Rea shuddered to see again the impending bulk of a military ship on the outskirts of Pelion, emblazoned with the sharp angles of a stylized nova; the insignia of the Central Military Forces.
She looked down at the invitation she had been carrying since last week, ran her thumb across that same insignia, embossed at the top of the card, and thought of the death it represented. Once more she read the formal script below it:
Rea Maladin Panapa
is cordially invited to a celebration
on the fourteenth of Septum, Central Date Standard,
occasioning the one-billionth impression of
A Study in Dignity During the Thessalon Conflicts
Colonel Gavin Price-George
Gavin Price-George. Commander of the 054th Tac-Battalion. He had left Pelion twenty-four years earlier, having overseen a five-year occupation — having done it well, in Central’s eyes — ruthlessly crushing Thessalon’s bitter rebellion against Central’s distant rule. Colonel Gavin Price-George, returning to Pelion. Still, Rea could hardly believe it, much less understand. What can he be thinking, coming back here, she mused as Evander walked out onto the landing meadow.
Evander, mayor of Pelion, had come to meet the ship in the finest clothing available to impoverished Pelion: a fine white cotton shirt, its sleeves and cuffs embroidered with blue florals, and a bright red vest lined with Cyrenian satin. Accompanying him was a retinue of four, three of them his sons, all town officials of one sort or another. They waited for some time in front of the unmoving shuttle, its alloys pinging and popping as it cooled, until finally it opened and coughed up a group of soldiers. A lieutenant, with manners as crisp as his uniform, walked up to Evander and presented him with a clip of papers and manifests to be signed and approved.
Rea, standing at the town’s edge with a group of others, watched the proceedings. She looked around her and could see that many of the younger spectators were unsure of how to react, confused by the conflict between their own excitement and the dour suspicion of their parents and elders. Next to her stood Phillipa and her parents, Milo and Pena. The look on Phillipa’s face was one of rapt attention and wonder; her mother’s brow was creased by a worried frown. Phillipa was too young to remember the war, and was only a baby when CMF regulars executed her uncle. But her mother remembered. Rea remembered, too.
Down in the meadow, Evander returned the clipboard to the lieutenant who removed copies of each of the forms and handed them to the mayor. Evander took them and, seemingly flustered, handed them in turn to his eldest son, Andrus, who served as town constable when he wasn’t out working in the fields. Andrus ceremoniously folded the dupes and tucked them in his belt. Then Evander, the officer and the officer’s second began walking upslope toward the town. The lieutenant talked, and Evander nodded. The mayoral retinue realized they were being left behind and hurriedly followed after the trio.
The group of townsfolk at the outskirt separated, and Rea heard their quiet, hushed whisperings move up the street like wind through summer wheat. They faded back into doorways and shop alcoves, allowing the mayor and the soldiers to pass. Rea heard the lieutenant speak as they approached, oblivious to the two- score people nearby.
“Of course, we won’t be changing any of the rustic atmosphere,” he said. “The colonel was specific about that.”
Evander nodded again.
They drew near, and Rea noticed something odd about the lieutenant’s second. He paid attention to neither his superior nor to the mayor. Unspeaking, he turned his head in a slow, studious motion, surveying the crowd. His eyes, nearly hidden behind the metallic flight specs, darted from face to face; not in the wary, all-sided alert of a bodyguard, it was a searching, a filing for future reference. He surveyed the entire crowd, and then turned his gaze to the buildings of Pelion, searching, searching. What’s he looking for, Rea wondered, suspicious of everything CMF.
Abruptly, the searching stopped, his gaze pinned to Rea’s side of the street. She could not tell exactly where the soldier was looking, but it was somewhere above and to her left. As he passed, the crowd closing in after him, his head swivelled, keeping his target in view. When he could no longer do so and remain unobtrusive, he faced forward and did not resume his scan.
Rea did not join the crowd as it moved forward, following the mayor and the new arrivals, but turned instead to the building behind her left shoulder.
Brightly painted garden boxes filled with summer savory and hyssop fronted the windows and the balcony of the upper story. Open shutters let in the afternoon air and a green and white striped awning shaded the area behind the balustrade. Rea took a few steps backward to see further into the darkened area, trying to see what so intrigued the lieutenant’s second.
