Tag Archives: excerpt

Vokhtah, book 2 – some plotting

I’m a pantster not a plotter, however there comes a time in any story when I have to take a step back, and really think about the wider ramifications of the story I am trying to tell.  This usually involves thinking about the world as a whole. 

What outside forces are at work? And how will they impinge on the lives of my main characters? In particular, how will history, culture and politics help or hinder their personal stories?

The following excerpt is something I’ve been working on for days.  The scene will impact two of my main  characters. One, the Apprentice/Kaati you already know. The other is a character I introduced in book 1, but only in passing. As such, the information in this scene is vital, so it needs to be clear. But I did not want to write just an info dump. 😦

I’d really appreciate your feedback on whether I got the balance more or less right.


The Master of Acolytes was something of an anomaly amongst the higher ranked healers of the Guild because it had a powerful talent, but very little personal ambition. It did not attempt to curry favour with either the Yellows or the Blues, and tended to avoid Guild politics where possible.

Nonetheless, even this mild, self-effacing healer nurtured one, powerful ambition – it longed to be the healer who finally freed the Guild from the Traders forever.

The Master did not hate the Traders. It did not even object to sharing the Settlement with them, but it did fear another Great Unrest, and knew the Guild would never be truly safe while it was dependant on outsiders for any of its important needs. And Traders held a monopoly on two of the Guild’s most critical needs.

Ever since the time of the Rogue, the Traders had been the Guild’s only link with the outside world. Traders kept the Guild’s maps up-to-date, and the Trader Quartermaster made it possible for the Guild to know where and when its Triads were needed. In return the Guild offered the Traders shelter and food.

This symbiotic relationship had worked well until the Great Unrest had disrupted the Guild’s ability to service the needs of the eyries, and their Vokh. The Guild had acted quickly, yet even so, the Nine had promised to withdraw the Vokh’s protection of the Settlement if such a disturbance ever happened again.

That was when it had become obvious the Guild’s dependence on the Traders was a weakness, a dangerous weakness. Nonetheless, despite over two hundred years of trying, the Guild had not been able to breed even one healer-seneschal. The two talents could not seem to co-exist in the one body. Those Initiates with healing talents strong enough to survive the Quickening could not mind-speak, while those who could always died because they lacked the healing talents that should have kept them alive.

The Master of Acolytes was well aware of this long, long history of failure. It had personally nurtured six young candidates with the ability to mind-speak, and had watched five of them die during the Quickening. Yet despite these failures, it continued to believe the mix of talents was possible. It was convinced the answer lay in finding candidates who had the potential for both talents… before the Quickening.

All five failures had been first rate apprentices who should have made good healers, yet they had still died. And now there was just one hopeful left. It possessed a very strong talent for mind-speaking, however it was the young iVokh’s empathy that made it truly special. Even as a first year apprentice, it had shown a natural ‘knack’ for soothing fractious newborn that was unmatched by any of the other apprentices.

Of course, empathy alone did not guarantee the Quickening would trigger the full range of healer talents. Nonetheless, experience had shown that natural empathy was the best indicator of latent talents.

In an effort to release more of this latent potential, the Master had arranged for the sixth candidate to work with a powerful healer in a safe eyrie. Unfortunately Needlepoint had turned out to be anything but safe, and now no-one seemed to know whether the Triad, and its precious Acolyte, were still alive.

The only one who might know was the Yellow Councillor, but it was the least approachable, and most feared healer in the Guild.

The Master had never spoken to the Yellow, nor had it ever wanted to, but after almost two ti’m’akh of fearful waiting it could wait no longer. It had to find out if its life’s work was over.

Taking a deep, tremulous breath, the old healer raised its hand and knocked on the Yellow’s door.

The proof of the pie

I had meant to post this excerpt from book 2 as my 280th post.  I like commemorating milestones, and while this chapter is not all that significant in its own right,  I am pleased with how it turned out as it incorporates all that research I wrote about in iVokh and the Poacher’s Knot.

