I’m two-thirds of the way through beating A Cat at Bay into a semblance of cohesion, with two-thirds to go. It’s a bit like building your own airplane, in that when you have 90% of it done—structure assembled, controls rigged, engine mounted—you have 90% of the time-consuming, fiddly, frustrating, “I-spent-eight-hours-in-the-shop-with-nothing-but-a-window-and-the-canopy-to-show for-it” work left. That’s where I’m at. Because things have changed over the past eight years.I started what will become A Cat At Bay in 2007. Rada and Joschka have changed, I know more about General Evelyn Jones, and my writing style has, I hope, improved. So, in lieu of the post I had scheduled, about nature writing, here’s an excerpt of one of the chapters as originally written. I was experimenting with point-of-view and voice, and I think you can see what some of the problems were. And yes, I tried to play cute with Zabet. She won’t let me do that anymore.
Honor Bound: Part 1
Aboard the S.R.S. India
“And these are currently the most important nobles of the Imperial Court,” Adan Dan, the translator, explained as he called up a series of images and descriptions onto the briefing room screen. The other members of the Sapient Republic’s diplomatic party made notes and compared this most recent information with what they had been studying on the journey to the Azdhag Empire’s capitol world. Of the six nobles listed, five had portraits.
They all look alike Assistant Ambassador Juan Ch’ien thought to himself. All Azdhag had four legs ending in taloned feet with opposable thumbs, tails slightly longer than their hind legs, scales and leathery hides in some variation of green, grey or brown. Their heads resembled those of the mythical Asian dragons in Terran art, minus the whiskers and external ears, and with less prominent yellow, grey-silver or bronze slit-pupil eyes. And the males had spikes on their necks that folded in or stood out depending on their owner’s mood. Good thing their robes, fans and other accessories are assigned by rank and family, or I’d be completely lost. An earlier attempt at establishing diplomatic relations had foundered on just such confusion, leading to accusations by the Azdhag of deliberate insult that took almost a year to smooth over. As if they have any right to be so arrogant about their culture, considering their imperialism and archaic behavior, especially concerning females.
Vice-Admiral Vladimir Kundera scratched his head. “Do you have anything on that sixth noble, the one called ‘Lord Iron Fan’ who’s supposed to be in charge of the defense forces? Or is that part of a military title?”
Dan shook his head. “Nothing new Admiral. I’m tempted to believe that the name has become part of the Lord Defender’s title, because it’s been in the records so long. Three or four hundred of their years, give or take. Although the Lord Defender is technically only responsible for the home world, he does have a seat on the Imperial Council as well as on the Royal Council, so that’s why I included him. There are also rumors that he has some informal influence with the King-Emperor, although I wouldn’t put much faith in that story.”
“It probably came from the same source that claimed a human served in the palace, or was held hostage in the palace,” Ambassador Charles Bolton chuckled. “I heard both of those, and never found any source to corroborate them. Thank you Mr. Dan. I suppose we are as ready as we will ever be.” He smiled at the rest of the diplomatic staff. “Any final questions?”
Ch’ien raised a hand, and pointed to one of the full-body portraits. “Just to satisfy my curiosity, Adan, what is that creamy-white thing they wear in their belts or sashes? I’ve noticed that most of the nobles and one or two of the soldiers seem to have one in the pictures.”
The translator and cultural expert enlarged the image, allowing the diplomats to see the intricate carvings on the cylinder. “That is the hilt of a bahn’leh, or ‘honor knife.’ It is given by the King-Emperor or Crown Prince to an individual, and it has something to do with maintaining or repairing one’s honor. I don’t know more than that, other than that they are very rarely seen among Azdhag away from the home world. Some scholars have theorized that it represents the remains of some sort of archaic practice, like dueling on Earth, that has long since died out. On a related topic, remember never ask to look at someone’s weapon, be it a blaster or a decorative blade. Apparently that was considered a challenge and insult in the past and is still impolite,” he concluded, leaving the assistant ambassador shaking his head.
“Well, then, gentlemen, I suggest that we adjourn for the evening. Tomorrow is going to be the start of an interesting experience, and I suggest we all rest up for it,” Ambassador Bolton announced as he stood up. The others followed suit.
