In the Shadow of Heaven

by

javert

Chapter Fifteen - A Simple Prayer of Delicate Design

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A Simple Prayer of Delicate Design

“In the beginning of all things, there was only light. And the light was without form, without name, without comprehension. God’s hand moved through the light and formed within it the darkness, so that the light might have a form, a name, and an understanding.”

-from ‘First Song: Creation’

aymon header

Aymon's day had improved immensely since the afternoon. He had spent most of the day feeling vaguely off center, but he was more relaxed now. He knew exactly why he had been feeling off, and what the solution was. It had been... disconcerting, not having Halen by his side during the work day. Of course, Halen wasn't with him one hundred percent of every day, but he was there most days, most of the time. And now, thinking about the plan to let Halen teach his apprentices self defense skills, Aymon wasn't thrilled about his right hand man being gone for so long.

But he was here now, and Aymon was sitting on the couch next to him. Close, but not too close. Comfortable, but not too comfortable.

His apprentices were looking at him with various degrees of discomfort. Yan, sitting directly across from him, looked like the information that he had just provided had gone in one ear, crashed through several major brain centers, and left out the other side. Sid looked, well, he had that infuriating grin on his face, but he looked as though he wanted nothing more to jump out of his seat and investigate for himself. Kino looked resigned.

Yan took a sip of water, and then started choking on it. Aymon raised his eyebrows at her.

"I'm good," she managed.

"Are you going to give us any more information than that?" Kino asked.

"What do you want to know?" Aymon asked. Aymon couldn't really remember what his own reaction had been like when he first learned about the war. He had vaguely considered the Fleet as an exploratory force: responsible for finding new planets and terraforming them for human habitation. That was partially true, but he had learned the truth from his own mentor, Caron Herrault in a conversation not too dissimilar from this one. That had been a long time ago, back when he was an apprentice. There were so many things, Aymon thought, that were shocking to learn about, but later became embedded so deeply into day to day work that they hardly seemed out of the ordinary at all.

All three of the apprentices blurted out their questions at once.

"Who is the war against?" Yan asked.

"How come I've never heard of this before?" That was Sid.

"Since when?" Kino asked

"One at a time," Halen grumbled, picking up Aymon's water bottle from the table and taking a sip from it. "You were going to find out all of this eventually."

"Shouldn't this have been, maybe, the first thing you told us?" Sid asked.

"If we had told you before dinner, I guarantee you would have spent all dinner thinking about it, instead of what you were supposed to be doing," Halen said. "As it is, I'm sure you'll all be completely useless tomorrow."

"To answer your questions, we're fighting what I would describe as the remnants of the force that shaped the Empire as you know it. As for why you don't know about it, it's clearly a secret, because knowledge of it has the potential to cause mass instability. And it's been going on, oh, on and off since before the Empire was founded."

"Oh," Yan said.

"How in God's name do you keep a hundreds of years long war being fought by millions of soldiers a secret?" Sid asked.

"Don't ask questions you aren't ready to learn the answers to," Halen said.

"Don't scare the children, Halen," Aymon said lightly. "Most of it is a carefully organized disinformation campaign, combined with close watching of all communications. We also employ various other techniques."

To their credit, it looked like his apprentices were going to take Halen's advice and not ask about things that they didn't want to hear. They would find out eventually, but maybe there had already been enough of that tonight.

"Halen can tell you more about it tomorrow. The whole subject is too complicated to get into right now." Aymon leaned back into the couch, waving his hand to dismiss the topic. "Was there anything else you had a pressing question on?"

"Actually," Yan started, but was interrupted by Kino.

"What did the other apprentices you worked with die from?" Kino asked.

"They're both long and sad stories," Aymon said. "But to sum it up, one of them was killed in a military operation they were spearheading, and the other was caught up in an assassination attempt aimed at Caron Herrault, my predecessor. I myself had many close calls. This is a dangerous job."

"If you had to guess, right now," Sid said, "Which one of us is the most likely to survive?"

Halen snorted and Aymon rolled his eyes.