There, back in the shadowed corner, painted aqua by the filtered light, stood a figure, a woman in her late twenties. A long braid of dark, chestnut hair fell over her shoulder onto the light colored cotton of her sleeveless blouse, hanging down to her belted waist. She held her arms crossed over her bosom, one hand rubbing the dark skin of the opposing arm as if she were chilled despite the afternoon’s warmth. A muscle clenched along her jaw in an emotional pulse and her dark eyes were intent on the soldiers as they advanced up to the town courtyard.
“Hello, Nikki,” Rea called up to the balcony.
The black eyes snapped down, fixing Rea in their sight, and she felt the full fury and hatred contained within that Medusan gaze. At once, the eyes softened and a small, timid smile appeared. The young woman stepped haltingly to the balcony edge.
“Afternoon, Ma Panapa,” she said politely.
Rea regarded Nikki for a moment. The only child of an unwed mother now long-dead, she lived alone, untamed by marriage, unbridled by custom. Rea had taken her turn at raising the orphaned girl, and saw many similarities between herself and this small, unassuming woman. She motioned upslope with her head.
“You disapprove of our visitors?”
“Disapprove? I hate them!” Nikki blurted. “We should have refused them permission to set foot on our soil again.” Her gaze drifted up the street. “Instead, Evander courts them like some fawning magpie! How dare they come back here. I wonder what Mama would think, were she alive.” She turned back to Rea, one hand coming lightly to rest on the rail. “She was always too forgiving of them.”
The group had come to the village square and the lieutenant climbed the two steps at the base of the Partisans’ Memorial. Turning, he addressed the crowd. Rea could not make out what he was saying, but his arms moved through the air, encompassing the whole of Pelion.
“What can the colonel be thinking, Rea?” came the question from above her. “That we’ll welcome him back with open arms?”
The lieutenant made a last, expansive gesture and a cheer of delight broke from many of the young men and women. Applause followed the lieutenant and his second as they went off with Evander toward Nestor’s tavern.
“He may be thinking just that,” was her answer.
The next day the lieutenant kicked his regs into high gear. They unloaded the shuttle and began a program of beautification that only the military could perform.
The intent, Evander explained to Rea, was to throw a huge party for the whole town – and anyone from out of town who could make it – while holding a smaller, more private gathering for the colonel and his personal invitees at Nestor’s tavern. The stereoscopic intaglios, enlargements from Price-George’s now-famous collection of TD graphics taken during Thessalon’s rebellion, would be on display in the banquet room.
“But why would he want to do this for us?” she asked Evander. “It makes no sense. Why travel all this way, just to give a party for us? And why would he think that we, his former adversaries, would want one?”
Evander could find no answer. “When you put it like that, it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “But how can we refuse him? Especially now that the announcement has been made? You know, Rea, it’s not customary to ask someone if they want a gift.”
“Not a friend, Ev, no. But an old enemy? Him, you might ask.” Evander nodded in thougtful agreement.
“Well, the younger folk would never forgive us were we to refuse,” the mayor continued. “Have you seen the labels on those crates? There are homeworld goods on that shuttle. Plants, seeds, strains we’ve been wanting ever since the war, and there’s even some tech that the lieutenant has told me will stay behind with us. And then there’s all the food for the celebration. Most of the people in this town have never had a taste of Central in their lives. I say we act politely and accept the gift.”
“All right. But don’t be fooled, Evander. You know this man as well as I, probably better. There is another reason behind this visit. Count on it.”
She left Evander’s house and entered the square and the lingering warmth of evening. After a week’s work by the soldiers, banners and festoons ringed the open area, arcs of color stretching from house to house in the warm lamplight. Even the Partisans’ Memorial had been cleaned, polished and ringed by freshly-laid brickwork. Plants, hothouse varieties never seen on Thessalon, had been bedded around the square, exploding with color and fragrance.
New gravel crunched under Rea’s sandals as she approached a bank of purple and white flowers. Bending down, she took in the scent of new soil and sweet blooms. Already Rea could see the toll Pelion’s dry climate had taken on the delicate petals and leaves. We’ll see none of these next month, she thought, though their seeds may be of use. If these plants even have seeds.
Bright light and laughter came from Nestor’s tavern. Rea smiled, hearing Milo, back from a short day’s work in the hills, leading others in one of the old songs from the rebellion. She decided to drop in for a visit before she headed home, and began walking that way.
As she came close to the building, one of the sharp gravel stones came between her foot and her sandal. She winced with pain and bent to remove the stone. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed, in the shadows alongside the tavern, a couple, embracing. The girl was protesting quietly — and none too effectively — the explorations of her male companion. The young woman Rea recognized at once, but the man, tall and dark, was a stranger to her.
