Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Princess' Dragon

{About a month ago, my lovely cousin produced quite possibly the most amazing Dragon and Princess picture for me that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. In return, I promised that I would write a story to go along with it. Written in snatches of time between clinic and reports and classes, here is the result.}

The Valley of Dragons was bright and clear that afternoon, ideal for sunning myself on the warm rocks while Ciara gathered armfuls of flowers, herbs, and, most importantly, Dragonsleaf. The brilliant orange and blue plant was a delicious contradiction to the myth that dragons are strictly carnivores, and well worth the quarter hour flight from my cave in Mount Ignis to the Valley. It was a perfect day for a dragon and a princess to ignore the world around them and just relax.

The late summer sun was already high, and the rocks had soaked up plenty of heat. I stretched myself out lazily, practically melting into the warmth. Then I must have fallen asleep, because when I next opened my eyes, Ciara was nowhere to be seen. I was not alarmed, as there are few dangers that would risk the wrath of a fully-grown dragon. I arched my back and stretched, letting the motion ripple all the way down my tail, then rose to look for my princess.

As I searched, I realized this was not the first time she had disappeared. In fact, every time we had come to the Valley for the last month, I had awoken to find her out of my sight. More often than not, she had wandered back within a few minutes, arms full of flowers and singing with a dreamy smile. The few times she did not make her way back immediately, I had found her in the maze of boulders to the south. She seemed so happy after every visit to the Valley that we had made the trip more frequently than ever before. I loved my princess’ smile, and the sound of her laugh was pure joy in my ears.

I turned toward the boulders, but paused. I heard Ciara’s laugh, but it was accompanied by another sound, a sound that did not belong. It was second human’s voice. Specifically, it was a male human voice. I had little dealings with the humans, but after facing so many knights and princes and spending so much time with Ciara, I had learned to distinguish between the genders. It was definitely a male voice.

I flapped my wings and rose a few feet from the ground, scanning for Ciara. I caught a glimpse of her, coming towards me. There was no one else in sight. I scowled, certain of what I had heard. But only Ciara was in view now, skipping lightly my way, arms full of flowers, and that faint smile that suggested her thoughts were a hundred miles away.

“O Princess, My Princess,” I called, letting my scowl fade.

She looked up from her bouquet and waved joyously. “O Dragon, My Dragon,” she called back. It had been our private joke for years. “I found a new patch of Dragonsleaf today.”

I smiled broadly, showing my teeth in pleasure. “And that is undoubtedly why you took so long,” I hinted subtly, settling back to ground and extending my wing for her. She only laughed, then scrambled up and took her usual position behind my neck.

“I am tired, Korav,” she said with a yawn, changing the subject.

“Then perhaps we will not come tomorrow,” I suggested. “I do not want you to become exhausted.”

“Oh, no,” she protested quickly. “I will be well after I sleep. I promise.”

I rumbled deep within my chest, but did not reply. As we flew away, I glanced back down at the Valley. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but I thought I saw a horse and rider, just for a moment. Then they disappeared among the boulders, and I could not be sure. I flew faster toward Mount Ignis, suddenly wanting to be anywhere but in the Valley.

* * *

I won’t deny that having a princess was something of a status symbol among dragons, primarily for their usefulness. A princess would remove the prickly leaves from Dragonsleaf. A princess would sweep out the ashes of things accidentally burned, so they did not fly around in the wind and get into a dragon’s sinuses. A princess would shine and polish a dragon’s horns and remove those annoying loose scales so new ones could grow. And those were just some of the benefits.

But having a princess was also a bit of a bother. Once word got out that a princess had been seen with a dragon, every knight and prince and soldier within a hundred leagues was determined to try their hand at rescuing her. Depending on the season, a dragon with a princess could expect to be challenged by at least one would-be rescuer a month. Some dragons relished these fights, but more often than not I went out of my way to avoid them. I had purposefully made myself hard to find and had no intentions of letting any one steal my Ciara away.

Nearly a week had passed since the odd experience in the Valley of the
Dragons. I had all but forgotten it. Life had continued as normal. We had been back to the Valley several times, but not once did I have to search for Ciara. She continued to be blissfully happy while we were there, but glum when we left. The Dragonsleaf was at the peak of its season, and I enjoyed having a fresh supply on hand, but I was concerned about Ciara’s listlessness when we were not in the Valley.

It was late one afternoon, closer to evening, when Ciara noticed my darkening mood. After dinner, as she did so often when trying to tease me back into a good humor, she brought out her polishing cloth and the salve for the leathery skin under my loose scales. I smiled gratefully, with just a touch of fang, as she started searching for scales that needed to be removed.

“What is the matter?” Ciara asked earnestly, tugging a scale free from my front leg. That one had been bothering me all week, and it was high time to grow a new one.

I hesitated a moment, unsure if I wanted to burden her with my troubles. “A knight actually challenged me today,” I frowned, the ridge above my eyes turning a darker blue. “That has not happened in months.”

“A knight?” Oddly enough, Ciara seemed to perk up at that. “What did he look like?” she asked eagerly.

“How am I supposed to know?” I flicked my wings with an irritated snap. “All humans look the same to me. He was waving a sword, just like all the others.”

“Oh,” she said quietly, turning away.

I had the oddest sense that I had said the wrong thing, but I could not understand why Ciara should care about some knight. She never had before.

“What happened?” she asked, still facing away.

“I breathed a little fire his way. His mount was not up for it and bolted. I did not wait to see if he would come back; I was not in the mood for a fight today.”

It was the shifting, fading sunlight, of course. There was no other explanation for what had looked like a sigh of relief roll off her shoulders. I waited for a moment, and Ciara returned, her eyes perhaps a little too bright. She picked up the polishing cloth and motioned for me to bend my head. We said no more about the challenge that evening.

* * *

The next afternoon, I left Ciara and flew to the neighboring mountain alone. I needed to sort things out. I needed to talk to Lohren. A large, fierce, yellow dragon with many battle scars, Lohren was obstreperous, but we had grown up together, known each other from dragon kits. The bond of time had proved stronger than anything else. Occasionally, he had been known to give good advice, and occasionally, he had helped simply by showing me which was the wrong course of action.

I found him in his cave, getting ready to eat a sheep he had likely stolen from some villagers.

“Korav,” he said warmly. “What tears you away from your princess to socialize with your own kind?”

I settled into a coiled crouch and folded my wings back. “Actually,” I admitted, “that is why I am here. I am worried about my princess.”

The ridges above his eyes rippled with surprise. “I thought everything was idyllic in your corner of Mount Ignis.”

“It was. It is. I am just concerned. I think my princess might be ill.”

His eyes narrowed. “That is concerning.”

I was actually mildly surprised that Lohren was agreeing with me, but then he continued, “If she is ill, you cannot eat her.”

I gave him an annoyed flick of my tail. “For the last time, Lohren. I am not going to eat my princess. And neither are you.”

He snorted flame. “You cannot blame me for hoping,” he said. “What is wrong with your precious princess?”

I told him everything. I told him of our frequent trips to the Valley of Dragons, of napping and waking to find her gone, and of her blissful contentment while we were there. I mentioned the day I heard voices and talked about her melancholy disposition when we left the Valley. I finished by telling Lohren about her odd reaction to the story of the knight who had challenged me, then waited for his response.