"Not you if you say things like that," Aymon said. "You really don't want to make an enemy out of your peers."

"We were born to be enemies," Sid said with a smile.

"Even if you feel that way, you need to cooperate while you're working for me," Aymon said.

"Oh, don't worry," Sid said.

"That wasn't a worry, that was a warning," Aymon said.

"How scary," Sid said. Yan was looking at Sid with the same vaguely nauseated expression she had had for the whole conversation. Aymon thought it was pretty funny, but he didn't laugh at it.

Personality clashes between the three of them would make them more effective in the end, if he could give each one a job that suited them best. Less going directly at each other's throats and more learning to delegate and play off each others strengths and weaknesses. That was the semblance of his plan for the three of them, anyway. There was no way to know how it would really work out over the next five years.

It was going to take him a while to figure out what exactly their personalities were, Aymon knew. Sid was clearly aggressive and stubborn, but that wasn't a surprise to anyone who spent more than half a minute with him. Yan seemed curious and levelheaded, but unlikely to act on her own. Kino was twitchy and observant. Aymon saw her looking around and taking in every detail of what was going on in a room.

Of course, those were just the surface level traits that he was seeing. He really knew nothing about them other than a writeup that he had been given from the Academy, and what he had observed of them thus far. To be fair, that was more than the couple hours he had actually been with them: he had them followed discretely all summer long, to see what they were like. And he had bugged their apartments, of course.

Aymon didn't spend all his time watching them, that would be absurd. But he did have people who did, giving him written reports. He knew about Yan's relationship, and Sid's arguments with his mother, and Kino's unfortunate habits. This spying was justified because as a matter of Imperial security, he did need to know, and if his apprentices weren't good enough at security to keep their rooms clear of bugs, well, that was one more thing that they would have to learn along the way. Sooner, rather than later, Aymon hoped.

"If you don't mind me asking," Kino said, "Why did Vaneik make a comment about you being a bachelor?"

This did make Aymon laugh, and Yan jumped a little at the sound of it.

"He's only been trying to set me up with up and comers from the Trade Guild for the past twenty years. I think there's still a tiny part of him that hasn't given up hope that I'll fall madly in love with a beautiful young spacer and give her the literal keys to the kingdom," Aymon said.

"Does he not realize...?" Kino looked between Aymon and Halen, implicating the unsaid with the raise of her eyebrows. Sid looked only mildly interested in this abrupt turn into discussing the personal life of his boss, and Yan looked mortified, despite not even being the one bringing it up.

"Not exactly public information, and I'll thank you to keep it that way," Halen said after letting the awkwardness stew for a moment.

"It's... shall we say, politically advantageous to not let people know," Aymon said. "I expect you understand why."

There were multiple reasons, really, but Aymon would let his students come to their own conclusions. The biggest one, the most important, was the danger. Not that Halen couldn't handle it, but it would be distracting. Anyone who was important to Aymon was at risk of being used against him. That was clear enough, and enough of a justification.

Most of the other reasons were purely political. It was a better image to remain single and look aloof than to be tied down to a person with such a questionable background. It was a better image to look single and thus available to interested parties, however little interest he actually paid them. And it was better to be single than play into the image that people had of Academy graduates, and, as evidenced by Halen, sensitives in general.

"Okay," Kino said, having gotten the answer she was apparently looking for.

"Are we here to interrogate each other about our personal lives?" Sid asked with a smile.

"We're here to have a relaxing evening, what we talk about is up to you," Aymon said. "If we want to get to know each other, you can feel free to start divulging your own life story."

Yan jumped back into the conversation, trying vainly to steer it out of uncomfortable waters. "Earlier, at dinner, Vaneik asked about Malstaire, what's that?"

"It's a mining colony that had to be abandoned because of dangerous stellar activity in the area. It had a massive pool of extremely expensive materials there, so the Guild keeps begging to reopen it," Aymon said. "It had a highly profitable route going for a few years before it had to close."

"What about the star was so dangerous?" Yan asked. "Was everyone on the colony ok?"

"Stars plural. It's a binary system with a dangerously short orbital period."

