The Thirteenth Man

Beware the curse of the thirteenth man, for should he not fall, all may fall before him.

The Thirteenth Man
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ISBN: 978-1-937698-00-3 (eBook)
ISBN: 978-1-941536-04-9 (paperback)

Version 2014.04.11

Contents

Prologue: Homecoming

Chapter 1: Recovery

Chapter 2: Memories

Chapter 3: Farlight

Chapter 4: Summons

Chapter 5: Nice Digs

Chapter 6: Friends Indeed

Chapter 7: Mysterious Visitors

Chapter 8: The Betrayer Betrayed

Chapter 9: Escape for Some

Chapter 10: Escape

Chapter 11: New Friends

Chapter 12: Waiting Tables

Chapter 13: Can’t Trust Anyone

Chapter 14: The Thirteenth Man

Chapter 15: Inconsistencies

Chapter 16: General Janice

Chapter 17: The Fool Relents

Chapter 18: Shakedown

Chapter 19: Pirate’s Bounty

Chapter 20: Coconspirators

Chapter 21: Counterfeit Leader

Chapter 22: No Love Lost

Chapter 23: Too Many Deceits

Chapter 24: Overlord

Chapter 25: Suspicions Abound

Chapter 26: Unmasked

Chapter 27: A Most Logical Proposal

Chapter 28: Few Masks Remain

Chapter 29: Truth Emerges

Chapter 30: Maybe Too Late

Chapter 31: Old Debts

Chapter 32: Cornered

Chapter 33: Mano-A-Mano, Sort Of

Epilogue: The Spacer Gets His Dance

Acknowledgements

Other Books Available by J. L. Doty

About the Author

The Thirteenth Man

Beware the curse of the thirteenth man, for should he not fall, all may fall before him.

Prologue: Homecoming

Charlie awoke with a start, peered blindly into the utter darkness of the ship’s hold and realized someone sleeping nearby had unintentionally inserted the point of an elbow into his ribs. After five years sleeping chained to his comrades he’d gotten used to that. Five years in a Syndonese prison camp and you got used to a lot of things.

Charlie shivered, felt hot and cold all at once, allowed himself a moment of self-pity. He’d managed to survive five years of the most abominable living conditions, only to succumb to a minor scratch that started out as nothing, but had refused to heal, then begun to fester, and each day grew steadily worse, until now, with his fever returning . . .

He shook himself free of that train of thought and prayed that this time he could remain lucid for more than a few hours. He closed his eyes and listened to the darkness. Someone jerked nearby, grunted, and started scratching furiously in the never-ending battle against lice. In the distance someone else snored happily, and close at hand someone wheezed in a restless attempt to breathe through lungs racked with tuberculosis. Two thousand men, chained together in the stinking hold of a ship, made a lot of noise in the darkness.

Five years ago there had been almost five thousand of them, most wearing the livery of old Cesare, Duke de Maris, many wearing that of old Rierma, Duke de Neptair, with the remainder evenly distributed among the other seven dukes, and even some from among the king’s men—all of them the legacy of a nasty little war that had cost both sides dearly. During those first days in the prison camp they’d lost many to battle-sustained injuries, but after that their losses had stabilized at one or two per day, men lost to any of a hundred minor diseases or afflictions which, lacking any medical facilities or supplies, were too often fatal. Before they’d been dumped in the hold of this ship they could remove the dead in some way, bury them, burn them—something. But here in the dark the Syndonese didn’t bother themselves with the dead, and Charlie and his comrades were now sharing the chain with close to a hundred corpses, some of them many days old and quite ripe.

Charlie decided to sit up, though he moved slowly to avoid disturbing his comrades. He got his good leg beneath him and rested his back against a bulkhead, then carefully adjusted his hand and leg manacles so he didn’t inadvertently jerk someone else’s chain. He fingered the chain for a moment: metal, heavy, rusted, noisy, like the hand and leg irons. The Syndonese could have easily used plast manacles and a plast tether. Plast would have been cheaper, stronger, more humane, more efficient, but the Syndonese weren’t interested in efficiency. Plast didn’t weigh you down, didn’t rattle and chink as you dragged it behind you, didn’t abrade your wrists and ankles until they were raw and bloody, didn’t drag the spirit down with each painful, shuffling step, didn’t . . .

“Commander?” Charlie recognized Roger’s whisper. “Is that you? You awake?”

“Morning, Roger,” Charlie whispered back.

“Is it morning, Commander?”

Charlie shrugged, a useless gesture in the dark. “I don’t know. Could be.”

“How many days you make it?”

Charlie paused for a moment and considered the question carefully. As a matter of course the Syndonese had long ago deactivated their implants, so their only sense of time was the daily meal of unflavored protein cake and water, and back in the hellhole they’d lived in for the last year and a half—an iron-ore mine on some barren rock somewhere—at meal time each day he’d gouged a mark in the rock of the mine tunnel where they’d lived. Before that he’d scored their calendar for two years in the stone wall of their cell in some dungeon on some moon circling some planet orbiting some star somewhere. And before that there’d been a year and a half in a prison camp on some planet while the Syndonese decided what to do with them. At least then they’d been on the surface, and while the skies of that little mud-ball had been forever gray, and it had done nothing but rain day in and day out, and they never really saw the sun, just a brightening of the gray skies that diminished the night, at least then they’d had some concept of day. The blackness of never-ending night, the loss of any sense of time, the chains and manacles, the lice, the disease, after five years less than half of them remained alive, after five . . .

“Commander,” Roger whispered. “You still with me?”

Charlie started. “Yeah, I’m still here.” In the darkness of the ship’s hold, with nothing but plast and steel about them, Charlie had used his fingernails for a calendar, scratching a notch in one each day at mealtime. “I make it twenty-seven days.”

“What do you think this bucket’ll do, Commander, two, maybe three light-years a day?”

“If that.”

Roger wheezed and went into a fit of coughing, deep, hacking spasms that left him gasping for breath. Back home, a few days in an infirmary and he’d be as good as new. But here, Charlie gave him no more than another month or two before tuberculosis finished him. Roger rested for a moment before continuing. “That’s fifty to a hundred light-years. That’s the farthest they’ve ever moved us.”

“Well, wherever they’re taking us, we’re there. We down-transited—I make it six, seven hours ago.”

Roger accepted that without question. They’d all learned long ago to accept Charlie’s uncanny ability to sense transition, an ability none of them shared. “Maybe just a nav fix, Commander.”

Charlie shook his head. In twenty-seven days he hadn’t been able to stop making useless gestures in the dark. “No, we haven’t up-transited, and a nav fix wouldn’t take more than an hour.”

“Guess we’ve come to our new home, huh, Commander?”

Charlie’s leg started throbbing again. The pain was relatively manageable at this stage, but after forty odd days of slow, steady deterioration Charlie knew the pattern well. The pain and fever would both steadily grow in intensity, and in another hour or two it would drive him into a semi-comatose delirium. Roger wouldn’t admit it, but Charlie knew from the dreams that haunted him at those times that he ranted and raved at unseen ghosts. “Once they park this boat,” Charlie said. “I want you to call a meeting of the executive staff.”

“Sure, Commander. What for?”

“It’s past time we chose a new CO.”

“No way, Commander. You’re doing just fine. Why as soon as your leg’s—”

Charlie cut him off. “How often am I lucid now? One, maybe two hours a day. And it gets worse every day.”

“But the immune augs are helping—”

“The immune augmentation treatments are six years old, too old to cure gangrene, and not old enough to let it have me quick and clean. They’re just prolonging the agony now.”

Roger answered with another fit of coughing.

“Shit, Roger. I’m not even going to outlast you. What have I got? Another five or ten days, maybe twenty on the outside?”

Roger got his coughing under control and sighed heavily. “It could be worse, you could be de Lunis.”

Charlie chuckled. That old, childish saying had become their motto.

“Who’s it going to be, Commander?”

Charlie looked at Roger, could see nothing in the dark, but Roger seemed to know his thoughts. “Not me, Commander. Hell, you said it yourself. I’m barely gonna outlast you.”

“What about Darmczek?”

“Ah jeeze, Commander. He’s an old warhorse.”

“He’s got the rank, and the respect of the men.”

In his mind’s eye Charlie could almost picture Roger shaking his head, matted, lice-infested hair hanging well past his shoulders, beard halfway down his chest. “Hell, Charlie, he’s got rank over you, but that doesn’t make him our CO. Everyone knows that. Even he knows it, and he’s not ashamed of it either. Darmczek’s a good CO on a fighting ship, but this is a prisoner-of-war camp. Darmczek won’t understand how to fight this enemy. I grant you, Commander, the CO’s got to be someone who knows how to fight a ship. Otherwise, he won’t command the respect of these men. But what we need now is someone who knows how to keep us alive with this shit.” Roger gave his chains a bitter jerk. Charlie felt it, and no doubt other men along the chain felt it also. “What about Andrews, Commander?”

Charlie had been considering that option for days now. “Seth is right for the job, but he doesn’t have the rank, and after I’m dead that’ll just put him and Darmczek at odds.”

“There’s a way to handle that too, Commander.”

“And that is?”

Charlie could sense Roger’s hesitation. “You could give him a promotion, give him the rank he needs . . . decree it . . . as Charles, son of old Cesare.”

“Absolutely not. I can’t do that.”

“Look Commander, I know we’re not supposed to say it out loud, or even admit we know it, or even think it, but we all know he’s your father, whether he’s acknowledged you or not. We also know you’re his favorite, and we know when he needs a military solution he looks to you first, and—”

“But to use his name that way . . . that would be illegal.”

Roger laughed into the darkness. “Ya, it would. So are you worried after you’re dead they’re going to dig you up so they can hang you?”

Even Charlie laughed at that. “You got a point. And Andrews is the right choice.”

“Then it’s settled.”

“Ya, I guess so. But I gotta talk to Darmczek first; try to square it with him. He deserves that.”

Roger coughed for a while, one of those bad fits that lasted several minutes. The pain in Charlie’s leg began to intensify and he drifted off into a troubled sleep, but the clang of a docking boom jerked him awake as it echoed through the hull of the ship. From the grunts and groans and never-ending scratching about him, Charlie knew his comrades were awakening.

Charlie happened to be looking in the direction of the cargo hatch when it cycled open, flooding the hold with a white, incandescent glare. After twenty odd days of pitch darkness it blinded him painfully, and he closed his eyes, covering them with one hand. But in that one instant the glare had etched an image in his memory of several figures standing silhouetted in the open cargo bay. He recalled the image, studied it for a moment against the back of his eyelids: half a dozen people, oddly enough one of them apparently wearing the flowing robes of a churchman, and another one, also oddly enough, the skirts of a woman—probably some Syndonese bitch-princess come to gloat over the enemy prisoners.

