyshriol. She loved this land and she loved her family. Her father, the Dalvador Bard, recorded the history of his people in ballads. The days passed in pastoral beauty, warmed in the golden haze of two amber suns. But she couldn’t stay. Just as someday that binary star system would perturb Lyshriol out of its orbit, so Soz would soon leave her tranquil life here.

By interstellar standards, the house was primitive---but only on the exterior. Over the years, Soz’s mother had arranged subtle modifications to this ancestral home of her husband. The optical, electrical, and superconducting systems were hidden; mesh networks were accessible only by discreet consoles; mechbots cleaned when no one was around; and the self-repair nanobots in the building’s structure were too small to see. The improvements never marred the beauty of Lyshriol.

The Dalvador Plains extended in all directions around the village. Far to the northwest, they lapped against the Stained Glass Forest, a jeweled swirl in the foothills of the Backbone Mountains. Beyond the forest, the Backbone raised its spindled peaks into the sky; beyond that, the massive range called Ryder’s Lost Memory rose up, so distant it was no more than a violet haze. To the east, a cluster of rustic buildings stood at the edge of a broad, flat field. Except for the paved area, it could have been a tiny village.

But it was far, far more.

A ship was landing on the tarmac of the minuscule starport, its roar obliterating the sounds of children and lyrine in the courtyard below. Beautiful and deadly, glowing like alabaster against the sky, a Jag starfighter set down on the field.

Soz hadn’t expected this unscheduled visitor, but she intended to seize the opportunity. She would convince the pilot to take her off planet---away from this smothering paradise.

Shannon Valdoria ran through the plains.

He raced through the swaying, supple reeds, his passage teasing the iridescent bubbles off the tips of stalks. The filmy spheres floated into the air and popped, spraying him with glitter. He ignored them, running hard.

The whitewashed houses of Dalvador interrupted the plains, their blue or purple roofs like blossoms turned upside down on the houses. Shannon had never seen a flower, except in holobooks his tutors gave him about other worlds. Today he had escaped his studies and wandered in the plains until he fell asleep in the sea of reeds, drowsing beneath the suns.

The roar of the ship had awoken him.

Now he ran toward the starport, and his white-gold hair whipped across his face. Just into adolescence, he had yet to reach his full growth, but it was already clear he would never achieve the towering size of his older brothers. No matter. None could match his speed; he ran like the wind that rippled the reeds around him.

Exhaust billowed into the sky as the starfighter landed.

Eldrinson Valdoria sat in his dove-tail chair, the one his wife called a work of art, molded as it was from purple glasswood and set with white and rose brocaded cushions. He was composing a ballad to record events of the past year, the weddings, births, and deaths in Dalvador. He held his drummel, or drum-harp, on his lap and plucked its strings, evoking a cascade of notes that sparkled like clear water in a creek. Today he sang in his tenor range, and his voice swelled in the air. As the Dalvador Bard, he recorded the history of his people in ballads.

He had left off the lights, avoiding the technological marvels his wife had brought into his life. Even after being married to her for three octets of years, he still wasn’t used to it all. He could have lit an oil lamp, but he enjoyed the shadows that pooled here. The stone floor remained cool. All was quiet, though a few minutes ago a great wind had roared outside, unusually loud. Across the room, the four-poster bed stood solidly, its posts carved in totems of bubbles. The downy quilt was puffed like a blue and rose cloud. He contentedly strummed the harp while he thought of the children he and Roca had made in that bed, an octet plus two more. Eldrin, their oldest, was gone from home seven years now, a father himself with a young son.

A knock came on the door.

Eldrinson smiled, thinking of his wife. “Roca?”

A man answered. “It’s Del, Father.”

Eldrinson tensed as Del’s unease came to him. In a family of empaths, they tended to keep their moods private behind mental shields, but Del’s concern was strong enough to reach him despite those protections. He set down the drummel and went to the blue glasswood door. Opening it revealed a man of twenty-four, or twenty in the decimal system of counting that Roca used. Del had features that Roca called “edgily handsome,” though Eldrinson didn’t really know what she meant. Del looked like him, and no one called him edgy. They both had violet eyes and shoulder-length hair the color of burgundy wine. He supposed it was true Del did have a fiercer aspect about him. Long and leanly muscled, he stood taller than most men of Lyshriol, his height inherited from his mother.

