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Realm of the Stars, Volume II: The Endangered Crown (Complete 10/8)


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Sequel to Realm of the Stars Volume I: The Unclaimed Crown, which may be found here:



Realm Year 488

Erebus, Remote Moon, Kingdom of the Dozen Stars

The small moon was a cold and dark world, in orbit around a deep blue gas giant on the far edge of its star system. Though it had a thin atmosphere, no native life had ever crawled upon its surface or tunneled beneath its crust; the explorers from Carann who’d first stumbled upon it had named it for a primordial god of night from long-vanished Terra, and had quickly left it behind.

Those who came later would find a purpose for it.

The small ship dropped from jump in orbit around the dim moon and descended slowly through the wispy atmosphere, coming to hover over an ancient crater of dark stone. There, on its rim, beneath a star-flecked sky, there stood a single, solitary tower – an isolated fortress where the wealthy and powerful could come and conduct clandestine meetings away from prying eyes. The small ship came to rest in a hangar on the tower’s side, and the great metal doors closed behind it.

The vessel’s ramp lowered from its belly and two men descended it. The first was in late mid-life, not tall and gone somewhat to seed and his hair and mustache, once dark, with both streaked liberally with grey. His eyes, though, were still bright and cold as they surveyed the hangar, and his cane tapped rhythmically against the floor as he made his determined way towards the tower’s main chambers. He was clad in rich clothing, and was apparently unarmed. His companion was younger and somewhat taller, his hair still dark; he wore armor and bore a dueling sword at his hip, and watched the hangar around him with wary interest.

The two men exited the hangar and were met by a pair of hovering serving mechs, who bowed and directed them to the nearest lift. When they emerged from it, they found themselves in a reception room outside a pair of closed doors; several armed and armored men and women stood or sat around them, and they watched the new arrivals with cool appraisal.

The older man held up his hand to his companion. “Wait here,” Duke Naudar ast Sakran said.

“But, Father,” the younger began, before Naudar cut him off.

“Don’t make me repeat myself, boy,” the duke said. “I’ll be fine.”

“Yes, Father,” Darius, his eldest son, said, bowing slightly in acknowledgment. Naudar nodded back and then stepped towards the great doors, which slid open silently at his approach and then shut behind him with equal quiet.

The duke stood in a small conference room with a large window that looked out over the desolate surface of the moon; it was dominated by a table at which two others were already seated. The first was a slender man with cold eyes who wore a uniform of military cut; the other an elegant woman who was drumming her fingers impatiently on the table before her.

“Respen,” Naudar said to the man, before turning to the woman. “And Sateira. As I expected.”

“Take a seat,” the Duchess Sateira ast Tashir said, gesturing to an empty chair. “We all know why we’re here, so I don’t see much use for the formalities.”

“The upstart Queen,” Respen ast Aurann hissed, his tone venomous. “Artakane. ‘Ast Carann’, she calls herself, as if she had any right to that name, or that title.”

“You think that right is yours, don’t you, Respen?” Naudar said mildly. “You always have. Please tell me I haven’t been called here for a petty family smile. It would be… tiring.”

“She is no family of mine!” Respen spat. “Don’t you think it’s convenient, after all this time, that Aestera’s daughter would reveal herself and claim the throne, just in time for the tournament and the assassins’ attack? A daughter none of us had ever heard of? No, Naudar, this smells of a conspiracy to me. Old Shiran’s behind it, I’d bet half my duchy – though for what, I’m less sure. What I know for sure is that that girl is a pretender, and I will not bow before her.”

“The girl is popular,” Sateira said. “But I have to agree with Respen, as much as it pains me to do so. All of these events surrounding Artakane’s emergence – it all feels staged to me. Someone is playing games with us, and I’m nobody’s pawn.”

“Are you blaming me?” Naudar asked. “Because Darius had the chance to defeat her and he didn’t take it? That was his own decision, not mine. The girl had saved his life, and my son has always had disposition unfortunately too honest for his own good. Had I known who she really was, I’d never had allowed Darius to forfeit the match. But, as they say, all courses are obvious in hindsight.”

“We know that you’re like us, Naudar,” Sateira said. “You’re proud, and your ambitious. It galls you to bend the knee to Artakane as much as it does either of us.”

“Perhaps,” Naudar allowed. “But, in the hypothetical event that I were to raise my hand in rebellion against the crown, I would do so to benefit my House, not either of you. I have no enmity against the girl Artakane, nor House ast Carann, nor the former regent. My desire for an ast Sakran dynasty is purely a concern for my posterity.”

“But so long as she sits on the throne, none of your children ever will,” Respen said. “Nor will I, or Sateira. We have a common enemy, Naudar.”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend?” Naudar asked, and chuckled. “I think we both know that’s not always true. We’re as much obstacles to each other’s ambitions as she is, Respen. So long as your knife in my back is a likely outcome, I’m afraid I can’t join this little alliance of yours.”

Respen and Sateira shared a long look, and then nodded. “We thought you might say that,” Respen finally said. “I know you don’t trust me. But would you take assurances from someone else?” He placed a small, round holoprojector on the table, then tapped a quick sequence into the keys on its side.

Intrigued in spite of himself, Naudar leaned forward as an image flickered to life in midair – a tall man in fine clothing, his face concealed behind a distortion effect that left his identity impossible to guess. “Duke Naudar,” the man said, his voice also heavily garbled. “I’m pleased to see that you could join us.”

“The pleasure is mine,” Naudar said. “May I ask to whom I’m speaking?”

“Oh, I think you of all people know the value of playing things close, your grace,” the holo-image said. “Simply think of me as a man who shares a common goal with you – the removal of this so-called Adept Queen, Artaken ast Carann.”

“And who would you have rule the Dozen Stars in her stead? I’m deeply flattered in your interest, but I don’t take the fact that you apparently came to Respen first as a sign that you’re terribly interested in an ast Sakran ruled Kingdom.”

“I don’t care who rules,” the man said, “so long as it isn’t Artakane. I have my reasons; they are… personal. I also have resources. Money, weapons. You also have resources. Sateira’s duchy has wealth; Respen’s has a powerful military. Naudar, you have a balance of both. None of you have the resources to topple Artakane alone, not if the other dukes stand with her. But together, with my backing, you might. This is my proposal – I will place my resources at your disposal, but first you must swear to work in concert. Which of you will rule can be decided afterwards, when you are successful. Not before.”

“And what if you decide you should be the one to rule?” Naudar asked. Respen and Sateira, however, were both nodding. They’d agreed to this already, the duke of Sakran thought, before he’d gotten here – probably before they’d set up this meeting. The two of them working together was a frightening thought, to say nothing of the mysterious man who seemed to be backing them. Naudar, though, was an old and careful man. He knew that standing against an oncoming force was liable to see you crushed beneath.

Stand beside it, however, and you might come to direct its course, and in time, to control it.

“Like I said, I’m not interested in ruling, or who rules,” the holo-figure said. “Once Artakane is dead, my interest in the Dozen Stars will be over. This I swear, by the Lord.”

Naudar looked from Respen’s face to Sateira’s, then back to the holo-figure, and nodded. “Very well,” he finally said. “I will join myself to you. We will work together to bring down Queen Artakane, and so long as she lives, I will not work to advance my ambitions at your expense. So I swear, by the Lord.”

“By the Lord,” Respen and Sateira echoed, and their voices echoed in the small room with the weight of doom.

And so, Naudar thought, it begins.

Feedback welcome on both stories! 

Edited by MasterGhandalf
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Chapter One

The Planet Carann, Capital of the Kingdom of the Dozen Stars

Royal Palace

The portrait was an exquisite work of art, as were all that hung here, in the Hall of Monarchs in Carann’s royal palace where hung the images of kings and queens back to Artax the Founder, who had won his throne and built a nation by defeating the Empire’s legions. The woman it depicted was regal and beautiful, on the final edge between youth and the beginning of middle age; her tan face was finely featured, her long black hair elaborately styled and topped with a small golden crown. She was seated calmly on the royal throne, her fine robes blue edged with gold – the colors of the House ast Carann, and by extension, of the entire Kingdom. She seemed calm, at peace, but there was a steely strength in her dark eyes and a dueling sword rested on her lap – sheathed, true, but still present, a statement that, serene as she appeared, any who would threaten the nation under her protection would be met with swift retribution.

She was Aestera ast Carann, Queen Aestera IV, who had ruled the Dozen Stars until her untimely death almost seventeen years ago had nearly thrown the entire Kingdom into chaos. And she was, above all else, a very large and heavy shadow to find oneself standing in.

Or at least, so thought the young woman who stood in front of the portrait, lightly tracing the line of the dead queen’s face with one slender finger. They told her she resembled Aestera – she’d heard it too many times to count now – but she couldn’t see it. Maybe they had the same hair and eyes, the same general shape of the face, but Aestera had a confidence, a weight to her presence even in a portrait, that the observer thought she would never manage to replicate.

Artakane ast Carann, Artakane I in the official records, let her hand drop and sighed. Logically, she knew that trying to compare herself, someone who’d been crowned queen less than a month ago, to someone who’d held that throne for the better part of two decades, could only make her feel inferior in contrast. All the same, she’d been drawn back here day after day, trying to find some trace of herself in her predecessor.

After all, Aestera wasn’t just the former queen – she was also the mother she’d never known. Surely that was an excuse for curiosity?

For most of her life, Arta had been a fosterling – Baron Varas ast Katanes had taken her in and raised her as his own, but she’d always known he wasn’t her biological father. There’d been times when she’d imagined who her mother really was, and why she’d been left in the Baron’s care, but the idea that she was the daughter of a queen whose life had been cut short by an assassin’s bolt was too outlandish to ever seem like it could be true.

And now Arta herself was a queen – a seventeen-year-old girl with the responsibility of an entire nation on her shoulders. Sometimes that made her feel a very small and frail person indeed. And while the assassin who had been responsible for Aestera’s death had himself been killed by Arta’s own hand, with his dying breath he had warned her that the threat was not over.

Someone cleared their throat loudly behind her; Arta started and spun to find her foster-sister, Karani ast Katanes, leaning against the far wall. Karani was dressed similarly to Arta, though her tunic and cape were Katanes green rather than Carann blue, and her hair was bound back in its customary long braid. Her expression, equal parts affectionate and irritated, was also familiar.

“I had a feeling you’d be here,” Karani said, nodding towards the portrait. “You’ve been stopping by every day, in the middle of the afternoon, without exception. Well, maybe you can give Duke Mardoban the slip, little sister, but I know you too well.”

Even from a distance, Karani seemed to loom – she was a good half-a-foot taller than Arta, who was not a short woman, and nearly as tall as her father, the Baron. Arta, however, knew her far too well than to be intimidated. “And if I am?” she asked, raising a brow. “I would think that one of the benefits of being a queen is being able to go where I want in my own palace.”

“I wasn’t accusing you,” Karani said, holding up her hands placatingly. “Just pointing out that you’re getting a bit predictable.” She strolled over to Aestera’s portrait and looked it up and down. “Honestly, in your place, I’d probably be here too. I’m still trying to adjust to the whole thing; it’s got to be even weirder on your end.”

“You have no idea,” Arta muttered. “One day I’m a second daughter unlikely to amount to much except maybe a knight in some duke’s retinue, and the next I’m the long-lost heir to the entire Kingdom.” She clenched her fists. “And now I’m somehow expected to rule over twelve duchies, dozens of star systems, and somehow manage not to make a mess of it when Duke Mardoban, who actually has experience with this, could barely manage for fifteen years.”

Arta sighed and shook her head. “I don’t care whose bloodline I have, Karani,” she said. “I wasn’t ready for this. And if I do it wrong, billions of lives could be at stake. Lord, how do you live like that? I don’t know how the dukes manage.”

“Well, if some of them are any indication, by being heartless bastards who don’t actually care about anyone,” Karani said. “Speaking of dukes, though, I’m supposed to tell you that the regent – or, I guess the ex-regent? Former regent? Regent emeritus? Whatever he’s calling himself these days, Duke Mardoban wanted me to find you. He wants to see you in the council chamber, about five minutes ago.”

“Did he say why?”

Karani shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I’m just the messenger girl, apparently. But let’s not keep him waiting, okay?”

Arta sighed again, straightened her cape, and turned to head in the direction of the council chamber, Karani following by her side. They walked in silence for several minutes, and then her foster-sister spoke.

“I’ve been wondering,” Karani said. “We’re not related by blood, but we grew up together and Father was your guardian and all. So, if you’re queen, what does that make me? I mean, I am almost a full year older than you, so you’d think if anyone was getting the fancy titles I would, but…”

Arta shot her sister a bemused look. “Considering you’re not actually related to Queen Aestera at all, I’m pretty sure you don’t get anything. And trust me, I don’t think you want to.”

“Well, I thought I might as well ask,” Karani grumbled. Arta regarded her curiously.

“Karani, you’re already a baronial heir,” she said. “What else do you want?

Karani threw up her hands. “I don’t know,” she said, “maybe something I could use to introduce myself at parties, have everybody be all impressed, maybe get some boys interested. You know, all sorts of things.” She looked at Arta thoughtfully. “Say, can’t the queen give people titles? If I asked really nicely…”

“I don’t think that would work out,” Arta said. “I’m not sure, but I’m fairly certain there’s quite a lot of paperwork involved in that.” She fell silent for a moment longer, then curiosity finally overcame her. “What kind of title do you want, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” Karani thought out loud. “Maybe ‘Admiral?’ That has a nice ring to it.”

Arta looked at her crossly and said, in a decidedly final tone, “No.”

“Worth a try,” Karani muttered.


Near the edge of the Carann system a small starship cruised slowly. It was a personal yacht and it would be clear to any observer was of expensive make, a slender dagger of a ship with a glossy black hull that gleamed like obsidian even in even the light of the far-distant stars. It had been sighted before on a dozen different worlds, though it never stayed long, and now it was maintaining its course but going nowhere in particular. Soon, it would have a new destination – or so its owner, pilot, and sole passenger hoped.

Midaia ast Carann sat in her meditation room in the heart of her dark ship, legs crossed on the mat beneath her. She had removed the heavy cloak she usually wore in public for dramatic effect, and the nun’s habit she often wore under it for more sentimental reasons, and was clad in a sleeveless black top and baggy pants of the same color – the light, practical clothing she preferred when she was alone. The outfit made the contrast between the dark fabric and the striking pallor of her skin all the more obvious. Once, when she was young, she’d had the same tan complexion that her mother had had, and that her half-sister Artakane still did, but a long-ago experiment had broken free of her control and, for reasons she’d never fully figured out, bleached most of her pigment away, so that her current coloring was only barely within human norms and only contributed to the unease most people felt around her.

That unease was fine by Midaia. She’d never much cared for other people, either, with a handful of exceptions.

She was thirty years old, still young by most measures, especially considering that modern medical technology meant that most people lived past a hundred, so long as nothing else killed them on the way. Despite her youth, she’d been many things already over the course of her life. Princess, novice holy sister, Adept, witch – Midaia had been called them all, and all of them were true, but only part of the truth. There was so much of her that no one else had ever been permitted to know.

But none of that mattered now. Midaia cleared her errant thoughts away with a shake of her head and focused her will on the object that lay on the floor in front of her. It was a dueling sword, not of Dozen Stars make, with its blade fully extended but inert, lacking the telltale corona of crackling energy that would indicate it had been activated. The Royal Guards on Carann had taken it from the corpse of the leader of the assassins who’d attacked the recent tournament – the man they’d called the Commander. Midaia, in turn, had taken it from the Guards a few days later. No doubt they were frantically looking for their lost evidence, not that they’d ever track it back to the true culprit. Nobody, whether organic being or security camera, saw Midaia if she didn’t wish to be seen – that was an Adept skill she’d always been particularly talented at. She didn’t care what the Guard decided had happened to the sword; she was more interested in tracing its wielder.

The Commander had tried to kill her sister – and he’d claimed that it had been he, years ago, who’d murdered her mother as well. Midaia had been called selfish, aloof, and ungrateful, and perhaps all of those were true, but blood was still blood, and she had no intention of letting such crimes go unpunished. The Commander was dead, but whoever had outfitted him might still be alive. Midaia had learned long ago that objects held certain… resonances, memories even, that tied them to their owners and makers. An Adept, given time, could read those resonances and uncover much of the object’s history. Now she intended to use the Commander’s sword to trace its history back to whoever had set him on the hunt in the first place.

She breathed deeply for a moment, steadying herself, taking in the room around her. It was small and mostly bare, save for the painting that hung on the opposite wall, a complex series of geometric lines and shapes that drew the eye and defied the mind that tried to make sense of it. It was a meditation aid she’d acquired long ago, but she didn’t need it today. All that was needed was the sword.

Midaia exhaled deeply, letting loose the breath she’d taken, and let her will fall upon the weapon, taking in its every line and contour. Slowly she raised her hands before her, and red light burst into being around them, flickering in writhing arcs. Slowly those arcs extended, wrapping around the sword, lifting it from the floor where it had rested until it hovered before her, wreathed in what looked like tiny red lightning. The energy was a part of her, and Midaia let her will travel along it, leaving her body behind and falling into the blade…

And suddenly the meditation room and the ship were gone and she stood by the Commander’s fallen form in the tournament hall on Carann. Artakane’s armored form slumped nearby, the eldest ast Sakran son supporting her; for a moment, Midaia felt concern rise in her heart, but she quashed it. This had already happened, and Arta had survived – there was no need to worry for her. Today, a different mission called.

Midaia raised her hand and the planet fell away beneath her. She found herself flying through space, stars shooting past her like streaks of light. Flickers of images surrounded her – she saw the Commander, bowing to a faceless hologram, leading his pirate fleet in battle, even, she saw with a pang, leading the attack that had killed her mother – but she didn’t see the information she sought. Who was he, really? Where did he come from? Who was his master? Those were the answers she needed. To get them, she had to go deeper still.

Suddenly she shot off into deep space, leaving the Kingdom of the Dozen Stars behind her. The known galaxy flashed beneath her feet, and Midaia’s eyes widened when she realized where she was being drawn. The Empire, of course, the Dozen Stars’ most ancient and storied enemy, weakened now by centuries of internal strife and external wars but even so very, very strong. But did it have the strength to risk war with the Dozen Stars should its involvement be discovered, while the Alaelam War was still ongoing? Midaia frowned. There must be more that she hadn’t seen. Deeper, deeper…

And then she saw a man, a soldier, fighting in the Emperor’s legions. She saw him discharged for his excessively brutal and erratic conduct, and saw him recruited by someone who found those very qualities to be desirable, rather than a fault. She saw him writhing on a surgical table as he was rebuilt with mechanical augmentation and she saw him, now the familiar masked figure of the Commander, kneeling and receiving his weapons… his sword… Midaia stepped closer. Who was responsible for all of this? Who had the Commander served?

And suddenly everything went dark, the images blotted from her sight as if by a great hand. Midaia’s heart began to race as she realized what was happening – she had someone drawn the attention of another Adept, and now that person was fighting her, perhaps from half a galaxy away, for in the mental space where they both stood distance meant nothing. She could feel their will wrapping around her, trying to hold her still so she could be captured and examined.

Midaia allowed herself a thin smile. She had trained with Shiran himself, perhaps the greatest Adept of the Dozen Stars, as a child, before she’d outgrown him. She’d studied with the Holy Sisters, before they’d realized they couldn’t tame the darkness in her soul. And she’d had studied with those who few humans even realized existed, acquiring powers that hardly anyone of her species had ever before touched. If this enemy was so interested in dancing with her, then she would give them a dance such as they’d never seen before.

She raised her hands and they flashed with brilliant crimson light, illuminating the darkness. The shadows recoiled, hissing, then wrapped even more tightly around her; Midaia twisted, becoming a rope of red light that slipped effortlessly between them. From the darkness, a great hand reached for her; she wrapped herself tightly around it and blazed like fire; from a distance, she heard what seemed to be a startled yell. If she’d had a mouth in this state, she’d have smiled.

And then the great hand smashed her flat against the unseen ground, and though Midaia writhed with all her might, she couldn’t break free. Her opponent was angry now, and she realized that what she’d felt before had only been a fraction of his – she was increasingly certain it was a man – strength. Midaia was one of the strongest Adepts she knew, stronger than any of the Holy Sisters who’d taught her, stronger than Artakane, and someday, perhaps, even stronger than Shiran. But whoever this was dwarfed her as a supergiant dwarfed Carann’s yellow star. Never had she encountered such strength – never had she even imagined it might be possible. And now she was pinned, an insect caught in a spider’s immeasurably vast web.

In her mind, she heard a deep voice chuckling. Who are you, little one? It asked, more amused than angry now. And what are you looking for here? You can fight, for a time, or you can give in now. That will be easier. I always learn what I want, in the end…

NEVER! Midaia sent back, and with a final burst of all her mental strength she shot free. She could feel the shock of her opponent’s mind and hear the roar of his anger, but she was gone from his reach, fleeing back across the mental plane and back to the sanctuary of her body as quickly as thought could take her. The Commander’s life shot past her, and then she was back in the tournament hall and then, at last, she was back aboard her ship, safe in her body that now lay on its side in her meditation room, panting heavily.

Slowly, she sat up; she hadn’t discovered what she wanted to know, perhaps, but as disturbing as the encounter was, it hadn’t been entirely devoid of insight. There was an Adept, most likely in the Empire, who had an interest in keeping the Commander’s origins hidden. And Adepts weren’t so common for one as strong as this to be entirely unknown. Midaia had a feeling who might have answers for her. “Shiran,” she muttered under her breath, “it’s time you and I had a very, very long talk.”

Slowly she pulled herself to her feet, untangling the last strings of her mind from the mental plane and pulling them back to the physical, when she heard a faint, echoing call – not from the Empire, but from somewhere far closer to home, though no doubt her recent efforts had left her particularly open to it. Midaia, it said, young one. Come to us. We have much to discuss. Come to us…

Her body went cold as the voice faded. Midaia considered herself a proud, independent person, beholden to no one. But even she was not entirely devoid of entanglements, and there were some calls that couldn’t be ignored. Shiran could wait, for now. Midaia had other obligations that had to be met.

Slowly she made her way to the cockpit and punched in a series of coordinates for a place she’d hoped to never visit again. A moment later the yacht’s engines flared to life and it vanished from the Carann system, leaving only empty sky behind.


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Chapter Two

The Planet Gearrach, Realtran Kingdom

Dansa Academy

Latharna’s eyes opened suddenly to a feeling of stillness in the air. Nothing seemed to be amiss, and yet, there was an inescapable sense that something had shifted, as if this was the calm after a sudden thunderclap when the world held its breath, waiting to see if the sound might come again and what it portended. Something had changed, she thought, and she wasn’t sure what it might signify.

Glancing at the small holo-clock by her bedside, she saw that it was still early in the morning, but that the morning bells would be ringing soon. Sitting up slowly, she stretched, ran a hand through her fine white hair, and blinked away the last sleep from her eyes. Her room was small and spartan, though unlike the younger students she had no roommate to share it with. Aside from her bed, its only features were the doors leading to the hallway and to her washroom, a small shelf of books, a stand for her practice sword, the wardrobe that held her clothing, and a small shrine in one corner.

Rising, Latharna approached the shrine and bowed before it, murmuring her morning prayers under her breath. The Academy was technically under the auspices of the Church, though the Realtran Church was notoriously independent of the central religious hierarchy in the Empire, even more so than the Dozen Stars Church. Still, certain forms were expected to be maintained, though Latharna knew many of the other students skimped on their prayers when they thought the instructors weren’t looking. She, though, rarely had – she found the ritual comforting, and thought that it helped give her focus.

Prayers done, she took the time to clean herself and attend to various other matters in the washroom, before changing into the red tunic and pants that were the uniform of a senior Academy student. Pausing for a moment in front of the washroom mirror to adjust her clothing, she was struck, as she often was, by the contrast between the rich color of the fabric and the almost complete lack of color in her own body – her hair and skin were both bone-white, and her eyes, which were unusually sensitive to bright lights, were a pale lavender shade. Latharna had been born like that, and though the Headmistress had assured her that the condition was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of, she’d never met another person who shared it.

Not, she reflected wryly, that she’d met a particularly large assortment of people at all. She had little memory of her parents, who had left her in the Headmistress’s care as a small child, leaving her a surname – Dhenloc- but little else. She’d lived at the Academy for most of her life, and had always excelled at her studies, but there had always been a barrier between her and the other students that she’d never quite been able to bridge. They had families who they could return to on leave, and positions waiting for them in the outside worlds after they had graduated. Latharna, orphaned and seemingly unwanted, had the Headmistress as her guardian, but she was a busy woman with many demands on her time. Latharna respected her greatly, but she’d never been the most affectionate or close of surrogate parents.

The Dansa Academy was one of the Realtran Kingdom’s most prestigious centers of education, and many of the wealth, powerful, well-connected, and aristocratic – though those categories were somewhat more permeable here than in places like the Dozen Stars or the Empire that had stricture class systems and more rigid hierarchies – sent their children here to be educated in the skills that would be expected of them later in life. History, mathematics, economics, the sciences, the arts, music, and swordplay – all were on the Academy’s curriculum, and Latharna had always been driven to excel, to prove that just because she was the Headmistress’s ward, she didn’t need or want special treatment. Now she was eighteen, a grown woman by the standards of most major nations, and her education was complete, but still she remained. There was no family waiting to take Latharna back, no position in the Church or the military or as an aide to a member of parliament that had been set aside for her. The Academy was all that she knew and so here she had remained as a tutor to some of the younger students, particularly in the swordsmanship classes. Latharna had developed many skills during her time at the school – she had an extensive knowledge of galactic history and literature, a functional understanding of the sciences, and according to her teachers was naturally gifted on the harp – but her true aptitude and deepest passion was for the sword.

Checking the clock again, she saw that it was almost time for her first class of the morning. Belting on her sword, she retrieved the lenses that would shield her eyes from the brightness of the sun and prepared to head to her work. But in her heart, she knew that this day would be far from ordinary.

Something has changed, a voice seemed to whisper. Something is coming. Be ready.


Latharna stood with her hands on her hips in the Academy courtyard, red lenses in place to filter out the harsh white light of Gearrach’s sun and watched over a group of ten-year-olds going through their exercises with long sticks that approximated the shape and weight of practice swords. Brother Ronall, an elderly monk who had been a fearsome knight in his youth before retiring to a religious life and eventually become one of the Academy’s instructors, sat on the steps behind her, seemingly content to let her handle things for the moment. There had been, of course, a number of mishaps, and several students had needed their form corrected, but so far this morning none of them had smacked themselves in the face with their weapons or decided smacking each other would be more fun than drilling, so Latharna was tentatively counting this session a success.

Nodding approvingly, Latharna wandered over to the steps and sat down beside Brother Ronall. “They seem to be improving,” she said, then nodded at one girl who had an expression of intense concentration on her face that looked more comical than was intended. “Please tell me I never looked quite so silly at that age, though,” she added in an undertone.

“All children are silly,” Ronall said, chuckling. “And those of us who live long enough figure out that there’s nothing wrong with it, either. Maybe those of us who try to take ourselves too seriously are really the silly ones.” He fixed Latharna with his bright eyes. “Which means, child, that it’s sometimes all right to lighten up. You always have been so serious, even as a little girl.”

“So I’ve been told,” Latharna said drily. “Just my nature, I suppose. I can’t leave something done until I can make sure I did it right.”

“Or is it that you feel you have to prove you belong?” Brother Ronall asked. “Because you don’t have a noble pedigree or rich parents? Well, I can’t speak for everyone else, but I think you proved rather conclusively that you belonged in my classes long ago. And I can assure you that you were brought here for a reason. The Lord leaves nothing to chance.”

“Praise be,” Latharna added reflexively. “But why am I getting the impression you know more than you’re letting on?”

The old monk’s eyes twinkled, but he said nothing more. They sat together for several more minutes, watching the students drill, when an older girl in her mid-teens emerged from the building and hurried over to the steps where they were seated.

“Brother Ronall,” she said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but the Headmistress requests that Mistress Dhenloc attend her in the gardens, if she is at all available.”

Ronall stood and stretched, then gestured for Latharna to rise as well. “Her services do not seem to be urgently required at the moment,” he said, and smiled. “Latharna, do go and see the Headmistress. I suspect you will find the meeting rather illuminating.”

“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” Latharna asked accusingly, but Brother Ronall only smiled.

Sighing, Latharna turned away from him and hurried off to meet the Headmistress in the gardens.


The Headmistress was standing on a cobbled path beside a small pool, head bowed as she stroked the head of the brightly-colored bird that was perched on her wrist. Latharna approached her quietly and stood still at a respectful several paces behind her; she made no sound to indicate her presence, but experience had long ago taught her that she didn’t need to. No sooner had she arrived than the Headmistress raised her hand and let her bird flutter away, then turned to face her ward with a rustle of her deep red robes.

The Headmistress was a nonhuman; not a particularly common sight in most of Realtran or the Dozen Stars, and even more rare in a position of authority. Latharna didn’t know much about her history or how she had come to head one of the kingdom’s most prestigious schools and had never had the courage to ask, but everyone knew that the Headmistress was a formidable woman indeed. Her species were called the Pervai and they resembled humans in many respects, though with enough differences to make their alien nature obvious; the Headmistress was pale, though not as pale as Latharna, with fine features and deep black eyes that seemed disproportionately large compared to her face. Most striking, however, was the fact that instead of hair, her head was topped with a bright crest of feathers that swept back from her face in a dramatic pattern.

“Walk with me, child,” the Headmistress said, gesturing to Latharna with a hand whose long, slender fingers were tipped with delicate claws. Turning, she began to make her way along the path, moving with the easy grace typical of her people, who were most often seen in human worlds as dancers or acrobats. Latharna followed close behind her.

“I have been pleased with you work here, child,” the Headmistress finally said again. “You have comported yourself well in all your studies, and in working with the instructors these last few months. I know that you are uncertain about your future, feeling that you have nowhere to go now that your education is complete. I called you here because I believe that is about to change.”

“What do you mean, Headmistress?” Latharna asked, her voice catching in her throat.

“Ceana Preas, Ambassador of the Realtran Kingdom to the Dozen Stars by appointment of King and Parliament, contacted me yesterday,” the Headmistress said. “It seems she finds herself in need of an assistant and bodyguard, and wished to know if I had any students suitable for the position. I can think of no other who might serve so well as you.”

“So, I’m to leave, then?” Latharna asked. “And go to the Dozen Stars to serve an ambassador I’ve never met? I’m… I’m honored, headmistress, but I don’t think I’m ready for that.”

“Oh?” the Headmistress asked; her expression was unreadable by most human standards, but Latharna had been around her long enough to recognize the faint flicking in her crest that signified wry amusement. “I will not, of course, force you to take a position you do not want, but I find myself surprised. You graduated at the top of your class, did you not? And I thought you had always wished to see the Dozen Stars? Or was I mistaken?”

“No, Headmistress,” Latharna admitted. She’d always been fascinated by the neighboring Kingdom and had spent much of her childhood and adolescence, the strange girl that other children had rarely wanted to spend time with, reading novels and histories set there that described romance and war, glamour and intrigue. Still, it had always seemed a distant thing. “But surely Ambassador Preas would rather have an assistant who is more experienced in diplomacy and politics, not a student fresh from the Academy?”

“The Ambassador specifically requested a youth, preferably a girl,” the Headmistress said, “and I think I know why. You’ve heard, no doubt, of the recent troubles surrounding the Dozen Stars’ throne. The new queen is about your age, and untried, facing unrest; nonetheless, the interests of Realtran find her preferable to the alternatives. I suspect that Ceana wants someone who can befriend young Artakane in the hopes of increasing her influence over her. The Queen shares your own passion for dueling, I believe; therefore you already have common ground.”

“So I’m to be a pawn in someone’s political games, then?” Latharna asked bitterly.

The Headmistress regarded her with her large dark eyes. “Today’s pawns may be tomorrow’s players,” she said. “And it is time, I think, for you to leave my care and seek your fortune elsewhere. This an opportunity for you, child, regardless of its reasons. It would be foolish of you to turn it down. But I believe that if anyone seeks to make you their tool, they will find themselves sorely mistaken.”

Latharna paused on the edge of the path for a long moment, staring at her reflection in one of the pools, listening to the sound of the Headmistress’s birds singing in the trees around them. She murmured a quick prayer to the Lord under her breath, seeking guidance, but if there was any supernatural insight to be found here, it didn’t show itself in any overt way. Finally she sighed and turned back to the Headmistress. “All right,” she said. “Tell Ambassador Preas that I accept the position.”

The Headmistress blinked and her crest ruffled, and Latharna could tell she was smiling. “I had a feeling you would say yes,” she said; gliding over, she put a hand on her ward’s shoulder. The Headmistress was not a physically demonstrative person – it was, so Latharna had read, a common trait of her species – and such a gesture was the equivalent of what a hug from a human might signify. “I am proud to have had you in my care, Latharna Dhenloc. Go with the Lord’s blessing upon you, and whatever may happen, never forget who you are or where you have come from.”

“I won’t, Headmistress,” Latharna said, despite herself feeling tears pooling in the edges of her eyes, behind her lenses. “I promise.”


Several days later, Latharna made her way through the crowded spaceport in Dansa City, a decently-sized urban area not far from the Academy. She’d visited the city many times during her years at the Academy, but still found the crowds hard to get used to; fortunately, most people were ignoring her as they went about on business of their own, so she didn’t have to deal with them. She wore her hood up, shielding her sensitive skin from burning too badly in the sun, and carried a bag with her few personal possessions slung over one shoulder. Beyond that, she carried nothing with her as she traveled to a new stage in her life.

She found the starship that the Headmistress had chartered her passage on near the end of the main terminal and boarded quickly; the ticket officer had raised his eyebrows, impressed, when he saw that her pass had the Headmistress’s signature on it. Inside the ship, she stowed her bag and took a seat by the window. Slowly the cabin filled with passengers, most of them men and women who were dressed like they were important – but then, that was unsurprising; in the current unsettled state of the Dozen Stars, most people who travelled there did so on business, not pleasure.

Once the passengers were all settled, the ship’s engines thrummed to life beneath it and then, slowly, it lifted off; Latharna felt a thrill rush through her as she realized that she was about to leave Gearrach behind for the first time in her clear memory. Pressing her face to the window, aware that she looked like an overly excited child but finding that in the moment she didn’t much care, she watched as she city shrunk away beneath her and the rich green of the surrounding landscape came to dominate her view. She thought she saw the Academy flash away far below, and then the ship was lifting up into the upper atmosphere and beyond, leaving Gearrach behind.

A few moments later, they were sufficiently far from the planet to enter jump, and Gearrach vanished entirely. Latharna Dhenloc felt that she had crossed a barrier over which she couldn’t return. The Academy where she had spent all of her childhood was gone, and now she was heading for Carann and the unknown future that awaited there.


Brother Ronall watched the sky from the Academy courtyard, almost fancying he could see Latharna’s ship streaking away, though he knew that it was incredibly unlikely. Sighing, he turned to look at the Headmistress, whose black eyes were still fixed on the heavens as she absently stroked one of her birds that was perched on her wrist.

“Well,” the old monk said, wrapping his robe more tightly around himself, “I suppose this means I’ll have to get used to teaching all of my own classes again, eh? A pity to see that girl go. I hope the ambassador appreciates her.”

“She is where she needs to be,” the Headmistress said. “We taught her well. Now she will have to use what she has learned. Things will be happening soon in that Kingdom, my friend. But I believe Latharna will rise to the challenge, or I wouldn’t have permitted her to go.”

“Lord, you’re always so dramatic, aren’t you?” Ronall asked, though he smiled. Then, as he noticed the determined cast to the Headmistress’s features, his expression became more serious. “Do you know something the rest of us don’t? What exactly is about to happen over there, anyway? Is there a reason you decided to send Latharna instead of recommending someone else? How much do you really know?”

The Headmistress only ruffled her crest in the equivalent of a mysterious smile, then turned and made her way back through the garden, her birds singing softly around her.


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Chapter Three

Carann, Royal Palace

If Arta had still retained any illusions regarding the council of the Dozen Stars as being an august, dignified body composed of noble leaders who worked selflessly for the good of the realm, today’s meeting would have certainly been sufficient to erase them.

Shortly after Karani had escorted her to the council chamber and Arta had seated herself on the throne, the holo-images of the council members had flickered into existence above their chairs, which faced her in a semi-circular pattern – all save for Duke Mardoban, who was physically present, and three other dukes who were conspicuous by their absence. No sooner had they appeared than they had begun arguing, and as of yet showed no signs of stopping. If the sympathetic looks Mardoban shot Arta’s way were any indication, this was not unusual behavior for the Dozen Stars’ highest nobility.

The current topic of debate, so far as Arta could follow it, regarded the issue of trade between Tantos Duchy and Kern Duchy. Duchess Kallistrae ast Tantos, recently instituted following the murder of her cousin Hiram, was apparently being pressured by the guilds to protest the high levels of taxation regarding goods that Tantos was exporting to Kern; Duke Menandrus ast Kern was in turn complaining about the low quality of the Tantos goods presently flooding his markets. The details of the argument had long since passed Arta’s ability to follow, however, and so far as she could tell both parties were simply going on circles without actually resolving anything. It was beginning to give her a headache, and she could only thank the Lord that the situation hadn’t, as yet, devolved to name calling.

Finally, she decided she couldn’t take it any longer. “Enough, both of you!” Arta shouted, standing from her throne – the eyes of the council members turned towards her, some looking murderous, others looking merely bemused, though the elderly Duchess Laodamia looked genuinely pleased that someone had finally managed to get everyone quiet. “If you can’t actually manage to come to an arrangement, the throne at least can request you stop wasting everyone else’s time! Despite what the two of you seem to think, yours aren’t actually the only two duchies in this Kingdom.”

“Your Majesty,” Duke Menandrus said, his tone oily, “you are young and new to your position and I will, therefore, refrain from taking offense, but I will courtesously remind the throne that the charter of the Dozen Stars, as signed by Artax the Founder and the first council, allows the dukes of the realm full leeway to handle the affairs of their duchy insofar as they see fit, so long as those affairs don’t affect the kingdom at large…”

“You’re giving me a headache and wasting the council’s time,” Arta said coldly. “I don’t object to how you choose to resolve your argument, my lord and lady; I do object when you’re doing it in such a way as to keep anyone else from making use of this meeting. Am I clear?”

“Of course,” Menandrus said, though he looked decidedly nonplussed.

“The guilds have rights and obligations as well,” Kallistrae put in. “I am the first to admit that I am a soldier, not a politician or businesswoman; however, my duchy is deeply indebted to the guilds thanks to my late cousin’s actions, and they demand that their concerns be heard.”

“If the guilds have issues they wish to bring before us,” said Mardoban suddenly but firmly, “then they have the right to petition this body for an audience. Until that time, I agree with the Queen – we only have a limited time together, and no single duchy should be permitted to monopolize it.”

I understand,” Kallistrae said, looking dissatisfied – not, Arta suspected from what she knew of the woman, because her argument with Menandrus had been broken up, but because she’d been forced into a position where she had to represent the interests of the guilds rather than those of Tantos Duchy. Of course, Arta had firsthand experience with how much influence the powerful business organizations actually had over that Duchy’s politics. Generations of Tantos dukes, of whom Hiram had only been the latest, had surrendered much of their power to guild interests in return for wealth and leisure – if Kallistrae wanted to extract herself from the arrangement, she’d have a very hard time ahead of her.

“Speaking of obligations to this council,” Arta continued, “I have to note the continued absence of a quarter of it. This is the third meeting Dukes Naudar and Respen, and the Duchess Sateira, have missed. Does anyone know where they are or what their excuse is?”

“Respen’s probably still pouting,” Duchess Vashata, one of the council’s younger members, said with a broad smirk. “He so wanted that throne, and I don’t think he’s gotten over the fact that someone else got it after so long.”

“Naudar troubles me, though,” Mardoban said. “It’s not like him to miss a council meeting – certainly not three in a row. At the very least, even if he wasn’t able to attend himself, he’d have had a representative fill in for him. I don’t know Sateira as well, but I certainly never got the impression in all of our interactions that she’d be one to abandon the chance to influence politics either. I don’t like this.”

“What are you suggesting, Mardoban?” Kallistrae asked, raising a brow.

“I’m not sure, but it’s not sitting well with me,” Mardoban said. “I would recommend that the council demand an appearance from the three or a personal representative at the next session, and launch an investigation into their reluctance should they still refuse.”

“Do you think that’s really called for, Mardoban?” Laodamia asked, her voice pointed. “Isn’t it more likely to just make them even more resentful than they already are?”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” said Mardoban firmly. “But I know that Naudar and Sateira are always plotting and Respen has one of the strongest military forces in the Kingdom, and all three of them are ambitious. I, for one, would sleep better knowing for sure what they’re up to. I would like to put the matter to a vote.” He turned towards the throne and nodded at Arta. “With the permission of the crown, of course.”

Arta recognized what he was doing – by seeming to defer to her and introduce the idea with her blessing, he was tying their positions together, and she needed all the support she could get. And while she might be a neophyte in this level of Kingdom politics, she didn’t trust the three absent council members either – especially Naudar, whose younger son had cheated during the recent tournament and seriously injured Karani. “You have it,” she said. “I’m very curious myself as to what is going on here, and would like to see this council get to the bottom of it.”

The council members glanced at one another, and then slowly, hands raised. In addition to Arta and Mardoban, Kallistrae’s, Laodamia’s, and two other votes were cast in favor of the ultimatum and investigation. As two-thirds of the present council members, the proposal passed.

Arta thought that perhaps, she should feel relieved, but the only emotion that welled in her heart was a tense apprehension.


“Well?” Karani asked, standing with her arms crossed in the hall outside the council chamber with Duke Mardoban’s son Pakorus by her side. “How did it go?”

“Awful, I think,” Arta muttered, pulling her crown of her head and shaking her hair out. “I don’t know how you put up with them all those years,” she added to Mardoban.

The duke chuckled darkly. “They’re a difficult bunch, I’ll admit,” he said. “As regent I didn’t have much actual power to make them do anything besides show up, but at least they all knew me and had time to get used to me. You haven’t had the opportunity for that yet. It’ll come.”

“I hope,” Arta said skeptically. “At least they did show up for you, though. How in the Lord’s name am I supposed to run a Kingdom when a third of my dukes aren’t even going to bother appearing at council meetings? Queen Aestera didn’t… my mother didn’t have that problem, did she?”

Mardoban smiled wistfully. “Not normally,” he admitted. “Of course, Naudar was on our side back then, which probably made quite a difference.”

“They’re not even coming!” Karani exploded angrily. “Arta, you’re the Queen! Can’t you just, I don’t know, clap them in irons for that, or something?”

Pakorus coughed. “Technically,” he said, “the Queen is first among equals, not an absolute ruler. Though the throne can command the Dukes’ obedience during times of crisis, or on matters affecting the entire kingdom, in peacetime they have the right to rule their duchies as they see fit, and technically aren’t obligated to attend council meetings unless a state of emergency is declared…”

“Well, fine then,” Karani said, throwing up her hands. “Don’t clap them in irons, I suppose. But seriously, who has the time on their hands to come up with all of this nonsense, anyway? They could be doing something productive and spare us all from having to deal with it.”

“Unfortunately, it’s all in the Great Charter, dating back to Artax,” Mardoban said. “That’s not the sort of thing that’s easy to throw out, even if we wanted to, which is probably an… extreme reaction. Our government was set up to prevent a situation like that of the Empire, where the Emperor is ostensibly answerable to the Senate but, in practice, only pays lip service to it while ruling as an absolute despot. Unfortunately, we seem to have avoided putting too much power in the hands of one person only by putting that power in the hands of a small group of people. Sometimes I wonder if the Realtrans don’t have the right idea with their parliamentary system. At least it has enough members that they can counter each other, unlike the council.”

“And the dukes took pains to remind me of their privileges in council today,” Arta said wearily. “At least, once I got them to pay attention to me at all. I think as far as most of them are concerned, I’m less a queen than I am a pretty doll in a crown they can put up on the throne to improve the scenery and then happily ignore. At least we were finally able to get them to look into whatever Respen and the others are up too, though I think that was more down to you than me.”

“Yes,” Mardoban said slowly, “and there’s something else I wanted to talk to you about, too. I didn’t bring it up in council because I don’t want word to get out yet, but I’d already dispatched some of my intelligence service to investigate our three missing council members. Their absence is… troubling, to put it mildly.”

“Well?” Arta asked, letting her impatience show a bit more than she’d intended. “What did they find?”

“Aurann, Sakran, and Tashir duchies are locked down tight,” Mardoban said. “None of my spies were able to get onto any of the three main planets; it doesn’t look like anyone is getting in or out of there. But they were able to report on troop and ship movements. Apparently, Respen is massing his military around Aurann. Maybe he’s just being paranoid and deciding to show off his strength; he did that sort of thing several times when I was regent. But with the current political situation, I’m worried it could be much worse.”

“Rebellion?” Pakorus asked in a quiet, disbelieving voice. “Do you really think it could come to that?”

“I don’t know, son,” Mardoban said. “I’m not sure I know anything anymore. But I fear that it’s not just Respen involved, if it’s true. Naudar and Sateira have vanished as well. I wouldn’t have thought those three would be able to stand each other long enough to work together on something like this, but I’m afraid it’s where the signs are pointing.”

“Do you think Naudar would really involve himself with something like this?” Pakorus asked.

“Yes,” Karani said bluntly. She’d never forgiven Galen ast Sakran for cheating against her at the tournament and didn’t think there was much villainy that was beneath anyone in that family.

“I don’t think Naudar would involve himself in an open rebellion,” Mardoban said, which surprised Arta until he continued. “At least, not unless he was certain he could win. Respen’s brash, true, but the others ought to have been able to restrain him if he was the sole driving force here. That’s part of what troubles me; even with the combined forces of Aurann, Tashir, and Sakran, they’d still be facing all of the other duchies, plus the crown, plus the Realtrans and even the Empire if they’re not careful. They might be able to win, but I don’t much like their odds – unless there’s something else going on here that I haven’t seen yet, but that makes them think they have the advantage.”

