Jark was ready for yet another ball and just as her hostess stated; it had to be oh-so-perfectly uneventful. Dzent’a women strongly disliked surprises – which she was repeatedly told by all of her female mentors. In the halls of study, where she honed her skill from an early age and now, long after the day of her acceptance into the celebrated ranks of womanhood, Jark finally understood why it was that they always said so. Nobody wanted to live through what she had suffered! Year after year, she tried to reel in one or another young noble with no success whatsoever. Despite her stellar looks, her great skill in seduction, misdirection and manipulation, she “bumped” into that special, oddly resistant noble – every single time. Instead of living happily married as a head of a noble house, she was still single. Ten planetary rotations after she tried and failed for the first time, Lady Jark decided that it was high time for her to entertain a most horrid notion. Despite what her chaperones had assured her of multiple times, she now suspected that something was wrong and not with her male targets but… her. After wasting so many of her best years on the dance floor, Lady Jark noticed that all of those young noblemen she courted had a certain look in their eyes, the look of a trapped animal. The previous rotation was especially bad; she had to basically stalk seven different young men, who ran away from her like she had the Siltoran Nasal plague! At first, the noble lady thought that perhaps, it was her hairdo and wasted quite a lot of dekats on new and even more elaborate styles. Each was uniquely designed by her and she had the huge advantage to attend a social event (once) and not have the same hairdo like the rest noble ladies. Her long, platinum colored hair caught all looks and not once but many evenings in a row. That alone should’ve been more than enough for Jark to score any of her marks, alas, just like before she again was unsuccessful. Then, she focused all of her attention on her wardrobe. Jark was tall for a dzenta’rii but not that tall as to look intimidating and her body well sculpted by many years spent training on the dueling ring. As always, she had the advantage in this department too and many a noble lady cursed Jark’s beauty, watching her dance from the sides. Even her face was perfectly proportioned; with high, well pronounced cheekbones, snub nose and round eyes, all much loved and sought after genetic traits among all Dzent’a noble Houses. Her House’s lineage could be traced back to hallowed antiquity, for that attested Jark’s slightly elongated skull and pointy ears. If that wasn’t enough to make her stand out more, there was yet another unique facial feature of hers – she had been gifted the rare yellow colored eyes by her ancestry. Hauntingly beautiful, Jark needed no corrective genetic surgery, no retinal implants, nor ear extensions. The young woman looked like a queen, moved with the grace of a seasoned duelist and her every move commanded attention. That made each and every single failure of hers much more painful, had she been a dzenta’rii noble lady of average stock.
Defiant, the young woman spent hundreds of her hard earned dekats on brand new gowns, shoes and other fashion accessories. Each time she attended a new ball, Jark looked more and more extravagant, her looks immaculate, dressed in what could only be called “the fashionistas’ dying scream”. Nothing worked; none of her charms, those who her teachers swore that were impossible to fail and land her the best catch, everything failed. Moreover, Jark became aware that the number of young men in attendance dropped sharply since the previous planetary rotation. While the rest of her peers formed new cliques and even entertained hiring telepaths who’d brain wipe one or another unmarried noble, Jark, devastated after her last failure, rushed back home. Her original intention was to mope around, eat a couple of flans or shoot some holo-targets at the training range but instead she almost crushed her shuttle into that of the young noble she’d courted earlier. Such was her emotional distress, that instead of waiting in line for her turn to join the air traffic, Jark forced her craft’s engines and almost crashed. Obviously the safeties of her ship would have prevented her from suffering any serious injury, but the damage to her shuttle would’ve been considerable. Though, despite her panic and pilot error, no accident occurred; the noble evaded her clumsily flying craft with the same grace she moved on the dance floor and then disappeared into the traffic. With a shaky hand Jark activated her craft’s autopilot and spent the remaining flight in a mild state of shock, watching the holo-record of that near-accident again and again. She continued doing so long after her shuttle had landed on her shuttle pad. Flabbergasted, the noble lady dragged her feet over the carpeted floors of her empty summer mansion and then fell in her bed while still dressed. Tears running and teeth gritting, Jark decided that she owed the nobleman an excuse – after all she could’ve ruined his ship. Moreover, she could use this opportunity and try her luck one more time. Reaching over to her PDA, the woman suddenly remembered that she failed to get his link! That little thing, the fact that she was unable to even procure the man’s G-net link struck her even harder than him rebuking her advances. She stood up and after kicking off her dancing shoes, reached into her weapons drawer. The first gun she snatched was a heavy hand stunner and the noble lady switched its safety off by habit. Jark was fuming and after ten full planetary rotations of constant refusal, ready to snap – she’ll have an answer. Not tomorrow or the day after, but today! Even if she had to duel that noble, Jark would make him tell her why she was denied this evening. Changing into a dueling garb and with a broad energy dagger on her belt, Jark ran outside in the rain. Jumping into the cockpit of her shuttle, her left hand still clutching the stunner she’d grabbed from the weapons drawer earlier, Lady Lastrie Jark hastily punched the controls. Her sports shuttle roared up, engines leaving a hot trail of ionize plasma behind which soon dissipated in the raging rainstorm.
