The arena roared with activity. The humans expected Gelt blood to be shed, which doubtlessly gave them a measure of satisfaction. The Gelt simply cheered for blood sport, not common in the Realm, but not unheard of either.
On Metis, Tishla had heard a human saying that amused her. “Christians to the lions.” Christians, she assumed, were an ethnic group or a religious sect in ancient human history. Lions, she had already seen, were large mammalian predators more than capable of devouring a primate in minutes if so inclined. So which Laral would be the Christian today? And would Tishla be devoured as well?
Fear rippled through her body, but she had made her peace with her fate. If the humans needed blood for what had been done to them, she had plenty to give them.
In the shadows once more, she stood with her guards and Palak, here to carry out her wishes, whatever they turned out to be.
“I still say you’re committing needless suicide,” said Palak. “If the humans reject your offer, my wife and I will take up your indenture. Your job will be to finish your honors.”
She smiled at the old Warrior. At one time in her life, she and her father discussed indenturing her to Palak. She would have been a nanny or a housemaid, but she would also have been a surrogate daughter. But even Palak could see young Kai needed Tishla to be something resembling a wife. Too bad, she thought, he had to die for her to grant his fondest wish. She placed her hands over her belly. “Remember, Palak, you have less than half an hour to get the twins out of me if this goes bad.”
“Laral Umish is good,” said Palak. “And Colt is persuasive.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Tishla. “I have no desire to orphan my cubs.”
Palak nodded to Bornag, who unbound Tishla. The guards followed her out into the center of the arena, walking two steps behind her. The human crowd roared, but the Gelt fell silent. She knew why. The woman who might become their ruler, and that of the humans, now stood before their Sovereign dressed in nothing but a ragged shift. She felt insignificant as she stepped up beside Umish’s armored bulk.
“Plan to reward me when I kill my father for you?” he said.
She knew Umish’s proclivities. He boasted of eating his enemies’ hearts. She wondered if he wanted to eat hers. Cannibalism was rare among the Gelt, but those who indulged in it, even once, developed reputations for being dangerous killers. She knew Umish to be one even without the rumors of eating hearts. The man openly bragged about it.
Up on the dais, the Sovereign appeared with Council. He took the rock from his robe and smashed it against the metal plate once more. Even the humans fell to silence.
“Lattus Tishla,” He said, “come forth.”
Tishla turned to each of her escorts and nodded. They seized her by the arms and moved her into the light before the Sovereign.
“Thou comest before Us as a prisoner?” asked the Sovereign.
“If my challenge is successful,” said Tishla, “then someone must answer for the crime our people have committed here, both against You, our Master, and these people who have done nothing against us.” She could not see him, but she knew Laral Umish was turning dark with rage.
“We understand,” said the Sovereign. “And thy champion?”
The armored boots made a clacking sound against the floor of the arena. Umish appeared at Tishla’s side. He favored her with a sideways glare before addressing the Sovereign. “I am the champion, Your Supremacy.”
“Very good,” said the Sovereign. “We regret to inform thee that thy father committed suicide last night. He put a tri-blaster into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Laral Umish, Our heart goes to thee over the loss of thy father. Lattus Tishla, thy challenge goes to thee by default. No blood will be spilled here today. As such, We grant thee this world of Hanar as a protectorate.”
Tishla dropped to one knee and bowed her head. “Thank you, Your Supremacy.”
Tishla looked up and saw that the Sovereign bore a grave expression. “My Master?”
“Thou hast spoken of thy desire to merge the Gelt settlers with the surviving humans.”
“That’s outrageous!” said Umish. “This is a rogue colo–”
The rock came down hard on the metal plate. Bits of rock flew off of it. “Silence!”
Even Tishla flinched at the Sovereign’s sudden wrath. “Laral Umish, we, the Council and Our Presence, have established that thy father was wrong in provoking Lattus Kai to seize this planet. Furthermore, We have had cause to question whether thy father’s successful challenge against Kai was legitimate. The evidence that has since come to light suggests that thy father lied to Us, an offense punishable by live burning.”
Tishla sucked in her breath between her teeth. She had never heard the Sovereign, nor His father, threaten to burn someone alive before. All Gelt burned after death unless they had done something to earn the contempt of the Realm. Only those who had personally offended the Sovereign would burn before death. And this Sovereign had a reputation for making such proclamations from His Office rather than from personal slight. Laral Jorl had lied to the Throne, causing Its occupant to make a wrong decision. No Sovereign would ever tolerate that.
