The Family Dinner

I’m starting a new series of stories all inspired by my various playthroughs of Stellaris (a 4x strategy game from Paradox Studios). They may be in different galaxies, or share continuity with the others. Some may even have sequels and follow-ups if there’s enough interest in such things, but they will all be inspired by Stellaris in some way or antoher.

I hope you enjoy them.

The Family Dinner

By: white87wolf

Hask’Gunnar performed the hunt as her great-grandfather had done, as had his aunt. She made neat footprints up and down the rolling dune seas of Synneza South, being sure to make a loop every now and again to confuse anything that might be trying to stalk her. Her spear was prepared to lunge at a moment’s notice, and daggers were at the ready, and as an absolute last resort, a plasma thrower rested loosely in its holster on her hip.

She rested the shaft of the spear along her shoulders and let the sun softly bake the flesh of her back and arms. Most Tzynn could handle two or three hours in the direct light of Mius before their body temperature rose to the point it caused hallucinations and brain-fry. Hask’Gunnar, through careful meditation and a focused management the ignorant might refer to as “willpower”, could easily handle four hours and had gone up to six on a long hunt before she couldn’t tell mirage from monster any longer.

In the distance, the simple towers of the city glinted and glimmered in the sunlight. If she listened every so carefully, she swore she could hear the buzz of the collective climate control systems from here. The smooth chittering from the small sand mound behind her broke her from her thoughts and she spun quickly and snatched the leaping guffrag on the stilleto blade from her belt, impaling it and watching the black blood drip as it slid down to the hilt and its hind legs relaxed from their interrupted spring. “Perfect” she said with a grin, her jagged teeth moving with it. She put a stopper on the blade and hooked the knife to a hung on her thigh below the belt, letting the creature hang, the dagger itself good for a few more uses. Over the course of the day, she would manage to fill the other two to the tip with guffrags with the same defensive spearing. A grand haul that would make for a fine starter.

As for grabbing something large enough for the evening’s purpose, that wasn’t going quite as well as she might have liked. She’d started just after dawn, and now Mius was at the highest point in the sky, shrouding everything in his crimson hue. She felt the anger rising as she ate her lunch and finished off her first canteen. She never liked under-performing in the only familial duty she took seriously. The hunt was a trust and a test, but moreso the latter. A test of fitness you took each time you picked up your spear and set out. Countless times, she passed by the withered mummifying husk of a hunter on some of the more tread paths, some succumbing to the sun, others missing limbs or their neck adorned with a guffrag’s bit marks, their mouths open in agony at the sting of the poison. Corpses weren’t usually things to be recovered. How else would a Tzynn learn about the need of violence and cunning if the road was not dotted with constant reminders of that which could go wrong? But for Hask’Gunnar, joining the dried-out derelicts of life along these paths was far from the worse fate she could imagine. The snickers and jests directed her way when she came back empty-handed were even more insufferable, to say nothing of having to use good anger against one of her own when a corrective slashing was in order.

It was actually odd for a family member from one of the estates to be hunting at all, these tasks usually reserved for a slave or trusted family servant. However, after the fourth or fifth time she was caught sneaking out to make practical use of the training that had been a childhood formality and coming back not dead, she was allowed to continue, and the accolades she gained from these hunts notched into her mother’s list of self-assumed accolades.

As she was using one of her claws to pick that annoying crevice where one of her teeth crossed over the other, she finally heard the familiar one-two sound of falling sand behind her. She abandoned her meal and slowly stood up, creeping and peeking over the crest until she saw it. The broad carapace of the tuty, black as night and absorbing all that sunlight. Unfortunately the insect’s back shield was the same thing that was keeping her from striking immediately. She squatted, shifting left, feet turned to keep her footing on the dune constant. She felt no sign of a gust coming up, which was excellent Her line of sight finally perpendicular to the tuty, she saw the hairs on the legs and a bit of the belly, but smartly resisted the urge to lunge. Finally, it turned just towards her and showed a decent bit of it’s underside, and she darted down and squatted into a slide with a mighty screech. Before the antennae had time to turn up, she had buried the ratcheted spear blade deep inside the gullet, her own scream answered in kind by the flailing monster. She wasted no time in using the leverage of the spear to flip it on its back and slam her final clean dagger into the chest again and again, hearing the satisfying pop that came with the vital organs rupturing. As it twitched and gave its final throws, she withdrew the spear with a twist, turning towards the mandibles and hacking at them until they came off. Tuties had a nasty habit of not being as dead as you might think, and while the bites were treatable she didn’t like losing time laid up in bed.

As a young one, and even now she found hauling tuties across the dunes to be rather fun. The back made a great natural sled, and you had the constant “whoosh” of sound behind you as you went. That sound and the feel of the leather straps digging into your waist reminded you of victory, and in victory was found joy.

