What if love really never dies?
Eric Paul Fretheim
Like most Kelsic nobility, Mary nic Brath disliked dealing with those who couldn't forget about such things. Back in her country homeland, the aristocracy did their job and stayed out of people's lives. On her steading she'd shocked many a visiting city-bred Lady-this-or-that when they found her behind the house, stoking the cooking pit or hosing mud off fieldworkers' boots.
"It's a farm you're visitin'!" she'd berated more than one and let them think what they may. A pack of silly ninnies, the lot of them, anyhow. Mud didn't care if the carpet belonged to an 'Imperial Lady Consort' or a common farm wife. Why should she?
Damn the civil war that had dragged her husband and family to this great pile of humanity anyway. She may have married one of the ten Imperial Lords who shared the Parhan blood royal and co-owned its long-vacant crown, but she hated the city of Parha itself, this massive anthill where nobility strutted about with annoying arrogance.
The way they acted, it was no surprise that the commoners had risen up in an attempt to create their 'Republic'. Perhaps the influx of provincial nobles would improve the situation. Lords from across the Dominion were now gathered in the Imperial capital to command the military garrisons policing rebel territory right next door. They could teach the overweening city-dwellers manners, not to mention how to do their jobs as they ought.
That much was for the better, but the situation left her stuck here too, pining for her borderlands farm and dealing with prissy young things like this Cantarene lady-in-waiting whom her foster son had just carted home for tea.
Like most of her city-bred kind, the lass affected the clothing of the ancient Parhans, the Imperial founders who still made up perhaps half the nobility. The immigrant populations that had all but taken over the Dominion, including Mary's own Kelsies, comprised the other half, but most aristocratic women forsook both their native costumes and the current fashion of upper-class commoners in favor of Parhalho courtly dress with its flowing robes and complex, ornament-rich hair styling. When applied to the girl's blond tresses rather than Parhalho raven hair, that 'hair-dress' looked odd to Mary's eyes. The inexplicable addition of elbow-length white gloves, an accessory the locals would never affect, didn't help.
The girl wouldn't be seeing courtly pretension in the Brath sitting room. The books in their cases were the jumbled wreckage of her husband's and sons' voracious reading habits, not pre-selected leather-bound volumes of unread lore like in other aristocratic households. They did have one of the new dial telephones featured on an oaken table, but theirs was a common nickel steel and wood model, not brass and gold conceit.
Mary sighed and shook her head at Dugan. "If you want her to be meetin' more o' your family, Lad, you'll be askin' her to relax."
He grinned back and shrugged. "I've tried, Mum. She's a stubborn lass."
"I'm sitting right here!" the miffed object of their conversation announced. He turned his grin to the beauty.
"Alicia, Mum asked you to call her 'Mum' or 'Mary' in the house. You'd best mind her wishes. We Kelsies are not much for the formalities."
Alicia gave a brisk head shake, centrifugal force causing bits of ribbon to whip outward. In that move, Mary became certain she'd adopted the costume only upon moving to Parha. If she'd grown up wearing such, she would have grown up using the peculiar head-bobbing moves that Parhalho women used.
"It's very difficult," the girl declared, "to just drop a lifetime of habit."
Before Mary could grow annoyed at her refusal, the girl softened her tone and looked apologetic. "In addition, I admit I am quite nervous, Your Worship. Unless I am so honored to meet His Imperial Excellency your husband or Her Imperial Highness your sister-in-law, you are the only Imperial Royalty with whom I ever expect to converse."
That caught her by surprise. "But... Now, you must run into the other Imperial houses at balls and functions all the time!"
Dugan cleared his throat to get her attention and shook his head. "No, Mum. Truth, you've not seen her at any, aye? She's not from around here, you see. She's my ship-mate in the Navy. She's lived her whole life on Cantaree. She even attended the Naval School there. This is her first visit to the capital."
Upon her son's words, her entire image of the girl as spoiled Palace brat came crashing down. "Your 'ship-mate'? You introduced her as a 'lady-in-waiting'!"
He cleared his throat in embarrassment. "At her request. She holds that title back home. She didn't want you thinking of her as some social-climbing commoner trying to snare an Imperial scion while on duty."
"As if I'd be thinkin' that of a Crown officer!" she protested, then regretted her words, as it was what any of her fellow Ladies Imperial would have thought. It was something close to what she herself had thought, to be honest.
She gave the now very uncomfortable girl a reassuring smile. "Sorry, Dear. That was unfair of me. So you serve with Dugan?"
Dugan answered for her when she hesitated, shaking his head and smiling. "Not directly, Mum. I'm a line officer. She's a... ah, specialist."
