BURNING RED

The king’s meeting room radiated a tense and anxious energy as the princess, and one of the king’s older advisors argued back and forth. A scene that the council had grown used to since the princess had come of age to attend the meetings nine years ago, but with the severity of the issue at stake, their usual civil argument was inching closer to a shouting match. Princess Nita sat with her arm clasped in front of her on the round table, wearing an impassive stone mask that belied the fire burning in her purple eyes, while advisor Krin, the man she was arguing with –  and had argued with at almost any given opportunity – stood with one hand outstretched, while the other was placed on his heart, and he spoke in a soft but clear voice. Princess Nita thought he wore the image of patience and empathy very well, but leaning forward, and looking directly into his hard-unforgiving eyes, which she’d known keenly since childhood, she recognized that in him there was no room for debate, understanding, or compromise. He smiled gently at her in the way one would smile when trying to appease a fitful child.

 

“But why the world-bearer? Why not ask Dreakar? They’re our parent planet after all, or even the Galactic Union,” Krin said looking around at the other advisors for support he knew would be forthcoming. “Don’t you think going to Marak is …well, a bit random?” He said, and as he had anticipated, the room filled with murmurs of agreement. He beamed proudly, then adjusted his robes before sitting down.



Nita did not bother replying until she had made brief but direct eye contact with each of murmurers, silencing them with a look filled with ire. If they were too afraid to share their opinions openly, then she preferred them to remain quiet instead of filling the room with their disruptive grumbling. That was the one redeeming quality she found in advisor Krin. He, at least, was bold enough to challenge her openly, even though she knew he only did it out of spite.

 

She stood up. “Not at all, advisor Krin,” she said and began to walk around the table as she spoke. “These questions you’ve posed tell me clearly that you have no vision for the advancement Juntia. That goes for the rest of you as well. You have allowed you thinking processes to stagnate, and you should know very well, that if we allow the head that makes decisions for the planet suffer stagnation, the rest of the planet will follow suit, and turn stale and rotten,” she said vehemently.

 

The advisors began speaking up against the insult at once, and some rose from their seats in fury. Princess Nita, remaining unphased, lifted her hands and clapped, the loud clear sound cut cleanly, through the air. The advisors were startled into silence, and before they had the chance to speak again, she continued.

 

“Do you want to remain a ‘simple colony’ forever? Do you not want independence?” She said in a harsh growl.

 

Then, although she was addressing them all, she glared hard into advisor Krin’s eyes, not bothering to disguise her animosity and contempt. “Is the best solution you all can come up with, after you long years of service to the king, running with your horn broken and tails tuck between your legs to your parent planet?” She said, then stayed quiet to allow her statement sink in, and give them an opportunity to speak up. When no one did, she continued.

 

“If we ask for help from Dreakar like you’ve advised, they’ll increase our taxes. If we go to the GU, they may ask for some sort unbalanced deal for our meager resources, or they may send us back to Dreakar.”



“What about the Lupaine?” Jila, an elderly woman said in a weak voice.



“Now, that’s a half-decent suggestion but help from the Lupaine is uncertain. There’s no guarantee that they will accept our request for aid… as you know, they deal with much bigger problems than plants decaying on some random colony planet,” Nita said turning to the woman, who shrank back slightly.  “Well, Alright, let’s imagine that they do help out, then what? Once their done, they’ll pack up and leave,” she said then paused a bit before continuing.
 


“What I want, is more than just momentary aide, or goodwill. I want to form connections. What I want for us, is to have allies.” She said emphasizing each word by hitting her fist to her palm. “We may never become a GU planet, but we can become independent like many other colony planets have done in the past. Reaching out to Marak’s world-bearer is the first step. Marak will ask for nothing from us. They will either do it or reject us. There is nothing to lose, and everything to gain. If we’re rejected, we’ll go to Dreakar or the GU like you’ve suggested. But if they help us?” She smiled, and the flames of ambition burned so brightly in her eyes, that the room seemed to grow hotter. “If they help us, I swear to you all, that I will make them allies to the throne of Juntia.”

 

She made her way back to her seat, and sat down, this time facing the man at the head of the table as she spoke. “Our vegetation and crops dying is a great misfortune, one of the gravest disasters the planet has experienced, but allow me to dictate how it will be written in the history books for the generations to come: ‘The fields of Juntia turned black as the plants wilted and died prematurely. The soil was blighted and grew no more grain. The people in desperation, set the planet ablaze with fire, trying to burn away the rot, and they despaired when all failed. Little did they know that what they assumed were flames of desperation, would evolve into the flames of liberation that burnt away the title of colony planet, rising from the ashes as a dignified independent planet…’” there was rapture in her voice as she spoke that spread to those around her, and no one seemed to be able to sit still.

