|By Marie Hertzberg, November 2021, on Facebook|
|Perfect owl camouflage, found on Facebook|
~ * ~
As research for Crucible Kingdom, my current spin-off of the Blue Moon series (SciFi/Fantasy), I've been re-reading all four books of the series, and I've reached the point of the "Interim" between Books 3 and 4. It was a tricky moment—I never intended to write a story complete in one chapter, but I needed to wind up a bit of unfinished business from The Bastard Prince before I could get into the drama of Royal Rebellion. And somehow, the chapter I now call "The Witch and the Wolf" was born. And now that it's come to life again, I'd like to share it with those who have not read it in the past. If you like it, please consider taking a look at the four-book series: Rebel Princess, Sorcerer's Bride, The Bastard Prince, & Royal Rebellion.
Grace note: From the standpoint of Writing & Editing tips, I like to think "Interim" is a good example of an opening chapter that reminds readers of characters from Books 1-3, as well as providing an intro to the characters for those who have not read the first three books. "Interim" also ties up a romantic loose end that simply didn't fit into the previous books but needed a Happily Ever After before Book 4 could get down to defeating the nasty old Empire!
The scene in the story below is the pacifist planet Psyclid, where four royal children have turned their backs on their upbringing and joined a rebellion against a classic aggressive Empire . . . and on the significant others who were supposedly destined to share their lives. B'aela is the eldest (natural) daughter of Psyclid's king; T'kal, a tough rebel leader, construction boss, and werewolf. K'kadi, the king's youngest child, whose psychic powers are "over the top," is also a bastard.
The ballroom, Crystalia, the Psyclid royal palace
Two Blue Moon cycles after the Battle of Psyclid
The music flourished to a close, the women’s skirts flaring in a final kaleidoscope of color before settling to hug their bodies close as they dipped into curtsies. Their partners bowed, the men’s bright tunics competing with the women for which gender would add the most brilliance and sparkle to the evening.
All but one, that is—a man slunk into the shadows behind a marble pillar, his back against the wall. Although he wore the required tight white hose, his tunic of black velvet fell well below his knees, his sole concession to fashion the intricate gold embroidery on his sleeves and on the bottom of the tunic. Embroidery he could not reject because his sister had created the garment with her very own hands, so what was a man to do?
He should not be here. This was a night for celebrating the completion of Psyclid’s ridó.
A full two Blue Moon cycles after it was needed.
He had failed. Men had died, ships were lost because there was a gap in the force field intended to protect Psyclid from the Regs. From the revenge of a mighty Emperor on a pacifist planet that asked only to be left alone.
He, T’kal Killiri, had been tasked with getting the job done, and he’d fallen short. He was here tonight only because King Ryal had ordered it. And if there was one thing the Pysclid engineer was, it was loyal to the crown.
A trumpet fanfare echoed through the vast ballroom. T’kal winced, recognizing the signal for what it was. The royal family was arriving and the ceremony was about to begin. The ceremony he wanted no part of.
Fyddit! (Only the Regs had profanity strong enough for the occasion.)
There was a great shuffling as the crowd parted, making a broad aisle from the ballroom’s double-doored entrance to the dais raised a good two meters off the floor, where a gilded throne with scarlet velvet seat and back, flanked by equally colorful sidechairs, awaited the Psyclid royal family.
And there they were, emerging from the crowd, ascending the steps—King Ryal and his wife Jalaine. Six feet behind, the Princess M’lani, her red-gold hair gleaming in the light of the crystal chandeliers, her beauty unrivaled, even by the sister she had replaced as Heir Apparent. At her side, not accepting his proper place a few steps behind, was her husband Jagan, the Sorcerer Prime. The man who came late to the rebellion. T’kal’s lips curled in remembered derision. He and Jagan Mondragon were never going to be close. It had, in fact, taken considerable effort by the Princess M’lani to get them to work together to save Psyclid from the Regs.
What . . . ?
Shaken out of his stubborn indifference, T’kal stared as another couple mounted the steps. Unexpected guests from Blue Moon. Not Tal and Kass, but the youngest royal and his Herc wife—K’kadi the bastard. K’kadi, whose powers seemed to expand from minute to minute. K’kadi the Strange turned K’kadi the Seer. The despair of the royal family become its most powerful weapon.
