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Excerpt for The Saoirse Saga Box Set by , available in its entirety at Smashwords









The Saoirse Saga

Box Set







By





Teagan Kearney









The right of Teagan Kearney to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchases.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.



Copyright © Teagan Kearney





Cover photo: Shutterstock





Dedication

To Tim, as always, for your loving support and help.





Acknowledgment

To every single one of my readers—a great big heartfelt thank you.

In particular, I’d like to mention Lois, Larry, Steve, Linda, Judith, Rebecca, and Brandi. Your support is genuinely appreciated.



Sign up for the author’s mailing list to receive a free copy of Hekate’s Chalice, Book One in the Adept Solutions Series, and information about new releases, discounts, and advanced reading copies: https://bit.ly/2zGXGsS



Saoirse (pronounced sirsh-uh or sear-sha) is the Irish Gaelic word for freedom.

Table of Contents

Episode 1: Stars & Ashes

Chapter1: Invasion

Chapter 2: Exodus

Chapter 3: Slavery

Chapter 4: The Heir

Chapter 5: Changes

Chapter 6: A Candidate

Chapter 7: Training

Chapter 8: Opportunity

Chapter 9: Flight

Chapter 10: Action and Reaction

Chapter 11: The Finals

Chapter 12: Pyrrhic Victory

Chapter 13: Results

Chapter 14: The Festival of Masks

Chapter 15: Revelations

From The Author











Episode 1: Stars and Ashes









Chapter 1: Invasion



The class of eight and nine-year-old girls and boys, their faces rosy with effort and eyes shiny with pleasure, straightened their thin brown tunics, wiped a hand or two across a sweaty forehead, stood tall, and bowed to the teacher.

Kia returned the bow. They were eager to please, and it took nothing but a kind word of encouragement for them to blossom. “Thank you, disciples,” Kia intoned the solemn, formal dismissal, then couldn’t hide her smile. “Okay, you’re dismissed, off you go. Don’t forget your homework.” Her eyes twinkled with satisfaction.

The ordered formation broke and became a fluid mass of grinning children surging for the practice hall door.

Little Diago threw her a wave and a wink as he went, making her laugh. The lad showed a lot of promise, and Kia thought he had a bright future if he practiced, which she could tell he didn’t always do. A swift glance around the hall—neatly stacked mats, the floor swept—and satisfied everything was as it should be, she tossed her waist-length pale-blonde plait over her shoulder and headed out pleased with the afternoon’s class.

The srilao hall was in the older section of Sestris amid the narrow, cobbled twisting streets near the port, and the temple was close by. Late afternoon and the city dozed, dreaming slow dreams in the warm lull between noontime and evening, though the streets were never completely silent.

She had time to stop and make an offering to Cossanta, the golden four-armed patron Goddess of srilao devotees before buying the sweetfruit and berries for the tart her mother wanted to make that evening.

Training for the Southern Continental Championships last month was the hardest thing she’d ever done and winning had been beyond her expectations. The Goddess deserved as many offerings as Kia could manage. Returning to Sestris, standing in the packed town square under the blazing midday sun, and hearing the roaring cheers as the Head Elector—her proud father—placed the golden medallion around her neck, had been dizzying. Yet the class of under ten-year-olds was the most rewarding assignment she’d been given in her training to become a srilao teacher.

Srilao was both a martial art and a dance form, and practitioners were fighters, gymnasts, and dancers who could earn their living performing and teaching in any of the three branches: champions were those who proved they possessed superior skills in all the forms.

She’d put the key in the lock and was studying the round metal symbol on the door, her gaze tracing the three whorls emanating from the center, about to turn the key when the siren screamed, sending every startled seabird in the vicinity flapping into the air. Later she would remember that moment; how the city crouched, waiting, how time elongated, the feel of the cool gray metal in her hand, the grain of the pale ashwood door, the warm breeze stirring the hairs on the back of her neck. When birds fly, something this way comes. Beware, the old saying went. Her other hand clutched the medallion underneath her tunic. She would remember because nothing was ever the same afterward.

At first, the ear-piercing shriek confused her. Then the world stopped. This rhythm of wailing blasts meant one thing—invasion. The thought ignited a chain reaction, and she twisted the key, hearing the lock click, stilling as a fleet of low flying craft skimmed the rooftops, and a wave of heated air buffeted her. A single thought. Home. She needed to get home. Her mother was strong and capable, but the twins would be scared.

The synchronized regulated thud of boots was loud in the thrumming silence after the siren, and she froze at the sight of the menacing line of black uniformed soldiers. They marched, six abreast with weapons raised, along the narrow street toward her, herding a bewildered frightened crowd in front of them.

“Citizens of Sestris, this is the Nadil-Kuradi Empire taking control,” an emotionless voice boomed. “Please leave your houses, head for the main gate, and wait outside the city walls. Those disobeying this order will be shot.” The soldiers marched closer.

She was too late. Dark visors hid their faces, but she’d no doubt one, or more, had their phaserifles trained on her. Kia thrust the key in her pocket. How polite and typical of the Xaruntian conquerors to say please as they ordered you to surrender or die, she thought, fighting the blind panic threatening to overwhelm her. She recited the pre-fight invocation under her breath, pulling on every bit of training she’d learned since childhood to stay calm. Bit by bit the black wave receded, and she continued putting one foot in front of the other.

The srilao practice hall was near an intersection, and as she passed the shops and houses, doors opened and more people joined the shuffling fearful throng, accompanied by the loud, monotonously repeated command to comply. As they neared the main gate out of the city, the streets were packed. The normal city smells of street flits, food stalls, sea or sand—depending on the wind; the mix of innumerable odors given off by a city full of people was replaced by the acid scent of fear. Everyone had seen the holovid or heard about the Urkat massacre where every house, village, and city on the planet had been obliterated on the orders of the Emperor Teyrn because its inhabitants had defied the might of the empire. The message was clear, and no Sestrian was foolish or brave enough to try that stunt.

