Read At Empire's Edge Online

Authors: William C. Dietz

At Empire's Edge (25 page)

BOOK: At Empire's Edge
Cato looked into Alamy’s eyes. In spite of the fear she felt, it was peaceful there. So much so that he wished he could just stand and stare. The problem was that Hingo was correct. Alamy
a slave, and Hingo could treat her any way that he chose, so long as Nalomy allowed him to do so. And there was no evidence to suggest that the Procurator cared one way or the other. So the reality was that his intervention could and probably would cause trouble for the girl. Truth be told, it was possible that her friend Persus was correct. But Cato didn’t want Alamy to give herself to Hingo even if he wasn’t sure why. “I’m sorry if I made the situation worse,” he said. “Stay away from him if you can. In the meantime, I’ll look for an opportunity to speak with him. Who knows? Maybe I can bring him around.”
Alamy had little hope of that, but knew that the police officer meant well, and bowed her head respectfully. “I’ll do my best. I must go now, or I’ll be in trouble.”
Cato released her hand and took a step backward. Alamy made as if to leave, seemed to think better of it, and turned his way. Cato felt her lips brush his cheek and barely had time to breathe in the soap-fresh smell of her before Alamy was gone.
The city of Solace, on the planet Dantha
place where things always made sense, even if the outside world didn’t. Rather than being in the palace where civilians held sway, Pasayo’s headquarters were located in a separate building that looked out onto a small parade ground and the glaringly white barracks beyond.
This arrangement conferred numerous benefits on the officer, including the fact he had at least double the amount of space that would have been allotted him inside the palace. That was important, because the walls of Pasayo’s office were hung with more than two dozen hunting trophies.
As a result, visitors were forced to walk the length of a long narrow room while being subjected to the glassy-eyed scrutiny of a coterie of snarling beasts, all of whom had fallen to Pasayo’s rifle, compound bow, or in one case a fiber-composite spear. So, as Specialist Nalan completed that intimidating journey, and crashed to a halt in front of his commanding officer’s fortresslike desk, he was extremely nervous. “Specialist Nalan, reporting as ordered,
Pasayo looked up from the latest intelligence summary and nodded. “At ease, soldier. . . . I was reading your report. It’s interesting, not to mention a bit disturbing. If I understand the situation correctly, you were undercover in Solace for two weeks. During that time you took part in various clandestine meetings sponsored by the so-called resistance. And, based on what you both saw and heard, it’s your belief that organized opposition to Procurator Nalomy’s rule continues to increase. Is that correct?”
Nalan’s eyes were focused on a point approximately six inches above his superior’s head. “Sir, yes, sir,” the intelligence specialist answered.
Pasayo eyed the soldier thoughtfully as he toyed with a silver stylus. It was tipped with a bullet that had been removed from one of his most memorable kills. “Furthermore, you indicate that while a significant portion of the population believes the Emperor ignorant of what they view as deplorable conditions on Dantha, others see the Legate’s visit as a reason for hope and plan to stir up trouble while he’s here. Would you agree with my characterization?”
“Sir! Yes, sir,” the soldier responded stoutly.
“So,” Pasayo continued thoughtfully, tapping his chin with the stylus. “Tell me what
in your report. Tell me what you think we should do to counter the resistance.”
Most officers
sought opinions from their subordinates. But Pasayo was one of those rare individuals who had risen step by step up through the enlisted ranks to become not only an officer but commander of all the militia troops on Dantha. The rank of General was reserved for Imperial officers, but Pasayo had been loyal to Nalomy. And he had reason to believe that she would engineer a transfer for him once she was appointed to higher office.
Though unaware of all the politics involved, Nalan was both shocked and pleased to be asked for his opinion by such a high-ranking officer, and sought to frame his reply as succinctly as possible. “Sir,” the soldier replied, “as you know, the simplest and most direct way to defeat any organization is to kill its leaders.”
Pasayo was silent for a moment. Then, as he eyed the heads that lined the walls to both the right and left, he nodded. “Thank you, Specialist Nalan. I couldn’t agree more.”