"Ah," Yan said. "Why was a colony allowed to open in the first place?"

"Technically, they were not allowed," Aymon said. "It was one of the many things that Vaneik and I butted heads about years ago. The Trade Guild was stretching the limits of the Empire's goodwill by using their resources to set up a colony there."

"Makes sense," Yan said.

"The Trade Guild can just... Do that?" Sid asked. "Like, set up a colony wherever they want?"

"Oh, absolutely not," Aymon said. "They were testing the waters with Malstaire, and they got burned pretty badly. They have the resources, obviously. Really all it takes to set up a colony is a ship, money, people, and time. The Trade Guild has all of that, but they have to walk a very fine line of Imperial cooperation, if they want to keep their nice little monopoly on all civilian trade and travel."

"If dealing with the Trade Guild is annoying-" Sid started.

"It's not annoying, it just requires some careful navigation," Aymon interrupted.

"Regardless, if it's difficult, why are they allowed to exist with so much freedom?" Sid continued.

"They have much less freedom than they want to believe. The reason the Trade Guild has flourished is because everyone in charge of the Empire has decided, in one way or another, that it is easier to outsource the work of trade to the Guild than it would be to devote Imperial resources to it directly," Aymon explained.

"Finance is fun," Sid said cryptically. Maybe he was intending it to be comedic, but no one laughed.

Aymon resisted the temptation to sigh. Having a sit down conversation with his apprentices to get to know them had sounded like an alright idea, but in practice it had just ended up being him telling them random tidbits of information. It wasn't as though he could have expected them to know most of it, since access to information about the actual workings of the Empire was kept strictly under wraps.

There had to be some sort of manual, somewhere, that he could just give to his apprentices that would tell them all the classified information they would need to know. What did the Fleet give to their new apprentices, the ones who were apprenticing under Admirals and the like?

"Halen, do we have some sort of... I can't believe I didn't think of this earlier, but a manual? Full of classified information that apprentices will need to know? The Fleet must have something like that. They train up so many of them."

"You're going to give us a book full of secrets?" Sid asked.

"That would be helpful," Yan said.

"You should have asked Admiral Vaalks about it this morning," Halen said. "He's had an apprentice before."

"Rosario will know. I'll message her, and she'll have it for you by tomorrow morning," Aymon said. He pulled out his phone and did type a message to Rosario, who, as usual, was saving him time and energy by keeping his professional life on track.

It sometimes frustrated Aymon that, although he was the head of the great machine that was the Empire, or as close to the head of it as one could get, he relied so heavily on others to manage his own affairs. He felt somewhat useless when confronted with the minor details of training his apprentices. Questions like 'what classified information should they be getting, when should they get it, and how should it be delivered to them', had all been relegated to a shelf in his mind that labeled 'I'll deal with that when it comes up'. Trying to have a conversation where every question should really involve a lecture on economics attached to it was really not feasible. For tonight, it was fine. Tomorrow, even. Next week? When his apprentices followed him to a meeting and it turned out they knew nothing about what was going on? That would be a mistake.

He just didn't have the brainpower to dedicate to managing things like that. That was what he had assistants for.

"Sounds good," Yan said. She looked over his head at the clock on the wall behind him. Though Yan had tried to make it a subtle look, it was fairly obvious to Aymon what she was doing. Aymon knew what time it was: late.

"Did you want to leave?" Aymon asked. "I know it's late."

Yan looked embarrassed. "No, I just wanted to know what time it was. "

That girl was too little of her own agent. It was becoming increasingly clear to Aymon that she would do what she was told. On one hand, that was a valuable trait to have in a subordinate. But on the other hand, if it was just the two of them in the room, and if Aymon didn't want to stop talking, Yan would end up staying up all night just to fulfill whatever expectation she thought there was.

"I'm pretty tired," Kino said, freeing Yan from having to make some sort of statement on the matter. "There's been a lot to process."

"If we get a whole book of secrets tomorrow, I'm sure there will be a lot more processing incoming," Sid said to Kino.