Kia shot a look behind her. She saw a second, and then the third row of armed soldiers. She heard doors being smashed as the invaders went house to house, checking for anyone hoping to avoid detection. The soft pff of a weapon firing, followed by the cutting off of a child’s sobbing followed her along the street. Had they captured her father? Dear Goddess, please let him have escaped. Kia kept moving, her fists clenched and her jaw aching from gritting her teeth too hard.

She thought of little Diago, worry shivering through her. She had to trust all the children had made it home. Why hadn’t they been warned? The entire population had known one day the emperor’s spaceships would appear in the pale lavender sky like a plague of dusky aljarads out of the desert. The insects appeared every few years and stripped the city’s trees and gardens. However, unlike the insects, these aggressors wouldn’t fly out over the ocean and disappear. The vast amount of accessible rich mineral deposits had guaranteed that, even with Emankora’s position at the far end of a galaxy arm, the world was too rich a plum not to be plucked. Accordingly, some of those in positions of power, including her father, had made plans for this eventuality, always with the hope they would never be needed.

Kia staggered as the realization hit her. A traitor in their midst must have uncovered the Elector's schemes and sold them out to their enemies. Her father had refused to disclose his plans to her, saying he’d bring her in after she started the Electoral training program the following year. Yet the invader's sudden appearance demonstrated their sleepers must have already been in position. She stumbled and would have fallen, but the woman next to her reached out and steadied her.

“Be strong. This is no more than the beginning.” The woman was lean and worn down with hard work, and her lined sun-browned face gave nothing away. “Life will get a lot worse before it gets better.” Her harsh expression softened for a moment before she strode ahead.

As the multitude reached the large tree-line square adjacent to the Main gates, they came to a standstill, the sheer mass of people making it impossible to move any farther.

Kia could see the elaborately decorated pink sandstone arch, but the enormous crowd filling the square milled in confusion with mothers clutching children’s hands, soothing their cries, huddling beside their husbands, and both old and young afraid of what was coming next. Most of these people had been among those who celebrated her triumph, as her success was their success. These were the citizens who had voted for Madaxa Xefe over the previous twenty years, first as councilor then as Head Elector, but today their gazes slid elsewhere, and they trembled, scared for themselves and their families.

Judging by the number and positioning of the troops, Kia estimated they’d first encircled the town and moved inward, sweeping everyone before them: another sign that no matter what defensive measures the resistance had organized, the empire’s agents had eliminated them. Her father and his cohorts had seriously underestimated the enemy’s ability to neutralize their strategy. Or they’d overestimated their people’s loyalty. If she had to choose, she’d favor the former. The sun had moved low toward the horizon by the time Kia, trapped in the midst of the thirsty hungry crowd, stumbled forward, at last able to see what was causing the blockage.

A three-row-deep line of soldiers, with their weapons trained on those passing before them, stood on both sides of the short road leading to the gates, where two men, who looked more like officers than regular infantry, questioned everyone and tapped answers into their comunits.

If they’re here, they’ll target my family, her father had said, and here’s what you’ll do.

When her turn came, the black-visored man stared at her. “Name?”

She studied her red leather sandals. “Kia O’Afon.” O’Afon was her mother’s family name, and afon meant river. Her mother came from the remote south where the land was green and forested, unlike the central desert that stretched out and covered half the southern continent behind Sestris. The mineral rich desert, mined by the Sestrians for centuries, provided a living, trade, and was the reason for the port’s existence.

“Age.”

“Twenty-three.” At least Jared wasn’t here. Her older brother had gone north on a trading expedition with Keyon, his best friend. Brown eyed, serious Keyon, who last time they’d talked had told her if she didn’t say yes to his offer of partnership soon, he would always love her but would look elsewhere.

The questioner leaned in, snapped his fingers in her face. “I asked you your status?”

She flinched. “Single.” Focus, she told herself. This wasn’t the time to daydream about what ifs.

“Family?”

“None.”

“None?”

“I’m from the south, and I'm here for work.”

“Guess that explains your coloring.”

Kia took after her mother and with her pale blonde hair and irises so dark the pupil was barely discernible, her looks marked her out. Native Sestrians had darker hair, green or blue eyes, and paler skin. He held a scanner to her eyes and checked his comunit again.

Kia held her breath.

“That way. Go left.” He pointed through the gates.

Altering the civic records to give her a new identity had held up under inspection. She breathed out.

Outside the walls, another avenue of black-visored figures waited.

Kia subtly altered her posture, slumping her shoulders and scuffing her feet instead of striding. One-on-one in unarmed combat, she stood a chance. Her average height and slender build were deceptive because she was well-trained with lightning fast reflexes and hadn’t yet met an opponent whose body she couldn't read. As she walked, she sensed the hidden eyes assessing her. Tales of the Nadil-Kuradi Empire’s cruelty toward its new vassals were endless. Crush and crush again, until there was nothing left but blind obedience to the emperor.

Far too quickly she reached the end of the intimidating gauntlet, and a phaserifle directed her left. On the flat expanse of dun-colored sands beyond the town, she caught a brief glance of the fleet of spacecraft that had brought their vanquishers. Teaching in the hall, she hadn’t heard their arrival over the excited cries of the children practicing. Some looked bigger, most likely troop carriers, and nearby were a dozen or more fighter craft. As if Sestris possessed the capability to fight anything military, let alone an interstellar space fleet of any size. She hitched a breath at the thought of the same scenario happening all over Emankora.

Kia joined a large group of young men and women sitting on the ground guarded by yet more soldiers. They were separating people into groups. Where were her mother and sisters? She scanned the area, but it was several minutes before she spotted the women and younger children.

“You.”

Kia looked up to find the barrel of a phaserifle about a handspan from her face. She swallowed.

“Look down and don’t talk. See him.” The soldier pointed his weapon over to the right.