Sadly Pippi, and fate, had other plans so it has become my 281st post. I hope you enjoy it anyway. I should warn you though, it’s a long one so you might want to grab a cup of tea or coffee before reading. 🙂

The third day of Kohoh dawned warm and clear, without even a hint of rain.

Up on the flight ledge leading to the Settlement, the older hunters waggled their heads in dismay as they prepared to fly down to the plains. The rains had been starting later and later the last five years, and they knew that did not bode well for the coming Pah H’akh. The Bad Times were always bad, but some were worse than others, Takh help them all.


Two leagues to the south, the dirty, travel-worn iVokh hiding near the Trader’s entrance to the Settlement silently blessed the lack of rain. Every day of clear skies gave it one more day in which to find shelter. Yet even as it gave thanks, its sense of urgency grew. It knew this period of grace could not last for much longer. It had to get inside an eyrie soon, or it would die and its long, gruelling trek would have been for nothing.

Hitching its stained travel pouch a little higher, Kaati turned its back on the Traders’ Quarter and slipped away with a sigh. It had watched the entrance for two days and two nights, hoping to sneak inside without being seen, but in that whole time, the Tellers on guard had not left their posts for even a moment. There would be no way into the Quarter from here, and that left the Healers’ side of the Settlement as its last hope.

The entrance to the Settlement would be guarded as well, however those guards would not know its face. To them, it would be just another hunter making the most of the fine weather to bring in some extra food.

The real danger would come from the other hunters who would surely know it did not belong. The trick then, would be to get past the guards before the real hunters returned.

The irony of that thought made Kaati shake its head in wry amusement. The word ‘Kaati’ meant little hunter, and signified the kind of Teller it had hoped to become – capable, and deadly if attacked, but more spy than assassin. But then the old Quartermaster had intervened, tearing it away from its old life to become a na-Quartermaster.

Perhaps that was why it had refused to find a more appropriate name for itself. Yet here it was, about to become a hunter of animals so it could fight for a position it had never wanted in the first place.

Once Kaati was far enough from the flight ledge it stopped, and began to inflate its wings. All Traders knew how to hunt, so it was confident it could trap a few rock lizards, however getting inside the Settlement before the day’s work was done would require something more than just a few lizards. It would need a good excuse as well.

Lifting its arms, the young Trader inspected the many bruises and scratches that covered its body. Most were old, but some were fresh, a legacy of the two days it had spent spying on the Traders’ entrance.

Would it look battered enough to convince the guards it had had a bad fall?

Kaati’s cilia twitched in distaste at the ripe smell wafting from its armpits.

not if smelling like this

It had scrubbed itself with dry sand every day to reduce the scent trail it left for predators, but nothing short of a proper bath would make it smell like one of the eyrie-bound.

Turning away from the direction of the Settlement, the young Trader squinted at the bright flashes of light coming from the Blood River.

This late in the season, the river was reduced to a string of brackish waterholes, but it was no less dangerous than when it was in full flood. Starving pakti would lurk in the deeper water, while the reeds choking the banks would be full of sidewinders, all of them lying in wait for any creature desperate enough to sneak down for a drink. Or a wash.

Nonetheless when the young Trader took flight it headed away from the Settlement, towards the river.

Landing a safe distance from the water’s edge, Kaati dropped its pouch to the ground, and pulled out the sling it had bought at the Claw Valley gather. Slings were useless for hunting food animals as they killed far too easily, however they were very good at making even large predators think twice about attacking.

With the sling in one hand, and three sharp pebbles in the other, the young Trader approached the waterhole from the downriver end, every sense on the alert.

Down the middle of the channel, where the flowing water would have been deepest, an open path still led towards open water. It looked safe enough, but the multitude of small footprints baked into the mud showed that many smaller animals used this approach as well. And where food animals gathered, predators were never far away.

Kaati was still some distance from the edge of the water when it saw the first pile of bones. The length of the thigh bone suggested the creature had been a young akaht. The great herds relied on numbers to keep them safe, but the predators always picked off the stragglers. A lone iVokh would be easy prey.