In that first instant after the cargo hatch had opened, the steaming, sweltering air of the hold had flowed around their visitors and they’d gasped and choked on the stench of urine and feces and unwashed bodies and death, though for Charlie and the other prisoners stench had become a rather academic concept.

They switched on the lights in the hold, filling the entire space with that bright, incandescent glare, forcing all of the prisoners to shield their eyes and cower. Charlie heard their visitors talking among themselves in muffled and distant voices. He squinted through his fingers, tried to catch a glimpse of what was happening.

The whole scene took on a surreal air, the half dozen figures wandering among the seated and chained prisoners, tendrils of steam rising from the bodies on the chain as they picked their way carefully through the midst of the throng, their hands cupped over their noses in an attempt to mask the stink. Charlie looked at Roger, who was also squinting through his fingers. Charlie’s image of tangled, matted, lice-infested hair and beard had been quite correct. “Do I look as bad as you?” Charlie asked.

Roger looked his way and grinned. “Worse. At least I’m kind of cute. In any case, the fleas like me.”

The pain in Charlie’s leg suddenly blossomed into a throbbing, fiery burn. He gritted his teeth and forced his hands away from the open, weeping wound. The cycle was beginning again, and soon he’d lose all touch with reality.

Charlie looked back at the silhouettes of their guests. One was definitely a woman—he hadn’t seen a woman in five years—and another definitely a churchman. That was odd, because the Syndonese didn’t embrace the church. And there was something about the churchman too, something familiar, as if he was part of a distant and long ago dream.

“My god, Roacka,” the churchman said, shaking his head sadly. “This is the worst we’ve seen.”

Roacka! Charlie knew that name, and the voice that had called it, and he knew then that he was hallucinating, that the delirium had begun anew.

“Ya, it’s the worst, churchman, but then every batch is worse than the last.” That voice had the timber of a crusher turning rock into gravel. Charlie wanted to weep with fear and anger: Roacka, and Paul, such a cruel hallucination.

“Duke Rierma,” the Paul hallucination said—Charlie knew that name too. “Look at this. I can’t believe they’d be so inhumane.”

Charlie desperately removed his hand from his eyes and struggled to see the three men whose voices he knew so well, voices he had thought never to hear again. But his eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the light and all they did was tear and weep. He squinted, blinked frantically and watched their silhouettes approach as they wove among the prisoners. The Roacka hallucination squatted down to examine one of the corpses on the chain. The churchman squatted down next to him. “This one’s gone,” the Roacka hallucination said.

The churchman scanned the hold of the ship. “It’s unbelievable,” he said, his head slowly turning to take in them all. His eyes met Charlie’s and his head stopped turning. They stared at one another for a long moment; the churchman frowned and stared more intently.

Charlie spoke to the Roacka hallucination, his voice barely above a whisper. “Even a hallucination should guard his back better than that.”

The head of the Roacka hallucination snapped around as if he’d been struck. His eyes narrowed, then slowly the large, bushy mustache under his nose rose upward as his lips broadened into a wide grin. He stood, his eyes still locked to Charlie’s, crossed the space between them and squatted down in front of Charlie. The churchman followed, glancing back and forth uncertainly between the two of them.

The pain ratcheted up another notch; Charlie couldn’t suppress a tremor as a wave of nausea washed through him. Roacka looked down at Charlie’s pus-saturated pant leg and shook his head disappointedly. “Look at you, boy. Let you out on your own and you can’t take care of yerself.”

The churchman looked at Roacka as if he were mad. Charlie had trouble focusing, but he decided to break the churchman’s suspense. “Sorry, Your Eminence. I haven’t been very good at keeping up my studies.”

The churchman’s eyes widened, then he grinned a grin to match Roacka’s. “Oh, Charlie.”

Old Rierma leaned over them and spoke without a moment’s hesitation. “Charles, my boy. Don’t be such a stranger. You should visit more often.”

The woman squatted down next to the Paul hallucination looking at all of them uncertainly, and with the steadily rising background of pain, any doubt that she was a hallucination disappeared. She was far too beautiful to be real. Charlie could feel his words beginning to slur as he spoke. “You brought me an angel, a bona fide, for real angel.”

She reached out and touched his cheek gently, sadly. “You’re burning up.”

Roger reached out and grabbed her arm. “He’s dying.”

“Ya,” the Roacka hallucination added. “Gangrene.”

In that instant, far behind them, still near the open cargo hatch, Charlie spotted another silhouette and his heart leapt, for this was truly the cruelest of hallucinations. He could never mistake the way the old duke moved, the way he bent slowly and carefully looked into the face of each man he passed.

Paul stood, turned and called out to the old man. “Your Grace, we’ve found him.”

The old duke turned their way, looked at Paul and frowned. “Please, Your Grace. I think you should come here quickly.”

Old Cesare nodded uncertainly and crossed the intervening distance carefully. He stopped in front of Charlie, looked down at him; their eyes met and he nodded. Charlie’s eyes started to weep again—because of the glare, he was certain. The Cesare hallucination looked at the Roacka hallucination and asked, “How bad?”

“Bad,” the Roacka hallucination said. “Might lose the leg at the hip, if he lives.”

“Rest easy now,” the churchman said. “You’re home now, part of a prisoner exchange. You’re the last group. It’s taken us five years to set it up, but you’re home now.”

Charlie could no longer focus. “Go away,” he growled. “Leave me in peace.”

The angel frowned and her beautiful face began to twist and distort. “I knew it,” Charlie said. “You can’t fool me anymore.”

Roger’s chains clinked as he put a hand on Charlie’s arm. “Did you hear that, Charlie? We’re home. We’re free.” Roger lowered his head, buried his face in his hands and wept openly.

Charlie shook his head. “You can’t fool me either, Roger. Yer not real either.”

A wave of nausea washed up Charlie’s stomach and he vomited bile into his own lap, the fever coming on quickly. He tried to focus on that thought, had trouble concentrating. Then he saw the familiar image of his dead brother, Arthur, walking across the deck, the color of life gone from his cheeks, death hanging about his shoulders like a shroud, his body twisted and broken. “Please, Arthur,” he shouted. “I’m sorry. Please . . . forgive me. Please.”

“Charlie,” the churchman hallucination said, reaching toward him, but as he did so his face slowly dissolved and became Arthur’s face. “You failed me,” Arthur said. “You failed our father. You failed us all.”

Charlie screamed—

••••

During the eight hundred year reign of the Plenroix, the Harlburg and the Stephanov Kings, only twelve men had ever occupied the de Lunis ducal seat, the tenth Duke of the Realm, and without exception each had come to a very tragic, most unpleasant, and certainly untimely end. Some had even brought down their entire family and clan with them. But for the past three hundred years the de Lunis ducal seat had remained unoccupied, the title unclaimed and unwanted, for it had become the stuff of legend that the downfall of the first twelve Dukes de Lunis would pale in comparison to that of the thirteenth, and so no man would accept the title de Lunis. In fact, the legend of the twelve Dukes de Lunis had spawned a common saying, spoken only in the darkest hours of despair when all seems hopeless: It could be worse, you could be de Lunis.

The de Lunis legend had also spawned a long, rambling poem, often chanted by children when not in the presence of their elders. In stanza after stanza it describes in great and gory detail the demise of each of the twelve, just the kind of thing young schoolboys might take pains to memorize, then chant at young girls to make them blush and giggle. Of particular interest to historians are the final few stanzas of this rhyme:

And the twelfth Duke de Lunis, his head rolling wide,
cried, “Oh my king, oh my king, wherever shall I hide.”

The thirteenth Duke de Lunis will fare no better now,
for beneath the headsman’s ax he’ll lay, a frown upon his brow.

There is one more stanza beyond the last of the official verses. But there is some question as to its authenticity, and as to whether it was penned with the original poem, or perhaps added later by some scoundrel bent on demeaning the crown, so it’s not commonly published as part of the whole. Though most have heard it at one time or another, and almost all are aware it exists, few remember the lines themselves:

But should the headsman miss his prey, the thirteenth man will rise,
and rule the headsman’s ax he may, no limit to his prize.

The meaning of this last, unofficial, and often suppressed, stanza is the subject of considerable speculation among historians and academics.

Chapter 1: Recovery

Arthur’s ghost visited Charlie quite regularly, and would often plead with Charlie sorrowfully, “Why did you abandon me, Charlie? I thought you loved me.” Sometimes the angel visited him and brought him a certain kind of peace, and sometimes the churchman came and spoke kindly to him, though sometimes the churchman came to berate him for abandoning Arthur. But when the old duke came and stood by him, Charlie could only cry and plead for forgiveness. And then there came a day when Charlie opened his eyes and the oddly distorted sense that he was hallucinating had gone, though the angel sat in a nearby chair reading an old-fashioned book.

Charlie lay in a bed in what was clearly the sick bay of a ship. The angel remained unaware of his gaze and he watched her for quite some time—dark auburn hair, cut shoulder length, emerald green eyes set in an oval face. In the hold of the prison ship she’d worn baggy spacer’s coveralls. Now she wore a simple, knee-length dress, a pair of slippers on the floor in front of her chair, her legs curled beneath her on the chair, her attention wholly focused on the book in her lap. Maybe he wasn’t delirious; maybe she was real. But then again he hadn’t seen a woman in five years, let alone been in the same room with one, so perhaps she was an ugly cow and his perspective had changed. In any case it didn’t matter; he broke the silence. “Are you a hallucination?”

She looked up from her book with a start, and her green eyes sparkled as she stared at him for a moment uncertainly. “No, are you?” She put her book aside, stood and crossed the room. “I’ll get the others.”

“No,” he demanded. “Not yet. Where am I?”

“Cesare’s flagship.”

“Who are you?”

“You can call me Del.”

“My men?”

“I should get a doctor to answer that.”

She turned away, but he reached out and caught her wrist. “No. Please. I’ll just get a lot of doubletalk from a doctor. I need straight answers.”

She thought about that for a moment, then nodded. “One hundred and twenty-three were already dead. Two more died before we could get them off the chains, six more during the next two days. The rest—one thousand nine hundred and twenty-seven—are in varying states of health, but they’re now stable and so they should do well.” The fact that she had such statistics instantly at hand said much for her in Charlie’s view.

Charlie shook his head, ran fingers through his hair and fought back tears. “We started with almost five thousand . . .” For a moment he was back on the chain, going through the ritual of saying a few meaningless words over the daily toll of dead. “. . . I should have done better . . . should have done something different . . .”

She shrugged. “Perhaps. But I doubt it would’ve turned out any better. From what I saw it’s a miracle any of you survived. And you don’t strike me as the self-pity type, so please don’t start now.”

She considered him carefully. “Those men practically worship you. You’re a simple commoner, and yet you’ve managed to inspire greater loyalty in those men than the king himself.”

