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Ephemeral: Chapter 18
It did not take long for Aaric to patch up Clara's wounded shoulder. It took far longer for her to explain to the gathered Eldership her exact dealings with His Eminence, the reason for her presence in Almitas, and the events leading up to Mother Alden's arrest. Once the adrenaline of being in the spotlight ran dry, Clara had trouble keeping her eyes open. Thomas Alden noticed and excused her from the meeting. He encouraged her to get some rest and assured her they'd have a plan by Elpis-rising.
Clara bid good Elpis-setting to everyone, then plodded toward the guestroom, kicked off her shoes, and collapsed onto the bed. She fell unconscious within seconds and enjoyed the bliss and safety shared perhaps only by those in the womb. Her exhaustion banished all dreams, and it was not until Elpis beams turned the sky a fiery pink that she woke from her slumber.
The horrible events of the previous evening seemed so far away that for one rapturous second she wondered if she'd dreamt them: the snarleks, the electric fence, Mother Alden's arrest, her doom to fade away on a foreign planet. But a glance at the bandage on her shoulder and the deep scar across her chest made the truth all too apparent.
She was still on Elpis 7 and would remain here till the end of her days.
Clara sat on the edge of the bed, shut her eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath. A faintly floral breeze wafted in from the garden, fluttering the guest room's white organza curtains. She let out her breath and opened her eyes. Funny. I don't feel quite as devastated as I did last night.
Clara caught her bedraggled reflection in the vanity mirror. She stood to get a better view and gasped in surprise when her bandage fell off of its own accord revealing her shoulder; it had healed in the night – though it bore an ugly scar. She raised her arm. No pain! She rotated her arm in a few large circles to be sure. Apparently there were some benefits to living on an ephemeral planet.
One shower and breakfast of eggs, toast, and tea later, Clara felt nearly normal. She'd almost forgotten that Mother Alden's (and the tribe's) future hung in the balance until she heard a tentative knock on the door.
Thomas and Aaric stood on the doorstep. “Good Elpis-rising, Clara,” Thomas said. “Did you rest well?”
“I did, thank you. And my shoulder's much better.” She lifted up her navy shirt sleeve (which she'd borrowed from her hostess) to reveal the healed scar.
“I'm happy to see that.” Aaric smiled wanly in the early Elpis-rising light.
“So,” Clara asked. “What did the Eldership decide to do about Mother Alden?”
Thomas met eyes with his son, then replied, “Actually, they haven't reached a decision yet. They've called an early meeting in the town hall and have requested your presence.”
Clara tensed. “My presence? What for? I've already explained all I know.”
Thomas Alden shifted from one foot to the other. “Some of the Eldership feel that since your visit led to Mother Alden's arrest, you should assist in her return.”
“Me?! But how?” Clara asked. “I'm not a lawyer. I'm not a soldier. I'm not even a citizen!”
“Nevertheless, you have been summoned,” Thomas said. “We must be going.”
Clara nodded slowly. There was no use trying to argue.
“Shall I saddle one of Mother Alden's horses?” Aaric asked.
Thomas checked the degree on his wristband and shook his head. “Time is of the essence. We'll take the horses we have. Do you have any objection to riding with Aaric?” he asked Clara.
Clara met eyes with Aaric briefly, then dropped her gaze. She hoped they couldn't hear her cantering heartbeat. “That's fine.”
“Good. Grab your boots. Let's go.”
Clara did as she was told. Her heart was in her throat as she approached Aaric's chestnut stallion. He was a good foot or so taller than Nelly and tossed his head and swished his tail impatiently. Clara bit her lower lip; she felt tiny against this wild mustang.
“Would you prefer me to drive?” Aaric asked.
Aaric put his foot in the stirrup and swung his shorter leg over the horse's back. Then he held out a hand to Clara. “Step in the stirrup. I'll pull you behind me.”
Clara put her hand in Aaric's and tried to ignore the electricity at his touch as he pulled her up. She straddled the horse, sitting behind the saddle. She threw her arms around Aaric's middle to avoid a high fall as the animal lurched forward.
“Whoa!” Aaric pulled back on the reins. “Let her get settled, Rex!” He looked over his shoulder. “Sorry, he's only newly broken-in.”
“Uh, huh.” Clara tried to sit upright with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Alright, you two. Let's go.” Thomas Alden wheeled his steed around and started loping down the dirt path.
“Just hold onto me, and you'll be fine,” Aaric said. “It's a short trip.”
Clara clung to the young horseman like wallpaper as Rex trotted around the bend. But when the young stallion transitioned to a smooth, rolling canter, Clara relaxed her hold a bit and watched the fences – now harmless in Elpis light – glide past her, enclosing fields of brown earth and sprouting crops. She saw the livestock already grazing in the distant pastures and heard cows lowing, impatient for their morning milking. She felt her body fall into the horse's loping three-beat rhythm down the road as she encircled her arms around the solid torso of a man whose good opinion she coveted. And for a few beautiful moments, she forgot to be unhappy.
