8FOLD/ACRA: Orphans of Mars # 6, "Let the Dawn Decide!"

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Sun Nov 24 18:35:27 PST 2013

Nerrine walks until the roaring flames become a distant, half-imagined flicker. Here she finds a patch of earth that will serve.
   She kneels in the dirt, careful not to disturb the folded cloth that hangs from the front of her belt. With her right hand, she keeps her long spear ready. With her left, she uses her dagger as like a spade. She digs quickly but above all quietly, ensuring that her ears will pick up the slightest sound.
   There; finished digging. She untwines the cloth from her belt, and unfolds it. By the faint light of the stars she beholds Jarissy's heart, still sticky and wet. She places it in the hole and covers it up with two breaths of prayer.
   She heads back. The flames of Jarissy's pyre become visible once more, the smoke thick and curling into the night.

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(  _  )( ___)     (  \/  )  /__\  (  _ \/ __)
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(_____)(__)       (_/\/\_)(__)(__)(_)\_)(___/
                             BY TOM RUSSELL

Nerrine finds nine of them circled around the fire, drinking raptor blood and singing songs of mighty Jarissy. If Garaka still lived, her voice would be heard first, loudest, and often. It is right that the Imperatrix should get good and drunk in memory of a fallen comrade. Right for Garaka, perhaps, and right for most. Perhaps even expected of the Imperatrix. But it's not right for Nerrine. Her voice is soft and sure, true, but she prefers silence, and to be silent.
   Also apart from the circle, as Nerrine expected her to be, is Quasha, who leans swordlessly against the ship's outer door. With her one eye Quasha peers into the sky.
   Nerrine looks up as well.
   Quasha addresses her without wavering her glance. She says quietly, "First time we've been out past dusk. Stars are pretty."
   "Pretty enough," says Nerrine. "For a world with one moon."
   Quasha nods. "It does lack, surely. But, as you said, pretty enough." She points. "Mark, is that ruined Mars that flickers redly?"
   "We'd have to ask Kellin to be certain, but I think it is."
   "From Mars, the stars seemed splendid and countless. Pulsing with promise, as if we could go forth and orbit any one of them. Here, the stars hold nothing but gas and distant, untouchable fire."
   "Any planet we landed upon would feel much the same."
   "Yes, but others have at least two moons," says Quasha. "With your permission, I shall retire now, Imperatrix. I rise with the dawn."
   "And what then?"
   "I swore on oath in the naming of my blade," says Quasha. "That oath is broken."
   "Let's talk inside," says Nerrine. They withdraw, closing the door behind them, the songs for Jarissy becoming quiet and muffled.
   Thirteen still lies flat in the center of the great table. "Your oath was not meant to be kept."
   "I meant it."
   "But none expected you to keep it," says Nerrine.
   "But still it was sworn," says Quasha. "And still it was broken. What is life without honor?"
   "Life," answers Nerrine. "None will think less of you if..."
   "I will think less of me!" says Quasha. "I cannot live with it."
   "You can," says Nerrine. "You breathe, you eat, you shit, you sleep, and the next dawn you do it again."
   "That's not life," says Quasha. "We are more than just bodies."
   "I don't know if we are. Maybe on Mars, but here, we are just bones and meat. Bones that snap, meat that bleeds. Death is easy here. Life is hard. And it will be harder on ten than eleven."
   "Why fight so hard for so little?" says Quasha. "Thirty years from now, none of us will be left. Not just we eleven. But all of us. There will be no others. There is no one to build for. To fight for. We fight and for what? Better we had all died on Mars with our mothers."
   "But we didn't, and we're here, and I need you alive," says Nerrine wearily. "I absolve your oath."
   "You cannot."
   "I can," says Nerrine. "My word is the law. The Imperatrix forgives."
   "I will not accept it."
   "You do not have a choice," says Nerrine.
   Quasha stares at her, fuming. Then she bellows: "I have a choice." She storms outside.
   Nerrine is quick to follow, but not quick enough. The song has ended. Quasha raises one hand, fingers outstretched, towards the heavens.
   "Sisters! Hear me! It is known that I named the blade Thirteen, and in the naming, I swore an oath! It is known by the solemn light by which you gather that the oath was not kept! I wish to remove the stain from my house, but this right has been denied me!" With a flourish, she swings her hand behind her and points at Nerrine. "And so now, I do this night invoke the ancient rites. Let the dawn decide!"
   With that, Quasha storms back into the ship. The others push towards Nerrine, jaws agape and bustling with questions. She raises a hand, palm flat and open, and there is silence and stillness. Nerrine heads inside after Quasha.
   "Seriously? You do this night invoke the ancient rites? Let the dawn decide?"
   "Yes," says Quasha, "let it."
   "Would it hurt you to think for ten seconds before you open your mouth?"
   "I thought it was pretty brilliant," says Quasha. "If you win, which you won't, I die with honor. If I win, which I would, I become Imperatrix, and then, two breaths after, I die with honor."
   "Of course, I'd be dead, too," says Nerrine. "And who would follow us as Imperatrix? Who would keep the others alive? Kellin? Tandra? Ress?"
   "Isn't Ress Imperatrix already?"
   "You forget yourself, Quasha," snaps Nerrine.
   "Of course," continues Quasha boldly, "the rites only hold so long as my grievance remains unaddressed. Grant me my death and you can keep your precious stinking bones and meat."