T’Kal, who had witnessed one of K’kadi’s losses of concentration, still had his doubts.
Among the missing royal children was King Ryal’s other bastard, his eldest child, B’aela Flammia, a witch best known as the Sorcerer Prime’s foremost assistant and long-time mistress. Before, that is, she transferred her favors to the acting Reg governor, Admiral Rand Kamal, nephew of Darroch, emperor of twelve star systems, the man who abhored the defiance of an obscure pacifist planet that refused to stay conquered. Unfortunately, Baela’s notoriety would never go away, even though her liaison with Kamal had been as a spy for her country. T’kal, knowing her as well as he did, suspected B’aela had likely refused to join the royal parade. She had not, after all, been raised a royal, as had Ryal’s other three children.
She was here, though—somewhere in the crowded ballroom. T’kal always knew when she was near. Whether on a dark, dangerous night in Oban or in Crystalia’s crowded ballroom, her scent filled his head. A problem he had steadfastly ignored for many years.
It was no surprise, however, that Tal and Kass weren’t here. Tal, leader of the rebellion, had sent a handwritten letter congratulating T’kal on the completion of the ridó. And confided that his wife, once Psyclid's Princess Royal, was suffering through a bad first trimester and would be unable to attend the festivities. As for his own absence, he hoped T’kal would understand. He still liked to think that keeping a low profile was protecting his parents and brother and sister who still lived on Regula Prime. Although, Tal added, it was more likely that by now half the Nebulon Sector must suspect that former Reg Captain Talryn Rigel and his huntership Orion had not been lost in a battle with the Nyx.
T’kal ducked his head, glowering at the intricately patterned floor of green and white marble tiles. Tal’s note had suddenly become a stark reminder that the battle against the Regs was far from over. That celebration—even a small one like tonight—was premature.
Another fanfare. The crowd surged forward, the gap filling in as all eyes turned toward the dais.
Gap. T’kal winced.
King Ryal, still a vital, fine-looking man though closer to sixty than fifty, stepped forward, his words smoothly amplified so they could be heard in the farthest corner of the ballroom. Even all the way to the wall stuck to T’kal Killiri’s back. “Friends, guests, welcome! You all know why we are here. Tonight we honor a man who has gone too long without recognition.”
As he spoke, Ryal’s sharp eyes searched the crowd. Not a sign of tonight’s honoree. “When we were invaded by the Regulons . . .” Psyclid's king continued. “When we were shocked, confused, and in despair because we had no idea how to fight back, one person stepped forward. One person sought out other brave souls, found ways to make the Regs sorry they’d ever thought of invading Psyclid. Five years later when our Sorcerer Prime returned from exile, he found a large and effective resistance force already in place, considerably shortening our march toward Freedom Day.”
Murmurs of agreement and approval swept through crowd. T’kal continued to study the colorful swirls in the marble tiles.
“So naturally, when the Emperor threatened us once again, we turned to the same man, putting him in charge of building a ridó twenty times the size of the one protecting Blue Moon, a task which required re-discovering a technology long lost. And in spite of the near impossibility of what we asked of him, the ridó was built, only a tiny gap over open ocean unprotected by the time the Regs attacked.”
King Ryal paused, dropping his gaze to his eldest daughter, who was standing in the front row just below the dais. “There are many other heroic acts I could name, but Killiri is a modest man. He will tell you that he failed because the ridó was not complete on the day the Regs struck. But where would we be now if it had not held over Crystal City? Over every city, town, and field on the planet? Where would we be without . . . T’KAL KILLIRI!?”
T’kal wanted to turn tail and run, but he settled for pushing his back tighter against the wall as the roar of the crowd nearly deafened him. He didn’t stand a chance of remaining anonymous, of course, since his friends, knowing how he felt about this event, had stacked the odds against him long before the evening began. His brother-in-law, Anton Stagg, descended on him from one side; Master Sergeant Joss Quint from the other. In front, two of the men who had been with T’kal that night in Oban opened a way through the crowd, both grinning from ear to ear.
He’d known it would come to this. There was no way out of it. And now that the moment was here, he said all the right things, praised those who had done the actual engineering. Thanked those who labored so long and hard at a task whose completion seemed more a miracle than a technological triumph. He even thanked that constant source of annoyance, Jagan Mondragon, Sorcerer Prime. Looking back through the years, it was a wonder they hadn’t killed each other.