Imperial Palace, Drakon IV
“You may rise, Lord Reh-dakh,” King-Emperor Huan-di announced, waving an elaborately gloved forefoot towards the kneeling noble. “Come, walk with Us in the winter garden.”
“Thank you, Imperial Majesty,” the warrior said, rising from a semi crouch in the snow and following two paces behind His Majesty’s shoulder as they passed slowly through the boulders, evergreens and ice sculptures of the emperor’s private garden. Although very curious as to why His Majesty preferred the garden’s bitter chill to the warmth of his personal reception rooms, Lord Reh-dakh remained mute, content to wait on His Majesty’s pleasure. Walking through a beautiful garden was, after all, a vast improvement over fighting battles during Drakon IV’s winter! Lord Reh-dakh silently admired the contrast and balance of white snow, black water, dark grey stones and the varied evergreens. At the foot of a large ‘Tear-of-Heaven’ tree His Majesty paused, then gestured. “Come face us, Reh-dakh.”
The Lord Defender did as ordered. “You are prepared for the arrival of the Sapient Republic delegation on the morrow?” the Emperor inquired, his breath making puffs of steam as he spoke.
“As well as can be, Imperial Majesty. I had planed to escort their vessel myself once it came within Shibo’s orbit, although I’d leave them before they land. Your forces have been briefed and I am given to understand that there will only be three military personnel in or with the delegation, as Your Imperial Majesty specified. None of those three are Special Forces. I took the liberty of vetting them as soon as the composition of the delegation was made known,” the Lord Defender outlined.
The medium-sized Azdhag considered what his head of planetary defense had just said, then nodded. “Very well. What about you, Lord Reh-dakh? Are you ready? We do not want you compromised.”
The warrior bowed slightly, acknowledging the King-Emperor’s concern. “I understand, Imperial Majesty. I am ready. The humans will, no doubt, underestimate me and misunderstand me, but that is the lot of translators,” and the noble ventured a smile. “I stand to my word, Imperial Majesty.”
Satisfied, the emperor sat back on his hind legs. “Kneel,” he ordered, and reached into his elaborate robes as the Lord Defender sank into the snow. “It has come to our attention that despite your long service, you lack this,” and he withdrew a leather-wrapped bundle, which he held out to the warrior. The noble bowed lower and unfastened the coverings, eye opening wide when the contents were revealed. The King Emperor smiled slightly. “You have shown that you need no assistance to defend the Empire’s honor. Now We give you the means to defend your own, Lord Reh-dakh. And We hope that you are never called upon to use it!”
The noble turned the bone-hilted knife in gloved claws before carefully sliding it into position in the warrior’s modified sword belt. “Thank you, Imperial Majesty! I never hoped for such a gift.”
“And it is for that reason We grant it to you, Reh-dakh. Rise.”
The noble’s thoughts swirled like blowing snow as the Emperor led the way along the garden paths back to where they had entered. Huan-di paused at the simple gir-dakh or iron gate leading back to the palace entrance. “You understand the bahn’leh. We presume the humans do not?”
The Lord Defender sighed. “No, Imperial Majesty, most of them no longer do. They believe that they have ‘outgrown the need for archaic concepts’ such as honor and sacred vows; to their loss, I fear.”
The emperor’s grey and green striped head swiveled over his shoulder. “Are those your words, or those of a human, Reh-dakh?”
“They belong to a human, Majesty. One of their scholar-politicians.”
The emperor snorted steam from his nostrils and shook his head. “Foolishness indeed. You may leave Us. We wish to enjoy the silence of the garden.” Lord Reh-dakh bowed very deeply, then backed ten paces before turning and walking quickly towards the palace armory.
Juan Ch’ien fastened the safety straps as tightly as he could in preparation for atmospheric entry. Their pilots had told the diplomats that their arrival should be smooth, but Ch’ien’s most recent experience with interstellar travel had not been pleasant, to put it mildly, and he braced for the worst. It didn’t help that he’d been reading about the summer monsoon-style storms that Drakon IV’s southern regions were infamous for and which featured in a fair amount of Azdhagi folklore. Ch’ien leaned back into his seat, trying to stay relaxed and calm and having minimal success. He felt the urge to loosen his tunic collar, but that would be undignified.
