Chapter One: The Tournament
Arjuna surveyed the woman stalking towards her. She was certainly not Boentu, her eyes were a dead give away. Judging by her appearance, she was part Gaian. Gaian’s didn’t even have a warrior class. Well, if this girl was foolish enough to go up against Arjuna after the display she’d just seen, Arjuna certainly didn’t mind giving her a lashing.
“You can’t be serious,” Dennethom cried out. He stalked past his sister towards Renecke and the stranger.
“What is your name?” he asked, his voice brusque.
“Karna,” she replied, staring coolly back at him with her blue eyes.
“Well Karna, I’m afraid that you are not permitted to make a challenge.”
“I disagree,” she replied.
“Quani claims that this used to be accepted practice,” Mehar Renecke added, though he was obviously unhappy about the situation.
“Perhaps,” Dennethom muttered before turning to the royal box to address Quani himself. “But this stranger is not even full Boentu. Look at her clothing! She was raised in the Gaian System and knows nothing of fighting a Boentu warrior. It would be an unfair match.”
Arjuna touched her brother on his back. “I don’t mind fighting her. I can beat her, Denne.”
“But you shouldn’t have to. It would be dishonourable for a Boentu warrior to fight a Gaian like this. One who is untrained in our ways.”
“I can take care of myself,” Karna replied. “I do not need, nor do I desire, your pity. I know what kind of fight I’ve got myself into. Does she?” she asked, nodding her head towards Arjuna.
Arjuna hissed a warning at Karna, her eyes ablaze with anger. Dennethom held his sister back with a hand, just as Lossepharr approached.
“She is half-Boentu. She has followed tradition. She has every right to challenge Arjuna,” Lossepharr said, stopping next to Karna. “What are you afraid of Dennethom? That your little sister will lose against a Gaian and shame you and your family?”
“That wouldn’t happen because I would wipe the floor with her,” Arjuna replied, baring sharp canines at her cousin.
“No?” asked Karna. “I wouldn’t be so sure. I’ve been handling weapons ever since I was out of swaddling cloth.” Her tone was calm, but her claws were extended.
“Enough!” cried Renecke in dismay. “Dennethom is right. This may have been tradition in the past, but she is not Boentu-”
“Neither are you, and you’re our weapons Mehar,” Lossepharr coolly pointed out.
“Nor has she been trained in the ways of the Boentu,” Renecke continued, ignoring Lossepharr. “This challenge will not continue.”
Amidst protests from Karna, Lossepharr and Arjuna, who was now more than ready for a fight, Renecke added, “That is my final decision. This tournament is over!” Without another word, Renecke stalked away to prepare for the celebrations.
Arjuna stayed put, glaring at the half-Gaian, half-Boentu female. Realising that his sister had no intention of leaving the field, Dennethom roughly grabbed her by the elbow turning her towards the tent.
Reluctantly, Arjuna obeyed. Karna continued to coolly watch the brother and sister leave. As they disappeared behind a canvas flap, she turned to Lossepharr. “I appreciate your support.”
“Oh, I am not finished,” Lossepharr replied. “I will teach you the ways of the Boentu and you will have your fight with Arjuna and any of the Chran children you wish to challenge.”
“Why?” she asked, uncertainly.
“I admire your courage. You have the heart of a true Boentu.”
Karna eyed Lossepharr wearily as he held out a hand to her. She studied his face, trying to determine his motivations. A grab for power? Or something more? Unable to tell for sure, she took hold of his hand and allowed Lossepharr to lead her back to the Boentu Palace.
Yasana took a long shaky breath as she waited for Zutival to be seated. “Long before I met Chran,” she began, “my family were living in the Gaian System. It was during the agricultural riots. My family were peacekeepers, helping to protect the goods being transported. I was just a young girl at the time, but I remember how tense it was there. My family were escorting the shipping runs on Agnesha. That’s their main port.” Yasana stared hard at her hands in her lap. “I saw the working conditions on Agnesha. It was appalling. They just wanted better conditions,” she looked up at Zutival, hoping that he didn’t think her the naïve fool that everyone else saw her as. “I and a couple of school friends decided to attend one of the protests. At least, that had been the plan. My friends backed out at the last minute. But I went anyway.”
“I imagine Boentu weren’t very well looked upon there,” Zutival said gently, when he realised that Yasana needed some prompting to continue.
