Strangers and their Gifts

 
Unprepared
“It’s going slowly, Berek,” says Keela.
“We have no experience in manufacturing the carbon fibers.”
“And we don’t have enough engineers to redesign the airships, weapons, and other devices to incorporate the material.”

“If only we had the shaping device that Mayla showed us,” thinks Berek.
She never gave us plans for it, only a limited version with built-in models for a few weapons.
That was long ago, and those weapons would be useless without the fibers, once the Kizak activate a tech screen.

“We’ll be able to produce some devices that can resist the tech screen, but not enough.”
“Can you use flow to shape the weapons, Berek?”

“Not without a nullifier, but even then, my flow skills are surprisingly rough, and I can’t shape a complex device.”

“What can we do?”
“We’re running out of time.”
“Weeks have passed since your father’s ship came.”
“The Kizak could arrive at any moment.”

“My control improves when I take off the Shield.”

“How can you suggest that?”
“You’re the protector of Tshuan.”
“My father gave you the Shield to carry with you at all times.”
“No one has ever been given that honor.”
“And you promised that you would wear the Shield until the danger passed!”

“I’m grateful for his trust, Keela, but I need you to release me from my vow.”

“You told me that the Shield makes you stronger.”

“Stronger, yes, but I can’t control that power when I use it to flow.”
“I’m better off with the nullifier, and no Shield.”
“I’ve connected a few nullifiers to an external power source.”
“They’ll operate for an hour or more, until they burn out.”

“Will you just ignore the visions?”
“They say that the Shield will save Tshuan.”

“I don’t know how to use it, Keela.”
“No one does.”
“I’m more help to you without it.”
“And I’ll still keep it nearby, and wear it when the nullifiers are gone.”

Keela frowns.

“I know this is troubling,” says Berek, “but what choice do we have?”

Do it,” says Keela.
“I release you from your promise.”
“If you won’t carry the shield, we have to return it to its resting place in the cavern.”

They go to the cavern, and put back the Shield.
“Perhaps this is necessary,” she says, “but today we dishonor the commander’s memory.”
Her eyes fill with tears, but Berek is silent.
He knows that no words will comfort her now.

When they leave the cavern, he says goodbye, but she doesn’t answer, and he returns to the school where he has a workshop prepared.
Even with the nullifiers, progress is slow, and Berek can only flow materials close to his body.
With the ship’s help, he improves the efficiency of the portable nullifiers so they run for ten minutes off a single charge.
Still, it’s not very long.

Over the next few days, he cancels his classes, and flows hundreds of armbands, multifunction disks, and small weapons.
His days are busy, yet they seem empty.
Dilasa and Tzina visit him, but Keela stays away, and she doesn’t respond to his messages.

One day, Niyta, the head of the sisters, enters his workshop.
“Time to stop, Berek,” she says.

“I can’t stop.”
“We don’t even have enough weapons for the guard.”

“Your little weapons won’t save us against ships and armies.”
“The Kizak are here.”

“Where?”
“I’ve got to go.”

“Slow down.”
“They asked permission to land a small ship in the morning.”
“Five diplomats will meet with the Tshuan council, and arrange a meeting with the queen.”
“The request was made in perfect Jiku.”

“Did Keela contact you?”

“One of her advisors.”
“The queen wants you to meet with the Kizak and the council.”
“Stop your work, and rest.”
“You’ll need all your strength tomorrow.”

 
Diplomats
Berek wakes after a full night’s sleep, but he feels strange.
It takes him a moment to clear his thoughts, and then he knows.

He can barely feel the web.
The cage is fully in place.
He tests a nullifier, and takes a deep breath after he sees that it still works.

Berek dresses in the formal clothing sent by Keela, in the royal colors of red and black.
He hides the nullifier under his shirt, and slips a gold communicator armband over his jacket.
Normally, when he walks past the children, their thoughts jump out at him, even if he doesn’t try to listen.
Today is different.
He can still raise and lower his own mind wall, but the world around him is quiet.

His father’s message explains it all.

