Chapter 1: The Lonely Boy
There are two days in my life which will always stand out in my memories as moments when everything I expected of my future changed.
The second most important of those days was when I woke up from unconsciousness in the infirmary below the arena of a small town somewhere on Aida.
My body felt pleasantly numb after the defeat I had just suffered up on the sands, but the sad face of the surgeon and my owner hovering above me did not allow my mind to slip into that pleasant numbness as well.
I tried to understand what they were saying and slowly their words penetrated the haze of drugs they had given me to numb the pain. My left leg had been broken in several places and a tendon cut. Repairing the damage was beyond the means of my owner and in all honestly, I wasn't a good enough gladiator to be worth such an investment anyway.
Standing nearly seven foot tall and built like a bear, I looked impressive enough, but I lacked the necessary aggression to ever enjoy fighting and killing. A caring personality is not exactly what you are looking for in a successful gladiator.
So their decision was unanimous: I would never fight in an arena again.
Usually, this would have meant being sold off as a manual labourer to a mine or a comparably unpleasant fate. Luckily, the fact that I had never enjoyed being a gladiator much had resulted in me exploring other options as much as my owner had allowed. That included learning how to read and write and starting to study nutrition education as well as bit of sports medicine. Just the basics really, how to do proper massages to loosen up sore muscles after a fight and what to feed a gladiator to build up muscle.
But it was enough for my owner to decide to keep me, furthering my chosen second career, and use me as a handler for his other gladiators, my size also being an advantage when it came to putting freshly bought boys and girls into their place.
I learned to walk again, first with a cane and later on my own, even though I kept a limp. I enjoyed my new position a lot more than slitting throats and crushing skulls in the arena and would happily have grown old in it.
But fate had another, much less likely twist in store for me.
I was working on a diet plan for a gladiator on my owner's team who was recovering from a belly wound, when my owner walked in with a man I had never seen before. A man wearing a very expensive looking dark grey suit and a name tag which identified him as an employee of Christies.
Now, not everyone had heard of Christies, but I knew they were the shopping place for super rich nobles. People who didn't need to ask about a price. In our little gladiator team, we certainly had no one who would have warranted the interest of such an illustrious clientele so I looked at my owner for pointers only to find him beaming at me more happily than I had seen him in a long time.
"Darren, this is Mister Sanders of Christies." He introduced the other man. "They want to purchase you."
If I had been confused before why Christies might want one of our gladiators, I was completely at a loss now what they might want with me, a crippled ex-gladiator turned handler.
"They are paying a fortune for you." My owner added, at least explaining why he was so happy.
"But... what do they want with me...?" I dared to voice my confusion.
My now previous owner shrugged. "Apparently you exactly match the parameters set by some customer of theirs."
So I was sold for 'a fortune'. I never learned the exact sum. Just as I never learned what those parameters had been which made Christies come and find me, of all people.
What they did tell me was that their client was the Duchess Olga Dracon of Pandora. At that time all I knew about Pandora was that it was considered one of the most dangerous planets of the empire, wracked by earthquakes, violent storms and erupting volcanoes. Certainly not a place to trade in for calm and sedate Aida.
I also learned that the duchess was buying me for her youngest son, an even less desirable prospect. A Dracon boy who wanted his own gladiator pet could really only mean two things: either he wanted or needed a bodyguard to intimidate and beat up people or he wanted an especially exotic fuck toy. Having absolutely no power over what would happen to me, I was too caught up in being worried to realize both of these assumptions didn't make me a likely candidate to be sought out by Christies.
Not that I had much time to think about anything. I was first ported to the small Christies branch on Aida where they ran some health checks on me. They took the time to inject me with something they assured me would, over time, fully heal my leg. I only later learned they had used priceless state-of-the-art nanobots.
Then I was whisked off to Pandora. Apparently finding someone who fit the duchess specifications had taken quite a while, and now they were anxious to finally deliver. The duchess seemed just as anxious to view me as I and Mr. Sanders waited in the antechamber to her office for only a few minutes before we were called inside.
I had never before met a Dracon noble but the duchess fit the picture I had made in my mind. A tall, strict looking woman, dressed all in black, of course. At first I only caught a glimpse of her as I tried to be the model slave and knelt immediately upon entering.
