The Battle of the Jade Mirror
This is the sixth and final story in a series written by Arinn Dembo describing various bits of backstory in the SotS universe. It takes place after the events detailed in the first five stories: Incident at Ko'Grappa, Incident at Avalon, Escape From Avalon, Rendezvous at Ke'Vanthu, and The Council of Chozanti. The original post and discussion can be found on the Kerberos Forum.
Cai Rui and his playmates sat in a circle on the cold cement floor, the three of them so close that their knees were touching. A beam of dirty winter sunlight surrounded them, filtered through a sheet of plastic nailed over the window–hole. The aluminum roof of the shack occasionally creaked with frost, and the wind beating on the walls made the plastic sheeting hum. The only other sound was the soft, continuous sigh of the rice pot steaming in the corner, filling the single–room dwelling with the smell of survival.
Steam rose to the ceiling and rolled along the corrugated metal roof, condensing on the cold surface. Occasionally a single drop of rice–scented rain fell into the center of the children’s circle, joining the previous drop to form a tiny pool.
Cai turned to Sara, sitting to his right with her tail neatly wrapped around her feet. He had never known her at this age, her creamy scales still the color of milk, her patterns pale pastel. She held her pale golden paws cupped to cover her eyes.
“Ok,” he said. “You can look.” He held up his own two hands, curled up into fists of mystery for the ancient guessing game. “Which one is it?”
Her pale green eyes narrowed, and for a moment her tongue flickered uncertainly. Finally she tapped the back of his left hand with her claw. “That one.”
He smiled and turned his hands over and opened his palm. The piece of candy, the very special prize, was in his right. “Sorry.”
“Bugger.” She rose gracefully, unfurling and stretching like a cat. “I hate this game. I’m going to go play outside.” She backed out of the circle of light and vanished, dissolving into the shadows of the room.
Cai Rui hid a smile. Even in his dreams, she was the same — if she couldn’t win the game, she would declare it pointless and refuse to play.
Cai Rui turned to his second playmate, a child with no face or features — instead the body was cut from the cloth of deep space, formed from black darkness scattered with distant stars.
“It is my turn.” Ishii spoke with the soft, vast voice of the waters. Black hands rose to cover the place where a child’s eyes would be.
Cai Rui put his hands behind his back and juggled the candy back and forth. He frowned with concern — this was the abbott’s very special gift. He did not want Ishii to have it.
“Ok.” When he brought his closed fists to the front, Ishii pointed to the left.
Cai Rui opened his hands. The candy was in the left. “Again,” he said, and Ishii obligingly covered his eyes.
He juggled the candy again, and on the next try Ishii correctly guessed the right. Cai Rui frowned. “Again.” Ishii covered his eyes. Somehow, Cai Rui felt him smiling.
He juggled the candy behind his back, looking at Ishii through narrowed eyes. Feeling oddly triumphant, he brought his fists back to the fore. Ishii looked down at them briefly and then back up into Cai Rui’s eyes.
“The candy is on the floor behind your back.”
Cai Rui flushed. “You’re cheating.”
“Yes,” Ishii said. “And so are you. Would you like to try again?”
Moved by the stubbornness that comes only in dreams, Cai Rui soldiered on. He tried everything. Once he hid the candy in the rice pot. Once under a broken brick. He hid the candy in pocket of his mother’s ragged jacket, as she lay sleeping on the floor. Nothing he did would fool Ishii. Every time, the dark child simply pointed to the place where the bright circle of sugar was hidden.
Finally, in desperation, he tried one last gambit. He held out his two fists, suppressing a grim smile. “Again.”
Ishii lowered his hands and looked at Cai Rui. He shook his head sadly. “You have swallowed the candy. A dangerous ploy — what if I did this?”
He raised one dark hand, and suddenly his black fingers had become four gleaming obsidian knives. So swiftly that it was nearly impossible to follow, his hand darted toward Cai Rui’s belly.
Cai Rui fell back, a cry of alarm and anticipated pain on his lips, but the blades did not penetrate. Instead Ishii squatted over him, letting the light of the sunbeam slide over the black metal just inches from vulnerable flesh.
He looked down at Cai Rui, the stars in the depths of his face shimmering like a dozen eyes. “The enemy will not be so gentle. To him, this is not a game. And he has weapons more terrible than mine.”
The tears of a defeated child sprang up in Cai Rui’s eyes. “Then how can I win? Where can I hide it?”
Ishii smiled. He gave his wrist a little flick and made his appendage a small human hand once more. Then he opened the hand; the striped disk of candy lay in the cup of his black palm. “Watch.”
