Both suns were high in the sky, burning through the glass panes of the cabin when Ausanne awoke and lazily stretched her lithe body. The bed was comfortable, far more comfortable than the one Hansola had provided. Gently she turned over, not wanting to wake the sleeping Niku. The Chamonkey chattered in her sleep, then nestled down into the crook of the princess's arm. Ausanne smiled. She was glad to be reunited with her beloved pet. She was considering closing her own eyes again for a few minutes when there was a knock at the door.
She bade her visitors to enter, and the door slid open revealing a grinning Kabi and Maicee. She found it hard to believe that Kabi was her uncle. He must be at least sixty, she thought, but he looked no more than forty. And the doctor. Yes, the doctor. Smiling at him to check, she discovered that he still had a strange effect on her, though she didn't really know what it was.
“I trust you slept well, Princess,” said Kabi.
“Yes, Uncle, thank you. And you can just call me Ausa,” said the girl, turning her smile to Kabi for a moment.
But then her eyes went back to Maicee, who shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. He was happy to see his long-lost sister—of course he was, though he wasn't allowed quite yet to acknowledge that she was his sister. But there was something about the way she smiled at him that made him feel very odd indeed. However, that could be because I’ve had so little experience around women, he thought, trying to be fair.
“Ausa, then,” said Kabi, unaware of what was passing between the two sisters. “We are taking you home. It should take us about five sailing days, following the route we're currently on.”
“Thank you,” said Ausanne again. Then, remembering who she was, she added: “I am sure that my father will be very pleased to have you once more in his court.”
Kabi looked somewhat shifty at this, and he paced the short length of the cabin. “Princess,” he said. “Ausa. I made a promise to your mother that I would look out for you. Your father, on the other hand ... Let us just say that there are issues between us. I believe that it would be best for now if you do not reveal our acquaintanceship to the King.”
Ausanne looked surprised but bowed her head in acceptance.
“Good,” said Kabi. “If you would like to prepare yourself, we'll be glad to welcome you for a very late breakfast.”
He turned to leave the cabin, Maicee following, but was interrupted by the princess's voice.
“Maicee, would you mind staying here for a moment? There is something that I would like to ask you.”
Maicee looked at Kabi, who nodded, so he turned back to the princess.
Kabi gently closed the door behind him as he left. He'd brought the two sisters back together. At least one of the things he needed to do had been done.
Benho woke with a splitting headache, so bad that it blurred his vision. He sat upright, head in his hands, kneading at his temples, hoping that it would ease the pain, that it would relieve him of the memory of his father’s dying at his hand. He remembered nothing about leaving the Orion, only his father's blood soaking his skin, picking out the lines on his palms.
Tears formed, and he didn't stop them. Hot, salty drops streamed down his face. He had loved his father. Once. But then revenge had become the only thing he'd wanted. Now that he had it, he couldn't believe that the heavy weight in his chest was still there. He'd honestly thought that killing Hansola would leave him free, would cut his ties to the past and enable him to live his own life. But all he felt was emptiness.
“Ben, are you awake? Can I come in?”
Sa-li's sweet voice came through a crack in the cabin door.
Benho wiped his face on his sleeve and took a deep breath before unlocking the door to let the beautiful girl inside.
“I was worried about you,” said Sa-li, simply.
She took him by the hand and led him back to his bed, sitting behind him and holding him in her arms.
“How are you feeling?” she whispered, her breath tickling his neck.
The tears came again, but he made no attempt to hide them as he turned to face her.
“I'll be fine,” he said.
Sa-li delicately wiped his tears with her thumb. “I know.”
He smiled at her, a token effort, one sided, but it was a start.
“I'm sorry about your father,” Sa-li said, thinking that it was important that the words be said, that they didn't avoid the subject and let it come between them.
“He deserved it,” said Benho, dully.
Sa-li nodded, then took him into her arms. His voice was still hoarse from waking up, and she kept quiet, just holding him. All she could do was to keep him company, to be there for him and offer whatever comfort she could afford. After long minutes, Benho stirred and kissed her smooth white forehead, grateful that she didn't hate him for being the enemy's son.
For once, the winds were perfect and the seas were calm. The next five days of sailing were as close to perfection as life on the ocean could ever be. Benho was slowly recovering with the help of Sa-li, and Ausanne and Maicee were rapidly becoming the best of friends.
Lucia was standing at the railing of her ship, taking a rare pause in between her other duties to enjoy the soft tickle of the wind in her hair and the calming warmth of the sun on her skin. Not far away, Ausanne and Maicee were chattering happily. Lucia smiled indulgently but felt a pinch of jealousy. How nice it must be, she thought, to be so young and free of worries.
