Jayle paced back and forth from one corner of her bedroom to the other, biting her lip and clenching her fists. In the middle of the room, an unobtrusive holographic interface was set up, displaying the invitation she’d sent to Serge for a conversation. She’d sent it twenty minutes ago, and he hadn’t responded, which meant he was probably in the middle of a battle somewhere. She could activate her oracles, send them out and find out exactly what he was doing, but she didn’t really want to know. She was tired of this war. She’d been tired of it since before it had even begun.
After her failed assassination, she’d of course returned outside to the plaza, first allowing her Vassals to secure the area, and gave another speech stuffed with meaningless reassurances. The whole thing left a bad taste in her mouth. She knew she was speaking nonsense, and now so did they. In a single day, they’d nearly lost their city and their Goddess in two separate incidents. Their world was crumbling.
But mine isn’t, she thought. She was, in reality, no closer to danger than she’d been since the games had started. Well, sure, she had been attacked, and it had caused her a considerable amount of fright, but she’d never been in any real danger. The jade rings she wore on each hand projected a very thin, almost undetectable energy field around her at all times. Had the bolt from that primitive crossbow flown true, her rings would have sensed it and thrown up a force shield, rendering the attack laughable. It was a pity her would-be assassin wasn’t a better shot. If the arrow had struck her and shattered against a wall of light, leaving her unharmed, her people would now be sure of her invincibility. And poor Believer would still be alive.
No, the assassination attempt wasn’t what had her pacing in such an unladylike fashion. It would have been ridiculous to assume that all of the natives were of a like mind, and would accept her as a benevolent ruler. It wasn’t even the attack on her home by Brand Amarant that worried her. It was what that attack represented. Thirty months now. The game was in its final stages. Brand had started moving against her because they were moving into the endgame, and he wanted to eliminate House Jade from the competition. In a little under six months, this game would be all over, and she would be on her way home. Back to her sister.
What will happen to this city when I’m gone? she thought. She could only hope that, after a few years at court in the imperial capital, she would be allowed to resume control of House Jades assets on this as-yet unnamed planet. Any other representative, given control, would have no care whatsoever for the natives who called this planet home. They would be brushed aside, not even used as labor since robots were more efficient, left to survive alone, numbers dwindling until they were nothing but another endangered intelligent species. An attack like the one on her today, harmless as it was, would be responded to with overwhelming force. The beautiful painted homes they’d raised all over her city would be burned down to make room for more production facilities.
She’d have to ask her sister, beg her, for the right to govern the planet in the name of House Jade. But in her imagination, she could only see her sister scowling, a look of disgust warring with disbelief. You ask a favor of me? she could imagine her saying. What have you done to earn it? Three years you were given the order to conquer this planet for the glory of your House. Three years you sat around and played goddess for those quaint crustaceans, basking in the tribute they paid you. You have no right to any favor of me.
Her dark thoughts were interrupted by a chime from her interface. She turned and found that a confirmation had been sent; Serge was ready to talk. She crossed over to the interface, then paused to look at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were bloodshot and her clothes were rumbled, her hair mussed up from running her hands through it again and again. It wouldn’t do to have him see her like this. Serge could be dumb as a rock when it came to certain matters, but he was perceptive to notice that something was wrong. And a daughter of House Jade, even if she wasn’t the heir, should never be seen so distressed.
It took her only a few minutes to wash her face, change her clothes, and pull her hair back into an elegant braid. She pressed her palm against the interface and stepped back. In a moment, the interface dissipated and Serge stood before her, only a slight shimmering revealing that he was only a holo-image. He towered over her, more than a foot higher, slender but wide shouldered, cobalt blue hair hanging long in the front, over eyes the precise same color. He had the same serious look on his face he’d worn habitually since he was eight.
“I’m sorry, I was caught up in another battle,” he said at once. “The girl from House Tao was trying to find a weak spot in my defense. Reckes helped me run her off though. Is everything alright with you?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” she said, giving him a slight smile. Not too much. Natural, as though his suspicions weren’t worth considering. “I just wanted to talk.”
“You don’t normally call this late…” he looked her straight in the eyes, always the direct approach.
“Yes, well, I asked you to do something for me earlier. I was hoping you’d had the time to take care of it. Of course, I understand you’ve been busy,” she said.
“Oh, about Seol?” He looked away now, uncomfortable. “I…spoke with her briefly.” She reached out, laid her hand lightly on his shoulder. There was a brief moment of visual static when their images were recalibrated, but she could feel the starchy fabric of his jacket under fingers, and hundreds of miles away, he could feel her. It was only an estimation of texture, a manipulation of hard-light by their computer’s interfaces, fake comfort and no substitute for actual touch. But it was better than nothing, and though she was making the appearance of comforting him, it was her who really wanted to feel a brief moment of human contact.
