Tristan and Arianne

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Chapter 22

Jahann’ara, daughter to Shajah Ha’an, intercepted a serving girl as she was making her way towards the Dynastic Apartments with a platter of fruit and refreshing juices and relieved her of her task. The girl mumbled her gratitude and hastened back the way she had come: in all her years of serving the Dynastic household, the girl had still never got used to being in the presence of Hadd, kindly though he was, and trembled constantly in his presence. She never completely filled the juice beaker, Jahann’ara observed wryly, for fear of spilling it into the Dynastic lap.

Carrying the platter, Jahann’ara breezed along the broad marble terrace. She looked out across the magnificent plaza below, watching the Dynastic palace going about its business. In the distance, beyond high perimeter walls punctuated with watchtowers, she could glimpse the city and the homeworld’s central business district with its elegant towers and broad avenues.

She paused, resting the platter on the coping stone, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the gentle breeze that wafted through her soft brown hair like the fingers of a lover. She was at peace with her world. Rumours of discontent and rebellion among the Outer Systems seemed as distant as the hubbub of the commercial quarter, a soft sighing like the waves on the sand. Life was good.

As she watched, she saw the ships come over the horizon. There were a great many of them. With her augmented vision, she could see at once that their markings included the subim tree and aroma fig crest surmounted by the insignia of her brother Aurangzhebb. As they approached, they broke formation, peeling off to left and right, sweeping away and encircling the city. It was a military manoeuvre, a tactic for swiftly securing territory. Some of the ships flew overhead, and in the dark shadows that they cast, she felt a sudden chill.

A small detachment broke off from the main body of ships: a small personal transport craft accompanied by four escort ships approached the palace precincts. The escort craft hovered menacingly at the level of the watchtowers, while the transport craft dropped onto the plaza.

Jahann’ara saw her brother emerge wearing military dress uniform surmounted by a dramatic purple cape. With his aides struggling to keep up with him, he strode purposefully up a broad staircase leading to the terrace.

Abandoning the platter, Jahann’ara strode away, a feeling of grim foreboding clutching at her heart. Her brother’s course and hers intersected at right angles, and their speed was matched. Their eyes met as they approached.

“Good morning, sister!” Aurangzhebb beamed. “I hope I find you well!”

In an age of perfect health she could not be otherwise. Such joviality from her brother turned Jahann’ara’s blood to ice. They had the same parentage, they had sprung from the same womb, but Aurangzhebb’s genes had been twisted in some fashion, she had always thought, resulting in a peculiarly warped and sinister mentality that she struggled to accept in so close a relative. If Aurangzhebb was in a good mood, it had to be the harbinger of bad news.

She quickened her pace still more, but Aurangzhebb beat her to the corner, and she found herself trying to push past his aides.

“’Zhebb!” she called. “What’s going on? Why all the ships?”

Aurangzhebb did not reply. He stormed past a startled secretary in an antechamber and burst into the room beyond.

It was Shajah Ha’an’s favourite haunt, a large airy salon with a tremendous curving sweep of picture windows taking in the impressive panorama of the palace gardens, some of the city’s most prestigious residential areas, with the silvery sheen of the Yamna River visible as it snaked through them, and the further suburbs reaching to blue rolling hills in the distance. But as Hadd stood with his back to them, it was not the customary view that he was taking in. Instead he was staring directly at a fighter ship hovering a hundred metres beyond the glass.

Shajah Ha’an turned slowly. He opened his mouth to speak. There was a commotion in the doorway as his own staff burst in, babbling in confusion and staring anxiously from Aurangzhebb to their master and back again.

Shajah Ha’an raised his hand and all fell silent. “Aurangzhebb?” he demanded. “What is the meaning of this?” He gestured past his shoulder at the ship floating there. Jahann’ara glanced nervously at it, and the others visible in positions around the fringe of the city.

“To put it simply, father,” Aurangzhebb replied coldly, “I am taking over.”

Shajah Ha’an turned puce. “Taking over?” He was clearly resisting the import of what his son was saying.

Aurangzhebb nodded. He had prepared for this moment in his mind, and had feared that he might lose his resolve at the last moment, hampered by some vestige of irrational filial loyalty, but looking at his father, he found his resolve merely strengthened. Shajah Ha’an did not deserve to rule. “Taking over, father. You, the city, the Dynasty. Everything.”

Shajah Ha’an was tongue tied. “But... it’s not for you. It’s for Dara.”

“Who is almost as incompetent as you are at running it. There are rebels running around the Outer Systems scot-free, causing all kinds of havoc and making incursions into the Middle Systems, and no one seems capable of doing anything about it. So I am deposing you. Both of you.”

Shajah Ha’an stiffened. “A coup d’état? We’ll see about that. Dara...”

