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The tears came easily for those first few weeks. Her memory seemed to be incoherent. She remembered Max carrying her into the ship, but most of the trip was a blur. It had taken them a week to make it to the jump gate, another week to make it to a safe place that wasn’t compromised.

She was present at a couple of meetings where they reported the fall of the Lancers. Her father was captured, but his whereabouts were unknown. Of the two hundred sworn Lancers, one hundred seventy-three of them had been captured when it was all said and done.  There were only eighty-three Lancers captured in the initial raid on Terres, but after extensive interrogations, most of the remaining members and been identified and taken down.

Most of them now sat in a large scattering of prisons spread throughout the Taerren colonies.  They personally had managed to make it to the relative safety of an Akari system. They now stayed at the estates of the Lady Mesende, who was an old friend of her fathers, or so she had been told.

The woman was very old and retired. Although she used to be part of the noble houses in the Taerren colonies, she had separated herself from them in a form of silent protest ten years prior, moving to a non-Taerren world to live out the rest of her days with the remainder of her wealth.

In truth, her outspoken tendencies had almost gotten her entire house destroyed. Berret had once told her that Lady Mesende was a very shrewd and skilled woman, who managed to maneuver politically with ease. When she realized she had pushed too far, she had maneuvered her son into a position of power and left the spotlight of political intrigue to a younger generation.

The last time Marideen had seen Mesende, she was very young and didn’t really remember it. Whatever the woman had been once, she took them in and provided them shelter. They had been staying at the estate for almost a week, and she asked for nothing and gave a lot. Berret was being seen over by her personal physician, and she had assured them that everyone in her employ would keep quiet.

And so she was lying in her bed, crying into a pillow when a knock came at her door. The room was dark, even though there was still light outside. She had all of the window blinds down to block out the sunlight. She seemed to crave the darkness since she left Vanderra station.

She didn’t move from her spot when the door opened and a familiar face peaked his way in.

“What a sorry sight you are, pretty lady,” the dark-skinned man said as he opened the door about halfway, allowing light from the hallway to spill in.

“Close the door, it’s too bright,” she moaned into her pillow, shying her eyes away.

Berret took a couple of steps into the room, leaving the door open as he sat at the foot of her bed. His missing right arm had been bandaged up, along with a couple of other scratches and bruises he had earned at Vanderra. He attempted to brush his right hand through his black hair but quickly switched to his left hand as soon as remembered he could not. He let out a sigh, but if he was saddened by his own state, he kept it from his face.

“You’ve been cramped up in here for three weeks now, you need to get some air,” He stated, placing his hand on the sheet over her foot.

“We haven’t been here for three weeks,” Marideen responded, turning her head from the pillow and glaring down at him with one eye.

“Did I ever tell you about how your father and I met?” Berret asked.

“You were an ambassador; my father was a Taerren dignitary…”

“A dignitary, yes, I suppose you could call him that. The Cleefe family, your family, were very wealthy and very successful landowners. Did your father ever tell you how your family was formed?”

Marideen shook her head.

“Well, you probably were told it once, a long time ago, but when your house fell, I am sure your father didn’t want to bring back bad memories.”

“He was never one for stories.”

Berret chuckled, “That he wasn’t. But still, it might be worth you hearing a little about your history. You’re the last of your line, you should know…”

“He’s not dead, there is no proof of that!” Marideen exclaimed.

Berret made a calming gesture and nodded, “I know that, but just humor me all the same.”

Berret took a deep breath before continuing on,” It was your great great great great grandfather who founded the Cleefe House. He was a Star Jumper. He was actually Ertlander, but he found Taerrens offered larger awards for Star Finders and at the time, a starter’s bond which he used to build his ship. There are less Star Finders than there used to be.  Back then, few people realized exactly how difficult and dangerous these missions were.”

“To travel to any star, at close to light speed, takes many many years. At least twenty years, often hundreds of years. Anyone who makes that voyage knows that everything they ever loved will be gone by the time they reach their destination. They pick a star in the sky, and fly there, hoping there are planets with useful resources, planets colonies can be established on. Hoping that the people they take along are enough to build a working gate. Hoping that the resources they have hold out, that the trajectory they established made them reach the right place, and that nothing mechanical goes wrong.”

