Gunrunner Hail Bristol must navigate alien politics and deadly plots to prevent an interspecies war, in the final novel in the Farian War space opera trilogy.
“Welcome, Star of Indrana, we have been waiting for you.”
I stared up at the Farian god, lost in her golden eyes. A moment before she’d appeared as the Dark Mother, as Kali, and folding my hands to bow at the awe-inspiring sight had been instinctive. Now she looked Farian, like Fasé, but taller, so much taller, and commanding in a way none of us could ever hope to match.
I had come to this place with Aiz Cevalla to speak with the Farian gods, or fight them if they would not listen, but I was thrown by their warm greeting, and the implication that they’d expected me was a heavy echo of Kasio’s words to me earlier.
The seer of the Council of Eyes had said the gods wanted to speak with me, and standing here now seemed to prove her words true.
“You’ve been waiting for me?” I asked. “Why?”
“Our people are coming for us. We need your help to stop them.”
“Oh Shiva,” I murmured as all the scattered pieces finally fell into place in my head. The aliens who’d attacked the Svatir, the hiervet sveta, the monsters of light. The prophecy and the magnitude of what I’d done, what I’d called down on this galaxy by my decision not to fight the Farian gods.
The light would swallow us all. For a moment I tensed, considering the violent option I’d worked so hard to avoid, but then Sybil’s words echoed in my head. “I saw a light that is not light spreading. We all fight—we will all die. We surrender—we will die.”
Fighting was the option that would kill us all, I didn’t dare let myself forget it. I dragged in a breath; the memories Dailun had shown me were suddenly clear in my head. “You’re the deserters they were looking for; you’re the Hiervet.”
Emmory and Gita moved in concert to my side, their weapons out. How they had crossed the sands so quickly to reach Aiz and me, I had no idea. But I was grateful now for the solid presence of my BodyGuards.
The image of the gods in front of me shifted again. The trio was now smaller, though still a good hand-span above me. They were pale and slender, bipedal, but with limbs longer than a human’s that ended not in hands but a split tentacle with a rough gray-blue surface.
The Farians, the Shen, even the Svatir looked and behaved enough like humans that it was comforting. The Hiervet decidedly did not look like us, so much so that it was going to take someone better with words than me to describe them properly.
I tried for a moment to return to the illusion of them as Farians and was surprised when I couldn’t. Now the only way to tell them apart was by the mark below their left eyes. On the Hiervet in the center it was a solid horizontal rectangle bisected vertically by a row of five dots. The other two had the same rectangle, but the one on the left had four dots and the one on the right had only three in the same flat black.
“We are as you say, Star of Indrana.” The slow baring of all-toohuman-looking teeth by the creature in the center who moments ago had presented as a Farian woman was terrifying. “We should take this somewhere more pleasant, yes?”
A blink. A heartbeat. We were no longer in the arena but in a room that looked far more like something one would find on Indrana than in the hideout of an alien pretending to be a god. It was cozy, the windows reflecting a setting sun I suspected wasn’t real.
There was a fireplace and a table at one end of the long room. A trio of high-backed wooden chairs at the other looked just thronelike enough to make my eyebrow rise incrementally and my shoulders lock up.
Emmory’s quiet voice was a balm soothing the slight edge in my gut. I had so achingly missed that tone it was a wonder I didn’t break apart right there.
“I’m all right,” I murmured over our private com link and then aloud. “I think some introductions are in order.”
The Hiervet in the center smiled again. “I am Thyra.” They gestured to the right. “This is Priam.”
The Hiervet with four dots dipped their head briefly with a surprising amount of reverence.
“And Adaran. Welcome to Etrelia, Star of Indrana,” Thyra said with a sweep of their limb.
I recognized the name, remembered it from the negotiations and Adora spitting the challenge at Aiz: “You can have your father’s soul when the whole of the Pedalion lies dead and Etrelia is burning.”
“Welcome also, Mia Cevalla and Fasé Terass. The other sides, the ones who help keep the balance.” Those wide, black eyes turned to Aiz, and every muscle in their body tensed. “You slayed that which was ours, Aiz Cevalla.” Thyra’s voice held a wealth of anger, but Aiz was unmoved.
“I did it to save my people from your chains. The Star has convinced me not to fight, Thyra, but I won’t apologize for the choices I’ve made.” He dipped his head in acknowledgment. “I thought I killed you.”
“You almost did. Your sister saved me.”
“Why am I not surprised?” he replied.
“You should die for what you have done.” Priam snarled the words, but all three looked as though they were about to pounce.
“Careful,” I said, putting a hand across Aiz’s chest. “He’s my crew.”
“Is that so?” Thyra tilted their overlarge head to the side, vertical eyelids sliding shut once and snapping open again.
I met what I thought was a challenge with a smile. “It is.”
“You keep deadly company, Star of Indrana.”
“Oh, you have no idea.” I headed to my right, gesturing for Mia and Fasé to follow, and took the center seat of the row of ornate chairs. It was going to take me a while to get a read on the Hiervet’s facial expressions, but I guessed the narrowing of eyes was a universal signal for annoyance.
Or it was possibly a response to my challenge; I had just sat in their chairs, after all. I crossed one leg over the other and studied the trio in front of me with all the poise of the empress everyone expected me to be.
“Well, you wanted me here. Start talking.”
