Saturday, 07 July 2012 20:41

Imperial Odyssey - The Betrayal

Written by  Jon Chan
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You know how this story ends.  Of how the Zinotoniean Empire conquered Tloyd.  But to understand the story we need to go back to the beginning. 

    Ambassador Karin was a stout man.  The pace he was keeping up had caused a sweat to break out on his brow.  He struggled to follow the floating messenger orb.
    “This is ridiculous,” said Krin.  “I am a member of the Zintoniean royal family.  I demand to know why you woke me at this hour.”
    The orb continued to move forward, but spun around so that its bright blue ocular faced Karin.  “My apologies ambassador, but I was not told the nature of your meeting.  Though, I would speculate that it would have to do with them...”
    The orb jerked towards a group of men.  They were dressed in bright silver breast plates over blue uniforms.  A gold crest depicting a fist adorned each of their chests.
    “What are you doing here Tloyd?” asked Karin.  “Why don't you go back to your mud huts?”
    One of the Tloyd, a man gold of head, spat in Karin's direction.  A smile creased the ambassador's face.  It always brought him joy to irk lesser species.
    He rounded a corner on the way towards the First Minister's Office.  The echo of a dozen boots thundered behind.  Karin tried to quicken his pace.  He felt many eyes on his back. 
    “Your Excellency,” said a voice behind. 
    Karin put on his most assertive face before whirling around.  “What do you...”
    He clenched his teeth.  Looking down, he saw a blade sticking out of his chest.  It went under the rib cage and into his heart.  With the last of his strength, he looked up and stared at his killer.  For his last thought, he wished that Zintonieans could grow hair as gold as that.

    Karina bit her knuckle.  She felt the weight of her crown even though it wasn't there.  At nineteen years old, Karina was half a head shorter than most women she knew.  However, that did not detract from her commanding presence with piercing golden eyes and high cheekbones.  She was seated at the head of the table, her advisers all around. 
    High General Zi spoke first.  The old man slapped the table.  “We cannot take this affront.  We cannot let it go.  We must have war.”
    Karina shook her head.  “No war.”
    “Majesty, he was your uncle...”
    “...I am aware he was my uncle.  But killing many Tloyd will not bring him back.  Minister Dara, have you been able to contact the head of the Tloyd government?”
    When Dara spoke only her eyes could be seen.  Every inch of her was wrapped in antimicrobial silver cloth that reflected the sunlight.  As a little girl Karina used to tell stories around campfires about what was underneath.  None of them were substantiated.  Little was known about Dara.  Karina wasn't even sure what species she was.
    “That is difficult.  The Tloyd leadership is currently in a state of flux.”
    “I don't understand.  Surely there must be some representative you can reach?”
    “The Tloyd are ruled by a single fascist leader who is head of one the twenty or so supremacist houses.   All of whom, trace their lineage to the original Four Fathers who founded the United World Alliance on Tloyd.  Each house is supported by about a dozen clans which make up their merchants and mid level commanders.  Underneath them are the guilds which handle the sciences and manufacturing.  And on the very bottom are the tribes which filled out the rank and file,” said Dara.
    “How is this single leader chosen?” asked Karina.
    “The leader or chief is unquestionably so.”
    “And if there is doubt?”
    “Then there is war until all doubt is removed,” said Dara.  “Houses stay in power by suppressing the others and their followers.  The majority of Tloyd do not enjoy their government.”
    “I can see why.  Who is supposed to be in charge now?” 
    “Right now, there is transition.  Prince Luda, leader to the House of Two Phoenixes is soon to be named Chief.  He has just wiped out the House of Stampeding Horse.”
    Karina arched an eyebrow.  “Wiped out?”
    “Those who were not killed on the battle field were forced to convert.  The bloodshed has created an opening for a clan to promoted to house status and the cycle beings all over again.” 
    Such barbarity, thought Karina.  She could not comprehend it.  The Tloyd people must be in constant terror.  The slightest change in the political climate could spill their blood.  The thought of war to quell this violence seemed more palatable.  It seemed almost righteous.
    “Major Tone,” said Karina.  “You have fought the Tloyd before.  What are your insights?  If we went to war with them, do you think we could conquer them?” 
    “Of course,” said General Zi.  “I wager that one of our cruisers could take four of their frigates.”
    “I was not asking you,” said Karina. 
    “Your mother showed me more respect,” said Zi, under his breath.
    “My mother is dead.  I am the queen now.”
    Zi bowed his head.  “As you should be.  Long live the queen.”
    “Long live the queen,” everyone echoed. 
    Karina gestured for Tone to continue.
    “Your Highness, what the Tloyd lack in technological prowess they make up for in cunning and ferocity.  They don't stand toe-to-toe with our cruisers.  They come in close and launch slam ships, hull piercing transport.  The first wave are filled with poison gas, the second with the rank and file and the third with the retainers.  Once the fire fight begins, and the hand-to-hand combat, it's over.  Everything the Tloyd do plays to their strengths.  You may kill them but you will never conquer them.”
    “It seems like their entire culture revolves around death and fighting,” said Karina.
    “If I may interject, your majesty,” said Dr. Lim.  “The Tloyd culture is centered around honor.  Most of their cultures believe that honored dead watch over them and perform miracles.  Bad things happen because the dishonored, or harpoona, are responsible for ill happenings.  So the only way to have good fortune is to create more honored dead to do battle with the harpoona.  And only those who fall in combat or in service to their masters are considered the honored dead.” 
    “It's a wonder that the Tloyd maintain a population at all, with all that killing,” said Economic Secretary Inara Senva. 
    “I encountered a tribe called the Ivo in which each man had three wives and each wife had three husbands.  Mass orgies every night,” said Dr. Lim.
    “Studied it carefully, did you?” asked Senva.
    “For purely scientific reasons,” said Dr. Lim, crossing his arms. 
    “I'm sure,” said Senva.  “Plenty of documentation required.”
    “Enough,” said Karina.  “What is to be done?”
    An electronic tablet in front of Dara vibrated.  She looked down and stared reading a message.  “We may not have to do anything.  The new Tloyd government has been formed.  They are sending an ambassador as we speak.  A Krav Dragova of the Clan of the Golden Fist.”
    “What do we know of this Krav Dragova?” asked Karina.
    “A far amount.  His mother was a member of the House of Two Phoenixes.  His father a member of the aforementioned clan.  He chose to wear father's emblem, probably to escape persecution when the House fell into disfavor twenty-six years ago.  He was a general during the Saru Peninsula  Conflict.  After driving out the organized crime rings from Tloyd space, Krav took their place.  He has his hands in shipping, security, and just about everything else that makes money.”
    “Rich, is he?” asked Karina.
    “Very.  By our estimates, probably one of the top ten riches men in the galaxy.”
    “Good.  Rich men are easy to control,” said Karina.
    “Your Majesty, if this Tloyd is some sort of agent,” said Zi.  “He will have the resources to cause considerable damage.”
    “General, rich men are predictable.  All their moves boil down to one thing: becoming richer.”

    In the throne room, the queen sat atop a six stepped daises.  Overhead was a canopy that was made of white silk and silver thread to give the aura that the monarch was seated amongst the clouds.  On either side of the first step were two chairs, their backs shaped like columns that reached from the floor to the feet of the queen.  On the right, sat the leader of senate and the economics secretary.  On left, the Voice of the Divine light and the Supreme Judge took their seats.  The entire room had a white marble veneer.  Arched glass windows that stretched from floor to ceiling let in enough light to strain the eye. 
    Lining the causeway was anyone of note.  The oak doors to the throne room opened and trumpets sounded. 
    “His most noble, Ambassador Krav Dragova,” said the Herald. 
    A man who was two meters tall crossed the threshold followed by his entourage.  He was wearing gold and black robes.    A gold medallion dangled over his heart.  He stopped twelve paces before the throne and knelt.
    “Your most glorious Majesty, I bid you accept this humble servant into your court,” Krav said.
    “We are happy to receive you,” said Karina. 
    “I know that there is a gulf between our peoples.  It is my utmost hope that this gift will help heal the wrongs that had been done to you,” said Krav. 
    The Tloyd ambassador snapped his fingers.  A female servant approached carrying a wooden box.  A second servant approached the throne balancing a silver platter.  Krav opened the box, reaching inside he pulled out a head, gold of hair.  He placed it on the platter.  A gasp went through the crowd.
    “Behold, the man who killed your uncle.  Soo Mosette, a rouge on my world, hellbent on causing war between our peoples,” said Krav.  “I tracked down this villain and remand him to your custody.”
    “Your gift is duly noted,” said Karina.  “As barbaric as it is.”
    “Perhaps something more civilized then,” said Krav.  He clapped his hand and two more servants appeared through the doorway.  Between them, they carried a yellow dress.  “It's the height of fashion on Tloyd.”
    “It's yellow,” said Karina, as if in an afterthought. 
    “It's a symbol.  Bright as the sun.  It is the first of many goods that will flow between our worlds.  I have already completed contracts that will open vast mining resources to your people, as well as patents to a new vaccine.” 
    Karina leaned back in her throne.  Her eyes had not left the head mounted on the silver platter.  “You are most generous.  I only hope that we can reciprocate your gifts.”