 

Her words filtered through their bodies like smoke and intoxicated them with her thoughts. Some were carried along with eyes glazed over, while others wrung their fingers in discomfort from her ambition and passion. They were all quiet and waited as they stared in expectation at the king seated at the head of the table. King Ranon sat with his chin propped on his fist and remained quiet. His expression was impassive as he looked at his daughter. She boldly stared back, not breaking eye contact or backing down. The look in her eyes dared him to disagree with her. It was a look that let him know that despite the fact that he was the king and her father, maybe especially because of that fact, she would not hesitate to drag him from the throne if she sensed any weakness in him. He smiled internally. He knew his daughter well, and met her challenge, after all, he was the one who had trained and sharpened her ambition. He expected nothing less from her, but to challenge the king’s gaze was an act of outright disrespect.

 

Nita knew she was approaching a point of complete disregard of her father’s authority, and she was aware of the advisors watching them, but she didn’t want to concede, especially when she couldn’t sense any anger from her father over her actions. His gaze did not burn or waver. It was vast, deep, and impenetrable, like an ocean of steel. He didn’t need to argue of defend himself. His right to rule had been proven through years of dedication and results. Compared to him, her outbursts and passion, seemed childish. His look told her that nothing she did or said, could topple him. Her words had no substance to them. He was certainly the king, Nita thought, becoming keenly aware of how her attempt to challenge him only emphasized her own immaturity. Just when it seemed like the silence would stretch indefinitely, and the people were on the verge of crying and screaming just to release some of the tension in the air, Nita shifted her gaze to the table, the king spoke, and the air in the room was breathable again.

 


“My daughter grows wiser each day,” he said calmly. “Though I would caution the future queen, to temper her passions, so that her good intentioned efforts will not turn our trusted advisors into enemies, and that the fire in her blood will not burn her own allies on her brilliant ascent to the throne.” He paused briefly. “There is nothing to be lost in negotiations with Marak besides time,” he said to the advisors, then turning to the princess, “nothing can be lost besides time, but that lost time may be all that is left of Juntia. I will give you free reign over this issue. As always you know what expectations I have of you, and you rarely fail to meet them. I trust this will not be one of those rear occasions.”

 

“My King, your trust in me is never misplaced, just as my trust in you is never misplaced,” she said, smiling triumphantly. “As always, I apologize for my rudeness to our noble advisors, and I assure you all that I will not fail Juntia.”

 

# # #

 

After the meeting, the king left the room, and the advisors immediately dispersed, thankful to finally be free of the tension, some of them, Krin in particular, making sure to give her furious glares before they left. She brushed it all off, although she knew that if not for their respect for her father, she would have long since received a dose of poison in her drink or a knife through the back. She made her way to her room, high on her victory, but mentally drained from the battle. In her room, she opened the large glass doors to her balcony and leaned against the railing looking at the Juntian landscape.

 

It was midday, and the sun was high in the purple cloudless sky, basking the land in radiant light. The capital city sprawled beautifully before her, bustling with activity just outside the castle walls. She could hear the sound of the people milling through markets, driving, and brimming with life. Even with the pitiful sate of the planet, the people had not yet lost hope. The unshakable faith in the throne, was a testament to her father’s wise rule, and that faith fueled her desire to raise them up to even higher standards. Sighing and leaning forward, she carefully considered her father’s words from earlier, about not letting the fire in her blood burn her own allies, but she couldn’t help her passion. Yes, the king had done so much already. In the thirty years of his rule, the planet had gone from a poor farming colony, to a growing industrial hub, but more could be done, and she felt like the advisors were holding them back. Her father often reminded her that the advisors were the voice of the people, elected to allow the will of the masses be heard by the throne. Yet, she felt impatient with the way the advisors were growing too comfortable with the status quo, and she knew her father was frustrated with it as well. He’d expressed it to her many times when they drank together or went riding. He was just better at hiding it than she was.

 

 A flicker in the distance caught her attention, and her chest tightened, as she saw thick black smoke rising from another field being set aflame to stop the blight from spreading. Each day, more of Juntia’s glorious red fields were being turned to ash. She heard someone approaching from behind but did not turn away from the smoke rising to pollute the clear sky.

 

“Are you taking one last look?” Pedan her secretary asked. His voice was a barely above a whisper and laced with tenderness. Even though he was a couple years younger than her, he always had the air of a doting mother about him. She smiled at him affectionately. Besides her father, he was the only other reason people weren’t completely fed up with her temperament.

 

“I’m not sure when I’ll see this landscape again. The trip to Marak alone will take four months, and who knows how long it will take to convince the world-bearer,” She shook her head, and leaned over the railing. “If all goes well, this maybe one of the last times I will have to see Juntia in this state,” she said, looking at how, just within her line of sight, over half the earth was blackened with burnt crops and soot, when just a year ago they were endless alizarin fields and forests.

 

“What if you can’t convince him?” He asked, joining her by the railing.

 

Nita was silent, and she closed her eyes as a slow wind brought the smell of flowers and burring crops to her nose. “That is not an option,” she said firmly, and turned away from the view. “I won’t need anything else for today. Ask the mechanics to complete the final checks on the ship, then go to bed. Tomorrow will be a busy day.”