The regular cage doesn’t block our mind skills, but the Kizak have another device which creates a mind cage.
There’s a division of their military called the mind corps, full of those who can touch minds as we do.
We’re stronger than them, or at least I am.
Since the mind cages are everywhere, the agents carry jamming devices which let them selectively disable the cage, so they can read a nearby mind.
Keep your wintzal active at all times, and remind the leaders in the guild and Tshuan to do the same.
I don’t know if you have my strength, but I can touch Kizak thoughts whenever I make physical contact, even when the mind cage is active.

Berek tenses up when he tries to glide on the web and nothing happens.
Then he remembers how the world has changed, and activates the flight circuit in the Tshuan armband, to fly to the meeting place.
“I’ll save the battery in the nullifier, for when I need it.”

The Kizak will be here soon.
When he arrives at the landing pad, the guards send him to the queen.
“Out,” she says to the others.

She fingers the cloth of his jacket.
“The royal colors look good on you, Berek.”

“I’m sorry I upset you,” he says.
“I never meant to disrespect your father.”

“I know,” she says, squeezing his hand.
“I just needed a few days to cool off.”

“It was strange not to see you for a few days, Keela.”
“I didn’t like it.”

“Good,” she says smiling.
“Are you ready to meet the Kizak?”

“Yes, but I wish I knew what they’re planning.”

“Can you go into their minds and touch their thoughts.”
“You told me that the ship taught you their language.”

“I could do it, but some of them may have mind skills, and would notice the intrusion, or slip into my mind.”
“Better for us to keep our mind walls closed at all times.”

“The council is protected, Berek, and some of the guard, but not all.”
“We can’t hide all of our secrets.”

“We’ll do what we can, for as long as we can.”

“I know you won’t like it,” she says, “but the council will introduce you as Lord Berek, my cousin and trusted advisor.”
“Be safe,” she adds.
“On the surface, I think this first meeting will be the usual diplomatic nonsense.”
“Still, I’m going far from the meeting place, in case the ship that lands tries to attack us.”

Berek is the tallest of the Jiku at the landing pad, when the Kizak arrive.
They are wearing some kind of dress uniform, in blue and gold.

“We bring greetings from our emperor to your queen,” says the oldest of the Kizak.
“We’ve traveled from another galaxy to ask you to join us in a great empire.”
“Yours is the first world that we’ve invited from outside our own galaxy.”

“You honor us,” says the elder of the Tshuan council.
“Of course, we must learn more about your empire before we can make a decision.”

“Agreed,” says the Kizak.
Each of the Tshuans introduces himself or herself, and the Kizak do the same, until only Berek remains.
He feels pressure on his mind wall, but whoever it is, can’t penetrate it.

“And who is this?” asks the Kizak elder.

“Lord Berek, the queen’s cousin and advisor.”

“How did you learn our language?” asks Berek.

“We sent intelligent unmanned ships to learn your history and language, and prepare the way.”

“Prepare?”

“We’ve set up security screens to protect the emperor, so he’s not threatened by the curse.”

“Tell me about this curse,” says Berek.

“You call it energy ways.”
“These abilities have brought great destruction to you in your history, as they have to us.”
“We can remove the security screens when we leave, but we hope that you will consent to keep them in place.”
“We know about your inhibitors.”
“You resist the curse, just as we do.”

“We will consider your words,” says the Tshuan elder.

“Honored guests,” says Berek, “the queen has asked me to personally welcome you to our world and to the kingdom of Tshuan.”
“We honor our guests,” says Berek, “with a physical greeting.”
“Not knowing your customs, I ask permission to greet you in this way.”

“Continue,” says the Kizak elder.

Berek gives each of them the greeting of palms.
While doing it, he lowers his mind shield for a few seconds, and listens to the thoughts of each of them.

“How old are you, Lord Berek?” asks one of the Kizak, after the greetings are finished.
“You’re tall, strong, and confident, and yet you look very young.”

“Thirteen,” answers Berek without hesitating.

“So young to lead a diplomatic delegation,” says the Kizak elder.
“We don’t know your ways, but it’s difficult not to think of this as an insult.”

One of the Tshuans steps close to the Kizak.
“Lord Berek is trusted by the queen in all ways.”
“He is wise, far beyond his years, and one of the greatest fighters among us.”
“Lord Berek personally avenged the death of our king.”
“His presence here is one of the greatest honors the queen could give you, without coming here herself.”

