Authors: Sherwood Smith,Dave Trowbridge
The door tone sounded, and a window popped up on his
console, revealing the ugly face of Morrighon, the factotum he’d assigned to
track the Heart of Kronos. Barrodagh swiftly tidied the desk, then touched the
door control on his desk.
The door slid open. Morrighon bobbed in a partial bow, smiling
foolishly as the communicators hanging from his belt clattered together. Then
he limped crabwise across the suite to stand before the desk, where he bowed
again, clatter-clatter, and stood waiting expectantly, ugly and misshapen.
Barrodagh supposed Morrighon’s eyes were carefully averted as appropriate, but
the man’s wall-eyed gaze made it impossible to tell where he was looking.
Morrighon bowed yet again when Barrodagh nodded for him to
Barrodagh,” he whined, “our observer at the Paradisum
Terminal reports that the Heart of Kronos has been dispatched via ParcelNet.
Approximately 30 days to the Qoholeth Anachronics Hub.” He touched one of the
communicators at his belt. “As instructed, I have relayed the full
communication to your queue. There are no
Barrodagh eyed his subordinate, whose personal delivery of
this news again confirmed his judgment.
A safe tool—careful, predictable,
not too ambitious, and utterly unacceptable to a Dol’jharian lord.
Dol’jharian so deformed would have been exposed at birth. Morrighon’s twisted
body was due to imperfectly-healed shattered bones, but he would nonetheless be
despised by the Lords. Morrighon had no future save through Barrodagh. Perhaps
he should be assigned some of Thuriol’s work.
“Very well. Your diligence is noted. You may dispense with
further in-person reports unless otherwise instructed.”
Morrighon’s ugly mouth gaped with gratitude, reminding
Barrodagh of a fish; he bowed again, more deeply than before, and departed.
Morrighon’s pathetic gratitude banished the last traces of
Barrodagh’s anger, and even his nausea at the swaying of the tower was now
merely a minor distraction. The last movement of his lord’s paliach—the formal
vengeance that would wipe away the stain of his defeat at Panarchist hands
twenty years ago—was beginning, timed with an exquisite precision denied to his
enemy by the rigors of space-time.
But not to us.
Within a day of the Heart reaching the carefully-cultivated
traitor at the Qoholeth Anachronics Hub—whose usefulness would then be at an
end—it would be in Dol’jharian hands. Around the same time—a few days before or
after didn’t matter, given the spacetime delays of Panarchist
communications—Eusabian’s forces would strike simultaneously throughout the
Thousand Suns, killing the Panarch’s three sons, capturing the Panarch and his
Privy Council, and unleashing their Rifter allies throughout Panarchic space.
It will take them weeks just to understand what happened.
Trammeled by the unyielding stubbornness of space-time, limited to the
ship-borne communications of the DataNet, their Panarchist foes would crumble
before the onslaught of Dol’jhar and its Rifter allies, armed with the
instantaneous hyperwave communicators and power relays left by the Ur when they
vanished ten million years before.
Our ships are already more powerful than
anything the Panarchy has, and the generator’s only on standby. With the Heart
installed on the Urian station, there will be no limits to our power.
Barrodagh suspected that the hyperwaves alone would have
been enough to conquer the Panarchy in time, although such a bloodless victory
would hardly have satisfied the Lord of Vengeance. The real-time stock and
commodities arbitrage they made possible against slower Panarchist
communications had enabled him to game the Panstellar Bourse for years in a
series of transactions each too small to alert the Panarchist authorities.
Eusabian’s enemies had, in effect, financed their own destruction. Foolish
Thuriol, to try the same game using hyperwave ciphers assigned to managing the
conspiracy against the Panarch’s sons! Where had he expected to spend the
Barrodagh leaned back into the soft embrace of the chair,
happily anticipating the day—not too far off now—when he, speaking for the Lord
of Vengeance, would rule the Thousand Suns. And someday, it was to be hoped,
Eusabian would fall victim to his last remaining child, Anaris. Therefore
cultivation of Anaris might circumvent the fate that too many short-sighted Catennach
suffered when their lord died. With care and far-sighted planning, Barrodagh
would continue to be the power behind the throne. Perhaps, he thought, it was
time to leak a little more information to the Avatar’s only remaining heir, to
keep his gratitude alive until he grew powerful enough to cultivate more
There was time, he decided. Plenty of time.
