It was several rotations later that Nykostra finally heard from Ketar again on her tablet. He left her a recorded message in which he recounted how his master’s hunting party had come under attack and he was the only one to survive. The incident clearly affected him on some primal level that she might never understand. There was a dullness in his eyes and in his demeanor that bothered her. He seemed morose and less chatty than he had been before the hunting expedition.
Near the end of his message he confessed to having become a full warrior. His newfound status also came with new duties that would sometimes take him off world for extended periods of time. He didn’t know when they would be able to talk again. Her heart sank when she realized that he might be moving on without her. Perhaps he no longer needed their secret friendship. Perhaps. But she refused to give up hope that he would return to talking with her. For nights after receiving that recording, she tuned in and looked for him to no avail. He would be back. He had to be back. She needed to see him again.
* * *
Empress Nykostra sat perfectly still and upright as the parade began. She was dressed in her formal red and black gown complete with imperial headdress. There was a chill in the air as winter was fast was approaching. Her clothes were well insulated against the weather but her blue cheeks were slightly darker than the rest of her smooth skin.
Palace guards and the Kwizarra Lonn surrounded her. She was careful to make him sit far enough away from her so that his thoughts weren’t constantly in her head. They were not aware that she could sense when they were probing her thoughts and she preferred to keep them clueless for as long as she could.
The procession included a squad of the best soldiers from the Votainion Fleet, high stepping in perfect unison. They were followed by the Imperial Army guardsmen in their regal red uniforms from several thousand years ago, before the Empire had become a space faring civilization. Even before the nine Kastra had fanned out into the galaxy and formed their own home worlds.
Nykostra loved the pageantry of the parade and all the formal customs that came with it. When she was a few years younger she could recall wishing that she could don a brilliantly colored uniform and join the soldiers. Now she was content to simply watch and marvel at the precision on display for her benefit.
Next came the hardware, her favorite part. Armored vehicles of all kinds, crawled, hovered and walked along in freshly painted colors that made them seem less like killing machines and more like children’s toys. Still, the power on display was impressive.
She sat up a bit straighter to catch sight of the contestants. The nine chosen men who would fight to win her hand in marriage. Each warrior hailed from one of the nine Kastra of the Empire. They were all between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one and each was a sterling example of Votainion honor and bravery. Coming from the ruling caste and each having served in combat either on the newly created human front or from any one of several military skirmishes the Empire was currently involved in. They were battle tested and worthy of the attentions of their Empress.
From her vantage point on the royal platform she couldn’t make out their faces. Each man walked alone and in single file with several paces between them so the Empress could see them clearly. They all had broad shoulders and round faces with stern expressions. Warm puffs of air escaped their mouths as they marched.
They were escorted by the top military person on Voton, General Verlome. He barked an order and all nine contestants turned their heads up to her and saluted in unison. She was under no obligation to return the gesture. She merely nodded her head to acknowledge their passing.
As the final contestant approached her, Verlome projected an order arms command. The group continued in lock step with their eyes forward. She sighed and sat back against the cool throne seat. She didn’t see much difference in any of the contestants. In fact, she thought they all looked pretty much the same. But then that’s the point of a formation. She didn’t like conformity much, having had to conform to someone else’s idea of how to live for all of her short life.
She glanced down at the Kwizarra Lonn and caught his look of satisfaction. Perhaps he could marry one the suitors for her. She smiled at the thought, and he naturally mistook her expression for one of approval. These idiots are so easy to fool, she thought.
The first two contenders were out before she had time to even learn their names. Lord Karno from Sett and Lord Zegg from Khara. Both of them were apparently not bright enough to pass the intelligence test. Then again, they were from worlds not known for having particularly brilliant people. Nykostra had been paying more attention to her teachers than they might have thought. Both Sett and Khara were the weakest Kastras in the Empire. The fact that either Kastra had sent a representative was strictly ceremonial.
After the results were known, the two losers unceremoniously left the group. The remaining warriors were brought before the Empress so that she could reward them with their first close up look at who they were fighting for.
She wore her finest imperial gown, resplendent in red silk and black lace. For a Votainion woman, she was considered pretty but not flawlessly so. She was of royal blood after all and not the product of selective breeding, as some Kastra were known to have practiced. Her beauty was natural and unblemished by gaudy makeup or the lines of age.
For most of the participants, she was undoubtedly the most beautiful female they had ever met. She could see it in their eyes and on their brutish faces. They were in awe of her like no house attendant she had known. It made her feel good to know that at least some men found her desirable. Although she wasn’t particularly impressed with any of them yet.