Morals are meant to be bent

Nunu's was a casino located on the outskirts of the city of Zir.  Krav entered with his wife Masi.  They looked like polar opposites walking through the door.  She was voluptuous, with blonde hair and wearing a bright red dress.  He was lanky with dark hair and deep sunken eyes.  A dark suit was draped over his body.  Behind them walked a chiseled young man in a clean pressed white shirt. 
    Krav nodded towards a small Zintoniean woman holding a clip board.  She was balding, with a sagging middle aged gut.  Her gill slits were red and puffy from a recent bout with the flu.  Krav made note of all these details as he put on his largest smile.
    “Secretary Senva,” said Krav, holding out his arms.
    The startled economist whirled around.  “Ah...ah...your excellency, what an unexpected surprise.” 
    “Indeed.  Have you met my wife?  Masi, this is Inara Senva.  This woman runs the entire Zintoniean economy.  And this is Neil Hardgrove, deputy ambassador.”
    “Nice to meet you all.  May I ask, what are you doing here?” asked Senva. 
    “Soaking up some local culture.  Come, do you know how to play any of these games?” asked Krav.
    “Oh...I... a little.  I've been known to throw a few dice.”
    “Perhaps you could due me the honor and teach this game to me.”
    Krav wrapped his arm around the secretary and led her towards a felt table.  The table top was covered with various patterns of green, blue, red, and black.
    “What is this?” asked Krav.   
    “This is efa.  There are four, four sided die with colors on each side.  You bet on the combination of colors.”
    “Excellent,” said Krav.  He clasped his hands together.  He turned to his wife.  “Darling, my credit disk.” 
    She reached inside her purse and pulled out a clear plastic disc.  When Krav took it the disc came to life, displaying his name and image.  He placed the disc on the table.
    “One-hundred fifty catams on all green,” said Krav. 
    “That's a very risky bet,” said Senva.  “You should do a spread and buy some insurance.  I prefer a green-black split.” 
    The dice master place the four dice into a clay pot.  “Bets are closed.”  He shook the pot and tossed them onto the table.  “Black-Red split.”
    “Ah, you see bad bet,” said Senva.
    “I can afford it,” said Krav.  “And I can afford much more.”  He tapped his disc again.  “Two-hundred fifty two thousand eighty four catams on all green.”
    “That's a big bet.  Very big bet,” said Senva, eyes wide.
    “Again, I can afford it.  I can afford that and so much more,” said Krav.
    “All blue.”
    “It seems that you have lost,” said Senva.   
    “It's a win if I have gained a friend,” said Krav.  “Have I gained a friend?”
    “Of course,” said Senva.

    The Queen was seated at her desk, the main screen was extended, displaying a dozen different things that needed her immediate attention.  At the corner of the screen, a news network that played opposition propaganda played.  According to them, every move that Karina made was going to destroy the Universe.  Even when she adopted the same stances, the opposition claimed she was pandering to the mob.  The latest story was about the riots breaking out on the outer rim. 
    Intelligence Minister Dara was in the room.  The old woman silent.  Under her billowing cloaks, it was impossible to tell if she was breathing.  If Karina had not seen her come in she would have mistaken the woman as part of the furniture.     
    Dara had slid a piece of parchment in front of her.  It was densely covered with block writing, most of which had been redacted.  Just looking at it made Karina's head hurt.
    “What is this?” asked Karina. 
    “It is an order of execution against her royal highness Princess Maalin,” said Dara. 
    Karina's eyes flicked to the paper before turning back to her screen. 
    “I shall think on it,” she said.  She knew that the motion would expire if remained undecided after two weeks.  It was a song and dance she had watched her mother perform before.  “It's an election year and I'm only seven points up in the polls.” 
    “A mighty dragon does not concern herself with the clucking of chickens.  Your mother never did,” said Dara. 
    “Then perhaps it was a blessing that she died when she did,” said Karina.  The former queen was down twenty points two months before the election.  When she had a heart attack, Karina took her place, turning the campaign around. 
    “There have been more riots in the outer rim planets,” said Dara, circling. 
    “But the murder rate is down.  Best there is civil protest rather than bloodshed.” 
    “They are uniting against you.  Your sister is behind it.  And this Tloyd...this Krav Dragova will reach out to her.  With his money she could rise up against you.” 
    Karina snorted.  “If he can find her.” 
    “He is a resourceful man and she is desperate,” said Dara.  “She must die.  You must give the order else prove your mother right that you are the weak link.”
    “You are dismissed,” said Karina. 
    The old woman did not leave the room.  She slammed her palm down desk, causing the screen to retract.
    “If you do not sign, your rule will be broken.  The Law will disintegrate.”
    Karina rose from her seat.  Dara might have been the second most power woman in the Empire, but she could not speak to her Queen in such a manner.  “And what law will I break if I sign this?  Might as well slit my own wrists and sign it in blood.” 
    “If you don't do this, skip the signing and save us all the trouble,” said Dara and left.
    Karina shook her head.  Thinks were so much easier when she was in the Engineering Corps.

           Dr. Ali did not liked to be kept waiting.  He shifted his weight from one foot to another at the docking port of the science ship Hydra.  The airlock doors opened with a groan as a woman wrapped head to toe in gold cloth stepped through.  Ali didn't like formalities but he knew that he had to observe them with this woman.  The head of the intelligence community was not to be disrespected.
    “Minister Dara, it is good to see you,” he said bowing. 
    Dara stopped as the walls around her glowed a pale blue.  The scanners went to work sweeping every chromosome, looking for any discrepancies.  Ali had once used the data collected to reconstruct what Dara looked.  Accounting for the damage done by radiation, she was not an all unattractive woman, once. 
    “I hope you have some good news,” said Dara.
    “Just completed the prototype this morning.  He is in perfect working order.” 
    “Good.”  Dara reached into the folds of her clothes and pulled out a small round disk.  A hologram appeared in her palm.  “What is it?”
    “Excuse me Minister, but Secretary Senva wishes to view the demonstration.”
    “Tell that leech that it is her place to find the money not see how it is spent,” said Dara, terminating the call.
    Ali led Dara to an observation room overlooking a round chamber that had metal panels for walls.  The doctor pushed a button on the wall.  One of the panels slid to one side.  A humanoid figure crossed the threshold.  It was two meters tall and completely black.  It head was shaped like a motorcycle helmet with a short silver cylinder protruding out of it.  If it had been living, its body would have been considered muscular.
    “This is the Night Raider,” said Ali.  “Poly composite armor, dual core quantum computing core, and an Ike Seven power source.”
    “What about its programing?”
    “Seven thousand Queensguard Corps mission files scanned and analyzed by the Night Raider's uristic learning systems.  That along with neuromaps of two elite Queensguard.  This machine has all their skills and knowledge...minus the honor code.  Yeah, he'd eat a baby and wouldn't even bat an eyelash.  Assuming he had a stomach, or a mouth, or eyelashes.” 
    “Is the test ready?” asked Dara.
    Ali pushed another button.  There was a buzz, and another panel opened up.  A Yama gangster stumbled out.  His gut extended over his waist.  He kept close the walls, keeping as much of himself in the shadows as possible.  At his side, he hefted a wooden club with a spike coming through at the end, a weapon favored by thugs in his line of work. 
    “Mr. Gur,” said Dara through the intercom.  “You have been convicted of smuggling, rape and murder charges.”
    “Fuck you,” said Gur.
    “If you wish to go free.  Kill that man over there.  That is all,” said Dara. 
    Gur looked up at Dara then at the Night Raider who was standing still.  Gur did another double take before taking a swing at the robotic assassin.  He caught the machine in the gut.  The Yama grunted, recoiling for another swing.  He clipped the Night Raider across the back of the head. 
    “Opps,” said Ali.  He spoke in the intercom.  “Eliminate the target.  Maximum prejudice.” 
    At the Yama's next attack, the Night Raider caught the bat.  Twisting the club, it lashed out with a side kick.  The club remained in its clutches while Gur went flying.  By the time the gangster hit the ground, the Night Raider was upon him.  It swung the bat over its head.  The spike found its mark right in the middle of the right thigh.  In a fluid motion, the relentless machine came down, kneeing the Yama in the groin and grabbed his head.  For the finishing blow, the Night Raider pushed its thumbs into Gur's bulging eyes.  There was a crack, letting out fluid and stored gasses.  Its task done, the machine stood up and became still. 
    “Impressive,” said Dara.  “How many have you manufactured?”
    “We will have ten thousand by the end of the month,” said Ali.
    “I want this one prepped for travel to the planet Wheaving,” said Dara. 
    “Wheaving?  That's on the outer rim.  What's there?”
    “A baby that needs to be devoured.”

The old ways

  Neil Hardgrove took a deep breath.  Everything was powered down in his Wall Shadow.  His body tug against the restraints as he fighter tumbled through space with debris floating around him.  In front of him was the a Zintoniean science ship.  Krav had taken a sizable chunk out of Senva's debt.  As a favor in return, the Secretary gave them access to invoices, hundreds of them.  Scanning through them, Neil noticed a large amount of industrial equipment being purchased but sent nowhere.  He eventually tracked down a private courier company.  A private company moving publicly purchased goods was unusual and worth Neil's attention.   
    “What are you doing out here?” asked Neil, eying the science ship. 
    As if to answer him, the ship started up its engines.  Neil placed his finger on the quick boot button when he spotted a glimmer.  He took out a spy glass and focused in on the spot.  It was a transport of some sort.  It was block shaped with no identifying marks on its hull.  Unusual.
    There was no way to get a scan on the science ship without being detected.  It was faster.  There was no way for Neil's little scout ship to keep up once it activated its COIL drives.  That left only one move.  Neil turned on his engines and went after the little block. 
    A low profile, sensor absorbing, and blacked out engines made a Wall Shadow superb at pursuing enemies.  Red warning lights began blinking.  Neil's FTL drives were overheating.  The flying block showed no signs of slowing down as it buffered power to its COIL drives.  He was forced to cut his engines.  Slowing down, Neil scanned for the nearest planet.  A navigational beacon told him that he was in the Wheaving system.  It was the only thing of note in the entire sector. 
    “What the hell is out here?” asked Neil. 
    He waited for his engines to restart before heading towards Wheaving. 