She had seen Harjeera well before now, could pick him out from the mirages at 90 feet. He had a nice green hue to his skin and it extended up and over his head visible even in the shade of his tent. She didn’t bother waving until she got closer though. She detested awkward gaps in conversations, even ones she wanted to have. Once she got up to him, she kept trying to stare straight ahead even though she knew his eyes had been on her since she first became a shape from the heat’s haze.

“Going home?” because of course his first question would be infinitesimally stupid.

“Unless that hole you’re guarding is to more than one massive palatial estate, then yes Harjeera, I’m going home.”she said marching straight past him.

He laughed at the joke-that-wasn’t. “That for tonight?” he nodded towards the tuty she dragged behind her, the carapace starting to thunk down the fossilized wooden steps.

“Yes.”

“Oh…wow you’re a fine hunter!” she felt her neck scales tense up as she resisted an urge to pivot and smack him. Why did he always have to be so blastedly happy all the damned time? Her lack of acknowledgement of the compliment was genuine. She didn’t need anyone to tell her she was a decent hunter, let alone the hole guard. She kept her spear point behind her, steadying the tuty to keep it knocking her in the back of her legs as she descended.

The stairs down had always been quite a trek, even since she was very young. She took her time though, enjoying the feel of the relatively cooler air in here and not having to worry about holding her breath when she felt a growing breeze lest the sand cake her nostrils. She loved the wilds and the hunt to be sure, but it was always good—even for her—to arrive home. Or at least it was when the hunt had borne a body. She found herself pondering during the long descent who it was that had initially laid the stone steps down, were they as old as the Catastrophe or older still? Eventually she emerged out of the end of the tunnel to the bright sun shafts that streamed in from the tops of the canyon and assorted crevices—and their retractable chromatic glass coverings—that drew in the both deadly and life-giving rays of Mius, refracting towards the crops as needed. She was quickly joined by the escorting guard detail that she’d have rather done without and indeed had never needed. They were like a formal evening garment, all pomp and no substance. She hissed and at least managed to clear her front field of view and take control of the procession, which eased her annoyance somewhat but not completely.  

Leading up to the stone palace which was set into the largest wall down here were vast fields which extended all the way up to midpoint of the other walls in terraces. Varying shades of greens, purples, and blues stood in sharp contrast to the packed layered golden and red sand surrounding them. The various colours of the tattered rags of the assorted chattel that made up her family’s assets made an almost glittering spectacle of colour against the smoothed brown stone of the distant palace sat behind the sharp dusty sun shafts.

As she walked onwards, Hask’Gunnar started to play the game that she’d always started and failed at since childhood. She tried to take in the array of colour, the smell of the crops, and the feel of the cooler sand under her feet and ignore the sounds of the slaves which were always much more prominent—especially this close—than these other more enjoyable things. She had gotten to the point some years ago where she could get them down to where they almost didn’t register, but she’d never be able to dismiss them. They were just too loud and diverse. Even if she physically plugged the earholes at the back of her head, which she had never done except to experiment as this would obviously be cheating,the cacophony was just too intense to fully ignore. The chains clattered, foremen and masters shouted, a woman wailed, a man howled in pain following the crack of a whip or the solid thud of a baton. Occasionally a shot rang out either in an attempt at correction or as the ultimate punishment—the latter being something that she had actually never seen happen on her estate, but she knew that her sister wasn’t neccesarily averse to that either. If they tried to run, where were they to go anyway? As monumental as the walls fortifying the estate were so too was the canyon of sound she walked down on her way home, the shrieks, laughs, and wails echoing all the way to the orchards surrounding the immediate estate before they finally subsided.

Plantations were ancient, at least as ancient as what came before. You’d never be able to tell just how long any given one had been there. After the Catastrophe, power had equated to food. Food was found in two places, first it was found running around and running from people like Hask’Gunnar. Sometime after that, when a lot of that had been hunted to extinction, it was found on the plantations. Whatever families had managed to retain enough of their own stores after the planet’s ecology had been upended became the lord and employers of their realm. When your flesh tightened around your bones, heated, and you started to peel, raining scales from your time in the sun while your comrades went mad in the heat. When the week had passed and you finally couldn’t ignore your need for a small cup of water any longer. When your hatchlings screeched at you clutching their bellies in hunger pains and you couldn’t even move your tail anymore let alone give them the luxury of an embrace, you summoned the last of your energy and crawled on your belly towards a plantation. It was there that the local lord would give you just enough food so you had the energy to work well into the night picking at a canyon wall so you could receive more of their charity, and you were thankful for the privilege. This simple brutality—and its pitiful, nigh-absent collection of records—was the history of the two-thousand years following the Catastrophe before the First Dynasty of House Drum.