They stood at attention in a line for her. She walked before them, an attendant arranging her gown on the tiled floor so that she wouldn’t trip on herself. Typically they were a head taller on average than the tallest females.
None of them dared glance down at her for fear of disqualification. The last warrior was shorter than the others and she caught him sneaking a peek at her. When his dark eyes locked on her own they both recognized the other. It was Ketar.
His eyes shot back up over her head and then back down again, when he realized she was still staring at him. His shock and amazement caused her to smile. He hesitated before looking up again but she could tell he wanted to look at her directly and to say something to her.
But both of them were bound by traditions and ceremony. Now was not the time. Her heart skipped a beat as she moved past him, stealing a glimpse back at him, before returning to her throne.
As she took her seat on the pillow she looked down on the warriors with a strong gaze. They all bowed their heads at once and saluted her with a right hand across their chests.
Then they all did a right facing move and filed out of the chamber single file. Ketar risked a glance up at her as he filed past on his way out. She slipped him a disarming smile and she could have sworn that he winked at her.
When they had left Nykostra ordered her attendants to leave her alone. She sat on her throne and replayed in her mind Ketar’s shock and then amazement at having recognized her. She had to find a way to meet with him. To talk with him in private. But her time and attentions were ruled by others and she knew that she would never be able to pull it off during the competition.
Something inside her warmed her heart. Her fondness for Ketar was growing into an obsession. She found it hard to keep his sly grin out of her mind’s eye. Hard to not keep thinking of him over and over until it hurt. What the hell is wrong with me?
Nykostra ordered her attendants back in and stood still as they undressed her. There were two young girls and a stogy older woman whom Nykostra had never trusted. Things said in the company of the woman somehow made it back to the Kwizarra Lonn.
After they had dressed her in her a simple robe and wrapped around her waist a leather cummerbund, she dismissed them except for one of the younger attendants.
The old woman all but snarled at the order but left with the other girls trailing behind her. When the huge metal doors to the chamber closed Nykostra took the hand of the young attendant and guided her off to the center of the massive chamber.
“Velore, I have a task for you,” she said.
The girl was clearly nervous with being alone with her Empress. She nodded shyly.
“You must arrange a visit between myself and the boy from Vicar.”
The girl’s eyes got large before she shook her head slowly.
“But my Empress, I cannot do such a thing. I’m not even allowed into their side of the castle.”
Nykostra took the girl’s hand into hers and squeezed it tight. Quickly it became uncomfortable for the girl and she protested weakly.
“You’re hurting me, my Empress.”
“Do this or I will do more than just hurt you. I will have your head,” Nykostra said. Her voice was low and powerful. It was the voice of coercion that she used when she wanted someone to do her bidding without question.
The girl stopped struggling and lowered her head. “Yes my Empress.”
Nykostra let go of her hand and she knelt in a formal bow.
“Get up. Go fetch him at once and bring him to my bed chamber.”
The girl nodded and then rose to her feet to scurry out of the chamber as fast as she dared.
Nykostra relaxed and then left for her bed chamber.
Nykostra had retired early and had ordered food brought to her bed chamber. She told the head attendant that she was not feeling well and just wanted warm tea and bread. Her wishes were honored without question. Whenever she even hinted at not feeling well, she was never questioned.
Pacing around her huge bed chamber she felt a growing anxiety like she had never known before. Her stomach was indeed upset, flipping and flopping like it did before a test. Only this feeling was different. It made her wonder if the Kwizarra Lonn was somehow messing with her from a distance.
Part of her was nervous at having a warrior brought to her bed chamber and part of her was excited to see Ketar in person. To actually talk to him outside the pretense of their respective positions. Like they used to chat on the tablet. She wanted to look into his eyes which she had just today noticed were not completely black, but had a light wash of brown in them. It was endlessly fascinating to her. She could just stare into them for hours and be perfectly content.
She paused in mid stride as she thought how strange that was to be so obsessed with a boy’s eyes. A knocking came from her door and startled her.
“Enter,” she commanded in her Empress tone.
The large wooden door creaked open and the young girl attendant entered. Her eyes were large again. Like a scared animal.
“My Empress, I present to you, Lord Ketar, of Vicar.”
Nykostra waved impatiently at the pretense of a formal introduction. The girl moved aside and in strode a man wearing the blue and black colors of his Kastra. It was Ketar.
Nykostra waved for the attendant to leave and the girl pulled her big eyes away from the warrior long enough to bow and leave.
Ketar looked directly at her and her heart melted inside. He was the same old Ketar she had always talked to but now he was here in the flesh and standing before her in her bed chamber.
