Jenna was glad to be here again. She was looking forward to seeing Olean Rane. The old grizzled soldier was a comforting bulwark of unchangeability and reliability.
As Jenna entered the murky inn, sharp smells of ale and aromatic meat stew greeted her nostrils. With a richly filled credit marker in her pocket, she could have afforded much finer fare but those places didn't have the person she was looking for.
Jenna found a corner table and sat so she could watch both the exit and the busy bar. She ordered a medium serving of spicy stew and a mug of ale to wash it down. The inn was a noisy place but not too boisterous. Just a bunch of energetic people in varying stages of relaxation or drunkenness. It was far more civilized than most of the places that she'd had to frequent in her search for Avalon among the mining colonies.
The empty table across from her caught Jenna's attention. It seemed to be waiting for an occupant. Jenna had a feeling of melancholy. The last time she was here, Cally had been with her.
Jenna sighed sadly. Revenge was proving to be a lonely business. Cally and Vila, the closest people she had left to family, didn't agree with what she was doing. And once her vengeance was completed, she would be lucky if her friends didn't become her enemies.
Jenna was tired. If it weren't for her responsibility to avenge Blake's death, she might have considered staying with Captain Atton. It was very tempting. Being back in her old life had brought memories of a time when she lived without burdens or obsessions. Sometimes when the crew had scored a big cargo and she participated in the celebrations, she could almost forget that she had been a rebel, could forget that her life had become one of blood.
She was obsessed. Jenna recognized the symptoms only too well. She had watched the same ones slowly destroy a man she loved. The blindness, the narrowing of vision, the tendency to her push herself beyond all endurance and the almost-violent need that robbed her of sleep and plagued her days with headaches.
She had to win. She had to kill Avon. Had to destroy the traitor in the most painful way possible. Jenna wanted to look into Avon's eyes as the life drained away from his body.
A quick death was too good for him. She had to make him suffer first. She wanted to see the horror in his face before she allowed him to die.
Jenna's hand tightened around the mug of ale, as if its cylindrical body was Avon's neck. She squeezed it tighter and tighter as she ran through her plans for vengeance.
"He's ready to see you."
Jenna looked up in alarm and saw Lelea, the owner of the bar.
The full-bodied woman looked at Jenna curiously. Jenna relaxed her grip on the mug. "Thanks. How is he doing?"
"Tired." The woman took a cloth that was draped over her shoulder and brushed off a minute speck of dust on the table. This was a clean establishment.
"Oh? A little too much partying last night?" Jenna asked lightly. She knew Olean Rane. He was a serious man, a soldier of the old school. He worked hard and played hard. And he liked his ale.
Lelea nodded to a patron who had called her name. "I'll be right over. Hold your pants and I mean that. I will have none of that here." Several of the people around them roared with laughter. She turned to Jenna and said with a concerned voice. "He's worried."
"But I thought…"
Lelea lifted a finger to her lips to indicate that discretion was needed. "You'd better talk to him, he'll fill you in. I'm glad you're back at any rate. He always liked you. It'll give him one less thing to worry about."
Lelea nodded. "Speaking of which, keep a close hand on your credit markers and watch your back. There've been lots of snatcher activity since you were last here."
"I always watch my back. Occupational hazard," said Jenna.
"Well…watch it even more. It's not as safe as it used to be."
Jenna said wryly, "Safe is a relative term these days."
"Yeah. He's in the back. You know where." With a last whisk of her cloth on the table, Lelea moved off to tend to other customers.
When Jenna entered Olean Rane’s suite, she was shocked by how much he had aged. The last time she had visited, he was still the strong soldier, the man who had been the chamberlain to the toughest warlord this side of the Federation. Now, he looked every one of his seventy-odd years.
“Come in, Jenna.” A smile brightened Rane’s face. “It’s good to see you again. It’s been a long time.”
“Too long, old soldier.” Jenna sat down.
“Yes…too long. How have you been doing?”
“Busy.” Jenna wasn’t prepared to tell him everything yet.
“I was surprised that you’d left the Justice.”
Jenna asked warily, “You know about that?”
Rane tilted his head to study her. “Not a lot. Just that you weren’t with them when they came back here.”
Jenna nodded slowly. “I had heard that Ellis was defeated. The crew came back to help?”
“Yes. They were very helpful.” Rane could tell that something wasn’t quite right. “What happened, Jenna?”
Jenna asked, “They didn’t say anything?”
“It’s nothing you have to worry about. I decided that I would be better pursuing my own path.”