“Phillipa,” Rea said quietly, but loud enough to part the couple. The man was tall and well-built and though his face remained in shadow, Rea could see he wore the uniform of a CMF regular. He bowed to Rea with a short, silent greeting. Phillipa, the flush of her cheeks visible despite the gloom of the unlighted alleyway, nodded as well.
“Ma Panapa,” she said softly, formally. Rea felt her anger at the young girl rise. If it had been her parents who discovered her pawing and groping in an alley with their old enemy…. Rea took a breath and let it out slowly, controlling her emotions.
“Your parents will be concerned for you, Phillipa, out alone, with strangers in our midst.” She spoke calmly, but there was a shank of steel in her tone. “Perhaps you should go home and calm their fears?”
Phillipa left the shadows for the light that spilled from Nestor’s. Her blouse was untucked and her hair hung loose about her shoulders. She began to speak, but stopped before the words came out.
“Put yourself together, dear,” Rea advised coldly, “and go home. There is nothing of value to be gained here.”
“Yes,” Phillipa said, embarrassed and, it seemed, ashamed — though ashamed of her behavior or ashamed she had been caught, Rea did not know — and hurried off upslope towards home, her feet playing a sharp staccato along the gravel.
The soldier had not left his spot in the darkened side-street. “I require your name,” Rea informed him, “and then you will return to your ship.”
The man came out from the shadows and stood before the old woman. Not so difficult to understand the girl’s lack of judgement, Rea thought as she looked at him. Handsome, imposing, surrounded by the scent of mystery and off-world cologne, Phillipa had been an easy mark; most of the girls in town would be. His uniform was crisp, unruffled by the encounter in the shadows. If Rea remembered her insignia, his patch showed him an engineer and above his breast pocket was stitched “Emerson.”
“I don’t take orders from old women,” he told her.
“Gavin will be disappointed to hear that, Engineer Emerson,” she said, purposefully referring to Price-George in the familiar. It provoked the desired response from the regular who, a shade paler, bowed and took off downslope.
Rea watched him cross the square and disappear down the street towards the landing meadow. Word would be spread among the regs: Don’t mess with the locals. That satisfied Rea, but it was with a clenched jaw that she continued on up to the tavern.
The singing grew as she approached, voice adding to voice, until the walls fairly shook with it. Rea stood at the open doorway, feeling the stomping and song rise from the large banquet room below, hearing old, familiar voices belt out the old song of pride and protest, one not heard for twenty years, while before her, in the barroom, sullen clumps of CMF soldiers in blue and white glowered into their ale and muttered under their breath. Behind the bar, Nestor was in the process of tapping a new butt of ale, the pounding of his mallet – consciously or not – adding a bass beat to the melody from below.
A soldier cursed Elena the serving girl for her slowness as Rea crossed the barroom and walked behind the counter.
“Nestor,” Rea said, but he did not hear her over the noise. “Nestor!” she said again, louder this time. Nestor looked up with a scowl.
“Sorry, Rea,” he said, hefting the mallet slightly. “I’ve had to close the kitchen for the night. These soldiers eat more than their weight and drink twice that. I’ve run short on supplies and haven’t had time to bring anything up from stores. Sorry.” The song below reached the chorus, complete with its particularly disparaging description of the CMF, and tempers among the soldiers began to flare in response. Rea had to shout to be heard.
“Nestor. This barrel doesn’t smell right. I think it’s gone over.”
“What are you talking about? It’s fine. . . .” Rea jerked her head, indicating the room beyond the bar. One soldier stood, tossing his chair back into the wooden paneling, and shouted above the music at Elena. Rea raised an eyebrow.
“Although,” Nestor went on, “you can never be too sure about the quality of ale in summer.” He smiled slowly, “And it’ll take a day, maybe two, to wrestle a new butt up here.”
“Maybe two,” Rea agreed.
They both stood and Nestor was again assaulted by a barrage of requests for refreshment. Rea sat at an empty table as Nestor shouted his apologies to the soldiers. Chairs and stools scraped against the flooring as the regs stood and made their way, cursing, to the door. Down below, the song reached its final refrain, feet, hands and mugs adding percussion to melody. The song ended, leaving only the sound of laughter and talk from below, the sound of retreating soldiers outside, and a heavy sigh from Nestor as he gratefully placed his elbows on the bar.