“No. They weren’t. I wanted to show them that not all Boentu agreed with the way the Gaian government were treating their workers. That people like my parents were just doing their job. But I realised when I got there that I was just one tiny voice in this sea of hatred and I knew I had made a mistake by coming. I tried to leave. I did. But then this angry Gaian stopped me. He kept shoving me, telling me that I didn’t belong here. This was Gaian business.” Tears began to flow across Yasana’s downy cheeks. “And then he grabbed me and dragged away and…” She had to stop to take another shaky breath, and wipe at her tears.
“You don’t have to continue,” Zutival gently said.
She shrugged. “I don’t remember much anyway. He was beating me. I remember that much. Then I blacked out. The next thing I knew, I woke up in a Gaian hospital with my parents there. The doctors told me what happened. That someone had…. that it looked like I was carrying.
My parents would have taken me away right then, but we agreed, all of us, that it was best if I stayed long enough to have the child and give it up. I didn’t want it. Some half-breed child that would only serve to remind me of what happened, of my idiocy.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“That’s what they all kept telling me. But I could tell that they thought I should never have gone there.” She wiped away another tear. “I just wanted to put it all behind me. It was the first time I was carrying, and instead of feeling connected with my offspring I felt… like I was carrying this thing, this reminder of what happened. Of what I don’t even remember happening. I didn’t even bother finding out the sex of it. It wasn’t until I actually gave birth… that I found out it was a girl.” She looked up at Zutival, finally able to gaze into his slitted eyes. “That was the only time, the only moment when I wondered if I was doing the right thing. And then I handed her off, and went home. I made myself forget. And I have never told anyone this story, not since I left the Gaian System. I never even told Chran because I was always afraid of what he would think of me.”
She stopped. Zutival wasn’t sure if she was finished or just at a loss for words. He cleared his throat awkwardly. “You realise, my Lady, there’s no reason to believe that this challenger is the very child that you gave up.”
Yasana let out a sigh. “I wish I could believe that, Zutival. Truly I do. But she’s the right age. I even dare say she looks like me. It’s too much of a coincidence. And if she is my daughter…. Then my only two daughters are about to face off with each other.”
Yasana cried out aloud, clutching the rails for support before quickly excusing herself. She pushed past Zutival and his entourage, hurrying as quickly as she could. Noticing the panicked look on her gentle face, Zutival whispered to his companion before following.
He had to hurry to keep up with her, Yasana was moving so quickly. After losing sight of her at the entrance to the arena, he found Yasana in the Boentu palace gardens. She sat on a simple wooden bench, clutching the seat to keep from trembling. Zutival debated leaving, not wanting to intrude, but he could see she was visibly shaken and couldn’t just leave her like that.
“Lady Yasana?” he asked in a voice that was more gruff than he would have liked.
Yasana almost jumped out of her furs in surprise. Zutival quickly apologised. “Sorry. I did not wish to startle you.”
Remembering protocol, Yasana straightened up and indicated with her hand that he may join her if he wished.
“I noticed how upset you were at the arrival of the challenger,” he said, taking a seat next to her, his leathers noisily creaking.
Yasana did not reply. Her green eyes had taken on a far away look.
“I imagine you must be afraid that the challenger will dishonour your daughter.”
She still did not reply but instead began trembling all over. Zutival hesitantly placed his hand atop Yasana’s. “Believe me, my lady, I have fought in more wars than I care to remember, and your daughter, all of your children, are the finest warriors I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. Truly, you have nothing to fear.”
Tears were now sliding down Yasana’s cheek and she sobbed aloud. Zutival patted her hand awkwardly. Though he had met Yasana on several formal occasions, they had never been in such close proximity. Uncomfortable though he was, Zutival sat with her until at last her tears dried up.
“Please, General Zutival, tell me one thing about the challenger. I feel as though perhaps my eyes deceived me.” Yasana took a deep breath and to Zutival she seemed tiny and frail. “Did that girl seem to you half-Boentu and half-Gaian?”
Zutival considered the question. “She has blue eyes,” he conceded. “Her hands are long and hairless like the Gaian. Yes, she may be half-Gaian.” He then added with a smile, “this of course is a good thing since Gaian’s are not warriors. They are farmers and miners.”
Yasana cried out again, her body trembling uncontrollably. “It has to be,” she said aloud, though Zutival had no idea what she meant.
“Forgive me Lady Yasana, but is there something else bothering you about this challenger?”
Yasana glanced up at Zutival, her eyes filled with tears once more. “I am not sure I can speak the words, it is so shameful,” she whispered.
“Ah,” Zutival said, beginning to comprehend the situation. “Say no more.” He got to his feet, ready to leave, but stopped when he felt Yasana’s small hand pressing against him.
“Wait. Don’t go. I shall tell you everything.”
A murmur arose in the crowd. Is it true? Even the Boentu Guardians seemed unclear whether they should allow the challenger into the stadium.