A sudden spike of dread rose in Arta’s chest, accompanied by a brief flash of a masked figure standing over her, dueling sword raised. Then it faded, leaving only an ominous feeling behind, but she was certain she’d just had an Adept’s instinct warning of danger. Not, Arta thought, that she needed it in this case; Mardoban’s words had shaken her enough by themselves. “What are we going to do, then?” she asked.

“We are going to gather the royal guard and the crown’s forces – quietly- and have them on standby, so that if something does happen, we’ll be ready,” Mardoban said. “And you, Arta, are going to be the one to give the order. Our forces need to see their queen as strong and prepared.”

“You’re the one who put it all together,” Arta pointed out.

Mardoban smiled sadly. “You’re a monarch, Artakane,” he said. “That means everything the government does is your responsibility, regardless of who actually does the work behind the scenes. You have to own it – and you have to keep aware, unless the whole thing spirals out of your control. Do you understand?”

“I think so,” Arta said, suddenly feeling once again the terrible weight that was the Dozen Stars settling around her shoulders. “I’ll try.”

“That’s all you can do,” Mardoban said, “but I have to warn you – there may come a time when it isn’t enough.”


Later that afternoon, Pakorus ast Orlanes found Gilgam walking alone down a hallway near the guard barracks. The officer was, as ever, neatly attired in his uniform; he wore a dueling sword and blast pistol at his hip and carried his golden helmet under one arm. He was one of Pakorus’s father’s most trusted guardsmen, and the young noble hurried to his side when he saw him.

“Ah,” Gilgam said, smiling. “Young master Pakorus. And how might I assist you today?”

“I have a question I wanted to ask you,” Pakorus said, then frowned. “Maybe several questions, depending on how this goes. You still have the remains of the assassins, right? The Commander and his lieutenants, I mean?”

“Yes,” Gilgam said, a frown creasing his features. “Not that they’ve done us much good. The young queen did a considerable amount of damage to the Commander himself, and then his cybernetics self-destructed shortly after. There’s not much left to analyze; only slightly more from his minions. Whoever designed the technology didn’t want it traced. Why do you ask?”

“I was having a conversation with my father and Arta – that is, Queen Artakane – earlier,” Pakorus said, “and Father said something that, well – it got me thinking. Do you think it’s possible that whoever created the assassins is still operating in the Kingdom?”

“The assassins seem to have been active for almost two decades,” Gilgam said slowly. “They match the images of the assassins who killed Queen Aestera, and the Commander himself claimed responsibility for that attack. If they are one and the same, it’s entirely possible that whoever created them originally didn’t stick around, and that the Commander was operating on his own during the later attacks.”

“You don’t think that, do you, though?” Pakorus asked.

Gilgam shook his head. “No,” he said. “The assassins targeted one monarch, and then targeted potential monarchs. I think that they were working for the same person – or people – both times and were actively aiming to destabilize the Kingdom. In fact,” he added in a low voice, “someone stole the Commander’s sword directly out of our vaults not long after the attack. Whoever it was did it without tripping any of our alarms – the theft wasn’t even discovered until the next morning. Why they wanted the sword, I’m not certain – it was a fairly standard-model dueling sword, not remarkable in any way we determined – but I know our security, and the thief shouldn’t have been able to pass it. Unless, perhaps, they had the same stealth tech the assassins used.”

Pakorus took in Gilgam’s words and thought of his father’s suggestion that there might be something else, something unseen, driving the potential plans of the council’s absent dukes. “Do you have any leads at all?” he asked.

“If I did, your father and the Queen would be the first to know,” Gilgam said. Then he paused, seeming to consider something. “I take that back, actually. There is something that’s been bothering me, but I’ve been hesitating to bring it up with Duke Mardoban. Shortly before the battles against the pirates, he and I visited a… person, on Tantos Station. This… person is a very knowledgeable sort and gave us key information on the pirates but claimed to have no knowledge of the assassins’ origins. Your father believed him, so I didn’t press the issue. But I wasn’t so sure. And he’s had time now to conduct further investigations. I have a suspicion – only a suspicion, mind you – that this person might be able to provide us with enough information to fill some of the holes in our knowledge, if we approach him in the right way. If you could help me convince your father that we need to get in contact with him, I’d be in your debt, truly.”

“Well,” Pakorus said, “I can try. I may not be much of a fighter, but I want to do my part for the Kingdom. If I can help you, I will.”

“That’s the spirit, lad,” Gilgam said, clapping him on the shoulder.

“So,” Pakorus asked, “what’s this person’s name, anyway?”

“Well,” said Gilgam, “I’m not entirely sure what his real name is. But when your father and I met him, he called himself Specter.”


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Chapter Four

Carann, Royal Palace

When Latharna stepped off the transport and out onto the landing platform, she found herself amidst such a scene as she had never before experienced.

The capital city of Carann was immense, a forest of silver spires stretching out almost as far as the eye could follow on either side, until it came to an end at the feet of distant mountains. The midday sun was bright overhead, and Latharna raised a hand instinctively to shield her eyes despite the protective lenses she wore as she turned in a circle to take in all that was around her. She watched the rows of flitters that travelled along narrow lanes in the sky, matching the streets on the ground below, and then finally turned towards the edifice that dominated all else – the royal palace, built on a hilltop, its slender towers gleaming in the sunlight. She felt a fluttering in her heart, a pang of anxiety, and yet also excitement. She was overwhelmed by all that she saw, but also intrigued.

“Miss Dhenloc?” a voice said from beside her, and Latharna turned to find herself facing a young woman perhaps a few years older than herself, in an official-looking blue and gold uniform.

“Yes?” Latharna asked, taken aback. “Are you looking for me?”

“Apparently so,” the uniformed girl said. “I am Officer Amphitrae Thestos of the Royal Guard, currently assigned to her excellency, Ambassador Preas. I was given your name and description, and I’m to take you to her at once, if you’re ready.”

“Of course,” Latharna said, recovering herself. “That would be wonderful. I’ll follow you, then.”

Amphitrae bowed and then turned and began to make her way through the spaceport, Latharna following close behind her. The crowds seemed to press in around them, and she had to resist the urge to wrap her cloak more tightly around herself in a vain attempt to ward them off, but her escort managed to lead her through without incident until they finally arrived at as platform with several important-looking flitters parked along its edge. Amphitrae stopped by one of them and opened its door, gesturing for Latharna to enter and take a seat.

She found herself in a tastefully-decorated vehicle, and sat down next to an older woman in an elegant burgundy dress, who was regarding Latharna with a critically appraising eye. Finally, she nodded. “So, you’re the one the Academy sent me,” she said. “Latharna Dhenloc. I am Ambassador Ceana Preas, and if all goes well, you’ll be working for me for quite a while.”

“Thank you, your excellency,” Latharna said, buckling her seatbelt. She could hear Amphitrae getting into the front seat of the flitter, and then its engines hummed to life as it lifted off the platform. “I’ll try not to disappoint you.”

Ambassador Preas regarded Latharna quietly for another long moment. “You’re not what I expected,” she finally said.

Latharna felt her cheeks flush, and silently cursed her pallor that would make that fact obvious. “I seldom am, your excellency,” she said. “I know that my appearance is… unusual, but I promise you that I will serve you exactly as you wish, to the best of my abilities.”

“I don’t doubt it,” the Ambassador said. “In my line of work, true sincerity is something that’s hard to come by, but I hear it in your voice. There is an earnest quality to you that I find is hard to come by these days. Tell me, Miss Dhenloc – what do you want, really?”

Latharna was taken aback – she hadn’t expected that the Ambassador would question her about herself so directly, certainly not so soon – but an answer tumbled from her mouth before she had a chance to restrain it. “To prove myself,” she said. “To show the world that I’m not just the strange orphan that the Headmistress took in out of pity, but that I’m someone with talents to offer the galaxy. I want to do what I can to make our Kingdoms better places, however small that may be. I don’t know if I can succeed, but by the Lord’s grace, I intend to try.”

The Ambassador tilted her head. “’By the Lord’s grace,’” she quoted. “You’re religious, then?”

Latharna’s traitorous face flushed again. “I am,” she said. “The Headmistress is very observant, and I picked it up for her. It comforts and strengthens me. I hope that isn’t a problem?”

“No,” the Ambassador said. “I think we can find ways to make it work for us here. I just like to know these things about those who work for me. I find it helpful. Speaking of which, you have mentioned your skills. What can you do for me, Miss Dhenloc?”

“I am educated in history and political theory,” Latharna said, glad to chance the subject. “I have some skill in science and mathematics, though others are better. I can take notes quickly and in detail, and am considered efficient and well-organized. I play the harp and have committed a number of classical pieces to memory and can readily learn more. I was considered the best student in my year on the sword and can serve as bodyguard or champion as necessary. Brother Ronall, the swordmaster at the Academy told me I was one of the best students he’d ever had.” Her voice sank almost to a whisper at that last admission, which seemed too much like boasting to be comfortable, but she felt an urge to convince this intimidating woman of her worth nonetheless. She raised her eyes to meet the Ambassadors, and found that she was staring at her strangely.

“I know Ronall,” the older woman said. “That’s high praise from him. And I indeed fear that I may need to make use of your skill with the weapon – this Kingdom has been in troubled times lately, and I don’t see an end to them any time soon. Assuming you’ve been honest with me – and I’ll soon find out if you haven’t, so you’d best come clean now if that’s true – then you’ll be a valuable asset for me and the Realtran Kingdom. But dear Lord, girl, when did you find time for all of that? What do you do for yourself, in your leisure time?”

Latharna shrugged. “Leisure?” she asked. “I was never close with the other children at the Academy. I studied. I trained. I was never very good at anything else.”

A flash of something that might have been pity crossed the Ambassador’s face and was gone. “Well,” she said, “you’re not likely to find time to pick any of that here. This is a kingdom in crisis, and as a crisis in the Dozen Stars would be trouble for Realtran, my goal for the moment is to prevent that from happening.” She nodded out the flitter’s window, towards the palace. “There’s a new queen on the throne, and certain factions around here are not very happy about that. Some of them are obvious; others less so. The girl herself is about your age, and she means well, but she’s untried and untested. She’s popular with the people, for the moment, but there are those among the nobility who think the Dozen Stars would be better off without her. I think there’d be civil war if they had their way.”

“Why are you telling me this now?” Latharna asked, going cold.

Ambassador Preas regarded her straight on. “Because I intend to keep that girl alive, Miss Dhenloc,” she said. “And you are going to help me do it. If you thought this would be an easy job for a student fresh from the Academy, think again. I’m afraid you’ve just walked into a battlefield.”


It was evening on Carann as a man walked alone through the palace gardens beneath their great glass dome, head bowed in thought. He wasn’t a particularly striking man; slightly above average in height with hair that had gone to grey, though his eyes were still sharp and a great strength of will still lay behind them. He wore a white uniform of fine cut and a long cloak trailed behind him, marking him as a man of some stature, though that was not uncommon among the palace’s residents. Someone who didn’t know the man’s identity might take him for an unassuming minor nobleman or high-ranking functionary and dismiss him from their thoughts.

Those who did know him, on the other hand, knew better. Publius Vedrans Quarinis, Ambassador of the Empire, was one of the most dangerous men in the Dozen Stars, and he had the might of an Emperor at his back. Even the former, regent, Duke Mardoban, however, didn’t know just how far Quarinis’s hand had reached or how much of recent events in the Kingdom could be traced back to his machinations.

Quarinis didn’t consider himself a cruel man, or even a particularly ambitious one – though one didn’t rise to such a position as he had in the Imperial hierarchy without a certain degree of both qualities. First and foremost, he saw himself as a patriot, a man committed above all else to serving his nation and his Emperor. Sometimes that required taking distasteful actions or associating with those he would prefer to avoid, but such were among the sacrifices duty demanded. And whatever else he might be, Publius Vedrans Quarinis had never shirked from his duty.

When the Emperor, Verus Licinius, had spoken and demanded that the Dozen Stars should be destroyed, it had been Quarinis who had answered; he had been the one who had created a team of elite assassins and set them against Queen Aestera, resulting in her death. Unfortunately, that had not resulted, as he had hoped, in the collapse of the Kingdom; and now, almost two decades later, an heir had emerged to claim the throne, and this time, the assassins had failed. It was an unexpected turn, and Quarinis disliked the unexpected.

Of course, all was not yet lost; the game had merely moved to another phase. Quarinis had other pawns and other plans, and so far as his spies reported, he remained undiscovered. All he needed now was a little more time…

Something rustled among the trees nearby, drawing the ambassador away from his musings. Quarinis turned sharply, but he saw no one either along the path nor among the trees. And yet, as he strained his ears he was certain he could hear the sounds of someone moving close by, and he knew he was not alone. He’d left his praetorians, the immense cyborg warriors who served the Empire’s elite, standing guard outside the garden entrance; he could call them on his wrist comm, but in so doing alert the intruder that he was aware of their presence. Instead he stood still, slipping a hand inside his cape to where a small blast pistol hung concealed. Quarinis disliked engaging in violence himself, but like most Imperial patricians he’d done his service as an officer in the legions in his youth; if whoever was out there thought he was helpless, they’d be in for a rude awakening.

The sound stopped and Quarinis paused for a long moment before speaking. “I know you’re there,” he said. “You can go ahead and come out and we can have a civilized discussion. Shall we? I warn you, if you think to attack me, I am fully capable of defending myself.”

“Are you?” a soft voice asked; it spoke from directly behind the ambassador, almost breathing into his ear. It took all of Quarinis’s considerable will to keep from visibly starting; instead he drew his pistol and slowly turned to find himself face to face with a figure he knew all-too-well, and he felt his blood run cold.

The man who stood before him was wrapped all in black robes that seemed to trail behind him until they didn’t so much end as fade into shadow. Not an inch of his skin showed; his hands were wrapped in black gloves, and his face – his face was masked. Not a blank mask like the ones that the Commander and his assassins had worn, but a stylized mask that was painted in elaborate designs of black, red, and silver, framing the lenses through which a pair of glittering eyes regarded Quarinis with amusement.

The mask was of Alaelam design, of a sort that many of their people and almost all of their clergy wore at all times, considering it an offense to their god to leave their faces uncovered in public. The designs on each mask were unique and carried particular meanings, though Quarinis had never managed to commit even a small fraction of the symbolism to his memory. The man behind the mask was also Alaelam in origin, though he and his followers had long ago split with the mainline religious authorities of the Alaelam Alliance over an obscure doctrinal dispute. He had come to the Empire several decades ago and pledged himself and his disciples to the service of the Emperor. All he had asked in return, so far as Quarinis knew, was the opportunity to see his rivals among his own people destroyed, a desire that burned so brightly within him that he was willing to ally with their traditional enemy to see it done.

What his real name was, Quarinis had never heard; he doubted anyone in the Empire, save perhaps the Emperor himself, knew for sure. He only answered to his title – Al’Aymar Alaen. In the Alaelam language, it meant, roughly, the Prince of Night.

He was an Adept; Quarinis knew that much. The Emperor had long made an effort to collect people of that rare ability, and it was somewhat more common among the Alaelam than other peoples, which was theorized to be an effect of their religion’s emphasis on mystical and esoteric practices, which may have helped to activate the power in those for whom it might have otherwise remained latent. Officially, the Prince advised Licinius on the Alaelam religious hierarchy; unofficially, he was known to serve the Emperor as a spy and assassin, using his formidable psychic abilities to gather information, deceive, and kill.

Despite his best efforts, Quarinis’s thoughts must have shown on his face, for Al’Aymar inclined his head and a soft chuckle escaped from behind his mask. “No, Ambassador,” he said, his voice surprisingly smooth, almost musical – most who met him for the first time expected a rasp. “I’m not here to kill you – not today, at least. I merely come with a message from our mutual lord.”

“I mean no offense, my good Prince,” Quarinis said, “but admit to being confused. If the Emperor had a message for me, he could have spoken to me directly and saved you the trip.”

Al’Aymar shrugged and began to circle Quarinis, his dark cloak trailing behind him. “Perhaps I am also sent to deliver a warning,” he said. “A reminder that I can reach you, no matter where you choose to hide, even in the heart of an enemy’s fortress. The Emperor is not angry with you, not yet, but he is… disappointed. You have failed him, Ambassador, and that is something he isn’t used to from you. Eighteen years ago, when he demanded that the Queen of the Dozen Stars must die, you arranged the death of Aestera ast Carann; for that, he was pleased. But now there is a new queen, and she yet lives, and your assassins are dead. The Emperor is… concerned, Ambassador. And I am here to express those concerns, and remind you what might happen if those concerns are not assuaged.”

“I understand,” Quarinis said. “But I don’t think it’s entirely wise to discuss such matters so openly. If we are overhead, it will go poorly for me. My imprisonment – or execution – for regicide will not help the Emperor’s cause.”

Al’Aymar chuckled. “Fear not, Ambassador,” he said. “My presence cloaks us from being overheard or recorded. There are only two Adepts in the Dozen Stars whose skills are great enough to pierce my veils, and neither of them are in this palace tonight. The girl-queen is talented, but untried. She will not detect me. We are quite safe to talk as we please.”

“If your skills are so much greater than Artakane’s, why not kill her yourself?” Quarinis asked. “It would seem to be your specialty, after all.”

“I could kill her,” Al’Aymar admitted. “And then I would be hunted by the two of whom I spoke, both of whom would take offense at my actions. I am the Emperor’s servant, but I am not his slave. I have no intention of dying for his cause. My war lies elsewhere. This task is yours.”

“And you want assurances that I am able to carry it out,” Quarinis said. “I assure you, Prince, that events are in motion. Several of the Kingdom’s dukes have chafed at the appearance of the new Queen. I have made certain arrangements, certain… promises, and I believe that I have successfully brokered an alliance among some of them – at least one of whom is prepared to go to war regardless of alliances or support. War is coming to the Dozen Stars, my ominous friend, and I do not think that our untried Queen will be able to whether it. She will fall, and if we are lucky, her Kingdom will fall with her.”

“You have made such assurances before, Ambassador,” the Prince said. “How can we be certain they will be met this time?”

“I underestimated the integrity of the Dozen Stars government before,” Quarinis said. “I won’t do it this time. The arrangements have been made. The storm is coming.”

“Then I will carry your assurances to the Emperor,” Al’Aymar said. “He will judge their worth. But we expect results soon. Someone – an Adept – attempted to penetrate the Emperor’s plans not long ago. The Emperor repelled the intrusion, but he is troubled. He prepares a great offensive against the Alaelam Alliance, and he wishes to carry out this campaign knowing that the Dozen Stars will not be a threat from the other side.”

“The Dozen Stars will soon have conflicts far closer to home than the Empire to worry about, my good Prince,” Quarinis said with a thin smile. “That I can most certainly assure you.”

“Good,” Al’Aymar said. “I must go and rejoin the Emperor in his war against my former compatriots – at long last, by the will of the One, my own revenge may be within my grasp. I leave the arrangements here to you, Ambassador. And I leave you with this warning – you have a long record of success for which the Emperor is still pleased. But you have also failed him once already. Fail him again, and he may not be so merciful.”

There was a sudden rustle of cloth and the shadows seemed to writhe; when they stilled, Al’Aymar was gone, leaving Quarinis alone in the gardens, his thoughts dark. The Alaelam renegade’s warning was a reminder of the price of failure, but not one he needed – he knew what Licinius’s displeasure could bring, and he had no intention of letting it fall on him.

And the wheels of civil war were already in motion. It wouldn’t be long; not now.


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Chapter Five


The Citadel of Duke Respen

The blazing sun shone down over the baked salt flats of Aurann, leaving shimmering waves of heat to rise from the cracked ground like the spirits of the dead. Orbiting close to its star, the planet was mostly desert and singularly inhospitable to human life, but it had rich deposits of metals that had long ago made it attractive to colonists from the Empire. After the Dozen Stars declared its independence, control of the planet and its resources had passed from Imperial procurators to the noble house that shared its name, but the shape of society was much the same – harsh, rigidly ordered, mistrustful of outsiders, and strictly militarized. Aurann’s resources were useful in creating weapons; its harsh environment provided a training ground for warriors.

The planet’s capital was known simply as the Citadel, a sprawling fortress that towered above the surrounding landscape like an ever-watchful sentinel. Gleaming silver and roughly pyramidal in shape, it was, in essence, an entire city contained within a single complex. The lower levels were occupied by miners and common soldiers, the middle by officers and foremen, and at the very peak was the palace of the ducal family headed, for the moment, by the ambitious Respen ast Aurann.

Darius ast Sakran stood at the window in a meeting room high in the Citadel, looking out over the lower levels and the desert that stretched out beyond, a largely untouched glass of wine in one hand. It was an impressive sight, he had to admit – both the desolate grandeur of the landscape and the hard lines and shining finish of the Citadel itself. And yet he also found it repellant – there was something sterile about the whole construction, something devoid of human warmth and feeling. It remained him too much, perhaps, of its master, a man whose ambitions, in Darius’s opinion, outstripped his skill and who cared more for victory than for what happened to those who got in his way.

“Credit for your thoughts, brother mine,” a lightly teasing voice said, and Darius turned from the window to see his sister, Tariti, walk up beside him. Like Darius himself, she was dressed in the red-and-gold uniform of a knight of Sakran and wore a dueling sword at her hip; their younger brother Galen, who leaned against the wall on the room’s other side, was similarly attired. Darius and Tariti weren’t twins – a year of age separated them – but they’d often been mistaken for such, and they were as close as twins. There was little that he didn’t feel comfortable sharing with her, but today, in this company, he found himself unwilling to speak his mind.

“Just wondering about them,” he said, nodding towards the room’s other occupants. “And how much longer it will take before they have everything ready.”

“These things do take time, Darius,” Tariti said. “Not everything can be solved by a smile and a flourish of your sword.”

“If only life were that simple,” Darius said, sighing. He turned away from the window completely and turned to look at the center of the room. A low table stood there, above which hovered a holo image of plans for warships. Clustered around it were low chairs, upon which there sat three dukes, apparently deep in thought. Darius’s father was frowning, tapping his fingers on the head of his cane as he was prone to do when contemplating an important manner; Sateira, across from him, was reclining back in her chair and balancing a wineglass in one hand with an air of feigned nonchalance.

On the far side of the table sat their host, the flickering lights of the holodisplay flickering on his face, giving him a strange and ominous look. Respen’s lips were thin but his eyes were bright and intense, burning with a desire for that which he thought was rightfully his. Darius barely managed to conceal his disdain for the man. He’d heard that Duke Respen was considered a fine swordsman, and a part of him wanted to put his skills to the test, but he also knew that challenging one of his father’s political allies to a duel would be less than prudent, so he was left unable to act on that desire.

Several guards in the livery of Houses ast Aurann and ast Tashir – no doubt relatives of Respen or Sateira – stood around the edges of the room, acting, as Darius and his siblings were, as guards for the three dukes as they plotted rebellion against the crown.

“Well, my friends,” Respen finally asked. “What do you think?”

“Bold, Respen,” Naudar said. “Perhaps too bold. But should it succeed, the benefits would be enormous.”

“None of us wants a protracted war,” Sateira said. “That would only leave the Dozen Stars vulnerable to its enemies. At the same time, a quick coup isn’t feasible – not with Carann still on high alert after the tournament. We don’t have the strength to take the capital.”

“We don’t need to, fortunately,” Respen said. “If we can draw the crown’s forces into our jaws, we can trap them and destroy the girl’s ability to wage war. Then, with the Kingdom decapitated, we can present a united front to the surviving members of the council and force them to acknowledge my claim to the throne. All it will take is one battle, and the Dozen Stars will be mine.”

“Will be ours, Respen,” Naudar said softly. “You may have the closest family ties to the throne, but Sateira and I are your allies, not your servants. You would do well to remember that fact.”

“Of course,” Respen said, his tone sullen. “Sateira,” he continued, changing the subject. “Is your part of the plan proceeding?”

“Of course, my dear duke,” she said, smiling coolly. “My contacts have been reached and the appropriate bribes have changed hands. They stand ready to assist us when the time comes. Hopefully, the girl will play her part as scripted.” She suddenly looked directly at Darius. “You fought her at the tournament. What would be your assessment of her character?”

“You’re asking me, your grace?” Darius asked, then flushed as Sateira rolled her eyes dramatically. “Very well. I didn’t speak with her much, but I’d say she is much as she appears – young, earnest, brave. I confess I liked her, and I’m disappointed that circumstances demanded we be enemies.”

“Speak for yourself, brother,” Galen muttered; he still hadn’t forgiven Artakane for defeating him at the tournament. Darius shot his brother a dark look, and he subsided.

Sateira, however, smiled. “So we have an idealistic young woman, no doubt raised on stories of honor and nobility and how knights are supposed to protect the innocent, dreaming of playing the avenging angel and not yet mature enough to balance it out with pragmatism, suddenly finding herself in a position of far greater responsibility than she could imagine? Yes, I think the trap will work nicely – so long as the former regent doesn’t restrain her, of course.”

Naudar snorted. “Mardoban is a wily old lion when he’s at his best, but he’s got a romantic streak a mile wide that will be his undoing. Trust me on this – he’ll be right there with her.”

“It may not be necessary,” Respen said slowly. “I’ve taken steps to… remove the girl as a factor. If they come to fruition, I’ve no doubt Mardoban will be hurrying headlong to avenge her, and he’ll be easy prey for us.”

“Respen,” Sateira said slowly, “what did you do?”

“We want the girl dead, don’t we?” Respen asked. “I intend to see her dead, and a decapitated Kingdom will fall before our combined forces much more easily. I’ve dispatched assassins to Carann; they should reach the planet any day now, and darling Artakane’s won’t have long to live afterwards.”

Darius had rarely seen his father loose his temper, but Naudar was on the verge of it now. “I don’t give a damnation whether Artakane lives or dies,” he growled. “I do care that you went behind our backs. We can’t back out now, but your assassins will serve as a warning to the crown. They’ll be ready for us, you fool. You could cost us the war!”

“Only if I fail, Naudar,” Respen said. “And I don’t intend to. Now, as for the disposition of our forces…”


The planet Nyx hung at the edge of its system, so far from its sun that from its surface it barely appeared brighter than any other star. It was unsurprising that the planet itself would be a cold and barren place, but contrary to what might also be assumed, it was far from lifeless. Strange cities dotted its surface, their architecture beautiful and elaborate but betraying a nonhuman aesthetic that could be unsettling and bewildering to the eye. And there were other things that lurked there too, beneath the surface, waiting. It was a place of secrets and of mysteries – and of power.

Midaia’s black yacht seemed quite at home hear as a flew through Nyx’s gloomy atmosphere, angling for a landing at the largest of the cities. She sat in the cockpit, watching the alien landscape flashing below her with her hands folded under her chin, remembering how it was she had first come here more than ten years ago. It had been after she’d been cast out from the convent by the Holy Sisters; she had chafed at the slow pace of their instruction, determined to push her Adept’s gifts as far as they could go, and when the instruction grew too tedious, she’d stolen texts describing advanced practices from the convent library. An attempt to perform one of those practices in the privacy of her dormitory had left Midaia’s roommate dead and the pigment leeched from her own skin; the death had been judged an accident, but she had still been punished for her recklessness. Queen’s daughter or no, she’d been cast from the convent and the Mother Superior had sent out word that no Holy Sister was to have any association with her or to train her in the Adept’s arts, on pain of excommunication.

But the Sisters, despite what the Church might claim, were far from the only ones who could train an Adept; adrift and alone, Midaia had been found by the denizens of Nyx, who had brought her to their world and shown her secrets that few human beings had ever seen before. All they asked in return was that, from time to time, she be willing to perform favors on their behalf. It had seemed a small price to pay at the time.

The yacht slowly came to rest on a flat stone platform before the great pyramid that stood at the heart of the city, and Midaia stirred herself from her reflections. Slowly she stood, wrapping her dark cloak around her like a shield, and then turned and descended the docking ramp, stepping out onto Nyx’s surface. A wind blew past her as she set foot on the hard ground; it left her chilled, but didn’t feel nearly as cold as it should have. But then, many things about this planet didn’t obey the rules of the universe as most understood them; that was something Midaia had learned long ago.

She stepped out from underneath her ship and faced the pyramid; as she expected, a figure waited for her there. Like her, it was dressed in a concealing black cloak, though it seemed to float slightly off the ground and nothing could be discerned of its features save for the pair of white, lamp-like eyes that glowed where a face should be. “You are expected,” the creature said, its voice smooth and almost musical, and neither fully male nor female.

“Well, I was summoned here, wasn’t I?” Midaia asked sardonically. “It would be rather unfortunate if your superiors called me here and then never expected me to show up.” If the creature had any reaction to her comment, it didn’t show it, and Midaia finally sighed. “Lead me on, then,” she said.

The cloaked creature turned and began to drift towards the pyramid, the human woman following it close behind beneath the dark, star-flecked sky. At the pyramid’s base there was a great arched doorway, and the two companions passed inside. The corridors within were hewn of black basalt and appeared dull and lifeless, but Midaia knew that it was only her limited vision that made them appear so – in the ultraviolent spectrum, they were decorated with elaborate swirling patterns that glowed with colors the human mind wasn’t designed to comprehend. There was something telling in that, Midaia thought. A reminder that there was so much to the cosmos that her kind didn’t see, either because they couldn’t, or because they could, but didn’t take the time to look. But she prided herself on seeing farther and deeper than most.

At last they emerged into a great domed chamber lined with tiers of seats. Only a handful of them were occupied, all with creatures similar to Midaia’s escort, which now drifted over to one of the walls. In all the time she spent here, she’d never seen enough of the beings around to fill even a tenth of one of Nyx’s cities, and there were times when she wondered if they’d been more populous at one time, or had simply moved in and taken over the words of some other, long vanished race. Now she walked to the center of the room and turned to look up at her hosts, casting back her hood; the creatures did the same, revealing pale, blue-tinged faces that seemed to faintly glow, their features beautiful but androgynous.

The creatures were ancient, one of the oldest intelligent races to still walk the galaxy. What their name for themselves was, Midaia had never been told, though she knew that they had many others that had been given to them by ancient humans when they’d visited Terra during the dawn of her own species – Fair Folk, Jinn, Alfar, and more besides. Midaia thought of them as Neraida, after an old word from an archaic form of the Dozen Stars’ language, and the beings themselves didn’t seem to mind. So far as she knew, they built no nations, ruled no planets other than this, and sought no power – they cared only for broadening their knowledge of the currents of the universe, and serving that which they called Doom, the inexorable flow of events that must be. Human legends recalled them as capricious, even cruel, for they cared nothing for morality in the pursuit of this abstract ideal. But they were Adepts one and all, among the most subtle and skilled that existed, and they possessed great knowledge of past and future – knowledge that was no doubt enhanced by the fact that they resided on a planet that existed, somehow, partially in the psychic plane as much as the material universe. To have access to those secrets, the outcast princess of the Dozen Stars would tolerate all manner of eccentricities.

“As I am summoned, I have come,” Midaia said. “As one who was once a student, I return to the call of my instructors, to learn once more. Tell me – why have you called?”

There was a rustle of sound among the Neraida, and then one spoke – even after all her years with them, Midaia had never learned to tell them apart or what their individual names for themselves were, but what one knew, they all seemed to know. “The tides of fate are moving, child,” the creature said, its voice soft and soothing, but also containing a power that could not be denied. “The galaxy approaches a turning point that will shape the Doom of your race. We call upon you now to take action.”

“Of course,” Midaia murmured. Three times since she’d left here to walk her own path the ancient beings had called her into their service, asking small things of her that – they claimed – would shape the tide of fate in the direction they desired, though it was difficult to see how. Midaia somehow doubted whatever they were asking of her now would be so easy. “How may I serve you, Ancient Ones?”

“There is a hand that moves against you,” another of the Neraida said. “Of one who has foreseen Doom, yet strives to prevent it. This must not be.”

“It must not,” the other creatures repeated in unison, their voices like the sigh of a soft wind through the dark chamber; despite herself, Midaia shivered.

“Your sister sits the throne of your ancestors,” another Neraida continued. “But there are those who seek her end. She must live, for there are things that she is Doomed to do, but to preserve her life is not your calling. Another of our disciples has taken this matter into hand, and there is one she has trained her whole life for what is to come.”

“Do not be deceived by the foes you see before you,” said another voice. “They are not your true enemies. There are shadows behind shadows behind shadows at work in this galaxy; you must seek the deepest shade. The old one can help you, though he will not wish to. His actions long ago haunt him still.”

“Shiran,” Midaia muttered. “So you do know what’s going on here after all. I thought as much. Is this your secret shame, then, the one you’d never give me a straight answer on? Oh, yes, we’re going to have a long talk when this is through.”

“Your enemy is mighty,” the first Neraida continued. “Mightier than even you, young one. You have met him already, though you haven’t seen his face.”

“Yes,” Midaia whispered, remembering the terrible mind she had encountered before receiving the summons to Nyx. As she had suspected, it was all connected, though she still couldn’t see the full shape of it. “Tell me, wise ones – I’ve been seeking the origins of the one called the Commander. Will this lead me to my true enemy?”

“Yes,” a voice whispered. “And no. It will tell you who, but not what or why. You must answer all three questions and then place your knowledge at the feet of the Queen. Only then may Doom take its proper course. Seek the old one. Seek the hidden one. Seek the dead. They hold the answers you seek.”

“But beware, Midaia ast Carann,” another voice put in. “For should you fail or should you die – and we have seen that this might yet come to pass – then shall all that you love pass, and all that your ancestors have built shall pass, and in the end all that your race is or may be shall pass far sooner than the appointed time. The galaxy stands upon the edge of the sword’s blade. Should it fall to one side or the other, all shall be lost.”

The Neraida were not human, and they didn’t have human priorities – Midaia had learned that long ago. They cared nothing for the deaths of countless innocents, not if they’d determined those people’s deaths fit into the framework of the Doom, and by the same token they could treat events that a human would considered trivial as disasters, so long as those were unforeseen. But their tone now – whatever it was they had seen, it seemed as if it was terrible by any standards. Not that she would get any clearer answer from them – the Neraida were nothing if not cryptic and melodramatic. A trait, she thought ruefully, she may well have picked up herself from spending so long in their company.

“Very well,” she said aloud. “I will accept your task. I will seek the old one and the hidden one and the dead, and I will learn what they know of my enemy, and I will bring that information to my sister. Does that satisfy you?”

There was a rustling of cloth in the seats, and the ancient beings nodded their heads in acknowledgment. Midaia bowed her head in reply, and when she lifted it, the Neraida were gone.

“Figures,” she muttered, and turned to leave the chamber herself, thoughts of her task swimming in her mind. The old one, she had no doubt, was Shiran – he was known to the Neraida and that was the name they always called him, but Midaia had no idea where he was now. The dead… there were so many dead involved in this affair already, and she didn’t know which her patrons might be referring to. The hidden one, though – that was a hint she had a fair idea how to answer.

A short time later, a black yacht lifted into Nyx’s dark sky, preparing to leave for Tantos Station.  


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Chapter Six


Royal Palace

Arta’s eyes snapped open, and she found herself standing in a place she was certain she had never been to or even seen before. The ground was bare beneath her feet, seeming to be little more than hard, unbroken stone, and yet a forest surrounded her, composed of trees that were bare of leaves and stretched upwards into infinity. Between their trunks there flowed a silvery mist that strictly limited visibility, carried on a cool breeze; Arta wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, then looked down at her body in consternation. The last she remembered, she was wearing her sleep robe and lying in her bed, but now she was in full armor, a cloak hanging from her shoulders and a dueling sword belted at her side.

Furthermore, a faint blue glow was rising from her flesh, seeming to emanate from somewhere within her very being. That, she was fairly certain, wasn’t normal, even though her mind felt as foggy as her surroundings.

“Is this a dream?” she called out, her voice seeming to echo through the woods.

“No,” a familiar voice replied. “And yes. Think of it as an in-between place. I wanted to talk, and I didn’t want to be overheard. Evil One’s Eyes, though, I had to wait a very long time for you to fall asleep, sister.”

Arta turned slowly to face the voice and was unsurprised to see Midaia there; her half-sister was wrapped in her usual dark robes with her hood pulled low and seemed to drift slightly above the ground. A red light limed her, much as the blue surrounded Arta.

The young queen shook her head, trying to clear it. “It seems that ruling a nation is not conducive to rest,” she finally said. “Certainly not when you’re as new at it as I am. I suppose a holo-call would have been too simple?”

Midaia laughed. “Like I said, I didn’t want to be overheard,” she said. “Calls can be traced or eavesdropped on, but here I’ve managed to pull your dreams into the edge of what I sometimes call the psychic plane – there are other names for it. An Adept trick, but more advanced – and dangerous – than I think you should be messing with. Shiran would agree, were he here. In any case, no one can spy on us unless they’re an Adept greater than I am.” She smiled thinly. “Which, as it happens, is a very short list.”

Arta glanced down at herself. “So, was dressing me in armor your idea?” she asked.

“I’m afraid this is your dream, Artakane,” Midaia said. “I’m just borrowing it. Judging from your look and that of our surroundings, I’d say you’re worried about something. I’m afraid you’re right to be. Walk with me, why don’t you?”

Arta shrugged, not seeing any other options, and turned to walk through the woods, Midaia gliding along by her side. “Let me guess,” she finally said, “this isn’t a social call, is it? You never just drop by for tea a chat – I’ve figured that out by now. You want something.”

Midaia frowned. “What I want, for the moment, is your well-being, Artakane,” she said. “I’ve received some troubling information. I’m looking into it myself, but what you need to know is this – you’re in danger.”

“Let me guess – Respen?” Arta asked. “Or maybe Naudar or Sateira? We’re onto it, Midaia, trust me.”

“I wouldn’t put it past them,” Midaia admitted, “though honestly, I don’t know what direction the threat is coming from. But I suspect there’s a reason they’re on your mind.”

“They haven’t been coming to council lately,” Arta said. “And Mardoban thinks they’re up to things, moving troops and the like. He’s not sure why, but he thinks they might be planning some sort of uprising.”

“Old ‘Uncle’ Mardoban,” Midaia said. “The Duke of Orlanes has been around a long time; hidebound and too noble for his own good he may be, but I have a soft spot for him – and when he isn’t being blinded by his belief in people’s better natures, he can be quite astute. If he thinks he’s a problem, I recommend listening to him. Still, be on your guard. You can trust the people around you for some things, sister mine, but in the end, the only person you can always rely on is yourself. Don’t forget it.”

Arta frowned. “I’ll keep it in mind,” she said, “but it’s more cynical than I like. Maybe I’m naïve, but I like to believe the best of people too. Where did you hear this from, anyway?”

“I have my sources, and they prefer to remain anonymous,” Midaia said. “This isn’t about them. I’m about to embark on a search for answers of my own, and I want to make certain you’re doing what you can to keep yourself safe.”

The two half-sisters – queen in blue, and Adept in black – walked in silence for a long time, before at last emerging from the forest and coming to the edge of a great canyon that split the ground in a jagged line. Arta approached the ground and looked down; inside, there was nothing but mist that seemed to go on for eternity.

“Terra is lost,” Midaia said suddenly, breaking the silence. “Every child learns it in school, but how often do we really think about what it means? The planet on which our species was birthed is gone, and we are scattered across the cosmos. Some say it was destroyed in the wars brought about by the fall of the Third Republic; others that the Lord took it away from us because we were wicked, and that it will be returned only when we prove ourselves worthy of it. I think there may be some truth in both, but that neither holds the deepest truth. Such is often the way of things, Artakane. Secrets within secrets within secrets.”

“What do you mean?” Arta asked, feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature.

“This is not the age of science, Artakane,” Midaia said. “Put that from your mind. Oh, we fly ships between the stars, build mechs to serve us, communicate across vast distances, but all those technologies are decades, even centuries old. We forget how to innovate; the Empire is somewhat better about it, but only just. Consider – the Alealam Alliance is regarded as the most advanced nation in the known galaxy in terms of technology, and what else are they known for? Their embrace of mysticism and religion. What does that tell you, Artakane?”

“I don’t know!” Arta snapped. “I just know I’m tired of riddles. You say you’re here to help me, so can’t you just speak plainly for once?”

Midaia continued as if she hadn’t said anything. “This is a dark age – an age of sorcery and mystery. It is not machines that will define the struggles to come, but hearts and minds and wills – and knowledge.” She looked over at Arta with appraising eyes. “I have knowledge. You are the other side. You must have heart. A true queen, the old philosophers say, is one who loves her people – and can inspire love in return. Don’t lose sight of that.”

“I thought you wanted me not to trust anyone?” Arta asked crossly.

“Trust if you must,” Midaia said, “but not uncritically, and not completely. And that includes me. There’s a reason I’d be a terrible queen, and it’s not because I renounced my claim so I could be a nun. But I’ll warn you especially before I go – don’t trust Shiran. He has more secrets than all of us put together, and he’s at the heart of the storm that’s coming. Next time you see him, ask him this from me – why did the Neraida tell me to seek him? You don’t need to understand; just ask. His answer will be illuminating, I’m sure.” She glanced towards the sky. “This dream is breaking. I have to go. Goodbye, Artakane. We’ll speak again soon.”

Midaia was enveloped in red light, and when it cleared, she was gone. A moment later, Arta sat up in her bet, holding her sleeping robe tight around her as she tried to process the meaning of what she’d just heard.


The royal apartments were a sprawling series of rooms in one of the palace’s towers, unused since Queen Aestera’s death but assiduously kept up by the serving mechs during that time. Arta had been moved in shortly after she was crowned on the insistence of Duke Mardoban and Shiran, who thought it would look better if she was seen to follow all of the trappings of the crown to the fullest extent. For her part, she’d never been comfortable with them and doubted she’d ever be – it was far more space than had ever just been hers, and far more than she felt like she needed. The master bedchamber itself was immense, seeming to swallow Arta in its depths, and there were doors around its edges to provide easy access for bodyguards or servants.

One of those doors creaked open not long after Arta woke up and Karani walked in, looking somewhat haggard but concerned. “Arta?” she asked in a sleepy voice. “Are you all right? I thought I heard you talking in your sleep.”

“I’m fine,” Arta said. “Just a dream. Go back to sleep, Karani.”

Her foster-sister folded her arms and regarded her crossly. “Oh, no,” she said. “I know you better than that, and I’m not buying it. Out with it, Arta – what’s wrong?”

Arta sighed and gestured for Karani to take a seat on the bed beside her. “All right,” she said. “I just had a very strange conversation with Midaia.”

“Midaia,” Karani said flatly. “Oh, right, your other sister. The creepy one in black who still hasn’t introduced herself properly to me but tried to kill us a few months ago? Please tell me you didn’t trust a word she had to say.”

“She wasn’t actually trying to kill us,” Arta said wearily. “And, oddly enough, she’d probably agree with what you just said about not trusting her, so there’s that.”

“Well, it sounds like everybody agrees she’s up to no good, then,” Karani said. “So why aren’t you just ignoring her like a sensible person who’s being stalked by a creepy witch would do?”

“It’s not that simple,” Arta said. “She’s my sister, Karani – yes, I know you’re my sister too, but this is different. She’s my only living blood relative, unless you count Duke Respen, which I don’t. And she’s one of the only other Adepts I’ve ever met. I can’t just ignore her.”

“Okay, okay, forget I said anything,” Karani said, holding up her hands in mock surrender. “So, was there a reason for this little nighttime chat, or was she just figuring out new and exciting ways to freak people out?”

Arta chuckled. “She wasn’t making much sense,” she admitted. “But she seemed to think there was a danger coming. Have you talked to Father lately?”

Karani raised an eyebrow. “Last I talked to him was the other day, same time you did,” she said. Baron Varas ast Katanes, Karani’s biological father and Arta’s foster-father, had been forced to return to Katanes to oversee his barony several weeks ago, but remained in contact with both of his daughters over the holo. “Any particular reason you’re asking?”

“Just worried,” Arta said, shaking her head. “And wondering if the threat’s supposed to be to me, or someone close to me. I wish Shiran was here, too. There are some things Midaia said that I want to ask him about.” She looked down at her hands and frowned; not long after the baron had left, Shiran had also vanished on some errand of his own, though Duke Mardoban had assured her that the Professor was prone to that sort of thing and would turn up on his own when his business was completed. Arta still felt her mentor’s absence keenly, even without Midaia’s rather pointed insinuations.

A warm, strong arm encircled her shoulder and Arta looked up into Karani’s concerned face. “Listen,” she said. “You’ll be alright. Father’s tough and smart, and so’s Shiran. And I promise you, little sister, that if anyone wants to get to you, they’ll have to go through me first. So really, what’s to worry about?”

Arta rested her hand on Karani’s and smiled. “Thank you,” she said, and meant it. No matter what was coming, knowing that her foster-sister would still have her back made her feel better about facing it.

“Now, you’d best get your sleep, Your Royal Highness,” Karani said, standing up. “It’s probably going to be a big day tomorrow. Good night!” Turning with a wave, she headed back to her own room.

Arta lay back down, but her eyes were still open. “When is it ever not?” she murmured sleepily, and a few moments later, exhaustion claimed her.


Even after having spent several days there, Latharna still found the Royal Palace of Carann overwhelming.

The structure had first begun construction, she’d read, during the reign of Artax the Founder, the celebrated first king of the Dozen Stars; subsequent monarchs and the occasional regent had added their own expansions and revisions until the interior was a maze of corridors and halls – and that was ignoring the famed enclosed garden that connected the palace and the cathedral. Despite this, it didn’t feel messy or cluttered; rather, much of the walls were decorated with paintings or holos depicted famous scenes from the Kingdom’s history, or sculptures of key figures. There was little in the building that wasn’t magnificent. That didn’t, as it happened, make finding one’s way around in it much easier.

Mentally, Latharna found herself cursing whoever had decided that accessible maps of at least the public sections of the palace weren’t dignified and found herself fearing that she might actually have to ask someone for directions. She was less concerned with her own pride, and more with making a good impression on behalf of Ambassador Preas, who she was still trying to impress. Hopefully, she decided, the ambassador would be more forgiving of errors than some of her instructors.

