I will always owe donma Marna for what she did for Ziedra. Still, the Kriar for all their civilized ways make me nervous. I always wonder whether underneath that super-calm demeanor there is a monster lying in wait.
--Liandra "Wren" Kergatha
2nd Princess of Cosmodarus
Starholme Prime Discovered
"Starholme's power can snuff stars, and annihilate worlds, it cannot be allowed to fall into anyone's hands. I will destroy it before that happens," Wren Idundaughter Kergatha told the group of three in a voice tight with emotion. Elbows braced on the ancient ironwood tabletop, she leaned forward and confronted an entire race.
Mouth dry and heart pounding she met the solid black eyes of the Kriar mage Cassandra, while the two other Kriar women frowned. Her voice guttered into silence in the tiny sitting room, the spicewood wall panels humming with the force of her words. The seldom used chamber set off in a rarely used corner of Cosmodarus Manor smelled of age camouflaged by the fragrance of the spice tea being shared by the occupants. Mage-lights weak with long disuse flickered, causing pale reflections from the shiny gold skin of the three Kriar women.
Some people went through life never getting a chance to catch their breath; Wren was just such a person. It had been less than a full day since her confrontation with the avatars and her victory over the pantheon lady Hecate. Already she was confronted with a threat that dwarfed Hecate the way a mountain did a single boulder. What was a single god compared to the strength of an entire race of creatures each with the ability to manipulate time and space? The Kriar were an unknowably ancient culture with a command of artifices that truly defied imagination.
Throat muscles working, Wren stared at Donma-prime Counsel Marna Solaris, the mother of her race. The elder Kriar met her gaze, glowing green eyes unblinking, fingers playing at the collar of her deep purple body wrap. The lines of her angular ageless face pulled taut and her small mouth pressed to a line.
Dame Techstar, the grandmother of Cassandra Kel'Istauri Felspar, leaned back from the table, the silver body stocking clothing her plump body casting reflections on the walls as she stiffened. The Kriar's wide face and solid black eyes were set in lines of shock at the vehemence of Wren's words.
Cassandra frowned and ran hand through her dark hair, her space-black eyes narrowing. She pulled at the sleeve of her dark blue robes, her wide face set in stern lines.
Breaths coming hard, feeling light-headed and dizzy Wren looked around at the three women. "You must see the position you've put me in." She met Marna's ancient eyes. "I know you probably see this chance encounter as some fantastic opportunity to gain knowledge. I have to say 'no'. The secrets of Starholme Prime killed an entire race. Its power could kill a million more races."
"Wren--" Cassandra started, but stopped when Marna held up a hand.
The Donma-prime did not respond immediately but took a long slow sip of her tea, studying Wren over the lip of her cup. She set the porcelain down in its saucer, head dipping. "Good tea," she murmured. She raised her gaze to Wren. "Sara Wren, I believe we need to be calm and draw a breath."
"Calm?" Wren stared at her. "I was calm until this. Damn, after everything I've been through, this is the last thing I want!" She smacked the flat of her hand against the table and shook her head. Her chest ached. "Gaea, I am so tired." She scrubbed her arm across her eyes.
Marna took another sip of tea, glancing at Dame Techstar and Cassandra. She let out a breath long and slow. "Sara, I apologize for springing this on you, but I had to know who and what was controlling that instrumentality. I needed to know if it posed a threat to my people."
Wren looked up. "No, it poses no threat to you. My problem is now I don't know if you pose a threat to my people."
The elder Kriar leaned back in her chair, fingers steepled beneath her breasts. "I understand your concern. You have my assurances that the Kriar have no interest in conquest."
She blinked at the gold-skinned elder. The Kriar's speech was so smooth and convincing. Marna was a consummate diplomat, and no doubt a grand master of hundreds other skills as well--including the medicinal talents she used to cure Ziedra.
Wren now understood why the Kriar matriarch offered to help heal Ziedra. The activity simply provided a legitimate reason to be nearby and monitor things first hand--to determine the threat posed by the savants. It showed this immortal creature's calculating patience. Saving a life was a throwaway gesture to her--it cost her almost nothing except time.