Mary turned her raised eyebrow toward the girl in question. "And what, pray tell, does an 'ah, specialist' do?"
Despite herself, the girl cracked a slight smile. Might she finally be relaxing? "My Lady, I am our battle group's witch-master."
Confused, Mary looked a question to her son, who sighed. "That's not her official title, of course. She's on the books as a 'Technical Officer of the Marine Infantries', in the fashion of an Intelligence officer. One in a hundred sailors comes to us trained in the Elder Arts, so the Navy reckons every battle group should have an officer in charge of organizing them, in case."
"In case of what?"
Alicia smiled. "You Parhans believe we've outgrown the Elder Arts because you've turned all things spiritual into science and created Kethethic Engineering. You can replace witches and shamans and whatever else, but when the fleet runs into something stronger than your machines, it comes back to the traditional practitioners to sort things."
Mary had bristled a little at the You Parhans. She never associated herself with the city even though her husband owned one-tenth of the place, at least in theory. She had to admit though, she was more part of it than a girl from an entirely different world.
That dismissive Your machines, though... it said something about the girl. Perhaps the white gloves should have been telling her the same thing. A woman who didn't bow and scrape to all things Parhan and Modern might just be good enough for Dugan at that.
She was beginning to warm up to the offworlder, she realized with some surprise.
"So you're a Flux Artist," she summarized.
The girl nodded. "When I was a little girl, I showed high potential and my queen ordered me to train in what is called in our world, Junsai. Spiritual Combat. I am told most Elder Artists in Parha would call me an Incharyahdin."
Mary began to notice a faint foreign lilt in the girl's speech and realized they must not be English speakers in her native land. She'd done a remarkable job eliminating non-English accent and pronunciation.
She tipped her head in inquiry. "Your queen?" No aristocrat within the Dominion held such a title.
"She grew up in the court of Queen Rill, of Orosjo, her mother's country," Dugan explained. "They're a client, not a province. She's an Imperial citizen through her father, a Parhan lord."
Mary noticed that the Parhan lord somehow had no name. A bastardess raised as a court fosterling... she steered away from the subject. She could find out from her son later, in private. "So how can you be both a lady-in-waiting and an active naval officer, Lass?"
The girl looked sheepish. "I'm not, properly. Orosjoese are a bit provincial, you see. My countrymen tend to consider women living away from their families or courts as scandalous. So, Her Majesty declares any noblewomen in military service to be on official errands for her as her own ladies-in-waiting."
The house-girls showed with the tea and cakes. The conversation eased into a son's accounting of his latest cruise... at least, the bits he could speak of. As she listened, she watched the girl and wondered about her foster-son's agenda.
Despite Alicia's ideas about Parhans, the Imperial houses very much appreciated 'spiritual powers' and the Elder Arts in private. In fact, Houses rose and fell based upon the powers of their own members, many of whom ranked among the most powerful Artists in the Dominion. Like all the Braths though, her foster son knew about the family's declining abilities over the last two generations and the eventual doom it could spell to the Brath name.
Dugan's foster-father was the only strong Artist left out of all those born to the Brath clan, and Niall mac Brath had married Mary Donnelly, a spiritual lightweight who also turned out to be infertile. In Dugan, the childless couple had fostered a distant cousin with only somewhat more ability than Mary, but he'd been the best choice out of all the blood relations. The girl might not realize it, but her 'high-potential' genetics could well be attracting the boy more than her mind or her looks.
Thank goodness the future of the house no longer depended on such genetic bargains. Not since her little Rogan had come into their lives. The dark-skinned little alien boy, her husband's distant relative, had been one of the fifty thousand children who had flooded into their world from Chald, the homeworld of the Gireid race, as it suffered invasion and destruction.
The Braths descended from a Welshman of Earth who had married a Gireidil priestess and settled in the Kelsie lands here on the world named Tirh. The Gireidil clan Intr'ith had been an ally of Brath House ever since, and through that obligation the orphaned Intr'ith noble boy became their adoptive son. His Gireidil genetics promised an infusion of high potential that would put his adoptive father's powers to shame. Rogan, no longer little but now at a towering sixteen-year-old Imperial Naval School student, had lived up to that potential as a developing Flux Artist.
Dugan might have resented losing his chance to inherit the Imperial Lordship-- Rogan's adoption took precedence over his own fostering-- but he'd instead been ecstatic, now freed of that responsibility without losing the privileges of being a 'Royal'. It may have helped that the four-year-old Rogan joined their family only six-months after his twelve-year old 'elder brother'. Besides, if Rogan didn't develop an interest in young women some day, Dugan's children would wind up inheriting, anyway...