Colonel Gavin Price-George arrived on the day of the celebration, his sleek ship sliding silently over the village on its way to the landing field. Setting down, it immediately opened up and discharged its first passengers, not soldiers, not the colonel but, to the surprise of many, four members of the InterNet Press Corps. Helmeted with las-cams and carrying a variety of other equipment, they placed themselves in strategic points around the field and waited for the colonel’s appearance.
The ship’s external speakers crackled and began the traditional anthem of the Central Military Forces. Two soldiers appeared and began down the landing ramp in precise step. Reaching the bottom, they turned and faced one another. At that moment, an officer appeared at the hatch and started down the ramp. All the soldiers present snapped a salute as, after an absence of two dozen years, Colonel Gavin Price-George returned to Pelion.
“But he looks so old,” said Milo, standing next to Rea with his wife.
“Look in a mirror,” Pena advised him.
In truth, he did look old. The years haven’t been kind to him, Rea thought. Much thinner than he had been a quarter century before, with hair gone white and sparse, Price-George tried to look strong and virile by putting a slight swagger in his walk. Instead, it made him look all the more frail.
“He looks ill,” said Nikki from Rea’s other side. Rea looked at her, surprised at the young woman’s tender tone. She had been prepared for an outburst of hatred from the young woman, not an expression of sympathy.
“It happens when you get old,” she said, and saw Nikki’s brow furrow.
Price-George returned the salute of his soldiers and waved to the assemblage. A cheer went up from the military ranks that was echoed half-heartedly by certain townsfolk, mostly the young. At the bottom of the ramp, the colonel met with Evander, shook the mayor’s hand and the hand of each of his entourage in turn. Four views of the scene were captured and ethered toward Central by the press cameras.
“Damn that Ev,” Nikki muttered, turning away from the scene, her voice a conflict of emotions. “How can he bear that man to touch him?” Rea could see the young woman was on the edge of tears. “Ev has sold his principles for a few pieces of tech. He’s gotten fat and lazy.”
“That happens, too, Nikki.”
The colonel and his aides started upslope with the mayor and his attendants. The press reporters sluiced through the crowd like water, transmitting everything they saw and heard to the ‘Net. The colonel and the mayor chatted, presumably about the past two weeks, and smiled pleasantly for the cameras. Many of the younger folk and children began up the hill ahead of them, anxious and excited about the coming evening. As Price-George passed them, Rea felt Nikki tense. Without warning, Nikki stooped, picked up a handful of gravel and hurled it. The small stones struck the colonel, the mayor and several other bystanders. Voices cried out in surprise and several soldiers immediately ringed the colonel.
“Go home, you bloody bastard!” Nikki yelled, stepping forward. “Get the hell out of here, you murderer!” Murmurs rose from the crowd and Nikki bent to scoop another handful of gravel. Two of the regs moved in to grab her, shoving aside a presswoman on their way, but were stopped by a word from Price-George.
The colonel stood in the street, his aide whispering into his ear. As he listened, realization dawned, and the fury that boiled behind his eyes abated. His lips formed a word. “Nikki?” he said, and seemed to soften, becoming less brittle than he had been a moment before.
Nikki stood before him in silent fury, her face slick with tears. Without another word, the colonel gave her a slow, respectful bow and, in precise Pelion fashion, retreated a step before continuing on his way. Murmers of astonishment rose from those nearby.
Rea came up behind Nikki and put a hand on her upraised arm, coaxing it down to her side. Gravel pattered to the ground and Nikki turned away from the street, burying her face in Rea’s shoulder, weeping.
One ‘Net reporter approached the women. “Who are you?” she started. “What did you mean by ‘murderer,’?” She was met by Milo, grim-faced, his outstretched arm barring her way. “Hey! I’m the Press! Let me by!” she said, but Milo shook his head and silently propelled the presswoman firmly toward the square.
Neighbors and friends passed by, saying little, occasionally reaching out to touch Nikki’s shoulder and bestow a kind word of understanding.
“I know, dear,” Rea clucked. “You’re not alone. We all remember our losses, deeply.” Rea looked up the street after Price-George and caught him looking back toward them. Saying something to his aide, he turned and walked around the corner.
Later, when the sun was setting, the regs went down to the colonel’s ship and began bringing a number of wrapped packages up to Nestor’s. Rea sat on the balcony at Nikki’s, watching the procession.
