In the city beneath the shadow of the great marble palace, down a small forgotten alley, behind an old, thick, black door, Lilah was in training. She stood in the dark smoky room, with her back against thick, satin drapes. The room was dimly lit and full of rich looking clutter. Her thin charcoal hair was tied in a tight bun. She stood, narrow and sharp, small and blade-like in every way. She was slim and light as the wisps of blue smoke that circled about the room. Lilah had always been small, but like Stryker and John, she was strong.
The night of Stryker’s ascension, the night John met his sister by the pool, Lilah, as she had so many times, stood against the curtained wall in the stifling hot air of the room. She was also being tested. Her dark eyes stared blankly out of her pale face.
Across the room in a pillowy, faded pink chair sat a very large, very ancient woman. Her hair was dark and pulled back like Lilah’s. Her face was pale, the skin almost translucent. Like Lilah, her eyes were charcoal black. Yet in form, she was the exact opposite of Lilah’s sharp thinness. She spilled over her chair. Her back dress clung to the bulging folds of her chest and stomach. In her fat painted lips she held a long metallic pipe. From it rose the blue wisps of smoke that hung heavy in the room. The burnt smell of the smoke, mixed with stifling perfume and an oily heat from a fire in the hearth, made the air in the room thick, nauseating.
On an end table beside the chair, sat a small, jeweled box, filled with shiny metal shards, each a different size and shape. Almost carelessly the woman reached into the box and drew out a shard. Then with a remarkably quick flick of the wrist she sent it flying directly at Lilah on the opposite wall. With an equally quick motion Lilah caught the shard, trapping it tightly before her face, between two extended fingers. Then just as carelessly, she dropped the shard into a matching jeweled box at her side. It was a strange, deadly game of catch. To the rhythm of the throwing and catching the old woman asked Lilah questions. Lilah, having been asked the questions countless times, recited the answers mechanically.
“Who are you?” A shard thrown.
“DeLilah,” catch, “called Lilah, named for the ancient mother of deceit.”
“What are you?” A shard.
“I am trained as a Blade Maiden,” catch, “of the ancient order. I feel and control the Shar like those before me, yet I am a traitor to my sisters.”
“What is your purpose?” A shard.
“To destroy you,” catch “and bring down the sisterhood.”
“Why must you do this?”
“Because, you have chosen destruction over bondage.”
“What are your weapons?” Two shards in quick succession.
“In my hands all things are weapons,” a sweep of both hands, a catch, another catch.
“What is your method?”
“To lie and deceive, destroy when possible, to undermine and control when necessary.”
A shard, “Who are your allies?”
Catch, “No one, I am alone.”
“What made your dissension possible?”
“Why,” shard, “do you,” shard, “fight?” shard.
Catch, catch, catch. “To liberate that love.”
At this last answer the old woman let fly the last shard and slumped heavily back into her chair. Her eyes closed, and she drew in a long breath of blue smoke. Lilah dropped the last shard into the box, bent down, closed the lid carefully, and carried it to the old woman’s chair.
“You have done well, the time will soon come,” the woman whispered, heavy smoke drifting from her lips and nostrils. “Your mother was right. They will not see you coming. You will succeed. You will destroy us all.” The old woman coughed. “ You will liberate us.”
They sat for a moment in silence. Then the old woman held out a fat hand. Lilah came forward, bowed her head, and kissed it coldly. The woman stretched out her fingers and brushed the side of Lilah’s face. There was a hint of real tenderness in her touch. “Your mother would be proud, ” the old woman said with a half smile. Lilah blinked slowly but did not look directly at the woman. “And your father…” The woman started to say, but stopped, closing her eyes again. Then, after a moment, changing the subject, she went on, “Go to the dressing rooms, help the girls with their makeup. Make sure Ani is not pestering the others.”