Mr. Sanders probably had prepared a nice list of pleasantries but he got no chance to use them as the duchess got straight to the point. I don't recall the exact words but basically she asked him if he was sure that I was the right choice for her son and he reassured her that I matched all her requirements. Papers were signed and then I was alone with my new mistress who got up from behind her desk to prowl around me.
She stopped in front of me and ordered me to get up, so I did, towering above her now. For a man my size it is pretty much impossible to do anything but look down on people. She studied me silently and I couldn't help but notice that she looked very, very tired and harried.
"Did they explain why you are needed here?" she asked me and I wondered at her odd choice of words.
I shook my head no.
"My youngest son is probably the strongest psychic of his generation." She said calmly. "When he was five years old, a heavy earthquake ripped open a new volcano quite close to here. His powers manifested then and he held back the flood of molten lava with his will. To this day I see my tiny boy stand there all alone in the face of destruction and wrestle down nature to protect this palace, the town and its people."
I had no idea how to respond to such a claim. To my knowledge psionic talents manifested during puberty and had to be carefully trained to master them. If what she said was true, her son was indeed unique.
"From that day, his powers grew. He told me the planet speaks to him, that Pandora is in pain. He cried and I had to tell him he needed to be strong and concentrate and keep Pandora in check. He is a good boy. He has saved so many lives now. Our planet is safer than it has ever been."
She turned away from me and I tried to tell myself it was impossible that a Dracon duchess would seriously love her own son so much she would feel regret for using him to protect her planet. But I could not deny that in her heavy voice there was grief when she continued, her voice slowly rising in volume.
"He is twelve now. For the last few years the Psions’ Guild has had representatives here. They have studied him like a lab rat and I have allowed it, hoping they would be able to help him but they are fucking useless! They tried to take my son away. They had the fucking nerve to tell me, his mother, a DUCHESS, they had a right to take him!"
She breathed deeply, rubbing her face. "But that is history. They won't bother us again. Which brings us to you."
Again she turned, now looking up at me with eyes hard as steel.
"He is a very special child. He needs help with many things. His tutors despair over not being able to teach him even simple math and how to read and write. He is small for his age, too thin. It's like... I don't know... like the use of his powers is sapping the strength out of his body. You will figure out what is wrong with that, what he needs to eat. You will help with his reading and writing. You are NOT supposed to teach him! You are to do it FOR him. I don't care what those tutors say. He can just as well have a slave do those things for him if it takes one thing of his mind he needs to worry about. He has a planet to keep safe. That is what counts."
I felt dazed by her barrage of words. This was so much not what I had expected. I had no idea why anybody might have thought I would be the right guy for this impossible task. But I was given no time to process all that information.
"Come. I will introduce you. The sooner you start, the better." She finished and left her office, expecting me to follow. Which, of course, I did.
Much too quickly, we reached the living quarters of the palace and the duchess pushed open a door to a spacious study and library. A beautiful room, really, but the boy at the much too huge desk didn't pay attention to it. He fit the description of his mother, thin and wiry, with an unruly mop of brownish hair. He had one naked foot tugged under himself, the other dangling down, swinging nervously, while he intently peered at a textbook, holding his head propped up in one hand like he was suffering from a severe headache.
Since he was sitting facing the door, I got a good look at his face. It was not the face I would have expected to see on a boy, as tired as his mother's, haggard almost. And terribly sad.
His tutor stood nearby, watching over the boy. A rotund, middle aged man who managed to look at the same time bored and annoyed. His expression quickly changed when he noticed the person barging into the room was the duchess and he put on a fake smile.
He bowed deeply, while the boy glanced up from his book with a frown which changed to mild interest as he noticed me.
By then I should have stopped expecting things to happen in a certain way. Still I was shocked when the duchess addressed the tutor brusquely with a short order.
The man seemed to be used to such treatment, however, since he merely bowed again and withdrew.
The duchess walked over to her son, looking over his shoulder. "Any progress?" she asked.
The boy looked down at the textbook as well and quietly shook his head, looking small and desolate and not noble or powerful at all. This was supposed to be powerful psychic? Someone who could hold together a planet by sheer force of will? He certainly didn't look the part.
"Don't worry about it." The duchess said, turning back to me. "I have a present for you." She motioned me forward and I stepped closer as well.
