Aphelion Issue 252, Volume 24
July 2020
 
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Guinea Vitae

by R. D. Harris




Echonen Risto rubbed his blocky chin, pondering. From his balcony, he looked over Lake Daan-Koo. It was one of many sizeable freshwater bodies on Guinea Vitae. Fresh water that gave the agro world the power of trade. Other planets in the system had no sustainable water supplies.

This will all be mine one day, Echonen thought. Most Pronans who left their native world required conditioning to develop tact. Echonen despised this necessary trait. He preferred the purity of directness over the cowardice of guile. The royal mediator was blunt to a fault, but proud of his blood.

Something troubling you, Echonen?"

He whirled his stocky body around. Ultin Prileau was behind him, standing in the doorway of the balcony. Guinea Vitae's king towered over Echonen--a consequence of Prona's 1.3g environment.

"Not at all, Sire," replied Echonen. He nodded his head in reverence. "Do I seem perturbed?"

"Perturbed, no, but I would say you look unwell. Perhaps you need a day of rest to shed weariness? My mediator should have a clear head for tomorrow." The sinewy Ultin gave a sliver of a smile.

"I assure you of my good health, Sire. Nothing short of death will prevent my service to you," said Echonen.

"Be that as it may," said Ultin, "I still want you to take leave the remainder of the day and that's an order. I am capable of handling negotiations should the need arise."

"Sire--"

The King laid a long hand on Echonen's broad shoulder. "Rest, my friend. It's no weakness in my eyes I assure you."

"I reluctantly accept your request, my Lord."

"Thank you, Echonen. President Neese from the Covenant is arriving tomorrow as you know. Always wanting to persuade me into this treaty of his. President? Ha! I've seen greater leadership among junior Malin cadets. He's nothing more than a bully."

Ultin turned to leave but looked back to Echonen. "I'm glad I have your expertise in matters such as these. I shall see you tomorrow, my friend."


*****



The King of Guinea Vitae walked off with his own chosen Malin guards. Only the best among Guinea Vitae's Malin forces were candidates for royal guard duty.

Fine warriors, those Malin, Ultin thought as they walked across the simstone bridge of the palace lagoon garden to the palace itself. Walls of glazed lapis lazuli dominated the exterior. The men strode under the arcade of the front facade and into the palace.

Walking into his home, he was greeted by his wife, Valentina. Ultin softened his expression and held her hands.

"How has your morning been, my dear?" Ultin asked, almost whispering.

"Pleasant, love. I received the newest collection of Mindel Quinten-Moss poetry last evening and have been reading on East Island all morning. He crafts words that swim within the soul."

"You would fancy him as a husband? I am but a lowly king."

She caressed her husband's face and gazed at him. "I've only eyes for you."

"Your eyes speak the truth, my Queen." He smiled and shot a wink at his wife. "Have you completed meal preparations with Quipsa?"

"Yes we have. I enjoy helping her now and again. Should I send for Shoshanna? She's still on East Island meditating under her lazy palms. Ike and his team are over there," Valentina said.

"So I see." Ultin brought up his comm band. "Ike, we will be eating mid-day nourishment soon. Escort Shoshanna to the palace for us."

"Right away, Sire," said Ike Raleigh, head of security for the Prileau estate. The grove of leaning lazy palms hid Shoshanna to a degree with their broad leaves. Ike made his way over as the princess held an open hand up.

"A moment please, Ike," she whispered.

He said nothing but obliged her.

A few moments passed and she got to her feet. "Mid-day nourishment I'm assuming?" she asked in a soft voice.

"Correct, m'Lady."

"Would you accompany me on my walk, Ike? I need eye candy and stirring conversation," said Shoshanna, beginning to walk. Ike was her favorite man to flirt with. She'd always admired his physique and stoic demeanor.

Ike began walking with her, smiling. "I'd be delighted."

"I have a question for you, Ike." The two walked from the grove into the solar rays from the K'Halsten subgiant. "Would my father ever let me serve in the Royal Guard?"

"If you want my honest opinion, he'd hear none of it," said Ike. He thought of a gentler way to put it. "You're skilled in what I've taught you but your father wants to protect you."

She breathed in deeply and let out a sigh. "He thinks only males make proper warriors. My father is scared of change."

