By Brantley Thompson Elkins
with Velvet Belle Tree
Picts from Ultragirl and Redwulf, with manips by Shadar
The Scalantran ship was late that year.
Scalantrans were known for their punctuality, if not for their honesty or generosity. The Nova Iberians were aware of this, and their merchant guild knew how to deal with them. They could speak softly yet drive a hard bargain.
They were ready on the appointed day, their displays covering the feria plain outside the capital, ready to offer -- for the right price in trade goods or credits -- their finest spiced wines, their exotic foods and sweets like chorizos and nut brittles, their woolen brocades and knits and sundry other goods.
It rained for several days after the scheduled arrival date for the Scalantrans, forcing the merchants to bring all their merchandise back under their tents. They were much put out about this, especially since the delay also forced them to bring extra ice for the freshly made clove hens and other perishables destined for the Scalantrans' refrigerated holds.
The day after the rains stopped, the Scalantran ship finally set down next to the trade fair ground. But when its doors opened, they disgorged not Scalantran merchants but the black-clad troops of what they soon learned was the Aurean Empire.
There was one who assumed a position in front the rest, who evidently led the oddly-dressed soldiers. He looked different from his cohorts: he wore no armor and only the scarcest of an odd metallic fabric. He deigned not to announce his name or rank but was later learned to be General Vadim Tsander.
The commander read a proclamation in poor Spanish to the effect that Nova Iberia had been taken under imperial protection.
The day had begun so promisingly, Gabriel thought.
He had awakened to a joyful noise coming from his son's bedroom. Esteban and Liz'bet were making love with wild abandon. Gabriel should have felt jealous, but he did not.
He had enjoyed Liz'bet's company for some 30 years, but he was no longer the man he once was, even with her. It gladdened his heart that his son and his Companion could so pleasure each other.
The rain had stopped, the sun had come out. And then the church bells had begun to peal in the orison that could mean only one thing: the ship was coming in. Thoughts of trade and profit filled his head as he and Liz'bet and his family and retainers headed for the fair grounds.
An hour later, all thoughts of trade and profit had fled his mind. Gabriel was the first Nova Iberian to fully appreciate what had just come to pass: Liz'bet had told him many years ago about the Aureans, the hereditary foes of her kind.
"That man in front," he asked her now in a low voice. "Is he a Prime?"
Liz'bet nodded in the affirmative.
"They undoubtedly have ships of their own," she added. "This was just a ruse."
As if more than one were needed, Gabriel thought.
Nearly everyone here had heard of the Aureans, just as their ancestors in Lugina had heard of the Mongols. But few knew much about them, which was only to be expected: they had seemed equally distant threats. Until now.
Certainly the Scalantrans hadn't anticipated any trouble from them, even as recently as last year. Their greatest concern then had been trying to convince Molina and the rest that they weren't really interested in their seafood escabeches, when in fact the pickled dishes were in great demand on other worlds of this ship's circuit.
Liz'bet had sensed the truth from the Scalantran factor's body language; Gabriel's own logic and sharp questioning had confirmed it, for all the factor's hemming and hawing. It had been a particularly successful trade fair for the Nova Iberians.
They couldn't have known then that it would be their last.
He turned to Liz'bet, saw the understanding in her face.
"Could we have traded for weapons?" he whispered.
"We could never have afforded what they have, what we'd need," she whispered back.
And it was true. Nova Iberia had the civilization it could afford, no more than that. The Surrogates had made it plain at the outset to the first settlers.
"We give you the basics for survival," they'd said. "The rest you must earn."
Theirs was a Second Generation colony, less than 150 years old. First Generation worlds established by the Galen themselves had things like computers and nuclear power' a few even had their own starships. Only it had taken them centuries to be able to afford such things. Well, afford wasn't quite the point.
In the early days, some fools had spent their substance on such follies as PersComps and energy weapons. The merchants knew what these were and what they did, and the scholars even had an inkling of their working principles. But such knowledge could not power them, could not fix them when they broke or wore out, as they inevitably did.
In theory, there had been time for more technological progress. But as a practical matter, there had not been. There had been the successive waves of abductees from other parts of Spain than the village of his own ancestors. Food had to be grown, clothing made, homes built, all the necessaries of what they knew as civilization provided. There was the Church, and the schools it supported. There was more than enough to do.
Nova Iberia was a world of mills and forges, of spinning wheels and looms, of plows and threshers. It was not yet a world of precision machine tools and the heavy industry they could support, let alone electronics. Steam power had been mastered, but electricity was only a novelty, the luxurious indulgence of a few -- there was not the technological infrastructure for large generators or transmission lines.
As for weapons, the Nova Iberians had longbows and crossbows much like those of their ancestors; they had improvised muskets that fired arrows and lead shot. None would be of use against the Aureans, Gabriel knew. Only one weapon might prove of any avail
Would the invaders be aware of her?
"You are one of us," he told Liz'bet. "Nothing more."
Liz'bet nodded:. "Nothing more."
The primer orador of the merchants' guild whispered the word to his fellows: "She is one of us. Nothing more."
"She is one of us," they passed it on in low voices, one to another. "Nothing more."
Gabriel Molina knew he could trust his fellow traders. As for others in the land
He and his fellow merchants watched the Aureans warily. The Aureans watched them back, perhaps looking for some sign of welcome.
Gabriel passed the word to give one.
It might at least buy them some time.
On that day and at that hour in the Year of Our Lord 1477 (as nearly as the astrologers could calculate), the pretender Don Alfonso del Rey was sponsoring a corrida on the opposite side of the capital Nueva Lugina.
It could not be said that either the horses or the bulls were of the first quality, for the agents of the Galen had been of a practical turn of mind and supplied the settlers with practical livestock grown from ova harvested on Earth: draft horses rather than the famed steeds of Berber origin, merino sheep for meat and wool, cattle for beef and milk rather than entertainment.
Anything beyond that, the settlers would have to find substitutes for. When the time finally came for trade, which might have brought breeding pairs of other Earth stock at exorbitant prices the merchant traders were also of a more practical turn of mind. Seeds for fruit and olive trees were another matter, but hardly of use for a corrida.
Don Alfonso, who would fain be el rey rather than del Rey -- albeit he was unable to substantiate even the latter claim, the records being some hundreds of light years distant -- disdained the merchants who governed this world. Yet he employed some to his own advantage, and thus he was today able to show off his most prized possession: a Velorian Companion.
Ju'lette was running with the bulls today. Her assignment was to infuriate them by letting them attack her, their horns glancing off her invulnerable body or even breaking against it. But he also suffered his horsemen to assail her with their swords and lances, taking pleasure in the sight of her clothes being torn to shreds by weapons that left nary a mark on her flesh.
The first historic bullfight had taken place in Vera, Logroño, in 1133, in honor of the coronation of King Alfonso VIII -- the very king that the present Don Alfonso claimed as his forebear. He had never claimed that his line was legitimate, but since there weren't any legitimate lines on Nova Iberia that hardly mattered -- mattered no more than the fact that bullfighting here bore little resemblance to what would later evolve on Earth after the noblemen had lost interest in the corridas that had commemorated their zeal in defeating the Moors.
Alfonso had never seen a Moor. There had never been any on Nova Iberia.
When an errant bull managed to toss Ju'lette into the air, an errant knight managed to impale her on his lance. She hung there for a moment, squirming with pleasure until the iron tip broke off inside her and she came to ground -- not flying, for Alfonso insisted she wear a gold collar and gold cuffs about her wrists and ankles even on such occasions as this.
He glared at her in undisguised contempt, of which she seemed to take no notice. His mind was in a turmoil. He loved to show off her invulnerability -- and hated it at the same time. Hated it that she could take pleasure in such a spectacle as this. Hated it that he wanted to hurt her and couldn't, no matter how hard he tried in their private moments behind locked doors.
That lance was as close as anyone but Alfonso came to penetrating the Velorian, for he was a jealous lord and master. She was young and inexperienced and had, the trader had assured him three years ago, been well-trained in submissiveness by her homeworld. Yet even under gold, he knew, she was still far more powerful than him. He hated that.
He was still in debt from the price of her indenture. The moneylenders were becoming impatient. He hated them. He hated his wife Almeida, though she dared not complain over his indulgence with Ju'lette. He couldn't inflict pain on Ju'lette, and it was hardly politic to do so on the moneylenders. Almeida was another matter .
On that day and at that hour, Master Manuel Covarrubias was holding discourse with his auditors at the studium generale.
"It may well be objected that such other rational animals are nowhere mentioned in Scripture," he addressed them. "Yet the same could be said of the inhabitants of Cathay and other lands unknown to the ancients. As Master Thomas observed:
"'What the philosopher considers about creatures is other than what the theologian does. For the philosopher considers those things which belong to them according to their proper nature, such as that fire is borne upward; the faith, however, considers only those things about creatures which belongs to them according as they are related to God, such as that they are created by God, that they are subject to God, and things of this sort.'
"It will be further objected that Scripture teaches that man was made in the image of God and after His likeness. But as Master Thomas also taught, this truly meant 'made to God's image, in so far as the image implies an intelligent being endowed with free-will and self-movement.' As it was on Earth, so does it obtain in the Heavens. What the Master saw on Earth, we see manifested far from Earth:
"'God produces things for the sake of communicating his goodness to creatures, and through them to represent his goodness. And because it cannot be adequately represented through one creature, he produces many and diverse creatures, so that what is lacking to one for the purpose of representing divine goodness, is filled up by others; for the goodness which exists simply and uniformly in God, in creatures is multiple and divided. Whence the whole universe more perfectly shares in and represents divine goodness than any other creature whatsoever.'
"That His creation should include rational animals other than ourselves, or even those in our apparent likeness such as the Velorians and Aureans, cannot be contrary to Faith but is indeed a demonstration of it. As to what God intends for these other creatures, we cannot say with certainty, save that they are imperfect beings like ourselves and thus in need of Divine Grace; but what form this may take must remain beyond our knowledge."
"But surely the so-called Supremis are abominations," objected one of the auditors. "Surely they are the progeny of demons."
"But not of their own free will," countered Master Covarrubias. "What we have heard was done to them was done by others, and they bear no fault in it. Indeed, they may still fall under the dispensation of the Church. Those we know here have thus far resisted the Summa Contra Gentiles, but that was often the case with the Jews and the Moors."
"They say that the Velorians are sterile," the auditor further challenged. "As the only purpose of carnal knowledge is procreation, it is surely an abomination that they be used as they are."
"It is surely against the law of God that any of our people make use of them without the Sacrament of Marriage, and the Church has made its position clear on this," declared the Master. "Yet even ordinary men and women may be sterile or barren, and the Church on Earth never condemned marriage for them. There is always the chance of a miracle, for those of true Faith."
Manuel was a Priest as well as a Scholar, ordained by the Stewards of the Church -- who prayed nightly and daily that their ordinances might find favor with the Bishop of Toledo and the Holy Father, whomever they might be, and however distant.
They prayed that the Church here not be led into Error, that the faith they kept be the true Faith. Manuel himself so prayed, for he was a pious man, who venerated St. Dominic, founder of the order which Diego de Soto had brought to this planet. Yet he was also a thoughtful man, who strove always to understand worldly things in the light of reason, as Thomas Aquinas had done.
His reason and his faith were about to be tested.
When the Scalantran trading ship arrived in 1444 or thereabouts with a consignment of Companions, Gabriel Molina had been a young man of 33 -- but already a young man to be watched.
He had achieved signal success in the management of his own father's granaries and mills that fed the growing population of Nova Iberia -- a population until recently still being augmented by Harvests as well as a high birth rate.
Gabriel Molina had been earnest and industrious, modernizing the mills through the shrewd adoption of imported technology such as steam that could actually be replicated here. No longer were mill sites limited to streams, no longer were they dependent on draft animals. They and the granaries that fed them could be located wherever the fields of wheat and rye and barley were concentrated.
Being shrewd, he had also been skeptical about the claims of the Scalantrans for their Velorian wares. Nova Iberia already had its prostitutes, condemned and yet permitted by the Church as a necessary evil. Others among the merchant class that ruled the planet (more or less by default) kept mistresses, and yet received the Sacraments. What more could these alien women have to offer?
The Scalantrans had set up a special enclosure for the Companions, surrounded by a palisade. There they displayed a half-dozen Velorian women like prize animals, inviting potential buyers to inspect their naked bodies for non-existent flaws. The Companions were indeed as advertised, without a single wart or mole or wrinkle.
The only dignity allowed to them was that the display was strictly look, not touch. Gabriel might have recognized the archetype for the scene, but he had never witnessed a slave market. There was no slavery here save for that endured by ordinary women at the hands of their fathers or husbands, a connection neither he nor his fellows had ever made in their minds.
The Companions' perfection was undeniable, as the Scalantran barker spelled out in graphic and often gross terms. From their golden hair to the tips of their toes, they were like pagan goddesses come to life. The beauty of their faces, arms, legs, breasts -- even their nether lips and what lay between them -- was beyond reason.
So were the asking prices.
Two million credits? Five years' income from all the family holdings and enterprises at the very best. It could ruin him. Well, as the old sayings went, all cats are gray in the dark and any port in a storm. There had been attractive offers of arranged marriages, and until he decided among those, the bordellos welcomed a man of his means. Others of his class, he knew, pressed themselves on the servant women, but somehow he found the idea of force distasteful.