He was quiet for a long moment, long enough that I wondered if he was even going to answer. Then, finally, he asked, “How long has your princess been with you?”

“You know full well, Lohren. You were there I found Ciara ten years ago.”

“Yes,” he agreed, “I remember that I was dead set against the idea from the start. Taking in an eight year old human-child? I still do not understand what possessed you, my friend.”

“Her family, practically her whole country, had been murdered by barbarians,” I growled. “She was left—“

“—all alone and wandering in the forest,” Lohren finished for me, and I winced. Perhaps I had told the story too many times. “Her tears moved you, and instead of eating her, like any normal dragon would, you took her in. Took her in, cared for her, raised her to be quite the lovely princess, even if she is the princess of nowhere. And you still refuse to eat her.”

“I will not eat Ciara,” I snarled, resenting the implication that I should.

He shook his head. “That is not the point here, Korav.”

“Then what is?” I demanded.

Lohren laughed, pityingly. “Your princess is in love!”

I blinked, then blinked again. “No,” I said flatly. Then again, with just a touch of uncertainty, “No. Not possible.”

“I am afraid it is. She is in love with that human boy-man, and she will never be yours again. Your only choices now are to eat her or let her go. If you take my advice, you will have her for dinner, now that you know she is not ill. She looks delicious.”

I snarled and spat flame at him. His lip curled up above his second fang. “Fine. Then let her go. You should have done one or the other a decade past.”

“She is my princess,” I growled, letting the anger roll through my voice, “and I will decide what is to be done and when.”

Lohren flicked his tail impatiently. “Then go. Decide. And if you choose to eat her,” he said with a toothy grin, “tell me how she tastes.”

Lohren’s cave filled with my fire as I let him know exactly what I thought of that idea. If dragons could be burned by our own flame, he would have been a pile of cinders and fangs. As it was, at least I deprived him of his lunch.

“The Council of Dragons agrees with me, Korav!” Lohren called after me as I took to the sky. “You have had her too long. No other dragon in history has ever kept a princess past three years. A dragon’s cave is no place for a princess to live forever.”

The Council of Dragons could mind its own fiery business as far as I was concerned, but Lohren’s words haunted me the entire flight back home. Ciara in love? It could not be possible. I cast my mind back over the last month, searching for any indication that Lohren was not just blowing steam without fire. Nothing came to mind, and I was ready to dismiss his opinion as another manifestation of his disgruntled view of my princess.

I began my descent towards our cave, and I noticed a shift in the flow of air. A quick glance told me a scale had come loose from my breastplates. I made a mental note to ask Ciara to remove it soon.

That thought jolted my mind back to the previous night, when Ciara had taken care of the loose scale on my leg, and to her uncharacteristic interest in the knight that had challenged me. Why should she care about that particular nuisance? Unless Lohren was right. Unless Ciara loved that human boy-man. Then, unbidden, a crystal-clear montage of the last month flashed through my head: the constant requests for trips to the Valley, Ciara’s blissful smile and merry laughter, the faint sadness every time we left, the man’s voice in the boulders. And it all fit, making sense in a way that it had not when I had described it to Lohren.

I had to alter course abruptly to avoid crashing into the side of Mount Ignis, so overwhelmed was I. My princess. In love. I veered away from our cave and headed toward the peak. I needed to be alone to sort through this new idea.

Summer was quickly turning to autumn, and the top of Mount Ignis was chilly. It would be covered with snow in a month or so. Ciara loved the snow and had since she was a child. I still remembered the spot where she made her first snow-human and snow-dragon. In the spring, the peak of the mountain would be blanketed with Ciara’s favorite purple and yellow wildflowers, and she would fill the cave with them and their faintly spicy aroma.

I stayed up on the mountaintop for most of the afternoon, lost in thought and memory. I did not like the conclusion I finally reached. Lohren was probably right. Ciara was in love, and I was being selfish. I had had her for eight years, and, as Lohren had pointed out, that was five years longer than most dragons kept their princesses. Somehow, I had assumed she would be with me forever. But more than I wanted her with me, I wanted her to be happy. And if being with that human boy-man would make her happy, then I would not stop her.

So resolved, I returned to our cave and found Ciara sewing, as industrious as always. If she was surprised at my suggestion that we visit the Valley so late in the day, she did not show it. She happily climbed up onto my neck, and away we flew. When I started our descent into the Valley, I fully intended to bid Ciara farewell and leave her with her love.

I banked right, planning to land next to the maze of boulders. Motion caught my eye and I saw the human boy-man, sunlight glinting off his armor and sword. Suddenly, an unexpected wave of fury burned in my chest. That human boy-man had no right to Ciara! I had raised her, cared for her, loved her as if she were my own kit. This puny would-be knight had done nothing to be worthy of her. Fire exploded from my mouth, scorching the ground between us and the human boy-man. His horse reared, nostrils flaring, then turned and bolted. I heard Ciara’s horrified gasp.

I felt a slight pang of guilt, but thrust it away quickly. I did not care if I was being selfish. I did not care what anyone said: she was my princess, and no one could take her from me. Not barbarians, not Lohren, not the Council, and certainly not some snot-nosed brat wearing borrowed armor and waving his father’s sword. My wings beat the air faster and faster, leaving the boy choking on a cloud of dust and ash as my princess and I wheeled in the sky, heading for Mount Ignis and home.

We made the return journey within ten minutes, a personal best. I did not care. All that mattered was still clinging to my neck, likely bewildered at my odd behavior.

“Korav?” Ciara asked hesitantly when we reached our cave. “Is something wrong?”

I shook my head tightly, but betraying smoke curled from my nostrils. “I decided I wanted dinner instead,” I said shortly. “I have not eaten today.”

Ciara’s eyes narrowed, and I knew that she knew I was hiding something. But she did not share her thoughts. Rather, she brought me an enormous bowl of Dragonsleaf without comment. Every mouthful was bitter and hard to swallow, but I did not think that it was the fault of the plant. I was sure that I was tasting my own guilt.

Dusk fell quickly, and I watched, like many nights before, as Ciara combed out her long, brown hair. The playful evening breeze snatched strands and tossed them in the air, letting them dance in the fading sunlight.

“Ciara,” I said hesitantly, “Are you happy here?”

Ciara looked up, startled, as if she had forgotten my presence. I in turn was shocked to see a tear glistening on her cheek.

“Of—of course I am happy, Korav.” She smiled at me bravely. “I am always happy with you.”

I bent my neck and nuzzled her face, wiping the tears away. “You know I would do anything for you,” I rumbled.

“I know.” She stroked my nose. “You are my family.”

I let the silence hang in the air for a few heartbeats. Then, I steeled myself and asked, “Do you love him?”

Her jaw dropped open, and her eyes grew as round as my eye-ridge scales. “What—? Who—?”

“The human you have been seeing during our trips to the Valley of Dragons,” I said softly. “The human who challenged me yesterday.”

Tears welled in her eyes again, and I winced. “I am sorry,” she whispered. “He was not supposed to challenge you. I told him not to. I—”

“Hush,” I breathed softly. “Do you love him?”

She hesitated for a long moment, then, biting her lip, said, “Yes. I do.” Then she rushed on before I could reply, “But I do not want you to be hurt! And I do not want you to kill him, either. And if he challenges you, then one of you will die and my heart will break!”

