Even the captain.
They were a good match, and so the match wore on. He pulled out all the tricks she knew he would, and one by one Aylin countered them. She had long ago decided that each of his tricks would only ever fool her once, and she had taken to practicing her blocks in secret before each fight, then surreptitiously watching the flickers of surprise across his face at each of his failures.
He stepped wide, then quickly back, and started to shift balance, feinting low and dodging high, just as he had tried three days ago... But she was there, and more than ready. Her counterattack caught him off guard, and she took another step of precious ground, her momentum carrying her into the latest of her memorized attacks...
It worked. His block was hasty, his defense was open... and with a final twist Aylin brought the captain’s ring and sword together to the ground.
She gave a silent yell of triumph to her empty bedroom.
She could see it now... His surprise would melt quickly into a grin of pride, as he realized he’d lost the tournament’s epic duel to his best student, who was finally better at the arenhol fighting than he was.
A quiet chirp turned her glance toward the bed; the handheld she’d tossed aside was warning her that it would shut down soon unless she favored it with some sort of interaction. Aylin grinned at it. The thing had a right to be sulky, it had taught her that last move she’d used to win so many imaginary fights recently. The arenhol simulation program Arnham had written for her was perfect; the captain would never expect her to pull out moves he’d never taught before. For all she knew, he’d never even learned them before...
That thought rode a wave of adrenaline and brought an almost-squeal, silenced out of habit, but only barely. Not that she would have minded waking them up; today of all days they shouldn’t be sleeping. But no, she had to keep her secret for one more morning. The afternoon would come soon enough, and with it the “tournament” in honor of her birthday, where she’d been promised one last duel against the best and only swordsman she had ever crossed blades with.
She had never allowed herself to say -- or barely even think -- those words together in one breath before. It was too dangerous, her father said, there were too many people who would want to kill her if they knew that she was Aylin Starr. But now, today, she was finally old enough to submit her application to join the Mardoc Defense Forces. Today at last, Captain Draekel Starr, the best starfighter pilot in the Galaxy, would officially be her father.
She could see the look on Arnham’s face now, as he finally figured it out... Their four years of training together as Captain Starr’s students had ended too soon, when Arnham had left to join the forces three years ago. A much younger Aylin had secretly hoped his application would get turned down, and he would have to come back for another year... But Draekel Starr was as good at training students as he was at everything else, and Arnham had been placed instantly, with excellent promotion potential.
Aylin had long ago given up on the idea of Arnham returning, but there were other ways to end up working with him again... And the captain said she was an even better pilot than Arnham was, she would pass the flight test in his K-16 with such high marks they wouldn’t even look at her application.
The application. She grabbed the handheld from the bed, and flipped through till she found it, reading it over again to make sure everything was correct. Her age, eighteen years, finally eligible to join Mardoc’s team of elite starfighter pilots. And her real name, Aylin Starr, across the top, waiting to be read --
A small noise roused her from her concentration, only because she had been waiting for it for hours. In a quick leap, she was off the bed and across the room to the door, opening it carefully to make sure she hadn’t imagined the sound...
But no, there was a light near the table. They were finally awake. She stowed the sword and ring hastily in her closet, and hurried down the stairs. This was going to be the best day ever.
Shaelia Starr looked up with a smile at the familiar ruckus on the stairs. The table in front of her was covered in enough books and papers to give Aylin a headache just looking at them, but her mother’s gray eyes were alive with excitement, and her long brown hair was tied back in an orderly cascade of waves that mocked the tangled mess on Aylin’s head.
“You missed your Buuri lessons so much, you’re up early to get a little bit more studying in?” Shaelia asked with a glint in her eye.
Aylin pulled a well-practiced grimace. “No thank you!” She had happily learned Alak, the standard language of the worlds neighboring Mardoc in their sector, and even Elson, the sophisticated speech prevalent in the political sector of the Galaxy, but she had never made it through even the basics of the nearby sectors’ languages, Ta’nuran or Buuri. Her mother was fluent in both -- she was even writing a book on some of their more rare dialects -- but Aylin had never even met anyone besides her mother who could speak either. One did not need to know Buuri to fly a K-16... but that argument had worn grooves in both of their patiences.
