maestoso ma non tanto
majestically, but not too much
A Netaian year had passed since Firebird’s first brush with the distant, powerful Federacy.
“ ... but the phase inducer—here—bypasses the third subset of ...”
Firebird dropped her hand into her lap, unable to concentrate. She leaned away from the table and gazed up at a crystal chandelier that lit the palace’s private breakfast hall, and she let her mind wander far from the Academy scanbook that glowed on her viewer. In a week, she must be able to reproduce that schematic for a senior-level exam. But tonight, she would appear for an interview with the queen.
In the year since she’d been caught spying, the Netaian Planetary Navy had carried off those rumored maneuvers in Federate space, drawing only a strenuous protest. Her mother’s electors had tightened their grip on both high- and low-common classes. Carradee’s little daughter had charmed the palace household, and Phoena—
Phoena burst through a swinging door. “You nearly got yourself taken to see Captain Friel again last night,” she chanted to Firebird.
Phoena hadn’t changed a hair.
Firebird watched over her empty breakfast plate as her middle sister paced the table’s length.
“I can’t believe you’d be so stupid.” Phoena seized a chair across from Firebird and rang for service. Her spring gown shone by morning light, and when Firebird glanced from Phoena’s sparkling earrings and necklace up to the chandelier, she couldn’t help comparing. As an Academy senior of noble family, Firebird had been allowed to move back to the estate for her final semester. It wasn’t far from campus, and this still was her home, for a few last weeks.
“Countervoting the whole Electorate?” Phoena went on. “With a unanimity order? What’s the matter with you? Have you forgotten your place?”
This year, Firebird also had learned that her music—she played the high-headed Netaian small harp, or clairsa—was a passport into the common classes. In quarters of Citangelo that Phoena never had visited, she’d heard ballads that should make any elector nervous. After three hundred years, Netaia was beginning to chafe under the Electorate’s absolute rule and its grip on the planet’s wealth.
Firebird faced her sister squarely. “You know what I think about your basium project. If I had to do it again, I’d still vote my conscience. You’re not expanding our buffer zone. You only want a threat, a show of power.”
“So you said.” Phoena buffed her nails on the sleeve of her gown. “We heard you clearly yesterday.”
Firebird laid her palms on the scanbook viewer. “You got your commendation, didn’t you? Twenty-six to one.”
“One.” Phoena lifted an eyebrow. “In your position, I think I’d be trying to live awhile. You’re lucky the redjackets haven’t already wasted you. Wastlings who countervote don’t last. You’re only in there for show, you know. For your honor,” she mocked.
Firebird curled her fingers around her viewer. “There’s no honor,” she echoed, mimicking Phoena’s tone, “in threatening worlds that would rather trade with us than attack us.” Phoena’s project was secret, and no commoner knew of it. Still, Firebird had used her vote to express her people’s earnestly sung longings to live in free, fair peace.
“You never should have had electing rights to begin with,” Phoena retorted.
The door swung beyond Phoena. Firebird fell silent, toying with her cruinn cup. Carradee pushed through. A servitor-class attendant followed the tallest and eldest Angelo sister. A deep green robe draped Carradee’s form, now swollen with a second pregnancy.
Firebird’s life expectancy had almost zeroed.
“Carrie,” Firebird murmured as the crown princess sank into a cushioned chair held by the servant. “You look exhausted.”
Carradee sighed and splayed her fingers on her belly. “With the little one’s dancing all night, it’s a wonder I sleep at all. And I’m so worried for you, Firebird. Why must you try so hard to throw away the time that’s left to you?”
Phoena leaned back and fixed Firebird with dark eyes.
Easy for Phoena to smirk now, Firebird reflected, but it hadn’t always been that way. Phoena had been born a wastling. Firebird was three at the time and Phoena six, both beginning their indoctrination into their holy destiny, when their second-born sister had been found smothered. Investigation had implicated the programmer of Lintess’s favorite toy, a lifelike robot snow bear, but—as with the death of their father years later—Firebird harbored suspicions about Phoena that she didn’t care to voice.
