We have a small announcement for you this morning. Sweep of the Heart has exceeded the novella length. Therefore it is now SWEEP OF THE HEART, a novel.
The Story So Far:
Kosandion, the Sovereign of the 7 Star Dominion, has arrived at the inn to begin the selection of his future spouse. He is assisted by Resven, his chancellor, and Miralitt, the head of his security. 12 spousal candidates made it through to this final selection. Now they have to introduce themselves once more to remind everyone who they are and what they stand for.
In the last installment, 5 delegations introduced themselves:
- the elf-like psionic Gaheas and their candidate Nycati,
- the the six-limbed Kai and their human candidate Prysen,
- the homicidal Dushegub trees and their dryad-like candidate Unessa,
- the calculating vampires of House Meer and their knight Bestata,
- the aggressive Otrokars of the Southern Tribes and their champion, Surkar
We have 7 delegations to go. Dina, Sean, and the Gertrude Hunt will need lots of luck and patience.
The Higgra didn’t bother with a human, like the Donkamins and Oomboles. Their candidate was 2 feet tall at the shoulder, stood on four legs, and was covered with brilliant white fur splattered with flecks of gold and grey. Although her height matched the Earth’s leopard, her build was lighter, and her legs were longer. She had an unmistakably feline face with big golden eyes, and her seemingly delicate paws with dexterous fingers hid razor-sharp claws. Her gums and tongue were a vivid Prussian Blue, her name meant cyanide, and as usual, the Higgra insisted on the literal translations of their names. Cyanide promised to teach her children to observe the world and make sound judgements. In complete harmony, of course.
The Donkamins were next, and I’d confirmed my suspicions. The Donkamins didn’t only freak out the Earth-born humans. They freaked out everyone. When their candidate strode into the open to deliver their message of scientific exploration and harmony, every humanoid in the room made valiant efforts to look elsewhere.
One of the Dominion’s delegations was next. I’d started calling them Team Smiles and Team Frowns based on their expressions, and this one was the Smile one. Their candidate was an enthusiastic young woman, a typical Dominion citizen – taupe skin, big grey eyes, and soft dark grey hair, which she had styled in an asymmetric wave. From her looks alone, she could’ve been Resven’s niece, and she gazed upon Kosandion with worshipful adoration. She mentioned unity and harmony twice in four sentences.
The Murder Birds were next. Their candidate was a remarkably handsome stocky man with dark bronze skin and shockingly pale silver eyes. His dark hair, frosted with white, curved from his head in an asymmetric cut that would’ve given manga artists fits of jealousy. His name was Pivor. He smiled a lot, delivered his speech about cooperation between species and harmony, and returned to his place, obviously pleased with a job well done.
The Frowns Dominion delegation presented an unusual candidate. She was tall and muscled like a gymnast, and she moved with a natural grace. Her skin was the deepest indigo, her eyes were black, and her glossy dark hair, braided into a complex arrangement, rode on her head like a crown. An Uma, same as Kosandion’s mother.
Seeing an Uma outside their world was extremely rare.
The Uma had been discovered a thousand years ago by Earth’s time by one of the slimier Galactic nations. The newcomers arrived bearing gifts and sweet promises, and it took almost twenty years before the Uma realized they were not being helped, they were being colonized. The invaders severely underestimated the Uma spirit. In less than a century, they were purged from the planet, and the Uma shut their doors to most of Galactic visitors. The lucky few who had been invited told a story of a beautiful world populated by fierce people.
The candidate, whose name was Ellenda, glared at the gathering. Her speech hit the talking points, but her tone seemed almost defiant. She mentioned progress and harmony and strode back to Team Frown with her head held high.
It was the Oombole turn now. Their candidate, a fish that looked like someone had painted it with fire, treated us to a frenzied display of jazz fins, and their translation software was clearly having issues.
“… raised the offspring to seek safety and to swim in a way that doesn’t shower those behind them in body fluids.”
Right. Don’t pee on your fellow citizens.
