Part of the Saga of the Skolian Empire
The seductive thrill of uncharted worlds, of distant galaxies… and the unknown threats that lurk in the vastness of the cosmos. From Foundation to Lensman, Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy, space opera continues to exert its magnetic pull on us all. INFINITE STARS This is the definitive collection of original short stories by many of today’s finest authors, writing brand new adventures set in their most famous series. Herein lie canonical tales of the Honorverse, the Ruby Dynasty, the Lost Fleet, Dune, Vatta’s War, Ender Wiggin, the Legion of the Damned, the Imperium, and more. Also included are past masterpieces by authors whose works defined the genre, including a Miles Vorkosigan adventure, a story from the author of the Dragonriders of Pern, and a rare tale co-authored by the screenwriter for The Empire Strikes Back. Nebula and Hugo Award winners, New York Times bestsellers, and Science Fiction Grand Masters—these authors take us to the farthest regions of space.
Includes the Ruby Dynasty novelette “The Wages of Honor,” by Catherine Asaro, the first time the story ever appeared in print.
Part of the Saga of the Skolian Empire
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The choice made by the brothers in “The Wages of Honor” plays a pivotal role in several of my books about the Ruby Dynasty. It refers to the choices made by Eldrin and later Althor in the War of Clans on their homeworld of Lyshriol. That choice particularly features in The Radiant Seas after Soz becomes Imperator and must take the Radiance Fleet into the largest battles ever faced by the Skolian Imperialate. She has a decision to make, one that will affect the lives of millions, even billions of people. Sitting in the darkness of her quarters on the flagship of the fleet, she sets up a communication with her father during the last moments before all interstellar communications fail. She asks him who he thinks made the right decision in the War of the Clans, Eldrin or Althor. Her father tells her that he doesn’t know, but that both of her brothers acted with honor. The decision Soz finally makes changes the course of an interstellar war. I’ve wanted to write this story for a long time, so when Bryan asked me if I would contribute a Skolian story to the anthology, I knew the time had come to put it into words.
Child of the Cathedral
Eldrin gripped the hilt of his great sword with both hands and swung the weapon in a wide arc. Light slanted through the Stained Glass Forest, dappling him with color while he practiced. Only two other sounds broke the drowsing silence of late afternoon, the chirp of prism-crickets and the rumble of a transport taking off from the tiny, distant starport. He circled his blade around and around, savoring the strain on his muscles. At sixteen years of age, he enjoyed the exertion; it created a hypnotic sense of motion that almost let him forget why he had come here. If only he could empty his mind and escape his thoughts. They threatened spiral out of control, once again dropping him into the ice of his memories.
The ice of death.
No! He swung the sword faster, striving for an exhaustion that would blanket his mind. If only the serenity here could soothe him. The Stained Glass Forest reminded him of the library in his home, with its windows designed in mosaics of colored glass. He couldn’t read the books, not even a few words, but he loved that room, the way sunlight pouring through the windows cast patterns of colored light across the floor. Here in the forest, the trees and their branches were poles of glasswood, each tree a single color: red, blue, green, or gold. Spheres of the same colors hung from the branches, some small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, others ten times that size. The two suns of the planet Lyshriol were setting behind the trees, the large amber sphere of Valdor partially eclipsed by Aldan’s smaller gold orb. In their light, the forest glowed like a living cathedral of stained glass windows.
Eldrin paused and poked his blade into a sphere above his head. It popped, showering him with glitter, the pollen that would someday grow more trees. He laughed, such a rare sound nowadays, and brushed the pollen off his loose shirt. He sang a few lines of an aria he had been composing, and the music soothed the ragged edges of his thoughts.
A voice rumbled behind him. “You fighting bubbles now?”
Eldrin looked around to see his brother Althor a few paces away, dressed in trousers and a dark shirt. He was holding his own great sword, the blade resting casually against his shoulder. Although only fourteen, two years younger than Eldrin, Althor already stood taller than him, taller indeed than any man in their village. His shoulders were broad, his muscles developed and large, and he was still growing. The light glinted on his curls, making him look even more like their mother, with the same gold metallic tinge to his skin and hair.
“Where did you come from?” Eldrin didn’t want company; he had come out here to be alone.
Althor walked over to him. “I thought we were going to practice.”
Damn, He had forgotten. He almost told Althor he didn’t feel like it, but he didn’t want to look weak to his “little” brother. So he said, “All right.”
They faced each other, preparing, and begin their practice. Eldrin swung at Althor with a fast cut, a move his other sparring partners almost never managed to counter. Althor easily parried and came at him from the other side, stopping his sword just short of Eldrin’s hip. They swung again and again, and Althor countered him every time. Often he didn’t even use two hands to hold the hilt, despite his weapon being a two-handed sword. Finally he did use both fists so he could swing with even more power. Their blades clanged and the strike sent Eldrin’s sword flying out of his hand.’