Lost in her thoughts, she almost didn’t notice the young man in front of her until she’d walked into him. With a shock, her swordfighter’s instincts kicked in and she jumped backwards, landing in a neat defensive stance; an unfortunate side-effect was that the sheaf of papers she’d been holding in her arms tumbled to the floor.

The young man held his hands up. “I yield,” he said in a light voice, and Latharna was relieved to see that he was smiling pleasantly. He was about her age, she thought, and even through her embarrassment noticed that he wasn’t bad-looking – and at that thought, she could feel her cheeks burning. Fortunately, if the boy noticed, he was polite enough not to say anything. Instead he nodded to her papers. “Mind if I help you with those?”

“No, no, I can get them,” Latharna said, quickly collecting the sheets and standing up. “I’m so sorry about that,” she said. “I’m new here, and honestly, I’m lost. I’m Latharna Dhenloc, by the way – Ambassador Preas’s new assistant.” Belatedly, she remembered to bow.

“I thought your accent sounded Realtran,” he said, bowing back. “And the palace can be overwhelming – I still think so, and I’ve lived here for years. I’m Pakorus, by the way. Pakorus ast Orlanes. If I cant help you with your papers, maybe I can help you find where you’re going?”

Latharna felt herself seize up in shock – if she wasn’t mistaken, this was the son of Duke Mardoban, formerly regent and still one of the most powerful men in the entire Dozen Stars, and she’d nearly walked into him, then nearly attacked him. Lord be merciful! “Actually,” she finally managed to say, “that would be very helpful. I’m supposed to take these to Ambassador Quarinis to get them signed – it’s supposed to formalize a trade agreement between the Empire, the Dozen Stars, and Realtran that they’ve already agreed on but just need to make official. And I’m rambling, aren’t I? “

“A little bit,” Pakorus admitted. “But I know where old Quarinis’s office is, and I can take you there no problem.”

“Thank you,” Latharna said, her genuine relief obvious in her voice.

Pakorus led her down several more corridors and up a floor, pointing out various locations and objects along the way, before they finally arrived outside the Imperial Ambassador’s door. It was flanked by a pair of hulking figures that resembled men in bulky armor, but that Latharna knew from her studies were actually praetorians – Imperial-created cyborgs with human brains buried somewhere inside their mechanical bodies. Straightening her back, she slowly approached the creatures, trying to appear confident – and hoping that the treacherous part of her that was even now determining the best way to defeat them with a dueling sword wasn’t showing on her face.

“State your name and business here,” one of the praetorians said in a hollow voice.

“Miss Dhenloc, here on behalf of Ambassador Preas, with documents requiring Ambassador Quarinis’s signature,” Latharna said. “May I see him, please?”

“Ambassador Quarinis is not in at the moment,” the praetorian said. It extended one large hand towards the documents and lights flickered on the ends of its fingers – scanners, Latharna realized, presumably trying to detect any hidden trap or poison. “Your documents are clear,” it finally said, and gestured to the door. “You may place them in the slot, and His Excellency the ambassador will receive them when he returns.”

Latharna nodded; Ambassador Preas had told her that this would be acceptable. Stepping forward, she slipped her papers through the slot on the door, which sucked them in and slid shut behind them. “Thank you, ah, sirs,” she said to the praetorians, nodding once and then making her way down the hall to where Pakorus waited.

“Scary things, aren’t they?” he asked. “But they saved a lot of peoples’ lives during the attack at the tournament, so they’ve got a fair bit of goodwill around here right now. Quarinis wasn’t in? You’re boss will probably be glad about that, actually. He’s sharp, and would probably end up learning more from you than you intended to give away.”

“It sounds like you know your way around more than the building,” Latharna said. “Thank you, Master ast Orlanes.”

“Pakorus is fine, really,” he said, holding up a hand.

“Pakorus, then,” Latharna said. A sudden thought struck her. “I don’t suppose you know the Queen? I’ve been here several days and still haven’t seen her. If I’m overstepping I apologize, but the ambassador is very concerned about political situation in your Kingdom, and…”

“And you were wondering if you could meet her?” Pakorus asked. “Well, I might be able to help you, but not right away. I met Artakane and her sister back during the tournament and probably know them as well as anyone here, but my father’s been keeping her in meetings all day most days – trying to make sure she learns everything she has to as fast as she can. But there’s going to be a dedication for a new monument to Queen Aestera in a few days – I expect Ambassador Preas will be there and that she’ll take you with her, and the queen definitely will be. Maybe I can introduce you, after I talk things over with my father. He’ll want to make sure you’re not a threat.” He shook his head. “Though after what happened to her predecessor, he has a right to be cautious.”

“Thank you again, Pakorus,” Latharna said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better get back and tell the ambassador her papers got delivered. I think I can find my way from here Hopefully I’ll see you again.”

They made another quick exchange of vows and then Latharna turned in a swirl of her red cape and began to walk back towards her employer’s quarters, reflecting on her conversation with the duke’s son, a part of her hoping to see him again – and another that it might finally lead her to an encounter with the so-far elusive queen.


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Chapter Seven

Carann, Memorial Park

Arta sat in the front row of seats in the newly-renamed Aestera ast Carann Memorial Park, hands folded primly in her lap as she resisted the urge to fiddle with her dress. Queens didn’t fidget, certainly not when in view of the public; queens were never to be anything less than regal and composed at all times, comporting themselves with the dignity befitting the highest office in the Dozen Stars. Sometimes – most of the time – Arta felt like it had been easier being no one. Nobody cared enough about Arta ast Katanes to bother watching her every move like a hungry izdakan stalking a particularly plump rock lizard.

Artakane ast Carann was a different matter entirely.

The park was one of the few open areas near the palace; Carann wasn’t entirely urban, like some of the core planets of the Empire were, but more of it was city than not. Outside of the palace gardens, it was the most green that Arta had seen in one place since she’d come here, and she found a pang of homesickness for the open plains and mountains of Katanes. Today’s event was at the park’s center, where a new memorial to Queen Aestera was being dedicated. Arta herself didn’t have to do much, thankfully; the actual dedication was being carried out by the High Prelate of the Kingdom’s Church, who was currently making his way carefully to a lectern in front of the memorial itself. The marble statue depicted a gowned and crowned Aestera smiling benevolently with her hands folded before her; Arta searched for some reflection of herself in the statue’s carven features. She would need to take no role until the end of the ceremony; after the High Prelate ended his speech with a prayer, she was to take her place beside him, wave to the audience, and have her holo taken. Easy enough, all told.

The audience, arranged in carefully organized rows, consisted mostly of government officials, Carann’s high nobility, a few foreign dignitaries, and a cluster of guildsmen near the back. Ambassador Quarinis wasn’t here, claiming illness, though Ambassador Preas was, seated a few rows back. Duke Mardoban was seated immediately to Arta’s right, and Karani on her left – despite her complaints at her lack of formal title, “Queen’s foster-sister” apparently counted for something so far as the palace’s event planners were concerned. Beside and around them sat a complement of royal guards. A number of mechs belonging to various news stations hovered around the edges of the audience to record the dedication.

The High Prelate began his speech, and almost at once Karani let her head loll and closed her eyes in feigned sleep. Arta resisted the urge to elbow her sister in the side – apparently, such behavior wouldn’t be queenly. She wasn’t surprised – Karani, who preferred to be up doing things rather than listening to other people talk about things, had made something of a habit of pretending to sleep through church back on Katanes – though she was irritated. “Show some respect, will you?” she hissed under her breath. “This isn’t home, and you could be on live holo any minute!”

That got Karani’s attention; she sat up straight and immediately began staring straight ahead with an extremely solemn expression. Arta resisted the urge to chuckle – if all else failed, an appeal to Karani’s vanity usually got results – and sat back in her chair. The High Prelate was speaking about Aestera’s reign and accomplishments now, describing the former queen in warmly affectionate terms, but as he went on, Arta found herself increasingly discontented. The details of Aestera’s public life could be found in any number of holo-documentaries or biographies, but Arta wanted – needed – a deeper knowledge of who she had been as a person. To Arta, her predecessor wasn’t just a queen, but a mother who had died before she’d had a chance to know her daughter. But the subject of Aestera’s personal life seemed to make Duke Mardoban uncomfortable, and Midaia almost never mentioned their mother during the rare occasions they’d spoken.  Unfortunately, the High Prelate was sticking solely to the public facts, and she expected she had no right to expect anything else on this occasion.

Still, Arta listened intently as the old priest spoke, and tried to ignore the feeling of unease that was creeping up the back of her neck.


Latharna sat beside Ambassador Preas with her hands folded in her lap, interest and discomfort warring in her as the ceremony unfolded. Witnessing the dedication ceremony in person, seated beside so many nobles and dignitaries, was an honor she couldn’t have imagined for herself even a month ago, and she paid careful attention to both the High Prelate’s words honoring the former queen and to the reactions of the audience around her, as the ambassador had instructed. The most common attitude among the local nobility seemed to be benign approval, which fit with what she’d been told – that Aestera had been a popular queen, and the fact that she had been dead for years made her safe for the nobles to admire. A dead woman, after all, was no threat to one’s power. Every so often, though, Latharna thought she saw someone glance furtively towards the front row, as though weighing the new queen and wondering what sort of leader she might become.

Unfortunately Carann’s sun was high in the afternoon sky, and the Realtran delegation’s seats weren’t located in any particular shade. Though she wore her lenses over her eyes, her pale skin was still sensitive to sunlight; the sunblock she wore on her exposed skin helped and would prevent her from burning, though it did nothing to stop the itching. Fortunately, as she was the Ambassador’s bodyguard as well as her aide, she hadn’t been expected to wear a gown like many of the other women were, and had been able to get away with her usual red pants and long-sleeved tunic, and kept her dueling sword hanging from the back of her chair.

Trying to keep her mind off the sun, Latharna refocused her interest on the front rows. She saw Pakorus near the front, and the two of them had exchanged nods from a distance when everyone had been filing into their seats. Unfortunately, Artakane had already arrived and had her guards surrounding her, so Latharna still hadn’t been able to get a good look at the young queen. Hopefully she’d be able to do so at the end of the ceremony, when she was supposed to join the High Prelate at the front.

“Trying to catch the eye of old Mardoban’s boy?” Ambassador Preas whispered from beside her. Latharna flushed brightly, but the Ambassador only smiled. “Smart of you. Pakorus is heir to one of the most powerful duchies in the Kingdom and he’s a friend of the queen’s; you could do far worse for a good contact. He’s a good lad, very earnest. Hopeless in a fight, which people here always put more value on than is sensible, but a good lad.”

“I’ll remember it, Ambassador,” Latharna said, refocusing her attention on High Prelate. The priest was speaking now about Aestera’s assassination, and how their was no greater duty than for a monarch to give their life for their people. Latharna could feel the simmering anger in the silence that fell over the crowd at his words, and the High Prelate let it die down before bowing his head and thanking the Lord for Aestera’s reign and sacrifice, and invoking a blessing upon the memorial.

No sooner had he finished speaking than a figure stood in the front row; Latharna drew in a sharp breath as she realized that she was seeing, for the first time, Queen Artakane in the flesh. The young queen wore a sleek, elegant blue gown, and the crown which she had won by right of birth and victory glinted on her brow; Latharna noted with approval that she walked with a swordswoman’s controlled grace. Artakane reached the podium and turned to face the crowd, smiling as she stood behind the High Prelate and they both waved towards the audience and the recording mechs. Latharna felt her heart flutter and immediately clamped down on the strange surge of emotion in her chest. Still, she thought, the holos never did quite manage to convey how pretty Artakane actually was…

Then she frowned. The sun was glinting off one of the recording mechs as it drifted away from the others, low over the audience. What was it doing? Was it just trying to get a better angle? Latharna’s frown deepened as she saw a long, thin barrel extend from the mech’s front, and from the corner of her eye she noticed a similar expression on Artakane’s face. That didn’t look like any sort of recording device she’d ever seen. In fact, it looked an awful lot like…

Latharna barely had time to shout a warning before the mech lowered its barrel and opened fire directly at the High Prelate.


Arta saw the flash from the mech’s small blaster, and instinct took over without further thought. She threw herself in front of the High Prelate, wincing as she nearly knocked the old man to his knees, then threw up her hands in front of them both. She could feel the heat building in her fingers, and then it expanded out from them in the form of a shimmering wall of blue force that materialized immediately in front of them both. The blast impacted harmlessly on its surface, and the mech fired a few more times to no greater effect. Finally it stopped shooting and simply hovered in midair, whether awaiting further instructions or simply out of energy for its weapon, Arta couldn’t tell.

The audience was panicking, some lords and ladies leaping to their feet, others diving for cover behind their chairs. Looking out over the crowd, Arta saw Karani looking halfway between terrified and furious, while Mardoban was shouting orders at the royal guards. One of them nodded in response, raised his beam rifle to his shoulder, took careful aim, and fired, neatly shearing through the mech’s engines. The device spun in the air and then crashed in the middle of the audience, people around it scattering to avoid being hit by the debris.

Arta started as a hand rested on her shoulder. “Dear child… your majesty,” the High Prelate said, still sounding stunned, “I think you just saved our lives. But what is going on?”

“I have no idea,” Arta breathed as she put more effort into maintaining her shield. The mech hadn’t been a very good assassin, she thought – it was too obvious, it’s odds of killing her too slim. Something else was going on here, but she didn’t know what…

And then she saw them, near the back of the audience. A number of silvery-suited guildsmen and women had risen, seemingly unconcerned with the panic around them, and drew weapons – both dueling swords and beam pistols. Quickly the fanned out, surrounding the audience and pinning them in.

“How…” Duke Mardoban muttered, then shook his head. “No time for that. Guards, get the Queen and the High Prelate to safety, now!” He drew the dueling sword at his side and activated it, energy arcing along its blade. Beside him, Karani did the same. They stood watching their attackers, waiting to see who would make the first move.

Arta wasn’t wearing her own sword – Mardoban had thought it inappropriate for the occasion – but then, an Adept was never really unarmed. And as the royal guards approached to take up their positions around her, she felt every instinct in her rebelling against the idea of fleeing. Still, she let her barrier drop as four guards fell into place by her side; the downside of such a technique, she’d found, was that she couldn’t move and maintain it at the same time.

“You heard the Duke,” she muttered. “Get us back to the palace before this gets worse.”

“It’s too late for that, Your Majesty,” one of the guards said, and then suddenly he and one of the others drew the knives from their sides and stabbed the other two where they stood. Arta felt her mind reeling at what she’d just seen, and before she could react the traitor guards hand their beam rifles up and pointed directly at her.

“We’ve got nothing against the Church and no desire to harm the High Prelate,” the traitor who’d spoken before said. “But you, Artakane, are coming with us.”


Latharna had leap to her feet and grabbed her dueling sword when the mech first fired, but Ambassador Preas placed a restraining hand on her arm. “Don’t do anything rash. If whoever is behind this panics, they may start firing into the crowd. You’re a civilian; let the guards handle things.”

Gritting her teeth, Latharna had tried to remain calm as the armed men and women in guild clothing had revealed themselves, but she barely managed to stifle a cry when two of the queen’s guards turned against her. The girl who she was fairly certain was the queen’s adopted sister, however, let loose a cry of rage and hurled herself at the nearest attacker, who barely brought his sword up in time to block. Energy crackled and hissed as dueling swords met and blows were exchanged, and at once the spell seemed to be broken and the park devolved into chaos. Bolts of energy lanced from the attackers’ beam rifles, scoring burn marks in the ground and on the chairs, while several members of the audience, armed or otherwise, charged their enemies and tried to wrest their weapons away. Others ducked beneath the chairs and cowered.

Latharna drew her own sword and felt it hiss to life in her hands. “Ambassador, get down and stay there!” she shouted. “I think it’s too late to avoid being rash right now.” The Ambassador, to her credit, kept her head in a crisis; she dove under her chair and covered her head with her hands, but her eyes were still bright and focused, unclouded by panic; she was carefully taking in everything around her for future dissection.

Latharna was already in motion, charging towards the nearest attacker. The man levelled his beam rifle and fired, but she held her sword out it front of her, letting it draw the blast onto its blade and absorb it. The attacker tried to fire again, but now she was on him, striking the gun from his hands with a well-placed kick and then bodily slamming into him, knocking him to the ground. The man groaned and stared up just as Latharna formed her free hand into a fist and punched him square in the face; his eyes rolled back in his head and he lay still.

A familiar hissing sounded in her ears, and Latharna ducked just as a dueling swords blade sailed through the air where her head had been. Rolling out of the way, she rose into a crouch and saw another attacker approaching, a woman in guild silver like the others with a sword held before her. She was grinning, her confidence obvious – clearly, she didn’t expect this strange, pale girl to present any challenge for her. Latharna found herself grinning back. The thrill of the challenge, of pitting skill against skill, filled her – this was what she was good at, what she had always been good at. The fact that she was fighting for her life now when she never had before was a matter of only vague importance.

The false guildsman lunged, and Latharna met her attack with a series of swift parries. Her attacker was good, but Latharna knew she was better, knew it as instinctively as she knew the color of the sky or the trees. She met each blow in turn, watching the woman’s frustration grow as she proved unable to land a hit no matter how hard she tried. Then Latharna twisted her sword, thumbing the power control to give it an extra surge, and tore her attacker’s blade from her grasp. The woman stumbled back, cursing, and pulled a beam pistol from her holster, but Latharna struck it from her hand before she could fire it. A solid kick to the woman’s midriff left her on her back on the ground, groaning beside her companion.

Latharna watched her fall with cold satisfaction, and her victory, and the ease of it, led to a feeling growing within her, sudden and undeniable. This she realized suddenly, this is what I’m meant for.

Turning, she saw the queen being led away into the trees by her pair of traitorous guards. All around them, the other attackers had fallen at the hands of loyal guards and a few nobles who’d come armed, and one of the traitors paused, a nervous look on his face. That was the only opening Artakane needed. Slipping one of her hands free from her captor’s grasp, she slammed it into his face, and as she did so a brilliant blue light burst from her eyes. There was a blinding flash and the traitor was slammed back against a nearby tree, where he slumped and lay still. The other reeled back, clutching his eyes and letting his rifle fall from his hands.

The glow faded from the queen’s eyes and she slumped, panting heavily and seeming oddly diminished; whatever she’d done seemed to have taken much of her strength. As she did so, however, the second traitor, the one who remained conscious, seemed to regain some measure of control; still rubbing his eyes with one hand, with his other he drew his knife again and approached Artakane from behind, weapon raised.

Latharna’s mouth went dry. “Behind you!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, and then sprang into motion. Duke Mardoban and the queen’s sister – Karani, that was her name – spun towards the sound, but their own fighting had taken them too far away; Karani’s mouth formed her sister’s name. Artakane herself turned, the blue light flickering in her eyes as she saw the knife raised, but it somehow seemed too weak to make a difference now.

Latharna slammed into the traitor’s shoulder, knocking him off balance. He stumbled, trying to bring his knife into position, but Latharna’s dueling sword took him through the arm. He howled in pain and collapsed, the weapon falling from his nerveless fingers.

She fell to her knees, panting heavily, as a shadow fell across her. Looking up, she saw Artakane regarding her with concern; then, to her surprise, the queen knelt beside her and put a steadying hand on her shoulder. “I don’t know who you are, but I think you just saved my life,” she said. “Thank you. I’m in your debt.”

“No,” the traitor guard spat suddenly from where he lay, as loyal guards rushed forward to seize him. “This isn’t over! It’s barely begun! Long live the true king! Long live King Respen!”

Latharna barely heard his words. As quickly as it had come upon her, the rush of battle was fading. Weariness, and the shock of what had just happened, the sight of her sword lying on the ground stained with a traitor’s blood, and the presence of the distractingly lovely queen by her side slammed into her at once. The warrior was gone; the uncertain, insecure girl had returned in her place.

“I think I’m going to sleep now,” Latharna heard herself say from a distance, and then she fell backwards into the arms of the Queen of the Dozen Stars as darkness took her.


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Chapter Eight

Carann, Royal Palace

“How did this happen?” Arta asked wearily, slumping on her throne as she rubbed her forehead with one hand. She’d changed back into her tunic and pants almost immediately after returning to the palace and her dueling sword rested at her side, but even though the casual clothing and reassuring presence of a weapon helped comfort her, her nerves were still on edge.

“It seems, Your Majesty,” Gilgam said, stepping forward from where he’d stood beside Duke Mardoban, “that Duke Respen had subverted Guardsmen Aetius and Rastus some time ago, well before the events surrounding your coronation. I had known that they favored him as a successor to the throne in the absence of any other heir, but they had never previously allowed their political opinions to impact their duty, nor was there any indication they were taking his money until we investigated their accounts. Frankly, neither of them had mentioned the duke in months, and I’d hoped they were past supporting him. Clearly, I was mistaken, and for that you have my apologies.

“It appears that Aetius and Rastus helped allowed mercenaries disguised as guildsmen to infiltrate the dedication, and likely also smuggled in the modified recorder mech. We have examined its remains, and its weapons systems indeed proved to be of Aurannian design. We’re currently investigating the rest of the guards to make certain that no one else was in on the plot.”

“You’d better be,” Karani muttered angrily from where she was pacing near the base of the throne.

“Karani,” Duke Mardoban said in a gently chiding tone, “I understand you’re upset, but yelling at Gilgam won’t do anything to help. He knows his job; let him do it.”

“Fine,” she said. “But someone tried to kill my sister, and I want to see some heads roll.” She paused and glanced guiltily at Arta, who’d fixed her with a disapproving stare. “Er, metaphorically, of course. Not literally. Which would be gross. I’ll be quiet now.”

Gilgam bowed and excused himself, and Arta sighed and rose, buckled her sword around her waist, and descended the dais. “The girl who saved my life,” she said. “I’ve not met her before, and I think I’d remember someone like that. Who is she?”

“That I can answer,” Mardoban said. “Her name is Latharna Dhenloc; she’s Ambassador Preas’s new aide, fresh from Realtran. The guards ran a background check on her before she came to work here and turned up nothing noteworthy. She’s in the palace infirmary at the moment, though the doctors say it’s nothing serious, just exhaustion.”

“Dhenloc,” Arta repeated the surname, and frowned. No ‘ast’ – did that mean she was a commoner? Or was it just because Realtran names worked differently? She shook her head – it didn’t matter. “I want to see her when she wakes up,” she said. “I need to thank her for what she did. She risked her life for me and she’s not even a Dozen Stars citizen. I can’t let that go – if Ambassador Preas doesn’t mind, anyway.”

“I don’t think she will,” Mardoban said. “It’s the right thing for you to do.”

“Aha!” Karani said suddenly. “The guards checked her out, you said. But we know at least two of the guards were corrupt. I bet she’s a mole, and the whole attack was staged to get her close to you! Where does an ambassador’s aide learn to fight like that, anyway?”

“Karani,” Arta said, sighing, “doesn’t it strike you as a lot of work just to get an assassin close to me, when they could have shot me right then and there? From what I’ve heard of Respen, he’s one for the direct approach. It really doesn’t seem to be his style. And you thought Shiran was a spy too, remember?”

“Well, I was wrong that time, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong this one,” Karani said, folding her arms. “I still don’t trust her.”

Arta regarded her foster-sister shrewdly for a long moment, wondering if Karani’s attitude was less about distrusting Latharna and more about guilt over not being there to protect Arta when she’d needed it. Finally she shook her head, deciding it was better not to push her on the issue. “In any case,” she said, “I think we’d better comm Father; he probably saw the attack on the news, and we should probably tell him ourselves that we’re safe.”

“Speaking of messages,” Mardoban said, “everything about this attack – from its rash nature to the allegiance of the turncoat guards to the technology used – points to Duke Respen, who has been absent from the council and maneuvering behind its back for far too long. It is time we change that. We need to summon him to Carann in person and call him to account for his actions.”

“Yes,” Arta said. “I don’t intend to die like my mother did. Respen will answer for what happened today, one way or another, and if he doesn’t…” her voice trailed off, as the implication of what that would entail struck her. Did she really want to finish that sentence, to be the sort of queen who’d start a war with one of her own dukes?

Or had Respen, if he was indeed behind the attack, already started the war himself?

“Something else is bothering me,” Mardoban said. “The guilds have denied all involvement with the attack, of course, and expressed their full condolences, but still – those attackers arrived in guild uniforms and in place of guild representatives. It might be that Respen managed to buy off a few guildsmen in the right places, like he did with the guards – or it might be more than that.”

Arta groaned and felt the beginnings of a headache stir. It was starting to feel like she had enemies on every side, and Midaia’s words came back to her. Warning her to trust no one.

She raised her head and let her gaze slide from Mardoban to Karani. She didn’t want to live like that, but the little voice in the back of her head seemed to be warning her that she might not have a choice.


Pakorus rested his chin on his hands as he watched the data scroll by on the computer screen. As the only son and heir of Mardoban ast Orlanes, duke and former regent, he didn’t have access to all of the Kingdom’s classified information, but of that which didn’t directly impact national security, he could access quite a lot. In one sense it was troubling, a sign of the flaws of the feudal system that he should have such access not because he needed it or held any sort of office, but simply because of who he was related to. On the other hand, for the moment it was coming in very handy.

Pakorus knew he wasn’t much of a fighter, certainly not by the standards the Dozen Stars expected of its nobles and was exemplified by Darius ast Sakran or by Arta herself. At the recent tournament he’d been eliminated in the first round. Normally it didn’t bother him; today it did. While Arta and Karani had been fighting for their lives, his father had fought by their side – Pakorus had hid under a chair and waited for the shooting to stop. That he’d done so had likely saved his life, but it still left a bitter taste in his mouth. He’d rarely felt so… useless.

Fortunately, he had other talents. A fighter he might not be, but his teachers at the Academy had always praised his mind, and currently he was trying to put it to use to put together who might be behind the attack. The traitor guards had implicated Respen, and Pakorus’s father agreed, but he had a feeling it wasn’t the whole story. It was rash, and yet there was a certain element of restraint involved – most of the attackers hadn’t been shooting to kill, as the distinct lack of fatalities had shown. From what Pakorus had heard of Respen, that wasn’t like him. Was someone else involved in things? Naudar and Sateira had been acting suspiciously lately, as well, but could there be more to things than even that?

And that brought him back to the tip Gilgam had given him earlier, about the man called Specter. Pakorus was doing his best to build a profile of the informant and determined if he’d be of help I the current environment, but if the Kingdom’s files had much concrete on him, it was classified beyond his ability to access. Oh, there were wild rumors that the intelligence service had recorded – that Specter was an Adept, or a renegade Alaelam cleric, or even an actual ghost – but nothing that sounded like it might be true. The only hard data was that he lived on Tantos Station, that he seemed to know more about the Kingdom’s affairs than anyone else, and that he would sell that information to almost anyone, if they could meet his price.

Someone sat down at the terminal beside him, and Pakorus quickly closed his screen – he had a feeling his father wouldn’t approve of what he was up to. When he looked over, however, he saw not Mardoban but Arta, looking weary. Two of her guards stood by the library door.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Arta said. “And please, no bowing and no ‘Your Majesty’-ing either. I’ve had too much excitement today to deal with that from one of my only friends in this place.”

“It’s all right,” Pakorus said. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you since the attack – are you doing okay? Still holding up?”

“Well, I got shot at, nearly stabbed, and betrayed,” Arta said, “but I’m still in one piece so I’ll take that as a positive sign. What about you?”

“I’m fine,” Pakorus said, a sudden surge of shame rising in him. He considered whether he should tell Arta about his research into Specter, and his slowly forming intention to contact the mysterious informant to find out what he knew about the attack or Respen’s plans, but thought better of it. Arta looked weary enough that he didn’t want to add another worry on top of it all.

“I just got off the comm with my father, assuring him that Karani and I were fine and that we hadn’t died and the Kingdom wasn’t hushing it up,” she said. “Lord, I miss being able to talk to him in person and not from halfway across the Dozen Stars. And I miss Katanes.” She sighed. “Nobody was shooting at me on Katanes. Well, except for that one time.”

Pakorus raised an eyebrow at that, but Arta didn’t elaborate and he didn’t ask. They regarded each other silently for a long moment; Arta had changed out of her gown and washed off most of the makeup she’d been wearing for the dedication, and it let her looking less classically elegant, but it also made her seem more… real. Not Artakane ast Carann the Adept Queen, but Arta, the girl from Katanes who liked books and dueling for sport and gardens and flying her izdakan. Pakorus found himself wanting to put a hand on her shoulder, to hold her close and comfort her, but at the same time he couldn’t think of anything to say that might work, so he did nothing. They simply sat together in silence, two young people who, by accident of birth, had the responsibility for a kingdom dropped on one and future responsibility for a duchy on the other, finding some solace in each other’s company.

The spell was broken by a sharp buzzing; Arta sat up and flicked open her wrist comm, where she’d received a message. “Some good news, anyway,” she said, looking up. “Doctor says Latharna’s awake.”


Latharna was sitting up in her hospital bed as Arta entered, taking careful sips from a steaming mug of caf in her hands. Up close and away from the excitement of earlier, the young queen saw that the Realtran was a girl of about her own age, though her most striking feature was her pallor – her skin seemed even lighter than Midaia’s – and the stark white color and fine texture of her short hair. An albino, Arta realized – she’d heard of the condition, but never met anyone who had it before today.

Latharna looked up from her caf as she heard Arta’s footsteps, and her eyes widened. “Your Majesty,” she stammered, her cheeks flushing a brilliant red that stood out strikingly against her white skin, “I mean, Queen Artakane, I mean… this is an honor.”

“Arta,” she said, smiling as she took a seat beside the bed. “Anyone who saves my life gets to call me Arta, at least in private. And honestly, taking the time to thank you is the least I could do. How are you feeling?”

“Tired, Your… Arta. Very tired,” Latharna said. “But otherwise I’m fine. The doctors say I just need to rest, and after about a day or so I should be ready to go back to work. I don’t really know how it happened – I didn’t fight that much, did I?”

Arta raised an eyebrow. “You don’t remember?” she asked.

Latharna shook her head, then looked back up and met Arta’s gaze. At first the queen thought her eyes were red and almost started at the idea, then saw the way the light was glinting on them and realized she was wearing some sort of contacts that tinted them that color. “I remember a little,” Latharna said, “but not a whole lot. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve always been a good duelist – all my instructors said so – and I’ve always loved doing things I’m good at, but I’ve never lost myself in it like that before. Part of me wants to do it again. That scares me a little.”

“Believe it or not, I know the feeling,” Arta said, holding up one of her hands and letting blue light play along it; Latharna’s eyes widened at the sight. “This? This took some getting used to, believe me. But I figured it out. I had a good teacher.”

“I was raised by school headmistress,” Latharna said. “Sometimes I feel like all my life I’ve had nobody around me but teachers. Stopping assassins wasn’t ever on the curriculum, though.” She paused, frowning. “Did I… I didn’t kill anyone, did I?” She looked like she was dreading the answer.

“No,” Arta said, resting a reassuring hand on Latharna’s arm. “If you worried about that, don’t be. You did mess up Guardsman Aetius’s arm pretty good, but since he was trying to stab me at the time, I can’t complain. Karani probably would’ve done worse if she’d been closer. My sister can be a little… enthusiastic.”

Latharna groaned. “Well, better than I’d been afraid of, at least,” she said, and fell silent. The room was quiet for a long moment before Arta spoke again, her mind going back to something she’d said earlier.

“You were raised by a headmistress?” she asked; Latharna nodded. “Who are your family?”

“I have no idea,” Latharna said. “All I have from them is a name. I never knew them.”

“Well, we’ve got something in common, then,” Arta said. “I had no idea I was Queen Aestera’s daughter until the day before I was crowned; I always just thought I was an orphan my foster-father took in. Sometimes I feel like all I got from my mother was a title and a legacy I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live up to.”

“But… you’re a Queen!” Latharna said. “I’m nobody. Why would you think that after what you’ve done already?”

“What I’ve done already is mostly just accident and luck,” Arta said. “It’s always more impressive to hear about it than it is to do it. I used to want to be a famous knight; sometimes I feel like I wish I could go back to just being Arta without having to carry the weight of a kingdom on my shoulders.” She sighed. “Listen to me, unloading all my troubles on you when I came here to make you feel better.”

“Oh, it’s okay,” Latharna said quickly. “I can’t remember the last time I just sat and talked with someone like this.” She paused, something seeming to occur to her. “Ambassador Preas was here before you got here; she stepped out just before you came in, but you probably want to thank her too if you see her. It’s because of her I’m here, after all.”

“I’ll do it,” Arta said, standing. “Thank you again, Latharna. I’m in your debt; if there’s anything you need that’s within the crown’s power, just tell me.” She paused. “By the way, when you’re feeling better, if you wouldn’t mind, I’ve been looking for a new sparring partner. I know Karani’s moves by heart, and all the guards always act like they’re afraid they’ll break me.”

Latharna’s eyes widened. “Of course!” she finally managed. “I’d be honored!”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Arta said. “Get well!” She gave a final nod to Latharna and then turned and left the room, passing her two guards who stood beside the door. Sure enough, Ambassador Ceana Preas was waiting in the hall, wearing an elegant robe and with her arms casually folded. She would be the second ambassador Arta had spoken to in the last hour; she’d bumped into Quarinis on her way up to visit Latharna, and he’d expressed his condolences and disgust over the assassination attempt. Strangely, Arta got the feeling he was completely sincere, though she couldn’t put her finger on why.

“Your Majesty,” Ambassador Preas said with a polite half-bow, fitting a representative of a foreign power. “I’m pleased to see you’re doing well after today’s… unpleasantness.”

“Thanks largely to your aide, Ambassador,” Arta said. “I don’t suppose I could borrow her for a bit after she’s feeling better?” Noting Ceana’s raised eyebrow, she continued, “I just got betrayed by two of my own royal guards. I’m feeling a need for people I can trust.”

“We of Realtran have always valued our friendship with the Dozen Stars,” the Ambassador said. “I’m certain Latharna would be willing to assist you. Good evening, Your Majesty.”

“Good evening, Ambassador,” Arta replied, and then turned and left the infirmary, guards in tow, feeling a sudden weariness rising in her and hoping that she, too, might have the chance to get some rest.


Latharna looked up from her caf to see Ambassador Preas enter her room. “So,” the Ambassador said,” you met the Queen. And tell me, what did you think of young Artakane?”

Latharna’s only response was the blush that sprang suddenly to her cheeks; she bowed her head in a effort to hide it, and cursed her complexion for making such a reaction so obvious. The Ambassador, however, merely gave a quiet, knowing smile.


Later that night, Duke Mardoban was awakened suddenly by the sound of someone pounding on his bedroom door, calling his name. Groaning, muttering under his breath about how he was getting too old for this, he rose from his bed, activated a nearby lamp with a wave of his hand, and pulled on a robe before answering the door. He found Gilgam standing there in full uniform; the guard looked somewhat disheveled, but there was a haunted look in his eyes.

“What happened?” Mardoban asked, a sudden fear filling him.

“My lord,” the guard said, “you need to come with me. I sent someone to awaken the queen as well. I’m afraid we have a situation.”


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Chapter Nine

Tantos System

At a range just far enough from Tantos III to avoid being detected by the planet’s defense systems’ long-range scanners, a small fleet of warships dropped from jump. The core of the fleet were Equestrian-class battleships, the standard heavy cruisers of the Dozen Stars’ Royal Navy, their hulls shielded and reinforced and armed with an extensive arsenal of powerful weapons. A small escort of lesser frigates and a screen of fighters hovered about them, and then as one the attack force began to advance towards Tantos III, keeping engine burn on a low enough level so as not to appear on scanners until they were almost down the planet’s throat.

Duchess Sateira ast Tashir sat in her command chair on the bridge of her flagship, Sun-Sword, hands folded beneath her chin as she watched the small, dully glowing sphere that was the capital of Tantos Duchy slowly growing larger in her viewport. The duchess was clad for war in golden armor that was intricately decorated and had been polished until it gleamed, a shimmering silver cape hanging from its shoulders – it prioritized appearance over function, but then, Sateira had no intention of taking part in any fighting herself if she could avoid it. Though of course, should anyone be foolish enough to think her an easy target, they would soon learn the error of that thought – the dueling sword at her waist was absolutely not for show, as several rivals in her youth had learned when they’d made the mistake of giving offence to the then-heir of Tashir Duchy.

And Sateira had far more powerful weapons at her disposal than mere swords or starships, as Kallistrae ast Tantos was soon to learn.

The Sun-Sword’s captain came to stand beside Sateira’s chair and cleared his throat loudly. “Report,” the duchess said, not moving her gaze from the planet before her.

“We’ve received confirmation from our allies, Your Grace,” the captain said. “Respen and Naudar’s forces are in-system as well, moving towards Tantos III at the prescribed vectors. We’ll come at the planet from three sides, as planned.”

“And Kallistrae’s forces will be caught between us and spread too thin,” Sateira said. “Excellent. Have they sighted us yet?”

“There is no sign of unusual activity from the planetary defense, Your Grace,” the captain said after taking a moment to confer with one of his officers. “If they’ve detected us, they haven’t had time to do anything about it yet.”

“At least that fool Respen’s blunder hasn’t cost us much, beyond accelerating our timetable,” Sateira muttered. “Imagine if the girl queen had been killed; the whole Kingdom would be buzzing; since she survived things are still proceeding somewhat normally, and that gives us an opening to exploit.”

Respen was a fool, Sateira thought – a grasping, vain, entitled fool who thought his dubious royal pedigree ought to grant him a throne and hated the fact that the galaxy seemed determined to deny him. Naudar was smarter and more cautious, but he was still fatally flawed by his determination to build a dynasty, a goal on which he was so fixated he’d never noticed that his own firstborn son and heir had no desire to be a king and certainly not one who held a throne taken by force, something anyone with half a brain could see. The alliance between the three of them was a fragile, temporary thing, and they all knew it – they all wanted Artakane off the throne, but in the end, they all knew that only one could rule.

Sateira intended to be that one, and today she would demonstrate exactly why she should be.

“And our other allies?” she asked casually. “Are they still prepared to play their part?”

“They are, Your Grace,” the captain replied. Sateira smiled coldly; she’d known they would be. Their allegiance had certainly cost enough, but it was money well spent.

“Then get ready,” she said, letting one of her hands drop to rest on the hilt of her sword. “It’s time for the fun to begin.”


Kallistrae ast Tantos had never wanted to rule a duchy.

What she’d told the other dukes at the last council meeting was true; at heart, she wasn’t a businesswoman or a politician, but a soldier. She could duel as well as anyone in her generation, she could command a starship and keep her head in a crisis, but administering a planet, overseeing the various barons sworn to Tantos, keeping the proper balance between obligations to the council, the crown, and the guilds – that required a set of skills that Kallistrae was beginning to fear, in her darker moments, that she didn’t possess. Then again, her cousin Hiram had never even bothered to try, so far as she knew, foisting off some of his duties on the barons and most of the rest on the guilds. She often found herself cursing him for not even managing to sire a legitimate heir – though, rumors had it, he had produced a number of illegitimate offspring, some of which she knew to be true – and thereby dropping the duchy on her shoulders when he’d been unceremoniously killed.

But when Kallistrae found herself awoken in the early morning by the sound of alarms echoing through the Tantos ducal palace, her first thought was of an odd sort of contentment. Though she’d never heard that particular alarm before, she knew what it signified – military attack. And that was something Lady Kallistrae ast Tantos, Knight of the Realm and former commander of the planet’s defense force – knew how to deal with.

Dressing hurriedly in her uniform, Kallistrae waved away servants and mechs as she left her rooms and took the lift down to the palace’s war room. There she found a number of the duchy’s other ranking knights and – she noticed with some distaste – officers of guild security waiting for her.

“All right, people, report,” she said. “What in hell is going on here?”

“We’re under attack, uh, Your Grace,” Bastias, one of the younger knights and another of House ast Tantos’s numerous cousins, said with a quick salute.

Kallistrae rolled her eyes. “I’m aware of that, Sir Knight,” she said. “Can someone here tell me who exactly is doing the attacking? For the Lord’s sake, don’t tell me the Commander came back from the dead again.”

“It’s not pirates, Your Grace,” Firus, a veteran officer who had served with Kallistrae before, said, regarding a tactical display. “It looks like a Dozen Stars attack force, though they’re not broadcasting identification signals so we can’t tell yet which duchy. They’ve been exchanging missiles with our orbital defense platforms above the capital; so far, our shields are holding.”

“I bet I can guess which duchy,” Kallistrae muttered. Well, she’d give herself one in three odds. Scramble fighters and launch our battleships; get those platforms reinforced. Well run them off, whoever they are, and then someone will have some explaining to do.”

“My lady!” another officer called from across the room. “We have more enemy contacts inbound, approaching from the north. More Dozen Stars ships; another basic battlegroup.”

Kallistrae swore. “Get us more ships to reinforce the defenses in that region!” she snapped angrily, gratefully accepting the cup of caf a young officer pressed into her hands. “And keep scanning for an identification signal, or even visual if they get close enough. I want to know who the hell is attacking my planet!”

“More enemy contacts, my lady,” called out another officer. “A third fleet coming up below the elliptical plain, targeting the southern islands.”

“damnation,” Kallistrae swore. “All three of them, then. I don’t have enough ships to cover the whole planet. damnation you, Hiram, for wasting our money on parties and ignoring our defenses!”

“My lady,” Firus said, looking up from his console. “We’re being hailed by the first enemy force. It let us get a read on the ship’s identity. It’s the Sun-Sword.”

“Of course it is,” Kallistrae muttered; she recognized the name. “Well, if Sateira wants to talk, put her through.”

Firus bent over his console, and a moment later a shimmering holo-image appeared over the middle of the central table, depicting a classically beautiful woman on the final edge of youth and middle age, clad in armor that bordered on the gaudy – though Kallistrae suspected that it was every bit as functional as it was decorative.

“Duchess Sateira,” Kallistrae said coldly. “To what occasion do we owe the pleasure of your… invasion?

“I prefer to think of it as a social call, Kallistrae,” Sateira’s image said. “Naudar, Respen and myself have put something of a gathering together, and we were curious if you might be interested in joining us?”

Kallistrae snorted. “Dare I ask what?”

Sateira smiled indulgently. “You military types – always so direct. Let’s get down to it, then. My confederates and I agree that the current state of affairs in this Kingdom aren’t acceptable. A child sits on Carann’s throne, and we have only the word of a manipulative mystic and a softhearted idealist that she has so much as a drop of royal blood in her veins. What if the Empire decided to invade on her watch – do you think the girl could handle such a crisis? We think a change in leadership is in order.”

“A change here meaning you, I take it?” Kallistrae asked.

Sateira waved her hand dismissively. “Or Respen or Naudar. I’m not terribly picky,” she said, but Kallistrae heard the lie in her voice. “It could even be you, if you join us. What do you say? ‘Kallistrae I’ does have a certain ring to it.”

“You can’t be serious,” Kallistrae said. “When I took the rulership of Tantos Duchy, I swore an oath to serve its people and to serve the throne. A throne that, I’ll add, is currently occupied by Artakane ast Carann. I’m a duchess, a knight, and a military officer; as all three of those things, I’ll do my duty, and I will never be party to treason.

Sateira shrugged. “Your loss,” she said. “But I’ll warn you, so far we’ve just been testing your defenses. Now we’ll be attacking for real. And I don’t think you have the resources to defeat us all. Think on that, and if you decide fighting a losing battle really isn’t in the best interests of Tantos Duchy, do let me know. I don’t plan on going anywhere. Until next time.” She bowed mockingly and the holo flickered and vanished, leaving a heavy silence hanging in her wake.


“She didn’t take your offer, Your Grace,” the captain said, frowning.

Sateira laughed. “It would’ve been helpful if she had,” she said, “but we weren’t really expecting she would. Kallistrae’s too much the old-school knight. Very noble of her – but also, very predictable.”

She nodded towards the captain. “Begin the full assault. I want the Tantos forces pushed to their limits, and when they are, we’ll have Kallistrae exactly where we want her.”


Kallistrae watched the invading forces close in around her orbital defenses on the war room’s holoscreens and scowled. On the screens, each ship was represented as a simple glowing dot – blue for her own forces, red for the enemies – but the duchess of Tantos had seen space combat often enough that she had no trouble visualizing what was happening far above. In her mind’s eye she saw the Equestrian battleships hanging back, pounding her own heavy ships and the defense platforms with barrage after barrage of missiles, while disgorging swarms of small, agile fighters to penetrate holes among the defenders that the bombardments left behind. Her own fighters flew out from the platforms and battleships to meet them, but they were outnumbered and had been caught off guard. Though Tantos Duchy had suffered from the recent pirate attacks, it had been decades since Tantos III itself had been a target of a sustained assault, and who knew how long the three rebel dukes had been preparing their plans? Probably since the moment the crown touched Artakane’s head; after all, Tantos was her home duchy.

And on the holoscreens the blue lights were fading, one by one, being pushed back by the unrelenting tide of red.

“My lady,” Firus said finally, “under the current conditions I don’t think we can hold out against a sustained assault for much longer. What are your orders?”

“They outnumber us three to one and have the element of surprise on their side,” Kallistrae muttered, cursing her late, lamented cousin again in her thoughts for the shabby state of what he’d left her to work with. “Of course they’re beating us. Are they jamming our transmissions?”

“No,” Bastias said after checking his console, surprise evident in his voice. “They’re not. That’s odd.”

“It’s more than odd,” Kallistrae said. “It means they’re not trying to keep this a secret – they want word to get out. Sateira, Respen, Naudar – they’re making a statement. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who can take advantage of the opportunity to make the Kingdom their audience. Send a distress signal to Carann, with footage of the attack. If we fail here, I still want to make damned sure that the entire Dozen Stars gets to see our enemies for the criminals they are.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Bastias said. “But I have to warn you, it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll be able to hold out against this attack long enough for reinforcements from Carann to reach us here.”