 

“Understood,” he said then bowed and left the room.

 

Alone, Nita leaned against the railing once more, and looked up to the sky. Large orange clouds were now moving gently against the lavender sky. I cannot fail, she thought, then closed the doors and went to bed.

 

 

# # #

 

The next morning, was as hectic as she had expected, but everything went smoothly thanks to Pendan’s careful planning. She had a quick breakfast in her room, then went to meet her father in the stables. One of the first things he did every morning was brush his Jink’s fur. She watched him from a distance, so he could complete his morning ritual without interference. He was dressed in simple clothes, and a passerby may have mistaken him for a knight or an overly fit stable boy. His Jink, Ragan, shook slightly, as he soaked up the attention of his master. The animal snorted playfully, and gently used its large tusks to nudge King Ranon when he paused briefly to clean the brush. The king laughed, and rubbed the Jink’s snout, causing the animal to wag it short tail in appreciation. If Nita had not seen Ragan, in battle, use those tusks, to ram through at least fifty fully armored soldiers at once, she may have confused him for a docile giant. The king gave his attention to Ragan for a few more minutes, before allowing one of the stable helps take over. As he approached her, she could have sworn Ragan threw her a sour jealous look. Great, she thought, now even the animals didn’t like her.

 

“He’s my father not yours,” she whispered sourly.

 

“What did you say?” Her father asked.

 

“Nothing, I think your stead is upset that you cut his grooming short.”

 

“Ragan will be fine,” he said and although his face did not show it, she knew he was amused. “are you jealous of a jink?”

 

“No, just that I don’t remember the last time you brushed my hair,” she said, throwing her braided hair over her shoulder.

 

“The last time you let me touch your hair was when you were ten, then you shaved your head a couple years later,” he said, then picked one of her small braids. “I was completely aghast. You are so much like me that the only thing that reminds me of your mother is your blue hair,” he said.

 

“Yes, of course. I am constantly reminded of how unlike her I am… not as kind or compassionate… not that I would know.”

 

“Kita was kind, compassionate, and modest,” he said. “And you are all of those things as well. But, you see, people are intimidated by your strength, so they overlook everything else.” He paused for a moment, watching as the stable boy struggled to brush Ragan. The beast was much less cooperative with anyone besides the king. Nita saw her father’s lips inch up in a barely perceptible smile, then he continued. “However, you don’t need to change, or suppress your personality to make others feel comfortable. You are the future queen of Juntia, let your actions and the results you bring be the judge of your character,” he said, his face still remaining impassive, but the pride in his voice could not be masked.

 

“I won’t let you down. I promise,” Nita said, and her voice cracked, but she held back her tears.

 

“I expect nothing less,” he said, and turned away. “Go with confidence. Juntia will not fall before you return with the world-bearer.”

 

“Of course not, you are the King,” she said, then walked over to where Pedan was waiting for her.

 

“Are you ready, Princess?” He asked.

 

She nodded, and after saying her goodbyes to a few of the advisors, and some of the common people who came to see her off, she boarded the ship with her small entourage which consisted of her and Pedan, joined by Ucin her personal guard, and Krin, who had insisted on coming. They had opted for a small group, because the smaller ships were faster, and because even if they brought an army of guards with them to Marak, it would all be futile if the Marakians decide to harm them for whatever reason. There was no need to potentially waste more time and lives.

 

# # #

 

The journey to Marak, went by without incident. During the four months, she stayed in her small quarters, and did her best to avoid Krin, who antagonized her whenever they met. She took the time to read up on Marakian customs, although there were very few books written on the subject. The entire planet was shouldered in mystery, and after many fruitless attempts to prepare herself for her meeting with the world-bearer, she chose to spend the time training with Ucin instead.

 

The woman was ten years older than her and was considered a prodigy. By her fifteenth year, she was already a ranking official in the king’s army and after there were no more wars to be fought, she decided to become Nita’s personal guard, and had trained her ever since. Nita knew she did not have her father’s skills, but Ucin was always patient with her. Each day went by peacefully, and before she knew it, the captain of the ship was announcing that they had arrived in Marak’s vacuum-space.

 

# # # 

 

It took another hour before they broke through the planet’s atmosphere, and in that time, Nita changed into more formal clothes. She and Pedan had made sure to pick outfits that were formal enough to meet the ruler of one of Nol’s most powerful planets, while not being so overbearing it would offend the rumored laid-back sensibilities of the Marakians. In reality, Nita felt underdressed, in her simple trousers and embroidered overcoat, but she pushed back those thoughts, as the small party gathered in front of the ship’s doors. Pedan and Ucin were similarly dressed, although Ucin choose to wear her leather armor over her shirt. Nita rolled her eyes upwards and sighed audibly when she saw Krin’s choice of clothing. The man looked like he was the king of the planet himself, dressed head to toe in flowing gold and purple Laris crystal embellished robes.

