It was midday in the city of Markilith. In the grand audience hall of house Deswoun, preparations were being made for Masin’Duwel’s “luncheon”. Five lush thrones were placed in a semi circle facing the center of the grand hall. Rows of columns radiated in a spiral pattern out from the open center of the gigantic room, creating a dizzying feeling of wonder in anyone who stood in the middle, the view of each column just covered the one behind it, but the twisting rows ended just before they covered the walls, affording glimpses of the murals and tapestries that chronicled the rise of House Deswoun, dating back to the dark years before the Ascension War. The final tapestry, though not visible to anyone not standing near the outer ring showed the appointment of the latest Deswoun Jester, one of three living Zeldrin.
The floors showed a twisting mosaic of semi-precious stones that blended seamlessly into the twisting columns, but also laid in patterns resembling screaming faces, great beasts and female figures. Near the end of the circular room with Mas’s throne, the mosaic resembled flames, with tourmaline, topaz and rose quartz patterned to look like fantastical sparkling flames reaching for the great seat, itself carved out of a single piece of shining black obsidian. The volcanic glass was carved in such a way that it flowed into the streaming lines of mosaic, creating a fractal pattern that made it difficult to tell where the grand throne ended and the floor began.
Several slaves were dutifully setting up silver tables next to the central throne, as well as the four additional seats to accommodate her guests. While not as spectacular as her own, Mas made sure that none of her guests were insulted by treated them as being of lower stations. The seat of each smaller throne was level with the central one. Each was ornately carved out of dark wood, and studded with precious metal ingots, and threaded with rich red glass that was enchanted to glow warmly, both in color and feel. Hot food was placed on each table, save for one. The table directly to Mas’s left held a small cage stuffed with small ratlike creatures that just lay on one another, seemingly content to be stacked like rocks in a bucket.
The final touch was a bottle of magically cooled wine for each of the guests. When the preparations were complete, each of the five servants stood behind their respective throne, facing out, ready to server its occupant at a moment’s notice. Seconds later, Masin’Duwel strolled casually into the chamber with her four guests. They chatted easily as they took their seats. Normally, Mas would have taken them in a circular route to the thrones, but today she was eager to get things started. Not only did she have a guest that she hoped would unnerve the always unflappable J, but she was also showcasing the strengths of her race to an additional potential ally who was meeting with Mistress Pietrelle Phalix, a higher ranking Dama that was as close to a friend as the vicious woman could have.
She and her guests took a seat and Mas raised her hand and gestured to one of their escorts, who ran out the entrance, only to quickly return with J and two Dama males, the jesters of two of her guests. J made no effort to hide his disdain for the show they were being forced to portray, while the lackeys beside him seemed perfectly at ease with the charade. No doubt, they kept their mouths shut and were richly rewarded for their supplicance and loyalty. J would rather shove a blade through each of the women in front of him.
As he studied his mistress and her guests, he did well to hide his surprise at the creature sitting at Mas’s left. It had a bloated abdomen, and eight long jointed limbs. A torso-like midsection connected the brightly striped abdomen to the light bluish grey head. It’s four back legs resembled exactly that, while the front four were differently shaped, more like arms, and held in front of the creature much as a mantis would carry its arms. The head was distinctly spider-like, with a pair of fanged mandibles and eight eyes distributed over it with a large pair in the front. Beneath the mandibles, however, was an almost normal looking mouth, and J could make out a whispering voice as it spoke; a strange, slithering sound that made his skin crawl.
Hovering just over Mas’s shoulder was a small black sphere with a glass lense on the front; a robotic camera. Mas stood and the three jesters bowed, J never taking his eyes off her while the other two lowered their gazes to the floor, as was their station. She strolled casually over the flame pattern on the floor, then turned to face the others. She held up her hand to indicate that the three could stand upright, then spoke, keeping her hand raised no doubt because she thought it made her look grand.
“Honored guests. Today we present some of our finest warriors to show our future allies..” She paused and curtsied to the spider-creature and the camera “to show that a union between our forces is not only warranted, but mutually beneficial.” As she began the introductions, J tuned her out, gathering his focus. No doubt Mas would finish with the rules of the match and he would listen for that, but he could care less who these people were. No doubt important mistresses, since she was not simply showing off for her friends, but J’s world was normally contained within the walls of the family compound, so who they were did not concern him.