    Neil had to shield his eyes from the bright light when he exited his fighter.  It didn't help much that the locals were wrapped in gold an silver clothing that reflected the sun's harsh rays. 
    “A friendly face,” said a female voice behind him. 
    Neil turned around to see a figure wrapped in golden cloth.
    “Soon to be burned to a crisp,” said Neil. 
    “Here, I always carry a spare,” the woman handed him length of cloth to shield his face. 
    “Thank-you.  It's not often that I land on a unfamiliar planet and find kindness.” 
     “Honor, not kindness,” said the woman.  “I see the Iron Feather on your ship.”  She reached under the folds of her clothing to pull out a cooper pendant.  “I am Hanna, of the Averni.” 
    Neil nodded.  “Neil.  We serve the same daimyo.  I was wondering if you could help me find a ship.”
    Hanna looked over her shoulder.  “Such business is not for the street, but for the refreshment house.” 
    She led him to a building with a thatched roof.  They sat at a wooden bar that creaked when he put his hands on it. 
    “Let me treat you,” said Neil.  “What's the most expensive drink here?”
    “Water,” said Hanna.
    The bar tender brought over to glasses filled to the brim.
    “Figures,” said Neil, taking a sip.  After a moment of silence, he leaned in.  “I'm looking for a ship, shaped like a breadbox.” 
    “This is the last planet before the Winn Expanse.  Many ships stop here.  Most don't want to be seen.” 
    “Anything of note then?” asked Neil 
    “Very little,” said Hanna.  “Most of the refueling and resupplies are done up in orbit.  This planet has little ozone.  There is a vast desert called the Forge.  Tamalar oasis on the dark side of the planet.  People only come down here to smuggle goods and pick flowers.” 
    “What are you here to do?” asked Neil. 
    “Prove my worth,” said Hanna.  She eyed him up and down.  “Are you taken?”
    “Betrothed, life long contract,” said Neil. 
    “I'm impressed.” 
    “Don't be.  I'm the lap dog for Krav Dragova, Clan of the Golden Fist.”
    “Fisting you, is he?” asked Hanna. 
    “Something like that,” said Neil.  “This is supposed to be the new age for peace for Tloyd, but it all seems like more of the same.  You want to prove your worth?  Help me find why an Imperial ship would come here.” 

    Krav was seated at Queen Karina's table.  It was an elegant setting.  A silver silk table cloth reflected the light orbs that floated over about which doubled as poison detectors.  They had made it to the end of the meal.  Karina cut into a spice pear that served as a palate cleanser. 
    “It's a pity that your wife could not join you,” said Karina. 
    Krav dabbed a napkin to his mouth.  “It is.  However, our son is sick and she is tending to him.” 
    “I was unaware that you have children.”
    “Just the one.” 
    “It was my believe that Tloyd society places great value on having many children,” said Karina.
    “I've always flied in the face of tradition.  Masi herself is from a lowly tribe, my own mother disowned me when I proclaimed my love.” 
    “Is that why are of your father's clan instead of the more powerful house?” asked Karina.
    “That is so.  And only because my father was dead, thus he couldn't disown me too.  No one can quite damn you like family.  But you know that already don't you?” asked Krav. 
    Karina took a sip of her wine, careful not to appear angry.  “You show great impudence to someone who is far above you.” 
    “I have offended you.  I apologize.” 
    “I will bestow my royal forgiveness if you answer me one question honestly.” 
    “Ask away, your Highness.” 
    “If you were me, what you do?” Karina asked. 
    “Do, your Majesty?” asked Krav. 
    “My enemies are circling.  I can feel there eyes watching me from the shadows.  The only reason that I do not remove your head from your shoulders is that I fear if I strike I will be vulnerable from behind.” 
    Krav sighed.  “I'm from a place called Pallas.  There is a saying there: those who do not strike first will be first struck.” 
    “If I strike first I will be at fault.  It would giving my enemies reason to rally against me.” 
    “If you can't strike, then don't,” said Krav. 
    “Are you suggesting that I do nothing?” 
    “No.  I'm saying you should marshal your resources.  Make anyone who isn't an enemy into a friend.  Play the long game.  Night does not last forever, shadows evaporate.  Your enemies will be revealed.” 
    “And what then?  What do I do when all my foes are out in the open?” asked Karina.  “I don't think that I can stand a blood bath.” 
    “There was a group of pacifists on my planet.  They called themselves the Cognitors.  They devoted their lives to thought and prayer.  Do you know what happened to them?” 
    Karina snorted.  “Did a rampaging army sweep them away?” 
    “No.  They're still out there, just hanging around, not bothering anyone.  They live in the middle of vast ocean.  Just getting to them makes it not worth fighting.  My point is that if you can't strike but your enemies can, then make a battle irrelevant.  Make it not worth fighting.” 
    “I'm afraid that will not work here,” said Karina.  “There is no price for which the throne is not worth it.” 
    “Then stop acting like a queen and starting planning like a chief.  Be the undisputed leader.”

    Krav returned back to the embassy.  He found Masi watching over their sleeping son, Manwell. 
    “You should have seen it,” said Krav.  “Everything was covered in silk.  Even the food.” 
    “I was here,” said Masi. 
    “Sula flu is hardly something to fret over,” said Krav. 
    “He shouldn't have Sula flu, you are immune.  I am immune.” 
    “So, what?  A mutation, the servants to dumb to guess beyond that if do at all,” said Krav.
    “What are we even doing here?” asked Masi. 
    “I think I can make a different here.”
    “For who?  Yourself or for your family?”
    “If I thought that you and Manwell would have a better life on Tloyd we would be there,” said Krav.
    “Whatever, just...just leave, you might wake him,” said Masi. 
    Krav bowed and left.  On his way back to his bedroom he stopped in front of a framed picture.  It was a young him along with his mother and a dark skinned woman. 
    “I wondered how things would have turned out if I listened to you mother.”

