tightened and she choked on unshed tears. Her high
boots hammered the cobblestone of the narrow street
of the Citadel, and her scabbard clicked against the
metal hooks of her black leather uniform as she
strode resolutely toward the Palace of Princes. She
glanced right and left for signs of trouble among
the bewildered mourners flocking to the last
viewing. Even on a glorious spring day, anything
could happen in such volatile circumstances.
Hellion, who loped
silently at her side, bumped a thick, furry head
against Ariela's hip. The lioness always picked up
on her mood.
Ariela indulged the
feline and caressed the silvery fur. "I can't
believe the King is dead."
Hellion grunted in
response, and Ariela wondered how much the smart cat
understood. Probably more than anyone suspected.
Force of habit, she
scanned the three-story buildings ensconcing the
narrow street on both sides. From an open window, a
little girl gawked at her black uniform. Quickly,
the father behind her grabbed the child and bowed in
apology. Ariela nodded back.
the man, a member of the rebellion against the
Mutants. He'd attended last night's secret meeting.
But she didn't let the recognition show on her face.
With the Citadel full of Grays for the event, the
Human population must appear to be friendly.
please don't let anything bad happen today.
Crowds could be so unpredictable.
When she neared the
cobbled square in front of the Palace of Princes,
the street widened and adjacent fares came together
into a spacious half circle. The crowd thickened as
the population of the Citadel converged toward the
palace to pay their last respects.
Many only came for
the free food, of course, and the usual pickpockets
wouldn't miss an opportunity to snatch a fat purse.
Ariela grabbed Hellion's collar and let the lioness
clear their path.
The great cat
sniffed the air and pulled Ariela, following the
aroma of roasting meat. Hellion never missed the
scent of food.
Despite the festive
ambiance and the sweet smell of freshly baked
pastries, Ariela noticed sad faces, a sniffle, the
brush of a tear. She caught furtive glances under
the peasant hoods, and jaws squaring in anger. Even
Hellion, loping at her side, twitched her silvery
blue pelt, emitting muffled snorts.
Soon, Ariela came
into view of the gilded wrought iron gate, wide open
to let in the mourners. Tall Mutant guards in gray
armor, Grays for short, immobile, hand on their
phasers, flanked the gate and lined the inside of
the golden ornamental fence, as if to protect the
precious metal from looters.
Beyond the gate,
lay the vast, sun-bathed esplanade fronting the
Palace of Princes, a decadent, three-story edifice
of curlicued white marble balustrades and balconies,
lined by a row of alabaster statues.
The Grays, aloof
and taciturn, eyes hooded and staring out over the
square and the streets, reminded Ariela of the stone
statues. Just as unemotional, too. How could they
not feel the undercurrent of anger roiling through
The guards paid
Ariela no heed as she crossed the gate into the
esplanade. Her uniform as Captain of the Black Sword
Garrison allowed her to carry weapons anywhere, even
in a Mutant enclave.
Ariela hoped the
crowd wouldn't turn against the Grays, like it did
at several silk mills and marble quarries in the
past few days, since the announcement of their
beloved king's untimely demise. The Grays had killed
a dozen rebellious workers with their high-tech
phasers, further angering the masses. But their
precious technology might not protect them from a
full blown Human rebellion.
Here, however, on
Mutant ground, the crowd knew nothing of the
palace's lethal defenses that would curdle a
mother's milk in her breast... The gilded bars of
the fence didn't shimmer with destructive power
today. But when activated, that power would
pulverize anything that came too close. Ariela also
knew about the batteries of deadly canons sitting on
the flat roof. She shivered at the thought of what
Mutant weapons could do. At least, the populace had
heeded her advice and left axes and pitchforks at
home. It was for their own safety.
through the crowd. Craftsmen, artisans and merchants
had come in rich, colorful attire. A few paraded
their felines. Farmers and villagers from miles
around also crammed the vast enclosure.
small children on their shoulders. Calls popped here
and there. Heads craned, trying to see, at the
center of the esplanade, the truncated step pyramid
erected overnight that would serve as a stage.