 

“Did you rob the royal treasury of it jewels,” Ucin said, eying Krin. “You are wearing more wealth on you than I’ve seen the Royal family display in the last two generations.”

 

“My clothing or wealth is certainly none of your concern, guard. We are here to request help, not to play the part of a beggars,” Krin replied scornfully.

 

“You are correct, but I would have assumed that in your infinite wisdom, you would have thought to respect the customs of the people we are meeting,” Nita said, then step forward till she was uncomfortably close to Krin. “And I want to clarify one thing Advisor Krin, we did not come here with the intention of begging, but if begging is what it will take to save Juntia, then you will not only play the part of a beggar, but you will do it with pride,” she said, then stepped away from him as the large doors opened up.

 

Nita had to squint, as the bright light filled the hanger. The first thing she saw once her eyes had adjusted, was a clear blue sky devoid of clouds, and a vast flat orange and white desert landscape. Fresh air rushed in through the open door and filled her lungs. Nita gasped and took a step back at the weight she felt inside her. It was as if the air was too thick and too heavy. As more of the Marakian air filled the hanger, and invaded her body, she shut her eyes, and wrapped her arms around herself. She had to make an effort to take deep deliberate breathes in order to move the air in and out.

 

“The air is heavy,” she heard Pedan gasp.

 

“Take your time, your body needs to get used to Marak’s presence,” a voice said from in front of them, but Nita’s eyes were closed, as she concentrated on steadying her breathing.

 

After a few moments, Nita felt like she was finally breathing normally, and opened her eyes. Standing in front of her, was a woman dressed in thin black leggings, and a loose black tunic with an intricate silver depiction of a battle scene seamlessly woven into the fabric. She smiled broadly and stretched out her had towards Nita.

 

“You must be princess Nita, we’ve been looking forward to meeting you since we received you letter,” she said, and Nita shook the outstretched hand. “My name is Hila, I’m from the north-eastern tribe, and the world-bearer assigned me to take care of you. Welcome to Marak.”

 

“Thank you,” Nita said, and stood up straighter. This was it, from here on all her actions could either mean the salvation or demise of Juntia. “I’m Princess Nita. This is Pedan my attendant, Ucin the head of my guard, and Advisor Krin, of the King’s Counsel,” she said, motioning to each person in turn.

 

“It’s nice to meet you all,” Hila said, and shook their hands. Nita didn’t miss the pointed look she gave Krin as she shook his hand. There was no doubt she was pondering his clothing choice. “Well, now that were all introduced, we can go,” she said, and immediately began walking out of the ship.

 

“We’ll be heading right to Cole’s palace, so you can talk to him, then once you’re done, you can have dinner and then go home tomorrow. Or you could hang around for a few days, it’s really it’s up to you.” Hila said.

 

“We’ll see him right now?” Nita asked, shocked. Usually there would be some formal welcoming feast or event, and gift giving ceremonies before one could meet any sort of ruler. Even Juntia had such practices.

 

Hila paused and looked back in evident confusion. “Well that’s what you came here for right?”

 

“Yes, I just… well there’s usually…” Nita was at a loss for words, which was something she rarely experienced.

 

“I’ve never been off Marak, so I’m not sure how things are on other planets, but the message we received said you wanted to speak to the world-bearer, and that it was urgent. If it’s so important, what’s the point of waiting until you’ve done a bunch of unnecessary things. Also.” She laughed, “world-bearer Cole is pretty impatient when it comes to official stuff, so he’s been waiting to get this whole thing over with.”

 

Nita remained silent. The way Hila spoke didn’t give her much room for optimism. It seemed like the marakians just wanted to get them out of their hair as soon as possible. She clenched her fists, and although she could feel her heart sinking, she faced forward determinedly. She had come for one purpose, and she would not leave until she had accomplished it. Yes, she thought, it was better this way, there was no need for ceremony. The faster she achieved her goal the better.

 

# # #

 

Unlike other planets Nita had visited, Marak didn’t have an Intergalactic Travel Station. There were so few people going on and off the planet, that they just had a large empty space dedicated for people to park their shuttles. Hila maneuvered them past the few shuttles that were parked there, until they reached a small cruiser. Marak was proving to be a destination with many firsts for Nita. The shuttle was of a design she had never seen before. It was an eight-seater egg shaped ship, with two holes at its sides, and a closer inspection confirmed her suspicion that it did not use hover technology.

 

When they entered inside, Hila took the seat at the head, in what Nita assumed was the front of the vehicle, although there were no controls that signified the driver’s seat. Nita watched as Hila placed a hand on a seemingly random spot on the ship. Marks flowed from her body, onto and through the ship. Through the surround glass windows, Nita saw large grey reptilian wings sprout from the two holes on the side of the shuttle.

 

“Alright, here we go,” Hila said, and with two great thrusts of the wings, they rose to the sky.

