Chapter Two - Estale

Kesser stumbled through the rye fields, rifle on one shoulder, his father’s arm on the other, and the dead man’s pendant around his neck.

“Steady, father,” he said, raising his head toward a squat house atop the hill. “We’re almost home!”

Grum stopped, and fell to his knees coughing once more.

“I’m afraid… I…”

“Nothing to be afraid of. Come on!”

In this way, Kesser at last pulled his father to the doorstep, where his mother Celga waited. Emil, of course, was not far behind, and hurriedly Kesser’s sister came to help Grum inside. All the while Kendell watched from aside, until Kesser closed the door and hung his coat and rifle on the wall. Then Emil and Celga set Grum onto a bed, tending to him.

Kesser stood for a time. Home. He saw these brick walls and stone floors every day, stared at that low wooden ceiling every night, sat on those old chairs by the electric hearth every morning and evening. From that cramped kitchen, drifted always the perfume of the bread and stew he cooked.

So why did it feel so different now?

He felt a whispering from the back of his mind, and ever so slowly moved his hand to his pendant. Was it speaking to him? Surely it must be, yet he could not understand any word it said, nor sift its silent sound from dead silence.

“What did you get from the hunt?” Kendell asked.

Kesser smiled and knelt to meet his brother’s gaze. He took off his pendant, held it out. “I didn’t catch any deer, but I found something even better. Did you see the shuttle landing earlier today? This pendant came from its wreckage.”

Kendell took the pendant, rolled it around his hands for a few moments, then gave it back. He had a dark cast about his face, and did not speak. Since when was a child of nine years so quiet? It hurt Kesser to see him like this.

“Kendell?” He said, donning his pendant once more. “What’s wrong?”

“I miss Ayild.” He looked to his feet.

Kesser paused. Surely Kendell was too young to remember, was he not?

No. It has only been four years. It’s simply felt longer.

“I miss your sister too, buddy.” Kesser stood. “I… Every day, I think about it. I know they should have taken me. I know we should move on, but how can things ever be the same? We haven’t laughed or cried in years. We’ve only—”

Kendell was staring at him, eyes wide.

“Oh, I’m so sorry. You shouldn’t have to hear this.” He held out his hand. “Come, let’s see how father is doing.”


Though Kesser had found a pendant on his hunt, it would be perhaps two weeks or more before the merchants came and he could sell it. For now, his family needed to eat, and bread and broth would not be enough.

Thus, as evening light turned the silver sky grey, he found Sidrah by the grove north of the docks. There against the old tree she sat, basket in her lap, picking at the grass upon which the cloth of her dress splayed like a pond. Rolling a stalk of that bladed bedding between her fingers, she stared thoughtfully into the distance.

Kesser set aside his pack and sat down beside her, resting in that familiar groove between the root and trunk of the tree, as she rested in hers. For some time they watched the trees waver in the wind, and the masts of sail-boats jutting from the shore beyond. A dark horizon; distant across the sky, a storm began to brew.

“The ceremony is happening, then?” He asked, shivering against a cold breeze.

“Two weeks.” Sidrah threw the grass stalk aside and took another. “It’s been decided. No matter what, it’ll be in two weeks, unless the Lord himself intervenes.”

Kesser chuckled. “If the Lord comes here, I suppose we’d have bigger things to worry about.”

“Oh, certainly,” Sidrah said, brushing aside her dark hair. “But at least things would be interesting for a while. I’d much rather he pay us a visit then Callum again.”

Kesser raised an eyebrow at her. “He came to see you again?”

“Almost every other day, now, ever since he moved from the space station into the Duke’s fortress. And, good Lord and all things pure, he bores me out of my mind. To think that in two weeks, I have to… I’d…”

“I’m sorry, Sid,” Kesser muttered. He pulled his tunic tighter in the cold, and reached into his pocket. “I really am. I, um, brought you this. Thought it’d cheer you up a little.”

He took out the flowers he had picked earlier, their frail crimson petals bright like spilled blood, and put them in Sidrah’s hand. In that moment her grave melancholy faded into a beaming grin and a faint blush, and she held them close, drawing in their scent.

There, Kesser thought, smiling back. The old you. The memory. Mimas.

“Harvestblooms!” She exclaimed. She peered up and held them against the light, her dark eyes briefly turned pools of honey under the dying day. “Thank you, Kess. They’re wonderful. Remember when we used to bring each other these every day? Harvestblooms in the autumns, and clover in the summers, and startongues in the winters, and in the springs…”

“Estale was full of flowers,” Kesser said. “But have you seen any wildflowers this past year? I certainly haven’t, besides these harvestblooms deep in the forest.”

Sidrah struck him with her elbow. “Hey, don’t bring your gloom here. Lord willing, I’ll find us plenty of flowers out in the voids above. A bouquet of Skaudan roses, or a cutting of Jheddish thorn-pearls, or anything else you can name, I can bring.”

Kesser did not answer to that. The distant storm drew closer, the winds howling colder, but now he felt as though a violent thunderstorm had already begun to engulf him.

