|A Flap of the Wings|
He was right on the edge. An ocean breeze struck the bare branches before whipping through his hair, black as seastone. Beyond Minhavu Harbor, a dozen grey contrails gashed the glaucous deep. There was a fleeting, sweet aroma hanging in the air.
“Why did you follow me here?”
The Prince’s face softened. “I’m taking you home.” Sunlight reflected off the water and radiated the world with shining silver splendor.
The isaki kissed her. Its flesh was sweeter than most fruits’; that made it her favorite. Another gust of wind tore through the silence like ice against her throat. His boots were caked with sand. Winter-shorn trees, slender as noblewomen of the court, loomed over the road behind the prince leading back to town.
“Why did you leave?”
“I am not one of you.” Her tone was flat, empty. “I never was. It’s long past time for me to go.”
His eyes glittered like polished amethysts. “That never stopped us before. Why leave now?”
“Spring is nearly returned.” Her fruit hung with bright green fleshy bits around the lumpy mass of edible flesh. It was star-like, in a way, but more primitive than one should have expected. In their world, the thought of eating anything that looked as if it had been harvested from some far-distant jungle made her grin. “I have resolved to leave Faeri before the new year celebrations commence.”
They both knew what that meant. He was tense, unsettled. His aura disturbed her. His shoulders shone with light. The wind was cold. She would not look at him. In the distance, ships were breaking from the horizon, streaming down silver-soaked waves on their way back to port. Most would make it before nightfall.
An adolescent seival swam through the sky, its soft, eel-like form gliding between beams of falling light. She had always found the creatures distasteful–their wrinkled snouts, their yellowed teeth, their stubby little wings. Past the trees lay dunes of sand. Rocks sprouted from mounds half-painted in crimson-stalked weeds. And there were the waves–throwing themselves against the rocks and foaming and roaring and collapsing out again.
There had been no reason for it, she knew. Why had she been so weak? There was nothing she could have done. The Prince and his people were aliens. They were real–she was the umbra in their wake. She did not despise them, but she was not of them. Her parents had left her on this planet a long time ago. She’d read the tale, written by the court scribes. To say Audacci had never experienced love would be a lie. Simply put, such feelings could not shake her resolve.
It was for his own good. Spring would soon be returned, she had told him. The Prince’s father lay dying deep in his castle, and rumors had swirled that he would abdicate the throne if he recovered, giving his last living son the Faerin Empire.
It was like traveling through water at great speed, trying to remember. “My lord, I–” She could not bring herself to speak his name.
He had dressed himself splendidly in a gold-and-magenta set of armor, complete with a burning white cape and a bejeweled circlet wrought of silver and ruby. His cheeks chill-flushed, Audacci’s companion gave her a forlorn look. “I don’t care if we can’t produce an heir–”
“No.” The cold made her exhausted.
“Audacci,” he whispered, a deep tone rising in his throat, “please…don’t go. I cannot bear to see you go. It would rip me apart to be away from you, even for a moment. I-I-I…I beg of you–stay here with me. You will be my queen, Audacci. You are everything to–”
“Don’t come looking for me.”
The young Hera withdrew her gaze from him, and the world grew suddenly greyer–even the sky, where many of the contrails had faded into the blue. One of those would be taking her away. Planet Faeri had once been her home, but all things pass. Her parents were never coming back.
She had been nineteen or twenty that day–neither a maiden nor a pirate, but a lost and foolish girl.
More faces than names sprung from the darkness. Wide-leafed trees sagged over the muddy road. Mujabi were maybe three feet tall, red-furred, black-eyed, with high-pitched voices that were nearly impossible to understand. Few of them spoke the basic tongue.
They infested their world; the streets were crawling with them, as were the trees. The jungle leaves were darker brown, almost blackish-red, and the beasts blended in well amongst the foliage.
Her target was a man who served Emperor Specter, a galactic tyrant whose territory was far outside the range of the Faerin Empire.
She remembered the sound of her boots on the plank-wood bridge extending over the dirt-foaming river. The wide-leafed trees hung over the path, reaching with their weary arms to tug her into the jungle. Mujabi jumped from branch to branch. There was an earthy, spicy smell in the air.