All too soon, however, the gray stone town hall rose before her looking more stern than she'd remembered. Like a strict head mistress, Clara thought nervously as she dismounted and the men hitched their horses to a nearby post. The stalwart-looking building with its twelve-foot arched wooden doors vaguely reminded her of an ancient European church. Its iron hinges creaked as Thomas pulled a door open to let Clara pass.
Unlike the cold, polished stone interior of the Agilis Grand Assembly Hall, the Almitian town hall felt warm and homey with its polished wooden floors and white plaster walls. Elpis light streamed in through the ten-foot glazed windows lining both sides of the building. There were no marble columns here, but heavy wood beams braced the vaulted ceiling while the faint smell of cedar added an earthiness to the atmosphere. But the hall's most prominent feature was the fifteen-foot oval wooden table at which the Eldership now sat. They halted their discourse as Clara and the Aldens crossed the floor.
Clara felt as if she were appearing before a high court.
“Have a seat,” one of the Elder women said. She wore a low, gray-streaked bun and wore a no-nonsense expression even more impressive than her birdlike nose. Clara did not remember her from the night before.
Aaric held a chair out for Clara, then hobbled to his own beside her.
The woman eyed Clara critically for a few seconds, then folded her hands on the table. “We have been discussing the precipitous position in which we find ourselves regarding our relationship with the Silex tribe thanks to your interaction with Mother Alden.”
“I'm very sorry ...” Clara began when another Elder from the other end of the table shushed her. Clara clasped her hands together under the table.
The Facilitator continued, “Although we know Mother Alden to be innocent of trying to subvert the Silexians, we cannot go against the Triad Agreement. To do so would be to invalidate it even more than His Eminence has already. And frankly, our position is such that we cannot readily defend our people in the event of war. Therefore, we must avoid a military conflict at all costs or we will lose everything.”
“Hear, hear!” said the slender woman from last night.
I wonder if she says 'hear, hear' to everything ...
Thomas and Aaric exchanged a somber glance. “What about Mother Alden?” Thomas asked.
“At present we have an even greater concern than our heirloom keeper. Master Kelly, if you would?”
Kelly, a young man in his thirties Clara would have guessed, stood up at the other end of the table and tapped a few buttons on his wristband. A bluish-green holographic projection emanated from the table's center showing a topographical map of both Almitas and Agilis. “This is an image we picked up from our borders last revolution,” he said. “And if I hit the highlight button, you can see how many Silexian drones have been charted in Almitian airspace.”
Clara and the others at the table gasped; it seemed as if Almitas had an invasion of fireflies.
“Now according to the Triad Agreement, the Silexians are clearly violating our mutual respect for borders and property. But what's really concerning is this.”
Here, he zoomed into a quadrant just outside Agilis. Clara squinted at what appeared to be a long field with several squarish vehicles and narrow buildings.
An older man at the table asked the question Clara was wondering. “Alright, Kelly. What is it?”
“It appears to be a military training camp,” Kelly said. “Look at all these all-terrain vehicles. They've doubled in the last two revolutions. And every Elpis rising-to-setting we're detecting more activity. His Eminence is preparing for war. We fear he may have found a reason to pick a fight through Mother Alden's arrest.”
Half the Eldership glowered at Clara; she wanted to crawl under the table.
“What if we sent for help from the Silva tribe?” suggested a young woman on Clara's right.
“No good,” said the main Facilitator. “The Silvans care nothing for the Silexians, but there's no way they'd risk their own people to help our cause. In fact, they'd probably scoff at us for getting ourselves in this fix in the first place.”
“If we cannot fight, then why not bargain?” suggested another. “We threaten to cut off their food supply if they don't back off and return Mother Alden.”
This suggestion got a murmur of approval, but the Facilitator only shook her head. “If we threatened to disrupt their food supply, they might interpret that as an act of war and then march in and force us to work the fields without pay.”
This brought a murmur of disapproval.
“What if we just did nothing?” asked a young man leaning back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head.
All turned toward the dark-haired twenty-something in surprise.
He smiled. “You all fear retaliation from His Eminence because one member of our community displeased him. But he’s captured that member. He now has no reason to attack the rest of the clan.”
Aaric furrowed his brows. “So we just abandon Mother Alden to a madman?” His voice was measured, but Clara saw the vein throbbing on the side of his neck.
“I’ll fight before I see any harm come to that woman!” an older man said, pounding his fist on the table.
“Hear, hear!” shouted the woman from earlier.
“Fellow Almitians, hear me out.” The younger man held up both hands in a placating gesture. “I’m not suggesting we let our respected heirloom keeper rot in prison. But if we wage war against His Eminence, we risk genocide. Mother Alden would not have us do this. And we are unlikely to get much help from the Silva tribe. They aren't dependent upon trade with the Silexians.”