Cai Rui stood, and suddenly the walls of his childhood home fell away, collapsing outward and vanishing. The two of them stood in a region of strange rolling dunes. As he focused on them more closely, he could see that they were mountains of candy, made up of billions of pieces identical to the one that he had tried to hide from Ishii.
Ishii climbed to the top of a pile, the candies crunching and sliding like scree beneath his feet. When he finally achieved the summit, he cocked his arm and threw the single piece out into the rolling white sea. It vanished into anonymity, one among billions.
In the blink of an eye, the two of them sat once more on the cold cement floor, facing one another cross–legged in a beam of winter sunlight. A drop of rice–scented rain fell in a silvery flash between them and joined the small undisturbed pool in the center of their circle.
Despite himself, Cai Rui smiled. “That was good,” he admitted. “What was that place?”
“The night sea in which your people swim.” Ishii shrugged. “I have no word for it. It is the treasure trove of your life, where all you have known and experienced falls into the birthgrave. My people have no such refuge.”
Cai Rui frowned. “Is the candy lost?” Cai Rui asked. “Will I ever see it again?”
Ishii held up his two open palms. “My friend…there is no candy.”
He woke up abruptly, sitting up with a start. As usual, his forehead smacked solidly into the bulkhead above him. This had happened so many times that now the impact was cushioned by a pad of soft insulation foam — he had taped one to the spot days ago, to spare himself more bruises.
Now he lay back with a sigh of irritation, rearranging himself in time and space, dreams fleeing in the wake of pain. The headache had been with him since he boarded, a constant drumbeat of pulsing agony. Drugs, light adjustments, tinkering with the atmospheric mix — nothing seemed to work. Life aboard a Hiver ship was a never–ending migraine. The most he could do was drive the pain into the background for a while, with the help of a fistful of pills.
A fistful of pills which had now run their course.
He pinched the bridge of his nose savagely, driving the pain back into the rear of his skull, and then opened his eyes in the dark. Something was wrong. In the six days he had been aboard the Jade Mirror, he had developed a sense of the rhythms and routines of the weary freighter. Instinct told him he had not slept long enough for this much darkness.
Wordless, he craned his head to look down from his topmost bunk. The ship was oddly silent — and curiously loud at the same time. He recognized the sound, a sweetly resonant high–pitched chirrup that seemed to issue from several places throughout the room. It was the great–grandfather of the old song of summer, when as a child he would creep from bed at night to sit on the cool stone steps and listen to the crickets singing.
It was the sound of Hivers snoring. And it came from everywhere.
With gradually building dread, he chinned himself down from the high shallow storage compartment which had been converted to make him a bunk. His bare feet touched the floor soundlessly and he crept to the side of a bulky shadow. As he bent, he saw the sleeper was Yzeket, sprawled ungracefully half in, half out of the doorway.
Cautiously he touched the warrior’s carapace. The massive chest moved slowly, the chirring song emerging in long musical sighs from the wingpits in his back as he slept. But the eyes were not covered by their protective lids — instead they seemed to be open, staring blind and sightless into the dark.
A cold chill washed over him. He looked down, and saw the customary weapons holstered in the chez–rek’s bandoliers were missing. With a sudden premonition he turned back to the place where his own clothes and weapons should have been, hanging in a sac beside his makeshift bunk.
Something in the bowels of the ship rattled, followed by a thud of heavy impact. Cai Rui looked up suddenly, eyes wide.
“No,” he said softly — more in disbelief than command.
The pain in his skull suddenly intensified, surging back into the space behind his eyes with a vengeance. He staggered and fell to his knees, clutching his temples. Beneath him the floor begin to vibrate, a rising thrum that spread from the depths of the Mirror and into his bones, his blood and brain, threatening to spin his body into fragments. The song of the engine whipped through him like a thousand burning wires, cradling him in a web of agony.
The sense of penetration was palpable, as if the surface tension of a liquid were suddenly broken. He fell heavily onto his side, head spinning, retching silently as the universe turned itself slowly, agonizingly inside out.
Lungs, heart, stomach lurched to a halt, in the interminable choking interval as the ship traveled through the skin of the universe. Its emergence was just as palpable, a slow revolution from the gut–wrenching realm of tortured amber to a place of pain and confusion, of tortured gasps and gagging heaves of stomach rebellion. Cai Rui writhed, holding his skull, trying with all his might to keep it from flying apart. His mouth was full of blood — sweat bathed his body.
The Jade Mirror had made another jump through the Queen’s Gates.