“Something on your mind, Captain?” said Kabi, approaching Lucia and noticing how tired she looked.
“Just tired of being old and lonely,” said Lucia, half in jest.
Kabi shrugged. “Then why do you not find a good man and settle down? Maybe raise a few pirate children of your own?” he suggested.
Lucia sighed, her deep green eyes looking out over the waves. “I would like to, KabiOnn. But there is so much to be done. So much injustice to right. No.” She shook her head, red locks dancing in the soft breeze. “I can't just retire. No matter how much I may want to.”
She was quiet for a while. Then Ausanne laughed at a joke Maicee had told her, attracting the attention of both the captain and Kabi.
“They make a nice couple, don't they?” said Lucia, trying to put her jealousy to one side.
Kabi grunted. “If you knew what I knew, then you wouldn't think so,” he said. The princess's obvious flirting with Maicee was starting to worry him, and he hoped that Maicee knew what he was doing.
“What do you mean?” asked Lucia, curiously.
“They are siblings,” said Kabi, leaning in closer to whisper. “Keep it secret.”
Lucia opened her mouth in surprise. “Does the princess know?”
“No,” said Kabi, sighing. “It's complicated. Just promise me you'll tell no one. If anyone finds out, then Maicee's life could be in danger.”
“Then why did you tell me?”
“Because I trust you, Lucia,” said Kabi, smiling gently.
Lucia blushed, and a strange, warm feeling filled her.
The Freedom crossed into Britannian waters early the next morning. There were no markers, but all aboard knew as the vessel boomed her foghorn loud and clear. The authorities of Britannia were none too pleased to find an unknown ship in their waters, however.
“Unknown battleship, you have entered the waters of His Sovereign Majesty of Britannia. Stand down and state your business. This is not a warning. Repeat. This is not a warning. We will fire if you proceed further. State your business.”
“Happy to see us, aren't they?” commented Falorni, looking at the white-uniformed man who had appeared on the bridge com screen.
“Stop engines,” ordered Lucia.
“This is Captain Seagull of the battle cruiser Freedom,” she said, turning to face the screen. “We have Princess Ausanne on board and wish to proceed to port.”
A look of shock came over the young defence officer's face. “Just a moment, ma'am, I'm patching you through to the Commander.”
The screen flickered momentarily, and then a bored-looking older man's face appeared. “What is it?” he snapped.
Lucia repeated her wishes, gratified that the bored expression fled from the man's face.
“This is Captain Juntri of the Britannia Defence Corps. I will need to confirm that the princess is on board before I can allow you to proceed,” he said.
Ausanne, who happened to walk onto the bridge at that moment, laughed and approached the com screen.
“Your diligence has been noted, Captain,” she said. “But I am most certainly here. If you could give Captain Seagull any assistance she may require, I would be most grateful.”
The man's eyes bulged. He hesitated, stuttered, then managed to spit out: “Welcome home, Princess. The people of Britannia will celebrate this night. Two escort ships will join you to lead you into harbour. The King will be pleased to know of your return.”
The screen faded to black, and Ausanne grinned. She was happy to be home, finally. Maicee too smiled. He was also glad to see his homeland, though he remembered nothing of it.
That afternoon the trumpets roared, and the people of Britannia cheered as the royal carriage passed through the central square to the cathedral for the ceremonial blessing of Princess Ausanne's safe return. The cobblestones hard under his feet, his nose filled with unfamiliar scents, Maicee stared in wonder. He marvelled at the two large dracos pulling the carriage. Dracos were unknown on Carooine, native to Britannia, and the large green reptiles were used as draft animals and food alike. Little did he know that later that evening, he'd be eating one of the animals.
The palace rang with noisy fanfares and shrill voices. The evening's party was packed to the brim with all the rich and famous of Britannia, as well as a small group of unknown pirates. All attention was on the princess. As successor to the crown of Britannia, she was surrounded by suitors from all over Britannia, all trying their best to ply her with wine and impress her. But Ausanne's eyes were not for these wealthy men. Instead, they searched the huge hall continuously for someone else.
With dinner finally over, Maicee went to the bar counter and got himself a glass of sweet wine. So many years he’d been away, but there was no sense of warm nostalgia here. He was greeted coldly, if at all, and felt distinctly uncomfortable in his homeland. He sipped at the wine, hoping that the alcohol would warm the coldness he felt inside.
