A Prelude To Black Deeds

Last Island, City of Moisant, Octanneve V, Solitude

Blue stretches for endless miles overhead, unbroken in every direction save for a single sun casting warmth and light very near the horizon.

Underfoot, another blue, darker in shade but likewise endless in view. Lapping gently at the pylons that support the narrow, solitary two-lane auto span that connects Last Island to the mainland, it invades, consumes. Water should do neither of those things.

And yet Last Island has shrunk over the past decade. Astaire is certain of it. He remembers patches of swampland dotting the span, the island’s lifeline. He remembers long beaches of white sand and crystal-clear waters on the island’s southern coast. And while he, a practicing psychologist, is aware of the dangers of altered memories, he is also very sure that the images in his mind have not been exaggerated by the passage of time.

He’ll have to check the historical data from the satellites orbiting Octanneve V. It won’t be a challenging task. At this point, Astaire has hacked through Federation defenses so often that it comes to him as muscle memory.

Astaire presses his hands against the searing hot concrete barrier, pushes himself back as if he must force himself to retreat to the waiting hovercar. Sliding into the driver’s seat, he resumes this last leg of his trip, descending to the island.

The two-lane overpass that connects Last Island to the mainland long represented the edge of his world. It is the southernmost point of Moisant, a large city administered by the Licei, a Krusual clan of Federal citizens. Descendants of the small portion of Krusual slaves in the Empire, the Licei’s distance from Matari politics and current affairs can somewhat be compared to their distance from Matar itself, where they maintain a small token holding in the Tronhader Valley. Their true homeland is this marshy, low-lying city, as well as its smaller sister city south of Caille, Mylain.

Where it touches the island, the overpass becomes a road; indeed, it is the artery that bifurcates the narrow strip of land, five miles long and one mile wide. The sun is low, and the island is quiet.

Moisant is two cities: the one seen in daylight and the one that comes alive beneath the soft touch of her moons.

The marina is just as still as the rest of the town, brimming with silence soon to burst into noise. The warm scent of spices cooking greets Astaire’s nose as he steps out of the hovercar. He follows the smell around the building to the pier, which is much too long for the short stretch of land that hosts its point of origin.

A slender figure made darker by the shadows cast by the setting sun is stirring something in a pot nearly as big as she is. She looks up as Astaire approaches her. “Is that craw and rice, or something more nefarious?” he asks her, reaching out to take the stirring rod from her.

She slaps his hand lightly. “What does your nose tell you, chou?” She continues stirring.

“My nose tells me that the herbs you’re using could be seasoning or the first phase of a banishment potion, Mata.”

Mata Kaya arches a carefully maintained eyebrow. “Who taught you about potions?” She sets the stirrer aside and opens her arms for a hug, which Astaire returns.

Kaya is the chief of Clan Licei. She is the consummate Krusual of stereotype, at least as far as appearances go—lithe, dark-haired and dark-complexioned, all cheekbone and sinew. A mischievous sparkle hovers in her eyes; she seems to always find something funny.

“How is Mata Cokí?” Astaire asks while looking into the pot.

“There’s nothing in there but craw and pira,” Kaya remarks. “And Mata Licoqi is doing fine. She’s working, just as you should be.”

“You asked to see me. I’m here.” Astaire shrugs. “And hungry.”

Kaya looks at him for a long moment. Her gaze gives him the sense that she is looking at someone who used to be where he is standing. Her expression clouds. “Very well. Straight to business.” She uses a straining spoon to pluck out the pira and craws and pour them over a bowl of rice. “Let’s go inside.”

The marina was built to take in light, and in the shifting shadows of the growing dusk, the dark spaces are unfriendly. A janitor is mopping the hall as they pass through. Kaya nods to him, and Astaire offers him a smile. Jobi has been looking after the marina since before Astaire was born, and taught Astaire much about fishing, navigating the swamp, and talking to girls.

Kaya receives a smile, but Astaire only gets a polite nod. Astaire is wholly unfamiliar to Jobi.

At the end of the hallway, a pair of double doors divide the marina from the adjoining restaurant. Kaya pushes open the doors and chooses a seat near the windows that look out on the now-indigo sea. Astaire sits as well.

Kaya sets the bowl of seafood and rice on the table, directly between the two of them.

“Will you eat?”

It’s as close to a prayer as either of them are likely to get. Clan Licei honors its ancestral spirits through its traditions, many of which have been passed down over centuries, many of which have been touched by superstition. A Licei will not eat in the dwelling or presence of a person he does not trust. Partaking of a person’s food or hospitality invokes the privilege of guest right, and a guest or host who does harm to the other in violation of that right is deeply cursed.