He tottered to his feet and staggered into the hall, half–stumbling over the bodies of several massive Hiver warriors. They lay where they had fallen, as if sleep had suddenly overtaken them all at once: between one bite and another of a ration bar, standing at a guard post, in midstep while exiting the head…
Along the gangway traveling the length of the ship’s spine he turned, listening. Somewhere in the command section he could hear a new sound, a trilling cascade of keystrokes. Even as he opened the control room hatch, some part of him recognized it — all Tarkasian computers made those eager little trills as they accepted commands.
The massive male turned toward him. His pupils had folded into a complex origame of amusement and surprise.
“Why…hello, stump. What’s the matter? Not sleepy?”
For days Lan Mak’Kona had spoken every word in this same tone — the contemptuous sneer of a bully who issues a challenge that others are too weak to answer. Cai Rui registered the insult without speaking, meeting the eyes of Sara’s younger brother without changing expression. Slowly he wiped the blood from his mouth, and then just as slowly and deliberately raised his eyes to the viewscreens, to take in the rolling tapestry of space.
In the course of his work he had studied spy footage from dozens of Hiver worlds, keeping track of every planet known to be a part of their Gate network. This one, however, would never have needed such an introduction. Any human spacer would have recognized it at a glance.
Outside, the void was awash with shattered ships. The scattered fragments of hundreds of broken hulls tumbled, silent and black. Here the cavernous, gaunt ribs of a sundered Hiver dreadnaught gleamed, rolling slowly up into the light as the ship completed a ponderous pirouette in the darkness. There the melted command section of a Tarkasian cruiser tumbled in slow somersaults through the night, trailing a necklace of wreckage from the SolForce destroyers that had smashed into either side, dragging it with them into death. It was a glittering field of devastation, extending as far as the eye could see, the remains of a battle so massive that its litter had left a permanent ring of debris in orbit around the tiny yellow star. Now this ring had become its own monument to the dead — a frozen, hallowed cemetery for the three races who had once fought and died to call this system their own.
He closed his eyes, letting the old plan slip away. He was lightyears away from that rendezvous, and the carefully–laid ambush that had once seemed so clever. Here and now, the future yawned before him like an abyss.
When he opened his eyes again a moment later, he discovered that there was only one question left to ask.
“Sara’s plan?” he asked the young Tarka. “Or yours?”
Lan Mak’Kona rattled his tongue with laughter. “You give my sister too much credit. Even now she rages at the helm, watching her precious pet disappear into my coils. No, her great scheme was only to help you capture your enemy and avenge your father–ape.” He bared his tusks in disgust. “Pathetic.”
“Ah.” Looking down at his hands, Cai Rui could not hide his smile. She had not betrayed him. It was strange, in the worst moments of life, how such a small thing could matter.
The son of the emperor looked at his face and made a harsh bark of disbelief. “Grak. The pet is happy now, is it? Still has his lady’s love? And much good that will do him.”
Cai Rui looked up and raised his eyebrows. “Always a pleasure to be chosen. By a woman of quality.”
Even as he spoke he knew that the bolt would strike true. Lan Mak’Kona stiffened visibly, his pupils slitted with fury. Cai Rui cocked his head, feigning mild interest as the boy battled with rage. The spoiled scion of a wealthy family, a male like Lan Mak’Kona made the Change by means of wealth — not glory. But son of an emperor or not, he was not likely to impress a woman of his sister’s rank.
Looking at him now, Cai Rui could almost see the yoke around that massive neck. The boy would never go far on his name alone. He would not have fathered many children among the elite, as yet — at best he might have hired himself out as a stud service to his inferiors — if his family would allow even that. How it must rankle him, that golden cage: to have the appearance of status, of power, of manhood — and not the reality. He would be little more than a plaything until he could distinguish himself in politics or battle.
Cai Rui shook his head, poisonously amused. All this trouble and pain — to be betrayed, in the end, by a 200-kilogram teenager.
“Well then,” he said mildly. “I suppose we have a new plan.”
The Tarka bared his massive tusks. “Not really. Only a few details have been changed.” His golden eyes gleamed savagely. “We still promise the Deacon to deliver a prized captive, in return for…certain considerations. We still meet his ship in a pre–arranged location to make the exchange.” His tongue rattled again. “But we do not open fire at the last moment with the cloaked cruisers lying in wait.”
The young Tarkasian rose from the pilot’s chair, advancing on Cai Rui with the slow, weaving predatory dance of a snake. “Instead, we see how deep his pockets go, this Ripper,” he rumbled softly. His head cocked to the side. “If he’s willing to pay a fine ransom for one filthy little ape — what will he give for a Hiver Prince?”