The other nine Daughters gather once more around Jarissy's pyre, but their vigil is songless, and gradually they begin to peel off and, with a whispering glance at the sword on the great table, return to their rooms. By the time Nerrine heads back outside, only Petara remains to watch the final flickers of flame.
   "Well," Petara says, "this is a fine mess you've gotten yourself into, isn't it?"
   Something boils inside Nerrine, but she keeps it in; Petara gives her best counsel when she's allowed to be patronizing. "What are my options?"
   "Options?" says Petara with a smug laugh. "Your options are, one, let Quasha die tomorrow morning. And, two. No, no. Just the one then, really. Unless you want to get killed, which you don't."
   "No, I don't," agrees Nerrine. "But I can't just let her die, either. We need her."
   "We need you more," says Petara. "We need everybody, really, if we're going to make a go of this. We needed Jarissy, and now she's gone. We need Quasha, yes, but one day she'll be gone. It just happens that that day will be tomorrow."
   "Is it wise, though, to reverse my decision?"
   "Certainly wiser than dying," says Petara. "We want to teach them about survival. No better lesson than for you to survive."
   "But my word is the law," air-quotes Nerrine incredulously. "I go back on my word, then there's no law. I have no authority."
   "The office of the Imperatrix, and its authority, is a thing of Mars, Nerrine," says Petara. "Like an oath sworn in the naming. Like meeting those huge, long-necked monsters in open battle with blood-screams. Those things don't work here. Maybe the Imperatrix is like that, and should be discarded."
   "What else is there?"
   "What if each of us was Imperatrix, or shared some equal portion, with each voice given equal weight? And the course chosen by the majority, six of the ten we'll have left, is the course that all must take?"
   "And when it's five-and-five?"
   "We cut Ress out," smiles Petara. "She'll have others to aver for her."
   "And, by that method, she'll rule anyway," says Nerrine. "No, we need a cool head and a single voice."
   "We have one," says Petara slyly, using 'we' perhaps a little too deliberately for Nerrine's taste. "Or we will, provided you decide before the dawn does. Imperatrix." With that, she gets up to leave. "Coming?"
   "I'll stay a while longer," says Nerrine. "Send Lask to me."
   "Your word is the law."

Lask's report is disheartening. The grief most feel for Jarissy has been roughly pushed aside by Quasha's challenge.
   "Who thinks Quasha in the right?"
   The empath demurs. "Again, I cannot tell what anyone is thinking, Imperatrix."
   "Who feels it?"
   "Quasha is angry," she says. "It is a proud and high anger, not uncommon for her. Shared, I think, by Tandra."
   "But no others?"
   "Their hearts are with you, Imperatrix," says Lask. "Even Tandra's. And thus all heavy with imagined grief."
   "What grief do they imagine?"
   Lask almost looks surprised at the question. "If you fight Quasha at dawn, she will surely kill you, and then herself. In some the feeling is more muted, for they do not think the fight will come. I overheard Kellin say as much privately to Ress: that you will surely grant Quasha's wish, that (your pardon, Imperatrix) not even you are stupid enough to meet Quasha in combat."
   Nerrine waves her hand; no pardon is needed. "What of Ress?"
   "I think," begins Lask, as if slowly tasting a meal, "there is a hint of sorrow, but as always there is a cruel, calculating mischief that overpowers all other things, and makes her emotions as hard to read for me as yours."
   "Try me anyway."
   Lask closes her eyes and breathes her in deeply. "There is something that seethes in you, Imperatrix. A wrathfulness, a disgust. But it is a little thing. A dangerous thing, I think, but small, barely perceptible, drowned in your usual calm melancholy."
   Nerrine nods. "And of Jarissy? Does anything linger?"
   "No," says Lask immediately. "It is only ashes."