“Ciara,” I interrupted. Her voice trailed off reluctantly, and she raised her eyes to mine. I swallowed and forged ahead, knowing that I might regret my words. “Ciara, if you love him, then I will not keep you. I have been selfish too long.”

She looked as if she were going to say something else, then she fell against my neck, hugging me fiercely. “But Korav, I love you, too!”

“And I love you, Ciara. You will always have a home with me. I will not force you to go. It is your choice.” I waited for an answer that did not come. “Who is he?” I asked after a long stretch of silence.

Ciara stepped back, wiping her eyes. “Colin. He is a prince,” she said. “He is from the nearest kingdom.”

“How did you meet him?”

She laughed. “His father sent him out adventuring for a year when he turned twenty-one. Colin did not want to go. He would rather have stayed home and continued his studies. But his father insisted, and even a prince does not refuse the king. So he rode as far as he wanted to go, then came back. But he still had two months left before he could go back. He found the Valley of the Dragons and has camped there for six weeks. He was right next to a patch of Dragonsleaf, which is how I found him.”

“What is he like?”

“Colin is brave, when he has to be. He is thoughtful and funny and kind. He knows all about things I have never even seen, like the ocean. Did you know that there are more than one hundred different kinds of fish? He could tell me all their names if I asked. He loves his family and has many friends that he misses. Colin told me about growing up in a castle and what it was like to see people every single day.” For nearly an hour, she talked about Colin and his family and his interests and his accomplishments in astonishing, glowing detail.

Finally, I managed to get a word in edgewise. “And does he love you?” It was really the only question left.

“Colin said that if he had to stay in the Valley of the Dragons forever, just to see me one time a year, it would be worth every minute. And Colin hates being away from home. He was miserable the entire time he was traveling.” She met my gaze. “Yes. He loves me.”

Her eyes were shining now, and I did not think it was tears again. My princess was thoroughly, hopelessly, head-over-heels in love. I sighed; Lohren was going to be insufferable.

I lightly flicked out my tongue, dropping a dragon kiss on her cheek. “Ciara, will Colin be by the boulders tomorrow?”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation. “He comes every day and waits for me.”

“Then tomorrow,” I promised, “we will go to the Valley, and you may go with your Colin.” I raised a claw to forestall her protests. “No arguments,” I said firmly. “You have made me very happy these last ten years. Now I have the chance to do the same for you.”

Her eyes overflowed, and she flung her arms around my neck again. Her joy was unmistakable, and I knew that this time I had to follow through. I could not destroy her future for my own selfish purposes, but I still laid awake far longer than did Ciara, trying to convince myself it was for the best.

* * *

Ciara said that Colin was more likely to be waiting for her in the afternoon, and so we left Mount Ignis just as the sun peaked in the sky. It was a warm day, one of the last of the season, and I flew leisurely towards the Valley.

When we arrived, Colin was indeed there, scrambling onto his mount at the sight of us. He looked terrified. I wished that I was leaving Ciara with someone more capable of defending her and tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that he was sure to have guards at his castle.

I settled to the ground near the boulders and bent my neck down to a medium-sized one. Ciara slid off and began to scramble to the ground, but I stopped her.

“Stay here, Ciara. No matter what happens. Stay here.”

She looked up at me with wide eyes and nodded, then sat on the boulder. I turned towards the human boy-man, who was trying to urge his horse forward. He saw me staring at him and raised his sword.

“Stand forth, Dragon, and do battle!” he bellowed, and his voice squeaked only a little.

I rose up on my hind legs and belched a column of fire into the air to accept his challenge, and he charged.

To be honest, it was not a fight worthy of a legend. If the boy had been trained in the use of the sword, it was not obvious. As Ciara had implied, he was more scholar than soldier. His poor, skittish mount was no warhorse, and the sight of a fully-grown dragon terrified it. It dumped the boy on his behind not two minutes in and bolted for the cover of the boulders where Ciara waited. But the lad held his ground and gained my respect.

I tried to make my side of the battle as convincing as possible, but it was difficult when I had to limit my flames and watch where I stepped. I knew that the pretense was necessary. Any prince worth his crown would be mortified if a dragon gave up its princess without a challenge. I imagined that Colin would mind less than others, but that his father would be disappointed if Colin did not have at least one adventure before returning home.

Colin’s attacks were random and sadly futile. He never even came close to injuring me, even mildly, but still he kept trying. I had to admire his tenacity. But I could tell that he was growing desperate. Despite my attempts, I could see in his eyes that he knew he was losing the battle. I was not sure how I could allow him to defeat me in a way that would be convincing.

Then, in a final, valiant effort, the lad hurled his sword at my exposed underbelly. He missed, and the blade only knocked off the loose scale from my breastplates. However, he was now weaponless, and I was mostly certain he had no way of knowing that the scale would regenerate. It seemed a good way to end the fight. I drew back dramatically, rose on my hind legs. and roared, belching flame into the sky and spreading my wings to their impressive full span. Then, with a thundering crash that shook the trees, I collapsed into a coiled heap, my head lolling to one side.

There were four counts of utter silence, broken only by the lad’s labored breathing. I lay very still, keeping my eyes shut. I heard Ciara’s horrified gasp as she slid off the boulder and then her footsteps rushing over to me. Through one cracked eyelid, I saw her prince advance, cautiously, stopping a dozen paces away, his retrieved sword held outstretched. It trembled only a bit. The lad had found his courage. I felt a little better about the whole thing, knowing that I would not be sending my princess off into the world with a weak-kneed coward. He would defend her, if the need arose.

Ciara fell against me, wrapping her arms as far around my neck as they would reach, whispering “no, no, no,” over and over again. My heart grew warm with the knowledge that she still loved me, that she was not just replacing me with Colin as Lohren had suggested. A low, pleased rumble started deep in my chest and startled her. She looked up sharply, and I opened one eye, then winked. I smiled just a little, letting a hint of fang show. I kept that one eye open until I saw realization spread across her face, then shut it again.

She squeezed my neck as hard as she could. “Oh, Korav,” she whispered. “You are wicked. You could have warned me!”

I flicked my tongue out and planted a soft dragon kiss on her forehead. “Go,” I rumbled as softly as I could.

“Thank you. Thank you. I will see you again one day, I promise, O Dragon, My Dragon,” she said softly. “Goodbye.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed the flat of my nose. Then she turned and ran to her prince. He caught her up rapturously in his arms, spinning her around, and they clung to each other for a long time.

I did not rise until they were ten minutes gone, departed on his white stallion and well out of sight. Already I missed her, but it was enough for me that she would be happy and among her own once again. Lohren, for all his inaccurate and unwanted insights, had been correct about one thing: a dragon’s cave was no place for a princess to live out her days. Likely I would need to endure some good-natured joking about being bested by an untried, clumsy youth. The memory of Ciara’s face when she embraced the lad, however, was worth more than my reputation.