Ambassador Bolton took the combined seat/atmospheric escape vehicle beside Ch’ien and smiled. “The Azdhagi are paying us a great compliment, Juan. Have the pilots told you about our escort?”
“Ah, no Ambassador. Who will be meeting us at the landing platform?”
“Before that. The Lord-Defender himself is meeting the India once we pass within the orbit of Drakon’s inner moon. He will lead us in to Drakon IV’s atmosphere,” Bolton said, obviously very pleased with the development. “In fact, the pilots have offered to, ah! There’s his ship, on the screen!”
For a trans-atmospheric vessel, the Lord-Defender’s personal ship had a very strange appearance, Ch’ien thought. Although, as he considered it later, it matched the other out-of-date practices of the Azdhagi Empire. The vessel made no sense to him, but Admiral Kundera whistled.
“Oh, that’s rich! The Lord-Defender must be quite a pilot to handle that airframe. And a military history specialist of some sort, as well. Ambassador, do you recognize the overall shape?” the naval man inquired.
Obviously looking for a chance to show off his knowledge, Ch’ien sniffed.
“It’s from the Ideology Wars, I can tell that much. But otherwise no, Admiral,” the Ambassador replied.
“It’s derived from the AV-8 Harrier fighter. They were the first combat-ready fighters to have vertical take off and landing capability and were notorious for being hard to fly and unstable. I wager that the pod under the belly houses a deployable re-entry shield for the underside and wings. Strange choice for a personal ship, I must say,” the officer added, shaking his head.
The mini-lecture did nothing for Ch’ien’s opinion of the ship’s owner. Why borrow outdated Terran technology when the Azdhagi had their own very good interstellar designs? One of the goals of this mission was to negotiate for access to Azdhag warp-engine designs and specifications. Their engines were nearly impossible to detect, unlike those of Sapient Republic vessels, and the S.R. Navy dearly wanted to get their hands on the propulsion systems. The first rumbles of re-entry vibrated through the India’s hull and Ch’ien closed his eyes, all speculation about their escort abruptly terminated.
Despite his fears, the arrival and landing were as smooth as such things could be. The party unstrapped, adjusted their clothes and gathered around the thick-set, red-headed ambassador. “Everyone ready? Good. Let’s go make history, gentlemen.” The Pellasian crewmembers opened the airlock and outer hatch, then stepped aside to allow the humans to exit first. Assistant Ambassador Ch’ien took a deep breath of the stale-but-familiar ship’s air, and stepped outside.
It’s cold! As a wave of bitter chill washed over him, Ch’ien belatedly remembered that the Adzhag eschewed climate modification, even for their urban areas. A small group of Azdhagi, all wearing brightly colored and patterned winter gowns, stood waiting at the foot of a shallow ramp. Ambassador Bolton and Adan Dan walked to the end of the metal ramp and onto the black pavement of the palace-complex’s private spaceport. Ch’ien could see the tan stone bulk of the palace buildings ahead of him and shivered at the blanket of snow.
A large, green-brown Adzhag in a cobalt-blue robe advanced several paces ahead of the “reception committee,” and bowed to the human delegation. The Ambassador and Dan did likewise, Dan bending lower than Bolton. The Adzhag straightened up and spoke, breath puffing in the cold as he recited a series of clipped and sibilant phrases. “Imperial Vizier Shu offers you welcome and asks you to accept what poor hospitality the royal household can provide,” Adan Dan translated.
“My great thanks for the most generous greeting, Great Vizier, but we are too lowly to accept such a magnificent gift,” the ambassador replied.
Following more back and forth polite protestations and declarations, the Vizier gestured with a taloned ‘hand’ towards the palace. “No, please, I insist. Night will be here, and no traveler should face the Dark Lady’s veil at this time of year. Come,” and he turned, as the other Azdhagi spread out to form a double-line. This, apparently, was the sign Ambassador Bolton and Mr. Dan had been waiting for, and they strode off behind the Vizier, beaconing the other members of the party to follow. The group followed their host and the ambassador into the palace under the careful eyes of the minor nobles attending the vizier, and the palace guards.
