The First Sin
“MOUNT UP,” JÄLEN said, looking into the sky to watch the flyer approach from the northwest. “We’ll meet the delegation on the tarmac after they’ve touched down.”
The flyer quickly grew from a distant glinting speck into a sleek winged craft that arced gracefully through the air as it approached the airfield. Its black hull shimmered with a bloody hue in the sunlight, making the crimson, orange, and silver livery of Clan Sokôn stand out. A cloud of dust kicked up as the flyer found its mark and descended to the tarmac. Crews came forward from the terminal to attend to the craft.
The six riders spurred their nakishnikë across the airfield and took up position in the flyer’s shadow, opposite its hatch, Jälen front and center with Tårik to his left, Kalaanë to his right, and the three së’seizalë in behind. The flyer’s hull popped and hissed as it settled.
When no one emerged, a wave of unease washed over Tårik.
Something is wrong. Why aren’t they coming out?
He looked at Jälen and Kalaanë. She shrugged.
At length, just as the warmounts started shifting uncomfortably on the hot tarmac, the double-wide hatch irised open and a ramp descended. Troops in full armor spilled out, their feet thundering on metal as they swarmed down the ramp. The airfield crews scattered.
“Heshtí kúlaara’na!” Tårik swore, drawing his sword as Kalaanë hissed. The others drew their blades too—except Jälen, who remained motionless on Vaehak. The six nakishnikë growled and crouched, ready to pounce.
“Steady!” Jälen commanded.
The Sokôn forces ceased their advance and took up position along each side of the ramp and the area directly at its base, forming a wall of bodies between the flyer and the Tsinna representatives. Every third warrior along the ramp carried a clan standard, while the rest gripped rifles aimed solidly at the Tsinna representatives. Their deep blood red armor gleamed in the sun and glowed with inlaid red, orange, and white lights that curved along the contours of their bodies. The dark red fabric of the flags fluttered in the hot air and, like the cloth hanging from the belt of each warrior, bore Clan Sokôn’s emblem in white: a stylized tree with bare branches bent in a gale, creating a frame for the goddess’s triquetra.
Silence fell over the tarmac as the Tsinna group stared at the Sokôn warriors, who stared back. No one moved.
“Årdra, grant me patience,” Kalaanë muttered.
A herald garbed in robes of the clan’s colors appeared at the hatch and stood at attention, calling out, “Presenting Clan Sokôn’s esteemed and honorable emissaries.” He paused. “Khašë’yanzal Kehai of Clan Sokôn!”
A woman stepped out, stopping and standing stiffly almost immediately with armored wings up off her shoulders. Surveying the scene with narrowed eyes, as if inspecting the military rigor of the Clan Tsinna guards, her mouth then twisted and her red frill clamped down as if she’d found something distasteful.
“Ambassador Abezårí of Clan Mira-Sokôn!”
Another woman emerged, a sharp contrast to the desert landscape: icy blue in skin tone with bright blonde hair that fell straight to her shoulders from behind curved charcoal horns. She looked at each of the Clan Tsinna representatives without expression. Tårik felt a shiver through his frill when her blue eyes landed on him. The armored talons on her feet clicked sharply against the metal ramp as she took up position opposite Kehai.
“High Ambassador Ciradår of Clan Sokôn!”
A man, so tall he had to duck his head to clear the hatch, came forward to stand between Kehai and Abezårí. His gold skin was rich beside the deep red of his armor while his black hair, slicked back from the dark grey scales on his forehead, shone despite the shadow cast by the flyer. He carried a black-lined crimson cape wrapped over one arm while his wings, sheathed by flexible armored plates like the wings of his companions, hung around him. Additional orange and white accents embellished his glowing armor, and three gold rings adorned the left side of his pale yellow frill, denoting his highblood status.
Silence, punctuated only by the ruffling of wings and flags and the droning of insects, stretched.