A few steps later, a soft plop made the young Trader look towards the centre of the waterhole. It saw lazy ripples fanning out from two, large beady eyes. Those eyes seemed to dare the  iVokh to come closer.

Locking eyes with the pakti, the young Trader fitted one of the pebbles to the sling and began whirling it round and round.

The sling hummed a song of death as it spun, and when it stopped the pakti was missing an eye.

Kaati kept its eyes on the thrashing pakti as it fit another pebble to the sling. It knew predators were at their most dangerous when they were wounded.

That was something the three smaller pakti discovered to their cost when they attacked their larger companion.

Maddened with pain, the injured pakti tore into its attackers, injuring one, and killing the other before the third managed to dart in on its blind side to deliver a killing blow.

The victorious pakti killed its injured rival before settling down to feed.

The young Trader allowed the new ruler of the waterhole to eat its fill before chasing it away with a few well aimed rocks.

The pakti’s tail lashed angrily as it swam out of reach, but it was too sated to dispute the iVokh’s right to enter the water.

Despite its apparent victory, Kaati knew it would be in danger every moment it spent in the water, and its eyes did not stop scanning from side to side as it waded into the waterhole. It only went knee deep, and scrubbed with desperate speed before wading out again. Near the water’s edge, it stopped just long enough to tear out two handfuls of wilted reeds.

Safe on land once more, the young Trader quickly stowed the sling and the reeds before retreating to the meagre shade of a pipa tree, high on the riverbank.

Once the rains began, and water swelled the river once more, the deep roots of the pipa would siphon life-giving water up to the withered branches. For now though, its branches were as dry and lifeless as everything else on the plain.

Climbing up into a fork of the tree, Kaati pulled out a reed and began tearing it into long strands.

A weaver would have soaked the strands, and pounded them to soften the fibres, but the young Trader had no time for such niceties. Once it had enough strands, it began to form them into lengths of rough string.

The hard fibres grazed Kaati’s hand as it rolled the strands against its thigh, but it persisted until it had enough string for three snares.

Looping one end of the string around the stub of a branch, it tied the loop off with a double knot before folding it in half to make two smaller loops. Once it had threaded the free end of the string through both loops it had a strong slip knot for its noose.

When all three snares were finished, it left the safety of the tree, and carefully arranged the snares on the ground, near where the smaller animals would come to drink. It sprinkled sand and dry leaves over each snare before tying the free ends to low lying branches or rocks.

Both suns were high in the sky before all the traps were set, and Kaati could climb back up into the tree to wait. And wait. Thanks to the scent of blood in the water, it had to wait until almost first-dark before a lizard finally emerged from the rocks, and crept down to the waterhole.

The wary creature skirted the first snare, and would have avoided the second as well, but some small noise made it jump in fright. Unfortunately it jumped the wrong way. As it landed, one of its hind feet skidded on the loose sand, and became tangled in the loop of the snare. As it tried to pull away, the slip knot tightened around its ankle.

The more the terrified lizard struggled, the tighter the noose became, and by the time the young Trader jumped from the tree and hurried around to the other side of the waterhole, the lizard was too exhausted to put up much of a fight. It could only hiss in impotent fury as it was hoisted into the air.

Kaati had hoped to catch more than just the one lizard, but with first-dark approaching it knew it could not delay any longer. It had to get to the Settlement, and talk its way inside before the rest of the hunters finished for the day, and recognized it for a stranger.

Tucking the hapless lizard inside its pouch, the young Trader used the heat rising from the ground to boost itself up into the air. In moments it was flying hard for the Settlement, and the dubious safety it would find there.

Urgent submission advice needed! UPDATE

Ok… I’ve tried to put all your advice to good use. This is the first draft of the bio bit I’ll tack on at the end. Any thoughts?