“...Is being taken care of even as we speak. I know where his patrol is, and I have arranged some of my best units to deal with him.” Aurangzhebb was smiling broadly at the thought of the bolt from the blue - or the black - he had waiting to strike down his brother. He too would see the insignia on Aurangzhebb’s ships and wonder what was going on. It would be the last thought he would have before being annihilated.

“’Zhebb!” Jahann’ara’s voice was imperious. “How can you do this? We are your flesh and blood, your family.”

“Ah yes,” said Aurangzhebb, “family.” It was as if he had to pause for a moment to remind himself of the meaning of the word. “Well, all families have their problems, don’t they? Ours is no exception.” By now a detachment of his troops had also gathered in the doorway. He pointed to his father and his sister and said, “Take them away.”

“Where are you taking us?” Jahann’ara asked angrily.

“I have got the perfect place for the two of you,” Aurangzhebb grinned toothily. He led them away.

*****

The Dynastic Household shuttle crossed from Aurangzhebb’s dreadnought command ship, the Tumult, to the station he had installed in geosynchronous orbit above Auverna and entered the docking bay. In a few minutes Shajah Ha’an and Jahann’ara were being ushered into their quarters. Their prison was a suite of sumptuously appointed rooms with a small squad of retainers and every requirement catered for.

As they entered, the screens over the viewing ports slid silently aside. The windows were treated to magnify the portion of the planet over which they were permanently situated, so that Shajah Ha’an was afforded a permanent aerial view of his beloved Palace of the Winds.

“Because it means so much to you,” said Aurangzhebb, trailing his fingers carelessly over a recliner, “you can enjoy the view of it in perpetuity.”

“I want to go down there,” said Shajah Ha’an petulantly.

Aurangzhebb smiled his most acidic smile. “Not possible. Sorry.” He swept out.

“Why, you...” Shajah Ha’an ran to the door, but it swiftly shut in his face. His body crumpled against it, and he dissolved into tears.

*****

A few days later, a messenger arrived at the station bearing a sealed casket. He was taken to Shajah Ha’an’s quarters. Father and daughter looked up as he entered. Jahann’ara put her book plaque down slowly on the couch beside her. In the face of the messenger she read that something was amiss, but her father, intent on what he was being given, seemed not to notice it.

“Hadd, your son, sends his regards,” the messenger intoned.

“Hadd?” said Jahann’ara angrily. “This is Hadd that you address, man!”

The messenger retreated towards the door. “Aurangzhebb has had the Haddship officially annulled, and has had himself declared One.”

Jahann’ara clenched her fists, and for a moment the man thought she was going to take a swing at him. “We’ll see about that,” she fumed.

The messenger returned to the business of his message, anxious to be gone as soon as possible. “He sends you this gift as something to remember him by.”

Shajah Ha’an took the casket from the man’s hands, and he exited the room as swiftly as he could. Jahann’ara watched him go, full of misgivings.

“ A gift!” said Shajah Ha’an gleefully. “I wonder what it could be!” He began to activate the release mechanism.

“What does it matter?” said Jahann’ara contemptuously. “You already have everything a human being could possibly want. Except your freedom. And that doesn’t come in a casket like that. At least, not usually.”

“Perhaps it is a sign that Aurangzhebb has relented,” said Shajah Ha’an excitedly, ignoring his daughter. “Perhaps Dara has given his a thrashing. Perhaps he is beaten, and is planning to let us go. Perhaps he is hoping for forgiveness, and this gift is...”

He fell silent. His hands, his arms, his whole body began to quiver as he set the partially opened casket down on a table.

“No. No.” He began softly, repeating the word over and over like a mantra, growing steadily louder. “No! No! No!” It grew into a refrain of the damned, a wailing, keening moan that rose in pitch until the sound seemed to take on a life of its own, filling the room, rebounding from the walls and ceiling and floor till it formed an aural web. “NO! NO! NO! NO! Nononononononononononono! Nononono! Noooooooo!”

Seized by invisible demons, Shajah Ha’an began a demented dance, whirling like a dervish, overturning furniture, colliding with walls and leaving smears of blood from his shattered nose, spinning on obliviously, as Jahann’ara sought to restrain him, clinging to his back and trying to bring him down, but his strength was too much for her.

At last three aides appeared, and together they wrestled him to the ground and sought to restrain him, but even when his arms were lashed to his sides with belts, he would not be still, but heaved and bucked continuously.

When at last he was still, lying exhausted, uttering a pitiful whine, one of the aides turned to Jahann’ara. “What caused our master to behave in this way?” he asked.

Jahann’ara was squatting in the corner of the room, weeping. Before her on the carpet, among the ruins of the table and the shards of vases and lamps that were slowly beginning to reassemble themselves, lay the casket. Its doors were open to reveal its contents: the severed head of Dara Shukoh, son and appointed heir to Shajah Ha’an.

“This,” Jahann’ara said softly. “My brother.”

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