“I know,” Kallistrae said grimly. “Then we’ll just to hold them for as long as we can, and take as many of them as we can with us.” She sighed. “While you’re at it, issue a general call for civilian evacuations. Try to give as many of our citizens time to escape as we can – I know the enemy commanders personally, and I doubt Respen or Sateira in particular will be very kind conquerors.”

A silence fell across the war room, and then as one the officers around it saluted grimly and set to their tasks. Kallistrae sighed, and then looked up at the sound of footsteps. One of the guild officers, a woman in a silver uniform and dark glasses who had stayed silent since Kallistrae had arrived, was approaching. “Your Grace,” the guildswoman said, “if you’re concerned about being outnumbered, my people might be able to offer you a solution.”

“Go on,” the duchess said darkly, having a feeling she knew where this was headed.

“The guilds have always had a strong investment in the Tantos system, dating back for generations of your predecessors,” the guildswoman said. “We do not wish to see those investments ruined. Though we aren’t under your direct command, our security forces stand ready to assist you in battle, should you request it.”

“Tantos Duchy does not need the guilds to fight our battles for us,” Kallistrae snapped. “Tell me, were you one of the security officers who was busy shooting at our own civilians a few months ago for peacefully protesting? Maybe Hiram was willing to overlook that; I’m less lenient.”

“For the record, Your Grace,” the guildswoman said, squaring her shoulders, “I wasn’t there, and those who were in command were reprimanded. Dead civilians do not generate profit for the guilds. I know you find our attitudes and practices distasteful, but for now the guilds are your best hope of protecting the people of this duchy from those who would conquer them. Are your principles more important to you than their lives?”

Kallistrae was silent for a long moment, and then finally she sighed. “No,” she said. “Give the order. Firus, tell our forces in orbit to expect reinforcements from guild security.”

“At once, Your Grace,” the veteran knight said, snapping to salute.


“Your Grace,” Sun-Sword’s captain said, “a number of battleships are rising from the planet’s surface and falling into place to reinforce the defenders. They appear to be of guild design, Excelsior-class, comparable to our Equestrians. Guild security has joined the battle, as you predicted.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Sateira said, grinning like a contented lioness. Now was the time to put her arrangements to the test. “Broadcast a message on a secure frequency. This is what you are to say…”


With the arrival of guild security, Tantos’ defenders still couldn’t match the attackers’ numbers, but they were much closer to parity, and had the advantage of the orbital defensive stations. The enemy advance was stalled on all three fronts, the red tide now holding steady in the face of the combined blue and silver forces. Kallistrae let out a breath she hadn’t even realized she was holding. Was it possible they could actually win this battle, or at least hold out long enough for Carann to reinforce them?

She should have realized then that such a dream was too good to be true.

The tide turned suddenly, as one by one the large blue dots on the holoscreens that represented the defense platforms flickered and went out. “What’s going on?” the duchess demanded in shock, but her officers seemed to be equally as stunned.

“We’ve lost contact with the defense platforms, Your Grace!” Firus said. “We can’t raise them at all. I can’t explain it…”

“Your Grace, several of our battleships are reporting critical damage!” another officer called. “Their engines have been disabled, leaving them dead in space. They were fired on…” she paused and swallowed before continuing. “Fire on by guild security.”

“What?” Kallistrae demanded, just as she heard the click of a beam pistol being armed behind her and felt the weapon’s barrel pressed against the back of her neck. Across the war room, the guildsmen and guildswomen, who had stood quietly since the engagement began, drew their own weapons and pointed them at the knights and officers of Tantos, backing them up against the central table.

“Hands up, if you please,” the security officer whom Kallistrae had spoken too earlier, and who now held a gun to her head, said from behind her. “Do this without a fuss and no one has to get hurt.”

“Traitor,” Kallistrae spat, though she slowly raised her hands as she said it.

“Technically, we’re not traitors,” the security officer said. “The guilds aren’t actually part of the Kingdom’s feudal systems, so we’re not, strictly speaking, answerable to the dukes and duchesses. And I did promise that if we intervened, it would protect the people of Tantos III. By bringing this fighting to a swift end, that is exactly what we’re doing. The guilds manufactured your battleships and your defense platforms – who better to disable them without a fuss? I’m sorry it had to end like this, but business is business.”

“You’re still a traitor to the crown,” Kallistrae said. “And for all your high-minded words, I bet one of the enemy bought you off. What do you think you’ll accomplish here?”

“The Queen isn’t here,” the security officer said. “And the guilds are, first and foremost, commercial organizations. As for what we want, at the moment it’s for you to declare a surrender and order your forces to stand down. If you don’t, then my orders are to shoot you and issue a surrender in your name. Either way we win, but if you do things our way, you’ll get to live to see it, and hopefully to take your duchy back one day. The guilds have done business with House ast Tantos for generations, after all – we’d hate to see such a strong working relationship go to waste.”

Kallistrae looked down at her feet silently for what felt like an eternity, then she raised her head, staring forward and feeling like she had a black hole lodged in her chest. “All right,” she said heavily. “You win. For now, at least, you win.”


“The Duchess ast Tantos has surrendered,” Darius ast Sakran said, looking over at the chair where his father sat, both hands resting on his cane; Darius’s siblings hovered behind him. “Just as Sateira said she would.”

“Did you really doubt me?” Sateira’s holoimage said from where it was projected on the Sakran flagship’s bridge. “The guilds are really quite amenable, so long as you speak their language – money. Hiram and his predecessors tried, but they weren’t good enough at it and got entangled, and Kallistrae never managed to get herself extracted all the way. We of House ast Tashir, on the other hand, learned long ago how to make guild connections work for us, rather than the other way around.”

“Oh, quit patting yourself on the back, Sateira,” Respen’s holoimage said; the Duke of Aurann crossed his arms and glowered. “The point is, Tantos is ours. Now the next phase of the plan can proceed.”

“Yes it can,” Naudar said. “We’ve issued a challenge that Artakane can’t ignore. She’ll have no choice but to act, and when she does, we’ll be waiting for her.” Sateira and Respen nodded at him, and then both holos vanished.

“With the help of the guilds the occupation should be smooth,” Naudar said to his children when they were gone. “Not that we need to hold Tantos III for long. Now we only have to prepare the planet for our next battle, with the girl queen herself.”

“And when she falls, we’ll take what is rightfully ours,” Galen said, grinning nastily and no doubt remembering how Artakane had bested him at the tournament on Carann.

“I don’t like this,” Darius said. “We won this battle only because we had treacherous allies. And speaking of, I don’t trust either Respen or Sateira. Father, you have to know that in the end, only one house can hold the throne.”

Naudar regarded his eldest son coolly from over his cane. “You don’t need to lecture me on strategy,” he said. “I assure you that I like and trust our friends no more than you do. And don’t think you know all of my plans. Everything is proceeding exactly as it should be.”


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Chapter Ten

Carann, Royal Palace

It took all of Arta’s willpower to avoid falling back into a nearby chair, hanging her head in her hands, and groaning in dismay. Queens don’t collapse at bad news, she told herself sternly. Queens don’t show shock and horror where others can see. Queens have to be strong, have to show the people that they have things well in hand, that problems can be solved and someone knows what to do and is willing and able to do it.

If only, she thought wryly, any of those things were actually true.

Finally, Arta managed to draw a deep breath, collect herself, and look across the holodisplay in front of her to where Mardoban and Gilgam stood on the other side of the main table in the palace’s war room. “How did this happen?” she asked, hoping she sounded, if not regal, then at least somewhat in control.

“Sakran, Aurann, and Tashir Duchies have risen in rebellion against the Throne, Your Majesty,” Gilgam said. “Dukes Naudar and Respen, and Duchess Sateira, personally led strike forces against Tantos III. The defenders were outnumbered and apparently turned to the guilds for help.”

“And the guilds betrayed them,” Arta finished, closing her eyes and remembering a foggy night on Tantos III when guild security had turned its weapons against the duchy’s own citizens. No, she had few fond feelings towards the guilds whose offices were located on that world.

“What I want to know is, why did the guilds switch sides?” Mardoban asked. “In Hiram’s time, the guilds practically ran Tantos III, and I was under the impression that continued after he died. Was Kallistrae really that much of a threat to their control?”

“Royal Intelligence is still working on that, sir,” Gilgam said, “but based on the preliminary reports I saw, it appears that there were a significant amount of under-the-table payments and private communications passing between Tashir Duchy and the guild headquarters on Tantos prior to the attacks. I think that explains a great deal.”

“Of course it does,” Mardoban muttered, rubbing his chin. “House ast Tashir is very wealthy, and over the years they’re underwritten a number of lucrative guild operations. If Tantos was in the guilds’ debt, the guilds themselves may have been in Tashir’s – and I wouldn’t put it past Sateira to manage to leverage that into a favor, or more than one. Maybe even smoothed the wheels for getting those assassins into the memorial dedication, though Sateira’s not the only one who can bribe a guildsman.”

“We’re looking into it, sir,” Gilgam said. “We’ll let you know what we turn up. In any case, the invading forces have occupied Tantos III, and for the moment we’re not getting much out of there. What their main goal is we’re not entirely sure, but Tantos III has a large number of unusually productive mines that create raw materials for shipbuilding. Coupled with Aurann’s own resources and facilities, it could be a significant problem for us.”

“It’s more than that,” Arta said, not entirely able to keep the trembling out of her voice. “Katanes is my homeworld, and it’s part of Tantos Duchy. They’re not just taking the planet because it’s useful to them; they’re sending a message. A message to me.”

“The assassins called Respen ‘King’,” Mardoban said. “So this is his play, then. He tried to have you killed, and now he’s trying to seize the throne by force.”

“What do Sateira and Naudar get out of it, then?” Arta asked, frowning. “I only met them briefly, but I can’t imagine either of them sitting back and letting Respen take all the glory and power.”

“Maybe they have some sort of plan worked out to divide the spoils in a way that works for all three,” Mardoban said, “but I wouldn’t count on it. I think you may be onto something, Your Majesty, that may point towards a weakness we can use. If only…”

“Your Majesty, Your Grace, Captain Gilgam,” a voice suddenly called, and a woman in the uniform of a Royal Guard Lieutenant hurried over. “We’re receiving a communication from Tantos Duchy,” she said, bowing at the waist. “It’s coming through on private channels, directly to the palace.”

“Well, well,” Arta said. “It seems like we may find out more about what’s going on here after all.”

“We may just,” Mardoban said; he looked over at Arta and saw her nod, then turned back to the lieutenant. “Put it through.”

The guardswoman quickly keyed in a series of codes to a control panel along the war table’s side, and at once the holoimage of Tantos III vanished, replaced by a woman in clothing of military cut, whom Arta recognized at once. Kallistrae ast Tantos had been a proud, elegant woman, equally at home in armor or in a gown, and the young queen remembered when they had first met, the night of Duke Hiram’s party, when she had encouraged Arta to pursue her dreams of becoming a knight. That night seemed so long ago, and now Kallistrae’s eyes were hollow and her posture was slumped.

“This is Duchess Kallistrae ast Tantos, ruler of the planet Tantos III and all of Tantos Duchy by right of succession and the Lord’s grace,” the woman began, her voice flat; Arta had the feeling she was reading a statement someone had prepared for her. “This day it is my sad duty to report to you that Tantos Duchy has fallen. As I have proven unable to defend it, I find myself obligated to renounce my claim to the Duchy and abdicate my position, in favor of those who have proven more capable.” She paused, and then added “Lord forgive me,” under her breath.

The holoimage shifted and Kallistrae vanished to be replaced by three figures Arta recognized all too well. Sateira ast Tashir was haughty as ever but looked almost bored with the proceedings, while Naudar ast Sakran stood in a deceptively casual pose with a hand on his cane, but his eyes were shrewd. Respen ast Aurann, standing in front, was a different matter entirely; even over the holo their was a satisfied light in his cold eyes, and his smile was nothing less than predatory.

“Greetings Pretender Artakane,” the duke of Aurann said, apparently speaking for all three of the rebels. “I see that you survived the trap I’d arranged for you yesterday; I’d be disappointed, but frankly, I think I prefer you being here to witness this. There’s a certain… poetry to it. And is that old Mardoban with you, too? He always was Aestera’s lapdog and now he’s apparently continuing the tradition with the next generation. A pity he didn’t choose the right side of the family to back.”

Arta fought her anger down – barely – using mental exercises Shiran had taught her. “Is there a point to this, Respen?” she asked. “Or are you just here to insult everyone? You didn’t need to conquer a planet to do it, if that’s what you want.”

“As entertaining as this has been, no,” Respen said. “I speak to you now as the Duke of Aurann and Tantos. Tantos III is in my power, and the rest of Tantos Duchy will soon follow. You’re familiar with Tantos Duchy aren’t you, Artakane? Or should I call you Arta ast Katanes? Whatever you’re calling yourself these days, this is my demand to you – step down from your throne and yield the monarchy to me, or I will unleash destruction upon Tantos such as the Dozen Stars have never known before.”

Arta felt her hands clench into fists and bolts of blue light played around them. “Considering what you’ve just said, I’d rather die,” she growled. “I never wanted to be queen, but I won’t hand this Kingdom over to a tyrant, either. If you start killing the civilians in Tantos – or anywhere else – we will move against you. And you will die.”

Respen looked like he was going to laugh, but then Sateira put her hand on his shoulder and whispered something into his ear – Arta wondered if it was a reminder of what had happened to the Commander, and that Arta had already proven herself in battle before she’d ever donned a crown. Finally Respen nodded and turned his gaze back to the queen. “Duly noted,” he said. “However, I will remind you of this – Tantos is closer to Katanes than either is to Carann. Launch a war against me, and your adopted home will be the first world to feel my wrath. Do you want that on your conscience, child?”

Rage, red and hot, coursed through Arta’s head, but Mardoban put a calming hand on her shoulder. “Don’t let him see a reaction from you,” he whispered. “It’s what he wants.” Raising his voice, the Duke of Orlanes turned to Naudar. “And what about you, old friend?” he asked. “You were always ambitious, Naudar, but is supporting someone like this really in your best interests? You know what Respen will do if he feels denied – and what he will do if he does become King may well be worse. You’ve seen Aurann – you know its dukes have ruled with an iron fist. Is that what you want for the Kingdom?”

“We will deal with that when the time comes,” Naudar said. “Do you think it any better to leave the Kingdom in this untried girl’s hands? I fear what might happen should steps not be taken to direct her adequately. However, you still have a chance to avert any more needless deaths. Come to us on Tantos III in two weeks’ time, Artakane – in person. There we will discuss our terms for withdrawing from Tantos, and our goals for the future of the Kingdom. Attempt reprisal before then, and, regrettably, it is Katanes that will pay the price. Mardoban, know that I take no pleasure from this, and I regret that things had to reach this point. We will give you an hour to make your response.”

The holimage flickered and vanished, leaving a cold silence to settle over the war room.


Tantos III had always been a gloomy world, Darius thought; as a child he’d visited the planet with his father and even then, he’d found its veil of heavy fog oppressive. Now it was under occupation, with guild security enforcing, at the instruction of the conquering dukes, a strict curfew, and these facts had not improved matters. At least before there’d been lights flashing in the darkness and a sense of motion on the streets as people went about their business, even if it was often hard to see them clearly from a distance. Now all seemed dark and still.

Darius sighed and turned from the window, looking over the opulent suite of rooms in the palace tower that he and his siblings had appropriated upon arrival. Tariti was lounging on a couch nearby, with her hands behind her head and her eyes half-closed, though if Darius knew his sister she was still watching everything around her from behind hooded lids. Galen had vanished somewhere shortly after they’d arrived, and their father was off cloistered with Respen, Sateira, and the Security Guildmaster Gaspar Madan, whose machinations in conjunction with Sateira had made their victory possible.

Though a guest room – Kallistrae was, for the moment, still under house arrest in the ducal suite, watched over by a mix of Aurann’s knights and guild security personnel – the suite was still lavishly appointed, with plush furniture, crystal tables, and a number of tasteful sculptures depicting famous individuals from Tantos history. Darius was used to such luxury; Duke Naudar was known for his refined tastes, and had made certain to instill an appreciation for luxury in his children. Still, something about this room seemed cold and unwelcoming to Darius, as if a voice was whispering to him that he was the invader here, that Tantos III might grudgingly accept his presence, but it would never welcome him.

The young knight shook his head. Events were in motion now, his father’s plans underway. He couldn’t afford to have doubts anymore. So instead he took a seat beside Tariti’s couch and stared down at his hands in silence.

The door to the suite slid open with a hiss and Galen stepped inside, carrying a tray on which rested a large bottle and several small glasses. “I return bearing gifts!” the youngest Sakran sibling said cheerfully as he set his burden down on the table in the middle of the sitting room and took a seat in the chair across from Darius.

Tariti sat up, looking intrigued. “And what have we here?” she asked, leaning forward.

“I managed to convince some of the serving mechs to show me Duke Hiram’s private wine stores,” Galen said. “Apparently, whatever his faults as a duke, he had an exquisite taste in drink. I figured that since we are here as victors, we might as well partake.” Leaning over, Galen popped the cork from the large bottle and filled the glasses, passing one each to Darius and Tariti and keeping a third for himself.

“To victory!” Galen said grandly and held up his glass; his siblings clicked theirs against his and then he and Tariti each took a long sip. Darius, however, didn’t drink – he simply stared down in his cup and swirled the liquid around in it.

“What’s the matter with you?” Tariti asked, looking concerned. “So far, everything is going according to Father’s plans. We should be happy, you especially. At this rate, you’ll be crown prince by the end of the year.”

“Our victory?” Darius asked. “Really, Tariti? We didn’t do anything to earn this, and Father didn’t do much. It was Sateira and her bought-and-paid-for guildsmen who won Tantos III for us. All we did was watch. And now all we’re doing is waiting, until Father gets through with his meeting with the others and comes back down with more instructions for us.”

“Who cares how it happened?” Galen asked. “The point is, we’re winning. And Sateira’s a peacock and Respen’s a mad dog; you’re a fool if you don’t think that Father’s not the one really in control, no matter who takes the credit. Besides, you’re the one who’ll get to be king someday if we win, and Tariti will get the house title. All I want is a second chance at the Katanes girl who thinks she can be queen.”

“Awww,” Tariti said in mock concern. “Still mad about the tournament, little brother? From what I saw, she beat you fair and square. Or are you just upset you got beaten by a girl? It’s not like I didn’t do it often enough when we were kids. Care for a rematch for old times’ sake?”

“I don’t have to listen to this from you,” Galen snapped, rising to his feet and spilling some wine from his glass. “It’s not about me, it’s about our family’s reputation and our honor! I won’t let some upstart of a girl stain that!”

Tariti looked like she was going to respond to that, but Darius stood and put himself between them, holding out both hands. “Enough, both of you!” he said. “Galen, you’ll get your chance – or not – to fight Artakane again when the time comes. And Tariti, stop needling him. The honor of our family is important to all of us; let’s not night over it. Truce?”

“Truce,” Tariti said, and Galen nodded sullenly. It wasn’t just his personal pride at stake, Darius knew – as abrasive as his younger brother could be, and as much as Darius didn’t always approve of his methods, Galen was, in his own way, deeply loyal to family.

Still, the prospect of waiting all day in a room with his siblings was giving Darius a headache. Sighing, he sat his drink down and began to walk towards the door. “I’m going to get some air and take a look around,” he said. “Do you promise me you two won’t destroy the suite while I’m gone? Just because Father and the others are in charge here now doesn’t meaning fixing things here is free, you know. Our new friends in the guilds wouldn’t stand for that.”

Galen and Tariti nodded, the latter regarding Darius questioningly, but she didn’t voice whatever it was she was thinking. Darius turned and stepped into the hallway, barely noticing the rich carpet as he made his way, half-deliberately, to the nearest lift. Stepping inside, he entered a few keystrokes and then rode it upwards to the floor where his father was meeting with his co-conspirators.

He stepped out into another long hallway, though the wall on one side of this one was solid glass, revealing the foggy Tantos sky and the dim lights of nearby towers flickering through the gloom. The other side was lined with doors to various conference rooms. Darius stopped by the door behind which the rebel dukes had planned to send their holomessage to Carann, but it looked dark now, and sticking his head in he confirmed it was empty. If Naudar hd been here before, he clearly wasn’t now, and the message must have already been sent. Idly, Darius wondered what Artakane’s reaction had been. Remembering their duel at the tournament, he doubted it had been one of meek capitulation.

The sound of voices distracted him from his thoughts. Frowning, Darius made his way down the hallway to another door, which was open a crack. Inside he saw his father; Naudar was seated at a desk on whose top rested a small holoprojector, which emitted a miniature image of a faceless humanoid figure – man or woman, he couldn’t tell.

“-operation has so far been successful,” Naudar was saying. “Tantos is ours, and we await the Queen’s response.”

“And you are certain we aren’t being overheard?” the figure said in a garbled voice. “Our words are not liable to be pleasing to all ears.”

Naudar glanced towards the door, and Darius was certain his father saw him, but the Duke of Sakran merely shook his head. “Respen and Sateira have retired to their chambers on the next floor down,” he said. “I’ve had my people confirm it. They won’t be spying on us.”

“Good,” the figure said. “The attempt on the Queen’s life was foolish and, predictably, it failed. Respen overplayed his hand. Fortunately, you managed to act quickly enough that she didn’t have time to react.”

“Yes,” Naudar agreed. “We’re fulfilling our end of the arrangement. I trust you will do the same?”

“I honor my agreements, Naudar,” said the holo. “So long as you and your allies continue to perform, you will continue to have access to my resources. Continue in this vein, and soon you will have what you desire – an ast Sakran dynasty on the throne of the Dozen Stars.”

“Respen and Sateira won’t be happy about that,” Naudar said.

“Of course not. Respen is a psychopath and Sateira is a narcissist. You are merely a realist, and it would serve my interests better to see you succeed than either of your allies. When the time comes to settle the score, you will have my support. But that day is hopefully some time away yet. What of the Queen?”

“We have contacted her,” Naudar said. “We await her response, but do not doubt what it will be.”

“Good. I have matters of my own to attend to. Contact me again when you have Artakane in custody. Then we shall discuss our next move.” The holoimage flickered and vanished.

Naudar sat at the desk for a long, quiet moment, and then turned to the door. “You can come in now, Darius,” he said. “My business is over.”

Darius did as he was bidden, instinct overriding the countless questions boiling in his mind. After he took a seat across from his father, one of them managed to make its way to the top. “Who was that?” he asked.

“Someone who wishes to see Artakane fall,” Naudar said. “Beyond that, you don’t need to worry yourself. Now, I presume you were listening in for most of that? Don’t tell your siblings, and I trust it goes without saying not to mention it to anyone else. The next phase of our operation is about to begin. This is what I want you to do…”


Arta sighed and leaned back in her chair, looking up at the war room’s ceiling. “Our hour’s almost up,” she said. “I know it’s probably a trap, but I can’t just stand by and let them attack Katanes, Mardoban. I can’t.”

“It’s obviously a trap,” Mardoban said. “They’re taking advantage of your protectiveness and sense of honor to try and lure you to Tantos III. But I know you can’t step aside and let innocent people be hurt, no matter how much it might benefit you to do so.” He smiled sadly. “You mother was the same way.”

“Then what do you recommend I do?” Arta asked. “Walk into it?”

“Exactly,” the duke said. “Walk into it with your eyes open – and having made preparations to take advantage of the situation and turn their trap for you into a trap for them.”  


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Chapter Eleven

Carann, Royal Palace

Publius Vedrans Quarinis knelt in the small, private chamber beside his office, saluting with a fist over his heart to the imposing holoimage that flickered before him. “And so, my lord,” he said, “the civil war has begun, as I have planned. The Dozen Stars teeters on the brink of all out chaos; it will take but a small push for it to tear itself apart completely.”

“You have done well, my servant,” the Emperor, Verus Licinius, replied. “And the Queen? What of her? If she lives, then all is for nothing. Her death is our first priority in this.”

“The rebel dukes have arranged a trap for her, and she has already taken the bait,” Quarinis said. “Respen is particularly bloodthirsty on the issue – for the sake of his pride and his claim to the throne, he can’t allow an heir of Aestera’s blood to live. His desire to see Artakane dead was nearly our undoing; he launched an attempt to assassinate her without consulting with his fellows. Its chances of succeeding were small, and had it succeeded it would have likely only made the girl a martyr and the retribution against Aurann all the swifter. Fortunately for our plans, Artakane survived and the invasion of Tantos was launched before the Crown could make reprisals against Respen.”

“I do not see how Artakane’s survival is ‘fortunate’ for us,” the Emperor said, though his tone was curious rather than angry. “Given the choice between her death and the destruction of the Dozen Stars as a nation, I would choose to kill her. The Kingdom of the Dozen Stars is not a threat to the Empire. The girl… she is.”

Quarinis knew to what Licinius was referring; he was one of the only Imperial officials who was privy to that particular secret. Though he kept his abilities secret for the public, the Emperor was an Adept of immense power, and almost two decades ago he had dreamed of his own death at the hands of the Queen of the Dozen Stars. Preventing that dream from becoming reality had become Quarinis’s task; one Queen already had died at his orders, and he intended for Artakane to become the second.

“If I may be so bold, my lord,” Quarinis said, “it is not Artakane personally that you fear; you told me when giving me this assignment that any Queen of the Dozen Stars might be the one. Merely killing Artakane but allowing the Kingdom to survive leaves an opening for another to arise. Destroying the Kingdom utterly – that will end the threat forever. And so, my lord, I do not merely wish to see Artakane dead but destroyed. Let the people see her as weak and incapable of protecting them, and then her death, when it comes, will be the end of her and her legacy.”

“And what, then, of your tools?” the Emperor asked. “These rebel dukes you have stirred up against her? What will you do should one of them succeed in taking the throne?”

Quarinis smiled thinly. “That, my lord, has already been taken care of,” he said. “When we made our arrangements, I told them that I didn’t care which of them ruled, but I have since spoken to each of them privately and promised my support for when they inevitably fall to conflict among themselves. The nobles of the Dozen Stars are a proud, fractious lot, my lord – unlike our patricians, they have no true understanding of loyalty to the common good. They already prepare to fight among themselves for power once Artakane is dead. I intend for them to destroy each other and leave the throne vacant. Then, my lord, the Dozen Stars will be ripe for the Empire’s taking. The threat will be ended forever, and the shame of our long-ago loss of their territory shall be avenged.”

“Yes,” Licinius said, smiling. “Your plans please me, my servant. I also have news that you may find pleasing. The primary armada of the Alaelam Alliance is gathering at the Bahrina system, preparing for an offensive against us. They hope to drive us from their territories permanently. What they are unaware of is that Admiral Decimus is laying a trap for them; when the armada advances, it shall be pinned by our forces on all sides and destroyed. Admiral Decimus assures me his plan is without flaw; my own assessment is more cautious, but if all goes well, the ability of the Alaelam Alliance to wage war on the Empire will be crushed within the next three months.”

Quarinis’s breath caught. “My lord… can it be true? After two centuries, will the Alaelam Wars at last be ended?”

“More likely temporarily paused,” Licinius said. “Admiral Decimus doubts he will be able to pursue them to their core homeworlds and force them to capitulate completely, though al’Aymar Alaen will doubtless push for it. His desire for vengeance against his rivals among his own people burns bright as ever. But with that threat on our coreward border temporarily quieted, we will at last have the forces needed to turn our attention to our rebellious former subjects in the Dozen Stars and Realtran. At long last, the Empire will remind the galaxy why we are the true inheritors of Lost Terra and the rightful rulers of humankind. Continue to please me, Ambassador, and Gens Quarinis will stand tall indeed in the age to come.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Quarinis said, and pride mingled with fear rose in his heart. The rewards the Emperor promised were great, but when Verus Licinius’s expectations were high, the unspoken threat for failing to meet them was always a terrible one. “I remain, now and ever, your loyal servant; all that I have done is to serve your glory.”

“Indeed,” the Emperor said. “Now go, my loyal servant, and bring me the Dozen Stars. We shall speak again when the time is right.”

The Emperor’s holoimage flickered and vanished. Quarinis exhaled deeply and stood, straightening his uniform. The rewards were great, as were the risks, but that was always true when one served directly at the pleasure of emperors. He knew what needed to be done; now all he had to do was make those plans a reality.

It was time to go to work.


The training mech stumbled backwards under the flurry of blows Arta rained upon it. The automaton, roughly human in shape and designed to mimic the strength and motions of a human body, brought its own sword up to defend, executing its parries with mechanical precision. Though not a perfect substitute for a human sparring partner, under ordinary circumstances the mech served as a more than adequate means of refining one’s swordsmanship, adjusting its tactics and level of skill in accordance with its opponent. Today, however, it simply couldn’t match Arta’s fury and was forced to give ground before her relentless offensive. Finally she struck the sword from its hand with a powerful blow and the disarmed mech stumbled backwards, but Arta wasn’t done. Lunging forward, she struck a blow with her bare off-hand to its torso; there was a flash of brilliant blue light and the mech burst into pieces that rained down across the practice hall.

Arta stood amidst the remains, panting heavily, and barely heard the sound of footsteps approaching behind her. “I think it’s dead,” Karani said, and Arta turned to face her sister. “Guess you really had some anger to work out today, didn’t you?”

Arta shot her a withering glare. “What do you think, Karani?” she asked. “Three duchies are in rebellion, Tantos III has fallen, and our own homeworld is threatened, and since I’m the queen, apparently I’m the one who’s supposed to fix everything! Other than that, I’m fine.”

Karani’s face fell. “Oh, Lord, Arta,” she said. “I’m sorry; I guess me being flip isn’t what you need to hear right now, is it? I mean, Katanes is my home too, but at least nobody’s looking to me for all the answers.” She sat down on the training hall floor, kicking aside a still-smoking piece of mech, and patted the ground beside her. “Want to talk about it?”

Arta slid to the floor beside her sister and buried her face in her hands. “I can’t shake the feeling that this is all my fault,” she said. “Respen and the others, they’re doing this to get to me, because I showed up out of nowhere and got in their way. Why else threaten Katanes? And more than that, being queen means that everything in the Kingdom is my responsibility, no matter why it happens. I’m just one girl, Karani. I’m not ready for this.”

Karani put her arm around Arta’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “Respen, Naudar, and Sateira are the ones who decided to attack Tantos. It’s their fault, and me and you and old Mardoban, we’re going to make them pay for that.”

“Maybe we will,” Arta said. “But still, Karani, think about it. What’s the noble class for, when you get right down to the ideas our system is built on? We’re here to protect people. Why do you think it’s so important for us to be able to fight and command in battle? That’s why, going back to Artax. I’m a queen, so I’m supposed to protect the whole Kingdom. But I can’t even protect my people from my own dukes. What sort of a pathetic excuse for a queen am I?”

“I know that when we were kids, you were always the serious one who wanted to do great things and spent all her time training and studying,” Karani said, pulling Arta close. “You’re the one who always worried about doing the right thing, not me. Now’s your chance to put that to the test. But whatever happens, I want you to know that I believe in you.”

Arta felt tears forming in the corners of her eyes; she tried to blink them away, but wasn’t entire successful. She tried to speak, to either thank Karani for her faith or worry that she wouldn’t be able to live up to it, but no words came up. Finally she just leaned back into her sister’s embrace and rested her head on her shoulder, and the two sat there in silence for a long while, taking comfort in each other’s familiar presence.


Latharna opened the door to Ambassador Preas’s office and bowed her head as she stepped inside. “The doctors say I’m fine and ready to return to work, Your Excellency,” she said. “Reporting for duty.”

The Ambassador looked up from the computer terminal on her desk and smiled, though Latharna thought she still looked rather haggard around the edges. “Ah, good,” she said and gestured towards a chair; Latharna took a seat and folded her hands carefully in her lap. Though she’d been in Ambassador Preas’s office many times now, she still found it impressive. The room was large and open, with walls that were lined with bookshelves or decorated with paintings that depicted landscapes from Realtran Prime. The window behind the desk looked out over the Carann cityscape, which currently gleamed under the light of the morning sun. Collectively, it served to add to the Ambassador’s dignified, collected air.

Still, that composure seemed like it was being strained to the breaking point. “I trust you’ve heard of what happened last night?” Ceana asked, her voice weary.

“They were showing the news on the holo this morning,” Latharna said, nodding. “I saw it in the infirmary. Is it true? Has Tantos III really been taken by rebels?”

“I’m sad to say it’s true,” the Ambassador said. “I expected something like this sooner or later, but the rebels acted quicker than I’d anticipated. Among the people at large, Artakane is still popular, riding the wave of goodwill she won from defeating the Commander and that which she inherited from her mother. However, as I told you before, there are those in the aristocracy who resent her, especially Respen. Before Artakane appeared he was Aestera’s closest living relative, and he believed the crown should have gone to him. The other two don’t have the blood connection, but they’re both highly ambitious. I expect they want to act now to knock Artakane off her throne before she can grow into her role and consolidate her power.”

“But won’t launching a rebellion just unite everyone in the Kingdom against them instead?” Latharna asked.

Ceana smiled thinly and shook her head. “This isn’t Realtran, Miss Dhenloc,” she said. “The central government is weaker in the Dozen Stars than it is back home, and the nobility is stronger. Most people are loyal to their duchies first and the crown second, and if the crown looks too weak, they’ll turn on it. That’s what the rebels’ game is – to force a crisis that will make Artakane look like an untried girl in over her head, to destroy the peoples’ faith in her and make them look for stronger leadership. Leadership that Duke Respen, at least, will likely be ready and willing to provide. Assuming his erstwhile allies don’t beat him to it.”

“That’s…” Latharna shook her head. “That’s maddening.”

“Of course it is,” the Ambassador told her. “Why do you think Realtran opted for a parliamentary system when we split from the Empire? Less glamourous, perhaps, than a feudal one – but certainly more stable. Speaking of stability, there is something I want you to do for me.”

“Of course, Excellency,” Latharna said. “That is, after all, my job.”

The Ambassador reached down to her computer and removed something from its base; she placed it on the desk, and Latharna saw that it was a small portable drive. “Years ago, not long after Aestera died,” she said, “King Luagh grew concerned that Duke Respen might take the throne. Respen is an ambitious man who prides himself on the military strength of his duchy, and the King feared that he might set his sights on Realtran in spite of our long alliance if he came to power. The Prime Minister agreed with him, and so they instructed me to investigate Aurann and determine if the Duke has any particular weaknesses we could exploit. As it happens, he does – Respen is a brutal, autocratic leader. He’s efficient enough, but it’s the kind of efficiency that brutally uses people up, and that makes enemies. I found that there were a number of insurgent groups operating on Aurann and working against Respen’s rule. Some of them are little better than pirates, and I suspect Imperial funding at work behind them, not that I ever got a straight answer out of Quarinis on it. Others, I think, might be willing to work with Artakane should she promise to help them depose Respen. I’ve included information for how to get in contact with them on this drive. Take it.”

Latharna picked up the small drive, barely the size of the end of her little finger, and regarded it carefully in her hands. “Why are you giving this to me?” she asked.

“So you can give it to Artakane,” Ceana said. “She’ll need all the help she can get to win this conflict, and giving Respen a problem closer to home to deal with might help turn the tide. Call it a gesture of good faith from one ally to another. As for why I’m not giving it to her myself, you did save the Queen’s life, and she seems to have taken a liking to you. That’s a relationship worth cultivating that might benefit both our nations someday.”

“Of course it is, Your Excellency,” Latharna said, dropping her face and trying with all the force of her will to avoid blushing. “I will deliver this information to the Queen if that’s what you need me to do.”

Ceana smiled shrewdly. “And I don’t suppose the fact that you have a crush on her and want to see more of her won’t influence that at all?” she asked. Latharna looked up, shocked.

“I… I don’t… what do you…” she managed to stammer out, but the Ambassador raised her hand.

“I’m old, Miss Dhenloc, not dead,” she said. “I remember what it was like to be young and can see the signs all over you. The heart wants what it wants. But remember, Latharna – you’re a citizen of Realtran, not of the Dozen Stars. There may come a time when you have to choose between your duty and your heart. I hope you won’t have to, but… be ready if you do.”

Silence fell for a long moment before the Ambassador spoke again. “Artakane had wanted to see you anyway,” she said. “Apparently she is under the impression that you would be open to sparring with her. She also seemed interested in borrowing your services for something, though she was evasive as to what. You’ll have to ask her that, if you’re willing.”

“I… thank you, Ambassador,” Latharna said, standing. “I had best take this to the Queen, then.”

“I think that would be a good idea,” the Ambassador said. “Artakane will want to know every weapon she has available when she’s making her plans.” She leaned forward and regarded her aide with piercing eyes. “Just… remember what we discussed.”

“I will,” Latharna said, bowing, and then she turned and left the room.


Pakorus was seated on his usual bench in the palace gardens, reading an epic from the Kingdom’s early days and trying to appear as normal as possible, when the small computer tablet he’d kept by his side suddenly pinged loudly. The young noble looked around himself surreptitiously, making certain that no one else was there, and then he picked up the tabled and pulled up the program that had given him the alert.

Waking up this morning to the news of Tantos III’s fall had sparked a determination in him to act. He’d seen his father, Arta, and Gilgam, among others, running about and looking ragged, and it had pained him that he hadn’t been able to do anything to help. But Pakorus held no position in the government, no military rank, and though he was heir to Orlanes Duchy, that by itself wasn’t enough to get him into classified meetings. A part of him felt that he was being treated as a child, even though he was legally of age, though rationally he knew that wasn’t the case – Karani was a few months older than him, and she wasn’t allowed into command meetings either. Still, the fact that he could do nothing for the Kingdom rankled him, and so Pakorus had made a decision.

He only hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be the wrong one.

The flashing light on his computer screen indicated that a new message had arrived, and he found himself breathing deeply as his eyes scanned it. Earlier this morning, using contact information he’d pried out of Gilgam and secret codes only ranking members of House ast Orlanes knew, he’d sent a message to the man his father had met with, the one Gilgam had spoken to, the mysterious information broker of Tantos Station – Specter. Now Specter, or one of his underlings, had replied. I RECEIVED WORD OF ATTACK ON TANTOS JUST BEFORE IT HAPPENED, the message read. TANTOS STATION SO FAR UNHARMED, BUT IF PRESENT SITUATION CONTINUES I DOUBT THAT WILL LAST LONG. I HAVE DISCOVERED INFORMATION REGARDING RECENT EVENTS THAT I FIND DISTURBING, AND AM UNWILLING TO TRUST TO UNSECURED COMMUNICATION. I WILL SHARE IN PERSON, FOR A PRICE. ARE YOU INTERESTED IN MEETING WITH ME ON TANTOS STATION?

Pakorus read over the message several more times, breathing deeply. His father wouldn’t approve of this, he thought; Gilgam had pointed him in this direction, but probably hadn’t intended his information to be used in this way. Arta would probably think he was being irresponsible and reckless. Karani… Karani would probably just be mad he hadn’t brought her in it. But if it paid off, would it be worth it? What if this information Specter had turned out to be vital to the security of the Kingdom? What might happen if he sold it to someone else instead?

Pakorus exhaled heavily, then typed a single word. YES. Then, with a heart that was at once heavy and, despite himself, excited, he hit send.


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New chapter!


Chapter Twelve

Carann, Royal Palace

“You’re sure about this?” Baron Varas ast Katanes asked, frowning.

Very sure,” Arta said, tone deadly serious. “Respen was very specific that he was going to hit Katanes if I tried to dislodge him and his allies from Tantos. I’ve agreed to meet with him and he’s promised not to attack anyone else until I do, but, well, I don’t trust him. I know Katanes doesn’t have much in the way of defenses, but what you do have, get ready.”

“I’ll have Danash get on it at once,” the Baron said. “But you’re right; we don’t have much because we never needed it. Katanes isn’t a high-profile target, and if we ever were threatened we could generally count on aid from Tantos III. But with Tantos fallen, it feels like we don’t have a whole lot of options. I’d try to call in some favors from the guilds, but if the news out of Tantos is accurate, that’s a risk I don’t feel like taking. Even if the guildhouses here on Katanes haven’t been corrupted… no, I don’t want to take a chance of bringing the enemy into my own home.”

“Smart,” Karani said from where she sat in the chair beside Arta’s. “After what happened on Tantos I wouldn’t trust the guilds farther than I could throw the whole bunch of them.”

The Baron smiled thinly, and something about the glint in his eyes greatly enhanced his resemblance to his biological daughter. “Me neither, Karani,” he said. “Me neither. I’m glad to see you’re still in good spirits, at least.” He turned to Arta and his gaze softened. “How are you holding up?” he asked.

Arta sighed and buried her head in her hands. “Terrible,” she said. “It’s like I’ve been telling Karani – the dukes are in rebellion, Tantos has fallen, we’re on the brink of out-and-out civil war, and everyone expects me to fix it. Even Mardoban doesn’t want to take too much of a hand, at least not obviously. He says he doesn’t want people thinking I’m just his puppet, which makes sense. But still, it’s a lot of pressure and if I take one wrong move millions of people could die.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “I’m sorry, Father. I’m not ready for this.”

The Baron made a move as if to put a hand on her shoulder, maybe pull her into an embrace, before remembering that he was speaking to a holo and they were half a kingdom away from each other. “I’m sorry, Arta,” he said. “Every leader has to face a trial sooner or later, and they have to face it alone – there’s no one who can make the decisions for you. I wish I could tell you otherwise. When I first became Baron here, there was a blight in the southern farmlands and more than half our crops died. I was sure I wasn’t going to last the year, and it was only a question of whether the farming guild, the merchant guild, or the hungry civilians who were going to be the first ones to tear my head off. Fortunately, I managed to keep everyone placated long enough to bring in some off-world biologists from Orlanes, who managed to figure out what was wrong and cure it in time for at least some of the harvest to be saved. I’m still not sure how I did it. And this situation you’re in is worse, because it potentially affects the entire Kingdom, not just one planet in it.”

“What do you think I should do?” Arta asked, feeling a plaintive note creep into her voice.

“Remember what I learned a long time ago,” the Baron said. “A ruler has to make the ultimate decisions, but they can’t do everything themselves. You need people around you who you can trust. I don’t know how I would have ever survived this job if I hadn’t had your mother or Danash. And you need to be able to plan ahead but be flexible enough that you can change your plans when you need to. There’s an old soldier’s adage that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and I think that applies to leadership as well as war.”

“Thank you, Father,” Arta said quietly. “We do have a plan for getting in and out of the meeting on Tantos with me in one piece, but I can’t tell you in case this transmission is being intercepted.”

“Don’t feel bad,” Karani said conversationally. “She’s not telling me, either. Apparently, Duke Mardoban has declared it ‘need to know classified’ or something. I’m her sister! I need to know!”

The Baron chuckled. “I understand completely,” he said. “And in this case, I agree with Duke Mardoban. Be patient, Karani. And be there for Arta. You’re her big sister and I’m trusting you to keep her safe.”

Karani shrugged. “Well, I can’t glow, unlike some people, but I think I can manage. And I want another shot at Galen ast Sakran! We’ve got some unfinished business.”

“That’s my girl,” the Baron said, smiling. Then he shook his head. “Ah, it’s hard for a father to believe when his children have gone and grown up on him. I still remember when you were born, Karani. And Arta… I remember the day Shiran brought you to us. When he told me who you were and what he was asking of me, I knew I was taking the future of the Kingdom into my hands. It was a heavy responsibility, but one lightened by the fact that I grew to love you as my own. And I always knew the day would come when you would have to leave me and become who you were meant to be.” His voice cracked with emotion. “And I am proud of you, Arta. More than you can know.”

Arta found herself blinking away tears. “No matter what happens,” she said, “you’re my father, and Katanes will always be my home. I want you to know that.”

“I do,” the Baron said. “Now go and show your enemies that you are a true queen! I have faith in you, Arta – never forget it.”

The Baron raised his hand to switch off the holo, but Arta stopped him. “One last thing before you go,” she said. “When you mentioned Shiran it made me think – have you heard from him lately?”

Varas frowned. “I haven’t,” he said. “I thought he must still be with you. Is he not? Well, don’t worry too much. That man is prone to coming and going in odd ways. He’ll turn up when he’s most needed and least expected, in my experience.”

“Still, I wish he was here now,” Arta muttered. “But no matter what happens on Tantos, I’ll keep you updated. I love you, Father.” Beside her, Karani echoed her words.

“I love you too, both of you,” the Baron said. “I hope the next time we talk, it will be under more pleasant circumstance.” The holo flickered once, and then he vanished.

“Well,” Karani said after a long paused, “that wasn’t exactly the most fun family talk we’ve ever had, was it?”

Arta stood from the desk where the holoprojector rested and stretched. “We’re at war, or as good as,” she said. “What did you expect?”

“Good point,” Karani muttered. “I meant what I said, though. Wherever you’re going, I’ll have your back. And don’t you forget it.”

“And hoping to have another chance at Galen has nothing to do with that?” Arta asked, laughing.

“Well, maybe a little,” Karani admitted. “He does owe me for my leg, and I intend to make him pay. So what’re you going to do now, anyway? Got another war meeting with Mardoban?”

“Actually, I’ve got an appointment in the training hall,” Arta said. “Someone’s agreed to meet me for a round of sparring. I have to admit I’m looking forward to it. It’s been a while since I’ve trained with someone who isn’t you or a mech.”

“Someone?” Karani asked, raising an eyebrow. “It’s that Latharna girl, isn’t it? Because I still think letting her get close to you is a really bad…”

“I know, I know, you don’t trust her,” Arta said, holding up her palms. “She did save my life. And I talked to her, and I liked her. It’ll be fun. And besides, Mardoban thinks we can use her in our plan.”

“Use her?” Karani spluttered. “She’s a foreign national and you’re the Queen of the Dozen Stars, Arta! You’ve got knights! You’ve got me! What do you need her for?”

Arta waved a finger. “That would be telling,” she said. “But it’s not like she’s an Imperial or something. Realtran and the Dozen Stars have been allies for the entire time both kingdoms have existed. And besides, I’ve got a feeling about this. I think I need to trust her. I don’t know why, but I do.”