“We mean no disrespect,” says the Kizak elder.
“Our emperor will want a full report of our meeting, and we must anticipate the questions he will ask.

“The queen’s cooks have prepared a meal for you,” says one of the Tshuan council.
“Come eat with us.”

They sit down together, the table covered with serving dishes full of food.
One of the Kizak pulls out a device and scans the food.

“You think we would try to poison you?” asks one of the Tshuans, standing up in anger.

Berek stands and rests his hand on the shoulder of the Tshuan elder next to him.
“Elder, she is just scanning our food to make sure that it’s compatible with their bodies.”
“We look similar enough, but there may be foods or spices we eat that their bodies can’t tolerate.”

The Tshuan sits down.
“Thank you, Lord Berek,” says the Kizak woman, “for your thoughtful explanation.”
“That is exactly what I’m doing.”

The meal continues, and Berek is quiet, as the diplomats negotiate the details of the meeting between the emperor and the queen.
Berek leads the delegation as they walk back to the Kizak ship.
When they near the ship, the Tshuans present the Kizak group with gifts, including artwork, and a hand-made sword with gems embedded in the handle.
The Kizak respond with gifts of their own, including two helmets.
The first one is made of a bright silver metal, and decorated with the image of a lightning bolt.
The second one is smooth like glass, but has a metallic feel.

“I wish we could learn your language as easily as you have learned ours,” says Berek.
“We should honor you as you have honored us, by conducting the next meeting in the Kizak language.”

“An excellent suggestion, Lord Berek.”
“We hoped that your delegation would make such a request.”
“The silver device we’ve given you is a teaching machine.”
“With a few hours of use, it will provide a working knowledge of our history, customs and language.”
“However, there are differences between our races in neural structure, so we can’t be sure that the device is safe for you.”
“We recommend testing it on a criminal or enemy prisoner before using it yourselves.”
“After that it will distribute its content to twenty-five more minds, before it ceases to function.”
“We’ll give you a few days to make full use of the gift before your queen meets with the emperor.”

“The machine will burn out from use?”

“No, but it’s programmed to allow only twenty-six uses.”
“When you join the empire, we will share our language and technology with you freely, but until then, we must be more cautious.

“What is the second helmet?” asks Berek.

“A healing device.”
“It activates the inner resources of the body to accelerate healing.”

“Extraordinary!”
“When will it stop working?”

“This is our most precious gift, and it’s unlimited.”
The Kizak elder hands over a small device.
“This player contains the plans for the accelerator, translated to Jiku, and compatible with your power sources.”
“Produce as many as you wish.”
“We want your people to experience the benefits that will come from joining the empire.”

The Kizak return to their ship, and it quickly disappears from sight.

 
Reports
Teyus, the emperor, is already in the conference room when his people arrive.

“Well?” he asks.

“We couldn’t listen to the thoughts of the delegation.”
“They all have a mental barrier in place.”
“However, there were soldiers standing guard who were unprotected.”

“What did you learn?”

“We confirmed what our hidden probes reported.”
“There is a long history of distrust between Tshuan and the guild lands, along with a fear of energy ways.”

“Good.”
“The Tshuans will have no trouble with the cage, then.”

“It’s complicated.”
“A few hundred of the cursed live in Tshuan.”
“They’re called sisters of the long path.”
“The soldiers believe that the sisters are a thousand years old, from a time when technology was much more advanced than it is today.”

“A foolish tale,” says the emperor, walking back and forth.

“Perhaps, but they believe it, and the queen favors these women.”
“Who knows what is possible with the curse?”
“The Madar live that long.”
“There are also a few of the cursed who have come from the guild lands, including relatives of the queen.”
“Lord Berek is one of them, and the queen trusts him.”
“Some of the soldiers think that he will become king someday.”

“What are the Tshuans like?”

“Strong, confident.”
“You read the summary we sent you?”

“Yes, but I want more.”

“From the little we’ve seen, I think they would be an asset to the empire.”
“Their kingdom is built on a military structure, like the empire, and they understand discipline.”

“Tell me about this child that was part of the delegation.”

