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Why We Fight

by Elaine Graham-Leigh

part 2 of 4

He showed one of the new dramas to the children when they came up for their afternoon lessons. Lintud’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, there was nothing new about it.

It started, as all the dramas did, with the Teyroans’ duty to join with the other Chi’me peoples to defeat the Gargarin menace. The Gargarin were the enemies of all peace-loving people, the commentary explained, over familiar shots of dead Chi’me, from when the Gargarin had taken one of their planets, early in the war.

The Chi’me stand was for the benefit of the entire galaxy; even peoples who had never gone to the stars would one day thank them. Here, the picture changed to show one of the Chi’me’s capital ships, hanging on their line in space with a flock of smaller craft around it. Despite its size, it managed to look plucky and determined. In the bottom corner, Teyro was a tiny, blue dot, barely visible against the black.

‘For the Gargarin, war is everything,’ the presentation concluded. ‘To them, engines and fighters are pre-eminent, so they don’t even leave sufficient space in their capital ships for supplies. This is why Teyro and the other outer worlds are so important. If their brave peoples can stop the Gargarin raids from resupplying their ships, they will have to pull back, and victory will be in our grasp. It is already in your hands.’

The picture zoomed in on the Chi’me ship, to the accompaniment of stirring music, and Vinal switched the viewer off.

‘Well, wasn’t that illuminating?’ The children looked up at him blankly. He had never felt his sarcasm mattered, since they didn’t understand it. ‘Now, I think, if someone would hand round the writing tablets...’

‘Ser Priest?’

Vinal suppressed a smile. Jorges was the brightest pupil, the one most likely to ask awkward questions, to challenge what he said as Vinal had done, back in his village, in the days before he’d learnt that compliance was the way to success.

‘Yes, Jorges?’

‘The Chi’me raid Gargarin worlds as well, don’t they?’

‘Yes, that’s right, they... I mean, we do. It’s all part of the war effort.’

Jorges nodded, as if this confirmed something he had long suspected. ‘So when us get rid of ’em Chi’me, they Gargarin won’t attack we.’

It was so surprising that Vinal was speechless for a moment. He stared at Jorges. Around him the rest of the class rustled and whispered like the night-time sea.

‘What do you mean?’ he asked at last. He tried to keep his voice calm. He mustn’t scare him, mustn’t make him think he’d said something he shouldn’t. ‘Is this something someone’s told you?’ He thought of Lintud’s list of troublemakers. Was there talk in the village? Could he get a name? If he could report something, maybe it would...

Jorges looked at him, his wide, black eyes unreadable, like all the villagers’, unknowable. A guileless expression broke across his face. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I think I must’ve got confused. Shall us get ’em tablets, then?’

* * *

At the end of the lesson, Vinal followed the class down the path to the village. It was warm in the sun and insects sang sleepily in the ferns beside the path. He strolled, ignoring the children’s chatter. It was pleasant to be out of the still-stuffy air of the temple, and if the Gargarin hadn’t got all the herb beer, he might even be able to pick up some more.

He could tell from the sound of hammering that the repairs had started, and when they came round the last bend he saw that most of the roof of the first house had been cleared out onto the road. Outside it, protected from the flying peat by the overhanging balcony, Jorges’ mother was talking to a stranger.

Vinal hardly ever saw a stranger, beyond the occasional fisherman from a neighbouring island. This one didn’t look like a fisherman. There was something different about him, niggling but out of reach, like a bone in a back tooth. Something in the way he leaned towards the woman as they spoke, something conspiratorial. Something...

A piece of peat rolled under his foot, making him stumble. He saw the stranger’s head jerk up. With a final word, he slipped off between the houses, leaving Jorges’ mother where she was, shading her eyes against the sun.

‘Afternoon, Ser Priest. I hope the children bain’t been giving you too much trouble.’

She smiled at him. She wasn’t a young woman, Jorges’ mother. He couldn’t remember her name. She was in Teris’ household, he knew that, her husband was that brother of Teris’ who’d died last season. He’d brought her from somewhere out beyond the next cluster; he’d heard the other children teasing Jorges for his accent. A woman in her middle years, short and squat in the long skirt all the village women wore, her hair bound up on top of her head with a scarf the green of fern fronds against a stormy sky.

Vinal found himself smiling back. ‘No trouble at all. Jorges is always...’ Should he speak to her about what Jorges had said? She’d say it was a boy’s nonsense, she’d dismiss it, think him foolish. ‘Lively,’ he finished.

‘That bad, eh?’

‘No, not at all, I didn’t mean...’

‘It’s all right, Ser Priest, I were joking.’ The smile still hung about her eyes, amusement overlaying something like patience. ‘You’ll’ve come to check on your temple,’ she went on. ‘You’ll be pleased, it’s not been damaged. Course,’ her tone sharpened, ‘quality of that stone, Gargarin could land right on top of it and it’d still be standing.’

The stone came from the quarry on the next island, paid for from the village taxes. Vinal knew it wasn’t entirely popular with the villagers, but he’d had the argument too many times to rise to it.

‘It will be worth it, when the temple’s finished and right in the middle of the village, among you all,’ he said.

She regarded him seriously, her head on one side. He couldn’t quite read her expression. ‘You shouldn’t say “when” about the temple, Ser Priest. It’s bad luck.’

Disconcerted, he fell back on his temple training. ‘There’s no luck, good or bad, only the universe.’ It sounded pompous in his own ears.

There was definitely pity in her face now, pearling on her features like mist, making her look almost young. ‘I can’t tell you that, Ser Priest. I can only tell you to mind it.’

She turned away, calling to Jorges. He watched her as she threaded her way back through the debris: a middle-aged widow, a woman in a bright green scarf; holding her head up, sweeping her skirt over the charred and sodden peat as though it were studded with gems.

Syet. That was her name.

* * *

To be continued...

Copyright © 2009 by Elaine Graham-Leigh

to Challenge 333...

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