The Annotated Firebird
by Kathy Tyers
A perfect fanfare for this series would be “Main theme from The Battle of Britain,” by Ron Goodwin (from the CD “Selections from Victory at Sea, War and Remembrance, Casablanca, and other favorites,” Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel conducting).
Lady Firebird Angelo was trespassing.
Shadowed by her friend Lord Corey Bowman, she squeezed and twisted through a narrow, upright opening between two dusty stone walls. She’d paced off twenty meters in silence. Her eyes had almost adjusted to faint gray light from ahead and behind. Growing up in this palace, she’d explored it thoroughly and cautiously during her childhood. She hadn’t tiptoed between these particular walls since she found the gap, four years ago, when she was fifteen. If she remembered right, then in ten meters more—
Something rattled behind her. She froze. If anyone caught her and Corey this deep in the governmental wing, they could be done for. Powers help us! she prayed silently.
Slowly, she turned around. Corey crouched three meters away. He pointed at a loose stone and cringed a silent apology.
Time hung suspended, like a laser satellite passing overhead. They waited motionless, hardly even breathing.
Evidently, the Powers weren’t feeling vengeful—if those supernatural guides even existed, which Firebird had started to doubt. The soft voices behind the curved inner wall kept droning on, incomprehensible from this point in the hidden passage.
Firebird crept on.
The rough partition on her left enclosed an elliptical chamber. Inside, the highest council in the Netaian planetary systems held its conferences.
In the first published version of Firebird (Bantam Books, 1987), “Netaia” was “Naetai” because of my early fascination with vowel blends. Creating the adjective “Naetaian” put the vowel count over the top, so I abbreviated it “N’taian.” That confused some readers and even reviewers. I hope “Netaia” and “Netaian” are more pronounceable.
Firebird had heard whispered rumors among other cadets at the NPN Academy: that the Netaian Planetary Navy planned to hold military exercises in Federate space, or that an attack was imminent—Federate or Netaian, depending on who had heard whom—or that secret weapons were under development. None of her instructing officers had acknowledged those rumors. They kept their cadets working in blind, busy ignorance.
But this morning, staring out a classroom window-wall, Firebird had seen a silvery shuttle with Federate markings emblazoned on its underside decelerate into Citangelo spaceport. According to a hasty check at her desk terminal, the queen’s Electorate had immediately closed this afternoon’s session to observers.
Maybe the Federates were protesting those rumored maneuvers, as she guessed—or trying to head off an open confrontation, Corey’s assumption. Someone had to find out, on behalf of the second-year cadets. If a war broke out, they’d be in it. During an afternoon hour reserved for studying, Firebird had sneaked home with Corey.
Here’s a first attempt to explain the interrelationship between Netaia (a new term for the reader) and the Federacy (also new) without relying on an information dump in the author’s voice. Using young Firebird’s point-of view (POV) to make this speculation simply shows that these two governments are in conflict.
Ahead, light gleamed into their passage through an inner-wall chink. The palace’s builders, three hundred years before, had been more concerned with elegance than security. During her privileged childhood, Firebird had found many odd niches in this historic building where walls didn’t exactly meet, or where they came together at peculiar angles to create blind passageways. Palace security should have sealed every breach that gave illegitimate access to the electoral chamber. They’d missed this one.
“Three hundred years before” is another hint at local history, giving this aristocracy a long reign (from a U.S. viewpoint) without revealing its whole story just yet. That’s all the reader needs to know at this point, and it’s all the thought Firebird would give it right here.
On her next birthday, Firebird would be confirmed as a short-term elector. That was her right, an honor she would receive as an Angelo. Then, she would tell the House Guard and the electoral police about this passage.
But no sooner.
She reached the chink and peered through. Inside the grand chamber’s red walls, lined with portraits and gilt bas-relief false pillars, the Netaian systems’ twenty-seven electors sat at a U-shaped table that surrounded a small foreign delegation.
Karen Hancock was one of my critiquing partners while self-editing Firebird. I see her influence all over the opening paragraphs, especially her way of releasing back story and walking characters through the setting instead of describing it as if through a camera.
Firebird glimpsed the rest of her family. Her oldest sister and confidante, Carradee, sat beside the gilt chair of their mother, Siwann, a strong monarch who was already much more than the traditional electoral figurehead. Beyond Carradee lounged the middle Angelo sister, Phoena, the “beauty of the family” and Siwann’s obvious favorite. Though taller and lighter haired than Firebird, Phoena had the same delicate facial features and large, long-lashed dark eyes. They’d often been mistaken for each other, to the disgust of both.
Five strangers stood below the U-shaped table’s open foot. The two who’d stepped forward wore dress-white tunics and carried recall pads. One addressed the electors in clipped Old Colonial, the language of most colonized worlds in the Whorl’s great half circle of stars. “…as a surtax only on nonessential goods,” he declared, “such as …”
What was this, a trade delegation?
Phoena exchanged disdainful glances with the trade minister, Muirnen Rogonin. Maintaining an indolent slouch, Rogonin—the jowly Duke of Claighbro—flicked two fingers toward the man who’d spoken. “I would see no reason to levy a military assessment against a well-defended system such as Netaia, Admiral. Your logic is flawed.”
Admiral. Maybe their business wasn’t entirely trade, then—