"He wants what is best for you. It's in his nature. I've served your father nearly twenty years and he wants to look after those he cares for."

"I think he's a controlling man at times," she stammered.

"Try and appreciate him for who he is and what he does for you. I don't want you to take him for granted." They came to a conveyor walk to cross the water. "After you, m'Lady."

Shoshanna arrived in the dining chamber a short time later. She had changed into a flowing semi-casual gown that flirted with the floor. Sitting down at the meal table, Shoshanna looked at her father.

"Good afternoon, darling," said Ultin. "Your mother has helped Quipsa with the nourishment today. The steamed tiger mussels are divine according to her."

"They were shipped in from Isle Seul in the south seas," Valentina added proudly.

Shoshanna placed her hand napkin in her lap. Her silken initials were embroidered on the fabric.

"Father, I've a question for you." She suddenly felt hesitant. Ike looked at her from the door and shook his head slightly.

"Yes, Shoshanna?" Quipsa and her assistants were bringing out the meal.

Doesn't hurt to ask, she thought. "Being that I am skilled in several forms of combat, I would like to serve in the Royal Guard. I believe it my duty to serve the Kingdom in some capacity other than heiress to the throne."

"Absolutely not," said Ultin, abruptly.

"Is a female unsuitable for combat duties, father?"

Ultin looked at Valentina, then back to his daughter. "I am certainly no chauvinist pig, daughter of mine. They are allowed combat duties but you are of royal blood. You must carry the Prileau line and I cannot have you in harm's way."

"I should serve the Kingdom as I see fit, father."

"No more talk of this," Ultin bellowed.

Shoshanna obeyed and the family ate in silent tension.

As the meal ended, Ike approached his king at the table. "Sire, Staccato Neese has just landed with four Legionnaire escorts. No doubt he is early for his meeting with you," he said into Ultin's ear.

"An entire day early. Good fortune evades me this day. Have him escorted here and send a Malin squad to shadow them." Ultin turned to Valentina and Shoeshine. "I need to tend to unexpected business."

"I understand, dear," said Valentina. She hurried off as Quipsa cleared the table of dishes and eating utensils. The clatter of porcelain and silverware filled the dining hall.

"Away to your quarters, Shoshanna. These are important matters to be discussed," Ultin said.

"When can I finally join you in talks such as these?"

Ultin rubbed his eyes. "When I feel you can maintain bearing and control emotion. We can discuss this later."

"Yes, father," said Shoshanna, annoyed with a trace of optimism. She strolled to the family wing corridors but stayed just hidden from the dining chamber. Shoshanna's curiosity drew her in for a listen.

The doors of the dining chamber opened. In walked Staccato Neese, diminutive with an intense, but boyish grin that lingered like a mask.

He dipped into a cartoonish bow. "Your Highness, it's always a pleasure to have an audience with you."

"You come early, President Neese. I'm not one who enjoys surprises of this manner," said Ultin.

Neese shifted uneasily. "My greatest apologies. The trip to our Nham research facility ended sooner than expected. Quite warm that planet is, even from its orbit."

"Your fusion containment research continues eh?" Ultin asked.

"Unwavering, your Highness. We'll soon be able to power Outer Rim Covenant planets for eons. It's quite the exciting endeavor I must say," said Neese.

"Are you controlling the use of this fusion, Neese?" Ultin purposefully dodged the presidential title.

"No worries there, King Ultin. It's under my guiding hand. However, that's not what I am here to discuss."

Shoshanna peaked around the corner slightly. She noted the formidable appearance of Neese's legionnaires. Large men, all four, with murderous indifference on their faces.

Ultin waved his hand toward the entry door. "May I ask to have your men wait outside?"

Neese motioned for his men to leave. The two leaders were alone with Shoshanna still eavesdropping.

"This is about your treaty, President?" asked Ultin.

"You must have details by now via our holo messages, your Highness," Neese replied.

"To which I've expressed my disinterest," Ultin replied. "I would benefit in no way from this treaty you've drawn up. Eliminating my export tariffs for water and crops...my planet's economy would be in shambles."

Neese widened his juvenile grin. "You'd be a champion in the solar system if you provided low-cost water. You'd be so charismatic we would have to create a position superior to mine. A king of our system perhaps. Think about it...Ultin Prileau, the King of the K'Halsten System. Power beyond your imagination, m'Lord. Should you agree, we can sign the Treaty in Brulant."