 

With Hila’s expert flying, it didn’t take long to reach the palace. Nita wasn’t surprised, when she saw the graceful simplicity of the building. It was located in an oasis within the endless marakian desert, surrounded by small bright green trees, and a large clear lake. The building itself, was a dazzling white one level square structure. Unlike her father’s place, there were no battlements or towers. She also couldn’t tell what material it was built with. It looked like the whole building was carved out of a single piece of white fabric with intricate black marks delicately placed upon it, which seemed to constantly be in motion. Nita had to look away after staring at it for a while, as the harsh black and white contrast and swirling patterns were making her dizzy.

 

As Hila brought the shuttle closer to the ground, Nita saw that there was no welcome party waiting for them. In fact, the area around the place was devoid of any activity, although, from the height they were at, she could see that just a couple miles away from the palace, there were tents and market stalls bursting with activity. Hila landed the ship right in front of the entrance, and immediately dismounted and began walking towards one of the doorless entryways, leaving Nita and her group to hurriedly follow after her. Nita ran to catch up to Hila as she walked past the unguarded entry way. Inside, was a long hallway, made with the same dazzling white material as the exterior of the building, and one side of it was made completely of windows. There was no edge or frame where the windows met the walls. It was a seamless face, with the mysterious material, simply becoming glass in the shape of the window.

 

The room was so illuminated, that Nita felt like she was walking in the clouds, or on a ray of sunlight made solid. The other wall of the hall was decorated with a detailed grayscale painting, of a flower field that seemed to use a silver and other metals as its pigments. The painting shone and caught the light against deliberately placed hatching, making the painting look like a liquid sculpture. There was no use of gold or precious gems in sight. All adornment was simplified in color and ornamentation but detailed in craftsmanship. Nita considered the fact that on a planet where even the most common man or child could produce jewels and precious metal from thin air with little effort, the true value of an object came from the skill with which it was crafted, rather than the materials used.

 

They soon reached the end of the hall, and Hila pushed on the doors with ease, swinging them open soundlessly. Nita had to squint, because as impossible as it was, this room was even brighter that the hallway. The throne room was tall and circular, made with the same white material that seemed to be the theme of the palace. There were no walls, as large windows with decorative frames took their place. The room also had no ceiling, and light seemed to fall in, undisturbed, landing gracefully on the figure that sat at the center, upon a black throne. His presence was unmistakable. Had he been sitting at the sidelines like some of the other occupants of the room, Nita would have still recognized him as the leader of Marak. She felt as if all the gravitational force of the planet emitted not from the planet’s center, but from this man.

 

He was reclined into his throne, with one leg crossed at an angle over the other. His bronze skin glittered like copper in the sunlight, and his hair was obsidian. He wore a loose black shirt with sapphire designs, not sapphire colored, but the jewel, somehow made into thread. His trousers were black loose joggers. He didn’t look as they entered, too engrossed in the discussion he was having to notice the arrival of his guests. Nita mentally corrected herself. He had most certainly noticed their arrival; he just hadn’t deigned to see them yet. The woman he was talking to, draped a lazy arm on top of the throne, and lightly punched his shoulder as they laughed over some joke. Her hair fell down her back in tight curls, and her other hand was deep in the pocket of her loose leggings, while hints of her brown skin peeked out from a cropped shirt. As easy as their manner was, Nita could not take one more step forward, even as Hila boldly walked up to the foot of the throne. The combined power radiating from the world-bearer, and the world-saber, whom she recognized immediately, was just too much.

 

“If they mean to intimidate us, they have certainly been successful,” Ucin whispered into her ear, but Nita did not reply. These were the people she was coming to demand help from, with the only incentive she had being the proposal to become allies. She suddenly felt extremely foolish, all her previous confidence draining from her. But she was determined not to falter. She had promised her father success, and she would not back down.

 

Besides the two figures at the center, there were eight other individuals in the room of varying age, Nita guessed they were the Marakian elders. Some of them were taking lapses in their conversation to watch the group. Hila reached the throne, bent her head forward in an informal bow, and held the position for a beat, before raising her head.

 

“World-Bearer, World-Saber, I have brought the guests from Juntia,” She said, although Nita could not see her face, she knew Hila was smiling.

 

The world-bearer turned from his companion, the humor draining from his face to leave in its place a blank but approachable mask. The world-saber smiled at them broadly, and Nita felt herself relax involuntary at the open expression. She did her best to meet their eyes. Now that the world-bearer was giving them his full attention, the elders halted their discussions and turned towards them.

 

“Are you going to stay at the entrance?” The world-bearer asked. His voice was not extremely deep, but there was a vibration behind it that carried and traveled through every surface and body in the room. It was the voice of a planet speaking through a man.

 

Nita straightened her back, and turning to meet the eyes of her retinue, she walked purposefully forward, to stand before the world-bearer. The rest followed, albeit reluctantly. She didn’t know how to great him, and despite the difference in power, she was still the princess of Juntia. She could not just drop to her knees, not yet at least, so she settled for a polite bow from the waist.