The escort guard had quietly cleared away back down the path towards the south entrance as Hask’Gunnar approached the side entrance and destination. A Cynur girl approached cautiously to see if she wanted her to grab the tuty, but as usual Hask’Gunnar politely declined with a simple, dismissive hand wave. The Cynur retreated back into the kitchen followed by the huntress with her kill in tow, Tanilla was in there and smiled at the triumphant return as Hask’Gunnar hoisted the insect to a belly up position on the stone island at the kitchen’s centre.

“Who’s the new girl?” asked Hask’Gunnar.

“The cynur? If she was given a name by another slave, I wasn’t told. She’s not named on her documents. She’s part of the new purchase from last month. Her ship came in a week early. She was harvesting tats, but when Toby was sold off to the Yuak family her name came up as somebody who could do scullery, so lucky girl was transferred to me.”Tanilla responded as she worked the dagger gently to separate the shell from the back of the tuty.

“I like her feathers.” said the huntress as she held the animal steady to keep it rocking on its carapace too much. She smiled over her shoulder as the girl stood on her roosts on a small stool cautiously smiling and accepting the compliment.

“Yeah, it’s kind of the first thing you notice…”the cook grunted as the final attaching tendril came free and she could start to get to work lifting the meat and organs out. “OK…you can let go now. Did you manage enough guffrags?”

“It’s me you’re talking to isn’t it?” she grinned slyly showing teeth as she held up the long dagger with the five speared beasts and dried black blood casing the hilt.

“Oh my! I mean three would have easily done…did y-”she stopped short as Hask’Gunnar pointed to her belt indicating the two other daggers. “How am I meant to cook that many?!”Hask’Gunnar only laughed gleefully snout pointed to the ceiling. “I hope you’re happy because that’s your lunch for the next two days!”the cook rolled her eyes shaking the little beasts off the dagger and into a large bowl as the younger Tzynn continued her gleeful laughs. If she wasn’t quite so loud about it, she’d have found joy in the Cynur girl’s beak cracking ever so slightly to let out its own gentle chuckle. Over the next few hours, the tuty was properly sorted into frying, boiling, and baking piles and vegetables hauled in by slaves were peeled, chopped, and similarly delegated. The Cynur dutifully washed the prep dishes as they came to her, being careful to only use water for soaking, and using the barrel of sand for the actual cleaning. This was different from her last post on Yondavin where water was  used exclusively. On Tyzannia, she was told to adopt the sand method.

Late that afternoon, Hask’Gunnar quietly and politely made her way out of the kitchen, knowing her mother would be on the warpath if she didn’t put on something more appropriate for dinner. She would have been perfectly happy to eat something she and Tanilla cooked together either together or on her own. But she had begrudgingly consented to the weekly ceremony of judgemental stares and awkward non-conversations that would be the annoying end of the day’s otherwise enjoyable activities. As she opened the stiff wooden door, she felt the small bird standing beside her, and looked down at her. “Yes…?” she asked the little one raising two eyelids.

“Petalia…” she responded in that way that people do when they’re scared of the consequences of speaking and wanted to get it all out at once.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Just…Tanilla didn’t remember my name—which is fine! So…I just thought…I’d tell you.”her roosts crossed cutely over the other as her wings held behind her, the talons overlapping but also spring-loaded, ready to launch if the spear Hask’Gunnar was carrying were to become unsheathed. She wouldn’t have been able to outrun such a thing, but the huntress had no intention of hurting the girl.

Hask’Gunnar looked over her shoulder at Tanilla, who shrugged back at her with a vacant expression. “Petalia…” she repeated slowly. “Well, I think that’s quite a nice name! However…let’s keep it between you, me and Tanilla, yes?” Petalia proudly nodded, indicating her understanding. Do you know your internal biology?”

“My internal…what?” the young girl’s expression became puzzled.

“Never you mind now. Tanilla! Would you please fix Petalia something a bit special after dinner for her work today. Just make sure it won’t be poison for her of course.”

“I would have without you asking! She’s done a great job since she got here.” Tanilla said, somewhat annoyed at being bossed by a friend. She turned with a kind look towards the bird. “Petalia, could you please get the large dessert dishes from the other pantry? The red ones though, not the yellow ones. You’ll know them when you see them, they’re the ones with the grooved rim.”

The huntress left the kitchen direct into a large hallway, facing her right and careful to hold her spear close lest she nick her mother’s precious sandstone sculptures detailing the different generations of dynastic warriors, so neatly posed as they were with no small amount of sexual suggestion. She maintained her usual focused indifference to them as she headed towards one of the rear staircase to get to her chambers. She found this hallway less annoying than the others, preferring it to the entrance hall with its massive battle scene bas-reliefs and three times as many of these life-size toys besides. It was an extension of why she preferred the sands as much as possible. Here at the bottom of the canyon, shadows layered upon the slaves which sat atop the stone out of which the palace was built and you couldn’t even breathe but for the endless force of tradition and code that her mother restlessly shoved down her throat. The only escape was the sun, and all the more better when the winds reshaped the dunes so she didn’t have to look at the putrid turreted spikes of the city skyline in the distance.