“This is not at all how I pictured us meeting someday, Kaleen.”
She smiled weakly and tried to keep her heart inside her chest. He had called her by her assumed name and not by her title. She was impressed by that.
He no longer wore his formal body armor, just the quilted garments worn underneath the armor.
“I had to see you alone Ketar,” she said. She took a step closer to him and he matched her until they were toe to toe in the dim light of her room.
He looked down at her with a childish look on his face.
“I never thought I’d ever meet the Empress. You are far prettier in person that you ever were on the view screen.”
Nykostra blushed, her cheeks slightly bluer than before.
She ran a hand across his chest, stroking him. “I never imagined I would see you in person. It’s wonderful.”
He nodded and then sighed. “What’s wrong,” she asked.
“I dare not touch you or risk death. You’re the Empress, Kaleen. Just being this close to you violates a half dozen rules.”
“Forget the rules, Ketar and just hold me tight.”
She wrapped her arms around his chest and hugged him. He was hesitant to do the same but eventually gave in. They stood in a hug each of them thankful to be with the other.
Nykostra looked up and licked her dark blue lips. Ketar could not stop himself. He kissed her gently and was surprised by the passion she returned. When they finally parted, he pushed her away slowly.
“We can’t do this. I can’t be here, with you like this.”
She wrinkled a brow and said, “You don’t like me then?”
He shook his head curtly. “No your highness, far from it. I love you more than anything else in the universe. But you and I are from different worlds.”
“If you win the contest, we can be together forever.”
He frowned and turned away, taking in her huge bed, wondering how anyone could sleep in such a vast area. All his life he slept in a small, rectangular area slightly larger than his own height.
“I’m the youngest contestant. I have the least experience and I have never been to battle. You would be a fool to pick me over the any one of the other warriors.”
She slipped her cool hands into his.
“But I don’t know them and besides I love only you.”
He smiled at her and kissed her again. “I have wanted to be with you ever since we first met on the tiny screen, so long ago. I can’t believe this is who you are. my Empress, my leader and my love.”
She stared up into his brown eyes and sighed.
A knock at her door made them both look up in fear. “Enter,” Nykostra said in her command tone.
The door opened and the girl attendant stuck her head in.
“My Empress, the boy must leave now.”
Nykostra held onto him a moment longer and they kissed again before parting. Then he slipped out the door and was gone.
Nykostra became weak. She fell to her knees on the stone floor and put her head in her hands to weep. Tears flowed freely from her hands to the floor.
Later that evening, Nykostra lay on top of her bed fully clothed. She had no desire to sleep, her thoughts still lingered on Ketar. He was the first boy she had ever kissed and it felt so right inside her. She knew he was her soul mate. Her one true romantic love.
Votainions were not a very romantic race. But they did believe in destiny and sacred love. Their literature was filled with great romances between warriors and their lovers. Some with happy endings and some with tragic endings. Hers could not be allowed to end in tragedy. Ketar had to win the contest outright. She knew that he would, no matter how difficult the task. It was only a matter of time before they were together forever and she could focus her attentions on expanding the empire.
She felt a sudden drop in temperature as a cool breeze swept over her from across her room. Her heart turned cold as she realized who it was that had slipped into her bed chambers.
Standing across the room in his black cloak was the Kwizarra Lonn. She knew he had a secret entry into her bed chambers, but she had never caught him in the act of entering by one.
“My Empress, I was hoping you were still awake. We need to talk.”
She sat up and stared coldly across the room at the shadowy figure.
“Get out of my chambers! How dare you enter without permission?”
The figure floated forward as if on air.
“I felt it best that only you knew that I was here, my Empress.”
Her mental shields were up and fully hardened. She was ready for anything he had to say to her.
“What is it?”
“I know about the boy you sneaked in here earlier. I know who he is and I know how long you’ve been seeing him over the communication link.”
Nykostra’s face flushed with anger, her normally pale blue skin nearly white. Her anger boiled just below the surface.
“I have come to warn you away from him, my Empress. For he will not survive the competition. He is young and weak and no match at all for Lord Surg.”
“Be gone you gray brute! Who I see and where I see them is of no concern to anyone but me. Lord Ketar will defeat all your efforts to keep him from me, so don’t bother trying.”
The old man smiled wickedly as he stopped before her bed, his arms crossed before him. She peered into his mind and repeated her sentiment but it was like penetrating one of the solid stone bricks in the wall of the castle. Hard and immutable.
Nykostra rose to her knees and faced the Soothsayer. Her voice lowered to the command tone. “Get out of here before I get my falchion.”
