That Which RemainsSarala flees down the palace hallways, one hand pulling up the skirts of her crimson sari, the other hand tearing off the jewelry that marks her as a bride. Necklace, earrings, hair ornaments, bangles. She does not throw them away. She gathers the pieces in her hand, intricate gold chains and cascades of ruby teardrops. The jewelry is why she has a chance to escape. The jewelry, which her father brought to her locked room only this morning (locked from the outside). If she didn't need the jewelry, she would have gladly stuffed each sharp-edged dazzle down her husband's throat. But Sarala has no time (right now) for revenge. She has left her husband to sleep the sodden sleep of the drunk and satisfied. In the light of approaching dawn, as shades of pink and gold warm the cold white marble of her father's halls, the princess flees through twisting corridors, until finally, finally, she arrives at the garden gate.
You have the treasure?
It is in my hands.
You're coming dressed like that?
I have nothing else.
We won't make it to the spaceport. Maybe one of the sluts has something you can wear.
You are too kind.
I'm not doing this out of the goodness of my heart, princess. A man has to eat.
Sarala kneels on the transport's floor, head down, a drape of coarse cotton hiding the wealth of jasmine-scented hair. She had wanted to cut it off, but logic demanded she hold on to every advantage. If her jewelry were stolen, her gold-threaded silks, all that would be left was her naked body. She is not too proud to sell it for her freedom. Not now, when it has already been sold once for her father's profit. But she cannot protect her hands, scrubbing the metal decking. She must appear as bent, as broken, as any captive slut, for the watching monitor screens. They will use them to search for her, afterwards, and she must erase every trace of her trail. And so she scrubs until her hands crack and bleed, head bent in fear of the whip that might so easily land across the bare skin above her curving spine. If he must, to preserve the illusion, the captain will whip her himself. He promised.
Will you marry me, princess?
I am sorry, my lord. I appreciate the honor you do me with your offer, but I must decline.
Why do you say that?
I do not love you. I do not even know you.
Apparently not. Or you would know that I wouldn't have asked if I didn't know the answer. Your father has agreed already, princess, and you will marry me as soon as the wedding arrangements can be made. Be pleased -- your bride price was an entire planet. A small one, to be sure, but rich. Take this as token of my intent -- the ring is set with stones from our ruby mines. Is it not lovely? Is it not fine?
They are approaching the last set of guards, relaxed now after three days of feasting and drinking. Sarala made it this far before, on her own, a week ago. One, younger than the rest, had looked at her with pity in his eyes, when she, weeping, had begged him to let her through. Pity, but not enough that he would give his life for her freedom, though he is sworn to her protection. Is that enough reason to take his life now? Because she needs it -- the others have been coerced with bribes and threats, but he is too young, too sure of his honor. The guards at the spaceport are the best of her father's men, and this one's skin is clear and smooth, his eyes dark and flashing.
In another life, she could have loved him. They would sit in a garden under a spreading banyan tree. He would strut before her like the peacocks, glorious in his youth, sure of his manly power. She would laugh, and flirt from behind a sandalwood fan. When they made love, in the privacy of a arbor, he would move above her like a young god, his skin glistening darkly, and she, she would arch beneath him, smothering the sounds of her pleasure behind one slender hand. This is what was promised her, by songs and stories and poems. This is what was stolen.
He does not recognize her now. He will let her come close, too close, if she acts the part rightly. If Sarala sways and sashays like a dancing girl, the kind who dances lying down as well as standing up. He will be eager to claim the privileges of a young man in the king's guard, strong and certain in his honor. He will be as unprepared as she was.
You're sure you can do it? None of my men can get close enough, and the sluts aren't fighters.
Have you ever killed a man?
Two. Kidnapping attempts. You need not fear my skill with a blade; I have been well trained. Dagger and sword for twelve years; stunner and blaster as well. They took all my knives away. Give me but a single knife, and I will show you.
If that's true, princess, then maybe I can make you a better offer than simply transport to the free zone. That's a rough place for the gently-bred; I don't know if you'd survive it.
Join my crew.
I have no wish to be a concubine for your men.
No, lass. I'd protect you from that. Join us as a fighter, not a slut. You have more weapons-training that most of the men, and I bet you can read and write.
Read and write and translate a star chart. Fly a small skimmer, or navigate a large one. Bargain in eleven human languages and six alien, fluently. Ride a horse, compose a ghazal, dance the twelve invocations to the gods from dawn to dusk without dropping. Hack into a computer, and send coded messages to a pirate, offering a fortune in jewels in exchange for a rescue. I have all a noble lady's necessary skills, my captain. Would they be of use to you?
Aye, lass. Aye.
So the bargain was struck, and now it only remains to sign the contract in the young guard's heart's blood. A knife as thin as a needle, concealed in her sleeve, ready to drop into a waiting hand. A smile on her lips, a flirt to her hips, and already, he is smiling back at her. Sarala could kill him with a kiss; it would be so easy.
Life waits on the other side of the door -- a ship with tall metal masts and bright solar sails. It tugs at its chain, eager to slip all restrains and go soaring out into the vast and burning deeps. The ship knows that storms await her, stellar squalls that will tear the rigging and shatter the spars. Still, calm days as well, when the propulsion fails and all she can do is wait while repairs are made, her men cursing in black frustration. But those are small prices to pay for the freedom to sail the stars, and she is eager, oh, oh, oh -- eager to be cut loose, to be gone. The night stars are waiting.
What is honor, appa?
Where did you hear that word, daughter?
One of the guards said that he protected me from bad men for the sake of my honor, and his. What does that mean?
It is complicated to explain. A man's honor and a woman's are different. You will understand the difference when you are older. For now, just give your father a kiss, and then run and play. I will protect your honor for you, all right? Do you understand?
Yes, appa. I understand.
Sarala can smell him now, cloves and cinnamon -- can feel the silk of his shirt under her hand. The other guards have turned away, knowing what is coming, but he looks down at her with honest, eager eyes. All he would steal is a kiss and a promise.
Last night, she had asked the captain if a pirate could have honor.
He hadn't understood the question.
She didn't know the answer.