A story? Come on, now. You know your Uncle Tsav is no good at stories, and you're both very busy children, aren't you? Teeth to rasp, beds to be in–
Well–all right. Just this once. Which–ah, that story, of course.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Prince Tsav of the Sycorax Fleet Therastrior, and he was a bit of an idiot.
No, really, he was. Oh, it wasn't his fault, not exactly. His father was a warlord, but not anything you'd like to call a noble, not if you had a choice. His mother cared only that he was a good fighter. His nurse, back before it was traded away, never spoke above a whisper. And–no, I'll tell you how stupid he was. Prince Tsav had a slave, a person he had bought with the intention of giving a better life–but he never bothered to learn the slave's real name. He just called him Green.
Well, Fleet Therastrior–you have to understand some things about the Sycorax Fleets. Back in the before, long, long before this story starts, a ship crashed into the Sycorax homeworld. It was just people from another world–yes, a bit like the humans, probably–but the Sycorax had barely invented gunpowder, and they didn't understand. They were smart, but ignorant. They figured out how to build proper starships, to hollow out asteroids and make them liveable, but they didn't quite understand the science that led the aliens to discover these things–
Not boring. Important. But you're right, that's another story. The point is, the Sycorax survived by raiding other worlds, and they called the people on them demons, not aliens. (That's an English word, alien.) The Sycorax who knew how to tend the engines called themselves Sorcerer-lords, and guarded their secrets so fiercely that they never dared to invent anything new. They took, but rarely created. And because you can only get so far by taking things that don't belong to you, they often had wars with other Fleets.
When a Fleet lost, there was a custom. I don't like to tell you this, nyr-Tanilth; I don't think it's the sort of thing a child your age should have to hear. But if you ever go out into the wide, wide universe, you're going to need to understand how males and females might look at you. You have to understand what the risks are. When a Fleet lost a war, they paid a forfeit. The noblest brooders would be chained together, and dressed as slaves, and given to the warriors of the victorious fleet, to incubate any offspring they might have.
Very bad. Most of them wouldn't live long.
So when Fleet Therastrior lost seven battles with Fleet Ultanioth, Prince Tsav's sibling nyr-Saryx was to be paid as part of a forfeit. And Prince Tsav might have been an idiot, but he did care about his little sib. It was the only creature in the world he really loved. He would have scorched worlds to keep it safe. And so he made very quick plans.
You see, despite being raised by brutes, Prince Tsav had done one very, very good thing, a long time ago. He stopped his father's overseer from nerve-whipping his slave Green. You'd think that's just what any decent being would do, and you would probably be right. But you can't imagine what it was like, living in the shadow of a Sycorac who gutted officers for speaking their mind. You can't imagine how, the moment his rage fell away, his marrow grew cold with fear–how very much he wanted to grovel and apologize when his father shouted at him for interfering. The hot unsympathetic eyes of the overseer as his father told him to take the shockstick and finish the job. For a moment, for a very long moment, he thought he was going to do it. And if he had, it would have changed all our histories.
But he threw it away. He said, "No."
(Yes, that's when your grandfather knocked me to the deck and broke my cheekbone. And that's where this scar comes from. Hard to believe there was a time when I was ashamed of it. But that's not the important thing.)
The important thing is, while Prince Tsav was healing, a slave took pity on him and told him about the Invisible Road.
Now, the Invisible Road–it isn't a road at all, really. In one place, it's a dirty, foul-mouthed smuggler with a space under his deck plates for a few people to hide. In another place, it's an alien noble who uses a whole shipping company to sneak people away from his own planet. The Invisible Road is complicated and uncertain and always changing, and you never know if the person you're supposed to meet has been captured, or has betrayed you, or perhaps just didn't know you were coming. Nobody knows every operator on the Invisible Road–that's how it keeps working–and nobody knows who started it. Although if I had to take a guess–
Shh. Yes, but she comes in later.
Prince Tsav never thought he would have to set out on the Invisible Road. He would have never dared. The Invisible Road leads to the Dark World. Everyone knows that the Dark World is spooky and scary and guarded by monsters, and those monsters have no love of warriors. But there was one person, one person in all the world, that Prince Tsav would do anything for–
That's right. nyr-Saryx. Your nurse.
