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She looked fondly at Varan. He hasn't changed a bit.
Perhaps in pure matter of fact that wasn't exactly true, but she was hard-put to find a difference. The Mada officer's hair was still pure black (slightly matted with damp after their sparring session and the subsequent quick shower), his skin still the dusky brown, and his wide, uniquely gray eyes still as direct and, well, innocent as ever. Maybe there were a few little lines at the corners of those eyes that hadn't been there back when she'd met him in the Winter Survival camp on Wyllas, a slight increase in the width of shoulders and mass of muscle on his lean frame, but all in all, he didn't look as though twenty years had done much to him. Admittedly, twenty years wasn't all that long—anyone in a decent civilization could expect at least a couple hundred—but she knew very few people who passed that length of time without any significant change.
They touched glasses and then exchanged them. "A friendship renewed and returned." Both drank—Varan had selected Seele's Icedraught for the traditional toast, and it blazed a trail of burning frostbite down her throat. "Whew! That tastes the way an open tent flap felt on Wyllas."
"That's the idea. We're here to reminisce and talk over all the stuff we never get to talk about. Though I think we've rehashed that particular one often enough."
"What, are you saying you're getting tired of talking about how we saved Taelin Mel'Tasne's life?"
"Well, to you, yes. It's not like I could surprise you with it, and it's a lot more fun when Taelin's here to start the conversation. Besides, then it's inevitably followed up by how you saved my life, or at least an awful lot of my bones from being broken by that tzil Morno, and then we run through the other various ways in which we helped each other, we talk about Canta and how that was such a surprising change—"
"Oh, speaking of Master Guardsman Remin Canta, have you heard?"
"Heard what? Last time I got to talk to him at all was about four years ago."
She nodded in understanding. With it taking six months for a message to cross the Empire in many cases, it wasn't hard to fall out of touch with even a pretty good friend like Canta. "He's got himself a command, finally."
Varan's face seemed to light up. "It's about time! Where?"
"Bretanisith—he's got the entire Assault Guards force."
"I think I'm jealous. Guarding one of the major vacation paradises in the Empire. There's a cushy assignment."
"After his last few, I think he's earned one."
The dark-haired head nodded emphatically. "I can't agree with you more. He could have retired after that last one, but he came back; glad they've given him a bit of a plum assignment."
"So," she said, as their meals were brought out, "what about you? We didn't get much chance to talk the last time—I don't even think you gave me the whole scoop about what you did during the last war."
A faint darkening of the already dark cheeks showed Sasham Varan's usual reaction to being asked to talk about himself; aside from silly showoff stunts like the one that he did when he arrived, Sasham usually seemed more interested in talking about others than drawing attention to himself, which was probably why most people let him get away with the silly showoff stunts in the first place. "Well, I guess the best way to put it is that I visited Uralia twice."
She felt her eyebrows rise involuntarily at that. "Twice?"
"I was one of the liaisons with the Ptial, so when they did that thunderstrike maneuver straight to the homeworld they dragged me along for the ride. Then…"
"Vorces, let me guess—the Ghek'Nan."
She saw the dark face pale slightly and shudder. "Yes. You?"
"Only from a distance, worse the luck. I never got any close action, just bombardment."
The gray eyes held hers. "Don't complain; you were lucky. I don't know how I got out of there alive. More than half my flight …didn't. The pictures don't do the things justice."
There was actual fear in his voice; that stunned Diorre momentarily. Oh, she remembered hearing him afraid, but only when something happened. Afterward was after for Sasham Varan; he didn't dwell on the past or let it bother him. "Sasham, sounds like it kinda got to you. I mean, I'd heard some stories, but not from anyone I knew."
He leaned back, thinking, eyes distant. "Maybe it's because I'd seen Uralia before. Okay, it was being bombarded and the Uralians themselves were never particularly fancy in their civilization, but … it was still something a sane creature would live in. This… this looked like the worst nightmares of some psi-fried chiller scripter. The Ghek'Nan seem to radiate fear; there's just something, I dunno, horrid about them that pictures don't get across."
He gave a short laugh. "Oh, no. You can bet the Monitors and civilian science corps were all over that, to make sure. Torline's Swords, the very idea of a Ghek'Nan with psi powers…" he shuddered.
Time to change the subject. "Speaking of old sword-swinging legends, you sure have been keeping in practice."
He grinned at the compliment. "I had good teachers, including a certain tutor when I was at Wyllas named, um… Jearsen, I think the name was." He gave her a Six-and-One. "And you haven't fallen behind yet. Neither of us fulfilled the tale we tried to tell on that match, but you got me two of three."
"You're probably better than I am, Sasham."
"Oh, really? Then why was I the one bowing out of the ring two of three?"
