By Brenna Lyons
On the Earth colony Kielan in the far future, social standing is based on two things, family affiliation and power. All power is psi. Every individual has between five and forty units of psi power, but on Kielan, soulmates and bond-siblings are a way of life. By the science of matches, power increases geometrically by finding pairs destined to you.
When Balin Night sub Summer, a member of a bond-mated Trio, finds her bond-sister, a classless waif named Riann, she believes she has completed a bond-mated Quartet. To everyone's surprise, Riann is soulmate to the unmated single of their Trio, Lio. They have formed one of the rare Quatrels, and the untrained Riann is their cornerstone.
But there is a secret surrounding Riann. She is a member of one of the four great houses on Kielan and not lowborn as her name would suggest, but how could such a thing occur? It is up to Lio and Talek to solve the mystery of Riann's past and help her find her way as one of the true elite of their world.
From the Writings of Evan Silver, First Historian of Planet Kielan
October 4th, 2504
My Pappap prophesized a bitter end to my flight to freedom. His final words before I boarded the ship were, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”
My answer had been an angry one. I wish, now, that I could take back every unkind word I spoke.
I thought nothing could be worse than the persecution and mistrust we’d known on Earth. Life on a far-flung plant that tested as supporting of human life seemed like Heaven without death. The Earth governments, most notably the American government, were glad to see us go. Leaving was the best for everyone involved—we believed.
Woken from stasis-sleep by complete loss of ship’s power, we found ourselves in a hell we hadn’t envisioned. Scrabbling about in the dark like blind rats, we pried open doors whose mag locks no longer held them tight and spilled onto a red-dirt plain in a pouring rain.
We found ourselves on a world wholly unlike Terra Tres should have been. Where we have come to rest is an uncertain thing. A hull breach had destroyed the last hope we had of learning where we were; by that, I mean it killed the few pilots on their six-month rotation out of stasis-sleep, their spouses and children.
The world is not ideal, but it supports human life. Thank the Lady for that small favor! No electric machines work here; we cannot even use our diagnostic machines to postulate on why the essential systems do not function.
Without the ship’s systems, we have no star maps, no medical facilities, and no way to leave this cursed place. I have no voicecorder to commit this to history, and so I am writing this in the old style, with parchment and pen kept as a child’s art supplies.
We do not even know how this sad state came about. Without the computer logs, the only evidence we have are starfire burns on the ship’s hull and the manual thrusters our doomed pilots fired to slow our descent onto this plain. How we came to be so near a star when the preprogrammed guidance systems should have prevented it—and the pilots should have had ample time to correct any errors in the system—is yet another unsolvable mystery.
For now, survival is our only goal. The animals from stasis have been released into pens or to fend for themselves in the alien terrain. Test crops have been seeded with a small portion of our seed stores.
The future is uncertain. We’ve lost two of the twenty horses in the last three days, half the cattle, and one of the chickens. Birds seem to fare best in this new environ, but with no foreknowledge of the seasons, our lot in life may change tomorrow. Fear stalks our steps.
Survival is most important... And our technicians are now useless to us. Historical players, those with knowledge of pre-electrical life, may hold our only hope of survival. The ones who love history and our strongest psi talents...
April 1st, 3755
Riann Brook ran a shaking hand over her forehead. She needed rest, both physical and mental. She needed water and time out of the hot sun of Kielan. The ten-hour workday allowed by the psi-labor laws had come and gone more than an hour before, with none of her allowed breaks. If any of Jerelen Winter’s other employees noticed, they were too frightened of the old Lord to comment in her favor.
Still, Riann couldn’t complain to Winter about his treatment of her. The money she’d earn literally meant the food in her stomach and the roof over her head that night. Worse, if Winter gave her a poor reference—or gods forbid, blackballed her—she’d be reduced to scut-work day labor as her father had all those years since her mother died.
Galen was dead, now—gone nearly a year. She was a Brook, one of the lowest families on the planet, let alone in the city of Hanford. With no bonds to raise her status, she was the lowest of the low. She had attended three nerve-wracking meeting days and found no bonds. Not that she’d expected to, as a Brook. The odds were stacked against her.
