A Gift for Nicholas by Honey Phillips
The child was watching him again. As usual, Ambassador Nicholsarian D’Jelosvenn pretended not to notice her as he continued the process of clearing away the trees destroyed when his spaceship had landed… unexpectedly on this backwater planet. He refused to refer to it as a crash, but it was undeniable that the landing had not been as controlled as he would have preferred. He had been aiming for the shoreline and had ended up amongst the trees on the hill overlooking the beach instead.
Only a minor miscalculation, he assured himself, as he took his axe - such a primitive instrument - to another fallen tree. At least clearing away the debris provided him with a way to maintain his strength while the nanobots repaired the damage to his ship. Even though he had always maintained the disciplined exercise regimen of a trained warrior, the physical labor had proven surprisingly challenging. It did not, however, provide much mental stimulation and he found himself wondering about his observer once more.
He had little experience, or interest, in children, and yet, he found himself intrigued. The child was surprisingly stealthy - not as skilled as a Tandroki, of course - but it had taken him longer than it should have done to realize he was under observation. When he had first stumbled out of his ship after the incident, he had thought he had seen signs of another presence. He had been on high alert for the first few days, but then he had relaxed his scrutiny - only to discover a week later that he was being watched.
Once he had realized that he was under observation, his first intention had been to eliminate the intruder, but then he had gotten a good look at his visitor and his concerns had disappeared. The child had no horns and no fangs. Its teeth were small and blunt, and even if it had retracted its claws as he did his, they would be far too tiny to cause any damage. Despite that, he knew that the young of other species could be dangerous. His second thought had been to trap the child and examine it in more detail.
He had gone as far as starting to create a pit trap in the woods – a laborious, manual process he did not remotely enjoy – when the child had done something completely unexpected. Arriving at the site while Nicholsarian was in the woods, the child had darted into the clearing and placed two objects on a slab of tree trunk he had been using as an unsatisfactory table. Intrigued, he went to investigate as soon as the child left. A piece of fabric enclosed two round brown objects with an oddly enticing aroma, while a small bottle held an unfamiliar white liquid.
He stared at them for a long, thoughtful moment. Was this some crude attempt to poison him? Surely whoever sent the child did not expect him to be so easily trapped? The very idea insulted him. Scooping up the unwelcome objects, he quickly disposed of them. His first reaction was to return the gesture with the much more subtle poisons he had at his disposal, but in the end, he discarded the idea. He had to make allowances for this primitive culture. No doubt they had never seen a true warrior before and were intimidated by his obvious prowess.
He proceeded to dismiss the matter, but a few days later, the child repeated the offering. Really, this was most annoying. Had he not already shown that he was too clever for their efforts? After he discarded the second attempt, he discovered a few crumbs from the brown objects clinging to his fingers. They really did smell most enticing, and he decided to perform an analysis. Perhaps even here under these primitive conditions, he could discover an additional weapon to add to his arsenal.
The analyzer hummed and whirred, then spat out the results. He stared at them in shock – the ingredients were nothing more than harmless materials frequently used in producing food. Why would the child have brought him food? Did it think him frail or unhealthy? Had this journey and the disturbance in his normal routine affected his physique? He quickly stripped off his red thermal suit and went to examine himself in the mirror. No, his muscles were still toned and strong, his horns gleamed from careful polishing, and his hair was still thick and lustrous.
Frowning, he pulled his clothes back on and went to double check the results of the analyzer. The second scan produced an identical report. A small trace of the substance remained and he cautiously lifted it to his nose. It still smelled just as enticing, and with the recklessness he had so sternly suppressed over the years, he placed it on his tongue. The flavor exploded in his mouth – rich and sweet and delicious, like nothing he had ever tasted before. And he had destroyed the rest of it! By the Horns of Moroz, his suspicion had led to him missing out on more of the delicious treat.
His interest in his observer became decidedly less casual. The next time he detected the presence of the child in the woods, he immediately abandoned his campsite. However, this time he concealed himself amongst the bushes and watched. The child peeked into the clearing to make sure that no one was present, then approached the table. Despite its initial caution, it showed no fear as it placed its offerings on the table. Instead, it lingered, looking curiously around the site.
Not it, he decided, she. Even in miniature, the child’s features were clearly feminine - big blue eyes set in a pale, defenseless face. The dark curls tumbling down from under a crude knitted hat made his fingers twitch with the urge to restore order and groom her properly. She approached the line of reactor panels he had disassembled for cleaning, and he almost revealed himself. The panels were fragile – one false touch could render them worthless. And… they could damage the child in return.