“The chances of success are astronomically small. Only a very small percentage of those that set out ever make contact back with the colonies they set out from. A few hundred years ago, it was a fad. But when a hundred years went by, and fewer and fewer responded. Well, the last Star Finder I heard of blasted out two years ago. A couple every few years, that’s about it, I think.”

“Your great great… your ancestor was a little different than the rest. A lot of them were single men, six or seven of them, friends who decided to split the rewards of their endeavor. Yours was a family man. He brought his whole family. His wife, his three young boys, and that was about it. He wasn’t going to split with anyone.”

“As you can guess, he succeeded, and he named the place…”

“Fruscia,” Marideen interrupted, an unwilling smile briefly flickering across her lips.

Berret nodded and smiled back before continuing, “The Fruscia system, named after his wife, had a habitable planet, and two terraformable planets. We like to call that the jackpot. It was one of only four habitable planets ever found, although I’ve heard of a fifth found recently. Now, as soon as the planets are found and contact is made, the Planet Finder is given a large reward based on how valuable their find.”

“Habitable planets give a lot of money. Almost ten times that of a terraform planet. Some people believe that’s why the success rate is so low, a lot of Star Jumpers try to terraform a planet themselves before making contact, to earn bigger rewards.  Of course, I don’t think that is possible with the resources of just one crew. At this point, most people would go and buy a large chunk of habitable land, something with some good farming or mining land that can keep them comfortable and happy for the rest of their lives. In truth, that is exactly what all of the Planet Jumpers did.”

“Your ancestor was smarter than that, he took all the money that they gave him, and instead of buying some habitable land, he bought one of the unterraformed planets in entirety. Over the course of twenty years, his family terraformed the planet and then rented it out his land rather than selling it. He became the senator of the planet, after all, he owned it, and his house began to rise in power.”

“Over the course of two generations, the Cleefe family bought the rest of the planets and established their power in the Taerren colonies. They were the third strongest house for a time. By the time your father took over, it had fallen in power. It was the Cleefe’s families unwillingness to employ a private army, that caused their fall. About eighty years ago, the houses started to become more aggressive. Politically maneuvering and money weren’t enough.”

“I thought you were going to tell me how you met my father?” Marideen asked impatiently.

Berret nodded and continued, “Well as to that, your father inherited a rich house, but with ultimately very little political power.  I was from a small house with almost no money or political power and knew a little about your house.  I was having a bad day. My wife had just left me, and I had found out I was stranded on this little moon called Narn…”

“Which wife?” Marideen asked.

Berret looked at her with exasperated eyes before responding, “Second, I think, but that really isn’t the point. The point was he helped me out. I had misplaced my papers and could not get out of the port! I ran into him, recognized him right away, and came up to him and pleaded for help. At first, he wasn’t going to help, but I told him he was an idiot!”

“An idiot?” Marideen asked, now engrossed in the story.

“That’s what he said! Your father asked me who I was to call him an idiot. I told him that I’m the guy he needs to call him an idiot every once in a while, lest he gets too big a head,” Berret chuckled and Marideen gave him a weak smile, “He laughed at that, and we shared a drink or two. Eventually, I told him my story and he helped me get off that godforsaken rock.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Marideen said, her smile slipping.

“Just this. When we were drinking and talking, your father told me something, and it stuck with me for many years. He said, ‘The future only gets better if you make it better, the past is the past, you can’t work with the past, only the future’.”

Marideen sighed, shaking her head. She turned from Berret and buried her head back into her pillow.

“Your sister passed away, no one denies that you have every right to mourn. But the Lancers need you, your leadership. The leadership you showed on Vanderra shows you’re ready for this. Max is no leader. And I am just an old man with a brain that is more mush than bronze. “

“My sister’s death hurt. It isn’t her loss that hurts the most, it’s the guilt.”

“You couldn’t have prevented your sister’s death.”

“I know that I understand that, but I just feel so guilty, like I did something wrong like I missed… something.”

“The boy?”

“The boy?” Marideen asked back.

“Your sister died saving that boy. He ended up dying all the same. Had he lived,  it… well….” Berret rubbed the back of his neck and broke eye contact with her in an uncomfortable manner.

“My sister’s death wouldn’t have been for nothing,” She completed the unspoken words, “Do you think he is still alive?”

