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Authors: Sherwood Smith,Dave Trowbridge

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BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
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Although a 100-megaton fusion bomb won’t leave much of a
paliachee.

A flutter of laughter behind
Barrodagh’s ribs warned
of hysteria—mania—not far off. He dug his nails deep into the palm of his hand,
using the pain to regain control as he spoke. “We expect no difficulty on
Talgarth or Arthelion: it is impossible for any warning to reach them in time.
The same is true for Lao Tse.”

Eusabian turned slowly, expressionless, and Barrodagh’s
voice began to fail him, as in a nightmare, when the scream so much desired,
the scream that would wake one from the horror if uttered, will not come—and
yet the urge to laugh had not subsided.

“There is more?”

“Lord... the Heart of Kronos arrived two weeks early, and
Cheruld sent it to Charvann, to a professor of Urian studies.” Barrodagh’s
voice was hoarse. “We estimate it will arrive there three weeks after the
assassinations. In the meantime, as before, it is safe in the ParcelNet.”

Eusabian was silent for a time that seemed endless to
Barrodagh. “I have not heard of this Charvann.”

“It is a planet of no military significance at all, and so
was not assigned a fleet in the opening phase of your paliach.”

“Then how will you retrieve the artifact?”

The inexorable expectation of success in Eusabian’s voice
would have further terrified Barrodagh, but there was no adrenaline left in his
system. “We will need to delay Rifter action along the most probable ParcelNet
paths from Qoholeth to Charvann until it is safely delivered. I suggest that we
divert one of the fleets affected to Charvann with instructions to wait until
directed to attack, after we are sure the Heart has been delivered.”

“Which of those is closest to Charvann?”

Barrodagh relaxed just enough to draw a slow breath. The
answer to Eusabian’s question really didn’t matter, for either fleet would have
to wait outside the Charvann system until the signal for attack was given. But
he dared not remind Eusabian of that.

In any case, Barrodagh had anticipated Eusabian’s concern
and had already made his decision. Only two fleets lay between Qoholeth and
Charvann, both reserves. Charterly’s fleet was closer, but Hreem’s was the only
flagship on which Barrodagh had no spy.
That damned pet tempath of his.

Both fleets were sizable, their reputations formidable.
Charterly was independent, Hreem notorious for ambition and excess. So far
Barrodagh had been reluctant to commit them, hoping to use them only in
conjunction with a larger battle—preferably under the direct command of
Kyvernat Juvaszt, but to them he said he was keeping them for special
assignment—and whichever did the best would be rewarded with guarding the
shipyards in Malachronte orbit, where the almost-refitted battlecruiser
Maccabeus
lay in
the ways. Barrodagh did not intend for Hreem to win. Maybe he would be
satisfied instead with the sure prospect of looting an entire planet.

“Considering the strategic picture, Hreem’s fleet is best
positioned, Lord,” Barrodagh replied. “He is presently seven days from
Charvann.” Eusabian either did not notice his evasion of the actual question,
or did not care.

“Reassign Hreem to Charvann. Have him get the Heart of
Kronos. Do not tell him what it is. Will the traitor’s defection otherwise
affect my paliach?”

Barrodagh drew another breath. He had anticipated correctly
the thrust of his lord’s concerns: how would this development affect his
planned attack on the Panarchy? It had taken the computer techs all night to
map out the complex interplay between the Panarchy’s ship-borne communications
and the infinitely faster communications that Dol’jhar and its Rifter allies
enjoyed.

Those comms are ten million years old, and they still
work as well as the day they were made,
Barrodagh thought, and continued,
secure now in the knowledge of his reprieve, for he had the answer Eusabian
would want to hear. No warning from a planet or base under attack could reach
any other important Panarchist stronghold in time to warn it before it, too,
was attacked.

“No, Lord. Our calculations indicate that the delays
involved will be less than the space-time lag of Panarchist communications in
all cases, especially since Charvann is so far off the Tetrad Centrum.”

“Then my vengeance shall be accomplished.” Eusabian looked
down at the cord in his hands. After a long moment he pulled on the ends of the
dirazh’u, and the knots vanished as the cord stretched taut between his hands.
“Let it be as you have said.”