The boy's attention returned to me and he looked up at me with puzzlement. Most boys react to my size with either awe or fear but in his face I saw neither.
"This is Darren." The duchess introduced me. "He is a gift for all your hard work. I know it's a little early and I said you couldn't have a pet of your own before you turn fourteen, but I've changed my mind." She pointed to the textbook. "He'll help you with your homework. And... well... he'll always have time for you..." She seemed at a loss on what else to say and I got the distinct impression that she often was at a loss on what to do with her son.
"Thank you, mother." The boy said politely and then turned his now very curious eyes to me. "Hello, I'm Yaden." He introduced himself, still faultlessly polite and of course behaving entirely inappropriate towards a mere slave.
Certainly not something I would correct him for, considering he would be my new master. Unless the duchess had my head chopped off for failing to fulfil her wishes, which didn't seem that unlikely.
"Well, I will let you two get acquainted and fire that tutor then." The duchess announced and left abruptly. I couldn't help but wonder if 'firing' the rotund tutor would include having him thrown into a convenient volcano. The Lady seemed like the type of noble who would use such words literally.
The boy, Yaden, was still looking up at me, clearly at a loss of what to say. Curiosity had put some life in his features and he didn't look quite so sad anymore. With a bit of dread, I realized I would have to say something. This was not some noble playing a waiting game with a slave, trying to draw him out and then punish him. This was a child with no clue how to handle the situation. Even though I was the slave, I was also the adult and I felt responsible.
"So, what have you been studying?" I asked, trying to find some start to a conversation.
Immediately the frown made a reappearance. "Math." He answered, looking at the textbook with an expression I imagine I would have had facing a superior foe in the arena. So definitely not a topic suited to cheer him up.
"Since your tutor isn't likely to come back, why don't we do something fun instead?" I offered.
The change in him as instant as he looked up at me again, his eyes suddenly sparkling with excitement, his face lighting up. He turned from a much too sombre child to a simply adorable boy.
An answering smile came to me easily.
"Sure. I have just arrived here. Want to show me the place?"
He was off his chair in an instant.
"That would be awesome!"
Standing, the top of his head just reached up to my thigh but it didn't seem to bother him at all as he grabbed my much larger hand with his small one and started pulling me toward the door.
"You are really huge." He stated while we headed down a corridor. "What did you do before you came here?"
I had to smile more at his innocent question. I hadn't met many nobles in my life, but they all had been like the duchess or even harsher. Maybe this boy wouldn't be such a bad master after all. Doing his homework for him shouldn't be too hard. That just left figuring out what to feed him to put some meat onto his thin frame.
"I used to be a gladiator." I answered his question. "But I was injured in the arena and had to stop fighting."
"Oh." He stopped suddenly to look up at me, his face serious once more. "Did you kill many people?" he asked.
Not with the excitement a boy his age would have usually shown at the prospect, but with quiet sadness.
"A few." I answered, matching his seriousness.
"Did you like it?"
Strangely I was very sure the truth was exactly what he wanted and needed to hear if I wanted to win his friendship.
"No." I said.
"Good." He nodded, a small smile returning to his face and I felt like I was sharing some important secret with him as he tugged me further down the corridor.
The corridor terminated in a small balcony, overlooking a courtyard. The odd thing about that balcony though was the huge stone slap that lay on it, barely fitting, like some giant had dropped it like a toy. Yaden nimbly hopped onto it and looked at me, apparently expecting me to follow.
"You may wanna sit down." He told me when I stood beside him again. "Most people have trouble keeping their balance."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but maybe it was some game he played, so I obediently sat down, my eyes now coming level with his.
He stood with his naked feet planted slightly apart. And then his toes made a motion as if slightly burrowing into the stone, as if he was pulling upward and the huge stone slab lifted effortlessly, light as a feather. The stone slab hovered in the air just a moment and then moved forward. Somehow, I had managed to forget what the duchess had said about her son's psychic abilities. Now I was experiencing what had to be just a small measure of them first hand.
"I'm going to show you my favourite places." He explained.
We were flying, at a sedate pace, and I realized I now had a great view of the palace, the town and the mountains beyond.
Only then did I notice that Yaden was watching me somewhat anxiously. "I hope you're not afraid of heights?" he asked belatedly, apparently realizing he should have asked that earlier.