“This is certainly what you'd call the good life,” said Benho, stumbling over, his gait uneven and his face flushed with the wine he'd drunk. “You should try and talk to some of these girls. Maybe it'd cheer you up a little.”
Maicee's nose wrinkled at the stench of alcohol on his friend's breath, but before he could reply, Sa-li appeared. He grinned at her.
“Better take good care of him and stop him from drinking any more,” he whispered. Sa-li gently took Benho's arm and led him away.
With a sigh, Maicee ascended the large, curved staircase and stepped out onto a balcony to escape the crowds of joyful people. He let his eyes drift over the horizon, seeing the dark sea and the outlines of ships, and the warm night air soothed him a little. He had seen the King. His father. From a distance, but he'd seen him, a tall and distinguished man. He shook his head sadly. Perhaps there is no going home, he thought. Perhaps this place wasn't for him.
“Feeling all right?” asked a silvery voice.
“Yes, yes,” he said quickly, turning to see the princess.
She looked beautiful tonight, a long robe of pale pink having replaced her military uniform, her long golden hair tied up elegantly.
“You sure?” she asked doubtfully, surveying his sad face.
“Absolutely,” he said, giving her a half-hearted grin. “And it seems like you've got a whole bunch of people awaiting your return to the party.” He changed the subject, pointing to a small group of young men who were peeking around the corner of the doorway to see where the princess had got to.
Ausanne shook her head. “I'm a game piece to them,” she said bluntly. “A stepping stone to a great and glorious future. And I just can't be bothered with it all tonight. Besides,” she said as music started to play below, “I'm here to ask you for the first dance.”
Before he could think of an excuse not to, he was being dragged by the hand back down the long staircase.
“I ... I don't even know how to dance,” he stuttered, once he was already standing in the middle of the floor.
“I'll show you,” said Ausanne with authority, taking his hand and putting her other hand on his shoulder.
Their dance caused the biggest scandal of the evening. Eligible bachelors fumed, and gossiping ladies speculated on the identity of the handsome young man dancing with their princess. Maicee tried as hard as he could not to embarrass himself, or the princess, nor to bring his body too close to hers. After an agonising ten minutes, the princess nodded in satisfaction.
“Not bad,” she said. “Come, let me show you something.”
And much to Maicee's relief, she led him off the dance floor and out into the garden through one of the tall glass doors, leaving the bustling, gossiping crowd behind them.
“They caused quite the stir, don't you think?”
“Indeed, Your Majesty,” said Kabi, dryly. He'd seen the whole affair from the railing of the mezzanine overlooking the hall. “It's nice to see you again,” he added.
“Thank you for keeping her safe,” said the King, joining Kabi in surveying the dance floor.
“You know about it?” Kabi said, nodding.
“I recognised you the moment you stepped off that ship, KabiOnn,” the King said softly. “Do you really think that there were any secrets between Salamazi and I?”
The sound of his dead sister's name sent a pang of sadness through Kabi's heart.
“She told me all,” continued the King. “Even of the Divine Order. But I must pretend to know nothing.”
Kabi wondered why he wasn't surprised at this. Maybe he had always realised how much his sister had loved her husband. “Are you going to reconcile with your daughter?” he asked.
The King was silent until Kabi thought that he wasn't going to answer the question at all. He was about to leave when the King said sadly: “I would love to.” He paused again. “But it is not to be. It would only put her life in greater danger. And that I will not do. There are still those who would burn her as a witch.” He laughed derisively. “No, I cannot openly defy the Church. She is safer with you than with me.”
“I think so too,” said Kabi, reaching for his glass.
Turning, he clinked the small container of liquor against that of the King, and both drank. The liquid was bitter, but not as bitter as the King's forced smile.
“It's beautiful!” gasped Maicee, looking over the glistening water.
“You think so?” asked Ausanne, pleased that she had got the reaction she’d wanted. “It's called Silver Lake. It was built for my older sister.” She was quiet for a moment, then added: “She was kidnapped.”
Maicee's heart pounded, but he said nothing, simply offering his arm to the princess so that they could stroll casually around the edge of the lake. He blinked back a wave of tears and hoped that Ausanne didn't see him doing so in the moonlight.
“Do you miss your sister?” he asked, curious as to what her reaction would be.
“Of course!” Ausanne said immediately. They walked a little further before she said: “But to tell the truth, I don't remember much about her. I was only five when she disappeared. I remember that she used to give me gifts, to play with me. She'd bring me here and sing to me. ...” Her voice trailed off.