The Hiervet started talking, but not to me. Instead a rapid-fire discussion in a language both lyrical and sharp as broken glass broke out among the trio.
“Sha zhu, perhaps do not taunt the gods.”
I glanced at Hao. He stood by Gita’s side with a hand on his gun. “They’re not gods,” I subvocalized over our private com link.
“You know I don’t believe in them, but they look a great deal like the Old Gods.”
I frowned. “The Old Gods, really? That’s what you see?” I switched to the main channel. “Everyone give me a read on what those three creatures look like to you.”
The answers from the others were predictable, split between the Indranan gods I’d seen initially and the Farian gods who’d appeared right after.
Johar, however, had a decidedly different take. “You know those really big wasps on Pintro XVI? They kinda look like the love child of those and the folks who live underground on Yuzin. All blue-gray pale and spindly, but everything is put together wrong.”
It was the same thing I could see, and I managed somehow not to turn my head to stare at her in awe.
Indula wasn’t so controlled, and Iza elbowed him in the side with a muttered curse until he snapped his head back to the Hiervet. Thankfully our hosts didn’t seem to notice, though they did wrap up whatever argument they’d been having and turn their attention back to me, leaving me no time to ponder Johar’s revelation.
“Star of Indrana—”
I held up a hand. “Let’s get this out of the way first. I am Empress Hailimi Bristol, here to broker a peace between the Farians and the Shen on behalf of humanity. You three are a wrinkle in an already complicated situation, but I’m willing to see what I can do for you once the matter at hand is settled. In the meantime, you can address me as ‘Your Majesty.’ ”
Thyra studied me for a long moment. I wished I could somehow return to seeing them with the façade of more humanlike faces, and wondered if it would even give me an accurate sense of what they were thinking to see them that way.
Focus, Hail. You’ ll want to learn to read their faces as is, and now’s as good a time for it as any.
“Why the Farian names?” I asked. “What are your real names?”
“These are our real names,” Thyra replied. “The names we chose when we arrived and the genders we picked when our images resolved to please the Farians. We had no names before and discarded the designations we were given a long time ago.”
“The images that resolved to please us? You pretended to be Farians. You landed on my planet and enslaved my people.” Fasé had finally recovered from her shock, and the venom in her voice startled me. I reached out and put my hand on her knee.
An identical expression flowed across the faces of all three. Embarrassment? They shifted as if they were in discomfort, tapping the splits of their top limbs together rapidly.
“You don’t know how lucky you are. The universe out past your stars is a dangerous place. No one comes to this corner, this desolate little galaxy. No one bothers you. It seemed the perfect place to hide. We wanted nothing to do with our creators and their endless wars. When we lost to the Svatir, my squad and I saw our chance.”
“Your chance to what?”
“To disappear. To live a life denied to us.”
“You are deserters,” I repeated, remembering the scene Dailun had shown us of the captured Hiervet and their desperate pleas that they were hunting criminals. “You ran from your people, set yourselves up as gods, and have been manipulating the Farians for years. All this after your people attempted to invade this galaxy and subjugate the Svatir. Tell me why I should help you with anything? When by all accounts if I kill you it will stop your people from declaring war on us.”
Thyra took a step forward and froze when the sound of weapons powering up suddenly filled the air. I didn’t tell Emmory to stand down, instead leaning back in the chair and waiting to see what the Hiervet’s reaction would be.
Mia gave an almost imperceptible gasp, and I imagined that if I could see the illusion of the Farian it would look as if Thyra were folding her hands together and bowing, but instead her overlong appendages were twisted together.
“None of what you believe is correct, Your Majesty. I need to show you the history of our people. There is too much to tell, too much that would be missed, but I can show you.” She extended one limb.
“Bad idea.” The warning came from Emmory, Hao, and Aiz at the same time.
They weren’t wrong, but this whole thing had been a bad idea from the very beginning. Still, I knew the value of trusting their judgment. We were in an unknown location with unknown adversaries and I wanted to retain the upper hand.
“I think, perhaps, it’s best if we return to the Pedalion first,” I replied. “You want my protection from your people? It comes with a price. You have to tell the Farians the truth of what you are and what you have done. You will help me broker this peace. You will let the Shen come home. You will let those Farians who wish to live and die do so. I am done with this charade of you as gods, are we understood?”
The noise that came from Thyra could best be described as a sigh. “I know, it does not make it any easier, Your Majesty. But we will do as you require.” She held out her limbs. “If you will all put your hands on each other, we will take you back.”
I shared a look with Mia as we got up from the chairs. Her face was carefully blank as she reached for Fasé, and I wished I knew what she was thinking.
All three Hiervet crossed their limbs over their narrow torsos and I tightened my grip on Mia when reality blacked out around us, resolving in between one heartbeat and the next as the now familiar white marble of the Pedalion chamber.
“Well, that is a neat trick,” I muttered. We were standing on the star in the center of the floor and I didn’t protest as Emmory moved us off it with a few quick steps to the side. “You can actually move locations, not just make things look different.”
“Short distances, Your Majesty,” Thyra replied. “Though if you had fewer people we could have gone farther.”
“Price of being in charge,” I replied. “You get used to it.”
The chamber was empty, silent, but that didn’t last for long. Emmory moved at the shouting, stepping in front of me and bringing his gun to bear on the guards who rushed in.
It was unnecessary. They took one look at the Hiervet standing beside me and dropped to their knees.