Fantasy

A Game of Starlight and Secrets

By

This book will launch on Nov 10, 2020. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒
Synopsis

In technologically advanced New Rome, where women are possessions, and violence and political intrigue are everywhere, Tethia has surrendered her identity in exchange for limited, genderless freedom. Freedom is all she has now.

But there is one thing Tethia values more than her freedom: the baby girl she bore in secret and gave away to be raised by the State.

When Tethia learns that her daughter has been numbered among the unCounted and used in a government experiment, her priorities shift. In five days, Sheya will be terminated. Tethia is determined to rescue her daughter. Nothing can stand in her way.

Fans of Bella Forrest, Suzanne Collins and Anne McCaffrey will love this thrilling science fantasy adventure because everyone loves a determined heroine who won’t take no for an answer.

Part One

Tethia woke up as the stretcher was being pushed into the back of a van. She kept her eyes closed so the people murmuring around her didn’t realise that she’d woken up. She didn’t know why she was on a stretcher. She had no medical conditions – at least, none she was aware of. She had no recollection of being in an accident. There was a pain in her temple – that was new. She listened, eyes closed, to the hushed voices.

‘Everything will be better in the morning.’ It could be a man. It could just as easily be an unTied person. Given the professional tone, it was unlikely to be a woman. The motion of the stretcher stopped.

‘Checkpoint.’ Tethia recognised the bored voice of the guard. She passed that checkpoint every day. They were at the gates of the Special Services division of the Imperial Military Services. She listened closely. After a moment she heard what she’d been listening for: the double thump of the stretcher wheels going over the security grid. Were they taking her back to her quarters? Did that make sense?

‘Wait – I think she might be waking up.’ That was a different voice. A familiar voice. Tethia carefully kept her features lax but inside she was seething. The next time she saw Tannep she was going to castrate him.

‘She won’t wake up.’ The androgynous voice was soothing. ‘I assure you, we’re very good at what we do.’

Not good enough, Tethia thought smugly.

Tannep spoke again. ‘What if someone tells her she’s been Re-Educated?’

The stretcher stopped. Tethia’s blood ran cold. Keeping her face still and relaxed, she frantically searched her mind. Why would they have taken her to Re-Ed? She’d done nothing wrong. She spent most of her life not only following the rules but making sure others followed them, too. She hadn’t done a single thing to earn her a visit from an Auditor.

Well, she amended privately, not for the last fifteen years anyway. She’d paid the price for that infraction with her silence. There was only one person who knew. No one else knew about her daughter. There was no way, no way anyone could know about Sheya.

But if she’d been to Re-Ed, maybe she’d broken her conditions for some reason? What could possibly have made her do such a stupid thing? Now her memories had been tampered with. Re-Educators were probably specialists, but that didn’t mean that Tethia wanted her brain taken apart and put back together again.

She was so busy searching her mind she didn’t notice that the talkers had fallen quiet. In the silence, there was the sound of an odd little beep. ‘Another dose, I think.’

‘But she’ll remember!’

‘She won’t remember.’ The androgynous voice was calm. ‘The medication only makes her sleep. The memory reorganisation is carried out by skilled professionals. How else do you think we could get someone to forget specific people and events and not become a vegetable? She’s already finished the Re-Education process. Those troublesome memories are forgotten and we have a nice obedient Lieutenant on our hands again.’

‘But what if she finds out she’s been Re-Educated?’

‘So what if she does? She’d be a fool to break the Laws again. As long as she keeps the Laws, I personally don’t care what she remembers.’

Tethia told herself later she’d felt the drug go into her vein, but it was hard to be sure as was suddenly so very, very sleepy.


#


Tethia woke, bleary eyed and heavy with dreams. She looked around her room in the barracks and noticed with growing horror that the dawning lights near the ceiling were already on. She turned the other way to look through the protectively-tinted window. The nebula had already set and the sky was completely dark. Her heart pounded a frenzied rhythm from her dream, and more important than any dream – she was late!

She dressed quickly, with an efficiency born of thirteen years of military service. She didn’t hurry – that would be unseemly. As she closed the door behind her, she realised that she’d forgotten something. In sheer desperation, she pressed her forehead against the cool metal of the door. She’d forgotten the damn bird.

She hurried back inside the room – seemliness be damned! – and leaned over the table to get the bowl of feed from the windowsill. She paused.

The window was shut. Locked.

She never locked her window. She was on the fifth floor. It wasn’t as though anyone would ever come in unannounced via a fifth-floor window. And, here in New Rome, the dome protected the atmosphere from both the dangerous exposure to the nebula and from the vagaries of the weather. It was neither too hot nor too cold, so windows were more ornamental than anything. She never locked her window. If she did that, then the falcon might get trapped and as much as she loved the bird, it was still a wild thing. She loved it for its wildness, its strength and independence.

Her foot bumped something under the table. She went very still. Her heart still pounding a tattoo from her dream and her race out the door, she stepped back slowly. The falcon was on the floor, underneath the desk. She knelt, stretched out a hand. The feathers she had never dared touch before seemed almost rough. The flesh beneath them was cold and still.

Tethia snatched her hand back, a cry of disgust escaping her. She rose to her feet and shot open the window. She picked up the dead, magnificent thing and flung it out the window into the dark morning, then turned and ran from the room.

There were three separate checkpoints between the Officer’s Barracks and Tethia’s office in the Imperial Military Special Services building and at every single one she had to slow down to a respectable speed, cast her eyes down like a respectable woman and allow them to search her briefcase. At every single one she had to make a statement, as she did six times a day, every day of her working life, that the computer she carried was used solely for the purpose of work.

‘In accordance with conservation and wastage laws,’ she repeated each time, thinking irreverently that detaining her this way when she was clearly running late – look at the time! –should be against some kind of law. Wasting time was surely as bad as wasting resources? But there was no point, so she kept her eyes down and said what she was supposed to say.