Rane wondered if it had anything to do with Argus and the woman that he was obviously attached to. He remembered that Jenna had been interested in Argus. If another woman had gotten in the way… Rane decided that it wasn’t any of his business. “Alright. What brings you to see an old soldier? It can’t be my good looks.” He grinned. “Not anymore.”
Jenna grinned, “I wasn’t about to say anything…but I’m sure that women find other things attractive about you.”
Rane said with mock-sincerity, “I certainly hope so.”
“You really haven’t changed at all, have you?”
They both laughed. The old soldier asked, “What can I do for you?”
Jenna reached into her pocket. She drew out a piece of paper with the name that she had obtained from the red vials in the hidden cargo compartment. Her search through the ship’s computers had resulted in nothing. “I was wondering if you could get someone to find out what this is.”
Rane took the paper from her and read it. His eyes widened. “Where did you get this from?”
Reya asked Cally and Corinne for late afternoon tea in her cabin. She had arranged a nice assortment of light pastries and cakes along with a pot of hot tea, with milk and sweetener.
Cally and Corinne loved the spread and the effort she had made, making delighted noises the moment they entered the cabin. They immediately sat down and began passing the various items around, making comments on what they liked the most and sharing different tastes.
Cally commented, "To be honest, this is the last thing I would have expected you to do."
"To be honest, it's the last thing I expect myself to do too." Reya smiled uncertainly. It was an odd expression, very different from her normally strong and assured personality. "I wanted to try something…different…from my regular self. Something that didn't have to do with being a soldier."
Cally studied Reya with interest. "What brought this on?"
Reya looked almost embarrassed. "I've never had women friends before. Girlfriends."
Corinne said, "Me neither. Actually…I've never had any friends before I met all of you."
Reya gave her a friendly smile. "I suppose that makes two of us. But…you seem to have fewer problems with…being female…feminine."
Corinne's brow slightly knitted in thought. "Well, I had my mother's example. She's a woman."
There was a flicker of pain in Reya's eyes. "Yes, that must be it." She fell silent.
Corinne asked innocently, "Didn't you have a mother? I mean, I know you must have had one biologically. But…"
Reya was reluctant to talk about her past. She had buried her past a long time ago and intended it to stay that way. The last thing she had intended for this afternoon tea was to go into her own personal life.
It was true that she'd never had girlfriends before. She was glad that it wasn't too late. The times she shared with Cally and Corinne was becoming very special to her. It was why she had made a special tea. The two women gave her the confidence to explore a side of herself that she'd never had the courage to before. Their growing friendship required a personal level of trust and openness. Cally had told them about the grief that haunted her life and Corinne had shared about her isolated upbringing. Perhaps it was her turn.
Reya began hesitantly, "My mother…died shortly after I was born." Her breath caught in her throat as half-buried pains and sadness surfaced. "I never knew her."
Corinne reached out and touched her hand in sympathy. "I'm sorry."
"It…was a long time ago." Reya had always wanted to believe that if her mother had not died, everything would have turned out differently. But then, she would never have met Argus or made these friends.
Normally Cally only sensed Reya as a vague presence of strength. Now, as Reya shared about her past, Cally could feel long suppressed emotions struggling to be given expression. Faint feelings, always lurking beneath, suddenly became very strong. She knew that no matter how much Reya had wanted to fool herself that her past was buried, it governed everything about her. It made her into the woman she was today.
Corinne asked, "Were you always a soldier?"
For Reya, that word brought mixed feelings and memories of her father. "Yes."
Cally found this interesting. "Were you ever interested in being anything else?"
"It was never…a matter of wanting anything else."
Cally asked, "You mean that someone forced you to be one?"
"No…nothing like that." Reya fell silent. It would have been nice if someone had cared enough to want her to be anything, even against her will. "My father was a warlord, a powerful one. Feltar Reve. He ruled the Athol Territories with a hard fist. He respected strength, power, loyalty and little else."
There was a concerned look on Corinne's face. "That sounds a bit like…Chandar."
"There are similarities, but women were never treated like slaves. Their roles weren't considered that important but women had the same standing as men in terms of justice and the law. My father was a fair man, even if he was a hard one." But that fairness never seemed to extend to her.
Cally was receiving some very mixed impressions now that Reya was thinking about her father. Love and pain. Anger and admiration. Insecurity and rebellious strength. And a terrible loneliness. "Reya, what happened with your father? How did you end up being a soldier?"
Reya hesitated; this touched something very deeply personal. She wasn’t sure she was ready to share about her relationship with her father.
Cally and Corinne were looking at her with expectation. They had no idea what they were asking. What would they think of her if she told them? Reya needed the tough image. Would they think any less of her if they knew?
