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Playing With Matches

This part originally appeared in the January 2015 issue.

Part 5

197th of 2029 (023-98): An apartment in Antiavash

Raledenet would be ready tomorrow but we weren’t leaving. Siish and Sharik still had a lot to arrange and Sharik had wanted to get to know us all better. Tomorrow we were going to spend a few days on the Gubashiidi estate. Well, eventually. Isabella and I had something to do first: Sakuya. She was fussing; she’d been irritable since she’d found out he was coming back yesterday. There’d been papers to sign and arrangements to make. “It’ll be fine, Isabella; you’ve got everything you need and he’s only been gone two weeks.”

She kept fussing. “He was in Sesh Liryn. You don’t know what the means; two weeks there is more than enough to…” She didn’t finish.

“You keep going on about this Sesh Liryn; what the hell is it?”

She sat down and indicated I should too. “You probably don’t want to know. There are things about the Protectorate that you possibly shouldn’t know.”

“Oh, now you have to tell me.”

“He’s been tortured, Afira.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You’re lying, we’d never—”

She looked at me. “No, I’m not lying. I know you don’t want to hear it, but that’s what Sesh Liryn is. I know, I was there.”

I looked at her, I still didn’t believe it “You’ve got no scars, no marks at all!”

She sighed heavily. “There’s more than one way to torture somebody. My scars are all on the inside, Afira. Sesh Liryn may not be what you suffered, but it’s… not a good place.”

I still couldn’t take it in. I thought of the pain I’d seen in her eyes. “It can’t be, we’d never allow it.”

“Yes, you would, or some on the Council would. It’ll be gone now, I imagine, now the moderates have got the Security Committee back. But it’s real.”

I sat there trying to accept it, but I couldn’t. “I’ll only believe this when I see it.”

She sighed again. “When we get Sakuya, you’ll see it.”

The boat touched down in Antiavash’s upper bay. It had been cleared, special order from Lady Councillor Manish. The head of the Security Committee can achieve a lot of things. We were waiting. I still refused to accept what she’d said. I watched as the door opened, two guardsmen, then Sakuya, he looked fine to me. Yes, his hands were tightly clasped in front of him, his head was down, but as far as I could see the worst they’d done was shave his head. He shuffled slowly forward, not looking where he was going. One of the Guardsmen reached out to help him, he flinched. Maybe perhaps it had been a little hard, but still. I went to call to him, Isabella put her hand on my arm. “No.” Closer, head down, shuffling, arms tight. What the hell was wrong with the boy? He reached us, one of the Guardsmen handed Isabella something to sign. “Hello, Sakuya.” He looked away and clenched tighter to himself. “It’s me, Afira.” He turned and looked at me for a moment. I’d seen that look before, in the mirror. I went to hug him. “It’s okay.” He withdrew. Again, “It’s really okay, Sakuya.” He fell into my arms and burst into tears. Isabella hadn’t been lying.

We got him to Isabella’s apartment and into bed. He lay there curled in a tight ball. He hadn’t said a word since we got him. Isabella gave him a sedative. “He needs to sleep.” She turned off the light as we left him to sleep.

“It’s like he’s not there.”

“He isn’t. How were you when you came back?”

I remembered laying in a bunk on the Martinez with Jane and Siish taking turns sitting with me “What the hell have they done to him? “

She shrugged, “I don't know; it’s different for everyone. But it wouldn’t have been pleasant. I imagine there were drugs, sleep deprivation, several different types of humiliations. What ever would break him. He’s delicate; it would have been easy for them.” She sounded almost clinical, but I noticed her hand was balled into a fist so tight it was turning white. “To be honest, he could have been a lot worse. I think they didn’t have him long enough to do too much damage. He’ll be okay now, I’ve scheduled the trace op for tomorrow, and then I’ll start working with him.”

“I’ll stay, be with him.”

“No, you need to go and get to know Sharik.” She sounded distant, detached.

“But you can’t do it alone; you can’t be with him 24 hours a day.” I was starting to get annoyed.

She looked straight at me. “You want to help him?”