“The queen’s cousin is no child, emperor, in body or mind.”
“They say that he personally avenged the king’s death.”
“One of the soldiers witnessed a fight where Lord Berek was unarmed and faced five adult fighters with knives.”
“I saw the memory.”
“The youth’s fighting skills are extraordinary.”
“He’s also cursed.”
“There are reports of him flying and healing without technology.”
“And it’s said that weapons won’t work against him.”

“What about his family?”

“Confusing.”
“Our ships penetrated guild records.”
“They indicate that Lord Berek has parents in the guild lands who adopted him ten years ago, at age five, after his birth parents were killed.”
“Yet there are recent notes that suggest that his birth father is the most powerful of the cursed.”
“The soldiers thoughts confirm this, although one soldier thinks that Berek’s father is some kind of demon, both dead and alive.”

“Where is the man now?”

“Guild council notes suggest that Master Yagrin has left the planet, but there is no indication of how.”
“Officially, neither the Guilds or Tshuan have ships that can leave the atmosphere.”
“And the soldiers have only seen airships.”
“None of them know where Berek’s father has gone, only that he hasn’t been in Tshuan for years.”

“You’ve only stolen thoughts from a few minds,” protests the emperor.
“The ships may be carefully hidden.”
“We know that the Jiku have complete plans for the ancient ships.”

“Yes, but neither group is interested in leaving their world.”
“There is a widespread fear of being found by an ancient enemy.”
“The guilds, in particular, use very little advanced technology.”
“They prefer the powers that their curses bring them.”

“There are starships!” insists the emperor.
“How do you think we found this world!”
“One of their probes came to our galaxy, and was captured.”
“When we deciphered its data, we determined the planet’s position.”
“The probe itself is proof that there is dangerous technology here.”

“The probe was old, my emperor.”
“Perhaps it was sent from a facility that was destroyed in one of their wars.”
“Tshuan’s weapons offer little challenge to us, and the guild has nothing.”

“There is more here than we see.”
“We programed the probe to return to its launch facility, and it sent out a signal confirming its arrival.”
“That was the last we heard from it.”
“Can you explain what happened to it?!”

“No.”

“The guard will keep watch in space for any sign of Jiku starships.”
“We will find them.”
“This Lord Berek child will cause us trouble.”
“I feel it.”
“He will unit Tshuan and the guilds against us.”

“No, emperor.”
“The guild council has published an order, forbidding all contact with Lord Berek, his two sisters, and stepmother.”
“The order accuses Berek’s family of being traitors, loyal only to Tshuan.”

“Still, the queen is too close to the cursed sisters, and her cousins.”
“She may not agree to the cage.”

“There are others in Tshuan who might be more agreeable, if the queen fails us.”

“Explain.”

“In ancient times, there was a group called the great council.”
“They wrote the laws that governed the kingdom.”
“Most of this council was elected by the people.”
“Today’s royal council is full of shadows.”
“There are a few elected advisors, but they have no real power.”
“There’s a growing desire in Tshuan to limit the influence of the queen, and give the people a voice again.”
“The citizens are tired of preparing for war, and letting the military run the country.”

“I’ve heard that the Jiku believe in visions that promise another war.”

“It was the queen’s ancestor brought the world to war.”
“And there are many in Tshuan who believe that it will be the royal family who will start the next war, supported by the queen’s cursed cousins.”
“The Tshuan people are suspicious of the energy ways, and the guilds who are associated with them.”
“There is talk about replacing the queen.”

“Could these dissidents stage an effective rebellion?”

“They could start a civil war, but it’s unclear whether they could win it without our help.”

“Is there anyone who will support us in the guild lands?”

“We intercepted and analyzed many of their communications.”
“The guilds are a small percentage of the people, yet they have complete control of the government.”
“The majority of the inhabitants there are ordinary people who want more technology, and more power.”

“Tell me about the thoughts you stole from the soldiers.”
“Do the Tshuans plan to ambush us at this meeting?”

“No.”
“The soldiers have been instructed to treat us with the greatest respect, and not to take out or use their weapons unless the queen herself is threatened.”

“The Tshuans agreed to the terms of the meeting?”

“Yes.”
“The meeting will take place on a hilltop, with twelve armed guards accompanying you and twelve protecting the queen.”

“Good.”