“Jayle, she… she’s pretty upset. And she’s angry. I know you two used to be close, but that’s over. These past two years, you’ve left the fighting up to me and Reckes, and that’s fine. We’re winning, after all. But now, I think you’re going to have to-” he trailed off, shook his head. “No. Never mind. Reckes and I will protect you. Like we always have.”
“Ser, what did she say?” Jayle asked.
“She plans to defeat you. Take away every last bit of territory from House Jade. It’s the only possible revenge she can have, here.”
“Then I should-”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re busy enough with your own things,” he said, somewhat stiffly. Serge had never really understood her actions regarding the natives. He was a true noble’s son, properly raised.
Neither of them spoke for a long moment. Jayle found herself forming a sentence in her head, but hesitating, unsure whether she should speak. Finally she decided to just do it before she could convince herself not too.
“So how is she?”
“How is she? How is who?” Serge asked.
“Seol. I haven’t talked to her for nearly a year. Since my sister took control of Mercury’s territory on Elmswith. What’s she like now?”
“What she’s like? She pretty much wants to destroy you. She basically said that she’s going to march in here, smash your castle, and throw you in a dark cell for the rest of the games. Maybe longer. She’s pissed that her family is dead, and she’s even more pissed that she can’t do anything about it. Remember how she used to get when she had a bad day in training? She wasn’t angry at us for beating her, and she wasn’t angry that she lost, not really. She was furious at herself, for not living up to her own standards. She’s like that, but a lot worse. It wasn’t a very happy sight,” Serge said.
“Do you think I could talk to her?” Jayle asked.
“I think that would be a horrible idea. She’d just get angrier, and we both know she only gets better when she’s angry. I know you don’t like to think of anyone as an enemy Jayle, and I know we all used to be friends. But that was when we were kids. Your House’s aren’t allies anymore. She wants to take you down. That’s the truth of it,” he said.
“Alright. I understand,” Jayle answered. She sighed, and collapsed back on her bed, having just enough dignity to fall into a sitting position rather than on her back. Serge threw her another glance, and she could see a myriad of emotions flashing across his face. Poor Serge. Always speaking with such confidence and totality. It gave the impression that he really knew what he was talking about. Which made it hard to admit it when he didn’t. He began wandering the room, looking every direction but at her. She vaguely wondered whether he was looking at his room or hers.
“Incoming message. Priority Urgent,” the voice from her interface shocked both Jayle and Serge. “Sender is Marona Jade. Subject: blank.”
“Your sister?” Serge asked. It wasn’t really a question. Marona and Serge’s parents had been the ones who’d brokered their eventual marriage. He knew her well, if only by reputation. Jayle’s hands clenched, twisting the bed sheets at the sight of her sister’s crest, floating before her, waiting for a response.
“I didn’t respond to her the last two times she messaged me,” Jayle said. “I figured she’d think I was in the middle of battle. I really don’t want to talk to her.” But I have to.
“Do you want me to go?” Serge asked.
“No. Please, can I just put you on hold for a while? It won’t take long.” Conversations with her sister were always brief. That didn’t make them any less unpleasant.
“Sure. I’ll be here, when your done.” He stood awkwardly for a moment, as though he thought he should do or say something else. She saved him the trouble and put him on hold. Enlarging her interface, she used the controls to limit the holo-image to show her sister only herself and the bit of floor she stood on. Marona would not be pleased to see how she’d decorated her room with the bright splashes of color the Woken loved so much. Taking a breath, she stood, assumed an expression of solemn nobility, and pressed Receive.
A sizzle of light, and her room vanished, leaving only an empty black void colored by distant stars, every last one of them shining jade green. Thousands of miles below her feet, a boiling green gas planet loomed. With an echoing thud, Marona Jade appeared before her. Being the first born, their parents had gone all out on her design. Green hair and eyes of almost preternatural brightness. Tall and abundantly curvy, with skin of a delicate creamy complexion. Jayle had grown up hearing constant lessons on how much her appearance mattered, and Marona had not been hypocritical in that regard. She was wearing a complex gown of white silk, slashed in many places to show either an under gown of light green or a hint of bare skin. Her hair completed the look, ridiculously long and thick, it fell from the back in half a dozen spiraling bunches, as well as two straight tendrils in the front that hung as far as her ankles. From just behind her ears, several strands of hair were gathered and threaded through buckles of her gown, so that her clothes were held together by her hair itself. Typical ostentatious noble fashion. Though she was only 11 years older than Jayle, her face showed no sign of girlish charm, only cold and carefully restrained fury.
“You have not responded to my last two messages. What kind of excuse do you have this time?” she asked.
