Rea shuddered to see again the
impending bulk of a military ship on the outskirts of Pelion,
emblazoned with the sharp angles of a stylized nova; the insigniaof
the Central Military Forces.
She looked down at the invitation
she had been carrying since last week, ran her thumb across that
same insignia, embossed at the top of the card, and thought of
the death it represented. Once more she read the formal script
is cordially invited to a celebration
on the fourteenth of Septum, Central Date Standard,
occasioning the one-billionth impression of
A Study in Dignity During the Thessalon Conflicts
Colonel Gavin Price-George
Gavin Price-George. Commander
of the 054th Tac-Battalion. He had left Pelion twenty-four years
earlier, having overseen a five-year occupation — having done
it well, in Central's eyes — ruthlessly crushing Thessalon's
bitter rebellion against Central's distant rule. Colonel Gavin
Price-George, returning to Pelion. Still, Rea could hardly believe
it, much less understand. What can he be thinking, coming back
here, she mused as Evander walked out onto the landing meadow.
Evander, mayor of Pelion, had
come to meet the ship in the finest clothing available to impoverished
Pelion: a fine white cotton shirt, its sleeves and cuffs embroidered
with blue florals, and a bright red vest lined with Cyrenian satin.
Accompanying him was a retinue of four, three of them his sons,
all town officials of one sort or another. They waited for some
time in front of the unmoving shuttle, its alloys pinging and
popping as it cooled, until finally it opened and coughed up a
group of soldiers. A lieutenant, with manners as crisp as his
uniform, walked up to Evander and presented him with a clip of
papers and manifests to be signed and approved.
Rea, standing at the town's edge
with a group of others, watched the proceedings. She looked around
her and could see that many of the younger spectators were unsure
of how to react, confused by the conflict between their own excitement
and the dour suspicion of their parents and elders. Next to her
stood Phillipa and her parents, Milo and Pena. The look on Phillipa's
face was one of rapt attention and wonder; her mother's brow was
creased by a worried frown. Phillipa was too young to remember
the war, and was only a baby when CMF regulars executed her uncle.
But her mother remembered. Rea remembered, too.
Down in the meadow, Evander returned
the clipboard to the lieutenant who removed copies of each of
the forms and handed them to the mayor. Evander took them and,
seemingly flustered, handed them in turn to his eldest son, Andrus,
who served as town constable when he wasn't out working in the
fields. Andrus ceremoniously folded the dupes and tucked them
in his belt. Then Evander, the officer and the officer's second
began walking upslope toward the town. The lieutenant talked,
and Evander nodded. The mayoral retinue realized they were being
left behind and hurriedly followed after the trio.
The group of townsfolk at the
outskirt separated, and Rea heard their quiet, hushed whisperings
move up the street like wind through summer wheat. They faded
back into doorways and shop alcoves, allowing the mayor and the
soldiers to pass. Rea heard the lieutenant speak as they approached,
oblivious to the two- score people nearby.
"Of course, we won't be
changing any of the rustic atmosphere," he said. "The
colonel was specific about that."
Evander nodded again.
They drew near, and Rea noticed
something odd about the lieutenant's second. He paid attention
to neither his superior nor to the mayor. Unspeaking, he turned
his head in a slow, studious motion, surveying the crowd. His
eyes, nearly hidden behind the metallic flight specs, darted from
face to face; not in the wary, all-sided alert of a bodyguard,
it was a searching, a filing for future reference. He surveyed
the entire crowd, and then turned his gaze to the buildings of
Pelion, searching, searching. What's he looking for, Rea wondered,
suspicious of everything CMF.
Abruptly, the searching stopped,
his gaze pinned to Rea's side of the street. She could not tell
exactly where the soldier was looking, but it was somewhere above
and to her left. As he passed, the crowd closing in after him,
his head swivelled, keeping his target in view. When he could
no longer do so and remain unobtrusive, he faced forward and did
not resume his scan.