 

“World-bearer Cole, I am honored that you agreed to see me. I am the crown princess of Juntia, Nita Hasgan Juntia,” she said, and to her surprise, her voice rang clearly, without breaking. There was no hint of the tremors she felt raking her body.

 

He nodded. “And who are the rest of you?” He asked, glancing over the group, and there was a barely perceptible twitch when he looked to her right where Krin stood.

 

“Yes, these are…”

 

“I’m sure they can speak for themselves,” the world-bearer cut in as Nita was about to make the introductions.

 

“Of course,” she said, partly irritated by the interruption, and mortified that she may have broken some marakian introduction ritual.

 

There was an awkward silence for a moment, before Pedan boldly stepped forward. “My name is Pedan Shju, I am princess Nita’s attendant. It is an honor to meet you. I am awed by your presence,” he said in his sweet motherly voice, then bowed and stepped back. The world-saber smiled brightly after the introduction. The world-bearer simply nodded again.

 

Next Ucin stepped forward. “I am Ucin, in charge of the princess’s guard,” she said briskly then stepped back after a quick bow.

 

Finally, Krin stepped forward, his flowing robes sawing like cheap curtains. In contrast to the simplicity of the Marakian sensibilities, he looked tawdry, and his elaborate bow did nothing to lessen the effect. “Beloved world-bearer of Marak,” he said solemnly pulling folds of his robes up so he could place a hand on his chest. Nita suspected he would soon pass out with a heat stroke from wearing so many layers under the punishing Marakian sun. Krin continued. “Most beautiful world-saber.” A small frown made its way to the world-saber’s brow and her smile dimmed, yet Krin spoke undisturbed. “It is my great honor that you have welcomed us to your most sacred planet. The tales told of Marak do not do her justice. I am Krin, one of the king’s most trusted advisors. I am honored once again to meet you.” He finished, then performing another bow filled with flourish, he stepped back. 

 

After Krin’s introduction, the world-bearer said nothing, but at the corner of his lips, Nita noticed a small twitch again. The silence dragged yet no one dared speak until the world-barer made some comment or sign that he had herd the introduction. His eyes were on Kirn, but he seemed to be contemplating something deeply, and a small crease formed on his forehead, then very slowing, he leaned forward.

 

“You said your name is Krin? One of the king’s advisor?” He asked quietly, and his lip twitched again.

 

“Yes, your grace,” Krin replied, leaning forward. Nita could guess where the conversation was going.

 

Then the world-bearer leaned back into his chair, and the twitch at his lips gave way to an easy smile. “King’s advisor Krin, why are you dressed like that, did you not know Marak was a desert world? Or were you trying to outshine the princess of your planet with you garb?” He asked laughing heartily, and the sound carried on a gentle breeze.

 

“Cole,” the world-saber admonished, smacking his shoulder. Although she barley maintained her own expression.

 

“Tari,” he said, catching her had as was about to land another hit. “I wasn’t insulting him; it was a simple question about practicality.”

 

“Cole, each planet has its own set of customs,” a white-haired elder said, addressing the world-bearer without his title, “although I have never known a culture where the advisor out dresses the princess.”

 

“I personally prefer the princess’s style choices. The advisor brings to mind the excesses of the times of old,” another elder said. A tall young woman, pale as bone from head to toe.

 

Nita clenched her fist and swore inwardly. Kirn had succeeded in making them into a ridiculous side show. At least he had the decency to look ashamed. Just as Nita was thinking of a way to bring the conversation back to focus, the world saber-cleared her throat, and silence descended on the room.

 

She smiled again. She smiled quite often Nita thought and it suited her, but she had to wonder if the smiles were as sincere as they appeared. “I’m sure you would all like to discuss fashion choices for a bit longer, but I believe Princess Nita didn’t travel across the galaxy just for that. And on that note, I will be taking my leave.”

 

“Already?” Hila said, “You just got here.”

 

“Uhg, I know,” she said, and stretched her neck. “I know, but I’m sensing fluctuations in Sol’s sleep pattern,” she said. The mention of the Prince of Nightmares name turned Nita’s blood to ice. Pendan gasped. The world-Saber glanced their way but did not acknowledge their reactions.

 

“Is he waking?” the world-bearer asked.

 

“No, I don’t think so,” the world-saber said, and for reasons that Nita could not begin to fathom, the world-saber’s reply carried heavy disappointment. As though she would have preferred it if the monster woke up. Nita kept her thoughts to herself, and thankfully so did Krin; she knew he would usually have a lot to comment on. “Anyway, I’m leaving now, I need a proper break after the last ten years in the Binding. I will be with him for a few days, then I’ll head to Cajara,” the word-saber said. Then she gave the world-bearer a one-armed hug and bid farewell to Hila and the advisors. As she passed Nita, she gave her a small smile, and a nod, the left then throne room through the roof less ceiling, on large black kyr-wings which materialized fluidly from her back.

