Golsom waited. He had been waiting for five hundred years. Waiting and hating. The man would be dead by now, but his descendants would still be alive.
Alive. The one thing he was not. He watched without eyes as the man kneeling before him raised the object that meant his time of waiting was nearly over. He smiled without a mouth and felt a stab of joy into a heart that was no heart. Yes. Yes it was nearly over.
Donryc Vikellan knocked at the door of his Father's study, and was called to enter. He straightened his collar and pushed open the door. His Father was seated behind his desk, rich mahogany from across the seas, simply made in the way really expensive things are. There was an electric light on the table, and the most expensive version of his Father's famous invention, the transmitting phonograph, or radio. Tamerai Vikellan was the arch chancellor and professor of sciences at St Opal's University, the largest in the city. His study was on the ground floor and the glassed window was wide open, letting in the noises of children yelling, an automobile rattling past, and a street vendor hawking wares. The ageing man behind the desk smiled at his son, and rose to come around and stand before him. He was slightly shorter and much wirier than Donryc, but he had the same dark brooding eyes and dark hair, albeit flecked with grey.
"Don, I won't stamp around the scrub. I've asked you to come for. a very important reason."
"I had guessed, Father." His father rarely summoned him to his study during the day.
"Well." The older man sighed and moved back to his desk, picking up a letter. "This is from Owen Akkendri. Do you remember who he is?"
"Yes, Father." At a prompting look, he expanded. It reminded him for a second of lessons when he'd been a teenager. "He's an old friend of yours, who's chief of one of the mountain tribes."
"Mmm." His Father propped himself on the desk, toying with the letter between his hands. He seemed as though he was not exactly ill at ease but somehow tense. Apologetic, even. Donryc bit his lip.
"You recall when his wife came to visit me?"
"Yes, Father." A touchy subject. She'd been almost a savage, though Donryc did believe all that his father said about use of that word, about how the mountain tribes were anything but savages. It was just difficult meeting a woman so different. And what she'd done, even if she did call it revenge, was murder. Yet his father had always held that she had had a case. She'd been trying to retrieve something one of her daughters had lost in a game of chance, claiming it was never the daughter's possession to gamble, but hers. That hadn't been why she'd killed the man, but apparently in her culture if a man waved a knife at you as a threat it meant a declaration of battle and you could fight till death or surrender without recrimination. Perhaps at surprise at being attacked by a woman, especially one in trousers, the man hadn't surrendered. Marlene Akkendri had been hung.
"Well, did Jacque or I ever tell you what Owen Akkendri has done since?"
"No. As if Jacque would." They shared a smile. Jacque Vikellan was, at thirty calendars, both the youngest Prime Minister in records and almost a decade older than his half brother Donryc. They got on well enough, but Jacque was a serious politician and was assured that his brother was just a confused adolescent not worth talking to about important matters. Donryc was just as serious minded himself, but was utterly bored and utterly confused by politics, so this suited him well enough.
"I suppose not. Well, Owen has. refused to accede to Empire rule."
"What?" His father sighed and looked out of the window.
"Sometimes, Donryc, I think we forget. We live in the heart of the city and civilisation, and you have never known anything different. Out in the mountains, skirmishes still happen. Out there, there are fortresses and patrols and our men with guns and cannons and little documents from Jacque and his cabinet are still ruling the tribes there. But most of them have bent under us by now. They should be used to it. They're accepting our way of life and our way of thinking. An entire culture is being lost, Donryc, do you understand? Owen's is the last tribe to really separate themselves and live their lives as they always have, and bend their pride just enough to pay us tribute and tolerate the tax inspectors. And now the man's wife has been murdered, for breaking no law!"
"She broke our laws, Father," Donryc said. His Father shook his head.
"That is true, but she did not know she was."
"She killed a man!"
"Among her people, he would have been doing his best to kill her. But whatever view you take, Don, Owen saw it as the last blow against his people by our culture. He's an angry man. Perhaps his Grandfather could remember when their tribe fought back and stood their ground. It was not so many years ago. And. he did. And do you realise that with their barbaric customs of female warriors, with their spears and arrows and swords, they were succeeding. His daughters have become something of a curse-word out there, so I hear. It was working for him. He was fighting back against the oppressing, self-important, arrogant Empire that has been doing his people wrong for years with their might." Donryc frowned. He could almost agree that it was a good thing for Owen Akkendri's people. But he knew very few others would.