“My lord, on behalf of Adya Tårann and the people of Clan Tsinna, I welcome you to our holdings,” Jälen said with his frill folded tightly against his head. “I am Së’nåzal Jälen of Clan Lezår-Tsinna.” He gestured to his people. “My second in command, Së’shåzal Kalaanë of Clan Olía-Tsinna, and Së’yanzal Tårik of Clan Niša-Tsinna, my fourth.”
A heartbeat’s moment passed. Ciradår’s frill cocked and he smiled, showing rows of sharp white teeth. “You are not so welcoming as your words imply, Jälen.”
Vaehak snorted and tossed his head, forcing Jälen to corral him with the reins.
“We’re staring down the barrels of two dozen rifles,” Jälen growled, his grey face darkening, “and you dare to present yourselves with active wetware despite your adyaë being fully informed that technology is not permitted within the bounds of Sanctuary. They agreed to those terms.” The sword at Jälen’s waist scraped as he drew it from its scabbard. “We invited Clan Sokôn to our lands under a banner of friendship! Why should we welcome you warmly when you have insulted us so?”
Ciradår’s gaze panned from one Tsinna representative to the next, scrutinizing them. Then he leapt from the ramp with a roar, beating his wings to soar over the heads of his warriors, and dove straight for Tårik. A long sword formed in his hand as he moved, coalescing out of red light and air.
Tårik yelled. Nenaen reared and batted the high ambassador out of the air, sending him crashing to the tarmac. She pinned him there with a heavy paw. The sword clattered away and vanished.
Tårik’s heart dropped into his stomach as Nenaen stretched her neck forward, mouth opening wide. “Nenaen! Hold!” If his nakishnik ate the high ambassador, it would be terrible indeed.
The nakishnik paused, her immense jaws open and hovering just above Ciradår’s unprotected face, ready to take his head off in one clean bite. One of the long sabers pressed against the man’s cheek. Ciradår’s personal shield crackled around the sharp tooth and her paw.
The reins were tight between Tårik’s fingers. Nenaen waited tensely for his next command. Tårik looked from the downed ambassador to Jälen and then to the group of warriors. The rifles remained held at the ready, still pointed at all of them. The men and women fingered the triggers, but they, too, waited tensely for a command.
At this range, with that many shots, they’ll obliterate us.
Above them on the ramp, Kehai smirked above crossed arms while Abezårí had bent forward, holding ready to leap into the air herself.
Be calm. Don’t let this get out of control. Tsinna needs this.
Ciradår started laughing.
Tårik leaned forward in the saddle to look over Nenaen’s shoulder, uncertain he believed his ears, and then shot another look at Jälen.
“Very good,” Ciradår breathed. “I’m impressed.”
Jälen frowned. “Let him up.”
Tårik twitched the reins. Nenaen growled and stepped back, but made a point of dragging her claws across Ciradår’s armor before allowing the high ambassador to get to his feet.
“That was reckless,” Jälen said as he sheathed his sword. “You’re fortunate that my people are skilled and disciplined, and our nakishnikë well-trained. You could easily have been eaten.”
Ciradår scoffed. “Nonsense. You would never allow one such as myself to be murdered on the eve of talks that Adya Tårann values so much.” He patted Nenaen’s forehead. She flattened her ears and snapped at him, but Tårik reined her in.
Ciradår disdainfully wiped his cheek and dusted his hands off as he walked away, moving to a spot in front of his warriors but opposite Jälen. “If you had, Clan Tsinna would have earned itself a new and much more troublesome enemy. Your quarrels with the clans across your southern sea would seem a mere trifle in comparison.” He smiled his toothy smile. “Believe me, you do not want us as your enemy.”
Jälen exhaled slowly and motioned for his people to put their weapons away. “Our clan’s greatest desire is to join forces with you as allies for the benefit of both our peoples.”
“Yes, of course it is.”
From her place at the top of the ramp, Kehai said, “Naturally, we had to test your worth as warriors. If we’re to join you on a journey to this Sanctuary place, we must be assured that no harm will befall us on the way.”