“So what do you suggest, Proditor?” asked the Facilitator, her words clipped.
The young man traced the faint grain of the glossy wooden table with his forefinger. “An unofficial mission.”
Everyone looked at one another in astonishment.
“You want to stage a coup?!” Kelly asked, his mouth agape.
“Don't be silly, Kelly. We don't want to rule Agilis; we just want them to respect our boundaries, the Triad Agreement, and the original clan charters. The original colonial documents set up the Silexian tribe as a republic – not a monarchy. But the Grand Assembly always defers to His Eminence. His eternal youth intimidates them. He’s more of a demigod than a city official. So why not remove the source of his seniority? We'd be doing the Silexians a favor. And without his influence we should easily disprove the charges against Mother Alden.”
The Facilitator placed her fingertips together and – after an interval of pensive silence – smiled. “I do believe this is a reasonable plan. Captain Karnak may still help rule Agilis; but let him rule as a man and not a god.”
“Hear, hear!” the same woman repeated, pounding the table with her fist.
The woman at Clara's right added, “Truth be told, we would not only be helping the Silexians, but also His Eminence, himself. The Fire Stone has long been making him mad.”
“Great idea, getting rid of Karnak's trinket!” said the old man at the other end of the table. Then he placed one hand over the other on his cane. “But how do you propose we do it? The man never lets the pendant out of his sight!”
Proditor pointed in Clara's direction. “That's where I'm hoping she can help us.”
Again, all eyes turned to Clara. She flushed.
“Well?” said the Facilitator. “You have access to His Eminence, yes?”
“Not really,” Clara said lamely. “I mean, I met him after we landed. But there were guards everywhere. I don't have any special access codes or keys to his office or anything.”
Someone at the other end of the table sighed. “If only we had trained birds on this planet like the ancient homing pigeons on Earth. One could simply fly into his room, nip the necklace, and return it to us.”
Birds? Bird! “Raven!” Clara said suddenly.
Thomas Alden looked at her. “Is that a bird on Earth?”
“No! I mean, yes it is, but I was speaking of my teammate, Raven. She's been working with His Eminence for her internship. She's the one you want for access.”
“Can she be trusted?”
“I trust her,” Clara said. “Though she doesn't know anything about all this yet.”
“Very well, then,” said the Facilitator. “How do we contact her?”
“Um ...” Clara looked at Aaric.
Aaric cleared his throat. “I'm afraid we can't remotely. I destroyed the communication device they used to bug Clara.”
The Facilitator frowned. “That is unfortunate.” She drummed her fingers on the table. “When were your teammates expecting you back in Agilis, Miss Milton?”
“Shortly after Elpis-rising.”
“Could you persuade your team to take a trip to Almitas – without their communicators?”
Clara thought. “Possibly ...”
“Then why don't you return to your team and invite them here to a feast in their honor?”
“A ruse?” Thomas Alden asked.
“No, we'll have a real feast – in case the drones are spying. But if we're going to discuss plans of intrigue, I'd much rather do it on Almitian soil. It's too risky to attempt such a discussion in Agilis. And if you cannot bring all your teammates, convince at least Raven to come. Our very lives may depend on it.”
Clara gazed at the roomful of Elders and swallowed hard. “I'll do my best.”
“Hopefully that will be enough,” Kelly muttered.
Clara looked down at her shoes.
The Facilitator met eyes with the Aldens. “You may return her to her hovercraft while we deliberate further.”
“Thank you,” Thomas Alden said as he, Aaric, and Clara rose to their feet.
They all bowed, then showed themselves out of the Elpis-lit hall. Clara didn't feel like she could breathe freely until she heard the great wooden doors close behind her. And for once she felt glad for her long hovercraft commute back to the city; she'd need every second to figure out how to persuade her friends to return with her on such short notice.
Elpis had now risen high enough to illuminate Mother Alden's home in a bright glow. But without its owner, the house seemed like an empty shell. There was no light or laughter coming through the open windows. No merry whistle of the tea kettle or savory smells from the oven. Clara thought of Mother Alden sleeping in a cold photopetrium cell monitored by guards. The prospect made her angry.
Aaric gave Clara his hand as she slipped off the horse onto the ground. She squatted and touched her toes. Despite the short ride, her legs felt stiff.
“Thank you,” Aaric said from his saddle.
Clara looked up in surprise.
“For caring about Mother Alden,” he said. “And for doing what you can to help.”
“I may not be of much help ...”
“It's enough for now.” Aaric adjusted the leather straps in his hands. “I'll pray for you, Clara Milton.”
Clara met Aaric's gray eyes. There was a confidence behind them which gave her some reassurance. “Thank you,” she said. “I'll take all the help I can get.”
So what do you think?
How do you think Clara should tell her friends about Elpis 7? How do you think they’ll react? Lemme know in the comments below!
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