Hearts as cold as iron

Neil was waiting inside Hanna's cargo ship.  The outer hull resembled a comet, bulky at one end and narrow at the other.  Neil was inside the living quarter.  It was cramped.  The ceiling was so low that his head would bang against it if he stood up.  The walls were a calming light blue.  A cot was on one end of the room, the lavatory on the other.  A small shrine set up on a self was the only personal touch.  It was a simple thing, just a small bowl filled with rice to support incense sticks.  Neil knew the tradition well, the Averni and his clan occupied the same territory.  It was believed that smoke was the only thing that the spirits of the dead could manipulate, that they could communicate through it.  A few warriors he knew claimed to have been shroud by smoke when they had their back against the wall.  Neil had never had such an experience.   
    The door opened and Hanna stepped through.  She threw off her wrappings.  This was first time Neil had seen her actual face.  It was not as he expected.  Hanna had bright red hair and green eyes.  A scar ran from the corner of her mouth to her right ear.  It was faint, but Neil thought it made Hanna more attractive.  It gave her the air of something forbidden about her. 
    “What did you find?” he asked. 
    “I know what the Imperial ship came here for.  There is a political prison somewhere out in the Forge.  Whatever was in that ship, it wasn't on the level.  One of my contacts said there was someone looking for transport into the desert.” 
    “A political prison on a trade world?” asked Neil.
    “Why not?  Makes it easier to transport undesirables.  Put them on so called trade ships.  No one asks questions here.” 
    Neil thought about using diplomatic channels to gain access to the prison but that thought vanished.  Official government channels would most likely deny the existence of such a facility.  The Zintonieans always prided themselves that they were civilized, too good to wallow in blood stained muck. 
    “Where is this smuggler friend now?” asked Neil.
    “He's going to take off in an hour with said passenger,” said Hanna. 
    They left her ship.  Hanna was armed to the teeth.  She hefted an assault rifle and a rocket launcher over her back.  Neil felt under dressed with only his pulse pistol.  It would have to do.     
    Hanna led Neil to what could only be described as a dock in the sand.  Her pace quickened when she saw a man sprawled out on the ground.  He had light turquoise skin.  Neil couldn't see his face, it was covered with a breathing mask.  Green blood flowed freely from a gash on his forehead. 
    “Shit, Billion.”  Hanna knelt beside her friend, shaking him gently. 
    “He's a Beta Crune,” said Neil.  “They heal very quickly.” 
    “I know what he is,” said Hanna.     
    Billion stirred.  He sat up and clutched his head. 
    “Who did this to you?” asked Hanna.   
    “Our lonely passenger,” said Billion. 
    “How did he get the drop on you?” asked Hanna. 
    “He didn't.  I shot in the head and it didn't even phase him.  Had to have been wearing some sort of new kind of armor.  No one has ever survived a shot from my Luna, here.  He jacked one of my skiffs and went off into the desert.” 
    “Do you think we can catch up to the bastard?” asked Hanna. 
    “The way he was handling the skiff, absolutely.”  The corners of Billion's eyes curled up.  “Let's the fry the fucker.” 
    Billion kept a spare skiff he had been working in a dock house.  It was flat bottom craft with an angled head.  The sand skiffs of Wheaving used no power.  They rode on the winds alone, propelled by massive sails.  Hanna claimed that no one knew the wind currents as well as Billion. 
    Abandoned buildings rushed past.  They were gray, but Neil could tell that they had once stood shinning white.  Every one appeared the same: each had several tall structures surrounded a square with a windmill on edge.
    “What's with all the abandoned villages?” he asked. 
    “Old mining towns.  The landscape is filled with them.  Totally self sufficient.  Those windmill store power by pumping air into tanks to turn turbines later.  You know, not many of your kind like me,” said Billion. 
    “It's my belief that it is time to shed old prejudices.  They do us no good.  You've done me no wrong, why shouldn't I like you?  That is why I first joined Krav Dragova.  He is of a different clan, but he has the vision.”
    Billion nodded ahead.  “There he is.” 
    There was trail of dust from another skiff.  It didn't make sense, thought Neil.  There were three of them in one skiff and they were gaining on a one man craft.  He started having second thoughts.  Why was he even doing this?  Any doubts evaporated when the first shops were fired.  The lone figure let loose a volley of bullets from an arm mounted auto cannon. 
    Neil ducked.  He almost felt the rounds fly whiz over his head.  He looked up and saw pieces of cloth fall on him.  That was it.  It was kill or be killed.  Neil lined up the sights on his pistol.  He squeezed off two plasma bolts.  He punched two thin holes in the hull.  He lined up for another shot.  Maybe if he hit the same spot twice it would be enough to start a fire. 
    “Enough of that pussy shit,” yelled Hanna.  She slung her rocket launcher off her shoulder.  The optical targeting sensors picked up the racing vessel.  She had to take the shot now.  Another ghost town was fast approaching.  The targeting system would have more luck hitting the wings off a fly once they were inside. 
    There was roar and a plume of smoke.  The rocket found its quarry in a matter of milliseconds.  Neil felt the explosion in his chest.  Planks of the enemy hull were flung in every direction. 
    “You're paying for that,” said Billion.
    “Circle around,” said Neil. 
    Billion nodded.  The Crune turned the craft around and headed back towards the settling cloud. 
    “I don't believe it,” said Hanna. 
    Through the dust, they saw a long figure, dressed all in black.  Billion aimed the bow of his craft right at the figure. 
    “What are you doing?” asked Hanna. 
    Billion didn't answer.  His knuckled went white, gripping the controls.  They closed in.  Ten meters, four meters, one meter.  The old Crune bellowed in rage, yanking on the wheel.  They swerved to one side.  The figure didn't even flinch. 
    Neil watched as the figure lifted his arm.  “Watch yourselves.” 
    The figure fired.  There was glimmer in the air and then a thump.  A harpoon had embedded itself in the deck.
    “Slow down,” said Neil.  He reached over and tried to pull the spear head out but it wouldn't budge.  “Slow down.”
    “No need,” said Billion.  “We'll drag that bastard back to town.” 
    They came to skidding halt.  The wooden hull crack.  A baseboard was ripped out.  When they stopped, the craft listed onto its side.  Neil, Hanna, and Billion tumbled out. 
    Neil hit the ground in a roll.  He sprung back up and took cover behind the disabled craft.  Sticking his head around the stern was answered with splinters. 
    Hanna took the bow side.  She pressed a button on her rifle.  It caused a screen under the action to light up.  It showed what a microdot camera on the barrel saw.  She stuck her rifle around the bend and fired.  She caught a direct hit to the enemy's midsection. 
    “What the hell is this guy made of?” asked Hanna.   
    Neil was about to answer when bullets started going through the hull.  “We can't stay here.”
    “There's a town up ahead,” said Billion.
    “We'll never make it,” said Hanna.  She kept firing.  Maybe the honored dead would bless her today.  She was due for a miracle. 
    “Any more rockets?” asked Neil. 
    “Just one.” 
    Neil began speaking in hand signals of the Katalow.  He knew Hanna would understand.  “I'll draw his fire.  Aim for the ground in front of him.  Then run for the town.” 
    “Aye,” said Hanna. 
    “Now,” said Neil.  He sprint out of cover.  A little shocked, he glanced at the figure.  He wasn't shooting at him. He had his arm extended towards Hanna's side.  It was as if he knew what their plan was. 
    “Hey.  Hey,” said Neil.  He fired his pistol.  “Harpoona!” 
    Hanna rolled out of covered.  She fired without hesitation, willing the rocket to find the right spot.  The figure was ready.  He started firing the moment the rocket was launched.  A bullet ripped through the fuselage when it was half a meter out.  The figure was flung twenty meters, hitting the ground with a bounce.     
    Fuck it, thought Neil.  He sprinted for the town as Billion and Hanna did so.   
    The trio converged on a warehouse.  It was filled with empty crates and hardened concrete.  They looked through a hole in the wall.  The figure was flat on his back, not moving. 
    “He has to be dead,” said Hanna. 
    “I don't think he was alive to begin with,” said Neil. 
    The figure rose to his feet.  He began shuffling toward the town.
    “He's injured,” said Billion.
    Hanna looked down the scope of her rifle.  “He's got a fist sized hole in his stomach.”  She looked again.  “No way.  It looks like the wound is closing up.” 
    “Small arms aren't going to work against him,” said Neil.
    “We have nothing else,” said Hanna.
    Neil pulled a stick of T7 out of vest pocket.  It was used in case of capture, an explosive for taking the enemy with you. 
    “That is smaller than the rocket I just shot at him,” said Hanna.
    “But that's bigger,” said Neil.  He pointed out a dingy window at the windmill.  The structure soared into the air. 
    “Get down,” said Billion. 

    Dara was not pleased.  Everyone got of her way as if she were a tidal wave washing through the halls of the palace.  Flanking her on both sides were her most trusted spy masters.  One was male, the other female, both were without scruples when it came to doing Dara's bidding. 
    They stopped front of a door marked Secretary Senva.  They entered without knocking.  Senva bolted up from her seat but Dara raised a hand.
    “Sit down,” the old woman said.
    “What do you want?” asked Senva. 
    Dara pushed a button her wrist.  A force field was activated over the door.  The shades were pulled down by motors. 
    “I ask again, what do you want?”
    “I've been hearing many rumors.  Too many to ignore.  That little whelp is planning something. I need to know what,” said Dara.     
    “If you think I'm going to betray our sovereign...”
    That was the cue for the two spy masters to rush forward.  Each one took one of Senva's arms.  Dara reached into her cloak and pulled out a small digital pad.  She held it up for the Secretary to see.
    “Do you remember this?  I kept this under the rug all these years.  Perhaps it is time for some house cleaning.” 
    “What do you want?” asked Senva. 
    “What is the Queen planning?” 
    “She's borrowed two-hundred billion catams from the Tloyd ambassador.  She had me arrange money transfers to banks in the outer rim.” 
    Dara leaned in close.  Senva could smell her rotting flesh.  “Why?” 
    “The riots, the union riots.  Karina plans on paying them off.  She wants to show the public that she can solve problems without you.” 
    “By borrowing money from an outlander?” 
    “The transfers are private, through a third party.  No one will ever know,” said Senva.  “Please, let me go.” 
    “You're still hiding something.  I can feel it,” said Dara.
    “Her majesty also requested some grav plating.  There is nothing more.” 
    “Liar,” said Dara.  She drew a dagger from her cloak.  She pressed the tip against Senva's belly.  “Tell me.” 
    “No, please don't.”
    “It'll all end if you tell me what I need to know.” 
    “Tickets,” said Senva.  “The Queen order twelve tickets from planets in conflict zones to the Imperial City.” 
    “Twelve?” asked Dara.
    Senva stared straight into Dara's eyes.  “You know that hasn't happened since the Iron Monarch ruled.  When she summoned the Twelve to...dismiss the cabinet.  Now please, I've told you everything.” 
    Dara nodded.  The two spy masters released Senva who broke down in tears.  They left the Secretary to collect her thoughts. 
    Grav plating indeed, thought Dara.  Karina should have stayed in the Engineering Corp where she belonged.  She should have left ruling to those who didn't waste time on tinkering. 
    “What is to be done?” asked the male spy master. 
    “Contact the union leaders in the outer rim.  Instruct them to accept the bribes but to keep rioting.  Get me a meeting with Dr. Ali.  We may need those Night Raiders sooner than schedule.” 
    Senva's digital pad vibrated.  It was a communication from Krav Dragova.
    “It's done,” she said, answering.
    “Good.  You played your part well.”   

      Neil, Hanna and Billion had split up.  Hanna fired into the air as she ran from cover to cover.  Billion did the same.  The Night raider did not seem interested in the noise.  Experience dictated that what couldn't be seen was more dangerous.  It began swiping the area, looking for Neil. 
    It found him in the town square.  It was space covered in seamless concrete.  A quick scan showed the area was littered with rain barrels that were half full.  The Night Raider took aim and fired.
    Neil darted back and forth between the barrels.  When one was destroyed, he moved onto the next one. 
    The Night Raider ceased firing.  From its off arm, it extended its harpoon.  It charged forward, using the harpoon as a bayonet.  Neil retreated.  The Night Raider perused.  It was the narrowest exit from the square.  Everything became silent.  The Night Raider slowed to a walk.  For a moment he saw Neil's head pop out from an alley.  It saw his eyes dart to the ground for a fraction of a second.  The Night Raider stopped.  There was small patch of earth that had been recently distrusted.  The Tloyd were known for ambushed and improvised explosive devices.  The Night Raider had already sustained major systems damage.  It leaped backwards into the square just as the explosive went off.  There was splash as it landed.  The square had filled with water. 
    “Now,” said Neil. 
    Its motion sensors detected activity from south east.  Turning, the Night Raider saw the Crune carrying to wires.  They were live.  He touched the wire ends into the water.  That was the last thing the Night Raider saw.