Damn, what did she do now? This creature could tie her in knots without even trying. Just because she was powerful didn't automatically make her untrustworthy. It didn't make the opposite true either. This was so beyond her. Only Gaea would truly know enough and be experienced enough to handle Marna.
"Now that I'm sitting here, I understand Aarlen's fear of you." She shook her head. "Even with all her experience, she's just a baby to you. She can't read you any better than I can. No wonder she's scared--I'm scared. You give an order and some underling of yours goes into a place I know has defenses that even a pantheon lord cannot penetrate. The only thing that kept you out was a lucky coincidence. When I activated the race mind it shut you out. If I hadn't done that, you wouldn't be here--you'd be in there quietly studying away without me even knowing."
"Wren you really were, are, in command of that place?" Cassandra breathed.
"Command is a heavy word. Let's say being Gaea's favorite carries weight. Being a pure alpha means that the master template acknowledges me--that and I remembered the codes to the locks."
The mage massaged her throat. "Child you shouldn't have that kind of power."
She stared at Cassandra. "You could think of worse people if you tried."
"Peace, Cassandra," Marna said. "I have you here because you know Wren, not to berate her. She may be a child in her age, but she was given the keys to the home world of the firsts. That makes her its custodian by default. If she had those keys entirely by accident, I would treat her differently. However, Gaea put that responsibility in her hands. Their all-mother trusts her and I understand and respect her decision."
Wren leaned back. Was Marna trying to confuse her? She had to be. "What do you mean you understand?"
Marna tilted her head. A smile turned up the corners of her small mouth. She raised an eyebrow. "Have you noticed I do not call you 'child' as the others do? Anyone who cares as you do, who bears responsibility as you do, is anything but a child. Be certain that when I became aware of you and suspected that you were the creature with the first one instrumentality at your beckon, I was quick to make a study of you. I researched every bell and day of your life." She picked up her tea, and took a slow moment to savor its scent and taste. "You are a creature of necessity, driven to satisfy the needs of the next challenge. You fear, you despair, but then you find the will to overcome. It is that kind of courage that all true leaders must have. The same kind of courage both your parents have. You are fiercely loyal, protective, and innately honorable. Indeed, Gaea chose well, you simply have not had the time to grow into your role."
Wren rubbed her knuckles on the polished wood of the table. She swallowed. It was impossible to tell if this woman was being insincere. Her voice was so mesmerizing and silky. She couldn't simply assume everything was a lie just because she couldn't discern the difference. That was what Aarlen did. The Ice Falcon was the last person she wanted to emulate. Of course, that really was the only way to be certain wasn't it? Still, her savant senses were more reliable than her eyes and ears. She didn't feel anything bad from the creature's aura either. Could she risk all of savant kind on a feeling?
"Marna," she said. "I have enough smarts to know I am not clever enough to deal with you. The problem is I have to deal with you because if I don't, then you'll simply do as you see fit."
The elder Kriar glanced at Dame Techstar. She pushed out her lower lip. She didn't bother to voice a demurral. She just kept her gaze on Wren, expression level and giving nothing away.
"You know the irony is Desiray mentioned they'd seen things very like what I saw in Starholme on your home world. I may be making a big fuss over something you don't want because you already have one of your own."
Marna nodded and sipped her tea, still saying nothing.
"You're going to let me talk myself out aren't you? Just let me tie myself in knots."
Marna smiled. "You're doing fine. I feel a settlement coming."
"Do you?" Wren frowned. "I feel an ultimatum."
The elder Kriar traced a circle on the table top with a jeweled finger. "Sara, ultimatums and threats are a hostile response when rational discourse is exhausted. Your threat to destroy Starholme for instance was aimed to give you back control in a situation when you realized you were dealing from a position of weakness. Then again, perhaps that's exactly the response I wanted from you. We are in a duel and I've just convinced you to destroy your own weapon to keep me from using it on you. Am I that clever, or did you just outsmart yourself?"
She gritted her teeth. "By telling me that, doesn't it mean you intended the opposite?"
The elder Kriar sipped her tea. "Does it? Perhaps. You must ask yourself what serves your interest. What serves my interest? I came to you. So obviously, I want something."