Lilah looked down at the old woman in the chair. Her ancient face was thickly lined and pale. She bore the mark of a Blade Maiden, a thin strip of black metal, less than a quarter inch wide, grafted into the skin above each eyebrow. The strips curved above her eyes and then back upward toward her temples. On the left side, four diamonds were inset in the metal, identifying the woman as a Master Instructor.
Lilah was her granddaughter. Lilah’s mother had been her daughter. No one, except the two of them, knew this. If it had not been for the extraordinary circumstances of her birth, Lilah would have grown up to be a Blade Maiden like her mother and grandmother. She would also have the metal grafted into her brow. She would also be addicted to the sule drug and smoke it from a long metal pipe. All Blade Maidens smoked sule. It was the addiction that kept them in servitude to the Empaths who provided it. The secret of the sule, how it was produced, how it was able to dominate the will, was the Empire’s greatest and most powerful secret.
Lilah often looked at her Grandmother when she was like this and tried to imagine how her own mother must have looked. Lilah could not remember her mother at all, but she must have looked at least a little like the fat woman in the chair. Lilah knew her mother had been a Blade Maiden, but she could not remember anything else. Lilah was taken from her mother a few minutes after she was born, and a few days later, her mother was executed for treason.
It was her mother’s treachery that had led to their present circumstances. Lilah’s grandmother had been the most respected trainer of Blade Maiden’s in the Empire. Her girls trained specifically to serve the royal entourage. When Lilah’s mother’s deceit was discovered, she was executed, Lilah’s grandmother was derated, and Lilah’s father disappeared, surely captured and killed by the Empire. Most of her students’ families pulled their daughters from the school when it lost its royal commission. Had Lilah been discovered, however, had the palace known that Lilah’s mother had actually borne a child before she died, they would all have been killed. Fortunately Lilah’s birth was kept a secret. The school was permitted to continue, though now it had only twelve students, only one with any real talent. They earned only minor positions as bodyguards for lesser nobles or rich businessmen.
They were also forced to perform exhibitions of their talents. The shows brought in a little money and once in a while they led to commissions, but Lilah knew her grandmother hated them. She hated people gawking at her girls as if they were circus performers.
Without opening her eyes the old woman took another long breath from her pipe. Lilah turned and left the room.
When she had gone, her grandmother sat up and stared into the fire. Her eyes were dark and hard. She did care for Lilah, but that did not change what they were, or what had to be done.
Lilah went down a few stairs and into a narrow hallway that led behind the stage. The old floorboards creaked as she moved down the hall. The air was still heavy with the scent of perfume and sule smoke. At the end of the hall Lilah entered the dressing room through a thick black curtain. The room was dimly lit with oil lamps. Several girls, all bearing the mark of Blade Maidens, crowded around three mirrors, most were blotting their faces with a thin white powder or arranging their hair in tight buns. Others were outlining their eyes in dark liner or pasting on fake eyelashes. One was using a small white cloth to polish the metal above her eyebrows. At the moment none were smoking, but smoke from their pipes still hung in the air. They were dressed in identical metallic-black uniforms, sleeveless with short skirts and high black boots. In the center of the room two girls where arguing. One was tall, nearly six feet, thin but muscular. Cowering before her, a smaller, plainer girl clasped a blue glass bottle.
“My mother sent this to me, and there is not much left,” the smaller girl said almost pleading.
The taller girl smiled, almost a smirk, “Look we’re sisters, that cream makes my hair look so nice, it’s selfish of you to keep it all.” Dropping her smile she added, “Especially because I am the only one here who has any chance of getting a position anyway, it’s wasted on someone as plain and untalented as you.” With that she grabbed at the bottle. The smaller girl twisted away from her, lost her footing, and fell. The taller girl towered above her.
“Give it to me now,” she said, with forced calmness in her voice.
“Ani,” Lilah said quietly but firmly. “Madam Saara told me to make sure you weren’t pestering the other girls.”
The taller girl, Ani, turned scowling to Lilah.
