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Authors: Sherwood Smith,Dave Trowbridge

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BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
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His spirits lightened, too, despite the fact that he was
less safe here among his fellow Catennach bureaucrats than among the vengeful
Dol’jharians they served. He’d learned early that safety was a relative thing,
and the Commons satisfied the Bori preference for crowded, noisy spaces that
even the merciless Catennach training and more than twenty years of exile could
not fully expunge. He allowed himself to enjoy the emotion without relaxing the
foolish, placatory grin he wore as armor, and made his way toward the food
dispensers in the far wall.

Here, deep within Hroth D’Ocha, the tower fortress of
Jerrode Eusabian, Lord of Vengeance, there was little to remind one of
Dol’jhar; the shuddering smash of the growing storm outside was barely
discernible. The low-ceilinged room, its walls and ceiling a riot of colorful
murals, was a hive of activity, awash in human noise and tantalizing aromas—the
Catennach did not stint themselves for food, sharing in the largesse of the
lords’ kitchens, albeit without servants.

The tables were crowded with Bori in service gray, eating
and talking and gesturing with careful animation, intensely aware of each
other’s personal space. At the far side of the room, oblivious to the noise
around them, individuals hunched tensely over consoles that laved their faces
with the changing colors of the unending game, Vox Populi, fingers occasionally
stabbing at inset keypads. Here and there conversation pods held small groups
of Bori—these were all high-status Catennach, relaxing into comfortable chairs
and deceptively desultory conversations.

Morrighon lingered over his selections so he could sort the
conversations that he would not be invited to join. Heard most frequently were
the names Barrodagh and Thuriol.

Morrighon suppressed a shudder. Not far from here, Thuriol
was enduring a very different conversation, from which only death would release
him, and then far too late. He’d made the mistake of underestimating the unique
mastery of both vision and detail that had made Barrodagh supreme among the
Catennach, and so far, indispensable to the Lord of Vengeance.

Morrighon showed no sign of the spark of satisfaction
burning deep in his belly.
Underestimation can cut two ways.

Morrighon loaded his tray with dishes chosen to display a
lack of imagination and an abhorrence of variety, and made his way toward a
half-empty table where other low-status bureaucrats like himself were seated.

“Morrighon! A moment of your valuable time!”

More awkwardly than necessary, making the dinnerware clatter
on his tray, Morrighon turned and approached the conversation pod from which
Almanor, a senior Catennach, had addressed him. Surrounded by her cronies, who
all wore the same uniform as Morrighon’s wrinkled tunic, but flawlessly
tailored, the senior Catennach lazily waved him closer, her malicious amusement
mirrored by the others.

Time for sport
, Morrighon thought.

“We’ve been discussing the lamentable misstep of our former
colleague.” Almanor gestured at the multiple communicators weighing down
Morrighon’s belt. “I thought that someone so well in touch as you might have
some insights to share.” She paused expectantly.

Morrighon adopted an expression of vapid cogitation that he
knew was intensified by his wall-eyed gaze, which made it impossible for others
to tell where his attention lay. The tray’s weight was already paining his
shoulders, which had never recovered from the long-ago fall in Dol’jharian
gravity; the resultant lumpy, misshapen body often made him the butt of jokes.

As now. There was no place for a food tray in the
conversation pod, and his status would forbid him to put it down among the
senior Catennach, anyway. So, as Almanor intended, he had to stand there in
increasing discomfort.

“I haven’t heard very much,
senz-lo
Almanor,” he
replied, using the Dol’jharian inferior-to-superior title as was appropriate
and expected. He tightened his throat as he spoke, knowing that would
accentuate the whine that others heard even in his most relaxed speech.

“Oh, I’m sure you
hear
quite a lot,” said another,
his tone implying the unlikelihood of any understanding arising from whatever
information might come to Morrighon.

“But?” said Almanor.

Morrighon was saved from further mockery by a soft tone from
one of his coms. The devices were designed to force vulnerable acoustic
communications on lower-status Catennach, so in public Morrighon, like others
in his position, used them mostly to signal alerts from his work console. He
found it useful to carry several tuned to different channels, both because it
tended to confuse eavesdroppers and also because it made him look ridiculous.