With a melancholy sigh, I uncoiled myself from the ground and leapt into the air. As I circled the Valley of Dragons, I saw Ciara and her prince galloping in the opposite direction. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light, but I vow that Ciara turned and waved at me. I let loose a full stream of dragon flame in response, a final farewell, then turned towards Mount Ignis and never looked back.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Coming Soon

I didn’t care what anyone said: she was my princess, and no one could take her from me. Not barbarians, not Lohren, not the Council of Dragons, and certainly not some snot-nosed brat wearing borrowed armor and waving his father’s sword. My wings beat the air faster and faster, leaving the boy choking on a cloud of dust and ash as my princess and I rose above the ground, heading for the Western Mountain and home.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

tears are blood
when your heart breaks
you cut yourself
on the shards
you cry

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

“Hey,” he replied, grinning slightly. “Thanks for not dying.”
“Don’t mention it. I’d hate to leave you with all that paperwork.” She returned his smile faintly.

Monday, January 11, 2010

In Loving Memory

All mothers are special to their children, but we’re sure that we had the best. Not only was she caring, nurturing, and compassionate, but she knew everything. From cold remedies to candy-making to creating something wonderful from practically nothing, she was realistic, yet inventive. Mom was thrifty with finances, but never with her love. She had four children who all had very different personalities, and she always knew just what each child needed. She made each of us feel unique, important, and heard. She did not divide her love between us, but multiplied it to encompass every part of our lives. Mom was absolutely beyond comparison. The time she spent with us was far too short, but the lessons she taught us and the impression she left on us will last forever. Mom, we miss you and love you more than words could say, but you will always be in our hearts.

Our Hope

Nine days ago, after six years fighting cancer, my mother took her last breath in this life and her first breath in the next. No sane person would begrudge her new citizenship, but there is a Mom-shaped hole in my heart now. Nothing will ever be the same.

Thoroughly anticipated
This did not strike from the darkness.
It was not a shock.
And yet—
It was.
It’s like watching a slow motion punch coming at your face.
You can see it coming;
You know it’s coming;
And yet when it connects it doesn’t hurt any less for that knowledge.
And hurt it does.
She’s with God.
My head knows that,
Yet my heart grieves.
We were prepared,
And yet we weren’t,
For who can prepare for something like this?
It is impossible:
It strikes at our core,
The part of us that denies reality,
That says, “it will never happen,”
While our surface thoughts pretend that we knew it would happen all along.
And as it strikes that core,
A little part of us is torn away.
The part that became intertwined,
Dependent upon
That person’s life.
And that little part can never be replaced.
Scar tissue will cover it,
Scar tissue will mask its removal,
Scar tissue will hide the hole,
Even as scar tissue boldly declares the absence of the original.
It staggers you.
It affects your entire body;
Not just your emotional well-being,
Your spiritual, your physical, your mental well-being.
It makes you want to curl up in a corner
And cry and cry and cry
Until no more tears will come,
Until the tears have washed away the pain and the sorrow,
Until the tears have washed away the grief and the anguish,
Until the tears have washed away the gaping hole.
But they can never wash it all away.
If the pain, the sorrow, the grief, the anguish ever totally disappeared
Then the memory would be gone.
And that is the last thing that holds them to us.
The pain, the sorrow, the grief, the anguish will fade,
But God forbid they vanish.
They will ebb,
But God forbid they disappear.
Life becomes meaningless.
Reality becomes a joke.
For how can one go on when one is only partly there?
How can one laugh when the source of laughter has departed?
How can one continue a regular existence when existence has lost its life?
Only God knows.
And yet—
We do.
We continue.
We are.
We exist.
Carrying on, trying to fill the hole, looking to God for mercy and strength,
Trying not to feel,
Never daring to hope to heal,
As the world spins around us
A mockery of what it was.
Bland and colorless,
Threatening to leave us behind
If we cannot keep up.
The world never understands.
We can only trust and follow
When trusting and following are hardest;
Accepting His will
When we don’t understand;
Believing His word
When it isn’t what we want to hear;
And try to rest in His assurance
When rest is the hardest.
We are following in the dark
Searching for the light
And committing ourselves to His everlasting care.
And always praying that we too,
Like those who have gone before us,
Shall see Him in His glory
And His power,
Surrounded by those who have lived faithfully and righteously—
And those who have left us to see Him—
This is our hope
And this hope is enough

Monday, September 21, 2009

Diplomatic Relations (Pt 10)

{The post you've all been waiting for...}

“All right,” Dara said once the pilots had changed from their Stawlian uniforms to their New Republic dress uniforms. “Are we ready to move? Redding, did you call Raven?”

“I did.” Redding flipped through a stack of data disks and pulled out the ones he needed. “There’s a problem.”

“No,” Dog said flatly.

Dara eyed him. “No, there is no problem?”

“No,” Dog repeated, “there can’t be a problem. We’re too close to getting off this ridiculously paranoid planet for there to be any problems.”

“Hush,” Dara ordered. “Redding, what is the problem?”

“She’s not answering. I keep getting directed to a messaging service.”

Dara considered. “That’s a problem.”


“Not a big problem, but a problem.”


“Do we know where she’s going to be?”

“We know that the diplomatic vessel is going to be at the spaceport. We know where she is being held. Technically, we could drive the route between the spaceport and where she is and look for her.”

“Not a great plan.”


“But it is a plan.”

“We should be able to find her, yes.”

“Worst case scenario, we meet her at the spaceport.” Dara’s voice clearly indicated that she was ready to leave, with or without a plan.

“Look,” Dog interrupted. “Can we go already?”

Dara laughed and waved them all towards the door. “All right. We’ll start with her lodgings. Let’s go.”


Dog was already in the speeder, Redding and Jayem were on their way to join him. Dara stopped in the computer room where Josh and Marna were finishing dismantling the last computer.

“Two safe houses ruined in a week. I guess I should apologize,” Dara said.

Marna shook his head and came over to where she stood. “No,” he insisted, clasping her hand warmly. “I can’t thank you and your pilots enough for what you’ve done. Not just for me, but for all of the Fringe. You’ve given them confidence that they desperately needed.”

“I was just returning the favor,” she countered. “You and your organization saved our lives and Diplomat Raven’s reputation. Getting you out was the least we could do.”

“We’ll never forget you and your team, Dara,” Josh said.

“I hope you do,” Dara smiled. “I hope the Fringe does so many amazing things that you won’t be able to remember us at all. I’ll be waiting to hear of a regime shift on Stawl.”

“In time,” Marna said quietly. “Thank you again.” He and Josh walked her to the door.

“We can give you twenty minutes,” Dara said. “Maybe a little more than that, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

“We can work with twenty minutes,” Josh said. “We’ll be out of here in five.”

“Excellent.” Dara clasped his hand, then Marna’s. “Good luck.”

“Goodbye, Dara,” Marna said. “Be careful.”

“And you, also,” she replied. She offered him a crisp, military salute, then left the room.

She nearly walked right into Zack, who had been waiting just outside the room. She smiled and stepped back. “It was great working with you, Zack. You’ve got good instincts. Make Josh let you use them.”

Zack nodded, abruptly wrapped her in a bone-crushing embrace, then, just as suddenly, released her. He stammered something that sounded like “thank you, then hurried away, beet red.

Dara, looking rather dazed, turned to Redding, who was leaning against a wall, watching with an amused expression. “What was that about?”

“He’s only nineteen, Dara. Still just a kid. You rescued his hero, so that makes you a hero, too.” Redding grinned.

Dara flushed a dull, embarrassed crimson. “But I don’t like heroes,” she commented as she brushed past him on her way to the speeder.

