Part two of my series about the colonized denizens of Xandarian moon No. VI. Part one is here.
When it peeked over Novi’s horizon, Xandar looked small. Peaceful. Blue swirled with grey, far away, moon number three peeking around behind it. Astrea knew looks could be deceiving, and that Xandar was neither peaceful or small, even from her limited window view. She hated seeing it in her sky. The same sky where her parents hung now, shining and returned to their star form. She wondered if they watched her. She’d pray to them, but she was in enough trouble already. The view served as a reminder that Novi’ites were shackled to the Imperium just as their little moon was shackled in its orbit of the central planet.
Astrea undid her zip line harness and sword scabbards, laying them both with reverent care on a small table. Her swords were locked away in the armory, separating her from a part of her soul, contained within the ancient weapons. The Peacekeepers had no right to touch them or to foul any sacred thing with their outsider’s touch. They did not understand their ways, so they did it anyhow.
The soft creak of the bamboo flooring announced Orion even before he cleared his throat behind her. Smart. After the night she spent in the brig, he knew not to sneak up behind her if he didn’t want his nose broken.
He lingered near the doorway, tall and lean, hair swept from his face and feet bare. She wondered what he would look like with one of the long, thick braids or crowlocks like her father had worn. “Uri let me in.”
“Of course he did.”
“Are you okay?”
Astrea rubbed her wrists, raw from the restraints the Peacekeepers had used. “Do I look okay?”
“You look like you always do,” he said, every word cautious. “Angry and full of fight.”
“I didn’t start that fight.”
Orion pressed his lips into a line, concern creasing his brow. “When the Forge Mother made you the star was still burning.”
Astrea sighed. She braced for the lecture; she was too angry, too ready to resort to violence, too eager to prove the Imperium right about the savages they’d colonized. She leaned against the window. “Maybe. I’ve always felt like she left part of me out.” Something to temper her. Something which would allow her to be at peace.
He didn’t speak for a time, watching her. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I did.” She answered automatically, no hint of remorse evident. She turned her brown-black eyes to meet his. “You know I did. The things those Xandarians were saying. I couldn’t let that go.”
“You could let some of them go. You don’t have to fight every fight.” He hovered still, just inside the doorway. He rubbed a hand over his hair before tugging at the lobe of his ear.
“I don’t. Not all of them. Just when it matters.” She turned back to the window, deftly dividing her hair at the centerline of her scalp. She fumbled the first, dropping it and swearing under her breath.
“Let me.” Orion crossed the tiny room in two strides and took her hair in his hands. “I wanted to say thank you.”
“You already did that.” She stood with her arms crossed as he tightly plaited her hair into two. Her posture eased as he wove it down her back. He’d done it countless times before, a gesture of intimacy between clan members.
“I should have stuck up for myself, then you wouldn’t be under house arrest.”
“If I hadn’t done it for you I would have done it for me.” A straightforward and true fact. “They have no right to treat us that way. As if we don’t matter. As if this isn’t our home.”
Orion finished the braid quietly, silence stretching out as if he refused to argue, but also refused to accept the truth any more than she did. He tied the second braid off. “I’ve been offered a place in the academy. On Lumen d 77.
She jerked back, blinked up at him owlishly, her fingers trailing over her braids. “I’ve never heard of that one.”
“You wouldn’t have. It’s a university for the children of Imperium diplomats. Senators. Politicians.”
“Princes.” She frowned. “That sounds expensive.”
Orion’s voice grew quieter, almost ashamed. “The Imperium Senate has a committee. They want to send me. I’ll learn how the Senate works. Diplomacy. Political stuff.”
“Their political stuff.”
“It’s a gesture.”
“Your brother is going to allow that?” Astrea shook her head incredulously.
“It was his idea. There’s a delegation coming from Xandar to negotiate it.”
“To negotiate your future? Why do you need to go to some Imperium school? What about your future here?”
“I never said I think I do.” Now he sounded agitated, something she’d not meant to do.
“They’ll take you away from everything you know. They won’t let you practice the old ways there.”
“They don’t let me do that here,” he reminded her. Not that she needed the reminder. There were no ceremonies. No blessings. No open-aired shrines to their gods so they could praise the stars in their full brightness.
She didn’t like that. Not one bit. She turned away from him again, making a frustrated sound.
“One of the senators is bringing his daughter.”
Astrea looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Another conscript?”
“No. Not a conscript.” He paused as if not sure how to go on. “She’s already done her conscription. She’s a little older. A few years.”
Astrea didn’t like where this was going. “So why do we care?”
“Because,” he started and stopped. He began pacing from one side of her room to the other and back again. “Because Xandar wants an alliance.”
Astrea narrowed her eyes. ‘Alliance’ was an odd way to say foothold in their government, such as it was. “They want you to Forge-bond with her.”
“They don’t call it that.” He took a deep breath and let it out, crossing to the window.
She groaned, exasperated. “Marriage. Whatever.”
“Marriages are religious. Like Forge-bonding. This would be a civil union. A legal contract.”