“Hah!” Althor grinned at him.
Eldrin nodded to his brother. “Well done.” What else could he say? Often when Althor beat him, his anger surged, but today he just felt tired, not the fatigue of a good practice, but a deeper exhaustion that had nothing to do with his body. Althor wouldn’t understand; he could practice all day, then go up to his bedroom and study quantum physics.
Althor was watching him. “Maybe we should practice later.”
“All right.” Eldrin retrieved his sword. Althor’s intrusion had shattered his attempt to find peace, and he felt as if he would explode. He knew his brother hadn’t meant to trespass; he only sought the closeness they had known in their youth. Althor no idea of the ice within him, the frozen places where Eldrin died a little more each day.
“Enough!” Eldrin swung his sword in a huge arc and slammed the blade into a console. The station shattered, spraying white shards of luminex up into the air. Designed from smart material that could alter its structure, the shards softened their jagged edges as they fell so they wouldn’t tear apart whatever they hit—not even him, who deserved their excoriation.
“Eldrin, stop!” Tomas, his teacher, stared at him from the other side of the console. Bits of glowing debris swirled around him, a startling contrast to his dark hair and eyes. “This is a school. Your weapons have no place here.”
“It’s a lie!” Eldrin could no longer hold back his endlessly circling thoughts. When he had come in from practice, drenched with sweat, Tomas had simply offered him a book. And Eldrin had snapped.
Once, not so long ago, Eldrin had wanted to learn, yearned for knowledge so much that it burned within him even though he couldn’t read even simple sentences. Last year, incredibly, for a few weeks, the written word had almost started to make sense, finally, after more than a decade of his struggling to learn. None of that mattered any more. It was too late. He didn’t deserve the light of knowledge.
Today Tomas stood his ground, never flinching, but Eldrin knew him too well to deny the truth. His teacher, the mentor he had always admired, feared he was about to die. Eldrin recognized the dread in his eyes. He had known it himself last year when he fought at his father’s side in the War of Clans. Three times in that war, Eldrin had killed another human being.
The memories crowded in on him, the chaos of battle, the pain, the death, until he thought he would crack under their onslaught. Desperate, he slashed at the air, but he misjudged the swing and his sword hit the wall, the blade vibrating as cracks splintered up to the ceiling.
“Don’t!” The woman’s shout came from behind him.
Eldrin spun around, raising his weapon. His mother, Roca Skolia, stood in the archway of the classroom, her windblown hair tousled across her shoulders, her blue leggings and tunic glowing in the sunlight slanting through the doorway. She was gold, her hair, her skin, even her eyelashes. She did truly resemble the goddess everyone in Dalvador believed her to be, impossibly beautiful, never aging, but Eldrin knew the truth. His mother was human, very human, and she could hurt just as deeply as anyone.
He lowered his sword. Behind him, Tomas exhaled.
“Saints almighty,” his mother said. “What are you doing?”
Eldrin walked to her. She was a tall woman, but he looked down at her now, no longer the small child who had curled in the shelter of her arms. He had no answers. The days when she could fix his hurts had ended long ago. That child was lost, and a monster lived in his place, a frozen man who didn’t deserve her love. He took a breath, wanting to speak, to reach out to her, but no words came. They were trapped within him. He knew only that he couldn’t let her see him this way.
Eldrin walked out of the school.
Roca stared at Tomas. “Are you all right?” She had to go after Eldrin, but first she had to make sure her son hadn’t harmed his teacher.
Tomas came over her. “I can’t have him back in my school.”
“Has he threatened you before?” She had known Tomas for years, since she and her husband had brought him here to teach their children, first Eldrin and then the others, ten in all now. She had never seen him look so pale.
“Not overtly.” He hesitated. “Councilor, I don’t want to overstep.”
Roca spoke quietly. “I’m the Foreign Affairs Councilor only when I go offworld to sit in the Imperialate Assembly. That is separate from my life here. You should feel free to talk to me about any of the children.”
Tomas pushed his hand through his hair. “I kept hoping I could get through to him. He was making progress. He wants to learn, I’m sure of it, even if he says he doesn’t care.” His optimism faded. “But last year, after he came back from that war, everything had changed. He’s closed to me.”
Roca understood. She was losing Eldrin, and she didn’t know how to reach him.
A voice rumbled. “Hoshma, what’s wrong?”
She turned with a start to see Althor looming behind her.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
Maybe he knew what had set off his brother. “Did you and Eldrin fight again?”
“No.” Althor paused. “We did practice. It was fine, though. Why? Did he say something?”
“Not exactly. It’s just—he’s so angry.”
“You’re shaking.” Althor watched her with concern. “Did he hurt you?”