"Almost certainly," Aymon said. "I have to apologize. I've spent so long knowing everything that is needed to know, I didn't have the most solid grasp on the information you would be lacking."

"It's ok," Kino said, "We would have gotten it eventually anyway."

"It's not a matter of eventually," Halen said. "It's a matter of as quickly as possible. Knowledge is what you need to survive."

"Physically survive?" Sid asked.

"Politically survive, but the difference between the two becomes blurred at some point," Aymon said.

"You both sound like you're ready to drag us through this apprenticeship kicking and screaming," Sid remarked.

"I certainly am," Halen said. "You're not even mine, so I feel no real obligation to treat you nicely."

This comment from Halen was enough to cause a crack in Yan's obedient facade. She glared at him.

"Still don't like ex pirates, do you?" Aymon asked her.

"I'm sure I'll get over it eventually," Yan said, echoing Kino's earlier statement.

Halen laughed. "Don't worry, Yan, I'm sure we'll come to like each other just fine. And luckily, liking each other isn't a prerequisite for survival."

"If it was, our entire civilization would have been out in space without a stardrive thousands of years ago," Aymon added.

Yan pursed her lips but didn't say anything.

"I know it's late, and I won't hold you here much longer, but I did want to say, well, thank you for taking on the task of being my apprentices," Aymon said. "I really do feel like God led me to you all, specifically, and I hope that great things are going to come out of our working together."

All three of the apprentices looked at him seriously, though Sid still had a semblance of a smirk on his face. Aymon wondered if that was just a mutation of his facial muscles that caused that. Or maybe, as mothers said, he made that face so much that it stuck.

"So, before you go, I would like to pray together for a moment," Aymon said.

Yan nodded, Kino didn't make any real change in the way she was twisting off one of the buttons on her sleeve, and Sid looked as though he were scraping through his memory to figure out exactly which prayer Aymon was going to have them do.

Aymon stood up from the couch, Halen following him up immediately. The apprentices scrambled up a moment after. He walked across the room to one of the closed doors. He opened it, revealing a small room that was entirely made up as a shrine. Halen gestured for the apprentices to follow and come in.

The room was about the size of a large bathroom, so close quarters for five people, but they could have fit a few more if they had any need to. The front of the room had a small shrine, with a statue of one of the faces of God. There were unlit candles in front of it, and a small pile of rocks between the candles and the statue. The floor of the room had a dark, patterned, red rug on it. Behind the statue was a stained glass window, but the design couldn't be seen because it was dark outside.

Aymon touched the tip of each candle and lit them with the power. There was something very satisfying about doing simple things like that. As the apprentices filed in, Halen shut the door behind them. The room was lit only dimly by the flickering candles.

When everyone had arranged themselves inside the room, Aymon knelt down to the right of the shrine. Across from him, Halen did the same. The three apprentices also knelt on the floor. Sid ended up next to Aymon, with Yan in the middle, and Kino on the other end next to Halen. After a moment for everyone to settle themselves, Aymon started up his chant.

"Blessed are you, God of all creation," Aymon said. For Sid’s benefit, he tapped out the rhythm of the words on the floor as he spoke.

"Blessed are you, Lord, our God," the standard response came from the rest of the group. Halen's voice was strong and rough, Yan's was confident in this at least, Kino was quiet, and Sid was droning.

"God who moves the darkness and light,"

  "The Lord who created the land and the sky,"

"You brought us forth to serve Your great purpose."

  "You bring us here to be Your true servants."

The whole prayer was a call and response, with Aymon sounding the call, and setting the tone and pace. Everyone else knew the responses to each line.

"In the beginning, before there was darkness,"

  "You moved Your hand over the ether."

"In the beginning, when there was nothing,"

  "You sent the light, cast down from heaven."

"You set the first stars to burn in the sky."

  "You let the stars dance the passage of time."

"And into the world, you sent out new life."

  "Into the waters and onto the dry."

"All new life proceeds on its course."

  "Singing in praise of the works of the Lord."