All around the
cobbled square, long trestle tables dressed in red
silk, offered free sweet bread, pastries, ale, wine,
and even dumplings. But the mouth-watering meat
aroma came from a row of roasting pits. Over there,
cooks turned an entire pig, two goats, and two
halves of an ox over piles of glowing ambers, while
dripping fat juices on the tender roasting meat.
tightened at the idea of food. She couldn't swallow
a bite if she tried.
At a pastry table,
she recognized a familiar blond head over a sea of
long-haired villagers and called in a battle voice,
The blond head
turned to her hail, displaying a streak of blue hair
at each temple and a mouth full of turnover. Her
younger brother squinted in the sunlight and smiled.
He licked his fingers then motioned for her to meet
him by the left wing of the palace. He indicated one
of the white statues lining the front wall. They
represented the Princes of Kassouk, the highest
born, the purest Mutant blood.
Ariela knew which
statue he meant. She nodded. Talsin always had
clever ideas, which sometimes got him in trouble.
What was it this time?
They came together
in front of the familiar pedestal above which stood
a tall, elegant alabaster woman with a noble face.
The triangular runes on the base read Lady Naya,
Princess of Kassouk... their grandmother.
But despite the
drops of Mutant blood in their ancestry, Ariela and
Talsin were born with five fingers, hence Human, and
unworthy of superior education or princely titles.
Humans did not rule in Kassouk.
Hellion's head playfully then pointed to the top of
the seven-foot pedestal. "That would be our best
"Smart kid." Ariela
reached and hooked her hands to the top edge to
hoist herself upon the statue's wide base. Once
there, she lowered a helping arm.
"I'm fifteen... not
a kid anymore." Still, he grabbed her arm anyway and
let her lift him to the top.
In one leap, she landed smoothly next to them, then
the lioness draped her supple body across the
enormous feet of the statue as if to claim them,
discouraging anyone else from crowding their
privileged lookout. Lions were fiercely loyal, but
the females also had protective maternal instincts.
And Hellion had adopted Ariela and Talsin as her
Ariela sat at the
edge of the cool white stone, dangling her booted
legs. "Amazing how life can change in an instant."
losing them both in one strike, King Dragomir and
Queen Tora." Talsin dropped next to her.
Ariela laid a
protective hand on her younger brother's shoulder.
"Life is never fair. But somehow, we survive."
"I wonder what
happened." The suppressed anger showed in the
tightening of his jaw. "I hope they tell us how they
Ariela also hated
the secretive nature of Mutants. "With King
Dragomir, we've lost the only voice of reason in the
Council of Princes."
"Who is going to
protect us from these six-fingered freaks, now?"
Talsin's gaze darted right and left above the sea of
"Careful what you
say in a Mutant enclave." Ariela gently squeezed her
brother's shoulder. "They may have hidden monitoring
"Maybe it's time
they heard the truth."
Ariela knew better.
"They know the Humans hate them. They just don't
She returned her
attention to the crowd. The entire population of the
Citadel attended the festivities. The pyramidal
stage dominated the center of the esplanade. An
elegant ramp, supported by an arch, like a bridge,
connected the stage to a second story balcony of the
When a giant
holographic image surged from the stage, all eyes
focused on it and a loud murmur swelled and ebbed.
Taller than the
palace itself, King Dragomir, high brow, copper skin
and long black hair, stood and smiled, along with
the representation of his beloved Queen Tora, pale,
with cropped blond hair and azure eyes. At their
feet heeled two white tigers. Both sovereigns waved
their six-fingered hands to the citizens gathered to
pay a last homage.
Mourners fell to
one knee on the cobblestone and lowered their heads.
A shame that the masses still considered such feats
of technology as miracles. How many times had Ariela
told them holograms were not miracles? Still, they
reacted like children at a puppet show.
"I remember when
they recorded this hologram." Ariela's voice
cracked. "That was at the winter solstice, the last
time I spoke to the king."