Shoshanna sensed how Neese was smoothing him over. The thought of being the compassionate leader might entice him, she thought.

Minutes of silence numbed the conversation. "Allow me this day to mull the offer, President. I will send word of my decision by nightfall."

"I am most pleased you are considering this, your Highness," said Neese.

"Don't presume that I'll agree to it. Be grateful I am considering."

"Understood," said the President.

Ultin sighed and sat back in his chair. "You can have a villa for the night if you wish. The West Island holds many avenues for entertainment."

"I will accept your hospitality for the evening, Highness," said Neese.

"Very well."

Ultin called to Ike. "Will you see to it that President Neese has appropriate accommodations for his visit?"

"Certainly, Sire," Ike said.

Neese went through the foyer and outside with Ike. Ultin slumped in his chair, tired.


*****



"Valentina, you're not going to change my mind," Ultin told his wife.

"Must you go all the way to Brulant? It's such a long trip." She distanced herself in slight annoyance. It was early morning and Shoshanna had not yet risen from her sleep.

"Yes, my love, I must go. I will sort out these dealings Neese has spoken of."

"Do you wish for that much power? I'm afraid it will consume you, the you that I married," said Valentina, potential tears rippling in her eyes.

Ultin said, "I feel I can rule better than that President Neese. Prileaus are born leaders."

The Queen closed the gap between her and Ultin. "Will you allow me to accompany you?"

"My dear, I--"

"Please?" She took his hands in hers. "I wish not to worry about you. My second opinion could prove useful as well."

The King exhaled a lengthy breath, but smiled for her. "Consider it done, my lagoon dove."

The two kissed as Quipsa entered the room. Loyal to the Prileau family, she'd served the family line for sixty years.

Her voice held a coarse elegance. "Should I wake your daughter, Sire?"

"Yes, Quipsa. We will have morning nourishment quite soon. Did you bake your famous cove cakes this morning?"

Quipsa curtsied and winked at Ultin. "As you requested, your Highness."

"I am most pleased to hear that. Please make sure Shoshanna gets up in a timely manner," said Ultin.

"Certainly, Sire." Quipsa left the room and down the corridor to Shoshanna's room.

She opened the door and saw the heiress missing. Panicked, she commed Ike to look for her.

"Ike, has anything happened to the Princess?"

"Not at all Quipsa. Her and I are in the practice arena," Ike replied.

"Quipsa is always so worried," said Shoshanna. "It makes me happy that she cares about me as such. What do we have left to do?"

Ike was circling her as he instructed. "This time I will come at you with faux throwing knives and a rubber vigor ax. You will be unarmed. Remain facing your current direction while I circle you. You won't know when my attack will come."

Shoshanna closed her eyes, waiting. She stood with knees bent in her ready stance.

"Remember, Shoshanna, to use your ears as well as your eyes."

A slight shifting sound alerted Shoshanna. She spun halfway around and vaulted backward. The ax breezed by her back and she whipped around to face Ike.

"Your hearing is acute, Princess," Ike said as he stealthily threw a faux knife from its sheath. Shoshanna simply turned her body ninety degrees as it passed. Slick as her instructor was, Shoshanna's heightened senses mooted his attempt.

Ike followed with a roundhouse kick, which Shoshanna ducked as she moved in close. The rubber ax came swinging from Shoshanna's left side as Ike continued his fluid combination. Her reaction time was quicker than Ike's as she moved in past the ax, grabbed his arm, and threw him over her shoulder.

Ultin's head of security landed with a thud on the canvas floor. More surprised than hurt, he reached for his ax that had been dislodged from his hand. The ax was already in the hands of his pupil, its rubbery spiked tip at his throat.

"Well done," said Ike. Shoshanna had never seen such a smile on the man. "What was my next move?"

With hesitation, Shoshanna said, "Your second throwing knife in desperation."

"You knew because we've fought many times. Never assume anything with an unknown adversary." He brought himself from the floor.

Shoshanna said, "You're always critical of me when we spar."

"Well, you can always improve. I never want half efforts from you. It's for your own benefit," said Ike. "We're done for today. I believe your parents await you in the dining hall."

