The late 24th century was a time of much upheaval and uncertainty for the Solar Republic. For the first time in over a hundred years, the core system was at the mercy of invasion and piracy, the planet Earth herself being occupied for more than a year by the Sliurne Imperium. With its territory reaching far and wide across the galaxy, even into parallel dimensions, the Republic was stretched far too thin for even the mighty Galactic Fleet to hold. Revolution was common, with at least one outer colony being seized by its governor and forced into secession. It is during this time of looming chaos and potential collapse, that the Magi began to take a larger role in the affairs of state, a role that would eventually lead to the Magi Regency.
The hovercab came to a stop before the airlock of the Thoris estate, a sprawling mansion of chrome and plastic on the moon's light side. From her seat in back, Arden pinged her access code to the estate's security AI. A voice made of music spoke through her wristcom.
"Ms. Thoris," it said. "Welcome home."
"Just visiting, X9," she replied. "Though it's nice to hear your voice."
The voice on the other end hesitated before speaking. "It was... appropriately familiar to receive transmission of your code earlier."
Arden laughed. "Thank you, X9."
The airlock opened and the cab entered. After a few moments, Arden heard the hiss of the door's vacuum-lock opening. A robot designed to resemble a smartly-dressed man hurried down the steps to open the door. Arden smiled at him as she stepped out. "Hello, Mr. Servo," she said.
"Ms. Thoris," he bowed. He directed some members of the staff toward the trunk for her bags, and another to the driver to pay Arden's fare.
"I can pay my own cab fare, Mr. Servo." She hefted a large pack out of the back seat and flung it over her shoulder. "And I've just the one bag."
"Of course, Ms. Thoris," he answered, waving the staff away from the trunk. The cab drove off and the two walked through a secondary airlock toward the house. "But as Lady Thoris has been most put out all day due to her only daughter, if I may, 'slumming it across the galaxy on public transit only to lower herself into a hovercab', it is perhaps best you allow his Lordship the honor of paying your fare."
Arden bent knee in the formal curtsy of the upper class. "I bow to your superior wisdom on the subject, sir."
Mr. Servo held open the door, a crackle of static conveying, in Arden's mind, irritation. "You have changed little, Ms. Thoris."
Arden kissed the old butler robot's cheek as they went their separate ways. "Likewise, Mr. Servo, thank all the gods of space."
She was still smiling as she entered her former bedroom, which was much as she'd left it years ago. She tossed her pack on a sofa near the window and sat on her bed.
"Arden?" A voice at the door made her look up.
"Arden, dearest, why wouldn't you let your father send his yacht?" Lady Thoris emoted her way across the room. "Honestly, to reduce yourself to public transit..." She was a tall woman, and slender, traits she passed on to her daughter. A mid-life obsession with maintaining that figure had left her gaunt and hunched, as though she lacked the muscle needed to hold her frame upright. Her fine features and impeccable wardrobe still rendered her a beauty in many people's eyes. The eyes of her daughter saw only the mother she knew grown old.
"Mother," Arden sighed, "I booked first-class passage on a luxury starliner. That hardly qualifies as public transit."
Lady Thoris waved her hand dismissively. "It is still public, dear."
"Of course, Mother."
Arden's mother noticed the full pack on the sofa. "I'll send Yslene to unpack your things as soon as--"
"Don't," Arden shook her head. "I won't be here long enough for unpacking."
A wave of irritation passed across Lady Thoris' face before finally settling into mild disappointment. "Oh, darling, why not? You've only just arrived."
"Can't be helped," Arden said. "I'm expected on Marros within a few days. I was only able to stop because my course passed by so close and it's been so long since I was home last."
Her mother clicked in disapproval. "Ah," she said. "Magi business."
Arden sighed. "Yes, Mother. What other business would I be in?"
"Any number of them, if I'd had my way," came her mother's retort. "Honestly, a woman of your breeding gallivanting about the cosmos with all manner of common riff-raff--"
"That's enough, Deering," Lord Thoris scolded as he walked through the door. "Any father would be proud to have a full Magi in the family." He beamed at his daughter. "There's my little Magi princess."
Arden fought the urge to roll her eyes. Ever since I passed novice training, she thought. "Father," she said, sounding more irritated than she felt.
"What?" He held his arms wide, protesting his innocence. "You used to love it when I called you that!"
"When I was six! I'm nearly thir--"
"Twenty-nine, dear," her mother said primly. "Women of our society may turn twenty-nine as often as we like."
Arden and her father both stifled a sigh, then glanced at each other and laughed. Arden gave her father a hug and a smile. "Hello, Father."
Later, as the family sat out on the domed terrace watching night chase day across the Earth, the subject of Arden's future came up.
"So, how goes the Ronin's Road?" her father asked.
"Well enough," she answered. "I've been spending the last few years roaming the frontier worlds. Raiders are a huge problem out there, where some oaf with a ship and a crew dumber than he is can land on a sparsely populated colony world, steal a whole lot of what people can't spare and be gone before anyone can call the Patrol." She grinned. "Of course, there's a lot less of that since word got around there's a Magi wandering the outer planets."
"I wish there were Magi here," he grumbled. "Marauders don't always stick to the outer planets, and the Patrol isn't always quicker in the core." He switched to a grin, saying, "So, no chance of calling you Paladin any time soon?"
Arden grinned at her father. "Why? are you offering me the Ellisport living?"