His thoughts distracted, Gabriel almost missed the introduction to the next part of the show.
" . such as yourselves are ever the object of envy and malice on the part of those of lesser accomplishments. You have on this world, I doubt not, all manner of thieves and robbers and cut-throats. A knife in the back, a shot in the dark, an ambush on some lonely road or bypath and your money and goods and perhaps your very life are forfeit. But no harm shall befall you, if you but have a Companion by your side."
Apparently on cue, half a dozen armed Scalantrans stepped forward and proceeded to attack the equal number of Velorian women with swords, pikes, maces and sundry other weapons. The Vels, apparently also on cue, assumed hands-on-hips poses, smiling and even laughing as the cold steel rebounded from or broke against their invulnerable bodies without leaving a mark.
"Better shields you can obtain nowhere," the barker continued. "Only these ladies can also carry the fight to the foe, and from Velorian companions, there is no escape."
The Velorian women levitated, flew in circles about the enclosure. The previously armed stooges dodged this way and that, but could never evade them for more than a few seconds.
There had been raiders of late in El Cañon del Norte, Gabriel knew. Men who thought they had a better idea than robbing from the rich and giving to the poor: they robbed from the rich and kept it themselves. Left to their devices, they could become a greater threat, arm themselves well enough to overrun the rich farmlands beyond the canyon, become an outlaw state rather than an outlaw band.
But a Companion could stop their attacks, pursue them by air as well as by ground, reduce them to helplessness. The farmers of the North as well as the merchants of the capital would be happy. Happy enough, he reckoned, to contribute to the cost involved.
Gabriel Molina made new calculations. Gabriel Molina took a gamble. By the end of the day, Gabriel Molina held a 100-year indenture on the Companion called Liz'bet. The Velorians being all equally beautiful, he had chosen her for the look in her eyes -- a look of intelligence and determination.
Of Velorians and Aureans, he then knew only the rumors and legends that passed from star to star along the trade routes. The scholars compiled such reports, and tried to make sense of them. Yet it was hard even to make sense of the history of their own world, and that was well known.
This much he knew: the Velorian was dangerous. She was alluring, but that was only part of the danger. Therefore he determined that his behavior towards her would be above reproach.
Let her be a danger to his foes and not to himself. No matter the formal terms of her indenture, he could not believe that she would welcome him to her bed. In any case, he considered the terms of the indenture shameful to begin with.
What manner of men were these Velorians, that their so-called High Council could impose on her the obligation to prostitute herself to a perfect stranger? And the payment, he reminded himself, was credited to Velor -- not to her. She came here with nothing, she gained nothing and, at the end of her term, she would leave with nothing.
That last, his grandchildren or great grandchildren might remedy -- if he had them.
Thought of the future brought him back to the present. It was past time that he be married, past time for him to get a son and heir. He could not afford any impediment. Dalliance was one thing, marriage and family were another. The one ended and the other began. That was the standard he set himself, regardless of what others might do.
Only dalliance no longer satisfied him. When he embraced one of the women of the bordello, it was Liz'bet's face that he imagined he saw, her body that he imagined he held. He began to shun them, these women, lying abed alone by night in shameful desire.
By day, he set her to work with his men-at-arms, guarding his messengers and often his fellow traders on their appointed rounds in Nueva Lugina and environs. They were good, his men-at-arms, but she would be better -- if it came to a really serious menace within the capital.
They accepted Liz'bet because they were loyal to him; but there were limits, he knew, to the burdens he could of right impose on them.
Therefore he quartered Liz'bet in a spare room of his own house.
That placed an extra burden on himself.
It was some months later that Gabriel was ready to put Liz'bet to the test.
He had already been planning a caravan to the North: the boiler, gears and other appurtenances for another mill, iron wagon wheels for the haulers supplying the granaries, the newest plows and other tools for the farmers, Scalantran trade goods from the recent visit, a bell for a new church, along with sufficient Bibles and hymnals for the parish. And cash, of course, for the regional merchants' bank.
Gabriel had designed and built a fort, a trapezoidal affair of stout wood plated with iron. There was a hatch at the top for his gunmen, and firing slits all around. The design was quite ingenious -- and totally impractical.
There was no way to move the rolling blockhouse, as he called it, save hitching it to a team of horses -- which would be easy targets. He'd had a vague notion of powering it by steam; such things were known on other worlds, he'd been told. But the technical details were beyond him, and even if they hadn't a steam engine would have been as vulnerable as the horses.
But Liz'bet wasn't vulnerable -- not to such weapons the bandits might possess; the demonstration at the Scalantran trade fair had proven that much. And she could fly, as the demonstration had further proven. The only remaining doubt in his mind was whether she could carry the fort, fully loaded. She demonstrated that she could, easily.
The caravan set out from Nueva Lugina at dawn -- three dozen wagons, most loaded with trade goods, the others providing comfortable if close quarters for the merchants and their clerks, drivers and other personnel.
Gabriel himself rode point with the command wagon -- taking the reins himself, for he was a man who set no store by status. He had organized the caravan; that entitled him to lead it, but nothing more -- that was his considered opinion.
Behind the command wagon came the rolling blockhouse, which might have slowed progress but for the strong team he had chosen for it. That team would be unhitched as soon as they reached the position he had chosen. It was the most dangerous position any caravan could choose, and that would surely draw out the bandits.
Farms and ranches had spread this side of the Sierra Domingo, inland from the coast, and over the past two decades younger sons of large families and disaffected tenants of the grandees alike had sought to better their fortunes beyond El Norte Cañon where virgin lands beckoned. Most had succeeded, but those who failed had taken to the warrens of the canyon and preyed on settlers and caravans. They had there been joined by others who sought to better their fortunes the easy way.
Partway through the canyon, which geologist of a later Earth would have called a rift, was a freak of nature: a pillar of obdurate rock called El Pene. It commanded a view of the walls to each side, but that meant climbing to the top -- an almost impossible task, even if the climber didnt face fire from barrils de fuego and crossbows.
When Gabriel had explained his plan to Liz'bet, she had been puzzled at first.
"I could dispose of them myself," she said of the bandits.
"That may be true," he conceded. "But my men need to feel that they are taking a vital part in the affair. Moreover, I have built this device, and wish to indulge myself. Perhaps in future it will be useful even without your assistance, should I or another but find the right motive power."
The night before they left, however, he sent Liz'bet ahead to make certain necessary preparations. She returned a few hours later, mission accomplished. Everything was in place when they set out that morning.
It took them two days to reach the canyon, most of it winding through foothills that were suitable for hunting and gathering -- there were also excellent stands of the peculiar timber native to this world -- but hardly for agriculture or husbandry. They made camp under El Pene at dusk that second evening.
Gabriel expected the bandits to attack at dawn, for it was a rare moonless night and without any significant means of artificial illumination, a night assault would have been impractical. But to make certain of that, there were no fires lit in camp; the men had to make do with cold meals in their wagons. They had been ordered to sleep under them, out of the line of fire, and shielded by wooden barriers hastily erected.
But a number of the men silently boarded the fort, which had already been unhitched from its team. Heavy chains had been attached to the four corners, and linked together in a nexus at the further ends. Then Liz'bet, for whom darkness was no impediment, took hold of the nexus and began lofting the fort and its crew into place.
There was plenty of time, so she took care to minimize the rattling of the chains and the swaying of the fort, took equal care to set it down gently atop the pillar -- where she had already cleared and leveled a space for it three nights before.
The bandits knew the canyon, knew all the hidey holes, places from which they could attack a caravan with impunity, having the advantage of height on their side and shielded from any return fire. They never expected to themselves be assailed from above.
When they began to be hit by a hail of iron arrows and lead shot from the pinnacle, they were paralyzed for a few moments, then tried to scramble for cover. Most of them never made it, and most of those who did couldn't find safe firing positions to return the attack. Their weapons were too crude, in any case, to target the slits from which the fort's volleys were coming.
The bandit chieftain, a man named Gomez who could think on his feet better than the rest, ordered as many of his surviving fighters as he could to rally to him and make their way down the side of the canyon. Perhaps they could still capture the wagons. Perhaps they could take hostages, escape with them and their lives, then demand a ransom.
The encampment seemed deserted. Gomez and his men advanced cautiously, then heard a sound from an unexpected direction, to the left of the wagons, toward the mouth of the canyon. It was a woman, a strange woman with golden hair who strode out to meet them with a come hither look, as if she were a tavern wench. She was certainly dressed for the part.
"Ready to surrender?" she asked.
What madness is this? Gomez wondered.
"Avanza," he ordered his men. The pillage and kidnapping could wait; rape seemed a more attractive option just now.
The strange woman picked up a good-sized rock, as casually as he himself might have picked up a pebble, and chucked it at them just as casually. One of his men ducked just in time to avoid the missile, but others soon followed.
Gomez ordered his bowmen and gunmen to fire, which they did with alacrity, and as much efficiency as they could manage while still dodging rocks. Nobody scored any hits until the woman suddenly ceased her own attack and just stood there smiling, striking a lewd pose. Only then did the bandits find their range and their target.
Only nothing happened to her. The lead shot made a mess of her dress, and some of the crossbow bolts -- those that didn't simply bounce off -- ended up hanging from what was left of it, the tips catching on the fabric.
"Oh, that tickles," she giggled when one of the musket shots exposed her right breast. Under other circumstances, Gomez would have been delighted to learn that it was larger and rounder and firmer than any breast he'd ever seen. But circumstances weren't other.
The firing had become ragged. The bowmen were running out of bolts, and the musketeers running out of shot -- most weren't bothering to reload, which was a clumsy and laborious process.
The woman picked up another rock.
"Ready to surrender now?" she asked. "Better drop your weapons pronto, or I'll aim better this time. See that lizard?"
There was a lizard sunning itself a hundred feet away. She hit it dead on.
Seconds later, the bandits' weapons clattered to the ground.
Moments after that, the other men and woman of the caravan emerged from behind their shields to take the bandits in hand and rope them together for the journey to a civil tribunal in the North.
Liz'bet took a sand bath to remove the lead smudges from her body, and donned another dress.
They celebrated the victory that afternoon, just past the far end of the canyon, the merchant princes and their retinue. They made camp early. They killed the fatted calf -- actually it took several. They broke out the wine. They ate, and drank and made merry.
There was a private celebration that evening: just Gabriel and Liz'bet. The primer orador and the mercenary. It took place in his command wagon, which he had prepared for the occasion by stacking in the rear the cabinets filled with ledgers, contracts, journals and other such records to make room for cushions and a small table.
An oil lamp hung from the ceiling, casting a soft glow over them, glinting from her gold necklace -- a gift of his. Gabriel broke open a bottle of their finest spiced wine, and poured two glasses. He offered her the first, and she savored it, knowing how much labor had gone into it, how much patience and even love had gone into it. He had delighted in telling her such things.
It had taken decades for the first generation here to find acceptable substitutes for the long pepper, grains of paradise and spikenard that had been used in the old recipe in Old Spain, for the Surrogates had not considered such things necessary to carry here. They had brought the people, brought those plants and animals essential to their survival and well being, taught them such essentials of medicine and hygiene as to ensure that they would be fruitful and multiply.
"It is the unnecessary things that we live for," he said now. "All things beautiful and unnecessary. All things useless but perfect."
Gabriel raised his glass.
"To the useless and the perfect," he said.
"The useless and the perfect," she responded.
"But I don't agree," she added, after draining the glass. "Surely this is useful."
"Perhaps you could debate that with one of the Scholars. They can spend an entire day, it would seem, discussing the precise meaning of 'useful,' and other such words we lay people take for granted. Still, it can hardly be denied that the Scholars are useful."
He drained his own glass.
"And surely you have been useful. Essential, to be precise."
"You designed the fort," she said.
"But you set it precisely in place. It wouldnt have worked otherwise."
"And yet you continue to deny me."
"I have denied you nothing. I have honored you from the beginning, and I honor you now. I honor you here. You have done what none other could. The others -- they don't really understand you. Some yet even fear you."
"And you understand me?"
"You are a stranger in a strange land. But we were all strangers here in the beginning. We had all lost the only world we had ever known. As you have lost yours. And as the Lord Himself commanded the Jews, "Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."
"Do you love this stranger?"
"Even as the Lord commands. You are a part of my household, and whatever is mine is also yours."
"Yet you love me not as I would be loved. Can you not see that I am a woman?"
"What man could fail to see it? And I know what your masters expect of you -- cruel masters to send you here to serve as a common harlot. Would they serve in such a manner themselves? I shall never honor them; I shall never force myself on you."
"Your words wound me."
"Your absent masters wound you. They wound you from afar. I speak not of you, but of them. Let them imagine that their will has been done, let them imagine that I have given them satisfaction. Let them imagine that I have forced--"
"Do you truly believe for a moment that you could force yourself on me?"
"I could demand that you fulfill all the terms of your Indenture to me. It would be the same -- to them."
"But not to me. I would come to you of my own free will."
"Your masters grant you none."
"But you have, and by this token I express it."
Liz'bet took Gabriel's left hand and conveyed it to her breast. Even through her dress, he could feel how hard the nipple was, and it became harder still as she pressed his palm against it.
"And by this further sign."