Midflight Jark realized that she had no address to fly over and instead, still fuming with rage, navigated her ship back to the dancing hall. By that time almost all of the nobles present were long gone, only the serving staff and few stragglers remained. The androids outright refused to talk; even if any of them knew who exactly this noble was and his address, they’d never willingly part with that information. Nobody was that stupid as to force a cyber-sentient in service of another to betray their employer’s trust and so she… begged. After an hour of humiliation, one android (probably out of pity) gave her the young nobleman’s link. She called a couple of times but nobody answered and almost without thinking, Jark breached its security protocols using her shuttle’s mainframe. The noble lady was ready to pay the fine for her minor cyber-crime of spoofing through the local G-net node using somebody’s link to locate their place of residence. She was in a state she had never been before – the woman no longer cared about what would happen after her brazen stunt. Jark landed her shuttle on the nobleman’s mansion at midnight and talked her way through his android butler, who, after listening to her angry tirade was forced to contact and wake up his employer. Now, already deep into the mansion’s interior, Jark realized that she was still holding the stunner in her hand, at the ready. Chills crawled down her spine as she remembered that the androids, all androids she’d met this late evening, probably saw her as a threat. She found time to holster the weapon before her guide led her into the nobleman’s study – cyber sentients were highly susceptible to stunner fire and while biologicals would be simply stunned, their positronic brains could suffer irreparable damage. Entering the spacious hall, Jark saw the young man standing at the center of the dueling ring, with a perplexed look on his face. He bowed, slightly, even though she ignored the etiquette, broke at least two separate laws and greeted her with a sad smile. Somehow that enraged her even more and Jark stood before him, breaching the norm for personal space between unmarried dzenta’rii, hands on her weapons. Before she could say anything though, the man spoke:
“What is the purpose of this… intrusion, Lady? I clearly remember rebuking your advances and us parting ways on the dance floor, by use of proper etiquette. Have I, by any chance invoked your ire? By the spirit of my ancestors, I swear, I have done nothing to earn this!”
“I want to know why it was that you denied me!” – Lady Jark’s anger once more pushed her to use uncivilized language.
“You know that etiquette gives us both the same option – ultimately no answer is required. No means no, it is not maybe and never yes.”
“Then I will make you tell me!” – Shouted the noble lady and brandished her energy blade. She quickly took a basic combat stance and moved against the unarmed young man. There was the same look in his eyes, which almost dissuaded her from her current course of action, almost. Indeed, there were two Jarks shouting at each other in her mind now – one claimed that she was owed an explanation, the other stood perplexed, watching the man’s strange, sad reaction. The lady at least had some sense left and observed the dueling rules; she waited the nobleman’s android to bring him a weapon. In her confused both by the flow of adrenaline and anger mind, Jark had formulated the most basic of plans. She’d somehow best the noble and then, using the dueling rules, ask him the question again – he had to answer or lose a lot of his family’s honor. Jark didn’t even entertain the notion she’d lose…
Both stepped closer and while the nobleman held one hand behind his back, dagger arm extended forward, Jark assumed an attack posture. The rules dictated both opponents use the same weapons, therefore none held an advantage provided by the length of their blade. She considered herself the best duelist among her peers and with confidence, Jark launched her first attack. That was, also, to be her last, because the man swung his own weapon countering her strike with such strength that, not only he blocked her dagger, but violently twisted her wrist. Screaming and in a lot of pain, Jark was forced to drop her weapon on the ground. In her hubris, she completely forgot one crucial detail; yes, she was the very best, most powerful and skilled duelist among her peers. No other woman on this entire planet could ever match her speed, skillful moves or block her masterful strikes and she dominated the dueling ring. This time, however, Jark was fighting against a man and men were physically stronger than women. That was true for almost all mammalian sentients, only the vile Vaugn Matriarchs boasted strength and reaction on par with their males. Moreover, Jark forgot to ask the man of his House’s name, which was not only extremely rude, it was borderline foolish. What if, (that was apparently the case) he hailed from a house of skilled duelists? In her rage, Jark forgot to run a search of his family name on the local G-net node, even after committing the cyber-crime!