"You said you wanted information."
The female nodded. "So I did."
"Marna, this won't get us anywhere. We both know you can have me doing back flips. Just tell me what you want."
The gold woman dabbed her lips with a napkin. "For you to calm down and open negotiations as you just have. Well done." She drew a breath. "For sake of arguments, let us say that we both have a weapon."
Wren scowled at her.
"I will admit mine is considerably smaller than yours, but I have the advantage in that I have more precise control of mine. I will give you the benefit of the knowledge that my weapon is aimed at yours. I apologize for tossing in a threat when we're still in the middle of a rational discourse, but this is an unusual situation."
Cassandra's face had turned a sickly yellow color, obviously she had no idea that she'd come here for such high-stakes negotiations.
Wren's heart was in her throat. Marna was serious. When Wren threatened to destroy Starholme, it was just that, a threat... while she intended to do it--she wasn't that close--she would have to figure out how. The Kriar matriarch was not playing.
"The range of your weapon is, for all practical purposes, infinite. Its defenses, as you say, are up. I am confident that I could breach that protection. However, if I failed to completely destroy it--the counter attack would be devastating. That is the dilemma you and I face. For purposes of analogy, leave us say that I have just discovered you have built a rather large catapult in my back yard and while it's not aimed at me--it could be."
"What if I gave you assurances it would never be aimed at you."
"That would be an excellent start."
"I would need some assurances that you would stop aiming at me."
"Marna," Cassandra said. "She is only a girl--you can't expect..."
"Cassandra, your advice is not necessary. Wren is doing fine. I think we both understand each other."
"Oh, you bet I do," Wren said, swallowing. In the back of her head her thoughts were whirling. What would happen if Starholme were destroyed? Would all savants lose their powers? Were savants linked to the master template in some way? Would they be killed if it was destroyed? Damn, she needed Gaea, she was the only one who knew such things.
She closed her eyes and focused her mind, and called to her savant sister.
She experienced a burst of surprise, then embarrassment. When felt a heady telepathic back-draft, the sensation of warm bodies pressed close to one another, lips tasting lips. The feelings cut off as the dancer seemed to jerk herself away from whatever she was doing.
She looked up at Marna. "Can we hold on a moment and just sip tea while I catch my breath?"
The Vatraena gave her a knowing smile. "Your tea is getting cold. You should try it. It's very good."
Wren reached for the cup and saucer that she had so far ignored for the duration of this conversation. She took a sip of the tea that had begun to cool. The sweet warm spices were soothing as they slipped down her throat. It was pretty good. Tea wasn't the usual faire for her.
"Do you enjoy picking on children?" Wren asked.
The Kriar shook her head. "I don't enjoy picking on anyone. An unfortunate side effect of being so old is that everybody is a child. So they all think I'm a bully. I assure you that is not the case."
She sighed. "Well, you are rather polite for a bully. I'm certain that wouldn't matter to Aarlen."
Marna shrugged and brushed back her ankle length hair, making the long strands shimmer like a shiny black wave. "With Aarlen, I am a bully. I need to be."
"I guess I can see that."
She put a finger to her chin. "I am curious, what are we stalling for?"
Wren felt the presence of another savant, then came a knocking on the door, and the knob was tried. She hooked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating the door.
She rose and unlocked the door, to find Ziedra panting outside, her long dark hair mussed and her dark green shift obviously thrown on in haste.
"I did get you at a bad time, didn't I?"
The dancer glared at her. "What's this all about?" she gasped.
Wren didn't say anything except to pull her friend inside and lock the door.
Ziedra looked around at the three gold ladies and made a little bow, obviously feeling the tension in the air.
"Zee, you me and Marna are taking a trip. You being the only other pureblood beside me, you have a say in this as well."
Ziedra brushed back her mussed hair, brown eyes wide. "A say in what?"
"In the future of the savants."
Wren waved her to silence and turned to face Marna. "What about it? You willing to take a trip with us?"
"A trip?" Marna put down her cup and pressed her fingertips together. "A trip to where?"
"To meet someone you can't bully."