He did, however, study his competition out of his peripheral vision. Both males were blue skinned, Damas both, and no doubt trained from early age in the arts of combat. They had also endured the hardships of jester training, meaning they were all but immune to pain and accomplished killers with the weapons they carried on their hips.
They also did not stand a chance against him. J held no illusions about his abilities, no haughty illusions that he was the pinnacle of skill; he was warrior incarnate. His blades were not his weapons; his mind and body were his weapons, his swords merely extensions of them. J had killed with less; in fact, during one of Masin’Duwell’s “luncheons”, he had killed his opponent with his hair, strangling the armed competitor with the long braid he always wore.
He pulled himself out of his reverie when he heard his mistress finish with “And finally, the Skytaalis ambassador, Skrithis. With our joined might, we will conquer new worlds and expand our influence beyond the borders of our very imagination! These are exciting times for us all. And now, a display of martial prowess of the Dama. To those watching on the camera, you can no doubt see that my champion is of a different breed; he is of mixed parentage, the rarest of the rare. Jerylys is a Zeldrin, and you will find no finer warrior in the known worlds, no disrespect intended toward any of my guests.”
The other three mistresses nodded their approval. No one would expect the skilled J to lose in even combat against a single opponent; where his training had also encompassed magic, the typical jester was skilled in hand to hand combat and missile weapons; spells were typically the realm of their mistress, if she happened to be Baeris. “This is a show of melee skill, so there will be no magic allowed.” Mas shot an evil grin at J, and his eyes narrowed at the comment, fully expecting what came next. “And my champion will be squaring off against Mistress Xemphidel and Mistress Denear’s at the same time.” She winked at J “To keep it fair.”
This was not the first time Mas had stacked the odds against J. No doubt she thought that this may be the time he died or at least learned some humility. He thought that the odds of that were unlikely. Mistress Deswoun sat back in her throne and announced “Combatants! Face one another and salute!”
The three males turned, and in practiced order, bowed slightly to one another, then moved apart. Mas stood in her throne. “Wait, J! Let’s make things interesting. You stay in the center.” The other two males grinned as they moved out to the edges of the makeshift amphitheater, their backs nearly to the columns. They began circling J, so that any given moment one was behind him and the other in front. J stood perfectly still in the middle of it all, not making a single move to draw his weapons, even as the Denear jester drew a short sword paired with a longsword and the other two wicked-looking long-shafted maces. They began twirling them in taunting circles, each trying to distract the man standing at the center.
For two warriors who had never fought together, their moves were surprisingly coordinated. Both advanced at J’s sides, one coming from the left the other from the right. The one on the left suddenly spun to his left and attacked at J’s front, the other performing the same move but instead silently approaching from behind. It was a devastatingly well coordinated attack, and against any other foe, they would have easily outmatched and cut down their opponent; but this was J, who just the day before had single handedly taken out a rock wandered while fending off a group of lathelle, so it was with great surprise that the two, the jester in the front coming in low and the one attacking from behind coming in high, found that J seemed to have disappeared for a fraction of a second. In reality, he had drawn his blades and stepped aside so fluidly that their minds could barely register the movement; he was simply faster than they expected. They had already committed to their swings, and the sound of metal striking metal rang out in the hall as J’s drawn swords batted aside blade and mace alike.
Despite their surprise, the jesters’ training allowed them to recover quickly, and the two adjusted their momentum and tried to drive the bluish-purple skinned warrior back with alternating attacks; in dove a short sword from high, feinting so the other’s mace could sneak in low from the right, only to be picked off simultaneously by J’s jester blades. As he slid their weapons out wide, he left his midsection undefended, and the others wasted no time in exploiting the apparent weakness. In came the longsword with a straight forward thrust while the other’s left mace streaked toward his undefended knee.
J turned out of the way of the stab while simultaneously kicking across with his right leg, catching the mace just above the head on the shaft, dodging one attack and defeating the other. The combatants changed routines, one attacking high and the other low, then again, one coming in from the left, the other the right, only to be met with a wall of metal. No attack even go close to J’s body as he fell into his rhythm, anticipating each strike before it came, leaving a blade to block, or kicking away the weapon with his metal booted feet. Mas sat casually back in her seat sipping wine with a look of smug contentment on her face, while the other mistresses did their best to hide their surprise at the ease with which her jester held their warriors at bay.