Maicee thought for a while, pondering what to do. This was his sister, after all. “Would you like to meet her, if you knew where she was?” he asked cautiously.
“More than anything,” Ausanne softly said.
“But are you not worried that you would lose your crown?” Maicee asked her. “I mean, she would usurp you as next in line to the throne.”
Ausanne stopped in her tracks so that she could glare up at him. “Nothing is more important to me than reconciling with my blood sister,” she said. “And I'd prefer to wear her gift of a crown of flowers rather than any cold metal crown.”
Moved by the passion in her eyes, Maicee said: “I ...”
But he was cut off by the shout of a guard. “Who goes there?”
“Stand down,” said Ausanne, sharply. “It is I, Princess Ausanne.”
“My apologies, Your Highness,” said the guard, appearing out of the dark trees and bowing before continuing with his patrol.
“What were you about to say?” asked Ausanne, turning back to Maicee.
Given a second to reconsider, Maicee found that he'd lost his nerve. “Just that I think we should retire,” he said, smiling. “You must be tired.”
“I am, a little,” she said, taking his arm and turning them back the way they'd come. “And I'd almost forgotten. My birthday is in two days’ time. I would so like it if you would stay and attend my party. It will be a costume party.”
“I'll be there. I promise,” said Maicee, guiding her back towards the palace.
The dimmed lights were turned up, causing the men in the room to blink. It was early in the morning, and Kabi feared that most here were still suffering the aftereffects of too much wine and food. He'd explained the contents of the data disk as best he could, but whether or not they understood was a different matter.
“Gentlemen,” said the King, leaning forward towards his council. “What do you make of this?”
Fleming, a vocal member of the King's Council, snorted. “Project New Dawn? A space-faring ship? Impossible.” He gave another snort for emphasis. “I've heard stories, of course, but who would believe them?”
King Michael sat back and looked at Kabi. Fleming was the senior member of his council, and he was inclined to trust him. Kabi, however, was family. And his late wife had trusted her brother with her life. Had trusted him with their daughter's life.
“Could the Supreme Emperor pull this off?” he asked Kabi. “I have a gut feeling that this is bait to lure us into something.”
“Sire,” interrupted General Tongku, “I agree with Fleming that this smells fishy. I think we should send in a squad of men to verify this information before we come to any conclusions.”
The King looked at Kabi, who nodded slowly.
“In answer to your question, Your Majesty,” he said, “yes, I believe the Emperor can pull this off. This ship is ...” He hesitated for a moment before continuing: “Well, it's Black Technology. Something that I believe you gentlemen may have heard of?”
“Fairy tales!” snorted Fleming.
“Not at all,” spoke up another council member, Professor Ulros, Dean of the Royal University. “Black Technology is perfectly real. However, if memory serves me correctly, it was deemed a threat to the survival of mankind and was therefore prohibited many aeons ago. Information was destroyed or sealed, but that does not mean that the technology itself no longer exists.”
“Blasphemy!” shouted Fleming, getting to his feet. “You should be burned by the Church to say such things!”
“Fleming,” said the King, warningly.
Chastened, the angry man sat.
Kabi closed his eyes in despair. How was he to persuade these men that he wasn't a charlatan, wasn't a pawn of the Supreme Emperor?
“Your Majesty,” he said, “I assure you that everything I have told you is true, more real than the God that you serve. And more, I assure you that should this ship launch, then it will bring great calamity on Archeonis.”
“What kind of disaster?” asked the General before anyone else could speak.
Kabi looked at the King, who nodded. “All here are sworn to secrecy,” he told the man.
Sighing, Kabi ran his hand over his grey-stubbled head before looking up and facing the men at the long conference table. “His Majesty knows what I am about to say. The rest of you, however, do not. And what I will say is going to shake your belief in the very existence of Archeonis.” He was procrastinating, he knew it, putting off the moment when he was going to say something so unbelievable, so shocking, that there was a fair chance he would be laughed out of the room.
He looked around the table, noting that no one objected to what he had just said. Fine. He would just have to spit it out.
“We humans are not from Archeonis,” he said, slowly and carefully so that no one would miss a word. “We are from another planet. We are from Earth.”
A burst of chatter exploded in the room.
“Silence!” said the King.
Kabi nodded his thanks. “Your ancestors,” he continued, “were banished from Earth and embarked upon a journey into space. Eight hundred years ago, their transport crashed onto the planet we now call Archeonis. Once it became clear that this was a habitable place, every effort was made to obscure our origins in order to prevent us from returning to Earth. The technologies that brought us here were banned, the technologies that we now refer to as Black Technology.”