"Mum? Are you still here?" Dugan queried. She started.
"Oh, dear. My mind was on the moon, I fear."
"I was wondering if she'd passed inspection, yet," he commented in dry tones. His comment was direct enough to shock her until she realized the girl was no longer present, having excused herself for the wash room.
"I did drift off on you, didn't I?" she smiled. "I'm afraid I was worrying about things again."
"You've been watching her pretty close, Mum. What's bothering you?"
"Does she ken you're not the heir, Dugan?"
"Yes, actually." He glowered. "I have her fully up to speed on our family. She's not a title-chaser, Mum."
"Is she the love o' your life though, Lad?"
He looked uncomfortable. "Mum, you're getting ahead of us a little..."
"She is not the only one here who might be havin' ulterior motives, Dugan. I'm hopin' you're not seein' her as breedin' material. That particular motive is quite unfair to a lass."
Dugan pressed his lips together, visibly forcing himself not to argue. After the moment to check his tongue he said, "She and I are two people who enjoy each other's company. Not each other's genetics or titles. Truth."
She inspected Dugan's face, as she thought she saw more in his eyes than what he'd said. He pulled his mouth sideways, shaking his head. "I'd best go look after her. I'm not so sure she isn't hiding somewhere trying to collect her nerves."
"I rather thought she was beginnin' to relax."
He got up and straightened his uniform. "Aye and she was... until you began staring at her like a hungry eagle."
She suspected herself guilty as charged and stopped herself from protesting. He was itching to run after the girl, anyhow.
After he left the room, the telephone rang. With no house-girl in sight to answer it, she took it herself, careful not to put the base to her ear and speak into the earpiece as she'd done the last time. "Brath House."
"Mary!" came her husband's surprised voice.
She smirked at his disbelief. So you thought I couldn't work this gadget on my own? "Aye, Niall. I still live here."
He chuckled for a moment, then grew serious. "It's not you I was callin', Love. I must speak to Dugan right away. It's quite urgent. He's home, is he not?"
It chilled her to hear her normally calm husband use a word like 'urgent', or a tone that matched it. She knew better than to ask, though. It would be military business, although she had no guess what her husband's Occupationary Guard duties had to do with the Navy.
"Aye, he's here. Hold a tick, Dear." She set the phone down and turned to call him, only to see the lad and his companion coming back into the room. "Your father's askin' after you."
As he collected the device, she wondered, Why did Niall know Dugan was here?
She watched the concern on her son's face with unease of her own. Her feelings grew to alarm when he answered with a curt "Aye, Sir!" instead of a son's response to his 'Da'. He dropped the earpiece on the hook and looked to Alicia. His words to her were of an unexpected tone as well.
"They didn't catch up to her, Lieutenant," he reported in a crisp junior officer's manner. "She's already in the neighborhood."
Alicia paled, then developed a very un-Courtly bearing.
"Get your mother upstairs, Subs!" she ordered, using the common contraction for his rank of Sublieutenant. Mary found her son grabbing her upper arm, turning toward the hall back to the stairway. Before her shaken mind could form a question against the unexpected changes around her, one of her house-girls screamed from the front hall and everyone turned toward the sound.
The next few instants came at Mary with strange clarity, the benefit of adrenaline and fear. Alicia stripped off her white gloves and jumped forward into a fighter's stance. Dugan pulled Mary around so that his body would be between her and the front hall as he drew a handgun. And a brown-skinned, almost naked girl sprinted into the room from that direction and came to an abrupt stop, with purple fire dancing on her hands.
Mary's training as a Keth-Ethin, a traditional user of magic tools, was at best rudimentary. Her sense for the supernatural fires of Flux was weak, but even she could see the power behind the green fire bursting from tattoos covering Alicia's hands and arms, snaking forth like whips, or the shield of purple fire that the topless intruder spread with her own hands to meet the attack. The girl shrieked her rage at Alicia.
She gaped at the bizarre sight. The newcomer's lack of clothing wasn't her only shocking feature. Above bare maiden's breasts spread an enormous tattoo, the image of a hawk or eagle approaching in a talon-first dive, its wings stretching from shoulder to shoulder... and Mary's senses told her the tattoo was the primary source of her power.
In her wild raven hair, feathers, beads and totems also pulsed with power... and animal spirits. The girl was a Maryahdin, an animistic shaman and, guessing from the style of what little clothing she wore, an Alyrhian tribeswoman.
What was this creature doing invading a Royal household almost a half a world away from her tropical island homeland?
Whatever her plan, she wouldn't succeed. Despite the girl's intense aura, she showed little experience. Alicia soon proved to be a far stronger fighter. The green fire-whips imprisoned her wrists, but the girl's eyes did not yet admit defeat.