The sentries looked at her closely in the amber light of the checkpoints, the lightsticks set so close that each pool of light overlapped into the next, ironically known as lovers-light. Out in the suburbs the lights were spaced further apart. Where the pools of light did not meet, they were known as stranger-light. While Tethia’s foot ached to tap impatiently where the lovers-light overlapped, she didn’t feel much like a lover, more like a vengeful ex.

And then, when she finally reached the Special Services offices, she couldn’t even get in. There was a crowd being held back by Servicemen dressed in distinctive black uniforms. Tethia wasn’t tall enough to catch a glimpse of what was happening over the shoulders of the grey-garbed Servicemen in front of her, all waiting patiently to be let into the building.

There was the sound of people making an undignified commotion – shouting and yelling, grunting from others who were probably trying to restrain the shouters. Finally, irritated beyond bearing with shifting from foot to foot waiting in the street, Tethia tapped the shoulder of the Serviceman in front of her.

‘How much longer is this going to take?’ she demanded, raising her voice so it could be heard above the hubbub.

The Serviceman turned, a look of irritation on his face that was swiftly changed to deference when he saw in the white light that surrounded the offices that she outranked him. Tethia smirked – but only on the inside because she wasn’t an idiot. Since she outranked him, she didn’t have to keep her eyes downcast and she could eyeball him properly.

‘I said, how much longer is this going to take, Corporal?’

‘Salve, sir! I can’t say for sure, sir! It only started a few minutes ago, sir.’

‘Well, what’s going on then?’ She kept her voice sharp. It made her easier to hear.

‘Deviants, sir! Audited and found to be committing infractions against the Laws, sir.’

Tethia ground her teeth together. Deviants were the province of the Auditors and the Re-Educators. They had nothing to do with her and therefore there was nothing she could do to influence the situation.

The corporal went on. ‘I don’t know which Laws they broke, sir.’

‘Did I ask you which Laws they broke?’ Tethia snapped. ‘What do I care what a bunch of Deviants do? I just want to get to work like a good little Lieutenant. Now clear me a path to the front. If I’m not the first person through those doors, even an Auditor won’t be able to help you!’

‘Sir!’ He saluted smartly, if awkwardly, to avoid hitting another Serviceman in the crush around them. He turned and grabbed the man next to him, muttering frantically. In a moment, the two of them were shoving their way to the front, Tethia trailing behind. It took a few minutes but, by the time the doors were re-opened, Tethia was among the first to shove her way through. She didn’t cast another look at the two corporals who had cleared her way.

She hurried – respectably – into her office then drew a deep breath in, solely for the joy of letting it out. Her heart still pounded, and the rapid breathing fostered by sheer panic hadn’t helped.

‘Kela,’ she whispered to the woman sitting at one of the desks, ‘did I make it on time?’

Kela looked up sharply, her blue eyes serious. ‘No one could get in, Lu. They were removing the Deviants. No one would hold being late against you today.’

‘I’m never late.’

‘No, you’re never late.’ Kela’s voice made Tethia look up. She wasn’t sure if her assistant was trying to be soothing or sarcastic.

‘How did you get here on time?’ Tethia asked.

‘I have no life outside this place,’ Kela said drily. ‘Come on. Get to your desk. You’ll draw attention standing like that.’

Kela was right. Tethia sat down and spent a few minutes rifling through the papers on her desk to gain control of herself. She drew the computer out of her briefcase.

‘Is there anything interesting out there today?’

Kela quirked an eyebrow but didn’t pause in her typing. ‘On your desk, Lu. My handwriting.’

‘One day someone’s going to hear you call me that,’ Tethia warned, finding the envelope with Kela’s obsessively tidy writing on it. ‘They’ll haul you away for being too familiar with your superior.’

‘And I’ll tell them I meant to say “Lieutenant” only I’ve got this awful frog in my throat.’ Kela finally stopped typing, looked up and grinned. She coughed a few times, experimentally. ‘It’s your fault. Here I am a dusty old maid and it’s your fault.’

‘UnTied is not the same as an old maid. Being unTied is a choice and a privilege.’

‘It wasn’t my choice... Lu. I’ve been working for you for the last five years, watching the best years of my youth slip away, all because you won’t introduce me to your brother.’ She smoothed a strand of short, pale hair past her ear and looked haughty.

Tethia laughed. Kela had been her assistant for five years and by now it was an old joke. ‘He’s not your type. You have a sense of humour and the capacity for independent thought. He has neither of those.’

‘But he’s the best boxer in New Rome.’

‘So I hear. I don’t much like sports, but people keep telling me about them. I’ve never understood what was so amazing about two men bludgeoning one another.’

‘He is amazing, Lu. I saw him in the arena the other day. He took his shirt off in front of the crowd before the match and I swear the whole arena sighed.’ Kela rested her head on her hand dreamily. ‘I don’t want much. Just let him wrap me in those big muscular arms just once and I’ll die happy.’

‘You would die, so be sure you’ve made out a will. You’d smother. He’s got an awful stink after a match.’

Kela wrinkled her nose. ‘You know that’s disgusting, right?’

‘He’s my brother. Of course I know he’s disgusting.’

The door of the office was safely closed, protecting the quiet giggles of the two unTied people. It also muffled Tethia’s gasp when she opened the envelope.


#


Half an hour later, Tethia and Kela were in the main conference room. Tethia was seated at the large metal table, its surface polished to a shine that revealed every set of fingerprints, so she sat back a little to avoid smirching it. She kept the trembling of her hands in her lap, sitting upright in what would otherwise be a comfortable chair. The subtle golden lighting from the centre of the table and near the ceiling illuminated the formal, yet frugal room. Even the decoration of a conference room fell under wastage Laws.

She kept her eyes downcast. The General would arrive soon, and any impropriety would be a gross impertinence. Kela stood behind her chair, her hands clasped and eyes downcast. They were the only unTied people in the room.

A few quiet words were uttered when each one came in. A word of greeting here and there. Tethia had learned to recognise nearly everyone without seeing their faces, so she murmured her greetings with the rest. She was deferential, polite. They all outranked her. Even their assistants – male, so they could look around but were still required to be silent – nearly equalled her in rank.

