Authors: John M. Ford
The house was quite high, at least three stories, with a V-shaped roof: the huge front windows seemed a little like angled eyes looking down on Vrenn. Behind the windows was what appeared to be one large room, with red light flickering within.
Without any pause at all, Vrenn went inside.
There was indeed one vast, high-ceilinged room, with wooden beams cutting across the space overhead, and iron-railed stairs to balconies on either side. In the center was a broad, black pillar, open at the base: a fire, fed by wood, burned within. Around the fireplace were cushions, and tables topped with wood inlay and black glass.
A figure stood, silhouetted by the fire. “Welcome, Vrenn. Be welcome in your house.”
“Thought Admiral…” Vrenn said, and saw the tilt of Kethas’s head. “…Father.”
Kethas nodded, took Vrenn’s free hand in both of his and drew him into the firelight. “Sit, if you like, though I suppose you’ve been sitting too long already. Are you hungry? Thirsty? We need a glass of something to talk over…you’re nine, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Do they have strong drinks, in the Houses? I really don’t know that much about them.”
“I drink ale.”
“Dark ale, then, that’s the best when you’re tired. Not the scorch of a distillate and less risky than brandy.” Almost before Kethas finished speaking, a servitor had appeared with a tray.
Vrenn had never much cared for ale, but it was all he had experience of: this drink, however, was wonderful, as much as the fruit nectar had been. Vrenn began to wonder if he would simply have to relearn eating and drinking.
Another being, a female, came into view. She wore a long gown of some pale stuff that shimmered. Her skin was quite dark, and Vrenn thought for a moment she was Klingon, but then a white ceiling light showed the green cast to her complexion. Light gleamed on fingernails like polished green opals.
And then Vrenn felt something very strange, like an invisible hand squeezing inside his chest. It was not painful…not quite. He spilled a little of his drink.
“Pheromonal shock,” Kethas said. “At your age, the rush of hormones could be deadly.” Vrenn had no idea what Kethas was talking about. He knew from the female’s color what she must be: half the ships Koth of the
captured had an Orion female aboard, all green, all beautiful past imagining…but Vrenn realized now that they were all just Klingon females in makeup. And compared to this one, they were all dead things.
“This is Rogaine,” Kethas said. Vrenn forced himself to listen. “She is my sole consort. Rogaine, this is Vrenn, whom we have taken into the line.”
Vrenn bowed. Rogaine returned it, and sank with an impossibly smooth motion onto a cushion by the fire. “Please don’t stare,” she said, in a fluid voice, one not at all suited to
“It makes me feel that I have committed an error.”
Kethas sat next to Rogaine, covered her hand with his. “In this House you are infallible,” he said, and then said something in a language as ill-suited to his tongue as
was to hers. Rogaine laughed, a sound that melted in the air.
Kethas said, “Sit down, Vrenn. This isn’t an examination.”
Vrenn sat, very carefully. “Thought Admiral, a question.”
“Of course; the first of many, I’m sure.”
“Why am I here?”
“A fair enough opening,” Kethas said. “You do not know your parents, do you? Your actual parents, not us.”
“No…I do not remember anything but the House. We were told that was better.”
“I cannot disagree. But listen now. Your line was Rustazh, your father Squadron Leader Kovar sutai-Rustazh.”
“I have a line?”
Vrenn burst out. “I—that is—”
“An understandable response. But the Rustazh line is extinct. Your once-father was leading a convoy of colonization; the line had received an Imperial grant of space. But the ships were ambushed, by Romulans. Kovar fought well, but there were problems…colony ships are a handicap in combat. There were no survivors, as one expects of Romulans.”
“How do I…then live?”
“I don’t know. Kovar’s youngest son was named Vrenn, and he would be your age…and I see some resemblance, for whatever that’s worth. But how you came to be in the House Twenty-four…that is a mystery. Records have been lost, or altered, enough to buy at least one death, could we find the actors.”
Kethas drank his ale, and Vrenn did likewise. Kethas spoke again, in a very serious tone. “But you asked why you were here, and I have not answered yet. Under me, Kovar served Empire well, and because of certain things he did in that time I am disposed to do a thing for him.”
Vrenn said, “I am—” Kethas cut him off with a raised finger.
The Thought Admiral said, “I have had eight children, which ought to be enough to preserve a line. But seven of them are dead in seven parts of space; and the eighth has changed his name to begin a line of his own, and when his last brother died it was too late to reverse this course. And I have spent many years in space, on the old thin-hulled ships, when the power came from isotopes, and I have taken too much radiation; my children now are monsters, that bubble and die.”
Rogaine turned sharply away. Kethas touched her hand, but did not turn toward her. He said, “For Kovar’s sake I took you out of the Lineless’ House; one life was my debt to him. But for my sake I will make you heritor of the line Khemara, and to this linehold and all its property; and the price is that you will be Khemara and forget that you ever were Rustazh.”
Vrenn felt slightly dizzy, but he had heard every word clearly, and there was no Cloud in his mind. He said, “I was never Rustazh until now…but now I am already Khemara. And so I will stay.”
Kethas stood, put both hands on Vrenn’s shoulders. “In you the
lives, this is certain! Odise.” A servitor appeared. “Take Vrenn Khemara to his rooms.” He gave Vrenn’s shoulder a squeeze, then let go.
Vrenn stood, retrieving his envelope. Kethas said, “What’s that? Discharge papers?” He held out his hand.
…these are…just some things of mine.”
Kethas nodded. “We’ll talk again tomorrow, then. And…I saw you on the board; do you play
when you are not a piece?”
“Yes, Grand Master.” Vrenn supposed the title was appropriate now.
Kethas smiled slightly. “Then we will do that.” He went back to Rogaine, who sat very still by the fire; he spoke to her in her own language.