"Oh I remember that night. You came home so drunk,
you passed out outside the door."
Ariela cleared her
throat to cover her embarrassment. "I was very
upset... and the wine was free." She realized her
brother was old enough to understand. She lowered
her voice... just in case. "That night, the king
told me the Council was trying to kick him out. He
ordered me to prepare the citizens of Kassouk, train
them to fight back, just in case anything happened
"He knew he was
going to die? That's why you started the militias?"
Talsin nodded understanding. "What are you going to
"Find help." Ariela
sighed. "The militias are not ready, and I can't do
this alone." She returned her gaze to the peaceful
hologram of the royal couple. "It's better to see
them like this... happy. At least, we don't have to
watch their bodies burn on a pyre. I hate
traditional funerals, it's always so sad."
"Why a viewing and
not a funeral? What happened to the bodies?" Talsin
no doubt enjoyed digging into the mystery, the
intrigue. He did not suspect the dangers any shift
of power presented for the common folks.
vanished. A disappointed murmur arose, quickly
extinguished by a few measures of martial music.
In a drumming of
boots, a contingent of guards in red armors, a kind
Ariela had never seen before, marched upon the
bridge from the second floor balcony and took their
places in perfect straight lines, on a lower step
along the four edges of the pyramidal stage, looking
out at the crowd. Taller than the Grays, obviously
Mutants given their taller stature and six-fingered
hands, they all had red faces and a wrathful black
They reacted to the
slightest sounds and movements, edgy and alert, even
menacing... Their nostrils flared and their beady
eyes darted in every direction... a far cry from the
taciturn, Human-looking Grays. Had the Mutants
created a new breed? An aggressive race of fierce
warriors? Why? The very thought made Ariela shudder
with dread. As if their technology wasn't damaging
enough, they had to cook a batch of bloodthirsty
How many of these
had they hatched? These would not be afraid of
patrolling the streets of the Citadel. May the Great
Engineer protect the Human race.
A stout Mutant in
white silk robes, a Prince of Kassouk according to
his garb, now walked the ramp briskly toward the
truncated pyramid. Upon reaching the center, he
scrutinized the Human crowd with an arrogant port of
the head. He had black skin, piercing golden eyes,
and long golden braids.
Ariela gasped. "How
dare he show his face here?"
rose and fell in surrender. "All right. You got me.
Who is this clown? Am I suppose to know him?"
grandmother's complicity, Ariela had studied the
secret archives. She had no doubt about the Mutant's
identity, although he seemed to have gained a lot of
authority since his last recorded public appearance.
"It's Brother Kohl. King Dragomir demoted him from
the Council and exiled him from Kassouk a century
Talsin's brow shot
up. "About the time we colonized the Eastern
noted with satisfaction that her history lessons
hadn't been lost on the boy.
"Why would an outcast preside at the last viewing?"
"I don't know."
Ariela chewed her lower lip in frustration. "But it
can't be good."
On the pyramidal
stage, Brother Kohl cleared his throat. Ariela
noticed the amplification of sound surrounding the
crowd through hidden technology. The mourners
quieted. Of course, they had no idea who the Mutant
was. To think of it, his statue didn't stand among
the other Blood Princes either. Yet, he was an old
black face now appeared to float, large above the
crowd against the azure sky, solemn and arrogant.
His expression remained unreadable, but Ariela could
sense that behind the neutral mask, he wore a
permanent smirk of self-approval. His bulging golden
eyes reminded her of an amphibian.
Kohl raised his
arms emphatically. "The tragic accident, that took
the lives of our sovereigns when their flyer
exploded in high orbit, leaves us bereft," the
baritone voice boomed.
exploded?" Talsin gaped.
Ariela deemed the
accident too convenient.
"They were taken in
their prime," Kohl went on, "their life cut short,
just before our king's two-hundred-and-sixtieth
A murmur rolled
over the crowd like soft thunder. A few timid voices
scoffed. "That's three Human lifetimes!"