“I just said I did!” I was annoyed now.

“Then the best thing you can do for him is go be friends with Sharik. If her and Siish’s match falls over, everything he’s suffered will be for nothing. I can take care of him on my own for a few days.”

I looked at her, her hand still clenched tight. “Is that what happened to you?”

Finally I heard emotion in her quiet reply, “Something like that.”

Isabella was scrubbing up; Eneri was standing beside her. “You don’t have to do it; I’d be happy to do it for you.”

“No, thank you, the procedure is simple enough. The thing nearly inserts itself. I’ve read up on it a little.”

He grinned, “I know you have, and more than ‘a little’. You’ve read every damn bit of paper on it, including twisting Mother’s arm to get the classified design specs. You want to find a way to get it out again.”

“Wouldn’t you, if you had one buried inside you? Tamper proof, such a delight wandering round with something that can blow my head off if it malfunctions.”

“They’re designed not to come out, Issee, you know that.”

She frowned at him. “The Imperium is trying.”

He nodded, “Yes, I know, we sent them what information we could, but both patients still ended up quadriplegics.”

She smiled. “Ah well, you know,” she slapped her leg, “prosthetics, wonderful things.”

It was his turn to frown. “Issee, you know you’re going to have to scrub up again now. But a spine is not an arm or a leg. If you try to dig it out, I’m sure not even I’ll be able to put you back together this time.”

Isabella had sat on the bed next to him for several hours, waiting for the anesthetic to wear off. She’d tried to explain before, but he was too far gone then. She remembered how she’d been. He tried to sit up, she pushed him gently back down, she smiled. She’d tried the same thing, she could even remember the face of the nurse who’d pushed her back. “Try not to move. It’s over faster if you stay still.”

He struggled to clear his thoughts. “Isabella?”

She smiled at him; it was the first thing he’d said since he came back. “Yes.”

“What’s happened?”

She took his hand and sighed, “I tried to explain before, but I don’t think you understood. Do you know where you are?”

His eyes flitted to look around. “No.”

“You’re in my apartment, recovering. You’ve been in surgery.” She was keeping it simple, a few things at a time. Let him absorb it slowly.


“Yes, there’s been a device inserted at the top of your spine. It’s called a trace.”

“Trace? Why?”

She took a breath; this was the hard part. “It tracks where you are.” She thought a moment; it was simple enough, he’d understand. “There’s a base unit. The trace limits how far you can go from it.”


“It’s part of the parole conditions. They do it to everyone.”


“Yes, you’ve been released into my custody, I’ll be taking care of you.”

She could see the memories of Sesh Liryn coming back to him, the fear in his eyes. “That place.”

“You’re safe now, you’re out of there.”

“They… did things,” he was struggling to say.

“It’s okay, I know. You don’t need to say, not ’til you’re ready.”

“No, no, you don’t understand…”

She held his hand tightly. “Yes, Sakuya, I do understand.” She turned and pulled up her hair to show the scar on her neck. “I was sent there, too. I do understand. You’re going to be alright, you’re safe now.”

He relaxed. “The trace, what happens if I go to far?”

“There’s a warning when you get near the limit, a sort of jolt. If you keep going it blocks the nerve impulses down your spine. It paralyses you.”

He sounded frightened. “Permanently?”

She chuckled, just a bit. “No, only until they reset it.”

“Does it hurt?”

“If you go too far?”


She held his hand again. “They’ll tell you no.” However, she knew the truth and didn’t want to lie to him. “But yes, it hurts like hell if you go too far.”

199th of 2029 (025-98): The Lord Protector’s Office, Waicir

Madam Manish almost burst down the door; Lord Protector McCloud had been expecting her. She flung a file on his desk. “Murdered.”

He picked up the file and placed it to one side. “I know; I’ve already read it. I am so very sorry, Nashu; I shouldn’t have tried to push things.”

She stood for a moment, considering. Ashi Minomoru had not only been her political ally, he’d been her friend. Finally she spoke, “I’m sorry, too, and I agreed to it, as well, but no, you shouldn’t have.”