Despite their best efforts to flank him, J was always one step ahead of the two. If they lessened their offense even slightly, J was there to exploit the opening. Several minutes into the fray, and the zeldrin had scored minor hits on both opponents while they had not once come close to touching him.
J purposely kept his cuts shallow when he did strike, knowing that these displays were not to the death unless specifically stated; jesters were expensive to train and not tossed aside casually like normal males. While neither of the males he was fighting showed the slightest evidence of fatigue, he was confident he could outlast the two of them. Then Mas changed things up, and J knew that one way or the other her guests would be impressed; either he would survive or the coordinated martial prowess of the Sharrel would be showcased, he knew she didn’t care which.
Mas snapped her fingers and two more armed Dama stepped out from behind the spiralling columns, weapons in hand, and charged. The paired jesters smiled at one another and pressed harder on J as the the two newcomers, both armed with paired short swords, attacked from behind. What happened next stole the breath of all in attendance. As the two new assailants stabbed together at J’s back, he furiously worked his right blade over in an X, batting aside the paired swords of one jester, while his left stabbed straight at the mace wielder. The unexpectedly daring move caught both by surprise, the one jester crossing his maces down in front barely avoiding being stabbed.
J used the momentum of the downward push to swing his sword back around, holding it horizontally just above his head defeating the high attack from behind, and in the same instant throwing a kick into the stomach of the sword wielding jester, then quickly back again catching the last attacker in the side of the knee, nearly dropping him and turning his momentum away from the attack. J spun out and disengaged for a fraction of a second, and before the surprised quartet could recover, he dove into the fray with seeming abandon.
The audience was on the edge of their collective seats as the mixed-breed champion not only escaped certain defeat at the hands of four opponents, but turned the tables on them and became the aggressor in the engagement. The two jesters wisely stayed behind the two other warriors who had their hands full trying to keep the vicious zeldrin at bay. His blades worked with nothing short of unfiltered genius; thrusts and cuts came from every angle, with brutal slashes stopping ripostes before they could fully form and powerful chops and stabs keeping them on their heels.
To everyone’s surprise, as the mace wielding Denear jester attempted to use the tumult of the other three fighters as a visual shield to creep around and attack J on his right, he suddenly whipped his head around and snapped in that direction. The tip of his braid struck the surprised jester in the cheek and drew a line of blood as the blade J had worked into the rope of hair struck him like a whip. J danced and spun as he struck aside weapons before they could come close and replied with attacks that should have been impossible coming from a single being, but his hands worked as if they belonged to two separate fighters, while his feet occasionally struck out to keep the enemies off balance.
The dance continued for several more minutes; J keeping the others at bay, neither side able to gain any ground or score any more hits. mas caught J’s eye for a fraction of a second, but in that tiny wrinkle of time, she saw him smile. It was a glance into his heart at that moment, and she could see the exhilaration, the pure joy in him at that moment, with death so close at hand, his perfectly coordinated muscles holding back an unstoppable force, his unmatchable skill being put to the test and exceeding all expectations, and all without even a kernel of help from magic. The fight was less a showcase of Sharrel skill and more a display of J’s raw talent.
It struck the prideful mistress as smug; though he was concentrating fully on the fight, she nonetheless heard him telling her he was the distilled ability of her breed, the pure fighting power of the Dama filtered into a half-breed and put on display to mock her. She was vaguely aware that the words might be her own ego wanting to steal this moment from him, to deny J any joy in his life.
She did not care. With another snap of her fingers, four more warriors melted out of the forest of spiralled columns and advanced. They carried still more variety in weapons; one carried a length of chain with each end sporting a heavy spiked ball, another with a staff that ended in short, razor edged blades, another still with paired war hammers, and the last with a single, long, wicked looking blade.
J sneered as he caught sight of newcomers closing in on him. He had apparently enraged Mas by succeeding, and that thought brought him to new heights of brilliance. Let her try to kill him; he would deny her the satisfaction. His blades moved even faster than before, his cuts becoming more powerful and stabs more direct. No longer was he keeping the others back, he was working toward buying himself a few seconds of rest so that he could regroup to account for this new fold. He overstepped to the right, thrusting out toward the jester with swords, who leaped straight back to avoid the blade. The other two warriors, in a coordinated move with the Denear jester, stepped across one another’s path, and between them came a mace in a devastating swing for j’s side.