Kia’s gaze alighted on the body of a young man who lay unmoving as blood pooled beneath his head.

“He did what you’re doing. Looking for his kinfolk. Don’t. From here on, you are nobody. You have no family or friends. You belong to the emperor body and soul.”

Kia looked down. Body, maybe, soul, never.

The sky darkened, the temperature dropped, Osupa rose in isolated splendor, and still they sat on the cooling earth as the invaders catalogued the townspeople. The youth’s lifeless body was eventually dragged away, and while they were all were aware of what was happening, they were powerless.

Kia passed the night in a frozen stupor listening to the faint intermittent wails of children or the barking of a command. If you needed to relieve yourself, a soldier escorted you past the outer line and trained his phaserifle on you as you did your business. Animals, Kia thought, raising a hand when her bladder was about to burst. Animals. That’s all we are to them.

Rumor had it the empire used neural implants to boost the speed of their reactions, physical strength, and endurance. The soldiers’ behavior, impervious and vigilant throughout the night, appeared to confirm the story.

As the predawn sky turned gray, then pink, she heard hammering in the distance. Sweet Goddess, what was happening?

With shouts of ‘Stand,’ and swift use of phaserifle butts to ensure compliance, the guards harried the cold, stiff prisoners to their feet. They soon found out what the noises meant. A raised platform had been thrown up, high enough that even those at the rear could witness whatever was about to take place.

Kia’s heart drummed faster, and she glanced at those standing near her, meeting the frustrated gaze of a tall young man. She blinked in acknowledgement, and he returned the signal, but any further communication stopped as a sleek dark airship flew low over the gathering.

“The Emperor Teyrn’s Heir,” one soldier hissed, “Lord Rialoir himself!” The guards nearby stood straighter as their eyes tracked the small fighter, but movement on the makeshift stage drew their attention away from the new arrival.

Kia watched, blinking hard, not wanting to believe what she was seeing as four men and four women were marched onto the platform.

A groan of collective sorrow rose from the townsfolk.

Kia’s heart stopped. Her legs trembled, and she locked her knees as she recognized the figure in the center. Her father. She couldn’t look away. He would want her to witness. To witness and remember.

“These people are all traitors. Their families have been executed.”

Kia gasped, the breath leaving her lungs in a rush as sobbing broke out in several places. She’d have fallen if a hand hadn’t gripped her upper arm, holding her upright. All she could see was her mother’s face: one minute chiding, cross with her rebellious daughter, the next, smiling and proud of that same daughter’s achievements—and always loving. But Lilia and Alsling, her curly-headed lively young sisters, always up to mischief, and the sweetheart twins of her parents’ later years, would have been with her mother. This wasn’t possible; it couldn’t be happening. They should have had enough warning to flee before the invaders arrived. What had gone wrong? No, no, no, her mind reiterated, refusing to accept reality.

“Hey!” A soldier thrust the butt of his weapon into the young man's chest, shoving him away from her. He staggered backward and quickly raised his arms high in the air.

The guard turned toward her, and her muscles shivered with the effort of controlling herself.

“These men will be executed.” The speaker announced.

Kia’s attention jerked back to the dais. Her father was too distant to be sure, but she would swear his gaze roved the silent tense citizens, and rested on her, before passing over his people.

A soldier walked out and stood at the edge of the platform facing the city’s Elected with his back to the captive Sestrians. He raised his phaserifle and eight soft pffs sighed through the air.

Kia burned the image of her father slumping to the platform with a small circular mark in the middle of his forehead into her mind, and her heart broke at the knowledge that his bright intelligence and the warmhearted gaze he turned on the world and its antics were gone forever.

Chapter 2: Exodus



Kia sat on the hard metal floor of a transport carrier heading for Shihon, the capital of Emankora on the Northern Continent, along with the young men and women of Sestris. She shivered from the cold night air—the plane was unheated—and the vibrations from the engine made her bones ache. She clasped her arms around her knees. Her wrists and ankles were bound with monocuffs, the latter fixed to metal bars running along the floor. After the guards shot three of them for talking, everyone sat mute, and Kia kept her head down as instructed.

She didn’t mean to sleep but had closed her eyes to shut out the misery she could see on everyone’s face. The next instant she was standing alone on the beach south of the city where her family had gone for picnics on the days when her father had no council business. The setting sun created a shimmering silver path to the horizon, and she could see a boat heading out to sea.

“Don’t leave me here,” she cried because her father was waving to her from the boat. Next to him, her mother also waved, and the twins blew her kisses.

The boat was moving fast, but she could hear their voices as if they were standing next to her. “We live in your heart,” her mother’s voice drifted over the water.

“Remember everything we taught you.” Her father smiled. “You are stronger than you know.”

She lurched sideways, knocking into the woman next to her, and woke up still half in her dream. The guards hadn’t noticed, and Kia nodded a silent apology. She didn’t cry—not because she didn’t want to, or had no tears, but because she wouldn’t give a single one of the empire’s soldiers the satisfaction seeing her breakdown. She had an ocean of tears, enough to flood the crimson deserts of the southern continent, but refused to let the tears fall. Instead, she gritted her teeth, clamped her jaw tight, clasped and unclasped her hands, once in a while letting her fingers skim the medallion underneath her tunic. When told to remove her jewelry, she’d handed over the practice hall key and pointed to her ears and wrists, showing she had none. Jewelry could be used against you in a fight with an opponent ripping an earring off, or grabbing a bracelet to immobilize an arm. She’d keep hold of her medal as long as possible. If they took it off her at a later date, in another place, the link to her family and city would be less easy to trace.

The more the events of the preceding day sank in, the more she felt she was on the edge of a precipice and it would be easy to let go and fall. All she would have to do would be to shout or scream, and one or other of the guards would shoot her. But she knew in her heart that such a decision would disappoint her parents more than any other she would ever make. You are stronger than you know, her father’s voice echoed in her head.