She didn’t have the money to travel to other towns for meeting days like the upper classes did, and even the highest level she had searched hadn’t been happy to have a Brook, in her work browns and scuffed boots, at their meeting day. Her father had insisted that she stand, and he’d seemed more upset than she that Riann hadn’t found a bond that day.
Riann couldn’t afford to lose this job yet. If she left without a backup firmly in place or upset Winter in the leaving, he could easily find another to take her place while he saw to it that she went hungry.
The rich had that power. She’d heard enough whispered conversations between Galen and Uncle Tydl to know that her father had crossed a Lord once. He’d paid for that mistake, whatever it was, until the day he died. She didn’t know the details, only that the Lord had been a madman. Still, he was a powerful madman from a respected family.
Riann managed a weak smile. She could find a way to get arrested again. At least in prison, she’d have bread and soy milk in her stomach and a dry bed for a few nights.
No. Her mother and father had taught her better than that.
In addition, getting arrested had landed her this job with Winter. He’d offered the job in repayment for his mistake in accusing her, and she had snapped up the chance of a steady income from a respected shop. She should have known the Lady could not be so kind to the likes of her.
She hefted the next crate carefully, every muscle in her body throbbing in time with her head. She had to be careful. If anything was damaged, it would come from her pay. She breathed a sigh of relief as the crate landed softly atop the growing pile in the dooryard then turned to the dwindling pile in the back of the cargo transport.
Balin Night-sub-Summer stopped and ran a hand over her forehead, wondering at the wave of exhaustion that washed over her, gone almost before she realized it had come. She wasn’t tired, and surely it wasn’t her soulmate, Talek.
True, she was pregnant with her second child, another girl that she and Talek had decided to name Celli. She was in town bartering for clothing that would appeal to Celli when the first wave had made itself known. There had been two more since then, but it wasn’t the pregnancy that was causing this. It wasn’t anything inside herself and certainly nothing from her unborn daughter, her older daughter, or her mate.
At a little over four months along, she and Celli had exchanged loving thoughts often enough for Balin to be certain of the nature of her younger daughter’s mental touch. Even the few occasions when Celli had been in mild distress had not been comparable to this. Whatever this was, it wasn’t anyone she had a known connection to.
She shielded herself from Talek. He would surely demand she lie down at home and see a healer if he felt her exhaustion and upset. She had to know from where this sensation came before she made such a move.
She looked around her at the light crowd milling between the white-tex plaster storefronts in the uptown marketplace of Hanford. The plaster was pristine, save the red stains of Kielan’s native dirt even the most affluent shopkeepers had long since given up trying to clean off, trusting that the nightly rains and frequent painting would keep them looking respectable.
The shop signs were carved wood, painted in bright colors, but never red. They all saw enough red on a daily basis. The carvings were repeated on the wax-sealed wood doors, and the richest shops had small redglass windows in those heavy doors. Balin had seen pictls of marketplaces on old Earth with great clear glass windows. “Window-shopping” was what they called strolling along the marketplace then.
The exhaustion assaulted her again, stronger this time, and she followed the sensation down a dingy alley between two stores. The sensation faded, and Balin stopped. Had she found her bond-sister at last? She had to know for sure. She was concerned now. The one she was sensing was in a dire state.
Balin sighed. This was too slow. As when she found Talek at her first meeting day, intense emotion and proximity were her only keys to finding a bond. If she lost her bond-sister now, she might never happen upon her in a moment of stress again. Even in the same town, there was that chance, and her presence here didn’t mean that the other woman lived in Hanford. If she were a visitor, they might never cross paths again.
When the sensation struck Balin again, she could feel the desperation and struggle underlying the exhaustion. She hurried down the alley, heedless of the complaints her body made at the movement, and spied a ragged young woman in brown work cover—the rough synthetic tunic and trews of the lowest classes. Her red curls glinted in the harsh sunlight that beat down on her uncovered head.
She will need hats to protect her sun-touched skin—and clothes that fit her new station.
She lifted a heavy crate from a cargo transport to the back of a clotherie. The exertion of what she was doing beat at Balin. She was too tired to detect or rebuff Balin’s questing touch on her mind.