Loyalty is everything

“I can't believe that worked,” said Hanna. 
    “It's not like we had any other ideas,” said Neil. 
    “What is it?” asked Billion.     
    Neil waved his scanner over the Night Raider.  “I think it's some sort of android.  I've never seen anything like it.  Too bad most of it's fried.” 
    “The Diamyo will be pleased,” said Hanna. 
    “The Diamyo?” asked Neil.  “This should go to the Chief.  All Tloyd should benefit from our victory.”   
    “What about me?” asked Billion. 
    “You will be very well compensated.  I'll see to that,” said Neil.
    “That's all I care about,” said Crune.  He wandered off to see if he could salvage the skiffs.
    “Fuck the Chief,” said Hanna.  “The House of the Stalking Wolf could use this technology, our people.  Or do you want to be under Pallas' foot thumbs forever.”   
    “This is the modern age,” said Neil.  “The time for old feuds is over.” 
    “Today is just a thin slice.  The past stretches on forever.  If we presented this spoil to the Diamyo, I would prove my worth and you would be showered with gold.”
    “We would be traitors,” said Neil. 
    “Traitors to who?  A Golden Fist dog or a Two Phoenix usurper.  Is your honor worth so little?  Is your betrothed worth so little?
    “What does Niobe have to do with this?” asked Neil. 
    “If she is as beautiful and virtuous as you say she is then she deserves a good home, servants, lovely things.  How will afford this?  By sucking Gold Fist cock?”  She slapped Neil in groin.  “Are you a man or a eunuch?  If you don't do this for my sake, a fellow citizen of Rue, then do it for her.” 
    “Alright,” said Neil.  “Help me drag this piece of shit to the skiff.” 
    Billion fixed the skiff.  He said that it would be dark soon and the temperatures would plunge bellow freezing.  To their luck, there would be just enough time to get back to the settlement. 

      Krav Dragova and his wife Masi had been recalled to Tloyd.  Prince Luda wanted a report in person about the going ons of their imperial neighbors.  Krav had to spend the day with the warlords of Tloyd.  That left Masi to her own devices.  She stopped at their home in Pallas City.  The first thing she always did was to check if there was a bowl of green pac fruit on the table in the foyer.  It was part of an elaborate plan to make sure the servants were doing their duties when she was away.
    Masi always left a massive tome that contained all her instructions on what should be done while she was off world.  In the middle of section devoted to light bulb maintenance she sometimes put in instructions that unripe pac fruit be put out.  If the special orders were followed or not, Masi knew that the servants had done their job.  She sent Manwell up to his room.  It was getting late and it was nearly time for him to sleep. 
    On the table was a list of recent purchases that the servants made in her absence.  Masi sighed, a lady's work was never done.  She frowned.  The clan's beast master bought an 80 terawatt whip to tame behemoths.  The master made a note that it would make Manwell's upcoming birthday the envy of all children.     
    She wasn't home long before she received a communication from Logan, Krav's sister.
    “Masi, darling, I'm so glad I caught you,” said Logan.  “There's a singing social at the garden house being thrown by the Clan of the Pewter Eagle.  The Golden Fist must make their presence known.  Who better than our First Woman.” 
    “Of course,” said Masi.  “We must show our strength.” 
    “I'll sent a ground car to your house in half an hour.” 
    Masi decided to wear a cream colored silk dress.  It was accompanied by a necklace made of a golden studs that went around her neck and down her body, making sure to accentuate her curves.

    Logan and Krav shared the same father but they did not have the same mother.  She had the same dark almond shaped eyes but her hair had red tints to it.  She was shorter than Masi but more muscular from her long years in the Home Guard.  Logan was ten years Masi's junior but it didn't show.  Crow's feet had settled on the edge of her eyes.  There was a tired demeanor about her. 
    The ground car took them to a mansion at the edge of the city.  It was large, but Masi thought it was gaudy.  There was too much gold on display.  Gold eagles lined the driveway.  They were the pewter eagles, thought Masi.
    Logan and Masi walked into the back garden arm in arm.  The far side of the open lawn was dominated was stage.  The set depicted a ebony statue with two motifs.  One side had a woman clutching man children and the other had a man wielding an axe.
    “Excuse me,” said Logan.  “I see the wife of Daimyo Arokusaki.” 
    Masi drifted toward the stage were another lone woman was admiring the statue on the stage.  The other woman was short, with braided black hair.  She had dark skin which made Masi look all the more pale. 
    “It's the circle of life,” said Masi.  “Women are valued for the blood they give and men for the blood they take.” 
    The woman kept staring straight ahead.  “Does that make you worthless?” 
    “I beg your pardon?” asked Masi. 
    “It is an open secret that Krav Dragova's son was borne of a whore in the Lowlands.”
    “I am First Lady of the Clan of the Golden Fist,” said Masi.  “You will show me respect whelp.” 
    The woman turned towards Logan, who was talking with a small group of people.  “She is the First Lady.  She is the one actually conducting business.  You – are Dragova's plaything.  What a great man like him sees in you, I honestly don't know.” 
    “Do you see this necklace?” asked Masi.  “Everyone of these studs is a tooth dipped in gold.  My husband collected them from his kills.” 
    “Is that some sort of threat?” asked Niobe. 
    “It's merely a fact.” 
    Logan had returned.  “Is there a problem here?” 
     “Excuse me, Lady,” said Niobe, curtseying to Logan.  “I must take the stage.”
    “What was that all about?” asked Logan. 
    “Nothing,” said Masi.  “Nothing at all.”

Plans in motion

Krav stopped in front of a jeweler's stall.  He was admiring a sapphire bracelet when the shop keeper came over to him.
    “We don't serve your kind here.”
    “Excuse me,” said Krav. 
    “This Stalking Wolf territory, get gone fist,” said the shop keeper pointing at Krav crest. 
    Krav held up his hands as if in surrender.  “Alright.  Just looking.” 
    This was the busiest street in the merchant district of Harmony Island.  Each House was allocated a sliver of land.  It was here that the Four Fathers wrote the Universal Code of Honor and united all of Tloyd.  Atop of a hill that over looked the whole island was a stone gazebo that marked where they met.  Now, the all the warlords and the Chief held government meetings there.
    Krav checked his watch.  If he set off he would arrive there ten minutes early.  He bumped into Neil on the way. 
    “Where have you been?” asked Krav.
    “Looking at wedding gifts,” said Neil.  He knew it would be the best present ever.  Everyone would be talking about it for years to come.  Niobe always liked it when she made the other woman a little jealous.   
    There seemed to be an energy about Neil that Krav had not seen since he first announced he was getting married. 
    “Ah, yes, that's what your people do.” 
    “Niobe sent me pictures of her wedding dress,” said Neil.  “It all feel so real.  You know?” 
    “I've been married to the same woman for thirty seven years.  I know what real is,” said Krav.
    “Hey, do you want to see?” asked Neil.  He shoved a small communicator in front of Krav. 
    Krav looked a young woman with perfect dark skin. She was beautiful, thought Krav.  She looked much more like her mother than he would have imagine.  The likeness made him linger on the image. 
    “Yes, very pretty...the dress is superb,” said Krav. 
    They made it to base of the stairs that led up to the gazebo.  There were dozes of warlords accompanied by their clan retainers.
    “You're bleeding,” said Krav. 
    “Sorry,” said Neil, pinching his nose.  “I'm think I'm allergic to one of the flowers here.” 
    “Return to the hotel,” said Krav. 
    Neil looked confused.
    Krav sighed.  “The shedding of blood is not permitted here, even your own.” 
    Neil bowed slightly.  “As you say.”  He left. 
    Krav shook his head.  He could see in Neil's eyes that he was angry to miss out on what he perceived as an important meeting.  The young were always concerned with missing out on something.  It was better that was no present to witness a dozen massive egos attempt to take advantage of each other. Each, trying to dig up weaknesses on the others.
    Up ahead, Prince Luda was waiting.  He was surrounded by his huscarls, house guards.  Luda had a hawk like face with piercing blue eyes.  Krav noted that the man had lost significant weight since becoming the undisputed leader of the Tloyd.  He heard rumors of a running joke that Luda was trying to stay light on his feet, to run at the first sign of rebellion. 
    “Hail, Chief,” said Krav, pounding a fist against his chest. 
    “I've heard many disturbing things about your time with our Imperial neighbors,” said Luda. 
    “Nothing that won't net profit,” said Krav. 
    Luda pulled him close to whisper in his ear.  “Two-hundred billion catams, Krav, are you fucking mad?” 
    “Last time I checked, that money was mine to spend as I wished.” 
    “Word has already got out that we are near bankrupt from your little maneuver.” 
    “Grab hold of your balls and be a man.  It is not only gold that maintains the alliance.”  Krav broke Luda's hold and marched up the rest of the steps. 
    Before entering the gazebo, Krav took off his shoes.  A servant handed him a bowl of water.  He washed his hands and feet.  While he dried himself with a towel, a man dressed in flowing black robes.
    Krav bowed his head.  “Daimyo Arokusaki, a pleasure.” 
    “Mr. Dragova, how is business?” asked Arokusaki. 
    “Better than ever,” said Krav.  “Just finished signing a million ducat contract to construct new canals in Pallas City.” 
    “Good, good.  It's good to have cash in such uncertain times.  You should keep most of that on hand, very important.”
    “Thank-you for the advice,” said Krav.
    “Advice I don't really follow,” said Arokusaki.  He turned his palms up.
    “You have already extended your credit far beyond your means,” said Krav.
    “The people of Rue are starving.  Two hurricanes have destroyed our grain crops.”
    “The people of Rue are always starving.  It was your poor leadership that has led them down that road.” 
    “They said that you were a man of great vision, one to cast aside old divisions, but I see they were wrong.” 
    “The meeting begins,” said Krav. 
    Chairs had been set up in a circle, the Chief having the biggest one among them.  The meeting began with a discussion of civil defense and it went down hill from there.