She watched the scarlet-liveried servitor hurry out. “How can you condone fouling a world, Carradee?” She spread her hands on the tabletop. “Aren’t some things worth standing against?”
“But, Firebird—oh!” Carradee grimaced and stroked her stretched belly. “I’ll be glad when this is over.”
Firebird bit her lip.
Phoena seized the opening like a weapon. “Five weeks,” she crowed. “Then there’ll be a shift in the family.”
Carradee turned pale gray eyes to Phoena in a mute reprimand. Firebird snapped her viewer off. “I’ll have longer than that. They’ll send me with the invasion force. I would love to fly strike, just once. And I’d rather die flying than ...” She bit back the comparison. Another wastling had gone recently in a suspicious groundcar accident, but her grief still was too fresh to expose to Phoena. Lord Rendy Gellison had wanted badly to live, had lived hard and wild.
She shook her elbow-length hair behind her slender shoulders and stood to leave. Phoena’s breakfast arrived, carried by a mincing white-haired servitor. Netaia’s penal laws supplied the noble class with hereditary laborers, who lived caught between the fear of further punishment and the hope that exemplary service would win freedom. Some of the finest musicians Firebird had known, and some of the kindest people, had been servitors.
She snatched up her scanbook and swung out the door. Phoena called after her, “I’ll help put the black edging on your portrait.”
Firebird paused in the long private hallway to gather up more Academy scan cartridges. As she pocketed them, she shot a wistful look down the gallery, past spiral-legged tables weighted with heirlooms, to the formal portrait Phoena had mentioned: she’d been sixteen and star eyed when it was painted, absorbed in her piloting and her music, years away from this shadow of impending death. The scarlet velvette gown with white sash and diadem made her look queenly, but the artist had painted a mischievous smile between brave chin and proud brown eyes. A scarcely tangible sadness in those two-dimensional eyes always haunted Firebird. Did other people see the flaws in her mask of courage?
She straightened her brownbuck flight jacket in front of a jeweled hallway mirror. Well, she told her reflection, there’s an advantage to dying young. People will remember you as pretty. Humming a defiant ballad from the Coper Rebellion, she dashed off for the Academy.
If Firebird had been born an heir, she’d have had a hard choice between the Citangelo Music Conservatory and the Planetary Naval Academy. She loved flying, though, and had trained hard to develop from a skillful pleasure pilot into a potential naval officer. Noble families considered their wastlings’ training as investments in Netaia’s glory. When her geis orders came, she’d pay back that advance by making her own contribution to Netaia’s greatness, whether or not she approved—or survived—the invasion.
Morning classes were unexceptional. After lunch, she almost crashed into Corey in a passway crowded with cadets. “Easy, Firebird.” He stepped back, and his grin faded. “What’s wrong? Phoena again?”
“Of course,” she muttered. “And Her Majesty, tonight.”
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot.” Lord Corey had taken a surprise growth spurt this year. Pursing his lips in sympathy, he palmed the door panel.
They entered a hushed briefing room. This would be a two-week, special-topic session. These top cadets had waited all term to meet a civilian instructor who’d come in midwinter from the Federate world of Thyrica. Vultor Korda had turned traitor and fled to Netaia, which appalled Firebird: Loyalty was a discipline the Netaian faithful, even wastlings, didn’t question. Worse, he was known to be one of the shameful Thyrian telepaths.
She and Corey slipped into adjacent seats and loaded their viewers as the little man scuttled in. Physically, he looked anything but powerful, with a belly that strained the belt of his brown civilian shipboards. His complexion was the fragile white of the academician or the UV-allergic spacer.
Last year, Firebird had learned that his kind descended from a civilization from far above the galactic plane. In a grand bioengineering experiment, they had destroyed their children’s genetic integrity ... then they’d almost annihilated themselves in a horrendous civil war. Only one sizable group of these “starbred” was known to have survived, a few religious mendicants who’d fled the distant Ehret system. They’d made planetfall on the Whorl’s north-counterspinward edge, at Thyrica.
Instead of depopulating Thyrica, though, the Ehretan group had adopted strict religious laws to control their powers. Quickly they proved to the Federacy that they were absolutely undeceivable. Since then, they’d insinuated themselves into Federate diplomatic, medical, and intelligence forces.
