When the door opened, Ani had no idea what to expect. She stood just inside it, surprised by the simplicity of the furnishings. The younger of the Stone Singers, Layson, having opened the door, crossed the room to stand to one side of the large desk backed by a towering bookcase. The room did not feel as alien as Ani thought it might.
So many things had happened in the last three days since she awakened on Lrakira. One moment Ani felt she understood who she was and the next she felt like she’d been stuffed into a tiny closet, unable to breathe or even think. This is not a closet. This is not a closet. She repeated the mantra mentally as she offered a Northern blade salute in greeting to Diani, the amber Pericha Stone’s Singer and Layson, the blue Kita Stone’s Singer. Diani stood, and the two singers executed sharp salutes in the Lrakiran style, a style that Ani had always assumed was from her home planet’s southern continent. She couldn’t stop the twinge of sadness that her mother had never explained her true family origin.
Layson walked to a small alcove with a large, many-paned window and busied herself as Diani moved from behind a desk, her gold robes rustling softly. A genuine smile lit the Singer’s eyes, and Ani couldn’t help smiling in response. This was not going to be an interrogation.
Diani gestured to the three chairs set around a small round table. “There should be few troubles with the differences in our languages because Singer Layson and I are equipped with bio-teachers, each containing updates from Renloret’s.”
As Ani nodded in understanding, she acknowledged to herself that Diani’s accent did indeed resemble Renloret’s. She had worried about how this conversation was going to happen without either Renloret or the man masquerading as her father in the room to translate.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with us again, Anyala,” Diani said. “We have spoken with Renloret and now have a better understanding of your upbringing. We wish to apologize for any prior insult.”
Before stepping further into the room, Ani decided to clarify one of the most bothersome things. “My name may be Anyala but I have rarely been called that. Having met my namesake, the Anyala Stone, I would prefer to be called Ani. And please do not call me The Blood. That is for prophecies and fables, not real life.”
The two Singers shared tight-lipped smiles at her admonishment.
Diani cleared her throat. “Ani, I welcome you to Lrakira. Singer Layson and I wish to converse with you, to answer your questions, if we can, and to verify your suitability for the position of Stone Singer.” She bowed and again indicated the chairs.
Ani frowned at the last words. What more would she be required to do to convince the people of this alien world that the Stone itself had identified her as its next Singer? She had not sought the role. Pushing away the irritation at having to continually defend her identity, both here on Lrakira and on her home world of Teramar, Ani swallowed the embittered response that rose to her tongue. She took a seat.
Singer Layson approached with a tray of cups. “I hear you enjoy the occasional cup of tea?”
Ani’s thoughts went immediately to Melli, her best friend’s mother, and how ecstatic Melli would be to try a tea from another world. Ani smiled at the imagined conversation they would engage in—drying techniques, herb usage and combinations, water temperatures, packaging, and, of course, steeping instructions along with what ceremonies, if any, might be customary. “Yes, I do. My best friend’s mother is a master tea maker. I would be pleased to participate.”
Layson’s shoulders dropped as she relaxed. She poured thin reddish syrup from a plain stone pot with a long, narrow sieved spout. The spout caught bits of leaves, keeping the brew free of debris. When all three cups had been filled to the brim, Ani watched as the Singers clasped hands over their cups and hummed a five-note tune.
Diani smiled at Layson. “Well done,” the elder Singer praised.
Ani noticed the blush that darkened Layson’s cheeks. Had she passed some sort of test?
The younger Singer turned to Ani. “It is my pleasure to welcome and serve our newest Stone Singer candidate. May the Stones be your guides and their Blades keep you safe.” Taking the remaining chair, she offered her cup in a salute. Diani joined in the two-handed cup raising.
Though a bit uncomfortable, Ani grasped her cup with both hands and raised it up to touch the brims of the other two. There was a light ringing sound inside Ani’s head as an approving five-note tune of the amber Pericha and blue Kita Stones echoed the tune hummed by the Singers even though the Stones were rooms away. Ani wondered if the other two women heard it, but she did not ask.
Mimicking the quick noisy slurps Diani and Layson made, Ani registered the fiery bite of the tea on her tongue before the liquid spread a light sweetness throughout her mouth. She held a portion of the syrup on her tongue and inhaled across it. The fiery spice intensified and she almost coughed, but the sweet underlay calmed the tickle when she swallowed.