Astaire takes the bowl and picks a spoon from the table’s set of silverware.

As ever, Kaya cannot be certain that Astaire is paying mind to the tradition. He is too Gallente to care, she thinks. But he knows that these traditions are important to her, and he knows what the gesture of eating illustrates. Perhaps this should be enough for her.

She doesn’t often see the face of the eager little boy who used to crash the marina’s hoverboats just to have something to fix. That boy’s smile could cure a million wrongs; his laugh made the air in the room feel light. That boy scoffed at his mother’s tales of old clan heroes, but then told those tales to his friends at the next campfire. He expected nothing, enjoyed everything, and wished for a future where grief was but a villain in a tale.

Then grief stunned him thrice, and the man now seated across from her breaks apart the craws and sucks the meat from their shelled heads with neither the glee nor even the impish innuendo of the boy he had been. Of all her machinations in her clan’s life, of all her rescues and interventions, he is the one for whom she most acutely feels regret.

She saw the boy again recently, although the man doesn’t know that she spotted him. But she will take her time leaning into that conversation.

Astaire has accumulated a collection of discarded craw shells beside his bowl and is now eating heaping spoonfuls of redfish and rice.

“You’ve been making more errors in judgement lately, chou.”

“Dinner and a scolding,” Astaire mutters into the rice. “Just what I came here for.”

“This isn’t game theory,” Kaya warns. “This is the worst scenario unfolding. We don’t have time for Tananarive to fix what your impaired judgement breaks.”

Astaire sighs in exasperation. “We don’t even agree on what the Black Dagger is. We can’t say for sure what the timeframe is.”

Kaya hisses at his use of the full euphemism. “Everyone in the Circle agrees on the identity of TBD. Everyone except for you.”

“Melisma isn’t convinced either,” Astaire points out.

“Melisma should not be your model for behavior right now.”

“Why not? For sleeping with the frenemy?”

Kaya rolls her eyes. “We’re talking about you, not her and her priest. You’ve been given two objectives. You’ve failed at both of them.”

Astaire sighs. “I’ll own the first one. But the second one? You asked me to find the city-ships if they were there. I’m still sure that they exist, but if they do, they aren’t in the Great Wildlands.”

“Then you’d better start searching elsewhere and find them.” Kaya leans back and folds one leg over the other. “You’ve already let your kinswoman outclass you once.”

Astaire spots the bait and declines to take it. Kaya is attempting to twist his insecurities around being only half Krusual—and hiding that half, as well—into a jealousy of Tananarive, who is full-blooded. But Tananarive has a natural talent for deception that Astaire simply does not possess, and he can’t bring himself to envy that particular quality.

“Will do.” Astaire manages to make the promise sound blandly noncommittal.

Kaya smooths her ponytail over her shoulder. Like most Krusual, she wears her hair in a long, narrow strip on her scalp. Unlike most Krusual, her hair is long, stretching to her lower back, and she keeps it tied at the base of her head.

But Astaire, of course, is not allowed this, or any other tradition. He’d been stripped of his tribal identity ages before. His clones are not permitted to bear his clan marks, or his former tattoos, or any tattoos at all save for his Voluval mark, and even that is in a place that was typically covered by clothing. He suspects she let him keep the mark—the Cemi, or Spirit-Touched, a sign of leadership and spiritual connectedness—as a sour reminder of his many failures.

When the Circle saved him from Serpentis, they gave him a fully Gallente new identity. Astaire understands the subtle move. He is still an outcast.

“Are you bringing the girl again?” Kaya’s quiet but firm voice is almost lost in the clatter of Astaire’s spoon against his empty bowl.

Astaire chuckles. “More like she’s bringing me. But yes. If we check the Drone Regions, I’ll need her help.”

Kaya sees the little boy flash by in the light of Astaire’s eyes like peeking through windows, reborn for a moment. Then he is gone again. “Then you’re telling me that you need the help of a non-kinswoman to do your own job.”

“Yep.”

“That’s disappointing, sipam.”

He rolls his eyes a bit. “I’ve been in space for all of two months. Give me a break.”

“We don’t know when TBD will strike. Could be six weeks from now. Could be tomorrow. They will give no one in the cluster a ‘break’.”

“Then maybe she will be a good person for us to have on our side until I’m up to speed.”

There is a sensor dampening field around Astaire that deflects all insults before they can touch him. But Kaya thinks she can best it.

“Maybe,” she hums. “Or maybe you’re wrong yet again. Maybe she can’t be trusted. She is Ammatar, after all. Her allegiance will always be to the most convenient party.”

Astaire narrows his eyes.