Marna leaned back. "Intriguing thought, and how shall we get to this person?"
"You're going to take us there."
The Kriar woman raised an eyebrow. "I am?"
"Of course you are--you have to be intensely curious about Gaea--you wouldn't miss a chance to meet her."
Cassandra's eyes widened. She held out her hands. "Now, wait."
"What you want an invitation?"
"What mechanism do you think will take us to Gaea?" Marna asked.
Wren looked at the ancient Kriar. "When I was in my mother's body, I was 'be'ing so strong it was scary. I saw your way of moving, saw the forces you can handle. You cut right through Gaea's etherlock. That's how your person got into Starholme until the defenses were fully in place."
"Ah, perceptive, I can acknowledge that."
"I'll give you the place. You just have to get us there. Being the big tough bully that you are, I'm pretty sure you can handle it."
"You lost me," Ziedra said. "How are we going to find Gaea? Isn't she like out of time or something?"
Wren nodded. "Cassandra gave me the clue when she explained how your ring worked."
"I did?" the mage said.
"Ziedra's ring creates a time portal." Wren said, looking to Marna. "I'm betting the Vatreana's traveling sense is like my nola. When I fix an object to throw at it... I don't really have to see it. I just know where it is--or to be precise where it's going to be. If she's the same, she can find that location."
"Fascinating," Marna said. "I am not disputing your assumptions. I am interested how you ascertained this information."
"For a little while on that tower roof, I had that ability. Some of the first ones could do it. I just felt with my senses, found where I was going and just stepped to them." She shrugged.
"Analogue warping," Cassandra breathed.
The Kriar matriarch shrugged. "You think the Kriar are the only ones to have that science? It works on fundamental space principles--I would have been more surprised if these firsts couldn't do it."
"So, what do you say we go talk to my and Ziedra's mother?"
"You're serious," Ziedra said, eyes wide. "Right now?"
"Of course I am."
Marna looked to Dame Techstar, the other Kriar woman looked dubious. Marna rolled her eyes at the other woman's obvious reticence. She looked to Wren, her expression brightening. She rose, flipped her long hair, and smiled. The jewel on her brow flashed. "I am excited. This promises to be amazing."
Wren glanced between Marna and the Dame and realized that the Vatraena might be their all-mother, but she was not necessarily like all of her children.
"All right, Zee, do your thing."
Her friend seemed as incredulous as Dame Techstar. "Are you sure?"
"Oookay." She stepped close and put the hand with Gaea's ring to Wren's temple.
Wren thought back to the precious moments that she had shared with the Gaea, focusing on the time of that initial hug, the feel of her flesh pressed against the all-mother. She felt a tingling go through her body as it had in the other times Ziedra had activated the ring.
She opened her eyes to see a sphere of light at the tips of Ziedra's fingers showing a dark alien landscape, she stood in the shadow of huge green creature backlit by a strange featureless blue sky.
Marna studied the image as Wren and Gaea spoke to one another. After a few moments, the jewel on her brow flickered. "Ah, I have it." She looked puzzled. "It is much closer than I imagined. Interesting."
Ziedra drew her hand away from Wren and the image winked out.
Marna looked to Dame Techstar. The other woman was frowning. She glanced to Cassandra. "I'll go," the mage said, obviously eager.
The gold mage's grandmother sighed. "Observation, both my mother and my grandchild appear to have lost their senses."
"Does that mean you're coming, Dama?" Cassandra asked with a grin.
The silver-clad Kriar scowled and nodded.
"Wren, don't you think we should tell someone?"
"If we do there will be a huge caterwaul, we won't be gone long enough for anyone to notice. At least, I hope not." She looked at Marna.
The Kriar woman pushed out her lip. "It is close enough that I can inform anyone of your location to allay fears."
"Okay then, let's go."
Marna rubbed her jeweled hands together, her placid countenance now animated. "Step closer please." She looked around at them, touching Wren on the shoulder, then Ziedra. With her other hand pushing gently against Cassandra's shoulder, and then pressing against Dame Techstar.
Wren looked at Ziedra. "Oh yeah, I forgot. You've only teleported once--"
The universe flickered around them before she could finish her words.