Charlie couldn’t hide his anger. “The king got two million men killed in his pointless little war. The king’s a—” Charlie bit back his words; to continue would be treason. He looked at Del carefully. “Do I know you?”

She smiled. He liked it when she smiled. “Not really. We met once, a long time ago, at a dress ball. You were a young cadet, about to graduate from the academy—quite dashing. And I was a gawky sixteen-year-old girl. I made you dance with me, though like the other cadets you were more interested in chasing the more approachable young ladies your own age. But you were nice to me, didn’t treat me like some clumsy little girl. So I made you dance with me again . . .” A mischievous glint appeared in her eyes. “. . . though my father did tell me not to waste my time with a penniless bastard.” She grinned at him, and that mischievous glint reappeared, and he tried to remember dancing with her, but drew a blank.

“Can I ask you something personal?” she asked and didn’t wait for his permission. “Why has he never acknowledged you?”

Charlie shrugged. “I’m the son of a servant. It wouldn’t be appropriate.” He didn’t add that he’d always suspected the second duchess—the witch-bitch, as he and Arthur had dubbed her—of having his mother killed, and that if Cesare ever acknowledged him, she’d eliminate him as a problem by having him assassinated as well.

“I’ll make a deal with you,” he said. “No more wallowing in self-pity for me, and you give me another dance sometime, even though your father thinks you’ll be wasting your time.”

“Done,” she said, nodding and smiling. “But I should get the others.” She turned to the door, but paused halfway through it and looked back at him with that mischievous glint in her eyes. “So I look like an angel, do I?” And with that she was gone.

••••

Alone, Charlie threw back the covers and felt at the bandages on his thigh. Back on the chain the infection had eaten a crater the size of his fist into the muscle, but now, other than some tenderness beneath the bandages, he could find no trace of such massive tissue damage. He flexed the leg experimentally; it was sore, but not as bad as he would have expected. He swung his legs off the edge of the bed, stood cautiously and limped unsteadily across the room to test it.

“They done good work, eh lad?”

Charlie spun about as the door swung wide and Roacka, Paul, Seth and Roger were ushered into the room by Del. Roacka, Charlie’s lifelong tutor in weapons, tactics, strategy, fighting your enemies, drinking, fighting your friends, fighting with and loving women, and anything else the fighting-man took it in his head to fight. Paul, the churchman charged with teaching Charlie the arts, languages, mathematics, history, engineering, politics, diplomacy. Seth, standing more than two meters tall, towered over everyone. He was the brutally handsome one with broad shoulders, but the weight he’d lost only made him look spectral. And Roger, thin and gaunt, but with color back in his cheeks, and no more cough.

Roacka gripped him in a bear hug and lifted him off his feet. “It’s good to see you, lad.”

Paul gushed, “You’re looking wonderful, Charlie.”

Roacka put him down and stood him at arm’s length. “No he ain’t, churchman. He’s lookin’ about twenty kilos short of wonderful.”

Paul hugged him as well, though with less vigor than Roacka. “You still look good, Charlie, regardless of what this ignorant lout claims. But he is right. You do need to put on some weight.”

Roger just shook his hand, while Seth patted him on the back. “We made it, Charlie,” Roger said. “You got us through it.” Charlie met both men’s eyes briefly, and for an instant their beards and hair were long, matted and lice-infested once more, and they were on the chain. Then the instant passed, but he saw in their eyes that they and the other men who had shared the chain those long years were somehow different, and that many things would never be the same.

Charlie started to think about their many comrades who hadn’t made it, but behind Roger and Seth, Del’s eyes narrowed as if she could read his thoughts. With a look she seemed to say, No wallowing, or you won’t get that dance, spacer. Then she smiled, and Charlie said, “Thanks, Del.”

Paul frowned, looked at Del, then at Charlie, then back at Del. Paul’s demeanor stiffened, and he spoke hesitantly. “I get the impression you two have not been properly introduced.” He looked at Charlie purposefully, and with the understanding of many long years of friendship, Charlie read in Paul’s eyes a warning of caution. “Charlie, may I introduce Her Royal Highness, Princess Delilah?”

The daughter of King Lucius, a royal princess who might carry tales back to her father. Charlie tried to recall everything he’d said as, Roacka supporting one arm, he bowed formally. “Your Highness, had I realized, I would not have been so familiar.”

She almost flinched, as if the wall of formality he’d erected between them hurt her. “Commander Cass,” she said regally, suddenly very much the royal princess. Her curtsy was quite shallow, which was appropriate for the vast difference in their stations.

The door behind her swung open suddenly, and a tall, distinguished man in a dark, conservatively cut business suit entered the room. He was thin, almost skeletal, as if he’d spent years on the chain with the rest of them, his eyes dark brown, his hair black with a touch of gray at the temples. He carried a uniform draped over one arm, and he looked disapprovingly at the tableau spread before him. Winston, the duke’s chamberlain, chief of protocol, business manager, frequent legal counsel and constant source of information on the appropriate this or that. Under his disapproving stare Charlie felt like a bad little boy, and Del dropped her eyes as if Winston were king and she a mere peasant.

Winston bowed deeply to Del. “Your Highness.” He looked at Charlie, standing in the middle of the room in a hospital gown. Charlie suddenly felt naked. “It might be more appropriate for Your Highness to wait outside.”

Del curtsied to him almost fearfully, probably more deeply than she would to the duke, and edged out of the room.

Winston turned to Paul. “His Grace will be arriving shortly and I know Commander Cass would prefer to be properly attired. Would Your Eminence be so kind as to assist me?”

Paul nodded. “Of course, Winston.”

Winston turned on Roacka, Seth and Roger. “Your presence is no longer required.”

Only Roacka, and of course the duke himself, seemed immune to Winston. Roacka winked at Charlie. “I’ll be about, lad.” He ushered Roger and Seth out of the room.

As the door closed Winston turned to Charlie. “It’s good to see you well, Commander. I know you’d not want to appear before His Grace in bed clothing, so I brought your uniform.”

Many things would never again be the same, Charlie realized, but Winston was not one of them. “Thank you, Winston. It’s good to see you too.”

Charlie did all right as long as he didn’t have to move around a lot, but he learned quickly that his knees grew weak with any effort, even with something as simple as putting on a new uniform. Paul and Winston together managed to get him properly clothed, then they stood back and examined him carefully. “He does look grand, doesn’t he?” Paul said.

Winston nodded. “He looks . . .” Winston hesitated for a long moment. “He looks . . . appropriate.” With that Winston reached out, and like a demanding mother put a finger beneath Charlie’s chin, lifted his face toward the light, turned his head to the left, then right. “But . . . you are changed. And I think, perhaps, that too is appropriate.”

Winston busied himself picking at Charlie’s uniform, adjusting the ribbons on his chest, pulling his collar into place. Then he stood Charlie in front of a mirror and even Charlie was shocked at how poorly he filled out the uniform. He was more skeletal than Winston.

Without warning the door swung open and a woman tall enough to tower over any man stepped into the room. She wore the uniform of the duke’s personal guard—no visible weapons but Charlie knew she was a walking arms factory. She probably outweighed most men, but on that tall frame she was a thin beauty. Her skin was a deep olive hue, and her pale blue eyes stood out like beacons in a starless universe. But her most striking feature was her snow-white hair, not yellow-blond but bone-white, woven into a single braid that hung down her back. And when she stepped forward she walked with the gait of a predatory animal.

A breed warrior, her prototype had been genetically engineered several hundred years ago with the intent of producing the perfect bodyguard, and through the centuries the strain had bred true. Her name was Add’mar’die, but she was only half of the equation. Almost as a reflex Charlie unobtrusively signaled to her in breed handspeak, No danger here.

She nodded and scanned the room quickly, then called through the open door in breed-tongue, “He is no taller, sister.”

Another woman, identical to the first, stepped through the door. Add’mar’die’s twin, Ell’mar’kit, looked down on Charlie and shook her head. “And I had hoped he’d grow a bit.”

Perhaps because the three of them had grown up together, Charlie was the only person alive who could tell them apart, though not even he knew how he did it. The twins had been the closest thing he’d had to big sisters.

Charlie shrugged, leered at both of them and said in breed-tongue, “I prefer my women a bit shorter.”

Cesare stepped through the door on Ell’mar’kit’s heels, with Delilah, Seth, Roger and Roacka behind him. Charlie’s leg was stiff, and though it protested painfully he lowered himself to one knee. Cesare tried to spare him. “Stand,” he said impatiently.

This was a meeting Charlie had both desired and dreaded for five years. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, and Arthur’s ghost hovered in his thoughts. “I said stand, Charlie.”

Charlie shook his head. “But it’s from one knee that I must beg your forgiveness, My Lord.”

“For what?” Cesare demanded, and there was a touch of anger in his voice. “Because you disobeyed my orders at Solista?” Cesare shrugged coldly. “You spotted a lucky opportunity and the trap you sprang on the Syndonese high command turned the tide of that battle, and that battle turned the tide of the war. We were losing before Solista.”

Charlie would never forget Solista. He had relived it a thousand times, the ship’s hull thrumming like a kettledrum as enemy shells slammed into it, allship blaring the abandon ship order, Arthur unconscious in his arms, his tunic soaked with blood, the air fouled by ozone and burning insulation. “I tried to get him to a lifeboat,” Charlie said. “I don’t even remember losing consciousness myself. All I remember was that I was carrying him down a corridor, and then the next thing I knew I woke up in a lifeboat. Can you ever forgive me?”

Cesare reached down and lifted Charlie’s chin to look in his face. The old man frowned. “What are you talking about, Charlie?”

“I promised you I’d take care of Arthur, and I didn’t. I must have left him somewhere on the flagship. He was still on her when they blew her. It was my fault. I’m sorry. I’m so—”

Cesare nodded. “And how did you learn of Arthur’s death?”

Cesare’s question puzzled Charlie. “As new prisoners were brought in they gave us news of the war. ‘Cesare’s son had bought us victory at Solista’, they said, ‘at the cost of his own life.’”

Cesare continued to nod thoughtfully, but it was Paul who asked, “And you’ve lived with this grief for five years? Do you remember any of the final moments at Solista?”

Charlie shook his head.

Cesare took a deep breath and let it out slowly. But there was none of the grief Charlie had expected to see in his eyes, or anger. Cesare leaned down, took hold of Charlie’s shoulders in a strong grip and pulled him carefully to his feet. “But it was you who bought us victory at Solista, by remaining on board a dying flagship and coordinating the final minutes of your trap. And it was you whom we believed still aboard that flagship when she blossomed into a fireball. As for Arthur, apparently you got him into that lifeboat, and into a med-pod. We picked him up six days later. He lost an arm, but we’ve long since cloned him a new one. Those stories were about you, Charlie. You were the son who bought us victory at Solista—and we believed—at the cost of your own life.”