His wicked smile faded. She had never threatened to kill him before and she knew that he would take such a threat seriously. For she had slain his master before him and would show no hesitation to slay another vile creature from the underworld.
The Kwizarra Lonn retreated silently to the hidden door near the back of her room. How he managed to come and go through solid stone she had no idea. Sorcery was a skill that only the most powerful Soothsayers could command.
“The final test is to the death, my Empress,” said the disembodied voice of the Kwizarra Lonn.
She felt the breeze again and the dark shadow was gone.
The second test was one of teamwork. But the contestants were not told this. Instead, they were tasked with a typical military mission to assault a target and retrieve an item from the enemy. There were no rules, per se. Just that the winners had to return with the object.
The opposing forces were captured enemy soldiers from the farthest planetary system that the Empire was currently fighting in. The Benzotii race were scattered around three star systems. The Votainions had been at war with the Benzotii for hundreds of years and never seemed to be able to rid the galaxy of them. Clans would pop up every few decades and fight tooth and nail until the very last one was killed.
The average Benzotii stood seven feet tall on two legs and a sturdy tail that they often used to leverage balance in combat. They had two sets of opposing arms and two heads, a primary and a secondary that gave them nearly a three hundred and sixty degree field of view.
Both heads had drop hinged mouths packed with tiny daggers for teeth. If you managed to evade their razor sharp claws they could easily swallow a Votainion head in one bite. The Benzotii didn’t wear much in the way of clothes, at least not in combat. Their warriors preferred sharp edged weapons when in close, but they primarily used large caliber projectiles to take you out from a distance.
The Benzotti had been a space faring race for thousands of years before the Votainions encroached in their home lands. At first the Votainions thought they were just particularly viscous animals native to the only Class M planet in the system. But they soon discovered otherwise and in one bloody battle after another they learned the true power of kinetic weapons in space.
For this test, the warriors faced anywhere from ten to two Benzotii prisoners who were given their own weapons to defend themselves. To make things interesting, the Benzotii were promised their freedom if they killed any of the contestants. It would be a fight to the death for all involved.
Due to the dangerous nature of this test, it was conducted on a barren steppe of the northern hinterlands. The Benzotii were told to defend long abandoned earthen hovels into which were placed the objects that the contestants had to retrieve: A nest of Verner snakes, the venom from which would kill a Votainion in seconds.
The Empress could hold court above the playing fields in a circling, heavily armed platform. She was close enough to watch the fighting but far enough away not to be killed by stray or intentional shots from the Benzotii.
The contest had been playing out for hours before any of the Votainion warriors had gotten near their objectives. Two warriors had already been killed. Both had neglected to respect their adversaries and paid the price for it. The hardened ground near the entrance to the hovels was red with their spilled blood. Body parts had been consumed by the Benzotii, who had over the years developed a taste for blue Votainion skin.
Empress Nykostra sat on her portable throne in the center of the round observation room. She had been standing against the windows looking down on the battlefield when the two men were caught by surprise and taken apart like slaughtered cattle. It was no contest and she became bored of it before the man from Khangor was completely dead.
An attendant offered her a drink as the Kwizarra Lonn entered the room from a staircase below. As his cloaked form glided over to her she took a long drought of the hot beverage. It was miserably cold and windy down below and some of the windows were open to afford her a clear view. She was dressed for the cold and it didn’t bother her in the least.
“Two contestants have failed to enter the hovels and one is about to be bitten by his objective. A worthy test, don’t you think, my Empress?”
She scoffed at him and watched a monitor screen that showed the warrior from Settak snatching the Verner nest.
“What makes you think this one will be bitten?” she asked.
“They don’t have snakes on Settak. He has no idea what’s inside that nest. Prudence can be a decent indicator of intelligence.”
Almost as if on command the man was attacked by the juvenile Verner snakes and took one last step before falling dead. She nodded to the Soothsayer who flicked his gray, bony fingers to a second monitor.
“Here comes Ku’nar from Surg. He is a canny warrior and will know how to properly transport the nest.”
Nykostra watched the warrior approach the dead man and stop. He looked around for a stick and found the dead man’s falchion instead. Using the blade, he encourage the startled snakes back into their straw and dirt nest.
A second figure cautiously entered the room. It was Ketar. He was carrying a Benzotii rifle and pointing it behind him. There appeared to be words between them but Nykostra could not hear what was said. She imagined that they were working out how to transport the snakes together. Another part of the test no doubt. Teamwork.
A blinding flash erupted and several Benzotii soldiers seemed to have the Votainions surrounded.
“Ah, now it begins to get interesting, my Empress,” the old Soothsayer said.