So Prince Tsav took his sib and his slave Green and set out for the Dark World himself.
Oh, it was a long and deadly journey, and I'll tell you more about it when it isn't past your bedtime. One time, they hid in coffins, the boxes that some aliens use instead of saving the bones of their dead, and came close to being jettisoned into a sun. Once, they listened to huge, stomping Judoon feet right over their heads as a troop of them inspected a smuggler's cargo. But finally, finally, a ship brought them through the atmosphere and down onto the Dark World, and they thought they were safe from pursuit.
They didn't know how determined the Warlord was, of course. Or who he'd sent to restore the honor Prince Tsav had stolen from him. They–
We'll talk about honor later. The short version is that it doesn't work the way most people think. War isn't honorable. There's more honor in tending my vegetable garden than in a thousand million battles. Make the world better and be as honest as you can–that's the heart of our honor. But, you understand, Prince Tsav didn't know that yet. He still thought that he was doing something shameful by stealing nyr-Saryx from its fate. The only difference between him and his father was, he didn't care.
So, they'd arrived on the Dark World. And oh, it was frightening to poor stupid Prince Tsav, even though he'd rather break the bones of his ancestors than admit it. The sky, so blue, so huge, as if you could fall away into it at any moment. The grass under his feet–he didn't even know to call it grass, he just thought of it as unknown plants. He didn't know that the grass was supposed to be green, not brown, that the color of it meant he had arrived in late autumn and the snows would come soon; he had never even seen snow. And the person who was there to meet him–remember, he still thought of her as a demon, a soft-face, not a human. He didn't know if she would make him a slave or suck the marrow out of him.
He certainly didn't expect what she did, which was to ask for the names of all three of them. Prince Tsav, nyr-Saryx, and–well, his name wasn't Green, was it? It was Reft. Reft Calod-Esk Anhaska-Diun Meroveen.
To this day, I don't know why Reft put up with the idiot Prince. He was always there, helping the Prince, warning him of danger, and he never got a word of thanks for it. He comforted nyr-Saryx when the Prince yelled at it in frustration, and the Prince told him to mind his own demon business. He could have betrayed them a thousand times, but he never did.
He says he saw something. A ruby under all that arrogant muck. And he might have been right, but I have no idea how.
Well, the idiot Prince decided that this soft-face sent to meet him must be a slave. After all, why else would she ask for the names of slaves and brooders? A noble, even a noble of the demons, would bark orders and brandish a shockstick, because wasn't that how it worked? He demanded the right to negotiate with an actual citizen of the Dark World. He told her to be off and clean something.
And she didn't strike him for the impudence, which just made him think the same stupid things even more strongly. But just as he was about to embarrass himself beyond what any creature should have to live with, the four of them heard another sound in the sky. A Sycorax fighter-craft.
The Prince's father, you see, thought that the Prince had destroyed his honor. He had promised Fleet Ultanioth the best of his brooders, but he was unable to send his own child. So he sent Prince Tsav's brother to fix it, to kill Prince Tsav where he stood and murder Reft Meroveen and take poor nyr-Saryx back to be worse than a slave. The only reason the brother landed, rather than strafing them, was that he wanted nyr-Saryx alive.
And oh, believe me, Prince Tsav had rarely felt quite as horrible as he did in that moment. He was going to have to duel his brother. And because he wasn't sure he had it in him to kill his brother, he would lose. And then nyr-Saryx would be taken, and it would all be for nothing. He couldn't see a way out.
The soft-face said, "Give me your sword."
The Prince wasn't going to do any such thing, of course. No noble would let a slave, let alone a demon slave, lay a hand on their blade. The impudence of the creature! He tried to brush past her.
The soft-face said, "Oi. Give it. Here." And before the Prince really knew what had happened, she had the sword in hand and was striding towards his brother.
His brother said, "Get out of the way, animal-without-a-nurse."