Hot anger crept up
Talsin shook his
head. "No bodies to tell the story, no compromising
evidence... How neat."
surveyed the sea of heads below and whispered,
"Humans are not supposed to know anything about
affairs of state, remember?"
"I know." He sighed
and his shoulders sagged.
Ariela didn't want
to create problems for her grandmother. Lady Naya
had already received many reprimands from the
Council for letting her access Mutant knowledge.
Even though she had King Dragomir's blessing.
bulbous eyes gleamed like gold, so did his tightly
braided hair, and his false smile did not reach his
"He is quick to
claim it was an accident," Talsin whispered between
clenched teeth. "What if that flyer didn't explode
on its own?"
surveyed her fellow Humans and tightened her grip on
her sword hilt, finding its presence reassuring.
importantly," the booming voice resumed, "their
sudden demise leaves the lands of Kassouk in need of
glanced at each other, fear showing in the white of
their eyes. Ariela felt it, too, the foreboding that
chilled the spine before a disaster.
"According to the
ancient laws laid down centuries ago at the start of
our independence from the Godds, the next in line
for the throne of Kassouk is the oldest Mutant of
the First rank."
"The purest blood."
Cold dread drizzled down Ariela's spine. She now
remembered why King Dragomir had banished Brother
Kohl from the Council so long ago. A shiver bristled
the small hair at her nape. "We are doomed."
"Stop talking in
riddles." Talsin flashed her his most exasperated
"Listen for now."
Ariela softened her tone. "I'll tell you later."
extended his arms to encompass the masses and smiled
broadly. "Today, the Council of Princes ratified my
claim as Dragomir's legitimate and uncontested
successor. I am now High King of New Earth. You will
address me from now on as your Supreme Lord and
Sovereign, your Liege."
Talsin emitted a
low whistle. "He didn't waste any time."
"Long live Lord
Kohl," the Red guards hailed in strong unison. As
they straightened with pride, their faces exuded a
fervor unnatural for Mutants.
"The blight on them
all. May the Great Engineer protect the Human race,"
silence spread over the esplanade, then a few
hesitant voices rose. "Long live the High King!"
wish," Talsin railed. "Mutants live for five
Humans," Ariela managed through clenched teeth. "He
betrayed Kassouk once to an alien race. That's why
King Dragomir stripped him of his succession
"And I'm willing to bet there is no gentle queen to
soften the mind of this venomous black toad."
Around them, the
hesitant cheers subsided for lack of enthusiasm.
Ariela understood. While Dragomir had taken power as
a hero and a liberator of the Human race two
centuries ago, Kohl was a total stranger to the
The new High King
spoke, silencing the crowd. "Starting tomorrow, each
citizen will volunteer one day of physical labor per
week for the benefit and well-being of this kingdom
and its rulers."
"To do what?" A
challenging male voice.
"We loved King
Dragomir. We don't even know you," a woman called.
"We don't owe you
anything!" A raucous, elderly voice.
The Reds shifted on
their feet, like impatient war horses awaiting the
call to charge.
Kohl squinted at
the trouble-makers. His hand went to the fold of his
robe. Was he hiding a phaser in there? "We are
reopening the old duranium mines."
"These mines are
not safe!" Another man yelled.
Ariela shuddered at
the thought. She leaned toward Talsin and whispered.
"The only reason to mine more duranium would be to
prepare for war."
Her brother glanced
at her wide-eyed. "But against whom?"
A murmur rumbled
among the Human sea of mourners, slight first, then
rising like an unfurling wave.
exploitation!" A fist rose above the heads to the
"No more slaving
for the High and Mighty!"
"Let them dig their
own ore with their precious machines!"
A shower of
dumplings and pastries pelted the stage. The crowd
cheered and more food projectiles flew.
As one, the Reds
and their newly appointed king activated their
phasic shield that shimmered like transparent
eggshells around each one of them. Then the Reds
fired phasers with inexorable precision and those
who had spoken against their king screamed and fell.
Ariela knew they were dead.