Mehar Renecke frowned at the woman, his blue eyes narrowed with displeasure. The tourney had been going so smoothly up until now. He had no clue whether this custom was true or not. In all his years as Mehar, he had not heard of it. Only one person here would know for certain. He strode to the stands to speak with Katha and Quani, who were already deep in discussion.
“I know of no such tradition,” Mehar Renecke said flatly. “However I am not Boentu-born. Is there some chance that this is true, or can I finish my tourney in peace?”
Quani chewed on his lip thoughtfully. “It is said that in older times Boentu could challenge warriors in the tourney.” He then added hurriedly, “However, this was many generations ago. We have not followed such traditions in over a hundred years.”
Unhappily, Renecke turned to Katha. “What is your decision, my liege?”
Katha shrugged. “It seems to me that this person has a valid claim. Let her enter the arena.”
Sighing, Renecke turned towards the confused Guardians and with a slight tilt of his head, indicated that the woman be brought into the arena.
All around, spectators leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the mysterious woman that interrupted the festivities. Yasana, who was seated next to Quani also leaned forward, curious about this girl who dared challenge her daughter. She wasn’t worried for Arjuna. Of all the competitors today, Arjuna was easily the most skilled and the most ferocious. It would take some courage to want to challenge her daughter, and for that, Yasana had to see the woman for herself.
Into the arena stalked the tall, haughty figure, glaringly challengingly at the audience. Some of the audience had begun to boo her, but the boos quickly died down once they saw her features. The woman was not full Boentu. Although she had the ears of a Boentu, her limbs were slender and completely hairless.
Finally, Arjuna and Lossepharr showed off their targeting skills beginning with small handheld volt cannons, before moving to full-size sling volt cannons. Lossepharr, still angry at losing to Dennethom, struggled to keep pace with Arjuna. Arjuna could sense his frustration coming out in waves. Being stabbed earlier was an ugly reminder that she needed to keep her focus, and so she chose to ignore him. Instead she concentrated on her breathing, allowing her hands to automatically do the work necessary to target the little floating Ballistic Orbital Bot.
She thought she could hear Lossepharr chuckling at her, and after a delay in her brain, she registered the insinuation he had made that she couldn’t handle a weapon as large as an SVC. She merely smiled and continued to work refusing to engage his petty rivalry. She could see that her shots were remaining dead centre while his were becoming increasingly erratic the further away the target was placed. Eventually, while she set up for the next floating B.O.B., she became aware of the applause from the audience. Looking up she noticed that her cousin had tossed aside his weapon claiming that the sight was faulty.
Seated in the stands, Katha listened closely to Quani as he related all the details of the tourney. He was disappointed to hear of Lossepharr’s issues with his weapon and made a mental note to have a word with Mehar Renecke. Lossepharr is the son of a Boentu leader, he shouldn’t go into a tourney with a faulty weapon.
Quani for his part was growing weary of the tournament. Every time the crowd cheered, his leader would lean in close and ask questions. “Is it Lossepharr? Did he hit the target? How accurate was the shot?” Quani could see the eager expression in his leader’s face. Katha so wanted to hear that his sons were making him proud. Which they were, up until Lossepharr had stalked off the field. But even Quani noticed just how much the crowd seemed to adore the children of Chran.
When Katha would ask him if the cheers were for his own sons, Quani was tempted to lie and say “yes.” But he knew it would make matters worse. He just wished the tournament would hurry up and finish. In Quani’s opinion it encouraged far too much rivalry between the two families.
As Arjuna finished her final volley, which were mere dots in the distance, the crowd went ballistic. Getting to her feet and facing the audience she felt a surge of pride that she had never known before. More than mere pride, it was a moment of clarity. The pure knowledge that she was doing precisely what she had been born to do.
Silently, she thanked her father, Chran, and her grandmother, Tari, for guiding her even now, in the after life. Politely she took a bow, dimly aware that her name was now being chanted in the stands. Any moment now Mehar Renecke would blow the whistle to end the tournament. Arjuna cringed at the idea of meeting all those visiting dignitaries. Battlefields she could do, but small talk was not her forte.
The whistle did not come. Instead, a loud, clear contralto voice called out “Wait!” Arjuna did not recognize the voice and so she peered out into the crowds, trying to determine who had been so rude as to interrupt her big moment. Instantly she spotted the speaker, a tall figure of a Boentu woman, not much older than Arjuna herself. She was being roughly held back by several Boentu Guardians.
“I believe tradition dictates that participants of the tourney can be challenged,” the woman was saying, still struggling against the guards. “I challenge Arjuna, daughter of Chran and Yasana!”