Shoshanna changed and ate with her parents.

"Shoshanna," said Ultin between bites, "I've made a decision to go to Brulant and discuss terms with President Neese."
<
She looked at him, puzzled. "You've scoffed at his treaty many times, father."

"Echonen thought it to be worth considering. The K'Halsten System needs a king such as myself. It would be better off with me. Neese leaves much to be desired as a leader."

Finishing her dessert, Shoshanna said, "Who will go with you? Echonen I presume? Ike?"

"Your mother, Echonen, and a Malin escort."

"What about Ike, father?"

"I've asked Ike to stay here with you. I will double the security on the grounds while I'm away," Ultin said to her.

"You'll be safe, dear," said Valentina.

"I worry not about myself. I'm concerned for you and father," said Shoshanna.

Ultin strode over to his daughter. "Your mother and I have the finest military unit in the galaxy to accompany us. We are loved throughout the K'Halsten System. Nothing will happen to us."

A meek smile. "I hope you're right." Even with her previous anger at her father, Shoshanna could not resist a hug from him.

Ike then came into the room. "Pardon me if I'm interrupting, Sire, but Echonen offered to take President Neese and his escort to their lodging for the evening," he said.

"Very well," Ultin said. "By the way, can you send a few Malin to keep a distant eye on their visit?"

"I was about to suggest that very idea, your Highness," Ike said.

"You're still as sharp as foamflower thorns, old friend. Even at thirty-eight years aged," said Ultin with an acute smile.

"I will return within the hour, Highness," Echonen called out, poking his head inside.

"Do not rush yourself. Feel free to show the President all that the West Island has to offer."

"Yes, Sire." Echonen walked to the courtyard. "Shall we, President?"

Echonen led Neese to the royal skiff marina. "Everything seems to be falling into place," Neese said.

"Splendid news, Mr. President," replied Echonen. "But with the King and Queen gone, what will befall Shoshanna?"

President Neese stared grimly at Echonen, whose face then showed reservations.

The group boarded the skiff, which Echonen began to drive to West Island. Neese said, "The entire line must go, Mr. Risto. There's no room for error or mercy if you wish to rule on Guinea Vitae."

"She's a youthful young woman with much promise. As beautiful as the days are long. Is there no option for exile?"

Neese spoke crossly in Echonen's ear. Sharply, he said, "Exile is no substitute for death. Exile gives her a chance for revenge. Exile breeds retribution and brooding among the displaced."

"Quite right, President." He'd been used to taking orders for so long that his Pronan ferocity had waned. Echonen silently shamed himself for giving in so easily in an argument.

"I am right. You won't even have to see anything. You'll be a king sooner than you realize. As long as you still agree to our free trade agreement. No tariffs or taxes of any kind on your water."

The skiff sped along the remaining distance in silence. At West Island, the President's group departed and Echonen drove back to the palace grounds. When he returned, he thought of Shoshanna. Reluctance jostled his strong desire for power.


*****



"An unusual choice for a capital world, President," Ultin said of Brulant, the administrative center for the Federation of Outer Rim Exoplanets. The King was repulsed at the lack of water coupled with frequent volcanism.

Neese observed his world as he walked Ultin and Valentina to the Regalia Suites tower. Venomous contempt seethed in him but was fanned back. "It is not as it seems at first glance, Highness. These active lands hold the most beautiful and pure gems in the solar system."

"You should take advantage of that, dear," said Valentina in a sly manner. Ultin knew her to be a lover of fine jewelry.

"Later perhaps, my sweet," Ultin replied.

Neese added that, "there are even decorations in your palace that contain precious gems from Brulantian soil."

"I'll take your word for it, President." Ultin eyed the hotel resort. It was situated within a containment field. "These are our accommodations? Seems to be reasonable."

"It is the best that Brulant has to offer. Leaders from other worlds often stay here during delegations. Your friend, Mr. Risto, awaits you in the lobby and has secured your room. I apologize but there is business I must attend to until our meeting tomorrow."

Neese rushed away in a quickened stroll. He pulled his comm band, vibrating, from his tunic pocket.

"Is it done?" asked Neese.

"You said nothing about a Malin escort," said Cofield Calabash.