Karani muttered something unintelligible under her breath about Adepts and their hunches and exactly what Arta could do with her ‘good feeling,’ but didn’t press the issue. “All right,” she said. “Have fun. I guess I’ll figure out something I can be doing.” Arta had a feeling she knew what Karani meant – her sister had been expressing interest lately in learning to fly a fighter and had been planning to use her connections to convince someone to teach her when she had the time.

Arta waved at her as she left the room, but once she was out in the corridor and her guards had fallen in behind her, Karani’s words about Adepts – and the Baron’s about how she’d come to be part of his family – began weighing heavily on her.

Shiran, she thought. Where are you?


The royal guards nodded to Latharna as she stepped through the door into the palace’s training room. The chamber was cavernous, with wide walls and a high ceiling, but for the moment it was empty save for a slender figure in blue running through a series of exercises with a dueling sword. Artakane had her black hair pulled back away from her face, and though she was facing away from the door Latharna could see her flowing easily from one stance to the next. Finally, she came to the end of her routine and sheathed the blade at her side before turning to face her visitor.

“Ah, Your Majesty,” Latharna said quickly, giving a polite half-bow, a gesture of respect for a foreign monarch from someone who wasn’t one of her citizens. Artakane, however, made a face and waved the gesture away.

“I told you before, call me Arta,” she said. “I get enough ‘your majesties’ already. I’m glad you were able to make it; how are you feeling?”

Latharna shrugged. “Well enough,” she said. “I think rest really was all I needed after all. What about you? I heard what happened on Tantos III.”

Artakane’s – Arta’s – expression became solemn. “Everyone has by this point,” she said. “I’m working on it, but right now I’d like to take my mind off things for a little while. Are you still ready to spar?”

“Always,” Latharna said; Arta smiled in response, and she felt her heart skip a beat. Forcing the feeling down, Latharna did a series of stretches to get herself limbered up, then drew her dueling sword from where it hung at her belt. Flipping on the switch, she set it to the lowest setting and felt the familiar hum as energy crackled along the blade. At this setting it would deliver a nasty shock on contact but no worse, and the energy field would, so long as it worked properly, keep the metal blade from cutting flesh.

Arta drew her own sword and flicked it on. “I’m ready when you are,” she said. “And before we start, I just want to say this – don’t you dare let me win. None of my guards seem to be able to get that through their heads, and it’s getting very old.”

“Well, if you don’t want me to hold back…” Latharna said, grinning and feeling the anticipation that always accompanied swordplay growing in her. She and Arta saluted each other, and then they began.

The exchange of blows was quick and precise, and Latharna recognized at once that Arta was very good – though that didn’t surprise her, considering that she had, after all, won a tournament before she became queen. Still Latharna was able to parry every strike and force Arta backwards across the padded training floor. They were about the same size, and close to evenly matched in terms of speed and strength, but Latharna was realizing that she was the more skilled of the two – not by a lot, perhaps, but by enough.

Finally, Arta stumbled, ever so slightly, and Latharna was there to take advantage of it. She forced Arta back and then feinted right; as Arta moved to block she darted away and struck her on the arm with the edge of her blade. The queen gave a yelp as the dueling sword sent a shock along her side, and her own blade fell from her hand. The sword landed on the mat and Arta lost her balance, taking another stumbling step back before falling on flat on her bottom.

The two girls stared at each other for a long moment, eyes wide. “I guess I win,” Latharna said, sounding shocked. Had she actually beaten the Queen of the Dozen Stars? Yes, Arta had wanted her to not hold back, but now that she’d actually lost, would she still be as pleased, or would she be angry?

There was a long moment of silence, and then Arta laughed. “I guess you did,” she said and held up her hand. Latharna pulled her to her feet, and for an instant their faces were within an inch of one another. Staring directly into the queen’s dark eyes, Latharna felt her heartbeat quicken and a flush rising along her neck; quickly she backed up and looked away.

“Do you want to go again?” she asked, determined to change the subject.

Arta shrugged. “How about some drinks first?” She nodded towards a small table in a corner of the hall, set with a pitcher and some cups. Latharna nodded, relieved, and they made their way over to it; Arta poured a cup of water for each of them and handed one to Latharna, keeping the other for herself.

They stood there quietly drinking for several minutes, with Arta regarding Latharna carefully from over the rim of her cup. “I’m curious,” she said, “where did you learn to fight like that? Is everyone in Realtran that good? If so, I may have to ask Ambassador Preas if she might be willing to lend me an army to help with our current problems.”

Latharna chuckled. “I grew up at the Dansa Academy on Gearrach and learned to fight from an old monk,” she said. “I honestly have no idea if I’m better or worse than most people where I’m from. But Brother Ronall always told me I was naturally gifted, and I practiced a lot.” She shrugged sheepishly. “I didn’t spend a lot of time with children my own age. Nobody was lining up to be friends with the headmistress’s strange ward. So, I spent most of my free time studying and practicing. My life probably isn’t very interesting compared to yours.”

“I don’t know,” Arta said. “I think we’ve actually got a bit in common that way. I never had a lot of friends growing up either; my father had Karani and me taught by private tutors instead of sending us to the Academy and he never really gave us much opportunity to mingle with other nobles, or even the children of guildsmen. I used to think it was just because he didn’t care much for them and didn’t want us around people like that. Now I wonder if it wasn’t because of me – if he was trying to keep me away from anyone who might realize I looked so much like the dead queen.”  She chuckled weakly. “And now that I am queen, it seems like everyone’s too intimidated by me to want to get close to me. Aside from Karani, the only person my age I actually feel like I can talk to is Pakorus, and as much as I like him, he is a boy. It’s not quite the same.”

They both snickered at that. “Well, then, I guess neither of us has much experience with friendship,” Latharna said, “but if this is what it feels like, I think I do like it.” She met Arta’s gaze for a moment, then found herself looking away again. “Something I have been wondering – what was it like? The tournament, and then fighting the assassins? I heard about it, of course – it ended up on our news too, in Realtran – but what was it like to actually be there?”

Arta went silent for a long while before she spoke again. “The tournament was exciting, exhilarating, but also stressful, especially after Karani got hurt. I never actually expected to get as far as I did, you know. I was just a nobody from Katanes up against the best duelists of my generation, but somehow, I managed it. But I still feel a bit guilty about it. I didn’t really win, you understand – don’t believe everything you hear. Darius ast Sakran had me. He should have been the winner, not me.”

“But then the assassins attacked,” Latharna whispered.

That part was terrifying,” Arta admitted. “It was nothing like the tournament – I was just desperate to stay alive. I though I was surely going to die at any minute, and then somehow, I killed the Commander instead and suddenly I was a hero. I still don’t even know for sure what I did.” The Commander’s last words – his threat or promise of more attacks to come – she kept to herself.

“So this Darius is supposed to be pretty good, isn’t he?” Latharna asked. “His father is one of the leaders of this rebellion, right?”

“He is,” Arta confirmed. “I assume Darius and his siblings are with him. The ast Sakrans stick together.”

“Well, maybe you’ll have another chance at him, then,” Latharna said, shooting Arta a grin. “You never know!”

“However this ends, I doubt it’ll be about dueling,” Arta said. “Which reminds me, there is something I’ve been wanting to ask you. I’ll be leaving soon for Tantos to meet with the rebels. If I’m lucky, nothing will happen. If not… if not, I’d like to have you with me. With my bodyguards, I mean.”

“Me?” Latharna asked, eyes widening. “I’m not even from the Dozen Stars!”

“You saved my life once, when my own guards tried to kill me,” Arta said, expression serious. “And the fact that you’re not from the Kingdom actually makes you even more suited – you’ve got no stake in our politics, so the rebel dukes would have a hard time getting to you. Besides, the Realtran Kingdom has always been our ally, and Ambassador Preas was open to loaning your services. But more than that, it just feels right. I feel like whatever is happening, I’m going to need you at my side.”

Latharna felt her heart skip a beat at that, but she frowned at the sense of certainty in Arta’s words. She remembered then what she had managed to put from her mind for their practice bout – the queen was an Adept, and Adept’s knew things. Did that mean that Arta knew about how she made Latharna feel?

That was not a question to pursue right now. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said formally, offering a bow. “I would be honored to accept your offer. And that makes me think,” she reached into her pocket and pulled out Ambassador Preas’s drive. “The Ambassador told me to give this to you. There is information on it regarding Aurann Duchy that might give you an advantage against Respen. As you say, the Realtran Kingdom has always been the friend of the Dozen Stars, and we wish to see you stable and prosperous.”

Latharna hoped that sounded sufficiently ambassadorial; apparently it did, because Arta smiled and took the drive. “Thank you,” she said. “And do tell Ambassador Preas that we appreciate both the information and the loan of her assistant.” Her smile became less queenly and more familiar. “Now then, would you like to go another round? Maybe this time I won’t be so easy for you to beat?”

Latharna smiled broadly. “Arta,” she said, “it would be my pleasure.”


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Chapter Thirteen

Carann, Royal Palace

The galaxy hovered before Arta’s eyes – or at least, a fair accurate depiction of it did.

She stood in the palace’s map room, a chamber that was located on the ground floor and was part of the building that was technically open for tour groups, at least at times when the queen herself wasn’t perusing it. Not that there had been tour groups lately, Arta thought – the whole palace had been on lockdown ever since the rebels seized Tantos III, and the entire royal city seemed to be going about its business under a cloud, as though waiting for whatever was to come next. None of that was obvious here, however, for the map room was a work of beauty as much as it was of utility. The walls were ringed with fantastically detailed displays showing Carann itself and the other major worlds of the Kingdom, and they could be adjusted to pull back far enough to show the entire planet set against a sea of stars or zoomed in closely enough to make out individual structures.

The room was dominated, however, by a table in the middle over which hovered a fantastically detailed depiction of the known galaxy. The image was centered on the great curving spine of the Local Arm, though other arms and the Core itself could be glimpsed from the edges. There was the Dozen Stars, highlighted in blue, and Realtran in red, around which clustered a number of smaller nations, some of which comprised a star system or less, some of which contained several, but were still less than the equivalent of one of the Kingdom’s duchies. Towards the Core, much of the arm was shaded in a deep violet – the Empire, larger than all the other nations combined, weakened from where it had stood at its height when the emperors ruled over all humanity, but still very strong. And there, near the edge of the map at the place where the Local Arm met the Core, could be seen a glimmer of gold – the edge of the Alaelam Alliance. No one in the Dozen Stars could be said to have a fully accurate map of how far the distant theocracy extended, not with the entirety of the Empire in the way.

At the borders of the Alliance, the Kingdom’s knowledge ended. And, in the other direction, beyond Realtran and the lesser nations, the Local Arm tapered to its end, pointing towards the cold darkness of intergalactic space. There were rumors of what lay out there in that direction, stories of barbarians and aliens and yet more fanciful tales brought back by explorers who might have seen things no other human had seen – or who might have had too much grog on their voyages. No one was particularly eager to risk the loss of their duchy’s resources.

It was sad, Arta thought, sad and troubling. The universe known to the Dozen Stars seemed to be shrinking, not growing, as if they were regressing rather than advancing. Maybe Midaia was right – this was a dark age. Who knew what secrets lay hidden out there in the darkness or towards the Core, secrets that would remain unknown because everyone was more concerned with power than they were with understanding? Perhaps even Terra itself was to be found out there, somewhere in the vastness of the galaxy. Though, despite the many texts that had survived the planet’s destruction, there were none that said for sure where it lay, or the exact nature of the cataclysm that had torn humanity from the world of its birth. That knowledge had been lost in the chaos of the Third Republic’s fall.

Now I am sounding like Midaia, Arta thought to herself. Worrying about hidden knowledge and secrets that have been buried for thousands of years when the Kingdom’s about to tear itself apart. The week that Naudar and Respen had given them was almost up. It was time to go to Tantos and try to put a stop to things before they escalated to outright war. Mardoban didn’t trust Respen or Sateira to negotiate in good faith if they could help it, and he said that Naudar always had an ulterior motive. From what Arta knew of those three, she was inclined to agree with him.

But they weren’t the only ones who could play dirty. Arta and Mardoban had plans in place – if only they could pull them off.

Straightening up and adjusting the cape that fell from her shoulders, Arta turned away from the image of the galaxy and left the map room, the guards who had waited patiently at the door falling in behind. They made their way down several corridors and at last came to the palace’s grand entrance hall, a vast chamber of sweeping ceilings and marble pillars, where the former regent awaited.

Mardoban was standing in the center of the hall, arms crossed and waiting patiently; a squad of guards surrounded him. Karani, who was looking decidedly less patient, stood nearby, tapping her foot against the floor. When she saw Arta, she looked up and rolled her eyes.

“Finally!” she said. “You do know that we literally can’t leave without you, right?” she asked. “But I guess one of the perks of being queen is that you get to keep people waiting, even in places where there’s nothing to do.”

“Karani,” Mardoban said calmly, “Her Majesty is here at the time we agreed on – in fact, she’s actually slightly early. There’s no reason to complain.”

“Don’t mind my sister, Your Grace,” Arta said. “When Karani complains, it means she’s worried”

“Worried?” Karani asked. “No! My little sister is only about fly off to Tantos to walk into a room with three people who want her dead. What’s there to worry about?”

“I can take care of myself, Karani,” Arta said. “And besides, I won’t be alone.” Mardoban had been in communication with the rebels, and they had determined that the royal guards would not be permitted within the meeting room itself, but that the queen and each duke would be permitted one aide. Arta had a feeling she knew who Naudar’s ‘aide’ would be – his son Darius, arguably the best blade in the Kingdom. No doubt Respen and Sateira’s aides would be similarly skilled. They intended to make certain Arta was outnumbered. However, besides the surprises she’s prepared, there were two things that she hoped would even the playing field. The first was the fact that she was an Adept, and she’d been practicing some of Shiran’s mental exercises to prepare her abilities for the conversation.

The second was someone who hadn’t yet arrived in the entrance hall.

“Where is Latharna, anyway?” Arta asked, frowning.

“Not here yet, obviously,” Karani said. “Seriously, I don’t get why I can’t be the one to go in with you. Or Mardoban. His Grace, I mean. But is a meeting room with your enemies really a place to take your date, little sister?”

“Miss Dhenloc is not my date,” Arta snapped. “In any case, Naudar has made it clear he doesn’t want Duke Mardoban present – they probably think he’s pulling my strings and I’ll flounder without him.” Privately, she feared that she would flounder, but kept it to herself. They’d scripted the most likely outcomes – she could do this. “And honestly, Karani, you’re good, but she’s better. I’ve been sparring with her all week and only beaten her once. I’ve never seen anyone fight like she can – if there’s anyone I’d match against Darius, it’s her.”

Karani sniffed and crossed her arms. “What did I say?” she asked. “You’re obviously dating.”

“I’m fairly certain queen don’t date,” Arta snapped back. “And in any case, my feelings for Miss Dhenloc are absolutely not of that nature.” What, exactly, her feelings were besides liking and interest she hadn’t yet decided, though she did have to admit the way Latharna’s blush stood out on her pale cheeks was rather fetching…

Focus, Arta, she told herself. You’re not a teenager who can crush on a holostar anymore. You’re a queen, and you’ve got a job to do.

The sound of engines suddenly echoed outside the entrance hall, and Mardoban looked up. “Well,” he said, “that sounds like our flitter.” Flitters were atmospheric craft and this one obviously wouldn’t be taking them all the way to Tantos III; rather, it was to take them from the palace to a docking platform in low orbit, where the Equestrian-class battleship Lion of Carann, flagship of the royal navy, waited to carry them on their journey. “We’ll be leaving shortly, then,” the duke continued. “Oh, and Karani? Do remember that you’re a knight of the realm and sister of a queen. Try to be at least a little more dignified when we’re facing enemies of the throne.” Karani scowled but muttered an affirmative.

Well, Arta thought, seems like it’s time. Come on, Latharna. We’re ready to go.


Latharna bowed in front of her shrine, pressing her forehead to the floor in prostration. She’d reassembled it here on a small table in her quarters in the palace to be essentially the same as it had been at the academy, though in truth it was a simple enough thing – a stylized picture of a planet that was supposed to be Lost Terra, a well-worn copy of the Canon resting in front of it, flanked by candles and sticks of incense. The Lord was never represented in art, of course – how could one depict such a being, after all, who was at once human and alien, male and female, and yet transcended all existence? But all it needed to do was focus the mind in prayer, and Latharna had found it always did that for her. Simplicity, as the Headmistress and Brother Ronall had both taught her, could be a virtue.

She prayed now, though not in words so much as in feelings. She asked for safety and success on the mission that she was about to embark on, for she and Arta to both return unharmed and for war to be averted. And she also asked for help sorting out her own feelings – was what she felt for the queen love, or simply infatuation and physical attraction? And if, as Ambassador Preas had said, the time came when she had to choose between her heart and her duty, would she make the right choice?

Latharna didn’t receive an answer, of course, though she felt a sense of peace and focus – a sensation she’d never been certain if she created herself because she expected it or not. In any case she finished her prayers and stood slowly, brushing herself off. It was time to leave. She picked up her dueling sword from its stand and hung it from her belt, then slung the bag that carried the fine clothes she was to wear when she accompanied Arta over her shoulder. As an ambassador’s aide – and the queen’s friend – she probably rated a serving mech to carry it for her, but that didn’t sit well with her. Latharna preferred to do her own work rather than relying on a machine.

She snuffed out the candles on her shrine and turned to leave, then paused for a moment and looked back. Almost on impulse she picked up her Canon, regarded the old book with affection, and then slipped it into her bag. It felt wrong, somehow, to go into danger without it.


Latharna met Arta in the entrance hall, and then the entire company headed outside to the waiting flitter. The three girls and the duke seated themselves in the passenger compartment while the guards took up their posts outside, and then the craft lifted itself up from the platform and headed off into the sky, towards the battleship that waited for them. Latharna watched from the window as the vast cityscape of Carann shrunk beneath them, and she prayed that she would return.

“I’m glad you’re with us,” Arta said quietly from beside her; Latharna turned to face her and saw that she was smiling. “Thank you for coming.”

“I’m honored that you invited me,” Latharna replied, then looked over Arta’s shoulder at Karani, who was regarding her darkly. “I don’t think your sister likes me very much, though. I don’t want to drive a wedge between you for my sake.”

Arta chuckled. “Karani doesn’t like anybody she thinks is butting in on our family, at least not at first,” she said. “She spent months convinced that our last tutor was really there to spy on us or kidnap us. She’ll come around. Just give her time.”

“If you say so,” Latharna said, her tone uncertain. Shaking her head, she turned to look at the seat across the way and the dignified man who sat there. “Ah, Your Grace,” she said; she knew who this was, even if she hadn’t spoken to him before today. “I’m terribly sorry for forgetting my manners. I’m Latharna Dhenloc, from Realtran. At your service.”

“Duke Mardoban ast Orlanes at yours,” the duke said, and Latharna noticed thankfully that he was smiling. “I’ve heard good things about you from the Queen, Miss Dhenloc, and also from my son Pakorus. Ambassador Preas is lucky to have you.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” Latharna said. “From what I’ve seen of your son, he seems a fine young man and a credit to his father.” She hoped the compliment came through the formality expected when talking to a duke; apparently it did, for Mardoban seemed pleased by her comment. In truth she’d seen Pakorus several more times over the past week and she’d continued to find him pleasant company, though he’d also seemed distracted and had been evasive when she’d asked him what he was doing. And she had to admit, despite his professed lack of skill at the Dozen Stars’ national pastime of dueling, he wasn’t hard on the eyes either…

Latharna shook herself. Get ahold of yourself, Dhenloc, she told herself sternly. It’s bad enough you’re taken with a foreign queen; adding a duke’s son to the mix would only complicate things further. You’re not a character in one of the Headmistress’s courtly romances. Tortured romantic intrigues are the last thing you need.

Your life is complicated enough…


The Lion of Carann was a vast, elegant ship painted in gleaning blue and gold with the Dozen Stars Royal Crest on its sides, accompanied by stylized images of the great feline beast whose name it bore. It seemed as much a symbol of the monarch as a weapon of war, so far as Latharna could tell, and, she reflected, that’s probably exactly what it was. One couldn’t expect a monarch to travel in anything less than style. Even in Realtran, where the monarchy had long ceded much of its actual power to the parliament, that held true.

Though the Lion, and the platform at which it was docked, were technically within the upper borders of Carann’s atmosphere, the air was thin enough that seen from below the ship appeared suspended in an ocean of stars. The flitter came in close and landed beside it on the platform, extending a boarding tube to connect it to the larger vessel. Mardoban motioned for the others to stand, and then the flitter’s passengers disembarked, the royal guards moving out first in formation, the others falling behind.

They found themselves in a large chamber inside the Lion that recalled the entrance hall in the palace, albeit on a smaller scale. What appeared to be a significant portion of the ship’s crew and marines were waiting for them, with officers and a handful of armored knights waiting in front; they all sank to one knee as Arta approached. The young queen seemed almost taken aback for a moment, then raised her hand in a gesture for the gathering to rise. Then she began to speak, giving remarks that Mardoban had helped her prepare regarding her mission and her intention to see peace restored to the Dozen Stars, with mechs hovering nearby to record and transmit the message to the Kingdom, but Latharna was only half listening. Her gaze scanned the crowd, looking for potential threats. She wouldn’t put it past Respen to have tried to sneak an assassin into the crew, not after what he’d done at the memorial dedication.

As Arta neared the end of her remarks, Latharna’s gaze briefly fell on one armored marine who stood nearby. He seemed shorter and slighter than the others, and through his helmet’s visor she thought she could see a pair of eyes and a lock of dark hair that seemed familiar. Pakorus? She thought suddenly, then shook her head. No, he was no marine, and he was supposed to be staying back on Carann. He had no reason to be here; this marine probably just bore a passing resemblance. And she had just been thinking about him.

It was probably just Latharna’s imagination.


Mardoban stood by the door in the elegant lounge that connected to the Lion’s royal suite. The great ship was leaving the dock now and would shortly be jumping for Tantos space; before it did, he had some calls to make. Before he did so, however, he was taking a moment to observe the three young women he was traveling with today. Karani was up and walking around the edges of the room, staring in wonder at the various pieces of classical artwork that hung on the walls, while Artakane sat across a table from Latharna, the two of them setting up a game of polemos, a strategy game popular in both the Dozen Stars and Realtran. The duke felt his gaze linger on them. The two figures were a study in contrasts – one in blue and the other in red, one with long dark hair, and the other’s was short and white, one royalty from the Dozen Stars, the other an orphan from Realtran. And they were so young; younger than his son. When he was that age…

Mardoban shook his head. When he was that age, he hadn’t been duke and Aestera hadn’t been queen, and so many troubles were part of a future that neither of them could have foreseen. And now Aestera’s daughter bore the future of the Kingdom on her slender shoulders.

Sighing, the duke turned and left the room, nodding the guards – thoroughly screened to make certain they weren’t harboring any pro-Aurannian sentiment this time – as he walked out into the hallway. When he was alone, he activated his wrist come.

“We’re off,” he murmured into it. “Are you in position yet?”

“We await your command, Your Grace,” a staticky voice said from the other end.

“Good. Prepare to rendezvous at Tantos and wait for my signal.” Mardoban paused. “And the technology we provided? How is it holding up?”

“So far, so good, Your Grace,” the voice said. “We’ll pray it holds up.”

“It doesn’t need to work long, just long enough,” Mardoban replied. “We’re about to jump; I’ll see you at Tantos. Mardoban out.”

The comm went dead and Mardoban lowered his wrist. He understood the rebels’ strategy; strike hard, strike fast, challenge the throne and make it look weak, and in so doing split it from the support of potentially loyal duchies. The aggression spoke of Respen, the flashiness of Sateira, the political angle of Naudar. Three dangerous enemies whose skills complemented one another. But they had underestimated Artakane, and they had underestimated Mardoban. Just because he wasn’t regent any longer didn’t mean he didn’t have allies, and it didn’t mean he couldn’t plan.

The time had come to show the traitor dukes that they didn’t hold all the pieces in this game.



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Chapter Fourteen

Tantos III, Ducal Palace

Darius stood behind his father with his hands clasped behind his back, regarding the room’s other inhabitants from narrowed eyes. The three rebel dukes were seated at a hardwood table in one of the palace tower’s conference rooms, and each of them was accompanied by a knight from their own duchy serving as a bodyguard. Naudar had Darius himself; Respen had a rough looking man whose scarred face spoke of extensive service in Aurann’s military forces; Sateira was accompanied by a hard-looking young woman in armor that gleamed only slightly less than her mistress’s. He knew that the others were sizing him up even as he was doing to them; they all expected that this alliance would inevitably end in betrayal. Darius’s only fear was that the others might decide to put aside any quarrel between them and target him first in some situation where he couldn’t count on his siblings for backup. He had no doubt he could take either of them in a one-on-one duel if necessary; not since his early teens had he ever faced the swordsman or woman who was his match, save perhaps for Tariti on a good day.

Sometimes that disappointed him.

Gaspar Madran, Guildmaster of Security on Tantos, paced back and forth in front of the conference table, muttering into his wrist comm. He was an older man, roughly Naudar’s age, beefy and balding – he wasn’t a handsome man in any conventional sense, but he wore his shimmering silver guild suid well and there was an opportunistic gleam in his eye that spoke of his cunning. Darius didn’t trust him – someone who’d been a turncoat once over was liable to turn that coat again, in his opinion – but Tariti vouched for him, saying that Madran’s loyalty was always and without question to money. And there were few who were as rich, or as willing to use that wealth liberally to get what they wanted, than the duchess of Tashir.

Finally, the guildmaster finished his conversation and looked up at the gathered dukes. “Good news,” he said, not bothering to use the proper honorifics. Darius frowned at that, but he knew that the highest-ranking guildsmen commanded power comparable to that of some barons and even dukes; if anyone could get away with disrespect, it was they. “Lion of Carann has emerged from jump and has taken up orbit around Tantos III at a respectable distance from our own forces. My security officers have hailed them and confirmed that the Queen – excuse me, that Artakane is on board.”

“Excellent,” Sateira said. “Tell them to escort the girl in, Gaspar. It will be good to get this over with at last.”

“I trust that all of our requirements for the meeting have been seen to?” Respen asked, leaning forward. Darius frowned as he watched him; the duke seemed almost to be hoping that the requirements hadn’t been met. He’d probably love nothing more than a chance to order Artakane shot out of the sky and Katanes put to the torch.

Naudar raised his hand. “Settle down, Respen,” he said. “Unbridled aggression does not serve us here; we need to play things out to the end, do you understand?”

“I understand,” Respen muttered, though it was clear from the expression on his face he didn’t much like it.

Lion of Carann is alone, with no other forces from Carann or any other duchies,” Guildmaster Madran said, looking irritated at the interruption. “Artakane is inbound on a small shuttle, accompanied by only a small contingent of guards and, according to our communications, her assistant. Duke Mardoban is present on the Lion but will not be descending to the planet. All has been carried out as you requested.”

“Good,” Naudar said. “Do make certain we have the girl and her escort searched when they land, of course. We don’t want any surprises.”

“I know my business, Duke ast Sakran,” Madran snapped. “Though I must confess I’m curious as to why we don’t just kill her now. True, Lion of Carann is formidable and could probably hold off any attack we made long enough to escape into jump, but Artakane’s shuttle is quite vulnerable. I have but to say the word and my troops will shoot her down.”

“No,” Naudar said. “Don’t be a fool. If we kill the girl when she’s helpless, we are the aggressors and she a martyr. The other dukes will never follow us then and we’ll have a protracted war on our hands.”

“If, on the other hand,” Sateira said, “we can maneuver her away from prying eyes before we kill her, then we’ll be able to spin the story however we wish – make her the aggressor, claim we acted in self-defense. That way we can infuse an element of doubt into her allies and ease the consciences of the other dukes who might have opposed Respen’s claim. Do stick to shooting things, Gaspar – it’s what you’re good at. Leave the politics to us.”

The guildmaster’s face flushed, but he clearly didn’t think it wise to talk back to the women who had recently given him such a generous donation in return for his support. “Clearly,” he murmured. “I will have my security forces escort Artakane’s shuttle to the palace hangar and will be there to greet her. When she’s been searched, I will send her to you.” He bowed at the waist, the bare minimum of propriety, and then turned and left the room.

“Where did you find that creature?” Respen asked Sateira when he was gone. “Who does he think he is, talking to us like an equal? Doesn’t he know who we are?”

“He thinks that he is a very powerful and wealthy man, even if he has no noble title,” Sateira shot back. “And so far as he feels working with us is profitable for his guild, he is a valuable asset. As Naudar said, do keep your temper in check.”

“Very well,” Respen muttered, looking down at his hands. “I’ve waited for the throne for years; I can wait a few more hours.”

Darius exchanged a glance with his father at that; though Respen did indeed have the best claim to the throne by blood of any duke in the Kingdom, they both knew that if Naudar had his way, he would never have the chance to sit on the throne. And for the moment, Darius had other concerns that the Duke of Aurann’s pedigree and ambitions. “Father,” he said. “May I be excused for a moment? I have some personal matters to attend to.”

Naudar waved his hand; he’d been expecting this. “Of course,” he said, “but do hurry back. I want to have the finest knight in the Kingdom at my back when Artakane arrives, after all.” Darius nodded his head in acknowledgment of the compliment, though he knew it was as much for the others as it was for him, a reminder to Respen and Sateira of who exactly they would have to cross if they decided to betray Naudar.

Darius left the conference room by a side door and walked down a short hallway to the waiting room where he’d left his siblings. Tariti was standing in the middle of the floor, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet and looking eager for action; Galen was seated and was staring down at his folded hands with a dark, brooding expression.

When she saw her older brother, Tariti hurried over to him. “Well?” she asked. “What news?”

“Artakane is coming,” Darius said. “Her shuttle is on its way.” He spoke the words without enthusiasm, a strange feeling worming its way through his gut. It was guilt, he decided after a moment; guilt and shame. Arta had been an honorable and skilled opponent at the tournament, and now here he was plotting to lure her to her doom by treachery. It didn’t sit right with him, just as the plans his father had given him for betraying their current allies didn’t sit right with him either. It wasn’t honorable, wasn’t behavior worthy of a knight, and it made Darius feel like a coward.

At his words Galen looked up and a fierce light was in his eyes, but Tariti studied his face and frowned. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Worried we’ll lose?”

“It’s nothing,” Darius said, brushing it away. “Listen, Tariti. Artakane is going to be allowed into the conference room with one assistant, and I’ll be there with Father; Respen and Sateira have handpicked bodyguards as well. They think that we’ll be able to overpower her easily enough; I’m less certain. I saw what she can do up close at the tournament, and I know she’s good with a sword – and she’s an Adept. Lord only knows what tricks she has ready. I want you and Galen to get our house troops ready and standing by on this floor, just in case. Pull some from guarding our ships and Father’s quarters; right now, this is more important. Wait for my signal.”

Tariti narrowed her eyes. “Did Father approve of this?”

Darius shrugged. “He doesn’t think it will be necessary,” he said, “but he approves of caution, so he allowed me to give you the order. If we’re lucky, I won’t need you. If not… just stand by.”

“Trust me, we will,” Galen said, glowering. “I don’t intend to let that girl go unpunished for what she did to me.”

“I’d better get back,” Darius said. “She’ll be arriving planetside soon. You’d best get ready. The excitement will be starting soon enough.”


Arta glanced over at Latharna where the Realtran girl sat across from her in the shuttle’s passenger cabin and watched her fiddling idly with her clothing. She was dressed in a plain but well-tailored jacket and skirt, both the shade of bright red associated with her home nation, which have her a respectable, professional and yet innocuous air – the perfect combination for a young aide to an equally young queen. The dueling sword that rested by her side indicated that her role was as much bodyguard as assistant, but one of the reasons Arta had wanted her for this particular role was that she was an unknown, apparently inexperienced quality, rather than a seasoned knight or royal guard who might put the rebels on edge. Anything that made them underestimate the queen and her entourage was a good thing. And just in case Respen had seen holofootage of his assassins’ failure, she was wearing a black wig and darkened spectacles over her eyes, so that she wouldn’t be easily recognized as the young Realtran who had saved Arta’s life.

Arta herself wore a new and rather stiff uniform in Carann blue and gold, with a cape over one shoulder and a slender golden circlet, rather than the official crown, on her brow. Mardoban had told her he wanted her to present the image of a warrior queen, but not so aggressively as wearing full armor would; that might put the rebels too much on edge and make them suspect an attack. Arta agreed with him, but privately she still felt vulnerable. Not that there was any particular reason for that – she was, after all, fully capable of defending herself no matter how heavily armored she was. She supposed she was just nervous, and she had every right to be that. One wrong move today and there would be war, and Katanes would be the first world to feel its bite.

“I feel ridiculous,” Latharna finally said, drawing Arta away from her dark thoughts. “The last time I wore something like this, it was my school uniform. And at least with that I didn’t have to hide my own hair.”

“Honestly, I feel a little silly too,” Arta said, looking down at herself. “Look at this; I’m dressed like I’m some sort of officer, but I’ve never commanded troops in my life. It makes me feel like a little girl playing dress-up. But I guess that’s kind of the point. These outfits aren’t for us – they’re to make sure the dukes see what we want them to see.”

“If you say so,” Latharna said, sounding dubious. “I still don’t understand why this has to be you, though. Duke Mardoban is much more experienced than either of us, and he knows all of these people. Back home, King Luagh would never go in to meet any enemy alone.”

Arta wasn’t sure how she felt about being compared to someone she’d heard her whole life was a mostly ceremonial figurehead, but she decided not to comment on it. “I’m not alone,” she said. “I’ve got you and a squad of guards with me.” She nodded towards the door to the next cabin down, where the guards in question waited. “Besides, in Realtran the king is technically in charge, but the parliament has most of the actual power. The Dozen Stars was founded by warriors and that’s what we expect our leaders to be. I can’t let Mardoban, or anybody else, face my enemies for me, especially not this early in my reign. If I did that I’d come across as a weakling and a coward, and nobody would want to follow me.”

Latharna shook her head. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Arta,” she said, “but your people are crazy.”

Arta couldn’t help herself; she burst out laughing, and it only intensified at the bemused look Latharna shot her from behind her spectacles. “I think you’re probably right about that,” she said. “But it can work for us, too. In Realtran, I doubt anyone except for guards would be allowed to carry weapons into a negotiation – but in the Dozen Stars, nobody would dare tell a noble or their entourage they have to leave their dueling swords behind. That means we get at least some protection in there.”

The shuttle began to shake as it hit turbulence and entered Tantos III’s atmosphere. Arta turned to look over her shoulder out the viewport and took in the thick, perpetual cover of grey fog. Memories of a night of chaos and fear on this very planet rose in her thoughts, and she could almost hear the sound of blast bolts impacting the ground and a crowd screaming. “I hate this place,” she muttered under her breath. “It’s always so dreary, so… oppressive.”

Latharna shrugged. “I don’t mind it,” she said. “Skin like mine burns so easily its nice to see a place where the sun doesn’t shine.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Arta said. “We’re almost there. Do you still have the device Duke Mardoban gave you?”

“Right here,” Latharna said, patting a pocket on her jacked. “And I remember what to do with it.”

“Excellent,” Arta said, reflexively reaching up to adjust the golden clasp on her cape. “Well, best get ready. One way or another, this won’t be a meeting to forget.”


Mardoban sat in the command chair on the Lion’s bridge, unable to shake the tension filling his body. Arta’s shuttle was even now descending to Tantos III’s surface, and soon she would be walking into a room to meet with three people who he had no doubt desperately wanted her dead. They had plans and preparations for what would happen, but still he hated being stuck up here, powerless to act until events took their course. Lion by itself wasn’t enough to defeat the forces occupying Tantos, and any action the ship took would likely result only in Arta’s death.

The duke shook his head, trying to clear away memories of another queen, one whom he had failed. He wouldn’t fail today, he privately vowed to Aestera’s ghost. He would do everything in his power to see her daughter safely returned.

The sound of a booted foot tapping impatiently on the floor distracted him from his thoughts and he looked over to see Karani where she stood by his right side with her arms crossed and a profoundly dissatisfied look on her expressive face. She was wearing a military uniform of similar design to her sister’s, save that it was Katanes green and silver rather than royal blue and gold – she had expressed a great disappointment that wearing it didn’t entitle her to the rank of “Admiral” in what was apparently a joke between the sisters Mardoban wasn’t privy to – and it was her foot that was tapping an irregular rhythm.

“Nervous?” Mardoban asked her.

“My sister’s going into danger with nobody but that creepy foreigner to protect her and I’m stuck up here not able to do anything,” she muttered angrily. “What do you think?” Then she paled suddenly as she seemed to remember just who she was addressing. “Er, that is to say, your grace.”

Mardoban waved it away. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “If I was in your position, I doubt I’d be very inclined to formality either. And, as a matter of fact, I do understand exactly how you feel. I know what it’s like to not be able to be there for someone… someone you care for. It’s an awful feeling.”

“It is,” Karani said quietly. “I don’t understand why I can’t be down there with her! It’s not like I’m actually in the line of succession – keeping me out of harms’ way doesn’t really matter.”

“I think it matters a great deal to Arta, who doesn’t want to see her sister hurt or killed – and it matters in that while you’re up here in the middle of the finest warship in the kingdom, your life can’t be used as leverage against her,” Mardoban said. “Besides, Naudar stipulated that only one guard would be permitted in the room with Arta, and she chose Miss Dhenloc – and having seen that girl fight, I can’t say I disagree.”

“Oh, and we’re just going to go along with what Naudar says,” Karani said. “Last I looked, he was our enemy.”

“As a matter of fact, we’re not going along with what Naudar wants,” Mardoban said, and Karani raised an eyebrow questioningly. “We’re letting him think that’s what we’re doing, but we’ve got some tricks ready that I don’t think he’ll see coming. If Arta can play her part, and we can play ours, we may be able to turn the tables on the rebellion today. And that, Miss ast Katanes, is another reason why I wanted you here on the bridge today – to watch and learn. You’re heir to Katanes barony – you need a firsthand look at commanding in a crisis. Your father would agree with me, if he was here.”

Karani stayed silent, but the expression on her face was intrigued. Mardoban smiled at that, but before he could say anything a voice called from across the bridge. “My lord!” an officer said. “We have an unplanned fighter launch in bay five!”

“Was this part of your plan?” Karani asked warily.

“No it wasn’t,” Mardoban said. “Track that fighter. And get me the command code used to authorize the launch!”

“Pulling up the code now, sir,” the officer said, and then he paused, frowning. “That’s strange. The code – it’s yours.


Pakorus settled himself back into the fighter’s cockpit seat as the small ship shot away from the Lion, mentally thanking the flight training he’d taken at the Academy and now, finally, had a use for. He’d been able to use his family name, and a certain amount of its funds, to get himself aboard the flagship in disguise, without his father’s and Arta’s knowledge. The handful of officers in on the plan had been instructed to keep it to themselves and had looked the other way when he used his family codes to access the fighter and take it out. A part of Pakorus felt guilty over using his position in such a way – there were few doors that were closed to a duke’s only son – but still, this was the easiest way to get where he was going, and to find the answers he sought.

Letting the fighter’s autopilot take over, Pakorus keyed up the message he had written to his father explaining what he was doing and why. He was certain that Mardoban would have noticed the launch by now, and he hoped he could allay his concerns. A few keystrokes later, the message was sent to the main terminal on the Lion’s bridge, with high importance.

That done, Pakorus sat back and let the fighter take him onwards, away from the planet and towards his destination – Tantos Station and the man called Specter, who had knowledge that might well prove essential to the future of the Dozen Stars. Finally, Pakorus would be doing something worthwhile.


The shuttle’s ramp descended to the floor of the docking bay in Tantos Palace and Arta swept down it, Latharna following slightly behind her. They were preceded by six guards in tight formation, and four more followed behind; they held their beam rifles ready but otherwise made no sign of aggression. A number of men and women in the silver armor of guild security waited for them in the docking bay, led by a middle-aged man in a guildmaster’s suit.

Arta had been here before, on the night of the late Duke Hiram’s party, but she resisted the urge to look around; she kept her gaze forward and her expression carefully neutral as Lieutenant Leilin Rehan, leader of the guard squad, stepped forward. “Announcing Her Majesty Queen Artakane I of the House ast Carann, Queen of the Dozen Stars, Duchess of Carann, and Protector of the Realm,” the guardswoman declared. “She has come to treat with those who have raised arms against her throne and seek to bring a speedy end to the conflict.”

The guildmaster bowed at the waist. “I am Gaspar Madran, Master of Security for the Tantos Guilds, and I bid Her Majesty welcome to the planet Tantos III. Dukes Naudar and Respen, and the Duchess Sateira, await you; I will escort you to them. Your Majesty is expected.”


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Chapter Fifteen

Tantos III, Tantos System

The security troops led Arta and her entourage through the long corridors of the Tantos palace tower. The building was just as opulent now as it had been when she’d been here almost a year ago, but there was a foreboding quality to it now that she was certain was more than just her imagination, a certain… sterility. She had a distinct impression that this entire floor had been cleared of inhabitants just to make certain no one interfered with the rebel dukes’ plans for her, and that absence left a cold and forbidding air. Arta resisted the urge to shiver. Queens did not show discomfort, especially not in the presence of their enemies.

Guildmaster Madran led the way in silence, flanked by equally taciturn security personnel; then came Arta’s company with more security forces taking up the rear. They were pinned in on all sides and would be caught surrounded by enemies if they tried anything. Of course, trying anything just now wasn’t the plan, and would actively defeat the purpose of coming here. Arta needed to speak with the rebels in person; only then would events be able to proceed as she and Mardoban had agreed they should.

Finally, they arrived in an opulently appointed waiting room that stood before a pair of grand double doors. Madran raised a hand for a halt, then turned to Arta and bowed. “Their Graces await you within, my lady,” he said. My lady, Arta thought, not ‘Your Majesty.’ It was technically acceptable but still something of a snub, especially when he’d just given the dukes their full honorific. “As agreed, you and your assistant will be permitted within. Your guards must wait out here.”

“As we agreed,” Arta said, nodding. “Lieutenant, you may remain here until our business is completed.” Lieutenant Rehan nodded back and gave a sharp salute, then gestured for the other guards to take up positions around the waiting room’s outer walls.

“I assure you, the Queen’s safety is in capable hands,” Madran assured her; the lieutenant shot him a dubious look. “If you wish to partake of refreshments while you wait, we are willing to provide anything you might desire.” He clapped his hands and a number of serving mechs glided in from side doors, trays laden with snacks and beverages born on their metal limbs. “The Tantos Dukes have traditionally maintained quite a fine pantry, if I do say so myself.”

“We’re not here to relax, guildsman,” Rehan snapped. “We’re here to do our jobs. Your attempt to distract us won’t work.”

Madran shrugged. “As you wish,” he said, and gestured for the mechs to withdraw. One of them passed close to Latharna and as she leaned forward to catch a glimpse of what it was carrying she suddenly tripped, stumbling into the machine. The mech was knocked off-balance in the air, spilling its pastries on the floor; Latharna wobbled and pressed a hand against its side to steady herself against its antigrav engines. Finally, she’d righted herself and stepped back, allowing the mech to begin cleaning up the mess without interference.

“I’m so sorry, guildmaster,” she said. “These shoes are so awkward – I’m sure you understand.” She turned to Arta and bowed with her hands folded in front of her. “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she added, but as she raised her head, she met Arta’s eye and gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod. Arta dipped her own head slightly in acknowledgment. Step one was complete.

“Assuming everyone is done falling over themselves,” Madran said with his lips pursed. He probably thought that both Arta and Latharna were completely incompetent after that little display; if he did, the better for both of them. “May I remind you that there are some very important people waiting behind these doors who are expecting you to meet with them at any moment?”

“Of course, guildmaster,” Arta said. “We are ready to begin.”

Madran nodded and gestured to the doors, which slowly began to open in response to some control he’d no doubt built into his glove; once such a trick might have impressed Arta, but now that she knew Midaia and Shiran – and had discovered Adept’s powers of her own – it seemed cheap and tawdry. Gesturing for Latharna to follow, she swept through the doors and found herself in the conference room.

The room was dominated by a great table with an empty chair set at the near end; at the opposite side sat three familiar figures. Respen, sleek and sharp as a dueling sword’s blade, who might have been handsome were it not for his coldly predatory expression. Sateira, resplendent in robes of fine gold, haughty and self-assured. And Naudar, older than the others and holding his ever-present cane in one hand, his expression calculating and shrewd. Behind each of the rebels stood a bodyguard; the only one Arta recognized was Darius ast Sakran, who regarded her with a blank expression but nodded slightly nonetheless, a gesture of respect not from subject to queen, but from one duelist to another.

“And so you have come after all,” Naudar said. “Take a seat, Artakane. We have much to discuss.”


Tantos Station had been founded centuries ago, built on the bones of an old Imperial base with its reconstruction funded through payments from a variety of guilds, several aristocratic families, and a handful of outright criminal enterprises. All of them were interested in a port that would stand outside of the usual regulations of the Kingdom, where anything might be bought or sold for the right price, no matter how illicit. Technically, the station was subject to the monarchy of the Dozen Stars and the Duchy of Tantos, but in practice enough bribes changed hands to keep anyone from taking too much of an interest in its operations. The Tantos Dukes had long groused about the presence of the station orbiting just beyond their home planet, but it had proven too much of a source of revenue over the years for them to express their hostility too strongly – and the constantly changing collection of interests that passed for government on the station made it clear that any attempt to challenge their sovereignty would end poorly. Nobody asked questions on Tantos Station, and there were some who made it their home who were very dangerous people indeed.