     The sun had been down for many hours by the time Krav returned home.  He went up stairs to check on his son, Manwell.  He found his only offspring sleeping peacefully.  Krav stood in the door way for a moment.  He wondered what his son was dreaming.  It was a fair assumption that when Krav closed his eyes they wouldn't see the same thing. 
    Krav left and went into the study.  As with his instructions, there was a roaring fire and a bottle of brandy waiting for him.  However, Masi's presence was a surprise.  She was sitting reading a book, sipping on a cup of tea. 
    “You're still awake,” he said. 
    She didn't look up from her book.  “You are too.” 
    Krav collapsed on the couch next to her.  “I wish I could sleep.  I think I'm starting to know what it feels like to undergo sleep deprivation torture.” 
    Masi closed her book and set it on the table.  She got up and went behind Krav and began messaging his shoulders.  “You work too hard.” 
    “Luda's regime walks the edge of a knife being pushed by a needle,” said Krav.  “I have spent all our money. If the Zintonieans don't make their loans, we are finished.”   
    “That seems a bit of a risk,” said Masi. 
    “At twenty-nine percent interest, it all seemed worth it at the time,” said Krav.  “But now the other Houses have gotten wind of my little deal.  How, I do not know.  They are circling like vultures.  Pecking at us to see if we bleed.” 
    “I think you need to relax,” said Masi.  “I was at a singing garden social today, heard the most amazing singer there.”
    “Oh?  Was the party nice?” 
    “It was great.  Now, this girl, Niobe of Iron Feather Clan, she was amazing.  You should engage her in a private show.”
    Krav shook his head.  “I don't think I have time for such things.” 
    “Music can heal the soul, hubby.  If you are too stress you are libel to make mistakes.  Something you cannot afford while walking a knife's edge.” 
    “Perhaps you are right.  Yes, make arrangements.” 
    “I'll do it right now,” said Masi.  She left the room with a smile on her face.

     The riots on the outer rim planets had reached a fever pitch.  Everyday there were new reports of warehouses being torched and private citizens murdered.  Karina had the lowest approval rating of any monarch in living memory.  If there was ever a time to strike, it was now.
    It was three hours before dawn when Dara entered the palace.  Behind her marched four Night Raiders.  Dara had made sure that the night staff were all given half shifts.  She needed this to be a bloodless coup if she were to keep the people on her side. 
    She rounded a corner into an atrium that hosted a life sized portrait of Queen Catamalina the Great.  Dara sucked in a quick breath of surprise. 
    Karina was sitting a chair facing away from the entrance, staring up at the portrait.
    “You're late,” said Karina. 
    “Death is always on time,” said Dara.  With hand signals, she directed the Night Raiders to surround the Queen.  “Stop.” 
    Figures began to emerge from the shadows.  Six Queenguards revealed themselves.  Dara saw from the corner of her eye that six more had appeared behind her.  They were dressed in full tactical outfits, armed with sub machine guns.   
    “Clever, tenacious,” Dara said.  “But it will not be enough.” 
    Karina stood up and turned around to face her usurper.  “Commander.” 
    One of the Queensguard removed a scroll from his flak vest.  “Goda O Dara, you are charged with high treason.  Under article 29, sub section 14 of the Constitution you are hereby under arrest by order of the Queen.” 
    Dara began to shake with laughter.  She snapped her fingers.  The Night Raiders raised their auto cannon mounted on their arms. 
    “I was hoping not to end this with your death, but it has to be this way,” said Dara. 
    “Activate program Karina One,” said the monarch. 
    There was a whirling noise.  The floor started to rumble.  The Night Raiders lowered their arms.  They fell to their knees and then flat onto their stomachs.  They struggled to get to their feet but to no avail.   
    “Do you like what I've done with the new floor?” asked Karina.  “Originally, I designed it to accommodate low gravity species without affecting anyone else.  But it serves this purpose just as well.”
    “The grav plating you order,” said Dara. 
    “Dragova showed me some interesting invoices that he obtained from Senva.  I knew what I was looking at.”
    “You trust that Tloyd bastard?” asked Dara.  “By his own admission he is a criminal.” 
    “At twenty-nine percent interest, I trust him.  Like I said before, rich men are easy to control,” said Karina.     
    “You will regret this,” said Dara.  “You cannot rule this empire without me.  The riots won't stop, the Senate will not be stand for this.” 
    “At noon I will take you before the Senate and cut your head off.”  Karina pointed at the painting behind her.  “Just like my ancestor did with Luko Tam.  Queensguard, take this piece of shit to the dungeons.” 
    “With pleasure, your majesty.”

The point of no return

Neil had received word that morning that Krav wanted to see him.  A door man let him in and directed him towards the back gardens.  Krav was not there.  Instead, he found Masi hunched over a table. 
    “Are you alright?” asked Neil. 
    Masi looked up at him, her eyes puff.  “I'm sorry.  I'm sorry, I arranged this meeting.  I didn't know who else to call.” 
    “What's wrong?” asked Neil.
    “It's Krav,” she said.  “I think he planning on living me for a younger woman.” 
    “That's insane,” said Neil.  He took a seat across from her.  “You've been together for thirty-seven years.  There's no reason for him to leave you now.” 
    “All in sundry know that I am barren,” said Masi.  “He wants another child and I cannot give it to him.” 
    “No,” said Neil, shaking his head.  “You can do what you did with Manwell.” 
    “So you know too,” said Masi, turning away from him. 
    “It doesn't matter.  That doesn't matter at all.  You love him.  You are his mother.”
    “This Niobe is all he can talk about,” said Masi.
    “Niobe?”  Neil flashed back to the way Krav lingered on her photo.   
    “Iron Feather Clan,” said Masi.  “He wanted to hear her sing.  Now he can't stop thinking about her.” 
    “You're imagining things,” said Neil, the conviction evaporating from his voice.  Niobe had been always busy these past few weeks.  She was always working. 
    “Am I?  I'm sorry.  Bring drink,” Masi said. 
    “I should go...and talk to Krav abou this.” 
    Masi grabbed his arm.  “It's tradition.  You cannot leave without some hospitality.” 
    A servant placed two pills into a glass of wine.  They were completely dissolved by the time that she reached the table. 
    “Of course,” said Neil.  He picked up the glass.
    “To long life,” said Masi.
    “Life,” said Neil.  He took a single sip and set the glass down. 
    “I appreciate you doing this,” said Masi.     
    “I will get to the bottom of this, my lady.” 

    Neil's heart was thumping by the time he found Krav.  Beads of sweat had broken out on this forehead.  Krav was sitting in a morning drink shop with a group of old men.  Neil's entrance was not noticed.  He wanted to keep it that way.
    Neil took a table and tried to listen to the conversation. 
    “And I'm telling you, she's a beauty,” said Krav. 
    “You should take her to the Empire with you,” said an old man.  “Show her off.” 
    “I think I shall.”
    “What's her name again?”
    “I should give her ago myself. I mean, you look ten years younger.”
    “I feel younger.  She is quite a talent.  Worth every penny.” 
    Neil couldn't take it anymore.  He pounded his table.  “No.” 
    “Neil?  What are you doing here?” Krav asked. 
    “You will not take her from me.”
    “Take who from you?  Are you feeling okay, you don't look well.” 
    “Niobe, she's mine,” said Neil.
    “Calm down child,” said one of the men.  “You're not thinking straight.” 
    “I do not take orders from you,” said Neil.
    “Then take orders from me,” said Krav.  “I am your master.” 
    “I am not your lap dog,” said Neil.  “I challenge you to jomosai-ki, battle of honor.” 
    Neil flipped the table over.  “You heard me.  Today, at noon, to the death or be branded a harpoona.”
    “You've gone too far,” said Krav, rising from his seat.  “I accept your challenge.” 
    “At the Ohusaki Arena.”  Neil turned and left. 

       Most of Dara's sky masters had been rounded up in a predawn raid.  Nassus Zhair had escaped.  He approached the cell in which his mentor was being held. 
    “What are you doing here?” asked Dara.
    “I will set you free.  I managed to a hold of the key.”  He dangled a key card in front of the bars.
    “Don't.  I need you to something else,” said Dara.
    “What about you?”
    “I am dead either way.  But you still have a chance to punish our enemies.” 
    “What is your will?” asked Nassus. 
    “Kill the Tloyd leader, Prince Luda.”
    “I understand,” said Nassus.
    “No, no you don't.  But do it all the same.” 
    “As you command.”

An arrow once let fly cannot return

Neil had his head in his hands.  “Maybe I should just go an apologize.  I don't know what came over me.” 
    He was in the ready room at the arena.  Niobe was folding a cloth that had Iron Feather painted on the front.  It was scented with her perfume. 
    “You can't back down now,” she said. 
    “I don't think I can win.” 
    “You will be branded a coward if you don't.”  She went over to him and took both his hands.  “You must have faith in your stars.  If you do this all the doors will open for us.”  She placed one of his hands on her stomach.  “For our children.”   
    “I know,” said Neil. 
    “And if you win, the House of the Two Phoenixes will fall.  Diamyo Arokusaki may become Chief.  The glory of the past will be restored.  You can finally right all the wrong the Golden Fist have done to my family and yours.” 
    Neil stood up.  He was nude.  Niobe rubbed oil over his body.  She then tied the cloth around his head.  She kissed him.  Together, they knelt in front of a bowl filled with blessed rice.  Neil lit three sticks of incense and placed them in the bowl.   
    From the alter, he retrieved an object wrapped in a cloth.  “I have a gift for you.  A little something I picked up on Harmony Island.”
    Niobe unwrapped it and revealed a sapphire bracelet.  “It's beautiful.” 
    Neil went to the door way.  “I just wanted to give you something before I went out there.”
    “Be brave,” said Niobe.
    “I will,” he said and left.