“And what will you do if I don’t stop pestering them?” she asked.
“Nothing Ani, but you wouldn’t want to be pulled from the show, word is a scout from the palace is here.”
Ani pressed her lips, looked down at the girl on the floor, then back at Lilah.
“Fine, keep your cream. As if I need it anyway.”
The girl on the floor scrambled up and scurried back toward a mirror. Ani walked slowly to a mirror at the other side of the room. The girls there moved away as she came.
“Anyone need help?” Lilah asked, “there are only about five minutes left.” At this, many of the girls began to file out through a curtain on the far side of the room. Lilah helped a few girls finish pinning their hair or adjusting their uniforms. Ani sat and admired herself in front of the mirror for another moment then rose and left through the curtain.
On the other side of the stage, in the gallery, the guests where taking their seats. Several tables, set with lamps and wine, where arranged around the low stage. Off to one side, a man dressed in black sat alone. He was the royal scout. He had never visited this school before. He had been sent because word had reached the Empress that there was one girl in the show, called Ani, who might be worth considering. He had tried the wine but it was cheap. Instead he smoked a short cigar and waited for the show to begin.
The scout was an Empath, and as he waited, he scanned the room. Only mild anticipation, most of these people had probably seen these shows before. After a few minutes music began. Two drums beat slowly together, and the eerie sound of a wooden flute floated around the room. Four girls came on stage. They were small and almost identical in their small dark-metallic dresses. They all wore heavy makeup. Each held four long knives, two in each hand. The drums quickened, and the girls began a sort of choreographed duel. Slowly at first, the daggers clinked against each other, but soon the pace quickened. The girls began to twirl around each other. The blades met with more intensity letting off small blue sparks. The show was interesting, and obviously well practiced, but barely average for a Blade Maiden exhibition. When the first dance was over, the girls exited left and a large woman entered.
“Welcome to our school,” the woman said, addressing the audience. “I am Master Saaranna called Saara.”
So this was Saara. The scout had heard of the old woman but had never seen her. She was even fatter than he had imagined. Her long black gown did nothing to cover her bulbous form. But for the mark on her brow, she hardly looked like a Blade Maiden. It was hard for him to match the stories he had heard of her power and skill with the pathetic looking woman on stage. Still, he scanned her Mune and realized she still had a fighting spirit.
“We are grateful for your attendance today,” Saara continued. Our girls have been training hard and are all exceptionally talented. We hope you will be pleased with their performance. Also, any of you who are here tonight seeking the services of a trained Blade Maiden, three of our girls are at the appropriate level, and I would be happy to meet with you after the show.” With this she glanced briefly at the Imperial scout. He gave a slight nod.
“Now, before we continue,” she went on, “let me explain a little about our specific talent. Blade Maidens come from an ancient order. Our talent was the first to be recognized, the order dates back to before the Second Destruction. The talent of a Blade Maiden is very specific, we cannot feel or control emotional energy like the Empaths, we are nowhere near that powerful, still our talent is far more useful than the absorption energy that the Degenerates use in the South. Our talent is closely related to the talent of the Cleats. A Cleat, as many of you know, can control internal energy called Ra; we on the other hand, control external energy called Shar. Anything in motion has external energy. As long as an object is in motion, be it a flying arrow, or a sword, or another person for that matter, a trained Blade Maiden can control its energy, its Shar. We can also drain the Shar from any object in motion. You will soon see the benefit of such a talent. What you will see is not an illusion nor work of stage trickery. With a touch, the girls can control the energy of any object in motion. The blades we use are real, the arrows are sharp, the girls wear no armor. They have only their skill to protect them. I present to you my Blade Maidens.”