What had gone wrong with her father’s plans? The empire’s interstellar fleet had disabled the planet’s defenses, knocked out the communications and transport systems, and materialized in the skies over Emankora without any warning. There must have been an enormous number of hidden sleepers within their midst for them to succeed in the way they had. Making an example of Sestris, her beloved home town and the main trading center for the conglomeration of independent miners, would ensure the southern continent’s compliance.

Kia had heard of the empire’s methods—who hadn’t? She suspected her father had advised his fellow electors to surrender, hoping to save lives. It wasn’t a hard decision as the superior numbers and weapons of the empire’s forces would have outnumbered the city’s small defensive capabilities. Face it, she told herself, if you’re serious about conquering a planet, you bring what you need to accomplish the mission, and the empire wasn’t known for its lighthearted approach to its expansion program.

The best hope for the people left behind was for them to stay alive while the resistance reformed. She clung to that thought. The empire might have snuck its agents into their system, but her people had known, long before Kia was born, that this day was bound to come, and although their first line of defense had collapsed, she was sure they must have made contingency plans.

The prisoners still hadn’t eaten or drunk and, as a result, nobody had anything to vomit when the transport began its descent, although the smell of unwashed bodies was getting hard to ignore. After the carrier juddered to a halt, the guards moved among the prisoners removing the restraints from their feet but leaving their wrists cuffed. Their jailers herded them—some sniveling, most staring with empty or stunned gazes, but all debilitated by trauma—down a wide ramp and out onto the spaceport landing grounds.

The noise and activity of the spaceport assaulted Kia’s senses as she moved forward. The roar of a shuttle taking off, prisoners, some milling about, others marched over to large temporary tents, orders shouted, the occasional pff of weapon’s fire, and dominating everything was the sense of unreality, of a nightmare, except there would be no waking up.

Shihon’s spaceport was a short distance from the capital, but it looked very different from the previous time she visited. The entire family had made the trip to witness Jared’s official admission into the Trades and Alliances Collective. Kia swallowed the rising tide of emotion as she remembered the pride on her parents’ faces, followed fast by the image of her father being shot. She shuffled forward, letting her gaze rove, observed how their conqueror’s fleet flowed far beyond the normal berths allocated for commercial craft—and noted the total absence of the latter.

“Single line,” a guard yelled, making vicious use of the butt of his phaserifle when they didn’t move fast enough. Others repeated the command until they were satisfied with some semblance of order, then ordered them toward one of a dozen smallish gray tents where lines of Emankora’s young men and women waited to enter.

Shots were fired, and Kia heard screaming and yells from several directions as they trudged along, heads down, and looking neither to the left or right.

“We'll shoot anyone who tries to run,” the nearest guard bellowed.

Their line shambled forward without stopping. Not a day had gone by, and they’d already learned to do what they were told, and do it quickly.

Kia wondered if they’d be given the choice. Sometimes the subjugated populations of annexed planets were asked if they wanted to join the empire’s troops. This entailed a certain number of cybernetic alterations, but once you had served your allocated time, you were granted your freedom. The price was high, though, because the modifications changed you into a creature with limited free will. The alternative was to retain your individuality and work as a slave until you died from exhaustion, starvation or any of the frequent disasters in the many asteroid mines. However, sometimes no option was given and whole planets were enlisted in whatever the empire’s current needs dictated.

When Kia entered the dim interior of the tent, she kept her gaze down, waiting her turn. She raised her head a fraction and saw ahead of her a visored soldier seated at a table with a comunit, and a couple more soldiers, their weapons raised, watching the prisoners. Standing behind him and looking over his shoulder, was a fourth man dressed in a dark green uniform. The conspicuous absence of any insignia on his clothing wasn’t the only difference this soldier displayed—he wore no helmet.

Kia was surprised at how normal he seemed with his close-shaved light brown hair and keen pale blue eyes. It was hard to believe he was someone's son, father, or husband when they were all monsters. Occasionally he interrupted the seated soldier and asked a question.

When her turn came, Kia stepped forward.

“Name?”

She blew out a quiet breath, more assured this time her identity was safe. “Kia O’Afon.”

The man in the green uniform leaned across the seated questioner, picked up the comunit, studied it briefly before walking around the table and stopping far too close. He was a good bit taller than her, and despite the tired lines around his eyes, his gaze was sharp as he assessed her. “Says here you were in Sestris looking for work. What work do you do?”

“Cleaning and such. Whatever I can get.” Kia addressed him with respect. She didn’t need to antagonize this man as although he had no insignia and his uniform was plain, whoever he was, he clearly outranked the other soldiers.

“Show me your hands.”

“What?”

“If I have to repeat myself, one of those two,” he gestured to the soldiers behind the table, “will have to shoot you…”

Her heart rate shot up, and she had no doubt he meant what he said despite his casual tone. She twisted her hands inside the cuffs and showed him her palms.

He gripped her wrists, turned her hands this way and that, scrutinizing her fingernails before running his thumb over her calloused palms. “These hands don't belong to anyone who cleans for a living. It looks as if those callouses,” his finger stroked the callus between her thumb and index finger, “are from regular use of a weapon.”

“My father, before he died, may the Gods care for his soul, taught me to use a blade.” She let herself well up, which was easy to do and glanced up at him making sure he’d notice her tears. “He wanted me to be able to protect myself.”

A scuffle and screams had Kia turning toward the entrance. A young fellow had run, and she watched a soldier raise his phaserifle and fire. Her eyes widened as she recognized him in the shocked silence. He was older than her and she didn’t recall his name, but he’d gone to school with Jared, and she’d seen him in her neighborhood. Whatever future his parents had hoped for him, a wife, grandchildren, was snuffed out. Her lips tightened.

“What’s this?” Her questioner wrenched her back to the present as he released his grip on her wrists, and moving quickly, reached inside the neck of her tunic, grabbed the chain of her medallion, disentangled her plait, and lifted it over her head with surprising speed.