“Laral Umish,” said the Sovereign, “Lady Tishla has ceded the world we call Cyal to thee. Thou hast forces at thy disposal to defend it. Thou shalt have no further support from the Realm. If thou can hold Cyal from human liberation, We shall countenance thy claim. However, thou art at war with their Compact, not Us, not the Realm. Is that understood, Laral Umish.”
Umish bowed his head, though Tishla could see his jaw tightening.
“Very well, then,” said the Sovereign. “Leave this world, and depart from Our sight. We are disgusted with thee.” He turned his attention back to Tishla. “Lattus Tishla, thou also shalt rule outside the Realm. These humans cannot become Our subjects. Thou art still subject to Realm law, but thou shalt be on thy own.”
She dropped to one knee and bowed her head once more. “Thank you, My Master. I can ask no more.”
“And now, Lady Tishla, rise.”
Tishla did as she was ordered.
“Thou hast an offer to extend to these humans,” said the Sovereign. “If We surmise the attitude of thy escorts and thy simple garb correctly, thou comest before Us as the humans’ prisoner. Are We correct?”
“Yes, Your Supremacy.”
“Then address the humans. The translators will repeat thy words in the Mother Tongue.”
She turned her head slightly Bornag and nodded. The two Gelt guards took her arms once more and turned her roughly toward the human crowd. “I am Tishla,” she said in Humanic. “My husband was Kai, who brought our people to this world, and who stopped the slaughter of your people when he discovered that we had come here because of a lie, a lie told by Laral Jorl and by one of your own. And one he told to our very Sovereign whom you see before you with His Council. For that I am sorry.” Again she nodded to Bornag, who forced her to her knees. “Nothing can bring back those you have lost at our hands or at those of the Larals’. I can only do one of two things.” She looked down at herself and back up at the humans. “In my womb grow two cubs, the offspring of Lattus Kai, whose claim within the Realm to this world you have just seen restored. If you will honor that claim, then I will see to it that you are able to rebuild. Your Compact has abandoned you, and our own Sovereign has informed me we Gelt will be on our own here. I pledge to you to rebuild this world for you and for the people tricked into coming here with us.”
A murmur swept through the crowd on both ends. Tishla could not see, but she knew the Sovereign had to have a horrified look on His face. How could He not? He knew probably better than she what was coming next.
She looked up at Bornag one last time and whispered, “Do it.”
Bornag withdrew his sword and put it to her throat. She could feel the sharpness of the blade, among the sharpest in known space. Kai’s could slice through metal. She had even done it herself once in private.
She looked up at the crowd once more. “If that is not acceptable to you, say the word, and my loyal Warrior will give you my head. It is the only other way I can atone for the crimes committed against your people.”
The human crowd erupted into a frenzy. She could catch random phrases. There were as many shouting “Let her live!” and “Take the deal!” as there were those screaming “Kill the whore!” and “Off with her head!”
She looked up at Bornag one more time. “You stand before the Sovereign. If this goes badly, and you fail to kill me, the Sovereign Himself will have you burned alive.”
“I’ll do as you command, my lady,” he said, “but I do so unwillingly.”
“I’d rather you take my life than some Laral thug.”
That got a smile out of Bornag.
A human emerged from the crowd, the lighting hiding his face in shadow. He shouted to the dais, “Your Majesty, I wish to speak on behalf of my people.”
Tishla cringed. “Majesty” did not translate properly into the Mother Tongue, and while the Sovereign had extrapolated the humans’ language on a previous visit, He likely did not have the nuances of it that Tishla had. Fortunately, the Gelt translator said, “Your Supremacy.”
“We recognize thee,” said the Sovereign in Humanic, sounding more polished than Tishla expected. “Who art thou, and what is thy name?”
The Humanic equivalent of the Formal Dialect of the Mother Tongue sounded strange to Tishla. And she knew that humans were as divided on whether “thou” and “thee” were formal or informal as Gelt were over the Sovereign’s right to use the archaic form.
“My name, Majesty…” A translator rushed up and whispered in his ear. He began again, stepping out into the light. Tishla recognized him immediately. “My name, Your Supremacy, is Trevor Colt. Before the invasion, I was the constable of the ruined city of Gilead, which is also the human name for this world. Since then, I have been the resistance leader. And until my people can have peace enough to decide otherwise, I am the de facto leader of the humans on this planet.”