With that Master Saara bowed low, the curtain opened, and there was polite applause as the music began again. Three girls emerged from each side. Each carried long knives, like before, but this time they were tossing them into the air, juggling the deadly weapons. As they moved forward, they began to throw the knives across the stage to each other. The blades flew straight without spinning. The girls were not catching the blades, they were deflecting them. As a blade flew toward a girl, her hand would flash, and with a whip-like motion, she would tap the blade with her fingertips, deflecting its energy in another direction.
With each deflection the blades flew faster and faster. Soon they were a blur. The music quickened. Tension built up in the room. Some in the crowd began to hold their breaths in anticipation. Suddenly, with a loud sound from the drums, a single girl broke through the curtain at the back of the stage. She flew through the air as light and fast as the daggers around her. With a few quick motions she snatched the blades from the air and dropped them to the floor so that they fanned away from her. The audience clapped. Saara came out on stage.
“This,” she said motioning to the girl who had caught the knives, “Is Ariani, called Ani. She is our star pupil.” The royal scout leaned forward, so this was Ani. She did have some talent, and she seemed strong, but he needed to see more before he made his decision.
“ Our next demonstration,” Saara went on, “will be with stellars. Blade Maidens work well with knives and swords, but their true weapon is the stellar, a long metal ribbon attached to a short handle. The ribbons, about two inches wide, are five to six feet long. A Blade Maiden in service always wears a stellar coiled at her waist. The weapon is as light as silk, quick as a whip, and razor sharp, perfect for a Blade Maiden who can move the external energy down the ribbon and strike with deadly accuracy, or freeze the energy, making the ribbon as hard and inflexible as a sword.”
Ani and two other girls came back on stage, each with a stellar coiled at her waist. Ani stood in the middle. Slowly several strips of white cloth were lowered from above until they hung down around the girls. The music began and Ani led the dance. At first the stellars floated around the girls lightly and slowly, as if the girls were underwater. Then, as the music quickened, they began to flash out. The stellars moved in, out, and around the girls as they danced. The white strips of cloth moved, touched by gentle air currents, from the ribbons. For a demonstration of such a deadly weapon, the dance was remarkably elegant. The music stopped and the girls stood with their heads bowed. The audience began to applaud when suddenly, all together, the girls moved. Their stellars shot out in a blur and, in an instant, the white strips of cloth were shredded. Dozens of pieces floated down like large snowflakes. The audience was delighted. Even the scout set down his cigar and gave a few loud, slow claps.
The next demonstration revealed how even weight was irrelevant to a talented Blade Maiden. Several metal balls were rolled onto the stage. They were about two feet in diameter, solid iron and extremely heavy. Three girls came forward. Each placed a foot on a ball and started it rolling. Once the ball was in motion the girls reached down and scooped them up as lightly as if they had been soap bubbles. They rolled them down their arms and around their backs, tossing them from hand to hand, and from girl to girl. The flute played its ghostly song. The dance was graceful, the scout had to admit that it was well done. Master Saara must have spent a great deal of time training the girls. They may not be very talented students, but Master Saara was an excellent teacher. It was such a shame about her daughter all those years ago.
The flute stopped. The three girls each raised a ball in one hand. As soon as the balls stopped moving they fell to the ground, three heavy thuds against the wooden stage. The girls bowed and exited.
Soon Saara, followed by all twelve girls, came out onto stage. As the girls lined up side by side at the back of the stage, Saara nodded to the scout. He sat up and concentrated, pressing his Mune toward the door. From the shadows at the back of the room came two Joined archers. Each had a bow and a quiver of arrows. Their faces were white and completely blank. They were dressed in gray robes, with gray leather gloves.
An almost imperceptible tremor went through the crowd, but on stage, the girls stood calmly with their feet slightly apart, heads back, hands behind their backs. In the center stood Ani, much taller than the others and holding her head with a unique pride. You could see the tension in the faces of the other girls, yet Ani looked calm, a smile, almost a smirk, stood conspicuously on her lips. Saara came forward and addressed the audience again.