“They say the poison originated in the Imperium, Nashu.”

“Yes, but that proves nothing, and it makes absolutely no sense for them to kill him. And it wasn’t Kaito, despite his disagreements with his father; he’s devastated.”

The Lord Protector nodded. “And he’s the one who demanded the additional tests; we’d have never detected the poison without them. The Sherins?”

She sat, drawing a long slow breath. “They’d be my first suspects, but there’s no proof at all.” She looked at Ashi’s picture on the wall. “He was a good friend, Samuel.”

“For me as well, Nashu. This is bad, very bad. Politics has always been cut-throat, but assassination? We are becoming far too much like the Imperium, Nashu.”

“I know, but now we have to deal with it. And Kaito, has this made any change in his position?”

Samuel McCloud lent back and sighed, “No; if anything, it’s made his anti-Imperial stance worse. He’s agreed to vote with us to classify his father’s murder, out of respect. But beyond that he’s with the Sherins.”

202nd of 2029 (028-98): The Gubashiidi estate

Five days, we’d spent five days here. I’d enjoyed it. I’d found, despite myself, I liked Sharik. Perhaps not ready to be her friend yet, but I could be. But I had made a decision and it was time to deal with things. I went to find Siish. I found him by a small stream, fishing! I couldn’t control my laughter. “Siishubuu Manish Khaadii Mmarislusant Kaptan, I have never in my life seen you fishing.”

He turned to see me. “Errr… a new pastime, dinkir. Khugi31 has shown me how; he spends a lot of time here. It’s relaxing.”

I chuckled, “You mean it gives the two of you time out from Sharik and her mother.” I liked Gubashiidi Geenant, we got on well together, he was teaching me magic tricks, a man of surprising talents.

“Well, that, too. But it is kind of soothing.”

I sat on the bank beside him. “You catch anything?”

He seemed a bit glum. “No, not yet, but apparently that’s not the point.”

“So Kaptan, what’s next? Should I be looking for a new job?”


“Are we going back to Raledenet or are you settling down with Sharik?”

“We’re going back to Raledenet. In a few days. A few more things to organise.”

“Oh? And what does your fiancée have to say about that?”

He smiled, “She understands.”

“Oh yes, she’s very much into understandings.” I probably shouldn't have said that; I could see it had smarted.

“Afira, whatever you decide, you’re still my friend. I wish you could get on with her.”

“I know, Siish, I actually do like her.” I just wasn’t ready to be her friend yet. “But on understandings, I’ve made a decision. I need to talk with the two of you.”

The three of us sat in the Gubashiidi’s library, leather bound volumes surrounding us. There’s something about an old-fashioned paper book that adds a sense of seriousness to a room. The two of them sat across the reading table from me. I guess I’d have to get used to that. Well I’d made my choice, no point in being coy. “I don’t know if I love you, Siish.” You could see the disappointment in his eyes. “But I want to find out. You can have a ‘discreet arrangement’ but there are some conditions of my own.”

Sharik nodded, “I'm listening.”

“Well, actually, that’s one of them, you both need to listen and agree.”

“Of course, Afira.”

“And I’m not your eshal, Siish, I’m your nuntarri32; I need to be treated with respect, by everyone. You, Sharik, your family, Sharik’s family. I’ll be discreet, but I will also be acknowledged.”

Siish spoke first. “Yes, naturally.”

Sharik, however, had a different view. “Nuntarri? As in the holodramas?”


“Dear, there haven’t been nuntarri since the First Protectorate.”

“Then it’s high time we revived the tradition.”

She considered for a moment and grinned, “I suppose it is.” She chuckled, “Will you also be adopting the hairstyle and dresses?”

I grinned, “No, I think I’ll pass on those.” I sat a moment, this was going okay, I could do this. “And my time with Siish is mine, not stolen moments fitting into the cracks. Proper time.”

Sharik laughed, “Dear, I doubt very much that will be a problem. But yes, of course. But by the same token, my time with him is mine.”

I grinned, “Of course.” I could be her friend. “And I will be discreet, but I won’t be skulking in dark corners out of sight when I’m with either of you. I’m not something to be ashamed of, not something to be hidden away.”