While Balin watched, the woman placed the crate imperfectly on the pile in the clotherie dooryard. Her concentration faltered, and the crate slipped off the pile, landing heavily in the red dirt lane.
The young woman pushed her hair back from the brown work cover and looked at the crate in dismay; Balin bit back tears along with her. Her bond-sister rubbed her temples with shaking fingers. She couldn’t lift the crate again without rest.
Balin felt her own shield falter as she searched for the words to approach the woman.
[What is wrong, Love?] Talek’s mind sought hers at the first sign of her distress.
I need you. Please, Talek.
[What is the problem?] His concern washed over her, followed by his calming touch.
I cannot. There were reasons. She had to secure the woman, but if Talek knew of her bond-sister’s treatment, he would be uncontrolled in her defense, for Balin’s sake. This treatment was illegal. At the least, the Council would be advised.
[I am on my way. Lio has Siri.]
Thank you, Talek. Balin sighed in relief. Lio was Talek’s bond-brother and the third in their Trio. He would care for his bond-daughter well while Talek came to their aid.
She moved toward her bond-sister, hurting with her, feeling her hopelessness. Balin was suddenly glad that the woman wouldn’t be subjected to this treatment any longer. As bond-sister, the woman was part of Balin’s family. She would never be forced to labor to the point of collapse again.
Balin gasped in shock as she felt the impact to the woman’s face, and she planted her feet to keep from stumbling back in reaction.
The other woman’s red hair fanned over her brown work cover as her head rocked back. She stumbled, landing awkwardly on the hard-packed loading strip. She wiped a drop of blood from beneath her nose with a shaking hand.
“Incompetent,” Jerelen Winter thundered as he rounded the pile. His hand flicked back, prepared to strike the woman again, a crude representation of the telekinesis he was about to employ.
Balin had never cared for Anaca Winter’s mate, though the Lady herself was gracious and kind. Sometimes, Balin wondered what the gods could be thinking when they matched mates or bonds. She was never quite sure why pale, haunted Anaca stayed where she seemed so unhappy. Not that the Winters and Summers often mingled.
The woman on the ground looked at him wearily. “No,” she pleaded. She put her hand up as if to ward off the attack.
“No,” Balin echoed her.
Her bond-sister in danger, Balin felt the interface solidify between them, despite the fact that they had yet to touch. Even in the woman’s weakened state, the force of their bond-release propelled Jerelen into the wall behind him. Most of the force came from Balin. The other woman was too weak to contribute much, though Balin felt her unconscious call for help and her pull at Balin’s mind for that help.
The woman looked at her hand in confusion and crumpled to the dirt, surrendering to unconsciousness. Balin rushed to her, seeking out her pulse frantically and sighing in relief as she found that it was strong and sure.
“Night!” Jerelen raged at Balin. “How dare you launch an attack on my person?”
Balin managed a weak smile. She had directed the attack, and the other woman’s psi outlay had added so little that Winter had missed it entirely. Naturally, he assumed the attack was all Balin’s doing. She was glad for that. Bonds were a private thing until they were secured.
“Consider your words carefully, Winter. You will pay for this mistreatment. I intend to petition the Council on this matter.” No matter what this woman’s class or job, Winter’s treatment carried fines and the possibility of prison time.
“What matter? You think the Council will take the word of that worthless rag against me?”
Balin bristled. She had always hated that term. “They will when I stand with her.”
“Be careful what enemies you seek to make, Night.”
Talek’s voice came from the alley behind her, hard and cold. “Perhaps you should heed your own advice, Winter. Do not forget who you address, mated!”
Winter’s face darkened. He was a simple mated, not a Trio as their family was that morning. With the addition of the woman at her feet, they would either be a bond-joined Quartet or a rare Quatrel—if the woman didn’t refuse her place. All depended on whether or not the woman was soulmate to Lio.
Jerelen couldn’t know that. All he knew was that he was facing a Trio—still his betters, though she and Talek were both of lower birth family than Winter was.
Winter shook his head in seeming disgust. “Why do you take the side of this incompetent rag?”