“They’re bringing in the intaglios,” she said. Nikki, who had just joined her, nodded.
“I wonder if any of them are pictures of Mama.”
“I’d say so,” Rea predicted. “It would be most unlike a soldier not to take a picture of a woman as pretty as your mother was.” Nikki smiled at that, but said nothing. “You should be prepared for some sadness at seeing her picture. Evander says that looking at one of those intaglios is like looking through a window. He says it looks like you can reach right in and grab the people in the picture, it seems so real.”
“I won’t be going tonight,” Nikki announced. “I couldn’t bear to be in the same room with that man.”
“Oh, you’ll be there, Nikki. If only to prove that you are indeed your mother’s daughter.” Nikki gave her a quizzical look. “Your mother was quite a fighter, you know. She never backed down from a good scrapping, especially when she felt she was right.
“Oh, yes. You’ll be there.”
By the time Rea arrived at the door to Nestor’s, music played over loudspeakers and the square was filled with dancing, eating and drinking. Long tables laden with odd and exotic foods lined one side of the square, and each item was being served by a reg who also gave a description of the item, its world of origin, and a brief history of its cultivation. Adjacent to the row of tables were a variety of beverages and spirits, also available with explanations supplied by the regs. Dancers occupied the center of the square and all the benches were filled. Many people from nearby villages had come to enjoy Pelion’s sudden boon.
At the door to Nestor’s, Rea was met by two regs wearing dress uniforms, who asked after her invitation. She showed it to them. “Welcome, Ma Panapa,” one of them said, and they ushered her in with a short bow. How well they pick up our customs, she thought. I wonder if it’s by order or by courtesy.
Inside, the place seemed empty and barren. The only person in the upper room was Elena, who was frantically filling pitchers with red and green effervescent wines for the room downstairs. “It’s so quiet down there, Elena. Is there no one else here?”
“Oh, no, Ma Panapa. You’re almost the last one. You can’t tell by the quiet, but they’re drinking enough, all right. They’re just not a cheerful group. I think it’s the Colonel’s pictures. Some of them are awfully gloomy.”
Rea went down.
At the foot of the stairs, she looked around the room, and was immediately besieged by all of the faces before her. Faces, young and old, in black-and-white and in color; faces looking out from the eerie windows of the intaglio portraits that hung around the room and the faces that looked up from somber conversation, older versions of those on the wall.
Short bows of greeting came from all sides and, “Evening, Rea,” said a few. Behind her, Elena urged her on.
“Go on in, Ma Panapa. I’ll get you a glass of wine.”
Rea went on into the room and took one of the green, fish- rippled goblets from Elena. She sipped at the bubbly wine, its blue-green froth clinging to the inner texture of the goblet’s indentations, and looked at the intaglio before her.
Surrounded by a simple frame of black metal, Rea was startled by the illusion of depth, of frozen reality. The periphery of the intaglio grew as she stepped forward.
Within it, a youthful Evander, a curse frozen on his lips, an expression of agony on his face, was being held back by an older man, his father. The object of his fury, a CMF shock- trooper – armed and armored – stood before him, his back to the portrait’s “window”. One of Ev’s hands was balled into a fist, the other pointed accusingly down to one side where lay a young woman. You could not tell by the picture whether or not the girl was dead, but Rea knew that she was, and that she had been Evander’s wife. Rea’s throat constricted about the wine she had sipped and her hand gripped the goblet tightly.
She looked about the room for Ev, and found him over by a street-level window, looking out on the party up in the square. Girls the age of the girl in the picture danced joyously with men the age of the young Evander, and Rea knew that Evander was not really here, in this room, in this time, but back in a long ago age when his heart was still whole.
She turned back to the intaglios, viewing each briefly so as not to be caught up by their spell. Some showed cheerful scenes of daily life amid the ruins of their town; others, like the first, were laden with tragedy and emotion, and she moved on quickly. When she came to one of the larger ones, however, she stopped, and smiled a small, loving smile.
A woman and a girl, each dressed in their finest hand- embroidered blouses and colorful skirts, were before the charred columns of the old church on the hill, the church that had been burned down in the last year of rebellion when it was discovered to be a caching place for the partisans. The woman held the toddler lightly on her hip, the girl’s arms around her mother’s neck. Both were smiling.
“You were right,” said Nikki, having appeared at Rea’s side. “She was very pretty. I often thought it was just because she was my mother that I remembered her so, but I see now that she truly was.”