I smiled at him reassuringly. "Not at all. This view is really spectacular."
And once more his face lit up with his happy smile as he beamed back at me.
"It's the fastest way to get around for me." He explained. "I often have to be very quick to get to places in time. Though I need to be on the ground to really feel her."
He nodded. "Pandora." He raised one of his naked feet, showing it to me. "I feel her through my feet. Her pulse. So I know when she will tremble or shudder."
I could not imagine what that would be like but I nodded, pretending I understood.
Yaden's eyes grew distant and sad again. "She is in much pain. Something is not right with her." He tried to explain. "She doesn't want to hurt the people living on her, but she can't help it."
"But you protect them, don't you?" I tried to cheer him up.
He looked at me with anguish much too deep for a boy his age. "I try." He said. "But I never seem to be able to save all of them." A shudder ran through his thin frame and through the stone slab as well. "I hate the funerals so much."
"They make you go to the funerals?" The horrified question was out before I could stop myself. How could anyone do that to this boy?
But he shook his head. "No." he answered in a small, choked voice. "But I feel them digging the graves."
I just stared at him in silent shock, trying to comprehend what this must be doing to the boy, feeling, counting every grave dug for those he did not manage to save.
I reacted without thinking, drawing him into a hug. For a moment, he was stiff in my arms, but then he suddenly relaxed against me, his head hiding against my broad chest. The stone hung motionless in the air, and it took me a while to realize that he was silently crying.
I had met his mother and it was clear to me that she would certainly never hug him and allow him to cry. For her - no for everybody really - he always had to be strong.
So in that most important moment of my life, I decided to care for that boy. To be his friend and his shelter.
I have never regretted it.
Chapter 2: Enough
Darren figures out what is wrong with young Yaden's nutrition and how to fix it.
The snow was falling in such thick sheets even the floodlights of the castle did not penetrate far. It was early afternoon and still it was pitch dark. Strong gales of winds drove the snow, pushing it up against the ceramsteel walls where it stuck in weird formations, soft, wet and clumping easily. The courtyard was filling up at a frightening pace.
And still it could have been so much worse.
I stuffed my gloved hands deeper into the sleeves of my fur coat. My face was mostly hidden in a cocoon of thick woollen scarf and the hood of the coat as I squinted up through the incessant fall of white. I couldn't see further than a few feet but still I couldn't help trying.
Somewhere up there in the heart of the storm was a twelve year old boy on a stone slab who held the fate of the city and the storm itself in his hands.
It had started with Yaden suddenly starting to nervously fidget while he was supposed to practice his letters. I had seen him deal with minor crises in the week I had been with him now. He would be informed by his mother that his abilities were needed somewhere on the planet and he would then be ported there.
This had been different as he had suddenly looked up at me with wide eyes and said: "Something is wrong. Something is brewing..."
Then he ran out of the library already as a sudden boom of thunder could be heard in the distance.
I still did not understand how the erratic weather of Pandora worked, but a major storm blowing up could happen in the span of just a few minutes. A major storm on Pandora meant winds so strong they could crumble a mountain or rain and snow in quantities which could easily drown a city.
By the time I got to the balcony where Yaden parked the stone slab he always travelled with, the sky was dark with purple clouds and the air was so full of static the hair on my arms was raising. I could just make out the stone slab as it entered the clouds above.
Moments later the castle and the city erupted in activity as alarm sirens started to blare, calling everyone home to the safety of their houses. The people of Pandora were always prepared for catastrophe and there were different signals for different disasters. I had received a list I was required to learn.
After a few minutes it was as dark as it was still and the snow started falling. The Duchess stepped outside onto the balcony.
"Yaden?" she asked.
I pointed up at the sky, my heart clenching painfully at the thought of the boy who was fighting against nature all on his own.
She nodded calmly. "Go and put on warm clothes. You won't be any use to him if you freeze to death." she commanded and I realized that I still was wearing only a simple shirt, pants and shoes. It had been a mild day.
So I returned inside, found some warm clothes that fit my size and then returned to the balcony, somehow expecting the boy, which I was already thinking of as my boy would return soon.
Hours passed. I went inside frequently to warm up while the storm ebbed and swelled like a tide. I asked a servant how long such storm usually lasted and was answered with a shrug. Hours, days, weeks. Anything was possible on Pandora. They told me Yaden had tamed worse storms but I found that more horrifying than reassuring. They were all too busy with their own worries to spare any for him.