It was one of those people whom Pakorus had come here to meet with. Nobody knew much about the man called Specter – if he was a man; there were rumors that Specter might actually be a woman, an alien, or even an ancient mech from the last days of the Third Republic, with millennia of knowledge hidden in its mind. Nobody knew what Specter looked like or where he – or she, or it, or they – had come from. But it was common knowledge that there was very little on Tantos Station that Specter didn’t know about, and that he was willing to sell that information, if you could meet his price. Pakorus knew that his father had had dealings with Specter in the past, and though he didn’t entirely trust the information broker, he respected him – and his talents. If there was anyone in the Dozen Stars who could trace the origin of the Commander and his assassins, and who might have been pulling their strings, then Specter was surely that person, or at least knew where such a person could be found. The ast Orlanes name, coupled with a significant payment from the house accounts, had gotten Pakorus a meeting. Now was the time to see if Specter lived up to his reputation.

The duke’s son landed his fighter in one of Tantos Station’s many docking bays, noted thankfully on his scanners that he wasn’t pursued and that his father had therefore gotten his message, paid the dockmaster, and then made his way into the station’s main corridor, pulling up his hood to try and avoid too much notice.

Mardoban had described Tantos Station to him, and so Pakorus had been expecting the crowds, the diversity of life, the ramshackle construction that collectively managed to achieve a certain level of grandeur in itself. But there was something in the air about him as he walked along that his father hadn’t described, a kind of wary urgency. Everywhere he saw people – humans, of course, but also more aliens than he’d ever seen in one place before – going about their business in a hurried manner, speaking in rushed whispers and glaring warily at him as he passed. At first he thought he’d been recognized as an aristocratic scion, someone who didn’t belong, but then he realized that everyone was staring at everyone else in much the same way. There was an aura of fear and suspicion that had gripped Tantos Station like a vice.

The occupation, Pakorus realized – things had changed in the Tantos system, and everyone on the station knew it, and didn’t know what might happen next. The arrival of the Lion in-system had doubtless only exacerbated the concerns – everyone here was afraid that things were about to explode. And, Pakorus feared, they were more right than they knew. He’d best conduct his business with Specter quickly and then get out. This station could turn ugly very, very quickly.

Pakorus quicked his stride, pulling his cloak more tightly around him. So determined was he to reach his destination that he didn’t notice the pale woman in black who was seated outside a small, dingy restaurant sipping a small drink, whose bright eyes followed him intently as he went.


Pakorus found the entrance to Specter’s domain to be much as his father had described; a lengthy walk down an apparently innocuous side-corridor, ending at a plain door where two armed guards waited to confirm his identity. After they scanned him, checked his identicard and waved him through, he found himself in a dimly-lit room dominated by a table that was bisected by a nearly opaque screen. He seated himself in the chair on his side of the screen and waited for what felt like several minutes before something moved on the other side, a shadowy shape he could barely make out but seemed to have the general outline of a very tall, thin man.

“Pakorus ast Orlanes,” a voice said from behind the screen, electronically garbled so that it gave away nothing concerning the speaker’s identity. “A pleasure to meet you at last. And also a surprise. I was expecting your father.”

Pakorus felt himself tense at Specter’s words, but he forced the reaction down and refused to let it get the better of him. “I admit that I used my father’s account to set up this meeting with you,” he said; with this being, he felt that honesty would be the best policy. He doubted Specter took kindly to anyone who tried to lie to him. “I thought it would be easier that way. He’s in-system at the moment, but he has other things to deal with. But I have questions that I hoped you could answer for me, and I promise you that I can pay you very well.”

‘No doubt, no doubt,” Specter mused. “A resourceful young man, I see, and bold – perhaps too bold. You took an awful risk coming here today, Master ast Orlanes, and you are fortunate I have a certain degree of fondness for your father – as you have no doubt guessed, I do not take kindly to being deceived. Of course, I suspected that it was a relative of the duke’s I was dealing with from the beginning, as the tone and wording of your messages was different enough from your father’s to arouse my suspicions, and you were the most likely candidate. A fact for which you should be grateful, as my guards therefore knew to let you pass. Still, I have to wonder what would drive a young man of such a powerful family, the heir to a ducal seat no less, to risk himself in such a way, coming to a lawless port on the edge of what is soon likely to be a warzone. Was your curiosity really so burning? Or was it something else that motivated you? Desire for glory, perhaps? To take risks?” A sly note entered the distorted voice. “Or were you perhaps interested in impressing a girl? I hear you and the young queen have spent time in one another’s company.”

Pakorus felt his face flush, and Specter chuckled. “Ah, the young are so predictable,” he said. “But you’ll receive no judgment from me, Master ast Orlanes. I am less interested in the motives of those who seek council with me than I am in their willingness to pay, which you have already demonstrated. Ask me your questions, and I will answer as best I may. I do not lie when credits are on the line.”

“All right, then,” Pakorus said, finding his voice. “When my father came to see you last year, he was looking for information on the pirate leader who called himself the Commander; the same pirate who attacked the royal tournament on Carann and revealed himself to be the same assassin who led the attack that killed Queen Aestera. We still know nothing of his background. I hoped you might be able to tell us more.”

Specter went still behind his screen. “You are aware that when your father asked me this, I was able to get him very little concrete information and what he had he already used,” he said.

“I know,” Pakorus said. “But that was a while back, and you’re not somebody to let a mystery lie, are you? And you told me over the computer message that you had discovered something disturbing. What do you know?”

Specter chuckled again. “What do I know?” he asked. “Much. But what you mean to say is, what do I know about this topic? In which case I can truthfully say less than I’d like, but I know enough to be very concerned. I would have likely attempted to arrange a meeting with your father, or even young Artakane, had you not reached out to me first. I am not a patriot, nor an altruist, but the fate of the Dozen Stars does concern me, considering I happen to live here. And what I have found concerns the entire Kingdom.

“After the Commander’s death, the royal guard confiscated his body, his weapons, and, once they were tracked down, his ships. I managed to use certain… channels to get access to the data on these pieces of technology. Much was damaged beyond repair, especially the Commander’s own cybernetics, but what I was able to reconstruct worried me. You see, the technology was clearly of human origin, but did not appear to be of Kingdom, Realtran, Imperial, or Alealam make, and was too sophisticated to have come from one of the minor nations. Did that mean there was someone else out there, who was waging a most insidious war against us? That is what I believe we were meant to conclude, but I wasn’t sure. Surely if there was an unknown power able to create and deploy such weapons, we would have heard of them? So I did further digging and was able to match the cybernetics at long last to a secret research project that was scrapped almost two decades ago because it wasn’t considered cost-effective, and was so classified almost no one not directly involved had ever heard of it.”

Specter shifted behind his screen, and Pakorus had a feeling that he was looking right at him now. “This project originated in the Empire.”

“The Empire,” Pakorus breathed. “They’re behind this? But why? What could they gain? I mean, sure, they still hate that we managed to break free of them, but that was centuries ago and they’re busy fighting the Alaelam right now. Why would the Emperor risk fighting a war on two fronts if he could at all avoid it?”

“If I knew the answer to that, I would be a very wealthy man,” Specter said. “Or at least, a wealthier man than I already am. It may not even be the Emperor’s own work; the project was scrapped, after all, and it may be a renegade senator or patrician has revived it to do their own dirty work. In any case, I tracked the project back to its original laboratory and determined that despite being officially discontinued it was still operational, but my agents were unable to penetrate it and determine who, exactly, is currently in charge. What we did learn, and what worries me the most, is that several coded transmissions have been beamed from the laboratory to the Dozen Stars. They didn’t originate there, but were routed through it as an attempt to throw off the trail – so far, successfully, as I haven’t been able to determine the transmission’s actual origin point. I was, however, able to determine the intended recipients – Dukes Respen and Naudar, and Duchess Sateira.”

Pakorus felt his mouth go dry. “Lord,” he breathed.

“Quite,” Specter said drily. “Whoever created the Commander isn’t done with us, young man – quite to the contrary. They are behind the current rebellion as well – or at least involved, as I doubt those three would have required much provocation to turn against a young, untried queen. Someone is very determined to see the Dozen Stars, or at least the House ast Carann, fall. I, for one, would like to know why.”

“I think,” Pakorus said slowly, “that my father and the queen would be very interested to hear about this.”

“I quite agree,” Specter said. “Which is why I’ve taken the liberty of storing the material on an external drive in anticipation that you would want it. I’ve included a history of the Imperial cybernetics project, so far as I was able to track it, and the coordinates of the laboratory, among other things. Give it to your father with my compliments. I trust he’ll find a way to repay me.”

A small compartment on Pakorus’s side of the table opened, and he reached inside and removed a small, plain drive. “Thank you, Specter,” he said, slipping it into his pocket. “I’ll make sure my father gets it – and that he knows where it came from.”

“I know you will,” Specter said. “Now, then, I recommend you leave this place. I think things are about to come to a head on Tantos III, and they are liable to get ugly up here as well when that happens. And I’m afraid I do have another appointment after you, with the sort of person it’s unwise to keep waiting.”

“Of course,” Pakorus said, standing and giving a respectful bow in the direction of the silhouetted figure. “It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

It seemed that Specter was about to reply, and then suddenly the door to the outside corridor burst open and one of the armored guards from outside hurried in. “We’ve got a problem, boss,” he said, sounding shaken.

“I believe I have told you to never interrupt me when I’m with a client,” Specter’s voice hissed. “This had better be important.”

“Trust me, it is,” the guard said. “We just got word from one of our sneaks. There’s a whole compliment of toughs in guild security getup marching down the central corridor, roughing up anyone who gets in their way. And, boss, they’re heading here.”


Arta settled herself into the seat Naudar had indicated, and Latharna took up a position behind her, matching that of the other bodyguards. “Yes, Your Grace,” she said coolly, letting her gaze slide from one duke to the next. “We do have much to discuss. Starting with an explanation for why the three of you launched an unprovoked attack and occupation of this planet – a planet that is, I must remind you, under the protection of the throne.”

“That is indeed the very reason we launched this ‘unprovoked’ attack,” Sateira said. “We wished to send a message to the throne and to the kingdom at large. We were expressing our displeasure with the crowning of an untried youth nobody had ever heard of before the royal tournament, and wished to provide a demonstration of the throne’s weakness in the face of a threat. Both of those goals have been accomplished.”

“I see,” Arta said, letting her tone slip from cool to icy. “And I suppose the fact that this represented an attack against a fellow duchess and by extension against your lawful queen simply slipped your minds, did it?”

“Lawful queen?” Naudar asked. “An interesting way to put it, don’t you think? And how do we know, exactly, that you really are the legal heir to the throne? The word of an old meddler who thrives on secrets and never made any pretensions of serving anything but his own private agenda? Your appearance, which could easily be faked by reconstructive surgery? Even your DNA samples could be faked, with somewhat more effort. Honestly, I see no particular reason to credit that you even are the daughter of Aestera ast Carann. Oh, don’t give me that look. I don’t doubt you believe it. But you wouldn’t be the first person Shiran has caught up in his web, and I doubt you’ll be the last.”

Arta felt her fists clench, and heard Latharna stiffen behind her, but she drew a deep breath and let it out, refusing to let her anger show – Naudar was trying to bait her, and she wouldn’t let him get the satisfaction. “Be that as it may,” she said, “succession in the Dozen Stars has never been purely a matter of blood, and a majority of the council of dukes has voted to acknowledge my right to the throne. This line of questioning will get you nowhere.”

“Which is why we saw fit to bring an army to the negotiating table,” Respen said, his tone irritable. “Enough of this verbal fencing – we all know why we’re here. These are our demands to you, Artakane. You will step down from the throne, acknowledge me as the rightful successor, and retire somewhere that you won’t be a threat – I believe a convent is the accepted destination. In return, Katanes and Tantos III will be spared destruction. Refuse us, and they will suffer – as will the entire Kingdom when civil war splits it in two. What do you say?”

Sateira rolled her eyes. “Respen, as ever you are as subtle as a shot from a beam cannon at point-blank range,” she said, then looked back to Arta. “Do forgive him his lack of decorum, but while he didn’t get there the way I’d have preferred, the point stands. Step down now, or face war. What do you choose?”

Arta looked across the table at Naudar. “Do you support this?” she asked. “Everyone knows Respen and Sateira are aggressive and ambitious, but Duke Mardoban always speaks highly of you. I’d expected better.”

Naudar merely smiled and shrugged, and in a flash,  Arta saw the general shape of his plans; he’d ride the other two to power, let them do the bloody work of seizing the throne, and then he would betray them, positioning himself to be seen not as a warlord but as the Kingdom’s savior from a pair of brutal usurpers. No, she’d get no help here, not that she’d ever truly expected to. Did the others realize his treachery? Almost certainly, she decided, but no doubt they thought they could defeat him when the time came, so that Respen could keep his stolen throne – and what for Sateira? A position of power at Respen’s court, or even a political marriage to become his queen? And how would the people of the Dozen Stars fare under such strife, with such treacherous creatures as these on the throne?

“No,” Arta finally said. “I didn’t come here to hand over my crown to any of you – and certainly not to Duke Respen ast Aurann, whose love of his army is so great he reduces his civilian subjects to little more than slaves to maintain it. A warlord like that will go looking for a war, and he’ll no doubt find it. But I won’t let the Dozen Stars be given to a tyrant while I can help it. I came here to receive an accounting for this rebellion, and I will have it.” There, she thought as she finished speaking. How did that sound? Did I do it right, Mardoban?

The three rebels looked at each other and smiled coldly. “I’m afraid that’s not going to be how this ends, dear child,” Naudar said. “We know that you fancy yourself a person of honor and integrity, and that Tantos is your home duchy and Katanes your home planet, and that you would come running if they were threatened. Your own character would demand it. And therefore, you would walk right into our trap. I wanted to resolve this without bloodshed, but if you will not budge, this is how it will go. We outnumber you three to one and have more of our private troops and security forces waiting nearby. We will take you captive and force Mardoban and the Lion to stand down and then you, alas, will be killed while making a tragically doomed escape attempt – as will your companion, to make certain no one can challenge our story. Then, with the throne empty and the most powerful duke in the kingdom at our mercy, we will travel to Carann and install Respen on the throne. Of course, there may be resistance, and it can only be settled through bloodshed. Regardless of what you think of us, we’d prefer to avoid shedding more Dozen Stars blood than necessary, and no doubt you will as well. So now that you understand exactly how much you are at our mercy and what the consequences of refusal are, I will ask you again – step down. Give up your crown to Respen, and everything will go much more smoothly and with a minimum of fuss.”

Arta met Naudar’s eyes without blinking, and then her gaze slid behind to Darius, who stood there looking awkward and somewhat apologetic; when she met his eyes, he looked away. Her gaze shifted to Respen and Sateira in turn, and then she glanced back over her shoulder to Latharna and exchanged a silent nod. Finally, she faced forward again and drew herself up in her chair, regarding her enemies with an expression of cold disdain.

“Duke Naudar,” she said finally, “do you think I’m a fool?”

“I beg your pardon?” Naudar asked.

“Obviously you do,” she said. “You thought I was a stupid, overly-idealistic girl who’d come running as soon as her home was threatened, who’d place herself in your power without a plan and let you get away with whatever you wanted. But you’re wrong. I didn’t come here without a plan. You thought you were laying a trap for me, but I was laying one for you instead. And congratulations – you walked right into it.” Arta’s smile widened as she reached up and stroked the clasp on her cape. “Now, as dear Cousin Respen said, let’s get the formalities out of the way and get straight to the point. I’m ready to accept your surrender now. Or must we do things the hard way?”


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New chapter!


Chapter Sixteen

Tantos System

“Surrender?” Duchess Sateira asked incredulously. “And, exactly, do you think that we have any interest in doing that?”

Latharna’s gaze shifted from the rebel duchess back to Arta where she sat in her chair; if the young queen was as nervous as she thought she must be, she was doing an excellent job of hiding it. Instead, she kept her cold smile firmly in place and her voice even. “You thought you could capture me away from my guards and allies, force me to agree to whatever you wanted or, if I wouldn’t, kill me and make it look like I was the one at fault,” she said. “But things aren’t going to work out quite that way. You see this clasp? I’m afraid it’s not just decorative. It contains a very small, very specialized transmitter that’s been broadcasting everything we’ve been saying in this room back to the Lion’s bridge – and from there, to the other members of the council who are standing by and waiting to see how things shake out. So go ahead, threaten me, even try to kill me if the mood takes you. You’re too late – by the end of today, the entire Kingdom will know you for the treacherous, conniving ambitious snakes you are. Maybe you can still take the throne by force, but if you do, it will be as nothing more than blatant usurpers, and everyone will know it. Or we can negotiate your withdrawal from Tantos III and the reinstatement of Lady Kallistrae as duchess, and you can get out of this with at least some of your dignity intact.”

The speech had been mostly scripted, worked out between Arta and Mardoban beforehand; still, Latharna felt like she would have applauded its delivery if the situation hadn’t been so tense. Respen half-rose from his seat, his expression murderous; Sateira yanked him back down and hissed something quietly in his ear, though her gaze was nearly as dark. Naudar, however, simply sat very still, regarding Arta carefully as though calmly reassessing his opinion of her; behind his chair, his distractingly-handsome son was shaking his head and strangely, seemed more amused than upset at the situation.

“Mardoban put you up to this, didn’t he?” Naudar asked finally.

“Does it matter?” Arta returned. “I’m here on behalf of the people of the Dozen Stars, in order to stop this war before it truly begins and claims even more lives. Are your subjects more important to you than your ambitions? If yes, then I think we can still work things out.”

“We still have you outnumbered, both down here and in orbit,” Sateira said. “So maybe we’re stuck operating under the eyes of the council; what’s to stop us from taking you hostage and forcing them to acquiesce to our demands? As far as I see it, your situation hasn’t changed.”

“Like I said,” Arta told her, “you can do that if you want. Maybe you’ll even win. But then Respen – or whichever one of you ends up with the throne – only gets it through brute force and without any goodwill from the council or the people. And anyone who takes power by force always has to be afraid of it being taken away the same way. My tutor taught me about the old emperors who murdered for their positions and then for the rest of their lives always had to sleep with one eye open, watching for the person who would come and do the same to them. Is that really what you want?”

“No, it isn’t,” Naudar said. “However, my colleagues are correct in that we do still hold Tantos III with greater force available to us than you have, and therefore we still have a position of strength. Clearly, we underestimated your resolve, but I think we can still come to a mutually beneficial understanding…”

No!” Respen snarled suddenly, leaping to his feet and swatting Sateira’s hand away when she tried to restrain him again. Latharna tensed and moved closer to Arta’s chair, hand on her sword. “I am a cousin of the royal line, and the throne of the Dozen Stars is mine by right! I won’t bow meekly before this pretender and renounce my claim like a good little duke. I was promised my birthright and I will have it!”

Before anyone could react, he pulled a beam pistol from a holster at his side and levelled it at Arta’s chest. Latharna gasped and drew her sword, lunging forward, but she wasn’t fast enough. Respen pulled the trigger and a bolt of light lanced from his weapon, aiming straight for the queen’s heart.


When the connection to Arta’s transmitter suddenly dissolved into static, Karani’s hands flew to her mouth in horror. “What’s wrong, what happened, is she okay?” she demanded, the questions flurrying from her mouth in rapid fire. “Was that blast fire I heard? Was somebody shooting at her?”

“Until we reestablish the connection, we can’t know for sure,” Mardoban said, trying to keep his voice even despite the chaos roiling in his soul. He couldn’t lose another queen, not like this, not now… but no, he shook his head. They’d planned for this and he had to trust in Artakane now. There was nothing he could do for her directly but follow the plan. And they still had some tricks to play that the rebels hadn’t yet seen.

“Move us forward into attack position,” Mardoban ordered. “I want shields up and weapons systems engaged. If the rebel dukes betrayed the Queen at the negotiating table, they’ll have no problems with trying to take us by surprise; let’s not give them the chance. And see if you can raise one of the enemy warships; I think they have some explaining to do.”

The bridge officers hurried to comply with the duke’s request, while Karani stood beside his chair in an uncharacteristic silence, a petrified expression on her face – not caused by fear for herself, Mardoban was certain, but fear for her sister’s life. He could feel the vibrations beneath his feet as Lion shifted its position and shields and weapons engaged, and then the communications officer suddenly called out in surprise.

“Sir!” he said. “Several of the rebels Equestrian-class ships are moving to engage us; I count at least five. And sir, the lead ship is hailing us.”

Mardoban sighed. “Put them through,” he said. “Let’s here this.”

The air shimmered in front of his command chair and the holoimage of a middle-aged man in a Tashir Duchy uniform appeared before him. “Attention Lion of Carann,the man said. “This is Captain Karas commanding the warship Sun-Sword for her grace, the duchess Sateira. Stand down at once and power down your weapons and shields, or we will fire on you. This is not a bluff. Stand down or be destroyed.”

“I doubt you’ll find Lion such easy prey as that, Captain,” Mardoban said. “We are, after all, the most advanced and powerful warship in the Kingdom. Don’t pick a fight with a hunter unless you’re willing to risk becoming prey yourself.”

“I’m well aware of your capabilities, Your Grace,” the captain said. “But we have you outnumbered five to one with more reinforcements on the way. We both know you can’t win this. It’s best to accept that.”

“I’m not accepting anything until I find out what happened to my sister,” Karani snapped, pushing forward; part of Mardoban wanted to tell her to stand down, but the incredulous look on Karas’s face was almost worth it – and in any case, keeping the captain talking suited his purposes. “You’d better tell me Arta’s still alive, or in the Lord’s name I swear I’ll take your fancy ship apart with my bare hands if I have to!”

“I have no knowledge of what may or may not be transpiring on the surface of Tantos III,” Captain Karas replied, his expression disdainful. “But I do have my orders, and those are to take you alive if possible – and dead if not. Come, Your Grace. See reason, and things will end much less painfully for all of us.”

Karani muttered a suggestion as to how the captain could follow his orders that Mardoban was reasonably certain was anatomically impossible, but he simply held up his hand. “I’m afraid we can’t do that,” he said. “The royal flagship of the Dozen Stars doesn’t surrender to rebels and usurpers.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Captain Karas said. “But you had your chance. I wish you hadn’t chosen your own destruction.”

“Oh, that’s not what I chose,” Mardoban said. “I wasn’t really refusing you, Captain. I was doing something else – stalling you.”

Sateira’s captain stared in incomprehension for a long moment, and then the space around the Lion suddenly rippled and then, with a flash of brilliant light, six more Equestrian warships appeared around them, fanning out to face the enemy.

“Aww, Mardoban, did you almost start without me?” Duchess Vashata’s voice asked as her holoimage appeared on the bridge, dressed in a navy uniform and looking eager. She’d been a reasonably successful athlete before succeeding to her duchy and still had a somewhat wild, competitive steak about her. “I’m hurt!”

“We’re not here to entertain ourselves, Vashata,” another voice said, and the duchess’s hologram was joined by that of a man a few years Mardoban’s junior, also dressed in military garb. Dion, one of Duchess Laodamia’s numerous sons, here leading his forces on his mother’s behalf. “We’re here to remind three traitors of their place. Seizing Tantos was bad enough, but openly planning to kill the Queen under the guise of negotiations? Utterly disgraceful.”

“Our friends were waiting on the edge of the system in case your mistress and her friends decided to enact some piece of treachery against our Queen,” Mardoban explained to Captain Karas, who looked stunned. “Perhaps you’re familiar with the Commander? We managed to recover some of the cloaking technology he and his band had used and got it working well enough to hide them from your sensors. They were listening in on Artakane’s transmission from the planet, and when it turned out that the negotiations weren’t being carried out in good faith, they were only a short jump away.”

He smiled coolly. “Now then, I think the playing field has been levelled. Do you still like your odds, Captain?”

Captain Karas glanced from Mardoban to the holos of the other Dukes, not even bothering to hide the anxiety on his face; then his holo vanished. Karani grinned and pumped the air with her fist.

“We got him on the run!” she shouted.

“Not quite,” one of the bridge officers said. “Sit, we’ve got incoming fire.”

“So it begins,” Mardoban muttered, and felt a sudden pang of relief that whatever fool plan Pakorus was up to, at least his son was safe and away from here.


Specter hissed angrily from behind his screen. “If they think that they can take me easily, then they will soon learn otherwise,” he said. “I apologize for the interruption, Pakorus. If you will please move to the corner beside my desk, it will be appreciated.”

Pakorus raised an eyebrow. “If you’re trying to hide me, I don’t think that’ll do a very good job of it,” he said.

Specter chuckled. “No,” he said. “I think that in a moment you will not want to be standing in front of me. You’ll see why.” Pakorus shrugged and moved into the corner of the room that Specter had indicated, noting as he did so that the screen wrapped around the informant in such a way that he still couldn’t get a good look at him. The duke’s son took a deep breath and steadied himself, letting his hand slip to his waist where he’d holstered a small beam pistol, just in case his business on Tantos Station went bad. He was a better shot than he was a duelist, thankfully – though admittedly, he’d only ever tested his skills on stationary targets, never on living enemies.

The other guard entered the office and nodded at Specter, and then he and his companion took up their positions on either side of their boss’s desk. A moment later the door burst open and a half-dozen rough looking men in guild security uniforms burst in, fanning out across the front of the room with weapons levelled. “Specter,” said one of the intruders, who wore an officer’s patch on his shoulder. “You’re coming with us. Tell your boys there to drop their weapons and come peacefully, and everyone gets out of this alive.”

“Do I at least get to inquire as to the reason for this intrusion?” Specter asked, his voice calm, but Pakorus could hear the danger lurking just beneath the surface.

“Guildmaster’s tired of you running your little operation on Tantos Station and not giving the guilds their proper cut, or the obedience they’re due,” the officer said. “He just wants to have a little chat is all. Agree to what he wants, and you’ll be back in your little hidey-hole here by this time tomorrow, safe and sound.”

“That’s very interesting,” Specter mused. “You see, I pay a very handsome sum already to the guilds to avoid exactly this sort of interference. And I also know every security officer of command rank in the Tantos system by sight, as I have paid off each of them personally so that they will look the other way regarding my little operation on any occasion I deem it necessary. But I don’t know you. In fact, I’ve never seen any of you before in my life, and none of your faces are in my database of Tantos system security personnel. I think you’re lying to me, friend, which is not something that’s wise to do. And I also doubt that I would ever return from any meeting you might escort me to. So forgive me if I decline your invitation.”

The officer chuckled. “And what are you going to do about it?” he asked. “Even counting the boy over there, we’ve got you outnumbered, and there’s more of us waiting in the hall outside. And you’re no fighter, Specter. Let me tell you your options one more time, as clear as I can – you come with us, or we shoot this place to pieces and you and your people all die. Got it?”

“Sadly, yes,” Specter said. “I really do hate violence.”

“Too bad,” the officer said.

“Indeed,” Specter replied. “Too bad.” Pakorus saw his silhouette move behind the screen as he flipped some switch on his desk. For a moment nothing happened, and then red lights began flashing along the walls and ceiling around the security troops. They looked around each other in confusion, and then each point of light erupted into a razor-thin bar of energy that shot from floor to ceiling. Pakorus’s eyes couldn’t track what happened next, save that there was a loud hissing sound, sudden screams that were equally suddenly cut off, and an awful burning smell. When the lights cleared, what had once been the false security team lay in pieces on the ground, neatly sliced.

Looking at the remains, it was all Pakorus could do not to throw up.

“I do hate violence,” Specter mused. “Which is why if I must employ it, I prefer to do so as efficiently and decisively as possible, so I don’t have to draw it out unnecessarily.” He turned to his guards. “Are the rest of them still there?”

One of the guards checked a screen on his wrist guard. “They’re hanging back at the mouth of the corridor talking to each other,” he said. “Can’t pick up on what they’re saying, but it looks like they’re trying to figure out what to do next.”

“Hmmm,” Specter murmured. “I’d hoped they’d take a hint. In that case, young Pakorus had best be going. Take him out by the back way and escort him to his ship. Whoever wants me silenced may try to target him as well. It’s bad for business when my clients die under my care, and in this case his father would also likely have words with me.”

“Got it, boss,” the guard said, saluting, and then turned to Pakorus. “Come on, kid. There’s more than one way out of this place. Follow me.”

“Wait a minute,” the other guard said, checking his own wrist screen. “What’re they doing out there? They’ve got some kind of device, and…”

Before he could finish speaking, a blast of electricity surged through the officer; Pakorus yelped as he felt the shock pass through him, but he wasn’t the target. He could hear something hissing behind Specter’s desk, and the sound of electronics overloading.

“They’ve disabled my security systems,” Specter hissed. “damnation them! Whoever they are, they’re better equipped than I thought. I wonder…”

The office door burst open again, and more of the fake security troops poured in, weapons raised. Suddenly, Pakorus realized that this group wasn’t going to waste time trying to convince Specter to surrender. They were just going to shoot everyone here while the security system was down. Dread settled in him, and he slowly reached for his beam pistol, which seemed a rather pathetic weapon in this situation. At the very least, he could go down fighting.

The intruders fired, but their blasts never hit their targets. The air in front of them shimmered with a faint red glow, and the shots dissipated harmlessly. They paused, looking as confused as Pakorus felt, wondering if perhaps Specter had some other security system still operational.

Then a figure appeared, seeming as if it had materialized whole from the darkness – a woman in black robes with starkly pale skin, hands held before her with red light playing along her fingers. Pakorus recognized her – he’d seen her before, on the day of the tournament when the Commander’s assassins had attacked.

“I’m sorry, boys,” she said, “but I was on my way to consult with Specter here, and I’m afraid I simply can’t allow you to poach him. Leave now, and you might survive this.”

“Midaia,” Specter said. “Your timing is impeccable. It seems things just got a bit more interesting.”


No sooner had Respen fired than Arta brought her hand up; there was a flash of blue light as the bold impacted on her palm, but when it cleared, she was completely unharmed; Latharna let out a relieved breath she’d barely even been aware she was holding. “Seriously, Respen?” Arta asked, maintaining her cool air even in the face of the sudden attack. “I’m an Adept and blocking blast bolts was the first trick I ever learned.”

“Even Adepts aren’t invincible,” Respen snarled. “Kill her!”

Respen’s bodyguard drew his dueling sword and moved to obey his duke, but Arta was ready; she leapt to her feet and slammed her palm down on the table, releasing a wave of bright blue light. Latharna ducked beneath it, but not everyone was so lucky; Respen’s and Sateira’s bodyguards were rocked back on their feet while Sateira herself, caught in the middle of standing, was slammed backwards and fell in a heap across her chair. As Latharna rose, she saw Naudar hurrying away towards the far door, cane in one hand and dragging Respen with the other. The duke of Sakran was shooting his ally a murderous look that made Latharna certain they were going to have some harsh words once they were clear of danger. Darius was hovering protectively by his father and seemed to be muttering softly into his wrist comm.

Latharna’s primary concern, however, was Arta. “Come on,” she said, grabbing the queen by the arm and pulling her towards the door. “We need to get out of here.”

“Too late,” Arta said, nodding towards Respen and Sateira’s guards, who’d hurried forward with dueling swords drawn and activated. Latharna and Arta drew their own weapons and backed up against one another, facing their enemies. Latharna found herself opposing Respen’s guard, a big, rough-looking man, while Arta faced Sateira’s. For a long moment they stood there quietly, and then Respen’s guard lunged forward.

As it had at the assassination attempt at the memorial, the joy of battle rose up in Latharna’s chest, fierce and sudden. She met the guard’s attack with an almost instinctual skill, blocking each of his strikes with a well-placed parry and slowly forcing him back. He was bigger than her, with a man’s greater strength and reach, but Latharna was fast and she fought with a fierce abandon. This was her skill, her true talent; this was what she was for, and her opponent was no match. His eyes hardened as he tried to match her, but no matter how he tried to break her defense, he couldn’t. Finally, Latharna found her opening; her sword slipped behind his guard and into his chest. The bodyguard’s eyes widened, and he collapsed to the floor, dead and with his life’s blood staining Latharna’s blade.

A part of her knew she should be horrified that she had, for the first time in her life, killed a man, and that later she would be horrified; for now, with the rush of the fight still in her blood, it barely registered.

Turning, she saw that Arta was still dueling Sateira’s knight; from outside the meeting room there also came the sound of fighting, as Guildmaster Madran’s security team faced off against the royal guards. Latharna didn’t know how that fight had started and didn’t particularly care; for the moment, her goal was to keep Arta safe. She moved to help the queen, and then suddenly her path was blocked. Darius ast Sakran, his father safely away, stood there, sword at the ready.

“That’s a good job you did on him there,” Darius said, nodding at the dead guard. “But I think you’ll find me a bit more of a challenge.”

“We’ll see about that,” Latharna said, a cold grin spreading across her face. She lunged forward and Darius met her blade in a skillful parry; as they exchanged blows, she knew at once that he was right. Darius ast Sakran was considered arguably the best swordsman of his generation in the Dozen Stars, and his reputation was well earned. And yet as he and Latharna dueled back and forth across the meeting room, she found that she was equal to him. Two young people, both incredibly skilled and determined, neither willing to surrender, they pushed one another to new heights, and yet neither was able to land a blow on the other.

Latharna parried a blow from Darius’s blade and they stood there, facing each other across their locked swords. “Who are you?” Darius asked, surprise and respect evident on his face. “You’re one the best duelists I’ve ever fought, but you weren’t at the tournament. Where are you from?”

“I’m Latharna Dhenloc, from Realtran,” Latharna replied, grinning. “And I’m the one who’s going to beat you.”

“Oh, don’t be so sure about that,” Darius said, and then he twisted away suddenly, sending Latharna spinning to the side. His sword came up and she ducked her head under the blow, but the edge of the blade still grazed her cheek. Latharna stumbled back and reached up to brush the side of her face – she’d been cut, and the red blood stood out starkly against the pale skin of her hand.

Darius lunged forward to press his advantage, and Latharna ducked beneath his swing and brought her own blade up. He too managed to dodge away in time, but she caught him on the edge of his free hand; he stared at the cut as he straightened up, and Latharna rose to face him. They’d both bloodied each other now, but neither had the advantage.

Suddenly the air crackled with blue light and Darius was slammed back into the table; Arta had finished with Sateira’s knight and was able to come to the aid of her own companion. “Are you all right?” she asked. “You’re bleeding.”

“Just a cut,” Latharna said. “I’ll be fine.” Turning back to face Darius, she levelled her sword at him; he was groaning and pulling himself to his feet, but just before he picked his blade back up the doors burst open. Lieutenant Rehan and three other royal guards rushed in, aiming their beam rifles at the Duke of Sakran’s eldest son.

“Are you all right, Your Majesty?” the lieutenant asked Arta, who nodded.

“I am,” she replied. “Let’s get out of here.”

Rehan nodded and she and her guards began to back up, Arta and Latharna in the middle; the guards kept their rifles trained on Darius in case he tried something. Latharna knew that was smart, but she also found herself disappointed; part of her wanted, needed to see that duel finished, to know which of them was really the more skilled. Darius saw her watching him and nodded his head in respect, one duelist to another; she did the same.

Then something shifted behind the table; Sateira, her golden robes disheveled about her, rising to her feet. The duchess glanced around the wreckage of the meeting room, expression dark. “Fools and cowards,” she muttered; Latharna had no doubt she meant Naudar and Respen. “Must I do everything myself?”

Latharna had a sudden, terrible feeling and raised her voice to shout a warning; before she could, Sateira had drawn a weapon from within her robes that resembled a blast pistol but was of slightly different design; she levelled it at Arta and fired, then immediately ducked back under the table to avoid reprisal.

From where Latharna stood she could hear the sonic weapon’s screech; Arta took the full brunt of it. She gave a terrible cry and clutched her ears, then pitched forward, struck down by a weapon her Adept’s art couldn’t block. All at once Latharna felt her bloodlust drain from her, replaced by a sudden feeling of dread and fear. She caught Arta as she fell, the unconscious queen a surprisingly light and fragile-seeming weight in her arms, and together with the guards they stumbled back out into the waiting room, the doors closing behind them.



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New chapter!


Chapter Seventeen

Tantos System

The false security troops hesitated for a moment at Midaia’s sudden appearance, and then levelled their weapons at her. “Out of the way, lady,” one of them said. “We’re not here for you, but don’t think we won’t shoot you to get at that creep behind you. This is your last warning.”

Though it was hard to tell from where he was standing, Pakorus got the distinct impression that Midaia was rolling her eyes. “Oh, please,” she said. “You’ve just seen what I can do, you must be now have some inkling of who – and what – I am, and you still think you can threaten me? That’s almost cute.”

The leader of the intruders scowled. “That’s it,” he growled. “The boss won’t care if we kill a couple of extras on the way, so long as we get Specter. Shoot her, now!”

Midaia sighed and raised her hands. “You could have avoided this,” she said, and then red light burst from her fingers in crackling waves. It struck the false security troops and then began arcing back and forth between them, their howls of agony echoing through the dim office. Pakorus watched them writhe, their expressions obvious rictuses of pain, and despite himself he found a horrified sympathy rising up within him. These men had come to kill Specter, and probably him too, but was this… this drawn-out torment really what they deserved? At least Specter’s killing had been quick.

Suddenly, his gaze fell to one of the attackers, who’d dropped to his knees and seemed to have avoided the worst of the attack. He pulled himself slowly towards Midaia’s side and raised his beam rifle; the black-clad Adept didn’t seem to have noticed him. His finger moved towards the trigger – and then he fell to the floor, a scorch-mark still smoldering in his back.

Pakorus lowered his beam pistol, hardly able to comprehend that he had been the one to shoot the man. Before he could process it, Midaia lowered her hands and the red light faded; the attackers crumpled, their bodies smoking. She walked over to the corpse of the leader and kicked it experimentally; it didn’t stir.

“Sorry about the mess,” she said. “There are only a few ways to kill directly with an Adept’s skills, unfortunately, and this is actually one of the more pleasant ones – the others are worse.” She paused, frowning at the attacker Pakorus had shot, and then looked up at the corner where he was standing, seeming to notice him for the first time. “And Pakorus ast Orlanes, if I’m not mistaken. It seems I owe you my life.”

“I-I guess so, Princess Midaia,” he managed to say.

Midaia looked down to the body, then back at Pakorus, understanding dawning in her eyes. “Is that the first person you’ve killed?” she asked; he nodded wordlessly. “I’m sorry you had to do that – and I’m sorry you had to see what I did to the others. And for the record, I renounced my claim to the throne a long time ago – it’s just ‘Midaia’, not ‘princess’ anything.”

“In any case, my thanks for dealing with my uninvited guests,” Specter said; Pakorus started to see the informant emerge from behind his screen, flanked by his two guards. As he had suspected, Specter was very tall and thin; he wore a suit similar to that favored by guildsmen, though his was a dull grey rather than bright silver, and he wore a blank cloth mask of the same color over his face; it gave him a disconcerting resemblance to the Commander’s assassins. “As I said, your timing was impeccable.”

“Don’t thank me quite yet,” Midaia said. “Tantos Station is currently swarming with guild security; some of them are the real thing, but I expect many of them are the same sort of impostors as we just dealt with. Someone really wants you dead, old friend – though it’s entirely possible you’re not their only target.”

“I agree,” Specter said. “And I have a feeling I know why.” He turned to his guards. “How long before my security system is back up?”

One of the guards checked his wrist screen. “Looks like a couple hours, boss,” he said. “Whatever they used on it did it’s job good.”

“As I suspected,” Specter said, seeming to frown behind his mask. “I think that, perhaps, I should lie low for a while. Unfortunately, I still have business to conclude with Midaia. Though perhaps…” his voice trailed off, and then he walked over to stand by the Adept’s side. Their heads lowered, and they had a rapid, whispered conversation that Pakorus couldn’t overhear; then they both stood up and turned to look straight at him. The effect was disconcerting.

“I have an escape ship prepared for just such a contingency,” Specter said. “My guards and I will take it. Young Pakorus also needs to be escorted to safety, or I will never hear the end of it. If I may be so bold, Midaia, would you mind walking Master ast Orlanes back to his ship? I trust you’re familiar with my back doors; taking them will likely be safer.”

“Of course I am,” Midaia said, seeming insulted that Specter felt like he had to ask. “And I would be perfectly willing to take Pakorus; we are going in the same general direction, after all.” Pakorus felt a prickling feeling on the back of his neck at her words; somehow, he got the feeling that the direction she meant wasn’t the way to the docking bays.

“In that case, I will take my leave until such time as things die down,” Specter said. He turned to Pakorus and bowed. “It was a pleasure doing business with you. My sincere apology that things ended in such a… crass manner.”

“Of- of course,” Pakorus stammered, bowing back. Specter gestured to his men to follow him and then vanished into a corridor behind his desk, one that led deeper into the bowels of the station. Pakorus watched him go, and then turned to his companion.

“We had best be off as well,” Midaia said. “I think I here more of them coming.” She walked over to the office wall and began running her hands long it, murmuring to herself. Finally she touched something that made her smile and tapped some sort of hidden release; at once a section of the wall slid open, revealing a hidden, dark corridor. “And here we are,” she said. She stood for a moment and then strode forward into the shadows, her dark cloak flapping behind her; Pakorus took a moment to draw a breath and then followed her. The door slid shut behind them.

Inside, the corridor was lit dimly enough that Pakorus could see, though not well. For a long, indeterminate span he followed Midaia in silence, gaze locked on the back of her robes. He’d known of her all his life – after all, his father had been one of the late Queen Aestera’s closest companions, and Midaia was her eldest daughter – but he himself had never known her, hadn’t even seen her in person until she’d shown up out of nowhere to kill one of the assassins on the day of the tournament, and then she hadn’t spoken to him. She’d already gone to live in a convent when he was born and had stopped visiting Carann altogether after her mother was assassinated. If Pakorus had ever met her before, he’d been a very small infant at the time and had no memory of the event.

“Thank you for coming with me,” he finally said, breaking the silence. “Though there’s no need; I’m fully capable of finding my way back to my fighter on my own.”

“If you tried, you’d probably already be dead,” Midaia said. “The attackers know now that you were the last person to consult with Specter, and they probably want to kill you just to tie up the loose end. But it’s no burden to me. Your father was like an uncle to me when I was small – does that make us almost cousins, in some roundabout way? And I hear my sister Artakane is fond of you; I don’t want to upset either of them. And you did, after all, save my life, or at least prevent an inconvenient injury. I honor my debts.”

She paused for a long moment before speaking again. “And also, Specter tells me that you have something I want – information, specifically. It seems you and I came to see him to get answers to the same questions.”

Pakorus felt a sudden chill. “You’re looking for information on the Commander too,” he said.  It wasn’t a question.

Midaia’s hooded head nodded. “I am,” she said. “These people killed my mother, Pakorus. They tried to kill my sister, and very likely would have killed me had they been capable of making the attempt. I intend to find out who they are, and then I will make them pay. Specter told me he gave you information on a lead, stored on a drive. He also said that he suspects that the same person or persons behind the Commander is also responsible for the attack today. The technology that disabled his security system was not of a sort he’d seen before – and there’s not a lot that’s true of.”

“So does that mean you’re going to take the drive from me before you let me go?” Pakorus asked, feeling outraged at the idea – though he was also aware that if Midaia did try to take it, there was very little he could do to stop her.

“Of course not,” she said. “What do you take me for, a common thief? My ship is docked not far from yours. We can stop there, and I can make a copy, and then you’ll be on your way. You can continue your investigation your way, and I’ll continue it mine.”

“Aren’t you worried that your ship might be attacked too?” Pakorus asked.

“There’s nothing on this station that is a threat to me,” Midaia said, and from the tone of her voice, it wasn’t an idle boast.

They walked in silence for some time more, the corridor taking several more twists and turns, before it finally ended in another door; Midaia made a gesture and there was a small flash of red light around her fingers, and the door slid silently open. They stepped out into a side hallway near Tantos Station’s main docking bays.

Pakorus took the lead. “My fighter’s near here,” he said. Midaia nodded and followed him as they made their way down the hall, finally emerging in a wide-open space, starlight gleaming ahead against a black backdrop visible behind a forcefield. A number of ships lay at rest in the bay, including his own fighter.

“Here we are,” he said, and then frowned. “Wait. I don’t like this. Where is everyone? Something’s wrong.”

“I agree,” Midaia said. “I think we should – wait. Get down, now!”

Pakorus’s body hit the floor just as she finished speaking, and suddenly the docking bay lurched and erupted into flames. He barely had time to register the though a bomb before the inferno was upon them. Midaia raised her hands, and suddenly they were enveloped in a hemisphere of red-glowing light. The heat of the fire was blunted; the force of the blast still partially came through. Midaia swayed on her feet but stayed standing. Pakorus was knocked onto his side; his head hit the metal deck, and he knew no more.


Latharna and the royal guards stumbled back into the waiting room to find the aftermath of a scene of chaos; the room was in shambles and the walls and furniture were scorched with blast marks. The forms of several guild security officers lay scattered around the edges, unconscious or dead she couldn’t tell, along with several living guildsmen the remaining guards were holding at gunpoint. She didn’t see any dead guards, though some were wounded and being supported by their fellows; their uniforms, flashy as they might seem in bright blue and gold, were designed to soak up a certain amount of blast fire.

She shifted Arta’s weight in her arms and turned to Lieutenant Rehan. “What happened out here?” she asked.

“About what you’d expect,” the lieutenant said, sighing. “We heard sounds of a struggle from inside the meeting room and then the guildsmen seemed to get some sort of order to fire on us; luckily we were ready for them. Guildmaster Madran bolted as soon as things weren’t going his way, the coward. What about in there? How is the queen? Is Her Majesty alright?”

Latharna looked down at Arta, unconscious but still breathing. “I think she was just stunned,” she said. “Duke Respen pulled a gun on her when she tried to make them surrender, and that started the fight. The dukes all got away, though. They probably went to get reinforcements.”

“Agreed,” Rehan said, nodding. “Let’s get out of here. Can you carry her? My people need their hands free in case they need to shoot someone.”

“I think so,” Latharna said; she and the guard lieutenant nodded at each other and then the whole company turned and began to hurry down the far hallway as fast as they could towards the bay where the shuttle was docked. As she ran, Latharna looked down at the unconscious body in her arms, worry rising in her heart. Was Arta alright? Would they be able to get her out of here in time?