“As are you, Nikki. Today you are this woman’s twin,” Rea said, indicating the woman in the intaglio.
“I was so young,” the Nikkia sighed. “I remember so little about the war; only that it wounded her, and eventually took her.” A cloud of sadness crossed her face, wrinkling her seamless brow. “I don’t even remember Gavin taking this picture.”
Calls to attention from upstairs announced the arrival of the colonel. Heavy boots came down, ushering in the lieutenant and one of the colonel’s aides. Behind them came Gavin Price-George, flushed with exertion and obviously pleased with himself. Only silence greeted him.
“I’ve just been spending some time out with the youngsters.” He wiped at the sheen of sweat on his brow. “I’m afraid my dancing days are coming to an end.” A few chuckles followed his remark, but sullenness prevailed. Price-George looked down from the stony faces to his hands clasped firmly before him. He drew a breath and looked up once more.
“Please,” he began again, and Rea heard the sincerity in his voice. “I have prepared this celebration to show to you people my appreciation. . . and my respect. I learned much while in your company, and there is much I wish to make up to you. . . .”
“You’ve a lot to make up for, Price-George,” said a voice from the back of the room, and Evander turned from his place by the window. He faced the colonel, his visage a wound of renewed grief. “Just tell me why I should believe a word you say.”
Price-George met the mayor’s gaze. “Because I’ve never lied to you, Evander. Not then. Not now.
“You people,” he said to the room. “Your life, your spirit – you touched me, deeply. I hated leaving this place.” He looked at the intaglios around the room. “I came away from here with my own sorrows.
“But I do not want to dwell upon the past.” He straightened, motioned to Elena for a goblet and then turned to his aide, who handed the colonel a piece of paper.
“Rather, I toast the hope of a better future for you, your village, and for all of Thessalon itself.” He unfolded the paper and showed it to the room. Rea could not read the small words written on it, but saw clearly the large blue seal of Central’s Executive Committee and the several signatures at the bottom.
“I have arranged to have the punitive trade restrictions that have for so long been levied against Thessalon, lifted. Soon, free traders will replace the military transports, and tech and goods from all the known worlds will find their way to your markets.” He took the goblet of wine from Elena and raised it to the crowded room.
“To Pelion, the heart of Thessalon, and to its future.” A few voices gave assent to this ideal, and goblets were raised here and there to honor it, though not all.
“You fool,” came a growling voice at Rea’s side and Nikki stepped forward to challenge him. “You’re insane. Do you think you can return like a hero. Do you think you can buy our favor? You say you don’t want to dwell on the past? What about these pictures of yours?” Her arm swept wide to take in the monochrome visages along the walls. “They’re a glorification of the past!
“We’ve lived without you and your ‘known worlds’ for twenty-five years and we’ve built a fine, respectable society out of the ruins after you left us. Left my mother. Left me!” She whirled on the room and on Elena who had not yet retreated to the serving table. Nikki grabbed a fresh goblet of wine from off Elena’s tray and raised it to the room.
“To a Free Thessalon, as you rebels dreamed it, as you fought to make it, as it will be!” Old voices cried out, empassioned by Nikki’s fire. Goblets were drained and slammed to tabletops around the room. Nikki spun back to face the colonel. “Go home, Colonel Gavin Price-George. Do what you must to assuage your guilty conscience, but don’t afflict us with your presence in the process.
“We don’t need you here,” she said, raising her cup to her lips. In a sudden move, she threw the contents of the glass at him. Blood-red wine splashed across his uniform and medals. “And I don’t want you here.”
Goblet still in hand, she shouldered the aide out of the way and climbed the stairs at a run. From upstairs came the sound of breaking glass and the slamming of the door. Silence reigned below.
Rea looked into Price-George’s face. His eyes were far away, his jaw slack. His brow knit together in a sad questioning of what had gone wrong.
“Colonel?” whispered the aide. “Colonel?”
Price-George’s eyes closed tightly for a moment and he clenched his jaw. Slowly, he moved over to a vacant table, the two officers behind him, and seated himself. Beckoning Elena over to him, he asked for a pitcher of wine, which she brought. The aide spoke again, asking, “Colonel, is there anything we can do?”
“Leave me,” he requested. “Wait outside.” Saluting as one, they left the lower room and went up and out onto the street. Rea watched the colonel pour himself a goblet of wine and drink it down swiftly, then pour himself another. From within his breast pocket he withdrew a small scrap of parchment, daubed at the crimson drops of Nikki’s wine that still clung to it and gazed at it a long while.