Rea did not join the crowd as
it moved forward, following the mayor and the new arrivals, but
turned instead to the building behind her left shoulder.
Brightly painted garden boxes
filled with summer savory and hyssop fronted the windows and the
balcony of the upper story. Open shutters let in the afternoon
air and a green and white striped awning shaded the area behind
the balustrade. Rea took a few steps backward to see further
into the darkened area, trying to see what so intrigued the lieutenant's
There, back in the shadowed corner,
painted aqua by the filtered light, stood a figure, a woman in
her late twenties. A long braid of dark, chestnut hair fell over
her shoulder onto the light colored cotton of her sleeveless blouse,
hanging down to her belted waist. She held her arms crossed over
her bosom, one hand rubbing the dark skin of the opposing arm
as if she were chilled despite the afternoon's warmth. A muscle
clenched along her jaw in an emotional pulse and her dark eyes
were intent on the soldiers as they advanced up to the town courtyard.
"Hello, Nikki," Rea
called up to the balcony.
The black eyes snapped down,
fixing Rea in their sight, and she felt the full fury and hatred
contained within that Medusan gaze. At once, the eyes softened
and a small, timid smile appeared. The young woman stepped haltingly
to the balcony edge.
"Afternoon, Ma Panapa,"
she said politely.
Rea regarded Nikki for a moment.
The only child of an unwed mother now long-dead, she lived alone,
untamed by marriage, unbridled by custom. Rea had taken her turn
at raising the orphaned girl, and saw many similarities between
herself and this small, unassuming woman. She motioned upslope
with her head.
"You disapprove of our visitors?"
"Disapprove? I hate
them!" Nikki blurted. "We should have refused them
permission to set foot on our soil again." Her gaze drifted
up the street. "Instead, Evander courts them like some fawning
magpie! How dare they come back here. I wonder what Mama
would think, were she alive." She turned back to Rea, one
hand coming lightly to rest on the rail. "She was always
too forgiving of them."
The group had come to the village
square and the lieutenant climbed the two steps at the base of
the Partisans' Memorial. Turning, he addressed the crowd. Rea
could not make out what he was saying, but his arms moved through
the air, encompassing the whole of Pelion.
"What can the colonel be
thinking, Rea?" came the question from above her. "That
we'll welcome him back with open arms?"
The lieutenant made a last, expansive
gesture and a cheer of delight broke from many of the young men
and women. Applause followed the lieutenant and his second as
they went off with Evander toward Nestor's tavern.
"He may be thinking just
that," was her answer.
The next day the lieutenant kicked
his regs into high gear. They unloaded the shuttle and began
a program of beautification that only the military could perform.
The intent, Evander explained
to Rea, was to throw a huge party for the whole town - and anyone
from out of town who could make it - while holding a smaller,
more private gathering for the colonel and his personal invitees
at Nestor's tavern. The stereoscopic intaglios, enlargements
from Price-George's now-famous collection of TD graphics taken
during Thessalon's rebellion, would be on display in the banquet
"But why would he want to
do this for us?" she asked Evander. "It makes no sense.
Why travel all this way, just to give a party for us?
And why would he think that we, his former adversaries, would
Evander could find no answer.
"When you put it like that, it doesn't make sense,"
he said. "But how can we refuse him? Especially now that
the announcement has been made? You know, Rea, it's not customary
to ask someone if they want a gift."
"Not a friend, Ev, no.
But an old enemy? Him, you might ask." Evander nodded in
"Well, the younger folk
would never forgive us were we to refuse," the mayor continued.
"Have you seen the labels on those crates? There are homeworld
goods on that shuttle. Plants, seeds, strains we've been wanting
ever since the war, and there's even some tech that the lieutenant
has told me will stay behind with us. And then there's all the
food for the celebration. Most of the people in this town have
never had a taste of Central in their lives. I say we act politely
and accept the gift."
"All right. But don't be
fooled, Evander. You know this man as well as I, probably better.
There is another reason behind this visit. Count on it."