"I said it was a possibility. Now don't comm me unless the job is done," Neese growled.

Calabash replied, irritated. "Money is no good to me if I'm shot dead."

"Just get it done somehow. You always find a way so you will this time. Don't make me toss you back to the slums. I made you and I can sure as K'Halsten put an end to it."

Neese dropped his signal. Calabash immediately ran ideas through his head. His days in the blue clay of Alamance slums, before Neese found him, taught Calabash to be resourceful.

Maintenance personnel walked back and forth to the Prileau's ship. There's my chance, Calabash thought. As a worker strolled to the recycling receptacle he hid behind, Calabash lunged at him. A sharp twist of the head broke the worker's neck.

Calabash quickly donned the man's clothing and walked aboard the royal cruiser. A single Malin guard patrolled the ship with the others standing watch outside. He debated trying to kill the guard, but it would draw unneeded attention and the Malin weren't easy to dispatch.

He eventually made it to the rear hull by the engine control rooms. With haste, Calabash regurgitated a spasmodic cluster charge hardly bigger than his thumb. A well-placed charge would react with heated plasma engines to create an inescapable explosion.

Calabash noticed dead space between a gas tubing fixture and the engine hull. Halsteen gas, used to condition plasma engines, made the tubing an ideal target.

Once he planted the bomb, he slipped away and off the grid. If Calabash wanted to disappear, the man very well could. A holo message to Neese would his last communication until summoned again.

Neese looked at the message, bent a grin, then drifted to sleep. Lucid dreams filled his head while he slept. Fantasies about ruling the K'Halsten system, having any woman he wanted, doing as he pleased.

Negotiations began early the next morning. The President had slept with little movement.

"You're late in arriving," Ultin said to him in a direct manner.

"I apologize, your Highness. I did not wish to keep you waiting. My own bed had welcomed me back with a firm grip I suppose. Where is your Mr. Risto?"

"He has fallen ill this morning. Let us finish these talks so I can go to my own bed. I have no desire to prance around words and comb through your guile." Ultin sat down as he talked.

"Deceive you, I shall not. Never my intention to do so. Simply my upbringing as a politician's son."

Neese sat down and looked across the grand table made from Pronan sticky pine trees. Rare as the trees were, Neese was not one to appreciate nature.

"Your Highness, what I have here in front of me," Neese said, pointing to a thin stack of paper, "is the trade treaty which we are discussing. You are free to read it as much as you want before you make a decision."

"I will read over it with my wife, President. Her opinion is also important."

A brief, menacing scowl betrayed Neese. Valentina caught the President's glare before his return to pleasantries.

The Queen said, "Could my husband and I have a moment in private, President?"

"I see no problem with that, m'Lady. Have a few moments amongst yourselves." The President frowned again as he left the room.

Ultin gave her a puzzling look. "Is there something that disturbs you?"

The Queen looked at her husband. It was a look he knew well. A pleading tone before words escaped her mouth. "I have a bad feeling about this," said Valentina.

Ultin straightened from his relaxed slouch. "What gives you this feeling, my dear?"

"I happened to catch Neese scowling at us. Ill intent and malice are engraved upon his face. We should never have come here."

"I believe you, dove. We will go back home shortly." The King turned toward the door. "Neese! Return if you wish."

Walking back into the room, Neese said, "Yes, your majesty?"

"We wish to reject your proposal. My wife and I will return home immediately. Thank you very much for your time and the suite you provided us."

President Neese's jaw line stiffened. He whirled round to hide his agitation, hands planted on hips. A brief moment and Neese flew back around and flashed a smile. "Do as you may, Highness. What of your mediator? He should travel while ill?"

"The Kingdom has its own medical cruiser but thank you all the same, President."

Malin escort guards were just outside the room. "Guards," he called out.

"Yes, sir?" said the stockiest of the four.

"See to it that Echonen is placed on the Sanat for transport back home. We'll remain on the Puissance as scheduled."

King and Queen made their way to their cruiser. Malin guards activated a repulsor field around them en route. A state of repose awaited Ultin back home. He thought himself foolish to even venture to Brulant.

"You helped me see the error of my ways, dove," he said to Valentina. "We do not need the entire K'Halsten system. We just need Guinea Vitae and our humble citizens."