The servitor Odise bowed crookedly to Vrenn. It was a small being, a little over half Vrenn’s height, with spindly legs and arms and a turret head, covered all over with smooth black fur. It turned, and Vrenn followed it, up stairs to a corridor above.
opened a door, handed the key to Vrenn, then gestured for him to enter the dark doorway. As Vrenn did, lights came on.
The chambers inside were fully the equal of a Captain’s quarters. There was a study the size of Vrenn’s shared room at the house, with a library screen and books on shelves; an equally large bedroom beyond that; a private wash-and-waste. Odise demonstrated some of the controls—silently; it apparently did not speak—bowed and went out, closing the door.
Vrenn wandered around the rooms for several minutes. The similarity to a Captain’s cabin was not just superficial, he realized. He had seen pictures of ships showing the same furnishings: the cylindrical closets, the angular desks and chairs, the tracked spotlamps. The bed even had a concave surface, though there was no restraint web. There was a meal slot in the wall, with programming buttons. And the walls were covered with clearprints of stars and planets, lit from behind, exactly like viewports to Space beyond.
Vrenn sat down on the lumpless bed, weighted down with too many enormities for one day.
On a small table next to the bed was a
set. The pieces were of heavy green and amber stone—jade and quartz, Vrenn guessed, having heard of those materials. The board was black enamel, with inlaid brass strips marking off the spaces. Vrenn looked at it for a long while, not touching it, then opened his brown envelope and slid its contents out onto the table: a triangular piece of heavy card, and some discs of soft wood.
Vrenn had found the board on the ground next to a recycling bin, and inked the triangular grid with another piece of scrap for a straightedge. The discs were hole-punchings from some packing material, scrounged in the same way. Vrenn had engraved the symbols for the pieces into the soft grain with a writing stylus. They were Green and Black, since he had no yellow ink.
Vrenn set up his pieces to match the stone set. He made a few moves, then looked up at the corners of his room. There was nothing overtly a monitor visible. He felt the key in his pocket, thought about getting up to lock the door, but did not.
Finally he scooped the paper board and pieces into their envelope, reached beneath his bed, and found a slot where the package would fit.
Morning light filtered through skylights, vines, and fog into the house’s indoor garden. Vrenn felt the warm, wet air like a solid substance around him. Fog parted as he moved.
Kethas was armpit-deep in a sponge-tiled pool, watching text flicker by on a small viewer at the water’s edge. “Come in, Vrenn,” he said, and touched the display off.
Vrenn approached. His tunic and trousers were damp, impeding him. He stood on the edge of the water, on which bright plants were floating, giving off a sweet scent.
” Kethas said, smiling.
After a moment, Vrenn undressed and slipped into the water. It was an oddly neutral sensation, not cool, not hot, just…enveloping, and very comfortable.
“Now we’re civilized,” Kethas said. “Have you eaten?”
“I…just a little.” The meal slot in his room served nine flavors of fruit nectar, and he had gone through a large glass of each. But they had not stayed with him. And he had soon been more interested by the library screen, which also served as a starship action simulator.
“Two meals,” Kethas said, to the apparently inert monitor. “You were up early.”
Vrenn wondered then if his room was watched. “We always woke before sunrise, at the House.”
“There’s no such rule here. It would never work. I live midmorning to midnight, and Rogaine needs many little sleeptimes, and Tirian sleeps when it’s convenient, like a Vulcan. If you like mornings, fine, but find the time you’re best at and live there. That’s the payoff strategy. The most efficient, that is to say.”
That was exactly the opposite of what the House Proctors called efficiency, but Vrenn was already thinking of something else. “Are there Vulcans here?”
“No, I do not have a
Can you use a library unit?”
Watched or not? Vrenn thought, and said, “Yes.”
“Then you have no need for
There were light fried anemones and crisp salt fish, sweet gel pastries (Vrenn was careful to take only two) and a hot dark drink he thought at first was heated ale, but which was something harsh and incredibly bitter. Vrenn nearly choked.
” Kethas said, laughing. “They bring it to me in course; I should have warned you. Awful, yes, but you learn to drink it. Some years back, I was on a deep mission, taking supply by forage, and for half the voyage we had nothing to drink but a case of that stuff taken as prize…that and the white fire the Engineer brewed up. They’re not bad together, too.” Kethas drained his cup. “
it has a mind-clearing effect, which you’re going to need.”
The Thought Admiral reached to the display unit again. As he rose slightly from the water, Vrenn could see rippled scars on Kethas’s flank. He had watched enough tapes of battles to know that only delta rays left marks like that: Kethas had been burned by either an unshielded warpdrive, or Romulan lasers.
“Bring down my green tunic,” Kethas said to the unit, “and for Vrenn, the gold.”
Vrenn and Kethas walked around the fireplace in the large front room. Along the walls were boards and pieces for every game Vrenn had ever heard of, and even more that he had not. For
there were many sets, for all the variations.
“I’ve seen you in the Clouded Game,” Kethas said. “Do you know the Ablative form?” He gestured to a board that was elevated on posts, pressed a finger on one of the spaces; the triangular tile fell out, into a tray below.
“Yes. And Blind, too.” Vrenn wore a long coat of gold brocade, with the multicolored crest of a forest lizard sewn across the shoulders. Kethas’s coat was of thick green cloth, with an Admiral’s haloed stars on the sleeve.
Vrenn thought about his clothes; both the wardrobes in his rooms had been filled. This gown was too new to have been the Admiral’s; it must have belonged to one of Kethas’s children. Vrenn put the question away to ask later, if at all.
Kethas pointed at boards marked in squares instead of triangles. One was square overall, spaces alternately black and white; the other was rectangular, a tan color with gold lines.