“Well, no, of course not.” What did you tell a boy when the older brother he had idolized was becoming someone none of them recognized?
Last year, when Eldrin had come home with his father from the War of the Clans, the people in Dalvador had greeted him as a shining hero. They knew nothing about the guilt Roca feared was destroying her oldest son.
Althor stood at the window in his bedroom and watched the courtyard two stories below, an open area paved with blue flagstones. The sun shone in the clear air and on the blue turreted roofs of the village beyond the castle walls. Eldrin was in the courtyard playing jump-and-block with a youth from the village, a sturdy blacksmith who also trained in their father’s army. Eldrin spent so much time outside that the sun had bleached his red hair with streaks of gold. The locks swung around his face as he dodged his opponent.
The smith did his best, but he didn’t have the skill to beat Eldrin. No one did except Althor. Although Eldrin hid how he felt, Althor knew their practices upset him. Lately Althor bested him all the time, both at sports and weapons practice. Althor had begun to fear he would injure his sparring partners because he couldn’t control his strength, which seemed to increase more every day. He had no wish to cause Eldrin pain, either physical or emotional. Maybe it was better if they quit practicing. Although Althor would miss spending time with his brother, he otherwise preferred the virtual war games he played on the interstellar meshes.
Several girls from the village were sitting on the wall of the courtyard, watching the game. They smiled or blushed whenever Eldrin glanced their way. They had started doing the same to Althor three years ago. People had told him he looked like a man even back then. The girls flirted. Althor had no interest in them, but it didn’t matter. Eldrin would never forgive him for attracting the interest of a girl Eldrin had liked.
These days, Althor felt heavy all the time. He weighed too much for this planet. He had seen the images of his mother’s father, a huge man over two meters tall. Someday Althor would be like him, or so everyone claimed. Althor had lived his entire life on Lyshriol, with its pretty landscapes and vicious wars, but he had to go soon. He wasn’t like Eldrin, perfectly suited to this world. Althor wanted to pilot star fighters, not wield a sword.
Eldrin had everything a man needed to succeed here, the warrior who had become a hero. He liked this life, farming, living close to the land. He couldn’t have cared less about the universe beyond Lyshriol. Eldrin even looked like a taller version of their sire, handsome in the way of the Lyshrioli people. Althor knew he could never live up to his older brother, the son their father wanted.
In the courtyard below, Eldrin rolled the smith over his hip, using an advanced throw. When the man hit the ground too hard and lay still, Eldrin froze, breathing heavily. Then he offered his hand. The smith took it, climbing to his feet, and bowed to Eldrin, acknowledging his win.
Althor knew why his brother had frozen for that instant. He feared he had injured the smith. Eldrin never wanted to cause pain. He liked to practice, loved it even, but he hated life-or-death battle. He empathized too strongly with the people he fought. Althor understood. They both shared that trait, inherited from their parents. They learned to block the moods of other people, but it was harder for Eldrin. He wouldn’t even harm the gauzy shimmerflies that wandered into the house. He would never acknowledge that trait, not on a world where a man’s worth was determined by his prowess in combat. What warrior preferred to sing rather than fight?
It didn’t affect Althor the same way, for the battles he fought were all games played on the offworld meshes. His opponents were strewn across the stars, their interactions facilitated by a technology so advanced, his people had learned to surmount even the barriers of light speed. It gave him a layer of emotional protection that Eldrin would never know.
“You fight so hard, my brother,” Althor said softly. “What demons are you trying to defeat?”
“He’s not fine!” Roca stared at her husband. “Damn it, Eldri, he almost ran Tomas through with that blasted sword you gave him.
Her husband, Eldrinson Valdoria, was standing in front of the window alcove of their bedroom, his body silhouetted against the tall glass panes. Beyond him, the view showed the plains of Dalvador rippling in the breeze. Supple reeds covered them like an ocean, each tipped by a bubble-pod. When the pods burst, they laid a sparkling sheen of pollen over the land, as if this were a place of fairytales instead of an atavistic land where warriors hacked each other to pieces with blades.
“He wouldn’t hurt his teacher.” Eldrinson was dressed simply today, like a farmer rather than a war leader, with a rough shirt and trousers. His wine-red locks brushed his ears, so much like their son’s hair. “Tomas is like a member of the family.”
“You didn’t see what happened.” Roca went over to him, standing at his height, meeting his gaze. “I should have refused to let Eldrin ride with you in the War of Clans.”
“You did refuse.” He spoke quietly. “You can’t make us change what we are.”
“He was too young.”
“Eldrin is a man, Roca, not a child.” He rubbed his neck as if the muscles ached. “Yes, it was hard for him. None of us wants to go to war. But he will be stronger for this.”