“I apologize, sister. I was engaged in battle-”
“You’re lying. Worse, you’re lying badly. You blinked three times before you spoke, and your left hand twitched. Your tone is sorry enough but your speech sounds rehearsed. No one needs to rehearse the truth. Your manners have obviously deteriorated away from civilization. You will not lie to me again,” Marona said.
“I did not call to listen to excuses. I want a report.”
“Yes, sister. In the months since my last report, our alliance has increased our territory by 14%. We are on schedule with Reckes Aureus’ projections.”
“I am aware of your progress. Your fiancé keeps his parents well informed, who pass on their knowledge to me. ‘Your alliance,’ you said. What of your own territory? What does House Jade seek to benefit from these Games?”
Jayle hesitated, but knew the longer she kept silent the worse it would be. Marona hated wasted time.
“There has been no change. My- our territory is the same,” Jayle said.
“Precisely what I expected from you. Incompetence. Arrangements have been made with the families of House Azure and House Aureus for a percentage of their territory to be presented to me as tribute when the Games are complete. House Jade will not fail to maintain a presence on planet 314. This does not excuse your behavior. I told you two and a half years ago that you would cease this petulance and dedicate yourself wholly to the Land Games. You know I never repeat myself when I know my point is understood. And yet you have continue to fail to live up even to the ridiculously low standards I have set for you. I will not ask you why you are doing this. I do not care. I am telling you it will stop.”
“I have news. Your mulish actions have up till now been merely a disappoint to me personally. Now they are becoming relevant on a much larger scale. I am speaking to you now from the Imperial Court itself, where I have been for the past three months. There is a great deal of change occurring and at the moment no one can say what will happen. But down the path of the worst case scenario lies intergalactic war. I will spare you the political details. Know only that if a war does come, it will compare to that game you’re playing as a typhoon to a summer shower. Whole planets will be obliterated. If war does come, House Jade must be prepared. Every possible resource must be obtained. The planet you are so ineffectually fighting for could be the edge we need to face our foes. Now maybe you will understand what is at stake.”
“Good. Know one more thing. In the event of a war, I will become the highest priority target for our enemies, followed by my daughter. If both of us are killed, you will become the ruler of House Jade. As you are now, I am certain our House would not survive under your leadership. You performed very well in training, and have put your lessons to good use when you visited court. I know you are not stupid. This rebelliousness is childish, Jayle, and you are no longer a child. It is up to you to mature into the woman that you should be. That is all I have time to say.”
“Yes, sister,” Jayle said. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. The vague hopes she’d had of convincing her sister to let her rule this planet as governor after the Games died away. She’d made it very clear what she thought of her abilities. Marona had likely written her off as a loss already, good for nothing but a marriage to secure allies. Listening to her litany of disgust, Jayle couldn’t think of a single refutation.
Without another word, Marona vanished, connection terminated, and Jayle’s bedroom reappeared around her. She sat back on her bed, feeling surreal. After that brief but intense encounter, the real world seemed strangely distant.
Shaking her head, Jayle input a command, and her interface grew and transformed into a massive view screen, showing her a panoramic image of the city outside her castle. Beneath the light of three moons, her city slept, the tall, colorful towers still and mute. On the streets, there was only the small motions of the occasional late night walker, navigating by far-sense alone. There were millions of the Woken in this city alone. All of them relying on her, believing in her. And she was going to let them all down.
“No.” The air seemed to shiver as she whispered the word. I won’t accept this. If my sister doesn’t think I’m competent enough to rule, I’ll simply have to change her mind. If that meant Seol was her enemy now, so be it. She had no choice. She input another command, and the view screen vanished. Replaced by Serge.
“Wow, that really was fast? Are you…okay?” he asked.
“I am perfectly fine. Serge, I’m sorry I’ve been so useless up until now. From this day forward, I’m going to be fighting with you. I’ll let Reckes know to alter his strategy,” she said.
“Are you sure? We can keep on as is. You don’t have to-”
“Yes I do. It’s not what you think.” She smiled. “This is my decision. You don’t have to worry about it.”
“Alright then. I won’t,” he said. A slight curve of his mouth was about the closest he ever got to a genuine smile, but she noticed it, nonetheless. Business taken care of, they lapsed into simple conversation, avoiding the loaded subjects of war, politics, and the Games. Conversation between them was never exactly casual, not like it was in the simpler days, before their engagement. But it was familiar, and easy. Both of them had long since learned to bifurcate their dialogue, separating out the mundane and the significant. The simple version of Serge she enjoyed, even if she hadn’t yet decided on his more serious side. After hours of talking, they both lay, eyes closed, each on their own beds hundreds of miles away, but close enough to hear each others light breathing. She reached out, slipped her fingers into his, her skin tingling as the hard light sizzled into the proper shape. She held them there until he drifted off to sleep, and she followed shortly after.