Cries of outrage
quickly waned when the Reds targeted the new
Women grabbed their
children and ran. Citizens quickly carried the
victims toward the gate. Others prudently retreated
away from the stage.
Toward the fence,
the Grays at the gate had come to attention. They,
too, had activated their shields that shimmered in
sunlight with transparent flickering energy.
On the platform,
the new King smirked. "Remember this day when you
are tempted to disobey my orders."
Turning on his
heel, he marched back to the arched ramp linking the
platform to the palace balcony, flanked by his
contingent of Red Mutant warriors. After they walked
out of sight, a loud murmur of outrage billowed like
a dark storm cloud.
Ariela rose to her
feet and called in her battle voice. "Calm down!"
Even without amplification, her voice carried, and
the citizens listened. They had learned to trust her
in the past few months. "Don't give them an excuse
to take you in chains into forced labor! That's what
Her strong words
cooled a few hot heads.
"Today we pay
homage to our departed king and queen." Ariela knew,
however, that tomorrow would bring more trouble.
A reluctant mumble
of assent coursed through the throng. Good. The
people of Kassouk weren't ready to claim their
freedom... not against this new breed of Mutant
warriors. Not yet.
image of King Dragomir and his queen resumed, and
the musicians played the funeral hymn. The mourners
quieted, out of respect for their dead rulers.
Ariela realized her
little stunt may have called attention to her
influence on the citizenry of Kassouk. Would she
become a target for Kohl's machinations? But she had
promised King Dragomir she would protect the people
of Kassouk from Mutant abuse, and she would keep her
word, no matter the cost.
She checked the row
of Grays by the fence. They had deactivated their
shields and regained their taciturn composure.
Hellion groaned a
down!" The compelling voice in her head
surprised her but she obeyed. Warrior instinct.
Talsin out of the way as a bolt whistled through the
air. The arrow glanced off the alabaster statue with
no strength left. As if spent. Where did the warning
come from? And why had the bolt lost its momentum?
brushing his tunic, his face paler than usual. "No
harm done. Stray arrow."
"No. It was meant
to kill me." Pulse beating at her throat, Ariela
searched for an archer and a crossbow in the
direction where the bolt had originated, toward the
fence. Or through the fence? A human weapon. An
assassin's weapon. But the killer had already
vanished. Definitely an assassin.
A prickle at the
nape stirred her warrior instincts. Ariela turned
and gazed up and to her left. On a private third
floor balcony reserved for the royals, disturbingly
close, stood the strangest couple.
Talsin followed her
gaze. "Who are they?"
the woman leaning on the balustrade, a tall Mutant
with long flaxen hair falling straight on square
shoulders. "It's Lady Esperana, King Dragomir's
daughter, Ambassador of Kassouk to the Eastern
"The one they say
has gone native?" A hint of wonder tinted Talsin's
Lady Esperana was
surveying the crowd. The man at her side, on the
other hand, watched Ariela intently.
That voice in her head again. His voice? No. It
prickled when their eyes met. The man's turquoise
stare upon her made her blood rush. "Her companion
Too tall to be
entirely Human, he had a strange aura about him. Was
it the refinement of his muted silk attire that kept
Ariela enthralled? Or the noble port of his head?
His tan skin had the luster of mother of pearl, and
his high forehead and shaved scalp gleamed in
sunlight. The tight muscles on his bare arms marked
him as a trained warrior, yet he carried no weapon
that she could see, not even a ceremonial dagger,
like Lady Esperana.
The intensity in
his striking eyes made Ariela tingle all over. She
had the definite impression that he could see all
the way to her soul. She'd never seen anyone like
him, even among galactic foreigners. More colorful,
maybe, but more strikingly handsome, never. Who was
the charismatic stranger?
from her studies that the native males of the
Eastern continent shaved their heads. Could he be an
Easterner? They never ventured away from home, but
travelers claimed they could read minds. Of course, Ariela didn't believe such tales, and even less the
legends attached to these superstitions.
Yet, she understood
how such a man could give that impression to weaker