A cold hand squeezed her heart, and she stared at the ground. She had won that medallion through hard work and dedication, and she didn’t want him to see her fear or anger.

“What have we here?” He studied the motif, turning the medallion over. “A srilao champion, no less. I can see why you didn’t surrender this when you were asked to hand over your valuables.” He scrutinized her. “You’re on the skinny side, but I bet you’re fast, otherwise you wouldn’t have this.” He nodded at the medallion in his hand.

“I’ll put her choice down as the military, then? Mercenaries do real well in our system,” the guard at the table ignored her and addressed her interrogator.

“I’m not a mercenary and I’m not for hire,” she told them both.

The man in front of her studied her. “My boss might have a use for you.”

She didn’t care who his boss was and realized she’d nearly missed the significance of the other soldier’s statement. “He said choice. What choice?”

“Lucky for you, the Heir has insisted the people of Emankora get to choose, despite the need for miners. If it was up to me, you’re a prime candidate for the military, but the other option available is an all-expenses paid vacation to the mines.”

“I’ll choose the mines.”

“Don’t be too eager. Slip of a girl like you could survive for a year or two. If you change your mind, send a message to Nagavi—that’s me—and I’ll pull you out of whatever hell you end up in.”

“Don’t hold your breath.” The words jumped out of her mouth before she could stop them, but her questioner chuckled. “Sense of humor. Good, you’ll need it where you’re headed. Mark my words, I’ll be seeing you before the year is out, in fact, I’d bet on it. I look forward to training you. Until then, I’ll take care of this.” He pocketed her medallion, sighed as if she was a fool not to throw her lot in with the victors, made a note on his comunit, and pointed to one of two exits at the rear. “Through there.”

Kia felt his gaze on her back and she tried not to walk too fast. If he knew who her father was, he’d order her death rather than extend an invitation, champion or not. The icy hand remained clamped around her heart even after she exited the tent.

The subsequent hours blurred into one prolonged humiliation. Surrounded by jittery soldiers with fingers twitching on their phaserifles, Kia joined those captured from cities all over the planet as they were herded into large warehouses. Previously used for importing and exporting goods, they’d been transformed into clearing houses for the detainees. She estimated there were over a thousand in this shed alone, and there were at least half a dozen sheds. The empire was divesting Emankora of its future, and they would either be absorbed into the empire’s structure or be worked to death, thus removing any threat.

They were ordered to strip, directed into communal showers, handed a tube of cream, and told to smear it on their scalps.

Kia stood with the naked women who’d clustered together, although even the lustiest male among them had no thoughts of pleasure, as freezing chemshowers blasted their goose-bumped skin. She numbly watched as the depilation cream did its job, and her waist-length white blonde hair was sucked down a drain, disappearing along with everyone else’s hair.

“They want to remove every trace of who we are,” a woman said. “The trouble with hair, though, is it doesn’t stop growing.”

The woman was right, but Kia added this degradation to her list of insults and hardening desire for revenge.

After being issued with thick black coveralls and a pair of rough rope sandals, they were allowed five minutes to chew a tough tasteless condensed wafer and drink a plasbulb of water before soldiers funneled them in groups aboard the waiting shuttles.

Strapped into the shuttle’s metal seat, Kia glanced around and didn’t recognize a single face. During the processing, she had somehow become separated from her group from Sestris, and a sliver of panic twisted her gut. At least if she was with people from Sestris, she stood a chance of finding others who had knowledge of the resistance. A tall young man sat down a few rows in front, and she unwound a bit as she recognized him as the same person who’d stood by her side during her father’s execution. He could be an ally, and she determined she’d try to stay close to him.

The shuttle rattled, and her ears rang as it blasted off. After docking beside a larger ship, the soldiers channeled their charges along gray metal corridors and down into the belly of the spaceship. Kia dropped back until no more than a few people separated her from the young man.

“First four in here,” the soldier ordered, waving his weapon at the open door. He pressed a button outside the cell and the door slid shut. “Next four,” he said, and the procedure was repeated as they moved along the corridor.

Kia was near the end of the line, and she did a quick check. Waiting until the guard’s attention was elsewhere, she took a chance and turned to the woman behind her. “Could I swap places with you?” Kia whispered. “Please, I want to be with my friend.” She nodded at the tall youth.

“Sure,” the woman replied. “A little comfort goes far in times like this.”

Kia smiled her thanks as they slid past each other.

“Hi, I’m Shanyi. How are you doing?” The young man muttered in her ear as they shuffled forward.

“Still breathing. You?” she murmured. “I wasn’t sure you’d seen me.”

“The southern continent’s reigning srilao champion is hard to miss,” he said softly, “even without that recognizable hair.”

“Don’t say that,” she hissed. “If they—”

“Don’t worry. Nobody from Sestris will say anything.”

Kia's estimate was correct, and when their turn came she and Shanyi were the first two into the next empty cell. The small narrow room contained four bunks, two on either side, with scarcely enough room to turn sideways. Another couple were shoved in after them; one was a bigger, older man and the other, a lad not yet out of school.

The instant the door shut, a basic srilao tenet sprang to mind. Take the initiative if you can, followed by an upper position is often, but not always, more advantageous. In this case, she figured it most definitely was. “We’ll take the top,” she said, clambering up the nearest ladder, nodding at the other top bunk as she met Shanyi’s gaze.

Resentment flitted across the older man’s face, but he said nothing and sat on the lower bunk underneath Kia.

“On your bunks,” an impersonal voice commanded over the ship’s tannoy. “You are under surveillance at all times and refusal to comply will result in severe disciplinary action.”

Shanyi and the younger lad were lying down before the instruction ended.

“Lie flat on your backs with your legs straight and your arms by your side.”

Kia and Shanyi lay as instructed and gazed at each other across the tiny space, their puzzlement clearing as a rigid restraint emerged from the wall, arched over their chests, adjusted to their size, and locked with a solid clunk into a slot on the edge of the bunks. Another restraint across their calves followed.