Their huts were made of some kind of woody substance that shone with the luster of copper. Her target was in one of the homes built over the rushing river on stilts of wood, amongst trees and animals. She knew at once which room he was hiding in. His power was a gaping wound in her consciousness, a blight that could be felt as much as sensed. The sensation tickled and made her think of home.
No one else came anywhere close.
Wetness clung to her neck. It was hard to breathe. A fishmonger bounded by with his cart, squealing like a child, and it was not so easy to breathe. They were to her not altogether real–merely obstacles she had to overcome. Their eyes burst without life, without purpose, without beauty. She crashed through the door, slipping to the dirt without grace. It was careless. His back was to her. Fleet Officer Hau ‘Omin’s cape draped over his sparkling gold-and-silver armor, a crimson tide hinting at its owner’s restrained tastes.
The Mujabi he had been speaking to vomited in horror and scurried to a far corner of the room. She was on one knee, panting. She looked up and noticed the table with three whitish-pink flowers laid upon it. What had the two been talking about? Had it involved the flowers? It couldn’t have. Why was she losing focus? Everything had grown so dark and fuzzy.
She was kneeling, and he was standing over her. A shudder befell Audacci. The golden, perforated light of the Mujabi’s room had faded to a dull midnight blue. It was colder in this place–bleaker. His crew had never been allowed in this far. She was somewhere special, somewhere secret. Here, he would lay bare all his vulnerabilities for her to gorge herself upon.
Nil hazed the bedroom, like endless microscopic layers of gloss. And where he lay, a golden rod in one hand, a bubbling crystal glass in the other, only she knew. No other being in the universe was as close to him as she was. He was tall for an alien, stout, with lilac skin and coarse black hair that extended from his scalp and beard to his chest and lower. One eye was red, the other white. He had more than a few scars. She liked to trace her fingers through them.
She fought this one, like the endless blue, deeper than the thickest poison. She was in the Mujabi’s tent again; thence came a flash, a punch, a splattering of blood that savagely painted a wall, and sweat stinging her eyes. She paused to admire the alien’s life’s blood as she caught her breath. It was purple with darker bubbles sprouting from where the air had touched it. It leaked down the deep-ridged wood, draping it all, and Audacci couldn’t help but admire the power that was in blood.
He loved Dalon’s Curse, as expensive a space rum as it was. He couldn’t but help himself. The Curse was a man’s drink, aye, but a tad dainty for someone of the captain’s stature. He had his fire rum, sure, and even imported Nyrish Blue Gin, but it was Dalon’s Curse that he liked to sip more than the others. A man’s true nature cannot be hidden when he has made himself vulnerable. Whether it is one’s conscience or ego or merely an unconscious self-preservation trigger is impossible to know. Still she felt for him.
“Three nights in a row,” she had murmured into her pillow, smiling and blushing like the fine lady she had been raised to be. “I don’t know what to say. You honor me with so much attention, captain.”
“You are more beautiful than the rest,” he growled, not looking at her. It was a simple statement, stark and touching, and she found that she had become rather wet.
He rolled over and pressed her against the bed sheets. Her eyes met his, the color of polished bronze. He shuddered, and she shuddered into the dark.
He was no better than the prince. Neither one of them had the potency she craved. Neither one of them was strong enough.
A surge of blue blazed through her mind, cold as the deepest throes of winter.
The emperor held court on a plush pillow, his legs crossed, Nil smoke leaking from his royal nostrils. All the ladies were dressed up in their finest colored gowns. The Queen wore an elaborate headdress of woven white gold. In their hands were clasped poems written with exquisite care and the utmost refinement. Each lady had embellished her poem with a painting of a scene from nature, and Audacci remembered her’s had been a sketch of the mountain her teacher had taken her to for their first sparring match.
Today they picked her to read. “Grace His Majesty with your beauty, Audacci,” Queen Lapsi murmured with a nod.