As Eusabian turned back to the window, already weaving a new
pattern, the Bori bowed deeply again and withdrew, stumbling to his chamber to
be sick.

FIVE
NARBON

The flyer arced into the air, and Sara Darmara Tarathen
looked down at the roof of the ancient, dark-stoned manor that she’d been
forced to live in for most of five years. The golden roof tiles gleamed with
thousand-fold reflections of the westering sun, but she did not perceive the
beauty. At the sight of the house the fear and anger that had been Sara’s
constant companions for five years constricted her chest.

For a short time she was suspended between earth and sky;
the semblance of peace brought an old song from the pain in her heart through
her lips. She gave the song to the wind, singing until the flyer settled in the
court of the rustic house on the mountain that Semion used as his most private
retreat.

She scanned the arched windows of the small house: no one
visible. No last-minute panics or warnings.

Not that she had expected any. The plan was simple enough. The
only part beyond Sara’s control was the mysterious contact that her old friend
Martin Cheruld had supplied; either he was there, or he wasn’t.

Or... It would be so like Semion to play along until the
end, then, with that cold smile, expose them all...

She forced herself to stroll at a leisurely pace up the
pathway toward the house, the fine, glistening-white gravel scrunching under
her feet. The fear intensified into nausea, but she schooled her face and kept
her walk slow.

Bear it. Soon you will be with Galen again.

The name released a measure of her tension, like the most
powerful of mantras. Galen. Galen ban-Arkad, second son of the Panarch of the
Thousand Suns, soon to be vlith-Arkad, heir to the Emerald Throne once Semion
was dead. Galen always knew without asking the moods of people around him, and
wherever he was, music was not far distant. When he read poetry, one
glimpsed—however briefly—stillness and harmony in the universe. Life around
Galen meant peace, beauty, joy, everyone valued for themselves, not for family
connections or wealth

Five years used as a hostage to force Galen’s compliance.

Resolutely she stilled the anger as she approached the
house. Semion kept few servants here unless he planned to be in residence. That
small staff was a necessary part of her plan. She walked slowly past the
steward, and for once she was able to ignore how his offensively-open hot gaze
followed her into the house.

Her maid, whom she’d sent ahead, flitted out from the
bedroom to meet her. Alarm kindled inside Sara at the woman’s wide, anxious
eyes; she’d been with Sara since the days when Sara was primary singer at
Rifthaven’s Genjei Club, and had followed her to the university where Sara had
tried to start a new life.

Where she met Martin Cheruld, and fell in love with Galen.

The maid looked around, then murmured, “Sara, there’s a
courier com for you.”

Sara said, “Thank you.” And with a meaningful glance at the
door, “That will be all. Go on holiday. Be back next week.” That was the maid’s
signal to get away—not return to Semion’s citadel, but to escape, as far and as
fast as she could.

Whatever happened next, her loyal maid and friend shouldn’t
suffer the consequences. Her leaving was a signal that there was no possible
turning back.

Sara made a start toward Semion’s suite. Before decrypting
Cheruld’s coms she’d always used the Family security code that Galen had taught
her. She began tapping the code, then stopped.
No use worrying about that
anymore. If Semion knows, I’m wasting my time, and if he doesn’t, he never
will.

She glided with outward calm into the little guest chamber,
locked the door, sat down at the console, and keyed in the code she knew by
heart. Her anxiety stretched out the fractional pause before the screen lit and
Martin Cheruld’s face stared out.

Her alarm intensified into terror at the sight of his smooth
blond hair lying tousled and grimy on his brow, the sheen of sweat on his olive
skin, now blanched to yellow, and the exhaustion and fear in his slanted eyes.
Even in their young university days she had never seen him anything but
immaculate, a Douloi coolly amused by the vagaries of the world. Yet he, like
Galen, had not cared about her background—their friendship, formed around
music, had transcended political boundaries.

It was Cheruld who had extended the possibility of freedom,
and justice, through the Poets’ conspiracy.

As he began to speak he half reached a hand out, as though
to touch her. Though she knew the com had been sent many days ago, from an
unimaginable distance away, the gesture gave her an unsettling sense of
immediacy.