Redding chuckled and followed.

“Come on, Dara,” Jayem complained when they ran into the garage and jumped into the speeder. “We’ve been waiting for hours!”

Dara laughed at him. “Calm down. Everyone ready?” Upon receiving affirmative responses, she nodded to Dog. “Go.”


Dara’s instinct to start at Raven’s lodgings proved to be correct. They arrived to see a small crowd gathered, consisting of Raven, a handful of grim New Republic soldiers, some pompous State officials and their guards, and at least two dozen curious bystanders. Since this was apparently a State function, the laws against citizens congregating in groups larger than ten obviously did not apply. One particularly pretentious bureaucrat was standing at a podium, lecturing about the need for integrity in galactic diplomacy. Raven’s face was tight with stress and some of her authoritative bearing was lacking. When Dog pulled the speeder closer, the crowd turned to look.

Dog had taken down the speeder’s cover, so that everyone assembled could plainly see the occupants. Whispering and pointing began as people started to recognize them. Dara stood up as the bureaucrat paused uncertainly in his speech.

“People of Stawl,” Dara called loudly as her pilots lounged beside her, hands on blasters. “I am Major Daramis Mcejo. You requested representatives of the New Republic Starfighter Command. We came. And then your government tried to kill us.” There was a slight rumble of shock and displeasure from the crowd, and Dara continued, raising her voice. “They tried to kill us, and they killed hundreds of your own people in the attempt. Not only that, but they dared to blame it on our own diplomat. The State lied to us, the State falsely accused an agent of the New Republic, and the State is lying to you.”

The people began to shift restlessly, looking at each other, then at Dara, at the bureaucrat, and back at Dara. The guards glanced around uneasily, unsure of what to do. The bureaucrat was white and trembling with fury, gripping the sides of his podium fiercely.

“Impostors!” he shouted as he stabbed an accusing finger toward the pilots. “The New Republic pilots are dead! These are frauds, trying to shake your faith in your government!”

Standing slightly behind him, backed by six New Republic soldiers, Raven gaped in a rather undiplomatic manner, the beginnings of hope easing the strain around her eyes.

“Is he talking about us?” Redding asked lazily.

“I believe he is,” Jayem yawned.

“Arrest them!” the official yelled, and his guards snapped to attention. They began moving purposefully towards the pilots.

“Us again?”

“Us again,” Dara confirmed, keeping a close eye on the guards. She waited until they were less than ten meters away, then, “Dog, go!” They roared away, leaving behind spluttering Stawlian officials faced with the daunting task of controlling an irate crowd.

The guards gaped dumbfounded, as if disbelieving that anyone would actually run from them, and then doubled back to their speeders to give chase, leaving the pilots with a nice head start.

“You know where you’re going, right?” Dara asked Dog conversationally as she glanced over her shoulder.

Dog shrugged and increased speed. “More or less. But we need to give Marna time to get away, right?”


“Then let’s do some sightseeing.”

“Funny,” Jayem said sarcastically.

“No, I’m serious,” Dog grinned. “We need to lead the guards on a wild-goose chase so they’re distracted.”

“Just don’t get us caught,” warned Dara as she settled back to enjoy the ride.

Dog was an artist at the controls of any vehicle, and the Stawlian military speeder was no exception. His handling of the machine was impeccable, and the guards behind them were hard pressed to keep up. Dog had to slow down once or twice in order not to lose them. They did get a full tour of the capitol, though none of them knew what they were looking at.

“I am thoroughly unimpressed,” Jayem yawned. “Are we done yet?”

“Almost,” Dog called back. “The spaceport’s a few blocks away.”

“They’re gaining now,” Redding warned, hanging on to the side of the speeder as Dog made a hard right.

“Forget about it,” Dog yelled over the noise of the engine. “Two more turns and we jump.”

“We what?” Jayem demanded, sitting up straight.

“I can’t slow down, can I?” retorted Dog. “I’ll give the speeder a collision course and we get out of here.”

“We’re doing it, Jayem,” Dara commanded. “No more questions.”

Jayem scowled, but braced himself.

“Ready….” Dog threw the speeder into the first turn.

“Still behind us,” Redding reported.

Dog pulled the speeder hard to the left. “Now!” he shouted.

Redding jumped, hit the ground, and rolled, followed immediately by Jayem and Dog. Then Dara jumped and was struck with the sinking realization that her landing would be off. She unsuccessfully tried to correct in midair, but she hit the ground hard and her ankle folded inward. Rolling out of the street and toward a wall, she tried to stand. Her leg buckled, protesting violently at the pressure on her ankle. Pain pounded through the joint and she gritted her teeth.

Blast!” she ground out, bracing herself against the wall.

Instantly, Jayem was at her side, taking her weight and pulling her to cover just as the guards sped past, not yet realizing their error. Redding and Dog scanned the area with their blasters. Half-carrying, half-supporting Dara, Jayem went to the door and keyed it open. Relief swept over the group at the sight of their X-wings, undamaged and lined up in a precise row. Dara also noticed two guards lying in a corner of the hangar, still unconscious, still bound and gagged.

She looked up at Jayem. “Nobody noticed?”

He grinned. “Apparently not.”

“I hope you’re right,” she said optimistically, thinking that this could be the first true moment of good fortune during the entire Force-forsaken mission. “All right, people, let’s move!”

Dara was amazed and pleased when they discovered that all of their personal belongings were neatly stacked in a corner, including their flight suits. That meant they wouldn’t have to rendezvous with the diplomatic vessel before breaking atmosphere. The four pilots suited up in record time, despite Dara’s trouble with her ankle.

Dog had a huge grin on his face as he pulled his helmet on, so thrilled was he to be leaving Stawl. Redding and Jayem were unsuccessful at hiding their smiles, as well. Dara couldn’t deny a profound sense of relief, tempered by the pain in her joint. Redding helped Dara into her X-wing before climbing up into his own ship.

Dara switched on her comm. “Call out, boys.”

“Four green, Lead,” Jayem replied promptly.

“All good, Lead,” Dog said, practically on top of Jayem’s transmission. “Can we go already?”

“Three in the green, number two engine at eighty percent,” Redding reported.

“Are you worried about that, Four?” Dara asked.

“Not a bit, Lead. Let’s go!”

A new voice broke into their frequency. “Unauthorized pilots, this is Control. You are in a restricted zone. Power down your engines immediately.”

Dara laughed outright. It was not a pleasant laugh. “This is Major Daramis Mcejo of New Republic Starfighter Command,” she said grimly. “I suggest you raise the hangar doors before we blow them off.” She addressed her squad: “S-foils in attack position.”

Four pairs of wings split horizontally and slowly lifted apart, giving the fighters the shape for which they were named. Then the crafts gently elevated, stopping to hover about a meter from the ground.

“Unauthorized pilots,” the voice sounded a little worried now, “power down immediately!”

“Sorry, we’re done with diplomacy. On my mark, gentlemen. Three, two—“

“Wait!” The voice was now frantic. “We are raising the hangar doors now.”

“You have fifteen seconds, Control. We’re leaving either way.”

Ten seconds passed, and nothing happened. Then a strong male voice came over the comm. “Unauthorized pilots, this is Captain Zarn of the State Security Division. You are ordered by the State to stand down.”

“Mark,” was Dara’s quiet reply.