    A body servant placed tightened the straps to Krav's breastplate.  Another handled his bracers and a third fitted his greaves.  Masi was at a small shrine, a cupboard.  Inside was a skull dipped in silver.  Krav took the skull up and pressed it against his forehead.  It felt cool.  Krav focused on the sensation, hoping it would lift away the pain in his head. 
    From an alter, Masi picked up Krav's weapons, two gladi, short swords.  They strapped on his back in an X.  He pulled her close and kissed her on the forehead. 
    She leaned back and placed the sigil cloth on his head.  “Remember he'll be faster than you.” 
    “Why, cause he's younger?” 
    “No, he'll be naked.  Remember, in Stalking Wolf rules, if he hits you in the face with his cock you'll forfeit the match.”       
    “Don't worry, I've done this before.” 
    She took both his hands.  “Be victorious.” 
    “You'll soon have a new tooth for your necklace.”

    Krav entered a round sand covered pit.  Bleachers surrounded the pit.  They were divided by faction.  One side was filled with men and women dressed like Krav.  The side opposite was filled hooting men dressed in animal skins. 
    The Iron Feathers began pounding the ground when Neil entered.  The younger man was carrying a pole, a staff as tall as he was topped with a six inch steel blade.  Krav kept his bladed in their sheaths.  From the corner of his eyes he saw Masi take her seat at one end of the arena while Niobe sat at the other. 
    A bell was rung.  When it rung again one of them would be dead.  Neil took a stab at Krav's thigh.  If he could catch the inner thigh he could by pass the old man's armor and cut a major artery. 
    Krav side stepped the blow.  He placed on hand the hilt of one of his swords but did not draw it. 
    Neil went for a high swipe.  Krav ducked under it.  He rushed forward.  A pole arm was useless at close range.  Neil saw through the tactic.  He lowered his shoulder and threw his weight behind it.  He watched Krav stumble backwards.  Neil pulled his pole arm back. 
    Sliding on the sand, Krav came to a halt just in time to see a blade seeking his gut.  He whirled around to dodge it, moving closer to Neil.  He drew right hand blade.  In a fluid motion, he swung at Neil's neck.  The younger man leaned back.  The tip of the blade dug through his check. 
    “First blood,” shouted Golden Fist crowd. 
    Rage over took Neil's vision.  He hefted his pole arm so it was horizontal with his chest.  He shoved it forward while Krav was recovering.  The blow caught Krav under the chin.  It gave Neil enough room to swipe, this time he went low.  Steel clashed again steel as Neil's blade raked against the back of Krav's greaves.  It was enough.  The older man fell onto his back.  Neil leaped into the air, swinging over his head. 
    Krav pulled to one side, rolling away.  A millisecond later, when he wasn't dead, he knew Neil missed.  Instinct took over.  He rolled back the other way, right on top of Neil's pole arm.  His mass kept him moving.  He struck out with his sword hand.  The blade plunged under Neil's ribcage.  Krav, on his side, reached for his other sword.  He slashed, embedding his blade into Neil's neck.  Krav got to his feet.  He retrieved both his swords.  The crowd disappeared.  Battle rage took over him.  It was slow to start but now it was roaring in his ears, his eyes, his chest. 
    Krav swung both his gladi and beheaded Neil.  The sound returned all at once.  The shock nearly knocked him off his feet.  He looked down at the pool of blood and the severed head.  A smile creased his face.  He was alive. 
    Krav turned to see his wife on her feet clapping.  He pointed one of his swords at her.  Picking up his vanquished opponent’s head, he bashed the mouth in with his sword pommel.  Reaching in, he picked up a tooth. 
    One of the Golden Fist brought their son.  He tossed the tooth to the boy.
    “Get this to the jeweler on Cain Street.  Twenty ducats if you run as fast as you can,” said Krav.
    A man passed Krav a goblet of ale. 
    “No, thank-you,” said Krav. 
    “Chug, chug, chug,” chanted the crowd. 
    “Alright, alright,” said Krav.  He knelt and downed the entire goblet in one gulp.
    Masi leaped into his arms.  “You did it.” 
    “For you, anything.”  He turned to the rest of his clan.  “Alright, lads, you know what time it is.” 
    The crowd cheered.  It was tradition when a man won a duel that his wife bed him afterward.  As Krav carried her out, Masi looked over his shoulder at Niobe and smirked.

    In the atrium where portrait of Queen Catamalina hung, Karina summoned key members of the Senate.  She had the throne that was made for her great-grandmother, Yasmine the Iron Monarch taken from the Royal Museum.  Karina was wearing the complete regalia of her office.  Atop her head was her official crown with fifty eight jewels, one for every planet in the Empire.  A bundle of scrolls that had her various titles lay at her feet.  But the coup de grace was the dagger on her belt.  It was named Obedience and it was the same blade that Queen Catamalina used to end the rebel Luko Tam. 
    Karina rose from her seat.  “I have gathered you here today to bear witness to the end of a traitor.” 
    On cue, two Queensguard dragged in Dara and placed her before the throne. 
    “Goda O Dara, have you anything to say for yourself?” asked Karina. 
    “Only to those who would follow.  That they are following you to their ruin.  You are the weak link in your dynasty.  You are not strong enough to bear the weight of that crown.” 
    Karina's gaze swept the room.  “Have anything of you have anything to say on behalf of the condemned?” 
     Senate Leader Auro Lamda stepped forward.  “We have all received the memo from the Judicial Branch regarding the legality of this...action.  Yet, many of us are still ill at ease.  The riots on the outer rim worlds are growing increasingly violent.  And even though it has come to light that Dara caused those riots, she may be the only one to stop them.” 
    “Senator Lamda, your faith in the Empire leaves much to be desired.  I have raised six new legions of Queensguard.  I will go to these unstable worlds and pacify them.  They will learn obedience or they will learn sorrow.” 
    The senators glanced at one another.  They sensed the tension.  Lamda was the first to break.  She began clapping and everyone followed suit. 

    Niobe watched as Neil was placed on the funeral pyre.  What a fool he had been, to think that things on Tloyd were going to change.  That the violence would stop.  Fools had few mourners.  It seemed that Niobe had few tears to shed.  She admired and even loved Neil's fondness for the impossible, but she never shared his views.  Like any good Tloyd noble woman, she had prepared herself for the day her man gave his life.  Niobe knelt by Neil's body for twenty-six hours, holding vigil.  When Neil's soul had nearly completed its journey to the after life a woman came through the door of the funeral home. 
    She had blonde hair and wore the uniform of one of Arokusaki's hearth guard.  She took a up kneeling spot behind Niobe.  It was the proper place for a tribes woman. 
    “I've come to pay my respects,” she said.  “My name is Hanna.” 
    “I did not know that Neil knew anyone on the Hearth Guard,” said Niobe.  “ 
    “I would not have such position if not for Neil.  I owe him my life.”   
    “You owe him nothing now.” 
    “You are his next of kin.  My debts are going to be paid to you.” 
    “You're a traditionalist.  How refreshing,” said Niobe.  “And how will I take this payment?” 
    “How about with revenge?” 
    Niobe turned around and arched an eyebrow. 
    “Revenge against Krav Dragova,” said Hanna. 
    “What are you talking about?” asked Niobe. 
    “A sacrifice in blood would ease Neil's passing to the land of the honored dead.”
    Niobe turned completely around.  “To be honest, I don't really believe in the after life.” 
    Hanna was taken aback.  It took a moment for her to find words.  “Then do it to see the sorrow on Masi Dragova's face.  There is nothing better than to leave your enemy's women and children crying.” 
    “I see,” said Niobe.
    “All I need is a little money,” said Hanna.  “To grease a few palms.  With the state of Rue nearly bankrupt, my pay is not what it should be.” 
    “I haven't any coin,” said Niobe.  She stopped to think for a moment.  This was worth it.  Neil had taken a leap of faith for her.  Since Neil's death she hadn't taken off the bracelet he had given her.    She slipped it off now and handed it Hanna. 
    “I should not be touching this.  These are jewels for a noble woman.” 
    “If you do this,” said Niobe.  “I will call you sister.” 
    “I will not fail,” said Hanna.
    “To be honest, I cannot imagine how you will succeed.  One House Guard against an army. Not a task for a mere moral.”
    “I know where to find some help that is not of this world.”

Those who do not strike first are first struck

Krav was drunk.  It had been nearly eight years since his last drink and now he was laying face down on his bed.  Perhaps it was a good trade.  He had lost as much fluid as he had taken in.  The shower was turned on.  Krav could smell the sweet lather of bath soaps.  If he had the will, he might have gotten up and joined Masi, but he was content just to lay there. 
    He closed his eyes and drifted.  He awoke to the sounds of shouting.  Krav rolled over onto his back.  His bedroom window shattered.  In the low light, Krav saw the shaft of an arrow sticking out of his ceiling.  There was ticking noise.  Krav found that he couldn't will his body to move as a torrent of flames exploded from the arrow. 