These women had both taken the chance to reveal some very personal things about themselves. It had been an expression of trust and friendship.
Cally said with compassion, “You don’t have to tell us. I know it’s difficult for you.”
Difficult? Nothing was too difficult for her…except this. Reya was angry with herself. Why could the others do this and not her? Did she trust them? She liked to think that she did. Were they her friends? She knew that they were hers, but was she enough of theirs to make herself vulnerable? Did she have to maintain her façade of strength with them? Was it just selfishness that she had to be strong all the time? Or was she afraid?
No. That couldn’t be it. She was not afraid of anything. But…what was she feeling then? “I…it’s…”
Corinne had a puzzled expression on her face and also one of concern. She could see that it was hard for the older woman. “You don’t have to be afraid. We won’t tell anyone.”
Reya automatically responded with a strong, “I’m not afraid. I’m…” Reya suddenly stopped. She realized that she was lying to herself. If she denied this, then she was running away from the truth, running away from...herself. It was fear.
Had she really been running away all of her life when she thought she had been facing life head-on and fighting? The warrior in her refused to accept this. She had been able to overcome everything that had been thrown at her, she should be able to do this.
These were her friends. They meant a great deal to her. They deserved this step of faith from her.
When she resumed speaking, she found it difficult. It was like facing her father again. Her voice was quiet. "My father…hated me. From the day I was born."
Corinne was shocked. Her mother and father had always loved and protected her. It was hard for her to imagine parents who didn't. "That can't be true, can it?"
"Not for you maybe. My father never wanted anything to do with me. At best, he ignored me. My older brothers tried to be nice to me to make up for it, but they were usually off fighting battles or on some mission for my father. I was taken care of by the servants." Reya's voice became tight. There was shame and anger. "The ones that felt sorry for me."
Corinne still found it hard to understand. "That's terrible."
Reya shook her head. "No. I don't let it bother me. I owe a great deal to Healer Garett. He tried to step in when he could and made sure I was taken care of. He was more like a father to me than my real one."
Corinne was a little relieved. "I'm glad you had him."
"Yes. I will always be grateful to him." Reya paused as she remembered the old Healer who had been so kind to her. "For a long time, I thought my father didn't want me because I wasn't good enough. Or I had done something wrong to make him hate me. Or I was a disappointment. I came up with all kinds of reasons. Then…I saw that he loved my brothers. They were all soldiers; his pride and joy."
Cally said with understanding, "That's why you thought you had to be like them?"
"Yes. I thought that it was because I wasn't a boy. A soldier. I studied hard and tried to be as good as my brothers. I was better at shooting than any of them. I could hold my own in a fight. I wasn't as strong, but I was fast and smart. But…my father rarely paid any attention. When he did…it was only to yell at me and tell me to get out out of his sight."
Cally asked, "Did he ever tell you why he treated you like that?"
"No. When I grew older, I tried to find out. I asked my brothers, Healer Garett, anyone who was willing to talk to me. I thought it might have been because of my mother. But…they all said that my mother and father loved each other. They never did anything to hurt each other. My father sat with her for days after I was born. While she was dying. He refused to leave her side even after she was gone. My father's chamberlain was the only one who could reach him. My father had me taken away from the room. It was as if…he couldn't stand the sight of me after she died."
Cally said in a mystified voice, "Then that doesn't make any sense. If he loved your mother, and nothing bad happened between the two of them, why would he treat you like that?"
"I don't know. No one seemed to know. All they said was that I had her eyes. After awhile, I stopped asking.”
Corinne wasn’t sure she liked Reya’s father. “Is that when you became a soldier?”
“Yes. I thought that if I could make myself into someone he could respect or someone he could use, then he would notice me. I decided to be like my brothers in everything. I joined the military. It was…very hard. There are no women in the Athol military. My father laughed when he found out what I was trying to do, told me not to bother. However, I was stubborn; I was determined to show him that he was wrong about me. He let me try, but only because he expected me to fail and give up." Reya's voice had become hard. "I didn't give up. I became a sharpshooter. A security expert. I excelled at everything I did."
Reya was a person who refused to be beaten no matter what happened. She could have allowed the circumstances of her life bring her down, but instead she chose to fight. If her father refused to acknowledge her, then she would make everyone else see that she was of value. She would stand tall and proud, a woman amongst the men. Not a weaker member who was tolerated and humoured but someone who was respected. Her anger drove her. And an unconscious desire to seek the approval of someone who would always hate her.
She refused to be someone to be pitied.
Corinne asked, "Did he love you then?"
