Authors: Sherwood Smith,Dave Trowbridge
She caught his hands, and began sliding her fingers up his
arms. “Brandon, your Enkainion is only a month off, right here on Arthelion.”
He seemed genuinely surprised. “And so? We can’t get in a
little more fun before the harness slips on me for life? I can get us a
last-minute courier back from anywhere.”
Eleris laughed. She’d been trained to laugh beautifully. It
hid the exasperation. “Brandon, you sound as if you’d have to report to that
Naval academy again, or something equally dreary. You know very well what you
will be doing after your Enkainion: exactly what you do now.”
His breath hitched, so slight a break in the fremitus of his
breathing that she would not have caught it had she not had her arms twined
around him. She looked up, startled—there had been nothing in what she said to
trigger such a reaction—but his smile was the same rueful grin. “Contrary.
There will be no more asking if you like summer or winter.”
Ah. Was it the prospect of having every day scheduled that
he resented? Why, when it would be nothing but parties, galas, celebrations,
and maybe some formal rituals at which he’d preside as the Arkad
representative, so that his older brother and his father would be free for
their boring politicking?
“Is it spontaneity you wish for? Surely you cannot resent
the necessity for schedules—think of how long it takes to plan the very best
“Spontaneity?” He set his hands on her shoulders, his gaze
steady, wide with question. “I thought you wanted to run away.”
Eleris stared back, trying to get past his obtuseness. Did
he want to be alone with her for even longer? They’d been as good as alone for
weeks. She hadn’t even known how many guards he had, they were so unobtrusive,
until her staff had contacted her about all the supplies they ordered; she’d
only noticed them sweeping the area when they arrived or departed ports. And
once, at one of those exclusive clubs where high stakes Phalanx was played (and
they were certainly not alone then) Brandon had dived into the crowd and pulled
forward a huge man, insisting on him joining the game. Together they’d taken on
all comers until Brandon, laughing, said he was forced to drop out, after which
he’d lingered, watching his guardsman win game after game, until he, too, was
defeated—by some old woman from somewhere out-octant. Some fun!
Being alone with Brandon was plenty of fun, but the
irresistible seduction was the image of herself presiding over the Mandala.
With Brandon’s pretty face at her elbow, she would become the greatest social
leader in at least three centuries.
“We’ve been glitter-skipping for the past...” She glanced at
her boswell, its tiny face built into her bracelet. It showed Arthelion time.
“Two months. And I have loved every moment,” she said quickly. “But your
He shrugged. “So? It’s all planned out. There’s nothing for
me to do except show up and trot through the ritual like a trained dog.”
Steward Halkyn, who had charge of the Palace Major and
Minor, was famous for being the most perfect of a long line of Halkyn stewards.
He would see to it that the Enkainion was exactly as it should be, though why
Brandon didn’t want to oversee it, she didn’t know. She’d loved overseeing
every aspect of her own Enkainion, when she was twenty-five.
She had tucked herself against him. One of his hands
caressed her shoulder and stroked through her hair down her back, but the
gesture was more absent than insistent. She tipped her head, and yes, his gaze
had wandered to the viewport again.
Was he annoyed about the reminder of his approaching
Enkainion? No, there was no anger in the curve of his lips, just absence. He
didn’t seem to care at all. Maybe it was his age. The Arkads traditionally held
their ‘coming of age’ ceremonials late. Historically, after the last royal
child went through his or her Enkainion, the Panarch or Kyriarch usually
announced which child would be heir, if there was more than one. But that would
be no surprise. Everyone knew that the oldest son, Aerenarch Semion, would be
heir, in spite of the fact that he’d not been in court for five years. He was
effectively running the Navy already.
Politics! Eleris shrugged. She didn’t care about politics.
Brandon had to make a political marriage—word was, it had been arranged by
Semion himself, in order to bind the Vandraska shipyards tighter to the Arkads
through the Inesset family. But Brandon would never be involved in politics, he
was the center of Arthelion’s social life.