Their surprise was complete when it turned out that was exactly the move he was banking on. he stepped into the swing and rolled around the shaft and then the arm, not only accepting the hit but using its momentum to bring him in closer to the jester. His eyes went wide as he realized what J was doing, and he was powerless to stop him as J’s arm hooked around the other’s extended forearm. He spun on the ball of his foot, bringing the arm in tight, then shoved with his right hand, sending the jester flying toward two of the advancing newcomers. He then sprinted past the two that had crossed to let the jester through, slapping both on the cheek with his swords as he passed, drawing a line of blood on each.
J leaped high, his arms extended straight out in front of him, the pommels of his swords touching forming a perpendicular line in front of him as he sailed, straight as a board, through the air in the direction of the seated spectators. He landed in a graceful forward roll, then leaped up again into a series of backflips designed to keep everyone off balance. When he ended the final flip, he swung his blades around in a complicated routine before slamming the ends together. He grabbed where they met, and to everyone but Mas’s surprise, he spun them like a baton, both weapons fused together at the end to form a single weapon.
Xayen Xemphidel, the guest just to the right of the Skytaalis blurted out “A bladestaff!” J stopped the weapon from spinning and placed one tip on the ground in front of him and dragged it across the floor, the razor edged blade making a horrific screeching sound on the stone. The eight others stopped their advance for a moment, not sure what to make of this change, and J took advantage of the lull to face the audience and offer a small, half-hearted salute with a smile aimed at Mas before turning back to the others.
The octet of males did an admirable job of hiding their surprise as J ran straight back at them. Their weapons were spinning, preparing their attack routines for when he plowed into their ranks, when J stopped a mere ten feet shy of the group, pivoted on his heel, and used his momentum to snap his bladestaff into a spin. Again twirling the weapon like a baton, and spinning in wide circles, J waded into the group. A loud series of clangs rang out as the furiously spinning blades struck weapon after weapon. He moved so fast that the group could only react to where he had just been instead of attacking him directly.
As soon as one would figure out where J would likely move next, he would suddenly stop and reverse direction without missing a beat, defeating the attack or, more often, avoiding it all together. So fluid, so mercurial were his movements and attacks, that even Masin’Duwell lost her breath and was sitting on the edge of her seat. None had ever seen such an amazing display of skill; J’s movements bordered on godlike. It seemed as if the fight would not end until he decided it would. Mas momentarily contemplated drawing her wand and dropping a ball of fire into the group just to steal J’s thunder, but in the moment it took for her to contemplate it, he had decided it was time to end the fight.
A mace streaked in toward J’s head, only to be blocked by the joined hilts of his swords. Rather than reversing and moving to block another attack or initiate one of his own, which the others were slowing beginning to anticipate as his next move, J surprisingly grabbed the same jester’s hand again, only this time he turned in so that his back was against the other fighter’s chest, yanked down hard over his shoulder as he ducked forward. Again the other jester went flying, flat onto his back on the hard stone floor. His breath knocked out of him, he was unable to fend off the powerful downward punch J delivered to the middle of his forehead, behind it the weight of his bladestaff.
Two more warriors moved to step over the unconscious form as J stood, his weapon resting on the top of his foot. One stabbed high, the other low, and J snapped his foot, catching the staff in the middle and spinning inside the well-coordinated attack. His left elbow came up and crushed the nose of one attacker as he leaned forward, and as he backed past the other, he drew the edge of the staff across his leg, opening a wide gash. Both fell to the ground, leaving J with five more to go.
As he broke off from the two that were at that very second falling to the floor, one out cold from the blow to his face, the other suddenly concerned with the blood pouring from his torn thigh, the dama armed with the staff charged J’s back, hoping that the weight of the attack at his unguarded back would score a devastating hit. Unfortunately for him, J easily sidestepped the overly aggressive thrust and left his own weapon in his stead; the overbalanced attacker impaled his own shoulder on J’s extended sword.
J wrenched his weapon straight up, opening the wound further, then kicked the dama in the gut, extracting the blade and dropping the enemy to the ground. Off to his right, he heard the woosh of a heavy spiked ball on the end of a chain, and was not surprised when it streaked past him, only to be jerked back and wrap around one of the blades of his weapon. The surprisingly strong dama wrenched the chain, pulling J around and trapping his bladestaff. two others attacked from behind, thinking that he was finally trapped without a means to counter them.