Talek wrapped Balin in his arms when she would have physically attacked the brute. Her mate sent a warning look at Jerelen. [What is it, Love? Does his brutality disturb you?]
Yes, but it’s...more than that. Please, Talek. Help me take her from here before he can harm her further.
[As you wish. If it disturbs you this much, I’ll do as you request.] Talek released her, sweeping his cloak off his shoulders and settling it on the ground next to Balin’s exhausted bond-sister. He lifted the woman into it, then to his chest as he would with Siri when taking her to bed.
She looked up into his troubled brown eyes, thankful for his aid.
Jerelen laughed. “You will allow yourself to be seen with that rag?”
Balin tried to bury her fury, but it was not buried deep enough for her mate to miss it.
Talek sent Winter a venomous look before motioning Balin away and issuing his final warning. “The Council will contact you, Winter. You will regret this day.”
At their transport, Talek settled Balin inside, then laid the young woman in the seat behind them.
“Do you have water in the storage hatch?” she asked her mate urgently.
“Of course.” He got it for her immediately, mistaking her need as for herself and the babe within her.
He shot her a look of surprise, as Balin leaned her seat back and cradled the young woman’s head to offer her the cold liquid. She drank slowly, cupping her sun-reddened and dirty fingers over Balin’s hand. Finally, she pushed the drink away and settled her cheek to the seat again.
Balin nodded and prepared her seat for travel. She met Talek’s questioning look sheepishly. “I will explain in time, Talek. Ask Lio to have Marovan prepare food and a guest room, please.”
“Can you not explain now?”
Talek couldn’t hide his frustration from her. It was unlike them not to share disturbing events. Talek was unschooled in the concept of not knowing why she was upset and why she was acting as she was.
For some bonds, it was a way of life to share only what they must, when they must. It wasn’t the way of their Trio. Few bonds and mates hid themselves from each other; when people did close portions of their minds to the others, it hurt the interface.
“Soon. I promise.” When we are not in danger of your arrest for assault on Winter. When I have had the chance to speak with my bond-sister. Bonding is a private thing. Bond first, then other concerns. All of this, Balin buried deep behind her shield.
Talek nodded, trusting that his mate had not lost her senses completely. He piloted the transport back to their residence. He settled their guest in the smaller guestroom and left Balin with her—unhappily bending to her wishes.
Riann sighed. She stretched on the bed, and her brow furrowed as she ran her hand over the sheets. They weren’t the rough synthetics that smelled of sweat and mold. She snapped her eyes open and backed to the headboard in a panic.
“All is well,” a fine Lady soothed her. “You’re safe here. What is your name?”
Riann felt her cheeks heat. Where was she? How did she get here? “Riann,” she whispered, darting her gaze about.
“There is food and drink beside you, Riann. When you have eaten, we’ll see to your bathing and clothes. You’re a bit thin, but Marovan can alter one of my tunics until you have your own.”
Her hand flitted to the rough brown cover she wore. Why would this woman see to her comforts? Surely, she hadn’t been ordered a judgment of personal service before she could face her accuser. Was this Winter’s home? Even if it was, why would the woman seeing to her not be a maid or overseer? “Lady, I think there has been an error.”
“There has been no mistake, Riann...and call me Balin.”
“La—” Riann dropped her gaze. “Balin, I am a rag. Surely, that wasn’t misrep—”
“You are not! Anyone who calls you such a thing again will answer to me.”
Riann startled and backed toward the edge of the bed. She’d heard the stories of mad Lords and Ladies from Uncle Tydl often enough. Riann not a rag? Balin was unbalanced. Riann knew what she was.
She slid from the bed and started to pull on her worn boots. “I should go. You’ll be in enough trouble for stealing me from judgment. Being seen with me beyond that would only do you more harm.”
“Judgment? Whatever for?”
“I struck a highborn. It was unintentional. I was fatigued, but such things are no excuse.”
Riann hesitated. She still faced judgment for striking Winter. Perhaps she was better off with a mad woman.
“You did nothing. The attack was at my instigation. I couldn’t allow Jerelen Winter to strike you again.”