One of the officers near Tethia knocked on the table once when the General entered, to let Tethia know it was time to rise to her feet. That was something they’d only introduced in the last fifteen years, since unTied women had been admitted to membership in the Special Services. Until Caesar had proclaimed the Edict of Caracalla, unTied people hadn’t existed under the law and women hadn’t even been full Citizens, so the question of admitting them to the military had been redundant. Now they had to make room in military ceremonial for the presence of unTied people. The assumption that everyone in the room could at least see what was going on was an assumption the military could no longer afford.

Fifteen years and they’re still not ready for a woman to look up yet, Tethia thought bitterly.

She sat, polite and civil as assignments were handed around, receiving hers obediently with hands that trembled. She’d got it! Kela had been right! The trouble was that she had to endure the rest of the meeting before she could go somewhere private and whoop for joy. She straightened the file in front of her, aligning the manila cover so it was perpendicular to the edge of the table. She kept her eyes down, as was appropriate for a woman, even a woman who was unTied and an officer and therefore a Citizen and not a woman at all.

The General droned on.

Tethia struggled to stay awake. The manila folder, its contents hidden, was not nearly exciting enough to keep her mind off her dreams. Her head had been reeling with them this morning, so close and real that it was hard to tell them from reality. It all seemed so jumbled! Running along dark streets, chased by shadowy foes. A face from the past, mixed in with a crowd of faces both half familiar and fully foreign. There were whispered messages, lost in the shock of sudden waking and under it all was Sheya.

Her daughter.

No one could know. She hadn’t been married, not even betrothed and even after Caracalla, an unQualified mother was no mother at all. Tethia had given Sheya up for a quiet adoption when she was born fifteen years ago and promised the Auditors faithfully that she would never breathe a word about her infraction.

She’d only seen her once, a strange coloured jumble of sticky skin and hair, who cried out in language that even an unQualified mother understood. She wasn’t allowed to hold her, nor to feed her or to kiss her. Tethia had laid back on the birthing couch and watched her daughter from a distance.

An alarm went off in a ward nearby and the midwives rushed from the room. One of them hesitated, holding Sheya, looking at her fleeing colleagues, then to Tethia and back again.

‘Hold her until I get back,’ she said sternly. ‘And don’t you drop her.’

So Tethia held her baby after all. She’d adjusted the blanket, rocked the infant to silence. Sheya, only minutes old, had turned her head, seeking the breast. One eye on the door, Tethia pulled down the neckline of her gown and allowed her baby to feed.

She’d gotten into terrible trouble for that. They’d threatened to Re-Educate her, but she’d promised to be good, eighteen years old with tears in her eyes. Since then, Tethia tried not to think of her and often didn’t. It was only in dreams that Sheya appeared, growing to young womanhood in every dream Tethia ever had.

There was nothing else in the meeting that required Tethia’s attention. She watched the manila folder until she nearly fell back into dreams again. Her head nodded for one dreadful moment, jerking back up to the sudden thump of her heart. She cast surreptitious eyes to left and right, but no one seemed to have noticed. Her heart continued its heavy thumping, keeping time with the rhythm of pounding feet remembered from her dream.

Tannep Baen, General, knocked his knuckles against the polished metal tabletop to signal the end of the meeting before Tethia’s heart rate had returned to normal.

‘Stay behind, Tethia, Lieutenant,’ Tannep Baen, General ordered as the others saluted and filed out. ‘Uh, you may go, Corporal.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Kela murmured, a wealth of meaning in her tone that Tannep Baen, General wouldn’t notice even if she put it in an Intra-Office memo.

 Tethia stayed at her place, eyes downcast until she heard the door close. She looked up surreptitiously just as the General – Tannep as he’d said she was to call him when they were in private – laid a broad, square hand softly over hers, the thick, white fingers tangling intimately with her own. Most people of the New Roman Empire were albino-fair, their skin adapted to the dark sky lit by only the stars by day and the nebula by night. She stayed utterly still.

‘I hope you know what a lucky girl you are,’ he murmured.

Tethia raised her eyes to look at him. He was a big man, tall and solidly built, with broad shoulders and a square jaw, just like they advertised when the recruiters came around the schools. This is what you can be, they said, and it was true… if you were a boy. And every day now there was some new freedom for unTied people that made it all worth giving up being a woman.

Sure, there were still those who thought the idea of women in the military was preposterous, even if they were only allowed in the auxiliary arms of the Imperial Military Services. Tethia would never have been permitted to serve Caesar before Caracalla. To be eligible for full Citizenship, a man had to prove his ability to make a living, maintain a debt free lifestyle for five years, manage his household slaves without any infractions recorded by the Indenture Auditors – in addition to this, he had to serve Caesar for two years in military service. Since, before Caracalla, women were forbidden to join the Imperial Military Services, they had been automatically ineligible for Citizenship.

As it was, even now, women could only be full Citizens if they were respectably married to a Citizen; if they were the respectable, unmarried daughter of a Citizen; or if they were an unmarried woman who had jumped through the bureaucratic hoops required to be declared unTied. As an unTied person Tethia would never be permitted to contract a legal marriage, but at least she could be a legal Citizen. Anything better than being Tied to a slave or a Freedman. Then she would have had no hope of advancement. Marriage would be no compensation for the loss of the privileges she currently enjoyed as a Citizen.

That was what made the General’s propositions so difficult. The thought of allowing his thick fingers to touch her made her skin crawl, but Tethia had spent her whole life in the Empire. She should do whatever was necessary to stay safe.

‘Yes, you’re a lucky girl.’ His voice was slower now, thicker, as his fingers stroked hers.

She should have said, “Yes, sir.” She should have murmured it. Instead she snapped, ‘I think you mean ‘Lieutenant,’ sir!’ and the look she flashed at him was anything but femininely submissive.

 He took his hand away. Tethia sneaked another glance at him. He looked angry – well, she should have expected that.

‘I apologise, sir!’ she said, before he had a chance to say anything else. ‘Women are known to be emotional and prone to responding poorly in times of stress, sir!’