“Thank you, Candidate Ooond for this refreshing definition of harmony,” Kosandion said. “I believe we have only one candidate left.”
Lady Wexyn glided into the open and smiled. There was something so infectious about that smile. It made you want to smile back.
She leaned forward slightly, making the delicate birds on the golden branches of her headpiece tilt. “Do I say it now, Your Majesty?”
“Yes,” Kosandion said.
Resven clenched his hands together, probably to keep from slapping one of them over his own face.
“I am Lady Wexyn of the Temple of Desire!” she announced.
We waited. Seconds ticked by.
“Lady Wexyn, would you like to tell us how you would raise our child?” Kosandion prompted.
She smiled wider, her eyes innocent and clear, like a night sky lit up by starlight. “Of course. I will love them most of all, Your Majesty. They would be my favorite.”
It took Kosandion another five seconds to realize it was all he was going to get. “Thank you, Lady Wexyn.”
She sashayed back to her people who swarmed her with whispered congratulations.
“On that note, we shall conclude the introductions,” Kosandion announced. “Tomorrow we shall convene for the first of the final challenges. Rest well.”
I glanced at Gaston.
He stepped forward. “We humbly beg you to join us for the evening meal.”
I flicked my hand. The Dushegubs fell through the floor into their Pit, where they would find six pig carcasses floating in a foot of dark water. We had asked the delegations in advance if they preferred to dine in public or in private. The Dushegubs didn’t get a choice.
About half of the delegations chose private dining. The rest we divided between the three dining halls. I ended up in the Ocean Dining Room, mainly because Kosandion took one look at the balcony facing the sea and determined that this would be his preferred view. Of the other two dining halls, one offered a vista of our orchard, where Sean currently had his hands full with the Otrokars and the Temple. The third dining hall presented a beautiful view of Saturn and was overseen by Tony.
The Sovereign wanted to dine in privacy but still be seen, so I sectioned off a portion of the balcony with a see-through soundproof barrier and keyed it to Resven so a request from him would adjust the barrier’s transparency. Besides him, five other groups were in the dining hall: the Holy Ecclesiarch with his party, House Meer, Team Smiles, the Gaheas, and the observers.
Everyone seemed focused on their meal, which was as expected considering who cooked it. I strode between the tables a couple of times to make sure everything was going smoothly and parked myself by the wall.
Team Smiles were relaxed and laughing. Their candidate, the one who stared worshipfully at Kosandion during the ceremony, kept sneaking glances at the partition probably hoping he would look her way. House Meer ate like they were in enemy territory, watching everyone around them. At some point they relaxed enough to talk, which I considered progress. The Gaheas were performing incredible fits of dexterity at their table. They ate with four utensils, holding them two per hand, and they sliced tiny pieces from their food like a team of superstar surgeons.
The Holy Ecclesiarch had barely touched his plate. He was looking a bit mournful.
I drifted over to his table and murmured softly. “Is the food not to your liking, Your Holiness?”
“Your hospitality is beyond reproach,” he said.
He looked at his plate of lean fish and vegetables arranged with such artistic flair, it should’ve been photographed for posterity. “It is beautiful. Alas, I have grown older.”
The members of the Dominion’s most numerous species experienced a diminished sense of taste in the final decade of life. It never went away completely, but for them the flavors became muted. The profiles of their meals grew spicier and bolder to stimulate their tired tastebuds. Any galactic chef knew this, let alone a Red Cleaver one.
“No worries,” I told him. “I will be back.”
I walked away to the wall, snapped up a transparent soundproof barrier around myself, and pulled up a screen to the kitchen.
He appeared on the screen, a looming dark mass of quills. Things must’ve been hectic.
“What’s going on with the Holy Ecclesiarch’s food?”
His spikes trembled. “I was given specific dietary requirements due to health restrictions.” His voice told me exactly what he thought of that.
“His time is coming to an end, and mild food isn’t going to make a difference. He has only a few meals left. I will take full responsibility.”