Lord Defender’s Quarters
Lord Reh-dakh carefully placed the antique flight helmet on its stand, then tossed gloves, throat-wrap and jacket towards a servant, who caught them with practiced ease. The warrior smiled broadly, still relishing the song of fat winter air over the fighter’s wings. As soon as they saw the base model of Reh-dakh’s commission, the engineers and master craftsmen had warned, “we can build it, but it’s going to be a vikadt to fly.” Night’s Claw was as temperamental and unstable as they had predicted, and Reh-dakh savored almost every one of the precious few stolen minutes in the air. After breaking off the escort, the pilot had been unable to resist climbing Night’s Claw up a few thousand meters and running through rolls, tumbles and other sky-dance steps. They had been rusty but safe and the Lord-Defender felt ‘cleaner’ for having indulged. Palace Control had not said anything about the impromptu practice session, suggesting that the supervisor had been expecting something of the sort. The noble snorted a laugh while shedding another layer and striding across the public portion of the Lord-Defender’s quarters.
Two body-servants helped the warrior out of the pressure suit and into a heavy lounging robe, while a general palace servant finished arranging the evening meal. “Thank you. You are dismissed. If I need anything further, my orderly will attend to me,” Reh-dakh said, smiling. The trio bowed low and saw themselves out, no doubt anxious to go catch up on the latest gossip about the newcomers. Given the long days and nights of official events coming up, the noble saw no reason to keep the servitors longer than necessary. They would be working harder than anyone else. The spicy perfume of the main course tickled the pilot’s nose, summoning an even larger smile. A real treat! Double-cooked gantak, spiced with ground lii nuts and served over ‘invisible’ noodles was one of the noble’s favorites and a dish only served in winter. Reh-dakh settled ungracefully at the low table and savored the meal.
Act one in the play had concluded successfully, the Lord-Defender thought. Now for the hardest part. Tomorrow would be the first time Reh-dakh met the humans, and vice versa, and the warrior wondered what would happen. A number of things, quite possibly. The humans might take the Lord-Defender at face value and go on as if nothing were unusual. Or they might make some assumptions that could cause a near disaster, at least as far as diplomacy were concerned. The noble sipped the last of the tea and decided not to worry about it.
Lord Reh-dakh retreated to the private section of the suite. The rooms flowed one into another in this part of the palace, making it nearly impossible to defend but equally difficult to hide things or groups of people in. Since protocol forbade assassination ambushes in a noble’s inner sanctum, Reh-dakh could relax. Not that anyone was currently calling an active feud with the Lord-Defender, but one never knew. As much as the warrior would have preferred to spend the night sitting in the window seat in the public room/office, watching the stars and basking in shadow, for once sleep was more important than contemplation. Both time and strenuous living were taking their toll, the noble ruefully acknowledged while selecting a book of poetry to read before falling asleep. Reh-dakh sipped a bit of water and began reciting quietly. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments. Love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove.”
A barely-audible scrape of claws on wood and the faint hint of cinnabar and clove warned the reader that someone had slipped in through the passage behind the wall. “To what do I own the pleasure of your company tonight?” Lord Reh-dakh inquired of the sliver-scaled figure settling down on the edge of the sleeping platform.
I happened to be in the area and I heard you reading, a warm voice answered directly into the warrior’s mind. Unless you don’t want company? The reader answered by caressing the visitor’s chin and scratching underneath her jaw. Ahhhhh, you can do that until sunrise, she sighed, stretching out on the thick mattress, sapphire eyes closed in pleasure. Interesting choice of sonnets, by the way.
Reh-dakh nodded in the darkness. “Yes, given the situation, Sonnet 121 or perhaps 25 would be more appropriate, but they require too much thought. Shall I give you your sonnet, oh silver dancer?”
Yes, please. And then to sleep. For both of us.
The noble turned pages until the desired poem appeared. “When in the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past . . .” The visitor’s throat hummed with contentment; a slight vibration that continued after Reh-dakh closed the ancient book and they both drifted to sleep.
(C) 2015 Alma T.C. Boykin. All Rights Reserved.