The Guildmaster seemed to fill the screen as Sester sat with formal attention. Venner's voice was terse and commanding. "I want you here within the week. You will stay five days. I will leave it to you what excuse you give to your employer and the people on the ship.”
Sester’s throat tightened. He could taste the beginnings of fear but he could not turn away, his master wanted to see his eyes when he answered.
He reached for the cold professionalism that always served him well. “I will be there within the week, sir.”
“Good. You know that I don’t like doing this but I have no choice.”
“I understand, sir. I need no explanation.”
After the communications had ended, Sester sat for a long time in the dark of his observer craft.
Today was a big day. With a tie and a win by the women, the honour of the men was at stake. It was a politically charged situation that guaranteed full attendance by the entire ruling body of the Chandaran Senate, including Kirsten's father.
When Reya and the women of the Third Challenge arrived, it was to controlled chaos. The main Presidential hall of Chandar was lively with Senators, self-important functionaries and busy media people. Excitement and bravado seemed to be the order of the day. The men were certain and/or determined they were going to win.
There were murmurs of surprise and loud disapproval at the uniforms the women wore. They had duplicated the ones that had been given to them for the Second Challenge; the wine red that had become their banner of triumph.
Former President Brent said approvingly when Reya approached, "Good colours."
Reya said, "I hope it isn't too subtle."
Brent chuckled as President Trist came over to greet them. "Interesting choice of uniform."
Reya bowed her head formally in welcome. "We thought so."
Even though Trist was the president now, Brent seemed more to fit the role. He had the easy flair of leadership where Trist was clearly only fulfilling the role because he felt he had no choice. People deferred to them both but Trist didn't seem to mind. If anyone suggested that Brent should take the role, Trist would probably jump at the chance.
The women huddled nervously together under the curious and often hostile stares directed at them. Heavily armed security personnel was visible everywhere. Everyone had been subjected to a weapons scanner before entering, to the strong protests of those who felt they had a right to bear arms at all times, but no one was taking any chances.
Kirsten's eyes kept returning nervously to the main doors as she kept up a light banter with the other women. Her father had not arrived yet.
She'd always been able to handle her father to some extent, enough to avoid being propertied off for political gain; humouring him and acting the proper submissive Chandaran female in order to avoid his wrath, all the while subtly manipulating him. She had not always succeeded. No amount of manoeuvring could change his obstinate attitudes about women. When he was angry, he could be an intimidating man and he had the power to make her life miserable.
Kirsten had never directly opposed her father before and it made her apprehensive that she was planning to do so now. She was used to deferring to him in all things, at least on the surface. Facing him with a mixture of fear and determination; playing a dangerous game with a man who saw her as his property. Most times deflecting his wrath and at others, she would deliberately provoke him, just to see him lose control even though it resulted in punishment for herself.
She had fought all of her life for the things that she had finally achieved this past month. No one was going to take them away from her, not even her father.
Sester's final words came to her. Focus on what you need to do. Reduce it to a game in your mind. See nothing but the strategy, the goal and the pieces that need to be moved. Forget the who and focus on the what.
Is that what you're doing now? She had teased him, causing a look of annoyance on his face.
It's what I always do.
There had been something odd about him though. He was distracted, distant. Not rising to her baits. He almost seemed anxious but she had a suspicion that it wasn't about the Challenge.
Senator Jernis swept into the room like a whirlwind of hostility. The tension level in the room instantly doubled. He was frustrated and outraged at the results of the Challenges so far. Several of his plans had been thwarted, due to judicious observations by the Athol surveillance teams and coordination with the President's security people.
Sester's estimation of the assassination attempt on Reya's life had not materialized but it wasn't from lack of trying on Jernis's part. At first, the Senator couldn't understand why support suddenly evaporated, or people could not be found when he needed them. After a while he knew and now he was livid.
Sester had been behind the entire thing. When he wasn't helping with training the women, he had been providing support to the surveillance teams with Argus and coordinating efforts with the President's men. Of course, under close supervision by the increasingly busy and now totally distracted Avon.
He had engineered the Senator's anger and frustration to a boiling point. Only Sester and Kirsten knew the true significance of what he had been doing, that there had been a different motivation other than the simple one of thwarting the Senator's plans.
Kirsten was about to put their plans into action. A man with her father's level of anger was dangerous, to both himself and the people around him. He could also be manipulated easily if you knew how. Kirsten had been doing it most of her life. Sester had built his strategies with this ability in mind.
The psychostrategist had introduced her to the world of wider implications. He showed her that she could do a lot more with her abilities than simply reacting in the moment and for limited personal considerations. With the right strategy, she could affect the fates of all of the women.
With both trepidation and firm resolve, she went to face the man who was her father.
Jernis's moustache twitched as he spotted her approaching. He said with harsh, unwelcoming tones, "Get back to your position, woman."
Kirsten maintained coolly respectful. "Father. I have something to say, and then I will go."