The young Hera raised the end of her soft pink gown to cover her mouth in a sign of respect to the emperor. Her heart thrashed inside her chest like a caged animal, but she did not have time to be afraid. To show fear was to be unladylike. “Mired by summer rains, We trav–”
The light reflected off the hazy air, bleeding into the room in a golden, rolling rush. It was all so yellow… especially the emperor’s teeth.
Remembering was the easy part.
“Ambushed.” Armor crinkled and popped as the guard leaned in to speak.
He would never show his grief. His eyes were like melting gold in the fading light, the color of late autumn. She held him now. Tightly-bound, their flesh exchanged warmth. Audacci muttered lovingly in his ear.
“Who did it?” Her prince’s voice quivered. “I want his name.”
“Nuan Tal, the Harvester. Eh, that’s what he calls himself. He’s just a damn space pirate. We don’t know what your brother was doing hanging around his lot,” the guard replied before Audacci could raise objection. She remembered that feeling that welled up in her when she failed to stop him. She had felt a similar feeling that night the prince took her unannounced after his elder sister’s birthday feast. She had remained at the palace back then.
“I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him…” the prince muttered, his forehead pressed against her’s. “He can’t get away with this…! I’ll kill him myself…I’ll bash his head in and…” The prince’s voice faded to a child’s as her embrace grew firmer. His perfume was overwhelming. She had to bury her arousal, had to swallow her lust. It was not easy. She was a lady, well-refined and suited for comforting her mate.
That night Prince Jokair became the heir to the Faerin Empire, and in the morning, she awoke to the flame-like blooms clothing the trees outside her window wilting in the first gasps of autumn.
The sky was an endless grey waste save for one bleeding gash. A blush of scarlet clouds clothed the rising skyscrapers whilst mists cloaked the shorter buildings. Where Mithran ran, the very air sparkled and shined. It was the Radiant City, the seat of His Majesty.
Ckaro-Ckaro was blind. But he could sense one’s aura. He hurt her sometimes. When they trained, she couldn’t always keep up. It gnawed at her pride when she lost, so she trained harder, and longer, and grew numb to pain. Or so she thought. The blood of the universe’s strongest warrior ran through her veins. The Faereth did not forget. She had been trained in relative secrecy since she could walk. In the early years, she had trained with the young princes and noble-born boys whose parents could afford lavish fancies. Now she sparred with a man who made her blood rush down the stone tiles, only to be washed away by the rain.
She had always been a Hera, despite being raised a Faerin. The boys couldn’t keep up. She had surpassed the eldest brother, Prince Mahsutic, when she had been six years old. He had been a young adult at the time.
She didn’t remember this. Pages and pages and pages turned themselves over and over and back again, and it was all the same in its differences.
He disappeared into the fog. A blanket of clouds moved in front of the orange-blotted sun, which was sinking beyond the distant buildings.
She tried to concentrate on her aura, but all she could feel was her heartbeat, deep and fervent in her ear. Audacci swallowed. She was covered in sweat. She expected him from the left. Turning her head, she was punched across the jaw from the right.
“Y-you…fool!” she screamed, falling to the ground. Blood pooled on the edge of her lip. Her jaw felt like it was on fire. “You broke it! You broke it! What am I going to do?! The prince–”
“Stop your whining. It’s not broken, and you know it. Get up and face me, or crawl home.” The old Faerin had a scraggly brown-and-grey bead. He wore a simple leather vest of armor and rough undergarments. She was clothed up nicely in slender ebony palace armor, frilled with turquoise blue feathers and carved for a princess’ frame.
She had never been a princess. She was the outsider, the alien ward. They treated her the same, they thought. She was not one of them. She never would be. She never wanted to be.
Their fists-clashes echoed from the mountain above the fog. A sun-baked seival screeched from a nearby tree, grey-barked and growing out of the side of a wall of rock leading further up the mountain. She sweat and bled and fought him back. She had been taught manners by her Faerin teachers and servants. All of that meant nothing now. The wind was on her face. Her fist was pulled back.
This was right, she knew. This was how it was supposed to be.
He taught her much about how to fight. He was not unkind, but she craved his praise. Ckaro-Ckaro died when she was twelve. He had had a stroke while sleeping and never woke up. It had taken them three days to find him, and by then, there had been little doubting his fate.
