Authors: Yamila Abraham
She slammed down her spoon.
“Don’t give me that crap about titles again.
Your name is Lysanter, plain old Lysanter the same as I’m plain old Lenora.
That’s what I’m going to call you if we’re married.
You got that?”
Lysanter hesitated, but then bowed his head in acquiescence.
“Dornovonia is one of our nursery worlds,” Lysanter said, while bringing Lenora through a small gallery downstairs.
“A fourth of our children are raised here by Dornovonian foster parents.”
He pointed to a picture of a Dornovonian family with a Dak-Hiliah child playing on the floor.
“Elentinus and I were both raised here.”
Lenora’s lips parted.
“We grew up going to the same Dak-Hiliah school here, and then we worked together in Dornovonia’s administration.”
“You were raised by these llamas?
You weren’t raised by your own people?”
Lysanter flashed her a displeased look.
“What’s a llama?”
Lenora drew closer to the glass display.
“You’re not a Dak-Hiliah.
You’re one of them.
One of the aliens from here.”
Lysanter took out his tablet and began tapping out a search.
“I’m a Dak-Hiliah.
I went to our home world to finish my education.”
Lenora’s brow rose.
“But, it’s true that I was greatly influenced by my Dornovonian family.
Dak-Hiliah raised on this world are considered compassionate and rational.
It’s the empire’s prerogative to ensure that at least a forth of our people have these traits dominant.”
A picture came up on his screen.
It’s an Earth animal.
I suppose it does look like them.”
He played a video.
Lenora drew near to watch it.
A llama was trotting around a herd of sheep.
Now Lysanter had to laugh.
“They’re cute aren’t they?” he said.
“That’s old Earth, before the war.
I never saw a real farm growing up.
I just saw old videos, like this.”
Lysanter reached out to soothe her back instinctively.
His hand was already on her before he considered what he was doing.
She continued watching the video without pulling away from him.
His heart quickened.
When the video ended he removed his hand from her in order to put away his tablet.
She went on to the next display.
“You call this a slave world because they raise your children for you?”
“Slave world is probably no longer accurate for Dornovonia.
The population is autonomous.
Only families who volunteer are granted Dak-Hiliah children, and they’re compensated.”
“You could have just done a trade agreement instead of conquering them.”
“Dornovonia wasn’t conquered.
We liberated them from the Jan-delts hundreds of years ago.”
“They don’t seem liberated to you?”
He pointed to a picture of a lively festival.
“This is our ideal.
To have a world thrive under our governance.
It’s what we want for the entire universe.”
“Because you know best.”
Lysanter kept his lips sealed.
“No, it’s fine.
It looks like you’ve done right by these people.
I want to think that if you’d been in charge of the Earth war it would have gone differently, but apparently you and Elentinus are two peas in a pod.
The only reason you don’t have as much blood on your hands as him is because you were busy here.”
“Elentinus voted against denying you the Instajant vaccine.”
Lenora became still.
“He was outvoted by the old guard on the council.
Nayjoor and his cohorts.”
He touched her shoulder to guide her to the other side of the corridor.
Again, she didn’t jerk from him.
“There are only 200 adult Dak-Hiliah on this world, but around 10,000 children.”
“What do the adults do?”
“Many oversee the foster families.
Some run our base here or our robot factories.
A few merely live in Dornovonian society.”
“So most of the children leave and don’t come back?”
“They visit once a year on our most prominent holiday.
But, no, they don’t stay here.
We have many other worlds where our influence is needed.
Our population is still direly low.”
“Do you visit your foster family?”
They live right here in Canopania.”
“That must be nice.”
Though she didn’t look at him, Lysanter could sense her longing.
Of course, her entire family was probably dead.
That was why she needed strong connections with friends like Vivian.
“My mother would adore you, Lenora.”
She smiled slightly.
He touched her hair.
When she didn’t recoil he allowed his fingers to slip between the silky strands and glide through.
“The Dak-Hiliah aren’t pure evil.
You see that, don’t you?”
Lenora took two steps forward to move out of his reach.
The ache this caused in his chest struck him.
Ruling Dornovonia was simple compared to the challenge she was presenting.