“What’s happening?” The lad below Shanyi asked, a tremor in his voice.

“Once we’ve passed through the wormhole, your restraints will be removed, but you are locked in here until we arrive at our destination,” the tannoy announced.

Wormhole? Kia stared at the gray metal ceiling as the reality of the preceding days bored into her mind. She closed her eyes, and the chasm beckoned. Everything she’d known, her family, her friends, her pupils, her city, her life, was gone. Instead, she was leaving her planet and heading for a future that was grim and desperate—if she was lucky.

“None of us are alone,” Shanyi murmured.

“Nor shall we ever be,” a faltering voice from below him responded.

“Nor shall we ever be,” Kia repeated, choking back the sob in her throat. “Let us give names. I’m Kia from Sestris.”

“I’m Shanyi from Sestris.”

“Chetey from Mapiri. It’s a small town in the far north.” The young man’s voice quavered.

The man below Kia grunted. “Not that Emankoran culture ever helped me or mine, but I’m Oloran, a member of the Videshi tribe.”

The Videshi were traders who wandered both continents without a permanent base and were looked down upon by many Emankorans.

“One of my father’s best friends is… was a Videshi called Vudchay.” As soon as she spoke of her father, she realized her mistake.

“Ah, the famous visionary Vudchay. Videshi or not, who hasn’t heard of him? Who was your father?”

“It doesn’t matter anymore who he was,” Kia answered, “he has departed this life.”

A tremor quivered through the ship as the engines hummed into life.

Goodbye, Emankora. I will see you again. I promise. Such a vow might be a futile gesture, but even such a small silent statement declared her defiance. She would not break; she would die rather than give herself over to them, and she would have her revenge.

Chapter 3: Slavery



The background hum of the engines ceased.

“We are entering the wormhole shortly, but be at ease, dear guests of the Nadil-Kuradi Empire, you will remember nothing.”

Kia shot a startled look at Shanyi. “That doesn’t sound good.” She’d flown on the shuttle between Sestris and Shihon, but she’d expected to spend her life on her home world. Her ambitions weren’t stellar, and her knowledge of space travel didn’t extend beyond watching the latest holovid blockbuster.

“What’s that noise?” Chetey squeaked.

They listened to a gentle hissing.

“It’s coming from the air vents.” Kia looked over at Shanyi, dismayed to see his eyes closed. She tried to call him but found her eyelids drooping, too heavy to stay open. They’ve gassed us, flashed through her mind as she fell into darkness.

Whatever chemical their captors had used to put them to sleep also affected her memory leaving her with little recall of events after they transited the wormhole. She never saw Shanyi or young Chetey again and retained a fuzzy image of prisoners being marched here and there on a gigantic space station before she passed out again on another bunk on another transport carrier. She didn’t come back to herself with some understanding of her situation until the tannoy announced the ship’s imminent arrival at their destination, Jahanamu.

Dehydrated, half-starved—she didn’t remember when she’d last eaten—and weak-kneed, she stumbled behind the prisoner in front her as they exited the shuttle into a world of unwelcoming grayness. Gray walls, gray floors, even the soldiers’ visorless faces carried a gray tint. She was too drained to take notice of much else: the maglev train down into the asteroid’s living quarters; sitting at a table cramming soup and bread into her mouth, a voice telling her to slow down or else she’d throw it all up again—advice she ignored; entering a dormitory and being pushed down onto a bed where she passed out again.

The shriek of a siren jerked her awake, and she sat up, banging her head on the metal struts of the bunk above her. Jahanamu. She remembered a voice saying, “Welcome to Hell, your new home, otherwise known as Jahanamu.”

“Showers through here, but get a move on, ’cause they turn them off after ten minutes.” An older woman, small, lean and muscled, her head covered in gray stubble, bent down and looked her over.

Kia knuckled her eyes, trying to clear the fog from her brain.

“You’ll be hung over for a while yet. That wormhole sedative takes a day or two to clear out of your system. C’mon, a shower, and clean clothes will make you feel more human. I’m Rehanya, and I’ll show you the ropes today.” She stuck out a hand.

Kia did the same, wincing as Rehanya squeezed her hand hard. On Emankora people greeted each other with folded hands and a bow, but from here on, she would have to get used to different customs. “I’m Kia.”

As she walked ahead, Rehanya explained that the segregated bunk rooms and bathrooms were in this sector and pointed out a few rooms couples used if they wanted privacy. She showed Kia where to collect a fresh overall each morning, giving her one from a pile of chem-cleaned ones that stank of cleaning fluid and were ingrained with stains.

Such considerate enslavers, Kia thought but kept her opinions to herself.

“Don’t use the bathrooms at night either. I’ll get you a piss-pot later.” Rehanya nodded at the lidded metal pot in her hand. “Rape isn’t that common, at least not as much as it used to be when they had mixed dorms, but with twice as many men as women, you don’t want to put yourself in unnecessary danger.”

Kia wasn't shocked. She had enough life experience to have learned that life wasn’t all honey and sweetness, but until the Emperor Teyrn turned his attention on her planet, she’d experienced no real hardship. She was sure making up for that gap in her education.

Rehanya was right. A two-minute tepid shower, clean overalls, and boots, even if they were too big, instead of sandals was an improvement. Breakfast, unleavened bread dipped in hot spicy slop, in a large noisy refectory crammed full of men and women eating with the voraciousness of the damned having their final meal, made her feel human again. For the first time since the invading soldiers had appeared in Sestris, there wasn’t one in sight. She assumed they kept the miners too starved to do anything other than eat, and where would they escape to, even if they overthrew their guards? She’d no doubt the soldiers and their guns might not be visible, but they’d appear like kazurkas in a swamp at the faintest whiff of trouble.