Maybe one day, they’d bring down the Federacy as their ancestors destroyed Ehret. Someone should write that song, Firebird mused.
Standing at his subtronic teaching board, Vultor Korda twisted toward the quarter-circle of seats. “So,” he said, “you think Netaia can take Veroh from the Federacy? I happen to think you have a chance.”
Corey fingered the edge of his terminal and whispered, “Slimy.”
Firebird nodded without taking her eyes off Korda. He struck her as the arrogant kind who compensated for weakness with meanness. His type would deliberately downgrade others—particularly a woman near the top of her class. She shifted uncomfortably.
“You’ve heard of the Federacy’s starbred forces,” Korda continued. “ ‘Sentinels,’ they call the trained ones. As officers, you’ll be more likely to encounter them than your blazer-bait subordinates will. By the way, you won’t find a more self-righteous, exclusive group if you see half the Federacy—not that it trusts them. Common people fear what they can’t control.”
One student protested, “But aren’t you—”
Korda waved a hand, dismissing the objection. “Yes. I’m Thyrian, and starbred. But I’m no Sentinel. No one tells me how to control my abilities.”
Firebird went rigid. If Korda had such abilities, had he influenced the dangerous decision to attack Veroh? Could he have gone to some of the electors, even to Phoena, and convinced them to try this?
She frowned. Maybe he’d pushed an elector or two. But Phoena’s proposal to take Veroh, and Siwann’s endorsement, fit their lifelong, belligerent pattern—
Siwann. A tiny time-light blinked on her wristband. Fourteen hundred. She could relax; there was plenty of day left. Vultor Korda launched into a rambling tale of his testing and training under Master Sentinels, then their history.
Then the briefing room went dark. Korda pressed a chip stack into the blocky media unit at midboard, then faced the class. “My topic is Sentinels in military intelligence. If you think you see one of these people, in battle or otherwise, shoot first and make sure of your target after he’s dead. Assume you won’t get off a second shot. Some of them can levitate your side weapon from the holster.”
Firebird’s memory served up a year-old image of the electoral chamber. She hadn’t seen any levitating, but she’d certainly suspected that Thyrian guard.
A life-size holographic image appeared over the media block. Rotating slowly, it portrayed a handsome black-haired woman who apparently stood taller than half the men in Firebird’s cadet class. “This is Captain Ellet Kinsman. She’s stationed at Caroli—which governs Veroh, by the way—and rising fast in the ranks. We rate the starbred on the Ehretan Scale according to how strongly they’ve inherited the altered genes. We’re all mixed-blood now, but Kinsman comes from a strong family. She’s seventy-five Ehretan Scale out of a rough hundred, which means she can do over half the tricks the original Ehretans could’ve. You don’t want to get near a person like that. Fortunately, you probably won’t encounter Kinsman. She processes information that others collect. Desk worker but still dangerous. Memorize the face, if you have enough room in your memory.”
Firebird was already memorizing. The woman resembled her first flight trainer, high in the forehead with a long, aquiline nose. Kinsman’s uniform, vividly blue-black with no insignia except a gold shoulder star with four beveled rays, fit Firebird’s recollection ... almost. Something had been different.
The image blurred and vanished. Next appeared a man, older, also black-haired. “Admiral Blair Kinsman is her cousin. Based on Varga. The throwback of the family, about a twenty-five Ehretan Scale. I think he can nudge a few electrons along a wire, if it’s early in the day....”
Distracted, Firebird missed several sentences. So they had different skill levels. Where did that put last year’s alleged honor guard? She’d finally guessed how he had spotted her; she must’ve sent off a blast of dismay when she realized just what he was—
“Now, this is trouble.” The admiral disappeared in a cloud of static. A younger man’s figure materialized in his place, and Firebird gaped. This was the guard! In the chamber, she’d had no time to stare. She did now. Average height, not overly muscled, with hair that was the light russet brown of exotic leta wood. This image’s eyes were lost in shadow, but she hadn’t forgotten that ice-blue stare.