Before he could intervene, she moved away, and a few seconds later disappeared back into the woods. He waited cautiously to make sure that she had indeed left and was not observing from her favorite hiding place. As soon as he was sure she had departed, he went to investigate the day’s offering.
To his disappointment, the objects in the cloth were golden this time, rather than brown. But when he lifted them to his nose, the smell was equally delightful. He should perform another analysis, but for the first time in a very long time, he let his impulses overrule his caution and simply took a bite. He groaned in appreciation as the object crumbled deliciously in his mouth.
After a childhood of infrequent, scavenged meals, the plain but plentiful rations served at his training school had been a welcome change. Unlike the other cadets, he had never objected to the meals. Even after he graduated and his rank rapidly increased, he continued to favor a simple, basic approach to nutrition. But this – this was a revelation. Food not intended as fuel but simply as delight.
The sweetness still thick in his mouth, he turned to the bottle of white liquid. Could this be where the poison was hidden? Was the trap more subtle than he had anticipated? Was someone trying to lure him with the feast, and then take him unawares? But he remembered the child’s innocent face, and with the same reckless abandon, took a drink. Not as sweet as the golden objects, but cool and smooth and a perfect complement. He drank thirstily, and for the first time since he had crashed on this godsforsaken planet, he smiled.
It wasn’t until he had consumed the offering that his doubts resurfaced. Was it possible that the seemingly defenseless creature had been sent to spy on him and report back to the primitive beings who inhabited this planet? After considering the matter, he decided to send a drone to spy on the child. His plan had been successful. The child had immediately adopted the drone, disguised as a small, furry creature native to this planet, and always kept it at her side. This had allowed him to learn more about her primitive society. They were, of course, far inferior to his own people, the Tandroki, but he grudgingly admitted that they had shown some ingenuity in adapting to the primitive conditions on K.R.S. Three.
And then there was Jenna…
Jenna was the child’s biological parent – a small, curvy female with hair as dark as the moonless nights of Tandrok and eyes as blue as the uncontrolled skies of this planet. The first time he had seen her, his body had reacted in a most inappropriate way for a Tandroki male of his age and stature. The rush of desire had reminded him uneasily of his long-ago childhood. He had been an orphan, abandoned on the streets of Veleki without any recollection of his parents. He had used every ounce of his strength and intelligence to remove himself from those slums, eventually scheming his way into a training school for the Tandroki military where he ruthlessly proceeded to eliminate every trace of his ignoble background.
His efforts had been successful, but every time he encountered his chief rival, Krampasarian D’Marchandar, a privileged child of wealth and lineage, he had been conscious of his deficiencies. That sense of inferiority had continued to follow him as they both pursued a career in the Tandroki military. When they were picked as the two top candidates for the position of ambassador, he had been determined to come out on top. He had arranged for a small… accident to occur on Krampasarian’s ship. The damage would not be fatal, but it would be sufficient to make sure that Krampasarian could not participate in the preliminary rounds of interviews and social mingling.
He had been triumphant when his plans succeeded and he had successfully wooed the appropriate government and military officials and received the ambassadorship. But as the months wore on and Krampasarian did not reappear, a conscience he would have sworn he did not possess started to nag at him. Eventually it had grown strong enough to force him to leave the social season on Perchten and go in search of his rival.
That search had led him to K.R.S. Three, only to find his own ship in distress and forced to land on this primitive planet. As his ship hurtled through the atmosphere, he had caught a brief signal that might have come from Krampasarian’s ship, but he had been too focused on making sure that he – and his ship – survived the landing to concentrate on it. Once the nanobots currently repairing the damage to his ship reached the monitoring system, he hoped he would be able to recover the signal.
Unfortunately the repairs were a long and laborious process. He began to look forward to his daily visitor – only as a break in his routine, he assured himself. His interest in the child’s mother was not so easily dismissed. He wanted her with an unexpected intensity. With the same intensity he had felt as a child, fighting for scraps, and looking up to see a soldier in a crisp navy uniform strolling across the market square and buying any food he fancied. Or the first time he had seen a ship climbing into the sky as a young cadet. He wanted her the same way he had wanted them. But he had learned to hide those primitive, possessive instincts behind the veils of civilized Tandroki behavior.
He would not allow her - or anyone - to threaten what it had taken him so long to achieve. Discipline and self-restraint ruled his life, and with that in mind, he continued his work. He refused to leave the clearing until long after the child had disappeared from her hiding place. There would be no treats today, nothing to distract him.
It is for the best, he assured himself as he swung his axe again.