His Father was not, in fact, from the Plains by heritage. He came from a country far across the seas, known as Yammaii, which Donryc had visited perhaps five years ago, at the age of about sixteen. It was a confused impression of a language, a culture, a state of mind that he couldn't understand, but it was a beautiful country. A place where they lay on cushions and ate with slim lengths of wood; where they worshipped strange and demanding Gods; where they fought in the most beautiful ways, almost like a dance, using great curved swords or just their hands and feet. His Great-grandfather had brought his family over to the Krel Plains in search of a fortune, when his father was a young man nearly twenty. So Tamerai's views were not like his adopted countrymen. He said he liked this place, and never thought of going back for good. But he had many thoughts and ideas that others took for granted to be rubbish. And yet, he was famous through the city as a brilliant man.
"Don? Are you following me?"
"I'm sorry Father. I was just. thinking of how only you could side with the tribesmen." The apologetic expression came back onto his father's face.
"What I am speaking about was months ago, Don. And Owen Akkendri has succeeded in really annoying the Empire. And if the tribes would still rally to a call and fight with him, he could go on, but once we bring our whole might down on him he hasn't a hope. We have hundreds and hundreds of times his army, and we carry dynamite and he has nowhere to run. He regrets what he did, for the sake of his tribe and people. I communicated with him a while ago. We agreed that there was one way to settle this. peacefully. A marriage."
"Wait, Don, let me explain, please! Please. If he was related by marriage to our own Prime Minister they could not crush his tribe. And it would allow him great insight into our customs. The chance to really defend himself in the future. Though I hope the future could somehow contain peace without crushing his tribe. Jacque knows little of this, it is up to his generals and landholders, but when I explained he agreed it could work. In his own way, he respects their culture also."
Donryc was barely listening.
His sister Anya had inherited his Father's brilliance. That no one could deny. But she had also inherited from Gods-knew-where and ability to wreak a room in five minutes through sheer enthusiasm about one object in it. She combined a cheery, day dreamy naivety with a sharpness of mind and clear attachment to reality that was at times almost breathtaking- without any apparent effect on either of them. To Donryc, Jacque did mean a lot. His Father he had always as good as worshipped. His Mother he loved. But he was fond of Anya in a different way. A long-suffering way maybe, but a very strong way. Though she knew far more about the real world than he did, even he had to admit. She was sharply sarcastic every time he tried to act protective, and was just as protective over him. She proved again and again her worldly knowledge and street wisdom. The trouble was that she didn't always use it if a large green beetle was particularly interesting.
"Donryc? Don't look like that; I need you to at least-"
"I don't think its fair, Father!" Donryc managed. "You can't do that to Anya, she's her own person. She." But he stopped at the look on his father's face. "What is it?"
"You've misunderstood me, Donryc. I know it is traditional to marry away a daughter, but Owen has only daughters himself. Two. He says he will ask the elder to chose, and if she refuses then the younger. will wed you." Donryc blinked.
Half an hour later, he was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling. His father had told him to think about it, and he was thinking, and what he was thinking was No.
But he had always done what he was told. Always believed in duty. His father was asking him to take up a duty. Somehow that made it a lot harder to refuse than an order. He knew, horribly, that he'd do it, for duty and honour's sake. And then. he couldn't even guess where it would take him.
Someone knocked at the door. He grunted for them to enter but wasn't really in the room. Someone saw it was his Mother, but it didn't feel like him. She stared at him for a second, then to his amazement grabbed her bosom in both hands and lifted it.
"Does this tell you anything, son?"
"Mother!" He sat bolt upright, going bright red.
"It tells you, or it should, that I'm a woman, so when I enter the room, boyo, you get up off your fat backside." He shot to his feet, still blushing furiously. She grinned at him.