Ani nodded as the sweet-fired syrup coated her throat and warmed her stomach. “That was unexpected. Melli would love to have this tea in her arsenal. Could I have some to share with her?” She would figure out how to tell Melli where it came from later.
The Singers glanced at each other. Diani shrugged. “I see no obstacle, Layson.”
Again Layson blushed. “It is one of my own recipes. I will make up a package for you, along with instructions.”
After several minutes of companionable chatting about tea, Ani set her cup down. “Tell me about the Stones and their blades.”
Diani folded her hands. “Since the beginning, only women have been allowed to become Singers because they are more intuitive and more open to the Stones’ ways of communication. The Stones communicate telepathically and visually through song, music, and color. In turn, the Singers passed on the Stones’ wisdom and knowledge to the people. The Stones have been our base of intellectual and spiritual guidance since before recorded history.
“There is no record of who carved the blades, but we do know the blades are of the same crystals as their matching Stones. At first, the purpose of the blades was to protect the Stones. Each Singer received advanced training in blade skills for this purpose. Though the possibility of danger to the Stones has diminished considerably over the past several hundred years, we still maintain that training. For a thousand years, we have thrived in this symbiosis. Until now. Ani, your Anyala Stone must not die. We do not know if Lrakira will survive without all three stones.”
“But I have been led to understand that my blood has saved the people of Lrakira from extinction, so even if the Stones cease to be, won’t the people continue?” Ani asked.
The Singers frowned at her. Then Diani spoke. “We do not know, Ani. The Stones have not sung that verse to us.”
Layson leaned forward. “We have no doubt the vaccine will be successful, but the testing is not complete as yet. Until it is proven that a woman can become pregnant and not only carry a child to full term, but deliver a child who survives, our people are still in danger. News of the vaccine was released this morn. The people are joyous, of course, but we all await the outcome of the test subjects.” She nodded to Diani to continue. They seemed to have planned what information each was to divulge.
“If only your grandmother had not attacked the Anyala Stone, we could have waited the months needed. But the Stone must be saved now. I don’t believe it will survive that long. We, Layson and I, are adamant that you leave for Teramar as soon as a ship can be brought in. In spite of what the medical establishment says, we are confident that the vaccine will work and more of your blood will not be needed. Our Stones have promised us that you are The Blood and your twin sister is The Balance. It is she who will save the Stone.”
Ani took several swallows of tea. It grated on Ani’s idea of family that it was her grandmother Selabec who had tried to kill the crystalline being called the Anyala Stone. And though Ani’s mother had never mentioned anything about being from another planet, Ani had difficulty with the very idea of attempted murder—whether alien creature or not—and that was what Selabec had committed. Ani was glad her mother was not around to suffer this blow to the family’s values. But it would have been nice to know exactly where her family had come from. Twenty-five years of lies were making all this more difficult to fathom.
Anger at her personal situation dissipated as curiosity welled up. “I don’t understand why no one knew my mother had the Anyala Stone’s blade. Don’t you have them on your person at all times?”
“At first we did not know that your mother had been given permission by the Stone to take the blade with her to Teramar,” Singer Diani admitted. “No Singer, Stone, or blade has been off Lrakira before. It was not even considered. Selabec did not inform us of the blade’s disappearance until a few moon-cycles before the commander, your father, arrived announcing your birth.
“There had been no reason to believe her blade was missing until the S’Roadoss Celebration. We use the blades in a ceremony of renewal that strengthens the bonds between the Singers and the Stones. The ceremony is executed simultaneously on the three continents. There is much music, dancing, and song. The blade championships are played then as well. Ships in orbit report seeing a massive light display akin to the polar auroras, but in a specific three-sided formation between the Stones’ locations. In the chambers, we hear music and see those colors as well. It is an invigorating experience.”
Singer Layson spoke up. “Because Selabec did not have her blade, we were unsure if we could perform the required ceremony. Kita informed me that the missing blade was where it belonged and the bonding experience for Diani and me would not be lessened. Selabec did not participate but the Anyala Stone did. This was my first S’Roadoss, so I do not know if it was different from previous ceremonies.”
