By Godfrey Blackwell
It was on his wedding day that Serveus Kunar finally became a complete man, but not at the nuptials themselves. It was afterwards, as he stepped from the cool darkness of the temple into the embracing warmth of the sun-bathed narthex and wedding guests cheered the new couple's debut that he took the fateful step.
He was a young nobleman of perfect proportions, strong of face, fit of body. His skin, however, tanned a light brown, was not the product of toil but of vacations in the family villa on the southern continent. On his right arm came his bride, Zia, radiant in a golden dress that flashed in the sunlight; the pride of Vitria and now his. Behind the crowd, a line of soldiers approached down the main road, black-clad magisterial acolytes at the fore bearing dark, flapping banners.
The soft pink pedals of the Lycinia trees, falling in the cool spring breeze, were ripped away as a low-flying shuttle tore through the air. In the unsettling quiet that followed in its wake, Serveus was keenly aware of his brideís tiny, cold fingers gripping his arm.
"Young sir," a voice called. Serveus looked down to see that an armoured man, about his fatherís age, had pushed through the wedding reception and was mounting the stairs. He wore an antique blaster inlaid with gold at his side, and a grey moustache twisted to stilletto points protruded outside his helmet. "Will you help us? The Anaketh landed a war host in Gallennon last night and will not rest there long."
The icy hand of fear grabbed Serveus' spine, but he fought it off with anger; how dare they conscript him on today, of all days? He considered a biting riposte to the demand, but Zia's tongue was quicker.
"Would you take my husband away from me, on my very wedding night?"
"I would not take him, madame," the old soldier said. "But I would ask his aid -- and yours in giving him up -- in the defence of our home and Empire."
"He has duties to his wife, now," Serveus' father barked, pushing the young groom aside.
Serveus clapped his free hand on his fatherís shoulder and addressed the soldier. "Centurion -- as I guess that's what you are -- your men make a pretty parade to help me celebrate my matrimony, but I don't see the Imperial standard. Your force is not sanctioned by the proprætor."
The scarred veteran lowered his eyes to the white flagstones. "With all the respect due our honourable proprætor, I must say his belief that the Anaketh are not enemies was proved wrong by the skies last night."
Serveus had seen that proof as he had paced throughout the night, unable to sleep, agonising over the wedding day. He glanced about quickly; he would never admit to anyone that he had been nervous, even fearful of his betrothed; an alluring and demanding woman. No, they couldnít know ... yet he had seen the twinkling amidst the night stars as ships had given up the ghost in bursts of light and lasers had scorched the upper atmosphere.
"What is that to me?"
"That's right, this is not your fight, son," his father nodded.
"A good question, young sir," the captain said. "It is a decision about who you are. Are you a man to give up without a fight, or one to struggle manfully when victory's not assured? A man of recreation or duty?"
To march a long, tiring path, then fight the vicious chelonian Anaketh, or recline at the well-adorned table his father had set for him and then to a well-deserved life practicing law in peace?
"I am no coward ..."
"You fanatics and your warmongering!" his father shouted, striking the marble parapet. "You will sacrifice these men in a hopeless cause! We cannot stand against the Anaketh; we should surrender and join them. They will be merciful. The Emperor will understand; God will understand. We don't have enough soldiers; there's hardly a quæstor these days to lead!"
"Can't stand, or won't?" Zia suddenly burst forth. Her eyes glistened like diamonds in the hot, bluish sun and her cheeks seemed cut of marble.
"Zia, I thought you ..." Serveus hesitated.
"The choice is yours, husband. I cannot make it for you." She bit her lip and said no more, but those hard, tear-encased eyes told him that she would die before signing a protection pact with an Anaketh master.
He looked over at his father. Unlike the centurion, a comfortable belly hung over his belt, beside which hung the sword that Serveus knew had never been drawn. He himself had tried once, years ago. Its hilt and scabbard were glistening and spotless, but the blade would not budge, rusted in place.
Could he not stand? Would he not? He looked out at the crowd, seeing in it the expectant faces of many young men. Serveusí family was prominent; many of them would follow his lead. He pulled his wife to him and kissed her gently on the forehead. Her dark eyelids fluttered down, brushing her cheeks like damp raven feathers as she acknowledged his choice.
"I will help you, Centurion." Shifting his gaze to the wedding guests, he added, "Which of you heroes is with me?"
The answering cheer drowned out Serveusí fatherís last protestation. He embraced Zia one last time, then followed the centurion down the steps.