“This is Wing Colonel Brennen Caldwell,” Korda announced. “He’s stationed at Regional Headquarters, Tallis, but as a member of the Special Operations force”—Korda scratched the initials SO onto the teaching board—“he has no permanent base. Don’t even get close enough to recognize him. He scored an ES ninety-seven, and they haven’t had one so high in a hundred years. See the master’s star on his shoulder? Eight points, not four.”
She nodded. That was the difference....
“Supposedly, Caldwell’s the first strong-family Sentinel the Federacy has considered for real rank. Military Sentinels pretend they don’t want authority, but the situation is more complex than that. Remember our violent history.” Korda paused. “The Federacy uses us, but it’s afraid of us. Anyway, Special Ops rotate between fleet and special assignments, so they only serve part of the time with a regular unit.”
They’d sent a Special Ops officer here, with a trade delegation? In that case, she—and the electors—had badly underestimated its importance. There’d been a highly skilled telepath in the heart of the Netaian government that day. A shudder flickered down her spine. She wondered what kind of data he’d taken back to Regional HQ, Tallis.
“He’s cute,” whispered Lady Delia Stele to no one in particular.
Not “cute,” Firebird thought, but compelling—
Korda flung out both arms. “If that’s all you think about, Stele, get out of here. Out! My time is valuable, and I won’t waste it on giggly wastlings that anybody can play with but no one will ever marry.”
Delia’s face, so prettily circled in blond hair, was a study in humiliation. Other cadets glared. Firebird angrily rose halfway out of her seat.
Korda brought up the lights and swung his arms again. “Go ahead, hate me. I can feel it. But I’ll be alive next year and most of you will be dead. I only had an hour today, and it’s up. But come back tomorrow and I’ll show you some things that could give you another week or two.” He dove for the exit.
When Firebird saw that Delia was being consoled by several girls (and, Powers bless him, Corey’s twin brother, Daley), she slipped out into the passway and headed for the parking garage and her skimmer. For all his sliminess, Vultor Korda had given her a good deal to think about. It roiled in her mind during dinner, which she took alone in her suite.
Telepaths, here. Then and now. What did Korda do when he wasn’t teaching? Had the Federacy suspected, over a year ago, that Netaia was moving toward a military invasion? If so, what kind of hair-trigger watch were they keeping on the Netaian systems?
She would mention that to one of the marshals.
After calling her personal girl to remove her leavings, she retreated from her parlor to her music room. A long triangular case lay on her carpet below the studio’s window. Carefully she drew out her clairsa. A master-maker’s work, its long leta-wood arches had been carved with a pattern of linked knots. Twenty-two metal strings reflected the dying daylight to shine brassy red through her hair’s dangling strands.
She spent the hour that remained before her interview cradling it, seated on a low stool with her transcriber running. She was writing a song, one that might be her last.
Almost ninety years before, another queen’s wastling had survived to mount the throne. Lady Iarla had set a standard Firebird hoped to match. Manifesting all nine of the holy Powers—Strength, Valor, and Excellence; Knowledge, Fidelity, and Resolve; Authority, Indomitability, and Pride—but also a remarkable compassion, Iarla was a respected figure in Netaia’s recent history. The melody Firebird had composed for this ballad was musically solid, and the chords stirred her longings even on a hundredth run-through, but words just wouldn’t come. She’d hoped to pass this song on to her friends in downside Citangelo before she left for the invasion.
Then again, there’d been a time when she’d secretly hoped to repeat her great-great-grandmother Iarla’s climb to glory. As Carradee’s second confinement approached, Firebird had abandoned that hope—but just as a few defiant tunes kept the Coper Rebellion alive, Iarla’s name couldn’t die as long as someone sang it to honor her.
After four attempts to rhyme a second stanza, Firebird gave up in disgust and ordered the transcriber to shut itself off. She returned the clairsa to its soft case before changing into a fresh Academy uniform.
Flecks of dust had settled on her ornate bedroom bureau. She needed to call Dunna back in to give the suite a good cleaning. Slowly she turned around as if seeing her marble walls and costly furnishings for the first time. Bunking in a cramped Academy dorm had changed her perspective. These elegant rooms had been Iarla’s, too. That had always been a point of pride to Firebird. To be Angelo was to be proud.