Sixteen lasers in quad-linked bursts fired simultaneously, reducing the hangar doors to so much melted slag. Alarms sounded and the side doors burst open to admit two squads of State soldiers.

“Shields up,” Dara ordered, setting an example. “Let’s go home, boys.”

“Right behind you, Major,” Redding said.

One after another, the four X-wings slipped out of the gaping hole in the hangar doors. Stawlian soldiers opened fire on the starfighters, the lasers from their blasters splashing ineffectually against the shields. The X-wings gracefully arced up into the sky and headed for the diplomatic ship that was also lifting from the ground.

When they reached comm range, Dara hailed the ship. “Diplomatic vessel, this is Major Daramis Mcejo. Do you need an escort?”

There was a brief pause, then: “Major Mcejo, this is Captain Leo of Diplomatic vessel Horizons. It is good to hear your voice! Is that the rest of your team with you?”

“As improbable as it may seem, we are all present and accounted for.”

“Best news we’ve had all week,” Captain Leo said with absolute sincerity. “We accept your offer of an escort. Transmitting our course to you now.”

“Escort formation,” Dara directed her pilots, and the X-wings slid neatly into position.

“Hopefully we won’t need an escort,” the captain continued, “but we did leave a lot of really upset Stawlians back there.”

“Perhaps,” Dara replied with a smile. “But we left quite a few happy ones, as well.”

“Diplomat Raven sends her congratulations on your survival. And her regrets that such an unorthodox departure was necessary.”

“That’s quite all right. It was the most action my team has seen all week, and they needed the outlet.”

“No kidding, Major Mother,” Dog cut in.

Normally, Dara would have called for less chatter, but this time she let her pilots fall into easy, lighthearted banter over the comm. She was just glad to be going home.

A new voice filled her cockpit, that of the Horizon’s navigator. “Lightspeed in sixty seconds. Fifty…forty…thirty….”

Dara listened absently to the countdown and sent her starfighter hurtling into the blue and white vortex of hyperspace on the navigator’s mark. They would be making the trip in a series of jumps. She estimated she had a little over two hours before their first reversion—plenty of time for a light nap. After checking in with her R2 unit and setting an alarm to wake her in an hour and a half, Dara settled back into the seat, making herself as comfortable as possible, and drifted into a light doze, trying still to ignore the steady throb of pain from her ankle.



Dara had never found words adequate enough to describe how she felt upon returning from a mission with everyone still alive. Relieved wasn’t quite intense enough, neither was satisfied, or even pleased. A warm, contented feeling washed over her and she felt the knot of tension that had settled in her neck and shoulders loosen as Commenor, the planet their squadron currently called home, expanded to take over her viewport. After twelve hours of hyperspace jumps, they were finally back.

“Welcome home, Major Mcejo,” Captain Leo said and was met with cheers from her squad. Dara just leaned back in her chair and grinned like an idiot.

“You got nothing to say, Major Mother?” Dog asked.

“Too happy for words,” she replied.

“That would be a first,” Redding joked.

“Hush,” she said without reproach. “Tighten up your positions. We are an escort.”

The four pilots brought their X-wings into precise formation. None of them wanted anyone who might be watching to think their flying had gotten sloppy while they were on Stawl. Captain Leo gave them landing coordinates, and the cruiser angled toward the west side of the base. The X-wings peeled off and headed to a hangar in the south quadrant. The hangar was largely empty, but the moment they settled their ships down and cut the engines, the hangar flooded with an excited, beaming, swarm of men and women in uniform.

Redding, Jayem, and Dog popped their hatches and scrambled out of their fighters. Instead of jumping down from her X-wing, Dara waited for the mechanics to bring over a ladder. She also accepted the hands extended to help her down. The guys were exchanging handshakes and backslaps and accepting congratulations. A major from their partner squadron was waiting for Dara. He saluted, not even trying to hide his smile.

“Major Mcejo, it is a pleasure to see you and your team again.”

“Major Ondel, I cannot tell you how much the feeling is mutual.” She returned the salute and the smile, then looked around. The hangar was buzzing with people, but she only saw about half of Valor Squadron and she didn’t see her commander at all. “Where’s Rogue?”

“We haven’t told him.” Major Ondel’s smile spread into a mischievous grin. “All he knows is that Diplomat Raven was to return today.”

“So…Rogue doesn’t know we’re alive?” She leaned against a crate to keep weight off her injured ankle.

“No. He’s been depressed and grouchy ever since you died. We figured he wouldn’t believe us if we told him.”

“Well,” Dara laughed, “it’s nice to know we were missed. I suppose we should go show our faces so that he can sleep tonight.” She motioned her team to join her. “Let’s report in.”


“And then we came here, sir.” Dara leaned back in her chair and spread her hands. “And here we are.”

They had gathered a crowd. Rogue’s office was filled with Valor Squadron pilots and the hallway contained many members of other squadrons who couldn’t resist their curiosity. Dara had done most of the reporting, but Dog, Jayem, and Redding had interjected as they wanted. It was a thorough, if a bit casual, report.

There was a smattering of applause and shouts of congratulations as the other pilots began to disperse. When the room was clear, Dog stood and saluted.

“Permission to go eat, sir?”

Rogue smiled and nodded. “By all means. Dismissed.”

Jayem and Redding jumped up, gave salutes of their own, and followed Dog out of the office, leaving Rogue and Dara alone.

“I think I might join them, sir. All we’ve had is field rations in our X-wings since breakfast on Stawl. And I’m pretty sure that was yesterday.” Dara levered herself out of her chair and balanced precariously on one foot.

“You’re going to get that taken care of, yes?”

Dara made a face. “Yes, sir,” she said with a reluctance that stemmed from her dislike of visiting the medbay.

“And then get some sleep.”

She brightened at that. “As ordered.” She limped carefully to the door, turned, and saluted. “It’s good to be back, sir.”

“It’s good to have you back, Dara. All of you.”

“Thank you. And, sir?”


“If I ever get volunteered to lead a diplomatic mission again, I’m resigning.”

He laughed. “Understood. I’ve already discussed it with Command.”

She grinned and opened the door.

“Oh, by the way,” he called, arresting her motion and drawing her gaze back. “You’ll get me your report? I’d like to go over it before Diplomatic Corps gets it.” He was surprised when she blushed.

“I’ll have it on your desk by tomorrow evening.”

Rogue looked confused. “Wasn’t there a report you were updating throughout this whole fiasco?”

Dara grinned sheepishly. “Yes,” she admitted, “there was. But… I left it on Stawl.”



Friday, August 21, 2009

Diplomatic Relations (Pt 9) (revised)

Redding was absolutely focused on his screen, watching the feed from the security cameras. Jayem leaned in over his shoulder.

“Have they arrived yet?”

Redding shook his head. “Any minute now, I think.”

“How long ‘til they get back?’

“Thirty minutes, if everything goes according to plan.”

“Good. I think I’ll get some air.” Jayem straightened and left the room.

Redding frowned, but the monitors quickly reclaimed his attention. That is, until he heard the front door open and slam, then the roar of a speederbike. Redding’s head snapped up, and he was out of his seat so fast the chair tipped over. He sprinted to the window just in time to see Jayem disappear down the street. Redding slammed his fist against the wall and called his squadmate eight kinds of idiot. But there was nothing he could do. Fighting back his frustration, he returned to his computers and watched Zack get cleared through the front gate.