The Queen laid her head on Ultin's shoulder. "I could not have said it better, dear. Shall we away to our quarters?"

"We shall," Ultin replied. "Sergeant, my wife and I are going to our room. Manage security as you see fit."

"Yes, sir," said the sergeant.

In their mobile lodging, the two laid out on their bed. The engines powering on told them they were underway.

"I do hope Echonen is well," Ultin said.

"Pronans are a hardy people, love. I am certain our friend will recover quickly."

He held her hand and caressed her face. "You have a way of putting me at ease. Your ways elude me but their mysteries are benevolent nonetheless. Let us rest."

"Agreed, husband. Some quality sleep is in order."

"Senior Officer Knade, are you on the bridge?" Ultin called on his comm band.

"I am, sir. The ship is in autopilot and we're currently leaving Brulant's orbit."

"Very well, Knade. My wife and I will rest now. We are not to be disturbed," Ultin said.

"As you wish, sir," said Knade.

The career pilot manned the controls and felt a jolt within the ship. Blue panel lights and the blaring of alarms sounded. Knade knew it was ship failure of some sort. There was little time to react.

"Rerouting back to Brulant. Switching to manual control." His voice was panicked. Knade knew that he was going to die.

Shortly after, the Puissance danced in dazzling fragments in the black of open space. Another moment and it was an afterthought of tangibility--a new addition to the past.


*****



Echonen, having recovered from self-administered poison, walked into the Prileau palace. He'd returned wearily in the dark of night. The morning brought no respite to his thought processes. The royal mediator relished his future on the throne but...Shoshanna.

Shoshanna, on her way to pluck surf peas, encountered Echonen amid the courtyard.

"Good morning, Echonen. Are my parents back yet?" She beamed a smile.

"Let us talk about that in the palace, m'Lady," said Echonen. He was firm but gentle with his tone. Shoshanna looked concerned but said nothing as she went back to the palace with Echonen.

The two sat beside of each other in Ultin's conference room. "My Queen, I need to deliver news to you."

"Queen? I'm not the Queen, Echonen. My mother is the--"

Echonen knew it had dawned on her. He opened his arms as she let herself hug him, weeping.

Ike Raleigh stepped into the open room. Already aware of the news, Ike dropped to a knee and bowed his head in respect. Ike himself was fighting back grief. He wanted to maintain bearing in the situation.

"Please allow me to go and make funeral arrangements, Highness," said Echonen.

"Do as you need," Shoshanna squeaked out.

"Will you require my presence, m'Lady?" Ike asked her.

She rose her head from her hands, said, "No, Ike. I wish to grieve alone.

"Very well. I will go speak with Requiem Services," he said and left her alone.

Shoshanna tried to process her loss. Her father's smile, her mother's grace, everything about them all gone so soon. She did not feel ready to lead a kingdom but it was her duty.

The new Queen of Guinea Vitae stood up firmly. I'll not be anchored by grief. I shall have the grace of my mother and the fluid poise of my father, she thought with intense pride.

No sooner than she had stood, President Neese strolled into the room.

"State your business here, President." She thought his presence odd.

"My business here, Queen Shoshanna, is one of mortality and a passing of the torch."

"Do not speak riddles to me. State why you are here," Shoshanna demanded.

Neese took a quick glance at his antique pocket watch. "The plan is that you will be dead so Mr. Risto can assume the throne of this lush land."

"Echonen? He's been a faithful subject for many years and my father considered him a dear friend. I do not believe you."

The President pulled a holo recorder from his tunic. "A record of our signed agreement."

He placed the steel recorder puck in his palm and pressed a button on the side. It showed he and Echonen together. Echonen was signing a paper and they shook hands afterward.

Shoshanna scowled and then smiled angrily at Neese.

"Why ever do you smile?" The President's amiable smile slowly faded to a threatening frown.

"It certainly won't be you performing my murder," said Shoshanna.

"Quite right, your Highness. That's why I have paid help. Let me introduce you to Cofield Calabash."

Taking his cue, Calabash walked into the room and bowed.

Shoshanna's laughter faded, gave way to dread. "Nothing more than a slave are you not?" Shoshanna asked Calabash as she hid apprehension.

"Only a slave to my passions, your Highness. I enjoy chaos, m'Lady, and it finds companionship with me. The late King and Queen of Guinea Vitae found that out."