Hask’Gunnar bounded up the stairs as, and butted the door open with her knee. She hoped her little brother would hear this as the sound annoyed him, which she found hilarious. Clouds of dust followed—billowing through the shadowy room as she took off her gear and stowed it. She didn’t bother cleaning them for now—it was her intent to be out again the next day anyway. Why bother? She stepped into the bathroom, and oiled herself with some botanicals, not bothering to check which ones. Finally she rinsed herself for the usual thirty seconds with the coldest water she could get. It wasn’t reccomended by doctors to do that so soon after one had been in such scathing temperatures, but she was used to it and liked the rush. Good that the fancy golden spigots would give her some amount of joy anyway. She splayed on the floor on her mat, hands behind her head, turning the ceiling heatlamp on and equalizing. Listening closely it wasn’t long before she heard the scuffling of the rest of the family making their own motions to get ready for dinner. She sigh-hissed and stood up, quickly getting dressed in a white shirt with a flowing dulled red robe that she had come to learn deflected motherly criticism for whatever reason. A few shoulder rolls and with some final checks to make sure she’d gotten the last bits of sand off, she quickly headed to dinner. If nothing else, she was definitely hungry.

Twelve slaves were in the dining hall at any given time, some rotating in and out and some not. Two stokers for the fire pit at the room’s center, two bartenders topping up and refilling, four servers for food—most of these standing nearby at attention, three scullery maids—Petalia among them in this case, and one taster. The taster was the only Tzynn slave in the room, and had been in the family’s ownership for twelve years now. He was one of only four slaves to have earned the privilege of a name, and he took his duties very seriously. Not so much as an after dinner sweet cleared the door without Oleezo’s say-so.

The table itself was its usual self for the end of the week. Hask’Gunnar ate her fill, happy to be able to occupy the time with a genuine need. The Gaffrags were perfectly crispy on the outside, and Tanilla had used her favourite glaze made from an extract of their venom. Her siblings enjoyed it too and they all crunched and tore with their teeth with immense satisfaction. They had little in common, so it was good to agree on something even if it was simple like gaffrag-grilling. Her father took his time, chewing slowly and just observing the scene around him. He’d always been a quiet person, and Hask’Gunnar couldn’t have put a claw on him even if she ever bothered to give him much thought. However tonight he was even more so, and tracking his eyes as she did, she suddenly realised how that was. It bothered her that he was looking directly at her mother at the head of the table, and it bothered her still that her mother had so few questions whilst her eyes seemed fairly attached to the huntress. Hask’Gunnar rotated her usual string of deflections and comebacks in her head as she waited for whatever it was. Her mother was just now picking her teeth and wrapping up the catch-up with her brother, Hask’Camme, asking him about whether his physics studies and marks had continued their improvement from last month.

Finally, Hask’Sanja stared directly at her daughter through the gently flowing flames of the central fire pit. Her sly smile grew around the edges of her mouth as she achieved the desired mix of apprehension and over-guardedness on the part of her daughter. As all seasoned Tzynn commanders know, she who defends everything, defends nothing. As the last of the after-main Tet soup was being cleared and the next round of ice ale was being poured, she finally lit the fuse. Her voice was soft and soothing “You will depart for the academy the morning following tomorrow. Your needed belongings are being sorted and packed. You’ll use tomorrow to say your goodbyes.”

Dead silence is a rare thing in a Tzynn household, but right now, the only sound present was the crackling of the fire pit and the nigh-imperceptible mechanical suction of the extraction fan above it. Hask’Thannah’s jaw dropped as she looked at Hask’Gunnar with her jaw open and her teeth relaxed as she feigned holding back a giggle. Her brother, now on his third guffrag, stood still with blank eyes unsure of who to look at. Hask’Sanja stared nervously back from his wife to his daughter ignoring the shocked bartender who was now absent-mindedly overflowing his goblet with pale green Yondavin ale. Petalia was gently ushered by her wing into the kitchen by a concerned Tanilla who quietly but frantically gestured for the young bird to be quiet.

Hask’Gunnar’s face tightened faster than she could throw a knife. “I WILL NOT!” she bellowed across the table, making every slave in the room instinctively take two steps back.”

Her mother stayed stone-still, smiling at her gracefully. “It is that exact tone that is the reason you most certainly will.”

“You can’t just give me a day’s notice…”

“I can do whatever I want. I am the commander of the city garrison.”

“You gave me no notice this was coming! You had to have known last week, last MONTH! that you were going to se…to say I had to go.”