“Your pardon,
senz-lo
Almanor. I am summoned by
senx-lo
Barrodagh.” In actuality, the alert was from the Paradisum channel he’d set
up, but he judged that important enough to mandate an in-person report to
Barrodagh, a costly gesture that would reinforce the persona he was building.

Almanor sat back, her eyes narrowing slightly. “Ahh,
Morrighon, scurry, scurry, scurry, eh?” She waved a hand negligently. “I’m sure
you’ll have occasion to visit me soon, and we can continue our discussion then,
yes? Off with you then.”

Status determined who went to whom among the Catennach.
Morrighon knew that Almanor enjoyed forcing him to traverse the high-gee
corridors of the fortress on meaningless errands. Morrighon also knew, but
never, ever let it show, that this was a sign of insecurity, of someone who had
forgotten that among the Catennach there was no room for indulgence of any
kind. He was sure that Barrodagh had never indulged in petty cruelties on his
long climb to supremacy—they were a waste of time and a distraction from the
quest for power.

Morrighon bowed wordlessly and took his tray over to the
disposer, where he shoved it through the hatch. His stomach griped with hunger,
but having, by dint of long and subtle effort, brought himself to Barrodagh’s
attention, he dared not vary from the rigid adherence to routine that Barrodagh
had come to expect from him.

His future depended on it.

o0o

Barrodagh leaned back in his chair and inhaled the warm
scents of jumari and arrissa that filled the room, trying in vain to ignore the
shrill whine of the storm outside the triple-dyplast window. The incessant
sound felt like a merciless grip on his neck, and a blinding point of pain was
slowly growing behind his eyes. A change in the wind caught savagely at Hroth
D’ocha, and the Bori’s stomach clenched again as the gravitors gracelessly
damped the swaying of the tower. They easily kept the gravity in Barrodagh’s
office at Bori’s gentler pull, but they were too crude to compensate well for
sideways acceleration.

He pressed his fingers into his neck and stretched, trying
to savor the soft air of a summer night on distant Bori, barely remembered from
his childhood, but the chill of a Dol’jharian spring trickled through the
window as the stink of ozone slowly grew.

The conditioners are overloading again.
Barrodagh
swiveled himself away from his desk to face the opaqued window. He glared at
the large deep-set pane, now counterfeiting the phosphorescent beach at Aluwor
on Bori. Its frame vibrated under another blow from the wind, and he slapped
the window switch. Why couldn’t the Dol’jharians pour or print their buildings
like everyone else, instead of fitting them loosely together out of wood and
stone, like an Ur-bedamned puzzle, just because it had always been done that
way?

The window cleared slowly, becoming a deep sill backed by a
featureless gray that nevertheless gave an impression of rapid movement and
intense cold. Barrodagh’s reflection stared back at him, colorless and
ghostlike. Dark hair, pale eyes, pale skin; the Bori ignored these, hating the
wind, the cold, and the planet that spawned them.

The gray shroud outside thinned and whipped away, and the
window flared savagely bright as glaring blue-white sunlight broke through the
storm. Barrodagh gasped and squeezed his tear-flooded eyes shut, groping for
the window control. The pane dimmed too slowly—
The
damned window must
be all of five hundred years old,
he thought angrily—but finally he could
see again and looked out over the white, thaw-splotched expanse of the Demmoth
Ghyri, the high plateau of the Kingdom of Vengeance.

He was the second most powerful man on Dol’jhar, more
powerful than any of the so-called Pure Blood save the Lord of Vengeance
himself, whom he had served for nearly twenty years; but the view of Dol’jhar’s
bleak landscape was a constant reminder that the least of those arrogant
Dol’jharians could withstand conditions that would kill him quickly.

Barrodagh opaqued the window and turned his back on it.
Power
was
his, for through him went out the commands of Jerrode
Eusabian, Avatar of Dol, Lord of Vengeance and the Kingdoms of Dol’jhar.
The
Pure Blood may disdain me, but they obey, for who is to know which commands are
Eusabian’s and which are mine?

A soft tone sounded from his desk, rather than the modern
console to one side that he used for all Catennach communications, and
Barrodagh seated himself hastily before he touched the ruby point glowing in
its dark, glassy surface. Only Dol’jharian nobles used the old comm system,
disdaining the Bori system as beneath their dignity.