She took his right hand and conveyed it between her legs. Even through her dress, he could feel the dampness, and the scent of honey and wildflowers began to fill the wagon as she gasped at his touch.
She put her right hand behind his head and drew him to her. She kissed him quickly but deeply.
"This is the last sign to show you that I come to you gladly and of my own free will."
He returned the kiss, longer and even deeper than hers. Then his kisses went down her face, to her throat, moving towards her breast. She slipped off the top of her dress. His lips were all over her magnificent breast and then hungrily sucked and nibbled on her nipple.
He took her hand and quickly led her to the cushions. He could wait no longer and swiftly entered her. He wanted to draw it out, but came all too soon. They lay quietly in each other's arms for a few moments. Then they began exploring each other with hands, lips and tongues.
As the night progressed, their couplings became less frantic, more languorous. Finally, exhausted, he fell asleep.
He awoke a few hours later, at dawn. He was afraid to open his eyes. Afraid that it was all a beautiful dream. But as he turned and saw her lying naked next to him, he knew that it was real, oh so wonderfully real.
The troubadors had never visited the village of Lugina, before the first abductions, and they were known only by rumor to most of those who came after. There would have been no place for love, in any event, during the first generations of Nova Iberia.
There was work to be done. There were alliances to be made. There was the ancient commandment from Scripture, reiterated by the Surrogates, to be fruitful and multiply. So there was labor and there was marriage and there was sex: necessary things, and only the last of them pleasant -- at least for the men.
There were fields to be planted and crops to be raised, and animals to be bred, and fish and game to be caught -- they had to learn by trial and error which of the native species would serve their needs. Always, they had been warned by the Surrogates, they must produce and store more than for their immediate needs, as the abductions would continue to bring more mouths to feed.
The men toiled in the fields or tended sheep -- even the grandees, in the beginning -- for it was needful that they should do so. Only on the Sabbath did they rest, and then only to be reminded by the Church of their duty to the Lord and to one another.
The women toiled in the homes -- preparing food, spinning and weaving, bearing and raising children. It was the way of the Biblical patriarchs, and the way of the land from which their people had sprung, and none of them questioned it. There was no rest for them on the Sabbath, for it was then that the men had the most energy to devote to the business of begetting.
Even with the knowledge of medicine and public hygiene shared by the Surrogates, it was not easy for the women of Nova Iberia, who might bear ten children in their time -- if they lived that long; and if they did, they were old before their time. The men took second wives in the former case, if they could find them; and left the beds of their only wives in the latter -- finding gratification elsewhere if they could.
Gabriel didn't know what he had found with Liz'bet, save that it was a miracle. Only miracles were supposed to come from God, and that could hardly be the case here, unless the ways of God were mysterious indeed. He dared not consult a Priest or a Scholar, for he knew what their answer would be, and he did not want to hear that answer.
When he came to her, as she knew he would, Liz'bet would often greet him naked, as if there were no shame in it -- and indeed he could feel none. She was especially alluring when just returned from flying through the fringes of the sun, drinking in its energy as the flames caressed her magnificent body and lent it a golden glow.
The Scholars had maintained that nothing could live in such a place. The Scholars were evidently wrong. But Gabriel's only thought when he first saw her thus was to worship her body, and the keen mind that dwelt within it: for they had become intimate friends as well as lovers.
Liz'bet held back nothing of her life on Velor, and he began to see what had attracted her to the life of a Companion. Velorians, unlike Earthmen, had known from the beginning what they were missing from being bound to a single world. They had later learned what they were missing from being bound by the gold field: the chance to live free, beyond their wildest imaginings.
"They profit from us," she said. "We buy them their science and technology, for the Galen left them nothing save the Maternity Engine and its support systems. These they designed to be self-maintaining, but all else the Velorians had to build and maintain for themselves, with little more knowledge than your own people possess. From the trade in Companions, they have gained in knowledge, yet we have gained in freedom."
"As an indentured servant?"
"We are free to say yea or nay to our indentures. And I never had any doubt about you. I could tell from your manner that you were a good man -- better than what I might have found at home. And have I not been proven right?"
Gabriel pondered that, but not for long. She wanted him to prove himself again that night in another manner, and he was pleased to do so -- soon overwhelmed to discover once more how tender and loving this superwoman, so powerful and invulnerable even under gold, could be in his bed and in his arms. And that was before she discovered the uses of white gold, something unknown on her homeworld ..
Yet from the beginning, she was more than a lover. She was a helpmeet in ways that no other woman could have been. There was the time, for example, when the runner stone at one of the new mills in the North was broken in a freak accident. She shaped a new stone, carved the cutting pattern in it with her fingernails, and flew it to the site so that the mill was up and running again within a day of her departure.
In a remarkably short time, Liz'bet became Gabriel's trusted advisor, a fount of ideas as well as embraces. She understood his every need. She even understood when he took Beatriz Aznar as his wife.
Beatriz was the daughter of Juan Aznar, a tanner who worked with the hides of both Terran cattle and native torgatos -- which were sort of like reptiles in that they had scales, but were warm-blooded and six-legged like most animals evolved here.
Gabriel believed that there might be an export market for torgato pieles, and he wanted the Aznars to work through the Guild toward that end. But he also had to secure the future of his own milling enterprises, and the other Aznar daughters had proven their capacity to produce sons and heirs.
Beatriz was a pretty woman and a good woman -- but a woman of simple tastes, as unadorned as her customary dress. She could be a helpmeet but never a confidant. She could take care of home and hearth, but never business. She would be a good mother, as were her married sisters, but never a soul mate.
Gabriel could like Beatriz, but he could never love her as he loved Liz'bet.
Beatriz knew this and accepted it, as women of her people had always accepted such things. She even accepted Gabriel's disappointment when her first four children were all daughters. First Maria and then Aldonça and then Margarita and then Constança. As the years passed, his disappointment turned to impatience, and even resentment -- although for that last he made confession and sought absolution.
He never made confession regarding Liz'bet, as others of his class or the grandees did for keeping their mistresses -- making pretence of contrition by abstaining for a week or a month, or on the Sabbath or during Lent. He might be a sinner, but not a hypocrite.
It was in the tenth year of their marriage that Esteban was born. It was on very day of his birth that the Guild completed the system of semaphore towers for passing messages to and from outlying settlements. Telescopes had been known for generations, inspired by the microscopes the Surrogates had left for medical purposes. But it was Liz'bet who suggested a use for them beyond amusement.
Gabriel was not particularly superstitious, but he took the coincidence for a sign. Perhaps it was a sign of blessing -- for himself and for Liz'bet and even for Beatriz. Or it might be that they all served some purpose he could not understand, for he knew that the Lord worked in mysterious ways.
His own ways were mysterious at times, even to himself. He left Beatriz alone after she gave him a son. An act of charity or an act of cruelty, he knew not which -- and could not bring himself to ask. That was the thing that troubled him, not to ask -- not even to tell, only to leave the marriage bed.
He prayed for guidance, but none came.
Nor from Beatriz. She never spoke of the matter, just as she never spoke of Liz'bet save as part of the business. It was as if nothing had changed. Perhaps nothing had, in a fundamental sense.
As the years passed, she seemed content with raising the children and her household duties. That brought Gabriel some comfort. To see Esteban grow into a man was a matter of great satisfaction.
But it was only Liz'bet who could bring him joy -- a joy somehow undiminished by the knowledge that it could never last, as he could not last; that she would still be here when he was dead and gone, but that his son in his manhood would come to know her seemingly imperishable beauty and goodness.
Do not break discipline.
The warning had been driven into Ju'lette's head on Velor, during her training. Training for Companions had become more intense during recent decades, she understood. There was more emphasis of combat, and she understood why.
But that must not be understood on whatever world she might serve. She was to be a Companion, and that included being a bodyguard as well as a concubine. But it would be a personal relationship. Politics must never enter into it, unless .
Even then, it must never appear that Velor had any involvement -- this especially on Second Generation worlds which had no space travel of their own and thus no contact with other worlds except through traders. Whatever action a Companion turned warrior might take, it must be on behalf of the clients and only the clients.
"You do not serve Velor," she'd been told. "You serve whoever holds your indenture. You serve him without question and without complaint, according to the provisions of the Standard Contract."
The Standard Contract was a response to early reports of abuses of the Companions, and was meant to impose strict conditions regarding their service.
To begin with, it gave a Companion the absolute right to accept or refuse an indenture. At trade fairs, she would, in effect, be considering the potential Client as much as he would be considering her. Moreover, the Standard Contract also forbade Clients to treat Companions in a manner that was degrading, even though it was impossible for them to do anything harmful to Velorians in a strictly physical sense.
But once a Companion indentured herself, there was no revoking the agreement from either side.
Alfonso had been charming when he interviewed her. He was young and handsome. He was familiar with the terms of the Standard Contract, he said, and agreed with them fully. Because he was the only serious bidder, and because there was no guarantee that a better offer for Velor would be forthcoming on the next world, she signed with him.
Ju'lette soon learned that he was not a man of honor, that the Standard Contract meant nothing to him, although he indulged her with material finery. Later, she also learned that on this world, with its crazy quilt of civil, ecclesiastical and commercial law, it would be difficult or impossible to bring action for relief in any court.
The night before the Aurean ship arrived, she could hear the whimpering again, from Alfonso's chamber, where he was doing -- whatever he did with Almeida. She didnt want to know what that was, and forbore to use her tachyon vision. Surely her brother the cleric must know, surely she must have told him. Why didn't he do anything?
As for herself, Ju'lette was bound by her indenture to do nothing. Were she ever to interfere in the affairs of the household, or even express her displeasure, Alfonso would doubtless complain to the Scalantrans, and the Scalantrans would complain to the High Council. It would be bad for business, bad all around.
She had almost wished that Alfonso could have what he wanted of her, for Almeida's sake; almost cursed the Velorian nature that caused her to experience pleasure rather than pain from his private ministrations and public spectacles.
Only now the Aureans had come, and Ju'lette no longer regretted being a Velorian -- only that she might be called on to defend Alfonso from the invaders.
"We would have converse with your king," General Tsander told the assembled townsman and grandee councilors of the Concejo.
It was an extraordinary session, to be held at on a weekday afternoon rather than after mass on the Sabbath. But Sandor Albornoz had summoned the concejals to the apse of the Cathedral on this day, and they came.
They had chosen him juez, an office combining administrative and judicial functions. They trusted his judgment, and they knew that there would be weightier matters to settle here than taxes or the election of alcaldes.
Dealing with this crisis should properly be the business of the Cortes, an assembly of concejos from outlying regions as well as the capital. But there was obviously no time for that; the Concejo of Nueva Lugina would have to act for all of Nova Iberia. Perhaps some token gesture of submission would placate the Aureans; they were powerful, but they were few. They might leave well enough alone.
But the juez was startled by the general's opening demand.
"That would be difficult," Albornoz ventured. "He is not here."
"And where might he be?"
"His Absent Majesty is in Castille, naturally. His name is Enrique III, or such was the case when we were last informed."
"It has been many years since the last arrivals here from the old world, and it seems that the Scalantrans are not communicative in this matter."
"Do not speak of the Scalantrans. We are done with the Scalantrans. So are you."
"With whom shall we trade?"
"With us. But only after we have settled things here. Surely this place is not governed by some king a thousand light years away who is unaware of your very existence."
"I did not say we were governed by Enrique. The Cortes governs in the name of his Absent Majesty. Our homeland may be lost to us, but its memory is not. Its institutions are not. Its laws are not. We endeavor to follow--"
"You appear to speak for this assembly. Are you not the king, then, in all but name?"
"I am but the chief judge, charged to enforce the law with the assistance of the alcaldes and recommending such emendations as may seem necessary. Only the concejals assembled here rule."
"This assembly is hereby dissolved. How can such a rabble represent the Empire?"
Albornoz wanted to protest. But the strange soldiers with their strange weapons who had accompanied the general had begun stirring.
"You shall now leave, and go to your homes," Tsander announced.
The others of the Concejo looked to Albornoz for guidance. He could only shake his head. And so the concejals, townsmen and the grandees alike, began filing out of the apse, past the Aurean soldiers with their glowering looks.
All but Francisco Rojas, one of the grandees. He hung back. He had been silent during their brief confrontation with the Empire's man. What could he want now?
Manuel was relieved that he could finally see Almeida alone. The dinner had been interminable. Alfonso had held forth as usual, acting like the lord of the manor. He insulted the servants and sent perfectly good food, which everyone else would have been happy to eat, back to the kitchen, complaining that it was not up to his standards.
Manuel knew that it was really his sister who wanted him here. Alfonso only put up with him because of his position in the Church. Almeida was his half-sister, younger by 15 years. Manuels mother, Juanita, had had her last child when she was past 40. The baby was strange looking, with oddly shaped eyes, and didnt live for very long.
Juanita hemorrhaged and soon followed her child to the grave. Manuels father married again not long after. Bianca was very young, lovely and compliant. Almeida was the first fruit of that marriage. Now, all their parents and siblings were dead and they only had each other.
Manuel looked at Almeida with brotherly love. "It pains me to see you looking so sad, my sister."
"Oh, Manuel. I feel so ashamed. What have I done to deserve such treatment from my husband?"
"I know you were brought up to be a dutiful and obedient wife. But have you done all in your power to do as he wishes?"