To her surprise he laughed. ‘You don’t even know how right you are, you little smartarse.’

‘No, sir!’

He leaned closer. ‘You have just been given the best assignment to ever cross my desk and you have the nerve to be impertinent while the folder is still in your hands?’ He flung himself away from her. ‘You ungrateful little bitch!’

He came back in a rush, as she’d known he would. He plucked her easily out of her chair and threw her across the room. She fell hard against the wall and scrambled to her feet, keeping her eyes downcast. Plenty of people would have heard the impact. No one would come.

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ she whispered hoarsely, the breath knocked out of her.

‘You damn well ought to be sorry and by Caesar’s Mask you will be.’ He was in front of her now, his hands on her shoulders shoving her into the wall. ‘I’ll have you know that Caesar – Caesar! – requested you specifically, you little piece of garbage! If it wasn’t for that then so help me, I’d-’

He shoved himself away from her so suddenly that she fell. The manila folder’s contents were all over the floor. She didn’t dare pick them up. Slowly, she got back to her feet.

‘Ala Freeo is the niece of Caesar himself,’ the General said. ‘She needs to be Qualified to give birth to Caesar’s child. She spent most of her life in exile on Capreae so she will need your services as a linguist while she is Audited. As it happens, you are our only female linguist and the only linguist fluent in the Imperial tongue, which is the only reason you are on this assignment. All of this is classified information. All the rest of the world needs to know is that you’re doing more translations of ancient materials at the Imperial Library. If the newsspeakers get a hold of this story, I will know it was from you. I’ll start with an Audit and once you’re declared a Deviant, you’re mine.’

Tethia stayed very still, pressed flat up against the wall. ‘Yes, sir.’

There was a long pause while the General walked around the large table. He came back around to her side and leaned one hip against the polished metal.

‘I wonder what a piece of trash like you would have done if the Edict wasn’t passed to allow women to become Servicemen?’

The question surprised her but not so much she let her guard down. ‘What does any woman do?’ Her tone was offhand, but the answer was deliberately evasive.

‘Is your father still alive?’

‘If my father were alive then I would be at home, performing the duties proper to the daughter of a Citizen.’

‘How did he die?’

Tethia looked away. Being caught in a lie was a serious infraction and might result in being Audited. ‘It was before I came here.’

‘Do you ever think that you would have been a disappointment to him?’

Tethia straightened away from the wall but didn’t look up. ‘Every day, General.’

He made an irritated sound. ‘You’re dismissed. Keep that smart mouth of yours to yourself next time.’

‘Yes, sir.’

She gathered up the fallen papers and fitted them back into the manila folder. Her hands shook and she despised herself for it. She’d been through worse, and probably would again. He was her superior officer. He had the right to do anything he wanted. And in a way he was right. She really ought to learn to keep her smart mouth to herself.

Kela was waiting outside the door. She stood to attention and saluted when Tethia reappeared and led the way to their office.

‘Anything need medical attention?’ she asked matter-of-factly after Tethia closed the door.

‘Just bruises,’ Tethia said, dropping the manila folder onto her desk. She sank into her chair, her legs suddenly weak. Out of everything he’d said to her, it was the threat of being Audited that was the worst. ‘I wonder what it was like for them,’ she wondered aloud.

‘Who?’

‘The Deviants, this morning. I wonder what it was like, realising they were going to be Audited? I think I’d lay down and die if I ever found a yellow card at my desk.’

‘You wouldn’t be Audited,’ Kela said, going to sit at her own desk. ‘Not if you hadn’t done anything wrong.’

‘No, of course not,’ Tethia said.

Kela was discreet. She played the part of the helpful assistant to perfection, although Tethia knew that Kela was pushing herself hard, every day, to become more and more fluent in the languages of the New Roman Empire so that she could pass the test to become a linguist and join Tethia as an equal. She went to prepare refreshments for them before they went out on their business into the city. So discreet. Tethia took the time to gain control of herself again.


#


A first level Auditor accompanied them to their first appointment, meeting them at the underground train station that departed from within the Special Services compound. He was pacing up and down the platform, his black cloak billowing around his black and silver uniform, listening to a newsspeaker give the Daily Review. The newsspeaker’s blank eyes stared right past the Auditor as he paced. The only people who didn’t have to worry about Auditors were the newsspeakers, for whom the worst had already happened. Once convicted of a serious crime, their minds were wiped and filled with the daily news for dissemination to the public. The Re-Educators programmed the newsspeakers every day, but it was the Auditors who took them to Re-Ed in the first place.

The Auditor saw them coming and stopped pacing.

‘Salve,’ he said in greeting. ‘My name is Berisus.’

‘Salve,’ Tethia replied, bowing her head. It was always jarring to hear someone introduce himself without giving his family names, but as an Auditor, his family connections were irrelevant. ‘I am Tethia of Valdennes, Lieutenant, daughter of Meropius, General. I am the Serviceman who will be translating for you in this Audit, as well as serving as a witness. This is my assistant, Kela Sirron, Corporal, who will serve as the second witness.’

‘Pleased to meet you,’ Beris said cheerfully. He was much younger than Tethia, barely even old enough to be an Auditor. He was only pledged to accompany them to the Audit in Gatheron. A first level Auditor wouldn’t be allowed to even speak to Caesar’s niece.

The train arrived. Beris stood back and gestured the women forward with unnecessary politeness.

‘It’s my first Audit,’ he admitted when the train pulled out of the underground station and headed towards the outskirts of the city. He flashed each of them an engaging grin. ‘Be gentle with me then, eh?’ He opened up a manila folder similar to the one Tethia had received that morning. ‘We’ve got a woman in Gatheron who needs Qualification for childbearing, but it should all be done well before lunchtime. Have you been translating long?’ he asked Tethia.

Tethia shifted uncomfortably. Auditors didn’t chat. The whole world feared them. One wrong word in an idle conversation with an Auditor could lead to Re-Education. ‘Thirteen years,’ she said.

‘Unlucky thirteen, eh?’ he joked. ‘Do you enjoy it?’