Lenic Deralze breathed deeply. His hands were clammy on his
knees as he waited in a bar in the spaceport complex frequented mostly by
traders and their logistical and support services. He did not know if he’d see
the Krysarch Brandon nyr-Arkad or a company of Marines.
For ten years the ex-bodyguard had borne the righteous anger
of the honest man betrayed, his charge revealed as a typical Douloi hypocrite.
Disgrace hadn’t touched Brandon. Of course not. He was an Arkad, a Krysarch of
the Phoenix House. He was untouchable. But Markham—worth five of Brandon
nyr-Arkad or anyone else—had been ruined while Brandon just stood there and let
So when a smooth-voiced agent had encountered Deralze on
Rifthaven four years ago, offering him a place in a plot against Semion, he had
joined willingly. And, although his strongest wish had been to go to Narbon, to
strike directly against the Aerenarch, he’d accepted that his logical role
involved his old station in the Mandalic Palace on Arthelion, where Brandon
nyr-Arkad was to make his Enkainion. He knew it better than anyone.
The conspirators who called themselves the Poets intended
that the Panarch’s successor should be Galen ban-Arkad, the visionary second
son, whom everyone loved. That required the death of both Semion and his
willing tool, Brandon. Deralze had eagerly joined—but while he was there on
Rifthaven, he ran into Markham.
The Enkainion was now less than a month off, and the time
had come to decide between old loyalties and new.
Someone entered the bar. Deralze looked up, but it was only
a dog trainer in a low-brimmed hat, wearing a yellow training vest over his
clothes. At his side trotted a dog also clad in a yellow vest.
Deralze began to look away, but a sense of
familiarity—something about the line of shoulder, the way the young man’s slim
form moved—caused him to lean forward. The man paused at his table, the hat
brim lifted, and Deralze stared into familiar blue eyes as Brandon nyr-Arkad
slid into the seat opposite.
Ten years hadn’t changed Brandon, as you’d expect of someone
with no responsibilities, who could spend his time gaming, partying, and
bunnying with an endless array of willing partners. Deralze gathered that much
as Brandon looked around with mild interest, as if sizing up the opportunities
for socializing the dog. Nobody appeared to take any notice of him, apparently
accepting him as the dog’s trainer.
Or they’re carefully not watching him,
waiting for the signal to jump me.
The dog sat down next to the seat, alert, his steady brown
eyes taking in Deralze with a regard accented by the breed’s characteristic
black-on-tan facial mask. The animal looked like the dog that had accompanied
Brandon everywhere years ago—the krysarch’s second shadow. Very similar
markings, sable over tan, but this dog was reserved, not welcoming: he did not
Brandon reached out and scratched the underside of the long,
blunt muzzle, earning a brief lick from a pink tongue before he placed his hand
on the dog’s neck. “Jaspar died two years ago,” he said. “This is Nemo. Nemo,
The ex-Marine noted the position of Brandon’s hand and tried
to relax as he stretched out his hand for Nemo to sniff. It was said the Arkads
didn’t need tempaths because their dogs were better at sensing human emotions
than any psi—was his fate to be decided here and now by this animal?
But Nemo apparently found nothing exceptional about him, or
at least Brandon sensed nothing in the dog’s muscles. Brandon withdrew his
hand, a small signal of trust that reassured Deralze, for the moment, that the
Krysarch had no immediate betrayal in mind.
The dog settled into a down, and Brandon glanced at it
pensively. Deralze shifted his gaze to Brandon. Up close he still seemed
unchanged—just over medium height, but where at twenty-two Standard he’d still
been gangling, his proportions had hardened to manhood, and the boyish smooth
cheeks had planed, highlighting the famous Arkad bone structure beneath.
Brandon smiled. “Is Markham with you?”
The dog’s ears flicked forward slightly as Deralze tightened
his control on the old anger. “No,” he said. “Last I heard, Rifters are still
unwelcome on Arthelion.”
Brandon’s expression of disappointment spiked the anger.