“They can’t do that!” Just like that her anger bubbled up again, threatening to boil over. She threw her hands up in the air. “That destroys our traditions. They can’t just—“
“They can just. And they’re going to. Whether we go along willingly or not. Reis has already said he’d allow it.” Orion stopped and stared at her for a long time, anguish clear on his features.
“Anyone can see what they’re doing.”
“You’re not ever going to be chief.” Not unless something were to happen to Reis, and he was infuriatingly cooperative with the Imperium. “What is the point?” Astrea realized the point just then, and winced. She took a deep breath and let it out. “They’ll expect you to have children. So that’s it, then. They’re going to seize control over the last of us by mixing their blood with ours.”
Astrea paced impotently before kicking at a thick woven rug. She let out a scream, unable to vent the storm of energy that welled inside her, yet left her feeling so hollow. “How can I fight this?” She held up a hand. “I know. I know. I can’t.”
Orion didn’t say anything, his quiet making her look at him. When she did, she realized he was staring at her, his face hardened with a determination to make her understand something. But what?
“There might be a way you can. Fight it, I mean.”
When he didn’t say more she threw her arms up. “Well?”
Orion’s face reddened. He leaned his weight back and forth on the balls of his bare feet, looking for the words and unable to make them.
“Stars above, Orion, spit it out.”
“I think we should be Forge-bonded.”
She blinked. “Who?”
He flapped his hands at her. “Us. You. Me.”
Astrea barked a laugh. “Be serious, Orion.”
He laid both hands on her shoulders, looking her straight in the eye. “I’ve never been more serious. You’re the war chief’s sister. Daughter of the last of the great leaders.”
She scoffed, turned her face away, laughing without humor. She looked at everything in the room except for him. At the window. At the rumpled rug. At her bed. At the door. Then finally turned her gaze back at him. “Do you even like—“
Both of Astrea’s brows shot up. “Oh.” She stepped back out of his reach. “Really?”
He let her go without a fight. “Is that so hard to believe? I’ve known you my whole life.”
“But you’re you.” She laughed in disbelief. “I’m supposed to protect you.”
The side of his mouth turned upward, though sadness still ruled his face. “And by doing this, you will. Along with everything we hold sacred.”
Astrea looked down at her hands. The lines and calluses from sword craft and sailing through their trees on zip lines mingled with the creases of her life lines. “You’re talking about children.” Stars above, she was too young for children.
“Eventually. There are other reasons. Would it be so bad to be bonded with me? Don’t you think you could ever—“
“Of course I do.” And really, part of her already did. There was an unspoken affection, one that felt natural as they grew up side by side in the same clan. She’d just never considered it this way. “I’ve just never considered Forge-bonding. Not with anyone.”
Some of the sadness faded from his smile.
Astrea shook her head, still not convinced. “Would Reis even agree to it? It sounds like he’s already made promises.”
“He won’t stop it,” Orion said very softly. “He says he cannot stop something he does not know about.”
That sounded like a cheap way to play diplomat. Reis kept his hands clean and could censure their bond, even if he had to honor it.
“I’m volatile,” she said matter-of-factly. “And rebellious. And about a dozen other words the Peacekeepers used to describe me tonight. All of them mean that they would never want me anywhere near the Ogimaa-inni. You could start a war.”
He looked at her, very serious in a way she’d not seen him before. “I could. We could. What do you think?”
Astrea held his gaze, not realizing that the breath in her lungs no longer moved. Had she not fought and railed for this very thing? A chance to take back what was theirs. She let the breath out with a hard puff of her cheeks. “I think they brought the war to us.”
“Is that a yes?” She heard the first note of hope in his voice that she’d heard in a long time.
“Forge damn me. Yes.” A little thrill ran through her belly and she nodded. “Yes,” she said again, more firmly.
Orion beamed, wrapping his strong arms around her and lifting her clean off the floor. She laughed, and didn’t resist it as he spun them about. Despite the overwhelming feeling that left her unable to make words, something inside her said this was right. She smiled, because it was Orion, and he was a good man. More than anyone he understood her anger and feelings of helplessness. She understood now what he was willing to sacrifice for what he believed. What they believed.
He set her down, one hand brushing her cheek and fingers cradling the back of her head. He leaned down, smiling, his eyes half closed.
Astrea pulled back, bewilderment plain on her face. She stepped out of reach of his hand and stood up tall, taking a deep breath to calm herself.
He looked as if she’d punched his gut. “What’s wrong?”
She stammered a moment then found her words. “We have to do it in secret.”
He didn’t frown, not exactly, but his disappointment was obvious, even if he knew what she said to be true. “Oh.”
She smiled, almost a grimace. “It’s going to change everything. I need time to accept that, and in the meantime, no one else can know.”
The tension in his posture eased and he nodded his agreement. “I can live with that.”
“Thank you.” She stepped further back, slowly making her way to the window once more. “It’s a good thing we’re doing. For Novi. For all the stars in the sky.” She looked at the Peacekeepers patrolling, and at the rising of Xandar into the inky indigoes of the night sky. “We’ll do it tonight.”
Orion stepped up behind her and clasped her elbow in the cup of his hand. He studied they sky with her for a long time. Astrea thought he would say more, but he only smiled, turned, and left.