“Possibly, that scientist thought he was important. But then again, the prince seemed to be going to great lengths to kill him. I don’t know which is right. It’s possible though.”

Marideen nodded, turning around and sitting up, crossing her arms in front of her. Her dark brown hair streamed down in front of her in an unkempt mess. She pushed the hair to either side of her ears, allowing her to see clearly.

She waited a few moments, when it was clear that he would not respond further she asked, “So what would you have me do?”

“Rebuild, start shaping the future?” Berret ended with a shrug.

The door slapped open causing Marideen to jump a little bit. Berret slipped Maximil a dirty look and he looked embarrassed for a moment before talking.

“Bad News,” Maximil said, his voice strained.

Berret nodded and stood up. He was to the door when he noticed that Marideen was standing as well. He gave her a concerned look.

“I can handle this,” Marideen told him, before passing him out the door.

They walked down the illustrious oversized hallways that made up the Lady Mesende’s manor. The walls were lined with colorful tapestries and mosaics. Occasionally, an artifact or two sat on pedestals that lined the hallway. The walls were a pale yellow, the floors made up a mosaic of reds, browns, and orange.  The house was quite majestic and beautiful in its’ own way, but it reminded Marideen of a grandma, if she had had a grandmother she could remember.

It wasn’t long before Marideen realized they were heading to one of the three libraries that were part of the estate. This particular library was the smallest of them and was known as the blue library simply because blue was the predominant theme. The library was very impressive and still consisted of more books than anyone would ever need in their lifetime on two levels.

When they entered the blue library, two other people were in it already. She only recognized one of the men, whom she knew immediately as Charles Fine. He was a man in his sixties who had always had a conservative approach to life. His brown hair was finely combed and trimmed, his beard thin and closely cut. He stood with a stately demeanor and a straight back. When Marideen had turned sixteen, Charles had tried to get her father to marry her off. Her father, thank the Lord and Lady, had declined to accept on grounds of her age. Charles never seemed to have taken offense. However, he never understood why her father had declined either.

The Fine family was not the richest family in the Taerren empire, but they had been friends with the Cleefe family for many years, and in the past, there were often many intermarriages between the two houses. Marideen’s grandmother was a Fine, actually, although she didn’t know if she had any relations with Charles.

The Fine house was still actively part of the Taerren empire and kept their knowledge of the Cleefe family as well as their involvement with the Lancers to a minimum. However, they were still an invaluable source of information for those that need it. If Charles was here, it meant that he had in-depth information on Taerren politics.

“My fair lady,” Charles Fine bowed, extending out a hand for Marideen.

By rote, Marideen let him kiss her hand. Although the act made her a little uncomfortable, it was one of the many niceties of etiquette that Charles always insisted on.

“Might I introduce my friend and blood, my nephew, cousin Vorus Fine,” he declared, putting his hand out to the man next to him, a much younger youth with only slightly less kept hair and a narrower chin.

The youth, who wasn’t much older than her once she thought about it, gave her a low respectful bow, extending and kissing her hand as well. He was only a little less practiced than his elder.

“It is a pleasure to meet you both, you most likely know my friends, Maximil  Roe, and Berret Stone. “ Marideen nodded to each of them, who nodded their heads but made no offers of respect.

Maximil was no noble and Berret might have one time practiced all the etiquettes of this life, but after his fall from grace, he never had the tolerance to provide any more courtesy than was specifically required. Charles seemed to regard the lack of proper etiquette but otherwise ignored the two men.

“Might I please ask what news you have for us, Cousin.”

It was often considered polite to call other nobles of socially close houses as Cousin. It almost scared Marideen how naturally all of the old noble etiquettes came back to her as she spoke with this friend of the family.

“Grave news, my dear child, grave news,” Charles lowered his head, Volus mimicking him a second later, “It would appear that all of the Lancers captured on the Paris raid have been sentenced to death.”

Bile rose in the back of Marideen throat as she suppressed a sudden shot of panic.

“All of them? How soon?”

“Immediately, Cousin, I am sorry, there is nothing that can be done,” Charles lowered his head again, his cheeks blushing slightly in mocked shame.

It was an act. Marideen knew that Charles cared very little for the Lancers. He saw the Cleefe’s as family, but the rest of them were mere commoners rising against their leaders. For a few seconds, Marideen thought she was falling backward, but she forced herself to remain upright and keep her body steady. Maybe she was wrong; maybe she couldn’t handle this right now. Never the less, she was determined to not let Berret think he was right.