“And it’s been wonderful having you around my daughter, but you’re forty now, and it’s time.”

“Time for what? What exactly is so pressing?!”

“You remind me so much of myself when I was young. Seeing you out there on drone cams sometimes, gallivanting across the dunes spearing your little minor dangers. It’s all so familiar to be a little girl of adventure.” She sighed as her daughter gritted her teeth in response, balling up her fist, but she knew that she was safe and that the girl wouldn’t dare. “But I had to grow up! I had to carry on the Hask name, go to the academy and legitimise the family vault.”

“DON’T DARE COMPARE YOURSELF TO ME!” Another loud hiss. “You wore those long golden robes and paraded yourself around the royal family and every aristocratic whore you thought could get you a sliver! You’ve never loved Tyzannia for itself, or anyone or anything for that matter.” You completed your military service and fought in none of the wars you worship so while you roam through those galleries, chit full of credit, waiting to impress your comrades and improve your standing and only your standing. You haven’t even been off the palace grounds except to go to the capital, Fort Hask. You haven’t felt the sand under your feet for I don’t know how many years, so don’t you DARE try to pretend at being anything like me.”

Hask’Saranza ignored her, wiping her mouth without so much as tapping a claw in anger.“Bringing your father into the fold has bestowed countless accolades upon that same name to be sure…not to mention contacts.” She smiled wide towards her husband “but we haven’t seen a Hask Empress for over a century and half, before we touched the stars even.” Hask’Gunnar was indeed presently unable to embed her claws in her mothers maw and start tearing, but this was in no small part to her deliberate trying not to. Her brother had quietly excused himself during the last diatribe and her sister continued to bite her bottom lip, knowing that she was not near so safe as her mother from the huntress’ violent tendencies. The matriarch gave her youngest daughter a chance to come down a bit before delivering the honest truth. “And that my dear is why you’re going to the academy. You’ll put your skills to use on an actual battlefield, and polish our crests of valour. And perhaps in two generations, maybe even one…so shall we rule again. Besides, if you love Tyzzania so much, you’ll have no problem fighting the Crek and perhaps helping in usher an end to the war, now will you?”

That she wouldn’t see this room she so hated for at least a good long while finally started to settle in for Hask’Gunnar, and her need for blood was soon overshadowed by a desire to weep. She marched towards the same exit door her brother had taken, with not a clue as to exactly where it was she was planning to be. However, she used the last drops of vitriol she had to shoot back “we’ll turn all of Icerealm into a desert before a Hask sits on that throne,” ending it with a solid slam of the petrified wooden door that echoed into the hallway.

She realised that she had heard a yelp and headed down in the direction of it, knowing what it meant when her brother made the sound. She found him with his knees drawn up towards his chest and tail up between his legs in a hallway off to the left, quietly sobbing. He winced when he saw her and she calmly squatted down next to him. “At what point have I ever hurt you?” she asked him annoyed.

“Never…”

“So don’t wince.”

“OK…” he said with a whimper. “I just don’t want you to go.”

“Why not?”

“Because if you go maybe she’ll make me go…”

Hask’Gunnar rolled her eyes. “By Mius Camme,” she played cool big sister, ignoring house-case and making them both feel like badasses for just a bit “you’re never going to the Academy. You’re only 19 first off and second off you’re a University prodigy.”

“What if she hurts me?”

“She’s not going to.”

“How do you know?”

“Two reasons: One, she has nothing to gain by it.” She was on her second claw, “Two, she doesn’t need any more trouble from me than she’s already going to get and she knows how much you mean to me.”

He considered this for a moment then hugged her arm, squeezing tight. “I swear I didn’t know.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“If she had told us, I would have told you.”

“I know you would, little hatch-creep.”

He laughed, and they both went together to the entertainment lounge and simulated sword fighting until bed, the older sister convincingly allowing him to win a good quarter of the matches.

Outside the palace, Hask’Thannah was in the operations center atop the main terrace bank waiting for the foremen to arrive. She usually didn’t have to call many all-hands meetings like this, and she found it annoying that she had to play to her father’s wishes when she’d much rather continue her drinking in her chambers.

As she was staring out the window at the fields watching the last of the workers scurry into the flimsy pre-hab units they called home roughly ten minutes after the closing alarm, the door opened and the first foreman, a Kailobb gave a small chitter in greeting as her four legs brought her massive body into the room. She was followed by a human—oh how she really hated the humans—followed by the twenty-seven others. They took their places bunched up at the end of the room, as far away from her as possible both by order and choice. She found amusement in watching her underlings shift as she moved around room so did so as often as possible, watching the flow wax and wane.

