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The Quantum Rose

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The Quantum Rose

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Author: Catherine Asaro
Publisher: Tor, 2000
Series: The Saga of the Skolian Empire: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Science-Fantasy
Galactic Empire
Space Opera
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(74 reads / 43 ratings)


A New Adventure in the Saga of the Skolian Empire.

Kamoj Argali is the young ruler of an impoverished province on a backward planet. To keep her people from starving, she has agreed to marry Jax Ironbridge, the boorish and brutal ruler of a prosperous province. But before Argali and Ironbridge are wed, a mysterious stranger from a distant planet sweeps in and forces Kamoj into marriage, throwing her world into utter chaos.




First Scattering Channel

Kamoj Quanta Argali, the governor of Argali Province, shot through the water and broke the surface of the river. Basking in the day's beauty, she tilted her face up to the violet sky. The tiny disk of Jul, the sun, was so bright she didn't dare look near it. Curtains of green and gold light shimmered across the heavens in an aurora visible even in the afternoon.

Her bodyguard Lyode stood on the bank, surveying the area. Lyode's true name was a jumble of words from the ancient language Iotaca, which scholars pronounced as light emitting diode. No one knew what it meant, though, so they all called her Lyode.

Unease prickled Kamoj. She treaded water, her hair swirling around her body, wrapping her slender waist and then letting go. Her reflection showed a young woman with black curls framing a heart-shaped face. She had dark eyes, as did most people in the province of Argali, though hers were larger than usual, with long lashes that right now sparkled with droplets of water.

Nothing seemed wrong. Reeds as red as pod-plums nodded on the bank, and six-legged lizards scuttled through them, glinting blue and green among the stalks. A few paces behind Lyode, the prismatic forest began. Up the river, in the distant north, the peaks of the Rosequartz Mountains floated like clouds in the haze. She drifted around to the other bank, but saw nothing amiss there either. Tubemoss covered the hills in a turquoise carpet broken by stone outcroppings that gnarled up like the knuckles of a buried giant.

What bothered her wasn't unease exactly, more a troubled anticipation. She supposed she should feel guilty about swimming here, but it was hard to summon that response on such a lovely day. The afternoon hummed with life, golden and cool.

Kamoj sighed. As much as she enjoyed her swim, invigorated by the chill water and air, she did have her position as governor to consider. Swimming naked, even in this secluded area, hardly qualified as dignified. She glided to the bank and clambered out, reeds slapping against her body.

Her bodyguard continued to scan the area. Lyode suddenly stiffened, staring across the water. She reached over her shoulder for the ballbow strapped to her back.

Puzzled, Kamoj glanced back. A cluster of greenglass stags had appeared from behind a hill on the other side of the river, each animal with a rider astride its long back. Sunrays splintered against the green scales that covered the stags. Each stood firm on its six legs, neither stamping nor pawing the air. With their iridescent antlers spread to either side of their heads, they shimmered in the blue-tinged sunshine.

Their riders were all watching her.

Sweet Airys, Kamoj thought, mortified. She ran up the slope to where she had left her clothes in a pile behind Lyode. Her bodyguard was taking a palm-sized marble ball out of a bag on her belt. She slapped it into the targeting tube of her crossbow, which slid inside an accordion cylinder. Drawing back the bow, Lyode sighted on the watchers across the river.

Of course, here in the Argali, Lyode's presence was more an indication of Kamoj's rank than an expectation of danger. Indeed, none of the watchers drew his bow. They looked more intrigued than anything else. One of the younger fellows grinned at Kamoj, his teeth flashing white in the streaming sunshine.

"I can't believe this, " Kamoj muttered. She stopped behind Lyode and scooped up her clothes. Drawing her tunic over her head, she added, "Thashaverlyster."

"What?" Lyode said.

Kamoj jerked down the tunic, covering herself with soft gray cloth as fast as possible. Lyode stayed in front of her, keeping her bow poised to shoot. Kamoj counted five riders across

the river, all in copper breeches and blue shirts, with belts edged by feathers from the blue-tailed quetzal.

One man sat a head taller than the rest. Broad-shouldered and long-legged, he wore a midnight-blue cloak with a hood that hid his face. His stag lifted its front two legs and pawed the air, its bi-hooves glinting like glass, though they were a hardier material, hornlike and durable. The man ignored its restless motions, keeping his cowled head turned toward Kamoj.

"That's Havyrl Lionstar," Kamoj repeated as she pulled on her gray leggings. "The tall man on the big greenglass."

"How do you know?" Lyode asked. "His face is covered."

