This is the fifth and final installment of "New Management", a fanfic prequel to Isaac Asimov's early blood-and-thunder space opera "Black Friar of the Flame". The first four installments can be found here, here, here, and here.
Wern Thorba was a simple man from the valley of the Serru River. The younger son of a yeoman farmer, Thorba had inherited a modest sum of money upon his father's death, while his eldest brother inherited the family farm. Thorba had looked into the future, and seen a life spent laboring for his brother. This, he decided, was not the life he wanted, so he left the farm and went out to seek his fortune.
For a man of humble origins, the choice of occupations were few: farm laborer, or the priesthood, or soldiering. He had even less wish to work on a stranger's farm than on his brother's, and he felt no calling to serve the Gods, so he signed on with Captain Jord Skarda, and for four years had marched and fought across the sea in the Tresinuic Empire. Four years had ended with Skarda's capture and death at the hands of the barbarian Drantu, and the breakup of his company. Thorba had taken ship back to Lhasi, and was in Lhasinu at the court of King Carg seeking employment in the Royal Guard.
Entering the King's service, though, was no easy task. Lhasi was at peace, and likely to remain so as long as the Tresinuic Emperor was preoccupied fighting off the Drantu. The waiting list for a position in the Guard was currently about half a year long, and the price asked by the Guardmaster to jump him to the front of the list was far beyond his means. He might join the retinue of one of the nobles, but that didn't appeal to him. It mostly meant bullying the noble's peasants, and Thorba had seen enough of that sort of thing under Captain Skarda to last him a lifetime. Worse, if you spent long enough doing something like that, you started to like it. Thorba had seen men like that, and had no wish to become one himself. For now, he remained in Lhasinu hoping something would turn up.
He was in the throne room one day, watching the petitioners present their appeals to the King, when he heard the chamberlain announce, "Presenting to His Majesty the learned Nelda Hartz of the sky people, and members of her company." Thorba found himself craning his neck to see over the heads of the crowd. He had heard of the sky people, as who had not? They were said to occupy a villa here in the capital, and to have command of flying ships that sailed up to the sky and back. He was near the door to the throne room, so he got a good look at the sky people as they entered.
There were eleven of them in all. They seemed much like people at first glance, but the longer you looked at them the stranger they appeared. They all wore far more clothing than normal; with one exception, they were covered from neck to foot. They all had jutting noses, scaleless skin, and most bizarre of all, fur growing from the tops of their heads. As far as Thorba knew, most animals had scaly skin, just like people did; the only exception were the sarks, small pests that gnawed holes in walls and stole food, that had bodies covered in fur. If you took a sark, and changed it around to look like a person, the result would be very much like the sky people.
Five of the eleven wore tan uniforms, and another four wore blue, all with trousers like those worn by the northern barbarians. The leader of the group, the learned Nelda Hartz, wore a long, dark blue skirt and a white long-sleeved shirt, and carried a wide-brimmed dark blue hat in her left hand. The final member of the group also wore a long-sleeved shirt and carried a wide-brimmed hat, but he at least wore a civilized kilt woven in an unfamiliar but pleasant pattern of checks.
Hartz, the kilted man, and the five tan-clad guards (for so they clearly were), all bowed at the proper distance from the throne. The four blue-clad men belatedly followed suit. King Carg said, "Arise, my guests. Well do we know the learned Nelda Hartz, and her herald Weyum Mac Innis, and her Captain of Guards Anton Kora Vek. We bid you welcome. Who are your companions? For we do not recognize them, nor the fashion of their raiment."
The kilted herald, Weyum Mac Innis, spoke with the men in blue in a harsh tongue unfamiliar to Thorba. One of them answered briefly in the same language, and Mac Innis turned to address the King. "Your Majesty, I present to you the Sea Lord Ro Bon Hwa and his lieutenant Nwen Con Dan. The Sea Lord has come to seek Your Majesty's permission to recruit a company from among Your Majesty's subjects."
"Where would this company serve?" Carg asked.
"Your Majesty," Mac Innis answered without consulting his chief, "they would serve with the sky people, out among the stars."
That remark caused a murmur of astonishment among those present, and no wonder. Thorba had heard it said that the sky people literally came from the sky. Now a sky man had confirmed it from his own lips.
A sudden urgency gripped Thorba. He had come to Lhisanu seeking his future, and now here it had come seeking him. Thorba felt the hands of the Gods guiding events. Surely it was fate that had put him here at the Royal Palace just as the sky people had come seeking men such as him. With the sense of a man fulfilling his destiny, Thorba stood forth from the assembled courtiers and petitioners and spoke out: "Your Majesty, I urge you to grant the sky man's petition."
"Who are you, then, good man? Are you one of my subjects?"
"I am, Your Majesty. I am Wern Thorba of the Serru River country, a landless younger son seeking to make his way in the world. I came here seeking a place in your Royal Guard, but if you will permit it, I would join the company of the Sea Lord Ro Bon Hwa and serve among the stars."
Another man among the King's petitioners stood forth, a man of the northern hill country by his accent. "And I, Your Majesty. I am Sker Perna, likewise a landless younger son. I too would join the company of the sky people." As though Perna's words had unleashed a flood, a score more of those present offered to join the company of the sky people.
Carg raised his hand, and the Guardmaster, standing at his left, called for silence. Those present quickly ceased their speech. The King said into the silence, "I am well mindful of the many landless among my subjects seeking for employment where they may. If they wish to take service with the sky people, they may do so with my blessing. Sea Lord Ro Bon Hwa, your petition is granted. Form your company as you will, and may my subjects serve you well among the stars."
Ro Bon Hwa bowed low and spoke in his own harsh tongue. Mac Innis translated, "The Sea Lord Ro offers many thanks to Your Majesty." The Sea Lord spoke again, and Mac Innis relayed, "The Sea Lord Ro says further that all who would take service with him may come to the place of the sky people at the second interval after sunrise, there to be mustered into his company."
Thorba spared a glance then for the learned Nelda Hartz. Even though he had never set eyes upon the sky people before this day, it seemed to him that disappointment settled upon her frame. She, at least, did not think the King's decision a good one. Perhaps Thorba would learn why, after he had joined the company of the sky people.