With dignity that masked her apprehension, she swung down the curved staircase and across an echoing foyer toward the queen’s night office.
Siwann had made this appointment weeks ago, which didn’t suggest a matter of personal warmth. Loving moments between them had been rare—not that Firebird expected warmth from her mother. No parent could invest her emotions in a wastling child. It was safer to let servitors raise them and redjackets train them.
For two centuries, wastlings had provided Netaia with some of its most notorious daredevil entertainers and naval pilots. Some were heroes in history scanbooks, but unless an older sibling’s tragedy elevated them to heir status, none lived past their early twenties. Any who recanted allegiance to the holy Powers and refused their geis orders disappeared, or had fatal accidents, like Lord Rendy Gellison. Firebird wondered sometimes if some who’d vanished had fled the Netaian systems and begun new lives elsewhere. She knew one who’d made the attempt. She had helped. Naturally, she had never heard from him, nor from the high-common-class woman who’d gone with him, but she thought of them occasionally. Had the redjackets found and killed them after Firebird and Corey reported them dead in space, or had they vanished effectively enough?
Her role in the plot nagged her conscience. Aiding their flight had been her one deliberate breach of the rigid, sacred Disciplines. If those holy Powers truly judged the dead, she had doomed herself to linger in the Dark that Cleanses, a purging place where disobedience would be burned from her soul ... unless the Electorate ordered her to sacrifice herself for Netaia’s benefit and glory.
As it would.
Still, she’d enlisted willingly. A soldier’s death would cancel all her infractions. She only wished she were bound for a war in which she could give herself gladly, instead of this raid to help set up Phoena’s despicable secret project. Rumor made it an environmental weapon that could poison whole regions of a targeted world.
A House Guard admitted her. At the night office’s center stood a crystalline globe, grown at zero-g into an incredible likeness of her home world and lit from inside by a white everburner, but Firebird had passed it so many times that it had lost its power to impress her. Beyond it, Siwann sat as stiffly as her bust in the Hall of Queens, erect in a flawlessly tailored black suit. One hand swept a platinum stylus along her desk’s inset scribing pad. Siwann had been striking in her day and was rarely caricatured, even by her enemies, except for her lofty haughtiness.
She looked up. “Sit. I’ll be with you.”
Firebird complied with her usual twinge of awe. Her Majesty’s antique leta-wood desk loomed in front of a window draped with shadowy curtains, creating the illusion of tiers of red wings. Gilt-lettered ancient volumes, bound with animal skins, stood in dignified rows along two walls over files of chip stacks, data rods, and scan cartridges. Firebird occupied her waiting time trying to second-guess the Electorate. Would Netaia be preparing to invade Veroh for its unique minerals if the electors had ratified that trade agreement last year? Metal and mineral production and trade, like most Netaian industries, were regulated by electoral underlings. Surely, if Phoena had wanted basium, she could have bought it from the Federacy, if Rogonin’s cartel hadn’t kept offworld trade strictly illegal.
Siwann switched off her scribing pad at last, then took a white envelope from a drawer and flicked its corner. “Firebird, we have something for you.”
“Yes, Your Majesty?” Firebird leaned forward carefully in the massive chair, keeping her posture correct. A graduation gift from Siwann? Unlikely, but possible.
“You will be commissioned next month. Assuming, of course, that you complete your classes.”
“That’s right.” She hoped her mother was joking, or maybe the queen didn’t follow her wastling’s academic career with the same interest she’d shown in Carradee and Phoena. Firebird, already guaranteed an honorary captaincy as a wastling, had pushed that to a first major’s commission with her class and flight evaluations. Top marks on Korda’s seminar would win her a special commendation, too. She meant to try for it.
“You’re aware that you then will be a first major.”
“Yes.” Siwann knew! Firebird felt the skin around her eyes wrinkle with smile lines. “My flight trainer tells me I’ll be assigned to Raptor Phalanx with a flight team of my own choosing.”