And yet, he felt undaunted.
Lenora was left to her own devices until dinner.
She assumed Lysanter had some work he couldn’t put off, and later saw him in an office of sorts working at a terminal when she wandered the corridors.
After a while she went back to the room he’d assigned to her.
She sat on the bed and let the thoughts come.
Elentinus was still a creep.
The Dak-Hiliah were still self-important religious fanatics who felt entitled to rule the universe.
He might actually be okay.
Not that it mattered due to their body problem.
How could you have a happy marriage with someone who had a sex organ the size of 300 pound animal?
Was she supposed to have some surgical alteration?
Was that what the traitor Maritza had done?
Lenora hugged herself in her arms and shuddered.
A few times Lysanter made her forget about that glaring issue.
She started to think about just giving up.
To stop thinking and become his wife.
She could see if she regretted it afterward.
Every time that inkling slipped into her consciousness, like sleeping gas on an operating table, she forced herself to come back to reality.
She was responsible for her.
She couldn’t live with herself if the girl won the games and headed back to Earth alone.
Vivian needed her much more than Lysanter did.
It was a stupid notion anyway.
He was one of them.
He put up a good front, but it was in his genes, in his heart to be an evil conqueror.
He didn’t even try to convince her otherwise.
The way he defended Elentinus annoyed her, but it also showed he was probably behaving honestly.
If he wanted to trick her into thinking he was her perfect mate he should have sided with her against that bastard, and feigned a great deal of self-loathing also.
Right now his tactic was to show her that he wasn’t so bad.
In that, she admitted, he was having success.
Especially since he was going to help Vivian stay out of Nayjoor’s mealy hands.
If he truly was a good guy he especially didn’t need to marry someone like her.
The poison inside her made her chest ache whenever her thoughts veered toward her past.
Pretending to be normal wasn’t something she could manage for a lifetime.
She had to get out of here—the sooner the better.
Lysanter was already putting dangerous ideas in her head about a life that was impossible for someone like her.
Lenora let herself flop back in bed and sigh.
Don’t get too close to him.
That had to be her plan.
She didn’t see any reason he deserved to get hurt.
Lenora jolted up.
Vivian stood in the doorway dressed in a shimmering loose brown suit with a garish green jewel necklace and matching tiara.
Her arms were weighed by the handles of a half dozen shopping bags.
The lanky girl bounded over to her and dumped her bags on the bed.
“This planet is freaking awesome!
It’s like pre-war Earth except full of cute-ass llamas.
They’re so nice, Len!
I mean, I couldn’t actually talk to them, but they were acting like I was some celebrity.”
Her brow rose.
She dumped out a bag of clothes and barrettes.
“Here, check it out.
They had this machine that would make clothes for you in like two minutes.
I got to pick out the fabric and the styles and stuff.
Here, I got this one for you.”
She gave her a slinky black dress.
She accepted it with some trepidation.
When would she ever wear anything so impractical?
“Oh my God, the food is so good.
I ate like such a fricking pig.”
She dumped out another bag with jewelry and a decorated box.
“Look at this!
It’s a music box.
Their music sucks, but oh my God, this is so pretty.”
She opened it to show a llama dancing to a jangly tune inside.
“Oh, and they have loads of crazy-ass wigs!”
“Vivian—what are you going to do with all this stuff?
Most of it isn’t useful.
We’re going to have to travel light in the woods.”
The air deflated from Vivian’s chest.
“Well…I don’t know.
I was just having…having fun.”
She dropped down to sit beside her.
“No, it’s fine.
You’re right—you should be able to enjoy yourself.
It’s not like we’ll ever be here again.”
Now Vivian made a sound of anguish.
“Why can’t we stay here?
This planet is awesome.
It’s more than awesome.
It’s a fricking paradise compared to Earth.”
“It’s a slave planet, Vivian.
The deal is, we win, we get our freedom.”
What fricking slaves?
They aren’t slaves.
What the Hell slave owns their own restaurant and has fifty people working for them?
And like, what kind of slaves are looking all rich with high tech gadgets and buying expensive stuff at the mall and stuff?