“Your security forces aren’t needed,” Jälen said tightly. “Clan Tsinna has guaranteed your safety, as you well know. My team and I are Adya Tårann’s best guards, with many years of service together.” The tightness gave way to pride. “We are as close as family and have received the highest honors the adyaë can bestow. Tårann could do no better than to send us to escort you.”
“So you say.”
“We have been to Sanctuary before, my lord,” Tårik said. “From here, the journey is shorter and considerably less perilous than the route from Sha Nakai, which is the route Adya Tårann and his delegation are taking. On our mounts it will take less than three days to get there.”
“And what do your intelligence reports indicate for this journey?” Abezårí asked.
“There will be no problems,” Jälen insisted. “There has been very little activity from the south for some weeks.”
“Ah, then perhaps your issues with your neighbors are over,” Ciradår ventured.
“Hardly, my lord. We fear they are simply taking the time to shore up their forces.”
“Really? That’s interesting.”
Jälen shifted in his saddle. “High Ambassador, we must depart before the day wears on any further, if we’re to make the first camp by nightfall. But before we leave, we must settle matters of honor.”
Ciradår’s frill cocked and he smiled again. “What matters are those?”
Jälen’s tail coiled up behind him. “Clan Sokôn accepted that we would provide adequate security for you and your delegation. By bringing your own forces, you insult our skills as warriors. A guard each is what we agreed upon. And to be frank, we simply don’t have the means to support such a large contingent with food and accommodation for the duration of the journey.” He sucked in a breath. “But more importantly, you knew that technology isn’t permitted within the vicinity of Sanctuary. Sanctuary is sacred to Clan Tsinna. No one may go there with their wetware active!”
“Ah yes, so you mentioned.” A wave of glittering red light spread over Ciradår’s body as his armor morphed into scarlet and black robes suitable for the desert conditions. “Is this better?”
Jälen ground his teeth. “No.”
Ciradår clapped his hands together. “Good. I much prefer having thermal regulation in this godforsaken heat.” His clothing morphed back into armor. “Now, Jälen, don’t fault me for being… concerned… about my welfare.” He turned to look briefly at Kehai and Abezårí. “As well as the welfare of my companions, of course. How about this? I’ll send my warriors to enjoy your clan’s hospitality in your capital.” His tone hardened. “But my colleagues and I, and our personal guards, will keep our wetware.”
“That is not acceptable—”
“Very well.” Ciradår turned his back on them and wrapped his cape around his arm once again. “I can see that Clan Tsinna is not serious about its overtures toward us. We’ll return now to Sokôn.” He flicked his hand at his warriors, who lowered their rifles and parted to let him pass.
“Wait!” Tårik leaned toward Jälen. “You can’t let them leave like this!”
“Know your place, Së’yanzal!” Jälen hissed. But then he sighed and called out, “High Ambassador!”
Ciradår paused on the ramp. “Yes, Së’nåzal?”
Tårik watched his commanding officer wrestle with himself. Jälen’s jaw worked and his tail thrashed over Vaehak’s back. If the Clan Sokôn delegation left now, Adya Tårann and all of Clan Tsinna would be humiliated, and they all knew it.
“To foster amity between our clans for the forthcoming talks…” Jälen swallowed. “I grant you and your delegation leave to retain your wetware while in Sanctuary, and invite your warriors to enjoy themselves in Sha Nakai as personal guests of Clan Tsinna.”
Kalaanë gasped. Jälen’s hand shot up to silence her.
Ciradår waited a moment longer, stretching the silence as he contemplated Jälen’s offer. Then he dropped his cape and spread his arms and wings wide, a large, still toothy, grin on his face.
“My friends! How pleased I am that we could come to an agreement. We are delighted to accept your gracious proposal.” He flicked his arm toward a warrior. “Ready our nakishnikë. We’ll depart at once for Sanctuary.”