When an even darker shadow appeared in the sky I at first didn't realize what it was. Only when the bulky shape grew closer did I realize it was Yaden's stone slab, wobbling back towards the balcony, not at all as stable as it normally was.
I quickly stepped back, not wanting to get caught in a crash landing and at the same time feeling like I should do something to bring the boy down safely.
The stone landed with a thud, muted by the snow that had accumulated on the balcony, which groaned under the sudden added weight. Not caring about my safety anymore I stepped up to it, finding Yaden kneeling in the thin layer of snow that lay even on the stone. He was trembling, bracing himself against the stone with his hands, hanging his head. His naked hands and feet were blue with cold.
Quickly I shrugged out of my coat, wrapped him in it and then picked him up. Thin as he was he weighed next to nothing to me. He blinked up at me confused, his eyes sunken in, his cheeks hollow and his lips blue as well.
"It's okay, I've got you." I said even though I had no idea if the boy would ever be okay. He looked like he was ready to die.
I carried him inside to his rooms where I set him down in front of the fireplace in an armchair. I knelt in front of him and started rubbing his feet to get some warmth back into them. They were as cold as ice to my touch.
“Are they… okay… is everyone… safe?” he asked haltingly through chattering teeth.
How he could still worry about anyone else in his state was beyond me but I put on an encouraging smile. “Yes, everyone is safe.” I reassured him.
Slowly the fire started warming him up but that didn’t help with the gauntness of his face. Like he had burned up part of himself to tame that storm.
“Are you hungry?” I asked him gently.
He nodded, his eyes huge and slightly unfocused, something wild lurking in them.
“Stay here,” I commanded, “I’ll get you something.”
I quickly headed down to the castle kitchen. There were quite a few of the kitchen staff around and I had no problem getting some hot broth and bread for Yaden.
When I returned to him he was still huddled close to the fire. His head came up immediately as he smelled the broth and he eyed the bowl hungrily. Not like a child, more like a starving wild animal.
I knelt next to him again and started feeding him as his hands were still shaking too much to hold the bowl or a spoon steady. He ate with single minded concentration. Not gobbling but eating as fast and efficient as he could get the food inside his belly. The bowl was empty and the bread gone before I knew it and he mournfully gazed inside the bowl.
“Are you still hungry?” I asked.
He looked away from the bowl then like he had been caught doing something bad.
“Yaden? It’s okay, if you are still hungry.” I gently told him. “I can get you more, if you like.”
“I’m… I’m fine. I should… sleep now.” He said and I knew he was lying.
I had heard this exact same lie from young gladiator’s new to the school, too proud to admit they had been starved.
Something was nagging at the back of my mind. Something about the way he had put away the food and about what I had read in the file about his health. That he had an extremely accelerated metabolism and his body burned up food at an incredible rate. And then it clicked. That wasn’t just another freak mutation of his. His body was prepared to burn up a lot more nutrition than any normal organism to fuel his abilities. He didn’t need different food – he needed more food.
I smiled at him. “You know, I think I’m simply not going to argue with you about this.” I told him. “I’ll get you more food and you will eat it. End of discussion.”
He blinked at me like a startled little owl.
So I went back to the kitchen with a different plan this time. When I returned to Yaden I was carrying a huge tray heaped with all sorts of food. A loaf of bread, a huge chunk of cheese, a whole steaming hot ham roast, a platter with fried chicken legs, a big bowl of porridge sweetened with honey and peaches, a basket of sweet bread rolls, a plate heaped with several steaks, a bowl with steamed vegetables, smoked fish – basically anything I could get my hands on that would look appetizing, it was enough food to feed a squad of fully grown soldiers.
Yaden had dozed off in front of the fire but the scent of the ham roast pulled him awake like a puppet on a string. He stared at the assortment of food, then at me, then back at the food and then I heard his stomach growl.
I set the tray down on the table next to the chair.
“Eat!” I ordered him.
He didn’t argue this time. He started eating. And kept eating. I watched in silent awe as he dug his way through everything I had brought to him, not hurriedly, but fast. He put away more than his own body volume in food without so much as a burp and as he ate his cheeks filled out, the dark circles under his eyes lessened and a rosy colour returned to his face. It should have been physically impossible but who was I to argue that about a boy who was able to calm storm and earthquakes with the power of his will.