Perched on the edge of a skyscraper, Audacci thought herself rather cheeky. She would kill this one with a bit of a show. She meant to send a message. She wore a withered old hooded robe, tattered from long use. It concealed her dyed white-blonde hair. She couldn’t see her hair, but she knew it was true. She felt it. She was a pirate now–a bloody space pirate like those savages from the stars.
Governor Andulen-Knargo was a fringe commander of a distant world. She regretted never meeting him before. He had accrued significant debt, so they said, and many eyes had fallen with lust on his position. Calls had been made; money had been exchanged. Now here she was perched in the shade of noon on the most distant outpost in all the Faerin Empire, using the techniques her Faerin instructor had taught her. She had never been one of them, but she fought like one of them.
She fought as they dreamt she could. She was peerless, and for that reason, he noticed her. He had always had that damn pirate smile, and she had never been one to say no.
His face came to her sharply in the darkness, and she squirmed in impatience for it to fade into view much faster. His light purple skin was smooth as a satari flower from the Seinoco Plains, which would bloom red as dawn in the early weeks of summer and wither away by the time most other summer flowers began their blooms.
Below, the governor arrived in his hover vehicle, stepping up to the stairway that would lead him into a nearby building. He would never make it. She’d been here a hundred times, reliving the thrill each time a little more dully.
She jumped and stirred and felt the emptiness of wind against her cheeks.
In the twenty-ninth year of the reign of Emperor Yagei there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. Noble of birth, she was the only daughter of one of the emperor’s elder ministers. While the emperor loved his wife and three children, this lady became the focus of his thoughts, and he found that he could not break free of her enthralling beauty. Everything she did delighted him. He decided on the last moon of the year to move her closer to his own quarters, deep in the palace of the Crystal Emperor. The other ladies of the court grew jealous of the attention he bestowed upon her and sought to bring her misfortune and ruin.
Incense burned across the marble corridor. Her back ached from the hours she had spent sitting in that rigid chair learning courtly manners. She was a lady of the court, almost a princess. If one didn’t know, she could play the part well enough. None of that mattered now. Priests of the sun god Kal Nanna were murmuring aphorisms in the corner. Their eyes met. The prince and the near-princess were standing pretty as a pair of flowers, proper and full of manners, and glowing with light, they were so pleasant upon the eyes.
Lady Wugi was not long with child before rumors began spreading that it was a bastard of one of the Grand Ministers. Lady Wugi denied the accusations, but the other ladies, especially virtuous Queen Lapsi, parroted this point until they were blue in the face. Rumors swirled, and it was not long before the emperor caught wind of what was going on.
Their first night together, he had not knocked. He had stunk of imported ice wine. The prince had stumbled into her room unannounced, tripping over things, knocking over a chair, and waking her. At first she had been afraid, but then she had been annoyed when she had seen who it was.
“I can’t get you out of my head,” he complained miserably.
“My prince, I–”
He put his finger to her lips, silencing her. “How old are you, Hera?”
He did not even call her by her name back then. “Fourteen.”
“Is thaaat like…” he hiccuped, wiping his mouth, “yoooou’re not a kid anymore, riiight?”
The first blush she felt was nothing like the next.
Angered by the baseless babble of his other women, the emperor decreed that no more be made of her child, whom he claimed was his. But this declaration roused only more bitter fires in the hearts of the other women. They feared that Lady Wugi’s son would become the next emperor for all the attention and love he lavished upon her. Queen Lapsi, whose eldest son Prince Mahsutic was but a babe, grew worried that her guarantee of a royal heir was in jeopardy. She went to the Oracle of Kal Unnei to foresee if her child would ascend the throne. The oracle’s proclamation was dire–that Queen Lapsi’s son would not only never become king, but that he would die in a tragic accident in his youth. The Oracle promised the queen that if she were to kill Lady Wugi’s child before he reached the age of three, one of her children would become the next emperor of the Faerin Empire. Despite being pressed, the Oracle would not reveal which of Queen Lapsi’s five children that meant. This set the queen in a great state of melancholy, and she soon decided, with little thought, that Lady Wugi must suffer a tragedy for the sake of the empire.