Barrodagh tapped his knuckles on the desk as it slowly
extruded the vidplate from a slot at the back. The screen flickered with a
nauseating swirl of greenish-gray light as the electronics struggled to resolve
an image.
Damned antique,
thought Barrodagh, thoroughly irritated by the
almost continuous queasiness induced by the grav-damped swaying of the tower.
And
damned Dol’jharians, too: if it
suited their ancestors, it suited them,
unless, of course, it was good for killing people or inflicting pain—then only
the best and newest would do.

The vidplate finally came to life and Barrodagh recognized
the angular, arrogant features of Evodh, Lord Eusabian’s personal
pesz
mas’hadni.


Serach
Barrodagh.” Evodh’s voice was coldly formal,
with no trace of the obsequiousness Barrodagh was used to hearing. The claws
and eyes of the karra-patterns lacquered on his skull gleamed dully as the
Dol’jharian physician looked at him with a trace of disdain. He had used the
“presumed equal” mode of address, an exquisitely-shaded insult that was as
close to civility as a Dol’jharian noble ever came in speaking to a Bori.

Barrodagh inclined his head and did not speak, as was
fitting, but his mind was awash with pleasurable surmise. Observing Thuriol’s
first session in the mindripper had been an intensely satisfying, albeit
vicarious, revenge on his long-time rival, even though he had not been
permitted to remain after the first time Thuriol lost consciousness. It had
been enough that his rival had known he was there, had seen him watching...
while he still had attention to spare for anything but Evodh’s expert torment.

“I received your request to attend my next session with the
Catennach Thuriol,” said Evodh. “There is not to be a next one.”

Barrodagh heard the faint emphases on each occurrence of the
word “next” and knew them to a subtle warning that his request, even as
carefully phrased as it had been, had come perilously close to offending the
Dol’jharian noble’s pride. He lowered his eyes as Evodh continued.

“I extracted everything that might bear on the Avatar’s
paliach and, as the subject’s transfiguration was for information, not for
honor, I have terminated it.”

Evodh smiled thinly and Barrodagh realized that he was
failing to conceal his disappointment that Thuriol had met death so soon. He
schooled his face back into the noncommittal mask that had kept him alive for
so long and said nothing.

The physician continued after a brief pause. “Do you want
the head for your
paliachee
?” His sneering emphasis on the Dol’jharian
word for the formal trophy nobles took from fallen rivals brought Barrodagh’s
head up in a quickly controlled motion of protest at the insult.

Acid rage clawed Barrodagh at the physician’s pleasure in
thwarting him. But Evodh was powerful, and Dol’jharian nobles were not to be
trifled with, especially one whose title indicated his mastery of pain in all
its intensities and forms.

A child’s paliach,
he thought.
That’s how he sees
my vengeance.
Well, he would lose no more face in this particular
encounter. He inclined his head again briefly, and forced his voice to a quiet
monotone. “No,
pesz-ko
Evodh.” He used the term that indicated the least
possible difference in rank between them, which was the closest to insult that
any Bori dared come when speaking to a noble of Dol’jhar. “You may do with it
as you please.”

Evodh blanked the connection.

Barrodagh slammed his fists down on the desk and shot to his
feet.
Damn him! Damn them all!

The vidplate chose that moment to jam in its slot, and the
ancient mechanism emitted a jeering squeal as it struggled to retract the
screen. Barrodagh lunged savagely across the desk and grabbed the vidplate,
wanting desperately to break something, but it jerked from his grasp and sucked
his fingers into the slot with bruising force, leaving him sprawled across the
desk in a welter of flimsies and record chips.

Barrodagh yanked his fingers out of the slot and levered
himself back to his feet, quivering with rage.
Another fierce blast of wind caught at the tower so savagely that the
blanked-out window flickered. His stomach lurched, a bubble of acid burning the
back of his throat.

He took a deep breath, then another, forcing himself to
relax. His momentary loss of control was a warning that the extra work he’d
taken on when Thuriol fell was taxing his endurance. He could not afford such a
display, not even here in the privacy of his office.
Thuriol is dead
.
His last real rival.
I should take the time to enjoy that.

BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
12.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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