The tour was to be an all-day affair, beginning at the palace, and taking Legate Usurlus to various points of interest in and around Solace. These included a school attended by children of wealthy families, a medical clinic established for the Procurator’s supporters, and the new water-treatment plant which had been constructed by an off-planet firm working under a no-bid contract.
Each stop in the daylong series of visits was to be documented by Nalomy’s Office of Public Information, then shipped to the news combines on Corin. There the narrative would become part of a carefully woven tapestry of self-serving stories calculated to position the Nalomy clan for the ultimate prize: the family patriarch Tegor Nalomy as successor to Emperor Emor.
So there was a good deal of hustle and bustle as staff members ran to and fro on various errands, a motorcade was assembled in front of the palace, and Legate Usurlus left the palace through the front door. He was impeccably dressed and appeared to be in good spirits as he paused to say a few words to Nalomy before entering an armor-plated limo. It was a closed vehicle that had been painstakingly swept for bugs and was equipped with running boards for use by his bodyguards.
Then, with a brace of powerful gyrostabilized unicycles leading the way, the motorcade left. And the
Usurlus watched it go. Because he was disguised as one of his own bodyguards, a fortunate fellow who, having been confined to the Legate’s bedroom for the day, was presumably taking a nap.
As the motorcade disappeared in the distance, and Nalomy retreated into the palace, Usurlus and five bodyguards made their way to the front gate, where a guard scanned their passes and allowed the group to pass. “Lucky bastards,” he said to a second guard, as the men in civilian garb ambled away. “They get to drink while
stand duty.”
The other soldier shrugged. “True. But there are worse things. . . . We could be out on the frontier!”
There was truth in that, so the guard took comfort from knowledge that some people had it even worse than
did, and went back to work.
With Usurlus safely out of the way for the day, Nalomy was free to pursue her normal routines, one of which was a daily workout calculated to keep her near-perfect body in tiptop shape. So that was what she was doing when Pasayo knocked on the door to the private gymnasium located adjacent to her quarters, and heard Nalomy say, “Enter!” Being a heterosexual man, Pasayo couldn’t help but notice Nalomy’s scantily clad body. But he felt none of the lust that Hingo would have because he saw the Procurator for what she was. A very dangerous predator. And a person he could never fully trust.
For her part, Nalomy, who was walking on a treadmill as Pasayo entered, was in no way embarrassed by her lack of clothing. After all, she reasoned, the whole point of working out was to look good for other people. “Yes?” she inquired. “Is the Legate’s tour running smoothly?”
“Yes, Highness,” Pasayo replied. “But something strange occurred. You will recall that we were able to electronically tag the Legate’s clothes when they were sent out for cleaning.”
“Yes,” Nalomy acknowledged, as the treadmill began to pick up speed. “So?”
“So, according to the signals we’re receiving, Usurlus is traveling with the motorcade,
walking down Market Street at the same time!”
“The Legate is a very talented man,” Nalomy observed sarcastically. “Odds are that the Usurlus in the motorcade is a fake. Such things are common on Corin. Follow the second Usurlus—but don’t kill him. I want everyone to witness his death on Founder’s Day. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Highness,” Pasayo replied. “And the people he meets with? Assuming there are some?”
“Kill them,” Nalomy said coldly, as the machine forced her to run.
It was the order Pasayo had been hoping for, because if Usurlus was headed for a meeting, it would be with the men and women who were running the resistance. He bowed formally. “Yes, Highness. We will do our best.”
Usurlus had absolutely no idea where he and his bodyguards were going, which for reasons of security, was a very good idea. The only guidance he had was a cryptic note from Lucia Ovidius instructing him to, “Take a walk in The Warrens,” along with a time and a date. The message incinerated itself ten seconds after the envelope had been opened, leaving him with nothing more than a scattering of ash.
The message had simply “appeared” while Usurlus was taking a shower, suggesting that at least one member of Nalomy’s staff had links to the resistance, in spite of Hingo’s efforts to vet everyone who worked in the palace.