“No. He won’t.” She didn’t know how to make him see. “It’s destroying him. It isn’t just the war. It’s everything, his confusion, his frustration that he can’t learn what comes so easily to his siblings. If we don’t find a way to help him, something inside him is going to break.” She gave word to one of her greatest fears. “What if he loses control when he and Althor are fighting and one of them stabs the other? Those swords can be fatal.”
“They would never do that!” He exhaled. “Yes, I know, they don’t get along so well lately. But their bond as brothers is as strong as any I’ve ever seen. They will outgrow this rivalry.”
“It isn’t rivalry. It goes deeper.” Somewhere distant, a man sang a haunting melody in a minor key. It had to be Eldrin; none of their other children had such a magnificent classical voice.
“They’re so different,” she said. “They don’t understand each other.”
“They’ll work it out. They’re good boys, Roca.”
Her voice caught. “Yes. They are. But you don’t see? Eldrin is dying inside.”
“What help can you bring?” His face creased in lines that hadn’t been there a few years ago. “Some offworld intruder who wants to mold him into a stranger? No. I won’t do that to Eldrin. It goes against all that he knows here.”
She forced out the words neither of them wanted to hear. “That’s why he needs to leave. He has to get away from the contradictions of this life, to go someplace where they can help him learn to read, help him take pleasure in knowledge instead of endless frustration. And he needs someone who can help him heal, a psychiatrist. A doctor for the mind.”
“No!” He stepped back from her. “You won’t send him away.”
Softly she said, “I don’t want him to go, either. But we need to consider it.”
“Will you send me away too?” After so many years, he no longer tried to hide his pain from her. “I will never learn to read either, Roca. I will never understand your physics, your histories, your mesh systems. Will you send me to specialists who dissect my mind and seek to change me into what I am not?”
“You are a miracle.” She struggled to find the words for this dangerous ground they so rarely trod. “You and your people, you don’t need the written word. Your minds are unique. You hold your knowledge, your histories, your identity in your phenomenal memories and your songs. I love you exactly the way you are.” Roca willed him to understand. “But our son is half you and half me, and his two halves are breaking him apart. You feel joy in your life. Eldrin doesn’t.”
He lifted his hand, motioning as if to encompass all of Dalvador. “The changes you have brought to my people, these things you call electricity, fiber optics, superconductors, the orbital defense system that guards our world, the medicine that heals my people—I have never understood them. Before your people rediscovered us, we had no memory of being a lost colony from an interstellar civilization. We’re farmers, Roca. Not technocrats. We don’t live this way because that it the only life we know. We do it because this is what we are.” He shook his head. “We’ve been here so long, cut off from the rest of humanity, we’ve changed. Or I don’t know, maybe the original settlers remade themselves using this thing you call genetic engineering. All I know is that we aren’t like you. If you try to force us into that mold, it will destroy us.”
Even now, did that fear haunt him? She had spent decades trying to show him otherwise, but nothing could erase their huge differences. Their son’s refusal to take advanced technology into battle had been, for Roca, the breaking point. Neither Eldrin nor his father understood; they considered it a point of honor. A warrior engaged his enemy in a fair fight. For Eldrin to use the advances of his mother’s people would be dishonorable, the height of cowardice. Roca didn’t give a damn about that honor. She wanted her husband and children to live. Period.
And yet—when it came to the final moment, what could she have done? By the laws here, Eldrin was an adult at sixteen, able to make his own decisions. Imperialate law still considered him a child, but Eldrin would never have forgiven her if she denied him what he considered a man’s path of honor. She couldn’t stop him any more than she could someday stop Althor from going offworld to fight in an interstellar war with every advance their star-spanning culture could offer. Nor was it only Althor; their daughter Soz already showed signs of the military brilliance that would take her away from this pastoral land into the violence of an interstellar conflict unimaginable on this world. Was Eldrin’s choice truly that different? In the end, she had watched him ride away to battle, a decision she had regretted ever since.
A tear gathered in her eye. “You know I have never forced my culture on yours.”
His voice softened. “Yes. It is true. You have brought your ways gently. These changes, they never disrupt, they only enhance our lives. And I am grateful.” He took a deep breath. “But how long before the workings of your universe break through that protection like huge cogs and grind up my culture in their relentless march of ‘progress?’”
She rubbed the heel of her hand across her cheek, smearing away the tear. “Would you stop Eldrin from leaving even if it’s better for him to go? If he stays here, we may lose him forever.”
For a moment he didn’t answer. Then he stepped forward and pulled her into his arms, laying his head against hers. “Ai, Rocalisa,” he murmured. “I cannot bear to think of him going.”
“Nor can I.” She held him close, her voice barely audible. “But I think we must.”
His breath stirred her hair. It was a long time before he whispered, “I know
end of excerpt
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