[ bio]

I was born in Hungary but have lived in Australia since I was five. In my twenties I taught French and Japanese. Later, I used my teaching skills to write technical manuals for computer software. For the last ten years I have been learning the craft of writing fiction. ‘Vokhtah’  is the first science fiction novel I have written that combines my passion for biology, politics, language, science fiction and martial arts.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit ‘Vokhtah’ to Harper Voyager.

Andrea Flory

p.s. should I mention the title somewhere at the beginning as well? Sorry if that sounds stupid.

Hi guys, I need your help!

As some of you will know I have decided to be brave and submit my novel to the Harper Voyager Open Submission. Yesterday I finished the final edits suggested by my lovely editor Laurie Boris. The MS is now ready to go but life is never that simple or easy.

When I got up this morning I checked the submission guidelines and discovered that I need to submit both a ‘query’ letter and an excerpt along with the MS. Never having submitted anything anywhere before, I had to look up what the hell a query letter was. Correction: I tried to find out what a good query letter would be like. The word ‘hook’ came up many times. I think I’ve got it right… maybe, but I really need some feedback from people who’ve done this before. I also need some feedback on the short excerpt I’ve chosen. The guidelines stipulate it has to be from the first 1000 words of the MS. Ugh. There are far better bits later on but I can’t use them.

Anyway, here are my efforts. Please tell me what you think.

Query letter

Dear Editor,

The novel I am submitting to Harper Voyager is an 88,000 word science fiction story for adult readers. It contains graphic scenes of violent mating between its alien protagonists. The story takes place on a harsh planet in a binary solar system.

Vokhtah is an unforgiving world ravaged by two suns. The creatures who rule there are psychopathic hermaphrodites called Vokh. They live solitary lives, attended only by their smaller cousins, the iVokh.

The Blue is a powerful iVokh healer who must fight the prejudice of its fellow healers and the savagery of the wild to save the Guild of Healers from the Six of Needlepoint. The Six, a powerful, cunning Vokh, is on a collision course with the Guild because the healers believe it is an abomination, and they have sworn to kill all abominations.

Together with its unlikely companion, a young Trader Apprentice, the Blue must find a way to survive the wild and manipulate the other Vokh into keeping the Guild safe. On a world like Vokhtah, neither task will be easy. And time is running out.

[Enough? Too much? All wrong? Have I forgotten anything?]


The Blue’s face remained expressionless as it folded its fingers around the broken shard and began to squeeze. A droplet of blood oozed through its clenched fingers. That droplet was followed by another and another until a trickle of pale yellow flowed from its hand.

The sand at the Blue’s feet was stained a dark gold before the rigidity of its face finally melted into a grimace of pain. Opening its fingers one by one it let the bloody shard drop, its expression now thoughtful – apparently some things became more dangerous broken than they ever were whole. There was a lesson to be learned from that; the Yellow faction had broken its power in the Council, but in doing so they had unleashed something new that might yet be their undoing.

* * *

Thank you all. Your help is really, really appreciated.


Vokhtan Bestiary – the To’pak

My thanks to all of you who showed such interest in the Tukti last week. I feel a little guilty though because I may have given you a false impression of the beasts of Vokhtah. Vokhtah is not a gentle place and the Tukti are one of the very few creatures on the planet that are gentle. This week I have to start introducing you to some of the more normal denizens of this world – the predators.


There are many predators on Vokhtah but none more fearsome on the ground than the To’pak. These huge, lumbering beasts look as if they should be slow but they can move surprisingly quickly when they scent prey and their long, prehensile tongues give them an added reach that makes them truly formidable.

Once a To’pak catches its prey with that tongue the hapless creature is drawn into a mouth lined with two sets of razor sharp teeth which can grind flesh from bone in moments. And then grind the bones up as well.

To’pak are not fussy feeders. Their most common prey are the huge herds of akaht that roam the great plains but they welcome a bit of variety in their diets and will happily munch on any iVokh foolish enough to be caught outside during the dark when these nocturnal monsters hunt.

To’pak would gladly eat Vokh as well if they could but in the hierarchy of predators none stand higher than the Vokh.