So, as Usurlus and his bodyguards made their way down Market Street, he was waiting for some sort of contact while enjoying the sights and sounds around him. The air was thick with the combined scents of incense and spices overlaid by the persistent tang of charcoal smoke that issued from countless braziers. And, with both breakfast and lunch cooking at the same time, lots of mouthwatering smells wafted through the air.
The street was crowded with locals and people from out of town who were there to participate in the Founder’s Day festivities. There were angen-borne desert dwellers, their skin dark from exposure to the sun, swaying rhythmically, as metal shod hooves clopped down the street. There were townspeople too, some of whom wore crisp white togas, and rode in sedan chairs with heavily burdened slaves trotting close behind. And there were less wealthy people as well, including metalsmiths, carpenters, and stonemasons, many of whom wore leather aprons and were trailed by pimply-faced apprentices, each burdened with his or her master’s tools.
And while technically free, some of the city folk were not only destitute, but worse off than the slaves they looked down on. They sat with their begging bowls extended, telling stories of woe, or slouched against sun-splashed walls, watching while the rest of the world passed them by.
There were others, too, including the occasional robot, servos whining as it minced along next to a gaggle of spacers, just off a tramp freighter. And militiamen were everywhere, their hard eyes scanning the crowd for criminals and dissidents, as children chased balls, birds squawked from their cages, and a holy man turned endless circles on one of the street corners. The totality of it was an assault on the senses, and for a man who rarely got to walk the streets, a wonderful, horrible, and ultimately educational experience.
The better part of fifteen minutes had passed without being contacted, and Usurlus was beginning to wonder if something had gone wrong, when he felt a tug at his tunic. Looking down, he saw a little girl with scraggly hair, bright, sparkling eyes, and a dirt smudge on the bridge of her nose. “Hey, mister!” the street urchin said. “Follow me!”
Vedius Albus had been forced to accompany the fake Usurlus on the tour since everyone knew that the chief bodyguard was never far from the Legate’s side, so Usurlus turned to make eye contact with the Section Leader who had been assigned to protect him. His name was Dom Livius. He was a big man with craggy brows, a fist-flattened nose, and an underthrust jaw. He looked at the little girl and shrugged. “I don’t know what to say, sire. This could be the contact that you’ve been waiting for—or a plan to suck you into a trap! What if the note was from someone
than this Ovidius person?”
Livius was correct regarding the potential danger, Usurlus knew that, but couldn’t see a way around it. The meeting was important, no
, and he would have to take the chance. He held out his hand to the little girl. “You lead—we’ll follow.”
The little girl knew right where to go and towed Usurlus down the street to a side corridor where she took a right, followed by a left, then a series of rights that left Usurlus hopelessly confused. Meanwhile, had the Imperials been able to go back and look, they would have seen a fistfight break out between two adjacent stall operators, even as an angen-drawn cart pulled out to block the passageway behind them. All of which had been arranged by members of the resistance in an effort to block, delay, and confuse anyone who might attempt to follow.
But Usurlus and his men weren’t aware of the precautions taken on their behalf as they followed the little girl through a bakery and a busy back room. There, half a dozen men and women stood kneading bread, crafting it into various shapes that would soon go into the ovens.
It was beyond this workroom, in a storage nook added to the back of the building, that a six-foot square of what had once been public street could be seen. And right in the middle of the cobblestones was an open manhole! The hinged lid was open, the faint sound of running water could be heard from somewhere below, and the nature of the invitation was obvious. Usurlus was about to check that impression with the girl when she pulled free of his hand and scampered away. A bodyguard took a swipe at her but missed, as she ducked under his arm and disappeared.
Usurlus grinned and turned to Livius. “I’ll go first.”
“Like hell you will,” Livius replied grimly. “No offense, sire, but Albus would shoot me! I’ll go first, followed by Quatri, and yourself. Chesami, Himus, Belos, and Thoos will bring up the rear.”
Usurlus understood the wisdom of the proposal, and having been heard to volunteer, was perfectly willing to let Livius have his way. “All right, if you insist,” Usurlus said. “But don’t get your feet wet!”
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