"You don't take it seriously." She held up her hand before her friend could begin to argue. "I don't mean that you don't take the art seriously—Gods, no—but that you don't take the fight seriously. You don't take joy in beating the living hell out of someone even with the safety fields and gear, you're just out there to have some fun. Unlike me or Canta or Helkoth, who find some of the fun in showing we can beat the living hell out of someone. Your inner killer doesn't come out to play; he only comes out when …" her voice softened, "… when other people need him." She saw him give an embarrassed shrug. "I think if you want to know what you can really do, you'll have to be in a real fight, not just a mat-contest."
Sasham seemed to consider it. "You might be right, I guess. But in that case I guess I'll keep getting my rear end kicked around the mat-ring by you for the next few years. Better than getting in another real fight. Those get people killed."
"That is worth a drink to." They tapped and exchanged glasses again and grinned at each other. The shared smile cut off as the sharp whistle of Perimeter Alert snapped them both to attention. The entire restaurant went silent and watchful. Minutes ticked by sluggishly. Finally the cheerful chime signifying Vessel Identified rang, and conversations put on hold slowly fumbled their way back to normalcy. Diorre slowly sank back into her seat, letting out her breath. "Every time I hear that, I'm sure it's going to go to Enemy Approaching."
"Not surprising, what with how close we are to the border and all." Varan gave the almost-crossed-arms, closed-eyes bow of the Believer to the air, murmuring a traditional prayer of thanks to Torline and Niaadea that it was, in fact, just a false alarm.
Diorre couldn't quite repress her fond smile at that familiar, and so very Varan, gesture. Many of those who believed strongly in the legend, rather than just the traditions, of Atlantaea and its Eternal King and Queen, Torline and Niaadea, could get under her skin pretty easily—especially the Repentants, those who believed that the mythical collapse of the ancient galactic civilization had been due to some terrible failing on the part of humanity on the now-lost homeworld.
But Sasham Varan was one of the Seekers, who believed that the Fall of Atlantaea had been due to some mystical enemies—referred to in The Book of the Fall as demons—and that it was their destiny to seek out the homeworld and eventually confront the demons again, so that Atlantaea would be reborn. More importantly, Varan didn't push his beliefs, he simply lived them. They were as much a part of him as his hair and eyes, a tradition of faith handed down in his family for generations beyond count.
She grinned again as he opened his eyes. If all the Believers were like him, I'd almost wonder if there was something to it all.
He didn't seem to notice her glance, still thinking about the alarm. Varan shook his head ruefully. "You know, you'd think the Zchorada would just have let it drop, after we worked together so well during the Uralian Conflict and Ghek'Nan Extermination. It's not like we ever did anything to them they didn't do to us first."
Probably not, she thought—though she had occasionally heard rumors that, for instance, the colony world the Zchorada had attacked might originally have been theirs—but she had never seen any real proof of it. And there was no point in even starting a debate like that with Varan unless she had all the facts; he was one of the most completely patriotic men she knew, and for all the right reasons. She sighed and shook her head. "No telling why, I guess. And the Zchorada are well-known—even among their allies—for being stubborn and difficult to negotiate with."
Varan took another sip of his drink and grinned wryly. "Easier than Uralians. Did you know they basically couldn't surrender or retreat? Truth, swear it on the Towers. Even when they knew it was all up. At most they'd try to maneuver around to get a better strike angle or something. That's one piece of evidence in favor of their being artificial soldiers designed by some lunatic. Normal creatures don't act like that."
"No, I didn't know that. The Ptial aren't like that, right?"
"No, of course not. Though they've got their own… quirks. I don't know how they got such an advanced civilization when they still settle their governmental differences through honor combat."
"We fight duels too." Though it's frowned upon in many circles these days.
"Oh, sure, but it's light-years different. They have personal honor duels, but they also have those kinds of contests for their leaders. It's like if someone didn't like the Emperor's policies, they could just challenge him to combat and, if they won, they'd be the Emperor."
Diorre blinked. She remembered, vaguely, hearing rumors to that effect, but they'd seemed so far-fetched. "You've seen this?"
"Yes, I have. I was on Ptial for a couple years all told. It was… interesting." The way Varan paused it seemed that there was something he wasn't sure he wanted to discuss—or maybe regulations said he couldn't.
Okay, easy enough to change the subject. "So, now that you've done your inspection of Tangia, what do you think?"
He shifted courses easily, showing she'd judged right. "I think there's at least three major upgrades and changes we can make to the defenses and offenses of this station, and I know how we need to go about it. And—" he broke off, staring off slightly to the right of her shoulder.
She turned. While there were a lot of people in the restaurant, and quite a few in that direction, she didn't need to ask who Sasham Varan was staring at.
The young woman wasn't classically beautiful, although no one would ever call her plain, with even, sharp features seeming chiseled from the tanned flesh and a tall, slender body, trained and flexible, in a mostly-white skintight shipsuit. It was, however, her hair that drew the eye—a mane of hair that seemed to stand up of its own accord and with the colors of a sunburst—pure white just above the forehead, shading through yellow and orange to crimson and deep red, the red hair cascading down to the middle of her back. That hair added nearly fifteen centimeters to her already impressive height.