    Hanna stared down the street was neat houses.  The front doors were probably worth more than the bungalow Hanna grew up in.  She patted her mount, a mogen, a beast with the body of a horse and the head of a ram.  Ashlar was jet black and glistened in the moonlight.
    Hanna urged her steed forward.  A quiver of arrows hung on her saddle.  She had learned to make them as a little girl.  They came in all different kinds.  Some had thin tips and heavy shafts to pierce body armor.  Others were filled with flammable glycerin.  While others were barbed and poisoned for hitting “soft” spots.  On her back, Hanna kept her House Guard katana.
    The buildings began going by in a blur.  She counted the doors as she rode.  After the eighth door, Hanna strung an arrow.  She said a silent prayer as she aimed for a window on the third floor.  A jolt of excitement ran through her as she saw a puff of flame and hear a scream.  The excitement turned to cold fear as she saw armed guards pour of an alley that led to the house's barracks.  They stumbled into the street, trying to make their numb fingers release the safety of their guns. 
    Hanna let loose another fire arrow.  Keeping her hand near her ear, she drew her katana.  Two men went up in flames.  Hanna closed the distance and cut a third, cleaving his face in two.
    More guards appeared.  Hanna kept riding.  She urged Ashlar to move faster. 
    “After him,” said one of the guards.
    “Wait,” said another.  He pointed back up the street.  A figure was coming into the light.  It large, two meters tall, dressed all in black. 
    “Halt, in the name of the Golden Fist.” 
    The figure answered with gun fire. 

    “You're lucky,” said the medic.  “If that shower wasn't on you'd probably have turned to a crisp.” 
    Krav winced as the medic injected another needle into his already tender arm. 
    “I do not feel lucky,” said Krav.  His bedroom was now ash and he was receiving medical treatment in his kitchen for fear of ambush.
    Masi made a hushing noise.  “Save your strength.”
    Captain Leeland came in.  He pounded his chest as he entered.  “Lady, we have found something.”  He snapped his fingers and a servant girl was dragged in and thrown on the floor.  “She was caught attempting to leave the grounds before the attack began.  We found this on her body.”  Leeland produced a bracelet made of sapphires.  “She claims she was bribed to drug our drinks and provide information about the premises.”   
    “Bring it closer,” said Krav.  He couldn't believe his eyes.  “I know this.  I've seen this.  Stalking Wolf.” 
    “What?” asked Masi.  “You think that old fool Arokusaki ordered this?” 
    “We are still going over the security footage.  However, the blade that killed Officer Sung does match the length and width of ones used by the Stalking Wolf House Guards,” said Leeland. 
    “What of the robot?” asked Krav. 
    “Our engineers are still going over it,” said Leeland.  “They thus far concluded that it is not of this world, but most likely Zintoniean in origin.” 
    “I did not think Arokusaki had the brains to steal from the Zinotniean,” said Krav.  “And not to share it with the rest of us?” 
    Another soldier entered.  “Sir, we have heard word that Prince Luda is dead.” 
    “Say again?” asked Krav.
    “Prince Luda was assassinated two hours ago.  His guards managed to drew blood from the assassin.  Nicroniean.” 
    That was interesting, thought Krav.  An Imperial killer sent to Tloyd.  Both suspected parties were up to the eyeballs in debt to him.  Both had little reason like him.  Both gained from his death.
    “I understand,” said Krav.  “It's so clear.” 
    Masi whispered in his ear.  “Perhaps you should not make any judgments.  The medic has given you a lot painkillers.” 
    “Silence woman,” said Krav.  “Bring in the Beast Master.” 
    A muscular man with a whip coiled up at his side entered and knelt. 
    “We threw grenades and launched rockets.  Nothing but your whip could stop that mechanical monster.  You should be rewarded for your efforts.”
    The Beast  Master shook his head.  “I was only doing my duty to the clan of the Golden Fist.  A most honorable family.” 
    “Then let me honor yours,” said Krav.  “One hundred thousand ducats for the construction of your own arena for the train of beasts.  One that will be bound to your family.  Your sons and your son's sons will have a place to hone their skills.” 
    The Beast Master placed his forehead against the ground.  “Thank-you.”
    “You may go.  Masi, be a dear and call a meeting of the Houses for tomorrow.” 
    “Are you sure, in your condition?  You are too weak.” 
    “I must prove that I'm not.  Leeland.”
    “Yes, sir.” 
    “Every man who can stand must be ready to fight.  If I do not set sail from Harmony Island Chief there will be civil war, again.”

       Fourteen heads of the most powerful Houses on Tloyd sat in a circle.  Krav felt the tension in the room increase as he took Prince Luda's seat. 
    “You do not have the right to sit there clansman,” said Arokusaki. 
    Krav reached into his shirt and pulled out a bronze crest depicting two phoenixes. 
    “Blasphemer,” said Arokusaki.  “You have not right to wear a crest of a Great House.” 
    “And you do?  You cowardly leech.” 
    “How dare you?” asked Arokusaki.  “If we were not in a sacred place I would remove your head.” 
    “You would?  You who consort with Zintonieans.  You who sent an assassin to kill me in my sleep?” 
    Arokusaki turned to his fellow leaders.  “All lies.  All slander.” 
    “Then how do you explain this?” asked Krav.  He tossed a stack of pictures into the middle of the room.  They showed the Night Raider and a lab with schamtics pinned along the wall. 
    “What is this?” asked Margret of the Coil Serpents. 
    “Early this morning, my commandos raided a lab in Rue.  They found a slain scientist and this research.  And that mechanical monster tried to kill me last night.” 
    “This is technology is decades ahead of ours,” said Heron of the Iron Gear. 
    “It might as well as be centuries ahead his dirt eating people,” said Krav. 
    Arokusaki stood up.  “I will not take such insults from a clansman whelp.” 
    “Then retreat coward.  Run away like you always do.  Or would you like to stay and explain why your have Zintoniean technology?”
    “Outrageous,” said Arokusaki. 
    “Is it?  Ladies and Gentlemen, this man wishes to become Chief so he uses foreign help.  A Nicroniean killed our beloved Prince Luda.  Our leader does not go to the land of the Honored Dead, but is now a harpoona because of his treachery.  Killed by a foreigner.  You have dishonored yourself.”        “Lies,” shouted Arokusaki.  “All lies.” 
    “The more you deny it the more I know it to be true.” 
    The Daimyo turned to leave but Krav pushed a button on his wrist pad.  A force field trapped Arokusaki in place.  A column of gas came out of the ceiling.  The old man began choking and pounding on the sides of the field.
    “What are you doing?” asked Margret.  “You cannot shed blood here.” 
    “Does it look like he's bleeding?” asked Krav. 
    The gas did its work.  Fans sucked it back up before the force field fell.  Krav got to his feet.
    “I am Krav Dragova.  Son of Glenn of the House of Two Phoenixes.  I wish to be your Chief.  That coward that lies there, would have you become Zintoniean lapdogs.  Follow me and I will show you the way to honor.  I have the resources, I have the experience, I have the will to bring Tloyd to its rightful place in the Universe.  Follow me or follow him,” said Krav, pointing at the corpse.  “Who will vote against, who will dispute my claim?” 
    No one had any objections.  Krav was undisputed.  He left the gazebo without another word.  One of his engineers was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs.
    “Sir, we have managed to retrieve some data from the android's memory.”
    “What have you found?” 
    “Just a single set of coordinates, most likely first place that the android has been.  A planet called Wheaving.”
    “Perhaps where it was manufactured or programed,” said Krav. 
    “That is a possibility.” 
    “It's a place as any,” said Krav.
    “For what, sir?” 
    “To test how loyal my new subjects are.  To see how hungry they are for glory.”  All his money was in the hands of the Empire.  If Karina had no intention of paying him back, he was too weak to remain in power or even stay alive.  He had to strike first or first be struck.

The new path

Karina landed on the outer rim planet of Invet.  This planet supplied the raw material to the Copllq Shipyards.  It was one of the planets that had erupted in riots over new taxes and environmental policy changes.  Karina had expected a quick victory, hoping that it'd be over by the time she landed. 
    Even in death Dara had a plan.  She had sent arms to the outer rim unions.  Now these peasants were armed.  True, it was only military surplus from a generation ago, but it was enough for dug-in militias to resist the Queensguard.  It was the same situation on every rioting planet. 
    Invet was a rocky planet.  The majority of its land area was covered in grassy plateaus.  In between them were red sandstone canyons were creatures that preferred the dark lived.     
     Karina's command tent was set up atop of these plateaus.  Crews had been working all morning to cut the saw grass which could stung on contact.  Queens from a thousand years ago would have felt at home inside the tent.  Thick carpets lined the floor while throw pillows were everywhere.  Karina and General Zi leaned on such pillows as they discussed strategy.
    A Sargent at Arms came in and placed a memo at Karina's feet.
    “The Tloyd have launched an invasion,” said Karina. 
    “What?” asked Zi.  He snatched the paper.  “This is an outrage.  I will authorize a full fleet to Wheaving at once.” 
    “With what ships?” asked Karina.  “The ships that are not already engaged at the Tenth Fleet but they have never left Zintoniea.”  She shook her head.  “Well played.  I've struck and I am unable to strike again.  General Zi, give orders to the Queensguard, they are to triple their efforts to quell this insurrection.  Use whatever force necessary.” 
    Zi bowed his head.  “Your will be done.”
    “So, it is war,” said Karina. 

    Hanna had ridden Ashlar until he was nearly dead.  She was at the edge of Rue territory.  Here in the swamps it rained every day.  Hanna dismounted and tied Ashlar's reins to a stone post.  Hand trees grew thick here, their roots arching up out of the water like fingers. 
    Trudging through the mud, Hanna came up on a log cabin.  Through the closed shutters, she could see the flicker of an open fire.  Hanna opened the door and saw an old man sitting at a table eating stew.
    “I have failed,” said Hanna. 
    “No my student,” said the old man.  “You've simply stepped onto a new path.” 
    Hanna bowed her head.  “I understand Master.”

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