The Galra hung the festival lights from the black flower vines so that the garden was if illuminated by the bitter-scented blooms. He mentioned the flowers. Alfor's second spouse Coran enjoyed flowers.
Honerva said, "But how are the lights powered? I assume with a battery source but wouldn't that put too much strain on the vine?"
Zarkon had meant to speak of the flowers then in her Altean distraction with something decorative, flee. Instead he said, "The vines are very strong. We use them as cabling for our surface craft."
"How creative! And so you use a traditional battery source?" She reached to cup one of the bell-shaped lights in her strange, thin hands. The light spilt gold between her fingers. The knuckles, limned.
"I wouldn't know," he said. "I am a soldier. Not an engineer."
Honerva laughed. It made her teeth show. She said, "And I'm not a horticulturist." She gave the light another gentle tug then let it go. "What is the festival for?"
To this, he warmed.
"This is our oldest festival. It commemorates the execution of the Frail King, who drove the people of Daibazaal to devastation. The mountain clans banded together to overthrow him. His death was gruesome." Proudly he stamped a fist to his breast. "I myself am descent of Mikrath, first of the clans."
"Ah," she said, "who took over from the Frail King?"
"No, that was Throkak. The clan of the north. Mikrath is clan of the south, where Daibazaal is harshest. It was many wars before Mikrath broke the clans and made an empire of them."
"So your people have always celebrated war."
They walked together through the garden as they talked, Honerva with her hair falling from its loose bun. The lights as they swayed in the hot nightly breezes seemed to make electric lines of straying hairs.
"It must seem barbaric to you," said Zarkon. "Alfor has told me many times of Altea's prosperity through peace."
She made a clinical noise, somewhere low in her throat. It was so like a throat click that he looked twice at her in surprise.
"We had our wars too," she said. "Many of our greatest early achievements were made through war. Most of our wars were over the gods, though. Who was worshipping the right god. Who made the largest sacrifice. Now we settle our arguments with proof."
He chuckled. Honerva looked at him and smiled, and Zarkon realized they were walking so closely together that her skinny shoulder brushed against his own bared arm.
He stepped more quickly. She lingered behind him.
"We fight for different purposes," he said. It was easier to speak of war than to speak of whatever it was about her that so unsettled him. "To Galra, it is only through a true and honorable contest that we may learn our mettle."
"That would be why your ships are so slow."
"Ha! Speed cannot win a fight."
"No," she said, "but it could get you to the fight faster."
Something in her tone made him think that she teased him and so he turned only to see that she, too, had turned, to the fountain that spat out the sweet water. Her hand was stretched out. He looked at it in suspicion.
"Come on," she said, "I want to look at this. Aren't you supposed to show me around? Does the fountain commemorate the gushing of the deposed king's blood?"
Her hand was so small, the fingers so spindly and long. Very easily he could crush that hand. He could do it with a thumb and one finger. Only an Altean could offer a hand so freely.
I should go, he thought.
A servant will guide you, he thought.
It is not your place to command an emperor's touch, he thought.
Zarkon took her hand with two fingers. Her fingers curled about his as though she had known he would accept.
"The fountain," he said, "is to provide water that is sweet, to drink."
"With your hands cupped together?" She glanced back at him. She looked delighted at the thought.
"No," he said as sternly as he might. "You lean forward and put your face into it."
Honerva laughed madly. Her lips, very thin, peeled back from her teeth. The red markings at the corners of her eyes, high on her cheeks creased. A hank of hair encircled the elongated lobe of one sharp-knifed ear. Everything of her was alien.
She talked of her hopes re: the rift. The practical applications of what appeared to be an inexhaustible energy source!
"We could finally make our ships go faster."
"Alfor never told me you had a sense of humor."
"I didn't take Alfor for a gossip." He said this because it flustered him suddenly to think that Alfor had spoken of Zarkon to Honerva.
"Then you can't know Alfor as well as I thought you did. The samples are already so promising. Of course right now the problem we're having is how to actually test them, as even a melli-po overwhelms the sensors."
The night darkened. They continued to wander. Twice he considered taking his leave. She had let go of his hand to gesture demonstratively. He could smell the salt of her sweat, a fragrance off-putting, as Galra did not sweat; and yet he could also smell the sugar-sweetness of the oil in her hair on his tongue.
"Do you mean to stay here long?" he asked abruptly.
She looked squintingly at him, her gold-yellow eyes creased up. "Of course. You don't mean to take this possible breakthrough away from me. Because if you want a war then I'll gladly bring one to you."
"No. It was-- Your quarters are to your liking. We do not design our buildings to Altean comforts."
"Oh, please," she said, "you worry too much. And besides, I sleep in the lab if I can. Haven't you ever slept in a field?"
"I prefer a bed," he said.
"Ah! So I'm the barbarian after all."
She was easier to talk to than he had thought. He'd thought her intimidating on first introduction; scientists with their bright faces and many questions unnerved him. And Honerva had stood so very close to him, her narrow-chinned brown face turned up to Zarkon with a sort of eagerness that had made him long to beat someone into a pulp.
They didn't kiss that night, nor the next night, not for hundreds of nights. The festival came again. Many festivals came. The memory of her laughing face stuck with him. Her bony hand grasping his two fingers, that as well.
There were lights the night that he did kiss her, great fires lit to celebrate the thousand year purge. They painted red lines across her fine-boned face, mean red lines like blood from those honey-sweet eyes. How soft her lips. How warm her mouth. The delicate pricking of each nail at his nape. Ah! that was a war of its own. He was glad to wage it. She was cunning, Honerva, and as quick with mind as tongue; and it was a strategic thing as well. Sooner or later, Altea would call Honerva back, and Zarkon did not mean to lose so precious a resource.
He thought this once or twice but he knew that it was love. How peculiar, how mad, how delicious: to feel such tremendous softness. He would keep her, the laugh of her, the hand of her, the lines and sweet oils and golden eyes. Honerva of Altea who wore fine beads in her pale hair and a veil of white lace the day that he wed her.
Yes, he would keep her; and he did keep her; and he kept her, Haggar the witch, Haggar the mother of his heir, Haggar who wore her dark hood as if to hide the red lines that marked her face. Haggar with her thin hands, the fingers like the fine legs of spiders.
Somewhere he remembered her. Laughing. Trickling her fingers through the sweet water of the fountain. Her teasing. My Emperor, her lips against his jagged mouth. Yes. Her Emperor. Ever her emperor. A king of kings, strong enough to keep a witch. And the people feared him, and they gave their offerings to him, this king of the southern clan, this king so great that he kept a witch of the stars as a lesser king might keep a wife.
And so he was god, and he was god first to Haggar, and god then to the lesser things, but it was the witch whose worship gave him life undying, and it was her emperor that was god who gave her stars upon which she might do her worship, and through this then did god make war and did the lesser things know the face of god, their emperor, who was war.
And it was the witch who called him out of death again, and she did not call him My Emperor but My Husband, and this god who was Her Husband opened his eyes. So mighty was their love that they should be reborn again, till the witch had ate the last of the stars. And in the blackness he would keep her so that they were god together and no thing might ever claim her.
This was the will of Zarkon.