Finally only the bowl of porridge remained and he slowed down, picking it up and snuggling back into the chair with a small sigh, now for the first time savouring what he was eating but still fully absorbed in his meal.
I looked at the empty tray and felt a cold shiver creep up my spine. They had not only pushed this boy to the limit of his physical and emotional capacity – they had also starved him. Certainly not intentionally, but none the less he had probably not eaten enough since his talents had first manifested.
The spoon now moved slower and slower and at last he looked up at me sadly. “I’m sorry, I can’t finish it.” He said sleepily.
“That’s okay.” I took the bowl from him and set it back on the tray. “Come on, let’s get you into bed.”
I didn’t wait for him to move but simply picked him up and carried him over to his bed, noticing with quiet happiness that he was warm all over now. I tugged him in and watched as he lay on his back, his hands folded over his slightly bulging belly protectively. He was asleep immediately, a small, content smile on his face I had never before seen.
I turned off the light on his bedside table and then gently closed the door to his bedroom with grim determination.
I had a Duchess to see and to explain what was wrong with her son’s nutrition. And to find out who had made that boy believe he shouldn’t eat his fill. Something told me the Duchess would be just as keen on finding out and that she would arrange a volcano day for whoever was to blame.
Chapter 3: Pebble
A quiet day gives Yaden the opportunity to show Darren his favourite hiding place
I looked up from my studying at Yaden. The boy was sitting across from me at the desk in the library and had been doing his math exercises.
Just looking at him made me smile with accomplishment. The sad, much too thin kid from two months ago was almost gone. He was filling out nicely, no longer nothing but skin and bones. He had also gained a healthy colour where before he had seemed almost grey. His eyes were sparkling with life and maybe even a little of the mischief one would have expected of a boy his age.
"I'm done with my work." He said, pushing his papers over to me to check them.
I glanced up at the ancient grandfather clock that dominated the spot next to the fireplace. For a change he had been fairly quick with his exercises. That meant either he had put his mind to them or he had been distracted again and they would be especially sloppy.
Not that it mattered much. These days he wasn't tormented by tutors anymore who believed it vital that he not only learned his letters and numbers but also tried to drum useless junk into his head like who had ruled what when and how they had justified it. The problem wasn't even that Yaden was stupid; he had no trouble reciting every single battle of the last succession war that his grandfather had been a part of. He just had too much other stuff that he needed to pay attention to.
So I was now in charge of what he was required to learn, and I had decided he should concentrate on the basics. Math, writing and reading. His math had improved a lot and his reading as well. His spelling, however, was still atrocious.
I pushed my own studies to the side. One of the reasons Yaden was a lot more comfortable with me deciding what he was supposed to learn was the fact I always was using that time to study as well. There was plenty I needed to learn, now that he was my charge and his mother, the Duchess, had been quite generous in funding for in-depth study materials about nutrition science after our little chat concerning her son’s starving.
She had been furious and ready to immediately interrogate her son on who had told him not to eat as much as he liked. Luckily I had managed to convince her that I would have a better chance at coaxing that information out of him.
After the next few days I had carefully asked questions of palace servants and prodded Yaden himself about it every time I heaped more food on his plate and ordered him to eat it. Which he did with less and less reluctance since he could see as clearly that I did how much good it did him.
In the end, Yaden had told me how the so called 'experts' the Psions Guild had dispatched to study his unique talents had explained to him that he 'couldn't just gobble down everything he saw' and that a proper psychic 'kept a clear head by keeping a rigorous discipline and staying in control of their urges'.
Those dumbasses hadn't had the slightest inkling of how Yaden's psionic talents worked, that much was clear to me just from reading their jumbled and self-contradicting reports on him.
The Duchess had been less than amused by the fact that she wouldn't be able to extract bloody revenge on the lot since she had already kicked them off the planet. She did, however, vow a slow and painful death to any of them who should ever show their faces again on Pandora. Considering she was as Dracon as they come, that was a threat to be taken very seriously, but I couldn't bring myself to pity any of them.
While I checked Yaden's math exercises, he got up and started pacing the library, full of nervous energy. I hugely enjoyed seeing him like that. Over the course of the last weeks, he had started to become interested in other things than purely keeping the planet in check, now that he was not completely worn out all the time.