“They also agreed to let a few of our unarmed diplomats visit various public areas in Tshuan and speak with the people, accompanied by their guards.”
“We’ll find a way to make private contact with citizens who are unhappy with the queen, in case we need to work around her.”

“How was your first contact with the guild council?”

“We landed there a few hours after we left Tshuan.”
“It was tense.”
“With their cursed abilities gone, the guilds are frightened.”
“They know about the cage, and they blame us for all they have lost.”

“You took their thoughts?”

“No.”
“Everyone we met from the guilds has that strange mind block.”
“Fortunately, they don’t have the military discipline of Tshuan.”
“Their emotions are visible on their faces, and their leaders are too quick to say what they’re thinking.”

“What will they do?”

“What can they do?”
“Nothing.”
“However, they’re trying to negotiate.”
“Their council offered to join the empire, in exchange for us lifting the cage from their lands, or even their major cities.”

“What did you say?”

“I thanked them for their thoughtful offer, and said that we would consider it.”
“I suggest that we agree to their condition.”

“I will not allow any part of a colony world to live with the curses.”

“Of course not.”
“We’ll just pretend to agree.”
“Once we’ve established a base in their lands, and arranged for free elections, they will no longer control the government.”
“Then the ordinary people will be happy that the curse is gone.”

The emperor laughs.
“We’ll do with them as you say.”

“One more issue.”
“The guild council accused us of murder.”

“We’ve harmed no one.”

“True, but their healers are powerless without their connection to the energy web.”
“And the guild lands have very limited medical knowledge outside of their healers.”
“Some of the sick and injured will die because of us.”
“As a sign of good will, we offered to build twelve healing centers equipped with the accelerator and other devices.”
“Our staff will manage the centers, until they can train the Jiku.”
“The council is uncomfortable accepting our help, but they have no choice.”
“It will take us only a few days to set up the centers.”
“Once the people see what we offer, the guilds will be nothing but ordinary men, and we will be the masters.”

“You’ve done well,” says the emperor.
“This planet will soon join us, whether or not their current leaders agree.”

Teyus is alone with his thoughts when the others leave.

The name Yagrin is hauntingly familiar.

He’s confident of his memory, but he looks up the name on the ship’s infonet, just to see it again.
The traitor Neyima had several identities, including one called ‘Yagrin’, a tech on a fringe world.

It’s a strange coincidence, that’s all.
Neyima said he was really Madar.
But what if he was lying?

 
Understanding the Kizak
“How do we find out if the teaching helmet is safe?” asks Keela.
“We need to learn their language and history, so we can better understand the Kizak, and predict how they will act.”

“Forget the helmet.”
“I’ll take you aboard the ship, and it will teach you their language.”

“No, Berek.”
“It’s not enough for you and me to have this knowledge.”
“I need my advisors and staff to understand how the Kizak think.”
“And we can’t use the ship to train my people, without revealing its existence!”

“I touched the thoughts of all the visitors.”
“I only had a few seconds with each one, but they look at the helmet as a true gift.”
“There’s no sign that it will drive us crazy, or steal our memories.”
“The emperor is prepared to conquer us by force, or pressure us into accepting, but he would like us to join the empire willingly.”
“They’ll wait a few weeks to get our agreement, as long as we seem to be considering their offer.”
“Still, even if they don’t intend to harm us, the helmet could be incompatible with our physiology or minds.”

“We have no choice.”
“We have to try it.”

“I’ll go first, Keela.”
“I won’t let you use it, until I’ve proven that it’s safe.”

“Do you think that I would let you take that risk, Berek?”
“You’re too important to Tshuan and to me.”
“I’ll ask for volunteers.”

Keela returns in a few minutes with a man and a woman, two of her advisors.

“Are you aware of the danger?” asks Berek.
“The aliens aren’t trying to harm us, but the process could still be dangerous.”

“We understand.”

“Lower your mental shields.”
“I need to do a thorough scan before you start, to see if your mind webs are affected by using the helmet.”

When Berek is finished, the advisors go off to a quiet room, one at a time, and complete the training.
They return later in the day.
Berek scans them again, looking for alien commands that have been implanted in their minds, or any kind of damage to the integrity of the webs.