She left Evander's house and
entered the square and the lingering warmth of evening. After
a week's work by the soldiers, banners and festoons ringed the
open area, arcs of color stretching from house to house in the
warm lamplight. Even the Partisans' Memorial had been cleaned,
polished and ringed by freshly-laid brickwork. Plants, hothouse
varieties never seen on Thessalon, had been bedded around the
square, exploding with color and fragrance.
New gravel crunched under Rea's
sandals as she approached a bank of purple and white flowers.
Bending down, she took in the scent of new soil and sweet blooms.
Already Rea could see the toll Pelion's dry climate had taken
on the delicate petals and leaves. We'll see none of these next
month, she thought, though their seeds may be of use. If these
plants even have seeds.
Bright light and laughter came
from Nestor's tavern. Rea smiled, hearing Milo, back from a short
day's work in the hills, leading others in one of the old songs
from the rebellion. She decided to drop in for a visit before
she headed home, and began walking that way.
As she came close to the building,
one of the sharp gravel stones came between her foot and her sandal.
She winced with pain and bent to remove the stone. Out of the
corner of her eye she noticed, in the shadows alongside the tavern,
a couple, embracing. The girl was protesting quietly — and none
too effectively — the explorations of her male companion. The
young woman Rea recognized at once, but the man, tall and dark,
was a stranger to her.
"Phillipa," Rea said
quietly, but loud enough to part the couple. The man was tall
and well-built and though his face remained in shadow, Rea could
see he wore the uniform of a CMF regular. He bowed to Rea with
a short, silent greeting. Phillipa, the flush of her cheeks visible
despite the gloom of the unlighted alleyway, nodded as well.
"Ma Panapa," she said
softly, formally. Rea felt her anger at the young girl rise.
If it had been her parents who discovered her pawing and groping
in an alley with their old enemy.... Rea took a breath and let
it out slowly, controlling her emotions.
"Your parents will be concerned
for you, Phillipa, out alone, with strangers in our midst."
She spoke calmly, but there was a shank of steel in her tone.
"Perhaps you should go home and calm their fears?"
Phillipa left the shadows for
the light that spilled from Nestor's. Her blouse was untucked
and her hair hung loose about her shoulders. She began to speak,
but stopped before the words came out.
"Put yourself together,
dear," Rea advised coldly, "and go home. There is nothing
of value to be gained here."
"Yes," Phillipa said,
embarrassed and, it seemed, ashamed — though ashamed of her behavior
or ashamed she had been caught, Rea did not know — and hurried
off upslope towards home, her feet playing a sharp staccato along
The soldier had not left his
spot in the darkened side-street. "I require your name,"
Rea informed him, "and then you will return to your ship."
The man came out from the shadows
and stood before the old woman. Not so difficult to understand
the girl's lack of judgement, Rea thought as she looked at him.
Handsome, imposing, surrounded by the scent of mystery and off-world
cologne, Phillipa had been an easy mark; most of the girls in
town would be. His uniform was crisp, unruffled by the encounter
in the shadows. If Rea remembered her insignia, his patch showed
him an engineer and above his breast pocket was stitched "Emerson."
"I don't take orders from
old women," he told her.
"Gavin will be disappointed
to hear that, Engineer Emerson," she said, purposefully referring
to Price-George in the familiar. It provoked the desired response
from the regular who, a shade paler, bowed and took off downslope.
Rea watched him cross the square
and disappear down the street towards the landing meadow. Word
would be spread among the regs: Don't mess with the locals.
That satisfied Rea, but it was with a clenched jaw that she continued
on up to the tavern.
The singing grew as she approached,
voice adding to voice, until the walls fairly shook with it.
Rea stood at the open doorway, feeling the stomping and song rise
from the large banquet room below, hearing old, familiar voices
belt out the old song of pride and protest, one not heard for
twenty years, while before her, in the barroom, sullen clumps
of CMF soldiers in blue and white glowered into their ale and
muttered under their breath. Behind the bar, Nestor was in the
process of tapping a new butt of ale, the pounding of his mallet
- consciously or not - adding a bass beat to the melody from below.