"His one wish I know I have failed to fulfill is to give him a son. I have prayed for one, but to no avail. Yet, it seems that the more I try to please him, the angrier he gets. He he only seems to want me after abusing me."
Manuel did not know how to answer her. What did he, a celibate priest, know about the relationship between a man and a woman? For unlike others, he had kept his vows of celibacy, even though at times it was unbearably difficult. But if he was not giving up something he desired, it was not a true sacrifice. And he believed that a true sacrifice was the way to show his dedication to his calling.
Yet, it was his duty to advise her, as both her closest male relative and as her spiritual advisor. And the only counsel he could give was that founded in Scripture: "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as unto the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church and the Savior of the body."
He saw the pain in her face when he quoted Paul in Ephesians 5:22. He must seem to her to be comparing Alfonso to Christ, rather than saying the law. He tried to soften his words as much as he could.
"You must try to accept your fate. God works in mysterious ways and who are we to know his true purpose? Have faith, my sister, and have courage. And you know that at least your brother and your daughter love you. Let that, and your faith, be your consolation."
The words still sounded hollow, even to him, and not only because there was a name that went unspoken yet hung in the air between them: Ju'lette.
Ju'lette was never seen at dinner, rarely seen in the household. Alfonso had provided her a private entrance -- hardly necessary for a woman who could fly through the window of the second story bedroom he had also provided her, but symbolic nevertheless of her special status.
Should Alfonso be denied the Sacraments? Church law was strict and yet rarely enforced, when the well-to-do were notorious for their mistresses and even priests often kept barraganas.
One of the few attempts to enforce Church law had been years ago in the case of the merchant prince Molina, and that only because he had refused to go through the charade of confession and repentance. When contributions from fellow merchants had abruptly fallen off, the Church had chosen the path of accommodation -- without acknowledging as much. And Molina had hardly been the worst offender.
Almeida had been silent for a few moments. Now she broke that silence.
"You mean well, my brother; I know that you love me and wish to comfort me. But my only consolation tonight is that I will be sleeping alone."
Alfonso had been called away from dinner by one of his would-be courtiers, a man named Rojas. Planning some crude spectacle no doubt, in hopes of currying favor with these Aureans -- a matter he could not discuss with Almeida, for it was a matter for men.
He must return now, to meet with the Stewards of the Church. He prayed inwardly that the Stewards would choose to honor and defend the Faith, even as he had asked his sister to do.
He kissed her hand and bade her farewell.
When the people from the stars came for them, the villagers thought at first that they were angels. They were quickly disabused of this notion, and took their abductors to be demons. Why they were being taken into the Heavens rather than the depths of Hell, none of them could fathom.
It was by chance that the first abduction took place during the reign of Alfonso XI, the Just. The event would have been more appropriate for those of his successors Pedro I, the Cruel; and Enrique II, the Bastard, Juan I, and Enrique III the Infirm. Word would come of these later kings, from later waves of abductees.
It was by also chance, and yet of great consequence in centuries to come, that among the first wave was Diego de Soto, a Dominican scholar home visiting his family. Apart from the parish priest, he alone among them had taken Holy Orders. And while the Jesuits who later disseminated his teachings were yet two centuries in the future. Fr. De Soto had embraced the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.
The General Chapter of the Order had lately appointed him master of a studium generale in Salamanca, where with the assistance of two bachelors he taught not only the Holy Scriptures with commentaries, but Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, logic, philosophy and the natural sciences. He was among the first in the country to offer philosophy to secular as well as religious auditors.
The teaching method was the same for both: the auditors had to master the Sacred and secular texts, and to show that mastery in open discussion. Every fifteen days the master held a debate upon a theme chosen by himself: the Quæstiones Disputatæ. Twice a year, during Advent and Lent, came the Quaestiones Quodlibeticae, extraordinary disputations whose subjects were proposed by the auditors.
It was in the Year of Our Lord 1337 that the people from the stars came to Lugina, a small village of a thousand souls in northern Castille. Perhaps it was well that they came when they did, rather than two centuries later when the Dominican Order was tarnished by its role in the Inquisition and a man of Fr. De Soto's breadth of understanding might not have been found, even in the larger towns and cities.
The people from the stars told him that they served the Galen, who had a millennium ago abducted their own ancestors. It had been an experiment, they said, and the Castillians were another experiment. They told him this, and much else, because he appeared to be the only one willing to listen. Because he was a Dominican as well as a scholar, the other Castillians heeded him, if grudgingly.
De Soto couldn't know that Aquinas would later be named a saint, and then a Doctor of the Church. But it was his faith and his reason that kept the community together during its first years in exile on a world they inevitably christened Nova Iberia. The Galens had another name for it, but the exiles ignored that. They were determined only to survive and, strangely to them, the Surrogates of the Galen seemed equally determined to assure their survival.
It wasn't just a matter of bringing the ova for domestic animals and seeds for basic Terran foods -- wheat, rye, barley, common fruits and vegetables. The Surrogates stayed to oversee the first birthings and the first plantings, even using strange machines to plow the first fields and providing simpler farm implements for the exiles to continue the task after they left -- not to mention a good supply of axes, saws, hammers and other tools. They marked the locations where iron ore and other raw materials could be found, so that the village blacksmith and other artisans could do their essential work.
But the Surrogates did more: they taught the exiles basic health and sanitation. They explained the germ theory of disease, and supplied microscopes with which Diego and the others could see bacteria for themselves. They explained why water for drinking and for bathing (an essential, they insisted) must be taken from upstream, and wastes discharged only downstream. There must be no open sewers in the streets, as in the cities of Spain. They left schematics for water systems and sewer systems that should be built as soon as the settlement was large enough to require them.
Many of the exiles questioned such notions at first, but Diego could see the reason in them. He knew of the ancient Roman aqueducts and sewers, he believed in the evidence of the senses -- what he saw in the microscopes and in the small dishes that demonstrated the growth of pathogens. The Surrogates might be evil, and it was surely evil that they had carried off his people from the only home they had ever known, the home they had loved. But these too were humans, whose ancestors had suffered the same fate. They were rational beings who, for whatever reason, seemed to have the exiles' interests in mind. Diego told them as much, and they assented.
Their new world was strange. None of the native plants and animals were familiar. The trees were sort of like conifers, except that the needles were broader, and branched almost like the ferns from which they had perhaps evolved.
Of mammals there were none, but their niches were filled by six-legged warm-blooded equivalents of reptiles -- except that some had fur. There were fish-like and crustacean-like creatures in the sea, for which the settlers had no names but soon invented them.
Yet the world was not altogether strange. There were fields and forests, and the fields proved suitable for the sheep that emerged from the breeding tanks. The land was empty, but it somehow reminded the settlers of the baldios the empty lands reconquered from the Moors that their own ancestors had settled barely a century before. Stone was stone and clay was clay and wood was wood; there were ample building materials for homes and storehouses and manufactories -- and the first church.
It seemed to amuse the Surrogates that Diego de Soto had insisted on bringing with him copies of the Bible and liturgical works and texts of philosophy rather than the few personal effects he and the others had been allowed. But it would be some time before they could produce ink and parchment, he reckoned -- and although he had memorized the Scriptures he dared not trust the fate of his people to that memory, lest some accident befall him.
The parish priest, Father Rojas, had nearly despaired. How were they to maintain the Church when they were cut off from the Holy See and even from their bishop? Who was to ordain new priests, how were the sacraments to be performed? And even were those obstacles overcome, how were they to observed the Sabbath or the church calendar when none knew when the Sabbath was, when the days and years were longer than on Earth and there were two moons in the sky?
"The Mass was made for man, not man for the Mass," de Soto proclaimed soon after the Landing. "All else proceeds from that." God might be testing his people, but he did not expect that which was impossible. Even on Earth, he argued, the existing calendar was out of step with the movements of the Heavens on which it was supposedly based; it had been reformed in Roman times and might be reformed again.
Of necessity, for they did not know the precise length of the day and year in Earthly terms, they must conform to natural law. Let the day of Landing be called Sunday, let the other days be named accordingly, let the winter solstice determine the celebration of Christmas and the vernal equinox that of Easter -- for the moons soon named Grande and Pequena were of no guidance. Let the rest of the church calendar be similarly adapted to the natural calendar of this world.
As for the Church itself and the Sacraments, they were eternal and must remain so. If the Jews could survive the destruction of the Temple and all that followed, so they could survive in their own exile. Yet the Church required a priesthood rather than rabbinate, and it would have such. Even as the apostles had more than a thousand years ago, they must establish and sanctify the institutions of the Church. None of them, however, could claim to hold the Keys to the Kingdom, and whatever they established here might one day be overturned by those on Earth who did.
Thus it was that Diego DeSoto and the first Stewards of the Church performed their ordinations and other necessary acts provisionally. The Surrogates seemed to view all this with wry detachment, or even amusement, for they made it clear that they believed in no god or gods but the Galen -- who were not in fact gods, they readily admitted, but might as well be, for they were very powerful and none could resist them.
Every few years, the Surrogates would return, bringing a fresh crop of Spaniards from one town or another. Diego wondered what those who came upon the empty houses and shops and farms made of the disappearances. Moorish raiders? The work of the Devil? He never learned. None of them did.
Nova Iberia welcomed the new arrivals, settled them in as best they could. Stewards of the Church always hoped for a bishop with the authority to confirm their provisional ordinations and other necessary acts, but none ever came to occupy the throne prepared for him in the Cathedral of St. Dominic -- which, technically, would not be a Cathedral at all until such time.
The last transport ship of the Surrogates arrived in what was reckoned to be 1395. But the Nova Iberians didn't know it was the last until six years later. That was when the Scalantrans showed up.
Nobody had told the Nova Iberians what to expect. The Surrogates had always been reticent about their own world, or any others.
There were indeed other civilized worlds, some inhabited by humans brought there by the Galen or their Surrogates, some by other races; and they were engaged in some sort of commerce. That was about all the people here had been told. Of even the Galen, they had gathered only that they must be fearsome indeed to hold the Surrogates in thrall.
Now, after years of isolation, another ship had finally landed on Nova Iberia. But the crowd that had gathered was aghast when they saw the beings that emerged, for they were unlike any race of man they had ever seen.
The aliens were at least two feet taller than normal men. Their very slender bodies were covered by fine, brick red fur. And their hands! The crowd was astonished to see six fingers on each hand with two opposable thumbs. Their eyes were very large and round and of a startling yellow color.
"They must be the Galen, come back to see how the colony is progressing," one of the people in the crowd murmured. That idea quickly spread, and the Nova Iberians felt a sudden anxiety that even the few priests among them could not calm.
One brave soul approached them.
"Welcome masters," he said. "We hope you approve of the colony that your Surrogates have planted here. They have taught us many things that have helped our colony to grow. But yours is the first ship to land here since they departed."
A loud rumbling sound that seemed to go on and on came from the aliens who heard this. The Nova Iberians were now not merely anxious but frightened. Were their visitors angry? Had that brave soul somehow offended them?
"Dont be afraid," said the alien in front, trying hard to control herself. "Thats the funniest thing Ive ever heard. Were not the Galens. We are simply traders known as Scalantrans."
The sighs of relief in the crowd were quite audible. But only one man seemed to know what to do next.
At the word traders Ricardo Sanchez quickly stepped forward.
"I am the first speaker of the local merchants guild and we will be happy to open negotiations with you."
Sanchez knew everything about trading; at least, he thought he did. The Surrogates had indicated that Nova Iberia would be opened to trade at some point, and become part of what they called the galactic community.
The Scalantrans brought with them miraculous things: lamps that glowed without fire, counting machines with little buttons and numerals in lights that were faster than any abacus. Cooking devices which, the traders explained, operated by the same principles. The regional factor general himself, who always accompanied first contact missions (as he called them) heartily recommended them. True, they were quite expensive, but .
Ricardo, a cordovaner who was eager to impress his new bride Ermesinda as well as his fellow merchants, quickly struck a deal for a few of these wonders although it cost him nearly all his stock of native leather.
When the miraculous devices ceased to operate after several months of heavy use, he soon lost his place as primer orador, being succeeded by a butcher who had been wise enough to trade his spiced meats (Terran and native) for a good supply of seed stocks for Terran vegetables that hadn't been brought by the abductees. He took pot luck, knowing nothing of them but their names and legendary reputations, but it was fortunate pot luck.
Even more fortunate was his deal for apple and clove trees -- and a hive of bees.
There was one matter in which the butcher was not fortunate: his wife. He had lusted after Emersinda, but lost her to Ricardo. She came from a good family, and an influential one. In the wake of Ricardo Sanchez' bankruptcy, they were able to secure an annulment on grounds that were dubious at best. But the family had made a substantial contribution towards completion of the Cathedral
By this time, the butcher had married another, and he was too pious a man to even consider putting her aside through such a maneuver as Emersinda's. Emersinda wedded a miller named Sancho Molina, and their eldest son and heir was named Gabriel.
Although the Stewards of the Church had adapted the Church calendar to the local year, they decided to reckon age, as closely as they could, in Terran years. As closely as they could reckon, the local year was about 1.35 Terran years.
The Scalantrans could have surely given them a more precise figure, but they seemed extremely reluctant to do so. "Earth is forbidden to us," they would say. "Furthermore, we do not involve ourselves in matters of the Galen and their Surrogates."