She nodded, somewhat annoyed by his distraction but understanding it. "Yes, that's the Eönwyl." She had, somehow, forgotten the stir that had happened a week ago when the mysterious trader and her eponymous vessel had arrived at the station. Ten years ago she'd appeared amid rumors, which grew into tales, and eventually into full-fledged mythology; by now some of them claimed her ship was an Old Atlantaean patrol vessel (even though, if true, it would have been claimed by the Imperial government so fast it would send shockwaves through empty space), or that she herself was a revived Old Atlantaean, and other similar nonsense. Still, the rumors probably served her well, and there wasn't much doubt she was a very competent trader and one who had protected herself well enough against pirates, border-raiders, and others.
She saw a flash of minor enlightenment on his face. "So she's the owner of that ship! I wondered who could possibly have a ship that looked like that." His face clouded. "What's she doing here? I thought she was on the Watch list, at least."
"You listen to too many rumors. She may not like officials, and have her own quirks, but when she does business, she's honest, fast, and she keeps her mouth shut. The Empire's even used her as a courier a couple times when they needed something sent fast but not by proper channels."
"Torline's Swords, she's younger than I thought. She can't be more than what, twenty-five?"
"Twenty-six, maybe. When she first showed up she was younger than you were when we met."
His eyes were still following the Eönwyl as she went to her table. "That must be a hell of a story, how she ended up the owner of a free trader's vessel at something like enlistment age."
"And no one knows the whole story. Just rumors. Now would you mind unsticking your eyeballs from her, or are you going to go over and ask her to take your measure privately?"
"Hey! I'm sorry. I was just curious. You don't usually get to see legends walking around a border station."
"No, no, I'm sorry, that was sharp of me." Very weirdly sharp of me, she thought. I sounded almost like…
The thought that followed seemed to be simultaneously the most outrageous thing she'd thought for years, and the most obviously true thing she'd ever thought. …almost like I was jealous.
"Huh? Oh, sorry. I was…"
"Distracted. Yeah, I noticed." Varan's gray eyes seemed fixed on hers with an unusual intensity. Oh vorces, I hope he didn't think… or what? What do I hope? "Funny, isn't it."
"What's funny? You're not smiling, either."
"I guess I mean odd, not funny. Strange. I was just thinking about how we first met. I was the only Mada trainee in the entire class, so you Guards made sure I got embarrassed from the start."
She sighed inwardly with relief, but was there maybe some disappointment? No. Not worth risking the best friendship I've had in twenty-odd years. "By making you orbit the entire table until you got the last chair left, and I started it, by cutting you off from the first chair." She wasn't entirely proud of that, but then she had been only twenty-one herself. "And then Helkoth made you the class brain because you came from Korealis and knew Arctic already like the back of your hand."
"And got me to embarrass Canta in that very first class. Oh yeah, I remember that. You have no idea how uncomfortable that was."
She laughed softly at the old story. "I think I do. But what's odd about it? Nothing we haven't discussed before."
"Well, it was right after that we got our room assignments, and then I had to face the fact I was rooming with the Guard that started the whole mess."
"Well, yeah. And? Sasham, I don't think it's ever taken you this long to get to whatever your point was."
The gray gaze dropped away, then returned. "Well, it's just funny; aside from thinking you looked like a perfect Guards' recruiting poster, I never thought about how you looked. I mean, not much, and not for long, we were too busy."
She found herself sitting very still.
"And… well, when you snapped at me for blanking to the Eönwyl's interference, I suddenly looked at you and …" he took a deep breath, "… well, I wondered why I'd ever looked away."
That unknown danger she'd just backed off from was suddenly face-to-face with her. "Sash, I…" Falling Towers, Guard, that's an eloquent answer! Talk to him!
He saw the conflict. Or maybe just had the same conflict himself. "I don't want to risk what we already have, Diorre. But… I just never thought about whether we might be something more. And that's what was odd."
"Neither did I," she heard herself say. "Sasham, I don't want to risk that either. But I don't want to just avoid the idea. Gods, that would be stupid, if there's something more there. Maybe we just need to think about it. For a little while."
"That's … probably a good idea."
She tapped his glass, and they exchanged once more. The drink went more slowly, she staring into eyes the color of storm clouds and steel. "Yes… Yes, I think it is. Target practice tomorrow night? Range Two?"
He laughed, with notes of genuine amusement and relief mingling. "There I will most definitely whip you three times out of three."
"I'll take that as a 'yes, Diorre, please show me how a Guardsman can always outshoot a wussy Navy boy.' then."
"You are on, Sergeant Jearsen. And loser buys the drinks tomorrow."
"Done." She stood; this was the time to go, before that discussion resurfaced. She wasn't ready. And neither was he.
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