Aymon chose to abridge the creation song. There were versions where it proceeded through quite a few verses. The full song detailed not only the creation of the universe, the start of life, the evolution of plants and animals, the struggles of humanity's early days, but eventually reached the discovery of interstellar travel and described the goal of humanity to spread out through the universe. It was quite a long song, which didn't need to be recounted in full. Typically the full song was done on the third Sevensday of the month, during the worship.

"You give us gifts to serve Your great purpose."

  "Your spirit within, to save and to guide us."

"So, give us now Your truth and Your grace."

  "Your words in my mouth, I work in Your place."

"Lead us to safety, lead us past fear."

  "Our shield and our sword, be with us here."

"And, at the end of all things,"

  "And, at the end of all things,"

"And, in the heart of all things,"

  "And in the heart of all things,"

"And, at the start of all things,

  "And, at the start of all things,"

"Bring us home, Lord."

  "Bring us to You, Lord."

"Blessed are You, God of creation,"

  "Blessed are You, God of truth,"

"Blessed are you, God of justice,"

  "Blessed are You, God of promise."

"Blessed are You, Lord, our God.

  "Blessed are You, Lord."

That was the end of the short version of the prayer. They sat in silence for a minute longer. Yan had her eyes closed. Kino had a hair tie knotted thoroughly around her left hand. Sid looked as calm as Aymon had ever seen him. Halen was looking at him from across their half circle. Aymon made eye contact and smiled at him ever so slightly.

After a minute, Aymon stood up, stretching his legs out after kneeling for a while. The silence broken, everyone took a moment to collect themselves and stand in the darkened room. Halen cracked the door open, letting in a flood of electric light, and Aymon snuffed out the candles with his fingers. Everyone shuffled out of the room, blinking a little in the light.

"Well, as I said, I won't hold you any longer," Aymon said. "I'll see you at... eight hours tomorrow. Meet me in my public office."

"Ok," Yan said. "We'll be there." She looked as though she were going to say something else, then changed her mind.

"Do you know the way out?" Halen asked.

"Yes," Kino said. "I remember."

"Good. Then you can show yourselves out," Halen said.

"Have a nice night," Aymon said.

"You too," Yan replied. The three apprentices slipped their shoes back on and filed out the door, Kino leading and Sid trailing in the back. He gave a jaunty wave to Aymon and Halen as he passed.

After the three were gone, Aymon breathed a sigh of relief. He sat back down on the couch. Halen came to sit next to him.

"Long day?" Halen asked, wrapping his massive arm around Aymon's shoulder. Aymon leaned into the touch.

"Same length as usual," Aymon said. "How were they during training?"

"About what you'd expect," Halen said. "Kino is a menace, she's so twitchy. Yan and Sid are both fine students, but Yan really does hate me."

"She'll get over it, I'm not worried about that," Aymon said.

"Oh, I'm sure she'll find we have more in common than she would like," Halen said. "She's a lot like me when I was younger."

"Really?" Aymon asked. "I can't picture it."

"Before you knew me, obviously," Halen said, absentmindedly stroking Aymon's arm. "Life on a pirate ship is only marginally more interesting than life on a Guild ship, I've come to understand."

"She seems so... docile isn't really the right word. Eager to please?" Aymon said.

"And I'm not?" Halen said with a laugh. "Name one thing I haven't done for you."

"That's because you love me," Aymon said, looking up at him.

"Maybe so, maybe so."

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A note from javert

Happy Friday everybody! Hope your week has been going well.

Thanks to Lydia for the beta read.

In case you're wondering what my backlog looks like, this is chapter 16, and I'm currently writing 29, so I seeee the future. Hopefully my writing pace keeps ahead of my publishing pace so that we don't ever run out of backlog haha.

Anyway, on Monday you can look forward to Yan learning an uncomfortable fact, and in next Friday's chapter there's Major Drama.

update 8/21/19 - added chapter title. it's a lyric from a song I enjoy called 'get lost kid' by the artist jitney, from the album 86-300


About the author

javert

Bio: hi I'm noodle, I studied aeronautical engineering in college, then I taught high school math. now I'm [redacted] and [remainder of message lost].

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