Her father met her eyes and asked, "Would you take it if I did?"
She thought a moment. "I might," she said, "but not for a while. I've walking yet to do on my Road, before I can take my Orders."
Lady Deering Thoris busied herself ordering refreshment via her loungecomm as she offered her comment. "Well, I suppose Paladin is a perfectly respectable profession, if one acquires a living of some merit. But really, couldn't you have used your influence, dear, to let her skip this dreadful Ronin business?" She turned a plaintive eye to her husband.
"Some things in this universe cannot be 'influenced', my dear." Lord Thoris rose from his chair and walked back toward the house.
The two women were silent a moment, then Arden spoke.
"Thank you, Mother."
Lady Thoris scowled. "Well, pardon me for--"
Arden held up her hand. "No, no. I'm sorry. That wasn't sarcasm. I was genuinely thanking you."
Her mother calmed, then looked at Arden, confused.
Arden smiled. "I recognize worry when I sense it, Mother. I am Magi."
Lady Thoris smiled, her eyes wet. "I never meant to disparage, or-or to make you think..." She dabbed at her eyes, regaining her composure. "I've always been proud of you, please don't doubt that."
Arden touched her mother's hand. "Not for a moment."
Lady Thoris nodded. "It's just... most Magi..."
"I know, Mother." Arden patted Lady Thoris' hand.
"...most Magi die... when they..."
"I know," her daughter whispered.
"They die as Ronin," her mother said softly.
"I can't promise I won't die," she said finally, "but I can promise when I leave this Road for the life of a Paladin, I'll take the living here."
Lady Thoris smiled, sitting quietly with her daughter.
The following morning started earlier than usual, with a loud siren that brought Arden awake instantly. She leaped from her bed, dressing and donning her boots before she reached the door. She was down the hall in an instant, meeting her father in his study.
"Pirates," he growled. "At the port, and a small band here." The estate shook. "They've forced their way through the airlock and are nearly into the house."
"Safe," Lord Thoris replied. "I planned for this years ago. I don't suppose you'd be willing to--"
"Don't be daft."
"So, they're coming in through the front entrance?" Arden looked at the screen in her father's desk, tracking the movements of the pirates through the estate.
"As we speak," he replied, glumly.
Arden grinned, energy emanating from the pentacle tattooed on her left palm and flowing between her hands. "I'll be back in a moment." She ran out of the study toward the stairs. The pirates would have to come up the stairs to raid the house. The downstairs could not be accessed from the entryway. What had been one of the great annoyances of Arden's childhhod was a blessing to her now, so long as she could reach the stairs before the pirates were all the way up. As she arrived, she saw they were nearly to the top.
The lead pirate fired at her, but she waved the bolt away with one glowing hand as she jumped up on to the railing of the balcony that overlooked the entryway. She ran toward the pirates, dodging their blaster fire, then leaped off the railing and kicked the lead pirate in the face, completing her spin and landing in a crouch, looking down toward her attackers. The pirates rushed forward, but with a wave of her hands, she erected a barrier of solid light at the top of the stairs. She held both hands up, maintaining the barrier, then pushed one hand forward, causing a light-spike to jut out, skewering the lead three pirates. As the remaining invaders struggled to hold their positions on the stairs against the falling bodies of their comrades, Arden dissolved the wall, jumped up into the air, and let fly a barrage of glowing darts that pierced the skulls of all but one of the pirates. She landed gently at the foot of the stairs just as the last remaining pirate tumbled down. He looked up at her from his place at her feet. She glowered down at him.
"Magi," he gasped.
"You talk," she growled, "and I turn you over to the police. You tell me what syndicate you're working for, and you get to live out your sad little life on an asteroid somewhere. Refuse to tell me, or worse, lie to me, and I'll trap you in the event horizon of a black hole, where you'll spend eternity dissolving into void."
The pirate swallowed hard, blinked, then nodded. "I'll talk!"
Arden smiled. "There's a smart boy."
"It was one of the Earth syndicates," he said later, tied to a chair in Lord Thoris' study, "he wouldn't say which one."
"He?" Arden glared.
"The guy who gave us the job. He said he was Earther, but wouldn't say what boss he worked for."
"And who were you lot?"
"Smugglers and killers, most of us. We're who you called if you wanted something stolen, and wanted the thieves to be ugly about it."
Arden scowled. "But not you. You're going to tell me that you're just a hapless smuggler, got mixed up with the wrong gang?"
"No, ma'am," said the pirate. "I'm one of the worst killers of the bunch." He smiled. "I work mostly with knives." He stood, severed ropes falling away, and brandished a small knife. "Event horizon of a black hole," he said with a laugh. "Please. I've fought Magi before." He moved to throw the knife, but a glowing spike through his brain caused it to fall from a limp hand. The spike withdrew, and the pirate's corpse fell to the floor.
"Arden!" her father shouted, aghast.
"This is the Road I walk, Father," Arden said calmly. "Yes, it is a brutal one, often far worse than this. When it stops being so, I can begin to consider the life of a Paladin." She gestured to the dead pirate. "This one knows nothing. My spike read his thoughts before it killed him." She turned and walked from the room, calling back to her father over her shoulder, "I'm taking one of the speeders to the port. Call ahead to the guards there, let them know a Magi is coming."
Lord Thoris was quiet and still for long moments after his daughter left.