A new thought occurred: maybe he wasn’t lost in thought, but
in communication. Did he have neural induction on his boswell? His throat
wasn’t bobbing in that horrible awkward way that most people subvocalized.
She shifted her stance and stood squarely in front of him.
“Brandon...” She sighed his name.
“Eleris?” Brandon asked, then his forehead puckered, and
finally he really seemed to see her. “Have I done something wrong?” His smile
twisted, mocking, but she sensed... regret? “Or is my joke about running away
together so terrifying that...”
In answer she began untabbing his tunic. Then she paused,
and ventured a small gamble, since her main game hung unresolved. “It’s just
that when I proposed this journey, I, well, I didn’t quite count on how lengthy
it would be. And I have loved it, but...”
Brandon’s head tipped in quick concern. “Is it money?” he
asked bluntly, without any insinuations whatsoever. He grimaced. “Eleris, I
never think about those things. You should have brought it up.”
She couldn’t prevent a retort, but she kept her tone light,
“You don’t have to think about those things.”
“I know.” He grimaced again. “Does that sound intolerable?
My... someone I knew ten years ago once... but then people who go on about a
third party are usually bores.”
Eleris bit her lip.
I don’t care about anyone you knew
ten years ago
. But she couldn’t say that. She forced a smile. “You know
that many deem it vulgar to make any reference to resources. ‘The life of art
requires art to appear effortless.’”
Brandon lifted a shoulder. “My brother Galen, whom I
consider the expert on art, says that that rule is more posturing on the part
of the wealthy, and for an example of resource and effort being part of art, we
have only to look at the mystery of the Ur.”
Eleris fluttered her fingers, dismissing that long-dead race
and their immense ‘art’ projects involving entire suns and planets. She’d won a
small victory—her credit would survive this venture—and she had no intention of
giving up her campaign. She’d succeeded in removing his tunic and shirt, her
hands running over his smooth skin, enjoying the taut musculature, by habit
avoiding the ugly pucker of the scar on his back. Why didn’t he have it
removed? It would cost a fraction of what she spent on her body art.
She’d asked him once, but all he’d said was, “I don’t have
to see it.”
Which really wasn’t an answer at all.
She dismissed the mysteries, and the exasperations. Time for
yet another art, one in which she was especially adept and inventive, and which
insured his attention would remain solely on her.
Brandon surrendered gratefully to Eleris’s insistent
fingers, aware that the respite was just that.
White heat flared, then faded to lassitude when Eleris got
up to bathe and oversee the last arrangements for her imminent party.
Brandon lay back on the soft moss, breathing in the
astringent scent of the crushed greenery as the lassitude faded in its turn, leaving
a sense of regret, and even guilt. “Politics is boring,” Eleris had said when
they met. “I live for pleasure.” It was that which had prompted him to accept
her invitation for a protracted pleasure cruise, just the two of them, leaving
the universe behind.
But one can’t leave the universe behind, one can only choose
which aspects of it to engage with. She had been straightforward about her life
of pleasure, so why shouldn’t she take an interest in his Enkainion, and the
subsequent life of pleasure he was expected to lead afterward?
Bringing him right back to...
had been realtime on the DataNet
since it settled into Arthelion orbit, its cryptobanks discharging and taking
on the data that every ship carried between the stars. And among the floods of
data being exchanged there had been one simple message, relayed by neural
induction to his inner ear, in a voice he’d not heard for ten years:
Markham sent me. Meet?
Just four words, and a confirming signature and time-stamp
in machine-neutral cadence, but coming now, only a month before his Enkainion,
they were enough to blast all Brandon's calculations, causing him to almost mention
Markham vlith-L’ranja, once his closest friend.
You know very well what you will be doing after your
Except that he didn’t. Was this com an attempt at revenge,
further entrapment, or an avenue of escape?
The voice and signature suggested the first.