A soldier cursed Elena the serving
girl for her slowness as Rea crossed the barroom and walked behind
"Nestor," Rea said,
but he did not hear her over the noise. "Nestor!" she
said again, louder this time. Nestor looked up with a scowl.
"Sorry, Rea," he said,
hefting the mallet slightly. "I've had to close the kitchen
for the night. These soldiers eat more than their weight and
drink twice that. I've run short on supplies and haven't had
time to bring anything up from stores. Sorry." The song
below reached the chorus, complete with its particularly disparaging
description of the CMF, and tempers among the soldiers began to
flare in response. Rea had to shout to be heard.
"Nestor. This barrel doesn't
smell right. I think it's gone over."
"What are you talking about?
It's fine. . . ." Rea jerked her head, indicating the room
beyond the bar. One soldier stood, tossing his chair back into
the wooden paneling, and shouted above the music at Elena. Rea
raised an eyebrow.
went on, "you can never be too sure about the quality of
ale in summer." He smiled slowly, "And it'll take a
day, maybe two, to wrestle a new butt up here."
"Maybe two," Rea agreed.
They both stood and Nestor was
again assaulted by a barrage of requests for refreshment. Rea
sat at an empty table as Nestor shouted his apologies to the soldiers.
Chairs and stools scraped against the flooring as the regs stood
and made their way, cursing, to the door. Down below, the song
reached its final refrain, feet, hands and mugs adding percussion
to melody. The song ended, leaving only the sound of laughter
and talk from below, the sound of retreating soldiers outside,
and a heavy sigh from Nestor as he gratefully placed his elbows
on the bar.
Colonel Gavin Price-George arrived
on the day of the celebration, his sleek ship sliding silently
over the village on its way to the landing field. Setting down,
it immediately opened up and discharged its first passengers,
not soldiers, not the colonel but, to the surprise of many, four
members of the InterNet Press Corps. Helmeted with las-cams and
carrying a variety of other equipment, they placed themselves
in strategic points around the field and waited for the colonel's
The ship's external speakers
crackled and began the traditional anthem of the Central Military
Forces. Two soldiers appeared and began down the landing ramp
in precise step. Reaching the bottom, they turned and faced one
another. At that moment, an officer appeared at the hatch and
started down the ramp. All the soldiers present snapped a salute
as, after an absence of two dozen years, Colonel Gavin Price-George
returned to Pelion.
"But he looks so old,"
said Milo, standing next to Rea with his wife.
"Look in a mirror,"
Pena advised him.
In truth, he did look old. The
years haven't been kind to him, Rea thought. Much thinner than
he had been a quarter century before, with hair gone white and
sparse, Price-George tried to look strong and virile by putting
a slight swagger in his walk. Instead, it made him look all the
"He looks ill," said
Nikki from Rea's other side. Rea looked at her, surprised at
the young woman's tender tone. She had been prepared for an outburst
of hatred from the young woman, not an expression of sympathy.
"It happens when you get
old," she said, and saw Nikki's brow furrow.
Price-George returned the salute
of his soldiers and waved to the assemblage. A cheer went up
from the military ranks that was echoed half-heartedly by certain
townsfolk, mostly the young. At the bottom of the ramp, the colonel
met with Evander, shook the mayor's hand and the hand of each
of his entourage in turn. Four views of the scene were captured
and ethered toward Central by the press cameras.
"Damn that Ev," Nikki
muttered, turning away from the scene, her voice a conflict of
emotions. "How can he bear that man to touch him?"
Rea could see the young woman was on the edge of tears. "Ev
has sold his principles for a few pieces of tech. He's gotten
fat and lazy."
"That happens, too, Nikki."