“We’re glad it makes you happy, Firebird. That makes it easier for us to give you this, as the Disciplines demand.” She handed the envelope across her desktop. Firebird fingered it open and found a white paper packet. “Anyone in a combat situation risks capture,” explained her mother. “As a first major, you could be a candidate for a particularly thorough interrogation. Think what that would mean to Netaia.” She ticked off details on her fingers as if summing up a criminal case; and Netaia’s penal system, like its state religion, made few allowances for mercy. “You have been privy to the electoral council for nearly a year. There is your Academy education. Your knowledge of Angelo properties. Military facilities. Defense procedures.”
Stricken, Firebird slipped the small packet back into the envelope and let it drop into her lap. She’d held death on the desktop. Her fingertips tingled. “This is poison?”
“You will keep it with you at all times, beginning here and now. For your sake, we hope that you will go out with the navy and finish your days in some exciting episode. We would be proud to see you named in Derwynn’s new history series. But if ever it becomes obvious that you cannot avoid being taken prisoner, then your Resolve to use this may be the most important weapon you have carried into battle.” She emphasized Resolve, one of the Powers, with regal deliberation—and then dropped her habitual royal plural. “Must I make myself clear, Firebird?”
“Not your orders, Majesty. But—”
“Captain Friel assures me you keep all of the Disciplines and the Charities, and I am glad. Besides guarding your place in history, the Powers will welcome you gloriously into true bliss if you keep this last obligation.”
Swallowing a qualm of guilt, Firebird bowed her head. She’d irrevocably broken the Disciplines, helping Jisha and Alef escape. “I understand,” she murmured. “But tell me what this is. How it will ... kill.”
“The vernacular is Somnus.” Siwann slipped back into the lofty voice that she used at weekly electoral Obediences, when she read from the Disciplines. “It suppresses the involuntary nervous system. Taken orally, it will induce unconsciousness in about five minutes, irreparable brain damage in about fifteen, and finalize in twenty, without discomfort. Your aunt Firebird took it when Carradee was born, as did our mother the queen when we were ready to rule.”
Firebird nodded slightly. Such was the duty of a Netaian queen, and she knew about her namesake. The elder Lady Firebird hadn’t even waited for the Electorate to issue her geis, but had gone to her suite, eaten a slice of her favorite cream pie, and then poisoned herself as soon as baby Carradee was declared normal and healthy.
Carradee’s first little daughter was normal and healthy, too. Firebird loved her as much as she envied her. Princess Iarlet, now three years old, was a beautiful, flirtatious firstborn.
Firebird tucked the packet into her breast pocket. “I shouldn’t need this, madam. I intend to have the fastest striking team in the Planetary Navy.”
“Fine words for a pacifist.”
Didn’t Siwann understand? Firebird would never slaughter civilians, but she longed for fame and glory—to let Strength, Valor, and Excellence shine in her actions. “I’ll go, Majesty.” Firebird rested her hands on her knees. “I know what my orders will be. Just see that they put us on a military target run, not a civilian one, and I swear I’ll do my best for you.”
“Yes. You will.” Siwann’s posture softened infinitesimally. “You always do, don’t you?”
Grateful for the crumb of royal recognition, Firebird nodded. “Thank you, Mother.”
Abruptly Siwann pushed back her chair and stood. “Little Firebird. Come here.”
Firebird stood up, unsure of her mother’s intentions. “Majesty?”
“Here.” The queen flicked her hands. “Come to me.”
Hesitantly, Firebird made the circuit of the massive desk into Siwann’s outstretched arms. Only when she was not ordered away did she return the embrace.
“My baby,” Siwann crooned. “My bright baby.”
They swayed back and forth, Firebird holding tightly with painfully stiff shoulders. She didn’t know how to react. This outpouring of sentiment made her feel guilty, as if she were taking something from Siwann that rightfully belonged to Carradee and Phoena.
Just as suddenly and inexplicably as she’d called her close, Siwann pulled away. She flicked both hands brusquely. Firebird was dismissed.
Firebird by Kathy Tyers
Copyright © 2004, Kathy Tyers
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.