Suddenly a soft groan rose from the queen’s lips and her eyes fluttered open, staring blearily up into Latharna’s. “My knight,” she whispered. “What happened?”

“Sateira shot you with a sonic blaster,” Latharna said. “We’re getting you out of here and heading back to the shuttle.”

“Good,” Arta murmured, her eyes closing again. “You know, I’m really starting to hate this planet. Every time I come here, people start shooting at me.” Then she let out a soft sigh and dropped off into unconsciousness once more.

As she did so, Latharna’s ears focused on the sounds coming from behind her, which resolved into the noise of dozens of running feet. Risking a glance over her shoulder, she saw several more security officers following them, accompanied by a larger number of soldiers in red and gold uniforms, and their head a young man and woman who looked remarkably like Darius ast Sakran. Those, she decided, must be his two siblings.

“We’re about to have company!” she shouted, turning back towards Lieutenant Rehan.

“On it,” the lieutenant said and gestured towards two of her guards. They spun on their heels and faced the oncoming enemy, pointing their beam rifles at the ceiling. They fired on what Latharna recognized as a high setting, raking the hallway’s roof and causing it to spill a small avalanche of debris, filling the corridor with rubble and smoke.

“We can’t fight that many, but that should at least delay them,” Rehan said. “We’re almost there – come on!”

They rounded another corner and emerged into the landing bay where their shuttle waited. A handful of guild security guards surrounded the boarding ramp, but Rehan gestured to her troops and they raised their beam rifles and fired, sending the guildsmen running and leaving a burning barrier scorched onto the floor. Rehan hurried aboard first, to alert the pilot to the situation and prepare the shuttle for takeoff; Latharna prepared to follow her when she suddenly heard the sound of many booted feet. Turning, she saw that the ast Sakran siblings had found another route – they rushed into the hangar, their troops fanning out behind them and levelling their beam rifles at the shuttle.

“You’re outnumbered and outgunned,” the girl – Tariti, if Latharna remembered right – said. “We don’t want to commit regicide today, but we will if we have to. Stand down, all of you, or we will open fire.”

Latharna handed Arta’s prone form to one of the other guards and then turned to face the attackers, standing at the end of the boarding ramp and drawing her dueling sword, which hissed with energy as she activated it. “If you want to get to Arta, you have to go through me first,” she said.

The young man, Galen, only laughed. “Oh really?” he asked. “And who are you, some jumped up landowner’s daughter who thinks she can be a knight?”

“She’s not even from the Dozen Stars,” Tariti said, frowning. “Listen to the accent – she’s Realtran, I’d bet anything on it. What’s she doing here? Couldn’t find work at home so she had to sell her sword in another kingdom? Tragic.”

“I’m the one who nearly beat your brother,” Latharna said, stalling for time. “And what will be tragic is what will happen to you if you don’t take a hint and let us go.”

“You fought Darius?” Tariti asked, incredulous.

“As him next time you see him,” Latharna said. “He gave me this cut, and I gave him one too, to remember me by.”

“I don’t believe her,” Galen snapped. “She’s trying to keep us talking. Soldiers, if she doesn’t stand down, shoot to kill.”

“Not so fast, Galen,” a weak voice said over Latharna’s shoulder; Arta stepped up beside her, unarmed but with her hands raised. Was it Latharna’s imagination, or were her palms glowing faintly blue. “Remember me?”

“You,” Galen snarled. “Like I’d ever forget how you humiliated me in front of half the kingdom. Well you’re not getting out of here this time. I promise you that!”

“Still like to gloat,” Arta said. “You’d have done better just to shoot me.” Her palms were definitely glowing now, and Latharna realized what was about to happen just before it did. The queen had been stalling the ast Sakrans too, just as she had been, but for a different reason.

Arta’s eyes suddenly burst into brilliant light, like a pair of cold blue stars; a wave of energy shot from her palms, striking the ast Sakrans and their troops and slamming them back into the hangar walls. Arta gave a great cry and collapsed; Latharna caught her once again, and then she and the remaining guards hurried up the boarding ramp before any of the enemy could recover; the ramp retracted, and the door shut behind her. As it did, she thought she could hear Galen ast Sakran bellowing curses and declaring that Katanes would burn for this.

“We’d better be ready to go, now!” Latharna shouted, sticking her head into the pilot’s cabin.

Lieutenant Rehan, seated in the copilot’s chair, looked over her shoulder and nodded. “Here we go!” she said. Beside her, the pilot flipped a few switches and the shuttle lifted into the air and turned towards the exit, which was blocked by a thick metal door. A few more switches and the shuttles beam cannons lowered from under its belly and opened fire, blasting a hole clear through the door; then the shuttle was out, flying free through Tantos III’s foggy sky.

“Strap in, people” the pilot said. “Next stop, Lion of Carann.

“And we’d better get there fast,” Rehan said, looking over her instruments. “It looks like we’ve got guild fighters getting ready to launch from a nearby tower. This could be a bumpy ride.”


The skies above Tantos III blazed with light as the council’s fleet and the rebel fleet pounded at each other with heavy blast cannons. Mardoban could feel the Lion shake beneath him with each impact, but so far the great ship’s shields held, as did those of the Equestrian warships on both sides of the battle; such a combat was often one of attrition, each side trying to batter down the other’s defenses before the same happened to them. The smaller fighters and support craft weren’t so lucky; several on both sides now drifted dead through space, torn to pieces by enemy fire. Mardoban whispered a quiet prayer for the Lord to deliver their souls.

Increasingly, the council’s forces were at a disadvantage. Though they’d had superior numbers once their allies had been called in from the edge of the system, they had no more reinforcements in easy distance – though that was liable to change once the transmission confirming Respen and the other’s treachery had a chance to circulate more broadly. The rebels, on the other hand, were bringing up more forces from the planet and elsewhere in orbit, including guild security forces and a number of heavy warships from Aurann. Whatever Respen’s other faults as a leader, his reputation for funding a powerful military was well-earned; before long, the loyalists were going to be outnumbered and outgunned.

“We can’t take much more of this, Mardoban!” Duchess Vashata’s holoimage declared. “My shields are failing an are going to collapse completely if I take much more of a pounding. We need to call a retreat and wait for more reinforcements before we can break the occupation here.”

“I concur!” said Dion. “This is madness! How much longer are we to endure this?”

“Artakane is still down there, my friends,” Mardoban said. “We can’t just abandon our queen to her enemies’ mercy.”

Vashata and Dion traded dark looks, and then Mardoban felt a trembling hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Karani, her bravado gone and a frightened look on her face. “Are they really going to leave Arta down there, with Respen and Naudar and the others?” she asked; her voice was small, but there was determination under it. The duke had no doubt that if the others pulled out, Karani would try to hop into a fighter herself and go down to Tantos III to find her sister, alone if need be.

“Not if I can help it, Karani,” he said, patting her arm.

“That’s a lovely sentiment,” Vashata said, “but Mardoban, my sensors are detecting more Aurannian warships approaching. We’re running out of time!”

“Sir!” one of the bridge officers called. “We’ve got a shuttle coming up from the planet, arcing around the battle. They’re hailing us.”

“Put them through!” Mardoban said, hope rising in his heart.

“This is Lieutenant Rehan of the Royal Guard,” a staticky woman’s voice suddenly said; Mardoban recognized it as the officer who’d been in charge of Arta’s escort. “We’re heading your way; the queen is out cold, but alive. Repeat, Her Majesty is alive. We’ve got enemy fighters on our tail and they’re closing fast. We need all the help we can get.”

“Copy, shuttle, this is Duke Mardoban on the Lion of Carann.” He turned to one of the bridge’s tactical officers. “Can we spot the fighters she’s talking about?”

“We’ve got them on our scopes, sir,” the officer said. “They’ll be in range shortly.”

Mardoban smiled coolly. “Good,” he said. “Let them get in range, and then show them exactly what sort of folly trying to kill the Queen of the Dozen Stars is, shall we?”

“With pleasure, sir,” the officer said. Mardoban turned to look up at Karani, whose expression showed palpable relief.

“Arta’s alive,” she said. “She made it out.”

“She did,” Mardoban said. “Now, let’s keep her that way.”

A few minutes later, the royal shuttle rounded the battle and came hurtling towards the Lion, a squadron of guild fighters in hot pursuit. No sooner had it entered the great warship’s range than the beam cannon batteries opened fire, the powerful guns picking off the fighters one by one until the last survivors of the squadron turned and fled back to the planet’s surface. The shuttle docked safely in the Lion’s landing bay, and Karani threw her hands in the air and whooped in triumph at her sister’s safe return.

No sooner had the shuttle docked than Mardoban gave the order, and the council’s battered fleet jumped away from Tantos III to an arranged rendezvous point at the edge of the system, to make repairs, await reinforcements and plan their next move.


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Chapter Eighteen

Tantos System

Pakorus groaned and slowly opened his eyes. The last thing he remembered was the blast at the Tantos Station docking bay, the wave of fire, hitting the floor, and then nothing… nothing until he woke up here, that is. Shaking his head, he sat up, realized that he was lying in a bunk, and looked around the small room in shock. This wasn’t anywhere on the station, he was certain. It was nowhere he’d ever been before at all.

The room was dimly lit, with metal walls that were darkly painted. Along one wall was a shelf of books, most of which seemed to have titles written in languages he couldn’t read; a faint shimmer indicated that a forcefield was holding them in place. Beside the shelf were tables on which rested strange devices whose functions Pakorus couldn’t even guess; on the far wall hung a painting depicting a twisting, geometric image his eyes couldn’t even decipher. Even trying to make sense of it made it his head hurt; Pakorus shook himself and then let his gaze slide down to the floor in front of the picture, where a human figure sat.

It took him a moment to recognize Midaia; she’d changed out of her flowing robes and wore a simple shirt and loose pants, albeit both in her customary black. Her dark hair was bound back from her pale face in a loose tail; all told, it was an oddly mundane look for someone who normally seemed so… ephemeral. She was seated on a mat on the floor with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees, with her eyes closed and her breathing rhythmic. She didn’t seem to notice that Pakorus had awoken as he slowly stood and stretched, trying to shake the stiffness from his limbs and the pain from his head.

“You’re awake,” Midaia said suddenly, without opening her eyes; apparently, she was paying closer attention than he’d thought. “There’s kaf and some pastries in the next cabin down the hall, if you’re hungry; you probably are after what you’ve just been through.”

“Thank you,” Pakorus said reflexively. “But first, I want to know where we are and what’s going on.”

“Understandable,” Midaia said, opening her eyes and gesturing for Pakorus to take a seat across from her. He did so cautiously. “And as for the first question, it’s simple enough. We are presently on board my personal yacht, Sister Night, and have just entered jump, where we will likely remain for some time until we reach our destination.”

“Your yacht?” Pakorus asked, and then paused; now that he listened, he could hear the faint hum of the jump engines beneath them. “Who’s piloting?”

“We’re on autopilot for the moment,” Midaia said. “Don’t worry; it’s perfectly safe. I don’t install anything less than the best on my ship, after all.”

Pakorus held up his hands. “Okay, slow down,” he said. “I think we’d better start over. How did I get here, anyway? The last thing I remember was blacking out.”

“That’s what I had assumed,” Midaia said, nodding. “The fighter you flew to Tantos Station was destroyed, along with most of the other ships berthed in the same hangar. Someone – I suspect part of the same mercenary crew who went after Specter – set a bomb. Whether the target was Specter himself or simply anyone who consulted with him I don’t know. I kept us alive by means of my arts and carried you to my ship where it was berthed in another docking bay and then we departed the station. I considered returning you to your father, but it seemed that Lion of Carann was engaged in quite a ferocious battle over Tantos III and I didn’t like my odds of getting us there in one piece, so I decided to take you with me. You’ll probably be safer with me anyway; there’s not much in the galaxy that poses a threat to me, after all. And we are, if I’m not mistaken, looking for the same answers.”

Pakorus groaned and put his head in his hands. “Father’s probably worried sick about me,” he muttered. “First, I was stupid enough to run off to see Specter on my own, and then my fighter got blown up – if he was keeping track of it, he probably thinks I’m dead! And it’s starting to seem like you didn’t rescue me so much as kidnap me.”

Midaia rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic, Pakorus,” she said. “I sent a message to your father to let him know where you were, though I don’t know if he’s had a chance to read it yet. And you were the one who went looking for a notorious criminal and information broker because you wanted to solve a mystery. I’m giving you the chance to work with me on that investigation – would you rather be stuck back on Carann, sitting in the garden reading old books and wishing you could be like their heroes?”

Pakorus flushed in embarrassment and looked down at his hands; Midaia smiled knowingly. “I had a feeling that was the case,” she said. “But for now, you and I are hunting the same quarry. I found the drive Specter gave you and uploaded the coordinates for the old Imperial laboratory he told you about; this is may very well be the first clue we need to unravel the mystery of the Commander and who is behind the attempts to destroy our Kingdom.”

“How did you get involved in all this, anyway?” Pakorus asked.

“You might say I’ve always been involved,” Midaia said. “Like I told you, these are the people who murdered my mother, and it isn’t the custom of House ast Carann to allow such a crime to go unavenged. I’d been doing some investigations of my own after Artakane killed the Commander, and there I was… stymied.” She looked troubled for a moment, and Pakorus frowned at that, but then she continued. “That was when I ran into, shall I say, some old friends of mine. They gave me a riddle – seek the old one, seek the hidden one, seek the dead. The old one I know well enough, and he and I will have a long talk before this is over. The hidden one I decided was our old friend Specter. The dead, no doubt, is the Commander himself. So I resolved to meet with Specter, find out what he knew, and use that to try and trace the Commander back to his origins. And as I suspected, Specter was able to help. The rest, you know.”

A part of Pakorus burned to ask Midaia who these ‘old friends’ of hers were and why they apparently gave her riddles instead of straight answers, but he doubted she’d do anything but evade the question if he put it to her. “It sounds like you’ve got everything covered,” he said. “What do you expect me to do to help? It’s not exactly a secret I’m not much good in a fight.”

“Well, as I mentioned, for the moment you’re probably safer with me than anywhere else,” Midaia said, which didn’t do Pakorus’s pride much comfort. “But on the other hand, from what I understand you’re not unintelligent – got very good marks at the Academy, I hear – and your father is one of the sharpest nobles in the kingdom, when he remembers to think with his brain instead of his sense of honor. And you did shoot a man who was in the process of trying to shoot me, something for which I am grateful. So I suspect you’ll come in handy. There’s more to life than dueling, Pakorus, despite what most of the nobility in this kingdom seem to think. And I believe you have talents even you haven’t realized yet.”

She regarded him with piercing eyes that seemed to see directly into his soul, and Pakorus looked away, embarrassed. “If you say so,” he muttered.

“Oh, I do,” Midaia said. “And I’m rarely wrong, so it would be very embarrassing if you do end up letting me down. Try not to. Now, I recommend you go grab something to eat. You just barely avoided being blown up, after all, and our journey isn’t over yet. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s barely begun.”


“This is all your fault,” Sateira snapped as she paced back and forth in the sitting room, arms folded angrily. Darius watched in silence from where he stood guard in a corner, but he privately he didn’t think he’d ever seen her more furious. Honestly, he couldn’t blame her for it.

My fault?” Respen demanded, voice equally harsh. “What would you have had us do – slink away and beg the pretender for forgiveness on our knees? At least I did something rather than passively wait for her to pass sentence on us. If anyone is at fault here it is our friend the guildmaster, whose people failed to notice that Artakane was wearing a transmitter!”

“All you did was start a fight we lost,” Sateira replied. “I was the one who actually landed a blow that took Artakane down, if you will recall.”

“And yet you still failed to keep her from escaping!” Respen said, rising to his feet angrily and glaring daggers at Sateira.

“Enough, both of you!” Naudar said, stepping forward and forcing both of them to step back by holding his cane between them. “This bickering is pointless. The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter whose fault our current predicament is; what we have to decide now is what we’re going to do about it, and the two of you coming to blows over your own pride won’t help us at all!”

“And what would you have us do?” Respen asked. “Surrender and cut a deal with your friend Mardoban to keep your position while leaving the two of us to hang?”

“If I thought it might work, I’d be sorely tempted,” Naudar said. “Luckily for you, I’m afraid we’ve passed the point where that sort of arrangement is possible. This will only end in blood. Now, the loyalist forces remain in-system, no doubt waiting for reinforcements. I recommend that we launch an attack before those reinforcements can arrive, pulling in forces from our duchies if necessary, with the goal of taking Artakane and Mardoban hostage. If we can manage that, we will have the leverage necessary to force the rest of the council to acquiesce to our demands. It lacks the air of legitimacy our original plan would have carried, but considering the circumstances, it may be our best option.”

“And how do you know they don’t have more surprises waiting for us, like they did here on Tantos III?” Sateira asked. “I recommend we do the unexpected; bypass the loyalist fleet completely and launch an attack on Carann itself. With their forces here, the planet’s defenses will be light, and once we hold the capital, the rest of the kingdom will fall in line.”

Naudar stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “The potential rewards are great,” he said, “but the risks are high. Personally, I don’t like it – even with the flagship and part of the fleet here, Carann is still the most strongly defended planet in the Kingdom. Even if we pulled all our forces out of Tantos, I doubt we could take it – and certainly not quickly enough that we’d manage to entrench ourselves before the Lion returns.”

“I agree with Naudar,” Respen said; Darius was surprised at that at first, but then the duke of Aurann continued. “At least, to a point. I’m not willing to risk and attack on Carann at this juncture, but neither do I intend to sit here idly by and do nothing while waiting for reinforcements. Nor do I intend to allow the pretender to go unpunished for humiliating us today. I will send for reinforcements from Aurann to join the occupation on Tantos and prepare to engage Mardoban’s fleet, but I myself intend to take a squadron of ships to Katanes and burn it from orbit. That planet is lightly defended and will fall easily – and Artakane will doubtless rush to defend her home. Then I will take her and have my revenge.”

“And do you intend to accomplish any particular strategic objective in attacking Katanes or simply vent your bloodlust?” Naudar demanded. “What if Artakane doesn’t come? What will you have accomplished then?”

“You’re my partner in this, Sakran, not my superior,” Respen said, eyes burning. “Even if you think being the oldest of us also makes you the wisest. I will launch this attack with or without your approval. Adjust your plans accordingly.” Turning angrily, he swept from the room.

“I will also send to Tashir for reinforcements,” Sateira said when he was gone. “Though I will be staying here for now. I agree with you, Naudar, that an attack on Katanes is a pointless diversion, but I intend to be ready to engage the loyalist fleet. So long as we hold one of their planets, they won’t go far.” She nodded at the older duke, and then turned and left the room as well.

When she was gone Naudar sighed and seated himself on a nearby chair, then gestured for Darius to join him. “Always such a pleasure to work with, aren’t they?” he muttered irritably. “But still, we must work with the tools the Lord gives us, as they say.”

“What do you want me to do, Father?” Darius asked.

“I’m sending you with Respen,” Naudar said. “Don’t look shocked. You’re too good a swordsman for him to turn down, and I’ll send a squadron of Sakran fighters with you as well. Respen is correct that an attack on Katanes may be enough to make Artakane react without thinking, but what he has planned is little more than the mass murder of civilians. That’s the sort of crime that would turn the entire rest of the Kingdom against us. I want you and your siblings to try to prevail on him to change tactics – to raid the planet instead of levelling it and seize the Baron ast Katanes and bring him either back here to Tantos III or to Respen’s citadel on Aurann. That should be sufficient to provoke Artakane without earning us the hatred of the entire Dozen Stars.”

Darius shook his head. “Respen won’t like that,” he said. “Not with his blood up like it is. What if he won’t see reason?”

Naudar looked his son directly in the eyes, his expression cold. “I always knew this alliance was a temporary convenience,” he said. “If Respen proves to be intractable – do what you have to do.”

Darius felt a chill that had nothing to do with the sitting room’s mild temperature run down his spine.


Arta sat in a chair in the Lion’s lounge, nursing a cup of kaf and a splitting headache. Karani sat across the table from her, looking both concerned and relieved. Finally, her sister couldn’t seem to contain herself. “We were so worried about you!” she said. “How do you feel?”

“Lousy,” Arta muttered. “Like I just got trampled by an izdakan that desperately needs to go on a diet. Getting shot by that sonic blast wasn’t much fun, and I used so much power during the fight that I’m still pretty drained.”

“But you got away!” Karani said. “And now everyone knows how the rebels planned to double-cross you! Mardoban says that the rest of the council is furious, and the dukes are getting ready to send more forces to help us retake Tantos III. You turned the tide on this, Arta! I’d hug you if you didn’t look like that would probably knock you out or something at the moment.”

“Thanks,” Arta said drily. “But you should thank Latharna, too. She helped get me out of there more than anyone. I’m not sure I’d have made it if it wasn’t for her, especially after Sateira shot me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone fight like she can, not even at the tournament. Did you hear she actually bloodied Darius?”

“Well, I guess maybe she is good for something after all,” Karani said, though her tone was light. “Where is she, anyway?”

“With the ship’s medic,” Arta said. “Darius cut her pretty good; she wanted to get it looked at. Me, I mostly just need rest. Not that that’s something I’m liable to get much of any time soon.”

The sound of a faint knock on the door heralded Duke Mardoban’s arrival. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” he said as he stepped inside.

“Not at all,” Arta told him. “What’s going on?”

“We’re still in a holding pattern for the moment,” the duke said. “We don’t have the forces to take back Tantos III, but the rebels also don’t want to risk attacking us at the moment and leaving the planet undefended. We’re waiting for reinforcements from Carann and the rest of the council, and I expect that the rebels are doing much the same. We have more planets, but their three duchies are all very powerful, and by capturing Kallistrae they’ve taken Tantos out of the game as well. Speaking of which, how did the other part of the plan we discussed go?”

Arta smiled. “Perfectly,” she said. “Latharna pretended to fall onto one of the serving mechs and got the beacon attached to it, and I don’t think anyone noticed what we’d done. By now, the mech’s programming has been altered and it should be serving as our eyes and ears inside the palace tower.”

Mardoban put a hand on Arta’s shoulder. “Excellent,” he said. “I’ll have the communications crew watch for any transmissions it makes. Between that and getting the rebels to expose their treachery, at least we have some good news today.” He shook his head, his expression darkening. Arta frowned.

“All right, I get the feeling there’s something going on here I don’t know about,” she said. “What’s the matter?”

Mardoban sighed and then quickly filled her in on the situation with Pakorus. “We haven’t heard anything from him in some time,” he finished, looking weary. “I think I’d know if something had happened to him, but I am worried. Angry that he did something so reckless, of course, but worried. Still, he may be onto something – if anyone knows more about what was going on with the Commander, it’s Specter. I just wish he he’d spoken to me about it first.” He sighed. “And I pray every moment that he’ll be all right.”

Arta rested a hand on the duke’s arm. “He will be,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she felt, and to ignore the feeling of worry that had crept into her chest when he’d told her what Pakorus had done. “He’s smart, and I trust that he knows what he’s doing. And I promise you that he’s my friend too, and if something has happened to him, I’ll do everything in my power to get him back.”

Mardoban looked relieved. “Thank you, Arta,” he said; then he smiled and shook his head. “Lord, you reminded me of your mother just then. Aestera always believed in her friends, but if she knew they were in danger, she was never someone to sit back and do nothing.”

The sound of footsteps suddenly came from the hallway outside the lounge, and Arta turned to see one of the Lion’s communications officers hurrying in, sketching a bow in her direction before turning to Mardoban and saluting. “Your Majesty,” he said, “Your Grace; Lady Karani. I’m sorry to bother you, but we just received a report we thought you should know about.”

“What is it, lieutenant?” Mardoban asked, tone wary.

“Sir, our sensors indicate that elements of the rebel forces at Tantos III are preparing to separate from the main force and enter jump,” the officer said. “Two Equestian warships, plus some smaller ships and fighters, mostly of Aurannian origin. Based on their current trajectory, the most likely jump destination is Katanes.”

Arta’s grip went rigid on her mug of kaf; behind her, she heard Karani’s sharp intake of breath. “Katanes has some defense forces,” Mardoban said slowly, “but I don’t believe it has what it takes to hold out against a determined attack.”

“It doesn’t,” Arta said, a cold feeling in her gut. Fear filled her, but increasingly it was replaced by anger. When she spoke again, it wasn’t with the voice of the girl Arta, but the voice she’d used when addressing the rebels on Tantos – the voice of Artakane The voice of a queen. “Aurann – those are Respen’s ships. He’s preparing to attack my home. Duke Mardoban, you said that my mother never stood by when those she cared for were in danger, and that I was the same way. You’re right. Prepare a strike force to leave for Katanes as soon as possible. I’m going home.”


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Chapter Nineteen

Tantos System, Lion of Carann

Latharna stood in front of the mirror in her personal cabin, running her finger along the deep gash on her cheek that the ship’s medic had just recently finished stitching up. Her spectacles she’d lost during the fighting, and her wig she’d taken off as soon as she’d gotten Arta secured on the shuttle, and so aside from her injury, she looked much as she always had. Pale face, short white hair, pale eyes behind their red lenses. She looked the same, but she didn’t feel like it.

Emotions churned within her stomach. Relief at being alive, of course. Worry about the fact that her cut would surely leave a scar, and amused irritation at herself for being worried about something so trivial. But above all were too emotions in fundamental conflict with each other. One was horror. She’d trained to fight for as long as she could remember, had always taken pride in her skill – but for the first time in her life, she’d killed. It had been self-defense – she knew that intellectually. The rebel knight would have certainly killed her if he’d been able to manage it. But still, a small voice hissed in the back of her mind the word murderer.

The other emotion was worse, for it wasn’t horror or guilt but exhilaration. Joy, even. Latharna had done battle, put her life on the line, and triumphed, and part of her yearned to do it again. Perhaps a rematch with Darius, conclusively proving which one of them was better. Yes, there was a part of her that desired that, that would welcome the thought of more violence and death if it meant facing a challenge worthy of her skill.

“What is wrong with me?” Latharna whispered to her reflection. “Is that all I’m good for – fighting and killing people?” She shuddered quietly. “Am I a monster?”

With a shivering sigh she tore herself away from the mirror and flung herself on her bed, staring up at the ceiling. Her fingers itched for her Canon, as if the words of the Prophet might offer her some comfort, but as she glanced over to where the old book rested on her nightstand, she knew it wouldn’t help. Hadn’t the Prophet echoed that oldest commandment of humanity – thou shalt not kill? She had no doubt how he would judge her. Closing her eyes, she rolled over to her side and turned away.

Someone knocked on the cabin’s door. “Are you in there?” Arta’s voice asked. “It’s me.” A moment later the door opened, and the queen stepped in; Latharna sat up and turned to face her.

Arta still looked weary, but there was something burning in her that seemed to give her strength. She looked Latharna up and down, then her gaze settled on the cut on her face. “You know,” she said conversationally, “on some planets in the Dozen Stars, a dueling scar is considered extremely attractive.”

Latharna flushed and looked away. “If you say so,” she said, trying to ignore the warm feeling that had risen in her chest at Arta’s words.

The queen frowned. “Are you all right, Latharna?” she asked. “Don’t feel bad about losing to Darius. Everyone does.”

“I’m fine,” Latharna said. “Better than Respen’s knight back in the meeting room, anyway. At least I walked away.” She pulled her legs up in front of her and wrapped her arms around them, staring at her knees.

Arta’s frown deepened, she took a seat beside Latharna on the bed and put am arm around her shoulders; Latharna flinched but didn’t pull away. “Is that what’s bothering you?” she asked quietly. “You did what you had to do; we all did. As soon as Respen started shooting, it was kill or be killed in there.”

“In the moment, that’s what it felt like,” Latharna admitted. “I felt so driven, so… pure. Just me, my sword, and my enemy. And you,” she added, looking over at Arta. “But when we were out of there, when you were safe and I came down from that feeling, I realized – what kind of a person am I who could find something so terrible so beautiful? And what kind of monster am I to want to do it again?”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Latharna,” Arta said. “But Shiran once told me that all power has two faces, like two sides of a single coin – it can be used to protect, or to destroy. It’s the duty of every person who has power to understand how to use it well, because every action they take will have consequences. Look at me – I’m a knight, an Adept, and a queen, and I’m still trying to figure out what that all means. With the power I have, I could turn into a tyrant – like Respen or worse – and nobody could stop me. But if I just stood down and let people like Respen run roughshod over everyone, that would be awful too. I have to find a way to use my power to help others without being consumed by it. Maybe that’s what you have to do, too. But I believe you can.” She smiled. “You saved my life today, Latharna. Again. So I, for one, have to be very glad you’re so good with a sword. I wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.”

“How do you do it?” Latharna asked. “How do you stop yourself from turning into the thing you fear? Did your tutor tell you that?”

Arta was quiet for a long time. “I don’t know,” she said, finally. “I think it’s different for everyone. For me, I remember Shiran and my father talking about how the nobility should exist to serve the people, not the other way around – and I have people I trust to keep me honest. People like Mardoban, and Karani – and you.” She sighed. “There has to be a better way – a way to hold people like us accountable for our actions, so we do the right thing instead of whatever we want. But for now, that’s what works for me. You need to find what works for you.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Latharna said.

“You’re not a monster, Latharna,” Arta said, her voice serious. “What you have – what you are – can be channeled for good; I believe in you.” She paused for a moment, seemed to gather herself. “And that’s why I’m here. I’m sorry to have to ask this of you again so soon, but I need your help. Duke Respen has split his forces. We think some of them are heading for Katanes.”

“Your home,” Latharna said, horror rising in her chest.

“Yes,” Arta said quietly. “Mardoban is having forces scrambled, and we need to leave soon if we hope to catch him before he gets there, and Latharna, you’re one of the best warriors I know. I’m going to fight for me home; I want you with me.”

The emotions she’d been battling earlier surged up within Latharna; horror at the prospect of fighting again so soon – and eagerness at the prospect of another battle, of facing Respen and being the one to end his reign once and for all. Pulling away from Arta, she stood and walked over to the mirror, staring at her reflection. Protection and destruction, she thought – too sides of a coin. Was killing worth it if she could save more lives? Was battle all she ever was – all she’d ever be good for?

She looked down at her hands, flexing her pale fingers. Were those hands doomed to always be stained with blood?

But Arta’s home was in peril. And Arta believed in her. Arta said she wasn’t a monster, and Arta was an Adept. And weren’t Adepts supposed to see more deeply than ordinary people? Latharna wasn’t sure if she believed that, but she knew that she and Arta had fought together, had faced death together and escaped, and that had cemented a bond that had already been forming – she may have been Realtran, but she knew in her heart that she’d follow the Queen of the Dozen Stars into the maw of the abyss if she asked.

“Latharna?” Arta said, voice uncertain.

Latharna turned back towards her, managing a thin smile. “I’m with you,” she said. “When do we leave?”


Kallistrae ast Tantos lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling, and brooded.

Officially, she was a “guest” of Naudar, Respen, and Sateira; unofficially she was under house arrest, a prisoner in her own home under the watching eyes of those who had taken it from her. She’d been forced at gunpoint to record that humiliating message for the council, and since then she’d been mostly confined to her small apartments, let out only occasionally to exercise, always under armed guard and with no opportunity to communicate with anyone in the staff who might still be loyal to her. Her comm and dueling sword had been taken, of course; the only holoscreen she was permitted wasn’t set up to allow her to communicate over a network and didn’t even show the news, so that her only knowledge of the outside world came from her captors. Her meals were brought three times a day by serving mechs, always accompanied by armed security squads – too many for her to fight even if she had been left a weapon.

She hadn’t seen any of the rebel dukes since the day Tantos III had fallen; Gaspar Madran, the security guildmaster, had stopped by several days later, assuring her that there was absolutely nothing personal in his betrayal of their contract, that he’d simply been given a better offer, and he hoped they’d be able to work together again someday when all this unpleasantness was behind them. It had taken all of Kallistrae’s self-control not to hit him right in his smug face, and when he was gone, she’d privately cursed her cousin Hiram for letting the guilds take so much power in the duchy in the first place.

She’d thought she’d heard blast fire earlier in the day, and the sounds of a great many people running about several floors above. She wondered what was happening, but her guards hadn’t left their post and had refused to answer any of her questions; eventually the sounds had died away, returning the captive Duchess of Tantos to her monotony.

The sound of the door hissing open distracted her from her brooding. Kallistrae frowned – she hadn’t been looking at her clock, but surely it couldn’t be time for dinner already – and sat up, turning to face the door as a serving mech glided in, carrying a tray. The door shut behind it, and the mech placed its cargo down on the small table in the center of the room. Curious, Kallistrae leaned in and saw that it held a selection of buttered scones – her favorites. “What in the Lord’s name?” she muttered. “Have Naudar and the others decided to play nice? If so, it’s too little, too late.”

The mech didn’t say anything, of course, but on its chassis a holoprojector flared to life and a foot-high, flickering image of a man appeared in the air before her. Kallistrae took in his features, and her eyes widened in shock. “Mardoban?” she whispered, scarcely believing what she was seeing.

“Hello, Kallistrae,” the Duke of Orlanes said. “We’ve been missing you at the council lately. Artakane sends her regards, by the way, but is unavailable to talk to you herself at the moment.”

Kallistrae’s head spun. “How?” she finally demanded. “What’s going on here, Mardoban?”

“Earlier today, Her Majesty attempted to negotiate the rebels’ surrender,” Mardoban said. “Needless to say, it didn’t go over well – you likely heard the commotion she ended up causing. Fortunately, Artakane and her companions managed to escape, and the rebels’ true colors were shown for the entire Kingdom to see. And the mission wasn’t a complete failure, either. A member of Artakane’s staff manage to plant a beacon on this mech, rewriting its programming ant syncing it up with the Lion’s main computer so we can see through its sensors and control it remotely if necessary. The beacon is also currently providing us with a jamming signal that will interfere with any listening devices the rebels may have had their pet security troops install in your rooms. This way we can talk privately, with no one the wiser.”

Kallistrae shook her head. “I’ll admit, I’m impressed,” she said. “What’s the plan?”

“For the moment, we’re at a stalemate,” Mardoban said. “Neither our side nor the rebels’ has enough troops here to defeat the other; we’ve sent for reinforcements and no doubt they have too, but for now we’re mostly just watching each other and planning their next moves. Or rather, that’s what we’re letting them think we’re doing. We have a secret weapon on the inside, one they don’t know about – the rightful duchess of Tantos. You.”

“Mardoban, I lost Tantos,” Kallistrae said. “They played me, and I lost everything. Didn’t you see that message they forced me to record? I abdicated. I’m not duchess of anything anymore.”

“As far as the crown is concerned, you are the duchess, no matter what Naudar says,” Mardoban said, voice hard. “We both know that a statement made under duress isn’t worth much. Just because you’re beaten once doesn’t mean you’re beaten for good. Prove to yourself, and your people, that you’re still a knight worthy of the title, and a leader they can depend on. Your planet is under martial law – will you let your people suffer under military occupation by an outside force, especially when one of the leaders of that force is a maniac like Respen? I know you, Kallistrae, and I don’t think you can.”

Kallistrae sighed, then looked up at the hologram, eyes cold. “You’re right,” she said. “I can’t. Unfortunately, I’m also stuck in here. Do you have a plan for that?”

Mardoban smiled. “As a matter of fact, I do,” he said. “This mech is capable of sending messages to the outside world; if there’s anyone on Tantos you can still trust, it can get you in contact with them. If there’s anything you want to say to your people, it can record it and start distributing the messages on the net. And through it we can also start subverting the palace’s other mechs and computer systems, though we’ll have to work slowly so as not to arouse suspicion. And when we’re ready to act, we can use it to slip you weapons. You’re not alone, Kallistrae; your people aren’t alone. The council stands with Tantos III against these insurgents. We will not abandon you.”

“All right,” Kallistrae said, drawing a deep breath. “Then let’s get down to business, shall we? First off, let’s record a message for the people of my planet. This is what I want to say…”


Kallistrae’s holoimage flickered and vanished, and Mardoban looked up from it, straightening himself in his seat in the Lion’s lounge. He was alone; the other dukes were on their own ships, positioning themselves in orbit opposite the rebel forces and waiting for the battle that was sure to come soon. Artakane had departed to Katanes, taking Karani, Latharna Dhenloc, and Lieutenant Rehan with her. And Pakorus… Mardoban was still going over the message he had received from Midaia in his mind. Part of him was enraged at his son’s rashness, part of him was terrified for his safety – and part of him, against his better judgment, was proud of the boy’s nerve. And if his search for the Commander’s origin bore fruit, it could be of immeasurable value to the Dozen Stars.

And as for Midaia – he wasn’t sure how far he’d trusted her. He’d known the child she’d been, not the woman she was now, had barely spoken to her in years, even counting their brief encounter at the tournament. Who knew what paths she’d walked in the intervening years, or what her agenda was? Probably only herself. But Mardoban didn’t believe she’d lead Pakorus into harm or allow it to come to him if she could prevent – or that she would have undertaken this mission if she didn’t think it might prove successful. That was some, small comfort at least.

Someone knocked on the lounge door, and Gilgam stuck his head in. “Are you all right, sir?” he asked. “Is there anything you need?”

Mardoban waved him away. “I’m fine,” he said. “I just need time to think, is all. Alert me if the situation changes.”

“As you wish,” Gilgam said, saluting, and departed. Alone once again, Mardoban bowed his head and prayed more fervently than he had in years. He prayed that Artakane might reach Katanes in time, that his plot with Kallistrae might go unnoticed until it was time to strike, that Pakorus would return safely and would find what he sought.

Above all, he prayed for his Kingdom.


Arta took her seat on the bridge of Artax’s Glory, a light cruiser that was smaller than the might Equestrians, but much faster – the command ship of a small squadron of similar vessels carried in the Lion’s massive hangars and which Mardoban had recommended for the mission at hand. Together, these ships could bring down much larger quarry – and they were fast enough that they stood a chance of beating Respen’s strike force to Katanes. Combined with the planet’s militia, they should be enough to bloody his nose and make him seek easier prey elsewhere – or at least to hold off long enough for more forces from Carann to arrive.

At least, that was the plan. It wasn’t enough to stop the nervous hammering of Arta’s heart.

She glanced over at Karani and Latharna in their seats – Karani’s face bore a determined expression that Arta was certain mirrored her own; Latharna still looked troubled, but also resolved. Arta nodded at them both, then glanced over at Lieutenant Rehan, who stood beside the ship’s pilot.

“Are you ready, Your Majesty?” the lieutenant asked; Arta nodded wordlessly, and Rehan leaned over and whispered something in the pilot’s ear. Arta could just barely make out the sounds of keystrokes on the ship’s console, then the louder sound of groaning metal, as the Glory disengaged from its birth and accelerated into space, the other ships of its squadron following close behind. They traveled a short distance from the Lion, and then there was another groan and a flash of light as they entered jump, heading for Katanes – and battle.

Arta felt a hand on her arm and looked up to see Karani staring at her. “We’ll make it in time,” her sister said, expression concerned. “Don’t worry. I know we will.”

“I know,” Arta said, but she couldn’t quell the nervous hammering of her heart, or her fear at the prospect of what might await them at their journey’s end.  


New chapter, finally! 

Edited by MasterGhandalf
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New chapter! 


Chapter Twenty

Katanes System

Duke Respen’s warship, Right to Rule, dropped out of jump on the outskirts of Katanes’s gravity well, its escort ships emerging close behind. From space, the planet appeared peaceful and serene, an orb of pale blues and lavenders with two moons hovering protectively about it. This was not a world that was harsh like Aurann, nor gloomy like Tantos III, or even strategically significant, like Sakran.

It was a world that simply had the misfortune to have unwittingly raised a queen among its ruling family; for that crime, its peace would be shattered soon. Darius couldn’t help but think that it was such a waste.

He stood among Respen’s officers on the warship’s bridge, his siblings by his side. The duke himself was seated in the command chair at the bridge’s center, stiff in his uniform and with his hands folded before his thin face; his eyes were bright at hard as they stared ahead at his desired prey. There was no mercy in them, only anticipation. Darius was more troubled by that than he cared to admit.

Do what you have to… his father’s admonition echoed in Darius’s mind. He shied away from the implications of that, at least for now. They had other concerns first. A battle to fight.

“My lord!” one of the bridge officers called from where he sat at his control console. “We’re being hailed by the Katanes Defense Force.”

“Put them through,” Respen said calmly. “Should be amusing, anyway.” By Darius’s side, Tariti stiffened and regarded the duke with disgust; Darius managed, barely, to keep a similar expression from showing on his own face. No matter what Respen heard here, he’d come for blood; answering the hail at all was merely an excuse to play with his prey before moving in for the kill. It was behavior unworthy of a knight or a duke – and yet it seemed all to typical of this ambitious, cruel man their father had bound their house to, however temporarily.

“Attention, unknown vessels,” a voice echoed through the bridge, a woman – her accent reminded Darius of Artakane, and he felt a sudden pang of guilt at the thought. “This is Duty of Honor, flagship of the Katanes Defense Force. You are in violation of Katanes planetary space. Stand down and identify yourselves and your purpose here.”

“They’ve already scrambled their fleet,” Respen murmured. “They were expecting us. Mardoban must have contacted them and gotten a warning through. It won’t save them.” He nodded at one of the other officers. “What ships do they have?”

“Not much, my lord,” the officer replied. “A single Equestrian, a handful of smaller ships, some fighters. Less than a third of our strength.” Katanes had never expected to be attacked, Darius knew; the planet itself held little of value beyond pleasant scenery and farmland, and even in the event it was invaded, it had never had to do more in its history other than hold out long enough for Tantos III to sent reinforcements. No such reinforcements were coming today. Katanes stood alone.

And Respen knew it. Smiling thinly, he stood and spoke in a loud, clear voice that the woman on the other end of the communications couldn’t possibly miss. “This is Duke Respen ast Aurann, rightful King of the Dozen Stars, commanding Right to Rule. We have come to take possession of your world in the name of the crown that is my birthright. You will surrender at once or be destroyed.”

“We were warned to expect you, Duke Respen,” the woman’s voice said. “We do not acknowledge your sovereignty of the Dozen Stars, nor your unlawful seizure of Tantos III. If you do not depart Katanes space at once, we will engage. This is not a bluff.”

Respen laughed coldly. “You’ll engage?” he asked, his tone incredulous. “With what? You’re outnumbered three to one, but if you wish to fight and die today, so be it. But be reasonable. Do you really think you serve your baron best by such a foolish act?”

“I do,” a new voice said – a man’s voice, this time, calm but firm. A hologram shimmered into being on the Right’s bridge – a tall, thin man with short hair and a neat beard, older than Respen but younger than Naudar or Mardoban. His height put Darius in mind of Karani; his calm, thoughtful gaze resembled Artakane. Darius had seen him before, from a distance, and the New Year tournament, but hadn’t spoken to him – this was the Baron Varas ast Katanes, the man who had raised a queen.

“You’re bold, Varas, I’ll give you that,” Respen said. “I admire that in my opponents. Therefore, I will give you an option – surrender yourself to me. Come to Right to Rule alone and unarmed and give yourself into my custody. Do this, and Katanes will be spared. This I swear by the Lord’s name and by my honor as a Duke of the Realm.”

“Your honor?” Varas asked, and he smiled thinly. “Am I to trust in that, then? If I believed that by such an act my people could be saved, I would do it in a heartbeat. But speaking honestly, Your Grace – I don’t trust you. I know you only by reputation, but that reputation sickens me. You are the man who has brought war to our nation, but your sins began long before that. You are a warmonger and a tyrant who has enslaved your own people to build your vaunted armada. Should the people of Katanes expect any better, left to your mercy? No, I don’t think you would leave my planet alone – it’s not in your nature. Your nature is to grasp and seize and then react with cruelty and spite when you’re denied. You may have royal blood in your veins, but you weren’t fit to be a king when the council passed you over after Aestera died, and you aren’t fit to be one now. I will fight to my last breath to prevent you from ever setting foot on Katanes, and my people will do no less, for they know what will await them if they fail. You will never have this world, tyrant.” Varas’s eyes went hard. “And I am a father as well as a baron, and I know this – even if you triumphed, you would never sit secure on your throne while my daughter lives. So long as she is a threat to you, her life would be in danger, and so for Arta’s sake alone, I would oppose you to my dying breath.”

The bridge was silent for a long moment after the Baron of Katanes finished speaking, and Darius felt a surge of admiration for the man’s courage, doomed as it might be, rise within him. Respen didn’t move; he stood still, face impassive with his hands folded behind his back as he regarded Varas’s hologram. Then he spoke, his voice barely above a whisper. “So be it,” he said. “But your people will know you had the chance to save them and squandered it.” He waved a hand, and the hologram vanished.

Returning to his chair, Respen raised a hand and gestured towards his officers. “Begin the advance,” he ordered. “Blast that pitiful Defense Force out of the sky and then target Tannen City. The city shall burn, and I want Varas brought to me, alive. I want him to know the depth of his mistake before I take his head from his shoulders.”

The bridge officers saluted as one, and the Right shuddered slightly as its engines hummed to life and propelled it forward, the other ships in their squadron keeping pace behind. Before long, Darius could make out the Defense Force fleet through the viewport, hovering in front of the planet’s larger moon. From this distance, they looked pitiably small and fragile. Darius shook his head.

“I don’t believe it,” Galen whispered. “They must know they can’t win. Why do they fight?”

“Apparently it’s not in the Katannen spirit to give up easy,” Tariti said. “You should know, Galen. You’re the one Artakane took down. Did you really think she came from a planet of cowards?”

No, Darius thought, the Katannens weren’t cowards. They were still doomed, though. Their little fleet was no match for Respen’s top-of-the-line Aurannian warships. This wasn’t going to be a battle, but a slaughter. There was no honor in this. Self-loathing, sharp and sudden, twisted in Darius’s gut. The Defense Force would die, and Tannen City would burn, and so far as he could tell he was just going to stand here and let it happen like a coward.