The colonel and his aides started
upslope with the mayor and his attendants. The press reporters
sluiced through the crowd like water, transmitting everything
they saw and heard to the 'Net. The colonel and the mayor chatted,
presumably about the past two weeks, and smiled pleasantly for
the cameras. Many of the younger folk and children began up the
hill ahead of them, anxious and excited about the coming evening.
As Price-George passed them, Rea felt Nikki tense. Without warning,
Nikki stooped, picked up a handful of gravel and hurled it. The
small stones struck the colonel, the mayor and several other bystanders.
Voices cried out in surprise and several soldiers immediately
ringed the colonel.
"Go home, you bloody bastard!"
Nikki yelled, stepping forward. "Get the hell out of here,
you murderer!" Murmurs rose from the crowd and Nikki bent
to scoop another handful of gravel. Two of the regs moved in
to grab her, shoving aside a presswoman on their way, but were
stopped by a word from Price-George.
The colonel stood in the street,
his aide whispering into his ear. As he listened, realization
dawned, and the fury that boiled behind his eyes abated. His
lips formed a word. "Nikki?" he said, and seemed to
soften, becoming less brittle than he had been a moment before.
Nikki stood before him in silent
fury, her face slick with tears. Without another word, the colonel
gave her a slow, respectful bow and, in precise Pelion fashion,
retreated a step before continuing on his way. Murmers of astonishment
rose from those nearby.
Rea came up behind Nikki and
put a hand on her upraised arm, coaxing it down to her side.
Gravel pattered to the ground and Nikki turned away from the street,
burying her face in Rea's shoulder, weeping.
One 'Net reporter approached
the women. "Who are you?" she started. "What
did you mean by 'murderer,'?" She was met by Milo, grim-faced,
his outstretched arm barring her way. "Hey! I'm the Press!
Let me by!" she said, but Milo shook his head and silently
propelled the presswoman firmly toward the square.
Neighbors and friends passed
by, saying little, occasionally reaching out to touch Nikki's
shoulder and bestow a kind word of understanding.
"I know, dear," Rea
clucked. "You're not alone. We all remember our losses,
deeply." Rea looked up the street after Price-George and
caught him looking back toward them. Saying something to his
aide, he turned and walked around the corner.
Later, when the sun was setting,
the regs went down to the colonel's ship and began bringing a
number of wrapped packages up to Nestor's. Rea sat on the balcony
at Nikki's, watching the procession.
"They're bringing in the
intaglios," she said. Nikki, who had just joined her, nodded.
"I wonder if any of them
are pictures of Mama."
"I'd say so," Rea predicted.
"It would be most unlike a soldier not to take a picture
of a woman as pretty as your mother was." Nikki smiled at
that, but said nothing. "You should be prepared for some
sadness at seeing her picture. Evander says that looking at one
of those intaglios is like looking through a window. He says
it looks like you can reach right in and grab the people in the
picture, it seems so real."
"I won't be going tonight,"
Nikki announced. "I couldn't bear to be in the same room
with that man."
"Oh, you'll be there, Nikki.
If only to prove that you are indeed your mother's daughter."
Nikki gave her a quizzical look. "Your mother was quite
a fighter, you know. She never backed down from a good scrapping,
especially when she felt she was right.
"Oh, yes. You'll be there."
By the time Rea arrived at the
door to Nestor's, music played over loudspeakers and the square
was filled with dancing, eating and drinking. Long tables laden
with odd and exotic foods lined one side of the square, and each
item was being served by a reg who also gave a description of
the item, its world of origin, and a brief history of its cultivation.
Adjacent to the row of tables were a variety of beverages and
spirits, also available with explanations supplied by the regs.
Dancers occupied the center of the square and all the benches
were filled. Many people from nearby villages had come to enjoy
Pelion's sudden boon.
At the door to Nestor's, Rea
was met by two regs wearing dress uniforms, who asked after her
invitation. She showed it to them. "Welcome, Ma Panapa,"
one of them said, and they ushered her in with a short bow. How
well they pick up our customs, she thought. I wonder if it's
by order or by courtesy.