“Sara—I hope this will get to you in time. We’re going to
need Semion alive. Much more is involved than just Semion’s assassination...
I’ve discovered that the Poets are just a small part of a massive plot aimed at
the entire Panarchy. We’ve been used and betrayed by Jerrode Eusabian of
Dol’jhar.” His voice hardened as he spat out the faint gutturals of the name.

He clearly expected Sara to recognize it and hate it. Oh
yes, those horrible heavy-planet people who had murdered the Kyriarch’s peace
mission.

Hadn’t Eusabian of Dol’jhar’s son been hostage on Arthelion?

She shook her head.

“Dol’jhar intends to have Galen assassinated at the same
time Semion was to die, and he intends to kill the third son, Brandon, at the
same time, at his Enkainion on Arthelion. In the heart of the Mandala, the
center of the Thousand Suns!” Cheruld paused, rubbing trembling fingers across
his eyes. “All three of the Panarch’s heirs
...
It’s Eusabian’s revenge
against the Panarch.”

Sara’s mind was caught like a faulty record chip.
They’re
going to kill Galen?
Blood sang in her ears, and the room grayed, but she
forced herself to listen.

He gave her a swift description of the plot engineered for
Galen’s death, then added, “You must tell Semion, regardless of what it costs
me or you.”

“No,” she whispered
.
“No, no, no, no,
no
.” Her
voice had become a moan. She clapped her hand over her mouth.

“...
It’s the only way we can smash Eusabian’s plot
before it starts.”

Sarah did not hear his closing remarks. Her fingers
automatically hit the code that would dump the com. Then, after taking a deep
breath, she murmured, “Calculation.”

The green light glowed.

“Spacetime graph for...” Where was Cheruld? “Qoholeth and
Narbon, Qoholeth and Talgarth, Qoholeth and Arthelion.” She responded
mechanically to the computer’s queries: DataNet, scheduled couriers, comparison
timings delimiting the progress of the plot as outlined by Cheruld.

The fact that he had said the assassinations were scheduled
for the same time made it easier for her. Too easy. Although born a Rifter, she
had been conditioned by nearly ten years of the certainties of planetary
seasons and the clockwork cycle of day and night: space-time was now merely an
abstraction to her. On the screen a deceptively simple pattern of red and green
lines grew from pale blue dots haloed by the uncertainty assigned by the
program.

In obedience to its programming, the computer calculated
from what it was given, and Sara stared dully at the completed graph, noting
only the green line of Cheruld’s message falling short of Talgarth—a pale blue
dot transfixed by the bloody red line of Dol’jhar’s successful plot. Cheruld’s
message would not, had not, made it in time.

The plot was a lie, and Galen is dead.

Her palm slammed down on the cancel pad and the light winked
out. She rose, clutching her forearms against herself.

Semion was probably this very moment hearing that Sara had
taken the flyer to the retreat on her own, something she had never before done.
She knew he would not be able to resist following her, if for no other reason
than to chastise her for her temerity.

She must make a decision now.

She moved to a window and glanced up through the ever-green
leaves of the conservatory trees at the wall of glass, in time to see a bright
pinpoint of blue light etch slowly down the purpling sky. Semion’s armored
shuttle. He was right on schedule.

She opened her travel case. Her fingers trembled as she
changed into a soft silk wrapper, then hesitated. Though she had seen nothing,
she was certain of one thing: the assassin waited in Semion’s bedroom,
concealed in the old dumbwaiter. The air in that room seemed subtly
different... charged.

This would have been impossible at the citadel, for Semion
kept himself surrounded by layers of Marine guards and combat-trained servants.
Sara smiled grimly. She remembered the Arkad dogs frolicking around Galen on
Talgarth, a layer of unsubornable security. But Semion had no dogs; he had told
Galen, when he tried to send Sara one of the new pups, that he was too busy for
the stupid creatures, and had it sent back to Talgarth.

Here there were none of those spying eyes who never let her
forget that she was not Douloi, that she had been born on Rifthaven, sold by
her mother into the sex trade the day she reached menarche. Servants reflected
the attitude of their master.

BOOK: The Phoenix in Flight
2.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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