Orro clapped his clawed hands together. “Then I will dazzle!”
“Go for it.”
I dropped the barrier. Five minutes later the Holy Ecclesiarch’s plate sank into his table and a new plate appeared, presenting a fish that had been scaled, cooked, sliced into sections, reassembled so the sections resembled scales, and soaked in a rich dark broth. The aroma of spices drifted on the slight breeze. The elderly man took a single bite and smiled at me.
I drifted through the dining room again. House Meer was about mid-way through their meal. The Smiles delegation finished the main course and moved on to their customary tea and dessert course, which meant they would stay parked for another half an hour. Half of the observers had left. Only Dagorkun, Cookie, Karat, and Tomato remained at the table. Tomato hailed from a republic neighboring the Dominion. He was green-furred and a bit bear like. His translation software had informed him that his name phonetically matched tomatoes, and upon arrival, he assured me that he was not a fruit.
I checked on Caldenia. She was in one of the terminal rooms, accessing the Gertrude Hunt news database. Gaston was with her. His mission for today was to stick to her like glue. I didn’t want any surprises.
Karat saw me looking and waved me over. I approached their table.
“Your sister said you would provide all necessary information to me.”
Thanks, Maud. “What can I clarify for you?”
She glanced in the direction of the semi opaque partition obscuring Kosandion and his party. “That man doesn’t strike me as unintelligent. He knows who he’s going to marry. Why is he bothering with this farce?”
The other three observers stared at me with rapt attention.
This would take a bit of time to explain. I glanced around the dining hall. Everything seemed calm. I summoned a chair out of the floor and sat.
Karat blinked. “Their ratings? He’s ranking them?”
“Not him. The entire Dominion. Everything that happens is being recorded and broadcast back throughout their territory. The citizens are watching it and vote in approval or disapproval.”
“They vote on the likability of the spouses?” Karat raised her eyebrows. “Why? This shouldn’t be a popularity contest. He is their monarch. It’s his choice.”
Trying to figure out how to explain a concept alien to most species was surprisingly difficult.
“Are you familiar with the Bluebug hivemind?” I asked.
Dagorkun grimaced. “They are a massive pain.”
“It.” Tomato plucked some cherries from his plate with his alarmingly long claws.
“It, they, no matter.” Dagorkun shrugged.
“No,” Tomato said. “That is precisely the matter.”
“The Dominion isn’t a hivemind,” Karat said. “If they were, there would be no need for the broadcast. You would only need one of them here.”
“You’re right,” I said. “They are not hivemind, but they are linked. It’s not a telepathic link via intelligence. It’s more of a collective empathy.”
“I don’t follow,” Karat said.
I would lean on Sean for this. “Have you fought on Nexus?” I asked.
“There must have been times in battle when your force rallied. When things seemed lost, but you saw a single knight rise to the challenge. An act of bravery, a sacrifice, a display of courage, and suddenly the mood changed and those who had been dejected before became inspired. And then you charged in a single wave and felt…”
“Exuberant,” Karat finished.
“Revived,” Dagorkun added. “We have a word for it. Kausur. Collective courage.”
“For the citizens of the Dominion, that feeling extends beyond the battlefield. It’s a loose connection but it’s always active. Even though there are different species within the Dominion, somehow they all feel a measure of this collective empathy. After a few years, those who emigrate to the Dominion also develop it. There is even a celebration to mark one’s ability to sense the collective mood.”
“That’s horrific.” Karat drained her glass. “I do not want to be plugged into anyone’s feelings but my own. I don’t like people. I don’t want to like what they like. I make exceptions for family, but there are times when I can barely tolerate even them.”
“Agreed,” Dagorkun said. “When I give an order, I don’t want to know if they like it or agree. I just need them to do it.”
Karat shook her head. “How does their army not disintegrate under the weight of all those feelings? How ever do they fight?”
“Very well,” Tomato said. “They’re a machine, disciplined and united. Their morale is impossible to break.”