Zack handed the guard on duty his ID card. Watching out of the tinted windows, Dara was impressed by how comfortable and natural he looked. He wasn’t overly nonchalant, and neither was he jumpy and nervous. He seemed to be having a casual conversation with the guard and was careful to keep his face turned away when two other guards brought Marna in and led him to the speeder.

Dog leaned over and opened the door of the speeder. Dara also turned her head away so that Marna couldn’t react immediately. He would recognize her, he might not recognize Dog. She watched in the reflection of the window as Marna climbed in, looking haggard and a little dejected. Then her gut clenched as the two guards climbed in after him and sat opposite. That was not in the plan.

Dog glanced casually at Dara, then returned to staring out the window. Dara knew that any drastic action now would be noticed. They would have to wait until they cleared outer security. Marna chose that moment to raise his head and look around the speeder. His eyes widened when he saw Dara. Fortunately, he had enough presence of mind not to react. He looked from her to Dog, whom he did not recognize immediately, and confusion creased his forehead. Dara surreptitiously lowered one eyelid to reassure him, then rubbed her eye a second later, in case one of the guards had seen.

Zack did not say a word when he got back in the speeder. That told Dara that he had seen the guards and knew not to celebrate just yet. Dog and Dara exchanged a meaningful glance as Zack drove the speeder out of the transfer area. Marna was trying to hide his confusion, and the other two guards just looked bored.

Dara felt a drop of sweat trickle down the back of her neck. The two guards weren’t supposed to be here. It wouldn’t take much for them to guess that something was not right and raise the alarm. Only her previous undercover experience kept her face calm and unworried, and she was sure the same went for Dog. She kept her breathing even and managed to match the bored expressions on the guards’ faces.

Then the guard on Marna’s left glanced at Dara, then seemed to really see her. A wrinkle formed between his eyebrows. “I don’t think I’ve seen you before,” he said.
“How long—”

With the precision of two squadmates that had worked together for years, Dara and Dog drew their blasters and fired simultaneously. The wave of blue from the stun beams washed over the two guards and they slumped in their seats. Marna’s eyes widened with shock.

Zack’s head swiveled around and he gaped.

“Turn around, Zack,” Dara ordered. “We still have to get out of here. Stick to the plan.”

“Zack’s here?” Marna asked incredulously. He still hadn’t absorbed the idea of being rescued.

“Yes, sir,” Zack said. “And we’re on our way to meet Josh.”

Three minutes later, they had cleared outer security. No one so much as glanced twice at Zack’s ID badge or into the speeder. The guards all wore the same bland expression that spoke of utter boredom. But it was after they drove through the gates that the next difficult part began: they had to make a military speeder disappear before the State realized that Marna hadn’t arrived for his court date.

“Zack, did you disable the speeder’s homing beacon yet?” Dara demanded as she snapped binders on her unconscious guard.

“Working on it,” Zack called, his voice now tight with frustration.

“I’ll help him,” Dog said, finishing with his guard and clambering into the front seat.

“Dara—“ Marna began.

She smiled reassuringly at him. “You saved us, we’re saving you. Turnabout’s fair play.”

“Got it,” Dog called triumphantly.

“Excellent,” Dara said. “Are we being followed?’


“Daramis,” Marna tried again.

“Relax,” she said calmly. “We’ve done this sort of thing before.”

“How?” was all he could say.

“Actually,” she admitted, “it wasn’t that hard. The State is all talk and no security systems. Redding found a way to feed false orders to the computers, we got our hands on an ID card, and your people had uniforms. Then we bribed a speeder from some mechanics, and here we are.”

Marna shook his head in disbelief. “You embarrass us. We did not know this kind of thing could be done.”

“And we didn’t know the State planned to blow us to smithereens,” she replied cheerfully. “Shall we call it even?”

“We’re clear,” Dog reported. “Major?”

Dara looked down at the guards lying on the floor of the speeder. They were a problem. Sooner or later they would wake up; they couldn’t be killed; it was far too risky for them to be taken prisoner. She shrugged, then said, “Let’s get to the rendezvous. No need to let Josh worry any more than he would anyway.”


As Zack had predicted, the Old Square was deserted. The few shops were boarded up and no one was there. Josh and Stella had parked the speeder in a small alcove between two stores, neatly out of the way. They were waiting when Zack pulled up next to them. Dog opened the door and got out first, scanning the area before motioning for Marna to join him.

Astonishment flashed across Josh’s face, quickly smothered with excitement and relief, and Dara knew that he had still had lingering doubts about their chances of success. She allowed herself a small smile as she jumped out of the speeder. Josh clapped Marna on the shoulder while shaking his hand. No words were exchanged, but there were volumes in that simple gesture.

“Get Marna in the speeder,” Dog said, interrupting the reunion. “We don’t want him out in the open more than necessary.”

Josh immediately guided Marna into the speeder. Zack jumped out to stand next to Dara and Dog.

“Do we ditch the speeder?” he wanted to know. “Or do we take it back?”

“Neither,” Dog answered. “It’s now our getaway vehicle.”

“What?” Zack’s confusion was plain.

“You need a distraction to get Marna out of town, right?”

Zack nodded, still puzzled.

“Well, we’re going to make one.” Dog sauntered towards the waiting speeder, whistling.

“Dog, wait,” Dara said. She caught up with him and held a whispered conference. Dog listened, nodded, and then an eager, enthusiastic gleam appeared in his eyes. Zack looked quizzically at Dara, who merely shrugged and got in the speeder after Dog. Zack followed.

“Get in the front seat,” Dara told the young Fringe driver. “We don’t want to risk the guards seeing you.” She was relieved when he obeyed without a word of protest.

The two guards were lying on the floor of the speeder still, face down, binders keeping their hands behind their backs. One of the them groaned and shifted. Dog crouched next to him, holding the guard’s blaster loosely in his hands. The guard blinked slowly and tried to lift his head. Dog shoved his head back down, forcing him to strain to see Dog out of the corner of his eye. His face was filled with terror and his breath quickened.

He was a guard, Dara reminded herself, not a soldier. He would have neither experience nor training for this sort of situation. That made Dog’s part a lot easier, and she hoped he wouldn’t overdo it. She settled into a seat, just within the guard’s line of sight, and scowled.

The guard grunted again, as if trying to speak.

“Shut up,” Dog growled. “She already wants to kill you,” he jerked his head at Dara, “don’t make it worse.”

The terrified guard followed the gesture, saw Dara’s expression, and paled. He pressed his lips tightly together in a silent attempt to let Dog know he wouldn’t say a word.

Zack stared over his shoulder at Dog in shock. “You can’t—”

Dara made a sharp, chopping motion with her hand and Zack turned back around, swallowing the rest of his protest. Dog shot him a withering glare, then looked back at the guard.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “my boss isn’t happy. You got in our way. You weren’t supposed to be there. Two guards for prisoner transfer, not four. And yet, you and your friend jump on in. Now she’s thinking, you did it on purpose, trying to stop us, wanting to be heroes.” He glanced nervously over his shoulder and lowered his voice. “She doesn’t like heroes.”