Reya looked at her. "No. He never did, but by then it didn't matter anymore. I understood that nothing I did would ever make a difference to him. I became a soldier. For me. Not for him. I didn't know how to do anything else and I had become very good at it. I didn't have anything else." Reya had a wry smile on her face. “It made my father angry that I'd succeeded against his expectations. And I started standing up to him. I refused to back down and I became very cynical and outspoken about many things. He didn't like that at all."
Cally said with understanding, “But at least, he was taking notice of you.”
Reya hesitated, and then she chuckled. “I suppose he did. I made it hard for him not to. I made him very angry at times.”
Corinne said, "I'm glad you did. He doesn't sound a very nice man."
Reya stared at her a long time before answering. She could have hated her father. She was certainly angry enough at him for treating her the way he did but…she realized that she had never hated him. "He…was my father."
Cally was aware of the undercurrent in that statement. She said perceptively, "You still wished he loved you."
A stab of emotional pain pierced Reya. This was the one thing that hurt the most. No matter how tough she became, how many times she had stood up to her father, she was still the lonely little girl who desperately wanted her father to love her.
Tears threatened to form at the corners of Reya's eyes but she fought them off.
Reya Reve does not cry. "It's too late."
Cally could sense her struggle. "Reya, crying is not a sign of weakness."
Reya straightened her back and tried to be strong. She had long replaced the tears with a hard shell and a cynical attitude. It was a comforting mask that hid the vulnerability she had not dared show as she was growing up.
Cally put her hand on Reya's arm. "You don't have to be like the men. They think that showing this kind of emotion is a sign of weakness, but it isn't. It only shows that they are unable to bear the emotional pain, so they try to dismiss it or deny it."
Corinne put her hand on Reya's other arm. "Reya, you don't have to be afraid."
Reya reacted instantly, "I'm not afraid. I…"
Cally said gently, "You've fought all your life and you've also tried to bury the pain of what was done to you. But burying it means that you will never be free of it, Reya. It will always be there, underneath, threatening to come to the surface. Just as it has done today. I can feel it in you. I've always been aware of it. If you want to put the pain behind you, you have to face it. Even if it means acknowledging that it hurts. Are you strong enough to do that, Reya? Are you willing to finally let it to go?"
Despite her own efforts to prevent it, tears began streaming down Reya's face.
In the meantime, the four men were in the medical unit. Vila had told Argus and Sester that Avon really needed to feel part of things and that this would help. They had both reluctantly agreed. The reticence was not because of Avon, whom they were more than willing to help. The two men eyed each other warily as they spoke to Avon.
Everyone noticed that Argus was trying very hard to at least be civil to Sester, with varying degrees of success. Argus was becoming increasingly irritable, which Sester found highly amusing.
Sester remarked with all seriousness, “It’s going to be interesting.”
Argus’s eyes narrowed. “What’s going to be interesting?”
“I was wondering how you were going to handle being in the background while the women take the lead.”
Vila piped up, “I’ve got a pool going if anyone’s interested.” There was a twinkle in his eyes.
Argus frowned, “Let me get this straight. You’re all betting on this?”
Vila said with a straight face, “Well, just the soldiers...and me.”
“Vila!” Sester exclaimed with mock-outrage. “You didn’t tell me?”
Vila asked, “I didn’t know psychostrategists were into that kind of thing…but...I’m not sure we should let you. You probably already know.”
Sester glanced at Argus and smirked. “I probably do.”
Argus glared at him. “No you don’t. I have no problems at all with Reya or any of the women leading.”
Avon, who had been observing this performance with a completely unamused face, asked, “Can you play a secondary role?”
Argus looked at him with an expression that clearly said, not you too. He really didn’t understand why everyone seemed to think that he would have a problem with this. When Reya had approached him with the idea, he had seen the need immediately and agreed with her ideas. It wasn’t to say that he didn’t have some reservations, but only because he was concerned about her. It was a risk, but Reya had thought it was worth it. Argus supported her. He knew that she was more than capable.
Avon stared back at him and then a slight smile appeared on his face. The others started laughing.
Argus said with consternation, “I see. Whose idea was this?"
Vila chuckled. “You should have seen the look on your face.”
Argus said, “I’m outraged, Vila. I think I might need to assign you a few more rotations on the flight deck.”
Vila said, “Then I’m going to have to lodge a complaint about cruel and unusual punishment.”
Avon remarked dryly, “You consider any kind of work as cruel and unusual punishment.”
Vila grinned. “Speaking of cruel and unusual punishment, Avon, have you finished with Spot?”
Avon clapped his hands twice. They all turned to look as Spot came rolling into the room and stopped next to Avon’s bed. “Yes, master?”