Inside, the place seemed empty
and barren. The only person in the upper room was Elena, who
was frantically filling pitchers with red and green effervescent
wines for the room downstairs. "It's so quiet down there,
Elena. Is there no one else here?"
"Oh, no, Ma Panapa. You're
almost the last one. You can't tell by the quiet, but they're
drinking enough, all right. They're just not a cheerful group.
I think it's the Colonel's pictures. Some of them are awfully
Rea went down.
At the foot of the stairs, she
looked around the room, and was immediately besieged by all of
the faces before her. Faces, young and old, in black-and-white
and in color; faces looking out from the eerie windows of the
intaglio portraits that hung around the room and the faces that
looked up from somber conversation, older versions of those on
Short bows of greeting came from
all sides and, "Evening, Rea," said a few. Behind her,
Elena urged her on.
"Go on in, Ma Panapa. I'll
get you a glass of wine."
Rea went on into the room and
took one of the green, fish- rippled goblets from Elena. She
sipped at the bubbly wine, its blue-green froth clinging to the
inner texture of the goblet's indentations, and looked at the
intaglio before her.
Surrounded by a simple frame
of black metal, Rea was startled by the illusion of depth, of
frozen reality. The periphery of the intaglio grew as she stepped
Within it, a youthful Evander,
a curse frozen on his lips, an expression of agony on his face,
was being held back by an older man, his father. The object of
his fury, a CMF shock- trooper - armed and armored - stood before
him, his back to the portrait's "window". One of Ev's
hands was balled into a fist, the other pointed accusingly down
to one side where lay a young woman. You could not tell by the
picture whether or not the girl was dead, but Rea knew that she
was, and that she had been Evander's wife. Rea's throat constricted
about the wine she had sipped and her hand gripped the goblet
She looked about the room for
Ev, and found him over by a street-level window, looking out on
the party up in the square. Girls the age of the girl in the
picture danced joyously with men the age of the young Evander,
and Rea knew that Evander was not really here, in this room, in
this time, but back in a long ago age when his heart was still
She turned back to the intaglios,
viewing each briefly so as not to be caught up by their spell.
Some showed cheerful scenes of daily life amid the ruins of their
town; others, like the first, were laden with tragedy and emotion,
and she moved on quickly. When she came to one of the larger
ones, however, she stopped, and smiled a small, loving smile.
A woman and a girl, each dressed
in their finest hand- embroidered blouses and colorful skirts,
were before the charred columns of the old church on the hill,
the church that had been burned down in the last year of rebellion
when it was discovered to be a caching place for the partisans.
The woman held the toddler lightly on her hip, the girl's arms
around her mother's neck. Both were smiling.
"You were right," said
Nikki, having appeared at Rea's side. "She was very pretty.
I often thought it was just because she was my mother that I remembered
her so, but I see now that she truly was."
"As are you, Nikki. Today
you are this woman's twin," Rea said, indicating the woman
in the intaglio.
"I was so young," the
Nikkia sighed. "I remember so little about the war; only
that it wounded her, and eventually took her." A cloud of
sadness crossed her face, wrinkling her seamless brow. "I
don't even remember Gavin taking this picture."
Calls to attention from upstairs
announced the arrival of the colonel. Heavy boots came down,
ushering in the lieutenant and one of the colonel's aides. Behind
them came Gavin Price-George, flushed with exertion and obviously
pleased with himself. Only silence greeted him.
"I've just been spending
some time out with the youngsters." He wiped at the sheen
of sweat on his brow. "I'm afraid my dancing days are coming
to an end." A few chuckles followed his remark, but sullenness
prevailed. Price-George looked down from the stony faces to his
hands clasped firmly before him. He drew a breath and looked
up once more.
"Please," he began
again, and Rea heard the sincerity in his voice. "I have
prepared this celebration to show to you people my appreciation.
. . and my respect. I learned much while in your company, and
there is much I wish to make up to you. . . ."