The title of Bard would go to Eldrinson’s oldest son if he ever returned to Lyshriol, but if not, Eldrinson thought he would choose Del to follow him. Del’s songs tended toward a driving beat and hard lyrics rather than the softer ballads his father composed. Eldrinson had never understood Del’s angry, tangled music, but it fascinated him.

“What’s wrong?” Eldrinson asked.

“A Jag has come.” Del must have been singing too long again; his deep voice sounded hoarse.

“Jag?” Eldrinson asked. “What does that mean?”

“A starship,” Del said, shifting his weight, taut with contained energy.

“Oh. Yes.” Eldrinson stepped out into the antechamber. “A military ship, isn’t it?” His son Althor had spoken about them.

“I think so.” Walking with him, Del reached across to his hip for the sword he wasn’t wearing. He stiffened when his hand closed on air. Then he just stalked at his father’s side.

It relieved Eldrinson that the ship didn’t thrill his son. Del had never shown any inclination to leave Lyshriol. In that, he took after his father; on the rare occasions when Eldrinson had accompanied Roca offworld, he had been acutely uncomfortable. Why would a warship from her people come here now? She had mentioned no visitors.

They headed down the hall outside his suite. Del had a longer stride, but he held back for his father. The tension felt almost tangible in this restless, moody son of his.

“Where is your mother?” Eldrinson asked as they descended the curving staircase to the lower levels.

“I think she went to see Vyrl and Lily.”

Now that Eldrinson thought about it, he did remember Roca saying she might visit the grandchildren. It would give Vyrl, their fourth son, a chance to study for his college placement exams. The boy had already delayed them a year, caught up in his young family and the new farm. Eldrinson didn’t have a good feel for this business about Vyrl being a “virtual” student who would attend an offworld university through the mesh; he was just glad the boy wouldn’t leave Dalvador.

The impetuous fellow had run off with Lily, his childhood sweetheart, four years ago. Although Vyrl and Lily had been a bit young, it hadn’t seemed that unusual to Eldrinson. Couples in Dalvador often married around the time they reached two octets in age. Vyrl and Lily hadn’t been that much younger. He had never understood Roca’s shock, as if they were two children instead of a young man and woman in love. It gratified him to see his son happy, grown into a man now, a husband and father.

A door slammed below, followed by the pounding of running feet. Eldrinson and Del came around the curve of the stairs into view of the Hearth Room, which stretched out to a large fireplace. Eldrinson’s youngest son, Kelric, was just running into the room.

“Father!” Kelric jolted to a stop at the stairs, his face flushed. He looked so much like his mother, with her gold coloring and spectacular good looks, though on him it was boyish rather than angelic. He was only one octet of years, yet already he stood almost as tall as his father and had more bulk. He stared up at them, his thick curls tousled over his collar, his eyes lit with excitement.

“It’s a Jag!” Kelric waved his hand in the direction of the port. “Can I go look? Do you think they would give me a ride?”

Del stopped on the stairs and crossed his arms. “How do you know they haven’t come here to blow you up?”

“It’s an Imperialate ship! They’re supposed to protect us.” Kelric turned his eager gaze on his father. “Can I go?”

Eldrinson exhaled, calming his pulse. He wished he could share Kelric’s zeal. Yes, the Skolian Imperialate, his wife’s people, protected this world. But their military was an enigma to him, a great dark machine. Their ships usually stayed in orbit; he couldn’t see how this one could be bringing anything but trouble.

He started down the stairs. “Kelli, let’s wait until we know more.”

“Father.” Del drew him to a stop. “Maybe you shouldn’t go out there. It might be better if we contact the port from here. This building has safeguards.”

Eldrinson squinted at him. “I don’t know how to make them work.” Roca had arranged the security system, and every year strangers updated it, but he had never been clear on exactly how it protected the house.

Del scratched his chin. “I think it has to be activated from the console room.”

“Do you know how to do it?” Eldrinson asked.

“I could figure it out.”

“It’s easy,” Kelric said impatiently. “I can do it.”

Del scowled at him. “This isn’t something for a little boy. You would probably end up inviting them to shoot at Dalvador.”

“I would not! And I’m not little.” Kelric sped up the staircase, easily taking the steps two at a time. As he passed them, he added, “We can watch from the Blue Tower. If they do anything bad, I’ll go turn on the security system.”