Riann backed away in shock. “I should go now.”
“Riann, don’t. Let me explain.”
“No. It’s better this way. Think of your name and position. The Council will believe me, if I take responsibility. They will look no further.” And, she was doubtless safer in prison than in this house. If she told the Council of Winter’s treatment, they wouldn’t judge service in his home on her—if they believed her at all.
“You don’t fear prison?” Balin asked quietly.
Riann met her gaze long enough to succumb to embarrassment. Yes, she’d been in shackles on false charges. She’d spent two days in a prison cell before her judgment freed her. There were worse things than a dry, warm cell with its regular meals.
A lump burned her throat. Riann bolted from the room, and Balin surged after her. Three risers from the bottom, Riann caught sight of an imposing Lord at the door. His arms were crossed over his muscular chest and his dark eyes watched her from below errant wisps of his black hair. Balin had called him to block her escape, no doubt.
Riann panicked. She vaulted the handrail with a telekinetic boost, intent on finding the other door before the Lord could catch her. She halted as a second Lord filled the hall doorway, his blue eyes burning fierce beneath his unruly golden hair. This one was even taller and broader than his dark brother was; there would be no getting past him.
Riann looked from one Lord to the other several times, shaking and crying in terror. There would be no getting past either of them.
She backed toward the wall as the golden Lord advanced on her. With nowhere left to go, Riann sank to the floor with her back pressed to the wall and her face buried behind her knees. Whatever their game, she was trapped here now.
Lio sank to his knees beside the woman, too stunned to do more than look at her for a moment. Terror, confusion—He felt her? Who was she? How could Balin have known to bring her here?
He felt Talek’s touch in his mind. He and Talek shared almost everything.
[Riann,] his bond-brother answered his first unasked question. His mate’s name was Riann.
He touched Riann’s cheek, his hands shaking, their connection buzzing against his fingertips. She startled, and her eyes swung to his, wide in confusion. She unwound her legs, letting him cradle her to him while their minds merged in their first tentative connection, Lio’s soul soothing the fear from Riann’s. He bit back a laugh at the sheer joy of it.
At last, he found his voice. “How did you know, Balin?”
“I didn’t. I’m sorry, Lio. I didn’t want to get your hopes up unnecessarily. Riann is my bond-sister, though her mind was in such a dire state when we connected—I’ve handled this badly. I hope you’ll both forgive me.”
He nodded, smiling as he kissed his mate’s tangled curls. “You didn’t tell Talek, because you knew I’d feel his hopes for me.”
“Yes. I’m sorry, Lio.”
“No,” Talek decided, his anger a being all its own. “She didn’t tell me, because Jerelen Winter was behaving in a brutal manner with Riann. Had I known Balin was experiencing it with her...” He fisted his hand in a sudden spike of fury.
Balin sighed. “Let the Council handle him. Please, Talek.”
Lio understood that Balin meant the plea for them both. If she hadn’t, she would have mind-spoken it to Talek.
Confused and apprehensive about Balin’s statement, Lio touched Riann’s mind. It was battered and unguarded. He quested for an answer, expecting her to rebuff his demand.
The truth of Winter’s treatment seared him. She had been in that beast’s service for more than a week. For the entire time, Winter had mistreated her, and no one had been there to help her. Winter broke the psi-labor laws, and for the last two days—
Lio stifled a cry of dismay. He touched the bruise on Riann’s cheek. Lio opened what Riann’s mind revealed to him to Talek without considering the consequences. They shared everything, Talek and he.
Lio sent his apologies, as Talek turned to touch the same spot on Balin’s cheek. Though she bore no physical bruise to soothe, Balin had experienced the blow, and they all knew it.
Lio scooped Riann into his arms and nodded to Talek and Balin on his way to the stairs. He sent his instructions to Talek in mind-speak, too furious to form the words any other way.
“I’ll send Marovan to your room,” Talek answered him aloud.
Lio barely acknowledged the brief interaction between Talek and Balin. Without asking, he could guess that Balin worried he would push Riann to accept him, but Lio was connected to Riann. He would be loath to cause her unease in any way.