“It’s in her nature, sipam, just as duplicity is in yours. It’s hardly a criticism. Just a statement of fact.” Kaya tents her fingers. “Today, she helps you search for city-ships. Tomorrow, she tells everyone that you are anti-Republic, because it pleases her masters. It’s a matter of business, child. Don’t take it to heart.”

“It’s not about business. It’s different. She’s different.” Astaire’s jaw is clenched; he’s speaking through his teeth.

“Yes, chou, of course. You’ve won her over, I’m certain. It was your charm, or your financial security, or your considerable political status.”

She has named things that Astaire does not particularly have. He leans forward, slides the bowl and spoon aside. “Mata—”

“Why else, sipam?” Kaya offers him a grin, all teeth, glimmering against her dark skin. “Why else would she show interest in a man like you? You have nothing. You have no past and can offer her no future. You aren’t particularly interesting or handsome. You aren’t even sure who you are. The new name we gave you is still foreign on your tongue. Your new body startles you still, every time you look in the mirror. And your mind grasps at the embers of your love for Drienne, that opportunistic tramp. There’s no room left in that stone heart of yours for another woman. What more than a passing fancy could keep her around? And what could you possibly do to make her genuinely care about you?”

“She wants to meet you,” Astaire says.

His tone is even, plain, blank of emotion, and yet Kaya’s head whips as if she’s been slapped. She expected anger, belittlement, at least frustration. But Astaire’s gaze is placid, watching her with infinite patience.

Now the plan unfurls before her. This was intentional. He’d intended to share this news with her the whole time, but reserved it in case she tried to manipulate him, which of course she did. Then he let her rile herself up, build to the height of her argument, and then let it fly, maximizing the effect of his announcement. At the same time, he’d proved that he could still manipulate just as well as any Krusual. Kaya feels a swell of pride.

“She wants to meet whom?”

“My clan. The people who are close to me.”

“Then you told her that you are Krusual.”

“Yes. She wanted to know. She deserved to know.”

“What else did you tell her?”

“I told her about Ira.”

Kaya almost winces. He now refers to that past life as a different person. How should she feel about that? “You speak too freely, sipam. We gave you a new identity for a reason.”

“She deserved to know.” Astaire leans back and crosses one leg over the other. “I’m dating her, Mata.”

This time, Kaya does wince. “Yes. Unfortunately.”

“‘Unfortunately’?”

Kaya closes her eyes, then tries to look smug. “Marrying into the clan was your only route back to acceptance, sipam. Yet you’ve thrown it away.”

“Funny. I thought that fulfilling my life debt was my only route back to acceptance.”

The clan chief thins her lips.

Astaire sighs. “No one is talking about marriage right now, Mata. Even if we were, there are more important things than whether I’m officially Krusual.” He pushes his chair back from the table and stands. “This grows tedious. Show me what I came here for.”

“Very well.” Kaya stands, collects the bowl and spoon and places them in a sink, then ambles out of the room and starts toward the pier. Astaire follows her.

Outside, true night has fallen, and the sky is indistinguishable from the sea. A fleet of boats, both hovering and otherwise, waits at the dock. Kaya selects an antigravity-fitted hoverboat that looks like a traditional airboat, with a large fan attached to its stern for an emergency source of propulsion. She starts the engine and moves to the back to steer, but Astaire stops her and takes the captain’s chair. She stands on the deck just below the chair, watching the dark horizon.

“I saw her before, you know,” Kaya remarks. “When you brought her to the restaurant. She’s a cute, spunky thing.”

Astaire looks at Kaya but does not comment.

“A little bit of Vherokior, maybe?”

He squints. “Just how good a look did you get?”

“A very good look. My eyes are everywhere, remember.” She wraps her hand around a railing and steadies her feet as Astaire hits the open ocean and throws the boat into full throttle. The engine is relatively quiet, and they travel with only a single low beam to light their path. Both of them know the way.

“She’s rather young. Did you tell her about your children?”

“I don’t believe I did, Mata.” He sounds tired.

“You should. It might matter. Women can be rather testy about that.”

“I’m aware.”

The shore is a row of distant lights, blinking in and out against the shadows of the bayou beyond the island, and then, farther beyond, the skyscrapers of Moisant. Overhead, in different directions, the two moons of Octanneve V glow against the black.

“How did you meet her, anyway? I am genuinely curious about what about you interests her. Oh, don’t give me that look, chou. It isn’t that you aren’t worthy. But you, ah… come with quite a bit of baggage.”

Mata.”

They ride in silence for a while. The lights on the shore become a hazy line. Everything else is pitch black.

“Are you sure you’re ready for another relationship, chou?”

No answer.

“Do you think you’ve changed enough to avoid the mistakes you made with Drienne? Have you learned the lessons you needed to learn to make things work this time?”