I smiled to myself as he first stood on his toes to look at the spine of a book on a top shelf and then the stone floor of the library rose up in the spot where he was standing to lift him far enough so he could see it clearly. He used his talents so casually, most of the time he didn't even noticed it.
His exercises were mostly correct, but also had some ridiculous mistakes.
"Where were you with your thoughts when you did this?" I asked him.
He flinched guiltily and intently studied his naked toes. "I... uh..."
"Is there trouble again?" I gently prodded him even though I didn't think there was. He was much to relaxed for that.
Like I had expected, he shook his head. "No. Actually, Pandora is sleepy today."
I was still getting used to him talking about the planet like another person. It was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that a ball of rock could actually have a personality and feelings, but that was what Yaden said and I was trying hard not to be like everyone else and simply dismiss this as child's talk.
"I was... uhm... actually I was wondering..." Yaden nervously scratched at the ground with his toes, leaving deep gorges in the stone floor. Noticing what he had done he quickly wiped them away again with his foot, like someone else might wipe away some dust. "I don't think there will be any trouble today so I was thinking about visiting Pebble." He said, looking at me hopefully.
I had no clue who Pebble might be. "And who is that?" I asked.
"She's my grandfather's spaceship." He explained eagerly. "What I really wanted to ask is... well... would you like to come...?"
"Sure." Of course I wouldn't miss the opportunity to see something he obviously held dear. Even though I couldn't quite imagine a Duke calling his spaceship 'Pebble'. "So why is she called Pebble?" I asked. "That is a really unusual name."
Yaden grinned happily, as always delighted to talk about anything concerning his grandfather. He had died three years earlier, and up until then he had apparently been the boy's rock to cling to. On paintings I had seen of him, he looked like a grim old man, wearing black Dracon military uniform and looking like he ate peasants for breakfast. But everything Yaden told me about him was full of love and care. He had resigned from his position of Duke of Pandora when Yaden had been only a toddler and spent his old age doting on his youngest grandson when nobody else did.
"The ship has been in our family's possession for centuries." Yaden told me proudly. "She was one of the first built after the Fall when the people of Pandora took to the stars again. She's one of the best armoured crafts of the Empire. Well... she used to be... now she doesn't fly anymore..." The last was delivered with deep regret.
"She was buried in the great eruption of Mount Meruae, 20 years ago." Yaden answered, referring to the huge volcano that dominated the view south of the palace. The same volcano he had tamed when he was four years old. "The whole spaceport was destroyed."
Nowadays, there was no spaceport on Pandora. All ships were required to stay in orbit and only send down shuttles. Now I knew how that rule had come into existence.
"All the ships at the spaceport were reduced to slag back then." Yaden continued to explain. "All but Pebble. Her armour-plating was partly melted, but the ship herself remains intact. When my grandfather showed me her burial place he didn't even know she was okay. I created a tunnel to her so we could visit her."
"I would be honoured to visit your grandfather's ship." I confirmed my agreement to come from earlier.
With Yaden flying us there on his stone slab, it only took us a few minutes to get to the valley to the south which had once been a spaceport and now was half filled with cooled lava. From above, it looked like a wasteland, never touched by human hands. No trace remained of a spaceport. But since all of this was stone, I was sure that Yaden knew exactly what was hidden beneath.
I quietly wondered how many people had died during that eruption 20 years ago, but I didn't ask since I didn't want to spoil Yaden's happy mood. He was worried, gloomy and sad often enough anyway.
He set down the stone slab in a spot that, to me, looked no different than the rest of the dark desolate place.
"I always close the tunnel off so no animals can get inside Pebble." He explained.
With a gesture of his hand he swept away a part of the ground we were standing on. It flowed away sluggishly, opening up a tunnel that led underground at a steep angle. He first eyed the tunnel critically and then me.
"I'll make it a bit higher for you." He then said with a grin. "My grandfather wasn't nearly as tall."
He nimbly climbed into the hole and picked up a torchlight hung on a convenient hook formed by the rock. Then he turned it on and beckoned me to follow him. He kept one hand on the wall as we descended into the bowels of the lava field and as we progressed the ceiling of the tunnel gently rose up ahead of us to make room for my height.