“Eat quick,” Rehanya leaned close, “because when the next—”

Kia missed the end of the sentence as a second ear-splitting shriek had everyone on their feet, grabbing pieces of bread and sticking it in their overall pockets as they headed for the exit. Copying suit, she snatched a chunk and stuffed it in her pocket as she followed Rehanya out of the eating hall. She had a lot of questions, but the empire had no interest in giving introductory courses to new members arriving at their forced labor camps. If she aimed to survive she’d have to learn as she went along. She pursed her lips and straightened her back. It wasn’t as if she had much else to do.

She stuck close to Rehanya for the short standing journey on a maglev train crammed with miners, then squeezed into an elevator that dropped them to a deeper level before disgorging them into a sizeable cavern hollowed out of the rock and illuminated by the harsh ever-present glare of artificial lighting.

“This is our section’s order point, and this guy tells us where to go. Got a fresh recruit with me today, boss, where’d you want her?”

The boss, a thin-lipped, hatchet-faced, wiry man studying his comunit, pointed over his shoulder without bothering to look up.

“Thanks, boss.”

Armed guards at the entrances to the various tunnels that dotted the cave’s sides checked off names and issued primitive pickaxes.

Rehanya stated their names for the guard, and Kia emulated the other woman, hefting the heavy tool over her shoulder, though without the same ease of movement. Kia Xefe, daughter of Head Elector, Madaxa Xefe, and winner of the most recent srilao competition in the southern continent of Emankora, was dead. However, Kia O’Afon was very much alive.

Halfway through that initial backbreaking day, Rehanya snorted when Kia asked her wouldn’t it be more efficient to use machines for mining instead of humans.

“We’re cheaper, and they squeeze as much as they can out of us while they kill us. We’re expendable, and we’re also a warning. And, as I’m sure you’ve experienced, they shoot you if we blink the wrong way.”

Kia struggled to lift her spoon and slurp her soup that night. All she planned to do was sleep and forget the burning ache in her arms, shoulders, and back.

The days soon fell into a bleak routine. Wake, eat, work, eat, sleep. Every dismal day was the same. She lost her sense of time as she became accustomed to working underground. The artificial glare of the lights, the ever-present dust in the air and grit in her mouth, the rise and fall of the pickax defined her existence.

Each night she would call up the dream image of her parents and the twins waving goodbye as a boat swept them away on a shining ocean. Yet, at times, she was too weary to think clearly, the images were fuzzy, and sleep would drag her under before she could say goodnight to her family.

She attempted to keep track of the days, but after a while, she couldn’t see the point. The days and nights merged into a dreary reality, a bleak, lonely landscape without any identifying features, and she drew on her hatred of the empire, her unresolved grief for her family, and consolidated it into a fierce, bitter reason to stay alive. One thought remained a constant companion—where was the resistance?

Her father had given both her and Jared strict instructions to choose the mines where others involved in the conspiracy against the emperor would head if given a choice. She’d learned of her father’s involvement in plans to undermine the empire when she was a teenager. He’d been in communication with a highly placed official within the empire’s hierarchy, but she had no idea who that could be, or if that person was able to help her escape her current predicament.

They were supposed to work in silence, but most guards allowed quiet conversations, although any outbursts of violence ended in a quick shot to the head.

Kia kept her eyes and ears tuned for a word or a sign that would alert her to anything subversive happening but heard nothing. Her muscles hardened as she adjusted to the labor. She lost weight, and no matter how much she crammed into her mouth morning and evening or how much bread she stuffed into her pockets to sustain her during the day, the gnaw of hunger’s hurtful teeth became a constant companion.

She saw little of Rehanya during work hours, but in the evening, those who had the energy, or the inclination gathered around the older woman’s bed. They talked of their homes, their loved ones, they moaned and grieved and comforted each other. There were also many too hurt or embittered or depressed to build relationships, and who withdrew into themselves. One woman lay on her bed rocking to herself and singing a lullaby. The others looked after her, but nobody had broken through the barrier she’d sealed herself behind.

Kia often sat on the edge of the circle letting their kindness wash over her, but not allowing it to dissolve the walls she’d erected. When asked about her story, she’d shake her head. She couldn’t get too close to anyone, not until she could figure out who was safe and who wasn’t, and at this point she didn’t trust anybody enough to confide in them. Her world had narrowed to the dormitory, the refectory, and whatever tunnel she was working in. She shut down and locked away parts of herself because existence was easier if she didn’t think or feel too much. The one thing that mattered was staying alive and getting revenge. Neither would be easy, especially the latter.

As she hefted her pick one morning, working on a different tunnel with a new crew, she noticed a familiar face in the group—Oloran. She remembered him as a big man, but he’d thinned, hardened, and his hair had turned gray. His expression was more dour than she recalled, and she felt the same antipathy toward him as before, despite their common circumstances.

At first, he showed no signs of recognition, but it wasn’t long before she found him working beside her. It didn’t matter how often she was last in the queue and chose a spot as far away from him as possible, or tried to move to a different part of their work area, each day he always ended up nearby. He never acknowledged her, but she realized he’d zeroed in on her. She said nothing, hoping the teams would change soon, and his oppressive presence would be gone. Their bosses constantly changed them around to prevent plots being hatched.

A few nights later, Kia lay on her bed, heavy fatigue towing her toward sleep, when Rehanya came over and sat down.

“You met this Oloran from before?”

A small alarm tripped in her mind. “We were on the same transport carrier from Sestris, but I never met him before then. Why?”

“He’s been asking if you have a protector.”

A protector was the term used for a man when a couple decided they wanted to be together and sent a message to others that the woman was taken. It wasn’t unknown for a woman to be forced to accept protection, and there were many methods for a man with a dominant nature to create difficulties for a woman who refused him.

“I sent a message you were under my protection.”

“What does that mean?” Some women had partnered with each other, as Kia knew women did on Sestris, but it wasn’t her inclination.

Rehanya laughed at Kia’s uneasy expression. “All it means is that although you don’t have the protection of a particular man, the women in this dorm will defend you.”