Not that he said that, of course. T’kal’s lips twitched. No, he and B’aela’s long-time lover would never be friends.
After granting a teeth-gritting half-minute to acknowledge the crowd’s shouts, howls, claps, and stamping feet, T’kal forced himself to descend the steps with dignity, his full attention on the goal of losing himself in the mass of people below. Except . . .
B’aela was there. She seized his hand, the crowd melting away before them, with no more hindrance than calls of Well done! Thank you! and a fervent May the Goddess bless you! to mark their passage across the ballroom. The open doors to a balcony closed behind them, T’kal’s self-appointed bodyguards taking up a stance before them, barring any who might try to follow.
“A well-executed maneuver, Highness,” T’kal drawled. “I suppose you planned the whole thing.”
Dark eyes that had been sparkling with joy turned frigid. “Highness?” she asked. “Since when, T’kal?”
“Since the day I learned the truth.”
“Ancient history, Daman Killiri,” she returned with equally lethal formality. “You have had plenty of time to get over it.”
“I have had time to face the reality of it.”
“T’kal! We’ve spoken fifty, a hundred times since then, and never before—”
“We were colleagues, working together against the Regs, working to restore the country—”
“We were friends. Are friends!”
T’kal looked out over the palace curtain wall to the shimmering beauty of Crystal City at night. At the crystalline buildings lit in a rainbow of colors topped by black sky, the infinite number of stars outshone by the light of Psyclid’s three moons—Blue at full, Red a mere crescent, and White down to a waning half low on the horizon. He was being stubborn. Again. The quality that made him so good at getting things done. And so poor at achieving any personal happiness.
He suspected tonight was now or never. B’aela had played her part. It was his turn to be braver than he’d ever had to be before. Even that time on Oban.
“A fine setting for solving problems,” he offered.
“Yes.” Her face softened ever so slightly. The militant look in her dark eyes faded to questioning.
And there she was, the only woman with the capacity to make him forget N’tali. Even when he had not liked B’aela Flammia, she had stirred him out of the grief he had wrapped around himself for so long. T’kal took in the view that was far more fascinating than the beauty of Crystal City at night: a strong nose in a pale narrow face, huge brown eyes accustomed to hiding every emotion, the masses of dark brown hair as curly as his own, confined tonight in an intricate array of braids and studded with diamonds. If he didn’t unfreeze his tongue and say what needed to be said, he really was the greatest fool in the Nebulon Sec—
“Sometimes,” B’aela said with care, “I miss the days of the resistance. There was a camaraderie, a special something impossible to recapture.”
He knew exactly what she meant. He’d had thoughts, even back in the days when she was Jagan Mondragon’s discarded mistress. Thoughts that coalesced in Oban. And were shattered when she offered herself, willingly, to the enemy. Disintegrated completely when B’aela’s mother revealed she was born of the House of Orlondami, fathered by a king.
Which, of course, reminded him of another problem—the once-favorite nephew of Emperor Darroch. “I heard that Kamal came back with you from Hercula,” T’kal said, tossing yet another obstacle into the mix. “That he fought the Regs. Evidently, your powers are even more wondrous than anticipated.”
B’aela sucked in a sharp breath. “You cannot think—you who were my contact—” She broke off, gaping at him. “You know quite well I went to Kamal for revenge. And as a spy. You cannot believe that now we are free, I would—”
But, agonizingly, she had to admit it was true. Regulon Admiral Rand Kamal, former acting governor of Psyclid, had been at the forefront of the Regulon attack on Hercula. He had lost his ship, been captured, and ended up commanding an armed merchant against the Reg’s latest attack on Psyclid. And she, B’aela Flammia, had shared a ship with her former lover all those long weeks home from Hercula to Blue Moon. T’kal had every right to wonder if she had played a role—perhaps an intimate role—in his defection from the Empire.
“You will appreciate the irony, I'm sure,” she returned, her tone now cool and slightly caustic. “On our journey to Hercula, I shared a cabin with K’kadi’s mother, Anneli, and we have kept in touch. Which is how I know that Rand Kamal has a new interest in his life. And that it has become serious enough he may make the liaison permanent if his wife ever grants him a divorce.”