The thought of so much rock enclosing us would have been scary had I been with anyone else. But with this boy, I knew I was safe as a baby in his cradle. Earth and stone were Yaden's friends and he wouldn't allow them to harm me.
"Is Pebble buried deep?" I asked curiously.
Yaden shrugged. "About 15 of my paces." He answered. He still had trouble with using proper units of measure. "Her armour-plating partly melted and fused with the lava when the first wave rolled over her. After that she was covered up by two more waves."
The tunnel of course was longer than that since it didn't descent vertically. Still, it wasn't a long trip, and quickly the tunnel terminated at an open hatch with a bit of craggy, scarred metal hull visible around it. Yaden laid his hand against it and gently stroked over it.
"Hello, Pebble." He whispered to the ship. "I have brought a friend to meet you. Don't be scared, he is very nice."
He often talked to big structures like that, like they were living things. He talked to the ducal palace as well. He had told me that if something built by people got old enough and was handled with enough strong emotions, it would start to have feelings of its own. I had no idea if that was true. I had tried to read up on that as well, but the only reference I had found was of pagan religions maintaining that old plants would become partially sentient. Maybe it was just a way for him to interpret his close connection to the materials such structures were built from.
Yaden's torchlight showed the inside of the ship. The hatch led to an airlock and behind that, a narrow corridor ran parallel. Yaden climbed inside without hesitation and I followed him more slowly since the hatch wasn't exactly built for a man of my size.
He had been right in stating that the ship's inside was untouched by the hot lava it had been bathed in. It didn't even show real signs of age. No wonder, since it was not exactly a luxury liner. Narrow, unadorned corridors, small rooms, ladders, hatches and everything metal or ceramsteel. It was obvious that this ship had been built to last with as little technical frills as possible. There simply wasn't much that could break.
“My grandfather flew Pebble in the second succession war,” Yaden told me while we made our way through the ship, “she was in the siege of Malicorn and acted as a blockade runner. Later she was in the great final battle over Imperial City and she was the ship that took out the great orbital canon of Tiara by ramming it full force. No other ship could have survived that!”
I had a feeling that his grandfather might have exaggerated slightly but I didn’t mention that. I didn’t begrudge the boy his hero worship of his grandfather. After all, the old man had probably been the only one Yaden had ever really felt close to and loved by.
“One day, when I’m grown up, I’ll free Pebble from her grave.” He told me. “And then she will fly again.”
He showed me cramped living quarters and a mess room, the armoury and a strategy room. Finally we made our way to the bridge.
This was the most spacious room I had seen. There was a large window would have looked out at the front but it was covered with heavy metal shutters which were probably melted in place. There were several command stations and a large captain’s chair at the centre. Next to the chair several books were stacked up, looking decidedly out of place.
Yaden let the torchlight play over them and sighed softly, suddenly leaning against my side.
“My grandfather used to sit here with me.” He told me quietly. “He would tell me stories of the battles Pebble had been in. After he died, I took a few of the history books about old battles here. I wanted to try and read them but they were too hard.”
I smiled down at the boy. He never asked for anything and I was rather sure that this wasn’t some complicated way of telling me what he wished for. He wasn’t that tricky. He really had just wanted to show me and now he had given me another piece of the puzzle to making him happier.
“I could read some of them to you.” I offered innocently.
Like I had expected, he looked at me in awed surprise. The possibility really hadn’t crossed his mind.
“Would you?” he asked hopefully.
I went over to the captain’s chair and picked up some of the books to have a look at them. Some were boring lists of events but others were personal accounts of battles long past and sufficiently adventurous to keep the interest of a young boy. I selected on the one telling the story of the star ship captain who had first re-discovered Pandora.
“Where do you want me to sit?” I asked him, not wanted to steal his grandfather’s spot in the captain’s chair.
But that didn’t seem to bother him at all. “You can have the chair and I can sit on the armrest.” He said, beaming up at me. “That’s how we used to sit and this is a chair large enough for you, for a change.”
I settled in the captain’s chair with appropriate deference and he took a spot perched on the armrest. With the torchlight hovering above us, held up by Yaden’s powers, shedding light on the pages of the book, I began to read.
“It was the Year 4763 when I came across the first reference about a planet called Pandora. A planet lost to human civilisation since the Fall…”