“Thank you.” If Kia needed friends, Rehanya would be a good start.

“You’ll see, sticking together is how we make it through.” She patted Kia’s arm. “Sleep.”

Kia drifted off, uneasy thoughts swirling as exhaustion claimed her.

She thought no more of the conversation with Rehanya, and in the following days Oloran kept his distance, yet she caught him looking at her more than once. The mixture of hostility and lust he radiated reminded her that ‘us and them’ wasn’t limited to the miners and their guards, but even among the prisoners she had to tread with caution.

She woke one night needing to pee. She groped under the bunk for her container, peering underneath where the dim orange nightlight revealed nothing and grimaced as she realized she must have left it in the bathroom that morning. Borrowing was a no-no; the one occasion somebody did that, Rehanya hadn’t stepped in to stop the fight.

She listened to the slow breathing in and out of the utterly exhausted as she tiptoed past the sleeping shadowy shapes. Pressing her hand against the palm lock, the door slid open, closing with a hiss behind her. Nobody. Don’t be silly, she admonished herself. Did she think men, or specifically Oloran, lurked all night in the passage on the off chance that some unfortunate woman had forgotten her piss-pot?

Pausing before leaving the bathroom, she concentrated. The thought of tons of rock pressing down, ready to implode, still left her unsettled. In theory, she recognized her fear was baseless. Jahanamu’s metals were too essential for running the empire’s wormhole ships for them to have made anything other than a secure investment. Losing slaves meant less than nothing—they were dead men working—but had spared no effort to maintain access to the asteroid’s core.

She slipped out, and a hard hand grabbed her arm. Before she could shake the hand off, a fist crashed into the side of her face, and she cried out as stars whirled and spun in front of her eyes. Dazed, her ears ringing with the blow, she shook her head to clear it.

“What fair game have we here?” Oloran leered. He leaned against the wall, but his grip was vicious.

“Let me go,” she gasped, her heart drumming.

“Or else you’ll what?” His breath was sour, and his eyes glazed as he pulled her closer. “Oh, not such a tough little girl now, are you?”

She could see his age-yellowed teeth, broken dentine monuments, in an animal grin, the rigid tendons standing out on his neck. She brought her free hand across in a chopping strike to his carotid.

Easily blocking her, he laughed and punched her again, harder, in the jaw.

Her head whipped sideways, and she slammed into the wall before blacking out. She came to face down on a bed with Oloran lying on top of her, his sour breath loud in her ears, his arm pushing down on the back of her neck, and her face pressed sideways into a musty-smelling rough blanket. His weight held her in place as he groped and pulled her tunic up with his other hand. She shifted, twisting her hips, attempting to buck him off, but he stopped his fumbling, pulled his arm back and punched her in the kidneys. Intense sharp pains shot through her insides immobilizing her and stopping her breath.

“Lie still,” he growled, “before I really hurt you.”

He yanked her tunic up, shoving her legs wide apart with his knees, his legs on hers to prevent her from kicking him.

Fear flushed through her. Her heart pounded, and her breath tore in and out of her lungs as she felt him fiddling with the belt of his pants. She needed to move, to keep trying to stop him, but the pain in her back was excruciating.

As if he could hear her thoughts he pushed her head further down into the bed.

“Relax, my pretty princess.” He shifted to position himself and his breath came faster. “It won’t be long before you’ll truly be under my protection,” he snorted at his joke.

Kia heard a cracking noise and a grunt and sank lower into the mattress as Oloran’s full weight bore down on her.

“C’mon girl, move before this shithead wakes up.”

Kia wriggled as fast as she could from under Oloran as Rehanya shoved. She staggered to her feet, shivering at her narrow escape, and struggling to stand as acute pains shot up and down her back.

The older woman took hold of Kia’s chin and examined her face. “You’ll have a few nasty bruises tomorrow, but you’ll live. Forgot your pot, did you?”

Kia nodded.

“Happens more than you’d think. But most get back without meeting bastards like him. Did he rape you?” Rehanya’s gaze was razor-sharp as she looked Kia up and down.

A sickening feeling sat heavy in her gut and her legs shook as she looked at the metal bar in the older woman’s hand. “N… no.”

“Help me roll him over.” Rehanya dropped her weapon.

Rehanya did most of the work as the pain in Kia’s back made moving painful, but soon Oloran lay unconscious and flat on his back.

“My arm’s stronger than yours, therefore I’ll do the honor.” She moved down the bed, picked up the metal bar and brought it down with a solid thwack across the top of his thighs and his flaccid member.

Kia winced.

“Better this way. If the other men or the guards find out what he tried to do—even if he didn’t succeed, they’d emasculate him.”

“What’s that?”

“They cut the whole thing off.”

Chapter 4: The Heir



The morning siren blasted Kia out of sleep. She struggled to her feet with her head throbbing and her back aching. The sympathetic looks she got from the other women in the shower room told her Rehanya had spread the word, and the pinkish red, rapidly turning purple, swellings on her face confirmed the story.

The refectory was buzzing with rumors of a special visitor to Jahanamu. Kia thought if any underground resistance existed here, this would be a prime opportunity to strike back at the empire.

“’Fraid I can’t get you any sick dispensation today,” Rehanya said with regret. “Everyone, without exception, has to be in the mines today. I’ll speak to the boss and make sure you get transferred out of your team as soon as possible. That bastard will hold a grudge. Next time, we’ll kill him.”

Kia sighed. Her jaw hurt too much to chew, but she forced herself to sip a little of the soup. With luck, this visitor would get them time off work. Swinging that pick today would be painful. She gave a rueful smile. “At least I’m not the only one hurting.”

“To your assembly points immediately and wait for instructions,” the tannoy boomed.

The room rose en masse. If this visitor was as important as gossip indicated, the guards would come down hard on the minutest infraction as it would reflect on them—and they were never hesitant to administer retribution.


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