The deck tilted crazily beneath Charlie’s feet, but Del appeared at his side, caught an arm and let him lean on her. Add’mar’die appeared at the other arm, kept him on his feet, all of them pretending he didn’t need their help.

“He’s alive?” Charlie pleaded, his knees close to giving way.

“Yes, little brother,” Add’mar’die said. “He’s alive.” She squeezed the muscle on his arm. “And I doubt you weigh half what you should.” She looked around the room seriously and announced, “Ell and I’ll fix him up. Regular workouts in the gym, and about five thousand calories a day should do it.”

They all fussed over him, brought in the ship’s doctor and fussed some more. Arthur was alive—that’s all Charlie cared about. They could fuss all they wanted, as long as that fact remained true. He didn’t want to sleep, fearing he’d wake up and learn that Arthur wasn’t alive, that this was another hallucination or a dream, but they gave him something and he started to grow drowsy, so they said their goodbye’s and left. Del was the last to go and she paused in the doorway. He wondered if she made a habit of exiting that way. She looked him up and down and asked hesitantly, “Does it make a difference to you, knowing I’m Princess Delilah?”

He was having trouble focusing. He said, “I don’t know Delilah very well, but I hope I still have a date for a dance with a girl named Del.”

She grinned, and that mischievous glint appeared in her eyes again. She tossed a hip shamelessly to one side. “But you have to earn it first, spacer.”

••••

“Adsin. Adsin, where are you?”

Chancellor Elric Adsin looked up from the papers on his desk as King Lucius stormed into his study. Adsin stood as any subject should in the presence of his king, though he didn’t rise as quickly as might be expected of a man of his station, nor, when he bowed, did he bow as deeply as protocol dictated. “Your Majesty,” he said. “How may I serve you?”

“Have you heard? The de Maris bastard is alive.”

Adsin nodded slowly. When Lucius was this agitated it was best to calm him before he did something rash. “Yes, Your Majesty. The news has reached me.”

Lucius paced back and forth across the breadth of Adsin’s study. “He’ll complicate things horribly.”

Adsin stroked thoughtfully at the goatee on his chin. “A delicate hand is required, Your Majesty, but, if I might presume, I think you’re more than capable of handling the situation.”

“If I’d known he was still alive I never would’ve made such a hero out of him, the posthumous medals, the press releases, the speeches. And I’m told he’s just as stubborn and willful as his father. I much prefer dead heroes. They’re convenient and cooperative, especially at times like this when the slightest mischance could spell disaster.”

Adsin sighed, a ploy he often used to peak Lucius’ interest. “A living hero can be troublesome, but if he becomes too much of a burden we can always help him return to the status of dead hero.”

Lucius froze in his tracks, turned toward Adsin and grinned. “Yes,” he barked. “We should make arrangements now, before he becomes a problem.”

Adsin frowned and shrugged.

“No?” Lucius asked, taking his cue from Adsin. “We shouldn’t?”

Adsin now had Lucius in the proper frame of mind. His agitation had shifted to attentiveness, and his fear would make him receptive to a strong hand. “If we did arrange for the demise of this Commander Cass,” Adsin said slowly, Lucius hanging on every word, “and any hint of your complicity were to leak out, at worst, Cesare would openly rebel, and at best, if he didn’t rebel, he’d gain more support among the other dukes, and become an even greater thorn in your side.”

“Then what’ll we do?”

Again Adsin stroked his goatee thoughtfully. “I’d recommend, Your Majesty, that we leave the de Maris whelp among the living, for the time being. Even as a living hero he could prove quite useful to our plans.”

Lucius’ eyes narrowed. “You have a plan don’t you? You have some way of using him, don’t you?”

“I do have some humble thoughts on the matter, Your Majesty.”

••••

Roger preceded Charlie down the deserted corridor on Cesare’s flagship, Defender, and looking at him reminded Charlie of how emaciated all of them had been, still were for that matter. Even after a tenday Roger walked carefully, the walk of a person weak with illness and starvation. His uniform hung on him like an old rag tossed on a hook, his cheeks sunken and hollow. Charlie knew that if he could step outside himself and look from a distance, with the exception of his limp, he’d see almost a twin to Roger.

Seth Andrews, Noah Darmczek and Chief Petty Officer Tomulka, Defender’s security chief, met them in the security commander’s office. With the exception of some exercise sessions in his sick room, this was the first time Charlie had walked anywhere under his own power, and there was much shaking of hands and slapping of backs.

“I won’t say you look good,” Darmczek said in a voice that sounded more like a growl, “but you look a hell of a lot better.” Darmczek’s voice had regained its strength, strength that had disappeared sometime on the chain.

“I think we all look better,” Charlie said. “How are the men? With a few exceptions, I haven’t seen any of them yet.”

Andrews said, “Like the rest of us, getting better each day.”

“And asking about you,” Darmczek added. “Let’s make sure you get a chance to tell them how you’re doing personally.”

“Ya,” Charlie said, nodding. “Ya, let’s do that. But first we have to take care of this nasty business.”

Tomulka led the way into the cellblock, two rows of four cells each on either side. On a properly organized and disciplined ship, such cells usually saw use only for minor infractions, such as when a spacer returned from shore leave too drunk to report for duty. If the same fellow repeated the offense one too many times he might be thrown into a cell to sleep it off, and for a few days more to sweat about his punishment.

The only occupants of the cells that day were four men, Turnman, Crowley, Smithers and Johansen, housed in four separate cells, all seated on their bunks. They stood nervously as Tomulka led the four officers into the block. They too showed some signs of malnutrition, but nothing close to the real starvation the rest of them had suffered. Crowley gripped the plast bars of his cell and said, “Commander, what’d I do to get locked up. I didn’t do nothin’ wrong.”

In the cell next to him Turnman shook his head sadly, lowered his eyes and said, “Cut the crap, Crowley. You ain’t foolin’ nobody.”

“But I ain’t done nothin’,” Crowley pleaded.

Darmczek leaned close to him, their noses only inches apart. “You were a fucking snitch, Crowley. And if I could, I’d wring your neck myself.”

Crowley backed away from Darmczek fearfully. “You can’t prove that.”

Darmczek shook with rage. “You don’t think everyone knew, Crowley? You don’t think we all knew exactly what was going on?”

“Captain Darmczek,” Charlie said. “Please.”

With visible effort Darmczek swallowed his anger and adopted a calm he clearly didn’t feel; he stepped back from the cell.

Charlie said, “You four men collaborated with the Syndonese. You know it, we know it, all the men knew it then, and know it still. I could probably prove it in a proper military court, though I admit the evidence would be circumstantial. But I don’t have to prove it to get you punished. I can just release you, let you go back to your bunks among your comrades . . .” All four of them cringed noticeably. “. . . and we all know you wouldn’t last a day. Maybe an accident in the showers: you slip, fracture your skull in the fall, and no one finds you in time to help you. Or perhaps you just disappear. It’s easy to make someone disappear in deep space; perhaps they get vented alive along with the garbage.”

Turnman said, “Please, Commander. Don’t.”

Andrews spoke up. “He won’t. But the rest of us would. We’d like you tried and executed. And you’ve got Commander Cass to thank for your lives.”

That wasn’t exactly true. Charlie had wanted them dead as well, had wanted to come down here and personally put a bullet in each of them. But Cesare had talked him out of it. “Those men don’t matter anymore, Charlie,” he had said. “But if you kill them, even though they deserve it, you won’t be able to put them behind you. I know you, and coldblooded murder, that’s not you. Their blood on your hands will haunt you for the rest of your life. It’s your decision, but think it through carefully.”

Darmczek growled at Charlie, “And I still don’t understand why.”

Charlie didn’t look at Darmczek as he answered him. “They were on the chain with the rest of us. I guess I can understand the need to survive, the temptation to sacrifice your honor for that survival.”

Charlie looked at the four men carefully. “You’re being held here in protective custody; you’ll not be mistreated, and you’ll continue to be held until we reach Traxis. At that time we’ll issue you your back-pay, and transport you to a place of your choice, as long as it’s outside any de Maris holding. And be warned. Should you ever return, you’ll be arrested, tried, and executed.”

As Charlie turned to leave Turnman called out to him, “Commander.”

Charlie stopped, half turned and looked over his shoulder at the man. Turnman said, “For what it’s worth, Commander, I’m sorry . . . and thanks.”

The man seemed sincere, but Charlie couldn’t find any kind words for him, so he turned and left silently.

••••

President Goutain scanned the faces of his executive staff. “So,” he said casually. “He was in your hands for almost five years and you didn’t realize it.”

“He was believed to be dead, Your Excellency,” General Tantin said reasonably. “And since he’s illegitimate and unacknowledged, and he doesn’t wear the de Maris name, naturally it was—”

Goutain looked toward Tantin and the general froze. Goutain wore that look that meant someone was about to die, and Tantin paled at being the subject of that stare. “And so you released the man who was responsible for our defeat?”

“It was not I, Your Excellency,” Tantin said hurriedly.

Goutain smiled. “I know that, dear Tantin. You’ve always been loyal.”

Goutain shifted his gaze from Tantin, and every face in the room paled, even the servants standing in the shadows at the edge of the room. That was good, Goutain decided. There hadn’t been enough fear in these people recently, and fear was the ultimate ruler, the ultimate goad, the ultimate incentive.

Goutain looked again to Tantin. “My dear General Tantin, the commandant of the camp in which the de Maris spawn was housed; have him executed before dawn tomorrow.”

Tantin bowed deeply. “As you wish, Your Excellency. However, at one time or another, there were three men who were in charge of that camp. Which should I have executed?”

“All of them,” Goutain proclaimed with a casual wave of his hand. “And their families, too.”

One of his advisors gasped and fainted. Goutain smiled. It was time to clean house, and even a minor setback such as this could be used to some advantage. The de Maris bastard was of little consequence. Goutain would not easily forget the humiliation of Solista, but he was a patient man, and he’d exact his revenge in his own time.

Chapter 2: Memories

Charlie back-stepped as the knife hissed past his nose. He spun, caught Ell with a vicious kick to the side of her thigh, but in that instant her knife cut a furrow across his ribs and an agony of fire lanced up his side. They separated, circling warily, she limping on the damaged leg, he clutching at the deep cut in his side, simblood soaking the side of his sparring suit. He too limped badly.

“Come on, Ell,” Add shouted. “Finish him. You’re getting sloppy. He shouldn’t have lasted this long.”

He tried to ignore the pain, tried to remember that he wasn’t actually hurt. The fabric of the suit was soft and flexible, but with power reinforcing its fibers it could sense the moment of impact, turn into a rigid shield in the immediate neighborhood of the blow and protect its wearer. However, as Add and Ell were want to remind him, he’d learn nothing about fighting if he didn’t feel the pain of his mistakes. So the suit fed false sensory signals to the pain centers of his brain, telling him he’d badly sprained his left ankle, that he’d been cut painfully across his ribs, that he was bleeding and he was weakening. The simblood was an illusion fed directly into the cerebral cortex, adding to the psychological impact of the simulation.

