Standing quietly at the foot of the Empress Novia's bed, Stark waited patiently as members of the woman's family made their farewells. The thinness of her frame beneath rich robes, the gray in her hair no longer held at bay cosmetically, the lines in her face, and the labored breathing, all proclaimed age and infirmity. Even in her current frail physical condition, however, Novia had a strong and demanding spirit, and it was her will that had sent the royal functionaries away arns earlier, leaving her surrounded only by her daughter, the Princess Katralla, soon to be the new Empress, and Katralla's consort and young daughter. Katralla was red-eyed with grief, her mate stoic, and the pretty blonde child, perhaps four cycles old, watched them all with bewildered blue eyes. The large room was surprisingly grand for a bed chamber, with high ceilings, bright lights, and drapes of gold and silver. Surely even an empress would want a room of warmth and comfort for her own quarters, rather than a place that could double as an audience chamber?
It was Stark's understanding that the Hynerian Dominar, Rygel XVI, had been the one to suggest that he, as Stykera, be called in to help ease the old empress' passage to the other side. Stark wondered what had induced the woman to agree. In his experience, those with worldly power generally felt no need of aid to pass over. Stark's attention was drawn back to the dying woman by a gasp from her daughter. "Stykera!"
"Yes, yes," he said softly, stepping quickly to the head of the bed. Senses opened, he could see that Katralla was right. It was time.
Stark reached out and took Novia's hand, allowing himself to notice the paper thin feel of her skin, more evidence that in the end, even the best medical treatment could not withstand the inexorable passage of time. Novia turned her head towards him on her pillow, and the look in her green eyes was still startlingly unyielding. They assessed each other for a few microts, and then she blinked. Stark took that as agreement to begin the passage, and closed his eyes momentarily as he set his power free of the confines of his body and directed it towards the dying woman.
When he opened his eyes again, he was startled to find that he appeared to be sitting inside a small spacecraft of some kind. The type of ship was not immediately apparent to Stark, but it had two seats, and he was in the rear. Without moving, he looked around, assessing the situation. Stars glittered through the windows. He suspected Novia was "piloting," though he couldn't see her through the tall black leather seat in front of him. How odd. The dying had shown him many, many places over the cycles, but he'd expected something more...regal...than a tiny ship from someone like the Empress. "Novia?" he called.
Without preamble, freed from the confines of its failing body, a renewed voice demanded from the front of the ship, "Why are we in a prowler, Stykera? Surely the spirit needs no physical transport!"
Ah! The "ship" was a fighter, one Novia had probably seen more than once over the cycles, in her dealings with the Peacekeepers. Stark grinned in understanding. "You are correct, Empress," he said. "Your spirit has no need of transport, and we are not moving. This setting is of your own devising."
"What does that mean?" she said peevishly.
"It means," he said, "that you are not yet at peace, not yet ready to cross over, though your body demands it. This ship is a fighter, and that is a symbol of your strong will. That in itself would not hold you here in this limbo. So it must also symbolize your regrets."
"Nonsense! I have no regrets!" she snapped. "I have lived my life for my people, and done an able job for them! Neither Scarrans nor Peacekeepers, nor any other outsiders have gained so much as a toehold in our territories during my reign. I received the trust from my father, and have passed it on to my daughter, intact and strong. Katralla is prepared for her duty, and the succession is secured. What regrets could I have?"
Stark listened with more than just his ears, stretched out his soul and felt for the truth in what she said. Truth was there in her words...but it was incomplete. He shook his head, even though she couldn't see him. "You have done all these things, and they are admirable. And yet I still sense a yearning about you," he told her. "The Empress acquitted herself well in her life. But what of Novia?"
The stars outside twinkled as she considered his question. At last she confessed, "I would have liked to be free, just for a little while, to do what I wanted to do, not what I had to."
There was longing in her voice, and Stark had no doubt that that was true. "That explains the other meaning of this ship," he said. "It represents the chance you never had to explore your own desires." He reached out to her spirit again, looking for well-hidden truth. "But I don't believe that is what is keeping you here. You must look deeper."
At his words, the prowler vanished, and he and the Empress Novia found themselves standing on an endless, featureless plane of white. They stood facing each other, perhaps a motra apart, and Stark noted that she looked much younger than she had in the world of the living. As most souls did when they left the body, she'd instinctively chosen a stronger image of herself to carry to the other side. Still, her face was troubled. Stark sent soothing thoughts to her, helping her to dig deeply into herself, looking for what was keeping her here, on the edge.
At last she sighed and then stood up tall and looked Stark in the eyes. Her position was all defiance, but her words, when they came, were full of self-reproach. "I bitterly regret that I failed my son. Clavor was..." She hesitated for a moment, unwilling to speak ill of her offspring, and then continued just where she'd left off. "Clavor was weak, greedy, and easily led. I knew that. But I loved him, and I turned a blind eye to his actions, even to his attack on his sister, and his alliance with the Scarrans. If I had taken him in hand, I might have had to kill him myself – but at least he would not have died as he did. He would not have suffered."
Stark considered this. He knew the story, and knew she was right – and also that this pain was what was holding her here, in this halfway house between life and death. He sighed. "We all do foolish things for love, Novia. Often they are the things we regret the most." He thought for a moment, and added, "You will be able to tell your son how you feel when you see him on the other side."
"You will," he promised, and from nowhere, he produced a gilded qualta blade, the image of which he kept in his heart, a remembrance of a long-departed Luxan friend. He held the blade out to Novia, hilt first.
She took the weapon in her hands and let it dip towards the "ground," then looked at Stark, puzzled.
"Cut the bonds that hold you here," he directed gently.
Novia stared at him for a long moment. "Stykera," she said at last, "will you tell my daughter something for me?"
"Of course, Empress."
"Tell her that I wish I had allowed her more time to be herself, and not just the Crown Princess. Tell her she should allow her daughter the chance to explore life while she is young, before she assumes the burdens of her duty."
Stark nodded solemnly.
Satisfied, the Empress Novia drew the qualta blade across the space between them, and faded away, blade clattering to the ground.
Stark reclaimed his souvenir and gazed at it with satisfaction. Job done, the weapon and the white plane vanished as Novia had, and with a start, Stark came to himself in the Empress' bedchamber. He looked down at the body on the bed, still now, and let go of Novia's hand. He turned his gaze to Katralla. The new Empress' eyes were filled with tears and grief. "It is done," he said gently. "She is at peace." As tears rolled down Katralla's face, he added, "And she has a message for you...."