Others around the room began talking softly amongst themselves, and Milo, well into his cups by this time, began to sing a drinking song. Soon, the room was bursting with sound and, by the time the chorus came around, all but two sang along.
Gavin Price-George drained the last of the pitcher into his glass and drank it down. Standing, he dropped the piece of paper he had been holding onto the table, straightened his stained uniform, and headed for the stairs. He stopped abruptly upon seeing Rea before him, standing to one side of the staircase. He looked at her silently for a moment, and Rea recognized within him a deep, regretful pain. Slowly, almost reluctantly, Rea found herself understanding this man.
“You did not expect forgiveness from us, did you, Gavin Price- George?”
“No,” he replied. “Not forgiveness, no.”
“What did you expect to find here then, I wonder?”
Price-George’s gaze slipped over to the intaglio of Nikki and her mother before the church.
“A young man’s dream, Ma Panapa. And, perhaps, an old man’s future.” He left then, his feet scuffing each step as if they were leaden and numb.
Rea walked over to the colonel’s table and picked up the piece of paper. It was an old photo, worn and frail. Young Nikki and her mother smiled out from beyond the decades, dressed in their embroidered best. On the back were a few words: To Gavin, with our love.
Tears filled Rea’s eyes as all the pieces of the puzzle that was Price-George’s presence on Pelion fell into place. Oh, Nikki, she thought. No wonder your hate ran so deep. She sat down, still gazing at the small photo and feeling suddenly tired. Tired of the ruined lives, of the sundered hearts.
He has been too long a soldier, she thought. Too used to plans within plans, too unused to dealing with individuals. She looked again at the beautiful and poignant intaglios around her, and knew that they and his book had little to do with the colonel’s real desires. All the preparations, all the speeches, all the gifts bestowed upon Pelion by a grateful and admiring Colonel Price-George had nothing to do with the heart of his mission here.
Near dawn, Rea placed the old photo on the table and slowly rose from her seat. She moved across the room, righting a spilled goblet on her way, and gave old Milo a gentle nudge, followed by another, less gentle. Milo’s snore broke off and he opened his bleary eyes.
“Pena?” he asked.
“No,” she answered. “But it is time you went to her. Go home, Milo. Everyone has been gone for some time now.”
Milo sat up and supported his head with both hands. “What happened? I don’t remember.”
“You’ll hear about it all later. Come on.” Rea helped him to his feet and steadied him on his way across the room. At the stairs she placed his hand on the rail. Milo turned to her and smiled his thanks. Slowly, he made his way up the stairs to the door, humming a tune as he climbed.
She went to the table and picked up the photo again. The faces on it were worn and faded with years of handling, but still quite recognizable. A roll of thunder brought her attention to the window. The bleat of a lost sheep wafted across the square and the room darkened as the rising sun disappeared behind a bank of clouds. Rea felt another tear slip down her cheek.
“Damn you, Gavin,” she said to the room, to the pictures, to the lowering sky. “How many times must you vanquish us?”
Without stopping to reconsider, Rea gathered up her shawl and climbed the stairs. Letting herself out into the square, she felt the coming of a summer shower and smelled the odor of wet dust as the first few drops struck the ground. Her footsteps echoed loudly in the paper-strewn square as she walked downslope.
She arrived at the perimeter of the landing area and brought her shawl over her head to keep off some of the rain. A soldier met her as she approached the sleek trans-light ship. She looked up into his face, blinking away the rain.
“Engineer Emerson,” she said. “I wish to see Gavin Price-George.”
Gavin appeared at the top of the ramp. He walked slowly, without attempting to hide his age and pain, and met Rea. She could see that he, too, had not slept.
“What is it, Ma Panapa?” he asked her.
“You are an old fool, Gavin Price-George,” she said, and his gaze snapped up to meet hers, anger flaring. She held the photo out for him. “And in your lifetime, you have made many mistakes.” Gavin took the photo from her hand and placed it in his breast pocket.
“We cannot change our past, Gavin. But we can influence our future.” She met his gaze squarely, and saw not an old enemy, but a grieving father. “Your daughter loves you, else her hate would not be so strong. You abandoned her after the war. Do not expect that wound to be healed so quickly.
Gavin nodded, understanding. “Thank you, Ma Panapa.”
Rea gave a small bow of departure. Hopeful, she turned and went back up the hill towards her home.