No answer.

Kaya glances back at Astaire. His gaze is on the horizon, wherever it is. He blinks a bit and looks at her.

“Did you hear me?”

“Yes, Mata. For the sixtieth time.”

Kaya frowns and looks away. She’s not asked him sixty times. Yet she understands that his words are literal.

Astaire kills the engine and the low beam, and they coast. There is darkness everywhere. Forward, backward, above, below, all around. They move as shapes against the black, mere outlines themselves.

They have arrived.

Kaya taps the secret code against a dim holokeypad. Twenty seconds pass. Then, at some distance, the ocean begins to tremble. Slowly, a massive structure breaks the surface. The dark hull is only given away by the displacement it causes.

Once the waters settle, Astaire and Kaya approach. The hatch opens, and a crewman exits. He secures the hoverboat while Astaire and Kaya descend into the watercraft.

Inside, their path is set by emergency lighting and gently illuminated signs.

“Good,” Astaire says.

Like much of the technology in Moisant, the submarine was designed by Astaire, with assistance.

First they head for the control room. Astaire rests his hand against a biometric pad on the inner hull. “MAYA, acknowledge Keyholder.”

“Admin ‘Root’ identified as Keyholder.” The AI’s voice is gentle, feminine. “Please authenticate.”

Astaire checks his datapad and repeats the code he sees there. The control room lights up fully, revealing several boards and panels that were previously hidden.

Kaya nods. “Go ahead. Check the specs.”

Astaire runs a full diagnostic, and finds the results satisfactory. They return the control room to the submarine’s commander.

They pass the cafeteria on the way to the living quarters. The skeleton crew manning the ship is mostly gathered here. The crewmembers salute Kaya and Astaire as they pass. Astaire speaks with them briefly, asks them about their short time so far aboard the submarine. Asks them whether they’re comfortable.

They answer him as they would a friendly Gallente stranger.

Astaire doesn’t need a tour of the residential cabins. Kaya gives him one all the same. The cabins look more liveable—more comfortable—now that the submarine has been launched, as opposed to when it was being finished, when Astaire last saw it. The rooms are set up like hostels, some with tall bunk beds but most with hammocks also strung up in bunks, conserving space while retaining touches of the clan’s culture. They’ve been painted in sky blues and marsh greens and sunset pinks; artificial windows offering views of the city and swamp give the illusion of being above the surface. Every conceivable necessity and amenity is aboard—private rooms and baths, entertainment lounges, gyms, swimming pools, even a fishing pond made to imitate the marsh.

The submarine can contain thousands of people at once, travel at speeds of up to 30 knots submerged, and sustain itself below the surface for 120 consecutive days. Armed with state-of-the-art missiles and concealed within two tough hulls, it makes a difficult target in the clan’s home waters.

Astaire deactivates MAYA’s super key, and he and Kaya head back to the surface, to their hoverboat. This time, Kaya takes the captain’s seat. The journey home is dark and quiet.

“Have you been running the drills in Moisant?” Astaire asks.

“Yes, sipam.”

“And the clan understands why?”

“To some extent.”

Astaire sighs.

“The more people who know a secret,” Kaya says, and Astaire infers the rest. “We have told them enough to prepare them for the worst. They don’t have to pin it on you.”

Astaire nods.

“Besides, it isn’t only about you, or about Blackguard. Things are happening, and trouble is brewing, whether the cause is TBD, invading entities, or some other madness. We have to preserve ourselves.”

Every now and then, Astaire readjusts his feet to accommodate the movement of the boat over the water and its infrequent swells.

“We still have to determine who would be sent aboard the sub if the need arose.”

“That’s rough,” Astaire says. “Good luck with it.”

Kaya narrows her eyes at the back of his head. “I said ‘we,’” she states. “I meant it. The clan’s leadership. Me, Licoqi, and you.”

Astaire turns slowly to face her. “I am not clan leadership.”

“Not yet.”

“I am sipam, Mata. You’ve said it yourself, countless times. Either I am a part of the clan or I am an outsider. You can’t have it both ways.”

“And I am Mata. My will is your command.” Kaya leans the steering stick idly. The haze ahead is separating into individual lights, city signs, beacons, night owls at work or play. “You will work to become gua, and fulfill the promise of your Voluval, removing the ugly spirits from us. You will take up leadership of the clan when I grow too old.”

“I don’t want that,” Astaire says.

Kaya scoffs. “You have spent the past twenty-six years doing what you do want. And where has that left you?”

Astaire looks away.

“Right back here to us.” Kaya scowls. “Duty first. Clan first.”

By the time the ship returns to the dock, the lights on the island have dimmed. Astaire departs over marshlands darker than space.

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