What could he possibly expect, Deralze wondered as Brandon ran his fingers over
the table console, as if considering what to order. But the gesture was absent.
“I imagine Markham is doing well on the Riftskip,” Brandon said finally.
The comment was inane. What could Brandon know of a Rifter’s
Markham would have done far better as a Navy Captain
wanted to say.
Probably better than you
Brandon looked up, his eyes more blue than Deralze
remembered as they narrowed appraisingly. “The last time we saw one another,
you had a lot to say, but nothing that would lead me to believe you’d come all
this way to wish me well at my Enkainion.”
Deralze thought back to that day, his last glimpse of
Brandon’s pale, shocky young face before Deralze took off. He had barely kept
one step ahead of Semion’s coverts, who were intent on making a clean sweep of
the inconvenient aspects of Markham’s disgrace. No one knew better how to skip Marine
traps than another Marine.
That was ten years ago. He could demand the truth, but there
was no proving a negative. He could not believe that Markham had cheated on the
Academy tests, but he had believed that Brandon wouldn’t, either.
One of them had to have cheated. The only thing that made
sense was that Markham had taken the blame with the willing collusion of the
government, who then quietly withdrew Brandon in order to protect Arkad
What Deralze really wanted was justice, and now the jac was
in his hands.
“I came across Markham a couple of years ago,” Deralze said.
He paused, the memory vivid—Markham lounging in a club so
expensive it was said you had to hock your ship just to get in the door. He was
dressed like a wiredream swashbuckler, the center of a laughing, roistering
“He included me in a party. Then he asked me to... make
Check on Brandy, will you?
Markham had muttered
privately, taking Deralze by surprise.
I’ve heard nothing, and I’m afraid Semion
still has his teeth in Brandon’s neck.
Why would you care?
Deralze had retorted.
Markham had leaned close, saying,
Because I was
collateral damage. Brandy was Semion’s target.
Deralze had barely repeated the
words when they found themselves surrounded by Markham’s crew. A handsome young
man pressed up insistently, obviously ready to compete with all comers for
Markham’s attention, so Deralze had been forced to hold his questions. When
Markham and his crew left, Markham had looked back, mouthing the words,
you check on Brandy?
Those words had been puzzling Deralze ever since. Collateral
damage? How could Markham possibly be collateral damage? His naval career,
indeed, his life as the adopted heir of a leading Douloi family, had been
utterly ruined, and that family removed from power. Brandon had gone back to a
life of luxury and debauchery.
“Took some time for me to work my way to this end of the
Thousand Suns,” Deralze said.
Me and the rest of the Poets assigned here
“But here I am.”
Brandon leaned forward, his gaze direct. “The last time I
saw you, you had a lot to say about my treachery. Moral cowardice. My lack of
Deralze’s hand slid toward his tunic, sensing the dog’s
increased alertness. This was Semion’s kind of setup for betrayal—the trap
should be closing now. Yet Brandon didn’t shift his gaze, or appear to heed the
dog’s reaction. “And so?” Deralze replied.
Brandon leaned closer. “You’re the only one I can be sure
Semion has never suborned—other than my brother Galen, but we’ve had little
contact of late. Will you execute a commission for me?”
Deralze blinked. He had been ready for anything but that.
“What sort of commission?”
A faint sound chirped, and Brandon touched his sleeve.
“Damn. My keepers,” he said quickly. “Look, Deralze. I want a private vessel,
booster-ready. Nothing connected to my family, or to—” A flurry of noise at the
bar’s entrance brought the dog to its feet, poised and ready.
Brandon’s fingers produced—not a chip—but a rumpled piece of
paper that he pushed across the table. He slid out of his seat and moved
swiftly to the front of the bar, Nemo trotting at his side. Deralze lost sight
of them, but Brandon’s Douloi drawl echoed slightly as he said to someone, “Oh,
there you are! We got lost—took a wrong turning—this part of the port is so
confusing. . .” Deralze could not make out the reply and he relaxed. Apparently
Brandon had succeeded in diverting them.
He smoothed out the paper on the table. On it was written
the specs of a ship and two numbers, one an account and the other a sum of
money that would take care of him for life, even after buying the ship.