His lips were soft, his warmth comforting. They didn’t let the priests see. She was on top… but no, that was wrong. She couldn’t be. No, that wasn’t right.
“Say my name!” the captain growled as he thrust her deeper into his sheets. She gasped and winced and blinked away wetness.
That wasn’t right either. That wasn’t good. She didn’t love him.
On the day that Prince Keuli entered the world, Queen Lapsi was given command of Lady Wugi’s birthing. Even the emperor was not allowed into the birthing room. It was here the queen enacted her treacherous plan. The baby was born crying, but he cried only thrice, only three long, sour notes, before he was silenced. Lady Wugi, hemorrhaging blood, had fallen unconscious before her baby had been born, and had not heard even a single cry. The nurses were in on it with the Queen, yet all the same, in a show of grief half a week later, she had the three attending Faerin banished to remote provinces where they all mysteriously vanished, never to be seen again.
A fresh blossom was in his hand. It had blown out of the tree, which stood as bare as one during winter. But no, it was spring. She knew it was.
“A new bloom.” The prince smiled and placed it in her hair. “My Spring Queen,” he boasted, and she kissed him.
There had been no such love in the other. The captain drank his rum and got so drunk he hardly knew how to put it in her. She was pretty. It was not a boast. Many men had told her that. Sometimes it annoyed her. He lusted for her. In a way, the prince did too, she supposed. The looks in both of their eyes could produce similar heat.
She was his to use until he didn’t want to use her anymore. It was only after he took her three nights in a row that she started to realize the opportunity she had been presented with.
It had been after a particularly rowdy meal that had devolved into a full-crew-brawl that she had known. In the scuffle, she had briefly crossed paths with the captain. In a wild and accidental swing, she had punched him in the belly so hard that he had fallen over and spit up blood. He hadn’t had time to see who had hit him. He would have never guessed.
She was stronger than Captain Nuan Tal. The thought of it made her shudder.
In the years afterwards, Queen Lapsi’s eldest son was named heir to the throne. Lady Wugi was rarely seen in public after the birth of her only son, widely thought of at the time as a tragic accident. She grew pale and thin and weak and rarely ate. The emperor would pay her visits often, and read her poetry and showed her his paintings in an effort to cheer her up. Nothing he did made her better. While this gnawed at the emperor’s pride, for he loved his lady dearly, he would not give up. It soon became apparent that her condition was worsening, and if nothing was done, she would not last until winter. It was, at this time, near the end of autumn, that two Hera who had been staying on Faeri to conduct business with the emperor left their infant daughter at His Majesty’s court in the sacred care of the Faerin Empire. They would return soon for their daughter, they promised, before leaving. Their departure was sudden, and the emperor had not yet been able to find a caretaker for the infant Hera. As he looked around his consortium of women, he realized all of them had children of their own to attend to save for Lady Wugi. She was childless and would remain so unless the emperor did something. So he did.
“Your poems were always so pretty,” the elderly lady murmured into her cup, steam rising up from the surface. “It’s cold today. Read me one so that I may not freeze.”
Audacci could still smell incense smoke on her fingers. She had been out all night with the prince. Her mind was racing, but she felt drowsy. He had let her sip from a bottle of Frostrose Wine that he had been gifted by his father for his last birthday. She shouldn’t have let him take her. She had been a maiden. She was supposed to be a maiden. What would her future husband think if she wasn’t?
Panic welled in her throat. She sipped hot milani tea and tried to focus, but it was hard. The fear in her then was like when Ckaro-Ckaro would beat her for sloppy footwork.
“Audacci?” Lady Wugi’s voice was thin, but cheerful. She was such a sweet old lady. It burned Audacci’s throat to make her suffer.
“My lady…my apologies. I-I’m not feeling very well. Perhaps it would be best for me to return to my room.”