Shoshanna, angered, desired to cut his throat and smile as he bled. Rushing in would be unwise. Ire dulled the mind while patience honed proficiency. Ike Raleigh had taught her that.

"I see the fury in your eyes, Highness," Calabash said as he began to circle her. Neese was chuckling in the background.

Shoshanna said nothing. She silently played out scenarios in her mind as she stood in defiance.

Cofield Calabash was impressed by her rugged demeanor. "You are not afraid, but I believe you should be. The people I've dispatched in past years have certainly exceeded your abilities, m'Lady. They were warriors, soldiers, and rival assassins. You are but a royal, tucked away from the ills of famine, poverty, and combat."

As if she'd disregarded his rhetoric, she assumed a fighting stance.

Neese's right-hand man brandished a diamond dagger, forged from the volcanism of Brulant. He'd swiftly plucked it from its sheath. "Are you ready to die, Highness?" The assassin's aquamarine eyes narrowed in frigid fervor.

"What honor have you in fighting an unarmed opponent, coward?" Shoshanna's stare was cold and unrelenting.

She noticed a change in Calabash's stoicism. The narrowed eyes widened once more. He grimaced, sheathed his dagger, and threw it behind him.

"Just kill her," Neese shouted.

Ignoring his employer, Calabash said, "You dare call me a coward? I need no weapon to dispose of you. I am a weapon."

He sprinted at Shoshanna. Every muscle fiber worked in unison as he launched into the air. The queen slid aside to avoid a kick but was soon met with a subsequent roundhouse that grazed her shoulder as she ducked.

"You see? Weapon or not, the outcome will be no different." Slowly, Calabash walked toward her. "What are you going to do now, Queen of Guinea Vitae?"

Shoshanna was patient and did not engage him.

Waiting... waiting... motionless.

The wiry Calabash flung his arm out with incredible speed. His grip possessed Shoshanna's left wrist.

She threw a fist with her right hand but it was clutched as well. Calabash stared with hinted pity into her eyes. It was the moment she needed to make a move.

Knowing she would possibly injure herself, she jumped and brought both feet up. All of her hate and fear drove her leg muscles through her feet and into the chest of Calabash.

Both combatants struck the stone floor beneath them. Calabash was catching his breath, staggering to his feet. He was immediately back on the floor after Shoshanna placed a boot kick to his ribcage. The look on his face was one of bewilderment. Calabash had underestimated Shoshanna and he knew it.

The career mercenary struggled to breathe. He held his stomach and forced an extended arm to stop the assault.

"I almost pity you. A suffering brute with no resting place awaiting him. No one will miss you. Maybe that is saddest of all," Shoshanna said as she stood over him.

"High...Highness," catching his breath, "please show...regal mercy for the puppet that I am. Merely strings pulled by the President."

"The President is protected by the Covenant. You, however, are not. I will spare you a formal execution because I wish you to die by my hand. My father and mother were peaceful rulers. I cannot enjoy the luxury of being peaceful."

She bent down and violently twisted the neck of Calabash. It broke with a wet snap and he crumpled to the floor.

Shoshanna rose to her feet and glared at Neese. The President was sitting on a stone bench along the wall, watching her.

"Leave my planet, Neese. Never come back here and be glad that we will continue to ship water to you at full price. It's not the fault of your citizens that you rule so foolishly."

President Neese had heard enough. He pulled a plastracer from his tunic and took aim.

Shoshanna dove behind the conference table and heard several blasts within the room. Slowly she poked her head above the table and saw Echonen with his own plastracer. The traitor, Echonen Risto, had saved the Queen.

Tears streamed down Echonen's face as he walked by the slumped body of Neese. A broken man, flooded with guilt, took a knee in front of Shoshanna.

"Your Highness, I ask that you show me mercy for saving your life. Please, Shoshanna," Echonen said.

"The penalty for treason is death," Shoshanna said with contempt, "but you saved my life so that is worth considering."

Holo portraits of the royal family hung on the wall. Shoshanna admired them, then looked back to Echonen. "My mother and father loved you. They may have never told you so but they did."

"I'm sorry, Shoshanna. My--"

"A traitor will not address me by name!" she said in melancholic resentment.