Nerrine is very nearly asleep when the door creaks open. It's Ress.
   "Oh, Nerrine!" Ress cries, blubbering.
   "What is it, child?" says Nerrine, unable to hide her weariness.
   "I just, I can't sleep. This is all so terrible."
   "Calm down," says Nerrine.
   "It's all my fault," says Ress pitifully.
   "Unless you put Quasha up to it, no, it isn't."
   "But I put Jarissy up to it, don't you see?" sobs Ress. "And she got poisoned. And she wasn't herself after that. If I hadn't pushed her as I did, she might not have died, and it's all my fault!" She blubbers some more, melting towards Nerrine, inviting a comforting embrace.
   Nerrine slaps her. "Your tears are always water."
   Ress's eyes widen; she sniffles, and starts blubbering anew. "No, no, I mean them this time!"
   "Even worse," says Nerrine. She slaps her again. She tries a third time with the same hand, but Ress's own arm shoots up to block it.
   In response, Nerrine savagely kicks the girl in the stomach, sending her crashing against the wall. Ress can't keep her balance and staggers to the ground on all fours. Nerrine swipes her across the face with her foot, then continues to beat on her with her fists.
   "Jarissy was a friend. A sister of my blood. You don't deserve to shed tears for her."
   Nerrine grabs Ress's short white hair, tossing the girl like a sack through the air and slam-splat onto the mattress. In the process, she pulls out a shock of hair. Nerrine coldly brushes her hand clean against her tunic.
   It's enough time for Ress to right herself. Still sobbing, she flails herself off the bed and upright against the wall.
   Nerrine is upon her in a flash. The Imperatrix is red and heaving with anger. Ress puts her hands up to protect her face, her mouth open but too terrified to scream for help. Nerrine grabs the girl's tunic instead and rips it open. Soon, Ress is naked. Nerrine throws her to the bed.
   She pins the little viper down with one hand around her neck. Between her teeth Nerrine finds a small tender breast and bites down hard, while with her free hand she forces apart the girl's kicking legs, exposing her sex. Her fingers begin probing.
   "I see you're not a maiden, Ress." She's not surprised.
   Ress spits. "Neither are you, queen of whores."
   Nerrine hoists Ress up by the throats, bringing her so close that her hot choppy breath crashes against Nerrine's lips. "Say it again. Call me whore again."
   Ress gasps as Nerrine's fingers tease out her sweet spot. Then, the girl whispers. "Whore."
   Nerrine kisses her full and hot on the mouth. She withdraws her hand from Ress's neck but not her centre. Nerrine hikes up her tunic and parts her own thighs. "Now, taste me."

When Nerrine awakes, Ress is shaking her by the shoulder, naked and bruising like a piece of fruit.
   "You're still here?" says Nerrine.
   Ress pulls back, flinching. "The sun will rise soon."