Charlie and Ell circled each other warily, looking for an opening. At least her sparring suit treated her no better, though he knew his kick had been a lucky one.

“He’s gotten sloppy about his left side, Ell,” Add coached from the sideline. “Remember how long we worked on him to create balance, and now he’s forgotten it all. Give him a good lesson.”

On Ell’s worst day, and Charlie’s best, he was just barely a match for her. But today wasn’t her worst, nor his best. She came in low with a cut to the knees. He spun with a heel kick to her ribs, realized at the last instant her cut had been a fake. She sidestepped the kick, buried her knife to the hilt in his chest. He dropped to his knees, blood welling down the front of his sparring suit, a lance of pain in his chest so intense he almost lost consciousness. He fell forward to his hands and knees, lay down and curled up as darkness began to envelop his mind, thankful that with unconsciousness the pain would end.

In his last moments of consciousness Add stood over him shaking her head sadly. “You’ve forgotten everything.” She lifted a small instrument in her left hand, touched a switch on its face and the pain suddenly vanished from his body, though not from his memory. Charlie sighed and decided to lay there for a moment.

Ell took up Charlie’s defense. “He’s improving, Add. Don’t be so hard on him.” Ell sat on the mat rubbing her knee, slowly overcoming the psychological effects of her own sparring suit. “He’s only recently come back up to his proper fighting weight. And he’s doing far better than he did even a tenday ago.”

The twins had begun torturing him only two days after he’d regained consciousness, and they’d been at him for a solid month while Cesare’s flagship drove toward Traxis, home planet of the de Maris ducal seat. The two breeds were bound and determined to see him properly fed and healed and exercised, and spent about two hours every day beating up on him, or standing over him forcing him to eat what they considered a proper meal for someone trying to regain weight, which to Charlie seemed enough to feed ten men. Then Roacka would usually join them and the three of them would beat up on him together for a few hours.

Add grabbed him by the collar of his sparring suit and lifted him to his feet. Facing him, looking down at him from her commanding height, she grinned and said, “I suppose you’re right. And in any case, we can never expect too much of him—he’s so short.”

“Short, tall,” Ell said as she pulled herself to her feet. She leered knowingly at Charlie’s crotch. “That’s not the measure I’m interested in.”

Add spun on her heel and headed for the corridor. “Roacka’s got you next, fighting staffs, I think, both powered and antique. Then after that you’re to meet with the duke.”

••••

“Do not try my patience, woman. I know you were responsible for her death.” Cesare struggled to remain calm, but the loss of Katherine, the knowledge that he’d never hear her voice again, never hold her in his arms, that knowledge ate at his soul and tormented him constantly.

The Lady Gaida, his wife, a cold, witch of a woman, turned her head slowly toward him. As always her face held no expression, and he wondered how he could have ever shared her bed. “You can prove nothing,” she said. “But even if you could, she was no more than a servant, and at most I’d have to pay some reparation to her family. And the only family she has is that whoreson—”

“Don’t call him that,” Cesare shouted. Gaida grinned, and he knew he’d let her get the best of him again. They were alone in her sitting room after he’d dismissed her servants and ladies with a shout, and he realized he’d chosen his battleground poorly.

Still, she spoke with an unnerving calm. “I speak only the truth, and he stands between my son and his rightful inheritance.”

Cesare suddenly understood, and he felt foolish for not having realized from the moment the marriage contracts were signed that Gaida was a viper. Granted, a beautiful viper spawned of a powerful and influential family—hence the marriage—but still a viper. He knew now that the ducal seat was in danger, that the life of his eldest son, the life of his heir, the life of Arthur, hung in the balance. Knowing his enemy had a calming effect on him. “And what is your son’s rightful inheritance?”

She answered quickly, “Why, he’s in direct line to the de Maris—” She caught herself and realized her mistake.

“Woman, your son is not my heir.”

“He’s your son too. Your second son.”

Cesare knew the proper goad. “My third son,” he corrected her.

“The whoreson is illegitimate and unacknowledged,” she shouted, “and I’ll not have him standing between my son and the ducal seat.”

Cesare lowered his voice to a snarl. “But my first son, my Arthur, my legitimate heir, does stand between your son and the ducal seat.”

Gaida’s eyes widened as she realized her mistake. She wisely chose to remain silent.

Cesare turned squarely toward her and spoke with a calm, deadly tone of voice that had brought down kingdoms. “Perhaps we should have a bargain, woman.”

She took the bait. “A bargain?”

“Yes,” he said, turning away from her and pacing thoughtfully back and forth. He needed to give her a reason to allow Charlie to live. He wanted to have her and her son killed, to be rid of her quickly and easily, but even if she was clearly responsible for the murder of Charlie he couldn’t go that far. After all, Charlie was the son of a servant, and unacknowledged he was still just a commoner. So Cesare improvised. “Should Charlie, my second son, die, and should I have even the faintest suspicion of complicity on your part, or that of your son, then you and your son will spend the rest of your lives in near poverty.” Her family was powerful and influential, but not wealthy.

“I will not have a whoreson standing above my son in the line of succession.”

“Very well,” Cesare acknowledged. “I’ll not acknowledge Charlie, I’ll not legitimize him, I’ll never call him son and he’ll never call me father. I’ll not bestow upon him property or wealth, and in return, you’ll see to it that he remains alive and healthy. I will, however, see to it that he’s financially comfortable, though nothing close to what’s appropriate for a son of House de Maris. I think I’ll also buy him a career, perhaps a commission, and I’ll see to it that he’s educated and given appropriate training.”

“And my son and I?”

“As long as Charlie remains healthy, you’ll remain the supreme lady of House de Maris. For your son, I’ll buy him some title, something significant, and I’ll bestow upon him property and wealth that’s appropriate for a son of House de Maris.” He turned toward her again and faced her squarely. “Do we have a bargain, woman?”

She thought carefully for an instant. “Do I have a choice?”

“No. You don’t.”

With that he turned and strode for the door, pulled it open, but paused in the doorway. “There is one more thing.”

She looked at him carefully.

“Your son will never inherit the ducal seat. For should Arthur, my legitimate heir, die before his time, regardless of the circumstances, and whether you’re implicated or not, your death, and that of your son, will be long, slow, and agonizing. Do we understand one another?”

She hesitated, then nodded . . .

••••

The knock on the door brought Cesare out of his reverie. That had been so long ago, the bargain they’d struck. Charlie and Arthur had been but children, and he, Cesare, had still been young and vital. Three sons, Arthur, then Charlie, then Theode. Arthur, son of the first Duchess, whom Cesare had even loved, in a way. Arthur was bookish, intelligent, noble, kind, a diplomat by nature, a politician by instinct; he’d inherit the ducal seat and would carry the responsibility well. Theode, son of the second Duchess, no less a viper than his mother, self-indulgent, spoiled, calculating, raised by his mother, the two of them would stop at nothing to steal Arthur’s inheritance. And Charlie, born between Arthur and Theode of the only woman Cesare had ever truly loved. Charlie, condemned by a bargain struck more than twenty years ago to live a life between lives, more than a commoner, but less than a nobleman’s son. Charlie was what Cesare had made of him: the warrior, trained to stand at Arthur’s right hand, the man who would enforce Arthur’s policies when the diplomacy of politics would not suffice. Cesare wondered if Charlie were truly a warrior by nature, or if the boy had merely followed the path laid out before him.

Again, the knock on the door brought Cesare back to the moment. He hadn’t meant to keep Charlie waiting.

••••

The computer acknowledged Charlie’s knock. “You may enter.”

He took an instant to adjust his tunic, to make sure all was right and proper before entering the duke’s presence, then he pushed the door open and stepped into the duke’s study. The computer closed the door behind him. Charlie immediately bowed. “Your Grace, you wished to see me?”

“Stand up, Charlie. Let me look at you. And relax.”

Charlie straightened and saw the duke clearly for the first time, seated behind a large desk. He looked tired and old, but he smiled and said, “You’re starting to look like the old Charlie, though I noticed a slight limp.”

Charlie grinned back at him. “Add, Ell and Roacka beat up on me almost daily, when they’re not trying to force-feed me.”

Cesare stood and came around the desk. “It seems to be doing you some good.” He patted Charlie on the shoulder heartily, led him toward two large, comfortable chairs in the corner.

“Ya, but I’m not about to admit that to them.”

“Sit down.” Cesare pointed him to one of the chairs, and without asking his preference, turned to a small bar and splashed whiskey on ice in two glasses. It was a ritual Charlie had forgotten, and seeing it for the first time in years reminded him that he was truly home. “They tell me you still have nightmares.”

Charlie shrugged as Cesare handed him one of the glasses. “And they tell me the nightmares are natural, and they’ll pass with time.”

Cesare sat in the other chair. “And they tell me you won’t accept any of the standard therapies for such difficulties. You know they could end the nightmares with a few hours of treatment, end them once and for all.”

Charlie shook his head. “Yes I know. But neural probe therapy will also destroy some of the associated memories. And I don’t want that.”

“Are those memories so good?”

“Of course not.” Charlie sipped at his drink; it burned his throat wonderfully. “But they’re part of what I am, and I don’t want to lose that. I know that sounds trite, or maybe just stupid . . .”

Cesare nodded thoughtfully and considered his drink for a moment. “Did you know that all the men who came back with you, once they heard you refused the neuronics, have also refused them? And they’ve asked to serve under you. Even those sworn to other noblemen have requested release from their oaths.”

“I don’t have a command.”

“That can be changed in an instant.”

“I don’t want a command.”

Cesare finished his drink and stood to fix another. Like the first drink, this one was small, just a splash over ice, more a ritual than a drink. While he stood at the bar with his back to Charlie he said, “I need a strong military presence behind the ducal seat. Once again Lucius is playing at emperor, demanding levies from the nine, and if he gets them he’ll start something again.”

Charlie nodded. “And once again you’re the primary opposition to his posturing.”

Cesare turned back to Charlie, smiled and shrugged. “Guilty.”

“If you resist him, Lucius might accuse you of treason.”

Cesare paced back and forth across the small room. “Treason is a relative term. If House de Maris is weak, then I’m guilty of treason, and will probably lose my head. If we’re moderately strong, then I’m merely an obstinate advisor to the King, and I must eventually capitulate to his desires. If we’re truly strong, then I’m the king’s most trusted counselor, whose advice he will certainly heed. In any case, Lucius has exhausted his own treasury, so at the moment he’s quite weak.”

“And what are we?”

Cesare stopped pacing and faced Charlie squarely. “Before your return, we were strong. Now, we’re very strong.”

“I can’t see how two thousand men make such a difference. It’s ships that make a difference.”