Arjuna’s confidence was low and she found herself just a little off as she moved into kentarr fighter practice with her cousin Enjawne. She was barely able to block Enjawne’s blow. Deciding to take back control of the fight, she arced her dagger up and over in a risky move, only to find herself not only blocked by her cousin, but feeling the pain of sharp metal in her side. She stepped back and her hand touched the wetness. Even training kentarr were sharp enough to break skin. Boentu never trained with completely blunt instruments.
The look of shock on her face was almost matched by the one on her cousin’s. She glanced towards the tent that housed her brothers. Dennethom and Arronanto were both watching from the doorway. Catching her eye, Dennethom pressed his palms together and held them close to his chest in a meditative pose. Breathe. He was right of course. She wasn’t centred.
Taking a breath, she bowed once more at Enjawne before they began to spar again. This time it was Enjawne’s turn to be overly confident. As he came at her with his knife, she caught his arm, disarming him and shoving him to the ground. As he lay in the dirt, she held the dagger to his chest and the crowd roared their approval. Enjawne grinned, accepted his cousin’s outstretched arm, and the two took their bows.
“I knew when I came at you that you were going to grab me. I don’t know why I kept going,” Enjawne murmured to her.
“Momentum,” Arjuna replied. “Same thing happened when you stuck me.”
Enjawne grimaced. For a Boentu, he didn’t much care for blood.
Dennethom was up for the next few demonstrations. First, there was a demonstration with the arbo, the wooden staff that is the first traditional weapon all Boentu warriors must master. His opponent was his cousin Andor. They began with basic drills before moving on to combat. For several minutes a hush took over the arena with the only sound being the clackity-clack of wood. Several times Andor almost bested Dennethom, but he was able to jump out of the arbo’s reach. Dennethom’s fingers smarted as another of Andor’s swipes met its target, but still Dennethom clung to the arbo, determined to keep his hold just a little longer. Andor grimaced when he realised that Dennethom wouldn’t be so easily beaten, and struck out with his leg, hoping to take his cousin by surprise. Anticipating the reckless move, Dennethom reacted, choosing this moment to slam his arbo down in two swift motions that quickly disarmed his cousin.
Demonstrations in traditional mounted combat and aerial manoeuvres followed. Dennethom and Lossepharr led the mounted trials. First, they circled the arena to the sound of thunderous applause, as hooves kicked up clouds of red dirt. Then, clutching full-size blades, the pair competed in three rounds of combat. Dennethom won the first round, managing to quickly disarm his cousin. The second round was taken by Lossepharr, who managed to unseat Dennethom and cut his cousin’s arm for good measure. However, the event was eventually won by Dennethom when he was once again able to disarm his cousin and force him to the ground. Dennethom rode his own mount close to the cheering audience in a victory lap before handing the reins to a nearby attendant, and leaping down to help his cousin up. Lossepharr was not amused.
Arronanto showed off his piloting skills, taking his personal shuttle soaring into the sky before hurtling back down as though it were going to crash. At the last moment, he skimmed the shuttle so close to the ground that his mother, Yasana cried out in fear. After landing the nimble craft, Arronanto stepped out of the shuttle, giddy at the wave of cheering that greeted him, but his happiness quickly faded when he met the disapproving gaze of Mehar Renecke.
The trio stepped out of their richly embroidered tent to an almost deafening round of applause. Thousands of Boentu seated in stands surrounded them, all cheering the Houses of Chran and Katha, proud to show off-worlders the kind of warriors that the Boentu people produced.
From an adjacent tent, Lossepharr and his brothers also emerged. They too were greeted by yet another exuberant round of applause. The second tent was almost as lavishly decorated as the first, though it had been hurriedly built. Lossepharr had made it clear he had no intention of preparing for the tourney in the company of his cousins. He and his brothers no longer joined them for training either, except to heckle. Instead he requested separate training with Mehar Renecke. It meant more work for Renecke but was ultimately less of a headache. At least there were no more scuffles between Arronanto and Lossepharr to contend with.
As the cousins bowed, Dennethom studied the crowd. He could see his mother seated with his aunt and uncle in a box seat. Nearby sat a horde of aliens, one of which chatted amiably to Dennethom’s great uncle Draddo. Unlike the other guests, this particular alien was not dressed in rich yet ultimately useless fabric. Instead he wore strong leathers; practical clothing for a warrior raised in a rugged environment. Dennethom wondered if this was the mysterious Zutival, leader of the Luzuviq. He had never seen a citizen of the Luzuviq system except in pictures and vid. They were usually too busy warring amongst themselves to bother with other systems but Zutuival had once been the Luzuviq ambassador to Boentu and still held a close friendship with the Boentu leader.