“Thank the creator, there’s no trace of damage,” says Berek.
“How do you feel?”

“Great,” they answer.
“If anything,” says the woman, “I feel more alert than before.”

“Raise your mind shields,” says Berek.
“And thank you for your help.”

It takes a few days for the rest of the advisors and selected staff to complete the training.
The queen is the last one to put on the helmet and close her eyes.
When her training is complete, she awakes to find Berek waiting quietly in the room.

“How long have you been here?” she asks.

He doesn’t answer, and looks embarrassed.

“Tell me, Berek.”

“Hours.”
“I pretended to leave when my training was complete, and came back a few minutes after you started.”

“I don’t understand.”

He doesn’t answer.

“Tell me the rest.”

“I couldn’t bear the thought that the helmet might harm you.”
“I’ve been watching your mind web the whole time, to make sure you’re all right.”

“No one else had a problem.”
“Why worry about me?”

“I can’t help it, Keela.”
“I feel sick when I think of anything happening to you.”
He pauses.
“And I don’t know what I’m going to do when you take a bondmate.”

“Shh, Berek,” she says.
“You have nothing to fear.”

 
The Emperor’s Sword
Night passes.
The Tshuan group lands on top of one of the seven sacred hills, before first sun.
They dance the greeting to the sun, without delay, led by the queen, so they will be ready to meet the emperor.
Soon he comes in a small, bright ship, covered with colorful designs of blue and gold.
Other Kizak ships hover at a distance, ready to protect the emperor if he’s threatened.

Keela and he walk toward each other, meeting at the center of the hill, while their advisors and guards wait.
Even Berek stays behind with the others.
The first contact between the queen and the emperor is for them alone.

Keela is tall, and stands a full eight inches above the emperor.
The emperor is average height for a Kizak, five inches shorter than Jiku.
But unlike the Kizak, Jiku women are often as large as the men.

He was warned of her size, and dismissed the thought, but he finds that it troubles him when he stands near her.
They exchange the Jiku greeting of palms, as she speaks to him in the Kizak language.

“Emperor, welcome to Tshuan.”
“It’s an honor for you to visit us.”

“This is a historic moment, commander Keela.”
“The Kizak empire first reaches beyond its own galaxy to share its gifts with others.”
“And we find in the Tshuan kingdom the same discipline and honor that we cherish.”
“How wonderful that you prefer to be called commander over any other title.”

“Your words are kind, emperor, but to us in Tshuan there is little choice.”
“Those who cannot lead in battle are not worthy to lead when the days are quiet.”

“I agree completely.”

“Do you have children with you on this mission, emperor?”
“My cousin and I would be pleased to show them the best of Tshuan.”

His face is filled with pain, despite his efforts to ignore her words.

“I don’t know what I’ve said, emperor, but I’m sorry that I’ve troubled you.”

“You had no way to know, commander.”
“I had two sons once.”
“It’s not enough that the curses bring war to every world they touch.”
“Now, they have taken my children from me.”
“I will not rest until the curses are forgotten from every world of intelligent beings.”

“We guard against the energy ways, emperor, but we do not dismiss everyone who follows them.”

“Your planet and people have been cursed by these ways, the same as ours.”
“Your own ancestor, Botzar, almost destroyed this world.”

“He tried to stop a war,” says Keela, disturbed at the mention of his name.
The royal family knows what he did, but they don’t speak of it.

“Yes, but look what happened.”
“In the end, the curses will never bring anything but destruction.”

“Perhaps you’re right, emperor.”
“We must carefully consider your words.”

“Of course.”
“Let the others come now.”
“I want to meet your cousin, and your other advisors.”

The Tshuan and Kizak groups join the emperor and queen.
The emperor’s group hands him three boxes.
He opens the small one, and takes out a beautiful necklace of precious stones.
“For you, Keela,” he says.

“Thank you, emperor,” she says, putting it on.
She hands him an ancient Tshuan sword, within an ornate sheath.

“You learned your lessons well from the teaching device, Keela.”
“Every emperor is well trained in the use of swords, although the skill has little practical use.”

He pulls out the sword, and tests its weight, swinging and thrusting it, as he moves across the hilltop.
Everyone stands aside to give him room, but he moves closer and closer to Keela.