"Who else is that big? Besides, those riders are wearing Lionstar colors." Kamoj watched the group set off, cantering into the blue-green hills. "Hah! You scared them away."

"With five against one? I doubt it." Lyode gave her a dry look. "More likely they left because the show is over."

Kamoj winced. She hoped her uncle didn't hear of this. As the only incorporated man in Argali, Maxard Argali had governed the province for Kamoj in her youth. In the years since she had become an adult, Kamoj had shouldered the responsibility of leading her people and province. But Maxard, her only living kin, remained a valued advisor.

Lionstar's people were the only ones who might reveal her indiscretion, though, and they rarely came to the village. Lionstar had "rented" the Quartz Palace in the mountains for more than a hundred days now, and in that time no one she knew had seen his face. Why he wanted a ruined palace she had no idea, given that he refused all visitors. When his emissaries had inquired about it, she and Maxard had been dismayed by the suggestion that they let a stranger take residence in the honored, albeit disintegrating, home of their ancestors. Kamoj still remembered how her face had heated as she listened to the outlanders explain their leige's "request."

However, no escape had existed from the "rent" Lion-star's people put form. The law was clear: she and Maxard had to best his challenge or bow to his authority. Impoverished Argali could never match such an offer: shovels and awls forged from fine metals, stacks of firewood, golden bridle bells, dewhoney and molasses, dried rose-leeks, cobber-wheat, tri-grains, and reedflour that poured through your fingers like powdered rubies.

So they yieldedand an incensed Maxard had demanded that Lionstar pay a rent of that same worth every fifty days. It was a lien so outrageous, all Argali had feared Lionstar would send his soldiers to "renegotiate."

Instead, the cowled stranger had paid.

With Lyode at her side, Kamoj entered the forest. Walking among the trees, with tubemoss under her bare feet, made her even more aware of her precarious position. Why had he come riding here? Did he also have an interest in her lands? She had invested his rent in machinery and tools for farms in Argali. As much as she disliked depending on a stranger, it was better than seeing her people starve. But she couldn't bear to lose more to him, especially not this forest she loved.

So. She would have to inquire into his activities and see what she could discover.

The beauty of the forest helped soothe her concern. Drapes of moss hung on the trees, and shadow-ferns nodded around their trunks. Argali vines hung everywhere, heavy with the blush-pink roses that gave her home its name. Argali. It meant "vine rose" in Iotaca.

At least, most scholars translated it as rose. One fellow insisted it meant resonance. He also claimed they misspelled Kamoj's middle name, Quanta, an Iotaca word with no known translation. The name Kamoj came from the Iotaca word for bound, so if this odd scholar was correct, her name meant Bound Quantum Resonance. She smiled at the absurdity. Rose made more sense, of course.

The vibrant life in the autumnal woods cheered Kamoj. Camouflaged among the roses, puff lizards swelled out their red sacs. A ruffling breeze parted the foliage to let a sunbeam slant through the forest, making the scale-bark on the trees sparkle. Then the ray vanished and the forest returned to its dusky violet shadows. A thornbat whizzed by, wings beating furiously. It homed in on a lizard and stabbed its needled beak into the red sac. As the puff deflated with a whoosh of air, the lizard scrambled away, leaving the disgruntled thornbat to dart on without its prey.

Powdered scales drifted across Kamoj's arm. She wondered why people had no scales. The inconsistency had always puzzled her, since her early childhood. Most everything else on Balumil, the world, had them. Scaled tree roots swollen with moisture churned the soil. The trees grew slowly, converting water into stored energy to use during the long summer droughts and endless winter snows. Unlike people, who fought to survive throughout the grueling year, seasonal plants grew only in the gentler spring and autumn. Their big, hard-scaled seeds lay dormant until the climate was to their liking.

Sorrow brushed Kamoj's thoughts. If only people were as well adapted to survive. Each Long Year they struggled to replenish their population after the endless winter decimated their numbers. Last winter they had lost even more than usual to the blizzards and brutal ices.

Including her parents.

Even after so long, that loss haunted her. She had been a small child when she and Maxard, her mother's brother, became sole heirs to the impoverished remains of a province that had once been proud.

Will Lionstar take what little we have left? She glanced at Lyode, wondering if her bodyguard shared her concerns. A tall woman with lean muscles, Lyode had the dark eyes and hair common in Argali. Here in the shadows, the vertical slits of her pupils widened until they almost filled her irises. She carried Kamoj's boots dangling from her belt. She and Kamoj had been walking together in comfortable silence.

"Do you know the maize-girls who do chores in the kitchen?" Kamoj asked.

Copyright © 2000 by Catherine Asaro


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