‘It is my work,’ she said.

‘It mustn’t have taken you long to gain your certification. Caracalla was only, what, ten years ago?’

Tethia was aware that Kela was staring at her. ‘Fifteen,’ she corrected. ‘And yes, I passed my certificate as soon as I attained my majority. I had been studying ever since Caracalla.’

‘You must be very good,’ Beris said warmly.

Tethia refused to be charmed. He was still an Auditor. She bowed her head in acknowledgement of the compliment but only said, ‘I do my work to the best of my ability, sir, and I hope my assistant and I will live up to your expectations.’

Beris seemed to get the point and didn’t chat any further until the train pulled into Gatheron station.

Gatheron was a poorer quarter of New Rome, where large buildings clustered together as though afraid that the dome would fail and the slow poison of starlight would fall on unprotected skin. The three of them walked along the sidewalk from the train station, looking out of place in their immaculate grey uniforms and black and white braid.

Beris looked particularly uncomfortable.

‘Is it all like this?’ he asked in a low voice.

‘Like what?’ Tethia asked. She looked around.

‘All the people on the streets,’ he said. ‘And so many children? They can’t possibly all be Counted.’

‘I couldn’t say, sir.’ But he was right. In Gatheron there always seemed to be more people on the streets than in other areas and exponentially more children. In areas like Gatheron, many children as well as adults were unCounted, illegal residents who appeared on no census. Tethia didn’t like to draw Beris’s attention to it. He could destroy countless lives by an incautious word. Many residents in this area were from distant parts of the Empire, so Tethia found herself in that part of the city at least once or twice a week to translate for an Audit, a childbearing or professional Qualification or for legal and civil matters.

‘Are we far away from Galalla’s house?’ he asked, looking nervously at a group of small children dancing in the street. They formed themselves into a circle and held hands while one of them stood in the centre, singing a song that Tethia could tell that Beris had forgotten. He must have known it as a child. Every child in the New Roman Empire knew the song.

"Starlight, starlight, underneath her skin!

From the other side of the globe

Skin burned like a tattered robe,

And her hair on the ground behind her.

Don’t let her give you the starlight!"

The children broke apart and ran away, squealing as the child in the centre chased at them with her hands held out as though they were indeed infected with starsickness.

‘Disgusting disease,’ Beris muttered, a shudder moving up his spine. ‘Did you ever know anyone who was affected?’

Tethia couldn’t avoid answering a direct question, not from an Auditor. ‘I’m told that my mother had a brother. He died.’

‘My father and my mother,’ Kela murmured. Tethia shot her a glance. She hadn’t known.

Beris shook his head. ‘Disgusting. I hear they’re very close to a cure now. Caesar has been very generous to the Starlight Project.’

‘I couldn’t say, sir,’ Tethia replied.

‘No, you wouldn’t, would you?’ he snapped. Tethia almost felt sorry for him. He didn’t seem to understand his position as an Auditor. She wondered how long he’d been doing this job. ‘Look, we’re here now, anyway. Let’s get it over with.’ He turned away.

A rangy dog slipped past them as they went into Galalla’s building. He bounded up to Tethia and fawned around her feet. Tethia frowned and batted at him. ‘Go away!’ she cried.

‘He’s only being friendly.’ Beris reached down to pat the dog. ‘He’s a good boy. Are you a good boy?’

Tethia looked on, one eyebrow raised, as the Auditor made a fool of himself. Kela turned away. This was the sort of situation that could result in a yellow card.

Irritated beyond bearing, Tethia snapped. ‘I said, go away!’

The hound stopped frisking at once. He turned to face Tethia for a moment longer than was normal. Then he turned away from Beris’s caressing hands and ran back to the door. He sat down and waited patiently. Tethia followed and opened the door for him to exit the building.

Beris rose to his feet. ‘That was interesting.’

Tethia froze. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe for fear. She wasn’t going to get a yellow card because of a damned dog. ‘As you said, he’s a good boy.’

Galalla lived in a small room on the fifteenth floor. The slow, rattling elevator that took the three Servicemen to the fifteenth floor was cramped. They had to stand so close together that they each breathed in the others’ breath. Tethia felt Beris’s eyes on her. For once she was glad she was expected to keep her eyes downcast.

A tiny woman met them at the door, her pale eyes darting around the dim corridor behind them. She only opened the door a crack, standing in the aperture so they couldn’t see past her.

‘Salve,’ Beris said, bowing a little. That surprised Tethia. There was absolutely no need for someone of Beris’s rank to bow to someone like Galalla. ‘May I speak with Galalla, please?’ Tethia repeated his words in Galalla’s Chiaune dialect.

‘I am Galalla.’ The words were thickly accented, spoken more awkwardly than a child. She looked at them suspiciously, examining each of their faces closely.

Beris bowed again and gave his name as well as Tethia and Kela’s. ‘We are here to conduct a Qualification Audit. I believe you put in an application to bear a child?’

Galalla’s tense fingers relaxed on the door frame when Tethia repeated Beris’s words. She nodded and opened the door wider.

Inside the room there didn’t seem to be anything that she might need to hide. Poverty wasn’t yet a crime, Tethia mused. If anything, the frugality of Galalla’s surroundings was a testament to the wastage and conservation laws that she herself testified to six times a day at the checkpoints. The room was clean and tidy, everything in it well cared for and arranged in an attractive manner. Galalla closed the door behind them and turned around.

Beris drew in a sharp breath and Tethia could see why. Galalla must have been at least eight months pregnant, the swollen curve of her belly showing clearly beneath her white chiton.

‘You should have made this application months ago!’ he said sharply.

Galalla merely stood where she was and folded her hands across her belly as Tethia translated.

‘Will you sit?’ Galalla offered in her own language. Beris looked around for a chair and found none. Pitying him more and more, knowing how this interview would end, Tethia sat down first, arranging her legs so she was cross-legged on the floor between Galalla and Beris and prepared herself to translate as inconspicuously as possible between the two. The others followed suit.

‘Why didn’t you put in an application before this?’ Beris asked.