All blood had drained from the guard’s face, leaving him ashen and sweating. He shook his head, frantically trying to deny what Dog said. Dara resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Dog was really laying it on thick.

“I think I can convince her not to kill you. At least, I’ll try,” he amended in a whisper. “But I’ll be risking my own neck.”

Gratitude filled the poor guard’s face as he dared to hope. Dog suppressed a scornful look and moved over next to Dara. The speeder was large enough that he actually took two steps, far enough that a hushed conversation wouldn’t be overheard by the guards.

“How am I doing?” Dog asked quietly.

Dara raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. “I don’t like heroes?” she asked, equally softly.

Dog gestured vaguely. “I’m improvising.”

“I noticed,” she replied dryly. “Then maybe I should improvise too,” she threw back, making her voice sound angry. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the guard cringe as he heard the tone, but not the words.

“I always knew there was a thespian in you,” Dog replied, straight-faced.

Dara flicked her hand toward him in an exasperated gesture. “Fine,” she said, raising her voice, “Do what you will, then.”

Dog flashed her a quick smile and whispered back, “I always do.”

He returned to where the guard lay, noting the gratitude on his face.

“Thank you!” the guard said with intense feeling.

“Quiet,” Dog snapped. “Or she’ll change her mind.”

The guard shut his mouth abruptly.

“But there’s still a problem,” Dog continued. “We can’t take you with us. There’s a hundred of us heading west tomorrow morning and we can’t be bothered with you two. But we can’t just let you go free, either.” He frowned in concentration, then appeared to make up his mind. “So here’s what’s going to happen. We’ll dump you here, out of the way, unhurt,” he said with reluctance, and the guard sighed with relief. “You promise not to make a fuss and get yourselves into trouble, and we won’t have to track you down again.” He brought his face very close to the guard’s. “Understand?” he asked flatly.

The guard nodded quickly, wide-eyed.

“All right, then.” Dog stood and looked at Dara. “Let’s get them out of here.”

Dara shook her head with mock-irritation, but joined him in dragging the second to the door. She jumped out, checked for witnesses, then waved Dog out. They hauled the still-unconscious guard out first, then Dog pulled the other guard to his feet and helped him out of the speeder.

There was a narrow, shadowed alley between two of the buildings, and some convenient crates lay about a dozen paces in. Dara clamped her hand around the standing guard’s shoulder and firmly guided him into the alley. Dog half-carried, half-dragged the second guard and dumped him behind the boxes, then glanced meaningfully at Dara’s prisoner, resting his hand on his blaster. Dara let go, and the guard hurried over and sat next to his friend on the ground.

“Remember: no heroics,” Dog said firmly. He glanced at the other guard, who was just beginning to stir. “Make sure he knows our agreement,” he added warningly.
The first guard hastily nodded. His color was returning, and he didn’t look half as frightened as he had earlier. Dara was certain he was beginning to entertain thoughts of being a hero. She hid a smirk and nudged Dog. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Right behind you.”

They left their captives without a backward glance. Dara looked over at the second speeder where Josh was eyeing them with a nervous expression. She gave him a reassuring smile and a thumbs up. He did not look reassured. Dara shrugged.

“What happens if they’re discovered?” Zack worried when the pilots were back in the speeder. “Or if they get away?”

Dog shrugged. “They think there’s a hundred people—a legion of soldiers, when those two are finished telling the story—vacating the capitol tomorrow morning. They won’t think to look for a single speeder leaving in less than an hour.”

“Please tell me Josh isn’t taking Marna west,” Dara remarked casually.

“Nope,” Dog replied. “I checked with Zack. They’re going east.”

Dara nodded, satisfied.

“Where to now?” Zack asked.

“Back to the safe house,” Dara said. “Park in the garage, out of sight of the street.

The two speeders meandered slowly back to the safe house, taking different routes. Josh parked outside right away, but Zack had to drive past the house three times before the street was empty of passerby who might notice the military speeder and wonder. He maneuvered smoothly into the garage and the door shut behind them. Zack, Dog, and Dara walked into the house, wearing satisfied expressions on their faces.

“Mission accomplished,” Dog announced proudly to Redding, who waited for them in the kitchen.

Then Dara noticed the dismal look on Redding’s face and how he refused to meet Dara’s eyes.

“Redding,” she said, her smile vanishing, “what happened?”

He squared his shoulders and met her eyes. “Jayem.”

“Did he blow something up?” Dara demanded.

“I don’t know. He’s gone.”

Dara stopped dead still. “What?”

“He left. About forty minutes ago.”

“Why? Where did he go?” she asked furiously.

“I don’t know,” Redding insisted. “He asked when you would be back, and the next thing I knew, he was out the door and driving down the street on one of the speederbikes they brought.”

Her expression was black and angry. “He left. Without a word.”

Redding nodded. “I would have stopped him.”

Dara didn’t reply. She stalked past, trailing fury and muttering darkly under her breath. Redding and Dog exchanged a look, then followed.


Fifteen minutes crawled by, and even they seemed to avoid Dara. She was now in a foul mood, growling about the lack of comlinks and Jayem’s unauthorized absence. Her pilots gave her plenty of room to pace and knew better than to ask questions. Dog posted himself at the front window as a lookout, while Redding helped Josh box up computer equipment.

“He’s coming!” Dog yelled across the house.

Dara stopped in mid-stride. She stood perfectly still for a moment, shut her eyes, and breathed deeply. When she opened her eyes, she had reined in her emotions until they no longer radiated from her like heat. Calmly, she went to the entrance hall and waited for Jayem, the other occupants of the house clustering behind her.

Dara’s face was a study in carefully controlled rage as Jayem strolled into the house. “Where have you been?” she bit out, each word articulated precisely.

He grinned. “The spaceport,” he answered.

Dara met his eyes levelly, but did not speak. Her lips pressed tightly together as the silence stretched. Jayem fidgeted, suddenly uncomfortable. Dog and Redding glanced at each other and edged a step or so away, just as every member of the Fringe left suddenly remembered tasks to be done in other rooms of the house.

“You left the safe house.” Her voice was soft and even, without even a tremor of anger to reveal her thoughts. “Alone. Without telling anyone.”

Jayem swallowed and managed, “Yes, ma’am.” He had a thousand things to say in his defense, but Dara was every inch his superior officer at that moment, and military protocol stilled his tongue.

Dara’s eyes flashed then, the first hint of the fierce emotion she was trying to clear from her judgment. “Of all the irresponsible, dangerous, ridiculous, idiotic things to do—” She broke off suddenly and took a deep, calming breath. “Why?” she demanded.

“I found our X-wings,” Jayem said, almost defensively.

Dara stopped short, any further words of chastisement abruptly dying. She glared fiercely at him for a full twenty seconds without saying anything. Jayem shifted his weight, unsure of what to expect. Finally, Dara heaved a sigh. “Consider yourself officially reprimanded,” she said wearily, “and never, ever do that again.”

He grinned. “Yes, ma’am!” he said enthusiastically, and for a moment, Dara actually believed him.

“Where are they?”

“In a hangar on the far west side of the spaceport,” he reported. “Just waiting for us to come and collect them.”

Dara’s eyes took on a faraway gleam, the gleam that meant she was planning something. Her squad waited. Then her gaze focused and she smiled slowly. “Listen up,” she said. “Here’s what we do.”

(to be concluded...)


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