Before she had a chance to say anything, Berret spoke up,” It’s not as bad as it looks, there may be some good news.”

Charles shot Berret an annoyed look, but after a second sighed and nodded for him to continue.

“Charles was able to get a list of everyone who was sentenced to death. They… they caught just about everyone who was actively participating, even Marcell.  But it’s the names missing from the list that are important. Deiron, your father, Kate, and Beiromon, none of them are on the list. There’d be no reason to leave them off and every reason to leave them on if…”

“If they were caught and were to be executed,” Marideen finished, a tightness in her chest seeming to loosen just a bit, “Where is Markus, he was friends with Marcell, wasn’t he?”

“Markus left three days ago. You weren’t available. I don’t know if he knows about this yet. He left quite unexpectedly.” Maximil answered, his voice surprisingly quiet and steady.

“Cousin, if I may?” Charles waited for her nod before continuing, “I am not simply here to bring you news of the Lancers, I have come as well to discuss a matter of some importance to your family. Your father is gone, and none of us can know when or if he will be returning.  You are the last Cleefe.”

Marideen didn’t like the way this was sounding. She already suspected where this was heading as she glanced over at the Volus. Volus had his head downcast, his face was flushed. She knew exactly where this was heading, but could not see how she could stop it.

“The Cleefe family needs an heir and you need a man in your life. I can see only one solution. I knew your father well, and while I never understood why he rejected my attempt to find you a suitable husband, you need someone who will give you a strong child. My nephew is your age. He hasn’t been promised to anyone else, and is strong, smart, and will bear you strong children.”

When Charles finished, Marideen remained quiet for a few moments. She looked over at Maximil and Berret. Maximil feigned interest in one of the bookcases, pretending to look for a book. Berret seemed to be fighting back laughter. She scowled at him before turning back to the two Fines.

“I know it would normally be your father making this decision, but in this case, I feel that I would make an acceptable surrogate father. I have taken the liberty of speaking with Lady Mesende, we will have the wedding in a few days if the Lord and Lady graces us,” Marideen’s face flushed red as she visibly shook, “I know you are full of emotion and are overwhelmed, my nephew and I will be in the east wing. Give yourself some time, this is the right decision, we will have a lot of planning tomorrow.”

Charles bowed to her before taking his leave. As soon as the door closed behind him she rounded on Berret.

“Don’t you laugh, what do you think this is funny?” her hand lightly slapped across Berret’s face before he could react.

Berret burst out laughing as he rubbed his cheek, “If you don’t want to get married, tell him no.”

“And the way he talked to me,” Marideen stated as she turned and began pacing back and forth, “Like I couldn’t make decisions on my own!”

“And don’t think you aren’t on my list either!” She exclaimed shaking her finger at Maximil, who shrugged at her, “He thinks he can just marry me off to some man I never even met, like, like I’m some kind of commodity that needed to be disposed of.”

“This is exactly what I am talking about. This is the kind of passion we need from you right…” Berret began but stopped midsentence when Marideen moved towards him with her hand ready to slap him once again.

“Well if you wanted me angry and agitated you achieved it.”

“So what’s the plan then, are you going to marry…” Maximil started to say.

“No, of course, I am not going to marry him. We’re leaving tonight, without Charles and his nephew,” Marideen snapped as she paced back and forth across the library, her body bristling.

“They won’t like that, you may not be able to depend on the Fine family again for the support,” Berret explained.

“I know that, but what other choice do I have?”

When neither Berret nor Maximil said anything else, she resumed pacing.

“And then what?” Berret asked.

Marideen did not answer right away. Her mind worked furiously as she thought about everything that had happened in the last few weeks. Her life was her own.  What was it that her father had said to Berret? The future would only be better if she made it better. She had her answer.

“Up until now, the Lancers have always been passively aggressive in what we do. We never killed. We snuck in, did what we came to do, and snuck out. We were never the aggressor,” Marideen finally stopped short, releasing her breath slowly as she looked back at the two men she could trust with her life, “When they decided to start killing Lancers, murdering innocent men and women without trial, they chose what would come next. Do they want a war? I say we give them a war.”

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