They wait for her outside, Quasha by the pyre, the others off to one side in a line. Kellin stands next to Ress, her arm around her sister's shoulder. Then, the naturalist sees Nerrine, and walks towards her.
   "Nerrine," says Kellin. "Give in to Quasha. None of us with think the less of you. This isn't worth throwing your life away."
   Nerrine waves her aside. "Go. To the others. To your sister."
   Kellin throws up her hands and rolls her eyes. No other Imperatrix would brook the insolence. They probably see it as another sign of her weakness.
   "Quasha," says Nerrine. She begins too quietly, and so says it again, louder. "Quasha, I have thought long and hard about your complaint."
   "And I will give you leave now to withdraw it."
   "Goddess, you're a stubborn wench," says Quasha. "I have no wish to kill you, Nerrine. And that is why I give you leave now to let me die with honor."
   Nerrine unsheathes her sword.
   "Come to your senses!" cries Quasha. "I have lived my every moment for battle. You were trained for writhing and moaning in soft sheets. You won't last the space of a single breath. Just let me die!"
   Red and orange dance across the dust.
   "You have invoked the ancient rites," says Nerrine. "Your challenge is accepted. Let the dawn decide!"
   Quasha holds her hand out towards the crowd. Danalee tosses her Thirteen, and with a roar, she rages towards the Imperatrix.
   Sword meets sword, stroke for stroke. Nerrine keeps on the defensive at first, never striking, only watching, anticipating, and blocking.
   Quasha is strong. And big. Bigger and stronger than lithe Nerrine. Big and strong and angry. Nerrine knows it. What's more, she feels it: with every staggering blow, Quasha's sheer muscle power threatens to send her sprawling. Sooner or later, one of them will do it, and that would be the end of her...
   She can't just parry forever. She knows that. But Quasha doesn't know that she knows. Quasha's going to keep slamming her sword down like a hammer, expecting Nerrine to content herself with simply blocking. She's just waiting for Quasha to stop paying attention, and praying it happens before her own strength gives out.
   Quasha raises the sword high and screaming, then brings it straight down. This is the moment. Now.
   With all she has, Nerrine swings her sword widdershins against the blade, sending Thirteen whirling into the dirt. For half a breath, Quasha looks absolutely bewildered. It's all the time Nerrine needs to throw her foot into the bigger woman's belly. Quasha lands flat on her back. Nerrine steadies herself and points her sword at Quasha's throat.
   "Kill me," says Quasha.
   "No," says Nerrine.
   Quasha's thick muscled leg swings around faster than Nerrine expected. In an instant, she is skidding belly-down roughly across the earth until her head collides with the base of the pyre.
   She spits blood and sand from between her teeth.
   Quasha and Thirteen are upon her. Nerrine turns onto her back and sword meets sword once more.
   The next blow is like a hammer. As she blocks it, Nerrine brings her knees up, heel resting against her buttocks. Next, a stab?
   Yes; Quasha grasps the sword with both hands and is bringing it down just above the groin. Nerrine kicks against the earth and propels herself into a flip, legs now pointed skyward, then alighting atop the pyre. The sword misses her by a hair and a second, instead stabbing into the earth.
   "A maneuver I learned writhing and moaning in soft sheets."
   It will take Quasha a moment to pull the blade free. Her feet never leaving the surface of the pyre, Nerrine kicks the ashes into Quasha's face. All of them gasp, save for Quasha, who once more roars. Forgetting the sword for a moment, she pitches forward, grabbing wildly for Nerrine's ankles.
   Nerrine leaps right over Quasha with ease, turns herself around, and slices deftly along the back of a thigh.
   "Surrender," says Nerrine, putting some distance between the two of them.
   "Kill me," says Quasha.
   Quasha yanks Thirteen from the ground, and is again rushing towards Nerrine, sword swinging above her head.
   Quasha is strong. And big. Bigger and stronger than lithe Nerrine. Big and strong and angry. But Nerrine is angry too. Perhaps just as angry. Perhaps more. The difference is, Nerrine controls it.
   Quasha is nearly upon her. Nerrine throws her sword like a dart into Quasha's thigh before stepping out of the way. Quasha staggers and falls, the hilt of the sword pushing against the dirt, driving the blade clean through.
   In an instant, Nerrine is upon her back with all of her weight. With her left hand, she yanks Quasha's head up by the hair. With the other, she pushes three fingers through the patch into her ever-burning eye socket.
   Quasha screams.
   "You will not die. My word is the law! Say it!"
   Quasha bites her lip. She flails with her big heavy arms, trying to grab Nerrine. Nerrine splits her legs, pinning one arm down with each foot. She rubs against Quasha's scabbed-over orifice until it becomes raw and sticky with new flowing blood.
   "You will not die."
   "I will not die. Your word is the law."
   "You will never challenge me again."
   Quasha groans.
   "Say it!"
   "I will not challenge you again."
   Nerrine at last withdraws her sharp nails from the wound and, standing upright, walks coolly towards the others. "Lick her wounds."
   Kellin and Petara are there in a flash, helping Quasha up.
   "I will not die," snarls Quasha defiantly, tears streaming from one eye and blood from the other. "Instead, I will live an oathbreaker!"
   "You will live," says Nerrine. But her words are not for Quasha; they're for the others. "My word is the law. Life is the word. Life is the law."
   "Life is the law," comes the chorus, muffled and stunned.
   "We're in this together," says Nerrine slowly. "We live together, or we die together." She wants to say something else, something inspiring, something to be passed down in songs for ages. But she doesn't have that in her. She prefers silence. And it's not as if there will be anyone to pass songs down to. There's only them, and when they are gone, there will only be ashes.
   She turns towards Quasha. She's still a fuming animal. No good will come of that rage directed towards her person. She suddenly has an idea and immediately sets about it. "And you, Quasha, I have made you only half an oathbreaker. For you have ever kept your first oath. You have never suffered an animal to be in misery."
   "Aye," says Quasha sorely.
   "And there is an animal who suffers, out there," says Nerrine, pointing away from the ship. "A mighty beast, but short three fingers, and an eye."
   Quasha touches the ruins of her patch. "A wound from a beam pistol. The wound that never heals. That always burns. The itch that never ends. Aye, I know the pain well. Yes, the beast is surely in terrible agony."
   "Then together, all of us, we shall keep your oath, Quasha," says Nerrine. "We shall perform an act of mercy and put the rex out of its misery. It will not be this day. Nor tomorrow. It will be done slowly. Carefully. We will strike only when the time is right. But it will be done, I swear it, and Jarissy shall be avenged!"
   "Aye," says Quasha. With Thirteen she props herself up, Nerrine's blade still deep in her leg. "Aye! For Jarissy!"


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