Galalla looked down at the hands she’d spread once more across her belly. The thin fingers moved in a caress against flesh that ululated beneath her touch. Beris’s wide eyes followed the movement compulsively.

‘My child is a part of me,’ she said, her voice soft and tender. ‘He is as close to me as my own heart. I love him already. I will love him more when he is born and more when he grows day by day to become a man. What need do I have of a Qualification, a man in a golden mask to tell me that I will be a good mother? I am a mother already.’

Beris went very still. ‘Galalla, I must tell you – given your circumstances – you will not be allowed to bear a second child if you already have a first.’

Galalla shook her head, but her smile was luminous. ‘This is my first baby. But I am a mother. See? This is my baby.’ She smoothed the thin cloth of her chiton close against her belly and made the same caressing motion as before. The movement beneath her skin was visible through the fabric. ‘He always does that.’ She looked up at Beris, her eyes warm with humour and love for her child. ‘He is clearly a baby – a woman cannot conceive and give birth to a thing that is not a baby. A baby must have a mother – that is only common sense. If he is a baby, then I am a mother.’

 Beris sighed. ‘Galalla, I cannot overstate the importance of this interview. I need you to speak clearly and answer my questions as honestly as you can.’

Galalla nodded.

‘What is your husband’s name?’

Tethia realised then that Beris was doing his best to get Galalla off the hook. All Auditors, even brand-new Auditors on their first job, knew to ask open ended questions. Their job was to allow people to incriminate themselves. They got people to talk about themselves in their own words, describe their situations and allow them to say the words that put them into Re-Education or separated mother from baby or classed what had previously been a person as unCounted.

Galalla gave a name. Beris asked her husband’s profession. She replied that he worked as a janitor at the Ambience Department, where the lights that automatically came on to signify day and night were regulated.

Beris stood up. ‘Thank you, Galalla, that will be all,’ he said.

Kela rose to her feet but Tethia stayed seated on the carpet. She felt as though she were as heavy as lead, as though she couldn’t rise to her feet if she tried. She had once been in the very same position Galalla was in. The Auditor handling her case had not been as kind as Beris. She wished with all her heart that she could allow him to be so kind.

But still... what if it wasn’t kindness? What if it was a test? What if Beris had a dual purpose here today?

‘Galalla,’ she said heavily, ‘do you have documents to prove that any of this is true?’

A vein throbbed in Galalla’s temple. ‘Of course,’ she said softly, and rose to her feet.

Beris and Kela looked at Tethia questioningly as she stood up. She glanced up at them.

‘She has to show her husband’s papers,’ she said heavily. ‘It’s p-proper procedure.’ Her tongue tripped over the words, knowing what she’d done.

Galalla went to a table near the window and started shuffling through papers. ‘It’s so stuffy in here. Four people breathe so much bad air in a small room.’ She went around the table to open the window. ‘Do you have children?’ Galalla didn’t look at any of them in particular, her hands busy in a drawer beneath the table.

‘No,’ Tethia said shortly and translated her words for the others.

‘Not yet,’ Kela replied, her voice softer.

Beris smiled at Kela. ‘Not yet for me, either.’ Tethia translated back to Galalla, who looked away.

In a sudden rush, Galalla threw herself out the window.

Tethia lunged forward and caught at Galalla’s hand with a sudden desperate grasp. The weight of the tiny woman wrenched her flush up against the wall and halfway out the window. Sudden fear overcame Galalla’s hasty suicide attempt and now she writhed dangerously against Tethia’s grip. Both her hands held onto both of Tethia’s, but neither of them had a sure grip on the other.

Acting quickly, Beris grabbed Tethia around the waist to stop her following Galalla. Kela wedged herself in between them and took hold of Tethia so that Beris was free to reach down to Galalla. He caught the woman’s arm, then her belt, crossed between and beneath her breasts. He heaved her upwards while she screamed and kicked. The tendons strained in his neck, his knuckles white where they held onto her. Heavy hands pounded on the locked door of the apartment, responding to her screams. Voices shouted in Galalla’s dialect.

Galalla was still screaming when he raked her over the windowsill and back onto the floor of the small room. He slammed the window shut and locked it. Galalla didn’t stop screaming. Not when Beris tried to comfort her, not when the ambulance came to take her to hospital. Her chiton clung wetly to her legs.

After Galalla was loaded into the secure ambulance, Beris turned to Tethia. She’d been watching the play of emotion on his face and was caught with her eyes up.

‘Apologies,’ she muttered, casting her eyes down.

‘An apology won’t fix it,’ Beris snapped. ‘You just ruined that woman’s life – deliberately! And her child, too. She will never even touch her baby! Don’t you care? No, wait,’ he said, before she had a chance to speak. ‘You couldn’t say, is that right? What do you think will happen to her child now? Her precious boy will be sent to the Starlight Project and-’ He clamped his lips together.

Tethia pounced. ‘Is that where unCounted children go?’

‘I shouldn’t have said anything. If you had any manners, you’d let it go.’

‘I thought the unCounted were adopted – by childless couples.’

‘What childless couple would take an unCounted child? You can’t be so naïve. The newsspeakers tell stories every day about the tainted blood in those born to unQualified mothers. Who would risk taking a tainted child into their home?’

‘So, what is the Starlight Project?’ She kept her voice light, but her heart was pounding even faster than it had when she’d made that desperate lunge to stop Galalla going out the window, even faster than it had when she’d woken from a nightmarish dream that morning.

Beris looked away from her, his eyes scanning the tall, dingy buildings around them, the stars in the dark sky above it all invisible beyond the glare of the streetlights. ‘It’s science,’ he said finally. ‘That’s all. They’re trying to find a cure for starsickness.’

The heavy, rhythmic pounding of Tethia’s heart skipped a beat. ‘With children?’ she asked, trying to keep the horror out of her voice.

‘They’re unCounted.’ Beris’s voice was harsh and dismissive. ‘Given what you just did, I’m astonished you even thought twice about it. Look, let’s go. You’ve got to get to your next appointment.’ He stood to the side and gestured Tethia and Kela forward. They started walking back to the train station. Beris went on, ‘The trains to the Palatine always take forever this time of day.’