Between one heartbeat and the next, memory seized Brandon,
shifting him from Eleris’s scattered cushions to the cold, austere hallway
outside the Academy cadets’ brig after Markham’s arrest: Brandon was again
twenty-three, too shocked to speak as Deralze crossed the invisible line
dividing an Arkad from those who served, shoved Brandon up against the wall,
and shouted in his face. “
You’ll walk away from this like you Tetrad nicks
always do, knowing that however you chatz up, the blunge always lands on
someone else. Your”
—He’d used a vulgar phrase from Rifter argot meaning
literally “braided members” to refer to Markham. “—
and you said nothing.
Even more searing was the memory of Deralze’s disgust and
loathing as he tore off his blason and threw it at Brandon’s feet.
keep your worthless life, and my Oath with it.”
Why was Deralze contacting him now? The time-stamp indicated
the message had been waiting only hours for him. That meant Deralze was already on
Perhaps entrapment was a better explanation. How else would
such a message have gotten through the rings and layers of security placed
around him by Semion?
Brandon rolled to his feet and bent to pick up his clothes
as he considered his oldest brother. It had been five years since they’d seen
one another last, but Semion still monitored every aspect of Brandon’s life.
“Our father ordered me to safeguard you, and so I shall,” Semion had said not
long after Galen’s Enkainion.
Brandon retrieved his shoes and padded across the moss to
the bath, which was designed to look like a woodland stream.
Semion has to
know that any mention of Markham would get my attention
The question was, why? And why now? It was ten years since
Markham was cashiered—and his family ruined. Ten years since Brandon’s own
career had been summarily ended.
Was this message one more link in the strangling chain that
would culminate in his Enkainion? Brandon threw his clothes into the cleaner,
then tabbed the control to raise the temperature of the water in the artfully
decorated stream. What irony! His Enkainion, everybody agreed, was to be so
brilliant that it would be broadcast throughout the reaches of the Thousand
Suns, to Downsiders, Highdwellers and lawless Rifters alike.
He turned the boswell around and around in his hands,
fingering the stylized band of interlocked links. Most people would give anything
to be born an Arkad; to live in the Mandalic Palace on Arthelion, the central
jewel of the Panarchy’s countless planets and Highdwellings; to possess his
limitless wealth, his position at the peak of the Douloi social circle.
Brandon snorted in rueful amusement at the turn of his
thoughts: chains, strangulation. He tossed the boswell down onto the silky
blades of grass beside the stream. What if the message really
Markham? He’d taken the Riftskip, fleeing his Douloi roots into the chaos outside
Why would he contact Brandon now? It made no more sense than
Semion concocting some elaborate trap, when he already controlled nearly every
aspect of Brandon’s life.
Brandon shook his head, and stepped into the hot water. He
could endlessly consider all the possible implications of this message, but
three were certain.
One: he couldn’t trust that the message was from Deralze.
The former bodyguard might know how to get around the Palace codes, but Semion
wouldn’t have to.
Two: he couldn't trust the goals of whoever had sent the message.
If it wasn’t one of Semion’s moves, the fact that it had reached him at
all indicated deeply-compromised security. If Brandon responded, he could be
made to disappear altogether.
Three: none of that mattered, for his disappearance was
foreordained. If he went through with the Enkainion, and the plans so carefully
laid for a life of social brilliance, he would symbolically disappear forever,
replaced by a simulacrum engineered by Semion.
Brandon smiled bitterly, savoring the irony. Two lives
removed from ultimate power, but here and now, virtually no choice.
He reached for his boswell, and began to compose his reply.
Verin Palmar, youngest invested member of the family-owned
, stalked through the terminal, dodging easily
through the throng of travelers. Far above her, crystal panels glinted as they
shifted to follow the bloody light of Ouroboros in red eclipse of its companion
“... ever eating its own tail. But in fifty thousand years
or so the resulting expansion will vaporize Paradisum and the Shrine Planet
with its mysterious Guardian and the even more mysterious artifact known as the
Heart of Kronos.” The pompous voice broke her train of thought, and Palmar
glared at the Tiklipti tour group milling about in her path. Their rotund
guide’s green-dyed face was a garish black in the red light flooding the