Eldrinson glanced at Del. His older son shrugged, then lifted his hand, inviting him up the stairs. They returned the way they had come, following Kelric.

The tower looked out over the massive wall that surrounded the house. The circular chamber at its top was made from pale bluestone, with a domed ceiling and a blue glasswood door. Eldrinson stood with his two sons at the arched window, watching the port. The Jag had settled onto the tarmac and fumes drafted around its alabaster body. Out in the plains, a slender figure was running toward the port, a cloud of drifting bubbles in his wake. Shannon. Eldrinson would have recognized his sixth son anywhere. With his pale hair and slight build, the boy resembled the half-legendary Blue Dale Archers from the northern mountains.

Closer by, Soz stood on the walkway outside that topped the wall, her back to them as she gazed out at the port. Atypically, she wore a dress today, one of the bright, swirling affairs most girls in Dalvador adopted. Usually she preferred breeches and shirts. He had never fathomed why such a beautiful girl wanted to dress like a boy, but arguing with her never achieved anything. This daughter of his was a force of nature that couldn’t be denied.

Eldrinson didn’t understand Soz. He loved her, but she was a mystery. Offworld technology fascinated her. As a child, she had taken apart her brother’s laser carbine and put it back together before Eldrinson even figured out what she was doing. He couldn’t keep up with her razor-sharp mind. Most of all, he dreaded the distant look that came into her eyes when she gazed at the night sky with its brilliant, cold stars. She was slipping away from him and he didn’t know how to bring her back.

Kelric pushed open the window and leaned out, crowding Del. “Hey, Soz!”

Eldrinson hauled him back inside. “Careful. You could fall.”

The boy flashed him an intense look, half apology, half frustration. Then he turned back to the starship. It tore at Eldrinson to see his rapt expression. How long before the wanderlust took Kelric away, too?

“Look!” Kelric waved at the ship. “People are coming!”

Eldrinson peered where he pointed. Two people in dark clothes had left the Jag and were crossing the tarmac. A woman came out of a port building holding some object, probably a holofile, though he couldn’t be sure from so far away. She conferred with the visitors, handed one of them the file, waited while he did something with it, then took it back and returned to her house.

“That looked routine,” Del said.

“They don’t seem to be threatening anyone.” An odd feeling tugged at Eldrinson, an anticipation he didn’t understand. Why? Perhaps he was picking that up from Kelric.

The visitors headed toward Dalvador, walking through the thigh-high reeds, except on them, the reeds barely came above their knees. One was an unusually tall man, but Eldrinson wasn’t sure about the other. A woman possibly, given the curves of her body, except she was as tall as the man. He had become used to such women among his wife’s people; Roca was his own size, and he was above average for a man on Lyshriol. But this person would tower even over Roca.

“Are those soldiers?” Del asked.

“They’re Jagernauts!” Kelric said. “Real ones.”

Eldrinson hesitated. “Skolian warriors, you mean?”

“Fighter pilots!” The boy beamed at him. “Like Althor will be someday.”

“Ah.” Eldrinson nodded. His second oldest son, Althor, had gone offworld three years ago to study at a military academy.

Althor had never had trouble with Skolian disciplines. It gratified Eldrinson, because he couldn’t learn to read and write. His people had only oral traditions. He picked up spoken languages without thinking, and Skolian base ten numbers came easily to him. He could even see why they counted in tens instead of eights. They had ten fingers instead of eight. Their hand structure was odd, with no hinge that let the palm fold lengthwise, so two fingers on each side could oppose each other. Instead, they had a fifth digit, a “thumb.” So their base ten made sense. But so much else about them didn’t, their reading, science, literature. That some of his children learned it so easily never ceased to impress him. But why did he think of that now?

“By Rillia’s arrow,” he suddenly said.

Del and Kelric turned to him with identical expressions, their foreheads creased in puzzlement.

“Can’t you feel it?” Eldrinson asked. Surely they must. They, too, were empaths.

Del tilted his head. “Something...”

“Yes!” Kelric cried. “Is it him?”

“Who?” Del squinted at their visitors, who were halfway to Dalvador now. Then he answered his own question. “Oh, I see.”

Eldrinson stood straighter, filling with joy and uncertainty.

Althor had come home.

Copyright © 2005 by Catherine Asaro