Tethia’s feet stuttered to a stop and for a moment she feared her heart would do the same. ‘How do you know where our next appointment is?’ she asked, her voice thin with fear. If the General found out that even a first-day Auditor knew her business, he’d finish her off for sure. She looked up to meet Beris’s eyes. She saw him hesitate, deliberately leaving her waiting. She looked down again, but she heard the pity in his voice when he answered. She wondered again why he had ever become an Auditor when he was plainly unsuited to it.

‘My father is the Consul of Capreae,’ he said. ‘I have known Ala all my life. She told me it was you who would be coming to translate for her.’

Very briefly, in a moment of raw horror, Tethia’s jaw went slack. She’d offended a Consul’s son, a man who was important enough to be friends with the woman who would bear Caesar’s child. Her career was over. She only had time to think it before Beris spoke again.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I won’t get you into trouble.’ He sighed and started walking towards the train station. ‘You were only doing your job. I suppose after a while they’re all alike to you.’

They travelled in silence once they were on the train to the Palatine Hill. That was more usual with an Auditor, but with Beris it now felt uncomfortable. Most Auditors were glad not to talk. What they didn’t know they didn’t have to report. Tethia supposed that Beris was in such a position that he could choose to report – or not report – anything he chose.

The train was full when they got on at Gatheron Station, the people pressed close together in one heaving mass braced against the movement of the train. Beris’s black cloaked figure was highly visible among the thin white chitons of the women and the serviceable brown shirts and trousers of the Tiedmen. The silver braid on his upright collar caught the light in the enclosed carriage.

A group of women seated near them rose to their feet to make a place for the Servicemen, pushing against the crush when they saw the three in uniform. Beris gestured for them to stay where they were.

‘Please, sisters,’ he said, raising his gentle voice to be heard. ‘Please, stay seated. We don’t mind standing.’ He turned to Tethia and Kela. ‘Do we?’

So, of course, they had to agree. The women subsided back onto the benches, but kept casting glances at Beris. They drew their veils close around their faces and whispered, assuming no one could understand them.

Tethia tried not to listen. She looked down at her own grey uniform and mentally compared herself to the three women in chitons so close nearby, their blue belts proclaiming that they were Citizen’s daughters. A Citizen’s wife would have worn the same chiton, belt and brooch, but it would be hidden under a calf length mantle.

Tethia had once worn the same every day of her life until Caracalla. I’m not a woman, she thought. I’m a Serviceman. A woman wears a chiton, not trousers and a tunic. A woman wears a veil and long hair, not a peaked cap and a short haircut that is easy to maintain. She looked away, out the window at the passing city lights. Not that it made any difference. She might as well be a man. She wasn’t sure why the thought unsettled her. That was the point of being unTied, to have the same rights as a Citizen.

As they came closer to the Palatine, the crowd thinned as more and more people got off. The three women left the train, gesturing to Beris, Tethia and Kela to sit. Tethia caught another fragment of their language, spoken in the half-tamed land of Chiau where there was a revolution against the Empire at least once a month. It was the same language Galalla had spoken.


#


By the time they reached the Palatine Station, the only people left on the train were in uniform. No one went this close to Caesar unless they had a good reason. They disembarked in an orderly manner, moving efficiently on paths that were apparently familiar. In moments, the platform was deserted. Tethia would have followed them, but Beris seemed to be waiting for something, so she folded her hands and settled in with pretended patience.

‘Oh, are you waiting for me?’ Beris asked after what had to have been at least several long minutes. ‘No, don’t wait for me. I don’t have to go through the public gates. My slaves will be here shortly.’ He paused and looked from Tethia to Kela and back again. ‘Unless… you could come with me… if you wanted to?’

‘I wouldn’t dream of imposing on your hospitality,’ Tethia said, her lips pursed and prim. She hoped she’d never see the man again.

‘I’d hoped,’ he said with a nasty look, ‘to hear from you – at least once before we parted – to hear one word from your mouth that wasn’t a lie. I see I am to be disappointed.’

A lie! A lie? Before she even thought about it, Tethia’s hand flew up and she slapped him across the face. Hard. He stared at her and she stared straight back at the red mark forming fast on his cheek. She drew in a deep, fast breath into a chest tight with shock. She couldn’t look away from his face. It struck her that this was the first moment that they’d honestly looked, really looked at each other.

A shout drew her attention. She and Beris both turned to look at the same time. It was his slaves, coming with the litter. And with them, running now, were his bodyguards.

‘Don’t be a damned fool for once!’ Beris muttered roughly, catching Tethia’s attention. She swung back to face him, just in time to see him lunge forward. He caught her face in both his hands and pressed his lips against hers.

Tethia was too shocked to respond. The kiss, if it had even been a kiss, lasted only a few moments and she was nearly as shocked when he pulled away as when he’d first touched her. His hands were still cupping her face. Her hands were on his forearms, catching gently at his wrists. Dimly, she realised that the bodyguards had slowed to a walk.

Beris slipped his hands from her face, catching one of her hands to hold it tight by his side. He turned to face the guards, who were positively dawdling now. He put up his free hand to cover the mark on his cheek and gave the guards a rueful grin.

‘Sorry,’ he said when the guards reached them. ‘It was my own fault.’ He glanced at Tethia, then at Kela whose attention was so firmly fixed on the pavement that she might as well have been back at the office. ‘I looked twice at her assistant,’ he said. ‘I should have known better.’

And the guards laughed.

Beris gestured for Tethia to precede him into the litter. The slaves lifted it off the ground with the practiced smoothness of expensive slaves and carried them through the first gate of the Palatine. Kela walked behind them.

With the curtains of the litter drawn and a soft golden light coming from the roof of the litter, it felt like they were in their own private world, but Tethia was acutely aware that both the slaves and the guards outside could hear every word they spoke. So, she whispered.

‘You saved my life. They would have killed me,’ she went on when he shook his head, apparently as aware of their lack of privacy as she was.