The following short excerpt describes an encounter between a nester – the egg-layer amongst the To’pak – and a Vokh of rank seven. The highest rank any Vokh can achieve is nine but there is only ever one nine – The Nine. This is about the Seven of Five Rocks :

The Seven came in fast, dropping down out of the sky behind the sleeping to’pak before the great beast even knew that it was under attack. Grasping the predator’s long, armoured tail with both hands the Vokh flipped it onto its back with a quick heave and then stood back to admire the result.

The to’pak were formidable predators – when they were on their feet – but once they were on their backs they were helpless, anchored to the ground by the sheer weight of the massive bone plates that protected their heads and upper bodies. Given enough time this to’pak would eventually rock itself upright again but for now its six, stubby legs were just waving in the air and it was going nowhere.

Rising up into the air the Seven took aim and then dove again. At the very last moment it dropped its legs and allowed momentum to carry it across the to’pak’s broad, lightly scaled belly. Blood appeared wherever its feet made contact while the deadly scythes on its heels opened up deep gashes that exposed the entrails within.

Too stupid to know that it was already dead, the to’pak roared in rage and pain, redoubling its efforts to get back on its feet. As it thrashed, coil after coil of bluey purple intestine spilled from its belly.

Grabbing the dying To’pak by the tail once more the Seven dragged it off to one side so it could reach the egg filled hollow where the creature had been sleeping. Twelve large, round eggs lay in the hollow, their pale pink shells glistening wetly in the harsh light of Takh.

The Seven picked up one of the eggs and held it up to the light, grunting in satisfaction when it saw only a tiny spot of darkness floating in the yolk. The Small One loved fresh laid to’pak eggs. Perhaps it should take one or two back to the eyrie as a peace offering. Or perhaps not. A Voice was duty bound to serve its master whether it approved of its master’s choices or not. Let it sulk for a while. In time it would realise the value of Needlepoint.

Needless to say most encounters in a to’pak’s life end very differently to this one but that is the price they pay for being third best. Next week I will introduce you to the Kaa who are almost but not quite as deadly as the Vokh.




Pathfinder:Lost, by Hudson MacHeath, an excerpt

This is going to be a long post so I’ll be brief with my introduction.  Some time ago I wrote a post about a talented young science fiction writer who had put his work in to be critiqued. That author was Hudson MacHeath and since then I have had the enormous pleasure of being allowed to read the first two books Mac has written. They have not been published anywhere because apparently science fiction doesn’t sell at the moment. So this is an excerpt from a manuscript that might win a Hugo* if it were ever published. My opinion only but once you read this you may think so too.

Pathfinder: Lost, excerpt from Chapter 2 :  [editing convention : underlining denotes italics]

The Pathfinder came across the expanse of the Great Hall of the Autumn Palace like a ship long lost at sea finding its port at last: too weary for jubilation, and grateful simply to return at all. A brace of armored Batyr escorted him, skating the air on maglev boots while he walked with quiet steps.The Hall was otherwise empty but for the beacon of light illuminating the Diamond Throne and the Majestrix awaiting him in it, a shadowed figure behind her.

It had not been empty long, though. The Pathfinder swept the air with his cloak and tasted the spent breath and sweat and residues of a thousand people, at least, still lingering in the air. Some of the chemical moieties he recognized from his travels: sage-smoke from Tres Estaciones, mandarine from Qingming, a whiff of Hesperus’ hydrocarbon atmosphere. These were mixed in with the scents of khat and spilled koumiss and the ozone of the airscrubbers, but his cloak sorted them out with ease. The Hall was largely silent when he tuned the skin of his cloak into an array microtympana, and he didn’t care to listen to his own footsteps–he’d heard their lonely rhythm far too many times in his life–but when he lensed his cloak into a broad-spectrum sweep, he noticed a hundred x-ray lasers set in the ceiling all staring at his heart like so many hateful eyes.