In any case, the Nova Iberians had quickly learned to be wary of the traders, after the unfortunate experience of Ricardo Sanchez. The Merchants Guild saw to it that the trade fairs were thereafter conducted on more equal terms. Hard bargaining and honest profits took precedence over all else, including calendar conversion. People must make do with what they had, as they always had.
It would hardly have done for those born on Nova Iberia to wait until the age of 21 in local years, about 28 in Terran years, to reach their majority. It was the same for the age of marriage -- Sancho Molina was only 17 in local years when he wed Emersinda, but 23 in estimated Terran years.
The Year of our Lord was still reckoned in Earth terms, notwithstanding the Sabbath and celebration of high holy days being governed by the local calendar of 12 arbitrary months with the same names as those on Earth. The scholars kept track of both calendars, but all that most Nova Iberians needed to know of the Terran count was the Year of Our Lord by which they celebrated birthdays and anniversaries.
Certainly Sancho and Ermesinda never concerned themselves with such things. With the arrival of the Scalantrans, the local calendar gained still greater importance, for that was the calendar by which the traders scheduled their visits. Only the last generation of abductees had ever seen Earth, and even they soon adjusted to things as they were on the world they must now accept as home.
Young Gabriel felt estranged from his parents. Ermesinda had made Sancho a cuckold on more than one occasion, although there was no doubt of his own paternity: father and son were too close in their appearance. Sancho tolerated his wife's transgressions, for he was infatuated with her and she never denied him. Only when she became fat with middle age did he lose interest in her, but by that time so had the other men.
Gabriel began to lose himself in books, and Sancho indulged him by enrolling him in the studium generale. There he learned of religion and philosophy and natural science -- the last turned him towards the inventiveness that would serve him well when he took the reins of the family business.
He might fault the scholars for their logic chopping, but they had made him what he was, in more ways than he might have acknowledged. Without intending it, the scholars had broadened his mind enough to accept Liz'bet on her own terms. If they had not already changed his life, she would never have had the chance to change it further.
When the time came, Ganriel encouraged Esteban in turn to attend the studium. But he did not have his father's temperament as his father. He listened to the lectures of Manuel Covarrubias, but rarely took part in disputations. What he took in only encouraged the skepticism he had absorbed from his father. Like his father, he believed in God, believed in redemption through Christ -- but doubted much of what the Church taught.
"You cannot do this," Liz'bet warned him. "You must not."
"I have no choice in the matter," Gabriel insisted. "The fate of our world is at stake. It may be too late to do anything, but our only chance lies in standing united. Don Alfonso surely realizes this, and therefore he will stand with us."
"Don Alfonso is a man without honor, without conscience. This I would know even without the counsel of Ju'lette."
"But he is a man with a strong sense of survival. The Aureans have no need of him, and he knows this. They could squash him like a bug and he knows it. His only chance is with us, and of a surety he knows that."
"Someone else could represent the Guild."
"I am Primer Orador. It is my responsibility. None other's."
"Let me come with you, at the least," Liz'bet begged.
"He will not bring Ju'lette," Gabriel reminded her. "We must meet on equal terms, or not at all. My men-at-arms will wait outside, and they will intervene if they must."
"He confides not in Ju'lette. That alone is cause for concern."
"As well I know. Yet I must trust that necessity will govern him tonight, even as it governs me."
"And if not?"
"Should anything unforeseen transpire, it is all the more essential that you be here. I trust the safety of my family and my retainers to you -- only to you. I am expendable and they are not. You are not."
"I love you," she said.
"And I you. It is in the name of that love that I ask this."
They kissed in parting, a long and tender kiss.
"I will see you again in two hours, three at the most," he promised before leaving for his fateful meeting.
When Beatriz came down to dinner with Aldonça and Constança, they wondered at Gabriel's absence. Esteban, who had been working on accounts in the study, did nothing to enlighten them.
"Urgent business, Doña," Liz'bet finally said -- the most that it was safe to say. She knew that Gabriel did not want his wife and daughters to worry about him.
Beatriz glared at her.
"Urgent indeed, to take him from home of an evening," she carped. "Could it not have been settled earlier?"
"I could not say, Doña."
"That is even more unbelievable."
Esteban tried belatedly to intervene.
"It is a matter of the Guild," he bluffed. "Surely you realize that there are matters that need to be addressed at this critical time."
"Leaving you free to address other business."
She glared again at Liz'bet. Aldonça and Constança blushed.
Esteban held his silence. There was nothing more he could say that wouldn't make things worse. The same for Liz'bet.
Conversation thereafter was limited to the food, served stoically by the house staff -- who ignored the chill at the table -- a chill that could not be relieved by even the lamb en adobo, the egg-leavened rosquillas, the cinnamon fruit rolls and, of course, the spiced wine.
Afterwards, all repaired elsewhere, save for Liz'bet, who stood watch in the entrance hall. Esteban would have remained by her side; he was the only other here to know of Gabriel's true errand this night. It was not a night for love, however much he might desire it.
Beatriz sat down with Aldonça and Constança in the family's private chapel to share the long wait. She was glad her daughters were with her to give her comfort, but knew that they were worrying about their own husbands and children. The North had seemed very distant two days before, their journey here a long one; but to these strange invaders, it was no distance at all.
She feared for her husband but felt safer with Lizbet there, although she could not really like Lizbet or be happy that she was part of their family. It was hard liking the woman who held the place in her husbands heart that she should have held. It was, of course, an arranged marriage, but Gabriel had always treated her well and with respect.
She had not been too unhappy when Gabriel stopped coming to her bed after Esteban was born. Gabriels lovemaking had always been more dutiful than passionate. She knew he had passion only for Lizbet. How could she compete with a woman as beautiful as Lizbet? And as she grew older, Lizbet never changed, only seemed to grow more beautiful.
Still, she would have liked to have another son. She had prayed for that once. Now her only prayers were for Gabriel and for the children she had been blessed with, for all the other disappointments of her life. She led Constança and Aldonça in the Pater Noster, and together they prayed the Rosary -- instituted by St. Dominic and brought to this world by Diego de Soto.
Esteban prayed in his own room and in his own manner, for his relationship with his father's Companion had estranged him from the others.
Liz'bet had no prayers for Skietra. She had never believed that the Galen were gods. There were no gods to protect the man she loved, or the family she had come to love -- although she hardly dared show that, for she knew it to be unseemly. She was their only protection, his only protection. And he was without it this night.
Protectors. That was what some were calling the Companions now, Ju'lette had told her when they'd first met at a festival. They'd had little chance to talk, then or since, for Alfonso was jealous of her, and held her as close to home as he could by Contract.
Still, she had learned some things. There had already been worlds attacked by the Empire, although far distant from here. Companions there had fought back: not on behalf of the worlds themselves, but on behalf of the families they had often served for three or four generations.
As she and Ju'lette would surely have to fight here, albeit Ju'lette might not know that yet. It was what the meeting tonight was really about, she knew: with Don Alfonso on their side, there would be no impediment to Ju'lette coming over.
But she didn't trust the Pretender. She didn't even trust him to look after his rational self interest, as Gabriel did. She hoped that Gabriel was right. She would have prayed for that, had she believed in prayer.
She knew the worst had happened when Betan troopers broke down the front door
They met in a stable, a place inconspicuous, unlikely to attract attention from the Aureans, and therefore presumably safe. There were doors at opposite ends, each guarded by a few men-at-arms who had arrived from nearby taverns and affected to be drinking.
Nothing had been disturbed. The horses were in their stalls, the straw and hay lay where they were needful, and there was the odor of dung all about. Don Alfonso arrived dressed in all his finery, notwithstanding the primitive conditions. Gabriel Molina wore the plainer attire of the merchant glass.
"They will listen to you?" Alfonso opened.
"One has to earn their respect to be chosen primer orador," Gabriel responded. "This I have striven to do, and strive yet to do, for their confidence is as easily lost as gained. Can you say the same for the nobles?"
The merchant prince forbore to invest any tone of irony in the term, although the "nobles" allied with Don Alfonso were little more than grandees whose fiefs had been grants assigned by the Founders. What wealth they had was gotten from the sweat of their tenants' brows.
It had become harder to keep tenants of late, now that they had opportunities to be freeholders in the North. This had become an issue between the nobles and merchants in the Cortes, but it was an issue that must be set aside tonight.
"The nobles will defer to their liege," the Pretender said now.
Gabriel ignored his royal pretensions.
"Then we must come to the principal object of our discussion: the Companions."
"Indeed," Alfonso agreed.
"Liz'bet believes that she could defeat their general, but she is not certain. Were she to act in concert with Ju'lette, however, the outcome would be swift and sure. What has Ju'lette to say of the matter?"
"I have not discussed it with her. As I interpret her Indenture, it might be illegal for her to involve herself in this matter."
"That is not what I have been told by Liz'bet. There are matters not covered by the Standard Contract, yet made known to all Companions by the High Council itself. There are Exceptions to their neutrality, and none clearer than that we face tonight."
Alfonso seemed to be nervous; he was fiddling with a pendant on his chest.
"Now that I grasp how things stand, I can indeed appreciate the need for an alliance. But are you certain that these Exceptions have not changed in all the years since Liz'bet's arrival?"
Should he mention that it was only from Ju'lette that Liz'bet herself knew, and had told him, that the relevant Exception had been instituted only recently? He chose the path of caution.
"Given even what little we knew of the Empire and its aggressive policy until only these past two days, I cannot imagine that the Exceptions -- this Exception -- would be tightened. I am confident that Ju'lette, when you put the question to her, will confirm this."
"And once we eliminate the General?"
"The Betans will be no problem. Nor will any ships the Aureans have in orbit, can they but be attacked without warning."
Was it his imagination, or had the jewel on the pendant actually lit faintly?
"There is another party to this discussion," Alfonso suddenly announced.
The rear door of the stable burst open, and a menacing figure strode through.
"Treachery!" Gabriel shouted as he recognized General Tsander.
The merchant prince's men-at-arms rushed in. With drawn blades of the finest Iberian steel, they leapt in front of Gabriel and assailed the Prime. Tsander stood there and took their hardest blows for a moment, then dispatched them with his fists. Gabriel could hear their skulls crack and their bones break.
"Swear fealty to me, and I will even now spare the lives of you and yours," Alfonso offered.
Gabriel didn't believe it for a moment. In any case, there was nothing to be gained in the long run by bowing down to this cur.
"You fancy yourself a king, but you are nothing but a lapdog to this creature," he said now. "Can you do nothing by yourself, or even for yourself? You have always left your trading to others. Now it appears you must leave even your killing to others."
"I think that our conversation is at an end," said the Pretender. "Let the Emperor's will be done. Here and in this upstart's household."
General Tsander advanced on Gabriel.
Liz'bet, he thought at the last. She'll protect them. She'll know what to do.
There came excruciating pain. Then merciful release.
There had been another vigil that night, a longer one
Julette paced in her quarters, her mind in a turmoil. It had been drummed into her on Velor that her duty was to serve as concubine to her master and to protect him and his household.
But did they ever expect her to be indentured to such a monster? There must be some limit to what she was expected to do. Alfonso did not need to be protected. The world needed to be protected from him.
Yet she was sworn to this man, who had left tonight without a word, without even staying for dinner -- a dinner that had grown cold, for none dared sit to table without him. The servants had eventually cleared away the plates and the platters, thrown away the food they had prepared for their master. The servants took pity on Almeida and Ysabel, sharing their own simple fare with the master's wife and daughter.
Alfonso had wanted a son, as all men did. When Almeida had presented him instead with a girl, he had taken to beating her severely. He hadn't known when to stop, even in the name of his patriarchal dream: she had suffered a miscarriage last year, and he had not been able to get her with child since. He fucked her savagely now, as if by further violence his seed could take root.
It was the same with Ju'lette, save that Alfonso could not harm her, even with the instruments of torture and humiliation he had lately employed. She hated it that her own body, lying on the extravagant imported furs with which he bedecked his bed, betrayed her: that she responded as her kind had been engineered to respond. Yet she could never feel one with him, or even one with herself -- it was as if part of her, the real part, was watching the other with cold detachment.
She thought of Lizbet. She sensed that Lizbets relationship to her master was not at all like her own. She seemed to care deeply for Gabriel and his son Esteban. There was no one in Alfonsos family to care for, though she did feel sorry for his wife and daughter. She dared not care for them, for it would go even harder for them were her master ever to suspect.
And now the Enemy was at the gates. Within the gates. She might yet have to defend the household against them, for the sake of Almeida and Ysabel and the servants if not for that of Alfonso. She wanted to seek out Lizbet and help her liberate this world from the Aureans. But her first duty was here.
It was long past midnight, and still no sign of Alfonso, when there was a knock at the front door. Ju'lette was quick to answer, for Almeida and the rest were long abed, and she would not have their slumber interrupted.
It was Liz'bet.
"Your master has betrayed us to the Aureans," she said. "The Exception now applies, the Exception whereof you told me."
It was only because he had assumed the Aureans already knew about her that Alfonso had neglected to tell them about Liz'bet. That came back to haunt him now.
"Twenty of my troopers died tonight, all at her hands. And now she cannot be found. Neither can anyone in the Molina household. Even the in-laws in town have mysteriously disappeared. And Ju'lette?"