The estate’s head slave overseer spoke all at once, just as she detected enough whispers going on at once so she could determine her level of control based on how fast they shut up. In this case, she was satisfied that their agency was sufficiently marginalized which was good news indeed for the foremen. “By now, you’ll have heard the news that my baby sister is leaving us not very long at all from now. I know you and the unnamed talk and talk is not really a concern of mine. However, it’s been requested of me by the girl’s father that I specifically make sure that you fake some ignorance in this case.” Those that had tongues bit them. Those that didn’t tried all the harder. “Your tasking is as follows, you will absolutely ensure that not a snicker, jest, or stare goes unpunished whether or not Hask’Gunnar is in earshot or not. You will use the whip and use it liberally. If I find out—and I will—that any of you have deviated even slightly from these orders or have shown the tiniest measure of leniency, then I will first apply the whip to yourself, and then personally watch your limp and bloodied body go to who you thought it prudent to mercy and then grant them their freedom with a gunshot. Then you will take their place in toil, losing your name, your promotion, and all credits towards Residency in the Empire never to gain any again.” She spoke quickly and clearly, not once raising her voice. “Am I clearly understood? Raise a limb, snout, or whatever disgusting extensions you have to indicate as such. I don’t want to hear your voices.” If the limbs did not instantly raise in unison, then it would have taken one of her father’s machines to show the infinitesimally small difference. “Good. Now, get out of my sight.”

She turned back towards the large window. As they made their way to the door, she waited until the first had just barely passed through the frame. “One more thing.” They instantly stopped. “I expect us twenty percent ahead of quota tomorrow.” There was a brief pause as they processed the demand and then they filed back out.

“Go easy on her…Mius.” She snickered, mocking her father’s request.

In the north room of the master’s bedchambers, Hask’Sanja read the final lines of a recent journal on antimatter containment while he tried to work up the courage to address his wife in the next room. He’d already started to wonder whether he made a mistake in trying to keep the slave whispers off the ears of his youngest. Would she even have cared if a slave gave her a stare on her way? This had been the story of his life for the past forty years or so, trying to help while not applying any kind of empirical rationale to that help and having no reasonable guarantee that the results would be needed or indeed worth it. At this moment for instance, he found himself pushing open the petrified wood door to his wife’s room without any idea of what he intended to say. She sat there staring direct at him with that permanent grin because she was similarly aware that he had no idea what he was going to say.

That he was being sized up as her pre-bedtime entertainment did not encourage him

“It…” he struggled to find the words.

“Iiiittt…?” she coaxed, never blinking.

“It…was cruel.”He sputtered.

“Oh was it? Well I told you this would be happening some time ago, dear.”

“Don’t call me dear,” he said with a wince. “Especially not like you mean it.”

“Oh but I do, my dear!”The grin somehow grew wider.

“Why not the eldest anyway?” he felt himself warming in his anger.

“Because your stepdaughter, as you have apparently failed to yet learn, is good for wanton violence, strongman tactics, and cruelty, much like her father was. She’s not Academy material, she wouldn’t last fifteen minutes being told what to do. I feel Hask’Gunnar will fare better on that front, though with no small amount of reprimanding. I put Hask’Thannah where I put her because that is where she is suited, as I do with Hask’Gunnar, and as I do with my son.”

“You’d see a whip taken to your daughter?” He knew better than to pretend that the fact Hask’Gunnar had been his egg too would have any bearing on whether or not she’d be beaten.”

“Oh gladly. Between that and the credits we give in donations, we’ll have a fine, battle-hardened general in the family at the top of her class. Maybe they’ll grind and wring out the little girl that’s left in her. At the end of it, she’ll polish our military credentials and perhaps—just maybe—when that sagging sack of flesh on the throne is finally forced to name his heir, he’ll cycle in a Hask” she said pointing her thumbs with claws extended towards her chest.

“Your obsession with positioning is…”

“Positioning is everything.” She interupted. “Also, I’ll remind you why it is you’re here and not bolted to a wall in a dungeon.”she stated turning off her light, casting the room and the figure of her husband in darkness.

His voice betrayed his fear. “I was nowhere near him when he died. I found him and contacted the university guard.”

“I know that. You know that. And as long as I say so, the Justice Ministry knows that. Remember dear…all I have to do is scream.”

Last days go by a lot quicker than people usually realise. Hask’Gunnar had debated her usual hunt and ultimately had decided on a hike in its stead. It wasn’t an easy decision, but the wind forecast suggested against there being enough decent game to make it memorable, so in the end she opted against it. However, the previous night’s winds had at least carved her a beautiful path through the dunes that both completely isolated her from views of the Capital and also allowed her an uninterrupted view of the Golden Dune Sea. The sky was mostly clear, with just the barest tendrils of brown carrying the approaching sand rain. She spent her entire morning nestled gently in her gear facing that way, meditating and feeling the warm sun attempt to outheat her and fail. As lunchtime approached she pulled out the only thing she had taken with her, a small worn metal can she’d found in Tanilla’s storage room. She uncapped it, scooped up some of the rich gold-brown sand and recapped it standing up. She placed it back in her belt pouch and turned straight for home, fearful of another look bringing her to tears.