The Pathfinder kept up his steady pace and smiled. How like a Khataan Queen, he thought, to dismiss the whole of the Qurltai of the Forty-four Found Worlds just to grant me an audience…and then to track me with so many guns, when just one would do the trick.

But then again, what I’ve got in my pocket gives her good reason to be terrified beyond words or reason.

I wonder if she’ll kill me for bringing it? Or once I’ve delivered it, just to keep its secret safe?

She might. She very well might.

And the Pathfinder was surprised to feel a warm drop crawl down his cheek, and then another on the other. He let them fall.

Foolish old man, he told himself, to grow so maudlin here at the end of a life’s quest! It’s been a century and a half since this Queen’s Grandmother sent us searching for her lost secret. Even if I die here in this hall in a matter of minutes, I’ve done amazing things, astonishing things! I’ve seen things that no soul alive can dream of. I’ve gone places only I know exist. If I were going to run away and abandon this Concordat, I’d have done it long ago. And Pathfinders don’t run. We find the lost, and we bring it home.

I’m at peace with my life, even if I’m at the end of it.

The tears dried. He walked on to the throne.

“Majestrix,” he said, stopping and bowing at a respectful distance when he’d crossed the final few meters.

The word echoed in all that empty space.

Majestrix Yesugeï Kököchü Bortei Khaan, Ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven and its Forty-four Found Worlds, nodded. The honor guard of Batyr turned as one and skated back they way they’d come. Hideo watched the play of tightbeam radio comms between her skull and theirs. Her head’s full of machines, he thought. In the infra-red, he could see waste heat radiating from the Queen’s brain. It gave her a blood halo. And the cranium of the woman standing behind the throne was positively incandescent; she had more silicon than carbon stuffed inside her skull.

The Batyr reached the far doors to the Great Hall and were gone.

“Librarian,” the Majestrix replied, breaking the silence. “Welcome. Or shall I call you Pathfinder?”

“Either, as you wish, Majestrix. I am both. But I was Hideo Mori before I was anything else.” He smiled faintly. “Although at times it is hard to remember that. I have been doing my duty to the Library for so long…it is hard to recall who I was. Or might have been.”

The Majestrix didn’t quite understand what he’d said, but she knew exactly what he meant. “We are not our titles, even if they define our lives. Hideo, please. Rise. And this,” she said, gesturing to the elegant and ancient woman standing half-shadowed by her throne, “is my Oracle.”

Hideo nodded to them both. “You have your grandmother’s eyes, Yesugeï. Pale gold. Wolf’s eyes. They see more than they show. And they know more than they see, I suspect.”

“What a strange and kind thing to say, Hideo! Do you know that of all the men and women in the Qurltai and the Conquest, not a one stands before me as honestly as you do now?”

He shrugged. “I’ve nothing to hide from you, Majestrix. I want nothing from you. I doubt any of them can say the same.”

“Ah, Pathfinder Hideo–you are a rare soul indeed!” She almost laughed but the mirth faded before it left her lips. “Do you have…what my Grandmother sent you for, Pathfinder Hideo Mori? Or is your silence failure’s bashful wrapping on an empty box?”

“Oh, I have it, Majestrix. Although there were times, and many of them, when I’ve wanted to throw the thing so far it might never be found again. Do you want it now?”

The Majestrix stiffened and pressed golden-nailed fingertips against her lips, as if she could push her question back and keep it locked there so that Hideo’s answer might never be given. But she had asked and now he had answered and she did not bother to hide the look of doubt and fear that stole across her face.

She could not bring herself to say ‘yes.’

“Let me see it,” she said instead. Hideo conjured a crystal datadrop from his cloak, holding it at eye-level between thumb and index finger. This ‘drop looked like any other ‘drop, a tear-shaped synthetic diamond catching the light like a chandelier’s dangle, gaudy and ostentatious. But no other ‘drop ever cast held secrets as precious–or as dangerous–as this one. Both Pathfinder and Queen knew it, both too well.

“I suppose that I should take it,” she said at length but made no move to do so.