She was happy to see her mother awake, but she was a little disappointed to see books instead of breakfast. “Can I get out some food?”
Shaelia laughed. “Food? Isn’t it a little early yet?”
Aylin sighed at the semi-darkness outside the kitchen window; she had thought it was getting light enough... “But I’m hungry already,” she protested.
“Too much arenhol practice?” Shaelia asked, raising an incriminating eyebrow.
Aylin blinked. “How did you...?”
“I’m your mother. It’s my job to know everything.”
“Please don’t tell!” Aylin begged. “I’ve never had the chance to beat him until now!”
The front door opened, cutting Aylin off mid-plea. Her father’s dark head appeared first, tousled by the wind that was always whipping around the cabin and the woods, then Draekel knocked the dirt off his boots and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. His black eyes flicked their way, and a quick smile chased the shadows from his face. “Hey little ragka.” He turned to hang his gun on a well-worn hook near the door.
“Hey captain,” Aylin grinned back at the nickname. “What’s going on?” Her brows furrowed with suspicion. “Why were you outside?” He'd better not be practicing too...
Draekel threw his coat onto a nearby chair. “Call from Aliok.” After a second glance at the coat, he picked it up again and hung it next to the gun. “Took it outside so I wouldn’t wake you up.” He grinned at Shaelia, who rolled her eyes.
“Aliok? What’s up? We’re still going there for lunch, right?” A trip to Mardoc’s capitol never took very long in her father’s K-16, and didn’t even require exit and re-entry. She had a lunch to eat and an application to submit...
Draekel pursed his lips, and a few shadows returned. “The general wants me to do something for him. So yes, we’ll head there as soon as possible this morning.”
“This morning?” Shaelia asked. The question echoed with an unspoken “already.”
“Yep, this morning.” Draekel was already heading to the kitchen. “The sooner the work’s done, the sooner we can get to that tournament this afternoon.” He tossed Aylin a grin over his shoulder. “I hope you’ve been practicing!”
Again Aylin stifled the thrill of anticipation. “I’ll get my stuff ready!” The stairs flew by, two at a time, on the way back to her bedroom. The handheld with its application, the radio her father made her carry everywhere, the boots and jacket under the bed, her passcards and ID... She left the sword and ring on the bed with a wink, and flew back down the stairs.
“Don’t forget breakfast,” her mother teased as Aylin threw lunch into a bag.
“Lunch will be early,” Aylin retorted. “And Dad’s already outside, ready to go.”
“Ready, is he?” Shaelia held up an identical lunch bag with a smile.
Aylin grinned and grabbed them both. “Thanks Mom! See you later!”
Her mother’s “happy birthday!” followed her out the door.
Draekel was indeed waiting. “Took you long enough,” he teased.
Aylin dangled the lunch bag in front of him. “Long enough to bring your lunch!”
Draekel turned to wave his familiar salute toward the kitchen window, walking backwards down the path. “I guess you can take your time, then.”
Aylin waved too, then turned to follow, falling in step beside him while the path was wide. “I brought my application,” she announced happily, finding it hard to think about anything else.
“Don’t I have to sign something on it?” Draekel asked.
“You have to write a one-page recommendation,” she reminded him.
“Right. I'll just use the one I sent with Arnham and change the name.”
“Dad,” she started to protest, until his teasing grin stopped her. “As long as you put in my last name, I don't care.”
The trail quickly became narrow again, as they reached the edge of the cliffs, so Aylin had to walk behind him. The early sunlight was reflecting on the most distant waves of the sea, and the crisp air made everything feel clean and bright. It was a perfect day for a birthday...
Author's note: This is the actual beginning to my young-adult sci-fi novel, Fugitive Star.