He stopped, and this time there was silence as everyone around the table tried to take in what they had just been told. Even Fleming sat, open mouthed. Then, one by one, the men turned their eyes to the King.
“He speaks the truth,” the King said calmly. “We are not indigenous to Archeonis. When we landed here, Archeonis was a wild planet. The pioneers, including my ancestors, decided that history would be re-written so that the people would not know of the existence of Mother Earth.” He sighed, his mouth tightening, tendons in his neck standing out with the stress. “For better or worse, we decided that this would be best for the new generations that would be born here. The secret was kept and passed down from ruler to ruler as a reminder of our roots and of our responsibility to our people.”
Slowly, and feeling indescribably old, the King rose to his feet and walked to where a large painting hung on the wall. Pressing a hidden lever so that the painting swung back, he reached inside the hidden safe and retrieved a pile of papers. One by one, he flicked through them until he found the document he needed. Only then did he turn back to the still-silent room.
“This is what I have to prove my word,” he said, handing the paper to Fleming.
Fleming read the document, mouth hanging open. Then he passed it to the next man at the table, who read it and passed it to the next, and so on until all present had read what was written.
“I can't believe this,” said Fleming, rubbing his eyes.
But his voice wasn't confrontational. It was the voice of a man who had just had everything he'd ever believed in brought into question. Someone who no longer knew what was right and what was wrong. The General flinched as he put down the document, the last man to read it.
“As you can see,” said the King, retaking his seat, “this is a document signed by the first twelve rulers of Archeonis, one from each of the islands, that says we shall hold this secret and protect our people.”
The men at the table were at a loss for what to say, and Kabi watched them struggling to deal with the bombshell that had been dropped on them. Finally, taking pity on them, he said: “Nevertheless, we have work to do. We must protect this secret with our lives.”
The King nodded, determined now that they must act. “I concur with the General that we must send in a team of infiltrators.”
The General saluted. “Sire.”
“You will assemble the best that you have,” the King ordered. “But be sure that every man understands that once they are out there, they're on their own. Britannia will deny all links to them. You have two days.”
“Yes, sire,” said the General, saluting again. His mind was already calculating which of his troops he could trust to send on this unusual, unbelievable, and possibly deadly errand.
“One more thing,” the King said, speaking to everyone now. “All that was said in this room will remain within these four walls. Understood?”
The men nodded and shuffled to their feet, still stunned at the new knowledge they had received.
“Your Majesty,” said Kabi, approaching the King, “I wish to join the General's troops.”
General Tongku, overhearing this, dropped back to hear what the King had to say.
“Very well,” said the King, looking Kabi up and down. He knew that he couldn't have ordered the man to go but was glad that he'd volunteered. “And you may take some of your own people along if you feel it necessary.”
The General nodded and escorted Kabi out of the room, discussing how many men would be needed.
The King sat back in his chair, turning to look out of the arched window beside him. In the distance, dark clouds were gathering, portending a heavy downpour. A storm was brewing. But, thought the King, will we survive it? He prayed to his God that all would be well.
“Can you not stay?” Benho asked, aware that his voice sounded almost pleading.
Sa-li turned from closing the shutters, preventing any drops of rain from entering their cosy chamber.
“One more time, Ben, I promise,” she said. “Lucia needs me. But this will be my last voyage. Can you wait for me?” She smiled cheekily and posed so that he could best appreciate her naked body.
“Then I'll ask if I can come too,” he said petulantly.
“You are still not in fighting shape,” Sa-li said, coming to join him on the large bed. “And besides, when I come back, I want you to be able to carry me into that church without collapsing in pain.”
Benho's eyebrows raised so high that they almost disappeared off his forehead. “Church?” he began.
But Sa-li silenced him with a kiss.
Minutes later, he was able to groan: “I'm going to miss you.”
“How did it go?” Maicee asked as soon as he opened the door of his chamber to Kabi.
Kabi shrugged. “Not too badly. I managed to persuade them to send a team of men with us.” He pushed inside the door. “But I'm not here about that. I brought you something.”
He handed over a large white box tied elaborately with a pink ribbon. Confused, Maicee accepted the package and lifted the lid to peek inside. When he saw the contents of the box, his eyes narrowed.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked Kabi.
“That is for you to wear tomorrow to the princess's party,” said Kabi, turning to leave.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Kabi said simply.
He slipped out of the doorway, closing the door behind him, leaving a very baffled Maicee alone in his room musing over what possible meaning this strange gift could have.