They were wrong; he simply uncoupled the ends of the swords, turning one weapon into two again and swiped aside their attacks. They paused for a fraction of a second, startled by the sudden change, and J used it to let go of his trapped sword and leap straight up into the air. With stunning fluidity, he kicked both feet out in front, both feet connecting with the face of the warrior with the chain. he tumbled over backward, and J landed flat on his back.
The final warrior, the remaining jester, had been sneaking behind the one that J had just taken out, using him as cover to attack. When he saw J flat on his back, he rushed in with a double stab, hoping to pin the dangerous male to the ground. But J had already noticed him before he dropped the one with the chain, and at the last second caught him with his feet and sent him right over into the other two. The three fell to the ground and J was up in a flash, both blades back in his hands.
The two sprang to their feet, to their credit, only to be put immediately back down as J punched them in their faces, his gauntleted hands delivering the full weight of his swords directly between their eyes. Both swooned and fell to the ground as one. He sheathed one blade so quickly that it seemed to simply appear in it scabbard, then grabbed a handful of the recovering jester’s hair and hoisted him to his feet, the edge of his remaining sword against his throat. “I suggest you yield.” He whispered in the warrior’s ear. The dama dropped both weapons and raised his hands in defeat.
The audience of five stood and cheered. Even Masin-Duwell, who had seen J fight on hundreds of occasions, was left speechless at his display of skill. The three other mistresses stood, clapping, while the skytaalis clapped one pair of hands and pumped the other pair as fists in the air, a move J found very disconcerting. He roughly dropped the jester to the ground and simply released his sword which immediately returned to its scabbard. He pivoted on his heel and started to walk out of the room.
Mas was not interested in letting him leave quite yet started walking toward the battle ground. “Jerylys, I thought it was understood that this fight was not to the death?” J stopped mid-stride. He turned to regard the approaching Mistress. She was standing next to the soldier with the gash in his thigh. He was turning pale and the pool of blood surrounding him had grown quite large. J glanced at him as if he was an annoying pet. “He will live, unless he is left there. I did not violate the rules of engagement; I did not kill him. If he dies of his wound, it was because of neglect on the part of those that held the event and not mine for inflicting it.”
J grinned inside, catching the flash of anger in Mas’s eyes, knowing he was embarrassing her by talking back in such company, but also knowing she would not strike out against him for his insubordination in light of his brilliance just moments before. He knew that not just her pride was at stake with his martial display; an alliance was being forged, and he was the hammer beating the metal into the blacksmith’s vision. He would pay for it later, of course, but his life with the hot-tempered mistress was punishment already, so a little more did not bother him.
“Very well, then. I had hoped you would give audience to my guests, but I can understand your need for rest after such an unexpected performance. Retire to your chambers and enjoy your well deserved rest. I hope you are in fighting form when I summon you later, for we have much to discuss.” She levelled a warning glare at him with the last sentence. He pretended not to notice or even care what she intimated, but he knew he was likely already due for another patrol outside of the city soon, or worse, more diplomatic work.
He kicked his heels together and snapped a short bow to his mistress before once again spinning on his foot and strolling easily out of the room. Mas did well, sublimating her outrage at the impertinent male and turning to her guests. “I apologize for any damage J has caused your warriors. Rest assured that they will be healed before being returned to you.” The mistresses nodded and expressed thanks, knowing full well that their warriors would likely have their minds read before being given back, and of course outfitting them with wards against such intrusions. Such was the way of politics in the city of Marilith.
Mas smiled at the camera that hovered near her throne. “I trust the display was adequate?” she asked with no small amount of sarcasm, before approaching the spider-person to ask how it now felt about the union of Sharrel and spider-people.
On Daedelus, Prosek, McCleod, and another blue skinned woman chatted easily about what they had just witnessed. The Emperor allowed his general to take the lead, since he would be the one coordinating with their new-found allies. Prosek was animated, an unusual state for the dour man. “That was an amazing display. Can the the soldiers teach us their two-handed weapon techniques?”