T’kal rubbed at the frown lines on his forehead. Kamal and K’kadi’s mother? Then again, it was a pairing no stranger than the other convoluted romances that marked the rebel cause. Tal Rigel, once a Reg Fleet Captain, and Kass, former crown princess of Psyclid. M’lani married to her sister’s former fiancé, Jagan Mondragon. K’kadi from Blue Moon and Alala, the Herculon warrior. T’kal’s own sister married to Anton Stagg, a Reg.
Of all the royal children, only B’aela, the eldest, remained unmarried. And, to T'kal's gut-wrenching surprise, seemed to be hinting at an interest in the weirdest pairing yet.
“There is a certain matter Ryal did not mention,” B’aela said. “He wished to spare me further humiliation, but we have not forgotten that among your many heroics, I owe you my life.”
“I would have gone to Oban for anyone who needed rescuing.”
“I know . . . but it wasn’t like that, was it?”
T’kal drew a deep breath. “No.”
“You were so angry when I went to Kamal. Every time I reported to you, you positively seethed.”
“I know you loved your wife. A good woman. Pure." The words tumbled out. "It is the talk of Psyclid that you have never looked at another—”
I looked. I did not act.”
He knew what she was trying to say. An acknowledgment of something they’d each known for a long time, and for a myriad reasons refused to examine more closely.
“B’aela,” he burst out, “you know what I am!”
“As you know what I am.” A whore. Unworthy of the Hero of Psyclid. Most particularly, the role of mother to his children.
“Feelings aside,” T’kal said, ignoring the scarlet letter B’aela was certain must be flashing on her forehead, “I fear the pairing of witch and wolf.”
Dear goddess! She’d thought of all the other reasons he might object, but not that. Under the light of a full Blue Moon, B’aela studied the man she had admired for so long—the dark eyes, the square jaw, the sturdy body with shoulders broad enough to carry the whole of Psyclid on his back. “When I was very young,” she told the Alpha of his pack, “I thought I knew what love was. I wanted the Sorcerer Prime as a plant longs for the sun. But the sun burns, and in the wisdom of a more advanced age, another man caught my eye and my admiration. A man who flew half way round the world to save me from the most terrible degradation of my life. A man who single-handedly took down the Reg Governor-General—”
“‘Handedly’ is perhaps not the most accurate word,” T’kal drawled.
Distracted for a moment by his grim humor, B’aela pictured a shaggy gray wolf tearing out the throat of Governor-General Anton Grigorev. She had not been there, but she had savored the reality of it many times over.
B’aela drew a shuddering breath and continued with the most difficult words she would ever have to say. The truly important ones she had to get out because it appeared T’kal never would. She was unworthy, she knew that, but she had crafted every second of these snatched minutes on the balcony, and she would not throw the opportunity away.
“I wish to continue my list,” she said, meeting him eye to eye and emphasizing each word. “A man I have come to love, and whose children I would like to make my own.” Her chin jutted up. “Even though I know I have fallen too far and have no right to ask for any man’s love—”
“Hush!” At long last, T’kal did not hesitate. He folded her tight against his chest. “I would say madness has attacked us both, but since it’s been this way with us for some years now . . .” B’aela felt a chuckle ripple through his chest. “Whichever way I look at it, it’s wrong. Except you are the only woman who has ever tempted me into a second love. So I fear we may be stuck with each other.” His lips against her temple, T’kal added, “As part of your plans, you wouldn’t by any chance have a limm standing by?”
“But of course. How else would I take home the man of the hour?”
K’kadi, who had been released from the dais and was dancing with Talora Lassan, the woman some called his second wife, smiled and nodded his satisfaction. It was about time B’aela took his mother’s advice. Which, he realized, would likely make him related to four of the most powerful men in the Nebulon Sector: Tal Rigel, Jagan Mondragon, T’kal Killiri, and in the not-too-distant future, the Emperor's nephew, Rand Kamal.
The end of the Empire was coming. It would take a while, but it would happen. That much he knew. Though who would sit on which throne—which thrones would even exist when all was said and done—was beyond even his powers of prognostication.
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Thanks for stopping by,Grace (Blair Bancroft)