“When they decide to resort to violence, it’s because an overwhelming majority of them feel it is justified. They are united in their righteousness,” I said.
“But they’re still individuals,” Dagorkun said. “There will be dissent.”
“There is, and if the dissent grows too large, those united by it will abandon cause,” I said. “The Dominion’s civil wars are the bloodiest in the galaxy. It’s not a matter of policy or interests. It’s all fueled by emotion. Kosandion is a monarch, the executive head of their state. Their policies and laws are enacted by him, but they’re dictated by legislative, judicial, and religious branches.”
“So what happens if the sovereign becomes unpopular?” Dagorkun asked.
“At first, it will produce a collective anxiety,” I said. “People will become more irritable. You will see the rise in general rudeness, lack of patience, and disproportionately severe reactions to small annoyances. The people of the Dominion will sense the discontent among their peers and will want to disconnect from those feelings, but there’s no escape. If the situation is allowed to worsen, the stress-related breakdowns will increase. Conception rates will drop, and miscarriages will occur more often, because the collective unhappiness indicates that now is not a good time to have a child and activates certain biological mechanisms to lower the birth rate. Their collective immunity will falter, making the population vulnerable to plagues. Brawls will break out in the streets, and there will be a sharp uptick in spree killers.”
The vampire and the otrokar stared at me. Cookie smiled into his whiskers. He hadn’t said a word this entire time. He just listened.
“Eventually, a chunk of the population will snap in self-defense, and someone will murder the Sovereign,” I finished.
Tomato nodded. “We’ve watched it happen. It is the same for the Six Star Supremacy, the Dominion’s sister empire.”
The first time I had seen the collective empathy of the Dominion in action, I was sixteen years old. I had decided I wanted to go to college, and that morning I went to take my SATs. I had told my family in advance. I scheduled it. I paid for it. Everyone agreed to let me be. It should’ve been a quiet morning. The inn had about a hundred visitors. Klaus and Mike were off on a fishing trip with Dad. Maud and Mom were at home, holding the fort, and between the two of them, they didn’t need my help with anything.
When I finished and turned my phone back on, I had three messages from Mom telling me to get home as soon as I could. I felt so annoyed. My family treated my entire high school adventure like it was a hobby or a fad. Something I did that wouldn’t really matter. Meanwhile, in school, every teacher and coach preached college nonstop. You went to college, or you were a loser.
I had studied my ass off for those exams. I didn’t even get a good luck or how’d it go?
I got home, sensed my mom in our garden, went there, and when I stepped outside, into my carefully nurtured botanical wonderland, I smelled this terrible bitter smoke. We were hosting a large group from the Dominion and the Six Star Supremacy. They were an extended family traveling on a sightseeing trip to celebrate their reunion. That morning, while I took my exams, they had set their hair and clothes on fire.
I walked through the garden among people smeared with ash, moaning and weeping, some catatonic, rocking back and forth, until I found my mother. Mom could handle any emergency the universe chose to throw at her, but that morning, she stood there, glassy-eyed, unable to stop their suffering.
It was the day Caldenia murdered Kosandion’s father.
“Kosandion isn’t just trying to score points,” I said. “By involving the whole nation in his choice of a spouse, he is letting them feel like they matter. Even if their preferred candidate doesn’t make it to the altar, their opinion still counted. They were engaged, they were given a voice, and they were a part of it.”
“It goes deeper than that,” Caldenia said behind me.
She had been heading our way for a bit now. I wasn’t sure if she was looking for me or if she was just hungry. Apparently, she was looking for me.
The observers turned to her.
“Kosandion will chose his spouse, and he will make sure the Dominion feels it is also their choice. They will be loyal to that person, because they have chosen them, and when the child is born, they will transfer that loyalty to Kosandion’s heir. That child will be beloved and cherished, and the entire Dominion will be invested in their future. That is how dynasties persist and thrive.”
Caldenia looked at me. “If I could have a word?”
I rose. “Of course, Your Grace.”