 

After the world-saber left, world-bearer Cole returned his attention to Nita. “Nita, as Tari said, you have important things to discuss. My apologies for distracting us from the point.”

 

“That is fine world-bearer, as long as we can talk now,” she said, surprised by both the apology, and the use of her name without a title.

 

“Let me hear what you have to say,” he said, leaning into his throne. “Also call me Cole. We don’t make a habit of using titles unless necessary.”

 

“If you insist…Cole,” Nita said, and he simply nodded and waited, so Nita began to tell him of the state of Juntia. “Cole, for eleven months now, Juntia has been suffering from some sort of blight, and we have been unable to identify the cause or find a cure. Every day, more crops are dying, and more fields are burned. If nothing is done, we will no longer be able to sustain ourselves. We are already tittering on the edge of famine. That’s why we are here, to request aid from Marak. With your abilities, you will certainly be able to heal Juntia,” she said, making sure to keep her eyes on Cole as she spoke, despite the pressure she was feeling. He watched her and said nothing for a moment. She hoped he was considering her words carefully, but the look on his face did not seem to be one of empathy or contemplation. Nita balled her fists nervously.

 

“Out of all the options laid out before you, how did you come to the conclusion to seek help from Marak? We have nothing to do with you,” Cole said, and the manner in which he held himself was beginning to show signs of boredom and disinterest. Cole sighed internally. Although it was rare, this was not the first time a planet had come to him for aid and it would not be the last. He didn’t know what part of Marak’s relationship with the rest of the galaxy, gave the impression that they were a good willed charity.

 

“Your parent planet is Dreakar go to them,” he continued, then he grinned although the humor did not touch his eyes. “Unless of course there is some other reason why it has to be Marak.”

 

Nita didn’t know how to respond. She didn’t know whether she should implore his pity or beg, but as she studied his demeanor, she knew there would be no forthcoming of sympathy or pity. The world-bearer didn’t care one way or another what happened to her planet. “I…” she started to say but couldn’t continue. She had expected such a response, but to actually be in the situation felt much more difficult than she had imagined. The world-bearer’s eyes were unrelenting, and expectant.

 

She almost fell to her knees like she’d said she would. What use was the pride of a princess from a dying world? But now, after meeting the marakians, a part of her suspected that the moment her knees touched the ground, she would be thrown out. Marakians did not value weakness. She clenched her fists tightly. The skin over her knuckles strained from the tension. Calm down she thought. Calm down now. She closed her eyes, then deliberately, and slowly released the breath she had been unconsciously holding.

 

She opened her eyes. “Cole, I have no interest in allowing my world to remain a colony of Dreakr, so I refuse to ask them for help. You wonder why I came to Marak? The answer is obvious, and you know it. You are powerful. You are powerful and we have nothing of value to you, so we will not be exploited by you. You would be the most advantageous ally we could ask for. That is all,” she said, and unclenched her fists. “I came her ready to throw away my pride and beg at your feet if I had to, but I no longer think that way.” She brushed away a stray hair that fell in her face. “You would not appreciate the gesture, and I have no desire to do so. My planet is dying as we speak, I don’t have time to waste here. Will you help us or not?” she knew what she was risking, and almost backed down, but her father had told her she didn’t need to change who she was, and she wouldn’t feign meekness.

 

“Princess,” Krin said in outrage “Is this any way to…”

 

“Be silent Krin,” she said forcefully, and to her surprise he was silent, as were the rest of the room’s occupants. Cole had an undiscernible look on his face.

 

“Neither your pleading nor boldness move me,” Cole said, still expressionless. The only indication of any emotion was the subtle moment of the marks around his wrist on the hand that lazily hung over the arm of his throne. Unlike other marakians, the world-bearer did not have arabesque markings covering his body. His marks were contained to black bands around his neck, wrists and ankles. Nita knew those markings were capable of manipulating the entire planet like clay in the hands of a sculptor. She grew nervous but did not let it show on her face. If he killed them all for her insolence, he probably wouldn’t even be held accountable. Would her father go to war with Marak over her death? she certainly hoped not. The moment extended for an eternity before he spoke again.

 

“I visited Juntai about seven hundred years ago, with Sol and Rick,” he said, and Nita stared at him in confusion. She had no clue where he was going. He looked wistfully out the windows, with a grieved smile that affected his entire face. “There are increasingly few planets that Sol finds beautiful. Afterall, he often sleeps for thousands of years, only to wake up and find places he once loved completely changed. Fintar was ruined by industry, Awana by his own powers. Who knows when he will wake up next, only to find Juntia in ruins?”

 

Nita was still having trouble understanding Cole’s train of thought, and she was even more befuddled to imagine the dark prince even being able to feel love, much less that some of that love was directed towards her planet.