“Anything else, Afira?”

“Yes; I want children, my own match. When I find him, he has to know; if he won’t agree, it ends.”

Sharik smiled, “I don’t think anyone would dream of denying you that, Afira. Not after what you’ve been through.” She grinned. “Well, now that’s settled, we’ll need to get you a new gown.”

“A new gown?”

“Yes, engagement party, you will be coming, I assume. If the holodramas are to be believed, a nuntarri would be in attendance.”

254th of 2029 (080-98): Archduke Sirean’s Office, Dirir

Archduke Sirean Fierana was reviewing the latest intelligence reports from the Protectorate. It did not make good reading. He heard the intercom buzz and looked up. “Yes, Ma?”

His secretary sounded a little concerned. “You have a visitor, Your Grace.”

“Visitor?” Ma said his name. “Well, show him in, immediately.” The old man entered, Sirean stood, a little concerned. “Your Grace, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

The old man noted his concern. “Just a social call, Sirean, just a social call. I was passing through the system on my way to a… situation in Antares, and, well, I like to keep in touch when I can. One never knows.”

Sirean breathed a quiet sigh of relief “It is an honour of course. Please sit. Ma, could you fetch some refreshments please?” His secretary departed.

“So Sirean how are things... progressing?”

“Have you seen the reports?”

He smiled. “I browsed them on arriving. Not good reading. The moderates majority slashed from five to one. And an assassination? I was lead to believe they were rare in the Protectorate.”

Sirean nodded “Yes, but the hard-liners have lost control of the Security Committee. That, at least, is a good thing.”

“The report said the poison used was of Imperial manufacture. Were we responsible?”

“Most certainly not; it would have been extremely counter productive.” He chuckled and added, “Though I must admit I’ve been tempted with Kamees Sherin, once or twice.”

The old man looked at him. “I assume you’re joking.”

Sirean grinned, “Yes. Well, mostly. Kamees Sherin dead as a martyr would probably be more dangerous than Kamees Sherin alive.”

The old man hmmed. “Yes, probably. Is there any good news?”

Sirean’s mouth formed a slight smile. “Well, you know of the Imperial POWs who elected to remain in the Protectorate after the war?”

“Yes, the defectors.”

“I prefer ‘stay-behinds’, Your Grace. I’m sure they faced a hard choice.”

“I’m sorry; I must apologise, of course.”

“I apologise, as well. But anyway, one of them turned up to their Rurur Day memorial in her Navy dress uniform. Caused a huge stir, quite a scandal.”

The old man looked puzzled. “That’s good news?”

“Well, yes, because a significant number of senior Protectorate officials elected to sit with her openly. It’s the first sign of a crack in their anger.”

“Hmmm, hard to see it, Sirean, but I’ll take your word for it. Anything else?”

“I have an invitation to attend the match ceremony of Lady Councillor Manish’s son.”

“A social event?”

Sirean grinned again. “Yes, with the most powerful member of the Council, a significant event, Your Grace.”

The old man chuckled, “You know, we have cut-throat Byzantine politics, powerful feuding families, delicate obtuse politicking at social events, and now even assassinations. They really would have fitted right in, here.” He considered for a moment. “You know, I’ve heard Protectorate social events can be… most enjoyable.”

Sirean smiled knowingly, “Indeed, Your Grace; say what you will about them, they do know how to throw a party.” He paused a second. “An invitation would be a simple matter to arrange.”

“That would be most kind, Sirean.”


Notes 1-30 appeared with previous parts to the story.

31. Khugi Gubashiidi Geenal-Lekhtenant, Sharik Gubashiidi’s father.

32. Eshal and nuntarri are both usually translated as lover. Eshal is the usual Luriani term for a partner outside a formal relationship and at the time frequently had negative connotations. A nuntarri, on the other hand, was a type of romantic companion that used to be present in the upper levels of Luriani society during the First Protectorate, openly acknowledged and with high social standing. The role and term fell out of use between the First and Second Protectorates.