At the sound of a whistle from Mehar Renecke, the tourney began. Each of the young warriors would put on a display using their favoured weapons. First, there was hand-to-hand combat. Arronanto dazzled the spectators with a display of his physical prowess going up against his poor cousin Yocan. The pair bowed to the crowds and each other before beginning their merry dance.
Yocan, though smaller in stature than Arronanto, prided himself on his footwork, particularly his ability to evade the blows of larger opponents. Unfortunately, Arronanto was surprisingly spry for someone so large, and before he knew it, Yocan found himself on the ground, bruised, slightly bloodied and spitting out dirt from his mouth as he agreed to yield. The fire that had lit Arronanto’s eyes like burning coals, quickly disappeared, and he cheerfully helped his cousin to his feet. Bowing both to the audience at large, and to their family, Arronanto reached out to shake his cousin’s hand, but the look of hatred in Yocan’s eyes took him aback, and he was glad when the audience’s applause finally died down and they could return to their respective tents.
The kentarr event was next, and all the cousins lined up to show off their skills by throwing the small daggers. All did well, but none as impressive as Arjuna who never missed her target. Confidently she gazed out at the audience, taking in their cheers, listening to her name as well as those of her family being chanted aloud. Brimming with over-confidence she asked that her target be placed further back, even though that portion of the demonstration was now over. When the target was placed, she turned towards the crowds, allowing their cheers to rise to a crescendo, before taking a small bow and throwing her kentarr at the target. The tiny knife hurtled past the wooden board and out into the field beyond. Oops. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Mehar Renecke ever so slightly shaking his head.
“Nervous?” Arjuna asked, coolly observing the crowd continuing to fill the stands of the great Thalasa arena. “Arro’s polished his kentarr so much, I wouldn’t be surprised if it slips right out of his fingers.”
Arronanto growled a warning at his sister. “I have to polish it. If I step out there with a grubby kentarr Mehar Renecke will have my hide!”
Dennethom smirked, as he studied the crowd, trying to pick out the visiting dignitaries here to watch the Boentu feat of arms. “I’m not nervous. So long as I best Lossepharr,” he murmured.
Arjuna scowled at the mere mention of her cousin. “That shouldn’t be difficult. He can barely tell the pointy end of a kentarr.”
Both her brothers chuckled. Dennethom admired his sister’s spirit, often wishing that he could replicate it in himself. He thought too much. He didn’t have the same fighting energy that she had. “And you, Arjuna mastered the volt cannon as soon as you were big enough to hold it. No doubt you will do fine.”
“Had to, so I could keep up with my brothers,” Arjuna replied as she examined the sight on her full-size volt cannon.
“Do you suppose he’s out there yet?” Arronanto asked while putting away his polishing gloves.
“Zutival?” Dennethom shook his head. “I am uncertain. Supposedly he travels with a guard of twenty warriors, but I cannot tell from here.”
“It will be an honour to meet him.”
“Just make sure you have me give you the once over first, I don’t want you embarrassing us,” Arjuna replied giving Arronanto a playful shove. Arronanto staggered back, losing his footing and comically flying halfway across the floor. Of course it was an exaggeration. He was so big he could easily carry Arjuna and Dennethom both at the same time.
“Arjuna please save your unarmed combat skills for inside the arena,” said a grave voice from behind.
The three teenage siblings turned at once to greet Renecke, the old mehar-at-arms standing before them. Though his blue eyes were narrowed they sparkled with mirth. He looked stiff in his formal uniform with its gold trim and shiny medals. It was quite a difference compared to his normal attire in the training dojo. Here stood before them Renecke the Warrior.
Not a Boentu warrior, to be sure, for he had grown up in the Arthema System, which reflected in his appearance. He lacked the sleek, muscular build of the Boentu. Instead he was short and stocky, and his skin was virtually hairless. His head was large and didn’t have the small, pointy ears that were common in these parts. Most people who did not know him, assumed he was a visiting philosopher or healer, like many from the Arthema System. That was, until they attempted to beat him in combat. Renecke had a cunning and fierceness that could easily match any Boentu warrior.
“Are you nervous?” he asked, eyeing his students.
“No,” Arjuna replied with a steely gaze that betrayed just how long she had been anticipating this moment.
“Good! Because a nervous warrior is a sloppy warrior, and I don’t train sloppy warriors. Now get out there, and try not to show me up!” Renecke said, in a gruff tone that barely concealed his genuine fondness for the siblings.