Cesare nodded his agreement. “And the men that fight them. I have ships aplenty, and I have experienced crews for them, and with your two thousand, all experienced fighting men, we are stronger. But they’re not the key, Charlie. You are.”

“Me? Why me?”

Cesare sipped at his drink. “Lucius glorified your deeds rather unashamedly, after we thought you dead. I’m sure that, had you lived, he wouldn’t have gone to such excess. And here you are, returned from the dead with a reputation that I can put to use against him, which, I should add, puts you at some risk. Know then that I intend to use you.”

Charlie bowed his head and said, “You have but to command.”

“But to be very strong, Charlie, I need more than your obedience, I need your active support, I need your counsel, and I need your understanding of the men who may need to fight for us.”

Charlie had only one question. “Do you intend to make war?”

Cesare looked him in the eyes and spoke plainly. “No. I seek to stop Lucius from wasting another two million men on his petty ambitions at empire. And to stop him I need you. But I warn you, war may be a means to that end.”

Charlie stood, put his drink down, dropped to one knee, took the duke’s hand and kissed the ring on his finger. “As I said before, you have but to command, my liege.”

Chapter 3: Farlight

“Now that’s much better,” Add shouted.

Charlie bent down, picked up Ell’s saber and handed it back to her, hilt first. She was having a bad day, and he was having a good one, so they were almost evenly matched. She had killed him twice, but he had managed to kill her in the third match, and disarm her now in the fourth.

Charlie backed out of the ring. “That’s enough for today. I have orders to be at the main airlock when we dock.” He started peeling off the sparring suit.

Ell flipped the saber to her twin sister, who caught it casually. “You still have a ways to go. But at least now we can let you out on your own knowing you have half a chance of keeping yourself alive against the next assassin.”

Add, always the more critical of the two, mumbled, “Half a chance is pushing it a bit, sister. I wouldn’t give him more than one in three.”

Charlie tossed the sparring suit to Ell, left the two of them in the gym and hurried to his cabin. He showered, shaved, put on a freshly pressed uniform, stuffed a knife into the sheath in his right boot, and a small palm gun into the holster hidden beneath his left armpit. “Remember,” Roacka and the twins had constantly reminded him. “A body scanner will catch a power knife or the palm gun, but a plain old plast blade has a good chance of passing unnoticed.”

At the airlock Cesare acknowledged him with only a nod and a gruff, “Commander.” There would be no first names or familiarity in front of others, though when Charlie took a position behind and to the left of the old duke, Cesare said, “Stand at my right hand, Commander.”

Winston appeared magically at Charlie’s right. “Are you ready for this, Charles?” Winston, Paul, Cesare and Charlie had discussed this carefully. Upon return to Traxis, Cesare could bypass normal entry procedures. They could take up a restricted orbit close in to Traxis, and an armed gunboat would shuttle the duke and his entourage down to the ducal estates at Farlight, all under the watchful and protective guns of Defender, Cesare’s flagship. But, with the announcement of Charlie’s resurrection, Winston felt that upon his return the duke should make a public appearance with Charlie at his side. So, like so many other ships, they’d docked at Traxis Prime, the main station orbiting Traxis. And while they’d certainly get VIP treatment, Winston was going to make sure that certain members of the media knew where to wait if they wanted to be the first to shove a microphone into someone’s face.

Charlie had wanted to forego the event, let the rest of them face the media, but Winston had argued successfully that Charlie needed to be at Cesare’s side. “Ya,” Charlie answered. “I’m about as ready as I can be.”

While docking booms clanged through the hull, Charlie tried to imagine what awaited him. So many times he’d thought to never see home again. He’d believed he’d die nameless on some unknown planet, though after a time the dying part didn’t bother him so much as the nameless part did. But now, faced with the granting of his most desired wish, he was afraid to be there when the airlock opened, afraid to step through and find that everything had changed. Paul, standing behind Charlie, seemed to sense his unease, though he misinterpreted it. “Don’t worry, Charlie. It’ll be easy. Remember to nod politely, and keep any answers you give benign and meaningless.”

The hatch cycled open without warning. Add stepped through it before it completed cycling, followed by four of Cesare’s personal guard. Ell remained just on this side listening to her implants. After a few seconds Charlie saw her sub-vocalize a response to Add, then she nodded to the duke, while to Charlie she signed in handspeak, This will be no fun, little brother.

The hatch opened onto a private dock maintained for VIPs, and containing Winston’s carefully selected group of media hypes. As Cesare’s retinue marched through them they rifled questions at him. Cesare responded with practiced ease to questions about Lucius, himself and the returned prisoners. Charlie was happy to be ignored and beginning to hope he might be overlooked completely, then one of the hypes stepped in front of him, blocking his path and forcing him to come to a halt—clearly something not in Winston’s prearranged script. “Lieutenant Commander Cass,” the hype demanded. “Do you intend to support the King in his negotiations with Aagerbanne?”

Never answer a dangerous question, Winston had warned him. But try to avoid, No comment. If you don’t like the question, then think of a question you do want to answer, and answer it.

“I’ve always been a loyal subject of the crown,” Charlie said.

One of the guards politely edged the hype out of Charlie’s way, and Winston got the retinue going again. But the hype persisted, “Even if it means war, Commander?”

Another hype shouted, “Even if it means alliance with the Republic of Syndon?”

Charlie halted, turned on them and tried to look displeased, and suddenly everything came to a stop as the hypes waited for him to say something newsworthy. “As I said,” Charlie repeated, mentally clamping down on what he really wanted to say, “I’ve always supported my King. Do you question my loyalty?”

“Of course not,” the hype said, unruffled by Charlie’s counter. “But our viewers are wondering . . .”

Winston quickly turned Charlie around, started the retinue up again, and with the hypes firing questions at their backs they passed into a VIP lounge where a door slammed shut behind them. Cesare kept moving, though he looked over his shoulder at Charlie and commented, “Well done, Commander.”

The hypes questions had brought on a cold, sinking feeling in Charlie’s gut. “What did they mean, Your Grace, by alliance with the Syndonese?”

Cesare frowned, turned away from Charlie and commented over his shoulder, “Don’t worry about it, Charlie. We’ll discuss it later.”

The sinking feeling deepened.

••••

Once their shuttle settled onto the ducal estates at Farlight, Charlie marched straight for Arthur’s study. Charlie found him with three of his assistants, all leaning over some sort of designs on Arthur’s desk and in the midst of a rather heated discussion. They didn’t notice Charlie as he slipped into the study, and it wasn’t until he cleared his throat that Arthur turned around, looked at him, and froze in mid-sentence. A big grin spread across his face. “Come back from the dead, eh?”

Charlie shrugged. “I could say the same about you.”

“Yes.” Arthur nodded. “I heard about that, you idiot.”

Arthur sprinted across the room, gripped Charlie in a bear hug and lifted him off his feet. “Damn, Charlie! I couldn’t have wished for more.” Arthur was taller and bigger than Charlie, though not as athletically inclined, and he swung Charlie around once before putting him back down. He held Charlie at arm’s length, looked him up and down. Charlie saw the big brother he had thought dead. He was a little older than Charlie remembered, with a few added pounds around his waistline. “It’s good to have you back,” Arthur said. “We need you now more than ever.”

Charlie frowned. “I’ve been getting dire, little hints like that, but no one has bothered to enlighten me as to why. Would you care to?”

Arthur looked over his shoulder at his assistants, nodded at the designs on his desk. “If you don’t mind, we can continue this later.”

They all replied with an “Of course, Your Lordship.” They gathered up the designs and disappeared quickly. Arthur closed the door behind them. “Computer,” he called over his shoulder as he strode back to his desk. “Full privacy and surveillance scan, no recording, no monitor.”

All entrances are sealed, the computer replied. Surveillance scan verifies a monitor free environment within the confines of your study. Vocal monitoring will be disabled upon your verification. You’ll have to reactivate manually when you’re finished, Your Lordship. Please verify.

“Verified,” Arthur said.

Confirmed, the computer replied.

He turned to Charlie. “Okay, Charlie. We can talk. There’ll be no record kept.”

“That bad?”

Arthur shrugged. “We’re going to discuss the Realm’s dirty laundry. And some of what we say might be construed as treason.”

That bad, Charlie thought.

Arthur began with a question. “What do you know of the situation with Aagerbanne?”

Charlie shrugged. “Lucius is negotiating for unlimited access to the Aagerbanni port facilities on Aagerbanne Prime, which would give us access to all the trade routes into the independent states. If he can pull it off, it’ll mean a real boon in trade for all of the Duchies, which I’d think everyone would support. But there’s been some sort of snag in the negotiations, and now the media are asking questions about war, which seems a bit over reactive to me.”

Arthur nodded thoughtfully, considered Charlie’s words for a moment. “On the surface, you’ve got the gist of it. But I’ve known Samuel Darkwist, the Aagerbanni Cabinet Minister for Trade, for some time, and he tells me that behind the scenes Lucius’ Chancellor, Elric Adsin, has hinted that the Crown’s official position may be that Aagerbanne was originally colonized with funds from the royal treasury, and so is a candidate for annexation into the Realm as a Crown State Holding.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Charlie roared. “Aagerbanne has been an independent state for more than a five hundred years.”

“Yes,” Arthur continued. “That’s widely understood. And while it might be difficult to prove the legality of such an annexation, once it’s done, and Crown troops are occupying Aagerbanni nearspace . . .” Arthur finished with a shrug. They both knew that throughout history borders had frequently changed without any legal premise.

“Lucius is insane,” Charlie growled.

Arthur considered that. “Insane, no. Foolish, yes. Idiotic, maybe. The Syndonese war badly depleted the royal treasury. Lucius’ personal property and estates are all he has. As a Crown State Holding, Aagerbanne would be a nice source of income. He’d personally have first access to those trade routes, could charge the nine Duchies rather handsome tariffs on everything they moved through Aagerbanne—and almost everything transiting between the Realm and the independent states has to go through Aagerbanne. So Lucius’ real game is to push the negotiations into stalemate, feed appropriate amounts of misinformation to the media, and when the time is right, forcibly annex Aagerbanne.”

Charlie shook his head sadly. “He might get away with it. Even with advance warning Aagerbanne can field only a few hundred thousand troops and maybe a dozen warships. And with support from even one of the minor Duchies combined with Lucius’ personal troops, Aagerbanne might not stand a chance.”

Arthur sat down behind his desk, leaned back and put his feet up on it, his hands behind his head. “It’s not going to be that easy for him. The independent states know as well as anyone that Lucius has always had dreams of empire. And possession of Aagerbanne will give him access to the independent states that’ll allow him to conquer as easily as trade with them, including the fact that Aagerbanne would be the source of income to finance his aggression. Finalsa and Allison’s Cluster have secretly signed a mutual defense alliance with Aagerbanne, and my agents tell me that Toellan and Istanna are arming themselves now, though they’ve signed no formal agreements. And while the other states might not actively participate, they’ll certainly provide funding and hardware. If Lucius proceeds with this, it will probably mean all-out war, unless he has the combined strength of most of the nine duchies behind him.”