“These, as I am sure you must recognize from their uniforms, are Joined Royal Archers,” Master Saara announced. The two men did not move as she spoke. “They have been brought here today by our honored guest from the palace.” She looked toward the scout, and a spotlight was turned toward him. He raised a hand in acknowledgement.
“This demonstration,” Master Saara went on, “is usually performed with my own girls shooting the bows. Tonight, however, my girls will face the arrows of these two deadly archers. They have not practiced together, and the girls have no idea when or where the archers will fire.”
Master Saara stepped to the side and the archers mounted the stairs to the stage. As before, the music began slowly. The archers, however, did not. They moved with amazing speed. In a flash two arrows flew toward the girls. With the same whip-like motion they had used on the knives, two girls snatched the arrows out of the air, dropped them, and returned back to position. The crowd clapped. The archers waited a moment, then began again. This time it was a barrage of arrows. The girls’ hands blurred as they snatched them out of the air. Ani stood in a fighting stance with her hands swirling before her. As instructed, the archers were firing most of their arrows at her. The smirk never left her face as she defended herself. After a few moments, in a sudden motion, Ani spun around with her hand extended. Two arrows shot out from her hand, each landing, with a sharp twang into the wood of the royal archer’s bows. The arrows stopped, the crowd cheered. The other girls looked quickly from Ani to the archers and back. It had not been part of the show to return fire. The archers looked at each other, then at the scout. He nodded slowly, draining them of their desire to shoot, and ordering them to stand still. The audience held their breath. The scout concentrated again, and without a word, the archers bowed stiffly to the girls, then to the audience, and left the stage. The crowd burst into applause.
The scout rubbed his chin, so Ani was a show-off. That was okay. The palace trainers would soon cure her of that. Still, there was one demonstration he had to see before he made his decision.
The girls filed off stage as Saara came forward. “Now for our last demonstration. We are the only school in the Empire that performs this amazing feat. I’m sure many of you have heard of it. Through great effort, and with special permission from the Emperor himself, we have obtained a replica of one of the ancients’ projectile weapons. ”
The scout leaned forward. He had seen the weapons the ancients called guns before. They were strictly forbidden by taboo throughout the world. The Emperor had a collection of replicas, but they were non-functioning, so the scout had never seen one fired.
A small girl, not a Blade Maiden, walked to the center of the stage. It was Lilah. She was dressed simply in black. She carried the long metal tube with its wooden stock, a rifle.
“This ancient weapon,” Saara explained, “uses a form of stored energy called gun powder. When ignited, it creates an explosion that propels this tiny ball, called a bullet,” Master Saara held up a shiny silver ball. “This bullet is propelled toward the victim at an incredible rate, much faster than any arrow. It is a weapon easy enough to be handled by this small girl, yet powerful enough to pierce metal armor. But, can it defeat a Blade Maiden of the ancient order?”
Ani came on stage and stood, as before, with her head high and her hands clasped behind her back. This time, however, her face was hard and focused. The scout leaned forward again. This was the part of the show he had come to see.
A drum roll began. Dramatically Lilah raised the barrel. Ani took a fighting stance, with her feet apart and one hand raised. The scout smiled, Ani was not afraid, only focused. She nodded to Lilah. There was a loud bang, a flash of light and smoke. Some of the ladies screamed. Ani spun and fell to one knee. Everyone in the gallery held their breath. Then, slowly, Ani rose and turned back to the audience. In one outstretched hand she held the small metal ball. The audience breathed again, and cheered.
Even the scout clapped. He had seen enough. He put out his cigar on the tablecloth and stood up. Saara looked over at him anxiously. He nodded to her stiffly. She smiled and bowed. He looked toward the archers, and they came to him immediately.“We would like to thank the royal messenger for honoring our school tonight,” Saara called as they moved toward the door. There was polite applause. Saara was still speaking as the scout and his archers left the room. There was no need to see the rest of the show. This girl would do. The Empress would be pleased.