“That,” said Hideo, still holding the crystal, “is entirely up to you. My job is done; I’ve brought this to you. That’s all the Concordat calls for. Your Grandmother paid the Library in full long ago.”

“Yes. With the schematics to construct our own transluminary drive.” The Oracle, whose own personality had been largely supplanted by the cold and analytic machines woven through her brain, still managed to choke and gasp at the shock of this news. The translume drive was the warhorse that the Queens of Steppe had ridden in the forging of their empire. Its secret was the source of their power and its reach was the might that held the Kingdom of Heaven together.

Hideo Mori simply nodded.

[Majestrix!] the Oracle ‘streamed across their shared dataline. The words sounded in the Majestrix’s skull, shared between them alone. [Is this true?]

[I’ve long suspected that it is. Now I know.]

“Your Oracle didn’t know of the payment, then?” Hideo asked.

And both Oracle and Majestrix stared at him, shocked. “How,” the Queen asked slowly and deliberately, “did you know we were talking?”

“I am a Pathfinder, Majestrix. My senses…are acute.”

“Enough to hear tightband radio transmissions?”

“That. And more. I lack the neural hardware to decode them, Majestrix, so I have intruded upon no secrets of yours. I guessed at the content of the Oracle’s message by noting the micromuscular movements in her face and hands betraying agitation or surprise. There’s a little of her left in there, amidst all that machinery…but I am not here to tell you what you already know. I am here to deliver the crystal your Grandmother sent me for and all its secrets. Once more, Majestrix: here it is.” He held it out again. “Will you take it?”

“Would you take it, if you were I?”

The start of a grim smile tugged at Hideo’s mouth. He killed it out of politeness and gently shook his head. “Pathfinders find, retrieve and retrace, Majestrix. We act, duty-bound. We are allowed no choices. Your question begs a judgment I’m both ill equipped and entirely unwilling to make. I am not you, and to be honest, I’m sweetly thankful for that. Take the ‘drop, and let me go, or let me go and cancel the Concordat and I will take this stone with me and you’ll need never trouble yourself with it again.”

“Fine! Yes, then! Bring it to me,” the Majestrix said simply. Her voice was dry when she spoke.

With exaggerated slowness so that nothing he did might be misconstrued as an attack, Hideo stepped onto the throne’s pedestal and put the crystal into the Majestrix’s hand with the utmost care.

When he stepped down again, he seemed lighter while Yesugeï felt the weight of understanding settle down upon her, pinning her to the spot. She closed her fingers around the stone and stared at her fist. A shiver passed through her, something akin to ecstasy, terror, or both.  She did not know what answers the crystal held, but she knew the mystery it solved.

She had to know.

And she knew, just as certainly, that this would be a secret she would take to her grave. Wars had been waged for less. Worlds had burned. The truth that the crystal held could unmake her Empire. “Tell me, Pathfinder,” she demanded, her voice low and deadly, “who knows what is writ in my crystal? Who? Tell me this, and tell me truthfully.” And please, honest, brave Pathfinder Hideo, she thought, don’t tell me that you read it. Because I will kill you if you have, and although I will never forgive myself, I will do it without an instant’s hesitation.

And Hideo, somehow, knew this too.

“Majestrix?” he began, “first, know that I never read the data contained in that damned crystal, not once. Not once! I obeyed the law of the Library and my duty to the Concordat: I sought for, found and returned that crystal, but I did not steal the nature of its contents for myself, for my Guild or for anybody. That datadrop is inviolate, Majestrix. I ascertained its authenticity by analyzing the photon-tunneling used to encode it and yes, I saw the holoform that proves its authorship, but nothing, nothing more than that!”

“Then who else, then, Pathfinder? Who else knows?” She was very nearly shouting, the demand repeated a dozen times in echo.

“Majestrix, not a living soul. The rest of my team is dead. You and I and your Oracle are the only souls left alive who know that this datadrop exists at all. The contents have not been accessed in well over two thousand Years. See for yourself, Majestrix! Look into your crystal. The truth of what I say is written in its register.”