The old Faerin had nodded warmly and excused Audacci from the table. She had even taken the girl’s plate from her and placed it on the cleaning rack. She was old, but not that old. She wasn’t diseased or sickly. Yet, that was the last time Audacci ever saw her alive.
Where the waves crashed against the shore, she stood and watched the silver dawn. Thinking of her caretaker, Audacci wondered what advice Lady Wugi would give her. ‘Keep your back straight and your eyes bright! A lady who is proper has nothing to fear. Beauty is always brighter than ugliness.’ She wished she could have read Lady Wugi one more of her poems. Audacci wasn’t a particularly good poet–she didn’t have that Faerin gene in her, unfortunately. But that didn’t matter. It would have made her lady happy.
She didn’t know why she was thinking about Lady Wugi all these years later. The melancholy in the air was palpable, and the moon hung steadily in the brightening sky.
She was wide and yellow on this desolate morning. Air frosted before Audacci’s nose. She skipped ki blasts across the dark blue-grey waters. If she didn’t leave, the Faerin Empire would be lost. And yet, she could not go. The stars called for her, but their tugging was not so strenuous on her heart. She had been raised here, had been allowed to live a life of leisure as a noble lady in the court. Why should she go and forsake them?
An heir was more important than a throne. She had told him a hundred times. He had kissed her and smiled and forgotten, but she couldn’t wait for him any longer.
Blood moved swiftly through the veins, and agitation had taken over her mind. Soon, it would all be over. She perceived this fact slowly, and then suddenly, and then it was nothing again, and what mattered was time. But time was a fickle bitch, the worst of them all. Audacci had been around the universe, had pillaged a hundred worlds, had trouped with a dozen pirate crews, and had basked in the countless beauties of countless cultures.
There was one man taller than the rest who came to her when she was nearly ready to wake, even if she would wake tired and cold and miserable. He was looming shadow in the darkness, ready to make his presence felt at the end of each dream escape.
Captain Nuan Tal grunted and burped, setting his glass of Dalon’s Curse on the nightstand. His member was hard, slim and curved like a dagger, and she held it between her hands. He moaned and thrust his hips upwards. She held tight, not daring to stroke him.
“What’re you doing?” he growled. The way he said it, he had no clue what she was about to do. That always stuck with her. He never knew he was going to die.
When she let go, she used one burning energy blast, blue and white and flashing with heat and power, to cut open his neck and bleed him dry. He didn’t have time to scream, but he had time to feel, and she stared him in the eyes as life fled him.
It had been a moment of triumph. Glorious it was, yes, and ecstasy rushed through her brain, and she took his fleet of pirates and grew it, and grew that some more, and soon, she had her own little empire. But she already knew that; it did not interest her.
She looked up and saw its wings spread in front of the sun, black as ink against burning fire. Its violent wrath was enough to rend her heart in two.
“My lady? A-are you there?” The voice came after a pause, as if it had spoken before and was waiting for her to respond. She rolled in bed, rubbing her eyes, and sat up. Someone was contacting her on her bracelet comm.
“What is it?” She stifled a yawn against her shoulder.
He was old and in high spirits. “I’m so sorry for waking you my lady, but I think we’ve found her. At least the power source matches that of the last incident.”
“Oh!” Her brain throbbed and everything was suddenly much brighter. She was tired, but there was work yet to be done. “I’ll be there shortly,” she murmured into the device on her left arm. ‘We both will be,’ she wanted to say, but that would be obnoxious. Audacci’s head hurt. The less talking she had to do, the better. “Wake up,” she commanded the lizard sleeping next to her.
He stirred and hissed, shaking his head against the pillow. He didn’t have any eyes, but she didn’t mind. Even if he couldn’t see, The Benefactor was full of passion, and she admired that in him. He wasn’t like men she once had known.
“Did they find her?”
“I think so. We will go look, you and me.”
“As you command,” he replied very formally. “In that case, I need to fill my belly first.”
The Benefactor leapt up from the bed. Audacci watched him go, noting his poise and vigor and breathing hard. Her head was spinning a bit. She couldn’t think very clearly yet, but she knew. This was what everything had been for. This was how she would win.
It started with Sesami, then Earth, then the universe.