"She is quite loyal to me," Alfonso assured him. "You need have no concern about her. Unless, perhaps, you should choose to treat me otherwise than befits my station. Such an eventuality would profit neither of us, I'm sure you'll agree."
"If it were up to me, your kind would be taken in hand for utter extermination. But the Emperor, praised be his name, has other ideas. Therefore I shall suffer you to become his vassal, and you and your so-called nobles can play your little games and live off the substance of the merchants -- that has been your intention all along, has it not?"
"So long as we are allowed that indulgence, I shall be content. As shall you."
"Quite," said the Prime. "Of course, there is the matter of receiving the blessing of your Church for your new position here. As for the merchants, those who trade with our enemies the Scalantrans ."
"Our mutual enemies," Alfonso confirmed. "They shall suffer for their pride and their insolence. As for the Church, I believe that it will hardly have a choice in the matter. Even the Holy See on Earth, was ever willing to recognize the realities of temporal power. And my esteemed brother-in-law Manuel is, after all, a Prelate as well as a Scholar."
"A scholar yet to be schooled in reality."
"Oh, they are very clever, these scholars. They can argue any point, this way and that, and justify any conclusion they choose. It was they who preserved the Church, with the Stewards and the perpetually provisional ordinations of Priests and Deacons and the provisional Calendar. Everything is provisional, you see, and they pray night and day that they not be held in Error by the Holy Father -- should he ever hear of them.
"Will they pray also for the Emperor?"
"With God's Stewards, all things are possible. They are practical men, you see, and have always found practical solutions to impractical problems. And it is written in the Scripture, 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.'"
"An ancient Emperor, on Earth."
A blinking light appeared on the device Tsander carried, in principle just like the far-speakers of the Scalantrans or the Pendant that the Prime had given him the day before.
Tsander answered the call, listened to whoever was speaking. His expression became one of anger and contempt as he broke off and turned his attention once more to Alfonso the would-be vassal.
"Ju'lette is nowhere to be found, nor are Almeida and Ysabel," he announced. "You are evidently an even greater fool than I had taken you for. It seems that I must summon the other ships sooner than I had anticipated.
Gabriel Molina's old travelling fort had found a new use that night.
Beatriz and her children and Almeida and her daughter had been told they must flee for their lives. The Molinas had needed no convincing after the attack on their home, and knew where the fort was stored. Almeida, after all that Alfonso had done to her, needed little.
Ju'lette herself bore Almeida and Ysabel through the air to the fort; the Molinas made their way by foot -- but dressed in servants' clothing. Liz'bet took over from there.
None knew the destination, only that the sooner they reached it the better; for most of them were nauseous from the rocking of the vehicle. Haste was essential, and not only to secure the families' escape. As Liz'bet carried the fort, Ju'lette had already headed into space to deal with the Aurean ships. Liz'bet must join her there as soon as possible.
Their destination turned out to be a cave on a small island off the coast of the Mar del Este. Fishermen allied to the Merchants Guild used the island to dry and salt the native fish, which weren't unlike the forgotten species of Earth. They had no use for the cave, and were willing to shelter the fugitives.
But the conditions were strict. They must remain out of sight, she had instructed them, after dropping the fort into the depths of the sea and having a few words with the fishermen. Only the smallest of fires, out of sight of the entrance, would be allowed -- the fishermen would supply food and, if need be, blankets or heavier clothes.
Then she left them and soared into the sky to join the battle in the heavens. Esteban, ignoring her orders, had remained outside -- as if there were something he could do there, as if he could somehow play the man. Although he knew he was helpless, he did not want to show it before the women.
Only in Liz'bet lay their chance for vengeance, or even survival. At that moment, he could not tell whether he loved or hated her. Part of him shouted that she should have saved his father. But another part reminded him that his father had been a proud man and a stubborn one, and had chosen his own course even at the end. And even the part that hated Liz'bet could not forget her body, her embraces.
In the dank cave, it was going worse for the women.
Beatriz and Almeida barely knew each other, for Alfonso had shunned the company of the merchants and insisted that his family do likewise. They hardly knew what to say to each other now, and conversation got off to an awkward start.
They huddled there in their wraps, trying to keep warm. Almeida sat with her arms around Ysabel, trying to give the five-year old a little comfort. Beatriz sat a little way off with Aldonça and Constança.
What can I possibly say to her, thought Almeida. My husband has betrayed hers to the Aureans and now he is dead. Would that it were the other way around! I have heard that Gabriel Molina is a good and honorable man. How unlike Alfonso, who would betray us all to be king!
"Señora Molina I beg of you, do not condemn me," she said tentatively. "I abhor the actions of my husband."
"I understand, Doña Almeida," Beatriz answered, trying to soothe the younger woman, who was, after all, closer to her daughters age than her own. "If you were like him, you would have stayed by his side and been his Queen."
And then, using her status as the elder, she said "And since, for a while, we must live together in this cave in very intimate circumstances, let us drop the formalities and be just Beatriz and Almeida."
"You are too kind, Beatriz," she sighed. "Even if he would make me Queen, he would not treat me any better. He would only have more power; power to hurt more people. No, he must be stopped."
She was becoming agitated and this caused Ysabels fear to increase. Even in the flickering light of the tiny fire, they could see it.
Aldonça, thinking to distract the frightened Ysabel, said "Look Ysabel, look at that cute little creature, with the soft fur. He has six legs. Or maybe he has four legs and two hands! See how he holds his little hands together just like hes praying!"
"Why, Ysabel," added Almeida, calming down a little. "Hes looking right at you. I think hes praying for you."
"Do you think so, Mama?" she replied. "I hope hes praying that well be able to leave this horrid cave soon and I can go home and play outside. Thats what Im praying for."
Manuel Covarrubias was at that hour praying in his chamber.
Word had reached him of what had taken place in the city the past night, for the Cburch had its watchers and its runners. Even before the invaders had made their first move, with the connivance of the Pretender, some of his young auditors had come seeking counsel.
This morning the Pretender, now styling himself King Alfonso, had come before the Stewards, seeking their blessing for him and for the Aureans. There was to be a coronation, and the blessing of the Church was sought for that as well.
The Stewards had determined to accede to their demands, for the sake of the Church.
Manuel would not accede.
The Stewards reproached him for his stubbornness. On Earth, they reminded him, even the popes had bowed to political reality.
Manuel reminded them of what Thomas had written of tyranny:
If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power restricted by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses the royal power. It must not be thought that such a multitude is acting unfaithfully in deposing the tyrant, even though it had previously subjected itself to him in perpetuity, because he himself has deserved that the covenant with his subjects should not be kept, since, in ruling the multitude, he did not act faithfully as the office of a king demands.
Alfonso was not a tyrant, the Stewards maintained. Manuel responded that the signs were already clear with the dissolution of the Concejo and that, in any case, the Pretender -- as he still chose to call him -- had not been given power by the multitude, but only by his lackeys in service to a foreign power. Had the Church ever accommodated the Moors in such a fashion?
"The Stewards have made their decision," said the Chief Steward, a man named Juan Benitez who was pleased to sit on the smaller throne of the Cathedral. "Our decision is final, and it binds all. It binds you."
"Your decision is provisional, as are all decisions of the Stewards. Surely you have not forgotten this."
"If that be the case, then surely we could rescind your provisional ordination."
The threat was obvious. Manuel demurred, letting Benitez and other Stewards make of that what they might.
"Your word is respected, among the people as well as the scholars," Benitez told him now. "You were therefore made chief Prelate of the Cathedral. In three days comes the Sabbath, and you must keep the trust we have placed in you. Your homily must be true to the faith and to the counsel of the Stewards."
Their counsel was godless, he knew, and therefore of no account. Now he could seek counsel only from the Almighty. He gave the Stewards a bow of dismissal, letting them make what they would of that too.
His words thereafter were directed to the Lord.
God of my fathers, bow Thine ear to me,
Turn not away the light of Thy countenance,
Leave me not lonely in my misery,
Sore is my heart and sorrow overwhelmeth me.
O hear the voice of my complaining!
Terrors of death are fallen upon me,
Hide not Thyself from my supplication.
Hatred and wrath of wicked men oppress me.
O that I had but wings like a dove!
I would fly away far into the wilderness;
If to my prayer, Lord, Thou hadst attended,
long, long ago far hence I would have wandered.
Better it were to dwell in the desert,
Better to hide me deep in the forest,
Than live with wicked liars and traitors
Who will not suffer that I should speak the truth!
During the following day, there was word of further outrages in the city, of searches for kin of the Molinas who had gone into hiding, of servants tortured and put to the sword when they failed to tell the whereabouts of their masters.
The next morning Manuel Covarrubias gave the Stewards their answer.
"I will speak as the Lord commands," he told them. "I will speak as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church commands."
Liz'bet had been unused to space when she first arrived at Nova Iberia, but she had had three decades since to master it. She had basked in the sun's corona many a time, explored the moons of the planet, and visited other planets in the system.
She had drawn a map for Ju'lette, showing where they were to meet on Grande, the larger moon. It was large enough to have an atmosphere -- unbreathable to humans, but enough to carry sound. Liz'bet knew nothing of the sign language that had been taught to later generations of Companions.
Ju'lette had not only been taught that language, but trained in space combat. Things had changed in the galaxy in 33 years, and Velor too had changed. There had been rumors of war from the Scalantrans; Liz'bet had heard them for years. But the reality of which Ju'lette had now told her went far beyond the wildest rumors. Had the Aureans not landed here, she might have disbelieved.
She believed now. She believed Ju'lette.
"I have destroyed the ship in orbit," Ju'lette told her through the thin air of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. "The Aureans aground will know this, but they will not deign to tell the Terrans. No matter; the wreck itself will tell them when it enters the atmosphere."
Terrans. That was what they were calling all descendants of Earthfolk now, wherever they might be found.
"I calculated the descent vector carefully," Ju'lette continued now. "What's left of the ship will crash in the Mar del Este, far from any inhabited place. But not before passing over Nueva Lugina. The fireball should be impressive."
Ju'lette could talk so matter-of- factly about mass death and destruction.
"There will be at least one more warship making its way here from the wormhole," the younger companion continued. "They will be on full alert. I anticipate that there will be enough work for both of us."
"How long?" Liz'bet asked.
"Days. Perhaps a week. Even at our speed."
"What happens groundside happens. Except we destroy their other ships, and the Primes they carry, all is lost. We are lost, and the Terrans are left without protection."
It was indeed three days before they encountered an Aurean cruiser, inbound from the wormhole at full speed -- which was not as fast as Velorians could fly, else their work could have begun sooner.
This was no converted Scalantran freighter, Liz'bet could tell. It was huge and black and ominous, studded with ugly protuberances that Ju'lette had explained were weapons ports. She had had to explain everything in advance on Grande, attempting to cover every contingency, for there could be no communication here save a few hand signals that she had managed to teach the older Velorian on short notice.
"Suscipe, Sancte Pater; Offerimus Tibi, Domine; In spiritu; Veni sanctificator; Suscipe, Sancta Trinitas, Orate fratres, Suscipiat."
Manuel Covarrubias, Prelate of the Cathedral of St. Dominic, prayed to the Father that the Host be acceptable, and that the faithful take blessing from the Holy Communion to come.
The Cathedral was filled this Sunday, the chief Steward occupying the Lesser Throne and the other Stewards the seats immediately before the apse. The Stewards had revived the old tradition of the faithful bringing bread and wine to the altar, to be blessed and then shared by all. But the Stewards themselves were first to take Communion.
When it came time for the homily, the Stewards were rapt with anticipation, for their will was about to be done -- they were certain of it. But as the Prelate took his text from the 54th Psalm, their faces began to take a troubled look.
Praecipita Domine divide linguas eorum quoniam vidi iniquitatem et contradictionem in civitate. Die et nocte circumdabit eam super muros eius et iniquitas et labor in medio eius et iniustitia et non defecit de plateis eius usura et dolus.
(Cast them down, O Lord, and divide their tongues; for I have seen violence and strife in the city. Day and night shall iniquity surround it upon its walls: and in the midst thereof is wickedness. And injustice and usury and deceit have not departed from its streets.)
Perhaps the reference to usury was meant as a condemnation of the moneylenders and the merchant class they served, but the Stewards doubted it. The man who would be King Alfonso doubted it even more, whispering to one of his courtiers -- who, violating the propriety of the Mass, slipped away down the aisle and out the door.
There was no doubt of Manuel's intent when he condemned godless conquerors from the sky, and he spoke as a man possessed when he invoked the power of the Almighty against them.
"Smite them with destruction! Oh Lord and slay them, and let thy judgment fall heavy on them. Cut down this people, Lord in Thine anger. Send out Thy truth, let unbelievers perish!"
The faithful, even those most opposed to the Aureans and to Alfonso, were shocked by his words. But there was a greater shock to come as the doors were thrown open and General Tsander stormed in, flanked by two of his troopers.
The troopers drew their strange weapons and aimed them at the Prelate. There was a thunderclap as beams of blinding light flashed out, and Manuel's head exploded in blood and fire behind the altar. The twin beams also destroyed an icon of Christ Crucified on the far wall of the apse and bored through the wall itself.
What was left of the Prelate fell to the floor.
