Chapter 20 (part 1 of 2)

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Maggie rushed to Veriasse. The skin of his face was red, burning away. She looked around desperately, then dabbed at his face with the hem of her robe and called to Everynne, "Help me, please!"

Everynne stood alone watching. The dronon were clattering their battle legs in token of surrender. She walked over to Veriasse, with Gallen and Orick in her wake, but Everynne said, "You have to clean him. They call me a Golden now. I cannot be seen doing work." She looked into Maggie's eyes, pleading. She could not jeopardize what she had gained thus far.

Gallen pulled a canteen from his backpack, bathed Veriasse's face. Veriasse knelt on one knee, panting.

"How badly are you hurt?" Everynne asked. She had been surprised at the ferocity of the battle. With his upgraded nervous system, Veriasse was phenomenally quick. In two minutes she had seen him take apart a dronon Lord Escort, his fists and feet blurring. Yet he had done it at great cost. His face was terribly burned, and she'd heard something crack when he'd fallen.

Veriasse pulled the microphone away from his mouth. "My ribs," he groaned. "I think some are broken."

"What can we do for you?" Gallen asked.

Panic took Everynne. She could not think. She only knew that if Veriasse failed the next battle, she would die.

"Rest. I need to lie still for awhile. My nanodocs should be able to heal the wounds in a couple of hours."

Everynne's mantle told her that he was wrong. It would take days for his nanodocs to heal the breaks. She needed to get him away from here, take him somewhere so they could speak in private.

Everynne turned to the hive queen and said, "We have won the Right of Charn. We now demand that you alter the course of your hive city. Speed us on our way to Queen Tlitkani."

The hive queen clicked her mouthfingers against her voice drum, and Everynne's earpiece translated. "She is not on this world. She has moved her hive to another world, to facilitate her use of the human's mechanical mind."

"You mean she has taken up residence on the omni-mind?" Everynne asked.

"Yes," the queen said.

"Where has she taken the omni-mind?"

"It is orbiting our sun."

Everynne said, "Then take us to the nearest spaceship."

The queen spoke to one of her Lord Technicians, then turned back to Everynne. "Our technicians will prepare a ship for you immediately. We will send a squadron of our Lord Vanquishers as an honor guard."

The dronon queen watched Everynne for a moment. "We have received orders from our ruling dronon. She asks that we relieve you of the Terror you have been carrying."

Everynne reluctantly pulled the ball from her pocket. It had been her insurance, and part of her was loath to give it up. But it had accomplished its purpose.

She held it out for the queen, but a trio of Lord Technicians rushed forward and carried the thing away, presumably to be destroyed. The dronon queen turned her back, began dragging her bloated egg sac away.

When they were alone again, Maggie touched Everynne's arm. "We can't leave yet. Veriasse needs time to heal."

"Neither can we delay," Veriasse said, pulling on Gallen's arm as he staggered to his feet. "We have won Right of Charn, but according to dronon order, we must leave in all haste."

Everynne doubted that Veriasse could fight another battle in his condition.

Gallen stood tall, his hands on his hips. "Veriasse, you're in no shape to fight. It would be wrong to even try. You can't take a chance with Everynne's life this way. Let me fight the next battle."

Veriasse looked up, his jaw firm. "I wore the mantle of a Lord Protector for six thousand years. You have worn it for less than three days. You are a good man, Gallen, but you're not a Lord Protector yet. Even though I am injured, you couldn't beat me. How could you then take my place?"

"I watched you fight," Gallen said. "I know I could win! Veriasse, you're all done in."

"You can't just take my place, Gallen," Veriasse said. "I am Everynne's Lord Escort. By dronon rules of conduct, she can only take another Lord Escort if I die."

"I could switch clothes with you when we're alone," Gallen said. "The dronon would never know."

Gallen turned to Everynne, pleading. "You decide between us. It's your life."

"And yours," Everynne said. She looked at the two men. Gallen was probably correct. The dronon might never know if the two men switched places. Veriasse was gravely wounded, and Gallen still fresh. Yet Veriasse had proven himself in combat against a dronon.

"Will you, too, hold with my choice?" Everynne asked Veriasse.

He glared at her. His next words seemed to cost him more than the pain of drawing breath. "Gallen is right. You should have a say in this." By those words alone, Everynne knew he was severely wounded. Veriasse would never relinquish his title if he thought he could still fight.

Everynne turned her back on them, looked out over the arena. Orick ran to the center of the arena, retrieved Veriasse's goggles. A few meters away, the dronon had circled the corpse of Dinnid and were dismembering it, feeding it to the royal grubs. Everynne could not help but think that within a matter of hours, other dronon might be doing that to her.

She considered her options. Veriasse was sorely wounded, but his nanodocs would ease his discomfort. Within an hour, he should be feeling somewhat better. And Veriasse outweighed Gallen by thirty kilos. When he'd managed to break the carapace around Dinnid's air holes, she'd found it hard to imagine a human with such strength. Everynne doubted that Gallen could equal the task.

Yet, even with all of Veriasse's great accomplishments of the past, somehow at this moment, she trusted Gallen more. He was still healthy. And even though he didn't have an upgraded nervous system, Gallen was fast. Veriasse had been astonished by his strength when they first met. She considered choosing Gallen and wondered at the wisdom of such a move.

Maggie put her arm around Everynne's shoulder. "You can't let Veriasse fight anymore!" she whispered. "It would be murder."

Everynne looked into Maggie's eyes. They were no longer the eyes of that innocent child she'd met on Tihrglas a few days before. Instead, her eyes were filled with wisdom, the kind of knowledge that comes only through pain.

"You love Gallen, don't you?" Everynne said.

"Of course," Maggie answered. And in her mind, Everynne heard Maggie's accusation of a few days before: You took him, just because you could.

Everynne nodded. She had stolen something from Maggie once before. She determined not to do it again. Even if I die, Everynne thought, I will not steal from her again. She turned to face the two men. "I choose Veriasse as my champion."

Gallen gasped in astonishment, obviously hurt, and Veriasse breathed deeply, tears of gratitude glistening in his eyes. "I will not disappoint you, my lady. Give me a few moments' rest. I promise I will not disappoint you."

The journey to the omni-mind seemed shorter than it was. The dronon technicians took only an hour to remove a spaceship from the bowels of their city, and another hour to alter accommodations so that humans could travel in it. The alterations were limited simply to removing some seats and installing a pallet for Veriasse to lie on.

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