Charlie dropped into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair. “I can’t believe we’re headed down this road again.”

Arthur continued. “And let’s not forget Goutain. The Realm is rife with rumors about collusion with the Syndonese, rumors that Goutain is conspiring with Lucius, and rumors that he’s conspiring with some of the nine. I haven’t been able to confirm anything, and it’s not possible for all of the rumors to be true because so many of them are in conflict. But I must believe there is a grain of truth in there somewhere. I just can’t find it yet. But one thing is certain, if any of the rumors are true, then Lucius is involved.”

Charlie closed his eyes and sighed. Deep inside he’d harbored a hope he could live for a while as a simple subject of the Crown, maybe take a wife, make babies, come home after a long day, kick his shoes off and relax with his wife in his arms. “This is insane.” He looked at Arthur carefully. “I assume we’re opposing him.”

“Yes, but not openly, though a time may come for open opposition. Right now we’ve got Rierma, Sig, Band and Faggan clearly in our camp, de Neptair, de Plutarr, de Merca and de Jupttar. Telka and Harrimo, de Vena and de Uranna, are on the fence, though I’ve spoken with Harrimo and I think she might swing our way.” Charlie recalled the two women: Telka, a plump little thing with a pretty, almost childlike face; and Harrimo, tall, thin, inscrutable, she reminded him of a female Winston.

Arthur continued. “But her holdings and levies are too small to make a real difference. Karlok and Nadama, are standing openly committed to the King. Lucius bought Karlok off by agreeing to marry one of his nieces to Karlok’s third son, and to deliver her along with a nice title and a rather sizable dowry of property and estates. But like Harrimo, Karlok is too small of a player to swing the balance. It really all boils down to us, Telka, and Nadama: Houses de Maris, de Vena and de Satarna, the three most powerful Duchies. If any two can align, their combined might—and wealth, I might add—will force the issue their way.”

“What’s driving Nadama?”

“I think he has designs on the throne.”

“The throne? But Lucius has an heir.”

Arthur shook his head sadly. “Martino is weak and childish, a grown man with a penchant for drink, drugs, gambling and women.”

“Doesn’t sound much better than his father.”

“He isn’t. Nadama’s son, Dieter, on the other hand, is clearly strong, intelligent and capable. If Nadama could marry him off to Delilah, wait for Lucius to die—Lucius is getting old and can’t last forever, or Nadama could help him along a bit—then after Martino takes the throne he could die of an overdose, or something of that nature. With no heir Delilah would become queen, Dieter her consort, and in a few years he could be properly crowned. Remember, Lucius has squandered most of the royal treasury and his own wealth on his little wars, so Delilah isn’t in a position to resist Nadama’s designs.”

“And Telka?” Charlie asked.

It was a rare moment to see, but Arthur looked baffled. “I can’t get a reading on that fat, little woman. She’s the key, and she’s playing her cards close to her chest. She hasn’t entered into any secret negotiations with anyone that my agents can determine. Her estates and holdings are extensive and secure. During the last year she’s increased her armaments considerably, but appears to be more intent on defending herself and her properties than participating in a war. She has three sons and two daughters, but there are no hints of any political infighting among them. In fact, House de Vena seems to be a rather cohesive group, unlike the rest of us. And no one has any idea which way she’s leaning.”

“Where does the Church stand in all of this?”

“Archcannon Taffallo has thrown his support clearly behind Lucius, in return for certain favors.”

Charlie dismissed that with a wave of his hand. “The Incalla are a nasty bunch when they gang up on you, but at any given time they can only field about five thousand troops and a few ships, nothing to make a difference in a war. And even then they’re only a church guard, more like police or bullies. They couldn’t match seasoned fighting troops.”

Arthur shook his head. “It’s not the Incalla that Lucius is after. Without a careful funneling of church moneys to the Crown, Lucius couldn’t pay his own troops nor outfit his ships.”

“And the certain favors he’s granted Taffallo?”

“As you know, by law, the King is to receive notification in advance, and has the right to be present at any meeting involving more than four of the nine dukes. He has no vote in the Ducal Council, but he has the right to speak and be heard, and like any of the nine he may choose to be accompanied by whatever advisors he deems necessary, as long as they’re not specifically vetoed by one of the nine.”

Charlie understood clearly. “And Lucius has agreed that Taffallo will be one of those advisors.”

“Exactly. Furthermore, Lucius has agreed that in any newly acquired territories all religions not sanctioned by the Crown will be outlawed. And of course, the Crown will sanction only the Canonical Church. The Church will then have the right to confiscate the properties of any religion that it deems does not conform to the tenets, rules and guidelines of Canonical Law. It can even go as far as to arrest practitioners of such a religion.”

“Lucius is out of his mind,” Charlie snarled as he rose to his feet. “We outlawed religious persecution eight hundred years ago. He’ll have open rebellion on his hands.”

Arthur shrugged. “Religious persecution has always been against the law in the nine duchies. But in newly acquired and occupied territories there are no restrictions on such matters. And Lucius and Taffallo have been quite discreet in this matter. I know about it only because I have an agent in a key position in Taffallo’s organization. I’m thinking about arranging a careful leak of the information just to make things difficult for the two of them, but I—”

The computer suddenly interrupted him. Your Lordship. Forgive me for interrupting, but Lord Theode is demanding admittance.

Arthur sighed wearily. Charlie grinned and asked, “How is Twerp?”

“Unchanged. And please don’t call him that to his face. It’ll only start a fight, and he’ll go whining to his mother.”

“And the Lady Gaida?”

“The witch-bitch is also unchanged. Oh, Charlie!” Arthur laughed. “I haven’t called her that, or heard anyone call her that, since you got killed.”

Again, Your Lordship, I apologize for interrupting, but since my monitoring systems are deactivated at the moment, if you have replied to my earlier request, I am unaware of it and cannot respond to vocal instructions.

Charlie sighed. “You might as well let Twerp in and get this over with.”

Arthur took his feet off his desk, reached over and touched a switch on the console buried in its surface. “Computer, reactivate standard monitoring and security procedures. Then admit Lord Theode.”

Chapter 4: Summons

“Well if it isn’t the whoreson,” Theode announced as he strode into Arthur’s study with two young friends following close on his heels. “And newly risen from the dead. Quite a miracle, especially considering the lineage.” He glanced at his two friends and raised an eyebrow, which appeared to be a signal that he was being witty, and they were now supposed to laugh. They did.

As Arthur had said, Theode hadn’t changed. Small, slight of build, dark hair combed and oiled, an impeccably trimmed goatee. He sported an expensive green tunic, with the coat-of-arms of House de Maris tastefully embroidered on the lapels, and cream colored pants stuffed into soft, leather, knee-high boots. Theode had always been conscious of fashion, and spared no expense to insure that he was properly attired.

“I’m told the conditions you survived were rather atrocious.” In the Syndonese prison camp Charlie had remembered Theode’s voice as a nasally, high-pitched whine. But he’d convinced himself that his dislike for Twerp had colored his memories, that no one’s voice could be as irritating as those years-old recollections. He realized now that his memories had been all too accurate. “Now that, I think, is genetic. One must have the appropriate genes to survive happily in filth and muck. And we never doubted your genes, Charlie.”

Twerp was smaller than Charlie, and to Charlie’s knowledge had never bothered with any kind of exercise. As boys, Charlie had once responded to Twerp’s insults by beating him soundly. Gaida’s retaliation had been harsh and cruel, teaching Charlie to respond not at all to such taunts, and Twerp had learned that he had free reign to deliver them.

Charlie looked at Arthur, bowed slightly from the waist as was appropriate for a vassal—long ago they’d learned to conceal any affection in the presence of Twerp or the witch-bitch. “With your permission, Your Lordship, I must go.”

Twerp sneered, “You don’t have my permission.”

Arthur came to his rescue. “But he has mine.”

Charlie bowed again to Arthur. “Your Lordship.” And though it galled him greatly, he offered the same courtesy to Twerp. “Your Lordship.”

He turned, and as he walked out of Arthur’s study he heard Twerp demand, “What were you talking about?”

Charlie threw one comment over his shoulder, “You, Twerp.”

“You’re not supposed to call me that,” Twerp shouted after him. Then to Arthur he demanded. “You were talking about me? What did you say?”

As Twerp’s whining dwindled in the distance, Charlie felt bad about the predicament he’d put Arthur in.

••••

“Teach him well, chief,” Rierma said, then turned and left Charlie in the care of the grizzled old spacer. At the age of ten, Charlie barely stood chest-high to Chief Dekker.

“Come on, boy,” Dekker said, “follow me.”

Charlie had to hustle to keep up with the larger man as they headed deeper into the bowels of the ship, a task made more difficult by the fact that crewmembers going the other way paid deference to the old chief, while they ignored Charlie and he had to dance around them or get stepped on. Charlie was completely lost when Dekker finally came to a stop in a small barracks. There were about twenty other crewmembers in small groups, all busy at one task or another. One group had some sort of weapon disassembled, with pieces spread out across the deck. Dekker halted in the middle of the barracks, and breathlessly Charlie caught up to him.

“Listen up, you assholes,” Dekker growled, and one by one they all looked away from their work. Dekker stepped aside, leaving Charlie the center of attention. “This here’s Spacer Apprentice Charlie Cass. He’s gonna learn how to be a pod gunner. And you assholes are gonna teach him.”

Dekker turned to a spacer leaning casually against a bulkhead. “Stipko, get Spacer Cass his first weapon.”

Stipko retreated into some sort of supply closet, returned with a bucket and a sponge and handed them to Charlie. Dekker looked at Charlie. “The first enemy a pod gunner has to learn to kill is dirt, ’cause if there’s any dirt during the next inspection the CO comes down hard on our department head, and then our department head comes down hard on me, and then I—” Dekker hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the other spacers in the barracks, “—come down hard on them, and then they come down hard on you. Got it, Cass?”

“Yes, sir,” Charlie said nervously.

“You don’t call me sir, kid. You call me chief.”

“Yes, sir,” Charlie said, “I mean chief, sir. I mean chief, chief.”

Several of the other spacers chuckled. Dekker turned on them slowly. “If the kid does his job, and one of you makes problems for him, I’m gonna be real unhappy. Then again, if he don’t do his job, he’s fair game.”

Charlie didn’t wait for orders, got down on his hands and knees, wetted the sponge in the bucket and started scrubbing the deck.

“There,” Dekker said. “The kid ain’t too smart, but he seems to have a good attitude. Maybe we’ll make a spacer of him yet.”