Cai Rui took a step backward, but the hand shot out too quickly, snapping shut around the bones of his arm in an eyeblink, with a grip like iron.
“Would he attack on my command, perhaps?” Lan Mak’Kona leaned close, bringing his ivory tusks within inches. “With a few well–placed blows, I might raise a full rebellion against this Son of Orr,” he hissed softly. “There are many who would prefer to see a son of the Kona sit in the Temple of Steel.”
Cai Rui bared his teeth in return. “The only child of the Kona fit to sit in that throne is your sister,” he said sharply. “As for you — I suspect that you are about to discover how my old friend treats royalty.” He lifted his chin, indicating the viewscreen.
Lan Mak’Kona turned just as the proximity warning of the old freighter began to pulse. Frozen, he watched as the fabric of space ruptured, and the massive nose of the enemy ship hove into view.
It was eerily at home against the backdrop of the drifting graveyard, a nightmare vessel bolted together from the dismembered remains of a dozen derelicts. Every portal bristled with guns, and every one of those guns was trained on the vulnerable flanks of the fragile Hiver freighter, helpless in the dark.
“Well done, Lan Mak’Kona.” Cai Rui laughed bitterly. “Your plan is without flaw. Even the Supreme cannot say that He has ever been where you stand now — standing alone at the helm of a rusting freighter in the face of an enemy cruiser. And you have cleverly arranged a slow death for yourself and all aboard, by delivering three prizes to an enemy of your people — a Hiver Prince, a filthy little ape, and a Tarkasian fool.” He shook his head. “What will you do for an encore, I wonder? Kill yourself before the Deacon can tear out your soul and make you his catamite—?”
The boy turned to him with a snarl of terror and fury. Cai Rui smiled — even as he registered the moment he had gone too far. He had only a split–second to regret his choice of words before the massive fist was in motion, hammering him back down into the black.
“Sweet Bleeding Gods of the Abyss.” The Amtara shook his head. “I do believe that is the ugliest damned thing I’ve ever seen.”
She tapped her wrist–guard, zooming the camera view in tighter on the alien cruiser. “If there are gods in the abyss,” she agreed dryly, “That ship was built in their harbor.”
As they watched, a pair of heavy hooks deployed from the belly of the strange patchwork vessel to grapple the Hiver freighter. The ship was held in a parasitic grip and reeled closer to the enemy’s ventral hull — Sara winced as glowing plasma torches emerged on mechanical arms and began to slice, cutting cleanly through the bulkhead fore of the engine like a surgeon’s scalpel.
In the forward sections of the Jade Mirror, the lights went dead — she could almost hear the life support systems grind to a halt. Take a deep breath, Caido, she thought. And pray that all of Ishii’s tricks will work.
“They are good at what they do. And whatever they are — they are growing bolder.” He turned slightly in his chair. “That is no raider. It is a ship of the line. If they are building vessels of such a size, they mean to use them soon. In the open.”
“I believe you are right.” The Iron Lotus stood on the command deck of the Tarkasian crusier Habas’ku, her hand placed in the ceremonial position upon the back of the Amtara’s chair. She favored the old man with a pupil–smile, never taking her eyes from the viewscreen before them. Only her tail betrayed any agitation…rolling in a slow, lazy circle upon the bulkhead. It could lash out in a strike or draw the blade sheathed at her calf in a split–second.
“And these are the things that attacked the House of Grappa.” He flexed his fist and turned back to the screen, crest bristling with menace. “Say the word, my Lady. We are ready to send them back to hell.”
“Ne.” She spoke quietly. “Patience, Amtarado. Stay hidden. Let them take our bait. Then we will move in — to cripple, not to kill.” She bared her teeth. “We will take them as they have taken us. Alive.”
He growled in the back of his throat, a low deep rumble of impending aggression that thrummed through her fingertips and into the room like a crack of thunder. Every woman on the bridge could feel it — that surging thrill of masculine power. A moment later the navigator threw a quick, appraising glance over one shoulder, her pupils rounded with desire.
Sara’s tongue flickered. Seeing her force commander’s silent laughter, the pilot turned abruptly back to her console and became urgently interested in scanning the debris field. “Holding position, Amtara.” She spoke crisply, and pointedly addressed her immediate superior. “They have not detected our presence.”
Sara answered almost musingly. “They cannot penetrate the cloak. This we learned at Avalon.” She watched with fascination as the strange alien ship extended a boarding chute toward the freighter, now helpless in its grip. Her tail resumed its restless coiling dance. “We should be safe for now. Maintain radio silence.”