"Thus perish all enemies of King Alfonso and of the Emperor of Mankind," Tsander declared in the stricken silence that a moment later yielded to cries and screams of panic. "Let the Stewards of your Church do them homage, as is their station."
"Blasphemy! Blasphemy!" cried Chief Steward Benitez from the Lesser Throne, his deepest instincts overcoming his weak will.
The troopers struck him down with a second round of fire and thunder, destroying the throne behind him and a further part of the wall. The remaining Stewards cowered in their seats.
Before Tsander could say more, there was a far louder thunderclap -- so powerful that it seemed to shake the cathedral itself -- and a strange red-orange light appeared through the stained glass windows. Had the invaders brought an earthquake, many of the faithful wondered?
Some had already fled through the side doors, and seen above the city a great fireball. There was one among them, a young scholar, who had a small telescope on his person. As the fireball broke up in its path eastwards over the Mar del Este, he later reported, he could see that some of the fragments were clearly artificial.
It was another starship, somehow come to grief.
The third ship, a billion miles away, was about to come to grief.
Its commander had been warned, obviously, or that ship would not have been here rather than guarding the wormhole. But what was the extent of the warning? Would they be on the alert for one Velorian or two?
The test would be whether they brought all their weapons to bear on the first of them to make an approach. The battleship was a new generation design, known to Ju'lette, with the bridge and the engine room alike deeply protected by deck upon deck devoted to other functions.
Following their pre-arranged plan, Ju'lette headed for the section behind the prow that concealed the bridge. She was detected almost immediately, and targeted with missiles and laser beams. Aurean weaponry was not yet sufficiently advanced to threaten a Prima Vel. The warheads -- those she didn't evade -- exploded harmlessly against her invulnerable body, while the lasers served only to further empower her as their energy was converted to orgone.
With all weapons fully engaged against Ju'lette, the older but less-experienced Liz'bet made her move, heading for the stern and the engine room. She too was soon detected, but by then her ally had already punched through the hull -- ordinary steel, for the Vendorian alloy was yet unknown to the enemy -- and was boring her way inwards to the bridge. When the bridge fell to her, internal communications were disrupted and the gunners were unable to react.
Liz'bet wondered what it would feel like to dive into the steel structure of the ship. At attack speed, Ju'lette had said, nothing could resist her. But she knew nothing to which she might compare the experience. If she had, she might have said that it was like running through a thicket of ferns, or several rows of laundry hanging on a line. The steel hull and deck plates brushed against her like ferns or bedsheets, and were easily pushed aside. But it was what she saw rather than what she felt that nearly unnerved her.
The glimpses were brief but telling: helpless Betans being sucked from the outer decks by the explosive decompression of her entry, some clinging desperately to any handhold they could find -- even though they were doomed in any case by anoxia. Then troops on inner decks trying fitfully to mount a resistance -- a few of them slashed by shards of metal -- even though they faced the same fate as the air rushed out the holes she had smashed through the bulkheads. Lastly the more organized but still futile defense of the engine room -- the defenders roasted alive by the meltdown of the engines themselves when she penetrated their housings.
Her deadly work done, she retreated the way she had come and rendezvoused with Ju'lette outside. The younger Companion had somehow already found time to locate and destroy all the escape craft. It was cruel but necessary, she had explained: the Betans were of no account, but she dared not give a single Prime the chance to reach the planet and join forces with Tsander.
As they began to speed back towards Nova Iberia, Liz'bet glanced back briefly for a last look at their handiwork. From a distance, the damage didn't seem that great, but the ship was now only a derelict. Its officers and crew were doomed; even if the air and water held out and could be recycled in the unbreached sections, they would eventually die of starvation. Perhaps they would even go mad and kill each other before that.
Yet, as much as she pitied the Aureans trapped in the drifting hulk, she also feared for what their kind were doing groundside. They must know by now that they were cut off, and their desperation must lead them to desperate measures. She could not forget what Tsander had done to the man she loved out of cold calculation, and what he might yet do to the others she had come to love. She must not fail them, must not.
Most of the population had fled the city, taking with them what food they could and perhaps hoping to live off the land if it came to that. But they didn't think it would come to that.
They had seen the sign in the sky, and word had soon spread that the destruction of the Aurean ship must be the work of the Velorian women. Few had ever seen Liz'bet and fewer still Ju'lette, but everyone knew about them.
They must be mad, Tsander thought. They would have been safer here under Aurean protection than in the wild -- a fact that he had tried to underscore by sending shuttles to strafe the refugees wherever they could be found. But the Scalantran shuttles were made for escape rather than combat. They had been fitted with Aurean weapons, but they were still inefficient.
In any case, the Nova Iberians had scattered into the forests, and the shuttles' jury-rigged heat sensors could find only a few at any given location. It was a time-consuming process to criss-cross the fields and forests seeking human targets.
Tsander decided after two days of this to launch a surprise attack on the granjas and rancheros of El Norte, but these turned out to be deserted: the people there having been forewarned by the semaphore system -- of which he had known nothing. He had ordered the mills and granaries there fire-bombed.
Alfonso El Audaz (the Fearless), as the Pretender now styled himself, held court in his palacio, as he now styled his ostentatious home outside the city. His first act as king, although there was yet to be a formal coronation, had been to annex the remaining ejidos in the vicinity to his own estate. He had granted titles to his hangers-on, and promised them estates of their own on lands taken from traitors.
Let him play his little game, Tsander thought. I must prepare for a greater game.
Liz'bet and Ju'lette arrived in Nueva Lugina naked, which was only to be expected -- given that their local clothing had burned away in the atmosphere within moments of their departure from the planet to do battle in space.
Still, it was disconcerting to see them descend naked onto the main thorofare outside Aurean headquarters in what had been a hotel. The Betan troopers hesitated for a moment to turn their weapons on such incredible beauty. But discipline took hold, and they rose to the occasion as best they could.
Their best was, of course, completely futile. The Companions, moreover, were angry -- and in a hurry to reach the Prime responsible for the atrocities they had not been here to prevent. They ignored the bullets and energy beams that rebounded from their magnificent bodies, even those that targeted their most intimate areas. As they passsed by, the Companions mesmnerized them with their beauty, from the muscle tone of their arms and legs to their incredible breasts -- so round and firm, and crowned by nipples that were gloriously erect from the stimulation they had just received. Only the smudges from the bullets marred the golden flesh, which the Betans could now see was as flawless as it was invulnerable.
One of the troopers nearly swooned at the sight. The others were overcome with lust from the pheromones that wafted from the two superwomen. Yet they were still afraid to reach out and touch them -- which was just as well, as they would have been sorely disappointed. Ignoring the troopers, the Companions entered the building.
Unfortunately, Liz'bet and Ju'lette were also disappointed. General Tsander was not at his headquarters. He was nowhere to be found. But he had left something for them to find. And as they saw it, they heard the sound of the Scalantran ship preparing for liftoff.
I should have landed the warship in the first place, Vadim Tsander thought.
That would have been standard Imperial procedure. But Tsander had been impatient with standard procedure.
Capturing the Scalantran trader had been a stroke of luck, for the Empire had not been familiar with the schedule of its visits to Nova Iberia. The Empire had despised the Scalantrans ever since the First Strike, and it had thus pleased him to humiliate them by turning one of their own trading ships to the Imperial cause.
His motivation had been lost on the people of this planet, who knew nothing of the First Strike the sneak attack the traders had launched against the Aurean homeworld before it had been the seat of an Empire, before the Aureans had awakened to their destiny.
Scalantrans had no place in the scheme of things, and when the Empire had succeeded in its quest to unite Greater Humanity, they would have no place among the living.
Still, it had been necessary to keep a few of Scalantrans alive on the ship the crewmen who understood the workings of the engines and the bridge. The traders themselves had been killed, and rightly so their alien mockery of the humanoid form was an abomination, not to be tolerated.
The crewmen on the bridge sat meekly in their oversize flight seats, their hands near the controls. Those controls were designed only for their hands patterned round slots for their fingers and double thumbs.
Thumbs and fingers reached where humans could not, and all six digits were necessary to enter the codes the codes by which this ship lived and breathed and moved. There were similar slotted boards in the engine room, and the Scalantrans there could somehow read through them the codes that the bridge crew tapped in here.
It was what lay between the bridge and the engine room that mattered now: the holds where the hostages from the city were kept. Tsander had left a video on endless replay at his ground headquarters where the Velorians were sure to see it.
The Nova Iberians themselves had been corrupted by these mock-humanoids, and by their strange religion it was unusual for an Earthly faith to survive on one of the Harvest worlds. Parochial beliefs were usually shattered by the reality of the Galen and their Surrogates.
Whatever the cause, it had blinded the Nova Iberians to their true nature and to their destined role in Greater Humanity. Even before the return of the Velorians, they had proved obdurate. Some of the most obdurate were now at his mercy, and surely the Companions would now be forced to allow his escape for their sake.
Tsander regretted having had to deceive the Betans defending his headquarters in the city, but it was only here that he could serve the Empire. He could return to Aurea with the hostages, and organize a new attack.
From the Scalantrans, he expected no trouble. In that he was mistaken. As devious in war as in trade, they were only awaiting their chance.
That chance came when, pompous as ever, he decided shortly after takeoff to visit the holds and lord it over the hostages, telling them with great relish of the fate that awaited them -- labor gangs for the men, sex slavery for the women..
The Scalantrans could monitor his movements and spring their trap -- sealing off a section of the corridor and showering it with gold bullion from a hidden compartment. They waited until they were certain that Tsander was helpless, then sent in a team to bind him with gold chains. They loaded him into an escape pod, and programmed it to plunge into the sun.
After that they returned to Nova Iberia, shadowed by the Companions, who had been looking for an opening to attack the ship without risking innocent lives. They no longer needed to, they now learned. But the Scalantrans wanted to give them the credit just the same.
"It is a defense of last resort," their captain explained. "One that can rarely be used, and never used again should the Aureans learn of it. We urge you to report that you were able to enter the ship and overcome the Prime. It will be better for all concerned."
The Velorians quickly assented, but Ju'lette had a hidden agenda, beyond the immediate issue.
The Scalantrans could be useful, she thought. I must alert the High Council and Senate.
When they returned to Nueva Lugina, they discovered that a mob had taken another problem out of their hands. Alfonso and his retainers had been dragged from the palacio. Beaten to death and dragged through the streets. The corpses were strung up and left to hang like sides of beef.
He had not died fearlessly; of that they were assured.
Ju'lette seemed disappointed that the task of dealing with the Pretender, as with the Prime, had not been left to her.
Liz'bet, on the other hand, was relieved.
"It is over," one of the fishermen had told them that afternoon when he came with their food for the evening. "You can show yourselves now. We can arrange transportation for your return home."
Esteban pressed the fisherman for more details.
"The enemy commander is dead," he was told. "The Pretender is also dead. So we have been told by a runner, who knew little more than that when he set out for our village at the request of your household. Most of your servants survive, he was informed, and there has been little further damage to your home since the night of the first attack."
That first attack, Esteban knew, had never gotten past the reception area. Lizbet had killed the Betan invaders methodically, giving no quarter. Some of the troopers had hoped to kill or wound her charges by firing into the upper story of the house, but she had been too fast for them moving like lightning to block their blasts and beams with her body, then to destroy the weapons and their wielders.
"I would have saved Gabriel," she said afterwards. "But he would not allow it. I could have stopped him; but long ago he granted me my own freedom, and I could not take his. He was a man of dignity and courage and great love, and none of these things could I betray."
It had seemed a feeble excuse at the time. He had been angry then, angry at her and even at himself. Surely he should have intervened himself, he had known that his father was going into danger and yet done nothing, said nothing. Strange that he had been stayed by the same respect for his father that had stayed the Companion
There had been no time that night for self-examination or self-recrimination. Escape came before all else. But during his exile here, there had been time for remembrance and reflection.
Esteban had desired Liz'bet for as long as he had known the meaning of desire. She had been an open secret in the household.
To his mother and sisters, she had been the object of a jealousy and resentment they could never acknowledge -- a burden to be suffered in silence. To him, she had been an unattainable goddess.
From puberty, he had understood her relationship with his father -- known that she was not simply an advisor or business manager. It was something Gabriel had never spoken of openly.
It was on his 16th birthday that things had changed.
"It is time for you to become a man," his father told him then.
He had already been working with Gabriel in the milling business, learning the finances and the technology. That had brought him into greater contact with Liz'bet. He had tried to hide his desire, but he feared that he had not -- and that they would be offended, or even outraged.
It was a custom in some families that, if a son were still a virgin at 16, his father would retain the services of a courtesan for the evening. But there had been no hint of such in his case. That night, the night after his birthday celebration. Esteban had retired to his chamber as usual -- and found Liz'bet waiting for him.
"Your father sent me," she said to silence his qualms.
When they began to make love, he was so excited that he came before he could enter her; but she silenced his embarrassment as she had silence his qualms -- praising the taste of his semen as she lapped it up. She had him ready to go again in no time, and proceeded to teach him all the myriad ways of being a man by pleasing a woman.
He ached for her again now, he realized. Wandering away from the others, he stopped at the edge of the island, and stood gazing across the water, gazing into the sky -- as if his eyes could somehow draw her to him.
While Esteban was thinking of Liz'bet, Beatriz and her daughters thought only of their freedom -- of the sun and the sky that were now open to them, and of the road home that would soon also be open.