“Registers can be rewritten.”

Hideo shook his head. “Not without leaving a trace of the old electron spin-clock, Majestrix. Forgers could fool most folks, but not a Pathfinder, and not your technicians, surely. They will confirm that what I say is the truth! I probed its age and its nature but not its contents or its records.”

“You would not lie to me, would you, Pathfinder?” she asked, testing him. “I could open you up and spill you out to know the truth, if I cared to.”

“Majestrix, I have learned that, at times, to stand open and exposed is far safer than to remain armored and hidden. You have brought me into your sanctum, alone, without your guards and generals and courtiers. I offer you that same respect, Majestrix, with my honesty. Your grandmother paid for it; I am bound by promise, and more, not to withhold it. There are secrets in that crystal,” Hideo said, pointing at the Majestrix’s hand with a finger that trembled despite his will, “that could unmake all our lives. We both know this, even though you do not know what they are yet and I will never know. No, I would not lie to you. I know what question that crystal answers but I do not know the answer itself.

[He is not lying, Majestrix,] ‘streamed the Oracle, who, in the absence of her own emotional responses, was exquisitely sensitive to the emotions of others. The Queen didn’t need her confirmation. She already knew that Hideo Mori was not lying to her. She’d seen a lifetime’s worth of liars and schemers during her time on the throne. Hideo had a dignity in his honesty that she understood and respected.

“Where did you find it?” she asked, staring at the crystal, turning it in her fingers.

“Farther away than I care to recall, Majestrix. Before you ask further, your Grandmother made it explicit that its location, and the route taken to find it, were not to be revealed. She understood the value of secrecy in this matter.”

“As do I,” the Majestrix said quickly, “but just tell me–”

Hideo shook his head. “I did not find lost Earth, if that is your question, Majestrix. No, not at all. The location of humanity’s home still remains a perfect mystery. More than that, I cannot say.”

Majestrix Yesugeï nodded, then closed the crystal in her fist and held it tight. She looked directly at Hideo again. “Good Pathfinder Mori. You have done me and your Library the greatest of honors. You are a great man, to have completed this Concordat. I am in your debt.” She stood and bowed to him; it was the first time in her life she’d done so to any soul. “May I offer you food, drink, a place to sleep?”

“Majestrix…if you plan to kill me to keep the secret of your secret safe, I’d prefer that it come quickly. I appreciate your kindness, but I’ve no need for the lie.”

“I’m not going to kill you, Pathfinder. Although I should, with all regret and shame to my name. I surely should. Wouldn’t you, in my place?”

“Yes. I might.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “Another honest answer. Good. I trust you, Pathfinder. You are not that different from me, I think. We are both bound to duty, aren’t we? No matter what the cost…your service is not something I will forget. Good Pathfinder, you are free to go. Your Concordat is complete.”

Hideo smiled. “Majestrix, I thank you. It was the journey of a lifetime.” He turned to leave.

“But Pathfinder Mori–wait!” He turned back. “How did you cut your way through the palace security so easily? Is it…true, what is whispered about you?”

“Do you mean–this?” Hideo asked. And his cloak moved, then; it shivered and crawled up over his face and sealed itself over his shirtfront and slid down his legs. For less than a heartbeat, he became a blob, protean before resolving into a person once more…but not the person he’d been. Now his hair was golden and curling, his eyes the eyes of a wolf, his clothes silken and regal and his face, hers. Then he became the Oracle; a Palace guard, a third cousin of the Queen, a Conquest courier, a cleaning automaton and finally himself again. “I have been so many people over the long course of this Concordat, Majestrix, that I look forward to being just Hideo once more, and until the end of my days. That is my greatest reward: to know that, no matter what else I have achieved, when I die I will have been true to my duty and my Library…but more than that, to myself.”

He bowed, smiled and left.

* There are two prestigious science fiction awards – the Hugo and the Nebula. For a science fiction writer, winning either would be like winning a Nobel prize.

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