"You've a lot to make up
for, Price-George," said a voice from the back of the room,
and Evander turned from his place by the window. He faced the
colonel, his visage a wound of renewed grief. "Just tell
me why I should believe a word you say."
Price-George met the mayor's
gaze. "Because I've never lied to you, Evander. Not then.
"You people," he said
to the room. "Your life, your spirit - you touched me, deeply.
I hated leaving this place." He looked at the intaglios
around the room. "I came away from here with my own sorrows.
"But I do not want to dwell
upon the past." He straightened, motioned to Elena for a
goblet and then turned to his aide, who handed the colonel a piece
"Rather, I toast the hope
of a better future for you, your village, and for all of Thessalon
itself." He unfolded the paper and showed it to the room.
Rea could not read the small words written on it, but saw clearly
the large blue seal of Central's Executive Committee and the several
signatures at the bottom.
"I have arranged to have
the punitive trade restrictions that have for so long been levied
against Thessalon, lifted. Soon, free traders will replace the
military transports, and tech and goods from all the known worlds
will find their way to your markets." He took the goblet
of wine from Elena and raised it to the crowded room.
"To Pelion, the heart of
Thessalon, and to its future." A few voices gave assent
to this ideal, and goblets were raised here and there to honor
it, though not all.
"You fool," came a
growling voice at Rea's side and Nikki stepped forward to challenge
him. "You're insane. Do you think you can return like a
hero. Do you think you can buy our favor? You say you
don't want to dwell on the past? What about these pictures of
yours?" Her arm swept wide to take in the monochrome visages
along the walls. "They're a glorification of the past!
"We've lived without you
and your 'known worlds' for twenty-five years and we've built
a fine, respectable society out of the ruins after you left us.
Left my mother. Left me!" She whirled on the room
and on Elena who had not yet retreated to the serving table.
Nikki grabbed a fresh goblet of wine from off Elena's tray and
raised it to the room.
"To a Free Thessalon, as
you rebels dreamed it, as you fought to make it, as it will be!"
Old voices cried out, empassioned by Nikki's fire. Goblets were
drained and slammed to tabletops around the room. Nikki spun
back to face the colonel. "Go home, Colonel Gavin Price-George.
Do what you must to assuage your guilty conscience, but don't
afflict us with your presence in the process.
"We don't need you here,"
she said, raising her cup to her lips. In a sudden move, she
threw the contents of the glass at him. Blood-red wine splashed
across his uniform and medals. "And I don't want
Goblet still in hand, she shouldered
the aide out of the way and climbed the stairs at a run. From
upstairs came the sound of breaking glass and the slamming of
the door. Silence reigned below.
Rea looked into Price-George's
face. His eyes were far away, his jaw slack. His brow knit together
in a sad questioning of what had gone wrong.
the aide. "Colonel?"
Price-George's eyes closed tightly
for a moment and he clenched his jaw. Slowly, he moved over to
a vacant table, the two officers behind him, and seated himself.
Beckoning Elena over to him, he asked for a pitcher of wine, which
she brought. The aide spoke again, asking, "Colonel, is
there anything we can do?"
"Leave me," he requested.
"Wait outside." Saluting as one, they left the lower
room and went up and out onto the street. Rea watched the colonel
pour himself a goblet of wine and drink it down swiftly, then
pour himself another. From within his breast pocket he withdrew
a small scrap of parchment, daubed at the crimson drops of Nikki's
wine that still clung to it and gazed at it a long while.
Others around the room began
talking softly amongst themselves, and Milo, well into his cups
by this time, began to sing a drinking song. Soon, the room was
bursting with sound and, by the time the chorus came around, all
but two sang along.
Gavin Price-George drained the
last of the pitcher into his glass and drank it down. Standing,
he dropped the piece of paper he had been holding onto the table,
straightened his stained uniform, and headed for the stairs.