"I'll let you off this time, hmm?" Then her cheery face softened, and she came over to him. "Get down here and give your Mum a hug, if you can still remember the way." It was a stoop for him, had been for years. Donryc was six foot three and built of solid muscle, and his mother was small and lithe, sprightly for her years. Straw coloured hair that was greying was twisted up behind her head, eyes that were bright green always had a smile crinkling the corners. As mother and child they couldn't have looked less similar if nature had been trying. Her face was heart-shaped and naturally cheerful, his square-jawed, thin lipped and serious.
"What am I going to do?" he murmured, letting her go and sighing.
"Oh, don't go all dramatic now, will you? I'm sure one of them at least is a pretty girl. It's not so important, you know. Your father's first marriage was arranged."
"Was it?" It was the first he'd heard of it. But where his father originally came from, arranged marriages were apparently very common, so his grandfather would have liked the idea.
"Yes, it was, and they were very happy and he was a broken man when she died. So don't get any silly ideas about living forever unhappy. In fact, don't get any silly ideas at all. Buy yourself a new suit, get a haircut and for goodness' sake smile, you great lump. At this rate, you'll be lucky if either of them fancies you enough to have you." Donryc frowned at the wall.
"It'd be very selfish of me not to at least visit them, as father wants."
"Oh, the boy talks sense after all! Look at it this way, you've always been far too much of a wuss to have a girl back here to say goodbye to." Donryc winced. That was one of his Mother's favourite subjects.
After she'd gone, he stood in his room, frowning at the walls.
He was twenty one years old, and letting himself be shipped off like a child. That wasn't fair; his Father had asked him for a very good reason. But still.
He walked very slowly over to the window wall, gently rubbed a smooth place just by the window, then raised his arm and rubbed his shoulder muscles meditatively.
Then he hit the wall as hard as he could, pushing himself backward on the end of his arm and probably adding a microscopic touch to the dent in the wall that was already there.
He turned to his packing, the feeling of unreality returning, but assuaged slightly by stinging knuckles.
It was noon next day when he stood on the platform, the train breathing steam alongside like an impatient dragon or an old scholar puffing poppy heads. There were two long train journeys to be taken, and then another day and a half's travel right into the mountains. Owen Akkendri would be sending a guide. In saying farewell to his friend's, he'd discovered that none of them were as much of a wrench to leave as he'd thought. Even Elisia and Ash, his two oldest friends, suddenly didn't seem as close as he'd thought, in saying goodbye.
Just his Father, Mother and Anya stood here on the platform. Anya was sorry for him but also rather of the opinion that he mustn't get self- pitying. She hadn't said it, but she didn't need to. She hugged him tightly round the neck, nearly as tall as him. She was only a just over a year younger, so they'd never been that different. She was what a kindly person might describe as tall and slender, but that an accurate one would have called sticky thin, and made up entirely of elbows. Despite being the daughter of one of the richest men in the city, she always managed to be wearing a patched and stained skirt and have holes in the arms of her shirt. Yet again she'd forgotten a hat and even to pin her hair up. That would have drawn enough scandalised looks from people who knew her father, but she'd apparently forgotten to brush it too. Tamerai and Sarli never seemed to care how she looked, and Jacque was nervous to comment because he knew full well that she was far more intelligent than he was, and utterly dreaded her ever taking up politics in her long string of nine-day-wonders.
"I'll come out and visit you, alright?" she said, fussing with his collar. He smiled.
"Please, please do. I think I'll need some moral support."
"Right! And don't offend the daughters by being gentlemanly, will you?"
"They've got a society of equality up there, it's great. So you can carry things for people but on no account do anything like tell them to shelter behind you if you get in a fight."
"Am I likely to?"
"Depends on how many women you offend!" she laughed, and squeezed him tightly. His Mother followed suit, and kissed his cheek and told him to lighten up a little. Then she buried her head in his chest and whispered,
"I hope you know how proud you're making me. This is real courage, Don." He kissed the top of her head and hugged her back, but he didn't really believe it. Real courage was standing against an army, not forever doing duty.
His Father just shook his hand and smiled at him, gently. Maybe one day I'll be a fraction of what he is. Donryc thought. But not at this rate. Gods, where am I GOING?
The next thing he really registered was sitting in the train as it gathered speed.