The Dama, Pietrelle Phalix, mistress of her own very powerful house nodded. “We have trained humans on several less developed worlds to serve as fodder in wars, training real soldiers for combat should be little effort.” She replied in heavily accented English. While J’s performance was indeed impressive, and Pietrelle was not about to downplay his ability in front of their potential new allies, she harbored more than a little resentment toward the Zeldrin; Pietrelle has known an unmatched level of posterity and praise by being the mother of the only living Zeldrin until the male had been born.
Her daughter, Arivice, was the first of her kind in centuries, and equal parts brilliant, talented and beautiful. This J was indeed a fine example of a male; strong, smart, attractive and creative, but he was a male. Pietrelle had often lamented there was no way to convert a male to a female that could bear children. It had been suggested that Arivice be introduced to J someday for the purposes of possibly producing a pure Zeldrin from the union, but her daughter balked at the idea of being used as breeding stock, and Pietrelle had never had time to relinquish her daughter for the year and three months of Sharrel pregnancy. There was also the issue that the male belonged to Masin’Duwell, a quiet rival of the mistress of house Phalix.
Prosek seemed quite pleased with the response. He sat back in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of his deeply cut face, his mismatched eyes studying the blue-skinned woman intently. “In return for sharing your knowledge of ‘magic’ for lack of a better word, and training our soldiers in melee combat, you would be looking for what, exactly?”
Of course, Prosek knew exactly what the Sharrel wanted out of their relationship, but Pietrelle knew this was a test; how serious were they about this partnership? Given that she was old enough to be the human’s ancestor, she had the knowledge and experience to have more than prepared for this, their first face-to-face meeting. “We are looking for new horizons to conquer, and allies to share the spoils with. We have traveled through the Astral plane to visit other worlds, but so far the Stars have not been accessible. We crave new technology, new weapons, and new enemies.”
Vladimir smiled. He knew the response was memorised, if not parroted quite naturally from the diminutive woman. He could see inside her, in a manner of speaking, She was a creature of pure malice and intrigue; She lived to dominate and conquer. He thought for a moment he was falling in love with her.
Pietrelle interrupted his thoughts with a sudden announcement. “We also have one more thing to offer; and expansion to our alliance.” McLeod had been chewing an olive from his martini and paused. “What is this?” he blurted through the half-chewed fruit. The Sharrel raised her hands defensively. “I know that it is late in the play for such an announcement, but it seems apt. General?” She addressed prosek directly, figuring he would see the value in more allies before his emperor.
She stood, and pulled out a small disk that fanned out to the size of a basketball and hung in the air. When she tapped the center, an image appeared; it cycled through various pictures of different breeds of the creature that had joined Mas at J’s demonstration (although Prosek and McLeod could not see it from the camera). “They are Skytaalis. Spider people. Each figure you see represents a different species and caste in their society. They crave war and blood as much as we, and they have their own magic, a very special type.”
She paused for dramatic effect. “That granted by a God.” She smiled at the two men’s skeptical expressions. “I will prove it, in good time. However, their zeal for this Raktaleh makes them easy to predict and easier still to control. And many of their castes are quite powerful, commanding armies of lesser servitor races as well. They are clever, vicious, and to people like us, easy.”
McLeod and Prosek exchanged looks. The Emperor gestured, ever so slightly, but to the ever-vigilant and sensitive eyes of a Sharrel, he might as well just waved his hands in the air. The Dama was smiling long before Prosek stood and offered his hand. “Mistress Phalix, I know it is not your custom, but it is ours; A handshake seals the deal. We would be honored to ally ourselves with your people and your new associates.” He bowed forward and Pietrelle accepted his hand. She was impressed by the firmness, the strength of resolve and confidence in that one small gesture.
Likewise, General Prosek recognized the power in the small woman’s grip; he practically felt his hand tingling at her touch, although whether it was a result of her prowess or his mounting attraction to her, he could not tell. Nor did he care.
“We will be presently sending experts to be escorted to Markilith to begin drafting plans and designs for the vehicles and technology you and the Sky…taalis? require. And when can we expect instructors to begin training my soldiers?” McLeod stated.
Pietrelle smiled. “Within the hour.”
“Excellent.” Purred Prosek. Pietrelle turned her crooked smile over to the man. She could feel his interest in her might be more than professional, and she chuckled inwardly. Human men, even those as disciplined as Prosek suffered greatly because of their inability to control their animal needs. Still, she admitted to herself, power and ambition were attractive, regardless of species. And this general had an excess of both.