“And you should have been the first to die,” muttered Umish.
“Silence!” the Sovereign shouted in the Mother Tongue so loudly that even the humans knew what he meant. “Lord Laral,” He continued in Humanic, “thou wilt keep thy tongue to thyself, or We shall have thee burned in front of the humans for their entertainment. Do We make Ourself clear?”
Umish bowed his head, but Tishla could see a snarl on his darkened face.
“Your Supremacy,” said Colt, “I first would like to state that I favor Lady Tishla’s plan to rebuild. It would be easier for our people to use the resources of her husband’s transport, and it may prevent an unnecessary war between our peoples to have a jointly governed planet functioning.”
“Something the late General Laral failed to understand,” said the Sovereign.
Nice, Umish, thought Tishla. You’ve dragged the Sovereign Himself into an interstellar war with a foe he didn’t even know existed until you angered them. Good luck keeping your head attached.
“However,” said Colt, “we are a democracy. I would like to take this opportunity for You to witness our decision as a group as to the Lady Tishla’s fate.”
“We grant thy request,” said the Sovereign. “Proceed.”
Colt turned his back to the dais and to Tishla. “People of Gilead, this woman has admitted the wrong committed by her family and the false pretenses under which it happened. She has offered herself either as a means of survival or as a scapegoat for our suffering. I have spoken with this woman. She is honorable the way we humans define it. Shall we take her life to exact a price for the crimes committed against us?”
The roar from the human crowd became deafening. It stopped only when the Sovereign smashed that rock of His on that metal plate. When they quieted down, He merely said, “Continue.”
“Or,” said Colt, “do we accept certain survival and a measure of control over our own fates? You know my feelings on the subject. Are you with me?”
To Tishla’s surprise, two thirds of the humans rose to their feet and shouted. Soon, they began chanting her name. Bornag withdrew the sword and resheathed it.
“No blood today, my lady,” he said just loud enough for her to hear. “But anything else you ask of me, I’ll do.”
She rose to her feet and turned back to the Sovereign. “My Master, I will do right by these people and do You proud. And on behalf of my late husband, let me apologize for bringing Your Supremacy into this matter a second time.”
The Sovereign rose. “Lady Tishla, thou has the biggest tonsils of anyone, man or woman, We’ve ever met. We wish thee well and will check on your progress in a revolution’s time.” He slammed the rock on the plate once more. “This audience is ended. Lord Laral… General Laral, you have one day to remove yourself and your troops from this planet. Dismissed.”
Colt stepped over to Tishla, grabbed her hand, and pumped it. “Congratulations, my lady. I don’t get the tonsil reference, but you have the biggest balls of anyone of any species I’ve ever met.”
She winked at him, a human gesture she had learned on Metis. “Maybe someday, we can teach each other what those mean.” Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and Tishla nearly leapt out of her skin to see the Sovereign standing directly behind her.
“My wife suggested,” He whispered into her ear, “that you would make a formidable mistress for me, as I tend to favor strong, intelligent women.” “I,” not “We.” The Sovereign smiled. “She also suggested you might just slap a Sovereign for suggesting that, which makes you even more attractive. But I will ask anyway. Every mistress of mine has also been an advisor. The former is a selfish fantasy of a powerful man, but the latter I offer to you at any time you wish to leave this world. I may be a lecherous low-born for wanting you in my bed, but I would welcome your counsel anytime you consider me worthy of it.”
“I am flattered,” said Tishla, knowing the Sovereign did not pick his playmates lightly. “And also very pregnant.”
He favored her with feigned disappointment. “Somehow, I think you are done entertaining immature High Borns like me. Nonetheless, Lady Tishla, you have my ear, that of my Consort, and of my inner circle. We’re all very proud of how you handled this.” He then looked to Colt. “And I hope your people are all as honorable as you, sir. If there is a war with your Compact, we might end it faster.” He extended his hand. “I believe this is the gesture of friendship with your people?”
“I’ll go one better.” Colt crossed his arms over his chest and bowed. “Your presence honors us, Your Maj–” Tishla grabbed his arm and squeezed. “Your Supremacy.”
The Sovereign pointed at Tishla. “Take care of this woman, Mr. Colt. Right now, she just might be the most powerful primate in the galaxy.” He turned and rejoined His entourage.
“Your people consider Him a god?”
“Yeah,” said Tishla. “And He really hates that part of the job.”