But as the day waned, Beatriz also took thought for Almeida, who was playing with Ysabel on the beach below the bluff on which she stood. Would they even have a home to go to? Would they be welcome in Nueva Lugina?
It was long past dark when Liz'bet arrived, floating invisible from the sky until the light of the campfire caught her. She told Esteban and the women that, if they chose, she could recover the fort from its watery grave and transport them home in the same manner that they had been brought here.
"I think not," Beatriz said. "The cave was dank enough, and the fort will be danker still, and doubtless smelling of fowl creatures. Moreover, the journey here in that conveyance was necessary; even the discomfort was necessary. Such will not be the case in returning to our homes."
The other women heartily agreed. The fishermen had said that a boat would come for them in the morning, and that a coach would take them from the village to the capital.
Liz'bet wore mannish attire, which she explained was more suitable for flight than any sort of dress. She had much to tell Esteban, but she could see that he was tired. She urged him to get some sleep, as the others were, and he attempted to comply. But he slept only fitfully, for his thoughts were of her.
She could tell that as she stood watch, a watch that was no longer necessary. His pants could not conceal his desire from her eyes. When he awakened again, in the wee hours of the morning, she approached him.
"We could begin our own journey now," she told him. "You could be home that much sooner."
"Today or tomorrow? Who gives a flying fuck?"
She whispered in his ear, and could see the delight on his face and between his legs, as she disrobed and invited him to do the same.
Grande and Pequeña both hung in the western sky as they rose together from the island, and the first hint of dawn showed in the east. Below them Esteban could see nothing but the tiny lights of the fishing village on the far shore.
Liz'bet held him firmly yet lightly; he knew he was safe in her arms for the journey back to Nueva Lugina. They were face to face in the darkness, and he could feel her magnificent breasts against his chest, her legs twined about his, her arms around his back, holding him close. He could smell as well as feel her. It was too much!
She could feel him too, his raging cock against her belly. She had to do something about that, and she knew she could. The same volatai that gave her the power of flight gave her the leverage she needed. She wriggled against him seductively to signal her intent, then shifted her hold just enough to allow her to engulf him, to take him to the hilt.
Esteban's cry of surprise and delight emboldened her, and she began a series of loops in the air as she thrust against him. She blessed him, and she blessed the thin circlet of white gold about her waist that let her take him without harm, let her experience the delicious stretching sensation of his manhood within her -- while still allowing modest powers of flight.
They made lazy circles in the air -- the lights of the moons and the fading stars and the village revolving around them, as they revolved around the center of pleasure where they were joined. She would thrust at times, driving him wild, then cease for a time to let them both simply savor the connection, then begin thrusting again.
She could tell when he was at the point of no return, and she thrust against one last time to grant him release.
"Liz'bet, O Liz'bet, O Dios! Liz'bet!" he shouted as he exploded inside her.
"Esteban!" she screamed, loudly enough to wake the distant village as she exploded too, from the synergy of his spasms and the sound of his voice.
The sun peeked above the horizon then, illumining them in the rosy glow of dawn. Esteban was still hard within her, for her pheromones yet worked their magic.
"Let us greet the day as it should be greeted," she whispered.
She flew him to a deserted beach, laid him against the sand without breaking the bond between them. She gazed down at him, and he gazed up at her and the rising sun behind her.
She is my sun, the light of my life, he thought, as he drank in her beauty, and thrilled to the expression of love and desire on her face.
She let him pull her down, that they could kiss each other greedily, their tongues entwined as he ran his hands up and down her body, reveling in the Velorian flesh that was soft as silk on the surface and hard as steel beneath.
Even wearing gold, he knew, she was far more powerful than him. No man could harm her, no man could force her. And yet she wanted him, this living goddess wanted him, granting him the freedom to do anything he wanted with her body -- anything! He teased her breasts now, bit them hard, knowing that they were invulnerable to pain and hurt but never to pleasure. He felt himself hard inside her, where no weapon could penetrate save that of his love.
Esteban thought at that moment of Aphrodite, the pagan goddess of love. Liz'bet had told him once that Aphrodite had been real, one of the Galen amusing herself by invoking worship of the ancient Greeks. Had lonely shepherds there ever prayed to their goddess, he wondered. Had their prayers ever been answered?
Aphrodite could never have answered all their prayers, he thought, even if she had been so inclined. Yet his prayers were being answered, with the promise of more to come every day and night. Liz'bet answered them now by riding him like a bronco, letting him buck against her as she squirmed in delight, as they kissed and caressed each other with wild abandon until they came together in a shattering climax.
"Yo te amo!" he shouted. "Yo te amo!"
"Te amo también," she cried.
And it was true. There could be no other love like this, no matter that the Church said it could never sanction it. Surely there was no wrongness here, a voice at the back of his head told him, surely no wrongness in the Velorians. He would have to think about that later, he would have to work out what he now believed and why he believed it.
But for now, there was only the sense of absolute rightness that he and Liz'bet felt in the afterglow of their lovemaking.
They took their time, savored the glow, then made love again. And again.
Even at the leisurely pace allowed by white gold, they made it back to Nueva Lugina before the others.
There were preparations to be made there. The dead must be honored, even as the living carried on. As the man of the house, he was expected to see to that. But there were other matters to see to -- some of which he had not anticipated.
It was a long journey home for the women, giving them time for contemplation.
Beatriz thought of the tangled relationships within her family. She knew that although Gabriel had loved Lizbet with great passion, he had loved her in another, quieter way and honored and respected her as his wife.
She now believed that the way to honor him and his sacrifice and to honor Lizbets courageous defense of Nova Iberia would be to accept her. The relationship between Lizbet and Esteban puzzled her. She did not understand how Gabriel could claim to love Lizbet and then give her to his son. And was it just young animal lust or was there affection between them? All she knew was that she would have to accept the situation and even treat Lizbet warmly. In time, Esteban would find an appropriate wife and there would be an heir to all that Gabriel had worked for.
Almeida thought about the future for herself and her daughter. She would sorely miss the companionship and advice of her brother Manuel. Although she knew she would have to confess to these unchristian thoughts, she was truly glad Alfonso was dead. He had given her nothing but pain and sorrow.
The only good thing to come from him was Ysabel, and he hated her for that. But now she would have to return to Alfonsos house, where she would everywhere be reminded of him. This seemed intolerable to her, but there was no other choice, since Manuel had been her last living relative. Somehow, she would have to make a life there for herself and Ysabel.
Beatriz too thought of her future. She would miss her daughters, but they were anxious about the fate of their families and would return to the North as soon as transportation could be arranged. During their stay in the cave, she had grown fond of Almeida and Ysabel, whom she knew were now alone in the world. Perhaps something could be arranged
When they reached the Molina residence, Beatriz invited Almeida and Ysabel to join them for a simple repast. Lizbet and Esteban were already there and joined them for the meal.
Afterward, Beatriz gathered her strength and addressed Lizbet.
"We owe our lives and freedom to you and Julette and for this we thank you and are forever in your debt."
Almeida joined in: "I too thank you. Know you that although you worked for the defeat of my husband, I understand the debt Nova Iberia owes you. I would rather be an ordinary subject of the Absent King of Spain than the Queen of a puppet kingdom under the Aureans."
Lizbet answered: "How can you be in my debt? I was only doing my duty as an indentured member of the Molina household."
Esteban then reached into his tunic and brought out the papers of Indenture that he had found in his fathers study. He ripped them in two saying "I abjure the concept of indenture. Lizbet is a free woman to do as she pleases."
He paused for a moment.
"But," he added, turning towards her, " it would please me greatly if you stayed."
Lizbet was having trouble controlling her emotions and tears began to form in her eyes. "Esteban, how could you believe for a moment that I would ever leave you? It would be my greatest joy to stay with you and your family for the rest of my life."
Then Beatriz turned to Almeida. "Very soon Aldonça and Constança will go back to their families in the North. Esteban and Lizbet will be busy running the family affairs. It will be very lonely for me here. I have grown to care for you and Ysabel. Please, Almeida, stay here with me. I will treat you as a daughter and Ysabel as a granddaughter -- it would be such a pleasure to watch her grow up."
Almeida was overcome with emotion. "Beatriz, you have saved us from a hard and lonely existence in a house filled with bitter memories. I accept your offer with great joy."
They were laid to rest together in consecrated ground, the merchant prince and the Prelate and the other honored dead.
Nothing was said any longer against the Companions, for the new Stewards of the Church had on their authority welcomed them to the funeral Mass, and had likewise on their authority granted Gabriel Molina plenary indulgence for any sins he might have committed with Liz'bet.
For their part, Liz'bet and Ju'lette honored the ceremony, even though they could not share in it by word or belief. The faith of the Nova Iberians was absurd to them, nothing that could be sustained in the clear light of reason. And yet it had sustained these men, even in face of certain death.
So they listened to the choir, with respect if not with understanding.
O Domine Jesu Christe, rex gloriae, libera animas defunctorum de poenis inferni et de profundo lacu.
O Domine Jesu Christe, rex gloriae, libera animas defunctorum de ore leonis, ne absorbeat eas tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum.
Hostias et preces tibi, Domine, laudis offerimus: tu suscipe pro animabus illis, quarum hodie memoriam facimus: faceas, Domine, de morte transpire ad vitam, quam olim Abrahae promisisti et semini ejus.
Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth!
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelcis!
Pie Jesu, Domine, dona eis requiem Dona eis requiem, sempiternam requiem.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem. dona eis requiem, sempiternam. Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of the departed from the pains of hell and from the depths of the pit. Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of the departed from the mouth of the lion, lest hell engulf them, lest they fall into darkness. Lord in praise we offer you sacrifices and prayers: accept them on behalf of those souls whom we remember this day:
Lord make them pass from death to life, as once you promised to Abraham and to his seed.
Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God of hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest!
Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them rest; grant them eternal rest.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant them rest.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant them rest.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant them eternal rest.
May everlasting light shine upon them, with your saints forever, for you are compassionate. Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.
It was Osorio Velazquez, successor to Manuel Covarrubias, who preached a brief homily.
"Our faith teaches us that the dead are not lost to us. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they have passed into a world where life is changed, not ended. They are secure from every earthly trial and pain.
"Death is not the end, but the beginning of a new and better life. Let us show our abiding love for our dead by remembering them in our prayers. Do not hesitate to ask your deceased loved ones to intercede for you before God. For 'love is indestructible; its holy flame forever burns; from heaven it came, to heaven returns.'
"May all of the faithful departed rest in peace and may we take comfort in knowing this."
The words meant nothing to Liz'bet. The dead were dead. That was all there was to it. But there was no one she could confide in, save for Esteban.
"I know you do not believe," he answered her. "Perhaps you cannot. So reasoned Master Manuel, for I sought his counsel."
"You sought his counsel about me?"
"Only when we began to ."
"And what did he tell you?"
'It is undeniable that a man cannot be invincibly ignorant of the natural law, so far as its first principles are concerned, and the inferences easily drawn therefrom,' he taught me. 'This, however, according to the teaching of St. Thomas, is not true of those remoter conclusions, which are deducible only by a process of laborious and sometimes intricate reasoning. Of these a person may be invincibly ignorant.'"
"So now I'm not only invincible, but invincibly ignorant. A strange thought."
"No stranger than our love," he told her, taking her in his arms.
Ju'lette took charge of the Scalantran ship, and persuaded the freed crew to take her to Velor. The High Council and the Senate must have a full report, she said. She was never seen again on Nova Iberia, but in 1506 another Velorian arrived -- a Protector.
Liz'bet, too, had departed by then. There had been a schism in the Church, and it had unwittingly been the doing of Esteban Molina. He had taken a renewed interest in natural philosophy and as a lay scholar had put forward the heretical idea that the gospel of the Bible was not the only gospel -- that the Lord must have a greater purpose than only the salvation of mankind. He found his inspiration in John 10:16:
And other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
"Who can these other sheep be, save the Velorians and the Scalantrans and races we have yet to encounter?" he asked. "They are not people of the Book, of our Book, yet they may have books of their own -- books still to be written but present now in the mind of the Almighty, who seeth and knoweth all things."
Esteban gained a following among the young scholars, although he was not himself a scholar. That served only to harden against him the hearts of the Stewards, who had given him fair warning of his trangressions against the True Faith. Still, his following increased, among the merchant class as well as the learned.
When the Stewards finally determined to excommunicate him -- "provisionally" but none the less effectively -- Esteban decided that it was time for his people to find homes elsewhere.
It was not from fear of persecution, for the Stewards had threatened nothing beyond denial of the sacraments. Rather, he had decided that it was necessary to God's purpose that they travel to other worlds and find those other sheep, to learn from them and thereby gain greater understanding of the divine plan.
Liz'bet indulged him in this, as she indulged him in all things, and was to do also with his son Ramon. She could not truly believe in any of it, but she sensed that there might indeed be a great purpose at work here, and she wanted to be part of that great purpose.
The Companions meant nothing; their idea was a false one. Yet in serving that idea with Gabriel and Esteban and Ramon, she had found her true calling. She shared with them her knowledge of the universe, and even her bold speculations -- along with her supernal love.
In time, the new movement came to be called the Christla, and the seeds of its people and the seeds of their thought flourished on a hundred worlds -- not the least among them a world called Kelsor 7.