He waved his hands in casual dismissal. “I have no interest in anything you would have to say.”
Kirsten knew that one of her first challenges would be to get her father to take her seriously. He saw her as a female, and thus not worthy of his attention, but in his eyes, she was also his child.
Reya noticed Kirsten talking to the volatile Senator and began edging towards them.
Kirsten said, “You might want to hear this, father. I think you’ll find it interesting.”
Jernis stared at her, unsure of how to respond. Her words and manner were still somewhat respectful but she was no longer acting the intimidated child. “Speak.”
“I wish to leave Chandar, father.”
This was an inconceivable concept to Jernis. He asked in confusion, “What do you mean leave?”
“After the Challenges, I'm not coming back to Chandar.”
The full impact of what she was saying suddenly hit her. I don’t have to be afraid of you anymore, I am not coming back.
“We’ll see about that!” Jernis grabbed for her arm as if to restrain her but suddenly Reya stepped in between them. The look in her eyes was icy and dangerous. “What is the problem here, Senator?”
“It’s all your fault! You and your treacherous ideas! I should kill you!”
Reya said evenly, “I believe you’ve tried several times.”
Jernis froze and then he glanced around nervously. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
There was a faint hint of sarcasm in Reya’s tone but she kept a professionally polite manner. “I’m sure you don’t.”
Jernis’s voice was full of harsh accusation. “Did you put her up to this?”
Reya turned to Kirsten in query.
The Chandaran woman continued with her respectful daughter routine even as her words put her further away from him. “I told my father that I was going to ask for asylum and that I wasn’t coming back to Chandar. I thought it only proper to inform him as he is my father.”
Reya’s eyes widened imperceptibly at the young woman’s brash action but she maintained her composure. She held Kirsten’s eyes briefly and then she turned to Jernis. This was an issue that had to be addressed eventually, though she would have preferred at a more controlled time and with someone less hostile. “Kirsten is correct, Senator. She has asked for asylum with us and we are inclined to grant her request. I apologize that you had to find out this way. We are preparing a petition for your President to consider.”
“That’s preposterous! I will not agree to this! Kirsten is coming back with me!”
“I beg to differ, Senator Jernis. Until the Challenges end, Kirsten and the other women are protected by Challenge protocol. Once she requests asylum, she will be protected by me. As Champion, I have certain responsibilities as you know. Any Chandaran can petition a Champion for protection if there has been a miscarriage of justice.”
The Senator’s eyes seemed to bulge from his head at this statement. He said with tight anger, “That does not apply to women.”
“Do I have to remind you, Senator, that none of your laws specifically exclude women?” Reya could imagine that the Senator was going to march straight out and make sure that all Chandaran laws be changed to close this loophole.
“I will not agree to this!”
Reya was a rock of calm against his rushing anger. “Are you saying that you are not agreeing to your own laws, Senator?”
President Trist came over, expecting to have to adjudicate. “Can I be of assistance?”
Jernis said, “Mr. President, have you heard what they’re going to do?”
“I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”
“Your Champion is going to grant asylum to my daughter. She’s under some ridiculous notion that I can’t treat my property any way I want.”
Trist nodded gravely as he considered this. “It does fall within the rules and privileges governing Champions. She does have the right and the responsibility.”
Reya said, “I pointed out to the Senator that your laws do not explicitly exclude women.”
“You are right within the letter of the law.”
Jernis protested forcefully, “It’s a technicality!”
Trist had the reputation of a man who kept strictly to the law. Amongst the Champions, he was its guardian. “It is the law, Senator and we must maintain the law.”
Reya said, “We understand that some of your people would not be agreeable to this. You consider your women as property and losing them would be losing an asset. We are prepared to compensate you for any apparent loss. Within limits, of course. The Tellarans have agreed to pay the price for whichever woman requests asylum.”
Kirsten jumped on this. “No!”
They all turned to her in surprise.
Jernis said, “Are you coming to your senses?”
Kirsten had been standing behind Reya but she stepped forward. “I am, father. That is why I wish to be free. However, I will not be bought and sold like a slave. Not even for my freedom.”
Reya said, “Kirsten…” This was what they had all planned. What was this woman doing?
“I’m sorry, Champion Reya but that is how I feel.”
Jernis said, “Then you are coming back with me.”
President Trist asked, “What is it you wish to do, Kirsten?”
“I wish to earn my freedom.”
Trist asked, “You mean through the Challenges?”
“No. I wish to earn my freedom from my father.”
Jernis said with lips deformed by a sneer, “What nonsense is this?”
Kirsten took a quick, deep breath. “I know that you don’t like what’s been happening with the Challenges, father. You most likely feel that the men who’ve been fighting us are inadequate in some way.”
“Them?” Jernis snorted, “Even I could do better. If this were a real Challenge…”
Kirsten’s heart leapt in triumph but she was careful not to show any reaction. “Then take their place, father. You were a fleet Captain once. I am willing to face you in combat. For my freedom.”