She arrived back, as she descended to the canyon bed she noticed as she had when she left the slaves being deliberately ignorant of her presence. The first time, she assumed this had something to do with the obvious increased workload, but now she was starting to realise better. She’d deal with that tomorrow morning, along with the rest.

Her first stop was the kitchen, she entered and saw Tanilla wasn’t immediately around, but Petalia was. Good. “Petalia, do you have a moement?”

She snapped to attention, a metal bowl ratting at her feet from the cabinet she’d been rifling in. “Yes mistress!”

“Oh Mius, please never call me that, and also don’t hurt yourself, you almost bumped your head.”

“Sorry…what is that you needed?”

“How many friends do you have here?”

“I mean…none yet, I only just got here…”

“I see…would you maybe want to be…not here?”

“How do you mean?”

“Just answer.” She demanded, squatting down at eye level with the little blue Cynur.

“It…it might be interesting I suppose.”

“Then it’s settled!” Hask’Gunnar clapped her hands together. “Can you be ready to go tomorrow morning? Make sure you have your documents?”

“I can be ready to go now if that’s what you needed.” Petalia said, hazarding a quick snicker. “But I thought only the Overseer could change my assignment…”

“Excellent, then I’ll see you then. And don’t worry about my sister. I’ll make sure it’s covered.” Hask’Gunnar smiled and stroked the adolescent’s head feathers, eliciting a gentle coo that ensured the smile would stay for the time being.

She exited the kitchen, marched as quickly through the dining room as she could, and then entered the Main Hall. She sighed and then did an about-face to stare directly at the mural looming large in front of her. It was, as much as she hated it, immaculately carved. The line of Tzynn rail-rifles bursting with light as they opened up on the embankments below them in the famous flanking action during the Battle of Peshka Pass a century prior. Hask’Gunnar detested firearms in most cases. She thought them crude and efficient to a fault and that she would almost exclusively be using them in liue of her spear. The whole piece to her masked the true nature of the current Tzynn Empire with its brutal efficiency, ability to process slaves in the billions, and the relative comfort that most on Tzynnia now lived in. It was an attempt to portray it as an institution borne of and embroiled in struggle. The withered husks that now littered the dunes, being buried and revealed with each passing storm were mostly slaves themselves sent by the lesser houses for meat they were too lazy to come by themselves. It had been centuries since a Tzynn had achieved anything that could be called actual self reliance. That she had lived her entire life in the bosom of this achieved decadence wasn’t lost on her either, and it was in this that she’d made her peace with her mother’s declaration though not her mother herself. In her menance, the Matriarch had been correct about one thing, she’d played pretend on the dunes long enough. And though her hunts gave her a nature more befitting her ancestry than the academy would, perhaps there might be a way—unforeseeable to her for the time being—to shock her people out of their privileged stupor, but she’d have to start with herself.

Her head snapped to the right as Tanilla came flying in with her arms open to embrace her so firmly that Hask’Gunnar choked laughter in her inability to breathe. “I was so worried I wouldn’t get to see you! I had to go into the city for spices and the shuttle back was delayed…”

“I wouldn’t have let that happen, and you know that.”

“Petalia told me you had gone through this way…and she told you chose her for your commission!? I didn’t even think you’d bother.”

“Well, it’s my entitlement, but honestly I didn’t think I would have either. It will be good to have a secretary though, and besides that it’ll really really annoy Thannah, which I think will be really funny, so there’s also that. Other than that…I just really like Petalia.” She shrugged, smiling.

“I made you Thall Stew before you left. You’ll have a thermos of it to take with you as well.” Behind them two slaves where carrying her cases near the front door, ready to be taken out to the landing pad in front of the palace in just a few short hours. Tanilla hugged her favourite family member again, not letting go for what seemed like hours. “Please come back and visit.”

“I’ll come back for more than that. Count on it.” She responded as she nestled into the mother she never had.

“…what’s that mean?”

“I don’t know. When I come back though we both will.”

“Hask’Gunnar…”

“Don’t worry about it. Please do me a favour?”

“Anything, and you know that.”

“Please look after the hatch-creep. I actually love that one.”

“You have a nasty habit of asking duties of me which I know are already mine.” she stated with an attempt at authority close to what Hask’Saranza was capable of performing. The two went into the kitchen, talking, eating, and drinking for the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening.