"Rogan?! Where?!" she huffed as she regained her breath. Sweat covered her from the exertion of running and combat, highlighting muscles now straining against her bonds. "Where is he?!"
Astonished, Mary demanded, "What in Heaven are you wantin' with my son?"
The island girl stared at her with baffled anger, resting from her labor for a moment, then resumed her rage against Alicia's restraints, shrieking again. The savage sound and fury continued for another half minute.
Then her voice chopped off, her wild expression transforming in one instant into a mix of hope and uncertainty. She stared at the archway to Mary's right, where Dugan had intended to go.
Mary followed the girl's eyes to see her son Rogan standing there in his I.N.S. uniform. Alicia saw also and snapped, "Cadet, you were told to remain in the cellar!"
"I know that, Lieutenant," Rogan responded with a quiet voice, his normal gawky uncertainty entirely missing. Mary knew that her son was forcing the lordly bearing as a counter to Alicia's commanding tones, but he was doing a fine job of making it seem natural. He met her eyes and calmly requested, "Please release her."
"What?!" Alicia answered in disbelief. "My Lord, this girl has run Protective Services ragged trying to catch her!"
"Alicia," Dugan quietly, echoing his younger brother, "Release her."
The woman now stared at him in surprise. "Subs, your father ordered..."
He overrode her before she could finish. "My father doesn't understand. We've tried to explain it to him and to Mum for years. They just wouldn't listen. I cooperated with Da on this so that I could get Rogan and her together in the same room. Release the girl."
Alicia glared at him. "Subs, am I to understand you deliberately subverted this operation?"
Rogan began walking across the room toward the island girl, who was now openly crying and staring at him, as if unable to believe what she saw. Mary finally recognized the distinct ethnic resemblance between the girl and her adopted son and understood Dugan's words, 'We've tried to explain it to him and to Mum for years...'
"Release her," Mary echoed her sons' words.
Alicia turned her baffled stare at her. "Your Wisdom?"
She moistened drying lips and nodded. "Please, Lieutenant. I believe your prisoner to be the next Imperial Lady Consort nic Brath. Release her."
Alicia's eyes bugged slightly in disbelief, but Dugan's hand touched her arm. She responded by extinguishing the flux-flames, but kept staring at him in bewilderment.
Sobbing uncontrollably, the girl ran to Rogan's arms, choking out one word. "Sano'rhuon!"
When she heard the sound of her son's Gireidil birth name, she knew she'd made correct identification of the girl. Her sixteen-year-old son cradled the lass in his arms for the first time since they'd parted on Chald, yet he held her as tenderly as Niall had ever held Mary. The Gireidil girl dressed like an Alyrhian wept loudly in Rogan's embrace.
Alicia watched at the scene in confused silence, then Dugan said "My little brother is by birth a Gireidin. They sent thousands of orphans like him here during the war, when their world was about to fall."
The brown-skinned girl choked out some alien words, whispers that held all the same pain little Rogan had cried of long ago. He whispered assurances back to her in the same tongue, stroking her hair.
Dugan explained, "Gireid have some things in their head wired different than you and I. Things like intense loyalty to family and spouse, stronger than anything we can ever imagine. They have no word for family troubles or divorce or such, because it is just impossible for them. And they marry as children."
She frowned, puzzled. "They what?"
"Their families choose for them when they're barely more than toddlers. They don't consummate it until they're at least twenty, but they grow up knowing their spouse. That's how their love works. No teenager's angst, no trauma, no uncertainty, just a lifetime of unreserved loyalty to the one to whom they belong.
"Rogan and this lass married when he was four years old, but it was just weeks before the evacuation from Chald. They became separated somehow. All these years Rogan knew neither her whereabouts nor whether she'd even survived. It turns out she wound up in Alyrhia."
Mary had known all of this when Rogan first came to her, except where the lass had gone. She had put it aside, convincing herself that her son was no different than any other human, that the marriage was merely a heathen custom forced upon him by his alien birth parents.
Tears began forming in her eyes as she remembered comforting her little boy so many times while he cried his heart out for 'Ara'ta'loeth', whom they'd convinced themselves to think of simply as a lost childhood friend. He'd experienced that recurring trauma throughout his childhood.
Dugan, who had taken immediately to the role of older brother, learned all he could about his little brother's people. He had tried to tell them the things his brother was too young to explain. They'd assured him that the supposed differences were exaggerated, that Gireid were humans after all...
But in this one scene, in the girl's desperate rage, in the boy's instant protective tenderness, she knew all her certainties had been foolishness. Rogan's refusal to associate with the many young noblewoman who smiled at him had not been disinterest. It had been his fidelity to this foreign lass he'd not seen since before Mary met him.