Diani shook her head. “It was not less for me, though I heard the aerial color show was quite different from those in the past. The people knew no difference and did not suspect that the Anyala Stone’s blade was not in the Singer’s possession. As far as written history relates, the blades have never left the planet before. And since we have traveled the star lanes, no Singer has left Lrakira until your mother.
“In her defense, Selabec may not have known the blade was missing until then because we are not required to wear them constantly, as we had been in the long past, and Selabec has been known to leave her blade untouched for long periods of time. Our robes signify our identity rather than the blades. We do not need the blades to communicate with our Stones once we are bonded, though the connection is stronger if we are wearing or holding the blade when we sing with the Stones.”
Diani hesitated and smiled softly as her eyes unfocused briefly. “Pericha sings that those who are not Singers must touch the Stone to hear their songs.” She nodded at Ani’s perplexed expression. “Yes, Anyala—oh, your pardon, Ani—I can hear my Stone even from this distance though my blade is in the wrong place. I believe it is similar to your connection to your companion, Kela.”
“But I heard all three Stones when I was in the chamber three days ago, though the Anyala Stone’s song was quite muted. I was not touching any of them and I did not have the blade with me.”
The Singers looked surprised. “You could hear all three? We can hear only our own and then only when they wish us to hear,” Diani said.
Ani nodded. “All three. Do you suppose they were in such need that they were able to forego the touch requirement? On Teramar I had frequent contact with the blade until Mother died and I buried it with her. When the casket was broken into . . .” Ani paused at the horrified expressions on the Singers’ faces. “Oh, sorry. I’m guessing you didn’t know about that.” She waved her hands as if to erase her last words. “Listen, to shorten a too long sword, mother’s body and the blade were stolen from the cemetery, though according to the imbecile who perpetrated the crime, the body turned into a green smoke and disappeared into the blade’s carrying box. I didn’t believe him then and I still don’t, though we did find the blade—but not her body. However, in light of current circumstances I feel this is a topic to be discussed another time.”
“Yes, a more complete telling of this story would be appreciated at another time,” Diani said, bowing her head. “Ani, we have only recently learned of your mother’s death, the desecration of her casket, and the thievery. It is most alarming. While I am personally relieved that the blade was recovered and is now in appropriate hands, please accept our sincere condolences.”
Ani nodded in acceptance.
Diani sighed. “As you say, that discussion should be held later. So please do continue.”
Ani closed her eyes for a breath to collect her thoughts. “When I was poisoned and injected with the coma device, Renloret and Taryn were able to use the blade to sing a Song of Healing, and then Renloret brought me here to Lrakira. You know the story of what happened after I awoke from the surgery that removed the coma device.
“If you have doubts about whether or not I am qualified to be a Singer, I think I can prove the blade accepted me because I have markings on my arms made by the blade after my championship. Renloret says it’s in an ancient script that few can read, but it identifies me as The Blood.” She rolled up her sleeves and presented her arms for inspection.
The Singers studied the patterned scars without a sound. Then Diani and Layson stood and honored her with blade salutes.
“As we suspected, you are the Anyala Stone’s Singer. The blade is yours. Perhaps that is why you could hear them. You are a Singer, no matter the opinion of others, even your grandmother, unless you fail the skills test.”
Alarms went off in her head. “What test?”
The Singers stood in unison, and Diani said, “A singer must be tested to be sure she can defend her Stone. Since you have had some training at blades, we assume you will be adequate. You will meet Layson in the ring after the morrow’s first meal. Renloret and your father will see to arming and preparing you. Renloret is waiting to escort you.”
Without another word, the Singers exited, golden robes rustling.
Welcoming the telepathic contact, Ani let Kela’s calm voice push away the rising anger. Thank you. I’m ready. She twirled the well-made borrowed blade into a Northern salute when she reached the center of the ring, acknowledging her opponent, Layson. No longer draped in the gold robes of her office, the singer answered with a Lrakiran salute. Ani scrutinized the woman in close formfitting attire while she stretched. This was not the quiet, unassuming Singer Ani had shared tea with last eve.