He stopped abruptly upon seeing Rea before him, standing to one
side of the staircase. He looked at her silently for a moment,
and Rea recognized within him a deep, regretful pain. Slowly,
almost reluctantly, Rea found herself understanding this man.
"You did not expect forgiveness
from us, did you, Gavin Price- George?"
"No," he replied.
"Not forgiveness, no."
"What did you expect to
find here then, I wonder?"
Price-George's gaze slipped over
to the intaglio of Nikki and her mother before the church.
"A young man's dream, Ma
Panapa. And, perhaps, an old man's future." He left then,
his feet scuffing each step as if they were leaden and numb.
Rea walked over to the colonel's
table and picked up the piece of paper. It was an old photo,
worn and frail. Young Nikki and her mother smiled out from beyond
the decades, dressed in their embroidered best. On the back were
a few words: To Gavin, with our love.
Tears filled Rea's eyes as all
the pieces of the puzzle that was Price-George's presence on Pelion
fell into place. Oh, Nikki, she thought. No wonder your hate
ran so deep. She sat down, still gazing at the small photo and
feeling suddenly tired. Tired of the ruined lives, of the sundered
He has been too long a soldier,
she thought. Too used to plans within plans, too unused to dealing
with individuals. She looked again at the beautiful and poignant
intaglios around her, and knew that they and his book had little
to do with the colonel's real desires. All the preparations,
all the speeches, all the gifts bestowed upon Pelion by a grateful
and admiring Colonel Price-George had nothing to do with the heart
of his mission here.
Near dawn, Rea placed the old
photo on the table and slowly rose from her seat. She moved across
the room, righting a spilled goblet on her way, and gave old Milo
a gentle nudge, followed by another, less gentle. Milo's snore
broke off and he opened his bleary eyes.
"Pena?" he asked.
"No," she answered.
"But it is time you went to her. Go home, Milo. Everyone
has been gone for some time now."
Milo sat up and supported his
head with both hands. "What happened? I don't remember."
"You'll hear about it all
later. Come on." Rea helped him to his feet and steadied
him on his way across the room. At the stairs she placed his
hand on the rail. Milo turned to her and smiled his thanks.
Slowly, he made his way up the stairs to the door, humming a tune
as he climbed.
She went to the table and picked
up the photo again. The faces on it were worn and faded with
years of handling, but still quite recognizable. A roll of thunder
brought her attention to the window. The bleat of a lost sheep
wafted across the square and the room darkened as the rising sun
disappeared behind a bank of clouds. Rea felt another tear slip
down her cheek.
"Damn you, Gavin,"
she said to the room, to the pictures, to the lowering sky. "How
many times must you vanquish us?"
Without stopping to reconsider,
Rea gathered up her shawl and climbed the stairs. Letting herself
out into the square, she felt the coming of a summer shower and
smelled the odor of wet dust as the first few drops struck the
ground. Her footsteps echoed loudly in the paper-strewn square
as she walked downslope.
She arrived at the perimeter
of the landing area and brought her shawl over her head to keep
off some of the rain. A soldier met her as she approached the
sleek trans-light ship. She looked up into his face, blinking
away the rain.
she said. "I wish to see Gavin Price-George."
Gavin appeared at the top of
the ramp. He walked slowly, without attempting to hide his age
and pain, and met Rea. She could see that he, too, had not slept.
"What is it, Ma Panapa?"
he asked her.
"You are an old fool, Gavin
Price-George," she said, and his gaze snapped up to meet
hers, anger flaring. She held the photo out for him. "And
in your lifetime, you have made many mistakes." Gavin took
the photo from her hand and placed it in his breast pocket.
"We cannot change our past,
Gavin. But we can influence our future." She met his gaze
squarely, and saw not an old enemy, but a grieving father. "Your
daughter loves you, else her hate would not be so strong. You
abandoned her after the war. Do not expect that wound to be healed
Gavin nodded, understanding.
"Thank you, Ma Panapa."
Rea gave a small bow of departure.
Hopeful, she turned and went back up the hill towards her home.