Jernis thought quickly and then a sly smile spread across his face. He faced Trist, “If the President is agreed to the change, then I would be more than willing to take command in this contest.”
Trist said, “Champion Reya, are you agreed? Senator Jernis is one of our renowned fleet captains. Facing him will be very different from facing those on the men’s team.”
Kirsten touched Reya’s elbow.
Reya said, “I would like a moment to consult.”
“By all means.”
There was a displeased frown on Reya’s face, “Alright, what’s going on? What has Sester been up to?”
Kirsten nodded. “He said that you would guess he was behind this.”
“He did, did he?”
“He also said to ask you to trust him. He said that this will achieve a much better result than your plans.”
Reya scowled. “He told you to keep it a secret?”
Kirsten looked down. “Yes. He said…that you likely won’t agree if we told you what we were planning.”
“And he would be right. This is a big risk that we don’t have to take. Jernis is a fleet captain.”
“We knew that. Sester has been preparing me.”
Reya felt like doing something very painful to Sester but she pushed down her anger and remained controlled. “The three of us are going to sit down and have a serious talk after this.”
“So you’re agreed then?”
“Have the two of you left me any choice? We can’t be seen to be the ones to back down. It will weaken our already weaker position.”
Kirsten said fiercely, “I’m going to win, Reya.”
Reya wished she had the woman’s confidence. “We’re counting on you.”
After they returned, Reya said to Trist and Jernis, “I am agreed to this change.”
Jernis smirked. “Prepare to lose then.”
Kirsten said, “I would like to make one more request.”
This time Reya stared at her. What else were these two up to?
President Trist asked, “What would you like to say, Kirsten?”
“I would like to know what the results would be with this new change.”
Trist said, “You will obtain your freedom. This was already referred to earlier. You wished to fight your father in order to earn the right to chose.”
Kirsten nodded. “But I don’t feel right about using my friends.”
“You can’t run the ship without them.”
“And I can’t ask them to fight just so that I can be free.”
Trist said gravely, “I see.”
Kirsten turned to Jernis. “Father, in your eyes, women aren’t worth anything. And I’m sure that you consider yourself worth more than a hundred women.”
Everyone looked at Jernis, wondering how he would react.
Jernis’s eyes narrowed. There was no question that he felt himself worth thousands of women at least. However, to acknowledge this would mean that Kirsten would demand the freedom of the other women as well. “You want me to free all of them if you win?”
There were astounded faces all around but Kirsten suppressed a feeling of satisfaction. She knew why her father had agreed, he didn’t think he could lose.
The Justice was parked in the middle of nowhere; namely, a half hour's distance from the region of space mapped out for the final Challenge. The ships on both sides were far enough away from the field that no one could be accused of interfering with the contest.
Argus grumbled, "Was it really necessary for us to be way out here?"
Vila said as he passed around a tray of colourful drinks, "You'd think they didn't trust us." He and Corinne had been experimenting with the beverage dispensers and they had whipped up a few special ones for the occasion.
Avon had almost buried one of the couches in comfortable pillows so that Cally could lie restfully while they watched the final Challenge on the main viewscreen. He hovered nearby, presumably in case she didn't have enough pillows. "They don't."
Vila held out the tray to Argus. Eying the far-too fruity-looking drinks (some had little umbrellas in them!) with scepticism, he said, "Thanks but no thanks. I'll just have some water. I don’t drink when I’m on duty."
“You’re not working. You’re part of the audience.”
Argus scowled slightly, with the duty sergeant taking the flight deck shift, he couldn't even claim that as an excuse.
Pointing to a glass filled with light green liquid, Vila said, "Try this one. You'll like it. I call it, ‘The Champion’."
"Oh?" Argus picked it up and held it up to the light. There were swirls of dark green snaking through it. "What's in it?"
"If I told you, I'd have to kill you," Vila said with a big grin. "But what's life without a little danger?"
Argus said, "I wouldn't know." He downed the drink and nearly choked as daggers of ice seemed to spear his brain. When he could finally speak, he wheezed, "What…is this?"
"Eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat…"
Avon said in a not-too-pleased tone, "That's Macbeth."
Cally said, "You see, Avon. It wasn't a total waste of two hours of your life." Rather than make Avon read poetry to her, she had persuaded him that a play might be more interesting and would serve as a good interactive activity.
Avon said dryly, "I don't consider this adequate proof that it wasn't."
Vila had a puzzled expression on his face, “What’s Macbeth? I heard it on an old vid-program. It was about witches and…”
Avon said pointedly to Cally, “You were saying?”
Argus was still trying to unfreeze his brain. "Can someone explain to me what all this has to do with what I was asking?"
Avon said, "Nothing. It was only Vila's poor approximation of humour."
Vila asked Argus, "Do you like it?"
"Ask me when my brain is talking to me again."
The unusually silent Sester had been staring intently at the viewscreen that was picking up the broadcast. "It's started."