"Rogan me lad," she said quietly and her son looked over to her. She hesitated as she saw his eyes also filled with tears, then smiled encouragingly.
"Take Ara'ta'loeth to the house-girls. Tell them to find her some proper clothin' from my wardrobe. We'll put her in one of the guest rooms for now."
He nodded wordlessly and gently led the girl out of the room. She still clung with desperate resolve to him, making the going slow, but Mary suspected Rogan was no hurry anyhow.
Blinking her own eyes clear, Mary turned to her older son. "Now, I believe you owe me an explanation."
He glanced at Alicia, who was still visibly sorting out her confusion, then grinned at his mother apologetically. "Well, obviously we stretched the truth a bit about Alicia and me. Protective Services has been tracking the girl... Ara'ta'loeth... but couldn't corner her. She's a tough one. Da wanted some extra insurance in case she got through, so he told our captain to send us in. He hoped PS would pick her up before she got here, and you'd never learn anything to worry you."
In summary, her husband had been keeping her wrapped in an invisible cocoon just as he always did. Mary needed more details than that. "And what about Rogan? What was he doin' here in the house? He ought to be at Naval School right now."
"Da considered this a better spot for a showdown than Naval School, if she made it all the way to Rogan. Fewer curious eyes and ears. Once we were sure she'd reached the city, we had him sneak into the lumber room downstairs to wait it out. We planned that he stay down there. His only role here was to attract the girl so PS could pick her up."
During Dugan's explanation, Alicia had knelt to collect her gloves, which she was now pulling back on to cover her extravagantly decorated limbs. She glanced at him and noted dourly, "Of course, it seems a certain Sublieutenant and a certain Cadet undercut our plans."
He shrugged. "I am truly sorry, Lieutenant. Da wouldn't let me tell PS or anyone else about Rogan's marriage. He considered it 'Nonsense', and he didn't want me 'spreading rumors'. Of course Rogan wasn't ever going to cooperate with Da's plans in truth, so I couldn't either."
After a pause, he made his reasons clear to her in four simple words. "He's my brother, Alicia."
"And how much of the rest of this spectacle were lies, Lad?" Mary pressed.
Dugan shook his head in confusion. "The rest of it?"
"The lady-in-waitin' from Queen Rill's court?" She gestured toward Alicia.
The lieutenant flushed, but it appeared to be indignation rather than embarrassment on her face. Hastily, Dugan noted, "Mum, she's exactly as I described... well, except for us seeing each other. We did not lie about who she is."
Mary studied the girl, who returned her gaze squarely. "Answer me one question then, Lass."
"What is it, your Wisdom?" the lieutenant responded, a bit wary.
"What kind of idiot is my son, anyhow?"
Dumbfounded, the girl repeated, "Your Wisdom?"
Dugan was staring at her in confusion as well. She forged onward.Â "Understandin' as I do that he is not in fact courtin' you? Or, am I to understand that he has already asked you, and you turned him down?"
"I... My Lady, I..."
Mary decided the stammering girl stood no chance of ever reaching the end of her response, so she pressed ahead. "Have you in fact turned my son down, Lady Alicia?"
Alicia glanced at Dugan, both of them still befuddled. She said, "No, Your Wisdom. I've not turned him down...."
Mary brightened. "Good! I recall that Dugan brought you here for my permission to dine with the family. I think I shall give it. I'll expect you and my son to dinner tomorrow evening. I'll invite my sister-in-law. If she's free, you'll be meetin' her Imperial Highness in the same go."
Alicia still stammered as she spoke. "Your Wisdom, th... this was just a ruse to put me in your house for a while! W... we aren't actually..."
Mary ignored her and turned to Dugan. "I'm headed upstairs to compose a letter to your captain, requestin' Alicia's and your presence to dinner tomorrow. And see if you can get her to stop stutterin' before your aunt meets her. First impressions are crucial, you know."
With all the aristocratic arrogance she normally refused to affect, Mary swept out of the room before Alicia could say more. She paused out of sight in the hall to listen to the results.
"My Lord," the girl worried, "I seem to have created a problem for you. I'm truly sorry." Her contrite tone was a remarkable change from the peremptory 'Subs!' of only minutes before.
"Lady Alicia," Dugan stated, with courtesy but also a degree of warmth which confirmed to Mary that his attitude toward the girl had not been an act, "I should be quite pleased were you to attend dinner at my house. Kindly tell me you will?"
Mary smiled and resumed her walk down the hall, satisfied that her boy had the situation well in hand.