“Their flagship is in range of our main cannon, my lord,” an officer said. “They appear to be powering up their own weapons, though it doesn’t appear they have the power to penetrate our shields.”

“Let’s not give them the chance to try,” Respen ordered. “Fire at will.”

For a brief moment Darius had a mad vision of running across the bridge, knocking Respen from his chair, and ordering the crew to stand down – but no, it couldn’t happen that way. He had no authority over the Aurannian officers, and Respen’s guards, lined up across the bridge, would shoot all three ast Sakran siblings before he even made it to the duke. Even if he was willing to sacrifice his own life, Galen and Tariti’s lives weren’t his to spend.

Before his internal conflict could resolve itself, a cry echoed across the bridge. “My lord!” another officer called. “We have new readings from behind us. A squadron of ships is dropping out of jump, almost on top of us!”

“What?” Respen demanded furiously, but Darius couldn’t quite hold back a smile. The eldest son of Duke Naudar looked over at his sister and nodded in acknowledgment of her shocked expression.

“Guess you were right, Tariti,” he said. “I don’t know who’s on those ships, but I’d wager Artakane wasn’t one to stand down after all.”


Varas ast Katanes smiled grimly as the small squadron emerged from jump right on top of Duke Respen’s invading fleet. He’d gotten an all-too-brief message from Duke Mardoban warning him to expect an attack, and that Arta was coming with reinforcements; he’d been trying to stall, playing a dangerous game by provoking Respen and keeping his attention focused on Katanes, and he’d known full well that if he’d gambled wrong, his little fleet would be swept away and there would be nothing standing between his little planet and destruction. Fortunately, it looked like he’d guessed right – the Duke of Orlanes had come through. Varas’s daughter had come through.

“Are you picking this up, Danash?” the Baron said quietly, speaking into his wrist comm. Static crackled before an answer came through.

“It looks like you’ll be having some help after all,” his aide – and oldest friend – said. “The playing field has been levelled, somewhat, but be careful – with the firepower he has, Respen can still win this.”

Varas nodded. “Understood,” he said. “But we still have a few cards left to play.” He nodded at Captain Atama, the Honor’s commander and the one who had first spoken to Respen when he’d hailed the ship. “Now that he’s distracted, let’s show the good duke what our weapons are really capable of.”

“Understood,” Atam said, saluting sharply and giving the order. Varas turned his attention back to the viewport, staring out at the battle, fear for Arta rising in his chest. But stronger than fear was his pride in her, and the woman – and queen – she had become.


Artax’s Glory and its squadron were Starflare cruisers, far smaller than the mighty Equestrians but designed to bring down ships much larger than they were. Their engines were nimble as well as fast, their weapons disproportionately heavy for their small frames. Still, a half-dozen of them seemed a feeble defense against the two great ships Respen had brought, to say nothing of the escorting fighters and frigates. Lieutenant Rehan, however, had experience in this sort of combat, and if she was afraid, she didn’t let it show. Commanding the squadron in Arta’s name, she directed the Glory’s officers with swift, precise movements and gestures, and their ships fell into formation around the Aurannian forces.

Arta, sitting in her chair behind the officers, didn’t think she’d ever felt more terrified in her life. A queen shouldn’t show fear, not even when she was on the front lines and it was her planet being attacked; maintaining that poise was taking all her concentration now.
Her determination to come in person to Katanes’s defense had seemed a noble thing when she’d declared it back at Tantos, but now she was realizing that here, in this battle, she was useless. She had no orders to give, no enemies to fight or speak to – instead of a major player in the battle, she found herself a spectator, one whose life could end at any moment if a stray blast from one of the Equestrians cut the Glory in two. This kind of battle, she realized, would take an entirely different kind of courage compared to walking into a room on Tantos to face her enemies head-on.

The Aurannian ships opened fire, the Equestrians launching massive beams that could shred a Starflare with a single hit, or so it looked to Arta. The smaller craft dodged nimbly, the force such that Arta would have been pinned to her seat by it even if she hadn’t already been strapped in, and then they returned fire with narrow, precise beams that could slice clean through a shield and begin cutting directly into the larger ships’ hulls. That’s how the Starflares killed big ships like Equestrians – a nimble dance, a death by countless cuts rather than sustained blasts. It had sounded like a good idea when Mardoban had explained it; up close at personal, it seemed fraught with peril.

Someone touched her hand, and Arta looked over to see Latharna; the Realtran girl smiled and nodded at her, and her pale fingers wrapped reassuringly around Arta’s brown ones. “The crew know what they’re doing,” she said. “Don’t worry. We’ll get through this.”

Arta smiled back and straightened up in her seat, trying to project the confidence she didn’t quite feel. Outside the front viewport the battle continued, a subtle dance of changing positions as the Starflares weaved their way around the Equestrians, cutting through their armor and tearing deeply into their insides.

The destruction, when it came, was sudden and shocking; one of the other Starflares didn’t dodge fast enough, and a bolt from the Equestrian it was engaging – Arta thought it was Right to Rule, if she remembered Duke Respen’s ships right – tore clear through it. The Starfrlare vanished in a sudden burst of brilliant light, and Arta’s hand shot to her mouth in horror; to her other side, she could hear Karani shouting a curse. Lieutenant Rehan merely hissed grimly and gestured to her officers to keep up their attack on the other enemy warship. A moment later, the Glory was rocked by a sudden hit that knocked Arta forward in her chair before just as suddenly pulling her back.

The Lieutenant swore. “We’ve got company,” she said. “Most of their smaller ships seem to be heading for the defense force, but some of the fighters stayed behind. One of their fighters is behind us, trying to take out our engines, leave us helpless. Using our own tactics against it; they’re moving too quick for us to hit them with our rear guns.”

“Well, shoot them!” Karani shouted; Rehan shot her a flat look, as if deciding whether or not pointing out that that’s exactly what she was trying to do to the queen’s sister would be permissible or not. She was saved by a sudden shout of excitement from one of the other officers.

“Someone else is shooting at them!” he said. “And… it looks like they got them! The fighter is destroyed. The blast came all the way from the defense force, but I don’t see how…”

“It’s Father,” Karani said happily. “He told me he was looking at upgrading the Honor with some very high-end guns, weapons people wouldn’t expect on an older-model warship. He must have done it – incredible range, accuracy, and power for their size.”

“He must have been holding back when he was shooting at Respen when we arrived,” Arta mused. “Tricking him into thinking he was weaker than he was…”

“Well, now he’s picking the fighters off our tail,” Rehan said, nodding. “Let’s keep tearing at our target, people. We’re almost through.”

A moment later, the truth of her words was proven as the Glory’s thin, powerful beam tore through the enemy ship’s engines. There was a burst of light that erupted from the warship, and then the Starflares were hurrying backwards, their speed enabling them to escape the blast as the entire vessel was consumed. Arta could only stare in awe.

Lieutenant Rehan smiled coldly. “Well, then,” she said. “Let’s see how Aurann takes that.”


Respen’s fists clenched tightly as he watched his second Equestrian, Star Champion, disintegrate before his eyes. This battle situation was not developing as the duke had intended; not remotely. Besides the intervention of a squadron of Starflares, the Katanes flagship had proven far more heavily armed than it had first appeared and, shielded by its escorts, had been able to take potshots across the battlefield, destroying a number of Aurannian fighters and small craft in the process. Right to Rule had so far escaped major damage, but the way the situation was developing, that state of affairs seemed unlikely to continue for long.

Darius was torn between relief that an attack on the civilians of Katanes today was seeming increasingly unlikely, respect for Artakane and her father, and fear that this battle’s developments would please neither his father nor Respen. Still the Duke of Aurann stood staring ahead, his expression murderous.

“This isn’t working,” Tariti whispered in Darius’s ear. “Are we just going to batter ourselves senseless against them in head-to-head battle? We need a change of plans!”

“I agree,” Galen muttered. “As much as I’d like to see Artakane humbled, that doesn’t seem likely to happen here any time soon.”

Darius steeled himself. “Father had an… alternative plan,” he murmured to his siblings. “Now we’ll see if Respen is amenable to it.” Stepping forward, he walked up to the duke and put a hand on his shoulder. “Your Grace,” he said. “If I may be so bold, I recommend a change in tactics.”

Respen whirled on him, his expression dark. Around the bridge, his guards tensed, but seemed to be waiting for their liege’s signal to act. “What of it?” he demanded. “You’re not in charge here; I am. And I think, boy, that I know how to handle a space battle better than you.”

Darius breathed deeply. “Your grace,” he said. “Your determination is admirable, but this battle is turning against us. The enemy outnumbers us now, and though you’ve managed to keep the Starflares from doing significant damage to your own ship, you’ve also only managed to destroy one of them. Attrition doesn’t seem to be working in our favor. All it takes is one lucky hit – and a crown is of no use to a dead man.”

“Are you suggesting we retreat?” Respen demanded, face incredulous. “From Artakane the pretender and her Katannen scum? Clearly your reputation is over-inflated, knight. If you were my vassal I would kill you now for speaking such treason.”

If Respen’s expression was any indication, he wasn’t far off from killing Darius anyway; the younger man drew up his courage and looked the duke square in the eye. “Not a retreat,” he said. “Consider it a tactical withdrawal. We’re not fleeing in fear, merely removing ourselves to plan our next move. And my father anticipated that Varas and Artakane might prove more dangerous than we thought. We don’t have enough firepower still to burn Katanes, but Your Grace, there are other ways to fight – and other wounds that Artakane will feel very keenly.”

He briefly told Respen the plan Naudar had suggested to him and was rewarded by the cold gleam that appeared in the Duke of Aurann’s eyes.


Right to Rule’s engines fired, slowly turning its bulk away from the battle, and then with a sudden flash of light it was gone, its escort ships vanishing a moment later. “Our sensors indicate that the Right has entered jump,” one of the Glory’s officers reported in a stunned voice. “They seem to have fled to the edge of the system, and we’re not picking up any further jump engine activity, so they appear to be remaining there.”

“This battle isn’t over,” Rehan said, staring out at the wreckage that filled the space before them, “but your majesty, it appears we’ve won the first round.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Arta said, sinking wearily back into her chair. “You’re to be commended.” Before she could say anything more, Karani had leaned over and wrapped her in a tight embrace.

“We won!” she shouted, beaming. Arta managed to extract herself, praying none of the Glory’s officers had been paying attention.

“We won for now,” she told her sister. “Respen and his ships are still out there, and I doubt he’s just going to slink away back to Aurann. This isn’t over yet.”

“Your majesty!” one of the officers called. “We’re being hailed. It looks like a message from the Baron ast Katanes. He says,” the officer paused, “he says well done, and he invites her majesty to join him for dinner on Katanes, at her convenience.”

Arta smiled. “Tell the baron,” she said, “that his daughter gladly accepts his invitation.”


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Chapter Twenty-One

Deep Space

Pakorus awoke in his bed in the guest quarters aboard Midaia’s yacht – a room which, while bare, thankfully didn’t have any of the disturbing patterns that could be found elsewhere aboard the vessel. It had been several days, by Carann time, since she’d rescued him from Tantos Station, and in those days he’d spoken little to the Adept, who seemed to spend most of her time meditating or locked in her practice room doing Lord-only-knew what. She wasn’t bad company, exactly, and respected his privacy as well as was possible for two people on board a small craft, but still, doing nothing but sitting, reading the few books in the yacht’s small library that weren’t hopelessly esoteric, and eating the occasional meal didn’t make for a particularly exciting journey. Pakorus found himself anticipating their arrival at the Imperial laboratory Specter had directed them to, regardless of what dangers might await there.

Taking a moment to refresh himself, insofar as that was possible with only a single change of clothes that fit him, he walked across the hall to Sister Night’s small commissary where, to his surprise, Midaia was waiting. She was dressed in the black shirt and pants that seemed to be her usual shipboard wear and regarded her passenger from across a cup of steaming kaf.

“Help yourself,” Midaia said, gesturing towards the refrigerator and cabinets that held her shipboard supplies. “Then sit down. According to my nav computer we’re coming up on our destination and I have things I want to discuss first.”

“All right,” Pakorus said, nodding; he poured himself some kaf and got a small scone – Katannen made, according to the packaging, which made him think of Arta with a sudden pang – and took his seat. “I’m curious – do you have any idea what we’re flying into here?”

Midaia shrugged. “Not much. According to Specter’s intel, the Imperial cybernetics laboratory is located in a small space station orbiting a gas giant at the borders of Imperial space. Officially, the project was shut down and the facilities abandoned for decades; Specter’s men were able to find evidence that the laboratory was in use slightly less than twenty years ago, and the cybernetics they designed there matched those that the Commander and his assassins had been fitted with. Current reports indicate that the lab appears abandoned, though Specter’s men never actually went inside. Apparently, he didn’t want to risk losing them to whatever security systems the Empire might have left behind; good informants are hard to come by these days, after all.”

Pakorus swallowed. “So, you have no idea what could be waiting for us inside, then?” he said.

“Like I said, the lab appears abandoned,” Midaia told him. “And according to Specter, nobody on any nearby worlds has reported traffic too or from it. So it’s doubtful there’s an entire Imperial legionnaire cohort waiting for us inside. I’d take your beam pistol with you, though. Whoever was pulling the Commander’s strings doubtless left some surprises behind to cover their tracks, whether a small team of commandos or just an automated security system. So don’t expect our little trip to be boring.”

“You don’t seem that worried, though,” Pakorus pointed out.

Midaia shrugged again. “I’m an Adept, Pakorus,” she said. “And a powerful one, if I say so myself. There’s not a lot we might run into that worries me – especially not with someone to watch my back.”

“Unless whoever is guarding the lab is an Adept too,” Pakorus said, a sudden feeling of unease running down his spine. “Is that possible? I assume there are Adepts in the Empire, but would any of them be involved in something like this?”

“There are Adepts in the Empire,” Midaia said. “There are Adepts everywhere. And the Emperor collects them, or so rumor has it. There isn’t much information on the Imperial Adept cabal, but there’s only a dozen or so of any significant power, and they’re spread thin across a thousand worlds – especially with the Alaelam War still raging. Our odds of meeting one of them here are slim – and if their reputations are accurate, I am more than a match for any of them.” She frowned, then; thoughtfully, it seemed. “Except – there is one I’m wary of. An Alealam renegade, they say, who holds no official office but has the Emperor’s ear. Him, I would not want to face. But I think there is little chance that he might be here.”

“But it’s not impossible,” Pakorus said.

“No,” Midaia admitted, and her expression was troubled. “It’s not impossible. In fact…” she seemed about to say more, then shook her head. “Never mind,” she said. “If the Prince is here, either I can deal with him or not, and either outcome is beyond my control at the moment. Just be prepared to fight if you must, Pakorus. Keep your pistol ready – your aim has already come in handy once, and we may need it again.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Pakorus said drily, wondering if Midaia actually felt that or if she was just looking for an excuse to change the subject. He ate his scone in silence before looking up at her again. “One thing I’ve never understood,” he said. “What exactly is an Adept, anyway? I asked Arta once, and her explanation didn’t make much sense.”

Midaia laughed. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “How do you explain sight to someone who was born blind? And Artakane doesn’t have the sort of training in philosophy or theology to articulate the concept, in any case. I have that training, and even so, it’s difficult.” She paused, seeming to gather herself. “Let me say simply that there are currents, Pakorus, that exist in this universe beyond what our senses can usually perceive. Currents of matter, of energy, of force, or… thought and spirit, you might say, though the words aren’t really adequate to describe them. These currents are as much a part of reality as you or I or the ship or the stars or the planet Carann, but most people will live their whole lives without sensing them. A rare few are born with the sensitivity that opens them to these realms beyond normal human experience; others may acquire it through intense mental and physical discipline. The mystical practices of certain religious groups can help activate such sensitivity in some for whom it would have otherwise been latent – if you had ever heard there are more Adepts among the clergy of the Church than among laypeople, or in the Alaelam Alliance, where mystical practice is common even among the laity – that is why. And it is why some of the more hardline priests and sisters believe that Adepts should be solely the province of the Church. But however such sensitivity is awakened, we call those who possess it Adepts.”

The former princess of the realm raised a hand, and red light played along her fingers. “Once you can sense the cosmic energies, you can learn to manipulate them. To read and influence the minds of others, forge weapons or armor from pure energy to protect yourself, move objects without touching them, even penetrate the veil into past and future – all of these and more are arts that Adepts can learn to make use of. That is why my kind are so dangerous, Pakorus, for we are never unarmed, and our powers can create effects that even the most advanced technology can’t duplicate.” She clenched her fist, and the light went out. “Of course, there are dangers as well, for the cosmic forces are not to be toyed with lightly. And there are beings from other realms, that dwell in the darkness between the seen and unseen, that may take notice of us.” Her expression darkened and she glanced down at the deathly pale skin of her arm. “I was… touched… by such a creature once, and that touch led to my… alteration. Another who was with me wasn’t so lucky.”

This was all a great deal to take in, and Pakorus felt his mind reeling at the implications, but at the same time, he found himself fascinated by what Midaia was telling him – as if he was getting a glimpse of a whole other world, one which he had only been tangentially aware of before. “But what is it like?” he found himself asking. “To hold that kind of power, to use it?”

Midaia looked thoughtful. “I don’t necessarily think of it as a power,” she said. “In some ways it is, but it is also a state of being. You know, the ancients, in the time before Terra was lost, had a phrase. They believed that when celestial bodies moved, they made a sound, a sound which is all around us all the time but which most people can’t hear, because it’s so pervasive they can’t distinguish it. But for those who could, it would bring knowledge of the secret workings of the universe. They called it the music of the spheres. And Pakorus, when I hold the power of an Adept in my hand – in that moment, I can hear the music of the spheres.

Pakorus didn’t understand what Midaia meant, couldn’t wrap his mind around the thought, but when he saw the look of sheer awe on her face as she spoke those last words, he realized that she meant them, wholly and absolutely – and that in saying them, she had bared her soul to him as she had done to few others. Before he could think of what he could possibly say in return, though, a sudden sharp beeping sound echoed through the cabin.

“Ah,” Midaia said, her expression seeming to return to the mundane world. “That is my autopilot’s alert. We’re coming out of jump soon, and then we’ll be at our destination – and, hopefully, we can find some answers.”


Kallistrae ast Tantos was not surprised to find herself roused from her bed early one morning a few days after her encounter with Mardoban’s reprogrammed mech by a group of cold-faced guild security guards. She was curtly ordered to dress, and when she had done so found herself marched down the hallway to one of the smaller of the palace tower’s various meeting rooms. When she was rather harshly shoved inside, she found herself face-to-face with Duke Naudar and Duchess Sateira and their bodyguards; both nobles were looking downright murderous.

“Dare I ask what the occasion is?” Kallistrae asked, though she had a feeling she did.

“You know damned well what,” Sateira snapped. “Do you care to explain this?” The Duchess of Tashir activated the holoprojector in the middle of the table and stepped back; an image flared to life, depicting a square in Tantos City that Kallistrae recognized as having been the site of a nasty riot – and nastier reprisal – last year. A crowd filled the square, chanting loudly and waving signs that had various slogans printed on them; a closer look revealed that some of the signs read “Aurann Go Home,” “Down With Respen,” “Free Kallistrae,” and “Long Live Artakane,” among various others. The handful of guild security personnel around the corners of the crowd were backing up slowly, looking nervous – despite the fact that they were armed and armored, they were badly outnumbered, and though the protest hadn’t turned violent yet, that wasn’t a risk any of them seemed willing to take.

“Impressive,” Kallistrae said in a carefully neutral tone. “I doubt it will get anywhere, though. The last time people tried this, guild security sent in flitters to shot them from the sky.”

“This,” Naudar said, “is happening all over the planet. Guild security is stretched rather thin, between these riots and using their personnel to reinforce our troops in orbit. Guildmaster Madran is being run ragged, or else he’d be here with us right now.”

“Well, it looks like you three have pushed my people past their breaking point,” Kallistrae said, shrugging. “But I don’t know why you’re mad at me. I’ve been locked up in my rooms this whole time; none of this is my doing.”

“Isn’t it?” Sateira asked in a waspish tone. She pressed a few keys on the holoprojector and the image of the rioters vanished, replaced by Kallistrae’s own face as she recited the message Mardoban’s mech had recorded for her – an exhortation to her people to stand up against their oppressors, outlining the guilds’ treachery and their role in the invasion of Tantos, a call for solidarity with Queen and Kingdom in fighting those who would tear this Dozen Stars down. For something she’d extemporized in fifteen minutes, Kallistrae thought it wasn’t half-bad; maybe she’d make a politician yet.

“This was on every holo-channel,” Sateira said. “Do you have an explanation for us for how it got there? You’d best answer very quickly and convincingly if you want to save yourself, Kallistrae.”

Kallistrae only shrugged. “Like I said, I’ve been locked up in my room ever since you three invaded my planet, and I certainly haven’t had time to record something like this. And if I did, how would I get it out? You can check your own security footage if you want, and that’s exactly what it’ll show you. This is clearly a forgery, using doctored footage.”

“Liar,” Sateira snapped, resting a hand on her sword belt; Naudar reached out and rested his own hand on her shoulder to steady her, and the duchess subsided.

“If it is a forgery, it’s a very clever one,” the Duke of Sakran said. “The people of Tantos III have long resented the guilds, haven’t they? Your House may be in charge, but it’s the guilds who have been forcing the people to work in the mines, and the guilds that have cracked down when they resisted. And of course, they resent us – invaders are rarely popular. By linking the two of us together and raising you – who were always more popular than your late cousin – as our enemy, whoever created this message has done a very good job of turning public opinion against us, and towards you. And, by extension, Artakane and Mardoban. Well done, I must say.” He regarded her shrewdly with cold eyes. “Very well done.”

“’Whoever created it?’” Sateira asked incredulously. “Stop playing games, Naudar. You know she’s responsible. So, the people have a newfound love for their duchess? Well, then, let’s make an example of her. Execute her, and we can cow the commoners back into compliance.”

Naudar sighed. “My dear Sateira,” he said, “you do get bloodthirsty when thwarted, don’t you? But I don’t need you speaking Respen’s words for him while he’s not here. Killing Kallistrae wouldn’t solve our problems; it would create a martyr, and that is a very dangerous thing. Lady ast Tantos is correct that we have no proof that she had anything to do with these riots or that message; I, for one, don’t think the situation has quite escalated to the point where we need to spill too much noble blood. We’ll return Kallistrae to her quarters with a warning. She is to record for us a message denouncing the previous message as a fake and the rioters as traitors, or we will give Guildmaster Madran leave to crush the resistance by any means necessary.” Naudar’s gaze left little room for doubt as to what that meant. “I dislike resorting to that kind of violence, but I will if you leave me no choice. Am I clear?”

“Of course, my lord,” Kallistrae said.

“Very well,” Sateira grumbled. “You may remove her to her chambers.” The door opened and the guards stepped in, seizing Kallistrae by the arms and marching her from the room.

Well, that’s part one down, she thought. Let’s see how long we can keep this going. Lord willing, long enough to choke all three of them on it.


“You know she recorded that message,” Sateira said after Kallistrae left.

“Of course, she did,” Naudar said. “The real question is, how did she do it without alerting our security systems? That’s why we’re letting her off so lightly; if she does it again, we need to be ready to trace it back to its source.”

“If she does it again, she won’t live long enough for it to matter,” Sateira replied. “My threats weren’t all for show. I don’t like being made a fool, Naudar.”

“Who does? But this tower is a fortress, and we have the power of three duchies and a guild at our backs. We can kill every rebel or rioter on this planet if we have to, though I’d prefer to avoid that.” Naudar stood. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a call to make.”

The Duke of Sakran ignored Sateira’s questioning expression and stepped into a side room, where he tapped the head of his cane and activated the hidden communicator there. “The situation has changed,” he whispered, a message to his benefactor. “Tantos is unstable, and my compatriots increasingly unreliable. We need to talk.”


“Do you consider yourself a man of faith, Ambassador?”

Quarinis turned from where he’d been standing at the glass wall of the palace garden, looking out over Carann City, and saw the robed form of the High Prelate standing beside him. He’d been so lost in thought, apparently, that the old man had been able to sneak up on him. He was slipping; not a mistake he could allow himself to make again.

“Does the question need to be asked?” he said, turning to face the elderly priest. “I attend your church often enough, don’t I?”

The High Prelate chuckled. “I didn’t ask if you attended church,” he said. “I asked if you were a man of faith.”

Quarinis raised an eyebrow. “Is there a difference?”

“All the difference in the world,” the High Prelate says. “And so my question stands.”

Quarinis smiled thinly. “You are a discerning man,” he said. “And your question is an interesting one. Faith in what, I wonder? Do I believe in the Lord? The Lord is much greater than I, High Prelate, and whether They exist or not, I doubt my belief – or lack thereof – is of any particular importance to Them. Do I believe in the collective divinity of the emperors, as the Imperial Cult of my own homeland teaches? I serve one Emperor, the one alive today – if there is some force connecting and animating all emperors past, present, and future, that is a question for philosophers, not for a simple servant of the state such as myself.”

“But you do believe in something,” the High Prelate said.

“Yes,” Quarinis whispered. “I believe in the Empire, which is larger and grander than myself and which will endure beyond my death, but which, unlike the Lord or the Imperial Spirit, will actually benefit materially from my service. I believe in duty; unlike so many of our patricians or your nobles, I believe that power is of no use unless it is put to a purpose, and my purpose is the service of the state. And I believe in humanity, which to survive requires a strong will to guide it lest it fall once again to the chaos that nearly consumed us all when Terra was lost. So yes, High Prelate, I would consider myself a man of faith, though perhaps not in the same sense you would.” He paused and regarded the older man for a long moment. “Is there any particular reason you ask me this question, or do you merely consider it your clerical duty to nose into other people’s business?”

“It simply occurs to me that of all who have served in this palace, we three have been here longer than almost anyone,” the High Prelate said. “You, me, Duke Mardoban. And yet, I really feel I know you very little. You give away nothing that you don’t mean to, Ambassador, and though you have worked diligently on your government’s behalf for as long as I’ve known you, it occurred to me that I didn’t have any real understanding of what motivated you in that effort. But I think you were as honest with me just now as I’ve ever seen you.”

“Indeed?” Quarinis asked. “And what prompted these thoughts, exactly? What are you worried about, High Prelate?”

The old priest snorted. “What am I not worried about, these days?” he said. “Three duchies in open revolt, an untried girl on the throne – this is the sort of moment on which history turns, and I’m not sure yet which way it will turn. This is not a time to be comfortable with uncertainties, Ambassador. To say nothing of the wars in your own country, between the Empire and the Alaelam – a conflict that has cost too much already.”

“The Alaelam Wars have not touched the Dozen Stars,” Quarinis said, genuinely surprised. “I did not realize they would attract your attention, when your own calling takes you closer to home.”

“All of humanity are the Lord’s children and therefore part of my flock, Alaelam and Imperial as well as Dozen Stars and Realtran,” the High Prelate said. “As High Prelate of this Kingdom I have certain obligations, but in my heart, I cannot place one life above another, and any war is a cause for grievance.”

“That is a noble sentiment,” Quarinis said. “And, though it may surprise you, it is one I can genuinely respect. Therefore, allow me to give you a warning. This is indeed the sort of moment on which history turns, but it may not turn the way you expect – and the turning may be more dramatic than you would wish. Prepare yourself, High Prelate. Change is coming, and though change is often painful, I promise you that in the end, we will all be stronger for it.”

“That sounds like a threat, Ambassador,” the High Prelate said. “What do you know?”

“Many things,” Quarinis said. “Most of which, alas, are not fit to be discussed in a public venue, but I will leave you with this – the Church’s roots are in the Empire, and Verus Licinius values that relationship and would prefer to see it strengthened, to the benefit of all.” A light flashing on his wrist comm caught his eye, and Quarinis sighed. “But for now, I must take my leave. Thank you for the stimulating conversation.”

Quarinis turned and swept away, leaving a confused and troubled cleric behind him; once he was out of sight, he pulled up his messages and saw the identity of the one who’d sent the most recent – Naudar. Well, better him than the others; Naudar could be reasoned with. Still, if he’d seen fit to initiate communication, that meant things weren’t going well and Quarinis’s attention would be needed.

A true servant of the Empire’s work, as they said, was never done.



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Chapter Twenty-Two

Katanes, Baronial Palace

No sooner had Arta entered the stable tower than she found herself bowled over by several tons of excited izdakan. The great creatures knew their own strength, thankfully, and had been trained not to harm humans, so the encounter was merely embarrassing rather than lethal, but still, having a beaked head roughly the size of a human body shoved into one’s path was something that was, at best, startling.

Arta took a moment to catch her breath and then smiled; without raising from where she lay on her back, she reached her arms up and wrapped them in an embrace around the izdakan’s head, lifting her own head just enough to nuzzle the long beak. “Hi, Ezi,” the young queen said. “Been awhile, hasn’t it? I’ve missed you, too.”

Ezi slowly pulled back, allowing Arta to get to her feet; looking over her shoulder, she saw her guards watching apprehensively and held up a hand to let them know she was fine, before turning back to nuzzle Ezi’s beak. “I’m sorry I’ve been away so long, girl,” she whispered to the izdakan. “When I left for Carann I didn’t expect I’d be made queen, and it turns out that sort of thing doesn’t leave you much time for yourself. I wish I was back for a happier reason, but I’m not. I don’t know if we’ll be able to fly together before I leave, but I hope so.”

“You always did like it up here,” a voice said from behind her, and Arta turned to see her adoptive father entering the stables. They hadn’t had much of a chance to talk at dinner – several of the local minor nobles and ranking guildsmen from the city had been present as well, and had spent most of the meal grilling Arta on the rebellion and her plans for dealing with it, questions she’d mostly managed to dodge gracefully. This was the first time she’d been really able to look at the Baron since she’d been home; he appeared much as she remembered, tall and straight-backed with a quiet dignity, but also a warmth beneath that was there for those who knew to look for it.

Arta shrugged. “I liked the izdakans, and I liked to fly,” she said. “I still remember when you taught Karani and me to ride them.” It was something the Baron had done himself, not entrusted to a tutor. Arta could still recall sitting in front of her father in the saddle as he’d shown her how to handle the reins, and then watching as the world fell away beneath them when their mount leaped into the sky.

“I remember you were frightened of them, when I first brought you up here,” the Baron said, smiling. He walked over to Ezi and scratched her under her chin; the izdakan let out a contented thrum. “But they’re gentle things once you get to know them.” He turned back to Arta. “Walk with me,” he said, gesturing for her to follow.

They walked across the stable away from the guards and over to one of the open-air platforms from which the izdakan leaped into the sky; the golden sunlight was slowly falling into darkness, leaving the mountains below them in shadow, broken by the distant lights of Tannen City. The two of them were silent for some time as they watched the twilight scene below them, Ezi’s head revolving on its long neck to keep them in sight; finally, the Baron spoke. “I was proud of you today, Arta,” he said. “You kept your head under fire and led your forces to victory against a powerful foe. You did what a leader should.”

“Thank you, Father,” Arta said. “It sounds better than it was, when you put it that way. I didn’t do much but sit and watch; Lieutenant Rehan gave all the orders.”

“You knew to put her in command, and let her do her job,” the Baron said, smiling. “You’d be amazed how many nobles think that having a title means that they’re automatically experts and everything, all evidence to the contrary. A good leader knows how, and when, to delegate. And that it can be important to let yourself be seen, acting under fire and keeping your head – even if it doesn’t seem like it amounts to much, it can inspire those who serve under you to action, knowing that you’re sharing their risks.”

“You did that too today,” Arta said. “Maybe we should both be proud.” She paused. “It’s not over, though. Respen’s not going to give up just because we bloodied his nose.”

“No, I don’t think so,” the Baron said. “I have the defense force watching Respen’s squadron, and they haven’t made another move to attack yet, but neither have they left the system. I don’t know what they’re planning, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of them. We’ll be ready for them when they do come, though. As ready as we can be.”

“And I’m not leaving until Katanes is safe,” Arta replied, then she grinned slyly. “Karani would never forgive me if I made her leave and it meant she’d end up missing the action.”

The Baron chuckled. “That she wouldn’t,” he said. Karani had disappeared after dinner, and Arta wasn’t sure where she was; one of the guildsmen had a rather handsome nephew, though, and she wouldn’t be surprised if Karani hadn’t pulled him aside down a relatively private corridor. But she knew her words were true, in any case – Karani wasn’t someone to run from a fight, especially not if the people she cared about were threatened.

“Your friend didn’t say much, but she interested me,” the Baron said, pulling Arta back to reality. “Latharna – that’s a Realtran name. She’s the ambassador’s aide, isn’t she? The one who helped rescue you from those assassins?”

“That’s right,” Arta said. “Latharna Dhenloc. She’s very brave, and a very good person to have at your side in a fight. I’m lucky to have her.” And she’s pretty, and selfless, and a better person than she realizes she is, and I don’t know how to explain how she makes me feel, she thought, but didn’t dare say out loud. She hoped her feelings didn’t show on her face, or at least that the Baron didn’t recognize them.

But considering that he’d raised her from infancy, that was, perhaps, too much to ask. “I know that look, Arta,” he said, his expression softening. “And I can guess what it means. If you’re worried I’m going to be the disapproving father who thinks no one is good enough for his little girl, you don’t have to me. If she makes you happy, then I’m glad you met her. But remember, Arta, people in our positions don’t always get to follow our hearts. Someday you may have to choose between your heart and our Kingdom. I pray you don’t have to, but… be ready for it, if it comes.”

“I know,” Arta said sadly, hanging her head. “Where is, Latharna, anyway?” she asked after a brief silence. “I haven’t seen her since dinner.”

“I thought I heard her asking Danash where the palace library was,” the Baron said; Arta looked up in surprise. Knowing Latharna, she’d have expected her to look for either the chapel or the training hall. “I’m sure she’s fine,” he continued, perhaps noticing Arta’s expression. “If there was anything unusual happening in the palace, I’d have been alerted to it.” A cool breeze blew in across the platform, rustling their hair. Outside, the sun had sunk behind the mountains.

“It’s getting cold out here,” the Baron said. “I think we’d best head back inside.” Turning to Arta, he put an arm around her shoulder. “I’m glad we were able to have this talk,” he said. “I’ve missed both my girls. I always knew the day would come when you’d have to leave us – but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

“Not for me, either,” Arta said, unexpectedly blinking tears from her eyes. “But I promise you, know matter how far I go or who I become, Katanes will always be my home, and you and Karani will always be my family.” On impulse she leaned forward and wrapped the Baron in a tight embrace.

Turning, they made their way back into the palace, stopping to bid good night to Ezi. As they were leaving the stables, the Baron paused, frowning. “All of this talk puts me in mind of the man who started all of this,” he said. “Shiran wasn’t with you. Have you seen him lately? Do you have any idea what he’s up to?”

“I don’t,” Arta said, frowning. That was a question worth considering; she hadn’t seen the Professor in months now. Where was he? And what was he doing?

She wasn’t sure if it was Adept’s instincts or just ordinary intuition, but she had a feeling she’d know the answer to that question before long.


The Baronial Library of Katanes wasn’t nearly as large as those Latharna had heard of on planets like Carann or Realtran Prime, or even the library of the Dansa Academy, where she’d spent so much time in her childhood, but it was still an impressive sight. Located on one of the lower floors of the palace, the library consisted of a large main hall and several side chambers, all of them lined with shelves containing countless books; in the center of the room were a number of computer terminals through which more information could be accessed. And yet for all that, the library had a rather homey, intimate feel, or so Latharna found herself thinking. Perhaps it was the simple fact that she was the only person here that made it feel like she had the entire place to herself, save for the mechs that hovered silently by as they patrolled the collection.

After a quick query, one of those mechs had directed Latharna towards the books she sought; a collection of texts regarding ethical philosophy, theology, and, perhaps most importantly, codes of knighthood. Somewhere in these pages, she thought, she might be able to find something that would help her navigate the conflict in her soul and find the answers she needed. Could the bloodlust that she found inside herself whenever she was in a fight be put to a constructive, even noble end after all? Or was she, as she feared, little more than a murderer, a danger to everyone she met?

Unfortunately, most of the works she’d found seemed more interested in questions of abstract theory than actually providing useful answers, and so, Latharna thought, perhaps she could be forgiven if her interests had strayed to other, rather more exciting topics…

So engrossed was she in this latest book that she didn’t even hear the sound of approaching footsteps until someone cleared their throat loudly. Looking up, Latharna found herself staring into the face of Karani ast Katanes, who was standing with her arms folded.

“Looks like someone’s making themselves at home,” Karani said; she sounded annoyed, but their seemed to be a faintly amused look in her eyes that Latharna took as a good sign as she scrambled to her feet, her book dropping to the ground beside her. Not that standing alleviated the feeling that she was being loomed over; Latharna had always been tall for a girl, but Karani was at least another head taller.

“Lady Karani,” Latharna said, feeling that erring on the side of formality would be best; after all, Karani might be Arta’s sister but she didn’t really know her that well, and this was her house, after all. “I, ah, asked Master Danash if I could make use of the library and he gave me permission; I’m terribly sorry if I’ve been a poor guest, it wasn’t my intention.”

Karani rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, and gestured towards a couple of chairs over by the computer terminals. “I just wanted to talk to you; take a seat.” She paused, regarding Latharna quizzically. “What did you want to read so badly, anyway?” Her eyes fell to the book Latharna had dropped, and the Realtran girl felt a sudden flush of embarrassment and fought the urge to grab it as fast as possible and stuff it back on the shelf.

Karani bent down and picked up the book, then turned it over to read the title. “The Noble Art of Courtly Love, by Lady Kassandra ast Tashir.” She looked up at Latharna and smirked. Latharna, flushing madly now, made a small sound that might have been “epp.”

Luckily, Karani didn’t seem angry; she dropped into one of the chairs, stretched her long legs out in front of her, and gestured for Latharna to take the seat opposite her. “Look, I know you’re sweet on my sister; you haven’t exactly been hiding it,” Karani said finally. “And you can stop acting like you think I’m going to bite your head off for everything you say. Honestly, I’m not that scary – Arta’s the serious one. I’m the fun one.”

“So, you’re, ah, not going to tell me to stay away from Arta if I know what’s good for me, then?” Latharna asked, suddenly feeling relieved.

Karani shrugged. “If I did, it wouldn’t matter – Arta’s queen, and she clearly wants you around, and it’s not like I can overrule the queen. Which is unfair, by the way, since I’m almost a year older than she is, but there you have it. But, I have, after much thought, decided I’m not even going to try, anyway. I’ll admit I didn’t like you at first. I mean, you came out of nowhere and were suddenly worming your way into Arta’s confidence – you were obviously a plant. But then you saved her life not once but twice, and that matters to me. So, I’ll swallow my pride – not easy, by the way – and admit I was wrong.” She held out a hand. “Peace?”

“Peace,” Latharna said, taking Karani’s hand and shaking it. “Thank you for saying that, La – Karani. I guess I was just worried you were watching me and, well, judging me. I mean, Arta did tell me you thought your last tutor was a spy, too.”

Karani shrugged again. “What can I say?” she asked. “The guy was suspicious. But he did take us to a cheap diner – which was surprisingly good, you should try it – and let me buy a wonderful hat, so that’s a tiny point in his favor. So, did you just come down here to look up love tips, or what?”

“Well, there were… other things on my mind,” Latharna said, but didn’t elaborate further. Some things she wasn’t ready to share, even if Karani was proving far more personable than expected. “But I’ve never met anyone as brave, and noble and selfless as your sister, and I guess I want to make sure I impress her. And I knew your country has a tradition of knights dedicating themselves and their service to the person they love…”

“Only if you’re a hopeless romantic,” Karani put in.

“…and I know I’m not really a knight,” Latharna continued, ignoring Karani’s comment, “but she is a queen, and when I came across that book – well, I just started reading and couldn’t help myself.” She sighed. “What am I even doing? I’m not a knight. I’m not from the Dozen Stars, and I’m not even a noble – I’m just an orphan from Realtran. I don’t even know if Arta likes girls.”

“Well, I can’t help you with the rest,” Karani said, “but I grew up with Arta and we talked about things like what celebrities we were crushing on, and I can assure you that she likes guys and girls.” She frowned. “Come to think, I have seen you and Pakorus together on Carann. And I’m pretty sure Pakorus likes Arta, too. My, what a tangle.”

Latharna buried her face in her hands.

“Don’t worry, I won’t take your head off if you wind up breaking her heart,” Karani said in a joking tone. “Not like I could, if you fight half as well as she says you do. Though I may have to write it all out, maybe get it published whatever happens – courtly romances are all the rage on Carann. I’d just have to change the names, but that’s easy.”

“Write a book?” Latharna asked. “I’m sorry, but you don’t really seem the type.”

Karani threw up her hands. “Why does everyone always think that?” she asked. “Just because I prefer being up doing things to sitting still being boring doesn’t mean I don’t know my way around books. Though I always was better at math anyway. Numbers make sense. People don’t.”

“I’ll try not to be offended,” Latharna said. “So, now that we’ve got that out of the way and I’ve thoroughly embarrassed myself, what did you come down here to talk about, anyway?”

“Well, we’ve kind of already covered it,” Karani said, looking, for once, unsure. “It’s just… back there on Tantos, when the rebels tried to kill Arta, you were there for her when I couldn’t be, and you saved her life. Again. And I just wanted to say thank you, and to apologize for ever doubting you. And for calling you creepy that one time. That was mean of me. But the point is, we ast Kataneses take family seriously. You saved my sister, and that means I’m in your debt. You need anything from me? Just ask.”

A sudden stab of warmth filled Latharna’s chest. “Thank you, Karani,” she said. “That means a lot to me, and I promise you, nobody will ever hurt Arta if I have anything to say about it.”

“Me neither,” Karani said. “You know, Dhenloc, you’re all right. And I don’t think anybody’s getting past the two of us, not even Darius ast bloody Sakran. If he tries, I’ll punch him in the face. Not too hard, though.”

“Why not?” Latharna asked.

Karani looked at her like she’d just said something ridiculous. “Because he might be a traitor, but he’s still the handsomest man in the Kingdom. I’m not ruining that face, thank you very much!”

Latharna couldn’t help herself; she burst out laughing.


Arta’s eyes snapped suddenly open.

She’d gone to sleep in her old bedroom, unchanged save for the royal guards stationed outside the door; she felt like several hours must have passed, and now every fiber in her being was crying out that she wasn’t alone. Arta lay very still, carefully controlling her breathing so that whoever the intruder was, they wouldn’t realize she was awake; she could hear the sound of footsteps walking around her bed. She waited carefully as they came closer, then leaped to her feet suddenly, hands outstretched before her, fingers blazing with blue light.

That light illuminated the face of a tall man, dark-skinned, with a close-cropped white beard and wise, patient eyes. He regarded Arta’s glowing hands and smiled. “You’ve been practicing, I see,” he said. “It’s always a pleasure for a teacher to know that his students have valued his teachings.”

“Shiran?” Arta asked, stunned. She lowered her hands, focusing on the blue light so that it flowed off her fingers and hung between the two of them, a glowing blue ball that flared brighter and illuminated the room. “Where have you been? What are you doing here? And why didn’t you wait until morning instead of nearly scaring me half to death?”

Shiran smiled sadly. “It’s good to see you, Arta,” he said. “As for your questions, the answers are not unrelated. I’ve been looking for information – and I’m not the only one, Midaia has as well – and what I’ve found disturbed me greatly. I decided you needed to know at once, and so when I heard you had left for Katanes, I came here as well. I had a feeling your guards might not take kindly to my arrival, so I didn’t give them the opportunity. And now, here we are.”

“Okay,” Ara said, her breathing and heartbeat steadying. “So, what were you looking for? And what did you find?”

“Like Midaia, I was seeking the origins of the Commander,” he said. “Unlike her, I attracted the wrong kind of attention. I had travelled to the Empire to interrogate some old contacts of mine when I was jumped by several of the Emperor’s pet Adepts. None of them was terribly powerful, but they had the advantage of numbers and I only just escaped. I did, however, manage to steal the wrist comm from one of them. The Empire quickly locked the device out of their network, of course, but before they did, I found some most intriguing information. Namely, that someone high in the Imperial ranks has been in regular contact with three dukes of the Dozen Stars – Naudar, Respen, and Sateira.”

Arta went cold. “Then that means…” she whispered.

“Yes,” Shiran said. “The Empire is behind this rebellion – or at least, in very deep, if not all the way at the bottom. I know all three of the rebel dukes, and I doubt they needed much encouragement. And this makes me wonder. When the assassins attacked the tournament, the first thing they did was have me attacked and drugged. They knew to expect me. So did whoever ordered those Adepts in the Empire to kill me. I have to wonder if the same hand hasn’t been pulling both sets of strings. Perhaps…” he shook his head. “No. You have enough to worry about without being burdened by an old man’s follies. Perhaps Midaia will have better luck. She’s much younger than I am and hasn’t had time to make as many powerful enemies. But I needed to warn you as soon as I could – this plot you face is deeper and more dangerous than you realize.”

“What do you recommend I do about it?” Arta asked, trying to sound calm even as her head was spinning.

“First, we need to deal with the rebels,” Shiran said. “They are the obvious and immediate threat. Then we can trace the strings back to whoever holds them…”

His words were cut off by a sudden siren echoing through the palace, a harsh, blaring sound – one Arta had never heard before in real life, but that she’d been trained to recognize. “That’s the air raid alert,” she whispered, pulling her sleeping robe more tightly around her as she realized what it meant. “We’re under attack.”


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@MasterGhandalf Very nice :-) I'll admit I was worried that you wouldn't continue posting after a years absence, but I'm still enjoying the story, though I don't remember all the details :-P and I like your explanation of how Adept's powers work, the similarities to the force and to Lovecraft, and the reference to one of my favourite ancient poetic phrases with the music of the spheres :-)

I am a bit curious as to how succession would work with an openly homosexual monarch, and if any such thing has happened in the past of the kingdom. Still, I'm enjoying reading this again, and I hope you have a great week!

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