The soft-face said, "Yes, this is where I'm supposed to insult your nurse, isn't it? I feel sorry for the poor thing, honestly. Not like it has a choice about being related to you. You're a blemish. You're a stain. The parasites on your skin are ashamed of you. If I used something like you to scrape away my waste, my own intestines would throttle me in vengeance." And on, and on, things I am not going to repeat to children of your age, until the brother screamed wordlessly and charged, drawing his sword as he went.
Oh, she knew her sword-work, this soft-face. Her blade was quick. If it had been just a for-play fencing match, you would have been thrilled to see it; you would have cheered each stroke, just for the joy of watching two experts at work. But this was real, this was for life and death, and the Prince could feel his heart bump against his ribs. If they had been the same size, the soft-face would have triumphed, although not easily. But the Prince's brother was a hulking brute of a Sycorac, and the soft-face was small. Every blow must have hurt her wrists and arms as if he were beating her. The Prince could tell she was going to lose, and she knew it too.
She knew it. But she didn't surrender. She had walked into a fight that wasn't hers, but she would see it through to the end.
And then there came a horrible moment when she was just a fingernail slower than she had to be, and the big Sycorac's blade caught hers, and knocked it into the air, where it turned over–flash, flash, flash in the cold autumn sunlight–and fell, and buried itself deep in the grass.
The Prince's brother said, "Now you die, little demon."
And the soft-face said, "Did you just call me little?"
She reached into the pocket of her black hide coat, and she drew out something that could never, ever have fit. It was a club as long as you are tall–yes, you–and she conjured it out of a pocket that seemed barely big enough to hide a scrap of paper.
Remember, both the Prince and his brother thought of magic as a terrible, awful thing, a secret that nobles would kill to defend. And they had never seen magic like that.
She said, "Listen, you." And she smashed his sword aside with her club, just like you might swat a fly.
She said, "You think you're dealing with a slave. A soft creature. But this soft creature has flown on the wings of the Storm and was not afraid."
She swung her club into his side, sending him staggering. She said, "The Sontarans call me a warrior. The Cybermen call me a threat. And the Daleks called me the Fiveslayer. I have faced down ghosts and blood-drinkers, sun-eaters and world-burners. And if you, or any of your silly little ships, want to take anyone off this planet, you tell them Ace McShane will be waiting for them."
And then she clubbed him so hard that the sound of the blow echoed over the fields, and spoke human words that all the Sycorax–the Prince, his brother, and nyr-Saryx–imagined to be a spell of great power. It was many days before the Prince gathered his courage and asked the Lady what was meant by, "Now sod off, toerag."
Ask me again when you're older. And don't say it to your brother.
Well! After that–after she sent a warrior of Therastrior running, with broken ribs and shattered pride–nobody could ever mistake her for a slave. As she put the magic club into the magic coat, nyr-Saryx gripped the Prince's hand as if he would save it from drowning. Because when you grow up on a ship where the strong are brutal, that's what you expect. They both thought that she would hurt them for the things the Prince had said. They both thought that the next thing she drew out of her coat would be a horrible, horrible weapon, with spikes.
But when she saw nyr-Saryx cringing away from her, she made her voice quiet and apologized for frightening it. She vowed that she would never hurt it. She said that Fiveslayer was just a bad translation of the title Ace by beings too limited to understand its other meanings, and most people called her Dee these days anyway. She said that she ruled an organization that was made to help runaway slaves, and refugees, and the oppressed of all places, and that meant she would take care of us. She said, "Come on, kiddo, let's get inside. It's brass monkeys out here." And something about the way she said it, the easy tone of her voice, seemed to say, your idiot brother is forgiven.
That was the moment when that young fool, Prince Tsav, finally understood what nobility looked like, what noble was supposed to mean. Not brutality. Not blows and sword-strokes. A noble isn't even a person who takes up sword and gun to defend the defenseless, although that is a good and worthy thing. A true, perfect noble is one who speaks words of reassurance and kindness once the sword is put away.
And that, children, is the story of why you live under a blue sky rather than a black one. It's the story of how your uncle finally grew up. And it's why, if anyone you trust ever asks you the name of your fleet and your liege lord–
A Charitable Earth, the Invisible Road, part of the same thing, yes. And your liege is the Lady McShane.
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