‘Call me crazy,’ he whispered, ‘but I make a point of not being the reason people die. Call it my motto.’

‘How, in Caesar’s name, did someone like you become an Auditor?’

‘Six-week training program.’

Tethia put her hand up to her face to muffle the giggle at the irreverent response. She should have guessed he was the son of a Consul. No ordinary man would get away with such behaviour. ‘How long is it since you came here from Capreae?’ she asked, guessing the answer and waiting for it with a smile, laughing when it came.

‘Six weeks.’ He relaxed enough to grin at her.

The litter was set down. Tethia looked around as though the closed curtains could give her an answer. ‘Are we there already? When I come here to translate at the Palatine Library it takes me ages to get there – and there are three separate gates to go through.’

‘There are still three gates.’ Beris told her. ‘This is the second gate.’

‘Is it all offices and administration, like the part I travel through?’ she asked, curious about the world beyond the curtains.

Beris shook his head and leaned forward. The litter rose as the slaves picked it up again. ‘Look outside now,’ he invited.

Tethia drew back the curtain. Beris hooked it behind a special fastening to hold it open. Her first impression was that it was dark outside. ‘Why is it dark?’ she asked, drawing back.

Beris laughed. ‘You’re so impatient. Give your eyes a moment to adjust.’

Tethia looked outside again. A small light caught her eye, low down on the ground, half concealed by a plant with dark green leaves. ‘Oh, look at the colour!’ she exclaimed involuntarily. ‘They’re so green!’

‘They react to the special lights in the garden here,’ Beris said. ‘It darkens the colour of the leaves and makes the plants grow shorter and thicker.’

‘It’s so unusual,’ she said.

She’d heard about the Palatine gardens – who hadn’t? – but she’d never seen them. Except for one ungroomed tree in the inner courtyard of the villa in Valdennes, the only trees she’d ever seen in her life were the clipped beauties in the more expensive plazas in the heart of New Rome. She’d never seen them like this, placed close together like a forest, underplanted by tiny flowers of blue and white on drooping stems, illuminated by cunning lights that peeked out from between leaves and above branches. Even the darkness beyond the leaves was lovely; richer, deeper than she’d seen anywhere else.

‘Would you like to walk with me?’ Beris asked.

‘But aren’t these gardens only for Caesar?’ She looked up and pointed to a place at the top of the hill, barely visible through the garden, where a flag proclaimed that Caesar was in residence. That in itself was rare enough, the current Caesar preferring to spend most of his time on Capreae in a palace by the sea – ironically enough, where he also sent exiled members of his family, although it was death to even whisper why he was believed to spend so much time there. All the same, it was well known that he and his sister had always been… very close.

‘Don’t worry. You won’t meet him here.’ Beris suddenly reached out and laid his hand over hers, ‘Listen, Tethia, there are things I need to tell you.’

Tethia drew slow even breaths and tried not to blush. ‘All right,’ she said, suddenly shy. She hadn’t been blushed like this since she was a girl – not since before she was a mother. Beris was at least ten years younger than she was and would be soon married to a girl from his own class. A kiss she had never even expected was making her silly.

Beris called for the litter to stop. He got out first and gave her his hand to help her rise from the litter. His hand was broader than she’d expected, stronger, more masculine. She’d expected that the son of a Consul would have feminine hands.

He kept hold of her hand. They walked a little way apart from the others, far enough for privacy, but close enough to still be in sight of his guards.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ she said softly. She turned to Beris and looked up at him. ‘There,’ she said. ‘That wasn’t a lie.’

To her surprise, he flushed. ‘I’m sorry about that,’ she said, looking down at her. ‘But in my defence, I was provoked.’

‘So was I.’

‘So, we’re square then?’

‘I suppose we are. My father was General Meropius of Valdennes,’ she added, apropos of nothing.

‘Believe it or not, I was actually aware of that.’

‘You were? How?’

‘Six-week training program or not, I’m still an Auditor. They trained me, Tethia, and I learned. I did my research on you, and on your assistant. There is nothing about either of you that isn’t in your files.’

Tethia stayed very still. His hold on her hand was loose; she slipped her hand free. She didn’t want to touch him anymore. ‘I adhered to my conditions,’ she whispered. ‘I did everything they asked of me. I have nothing that can be proclaimed against me. I am a Law-abiding Citizen!’ She realised that she’d raised her voice and drew in a sharp breath.

‘I had no intention of proclaiming against you,’ Beris answered in a low voice with a glance out the dark garden around them, lit by cunning lights from above and below to nurture the fragile, exotic plants. ‘I didn’t become an Auditor for you,’ he said. ‘I never thought I’d meet anyone quite like you. You drive me insane and we see the world very differently, but somehow once I looked at you, I couldn’t look away.’

Tethia glanced up at his face and looked back down at the little flowers that bloomed among the grass, suddenly shy. Beris’s hand came up under her chin to raise her face. Once he’d caught her eyes she couldn’t look away, either.

Tethia wished she could just look at him and keep her stupid mouth shut. Having him look at her like that made her wonder for the first time if being unTied was worth it. She felt like she would pay any price to keep him looking at her like that. But the words came tripping out.

‘Who did you become an Auditor for?’ she asked.

Beris’s hand dropped away from her face. He looked away, looking back at the group of patient slaves and guards. Tethia waited, and even though she hardly knew the man, she grieved a little for the loss of the easiness between them. He drew in a deep breath and slowly sighed it out again.

‘It was for Ala,’ he said at last.

‘Ala?’ For a moment she couldn’t even remember where she’d heard the name. Then it came to her: Ala was Caesar’s niece, the woman who was to be Qualified today to bear Caesar’s child.

About the author

Grace Martin writes fantasy novels and loves to read. Her favourite authors are Sarah J. Maas, Anne McCaffrey and Suzanne Collins. She finds endless inspiration in the world around her and lives in Sydney with an obsessive, abusive and adoring mini cat. view profile

Published on October 15, 2020

100000 words

Genre: Fantasy

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