“Does he assume that everyone will move for him? she wonders to herself.
“Is he blind to my presence here, or does he test my courage?”
His own people seem troubled by his actions, and her guards are unsure how to react.

“Step out of his way, commander,” says one of her advisors, but she stays in place.
The emperor moves all around her, his sword coming closer and closer.
When his next thrust is aimed at her stomach, she moves out of the way.
The emperor finds his hands empty, and the sharp sword at his throat, held by Berek.

The Kizak guard point their weapons at Berek and the queen, and Keela’s soldiers raise their weapons.

“Stop,” yells the emperor in Kizak and Jiku.
The Kizak guard lower their weapons, and Keela’s guards do the same.

“You can give me back my sword now,” says the emperor.

“No one attacks my queen.”

“I knew she would move eventually,” he says.
“I was just testing her courage.”
And I was curious to see if anyone would try to stop me.”

Berek holds the sword in place.
“You have your answer,” he says coldly.

The emperor laughs.

“You must be Berek,” says the emperor.

“Yes.”

“Do you think that I mean to threaten your queen?” asks the emperor, pretending to be offended.
“I’ve heard that she is a great fighter, and I thought she would take the sword from me.”

“Stepping out of the way was more diplomatic,” says Keela.

“Berek doesn’t agree with your choice.”
“He would fight a dozen armed men to protect you.”

“Give him back the sword, Berek!”

Berek frowns, but he puts it in the sheath, and hands it over.

“Don’t worry,” says the emperor to Berek.
“I’m not offended.”
“I admire your fighting spirit, and your loyalty to your queen.”
“Do you have any skill with swords and knives?”

“Yes.”
“My father trained me.”

“Good.”
“Then you will appreciate my gift.”
The emperor opens a second box, and takes out two knives in sheaths, and hands them to Berek.

Berek pulls one out of its sheath, and is shocked at what he sees.
At the moment, he feels someone trying to penetrate his mind wall, without success.
These weapons are driga, the long knives that his father carries.
Even the designs on the handles are the same!

“Beautiful workmanship, emperor,” says Berek, “although they seem a strange size.”

“They are extremely rare, Berek, made by a great fighter.”
“I called him Neyima, but he was also known as Yagrin.”
“He saved my son’s life with these knives.”
“Months later he revealed himself as a traitor, and caused my son’s death.”

Berek slows his heartbeat, and lets his shock subside.

“You seem troubled by these knives,” says the emperor

“I was thinking of my father, who also carries the name Yagrin.”
“That’s all.”

“Berek moves extraordinarily fast,” says the emperor to one of his guards.

“Yes, great father.”
“I’ve never seen anyone who could move like that.”

“Neyima could move like that,” says the emperor, “but no one else.”
“Will you keep my gift, Berek, or do you find it too plain?”

“It’s my pleasure to accept it, great father,” says Berek.
“Life blesses those who share its gifts,” he adds, using the ancient Kizak expression of thanks.

The emperor takes the third box, and removes five disks.
He hands one to Keela, one to Berek, and the others he gives to the Tshuan elder.
“These are communication devices,” he says.
“One for the queen, and one for Lord Berek.”
“Give the others to whoever you wish.”
“When next we meet,” says the emperor to Keela, “you will join me on my ship for a meal.”
“Bring Berek with you, and whoever else you like.”

“Our meeting was not what I expected, emperor,” says Keela.

“It was perfect for me,” he replies.
“You and your cousin are exactly the sort of leaders that I was hoping to find here.”
“I’m looking for more than another world to join us.”
“I need a partner in this galaxy, to lead the fight to expand the empire, and crush the curses.”
“We’ll speak more of this when you visit me.”
He gives Berek and Keela the greeting of palms, and returns to his ship.


Empire of Stone -- 4: ReturnPrevious StoryNext Story
  1. Allies and Enemies
  2. Strangers and their Gifts
  3. Diplomacy and Death
  4. Fall
  5. Sanctuary
  6. Treason
  7. Rescue
  8. Eclipse
  9. Standoff
  10. Into the Storm
  11. Sleepers
  12. Choosing Death
  13. Peace and Destruction
  14. Sacrifice and Rebellion

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