 

“Nita, I cannot become your ally. My friendship is not given so easily, but I will heal your planet for Sol’s sake. And I would like to thank you for coming here. It is well known that we are a closed off planet. If you did not notify me, I would have never known the state Juntia was in,” he said and smiled. It was the first warm expression he had directed to her, and although Nita had mixed feelings about what she was hearing, she returned the smile. She didn’t care what the reason was, as long as he helped Juntia.

 

“Also,” he continued, the warm smile turning mischievous. “I invite you to continue to visit Marak as often as you want. I have no doors barring entrance to my palace. Feel free to try to convince me to become your ally. I’m certainly curious to see how you plan to break away from Dreakar, as well.”

 

Nita felt her chest expand, and she almost burst out laughing in triumph. Despite what Cole said, she knew what his words meant. Marak was not a planet that one could just visit whenever. He was giving her a chance. Her lips twitched, and she was mortified as a small giggle escaped, but she quickly quieted the sound.

 

“Thank you, Cole. I assure you that before long you will count Juntia as one of you few allies.”

 

“I look forward to it,” he said. “Although I wonder if you will still be alive when that happens.”

 

“I don’t care if it is in my lifetime or centuries from now. The foundation has been laid.”

 

“It is shaky at best, easily broken.” He scoffed.

 

“But it has still been laid. Not many planets can say that, certainly no colony planets.”

 

“Few are so bold.”

 

“I thought my boldness did not move you.”

 

He smiled but did not reply.

 

“She has you there, Cole,” Hila said laughing, and some of the elders joined in.

 

“Despite what you say, you are easily moved.”

 

“You had already decided you would help when you received the letter. I don’t know why you insist on dragging things out sometimes,” the white Haired elder said. “You need to go out more…But Prince Sol would be happy. Maybe you can visit together when he wakes up.” Nita shuddered at the thought but said nothing.

 

“Janjik, I don’t think the people will take too kindly to that suggestion,” Cole said. “Although there would be no way to stop us.” He laughed.

 

“If you plan on making any visits in the future, please inform us beforehand, so we can make the necessary arrangements,” Pendan spoke softly.

 

Cole grinned. “I make no promises Pendan,” he said then got up from his throne and stretched until his muscles were pulled taunt. “But I trust you will take care of things regardless,” he said walking to stand beside them and rest his hand on Pendan’s shoulder. Pendan wasn’t bulky, but he was tall, and still he looked small even though Cole was only a few inches taller. Pendan blushed deeply at the contact, and Nita thought he would faint.

 

“Since we are done here, I will be moving on to my next appointment. Feel free to stay as long as you want and explore Marak. Hila will go back to Juntia with you when you are ready to leave, she will also be your guide until then. Please feel free to give her a hard time.”

 

“Cole,” Hila sighed, and shook her head.

 

“Nita, Ucin, Krin, and Pendan,” He said, slapping Pendan’s back lightly as he said his name. “Till next time, which could be in just a few hours if you’re still here for dinner. The rest of you go home,” he said gesturing to the elders, then he strode out of the room.

 

The elders lingered a bit longer to personally greet Nita. Then they all left, leaving them alone with Hila.

 

“So,” Ucin began uncertainly, “Our mission was successful?”

 

“I believe so, but I must say, I’m quite confused.” Pendan replied.

 

Hila laughed loudly, loosening the uncertainty in the air. “Of course, it was successful. If it wasn’t, you’d already be on your way back to your planet by now. The thing to know about Cole is that he doesn’t waste time refusing people, but he likes to play around when he knows he’s going to say yes. He’s a bit sadistic,” she said, and laughed again.

 

“So, you already knew you would be helping us?” Nita asked.

 

“Yes, he called me over yesterday when he saw me downtown and told me he’d probably be sending on an off-world assignment.”

 

“Just like that?”

 

“That’s how it usually is when you part of the armory.”

 

“Armory?” Ucin asked.

 

“Yes, it’s like the equivalent of a royal guard, or planetary defense…basically we are the weapons of Marak should the need arise. We also available perform whatever tasks the world-bearer or saber ask of us.”

 

Nita nodded. Marak was certainly different. She noticed that throughout their conversation, Krin was oddly quiet. “Is everything alright?” she asked touching his shoulder.

 

He jumped, overly startled, then shook his head, as if to banish whatever thoughts were plaguing him. “Everything is fine Princess, I think the heat is getting to me.”

 

Nita noted that it was actually quite cool in the throne room now, compared to earlier or when they were outside, but she didn’t point it out. The meeting had obviously shaken him.

 

“Well then, let’s get you a change of clothes. We’ll garb something to eat, then I’ll show you some of Marak, and along the way we can discuss when well leave for Juntia. Let’s go,” Hila said, already walking out of the room.

 

“Princess,” Pendan said softly. She turned meet a glorious smile that lit up his face, and she saw the sun glistening on small droplets of moisture in the corners of his eyes. “Juntia is saved,” he said breathlessly.

 

She grabbed his hands, and squeezed them tightly, suddenly overcome by emotions, the greatest being intense relief. “She is saved,” she whispered, her voice constricted by emotion.

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