Charlie spent six months scrubbing decks and polishing bright work. There was a bit of hazing, but not much, and he had the feeling that Dekker was always in the background to make sure it didn’t get out of hand. But after six months they put him in a pod and turned him into a lower deck pod gunner, and later that year he got his first confirmed kill in the border skirmishes with Istanna. And with the kind of pride only an eleven year old boy could feel, he’d gladly participated in gunner’s blood, the ancient rite in which a half-chevron is cut into a gunner’s arm for each confirmed kill he’d gotten in combat, and his blood is spilled onto the deck of the ship in memory of comrades who had died before him. Charlie still had the scars of two chevrons, which was the only rank acknowledged among pod gunners, and rare for an officer to possess.

He’d served as Steward’s Mate, Machinists Apprentice, Engineering Mate, every kind of job on every kind of ship they could think of. But after the first few years there’d been a vast difference between his duties and those of the other spacers with whom he’d served. He spent half his time tutored by the officers on ship, or Paul and Roacka when he wasn’t on a ship somewhere. And if he was on a ship that saw action, afterward, regardless of his rank, he was always called to an officer’s cabin, usually the XO, to review the results of the action, and the strategies and tactics employed by both sides, whether successful or not. He spent the rest of his spare time like any spacer.

It was common practice to swap officers between Duchies with longstanding good relations, and Charlie served for three years with old Rierma, Duke de Neptair. He spent two years in service with pinch faced little Sig, Duchess de Plutarr, an amazing hard-edged little woman who was the most demanding taskmaster he could remember. There were two years with Band, Duke de Merca, a towering giant of a man who had demonstrated the most amazing patience with a little boy just growing into a young man. And a short stint with Faggan, Duke de Jupttar, who was undeniably eccentric, and considered by everyone a bit crazy, though Charlie had liked him in an odd sort of way. Then he’d gone to the Academy on Turnlee, and for the first time rubbed elbows with people whose rank among the nobility was all that counted. It was there that he first became aware that Cesare, Duke de Maris, was one of the most powerful people in the Realm, though none of that rank rubbed off on Charlie.

Charlie graduated from the academy and had been serving with Cesare’s guard for more than three years when the Syndonese war broke out. All of the senior officers on Cesare, Rierma, Sig and Band’s ships understood that Charlie was to be included in any command decision, though more often than not he merely observed and kept his mouth shut. And when he did speak, like any junior officer he never did more than politely suggest and recommend. Beggin’ yer pardon, sir, but might I recommend . . . And if ignored, or told to shut up, he was careful that it never got back to Cesare.

By the time of the battle at Solista he’d made lieutenant commander and was serving on the flagship of a flotilla of five capital ships with associated tenders and secondary vessels. Cesare had put Arthur in command of the flotilla, and Arthur had brought Charlie along, making it clear that Charlie’s politely spoken recommendations were no less than direct commands from the duke. Their mission was to support a badly maimed fleet of His Majesty’s ships during an orderly withdrawal from a battle that the Syndonese were winning decidedly. But as they approached Solista nearspace, their arrival had been unanticipated, and with the element of surprise Charlie saw an opportunity and took it. They flanked the Syndonese fleet, hit them hard without warning, and were able to inflict considerable damage before taking any themselves. Charlie’s memories of the latter stages of the battle were still vague—a byproduct of his injuries, they told him—and he didn’t remember much until he awoke in the hold of a Syndonese prison ship.

With his return to the living, Cesare wanted to make Charlie an admiral, but Charlie feared that any such public recognition would only provoke Twerp and the witch-bitch. He and Cesare argued heatedly for two hours in Cesare’s study. It was Arthur who finally intervened, winning points for Charlie by pointing out that a promotion to admiral would needlessly complicate the political situation. But Cesare needed appeasing, so Charlie grudgingly accepted a promotion to commander. Then Cesare put him in command of a flotilla of two heavy cruisers, two medium frigates and three light destroyers. He also assigned to him the two thousand men who had come out of the Syndonese prison camps with him, then ordered him to whip his small flotilla into fighting shape, and be ready for deployment anywhere in the Realm.

••••

Commander, the computer said. Captain Darmczek wishes to speak with you. He says it’s urgent.

Charlie looked up from the reports on his desk. After two months on deep space patrol the flotilla had shaken down nicely. Cesare had sent Add, Ell and Roacka with him to continue beating up on him, and Charlie was back in full health, though all three reminded him constantly he was one of their worst students. An hour ago they’d down-transited for a nav fix. It was standard procedure to contact the nearest de Maris outpost, from which Darmczek had probably received orders of some kind. “Thank you, computer. Patch him through.”

Darmczek’s face appeared on a screen imbedded in the surface of Charlie’s desk. “Good afternoon, sir,” Charlie said politely.

“It’s morning, Charlie,” Darmczek growled. “The command packet contains orders directly from His Grace to make heading for Traxis and proceed with all due haste. We’re setting up the new heading now and realigning the flotilla. We should up-transit within the hour. There’s also an urgent message for you, coded private and sealed with a de Maris encryption key. I’ve forwarded it to your console.”

“Thank you, sir. Is there anything else?”

“Nothing,” Darmczek said, as usual a man of few amenities. “Dismissed.”

As the screen went blank, Charlie isolated his console from shipnet, sealed his office and activated the security monitor, brought up the encrypted message and entered the proper decryption sequence, then leaned back to watch the message. Cesare, Arthur and Winston appeared as half-sized three-dimensional projections, Arthur seated casually in a large, plush couch, Winston standing calmly beside him, and Cesare pacing back and forth, an intense furrow on his brow. He stopped suddenly, looked at Charlie—Charlie had to remind himself that Cesare was actually looking at the recording camera.

“Charlie,” Cesare said. “I have no doubt all is going well. But of course you’re wondering why I’ve contacted you with such urgency. Lucius has summoned me to attend high court at the Almsburg Palace on Turnlee. And his advisors have dropped some rather unsubtle hints that you’re to attend with me. The royal summons conspicuously doesn’t state when my attendance at court will no longer be required, so we’ll all have to be prepared for an extended stay.” Cesare looked over his shoulder. “Winston?”

Cesare’s chamberlain stepped forward. “It’s highly unusual, Charles, for the king to directly summon a commoner who’s sworn to one of the nine. This is an appropriate, though indirect, means of summoning you into the presence of the king, perhaps even for an official audience. His Lordship might have something to offer there.”

Winston stepped aside and Arthur took up the narration. “My agents inform me that, for your gallant deeds during the Syndonese war . . .” Arthur grinned and raised a mocking eyebrow at that, “. . . Lucius is going to bestow upon you some minor title, but no properties. Now we know he’d never have made such a hero out of you if you’d been alive.” Arthur turned his mocking eyebrow on Cesare. “And he’s quite annoyed that you’ve managed to return from the dead, which has resurrected the myth associated with the Charlie Cass name. So why does he choose now to bestow further honors upon you?” Arthur let the question hang in the air.

“What game is he up to?” Cesare demanded angrily. He looked at the camera. “Winston thinks Lucius purposely leaked the information about bestowing a title, and that it’s a cover for some other trick he’s planned.”

Arthur added, “I think he just wants to irritate our dear stepmother, sow a bit of dissention in the de Maris household. He knows that any kind of title granted to you will really piss her off, and it’s interesting that no other information is leaking out concerning this. The whole thing smacks of that little snake Adsin—Lucius really can’t keep a secret. In any case, Charlie, we have no choice but to answer the summons. We’ll have to let them play their hand, then counter appropriately when we know more. Winston is having formal attire and dress uniforms tailored for you now. We’ll all attend as part of Cesare’s retinue.”

Cesare stepped in close to the camera. “Charlie, you’re just a pawn in this.” Both Arthur and Winston suddenly found something of great interest on the toes of their shoes. “I wouldn’t use you so if there were any other course. And I may have to use you badly indeed. Forgive me.” The projection ended.

Charlie marveled that Cesare’s final words didn’t bother him more. Oh, he resented being a pawn. But he’d been raised to serve House de Maris, and he felt every bit a part of the de Maris legacy. Cesare, without a thought to the contrary, had dropped him right back into his allotted slot in the de Maris household. And until that moment Charlie hadn’t questioned that, had responded without thought to a lifetime of conditioning. He’d lay down his life for House de Maris, but he began to wonder now where this was going. Another war? Another prison camp? If not for him, then certainly for others.

••••

As had been prearranged, the door was unlocked and Elric Adsin opened it without the necessity of announcing himself. He stepped quietly into the darkened chamber and closed the door behind him. The security routines in his implants warned him he was being scanned, a not uncommon occurrence in the palace.

“Chancellor Adsin,” a strong, masculine voice said out of the darkness as the lighting began to rise slowly. The voice had a thick Syndonese accent. “It’s been long since we last spoke.”

“Yes, Your Excellency, but all is going as we planned.”

President Goutain, seated comfortably in a large chair, looked up from the book in his lap, carefully closed it, placed it on a nearby table and asked, “Is it?”

“Of course, Your Excellency. I would not—”

“You would not what?” Goutain demanded angrily.

Adsin retreated. When Goutain was in such a mood it wasn’t wise to antagonize him. Agree, compliment, capitulate—keep him happy. “If Your Excellency sees any difficulty—”

“Shut up, Adsin.” Goutain stared at the Chancellor for some seconds, far too long to be comfortable. “You wanted to see me. So, I’m here, you’re here. Speak.”

Adsin spoke cautiously. “The crown’s negotiations with Aagerbanne have reached a stalemate.”

“Yes,” Goutain snarled impatiently, “You’re stating the obvious. Tell me something I don’t know.”

“There may be a solution, if Your Excellency wishes it.”

“There are many solutions, Adsin, some acceptable, some not. And of course, that fool of a king, by his own folly, limits the solutions we might choose. Are you here to spout further drivel from your master?”

Adsin shrugged conspiratorially. Goutain read the gesture correctly; his attention focused suddenly and his mood calmed, his eyes narrowing. Adsin played his gambit. “I’m not here at the behest of His Majesty, Your Excellency. I’m here merely because I have some influence with His Majesty, and I have a few ideas of my own that might be beneficial to all parties involved.”

A smile slowly appeared on Goutain’s face. “And would those ideas be beneficial to you personally?”

“I seek no personal gain, Your Excellency. Merely to serve.”

“And in return for your service?”

Adsin shrugged again. “I’m no clairvoyant to see into the future, Your Excellency. But I’ve begun to believe the near future holds change for us all, and that those of us who align with strength will not regret it. Whereas those who align with weakness . . .” Adsin let the thought hang unfinished.

Goutain nodded thoughtfully and his smile broadened into a calculating grin. “Yes, my dear Adsin. It’s wise of you to consider the future. Come. Be comfortable. Perhaps take some refreshment, and let us speak further.”

Chapter 5: Nice Digs

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