"Your Highness, my thirst for power bested my Pronan discipline. It is something I will have to live with."

The two held eye contact, not wavering. "That you will, Echonen. Remember it for the rest of your days. As for your punishment, you will live the rest of your life at the Nham penal colony," said Shoshanna.

Malin guards rushed into the room.

"We received a call from Commander Raleigh," said their sergeant.

"Where is he? What about Quipsa?" Shoshanna demanded.

"He's been taken to the healing center. There were a number of wounds about his body, Highness. Miss Quipsa was nowhere to be found."

"See to it that I receive word of his status if it changes. Find Quipsa and spare no effort to do so." Shoshanna turned back to Echonen. "Take this traitor away, sergeant."

The group of Malin were puzzled. Echonen had been part of the royal staff for years.

"Now, sergeant. That's an order," said Shoshanna with impatience.

Echonen turned around, hands behind him. He was bound with electricuffs and taken away.

Shoshanna looked hard at the Malin sergeant. "He's to be taken to the colony on Nham. I urge you to waste no time in removing him from our planet."

The men began to take Echonen away.

"Another thing, Sergeant," said Shoshanna as she looked at Calabash and Neese. "Dispose of these two bodies. I care not what you do with them."

"Right away, Highness."

When all of the guards had left, the palace was quiet. It wasn't the palace she remembered from childhood. There was so much laughter and conversation. A time that she wanted back.

A figure shuffled from the hallway into the conference room.

"Quipsa," Shoshanna cried out. She wept in Quipsa's arms.

"Young one, I am sorry about your mother and father. I loved them too." Quipsa spoke gently to her as a grandmother would.

"How did you find out?"

"Echonen came into the palace with that president your father had spoken to several days ago. Another man with them, a stringy fellow, attacked Ike and left him to die. The men spoke of what had happened to your parents," said Quipsa. She sat Shoshanna down in one of the room's walnut chairs.

"Why did they not attack you, Quipsa?"

"Look at me, child. I am petite and can hide anywhere."

Shoshanna uttered a brief chuckle. "Shall I ask where you hid?"

"In the bread oven, m'Lady."

Through all the grief, Shoshanna unleashed sizeable laughter. She felt intense relief and was grateful for Quipsa's incidental humor.

The immediate threat was over but Shoshanna's thoughts were clouded with rebuilding the kingdom. She thought, who will I appoint? Who can I trust?

Not wanting to think, she decided to visit Ike.

"I will return later, Quipsa. I need to see how Ike is doing," Shoshanna said. She hoped he would make it through.


*****



Weeks had passed and Shoshanna stared at the planet's layout from her balcony. The warm colors of mid-evening painted an affectionate hue on the waters and the greenery she called home.

Recovered from his injuries, Ike stood at her side. He stood rugged with silent vibrancy as he always had.

"Do you think I'll be a suitable queen, Ike?" Shoshanna asked in a tone that demanded full honesty.

"You have growing up to do, Highness, but--"

Shoshanna interrupted him. "Will you call me by name in private? With my mother and father gone it's just that...well...no one will call me by name now except for you and Quipsa. Do me that favor, Ike?"

"I will, Shoshanna. As I was saying, you have growing up to do but you are and will be a grand monarch for our planet."

"Even at twenty-six years aged?"

"Yes," said Ike, "even at twenty-six years aged. You have kindness, love, and compassion in your heart as your parents did. Your relationship with the people has to be symbiotic. That's the only way it can be because you need them as much as they need you."

Shoshanna moved closer to Ike. "What if I make mistakes? I fear wrong choices, Ike."

"Then you make mistakes. Even the greatest of rulers choose incorrectly at times," said Ike.

A smooth hand slipped into Ike's. Shoshanna's fingers browsed the calluses and cracks of the warrior's palm and five digits. "Would it be a mistake if I made you my king?"

"Shoshanna--"

"Kiss me, Ike," she said.

The two kissed deeply and held each other. In a delicate embrace, a love was formed and a kingdom renewed.



THE END


2020 R. D. Harris

Bio: When he’s not writing, Ryan enjoys time with his kids, watching cartoons, and retro gaming. Though he’s an affiliate writer with the Horror Writers Association, the only thing scary about Ryan is his verb-subject agreements.

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