The next morning, Hask’Gunnar was up a bit early before she’d be summoned and slung her rucksack of final personals and her spear on her back and headed straight for the slave apartments on the back of the kitchen. She was pleased that Petalia was already waiting for her with her meagre set of possessions and she summoned the girl to get up and follow, immediately heading back to the main entry hall. Hask’Gunnar spoke quickly as they moved. “Alright, so here it is: nobody except Tanilla knows I picked you. Give me your papers.” Petalia quickly retrieved them from an inner vest pocket and handed them over. Hask’Gunnar ticked three boxes and then signed on one of the lines towards the back and then handed them back. “When we get there, I’m going to call you by your name, Petalia. From that point on, you are named. Don’t worry. Nobody will punish you for it.” Petalia nodded, trying to absorb the magnitude of what she just heard while following swiftly as they entered the main hall and trying to ignore the odd looks from the two human porters that were carrying the cases in front of her.

Petalia was feeling quite nervous, truth be told, but she wasn’t being given the option to indulge in it just now.

As the door opened and the two humans merged into a full procession of guards escorting the lot towards the waiting shuttle, the sound of idling ion engines came close to overwhelming the poor Cynur behind her new master. They approached the craft quickly, and Hask’Gunnar smiled at the shocked expression on her sister’s face. “Who is that?!” she demanded.

“That’s Petalia, and she is my commission and property. The huntress responded. “Petalia, please show Hask’Thannah your documents.” Petalia complied in beautiful lockstep fashion, and as soon as she presented, the documents were snatched from her wing.

Hask’Thannah furiously scanned the documents, shocked that her sister was actually taking advantage of the ancient leaving tradition and being careful to note even the slightest bureaucratic error that would void the document in the eyes of the Guild. She’d never even met the Cynur child nor had any specific use for her, but being undermined as the Overseer of Living Assets wasn’t something that she was going to take sitting down. Unfortunately she didn’t find anything and folded the papers and slammed them back into her sister’s chest looking way. “Go!” she exclaimed, attempting to turn away and shocked to find herself grappled in a full-armed embrace from her half-sister.

“Listen well,” Hask’Gunnar whispered in the Overseer’s ear. “Think twice the next time you threaten force using father’s emotional flailings for your own amusement. If I get back here and I find that a single one of them has died as a result of administrative punishment for any reason. I’ll make that scar above your eye look like a beauty mark, so help me.” She then kissed her sister’s cheek gently and proceeded on.

The huntress turned to her left and squatted down to embrace her little brother with a warmth that made Petalia smile, a smile for which the anger of the Overseer seethed all the more and had it not been for the combination of imperial protocol and her genuine fear of her younger sister’s claw, she’d have quickly huffed back into the palace. From behind her brother slid out a large rectangular box containing a brand new VR Sim with a quantum entanglement uplink with all their favourite games resting on top of it, and it prompted another embrace. “That’s why Tanilla waas in the city today. I used some of my savings.”

“I love you.” She told him gently as she patted his back. “I love you, and I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too. I want to go with you.”

“No, you want to go to the University. I promise.” He considered this and nodded gently, and they finally broke their hug. “Petalia,” she asked wiping away her tears, “could you please carry this for me?”. She smiled with some amusement wiping her eyes as the girl clumsily tried to get her wings around the box, finally succeeding and clumsily marching onwards towards the shuttle. Ahead of them the porters had just finished loading her bags and were heading beyond the shuttles and back around to the house dormitory.

She kept walking and stood in front of her father. She shrugged at him, and he gave her a bundle of books, the titles of which she didn’t really notice. She took them, casually stuffed them in her rucksack, shook her head, looked away from him, and moved down the line. Her father shamefully stared at the ground.

Her mother was vaguely amused at the spectacle so far. She stood standing in formal wear with her hands clasped at her waist tracing the scales on her wrist right next to the shuttle door. She was curious what it was her younger daughter had said to her Overseer, but as she was about to finally get her way, it didn’t really matter. As her daughter approached, she looked at the spear attached to her back. “I mean it’s up to you, of course…but you won’t really be needing that old thing, will you?”

“If I were you, I’d hope I never saw it again, Mother.” And there it was. A blink-and-you’d-miss-it flash of crinkle on her mother’s face. A crinkle that Hask’Gunnar knew was enough to know that she’d gotten to her, if only a small bit. She smiled, and turned away, boarding the shuttle and taking her seat. Petalia gently slid the VR Sim up onto the floor of the shuttle, unable to resist a final look at the row of smiling jagged teeth belonging to the Matriarch of her now-former owner. She hooked her roosts onto the stepladder and hopped up into the luxurious cabin of the shuttle, taking the seat that Hask’Gunnar gently indicated.As soon as they were hooked in, the shuttle pilot—who had seen quite enough and couldn’t wait to leave—shut the doors and started the ascent up to the canyon’s mouth.

I claim no ownership of Stellaris or of the pre-made Tzynn Empire present in that game, both of which are owned by Paradox Interactive. All Rights Reserved.

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