If these are slaves then sign me the fuck up.”
Lenora felt like a bully who’d just stomped on Vivian’s sand castle.
She wrung her hands together.
“The priority is winning the games to make sure you don’t end up with Nayjoor.”
“After that—I don’t know.
Would Elentinus let them stay here?
It would be wonderful for Vivian, but she knew better than to seek this herself.
The only way she could stay here was to marry Lysanter.
Forget it, Lenora.
“Well, I don’t know the rules or whatever,” Vivian said, “but if I can stay here then let me stay here.
It would suck ass to have to go back to Earth after what I saw today.”
It occurred to Lenora that there was another answer.
The knowledge gave her a strange calm.
“We’ll work something out.”
“Work it, Len!
Lysanter tapped at their open door.
Vivian gleamed a smile at him that he softly returned.
“Your friend seems happy.”
“She had a great time.
Thank your servant for me.”
“It was his pleasure.
He said she was delightful.
More joyful than any Dak-Hiliah he’s known.
She seemed more like a Dornovonian to him.”
Lenora pursed her lips.
She didn’t want to shower too much gratitude on him, so she translated to Vivian instead.
The younger woman smiled even broader and gave Lysanter a thumbs up.
His brow furrowed a moment at the unknown gesture, but he returned her smile.
“There’s an early dinner being prepared for us.
After which I need to take Vivian to the arena for a practice run.
You won’t see her again until after the games tomorrow.”
“Why not?” Lenora said.
“She’s getting a preview of tomorrow’s challenge.
I don’t want her giving you any information.”
Lenora’s brow quavered.
“If there’s no real stakes to whether I win or lose, what’s the point of preventing me from cheating?”
“The only way Danfet would allow me to help Vivian was by promising not to help you.
You’re the best competitor, Lenora.
He wants you to continue to pleasing the audience with an authentic effort.”
She rolled her eyes.
Lysanter went to her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I know you’re being exploited.
Tolerate it for Vivian’s sake, Lenora.”
Her voice softened.
“Of course I will.”
“I can tell you a few things.”
She looked at him.
“In the final game you must work with a partner in order to win.”
Lenora’s lips parted.
“You need to succeed tomorrow or you won’t be able to help Vivian.
She could be partnered with one of the other women, but two of them failed yesterday.”
“He said two of the other girls lost the challenge yesterday,” Lenora said in English.
“What?” Vivian said.
“A third tried to forfeit, but Danfet convinced her to continue playing.
Her heart is no longer into it.
She wants to give up and marry the groom she was placed with.”
Lenora made a slow blink.
“That just leaves one other player, you, and Vivian.
As I’ve said, you’re the best competitor.
These other women don’t have anything near your level of training.”
“I have to win.
It’s as simple as that.”
She turned and explained the situation to Vivian.
The younger woman registered a look of horror, but then quickly recovered with a smile.
“Dude, you let him touch you now?”
Lenora stood causing Lysanter’s hand to come off her.
“Would you grow up?”
Dinner was dominated by Vivian recounting her adventure in the city.
Lysanter had Lenora translate.
He met her eyes a few times.
She didn’t shy from a lingering stare, but hid all emotion.
His soft voice and kind smile was starting to grow on her.
When she looked at his hands she relived the few gentle touches he’d given her.
There was an idiotic pang of longing in her that she refused to yield to.
Defective women didn’t have the privilege of infatuation.
Just as he’d said, he ushered Vivian away after dinner.
His dedication to their plot struck her.
All things considered she was pretty lucky to have Lysanter.
Hester brought her back to her room and provided her with a sleeping garment.
He spoke in his unintelligible language at length despite her not understanding a word.
After that he became silent and smiled at her, as if expecting a response.
Lenora looked into his glittering black eyes.
“I wish I could be the girl for Lysanter,” she said.
Hester tipped up his face.
“I wish I didn’t have to carry around all this hate, like a barbell twisted around my neck.
I wish I’d never been in the army, where life gets devalued so fast, and you get to know the worst monsters living in people’s souls.”
“Your master doesn’t know what I really am, and he’s still trying to win me over.
You know what the truth is though?
What the honest to God truth is?”