“’Safe’? We are more than ‘safe’, surely.” The Amtara swept out a hand to indicate the full complement of ships under his command. “I do not understand why we wait, my Lady. We outnumber them four to one.” There was a hint of petulance in his tone. “And yet we cower and skulk among the corpses?”
“We do as we agreed,” she said sharply. “We have allies aboard that ship, Amtara. Oath–brothers who risk their lives in an act of subterfuge. They depend upon our ability to carry out this plan.” Her voice was laden with a deadly chill. “If you are incapable of subtlety, say the word. I am sure I can find someone to command this fane with more finesse.”
The old man stiffened. “You will find me quite capable of anything you require, Lac Tara. If the details of your plan had been shared with me…”
She resisted the urge to cut him off impatiently, letting his words trail off into silence without reply. Rather than speak, she watched the Ripper ship nose through the debris field aimlessly, dragging the smaller Hiver vessel along in its arms like a jin–fly winging aloft with its prey. He was watching her from the corner of his eye — she permitted herself a womanly shiver.
After a brief, awkward pause, he spoke again. “I apologize. Your sibling is a brave lad.”
She let her eyelids close briefly in agreement. Too brave, she thought. Too brave, too young, too willing. I should never have permitted this. I should have used someone else’s brother.
She could still see the way he had caressed the mound of eggs with his slender hand, the way his fingertips trembled — wanting, but afraid to take. “But shouldn’t I earn these, Saradora?” His expression had been painfully open. He had never so much as entwined a woman before, much less tasted her favor. A boy’s longing to be a man now warred with his sense of rightness, and everything hung upon his heart–breaking faith that Big Sister would know what was best.
Big Sister would never lead him astray.
“You will, Landomo. Believe me, you will.” She caressed his crest lovingly, and drew him close. “You are a clever boy, my brother.” She embraced him, letting him feel the steady beat of her heart against his chest. “And someday, you will be a brilliant man. But for now, Ishii says that you must be something in between. You must meet this enemy neither before nor after the Change…but during.”
She released him and reached to the bowl, heaped with the pearlescent treasure. It had taken less than a day to gather this prize — she had only to send the message to her list of contacts. Upon receiving those three words — “I need a favor” — her friends and allies had sent enough of these to Change a dozen men.
Carefully she selected the one she had marked with a drop of blood.
“This one is mine.” She offered it to him, holding the creamy golden oval in her palm. “I ask you to take it, my brother. It is the greatest honor I have to bestow. It will hurl you into the teeth of my enemies. It will bring you pain, and madness, and an early death. If there was any other I could trust—“
“I am honored.” He cut her off, his young voice surprisingly firm. Without hesitation, he took the egg and placed it between his incisors. Her heart clenched with fierce love as he tilted his head back and split the egg between his teeth. A true Konai, he savored every drop of the rich yolk, letting it bleed over his tongue and down his throat slowly. Then he crushed the shell and swallowed it, eyes lidded with sensual pleasure.
When he lowered his head and looked at her again, his pupils blazed red — but his dreamy smile was still a boy’s. “Wonderful. Are they all so sweet—?”
She shook her head. “I have been told that every woman is different.” She reached to the bowl again, playfully. “Perhaps you should try another?”
He hesitated. “How many should I have? Do I need to eat them all?” He took the egg gingerly, a small round favor with a brilliant emerald hue. “I have never read the Books of Change. I thought it would be years before I needed them...”
And again she felt that pang of shame and regret. It should have been. Poor, poor Landomo. My sweet little kinsman. It should have been years.
Her heart went out to him, alone now in the dark bowels of the Hiver ship. It must be cold, waiting in the silence of his armor for the enemy to find him. He would have dragged as many of the sleeping Hivers as possible into position, placing the majority of bodies on the bridge and in the engine room. Command staff and and engineers would not be killed immediately when the Rippers boarded — this much they knew.
Her reverie was interrupted by the voice of the navigator. “A second ship, Amtara.” Her voice was tense. “Coming from the void.”
Sara’s eyes flew open just in time to see the grim silhouette sliding from its unholy tear in the universe. As before, the arrival of a Ripper ship reminded her uncomfortably of the way a blade punched through an enemy’s back might look as it emerged from her chest.
This one was even uglier than its sister, a hammer–headed monstrosity bristling with guns. Even on its midsection it carried more heavy turrets than two comparable Tarkasian cruisers combined.
Bitterly she turned to the commander. “Well, Amtara? What do you think? Does this even up the odds to your satisfaction?”