He felt at the pendant in his pocket. There it was again: that silent whispering, those rasping words. Should he tell her of what he had found?

“I hate it when you talk about that,” he finally said. “You would leave Tal behind? What about Callum? What about your mother?”

Sidrah’s grip on the harvestblooms ever tightened.

“Oh, so now you want me to go through with the ceremony and marry Callum.”

“I don’t—Look, maybe if the Duke gets his trade deal with Callum’s father, he’ll help your mother too.”

“Really? And when has he ever given a damn about my mother before? When has he ever given a single thought about his bastard daughter, except to use me for his own gain? I don’t understand, Kess. What’s so wrong about wanting to become a spacer?”

“You’re leaving everything behind! Gods, Sid, don’t you get it? You’re chasing a foolish dream, when you could be working on something real. Here, on Tal, you can certainly do something about you and your mother. Out in the voids? You’re only taking a gamble.”

Sidrah threw her harvestblooms aside, stood with a despairing glare to match Kesser’s.

“You’re hopeless! All you know is what you’ve been told to do. Why don’t you ever—why don’t you even think about changing things? About searching for a better life? What’s happened to you?”

“Ayild happened.”

A soft rain began to fall, pattering against the wavering grass, casting a dark mist across the world.

“You know,” Kesser continued, rising to his feet. “You know it was my fault.”

“You do this every time. You chide me for daring to ever dream, and then you make it about yourself. You’ll tell me how bad things are at home, how much you miss Ayild, how hard it is to—”

“You don’t understand, Sid! You have no siblings, no father. You’ve only had to worry about yourself and your mother.” He stood. “This is why the Duke never cared for you.”

Sidrah stared into Kesser’s eyes for a moment, then turned away. Was she hiding tears? Kesser couldn’t tell.

She set down her basket.

“Here’s your fish. It’s salt-cured—we haven’t caught anything fresh these past few days.”

She stood and began to walk away.

“Wait!” Kesser called. “What about the bread?”

“No.” Sidrah paused. Her voice wavered with emotion. “I don’t want anything from you. Take my basket and leave.”

With that, she stalked into the distance.

Kesser shouldered his pack, where several loaves of rye bread still lay. It was how he had met Sidrah in the first place all those years ago, when he offered her mother flour in exchange for cured meat. So much for their trade this time.


Sidrah hurried along the dirt path, as though slowing down would bring the tears out. Not that she would be able to tell, not with those heavy drops of rain against her face, that cold mist washing the world away.

Damn him. Gods damn him.

If only she could fly away from it all. She lifted her head, peered into the storm clouds so high above the wavering trees, dark and angry like boiling water. Defiant. The rain could not hide the sky, and the sky could not hide the stars. Not from her.

One day, once she had her own starship, she would see the clouds from the other side, and Kesser wouldn’t be there to hold her down anymore.

Even without seeing the bend, Sidrah knew she neared home. Here, the path would split, and she would not be far from the shore where her house lay. Through the trees, she could see the mast of her mother’s fishing boat. What would her mother think, when she came home on the verge of tears without the bread she had promised? The pantry was already near empty. Cured fish and dried fruit could only last them so long.

Sidrah crossed the bend. The boat mast disappeared behind branch and leaf. She did not slow down. Home… home could wait.

The rain kept falling, and as lighting began to arc from the sky in great flashes, the path grew ragged and untrodden. She no longer recognized the woods here, nor the curve of the gravel beach. However, she was certain it was no longer only rain that presently streamed down her face. Rain was not warm. Rain did not taste of salt.

Damn the Duke to hell, and Callum with him.

Ahead, the path ended.

Sidrah did not know this. Her foot caught against something hard, and she fell into the ferns.

For a time she lay there, sniffling, letting the rain fall on her, feeling not unlike the muck on an uncleaned fish-net.

Lightning fell. Thunder struck. And suddenly, she felt a presence with her.

“Mother?” She croaked, lifting her head. But it couldn’t be.

She pulled herself to her feet, brushed the mud off her dress, and turned to find nothing there. It was only the forest, and the rain, the leaves and pine needles and ferns.

The presence remained.

She searched about for what she had tripped on, and found something jutting out of the ground. A jagged stone, jet black yet iridescent in many colours under the silver light. She kicked it; the stone did not move. Brushing aside the dirt with her shoe, she found many more, a trail of fragments and chunks. Numb and cold, she followed them, and found herself standing upon the beach.

Round pebbles of gravel sloped into lapping waves, foaming from a sea of deep blue. The horizon was a line of dark grey. The presence seemed to keep her company, and so Sidrah stood there, shivering, taking in the view through clouded eyes.


“What?” Sidrah frantically looked around the hills behind and ocean ahead. “What was that?”


“Who are you?”

The presence drew closer. An icy breeze blew by. Slowly, the rain faded to thin mist.

Like the mist, a mounting sense of dread washed over Sidrah. She turned around once more, and found a towering pillar of that iridescent black stone mere paces away, reaching into the sky.

She gasped. That hadn’t been there before. Had it?

