The Service of the Sword

Promised Land

by Jane Lindskold

Judith had been very young when the raiders took the ship, young, but not too young to remember. There had been explosions, the shrill scream of tearing metal, the insidious tugging of air leaking from a ruptured compartment before someone slapped on a patch.

The battle had been muffled, somehow less than real, made distant by the swaddling vac suit two sizes too big, but the best they'd had intact. It had been muffled, less than real, but that didn't save the child.

Reality came through later, came through with a vengeance.

Despite everything he'd been through, all the time and energy he'd put into his training, into getting marks that wouldn't shame his family, when it came time for his middy cruise, someone had gotten cold feet. Michael Winton first heard the rumor that they were going to put him on a system defense ship near Gryphon from his roommate, Todd Liatt.

Todd was one of those people who always heard things before anyone else. Michael had teased Todd, that he, not Michael, was the one who should be specializing in communications.

'You wouldn't even need a com set, Toad-breath. Information seeps directly into your nervous system. Think of the savings in time and resources that would be.'

Todd had laughed, even played along with the joke, but there'd really never been a question where he would concentrate. Tactics was the best specialization for those who hoped for a ship of their own someday, and Todd wanted command.

'Hey,' Todd said, mock serious, 'I've got four older sisters and three older brothers. I've taken other people's orders all my life. It's time I get a turn, right?'

But they'd both known Todd's desire was motivated by an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a desire to make things right. Michael was certain that the white beret would fit Todd as naturally as his skin.

And himself? Michael didn't want command. He hadn't even wanted a career in the Navy, not at first, but now he was as devoted to the service as Todd was. He just knew he didn't want to command a vessel. Michael would never say so to Todd, but he knew too much about the cost of command to long for it.

Communications appealed to Michael: the rapid flow of information, the need to weigh and measure, to sort and balance, were all as familiar to him as breathing. He'd been playing some version of that game all his life.

He was good at it too. His memory was excellent. Pressure didn't fluster him. It seemed to focus him, to make things clearer, contrast more acute. He felt sure that no one who'd gone through a training sim with him had any doubt that he'd earned his standing on graduation.

Michael was proud of that class standing. It's very hard to be judged on your own merits when you're so highly born that people are automatically going to figure you were being carried. That's what made Todd's news almost more than he could take.

'You heard what?' Michael said to Todd, his voice taut with anger.

'I heard,' Todd replied stiffly, unintimidated, 'that you are going to be assigned to the Saint Elmo for her Gryphon deployment. Apparently, your singular ability to process information came to the attention of BuWeapons. They're working on some top secret sensor technology and they want the best people they can get for the trial runs.'

Michael's response was long, eloquent, and suggested that he'd hung around with Marines at some time in his life. That was true. His sister was married to a former Marine, but Justin Zyrr had never used language like that in Michael's hearing.

Todd listened, his expression mingling shock and grudging admiration.

'Two years,' he said. 'Two years I share a room with you, and never do I learn that you can swear like that.'

Michael didn't answer. He was too busy grabbing various items of clothing, obviously preparatory to storming out of the room.

'Hey, Michael, where're you going?'

'To talk to someone about my posting.'

'You can't! It isn't official yet.'

'If I wait until it's official,' Michael said, his voice tight, 'then it's going to be too late. Insubordination at least. Now I might be able to do something.'

Todd was too smart to fight a losing engagement.

'Who're you going to talk to? Commander Shrake?'

'No. I'm going to screen Beth. If this is her idea, I need to know why. If it isn't her idea, I need to know so someone can't try to convince me that it is. When I know that, then I'll try Shrake.'

'Forewarned is forearmed,' Todd agreed.

Michael nodded. One thing his com training had taught him. Find a secure line if you want to discuss a sensitive matter.

He guessed it was pretty sensitive when you were going to place a person to person call to the Queen.

The ship that had captured theirs had been from Masada. Judith had been too young to understand the difference between pirates and privateers. When she was old enough to know, she was also old enough to know that when it came to Masadans preying on Graysons the distinctions were so much fertilizer.

Her father had been killed helping to defend the ship. Her mother had died trying to defend her child. Judith only wished she could have died with them.

At twelve standards Judith was married to a man over four times her age. Ephraim Templeton had captained the Masadan privateer that had taken the Grayson vessel, and he claimed the girl child as part of his prize. If this was somewhat irregular, there was no one left alive to protest when Judith was not repatriated to her own people.

Even disregarding the difference in their ages—Ephraim had seen five and half decades by standard reckoning—Judith and Ephraim were not at all alike. Where Ephraim was heavily built, Judith possessed a light, gazelle's build. Her hair was dark brown, sun-kissed with reddish gold highlights. His was fair, silver mixed in increasing proportion to the blond. The eyes Judith learned to carry downcast lest Ephraim beat her for impudence were hazel, brown ringing vibrant green. Ephraim's eyes were pale blue and as cold as ice.

At thirteen Judith had her first miscarriage. When she had her second miscarriage six months later, the doctor suggested that her husband stop trying to impregnate her for a few years lest her reproductive equipment suffer permanent damage. Ephraim did as the doctor suggested, though that didn't mean he stopped exercising his conjugal privileges.

At sixteen Judith was pregnant again. When tests showed that the unborn child was a girl, her husband ordered an abortion, saying he didn't want to waste the useless bitch he'd been feeding all these years to no purpose, and what was more purposeless than breeding a girl child?

If before Judith had hated and feared Ephraim, now that emotion transformed into loathing so deep she thought it a wonder that her gaze did not sear Ephraim to ash where he stood. Her sweat should have been acid on his skin, her breath poison. That was how deeply she hated him.

Some women would have committed suicide. Some might have resorted to murder—which in Masadan society was the same as suicide, though a bit more satisfactory in that the murderer achieved something in return

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