On Teramar, the only female bladers Ani had practiced against were her mother and on rare occasions, Melli or a girl just beginning to learn. Apart from them, all her opponents had been boys or men. Ani wondered how much Layson had been told about her skills. Renloret had mentioned that female bladers were quite common where he was from and participated equally in the blade ring, though at the time, Ani thought he was talking about the southern continent of her home world, Teramar, not this distant planet.
She turned to glare at the tall blue-eyed pilot standing near the bleachers. Exuding confidence, he waved then saluted. Only minutes before she’d stepped into the ring, his only admonishments had been that she not underestimate Layson’s skills and that she should not kill the Kita Stone’s Singer. Ani had no intention of doing such a thing but that did not diminish the fact that being forced to demonstrate her skills against one of Lrakira’s world leaders had annoyed her enough to bring forth her best effort. Being told that she had attained continental championship status against men on Teramar had not swayed the Singers. It irked her that she would have to prove she was qualified to be a Stone Singer.
Mystified by surroundings that were nerve-rackingly similar to the blade rings on Teramar, Ani wondered how two planets so far apart could have such similar practices and settings. She shook her head to concentrate on the moment at hand. It would be inattention to the little things that would catch her, just as it had in her last fight, which had almost ended her life and put her into a coma.
Kela coached her telepathically from the sidelines. Let the blade bend. This is not an unpredictable amateur with a poisoned blade. She is a seasoned professional, trained like yourself, and one who bears watching. Learn from her.
Ani drew a breath and rolled her shoulders up and back to squeeze out the tension, but coiled again internally as her anger flared toward those who had set up this match. Were they hoping she would fail? They had not defined failure or success, just that she was to demonstrate her skills against an equal. If she failed would she be allowed to return to Teramar? What about finding her twin and saving the Anyala Stone? And though she wanted this farce to be over, she would not be disrespectful. If she were careful, she might be able to end the match before the end of the first round.
She hummed the opening phrase of the focus song her mother had sung before each of Ani’s competitions. Layson frowned. Perhaps she recognized the tune. A smile curved Ani’s lips and her adrenaline rose. It didn’t matter that she was on an alien planet. She was in a blade ring, and that was home.
When the starting chime sounded, she backed away and presented the blade. They parried. Layson’s methods mirrored many fighters Ani had met in the blade ring. She was intrigued that some sequences reminded her of her mother. Perhaps Layson had had the same instructor. Ani met each strike with only enough to defend herself.
Despite her own intentions and Kela’s admonishments, Ani’s thoughts drifted to the doctors who had drawn yet another bag of her blood the previous eve after the conversation with the Singers. They had already collected enough to create the vaccine, but when they were informed that she would be leaving Lrakira, they wanted more in case the first rounds failed to work and she did not return to Lrakira.
A quick stab by Layson startled her back to the blade ring. It was time to show them she could do more than defend herself. Charging through the Singer’s defense, Ani struck Layson’s chin with her free hand. She knew the rules allowed it. The Singer sucked in her gut to escape the arcing swing of Ani’s blade. Layson backed off, her expression wary. Good. She was now aware of the trouble she was in. Layson’s eyes flicked between Ani’s hands, telegraphing a question about her ability to use the blade in either hand.
Good, she’s almost ready. Ani allowed Layson to lead her to a different rhythm, and she kept a straight face as she felt the Singer’s tactics change. A kick thumped her ribs. Whipping around, she answered in kind and followed up with a furious combination. This demonstration needed to end before she forgot she was not to seriously injure the Singer. Layson backed away, taking deep, rapid breaths. Oh yes, she knew the end was approaching. But like a champion, she would not back down. She gave a quick salute and, switching the blade to her other hand, slashed under Ani’s guard.
Someone in the audience gasped in surprise at the hand change, though Ani had expected it sooner. Now she would be able to end the charade with some level of respect. She responded with her own unique moves, encouraging the Singer to press her apparent advantage. Ducking under Layson’s lunge, she struck the empty wrist with the butt of her blade. Ignoring the cry of pain, Ani carried the momentum down and across to the inside of Layson’s knee and on the rebound, brought the blade tip upward as her opponent’s head and shoulders buckled forward. Ani watched the blade rise in slow motion, savoring the moment. It took strength and technique to ensure Layson would not die.
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