The pillar seemed nearly the height of a tree, perhaps taller. Scattered about its base were more stones like the one she had tripped on. Heart still racing, she took a step toward the pillar, then another, all the while aware of the presence by her side.

This isn’t real. I am dreaming.


Sidrah stopped in her tracks, tense with dread, facing the presence.

“Sh-show yourself!” She stammered, standing her ground. “You can’t hide forever!”


Sidrah looked to the pillar.


Invisibly, the presence nodded.

Sidrah knelt down by the pillar, then placed her hand on its smooth, cool surface.

A vision came to her with a flash of blue light. She was standing upon a great wooden ship, with crashing waves and open ocean all around. Several unfurled sails rose above her head, and atop the highest one, a fearsome flag rippled in the salty wind. And then daylight faded and gave way to night, the Silver River coming into view behind parting clouds. A lone waxing moon rose above the horizon, a small silver disc unlike Mimas or Lumas, mottled in grey seas and bright craters.

The vision faded away. Sidrah opened her eyes, and found her palm no longer against the pillar, but clutching something small and sharp. The rain had stopped. She opened her hand to find a small crescent moon of iridescent black stone.

She looked up at the pillar. “What is it?”




“Why me? Who are you?”


The presence suddenly drifted behind Sidrah. She turned to it, and ever so briefly caught a crimson shimmer in the air, a twisting of the light. But when she looked back towards the pillar, it was no longer there, merely a patch of gravel just like the rest of the beach. She glanced down at the earring in her hand.

“Wait, come back!”

Silence. The pillar did not return, and neither did the presence.

“How… how do I pierce my ear?”


hat night, shadowed by cold starlight and curled on his bed, Kesser stared out the window. Outer space had seemed so distant, once, a realm of strange merchants and powerful empire. Now the ghostly grain fields outside felt so much smaller, and the sky so much closer. Each pinprick star above seemed far brighter than ever before, piercing in their glimmering radiance, and together in the bright band of the Silver River they could have nearly been blinding.

His thoughts went, as often they did, to Sidrah. In the anger of the moment he had said those things of her, but that anger had passed and left only an aching regret.

The Duke might not care for her. But he did.

Kesser took out his pendant by its chain, stared at it in the dim light. From which of those stars had it come from?

How do I say sorry to her?

Its racing pulse and quiet whispers gave no answer.

What are you?

Once again, no answer.

He wondered if such things were common among the Hyades Cluster, traded as often as spices and silk. Did spacers wear them? Would he become a spacer if he wore the pendant? But of course, that was foolish—he had never seen the merchants bearing jewellery of such iridescent black stones.

Well, enough wondering. I will put you to good use. Gods willing.

With that, he clipped the pendant back around his neck and drifted into sleep.

Dynastic servitude was a cruel thing. When the taxers landed, the Talans had no choice but to pay. And if not in their produce, then in their people. It is a mercy, they often said. If you cannot provide for us, then you cannot provide for your families. We are freeing you of mouths to feed.

It was the same across all planets and stations, but Tal especially, Tal, forever in the Dynasty’s stranglehold. The taxers did not care who they took. Most often it was the working men, for they provided the most efficient labour, but on a whim they also took women and children, as with Ayild. These people, they sent to the Sovereign-Lord's personal bidding, working tirelessly on stations and space elevators and solar arrays and the hundreds of other such installations which kept the Dynasty together, until... they rarely ever returned, and until what, Kesser did not know.

Kesser dreamed, as by misfortune he often did, of Ayild. It had been a frigid winter day of harsh winds, riddled with gusts of a snowy cold that seeped through his jacked and under his skin. The farm's silo lay disconcertingly empty, for that harvest cycle had been plagued by droughts, droughts which left little grain by the end of summer. The cold had killed much of the rest.

The Sector East freighters landed the same time every harvest cycle. Always, when the winnowing and milling came to a close, and the leaves began to blanket the ground in a thin sheath of grey-brown, the golden starships drifted down from the sky and landed on the jets of their manoeuvring thrusters. Jutting from the landscape like a city's towers, they unfolded the gaping mouths of their airlocks and cargo bays, and out poured taxers dressed in fine Dynasty wear, trailing motorized wagons behind them.

Around Estale, they strolled, all straight backs and smiles, all the while loading a harvest's worth of grain and vegetables and fruits and fish from their shivering producers. Wealthy taxers to hungry peasants, taking and taking—and taking more.

Ayild wasn't the only one taken for Dynastic servitude. Brem's brother presented his empty hands to the taxers, and the taxers shackled them. And for a bad crabbing season, Edith's father had been taken away, too. And all the while, the taxers smiled and trailed their loaded wagons through the fallen leaves.

Kesser remembered hope. In this dream, he still hoped. Hoped that, at the least, Ayild would not be sent to work on the Skaudan anvil-shield. Few, if any ever survived the anvil-shield, that grand project shrouded in so much mystery. Much better, and much more likely that she would become a servant in one of the Sovereign-Lord's many palaces and starships. That hope he held, as he watched the freighters lift off once more, standing as close to them as was safe, watched as his people be taken beyond the sky's impassible barrier.

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