“Why?” – With tears in her eyes, still mad angry Jark screamed at him from the ground, wrist already swollen. Sighing heavily, the nobleman deactivated his energy blade and called for the android, which, anticipating that either of them could get hurt walked into the dueling circle carrying a medical bag.
“Even though I do not owe you anything, still, I will tell you. Your peers walk like they own us, their every action and every word is measured to manipulate us. You, being the best among them both by beauty and skill, you are even worse! Despite being a dzenta’rii princess, you carry yourself like a Vaugn Matriarch on a slave market, who is picking up her next shipment of flesh.”
Mouth agape, Jark listened to what the young nobleman was saying, her mind still unable to fully comprehend his words. His android administered a small dose of medigel, instantly healing her twisted wrist, and while she picked herself up from the floor, the noble lady threw another one of her skilled, manipulative looks. Even in defeat, the assumption that her skill simply had to work pushed her to try once more. Jark’s attempt was rebuked again and the noblemen’s sad eyes almost pierced her very soul. With a sigh, the man pointed at the nearest exit and before she walked out of his mansion, he added:
“Know that I liked you, lady. I attended the ball just to meet and speak with you exclusively, even entertained the notion that you are not like the rest of your peers. What did you do? You, just as any other predatory noblewoman, tried to break my will, seduce and manipulate me into obedience. Please, leave my home and never come back, lady!”
The nobleman turned his back at her and while she dragged her feet out of his mansion escorted by his android butler, Jark’s stunned mind was still unable to process most of what he told her. Even after she’d returned to her home, the noblewoman stood dressed in her dueling garb, weapons at hand and her gaze vacant. There she remained until morning came and her android butler found her, eyes swollen by tears and lack of sleep.
Took her a full month to recover and visit another ball. This time, however, wine tasted sour, dance was boring and all around her Jark came to notice a disturbing change. The ball room was almost devoid of men. Indeed there were older, married men, who followed in their wives’ steps like shackled beasts – their words measured, voice subservient and eyes hollow. Her now confused and angered peers were conversing about hiring mercenaries to track down and bring back those uppity, runaway young nobles. How dare they not dzenta’rii up and marry them?! Didn’t they know that it was the right thing to do? They were supposed to accept their advances, it was all natural and in fact that was what all of their mentors had assured them of! Everything swirled and bent around her like a kaleidoscope of tortured, sad faces and she was hit by the full weight of that nobleman’s final words. Feet wobbly, Jark retreated into a forgotten corner, where old, wifeless nobles mingled, ignored by everyone. One of them, after noticing her grim, fatalistic facial expression, smiled and then almost whispered; as if he was afraid that someone could hear and reprimand him:
“Lady, you can see it too? That is most unfortunate for one as beautiful such as you. It has been the same dance and the same tune since ages past, boring, enslaving us both to this charade. Accept this and learn how to live with it! There is no chance that you could ever change the long since accepted order of things, Lady. Our once great people are dying, smothered by mediocrity – every day is the same and rotting corpses dressed in moldy gowns are still dancing on the floor. Nobody dares even entertain the notion of telling us that we are long dead and belong to the worms.”
“Sir, do you know where have all the young dzenta’rii men gone?”
“I am too old and weak, unimportant so that anyone would confide with me these days. Although, from what I’ve seen you are left with the sorriest sods since the best are gone, forever out of your reach.” – The noble smiled mysteriously and then added – “If you remain the way you are now, that is.”
He excused himself and left Lady Jark alone with her thoughts.
The very next evening, while her peers stood perplexed and pondered her absence, Lady Jark’s newly purchased heavily-armed interceptor was nearing the closest wormhole. In stark contrast with them, she, instead of plotting and complaining would rather do something about it. The noble lady would search for those missing young men; she’d find where they have gone and, perhaps in the process, earn the right of their company. One thought had crystallized in her mind after much deliberation – Those who fail to adapt, lose.
Lady Lastrie Jark was prepared to sacrifice much, even her pride, in order to win!
This is a short story part of my post about your favorite Starshatter character token giveaway, which ran last month. As promised, you have your character @bobdub!
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You can read the continuation of this story here!